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?