Sunday, December 27, 2020

strange days indeed

In May 2020, I joined the thousands and thousands of people across the country who lost their jobs due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Losing a job is tough to begin with, but under these circumstances, a bad situation has been made more complicated. First, with businesses closing left and right, who is hiring? Second, what are the logistics of starting a job, what with the majority of the workforce who have managed to keep their jobs working from home. Am I really comfortable going into an office environment at this time? Add that to the fact that I am approaching my 60th year among folks charged with doing the hiring that weren't yet born when I took my first job. Well, let's just say that the stars aren't exactly aligning in my favor.

I have many, many years of experience in all aspects of graphic design, marketing, publishing and a few other fields whose technical description would just bore those unfamiliar. The problem is the process for finding a job has changed drastically since I was knocking on doors and passing around my then-sparse resume. Everything is done through the cold, faceless, impersonal internet. You upload your resume. You fill out a brief, identifying form and then you wait. And wait. And wait. Hoping that one of these offers will contact you for an interview. I have had a handful of interviews since May — some via Zoom and others on the good old-fashioned telephone. I have sent my resume to literally hundreds of posted job offers with only a few replies.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw an ad for a graphic designer at a local printing company. The abbreviated description of the position was very similar to positions I had held in the past. I sent my resume and, surprisingly, I got a response the next day. Via email, we arranged for and confirmed a time to speak on the phone. The agreed-upon time came and went. No call.

I emailed this "prospective employer." In my most polite manner, I sheepishly apologized  (as though I was my fault) for not being able to speak and asked if there was time that was more convenient to his schedule. This is his reply:

Please excuse me if I was difficult to get hold of. I've been swamped with applications, while at the same time needing to keep up with my customers and preparing for a changeover with my outgoing, very capable associate.

Have I viewed your portfolio? Do you have a website or a social media site which I can refer to? Have you visited our website? If you want to write me a short story as to what type of position you're looking for, and your present status, that would be one way for us to keep in touch. 

Any chance that we could talk this evening, around 6:30? 

Of course I was agreeable, despite 6:30 on his suggested evening was right smack in the middle of my wife and I attending to "guests" getting their curbside pickup at the pandemic version of our annual "Night Before Thanksgiving" dessert party. But, securing a job takes priority in my book, so I planned to sneak away for a bit, while Mrs. Pincus attended to our guests. I sent this "prospective employer" a link to my online design portfolio (as is done in these times) and told him I was anxious to speak at 6:30 that evening. He replied with this somewhat odd email:

Checked out your website. Interesting. Can I trouble you to please call me at 630 - 215.725.XXXX. I'm relaxing at that time after dinner, and I don't usually think about business matters. I might just forget. But on the other hand, I'll be happy to chat with you when you call.

Please take a look at our website beforehand, so you'll see what we do.

I visited his website. It appeared that he had merely filled in a supplied template with information pertaining to his specific business. It was minimally informative, but, honestly, nothing special. While I perused his website, he sent me another email. In this one, he noted the high school from which I graduated and asked if I grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. I found that to be an odd inquiry, but I replied that I did, but I now reside in a suburb just outside of the city limits.

At 6:30 that evening, I slipped away to the quiet second floor of my house and dialed this "prospective employer" at the number he supplied. After a few electronic rings, he answered. I introduced myself. He asked if I went to his website and I replied that I did. "So, whaja think?," he spat out, with a tinge of indignancy in his tone. I explained that he appeared to be a commercial printer and I have dealt with and worked for commercial printers over the past thirty years of my career. He interrupted me with a gruff correction. "We are a print broker." (A print broker is sort-of a "middle man." He does not own or operate an actual printing company. Rather, he uses actual printers to supply his orders, selling them to his own customers at a price marked up from the wholesale price he receives from the printer. A print broker is a glorified salesperson.) I happily expounded on my understanding of the "print broker" concept as well as my experience in design and project management. He interrupted me again. This time, he pressed the previously undisclosed "sales" aspect of the position. I flatly told him that I was not a sales person and that I would not be comfortable in a sales position.

He was quiet for a moment. Then he spoke.

"The real reason I wanted to speak to you, " he began, "was I when saw your last name, I figured you were Jewish. I am getting up in years and was hoping to sell my business. Jews are very entrepreneurial. Maybe you'd be interested in buying my business?"

I looked down to see that my jaw had fallen and was now laying of the floor between my feet. I was speechless. Speechless. Thoughts scrambled in my head. 

"I am not interested in buying a business at this time." I managed to get those eleven words out of my mouth.

"Okay." he laughed. "I have been swamped with applications. I wonder why so many artists are out of work and can't keep a job?" I surmised that this was a rhetorical question. He ended with "I'll be in touch. Send me some references." I said goodbye and he said goodbye.

I haven't heard from him and he hasn't heard from me, either.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

the final countdown

My favorite radio station just wrapped up a week-long countdown of the two thousand and twenty "greatest songs of all time." A few months prior to beginning the playback, they solicited listeners to compile a list of their ten greatest songs of all time. These lists were then tallied and calculated and counted and sorted. On December 10 at 8 AM, they played "Time is Tight," a 1969 release by instrumental funk band Booker T & The MGs. This song, ranking at Number 2020, kicked off a non-sequitur musical marathon that would — over the course of eight days — span decades, artists and genres. The countdown promised (or threatened) to continue non-stop — burgeoning on 24 hours a day — until the Number One song was revealed. Social media immediately lit up as, in the first 24 hours, the station defiantly — and consecutively — played "I Keep Forgettin'" by Michael McDonald, "Just Like Honey" by The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman, "The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow and "Open My Eyes" by Nazz. This made for one of the early examples of unusual and awkward segues. As the on-air hosts divulged each song (in reverse order), Twitter was a-twitter with hash-tagged conversations, proclamations and overtly possessive browbeating. With each new song disclosure, a new volley of discussion would erupt, fraught with more speculation, contempt and even a bit of bullying. And this is how things played out until the single digits were reached.

I planned to steer clear of the countdown and, to be honest, I only heard approximately sixty or so minutes of it and that didn't come until Day Five. It was on the radio in my wife's car as we took a ride to my son's house to deliver some cookies that she made. We talked during the drive, so I really wasn't paying close attention to the songs. I heard approximately 26 songs in the time it took to drive to his house and then return home. When each song began, I asked the same question: "Is this the 'Greatest Song of All Time?'" I asked the question — out loud — 26 times... until Mrs. Pincus (rightfully) told me to shut up. On the final day, I blew off my planned "avoidance" and I sat with my wife on our sofa as we listened to the last 100 songs play back through our stereo. To add to the fun, we participated in the social media fervor that accompanied the countdown. It was sort of a running commentary, like those second audio tracks on DVDs that nobody listens to. Because I am who I am, my tweets were dripping with sarcasm and faux ignorance (in keeping with my online persona). I tweet strictly for my own amusement and, sometimes, I find the results funnier if the folks on the receiving end don't know me and take everything I say to heart. I was careful to include a healthy dose of my "disdain" for Ringo Starr, as well as a "put on" misunderstanding of particular artists. (For instance, I expressed my love of jazz great Dave Brubek when his classic "Take Five" checked in at the Number 54 position. However, I punctuated my tweet with a photo of David Ruprecht, the host of the 90s game show Supermarket Sweep. I got the joke and that was all that was important.)

I love music. I hate countdowns. I did not compile nor submit a list for inclusion in the countdown. I hate ranking anything — movies, television shows, foods — anything. I don't care to hear other people's lists and I especially don't need to hear two thousand and twenty songs in reverse order of greatness. It's all opinion. There is no definitive answer. There are no bad choices. There are no good choices. It all means absolutely nothing. Months and years from now, when this countdown is a mere memory, will it make any bit difference that "Day Tripper" by The Beatles ranks as the 1,164th Greatest Song of All Time the next time they play it? 

I like what I like. I don't like what I don't like. The specifics of those things, of course, will differ from person to person. But people seem to get really possessive and defensive about the songs they like and the songs other people like. People want other people to like the same songs they like. I don't know why? I don't understand the insecurity that surfaces when someone says they don't like a song or band that you like. It appears, though, that my generation insists on keeping the flame burning for the music of their formative years. This phenomenon doesn't seem to exist in the generations that followed. The Top 25 songs, as "determined" by the Countdown results, were an embarrassing reflection of my contemporaries, boasting primarily white guys with guitars... with just a few exceptions. People my age, in 2020, are still hanging onto their beloved "Layla" and "Stairway to Heaven." I could just picture graying men with bad backs struggling to pump their fists in the air as the opening chords of Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" emanated from the smart speaker that their grandson set up for them.

Sure, I like to hear the music I grew up with. I also like to hear the music my parents grew up with and the music my son grew up with. It makes for a much more enjoyable variety of soundtrack to my life. I don't try to "school" anybody. I will not make a convincing argument to persuade someone half my age that Elton John, in his heyday, could run musical circles around Taylor Swift. That's just stupid. Elton John was a talented singer and songwriter and Taylor Swift is a talented singer and songwriter. And what difference does it make if you or I feel otherwise. There's no need to take music so seriously. It's supposed to make you feel good. Let it. And let different music make someone else feel good.

So after eight days and nights, the 2020 "Greatest Songs of All Time" came to a close. And this is what I learned:
1. People my age like to vote in countdowns
2. People my age don't seem to be aware of any music that was released after 1977
3. People my age really need to lighten up
4. I still know the words to all twenty-three minutes of Genesis's "Supper's Ready"

And we will never know what is truly "The Greatest Song of All Time."

Sunday, December 13, 2020

troll the ancient yuletide carol

I have always loved Christmas music. I'm not sure why. After all, we didn't celebrate Christmas in my house, so there wasn't a "feeling of Christmas" that, I suppose, makes those who do celebrate Christmas want to break out in song as the 25th of December approaches. I loved watching all of the special Christmas programming on television, from the animated A Charlie Brown Christmas (with its sweet and simple "Christmastime" melody) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (with its faux-menacing title song) to the stop-motion "Animagic" Rankin-Bass productions that mixed original Christmas songs with the traditional and established ones with which I was already familiar. I remember that the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin would include an "assemble-it-yourself" Christmas song booklet with the color comics section in the Sunday edition just prior to Christmas Day. It was from these annual, illustrated, 8-page supplements that I first learned the words to beloved Christmas carols like "Silent Night," "Away in a Manger" (having no idea what exactly a "manger" was. Actually, I'm still not certain), and "O Holy Night." I tried to master the Latin lyrics to "Adeste Fideles" once I was sure I memorized the words in the English version, "O Come All Ye Faithful." I was so familiar with these songs, that I recall getting excited as a teenager when, during a 1978 Jethro Tull concert, flutist Ian Anderson broke into "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" in the middle of a rousing version of their classic instrumental "BourĂ©e."

As I got older and started buying albums, I made sure that I had a good amount of Christmas music in my collection. Whether it was a current band cashing in on a holiday release or a reissue of a famous crooner singing well-known carols — I had to have 'em. And the more unusual, the better. Aside from the classics, I like original Christmas songs that spin tales of off-beat scenarios while still keeping with the holiday spirit. Not necessarily "novelty" songs, but ones that stray from the standard Christmas images like mistletoe, sleigh bells and Jesus's birth. I like the slightly skewed songs like The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York," that creates a holiday scene through the eyes of two drunk Irish immigrants in a New York lockup. My wife's favorite song — not specifically holiday song, but song in general — is The Waitresses' bouncy 1981 rhyming tune "Christmas Wrapping." 

Despite my love for Christmas songs, I am still taken aback by some of the unsettling lyrics that folks blindly sing, parroting words they heard over and over, year after year, not quite understanding what it is they are singing.... yet still teaching these songs to their children and grandchildren. One of the creepiest lyrics is from "Holly Jolly Christmas," a holiday favorite written by Johnny Marks in 1962. Marks wrote a bunch of your favorite Christmas songs. This one gained fame when it was included in the first Rankin-Bass Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, sung by actor/folk singer Burl Ives. Near the end of the first verse, just before the chorus, Ives' deceitfully friendly tenor says: "Oh, ho the mistletoe/Hung where you can see/Somebody waits for you/Kiss her once for me." Don't let that avuncular "Sam the Snowman" persona fool you. Burl Ives is gunning for your girlfriend, pal. Behind the warm sentiment of this catchy little ditty, this leering stalker is tipping his hand. He's letting you know he's making a move on your honey at the first opportunity. Turns out that "Holly Jolly Christmas" was the forerunner to "Say 'Hi' to your mom for me!"

Andy Williams has a voice I always associate with Christmas songs. He sings two of the most popular ones and they can both be found on his 1963 release Andy Williams Christmas Album. The first is "It's the Holiday Season," a cheerful song penned by no less than seven credited writers. Andy mingles this with "Happy Holiday," written by Chanukah-celebrating Irving Berlin for the film Holiday Inn. "It's the Holiday Season" is an adequate song. It doesn't break any new ground, as far as Christmas songs are concerned. As a matter of fact, it plays out like a Christmas reference shopping list, making sure that it checks all the boxes for things to be mentioned in any good Christmas song — bells, toys, Santa, snow, tree. It even manages to get "peppermint stick" in there. But, "It's the Holiday Season" is also kind of clunkyIt's proof that even the most clever lyricist struggles to construct an easy-flowing song. Obviously written with a looming production deadline, this "committee" of wordsmiths, at a loss for words, insert the preposterous line: "With the whoop-de-do and dickory dock" smack in the middle of an otherwise, perfectly good holiday song. This is a reference to nothing and merely a lame placeholder until they could think up a better, more suitable, eight syllables. Well, they couldn't and now, we're stuck with it. C'mon fellas... "dickory dock?" Really? That's the best you could do?

Andy Williams' other signature Christmas song is "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," written especially for Williams by his musical director George Wyle, best known for composing the theme to Gilligan's Island. This rousing song evokes the warmth of family gatherings and general good cheer among friends. But, again, in searching for a rhyme for "glory," Wyle opts for the set-up line: "There'll be scary ghost stories." He must have hastily written the lyrics over a previously-started composition for Hallowe'en. When he presented the lyric sheet to the publisher, it was too late. Ghost stories are now and forever part of the Christmas ritual. Thanks to George Wyle, you are now free to distribute candy canes to trick-or-treaters.

Bing Crosby famously sang "White Christmas" in 1942's Holiday Inn and in its much-better (and blackface-free) remake White Christmas in 1954. "Der Bingle" sang a lot of Christmas songs throughout his long career and released over a dozen Christmas albums. "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," written by Meredith Willson (who also wrote the award-winning musical The Music Man) is one of his most popular. Bing lovingly sings about candy canes, decorated trees and eager children wishing for all sorts of toys. But somewhere near the end of the bridge, this song suddenly takes an angry turn as an exasperated Bing expresses his frustration with the aforementioned kids when he laments: "And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again." Gary Crosby could tell you stories about his father's impatience, especially when it came to his kids. Hey, lighten up, Bing! Christmas is still a few days away, for goodness sake! School will start soon enough and you'll be back to playin' golf and doin' shots before you know it. Spending a few days with the kids won't kill you.

Bing Crosby also makes his own plea in "I'll Be Home for Christmas," written to honor soldiers serving overseas in World War II. In the song, Bing asks for specific things for his family to have when he comes home for Christmas. His list of demands includes: "Please have snow and mistletoe/And presents by the tree." Sure, Bing, there can be mistletoe. We can pick some up when we purchase this year's tree. And presents? Of course, there will be presents, Bing! There have been presents since you were a kid! But snow? Really, Bing? There's only so much your family can guarantee. We can't control the weather, for crying out loud! If there isn't snow, can we just forget your visit? Mom will be so upset! Wait a second! What did you say....? You'll be home for Christmas... only in your dreams!?! Oh, nice one, Bing! You think that's funny, you selfish, inconsiderate holiday tease!

"There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays" also contains some lyrics that make no sense — at least to me. It's been recorded by many vocalists, including Perry Como and The Carpenters, but it's no less weird. The song is all about the trials of travelling in holiday traffic, as is illustrated by the words: "I met a man who lives in Tennessee and he was headin' for/Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie/From Pennsylvania, folks are travelin' down/To Dixie's sunny shore." But, what is going on here? You're telling me there's no pumpkin pie between Tennessee and Pennsylvania? If you want to get technical, Illinois leads the country in growing pumpkins, most of which is used for pie filling. And Illinois is a lot closer to Tennessee than Pennsylvania (which is fourth in production). Okay, okay... maybe they don't have any relatives they speak to in Illinois. But then the folks from Pennsylvania have their sights set on the South because — what? — they've been eating so much pumpkin pie, they have to get out of here? Then, there's that crack about the traffic being "terrific," as though they are enjoying it!

Don't forget the songs about Santa Claus. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is kind of frightening, if you consider the lyrics: "He sees you when you're sleeping/He knows when you're awake." This pretty much describes the plotline for George Orwell's 1984. Not to be outdone, "Here Comes Santa Claus" is downright threatening, warning children to "Jump into bed and cover your head/'Cause Santa Claus comes tonight!" Jeez! It sounds like Santa is coming to kill you!

And then there are all of the songs that, by reason of misinterpretation, have come to be considered Christmas songs... but really aren't. "Winter Wonderland" does not mention Christmas. Not even once! Neither does "Sleigh Ride" or "Jingle Bells" or "My Favorite Things." And "Frosty the Snowman" is just a song about a snowman that comes to life...on a random day in winter... not necessarily Christmas Day. The song "We Need a Little Christmas," technically isn't a Christmas song either. It's from the Broadway musical Mame and is sung to cheer the household up after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. It uses "Christmas" as a metaphor for "happier times." Oh, and stop singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" as a Christmas song. It's not about what you think it's about.

Nevertheless, I love Christmas songs — no matter how weird or nonsensical or questionable the lyrics are. Hey, aside from "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" and a couple others in Hebrew, Chanukah offers some pretty "slim pickins" in the holiday song department.

Happy Holidays, everyone. Now, go deck those halls.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

the card cheat

A day or so ago, I was talking to my son on my cellphone. Now, I think I am pretty well-versed in the ins-and-outs of my phone, but every so often, I have one of those mishaps that I accuse "old people" of having. You know, something goes inexplicably wrong with a piece of sophisticated electronic equipment and the elicited response is "It must have done that by itself! I didn't touch anything!" Yes, I have pointed the finger at many an older person for such an infraction, knowing full well that it was absolutely something they did. Cellphones — as well as computers, tablets, remote controls — don't just do things. The user just did something — pushed a button, hit a key, double-clicked on something they should have single-clicked on — of which they were not aware and triggered some unexpected result. That story about Bartlett Finchley, on a 1960 episode of Twilight Zone, was just a story. Machines aren't "out to get us." We're just.... um.... clumsy.

So, during my conversation with my son, I must have pressed my face hard on the screen, essentially "clicking" an icon on the home screen. This brought up my Contacts. Then, unknown to me, I dialed a number at the top of the list. It was an acquaintance from high school named Adam*. What Adam's name and number is doing in my Contact list, I am not quiet sure. I haven't spoken to him in over forty years. And even forty years ago, I had very little to say to him. My son was in mid-sentence and suddenly he was interrupted by a muffled ringing. I looked around the room and saw nothing unusual. I pulled the phone away from my ear and saw Adam's name in big letters across the screen along with the words " Dialing...." Panicked, I hit the red "end call" icon and continued my conversation. I didn't mention what had just transpired to my son, lest I be subject to a little finger-pointing myself.

I knew Adam in high school. He was a friend-of-a-friend. I wasn't especially fond of him. If I remember, he hung with a different group than I did. (There were a lot of students in my high school.) Our paths crossed very infrequently. Our few encounters were not pleasant ones. He was one of those "one-up-you" kind of guys. Every comment was met with his attempt to do you one better. If you said your father just bought a car, he would counter that his father just bought a better and bigger car. If you told of a restaurant you went to, he would belittle your experience and tell you of a fancier and more expensive restaurant he went to with his family. His face was twisted into a constant sneer and you could just feel him looking down on everyone.

When I was in high school, I got together with a group of friends on a very irregular basis to play cards. It wasn't a "high stakes" game. We played for nickels and dimes. Some of us didn't have jobs and those that did, didn't have a lot of expendable income. It was a friendly, often silly, game and more of an excuse to congregate to talk, eat and listen to records. If we got in a few hands of poker, well then the evening was a success. One weekend evening, I showed up at a friend's house to play cards and Adam was there. I guess my friend was his friend, too, although I don't think I was aware that they even knew each other. This was the first time that Adam was included in our card game.

We all sat down at the table, making sure that we were properly surrounded with soda and chips and other assorted — yet very important — snacks. Someone made sure that the stereo was pumping out an album side that we all agreed on. We were ready to begin. Adam, of course, spoke up first. He suggested a bunch of variations on poker that we could play. Everyone at the table turned to him and frowned, opting instead to play the games we were used to — five-card draw, seven-card draw and something with a specific card or suit designated as "wild." Nothing too complicated. Adam scoffed at our plebian decision and reluctantly went along with majority rule, his signature sneer forming across his lips.

We played for an uneventful hour or so... until Adam got a little squirmy. Then someone spotted a few cards under Adam's wrist. He was unsuccessfully trying to conceal them from his fellow players. Someone angrily stood up and alerted the other players.

"What are those cards?," he yelled. Those who were not immediately aware of what was going on, were certainly aware now. Adam had been caught cheating! In a nickel-and-dime card game! Among friends!

Adam hemmed and hawed and made a million different excuses. I stood up. I began to put on my coat. I thanked my friend for hosting the game that evening. Then I turned to Adam and told him that I would never ever play cards in a game that included him. I left. In the ensuing weeks and months of high school, I avoided Adam as much as physically possible. I never spoke to him again.

Many years later, my wife ran into Adam at a merchandise trade show. He was working as a salesman for a local wholesaler from which my wife often made purchases. Adam was showing my wife some new item and they got to talking. Through their conversation, he discovered that she was married to me and that we knew each other from high school. Later in the evening, my wife mentioned running into Adam. I hadn't heard his name in years! Many, many years! As soon as my wife spoke his name, I told her that he was caught cheating in a card game when we were teenagers. She frowned and the conversation ended.

After I "cheek-dialed" Adam on my cellphone, he called me back and left a voicemail for me. I listened to his message. He said he saw I called and he looked forward to my returning his call... as though we were best friends and our friendship was a strong bond that had remained strong for all these years.

I deleted his contact information from my phone.

* His name is not "Adam."