Sunday, May 28, 2023

it's obvious

Twelve years ago, I was working in the marketing department in the main office of a national chain of an after-market auto parts supplier. I worked in a large room with a dozen other graphic designers, pumping out full-color newspaper circulars. It was a grueling process. We had to keep up with the various price changes and product switches from category leaders, along with the whims and fancies of several vice-presidents in charge of  "something or other." These guys would wander through the department and peer over the shoulders of my colleagues and me as we worked diligently on our computers, moving and adjusting our circulars, as per instructions determined in a weekly marketing meeting. In an effort to justify their jobs, a VP would — on the spot — instruct a particular artist to "change that block from red to yellow" ...only switch it back to red an hour later. This would occur on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis, forcing an artist to make a pointless change and carry said change across a dozen different demographic-specific versions. Things like changing the width of a dotted line around a coupon or flipping the positions of adjacent items in an ad were regular and anticipated changes... often made as the print deadline loomed closer. They were changes for the sake of change, mainly to reinforce the ego and control of upper management.

One day, one of my coworkers brought in a microwaveable meal for consuming in the noon hour. In the meantime, the package sat on his desk. It was a quick-serve bowl of pasta that had newly been introduced to the market. As artists often do, some of us assessed the package design and surmised a scenario for how it was created. The first thing that was noticed was a large out-of-place block on the otherwise well-designed package front that read "GREAT FOR LUNCH" in big, gaudy yellow type. The rest of the package featured a nicely-placed logo, a "beauty shot" of the fully-cooked product and a few small pictures of other available varieties of the same line. As a group, familiar with the modus operandi of a controlling VP — one who perceives himself as a "marketing genius," we figured that the design department at this particular company had just finished the final version of the packaging. Then, one of these VPs came by and insisted on the inclusion of the "GREAT FOR LUNCH" callout, reasoning that how else would anyone know it could be eaten for lunch. The designers had to scramble to change the design, staying late at the office to redo the design of every package in the line. Meanwhile, the VP went home at a normal hour and told his family: "I did marketing today!"

A dozen years later, I came across a similar scenario, leading me to believe...  nay, confirm... that some things never change and people "in charge" like to be in charge and like to let everyone know they are in charge. I ordered a box of foil wrapped, pre-moistened wipes to clean my glasses. After a few days, the package arrived. The box featured a clean, white design with the essential information presented plainly and pleasingly across the front of the box. The logo, the name of the product, how many wipes the box contained and a small row of icons indicating the various items on which the wipes could be used, besides eyeglasses. However, in capital letters in a spot of white space, were the words "IT REALLY CLEANS!" This was obviously the last-minute work of some corporate stooge who felt compelled to exercise his superior position over the lowly designers in the company's marketing department. "How will anyone know that this cleaning product really cleans unless we put it on the box?," he thought and, channeling Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments, he proclaimed "So let it be  written and so let it be done." Once again, a group of designers had to stay late at the office to implement ridiculous changes made by someone who has no business in the field of marketing.

Look, I don't claim to be an expert in marketing. I have, however, been exposed to bad marketing for over forty years. (To be fair, I've seen good marketing, too.) But, it seems that bad marketing is more wide spread. Hell, I worked in a marketing department for ten years under someone who didn't know shit from shit, yet she kept her job when I got let go.

I think that all of these so-called, self-proclaimed "marketing geniuses" should all meet for dinner at this place to discuss their various strategies.
After all, they must have the best food in town. The sign says so! Otherwise, how would people know?


Sunday, May 21, 2023

don't waste my time

I bought a new car this week. 

After serving me well for nearly 20 years, my trusty 2004 Toyota RAV4 flashed its "CHECK ENGINE" light at me for the last time. With squealing brakes and the need for who-knows-what-else, the time had come. I actually wanted to replace my RAV4 a few years ago, but supply chains were interrupted by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, leaving car dealerships with empty lots and salesmen with nothing to do. With the pandemic beginning to wane and cars slowly becoming more available, I convinced my wife to take a ride up to a nearby Subaru dealer to take a look around. This particular dealership was located just a few blocks from our house for over 30 years. When I finally expressed an interest in purchasing a Subaru, they moved to a larger facility about ten miles away.

Prior to visiting the Subaru dealership, I did a little online snooping and settled on the new Crosstrek, which is comparable in size to the RAV4. I didn't want anything too big. I was very used to the size and handling of my RAV4 and the Crosstrek seemed to fit the bill. At the dealership, I was shown the only available Crosstrek on the lot. I was offered a test drive and, after a couple of loops around the large parking lot, I was ready to fill out paperwork. The whole process went very smoothly. I made arrangements to pick my new car up on Saturday.

The next day (Friday), I called my insurance company to arrange for transfer of coverage from my old vehicle to my new one. 

When my wife and I got married, we got apartment renter's insurance from an agent in the Philadelphia suburbs. I had never gotten insurance for anything before, so I went to the insurance office where Ronald, the agent, spelled everything out for me. This was the only time I ever met my insurance agent. As the years went on, we added homeowners insurance when we bought a house, car insurance when be bought a second vehicle, life insurance as our family expanded. Unfortunately, we have had several claims over the years. Car accidents, weather-related damage to our home — all handled by our agent's assistant. She was pleasant, helpful and most of all, professional. Recently, our agent (who, again, I met one time) announced his retirement. He would be passing his clients along to another agent. Our new agent's assistant called to introduce the new office — and it was instant dislike. I don't know exactly what I didn't like about her, but I didn't like her. She was brash and overly friendly on the first phone call. She was also pushy, bringing up things like discussing rates and additional coverage. In almost 40 years, I never heard a peep form my insurance agent until I wanted something... and that was just the way I liked it.

So, on Friday afternoon, I called our new insurance agent.

"Hi," I began, "This is Josh Pincus. We have several insurance policies with your office. I will be picking up a new car tomorrow. It will be replacing the 2004 Toyota RAV 4 that is currently on my policy. What information do you need from me in order to get coverage for the new car?" Pretty straightforward, huh? After all, I had to get back to work. 

"Pincus?," she questioned, "Oh right." She paused. "Is this an additional car or are you replacing one of your cars?"

Was she even listening to me? I repeated, "This will be replacing the 2004 RAV 4. Now, my wife has a 2018 RAV4. We are keeping that one."

"So not the 2018... right?" she said. Oh dear lord! Is she preoccupied with something else?

"Yes, that is correct. What information do you need from me?"

"I'll need the VIN number, the make, model and year. Oh and the sticker price."

"Well," I explained, "I won't have some of that information until Saturday when I pick the car up."

Suddenly, she sounded panicked. "Hmmm... if you could call the dealership now, they would have that information."

"I will get the car tomorrow. I can call you then."

She raised her voice a bit, sounded a tad annoyed. "We are not in the office on Saturday. It can just wait until Monday! Besides, you have two weeks to change the insurance over. You're insured in the meantime." She changed her desperate tone to one of calm in a matter of seconds. I  said I'd call back on Monday.

I picked up my new car on Saturday and gathered all of the proper information, readying it for my Monday morning phone call with my new insurance agent's assistant.

On Monday, between two projects I was working on, I called the insurance office for an exchange of information that I couldn't imagine taking more that a few minutes. The phone was answered by the same woman I previously spoke to and I identified myself again, reminding her who I was and what we discussed on Friday.

"I don't remember what you told me.," she said. "Let me start my computer." She fell silent. Then, she began to give me a real-time play-by-play of her computer's start-up procedure, describing how slow it was and questioning rhetorically "What's it doing now?" Then she began to ask about my weekend, quickly switching to making commentary about the Philadelphia sports teams disappointing performances over the past two days. I have work to do, lady! I don't have time to make nonsensical small talk with you.

Trying to move things along, I spoke up. "I have the VIN number and the other information you requested."

"Oh okay.," she said, "This is replacing which car again?"

I was losing my patience. I told her — again — the new car was replacing the 2004 RAV 4. "Can I give you the VIN number, please?'

"Yes," she said, "and when you come to a letter, use a word that starts with that letter so I don't make any mistakes."

I began. "J as in Joe. N as in Nancy. 6. 4. 3..."

She interrupted me. "What did you say after 'Nancy?'" OH MY GOD!!!!! 

I repeated the number again. Slowly. Enunciating each letter and number until I finished. She asked the purchase price and haughtily clicked her tongue in an inappropriate act of editorializing when I told her. She clicked again when I told her that we did not contract a loan or take advantage of any sort of financing. Finally, she was satisfied with all of the information I had supplied. She said she'd call if she needed anything else and we ended our conversation.

An hour or so later, I received an email with my new temporary insurance card. An hour after that, I received a phone call from my agent's assistant, asking if I received the email. I told her I did and that I even replied to her email. She said she had not seen a reply. I hung up the phone as she was telling me to enjoy my new ca—. (I clicked "end call" before she finished.)

When I got home from work, my wife told me that she had received a series of phone calls from another representative from our new insurance agent's office. This person was asking similar questions about my new car until my wife explained to him that I was taking care of everything with a different assistant in the same office.

I hope Ronald is enjoying his retirement.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

go down moses

Well, we just wrapped up Passover a couple of weeks ago. While Passover is not my favorite holiday, I can safely say that Passover is not my favorite holiday.

Growing up in the Pincus house, Passover meant that a box of matzo joined the ubiquitous loaf of bread on the kitchen table. My mom bought a jar of gefilte fish and, over the course of eight days, consumed the contents of that jar herself. There was no way in hell my father was going to let a morsel of that stuff cross his meat-and-potatoes tempered lips. Passover or no Passover, tradition of thousands of years or no tradition of thousands of years, Harold Pincus didn't change his daily eating habits for no one — not even the God of Abraham. My brother ate those macaroons from a can and avoided the bread. I enjoyed the fried matzo that my mom prepared. I watched as much of the annual airing of The Ten Commandments on television as I could. I think I even went to a seder at an uncle's house when I was very young. We probably left when my father just about had enough. And that was my Passover.

Until I met my wife.

Mrs. Pincus came from a very traditional Jewish background. Very traditional. (To be honest, compared to the way the Pincus family celebrated Jewish holidays, Pope Francis came from a more traditional Jewish background.) Mrs. P's family went all out, especially for Passover. They cleaned the house. They changed their kitchen over to all Passover dishes and utensils. They "sold off" their chametz (food that is not kosher for Passover) and they staged an elaborate seder on the first night of Passover, with an encore performance on Night Two.

My mother-in-law prepared food from scratch that would last for the duration of the holiday. She made soups with hand-formed matzo balls. She made brust (brisket) and chicken and an array of side dishes, most of which contained some form of matzo My father-in-law prepared his own gefilte fish, grinding real fishy fish and shaping the concoction into little oblong footballs. There were boxes and assorted packages of baked goods from a special New York bakery that my in-laws would travel to and make purchases, not only for their family, but for the families of their fellow congregants at their synagogue. Passover was a big deal. It was all new to me. I participated out of respect to my wife and in-laws, but I wasn't a fan.

Soon, the Pincus family expanded by one. My son, who went all through Jewish day school, became an expert in all things Jewish and very well-versed in all Passover traditions, leading certain parts of the seder year after year. I proudly watched, but still remained nonplussed at the whole Passover thing. I didn't care for the food and I didn't care for the eight-day interruption in my daily routine. Surprisingly, I was looking at Passover the way my father looked at Passover.

It's funny how things change when you get old. Older! I mean older!

2023 marked the third consecutive year without a traditional seder at my in-law's house. This is due to several factors. In 2020, Passover came just weeks after the entire world was shut down by the uncertainty of a global pandemic. Families sequestered themselves from contact with other family members out of fear, out of safety and out of concern. Mrs. Pincus and I sat at our little kitchen counter and ate matzo. Mrs. P braved the looming cloud of COVID-19, donning a protective mask and making her trip to the supermarket as quick and efficient as possible. Under the circumstances, she bought jarred gefilte fish. Her father had given up the lengthy process of making his own and he certainly wasn't going to re-start the practice during a pandemic. At dinner time, Mrs. P fished (no pun intended) a piece of gefilte fish from the jar and plopped it down on a paper plate. I looked at it. Suddenly, a wave of adventure washed over me. "I'll take a piece of that.," I said... much to my wife's surprise.

This year for Passover, in an effort to be less like my father and more like... like.... a mensch, I ate gefilte fish again. A few times, even taking more than one piece at a time. Of course, I drown that little beige lump in a generous helping of electric purple horseradish-and-beet accompaniment. Y'know, if you cover anything with enough horseradish, it can actually be palatable... provided you like horseradish. And I do. And gefilte fish really isn't that bad. It's an acquired taste that I guess —over the years — I have acquired.

Every year, when I try something at Passover I never ate before, Mrs. P marvels and says: "Your mother would be proud."

Sunday, May 7, 2023

we're off to see the wizard

Tired of searching through countless channels for something to watch, Mrs. P and I settled on a repeat showing of The Wizard of Oz that was just starting on Turner Classic Movies. Of course we have both seen The Wizard of Oz numerous times, but there is something comforting about watching the venerable film on real-time broadcast television (without commercials) that feels like a 102-minute visit with an old friend. (Honestly, there are some "old friends" that I couldn't spend 102 seconds with... but that's a story for another blog post.)

Although it was released 22 years before I was born, I am obsessively familiar with The Wizard of Oz. Most people my age share my familiarity with the film and have fond memories of its yearly showing on television. The reason for its cross-generational "beloved" status, I believe, is the fact that the storytelling moves along at a pretty brisk clip. Unlike the current crop of bloated, backstory-heavy, CGI-laden, three-plus hour films being churned out of Hollywood, The Wizard of Oz wastes not a second of footage. Every scene is meaningful and adds to the flow of the story. Perhaps, this is why so many "Oz-adjacent" movies were failures at the box office. They suffered from too much explanation of a subject with which the audience was already familiar. They were bogged down with unnecessary subplots that added nothing but time. As a matter of fact, in an effort to keep the film concise, a scene was cut from The Wizard of Oz after initial screenings. The producers felt a particular musical number slowed the action down. (This was the notorious "Jitterbug" dance sequence, clips of which are readily available on YouTube.) 

Even though I love The Wizard of Oz, watching the movie with me is akin to watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a Saturday midnight showing. I recite dialogue along with the long-dead actors. I comment on the action. I make up on-the-spot, smart-ass jokes and repeat tried-and-true ones from previous viewings... and I question some of the more peculiar and nonsensical things that occur. Yeah, I know that it's about a girl that travels over the rainbow via a cyclone and lands in a full-color world filled with talking scarecrows, green witches and flying monkeys (blue ones, too). That aside, there are lines of dialogue and action sequences that make no sense — even in the context of a fantasy story. I think the fact that it was made in 1939 and included some of the same snappy dialogue that was so prevalent in films of the era is part of the "problem" I have with The Wizard of Oz. But there are other things that, even after zillions of viewings, still don't sit right with me.

How old is Miss Gulch supposed to be? Clara Blandick (who played "Auntie Em") is 63. It can be surmised that she has known Miss Gulch for years. Auntie Em acknowledges that Miss Gulch owns "half the county," however Margaret Hamilton — obviously disguised by theatrical make-up and costuming designed to hide her age — is only 37 years old. And what sort of successful business venture allowed a 37 year-old to "own half the county?" And who owns the other half?

Frank times five.
When Dorothy stumbles across Frank Morgan as "Professor Marvel," the first of five roles he portrays in the film, he rifles through her belongings while offering the young girl a crystal ball reading. I find this very creepy. In true "fake psychic" fashion, he alludes to Dorothy's aunt. "Auntie Em!," Dorothy confirms. The good Professor corrects her, stating that the woman in question is, in fact, named "Emily." How does he know this? Her name is not written on the photo he finds in Dorothy's basket. Her full name could be "Emma" or "Emmaline" or "Embeth" or "Emmylou." Hell, it could even be a nickname for "Melissa" or "Gemma." What does this guy know? He didn't even get the reference Dorothy made about the "crowned heads of Europe" and that's painted right on his fucking wagon!

Once Dorothy gets to Oz, she meets the true villain of the story. No, not the Wicked Witch of the West, but Glinda, the so-called Good Witch of the North. This seemingly sweet and nice, pink-clad fiend is the first citizen of Oz that Dorothy meets... and within seconds, she insults the poor girl. "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?," she innocently asks. Dorothy answers that she is not a witch at all, adding that "witches are old and ugly." Glinda giggles and tells Dorothy that she herself is a witch. An astonished Dorothy, wishing to be cordial to her greeter in this unfamiliar land, says, "I never heard of a beautiful witch before." Glinda replies, "Only bad witches are ugly!" So... if she asked Dorothy is she was a good witch or a bad witch, that means she hadn't quite determined if Dorothy was beautiful or ugly, knowing full well that she was a good witch and therefore beautiful. Glinda still required confirmation of Dorothy's "witch" status because her level of beauty wasn't good enough for Glinda. Later in the film, she makes it snow on Dorothy and her companions to counteract the effects of the poppies designed to put the crew to sleep... knowing full well it would rust one of Dorothy's friends. In the film's conclusion, she announces that Dorothy could have returned home to Kansas at anytime, that she always had the power. When questioned "why didn't you tell her?," Glinda smugly replies "She wouldn't have believed me?" Did you even bring it up and let Dorothy decide? For goodness sake, you told her there was a wizard at the end of the yellow brick road and she believed that! Dorothy begged to go home for nearly two hours and you never, ever mentioned that a couple of clicks on her new shoes could provide that in "two seconds." (Those are your words, Glinda!) It's funny when Glinda's "traveling bubble" shows up in the final scene at the Emerald City, the Scarecrow points and says "Here's someone who can help you." Glinda? Really? She hasn't been helpful yet!

When Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, she tells him that the crows in Kansas would be frightened by a talking and dancing Scarecrow. He asks: "Where's Kansas?" Dorothy explains, "That's where I'm from" and the Scarecrow doesn't press her for more information. "That's where I'm from" doesn't answer his question. That was pretty rude! Oh, wait... he doesn't have a brain. Fuck him. He probably forgot the question anyway.

Dorothy's initial meeting with her three traveling buddies in Oz culminates in a similarly melodic song, each specific about what the characters seeks from the Wizard. The Scarecrow and the Tin Man's renditions are seamless with their dialogue and work as a plea to convince Dorothy that they should be included on her journey to the Emerald City. However the Cowardly Lion awkwardly sets his song up with the introduction "I just gotta let you know how I feel" even though they have already decided to take him with them to the Emerald City... but.... he sings anyway.

Why does the Wicked Witch of the West have gripper tape wrapped around her broomstick? Does she use this in case a pick-up game of stickball breaks out on the yellow brick road or among the Winkies at her castle? Are there sporting goods stores in Oz? This is a pretty specialized item to obtain. Sure they have metal buffing services, hay stuffing services and a beauty parlor at the Emerald City, but gripper tape? That's a big ask. They could probably order it, though.
Speaking of the castle, when Dorothy is held prisoner by the Wicked Witch, brave Toto escapes to alert the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion of her location and her predicament. The intrepid trio make their way into the castle and Tin Man begins hacking at the wooden door of the room where Dorothy is imprisoned with his ax. From the other side of the door, Dorothy announces: "Hurry! The hourglass is almost empty?" referring to the timekeeping device the witch left as a reminder of her fate. However, Dorothy's rescuers have never seen the hourglass. How come they don't stop and question: "What hourglass?" You didn't say anything about an hourglass! What are you talking about? Are you still tripping from the poppies? I thought the snow took care of that?" Nope, they just continue to break the door down. When they finally get to Dorothy, not one of them points and says: "Oh! That hourglass!"

In the final scene, Dorothy is saying her tearful goodbyes before she heads back to Kansas with the Wizard in the hot-air balloon he absconded from the Omaha State Fair. She says goodbye to the Tin Man who tells her his new heart is breaking. She says goodbye to the Cowardly Lion who acknowledges that he would have never gotten his courage if it weren't for Dorothy. Then she turns to the Scarecrow and — right in front of the other two — she tells the Scarecrow that she will miss him most of all. The Tin Man and the Lion can hear you, Dorothy! We can all hear you! That is pretty insulting! After all, what exactly did he do that the others didn't? Geez! Worst of all, the goddamn Scarecrow doesn't even say a word! He doesn't thank her for her assistance in getting a brain. He doesn't even say "goodbye." I guess being named "Interim Wizard" went right to his newly-gifted brain!

So, finally, Dorothy is going home. But, Toto jumps out of Dorothy's arms to chase the Oz equivalent of a cat. If you watch carefully, the balloon just doesn't "up and go" without Dorothy. No, the Tin Man continues to unravel the docking rope and barely makes an attempt to pull the balloon back down... even though he is still holding the rope! It is obvious that he selfishly wants Dorothy to stay in Oz. Only he knows why.

I didn't even bring up curious lines of dialogue, like "Here, have some cruellers" or "You're more trouble than you're worth one way or another" and, when Dorothy asks a castle guard if she can have the witch's broomstick after melting their tormentor, he replies, "Yes! And take it with you!" Well, of course, she going to take it with her! She doesn't just want to hold the witch's broomstick, she wants a murder trophy.... like a serial killer.

Oh! And what about that bucket of water! If you know that water will melt you, why are you keeping open buckets of it around your castle? You are just asking for one of your disgruntled employees to dump that bucket on your head after denying a perfectly reasonable vacation request. The witch should have banned all open containers of water from her castle. She knew about the magical powers in her sister's shoes, but didn't think leaving buckets of water all around  her castle was a bad idea.

One more thing.... Where does the red brick road lead to? 
Oh look.... I can watch The Wizard of Oz anytime I want! I think I'll watch it now.