800px-ForintsThe continuing economic crisis in Greece brought to mind my backpacking days in Europe: Traveling around with a college buddy, hitting 11 cities in one month, most of it a blur. There was the antisemitic innkeeper with the Jewish husband in Amsterdam, the drunken captain at a Fasching (as opposed to fascist) party in Trier, Germany, and the Czech dude in sweats and flip-flops who watched soccer all day at our pension in Prague. And then there was our Brewster’s Millions experience in Budapest, with more forints than we had days to spend them. I elaborate at weeklystandard.com.

Photo of forints by Egrian


As I Lay Dying

July 7, 2015

Patient_room_with_hospital_bedWell, I wasn’t quite dying. It could’ve gone either way. Lucky for me, I recovered (am still recovering) from my Strep A infection/cellulitis, following a mosquito bite late last May. Taking the advice of a friend battling cancer, I compartmentalized, focusing on the next immediate step, whether it be lab results, bringing my temperature down below 100, or lowering that white blood cell count. Don’t think about anything deeper or longer term—don’t speculate. How did I end up here? If only I hadn’t been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Will I ever see the inside of my house again, because we’re approaching a week in the hospital? What will happen to my kids?

Once I turned the corner, I could reflect more deeply on such things. But speculating at a time of uncertainty—I just didn’t find it helpful.

So I’ve shared my experience, at least partially, over at weeklystandard.com. I could’ve written more about the dining experience—for the first few days, my only friend was Jell-O and a fruit cup. Having a bowl of Rice Krispies was a big step. Then came a tuna sandwich (strangely with a most delicious slice of tomato). And finally the hospital cheeseburger in all its melty goodness.

And then I was checked out. I sat alone, no longer attached to an IV or telemetry set, able to walk to the bathroom without the fear of accidentally having my IV tube yanked off (this happened, blood spurted everywhere, and it took the nurses seven tries to get the IV back in my vein). But my room service lunch was late. I could’ve left, or finished half the meal. But damn it, I’m paying for all this, so I might as well enjoy it. And I did.

Photo courtesy of the National Cancer Institute/Diane A. Reid


You Are What You Eat

June 2, 2015

670px-DoritosHaving recently been hospitalized, I took note of what foods I found appealing—and what my body could handle (digestively). Those first few days it was a fruit cup, Italian ice, and mostly Jell-O. Eventually I was attracted to complex carbs and was able to get down an English muffin with orange marmalade. Then came cereal and by the end of my stay, scrambled eggs and bacon. The experience reminded me of a 1926 experiment, in which a Chicago pediatrician allowed children under his care to eat from a selection of healthy choices, any time and as much or as little as they wanted. Some kids were having liver for breakfast. When mono struck the group, they turned to things like beets. As Mark Schatzker points out in his fascinating The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor, humans know where to turn for sustenance in nature—the same goes for sheep, goats, and insects, based on experiments. But in a supermarket, our directional systems suffer what one scientist calls “metabolic derangements.” Technology has fooled our brains into thinking some foods are a vital source of nutrition when, in fact, they’re just Doritos. I recently reviewed the book in The Wall Street Journal.


New York State of Mind

May 18, 2015

×ì÷,FìßgÿÙTwo things jumped out at me while watching last night’s series finale of Mad Men: One, we are finally told when the episode is set. In Joan’s apartment-makeshift-office, we see the calendar stating in large print, “November 1970.” When Pete Campbell tells Peggy she could be the first female creative director by 1980, she is struck by how far away that sounds, even though it’s a mere 10 years. Of course 2025 sounds like the distant future as well.

Second was the wonderful cameo by … Helen Slater! Matthew Weiner must have a soft spot for ’80s actors—think Harry Hamlin, Ted McGinley, child star Mackenzie Astin. Our Supergirl played the part of a crunchy commune leader, which seemed appropriate since she’s so all-naturally beautiful, now age 51. (And did you recognize the land-speed mechanic as Spencer Treat Clark, the little boy from Gladiator and Unbreakable?)

Considering that Weiner is a Sopranos alumnus, I was surprised and relieved by the less-than-ambiguous ending. (I also find it curious that Brian Lowry at Variety did not address the Coke ad and its connection to McCann Erickson in real life.) It seemed clear to me that Don Draper returns to New York and helps develop the iconic ad, which McCann actually rolled out in 1971. Love, peace, and happiness—all in the service of a giant corporate product. Don absorbs his surroundings, grinning with a vision—and we even hear the “ding,” as if a light bulb is turned on.

Yes, it would have been nice to see the cast in 10 or 20 years (remember how Six Feet Under jumped to everyone’s death scenes?). Some had speculated Don would witness the Apple ad from 1984 before keeling over. But let us count our blessings. At least Roger Sterling didn’t collapse from a heart attack. At least the Campbell family did not die in a plane crash en route to Wichita (remember Col. Blake’s demise in M*A*S*H?). And at least it wasn’t all a dream.

Photo Courtesy of AMC


Office Space

May 5, 2015

eefa99d9-c02c-a10f-fa35-b690970900fc_MM_712_JM_0530_0766Was it just me, or did the empty offices of the now-definct SC&P remind you of the final days inside Hitler’s bunker? Still, all you need are an organ, a bottle of sweet vermouth, and a pair of rollerskates, and you’ve got yourself a party! It took some convincing to get Peggy into the spirit of things—but that’s Roger Sterling’s job. He convinces, even with that ridiculous mustache.

Leaving an office where, as a colleague pointed out to me yesterday, you can spend more years of your life inside than in the house you own, must be rather disorienting. There are new adventures to be had, but the aura and dynamic will never be the same. It sure isn’t for our friends from the old firm, who have now been scattered to the four winds (one of those winds can take you all the way out to Racine, Wisc.). You’ll run into each other randomly in an elevator and remark on how time flies. You promise to meet for lunch soon, as Don promises Joan, but that definition of soon may be some time in the next year.

There are always things to complain about in the office you’re in—Joan and Peggy suffering the slights of being a woman in the workplace, Harry never making partner (and deservedly not!), the senior ad guys feeling increasingly irrelevant. Then you move into the new place, which is all so sparkly, but at the end of the day you realize you never had it so good and wish to be back in the old Time-Life building. But you can’t go back, only forward, as Don would say.

So I guess the lesson is to enjoy the here and now, which our friends at SC&P often did not (something that Dave Barry noticed). And enjoy these last two episodes, imperfections and all. Because when it’s over, it’s over. And you’ll have to find a new “greatest show ever” to glom on to. (I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. I hear they’re pretty good.)

Photo credit: Justina Mintz/AMC


About That Letter

April 23, 2015

And suddenly it’s April. Where’d the time go? How is Vodka doing? And who am I talking to? Vodka is doing just fine, and on August 8, I will be moderating a panel, History of the Cocktail: The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, at the National Archives. I’ll provide updates as the date approaches. But […]

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Car Talk

February 17, 2015

Over at the Weekly Standard, I’ve got a column concerning auto illiteracy. How many of us have studied arcane subjects that, while admirable in a life-of-the-mind sort of way, have little use when you’re, say, stuck on the side of the road with smoke billowing from beneath your car hood? Along with those AP courses, […]

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Meanwhile, at WFB…

January 29, 2015

Aside from promoting Vodka, I’ve started writing occasional columns at the Washington Free Beacon. These include reviews of John Jobling’s U2: The Definitive Biography, Frances Larson’s Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, Russell James’s “gripping” Angels, and essays celebrating the return of foie gras to California and National Meat Month. Do check […]

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‘Vodka’ in ‘Vanity Fair’

December 16, 2014

Over at vanityfair.com, Alex Beggs reports on the latest commercial tie-in to the James Bond series: In the upcoming Spectre, Bond will be drinking specifically Belvedere vodka in his shaken—not stirred—martinis. I spoke with Ms. Beggs last week and was thrilled to see my quotations throughout her column as well as a generous hyperlink to […]

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Vodka at the Phillips Collection

November 24, 2014

You would think it an unlikely pairing, but on December 4 at 7 p.m., I will be discussing Vodka: How a Colorless, Odorless, Flavorless Spirit Conquered America (Lyons Press) at the Phillips Collection. Thanks to the kindness of Phillips director Dorothy Kosinski, I will be discussing “Vodka and the Dreams of Reality” as part of […]

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