Sunday, October 28, 2007

Something fishy in Philadelphia

Last Friday afternoon, as I was getting ready to head out for our buddy Iball’s bachelor party in Philly, my friend Josh called me to say, “You’re the cheapest guy I know, and tonight we’re going to the most expensive restaurant I know. I wonder if the world will explode when you walk through the doors.”

“Wait a minute, I thought this was just a little sushi place,” I said.

“We’re going to Morimoto, not Long John Silver’s. You might want to stop at Wawa on the way and get a meatball shorti so you don’t starve.”

It had all seemed innocent enough, clicking the “Yes” button on the Evite for the party. We weren’t flying to Vegas, just having a simple night out on the town in Philly. For the record, if you think “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” when you see the word “Evite,” you probably don’t get invited to too many events via the internet.

That evening, twelve of us descended on Morimoto, with those traveling in my car taking an enjoyable, if obscenity-filled, detour into New Jersey first.

“Why are we on the bridge? Who said to take 76 East? Oh, man, why does this always happen?” I moaned. Stadiums have been built in Philly with the toll dollars collected from our accidental forays into Jersey. The earliest settlers in New Jersey probably got lost on their way to a concert and just didn’t feel like paying the three bucks to get back into Philly.

When we finally got to the restaurant, we found that it was stylish and carefully lit, the kind of place where you’d expect to see famous people that you wouldn’t really care about seeing, like Nick Nolte or Louis Anderson. I quietly stared at the menu, pretending that I was considering ordering something other than a California roll, the second-cheapest thing on the menu behind salted beans. Then one of Iball’s friends said, “Hey, this omakase dish sounds really good.”

I glanced at the menu and saw the description for omakase: “Blah fish something blah. $80, $100 or $120 and up per person.”

When I looked back up to share a good laugh with the guy, I realized with horror that he was serious. I leaned over to Josh and said, “Dude, 80 to 120 bucks? I hope ‘omakase’ is Japanese for ‘Eagles tickets.’”

After we’d had enough food and drink to outspend the Defense Department for the evening, the waitress brought out a small plate with a single candle and a marble-sized black thing on it, setting it in front of Iball.

“This is a red snapper eye,” she said. “It’s considered a delicacy.” The use of passive voice allowed her to avoid the issue altogether of who, exactly, considers fish eyeballs to be nature’s Bon-Bons. The word “delicacy” is often applied to things that other people seem to be trying to get rid of.

Alanis Morisette ruined the word ironic many years ago, but if she hadn’t, that might have been a decent word with which to describe the scene of Iball looking down at the eyeball on his plate looking back up at him. It should be noted that Iball’s nickname gets its derivation not from any particular affinity for eyeballs themselves, but because his initials are I.B., and Iball sounds cooler than Ibuprofen. In any event, we’ll probably pick a different restaurant when our buddy Lower Intestine gets married.

When the bill came, we all threw in enough cash to pomp a homecoming float. The mountain of twenties grew on top of the table, its avalanches making entire dinner plates disappear. After counting our contributions, our elected accountant looked up and uttered words I never thought I’d hear in my lifetime: “Dudes, we’re still $700 short.”

Our table briefly turned into a reasonable approximation of the New York Stock Exchange. We eventually made it out of there alive and in relatively good spirits, though we all carried freshly filleted wallets.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Thirty and full of hot air

Sure, I may have turned thirty last Saturday, but if you subtract all the time I've spent sleeping or playing Warcraft III, I'm really only about four years old. Even so, the round birthdays are the most traumatic, a tradition that begins with birthday number zero, when you have to learn how to breathe air and your gills stop working.

Thirty is a sneaky little birthday. It takes forever to turn twenty-one, then you watch a few Seinfeld reruns and BANG! Thirty catches you. Time to buy some sensible shoes.

Some of my buddies are having a tough time getting their heads around the idea of turning thirty. We’ve all felt the weight, real or imagined, of other people’s expectations of us at this point in our lives. In regards to measuring up, though, things should be pretty smooth from here on out. Nobody expects anything more of a thirty-six year-old than they do of a thirty year-old, except maybe longer nose hair.

My wife Kara did her best to put me in the clouds on this daunting birthday. At about 5:45am, a time that previously existed to me only in folk tales, she shook my shoulder and said, “I’m going to take a shower and get dressed now.”

“Mmph. Whatever,” I said, relieved that the news didn’t affect me.

“Then you’re going to get up, take a shower and put on some warm clothes,” she replied.

“That’s a good one,” I mumbled. An hour later, we were taking our first hot air balloon ride. When you’re on the ground watching a balloon, you don’t quite get the same sense of how powerful those burners really are. Man, what I could have done with one of those things when I was twelve.

Floating above the countryside at sunrise is really much more peaceful than it should be, given that your life is depending on the tensile strength of cables thinner than your shoelaces.

“See those big round hay bails down there? Those are illegal now,” our balloonist told us. We’d never met a balloonist before, but if this one was any indication, they are very pleasant people. He had an excellent balloonside manner.

“Why’s that?” Kara asked.

“The cows weren’t getting square meals,” he replied. We’d drifted another mile before we got the joke. Our senses of humor don’t click on until about noon.

So now that I’ve climbed a good deal higher up the Great Pyramid of Geezer, I feel that it’s my duty to share everything that I’ve learned so far in life with our younger readers. Here is the list, in its entirety:

1. "Quart" is short for "quarter of a gallon."

2. If you walk around the mall wearing a Bluetooth earpiece when you’re not even talking to anyone, there may very well be no hope for you.

So there it is, the accumulated wisdom of thirty years. In case there is any doubt, I’m qualified to share this knowledge by the dozens of gray hairs multiplying just above my ears. Everyone loves to say that gray hair makes a man look distinguished, but I really don’t have a problem with remaining as indistinguished as possible. At least my forehead is still charitable enough to offer me the occasional zit.

As I ponder the finer points of growing older, like the most effective way to shake one’s fist when hollering, “Get off my lawn!”, it makes me feel a little better to know that the milk I put in the fridge when I was in my twenties will still be good on the cereal I eat for dinner tonight.

My thirties have gotten off to a good start, thanks in no small part to support of friends and family. For example, here is a birthday email I just received from my sister-in-law Sarah: “HAPPPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU, HAPPY BIRTHDAY DEAR MIIIIIIIIIIIIKE, I’M SOOOOO MUCH YOUNGER THAN YOU.”

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

A pick-your-own adventure

There may come a time in your life when your significant other decides that you need to buy a wheelbarrow’s worth of apples, and that you should spend a weekend afternoon picking these apples yourself. Never mind that, ordinarily, you eat about an apple a month, and that the grocery store very nearby tends to stock plenty of exotic fruits, often including the rare and elusive apple itself.

If you have any sense at all, you will agree to this plan enthusiastically, because you learned long ago that maintaining marital harmony regularly involves the subjugation of logic.

This is how my wife Kara and I ended up heading out to the country last weekend on an apple-picking expedition, from which only one of us returned. Okay, that’s not entirely true. We both returned, but our cash didn’t.

Apple picking sounded like such a peaceful thing to do. I pictured a quiet country orchard with birds chirping overhead as a farmer in a straw hat greeted us with a friendly wave from his rocking chair. The countryside would be bucolic, also, because that’s how countrysides have to be described, even though bucolic to me sounds more like a breed of plow animal or something babies catch.

As we pulled into the dusty driveway, instead of a farmer, we were greeted by a parking lot attendant in an orange reflector vest waving at us with air-traffic-controller glowsticks. This place was like Six Flags Apple Adventure. As we made our way around the cars and wandered up to the front gate, we saw a huge snaking line stretching back from a multi-windowed ticket booth. Before entering the orchard, you had to buy a general admission ticket.

“Dude, there’s a cover charge?” I asked.

Cover charges give me hives. I can think of lots of things I’d rather do with my money than pay a cover charge, like running it through a food processor or donating it to pediatric Botox research.

One Saturday night at Penn State many years back, my buddy Derek and I waited in line for half an hour to get into a crowded bar. When we finally got to the front of the line, the bouncer announced that there was a five-dollar cover. In the Land of the Poor College Student, cover charges were rarely more than a couple of bucks.

Derek looked at the bouncer incredulously.

“Who’s playing in there, the Beatles?” he asked.

The Beatles weren’t playing at the orchard that day, but it did have a band, a corn maze, a petting zoo, a theme park, a haunted house and, as an afterthought, apples. After forking over the cover charge, we proceeded with the throngs to the bag-purchasing hut, where we paid twelve bucks for an empty bag. That felt kind of strange. Usually, when you pay twelve dollars for a plastic bag, it has twelve dollars worth of stuff in it.

Once we got away from the crowds and strolled among the apple trees, though, I began to understand why apple picking attracts so many people. It’s just pleasant to wander through the orchard, tasting the different kinds of apples and trying not to think about the fact that you had, just moments ago, been petting a donkey with the same hands that you were now eating out of.

On the way home, we stopped at the grocery store to pick up some ingredients to make apple crisp. As we walked through the produce aisle, it didn’t escape my notice that the store had a giant display of pre-bagged apples for ninety-nine cents a bag. Sure, apples may have been a tenth of the cost at the grocery store, but you didn’t have to earn those apples. You only truly appreciate your produce when you’ve paid for the privilege of picking it.

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Forming the perfect solution

As my wife’s cousin Shawn and his new wife Funda emerged from the church last weekend to bubbles, bell ringing and cheering, they graciously obliged the crowd by posing next to the church sign for a few pictures. After several clicks and beeps, they realized that people were laughing at a joke that they didn’t understand. Slowly, Shawn and Funda looked over their shoulders to see these words written on the board behind them: “Will I still be happy tomorrow with the decisions I’ve made today?”

Given their remarkable ability to put a wedding together in two months without a single charge of aggravated assault, I think they’re certainly off to a good start. In case you’ve never seen one, a wedding that’s planned in two months looks nearly identical to a wedding that’s planned over the course of a year, except everyone involved has this sly look like they just pulled an all-nighter and aced the test.

The wedding was held in the town of North East, Pennsylvania, which is, of course, in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, just outside of Erie and beside Lake Misleadingly Named, which, as the locals will tell you, is a mountain. Northwest PA is much further away than northeast PA. Until you have to drive lengthwise across Pennsylvania, you’d be forgiven for thinking of it as a fairly small state, like Delaware’s big brother. Six hours in, though, Pennsylvania feels a lot more like Nebraska’s obese cousin. I think Pennsylvania stole half of Ohio when nobody was looking.

I did my best to become Shawn’s obese cousin-in-law at the reception, as I parked myself beside the dessert table and wolfed down handfuls of peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s Kisses plunked on top.

“Dude, these cookies are money,” I said to a passing cousin.

“You mean the Mongolian hats?” he said.

I’d never heard them called that before. Those cookies really do look like little Mongolian hats. At least as far as I know. If I’m being completely honest, my knowledge of far-Eastern haberdashery probably isn’t what it should be.

The maid of honor kicked off the toast-giving. “The man is the head of the household,” she said, confirming my long-held belief that she has never been to my house. Then she continued, “But the woman is the neck. And she turns the head whichever way she wants.”

Shawn then did something completely crazy: he got up to give a toast himself. He didn’t realize that a groom’s only job at the wedding is to provide a body to hold the tux up.

“In the song Hearts and Bones, which we quoted on the invitation to this wedding, Paul Simon sang, ‘You take two bodies and you twirl them into one. Their hearts and their bones. And they won't come undone,’” Shawn said. “But Paul Simon isn’t a polymer scientist. In order for two materials to remain bonded permanently in a homogeneous solution, they must be perfectly miscible.”

Shawn and Funda are both doctoral polymer scientists, which means that only they truly know whether their bonds of marriage are ionic or covalent. Either way, Shawn is most definitely the first person I’ve ever seen describe the union with his spouse via the Gibbs free energy equation. He deserves special credit for tying the temperature variable in the equation to his wife’s hotness. Shortly after that, he started ruminating on enthalpy and Delta H, which as far as I know is an ointment for a very personal condition.

“Is there going to be a test?” someone called out. Shawn’s new wife grabbed the microphone, telling a quick story of her own and ending the toast-giving portion of the proceedings.

Kara doesn’t like it when I ruminate in public, either. “Will you please go to the bathroom if you’re going to ruminate like that?” she tells me.

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