Friday, May 30, 2008

Mistaken Identity

The best job offer I ever received was one that was meant for someone else.

I'd applied for a copywriting job at an ad agency — I can't remember which one, but it was a great job that I really wanted — and had interviewed, portfolio in hand, with a guy who seemed to have it together. I showed my portfolio (which is the way these interviews work), asked and answered some questions and, I thought, done pretty well. The interviewer told me he was talking to several folks, but I thought my chances were good.

When he called me a few days later to offer me the position, my good feelings were confirmed. I was excited about working there.

Then he started talking about why the agency had chosen me. "We were really impressed with your work for Client A, Client B and Client C," he told me. My heart sank. The work he'd mentioned wasn't mine.

I told him I was flattered that he called, but he'd confused my portfolio with someone else's. I hadn't worked on the accounts he mentioned. "Well, whose work is it?" he asked me. "Who am I trying to hire?"

Since I didn't know who else he'd interviewed, I had no answer. I did, however, tell him that if he couldn't find the person he was looking for, that I'd still be interested in the job.

Surprisingly, I never heard from him again.

In retrospect, I thought I should have taken the job. I could have walked in the first day and asked, "What did you like best about my ad for Client A?" "The guy in the gorilla suit. We thought the gorilla suit was a clever idea." "Yeah, yeah, you can't miss with a good gorilla suit."

I could have finessed it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Trane Of Thought

I once had a cassette of an interview John Coltrane, the great jazz saxophonist, gave on a long forgotten radio show, in which Trane gives the best description of the creative process I've ever heard. (As an aside, the disk jockey also asked one of the best interview questions of all time, and I say that having interviewed thousands of people throughout my career.)

"So when you play," the DJ asked, "are you like a chess master? Do you see five, six, seven moves ahead? Do you know what the band is going to do and what you're going to do?"

Coltrane, obviously intrigued by the question, paused for a moment. No, it wasn't like that at all, he replied. He got to a certain jumping off point in any song and then jumped. There were certain things he had to do to get to that point, but once he jumped he had no idea where he was going to land. He had to trust himself to get to where he needed to go, even if he didn't know where that spot was when he reached that jumping off point.

Brilliant question. Brilliant answer. And the entire creative process in a few sentences.

I've worked with and known a lot of creative folks — writers, designers, artists — who would stare at a computer screen, a piece of paper, a canvas, a lump of clay, wondering where to begin. But the trick is not knowing where to begin. It's knowing where to end. And trusting yourself to get there.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Big Ben

I feel that I need to give equal time to my stepfather, Ben (see post below), so here are a couple of quick stories.

When my mother and Ben got married, it was a simple 15-minute civil ceremony performed by the mayor of our town. Afterwards we went out to the only decent restaurant in town, Molly's Fishmarket. As an aside, they were both in their early 50s at the time.

When our waitress came to take our drink orders, she noticed my folks holding hands. "Oh, how sweet, still holding hands after all this time. How long has it been?" she chirped.

Ben glanced at his watch. "About 20 minutes."

The other story involves a bad habit he had of taking off his glasses and laying them aside when he was doing mechanical, carpentry or plumbing work. (That wasn't his job; he was just very, very handy around the house.)

One time he was working underneath his car, laid his glasses aside, got in the car for a test drive and crunched his glasses. He brought the bag full of pieces to the optometrist.

 "What happened?" the optometrist exclaimed. They were quite likely the most damaged glasses he'd ever seen.

"I ran over them," Ben explained. The optometrist gave him a funny look. So Ben continued: "I wasn't wearing them at the time."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Mommy Dearest

My mother is a sweet, little (under five foot) old lady, as warm and friendly as a person could be. I've seen huge men figuratively pat this sweet little old lady on the head, and 10 minutes later wonder where the truck that hit them came from.

My mother's parents fled the Nazis in eastern Europe to land in the Depression, and thought it was a great deal. To say my mother grew up tough ... well, as Mr. T said, I pity the fool who takes her on.

A couple of incidents spring to mind.

When cable TV wa first introduced into our New Jersey neighborhood, people were reluctant to pay for the TV they'd always received for free. As an incentive, the cable TV company (can't recall which one) was offering free installation and the first month of service free. My mother took the offer, the cable company installed the line, and we enjoyed our first, free month.

We never received a bill the second month, either. Or the third. In fact, it was eight years before we heard from the cable company. They sent us a bill for eight years of service.

My mother ignored it.

Another bill came, then a third, each more strongly worded than the last, requesting, then demanding, eight years worth of payments.

Finally one day, after receiving no response from us, the cable company sent a man who said he was a lawyer for the cable company to our house to collect the money. I don't know if he really was a lawyer, but he had a suit and a briefcase, so it was certainly possible. He knocked on our door, large and confident.

He left smaller.

My mother explained to him — "explained" might not be a forceful enough word — why the cable company's sloppy bookkeeping and inability to bill its customers in a timely fashion wasn't her problem. She offered him two options: write off the eight years of service and begin billing us from that day forward, or remove the cable. He chose the first option.

The second incident has a bit of a back story.

When I was 16 I briefly worked as a janitor with a friend of mine, and one night we were cleaning the townhall. The townhall occupied half a building, and the other half was the police station. Through the thin walls we could hear everything that went on in the police station while we mopped and dusted, and we heard the plice talking to a woman who had, apparently, been raped. The officers were accusing her of having encouraged the attack by dressing provocatively and leading the perpetrator on. The woman was crying, both because of the attack and because of her treatment by the police, and I didn't blame her.

When I got home I was upset about what I'd overheard, and I told my mother, who promptly called a friend of hers who was a reporter for the local daily newspaper. The paper ran a story on the incident, a story which was critical of the police.

The next day I was walking along the main drag in town — it was a smallish town, about 15,000 people — when a police car pulled up alongside me. The officers inside asked if I was me (I was), and told me to get in the car. I don't recall it being a request.

They took me down to police headquarters and put me in a back room with a large (well over 6') police sergeant and two other officers. While the two other officers stood between me and the door the sergeant began alternatively questioning and screaming at me. Who was I? What had I overheard that night? How had I overheard it? Why did I talk to a reporter?

I was terrified. What were these men going to do to me?

Somehow my mother got wind of where I was — to this day I don't know how — and flew down to the police station, with my stepfather in hot pursuit. (He was worrid about what my mother might do to the police officers.)

My mother burst into the police station and rushed past the officer at the desk before he could say anything. She slammed into the room where I was being "interrogated" and laid into the police sergeant, who was easily a foot and a half taller and 150 pounds heavier than her.

He never stood a chance. Within 60 seconds it looked like a scene from the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war, with the Israeli tanks moving forwards and the Arab tanks moving backwards. My mother backed that sergeant into a corner and, if my stepfather hadn't run into the room at that time, I don't know what would have happened. She probably would have killed him.

The police left me alone after that.

Don't get me wrong: my mother is the sweetest, kindest, most loving and giving person I've ever met. But she never finishes second in an argument. Ever.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Stick it

Growing up in northern New Jersey with a mother whose childhood was spent in New York (with very little money), my mother knew every hole in the wall ethnic place in a 30-mile radius. At a young age she taught me to eat with chopsticks when we went to Chinese restaurants, "because you should eat the food the way it was meant to be eaten." Same thing at Japanese and Korean restaurants. (In Thailand, if you didn't know, they eat with forks. You won't impress your server in a Thai restaurant if you ask for chopsticks.)

(As an aside, I'm reminded of an old girlfriend who, on our second date, invited me to her house for dinner. Knowing I loved Asian food she prepared a stir fry. Unfortunately, she couldn't find pea pods, so she used peas. Eating with chopsticks was a bit of a struggle.)

One time my mother and I were in a little neighborhood Chinese restaurant, where the extended family that obviously owned the place was camped out at a big circular table in the center of the restaurant. I was probably nine or 10. At the table were a number of kids, probably about my age, give or take. Like many first generation immigrants, the Chinese kids  desperately wanted to be like their new American friends. I imagine the rejection of their Chinese heritage was hurtful to their parents. I noticed the kids were all eating with forks.

"See," said one of the older Chinese women, perhaps the matriarch of the family. She pointed at my mother and me. "They're eating with chopsticks."

Having trouble with your kids rejecting their heritage? Give me a call.

Straight flush

If you have children — maybe even if you don't — chances are you've unclogged a toilet or two. (This story isn't gross.)

One day a couple of years ago the toilet in our first floor powder room — I've never actually seen the powder, but I'm assured by more intelligent folks that that's the right term — was clogged.

The plunger didn't unclog it. The plunger never unclogs it. But hope springs eternal that one day I'll get off easy.

Back out to the garage to get the snake, which always works (though not after some sweating and profanity).

Now our powder room is tiny, with room for a sink, a toilet and one person. But fascinated by the picture of their father sticking what amounts to a hand powered auger into the toilet — not that any of them would know what an auger was — three of our four children wanted to crowd into the bathroom with me to watch this spectacle. Finding the elbow room to turn the crank on the snake was a challenge.

Crank, crank, snake, snake, and after meeting some resistance I dislodged the reason for the clog: a tube of toothpaste. Children's toothpaste, unless my wife has suddenly switched to brushing with bubble gum flavor without telling me.

When I asked the children how the tube of toothpaste had found its way into the toilet, three excitedly babbling children were suddenly silent. Finally Hannah spoke up: "It fell in the toilet this morning when I was brushing my teeth."

Say, Hannah, how did it happen to get flushed to cause the clog?

"I was afraid you'd get mad so I flushed it to get rid of it."


"I didn't want to reach in and get it!"

Children's logic. Always right and yet, somehow, sometimes wrong.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Good Rats

The list of coulda, woulda, shoulda been big stars would have to have the Good Rats near the top. Never heard of them? Well, there you go.

The Good Rats came from the same Long Island that spawned Billy Joel, Twisted Sister and Blue Oyster Cult, and, if there was any justice in this world, would have been as popular as any of them. Powered by intricate, twin guitar lines by Mickey Marchello and John "The Cat" Gatto, and fronted by Mickey's brother Peppi, who sang like Burton Cummings (Guess Who) would if he had balls, the band played many big venues (generally as a warm-up act), but never made it big.

Drummer Joe Franco later played with Twisted Sister and on a Leslie West (Mountain) solo album. Peppi still fronts a band named the Good Rats, but with himself as the only original member, the band is a shadow of its former self.

Blistering, double time interwoven twin guitar leads, anchored by a drummer who did his best to channel his Inner Keith Moon (as if!), the band could rock as hard as anyone, and then throw in jazz chords and minor-key harmonies with dizzying speed.

Peppi, who has turned out to be a right-wing reactionary, at one point wrote about slashers and stalkers, fascists and dictators, and Walter Cronkite. That's rock and roll, baby!

If you ever stumble across a Good Rats CD in a remainder bin somewhere, buy it. If you don't like it, email me and I'll buy it from you for what you paid. Yes, the Good Rats were that good.

I don't expect to get too many CDs.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The ad game

The worst job I ever had — even worse than being the manager at an ice cream parlor that was drowning in debt because a manager two managers ago had stolen a lot of money — was as a copywriter in an ad agency in Washington, D.C.

This place had the worst reputation in town, known for being a sweatshop where employees were routinely abused in every way. I was young and didn't know any better when I took the job.

The first year I was there the comptroller, who was a friend of mine, told me our turnover was 400%. 400%! With 65 employees we went out 260 W-2s at the end of the year. People would quit at the end of their first week. People would quit at the end of their first day. One guy, a bookkeeper of some sort, left for lunch on his first day and never came back. I figured that was the record, until one guy quit before he started working.

During the summer, when work was a little slower, the agency would stop working after lunch on Friday, then lay out a spread and beer for the employees. The creative director would show all of the work we'd done that week, people would party a little, then leave.

Apparently a new account executive was hired on a Friday morning and invited to come back that afternoon to meet his new co-workers. Someone must have told him what he was in for, and when Monday rolled around he didn't.

The comptroller and I retired the Shortest Tenure Trophy after that.

One time an account executive there was interviewing for a job at another agency in town. The woman interviewing him looked at his resume and noted he'd been at our agency for three years. "Yes," he replied, proud that he'd been there that long. "Why?" she asked him.

It was the kind of place where the employees were expected to arrive by 8:30 a.m., and had to note in a logbook why they were late if they were. The president's two children, who both worked there, could roll in at 10 and no one would say a word. The president would tell people an ad campaign had to be done that day, so she could review it first thing the next morning, and people would stay late to do it. She'd come in the following day at noon, eat lunch for two hours, make an employee walk her dog, then convene the creative department at 4 p.m., review the work, tell everyone it was awful and make us stay late to redo it.

We had six coke addicts on staff (that I knew of), a couple of married folks having an affair, and backstabbing and office politics of the worst sort.

I'm leaving out a lot of what happened during my three years there, but whenever anyone asked me why I stayed I always had the same reply: "It's the best show in town and they pay me to watch it."

But the day I was fired I bought a bottle of champagne.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Leftover Blues

There were two things in our house that I used to always be able to count on as mine: leftovers and dark chocolate. No one else liked either, while I love both. Every time we got a box of mixed chocolates — from Rheb's, of course, because there is no other reasonably priced chocolate in the area worth eating — the other five folks in the house would split the milk chocolate pieces, while the dark chocolate was mine, all mine. Great deal for one of us.

Ditto the cup of mashed potatoes, half portion of pasta with two meatballs, grilled but uneaten cheeseburger: I could put leftovers in the fridge after dinner and know what I was having for lunch the next day.

No longer.

It started with the chocolate: a month ago a friend sent me individually wrapped dark chocolates in four flavors from 1-800-FLOWERS. (Very good chocolate, by the way.) The boxes — each flavor, plain, raspberry, orange and espresso comes in its own, nicely deigned box — were on a shelf in my office, and when the kids came home from school and came downstairs to visit me in my office (which they do every day) they noticed them.

"What's that? Can I try one?" I gave them each a piece of the dark chocolate, thinking each would make a face and spit it out. I was so wrong. They all loved it so now, every day, they come into my office for an after school piece. My stash is dwindling rapidly.

Then, all four of them decided that reheated mashed potatoes, pasta or other leftover goodness make a great breakfast. Even hiding a particularly prized dab of something in the back of the fridge doesn't work. They find it, they eat it, and my leftover lunches are now just a memory.

The only thing none of them will eat are very spicy foods. So now, when I pack up the leftovers, I keep the bottle of hot sauce handy and add a couple of shakes. It's working for now, but I suspect it won't last long.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Paper. Work.

We just refinanced our house, and I think that the pile of paperwork to buy, sell or refinance a home gets taller every time.

Okay, so we sign the papers that tell how much we're borrowing, what our interest rate is, and what our monthly payment will be. I understand the need for that. We sign papers that say what our closing costs are, what our taxes will be, what our homeowners insurance will be. I understand that, too, though since we pay our property taxes and homeowner's insurance every year I'm painfully aware of the amounts. And I'm reminded, once again, that Maryland has some of the highest closing costs in the country.

Then comes the fun stuff: that we live in the home. (Yes, we do.) That we agree to insure and maintain it. (As long as "maintain" doesn't mean "neat and clean.") That we don't secretly have other mortgages or any legal actions where someone could take our house (I'm sure we'd know if we did.) That we received all of the paperwork they sent us prior to the closing. (They certainly sent us a lot of paperwork, so probably, yes.)

Then came the last form, which turned out to be my favorite: the one that says that if they made any mistakes or typos we agree that they can fix them and we'll sign the revised forms.
This must be the mortgage equivalent of the Get Out of Jail Free card.

If only the rest of life had that kind of agreement.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Call For You

Thanks to Verizon's "New Every Two" deal my wife, Sarah, just got a new cell phone free. Well, free if we extend our contract by two years. Her old phone battery wouldn't hold a charge for more than half an hour of conversation, so it was either a new battery or a new phone.

The new phones were much shinier.

We went to the Verizon store together, since our Family Plan account is in my name, but the choice was all Sarah's. She took one look at all of the techno lust on display and suddenly features she hadn't cared about five minutes previously, such as quality of the built-in camera and music player became important.

She was still looking when I had to leave for a meeting, and she'd settled on a Samsung phone that was an updated version of her old phone: clamshell style, nothing fancy or flashy. When I got home from my meeting there, on the table, was her brand new black cherry (that's the color) LG Chocolate. (Which, oddly, comes in several colors, but not brown.)

It has an iPod-style scroll wheel and lots of flashing red lights, instantly making it the "I just want to hold it for a minute" device of the moment.

I'll admit I went online to see what sort of credit I could get from Verizon towards a new phone, until I remembered that I use my phone for less than 50 minutes a month, don't take photos with it and don't listen to music on it.

Immediately our teenaged daughter, thrilled with her cell phone when she received it as a graduation gift a year ago, realized how old and clunky her phone was. She's been lobbying for a new phone repeatedly ever since, even though my reply has never varied from, "If you want to buy a new cell phone, go ahead."

Today she unveiled her new, Multiple Reasons Why You Should Buy Me a New Cell Phone Strategy. "Look at the screen. It's all scratched. And there's a gap...a gap when it closes. See, it doesn't close tight any more."

And, finally, what she hoped would be the knockout punch: "And it has nail polish on it," pointing to a speck of something. "Nail polish! And it doesn't even match."

Nice try.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

It's Hard Out Here For A Pimp

Before children — and mostly before marriage, as well — I was an avid, avid concert goer. Like most concert goers, I have stories of a number of memorable shows, including seeing Captain Beefheart in the old Childe Harold in D.C. during one of his rare East Coast tours, the Residents, also in D.C., NRBQ, Danny Gatton, Root Boy Slim and John Prine (not all together) many times, and a host of others.

Listening to Trio of Doom, the one-off concert/studio disk by Tony Williams, Jaco Pastorius and John McLaughlin reminded me of the only time I saw the late Jaco as the headliner (I also saw him on the tour when he backed up Joni Mitchell).

The place was one of the college auditoriums in D.C., I think either Georgetown or George Washington. It was what was billed as the first annual Capital Jazz Festival — I don't know if there was a second — and it had been poorly publicized and organized. The auditorium was maybe a third full.

There were a number of good acts, notably Buck Hill, an excellent local sax player, but I, probably like most of the audience, was there to see Jaco, the headliner.

Apparently no one had told Jaco about the small audience, and when he came out from backstage, you could see a range of emotions on his face: shock, anger, determination. That last seemed to be his final thought, along the lines of "Those motherfuckers will be sorry they missed this one," and he tore into John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" the way a man who hadn't eaten in a week might tear into a platter of fried chicken.

Every song was like that. I was limp by the time he was done.

But the funniest concert I ever saw — inadvertently so — was probably also the best:

When I was 16 I worked for a summer at a day camp for underprivileged city kids who went fishing, hiking and did other outdoorsy things for the first time in their lives. One day one of the other counselors gave me — GAVE ME — a ticket to see the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden that night. (This was in northern New Jersey, about 30-40 minutes from New York City.) He had only one ticket, couldn't get a second for his girlfriend, and I think she was mad that he was going to go alone and not take her.

This was during the 1972 tour, when the Stones were at the height of their powers. Stevie Wonder was the warm-up act and, to top it off, it was Mick Jagger's birthday.

It was a hell of a show.

Now this was only the second concert I'd ever been to — Emerson, Lake and Palmer was the first (don't ask) — and I, despite my long hair and pre-grungy grunge appearance, was a very naive 16 year old.

I wound up sitting next to what I now realize was a black pimp and two of his women, both also black. For some reason he took a liking to me. I probably amused him with my innocence.

As the show was ending he said, "Man, Tiffany (one of the women) really likes you. Why don't you come party with us after the show?"

I had no idea what he meant and replied, with all sincerity, that I had to leave right after the show, because my last bus home left New York at 11:30.

"The bus?" he replied, disbelief in his voice. "The bus?"

If he's still alive he's probably still telling the story. As am I.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mother's Day

If you really want to embarrass your mother, drop out of high school.

It worked for me.

Technically I didn't drop out of high school — I left high school after my junior year to go to college. But for almost two years I delighted in telling everyone within earshot that I'd dropped out of high school, particularly if my mother was within earshot.

After I'd completed my first year of college I applied for my G.E.D. )General Equivalency Diploma). In New Jersey — probably other states, too — if you pass a year of college you can get your high school equivalency diploma without taking any test: just send a check. The diplomas are, apparently, spit out by a big computer, because mine was on cheap paper and perforated on all four sides. Well worth the $35 it cost me, especially considering the red leatherette case which was included at no extra charge.

I still have it, though I've yet to convince my wife that it should be displayed with pride in a place of prominence.

I left high school early for two reasons:
1) I was bored.
2) I could.

I really just wanted to get school over with as soon as possible, so after skipping my senior year of high school I zipped through college in 3 1/2 years, just to get out. (Yes, I did get a degree. It's in economics, which is a story in itself.)

After doing everything I could to get out and away from school I wound up marrying a teacher, proving that the universe had a sense of humor. I did, however, have one great moment in school, though sadly I wasn't there to witness it.

In what would have been my senior year of high school, somewhere hear the end of the year, the school held its awards ceremony, with all 1,800 students in the auditorium. Apparently I won some academic award — I still haven't gotten it — and when my name was announced a friend of mine stood up and yelled, "he dropped out!"

My mother would have been proud.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Popularity Contest

I've noticed that the most popular blogs, the ones that get 1,000 times the traffic mine gets (and are an infinite percentage more profitable) either revolve around politics (especially in this election year) or sex (any year).

To capitalize on this trend, I've just posted a video of me, naked, reading the Constitution. Do a YouTube search. I'm sure you'll find it.

The Innocence of Youth

I'm 52, a fact which is central to this story.

A couple of weeks ago our school hosted a Family Fun Night (during Turn Off The TV Week), which meant that kids spent a couple of hours running around and playing on the playground and the school fields. Several teachers came as well, including Tiffany, who looks far younger than her age.

She and I were talking, and she mentioned that it was her 30th birthday. She'd told her kids (she teaches 1st grade) that morning.

"Do they know how old you are?" I asked. Yes, she'd told them she was 30.

"Did they think 30 was old?" I asked. "Oh, no," she replied, in what I can only term as wide-eyed innocence. "They think 50 is old."

I probably once thought that, too.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Take this job

By the time you read this I'll probably be much wealthier than you. An incredible opportunity has come my way, and I'll soon be leaving the ranks of the little people.

I recently posted my resume on the major job sites, and in minutes I had a hit: I was contacted by Eric Lewis, who wants me to become a financial agent representative — sounds classy, doesn't it? — for his company. As he describes in his letter, to avoid onerous Swiss banking regulations (he approves of the bankers' need for security, but finds their regulations to be a bit of a pain, apparently) his company will purchase and resell "products in such spheres of industry as electronics, chemical products, expensive construction materials (aren't they all?) and manufactured goods.

His company sells the products internationally and the money from his clients is wired to my account. I wire him the money and get a fat commission.

How fat? Eric — he emailed me using my first name, so I guess we're on a first-name basis already — said I'll make $3,000 in commissions the first month, then increasing by $500 a month until I hit $8,000 a month, and then when my two-year (!) trial period is completed with his company I get $2,500 a week. A week! That's a whole lot more than I made last week.

I have to be on my toes, though: If I don't send the money that's deposited in my account to him within 12 hours, I lose my commission. After 48 hours, if I haven't sent him the money, he contacts the police.

It's no wonder his letter says his company hires only "honest, dependable, punctual people."

If you notice a change in the writing style on this blog soon, don't be surprised. I'll be so busy making money I'll have to hire someone else to do it. I'll certainly be able to afford him.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Carry On My Wayward Son

Those of yu who have children will probably relate to this. Those who are planning to have children should probably skip it.

Children, as you know (or perhaps will know), are expensive. Go to your daughter's softball game, as I did today, and you'll see a steady stream of children, bored while waiting for their turn at bat,  asking their parents for money for the snack bar. Second inning: Gatorade. Third inning: pizza. Fifth inning: soft pretzel.

So I was reminded of a trip we took a year or so ago — I can't remember where — when it seemed like every 15 minutes I was getting out my wallet for someone. After about the sixth or seventh request for cash I said, half jokingly, "What if I stay home next time and just send my wallet?"

My then 11-year-old son looked at me and replied, in all seriousness, "Oh no, Dad. We need you to carry stuff."

Friday, May 2, 2008

Tied Into Knots

My stepsister's wedding was easily the most entertaining wedding I've ever attended, if by "entertaining" you mean George Washington, lesbians, cocaine, New Jersey and Brooks Brothers.

My stepsister Ellen was a lesbian for a few years, then decided she wasn't. She met and fell in love with Paul, a British gentleman, though I use the term gentleman loosely: he was an arrogant, condescending jerk.

Anyway, the wedding was a very genteel affair, on the grounds of an historic farmhouse — George Washington had, in fact slept there — on several acres in southern New Jersey (the part that really deserves the slogan "The Garden State.") A string quartet of folks from Julliard played. The caterer was a friend of Ellen's, whose chocolate truffles had recently been judged the best in New York by the New York Times. The setting was stunning and the food was exquisite.

My oldest stepbrother, Dan, hated not being the center of attention, and so he wore one of those t-shirts printed to look like a tuxedo. Class all the way. Ellen's maid of honor was her former lover, Lydia, who wore all black to the wedding and spent the day in tears, because not only was Ellen getting married, but she was marrying a man.

Many of Ellen's guests were very chi-chi New York women, mainly lesbians, who spent a good chunk of the event ducking behind the barn and snorting cocaine. Needless to say, they'd return screeching and jibber jabbering.

The groom's guests were primarily from England. Although most of them were not from money they were all suitably attired in Brooks Brothers and similar fashions, and were about as proper as a person can be.

I was thoroughly enjoying the event when it got even better: it started to rain, and we all crowded into the farmhouse. Forced into close quarters, the British gentlemen started chatting up the New York women with whom, of course, they had no chance. The string quartet tried to set up in one of the rooms, though no one could hear them over the din. It was the best circus I'd ever seen.

Dan started a pool to predict how long the marriage would last. I gave it eight months and was amazed that it lasted through a few years and two children. Ellen hasn't been married since (this was 20 or so years ago) and Paul, I think, moved back to England. (He hated me — actually, he had a low opinion of everyone in our family — and the feeling was mutual.)

Every other wedding I've ever attended has paled by comparison.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Jelly(fish) Stays On My Mind

If you happen to be non Asian — a category I certainly fall into — here's a way to amaze your friends, and probably the staff, the next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, particularly one that serves a primarily Asian clientele: order jellyfish.

Near our house is a Chinese restaurant — Cantonese, actually — that appears to cater to the large Asian population in the area. I've been there three times with a friend of mine, and every time we were the only white people in the place.

Half of the menu was only in Chinese, and I certainly couldn't read it. (As an aside, yesterday I heard a comic on Xm radio — I LOVE XM — who was trying to figure out the check when he and his family ate in a Chinese restaurant. "Okay, who had the broom chasing the house?" he asked.)

The portion of the menu I could read was definitely for Chinese people, with nary a sweet and sour dish in the mix: it was all duck's blood this, sea cucumber that, and all around us folks were digging in (with chopsticks, of course) to platters of unrecognizable food.

We asked for chopsticks and tea, which seemed to slightly surprise the waiter, but it really gave him pause when I ordered jellyfish as an appetizer. My friend ordered something more conventional, probably dumplings.

He went back to the kitchen (we were near the door) and I heard all kinds of loud conversation. A couple of minutes later he walked out with a plate of jellyfish, followed by the kitchen staff. They silently watched to see if I'd really eat it, exchanging glances every time I used my chopsticks to pick up another bite.

When I was about halfway through the plate they silently turned and walked back into the kitchen.

If you've never had jellyfish, and you didn't know what it was, you'd think you were eating some sort of weird vegetable. Every time I've had it it's been sliced into strips, somewhat like shorter linguine, and served cold in a light soy-sesame sauce. It has a somewhat gelatinous, "squeaky" texture and a very mild, non fishy flavor. The first time I had it — my mother ordered it when we were eating lunch in Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown — I thought it was a member of the bamboo shoot family.

I haven't yet worked up the courage to try the stewed chicken feet, though.