Sunday, February 28, 2021

you bug me baby

It's no secret that I watch a lot of television, with a certain affinity for TV shows from my youth. I love the sitcoms with preposterous premises that were the staples of my formative years. Watching them now, however, I find these shows quaint and endearing in their awfulness. 

Most sitcoms featured a cast of likeable characters — a sweet mom, a friendly dad, a helpful neighbor, a loyal coworker, a jovial hillbilly who suddenly comes into a large sum of money. You know, everyday folks to which the home viewer could relate. A lot of shows, however, featured an annoying character. Someone whose sole purpose was to be irritating. I'm not talking about a character like Barney Fife, the hapless deputy sheriff on The Andy Griffith Show. Sure, Barney had his annoying moments, but he meant well. He was sincerely trying to help. He was just a little overanxious, longing for some real police action among the day-to-day tedium of cats stuck up in a tree or making coffee to sober up Otis the drunk. Sheriff Andy knew that Barney was not malicious, just zealous and proud. Also, Don Knotts was awarded five Emmys for his performance and he was a favorite of the viewing audience. In 1999, TV Guide ranked him ninth on its "50 Greatest TV Characters of All Time" list — so someone liked him. Although I love The Andy Griffith Show, I find the character of Barney thoroughly annoying in the majority of episodes, but I am in the overwhelming minority. 

I'm also not talking about characters like Dennis Mitchell, the rascally main focus of Dennis the Menace. Sure, the point of the show is that he's annoying, but he does mean well and, at times he can be endearing. I also don't mean Mr. Mooney, Gale Gordon's character from The Lucy Show. First of all, anyone who has to put up with Lucille Ball gets an automatic pass, but Mr. Mooney is just doing his job and Lucy is the real cause of his ire. I'm not talking about mildly annoying characters, like Dwayne Schneider on One Day at a Time or Steve Urkel on Family Matters. Yeah, they were annoying, but they genuinely meant well and weren't necessarily toxic. The kind of characters I am singling out are annoying for the sake of being annoying. They have no endearing qualities. They are selfish and mean for no other reason than stroking their own ego. Their actions are not beneficial to anyone but themselves. There are three of these jerks that I wish to expose.

First, there's Larry Tate, the weaselly, wafflely president of the advertising firm of McMann and Tate on the sitcom Bewitched. Larry is a jerk, first and foremost. He appears to be a friend of  star employee Darrin Stephens and his wife Samantha, but, in reality, he is not. Usually accompanied by an important client, Larry barges unannounced into the Stephens' home. He contradicts and questions Darrin's pitches, belittling his midnight-oiled efforts, as he second and third guesses the client's reactions. When a particular ad campaign is inevitably rescued by Samantha's contribution of witchcraft, Larry jumps on the congratulatory bandwagon at the first glimmer of approval from his client. In the next breath, Larry threatens to fire Darrin if he pulls a stunt like this again. A stunt like what, you ungrateful asshole? Saving your non-creative butt? What sort of input did you have in the development this ad campaign when Darrin was toiling nights and weekends before there was such a thing as "working from home." Larry Tate is a dick and Darrin doesn't need his wishy-washy, non-committal, two-faced bullshit. Plus, when Larry is at their home — whether invited or just showing up — he drains their liquor cabinet. 

Then there's Dr. Alfred Bellows, the ever-suspicious and ridiculously nosey NASA psychiatrist on I Dream of Jeannie. Prior to discovering a mysterious bottle on a beach in the South Pacific, we can only assume that astronaut Tony Nelson was a normal guy. But after uncorking that bottle, Tony's life was changed considerably when he unleashed an ancient (and adorable) genie who promised to grant his every wish. Now, granted, we don't know what sort of guy Tony was before he found that bottle, but he was a good-looking 34 year-old bachelor astronaut in Cocoa Beach, Florida. I'm sure he was hitting the singles bars and hooking up on a regular basis. That behavior must have appeared "normal" to the base psychiatrist. Suddenly, he has a hot blond living in his house and Dr, Bellows doesn't like it one little bit. Why? Why does this bother him? Was he jealous? I suppose, although Mrs. Bellows was pretty attractive and way out of his league. Okay, so, Dr. Bellows thought he saw some unusual things in and around the Nelson house... while he was peering in the windows looking for something unusual. What kind of career sabotage was he planning? Why did he have it in for Major Tony Nelson? Tony seemed to be handling his assigned duties well. He didn't behave in a manner that was detrimental to any space exploration mission. He was still a capable astronaut. If anything, having Jeannie around made him a better astronaut. But Dr. Bellows was a self-serving, meddling jerk. He was bent on convincing everyone at NASA that there was something off about Tony Nelson. In reality, Dr. Bellows was the only one who witnessed strange goings-on. You would think that after failing to get any of the top brass to believe his accusations, he would have given up after the first couple of instances. But no! Dr. Bellows kept it up for five seasons! What was his problem? He appeared to be the crazy one! Why didn't NASA dismiss him for incompetence? Dr. Bellows didn't benefit anyone. Not the space program, his fellow officers, the medical profession... or genies. Just himself.

I have saved the best — or in this case — the worst for last. The single most annoying character — in my qualified, long-time television watching opinion — is Lew Marie, the overbearing father of budding actress Ann Marie on That Girl. Played to the most grating degree by actor Lew Parker, this character's main purpose is to antagonize everyone with whom he comes in contact. He has an instant dislike for Ann's affable boyfriend Donald Hollinger. He criticizes, berates and insults every move poor Donald makes. Donald loves Lew's daughter (Hey! Who wouldn't?!?) and he is unnecessarily cordial and often forgiving of his future father-in-law. But, still the cranky Lew is relentless, unjustly flinging put-downs at Donald at every opportunity, sometimes creating those opportunities. Ann is also the target of her father's irascible persona. Nearly every episode of That Girl includes a scene in which Lew Marie threatens to physically drag his daughter back to the safe cocoon of Brewster, New York where she can give up her ridiculous dream of becoming an actress and work in her father's restaurant. Cute-as-a-button actress Marlo Thomas was 28 when That Girl premiered in 1965. She was not a kid. As the series progressed, she took jobs as a fashion model, commercial pitch girl, Broadway and television actress and dancer. It's not like she was a helpless failure. She was a working actress, hustling auditions and landing good roles. She did not need "Daddy's help." Yet, Daddy felt perfectly at home meddling in Ann's life — often misconstruing situations and perceiving them as dangerous to his daughter. He continually misinterpreted phone messages. He would overhear a conversation from the next room — or through a wall with the aid of an amplifying water glass — and invariably jump to the wrong conclusion. Lew Marie served only to benefit himself. He didn't really care about the welfare of Ann. He knew she could take care of herself, She knew she could take care of herself. It is my understanding that the relationship between Ann Marie and her father was based on the real-life relationship between Marlo Thomas and her father, entertainer Danny Thomas. I never liked Danny Thomas. I didn't find him funny. I found him to be smug, condescending and overbearing. In his long-running series Make Room for Daddy, he, too, was a jerk for the sake of being a jerk. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery... or something like that.

I like to think that television writing and character development has improved over the decades since Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and That Girl graced the airwaves. But it really hasn't.

Just ask Kimmy Gibbler or Ross Geller.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

misty watercolor memories

One of the first things I did when I finally broke down and joined the wonderful world of Facebook, was join some groups. I joined a few that appeared to show appreciation for several TV shows from my youth, specifically The Munsters and the original Batman series from 1966. The Batman group went south real fast, as it was hacked and overtaken by a fierce political faction that bombarded the defenseless group with vicious, unrelated-to-Batman posts. The Munsters group just got boring after I saw the fifth consecutive photo of Al Lewis sneering at the camera in full "Grandpa" makeup. I have since left both groups.

I also joined an "Adrienne Barbeau Appreciation" group, if only to post my tale of my meeting with the actress to see what sorts of feedback it elicited. The response was mostly positive, until it turned into a free-for-all with unwelcome, sexist comments that crossed the line of decorum several times. After repetitive doctored photos of  Ms. Barbeau were posted in this group, I left.

I also joined a group devoted to my elementary school. This one was initially joyful. I was reminded of incidents and people I hadn't thought about in decades. I saw class pictures that instantly brought back vivid memories — some good, some not so good. The more I read, the wider my smile grew. I saw references to long-forgotten teachers made by equally unrecalled classmates. The conversations were cheerful, misty-eyed chronicles of times gone by. It was very sweet and sentimental and — as much as you might not believe it — I can be a pretty sentimental guy. Yes, I can!

One particular comment thread that I followed exuded endless and unwavering praise for a particular sixth grade teacher named Mr. Waggoner. "He was my favorite!," was the general consensus, with others offering more personal details. 

"He was an inspiration!"

"He was so cool!"

"He taught me so much!"

...and on and on and on. Mr. Waggoner was a big, barrel-chested he-man with coiffed hair, thick sideburns and a flashy wardrobe right out of Hollywood. He sported huge-knotted neckties to complement his fashionable wide-lapeled sport jackets. His pearly-white smile melted the hearts of his female students and their moms alike. The boys appreciated (and were maybe a bit envious of) his rough-and-tumble persona and rugged appearance. Needless to say, the guy was well-loved and made quite a long-lasting impression.

I, however, did not have Mr. Waggoner for a teacher. My teacher, that year, was a first-year, unsure, awkward young lady who looked as though she had stepped off the set of To Sir with Love. But, I often saw Mr. Waggoner walking the halls, his chest puffed out and a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses perched on his head for easy accessibly in case his services were required for schoolyard duty in the bright sunshine.

As I read the comments and endless accolades for Mr. Waggoner, I scowled to myself. I had a different impression of the beloved teacher. My memory was formed years after I had left elementary school. My memory was just as vivid as those cherished by a bunch of nearly sixty year-olds, now frequenting Facebook for a chance to relive their youth.

I graduated from high school in 1979. During my high school years, I made friends with some people who attended my elementary school, but I did not know them then. Sure, I maintained relationships with those that I had known since first grade, but the more "open" atmosphere allowed for more outreaching friendships. My best friend in high school was Alan. Alan and I were nearly inseparable for four years. Alan was a student at my elementary school, but our friendship didn't meld until high school. 

The day after graduation, Alan and I thought it would be fun to visit our elementary school. Despite nursing mild hangovers, Alan and I gathered up our newly-acquired yearbooks and headed to a school whose hallways we had not darkened in years. We effortlessly entered the school, as it was 1979 — years before rampant school shootings and terrorist attacks required prison-like security measures. Nobody gave us a second look as we roamed the hallways — hallways that appeared much smaller and compact than they did in our collective memories. We looked through the narrow glass window of each classroom door until we spotted a teacher we recognized. Finally, at the end of a top-floor hallway, we saw Mr. Waggoner at the front of his classroom. We brazenly knocked on the door. He opened the door with a grin and invited us into his classroom. Mr. Waggoner looked nearly the same as we had remembered, except for a few gray hairs now mingling with the jet black ones at his temples. He was still wearing up-to-the-minute fashions and he still had a brilliant smile. Mr. Waggoner introduced us to his classroom as two former students, although neither Alan nor I had him for a teacher. I remember being taken aback by how little sixth-graders were. We thought we were "hot shit" in sixth grade and now we stood before a roomful of veritable babies!

Mr. Waggoner offered "congratulations" as he took a yearbook from one of us and began thumbing through the hefty volume. He was perusing the glossy pages when he suddenly stopped on a large, candid photograph of a particularly attractive female classmate. Mr. Waggoner pointed to her ample breasts and made an extremely — and I mean EXTREMELY — inappropriate remark in a low voice that only Alan and I could hear. Here he was, in front of a classroom filled with 11 year-olds, speaking to two 18 year-old former students and yet, still felt compelled to make a macho locker-room comment of an overtly sexual nature. 

This incident happened 41 years ago and I still think about it as though it happened yesterday. 

So, I as a new member of my elementary school's group, I related my story in direct contrast to popular opinion. Yeah, I knew it was probably a mistake as soon as I clicked the "post" button, but I never claimed to be a genius. Within a minute, I got a reply telling me that my post was inappropriate. I understand that the group was made up of an overwhelming majority of folks who have only the fondest memories of Mr. Waggoner and can't possibly face the fact that he is not the sainted figure they remember... that someone else may have a different opinion. Soon, the chastising replies directed at me came thick and fast. I deleted my original post and possibly learned my lesson. Although I still comment here and there in this group, I have not participated in any further conversation regarding Mr. Waggoner.

Just this week, a member of my elementary school's Facebook group announced that Mr. Waggoner had passed away at the age of 88. The outpouring of grief and love was astounding, with dozens of people offering memories of a beloved figure, so influential in their lives.

No. I did not comment.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

promises something for everyone

Boy, do I miss going on a cruise. Actually, my wife really misses going on a cruise, but she begins her lamenting as soon as our current cruise pulls into home port. As much as I love cruising, I at least wait until there is a worldwide pandemic to begin thinking of how much I miss cruising.

I remember when Mrs. Pincus booked our first cruise way back in 2013. I was not really happy with the thought of spending a week floating in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of strangers — playing shuffleboard, participating in some sort of dance class by the pool and wearing a tuxedo to dine at the Captain's Table. You see, my only frame of reference for going on a cruise came from The Love Boat.

From 1977 until 1986, I relished in the exotic locales, cheesy plotlines and familiar crewmembers that flashed across my television screen on a weekly basis — sometimes taking twice its allotted hour-long time slot to tell a tale filled with more intrigue than normal. I knew the Pacific Princess inside and out — from the split-level dining room, to the Acapulco Lounge to the secluded Pirates Cove where one could find a sympathetic ear from Isaac, apparently the sole bartender aboard. The staterooms depicted on The Love Boat were spacious and luxurious, decked out with full curtain-and-valance ensembles, wall-sized paintings and king-size beds (or twins with two feet of maneuvering space between). There was a large dresser and a bureau (those are two separate pieces of furniture) and a full bathroom with a door that doesn't hit anything when opened. Guests would regularly invite other guests into their cabin for drinks, hors d'oeuvres, hanky-panky or climbing into a two-piece horse costume to fool a couple of kids. 

On my first cruise, I mistook the corridor to access our room for a "staff-only" passageway, due to its narrow span and the tiny doors that lined its walls. The actual room — once I wedged our suitcases through the door — was closet-like in size with just a few inches of buffer between the bed and the adjacent walls. The bathroom was bisected by a thin curtain that served (unsuccessfully, we would later discover) to contain the shower water from entering the rest of the room. The streamlined toilet jutted out awkwardly from a wall, its jet-engine flushing mechanism activated by a small button an inch above the unit, alongside an ominous sign warning that flushing should only be attempted with the lid closed. I am doing my best not to say the room was so small that you had to step into the hallway to change your mind... but I fear I'm going to fail.

The dining room on The Love Boat was huge and the showroom was tiny with a small stage jammed with musicians, barely leaving enough room for Charo to shake her cuchi-cuchis. There appeared to be just three bars on the ship — one at the pool, one in the Acapulco Lounge and the aforementioned Pirates Cove. The always jovial and accommodating Isaac Washington  seemed to man all three, even donning an eyepatch and striped tunic to match the buccaneer theming. I can tell you for a fact that if ships only had three bars, they would invariably tip over from the lopsided distribution of patron weight. The showrooms, on the other hand, are multi-deck affairs, some with stadium seating in the upper tiers and intimate booth and theater seating on the main floor. The stages are pretty elaborate, employing trap doors, hydraulic risers, props and lighting and more than enough room to contain a dozen Charos and all the cuchi-cuchi energy they could muster.

Which brings me to the other crew members. There was Burl "Gopher" Smith, the ship's yeoman purser — a position so vital that the chief purser was never seen, leaving Gopher to fumble through the cruise, chasing after Doc Bricker's cast-offs, hiding from the captain and tripping over his own feet. Doc Bricker was a baffling character. He greeted arriving passengers, assisting in checking them in and providing directions to their accommodations. He also surveyed the group for those who displayed symptoms of illness as well as those female passengers on whom he could perform a "skirt-ectomy" by the time they dock in Puerto Vallarta. I have been on eight cruises and I have never seen the ship's doctor.

Cruise director Julie McCoy — with her cockeyed smile and look of constant bewilderment — is the antithesis of every cruise director I have ever encountered. Most real-life cruise directors are pulsating balls of pure energy, injecting a feeling of fun and excitement where ever they go. They are on 24 hours a day! Some are more on than others, but all subscribe to the same basic philosophy: "The passengers must have a good time all the time!" Cruise directors are in show business and the entire ship is their stage. There is no time to have a quiet, candlelit dinner with Tony Roberts when you got a ship full drunk and uncoordinated Baby Boomers who came to dance and sing along to the best of Motown. I swear I've seen some cruise directors in two places at the same time — leading a lesson in dancing like Michael Jackson and, minutes later in another part of the ship, reading "Green Eggs and Ham" to a bunch of over-stimulated children. Besides, cruise staff are not permitted to, shall we say, "interact romantically" with the passengers. I'm pretty sure that, when you're asleep, they are below deck, fucking each other any way. The only thing that real cruise directors have in common with TV's Julie McCoy is the cocaine usage. How else can they keep up that energy?

Then there is the captain — stern but lovable Merrill Stubing. I have only seen the actual ship's captain of any ship we've sailed on when he showed up on "Pose with the Ship's Captain" picture night and during an informal question and answer session, finally debunking the theory that there are shirtless guys below deck shoveling coal into boilers like in Titanic. Otherwise, the captain is sequestered on the bridge, driving the goddamn ship! He isn't mingling with the passengers, showing them where Promenade 215 is or joking with his college professor who said he'd never amount to anything. His look-alike brother isn't boarding and he isn't laughing off "bald jokes" from his barely-competent crew. He's navigating storm-affected waters for the quickest possible route to get your pasty white ass on a beach by 10 AM tomorrow morning... of course, that's after you've downed a stack of fifteen pancakes and a couple of Sea Day Brunch Bloody Marys. See? No time to court Marion Ross or help his ship-bound daughter with her algebra homework.

According to The Love Boat, the entire ship is effortlessly managed by five crew members, a couple of whom don't really seem to do anything. Sure, Al Molinaro was an ill-tempered chef in one episode and Abe Vigoda was a beleaguered steward in another, but Isaac and Gopher seemed to be pulling double duty waiting tables. In reality, the buffet alone has hundreds of workers silently putting out more food for the perpetually-famished diners. Others are stealthily clearing tables and sweeping up the messes left by finicky and frustrated children. Still others are behind the scenes whipping up familiar and gourmet fare on a scale that rivals a summer camp, an army base or a federal prison. The formal dining rooms are run like clockwork and never have I witnessed a waiter lose his footing and slam a multilayer cake into the captain's lap — a mishap that occurs at least once an episode.

And never have I seen someone fall into the pool fully clothed.

I miss cruising. But at least I have Love Boat as an unrelatable distraction while I'm waiting to cruise again.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

you do what you wanna do

My mom made great iced tea. She made it all the time, often four or five times a week during the hot months of the summer. Our family would drink it regularly, downing several glasses each during dinner. Even my dad, who was very particular about what he consumed — he never ate pizza and he never drank Coca-Cola — happily drank my mother's iced tea. When guests would come to our house, my mom always made sure she had a pitcher or two of her iced tea ready to be served, because she knew that someone would ask for a glass within minutes of their arrival. Even my friends would refer to my mom's iced tea as "World Famous."

Because my mom's iced tea was so downright delicious, folks would often ask for the recipe. My mom was only too happy to give the recipe — one that she concocted herself — to anyone who made the request. She would even write it down to make sure all of the ingredients and procedures were included correctly. Actually, the recipe wasn't at all complicated. But, if it wasn't followed correctly, it wouldn't taste like my mother's iced tea. 

First off, she used a brand of tea bags called "Swee Touch Nee." Back in the 1960s, this brand wasn't always readily available at our regular supermarket. Sure, they stocked it sometimes, but other times, my mom would have to hit some out-of-the-way market or smaller grocery store to track down the main component that made her iced tea her iced tea. The recipe called for ten tea bags for a half-gallon batch... and she only made it in half-gallon batches. Then, she would fill up her old reliable whistling tea kettle and set it on the stove with a full flame underneath until the high-pitched shriek — or "g'shrei from the chinik" as she'd say in Yiddish — would alert her that the water was boiling. She'd drop the ten tea bags into her big Tupperware pitcher, pour in the boiling water until the kettle was empty, then add a cup of sugar. That's right a brimming cup of full-strength, one hundred percent granulated cane sugar poured right from that familiar yellow Domino's paper sack. She'd give it a few stirs, fit the lid in place and position it front and center on the top shelf of our refrigerator. Once the refrigerator door was shut, some sort of magic happened over the next hour or so. Those few, simple ingredients mingled and melded into something so indescribably delicious that it was.... well, indescribable! And that's it! That's my mom's "world famous" iced tea recipe.

But no one could ever duplicate it. No one. Even those with the recipe. Even those who were coached on the phone — by my mom — during the actual process... they still couldn't get it right. 

Now, I ask you. Were those instructions complicated? Jeez, there are only three ingredients. Sure, one of them could prove to be a bit difficult to locate, but not impossible. Besides, if my mom could find a lesser-known brand of tea bags, any of her friends and relatives were just as capable of doing the same. For all we knew, Swee Touch Nee was the top seller at the supermarket where they shopped. And the other ingredients? Everyone had access to water and every one of my mom's friends, neighbors and relatives had a whistling tea kettle. It was the 60s, for goodness sake! It was a required piece of kitchen equipment, like the ubiquitous electric can opener/knife sharpener. So, how tough is it to boil water, pour it over some tea bags, add sugar and stick it in fridge for a few hours? Evidently, very! My mom would routinely receive phone calls from those who were disappointed, even after claiming to have followed her recipe to the letter. They'd complain that their version of the finished iced tea didn't taste the same as the contents of those tall glasses that my mom served at our house. Trying to help, my mom would run down the short list of ingredients and the relatively easy process for making her iced tea. 

"Did you use ten Swee Touch Nee tea bags?," she'd ask

"Well, I couldn't find Swee Touch Nee, so I just used Lipton. And since they are, like, double-size — y'know, those "flow-thru" like on the commercial — I just used five."

"Did you use a cup of sugar?," my mom would further question.

"Well," the reply would begin... and when a reply begins with "well," you just know it will be followed by some lengthy justification for why the original instructions were not followed. "We don't like to use sugar in our house, so I used four or five packets of Sweet 'n Low, instead."

"Did you use a half gallon pitcher?" my mom would ask.

"Well, I don't have one, so I used a glass pitcher, but I don't know how much it holds."

"Did you put it in the refrigerator for a few hours?" my mom inquired.

"Well, I wanted to see how it tasted, so I just poured it over some ice in a glass as soon as I finished mixing it up. Oh, and I put some lemon slices in it, 'cause I like lemon."

They'd usually end with: "It didn't taste like yours!"

At this point, my mom would pull the telephone receiver away from her ear, stare at it, roll her eyes and shake her head.

For years and years, she received calls from various acquaintances, who were simply baffled as to why their iced tea didn't taste like my mom's ice tea. 

After all, they didn't follow the directions.