Taffy, Truffles and a Tour for the Tastebuds

Thousands of exhibitors hawked their wares at last week’s Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center

The Fancy Food Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.ENLARGE
The Fancy Food Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. PHOTO:CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

One can’t relive one’s lost youth, but that doesn’t mean he or she should give up trying.

It was just such an impulse that drove me to last week’s Fancy Food Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center where thousands of exhibitors, from international purveyors to mom-and-pop operations in Brooklyn, were hawking food, beverages and everything in between.

I fondly remember accompanying my father to such a show at the New York Coliseum on Columbus Circle as a child and coming away with a bag filled with free samples of candy, jams and lots of other stuff.

My goal at the Fancy Food Show wasn’t to acquire as many goodies as possible; on the other hand, if an exhibitor insisted on educating my palate, I wasn’t going to stand in the way.

The front of the sprawling convention center was dominated by aisles and aisles celebrating products from the likes of Greece, Italy, France and Morocco. I decided to shy away from them in favor of smaller exhibitors on the edges of the show, but the amount and variety of food was so overwhelming I quickly came to the conclusion it was best to leave things to serendipity.

That’s how I ended up at Taffy Town, a Salt Lake City-based salt-water taffy company.

“We have over 70 flavors,” boasted CEO Jason Glade, who said the company was started by his great-grandfather 100 years ago. “We scour the world for flavors.”

I can’t say that salt-water taffy is my go-to treat. Nonetheless, I assumed it was made in large vats behind, say, the Coney Island or Atlantic City boardwalks, not in Utah.

Then again, given the company’s proximity to the Great Salt Lake, perhaps they used the lake water as a natural resource.

Mr. Glade nipped that idea in the bud.

“We use actual sea salt,” he explained while offering me a piece of “chicken and waffles”-flavored taffy.

The ‘chicken and waffles’-flavored salt water taffy from Taffy Town.ENLARGE
The ‘chicken and waffles’-flavored salt water taffy from Taffy Town. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I was frankly relieved to hear his candy didn’t incorporate lake water, and not just because I got caught in a powerful rip current there while visiting during a teen tour in the summer of 1969. A less appealing body of water you’re unlikely to find.

The chicken and waffles was surprisingly tasty. Maple and bacon was also good, but slightly less so.

A candy swap occurred during my visit—between Taffy Town andLaima, a Latvian chocolate company across the aisle.

I was almost as surprised to learn that Latvia made chocolate as that Salt Lake City did taffy. I would have guessed their principle exports included herring, or something like that, and apparently wasn’t that far off.

“Out of the sea we eat fish, and dry out the fish,” explained Baiba Pužule, a Laima representative, who was helping herself to taffy. Ms. Pužule testified that she’d never run across the confection on the shores of the Baltic.

Speaking of local delicacies that may leave foreigners scratching their heads, I also dropped by BWI, a British food importer, where I spotted a bottle of Salad Cream. I’d purchased a bottle of the dressing recently, being attracted to pretty much anything that appears mayonnaise-based and raises your cholesterol.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t quite lived up to expectations and left me somewhat puzzled regarding the British palate. “I’d never eat peanut butter and jam together,” explained Kerry Bamberger, the CEO of BWI.

That might sound like a non sequitur, except that she was responding to my accusation that there might be something slightly off about the average Brit’s taste buds.

Ms. Bamberger’s argument was that every nationality has its favorite foods whose appeal remains obscure to anybody who hasn’t been inculcated from birth, or shortly thereafter. Indeed, she brought up several such British products herself, among them the yeasty spread Marmite and something called Spotted Dick sponge pudding, which she gave me a tin to try.

While I much enjoyed Eccles Cakes from Lancashire, a buttery pastry stuffed with a raisin and current filling, I’ve yet to arouse the courage to crack open my can of Spotted Dick.

Summer truffles at the Appennino Food booth. ENLARGE
Summer truffles at the Appennino Food booth. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

An appreciation for truffles, not the chocolate variety but the subterranean tuber, I suspect transcends most national boundaries.

Indeed, when I spotted Appennino Food, a truffle products company from the Bologna region of Italy, I came to a full stop in the hope they might be handing out free samples.

Sadly, they weren’t. However, I got into a lively conversation with Luigi Dattilo, the company’s director, and Jasna Tavcar, a company representative and his translator, who told me Mr. Dattilo started his business with a single truffle dog, a breed known as Lagotto.

I was under the impression one hunts truffles with pigs. But it was explained to me that, while that may be true in France, pigs are out for themselves and will eat whatever truffles they find unless you get to them first.

Dogs, on the other hand, defer to their masters. Unless, they first pick up the scent of a female Lagotto and then they’re not good for much for anything, including truffle hunting.

“He gets, like, in love,” Ms. Tavcar explained. “Instead of looking down, he looks up.”

Manhattan’s Sailing School

Turns out New York Harbor is a pretty good place to learn

Ralph Gardner, left, and Bob Woodring of the Offshore Sailing School, piloting a Colgate 26 off Battery Park City in lower Manhattan.ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner, left, and Bob Woodring of the Offshore Sailing School, piloting a Colgate 26 off Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

New York Harbor wouldn’t seem the ideal place to learn how to sail. Though perhaps it is.

“If you can sail here, you can sail anywhere,” explained Bob Woodring,an instructor with the Off Shore Sailing School, as we prepared to cast off from the Brookfield North Cove Marina, in the shadow of One World Trade Center.

“A lot of tide,” Mr. Woodring said, starting to inventory the list of threats we might encounter on our voyage. “A lot of current. Commercial traffic and all the pleasure boats—Jet Skis to paddleboats to major yachts.”

He also cited barges and the Staten Island Ferry but forgot to mention ocean liners and aircraft carriers. Fortunately, it wasn’t Fleet Week.

“When they leave here and go to Long Island Sound,” he added of the school’s graduates, “it’s easier.”

I’ve always had mixed emotions about sailing, perhaps because I come from generations of landlubbers.

I can certainly appreciate the beauty of a sailboat, particularly when its sails are full, and it’s being driven by nothing but the wind.

But I’m more than content to watch from shore or serve as a passenger. Perhaps it’s a personality flaw, but I’ve never aspired to be the skipper. It just seems like a lot of responsibility and hard work.

“We’ll motor out through the sea wall,” Mr. Woodring explained. “We’ll put our boat head to wind, raise the mainsail, unfurl the jib, cut off the motor and be sailing.”

He’d already lost me. Head to wind?

And I’ve never mastered the names of all the equipment. The jib? That’s different from a winch, right? Then what’s a spinnaker?

And why must they invent new names for everything? Port and starboard. Fore and aft. What’s wrong with left and right? Front and back?

A Colgate 26 on the Hudson.ENLARGE

My wife is the sailor in the family. When first I met her she’d recently been dismasted in the Bermuda Triangle while part of a crew that was delivering a brand-new sailboat to the Caribbean.

While the boat was provisioned with champagne, the captain had forgotten to include flares for the flare gun. Or maybe he’d remembered the flares but forgotten the gun. In any case, it took two days for the Coast Guard to rescue them.

I’ve heard this story countless times across almost three decades of marriage, and each time my reaction is approximately the same: Why bother? Is communing with the sea worth risking your life?

My lesson with the Offshore Sailing School was aboard a Colgate 26. Designed by Steve Colgate, a former Olympic sailor and the school’s founder, and naval architect Jim Taylor, it’s a high-performance keelboat—whatever that is—and probably the smallest vessel I’ve ever sailed in.

I prefer those with a full cabin I can cower in when things get scary, as they seemed to at several points during our voyage. For example, when we got knocked around by the wake from the “The Beast.” That’s the Circle Line’s 70-foot speedboat, its sides appropriately decorated with a shark’s mouth full of teeth.

Or the several occasions when we had to ride on the high side of the boat because the low side was almost treading water. (I’m sure there’s a nautical term for this; I just don’t know what it is.)

And “coming about,” also known as tacking, when the sail swings violently from one side of the boat to the other, and you try to duck in time, as the skipper maneuvers to take advantage of the wind.

That’s similar but different from “jibing,” though I can’t say exactly how.

“There’s fear and panic,” Mr. Woodring explained. “I think fear is healthy.”

I assume he meant caution rather than fear, but maybe not.

Even though the breeze was said to be no more than a balmy 5 knots, it felt much stronger. Between the wind, the swells, and the gray clouds looming above, I felt like the mariner in Winslow Homer’s “The Gulf Stream,” that study in hopelessness of a dismasted sailor in high seas surrounded by sharks.

Luckily, our crew included not just Mr. Woodring and me, but my photographer Steve Remich who arrived bearing good tidings: “I lived on a 110-foot schooner for a year,” Mr. Remich shared.

“I could get us back,” he added, in response to a question of mine. “Plus, you have the four-horse.”

He was referring to our outboard motor.

In fact, when it comes to sailing, my great fear isn’t drowning but adolescent angst that when the skipper asks me to trim the sails or tie a knot I’ll screw up and be confined to quarters.

Fortunately, my photographer assumed all those responsibilities, allowing me to do what I do best on boats, besides drinking, eating, sunbathing and seeking shelter below deck when things start to look precarious. That’s to steer the vessel, aiming for a point on the horizon, and trying to appear in control.

In that regard, everybody agreed I did a decent job.

Post-Chase, a Qualified Sense of Relief

What does it say that we felt so vulnerable about two convicts on the loose?

FBI agents conducting a search for convicted murderer David Sweat on Sunday near Duane, N.Y.ENLARGE
FBI agents conducting a search for convicted murderer David Sweat on Sunday near Duane, N.Y. PHOTO: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

What does it say about human nature—my human nature, in particular—that I’m relieved that David Sweat, one of the Clinton Correctional escapees, was shot, while Richard Matt, the other one, was killed?

Not that I wish death on anyone, except in self-defense when they’re coming at me with a knife or a gun.

But one could conceivably construe this to be a case of self-defense in the loosest, most imaginative sense of the term.

Because who among us, for at least a fleeting second or two, whether urbanite or rural resident, New Yorker, Californian, or anywhere in between, didn’t watch the news fearing those two desperados would show up on our doorstep and kill us for our weapons (those of us who have weapons) cold cuts, or what have you.

The chances of that happening, obviously, were slim. But in the heat of the manhunt it felt as if they could have showed up anywhere from Sitka, Alaska, to the Upper East Side. If they were slick enough to cajole the prison’s staff into supplying them with power tools, they would know how to hail a cab or download the Uber app on a purloined cellphone.

Self-involvement, not to mention hubris and self-pity, is the American way. All you need to do is look at the arc of your own life to realize that having a couple of sociopaths on the run show up in your apartment lobby has a sort of perverse logic.


That’s got to be at least part of the reason the story—with everything else going on in the world—had legs, becoming this month’s missing Malaysian airliner on CNN.

And while I doubt anybody was rooting for them, except for their fellow inmates, you had to admire their ability to evade capture for so long. In some warped way it seemed a small, if transient, victory for the individual over the system.

I can’t say I was paying especially close attention, though.

While the story about Mr. Matt’s romance with prison seamstressJoyce Mitchell and his alleged endowments was mildly interesting—though I was more impressed with his portraits of Julia Roberts andAngelina Jolie—what kept me refreshing my news apps was the fear that, with any luck—and out of the approximately 123 million households in the U.S.—he’d show up at mine.

Of course, some of us had more reason to fear than others—those closest to the upstate prison where they made their break and the nearby vacation cabins where they were said to be hiding out, most of all.

But I would come next.

While my home is well over 200 miles from the scene of the escape, we’re at the end of a dirt road, and the only house on it.

I’m not a big gun-rights advocate and don’t own one. But had the murderers somehow managed to hitch a ride south on the Northway, or maybe score a couple of seats, unrecognized, on an Adirondack Trailways bus, and showed up on my front step—Jehovah’s Witnesses do all the time—I’d have quickly realized that I’m the entire police department.

If it looked as if the tide was turning subtly toward criminal background checks in the wake of the church killings in Charleston, I suspect the story of Messrs. Matt and Sweat served to reverse the course of public opinion, and then some, toward the virtues of sleeping with a Beretta under your pillow and having a shotgun handy lest anyone misinterpret the meaning of your “No Trespassing” signs.

Of course, the chance of me hitting a target is remote at best, even though I achieved the distinction of Marksman First Class at summer camp and have the parchment and shoulder patch to prove it.

For years, I’ve been trying to get my children to read “In Cold Blood,” perhaps for some of the same reasons the recent manhunt had us riveted. You could also argue, as my wife does, that it’s further proof, lest any were needed, that I’m a bad parent.

The book’s potency came from Truman Capote’s prose poetry and the fact that it was a true story. I remember reading it when it came out and being both enthralled and terrified, though I don’t know how much of that was because it was great literature and how much because it wasn’t hard to imagine myself in the shoes of the Clutter family of Holcomb, Kan. They lived blameless lives out in the middle of nowhere, and yet were marked for death, almost at random, by a couple of losers.

Come to think of it, perhaps my wife was right. It’s not for children.

A Musical Career With No Coda

Ursula Oppens, a celebrated pianist, at 71 still tries to practice four or five hours a day

Ursula Oppens in her Upper West Side apartment, where she tries to practice piano several hours a day. ENLARGE
Ursula Oppens in her Upper West Side apartment, where she tries to practice piano several hours a day. PHOTO: ANDREW HINDERAKER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Ursula Oppens heard that I’d met her father, Kurt Oppens, in the 1960s, she asked innocently whether he’d come to my house to tune my piano. Ms. Oppens is one of our most vital pianists, and a four-time Grammy nominee. Her program at Brooklyn’s Bargemusic on Friday night ranged from contemporary music written for her byFrederic Rzewski and John Corigliano to Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Op. 90, and sonatas by Beethoven and Scriabin.

Mr. Oppens was a piano tuner by trade.

But that wasn’t the context in which I met him, probably when I was in my mid- to late-teens. It was at a friend’s family’s annual Christmas party—an often stuffy Park Avenue affair where you never quite felt you belonged—and I happened to find myself sitting beside him on a couch in the living room.

I’ll never forget our conversation, though I have no recollection what the conversation was about. Music perhaps—he wasn’t just a piano tuner, as it turns out, but a brilliant musicologist who for four decades wrote annotations for the works performed at the Aspen Music Festival—but more likely life in general.

He seemed completely open and interested in the thoughts of a teenager whose insights probably weren’t all that interesting. Again, the setting might have had something to do with it. He shone like a welcoming harbor in a room filled with bluebloods and CEOs who would decide whether you were worthy after they heard where you went to school and had determined your relationship to our host.

There was an utter lack of pretense about Mr. Oppens, an infectious sense of wonder that left you feeling that age, whether young or old, was no impediment to discovery (born in Hamburg in 1910, he was probably younger than I am now.) More importantly, he made you feel exhilarated about the exchange of ideas for their own sake.

His daughter believes the fact that he was a refugee from the Third Reich—he and Ms. Oppens’s mother, Edith, also a musicologist, fled the Nazis, arriving in the U.S. in 1938—had something to do with his life-affirming spirit.

“His most important philosophical point of view,” said the pianist, who has both her parents diplomas hanging in her Upper West Side music room, “was to think how fortunate he was to make a new life. His father died in a camp.”

She generously gave me a book of her father’s Aspen Music Festival notes and essays, “Kurt Oppens on Music,” published in 2009. Opening to the page about Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, the “Pastoral,” he displays the breadth of his knowledge, offering examples of pastorale elements in music, from the Middle Ages to the shepherd’s pipes in “Tannhäuser” and Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.” He goes on to describe the “Pastoral” as “a ‘monument’ (how could it be otherwise) in its very denial of monumentality.”

Ursula Oppens hold a photograph of her father, Kurt, a musicologist who was a piano tuner by trade.ENLARGE
Ursula Oppens hold a photograph of her father, Kurt, a musicologist who was a piano tuner by trade. PHOTO: ANDREW HINDERAKER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Despite her musical provenance, Ms. Oppens, who grew up on the West Side and attended the Brearley School and Radcliffe College, said her parents didn’t push her in that direction.

“They were very strong about making sure I had other options,” she recalled. “I wasn’t sure about being a pianist until some years after college.”

She said she contemplated going to law school.

Nonetheless, she could read music before she could read words. “When I was 3½, I had my tonsils removed,” she said. “You stayed in bed for a really long time. To amuse me, my mother had me learn to read and sing. You would think that’s odd if you’re recovering from a throat operation.”

Ms. Oppens sat down at her piano and started to play. At 71, she still tries to practice four or five hours every day. “Sometimes I can do more. It’s something I’ve done so long it’s part of what keeps me in balance.”

The neighbors don’t complain (she sound-proofed her music room) but they used to when she lived in another West Side apartment withJulius Hemphill, a jazz composer and saxophonist who died in 1995. Her current partner is the American classical pianist Jerome Lowenthal.

“They said when I interrupt a phrase in the middle they can’t stand it,” she remembered. “That was a very accurate complaint.”

We moved into the living room of the simply furnished apartment, with its view of Columbia’s Low Memorial Library—an unframed, yellowing front page from the New York Times of Nov. 5, 2008, bearing the headline “OBAMA” is taped to the wall in her foyer.

There, Ms. Oppens sat down at her second piano and played the first of Schubert’s Four Impromptus that she planned to perform at Bargemusic Friday night.

“I’m as excited about things as I always was,” she said when she paused; she’s a champion of American composers, many of whom she’s commissioned works from. “I’m still learning music, and I hope I never stop.”

Given her background, I was curious whether she knew how to tune a piano. She didn’t.

“I would call Daddy,” she said.

Dealing a Crushing Blow to Poachers With Beverly and Dereck Joubert

The wildlife conservationists discuss their efforts to save Africa’s rhino population

Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service destroy confiscated ivory items in New York’s Times Square on Friday.ENLARGE
Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service destroy confiscated ivory items in New York’s Times Square on Friday. PHOTO: ANDREW BURTON/GETTY IMAGES

In Times Square, with government officials, guests and tourists looking on, an industrial rock crusher pulverized a ton of confiscated ivory.

Ivory crushes, what the rallies like the one last week are called, are meant to raise the public’s awareness about the illegal ivory trade—to get people to stop buying ivory and to end the killing of the tens of thousands of elephants and rhinos that are being driven toward extinction.

Among those watching Friday were Beverly and Dereck Joubert, filmmakers and wildlife conservationists who have a special distinction: In late April, from Botswana, they spearheaded the largest rhino airlift to date.

The couple flew the first 10 of 100 rhinos from South Africa, where poaching is soaring, to neighboring Botswana, where elephants—and now rhinos—are as safe as anywhere in Africa.

And for one simple reason: “The policy in Botswana is shoot to kill,” Mr. Joubert explained, referring to the poachers, when we met in Midtown the afternoon before the rally. “They take this very seriously, from the president and the minister of the environment, wildlife and tourism on down.”

Wildlife photographers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert in Manhattan's Bryant Park on June 18.ENLARGE
Wildlife photographers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert in Manhattan’s Bryant Park on June 18. PHOTO: JULIE PLATNER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Because of that policy, according to Mr. Joubert, Botswana holds a third of all of Africa’s elephants. An average of 34,000 elephants are killed every year to support the ivory trade, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the crowd at the rally.

According to the Jouberts, a rhino is killed every 7.5 hours. Today, there are only an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 white rhinos and 20,000 black rhinos left in Africa.

For that reason, the Jouberts and the Botswanan government took no chances after the rhinos arrived in Maun, the town that serves as the gateway for the safari trade in the Okavango Delta. The animals flew in specially designed crates aboard the largest plane ever to land at Maun’s airport.

“Once they were off-loaded we had to cart them in 10 trucks and drive about six hours,” Mr. Joubert recalled. “That’s where we knew we were going to be vulnerable. The extra security of the military was key.”

The Botswanan military provided a 60-member security detail, “a highly trained, dedicated team of soldiers,” Mr. Joubert explained. “We had a helicopter to scout ahead in case there were any ambushes.”

There were also regular stops so the veterinarians, who were part of the entourage, could examine the animals for stress. All were in good condition.

I expressed surprise such precautions were necessary, given Botswana’s zero-tolerance policy.

“The value of these animals is so high,” Mr. Joubert explained. “Even though there were only 10, their value is $5 [million] to $8 million just in the horn value.” Those who covet the horn, particularly in Asia, believe it can cure everything from cancer to a flagging libido.

The Jouberts recently visited China, where they were interviewed by celebrity TV talk show host Yang Lan about the mass destruction of wildlife associated with the importation of ivory. The segment attracted 200 million viewers and Ms. Lan’s social media forum on the subject drew 195 million followers.

The conservationists sound optimistic that China will ban ivory imports, once more of the public understands the impact on the environment. Mr. Joubert cited research he said showed that the vast majority of the Chinese people have no idea ivory comes from dead animals.

“They’ve heard elephants grow six sets of teeth,” Ms. Joubert added, and many believe elephant tusks and rhino horns also grow back. “We were saying, you have to know it’s blood ivory. Animals are being killed for you.”

However, China isn’t the only culprit. The illegal ivory trade also has been robust in the U.S. The ivory crush was held only blocks from the Diamond District, where three years ago the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seized $2 million worth of ivory.

A rhino released in Botswana by Rhinos Without Borders.ENLARGE
A rhino released in Botswana by Rhinos Without Borders. PHOTO: BEVERLY JOUBERT

The 10 rhinos rescued from South Africa all have radio-tracking devices and microchips and were taken to the same, undisclosed location. “We’re trying to create a breeding nucleus,” Mr. Joubert explained. “It takes 10.”

They arrived at their destination around dusk.

“One of them at a time stepped,” out of their crates, the conservationist continued. “Some charged off confused. Others started eating immediately.”

“As each crate opened we could feel the exhilaration,” Ms. Joubert recalled. “It was quite emotional.”

The couple spent the night sleeping on the ground, surrounded by the rhinos. “In the pitch black, we would hear the rhinos moving all around us,” Ms. Joubert reported. “To hear the snorting and wheezing and communicating was amazing for us.”

Fundraising for the project is ongoing at www.trevolta.com/rhinos; the cost of relocating each rhino is about $45,000. Based on the success of the inaugural airlift, the Jouberts have expanded their mission.

“We will get to the hundred by the end of next year,” Mr. Joubert said. “Our new target is 250.”

Invasion of the Water Chestnuts

The invasive plant is slowly spreading throughout New York state’s waterways, lakes and ponds

Ralph Gardner Jr., left, and Nate Davis of Columbia Land Conservancy on Meizinger Lake.ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner Jr., left, and Nate Davis of Columbia Land Conservancy on Meizinger Lake. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

As the temperature soars with the humidity not far behind, thoughts tend toward fleeing the city. I like to think of it as a health issue, sort of like giving up soft drinks, though I refuse to do so.

That’s why one morning last week found me looking for an excuse to work outdoors and finding it on Meizinger Lake in upstate Columbia County. I was performing community service of sorts—plucking water chestnuts from the lake.

These weren’t the crunchy kind you find in Chinese stir fry or wrapped in bacon. They belonged to the genus Trapa natans, a nasty invasive native to Europe, Asia and Africa. The plant’s so-called fruit is a thorned nut that looks straight from science fiction and can pierce the skin, even when you’re wearing thick, protective gloves. And it’s slowly spreading throughout New York state, taking over waterways, lakes and ponds.

I was there at the invitation of the Columbia Land Conservancy, which runs the property, part of the 433-acre Hand Hollow Conservation Area. And I was accompanied by Bruce Shenker, an old friend whose sense of public spirit is far more robust than mine—and apparently than lots of other people.

The seeds of the invasive water chestnut have sharp spines. ENLARGE
The seeds of the invasive water chestnut have sharp spines. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“They used to get 10 volunteers,” Mr. Shenker reported as we headed through the woods down to the lake that, despite its struggles with water chestnuts, remains a beautiful and inviting body filled with largemouth bass and pickerel. “This year, I’m the only volunteer.”

Now there were two of us. Or three—if you count Nate Davis, the conservancy’s public lands and volunteer manager.

Mr. Davis’s attitude toward the poor turnout seemed more philosophical and resigned than disappointed. “When people come up here on the weekend, they’ve got stuff to do on their property,” he explained. “When there’s bugs or wind or rain, it scares people away, too.”

Under normal conditions, I’d be one of those slackers. If I’m going to remove weeds from a pond, it will probably be my own. Indeed, I used to get perverse satisfaction from pulling cattails up by the roots—at least until the day I felt something give in my hand and not too long afterward found myself undergoing surgery.

I subsequently enlisted grass carp to do the chore. And while their overall performance, at least those that weren’t picked off by predators, was underwhelming, they do seem to love cattails and I haven’t seen a plant in years.

I could have added another reason for my reluctance to lend a hand. As we made our way across the lake in a canoe and a kayak—Mr. Davis and I were in the canoe, Mr. Shenker in the kayak—to a bay blanketed by water chestnuts, it was obvious that it would take more than three of us to make a dent in the population.

“Each plant produces 12 seeds annually,” Mr. Davis explained as we got to work. “Those seeds remain viable in the muck for 20 years. Do the math. If you don’t do anything about it, it multiplies and multiplies.”

I didn’t need to do the math. Or rather, I’d already done the math.

Volunteer Bruce Shenker removes invasive water chestnuts from Meizinger Lake in  New Lebanon, N.Y. ENLARGE
Volunteer Bruce Shenker removes invasive water chestnuts from Meizinger Lake in New Lebanon, N.Y. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Nonetheless, there was a peculiar Zen to pulling up the weeds by their long roots, the only sound around the lake that of birdsong. Mr. Davis employed a sort of swirling technique, wrapping the plant around his gloved hand, while I preferred a more straightforward motion. We’d lost Mr. Shenker; he hadn’t capsized but vanished into a small cove where he’d worked before and was intent on removing every last invasive.

When we removed a weed, we deposited it into a contractor-strength trash bag between our legs. And when, after an hour or so, we got tired and bored and the bags and the rest of the canoe were filled with weeds, we paid a visit to a beaver dam, though there were no beavers to be seen.

On the way back to shore, Mr. Davis confided that the lake’s water chestnuts would be treated with a topical solution that shuts down photosynthesis. It’s the second year in a row. “By doing nothing it’s irresponsible of us,” he said. “We do the hand pulling. But we can’t get enough people. So we’re taking the next step.”

Mr. Shenker wondered how well last year’s treatment worked.

“It’s hard to tell,” Mr. Davis confessed. “We’re still dealing with years and years of viable seeds,” that can grow even if the current crop of plants is destroyed.

Part of the haul of water chestnuts after a 90-minute removal session on Meizinger Lake.ENLARGE
Part of the haul of water chestnuts after a 90-minute removal session on Meizinger Lake. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“It’s crazy it’s so persistent,” said Mr. Shenker—an observation that could have been made as easily without leaving our respective homes—but who nonetheless seemed unbowed and promised to volunteer again shortly.

Mr. Davis said the best solution was a specially equipped water chestnut-busting boat. “There’s machines that have conveyor belts on them,” he explained. “They suck the water chestnut out.”

Unfortunately, one boat costs $20,000 for a minimum of three days.

I’m more than ready to start passing the hat, and the buck.

Back to School With Marky Ramone

Talking speakers, fashion and ‘Rock ’n’ Roll High School’ with the Ramones drummer

Ralph Gardner Jr. talks with drummer Marky Ramone, whose book, ‘Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone,’ was released in January. ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner Jr. talks with drummer Marky Ramone, whose book, ‘Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone,’ was released in January. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It would seem that Marky Ramone and I had little in common. When the drummer for the punk rock band the Ramones, whom I met last week, and his bandmates were tearing up CBGB, I was still listening to James Taylor singing about that sugar-frosted turnpike between Stockbridge and Boston. He favors jeans and T-shirts, while my attire tends to khakis and Brooks Brothers button-downs. He has tattoos, I have none.

But it turned out that we did share a couple of passions. The first was a love of the Ramones music and in particular their star turn in the 1979 movie “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.” Indeed, I told Mr. Ramone—born Marc Steven Bell 62 years ago—that one of my proudest moments as a father came when I turned my kids onto the band.

“It definitely bridges the generation gap,” Mr. Ramone agreed when we sat down in a sound room at Brand Synergy Group, an entertainment consulting company off Union Square.

Our second area of common interest was vinyl. I confided that, much to my wife’s consternation, I was still spinning records on my portable KLH stereo, circa 1968.

Of the two, I was more eager to discuss “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” whose greatness is self-evident yet somehow eludes description. It captures the essence of teenage rebellion in the way “Animal House” does college anarchy.

I was hoping Mr. Ramone could shed light on its absurdist majesty.

“Four aliens that just landed,” he said, describing the scene when the band arrives at Vince Lombardi High School—led by the elongated Joey Ramone—the embodiment of every principal’s worst nightmare. But especially that of the new head of school, Miss Evelyn Togar, more prison-camp commandant than learning specialist, and played by the inestimable Mary Woronov.

Mr. Ramone inside the famous Trash and Vaudeville store on St. Marks Place.ENLARGE
Mr. Ramone inside the famous Trash and Vaudeville store on St. Marks Place. PHOTO:MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Ramone fondly recalled the film’s finale, when the school goes up in flames.

“That’s where P.J. Soles,” who plays the troublemaking Riff Randell, “says, ‘Hit it Marky’ and I start the drumbeat to ‘Rock ’n’ roll High School.’ With the fire you had to get the take the first time.”

Mr. Ramone grew up in Brooklyn and attended Erasmus Hall High School. He returned there while doing research for his memoir “Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone,” which was published in January. He was trying to track down his report card.

The place had changed a lot since his day. “I had to go through three different metal detectors,” he recalled. “And I didn’t get the report card.”

He was more successful at Ditmas Junior High School. “Even a junior high school had metal detectors,” he complained. “At least I got my report card. But they didn’t want to use it in the book for some reason.”

However, assuming I was a fellow student of sound, Mr. Ramone seemed even more eager to discuss the Klipsch speakers in the sound room, on which we listened to the Ramones anthem “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

“They bring out the highs and the lows,” he boasted. “Hear the cymbals crash? The base drum sounds really good. And the mids are great for the vocals. I could take the grill off and show you.”

I frankly had no idea what he was talking about. But I didn’t want to burst his bubble, Mr. Ramone apparently having decided we were kindred spirits—I like to think we were, too—even if our dress code differed markedly.

Did he recall his first record player, I wondered, trying to deflect attention from my acoustical ignorance?

“From Lafayette Electronics,” he remembered. “Behind Erasmus. A gift from my parents: ‘Marky, please finish high school.’”

“Then I got the AR-3a,” he went on. “And the AR amplifier and turntable.”

I noticed his distressed jeans, with gaping holes at the knees. They were something of a Ramones trademark and perhaps responsible for a questionable fashion trend that continues to this day.

“Probably because of no money,” Mr. Ramone said of their genesis. “We just kept wearing them.”

He added: “These aren’t my original ripped jeans, obviously. They’re in the Hall of Fame.”

He was referring, of course, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum where the Ramones were inducted in 2002. All four of the band’s original members—Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy—are dead. Marky replaced Tommy in 1978.

The drummer told me his jeans once stood between him and ’70s night life nirvana when he was denied admission to Studio 54.

“I went there just to see,” he remembered. “They said, ‘You can’t come in because of the ripped jeans.’ OK Fine. We had Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs.”

While we never made it to the site of CBGB on a brief driving and walking tour, we got as far as Trash and Vaudeville, a St. Mark’s Place clothing store the Ramones patronized.

“What did you think of the Bose?” Mr. Ramone wanted to know in the SUV on the way there. He was referring to the 901 series speakers, whose direct/reflecting technology was said to reproduce the power of a live performance.

I had no opinion on the subject, so I just smiled amiably. Mr. Ramone didn’t seem to notice. “It really interfered with the neighbors,” he said. “I had to get rid of them.”

Brian Williams and the Celebrity-Anchor Cult

The trouble started when TV news people became performers

If Brian Williams wants to blame somebody for his current woes—my understanding is that his apology tour isn’t going all that well—I’d start with a decision made back in 1980 to replace Walter Cronkitewith Dan Rather as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of ‘NBC Nightly News,’ in 2010.ENLARGE
Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of ‘NBC Nightly News,’ in 2010. PHOTO:MATT SAYLES/ASSOCIATED PRESS

He was chosen over Roger Mudd. But my money had always been onBob Schieffer. Mr. Schieffer seemed the natural successor to Mr. Cronkite, whose authority came from his unglamorous command of the facts rather than his good looks.

While other factors may have been involved in the decision—for example, the fear that Mr. Rather would relocate to ABC News—CBS seemed as seduced by Mr. Rather’s charisma as by his reporting skills.

It seemed the moment when network news decided it was as much an entertainment medium as an information-gathering medium.

Walter Cronkite anchoring 'The CBS Evening News' in 1969.ENLARGE
Walter Cronkite anchoring ‘The CBS Evening News’ in 1969. PHOTO: CBS PHOTO ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Not that Mr. Rather wasn’t a capable and tenacious newsman or that Mr. Cronkite didn’t know how to command an audience. Few were better at it. But again, Mr. Cronkite’s authority came from the belief on the part of millions of nightly viewers that his years of experience—from flying on bombing raids over Germany during World War II as a wire-service reporter, to covering JFK’s assassination and the Vietnam War—had imbued him with judgment and given him the moral authority to hang out in our living rooms.

When he signed off nightly with “And that’s the way it is,” no one doubted him.

We still expect the person holding that position to be trustworthy. And to project that all-important, but largely intangible, sense of psychological equilibrium.


Perhaps the reason the position remains coveted to this day despite the ever-expanding universe of information options, and pays so well, has something to do with the persistent innocence of the American people—the belief that we can hire a father figure (women haven’t succeeded as well in the position) who, in under 30 minutes (including pharmaceutical ads) can assuage our fears that the world is coming apart at the seams.

It’s a tall order, and one that Mr. Williams was actually very good at filling. He seemed to possess that all-important gravitas, even if his physical appearance suggested he came from central casting.

And his frequent appearances on shows such as “Saturday Night Live” and “Late Night With David Letterman” reassured us that he was in on the joke.

So why, then, are we so shocked to discover that Mr. Williams buffed his resume with imaginary tales of derring-do? His instinctive sense of story telling and drama may be the reason he pummeled the ratings competition.

Maybe we hold our news anchors to too high a standard, or rather a double standard. We require that they make the news, an inherently unfunny medium, amusing.

Roger Mudd, whom CBS passed over for Dan Rather in 1980.ENLARGE
Roger Mudd, whom CBS passed over for Dan Rather in 1980. PHOTO: NBC NEWSWIRE/GETTY IMAGES

One of my favorite lines comes from the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

You know the rest of it. But what I appreciate about it is the assertion that truth exists; not only does it exist but it’s sitting there waiting to be acknowledged.

It’s not chiseled in stone. It’s the stone itself.

Perhaps we’ve persuaded ourselves that the truth is unknowable. Which may be why Brian Williams had the mistaken impression that we’d give him some slack.

The problem is that every so often reality comes back to bite you—whether it’s the 9/11 attacks, the church shooting in Charleston, or one anchorman’s fake story about the helicopter he was riding being forced down by enemy fire.

At those moments we long for Walter Cronkite, or a reasonable facsimile, serving as the nation’s editor-in-chief and resisting the temptation to describe the latest cat video as “breaking news.”

The only sensible response would seem to be to develop the skill of skepticism. Hence the reason satirical programs such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” have played such an important role in the national discourse and become unlikely sources of real news.

They’ve assumed the mantle that Mr. Cronkite once held, as truth tellers.

Mr. Cronkite’s greatest talent may have been to realize that news and entertainment are separate disciplines, that don’t typically overlap, and to give his audience the benefit of the doubt that they could distinguish the two and demand the former.

Brian Williams may still be acquiring that knowledge.

Science Meets Speed Dating

Ralph Gardner Jr. goes to a sort of speed-dating event, where he learns from American Museum of Natural History scientists

Jana Grcevich, right, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics, discusses dwarf galaxies with guests at Speed Science, an event hosted by the museum in partnership with Tumblr.ENLARGE
Jana Grcevich, right, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Astrophysics, discusses dwarf galaxies with guests at Speed Science, an event hosted by the museum in partnership with Tumblr. PHOTO:DENIS FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

You’re obviously familiar with the concept of speed dating, even if you’ve never tried it. That’s an event where you “date” new people for five minutes or so until a bell, or gong, goes off and you move along to the next table and your next assignation.

I can’t attest to the success of the process since I’ve never tried it. But I suspect that if there’s any lesson to be learned from Internet dating sites and apps such as Tinder, it’s that love, or at least lust, is a hardy seed capable of establishing itself in the least promising soil.

Last week, the American Museum of Natural History and the blogging and social networking platform Tumblr decided to adapt the speed-dating concept to science.

Instead of getting five minutes with a prospective mate, the allotted time would be spent with one of the museum’s scientists. There were 24 of them, traveling among 12 tables. And instead of sharing your taste in food and music and attitudes toward organized religion (or whatever people discuss on speed dates), you’d get to pepper paleontologists about whether Tyrannosaurus rex had feathers or chat with astrophysicists about the possibility of a multiverse and whether black holes might serve as portals, sort of like the Bleecker-Lafayette subway station, facilitating travel between one universe and another.

(This just happens to be a theory of mine, based on an abundance of ignorance, but one I didn’t get to test, because of the several tables I joined none were led by a cosmologist.)

I might also add, just to set the scene, that the event, dubbed Speed Science, occurred under the blue whale in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, that there were DJs and an open bar, and, for the sake of full disclosure that my daughter Lucy, who works at the museum, helped organize the event.

Speed Science night at the American Museum of Natural History.ENLARGE
Speed Science night at the American Museum of Natural History. PHOTO: DENIS FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

Though I didn’t see much of her as I moved with drink in hand between curatorial associate Jacklyn Lacey, who regaled the four or five of us seated at her table with tales of the use of hedgehogs in medicine, and ornithologist Paul Sweet, who came armed not only with his bird specimens collected in the Solomon Islands but also a belted kingfisher collected on Oyster Bay, Long Island, by future President Theodore Roosevelt as a teenager on July 25, 1876.

“We wanted to make sure the users of Tumblr knew what the museum had to offer,” explained Anne Canty, senior vice president for communications and marketing. “Social media is really important for engaging with our audience directly.”

It was also an opportunity for the museum’s younger scientists, most of them doctoral candidates or post-docs, to shine. Even as I spotted one or two senior scientists in the mix, among them Mark Siddall,arguably the world’s leading authority on leeches.

The crowd, which appeared mostly in their 20s and 30s, seemed to have an easy time relating to young researchers, such as herpetologistSara Ruane, who’d brought along a show-and-tell snake penis in a jar, actually more than one.

The organ is known as a “hemipenis” and male snakes have two of them, as I understand it—I’m hard of hearing anyway under cocktail party conditions—to increase their odds of reproductive success. Even though they use the organs alternately, rather than simultaneously.

“A lot of males all at once are trying to get the same female,” Dr. Ruane said with a level of enthusiasm one could comfortably describe as infectious, an adjective not typically associated with squamates and their copulatory habits. The hemipenis “gets stuck in them, preventing another male from being able to reproduce with her.”

She added, and then I’ll stop, but this stuff is interesting, that a female can get pregnant long after the male dismounts. “Female snakes can store sperm for years and years,” Dr. Ruane explained. “They’re able to wait until the time is ripe climate-wise and food-wise.”

Kate and Ben Adams, who work in book publishing, said the event seemed sufficiently promising that they invested in a baby-sitter for the evening. They weren’t disappointed.

Aaron Heiss, left, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, discusses the discovery and description of microbes with guests at Speed Science.ENLARGE
Aaron Heiss, left, a postdoctoral researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, discusses the discovery and description of microbes with guests at Speed Science. PHOTO: DENIS FINNIN/AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

“It’s inspiring to see so many female scientists,” Ms. Adams said.

“We met a woman who discovered two galaxies by age 32,” her husband added.

I even came away with practical information. Eileen Westwig, a scientist in the Department of Mammalogy who brought along a bat in a jar, said my fears that one might land on my head while I’m grilling steaks were unjustified, though 2% are infected with rabies. Even vampire bats are harmless unless you take to sleeping on forest floors.

Guests Laura Garrison and Marina Cockenberg may have learned something even more valuable. Our sun will eventually die, but not through an explosion.

“It’s going to expand slightly but doesn’t have the mass,” Ms. Cockenberg said she learned.

“Ultimately, we’re doomed,” Ms. Garrison added. “But not in the way we thought.”

A Designer’s Creation: His Own Career

Ed Schlossberg has carved out a unique role for himself and his firm

Ed Schlossberg at the Fifth Avenue offices of ESI Design.ENLARGE
Ed Schlossberg at the Fifth Avenue offices of ESI Design. PHOTO: RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In college a friend told me that I knew what I wanted to do with my life, there just didn’t happen to be a job description for it. He wasn’t entirely in his right mind at that moment, but that’s sometimes when you’re at your most profound.

Never mind I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was a comforting thought—that if you were filled with curiosity, ambition and a fleck of intelligence you might be able to write your own ticket.

I’m not sure to what extent I achieved his outside-the-box expectations, but his words resonated anew as I arrived at ESI Design, the Lower Fifth Avenue office of Ed Schlossberg, the designer and artist.

Mr. Schlossberg, whose exhibit and experience-design projects include the Ellis Island American Family Immigration History Center, Boston’s Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, and work for corporate clients including News Corp and Sony (for whom he programmed a giant LED screen in Times Square), seems like someone who succeeded at creating his own job description.

Mr. Schlossberg models a device that mimics the way a chicken sees.ENLARGE
Mr. Schlossberg models a device that mimics the way a chicken sees. PHOTO: RAMSAY DE GIVE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

And perhaps the best proof of that is that, after spending a pleasant hour with him a recent afternoon, I’m still not entirely sure what he does for a living. However, he seems rather confident that summer camp played a seminal role.

“I went to this Pinko summer camp in the Berkshires,” he remembered. “When you got there as a kid you went into the woods and created a camp—cut down the trees, put up the tent. I loved the experience of making things with other people.”

That’s what he’s doing to this day. In the case of the interactive Edward M. Kennedy Institute, collaborating with colleagues to create an experience where visitors get to play senator and pass bills. At Ellis Island’s new Peopling of America Center, they can immerse themselves in the immigrant experience, the centerpiece a 5-foot globe that projects immigration patterns throughout human history against the interior of the sphere.

“Working in this office with 75 other people is a hoot,” Mr. Schlossberg said.

I suppose if I were more energetic I’d have asked him to take me around and introduce me to his co-workers—ESI’s small army of programmers and game and graphic designers, so that they might help me craft a richer picture of the organization’s function.

But I got the sense that I’d have as much fun accepting Mr. Schlossberg’s offer of a bottle of mineral water, and sitting at the conference table in his office—the views extend all the way south to One World Trade Center—shooting the breeze.

The designer, who grew up on West End Avenue and graduated from Columbia and Columbia graduate school, where he studied physics, English and American literature—“My thesis was an imaginary conversation between Einstein and Beckett”—seems one of those relatively rare individuals who has thought through just about everything and is unintimidated by questions out of left field, and occasionally from over the fence.

He didn’t require props or the trappings of a corner office to make himself interesting, though he had both.

The prop looked like a pair of binoculars made of plumbing equipment. “It’s a mask,” he explained. “When you look through you can see how a chicken sees the world.”

The device was created in the early 1980s for Macomber Farm—a combination of farm, petting zoo and educational facility in Massachusetts, now sadly defunct.

It was also embossed with this explanation: “I’m seeing like a chicken.”

“Whereas, if people saw it as a piece of plumbing, they wouldn’t put it on their face,” the inventor explained, sounding plausible.

More to the point, chickens have terrible eyesight. So do sheep. Mr. Schlossberg had a companion contraption designed to display a sheep’s-eye view of the world.

These simple devices changed my entire attitude toward farm animals—I suppose that’s the point—which I assumed saw the world, at least optically, much the way I did.

We also discussed business cards, which I confessed I have a hard time throwing out, regarding them almost as organic extensions of the people who exchange them.

Mr. Schlossberg marveled at their role in Japanese society. He’s gained some insight into that nation, and its citizens’ affectations, since his wife, Caroline Kennedy, started serving as ambassador to Japan in 2013. He travels back and forth and teaches a design course at Tokyo’s Keio University.

“My wife gets 100 to 200 cards a day,” he explained, and recalled their first reception at the U.S. Embassy, which started at 6 p.m., some guests having arrived 20 minutes early. “They exchange cards for 20 minutes and eat and drink, and are gone by seven.”

“It’s confounding and inspiring,” he said of Japan, a place where a company such as his might have a hard time flourishing. “The whole idea of making mistakes is frowned upon,” he said. “For me, it’s my lifeblood.”

Outside his office stood, or rather lay, a model that might fit that description. He made it for the Smithsonian in 1978. “It’s a replica of a human being, but the size of a football field,” Mr. Schlossberg explained. “It never got built.”

I can understand why. But you can’t spite the guy for trying.