Sunday, March 28, 2021

all things must pass

Passover begins this weekend. You know when you watch Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments and you think it's somehow connected to Easter, because — after all — ABC shows it every year around Easter time? Well, it's actually about Passover.

Passover is a time for renewal, as in an "out with the old, in with the new" sort-of fashion. As the tradition goes, all of the food you currently have in your house has to be consumed or disposed of prior to the start of Passover. Then, new food that is certified as "Kosher for Passover" is purchased and eaten during the eight days of the holiday. (They tell me it lasts eight days, but I'm convinced it rages on longer than that.) On the night before Passover begins, families stage a ritual "search for chametz" in their homes. Chametz is any food that is not deemed Kosher for Passover. As part of the tradition, a small amounts of chametz are placed around various rooms in the home. Then, a "search" is conducted using a pre-assembled "chametz kit," which includes:
  • a candle to light the way during the search (as it is performed with the lights out — oooh! spooky!)
  • a feather to "sweep" the chametz once it is located
  • a wooden spoon, which acts as a dustpan to catch the chametz once swept
  • a paper bag, to contain the chametz... sort of like a primitive version of the trap from Ghostbusters.
Some sort of appropriate prayer is recited prior to the search and at the conclusion. The sealed bag of collected chametz is placed by the front door and, the next morning, is taken to some community location (a synagogue or such) for — get this — burning. Years ago, when our son was younger and when I was much, much more observant in my faith, we would actively and sincerely reenact this tradition every year. My son and I, with yarmulkes perched atop our heads, would methodically move from room to room in our house. As a representation of the chametz in our house, I would leave little piles of cereal or crackers strategically placed in the rooms where we most likely ate food over the course of the past year. I would lead the way, illuminating our path with the lit candle. My son would wield the spoon and feather, dutifully sweeping up each discovery of chametz and insuring that each morsel made it into the gaping mouth of the paper bag. When our search was completed, we would gather in the kitchen where Mrs. Pincus would intone the magical words of prayer as I wrapped a rubber band around the paper bag as a final secure seal.

The next morning, we'd head over to my in-law's house, where my father-in-law would set up "Chametz Central" and the final leg of the ritual would commence. He'd drag out an age worn metal garbage can lid — rusty and discolored from years of chametz burning. I'm fairly sure this was the actual vessel in which Moses and his family burned their chametz before they headed out through the desert with those hunks of unleavened bread. Each of our families' bags were deposited in the center of the inverted lid. My father-in-law would douse the bags with way too much lighter fluid and — like a seasoned arsonist — he'd casually flick a lit match into the dead center. Then he'd say some different magic words of prayer and we'd watch the flames grow and rise and die down. Then, we'd go to our respective jobs and schools.

Over the years, my interest in organized religion has waned considerably. I don't attend any type of religious services and I don't care to participate in anything remotely religion-related. With our son now living in his own house, I reluctantly, though obligingly, agree to searching for chametz (out of respect for Mrs. P). I quickly rush through the process, but I will not attend the burning portion at my in-law's house. However, this year, Mrs. Pincus — who has clearly been corrupted by nearly four decades of exposure to the subversive ways of Josh Pincus — suggested a different commodity be substituted for our usual chametz-representing Cheerios... you I know, to shake things up. She suggested unpopped popcorn kernels. I immediately lit up, envisioning the scenario that would occur the next morning when my unsuspecting father-in-law tossed that match onto the fuel-soaked bags and the fire got going. We actually giggled at the possibly of injecting a little noisy surprise into an otherwise solemn ritual — and maybe even briefly rattling my usually pious and traditional father-in-law.

So, we searched for unpopped popcorn kernels sprinkled throughout our house. My wife said her little prayers and I snickered as I wound a rubber band around the paper bag.

The next morning, we arrived for the final steps of the chametz-search. We dropped our bag alongside my father-in-law's bagged spoils from his search the evening before. He squeezed out a few drops of lighter fluid across the tops of the bags and, after some initial difficultly, ignited the bags on the fifth match-striking attempt. At this point, I would like to report that, after an eerie quiet, our bag erupted in a hail of violent, uncontrolled explosions — spewing popcorn shrapnel in all directions from the raging flames. I'd like to report that my poor startled father-in-law was immediately taken aback in horror and alarm, as my wife and I mischievously cackled in delight.

I'd like to say all that, but I can't.

The popcorn had been sitting in our kitchen cupboard for a few years. It had no doubt lost whatever it is that makes popcorn pop. So, as the flames grew and our anticipation grew more — a single kernel emitted a single, feeble, debilitated pop. Actually, it didn't even warrant the word "pop" as a valid description. My wife and I exchanged disappointed looks. By this time, my father-in-law had already lost interest.

Happy Passover everyone. Maybe next year.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

don't deny your inner child

I stumbled across The Dead Milkmen by accident... when I was young. 

I was a hopeful art student in 1982, on my way to my menial job of scooping ice cream in an effort to supplement the small student loan I had to contract in order to pay my tuition. Making my way to my job on Philadelphia's notorious South Street, I spotted a simple, single-color, hand-drawn flyer crookedly tacked to a wall near 6th and Lombard, adjacent to the entrance of Levis', the legendary purveyor of hot dogs since 1895. The black & white manifesto expounded on the so-called "serrated edge" philosophy that seemed to be the core of the Dead Milkmen's vision. The grinning cartoony cow — with equally-cartoony "X"s over its eyes — belied an underlying sarcastic tone to the whole thing. At the bottom of the flyer was revealed its true purpose. There was an address and an offer to send for a cassette tape of a collection of songs — recorded in a suburban barn by the Milkmen themselves. "Count me in!," I thought to myself, "These smartasses are my kind of smartasses!" I was a fan of the current trends in pop-punk music (or punk-pop music, depending on which sub-genre is most prevalent) and The Dead Milkmen instantly appealed to me. When I got home that night, I quickly dashed off a check (in the quaint pre-Venmo days) to the Dead Milkmen for my very own sampling of their music, sending it along with a lengthy note — hand-embellished with my own satirical artwork — questioning their philosophy, their outlook, their hopes and dreams and other topics of which I feigned interest. A week or so later, I received a copy  well-wrapped to prevent possible shipping damage — of Death Rides a Pale Cow. The cover photo — a many-times Xeroxed image of a cow — told me that this was to be a smarmy continuation of the humorously rambling dissertation contained on that flyer I saw on a South Philly wall. And, sure enough, The Dead Milkmen didn't disappoint. I played that cassette in my lesser-priced GE version of the Sony Walkman until the magnetically-coated, polyester tape stretched thin. I turned my musically ignorant friends on to the high-octane (and high camp) wonders of Labor Day and Beach Party Vietnam. In a concerted effort to lure them from the hypnotic repetitiveness of A Flock of Seagulls and the faux romanticism of Culture Club, I blasted Veterans of a Fucked Up World with only their enlightenment on my mind. I was young, snotty and angry... but I wasn't "The Adicts" angry. I was Dr. Demento angry.

The Dead Milkmen were the personification of my youth. Rough. Arrogant. Funny... even if they were the only ones who thought they were funny. Their songs were sarcastic little commentaries on things that society held dear. They sang about stuff I drew and I drew stuff they sang about. 

It's a funny thing, though. As much as I loved The Dead Milkmen — and I loved them! — I didn't get to see them perform live until 2014. That's right, 32 years after I first saw their silly flyer stuck to a brick wall with a bunch of other flyers. However, I made up for it, because I saw them perform in a cemetery. Just after that show, I began to follow and interact with the surviving members of the band on several social media platforms (Sadly, original bassist Dave Blood took his own life in 2004). Guess what? Things change when you grow old.

Guitarist and co-vocalist Joe Jack Talcum's presence on social media is pretty sporadic as compared to his bandmates. Joe mostly announces upcoming small gigs, displays his art and gets tagged in a slew of Facebook posts of videos that are decidedly uncharacteristic of a member of the Dead Milkmen.

Dean Clean, the drummer for the Dead Milkmen, posts a lot pictures of his musical equipment. Sure, most musicians like to show off their cool new toys. Evidentially, Dean owns a wide variety of gadgets and gizmos replete with dials and lights and knobs and jacks in to which other gizmos can be plugged. But, Dean also shares the beautiful results of his prowess behind the stove. Dean, as it turns out, is quite the food aficionado, capturing close-up shots of an inviting backyard grill or an artsy perspective of a perfectly arranged charcuterie board. During the summer of 2020, when everyone was huddled in their homes fearful of the looming coronavirus, Dean asked for fan's addresses via Instagram. Those who responded were treated to a limited edition, hand-drawn postcard from the same guy who kept the pounding backbeat on Life is Shit.

Most of my Dead Milkmen interaction is with Rodney Anonymous. Rodney often hosts live Instagram "reports," walking through his South Philadelphia neighborhood and divulging little known facts about locations regularly passed by and ignored by pedestrians. He also speaks out about issues that face folks of ... shall we say... a certain age. Rodney is also a fan of my television watching habits, as is evidenced by the "likes" he gives to my regular posts of "screen shots" from fifty year old sitcoms. Based on the reruns I watch and the approvals he gives, we lived parallel lives in front of the family "boob tube" in our formative years. On occasion, I will serve up a playful shot at Rodney about his punk rock salad days... and he accepts my good-natured jibes like a sport. He also likes when I post cat pictures.

Collectively, The Dead Milkmen host an online Q & A on YouTube, on which they talk about a wide range of subjects and answer burning questions from their now-senior fanbase. It is essentially four guys, approaching their twilight years, discussing things while they nurse a cup of coffee at the neighborhood diner... except they're on Zoom.

I have suddenly (and reluctantly) come to the realization that I am old, my contemporaries are old and my heroes are old. We all get old. And even if we try to avoid mirrors, there are mirrors all around us. I still fancy myself that rebellious kid with vinegar in his veins, ready to take on the big, bad oppressive world. But when I look in an actual mirror, I see a white haired man, very reminiscent of my father. It's okay, though, because there's an old expression — one I heard used by my parents and grandparents and other assorted old people: "You're as young as you feel." 

I finally understand exactly what that means.

Note: After I finished writing this, I saw Sting delivering clues on "Jeopardy!" Now I really know what that means.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

the french inhaler

After being stuck in the house for a full year, I seem to write only about food or television. Well, to be honest, that is pretty much all that goes on around here. I eat food and watch television. So, until I leave the house, get used to it. It's gonna be one or the other.

By the way, this one is about food.

I remember going with my mother to a McDonald's near my house to pick up dinner. It was usually a summer night when my mom didn't feel like cooking. My father — a simple guy who turned his nose up at "fancy food" — was just as happy to have a Big Mac and fries for dinner... just as long as it wasn't every night. He expected my mom to cook on most nights. Getting food from McDonald's every once in a while was okay, as long as my mother didn't make it a habit. Not that my mother was in fear of my father. She wasn't. It's just that in those days of the late 60s to early 70s, husbands expected to find their wives "slaving over a hot stove" when they came home from work. Lucky for my father, my mom actually enjoyed cooking. And his imagined status a "King of the Castle" remained in tact. On the days my mom wasn't motivated to cook, my father yielded to McDonald's as a gesture of his benevolence. My mom picking it up was — in his mind — him still running things with an iron fist. In reality, my mom didn't mind going. And she liked to drive.

One of the best parts about going to McDonald's with my mom was the extra order of fries she would get for drive home. She'd order a Big Mac for my dad, one hamburger each for her, my brother and me, along with an order of French fries for each of us. Then, she'd tack on a fifth order of fries that we'd secretly share across the bench front seat of her big green Rambler. I'd steady the big bag of burgers and such on my lap and my mom would pull out a single order of fries and lay it on a paper napkin between us. We ate them all up by the time we pulled alongside the curb in front of our house. My dad and my brother were none the wiser that we had gotten a head start on dinner.

When Mrs. Pincus and I began dating, I was pleased to learn that I had found someone who shared my love of French fries. I worked at an ice cream parlor not too far from my future wife's apartment. On nights when I would work late (sometimes until one in the morning), I would stop at one of our favorite restaurants — Copa Banana on Philadelphia's storied South Street — and bring home a big order of their locally-famous Spanish fries for the two of us to share as a bedtime snack. (Sometimes, I'd even wake her up.) Copa's Spanish fries were standard thin-cut French fries smothered in grilled onions and jalapeƱo peppers... and boy! were they good! Since bringing home an order of Spanish fries became a regular practice, I started bring two orders because I was accused of (and rightly so) scarfing down more than my fair share of the fries from a single order. To this day, I still have a difficult understanding of the concept of "sharing."

In the last several years (before a worldwide pandemic brought the industry to a grinding halt), Mrs. P and I had taken a number of cruises. Along with the trivia games, the campy stage shows and the obligatory reggae cover bands, one of the things we really enjoyed about cruising was the obscene amounts of food that was available 24 hours per day. Throughout the day, ridiculous quantities of food were presented buffet-style and we took full advantage of it. I believe we started a tradition on our very
first cruise of grabbing a soup bowl full of French fries before making our way to our next scheduled activity. The fries at the ship's buffet were nothing special — probably frozen, then dropped into a constantly-operating deep fryer as needed. But, they were our comfort food and they were included in the cost of the cruise. And as we all know, the goal of any patron of a buffet is to put that place out of business. Sure, it never happens, but we all give it our darndest effort. Plus, they sure were comforting.

On more recent cruises on the Carnival line, we were treated to TV celebrity chef Guy Fieri's take on French fries, as most Carnival ships are outfitted with a Guy's Burger Joint, adjacent to the top deck pool. While we did not partake of the hamburger offerings (to be honest, they are pretty disgusting-looking heaps of sizzling grease), the French fries were pretty good. They were the "skin-on" variety that may or may not be fresh-cut on board. There were massive sacks of potatoes surrounding the open-air counter-service eatery, but they might have just been for show. Nevertheless, a plateful of fries can be dressed to your liking at the nearby condiments bar, that offers grilled onions, mushrooms, peppers and a slew of squeeze-on sauces including Guy's patented "Donkey Sauce"... whatever the fuck that is. On many a cruise, I have assembled (and subsequently wolfed down) my own version of Copa's Spanish fries. Curiously, Mrs. P, who at one time fought me for an equal share of those Catalan spuds, opts for the regular fries from the buffet. I think she just doesn't like Guy Fieri. Can't say that I blame her.

Two years ago, Mrs. P and I decided to stop eating like ten-year-olds at a birthday party and start eating like thoughtful, responsible adults. We have each eaten a large salad topped with salmon and a baked potato as our dinners for going on two years now. We have supplemented our diet by walking daily. We have both lost weight and feel better as a result. But we have also cut a lot of our favorite foods out of our diet altogether — including our beloved French fries. But, a month or so ago, Mrs. Pincus purchased an air fryer. Immediately we began experimenting with different foods and temperature settings. First, Mrs. P made potato latkes (pancakes) and they were a drippy, runny mess (although they tasted good). After a little more trial-and-error, she made dried apples and bananas. She made "fried" eggplant and mushrooms and peppers.  But, just this week, our old friends French fries made a return appearance at the Pincus household. Our usual nightly baked potato was instead sliced into wedges, sprayed with a light coating of calorie-less olive oil and popped in the marvelous air fryer for twenty or so minutes. Out came a bounty of crispy, crunchy pieces that satisfied our long unfulfilled craving for French fries. Heck, we even had to buy a bottle of ketchup for the first time in two years. They were so good, we had them again the next night and the next as well. Last night, we put a couple of sweet potatoes through the same process. They were delicious, too.

Who would have imaged that the humble French fry would play such a unifying part in my life? Where would I be without them?

Okay... now on to television.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

forget you and forget her too

I have written about my wife's eBay business several times over the years. I am very careful to preface each post with the disclaimer — actually fact — that Mrs. Pincus will not sell your stuff on eBay. I never really elaborated on the reason behind that statement, just hoping that you (the reader and possibly any friend or relative) would just take it for face value and dispense with any further cajoling, convincing or downright begging.

Well, not that I owe anyone any sort of explanation.... here's the reason why Mrs. Pincus — in my opinion, the nicest person in the world — will not sell your stuff on eBay.

Mrs. Pincus sells a wide variety of merchandise in her eBay business. Over her years in the field of retail, she developed an uncanny sense for what will sell and she has managed to use that knack to her advantage for nearly 30 years. As buying trends change and "hot products" pop up, Mrs. P is front and center, cashing in quickly and getting out just as quickly before a fad turns sour. From Cabbage Patch Kids to Pogs to Beanie Babies, Mrs. P was there at the beginning — sneaking stealthily away before interests waned.

With a child well out of the "toy-buying" age, keeping abreast of the current trends in "flavor of the month" playthings is a little trickier. However, since it is in her best interest, Mrs. Pincus keeps a sharp eye on "what's hot" and "what's not" and what the parent of an eight-year old will buy at any price. Of course, toys aren't really limited to the wants of a child. There are plenty of adults who collect any number of toy varieties (Hell, we ourselves fell into that category for years, before we unloaded our vast Disney collection via the eBay route.) 

One of the more recent trends is something called "5 Surprise." 5 Surprise is a cute line of toys that, as far as I can tell, presents a dangerous choking hazard to any child engaged in its play. The 5 Surprise line of toys consists of miniature versions of characters that kids love, like unicorns and dinosaurs. They come packaged in a sealed spherical opaque container that is divided into five segments, each one containing a different character. The buyer can't see the selection before purchasing (in what is known as "blind packaging"), making the process of collecting more exciting... or frustrating, depending on how you look at it. In addition to kid-friendly characters, 5 Surprise also offers mini versions of popular grocery items in a line called "Mini Brands." The same premise of distribution is applied, but in this case, the spheres are filled with very detailed versions of Skippy peanut butter, Dum-Dum lollipops, Hostess cupcake boxes and a whole slew of tiny doppelgangers of your favorite products from supermarket shelves. In the assortment, there are also mini shopping baskets, shopping carts and even store shelving units on which to display your little collection. Evidentially, these little gems are pretty popular and Mrs. Pincus was able to acquire a quantity of individual pieces of 5 Surprise Mini Brands, out of their packaging. She listed them on eBay and they began selling immediately. This was good, as they are pretty simple to pack and ship. Most of them measure just a few inches in size and they certainly are not breakable. Every week, Mrs. P ships five or six of these little things along with the rest of her larger eBay item shipments.

A week or so ago, she sold a 5 Surprise mini replica of a jug of Kikkoman soy sauce. As per eBay procedure, the auction ended, the high bidder paid, included a nominal pre-determined shipping fee and Mrs. Pincus dutifully sent it off on its way. The end.... or so she thought. A short time after sending the mini Kikkoman jug to its new owner, Mrs. Pincus received an irate — borderline accusatory — email from the unhappy buyer. She stated that she was very disappointed that she had only received one item, when she was expecting five items, as the auction description stated. She was further disappointed in the size of the item. She expected it to measure three-quarters of an inch tall. Then, without waiting for Mrs. Pincus to explain or offer some compromising solution to this self-imposed dilemma, she proposed her own (somewhat threatening) arrangement. She instructed Mrs. Pincus to send the additional items — free of charge — and negative feed back would not be left for this transaction. Okay.... there is a lot going on here. First - let's take a look at the original listing for this particular item.
Let's begin with that fact that this item sold for $2.99. Obviously, we are not getting filthy rich selling these, but eBay is a volume-based business. In each one of the listings for 5 Surprise items, a line was consciously added to the description for the benefit of clarifying any questions a potential buyer would have about exactly how many items would be sent to the high bidder. The line, purposely put in bold red text, reads: "Manufacturer brand name is "5 Surprise", you will receive one item." This listing also clearly states the size of the items as two inches. Another disclaimer was added for the sake of those who, for whatever reason, would think they were buying a tiny jug of soy sauce. This line, in the same bold red text but in all capital letters, informs the buyer that this "DOES NOT CONTAIN ACTUAL PRODUCT, MINIATURE REPLICA FAKE FOOD" This, of course, is to discourage anyone from following their dream of opening an Asian-style restaurant that caters exclusively to mice.

All of our angered buyer's complaints are distinctly addressed in the original auction listing. The size, the quantity, everything. Plus, all of the correspondence was tracked and recorded through eBay's messaging system, so there is a record of the entire transaction and complaint. Oh, and eBay doesn't take too kindly to what they refer to as "feedback extortion." Feedback, for those unfamiliar, is an eBay rating system that rewards sellers who offer smooth, hassle-free transactions. Buyers have learned they can threaten to leave "negative" feedback until they get what they want. This will affect a seller's rating if enough "negatives" pile up. eBay warns about this practice and discourages it at several places on their website. Mrs. Pincus prides herself on her strong positive feedback rating and does not stand for idle threats ...especially over a $2.99 item and an unscrupulous buyer. She replied to the intimidation immediately, explaining how all details were plainly stated on the listing. She went on to make it perfectly clear that no additional items would be sent and that unjust negative feedback would be reported to eBay authorities. In a subsequent email, the buyer backed off with a far different tone than previous. She thanked my wife for the item and even offered a "God bless you" as a closing salutation.

This is just one example of an annoying transaction. They don't come up often, but when they do, they take a good chunk of time to resolve. Although most resolution is quick, some stretch out for weeks or even months. Most are not the fault of Mrs. Pincus, who is very careful about how she lists items for sale and how she packs those items for shipment (she does both single-handedly). A lot of the issues are postal-related, which, of course, Mrs. P has no control over. Even with United States Postal Service package tracking, buyers contact my wife first to find out why they haven't received their precious item in the blink of an eye. All they need to do is enter their tracking information on the USPS website and they will find out when to expect their M&Ms coloring book or their unopened pack of Dick Tracy movie trading cards. (Contrary to the behavior of panicked buyers, Mrs. Pincus does not sell life-giving elixirs nor does she operate a clearing house for transplant-ready internal organs.) Instead, hysterical high bidders frantically email my wife as their first line of defense... and when she replies to get details (because she is nice), she is invariably told: "Oh, I didn't check my mailbox today. I got it. Thanks."

Beetlejuice won't sell your stuff either. 
Mrs. Pincus sells thousands of items. That's right, thousands! When one of those items sells, she gets the entire amount of the sale — less fees from eBay. And there are a lot of fees from eBay. A lot. She does one hundred percent of the work. She is entitled to reap one hundred percent of the benefits. Now, if she were to sell an item for you, she would have to create the initial listing, take and upload several photos of the item and answer any questions that buyers may have about the item. What if it is something with which she is not familiar? She would have to contact you and you would have to answer the question immediately, because eBay buyers are not a patient bunch. They don't sleep and they sit by their computers 24 hours per day, waiting for answers to their inane questions. If your item sells, Mrs. P would have to pack it securely, take it to the post office and ship it. Then, she'd have to field any subsequent questions about delays in delivery or — eek! — complaints about the item itself once it is received by a remorseful buyer. All for a small percentage of the final selling price? How much? Ten percent? Twenty percent? If your item sells for ten bucks, then Mrs. P's indispensable efforts would net her — what?two dollars? For doing all of the work while you sit on your butt and wait for the money to roll in? Would you do it? Yeah, I didn't think so.

So, while Mrs. Pincus is the nicest person in the world, a line has to be drawn somewhere. In this case, the line is drawn from eBay to you.

Any further questions?