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.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Kids Are All Wrong

Okay, okay, okay.  The din of demands from my tens of readers has finally pulled my bloated carcass away from the dish of Christmas Candy (Holiday M&Ms, natch...the first, and still the best, though the Butterfinger Bells are pretty awesome, too.)  For the next hour I have turned my back on the seemingly endless stream of email and paused the DVR in the middle of last week's Top Chef All-Stars (oddly, despite the insane talent, I still find myself rooting for the daffy Carla Hall (Hootie?  Hoo!) and the misanthropic yet somehow lesbo-chic Jamie Lauren (who, while at Absinthe, was serving some of the best food in San Francisco...the bay area's loss is L.A.'s gain.)

Speaking of L.A., since my last post (Ha! Ha! - yes, that post from, like, two months ago) I was briefly in L.A. (and mostly Anaheim, which is to L.A. what Krab is to Crab: so close, and yet so far away.) I got to catch up with the fabulous Malcolm and Julie (who, when in New York, dine with Mick Jagger, but can't seem to scare up a D-lister when I'm in L.A., so I brought along the fabulous Carrie and Steven.  We went to Gjelina, since Steven had been training for a triathlon and was looking pretty smokin', and Carrie couldn't tip the scales at 100 pounds of you gave her a 50 pound barbell to hold on to.  I figured too much wine, flatbread pizza, and grilled pizzas would do the trick - which it did, if the trick were having a fabulous evening.

But, really, the fall hasn't left much else to write about.  Should I report the domestic drudgery of tweaking the touches on a second home we bought - fully furnished and detailed to the nines - at a price that would have been way below market even if it were empty?  I'd write about popular culture, but it seems to have gotten as boring and middle-aged as I have.  Seriously: Modern Family; the return of Cher to the big screen; the return of Winona Ryder to the big screen; Jennifer Grey's dancing (with a delicious blond boy; ok - that sort of got my attention).

Anything that hasn't been ripped straight out of 1987 is a trend so overdone, overstuffed, and just plain over that I can't even muster a scintilla of interest.  Vampires, "Real" Housewives, Harry Potter, Katy Perry (totally hot and talented but over exposed), Jon Hamm (totally hot and talented but passed overexposed so long ago that the next stop after MadMen is the center square.) I'm even starting to get worn out by Glee; it's so damn earnest that I'm half rooting for Kurt to get bored with his wobbly-Warbler and get into a little rough trade with Karofsky.  Anything for a little less sweater-vest and a little more heat.

The problem with the cannibalization that's created in a copycat culture is perfectly encapsulated by one show: Skating with the Stars.  Here is a show that makes its genesis (the previously referenced "Dancing with the Stars") look like High Art.  At what point do we simply draw the line and say, "No!"?  I'll say this, if Serena Williams and Emmanuel Lewis start playing mixed doubles on prime time, I'm taking up reading again.

Seriously...why not just let it all go to hell and air Celebrity Hoarder-Rehab with the Stars.  We can watch Lindsay Lohan come down off of smack in a houseful of cats and old lettuce.  Throw in a midget or a vampire and you've got a hit.

I was reminded of this last night, when Neil and I went to a holiday party down in the East Village.

Wow, you think - the East Village.  It's so New York, it's so downtown.  It's so edgy and late-night and alternative.

Nope.  Not anymore.

The party was at David Barton Gym - across the street from a Starbucks (the national emblem of overexposed, replicated tedium), and down the block from the worldwide headquarters of J.Crew (nice clothes of good quality, yes; creative and edgy: NO.)  Back in the day, David Barton was the impresario of gym/club culture - the place where you spent your days getting the body you needed to live the nights you wanted to live.  His wife, Susanne Bartsch (who, the story goes, had all the money) was a fixture in the New York club scene.

You've seen the folks that populated that time and place.  The Club Kids.  Richie Rich, James St. James, Michael Musto, Amanda LePore.  You remember them from the movie Party Monster, from episodes of Sally Jessie Raphael and Donahue from the late eighties when they'd come on tv, dressed like a psychedelic frog or a sequined Big Bird, ears and noses misshapen with stage prosthetics; completely over the top.

If we were reinventing club culture for 2010, you'd get my attention.  It was never my thing - and still isn't - but at least it would be something new; or something old re-imagined as something new for this time; this place.  But it's not.  It's not 24 year old assistants or hair stylists or aspiring artists or aspiring anythings expressing themselves artistically.  It's the same old club kids, now club grannies, pushing 50 (or more) made all the more freakish my plastic surgery - wearing the same outfits from 20 years ago.

There's something deeply disturbing about a middle-aged woman made up like an elf and wearing a tablecloth from a pizza place.  A 50 year old man in a tight red suit using an oversize candy cane as a walking stick.  Three people completely covered in crocheted yarn - like it was a metaphor for the knitting that would be appropriate to their age.  My 64 year old mother (sorry, Mom) could have whipped them into a nice sweater vest for those Glee kids.

Speaking of Julie (which I was, like, fifteen paragraphs ago.  Pay attention.) she suggested (back when our daily highs were still in the 60s) that I write about the election.

But how?  How long will it take to describe your disappointment in a president you voted for haltingly (having far preferred his primary rival, the fabulous Mrs. Clinton - who's looking haggard and hoarse and horrible and is, despite that,  the closest America will get to Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir - and we should be ashamed that we let our national narrative of her stand in the way of a job she would have been terrific at.)?

How ironic that we elected the first black president and he's turned out to be so colorless.

You know it's bad when you find yourself in a hotel fitness center at 7:15am, watching George W Bush on the Today show telling Matt Lauer some revisionist history of his presidency, which ranged from juvenile indignance to shocking incompetence, and find yourself sort of missing him.

Because he stood for something.  Because you can argue with someone who has an opinion, even if it is misguided or wrong or ill-informed.

But I have no idea what this presidency means.  What does it stand for.  Even Clinton managed to clothe "stuff I can get passed" in a narrative about restoring the middle class.  And even he managed to take tough stands for the things he believed in; even if he paid a price.

Here's the difference - and here's why I think Obama will end up being more like Carter (a smart, well-intentioned man with great capacity for many things, but lacking in the leadership and theater that's required to be President) than like Clinton; why I think that - unless we get an amazing economic rebound in the next 12 months - he's toast.

When Clinton made the calculated decision to do what was right, even if it cost his party their majorities; they did so fighting - passing the budget bill with tax increases, in 1993, by the Vice President breaking a tie in the Senate.  He took it done to the thinnest of margins, while Obama, presiding over the opportunity to leverage the economy to justify a massive plan to stimulate spending, rebuild our infrastructure, and provide a safety net for healthcare, instead split the difference and gave us not enough stimulus, not enough jobs, and a plan that could have been politically popular but got so nicked away and neutered, that it lost some key provisions that made it worth doing in the first place.

Not that I found myself so inspired by the choices in the mid-terms.  We all knew this was going to be an "eat your peas" presidency - with a lot of things we needed to do now, even though the benefits could take years to materialize, or because they were unpleasant but prevented a more unpleasant alternative.  That's part of the reason it's such a shame we've forgotten the importance of electing people who are smart; who are experienced; who understand the issues better than we do and who know both the answer and how to get it through Congress.

Instead, our culture of narcissism (which, of course, spawned blogs like this, so I'm self-aware, if hypocritical) means that the public at large thinks that the best answer to everything is "change!"  And not just "throw the bums out" but "let's replace them with people like us."  Apparently we're in a phase where the electorate is turning to "relatability" as a key determinative factor, without asking if these people are smart or capable enough to address the daunting slate of problems needing resolution.  Do we really want folks willy-nilly tackling unemployment, the economy, defense, the deficit, when their most recent job qualification was being a talk show staple and possibly a teenage witch?  Sabrina for President!

(OK, I know she lost, but still - the fact that she - along with a cohort of equally unlikely crackpots - got as far as they did, is a national embarrassment.)

So, where does this all leave us?

Why is change so troubling in one area - politics - where I long for some grown-ups to come along with boring stolidity and competence to get things done; and so stultifying in another - politics - where I long for something new?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Nice Try

Has anyone seen the new Nutella commercial?  Where the mom serves her kids Nutella for breakfast, spreading it on multigrain toast, or, "even a whole wheat waffle."

Nice try.  I can wrap Cotton Candy around a carrot and it's still crap.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Middle Ages

Warning: this post risks becoming sentimental.

I woke up middle-aged this morning.

I don’t mean I feel older (I don’t), or look older (I do.) I don’t even mean I am older (I am. See my last post.) However, I feel like I’m turning a bend in the circle of life.

Yesterday my mother got married. Well, re-married. In the office of a town clerk down the block from my sister’s house, on the rainiest day we’ve had in months (not an omen) with my nieces and nephews screaming in the background (also, not an omen), my mother became someone’s wife – or ex-wife – other than my dad’s.

The truth is, my sister and I couldn’t be happier. As of yesterday morning, my mother had been separated from my father for 24½ years – seven years longer than they were married. Divorced, in the mold of second-wave feminism, not necessarily militaristically, but defiantly, she lived as if there was nothing an unmarried woman couldn’t do.

And she was right. She raised two kids, and sent both to college and grad school. She survived cancer, a brain tumor, and a hip replacement. She taught for more than thirty years, got an advanced degree, and became a principal. So who would have guessed, in her retirement, co-habitating with her boyfriend of three years wouldn’t be enough. That she still wanted the brass ring (ahem, diamond wedding band) – marriage.

Perhaps this is another hallmark of second-wave feminism – that the generation from which it spawned still has a vestigial attachment to marriage as an institution. Or maybe it’s the same as the argument I make about my own right to a same-sex marriage: that there is something just different about marriage. Anyway, this isn’t that kind of column. Moving on.

We really like our new step-dad by the way. It’s weird calling him that, though. It’s not like we’re the Brady Bunch.

It is nice that they share so much in common. Like travelling, sitting around, and listening to my mother talk. Plus, now that she has a new last name, I can always deny we’re related.

After the wedding, we went for lunch at the Jolly Fisherman – an old school seafood restaurant. You know the kind of place: the bread basket is a trough filled with breadsticks, saltines and oyster crackers; everything smells like chowder and Lemon Pledge, and the dinner rush is from 4 to 6pm.

I needn’t describe the food, most of you have been somewhere like this on a three-day summer weekend, with a client, or while visiting your grandparents in Florida. However, I do need to mention that, towards the end of the meal, my uncle went sheet-white (almost blue, actually) and rigid (note: this is not the place to make a joke about the ability of an 82 year-old man to go rigid.)

Did you know it can take 15 rings for 911 to answer the phone? I called from my cell, to near disbelief, while the restaurant had the same experience from a standard land line. Note to self: never require medical attention at the Jolly Fisherman.) When they finally answered, and agreed to send an ambulance, more than five minutes passed before I had to call again (better response time) and within two minutes nearly a dozen fire and EMT workers converged on The Jolly Fisherman.

We directed them to my uncle (which, to be honest was pretty necessary. With the lunch crowd that was present, it really could have been anyone. Not surprisingly, the restaurant staff greeted the EMTs like old friends. I think they left with half a dozen friend shrimp each.)

Anyway, he was conscious, but they gave him oxygen, took his vitals, and whisked him off to the hospital where he spent five hours in a hallway before finally getting a room. It was a horrible way to end a beautiful day, but you never know what the experience will do for him. When he had his heart condition 20 years ago, my uncle – a life-long racist – got a black roommate with whom he got along famously. They got on so well, I think he may have voted for Obama (but, probably not.) Maybe this time he’ll get to know a Latino other than those who’ve married into the family.

By the way, I’m sure I’m totally going to piss off at least half the family by writing this (the other half are seriously cracking up.) I got pretty well shunned after the Bar Mitzvah post. Still, as much as some of my relatives would probably wish I’d stop writing about them, they may not realize we’re wishing they’d stop departing our joyous family events ambulances.

Anyway, when the crisis had passed, we headed out to Sag Harbor to finally occupy the house we bought several months ago, but which had been rented until Sept 30. We unloaded a truck full of Costco supplies, as well as the contents of our storage unit, and worked well into the night. And, this morning, Neil and I woke up to a sunny October day.

We walked in to the village and got coffee, strolling past old whaling houses and churches and beautiful homes. After breakfast, I headed out for a run – passing a neighbor walking her dogs as the sun streamed through the trees.

And in those first few minutes of my run, I finally “got” the suburbs. I finally understood why people moved there. It wasn’t just about kids, or schools, or safety. As I ran, I passed porches and lawns and cyclists and kids. The local high school had its Homecoming Parade. I loved the peace and quiet; I loved the feeling of community – even though we’ve lived here all of eight hours. When I came home my husband was walking around the pool picking up leaves, and when he saw me he looked up and told me how happy he was, and how much he loved me.

For the past five or six years, I’ve felt – sometimes keenly – that I was aging. But it was a restlessness – a feeling of loss or regret – that “never-being-nineteen-again-ness” that makes you realize that you’ll never look a certain way again, or have the luxury of turning your life completely upside down and starting a new direction without significant consequences. But just as the desire and recklessness of my twenties passed into the ambition and restlessness of my thirties, something is coming with the approach of my forties. Some sense of achievement and contentedness – it hasn’t settled in yet, it’s just starting – and there’s still plenty of fight and desire and ambition left in me, but something’s coming.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Birthday Blog

OK, we clearly need to talk about my birthday – and Neil’s – but before we do, there’s something I need to get off my chest.

What the fuck is going on in politics?

I’m sorry, I thought we hit a new low when nine Republicans stood on stage in 2008, seeking their party’s nomination for President, and fully two-thirds of them claimed not to believe in evolution. Seriously – serious people vying for the most powerful leadership position in the world, disclaiming something every third-grader knows, simply to pander to an ignorant population of Republican base voters. Rather than use the moment for leadership, to remind people that they can believe in God, and religion, and science (Darwin did), 6 of the 9 decided, instead, chose the low road.

I never realized I’d look back on that day, nostalgically, with the rise of the Tea Party. Rememebr the Boston Tea Party? That quaint event you learned about in American History – way back in elementary school? How the colonists, outraged by the taxes and injustices wrought upon them by Merry Old England – where they had no representation in Parliament – threw tea into Boston Harbor as a form of protest?

Somehow I’m failing to see the parallel between colonial America and the would-be Senator from Kentucky, who’d like to dismantle the Civil Rights Act. Because the best way to celebrate our heritage of going to great lengths to protect against unfairness and injustice is to let private business discriminate against Blacks. Sounds reasonable to me.

Or the Senate candidate from Nevada, who stands shoulder-to-shoulder in the history books with patriots such as Nathan Hale and Patrick Henry, for her courageous stand to eliminate the Department of Education. Nothing says freedom like ignorance, poverty and an utter lack of opportunity.

I think my favorite, though, has to be the Senate candidate from Delaware, though, Christine O’Donnell. Here was a clear pick-up for the Republicans. Mike Castle – experienced, well-respected, accomplished – would have won by at least 5 points. Instead, they ended up with a nutjob, whose outspoken against masturbation (you just lost men, ages 18-80, and any woman whose ever ridden Space Mountain.) And she may be a witch.

You know how I know.

Because she has a commercial where she starts by saying, “I’m not a witch."

In the Nixonian tradition of “I am not a crook,” the Clintonian recitation of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” we can now add, “I am not a witch” to the political canon of me-thinks-thou-doth-protest-too-much.

If it were just electoral politics, I could chalk it up to the silly season that approaches every other year, to fill the yawning gap between Labor Day and Thanksgiving with something other than Halloween candy and the fall premiere of tv shows, 90 per cent of which won’t exist by Christmas and which all seem to inexplicably include Jenny McCarthy or someone from Friends. But it’s not. It’s also current events – which brings us to: The Mosque At Ground Zero.

Don’t you love the way I wrote that? It sounds like a title for an old Hardy Boys mystery, or maybe a romance novel with some shirtless, swarthy guy on the cover ripping the gown of a lusty, busty maiden. The Mosque At Ground Zero.

Or maybe an attraction or concert venue. The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The Inn at Little Washington. The Mosque At Ground Zero.

But no, The Mosque At Ground Zero, was nothing nearly as fun. It was another ugly, racist, small-minded chapter in our cable-news-driven shout-o-rama.

Let’s set a few things straight.

The Mosque At Ground Zero, was not intended to be a mosque. It was a cultural center, on par with the Jewish Community Center on 76th and Amsterdam. Among the characteristics of this proto-house of worship are a swimming pool, ceramics classes, and a snack bar.

Nothing says God like nachos.

Additionally, the Not-A-Mosque-At-Ground-Zero was NOT AT GROUND ZERO. What is at Ground Zero is a hole in the ground with a future office building and museum under construction. The Not-A-Mosque was located several blocks away, two storefronts over from a “Gentlemen’s Club,” in a former Burlington Coat Factory. Are suddenly finding hallowed ground in places that once hawked 50%-off-underwear? And can we all agree that only in America could people be offended by expressions of free religion, but not the boobs-in-your-face bottle service happening 200 feet west?

I’d like a side order of tits with my self-righteousness.

And so, dear readers, if you’d like to give me a gift this birthday, let’s pledge to end the hyperbole. Can we please end the era of The Mosque At Ground Zero simply because it sounds more inflammatory than The Cultural Center Down the Block from a Strip Joint? Can we stop taking umbrage every time there’s an opportunity to twist the truth into a sound bite, just so poor dumb people in flat state will send a check to Rand Paul or Fox News, or some other entity that needs it a lot less than a steel-worker or nurse with an eighth grade education.

Oh, and whoever got me what I wanted for my last birthday – thank you. I know it came almost a year late, but a Senate candidate who’s an actual witch. Yay. The gift of fodder.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


I didn't need the twelve year old on the local news to tell me that it's raining - I can see that perfectly well from the window in my soul.  (Ha!  As if I have one.)  And the one in my living room, which is where I'm sitting on the first day since May 17 not to reach 70 degrees (OK, so the local news girl-fetus teached me something.)

But it's the perfect weather to finish the story of our trip - which we left off just as our floating homotel docked in Barcelona.

We departed the ship in a flurry of hugs and kisses and basically whole bunch of middle-aged men totally queening out.  Really, getting off that boat must look like the end of the Miss America pageant, which strikes me - in retrospect - as odd because I remember feeling like a Vietnamese boat person grateful for dry land.

Anyway, we dropped our bags at the hotel and went out to explore the city.

Here's a hint:  loafers without socks is a poor, poor choice for exploring Barcelona by foot.  It may have been a fashion plus, but it was a comfort minus as we tumbled over quaint, narrow cobblestone paths that shredded my soles to ribbons.  After exploring La Rambla and the gothic neighborhoods in the Old City and the Raval, we rode the subway to Parc Guell to see the Antoni Gaudi architecture.

Gaudi's signature look was white plaster with colorful ceramic tile chips embedded in it.  It's also because of Gaudi that we get the word "gaudy" - and gaudy it was.  Imagine Central Park (or your favorite local greenspace.)  Now pretend a kaleidoscope exploded all over it.  In the shape of the house where the witch held Hansel and Gretel hostage.  That's it.

Maybe I was just tired and cranky and tired of hobbling round like I just hung out with Kathy Bates in Misery.  It's possible.  It was about 450 degrees and I was getting frustrated with the fact that, even though everyone understands Spanish when you speak to them, they insist on responding in Catalan, an unholy blend of Spanish and French that basically sounds like you're talking to a drunk, retarded Charo.  So we headed back to the hotel.

Do you really need to hear that the hotel room that was definitely going to be ready by 2pm was still not available at 4?  Are you so mew to this blog that you don't know the type of grace with which I handled this situation?

Our complimentarily upgraded room was lovely.

After dinner with our friend Mike (who had been on the cruise with us, working through his Men of All Nations coloring book - tonight's country, Cuba! - which came in handy since the waiter only spoke Catalan) we headed home and crashed, hopeful that tomorrow would help us understand why everyone we know seems to love Barcelona so much.

Why is it that I spend my vacations in churches and museums - two places I never go to at home, and which I don't exactly associate with "leisure time?"

In truth, the cathedral we visited first on Friday was gorgeous - large and impressive with apses and stained glass and biblical scenes.  We followed it with a visit to the Picasso museum, where a retrospective of his earlier years was spectacular.  Only by looking at his work chronologically can you see the work that shows him learning his craft in the style of the impressionists and neo-impressionist who preceded him.  You can see him becoming great - experimenting first with factors such as color, as he begins to explore the boundaries of his art and express himself in a way that began the last important movement in the art world.  You see him move to shape and shadow and ultimately the abstract movement he became synonymous with - a precursor to the violence of Miro and the surrealism of Dali.

And then you begin to understand Barcelona, and with it, Spain itself.  The most important country in the world in the very late 15th and early 16th century - from the art and music of the Moorish period, to the Ferdinand and Isabella and Columbus period of exploration.  But Spain lapses into the shadow of Europe as the later explorers were Dutch and English and French; as the Northern Renaissance highlights the contributions of the Dutch and Flemish painters; as the reformation era spotlights Germany and France, and ultimately - by the late 1500s, the age of Spain and the Spanish Hapsburgs recedes to over two centuries of British and French dominance.  Yet, in the early 20th century, Spain re-emerges as the birthplace of the last great movements in art and architecture before the modern era of pop, revival and homage.

So now, we're liking Barcelona.  After the museum, a glass of wine ('natch) and a dinner at a tiny restaurant called Pla, on a narrow dead-end street in the old city.

On our last full day in Barcelona we took the train out to Sitges and hit the beach.  A combination of Provincetown and Puerta Vallarta, Sitges is a charming beach community with a narrow strip of sand (chairs, 5 Euro) and plenty of places to buy an ice cream cone, fried potatoes, and expensive jewelry.  You know, whether it's Rehoboth Beach, Delaware or the other side of the planet, I can't figure out why every gay beach resort pairs speedo clad muscle men with caloric snack treats.

Which pretty much serves as the tagline for this trip.  Too much sun, too much skin, too much ice cream.

When we return, it's back to America - whatever's left of it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Float Your Boat

Monday, August 23, 2010

I took my last work call in the kitchen, hastily toasting a low-fat English Muffin (bleh) and assembling some low-fat cheese and full-fat Genoa salame. Not exactly what you want to consume mere hours before spending 10 days floating around the Mediterranean amid the harshest critics imaginable. But my body needed food and I couldn’t bear the thought of peanut butter and jam.

I hadn’t really scheduled myself for this call – and the truth was I needed more than the 7 remaining minutes I had for it – but the message got across and the client got everything they needed to get them through Labor Day. Including, God help me, a number to call the cruise line.

Yes, folks, for those of you who’ve been faithful followers since the start – we’re back at the blog that started it all…the Atlantis Mediterranean cruise. From Athens to Barcelona – on a ship the size of a sideways skyscraper, more than 2,500 middle aged homos from around the globe (and 2 lesbians) will stuff themselves into nominal amounts of spandex, pour themselves voluminous amounts of liquor, and desecrate the holy lands of at least three cultures.

And once again, I’m blogging it all – every bad tour guide, tweaked out muscle boy, and repetitive meal – cause as they say in Steel Magnolias: If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me.

This year’s adventure starts at Kennedy airport, after two solid days of rain and nine solid months of travel. I’ve been so burnt out at work, actually dream about ways to position our software while I’m sleeping, and come up with financial models when I run.

The fact that I needed a break – and that I spend too much time in airports – couldn’t have been more evident where the fact that Air France gave away our Business Class seats nearly drove me around the twist. Not that we weren’t sitting in in Business Class – just that they moved us from row 4 to row 9.

I don’t know if it’s all the years of using miles, or charm, or luck to get an upgrade – but this year (after last year’s uncomfortable 9 hour journey home. In coach. In a middle seat. On Continental. I sprung for the real deal – paying, for the first time ever, for business class seats. If my mother knew, I’d not only get dis-invited to Rosh Hashanah, but I might be kicked out of Judaism completely. (You need to meet my family to know that we’re experts in getting more than we paid for and still, somehow, feeling wronged. It’s an art.)

Maybe it was that I picked those seats specifically – not a bulkhead – not the last row where you don’t recline all the way or you spend 7 hours smelling other people poop or hearing the flight attendants make coffee. Whatever it was, I wanted row 4 and I was beginning to become as irrational and unhinged as I sound right now.

I’ll spare you the rest of the tale – which doesn’t really make me look worse (as if that were possible) but is repetitive in a way that forces me to see the “crazy” myself – and since we’re just starting this vacation, I think I’ll avoid the self-loathing until at least Naples, where the combination of pizza and 6 days of liquor should have me pretty well worked up into a cheesy froth of insecurity. Suffice it to say, we were seated in row 4 before we boarded that plane.

You don’t spend half your life in airports and not learn a thing or two.

Karma’s a bitch, though, and our flight – which was scheduled to arrive at 6am in Paris, connecting to a 7:20am flight to Athens, sat on the ground with a delay of nearly an hour and a half. As the wheels left earth at 6:02 pm I turned to Neil and said, “I hope they’ve got another flight to Athens.”

I knew they did – I checked it before I booked. Two in fact –but the last thing you want to do is leave your travel to chance when you’re catching a cruise ship. I attempted to relax through 2 episodes of The Simpsons that I’d never seen, a rather entertaining viewing of Shrek Forever After, and enough brie to require a stent. Still, the time passed fairly quickly and at 6:48am as we stepped into Charles De Gaulle I looked at my husband, with all the tenderness I could muster, and said, “Move your ass.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

We walked in a way that bordered on running – past the throngs of overnight fliers arriving in Paris. Past the Africans and Americans and Pacific Islanders. We sailed past gate after gate. Through automatic doors and up and down escalators. We passed passport control (thank you Priority Line), down moving walkways and through crowded thoroughfare. We made it through security in less than 2 minutes. Sweating through our clothes and feeling both depleted and rather proud of ourselves, we arrived at the departure gate at 7:11am (and 48 seconds.)

And they wouldn’t let us board the plane.

Oh, it was there. And they hadn’t closed the doors. And they hadn’t cleared it for departure. But they had closed the flight – and nothing I could say (and certainly nothing I could say in English) was going to change their minds. Once again, given an opportunity to make a spectacle of myself in an airport, I chose this time to limit myself to a few grunts and groans, and went to customer service where we received rebooked seats on the 10am flight. We retired to the lounge for whatever meal you eat when it’s 8am in Paris and 2am in New York. I’m not sure what you call it, but comes with a cookie.


We finally slept on the second flight. Arriving at what would have been 1 am for us wasn’t really a stretch – but after nearly three hours cooling our heels at DeGaulle, we were out shortly after we hit our seats on the Athens flight – meaning we nearly missed our brush with royalty.

Apparently, the Queen of Denmark was on our flight – which came as a total surprise, since she was so unassuming. If it weren’t for the security detail who leapt from row 5 to escort her off the plane and into a Volvo (aren’t those Swedish? Does Denmark make a car?) we never would have known.

It’s embarrassing – I have an advanced degree in European History and I can’t remember if I knew Denmark had a Queen. I’m still not even sure if she rules, or is more of a figurehead in a Constitutional Monarchy, like Great Britain. Still, I’m not too troubled by it – I’m about to spend the next week and half with so many queens, that one more is really just a rounding error.

But, can we just say – for a minute – how cool it is that the Queen of an entire country flies commercial – and with a connecting flight. Could you imagine the American president going to Copenhagen through Paris? On Delta?

Even Oprah don’t fly commercial anymore.

Athens. Tuesday, August 24. 4:30pm.

The Athens-Piraeus Cruise Terminal is hot. And crowded. We have to clear passport check, submit health forms, clear Israeli immigration (3 days before we even get to Israel? If the US INS could pull this off we wouldn’t have that whole racist Arizona-immigration law thing where the police can now pull you over simply for looking Mexican – which means with my dark skin and affinity for guacamole, I can’t go to Arizona anymore.) Between the hoards of people crammed into too small a space, and the whole atmosphere of being processed from one station to the next, I begin to wonder if this is what it was like to be gay during the Holocaust. You know, without the Louis Vuitton luggage and the genocide.

Everywhere we turn we’re looking for familiar faces – friends we’re hoping to catch up with, people we might recognize from last year. I see a guy I once went on a date with in Washington and another who looks familiar put whom I can’t quite place (did we…? No. Not possible. Right?) Neil sees his little friend who worked last year’s cruise…then friended him on Facebook. Mmhmm.

When we finally board I head straight for the shower, having barely slept in 29 hours, while Neil changes clothes…then we head off to explore the ship. It’s a different boat than last year, though the same cruise line and the ship looks and feels exactly the same – a minor adjustment here and there, and we find ourselves in a life size version of that puzzle from Highlights magazine for Children – where they show you two pictures side-by-side and you have to spot the difference.

Otherwise, it’s like a big game of Old McDonald: Here a bear, there a bear. A couple. A thruple. A minor porn star.

At the welcome party, once again we’re moving before we even realize it. They’re pouring the drinks heavy and pushing doubles – the reason for which becomes apparent after we comment how much less crowded the party seems compared to last year: on a ship built to accommodate nearly 3,500 – our group is just over 1,700 – about a thousand less than last year. And here’s where I need a soapbox:

Last year, within a month of sailing, we get an email from Atlantis, asking us to refer a friend, and – if they book, they’ll get 50% off. Now that’s a lovely gesture, but the referrer got nothing – other than a vague allusion in the email that, maybe, we could split the discount.

Yeah, that’s not an awkward phone call. “Hey there! You should come with Neil and I on the Atlantis cruise – they’ve cut the price from $4,000 to $2,000 – but you should give us $1,000 for getting you such a great discount! Wanna come!”

Last year, I found Rich Campbell – the President of Atlantis and I called him on it…and he swore it was a one-time thing and that they NEVER give discounts. So, when we decided we wanted to come again this year – different itinerary – and we wanted to see Israel and Barcelona – we signed up nearly a year in advance for the “absolute best discount you’re going to get.”

So – of course – with the economy still in the toilet --- and with Atlantis having booked ten cruises this year, including back-to-back Mediterranean cruises, attendance has suffered. The atmosphere is fine – it’s not like we’re missing a thousand extra people – but it really burns my toast that folks who waited until last month got the same cabin for nearly half the price. Worse yet – Atlantis sent out emails offering the folks who signed up early a shipboard credit and some perks – and we never got the email.

So, you know I’ll be saying something to Rich again this year.

After the cocktail party and some dinner, we totally crashed around 10pm, only to find ourselves awake at 3am – thoroughly jetlagged. Neil went out to explore, but wasn’t really gone long – if there were evening activities, they had mostly died down.

Western Mediterranean. At sea. Wednesday, August 25. 10:30am.

Once again, our first full day is spent at sea, and once again the gym is the business place on the ship. I’d sarcastically comment on the dissonance of going on vacation, only to do everything you do at home – but since my own day began with a trip to the gym, followed by a breakfast of fruit and egg whites, I can’t really find a good place in this glass house from which to throw a stone.

By noon we’ve settled into lounge chairs and are surveying the crowd. In addition to some friends from back home, we see an old housemate from Fire Island – here with his boyfriend, as well as a notorious alcoholic I went to college with and who once hooked up with a friend of ours. Plus, this cruise still draws plenty of guys from Washington, D.C., meaning I’m constantly seeing people I recognize but can’t really place. What I find really disturbing is when they look like they haven’t aged a day. Because there’s nothing more fun than revisiting your 20s as a bald guy approaching 40.

The highlight of the afternoon is the Dog Tag Tea Dance, and I wish I could tell you that the reality of this event is more tasteful than it sounds. The idea is to dress in military garb (why do so many gay gatherings revolve around costuming?) which is generally translated as one of the following:

• One piece of an actual military uniform (as in, just the pants. Or the shirt.)

• A military-themed speedo

• Military-themed underwear.

The outfit gets paired with a dog tag, worn on a chain, and adorned with a sticker colored to correspond to one’s sexual availability. Red means “coupled,” while yellow apparently means “coupled, but we don’t really care about each other enough not to have sex with random people we meet on a cruise. So, we’re willing to engage in behavior that pretty much guarantees we either won’t be a couple by the time we hit Barcelona, or that at least one of us has low enough self-esteem not to care.” See – this is why we need colored stickers – because you can’t fit all that on a dog tag.

So, by now you’ve figured out that green means “Available,” though there is also an option for “Double Green” – two stickers, which apparently means “Don’t even introduce yourself, just stick your hands down my pants. I mean speedo.”

No wonder people think cruises are romantic.

We indulge in a couple of cocktails and some dancing, while we try to scope out some guys for our friend Mike, who has resorted to a pair of green stickers. It really is such a mystery to me how there can be some really great guys out there who can’t seem to find someone – especially when there are so many people going contently coupling off and going through life with a yellow sticker.

10pm. Deck 5. Blu.

OK – I wanted to try this restaurant last year. It’s not the main dining room, but the up-charge is less than the other “specialty” restaurants. It’s a more organic, simpler menu, with lots of grilled dishes and my New York Strip is a little tough, but otherwise quite delicious.

Plus: We made new friends. I love new friends. After the age of 30, you really don’t make too many new friends unless you’re a hooker or a Mormon. Yet, so far we’ve made friends on both cruises.

Mike and Patrick are actually friends of Mark and Todd (whom we’ve written about at least three times and, honestly, if you haven’t caught up by now I’m not going to bother. It doesn’t really hurt the story, so just keep reading.) We met them last October when we went to see Mark and Todd in East Hampton, but are just getting to know them on this cruise.

In a weird way, they’re us. Mike is in a high pressure career where he’s constantly working and he’s already spent a fair portion of their trip on the Blackberry. Patrick leaves his work at work, and is more detailed about the house. When we met them in East Hampton last year, they had thrown a party. Apparently, five hours before the guests were about to arrive, Mike went out for a run while Patrick was up to his elbows in party-prep. Plug in Eric for Mike, Neil for Patrick and New Year’s for last October, and Neil and I could tell the same story.

After dinner, we opt out of “Fanta-Sea” – the evening party (they really should just call the parties: Green Speedo, Blue Speedo, Red Speedo, White Speedo and Oh, Fuck It, Just Come Naked.) We’re tired, still adjusting to the time, and it’s nearly 11:30. We’re going to need to get up at 6:15 to disembark at 7:45 for Jerusalem.

So, I’ll bid you Shalom and see you tomorrow.

Jerusalem. Thursday, August 26. 8am.

We had a little sideshow getting off the boat, since the immigration cards we needed to leave the ship only had a stamp for me – not Neil. Bracing ourselves to try and explain that Neil was neither a terrorist, a Muslim, or even a fairly decent Catholic, we got the situation rectified fairly quickly and joined the private tour we booked. Ten of us boarded a bus for the Holy Land.

“GUYS! Now I am really serious about this…” began virtually every sentence for ten hours. Spiritually, this woman was the sister of last year’s Egyptian guide, leaving me to wonder that if we left peace in the middle east up to the tour guides, we’d probably have a treaty – but in order to achieve it we might all have to spend endless hours on a hot tour bus eating sketchy falafel and getting yelled at.

If Egypt was dirtier and more disappointing than I expected, Israel was far more wondrous. Until you’ve seen it, it is easy to wonder why so much has been made of such a small strip of land. Once you’ve seen it, however, it overwhelms you in a way that’s hard to explain. There is, quite frankly, something inspiring about being in the presence of such intense purity of faith. Quite unlike the fundamentalist Christians of the American south, or the ornate testament of the Vatican, Jerusalem somehow manages to seem less dogmatic and doctrinaire. Perhaps there’s been a resignation of sorts among the people who live there, and those who visit, that despite the rhetoric associated with the geopolitics, ultimately they’ve accepted having to share Jerusalem.

In the span of a few hours we witnessed a bar mitzvah at the Wailing Wall (the last remaining structure from the destruction of the 2nd temple,) a mass at the Church of all Nations (built in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested) and a daily incense ritual at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the last 3 of the 14 Stations of the cross are located), including copts (an Egyptian sect that predates Islam), Armenians and Franciscan friars. The doors of the church are guarded by Muslims – handed down through the same two families for generations.

It is difficult not to comes away awed. And also wet. From the sweating. Ten homos who were bemoaning a day without the gym quickly changed their tunes as every stop seemed to require trudging uphill or up staircases in ninety degree heat. And I know at least one person was thinking that if they were dragging a wooden cross with them they might be able to add a little upper body conditioning to their cardio. If I get back to New York and Equinox is offering a group fitness class called Jesus Journey or Crucifixion Cardio, I’m cancelling my membership.

When we arrived back at the boat, we put our feet up for a few hours then rallied to head in to Tel Aviv for dinner and a night out. A friend recommended the restaurant at the Hotel Montefiore, and I can confidently recommend it to you. Decorated with simple modern touches – white walls and ceiling; dark wood finishes, palm fronds, leather arm less chairs and benches – it could have been any trendy restaurant in TriBeCa or South Beach. The clean look was accompanied by a menu of clean flavors, largely inspired by French Vietnamese and Mediterranean tastes.

Neil started with “small ‘noms’” – an array of spring rolls filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables. His entrée, a duck confit with fig and caramel sauce was surprisingly savory – the sweetness bringing out the flavors of the duck without going too far into sweet or gamey. I began with a classic pho, chock full of herbs like cilantro and mint, along with jalapeno pepper, glass noodles and sirloin. I could have made a meal out of a larger bowl of that soup – though I’m glad I didn’t. My whole roasted branzino was simply grilled with capers, lemon and olive oil, and adding a touch of salt gave me a meal that I could devour from head to tail without feeling bloated or guilty.

After dinner it was nearly midnight, and we eschewed the local dance club for the 12:30 bus back to the ship. The ride was nearly an hour and we felt we didn’t need to wait on a line and pay a cover charge just to dance shirtless with the same queers we’ll be dancing with our next two days at sea.

And since we have two full days at sea coming up, I’ll leave you here, since I know there will be plenty of antics to report tomorrow….

Western Mediterranean. Friday, August 27, 2010. 9:15am.

We got a late start on Friday – sleeping off the exhaustion and alcohol of the middle east – though as we compared our visits to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv we wondered whether the whole peace process needed less fundamentalist religiosity and more vodka. Everybody we met in Tel Aviv – Israeli, Arab, American, European – was friendly and open. And drunk. Hillary Clinton, take note. Hey – during her presidential campaign we all saw the B-roll of her doing shots with John McCain on Armed Forces Committee junkets. Girlfriend needs to break out the leftover champagne from Chelsea’s wedding (the bottle the groom’s family didn’t take home for Rosh Hashanah) and get some drunk Hebrews and Palestinians to get down to business.

Where the hell was I?

Oh, yeah. The cruise.

We’re also stalled this morning because we are already weary of the breakfast buffet. Somehow, the staggering sameness will actually make the staggering sameness of our routine at home seem fun by comparison. I simply can’t face another plate of cut up pineapple or half a grapefruit with a big red grape in the center. I can’t navigate the omelet station. I can’t dispense Froot Loops from a bin.

We reserve chairs at the pool, head to the gym, and – finally – go eat. Between the gym and the egg whites, actually, the only sign we’re actually on vacation is the floating skyscraper we’re aboard.

Meanwhile, the afternoon brings a déjà vu of a different sort – a repeat of last year’s entertainment. Wednesday had the rip-off of Project Runway; today had “Are You Smarter than a Straight Girl?” Since there are 1743 gay men on this boat, and only 4 straight girls, I’d say the answer to that question is clearly, “No.”

You know, I realize that not everyone on this boat is a repeat Atlantis customer, but they could really use some innovation and updating on the program. The same ship, the same team, the same use of venues, the same events – even the same questions in the trivia competition. The only thing different is the entertainment. And, seriously – last year we had a nice musical show, Pam Ann, and Patti Lupone. I’m sorry – but Courtney Act, the Austrailian Idol contestant who got kicked off as a man but made it to seventh place as a woman – is not great entertainment. Neither are the comedy stylings of Shawn Pelofsky – a cheap Barbra Streisand look-alike who isn’t funny.

And the ship’s headliner: Andy Bell from Erasure – which would have the potential to be a HUGE draw. If it were 1987.

Still, the liquor flows freely and we slid easily from tea dance (shirtless dancing with drinks at 6pm) to cocktails (shirted cocktails at 8pm) to dinner with Jaime and Tom, ex-boyfriends to each other and new friends to us, from New York and Denmark, respectively. Oddly, though, when we were seated at the main dining room, we ended up with a tagalong – Leo from Boston – who somehow got routed to our table (despite our indication that we were fine being a party of 4.)

Alright – I have been bound and determined on this trip to be charming and smiling and friendly. As a reaction to all those mean, superior, disdainful gays who think they’re too good for everyone else, I feel an obligation to be kind and make sure that my general attitude of superiority doesn’t get in the way of someone else’s joy on an expensive vacation. Besides, that’s what this blog is for.

But it is pretty awkward to be seated as a four, only to find an extra person seated with you. Or sort of with you. They sat Leo at the table next to us – alone, but not – and everything from his meal selection to the service happened about ten minutes ahead of us. And, not only did he refuse an opportunity to excuse himself as soon as the mis-step was noted, but he was difficult to engage our draw out during the meal. So, after trying several times – I just gave up. Sorry – but it’s been hard enough to leave my Blackberry off; I’m not in the mood for that much personal growth this week.

Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. Saturday, August 28, 2010.

A time change sailing west resulted in Neil and I being up early – and since we resisted the late night party that kept our friends dancing until 6am – we had the gym to ourselves at 9am. We followed our workout with a departure from the breakfast buffet and tried Brunch in the dining room. I’d like to saw it was markedly different from the ordinary breakfast – but it was largely the same omelet station with a different backdrop. Well, that and the totally random assortment of foodstuffs: spinach and meat lasagna, right next to smoked salmon and cream cheese, next to French fries, next to marinated mushrooms next to waffles.

I’d love to say the afternoon included a ceramics class, or an opportunity to learn about marine biology, but it was really just laying around nearly naked – with small strips of spandex covering my naughty bits, while I fried in the sun, splashed in the pool, and started drinking at 5. By 7 we were dancing, and by our 9pm dinner reservation we were tanked.

If you are ever aboard a Celebrity Cruise – please avoid the Silk Harvest asian restaurant. Imagine, if you will, a series of La Choy frozen appetizers, thrown in a deep fryer and covered with packets of sugary duck sauce from the Chinese takeout place. That meal would be better – and more authentic – than what we ate.

But I was tanked and surrounded by cute boys, so who cares?

Messina, Sicily. Sunday, August 29, 2010

Picture it. Sicily. 2010.

I’ve been waiting all week to use that line. We took a bus from the port in Messina to Taormina (which Neil keeps calling, “Tiramisu”,) a medieval village high above the Mediterranean. Wandering ancient streets we visited churches and a Greek theater, then settling in an outdoor café where we dined on homemade pasta with eggplant and tomato, along with pizza topped with spicy salame.

It was a short day, and there isn’t really much to tell – particularly if I want to get to the good ports – so I’ll fast forward a bit. We got back on the ship around 5pm; went to the gym; went to happy hour for cocktails and dancing; then went to dinner with our new friend Ron (who has a home near our place in Sag Harbor), Mark and Todd (remember, I’m not going to remind you who they are. Pay attention.) and Mike and Patrick.

God – my vacation has the same predictable repetition as my life. I’m so fucking boring.

Naples, Italy. Monday, August 30, 2010. 4pm.

This is where it gets fun.

OK – I’ve done the standard sight-seeing of the Amalfi Coast, and last year our cruise stopped here so Neil got to see Capri, Sorrento and Pompeii. I suppose we could have taken a guided tour to Herculaneum. Or gone back to Capri, maybe spent more time shopping or went swimming out to the Blue Grotto.

Instead, however, we took Mark and Todd up an offer to rent a car from the Naples train station and drive up the coast to Ravello, a small Cliffside town set above Amalfi with a spectacular view of the sea. We disembarked around 9:30am, where a hundred cab drivers immediately descended upon us – all wanting our fare. I suppose these cruises are usually a feeding frenzy of fat Americans who only want to come to Naples and eat real pizza. Today, however, they got 2000 homos whose daily carb consumption is the equivalent of half a breadstick – many of whom have arranged tours.

So, I’m trying to be empathetic since the ride to the train station – a distance we’ll cover eight hours later, on foot, in fifteen minutes – cost 30 Euro.

The train station is your basic nightmare. Total chaos, no signage – in a word: Italy. We manage to find a National rental car counter and arrange for a car, and somehow weave our way through the streets of Naples to the autostrade.

The coastal route to Ravello took us almost to Salerno, then along the Amalfi drive where the height of the cliffs, the pitch of the turns and the lack of a shoulder had Neil basically scratching at the windows and chewing on Xanax like they were candy. But it was worth it: when we finally parked outside Amalfi and walked up the hill to Ravello (no cars permitted in the town) we found ourselves in a charming village with a central square, two historic villas with museums and grounds, and narrow cobblestone streets filled with shops. It was like Colonial Williamsburg. But nice.

After wandering through Villa Rufolo and taking photos of the sea, we strolled down a side street where I found some amazing wines that we shipped back to New York. Neil, meanwhile stumbled into a tiny restaurant while I paid for the wine, simply to use the restroom. Next thing I know we’re seated at a table for two, waited on by Netta – whose father originally ran Compo Cosimo (he was the eponymous Cosimo) – which has been covered by the Washington Post, the International News and Observer, among other publications going back at least three decades.

Compo Cosimo serves produce fresh from the garden out back, and a pomodoro salad of room temperature tomatoes, lightly bathed in Olive Oil and salt, and served with a smattering of basil and a hunk of cold Italian farmer cheese, was complimentary and delicious. Neil and I shared a dish of baked ziti and a scallopine of veal in marsala sauce that ranks among the best dishes I’ve ever eaten (I’ll place it in second place for now – wait until tomorrow!) And despite the lack of room in our collective stomachs, we somehow managed espresso and both tiramisu (the best I’ve ever eaten – hands down) and lemon cake (not bad – the lemon was divine, the cake, a little too crumbly and – somehow – too dry and too wet at the same time.)

After lunch we walked through the Villa Cimbrone (which boasts a hotel once occupied by Greta Garbo. Ravello itself has been home to numerous writers, artists and personages – including D.H. Lawrence who wrote parts of Lady Chatterly’s Lover here.) The claim to fame of the villa is its grounds, which include numerous gardens and a wide variety of foliage from Hortensia to a variety of Roses, as well as many masterworks of sculpture. An overlook faces the Mediterranean with busts of several gods, while a hidden grotto offers a famous marble sculpture of Eve. There’s a David here, too, which probably explains why we’ve randomly seen at least three other gay couples – only one of which is from our cruise.

How do we know they’re gay? Well, when you see two middle-aged men who are 40, but look 30 – those are gays. When you see two people spending $200 on lunch and $400 on table linens – those are gays. We two men strolling together down a European street share a serene, smiling expression that says, “I bet my co-workers are spending their summer vacation buying some fat kids a box of taffy at Ocean City or listening to them scream their way through DisneyWorld.”- those are gays.

We returned to the rental car we left at the bottom of the hill to find a parking ticket. We’re betting the Italian police aren’t going to be able to find us.

We bid goodbye to Ravello - with its terraced hillsides and bountiful produce and sweeping views of the Mediterranean, and headed back to Naples (this time through the mountains: more Xanax for Neil.)

I can’t even remember what the afternoon party was – they really should just call them all “Vodka and Speedos!” but I do remember dinner. A dozen people dining at someplace called Silk Harvest.

Imagine Chinese from the mall food court. Now let it sit for half an hour so it’s served at something near room temperature, with the shine that only industrial cooking oil can produce when it congeals. That was our dinner.

Considering that half the group was already experiencing stomach trouble, this was not a positive development (although, I have to say that the one thing I can’t figure out about the gays is that we’ll put our mouths in just about any orifice of the human body, but won’t touch a La Choy Spring Roll. WTF?)

I would tell you more about the evening, but I don’t really remember much. Our friend Mike took a break from filling in his Men of All Nations coloring book, and we were joined by two new faces (Peter and Patrick – a couple whose unfortunately alliterative names makes them sound like characters from a fable, but they’re actually really people). I spent most of my time sitting next to Todd and being snide (why stop doing what you’re good at), or traversing the table to sit between my friends Jaime and Jamie (who, sometime during the course of the evening had their names (which are not spelled alike, but sound alike – making them homophones as well as homosexuals) pre-pended with adjectives so we could tell them apart. I’m not exactly sure who got their name preceded by the word “New” and who got tagged with “Lickable” – but I’m not sure either would be taken as a compliment in the cold sobriety of morning.

Rome. Tuesday, August 31, 2010. 10:30am

Best. Day. Ever.

It did not, however start that way.

Our day began with Neil opting out of the excursion. Having experienced stomach difficulties across three continents and five countries, Neil was no longer willing to venture more than 10 feet from our stateroom. Slogging back to bed, he released me with a quick, “Have Fun.”

Fun is NOT what I was having with Mark, Todd and Mike as we sat outside the McDonald’s in Civitavecchia, the port city that serves as the gateway to Rome. Our ride from Fontana Del Papa had not shown up at the pre-arranged time, and we’d already killed over an hour exploring the village, drinking too much coffee, and wandering into a drug store that offered a cream that promised, if I rubbed it on my stomach, it would shrink.

I’ve been around long enough to know that the only kind of cream that changes the size of your stomach is whipped cream. And it changes it in the other direction.

Finally, a middle-aged woman in Italy’s equivalent of a Ford Pinto comes put-putting up to the McDonald’s and whisks us 20 minutes north to a 16th century farmhouse (Note to self, when filling out the US Customs re-entry forms, I will justify stating I was not on a farm or in the proximity of livestock, by thinking of this place as a charming olive grove. And assume that I hallucinated the horse.)

In all honesty, Fontana Del Papa was gorgeous. Gorgeous. A stone farmhouse set among groves of olive trees. In addition to Assunito and her family, the farm is home to birds, cats, dogs and an old horse. It’s so fucking charming I actually saw the German Shepherd grooming one of the cats. The cook, who was to be our teacher for the day, was right out of central casting. Seriously, everything was so much like a cross between a late 90s Meg Ryan film and a cartoon, that I would have been willing to believe the whole day had been cast by Disney if it weren’t for us four homos and the kid with Downs Syndrome playing guitar.

After a tour of the inn and the grounds, the true purpose of our visit began: a cooking lesson. You’d think it’d be hard to take a cooking lesson from an old Italian lady who speaks about 6 words of English, but it’s surprising what you can accomplish with pointing, grunting, and an unlimited supply of wine.

We chopped herbs and sliced vegetables and rolled dough. We made bruschetta and an apple cake and two veal dishes (involtini and scallopine.) We made homemade pasta with ragu. For two hours we bounded around the kitchen laughing and drinking and making relatively easy dishes that we can impress company with for years.

And then we ate.

Boy did we eat. Bread and pasta and meat and dessert and more wine and coffee. It all made me wonder why Americans place so much stress and pressure and intensity on their lives. Why our days have less pasta and wine, and more anemic salads in plastic bins eaten during conference calls and powerpoint presentations and company reports. It made me so happy to be there – and so very very very sad about my life back home, which feeds my soul in inverse proportion to this meal and the process of creating it.

At the end of the day, fat and tired, we bid farewell to Fonatana Del Papa – though I rescued the remaining apple cake to share with Neil, whom I so desperately wanted to share the day with. I hurried to the room, but he was nowhere to be found, so I headed toward the pool deck where I suspected he might be resting in the sun.

And there I found him – holding court amid a throng of friends old and new. And, to soothe his stomach – a cocktail in hand. Still, you can’t really get mad at Neil – he’s too damn cute. So I offered him some cake and sat down to tell him about our day.

I will say that the upside to his convalescence is that it gave us an excuse to skip the evening’s entertainment – the White Party. Basically the last big hurrah on the ship – a party where everyone is supposed to dress in white, but the costumes are more outlandish – and more revealing – than any of the other evenings. We did do a drive by, which was actually when I noticed that the entire sailing could have been called a White Party. I don’t think we saw more than a dozen African-Americans on the entire cruise, and outside of the occasional gaysian (an asian boy who is more West Hollywood than Far East) – not many Asians either. Further, with a few exceptions, most of the people we met were from New York, DC, San Francisco, LA and Miami. It really would be nice if the Atlantis crowd shook a little of the urbane sophisticate out of their targeting and exposed us to some homos from places where people still eat butter.

Aix-en-Provence. Wednesday, September 1, 2010. 6pm.

The last day of the cruise always seems to be the day with the best shopping. I guess they want you to have one last splurge before your see your stateroom account.

We took a shuttle into Aix – a university town not far from Marseilles – and basically couldn’t keep our credit card in our pocket for four hours. We bought stuff for the new house; stuff for the old house; stuff for the nieces. We bought lunch. We bought pastry. We bought sweets form a French candy store (which is pretty much like my crappy candy store at 78th and Broadway, but the whole language difference made it seem more adventurous.)

I loved spending the day alone with Neil – just talking about our house and our lives and getting a chance to communicate with each other in a way that doesn’t involve cell phones or yelling into other rooms. When we don’t have to yell past his laptop or my preoccupation with work. When we aren’t traversing the day-to-dayness of the cleaning woman, the insurance agent, or the mail.

I love knowing exactly what stores he’s going to want to stop at; which he’s going to wander into. I love knowing the colors and the patterns he’ll pick out for linens, or which knick-knacks will appeal to him. I know, a nanosecond before, when a joke is coming – or when his face is going to burst forth in a grin – or when a snarky comment is about to launch in my direction.

These moments make the rest of life bearable. Those awful days when you can’t get off the phone and the email piles up. The long flights, small planes and bad food. The frustrated clients and disengaged co-workers. I do it all to know that someday, some months later, in the streets of a medieval town or the backyard of our house, he’ll turn his head and smile at me like he’s the happiest guy in the world.

And that’s pretty much it. We left Aix and sailed for Barcelona. We had one final drink and said good bye to the friends we came aboard with, and those we made. We exchanged numbers and email addresses and promised to share photos on Facebook.

We’ve got four days in Barcelona – but that’s another post – another time. After four weeks off, I need to pace myself.