Sunday, September 24, 2006

(oh, Lord) of the Dance

"Before we begin let me make one thing clear right at the start," the instructor declared as class got underway. She began to pace the floor in front of myself and 50 other beginning students with her hands clasped behind her back, in a manner that called to mind General George S. Patton addressing a company of raw recruits.

"This is NOT ballroom dancing--if you are here to learn the waltz or foxtrot, you are in the wrong room..." Of course her similarity to the 4-star general pretty much ended with the tone of voice and body language. I've seen the movie 'Patton' over a dozen times, and this woman in her late sixties with bright orange hair standing before us in a flared skirt and 2" rhinestone heels looked practically nothing like actor George C. Scott.

"In this class you will learn Latin Dancing. We have a lot of ground to cover in ten weeks and we'll be working hard over the next hour without a break. Many of you will wake up tomorrow morning with sore muscles that you never even knew you had." Around this time I began to wonder what in the hell I was doing in a high school gymnasium at 8:30 on a weeknight, and what had ever possessed me to enlist for salsa boot camp in the first place. I tried to remember if desertion was still punishable by firing squad these days...
* * * * * * * *
Actually, I had reported for these lessons voluntarily. They were offered though a non-profit group that provided dozens of evening courses in language, cooking, fitness, and the arts to adults at several suburban high schools. Our class was being held in the gym, and the men and women had been told to form up in two seperate lines facing each other twenty feet apart.

Jeanne, our instructor, slowly turned and fixed her gaze intently on us guys. "Gentlemen, in Latin dancing there is ONE rule that you must never, ever forget. While you are out there on the dance floor, YOU are the one in complete command--the lord of the dance. It is your job to lead your partner at all times--the woman should never have control over what the two of you are doing." She paused, and qualified that last statement with a raised finger. "ONLY while you are out there on the dance floor..."
She got right to work teaching the male half of the class the basic steps of the Cha-Cha. Our weight would need to start over on the right side of the body as the move began with the left foot. We were instructed to just watch her first as she demonstrated it for us. "And its Forward...Step--Cha, Cha, Cha." Okay, that seemed easy enough. We ran through it a half-dozen times as a group. Our line lumbered forward rather stiffly as Jeanne counted out the steps aloud, with many of the men (myself included) looking straight down at our feet as we shuffled along the floor trying to keep up with her tempo.

Then she added the second part of the move. "Now its Backwards...Step--Cha, Cha, Cha." Uh-oh, suddenly this took some more thought. But after another six or more run-throughs, the majority of us pretty much had it down. After she had us combine the two moves together for another dozen repetitions, Jeanne was satisfied that most of us were safely on board with the program. She turned to the teach the same steps (in reverse) to the ladies.

During this entire period the women had been forced to stand still and just watch the men, their bodies poised in eager anticipation. A few had been swaying in place the whole time. Judging from the keyed-up looks on all of their faces, they probably would have broken into dance at the first notes of a Verizon ringtone. They put the men to shame by getting both moves down cold on the second try, with a touch of hip action thrown in as they gracefully cha-cha'd backwards and forwards. I'm sure in another turn or two they could have completely rubbed it in and finished up with a fully synchronized can-can routine.

Now that the men and women had learned the basic Cha-Cha step separately, it was time to bring both groups together. Jeanne called out, "All right, everyone grab a partner and we're going to try that to some music." She turned to walk over towards a CD player that she had set up on a folding card table.

A distinct feeling of deja vu came over me as I found myself standing in a high school gym watching members of the opposite sex move right past me to pair up with each other to dance. My premonition became fully realized after everyone had reunited with their spouse, fiance, or significant other and exchanged nervous laughter. I was the only one left all by myself out there in the middle of the floor. Jeanne was still flipping through her CD collection when her assistant Sandi hurried over to the table and whispered in her ear.

"What? We have an extra BOY?? This the first time that's ever happened in all my years....!!" I forgot to mention previously that Jeanne was wearing a wireless microphone to amplify her voice, and her cries of disbelief echoed throughout the gym. Several heads over in the Mommy & Me Bellydancing class turned in our direction to see what all of the commotion was about. I wouldn't have been surprised if the Conversational French instructor had later poked his head into the room to ask, "Excusez-moi. Permettez -nous arriver a regarder le solitaire garcon sans une fille?" ("Pardon me. May my students come to look at the lonely boy without a girl?")

Sandi, a short, zaftig, fifty-ish platinum blonde, hurried over to be my partner as the music began to play. She shook her head and commented that there had always been a greater number of women than men that signed up for these classes. She nodded over in the direction of several nicely dressed, white-haired gentlemen that were patiently sitting around the card table--male stand-ins that Jeanne had obviously pressed into service to pair up with an expected female overflow. She patted me on the shoulder and said with a wink, "That's okay, sweetie--a single guy who knows how to dance? There's a whole new world waiting ahead for you..."

At least I think that's what she said. At the time I was too busy concentrating: And its Forward...Step--Cha, Cha, Cha. There were still another thirty minutes left in class, with plenty more moves ahead yet to come.

Friday, September 15, 2006

table for three--(2nd course).

I was hoping for the best but preparing for the worst as I entered the restaurant with Brendan trailing behind me holding my hand. During the entire drive downtown I had tried to think of the best way to lessen the initial shock to Gretchen as I arrived for our date with my 3-year old son along as a 'plus 1'. I decided that the direct approach was probably best and that events from that point would either go pretty well or horribly wrong.

As it turned out, I had nothing to be concerned about. Gretchen was already inside waiting at the bar and her eyes certainly widened when she first saw the two of us enter. But then they became slightly misty as I began to explain the whole situation. After a quiet moment or two had passed, she told me that she completely understood and bent down to say hello to Brendan with a warm smile.

The waiter had been a little more non-plussed, but his reaction was understandable. The Astral Plane was a pretty intimate restaurant. The silk fabric draped across the ceiling and soft candlelight illuminating the room were designed to provide a single, unmistakable mood: romance. It is not the sort of place where either chicken fingers or mac-n-cheese had ever been featured among the day's specials...

In fact, it was not the sort of place that had envisioned booster chairs as part of its seating plan either. Two Philadelphia phone books stacked on top of each other and placed on Brendan’s chair did the trick. Gretchen took everything completely in stride, and made a point to say how handsome Brendan looked in his fancy suit. I appreciated her effort and graciously refrained from pointing out that there really had not been much choice for a suitable alternative, as all of the remaining items in my son’s wardrobe at the time prominently displayed either Barney, Elmo, or permanent juice stains.

I have to say Brendan really was on his best behavior that night. He could be a pretty finicky eater back at that age, so while I may have been pointing to the 'Linguine with Grape Tomatoes' in the menu as I placed his order with the waiter, I made sure that I referred to it out loud as just plain old "spaghetti". His table manners were even better than I could have hoped for. While he did begin to build a little fort out of the sugar cubes he discovered inside the sterling bowl at the center of the table, I decided to let it slide because at least that activity held zero danger of anything breaking, spilling, or staining—which in my book was a trifecta. The fact that I had to drink my coffee black that night was a small price to pay for keeping him quietly occupied.

Actually, there was one minor incident before the night was over. Midway through eating our entrees, a waiter approached the table next to ours with a four-tiered dessert cart. Brendan was transfixed as he watched each diner go around the table and pick out the dessert of his or her choosing. After everyone had made their selection, the waiter began to head off towards another group sitting over in the opposite direction from us. Brendan placed his hands on the table, stood upright on top of the phone books, pointed towards the retreating cart, and declared “I WANT CAKE” in a voice that rang throughout the dining room.

Gretchen burst out laughing and it was all I could do not to join in. I quickly shushed Brendan and sat him back down, and told him that he could have some cake as long as he behaved and finished up the rest of his lingui…err, spaghetti. Fortunately the rest of the meal went by without incident, and Brendan definitely earned every bite of his cake as a reward, even if the sleeves of his jacket wound up sporting brand new dark chocolate stains. At least they both matched on each arm...

We walked Gretchen to her car and she smiled broadly as she thanked us both for a wonderful evening. She gave us each a kiss on the cheek and then Brendan and I headed back to our house for a long-overdue bedtime story. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect night for my initial return to the dating scene.

It’s been eleven years since that dinner--Brendan is now 14 and has just entered high school as a freshman. He doesn’t have a girlfriend yet, but I can see that it won't be long before one will be in the picture. I’ve been thinking that maybe a little karma might be in order when he finally goes on his first date. I could tag along in a spiffy new seersucker suit, prop myself up at the table with some phonebooks, and build something fun with the condiments. The only difference would be that since I’d still be the dad, I could get dessert even if I didn’t finish all of my dinner. Come to think of it…

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

table for three.

I quietly swore under my breath as I placed the phone back down onto its receiver. I had to be careful because my three-year old son Brendan was nearby in his room, but after receiving the same bad news repeatedly after several phone calls, my situation had started to become seriously desperate. I wracked my brain trying to come up with some option that I hadn't considered yet, but with a growing feeling of resignation I knew there was only one choice remaining to be made.

Brendan was sitting quietly at his desk drawing in a coloring book when I walked in. I went over to his closet and tried to pick out his nicest outfit. My eyes fell upon the light blue seersucker suit jacket and short pants that his grandmother had recently bought for him to wear at Easter. That would have to do. I reached into his closet to grab the new saddleshoes that went with his ensemble and called to him over my shoulder:

Hey, buddy--how about you run into the bathroom and brush your teeth extra quick.

You and Daddy need to be downtown for a date in an hour...
* * * * * * * *
Eight hours earlier that day I had been in the Criminal Justice Center prosecuting cases as an assistant district attorney. A witness who had flown up from Nashville was in my courtroom to testify against a person who robbed her before she had relocated for her job over a year ago. Another colleague of mine had been specially assigned to try her case.

Her name was Gretchen and throughout the morning we talked during the brief breaks between trials. She was naturally beautiful and had a very down-to-earth way about her. I found myself more and more attracted to her the longer we spoke. On an impulse I asked her to get something to eat with me when the judge announced a one-hour lunch recess.

The fact that I was feeling attracted towards anyone at that point was a new thing for me. In the year since my wife had passed away, my focus had been fixed squarely forward as I tried to balance the demands of a full-time job with my new role as a single parent. I hadn't even been remotely thinking about meeting someone during that time, but I had definitely begun to feel the beginning of an interest again that morning.

At lunch the conversation continued to flow easily back and forth between us. I hadn't mentioned anything yet about being a widower with a young son because in my experience, a lot of people's initial reaction to hearing about that was usually very emotional. I didn't think it was fair to drop something like that on Gretchen right before she was about to take the stand to testify about the night she had been robbed at gunpoint.

After the trial ended with a guilty verdict, we made plans to meet for dinner later that evening at a restaurant in Center City. She headed back to her parents' home in New Jersey, where she was staying until her flight back to Tennessee the next morning. We exchanged phone numbers and I spent the rest of the day in the courtroom trying the remaining cases on the list.

I hadn't been concerned about a babysitter because Brendan's grandmother was always glad to watch him anytime, even on a moment's notice. Except on this night she had tickets to go to the theater with a friend. It turned out that all of the babysitters I had called around our neighborhood had plans of one form or another as well. I ran through every conceivable person I could think of, and then reluctantly tried to reach Gretchen at her parents' house to explain why I needed to cancel our dinner for the evening.

Her mother answered the phone and explained that Gretchen had already left for the restaurant a little early just in case there was heavy traffic. She didn't have a cell phone, so I had no way to reach her enroute. I tried calling the restaurant to leave a message for her, but the hostess had too much trouble hearing me over all of the noise and activity during the dinner rush.

So at that point I was faced with two equally unpleasant options. Either I remained home with Brendan while Gretchen waited all alone in the restaurant, thinking I had simply blown her off after she drove for over an hour and paid money for tolls and parking to get there. Or I could just show up for our date at this intimate restaurant with a previously unmentioned three-year boy dressed like Richie Rich in tow.

This was not exactly how I had pictured my very first return to the dating scene. But I was the one who had set these events in motion, so there really was only one choice to be made. I buckled Brendan into his carseat and we headed off for the 8 pm reservation at The Astral Plane as 'The Farmer in the Dell' began to play on the car stereo. The thought occurred to me that while it was somewhat comforting to have a wingman along for my first date with anyone in over six years, ideally it would have preferable to have one along that didn't require the use of a booster seat...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"Offensive Waste of Time: 10-Yard Penalty"

I was finishing up a legal motion that I had been writing all afternoon and had lost track of the time. Just before 6 o'clock, the Managing Partner of the law firm stopped in my doorway and told me come to the large conference room. As I followed him down the hallway I quickly ran through some worst-case scenarios in my head. All of the partners and senior associates were present, sitting around the main table with sober, intense looks on their faces. I went over to the last open seat at the far end of the room, and waited expectedly. The Managing Partner stood up and signaled for everyone's attention.

"All right. Before we begin, let's keep in mind that all decisions made tonight are final...and that any formal challenges will be resolved by the League Commissioner. We will now begin with Round One."

And with that, our firm's 2006 Fantasy Football Draft officially got underway.
* * * * * * * *
I had completely forgotten about that night's draft. To be honest, fantasy football was one of those things that I had always heard about but held zero interest for me. I love to play a number of sports, but if given the choice between spending a Sunday afternoon outdoors or parked in front of a TV watching overpaid athletes run around for a couple of hours--well, I'll chose the former everytime.
It became pretty clear that all of the attorneys were expected to join the firm's league, and I figured that it would be a good way to meet some of the other people around the office. Everyone was divided into teams of two, and together you took turns picking any current player in the NFL to make up your own 'fantasy' team. Then you tracked your players each weekend throughout the season using some complex scoring system.
A controversy quickly arose right at the outset. It apparently involved a new rule change about a player being placed on something called "waivers". I'd like to fill you in on what that means exactly, but right around then the pizza and beer arrived in the next room, and the only wavering I became aware of at that point was deciding on whether I wanted a Corona or a Miller Lite.
When I returned to my seat everyone had begun to focus intently among the piles of scouting reports that covered the conference table. From the looks of it, most of them had spent weeks of research trying to craft their winning selection strategy. It occurred to me that these middle-aged sports fanatics were the former jocks who had mocked my friends and I for playing Dungeons & Dragons back in junior high school. Now these same grown-up men were spending countless hours obsessing over make-believe football rosters. I felt the sudden urge to unsheathe my +2 Middle Finger of Scorn and wield it upon the room, but I wisely chose to tightly clutch the 10-sided dice in my pocket until the moment passed.
The whole process began to drag on as each team spent their full two minutes during each round huddled closely together, whispering furiously and pouring over their computer printouts before announcing their final decision. There was a decidedly different process when it came time for my partner and me to make our first pick:
HIM: (handing me his scouting chart)
Here's my top three choices for quarterback. What are your thoughts?
ME: (in mid-bite of pizza)
Is Roger Staubach still playing...??
Not since 1979.
ME: (nodding decisively)
Then, yeah-let's go with Donovan McNabb...
I was pretty much relegated to crossing off the players on our master list as each team made their choice, and making the occasional beer run. The entire draft apparently went on for hours, but I had to leave halfway through to get ready for my son's first day of high school the following morning. My partner later filled me in on the final roster for our team, but I'm kind of clueless when it comes to the names of most pro athletes. I don't recall exactly, but I'm pretty sure we wound up with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. as our wide receiver and Michele Kwan at running back.
So, we'll see how the season goes. I suppose now I'll have to find out what channel ESPN is listed on DirectTV. Who knows, maybe I'll get hooked and join up for Fantasy Baseball, Fantasy Basketball, or Fantasy Bass Fishing. On second thought, maybe I'll start with Fantasy Women's Beach Volleyball. Now that is a sport that I could definitely imagine myself getting obsessed with for a few hours...