Dickensian Moments

March 31st, 2013

Edwin A. Goodman was a classmate at Choate; we graduated in 1958. I went on to Harvard, he to Yale.  After college he joined the family business, Bergdorf Goodman. They sold the business in 1972, but still own the land and the building. He then went on to a career in banking and investment.

Ed’s now a general partner at Milestone Venture Partners, located at 555 Madison Avenue in Manhattan: “Milestone Venture Partners is an early stage venture capital fund with $90 million under management.” Based on the mailing list from our 50th reunion, I receive his quarterly newsletter, Milestone Matters. The Winter 2013 edition arrived in the mail on March 20th, and the introduction includes the following:

“Then I took the short walk to the University Club for a lunch date. Along the way I passed a homeless woman feebly tapping her plastic cup seeking contributions. Sheltered only with a threadbare blanket, she was shivering in the cold. I entered the club and asked the attendant at the front desk to alert the police to assist the woman to find shelter and was informed that the police had been called and had spo- ken to the woman but she declined help. Under the City’s high minded pristine, respect for individual civil rights, this poor creature cannot be moved against her will and will likely perish. It is ironic that not cruelty or indifference but a misguided interpretation of respect for individual liberties produced this Dickensian moment in modern Manhattan. I proceeded into the club, walked by a roaring fire in the grand lobby fireplace past a bar where mulled wine was being served and continued on to my rendezvous.”

Later, under Milestone Portfolio News, Ed says (inter alia) “On December 28, 2012, Knovel, Inc. was acquired by Elsevier, Inc. MVP II invested in Knovel’s Series B and Series C rounds between 2002 and 2009 and achieved a 3.6x multiple of its invested capital and a 15.2% IRR.” I’m not sure what that all means, but it sounds like they’re successful.

I took the opportunity to send an email to my old classmate:

Dear Ed;

I’m writing both as a classmate (Choate ‘58) and a fellow Marine.

I just received my copy of Milestone Matters. I was struck by the contrast between the story about the homeless woman with the ‘threadbare blanket’ and the successes listed in Milestone Portfolio News.

I am a long time volunteer and now a board member of the Arundel House of Hope here in Anne Arundel County, MD, which includes Annapolis. The House of Hope provides shelter for about seventy homeless people nightly from October through April, using the facilities and services of volunteer churches (and one synagogue) throughout the northern part of the county. Last year we opened a free clinic as well as a purpose-built transitional house for homeless veterans. See www.arundelhoh.org.

While I might agree with you about “a misguided interpretation of respect for individual liberties,” I must say that the newsletter offers an even more Dickensian moment.

I cannot believe that it would have been impossible, much less an imposition, for you yourself to have found a way to have provided her some assistance, some comfort. Perhaps Bergdorf Goodman still sells blankets?

Hope to see you at Choate in May.


Bob Knisely

I sent the note at 5:28pm, and received the following reply at 7:24pm:


Thanks for your note. It is always gratifying to receive correspondence that confirms that the Newsletter actually has readers. My congratulations to you and your associates for your good work in Anne Arundel County.



Sent from my iPad

To which I immediately sent the following response:

Doesn’t really answer the question, Ed. Did you at least give her some money?

Haven’t heard a word since…

Chocoholics Rejoice!

September 6th, 2011

Today’s WAPO Health Section has a “quick study” entitled “Chocoholics may have edge in heart health.” The review is HERE and here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/chocoholics-may-have-an-edge-in-heart-health/2011/08/31/gIQAyO1C4J_story.html

The review is based on a systematic review and meta-analysis performed by scientists at Cambridge (England) and in Colombia. The study is reported at www.bmj.com, and you can download a .pdf copy there.

The review and study conclude that chocolate consumption is good for the cardiovascular system and keeps down stroke. Chocolate seems to have no effect on the occurrence of heart failure, however.

THIS IS GOOD NEWS (for those of us with a chocolate problem). A few of those little dark chocolate Dove squares out of the freezer every day may be just the thing…

I was also struck by the study, since it would seem that chocolate is good for the circulatory system (cardiovascular system and stroke) but not for the heart itself. Hmmm…

My father’s medical research dealt with microcirculatory physiology and pathology, and he identified a pathological condition he called “blood sludge,” or agglutination, not to be confused with clotting. He and blood sludge were the subjects of a 10 page article in Life Magazine in 1948, which you can read HERE and here: http://books.google.com/books?id=WkYEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA49&lpg=PA49&dq=melvin+knisely&source =bl&ots=DgyXygOIzr&sig=oM7S6lkCbaZdWjsGQsHNed0kZ2w&hl= en#v=onepage&q=melvin%20knisely &f=false.

He reported that blood sludge contributed to many pathologies, and was caused by many factors. He spent his later years wondering if he could find (and patent!) a drug or drugs that prevented or broke up sludge.

He never did, in part because he knew that common aspirin has that effect. And now we all know that taking two baby aspirin daily helps prevent circulatory problems. There are many references for this; for starters, HERE and here: http://www.medicinenet.com /script/main/art.asp?articlekey=52304

In the mid-1950’s he and I made it a habit to go around Charleston, South Carolina “trying out” chocolate malts at different establishments. He’d be very surprised to find out that we were (perhaps in part) protecting our circulatory systems!

Bob Knisely


The Road Ahead — Chapter One: Cataracts

March 13th, 2011

Almost two years ago I realized that I was not seeing as clearly as I once did – that maybe I was getting cataracts, especially in my left eye. If you can’t read highway signs on interstates (as ‘became clear’ to me later), you’ve got a problem.

After consulting “Dr. Google,” my first problem was my ophthalmologist of almost 40 years, who shall remain nameless. She’s also the mother of a high school classmate of Lindsay’s at Sidwell. I put off calling her for almost a year, but finally telling her of the cataracts, and telling her I was going to go to the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Hopkins in Baltimore. I had to tell her I thought she was too old at 65 to operate on my eyes. This was hard; she, of course, does cataract surgery all the time – her practice has aged along with both of us. But I did it…

I emailed my internist at Hopkins, and asked her if she had any recommendations for a surgeon at Wilmer. She replied immediately – that Dr. Oliver Schein was “the go-to guy” at Wilmer. I asked, and she said that if SHE had to have cataract surgery, she’d go to Schein without a moment’s hesitation. I looked him up (Hotchkiss and Princeton — sigh) and made an appointment.

By now I’d learned that there are several kinds of plastic lens that they can insert after they take out the clouded lenses. There are lenses that give you great distance vision (hey, that’s what you get with presbyopia anyway – distance vision), and there are much newer lenses that offer some degree of bifocal vision. I asked myself – do you kinda pretend to look down, and then you can read? The other option discussed is to have one eye for distance, one eye for closer up, and then wear reading glasses.

I didn’t think that the bifocal lenses sounded workable, and having two different focal lengths seemed a road to confusion. So I went to my first appointment with Dr. Schein with distance vision firmly in mind. That was my vision, anyway.

Dr. Schein offered a third alternative, “toric” lenses. The good news about toric lenses is that they correct for astigmatism. The bad news is that they are an additional $1500 per eye at Hopkins. Another part of the bad news is that in order to keep them from rotating they have little prongers that stick into your eyes. Oooh! I voted against toric lenses.

I learned from Dr. Schein that I had TWO operable cataracts (one in each eye…) and that the two procedures are done about a month apart, so that the one eye can heal, be seen to be healing properly, and so forth. So for a month, I’d be without a left lens in my glasses. Then I’d get a replacement for that one, and then have surgery on my right eye, not have a lens on that side, wait a month, and then “get well.” There was also a 1 or 2 percent chance something terrible would go wrong, and that should happen one eye at a time. I agreed…

Soon I was at Hopkins, prepped, and on my way into surgery. There I was offered another option – a lens that wouldn’t be as focused on the far distance, thereby making my interim month less confusing. I turned that option down as well, opting for better vision for the longer term. Deferred gratification is always a good thing…

I had the surgery, it was successful, Susan drove me home for a LONG nap, and I gradually got accustomed to seeing a fuzzy distance view out of my left eye. I’ve got a fair degree of astigmatism in both eyes. Sure enough, after a month I got a good lens for the left side of my glasses, and the lens is progressive, if not liberal. I can see very well.

So of course it was time for the right eye surgery, less than a week after I got my replacement lens. Off again…

The second surgery was uneventful (I have grown to like “uneventful”), and another month went by.

I do have to say that in some sense my world “narrowed” during the two months that my vision was degraded. I found myself a bit more cautious, less likely to take on new tasks and perhaps new ideas as well. It’s disconcerting to see the world differently out of your two eyes, and while it may be necessary, I can’t really recommend the experience.

There are other limitations as well – no heavy lifting, no swimming, shouldn’t drive for a few days, gotta remember to put in both antibiotic and steroidal eyedrops according to a complex schedule for the month, and all that. And your eye looks like you were poked in the eye with a sharp stick – but it was really a sharp knife.

I’m sitting here typing with both new lenses in place – and it’s a big improvement. I got the second lens last night, and had two odd experiences. First, while they were fitting the lens to the frames, I drove off without wearing glasses. That’s probably the first and ONLY time I’ve ever driven without glasses. It was quite safe – I’ve now got 20/10 vision in both eyes. That’s one of the benefits of going ‘bionic.” And 20/10 vision is the best that Wilmer can measure with their equipment – they may be even better! Call me “Hawkeye.”

Second, it was raining quite hard when I left the shop. I was careful to use my hand to protect my glasses from the rain – but I wasn’t WEARING glasses! This was a really odd experience for me, being out in the rain and not worried about my glasses getting wet!

As it stands, I’m not convinced that the right lens is as well measured, or as well installed perhaps, as the left one is. I’ll be just waiting a month or two to see how I like/adjust/tolerate the second lens, and how the two work together. Wilmer is known for its excellence at surgery, and NOT for its excellence at refraction. And I went to our local eyewear shop for the grinding and installation, rather than to the shop in DC I’ve been going to for eons.

Of course, if I decide I’ve got to get a better prescription, and better glasses, I’ve got to call my DC ophthalmologist of long standing, and see if she’ll take me in. That’ll be a tough day.

But it was a successful venture. I’m on my way to being bionic, and I thought I’d share the story. You may be next…

Senior Cousin Bob

March 11, 2011

Why do we vote on TUESDAYS?!?

November 2nd, 2010

Ever wonder about voting on the “first Tuesday in November?” Works great for 18th century American male property owners: harvest’s in, etc. Elsewhere, most voting’s done on weekends — better if you work an hourly job, or need someone to watch the kids. Probably holds down turnout more than anything else. But incumbents like it – worked for them — so don’t expect to see it change. Honk if you see discrimination!

Why Did the Eastern and Not the Western Empire Survive?

September 28th, 2010

From Michael Grant’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, Appendix 2:

It is no use claiming to detect a complete explanation of the fall of the Western Empire in any factor which applied to the Eastern Byzantine Empire as well, since the latter did not collapse in the 5th century AD, but instead remained in existence for a much greater length of time, until 1453 (with only a short interlude between 1204 and 1261). It is therefore necessary to speculate on the reasons why the two Empires had these quite separate and difference experiences and fates. [Emphasis added]

Above all else, the Western Empire was far more vulnerable to external attack owing to its geographical location….

Secondly, the Eastern Empire possessed a sounder social and economic structure than the West, embodying fewer glaring disunities. The American historian Glanville Downey explained why this was:

“…The structure of the government differed significantly in the East and West. In the West, the land-owning aristocrats, some of them fantastically wealthy, contributed much less money than they should have to the cost of the army and the government. The Eastern Empire, in contrast, possessed a civil service composed largely of middle-class professionals, and while graft unavoidably existed, the Eastern government received in taxes a higher proportion of the national income than the Western government could enjoy.”

The government of the East, as a result, possessed much greater resources than the government of the West; it was therefore much more capable of maintaining its defenses….

Downey’s favourable reference to the Eastern bureaucracy also reminds us that the middle classes, which formed its traditional nucleus, possessed much more ancient and firmer roots in the Eastern regions – going back to Greek times – and continued to enjoy much better economic conditions.

[The quote from Downey is presumably from his The Late Roman Empire, 1969, which is listed in Grant’s bibliography.]


Earlier in this millennium I visited Oxford, England. On that trip I spent parts of several days in Blackwell’s, an enormous and wonderful bookstore (as well as a publishing house).  It occupies four or five townhouses, three and four stories high.

Seldom have I spent time or money (about 250 pounds sterling) so happily and so well.

On one occasion, on my wanderings through the stacks, I found myself near the Classics area and sought out a clerk. He appeared to be one of those Oxford graduates who had been unable to leave town – we have them in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in New Haven, and in points south and west as well.

I asked about books concerned with the fall of the Roman empire – not Gibbon, you understand, but other books. He happily took me to an alcove where he showed me shelves containing about a yard of books on that empire’s fall. I bought several. I have read only one seriously and in depth. That is Michael Grant’s book referenced above.

A Family Story

July 11th, 2010

My father, rest his soul, who was born in Michigan and lived in Chicago for twenty years, always told me “Wrap your family in Dee-Troit iron, boy – it’s the cheapest insurance you’ll ever buy!” He had a preference for Checkers – he bought one new, driving it back from Kalamazoo to Charleston, SC, where we then lived. He liked Chevrolet and Pontiac station wagons, and Willys Jeep station wagons.

In fact, the first vehicle I ever drove was a Willys jeep, up and down Folly Beach, SC. My Uncle Bill either brought it back from the war, or glommed onto it when he had the chance. This was in 1951, and I was eleven years old. The family joke was that if you were on that beach, and another party came so close you could tell the women from the men, you moved further down the beach. Those were the days.

Long before I had a family to worry about, I had a 1953 Studebaker coupe (not a Golden Eagle, sadly) that Dad bought me for $300 when he got me a summer job that took me to two locations. Much later he gave me a 1952 Plymouth, also two door, that I know I had as late as 1968, because I remember trying to drive it up a steep dirt road in West Virginia on bald tires. I had to make a couple of runs at it.

Even though I flirted with Volkswagens (a red convertible that cost me all of $150 and a microbus that got wrecked on Route 50 somewhere near Romney, WV), I tended to stay with vans and pickup trucks. (That’s ignoring the old BMW 2002 that lived for years in the garage.)

So when my #1 daughter got her license, it was no surprise to her that she “inherited” a full sized Ford van to take her to and from Sidwell Friends in DC. Some years later she complained that the van had proved entirely too big for her to navigate through the narrow streets of Georgetown (where the college students hang out, and where beer at least is available to young ladies if they are tall), much less park there! Something about my expressions of sympathy led her to doubt my sincerity.

And when her younger sister was about to get HER license, O Frabjous Day, she asked what vehicle SHE was going to get to drive! I told her I drove the Dodge convertible, her mother drove the Dakota (a convertible – bet you never saw one), her sister of course drove the big van — and I paused. She exclaimed “DAD! That only leaves that ratty old Ford pickup – and you know I can’t drive ’stick’!” I replied, “I drive the Dodge, your mother drives the Dakota, your sister drives the big van – “ and I paused. She said, “GIMME THE DAMN KEYS!”

We lived in Great Falls then, across the road from a little-used street, and she returned about half an hour later, somewhat flushed, and said “I can drive stick now!” And so she could, and did.

Later her sister was rear-ended on that same road, while driving a Mercury Grand Marquis. I got a call at work, and between sobs she told me that she’d wrecked the Mercury. I asked if SHE was OK, and said not to worry about the car – it’s only a ‘thing,’ and as Art Buchwald told us, the best things in life aren’t things. We’d take a look when I got home.

She hid in the house until I got there, and we went out to look at the Mercury. She explained that the lady who’d hit her had been in a small foreign car, which had had to be towed away. We looked at the back of the car, and I asked her to show me where she’d been hit. Neither of us could see any damage; but there WERE a couple of places where the road grime was rubbed off. I took the opportunity to repeat my father’s mantra: “Wrap your family in Detroit iron…”

A few years later she was driving the Mercury in Santa Cruz, California, and again was rear-ended, this time by a kid in a little pickup truck who “didn’t see the light change.” Same result: truck towed, Mercury mercifully unhurt. This time SHE repeated Dad’s mantra to me over the phone!

Today she drives an old Volvo. Her sister drives a GMC Jimmy. And I’m driving a Toyota Tundra double cab longbed pickup – 95,000 miles the first three years. It’s a damn big truck.

But Checker is gone, and Studebaker is gone, and Willys is gone, first to AMC and now to “Chrysler Jeep” which sounds all wrong. And Ford just announced that they’re killing off the Mercury line as well. The glories of my world are going, going, gone.

And my father’s been dead for thirty-five years, or half my life. By this Christmas I’ll be older than he was when he died.

And thanks, Dad.

Thoughts on Collaboration for a Kennedy School Class

July 11th, 2010

All – I’m coming late to this party, so beg pardon. My thoughts include:

  1. Carbon vs. Silicon. We are “carbon-based” creatures in an increasingly “silicon-based” world. We have “carbon-based” collaboration skills honed from the hunter-gatherer days. That is, “I’ve worked with Moog before, and if he looks me in the eye and says we can get that mastodon and feed the village, I’ll follow him!” I’d argue that carbon-based collaboration is “hard-wired” in homo sapiens, to scramble my metaphor. “Silicon-based” collaboration, where I may have no idea whose suggestions I’m being asked to implement, is a new phenomenon. Why should I trust a Moog synthesizer? (Sorry)
  2. A recent book, How We Decide, makes the point that decision-making is both intellectual and emotional: brain injury victims left with no emotional apparatus simply cannot make decisions. The old argument about “good” intellectual decisions vs. “bad” emotional decisions was a false dichotomy for which we can blame Plato (or not; you decide). If this is true, then the value of augmenting “silicon-based” collaboration tools with “carbon-based” interactions cannot be ignored. Occasional meetings of teleworking work groups, using SKYPE or OOVOO or other such tools should be a part of the organizational toolbox. I’ve often used the quote, “intellectual processes lead to conclusions, while emotional processes lead to decisions.” Collaboration must lead to decisions; our “carbon” side can’t be ignored. Moog lives!
  3. Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I can’t help but wish that Stafford Beer were around to tell us how electronic collaboration (and other forms of asynchronous instantaneous mass-free communication) affect organizations. I would treasure his insights almost as much as his company. Since my reflections would be a pale reflection of his (Sorry) I won’t make the attempt. Some face time with his VSM vis-a-vis Facebook will be useful.
  4. The Saucer and the Platter. I’ve used this analogy in discussing “the geometry of the unresponsiveness of large organizations.” Imagine a demitasse saucer covered in marbles. Now imagine the Thanksgiving turkey platter covered in the same size marbles. How many of the marbles are at the perimeter of the saucer and the platter? As a percentage of total marbles in each case? In other words, in a small organization, a MUCH higher percentage of the workers are in contact with the world beyond the organization, and can (perhaps) get their viewpoints heard up the management chain. How does “silicon-based” collaboration change this dynamic? Will the bosses in big organizations ever listen to the views of their front-line folks? There are so few of them, and they’ll be “outvoted” by the folks in the middle tiers.
  5. New Collaboration Tools. Evidently both Beer’s Viable System Model and my Saucer/Platter analogy are challenged by the new collaboration tools used by, among others, Starbucks and Dell. Organizational boundaries are dissolving before our eyes. You may have talked in class about how Dell uses Ideastorm to get ideas from customers on how to redesign laptops, but if not, here’s at least one website. The challenges of organizing WITHIN the organization to take advantage of ideas from WITHOUT the organization lead back to carbon and silicon…
  6. When I was with Al Gore and his National Performance Review, we had a strong focus on government and its “customers.” This led to discussions of how to improve the customer experience at places like DMVs and national parks. While this was undoubtedly useful, it was quite limiting. This was pointed out forcefully by Henry Mintzberg of McGill, in “Managing Government, Governing Management,” a 1996 HARBUS article. Mintzberg distinguishes four roles for people vis-a-vis government: customer, client, subject, and citizen. ANY discussion of “collaboration” that extends beyond government worker to “other” must take into consideration these different roles. One does not ask the state trouper to ‘collaborate’ with the speeding driver. Mintzberg’s website is well worth visiting.
  7. In Reorganize for Resilience, Ranjay Gulati talks about asking your customers the right questions. If you’re selling lettuce and you ask your customers whether they like red or green lettuce, in large or small heads, you’ll never anticipate the market for washed and chopped salad greens. Getting collaborations focused on the opportunities for tomorrow vs the problems of today is, however, beyond the scope of this note!
  8. Since I’m new to the discussion, allow me to introduce myself. And Jerry, sorry to bring the same ol’ pony to the party!

My March TriPorkta

April 4th, 2010

Well, it was my birthday festival week, as the family tradition has it. And so on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009, I set off on my triporkta celebration.

That afternoon I had high tea (well, barbecue high tea) at the Leesburg VA outpost of Red, Hot, and Blue with Doug L–, a friend dating back to a little office on Capitol Hill where we volunteered our time to help the ACLU move Richard Nixon toward impeachment. Those were the good times!

Life’s road has left some dust on Doug and me – he now lives in Bequia, in the Windward Isles, and I now split my time between Annapolis and West Virginia: the old man of the sea and the mountains, both. He asked me if I colored my hair, and I later complimented him on his pure white shock that does NOT have a pink peak above the tree line, as mine does.

Red, Hot, and Blue is a chain, and it does what it does very well. I’ve always loved their onion loaf, although I didn’t finish mine this time. The cole slaw is admirable, the baked beans have a bit of BBQ stirred in for flavor. The pork barbecue is very good, although usually on the dry side. This time it was fresher than usual, although it was 3:30 before I got there. There was enough. Their vinegar-based sauce, however, is more Alabama than North Carolina, and leaves something to be desired.

They serve iced tea in little pitchers that are really enormous glasses, and I asked for “sweet tea” in honor of having grown up in Charleston, South Carolina. Usually I ask for “half and half” to celebrate my years of driving up and down Interstate 95 – dating back to before there WAS an Interstate 95.

After our conversations had achieved a balance of yesterday and tomorrow, with a slice of today thrown in, I took my leave. Doug went back to admiring the house in Waterford he’s been trying to sell for some years now, and I headed west. I was braced by the slice of pecan pie, appropriately cooled down by a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

After a calming evening at Far Muse, I drove to Harrisonburg, Virginia on the 19th for some shopping. And my first stop was Log Cabin Barbecue, exactly 10.5 miles west of Interstate 81 on Route 33, in Elkton. Actually, it’s on the west side of Elkton, where some turn left (and north) to go to Massanutten Resort. And it’s well past Hank’s Smokehouse, an enormous place that has metastasized into a full menu, catering establishment. Must have been a good BBQ place some years ago. Sigh.

For some reason, I again arrived at about 3:00 pm. My first question to the staff was “Where is everybody?” I was told they’d been there, and had left already. Ah well — I had the place to myself. I said a little prayer to the barbecue gods, because good BBQ joints are an ephemeral commodity in the epicureal community – they come and go. I asked, and they said that the economy wasn’t hurting them too bad.

I had the pulled pork platter, adding a side of cornbread instead of the proffered dinner roles. Never liked dinner roles. I had forgotten that Log Cabin gives out a grudging serving of cornbread, wrapped in saran and accompanied by margarine. I ate it anyway. The baked beans were a disappointment, right out of the can. But the cole slaw was a joy! A little more vinegary than most, and obviously made that day. I could have eaten a quart of it! The pork was the best – moist, plentiful, and obviously touched by hickory. Too many places consider the mighty oak a substitute for hickory. This keeps them (a) profitable, but (b) out of the first rank.

[That's .667 of the triporkta -- even better than Ted Williams did in 1944. Sigh.]

Dan-Dan Noodles!

March 28th, 2010

I came onboard the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, when we were at Columbia Plaza, just down the block from the Magic Gourd Restaurant at Virginia Avenue and 23rd Northwest DC. That was 28 years ago, and if you believe some of the current online reviews, it’s not changed much since then. I ate there often; there weren’t a lot of other nearby choices; still aren’t.

The dish that stuck in my mind through all these years is their Dan-Dan Noodles, an appetizer. I may even have dreamed about it! Warm noodles drenched in a sauce that’s mostly smooth peanut butter, with hot oil and some more sesame or peanut oil added for consistency. Mmmmm!!! I LOVE it! Makes me feel all warm inside, kinda like being wrapped in an electric blanket.

I wangled a recent lunch there with a State Department employee, partly ‘cause she knew where it was, but mostly because of the Dan-Dan Noodles!

I ordered one serving, and she ordered another, on my recommendation. Each was about two cups worth; I managed to finish mine. It was just as I remembered: one of the best uses for the lowly peanut, a bit hot and spicy, and comfort food of the first order.

As for the second order, I asked for a serving to “take out,” because I was going to take it to Grace Garden. This is a tiny out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant on Maryland’s route 175, AKA Odenton’s Annapolis Road, and opposite Fort Meade (just down from a tattoo parlor, and in the Colonel’s shadow).  My wife and I were taken there by the head of the Asian Division in the Library of Congress; his wife, like mine, is an Anne Arundel County Master Gardener.

Grace Garden’s chef and owner, Chun Keung Li, and his wife Mei, serve all the regular stuff, but also authentic Chinese dishes I’ve never seen elsewhere. I get there about once every other week, and I’ve been trying to find something I don’t like. I’ve been unsuccessful. So far. I’ll keep trying.

Chef Li will make any recipe you bring in, and will also happily use ingredients that you bring him. And after 34 years in the business, my guess is that if you can name it or describe it, he’ll make it and you’ll love it!

So I wanted him to try the Dan-Dan Noodles, and maybe even put them on their menu. I arrived at about 2:30PM, long past the lunch hour, to find the entire staff — Chef Li, Mei, and a helper — eating lunch at a table in the empty restaurant. What luck! I opened my takeout bag, and started talking about Dan-Dan Noodles, and how much I loved them. Mei poured them out on a plate, and Chef Li looked at the pile and said “Too much sugar!” He tasted them, and said again, “Too much sugar!”

We started talking about “proper” Dan-Dan Noodles, and after a minute Chef Li got to his feet, went into the kitchen, and started chopping and mixing. Mei told me that Dan-Dan Noodles, to be done “right,” required their own special noodles. These came in large packages, and they don’t have room in their small restaurant for all possible noodles, much less all the other ingredients they could be using. Sigh.

She said that if they used the wrong noodles, their Chinese customers would blog about it, and they’d be in trouble. I of course said that their American customers wouldn’t care, and would buy the dish by the bucketful, given the affection that we all feel for peanut butter. I even suggested putting up a sign advertising “Special: Crazy Dan-Dan Noodles” to give themselves an “out” with their Chinese customers. No go! [See why I love the place?]

At about this time, Chef Li returned with a plate of warm noodles (the wrong kind, but delicious) and a PINT of freshly made sauce! He insisted that I try it – not a difficult sell. Using chopsticks to move the noodles from the dish to my plate, but a fork to eat them, I dug in.

The sauce was aMAZing! Instead of two flavors, there were so many I lost count! I was then told that the sauce included not only peanut butter, peanut oil, and hot oil, but garlic, scallions, Chinese vinegar, and various peppers. (I think there are some ‘secret ingredients” too, and given their proximity to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, this is unsurprising.)

The total effect was like a fireworks display! Mei told me that the proper dish includes thinly sliced fresh cucumbers, celery, or zucchini, under the noodles. That’s not food, that’s a symphony!

Chef Li said that Dan-Dan Noodles is really a family plan dish, with noodles in the middle of the table, and a variety of toppings around it. Diners get to choose what toppings they want – not everyone wants the hot sauce! Who knew?

He also said that making the sauce was “simple!” I asked Mei if he’d measured ANYTHING as he made it, and she said “No.” I then said that I MIGHT be able to learn to make it, but it would take at least thirty years, and I might not have the time! We all laughed.

After some more conversation, and Mei’s agreement that they’d make the dish for ME without the right noodles, if I’d call a day in advance, I left – with almost a pint of the new sauce, some noodles, and a bottle of Chinese vinegar. I promised to call, identify myself as “the crazy man,” and ask for the non-standard Dan-Dan Noodles. You do what you can.

I know I’ll go back to the Magic Gourd for their noodles when I have the opportunity, but…

Warm blanket or fireworks display? Hmmmm….

Eulogy for Will Simmons, Esquire

March 28th, 2010

[ I wrote this a few weeks after receiving word that Will Simmons, one of Annapolis' best attorneys, had virtually closed his practice. I knew that Will had had colon cancer, and that it was not responding well to treatment. I delivered it to his office on February 12th, only to learn later from one of his associates that Will had died on February 9th. Will was only 53 years old. Sic transit gloria mundi. ]

February 12th , 2010

Dear Will;

Susan and I were talking about you, wondering how things were going, not long before we got your letter. We understand your cutting back on your practice, and we’re crossing our fingers for you.

As you know, I graduated from Georgetown Law in 1972 and joined the DC Bar in 1973. That’s over a generation ago, and of course I knew lawyers before I went to law school. I worked elbow-to-elbow with many during a thirty year career in the Federal government.

In the few years we’ve known each other, you have become my exemplar of the lawyer for three very simple reasons. First and foremost, because of your unflinching and unquestioned probity. I cannot remember a single instance of your bending, shading, or evading the truth in the slightest, or proposing anything but the ethically correct thing to do. I could ask no better model for every law student and lawyer in America.

Second, because of your consummate skill as a lawyer. As you recall, you took virtually the same fact pattern into two cases about subdivision restrictions. The cases were heard in the same county, much less the same state. And in the second case, you found yourself arguing against the precedent you’d set in the first case! And yet you won! As your colleague said, you earned SIX Mogen Davids with that one.

Third, and perhaps most memorably for me, are your efforts at resolving controversies – clearly as important to you as winning cases. I will never forget the day that you insisted that I shake hands with Bob Foster, one of our adversaries in the disputes over the easements etc. here on Old County Road. And even though Bob had earlier attempted to run me down, or at least brush me off, with his vehicle, and you knew that, you were emphatic that resolution was possible, and that neighbors should learn to live with each other, and that I must shake his hand. Only a very few lawyers look beyond the ‘case or controversy’ at hand, and fewer yet look to resolve the underlying issues. That brings you at least within the penumbra of being a “philosopher-king.”

You will be pleased to know that a degree of neighborliness has returned to Old County Road. Most of us are nodding, if not speaking just yet. And a few days ago while I was digging my truck out from under our first big snowfall of 2010, Mark Aiello came up the hill running his snow blower and volunteered to help keep the snow from blocking me in. And I said, “Thank you, Sir!”

There is hope for us all.

And I thank you, Sir!