Saturday, May 14, 2011


Has it been two weeks?  Really?   I was on such a roll, there, for a while.

I guess time flies when you are suddenly subjected to the most confusing, frustrating and emotionally disruptive experience of your entire life; one that calls into question things you thought you knew for virtually your entire life.

I am referring, of course, to Frank Wildhorn's "Wonderland," his modernized reimagining of Lewis Carroll's classic tale.

Oy.  I'm not sure that even I, the great misanthrope, have a sufficiently sarcastic vocabulary to describe this show.

Apparently, Alice grew up, got married and had a daughter.  She moved to Queens and teaches school in the Bronx. I hear this is a pretty common life-plan for girls from the English countryside.  I'm sure Kate Middleton was considering a third-floor walk up in Astoria if that whole Princess thing didn't work out.

Anyway, for Alice and her daughter Chloe, it's the Worst Day of their Life (which is actually a song, and exactly the type of writing you'll find in a show with a book that includes rhyming "waiting" with "hesitating" and cliches like, "Long ago and far away.")  To summarize: Alice and hubby have separated (the reason is never really clear) but she and Chloe are living with his mother.  Chloe's had a bad day at school and hates the new neighborhood (this actually leads to the best line in the show: "There's a Starbucks right across the street." "That would be true anywhere.") Alice hates her job.

While waiting for dinner to be ready, Alice falls asleep, or maybe not, and ends up chasing a rabbit down the service elevator.  She ends up in Wonderland.

This is where things go from the ridiculous to the sublime.  There are a dozen singing, dancing Alices, an African-American caterpillar who sings hip-hop funk, a Latino Cheshire Cat (El Gato) who sings salsa, and a White Knight singing a bland, weepy white boy ballad.  It's stereotyping through showtunes.

There are, however, boy dancers in tight white stretch pants that provide a nice diversion.

It's all very colorful and messy and confusing and, though the music isn't half-bad, the writing is sophomoric and awful and a little too reliant on inside jokes (things like not being able to get the rights from Disney, or ripping off more famous productions, like Gypsy and the Lion King.)  The costumes are actually pretty good, other than Alice's big drapy shirt, leggings, and humongous belt (all she needs are hoop earrings and a Rosie Perez accent.) The plot is tissue-thin, turning on an underground movement run by the Mad Hatter (Kate Shindle, barely rising above the material, but looking resplendent in red) to overthrow the Queen of Hearts (Janet Mason, belting out the one show-stopping number.)

Other than those boy dancers.

Anyway, the Mad Hatter is afraid Alice is impressing the Queen, and may stifle the revolution, so she kidnaps Chloe, and takes Alice's compatriots (the Caterpillar, the White Knight, and El Gato) prisoner in Looking Glass Land.  It all turns out to hinge on the White Rabbit's magic pocket watch (trust is even lamer than it sounds, and comes totally out of nowhere.)  They banish the Hatter and Alice and Chloe return to Queens, which is somehow supposed to be a good thing.

Cue the Boy dancers!

Now, I love good theater (Book of Mormon).  And I really love good bad theater (Xanadu).  But this was mediocre bad theater.  Thankfully, we went out for cheeseburgers afterward.

Otherwise, it was a slow week in Pop Culture.  On Glee, reformed bully Dave Karofsky (Max Adler, who keeps adding layers to a role that totally could have been two-dimensional, and who I'm totally crushing on for all the wrong reasons) was crowned Prom King, while Prom Queen was a surprise write-in: Kurt Hummel.  I HATED this story line; it just reeked of "plot twist" - there was no warning of it coming, it made completely no sense, and seemed to be included for the sole purpose of Making A Statement.  Also, they brought back Jonathan Groff, whom I loathe.

Dear Ryan Murphy: yuck.  He looks thirty and is already getting crow's feet, which - last I checked - wasn't likely among High School students.  Plus, I wouldn't believe him as a straight boy if you actually filmed him having sex with Lea Michele.  Perhaps he should have been voted Prom Queen.

On Survivor we're at that point in the season where even the hot guys have gotten so thin that it's impossible to look at them.

Meanwhile, I've totally skipped American Idol, so I'm apparently missing out on Jennifer Lopez's comeback as a personality and entertainer.  I also need to get plugged in to The Voice, where Christina Aguilera is pulling a Britney and climbing out of the reputational hole she dug with some seriously bizarre behavior.

It's going to rain this weekend, so I guess I'll catch up on the DVR and eat ice cream in bed.

It may not be glamorous, but that's my wonderland.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Through the Cooking Glass

One thing was certain --- it was the chicken’s fault entirely.

To be more specific, it was the fried chicken’s fault – which is where this story begins --- a story of Fried Chicken, Phoenix, and Fraud. (See, I can be alliterative and rip off Lewis Carroll at the same time. If you don’t get it – go here.)

Let me explain: This week, work took me to Phoenix to make a client presentation. I flew JetBlue, since the trip was booked last minute and their rates were the most reasonable. This meant that – once I finished my work and answering email offline - I could spend the rest of my flight eating Animal Crackers and watching DirecTV. And it was in precisely this manner that I, too dumb for CNN and too smart for something Bravo calls “Pregnant in Heels” (“Future Housewives of New York City”? Seriously, Andy Cohen, does your obsession with rich white women know no boundaries?) would up tuning in to the Nate Berkus show.

Oy – OK – we need to pause here (I know, you’re getting whiplash from my tangents.) In case you need background – Nate Berkus was a local interior designer in Chicago who became famous after his partner was killed in the Indonesian Tsunami and he wound up decorating for Oprah. I’m not really clear on the order of events, and I’m too lazy and indifferent to look them up, but the gist is basically: Wave, Drowned, Contemporary Home Décor, Oprah, Famous…his own tv show. He’s got one of those rectangular-shaped heads that James Van Der Beek made popular during Dawson’s Creek, and a moderate amount of talent, but he’s basically just someone who became famous off of the tragic death of a spouse. Think Prince Charles, but gayer…or Jackie Kennedy. 

But gayer.

Anyway, from what I can tell, his show basically conforms to the same formula of daytime chit-chat – segments on lifestyle, health and fitness, home and garden, cooking; all integrated with a mix of minor celebrities and “average folks.” From Donahue and Oprah, to Ellen and Rachael Ray, to The Doctors and Nate – all these shows are pretty much the same, and really rise and fall on the talent of the host and the mix of subject matter and star wattage they pull together.

On that score, Nate is pretty much on the bottom (no jokes, please.) His show has been roundly panned and the ratings stink, so I wouldn’t have ordinarily watched it. But my channel surfing was abruptly halted by two things that would have caught my eye on their own and which, in combination, were irresistible: a hot guy and fried chicken.

The guy was Rocco DiSpirito, a once-lauded chef prodigy who, at a very young age, was receiving rave reviews for his work at a Manhattan restaurant called Union Pacific. After the plaudits came the articles, the cookbooks, the girls, (the gay rumors), the tabloid-star status, a failed restaurant, a failed reality show about a failed restaurant, weight gain, weight loss, and the slow, steady rise back to credibility with guest shots (Good Morning, Tampa!), better guest shots (Today), guest judging (Top Chef), more books, and a return to the tabloids. His reputation among his peers, and in the world of fine dining, is pretty mixed – some still consider him a genius for his work at Union Pacific and would best characterize Rocco as great talent and great promise, though not fully realized or sustained; others would call him a sell-out, and a bit of a fraud, who traded on his talent to obtain mass market appeal, both as a chef and as a personality. Sort of a male Rachael Ray, but with actual underlying skill and not just huge man hands and 400 ways to make a hamburger.

(Did you really think we were getting out of this column without a Rachael Ray joke? More on Rocco’s huge man hands, later.  Oh...and the phto of Rachael...too funny not to post.)

Anyway, there was Rocco (who, I say with deep shame, is pretty attractive) looking all fit and towering over Nate Berkus, the box-headed waifish widower, showcasing double chocolate chunk cookies and fried chicken as part of promoting his cookbook, the “Now Eat This! Diet Cookbook” (a follow up to “Now Eat This!”) The basic premise is that eating healthy can be fun and flavorful. This is not innovative – virtually every celebrity cookbook or weight loss book, from Bethenny to Marilu Henner, markets the same idea. What was innovative, however, was the approach – everything from the cookies (which substitute much of the flour and fat with pureed white beans) to the chicken (not oven-“fried” – but poached in chicken stock and flash-fried for 30 seconds) uses a series of substitutions and techniques to obtain maximum flavor with minimal caloric impact.

Shortly after landing, I logged on to Amazon and bought the book.

To its credit, the book is founded on basic principles of nutrition, weight loss and exercise science. Yes, the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume, balancing those calories across a range of healthy carbs, proteins and fats in decent proportions. I will admit it is nice to see a weight loss program acknowledge you can’t realistically – or healthfully – load up your plate with bunless bacon cheeseburgers and gorge your way to long-term fitness.

But it’s also kind of awful.

First, it must have been ghost-written. Rocco may have come up with the recipes; may have dictated much of the content – but the voice is somehow all wrong. It simply doesn’t read like it was written by the same guy you’ve seen on television. The structure, the use of language, the point of view – it’s all askew, like it was written by someone trying to write in the character of Rocco DiSpirito. If you’ve ever seen fan fiction on the internet, you know what I mean. (Fan fiction is when ordinary people write episodes of their favorite television shows, only they make up a fictional plotline – like having the bar in How I Met Your Mother invaded by an intergalactic space tiger and holding Neil Patrick Harris hostage in nothing but a silver Speedo.)

Second, I realize that boosting the confidence of the reader is important, particularly in a cookbook, but is it really honest to say, “If you have slathered peanut butter between two slices of bread, you have cooked.” Okay – No, you haven’t. You have not cooked. You have prepared food – and even that is a stretch. You have not cooked. And if you didn’t cook, why would you buy a COOK BOOK? Even if it were in there to calm the bookstore browser who might be on the fence, I think that person would probably have made up their mind by the time this sentence appears ON PAGE 74!!!

Didn’t Rocco use to be a chef? How would Daniel Boulud or Dan Barber react to that sentence? Also…slathered? Really? (Slathered is the kind of word to take you right back to fan fiction about NPH and that space tiger, but I tigress…I mean, digress.)

But this last part is the best. Really, you can’t write stuff like this…you can write ABOUT it, but you’d never be able to make it up.

The last section I read before our weekend guests arrived was the section about dining out. We live in New York City, where most people use their ovens for extra storage (When I was single, that’s where I kept the good shoes – in boxes of course.)

Actual photo
The dining out section reminds the reader to avoid alcohol (“the epitome of empty calories”) and – if one does indulge, “Resist the urge to order a bottle of wine” because “you’ll probably drink less and there is no pressure to finish the bottle.” It also urges Rocco’s followers that, “Honestly, there’s really no dessert that you can order in a restaurant….And don’t even try a bite or two. No one has that kind of control.”

Marcelene and her boyfriend, Rory, arrived around noon. We showed them our home and then decided to go exploring. After a stop in Southampton, Marcelene wanted lunch – some place where we could sit outside, with a glass of wine (“the epitome of empty calories”) and take in the early spring scene. We went to Pierre’s.

Pierre’s is a French bistro and bakery market in Bridgehampton…it’s the kind of place where they put butter in everything – including the tap water. It was just about 3pm, so the Saturday lunch crowd was waning – particularly this early in the season. We had no trouble getting a table for four right outside.

Right next to Rocco DiSpirito.

There he was, in the Ray-Bans and baseball cap he apparently wears anytime he ventures out of doors without a camera crew and entourage. I’ve seen Julianne Moore walk Bleecker Street with no make up and a denim jacket during the full on Saturday rush, not to mention Steven Spielberg, Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick and Michael Douglas – all within a block of my home. No sunglasses. Rocco – methinks you’re safe.

Rocco's Actual Dessert Plate
But, for sheer schaedenfreude, nothing could beat the bottle of white he and his lady friend were polishing off as they left behind the last bite of a chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream. I couldn’t help myself but lean over and say, “That looks delicious…I wish I could eat dessert. I tell myself it won’t be so fattening if I only have a bite or two, but no one has that kind of control.”

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Crunch-a-tize Me Cap'n!

It is nice to know that, despite a bloody war in Afghanistan, unrest and instability throughout the Middle East, and crushing unemployment and economic uncertainty at home, ABC News can devote more than 15 full minutes to rabbits running rampant at Long Beach City College.  I suppose I should be more forgiving, since it is Easter today - the holiest day in the Christian calendar. 

Mini-Sunday school for those of you who may not have had religious studies: Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ, who after being betrayed by one of his disciples, was crucified.  Three days later he rose, dressed like a bunny, and hid colored eggs all over the yard.  Everyone was so happy, they put on a bonnet, had a parade, and ate marshmallow Peeps - except the Jews, who may or may not have been responsible, depending on who you believe.  Anyway, no one blames them anymore because modern science reveals they were all constipated from Passover, and having to eat all that matza (or Matzoh, if you spell it that way.)

This may not be strictly accurate, but you get the gist.

Also, an interesting personal fact that people are surprised to know (and which bears only a tangential relationship to this topic) is that I was in a Jewish fraternity in college.  Neil is always shocked when I remind him I was in a fraternity, because he says he can't imagine me being hazed.  The truth is that hazing was a lot different in a Jewish fraternity: basically they just make you answer a lot of math questions and make fun of you if your father isn't a doctor or an accountant or a personal injury lawyer.  Then they get you drunk - which usually takes about a drink and a half - and, voila! - you're in. 

Anyway, I would have written about Passover, but there isn't much to say.  The food at Cousin Nancy's was really good this year, and the evening wasn't interrupted by any sort of First Responder, so any chance of a good blog got destroyed (like the ancient temple, though this holiday is pretty much the only one that isn't about the destruction of a temple.  Instead, the story of Passover is part of the holiday itself, and is retold every year.  To summarize: Slaves.  Egypt.  Plagues. Wine. Freedom. Israel. Dayanu.)

To continue our mini-Sunday school, for those of you who never studied Judaism, Dayanu means, "It would have been enough."  It refers to telling the story of Passover and, involves looking back and saying, "If God had only set us would have been enough; if God had only led us out of would have been enough; etc."

I think the purpose of this is to help us understand irony, as it is often spoken by a table full of people who are more inclined to say things like "She couldn't have made a green vegetable?"  Or "You know, you could have been a doctor or an accountant or a personal injury lawyer."

(Also, Passover is known for having the Four Questions, which are:

1. Where did you get your car?
2. How much did you pay for it?
3. What kind of mileage does it get?
4.  What do you pay for gas?)
So, without a Passover blog, we will turn to Easter, and the Easter-i-est food of them all:

Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries.

(Seriously: it's like a bowl of Cap'n Crunch that someone has accented with little Easter eggs made out of cereal.)

So here's my dilemma:  Yesterday, Neil and I were in the grocery store to pick up a few produce items for dinner.  As usual, I wandered the aisles, hal-wondering why a grocery store seems to be the only place that can counter-act my adult ADD.  (Truly, I can get distracted in the middle of a sentence, but put me in the cereal aisle and I've got the laser focus of a fighter pilot.)  As I was comparing the nutritional value of the cereal I wanted - Crunch Berries - with the cereal I thought I should eat - Kashi GoLean Crunch - I was forced to the following conclusion: Crunch Berries are better for you.

How could this be?  I must have been misreading the label, or otherwise missing something.  But after buying both boxes and comparing them endlessly (or, for about nine minutes) it does appear that Crunch Berries are the healthier breakfast:

Calories (without milk):

Crunch Berries: 100
GoLean Crunch: 200

Calories from Fat:

Crunch Berries: 15

GoLean Crunch: 40


Crunch Berries: 11g
GoLean Crunch: 12g


Crunch Berries: 190mg
GoLean Crunch 140mg


Crunch Berries: 25% of US RDA
GoLean Crunch: 8%

Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6:

Crunch Berries: 25%
GoLean Crunch: 0%

Folic Acid:

Crunch Berries:  100% (stunning, really)
GoLean Crunch: 0%

Total Carbohydrates:

Crunch Berries:  22g
GoLean Crunch: 36g

In summary, GoLean Crunch was slightly better on sodium, and turned out to have more dietary fiber (8g, to 1g for Crunch Berries), but other than that seemed to be a worse bet.  True, it also has 9g of protein, to only 1g for Crunch Berries, but if I want protein for brekafast, I'll just eat eggs - not that crappy sugar cereal with no vitamins.  (Yeah, I know the Cap'n Crunch people just spray the vitamins on with some sort of chemical spray that's like Miracle-Gro for kids, but who cares?  It's still vitamins.)

This seems a worthy victory for kids everywhere who are screaming in the cereal aisle for Apple Jacks and Lucky Charms, and being forced to eat Honey Nut Cheerios instead.  Suck it, weird cartoon bee, who's your daddy?  That's right, bitches, Lucky the Leprechaun.

Anyway, Happy Easter - I'm off to find some Easter eggs --- at the bottom of my cereal bowl.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bethenny Never Shuts Up

We have to take a detour today, and divert from our originally scheduled topics. 

I had initially thought I’d write about our weekend in Sag Harbor, which included buying something called “Fat-Ass Fudge” from a chatty Yenta who told us she has previously been a psychic.  She kept saying things like, “Want to taste my fat ass?” and “I’m a fudge packer.”  I’m always game for sweets with a touch of the supernatural, and Neil is a magnet for the marginally insane – so it could have been quite a post.

Then I thought about reporting on our dinner with Suz, in a post entitled “My Favorite Macedonian.”  It would have allowed me to share the story about how I got her to order cuttlefish at the maiden restaurant of Top Chef Season One winner, Harold Dieterle.  It also would have given me the opportunity to riff on Macedonia (you’d only know it if you were a dork who played Risk as a kid; it was a Balkan nation-state located in what now comprises parts of Greece, Albania and Yugoslavia.  The dialect is similar to Russian and other eastern European languages….See, we can laugh and learn all at the same time.)  I love it when people tell you they’re from places that haven’t existed since the early 1900s.  I had a paragraph on Persia that would have killed.

But, lo, a request from an old friend in Boston came through during dinner.  Could I please write about 
Bethenny?  Have I not written enough about Bethenny, I asked Neil, and Suzette of Macedonia? 

Apparently I have not.

Here goes – but, I swear, this is the last time.

Because writing about Bethenny means giving her more attention and more ink – and that’s all she’s really about.  Plus, it means writing about Bravo, and that’s starting to tweak me a little bit, too.

To catch up those of you who might be unfamiliar with the princess of self-promotion, eye-rolling, hysterics and sugar-free pre-mixed margaritas, Bethenny is Bethenny Frankel – old friend of a friend of an old friend of mine (so confusing, right?  That needs a map: Eric -> old friend -> her friend -> Bethenny. J.)  After years of apparently plotting and scheming to get on television – sort of a modern twist on Lucy Ricardo, without the Cuban bandleader or the actual talent – Bethenny first graced our televisions as a contestant on The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.  Which turned out to be as welcome as “Law & Order: Trial By Jury” or “CSI: Toledo” and bombed after a single season.

She made it through most of the season based on drive and unadulterated ambition, but it was clear that her motivation for doing the show was now to emulate Martha’s success as a gracious hostess or home economist, but rather to build an empire of product and personage through television.

She returned to the collective consciousness on Bravo, cast – almost in the Sophia Petrillo/Carla Tortelli-like supporting role of comic second banana – in the inaugural season of “The Real Housewives of New York.”  Neither married nor non-working, she was clearly not a “housewife” by definition.  “Real” is arguable.  She reeks, however, of New York City, with the accent and the quips and the incessant eyerolling, made all the more comic by the fact that some might consider her to resemble a resident of Who-Ville.

Yet, despite not having been disqualified from the show on the very terms of its existence, she actually thrived there – creating just enough drama to cause a comfortable level of hostility among the women.  As the series progressed, she moved further and further towards the center of the conflict that seems to define the franchise: trumped up arguments between wealthy women of the local ethnicity (OC: blonde; NY: Jewish; NJ: Italian; Miami: Latina; Atlanta: African-American; Beverly Hills: plastic surgerized.)

We all should have seen her own franchise coming.  Augmenting her reputation with a series of books and products about food and nutrition, she’s become her own brand: Skinnygirl.  A series of books that tell women they can be fun, flirty and thin, basically by eating a little bit less of whatever they want – provided it's “natural” – she then branched out into consumer packaged food with Skinnygirl Margarita.  It’s a bottled, “just-open-and-serve” concoction that taste less like a party drink and more like a linty old Jolly Rancher you fished out of your pocket during a three-hour meeting at work.

In season one – Bethenny Getting Married – the cameras followed her as she got, first pregnant, then married (I know at least two women who’ve done this and neither got a show.  One, however, got fired.  Now she works for a company that cans fish.  THAT’S a TV show.)  Bethenny’s beloved is a cute – if doltish – guy named Jason who acts like he’s sort of above it all, but you can tell he relishes every moment on camera. 

The current season, Bethenny Ever After seems to involve her turning 40 and crying a lot. 

Get in line.

Personally, I hope they keep changing the title every season.  I can’t wait for “Bethenny Going Through Menopause.”  That kid’ll be about 15, and Jason will be over it.  I’m looking forward to watching her work her way through two or three bottles of Skinnygirl between some serious door slamming and a hot flash.

The instant fame of Bethenny – indeed all the Bethennys – in fact, all the “Bravo-lebrities” who’ve made getting on television more an act of will than one of talent, can be traced back to one source: Andy Cohen.
You may or may not know Andy – but in New York he has become ubiquitous.  This spring, every pay phone and taxicab seems to bear an advertisement for his late night gabfest with the “Bravo-lebrities.”  According to the ads, in which he appears to burst through a sheet of paper, he’s “tearing up late night.”  I suppose that sounded a lot better than “prancing across your TV screen.”

OK – it’s not that I don’t like Andy.  When he did the “Watch What Happens” reunion shows of Top Chef and Project Runway he was a pretty decent moderator.  It was sort of nice to have the programming executive who put these shows on the air interacting with the casts.  Plus, he clearly watched and enjoyed the shows, so you got to experience it through the eyes of a genuine fan.

Also, I used to see him out in New York and, objectively, he’s an attractive guy.

But when he moved from occasional host into a weekly late night slot, something weird happened.  He became all affected and juvenile – with weird facial expressions and catchphrases like “the Mazel of the week” and “Tweet Me.”  With the perpetually-hoarse-Brenda-Vaccaro voice and the fawning all over his guests, it’s like watching a show hosted by the girl who sat next to me in eighth grade homeroom.

Tweet this.

I really want to end here – because I think this post is seriously fucking funny – but I think I need to take my medicine and at least do a little self-discovery before I retire the laptop. 

This post was the most inspired I’ve been in weeks, and flowed the most easily.  Yet it is clearly fueled by jealousy.  MY OWN SHOW PEOPLE.  Where are the legions of fans lobbying for me to be the new voice of late night?  I’m one part Chelsea Handler (a little bawdy), one part Andy Cohen (a little too gay..ugh, I know- but so true) and maybe one part Bethenny (blind ambition.)

Still, if you want to laugh along with someone struggling with work and middle-age while exhibiting the personal judgment and cultural taste of a drunk 16 year old girl…I’m your man. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

You Say It's Your Birthday

I know all my readers think we live some sort of fabulous, glamorous life, like a real life version of Sex and the City, so I hate to burst your champagne bubble and tell you that the only party we went to this weekend was a three year-old’s birthday.  Not that there wasn’t alcohol (with a house full of children, clearly that’s a must) – but my days of partying like it’s 1999 ended in, well, 1999.

Besides, if you’ve been reading this blog at all, you know a family event can be fairly amusing – particularly with my family – though I’m sorry to inform you that our story does not end with someone leaving in tears, in an ambulance, or with a lesbian.

There’s a first time for everything.

Anyhow, Neil and I arrived in the burbs  shortly after 2pm on Sunday – which always requires readjustment for us.  When the company includes – indeed, is dominated by, grandparents and children – the event usually forces me to surrender brunch and dinner to some sort of hybrid Frankenmeal served around 4:30pm.  Or – as I like to call it – Happy Hour. 

Thus, we generally arrive just as I’m about to pass out from hunger, and eagerly scarf down a glass of wine and some baby carrots.  Apparently, having a houseful of children means all your food must be petite, precious, and aptly named.

I found my mother perched on her usual kitchen stool, merrily slurping down a glass of white wine and not helping.  This continues a decades long tradition of my mother and sister arriving at each other’s homes and behaving like a guest – much to their mutual chagrin.  My stepfather was in his usual position, pacing behind her, and if he weren’t bald when they married six short months ago, he would be by now. 

My dad, meanwhile, was the designated photographer, and was skittering around the house snapping photos of the kids.  His partner was sitting off to the side looking miserable and thinking about how soon they could leave without being rude.

Moving swiftly from kitchen to table and back again, my sister was putting out food while my brother-in-law served drinks, and together they greeted their guests – many of whom were friends from their neighborhood, or old friends from their respective childhoods.  It’s so weird to me – Neil and I each only stay in touch with a handful of people we’ve known since high school or college, and many of them live far from New York.  However, my sister and brother-in-law still hang with people they’ve known for years – and I see how that shared history can be comforting – which always strikes as being like a scene out of some Ben Affleck movie set in Boston.  Except, instead of everyone working construction in Southie, they all work in finance or do pilates and drive around in SUVs the size of Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, my nieces and nephews are growing up so quickly it’s amazing.  The eldest is finally past the shy stage and marched right up to me, gave me a hug, and told me about her new Justin Bieber poster.  It’s nice to see that – though not yet seven years old – she already understands our family tradition of women falling in love with gay men.  Soon she’ll be drinking Scotch in the Village and looking for her second husband.

She was also wearing a royal blue sleeveless sequined dress, an outfit that was only missing backup singers.

Her sister managed to make it through the afternoon without shedding blood – her own or that of another child – which was reason enough for celebration. 

The birthday boy seemed oblivious to the fact that all the attention was for him – which is a personality trait I cannot relate to at all.  He was just happy that there was a Thomas the Train cake and a clown.

Oh yes – the clown.  Two, actually.  One surly guy who looked more like a caricature of a hobo than a clown.  He blew up balloons, mostly in the shape of swords with hilts –though that’s not what they looked like.  One girl put the tip of a "sword" in her mouth and I nearly lost it.  So sweet to see her re-enact the night her parents met.

The other “clown” there was a girl wearing pigtails and a pair of pants with a cowskin print on it.  She did magic, but it was all dime-store stuff.  If she had any real talent she would have been able to make her cameltoe disappear.

If you’re getting the impression it wasn’t a festive event, you’re totally off-base.  It was actually quite amusing – and certainly the high point of a week that also included:

·         Flight delays in both directions, including flying through thunderstorms.

·         Trying to figure out what those stupid talking twins are saying, and why they’re so popular

·         Attempting to get invited to the Royal Wedding, and possibly ending up on Britain’s most wanted list (who knew the Queen was so sensitive about Wall comments on her Facebook page?  Besides, her aura of accessibility totally screams that she wants strangers to call her “Liz” and offer to escort her to the nuptials by offering something stiffer than Prince Philip.

·         Hallucinations that most of the aforementioned actually happened.  Gotta stop hanging out with Charlie Sheen.

Warlock out.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Visit with Aunt Crazy

This week began with a special treat – one of those moments where you truly understand the term “blessing in disguise.”  In order to address some client needs, I unexpectedly needed to travel to a city where my old pal – let’s call her Aunt Crazy – resides.  While my meetings had all the charm of attempting to perform root canal on oneself using an old paper clip, a quick text to Aunt Crazy revealed that she was available to get me suitably sloshed before I returned to the airport to head home.

Aunt Crazy and I worked together years ago at a company who was long-recognized for its superior technology solutions, but is more recently notable for having lost a billion dollar lawsuit which it foolishly permitted to proceed to trial, since everyone knew it was going to lose.  We both left the company around the same time, when it became clear that unmarried women and sarcastic gay guys don’t get promoted past a certain level no matter how hard they work, or how well they perform. 

A lesson to all you kids singing show tunes and reading People (mostly for Royal Wedding coverage and the photos of hunky moron Brad from the Bachelor) – as well as the girls who hang with them: unless your career plans include creating a media empire, you can take your work seriously and do it well, but you should also make time for important things like soap operas starring people a generation younger than you, spending plenty of time at the gym, and picking up boys.

Yes, those last two activities are the same thing.

Anyway, to return from that tangent, Aunt Crazy (who earns that nickname simply by virtue of hosting an annual Oscar party where the guests wear black tie – from the waist up – and sweatpants) picked me up on a random street corner, after circling the neighborhood for half an hour trying to find me.  This point becomes more ironic when she finally arrives and the first thing I notice on her dashboard is a GPS.  Perhaps, like me, she programs in the destination, then proceeds to ignore the device, either by talking on the phone, blasting the radio and singing along to Sugarland songs, or yelling at the damn thing, “That’s not the way I want to go!”

When we finally sorted out logistics, Aunt Crazy and I had a blast – we had some snacks at a local tapas bar, caught up on all the people we used to work with, and discussed our mutual desire to start a family.  (Not with each other.)  Aunt Crazy is looking to adopt, while Neil and I continue to discuss the idea of having children.  We commiserated over the challenges – whether it’s the ready availability of two children for a single woman (Aunt Crazy wants a matched set, so they’ll have someone to confide in when she inevitably drives them nuts), or Neil’s concern about being too old, or my irrational concern that my hair-trigger midlife crisis will spin out of control if I have to face my own mortality through the eyes of my child.

Too quickly, though, I had to head out to the airport, saying goodbye to Aunt Crazy for another three or four years.  Unfortunately, shortly after arriving, my flight began to post a series of successive delays that kept us on the ground until well after 10pm and limiting my dinner choices to foods that can be purchased at a newsstand.  I’d love to tell you that eating a bag of Sour Patch Kids for dinner brought back great memories of college, but it’s just not the same without the drugs.

And, of course I arrived home way too late to watch Pretty Little Liars, so I got up at 6am the next day and turned on the DVR.  I’d love to say the season finale clarified things for me, but all it seemed to do was confirm that Ian did, indeed, kill Allison – providing no twist or other compelling narrative – and otherwise create a bunch of confusion on loose threads, but which don’t quite add up to a cliffhanger.  Plus, they killed off Ryan Merriman who never really got to show the acting range that one can only truly exhibit with his shirt off.

Thus starved for entertainment, off we trekked to see the very first performance of Broadway’s “Sister Act” – adapted from the movie starring Whoopi Goldberg, by the Whoopi Goldberg production company (see, lesson in paragraph three of this blog, kiddies.)  Our expectations were high, as the show is hot off its run on London’s West End (though this is no longer an arbiter of class – and hasn’t been since Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber sent us dreck like Starlight Express.  If I want roller skating in my musicals, I’ll skip that for Cheyenne Jackson wearing cutoff denim in Xanadu – for more than the obvious reasons.)

You could feel the anticipation and excitement in audience, teeming with every homo in the tri-state area who could get his hands on a ticket. 

Sadly, dear readers, I can’t fully recommend the show – a bloated two-and-a-half hour commitment that has too-few moments of real joy and rapture.  The stage is entirely too large for the activity on it, and the staging is – with the exception of tow numbers, a fantasy dream sequence and a solo power ballad – unimpressive.  The choreography is hokey and line-dance-y; the jokes are really corny and obvious, and the book is – with the exception to two lines – very weak.  The star, Patina Miller, lacks the glory notes in her upper register to pull off the songs, which is sort of OK, since most of the music is unmemorable.  Pacing is uneven, particularly in the first act, which takes just over an hour to accomplish a slow set up that needs to be done in half the time, and with more energy.  It’s too long a sit to get to what the audience came for: those singing nuns from the movie.  Still, the second act moves a bit more briskly and, despite the generic music and some wacky capers that are lifted right out of a Keystone Kops sequence in a 1920 nickelodeon, the energy and uplift at the end gets the crowd applauding and generated a standing ovation.

I imagine there’s a enough good will for the movie – and for Whoopi – as well as enough of a curiosity factor, to goose advance sales for a few months.  And even though the show played in London, they made some changes, so there’s no reason to think they won’t further adjust it through previews.

Other than that, it was a relatively quiet week.  We went out for Pookie's birthday.  We did a little shopping.  I've been looking for a pair of jeans since Christmas - which seems crazy since I have almost 20 pairs and half of them I bought through Gilt Group - but I really needed a pair that I bought in real time.  Buying online restricts me to designers and brand I already know, and even then I'm taking a guess that the weight and texture of the material, and the actual color, will work for me.  Actual shopping permits the assessment of critical questions like: "Does the fit accentuate the musculature of my thighs, or make me look crammed into a sausage casing?"  and "How cute is my butt?"

I also needed to find a few shirts, and spend some time in a fitting room praying to the fashion gods for the end of gingham.  Yes, I like how it looks on me - but if I buy one more gingham shirt I'm gonna need some red shoes and a Scarecrow.

We decided to spend what was left of Saturday afternoon downtown, and started by going to Chinatown.  The weather has gotten a little colder and wetter than it was the past two weekends, but we couldn't sit inside and watch television.  So instead of watching frantic crowds of Asian people trying in vain to dodge a nuclear holocaust, we figured we'd watch them fight over oyster mushrooms.

If you've never been to the Hong Kong Supermarket, I can't say I recommend it.  It's perceived as being this sort of ethnic food superstore, but it isn't terribly large.  I suppose it claims to offer an authentic experience because all the pushing and shoving and jostling seems to re-create the effect of riding the subway in Tokyo. The fish all had cloudy eyes and were piled high atop trays of ice, and the produce all looked a little wilted and forlorn.  

I expected a market of largely exotic and relatively fresh, foods - but beyond the stacks of squid and some rather pale pumpkin chunks, the remainder of the store was as a much a paean to consumer packaged foods as any Safeway.  I'm not exactly sure how to end communism, but I'm fairly certain it involves using high fructose corn syrup.

Anyhow, I wish I had some sort of profound observation or lesson with which to close.  But I don't.  The closest I can offer is a cautionary tale picked up at Hong Kong Supermarket: Politics and sarcasm aside, those little cookies with the Panda faces - politically incorrect though they may be - are delicious.  If this is China's answer to Teddy Grahams, we're going to be in serious trouble when it gets to the big stuff.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Groundskeeper's Willie

I realize my blog has become a near-permanent obsession with my mid-life crisis, but can I just say that you know you've reached middle age when you have this conversation:

Husband: "How do you like the throw pillows?"

Other husband: "They look nice on the bed.  Aren't they from the sofa in the living room?"

First husband: "Yeah, I'm all about trying new things."

Trying new things?  I can still remember when "trying new things" meant cycling down a volcano or jumping out of a plane or doing body shots off a go-go boy's abs.  When "trying new things" means the temporary relocation of home accessories, you are middle-aged.

(By the way, if you want to know when you're gay - it's when you're a man talking about throw pillows.  The whole sex part is beside the point.)

However, it's always nice to take a vacation from your own mid-life crisis to watch someone else's, so last night Neil and I went to dinner at the home of some relatively new friends.  We don't know them well, so stopped along the way and picked up a nice spring flowering plant. We figured, you can never be sure if people drink (though, if they didn't, we probably wouldn't be going back) - or what they like - and home decor is either too specific ("Oh.  Art Deco.  How...ummm...lovely.") or too impersonal (think: scented candle or picture frame.  To me, the picture frame is the gift card of impersonal gifts.  It says, "I refused to put any thought into this, whatsoever.")

If you've never arived at the multi-million dollar home of new acquaintances bearing nothing but a potted plant, and then find out within five minutes of arriving that it is the also host's birthday, I can't really recommend it.  I felt like we showed up in boxer shorts, eating Fritos (which is how we would have spent the evening, otherwise.)

It was, however, a thoroughly enjoyable evening - even if the guest list could have been pulled directly from an updated version of an Agatha Christie novel.  To wit:

Our hosts: an eyeglass manufacturer (don't chuckle - there's serious dough in that business) and a real estate broker (can we say it?  When did everybody become a Real Estate broker?  There are now almost as many shows about real estate brokers as there are about chefs - and the vast majority of the people watching them are in a one-bedroom fourth-floor walk up, eating Frito's on the couch.) 

A single friend:  There's always one, right?

A straight couple on their second marriage: You know the drill, right?  He's become a metrosexual at fifty-ish, with the black cashmere sweaters and the closely-cropped hair.  (I'm sorry, but if I see one more straight guy in a pair of $300 jeans, a knit pullover and blazer, getting his nails buffed, I'm going to barf.  What's hip about a straight man dressing like he's trying to pick up a 19 year old Mexican boy?

She - the wife - is, of course, adorable.  I can't help myself around the pretty girls. I am completely drawn to every Heather (80s reference), Betty (90s reference), and Mean Girl (00s reference.)  Who wouldn't be?  The prettiest girl in the room is always the most fun - and the most powerful.  She's got a pile of money to spend and always dresses like she's headed for a red carpet-worthy occasion.  You know these girls married for love the first time, got a kid or two before figuring out Husband No. 1 was fucking his secretary, his masseuse or a 19-year old Mexican boy, and got out - still young enough for a healthy dose of pilates, spinning and vodka to tighten and tone the body and land Husband No. 2. 

Ladies - life lesson here: he may not be gorgeous, but he's relatively good-looking, and you can forgive a lot when you're wearing Manolos and shuttling between a house in town and two acres in East Hampton.

And trust me when I tell you that you can have sex once a week with a person you're not particularly attracted to.  I like to call that "my 20s."  And no one ever gave me shoes or real estate.

They also brought their fourteen year-old son.

To the gay dinner party.

Can I say I felt a little Awk. Ward.

I know - I homoeroticize everything or make everyone gay - but this kid is gay, gay, GAY.  You can say I'm reading too much into the sibilant "s"s, or that I don't know much about today's teenagers - but I have to believe that a fourteen year-old boy who watches Project Runway and likes clothing design and draping is less interested in getting your dress off, and more interested in putting it on.

The lesbian couple.  Not the motorcycle-butch kind, or the lipstick-edgy-sort-of-punk-rock kind - they're the sort of sporty-athletic kind.  One is a tennis-playing lawyer who likes to travel; the other works in real estate and was a little more withdrawn - playing with the dogs and helping in the kitchen.

The kitchen.

Wow - ok - so this is where it gets a little weird.  (I know - 'cause it wasn't weird enough already.)

The houseboy. I'm not even sure how to start describing this.  The first time they mentioned him, Neil and I got the impression a college kid - maybe 19, 20 - someone who spent the summers with them working around the house.  I pictured a kid doing landscaping and light housework in exchange for getting to live in the Hamptons for the summer; probably gay.

I did not expect someone closer to thirty than twenty who was going to make me forget I was married.  This was a man - not a kid - impossibly good looking in jeans and a henley and a whole Abercrombie thing going on.  Taking the semester off from school, he seemed more house manager than "kid you hire for the summer to cut the grass."  Neil and I will spend most of our Sunday morning joking about him, but either one of us would secretly and eagerly trade our eastern European cleaning woman in a heartbeat.

Though - truthfully - I wonder how I'd feel about sharing my house with my husband and another man.  I remember that relationship mathematics of any number higher than 2 always - ultimately - yields the wrong answer.  You might be able to work your way through the equation, but can't get to the QED. At first it sounds kind of hot; then it sounds kind of liberated; then it just seems scary, because the singularity of just having that one other person that you are in love with - and who is in love with you - seems so inviolate.  That the issue is less the sexual intimacy than the emotional intimacy of 2 - just you; just one other.  A relationship is like a secret; only two people know it; only two people get it, and it loses its potency in numbers; dilutes its strength.

I know - all this is really none of my business.

Besides, I probably need to stop entertaining myself by sitting in the corner with the pretty girl in the expensive shoes, making fun of people.

Yeah.  Like that's gonna happen.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This is not an upbeat post

It’s hard not to wince when he orders a beer twenty minutes before noon on a Tuesday, even though he’s already told me he’s been up since daybreak, struggling with the inconveniences and delays of modern air travel. We haven’t even reached cruising altitude before I know that his connection through Atlanta began in Panama City, where he buried his father. Or that it won’t end until long after we land in Albuquerque, somewhere in rural southwestern Colorado. With a snack box of raisins and canned chicken salad splayed out on his tray, I know, too, that much more probably separates us that the nineteen-inch width of seat 21B.

So I stifle the wince and forgive him his beer.

Travel does funny things to your brain; to your sense of observation and perspective. Ten years ago I was both an inquisitive and acquisitive person, curious and extroverted, eager to collect new friends, and stories and experiences. But a decade of airlines and airports, delays and degradation takes a toll; you begin to shut out and shut off – hidden behind an iPad or a laptop; powered up and shut down. It is simply far too easy to become weary, restive, defensive of every clattering, cumulative intrusion from the outside world that amasses, like email on my Blackberry.

The noise is too noisy, cacophonous and disparate.

Until it isn’t.

Recently, it has become impossible not to notice. My travels take me to places like Idaho, where budget cuts and education reform initiatives have resulted in protests, violent and non, from walk-outs to vandalism of the state superintendent’s car. In Wisconsin, the legislature has fled to prevent a quorum that would force a vote stripping unionized workers from collective bargaining. I’m mixed on unions – their record of achievement and their general merit – but I know this: we are seeing the second unprecedented period of economic growth in a decade; with markets and corporations increasing profit and productivity, while jobs disappear and real wages decline. Even when the economy shrank, jobs and payrolls shrank exponentially more. Taking away the right of workers to bargain collectively will make them isolated and helpless – the easier to abuse.

Much has been written about the decline and disappearance of the middle class, to the point where it’s become political theater – something we talk about like global warming or entitlement spending, but don’t really address – even though most of America is aware of the problem. It’s too easy to preserve the conflict as a political wedge – and too hard to fix it – so instead we argue about it in the papers and polling places while our home values stagnate, while our kids don’t go to college, or don’t finish, and we wonder, waiting – will it be China? When? Surely we can’t continue this way forever without the consequences coming due.

We could be having a different conversation – one that examines the real system issues burdening our economy. It is clear our budget is deeply, deeply red, and our state are broke – but ending critical programs, eliminating jobs and taking away protections long-attributed to creating a middle class say something so dark about our values it is hard to do anything more than glance at it, lest it be too painful to believe. The gains we’d get a so meager, and our other problems so massive, that it seems both petty and mean.

Last week I went to Florida, where I stayed in a hotel on the beach undergoing renovation. Vacationers have returned, even if home values haven’t, and the glimmers of sunshine in the Sunshine State are more than meteorological. In a section of the lobby, one morning as I was answering email, I sat not far from where the catering manager was interviewing job applicants. Person after person sat there, barely-masking the desperation in their voice, hoping for a job delivering trays or washing dishes. Not kids; not college students – adults, grateful for a chance to earn a paycheck. I left feeling profoundly sad.

Every day, every place I go, I watch my clients – public school districts, public colleges and universities, educational programs – struggle and beg for money. I will be the first to cite chapter and verse on the need for reform in our public education process – better teachers, more technology, greater accountability – as well as a need to refocus the dollars we do spend on programs and investments that have been proven to work, rather than protecting legacy interests and structures. But the cuts we’re seeing now are senseless and random. Worse yet, that we are not embarrassed at the demonization of our public education system is shameful. I may see places where it is hard to get rid of bad teachers, or class size requirements that make no sense as they force 22 kids into separate classrooms with separate teachers. One of those teacher may be incapable of handling half that many; and the other – twice as much.

But never in ten years have I worked with a client who didn’t care about education. Who didn’t see it’s role as absolutely critical to economic and social development. Who wasn’t 100% committed to dedicating their life to making countless lives better.

Today I’ll visit a client whose program is in danger of being shut down. She has four kids, and a beautiful grandbaby. She is finishing her dissertation. If her program is eliminated, I can’t imagine where she’d go...hers won’t be the only job eliminated…and I just can’t bear the thought of a great educator winding up in a hotel lobby, begging for a job making coffee.

Friday, December 31, 2010

You Mean Like Laverne & Shirley?

I’d love to begin this posting with a pastoral scene of New York City blanketed in snow. Silver bells and Christmas lights and all that shit.

Or a country lane in Sag Harbor. Sitting in the window seat watching the flakes fall, while the tree twinkles in the living room. Neil fries up latkes and bakes gingerbread in the kitchen, and through the speakers we are implored to have ourselves a merry little Christmas.

“WHERE ARE YOU???!!! WHERE???!!!” Reverie of a silent night evaporates as Neil shouts down his cell phone. It is two days until Christmas – Christmas Eve eve – outside Bush Intercontinental Airport (named for the father, ironically, since it’s the son who was the true false Texan. Poppy was always more New England than New South.) Neil is trying to locate his parents and just as his frustration reaches a boiling point I spy them gliding down the pick-up lane in their Caprice Classic. It’s as if all at once the entire reason for the GM bailout has come into full view. I don’t need to see the “God Bless America” sticker in the rear window or the old sheet covering the back seat to realize that if the Tea Party were an automobile, it would be pulling up in front of me right now.

We’ve discussed Neil’s parents before (here) but, as a refresher, they left the Bronx almost 40 years ago and they still tawk like dis. His mother cracks me up – she’s disdainful and misanthropic – and basically everything I love about Neil. His father is sort of brilliant, in a mad scientist sort of way – he’s the type of guy who can properly use words like “inveigle” and “ossify” in casual conversation, but uses his son’s name and the dog’s interchangeably.

I’m girding myself for a snowless Christmas that will begin with Mexican food in a strip mall and end with an argument that lasts until New Years.

It’s hard to imagine no one’s ever written a carol about this.

On Christmas Eve, I finally drag myself from bed at 8am (9am Eastern time) – where I’ve been for the past ten hours. I’ve fallen back to sleep half a dozen times over the past four hours, and no longer have the capacity to force myself to stay in bed. It’s apparent I’m not going to get away with sleeping through the next five days unless I come down with malaria or chronic fatigue syndrome. (BTW, Carrie (of Carrie and Steven. From L.A. Keep up!) just got diagnosed with Kronick Fatigue Syndrome. This is sort of an inside joke, but is also funny if you know that every woman in her family is descended from the dervish; literally, they are a blur of activity and emotion and energy and junk food. They subsist on a steady diet of anxiety and Rice Krispie squares.) It’s also funny because not only is she stuck with some trendy yuppie fad disease, but she caught it a decade and a half after the fad was over. The only hope of making this cool is figuring out a way to make it 1993 again.)

The house is abuzz with activity; coffee has been made and drunk and there is talk of a second pot. Bagels and English muffins and an assortment of breads are on the counter. The dog is contemplating Eggs Benedict. (On our last visit, we spent approximately 70% of our time in grocery stores – mostly picking up samples and squirreling them away to feed the dog – an animal that gets more demonstrable affection than my husband or his sister. This is not a judgment. The dog is the grandchild they may never have; scraps from the H.E.B. are the toys and candies they’ll never spoil a toddler with.

I pad into the living room, bracing myself for 4 days of conversations about what our next meal is going to be (This is not a one-note conversation, by the way. You can discuss more than WHAT you are going to eat next. You can discuss WHEN you are going to eat it; WHERE you are going to eat it; WHAT specials the restaurant may be having; WHAT your favorite menu item is; WHY the regular prices are highway robbery; WHICH waitress is slow and lazy and which is nice. Truthfully, if you begin shortly after breakfast, you can keep the conversation going right up until that slovenly, slatternly waitress brings you your overpriced entrée.)

(At 4pm.)

We will also shortly begin discussing when we want to leave for the airport – four days from now. It is hard to ascertain what this conversation is actually about: something simple – such as making conversation, or more complex – such as apprehension about driving to the airport, or downright Freudian – such as implying that we’re always welcome but why the heck are we staying so long.

Which, quite honestly, is the struggle I am having with this trip. I’m going to warn you now – this is the part of the story where I am come off as less than sympathetic and somewhat selfish. Yes, we see my family on average of once a month in some form or fashion – but because they are local, each dosage is a four-hour experience; the filial equivalent of an aspirin. However, because Neil’s family is 1500 miles away, visits are immersion experiences, closer to radiation treatments. When they come to NY, they stay in a hotel (they’re always welcome with us, but the reality is the second bedroom is set up as an office, not a guest room. And the first bedroom is symbolic of a conversation we’ve managed to avoid for 6 years and there’s no point in facing it now.)

In Houston, we stay with them – in a spare room with a trundle bed that, last Thanksgiving, I pushed together while all four of us were setting up the room. If I were looking for a way to stall the chatter and small talk, I’d found it. In any event, trips to Houston are a 24/7 experience. To continue the analogy, it’s the family visit equivalent of chemotherapy.

Anyway, the truth is that no one comes out of this story looking good – least of all me. I knew we were headed to Houston for one of the late year holidays, and was sort of hoping that it would be Thanksgiving. Last year was perfectly fine – and you can sort of manage a Wednesday-to-Sunday between college football, extreme overeating, and mall shopping in a way that the days mostly evaporate. Plus, I’m not that attached to Thanksgiving. As far as holidays go, I love it: four days off of work; everybody takes the same time off so you can’t really fall behind like you do on vacation. But I’m not particularly attached to any Thanksgiving tradition. My mother has hosted it for years – but we no longer go to Connecticut like we did in the 80s and early 90s; she sold the house I grew up in almost 7 years ago. It’s basically just a big meal, an experimental side dish gone wrong, and waiting for someone to spill red wine so I can get blamed for it.

This is NOT my family.  I hope it's not yours, either.
Christmas – somehow – is different. My sister has made Christmas Eve for almost ten years and it is tradition. It is also the one day a year I get to see my entire family together in one place behaving relatively nicely to one another. My sister isn’t particularly relaxed, but she’s rarely particularly relaxed, and she generally finds a way to enjoy herself; she love-hates doing it. It’s a total inconvenience, and half the guest list could easily be flushed, but she loves having her whole family – crazy in-laws, lesbian DJs, inappropriate boyfriends, stray loners, new husbands, bad parents, occasional drug addicts and mean gay lovers – in one place.

It is also tradition to visit Neil’s aunt and uncle in Westchester on Christmas Day. There is always a pile of presents and too much food, and his cousin not getting engaged to his girlfriend for the eighth year in a row. There are Catholics and half-Catholics and Jews and Jehovah Witnesses and a belly dancer. And too much wine. And seven-layer dip – of which at least three layers may have come from ingredients that were appropriated from his aunt’s Subway franchise.

And it’s fun.

So, with all the family we have in New York – it just seems wrong for us to go to Houston. Every year I hope – in vain – that we can figure out a way to fly them up to New York; then everyone can be together and no one has to make any hard choices. Negotiators would call this a perfect solution.

Except the travel is inconvenient and the airports are crazy at the holidays and a million other reasons that aren’t reasons – and also are reasons – all at the same time.

So, as autumn wore on, we kept skirted by the issue of the holidays and not making any decisions. “What are we doing about visiting your family?” Became the conversation I started without us ever really finishing. We did it as a drive-by. After the question was out there like an opening ante, I offered, “Well, the problem is that my mother just got married.” This was negotiating by implication. Translation: “We skipped Thanksgiving last year. Also, my sister was with her in-laws last year. My mother will expect that, if she can alternate, then we can alternate. Plus, Mom just got married, so I’m sure she has some Walton’s Mountain vision of a family Thanksgiving where she can show off her constipated graciousness and mediocre cooking skills. She’ll get to show off how much she “enjoys” entertaining by beaming as my step-dad carves the turkey and stifling her frustration or hiding a grimace every time some onion dip hits the floor or a child behaves like, well, a child. We’ll be force-marched through saying what we’re thankful for and in a few short hours we’ll be freed into the frigid night, left with nothing but heartburn and gratitude that the turkey was, in fact, completely cooked, the yams not covered in rainbow covered marshmallows that she didn’t realize were fruit-flavored, and Elliott Gould isn’t dead (all Ghosts of Thanksgivings past.)

To be fair, that opening bid didn’t leave Neil much choice but to raise with, “Well, we’ve never gone to Houston for Christmas.” This is more a statement of fact than a position, but the implication is obvious. On several hands he added, “My sister keeps talking about how much fun that one Christmas was.” One needs to be careful of statements like these. I’m sure – if I tried – I could find a Thanksgiving from that last ten years in which no one got yelled at, the meal was largely edible, and no one left in an ambulance. But statisticians wouldn’t call this a trend.

Through passive-aggression – here we are. For six days. (By the time we booked the tickets, the schedule and prices weren’t terribly accommodating, so we’re in for a Thursday-Tuesday marathon.) And the reality is that this is my fault. My attempt to double-down on a strategy that got me Thanksgiving while betting that he wouldn’t want to give up Christmas has resulted in a visit that is longer than many of the vacations we’ve taken. And, feeling caught between my mother and my spouse (can anyone relate?) I failed to say what I wanted, which was that I could take or leave Thanksgiving, but didn’t want to miss Christmas.

So I will spend Christmas Eve quietly, trying to keep my pouting unnoticeable. We will go to the mall with my father-in-law, where we will appropriately express horror at the price of everything, and Neil will become increasingly frustrated with his inability to figure out a gift for either of his parents, with having waited until Christmas Eve to go shopping, and with the holiday in general. I will try to comfort him be reminding him that his mother has never been abroad, and that for several years I’ve been saying we should send them to Rome so that – before they die, they can see something older than each other.

Driving home from the mall (with gift cards) the radio reports the 2010 census information, highlighting that the population increase in Texas will result in a net increase of four Congressional seats, while New York will lose one, potentially two. Now, I am aware Texas has long surpassed New York as the second-most populous state, but driving through the sameness of the streets that comprise “The Woodlands” – a mobius strip of cul-de-sac upon cul-de-sac, development after development, where the condos and townhomes and ranch houses and McMansions are separated into planned “neighborhoods” – I wonder: Who the hell lives here?

It’s not just Houston and its cookie-cutter suburbs – which struck me as tedious long-before I knew Neil, when I used to travel here on business and figured the only reason the city grew was because there were jobs in the oil and gas business. It’s San Antonio with its cheap tourist attractions and general lack of industry or culture. Even Dallas and Austin – both of which I actually enjoy – still leave me puzzled. I think of Manhattan; the energy of the city and its unlimited options; the ability to do anything and be anyone you want to be; of the beach towns on Long Island, the bedroom suburbs, the mountain cabins of the Catskills – so much culture and nature – and it just confuses me beyond belief. In a world where there are so many choices – about what kind of life to have; what to participate in – it seems like so many Americans would politicize and proselytize about the American spirit than actually exercise it. I guess it’s easier to just sit at home, feel superior, then turn on Two and Half Men and microwave some pizza rolls.

I avoid actually commenting on the news, since politics and current events run the risk of completely derailing détente. We spend most of our visit sitting around the living room television where the only deviation from Fox News will be home improvement shows, anything involving midgets or Hitler, and the occasional classic movie (which is ordinarily a safe bet, but at one point, when I stop at “In the Good Old Summertime,” starring Judy Garland, I wonder if I’ve committed the entertainment equivalent of showing up at dinner in an evening gown.)

Fortunately, the pending snowstorm on the east coast is dominating the coverage, as we are otherwise subjected to year in review reporting that will include the election of Scott Brown, the November election and its “refudiation” of the Obama agenda, and the continuing transformation of Sarah Palin from the ignorant accidental governor of Alaska – who by virtue of John McCain’s cynicism, good messaging, and general good luck – has managed to become a true cultural phenomenon despite any actual knowledge, experience, accomplishment or even any particular affection for American government. I always wonder why people like her want to be part of the political conversation if they disdain it so much?

And no year-end news round-up would be complete without the lame duck session of Congress, particularly the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – sure to cast a pall over the living room. (Besides – what would I say? Other than the fact that I see it as a huge civil rights victory, my only other reaction is to reminisce about being 25, living in Washington, and getting to hook up with military guys suffering from low self-esteem. DADT may have been discriminatory, but it landed me a few dates that were totally out of my league.)

Christmas Eve dinner is a delicious pork tenderloin and Neil’s Brussels sprout dish with cannellini beans and parmesan – and the big excitement of the evening will be when the oven goes out in the middle of a rain and wind storm. (The stove top, interestingly, is gas – but the oven is electric.) The circuit breaker is outside, and at least three of us will venture out into the monsoon and attempt to flip the circuit back – which will prove impossible, though – thankfully – only the oven worked off that circuit so everything else is working. Dinner will be finished on the stove, and the conversation will center around relief that Christmas dinner is Italian food – sauces and pastas and things that can largely be made on the stove top or using electric appliances. If it had been a turkey, we’d be screwed.

I awoke on Christmas morning no more optimistic than I had gone to bed. As I head into the living room, however, there is a pile of presents under the mantle (decorated with garland, but there’s no tree.) After everyone’s awake and Neil’s sister arrives, we begin to open presents – and I’m stunned to find a sizable stack with my name on it. Scarves and shirts and housewares for the homes I share with their son and brother. And the final present was a book from Neil’s father – directly from his personal library. And so my Christmas really brought a miracle; of a touching gift from my father-in-law, of actions – more demonstrative than words – of being welcomed, included, and made a part of this family. And in that moment my dissatisfaction and frustration and selfishness evaporated, replaced by contentment and peace and no small amount of embarrassment at missing my family, when I was already with family.

I will need to remind myself of this later, when a neighbor arrives for dinner and I am introduced as Neil’s roommate. And friend. I know they don’t have the vocabulary for what we are (actually, I’m sure they know words like “boyfriend” and “husband” but lack the ability to use them in this capacity) – but I couldn’t help making mental comparisons to Bert and Ernie (Sesame Street’s subversive same-sex couple) and Laverne and Shirley (I always thought their affinity for “Boo-Boo Kitty” and “Scooter-Pie” was code.)

Oh, and there was one more miracle. As we sat down to dinner – the eggplant parmesan that had been prepped in advance (thank god) and reheated in an electric skillet, the Italian meats that boiled in homemade sauces on the range – my mother-in-law boasted about the great deal she got on the sausage because she found it in the section of meat that’s close to or just past its expiration date. For nearly forty years I’ve been looking for an effective way to curb my appetite on the holidays and I think I just found it. Meanwhile, when my sister-in-law suggested that this might not be critical dinner table conversation – or one that you’d want to share with a table full of guests, the response that followed was, “What? It tastes just as good and no one’s getting’ sick.”

Really, that woman cracks me up.