Monday, November 23, 2009

Probably Not What The Pilgrims Had In Mind...

I got such great comments on my last posting, I thought I'd explain a little more about where I was coming from.

I was raised almost entirely by my mother, who worked full-time, and took on extra work for extra money. I also have a sister and to say she has strong opinions would be lowballing it.  Thus, I spent the formative years of my life surrounded by women with powerful personalities, and I'm lucky to still have them in my life today.

I kid around about my mom's cooking, but I actually get my love of cooking from her.  (I get my love of baking from my dad, which we can discuss at Christmas when I enter a fugue state and bake 14 varieties of cookies in three days.  He once made a challah that was so good I still remember it, but he's a disaster with other stuff.  He once set a pizza box on fire.) Anyway, because of her work schedule, she didn't always have the time to prepare an elaborate dinner, but a home-cooked meal was on the table most nights - ordering in or going out happened once, and very rarely twice, a week.  Not every meal was a winner (and a few were total losers, like a beef stew that was orange...and inedible) but many were quite good.

I can still remember the old Dutch Oven my mom used for a variety of dishes.  It had a silver-colored bottom with black plastic handles on the sides, and a copper-colored lid with a black plastic handle.  This was her "go-to" pot for anything of a certain volume, but I most closely associate it with three dishes.

The first one I recall is stuffed cabbage.  I hated it.  The smell of cabbage boiling in a sweet and sour sauce so pungent it soaked right into your skin.  (I'm not kidding - for three days afterwards no one would sit next to me at school.) I don't even remember what it was stuffed with, some sort of meat mixed with rice.  All I know is that I could never really get much of it down.

The second dish was her spaghetti and meatballs.  She'd mix up a sauce in that pot, then cook the meatballs right in the sauce.  It's how I learned to make gravy, and I make it pretty much the same way to this day. Crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, onions, garlic, herbs, spices - I've posted it before, so you know what I'm talking about.

The last dish I associate with that pot is her pot roast.  Actually, In my house, "pot roast" and brisket were the same thing.  My mother bought a brisket cut of meat and cooked it in that pot with onions, garlic, carrots, a little tomato sauce, and some herbs.  Of the three, it was my favorite.  She still makes it for holidays and it's still great.

My mother's favorite holiday to cook has always been Thanksgiving.  She did Passover for a while (so did my Aunt Felice - a dreadful 6 hour evening of reading and waiting and an entirely brown meal.)  Now my cousin makes it (a breezy 6 minutes of reading followed by an entirely brown meal.  Some thing never change.)  My Aunt Louise makes Rosh Hashanah (which is why we skip it.  I love Louise, but she once dumped Good Seasons Italian Dressing on boneless skinless chicken breasts and called it dinner.  When your holiday meal ranks behind a spread of entirely beige dishes, you should let someone else make the holiday.)

My sister got Christmas Eve when she married outside the tribe (me, too, Thank the Baby Jesus! - we're the Jews who loved Christmas.  I do love being Jewish; we tend to get good doctors, good neighborhoods and good schools, but it's cold comfort for shitty holidays.  The only "fun" Jewish holiday is Purim, but that doesn't count because (1) no one can remember when it is (sometime in March, except when it falls in February, stupid lunar calendar) and (2) the official holiday food is a dry pastry stuffed with prunes.  It's basically a scone for old people.  You can't really hold that up against candy canes, chocolate bunnies, pastel candies or gingerbread men.)

But Thanksgiving was always my mom's shining achievement (and - in recent years - the one year anniversary of the last time she cooked.  But we cut her some slack, since ordinarily half the stuff in her kitchen might have been purchased during the Clinton administration and the other half is Diet Pepsi and cookies.)  There's the turkey (which was woefully undercooked in 2007, nearly killing the guests, but who doesn't dream of doing that at Thanksgiving?)  The stuffing (no oysters, no chestnuts, no sausage - just Pepperidge Farm herb stuffing and lots of salt, butter and aromatics.)  No mashed potatoes (sometimes Louise brings them, but they're beige and tasteless), but she does do yams (usually Princella Yams from the can, with marshmallows melted on top.  Actually, this is the other dish Louise occasionally brings and it's awesome.  She's like a cooking savant.  She can't cook for shit, but those sweet potatoes are delicious.  She just mashes 'em up with some butter and a can of crushed pineapple.  You cannot put them in the same room as a diabetic, they are so sweet.)  Finally, there's that weird green bean dish that every woman who began cooking in the 1970s makes: the canned green beans, the cream of mushroom soup, the fried onion strings. Bleh.  Oh - and there's alway something "new."  A dish she never made before and is trying for the first time this year.  In the past, these dishes have resulted in tears, screaming, and - in one particularly strange Thanksgiving - a conversation during which my mother swore Elliott Gould was dead.

But Thanksgiving isn't about the food; it hasn't been since the 1600s when it supposedly originated as a celebration of the harvest (though it wasn't a holiday until 1863. Yay! Fun Fact!)  Thanksgiving is about repetition.  It's about showing up in a place where people love you enough to show you a truly horrible evening, punctuated by embarrassing stories from your childhood and a recitation of the bad decisions you've made in your life.  At my mother's Thanksgiving, the food doesn't even appear until after 5, long after most Americans have passed out.  It begins with appetizers, which seem unnecessary when you're about to gorge yourself on the biggest meal of the year.  Still my mother can't have company in her house without a brick of cheese, a bowl of dip, and (weirdly) chips and salsa. Then dinner.  And, finally, dessert.

We need to discuss dessert for a moment.  Generally, Neil and I will bring something, or I'll bake something.  My mother will have procured a dessert or two as well.  And then there's my cousin (she of the brown Passover meal.)  She volunteers to bring a dessert.  My mother says, "Just one, please" with an exasperation that reveals she knows there will be a truckload of baked crap showing up.  So, of course my cousin shows up with 3 or 4 (and, one year, 5) desserts. There's always some kind of cookie (the peanut butter cookies with the Hershey's Kisses in the center should taste like more than they actually do,) a cake, a fruit dessert (last year it was a homemade Pop-Tart the size of Delaware) and an Apple Pie that she claims her son insisted on making.

None of the desserts taste like anything.  It's amazing someone can bake Martha Stewart-like quantities and emerge with a tray of pastries that all taste like construction paper.

Yet, for all the craziness, I kind of love it, and I'm missing it this year.  Neil and I are visiting his parents in Houston.  I'm looking forward to spending the holiday with the other side of my family, but I'll miss the craziness.  Three years ago my sister started alternating between her in-laws and my mother's house, and she's with them this year - for the first time in 35 years all three of us will be in different places.

I feel lucky to have such warm memories of Thanksgiving: the years we alternated going to Connecticut and making it at home; the time my husband spilled red wine on my mother's carpet and I took the fall; the year my mother used colored marshmallows on the yams, not realizing they were fruit flavored; and - of course - the time we argued about Elliott Gould being dead two hours before he showed up on an episode of Friends.

Nostalgic for home, Neil is making me a pot roast tonight.  It's not my mom's brisket, but it looks delicious.  A rump roast marinated for eight hours in balsamic vinegar and rosemary.  Place it in a Pyrex dish with one large onion, sliced, and a can of San Marzano tomatoes.  Bake at 350 for 3 to 3.5 hours.

Every year my mom goes around the table and forces everyone through the awkward ritual of articulating what they're thankful for.  I hate it, and always make a joke of it.  But now that I don't have to do it, I feel the desire to be thankful, and to share with you what I'm thankful for:


What I'm Thankful For:

A wonderful marriage

A healthy - and crazy - family

Good friends

The overdue end of that Jon and Kate Show

Marshmallows and licorice

The Return of Heather Locklear to series television

The continuing existence of Elliott Gould

Have a Safe and Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I Will Survivor

It's been a rough month to be a woman.

First, the US House of Representatives finally passes a comprehensive Health Insurance Reform bill and - in order to get it done - incorporates an extremely restrictive provision regarding abortion that goes much further than current law.  (Brief civics lesson, since 1976 (and ratified by the Supreme Court in 1980) the Hyde Amendment - named for former Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde, who was somewhere to the right of Hitler, has prohibited the use of federal funds to provide abortions.  Because the House bill includes a government-sponsored health insurance plan (the infamous "public option") the House wrestled with how to leave the Hyde Amendment intact.  Rather than choose the path ultimately selected by the current version of the Senate bill which requires that the plan segregate federal funds and subsidies form the premiums all participants in that plan must pay, Indiana Representative Bart Stupak offered an amendment which forbids the government-sponsored plan from permitting abortions at all, regardless of whether the money comes out of the customer's pocket or from the federal government.

Fortunately, since the Senate does not have such language, and since the votes to add it by Amendment probably aren't there, there will be a version of the bill without this provision.  When the House and Senate meet in conference to reconcile their bills, it is likely to come out altogether.

In other news, it is also believed by some that Henry Hyde was a reactionary bigot in order to cover up a secret passion for wearing pantyhose, singing jazz standards, and fooling around with boys (possibly Indiana Representative Bart Stupak.)  Or maybe not.

Then, the past week has brought news that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force - some of whose current members were appointed under the Bush presidency - announced new breast cancer screening findings that increase the recommended age for mammography screening from 40 to 50, except where an individual has certain risk factors such as a family history.  The guidelines further recommend screening every other year, instead of every year - again, in the absence of risk factors.

The report further called into question the value of breast self-exams.  Now, here's where my knowledge of women hits the wall.  But - as a guy - I can say that the half the fun of being told to regularly do a testicular self exam is the medical encouragement to play with my balls.  So I'd be pretty pissed if, all of a sudden, I was told to stop touching my body in a way that could save my life, not to mention salvage a rainy afternoon at home.

It is worth noting that there wasn't a single oncologist on the Task Force.

Finally, the tail end of the week brought news of a report from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists which recommends beginning cervical cancer screenings at age 21, instead of 18.  The guidelines also increase the period between screenings from every year to every other year.

In the midst of moving toward comprehensive health insurance reform, the insurance industry is pushing back against the bills moving through Congress.  (This, by the way, is comical, since they don't do much to control costs, allow insurers to charge whatever the heck they want, don't create government plans with nearly enough leverage to create cost controls, and require everyone to have insurance.  This, the insurers get millions of new customers, can charge whatever they want, and don't get more than token competition.  Sure, they can no longer rescind insurance or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, but that's small potatoes compared to what they're getting.)

So, the worry is that these new guidelines will ultimately be reflected in an industry that chooses to cover mammography and pap smears only once every two years, and only after the ages of 50 and 21, respectively.  Combine that with the abortion restrictions in the House bill and it all adds up to a pretty crappy month.

I'm not really going to get into abortion politics here - I'm with Obama on this one: this is a health insurance bill, not an abortion bill, and there's no reason to do anything other than preserve the status quo.  Nor am I an expert in women's reproductive health.

I do, however, have a sense of fairness and common decency.  Setting aside the politics of these issues - whatever side you're on - it's a little scary to look at how many choices that they are taking away.  

None of these issues are simple.  If one is compelled by the research that led to the new guidelines, fine.  But then why aren't we also compelled by the data from countries with national health insurance that indicate they spend much less and get much better outcomes.  Or our own data that shows that people without health insurance - particularly those of certain income levels - see health declines but if they can hang on until 65 - when they become Medicare eligible - their life expectancy and health condition dramatically improves.

I remember, during the primaries running up to the 2008 election, a lot of women under the age of about 30 or 32, expressing distaste for Hillary Clinton, believing that the gender wars were over and there was no need for second-wave feminism anymore.  They were wrong then, and they're clearly wrong now.  There may be a lot more women in a lot more professions with a lot more opportunity, but women still don't have the choices that men do.

And now some of the choices they had may be taken away.  It's unconscionable really.

Oh, and now you know how gays in California and Maine felt when they had something taken way from them.

I've written on this topic before and I stand by this: if we don't stand up and stand together we're doomed.  You never know when your "group" is the next to become a minority, the next to lose something because a majority decided you shouldn't have it.

On to other topics...

I'm home from my sojourn out west, and just in time to spend my Saturday having lunch with my husband and our friend, Brette, at the Spring Street Natural.  On Spring and Lafayette in SoHo, think of it as a healthy diner.  Brette had a steak stir fry that looked scrumptious, while Neil and I both got the chicken sandwich on rosemary ciabatta.  A sandwich you can really sink your teeth into, and served with a mountain of fries, I'm still full five hours later.  We also got to meet Brette's charming mother, visiting from Maryland, who got a frittata of asparagus, broccoli, shiitake mushroom and ricotta that looked wonderful.  The dining room is a bit noisy, and pack your patience for sitting amongst the stroller set (instead of congestion pricing, I'm voting we charge a fee for bring children under the age of 18 into Manhattan.)  Still, a worthwhile dining spot.

And speaking of outer borough activity, Neil regaled us with tales of the Beauty and the Beast National Tour.  This is a licensed production, not a Disney-produced show, and is called a "second class" production, which sounds like what used to be called a "bus and truck" tour.  He had us laughing out loud as I imagined the singing candelabra scaled down to a lit match, and the teapot replaced by a styrofoam cup.

Well, that's pretty much it.  I'm sitting here watching Survivor on the TiVo.  Are you watching this season?  You should be.  Best season in years.  There's so much drama and so many surprises, I'm literally cheering at the TV and jumping out of my seat during tribal council.

Of course, I'm a loser, so there's that....


DO THIS, New York:

Get your reproductive health checkups now, while they're still covered by insurance.  If you have insurance.

Go to the Spring Street Natural

Watch Survivor.

DON'T DO THIS, New York:

Keep your hands off my body.  Well, ok, put them on my body.  But buy me a drink first.  Or some health insurance.

That's Not An Outfit

There are numerous trends and fads that have long outlived their novelty, and which I wish would finally come to a long-awaited end: the re-imagining of childhood comfort food as gourmet cuisine, a cultural fascination with cupcakes, calling people, “Bro.”  However, the one most in need of departure; the one for which I’d endure all the others, is the idea – persistent among the American public - that workout clothes are an appropriate outfit for anything other than working out.

I had to travel on business again this week, and was reminded of my disdain for this interesting fashion choice upon boarding my flight to Phoenix.  Of the three passengers in my row, I was the only one who hadn’t elected to wear some form of athletic pant.  To my immediate right was a large (and really, didn’t you see that coming; no one who wears athletic clothes as “fashion” is actually athletic in any way) woman in a tight (‘natch) pink velour sweatsuit.  And to her right, on the aisle, was a large (‘natch) gentleman who had cleverly chosen to pair his grey windpants with a polo shirt and a grey blazer, taking the concept of a sweat"suit" to an interesting place.  Outside of costuming a character in a Wes Anderson film, such a sartortial choice should really be left to the criminally insane.

Nice try, though.  Workout clothes are NOT an outfit.  Jesus wept.  So did Tim Gunn.

I hate traveling.  I love going to different places, but – in today’s day and age – I just hate air travel.  It’s not just the delays, the crowded airplanes, the limited schedules, the indignities and inefficiencies of airport security, or the public in general.  It’s badly dressed fat people cramming themselves into a seat and overflowing into mine.  And the airlines for keeping those seats to a size suitable for Japanese tea hostesses.

As a former fat person, let me explain, because this is less unkind than it sounds (though, to be fair, not by much.)  First, it has to do with accommodating the reality of how fat America has become.  Over one-third of adults are obese, and studies project that number will exceed 41% in the next few years.  (That increase is due to two factors – the first is the increase in the number of people who become obese, and the second is the aging of already obese youths past the age of 18, at which point they get rolled into the adult population statistics.)

Why then, don't our public conveyances reflect the reality of American bodies?  When you board a train, bus or subway – and particularly an airplane, why do the seats seem to be built for people who are six inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter than most Americans?  I know we’ve been making sport of airline seats for years, but we’re at a near-comical point where the two are so misaligned it feels like it’s being done to intentionally embarrass the passengers.  The woman next to me couldn’t get the armrest all the way down!  Her thighs kept pushing it up, where it then interacted with her love handles and created “muffin top.”

Second, how can we be having a national debate about health care and not only be skipping a serious conversation about controlling costs but also be skipping a serious conversation about nutrition and obesity, which are a top cause of the health care costs we incur and of the increases we’ve encountered in the past few decades?

The guy on the aisle ate more cookies in four and half hours than I ate during both Bush presidencies.

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t splurge, but there’s a time and a place.  And be careful with quantities.  Elastic waistbands should be a choice; not a necessity.

Here's a recipe from our kitchen that's completely satisfying, and pretty good for you:

Throw a couple of chicken breasts on an indoor grill (the George Foreman works great for this, as do many others.)  If you don't have one, put a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat.  Sprinkle salt, pepper and rosemary over the chicken and cook almost to completion, approximately 5 minutes on each side.  Spray a non-stick cooking spray, such as Pam, in a shallow casserole (Pyrex works great) and add the chicken.  Cover with marinara sauce (you can use jarred, or combine a can of crushed tomatoes (28 oz), two cans of tomato sauce, and some basil, oregano, italian parsley, onions and garlic.  Cover the chicken with sauce.  Cover with a little shredded mozzarella or parmigiano-reggiano.  Bake for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a skillet or wok, heat some olive oil and add hot red pepper flakes and minced garlic.  Add one package asparagus, cutting each stalk into quarters (and disposing of the bottom quarter, only using the top three.)  Cook for 8 minutes over medium-high heat.

Yes, it's a fake chicken parm, but it's delicious.  And when you do splurge, make it worth your while – and worth the calories.  Here are two tips; one highbrow, one lowbrow.

HIGHBROW SPLURGE:  landmarc – Time Warner.

A midtown branch of the TriBeCa institution that opened to raves in the early part of this decade, landmarc on the third floor of the Time Warner Center retains many of the qualities that earned its sister such glowing reviews (extensive wine list with minimal mark ups, great quality ingredients, varied menu, excellent preparations.)  It also takes the downtown vibe and transplants it to the gateway of the Upper West Side.  landmarc gives the neighborhood a jolt of energy and maximizes the location overlooking the southwest corner of Central Park. 

landmarc is not only a thoroughly modern steakhouse, but arguably the best steakhouse in the city.  Dining at landmarc is a much more limber experience than more traditional steakhouses, due in part to its shrugging off the heavy steakhouse conventions that just weight down the meal. (Does anyone else NEVER need to see a presentation of the meat ever again?  Can we all agree to skip gelatinous bowls of creamed spinach and some dork in a tuxedo carrying a peppermill that looks like it was torn off a four-poster bed?)  What’s left are a variety of inventive appetizers and salads (try the marrow bones), a selection of great cuts of meat (I’m partial to the strip, but the skirt is a great value, too) served with delicious sauces (shallot bordelaise is my preference).  Though – honestly – half the time I never eat the sauce because the meat is so well seasoned.  If steak isn’t your thing, there are more than a dozen other choices, from a generous double cut pork chop or a moist chicken, to a daily pasta special (Bucatini All’amatriciana on Wednesday; Cacio e Pepe on Sunday – both worth engineering which day you go.)

Save room for dessert – and make a point of ordering the not-on-the-menu cotton candy along with a pastry selection or ice cream cone (mint chocolate chip.)  And if you haven’t busted your pants, you’ll get a handful of homemade butter caramels on the way out the door.

You gotta get on a plane, but it’s seriously worth the trip. I’ve done every burger place east of the Rockies, and do have a fondness for the Shake Shacks and the Stoned Crows of the world.  But nothing comes close to In n Out burger – as close to religious experience as you can get for $10 and still keep your clothes on.  6 words:  Double-Double, Animal Style, Chocolate Shake.

Now – some perspective.  I eat steak once a month.  My visit to In n Out was my third in five years, and my first since the spring of 2008. 

After all, if you want to look like you should be wearing athletic apparel as fashion, you should shoot for a swimsuit, not a sweatsuit.


DO THIS, New York:

Make my fake chicken parmesan.

Go to landmarc.  Get the strip steak.

Double-Single, Animal Style, Chocolate Shake.

Wear real clothes.

DON'T DO THIS, New York:

Leave the workout clothes at the gym, please.

Go to the gym, please.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Shouldn't It Be Too Late in the Year for June Gloom?

The second sentence of the email initiated cognitive dissonance the moment I read this: "Was in a really fun wedding all weekend."

No, you weren't.

No, really, you weren't.  I know because there is pretty much no such thing as a "really fun" wedding unless:

  • the person being married is you;
  • the person being married is someone you used to date and they are marrying someone worse than you;
  • the person being married is Liza Minelli and the other person is a flaming homosexual;
  • you have slept with someone at the altar within 72 hours of the wedding.
Most weddings, however, do not fall into these categories.  And since this phantom "Fun Wedding" was the second such mythical marriage I heard about this weekend, I decided to begin this week's column by dispelling the lies about weddings.

The first person who raised this topic was my father, who went to the wedding of the son of a close friend. This type of wedding falls into the category of "Weddings You Are Obligated To Attend" (which includes family members and close friends.)  Other categories of weddings include "Weddings of People You Slept With In College," "Weddings of People You Slept with in High School," "Weddings of People You Slept with in High School, then spelt with again after they Friended You on Facebook," "Weddings of People You Should Have Limited to a One-Night Stand but Ended Up Dating and Now Have All the Same Friends," "Weddings of People You Nearly Married," "Weddings of People You Once Married," "Weddings That Have the Potential to Get Interested Because Half the People Going Are Alcoholics," "Destination Weddings - or - How to Spend $2,500 on Someone You Don't Particularly Like," "Weddings of People You Work With," and "Weddings of People You Are Curious To See How Fat They Got."

Every other kind of wedding is avoidable except the Obligation Wedding.  You have to work, the dog is sick, the kids have fleas, you broke your arm skiing, you have another wedding and it's a family member...whatever.  Send a check (if you're a Jew or from the New York area) or a gift off the registry (New Yorkers use the registry for the engagement and cash for the wedding gift - it's a unique way of double dipping only my ancestors could have perfected.)  Write a nice card.  Wish them well.  Stay home.

I know, everyone reading this thinks I'm ungracious (if they didn't already which, quite frankly, would be rather miraculous.)  But let me just say it - weddings suck.

Only one of three things happen at the ceremony: if they're Jews, Hindis, or another non-Christian religion, the ceremony is conducted in a language most of the guests don't understand.  If it's a generic Christian wedding, the format is either something you've seen on every television show ever produced, or is slightly modified so the couple can read their own vows.

There is nothing worse than the dreaded "custom vows." When this happens, you can count on a high likelihood of oversharing (I don't need to know anything about the contours of someone's body unless I'm currently experiencing them), public displays of co-dependence (no, actually, I'm fairly certain you can live without each other - whether you may do so happily is another question, but your admission is certainly making the rest of us glad you found each other) and bad poetry (bonus points to the rhymers, who inevitably choose to pair "love" with either "dove" or "above" - a disappointment to all of us who are sitting in the pews rooting for "shove." I have heard tale of one wedding where the bride rhymed "love" with "wuv" which I think is cheating; and also - hilarious.)

Also, when did the kiss begin involving tongue?  How is that not gross?  If this is where we're headed, I might actually start going to weddings again, but only when we get to the point where the groom is doing body shots off the bride.

Oh yes, did I forget to tell you that?  I don't go to weddings anymore.  Only blood relatives with one degree of separation or less (parent/sibling/aunt-uncle/first cousin) or friends who can remember a time when I had hair, love handles or empathy.  Nope - my routine is: Send regrets, Send a gift.

Here's why.  This is what happens when you do go:

1. Sometimes you must travel a fair distance, sometimes even crossing state lines, incurring airfare or long car rides, hotel bills, and extended events with people you don't very much want to spend time with.  You run out of conversation during the Rehearsal Dinner and have lapsed into quiet hostility or discussions of the weather long before the Next Day Brunch.

2.  At the wedding itself, you are subjected to people you felt awkward around at one point or another in your life, or people you were close to that you no longer see and feel awkward around now, or people you are still friendly with but would rather be hanging out with somewhere else.

3.  You are seated according to the most basic stereotypical label someone can stick on you: "Friends from College," "Single People," "All the Random Gay People We Know."  I will never again go to a wedding and risk being seated between the queen who did the bride's hair and the groom's Aunt Mary and Uncle Shirley who are 65, ride motorcycles and harvest corn.

4.  The food sucks.

5.  Yes, it does.

6.  Yes, even at your wedding.

7.  The music is either some tragic suburban local outfit doing weird covers of Bon Jovi songs and pretending they can handle Whitney or Mariah with a lead singer who only has a 12-note range, or a DJ who is still playing songs from the Spin Doctors and the Wallflowers.  I miss the 90s too, but not that badly.

8.  The drinks are weak and there isn't enough privacy in the bathroom to do drugs.

I began to feel a little misanthropic about my stance on weddings, so I called the ultimate romantic.  One of my oldest friends, a woman, and someone who's wedding I was actually at.  For the sake of anonymity, we shall call her "Monkey."

"Hi, Monkey."

"What's up, Duck?" Please don't ask.

"I'm writing about weddings this week, Monkey, and I need the perspective of a woman."  Monkey stood steadfastly behind the principle that all women want to get married and all women want to keep the option of children open.  She therefore believed, as strongly as Republican politicians claim to believe in God so they can look righteous while getting poor religious white southerners to vote themselves into poverty for another generation, that all women want to get married by the age of 30.  I disagreed with her vehemently for years, but ultimately realized that, with the exception that the precipice in New York City is about 32 (we skew a bit older on the topic of marriage) - the Monkey is right.

Ask yourself - do you know a never-been married woman over the age of 30 (32 in New York) who doesn't want to get married ASAP and isn't a little bit angry/bitter/depressed about it)?

"Okay," says the Monkey.  "How can I help?"

"Are weddings ever fun?"


"I knew it."

"Well, mine was fun."  This is true - but only because it falls into the category of being her own wedding.  For me, the Monkey's wedding was fun, but largely because everyone attending was some degree of clinically insane.  Plus, there was candy.  "Yours was fun, too."

I agree, but then again it was my wedding.  It was also held in the Monkey's house (in Massachusetts, my only option at the time, though I doubt Iowa would have been a contender even if we could have gone there way back when.)  The wedding included the Monkey, a funny Jewish lady rabbi, and a pile of cupcakes.  The reception was an 8-day vacation for 10 people to Puerto Vallarta.  Say what you will about Same-Sex Marriage, but we took our friends on vacation and didn't waste any time with some crappy cover band or (actual wedding experience from 1997:) a cash bar.

"Thanks, Monkey."

"You know, Duck, people will think you're really bitter if you write about marriage.  After all, same-sex marriage has had challenges at the polls, politicians aren't standing up for it, and there's the risk that you'll sound a little "sour grapes." Now, personally, I totally understand where you're coming from, because most weddings are twice as long as the movie Titanic and half as interesting, but do you really want to open this can of worms?"

"I do."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sweeped Away

Maybe I would be cuter if I had a brother?

Have you been watching reality television this year?  Cute brothers are this year's competition reality raison d'etre.  Which, quite frankly, is a welcome change from the standard issue "token gay team," "inspiring handicapped contestant," and "sweet old people who make it further than you think they would but still lose."  Thankfully, they haven't totally pre-empted the "couple on the verge of marriage who clearly aren't getting there because he's an abusive dick or she's a totally manipulative whiny bitch."

Because that's the reason I participate in pop culture to begin with.  Well, that and special moments like Sarah Palin's book.  Really, am I the only one who expected it to be a Pop-Up book?  Wouldn't that have been fun?  Like, you turn the page to the Chapter on Foreign Policy and there's Alaska and you can tug on the Aleutian Archipelago (string of islands that make Alaska look like it has a tail" and a Russian castle appears with Vladimir Putin waving at Sarah.

But more about television later.

This week has been all about agents.  First, I spent a lot of time negotiating with real estate agents over a house we saw last weekend that we're trying to buy.  I think half the reason I want to buy it is the crash in the real estate market.  Usually I get involved in something five minutes before its market tanks (I starting working at international software company SAP one month before the tech bubble burst. )  For once, I feel like I have a chance to get in after the damage has been done and prices are at or close to rock bottom.

So, of course, after we negotiate our way to a deal, my agent calls me to tell me the seller wants to raise the price.  You'd laugh and think this is uncommon, but this is the second time we've tried to buy a house only to have the seller try to raise the price.  Call me crazy, but isn't this basically the equivalent of going to a restaurant, ordering dinner, and then having the waiter saw, "Yeah, I know the menu says $14.95, but we decided we want to charge you $19.95."

Oh - and the best part: the seller owns multiple properties and lives in a penthouse on the Upper East Side.  So there was no way we were agreeing to a price increase.  At the end of the day, she stuck by the deal, but not without spending needless cycles getting right back to where we started.

I also dealt with theatrical agents.  First, trying to get one for myself, as I find myself getting more and more opportunities in hosting and developing television shows, and knowing less and less about how to protect myself and represent my own interests.  Thankfully, some good friends have helped me get in touch with the agents they work with and trust, but one experience stands out.  An agent who had passed on my portfolio a few months ago was contacted, since his agency does a lot of hosting work.  Despite the fact that I wasn't even asking him to fully represent me, just freelance for one project because I'm fairly far along and don't understand the process.  He wouldn't even take a meeting.

I know I'm supposed to be stolid and confident through all of this, because there are always more "no"s than "yes"es in this business, but stuff like that really torpedoes my confidence.  I mean, if I can make it fairly far along a casting process for a pretty major network and still not generate interest, what the heck do I have to do?

And finally, I dealt with gate agents.  I had to fly to DC on Wednesday morning.  You'd think that US Air Shuttle, with 15 flights from New York to Washington every day - on the hour! - would be a little more efficient in moving people through the airport.  I don't know why they even both to have four security lanes when there's never more than one open at any given time.  I mean, if they aren't opening additional lanes during the morning and evening rushes, when people are flying in for a day's worth of meetings and the line is nearly a hundred people deep, when the hell do they open it?  2pm when soap operas are on and they want to move people through so they can find out if Nicole is really Fred, the former Navy Seal who had a sex change after finding out his psychotic twin brother fathered a half-Cambodian girl that Lisa served gruel to at a soup kitchen before conscripting her into a prostitution ring run by Freemasons?

By the way, in the shuttle departure lounge at LaGuardia, you can always tell who is going to Boston and who is going to DC.  The Boston passengers are generally younger, maybe students, a little edgier and interesting.  The DC passengers are the ugly people in suits.

I spent my day in meetings, then came back to New York (miraculously leaving downtown DC at 5:15 and making it to National Airport in time to clear security and board a 6pm shuttle.  Which somehow left on time.  Evening flights NEVER leave on time for LaGuardia.

When I landed, I called Neil and we agreed to meet at one of our favorite restaurants on the west side, 44andX, at Tenth Avenue and 44th St.  44 and X is a New American restaurant that's been in Hell's Kitchen since long before it was the trendy place that young homos moved to because they could no longer afford Chelsea.

Neil and I shared the chopped salad to start - a Mediterranean inspired salad that includes hearts of palm, avocado, chickpeas and feta.  We were both also really intrigued by the pork, so we got the same dish: an ancho chile rubbed pork tenderloin served atop an almond polenta.  The pork was perfectly cooked, and the nuttiness of the polenta - which was creamy and slightly sweet - cut the salt an spice of the pork perfectly.

We go to 44 and X quite a bit.  The owner and manager, Scott Hart, has been in the neighborhood for years, contributes to local charities particularly those involving the Broadway community, and is always working the restaurant making sure his customers are happy.  He's an excellent host - check out his restaurant.  And for brunch, try the sister location, just up the block, called 44 and 1/2.

Which brings us back to television.  Isn't November sweeps month?  Why did nothing happen on any of my shows this week?  Project Runway had the dull Tim-goes-to-visit-the-finalists-at-their-homes-and-has-dinner-with-their-supportive/skeptical/charming/crazy/old-world-families.  There's always a wacky best friend or a distant father, as well as Tim looking concerned over some piece in their collection that isn't fit for a pet boutique, but other wise the episode is always a total dud; nothing but filler.  BO-ring.

How I Met Your Mother was a snore where Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders spent the episode in fat suits and old-age make-up, stumbling through the paces of "old married couple" jokes.

Even Melrose Place was low on the suds this week, with some sappy storyline about David taking his little brother to the amusement park.  After the kid gets hurt, his dad, the ever-nasty Michael Mancini is pissed, but becomes tender and touched when David says he just wants to spend time with his little brother.  This is the same guy who once left his psychotic wife to develop a brain aneurysm so he could take advantage of a vulnerable cancer patient. Thankfully, that cancer patient was Amanda Woodward, and she's back next week.

Which leaves us with the only things worth watching this week: on Top Chef, the Chefrechaun and the Hot Brothers were once again on top, while crazy Robin, who lasted a few weeks past her level of competence, was finally the victim of a mercy killing.

And on the Amazing Race, we have the first-ever team of gay brothers: Sam and Dan McMillen.  Sam and Dan brothers from Missouri who recently came out to each other (and 15 million viewers) and decided to run the race.  Once is more introverted, one is a model, and both are born-again Christians.



Do This, New York:

Check out 44 & X.

Stick with Top Chef and Amazing Race

Don't Do This, New York:

You can pretty much dump everything else from this past week's TiVo.  Feh.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Love You Save

“The 8:10 train to Montauk is delayed due to equipment problems, please stand by.”

Oh, brother.

I already know what Neil’s expression is going to look like, so I contort my face into one of commiseration and sympathy.  I’ve found, in marriage, when your spouse is frustrated with someone or something other than you, the best strategy is complete agreement.  Do you really want to engage in argument about whether there are too many Thai restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen when there are only two on the Upper West Side?  Or why every restaurant in our neighborhood is Japanese?  And whose side are you taking?  Some shadowy dining club that’s conspiring to make it impossible to walk through the west 40s without being subjected to the alluring aroma of kaffir lime and cilantro?  A mysterious organization of Japanese restaurateurs who have so dominated the area surrounding the Museum of Natural History that you can practically get a salmon skin roll at the entrance to the dinosaur bones, but can’t find a decent drunken noodle between Lincoln Center and Columbia University?

“All these people up here with their museums and their kids and their classes at the Y.  They’re the ones who keep eating all this damn Japanese food.  Meanwhile, the rest of us can’t get a decent pad thai.  Even Vynl (which used to serve pad thai) closed, and that was a diner.”

Only my husband could use the language of the red-state blue-state divide to articulate migratory dining patterns of Manhattanites.  Like Sarah Palin blogging for Menupages.

All of this is by way of explaining that tortured empathy was my only option here, particularly since it’s my fault we’re on the platform in Jamaica shortly after 8am on a Sunday.  Getting Neil out of bed before 7:30am on a workday can require not only an alarm, but an icepick, so 6am on Sunday demands something more creative, like a fire or a live Cobra.

“She better show us some good houses today or she’s fired.”  Neil’s only playing; the truth is he really loves our real estate broker.  And I can’t fault him for being frustrated: we’ve been looking at houses in the Hamptons on and off since we got engaged, much less married – a span of almost four years.  In all that time we’ve only seen three we liked enough to buy.  One was too expensive, one left us with some concerns about the construction, and one was so perfect it had to fall apart – and did when the seller pulled out of the deal as I was headed to my lawyer’s to sign the contracts.

“Stupid train.  It’s fucking Jamaica.  Aren’t there, like, 800 other trains in the yard they could use?”  That’s me.  When I’m supportive, I go whole hog.

“Let’s take the train and go visit your Mom!”  This is the joke Neil makes every time we change at Jamaica.  It’s funny because visiting my Mom ranks somewhere between oral surgery and a trip to Gitmo.  I love the woman, but the last time we went out there, I told her I was up for a show on the History Channel and she changed the subject.  Halfway through the story.  If you’re wondering why I lacked the confidence to pursue a career in the creative arts until my mid-30s (Ok, fine, late 30s.  Fuck off.), this is why.

“I think she gets back from that cruise today.” I remind him.

“Another cruise?  She and your dad should take one together.  They’d have fun.”

This is funny because my parents taking a cruise together would threaten to replace the Titanic as the worst nautical disaster of all time.  Over the years, the list of places that are too small for my parents to occupy at the same time has grown so large it actually includes the state of Michigan. The idea of my father and his lover (yes, he’s gay, catch up, we’ve got lots to cover) and my mother and her newly-moved-in boyfriend (this is going to be fun – my mother can’t share a dessert, much less her home) on a cruise ship together spawns visions of an ending that would wind up on Dateline.

However, I will say that between my parents and their respective significant others, they've logged more hours on a cruise ship than Captain Stuebing and Charo.

Still, I think a Sunday in the Hamptons is a perfect ending to a lovely weekend.  Yesterday morning I got up early and cleaned out the TiVo again.  I’m pleased to report that Crying Christopher, who departed Project Runway in a rustle of grey fabrics, didn’t disappoint at the end.  Still, for all his high drama and low fashion, I have to give the guy credit for making it to the end despite a lack of formal training and no real outlet for his work back in Minnesota.  I hope he looks back at the season and sees how his earlier work compared to his later designs.  He has some real talent, and if he can prevent himself from falling victim to too many ideas at once, he’ll have a future.  Somewhere amid the frenzy of creativity, there’s a vision. 

Controversially, Gordana was also eliminated, though I personally would have dumped Althea (she of the “paper bag waist” which I still don’t think is a thing.)  I tend to agree that Gordana’s work tended towards being very “off-the-rack;” competently executed and fashionable, but not overly inspired.  Still, based on the last challenge, her dress was definitely one of the top two designs.

Over on Top Chef, the regular proceedings were halted for a Reunion Special.  Again.  Snore.  Sorry, but they keep bringing a potpourri of chefs back from previous seasons and it’s just so dull at this point.  Fabio hosted a dozen or so chefs from all five seasons, with each season having to work together to make a course, but it wasn’t really a competition.  Thus, it lacked pace and structure.  And the potential conflict is so dampened at this point, who cares?  Ilan and Marcel from season two seem to have mostly buried the hatchet.  And even though Marcel is still such a prig you want to stuff his head in an oven, it’s old at this point. 

The evening did have one potential: the reunion of Casey from Season Three and Carla from Season Five.  Carla, with a real shot at winning her season coming off three or four episodes in a row where she totally blew the doors off the competition, blew it in the finale after Casey served as her guest sous chef and convinced her to sous vide her entrée.  The move pretty much cost Carla the title.

It could have been epic.  Like Joan Collins-Linda Evans epic.  Amanda Woodward epic. (For anyone under thirty who doesn’t get these allusions, think Blake Lively-Leighton Meester in Gossip Girl, but you should really be schooled in the classics.)  I mean, is there anyone who wouldn’t have tuned in to Carla coming unglued and chasing Casey around the Top Chef kitchen with a meat cleaver.  That’s appointment television.

But, NOOOOOO.  Carla had to be all nice and sweet and Carla about it, with all the “it was my decision” and “I accept total responsibility for it.”  Really, such behavior is almost completely un-American.

Speaking of un-American, there's a new Latin American restaurant in Hell's Kitchen on Ninth Avenue and 53rd Street.  Agua Dulce.  It is terrific.  The decor is modern and hip and the lighting is impeccable.  The service is a little uneven - a bit over-solicitous in places, but it's better than the alternative (which is negligence and disregard, the hallmarks of popular new New York eateries.)  Neil and I shared the guacamole, which was good, though it could have been chunkier, spicier and served in a more generous portion.  My chicken was wonderfully prepared, crispy skin and tender flesh served with roasted potatoes that approximated a good patatas bravas.  Neil had the arroz con pollo which was seasoned more appropriately, rich and bursting with flavor.  We each drank a specialty cocktail and can completely recommend the fresamenta, a blend of vodka, strawberry, mint and club soda.

Go - now - before the good reviews come in from the majors.

Friday night we saw that Michael Jackson movie, “This Is It.”  I have to go on record saying that I loved it.  Loved it, loved it, loved it.  And I’m surprised, because I never EVER thought of myself as a Michael Jackson fan. The last concert I saw was the Victory tour in 1983.  The last album I bought was Thriller.  I had a familiarity with the music, but never really understood it – or him as a performer – until I saw this movie.  Yeah, I had something of an appreciation for his stuff, liked some of it, but mostly thought he was weird and creepy (which he was) and made mean jokes about it because that’s what I do.

But something happened while watching the movie.  All of a sudden, Michael Jackson as an artist is revealed to you.  More than his music, which was actually ground-breaking – leveraging sounds that were rhythmic and catchy and completely familiar and turning them into something totally new.  More than his dancing, which was inspired in its creation and near-flawless in its execution, even at the age of 50.

This Is It taught me two things I never knew about Michael Jackson.  The first was, despite the child-like voice and horror-movie-spooky accoutrements (the monkey, the glove, the hair, the surgery, I could go on) – Michael Jackson had a clear artistic vision, and was not a diva.  As captured on film, he comes across as a generous performer and manager who, though a total control-freak, respected the breadth of people it takes to create a project like the very ambitious concert they were developing, let them do their jobs, but set clear expectations and had a crystal clear idea of what he wanted.

Second, Michael Jackson had a message.  Evolved across multiple albums and nearly 25 years, the story he weaves together is a completely innocent and totally naïve world-view about peace and love and freedom and equality.  It’s stunning in its simplicity, and a perfect perspective at a time when the depth and breadth of crises in the world cries out for a message of healing.  I’m not ordinarily this sentimental, but I found the movie inspiring because it exhorts making the world a better place.  For you and for me. 

We should probably just leave it there.  Otherwise, I might ruin this moment by telling you about the guy I saw on the subway platform yesterday.  He was so round he looked like Violet Beauregarde after eating the gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 

But he wasn’t, you know, blue.


DO THIS, New York:

Go to Agua Dulce.  It's delicious.

See This Is It and appreciate Michael Jackson's total mastery of his art.  That concern would have been worth seeing.  He took the best of his work, added magnetic new layers without sacrificing the familiarity we unconsciously look for in works we already know and love, and created new music that will stand with some of the best in his songbook.

Heal the World.  Make it a better place. (I told you I was touched.)

DON'T DO THIS, New York:

I don't recommend picking a fight with Neil over the varieties of Asian food available in Manhattan.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Do The Rights Thing

What a busy week!  There's so much ground to cover I hardly know where to start.  Two dinner parties, the Yankees winning the World Series, and some election news.  I'll try to keep it brief, but if you've been here before, you know that 's not necessarily my defining characteristic.

Monday night I finally kept a long-ago promise to Marcelene and invited her over for ribs.  It was a promise made near the end of the summer when it was still convenient to grill outside.  Now, I adore Marcelene, but it's in the 40s and low 50s at night this time of year.  Barbecuing is not an option without risking permanent damage to some of my favorite body parts.

I consider using the indoor grill, then - as I'm making the barbecue sauce, which I planned to brush on the ribs - I decide to cook the ribs right in the sauce until they're fall-off-the-bone tender.  I used the same barbecue sauce I made last Saturday, this time adding a little more Asian chili garlic sauce and some more Cayenne to give it a little heat.  Well, I left those ribs in that sauce for 8 hours on low, and they were delicious.  Some butternut squash puree completed a simple dinner set against the background of the Yankee losing Game 5 of the series (didn’t we all know it was going to take 6, and that they’d want to win in NYC?  More fun that way.)

Now, running the risk of having you think I'm a hack in the kitchen (an opinion my husband teases me about having) I will tell you that I made the same sauce AGAIN for our dinner party on Wednesday.  I had been dying to recreate that pork tenderloin I had in Tucson (yes, it was THAT good) and decided to run the risk of consuming so much pork in a single week, that they might not let me be a Jew anymore.  

We had our friends Mark and Todd over to dinner again, thanking them for their hospitality in having us to their East Hampton home a few weeks ago, as well as our friend Mike who was also on the cruise with us.  And really, what's a better metaphor at a gay cruise reunion than a big slab of pork?

I served a butternut squash and apple soup that appeared in the New York Times this week, and was a last minute inspiration, along with a sweet potato puree and some tarragon peas (one bag frozen peas, 1/2 cup water, 1 tbsp butter, 1 cup chopped tarragon.  Throw it all in a sauce pan, heat until the water boils, and simmer for 5 minutes.)

But this posting really isn’t about food this week.  Or even about the Yankees – who won not because they bought themselves a roster of individual talent, but because, for the first time in nearly a decade, they played like a team.  Didn’t they look like they were having fun?  Didn’t they show some character? Say what you will about the Bronx Bombers, but they haven’t been this much fun to watch since the late 70s.

Something that was a lot less fun to watch was Tuesday’s election returns.  It is actually a little too reminiscent of the late 70s: unemployment is high, state and local governments are teetering on the edge of fiscal ruin, and the Democrats seem to have abdicated the responsibility of governing.

In the interest of being open, I will admit that I was never a strong Obama supporter.  I campaigned and voted for Hillary Clinton during the primaries, believing that the concept of a “new kind of politics” was chimerical.  The majority of Americans may be independents, but the composition of our Congress becomes more and more polarized every year.  Less and less are our representatives working together on the issues that matter to most Americans, and the fight for the middle is less about finding moderate solutions, but a war between two distinct alternatives with the winner being the side that best frames and sells his story to enough folks in the political center.  Often, Independents and Moderates, with a few notable exceptions, aren’t choosing between ideas they love or which represent their political philosophy – they’re picking the one that comes closest or the one they like a little better or the one they hate the least. 

I lived through the culture wars of the 80s and 90s, and the demonization of the last Democratic President (whose failure to achieve more was, admittedly, caused as much by his own failings as it was by the forces that sought to bring him down.)  While I would love to believe in a new kind of politics, and while I believe most Americans crave it, I don’t think it’s realistic.  Our system was designed to be adversarial – at its best, it was designed to produce the best possible outcomes by forcing different perspectives to reach a compromise and achieve statesmanship in the interest of as many Americans as possible.  At its worst, its become political theater – which is what we have today.  Politics has become like rooting for a sports team; my guys are good, your guys are bad, and I will stick to my position – blindly if need be. 

This may be unfortunate and undesirable, but it’s also what we’ve got, and I always believed Hillary understood that governing was more about winning endless rounds of hand-to-hand combat than Obama ever did. 

Nonetheless, when he won the nomination I got on board, rewarding the intention even if skeptical about the ability to achieve it, and getting caught up in the history of the moment.  Also, I believed that his approach to policy and governing would focus on delivering real change.

I don’t believe that anymore.  I still want to; I still have hopes for the administration’s agenda.  But I’m angry – and so are a lot of other people.

Tuesday night’s election results were about a lot of things.  Incumbents did poorly.  The incumbent governor of New Jersey lost, the incumbent mayor of New York City – extremely popular with high approval ratings – saw his blowout turn into a squeaker, the incumbent party in Virginia got thrown out, losing the statehouse to someone who – at age 34 – wrote some of the ugliest things about women, blacks and gays that may have ever been written in an academic document.  (Of course, he was helped by the fact that his opponent needed a mirror held under his nose to determine if he was still, in fact, alive.)  Even New York’s 23rd Congressional District flipped – going Democratic for the first time since 1872.

And here’s my first point: setting aside talk about which party “won,” when incumbents lose it’s because people are angry.  They want change and they take it out on whoever’s in power, either by voting against them or staying home in enough numbers to have the same effect. 

It is worth noting that people voted – overwhelmingly – in 2008 for change.  Huge swings by modern standards in the Senate and House, a lopsided electoral college victory for the President, helped – in no small amount – by people who weren’t voting for him enthusiastically, but against the party in power who had squandered our surpluses, abused our military, ruined our economy and lied to our citizens.

In so many ways, Obama’s slogan was perfect for the election of 2008 – it wasn’t just about Change, it was about Hope.  Faith that taking a flier on something new would get different results.

And instead we have the same Wall Streeters regulating Wall Street, the same lopsided balance of power between corporate interests and individual rights, and the same entrenched divisions in our government.

That’s the second point: a lot of Obama voters and a lot of Obama supporters, even those still giving him that 54% approval rating, stayed home on Tuesday.  Left-leaning independents and democrats aren’t racing out to support a party that isn’t delivering what it promised.  The overtures to bipartisanship were nice, but the Republican Party has decided they’d rather stymie the agenda than take part – and that’s fine, as long as the Democrats move forward with or without them.  Continued efforts are futile: I don’t this country is ready to have the full scope of federal power wielded by two middle-aged women from Maine. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if there isn’t diversity among the Republicans in Congress (even if they are – almost exclusively – white protestant men over the age of 40.)  But during the Bush administration, that party stuck together no matter what.  I’d rather the Democrats worked out their issues behind closed doors, then came forward as one.

You know, I may not have agreed with a lot of what George W Bush did, but it’s easy to admire someone who lead with a vision and tried to pull the middle with him.  Those tax cuts were wasteful and the war in Iraq was an expensive distraction, sold with untruths, fought on the cheap and motivated by the most ruinous Oedipal complex ever witnessed globally.  But he wanted it, he was uncomprising, and his party stood behind him.  And Democrats were so afraid of the political price of dissent that half of them got on board.  It was only in Bush’s second term, when his party couldn’t support his domestic agenda on Social Security and Immigration that they abandoned him.  Even that is significant – they didn’t splinter, they split.  With us or against us, but not eight hundred different nitpickers tinkering around the edges of supporting something generally, but only with this program or that caveat.

It is time for this President to lead.  The Democrats are dangerously close to becoming the party of splitting the difference.  Their vision of governing needs to evolve from, “the selection of things we can get from the things we really want” to “the things America needs.”

In a fabulous book, Applebee’s America, co-written by Doug Sosnik, Ron Fournier, and Matthew Dowd, the authors explore why certain people, institutions and brands resonate with Americans and why.  Those that reach a tipping point make a Gut Values Connection with the public.  Obama made that connection – he appealed to, in his words, “our better angels” and our hope for, if not a “purple” America, a better America. 

The authors argue that politicians like Clinton and Bush saw their fortunes fall when they broke that connection, Clinton in lying about Monica Lewinsky, Bush in lying about Iraq.  Obama, if he doesn’t begin to govern with the same leadership and principles with which he campaigned, will risk breaking that connection.  People would rather see him take a stand and fail (and would likely punish Congress for standing in his way) than see him calculate success opportunistically.

Finally, I need to say something about Maine (especially since I just maligned their talented and responsible Senators a few paragraphs ago.  And I actually really think Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe have shown more political courage in the last decade than virtually any other members of Congress.)

The repeal of a legislatively-approved, Governor-signed law granting same-sex couples the right to marry was a shameful embarrassment. 

First – to my brothers and sisters in the gay community.  It’s time for a different kind of action.  I’m cool with the sepia-toned photos of two lesbians playing Frisbee with a kid, and two guys in tuxes sharing the story of how they fell in love 20 years ago while antiquing a lamp.  I’m cool with the emotional appeal of “who’s going to raise my daughter if something happens to my wife?” or “what if I can’t visit Freddy in the hospital?”  But we need to tear a page from AIPAC and start fighting this battle with our wallets.

Gays wield an unbelievable strong economic power and we’re wasting it.  So here’s my advice:

Before you send your money to HRC.

Before you send your money to GLAAD.

Before you send your money to the DNC and democratic candidates for office.

Before you spend your money on luxury crap.

Ask yourself this:

All those companies that advertise in Out, and the Advocate, and GQ, and Details, and all the magazines we’re reading on airplanes to Palm Springs and beaches on the Cape – what are they doing?  Is it fair for you to refuse to spend your money with companies if they don’t add the weight of their political power to our fight?  When was the last time a corporation advocated, or threatened to withhold its contributions, form a candidate unless that candidate supported the civil rights of its customers?  Don’t you have the right to demand that the companies who want your money so badly take a stand for your civil rights?

All those politicians we support with fundraisers and contributions and votes.  What are they doing?  I’ve got to tell you.  I don’t care if staying home means a vote for the other guys.  We survived eight years of George Bush, six of them with a Republican Congress, and lived to tell the tale.  It’s worth noting that AIDS funding increased under the Bush administration and same-sex marriage became a political reality during his tenure. 

I’m not casting anymore “better than the other guy on gay rights” votes anymore.  You either support full equality or I’m staying home.  Hell, maybe I’ll even vote for the other guy.  My taxes will go down.

It is absolutely unconscionable that gay civil rights is still the stepchild of the democratic agenda, the issue that gets thrown under the bus so some wimpy white guy can look tough to the boys.  Saying that you support gay rights but only believe in “traditional” marriage shouldn’t be any more acceptable than saying you’re against race discrimination as long as they don’t marry white people. 

And you know something – don’t talk to me about all the other issues that will suffer if democrats lose power.  Pay inequities for women, racial bias and affirmative action, reproductive choice.  You wouldn’t expect me to support a politician that stands against those issues any more than I expect you to support only those politicians who full-throatedly support marriage and civil equality for gays and lesbians.

Which is my last point.  This issue would move if more leaders stood for it.  So many politicians are so afraid of the political consequences of saying what I think they truly believe - that it’s nothing more or less than bigotry to prevent gays from marrying – that they fail to realize that their half-measures are part of the problem, not the solution.

It’s worth remembering this: any legal historian will tell you that the pre-Civil War journey of American politics was a movement from status to contract; from the rights of people based on who they were, to the ability to freely contract among ourselves.  In post-Civil War America, the movement has been from Freedom to Equality: ever closer to equal rights for all.  The guiding principle, in fact the founding principle of this country, has been about protecting the minority from the tyranny of a majority.  It’s why we have two house of Congress, it’s why they’re structured as they are, it’s why we have courts, it’s why we have three branches of government.

The ballot initiative process has a lot to recommend about it, but the degree to which it can be used to take rights away from people is shameful.  And any measure that attempts to take rights away, regardless of its substance, should be voted down on principle.

Integrating the military, miscegenation laws – this country has a long history of majorities doing the wrong thing.  Today you may be taking away my right to marry.  Tomorrow it maybe about you.

God help you then. 

Because I won’t.

And on a lighter note: gay marriages can be fun.  Just ask Liza Minelli.