Sunday, September 26, 2021

moving in stereo

More than a dozen years ago, my family and I stumbled upon "Bats Day," an unofficial (and I stress "unofficial") event held annually at Disneyland. We had heard about the event prior to our trip, but had no idea that years installment was happening the week we were visiting the Anaheim, California theme park. Bats Day began as an informal group outing among a few friends from the Southern California enigmatic goth community. In each successive year, the numbers of attendees grew and grew exponentially until — the year we attended — the official count (of the unofficial event) had bloomed to the thousands. My family and I ended up returning to Disneyland for several consecutive years there after. It was a  wonderful time. We met some great friendly people and had a lot of fun.

One of the most fun aspects of Bats Day (for us, at least) was seeing the self-proclaimed "Happiest Place on Earth".... inhabited?.... infested?... overrun? by some of the most malevolent-looking characters you've ever seen. Let me clarify.... These folks are, in no way, mean, angry, hurtful, threatening nor any other thing you may surmise by their appearance. They are people just like you and me. It's just that their wardrobe features a noticeable lack of bright colors. Sure, they fancy dark clothing and sport dark make-up. They like skulls and bats and blood-splattered designs. But they are family people and positive, productive contributors to society. I got a real kick out of seeing "Mr. & Mrs. Average Disneyland Visitor" trying to make heads-or-tails out of the goings-on at their beloved theme park.

I was never part of a "group" like this. When we attended Bats Day, we dressed the part, but it was like Hallowe'en in the middle of summer* for us. For the overwhelming majority, they wore what they would wear everyday. This made me think.... what if you really wanted to be "goth" but didn't like the "accepted" accoutrements associated with "goths?" What if you wore all black clothing, but didn't care to listen to Bauhaus or Sisters of Mercy. What if you dyed your hair pitch black, had an array of skull tattoos up and down each arm, but enjoyed the cheery sounds of Britney Spears over the dirginess of Souixsie and the Banshees. What if you liked rainbow and pastel hues to adorn your clothing? Would they kick you out?

The same goes for the stereotypical bikers. You own a Harley, but you don't care much for denim jackets with the sleeves ripped off. Are you obligated to go "all in" just to hang with members of the group? What about the reverse? What if you "dressed the part" — leather jacket, long scraggily beard, ponytail gathered in five places by rubber bands, knee-high buckle-and-chain bedecked boots — but drove a Toyota Celica? Would you be accepted? Or would you be deemed as mocking them or labeled a "poser?"

Last weekend, my wife and I went to a craft bazaar (bizarre?) held at an historic Philadelphia cemetery. Touted as the "Market of the Macabre," the event boasted a collection of vendors selling homemade crafts of a decidedly wicked nature. The advertisement for the event encouraged "appropriate dress and costumes." Let me tell you.... the attendees did not disappoint! There were top hats and spider-decorated parasols and fishnet stockings and, as one would expect, a plethora of lurid tattoos on proud display. Again, it looked like an early Hallowe'en exhibit, but — to most of these people — it was just another Saturday in the cemetery. Knowing full well what visuals I was expecting, I was intrigued by a sight of two fellows I saw when we parked our car on a street in the surrounding neighborhood. These two guys checked all the boxes for the stereotypical participant in a marketplace in a graveyard. Except for their vehicle. They wore black... CHECK! Their shirts were emblazoned with some obscure band name and embellished with flames and skulls and demons... CHECK! Their arms were suitably inked... CHECK! But, wait just a second.... they had arrived in a white Volkswagen sedan.... the same kind of car your neighbor drives to the train station every morning to continue his commute to his office job at VersaTech Industries where he serves as the Assistant Vice-President in charge of Logistical Logistics. Not the kind of car you'd expect these dudes to be driving. I suppose they were parking far enough away just in case their friends saw them exiting this four-wheeled embarrassment. Was there really something wrong with the car they were driving? Did I secretly expect everyone to arrive in a hearse?

Or perhaps I was just stuck in my own narrow-minded, pre-conceived stereotype.

*Bats Day has since moved to May.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

teacher, teacher

My third grade teacher died last year. The news came to me via a Facebook group — of which I am a member — that concerns itself with memories about the elementary school I attended. According to the announcement, my third grade teacher was 93 years old. I found this to be particularly thought-provoking. When she was my teacher in 1970, I was pretty sure that she was 93 years old then. I made quick use of a calculator and my rudimentary math skills revealed that she was actually 43 at the time — just a few years younger than my mother. 

I remember when I was assigned to her class — as determined by my final report card of second grade — my heart sank. Rumors ran rampant within the school about my third grade teacher's disposition, especially towards the male students in her class. She was a "miss," and tales were told of how she hated men. The boys in her class often felt the wrath of her misandristic leanings. I worried all summer about what third grade would be like and if I would survive.

I distinctly remember beginning third grade. I remember my teacher as a towering, imposing fearsome, figure. She rarely smiled, usually sporting a scowl. She wore old-fashioned looking dresses and big, clunky, black shoes like my grandmother wore. She wore her silver gray hair in a no-nonsense, easy-to-maintain bowl cut. She was a firm (borderline cruel) disciplinarian with zero tolerance for passing notes or whispering between students. Every Hallowe'en, she greeted students at the door of her classroom wearing a huge woven wicker mask that completely obscured her face. She wielded a large straw broom which he used to whack each student on the ass as they passed across the classroom threshold. Every St. Partick's Day, you had better be goddamned sure you were wearing something green, lest you succumb to the ire of my third grade teacher, who was of proud Irish ancestry. I don't remember any particular lesson from my third grade class. No piece of information that stuck with me for the rest of my life. No special bit of knowledge that could guarantee me the grand prize in a round of cruise ship trivia. (I learned state capitals in fourth grade. I still know those.) I only remember not liking the class or the teacher.

The announcement posted to my elementary school's Facebook group was just this week, My teacher had passed away in April 2020, but, due to the social limitations imposed by the global COVID-19 pandemic, a proper funeral service was not held. The post noted a date in September 2021 when family and friends could safely gather to honor the memory of their beloved sister, stepmother, grandmother, aunt, great-aunt and — yes — teacher. 

She taught at the elementary school for 45 years, so, of course, the post was overflowing with positive, sometimes gushy, comments from former students expressing their fond memories of this teacher. 

Until they weren't.

After scrolling through a dozen or so glowing sentiments, I stopped at one comment that was posted by a name I recognized as one of my classmates. 
"Unfortunately I had a very different experience with her. She had a mean streak, she put me in the corner and told me save my hot air for the clarinet."

This was followed by several more comments elaborating on more less-than-stellar behavior from my third grade teacher. Memories that were more in line with my own memories of her class. One student even told of an evidently traumatic experience when my third grade teacher confiscated one of his Matchbox cars and held on to it until the last day of school. These folks are now sixty years old, but these incidents have stuck with them their entire lives.

I find it interesting that so many people can have so many varying memories of the same person in relatively the same situation. Or perhaps a lot of these people have skewed memories, altered by the fact that they are talking about someone who is now dead. There's a old expression — "Don't speak ill of the dead." A lot of people subscribe to that conviction. Eulogies become very sweet and flowery for someone who was a total jerk when they walked the earth. What is it about death that washes away the bad behavior and awful temperament someone exhibited in life. I have been to many funerals where I heard final words delivered by someone who either never met the deceased or was fed a bunch of bullshit by family members trying to grab at one last effort to cast their loved one in a positive light. 

A few brave souls on Facebook, under the guise of anonymity, voiced their true feelings about someone's beloved teacher. Feelings I also share. Was it the correct forum to do so? Maybe.... or maybe not. Nevertheless, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Especially an impression that lasts fifty years.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

picture book

In 2007, I started working at my first real office job. This was at a mid-size, East coast law firm. Sure, I had worked in "offices" before, but this time I had my very own office. It wasn't much bigger than a closet, with just enough space to snugly fit a desk, a chair and a couple of narrow bookshelves, which — over the course of the dozen years I worked there — I managed to fill with hundreds of little knick-knacks, action figures, wind-ups and all sorts of odds & ends to give the appearance of the workspace of a six-year old.

When I arrived at my new job, I found a corkboard on the wall of my office that had belonged to the previous occupant. There were a few business cards and outdated memos tacked up in the corners, along with a pin-back button proudly proclaiming a participant in the "Philly READS" program. With a little investigation, I discovered that "Philly READS" was a partnership with area businesses to promote reading among elementary school students. Once per week, participating students were brought in to area offices where volunteer readers (i.e. office rank & file) read appropriate age-level books to said students. It's a mutually beneficial experience in that workers do something for the community and the students hopefully develop a love for reading. In a very un-Josh Pincus-like action, I signed myself up for the upcoming Philly READS session that was scheduled to begin in a week or so. Some of my new co-workers, who had already discovered my cynical, sardonic and sarcastic side, were quite surprised by my initiative. I can honestly say, I was surprised, as well.

On the first day of the Philly READS session, my fellow reading volunteers made their way into the law firm's large library that was housed on the 38th floor of a Philadelphia office building. Soon, a single-file line of the tiniest humans were led in by their teacher, a cheerful vivacious young woman who didn't resemble any teacher I had in elementary school. She read from an official-looking sheet of paper and called out each student's name, followed by the name of one of my fellow office workers. These would be the permanent pairings for reading for as long as the multi-week session lasted. The teacher called out my name and I raised my hand. She smiled at me and guided a little girl in my direction. 

"This is Melody.," she said.

I smiled and said "Hi there, Melody." As I offered a little wave of my hand. Melody shyly shuffled her little feet as she stood behind the teacher. She didn't look at me.

The teacher said, "This is Josh." Melody didn't care. 

I pointed to a nearby table where several other student-worker pairs had already taken seats and began reading their chosen books in hushed tones. 

Yeah! Look at 'em go!
"Over here, Melody." I said. Melody took off her puffy coat, revealing an outfit of mismatched colors. She climbed up on a chair and produced a book from her backpack. She slid it across the table in my direction. So far, she had not spoken a word. I looked at the title and immediately recognized it  Curious George Visits the Zoo. It was one of my son's favorites and I read it to him often when he was a child.  I hadn't read it in years though, as my son — at this time — was in his sophomore year at college. I opened the book and began to read. Melody finally looked at me as I read, but still didn't utter a word.

This particular entry in the Curious George canon is fairly short. I evidentially plowed though the entire story at pretty speedy clip, leaving a lot of time until the session was over. I looked at Melody. Melody looked around the library, seeming to consciously not want to make eye contact with me. An idea popped into my head. I grabbed a blank piece of paper from the tray of a nearby copier and started drawing little doodles that I thought might amuse Melody. I drew a close approximation of Spongebob Squarepants from memory. At the time, Spongebob was a pretty popular cartoon character among children Melody's age... I supposed. Melody studied my pen strokes as the character began to take shape. As I drew his spindly legs and protruding teeth, Melody spoke her first word to me.

"Squidward!," she said.

We're ALL Squidward.
Hmmm..... maybe I'm not as good as I thought
, I wondered to myself. I didn't exactly correct her. I just said, "That's Spongebob." She looked at me as though I was speaking a foreign language. I continued to draw, this time, attempted to capture Spongebob's pal Patrick. When I finished, Melody identified Patrick as "Squidward." I frowned. I tried again, now actually taking a crack at Squidward, seeing as his likeness had been sort-of requested. Melody correctly guessed "Squidward" this time, although technically I was baiting her. By this time, Melody's teacher announced for the students to line up for their return trip to school. I helped Melody on with her coat and waved "goodbye" to her. She beelined to the gathering group of students. She did not return my wave.

The next week — and for every subsequent week — Melody brought Curious George Visits the Zoo for me to read to her. I never questioned. I just read the book, Over the course of the Philly READS session, Melody slowly, slowly, opened up. She began to smile and react to the silly I voices I supplied for the different characters in the book. She began to talk a little. She would get a piece of paper for me to draw pictures for her. She still called everything I drew "Squidward," but I didn't care. Or maybe everything I drew just looked like Spongebob's tentacled pal to her.

One day, after I had finished reading Curious George Visits the Zoo and began drawing pictures, Melody — out of nowhere and totally unprompted — said "My dad shot my mom."

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! was all I heard in my head.

"What?" I asked. Melody repeated the same five words in the same, matter-of-fact tone. She continued to look down, paying close attention to a little drawing that she was doing on her own. She didn't elaborate on her jarring statement and I sure as hell wasn't going to press for details. I just drew my little pictures and Melody just tagged each one "Squidward" — same as always. I didn't question her teacher or other students or anyone. I just let it go.

Soon summer approached and the school year was coming to an end. As an end-of-program special treat, the readers were invited to visit the student's school for reading, pizza and a little surprise entertainment. We were bussed to the school which was not too far from our office. In the classroom, each reader took a seat next to their student partner's desk. We read our books. (Guess which one we read?) Afterwards, the students, as a group, sang a little song and then we all ate pizza. When the final session was over. I said "goodbye" to Melody, telling her it was a pleasure to read to her for the past few months.

Melody hugged me.

I never participated in Philly READS for the remaining decade-plus that I worked at the law firm. Nothing could have topped that.

(Just a quick footnote, Melody is probably 21 by now.)

Sunday, September 5, 2021

our love's in jeopardy (finale)

I usually don't weigh in on topical subjects until the subject is no longer topical. Today, I will make an exception.

I love watching Jeopardy!, the game show with a twist, where contestants offer the questions to match up with provided answers. Jeopardy! appears in syndication in most television markets paired with Wheel of Fortune. This is an interesting coupling. These two shows appeal to two entirely different audiences. Most people who watch Wheel of Fortune dislike Jeopardy! — mostly because they can't answer a single question. Wheel of Fortune doesn't require the intellect that most Jeopardy! contestants posses. All you really need to do is be able to identify letters and read, something that 90% of Wheel of Fortune contestants are capable of doing. Jeopardy! requires a vast knowledge of many subjects and the ability of quick recall. As a long-time trivia fanatic, I find I can answer a decent amount of questions on any given episode of Jeopardy! The ones I can't answer, I take as a learning experience.

I remember watching Jeopardy! in its first incarnation in the 1960s. This initial version was hosted by Art Fleming, a typical game show host in the mold of contemporaries like Wink Martindale, Bill Cullen and Dennis James. My mom — a whiz at trivia herself — would take time out of her morning of laundry and vacuuming to add to her knowledge of "World Geography" and "Potent Potables." On days when I was home from school with the sniffles (either real or imagined), my mom and I would watch Jeopardy! together over a cup of healing tea and plate of dry toast. The ever-cheerful Art Fleming would smile, introduce the contestants, read the "answers," recap the scores, congratulate the champion and console the losers and bid the television-viewing audience a fond "Good Day" at the end of 22 minutes, not including commercials. Jeopardy! ran from 1964 until 1975. It was brought back in 1978 as All-New Jeopardy! but was canceled after five months due to unpopular (and downright confusing) changes in format. The unnecessary tinkering with the game play prompted Art Fleming to turn down the offer to host when the show was revived in 1984. Scrambling for a new host, show creator Merv Griffin (yes, that Merv Griffin) took the advice of his friend Lucille Ball (yes, that Lucille Ball) and hired up-and-coming game show host Alex Trebek.

On September 10, 1984, a bright and colorful Jeopardy! premiered in syndication with host Alex Trebek. Trebek expressed in interviews that he insisted on being introduced as the host of Jeopardy!, not the star. He humbly explained that the game was the star and he was merely there to keep things moving. However, after three decades, Trebek seemed to have changed his mind, often injecting personal opinions into contestant interviews and overly berating contestants on wrong answers. One could say he earned that right after so long. I would not and I often found Trebek's behavior distracting in a "steal the spotlight" sort of way. His eye-rolling, snide remarks and sometimes mean retorts were very unbecoming. But it certainly wasn't enough to get me to stop watching Jeopardy! 

In 2019, Alex Trebek announced that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (coincidentally, the same type of cancer that claimed the life of Art Fleming in 1995). While fans of the show were sent reeling at the inevitable loss of the beloved Alex Trebek, the "elephant in the room" needed to be addressed — "Who would be Alex Trebek's successor?" When he passed away in November 2020, enough episodes had already been filmed to take the show into the new year. From January until the summer of 2021, Jeopardy! was hosted by a long parade of guests from all sorts of backgrounds. There were actors and newscasters and reporters and former Jeopardy! contestants, even a sports figure and a sportscaster were among the mix. Their "auditions" lasted one or two weeks and, thanks to the power of social media, there was a daily consensus on how each one fared. I watched each guest host and, with one exception, found them to be — well... completely unremarkable. And that's a good thing. I don't watch Jeopardy! for the host. I watch for the show. The show is the star of the show, just like Alex Trebek originally asserted. Each guest host had their quirks, their strengths and weaknesses. I remember that Today Show co-host Savannah Guthrie behaved as though Jeopardy! was a brand-new show that no one in the country had ever seen before, prompting her to over-explain every single move that was made by everyone. (In her defense, perhaps she herself had never seen Jeopardy! because of the early hour in which she has to get to bed in order to wake up to host an early morning news program.) 

I was actually unimpressed by the majority of the guest hosts. Any one of them would have been fine with me, with the exception of "Doctor" (and I use the term very,
very loosely) Mehmet Oz. He was unbearable. He was cocky, condescending and thoroughly annoying. He commented on nearly every response (right or wrong) and made the contestant interviews all about him. "Doctor" (and again, I use the term very, very loosely) Oz and his outrageous claims regarding various medical issues specifically the COVID-19 pandemic, was (in my opinion) a poor choice by the Jeopardy! producers. The show serves as a 30-minute escape from the daily grind. Controversy has no place in a game show, especially a popular one.

After all of the prospective hosts had their time in the spotlight, the announcement came that the Jeopardy! baton had been passed to Mike Richards, the show's executive producer. Almost immediately, the internet lit up with disapproval. Complaints flooded all social media outlets, voicing dismay — and disgust — with the decision. Folks campaigned for reconsideration of their favorites among the passed-over candidates. Others vowed never to watch the show again if Mike Richards is the host. Within a day or so, however, Mike's past unsavory behind-the-scenes antics came back to — as they say — bite him in the ass. It seems that "Who is a creepy asshole?" would be the correct question to the answer "Mike Richards." Richards stepped down while filming episodes for the new season and second runner-up, actress Mayim Bialik, took over as "interim guest host." Oh yes, Jeopardy! fans, the search continues.

Personally, I don't care who hosts Jeopardy! I really don't. And honestly, you probably don't either. Did you really tune in every evening to see Alex Trebek? Did you wonder what pithy words of wisdom he would offer? No, of course not. You tuned in to see how smart you are by answering some questions. Or perhaps you'd learn something about the Galapagos Islands or Marie Curie that you didn't know before. You watched to wind down after a day at work or dealing with your neighbors or a particularly trying hour in the dentist's chair. In the big scheme of things, does it really matter who reads those questions or recaps the scores or bids you "Good day until tomorrow"? 

No. It really doesn't.

Unless it's Dr. Oz.