A Contortionist and His Truly Twisted Being

Jonathan Nosan leads a New York-based troupe known for its terrific flexibility

Contortionist Jonathan Nosan poses in front of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan on July 21.ENLARGE
Contortionist Jonathan Nosan poses in front of the Flatiron Building in Manhattan on July 21. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

You’d expect to find cows in a barn. Dancing in a barn isn’t that unusual, either, if the space is big enough and the hay bales can be pushed aside.

But you’d be forced to admit that two female contortionists shimmying up white sheets toward the top of the barn is something different—even in an age when sustainable agriculture has gone chic.

However, that was the spectacle on display a few weeks back at a fundraising gala for Scenic Hudson, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting the Hudson River and the Hudson River Valley.

The barn in Columbia County, a couple of hours north of the city, lent itself to acrobatics. This wasn’t your average barn with its heady smell of hay and sunlight streaming through the cracks. Rather, it was a new round Shaker barn in Churchtown, N.Y., built by Abby Rockefeller.

At the end of the dinner, which included organic just about everything, performers Françoise Voranger and Jillian St. Germain appeared in white leotards and toe shoes, and began to ascend the white fabric toward a ceiling that felt 100 feet high but was probably about 50.

The surprised guests, in their upstate weekend finest, and who might logically have expected the evening to include a square dance, looked on in amazement from their tables or crowded around the barn’s second-story balcony, where I was standing.

It turned out to be the perfect vantage point as the women paused halfway up the fabric, wrapped it around their waists and performed death-defying feats.

“Both of them are honest prima ballerinas,” Jonathan Nosan, who leads Acroback, the company they performed with, told me when we met back in the city Tuesday afternoon.

Mr. Nosan, a contortionist himself, acknowledged his troupe doesn’t typically perform in barns, but that unusual venues aren’t anything new.

“We’re a little different,” he said, and launched into impressive Japanese to describe Acroback’s worldview.

Japan is where, as a Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. candidate studying sacred spaces in the ’90s, Mr. Nosan decided to take a slight detour into Butoh, a form of Japanese dance theater, and from there into circus performing and finally contortion.

“We aim to do things that are outside the realm of normal situations, that aren’t off the shelf,” he said.

To me, as remarkable as the show was the fact that Mr. Nosan rode his Vespa up the Taconic State Parkway to examine the space. “We got the go-ahead when Abby Rockefeller said, ‘You can hang off my beams,’ ” or words to that effect. “We had to get her blessing.”

Mr. Nosan, whose company is based in the city, specializes in corporate events, from 10 to 20 a year, for clients ranging from Mercedes-Benz and Franck Muller to BBC America. At the performance for Franck Muller, his dancers formed themselves into a human mobile that mimicked the movement of a watch.

He also was recruited by Colgate as the human embodiment of a flexible head toothbrush. “I was hired to go around to different beauty editors in this spandex suit—I was kind of like Mr. Toothbrush—touting the head through my flexibility.”

The suit had holster pockets filled with free toothbrushes to hand out.

There was also an assignment for some sort of Johnson & Johnson ointment, which I didn’t delve into too deeply. “Showing the flexibility of different topical solutions,” Mr. Nosan explained.

Jonathan Nosan at the NoMad Hotel in ManhattanENLARGE
Jonathan Nosan at the NoMad Hotel in Manhattan PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The contortionist said his parents have always been supportive of his choices. “They got the doctor, the computer engineer and the rabbi,” he said of his siblings.

At 46 years old, he explained that with a little warm-up he’s still able to will his body to do as he instructs it, but these days is more frequently combining contortion with another passion—making ceramic sculpture. He hopes to perform a gallery show in London next spring incorporating both.

He also has created a series of instructional videos titled “Contorture,” which is apparently less edgy than it sounds. “More people have been looking for a safe way to learn,” he explained. “It’s a very different thing than learning or teaching a child.”

The Scenic Hudson gala ended in somewhat more traditional fashion than the contortion interlude—with a barn dance and a cowboy performing rope tricks. He was part of Mr. Nosan’s troupe, too.

Turning to Kids to Test Toys for Seal of Approval

Children test toys to help decide which merit Good Housekeeping Institute’s coveted endorsement

Sascha, age 7, plays with toys on the floor as she tests them out.
Mack, 9 years old, checks out a Viewmaster at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory on West 57th Street in New York City. The institute has children try out toys. The favorites—which are also tested by the institute’s engineers—will be revealed in Good Housekeeping’s December issue.
Arne Bostrom, 28, a consumer electronics test engineer with the Good Housekeeping Institute, works with children as they test toys.
Andrew, age 7, wasn’t very enthusiastic about a toy dinosaur.
Institute engineers help a young toy tester fill out a product-evaluation form.
The toy testing area at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory.
Evan, age 7, and Hugh, age 10, test tablet-controlled toy cars in the hallway at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory.
George, age 7, wears a lab coat as he tests toys.
Mack, 9, writes in his folder about toys he is testing.
Dolls at the toy-testing areas.
Sascha, age 7, plays with toys on the floor as she tests them out.
Mack, 9 years old, checks out a Viewmaster at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory on West 57th Street in New York City. The institute has children try out toys. The favorites—which are also tested by the institute’s engineers—will be revealed in Good Housekeeping’s December issue.

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Sascha, age 7, plays with toys on the floor as she tests them out.ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mack, 9 years old, checks out a Viewmaster at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory on West …
Arne Bostrom, 28, a consumer electronics test engineer with the Good Housekeeping Institute, works with children as they test toys. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Andrew, age 7, wasn’t very enthusiastic about a toy dinosaur. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Institute engineers help a young toy tester fill out a product-evaluation form. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The toy testing area at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Evan, age 7, and Hugh, age 10, test tablet-controlled toy cars in the hallway at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
George, age 7, wears a lab coat as he tests toys. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mack, 9, writes in his folder about toys he is testing. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Dolls at the toy-testing areas. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Sascha, age 7, plays with toys on the floor as she tests them out.ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mack, 9 years old, checks out a Viewmaster at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s consumer product-evaluation laboratory on West 57th Street in New York City. The institute has children try out toys. The favorites—which are also tested by the institute’s engineers—will be revealed in Good Housekeeping’s December issue. ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the Good Housekeeping Seal of approval. It’s part of the vernacular. But it’s more than a manner of speech, a catch phrase, a metaphor. The distinction is awarded by the Good Housekeeping Institute.

If I’d had to guess I’d have placed the institute somewhere in an industrial park in New Jersey.

Nothing against New Jersey. That’s where the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein worked, is located.

It’s just that I didn’t expect it to be so conveniently located, and aesthetically pleasing. It’s on the 29th floor of the Hearst Tower on West 57th Street, with stunning 360-degree views.

“Our beauty engineers all sit here,” explained Jane Francisco, Good Housekeeping magazine’s editor in chief. She pointed to a spick-and-span laboratory and launched into the results of a test they performed on lip oils.

“Only one product delivered the oil,” she reported.

I can’t say I was paying the closest attention, and not only because I don’t use lip oil. I was distracted by the views and by a display case that contained products dating back to 1909, when the Good Housekeeping Seal was established.

Among them was a tin of Campfire marshmallows “the original food,” which I suspect kept the treats fresher longer than present-day plastic packaging; there was also a flour sifter identical to one we own that I must now regard as a precious family heirloom.

Once Ms. Francisco was able to drag me away, we passed the textiles lab where things like towels are tested. “What happens once they’ve been washed?” she asked rhetorically.

And the test kitchen where Susan Westmoreland, the institute’s food director, was supervising a pumpkin breakfast cookie shoot for an upcoming issue of the magazine.

The cookies were rather delicious, and supposedly good for you.

But none of this was the reason for my visit. I’d come to test toys, or at least to watch children between the ages of 5 and 11 do so. It’s an annual ritual that occurs over six days in the summer, the kids playing with approximately 130 toys while engineers in white “GH” lab coats take notes and help them fill out questionnaires about the experience.

The winners will be revealed in Good Housekeeping’s December issue, which hits newsstands Nov. 17.

“It’s been going well,” said Rachel Rothman, the institute’s technical and engineering director.

By that I believe she meant not only that everyone was playing well together, but also that nobody had succumbed to a choking hazard or been brought to tears by a pinch point or sharp edge, which is among the things the institute tests for.

“I didn’t really like it that much,” said a 7-year-old named Sascha, who’d just moved on from a talking doll with a TV show tie-in. It was called Doc McStuffins Take Care of Me Lambie. “It didn’t really sing the song it does on the show.”

I gently asked her what tune the doll does sing.

“All it does is ‘Aah, aah,’ ” she answered. “It really isn’t fun.”

I could relate, though you’d have thought that by this late date in human history toys would have mastered speech.

“Do you know the Doc McStuffins song?” someone asked the child.

“I don’t really like to sing,” Sascha said shyly but firmly, though I believe she referring more to before a live audience in lab coats that by herself in the bathtub or on family road trips.

By the way, the kids were testing toys that go for prices ranging from $5 to $279. Several were veteran testers who have returned for multiple years. And there were at least one set of siblings.

A boy named Andrew, also 7 years old, was playing with Imaginext Ultra T-Rex, a 2½-foot-tall walking dinosaur.

“I tried it and it didn’t work that well,” he told Arne Bostrom, a test engineer with the institute’s consumer electronics and engineering lab.

“Have you tried this?” Mr. Bostrom asked. He threw a switch behind the tail, and the raptor roused to ferocious life.

Perhaps children aren’t the best people to be testing toys.

Nonetheless, Andrew remained unimpressed and spoke words that would send a chill through the heart of any new toy manufacturer: “If this was made of Legos I could spend a few days.”

We moved along to an adjoining room where slightly older kids were testing more technologically sophisticated toys. Some of them were pretty cool—though many seemed to require downloading an app onto a personal device and made you fear for the species once our batteries run out.

Sisters Kaida, 11, and Gabrielle, 9, were playing with educational and culturally redeeming toys. Such as Compose Yourself. It allows kids to compose music by using translucent cards with musical notes printed on them as building blocks.

Don’t ask me how it’s done. But it seemed to fulfill the ultimate purpose of any toy. As every parent knows, that’s not to make your kid smarter and eventually ace his or her SATs, but to foster peace and quiet in the home.

Or in a testing lab.

“When we’re with other people,” Gabrielle said, “we don’t actually fight.”

Yaniv Davidson Wants to Monetize Your Ears

His app allows your phone to scan a TV picture and stream the audio

ENLARGE
PHOTO: ROB WILSON

The mistake was mine. I was under the impression that Yaniv Davidson wanted to give voice to the hi-def LED displays and billboards in Times Square. As if the Crossroads of the World weren’t already crowded and cacophonous enough.

As I understood it, perhaps the Samsung sign would be shouting at you to buy a new cellphone, while across Broadway an ad for “The Lion King” would be tempting you with two tickets to that night’s performance.

And in the middle of the avenue, Nasdaq would be squealing the virtues of listing your stock, while H&M announced a 30%-off coupon on anything in the store.

But I was wrong. Though not totally. “Samsung has this huge sign and they’re showing a video,” Mr. Davidson explained. “If you’re interested in that product you can take your phone, scan it for a second, and get the audio.”

Mr. Davidson, an engineer by training, has created an app called Tunity that allows you to hold your cellphone up to a TV, scan the picture, and stream the audio through your phone. He said the same could eventually be done with the signs in Times Square.

Hopefully, you’ll be wearing headphones so as not to disturb others. Thus, the only disruption the technology would create would be to have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tourists standing around watching TV, even more disoriented than they already look, and creating an obstacle course for locals, such as myself, whose sole interest is getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

“Right now, this advertisement is a lot of visual noise that advertisers are throwing at us, hoping something will stick,” continued Mr. Davidson, 37 years old and originally from Israel. “What if we could choose to tune into just the thing that interests us?”

I remained unpersuaded by the Times Square case study. Isn’t the whole point of Times Square to overwhelm you, to make your senses explode?

The next thing you know, Mr. Davidson will propose holding up your phone to one of those Elmo impersonators and hear him sing, “This is the song, la la la, Elmo’s song.”

What intrigued me more was using the app at sports bars, such as Rogue on Sixth Avenue in the 20s, where we met on a recent afternoon.

Mr. Davidson held his phone up to one of the many TV screens in the bar and, sure enough, you could hear the ESPN talking heads on camera now also chatting on your phone. “I started going to bars and talking to managers,” he explained. “They said, ‘Sometimes we have people who want to watch the Michigan State lacrosse game.’ ”

He was just giving me an example. I don’t think many people sidle up to a sports bar to watch lacrosse. “ ‘We’re happy to put it on—we have 20 TV’s,’ ” Mr. Davidson said they told him. “But the second question is always, ‘Can you turn the volume on?’ Obviously, the answer is no.”

Because it undoubtedly wouldn’t end well with the majority of red-blooded bar patrons there to watch the Yankees-Red Sox game.

“They can’t cater to everyone,” Mr. Davidson added. “Now they can.”

The engineer said he came up with the idea for Tunity while sitting in JFK’s Delta terminal with his wife waiting to catch a flight to a friend’s wedding. He was watching CNN but unable to hear Wolf Blitzer because the volume was turned too low.

“Why can’t I just have an algorithm that detects the channel and brings me the audio?” he asked himself. “I’m an engineer, so I knew it was feasible.”

He said the app, which has been operational since the beginning of this year, is quickly adding stations. There were 60 when we met. He hopes to monetize his invention not by charging for the app, but by selling TV networks or retailers reconnaissance on the viewing habits and demographics of their viewers.

“Nielsen did a study that said 7% to 9% of viewership is outside of home,” Mr. Davidson explained. “What it means is that CNN could get more viewers just by measuring the audience. This is how advertisers buy advertising.”

“This is just the beginning of the idea,” he went on. “With this technology we can change the way people consume any form of outdoor media, the way advertisers communicate with consumers through outdoor media.”

But where does it end? I could see myself driving down the West Side Highway when all of a sudden the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week billboard roars to life with the sound of a Great White chomping through bone.

Mr. Davidson said the experience will be more seamless than it sounds. “If you’re driving, you’re probably not going to take out your phone,” he explained, advocating wearables. “The idea basically is every piece of outdoor media will be interactive.”

On Brooklyn’s Side Streets, Beauty Blooms

Ralph Gardner Jr. tours an area competing to win the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s ‘Greenest Block’ contest

Nina Browne of GreenBridge, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s community horticulture initiative.ENLARGE
Nina Browne of GreenBridge, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s community horticulture initiative. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

If one wants to see income inequality in action, one need go no further than Park Avenue. Or to be more precise, however many steps off Park Avenue it takes for a person to travel from the planting beds surrounding the trees under the auspices of the building on Park and those that are the responsibility of the oftentimes more humble brownstones, tenements (though I use the term loosely) and mid-block apartment houses that line the side streets.

Those on Park are typically a fantasia of seasonal plantings with festive flowers, ground cover and perhaps a sprig or two of white birch, together with matching planters on either side of the front-door entrance.

All of it sending the message that the civic-minded residents within are doing their modest part to make the city a better place. And, by the way, if passing dogs and their owners know what’s good for them they’ll keep moving right along and do their business around the corner and away from the surly eye of the building’s doormen.

The side streets, by contrast, are often exercises in DIY improvisation and questionable floral arranging skills. Worst of all is neglect that results in beleaguered or barren tree beds that the neighborhood’s canine population read as carte blanche to turn into their personal mini raised dog runs.

However, the chasm between the 1% and the rest of us need not be inevitable. What some neighborhoods may lack in house-proud co-op boards and tenants willing and able to pony up for the most elaborate planting, they more than make up for in community spirit that can transform entire city blocks far from where celebrities and hedge-fund managers roam into some of the city’s most verdant and welcoming spaces.

The encouragement of such activity and participation is what’s behind the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s “Greenest Block in Brooklyn” initiative. It’s an annual contest where block associations compete in categories such as best window box, best street tree beds, and sustainable practices. And for the biggest prize of all: the bragging rights and justifiable pride that goes along with being crowned that year’s “Greenest Block” first-prize winner.

Last Tuesday I braved intermittent downpours to join Nina Browne, a program manager for GreenBridge, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s community horticulture initiative, as she brought her educated eye to the landscaping practices of Bainbridge Street between Stuyvesant Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“This block came in second last year and placed the year before,” Ms. Browne explained.

I suggested the competition might be stacked because not all blocks are created equal. Some, such as this one, have lovely, mature trees, while others don’t. And nothing elevates a city block like shade trees.

“In our scoring, street trees are a small component because some blocks would be at a disadvantage,” Ms. Browne agreed.

She pointed with satisfaction at a particularly effusive window box. “We’re looking for a thrilla, a filla, and a spilla,” she explained, adapting thriller, filler and spiller to Brooklynese. “Something for height, something for fullness and something to cascade.”

A spot along the judging route for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's ‘Greenest Block in Brooklyn’ competition in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.ENLARGE
A spot along the judging route for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s ‘Greenest Block in Brooklyn’ competition in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Unfortunately, there are few if any points given for the creativity of homemade signs imploring dog owners to curb their pets, which I consider an oversight and would think a sure a sign of citizen engagement. That’s among the judging criteria. Others include variety and suitability of plants, horticultural practice, soil and mulching, maintenance, color, creativity and total visual effect.

For example, Bainbridge Street had a sign that seemed to want to appeal to dog walkers’ sense of enchantment, or at least their better angels, rather than the more aggressive, hectoring signs in my neighborhood.

“The poo fairy doesn’t live here,” the sign gently admonished.

Which doesn’t mean to suggest that Ms. Browne considers canine calling cards a nonissue. “A lot of people are under the impression pee and poop is like fertilizer,” she stated. “It’s really not.”

The urban gardening expert seemed neither disturbed nor charmed by flourishes we encountered along the way, such as ceramic elves. She was more concerned about a woody perennial planted in a tree bed that would be competing for water with the tree.

“The health of the tree comes first,” she explained. “It’s the most important plant in the tree bed.”

We encountered a second elf on another block in the contest. While the first Lilliputian, to my recollection, was just a solid guy minding his own business, this one was leaning against a tree and playing the accordion.

Ms. Browne had no opinion on the musical interests of elves. However, she wasn’t happy with the way the lawn ornament was propped against the tree.

“Imagine if you were wearing a cast for nine months,” she said, comparing saddling the tree in question with an elf to a plaster cast. “Tree bark is like skin, and the skin underneath is going to get gross.”

“This is a great effort,” she added, of the block in general, “but there are a lot of horticultural problems.”

This year’s winners will be announced in August.

For Decor From A to Z, It’s the Decoration & Design Building

For Decor From A to Z, It’s the Decoration & Design Building

Indeed, the Upper East Side tower is basically a vertical mall with 130 showrooms

The Decoration & Design Building, at 979 Third Ave., is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The shops inside welcome all visitors.ENLARGE
The Decoration & Design Building, at 979 Third Ave., is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The shops inside welcome all visitors. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I labored under two, and perhaps more, misconceptions concerning the Decoration & Design Building, a New York City institution better known as the D&D, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The first was that it is in the vicinity of Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street. It’s actually at 58th Street and Third Avenue. I must have been confusing it with the Toy Center, which is in the Flatiron District.

Not that I mean to suggest that interior design is child’s play. Hardly.

My second misconception was that the D&D Building is open only to interior designers and their ilk. I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen if I arrived without an esteemed member of the industry in tow.

I doubted I risked arrest or that, at a minimum, there would be an unpleasant scene at the door, sort of like the humorless reaction among Yankee Stadium security guards when you show up for a game with a full bar in your backpack.

Also, though I’ve never thought it out, I assumed interior designers carry some sort of laminated membership card that entitles them to steep discounts.

While my finances have never afforded me the opportunity to hire a decorator (I doubt I would in any case, being a DIY kind of guy), I’ve always been under the impression they possess some sort of credential you might be able to cajole them into lending you.

That way you’d avoid the greatest indignity of all: paying retail. As it turns out, the D&D Building is open to one and all. And while some of the shops sell only to the trade, others are conventional retail stores and all welcome visitors.

Indeed, the building is basically a vertical mall with 130 showrooms. It also offers excellent window-shopping. The only obstacle to finding happiness is the size of your wallet. My impression after touring the D&D Building is that it’s a Baroque cathedral to the worship of discretionary income.

Louis Renzo owns Scalamandrè, famous for its zebra-print wallpaper.ENLARGE
Louis Renzo owns Scalamandrè, famous for its zebra-print wallpaper. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My first stop was Scalamandrè, a fabric and wallpaper company I’ve had a soft spot for since I first dined at Gino’s, a nearby Italian restaurant that opened in 1945 and, unfortunately, went out of business in 2010. The restaurant’s walls boasted Scalamandrè’s bold vintage red zebra-print wallpaper.

Louis Renzo bought the company, which was started in 1929 by Franco Scalamandrè, six years ago. “I’m the one who took the zebra to the next level,” Mr. Renzo informed me. “I made an umbrella out of it.”

He added, “My son said, ‘Why don’t you make it black and white?”

He wasn’t referring to umbrellas anymore but to the zebra wallpaper, which now gallops across an imaginary Serengeti in a dozen colors, including silver. As well as on scarves and china.

“It’s never going to die,” Mr. Renzo predicted. “Silver is great for powder rooms.”

I promised to return as soon as I installed a powder room.

Lapicida sells recycled stone and is new to the D&D Building. ENLARGE
Lapicida sells recycled stone and is new to the D&D Building. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Next stop was Lapicida, a recycled stone merchant and a new tenant. The company is a veritable candy store for those who don’t think local stone good enough. “Some have been in stately homes, schools or less glamorous places,” said Jason Cherrington, a company representative.

Lapicida scouts travel the world so customers who crave weathered Yorkshire sandstone for their kitchen floors, slate for their patios that once graced a French château or cobblestones from the ancient streets of Jerusalem don’t have to.

“The nice thing is it’s already beat up so you don’t have to worry about it,” an employee said.

There was also a $24,000 Carrera marble bathtub, a far more practical application of that storied material than Michelangelo or da Vinci ever put it to.

“We could do a custom one,” Mr. Cherrington offered, after sizing up my 6’2” frame.

Even with the friends-and-family discount, I suspected the tub would be out of my price range.

Christopher Hyland, with a few of his favorite textile patterns. ENLARGE
Christopher Hyland, with a few of his favorite textile patterns. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

From Lapicida, I boarded an elevator up to Lorin Marsh, a midcentury modern furniture and décor dealer that has been at the D&D Building since 1975. Sherry Mandell, a partner, showed me a photograph of a custom-made 50-inch x 90-inch dinner table with 2-inch-thick amber glass the store had just delivered to a customer. The price tag was $65,000.

“They thought it was going to go in a dining room,” she said of her deliverymen. “It was for the kitchen.”

My final stop, and just in time—I wasn’t growing envious as much as despondent over my lack of buying power—was Christopher Hyland Inc., a textile company. Mr. Hyland was just finishing with a client who had come from Philadelphia to select fabric for her 10 dining-room chairs.

When I was able to command his attention, he peppered a show-and-tell session about his wares with references to Nelson Rockefeller, for whom he created a tribute silver fabric; the Clintons—Mr. Hyland said he turned down an invitation to decorate the White House; and “Marie Antoinette’s sister, the Queen of the Two Sicilies.” I don’t believe they had any personal dealings.

Mr. Hyland has had his showroom in the building since 1979. “The D&D Building,” he said in conclusion, “is an old-fashioned dry-goods store on steroids.”

That sounds about right.

Far Away Pluto Is Close to Our Hearts

Ralph Gardner Jr., a big fan of the dwarf planet, spends the flyby in the company of scientists

Scientist Denton Ebel takes a question from the audience during an interactive viewing featuring scientific visualizations and commentary for the Pluto flyby at the American Museum of Natural History.ENLARGE
Scientist Denton Ebel takes a question from the audience during an interactive viewing featuring scientific visualizations and commentary for the Pluto flyby at the American Museum of Natural History. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My hunch is that I’m far from alone in my affection for Pluto. Indeed, if you were to take a survey of our favorite planets, Pluto would rank closer to the top than the bottom, punching well above its size and weight.

There are various reasons for this, I suspect most of them rooted in the human psyche rather than in the empirical realms of astronomy.

For starters, it’s the farthest one out there. As a kid you could feel your imagination being stretched, almost like a T-shirt a half-size too small, as you tried to wrap your mind around it, and wondered what might existence be like so far from home.

Underdogs also have a way of lodging themselves in our hearts, and Pluto, the caboose of planets, was somehow easier to relate to than either Uranus or Neptune. They seemed personality-deprived. Certainly compared with huge, colorful Jupiter and Saturn, which wore its rings like the latest accessories. Plus, Pluto had a dopey Disney character named after it.

Thus, it came as something of a shock when the tiny planet was demoted to dwarf planet status in 2006. It was hardly less disturbing than if we systematically started removing stars from the American flag or states from the map.

Indeed, it seemed as much a part of our mental geography as California or Arizona, the map of the solar system on classroom walls an open invitation to daydream, to flee the Earthly bounds of math and English.

Scientists, from left, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Denton Ebel and Carter Emmart at the American Museum of Natural History during the Pluto flyby.ENLARGE
Scientists, from left, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Denton Ebel and Carter Emmart at the American Museum of Natural History during the Pluto flyby. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

All this is a roundabout way to say that I was stoked to see photographs of Pluto when New Horizons was scheduled to arrive there at approximately 7:50 a.m. Tuesday, eastern time.

I have a general rule against accepting invitations to parties that start before sunset. But when one arrived from the American Museum of Natural History for a real-time visualization and discussion of the mission with AMNH scientists Denton Ebel, curator of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; Carter Emmart, Director of Astrovisualization; and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, I couldn’t very well pass it up and still consider myself a voting member of the human race.

Plus, the tip sheet included this enticement—“Coffee and doughnuts will be served.”

I entered the planetarium’s giant-screen theater shortly after 7 a.m., doughnut in hand (my coffee was confiscated at the door), the excitement palpable as the scientists sat on stage beneath a giant screen that showed a simulation of New Horizons’ real-time location relative to Pluto and its moon Charon.

And there was instructive and often jocular discussion as the AMNH scientists bantered over a livestream with their colleagues at New Horizons Mission Control at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

“Looks like it got a quality assist from Jupiter,” Dr. Tyson said, discussing the spacecraft’s speed of 8 miles a second.

“Big time,” Dr. Ebel agreed.

There was also giddy talk of how much knowledge we’d be gaining from the mission—Pluto graduating from a fuzzy ball, even under the most powerful telescopes, into a place with personality, if not quite a resort destination.

“If we ever go there we can go hiking with this topographical map,” joked Orkan Umurhan, a scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

“Hiking would be a pretty trivial matter,” Dr. Tyson observed, referring to Pluto’s almost nonexistent gravity, 1/12th that of Earth. “Quite a frolic.”

“I think we’re seven minutes away from closest approach,” Dr. Ebel reported.

A few minutes later someone announced, “We have just passed through closest approach,” and the audience broke into applause.

That was about as visceral as things got.

As New Horizons ducked behind Pluto, Dr. Emmart recalled witnessing a 1991 solar eclipse with David Grinspoon, an astrophysicist who replaced Dr. Umurhan on the screen from Johns Hopkins. “It was like that one,” Dr. Grinspoon agreed, “except we have clothes on now.”

The only things missing were actual pictures from the spacecraft. That’s because at 3 billion miles the planet is so far away it would take hours before the first flyby images reached Earth.

An interactive viewing of the Pluto flyby at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.ENLARGE
An interactive viewing of the Pluto flyby at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

One of the scientists recalled that he was in fourth grade when the Apollo mission landed on the moon. “I can feel this is one of those moments,” he said. “We’ve expanded our consciousness.”

I couldn’t quite feel it, much as I wanted to. As a layman, only seeing would be believing.

But what’s a few hours in the infinite scheme of things?

Dr. Tyson, who helped get the ball rolling to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status—though in response to a question from me at a post-simulation news conference he noted that the International Astronomical Union performed the official honors—gave little ground.

However he’d engaged in planetary diplomacy during the simulation when the question of Pluto’s place in the firmament first arose. “Just to see a distant object for the first time is some of the oldest emotions humans have had,” he acknowledged.

That’s not good enough for me. I’m confident Pluto deserves to be restored to full planetary status. And the photographs will bear me out. If and when I ever see them.

Public-Speaking Tip From a Pro: Practice, Practice..

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Ralph Gardner Jr. gets some advice on how to polish his public-speaking skills

Columnist Ralph Gardner Jr., left, speaks with Bill McGowan, founder of Clarity Media Group, which provides training in how to prepare for television appearances and public-speaking engagements.ENLARGE
Columnist Ralph Gardner Jr., left, speaks with Bill McGowan, founder of Clarity Media Group, which provides training in how to prepare for television appearances and public-speaking engagements. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My impression is that as a child you start out shy and insecure and grow more confident over the years. Certainly in the arena of public speaking.

I’ve moved in the opposite direction.

Back in college I served as the master of ceremonies at one year’s winter carnival. The event occurred at my school’s art building, a Brutalist concrete structure, where, as hundreds looked on and strutting the smarmy self-confidence of a TV game-show host, I crowned the carnival’s king and queen.

Flash forward a few decades, to a few weeks ago, and a short speech I had to deliver at my college reunion. I thought I did OK until the school posted images of the event, one of them of me in midsentence with a look I can best compare to the Sistine Chapel scene of a damned soul being dragged down into hell, his expression one of horror and grief.

“When you were younger you didn’t think there were any stakes,” explained Bill McGowan.

I recently visited Mr. McGowan at Clarity Media Group, his company in the Flatiron District where he coaches clients on how to appear spontaneous and natural, whether celebrity chefs sharing their latest recipes on the Today Show or CEOs delivering commencement addresses.

“If I screw up what’s the worst than can happen?” he went on. “As you get older you realize there’s a lot of skin in the game.”

I’m not convinced that’s my problem. I’m wired to believe all is vanity, that the cosmos is agnostic when it comes to how well I perform on NY1.

My family, of course, is a different situation. They can be vicious. And I’m the worst of all. I can’t stand to watch or listen to myself.

I prefer to think of what I have as a phobia, as something based in irrationality. Or maybe I’m just being realistic. If I was underwhelming the last time someone was foolish enough to invite me on TV or the radio what gives me any right to believe I’ll improve on the next occasion?

Also, I suspect we all compare ourselves to people who do this for a living. If I were president of the United States giving a speech, or Wolf Blitzer delivering that day’s mayhem, it would become second nature.

Bill McGowan, founder of Clarity Media Group.ENLARGE
Bill McGowan, founder of Clarity Media Group. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

However, Mr. McGowan’s refreshing point of view—he’s an Emmy-winning former journalist and the author of “Pitch Perfect,” a new book on nailing not just media appearances but also events such as job interviews—is that the performance pressure of these occasions makes them unlike normal conversation and the best way to triumph is to approach them with lots of study and practice.

“Diligent prep is a good way to calm nerves,” he claims.

He also believes—though it’s undoubtedly good for business—that in our media-centric age once you reach a certain rung on the corporate ladder appearing polished in public is a job requirement.

“I’ve had people in companies tell me, ‘If you can’t get this guy to the next level, he has no future here.’ ”

The easiest way to command an audience, obviously, especially for those of us who weren’t blessed with innate charisma or George Clooney’s chiseled profile, is to have something to say, or at least talk about.

“You have to tell stories,” Mr. McGowan explained. “You’re going to be most nervous the first 90 seconds. It’s important to know those first 90 seconds cold.”

He guided me through a session similar to those he does with clients such as Sheryl Sandberg, Serena Williams and Jack and Suzy Welch.Unfortunately, I had nothing to plug—it seems to be my cross to bear in life—so he suggested questions such as “Where do you get your ideas?”

I also mentioned a novel I’m working on, though I’m only on chapter 10.

Mr. McGowan instructed me not to look bored or, more likely, frightened, as he introduced me. “A closed mouth quarter-smile—‘I’m psyched to do this. What would you like to know?’ ”

Mr. McGowan started his intro with the smooth self-confidence of the TV correspondent he once was. “The Pulitzers were announced this week…” he began.

Ralph Gardner Jr. practices an on-screen interview.ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner Jr. practices an on-screen interview. PHOTO: PETER FOLEY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I didn’t get one,” I interrupted.

Is it OK to interrupt your introduction?

He didn’t really say except to note that having a sense of humor can be a plus, but mainly in the service of getting your message out.

Also, that I should sit up straight, leaning slightly forward, my chair set to maximum height and my hands on the table. Keeping them in your lap sends a message that you’re passive.

Mr. McGowan said this applies as much to asking for a raise or promotion as appearing on “Face the Nation.”

I actually thought I did pretty well.

“You didn’t mention the novel,” Mr. McGowan observed.

In the heat of our faux TV interview, it completely slipped my mind.

Ups and Downs with the New York Yo-Yo Club

Yo-yo enthusiasts share their passion, show off their tricks

Members of the New York Yo-Yo Club wind their yo-yos at recent club meeting. ENLARGE
Members of the New York Yo-Yo Club wind their yo-yos at recent club meeting.PHOTO: NATALIE KEYSSAR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The New York Yo-Yo Club typically meets at the Washington Square Arch during the warm weather months. But rain threatened last Wednesday so they convened at their winter location, the atrium at 120 Park Ave.

Much, I quickly discovered, has changed since my days as a yo-yo owner and user. For the record mine was a translucent Duncan yo-yo, a model that comes in a glorious spectrum of colors.

Indeed, it constituted something of a fad at my school. It came and went in a matter of weeks, as most fads do, but left an indelible impression.

The essence of that impression is that a yo-yo is a thing of beauty. The ability to drop it almost to the ground (all the way if you’re “walking the dog”) and have it return being on the order of a miracle, an opportunity for the average 8-year-old to interface with the mysterious forces of the universe.

Thus it came as a shock when I arrived at the New York Yo-Yo Club meet-up and discovered that yo-yo technology had undergone radical changes since my youth. It’s as if they’ve progressed from a manual typewriter to a MacBook Air without anybody telling me.

The yo-yos of choice these days are known as “unresponsive.” It’s just as it sounds: While a conventional “responsive” yo-yo (not that there’s anything conventional about yo-yos, nor the people who join clubs devoted to them, as I learned) will return to your hand when you pull the string, an unresponsive yo-yo won’t.

My initial reaction was, in that case why not trade up for a responsive yo-yo? Isn’t the whole point to let your yo-yo do the heavy lifting?

Nobody could explain the advantage of a nonresponsive yo-yo. Or maybe I neglected to ask because all the members—of which I was now one; just showing up satisfies the club’s admissions criteria—were engaged in doing amazing tricks.

Brian Melford, who will compete in a yo-yo competition in Japan this year. ENLARGE
Brian Melford, who will compete in a yo-yo competition in Japan this year. PHOTO:NATALIE KEYSSAR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

For example, 24-year-old Brian Melford. “He’s going to the world competition in Japan this year,” someone boasted as Mr. Melford bounced his yo-yo up and down on the string, a move I was later to hear described as Mel Hops.

Given his apparent virtuosity, I assumed Mr. Melford must devote full time to his career as a yo-yo performance artist. But he confided he actually has a day job.

“I’m a special assistant to a New York City councilman—Andy King,” he said. “I have a certain skill set that makes me very valuable to the City Council.”

Mr. Melford didn’t elucidate, but I was under the impression he didn’t mean he was the council’s yo-yo expert in residence.

Was the young man confident? Cocky even? Perhaps. But if you hope to vanquish the Japanese, the best world’s yo-yo players according to New York Yo-Yo Club leader Joey O’Neill, you better roll into tournaments believing in your own greatness.

“We’ve had the Australian team [visit],” added Mr. O’Neill, who started the club nine years ago. “We’ve had the Japanese team.”

Members of the New York Yo-Yo Club seem nothing if not welcoming and inclusive. Their first priority—well, their second—is sharing their passion for the sport. Their first priority, of course, is performing tricks and showing off their unresponsive yo-yos, which these days can cost a couple of hundred bucks. And some of the club members arrived bearing custom-made cases containing a half-dozen or more of them.

There is something unabashedly recreational, perhaps even a touch nerdy, about the enterprise. Then again, it’s probably better for your circulation than sitting on a couch and playing videogames all day.

Nick Frisbie plays with two yo-yos during the New York Yo-Yo Club meeting. ENLARGE
Nick Frisbie plays with two yo-yos during the New York Yo-Yo Club meeting. PHOTO:NATALIE KEYSSAR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

And you meet lots of interesting people, a yo-yo serving as the ultimate icebreaker.

“I’m just visiting for one week,” explained Hannes Kaiser, a teenager from Cologne, Germany. He’d learned of the meeting from the New York Yo-Yo Club’s Facebook page. “It’s my first time even seeing anyone else play. I taught myself.”

Unsurprisingly, Cologne doesn’t have a yo-yo club.

At 17, New Jersey’s Nick Frisbie is perhaps the club’s youngest and one of its longest serving members. He has been attending meetings since he was barely in double digits. “My mom comes here and shops and I yo-yo,” he explained.

On the other hand, Hilton King, 46, who works in compliance for an investment bank, can recall “the first Duncan craze,” during the 1970s. I was forced to correct him. I was part of an even earlier Duncan craze.

“We learned how to do a forward pass and ring the school bell,” he remembered fondly. “It was just another tool for mischief.”

It still is.

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
A Colgate 26 on the Hudson. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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.