Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Visit with Aunt Crazy

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

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

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

Yes, those last two activities are the same thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Groundskeeper's Willie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also brought their fourteen year-old son.

To the gay dinner party.

Can I say I felt a little Awk. Ward.

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

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

The kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.  Like that's gonna happen.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

This is not an upbeat post

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

So I stifle the wince and forgive him his beer.

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

The noise is too noisy, cacophonous and disparate.

Until it isn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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