Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gambling for fun and very little profit

Turns out that Miss Wendy has a little gambling jones, a bit surprising since my lovely wife has never been to Vegas, doesn't particularly care about card games and thinks the perfect trifecfta is an afternoon of shopping at three different shoe stores!

On a recent cruise to the Caribbean, we stumbled onto a smallish casino on our large-ish ship and spent a few minutes checking it out. My son-in-law, who is apparently familiar with the pleasures of Vegas and the massive casinos on its iconic strip, tried to explain the yin and yang of all the one-armed bandits in the room.

The more he explained the less I understood. The slot machines were whirring and purring, numbers flying about and colors blinking. It was information overload and none of it made much sense. I certainly couldn't figure out how you went about winning -- or losing.

We were heading for the exit, passing packs -- gaggles, herds, colonies, clusters -- of excited folks playing craps and roulette, poker, blackjack and other such games of chance, when we happened upon a Rube Goldberg-ish type contraption that caught Miss Wendy's attention.

It had at least five playing positions, was filled with quarters and, in a bizarre sort of way, was somewhat mesmerizing. After all, there were all those glittering quarters just waiting for someone to take them home.

Let me explain. The machine, creatively known in the trade as a "coin pusher", is something many of you have probably seen in arcades or at county fairs. It's essentially a large container, made up of two tiers, both filled with quarters. At the back of the contraption, on each level, is a metal arm that is in constant motion, moving a few inches back and forth. You drop a quarter into one of three slots strategically placed at the top of the coin pusher. If you're lucky, the coin plops against another quarter, then is pushed a bit by the mechanical arm, which causes several of the coins to fall to the bottom level, pushing a few more coins into the exit bin.

Slot machines -- all those bells and whistles, blinking lights and whirling numbers -- are an enigma. But the coin pusher seemed so simple, so easy to maneuver and outwit. The quarters were spilling over the edge, just waiting for a little push and the clinking coins would spill, literally, into your waiting, trembling hand.

Right, when pigs fly!

Miss Wendy rummaged through her purse, found a handful of quarters and dropped one into the slot. It clanked its way down to the first tier and did absolutely nothing. So, too, the second and third coins. But the next quarter gently nudged up against a heap of change, then slowly spilled onto the next level, unleashing a small torrent of coins into the exit slot. If you were keeping score, we were now even -- $1 had been entered into the machine and 4 quarters had been spit out.

Miss Wendy was hooked. She suggested I get some more quarters to feed the machine and a few minutes later I handed her $5 in change. For the next 15 minutes or so the demon was upon my lovely wife as she fed the mechanical beast, first down a few quarters, then up, then down, then ... well, I'm sure you get the idea.

The bottom line? The house always wins and this machine is a mechanical engineer's dream. It always looks like it's ready to deliver, but the bonanza is always just another quarter away. In the three days that we walked through the casino, I only saw one person walk away from the coin pusher a winner.

And Miss Wendy? Let's just say she spent a happy hour or so over several days having fun.

COIN PUSHER: Rube Goldberg-type contraption (photo above) looks like it's ready to deliver, but is always one quarter away from delivering.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How I spent my summer vacation

It was just a moment of a delightful weekend, a few days of living the good life in the Caribbean aboard a floating city that offered food, adult beverages, entertainment, more food, a bit of gambling, more food and, well, more food.

The special moment came very early one morning just a few days ago, a slight rocking of the massive ship somewhere between Nassau and Miami, waking me from a sound sleep. I crawled over to a nearby window, pulling back the curtains in our stateroom and glanced out at the ocean -- black and deep, a bit of white froth here and there and a brilliant carpet of light reaching out to the distant horizon.

I was still in that daze of wakening, a bit befuddled but mesmerized by the dancing moonlight that glimmered magically across the water and my mind. I sat propped up on a pillow for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, watching the show.

I had taken full advantage of the day -- eating and drinking, reading and resting, even attending an energetic, if somewhat cheesy song and dance production by a group of not-yet-ready-for-prime-time entertainers. That's what I and the lovely Miss Wendy had paid for, right?

That seemed to be the case, at least according to the marketing folks at Norwegian Cruise Lines. But they were wrong and once again life had offered me something better -- a transcendent moment.

Okay, there were also towel animals, a sort of squishy looking seal -- or maybe it was a walrus! It was waiting for Miss Wendy and me on our bed, a little gift from our cabin steward that, arguably, was covered by the cost of the cruise. Nature offered up the other gift for free.

A footnote. There was also one additional gift. Miss Wendy and I had the opportunity to spend this special time with two special people -- our daughter Lauren and son-in-law Josh. So we had it all -- food, booze and entertainment, a transcendent moment and time with family -- and, yes, even one squishy, wrinkled seal thingy. Priceless!

GIFT FROM NATURE: Okay, so this isn't my photo. But if I had a camera handy and, well, a tripod and the gift for snapping perfect pictures, this (photo above) is just about exactly what I saw from my stateroom.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Artsy container important for what it holds

It's almost Friday and you know what that means. Yes, it's time for another posting of "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" (IJS&F). Today, let's take a peek inside the Torah and explore one of Judaism's oldest commandments.

Okay, so you're visiting some new friends and as you're walking into their lovely home, you notice a beautiful little ornament nailed to the doorpost of the house.

You figure your friends are into edgy art, but still think it somewhat weird that they would be displaying something so delicate outdoors. Then again, there's a good chance you give little thought to the matter, quite probably don't even notice the little thingy hanging there.

Well, the delicate box isn't about art, but religion. And, truth to tell, the box isn't what's important. It's what's inside the container that counts in this case.

Jews are commanded by the Torah to place a "sign" on the doorpost of their homes. The why of it all is detailed in Deuteronomy 6:9, when the Torah commands that a mezuzah (Hebrew for doorpost) be affixed to the door frame of Jewish homes to fulfill the mitzvah (Hebrew for commandment) to write the words of the Shema "on the doorposts of your house."

The Shema is the ancient seminal statement of Jewish belief that runs on for several paragraphs. But even Jews who have only a passing understanding of the faith, generally know the opening line of the prayer: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!"

It remains an open question exactly what the Torah means by doorpost -- some Jews simply place a mezuzah just outside the front door of their homes, others place additional mezuzot (that would be the plural of mezuzah) on door frames throughout their houses, except for bathrooms and closets. Go figure.

It was once a simple matter of taking the prescribed text -- always prepared by a specially trained scribe, using black indelible ink and a quill pen -- and stuffing it into some sort of container. Quite often -- at least thousands of years ago -- a simple niche was cut into a doorpost, the text placed inside and a small covering nailed into place to protect the contents from the elements.

In the last century, give or take a century or two, artists have turned the production of mezuzah containers into high art, producing a wide assortment of pieces from an endless variety of materials -- precious metals, stone, wood, and glass. So often, the focus is on the artsy container. Big mistake. The only purpose of the container -- artsy or simple -- is to hold the sacred text of the Torah.

A tradition among many Jews is to gently touch a mezuzah when entering a home or room, then kiss their fingers. During a trip to Israel, I noticed a teen doing just that. Each time we passed a mezuzah, he would reach up, touch the icon, then kiss his hand. I knew his parents weren't religious, so I was curious why he had picked up this tradition.

"Are you religious," I asked him. "No," he responded. "Then why kiss the mezuzah," I wondered. "Superstition," he said. And that, my friends and readers, is a topic for another day.

IT'S TRADITION: Many Jews gently touch a mezuzah (photo above) when entering a home or room, then kiss their fingers as a sign of respect.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Song of Norway -- sleek and beautiful!

Booking a cruise for later this summer had me waxing nostalgic for the first cruise I sailed away on years ago. It was 1976, I'd been married a whopping six months to the lovely Miss Wendy and we decided to vacation in the Caribbean.

I have absolutely no recollection how we went about choosing a cruise, but apparently we made some really good choices and ended up booking a week aboard the Song of Norway. Our good friends Linda and Barry -- who have remained our good friends for nearly, gulp, 35 years now -- decided they could deal with a holiday also, and joined us on our adventure. Then again, perhaps we joined them!

The ship and trip remain a vivid memory for me, but the Song of Norway, one of the premier ships of the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line once upon a time, has seen better days.

The painful truth is we've all seen, ahhh, better days. Age has a way of catching up with each of us in one fashion or another and certainly the once beautiful and sleek Song of Norway now comes off a distant second when placed up against the behemoths that cruise lines feature today.

But in 1976 -- America's bicentennial year, you might recall -- when I still had hair, was 20 pounds lighter and had a thing for "leisure suits," walking aboard the Song of Norway was like entering a fantasy world.

The ship's innards were a maze of color-coded and coordinated hallways, lavish public rooms and expansive dining areas, bars, lounges and one tiny casino. Staterooms were smallish, but oh-so cute -- little bed, little bureau, little chair and itsy-bitsy bathroom. Interestingly, it all felt so big!

The one feature, however, that defined the Song of Norway was the distinctive sky lounge on the funnel, a circular bit of whimsy and charm that sat high above the ship, offering a delightful panoramic view of the sea as we cruised, and all our ports of call -- Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, St. Thomas and San Juan.

All this beauty and luxury seem, well, quaint today. Now ships boast shopping atriums that soar skyward in their bellies, theaters that can hold hundreds, and multiple dining rooms and lounges. Staterooms, while still tiny, often come with huge windows, even large balconies. There are wave pools and rock climbing walls, Jacuzzis, saunas and expansive exercise rooms.

It takes only a moment to crunch a few numbers to really appreciate the difference between the Song of Norway and ships today. The original Song of Norway was 18,000 gross tons and carried 724 passengers. The ship I'll be cruising on this summer, Norwegian Cruise Line's Sky, is actually small by today's standards at 77,104 gross tons, but can hold well over 2,000 passengers. Then there are the floating cities, cruise ships as big as aircraft carriers. At the top of the list is the Oasis of the Sea, coming in at a mere 225,282 gross tons and easily able to handle well over 5,400 passengers.

Somewhat like an aging dowager, the Song of Norway has fallen on hard times in recent years. She was sold to Sun Cruises in the mid-1990s and became the Sundream, her distinctive sky lounge and much of her charm removed as part of the deal. Over the next decade she changed hands several more times, cruising primarily around the eastern Mediterranean -- Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Rhodes and Greece.

In 2006, the Dream Princess became the Dream, was anchored near New Orleans and served as a floating dormitory for students from Tulane University after Hurricane Katrina. That deal only lasted a year or so, but she has yet to sail into the sunset or been sold off as scrap metal.

Somewhere the Song of Norway rests silently moored to a dock, gently rocked by the movement of the tides. I like to think if you spot her in just the right light, you might hear laughter spilling from her decks and see glasses being raised in good cheer way up in her sky lounge.

After all, the Song of Norway is one of my memories and everyone knows that memories remain the stuff of dreams.

IN BETTER DAYS: Song of Norway (photo above) could be spotted easily by the sky lounge on its funnel, a lovely bar offering delightful panoramic views of the sea and ports of call.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Asking tough questions for stupid reasons

I know this isn't something new, but the latest marketing gimmick being offered up by local television stations is starting to get on my nerves.

I can recall years ago when the happening thing was for broadcasters to entertain us with something called "Happy Talk". I even did a story about a marketing guru in the mid-1970s who convinced a station in a very small market to pick up the concept with hilarious and disastrous results.

Anchors spent their time focusing on lame segues that at best were funny and at worst completely nonsensical -- "Yes Bob, that's the hot news in the metro area, so what's the hot news in the weather tonight?" Can you say stupid!

Over the last several decades all this snappy, happy talk has morphed into an assortment of styles, most of it finally giving way to 10 minutes of crime news -- robberies, fires, the occasional shooting and murder -- followed by the weather and sports. At least once a week, some feckless reporter manages to get a victim of one sort or another on camera, ask a few incredibly lame questions about the crime of the moment (So, how do you feel about your husband being shot?), then focus on the poor slob as they break down in sobs. And they call this news! No, not really. It's theater, poorly conceived and executed.

Now it seems the marketing gurus are back and the focus is for stations to offer up news that "CAN HELP US"! So promos feature anchors and news executives telling us in pleading terms -- have they no shame -- how much they care about each of us and their mission in life is to let us know that they've heard our collective voices and are now taking action to "give us exactly what we want ... news that can help us." I must have slept through the class in Journalism school when it was explained that a journalist's highest calling is to give the public "exactly what they want!"

One station recently has taken the, ahhh, formidable position that they are now all about "ASKING TOUGH QUESTIONS!" And what is tacitly understood is they're asking all these tough questions to somehow HELP US. Bah-lo-ney! They're asking insipid, stupid questions that they've taken to labeling "tough" for one reason -- to increase ratings.

God help us from marketing morons, news consultants and focus groups. If you actually watch the broadcasts, essentially nothing has changed -- there's still 10 minutes of crime news followed by weather and sports.

The reality that none of the broadcasters seem willing to embrace is that the world has dramatically changed in recent years, that there are any number of ways that people now get their daily fix of news. Local TV news affiliates might best use their marketing budgets to beef up their news staffs and to begin to simply cover the day's happenings -- crime, politics, general interest features stories. Find the right mix, focus on accurate, unbiased reporting and, surprise, some viewers might start paying attention to what's being offered again.

I know it's a novel idea. Maybe if I form a consulting company and start marketing this idea I just might manage to bring about some significant change in local markets. And, hey, I wouldn't mind being handed some of the big bucks these specialists are being paid to come up with TOUGH QUESTIONS!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Remembering my Dad on Father's Day

It was a moment in time, a second captured on film.

The details are hazy, of course, as you would expect. After all, I was only a toddler, still staring out at the world with a bit of wonder. My best guess is I'm around 4 or so in this photo. That would make my Dad around 40, twenty-two years younger than I am now -- a mere kid.

It was 1952, and my father was still getting over the emotional burden of World War II. He'd been drafted when the U.S. entered the war in 1941, a buck private who made his way to warrant officer pretty quickly, then was shipped off to the Philippines with an artillery unit from Georgia.

He never detailed the fight and all I really know about that time is that he returned home weary and sick. He had picked up some sort of bug, lost 40 or so pounds and, unfortunately, his appetite for life.

My father, like thousands of other U.S. servicemen, had been a lighthearted kid when the world went a little loopy. His youthful blush and zest for life was lost in the South Pacific and it would take a few years for Dad to right himself.

But William, called Bill by family, friends and strangers -- and there were very few strangers in my father's life -- was nothing if not a scrapper. By the time this photo was snapped, he was back in the game, fighting the good fight to provide for his family and capture the American dream -- a home in the suburbs, a car in the driveway, a lovely wife and handful of kids -- four boys at final count.

He had worked in a pawn shop before the war, so it was only natural that he would end up as a pawnbroker. It's a tough business, a job that can tear at your soul if you're not careful. He was careful.

Central Pawn Shop was a tiny place, probably only a dozen feet across in some spots and maybe five times that size from front to back. It was essentially a large, brick box that my father had made usable by creating a loft of sorts in the back. It was on this second floor where he kept the bulk of pawned items -- musical instruments and guns; tires and tools; cameras, record players and speakers; suits and leather coats. On the first floor, in a small, cluttered office screened off from customers and the rest of the store, was a huge safe that was pushed underneath a staircase. It was here where the good stuff -- watches and rings, gold chains and fancy jewelry -- was stored.

Dad's business was capitalism refined to its essence. If you needed money and had something of value, you could offer it up as collateral for a loan. Say you wanted $5 more than you needed to know the time. You might consider pawning your watch. You then had 30 days to repay the loan, plus 10 percent interest. So on a $5 loan, my father would make 50 cents. Of course there were plenty of customers who couldn't manage to pull together $5 all at one time, but didn't want to lose their watch. Each month they would show up with 50 cents, and a little notation would be added to the back of their pawn ticket extending the transaction for another 30 days. For some customers it would take years to pay off their loan.

It was this give and take, playing with nickels and dimes and people's lives that could rip away at your innards. On some intuitive level, my father understood this, managing to balance out his life by always giving out more than he took in, reaching out to family, friends and the community. He was, quite simply, a good soul and constant source of light.

Overstated? Not really. My father was the quintessential "people person", the guy who was always around to lend a helping hand, the consummate volunteer. He joined the Lions Club, selling brooms -- you heard correctly, brooms -- to raise money for the organization's national program to aid the blind; he was the adult supervisor for our synagogue's youth program, president of the shul's Men's Club and Commander of both the local chapter of the Jewish War Veterans and, eventually, the state organization.

He voluntarily raised his synagogue dues every couple of years, just because it was the right thing to do, and at the end of each month wrote checks to a dozen charities, once again because it was the right thing to do.

On Thanksgiving, he donated food baskets to the hungry and on Christmas he volunteered at area hospitals so Christian workers could spend time with their families. During the Jewish High Holidays, he was a volunteer usher. A few weeks later on Sukkot, he was the guy, kids in tow, who went out and chopped down pine branches (trust me, it's a Jewish thing) to cover the communal sukkah -- a sort of hut that is an integral part of the ancient festival.

Dad fancied himself an amateur thespian, joining the city's little theater group, at first only providing props -- hey, if you couldn't find stuff for a production in a pawn shop, you weren't really looking hard. He later took on minor roles -- the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof, one of the gamblers in Guys and Dolls. He was horrid, but he was always loud, energetic and willing!

In the early 1980s when he turned 71, Dad managed to finally get serious about his volunteering. He quit his day job -- actually sold his business and sort of retired -- then essentially joined the local police department, helping out on its pawn shop detail. He still had a few hours each week to play around with, so he also began volunteering as a gofer at a local hospital. With those two gigs, a little travel with Mom and constant weekend trips to visit nearby family and friends, he managed to stay busy for the next decade.

In the summer of 1997, Dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He died four months later, just a few days shy of his 84th birthday. Two days before his death, he rested on a hospital bed, centered in his den, surrounded by a cloth-covered couch and leather recliner, console television and wooden display cases filled with an assortment of tchotchkes. He was draped in robin-blue pajamas and sat listlessly on the edge of the bed, staring out vacantly toward the television and fireplace. The cancer had eaten away at his gut and trimmed off twenty pounds of fat. He looked haggard and tired, but surprisingly fit.

He was lost in that place where people go as death approaches, befuddled and depressed, in pain and straining for breath. He took little notice of my arrival. My youngest brother was in the room. My mother sat nearby. A hospice worker was fiddling with some meds and making small talk about his plans for Thanksgiving.

I was standing in my parent's house, in my father's den, watching him gasp for breath, listening to a hospice worker talk about turkey. It all seemed surreal, a world gone slightly askew. I could make little sense of what I was hearing and what was happening. Neither, apparently, could my father. He glanced over at the hospice worker, a look of puzzlement spreading across his face and slowly began shaking his head. And then he spoke. "I want to go home."

He mumbled the words again, and then again. "I want to go home." It was a plea, the words of a lost little boy, unsure of where he was and where he was headed. "I want to go home." They were the last words I ever heard him speak.

I like to think that my father made it home, met up with his brothers and sister, his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I also like to think that just behind his family were some of the thousands of people he managed to help during his life, strangers who had become his friends.

Take a moment and glance back at the photo at the top of this posting. See how my Dad is bending over, checking me out, a father in love with his son. That's what I remember most about my father, a man always reaching out, willing to do a little bending if necessary to make life better for other people.

I mourned his loss when he died a dozen years ago and now I miss him more than ever. He was my hero -- still is today.

MOMENT IN TIME: Me and my Dad (photo above) in the early 1950s at Central Pawn Shop. And, yes, I did enjoy the coke.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Reason for hope on a dark and lonely road

My mother, as I've detailed here before, is trudging down the long road of dementia. It's an ordeal that many have faced, a problem for both those afflicted and their families dealing with the myriad of problems that are part of this disease.

One of the greatest hurdles, ironically, comes from the bizarre system of medical care that's been created in this country. It's a system that provides remarkable aid for all sorts of mundane and catastrophic situations -- broken limbs and sore throats, heart disease and cancer. But the healthcare community seems to still be stumbling around in the dark ages when it comes to treating any form of dementia.

The problem, and I'm speaking now from experience, is that when patients grow old and lose the ability to pay close attention to their care, they and their caregivers fall into a bottomless pit, filled with an assortment of doctors -- primary care physicians, neurologists and psychiatrists -- physician assistants and physical therapists, all making suggestions and all passing the buck.

My guess is that people and caregivers dealing with any sort of chronic ailment probably face the same issues. The problem isn't the disease, but the number of healthcare workers involved in treating ongoing ailments and the archaic system of communication that remains at the heart of our medical community.

In the last year or so, my Mom has gone from living in her own condo, taking half a dozen different medications, following the advice and instruction of one doctor -- her primary care physician -- to now living in the "Memory Care" ward of an assisted living facility. Today she takes 14 different pills -- meds for blood pressure and cholesterol, depression and insomnia; pills to boost her appetite and quiet tremors and hallucinations. There's another half-dozen pills prescribed for use as needed for aches and pains, stomach upset and anxiety. She has a neurologist, two psychiatrists, physician assistants and physical therapists. I've lost count of the number of nurses and aides responsible for her care.

At first blush all this attention might seem to be a good thing, something to celebrate and not condemn. There's only one problem -- these people don't talk with one another and there is no central database where information is stored and updated. It's up to me, my brothers and other caregivers to make sure instructions are passed along correctly, that aides charged with handling meds are doing so correctly, that the orders of one physician countermanding the orders and prescriptions of another are correct and carried out. This is absolute madness.

But there is a bit of good news. Today started out badly, very badly. It ended on an optimistic note.

My brother and I met at Mom's assisted living facility to pick her up for another appointment, this one with yet another physician assistant at the geriatric hospital where she has been treated several times. In the last few weeks, Mom's condition has worsened significantly -- she's no longer able to walk, to feed herself or take care of any of her personal needs. She's lethargic, speaks only if prodded and is now showing signs of Parkinson's, one of the nasty little side effects of the form of dementia (it's called Lewy Body) that she's battling.

So what's the good news? The physician assistant seemed to be more shocked by Mom's condition than either my brother or me and set about finding out what the hell has been going on with her care. She pretty quickly announced that it was clear Mom was over medicated and dehydrated. She studied the med info they have on file at the hospital and checked out the folder I brought along that details recent visits and med changes. She then repeated the line I've heard so often from physicians and other healthcare workers in recent months, "this is what we're going to do now."

But unlike her colleagues, after making several changes and suggestions, this physician assistant detailed a plan of action -- new meds, plans to contact the med nurse at Mom's assisted living facility, notes to care workers about the importance of hydration and the need to monitor Mom as old meds are stopped and new ones are started.

Most startling and refreshing is I just got off the phone with the physician assistant -- she called me! The details aren't really important, it's the fact that she took the time to touch base with me about a topic she thought important regarding Mom's care. She then added that if Mom doesn't perk up in the next couple of days that I should give her a call and there are some additional tests that she'd like to order.

It was about then that I recall something she had said in a sort of absent-minded way while looking over my mother's chart earlier in the day. "If this was my Mom, I'd certainly be concerned about her care." It was just a little break in the professional facade, a bit of empathy that hopefully means we might have stumbled onto someone special.

To be sure there will be additional challenges in the coming weeks and months. But I'll grab hold of help and hope anywhere I can find it. And on this day it seems we were handed a small gift that just might lighten the dark road my Mom is navigating.

Museum offers glimpse into world destroyed

It's Friday, so it must be time once again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F). Today we take a look behind the scenes at a room filled with history from one of the darkest chapters of Judaism.

The Jewish Museum of Vienna, forced shut in 1938 by the Nazis and reopened in 1989, has several floors given over to temporary exhibits and traditional Jewish themes.

But hidden away on the top floor is a storage area, open to the public, which offers a poignant reminder of what was lost during the Holocaust.

Glass cases in the room are filled with ritual objects -- Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, kiddush cups -- and other bits of Judaica. The pieces, simply displayed with little commentary, are the remnants of the original museum -- items dating back decades to the late 19th century -- and objects salvaged from shuls and homes from across the region following the war.

There are thousands of items, most torn, burned or damaged from misuse and age. They provide mute and moving testimony to a vanished culture and a people lost.

PIECES OF HISTORY: Bits of Judaica (photo above), all that remain of Jewish communities destroyed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe, on display in Jewish Museum of Vienna.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Something peachy from the Land of Cotton

The waitress, perky and wanting only to please, was asking what we'd like to drink. It was our big night out, a Saturday and time to relax, so booze seemed the way to go. The question, of course, is how best to take our poison.

I got no problem here -- Gin and Tonic is my default. Stan is a Scotch sort of guy and John is all about beer -- Samuel Adams if it's available.

Denise mulled over the possibilities, then took the easy way out -- a glass of white wine. Susan was obviously in a tropical-breeze sort of mood and ordered a Mojito. The lovely Miss Wendy knew she wanted something with a bit more zing than water with a twist of lemon, but what?

The restaurant was offering the usual mix of sugary martinis, cute names and garnishes at no extra cost, but when Susan opted for a Mojito, Miss Wendy apparently caught island fever also and moved in that direction.

There was just one special request -- could they make it with peaches?

Okay, so I know most of you are thinking that a Mojito is a euphonic blend of rum, mint and limes and, well, if you play around with it too much, it just isn't a real Mojito any longer. Au contraire mom frere!

When the drinks were delivered and we'd all taken an initial sip, Miss Wendy's Peach Mojito was passed around. Everyone agreed it was refreshing and bubbly with a nice hint of mint and jolt of rum. But it was the peachy flavor that made it special, just about perfect for a hot summer night in the Land of Cotton.

But, you might ask, how do you make such a drink if you're planning a party and want to get everyone sweetly smashed? And I might just respond with this easy to handle recipe from Enjoy!

  • 3 cups coarsely chopped peeled ripe peaches
  • 1 teaspoon grated lime rind
  • 1 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 large limes)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed mint leaves
  • 2 cups white rum
  • 4 cups club soda, chilled
  • crushed ice

PREPARATION: Place peaches in a blender or food processor; process until smooth. Press peach puree through a fine sieve into a bowl; discard solids. Combine rind, lime juice, sugar, and mint in a large pitcher; crush juice mixture with the back of a long spoon. Add peach puree and rum to pitcher, stirring until sugar dissolves. Stir in club soda. Serve over crushed ice. Garnish with mint sprigs, if desired.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Physicist Stephen Hawking's rules for life

The advice seemed simple enough. What made the bromides somewhat remarkable is that they were being offered by Stephen Hawking, the British theoretical physicist who generally stays busy dealing with such weighty matters as quantum gravity and black holes.

On a recent evening news broadcast, Hawking, who suffers with ALS, is confined to a wheelchair and speaks with the aid of a computer, was being quizzed by Diane Sawyer about life and the Universe when the interview turned briefly to more personal things -- family, his wife and children.

Apparently Hawking can be a very straight forward sort of a guy when it comes to parenting -- in a poetic, Einsteinian sort of way. He has three rules for living that he's shared with his children about life, love and work. He also shared the advice with Diane and her audience.

The harsh metallic tones of his computer-generated voice couldn't hide the human nature of the code -- spend time looking at the stars, not at your feet; if and when you find love, hold onto it tightly; always work, it gives meaning to your life.

Hawking's daughter Lucy, a lovely woman sitting at his side through much of the interview, chuckled and told Sawyer that of course there was much truth in what her father had to say, but "if you're always looking at the stars, there's a good chance you're going to bump into a light post" one day.

Such is the problems with bromides!

Since I've been thinking a bit about life and work over the last year, ever since I walked away from the place with the printing press that I called home for several decades, I found what he had to say about work, ahhh, interesting.

There seems to be two huge camps of thought on the topic -- work is good; it keeps you active and alive and, as Hawking says, provides structure and meaning to life. And then there are the folks who argue that life is about a whole lot more than work, that one's career is mostly about making money to be able to do the real things you want to do with your time.

There's a bit of sense in each camp and the worth of both views seemed to come together in my mind while watching the Tony Awards the other night. Most of the winners, breathless and filled with thanks, spoke about how "lucky" they were to be working in a field they loved -- acting, singing, dancing, directing, producing.

They all had managed to find a way to make money, doing what they were passionate about in life. I imagine that Hawking feels the same sort of passion for his chosen field -- astro-nuclear-fusion-cosmological-stringy-theoretical physics and book writing.

The challenge, it would seem, is to find that thing -- accounting, baking, lawyering, painting, counseling, gardening, teaching, selling, plumbing, governing -- you're passionate about and then figure out how to make a living at it. So at this stage of the game, I think my choices are writing, phtography, painting or drinking. I know what I enjoy the most and do the best. Now if only I can figure out how to handle the headaches and dehydration.

WORDS OF WISDOM: Physicist Stephen Hawking (photo above) offers up some good advice on life, love and work.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Feasting, forgetting in world gone slightly loopy

Another weekend and another fabulous meal and evening out with friends. Life can be a pain at times, but it's how you spend your leisure moments that adds flavor to the journey. This time around, the lovely Miss Wendy and I spent a few enjoyable hours at McCormick & Schmick's with longtime pals Denise and Stan, Susan and John.

There was a small reality check that came along with the evening's festivities -- food, drink and general merrymaking. More about that in a moment.

McCormick & Schmick's is an upscale chain of restaurants started and based in Portland, Oregon that features fish and fishy products. In our little corner of the world, it's conveniently grouped together with several other trendy spots -- P.F. Chang's China Bistro and Brio Tuscan Grill. On two little acres or so, surrounding a watery lagoon, you can feast on Asian, Italian or fishy cuisine. It's a happening spot, one huge, bustling parking lot servicing all three restaurants, the structures neatly surrounding the picturesque lagoon.

We all met, smooched hello and were quickly ushered to a little alcove just off the main dining area, a perfect spot to spend a few hours away from the world and its global concerns -- economic woes, oil slicks, wars in distant lands and, ahhh, endless yard work!

The eating games began with one, well, actually two platters of portabella mushroom and goat cheese bruschetta, delightfully and tastefully presented with an olive-oil-infused garnish. While my friends drank a bit -- can you say mojito -- I amused myself with the restaurant's seafood and roasted corn chowder.

It was good, perhaps a bit soupy for my taste, but a nice way to fill a few minutes before beginning the arduous task of studying the menu -- it changes daily and there are a wide assortment of hors d'oeuvres, side dishes and entrees offered.

Cutting to the chase, the winning entree it would seem was filet of flounder freshly delivered from Georges Bank, Mass., encrusted with Italian Parmesan cheese and topped with lemon caper butter. Such was the choice of three of my dining mates. Denise opted for the tuna -- bait rare, thank you very much -- and Susan selected the soft-shelled crab.

I feasted on lobster ravioli, sauteed with baby spinach (I imagine papa and mama spinach are in mourning) and cherry tomatoes in a white wine cream sauce. C'est magnifique!

It was late in the evening, long after we had nibbled away at the remains of our entrees and were still enjoying coffee and our shared desserts -- a sort of Bananas Foster-inspired creation and chocolate cake-ice cream-Oreo crusted thingy -- that I glanced into the main dining area and noticed only one or two other diners, surrounded by a sea of empty tables.

Earlier in the evening, busy chatting with my friends as we made our way through the restaurant, I hadn't paid much attention to the surroundings. I recall hearing much chatter and the clanking of dishes and dinnerware. But after some thought, I also remembered that Miss Wendy and I had zipped up to the valet parking area with no other cars in front of us, made our way into the restaurant and had to wait for only one other couple to be helped before our party was seated. The place wasn't empty; but it certainly wasn't operating anywhere near full capacity.

McCormick & Schmick's, I fear, continues to suffer from a faltering economy, potential customers still hunkering down, waiting for a flag of victory to be raised on Wall Street or in Washington. Despite reasonably good economic news in recent days -- job losses are slowing, consumer confidence growing -- there's a wariness about the land that will continue to be part of our lives as long as the Dow keeps bobbing up and down like a cork in a troubled and uncertain sea.

Wall Street, even with the white-collar thugs who continue to run the place, remains a pretty accurate barometer about all things economic. So I think in coming months I'll start turning to CNBC instead of the Food Network when planning any future outings. It's the friends, after all, not the place that's important when getting together. And I think we can all drink to that!

YOU LOOKING AT US: Northwest King Salmon (photo above) take a well-deserved rest at McCormick & Schmick's before becoming entrees.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dead sea a lively way to spend a day in Israel

BIZARRE AND BEAUTIFUL: The Dead Sea is framed by a mixture of minerals, all that remain when the water along the shore quickly evaporates from the intense heat in this region of the Middle East.

It's Friday, time yet again for another "Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts" (IJS&F) posting. Today we visit Israel and dip our tootsies into the brackish waters of a fascinating and picturesque tourist attraction.

The Dead Sea is salty and muddy and, well, absolutely dead.

It's also one of Israel's most interesting attractions. Most first-time tourists include a trip to this remote region of the country to see Masada -- the ancient fortress about 90 minutes by bus from Jerusalem -- and find the nearby Dead Sea, despite its name, the perfect place to relax and get cool.

That's what I and a group of companions from Atlanta did on a visit sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. After a couple of hours of exploring the ruins of Masada, most of us were ready to experience the unique -- some might say bizarre -- offerings of this gigantic inland lake.

The Dead Sea is fed mainly from the north by the Jordan River. But the fresh water evaporates quickly because of the hot desert climate. What remains is a mineral-rich pond -- it's 10 times saltier than the Mediterranean -- that is incapable of supporting life.
But it will support bathers -- literally.

Because of the density of solids in the water, when you jump into the Dead Sea, you bob to the surface like you're made of cork and float -- effortlessly. You don't have to arch your back. You don't have to paddle your hands and kick your legs. In fact, you don't have to do anything but enjoy the experience.

You can also enjoy the sun -- there's an average of 330 full days of sunshine in the region each year.

And because the Dead Sea is 1,320 feet below sea level, the lowest point on Earth, harmful ultraviolet rays are filtered through an extra atmospheric layer -- an evaporation layer that exists above the Dead Sea and a rather thick ozone layer. So sun lovers can bake for hours with little risk of burning.

That's not to suggest there aren't problems. If you have a cut, even a tiny scratch or small rash, the sting of the mineral-rich water will probably drive you out of the area with a grimace on your face and a crusty glaze of salt all over your body.

At least that was my experience. I lasted only five minutes or so before bolting for one of the fresh-water showers that dot the nearby beach.

Others in the group had no such problems. I spotted them as I washed away the brackish water -- a flotilla of pink-skinned tourists bobbing leisurely and comfortably atop the calm waters of the lake.

And then there's the mud. It covers the banks and sea floor, squishing coolly around your feet and ankles, and feels like a gooey mess of Jell-O. It's also thought to be good for you.

People take the stuff and smear it all over their bodies, a practice that stretches back thousands of years -- supposedly Solomon, Cleopatra and Herod the Great all enjoyed playing in the mud.

The gelatinous gunk, a brew of minerals including magnesium, calcium, bromine and potassium, offers relief for people suffering from psoriasis and other skin disorders and is used as a beauty aid. It's marketed under the brand name of Ahava and can be purchased online or at most department stores, spas and many beauty salons.

The entire area is remarkable, one of the treasures of Israel and just one of the reasons you might want to visit the Jewish homeland.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Hey, Mr. XM: This blog can be bought!

It was a small box with a simple on/off knob, a dial to control the volume and one to switch between stations. This was my contact with the world of music late at night when I was a kid -- and it offered up a bit of magic.

In the 1960s, rock 'n roll and Motown were punching it out, releasing toe-tapping, lyrically light bits of fluff that defined a generation. It was my little radio -- actually a radio I shared with my brothers -- that brought tunes into our home and lives.

We lived in a tiny tract house, maybe 1,000 square feet if you included the front porch. It was covered in shingles, painted pea green, and included three small bedrooms, one smallish bathroom, living room, separate dining room and den.

The six of us -- my parents and four boys -- lived atop one another for nearly two decades there, thin walls hiding absolutely nothing. I had my first real taste of privacy when I was drafted into the army.

Each night my brothers and I scrambled into bed, tossing scuffed shoes and dirty socks onto the hardwood floors of the rooms we shared. Each of us had a chest of drawers -- two in one room, two in the other. But that was just a resting place for our clothes. It seems odd now, remembering those years, that there wasn't a room that any of us thought of as ours. We often slept where we fell; sometimes three of us bundled into one double bed, while one of us stretched out regally in the other room, enjoying a night of relative privacy.

And there was the radio, crackling with static and the banter of a DJ, mixed with the hypnotic hum of a window fan in summer and the whoosh of a nearby floor furnace in winter.

There was also fighting and shoving, giggling and whispers, all played out to the rhythmic sounds of Aretha Franklin and The Kingsmen, The Rolling Stones and Beach Boys, Elvis, The Beatles, Wilson Pickett and James Brown -- The Godfather of Soul and, undeniably, the hardest working man in show business.

Can you hear it? Can you feel it? Can you, ahhh, dig it?

For years I couldn't. Music became mostly background noise in my life, a slight distraction when I was driving; a quiet melody at movies that filled time when the actors weren't acting; loud, irritating banging at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other such celebrations.

And then I got an ipod for my birthday a few years ago and rediscovered the magic. Now I carry around a music library that fits in the palm of my hand. Aretha, Elvis and The Beatles are once again part of my life. So, too, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Nina Simone, Reba McEntire, Dire Straits and Coldplay.

All this talk of music and musicians is on my mind today because I recently ratcheted up the magic, trying out satellite radio, courtesy of a new car and a three-month free offer from the folks at XM.

Aretha and the Beach Boys are all over channel 6. Elvis and Frank, thank you very much, have their own channels and On Broadway is filled with O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, and other such tunes. Nashville has a twangy, country spot, right close to Willie's Place and Bluegrass Junction.

There's also Liquid Metal and Classic Vinyl, Soft Rock and Cool Jazz. To be sure there's plenty that I'll never touch -- 1st Wave and Hair Nation, Octane, Boneyard and Lithium. Don't have a clue if such channels are offering music, beauty products or drugs.

The icing on the cake, at least for me, a guy who made his living playing with words and managing the news, is the all-talk channels -- CNN, Fox, NPR and BBC Radio 1. That's the short list since I've just about run out of letters of the alphabet. Now if I could just manage to cram my brothers into the backseat of my car, it would be like deju vu all over again.

And, no, the folks at XM didn't pay me to write this. Of course, for the right price I'd have no problem changing the name of this blog to This&That&XM. Just a thought!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Helen speaks and the world sighs -- oy vey!

With all the sturm und drang surrounding last week's activities by Israel off the coast of Gaza -- the international condemnation and political gamesmanship by the usual suspects, massive rallies and bloated headlines -- Helen Thomas managed to take center stage and provide some comic relief by week's end.

The dean of the Washington press corps, once the senior White House correspondent for UPI and now a columnist for Hearst, showed her true colors when she managed to put both feet and half her wrinkled torso in her mouth by suggesting that Jews in Israel should "go home" to Poland, Germany and America.

Caught a bit off guard during a short interview outside the White House, Helen, 89, told Rabbi David Nesenoff of that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine."

She has been blasted by her colleagues, U.S. officials and politicians on both the left and the right for her, ahhh, candor. She has since apologized -- in a fashion.

"I deeply regret my comments . . . regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians," she said in a statement. "They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance."

You'd think Helen, who's covered nine presidents, beginning with JFK in the early 1960s, would be better at preparing an apology, perhaps actually focusing on her anti-Semitic declaration that Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine." My guess is that's exactly how she feels and never had any plans to backtrack from her beliefs.

And that's okay. In fact, there's something interesting and important to be found in this mini-circus and Helen holding on to her final 15 minutes in the spotlight. She has been critical of Israel for years, even as she was working as an "objective" reporter for one of the largest news organizations in the world. Helen has finally fessed up and shown her true colors.

Instead of tip-toeing around the contentious political issues that have simmered in the Middle East for decades, dropping buzz words about bilateral talks and summits, and the importance of a two-state solution, she said what she really thinks -- kick the Jews out of Palestine.

It's a belief that Helen in her dotage shares with thousands of academics here and in Europe; angry, festering mobs across the Arab world; and naive, idealistic liberals -- hey, I'm sort of one of them, except on this issue -- who think peace will come to the region once Israel is wiped off the map.

Helen has an excuse for her views. She's old and not quite all there. All the rest seem lost in some sort of parallel universe, where the laws of physics (up is down and down is up) and common sense (good is bad and bad is good) no longer matter.

FOOT-AND-MOUTH DISEASE: Helen Thomas (photo above), the dean of the Washington press corps, offers her solution for peace in the Middle East.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Wet, wild and fun in Roswell

Over the last two years or so, I've watched workmen putting together the pieces of a water park next to the walking trail I visit several times a week in Roswell near the Chattahoochee River. At first blush, I had no clue what they were building, but little by little their efforts began to take shape.

A year ago they opened the "Sprayground" and it seemed to be a huge success. Kids of all sizes, parents in tow, frolicked about the fountains, dashing and splashing and, well, getting wet and enjoying the experience.

It all seemed to be working, but then toward the end of last summer, the park was suddenly closed and the workmen returned. Again, I watched as they went about the business of re-inventing the area. And just last week, the playground reopened.

This time around, two huge covered areas dominate the area, a convenient place for parents to watch as their youngsters play. Also, a fence was added to the site -- always a good idea when water, slippery places and kids are part of the mix.

Sometimes government panels get it right, spending our money on projects that serve the community and make sense. If you're in the neighborhood, stop by Roswell's sprayground, dip your tootsies into one of the gushing fountains and I think you'll agree that this wet and wild place is a good idea.

FUN IN THE SUN: Sprayground attracts kids of all sizes to pubic park near the Chattahoochee in Roswell. Covered areas and safety fence have recently been added.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Cover up ... you never know who's watching!

It's Friday, time yet again for another Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts (IJS&F) posting. Today we go right to the top of things and examine what we find on the heads of most observant Jews.

So, what is that little beanie that many Jews wear?

I'm glad you asked. The short answer -- and I like short, to the point answers -- is that observant Jewish men keep their heads covered at all times by wearing a skullcap. In Hebrew, it's called a kippah (Kee-pah), in Yiddish a yarmulke (Ya-meh-kah).

Other Jews -- both men and women -- also wear such head coverings, just not as often. Generally, members of the Conservative and Reform movements will wear a kippah when praying, studying Torah, taking part in most any sort of Jewish-related ritual or trying to impress someone with just how Jewish they are. This is especially true of college-age guys who think wearing a kippah will make them more attractive to college-age gals. Don't laugh. It works.

But how and why, you might ask, did this tradition begin? The answer to this query is a little more difficult to explain.

There is no reference to head coverings in the Torah. And despite the fantasies of Hollywood filmmakers portraying ancient religious leaders -- Temple priests, for instance -- and their followers wearing kippot (that would be the plural of kippah), that just wasn't the case.

About the only references you'll find on the topic is in the Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition. The Talmud states that a Jew should cover his head "in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you."

Well, that not so pleasant reference has been revised by modern rabbis who now suggest Jews cover their heads as a reminder that G-d is always above them -- sort of the same idea, just with a more positive spin.

Another, somewhat more sociological reason I've heard for the wearing of a kippah, speaks to the contrary nature of a people often viewed as "The Other". The reasoning goes that if Christians are expected to uncover their heads when entering a church, then Jews will cover theirs when entering a synagogue.

Worth noting, is that just as there are numerous sects and movements within Judaism, there are also many different styles of head coverings. For instance, religious Zionists are known for wearing knitted kippot; the ultra-Orthodox, black velvet; the modern Orthodox, suede. Conservative and Reform Jews wear all of the above, plus kippot that look like smiley faces and soccer balls, feature school colors and the names of sporting teams. Plus they come in a variety of sizes and shapes, some covering the entire top of the head, others not much larger than a silver dollar.

Finally, you might wonder if non-Jews should cover their heads when venturing into a synagogue or taking part in any sort of Jewish ritual or celebration.

The short answer? It couldn't hurt!

MATTER OF STYLE: A wide variety of kippot (photo above), on display outside a shop on Ben Yehudah Street in Jerusalem, include skullcap's sporting smiley faces, super-Jew icons and a variety of sporting team logos.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Making sense of a world gone mad

I don't know anyone who likes hurting another person. It's certainly not part of what defines most of us and certainly not part of the Jewish world view. But when you're being attacked, when there are dangerous, malevolent forces whose sole purpose is to attack you and your family, friends and neighbors, then only a fool or madman would stand idly by and wait for the blow.

That's the position the people and politicians of Israel have found themselves in since the country was created in 1948. For decades, Israel has battled its enemies with measured bluntness, often pulling its punches for humanitarian reasons. The most recent salvo was fired this week off the coast of Gaza.

Israeli commandos boarded a flotilla of ships attempting to run a legal blockade aimed at keeping weapons out of the Palestinian territory. Five ships were peacefully boarded. On the sixth, the Mavi Marmara, passengers wielding knives and clubs attacked the commandos. In the ensuing battle, nine activists were killed, dozens injured -- including commandos -- and hundreds taken into Israeli custody.

The incident has touched off a diplomatic maelstrom for Israel -- again. It's a drama that has been playing out for decades.

Just a little over sixty-five years ago, the world was picking itself up after 50 million people were killed during World War II. It was about then that many people looked around and realized that among the dead were six million Jews who had been systematically executed by the Nazis, not because they were enemy combatants, not because they were terrorists, not because they posed a threat to the Third Reich.

No, Jews were demonized to rally the masses toward war and murdered for one simple reason -- virulent anti-Semitism. The German people's moral compass was knocked askew and the country went berserk -- good became evil, evil became good. And for awhile it all made sense.

Out of the ashes and madness, a Jewish homeland was created on land that had been part of the Jewish experience for thousands of years. From the beginning there have been problems and from the beginning the Jews of Israel have made it clear they will fight for what is rightfully theirs to defend.

Sadly, we live in a world that has once again been turned upside down -- good has become evil and evil has become good. Terrorists lash out at Israel and are hailed as heroes. Unruly mobs demonize the Jewish homeland, its people and supporters. Politicians in Europe and across the Arab world cynically play to their constituents, telling them what they want to hear. The pattern recycles every couple of years and the death toll mounts.

The problems remain huge, a brierpatch of thorny issues that could easily take another generation to resolve. But this much I know is true. A picture is still worth a thousand words and the political cartoon above captures at least one simple truth. There may have been some peaceful protesters attempting to reach Gaza earlier this week, but terrorists were behind the effort.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How I spent my long holiday weekend -- burp!

It was a festive Memorial Day weekend. My wife, that would be the lovely Miss Wendy, and I helped celebrate the marriage of the son of our good friends, Denise and Stan.

The wedding was a quietly elegant affair in Buckhead at the Intercontinental Hotel -- think expansive public spaces; chandeliers the size of small mountains, walls of granite and floors of marble; smiling doormen and wait staff. The guests were dazzling, darling and aglitter -- a few men in black tie, others in dark suits; the women in evening gowns and cocktail dresses. Black, with sequins, was the color of the night.

I had an epiphany when the evening was still young. The cocktail hour buzz had yet to wear off and the reception on Sunday had entered that almost perfect place that party planners worship -- the music was energetic, the food was warm, the company and conversation were familiar. That's about as good as it generally gets at such festivities.

Miss Wendy and I sat with our weekend playmates, Susan and John, making small talk as the band moved into its obligatory set of Jewish tunes, the kids swallowed up on the dance floor by wives grabbing for their husbands, all circling to the energetic melody of Hava Nagila.

It was right about then, as I swirled about the room in a frenzy of good cheer, that I realized that I had eaten the equivalent of a small elephant over the preceding 24 hours, somewhere around 11,263 calories. Have I mentioned there was drinking?

The chow fest started slowly enough the evening before with the rehearsal dinner, a lovely affair at 103 West. It began with a "chopped" salad -- crispy romaine lettuce, tomatoes, hearts of palm, avocado, sweet onions, peppers and garbanzo beans, all layered carefully beneath a creamy basil dressing.

The affair then quickly picked up speed as I revved my appetite and eating skills into second gear, opting for the sauteed Atlantic salmon, tantalizingly garnished with lemon parsley gremolata. I also managed to scarf down a bit of my wife's ricotta cheese ravioli in tarragon sauce, before moving on to Chef Joseph's Grand Dessert Display -- chocolate-covered strawberries, mixed fruit in dainty pastry shells, assorted cakes and cookies.

On Sunday, after the prayers were spoken and the glass was smashed (trust me, it's a Jewish thing), the marathon continued at the Intercontinental, first in one of the hotel's massive foyers, filled with tables holding an assortment of spreads -- hummus, eggplant and olives -- baskets of crackers and assorted flat breads, trays of sushi and other hors d'oeuvres that for the moment have been forgotten in an alcoholic haze. Did I mention there was drinking? Why, yes, I believe I did.

Then the seated dinner started and we finally managed to get down to some really serious eating -- organic greens in a radicchio cup, hearts of palm and tear drop tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries and candied pecans. But the piece de resistance of all this gluttony was the heart-shaped Vol au Vent with mushroom ragout. And that was just the salad!

Winded, but unwilling to call it quits, we proceeded with the main course -- roasted French chicken, amusingly presented with pearl onions, haricot verts, fingerling potatoes, wild mushrooms, squash and zucchini tornadoes.

And desert? Why, that would have been the marshmallow, pound cake, pineapple and strawberries, all conveniently diced and sliced for easier dipping in the CHOCOLATE FOUNTAIN! Oh yes, there was also wedding cake.

We then were allowed to grab a few hours sleep, before the celebration continued with breakfast -- assorted breads and pastries, scrambled eggs with mushrooms, various cream cheese spreads, jams and jellies, cake, cookies and assorted fruit.

I'm not certain, but I think we managed to hit all the major food groups over the weekend. I'd worry about the alcohol in my system, but I'm pretty sure the simple and complex carbohydrates, proteins and other such stuff now floating through my veins have created such a vast array of roadblocks that booze is the least of my problems.

Of much greater importance, the happy couple, Amanda and Hilton, remain married after a day or two of wedded bliss. Here's hoping they make it to their first anniversary and I get invited to share a bite of their remaining wedding cake.

SERIOUS SALAD: Heart-shaped Vol au Vent with mushroom ragout (photo above), flanked with hearts of palm and organic greens, tear drop tomatoes, strawberries, blueberries and candied pecans.