New York State of Nostalgia

It’s a confusing time to be a chap in his 30s in this city. We can’t really run, bare-chested, through Central Park at the moment, depriving us of some major physical release. Doing so in these temperatures would mean freezing and hypothermia, and also all sorts of shrinkage. (Exposed protuberances might fall off, but they’re pretty useless anyway.) We now have NBC’s late night TV back here properly (thank God), but can’t decry it as much because Fallon’s a good guy and one of us rather than a Baby Booming Bush Panderer who refused to retire, and so derailed Conan’s career. And now, to top it off, the New York Times has an especially confusing piece this weekend in the Magazine.

In an article that’s sure to set Jezebel aflame in a smouldering rage for suggesting that perhaps some of the things for which we’ve fought in the name of equality don’t always lead to unqualified good, Lori Gottlieb suggests that more equality is likely to lead to less intimacy in marriages. (The piece has about 800 comments as I write. Woody Allen’s letter of explanation has close to 2,500. As people, do we care more about the relations that other people are having – whether healthy or apparently illicit – than we do our own?)

The article is confusing both for the situation that it purports to illustrate and for the way in which it is written. With the rhetorical questions she asks – “I know what a 50-50 marriage should be like. But what is 50-50 sex supposed to be like?” “Is the trade-off of egalitarian marriage necessarily less sexual heat?” – Lori Gottlieb channels another doyenne of New York sex columns, Carrie Bradshaw. The women about whom Gottlieb writes are the women Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte once were, or wanted to be. (After all, the series began by talking about the death of love in New York City, and about how women had started using sex the way that men do.) Carrie left our screens about ten years ago, and I thought I’d never love another TV show again. Eventually How I Met Your Mother took its place in my heart and as a cultural barometer. It, too, is finishing soon. When the past is still so raw, and the present so confusing, what hope is there for the future?

If Saturday leaves us hopeless, in New York there’s always Sunday morning to raise our spirits. The wedding announcements on which I tend to come down hardest here are the clichés: the couple who met in college, share an ethnicity, income bracket, and postcode, and seem to marry for compatibility. Some young people in modern America, it would seem, have taken the advice of Indian parents to heart: first make sure there’s fit; then love will come. This is fine, of course, and I wish these couples happiness. It just seems so dull. (There was one piece last week in which a girl married a chap because he went to her dream school and spelt his name the ethnically acceptable way. Never so much have I wanted naked social climbing to result in a fall.) It doesn’t surprise me that the older women with whom Gottlieb speaks care more about sexual satisfaction and their own careers than pure compatibility. They know that settling doesn’t work, having seen their friends’ marriages for what they are. And, so, I’m thrilled when a couple in the Times seems to evince some genuine connection. So there’s this one. Yes, he has two Harvard degrees and somehow they were able to go to the London College of Needlework to get the dress made, and it’s not hard to see why he found her attractive. At the same time, any girl who’s willing to marry a man with three children when she’s left the fashion industry in Manhattan deserves props – or a straitjacket, I’m not sure which. (The kids do seem adorable, truth be told. I’m sure Mrs Fleiss will be very happy for many years.)

Then there’s the story of age differences not mattering a damn to a couple, even if it has taken them 27 years to get married. Rebecca Low and Marjory Swanson married last week, after they met at a singles party in Texas in 1986. Ms. Swanson would have been 60 when they met, and Ms Low, I suppose, in her 30s, but they’ve stuck it out, and now they’re married. This makes me happy. So does the story of Sara Slifka and Michael Shulman. In some ways it’s the story of a high achieving Yale graduate marrying a high achieving Princeton graduate via an “online dating site” (I’m guessing J-Date, but that may be a little stereotypical) at Essex House. And it is this. It’s also the story of a pharmaceuticals executive who’s marrying an actor despite her allergy to his dog. I’m a sucker for dogs.

The other announcements this week were either staid or unremarkable; it is winter, after all. But as long as widowers with children, lesbian octogenarians, and people with dogs get married, a life without Ted and Barney may be ok. And if you’re finding the Weddings section as lachrymose as I have been, lately, watch Anchorman 2. It makes New York in the early 1980s, with all of its hookers and crack dealers and “he-shes on the Bowery” seem like a slightly more glamorous, but perhaps no less ridiculous, place. And, as the best song on a stellar soundtrack underscores, perhaps the real test of love isn’t lucre or libido, but finding someone who’d really love to see you tonight. (For me, that’s SoulCycle. No Sunday is complete without it.)

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Vowing the Right Way – The Weddings Sections of 1 and 8 December, 2013

400950-nelson-mandela-and-graca-machel

Listen to Pitbull singing International Love when reading this week’s Weddings post. Please. Or listen to something else, or nothing at all.

Nelson Mandela, whom I’ve admired greatly for about as long as I can remember, died last week. This was the most important story of my news-cycle, but there are enough people writing about him elsewhere, so I don’t know that I need to say much more. The second most important story of my news cycle for the past week was the Gawker essay, “On Smarm“. It says a great many of the things I believe about the feigned “niceness” which seems to be the defining attribute of people who are deemed to be “good” by many people about my age.

As my earlier posts about the Times’ Weddings section ought to make clear, it would be hypocritical of me not tosay that snark can be a positive force. There’s a corollary to this, though. Snark merely for the purpose of being destructive, doesn’t do all that much good. It seems far better to use snark to pull down that which is inadequate, but still to laud the adequate and the good every once in a while, and to explain why these other things are adequate or good. So here are some weddings write-ups over the past two editions of the Sunday Times that I’ve actually liked, and why.

First, some international weddings that are likely to have made Madiba happy, for the way that they pay no heed to racial or religious barriers. Nikhil Suri, an IT manager, managed the dream of every introverted Indian boy with a degree from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University when he married a girl from Tennessee named Milena Marshall last week. (He gets bonus points for having met her at work, thereby minimising the need to be especially social.) I’m hazarding a guess that Zing Bai and Isaac Chao come from less culturally disparate backgrounds. They both speak the same recondite language that is used to draft commercial contracts, after all. Still, Miss Bai’s upbringing in China and two degrees from Hawaii Pacific University mark her out as someone with serious international chops. They, too, get bonus points for meeting at work. In today’s Manhattan, is there much that’s more romantic than sneaking into your sweetheart’s office to take your time over that night’s offerings from Seamless Web?

I adoredthe story of Carrie Lee and Ian Cohen. As well as a potential cultural divide (ameliorated, no doubt, by Miss Lee’s time at Tufts), Mr. Cohen had other hurdles to face before he married. Any private equity mogul with masters degrees from Wharton and SAIS is likely to put a great deal of thought into committing, given the many women likely to be flocking to him in Hong Kong. His parents’ jobs were unlikely to send him galloping down the aisle, either. Mr. Cohen’s mother “is the founder and president of DivorceSource, a business in New York that helps people manage the practical issues of divorce. His father, a divorce lawyer, is a partner in the New York law firm Cohen Clair Lans Greifer & Thorpe.” Despite having parents who have spent their lives helping people to separate (and have, themselves, obtained a divorce), Ian Cohen still married his sweetheart. I’m impressed. (I hope they have a musically inclined daughter. They sound like they’d raise a better adjusted young woman than the character from Glee with similarly named parents.)

I’m impressed by Amanda Weinberger, who married Christopher Wagner, a policeman, last week. She implies that she did this despite perhaps having a history on the wrong side of law enforcement officials. Before their first date, Wagner pulled up in a police car. Weinberger’s first reaction was to start wondering “Oh, great, what did I do now” and start reaching for her license and registration. Her fear of the police didn’t stop her from marrying him almost four years later. Then there’s the wonderfully named Kay WalkingStick, who married Dirk Bach last week. Even more wonderfully, Miss WalkingStick attended an educational institution named Beaver College.

On the subject of colleges, we have the Natalia Berry/Eric Twerdahl Jr. power-pairing. She has degrees from Harvard, Cambridge, and Dartmouth (twice). He attended the US Naval Academy, Oxford, and Harvard. (I’m already frightened for their children’s classmates at school.) In addition, this week featured Frances Black and Matthew Strauss, who met at Yale. Usually I’d mock a weddings announcement which so blatantly and nakedly seems to have been crafted to promote the bride’s many professional accomplishments. These achievements  include directing an arts service organisation, producing on and off Broadway (the announcement adumbrates her shows), and sitting on the board of the Ice Theater of New York. I’m giving this one a pass for two reasons. First, Mrs. Strauss is a 31 year-old holder of a masters degree in theatre management, so she needs to rejoice in whatever work she can get. Secondly, she’s Canadian. She probably doesn’t know any better.

Finally from this fortnight are two stories about people finding love later in life. Jean Buettner met William Dolan III, who she married last week, through his (fairy?) godmother. His godmother, Mrs. Duff, was her neighbour. The couple met when they were both married to other people. If this premise doesn’t pull at your heartstrings enough, perhaps Ms. Buettner’s vocation might. She is a violinist, who often played for Mrs. Duff. Mrs. Duff died last June, after telling the couple that her parting gift to them was each other. Today’s Cupids clearly come in the form of elderly women.

No less lovely is the story of two high school classmates who reconnected after several years apart this week. They worked on the yearbook together and felt a spark, and then went on to lead rather different lives. One became a “driven and accomplished” doctor, while the other went off to “create an interesting life” and “seemed very comfortable with who she was.” There’s a twist to this slightly clichéd story of two people leaving high school and taking paths that veered apart before meeting again, though. The sweethearts are women, Christine Newman and Eileen Bruns, and have in fact been together for almost 25 years. It’s only as a result of recent law changes that they were able to marry this year.

Nelson Mandela understood the importance of companionship and marriage in his own life. Like the last two couples I’ve mentioned, he married for a third time when advanced in years. In this, he was different from Gandhi, who put himself through all sorts of tests of purity and self-abnegation to test his own will. The cross-cultural weddings I’ve highlighted here – between people of Indian and European origin, and between people of East Asian and European origin – would have been impossible in the country of Mandela’s birth when he was born. His work changed that, making interracial marriage possible in today’s South Africa, and more acceptable all over the world. Like Amanda Weinberger, he was no stranger to problems with law enforcement, but earned the respect and admiration of his jailers (and even invited them to his inauguration ceremony). He understood, too, the value of education, calling it “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” I am sure that he would be as much in awe of the many-lettered couples here as I am. He also understood the importance of gay rights, correctly seeing them as the next important focal point for civil rights movements the world over. I’m sure he would have been as uplifted by the story of Miss Newman and Miss Bruns as the rest of us ought to be.

Nelson Mandela was once an angry, perhaps snarky, young man. He died a figure who epitomised the power of love for your fellow man all over the world. For all of my snark about individual announcements, I do love the Weddings section. At its best, it highlights our ability to be unselfish, to relinquish our own desires because we love that other person so much more than we love ourselves. I doubt that Mandela had much time to keep abreast of the romantic lives of Manhattan socialites. I hope that he now has time at least to glance through the announcements that came out on the Sundays before and after his death. If he does, he’ll see how profoundly and poignantly its stories of people of all ages, races, religions, backgrounds, and genders who love one another reinforce his life’s work.

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How I Read When I Read the Weddings Section

Sometimes we all need a little reinforcement...

Sometimes we all need a little reinforcement…

This week’s soundtrack is here.

Assiduous readers (yes, all three of you) may have noticed that last week didn’t feature a weddings update. There will be a fuller summary in normal vein for the 1 December section, but I hate the feeling that I’ve neglected the many couples who featured in the last column before Thanksgiving in 2013. (Even my clutching for significance date-wise seems forced.) Instead of inundating this site with a full rundown of two weeks’ weddings in one post (because then, what else would I have to discuss?) I thought that a primer as to how I read the Weddings Section might be helpful. I’m using the 24 November section as my exemplar. Feel free to use others.

Of course, this approach comes with caveats. The New York Times’ Weddings section performs different roles in different people’s lives. Some people skim it to find people they know. Others use it to find ideas for romance, stories to tell at dinner parties or on dates, or excuses to inhale their tubs of Ben & Jerry’s that night. (If you fall into this last category, please try to find something more original than “All by Myself” as backing music. I suggest anything by Ke$ha instead.)

My own goal is simpler. Humanist that I am, I use the Weddings Section to help me to understand the meaning of life.

And, to find meaning and answers, I have to ask questions. After my initial read-through, my first question is usually: are there any good names? In New York, “Jr.” counts for a lot (including as a signal for your father’s narcissism). A “III” is rarer, but there was one last week, in the form of a Raymond Stephens III. This clearly demanded initial attention.

I often move from an examination of the announcement when a name is interesting to try to find broader trends, or reveal the lattices that hold the section together at an ionic level. For instance, both Mr. Stephens III and his husband, Mr. Stalis, work for the government, at the US embassy in Nairobi. Their public service careers run, interestingly, in close parallel with the careers represented in the union of Robert Berry and Alejandro Cedeno. Mr. Berry works for the U.S. government’s development finance institution, with a particular focus on investing in Jordan, Iraq, and Liberia. (Jordan is apparently his “easy” country after he was landed with the post-conflict zone hospital-passes of Iraq and Liberia.) Mr. Berry’s new husband also works in development finance, in his case for the World Bank. His areas of interest are Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Liberia may not have had much in common before this week’s Weddings Section. They do now.

For a broader trend, the Stalis-Stephens and Berry-Cedeno weddings both had  Episcopal priests officiating. So did the third gay wedding that featured on the 24th, between William Stubing and Ronald Thomas. Any fears of homosexual homogeneity that I might have had were soon allayed when I read that Mr. Stubing and Mr. Thomas both work in the private sector. (This is a nice continuum, from the Stalis-Stephens embassy work, to the Berry-Cedeno investment interests for governmental organisations and NGO arms, to Stubing and Thomas, who are decidedly in the private sector, with jobs in bioethics and computers.) The age differences provide variation, too. Stalis and Stephens are three years apart; Berry and Cedeno 9; and Mr. Stubing had celebrated his sweet 16 before Ronald Thomas was born.

Sometimes, though, even a promising name gives you very little to digest. Such is the case with the wedding of Jennifer Lerner to Milton-David November. Despite a wonderfully hyphenated first name, and a surname that he shares with the month in which he married and that allows him to associate himself with the title of my favourite song by The National, Mr. November’s wedding announcement isn’t particularly noteworthy.  This rather unremarkable précis, after such a promising headline, reinforces a point that I’ve made before. Gay weddings may save the Weddings Section from oblivion.

Still, the 24th wasn’t an altogether bad week to ask the big questions in the Weddings Section. In some cases, you might even have been lucky enough to find answers to them. As a result of the Roullet-Bak union, I now know what “hematopathology” and “otolaryngology” mean. From a distance, and if the resolution on the photograph isn’t too high, the pretty Ms. Bak looks a little like Jennifer Garner. So I also now know that attractive doctors who look a little like Jennifer Garner (if you’re sufficiently drunk) evince the irritating American habit of calling “drinks” a “happy hour”.  (From experience, they never last for just an hour. Nor are they always happy. More often, they’re just soaked in sexual tension.) If they really want to get a chap drunk, though, these low-resolution-Mrs. Afflecks throw wine parties under the pretence of forging links with their French ancestry. (Ms. Bak invited Mr. Roullet to her “Nouveau Beaujolais” party one year. Even the name of the party sounds amorous.)

Other blurbs from the 24th beg questions to which answers aren’t as easily forthcoming. “I’m not into groupies,” Clyde Lee III – a second “third” for the week: wow! – told Jennifer Hayes when trying to get her attention through rejecting other women’s advances. Mr. Lee is “the marketing director at Viggle, a mobile media applications company in New York.” This makes me wonder whether: (a) groupies are becoming really low-rent in this post-crisis era; or (b) his definition of “groupie” is completely different to mine. Their first date was meant to involve running in Central Park at 7 a.m., which raises more questions. Like, how seriously was Ms. Hayes taking things if she was willing to see this fellow without makeup on when potentially hung over? (And, for similar reasons, how seriously was he taking things? Did he even wash in advance? If he did, wouldn’t this have been a waste of soap and water given the moisture that was likely to drench him after the double exertions of running and being in such close proximity to Ms. Hayes?) More generally, is seeing anyone before 10 a.m. ever a good idea? In the event, naturally, she overslept. It rained, inevitably. So their joint planning and lack of forethought did them no favours. Eventually things started properly, with Ms. Hayes cooking Mr. Lee lasagna, and then they started running, but it could so easily have turned out so differently.

My written notes in the margins of the Nadine Haobsh-Erik Courtney piece raised even more confusing conundrums. Taken at face value, it’s the simple story of a 39 year-old man who married a 33 year-old woman who he met in California. They also both attended Columbia, apparently. This is where things get murky: both were Columbia undergraduates. Although there was a six year age difference, the “couple attended Columbia at the same time and moved in the same social circles.” One theory is that Miss Haobsh was precocious (as presumably you’d need to be, if you’re going to grow up one day to write Beauty Confidential: The No Preaching, No Lies, Advice-You’ll-Actually-Use Guide to Looking Your Best). The other explanation – and this is the one that I give more credence – is that Mr. Courtney led a really interesting life before Columbia. So, major question number one: why are avid readers not told about this pre-Columbian life? Isn’t this omission inappropriate on the weekend before Thanksgiving, the holiday that effectively commemorates the obliteration of a pre-Columbian way of life for Native Americans? (Mr. Courtney also worried that Ms. Haobsh would be just some “Ivy League Princess.” I don’t think fellow Ivy Leaguers are allowed to have those worries.)

The second major question that this profile raises is more universal still. It is about okcupid, which is how the couple met. He was “intrigued” by her profile (“witty, down-to-earth, no grammatical errors”). She claims not to have looked at his photos until reading his profile – “(her standard online dating practice)” we’re told, parenthetically. But did he look at her photos, and is he just covering up his fascination with her swimsuit photos? Perhaps her beauty secrets aren’t as confidential as her book title suggests?

Miss Haobsh also suggests a worryingly Manichean choice at the end of the piece. The future bride and groom travelled to Japan together early in their relationship. In Miss Haobsh’s telling, they “were either going to come back in love or I was going to have the world’s best story. I fell in love.” This is the age of Sheryl Sandberg and leaning in, so I must ask: why can’t a girl fall in love and have a really good story simultaneously? To my mind, some of the world’s best stories do involve people falling in love. Usually they’re better than Miss Haobsh’s – Troilus and Cressida, Pride and Prejudice, and Wedding Crashers come to mind – but, still, their existence doesn’t mean that Nadine Jolie Hobsh was prevented from falling in love and still having a story that was quite good. I hope that she aims to get more from married life than she did during her courtship.

And finally, there’s the stunning, precocious Elisabeth Sacks. At 29, Miss Sacks is a resident in internal medicine at Yale-New Haven Hospital, has a summa cum laude degree from Columbia, a masters in Classics from Cambridge and a medical degree from Mount Sinai. Why’s she here? Oh, yes: she married William Baker. Mr Baker also has three degrees, but from slightly less high-powered institutions. Don’t get me wrong: Carleton College (where he was magna) and a masters degree in information and library science from Southern Connecticut State University are great. Unfortunately, Baker had to go and blot his copybook with another masters from NYU (in museum studies). First big question: why did he go to NYU? (And why does anyone?) Second big question: how did she manage so much at such a young age?

Most pressingly, how did they meet? Clearly they both live in New Haven, but rumours about the precise dynamics of their first meeting swirl in ever-decreasing circles (at least in my head). Was the on-water rowing machine at Yale their point of introduction? Perhaps he fell into the shallow pool and she gave him emergency CPR? Or was it the likelier story of a slightly grimy gin-and-whisky bar across the road from Mory’s at 2 one morning? Presumably both were cold and looking for comfort. In Miss Sacks’s case, I can only  assume that she was trying to escape the burden of expectation that she felt the world had placed on her immaculate shoulders and turned to an NYU-educated stranger’s limp embrace. Mr Baker? Well, in my imagination, he was just trying to avoid sleeping in the reference section of the Institute Library for the third night straight. (Another thing that assists with making sense of the world is forcing people to write about how they met in their announcements. Doing otherwise risks bored strangers formulating uncharitable scenarios about your initial encounter.) In any event, and even with all of these unanswered questions, I take some solace from the fact that the officiant at the Sacks-Baker ceremony was an Episcopal priest. The couple is not completely out of place here.

24 November 2013 was a bumper Weddings Section for Episcopal priests. It also heralded a return to form for the Section after a couple of rather dismal weeks in a row. I’m pleased to have unearthed a few patterns this time. With luck and practice, I am sure that you will get what you want from your Vows experience, too. In seriousness, all of these happy couples hopefully had a great deal for which to be thankful this Thanksgiving. Thanks to them (and the recent news of the Monty Python reunion), so did I. And I hope you did, too.

So happy Thanksgiving, all. This year we can all be grateful that, even if we haven’t yet reached an understanding of the meaning of life, at least we have the Weddings Section to help us to ask the big questions to get us there.

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What I Like About You

ImageThe Times this week has a piece about an anthology of people’s goodbyes to New York. The genre has its roots in Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That”, which was first published in 1967. Didion’s essay is turning 50 in a short time, which underlines a point that ought to be obvious. New York is a city that people have been leaving for an awfully long time. (Another obvious point is that for so many more, it has been a place to which they’ve come, fleeing oppression or seeking new opportunities, but it’s not done for my generation to celebrate this fact.) Metropolises change, so it makes complete sense that the people who live here might move to other places sometimes. As I explain here, I disagree with the sentiment that seems to lie behind these many goodbyes.

While I disagree with these authors, I suppose that I can try to understand the motivation for these bittersweet farewells (even if my take isn’t particularly charitable). I think that writers need to earn a living somehow. Perhaps positioning a piece as part of a tradition or a cult of people who’ve outgrown or are dumping a city to move on to other, better places gives one a certain sense of validation. So often, the metaphor these writers use is of New York as unsuitable paramour. So, often, the city is anthropomorphised into someone who doesn’t care about you, despite the fact that you’ve given him or her your whole heart. Ann Friedman accuses the town of being the chap who’s “gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.” Viewers of a certain TV show which called the city its fifth character might hear echoes of a character that they might call Mr (or Miss) Big. It becomes easier to leave a place you love, but where you feel you might not be able to survive, if you phrase living here in terms of a damaged relationship. 

I don’t want to join this cult of saying goodbye, although I might have cause to do so. While my financial problems do not rival Meghan Daum’s, I often think of the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom apartment that was my last home in Dubai. It had a built-in laundry, every modern convenience imaginable, and two swimming pools and a gym downstairs. I paid the same for it as I do for a one-bedroom in a walk-up on the Upper East Side now. The floors here are uneven and the windows, as I’m discovering this late November, aren’t double-glazed.

My building is also on an avenue where construction continues incessantly. A horn pressed in anger by a truck driver at 3 a.m. or a car alarm that startles you two hours later has the potential to leave you unfit for purpose for the rest of the day. Few things elicit as much anger in me as my upstairs neighbour’s child jumping up and down or yelling from the street when I’m trying to sleep late on a Saturday morning. It’s as though those small feet are kicking holes into the fibre of my being and the remnants of my sanity. Large, crowded cities can turn a fellow into an irascible and occasionally irrational insomniac. Who knew?

I understand, first-hand, the way heartbreak and misaligned romantic expectations work in this town, too. (So many of these farewells talk about leaving boyfriends who won’t commit, so this might have something to do with it.) Jezebel asks whether dumping New York is a girl thing. With ratios the way they are here, I see why one might think that. I’m as sympathetic as I can be to the oft-repeated complaint from my single female friends, which is that they can’t find reasonable men here. (Just quietly, ladies, I’d beg that you consider the implications of saying that to a single chap who’s spending time with you one-on-one the next time you’re pondering such an utterance.) From the male perspective, I also know that many of us don’t start out being awful. My pet theory is that every man here starts out as an Aidan until some girl makes him into a Big.

Of course, I could also complain about the fact that I haven’t had a suit tailored in three years or bemoan the lack of gym time bestowed by my work. I know that doing so will make it much harder for me to garner much sympathy. So I will not bang on about these more minor inconveniences too much.

It is not sympathy that I seek, though. I want to try to understand – and communicate – why, along with so many others, I put up with this. Yes, I live a more comfortable life than many of these struggling writers, but I still have other options for places to live which might afford me more time, more money, or both. I think the thing that keeps me here most of all is the people. There are the friends and acquaintances. Some are international, like me; many are internationally-minded Americans. Sometimes we congregate in bars. At others, we throw or attend house parties. I absolutely love these gatherings. Unlike the dreary picture that some of these writers’ eulogies paint of congregations that either have struggling writers complaining or dull bankers talking about getting their kids into school in the front pews, I find that the people that happenstance vomits up at my social gatherings are often fascinating if sometimes deranged. They always have a spark about them. Perhaps the writers’ single-minded focus on their work leads to a certain homogeneity of social interaction, which is bound to get boring eventually. While many of my close friends here are lawyers, as I am, I am fairly sure that I would castrate myself in a fit of pique if the only women I met were other lawyers. (I treat male lawyers like laxatives, meeting them only when inescapably necessary. And when I say inescapable, I mean Alcatraz guarded by a Minotaur.) The real charm of New York is the mix of people doing so many different things.

There are also the chance (and not-so-chance) encounters with celebrity. Since coming here, I’ve bumped into Woody Allen at the Carlyle, met Stephen Fry, dined with TV show producers, and randomly found out that someone with whom I was having lunch for professional reasons is the child of one of my favourite filmmakers. On the less exalted plane is the rendezvous that is locally significant, like spotting Bill Cunningham, or realising that the person next to you at a restaurant or ordering a drink at a bar was the subject of a Vows section write-up over which you obsessed a couple of months ago. These run-ins are, to me, a little like my relationship with the martini (which is, of course, the quintessential New York drink). The most thrilling thing about A martini, as a construct, is that drinking the almost pure gin makes me feel like a grown-up. At 30, I don’t yet feel especially grown up. It is still rather nice to sniff the olives every now and then.

The real sauce that makes life here delicious, though, is the conversation or chat that reminds you that while you might be in a big city, small things still matter and, that at heart, this is an agglomeration of people. This is the case despite the fact that New Yorkers can seem grumpy and selfish at times, snatching your cab or insisting on cash only to avoid paying the same taxes that you do. To support this point, many cite Mikhail Baryshnikov’s character in the final season of Sex and the City, when he says that he likes New York because it “doesn’t have a big smile on its face.” (He then tries, unforgivably, to whisk Carrie to Paris).

If the city were a face, I agree that it probably wouldn’t be grinning like an idiot. I’m fairly sure, though, that it compensates with the ironic half-smirk that lurks somewhere around the spot where Broadway meets Fifth Avenue instead. This dry wit might reveal itself in the woman who catches you pondering your new beard through your iPhone camera on a crowded train, and knowingly says “don’t worry, you look handsome,” when you clearly don’t. It might also be the kind person who compliments your embarrassing multi-coloured sweater as you put it on after Soul Cycle. I told her that my friends had given it to me, probably as a joke. “Well, the joke’s on them,” she told me.

As a general species, my favourite New Yorkers are the bums and the cab-drivers. The fellow who stands closest to my corner had a sales pitch that needed improving a few weeks ago. He had this bad habit of insulting people before asking them for money. To one woman, it was “honey, your dress is tight; you don’t want to be mutton dressed as lamb.” Or “you must be rich, otherwise you wouldn’t have such a young girl on your arm,” as he told an elderly man who was accompanying his niece to the synagogue. I am, at least, fairly sure that she was his niece. They had the same eyebrows.

I decided that this gentleman needed a word of friendly advice one Saturday night, so I told him that he needed to stop being an asshole. If he wanted to make more money, I suggested, he ought either to start being observational in a funny, ironic way, or just purely complimentary. “Nice sweater, nice scarf, sir,” he told me last week, before asking for a dollar. I tried to walk on. I was on the phone. “Hey come on, I’m being nice, like you told me.” (I had to give him a dollar for that.) The cab-drivers are a fund of stories, too, be they former smugglers of German luxury cars into Turkey, or just the nasal guy who won’t let you fall asleep at 3 a.m. on a Saturday night, so starts a long monologue about pastrami.

These conversations don’t feature as attractions on the glamorous roundabout that takes you from sipping drinks at the Waldorf to attending galas at the Met, and which might attract today’s equivalents of Holly Golightly to the place. They’re more just evidence of the carotid, coursing, rich life blood of a city, and of the people who make it tick and can’t leave because they don’t have an option to spend half the day in traffic in Los Angeles. My local bum and I probably share the same opinion of this place, loving it because of, rather than despite its flaws, although we live in rather different worlds. This is, I think, the attitude that you must have if you want to call it home.

This “hullo, New York, I still love you” note doesn’t even touch on the architecture, the museums, the plays, the simple beauty of Sheep Meadow in late Spring, or the sense of confused elation that overwhelms you when a drunk 22 year old lesbian starts making out with you in a bar on a Thursday night. As I’ve written to my friends so often, just when you think that you’ve seen all that this place has to offer, it shows you something more. Rather than the unrequiting lover, to me it’s the girlfriend who, five years in, reveals that she has mastered a new yoga pose with surprisingly wonderful applications, or let’s you in on an interest in 19th century French philosophy that winds up captivating your imagination for weeks.

Perhaps my adoration is different because so many of these writers seem to come from small towns and leave here again for smaller places, having taken as much of New York’s nectar as they need before going elsewhere. I’ve always been a creature and a creation of cities. It’s clearly this city that’s mastered the art form of how to be one, urban metropolis in excelsis that it is. I’m not saying that I’ll live here forever. If I do go, though, I like the idea that it will be because I am going to something, rather than from here.  And, as long as I’m here, I want to be fully open to the possibility of having the wind knocked out of me. Perhaps this constant and omnipresent possibility is why Rachel chose Ross over Paris, and why Carrie came back from there for Big.

Hell, even Joan Didion lives here again.

Yes, New York can be cold, mean, scary, and unforgiving. There is so much that’s wrong with it, from gross inequality to the bad luck in love that seems to be every single New Yorker’s fate. For all of its flaws and failings, though, I’m firmly in Carrie’s camp. It’s a beautiful, wonderful, captivating place. Unlike these many now-absent writers, I find it hard to think of it as anything but utterly fabulous.

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More Weddings, Apparently – New York Times Vows, 17 November 2013

I suggest that you read this week’s more subdued Weddings post with this as a soundtrack. I’ll explain why at the end.

Lady Gaga put in a surprisingly good performance as performer and host of Saturday Night Live this past week. I do not say this because I wonder about her ability to perform – more than any other pop diva today for practical purposes, Gaga gives the impression of having been born this way – but the show has a newish cast. Gelling with a combination that’s still figuring out its internal dynamics isn’t the easiest thing to do. (For me, the stand-out moment on the show was a sketch titled “The Future”, not available online, which made me admire the performer’s self-knowledge and understanding of the ephemeral nature of fame.) Gaga’s opening monologue, where she pondered the difference between applause that’s earned and what she calls “cheap applause”, also stood out. She rightly condemns “cheap applause”. These are the claps that pander, the ones that you don’t really deserve but that elicit admiration through the audience’s familiarity or because they go according to script. As an audience-member, you know that this isn’t a great story or all that funny, but you laugh anyway. It also distinguishes Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral (genuinely, break-out, situational irony, funny) from Hugh Grant’s voiceover monologues in Love, Actually (which you love, despite the obvious manipulation).

The emotional equivalent of pandering to cheap applause is my problem with this week’s Weddings section of the New York Times, and why I’ve taken so long to put this together. (It’s a wonder that I bothered at all, what with the quality of wedding they’re letting in this mid-November.) For instance, even I don’t have it in me to decry the sweet story of a chap who stood by his girlfriend when she had cancer and proposed with rose petals lining the floor when it looked like she had successfully fought the disease. I don’t have much to say about the normal and unremarkable trend of people working in the media who met in ordinary circumstances finding space, either. Clearly these weddings are being featured as a token of gratitude for the freebies that the newly-weds give the impoverished staff-writers at the Times. (Or maybe one of the happy couple caught the Vows editor’s best friend in a compromising position over a sink with white powder in her nose, or under a sink with something whiter and stickier on his face that time at the benefit for multiple sclerosis in the Hamptons. Please feel free to reverse or duplicate the genders in the previous, arguably incomplete, sentence. I’ve seen it all ways.) This is the nature of the beast. Winter brings on a larger than usual smattering of lawyers, children of lawyers, and Columbia graduates than normal, too. (I fall within two of these groups, so ought not to get too upset about this.) All sit in the realm of the expected announcement, unworthy of special note. All are about cheap applause. It’s difficult to get too excited about these weddings.

Worth slightly more comment is the fact that winter Vows have this strange knack of spending more time than usual recounting the achievements of  the happy couple’s often supercilious parents. Exhibit one is Eliza Gray, whose father’s many years working as counsel for George H W Bush are prominent. (Less prominent is Daddy’s failure to tell 41 that the President’s son was a liability.) I’m puzzled by the puzzling inconsistency between the print and online version of the Bailey-Custer union. In the online edition, the couple is united by their made-for-post-breakup-bad-rom-com-on-a-rainy-long-weekend-and-didn’t-Kirsten-Dunst-seem-much-more-promising-in-1999? Soccer romance. The print edition dispenses with this story, opting instead, for some reason, to fix its clammy gaze on the bride’s parents’ many academic achievements.

Still, those of us who see the weddings as a source of entertainment rather than of people to pity are thrown a small bone this week. Two very Type A women imprisoned their victims husbands this week. One is the woman who had a list of seven non-negotiable traits that her ideal mate would exhibit. Readers are let in on details of four of the boxes that Rusty ticked. (These were: intelligence; self-awareness and self-improvement; fun quotient; wanting kids). Given that Miss From was sure that Mr Stahl met all of her criteria on their second date, I wonder whether or not the fact that he would say absolutely anything in order to get laid on a third date was on the list. At least the other bride has the “self-awareness and self-improvement” to identify as Type A; she has married a man who talks about a “90-degree experience, if you will.” The couple shares an interest in triathlons, working out, and living in Albany, New York. This, of course, makes total sense. What can one do in Albany apart from triathlons and working out?

Rounding things off this week are some signs of hope for people who occasionally wear tuxes and/or are chubby (and who generally laud weddings between the seemingly normal and fun). I found the story of Watson Morgan Fauth and Kevin Coleman Jr enchanting, and not just because Watson Morgan, the bride, is known as Morgan. (When you’re christened with three surnames, why not just pick the middle one?) No, Miss Fauth’s story also reveals that she had the good sense not to speak to the chap who she liked at the next table at a black tie event. She gave him her phone number instead. (She was 24 at the time. He was 23.) Six years and a fizzled Facebook friendship later, they’re getting married. This, it seems to me, is how love stories ought to work nowadays. There’s a certain romance to the ambiguity of the text message unanswered, the Facebook photo unliked. Does he hate me? Is she seeing someone else? With time and enough patience, we scions of the digital age can also have affairs to remember.

And finally, we have John Walsh, whose new 73 year-old wife thought he was “very cute – a little chubby, but very cute” when they first met. On his end, Mr Walsh was just wondering why Ms Crosby was coming out of the men’s room. 13 days – or is it a lifetime? – later, it looks as though they’re going to live happily ever after. I find marriage so much more romantic when it looks as though it’ll be unsullied by children. You know it’s true love when the couple can just focus on each other without trips to horse-riding lessons for respite.

Oh, why the song? Unfortunately, this week’s Weddings summaries (either in the paper or in this blog) aren’t in the normal mode of outrageous self-delusion. Instead they’re a little bit more understated; circumstances require them to be subdued. In this, they are much like a less heralded but still rather beautiful song by the King of Pop. So rest in sequins, Michael Jackson. Gaga might assume Madonna’s mantle, but like Beyoncé – and Hugh Grant at his very best, saying the things about marriage that I’m too scared to say, but actually mean – you remain irreplaceable.

(Normal coverage to resume soon. I’m seeing Betrayal in the near future.)

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Obsession Confession – Vows, November 10, 2013

I have been a colossal fan of The New York Times’ weddings section since before I came to New York. I am not alone in this. There are Grantland and Above The Law posts dedicated to rundowns on a regular basis. Occasionally even the great Caity Weaver gets in on the act. Just this past weekend, Big New York Person Laurie Tisch confessed that she starts her Sunday with the Vows, too. (Like me, she also goes to spin classes on a Sunday afternoon. I may in fact be a 62 year old female multi-millionaire trapped in the body of a 30 year old man.)

I can see why the section holds such fascination for so many of us. The Vows are pretty accurate at telling you what’s happening and when it’s happening in this city. What sort of ceremonies are in vogue? What season is it? (Generally the weddings in the Fall and Winter are lower-key.) Are people being honest about marrying their mistresses (or paramours), or couching things in other terms? There are also subtle codes in the announcements. When you crack them, it’s almost more satisfying than hammering a really good crossword. (Hammering crosswords is usually dissatisfying, by the way. Normally you hammer with a nail, and that tears the flimsy newsprint. It’s not recommended.) In a city where it’s a truism that any gathering of single women will devolve quickly into a discussion of the men in their lives, the Vows demarcate success. Not only has a putative Carrie found her Big or Caroline her city, but the folks at the Grey Lady have deemed that she’s also won the holy grail of being worthy. They often also signal much more than this, too.

For example, it’s a big week for Columbia Law School in the weddings this week. Among others, there’s the groom in this one. So many people in “private practice” trumpet the names of their law firms. Mr Glickman, instead, casually brushes off the shoulders of his tuxedo jacket when he tells you that he was director for international economic affairs in the Obama administration for a bit. Why would the name of his firm matter after that?

Then, proving that Philip Bobbitt isn’t the only Columbia Law Professor who has his dating defibrillator ready and pumping, 87 year old Professor Ira Millstein (who has a centre named after him at Columbia Lawmarried at the Metropolitan Club on Saturday evening. (I had a drink at the Metropolitan Club on Thursday night, for the first time. I recommend the Manhattan. Both as a drink and a city.) Salient facts: Millstein is a legend and brilliant; he was introduced to Ms Frame by his daughter; the new Mrs Millstein does yoga. “When I get up in the morning, I have to have someone to talk to or else I’ll do something crazy during the day,” Professor Millstein said. I wonder how this makes people who took his classes feel.

For more standard, self-absorbed, weddings section fare, there’s “An Acquaintance Gets Into The Act.”  The couple tries to make it seem weird that a girl who was a friend of a friend in both cases “meddled”. I have a few problems with this description. First, it seems ungrateful. The friend-of-a-friend must have known something (if only that these were two people desperate not to be single when their perceived biological clocks were running out) if they’ve wound up getting married. Second, is it much more random to be introduced by someone two degrees apart from you than by some of the other ways that people find love in this town? (“I met him in my bodega.” And, even less probably, “she was at the table next to me at a stag party when I was dragged to a gentleman’s club.”)

Finally, the bride clearly acquiesced in this. She followed up when the chap didn’t call three weeks after the introduction was made. Apparently there’s nothing at all unusual about Miss Birmingham’s eagerness to meet the prey … err, her future husband, but the well-wisher was peculiar? (She would have been about 26 at the time, but the bashful bride still had enough experience to know that asking “do you know someone” was the right way to go about getting fixed up. Is this paranoid? I’ll leave you to judge. Clearly I already have.) In good news for everyone, except perhaps their well-meaning matchmaker whose name they decline to mention, Miss Birmingham is now married at age 28. Happily, she has now won the one-horse race that she calls her life. No doubt her worries and not-at-all unusual freak-out when a chap doesn’t call can be passed on to the next generation. Her youth means that there’s plenty of time for her to raise it properly.

And, to finish this week with the academic theme with which we started, there’s the sweet story of a lawyer who married a filmmaker in Los Angeles. Neither husband nor wife seems particularly concerned with academic credentials. No, the academic aspect to the union comes from the bride’s parents, who are both Professors at Penn State. They’re not just professors, though, since the announcement carefully mentions that they won Guggenheim Fellowships in successive years. I’m not offering any prizes for guessing whether the couple, his parents, or her parents sent this announcement into the Times. (Here’s a hint: it was almost certainly her parents. Congratulations on your Guggenheims, Professor Kroll and Professor Rosenbaum! And as a sidelight, to your daughter! Michael seems very nice. I bet the research facilities at UCLA are even nicer.)

Happy wedding, everyone. (Is wedding even a verb?) I remain in a rather committed relationship with New York – where, on the Upper East Side, it’s a handicap not to be a nice Jewish boy – for now. I know, too, that it’s Remembrance Day in New York. At some point today I plan to watch Four Weddings and a Funeral. Unlike some self-serving and historically revisionist announcements (and believe it or not, there are occasionally some in the Times), good wedding movies are truly unforgettable.

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Two Plays, and Eight Paragraphs About Them

Christopher Hitchens once said that he came from a family of people who were “Tories but with nothing to be Tory about”. This seems to be a fair description of the family that is the main subject of “The Winslow Boy”, which is now playing in Manhattan at The American Airlines Theatre. I watched it a couple of Fridays ago.

The Winslow Boy

The play itself, like some of Terence Rattigan’s other work – The Browning Version comes to mind – has a simple plot focused on people who are mistreated by the society that they revere. The Winslows are a modestly middle-class Edwardian family. The father (Roger Rees) has retired with a comfortable, if modest, pension from a bank. His wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) likes the finer things. Their older son, Dickie (Zachary Booth) is a bumbling fool who has a fair bit in common with Bertie Wooster, including foppish tastes and very little likelihood of ever supporting himself. The family also boasts a daughter of marriageable age with a rich suitor, Catherine (Charlotte Parry, who dominates the latter segments of the play) and a younger son, Ronnie (Spencer Davis Milford), who is at naval school. What starts out as a Noel Coward-esque comedy of manners quickly turns darker when Ronnie Winslow comes home from school, expelled on a charge of theft. The father’s sense of honour and justice is offended. He decides to fight the charge.

Enter Alessandro Nivola, as the greatest silk of his day and the Winslows’ lawyer, Sir Robert Morton. (The character is roughly based on real-life barrister and Northern Irish politician Sir Edward Carson. The entire play has its genesis in a real life incident.) Morton takes the case after subjecting Ronnie to a withering interrogation. From this point on, the play is Morton’s, at times alone and often sparring with feisty Catherine Winslow. As a lawyer, struggling against odds, he wins the audience’s admiration, even as the family seems to self-destruct (in some cases, physically) around him and under the weight of legal fees. (The older son’s change in circumstances seems to transport him from a Woosterish existence to that of the real life P G Wodehouse, forced to take a role in a bank by dint of his family’s straitened means.) As the legal battle unfolds, the audience finds itself asking questions as to the characters’ – and especially the father’s – motivations, and as to whether all this pain is worth it. While the setting and events of the play are dated now, the questions it raises about honour and dignity and justice remain relevant. As a lawyer, too, the anti-establishment stance that Morton takes has modern echoes, be it in Neal Katyal’s successful defence of Osama bin Laden’s driver or in the odds against Stephen Donziger in his quest for compensation for indigenous Ecuadorian people against large business interests. Not all such lawyers are successful, and sometimes, they may not even be all that righteous. Separating the personal from the professional can nonetheless be hard when things are against you. The fictional Sir Robert Morton is an example of how to keep your emotions in check when a case touches you personally.

In this role, Nivola is superbly understated and cool. (He was the reason why I went to watch the show, if I’m honest. A long Wikipedia ramble a few weeks ago revealed that Nivola is married to Emily Mortimer and dated Rachel Weisz. I’ve recently self-diagnosed a troubling fondness for attractive, intelligent, brown-haired Englishwomen. Nivola has spent time in solitude with both of them. I’m insanely jealous.) The rest of the cast is also top class. The production is worth watching, so long as you don’t expect to debrief the thing over many glasses of whisky in The Players Club as you would any performance of Richard III. The actors are very good and the production outstanding, but the play isn’t quite deep enough to sustain it. Do drink whisky afterwards, though. Single malt, and neat. Always.

* * *

Commons of Pensacola

Another play asking questions about justice and honour at the moment is Amanda Peet’s The Commons of Pensacola, which is playing in an intimate underground setting at The Manhattan Theatre Club. I went last Friday evening. I’ve liked Peet as an actress since I saw her in Jack and Jill at the cusp of the millennium. (It’s delicious to say such things now that we’re a few years on from the bug that never was.) It turns out that she can write reasonably clever and quite interesting plays, too. The Commons is only an act long, and again isn’t terribly complicated. Its riff on the theme which captivated Woody Allen in Blue Jasmine, though, is thought-provoking. If Bernie Madoff was the tragic male figure of our times, both Allen’s film and Peet’s play ask, then what was Ruth? A naïve but loyal (and ridiculously comfortable) Desdemona? Or a conspiratorial Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth? (Tangentially, too, Blue Jasmine and The Commons might also finally be thinking about the henchman’s family. Well, no, they probably aren’t, but I did want to link to that brilliant Austin Powers scene …)

Clearly this is a more contemporary setting for morality questions than The Winslow Boy. Peet’s narrative leaves one in little doubt that her sympathies lie with the putative fraudster’s many victims. A fetching monologue by elder daughter Ali (played by Ali Marsh) and a longer intervention by the younger daughter’s boyfriend (Michael Stahl-David) are effective chorus-like devices for these thoughts. The presence of a granddaughter and a maid also complicate things. Unlike Blue Jasmine, which leaves the question as to the wife’s knowledge of and profit from the Ponzi scheme slightly open, Commons gives its audience an unequivocal answer once half an hour of the ninety minute play has elapsed. The question that then frames the rest of the play is how the family – and especially the struggling younger daughter, Becca (Sarah Jessica Parker) – should react.

There are moments of humour and hilarity as Parker and the phenomenal Blythe Danner try to make two women who seem only to deserve our scorn sympathetic. I may be among the few straight men alive who can recall the entire chronology of Sex and the City. (After watching the play, I tweeted that the show was one of the reasons I came to terms with living in Manhattan and that I was thrilled to have seen Carrie in the flesh. I sometimes still cry at the YouTube clip of the ending of season 2 and at the achingly perfect closing to “La Douleur Exquise”, six episodes earlier.)  It is thus only with affection that I wonder if my fondness for Parker’s Becca stems from the fact that, at times, she seems like she could so easily have been Carrie, down-on-her-luck and without the Vogue or NY Post contracts or the gallant knight in shining armour who rescued her, and saddled with a criminal father to boot. (Typecasting is so unfair and I detest myself for drawing the comparison. I’ll probably need to see her in a few more things before coming to a judgment.) Danner gave me no such concerns as Judith, the matriarch. To turn a thoughtful audience’s feelings for a character from tentative affection to disgust at her insouciance during the space of 90 minutes is no mean feat. Danner manages it beautifully.

I wonder why it is that Mrs Madoff is the subject of so much artistic conjecture and speculation, five or so years after her husband’s wrongdoing was first uncovered. What does this fascination say about our collective (predominantly Manhattan) psyche? Is it mere schadenfreude? Is it a sense that she hasn’t sufficiently atoned for her sins after having enjoyed the fruit of Madoff’s crime? Or is it something more? Whatever it is, Allen’s and Peet’s wildly differing interpretations suggest that her story and motives may provide a rich seam for playwrights and filmmakers to mine for a little while yet. 

The Commons of Pensacola is a wonderfully contemporary and thoughtful play that kept me enraptured. I enjoyed it a great deal.

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