Zumba: Agonizing Good Fun

Our intrepid reporter tries a 90-minute session of the dance-fitness craze and manages to survive—barely

Let me start by saying that the last thing in the world I wanted to do was Zumba. You’ve heard of Zumba, right? The dance-fitness craze that started in the 1990s and took the world by storm? That’s now being practiced on a weekly basis by some 15 million people?

But I never expected to be among their number for the simple reason that I don’t do dance. Sure, I possess a Bachelor of Arts degree in Square Dancing, earned by attending classes at the municipal building in my hometown of Littlestown, Pa. in 1975. But I was young and in love back then, and like many a besotted swain I was willing to make a complete fool of myself.

Things are different now. I like to think I have acquired a modicum of self-respect. On the other hand, I’ll do anything for a paycheck.

So that’s why, on the day before the day before Christmas, I made my reluctant way to the Delaware City Library for a Zumba “event” hosted by The Z Spot, LLC. Did I have qualms? Yes. Mostly because I had done my research and discovered that Zumba incorporates a potpourri of frenetic dance styles— salsa, mambo, merengue, chachacha, and so on—designed to reduce you to a sweating, heaving wreck. And dancing myself to heart failure is not my idea of a good time.

As I approached the library, I found myself cursing Alberto “Beto” “Power Pedal” Perez, the nefarious Colombian responsible for inventing Zumba. Some may call him a visionary. I say never trust a man with more than one nickname.

About that Name

I could tell you all kinds of fascinating things about Zumba, but suffice it to say the word “Zumba” means nothing and was chosen arbitrarily, and that it has spread from Colombia to 180 countries. It seems you can Zumba almost anywhere except Iran, where the powers that be have declared it un-Islamic, which is perhaps the only advantage to living in Iran.

I spoke with Renee Gelber, who has been running The Z Spot for almost six years. For the 37-year-old Gelber, Zumba has been a game changer. Thanks to the high-octane activity and healthy eating, she has lost almost 100 pounds. But she nearly passed on the initial opportunity to try Zumba because she didn’t want to pay the five bucks her fitness center charged for classes. Fortunately, she was offered a free class, and the rest is history. She became an instructor and started a thriving small business, and now, she told me, The Z Spot hosts three or four events a month across Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. She plans to expand to corporate events, weddings, and the like, and eventually hopes to go global.

Our intrepid writer, mid-Zumba. Photo Sherri Bihl Sobocinski

I also chatted with instructor Travis Algerin, who happens to be Gelber’s boyfriend. Zumba changed the 24-year-old Algerin’s life as well. A serious bodybuilder, he brushed off the recommendations of his mother—a Zumba instructor herself—to give Zumba a try until he suffered a hernia and had to find a new fitness outlet. He took to it immediately, and he says it transformed him from a shy, withdrawn young man who couldn’t look you in the eye to a person who exudes confidence. And thanks to Zumba, both Gelber and Algerin are beginning to see the world. Not long ago, Algerin traveled to Belgium, the United Kingdom and Spain to teach classes.

The event I attended was held in an antiquated gymnasium/auditorium in the building—a former elementary school—that now houses the library. It was the ideal setting for a 1950s sock hop, right down to the basketball hoops and the old stage. The latter—most likely the setting for many a grade-school theatrical—made the perfect platform for Algerin to perform his carefully choreographed routines. (He told me he tries to come up with two new ones per month.)

Rotating disco lights swept the walls, floor and ceiling as the crowd—which had braved a rather savage rain—arrived. They were a radically diverse and very happy lot who seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of tossing themselves about.

I spoke briefly to Joan Burke, a relative newbie and cancer survivor who discovered Zumba through her association with the Livestrong Foundation for people affected by cancer. She was an instant convert, she told me, and praised Zumba for being both high energy and loads of fun. “It doesn’t feel like you’re exercising,” she told me. “It feels like you’re dancing.”

Accolades for the Instructor

And like seemingly everybody else in attendance, Burke had nothing but accolades for Algerin, who seems to have achieved superstar status on the regional Zumba circuit, thanks to his galvanizing on-stage theatrics and an ability to dance like a member of a first-rate boy band.

I went up to him before the performance and said abjectly, “Please don’t kill me.” “No promises,” he replied. “No promises.”

Algerin then took the auditorium’s stage, the music started, and within 15 minutes I was a gasping, sweat-soaked ruin. I fancy myself in good shape for a 59-year-old man; I lift weights and am no stranger to the old elliptical machine. But this was hardcore; you’re constantly dancing, moving your arms, racing to the left and right and backwards and forwards, and leaping up and down. Horrified, I realized that I was expected to do this for 90 minutes. But I seemed to be alone in my misery; everyone else loved it.

While they sought the nearest water fountain, I looked about for a defibrillator, and soon found myself in the bathroom, panting and mopping sweat off my face.

Back in the auditorium, Algerin was constantly pulling people from the crowd to dance with him on stage, and most of them had the skills to pay the bills. My pride injured by his inexplicable failure to choose me—after all, I have the aforementioned Bachelor of Arts in square dancing—I finally decided to bum-rush the stage. That proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Moments into my performance, people actually started pointing at me and laughing. My newfound dream of becoming the next big thing on the Zumba circuit was quickly crushed.

Would I recommend Zumba to you, dear reader? Most certainly. The event’s participants varied in age from 6 to at least 70, and many didn’t look particularly fit. They were there to become fit, and they were having a great time doing it. And you don’t have to go full-tilt boogie the way I tried to do. Many of the dancers adopted their own less frenetic pace, thereby succeeding in burning calories while enjoying themselves.

More than anything, Zumba is good fun. To quote my fiancée, who attended with me: “It’s like doing a line dance at a wedding for an hour-and-a-half.”

The people of Iran don’t know what they’re missing.

For information on upcoming events sponsored by The Z Spot, go to zspotevents.com.

Normal? Or Paranormal?

Our intrepid reporter joins experts to find out if there really are ghosts at Frightland

I’ve seen every paranormal research horror movie ever made. They’re all the same movie at heart—a team of foolhardy ghost investigators enters a notorious murder house/long-shuttered orphanage/abandoned lunatic asylum to investigate the truth about the ghastly legends surrounding said site, only to disappear forever, the lone clue to their fates a video they left behind.

Ignoring the most important lesson I learned from watching such films—never go into a haunted building—I joined such an expedition, led by several intrepid members of Diamond State Ghost Investigators (DSGI), headquartered in Bear. On a chilly August night, we paid a visit to Frightland—a popular Halloween-season attraction in Middletown, and attempted to contact the spirit or spirits who purportedly haunt the barn on the property.

Feel free to scoff at the notion of real ghosts dwelling at one of America’s most highly touted Halloween theme parks, but Frightland really does have a macabre past. Some 200 years ago, then owner Clifton Davis, a farmer and family man, hung himself in woods on the property. Not long thereafter, Davis’ young daughter hung herself in the barn’s loft. Then there was the mysterious burning of the slave quarters, which occurred at about the same time. So spooky events have occurred on the property.

Let me state at the outset that the 18 members of the nonprofit Diamond State Ghost Investigators—which got its start in 2005 as Delaware Ghost Hunters—are objective professionals who take their work seriously. They’ve got all the latest ghost-busting equipment, and they’re neither dismissive of nor eager to prove the existence of spirits in our realm, letting the evidence fall where it may. That said, over the course of its many investigations, DSGI has gathered some rather unsettling data to support the premise that paranormal phenomena are no joke.

DSGI’s armamentarium of paranormal research equipment includes audio recorders to gather electronic voice phenomena (EVPs), as well as laser grids, motion detectors, still and video cameras, and Mel meters, which detect fluctuations in temperature (a sudden drop in temperature could indicate the arrival of a spirit) as well as shifts in the electromagnetic field (a spike in EMF activity is said to be similar to a drop in temperature). DSGI also boasts a central control computer that can record up to 16 cameras continually for more than 72 hours. You can listen to some of the more chilling examples of EVPs that DSGI has recorded at its website, DiamondStateGhostInvestigators.com.

A Gaggle of Ghostbusters

Alicia Lenoir, Mike Little, Andy Lendway (standing), Kyle McMahon and Fred Conkey watch the cameras set up at Frightland on a monitor at the central command center. Photo courtesy of the Diamond State Ghost Investigators (DSGI)
Alicia Lenoir, Mike Little, Andy Lendway (standing), Kyle McMahon and Fred Conkey watch the cameras set up at Frightland on a monitor at the central command center. Photo courtesy of the Diamond State Ghost Investigators (DSGI)

The paranormal business apparently is thriving. I count 15 “ghostbusters” in Delaware and a larger number across adjoining states. They go by such compelling names as Delaware Investigators of the Afterlife (Harrington), Spirit of the Sword Paranormal (Wilmington), and Delaware City Ghost Hunters (New Castle).

Like most such groups, Diamond State Ghost Investigators are there to help should you feel like you’re sharing your house with someone, or something, unknown. They will gladly travel anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic region free of charge should you, say, suffer the unfortunate experience of suddenly happening upon a floating head on the stairs. Sure, you can sell the house (“six bedrooms, sitting room, two bathrooms, floating head”), but why not try to get to the bottom of what’s going on first? It’s possible the floating head simply doesn’t like the new wallpaper. They can be choosy that way.

Unlike its sister organizations, however, DSGI is the only Delaware-based paranormal research investigative group to boast a contract with the state. To wit, DSGI operates Delaware Tours at spook-infested Fort Delaware on Pea Patch Island, where every October its staff sets up shop in various areas around the fort, teaching the stout of heart how to use paranormal equipment before letting them conduct their very own forays into the uncanny. It’s a wonderful way to amp up your Halloween season thrills and chills after you’ve visited Frightland.  

Do I believe in ghosts? I’ve never seen one—although plenty of people I know and trust have—so I suppose I’d have to call myself an agnostic on the subject. That said, does the idea of a face-to-face encounter with a malevolent spirit (or a friendly one, for that matter) scare me? You’re darned right it does. I paid close attention to every one of those horror movies I spoke of earlier, and I don’t want the only evidence of my horrific fate to be discovered on a creepy “found” videotape. So yes, the prospect of seeking out the ungrateful dead at Frightland gave me pause.

Tales of Terror

And I’m not alone. Kyle McMahon, the marketing manager of Frightland, told me he won’t go into the structure alone even during daylight hours. He’s not the only one; the property owner won’t either. And over the years that Frightland has been in operation, numerous employees have reported seeing the ghost of a little girl, or have said they feel like they’re being watched or followed. Some have departed the barn in terror, declining to return no matter how many other fellow living humans are on the premises.

As for McMahon, his refusal to tread foot by himself into the dusty old structure is based on hard experience. During a previous DSGI investigation at Frightland, McMahon and a DSGI member—the only people in the barn at the time—were doing a post-session check to make sure nothing had been left behind when, in his words, “A child’s toy that we had purposefully left behind was hurled at the back of my head. I was terrified; I’m sure you can hear me scream on the video. From that point on I swore I was never going to go in there alone, day or night.” Did the spirit of the little girl employees have reported seeing hurl it? One thing’s for sure: while it was a bit drafty in that old barn, it was anything but toy-hurling drafty.

McMahon’s story gave me something to think about as I joined him, DSGI staffers Alicia Lenoir, Fred “EVP King” Conkey, Andy Lendway, and Frightland employee Kim O’Neill for our late-night sojourn in the old barn that has been partitioned and decorated with loving attention to the last ghoulish detail to create a multi-roomed chamber of horrors.

The team set up its command center near the silo at the downstairs entrance to the barn, and hooked it up to their video cameras and an infrared grid in the barn’s loft, where young Miss Davis hung herself back in the early days of our republic. Lenoir also placed some toys—a small ball on a bed of flour, a small plastic car, and a stuffed gorilla—on the floor, in case the spirit was in a playful mood. During my time monitoring the screens from downstairs, I kept a close watch on these toys; had one of them moved by itself I’d have been out of there, pronto.

Our work that night was simple; while several team members watched the video monitor downstairs, the rest of us went up to the loft to try to coax our (perhaps) friendly ghost into making herself known. Lenoir and McMahon took turns asking questions (e.g., “Can you knock if you’re here?”) while I stared into the tiny corridor in which the infrared grid had been set up, waiting to see if a ghost stepped through its elaborate web of red beams (no dice). I also kept a close eye on the little set-up of toys, to discern if anything happened there (once again, no dice). Then we traded places and I watched the DVR below.

There were a few odd occurrences; while monitoring the DVR Lenoir distinctly heard a little girl humming, and the team picked up a few EVPs of what sounded like a man’s voice—interesting, since every prior story of the uncanny revolved around the little girl.

Did anything happen that would make me refuse to enter the barn ever again? No. We even held an impromptu flashlight session in the barn’s downstairs after hearing strange sounds emanating from near the silo, but if there was a spirit with us in the near total darkness it declined to make itself heard, turn the array of handy flashlights on or off, or activate a handy Mel meter.

Plenty of people scoff at the notion of our sharing this all-too-corporeal realm with spirits, and I understand their point of view. But that’s where groups such as DSGI come in. They use scientific instruments to gather evidence that, at the very least, raises the possibility that we have company, welcome or not.

My experience at Frightland didn’t knock me off the list of agnostics. But whether you’re an agnostic or a downright cynic, the evidence being gathered by groups like DSGI should give you pause even if you have never had the blood-curdling experience of hearing the piano playing Barry Manilow’s “Mandy” all by itself in the dead of night. Or run into a floating head on the stairwell. If you have, call Delaware State Ghost Investigators. Like I said before, the problem could just be your wallpaper.

Have No Fear, Dave Chappelle

Our man tries stand-up. It is not a total disaster.

Stand-up comedy is the most frightening thing you can do this side of warding off a pack of starving wolves with a foam bat. I know, because I recently agreed to perform a stand-up gig at the Wilmington bar 1984 (“Over 30 classic arcade games. Pinball. 21 craft beers”) as research for an article on amateur comedy for this stellar publication.

As the date approached, I began to lose sleep. I twice asked the editor to allow me to write about jumping out of an airplane instead. A sadist, he refused. I considered other alternatives—e.g., splitting town in the dead of night and moving to Moose Jaw, Canada. No stand-up there. Moose don’t do comedy clubs.

I should declare up front that I find the whole concept of amateur stand-up comedy inexplicable. What perverse instinct motivates a sub-species of homo sapiens to willingly risk public humiliation in a foolhardy attempt to amuse a potential lynch mob of other homo sapiens? And for zero pay?

People want to laugh, and some people are willing to pay big bucks to laugh along with a professional comedian. But there are plenty of other people just as willing to go to comedy open-mic nights to laugh at some poor schlub squirming helplessly on stage. Delaware is home to approximately a half-dozen bona fide comedy clubs and dozens of bars, clubs, and restaurants that host open-mic nights for wannabe comedians. Which is not to say that the amateurs who show up at these venues aren’t serious about their comedy. They’re not up on stage risking life and limb on drunken whim. And they are legion.

Many people think they’re funny, and some actually are funny. But funny at the water cooler and funny on stage in front of a pitiless horde of laugh-hungry cynics are two very different propositions. To be a good comedian, you have to own your audience. Most of us can’t even afford to rent one. Stage comedy requires all kinds of talents, such as timing, rhythm, and the development of a unique comedic persona. You also have to decide what form of comedy you’re going to adopt. Actor and comedian T.J. Miller once defined the types of comedy as “sketch, improv, writing, acting, music, and badminton.” He forgot to add just saying to hell with it and telling jokes you stole from Carrot Top.

I originally intended to fire off some cheesy one-liners of the Rodney Dangerfield variety. One went, “I’m so old my idea of an exciting night out is going coffin shopping.” Another was, “I hate myself so much I had to outsource some of my self-loathing to South Korea.” But delivering zippy one-liners is both a difficult and rather outmoded form of comedy, which is why it’s referred to in comedic circles as “pulling a Titanic.”

The author says he survived "paroxysms of pure existential dread" prior to his debut. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)
The author says he survived “paroxysms of pure existential dread” prior to his debut. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

As I ran through my options, I became increasingly terrified. I spent a sleepless night trying to decide if the joke “I ordered the western omelet. Unfortunately, I forgot to say hold the shoot-out” was funny or not. In the cold light of day I realized it wasn’t. I actually considered “So I’m captured by pirates and the captain orders me to walk the plank. And I’m like, ‘Sure, where’s the leash?’” And I had to give up on “If at first you don’t succeed, Russian Roulette is probably not your sport” because it was a variation on a joke by Steven Wright. The last thing I wanted was for some Steven Wright scholar in the audience to stand up, point a quivering finger at me, and cry, “joke thief!”

One thing to be said about stand-up comedy: it tells you who your real friends are. Real friends are willing to suck it up and come to lend moral support. I have no real friends. I showed up at 1984 with just my girlfriend in tow, and it was obvious she’d have preferred attending a funeral: she was dressed in black. Fortunately, the crowd didn’t appear hostile. There wasn’t a heckler in sight, and I didn’t spot a single rotten vegetable lurking about the premises. And my fellow performers were supportive.

Situated at the center of an unprepossessing strip mall, 1984 is a cozy enough establishment with a horseshoe bar in its center and the much-vaunted array of arcade games lining one wall. The stage, at the front left of the bar, is big enough to support your average bar band. There were maybe two dozen people in the audience the night I performed, and they were polite enough to stay off the arcade games during the night’s entertainment, thus sparing us amateur comedians from having our efforts drowned out by the sounds of exploding race cars and heavy machine gun fire. The show itself was a seemingly ad hoc affair that took its good old time opening. It was hosted by a comedian who cracked a few jokes before welcoming each new “entertainer” onto the stage.

After putting my name on the list of that night’s comics I had a chance to chat with Jia Din, who has been doing amateur stand-up for five years at clubs in Wilmington and Philadelphia. Din performs a wonderfully hangdog form of stand-up. She stands on stage, adamantly refusing to make eye contact, and delivers devastatingly funny lines about the emptiness and sadness of her life. When I told her I liked her shoe-gaze shtick she said, “It’s not a shtick. I try to look at the crowd but… “ Din leaves a lot of sentences unfinished. When I asked her why she does stand-up she told me, in her deadpan way, “Basically I’m lonely and I have no friends and this is as close to making friends as I get.” I think she was serious. That said, hers is as rational a reason for doing the completely irrational as any I’ve heard.

I suffered paroxysms of pure existential dread as my moment approached. But when my name was called and I mounted the stage, a strange thing happened: I was calm. My mind didn’t go completely blank, as opposed to Donald Trump’s just before he tweets. I started with the true story of a girlfriend who told me she was breaking up with me because, in her words, “I belong to the world.” To which I’d replied, “What are you, a National Park?” It got laughs. I gained confidence. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. I was beginning to see why people did this. I was the King of Comedy. A God of Guffaws. Move over, Dave Chappelle.

Then I told a joke that flopped. The crowd was completely silent. And I realized I wasn’t the King of Comedy, just another schlub standing before a Supreme Court of hanging comedy judges pleading a case that had more holes in it than a donut shop. The room swam before my eyes. I detected what appeared to be a rotten tomato in the shadowy glow of the Walking Dead pinball machine. I prayed to God to please, please, let me self-combust.

Then I remembered Sam Kinison’s dictum, “Comedy attacks, man,” and went back on the offensive. I launched into a long bit about how the World Health Organization has stated that hope is a disease that afflicts almost 82 percent of the human population—a number that could skyrocket should optimism ever go airborne. The crowd laughed. I tossed in some jokes about what a misanthrope I was, and how I was the only kid on my block with A Child’s First Book of Human Atrocities. Again they laughed. I was saved.

I did not want to leave the stage at the end of my routine. I finally understood why amateur comedians risked failure for no pay. Making people laugh is more addictive than crack. One hit of applause and I was hooked. So, I went back to 1984 the following week.

And I totally tanked. Bombed. Went down like the aforementioned Titanic. Standing there was both demoralizing and terrifying, and brought back unpleasant memories of my second-grade teacher and first heckler, who dashed my comedic hopes by writing on my report card, “Mike wants to be the class clown.” That “wants” still rankles.

Except—and this is the truly scary part—that debacle of a few weeks ago didn’t cure me. I hanker for another shot.

Last month, eternity welcomed Don Rickles into its bosom, prompting me to think perhaps it was some cosmic sign that a space had been cleared for me among the universe of comedians. I lie awake at night thinking up new bad jokes. Like the one that goes, “I’m easily distracted. When I set my mind to a thing, it generally bolts off to urinate on the nearest bush.” Or, “I had to give up beer because it was giving me terrible hangovers. So, I switched to nonalcoholic beer but had to give that up because it was giving me terrible nonhangovers.”

Yeah. I can hardly wait. I’m going to step back into the spotlight and absolutely slay ‘em.

Tiny House, Big Problems

A brief January sojourn in “Kermit” gives our intrepid reporter a new appreciation for the much-maligned grid

I recently agreed to spend 2-1/2 January days in a 140-square-foot “tiny house” owned by my friend, Newark artist Dragonfly Leathrum, and write about it for this illustrious publication. Before I go into the gory details, let me sum up my experience: tiny houses are for the birds, quite literally.

They may be ideal for people who want to downsize their lives, live mortgage free, and leave a smaller ecological footprint. I discovered, however, that living in the claustrophobia-inducing quarters of Dragonfly’s two-story house, which sits on her property on the outskirts of Newark and which she has dubbed “Kermit,” was challenging, to say the least. It has no running water, bathroom—except for a waterless compost toilet tucked away in one of the house’s many cupboards—refrigerator, heat, cooking facilities, or electronic entertainment. The house quickly tested my inner resources, of which I discovered I have none.

I could have brought along all the amenities of modern living: a radio, a laptop computer, or even a television, and used the shower and toilet at Dragonfly’s nearby home. I also could have brought an ice chest to store food that requires refrigeration. Instead I opted to try living off the grid in the steely pioneer spirit of Jeremiah Johnson, with virtually nothing to eat but potted meat on bread, nothing to drink but cold coffee, and no entertainment save a book (Nevil Shute’s wonderfully depressing 1957 post-apocalyptic novel On the Beach) and a BB gun to shoot at non-living stuff.

“An ingenious feat of architecture” (the writer’s words), Kermit was commissioned by tiny house advocate Gregory Paul Johnson in 2002. (Photo Dragonfly Leathrum)

I soon found that the diminutive pine house is no place to spend the daylight hours.

Tiny houses vary widely in size, and Leathrum’s is one of the tiniest (1/18th the size of the average house built in 2014). She is not currently living in it and she is undecided as to its future. She purchased it last year from a friend in Pennsylvania, and is its third owner. It is among the first ever made, having been commissioned by tiny house advocate Gregory Paul Johnson in 2002. It has two wheels, making it easy to haul around, and he named it “Mobile Heritage.” After living in it for six years, Johnson wrote the tiny house manifesto Put Your Life on a Diet: Lessons Learned From Living in 140 Square Feet. Even Henry David Thoreau’s storied cabin by Walden Pond was bigger by 10 square feet. I suppose the larger ones could be quite comfortable.

Those Cupboards!

You may think that 140 square feet is a lot of room. Take it from me, it’s not. On the first floor, when you subtract the space taken up by the aforementioned cupboards (which could accommodate a mini-fridge and a hot plate or microwave oven, as well as lots of other stuff), plus the sink, small desk, and ladder to the sleeping loft, what you’re left with, in terms of real living space, is an area three feet wide and approximately seven feet long. My tiny apartment kitchenette is roomier, and during my sojourn in Kermit I never spent more than a minute or two at a time in its cramped downstairs.

The ladder-accessible loft is somewhat roomier. You can sleep quite comfortably and read by the light of a small lantern. That said, the sleeping loft has several serious pitfalls. The only way to get into and down from the loft is via an opening so small you have to perform acrobatics—the secret is to turn sideways on the nearly vertical and treacherously slippery ladder, no easy feat for anyone who is not a professional contortionist—and shoehorn yourself through it. A fat man would have no chance.

What’s more, climbing down in the middle of the night—say to answer the call of nature—is a broken leg waiting to happen. I awakened my first night soaked in sweat—the tiny house is marvelously insulated, and my sole luxury, a small space heater, did its job only too well. I thus faced the alternative of baking alive or trying to negotiate the loft’s narrow aperture and lethal ladder to fiddle with the heater. Fortunately the loft has a tiny window, which I opened. The cold air ameliorated the sweat lodge effect enough for me to fall back asleep.

Thoreau famously itemized the cost of building his cabin by Walden Pond down to the halfpenny. I can’t match him in that regard, but I can list the essentials I brought to Kermit. They included a comforter and pillow, the BB gun for self-defense in accordance with my Second Amendment rights, the tins of potted meat and loaf of bread, plus shampoo, three large jugs of cold Starbucks coffee, a gallon of potable water (like W.C. Fields, I never let the stuff pass my lips, but it came in handy for bathing and cleaning), one bath towel, a knife, a plastic spork and my book.

As it turned out I had no need for knife or spork, as Dragonfly kindly provided me with a small hunting knife, which I used to spread potted meat on bread and to whittle.

A Yeti?

So, what did I do all day, without the distractions of modern living? Well, on day one, with clear skies and temperatures that climbed to a welcome 50-plus degrees, I spent several hours taking potshots at peeling tree bark with my BB gun. I pretended it was the faces of my enemies. Then I crossed the large field behind Dragonfly’s property (which she has named Camp Whistle Pig) to an impenetrable thicket of trees and brambles. A cock crowed, an owl hooted, and I felt at one with nature. That is, until I discovered a large footprint that belonged either to a moose—sure, people swear you won’t find moose this far south, but just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there, lurking—or a yeti.

Alarmed, I immediately returned to the relative safety of Camp Whistle Pig and Kermit to practice shooting one-handed, should an enraged moose tear the other arm off.

Oh, and I came across the spoor of some demonic woodland creature, a deer perhaps, or a hobbit. This disquieted me. Deer are reputedly peaceable beasts, but I wouldn’t want to come across a surly one. And I hate hobbits.

Despite these rustic entertainments, I was grateful for nightfall, during which I enjoyed a cozy cookout Dragonfly hosted for friends. Ravenous for a hot meal, I quickly devoured three sausages. As it says in the Bible, man cannot live by Spam alone.

Day two was cold, wet, and—I’m not going to lie about it—dreadful. I got up late—I saw no reason to rise with the sun, as the sun was nowhere to be found. The cold (you could see your breath) and drizzle made parking my butt on Kermit’s wet porch a damp and bone-chilling ordeal. And the BB gun had lost its allure. As for On the Beach, I’ve never been a daytime reader, which is just one of the reasons (there was also booze) I was lucky to graduate from college. Bored and miserable, I contemplated—purely to add a frisson of danger to my life—shooting at a nearby drum with the words “flammable liquid” emblazoned on it.

Instead, I opened yet another tin of cold meat and tried my hand at haiku:

Dreary drizzle day
Waterless compost toilet
Get me out of here

Then, still in a literary mood, I began writing aphorisms in my soggy notebook. One went, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t hang a keytar on him and expect him to play Gary Wright’s ‘Dream Weaver.’” Ben Franklin I’m not.

A Frigid Bath

Honestly, the most exciting thing I did on that insufferable second day was use the compost toilet. Oh, and I took a bath in the frigid outdoors, pouring very cold water over my head clad only in a pair of shorts. It is not an experience I care to repeat.

I then tried my hand at whittling, which was a celebrated time-passer in the days before the advent of radio, the Victrola crank phonograph, and cocaine. After an hour spent whittling what I hoped would be a nifty vampire-killing stake, I came to understand why Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

On night two I went to bed early (nothing else to do), only to discover that the miniature lantern, which had served me well the night before, no longer provided sufficient light for reading. So I stared at the peaked ceiling, and suddenly noticed what appeared to be bugs crawling across the pine boards.

Horrified, I nearly fled, never to return, but finally summoned the courage to lift the lantern for a closer look. The “bugs” were the heads of nails. It was official. I was suffering a bona fide case of cabin fever.

I finally calmed my nerves enough to fall asleep, and awoke the next day with the conviction that no way was I going to spend a third night in Kermit, lest I find myself turning into scaled-down version of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I hung around some on the porch, staring off into space and muttering to myself before finally packing my provisions into my car and heading back to the wonders of crass civilization.

What did I learn from my brief stay in a tiny house? Just this: while my artist friend’s diminutive dwelling is elegant in its simplicity and an ingenious feat of architecture, I wouldn’t want to live in it. And in response to Thoreau’s famous call to “Simplify, simplify,” all I can say is that simplification can be one very complicated business. And, like many, I have entertained fantasies of abandoning the grid to live a hermit’s life in a snug cabin far from the snares of advertising, the internet and reality television. But no more.

I like the grid. Hell, I love the grid. I love it so much you will have to pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

The Trials of a Reluctant Vegan

A lifelong carnivore eschews meat for five days. Weeping ensues.

God help me. The editor of Out & About recently asked me to spend five days as a vegan simply to find out if an ordinary, meat-loving person could survive not only without meat and fish, like your average vegetarian, but also without the rest of the banned items on the vegan agenda, including animal products and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics and soaps derived from animal products.

I agreed, with this caveat: I would stick only to the dietary strictures of veganism. I did not toss out my leather shoes and purchase footwear made of hemp. I do not want shoes that I can smoke.

Not that it mattered much in the end, for I discovered, the hard way, that I simply cannot live on fruits, vegetables and sundry meat and cheese substitutes alone. On day three I found myself at the edge of a pasture, and all the cows in that pasture looked like diagrams of livestock, complete with serrated lines within which the words “round,” “chuck ribs” and “prime ribs” were spelled out in letters only I could read. I think I was weeping.

The great and incontestable argument of the vegan community is that veganism helps put an end to cruelty to animals. Vegans claim, quite convincingly, that the animals that end up on the ends of our forks or are used as involuntary subjects for testing of consumer products are treated in a barbaric manner that proves we are not a humane species. They also claim, convincingly, that our reliance on meat creates havoc in the eco-system, and radically increases world hunger.

Vegan Requirements

I’m less certain about their claims that a vegan diet is healthier than one that includes their list of banned foods, and I find some of their prohibitions to be borderline absurd. I mean, what’s with the ban on wool?

I’ll be the first to admit I was woefully unprepared to take the plunge into veganism. Vegans must possess certain items, such as a food processor or blender, to say nothing of a king’s ransom worth of spices. I had none of these. They must also love to cook. In fact, to make it as a vegan it helps if the kitchen is your favorite room in the house. Me, I have two meals I can cook, three if you count a badly made omelet, and four if you count a salad drenched in non-vegan-approved ranch dressing.

Finally, to be a vegan you must be open to the idea of eating meat and cheese substitutes, many of which are, to put it bluntly, unpalatable. (Most of the meat and cheese substitutes are made from tofu and tempeh, which are soy-based, or seitan—it’s pronounced, tellingly, Satan—which is derived from the protein portion of wheat.) My samplings of vegan cheese, for instance, have convinced me that, while it may ultimately be discovered to have military or industrial uses, it is definitely not meant for human consumption.


To prepare for my ordeal, I drove to Newark Natural Foods on Main Street and filled my cart with all manner of fake meats, real vegetables, and vegan-approved frozen foods. Why, I even bought vegan ice cream. It cost me $150. I bought tofu burgers, portobello mushroom burgers, tofu meatballs, lots of tofu for vegan “scrambled eggs,” a brand of sausage made out of what I remain convinced is mulch, tempeh pulled pork that also tastes like mulch, some frozen vegan dinners that included a vegan pizza, a couple of frozen Indian samosa wraps, almond milk (which rendered my coffee undrinkable), and even some bona fide fresh vegetables, although I do not much care for them except in salads.

On Facebook, vegans cast aspersions on me for relying on meat substitutes and prepared foods. They sent me complex recipes for things like squash soup. I did not bother to tell them that I would sooner eat chicken feed than squash soup. Or eggplant, turnips, endive, cauliflower, or zucchini, for that matter.

Day One

I began my first day as a newborn vegan with a tofu “egg scramble” that left me nauseous, perhaps because I didn’t follow the recipe. It called for curry powder, which I didn’t own, so I used garlic powder instead. It was not a pleasant introduction to vegan eating. I lunched on salad, but was put off by the Italian dressing, which I found too tangy. I’m a ranch man, and several days passed before I found vegan ranch dressing, which was (surprise!) inferior in taste to the real thing. For dinner I traveled to my girlfriend’s house, and made a vegan chili from scratch that consisted of kidney beans, onions, and tomatoes topped by melted vegan cheese. The lack of hamburger meat left me depressed and surly.

Again, I wanted to weep. And the sad part is that tempeh crumbles, which are actually edible but which I forgot to bring, probably would have made the meal palatable.

Day Two was a repeat of Day One. I made another tofu “scramble,” this time using curry powder (which I’d borrowed from my girlfriend). The results, which included mushrooms and onions, looked appetizing enough, but I found myself on my sofa with a severe case of nausea. I skipped lunch—too ill—and made a few sandwiches with imitation pulled pork for dinner. I am here to tell you that that “pulled pork” was not made from tofu, tempeh, or seitan, but worn-out car tires. Again, nausea ensued.

On Day Three, I was borderline delirious. So much so that I decided to forgo the tofu and make myself a grilled cheese sandwich for breakfast, using the imitation cheddar cheese that some vegans (I’m certain they’re lying) actually purport to consume. The sandwich was a gooey disaster and I didn’t come close to finishing it; I simply laid myself down on my sofa and waited, like a pregnant woman, for my daily vegan morning sickness to pass.

That afternoon I thought I discovered a solution to my problem: kimchi! I love kimchi, and I purchased some from the Newark Farmers Market on Kirkwood Highway. It was delicious, and I planned to live on it until some wise guy (well, about 10 actually) on Facebook sadistically informed me that kimchi is a vegan no-no since it is made with fish products. I nearly wept. For dinner I threw in the towel and ordered take-out from a very good Chinese restaurant, Bamboo House in College Square, but even then I was disappointed; the salt and pepper eggplant and tofu was bland and (predictably) lacking in texture, and did not satisfy.

On Day Four I said to hell with it and, eschewing breakfast, headed straight for Newark Natural Foods and purchased a hummus and avocado sandwich and some vegan potato salad. It was probably the highlight of my week. Why hadn’t I thought of hummus earlier? It might have saved me much agony.

That night I again took the easy way out by ordering broccoli in garlic sauce from No. 1 Chinese Restaurant in Newark. It was okay, but contained nothing but broccoli, and as Shakespeare I believe once wrote, “My kingdom for a water chestnut!”

On Day Five I finally got breakfast right, by making an ersatz BLT consisting of tempeh bacon I’d purchased at Newark Natural Foods the day before, the horrible fake cheese, and tomatoes. It was actually tasty, and I did not end up on the sofa, and if I were ever forced to live as a vegan I would make it a staple of my diet. For lunch I had a salad with vegan ranch dressing, and it tasted wrong. Like it wasn’t made from real eggs, but from spider eggs. I ate half of it and tossed the vegan ranch dressing off my balcony.

As for dinner, I headed to my brother’s house to partake of a vegan pizza with mushrooms, and it too tasted, well, not right. It was my sister-in-law who put her finger on the problem, exclaiming, “The cheese tastes just like the butter on your popcorn at the movie theater!” After that we “enjoyed” some vegan cinnamon bun “ice cream,” which had the chalky texture of, well, chalk. This time it was my niece who diagnosed the problem, saying, “It’s okay, but it’s not something I’d eat for fun.”

And that was it. The next evening I headed for the Half-Moon Restaurant & Saloon in Kennett Square, where I joyously abandoned my vegan diet by diving into a shank of wild boar like a ravenous animal.

There was kangaroo on the menu, but even I have some principles. During a recent trip to Vienna, Austria, for example, I drew the line at horse goulash. It’s a favorite with old timers who ate it during World War II, from what I understand.

But back to the subject at hand. My five-day trial was not an outright disaster; more like the pitter-patter of little fiascoes. But it proved that I will always be a staunch, if guilt-haunted, carnivore. To put it bluntly, the odds of my joining the vegan parade—despite my very real moral qualms about the treatment of the animals we eat—are exactly zilch. Because the flesh, my flesh, is weak. When all’s said and done, I’d prefer to be a member of the Donner Party than the vegan party.

And now I must hie myself to Cheeburger Cheeburger on Main Street, because all this talk of flesh has made me hungry.