Sunday, October 25, 2020

scary monsters... and super creeps

Halloween is approaching. It's the time for tricks and treats. Well, because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, most communities across the country are figuring out creative — and safe — alternatives to the traditional, door-to-door, decidedly anti-social distancing trick-or treating. Watching scary movies is a good way to get into the Halloween spirit (pun intended!).

I love scary movies. I have loved scary movies since I was a kid when I would park myself in front of the television on a Saturday afternoon for a marathon broadcast of  horror films that were made decades before I was born. Local Philadelphia UHF station Channel 17 showed "Mad Theater" back-to-back with "Horror Theater," both hosted by the pseudo-frightening, always campy "Dr. Shock." The good doctor would entertain his mostly pre-pubescent home audience with magic tricks and hokey skits during breaks in the film. I even got to meet Dr. Shock when he made an appearance at a carnival in my neighborhood. It was a thrill... if I remember correctly. It was on Dr. Shock's show that I had my first exposure to Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolf Man, along with a creepy parade of monsters and witches and zombies and ghouls and all kinds of things that go bump in the night. The only problem was.... they didn't scare me. I was drawn to these characters. I was fascinated by them. I marveled at them. I just wasn't scared by them... and that's what I was looking for. And so began my life-long quest for "the big scare"... the movie that would finally give me that scare I craved.

I have seen hundreds of horror movies, from the classics of the 30s to the low-budget thrillers of the 50s and 60s, to the blood-saturated gorefests from Britain's Hammer Studios in the 70s to the cookie-cutter slasher films of the 80s. Recently, I have watched movies that have been recommended by self-proclaimed aficionados... all to great disappointment. 

In fairness, I enjoyed the initial entry of a number of horror "franchises." Films like "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Friday the 13th," "Halloween" and even the venerable "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," in my opinion were all entertaining, but — Jesus! — do we really need eleven sequels that essential tell the exact same story over and over again? I think not.

The current crop of horror movies are either more concerned with giving the viewer a front row seat to an autopsy or offering a flimsy, nonsensical plot as an excuse to splash gratuitous nudity across the screen. I know that I am in the overwhelming minority, based on the disciple-like attendees I have seen packing the aisles at horror movie conventions. (Yeah, I used to go to them when I collected celebrity autographs.)

I watched the Netflix series Stranger Things based purely on the buzz it received among friends and on the internet. I was not entertained. Yeah, yeah... I got all the references and jokes. I just didn't think they were as clever as the writers thought they were. I actually watched all three seasons of the series, hoping I would "get into it" as it progressed. I did not. I found myself constantly checking my watch and wondering how much longer it would go on. The acting was good. No complaints there. I felt the story was limp and took too long to tell. And when it was finally told, I didn't care. And I certainly wasn't scared.
Glutton for punishment that I am, I am currently in the throes of the HBO series Lovecraft Country. I was intrigued by the dichotomy of the subject matter — an examination of the oppression of African-Americans coupled with the supernatural. I am not a fan of science fiction, comic books, suspension of belief or stories that end with the cop-out of deus ex machina. I hate that. It's as though the writers just couldn't be bothered with thinking up an ending. I have watched Lovecraft Country and did not enjoy it. Oh, I watched the whole thing — all ten grueling episodes, just to see how everything wrapped up, but the storytelling is clunky and sprawling and disjointed. And I felt it's beneath the talents of the compelling cast. Yes, I realize that I am probably not the target audience. I knew that going into it, I already have a disinclination for the genre. But I gave it a shot anyway. I shouldn't have. I want to reiterate that the production and acting of this limited series was terrific, but with the exception of a few scenes, I did not find it scary. Just long-winded.

Yesterday, I watched a movie called Trick 'r Treat. Again, this film has maintained a cult following and a lot of praise since its awkward release in 2007. It is an anthology story comprised of several stand-alone tales linked by a single character that appears in each one. I have enjoyed this format in films in the past. I found Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie and even a few of the 70s examples featuring Peter Cushing (like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors) to be entertaining. They didn't scare me, but I liked them. Trick 'r Treat was awful. It was doing its very best to look cool for the cool kids. It was run-of-the-mill, uninspired, unnecessarily gory and not nearly as clever as it thought it was. As far as scary....? Uh.... nope.
Look, monsters aren't scary. Guys with big knives aren't scary. Aliens aren't scary. Ghosts aren't scary. Gallons and gallons of blood and entrails aren't scary. Messy, yes.... but not scary.

Please. I'm not asking for a whole lot. I just want to be scared. I want a movie to scare me. I want to see a movie so goddamn clever and so goddamn frightening that I wont forget it for years to come. Honestly, I have seen only two horror movies that have come very close to legitimately scaring me. Psycho, the original 1960 Hitchcock tour-de-force and Jonathan Demme's Oscar-winning thriller The Silence of the Lambs. Both films were beautifully shot and impeccably executed. Both of these films featured a despicable villain that was not — by outward appearances — a monster. Both films elicited nerve-wracking suspense and both films — thanks to great performances and thoughtful directing — made the viewer root for the bad guy. That is scary.

Halloween will be here soon. We are all stuck in the house with a lot of free time. What's a guy gotta do to get scared around here?

Sunday, October 18, 2020

i am the eggman

A little over a year ago, Mrs. Pincus and I decided that it was time to stop eating like ten-year-olds at a birthday party and start eating like adults. We eliminated all sweets and desserts and began a self-imposed diet regimen centering around a large salad for dinner. 

This is a stock photo.
Each evening, we stand side-by-side at our kitchen counter and prepare our leafy evening meals together. We each have our specific jobs in the preparation. I extract the various components from the different storage areas of our refrigerator and place them on our kitchen counter. Our fridge is regular stocked with fresh salad ingredients like lettuce, red cabbage and scallions (or green onions — the jury is out on which of those we actually use). I pile the items on the counter and Mrs. P chops them or slices them or slides them into a blade on a mini-mandoline slicer — whichever utensil or portioning method is appropriate for the particular element. While my wife adds things to her salad that I would never eat in a million years — like cucumbers and tomatoes — I begin my own customization process. I add jalapeno peppers, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers and bread & butter pickles (that's right, I like pickles on my salad! You wanna make something of it?). It is also my unofficial job to open a can of salmon for each of us. We have gotten used to including salmon on our salads and the salads seem incomplete without it. Sometimes, Mrs. P  makes fresh salmon and, believe me, it is much better than the canned stuff. Once topped with our personal choice of dressing (low-fat thousand island for Mrs. P and whatever is in the refrigerator for me), we accompany our salads with a baked potato and another fresh vegetable (usually broccoli or my new-found favorite cauliflower) and we're all set. We have been eating the nearly-identical dinner every night since February 2019 and we haven't tired of it yet. As a matter of fact, almost every night, one of us will remark how good the salad is and marvel at how it can be so delicious night after night.

Just for the sake of variety, we switch things up every so often. Instead of a baked potato, we will have a bowl of pasta made from shirataki, a Japanese vegetable. Or sometimes, we have a bowl of soup and Mrs. P will sauté a bunch of peppers, onions and mushrooms in garlic and oil for something she likes to call "Peppers, Mushrooms and Onions in Garlic." (Although it plays an integral part in the recipe, the oil is unjustly left out of the name of the dish.) We also look for other things to add to the salad. We have tried sun-dried tomatoes and French-fried onions. More recently, sliced hard-boiled eggs have become a regular part of our salads and I have become quite the hard-boiled egg aficionado. (Yes, it has been added to my resume just under my skills with PowerPoint.)

This is a stock photo.
Once a week, I dutifully fill an enamel pot (my wife showed me where we keep it) with water from the tap, just enough to cover a single level of eggs that will be placed at the bottom. I place the pot on the stove and turn on the flame, just like Mrs. P showed me. (I am not exactly Mr. Kitchen, so I appreciate the guidance.) Then I carefully add the eggs to the pot of water. I inspect each one for cracks before placing it in the water, sometimes turning them over several times and even holding them up to the light. Then, I wait until the water boils. When it does, I kill the heat, put a lid on the pot and I'm done.... until my favorite part.

Peeling off the shells.

This is also a stock photo.
I don't know exactly what it is, but I find peeling the shells from hard-boiled eggs very therapeutic. At first, it was sort of a challenge. I found myself pulling small chunks of the hardened albumen away with the tiny fragments of shell. I realized that there was a thin, almost invisible membrane that is between the shell and the egg white. I had to remove that membrane as well as the shell in order to keep the white in tact. After a while, I discovered different techniques with which to successfully remove the shell and be left with a perfectly smooth hard-boiled egg. I even watched a few YouTube videos showing several vastly different methods to attain the ultimate goal of the unblemished egg white. Some prescribed adding the eggs to already boiling water. This, as the video claimed, would prevent the membrane from creating a strong bond to the solidifying egg. Another suggested peeling the egg under running water or — better yet — submerged in water. I read an article on the internet about the subject (this is what my life has come to), including one that insisted on chipping away a quarter-sized opening in the shell on the wide end of the egg, then forcing a metal teaspoon into the opening and rotating it around the circumference of the egg. The promise being that  this action would force the membrane to separate and the hard-boiled innards would just pop out with no resistance. This has yet to be tried by me. There are other procedures that include adding vinegar or salt to the boiling water, but I think I will pass on those.

This is why I use stock photos.
I have found a technique that works well, using a little bit of several of the techniques I learned. I peel the eggs over the sink with a constant, fairly forceful stream of cold water running from the tap. I crack the egg fully on the edge of the sink and roll it around until the entire outer surface is covered with a spiderweb pattern of fractures. Then, it seems, that the shell is easily removed and the egg is left glistening, its exterior uncompromised.

So, what have we learned? Well, we learned that I have an awful lot of free time on my hands and that, given the opportunity, I can write four full paragraphs about hard-boiled eggs.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

loose lucy

You know what I did this week? I watched television. So, let's talk about television... okay? I haven't talked about television in nearly two weeks. Specifically, I want to talk about the unofficial Queen of Television — Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball is so beloved by so many, they even named her first TV series I Love Lucy. But, guess what? I hate Lucy. Not the show. The actress. But, wait.... I'm jumping ahead. I used to really like Lucy. Back when she was one of Hollywood's top "glamor girls," Lucy was a delight. She was beautiful like Gene Tierney. She was feisty like Barbara Stanwyck. And she delivered snappy dialog like Rosalind Russell. She starred in some film noir, in which she totally nailed the part. She acted alongside Ginger Rogers, Red Skelton and even the Marx Brothers — always able to hold her own. She appeared in musicals, like Best Foot Forward, playing an unobtainable "screen version" of her glamorous self. She even auditioned for the coveted role of "Scarlett O'Hara" in Gone with the Wind (along with a zillion other actresses). But, something happened to Lucy and I'm not sure what is was. Maybe it was her rocky marriage to Desi Arnaz, the dashing and charming band leader, whom she met on the set of the 1940 musical Too Many Girls. Desi was an out-of-control womanizer, as well as a chronic drinker. Despite his unsavory behavior, Lucy and Desi married in 1940 and nearly ended it four years later when Lucy realized that Desi couldn't be trusted. However, Lucy reconsidered and stuck with Desi. In 1948, Lucy began a CBS radio comedy called My Favorite Husband, in which she played the zany wife of a bandleader. The show, which co-starred actor Richard Denning, was a hit and CBS asked Lucy to develop the show for the fledgling medium of television. At first, the network balked at her proposal of casting her real-life husband in the role of her character's band leader spouse. CBS executives were convinced that the TV viewing public was not ready to see an All-American redhead married to a Cuban. After much discussion, the network relented and added I Love Lucy to their lineup, based on the wild success of a recent Lucy-Desi live performance tour.

Funny folks to the right, please.
I Love Lucy
featured a much, much different Lucy. This was not the elegantly poised beauty who seductively sashayed across the Silver Screen for nearly two decades. This was a whining, conniving, lying, deceitful, spiteful, silly, embarrassing, unpredictable, madcap harpy who got tangled up in complicated dilemmas of her own doing. I have seen every single episode — all 181 of  'em — and I just don't find Lucy even remotely funny. Desi, as the beleaguered yet energetic "Ricky Ricardo" was funny. The under-appreciated Vivian Vance, as Lucy's loyal friend and landlord "Ethel Mertz," was funny. Even William Frawley, as a perennially-cantankerous "Fred Mertz," was funny. The recurring troupe of supporting players, like Gale Gordon and Frank Nelson, were funny. The only cast member who wasn't funny was Lucy. She was the buzzkill for every scene, every situation, every joke. I cannot — for the life of me — figure out how anybody thought she was funny. She spent nearly every episode trying to sneak her uncoordinated, off-key-singing, talentless self into her husband's professional and rehearsed nightclub act. Somebody thought this was funny! So funny, that the show has been running regularly somewhere, in reruns, since its cancellation 63 years ago. 63 years!! 

Actually, Lucy had hoped that having Desi around the set daily would allow her to keep a watchful eye on his potential infidelity. Well, that didn't stop Desi at all. Their marriage only lasted a few years after the demise of I Love Lucy. As a result of their divorce, Lucy bought out Desi's interest in Desilu Productions, which produced such popular series as The Untouchables, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible, making her the first woman to run a major television studio. Lucy continued to make movies (She was considered for the Angela Lansbury role in the 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate), but hoped to return to television. CBS reluctantly agreed to a solo Lucy project in 1962. The network, for which Lucy was so successful, was not convinced that Lucy could carry a show by herself. So, with the addition of co-star Vivian Vance, The Lucy Show premiered October 1, 1962. The Lucy Show carried over the same annoying antics that Lucy employed on I Love Lucy. She meddled into situations where she didn't belong or wasn't wanted. She lied to her boss, played to slow-burn perfection by the reliable Gale Gordon. And, of course, she treated her long-suffering pal Viv like shit. 

Vivian Vance was a sport. She agreed to come to her friend's rescue on the new series — providing her character be named "Vivian." She stated that, for seven years, she constantly had people greet her with "Hi Ethel!" and she was sick of it. But, after three years and growing tired of commuting between Los Angeles and her New York home, Vivian left the series. So did a number of cast members... and three writers. The show was revamped and soon re-emerged as a showcase for Lucy's many show-business friends. Their appearances were worked into preposterous scenarios, including possible Vivian Vance replacement Ann Sothern as a countess that was friendly with Lucy's "Mrs. Carmichael." Big stars like Dean Martin, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, as well as popular TV stars like Barbara Eden and Bob Crane, made weekly appearances on The Lucy Show, regardless of how much sense the plot made. As soon as The Lucy Show ended its run, Here's Lucy began. It was essentially the same show, except Lucy was now supported by her real children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., in addition to Gale Gordon as Lucy's irascible brother-in-law. Oh, and the front door to Lucy's house was on Stage Left instead of Upstage Center. This show was just as absurd as its predecessor. Yet, it ran for a incredible six seasons. 

In 1985, Lucy received rave reviews for her touching portrayal of a homeless woman in the made-for-TV movie Stone Pillow. But just when things were looking brighter for her career, she attempted the sitcom genre once again. This time as a widowed grandmother in Life with Lucy. It was cancelled after a mere eight episodes and ranks as one of the worst sitcoms of all time.

I don't want to you think that I have nothing nice to say about Lucy. I do, in fact. Lucy was instrumental in getting the original Star Trek series to the airwaves. 

The opening for Here's Lucy featuring the little Lucy animated puppet, was adorable. Sometimes, I would tune in just to watch that and then switch to something else.

And, we obviously have Lucy to thank for inspiring Divine and so many other drag performers for years to come.

Sometime in the 60s, when Lucy was still pretty popular, she made an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, a national talk show that was filmed and produced in Philadelphia. While she was in the area, she made a stop at the set of a beloved children's program that was broadcast locally on a CBS affiliate station. Accounts of her visit describe Lucy's demeanor as "belligerent," "demanding," and "nasty." She did, however, send the host a thank you gift and note expressing her pleasure during the visit. 

This statue in Lucy's hometown of Jamestown, New York sums things up pretty well. It looks nothing like Lucy and Lucy's career looked nothing like comedy.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

beyond the sea

I'll be honest with you. It's kind of tough to write a weekly blog post when you haven't left the house in six months. I guess I could write about watching television.. Oh, wait... I did that already. I guess I could write about what I've eaten. Oh, wait... I've done that, too. Well, how about I tell a funny story that I don't think I told before? Okay. Here goes...

Remember vacations? Remember when we took vacations? Well, Mrs. Pincus and I have taken a vacation nearly year that we've been married. In 2013, we took our first cruise and that has been our main choice of vacation every year since. We even took two cruises in some of those years. Although we've had many varied adventures on our various cruises, they have really all been pretty much the same. That's not a bad thing. We enjoyed each one, but the "cruise experience" for us doesn't really change from one cruise to the next. Perhaps. it's because we do a lot of the same activities on every cruise — buffet, shows, trivia contest, interactive games, casino, hokey singers in a lounge. Not necessarily in that order, but we would participate in all of those activities at some time during our one week stay aboard a giant, floating "city on the seas." 

One particular morning, on one of these cruises (I actually forget which one, but it doesn't really make a difference), we were eating our breakfast out on the deck just outside of the ship's buffet. Actually, we had just come from the buffet line, where we piled our plates high with a selection of breakfast foods, as well as coffee and and juice. Now we had located an empty table in a shady area outside in the fresh Caribbean air, but covered by an upper deck overhang that afforded protection from the direct rays of the tropical sun.

Mrs. P and I were enjoying our morning meal, when we noticed two young men surveying the immediate area for an empty table. They were in their 20s, most likely traveling together, possibly coming off an evening of drinking and romantic companionship courtesy of someone they didn't know 24 hours earlier. They stood at the outer edge of the assembly of tables and chairs, slowly swiveling their heads and squinting to zero in on a place to set their overly-laden plates. (And I do mean "overly-laden." Looking at what they had collected from the buffet, I wondered if anything was left for the other passengers.) 

The two fellows spotted a dining room worker just clearing away the dishes and utensils from the previous diners, so they quickly moved in and snagged the newly-cleaned table. The table was just a few feet from where Mrs. P and I were seated. We nodded and offered a friendly "good morning" to the guys, as we "cruise veterans" have become accustomed to doing after a day or two aboard ship. The prevailing atmosphere becomes one of instant camaraderie — a sort of "we're all in this together" feeling, not unlike adult summer camp. They hesitantly nodded back and returned half-hearted smiles. Then, we watched as they placed their plates on the table's surface, turned their backs and looked around again, mumbling something about "where's the coffee?" They wandered off in search of java, leaving their breakfast-filled platters unattended, unguarded and very vulnerable.

This was a foolish move.

As soon as the two guys walked away from their table and anticipated breakfast, a large seagull swooped down and began investigating the situation. You see, several hours earlier, while most of the passengers were still asleep in their cabins — either enjoying a lazy slumber as vacationers or nursing the adverse effects of late-night reveling — the captain had guided the vessel into a predetermined port in keeping with the cruise itinerary. Which port? Who knows? After so many cruises, one pastel-camouflaged, distressed Caribbean harbor looks like all the others. Out in the open water, the animal world is sparsely represented — maybe a single, circling bird or the solitary jumping dolphin. But, in port, the seagulls are abundant and always in search of food scraps to scavenge. This particular seabird had hit the avian jackpot. Here were two enormous, bird-ready smorgasbords and no one around on "shooing away" duty. The feathered filcher gingerly pranced around on the table top for a bit before going full in on a stack of waffles with his beak. Mrs. Pincus and I watched in silent horrified amazement as bits of food flew up with each of the bird's rapid-fire pecks. The guys had still not returned and the gull was taking full advantage, enjoying an array of bacon, croissants, pancakes and — however cannibalistic — scrambled eggs. Either content or frightened, the bird finally flew away. From the far side of the dining area, one of the "20-something" fellows approached the table, his fingers curled around the porcelain handle of a steaming cup of coffee.

Mrs. Pincus — her involuntary motherly instincts kicking in — spoke up promptly before the young man lifted a fork or even sat down. "Excuse me," she began, raising her voice slightly to accommodate the distance between our tables, "I wouldn't eat that." The guy looked around at first, then focused on us, once he realized from where the warning was coming. He cocked his head inquisitively and replied, "Why not?"

Mrs. Pincus explained that, in his brief absence, a seagull had made a personal feast of the unprotected food they had left. The guy looked at us. Then, he looked at the two plates on the table. He lowered his head a bit and scrutinized the plates a bit more closely, visually probing the food for tell-tale signs of invasion to corroborate my wife's story. He looked up and, gesturing with his extended forefinger, he asked, "Both plates... or just mine?"

"Both, I think.," Mrs. Pincus answered. She furrowed her brow and a sort of disgusted grimace crossed her lips.

Just then, the guy was joined by his traveling companion. He saw his friend was having a conversation with some lady that he didn't know and asked "Hey, what's up?" His now-informed buddy related my wife's eyewitness account of the winged food thief. The two of them studied their plates, which, honestly, looked relatively the same as before they embarked on their coffee objective. As they continued to assess the extent of the damage, I finally interjected. "Y'know, you can just go get another plate of food," I said, "It's included in your trip. You can get as much as you like."

They didn't seem too motivated to go through the process of re-assembling "the perfect breakfast," as though months of rigorous preparation had led up to this very moment. Their body language and lack of urgency seemed to indicate that they would never achieve the exact balance of waffles and syrup or the precise ratio of orange marmalade to corn muffin surface area.

Mrs. Pincus went into full maternal mode. "Just go get another plate, boys.," she insisted. I had heard this tone many, many times when my son was younger. I also remember my own mother's stern command when I required guidance I didn't know I needed. Reluctantly, the two travelers headed back in the direction of the buffet, which was still open for another few hours and fully stocked with copious quantities of every single item that they had selected before. With a little thought and effort, they could easily duplicate their platters right down to the last pat of butter and golden square of hash browned potato. Hell, they could even grab that oversized lemon Danish they passed up on their first go-round. They could even grab

Their mothers would have been very pleased.