Thursday, July 29, 2010

Small Victories

Sometimes things have a way of working out. Take today for instance, we decided to go see Disney's "Toy Story 3" in 3-D at the local multiplex. I nearly had a heart attack when the ticket clerk told me that the senior citizen price for tickets was $13.00 a head! Are you kidding me! I don't want to be in the movie, I just want to see it. I was still muttering as we approached the candy counter where I soon learned that a small bag of popcorn cost $6.00. I'm not talking about the Rosie O'Donnell, bucket size, but a small bag of popcorn. For six dollars I can fill my garage with much money do they need to make?

We were a little early for the show so we waited outside the mini-theater where our movie was scheduled to be shown. As each movie ended, hordes of noisy kids rampaged through the lobby with no thought as to what a disturbance they were creating. I couldn't help thinking of the old Colonial Theater in Brooklyn where they hired former women's prison guards as "matrons" who wielded flashlights like nightsticks, and were the most aggressive "shushers" you would ever want to meet. One of the reasons we don't go to the movies much is that I am an inveterate shusher, and this embarrasses my poor wife. If I'm paying $13 a ticket I want it to be as quiet as a cemetery, and I don't appreciate people talking on their cell phones or noisily opening their six pound box of Jujubes.

Our show time was 2:05 pm, and we entered the theater fully prepared for the 20 minutes of coming attractions played in Dolby sound loud enough for Helen Keller to hear. The show began with the announcement to put on your 3-D glasses and get ready for the entertainment experience of a lifetime. We dutifully obeyed and were rewarded with a blank screen. This announcement was made several times, but each time the same picture. Then came the announcement: Folks, we're having computer problems. We have sound but no picture. We're trying to reboot the computer. In all my years going to the Colonial Theater the projectionist never had this problem. Ain't computers great?

After a few more tries, the theater manager, age 12, says they cannot resolve the problem. Now, in my mind I'm rehearsing my standard outraged customer spiel for a refund ("I'm a senior citizen on a fixed income, how can you do this to me"). Then I hear her say the magic words: "You can have your money back plus a free admission to see the movie any time you want." My annoyance at having to pay $13 a ticket evaporates as I realize I will not only get my money back, but get to see the movie for free! Feeling like lady luck is on my side, I decide to head for the Staten Island Mall to try to redeem a coupon for a $10 gift card that they mailed to me on my birthday. The coupon says supplies are limited, so I fully expect to get the sad news that the coupon is worthless.

We find the Mall business office tucked away in a place nobody would ever expect to find it. I hear the lady at the desk telling a woman in line before me that they have run out of gift cards, and I smile to myself thinking my luck has turned. Sure enough the clerk tells me that indeed they have run out of gift cards, but they will not only e-mail me when the birthday gift cards are back in stock, but will give me another $10 gift card for my inconvenience in making a trip to the mall. I look up to the heavens to see if the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars. Is this my day? I try to talk my wife into making a run down to Atlantic City but she intelligently declines.

Sometimes things do have a way of working out. Between the movie tickets and the gift card, I'm ahead $36 because someone screwed up. I know that $36 will not change my life, and that I shouldn't feel like I just won the lottery, but nonetheless I'm sitting here celebrating with a gin and tonic as big as a fish bowl. I know such a small windfall shouldn't get me so excited, but it does. Sue me.


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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

When You Wish Upon a Star...

Sometimes a person appears among us with a unique vision and the determination to see it through. Such a man was Walt Disney. It would be hard to name some one who has had a bigger impact on entertainment, not only in America, but around the world. Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, to Elias Disney, and Flora Call Disney. Walt was one of five children, four boys and a girl. Walt had very early interests in art; he would often sell drawings to neighbors to make extra money. He pursued his art career, by studying art and photography by going to McKinley High School in Chicago. In August of 1923, Walt Disney left Kansas City for Hollywood with nothing but a few drawing materials, $40 in his pocket and a completed animated and live-action film.

Mickey Mouse was created in 1928, and his talents were first used in a silent cartoon entitled "Plane Crazy." Mickey made his screen debut in "Steamboat Willie," the world's first fully-synchronized sound cartoon, which premiered at the Colony Theatre in New York on November 18, 1928. On December 21 of that same year, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first full-length animated musical feature, premiered in Los Angeles. Produced at the unheard cost of $1,499,000 during the depths of the Depression, the film is still accounted as one of the great feats and imperishable monuments of the motion picture industry. During the next five years, Walt completed such other full-length animated classics as "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Dumbo," and "Bambi."

Disney parlayed his big-screen reputation into success on the small screen with TVs Mickey Mouse Club in 1955 and Walt Disney Presents in 1958. Both ventures were hugely popular, and while most men would have been content to rest on their laurels, Disney pushed the envelope by opening Disneyland in California in 1955 and literally invented the concept of the theme park. Disneyworld followed in Orlando, Florida in 1971. The Florida park was expanded to include Epcot Center in 1982. Soon hotels and restaurants in all price ranges followed, and more parks like Sea World and MGM opened near Disney World just to cash in on the crowds attracted to the Disney parks.

Disney was a perfectionist and this compulsion to get it right is the simple secret to his success. Everything about the Disney entertainment experience is controlled. From the time you enter the gates of a Disney park you are impressed with how things are run. The grounds are spotless, the rides are exciting, restrooms are comfortable, and most important, every employee from the character impersonators to the sweepers understand the importance of giving visitors a memorable vacation experience. Disney vacations are not cheap, but most people who go believe they are worth the money. We've made a number of trips with the kids and a couple just the two of us, and I can honestly say every one was special.

Disney's operations and management style is so admired that they began a school for business managers called the Walt Disney Institute. From their website: "Disney Institute facilitators include accomplished business leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, and executives who use dynamic and entertaining stories and demonstrations to explain effective business models and concepts. These sessions may be enhanced by facilitated discussions, team-building exercises, case studies, experiential activities, and behind-the-scenes guided tours at Disney Destinations. Disney Institute programs provide you with a business map that will help you chart a course for your organization, your division, and yourself." Personally I'm not sure how Disney's methods translate to other businesses, but it makes for a nice, expenses-paid trip for those who can con their employers into sending them.

Some claim that Walt Disney had a dark side to his character, accusing him of not being particularly fond of minorities, especially Jews. I can't comment on that but I can say that Disney created an entertainment empire second to none, and that he made my childhood (and adulthood for that matter) a lot happier than it would have been without his imagination and energy. Thanks Walt.


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Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Pine Tree State

Just returned from Kennebunkport, Maine, where terrified lobsters hide in fear of starving tourists in bibs who want to devour them. This was our first trip to the "Pine Tree State" and it was lovely. We traveled with our good friends, Dick and Joann Bilello, who we know from childhood, and who served as our best man and maid of honor when we were married nearly 44 years ago. It's nice to be with people who share so much with you, and with whom you can be yourself. The conversation and the laughs flow easily and naturally. We are lucky to have stayed connected over these many years with such special people.

We stayed at the Nonantum Resort right on the water in Kennebunkport. Maine was once inhabited by the Penobscot Indians, and in their language "Nonantum" means "old elevator". The resort, which is four stories high, had just one antique Otis elevator that was installed when the hotel was built 127 years ago. It's about the size of a hall closet, and is actually a service elevator that must be operated by a hotel staff member. Although this might sound like an inconvenience, it really wasn't. The fresh-faced kids who work at the hotel during the summer are happy to run you up and down, and they were a pleasure to be around.

The Nonantum is an elegant old resort with a main house, and outlying smaller houses that are nice for families with kids. The rooms were clean and comfortable, while the lobby and dining rooms featured beautiful antiques everywhere. The rear lawns slope down to the river where lobster boats and sail boats depart daily for tours. There are Adirondack chairs overlooking the river and cool breezes make for very pleasant and relaxing afternoons. The front porch offers rocking chairs with a nice view of the property and close proximity to the excellent hotel bar. The staff was unfailingly polite and helpful. There are many good restaurants in the area where the food and the ambiance make for enjoyable dining experiences.

Throughout our stay there was a group of older women, all in coiffed white hair and summer dresses, who played cards constantly. There were card tables set up off to the side in the lobby for them, and in the afternoons they moved the game to the screened-in porch overlooking the water. When we first checked in I thought they were holding a Barbara Bush look-alike convention. Don't confuse these gals with Methodist Sunday School teachers though; their cocktail glasses were never empty and cold cash was changing hands after each game. During dinner at the hotel one night we were serenaded by the unlikeliest group of musicians you ever saw called the Tony Boffa Trio. Despite their looks, these talented performers entertained us for three solid hours with great renditions of contemporary standards...a very pleasant surprise indeed.

The town of Kennebunkport is like a post card come to life. Souvenir shops, art galleries, antique stores and restaurants are all jumbled together in a tiny area along the water. People wander around buying stuff they'd never look at twice back home, but they all fall victim to the shopping fever that seems to overtake modern-day vacationers. Many of the workers in these stores suffer from a common ailment called "potpourri lung" which comes from inhaling those nauseating bayberry and vanilla scents day after day. I would imagine that Kennebunkport in winter is pretty dreary and dull, but in the summer it is a delightful place to get away from the heat and humidity of New York City.

Just down the beach from us was the summer compound of the Bush family. The estate was purchased in the late 19th century by banker George H. Walker; a mansion was built on the site in 1903. Later, the estate passed on to his daughter Dorothy Walker Bush and her husband Prescott Bush. The estate is situated on the strip of land called Walker's Point which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. The large central house, built in the New England shingle style, has nine bedrooms, four sitting rooms, an office, a den, a library, a dining room, a kitchen, and various patios and decks. Next to the main house are a four-car garage, a pool, tennis court, dock, boathouse, and guesthouse. The entrance is gated and guarded by Secret Service officers...very impressive little summer place.

One of the best things about living in America is the variety of geographic environments available to its citizens. We have the mountains and deserts of the Southwest, the beaches of California and Florida, the vast plains and farmlands of the Midwest and not the least of these, the rocky shore line and rugged beauty of Maine. Great friends, great surroundings, and of course good food and wine, add up to a very nice vacation. So glad we went.


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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rules of the Road

Memo to the geniuses at the D.O.T. - On dead-end streets, how about putting the sign at the BEGINNING of the street instead of waiting until we drive to the end of the street before you tell us.

Remember those yellow "Baby on Board" signs people would put in their rear windows? What was that for we wouldn't ram them! Those signs were dumb, but here's a better idea. How about a similar yellow sign in the window of a poor driver saying: Moron on Board? Now that would be useful.

There are so many busy intersections where you can't make a left turn because of oncoming traffic. Staten Islanders, being among the least polite drivers in the world, will never let you make that left. Here's another no-brainer, TURN ARROWS. That they are not at every busy intersection in every big city is testament again to the tiny brains at the D.O.T.

Even though I've been caught several times by these intersection cameras, I still think they are a good idea. What they have to fix however is the timing. On a changing traffic light they need to give drivers another second before the camera fires. Staten Island is notorious for tailgaters, and if you stomp on your brake as the light is changing you will be picking your teeth out of the dashboard. Either provide another second's grace before ticketing a driver, or use those big number countdown displays that show how long you have before the light changes.

School bus regulations need to be strict to protect kids, no argument with that. The current regulations in New York State are a bit over the top though. I can see having to stop when the bus is on your side of the road, but when its on the other side it just seems like an unnecessary precaution, even a safety hazard since drivers don't notice the bus on the other side of a major street, and are liable to slam into you when you stop. Just my opinion.

I like the cops who pull up behind you in bumper-to-bumper traffic and start flashing their lights and sounding their siren. I see you officer, but I can't levitate this machine to get out of your @&*$^%# way. A variation on this is when they do it in the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel where the speed limit is 45 MPH and there are barriers in place to keep you from changing lanes. Do I speed up all the way through the tunnel and risk a speeding ticket, or maintain my speed and get cited for blocking the way of an emergency vehicle. There's a choice for you, name your poison.

You already know how I feel about distracted driving. (See "@#$%&* You, Moron!" View). What I fail to understand is the lack of enforcement of laws prohibiting distracted driving. At any given moment, at least one third of all Staten Island drivers are on their cell phones. I once got a ticket on the Belt Parkway for having my license plates in a frame with a clear plastic cover. The glare off the plastic don't you know keeps cops from reading my plate number as I drive away from that 7-11 stickup. How about ticketing these cell phone talkers! Their actions are far more dangerous than mine, yet I don't know of a single person ever cited for breaking this law.

We have really gone overboard with car gadgets. You can now buy cars with built-in computers, not the ones that help in operating the car, but ones a driver can use to surf the Internet while behind the wheel. You can also have a TV, DVD player, CD player, rear-view camera, refrigerator, GPS system, telephone, heated seats and a hundred other items unrelated to transporting you where you want to go. Often you have no say as to whether or not you want this stuff , it just comes with the car model you buy. Dealers add this crap so they have more things to fix when they break down. This stuff also makes for distracted drivers. People, what is happening to us?


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Sunday, July 4, 2010


OK, so I was wrong. It happens every now and then. For years I have been complaining about how soccer is such a boring sport, about as exciting as a speech by Al (the groper) Gore, but sorry to say, I was wrong. The 2010 World Cup is making a soccer fan of me. Even the mindless South African soccer fans incessantly blowing those idiotic "vuvuzela" horns can't dampen my new-found enthusiasm for the game. What changed my mind? A casual conversation with a neighbor's nephew, Michael, who was born in Greece and married a girl from Italy. Both countries, and for that matter the rest of the world, are gaga for soccer. Mike gave me some tips on how to watch the matches, what things to look for aside from scoring, and how to appreciate the skills required to play the game well.

My kids played soccer, and while I attended a lot of their games, I didn't know what I was looking at. Unlike baseball or football, sports I played as a kid and whose rules I understood inside and out, soccer to me was like hockey without the ice...just a bunch of guys running back and forth trying to get the ball into the net. I had no feel for the skill needed to "handle" the ball without using the hands. The way soccer players "dribble" and pass the ball while running at full speed is something to behold. I still have a lot to learn, but at least the game now interests and excites me. Seeing an incredibly athletic player streaking down the field, taking a perfectly placed pass from a teammate and exploding the ball into the net is a thing of beauty. The TV announcer traditional call of "GOAAAAAAL!!!!!" gets the screaming crowd on its feet cheering for their team.

One thing I love about soccer is its universality. You could take a bunch of kids from the poorest slums of Calcutta and drop them into a soccer field on the French Riviera filled with wealthy local kids, and soon a game would be in progress. Soccer has been the ticket out of poverty for some of the game's greatest players like Pele (born Edson Arantes Do Nascimento) in Brazil, and Diego Maradona of Argentina. Others like England's Bobby Charlton and Stanley Matthews, whose exploits on the soccer field were so admired by the fanatical British fans, that they were actually knighted by the Queen. Then there were the soccer stars like David Beckham, whose names became so familiar that they attained worldwide celebrity. Soccer is a world-class sport that transcends language; I sometimes now watch games on Spanish TV stations and enjoy them just fine.

ABC and ESPN have been broadcasting a lot of the 2010 World Cup matches. Part of the coverage included many interviews with past soccer stars who all have one thing in common...the joy that lights up their faces as they recount their moment in winning the World Cup for their countries. They drift off into a reverie as they reminisce about that perfect pass or that penalty kick that won the deciding match. Roberto Baggio, the only Italian soccer player to have scored in 3 different World Cups, said that these deciding moments were like acting in a silent movie. "You feel completely isolated, unaware of everything; you don't hear the roaring crowds, you don't see anything else except the ball and the goal. I have mixed feelings about these special moments...I'm glad I had them in my life, but I know I will never experience these emotions again."

Another thing that surprises and pleases me about the game is the lack of fighting. Despite the constant physical contact between players, they seem to understand that it's part of the game and don't let it get out of hand. They leave the fighting to the fans who have been known to start ferocious brawls after a disappointing game from their favorite team. Another tough aspect of soccer is that it is a hard game to referee. Several key games in this year's matches have been decided by bad calls. Its very difficult for losing teams to accept such calls from the refs. To be beaten fair and square is one thing, but to be sent home by an officiating mistake is another matter. I don't know why they don't use instant replay or some other solution to minimize these situations.

I'm glad that in my late sixties I can still find new things to amuse and excite me. I need to learn the rules and terminology of the game a lot better so I can be a more knowledgeable fan, but I proudly add my name to the millions of soccer fans around the world.


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