Brain dump

I've been out of town traveling, and my short stop back in NYC has been packed with errands and preparations for my trip to China. In a few hours, I'll head off to the airport for my flight to San Francisco, and then Beijing.

In an effort to get myself on the Beijing timezone, exactly the opposite of NYC's (Beijing is 12 hours ahead), I'm staying up all night before catching the flight. For some reason, one of the only ways I can keep myself up is by sitting at the computer and writing. Watching TV, reading, eating...they all put me to sleep. But typing engages my brain in a way that staves off sleep. This didn't used to be so, especially when trying to finish term papers the night before they were due, but then again, this isn't a term paper.

I had to use all my United frequent flier miles to book my ticket to China. August is peak travel month in China, despite the torrid heat, and so tickets were going for $1300 and up. Of course, United didn't have any coach fares available for mileage redemption, but the surprise was that all the business class seats were gone as well. So I had to push all in with my miles to snag a first class ticket. I've never flown first class overseas, and I'm looking forward to it. Fully reclining seat? Sweetness.

Before I leave, though, a quick look back at Nik and Maria's wedding from my visit to Chicago last weekend.


Congrats to Nik and Maria on their wedding! Theirs was the first Serbian-Polish wedding I'd ever attended, and if I have any say in the matter it won't be my last. Weddings that last more than a few days should really qualify as festivals. The day after my arrival, on a Thursday, the festivities began. I missed that first affair because I was at a White Sox game with Derek, but the next day I jumped in. After a rehearsal at a Serbian Orthodox church, we all drove to Nik's parents' mansion in the suburbs.

So many people were attending that we had to park all the way down at the end of the block. Walking towards their house, we saw a massive catering freezer truck sitting in the driveway. Always a good sign. More than half of the massive backyard sat beneath a circus-sized white tent. Inside, a Serbian band played, the lead singer about three weeks from giving birth, belting out tunes with a vibrato that I came to recognize as characteristic of Serbian singing. Six or seven gigantic coolers sat in the center of the tent, filled with beer and soda, and a series of long tables lined three walls of the tent. Serbian caterers dashed to and fro, placing drinks and dish after dish before us. Then, just after the last course and before dessert, Nik's relatives stood up and started a Serbian line dance.

I was watching and studying the dance steps when one of Nik's uncles, spying my digital SLR, pulled me out of my seat.

"Are you the official photographer? Oh, it doesn't matter." He waved his arms at the circle of dancing family members. "Get that. Do whatever you have to. Stand on the coolers, whatever."

I leapt into action, straddling coolers, weaving in and out of the circle of dancers, snapping away. Several of the people in the circle held the hand of the person next to them with one hand while in the other hand they held not only a beer but a cigarette. By evening's end, I came to believe that this was actually an official variant of the dance formation.

The next morning, we drove back out for another meal, a brunch in the same tent. Afterwards, we drove about forty minutes northeast to the church for the ceremony, which reminded me quite a bit of Ted and Joanne's Greek Orthodox wedding ceremony. Joannie and Mike, both in the ceremony, claimed Nik had to summon Jim Carrey-esque facial contortions during the entire ceremony to keep the tears at bay. If you know Nik, you'd realize how surprising that was, but the love of a good woman can do that to the best of them. We often jokingly refer to Nik as a cross between Brendan Fraser and Luc Longley, but what's most distinctive about Nik is not his height or his face but his jolly, goofy personality. Always joking, always the life of the party. Good times.

Nearly 500 people attended the wedding, and that meant remembering a lot of names, many of them challenging Serbian names. I quickly learned a handy shortcut: if I met a male whose name eluded me, I had a 60% chance of guessing right if I went with Milan. Just about every other Serbian male at the wedding introduced himself as Milan.

At the reception dinner and dance, the videographer let me borrow his flash bracket as he was a fellow Nikon user. How did I live all these years without one? No more unsightly shadows or flash hotspots. Even without the bracket, the new Nikon i-TTL flash system performed like a dream.

This evening, I would not play wedding photographer full-time. Professionals were on hand to handle that. I wanted in on the line dancing. After the official dances, including a fabulous father daughter dance by Maria and her father, set to Paul Simon's "Father and Daughter," I moved in.

The basic Serbian line dance step is not too difficult to master, but like the swing or waltz or any dance step, the complexity comes once you've mastered the basics. An older Serbian woman two to my right nodded in approval at my execution of the basic step, but then with a mischievous grin she left me stumbling over my feet like a drunk on hot coals when she added a couple skips and hops and double time moves.

Serbian songs are long, and they repeat, almost like rounds. After one nearly fifteen minute song I had to retire from the line dance drenched in sweat, ready for my Gatorade commercial moment.

The next morning, because we stayed overnight at the Lisle Hyatt, Joannie, Mike, and I visited Naperville. We stopped by my mother's grave and visited my aunt. We drove past some of Joannie and my old high school haunts. We even did a drive-by of the house I spent so many years of my life growing up in. The saplings we planted in the front and back yard so many years ago had grown into giant trees. The garage door was open, and a large pool had been set up inside the garage, in the shade, on this day when the temperature was 104F, heat index at something like Hell's fifth circle. Several young Indian children splashed and laughed in the garage.

Naperville was recently named No. 3 in Money Magazine's best places to live in the U.S. Back in high school, it all just seemed so dull, but then again it wasn't Money Magazine's best places for a teenager to find hot action.

After the literal trip down memory lane, we headed back to Nik's parents' house for one final event, a pig roast. In the humidity and heat, it was more of a collective roast, but everyone persevered, still buoyed by the previous evening's happy proceedings.

As for photos, I'll have to post them after I'm back from China, but I tossed a few up on Flickr for friends and family.


At one of the meals, I can't remember which one there were so many, a few of the Serbian dishes reminded me of dishes from other cultures. This recalled a conversation I had with Ken while in DC a few months back. Some foods seem to be universal. That is, every culture has some take on them.

One of these universals is some meat wrapped in a leafy vegetable. The Serbian version, with ground pork or beef wrapped in cabbage leaves, was quite tasty. The Greeks have their dolmades, the Chinese have their sticky rice and meet wrapped in bamboo leaves. Another universal is some sort of soft grain, so moist it's almost liquid in form. Oatmeal, grits, porridge, couscous.


Another thing I had to deal with while back in Chicago was all the stuff I had stored in Joannie and Mike's bounteous storage room. Eight or nine boxes held my childhood comic book and baseball card collections, old high school and college papers and yearbooks, photos, and even some textbooks. Comic books and baseball cards? Lousy investment in the 80's and 90's, and totally illiquid. I barely eked out 10 cents to the dollar for that junk.


I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Well, I do know, though I hope you'll read the quiver in my lips as an effort to hold back a tear.


Off to the airport. How time flies when reminiscing. More from Beijing. Seacrest out.