Super Carb Me

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Morgan Spurlock, eat your cholesterol-clogged heart out.

The filmmaker and human guinea pig behind the documentary “Super Size Me” consumed nothing but McDonald’s for a whole month and – surprise, surprise – gained 24 pounds. How about eating fattening, salty food for twice as long and losing weight? Well, it can be done.

I’m not speaking from personal experience, unfortunately. I tried and I failed (ugly details below), but I know some people who didn’t and wrote about them on Page One of The Wall Street Journal. Their names are Alan Martin and Jeff Berman, both winners of Olive Garden’s annual “Never Ending Pasta Pass” promotion. It entitles you to all the soup, salad, bread sticks, pasta, sauce, and toppings you can eat for two months for $100.

One reason I love writing these stories is because I find enthusiasm infectious. Whether it’s floating cars, hot peppers, or wacky contests, I get to know people who are passionate about something most people hardly know or care about. Alan and Jeff were no exception – two really nice guys with personalities as big as their appetites.

“The Olive Garden Diet” was a well-received story in large part because the editor wisely took me out of it and made it about them. Like them, I also was a Pasta Pass “winner” and also had the idea of turning all that cavatappi into muscle, or at least not into love handles.

I ate at Olive Garden once a day for a month before the story changed direction. The hours spent on the treadmill and thousands of calories consumed are what’s known as a “sunk cost” – a poor investment that I found painful to abandon for no journalistic return, even though that was the right decision. So here’s my belated attempt to salvage something good from my experiment.

When I first had the idea, I immediately went to my new gym, Impact Zone, in Norwood, NJ. The owner, Dave Paladino, isn’t just ridiculously fit and muscular – he also trained members of the Sopranos, including the late James Gandolfini. What better person to ask if I could eat all that pasta and not wind up looking like “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero?

His answer, after I managed to was convince him I wasn’t pulling his leg? “Fugeddaboudit.” But he agreed to try and mitigate the damage. Here we are at the start of my pasta binge when I weighed a mere 157 pounds:

Dave

Daves’s crack trainer Adrian Greenberg designed a really rigorous daily workout for me and I did it religiously. I also bought a FitBit and set myself a goal of 15,000 steps a day. The first few days weren’t kind to me, but I figured a pound or so of weight was to be expected simply from a big increase in salt and carbohydrates. I had a complete Olive Garden Never Ending Pasta Bowl meal a day, including a bread stick and a protein topping and I ate all my other meals normally. The calories in this meal ranged from a little over 1,000 for a salad, bread stick, whole wheat linguine, marinara sauce, and grilled chicken to a whopping 2,000 in a single sitting for certain soup, pasta, sauce, and topping combinations. Damn you, asiago garlic alfredo and crispy chicken fritta! Here’s a photo-montage of some of my meals:

Pasta

My main problem was that I ate my Olive Garden meals mainly at lunch when I might normally have something light such as a salad or a protein shake. When I got home for dinner, my big meal of the day, I ate everything on my plate and often seconds. I shouldn’t have been hungry, but all the extra food just made me crave more calories in the evening. After entering every calorie into MyFitnessPal, I found that I was having an extra 600 to 800 calories a day compared to my normal diet.

To put that into perspective, a man my size would have to walk an additional 20,000 steps a day to make up the difference (the average American takes less than 5,000 steps daily). Alternatively, I could run for an hour and 18 minutes, bike for an hour and 21 minutes or swim for two hours and 15 minutes to use those 700 or so extra calories. I was working out, but I only had an hour or so to spare each day. What’s more, I already was a daily visitor to the gym so I merely went from a less-intense workout to a more-intense one.

Doing some quick math, had I done nothing to my energy usage, I would have consumed an extra 21,000 calories and packed on about six pounds. Had I gone all Morgan Spurlock and become sedentary, I would have packed on about 11 pounds. At the end of 30 days, when it was clear that the editor who had originally expressed interest in a fitness-related article had flaked out on me, I was 5 pounds heavier. Yikes!

Given the extra calories I burned, maybe two or three pounds of that was fat. The rest was water (from all the extra carbs and sodium) and, I hope, a little bit of muscle from the extra weight-lifting. More than a month later, I’m still a pound or two heavier and I feel thicker around the middle (I blame Thanksgiving, a long vacation, and a family birthday).

Alan and Jeff, who ate every meal at Olive Garden, both lost weight (five pounds and one pound, respectively). Part of that is size (they’re both about five inches taller and can consume a lot more calories), but, let’s face it, much of it is my lack of discipline outside of Olive Garden. Gaining weight is a lot easier and more pleasant than losing it.

Despite my failure, I’m pleased that I undertook the experiment. I got a great article out of it (indirectly) and learned something about nutrition and exercise. For now, though, I have some work left. Dave Paladino spotted me huffing and puffing on the elliptical at 5:50 a.m. today and looked like he was about to wish me good morning. Instead, he pointed at my flabby body and yelled: “Keep working off that pasta!”

 

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I ♥ the Sunk Cost Fallacy

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The above picture was taken almost exactly 61 years ago in front of Hungary’s parliament building during the brief revolution against Communist rule. I don’t know who the people in the picture raising the old Hungarian flag atop a captured tank were, but I know for sure that my parents (who both lived in Budapest but hadn’t met yet) aren’t lurking somewhere in the background.

My mom, who had just turned 16, was staying far, far away from the  fighting. My dad, who was 26 and a recent medical school graduate, was in the process of getting far, far away from Hungary period, along with 200,000 of his countrymen – about 2% of the population. Just days after this photo was taken, 2,000 Soviet tanks rolled in to Budapest to crush the uprising. During the ensuing chaos, with the border guards having abandoned their posts, my dad joined 180,000 people who walked across the Austrian border (some others went south to Yugoslavia while heading north to north or southeast to Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia or Romania, respectively, much less east to the Soviet Union itself, weren’t viable options).

My dad told me that, as he hitchhiked and walked for two days to Vienna with the occasional sounds of gunfire in the distance, he knew that there was no going back. He also decided that he was a European and that he would try to seek asylum somewhere in Europe and not the U.S. or far-off Australia. As he got to Vienna, there were tens of thousands of hungry and confused refugees milling about. He saw a bunch of Hungarians standing in a long line and figured that there must be something good being handed out at the end of it. After waiting for a long time, he finally asked someone. He was standing in front of the U.S. embassy. After spending all that time in line, he decided to stay and go live in America.

My dad (thank goodness!) had just succumbed to a common but flawed way of thinking. He had decided at the outset that he wouldn’t go to America and, while the U.S. was very generous, taking in nearly 40,000 Hungarians, he still could have migrated somewhere else. Austria? Sweden? France? You’d be reading a blog by Johann, Sven, or Francois.

But, by “investing” time in the U.S. line, he felt a compulsion to stay, which is about as rational as buying a movie ticket and going to see the show despite later catching pneumonia and hearing from a friend that it’s awful. This sunk cost fallacy is best known as an investing blunder. You go out and buy a share of XYZ Corp at $100 a share and it subsequently falls to $90. Let’s say some new information comes out that makes you re-think the wisdom of investing in the stock at even this lower price. Many people will keep their investment in this case because of their fixation with their $100 investment rather than asking whether it is even worth $90, which is the “correct” way to view the problem.

Clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to cognitive biases as I personally am in the middle of a giant sunk cost blunder myself, despite writing a book about why people are bad investors. Having invested $100 in an Unlimited PastaPass from Olive Garden (long story – faithful readers may be hearing more about this soon), I’ve been making fairly full use of it, eating at the chain about once a day.

But I don’t have to eat pasta, and in many cases I went there when I really didn’t feel like eating at America’s favorite faux-Tuscan chain. Since I already had paid for it, though, I keep thinking it would be silly not to make use of it. This even has been the case when I could have eaten perfectly tasty leftovers for free or just skipped lunch, as I often do.

Anyway, I owe my existence, empty calories and all, to the sunk cost fallacy, so it isn’t all bad.

 

 

 

 

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For Whom the Ironman Tolls

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The Wall Street Journal isn’t all business. Long time readers know that nearly every issue (“nearly” because there wasn’t one on Sept 12, 2001, for example) has a Page One article known as the “A-hed” that is whimsical. I’ve been reading them since I’ve been reading the paper,a pretty long time, but recently learned that they’ve been a regular feature of the WSJ about three times as long — over 75 years — by reading a piece written by Barry Newman.

Newman is known as “King of the A-hed.” He has written … wait for it … over 400 A-heds (*see correction below) in his time at the WSJ. A-heds are now about 1,000 carefully-edited words long, but they probably used to be longer, as much else was in the good old days. That, then, is (conservatively) A Tale of Two Cities times three. But, in my humble opinion, it’s a lot more impressive than what Dickens churned out in serialized form.

A-heds don’t only have to be funny. They have to be something funny that someone, somewhere else hasn’t written about yet, or did but in an unfunny way. Coming up with 400 A-heds while having a day job being a reporter is simply amazing. I started writing them soon after I joined the Journal and recently published my eighth and ninth A-hed in fairly quick succession. I had taken a couple of years off from A-heds to concentrate on writing and then selling my book, so call that nine in three years out of the five-and-a-half I’ve been at the paper, which is considered a lot. At that pace, though, I’ll be 178 years old when I catch up to Barry.

Naturally they are about quality rather than quantity, but Barry’s A-heds are great too. Many of them (and those of other current and former colleagues) were collected in a book, Dogfight at the Pentagon. Another, older collection is called Floating off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal’s Middle Column.

Every A-hed has come to me as an epiphany – usually hearing about something that I thought was funny and hadn’t been written about before. How many of those does one person have?

Even if I get out more and start working nights and weekends, I don’t think I’ll catch up to Barry in terms of sheer volume, much less quality, but I’m trying. I once wrote about one of my A-heds on this blog. Since I haven’t been updating Cacophony and Cheese much, I thought I’d recap a couple of recent ones while providing links to the rest. I don’t get paid extra for them or even get any time off from my job of writing and editing stuff about business. They are a labor of love and lots of fun. Even better than seeing them published is interviewing the subjects from odd car collectors to hot pepper eaters, sneaky hitchhikers, minivan racers, scavenger hunters and grammar pedants.

My most recent A-hed was about companies named after (or sharing the name of) fictional ones. For example, there were Stark Industries, Wayne Enterprises, Pied Piper, and Bluth Construction. Their founders didn’t call them that because they were superhero or comedy fans. They came about them in the normal way, such as having the last name “Stark” or “Bluth.” Still, having a name like that on the masthead makes life anything but normal for their owners. Then there are iniTech, Vandelay Industries, and Virtucon – all intentionally named after their fictional counterparts with lots of fun and unexpected consequences. Finally there Japan’s Cyberdyne Systems which makes a HAL robot but claims not to have gotten the name from The Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It’s a heckuva coincidence, don’t you think?).

The one before that was about the disappearance of the word “whom” from the English language. Among the people I interviewed was the author of Dr. Whom: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Parodication and the founder of the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire. I also spoke with a Google engineer who wrote a program that corrects the annoyingly incorrect (to me, at least) “Who to follow” prompt on Twitter. The spokesperson for Twitter was a very good sport about it.

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Here’s a list of my earlier A-heds:

The Arms Race to Grow World’s Hottest Pepper Goes Nuclear

Grocery Shoppers, Start Your Engines: Minivans Hit the Racetrack

Offal Tale: For This Club, Everything Is on the Menu

Ahoy, Driver! An Amphibious Car Refuses to Sink Into Oblivion

The Trabant Takes Manhattan on a Tour of East Bloc Nostalgia

Flop at the Box Office Spawns a Generation of ‘Midnight Madness’

At Famous Hudson River Crossing, Picking Up Hitchhikers Takes a Toll

Which one was my favorite? I love all of my A-hed children equally and am looking forward to having a much larger brood.

*Correction: Barry contacted me weeks after this was written and points out that he wrote 400 Page One stories and not 400 A-heds (that figure came from an article about him). I’m still impressed!

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Grandma Got Run Over by a Midterm

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Many years ago, when I headed off to college, I had just one living parent and one surviving grandparent. Barring some unforeseen tragedy, my oldest son should ship off to his still-unknown alma mater not only with both me and his mother above ground but also both of his grandmothers. I hope and pray that they survive the next four years.

What has me so worried? It’s a study I ran across from biology professor Mike Adams of Eastern Connecticut State University who found a shocking fact based on two decades of tracking his own students:  College is highly fatal to grandmothers.

Grannies, it seems, are 10 times more likely to die right before a midterm than any other time and nearly 20 times as likely to die before finals. Even more puzzling is the fact that weaker pupils’ grandmothers are a lot frailer than those of ‘A’ students.

When no exam was imminent for a student of his, there were an average 0.04 grandmother fatalities per 100 students. But the stress of exams for grandparents of the worst students seems to have been too much in many cases, making them 55 times as likely to die.

Since my son didn’t apply to any colleges in Connecticut, I was holding out hope that this was a strictly regional phenomenon and that my mom and mother-in-law would be unaffected. Professor Adams quickly disabused me of this notion. Even studying abroad, it seems, wouldn’t change the grim calculus: In England the phenomenon is called “Graveyard Grannies” and in France “Chere Grand’mere.”

I’m happy to report that, at 75 and 80, they’re in fine health for their ages. If they weren’t rooting for my son to make the Dean’s List, though, they sure will be after reading this.

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Dear Woody Johnson

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Congratulations on being appointed Ambassador to Great Britain. Believe it or not, the pomp and prestige of the office you’re assuming rivals that of owning the 27th best football team in the NFL.  As a former American expat who lived in London for many years, here’s some friendly advice to make sure that the Trump administration makes the best possible impression at the Court of St. James. You’re welcome.

  1. British people don’t eat normal food like cheese fries served in commemorative green plastic helmets. Weird, right? To fit in, you’ll have to ask for and consume staples of their cuisine such as plum duff, spotted dick, black pudding, Marmite, and haggis. It’s polite to ask for seconds.
  1. The educational system is very poor compared to what we have in the U.S., probably because their universities are so old. You’ll notice, for example, spelling errors everywhere. I regularly saw words like color written with an extra “u” and the “er” in words like center reversed. As a civilizing influence and a proud graduate of the University of Arizona, the Brits will greatly appreciate being corrected in such matters and may even bestow upon you the honorific “tosser.”
  1. Britain doesn’t have a president. Instead they are ruled by a monarch, though they also have a debating society called Parliament that chooses a sort of chief called Prime Minister. Concentrate your energy on the woman in charge, Queen Elizabeth, who I hear is a huge Jets fan.
  1. Guess what? The Brits absolutely love, love, love football so you’ll have lots to talk about with them. Better yet, you can opine on strategy there as they haven’t heard of your unfortunate personnel choices like Geno Smith and Tim Tebow.
  1. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. (By the way, you’re not literally in Rome – that’s the capital of Italy, a different country that’s north of Scotland). British men always wear bowler hats and stop everything they’re doing for “elevenses” in the late morning and high tea in the afternoon, just like in Downton Abbey.
  1. You may notice that, though you’re ambassador to a single country, some Brits act as if there are countries within a country. This is just like U.S. states and, while acknowledging regional pride, you shouldn’t be too fussy about the distinction. We don’t call people from Georgia Georgians, do we? Whether in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, just refer to everyone as “English” and you’ll be in good shape.

Well, that’s everything I can think of at the moment. Good luck or, as the Brits say, “dog’s bollocks!”

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You too can be a literary critic!

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This post has a point so please bear with me and read to the bottom. If you’re in a hurry, just skip to the bottom.

A few years ago someone “tweeted at” me with a link to a book that I needed to check out. For those not au fait with Twitter, this means he was both a stranger to me (usually the case on Twitter) and also that I wasn’t following him (so he couldn’t send a direct message). There are plenty of kooks on social media, but often such messages are from a perfectly normal person bringing something to your attention or promoting themselves to a journalist. I usually ignore the latter, but I checked this one out as he had written a supposedly riveting “financial thriller” – my great white whale.

Normally someone trying to get a journalist to read a book will offer to send them a copy or just put one in the mail unsolicited. The author, whose name I’ll refrain from mentioning, didn’t have a publisher and only provided a link to the book’s Amazon page. In other words, he was a literary spammer.

I clicked anyway and saw dozens and dozens of five star reviews. They had titles like “Awesome Historical Thriller” and “Incredible Book…Ripped Out of Tomorrow’s Headlines!” None of the top reviews showed “Verified Purchase” which, since the book was unlikely to have been available in bookstores, was odd. Where did they buy it? Did they really buy it?

There also were no editorial reviews as such – not even from places such as Kirkus, which will write one for any book for a fee. The author bio had poor grammar such as: “He lives on a 300+ year old farm in Connecticut deeded from King George of England with his children.” I downloaded the free Kindle sample anyway and read the whole thing. It was bad. I’ll let a couple of the are one-star reviewers sum it up:

 “The author does not demonstrate basic grammar skills, sentence construction, nor realistic dialogue formation. He should have invested in the advice of a professional editor before self-publishing this book. I would suggest he find a good editor and rework the novel for republishing under a different title.”

And:

“Everyone has a story to tell but not everyone is cut out to be a writer. The numerous, obviously contrived reviews are not doing the author any favors. It is hard to tell someone that something they worked hard on is poorly done, but sometimes the truth is more important. This book is not good. It is not even an approximation of good. REDACTED may be a knowledgeable and intelligent individual but he is not a writer and I hope for the sake of his family and friends that he does not attempt another book (at least until he has taken a high school level composition class).”

These are outweighed by some 183 mostly breathless five star reviews and very few in-between. In other words, when someone decides whether to buy the book in question, he or she will see that it has an average rating of 4.6 stars. Just to put that in context, The Great Gatsby and Lolita each have 4.3 stars. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator and The Financier, three well-regarded works of fiction involving finance, have 4.2, 4.5, and 4.4 stars, respectively.

Clearly the author solicited friends and family or a paid service – perhaps including “King George of England and his children” – to write positive reviews.

Why should you care? I guess it’s not a big deal as long as you can see past the fakery, though it does make it tough to evaluate all sorts of consumer products on Amazon or restaurants on Yelp where the deception is a little slicker.

And why do I care? Well, I just published my first book. It has some very nice advance praise and has been written up in The New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Money, USA Today, Barron’s and excerpted in The Wall Street Journal, Marketwatch, and elsewhere. I’m grateful for that and all the other media exposure as I’d like people to buy it.

But a lot of people just hear about it in cyberspace, navigate to the Amazon page, and check out strangers’ reviews. There are some really nice ones and, for a while, all were five stars. I was worried that I’d look like the aforementioned author. Then a couple of four star ones crept in and even a three star and I actually was sort of relieved. Then, all of a sudden, a couple of one star reviews started landing. “Waste of money!” and “The worst book on investing I have ever read!” On Goodreads, which doesn’t provide proof of purchase, some of the reviews criticized stuff that wasn’t even in the book.

I guess they’re entitled to their opinions and, according to Amazon at least, they made “verified purchases.” A former colleague of mine, Kaja Whitehouse, is a dogged investigative reporter and also an author of a book about wills. It looks like a really useful book and the two reviewers that are verified purchases both gave it five stars. Then there are several one star reviews all submitted on the same day from non-verified reviewers (see screenshot below). They are by people who never reviewed any other books. Clearly she wrote something negative about a company they owned and they punished her by trashing her book, which now has an average rating of 2.3.

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I’m not a victim of a smear, but all this made me realize that many books benefit from friendly reviews, which brings me to the point of this post. I thanked friends and strangers alike who told me they liked my book but I never asked them to go and write a review.

Now I’m politely asking. If you didn’t read the book then please don’t go onto Amazon or Goodreads and click five stars for my benefit. But, if you read and have something to say, I’d really appreciate a little bit of support. And if you hated it? Well, it’s a free country, but nobody likes a gossip.

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Hey, I wrote a book

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No, it isn’t about food, travel, or human stupidity, though maybe I’ll get around to those subjects one of these days. It’s called Heads I Win, Tails I Win: Why Smart Investors Fail and How to Tilt the Odds in Your Favor and is being published by Penguin/Random House. It goes on sale on July 12th but is available for pre-order wherever fine books are sold.

If you permit me a moment of immodesty, I’d include mine on the list of “fine” books too, and not just because the reviews have been good. Most books that claim to help you with your finances are dry and self-promotional. Mine is neither. I think you’ll actually like reading it and I’m not selling anything. Well, I’m selling a book, but you will already have bought it by that point, so …

It contains the very best advice I know for individual investors and delivers the message in the way I think is most likely to be followed. It also has some shocking stats on how awful individual savers are without realizing it. The book is very much aimed at the novice investor but financial types who have read advance copies found a lot of good information in it as well.

I hope you check it out and consider purchasing it either for yourself or a loved one who can use a little guidance. I’ve copied some of the breathless praise below:

The book gives a deep and realistic insight into how investing really works… while most people can’t fix the appliances in their home, they are now required to be part time money managers of their retirement investments through their 401k or IRA plans. Unfortunately, most people woefully lack the financial education to do so. His book makes a dent in that knowledge deficit, at least for those who read it.”  —SIMON CONSTABLE, Forbes

“Jakab has plenty of sensible advice—especially for the novice, who is unlikely to be able to select securities or even to pick people who have that skill. He laments that people who would never presume to fix their own refrigerator have the burden of managing their money.”—ROGER LOWENSTEIN, Fortune Magazine

“Jakab’s efforts to acquaint readers with the basic realities of the market and to provide an insider’s view of how to approach money management will be comprehensible to even the most intimidated reader. Energetic and engaging, this is required reading for anyone who’d like to retire ahead of the game.”    —PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY

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Shamed by You English?

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“Stankly Closing Daws!”

What, you don’t know what I’m talking about? You do if you’ve ridden the New York City subway much. It may not be pronounced correctly – not close – but even an immigrant right off the boat knows it’s the motorman’s warning to “stand clear of the closing doors.”

I hear it 12 times on most weekdays traveling between 175th Street and the Wall Street Journal on 47th on two different trains in each direction. And when I get back to Washington Heights in the evening I head straight for one of the semi-official jitneys (a.k.a. the Dominican Bus) across the “Jore Washing  Toe Brie” to “Four Lee.” There are two competing cash-only companies, each with their own conductor/pitchman/sales guy, and since both go across the George Washington Bridge to Fort Lee, the choice comes down to which bus leaves first (they have to fill up).

“Lee bee now! Lee bee now!”

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That’s the great thing about America, and New York in particular. Not only don’t you have to understand much of the official language to get by but speaking it is optional. Why should a hard-working bus tout who inhales diesel fumes for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, waste time and energy learning how to pronounce “leaving now?”

As a child of immigrants who only learned English when he started school, I think about this a lot. My sister, cousins and I didn’t have the option of settling for pidgin English given our career choices, but our parents and their extended community of friends were way too old and busy to learn all of the finer points. The farther you got from New York the harder this made things.

My dad, a few years after coming to the U.S. as a refugee, even got arrested in Mobile, Alabama in 1961 for using the “colored” bathroom in the bus station. I’d like to pretend he was making a principled stand for civil rights, but he just didn’t understand what the sign meant or what the cop was telling him. The cop almost certainly didn’t understand his response.

To a limited extent this linguistic confusion rubbed off on the first generation, or me at least. My dad, on the frequent occasions he didn’t understand someone, would say “pah-rah-me?” I thought this was what you said when you didn’t understand something.

Sometimes it was hilarious. His brother, my Uncle George, would put on his striped “cocksucker suit,” though that may have been a joke from day one. My grandmother went to the supermarket and nearly served us tuna cat food. My wife’s grandmother went to the store looking for “shits” – you know, the ones that go on the bed. My mom, who learned her English early on from African American nurses, still amazes me with her hungaricized  ebonics.

Once, when I was just learning English, I had a bad cold and an American family friend said: “Oh, you have a stuffed duck nose.” Well, that’s what I heard, and since you sort of do sound like a stuffed duck when you’re congested, I said that for many years until the inevitable, embarrassing correction. I also thought until about age 11 that a bike had a “cake stand” so it wouldn’t fall down. It forms a triangle and is shaped like a piece of cake so …

In any case, the moral of this story is to be thankful for, rather than annoyed by, the fact that people can get away with only a crude approximation of English here in New York their entire lives and be just fine. If you happen to be visiting from, say, Iowa, and are confused, just listen a little more carefully. And if you’re back home and meet a little foreign-sounding lady without a cat buying a lot of cat food that’s on sale,  please stop her.

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The Haves and the Have Mores

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Make sure you’re sitting down when you read this. Ready? Here goes:

In certain unknown corners of the world there is a “money-based caste system” in operation. Crazy, right?

I read this in an interesting but somewhat tone-deaf front page New York Times article this weekend by Nelson Schwartz: “In an Age of Privilege, Not Everyone Is in the Same Boat.” Geddit? It’s a double-entendre because it’s about a special section offered by a cruise line that caters to the upper-middle-class, Norwegian. In a “ship within a ship” 275 guests have private entrances, pools, get the best seats in the house at shows, private transport to the ship, and so forth. It’s the first in a series of articles about “The Velvet Rope Economy… how growing disparities in wealth are leading to privileged treatment of the rich.”

In fairness to the writer, it’s a fascinating look at a world that I (and probably you) will never see and comes at a time when the ultra-rich really are getting richer. The proportion of wealth controlled by the top 0.1% has doubled in the past couple of decades. The odd thing is the slight tone of shock and disdain. After all, people who are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for an upgraded version of what merely well-to-do people pay a few thousand for acts like a subsidy for the latter. If I liked going on cruises (I don’t – I wrote about my one experience a couple of years ago) I would appreciate these people, not despise them. Not only would it be no skin off my back, but it would be saving me money.

What I really wondered was why any super-rich person in their right mind would pay for that when a private yacht would be so much nicer. But then you probably already knew that money can’t buy good taste (see McMansions, Cadillac Escalades, and Trump Tower).

And while society may more economically stratified, money has always bought perks. These are a lot less objectionable than, say, the state of affairs on the Titanic when those in steerage not only had much worse food and sleeping arrangements but died in greater numbers because they couldn’t reach the lifeboats.

There were a lot of predictable comments on the piece (2,086 at last count)  whining about executives, taxes, etc, that are such a feature of election season. But plenty of readers wondered about the same things that I did. Artie from Cincinnati wrote:

I find it very curious that someone with the means to drop $30,000 on a room (OK suite) for a week’s incarceration, with very little possibility of escape on one of these ocean-going hotels, would want to do so with 4200 other commoners in such close proximity. Perhaps for some, flaunting one’s wealth is a desirable way to get away from it all. I guess we’re all out of touch in one way or another.

And Lou from Rego Park:

I would venture that almost everyone reading this article, whether they realize it or not, are part of the pampered few when compared to the entire world population. Having a home, food and many of our conveniences is the equivalent of living in the Haven on this earthly ship.

Echoed by JHM from Taiwan:

My heart goes out to couples who can only afford an “ordinary” stateroom for $3,000 a week instead of a room in the Haven for $10,000. Life is tough. What’s that you say; according to the UN half the world’s population survives on less than $2 a day? Come on, don’t bother me with that stuff. Can’t you see? I’m on vacation.

Can you hear that faint sound? It’s the world’s smallest violin.

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Hot Chicken!

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I think I’m in love … with a bird.

Last week I traveled to Nashville with the cover story of accompanying my  oldest son on a tour of Vanderbilt and to visit my little sister. At the top of my agenda, though, was finally sampling some of the Music City’s hot chicken. That alone was worth the plane fare.

After consulting my sister about our options, it really came down to two choices: old school Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack (no, they don’t have a website – it’s a shack) or relative newcomer Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. We went for the latter because she said it was more consistent and it also was closer to our meeting at Vandy.

Technically this wasn’t my first time having hot chicken, but that other time doesn’t count. You may have seen KFC advertising its “Nashville Hot Chicken.” We treated my son to some after his awesome college test scores several weeks ago and, well, I’ll let David Pemberton of UPROXX tell you:

KFC’s bastard child looks like Hot Chicken, it smells like Hot Chicken, and up until my first bite, I had hoped that it would actually taste like Hot Chicken. But we live in a world of lies. And Colonel Sanders is the antichrist.

Okay, so it was a little better, in my opinion, than their usual “11 secret herbs and spices” stuff but fell apart, had no kick, and was generally disappointing. On the other hand, the real deal, as described by Serious Eats, is heavenly:

The magic comes in the mingling of fat and heat. Take fried chicken’s fat-crisped crust and electrify it with a blistering spice blend, then place the meat in a spongy cradle of white bread. The bread soaks up the hot chicken’s juices, becoming just another delivery system for the heat, and the spicy grease lingers on your lips: the afterburn is an initiation to the habit that is hot chicken.

So we went to Hattie B’s and I thought we’d be disappointed. I mean it was something like 11:10 in the morning – a little early for a place for anything with an “afterburn” to even be open, especially in relatively sleepy Nashville. Much to my surprise, though, there already was a line out the door.

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Besides white or dark meat, the choices were Southern (“no heat”), Mild, Hot (“Feel the burn”), Damn Hot and Shut the Cluck Up!!! (“Burn Notice”). I considered going for at least Damn Hot, but a guy in line scared me. He said it would be too much to handle. I don’t know if that’s true, but read Pemberton’s description of the time he ordered the “extra spicy” at Prince’s:

There are no words to describe how hot Hot Chicken really is. It sits on the Scoville scale somewhere between “native Thai” and “molten lava.” I muscled my way through the meal with gritted teeth, spewing sweat and tears and breathless gasps until — finally — it was finished.

So I had the “hot” and it was just right. And by just right, I mean awesomely awesome. I would have had it again for dinner and breakfast the next morning if social and travel plans hadn’t intervened. The photo at the top of this post shows how it looked, along with the sides of pimento mac ‘n cheese and black eye pea salad, in the two nanoseconds before I inhaled it.

I’ll be back soon for more.

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