Monday, June 29, 2015

An Open Letter to New Jersey's Legislative District 4 Representatives

Photo credit: 6ABC News

129 Johnson Road, Suite 1
Turnersville, NJ 08012   

To the representatives of NJ's 4th Legislative District:

I am aware that you and your District 4 colleagues have petitioned the state Board of Public Utilities to investigate Atlantic City Electric’s response to the numerous power outages that resulted from last week’s straight-line wind storm. I commend you for that, but the power outages are just part of a much larger issue.

All you need to do is step outside your office and take a ride or walk around the corner to get a first hand view of the destruction and devastation that has hit Whitman Square. The Bells Lake and Original Birches neighborhoods have suffered similar damage. Trees have split houses in two, wind has torn roofs off of houses, many are displaced and staying with family, friends, or in hotels awaiting ultimate assessment of the damage.

At a “town hall” meeting in the fall of 2010 in Washington Township, Governor Christie acknowledged that it was Gloucester County that put him over the top in the 2009 election. 

His cavalier attitude towards the citizens of South Jersey is no way to thank them for helping to put him into office.

I know that the state cannot print money, budget is tight, and financial relief is not likely to come from the State government.

Therefore, I respectfully request that you petition your fellow State Legislators to issue a formal resolution from both Houses demanding that Governor Christie declare a State of Emergency that would facilitate financial assistance to our neighbors who are suffering as a result of this storm.

I look forward to a positive response and action from our elected representatives.

Respectfully Submitted,
Turnersville, NJ

Saturday, April 25, 2015

My Day At The NASA Social Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope

I have been a fan of NASA and the space program since I was a kid. I'm also a social media hound. So you can imagine my delight when a friend tipped me off to to a NASA Social Event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA Social Events are meet-ups for the benefit of social media users with an interest in the space program, providing behind-the-scenes opportunities for participants to network with fellow NASA enthusiasts and meet some of the people who work the NASA programs.

As I am a space geek with a sizable social media presence, I put my name in. 

On April 16, I received an invitation by email for the Hubble NASA Social. 

On Thursday, April 23, I embarked on my trip, driving to Philadelphia's 30th St Station and taking the Amtrak 6:05am train to Washington DC, then walked from Union Station to the Newseum, where we would watch a press conference hosted by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, and others, who talked about Hubble and unveil the official 25th Anniversary Hubble Image, which can be seen HERE. Video below.

After the presser we had about an hour to walk around Newseum, then convene at 11:00am for the bus trip to the NASA Goddard Space Fight Center in Greenbelt, MD, for various guided tours.

Our first stop was the building that houses the clean room in which the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to Hubble, is being built, scheduled to launch October 2018. The clean room - the largest in the world - was the room used to build Hubble and is now being used to build the JWST.

We were then bused to other locations to learn about the various activities at the Goddard Center, including:

Finally, we were brought to the building which houses the Hubble Mission Operations Room and Command Center, including a demonstration by NASA engineers of the various modules and tools that were used in Hubble repair and maintenance missions and the challenges in developing the hardware and procedures.

Throughout the day I provided live updates on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

After that, a group photo and bus ride back to DC, where I walked to Union Station for the train ride back to Philly.

CLICK HERE for photos.

I left with my enthusiasm for NASA affirmed with this crash course in the inner workings of the Goddard Center.

About the Author:

Jeff Pickens is a New Jersey based blogger and host of the recently launched The Pick’s Place Radio Hour webcast on BlogTalkRadio. An accountant by trade, Jeff’s outside interests include cooking (both outdoors and indoors), photography, writing, fundraising, and volunteering. Every year Jeff puts his passions for cycling, BBQ, and photography to work by participating in the Philadelphia American Cancer Society Bikeathon, the Garry Maddox BBQ Challenge benefitting Compete 360, and Philadelphia Help Portrait.

In addition to his own blog, Pick's Place, Jeff has contributed to other platforms, including  OpenSalon, where his account of a counter-protest against the Westboro Baptist Church's attempt to disrupt a soldier's funeral in Bordentown, NJ earned a front page "Editor's Pick”.

Jeff has a Bachelor's degree in Accounting from Thomas Edison State College, Trenton NJ and is active with the Alumni Association as as an advocate for the school, having appeared before the NJ State Assembly Budget Committee successfully leading the fight against merging the college with Rutgers University. He has appeared in radio, print and internet banner ads for the college.

A Bergen County, NJ native and lifelong resident and self-proclaimed expert on all things New Jersey,  Jeff currently lives in Southern NJ with his wife Lori.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Restaurant Review: On The Outs With Outback Steakhouse

The Outback in Turnersville, NJ has been in a steady decline over the past two years as prices continue to rise and the quality of the food and service continue to decline. 

The last straw was last night, Friday 3/13/2015. I ordered my usual 10 oz rib-eye, medium rare. The waitress gave me the perfunctory warning that it would be very pink on the inside. When it came, after an extremely long wait, it was overcooked, grey inside and out, and appeared to be less than 1/4" thick. We had a large party of 7, celebrating my son's birthday, so I decided not to make a scene, and I knew if I sent it back I would be sitting like a dunce for eternity waiting for another one while the rest of my family uncomfortably ate their dinners. So I ate about half of it. 

When the waitress finally reappeared, I showed her the grey, cardboard-like piece of meat and told her it was not medium rare and I didn't complain earlier. She said she would "take care of it", which I thought meant taking it off the bill.

Instead, some nit-wit arrived about 15 minutes later with another steak, as if I was going to sit there and eat it by myself while everyone else waited. I had it wrapped and took it home. 

And the bathrooms are filthy. When we brought this to the manager's attention, she giggled and shrugged her shoulders.

Never again.


Outback Steakhouse
4600 NJ-42
Turnersville, NJ 08012

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Theater Review: Larry David's Fish In The Dark

First, let me say I am 100% biased. I wanted to see this show because it was written by and starred Larry David and I knew I was going to like it because it was written by and starred Larry David. So it was a no-brainer when we heard about this show, we were going to see it.

I went on line, Googled it, found a ticket web site, and ordered center balcony seats for March 4th, which was the best day for my wife and me. I got my email confirmation and was very pleased.

Then, I started looking around and found out the show was opening on March 5th, and was in previews (I had no idea what that meant) until then.

I bought preview tickets! PANIC! Will Larry not be there?

I emailed my theater-savvy brother and sister and asked what previews meant, and they told me they were essentially dress rehearsals before official opening, tickets are cheaper, and the day before opening you are pretty much seeing the finished product. I exhaled. My brother also gave me some tips for stalking at the stage door after the show to see the cast members.

I also panicked when I got my tickets, through a website called TicketNetwork, and got two pieces of paper with barcodes. Again, not being theater-savvy, I didn't know what an "e-ticket" was. I should have known, but I didn't. I obsessed over it for a week until we got there and stopped by the box office to make sure the tickets were legit. The guy behind the counter got a good laugh at my expense.

We had lunch then walked back to the Cort Theater on 48th St, and by dumb luck, Larry David was walking about 5 feet in front of us and we saw him enter the stage door, so I knew where to go after the show.

Larry David plays Norman Drexel, a urinal salesman in Los Angeles, who gets a late night phone call that his father has been taken to the hospital. He decides to try to go back to sleep and go to the hospital in the morning. There, he sees his brother Arthur (played by Ben Shenkman) with his new girlfriend. Larry questions why someone would bring a date to the hospital. His mother (played by Jayne Houdyshell) and his wife Brenda (played by Rita Wilson) arrive, along with other family members.

Cut to Dad's (played by Jerry Adler) hospital bed. Dad says his one wish is for Mom not to live alone. Larry and Arthur struggle to get an answer to whom should Mom live with. The heart monitor flatlines. Larry and Arthur argue.

Norman/Larry is the same character Larry David plays in Curb Your Enthusiasm, doing and saying obnoxious and inappropriate things, arguing with his brother over Mom's living arrangements, steaming over everyone agreeing his niece's eulogy was better than his - he corners her and suggests that perhaps she didn't write it herself because it contained a "big word" (profound). He makes her cry. Larry is great when interacting with kids, like the lemonade stand episode in "Curb". The family argues as they did at Dad's death bed.

Norman gets some startling news from his parents' former housekeeper, now his housekeeper, Fabiana (played by Rosie Perez). Mom moves into Norman's house, his wife moves out, and Fabiana and Norman hatch some schemes. As you would expect, things don't go exactly as planned.

That's about all I'm going to tell you about the plot. 

If you like Larry David's brand of humor (i.e. funny humor) you will love this show. If you're jonesing for a new "Curb" episode, this more than scratches the itch. I laughed my ass off for two hours. My only issue was hearing the dialog. Most of the company consists of experienced stage actors who project their voices. Larry was not projecting the same way and there was a marked difference in volume between Larry's voice and the others'. I don't know how to fix that. Larry needs to practice I guess. Anyway, with his reactions, timing, and wild gesticulations, it wasn't to hard to fill in the blanks where I couldn't hear, but it would have been better if I could hear Larry as loud as the others.

The show has gotten mediocre to bad reviews. The New York Times skewered it. Common gripes were:
The show was more like a sitcom than a play (so what?)
Too many set changes (so what?)
Too many cast members (so what?)
It was a throwback to the days of Neil Simon comedies (what's wrong with that?)

Don't listen to the theater snobs.

Since I'm not a theater snob, none of those things bothered me. It was essentially an extended "Curb" episode, with one difference (Spoiler Alert): Whereas "Curb" episodes typically ended with something gone awry and the screen going black, here everything is wrapped up in a nice bow, feuding family members make up, and Mom delivers the punch line that ends the show.

After the curtain dropped, we went outside and positioned ourselves at the stage door. Larry came out, signed autographs, including my wife's Playbill, and I got a selfie with Larry and the marquee over my shoulder.

All in all, a great day, a dream come true. If you like Larry David you'll love this show.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Brian Williams: Eyewitness To History

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has recently come under fire for allegedly lying about his helicopter being under fire in Iraq, and lying about what he witnessed during Hurricane Katrina.
However, after exhaustive research, the "Brian Williams: Eyewitness To History" project has uncovered evidence of the embattled NBC Nightly News anchor's presence at many turning points in history.

The investigation continues.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Why I Ride - 2014 American Cancer Society Bikeathon

Through my lifetime, I have seen too many friends, relatives, colleagues suffer and die, too young, from cancer.

It's a horrible thing to watch someone go through this - the initial diagnosis, the aggressive treatments, cautious optimism, remissions sometimes, wishful thinking, desperate attempts to extend the patient's life, then the realization that, in spite of everything, they are now in an end-of-life situation, a life ending too soon. Seeing the anguish on a person's face as they are telling me their story kills me, being unable to do or say anything to help. 

The good news is, a cancer diagnosis is not necessarily the death sentence it used to be, but we have a long way to go. 

For this reason, every year I get on my bicycle and ride 66 miles 90 degree heat in the Philadelphia Bike-a-thon to help raise money for the American Cancer Society. I have consistently raised over $1,000 for the past three years and have hit that mark again this year, $1,095 to date. I knew I could count on my friends and family to support my ride and help me fight this disease. 
No family should suffer the anguish of losing their mothers, fathers, and other loved ones to cancer.  Not one more.

The ride is Sunday, July 13, 2014. If you'd like to help out, you can click on THIS LINK to get to my fundraising page.

Thank you to all who have contributed so far.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Jackie Robinson's Autograph - Not For Sale

This story originally appeared in 2009 on CNN iReport, in response to the question, would you sell any of your prized possessions to pick up some extra cash in this bad economy. I have since been banned for life from posting on CNN because I complained about death threats from right-wing commenters. 

The years 1956 and 1957 were a one-two punch for my poor mother - in December 1956, she gave birth to me, and in October 1957, her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers announced they were moving to the West Coast. A bit too much trauma for one person to have to endure over one ten-month period!

The Dodgers' move to L.A. was one of those events, like the Depression and World War 2, that the adults in our house talked about so much I sometimes thought I actually remembered it. Mom was a rabid Dodgers fan, and refused, until her last day on earth, to watch any baseball, as long as the Dodgers were not in Brooklyn.

One of her prized possessions is an official Ford Frick National League baseball, autographed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. I am not sure of the exact year (1954/55?), but I know Mom got the ball thanks to an acquaintance of my grandfather, a sportswriter for the local paper picked it up at spring training.

The ball has the autographs of many Hall-of-Famers, giants and legends of the Brooklyn Bums, including:

- Gil Hodges, who went on to manage the 1969 Miracle Mets to World Series victory, and, in one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in sports history, is not in the Hall of Fame.

- Pee Wee Reese, whose iconic gesture, putting his arm around teammate Jackie Robinson's shoulder, silenced a hostile crowd in Cincinnati.
(UPDATE: It is unclear as to whether or not this actually happened. Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson's widow, says it did not happen. But Pee Wee was still an iconic Dodger)

- Slugger Duke Snider, the "Duke of Flatbush".

- Roy Campanella, who was tragically paralyzed in an auto accident in 1958.

And of course, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues, and whose number, 42, is retired forever.

Jackie Robinson! This guy used to steal home! Who does that today?

The autographs are starting to fade. The ball belongs to my family, and I am currently the custodian, keeping it in the dark in an undisclosed location, taking it out occasionally to show anyone who may want to see it.

I'm not sure what this ball is worth in the sports memorabilia market, but I'm not selling it.