9/12/13

Horror in the Guest Room

When my hostess wanted to know if I would mind sharing a room, I just assumed she meant with another human.

"Be careful not to get too close to the bureau," Margaret said, as we entered what was to be my guest quarters for a weekend visit at her lovely house in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of D.C.

I glanced over to my left and saw, arranged symmetrically like giant honeycomb bee cells, sixty or seventy petri dishes lining the top of the bureau. They gave off a funky, murky odor.

"Annie's growing bacteria for her school science project," she explained, setting down my suitcase in a spot on the floor which, to my mind, was much too close to the aforementioned bureau.

"What kind of bacteria?" (I was trying with all my might to sound more interested than terrified, without much success).

"To tell you the truth I'm really not sure," Margaret answered with a half-embarrassed, half-nervous giggle. "I think it's something to do with parasites."

At the end of the first evening, having very purposefully consumed more wine than usual in the hopes that it would make me forget my replicating roommates, I got into bed with the kind of creepy-crawly feeling I had not felt since twenty years before when I lived in a roach-infested tenement apartment in Manhattan's Little Italy. I tried everything I could not to think of the teeming germs nearby. They can't jump out of the dishes, after all, I thought. Or could they? I told myself to get my mind on other things, but found myself counting bacteria instead of sheep: one cell enlarges, and then splits into two, then into four, then eight...

Margaret and her husband are dear friends, charming and generous hosts, fabulous cooks and delightful company. But this experience reminded me that no matter who you are visiting, you never know what awaits you once you decide to accept the role of house guest. You have to be ready for anything. And willing to go with the flow (or in this case, go with the grow).

The next morning over breakfast my hosts asked me cheerfully how I slept.

"Wonderfully!" was my enthusiastic answer, as of course it should always be, when one is fortunate enough to be invited to stay at someone else's house.  However, as these were very old friends of mine, I could not help adding, "Although I think I dreamt that I was in The Andromeda Strain."

6/7/13

TMI: Too Much Itinerary

I was just wondering how soon my friend Ruth might be coming up to New York for some long-overdue museum hopping when I happened to log onto Facebook, and there she was, in living, hi-res color. It was a post from the night before: “I’m in the Big Apple. Here I am at 55 Bar, drinking a hot tamale martini! :)"

I felt a small but distinct pang of hurt. Harrumph. Why hadn’t Ruth told me she was coming? Did she not want to see me for some reason? She usually stayed at my apartment when she was here. Did she find another person to stay with? Had I been nothing but a hotel to her?

Then I stopped and thought about it, and I realized that Ruth planning a New York trip which did not include me was not really the thing that was upsetting me. After all, New York is a city of eight million people; it would be unrealistic—not to mention egotistical—to think that my friends don’t ever come to see other people besides me. (It’s different when you are visiting a small town. If my friend in Essex, Connecticut found out I had gone all the way out there without calling him, it would be hard to explain.) No, it was the fact that Ruth did not seem to care whether I saw she was visiting. It was the unabashed public announcement of her presence that felt like a slap in the face.

“Checking in” on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and Path has become de rigueur for many people. I admit I don’t really get it; when I see something like, “Jim Smith just checked in at the IHOP on 14th Street,” I always wonder, “Am I supposed to hightail it on down there? Or maybe I’m supposed to ask what Jim is eating?”

Why is it that we feel everyone has to be alerted about everything about our lives? We have become a society of over-sharers. (The very word “share” has changed in connotation. “Sharing” photos of your kids or news of your latest accomplishment is not quite the same as sharing a loaf of bread with someone who’s hungry, or sharing the secret of happiness.) As if the me-generation wasn’t self-involved enough, it has evolved into the please-look-at-me generation.

Not surprisingly, many people tease me about my circumspection regarding the internet. One, referring to what he called my “sharing squeamishness” lectured me, “This is the information age! Privacy is old-fashioned. Too much information? Get over it. Embrace the new transparency, the new, more open life.” I’ll admit it’s true that for the most part these trivial check-ins are harmless--if sometimes annoying in their banality. However, it’s not harmless when someone posts about invitation-only events in a forum where there are people who were not invited, people whose feelings might be hurt unnecessarily.

These kinds of manners used to be a given. We learned the rules when we were six years old and started inviting people to our birthday parties. “Don’t tell Susie Johnson about the party, honey, if you’re not going to invite her,” our parents told us. “You will hurt her feelings. How would you like it if you found out there was a party you were not invited to?” What most of us didn’t realize when we were six is that when we grew up, this rule would be thrown out the window, thanks to social networking arenas where it is considered perfectly fine to break this basic rule of kindness. (And to add insult to injury, we are all supposed to “LIKE” these posts.)

I have written much on the generosity of not always telling the truth. In fact, many readers have criticized me for “promoting lying,” because I believe in going out of your way to protect someone else’s feelings, and that certain small acts of prevarication are the cornerstone of civilization. Being totally open and completely honest every second, no matter what, is not spiritual or emotional health, in my book. It’s narcissism (even, in its extreme, a kind of social schizophrenia). When did we become a culture unable to tell the difference between dishonesty and discretion?

I am a firm believer in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to social plans. This goes for dinner parties, cocktail parties, weddings and other special events, and, yes, out of town visits. We should always think about how what we are saying (or posting) might affect others. It doesn’t matter that you yourself might not care one way or the other if the roles were reversed and you were reading the post. Be aware of your audience.

Here, in my opinion, is the proper travel itinerary etiquette: If there is a good possibility someone you are not planning to see is going to find out you are visiting in her area, preempt--tell her you are coming but that you are zipping in and out and that you are mostly there for business, or for family obligation. You want to make it seem as though you are truly disappointed not to be seeing her. Otherwise, just don’t say anything about your trip. If you happen to run into her on the street while you are there (which is unlikely in a big city) you can tell her, “I knew I was not going to have time to see you this trip, so I didn’t call, but I hope we can arrange a visit soon!”

I myself went somewhere last weekend under just such a cloak of invisibility, to ensure I did not step on certain people’s feelings. It was not a secret, I simply did not broadcast it. I did not tweet or post my plans. I did not alert the media.

So where did I go? You can forget trying to find out. Go ahead and call me old-fashioned, but I did not leave any cyber-footprints.

12/19/12

This Restaurant Serves Grouse

Readers may remember how often I have expounded on the social benefits of living in this crowded, vibrant, melting (and mingling) pot of a city—where the possibility of conversations with strangers is always right at the tip of your ears, and even if you are too shy to talk to strangers, you can overhear the most interesting things and later serve them up as conversational tidbits to your friends and acquaintances.

But there is, of course, always the other side of the urban “proximity” coin; there are often interactions you really wish you didn’t have to witness, ones you wish you could block out. Loud, boring conversations between salesmen about numbers or statistics. Ugly relationship arguments. Parents being mean to their toddlers. People spouting racist or sexist opinions.

Or, as I experienced recently: rude customers abusing the people who are waiting on them.

In New York restaurants, it’s extremely difficult to ignore your fellow diners. Tables are often so close together you may as well be eating at the same table. It was for this reason that, one night last month, it became extremely hard to ignore the demanding, absolutely pissy diners sitting immediately to my left.
The irony was that, as my friend and I were settling into our seats, we were talking about how wonderful this particular restaurant was, and at almost that exact moment we became aware of a man at the next table berating the waitress.

“Miss, I have to tell you,” said the man, who had a pointy nose and wispy hair that pouffed out on top, “this is not medium-rare, this is medium. Take it away and bring me one that is prepared correctly.” And a little while later: “Waitress, please bring me another set of silverware; these are not clean. Also, I need some more bread, and another drink. And can you tell the bartender to use Tanqueray this time, like I asked? Whatever this was, it wasn’t Tanqueray. Don’t think I can’t tell the difference!”

The other man at this table was also fairly demanding, though at least he was polite. “Sorry, but can I have some more parmesan?” “Excuse me, I seemed to have dropped my napkin, can I have another?” “May I have some extra dressing?” It was something every few minutes.

The poor waitress was running back and forth to their table as if she were running a relay race and she was the whole team. We tried to ignore the unpleasantness. With all my powers of concentration, I looked over at my dinner companion, trying to block out the petty drama beside us, so we could enjoy our dinner (and each other) instead of focusing on the complainers beside us. But once we had become aware of them, it was hard not to listen. (How about a little negative energy with that roast duck?) Our attempts at tuning them out were to no avail.

Gradually, in order to try to compensate for the rude neighbors, we began to over-compliment our waitress. “Thank you so much,” I found myself gushing to her. “This risotto is the best I’ve ever had.”

“I’m going to come back to this wonderful place all the time,” my friend chirped in.

Of course, we were aware that the rude people next to us could overhear us as easily as we could overhear them. And I believe it made them meaner!

Hence the battle between praise and complaints began, much akin to the proverbial battle of good and evil. We could tell the waitress was grateful to us; we were the heavenly balm to the hellish job she had to endure three feet away from us.

In truth, at a certain point during the meal I really wanted my water glass refilled, but I felt so bad for the waitress that I could not bear to ask for this. Nevertheless we—quietly, subtly—began to get better service than the complainers, only because we were so comparatively nice. And so, this friendly, unspoken relationship with the waitress eventually began to substitute for the communion my friend and I weren’t having with each other. It became a different kind of social night, one where we had adopted a put-upon waitress. We felt that part of the reason we had come to this restaurant was to help her get through the night.

I’ve heard stories about what chefs do in the kitchen to the food of “problem” customers. One thing is for sure: I would not have wanted to eat from the plates of the two persnickety gentlemen sitting beside us.

9/20/12

Book Giveaway!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Etiquette for the End of the World by Jeanne  Martinet

Etiquette for the End of the World

by Jeanne Martinet

Giveaway ends October 05, 2012.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

9/19/12

Pet Peeves

I was on my way out of St. John the Divine, on 112th Street, after a Saturday night concert when I heard a woman behind me say in a loud, distinctly annoyed tone of voice, “But I don’t understand; why don’t they allow dogs in here?”

At first I was taken aback. For heaven’s sake, how ridiculous, I thought. Dogs in a cathedral? With the barking, the peeing, the panting—maybe even the biting? What kind of an animal fanatic was this woman, anyway? The concert we were coming from had featured solo harp music, during which even bodies shifting in their seats made too much noise; I could only imagine what a dog whimpering away would have been like.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a cat owner. Cat owners and dog owners are a bit like the Jets and the Sharks: In general, dog owners think cats are cold, finicky, standoffish animals; conversely, cat owners are enormously bewildered that anyone would intentionally structure his life so he would be regularly picking up his pet’s poop in the rain at 6 a.m.

However, on my way home, I started thinking about Paris and the way people there are allowed to take their beloved pooches to restaurants and cafes. Who can argue with the super-civilized behavior of the French? After all, dogs are loyal companions, and it would make a big difference to a lot of people if their owners could take them with them more often. Under New York City’s health code, pets are not allowed inside restaurants unless they are service animals, even though some restaurants allow it anyway. But why not? Is the toting of small dogs in carriers really that much different than bringing babies in strollers? Is my health really endangered by the close proximity of a lap dog?

By the time I got to my apartment, I was feeling some solidarity with the complaining stranger. After all, this kind of “uppity” behavior is one of the things I love about New York City. Where else could anyone be totally incensed that her Cairn terrier was not allowed to enjoy Bach’s Fugue in D Minor at a famous Episcopal cathedral? The brashness, the feeling of freedom and entitlement and desire for progress that Americans are traditionally known for is intensified in New York.

In D.C., Boston, London—indeed, in most other Western cities—people will line up in an orderly fashion at the train station. In New York, they tend to rush the gate. It’s not a myth; we really are pushier here. I may have been brought up by mild-mannered parents, but after 20-plus years of living in New York I find myself challenging the rules, testing the boundaries, pushing the envelope much more than if I had lived somewhere else—though I always try to smile when I find myself saying something like, “That doesn’t work for me; is there any way you can make an exception?”

New Yorkers are the best in the world at moving the line just a little farther than where it started. If a rule does not make sense, we challenge it. This keeps things stirred up, but also engenders progress. We are always demanding our rights (or what we see as our rights), always wanting more, never satisfied with the status quo—Why can’t I use my mobile device everywhere I want? Why can’t I eat my dinner on the subway? Why can’t I bring my kid to this adults-only thing? Why can’t I take flash photos of this museum exhibit? Why can’t I buy exotic fruits from Japan all year round? Why can’t I go topless in public? Why can’t I bring my dog to the harp concert?

Dogs might not be able to get into St. John the Divine, but what they can do in New York is get married. What was reportedly the most expensive dog wedding in history was held just a few weeks ago at the Jumeirah Essex House Hotel on Central Park South. It cost $158,187.26—though, alas, it was not a church wedding.

Keep on pushing, New Yorkers. If you don’t, who will?

9/16/12

Beach Blanket Bingo

Recently my friend Elizabeth told me about a guy she had started seeing. “How did you meet him?” I wanted to know. “From work? Match.com?” When she told me she had met this man while she was on the beach at Far Rockaway I confess I nearly dropped my drink. “I noticed he was burning and so I offered to share my sunscreen,” she said.

“Who are you, Gidget?” I asked in amazement. “Who finds romance at the beach in real life?”

But then I thought about it. The truth is, if you can get past the whole “I look horrible in a bathing suit” feeling—and can bring yourself to unplug from your iPhone for long enough—the beach is a perfect place to mingle. People at the beach are already relaxed and in pleasure-seeking mode. (Not to mention everyone is semi-clothed.)

And so, inspired by my friend Elizabeth (and with a nod to Gidget) here are some of Miss Mingle’s “hottest” tips, for those who want to lend Cupid a helping hand next summer:

Location, location: Choose a beach where there are likely to be other single people. Also, place your towels and chairs in a crowded section of the beach—near the surf line—rather than in a more secluded spot. This is like positioning yourself near the food table at a party, where the action is, rather than against an out-of-the-way wall.

Hunt the Stray: People who are by themselves are easier to approach than a group (especially straight men; something dreadful happens to straight men when they are male-bonding). And if you should notice that great guy before you have committed to a spot, try to arrange your towel or chair so that he is between you and the ocean. That way you can not only check him out thoroughly, but also you can pass him on your way to and from frequent dips. After a while you will seem like old friends; your neighborly smile can extend to comments like “The water is so cold!” and “It’s heaven in there.”

Eavesdropping: This the most common beach pick-up technique, also known as the “Fade-in”: Listen carefully to what’s being said by two or more strangers, and—at an appropriate moment—make a pertinent remark, as if you had been there all along. Often it is the lone man who will insinuate himself into women’s conversation; so girls, if you think he’s listening, be sure to allow him an opening.

The Art of Observation: This is the perfect tactic if you are alone and so is she. Making a non-personal comment is safe and unobtrusive. Dogs, kids, things in the sky and things in the water make perfect subjects for casual conversation. “Excuse me, but does that look like a shark out there?” is always certain to get her attention.

Surf or Turf?: When asked whether they are more likely to strike up a conversation with a stranger in the water or out, most women will choose dry land and men water. Women say they feel they looked better on their towels or in their chairs, with their hair and suits dry. (I find this surprising, since I myself feel much more confident with the lower half of my body submerged. But hey, that’s just me.) I find water conversation preferable because the common activity of swimming creates a sense of camaraderie. After all, you’re in there together. More important, it is much easier to abort the conversation when you are in the water (you just ride a wave or quietly sink).

If you are feeling adventuresome (Remember, Gidget wasn’t above a few tricks, and she always got her man), try:

--The Exhibitionist: Build a large sand castle or a sand sculpture and see who comes to watch. Don’t worry if you attract the children; there are plenty of divorcees out there.

--Old-fashioned Girl: Ask him to help you with your beach umbrella or a bottle that won’t open.

--The Flatterer: Approach her with “Okay, I know I’ve seen you on TV.” Or tap him gently on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, would you mind keeping half an eye on me while I am in the water? You look like a strong swimmer.”

--Risqué Business: Ask him or her to apply sunscreen to your back.

--The Accidental Tourist: If you should be lucky enough to be knocked by a boogie board into an attractive person’s waiting arms, or tumbled together in a crashing wave, quip: “We’ve simply got to stop meeting like this!” or “I think I just fell for you.” Or even, “In some countries we’d have to get married now.”

Okay I’ll see you out there next year. (I’ll be the one packing the extra Coppertone.)

9/13/12

The Third Rail

Like most single people, I socialize a lot with couples. Most of my friends are in couples. Sometimes we go to the theater or a movie, but often it’s just good conversation over dinner. What I have learned is that the potential problem inherent in single-to-couple socializing is not the uneven number of people, nor is it being the only single person there; it’s being the single person in a threesome. Almost every single person you talk to will tell you that being a fifth wheel (or better yet, a seventh or ninth wheel) is infinitely better than being a third wheel. Three is a tricky number.

The terms “fifth wheel” and “third wheel” come from the fact that four-wheeled carriages used to carry an extra wheel (or that two-wheeled carts might carry a third). Obviously the spare wheel was not necessary to make the conveyance go. Ergo, it connotes something that serves no useful purpose.

However, the truth is that being a third wheel is not as much about being unnecessary or unwanted as it is about causing instability. A shopping cart with only three wheels can be wonky or lopsided, just as threesomes in social life are potentially unwieldy. Three friends together is always more complicated than two or four. With three people, the psychological balance is always shifting—however slightly—between one pair and another.

Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I seem to be going out with only one couple at a time. These can make for lovely, intimate evenings, except when something like this happens:

Let’s say I am in the middle of dinner with Jennifer and Rick. We are talking about modern technology and its effect on the human brain. Everything is going along quite nicely, until Jennifer suddenly says, “Hey, listen. You can help Rick and me solve a dispute we are having.” (Right here is where, if there were alarms hooked up to our social lives, the flashing lights and bells would go off.)

Jennifer continues: “I feel our daughter should not have a cell phone until she is 14, but many of her friends have them now, at age 11, and Rick thinks she needs one, especially being in New York City. What do you think? Will you please tell Rick he’s out of his mind?” Uh-oh. Trouble. Trouble in the shape of a big, fat triangle.

Triangulation is the process whereby a person who has an issue with someone else uses a third person to validate her feelings. This is more commonly known as Getting Sucked Into a Fight. In extreme situations, triangulation can make you feel as if you are trapped in a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

But it doesn’t always manifest as an actual argument; it can be more passive than that, such as when a husband flirts with you in front of his wife or a wife makes cutting remarks about her husband in front of you. Sometimes it’s the third wheel herself who is responsible for pushing the evening onto the third rail. She can inadvertently reveal a secret one person has told her to “put in the vault.” Or she can bring up sore subjects or show markedly more interest in one person’s anecdotes than the other’s.

But one thing is certain: When you are asked point blank to side with one person against the other, no good can come of it. At the first sign of this kind of triangulation, you should proceed with extreme caution. Change the subject or, if you can, leave the table to go to the restroom, feed the meter or make a call.

If you are not able to sidestep the landmine, pretend to mediate. Listen carefully to both sides, then claim you are unable to decide on the matter. Other triangulation diffusers? Try “Don’t ask me—I’m the proverbial disinterested third party” or “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me.” Or even “Look they have marriage counselors for this!”

To the Jennifer/Rick debate above, I might smile and say, “I make enough bad decisions about my own life. Please don’t ask me to make bad decisions for yours.”