July, 1997.

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7/31/97: Bloodsucker Conductor.

I appeared to hunch over the podium like Dracula over one of his victims: this was the description given of one of my early attempts to conduct my own music. All musicians have stories of Performance Mishaps. Through long years of accompanying Bad Violinists and would-be Divas I have developed what could pass for experience.

My problem was a consummate lack of talent for conducting: in my debut I began waving my arms furiously even before the musicians got their instruments out of their cases. In another concert I was given a specific choreography by a conducting teacher, who ignored the fact that I had to start when the musicans did; one player got a measure behind and stayed that way for ten minutes. I was ground up in the Infernal Machine of my own incompetence. In the Dracula incident I was conducting a hideous atonal piece of my own design, one of those east coast monstrosities that win contests through the intimidation of the minor ninth. There was a baritone soloist who hysterically regurgitated the text in a bellow, until the high point of the piece. There was supposed to be a moving, dramatic silence. Unfortunately the best part of my piece was not written by me: an infant had been singing along in the audience had continued at the top of its lungs through this moment. I got a big laugh; and, as a result gave up both atonality and conducting in the same day. A great weight lifted.

7/30/97: I Hate Clowns.

Whenever I see a small child screaming its head off at the approach of a circus clown, I find that the full measure of empathy with that experience comes into place. This time I am talking about real clowns (as opposed to the natural clowns of Personality Tests or Family Circus). When people suddenly act like clowns, through natural talent, excessive drink or drugs, or by virtue of intoxication with social position, they are genuinely amusing, because their aberrant behaviour is unexpected. When a bunch of garish, baggy pants morons appear in a circus ring, they have already crossed the line, and we know that we must endure their stale sight gags.

It is no surprise that in the movies, clowns often turn out to be mass murderers, fugitives from justice, or just abusive and unfunny social misfits. I would say that we have socially acceptable ways of concealing our identities: running for political office and occupying it, ministering is some religion, having some job that either requires a uniform or is performed in the middle of the night (like collecting garbage).

Who are the graduates of Clown College? When they are there, do they study Clown Philosophy 101, Clown Physics 200, and Survey of Clown Literature? I say: stamp out all clowns, as the society has outgrown the need for them. We have created our own buffoons, who are usually much funnier.

7/29/97: Logo-Mania.

The mass release of such dubious "collectors" trifles as Airforce One souvenir cups and popcorn bags follows in the wake of generations of logo-inspired objects from Coca Colatm ice chests to Albert Einstein sweat shirts. We don't seem to be able to resist becoming walking advertisements for just about ANYTHING. In this spirit I have made my own list of possible logo articles for the future:

1. The Trojan condom hat: it could resemble the real thing and show that we support safe sex.
2. The George Bush Commemorative Barf Bag: this item (available on aircraft) recalls the ex-President's culinary episode with the Japanese Delegation.
3. The Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" beach towel: this one would have the Speaker's caricature (in the style of Hershfeld) on the reverse.
4. The Clarence Thomas lunchbox: in the grand tradition of Howdy Doody and Rambo.
5. J. Paul Getty salad oil (in the style of Paul Newman).
6. Al Capone frozen pizza and spaghetti sauce (also ala Newman).
7. Richard Nixon "I am not a Crook" American Flags: particularly popular on July 4th.
8. A line of O.J. Simpson designer gloves.
9. The official Bill Gates WebTV Universal Remote (with his picture in ROM).
10. A Deluxe Alan Greenspan money clip: this article would be available from Neimann Marcus in 14k gold or platinum.

This list is only a modest start. I am sure many of you, turned loose on this concept could do even better.

7/28/97: Sex Sells.

Observing a dragonfly trying to mate with the antenna on my wife's car, I started to make a connection with the misapprehension of sexual signals given off by advertising on television and in the printed media. In one TV commercial a beautiful and voluptuous woman is being surreptitiously observed by a group of men from afar. Like with Susanna at her bath, these men are making up the sexual signals as they go along. They are actually waiting for her to drop glops of catsup on her clothes from the hamburger she is eating. Somehow the hamburger itself becomes the engine of a perverted kind of intimacy with the woman: the men react as though they were at a striptease show.

Given the extreme and outrageous reactions to out-and-out pornography in many parts of the world (In Iran and Saudi Arabia one can go to jail for possessing a pornographic videotape), it seems hypocritical that when mixed signals are sent out (as in the hamburger ad) we ignore the prurient implications. It would be a cliche to say that everything from automobiles to peanut butter is sold by this "bait and switch" mechanism.

I think that the most interesting ramification is that today everyone knows this ploy, plays along, and deliberately wants to get sucked in. Maybe its the same thing as reading adventure or fantasy stories and empathizing with the hero. Of course, in the past Tarzan and Captain Ahab never tried to sell us a new car.

7/27/97: Guitar Duo.

When I was an employment interviewer in New York City, I was part of a small civil service team based in the South Bronx, the kind of place where floating crap games spontaneously erupted in the lobby of our office, and we were always privy to coatfulls of stolen goods, eagerly offered to us by our "clients." I was at this office, because I had sent a convicted rapist to a modeling agency as a chauffeur. My supervisor at the new location had distinguished himself by suggesting the words: Press Down Hard on the registation form (he received a letter of commendation and $25, a great honor in the civil service).

At some point (after I had been there a year or so) he discovered that I was an aspiring musician, and he invited me to hear him play guitar duets with his wife at home. When I arrived, this couple was seated on a pair of hassocks and engaged in a rendition of I'm an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande). I knew this only because another guest told me. I honestly heard no relationship between what each of the deluded musicians was doing. It was as though they had reinvented the music of Schoenberg: they were, essentially, naive avant-gardists. I imagined that the experience would tickle John Cage as a kind of objet trouvé. If the crap they were playing had been written down, some analysis would appear in the Yale Journal of Music Theory.

It was at that point that I started to re-evaluate the impact and worth of contemporary art. The biggest jerks in the world and the most exalted professors were making the same noises: tradition had been filtered through experimentation.

7/26/97: Big is Better.

Pedalling by a hot dog stand, appropriately named Ruben's Redhot, I was struck by the giant hot dog sign, the sausage smothered in onions, hot peppers, relish. mustard, etc with the caption: "Almost Actual Size." I realized that this outrageously outsized sandwich was supposed to whet my appetite for real food. How often have we been confronted by sexy giant models hawking everything from perfume to automobiles. If these monsters appeared in the flesh we would be driven away from, not toward the products, or we would get the idea that such products are only used by a race of supermen who are at least 50 feet tall.

Somewhere along the line a publicity person got the idea that big is better. Witness the tremendous increase in the size of automobiles in the 50's or the hamburger concoctions with as many as three burgers stacked up. Blake said that The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom; is he were to come back today he might retract that observation.

Beyond these obvious references in the world of commerce, look at the majority of public artworks produced: none of these paintings of installations would fit in anyone's living room. It's almost as tough the artist is saying:" this work is too grand (good) for you and your puny bourgeois domicile," as though to inflate the importance of the piece. I say: think SMALL. Netsuke are all small and they invite us into a world of miniature demons and gods.

7/25/97: The Eternal Vegetable Garden.

Ever since I was a kid I have had a love-hate relationship with vegetable gardens. Nothing on the face of the earth can inspire such desperation or exhilaration as the planning and maintenance of a little plot of produce. The trouble is that success or failure seem to exist only in the extreme: those four miserable tomato plants will produce 875 monster fruits or wither with Texas root rot for no apparent reason. That zucchini may have its primary stem chewed off by a gourmet gopher, or it will produce a fleet of squash the size of the Hindenburg.

I thought that I would pass on a few tips to the fledgling cultivator to more convincingly weigh the odds in favor of abundance. 1) Prepare the ground at a depth of at least 18 inches: of course you will unearth seventeen-year locust larvae and other unspeakable icky bugs, along with discarded radio tubes, chewing gum foil, and action figures from TV shows cancelled in the 80's. 2) Use the finest manure (usually labelled "STEER"): from my broad experience I have observed that it has remarkable magnetic properties and will stick to your clothes and shoes, making you unacceptable as a guest in anyone's home. 3) Create a logical series of rows and hills, with the potentially biggest plants (tomatoes) at the back (of course, that miniature pepper plant may shoot up four feet in the front row). Also, cover seeds planted with a small amount of compost in order to discourage the birds from eating the seeds. This does not work, but it impresses the birds. 4) Feed the new plants at least twice a week with liquid fish fertilizer: this stuff is like evil smelling toxic waste with the consistency of diarrhea and it, too will jump onto your clothes, but the plants seem to like it. 5)Weed, weed, weed: this part is the hardest, because at first you will pull out the plants you are trying to raise (by mistake). The weeds seem to grow twice as fast and seem to sprout from thin air (while the rabbits, possums, and groundhogs like to eat your produce, they NEVER touch weeds). 6) When the crop comes in harvest it IMMEDIATELY. If you delay you may face a situation like the 43 melons that greeted me one summer after returning from a trip to Europe. I had to open a fruit stand to get rid of them.

This advice should get you started. Of course, if you fail you can always cheat and flummox your friends with bogus produce from the local farm stand.

7/24/97: Price Tags.

I can remember when the tag on an article was a flimsy square of cardboard attached by a string. It was easy to read and even easier to remove. I think that as our society became more obsessed with the price of material goods, the price tag became a more permanent part of the object, even to the point that foul mixtures of solvents and magic incantations would not be able to remove it. I don't know how many times I have seen the marred surfaces of plastic cups, pens and storage containers that bear mute witness to the unsuccessful removal of price tags.

I am sure that initially the intent was to discourage fraud (like anyone would waste time replacing an 89-cent tag with a cheaper one: it would be easier just to steal it); but I think that the adoption of price tags which outlast their identifying items is emblematic of the way business articulates its philosophy of greed, and the tag is the logo of greed. We are being told: " Pay attention to the price of this [piece of crap], because that is its most important feature."

As a reaction, I love to shop in those outdoor markets and swap meets where the bombproof price tag does not exist. Also, you can bargain; since the price is negotiable, as it should be. In most parts of the world business is conducted with this flexibility; you haggle. Haggling is probably one of the most human things we do. Children haggle with their parents for more TV time or use of the family car. Husbands and wives haggle over divisions of chores, etc. The indestructible removes haggling from commerce and thereby creates a basically inhuman dialect, a real barrier to true communication.

7/23/97: Handwriting.

I think that I have finally reached the stage where my signature is approaching an extended wiggly line. I don't know how often my wife and I have puzzled over such words as pegorp and midbula on our grocery shopping list, scratching our heads and summoning all of our crypto-cypher skills in front of onions and apples in the produce section. My only salvation is that she often can't read her own handwriting, and I find myself looking for such staples as bullar and floop (butter and flour).

Handwriting is supposed to reveal all sorts of tendencies in human behaviour: I used to believe that, especially when on grade school field trips to see original manuscripts of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. These handwritten masterpieces seemed to contain the essence of the principles they embodied, even in the look of the script. By comparison, my shopping list looks like the kidnaping ransom note of a seriously mentally challenged axe murderer. I keep thinking of that famous scene in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, in which the bank employees are passed a badly written robbery instruction note: I have a gub; apt natural! It takes a painfully long time for Allen to convince them that he is trying to rob the bank (What is apt? the assistant manager keeps asking, as though to raise the farce to the level of ethical discourse).

Perhaps, in the grossest terms you can tell a few things about handwriting: kid script always has that naive angularity, and it is usually large. There are a few tight asses who actually practice the Palmer method and write like those hidden Hollywood scribes who pen suicide notes in 40's tearjerkers.

I do not lament the loss of clarity in my signature: its ambiguity instantly reminds me of the scrawl of the Czars of Russia or Popes in Rome, all of whom are too important to print their names clearly. One of the Popes consistently produced an inkblot as part of his John Hancock. I imagined that he carried his own Rorschach Test with him.

7/22/97: Shopping Cart Derby.

Watching people piloting their shopping carts in the supermarket is often reminiscent of the Mille Miglia or the Indianapolis 500. How many of us have seen obsessed and vicious old ladies or soporific housewives, their toddlers riding shotgun, barrelling up the aisle in a mad rush to get peanut butter or breakfast cereal. It is bad enough that 43 kinds of dog food in one place on the shelf is such sensory overload to trigger an epilectic fit, but to have to play bumping cars with the deranged of suburbia pushes the envelope of sanity.

Perhaps there should be a vending machine at the entrance that issues various types of shopping cart insurance, including getting rammed in the parking lot and collisions with breakaway carts released in anger and relief. Shopping cart police could issue citations, both inside and out of the store, including drunken shopping and unsafe changes of lane. Maybe there could be a shopping cart traffic school for the repeat offenders, to balance special treats for the good shoppers. If the miltary got into the act there could be shopping cart gunships, the scourge of the petfood aisles.

Remember, in the supermarket there are NO pedestrians: we are all in a kind of self-destructive demolition derby and bent on getting that perfect ripe melon or leg of lamb.

7/21/97: Sports Orthodoxy.

Attending a recent movie premiere, I was taken by a T shirt which proclaimed: Basketball is Everything; the rest is details. Although the idea of elevating sports to a life philosophy seemed ludicrous, certain compelling parallels with organized religion immediately came to mind.

1. Regulation of behaviour: within the sport the rules are sacred and any deviation (like the recent Tyson flap) will bring down the wrath of the sports clergy (the officials).
2. Saints: great and legendary players of the past who have moved on and to whom shrines (with sports relics, such as autographed baseballs) are erected and mirrored in the bedrooms of young hopefuls (also demons: like Tonya Harding and Mike Tyson).
3. Grandiose places of worship: sports stadia are among the largest and most imposing structures on the planet. It is ironic that often these arenas are used for real religious services or other quasi-religious events (like rock concerts).
4. Contributions of vast sums of money. Like the Catholic Church, money oils the wheels and keeps the religion rolling along.
5. Personal rituals: from little league baseball and pee wee soccer to the teams associated with employees or sandlot baseball and basketball, we all are instructed in the fine points of the religion and practice it unselfishly.
6. The violent Jihad: hordes of angry soccer fans have nothing on the Medieval Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Intifada. Fervent dedication becomes redirected into a kind of conversion mania, transcending reason.
7. Schisms: think of all the new leagues, breakaway players, and rogue organizations that occur as part of the headlines of our daily newspapers.

This little tour of parallels is merely a taste. Later I will concentrate on specific sports.

7/17/97: Screening History.

This now famous title of Gore Vidal's recent book reveals an almost universal defect in present day human upbringing: almost everything we learn about the past is manufactured from images seen in the movies and on tv. These pseudo time machines "recreate" live action, even when the facts may be obscured. In 1992 we were treated to an almost unlimited array of Christopher Columbus sagas, all of which seemed like GQ fashion ads. We think of Don Ameche as Alexander Graham Bell, Paul Muni as Pasteur, Kevin Costner (heaven forbid) as Robin Hood.

The delusion has obvious problems when real historical characters are depicted, but what happens when fantasy characters, like Batman are fleshed out on the screen? Hollywood may supplant a poor imagination here, but something more insidious is taking place: there is a reality to Batman which makes him equivalent to Nixon. The Nixon of the movies will eventually be OUR Nixon, since the real one is gone. The process of mythologizing public figures can then occur with almost lightning speed. Nixon went from disgraced buffoon, to opera hero (Nixon in China), to self reinvented statesman, to movie subject (Oliver Stone's epic biograpical stew) in his own lifetime.

Most recently, there is controversy surrounding movie appearances of President Clinton (as himself); of course, if he is inadvertently doing Chinese beer commercials, then all bets are off. Gotta go and catch that new Susan Molinari tv show.

7/16/97: Pie vs. Cake.

Given a choice of desserts, all people can probably be divided into two categories: those who prefer pie, and those who prefer cake. They may like both; but, under the obscene pressure of choice, they will opt for a clear choice (I am leaving out cookies here, because my informal poll shows that everyone will accept a cookie).

I started to ponder what would generate a preference for one sweet over the other and came up with the following clues:

1. Texture: cake is spongy and has (usually) a gooey icing on it, while pie is fruity or boingy with a crispy crust. People who prefer pie are probably seeking a womblike security in the crust.
2. Color: With pie it's all on the inside, but with cake there is a double identity, because the icing will reveal the cake's true nature.
3. Cultural signals: Cakes often signal important events in our lives. Birthdays, Weddings, many holidays (like fruitcake at Christmas), announce themselves through cake. Pie is deficient in this regard, although the pumpkin pie many mean Thanksgiving to some (or the mince pie, Christmas). Nobody ever got married in front of a wedding pie.
4. Myths: Cake's image is relatively free of ghastly stories, while pie summons up 4 and 20 blackbirds, the witch in Hansel and Gretel, and some Roman pie (made of children) served to the hapless parents in an old story.

Armed with these observations, we can conclude that cake is the warm and fuzzy choice, while pie is for the more adventuresome (and perhaps the more neurotic). Lastly, we might ask if you are a cake person and eat an occasional piece of pie, are you leaning in the pie direction (kind of like sexual orientation on a sliding scale)? Like the gay vs. straight argument, no one may be entirely cake or entirely pie. I know that this kind of heavy psychoanalytical discourse is rare in this column, but sometimes you have to tackle the large, life-defining questions.

7/15/97: The Origin of Knives and Forks.

We now know that the caveman walked upright and did not lumber around in the manner of those fur diapered, grunting movie buffoons (merely an accident of wrongly interpreting the condition of the skeleton of some crippled guy with bad posture). However, we can be sure that people ate with their fingers for at least a million years, which means that people did not shake hands too much after dinner. You get the impression that eating utensils come into the picture around the time of the Middle Ages (I keep thinking about that scene in The Lion in Winter in which the nobles are introduced to knives and forks and proceed to attack each other with them).

It is possible that the knife came into use first, a natural extension of its use as a hunting implement and that those nobles were correct in assuming that flatware was there to allow you to keep someone else from taking your food or to help win a dinner table argument. Things got more and more refined to the point that we have special grapefruit spoons that deflect spray and tiny clamps to steady escargot.

My observation today is that, given that if 40% of meals are eaten at fast (junk) food establishments (that means: hot dog, hamburger, fries, pizza, burritos, tacos, falafel, etc.), we are still eating mainly with our fingers. Modern technology has reinvented the caveman: it's just that he squats in his $40,000 Lexus to partake of a quick snack.

7/14/97: Inexperienced Vampire.

Dave Ross, on KNX radio, a subsidiary of the CBS network in Los Angeles did an amusing piece on the Martian landing from the viewpoint of that planet's (possible) inhabitants, finishing up with the explosive warning: " They're (the Earth people) just a bunch of ear biters!" The Tyson affair is, of course irresistible to any satirist; and, I have resisted it until now. Maybe, I thought, he was just an inexperienced vampire, essentially missing the target (the victim's neck). Maybe he should have spent more time watching Lugosi in those 30's potboilers: what style, what class. Dracula got the jugular every time. Tyson is just a babe in the woods. In time he will mature and fulfill his true caling: the Super Sports Vampire, a whole new area of entertainment. Imagine the aftermarket action toys and computer games, not to mention T shirts and mugs.

Mike Tyson may be the avant-garde of the next generation of media hype: he is just temporarily sidelined through inexperience and naive management (Don King, who just thinks boxing). Let us broaden our horizons and welcome in a whole new era of synthesis between art, horror, and sports. As far as I am concerned, sports needs this infusion of "new blood" (pardon the pun).

7/13/97: Future Archaeology.

We all have read with excitement and anticipation when a site containing ancient temples or fossilized mammoth bones is unearthed. What will such discoveries be like in a thousand years? Imagine as the diggers in the year 3000 unearth polystyrene forks and knives, styrofoam trapezoidal boxes bearing the name "whopper", and the ultimate find: a huge, perfectly preserved statue of Bob's Big Boy.

Will these dubious treasures take their place alongside Nefertiti and the Venus de Milo? Will some tourist in the year 3000 marvel and the workmanship of an impeccably restored set of McDonald's arches. Perhaps even some scientists will doubt their authenticity or complain that the valued artifacts are over restored (like Knossos on Crete).

A culture can probably be judged by what it throws away (and is later found by our successors). Just as we ogle the Kouros and ponder its meaning, future school children will ponder the Coca Colatm bottle with its classic suggestion of the female form. Suddenly the Indiana Jones of Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark spouts eternal wisdom, suggesting that ANYTHING, no matter how prosaic, buried in the ground for thousands of years becomes a treasure. Ciao, I gotta get in my bid on that ninety-year old champagne that just came up out of the sea.

7/12/97: Nonsense Verse.

A recent invitation to the 21st birthday party of a friend's son required that each guest bring some written document personalizing the event. With apologies to T.S. Eliot et al., I provided the following impure verse:

Youth and Age

I grow old, I grow old,
I shall wear my trousers rolled,
And eat my pizza cold.
For the grave's a fine and private place,
But, none, I think do there touch base.
Out, out brief candle,
My light grows dim,
As I reach the age,
Of adult whim.
The bills I'll pay
And go to work,
I will die poor, a hopeless jerk.
So lift a glass to youth so true,
For once it's gone,
You'll become a Schmoo*.

*(See Are you a Schmoo?)

7/11/97: Party Goals II.

To some extent the type of party might dictate what to bring; it might also reveal what kind of attitudinal configuration you might want to project as a guest (in other words: do you want to impress the crap out of your host?). Traditionally, the ubiquitous bottle of "good" wine or six-pack of micro brew is safe, but shows real creative deficiency. A bottle of the hard stuff (like vodka) might reveal that you are an obsessed boozer. Retro choices, like Thunderbirdtm, Boone's Farmtm, or Rippletm telegraph that you are just a nosepicking (see Nose Pickers) boor. You could accomplish the same effect by bringing any kind of cheese that comes out of a tube or squirt can.

Wholesome types often bring flowers or homemade muffins. When you do this, goodness prevails; however, if you are cruising the party for sexual encounters, you may be sending out feelers that you are ready for marriage. In summer a watermelon is a good choice, and it sends interesting signals about your mental health; however, whole baskets of fruit might remind the host of a recent hospital stay.

Ultimately, if you prepare some special dish yourself it will inveigle you into the host's good graces. The only danger is if you prepare a small plate (let's say: brownies) and arrive to find that the party is for 400 people. If the offering is outrageously large, you just become a showoff (I did this at a recent Thanksgiving bash by bringing a case of champagne. I wanted some and knew that the hosts were paupers).

Lastly, do you reveal what you are bringing when you reply to the invitation? If you are vague, then you have breathing room and can cheapo out if the budget goes south before the big day. My last caveat: consider bringing sweets last. I once had a party in which EVERY guest brought candy, cake, or pies. Just the sight of all those desserts could bring on diabetic coma. The most creative (and destructive) offering that I ever saw was a live chicken that was brought to a dinner at a small New York apartment. Immediately the chicken got loose, flew across the dinner table turning the bowls of dip into a Jackson Pollock nightmare, and crashed into a portable TV set, depositing chickenpoop all over the screen.

7/10/97: Party Goals I.

Like many other people, I find myself going to a plethora of parties and barbecues, as though the hot weather brings out the primitive caveman, roasting his meat over the fire, in all of us. I started to think about the social maneuvering that goes on at specific parties:

The Kid Party: Kid parties have extremely simple goals. Eat as much horrible junk food as possible, terrorize the hosts (somebody's parents), and soil your clothes with toxic waste. Socializing consists of playing violent war simulation or torture games, with absurd prizes being awarded to all. At least four toddlers must sustain major physical injuries and scream endlessly for such a party to be considered a success.

The "Business" Party: Here networking is the order of the day. Major sucking up and political dancing go on. It is best to outrank everyone at this sort of affair, unless you are plagued with too many "gimmes.". Food usually looks like it came from a steam table (catered by Denny's), and the hor d'heuvres have a polystyrene quality. Lower ranking grunts monopolize the conversation complaining about their jobs (a popular indoor sport at work). Spouses and girlfriends are usually invisible (unless they are involved in some sexual scandal).

The Family Reunion: Usually good for big laughs, as you try to remember who that fat old lady at the end of the table is. Often, minor kid parties take place beneath the main party. If you are lucky, some child will accidentally become intoxicated. The food at this kind of party is usually pretty good, unless you have some old maid aunts who insist on making ambrosia, marshmellow salad, or Jellotm.

The "Hollywood" Party: Really a variant on the business party with the added ego teaser of trying to recognize who is famous (probably nobody). Food is usually terrible, but any kind of drink or drug is available. Any plans "to get together for dinner later" are bogus. If you are talking to ANYONE and that person realizes you are NOBODY, the conversation ceases abruptly (you have become invisible).

Tomorrow, I will make suggestions about what to bring (if anything) to a party.