Sunday, April 30, 2006

I'm in Orlando!

And I'm crossing a lot of things off my to-do list:

My first visit to Orlando that isn't built around a Disney vacation. Keith and Andrew have been bugging me to come visit them here for years, so I finally booked the trip, packed my sorry excuse for a swimsuit ... and here I am!

My first time reading The Da Vinci Code. I bought it way back in like 1975 when it was available only in a 75 lb hardcover edition. Now that it's out in a convenient paperback, I decided to schlep the damn thing to Florida and back with me. I'm halfway through it (at this writing they're all holed up in the French chateau while enemies from every side close in on them) so don't ruin it for me. And this might sound as sacreligious as the book itself, but I don't think it's very good. Sure, the plot is fascinating and fast-paced. And I've always been sucker for stories about ancient secrets bubbling up to drive modern adventures. But the writing. Oy, the writing. There are two kinds of lazy writing I find inexcusable when it's done by professionals: tons of -ly adverbs ("they entered the house carefully while he looked around expectantly") and tons of adjective-noun combinations ("the red book in the wooden table in the vast room held the terrible secret that drove the endless plot"). The Da Vinci Code is guilty of the second offense. In spades. I mean in endless spades. Granted, you can't avoid adjectives, and I have frequently phoned in some adjective-laden posts just to get something online so you, my dear readers, don't get bored from waiting and start poking around and discover that there are acutally more interesting things to read on the Internets. But I'm not charging you a thing to read my blog. And it's not an international best-seller. And it's not being turned into a freakin' movie.

My first visit to a nude beach. (SPF 30! SPF 30!) I hadn't seen either ocean in more than 15 years, so I was more excited to see the waves and contemplate the watery vastness than to frolic about with the uninhibited and unclothed, who are not traditionally obsessed with physical fitness anyway. And it was pretty windy and hovering near the cool side of comfortable yesterday, so I just read my book and napped a bit as the waves crashed endlessly ashore about 10 feet from us. Technically, nuding is not allowed on Florida beaches, but Playalinda (just north of Cape Canaveral) has little fenced-off areas where hardcore nudists can congregate without sending the general population into a downward spiral of witchcraft, lesbianism and child-eating. And as a man who almost never spends time in the sun, I wasn't interested in burning anything useful, but in the interest of having something interesting to blog about (so when are you gonna start being interesting, Jake?) I went almost nude (I kept my sunglasses on) for a very quick moment in the sun and another 10 or so minutes in my chair with my book. Then it just felt silly so I put my ugly suit (my ugly swimsuit, not my ugly birthday suit) back on.

My first visit to Disney World in 2006. OK, in April 2006. Keith dances in one of the shows at Disney-MGM Studios, and he signed our friend David and me in for the day on Friday while he worked. David and I hit the best parts of three parks in 12 hours and ended our day parked at one of my favorite spots: the lakeside cafe in Epcot's Mexico pavilion, where we watched the fireworks show over spicy goodness and a shared margarita. (Damn. Look at all those adjectives. This paragraph is doomed to be turned into another Tom Hanks vehicle.)

My first visits to Club Orlando and the Parliament House. Keith and I worked out at Club Orlando's awesome gym yesterday, where he pushed my chest and shoulders to a state of abject pain. But it was the good kind of abject pain. (We did not, however, partake of the club's more prurient offerings.) Then we headed over to the famed Parliament House, where Kieth is easily the hottest backup dancer in the drag shows. I'd heard all kinds of stories about the Parliament House, so I wasn't sure what to expect. But it's totally cool, with tons of bars and a fabulous outdoor patio and great shows and a restaurant and even a time-share resort area going up next door. And after his shows, we stayed up dancing until 3:00. So now I'm tired AND my feet hurt AND my chest and shoulders are screaming at me every time I reach for my mouse.

On the agenda for the rest of the trip: Finishing my book. Sleeping in the sun. Working my back and/or legs as hard as we worked my chest and shoulders. Finding me a suitable swimsuit that is somewhere between the baggy Target special I usually wear and the squarecut things the trendy gay boys with the little waists frolic around in. Getting my blog turned into a movie.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

CSI Episode Requirements

CSIs may wear hazmat suits and other protective clothing while processing an area that’s potentially contaminated and/or lethal, but only if it looks sexy.

CSIs must never wear hairnets or any other garments that would look unflattering or help prevent the personal contamination of a crime scene.

The more gruesome the crime scene, the more light-colored cashmere the CSIs must be wearing to process it.

The uglier the victim, the more we have to see him or her naked.

Female victims of violent crimes must look as though they applied their own fake blood and bruises with rouge and eyeshadow so as not to undermine the beauty that got them cast in the first place.

In the moments before he is murdered, the victim must be visited by at least three separate people in rapid succession who don’t know each other but who coincidentally all have reason to kill him.

The murderer must either pass in front of the camera in the opening 10 minutes of an episode or be the last possible suspect the CSIs can think of.

Every suspect brought in for questioning must have watched enough cop shows on TV to know that he or she is free to walk out at any moment—but only after making a dramatic statement or sassy threat.

At least one potential suspect—preferably a close relative—must show cool indifference over the victim’s death.

If at all possible, murderers and suspects must be played by actors who will eventually appear on Desperate Housewives.

CSIs must know vast amounts of arcane information on entomology, satellite technology, obscure scientific disciplines and esoteric forms of popular entertainment, yet they are required to explain basic tenets of forensic science (“pooling blood always follows gravity”) to each other.

Lab results must first be given in highly scientific terms (“polyfartypoopoochloride”) so they may be helpfully translated into laymen’s terms (“typing paper”) by knowledgeable CSIs.

Every episode must contain at least two of the following words: exsanguination, petechial hemorrhaging, through and through, the vic, alleles, CODIS, Jake and Nick/Eric/Danny really make a cute couple.

CSI labs, morgues and gun vaults must have more indirect lighting and funky ambiance than a trendy nightclub.

CSIs must have beautiful bodies and fabulous hair and wear tight-fitting couture, yet they must never earn the salaries required to afford their wardrobes and they must never be given the personal time necessary to work out or shop.

If a CSI suffers some physical or emotional trauma on the job, he must stubbornly refuse to seek the required treatment until Something Bad Happens to make him reconsider his obstinance.

If the sister or girlfriend of a CSI is dying of cancer, it must be the kind of cancer that makes her more and more beautiful as it progresses.

There is a mole in the CSI: Miami lab. They’re gonna tell you about it in every episode, but they’re never gonna give you any useful hints beyond that. So stop trying to guess who it is.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Soup to grunts

When I moved to Chicago six years ago, some guys I’d met on earlier trips here—guys I barely knew beyond a conversation in a bar and a few follow-up emails—showed up at 10 am on a Sunday to help my folks and me unload our truck and haul a bunch of heavy furniture down a long hallway and up a spiral staircase to the world’s smallest fourth-floor apartment, even though the apartment number was officially 305. (And now that I know these guys better, I understand what a supreme sacrifice it was for them to do much of anything at 10 am on a weekend morning.)

Despite their generosity with their saving-Jake-a-bundle manpower, these guys and I have never really become friends. I see them around, we make small talk, some of us exchange holiday cards … but we don’t hang out and we don’t call each other and we never really clicked on any lasting level. So I can never directly repay the immense favor they did for an almost complete stranger on a lovely July morning six years ago.

So I switched to Plan B: paying it forward. Since my movers-dropping-from-the-heavens experience I’ve grabbed every opportunity to help other friends move, lend people stuff, give rides, paint kitchens, pledge money, offer up a couch to crash on, introduce potential love interests, hold hands in the hospital, show up with treats and do any number of other things that just seem like a great way to pass along the goodwill.

So when my friend Barb told me she needed to replace the ceiling light in her kitchen, I volunteered to do it for her. (Replacing a ceiling light is relatively simple, falling somewhere between braiding Barbie hair and stuffing a cat in a cereal box. And the change you create is often so dramatic you look like a total stud for doing it.)

Barb is a bright, interesting woman with bright, interesting friends and a cool house (now with a brighter, interesting kitchen!) and delightful gay neighbors. And after I installed her light yesterday afternoon, I also learned she’s an amazing cook. To thank me, she whipped up a little something that would take me decades just to plan: a carrot-ginger soup that was so good it almost made me hum, a lovely Greek salad, grilled Vidalias and red peppers, and a flank steak marinated in pure deliciousness. And for dessert, ginger gelato and about four hours of delightful conversation. All of which is totally harshing the buzz I used to enjoy from the post-workout protein binge (fistfuls of lunchmeat, pb&j on wheat, tuna salad without mayo, etc.) I usually wolf down every afternoon.

What’s more, now I’m obsessed with carrot-ginger soup! I’ve already googled it and printed four of the recipes I found, all of which I intend to try. (I didn’t print the recipes that included butternut squash, which is just gross, or anything from the butter/cream/childbearing hips family.) And thank goodness my sister bought me an everything-you-ever-needed-to-know-about-cooking cookbook for my birthday, because I wouldn’t know how to peel ginger if I were stuck on a desert island with her.

And the next time I move—which should be within the next year; I’ve been working with a Realtor to make it happen sooner than later—I’ll definitely hire movers so I won’t feel guilty about not being their BFFs. And I may even offer them some delicious soup.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Pictures! I have pictures!

Last night’s birthday blast (OK, mini-blast) was everything a boy could hope for on a chilly Tuesday night in April. Take a look:

6:00 pm. Mother Hubbard's.

Here is a picture of me taking a picture of my birthday tart. I’ll type that again slowly so you can more readily comprehend its cosmic implications: It’s a picture of me taking a picture. Of a tart, but that’s not the point. And see that beer toward the left of the image, right in front of my friend Barb? SEE IT? That, my friends, is the second beer I’ve ever ordered in my life—and the first beer I’ve drunk all the way to the bottom ever. EVER! Unfortunately, the waitress came and hauled it away before we could have it bronzed.

Here is the above picture I took—posted right below the picture of it being taken. Some of us are still trying to wrap our brains around this concept. Like most everything associated with cell phone “technology,” the picture kinda sucks. But the sour-cream-and-apple tart featured in the picture was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Even more delicious than Suri Holmes-Cruise’s placenta, which Tom reportedly planned to eat around the same time because he just had to have his alien freak beard-child on MY birthday.

Caroline and Gray. Caroline brought the abovementioned tart. She’s certifiably French, so she knows from tarts. Gray is certifiably heterosexual, so there is a more realistic chance that he is Suri’s actual sperm father.

Me and Matthew. Neither one of us is in danger of being accused of fathering children. Though my alien eyes might make me a more attractive prospect for a dubiously heterosexual Scientologist looking to squelch a rumor make a baby.

8:00 pm. Kevin.
Kevin is a fabulously upscale Asian fusion (that’s fun to say: Asian fusion!) restaurant ironically located right next door to the very dive-bar-y Mother Hubbard’s. Matthew took me there for a nice birthday dinner after my drunken whole-bottle-of-beer debauchery, and it was delicious (the restaurant, not the debauchery).

We were too full of beer and tarts to order alcohol and desserts, but the pastry chef made me this complimentary birthday cookie plate anyway. That beautiful scripty stuff on the plate is actual chocolate, and it was so pretty I could barely stop myself from licking it like a rutting pig. Barely.

I also don’t think this is the best picture of me, but let’s focus on the cookies and the chocolate, shall we? Yes, let’s.

11:00 pm. Jake’s house.
I have no pictures to share here. But I went to bed soon after I got home. Because I’m 38 now, and I need my rest.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


38 years ago today I made my grand entrance, breaking my mom’s tailbone on the way. Then I totally forgot my lines. And the costumer never came up with anything to work around my figure flaws, so I just proudly went without.

In those 38 years, I’ve filled my dance card with piano lessons and trips to Europe and skydives and marathons and a precocious nephew and a comically independent niece and a writing career in a big city. I’ve also survived broken bones and lost loved ones and burnt toast and mean kids on the playground and now the indignity of old-man hair on my back and arms.

So far, it’s all added up to a pretty charmed life. My family loves me. I’m able to live in a highrise with a pretty spectacular view. I have all my own teeth. Friends laugh at my jokes. Perfect strangers read my blog and even send me fan mail. People still think I’m cute.

And to celebrate all this, I’ve gotten socks (I needed socks!) and two cookbooks for all the dinner parties I want to throw and a Scrabble dictionary and a couple gift certificates at my favorite stores and diners and parties and cards and emails and well-wishes from friends and family members alike.

I’ve even given myself something special. Something I may blog about later (it would make the perfect spring/regrowth metaphor!). Or I may share it with only a few relevant friends. Or I may just keep it to myself. But it’s pretty cool, and I’m kind of excited about it. Sorry to be such a tease—but hey! It’s my birthday! I can do whatever I want! Like waste exclamation points!

It’s a beautiful sunny day today. My family just called to sing to me. It looks like I’ll have a light day at work. I’m meeting some friends for drinks afterwards, and another friend is buying me dinner tonight. And my parents are bringing me socks when they come to visit this weekend.

Who could ask for anything more?

Birthday update! My family in Iowa sent a cake to my office this morning to help me bribe my co-workers to stop giving me wedgies celebrate. This is how it looked before it took up residence on my gooey, 38-year-old manhips:
Image hosting by Photobucket

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Get your tickets already!

Image hosting by Photobucket

I just spent eight hours in rehearsal for this show, and it's going to be a HOOT. We have some awesome talent bringing to life some creative, clever, BRILLIANT writing. If you miss it, you'll not only miss out on one of the funniest, most intelligently written shows I've been a part of, but you'll also be a total loser. With saggy man-boobs. And breath that smells like feet.

And if great writing isn't enough to get you to cough up some dough and commit two hours of your life to us, try this: You can see my delicately nuanced choreography being performed with sensitivity and respect by a stage full of rowdy homos. Many of whom will have their shirts off.

So click on the banner already!

Go on! CLICK!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Watching things come crashing down

Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the famous San Francisco earthquake. More importantly, it’s the 38th anniversary of my miraculous birth.

And since nobody has stepped up to throw me a surprise party (ahem), I’m throwing my own damn party. Tonight. And you are welcome to stop by and watch me wrinkle.

Please don’t bring presents. But feel free to click on that big square icon to your right and sponsor me in the AIDS Marathon. :-)

The vitals:
Saturday, April 15 @ 8 pm
Crew Bar + Grill
4804 N. Broadway (at Lawrence)
We’ll be in the back by the pool table. There will be cake. I may drink alcohol.

And I guarantee you will have at least this much fun:
Image hosting by Photobucket

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It’s not spring in Chicago until …

• The El starts smelling like pee again.
• The first bad gay of spring appears in capri pants.
• The first bad straight of spring appears in jean shorts.
• There’s a run on self-tanner at Walgreens.
• You make it through the night without having to get up to find a blanket.
• Shaving your legs starts sounding like a good idea.
• So do highlights.
• But you promised yourself you’d remember past mistakes and leave well enough alone.
• You have your first meal at a sidewalk café.

Chicagoans love to eat outside—even when it’s not quite warm enough—and Jason and I inaugurated sidewalk café season tonight with a delightful dinner at Uncommon Ground. Which I’d never even heard of, though it’s HUGE and AWESOME and OTHER CAPITALIZED WORDS. It looks like it was one of those best-kept-secret storefront cafés that quietly gained a following and eventually swallowed up the whole block. The place now comprises four different storefronts (bar, café, fussy dessert place, poetry slam room), with outdoor seating that fills the entire sidewalk. And it has delicious food.

As we were leaving, Jason stopped to unlock his bike from a rack next to a table of street hoodlums straight out of central casting: slouchy postures, baggy clothes, gang gestures … the only reason they weren’t covered in bling is they looked too young to die in a war vote.

And as Jason adjusted his bike helmet, I adjusted my prejudices:

Street Hoodlum #1: You gonna go out with her again?
Street Hoodlum #2: Nah. Too weird.
Street Hoodlum #1: Who cares? She’s HOT.
Street Hoodlum #2: I thought she was too. Until she started text messaging me.
Street Hoodlum #1: And?
Street Hoodlum #2: She doesn’t know the difference between they’re and their.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Extortion. Now with springier shoes!

With two Chicago Marathons behind me, I’m finally taking steps this year to transform all that huffing and puffing into something more important than my personal running goals.

So I’m running the Chicago Marathon on behalf of the AIDS Marathon organization this October, which for me means the opportunity to train with a group of people (who meet a block from my house!), make new friends, log a good 500 miles this summer and finally meet (or beat!) my so-far-unreachable 4:00 goal.

For you, it means the opportunity to sponsor me and generate much-needed (tax-deductible!) funds for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

And for the AIDS Foundation, it means more opportunities to provide direct medical care, food, housing and other vital services for people living with HIV and AIDS. To run the AIDS Marathon, I have committed to raising $1,400 in sponsorships before July 5—though my personal goal is $2,500.

It couldn’t be easier to make a donation—just click on this logo, and together we can improve the lives of thousands of people living with this disease:
Image hosting by Photobucket

I’ve made a $200 starting donation, but the AIDS Marathon office tells me it can take up to five business days for donations to be acknowledged on my pledge page. So at this writing there’s no record that anyone has pledged any money to sponsor me. Please don’t let this weird little technical problem stop you from donating. You can pledge any amount you want—and you can get immediate acknowledgement if you add a comment at the bottom of this post bragging about how generous you are.

Despite recent advances in the treatment of AIDS, the epidemic is far from over. More than one million Americans—and 40 million more around the world—are now living with HIV. It’s no longer the gay disease once gleefully dismissed by the religious right; it’s now the LEADING cause of death among adults age 15-59 worldwide—gay or straight, black or white, male or female. The LEADING cause. That’s a lot of people who who are not only sick, but potentially homeless, jobless, ostracized, trying to raise children or otherwise in desperate need of what the AIDS Foundation provides.

I’ve grown kind of addicted to marathon running, and now I’m asking you to share in the experience with me. Every beautiful, sunny training run … every training run through rain or blinding heat … every Saturday morning milestone … every goosebump and tear of joy and euphoric smile on October 22 … sponsor me today, and I’ll carry you in my thoughts for four straight hours (or more if I suck!) as I soak up the amazing energy from 40,000 other runners and more than a million cheering spectators along the marathon course.

Last year some spectator yelled NoFo! at me somewhere near mile 18. Or maybe some mofo threw a spectator pump at me. I was kinda tired by that point. In any case, that woman had read my blog enough that she recognized me out of 40,000 fast-moving runners. You’ve built up enough of a connection that you’ve read almost to the end of a post written solely to guilt you out of your money. Please. Whip out your credit card, click on the link above and join me on my third marathon adventure.

Thank you.


I have gotten the nicest feedback about my tribute to Joanne.

In addition to the comments attached to the post, I’ve received 26 emails from readers. (I normally get about one or two emails a week from my blog.) A friend of ours forwarded the post to almost a hundred people, many of whom wrote me very touching thank-yous. Another friend of Joanne’s is getting it published in two newspapers and maybe included in a memorial at the theater where she and I did Grease together so long ago.

I’ve also discovered some factual and chronological errors in my recollections, but they’re relatively minor and I like the way they build the narrative, so I won’t change them.

I hadn’t seen much of Joanne since I moved to Chicago in 2000, so I feel pretty removed from her death. I decided not to go home to her funeral, but people have told me it was packed with family and friends, and all the music and shared memories made it last an hour and a half—all of which in itself is a lovely tribute.

I made the post for the usual reasons: to help me sort through my thoughts, to tell our shared story and to do my little part to perpetuate the memory of a remarkable woman. The fact that it touched so many people is a nice little bonus. And a great feeling.

And I feel honored to be a part of people’s memories of her. Thank you for sharing in that with me, and for helping me celebrate her life.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

To sleep

When I first met her, she was one of a hundred new faces in the cast of a show. It was January 1991, and I had just graduated from college and moved back to my hometown to start The Rest Of My Life. The first order of business was getting cast in Follies, an annual song-and-dance extravaganza whose cast members quickly became my extended family, my professional network and my closest friends.

I’m sure I talked to her five or six times before her face and name—along with the many other faces and names in the cast and crew—started to solidify in my mind. She was about my parents’ age, and she’d actually been friends with them in a past life when they were newlyweds who traveled in the city’s theater circles with her.

And while she was measurably older than I was, she was quintessentially young at heart, often hanging out with us kids during breaks and after rehearsals and performances.

Blessed with a confidence and a commanding presence that belied her relatively short stature, she owned any role she played. Her voice had a rawness that lent a great deal of character to her solos and her funny bits of stage business. And she never let fear hold her back. In fact, I’ll never forget the self-satisfied evil she dredged up from some delightfully dark corner of her otherwise Midwest-wholesome, every-hair-in-place self to play Snow White’s witch in a Disney tribute. One look in her eyes told you she didn’t care if she came off as greedy or cruel—she would be the fairest in the land, and no pasty white virgin was about to stand in her way.

And when she played the irascible Miss Lynch in a summer production of Grease a few years later, I admired her for throwing herself so delightedly into the role—but I admired her more for yanking a wooden ruler out from between her boobs every night on stage with the kind of force that sent one terrifying word shivering up and down my spine: splinters

And then one January, soon after that year’s Follies rehearsals had started, she was gone. They’d found a mass in her abdomen the size of a cantaloupe. It was ovarian cancer, the bastard cancer that advances so stealthily that women don’t even know it’s eating them alive until it’s almost too late. She promptly underwent her surgery and stated her treatments, and I’ll be damned if she wasn’t back where she belonged—right there on stage next to us—when the show opened that March.

But she came back with a few accessories. Follies shows are always about glitz and splash; if the costumes and sets aren’t colorful enough, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a few more layers of satin and lamé. So when her cancer treatment dictated that she go through life for a while with shunts and tubes connected to a backpack full of I’m not sure exactly what, she just wrapped her backpack in coordinating fabric and stood proudly on the stage, singing her heart out and sharing the glow of the lights with her Follies family.

Two weeks later, as we were all striking the set, she came up to me in tears. I had told her on opening night how great it was to have her back with us—backpack and all—considering the alternatives. She told me it had taken the entire run of the show for the reality to really sink in: She had come this close to death. But she didn’t die, because she had more solos to sing, more bows to take and more friends to hug. And she thanked me for being a part of that journey with her.

Her cheerful defiance against an almost insurmountable barrage of relapses and complications inspired everyone around her for more than a decade. She was in the hospital again, we’d hear. But we all knew she would not go down without an epic fight. And we always knew her time wasn’t yet up. Besides, she never showed any signs of admitting defeat—at least not to us. She always threw her energies at living her life and enjoying her world and beating the enemy that kept encroaching on her fun.

And then.

I started hearing acknowledgements of defeat from our friends when I was home for Christmas this year. She’s had major surgery, and it looks like it’s just a matter of days, people would say. You should go visit her while you’re home, they’d tell me. Give her a final hug and say your goodbyes, they’d recommend.

So I did. I spent a couple hours visiting with her in the beautiful home she and her husband shared on a hilly, wooded development just outside of town. And for the first time since I’d known her, she looked little. The pain from the surgery kept her stooped when she walked, but she had no intention of being anything but the perfect hostess while I was there, meeting me at the door, offering me a drink and giving me hugs when I came and when I left.

We talked about everything that day. She was as frank with me about her cancer and her relatively bleak prospects as she was about her full intention to pursue every possible cure her doctors could suggest. We shared Follies memories. She gushed over my four-page Christmas letter. I told her all about my life in Chicago, the ups and downs of my job, the places I’ve traveled, the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus, the miserable relationship I knew was about to end.

And before I left, after two more careful hugs and a belabored walk to the door, she handed me a memento: a potted clipping from a flowering cactus. A piece of something she’d cared for while others were caring for her. A living legacy.

The implication was clear: She’d finally accepted her fate. She was ready to go … but not ready to be forgotten. And she wasn’t going to go without a dramatic flourish, engineered to achieve lasting emotional impact.

But I refused to transplant the clipping from its cardboard pot into something permanent when I got home. Because I wasn’t ready to face the permanence her death would bring.

She lived three more months—long enough to see another March Follies. And when she finally died on Sunday morning, she left a huge shadow on a stage filled with witch’s capes and wooden rulers and dolled-up backpacks and a lifetime of flawless hair.

Your revels now are ended, Joanne. You’re now such stuff as dreams are made on, and your life—your presence, your fortitude and your undying grace in the face of adversity—is finally rounded with a sleep.

And you know what? You were the fairest of them all.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Kids, cooking and candles

My brother-in-law was in Europe for the last half of last week, so my sister loaded up her kids on a whim and took them to visit Uncle Jake in Chicago in his absence. And for a rather spur-of-the-moment vacation, we all packed in a lot of adventure.

While I was at work, the kids got to explore the Field Museum and the Chicago Children’s Museum (crammed in next to every child of every Midwestern family on spring break). Then we spent our afternoons being trotted through Uncle Jake’s office like trained show dogs (show dogs who will probably need expensive orthodontia, from the looks of it) and our evenings splashing in the pool and making Kleenex superhero capes for the stuffed animals and cuddling up on the fold-out couch to watch the Sleeping Beauty DVD Uncle Jake didn’t even realize he owned. And I got to audition a recipe (chicken breasts dipped in chicken broth and breaded with crumbled corn flakes and mashed garlic and ground pepper and baked for 50 minutes at 350º) that I was planning on using at My First Dinner Party on Saturday night. (The recipe turned out quite tasty, but it seemed rather downscale for a dinner party. Even though it was very low-fat and the guests were all big homos.)

One of my sister’s shopping goals for the trip was to find a desk for my nephew, who is fast approaching his homework years. So Friday afternoon we traipsed up to the North Avenue shopping district to hit CB2 and the Crate & Barrel Outlet, where we didn’t find any desks but I found the perfect salad tongs (red bamboo!) for my fabulous new dishes … which meant I could serve salad at My First Dinner Party! And then, on the way back to the train from the C&BO, we ducked into a furniture shop to get out of the rain … and there was the desk my sister had been looking for. Everybody won!

Travel tip from my family to yours: If you are visiting your brother and you forget to bring the bag with all your toothbrushes and makeup, be sure your brother is a big stock-up-and-save queen. Not only will he have tons of extra toothbrushes on hand (bought on sale!) for you and your kids, but he’ll also probably have makeup for you to borrow—in shades that flatter your family skin tones.

After the family left on Saturday morning, I joined Matt and Preston downtown for a historical tour of the Palace and Oriental theatres. The tour was full of great information and worth the $15 charge, though I couldn’t get the big queen giving the tour to admit to singing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” off either lobby balcony when nobody was around. And I was kinda hoping to get a backstage peek out of the deal, but we just stayed in the public areas and admired all the fabulous architectural porn that passed for decorating in the 1920s. (Though the Palace Theatre is kind of tacky when it’s not packed with people to distract you from its discount carpet and its relatively mousy-blah décor, the Oriental takes fabulous to new levels of culturally insensitive heights.)

When I got home, I commenced scrubbing the house from top to bottom (one breakfast of Mickey Mouse waffles x two kids = a million sticky fingerprints) and firing up my rudimentary cooking skills to feed hungry guests by 7 pm. And I have to say that My First Dinner Party was so much fun I want to have one every weekend. I have seating (and linens) for six, so my ongoing series of these parties will have to be in little five-guest increments. And this inaugural run taught me not to plan debilitatingly complicated menus; I spent the vast majority of my evening assembling attractive little mountains of chicken and pasta and dolloping homemade whipped cream on my individual pudding-filled Bundt cakes while my guests chatted amiably around my table.

The only casualty of the evening (aside from the carefully chopped peppers I forgot to add to the chicken) was my artful display of candles (varying heights! varying thicknesses! clearance prices!) that—thanks to the fact that our postprandial conversation never moved from the table to the candle-festooned living room where they could be monitored—melted faster and messier than Dubya’s approval rating. Except Dubya never ruined one of my tablecloths. At least not directly. Check it out:
Image hosting by Photobucket

Living-room lava floes notwithstanding, the house looked fabulous, the guests seemed to have fun, nobody died (at least not at the table, which would have been rude) and I got to add another entry to my slowly growing résumé of Alcoholic Things I Have Had In My Mouth: two expensive Bordeaux (is Bordeaux its own plural?) imported directly from France by my world-traveling guests. And now I, the alcohol novice with a palate so unrefined it can’t distinguish Coke from Pepsi, can confidently identify a dry red wine with a couple sips. Even though I ended up serving Bordeaux with chicken. And I forgot the chopped peppers. And my candles made a mess.

Sigh. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a dinner party invitation at Chez Jake, you should probably just resign yourself to a meal of Mickey Mouse waffles served with red bamboo salad tongs. It's just safer that way.