12/13/10

Christmas Tip Tango*

Every holiday season I steel myself for the annual challenge–-the inevitable series of one-on-one face-offs I can never seem to win.  By now I am convinced that, in the Christmas tip scuffle between doorman and woman (this woman, at least), there can be only one outcome.

The thing is, no matter what I do, I get kissed.

I’ve tried to follow the seemingly-simple instructions of many of my friends: Hold out the envelope with the left hand while extending the right hand for a firm but friendly handshake.  (Of course, this maneuver requires two free hands, which is not always possible.)  But time and time again, I am irresistibly and unwillingly pulled into a cheek kiss and/or bear hug.  Once in a while I experiment with a new strategy: Last year, hoping to catch the weekend doorman at a disadvantage, I made my move while he was in the process of actually holding the door open.  Unfortunately, it backfired--I got the embrace and a door hitting me in the backside.

Believe me, I have nothing against kissing in general.  I like kissing my friends and my family.  I even have been known to kiss my cat.  I simply don’t feel that I should have to kiss or hug the dozen or so employees in my building.  One has to draw the line somewhere, and I think that line is right downstairs in my lobby by the front door.  After all, where will all this familiarity end?  Are we going to have to start kissing our doctors, our postmen, our grocers and bus drivers?  (“Here’s my bus fare--kiss, kiss--can I get a transfer?”)

Granted, rules and social barriers are more relaxed at Christmastime.  People are, in general, more affectionate to each other; in addition to the traditional good-will-toward-men feeling in the air (not to mention the increase in consumption of alcohol), there exists a kind of mass bonding over the stressful chaos that infuses most people’s holidays.  I myself feel a greater need for human connection at this time of year.  So why does this particular breakdown of convention, which could be seen as a harmless gesture of affection, bother me so much?  I’ll tell you why.  Because the doorman knows all my secrets.

The doorman-tenant relationship is a unique one, and oddly enough, has many of the earmarks of intimacy.  Your doorman sees you regularly, if not daily.  He knows who your friends are; he probably knows who you are sleeping with.  He knows when you go out and when you come home.  He’s seen you in all states of dress--from your schleppiest laundry-doing outfit to your flashiest formal attire.  He’s seen you having an argument with a friend on the way to the elevator, or with tears streaming down your face after a break-up.  Part of way you cope with this inescapable invasion of your privacy is to try to pretend that the doorman doesn’t know your whole life the way he obviously does.  And while your doorman may be quite fond of you, and you of him, it’s precisely because he is privy to more of your life than most people are (and, inequitably, that you know virtually nothing about him!) that you need a certain amount of distance.  In other words, hugs and kisses from the doorman jar you out of the all-important state of denial you need to survive life in a doorman building.
 
I’m not sure exactly when this practice of kissing tenants started among New York City doormen, though reportedly it happens more on the West Side of Manhattan than on the East Side.  Maybe I should only tip doormen when I have a large male friend by my side.  In any case, you can call me fastidious, classist or just plain prudish, but I refuse to accept the idea that I have to have intimate contact with the building staff.  Isn’t it enough that I show my appreciation with a monetary gift?  Must I throw my body into it as well?   

This year I am going to try the following line: “You can either give me a big hug, or you can have what’s in this envelope.”

At least then I might save a little money.


(*Originally published in The West Side Spirit, 12/09/10)

11/22/10

The Top Ten Things Not to Say at Your Family Thanksgiving Dinner

                                                                                             
1. "So, how about that election, huh?!"


2. "People who like football are driveling idiots."


3. "People who don't like football are driveling idiots."


4. "Turkey again?  BOORR-INGGG!"


5.  "I've been keeping a really embarrassing secret for the last ten years, and I've decided it's time to tell all of you about it now."


6.  "Have you two ever considered marriage counseling?  It's helped a lot of people."


7.  "Thankful?  I'll be thankful when all of you go home!"


8.  "I need to borrow a substantial sum of money."


9.  "Have you gained weight this year?"


10. "One thing you can say about Thanksgiving; it's not as bad as Christmas!"

11/8/10

Broadway Love Doctor

"Excuse me for interrupting your conversation," I heard a woman say.

My friend John and I were enjoying a nice quiet dinner in the theater district.  I had been in the middle of a sentence, but now we both turned automatically toward the table to our right, where two people were sitting. They appeared to be in their 30s.  The woman had turned her back on her male companion and was looking at me intently.

"What do you think, how would you feel, if someone called you fat?" she asked me, with an alarmingly desperate gleam in her eye.

My friend John and I stared blankly at her for a moment.  Her date sat red-faced and open-mouthed behind her.  For a second I thought, "Is she referring to my weight?" (Though I was fairly sure that all my worst areas were hidden by the tablecloth.)  She herself was thin, with long hair and a lot of makeup.

She indicated her table-mate with a backwards motion of her head.  "He just called me fat.  I just want to know how you would feel if someone did that."  OK, now I got it.  We were being pulled into their relationship drama.

The man spoke up. "I can NOT believe you are actually talking to another table right now!"

Ironically, John and I had just come from seeing a different kind of relationship spectacle: the popular off-Broadway play Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.  It's a charming retro-romp with Eve Plumb (who was Jan in the 60's TV show "The Brady Bunch") portraying the cool and confident host of a live romance advice show.  Miss Abigail uses humorously out-of-date wisdom from actual vintage dating guidebooks to instruct her "viewers" on the ins and outs of relationships, while encouraging lively interaction between the audience (which at our performance seemed to be mostly couples) and the actors.  People in the front row are invited to come up and participate on stage.  And now here John and I were, thirty minutes later, being asked to participate--in a considerably less enjoyable way--in this real life couple's relationship difficulty.

"Well..." I began, and then hesitated.  I was torn between the desire to get back to my peaceful dinner as soon as possible and the impulse to defend a fellow woman's injured self-esteem.  I looked at John for help, but he clearly felt the ball had been hit to me and I should be the one to field it.

"I'd say it kind of depends on the context," I smiled, "but I have to agree that it does not sound all that good to me."  I was trying to keep things light, lest someone start throwing things.  The waiter had only just delivered my martini and I did not want anything (like flying dishes or breadsticks) disturbing our table.

"He just told me I was fat,"  the woman went on, getting a little louder, a little more emotional, while indicating her "date" with her thumb.  "He tells me to order food and then when I'm eating it, he tells me not to finish, because I'm fat.  How would that make you feel?  Isn't that a horrible thing to say?"

By now I had my boundaries back in place; I folded my hands together in a rational Miss Abigail-inspired manner.  "I definitely think you two need to talk about why he says things like that to you.  Tell him, sincerely and calmly, how you feel."  I nodded firmly to her to indicate that she should face her partner again.  To my surprise and relief, she did.
 
When we got up to leave the restaurant, we overheard the man saying to the woman in a sarcastic tone of voice, "I know--maybe we should just go somewhere and get married right now.  Right this second!"

One couple in the audience of Miss Abigail, who announced they had been married for 45 years, had said that the secret to a successful relationship was "never going to bed angry."  All I could think, as John and I picked our way past the arguing couple at the table, was "Man, you two have got a lot of work to do before bedtime."

10/4/10

Too Close For Comfort

When my old high school friend Ellen called me to tell me about this wonderful guy she had for me, I nearly fell off my very-hard-to-fall-off Aeron chair.  Single, straight men looking for women over 40 don't exactly grow on trees in New York City.  Ellen said he was smart, divorced, a partner in her law firm (Okay, lawyers are not usually my type, but these days I find gainful employment kind of a nice personality trait), Australian, and--as an added plus--he lived in my neighborhood.

During the all-important blind date First Phone Call, the banter was good. Good banter does not guarantee a good match, but it does usually portend that the date will not be completely dreadful.  The day before the lawyer and I were to meet, Ellen checked in to give me a pre-date pep talk.  The subject of his new apartment came up.

“You said he lives in my neighborhood, but where exactly?" I asked.  (New Yorkers are compelled to discuss real-estate at all times). 

“Wait, I have the new company directory here...” Ellen paused to look, and then she quoted the address.

 I yelped.  “But that’s my address!”  In a city of 8 million people, what were the odds?  I mean, I had always wanted to be the Girl Next Door, but could I really date a man who lived in my building?  If we hated each other we would have to see each other in the lobby forever after.  But I told myself that even though it might be a little too close for comfort, beggars can't be choosers, and after all it was a big building.  Then Ellen mentioned the apartment number.

It was the apartment directly beneath me!!  I realized I had heard him moving in two weeks before. 

Dear reader, we did go on the date.  But there were no major fireworks, and both of us knew without talking about it that since we were living on top of each other (you should pardon the expression) it was going to have to be all or nothing.  How could we casually date, knowing we were going to be continually running into each other in the elevator?  For the rest of my life I would never be able to go get my mail without putting on makeup.  How could I deal with hearing him in his apartment, and knowing he could hear me in mine?  It's hard enough to wait for a man to call, but to know exactly when he is and isn't home, and then wait for him to call?

Even when just making friends, most people are squeamish about crossing the line with a neighbor.  If it ends badly, or ends up one-sided, there is no way out short of moving.  It’s difficult to go back to being just “Hello, how are you?” neighbors once you have let them all the way into your life.  Indeed, many people have a totally closed-door policy when it comes to neighbors, because they realize that once they start having them over, they will never be able to stop having them over--should they find out the neighbors are not as much fun as they had thought.   The spontaneous drop-in policy a la Seinfeld and Friends may look good on TV, but it rarely works in real life.  (Can you imagine keeping your door unlocked so your neighbor could pop in at any moment?  That is my idea of Hell.) 

I have a friend in Chicago who dated a man who lived upstairs from her, albeit not directly upstairs.  And they did have fireworks; in fact, it became all too easy for them to hang out in each other's apartments when they had nothing better to do--creating a sort of faux intimacy that was not at all what it would have been if they had not been neighbors, and that was completely out of whack with their level of emotional involvement.   And how did my friend feel when she spotted other women leaving her neighbor/lover's apartment?  Bitterly betrayed, but without any real right to feel that way, since they were not "exclusive."

My "downstairs date" recently moved.  But while he was here, I frequently ran into him with women--always of the stiletto-heeled, beige-suited, pearl-wearing sort.  On those occasions I reckoned all was right with my world.

9/20/10

Miss Mingle and the Three Cafes

One upon a time there was a writer on vacation in a small town who could not find a place to write.  (Okay, let's be clear: The writer in question is me.)

I had been advised (in advance) about the virtues of the supposedly quaint cafe adjoining the library; however, when I got there it was so quiet I could hear my heart beat.  (I'm telling you that, for a New Yorker, the silence was mind-numbing.)  Next I tried a nearby internet cafe which someone in the parking lot had told me about.  I was seduced with talk of three-shot espressos and unlimited internet access; but when I got there the LeAnn Rimes music and the uncomfortable chairs chased me away before I could discover exactly why the broadband I tried to access did not work.  I wandered on and found a jazz club with a patio and a cool day-time coffee clientele; All seemed to be perfect at last--that is, until the two women behind me started to talk in loud voices about parking tickets.

 I left.  I wandered on and on, searching for a place where I could concentrate.  Though the day was gorgeous--sunny, 75 degrees, the area replete with wide open beaches and boardwalk--I could not find a spot that made me happy.  What was wrong--was it me?  Why was I not able to be happy where I was?  We all know the secret to wisdom is to be content where you are (As Emerson said, "We are always getting ready to live, but never living"), and not to always be searching for a better spot.  So why couldn't I light somewhere?

Then I started to worry: Was this a Miss Mingle sickness?  Was this in fact why I took up mingling in the first place?  After all, the art of mingling is considered by many of its critics to be nothing much more than the act of moving superficially from one place to another, during which you avoid a commitment to one conversation, and instead just flit along the surface, so that you can sample here and there, always scoping out the next social opportunity.

"And yet", I thought, as I tromped along Main Street of the town, "What's wrong with trying to better one's experiences?"  What is wrong with trying to soak up everything, make sure we are surrounded by things that encourage our natures?  Why should I stay in a place if I am not comfortable there?  Why should we not go for all the gusto, endeavor to engage in everything we can in the fullest manner possible?  Mindfulness, or living in the moment, does not necessarily mean being content to stay where you are.  Goldilocks did, after all, find the perfect porridge, the perfect chair, and the perfect bed. 

 I finally found the perfect spot to write.  It is in the shade, in an out-of-the-way cafe, in a little corner protected from the winds of Hurricane Igor.  They have wonderful coffee, and easy-to-access internet.  I found an outside table where there is some kind of big green plant waving gently over my head.  Now, I can say that am happy--for the moment.

9/13/10

The Human Sacrifice

My friend Joelle recently had a harrowing cocktail party experience.  She was cornered by one of life's most dangerous predators--the Crashing Bore.  Apparently obsessed with his family's genealogy, he just wouldn't stop pontificating about his great-great-grandmother no matter how many times Joelle tried to change the subject. (Apparently he was descended from a very old family of Boston blue-blooded Bores.)  After fifteen minutes, she tried a common-variety escape maneuver: She said she had to get a drink. This proved ineffective, as the Bore followed her to refill his own glass.  After another 20 minutes, she gave up and left the party.

What Joelle really needed was the Human Sacrifice.  Miss Mingle wishes to pass on this time-honored technique to her readers, so they might never suffer a similar fate.  The Human Sacrifice is a particularly clever ploy because--when executed well--it poses as a social grace.  Here's how it's done:

Step One) Surreptitiously look around you and locate someone you either know or have just met. (Don't worry, if the person you are with is a bona fide Bore, he won't notice your eyes wandering a bit.) Proximity is important; you are going to have to be able to reach out and shanghai this third person.

Step Two) While nodding enthusiastically to what the Bore is saying, pull this new person into your twosome.  Immediately you will feel a shift, a loosening of the Bore’s hold on you.

 Step Three) Introduce the sacrificial lamb to the Bore in a way that implies you are just being a good mingler by introducing two people who will probably have a lot in common.
 
Step Four)  As soon as their eyes meet, leave immediately; you must fade out of the conversation within twenty seconds or this substitution will not work.  A pleasant “Excuse me” will also serve as an alternative to a silent fade-out. 

The Human Sacrifice may sound mean to some people, but I assure you it is perfectly acceptable party protocol.  You can’t be considered rude to the Bore since you have procured a new conversational partner for him before leaving.  And the person you just used as the sacrifice can just as easily find his own way out, if he wants to.  Remember: All's fair in love and mingling.

9/6/10

In Your Face(book)

It's early morning.  You log onto Facebook, perhaps not yet completely coffeed up.  Wham--you are immediately assailed.  There, in front of you, in a relentless scroll, are the announcements, thoughts, recommendations and photos from dozens (or hundreds) of your friends and acquaintances.  The sudden influx of status updates almost make you squint.

You remind yourself that Facebook is a wonderful thing.  It's really such a miracle--like having your friends stashed inside your personal computer waiting for you.  But on the other hand, yikes! All your friends are inside your computer waiting for you. It can be daunting, overwhelming—complete social overload.  Almost against your will, you are shown  evidence of the luxuriousness of your friends' vacations, the accomplishments of their kids, the beauty of their homes.  You are treated to images of dinner parties, concerts and picnics (to which you may or may not have been invited).  And you are bombarded with a million provocative personal causes and interests:  “Joan B. likes this page.”  “You absolutely must read this article posted by Rick H.”  “Tom S. has commented on the link that you commented on.”  The videos are particularly “in your face.”  It's hard not to click on a You Tube a friend has posted.  (The younger generation? Drunken pictures from the college dorms--in your face.)  People's politics are in your face, their lifestyles are in your face, their achievements are in your face.  And their seemingly seamless happiness is in your face. 

One of the most annoying in-your-face aspects of Facebook is the tendency to be incessantly cheerful. There is after all an imperative to show your best, your most positive self.  But at what point does sharing good news become just bragging?  “Just saw the greatest sunset in the WORLD!  LOVING LIFE!”  “I just got back from yoga and I am so glad to be alive!”  Before social networking we were never expected to witness every achievement of everyone we knew, as it unfolded.  And we must be interesting when we post!  There is pressure to perform on social networking sites: You've got to be fun, got to be smart, got to entertain.  You've got to promote something, even if it is only your recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich.  (Believe me, I am not one to criticize anyone else for self-promotion.  God knows Miss Mingle is all up in your face(book), all the time.)

Anyway,  it's supposed to be this way.  It is, after all, what Facebook is--a public forum, a hyper-linked hyper-community.  It's been called Orwellian; it's been touted as the end of privacy as we know it, something that devours our time and our souls.  You turn it on in the morning and it is just lurking there the whole day.  It may not yet be a huge interactive totalitarian wallscreen; so far, it is only your friends watching you, not Big Brother (well okay, we all know that Google is probably watching.)  Still, it is, without a doubt, pervasive.

Facebook itself has its own “in your face” practices, such as the niggling ads on the right hand side of the page, and all the helpful FB notifications: “Joe Johnson is friends with Frank Smith and 6 OTHER PEOPLE.” (OMG, it's in-your-face friend-making!  Better get off your duff and catch up with Joe Johnson, Jeanne.)  Or “Jeanne, try Facebook friend-finder.”  And “Jeanne, you have 3 friends with birthdays this week.”  “Jeanne, you have 2 unanswered events.”  "Jeanne, you have 4 page suggestions, 3 cause invitations and 1 donation invitation.”  “Jeanne, who's on Facebook?”  “Who's not on Facebook?”  “Who is here because of you?”  (How does every thing you are seeing on this screen relate to you, Jeanne?)  Facebook is in our face continuously. 

But in the end how can I justify complaining?  I signed up for Facebook willingly and I check it many times a day.  Like its 500 million other members, I guess I actually do like having people in my face(book). 

8/30/10

Lazyphones

I was supposed to meet him in the park at 3:00 pm.  At 2:15 I got a voice message; he was running late.  Was it alright if we met at 4:00?  I happened to be running late as well, so I texted back “OK, no prob.”  When I arrived at the prearranged location, there was a new text from him: “Sorry...taking longer than I thought...will b there at 4:20.”  Finally at 4:30 he showed up--out of breath and very apologetic.  I was unfazed, even sanguine.  He had called, after all.  Thanks to the miracle of cell phones, there was no “Where the hell is he?” moment.  I never had to suffer, even fleetingly, from the notion that I had been stood up, nor did I worry that something might have happened to him. 

But then I started thinking: Without cell phones, might not our meeting have been more efficiently carried off?  Without the inexorable reliability of wireless communication, would we all be as late as often as we are nowadays?  And would we be so very loosey-goosey about our plan-making?  Don't cell phones, in fact, make us socially lazy? 

For one thing we have all completely lost the habit of remembering phone numbers, so that when we forget or lose our phone we are immediately cut off from everyone we know.  But more important, cell phones breed in us a tendency to be noncommittal.  Never before have we been able to get away with being so vague about the details of our rendezvous.  Modern communication technology provides us with the luxurious freedom to “zero in on things” later.  We are always reachable, so we have total flexibility (or the illusion, at least, of total flexibility).   And total flexibility equals total wishy-washyness.

For example, if you are making a plan to meet someone at the museum, why bother setting up a specific place and time, when you can simply call each other when you get close?  As a result, what seems like an efficient way to operate ends up being incredibly inefficient, by the time you have both called each other six or seven times (“Where are you?” “Over by the gift shop.”  “The gift shop?  But I’m in the gift shop.” “Wait, not the big gift shop--I’m in the small gift shop… hold on, I’m getting another call…”)   If you had just set a time and place in advance, you could have had one conversation about it, and then spent the rest of the time actually looking at the art. 

Now, with foursquare and similar applications, we can take our personal plasticity one step further.  We can make no plans at all, but simply show up somewhere and then use our mobile devices to figure out who’s around.  (Foursquare lets users "check in" to a place when they're there, tell friends where they are and track the history of where they've been and who they've been there with.)  Maybe this is a good thing.  Maybe this is the ultimate “being in the moment” experience that Buddhists and similar truth-seekers have been talking about for centuries.  Maybe humanity has merely been waiting for the smartphone to attain spiritual enlightenment. 

I myself am dying for Verizon to offer the iPhone.  I am practically salivating for it.  However, there is a part of me that longs for the old days of appointment books.  You would open your soft, leather-bound book, with a pink silk ribbon marking the day.  “Algonquin at 5:00, drinks,” would be written there in dark blue ink.  And you had to show up.  If you were late, you hurried.  If you had changed your mind, too bad.  Some times you waited, and wondered where he was.  Sometimes you met someone else while you were waiting.  It was all part of the fun.

8/23/10

The Foot-in-Mouth Diet

Forget the Zone, the Cooler Cleanse, the Carb Lovers Diet and other trendy weight loss programs.  I have a plan that really works: The Foot-in-Mouth Diet.

The inspiration for this new diet came to me one night a couple weeks ago at a friend’s birthday party.  I was an hour late--due to the combination of a blown fuse, a cat leap/broken glass incident and a paralyzing case of clothing indecision (which frequently strikes me in the summer when I am feeling a bit over-ample in the upper arm area.)  By the time I arrived at the party I was flustered and completely out of sorts.

I headed for the food table, eying the Brie and what looked like some very fattening meatballs.  When I got there I greeted a woman I had met several times in the past but had not seen for a while.

“And how is your husband?”  I asked her, after the initial pleasantries were over.  I began reaching for a meatball.

Suddenly I had a bad feeling, as if all the air in the room had turned to poison gas.  It was then that I remembered with horror that the husband had left her the year before--for the daughter of someone I knew!  The worst part was that the woman who was now standing in front of me with a frozen look on her face knew that I was acquainted with the woman who had stolen her husband.

“OH! -- Oh god, I’m so sorry.  I….didn’t……I....I guess my memory must be going the way of your husband,”  I heard myself saying with a failed attempt at a laugh.  (It was really more of a bray.)

Right then I lost my appetite.  I excused myself and moved away from the food table and never went back.  I nibbled on some celery and nuts by the bar, and drank two glasses of white wine.  Hmm, I thought to myself.  Keep this kind of thing up and a person could really lose some weight.

8/9/10

Dumb Diners

The tiny banquet-style tables in the trendy Upper East Side restaurant were difficult to squeeze into, especially when there were other diners already seated at the tables on either side of us.  After we ordered our drinks, and we had begun to discuss my friend’s most recent horrible experience with her dentist--who unfortunately she can’t ever leave because he is also her in-law--both of us began to get an odd feeling.  What was it?  What was weird?  Was there something wrong with the lighting?  The music?  Then we realized what it was.  The couple besides us was not talking.  Like, at all.  A staid-looking couple in their late 60’s, they were calmly eating their entrees, occasionally sipping wine or water, and simply staring off into space.

Let’s face it: At a restaurant where tables are this close together, there is only the illusion of privacy.  One of the things that makes up the imaginary “wall” between diners is the conversation that the other people are having.  If people are talking and listening to each other, then they are not, in all probability, listening to you.  On the other hand if no one at the neighboring table is talking, then--unless they are actual deaf people--they are going to be listening to you--to one degree or another. 

I always wonder what is behind this mealtime mum-ness.  Are the two people angry at each other and can’t bare to speak to each other?  (I have yet to see three people in a restaurant not speaking.)  Are they on their 40th year of eating at restaurants together and are simply too bored to communicate out loud anymore?  Or are they really just purposefully eavesdropping, because eavesdropping at restaurants is one of their favorite hobbies? 

I don’t think this kind of silent communal eating is a very common occurrence, at least not at New York restaurants.  (If anything people here tend to talk too, too loudly and too long.)  But it does happen. A friend told me she went to a restaurant in her neighborhood in Brooklyn where the couple beside her was eating together but was each involved in his own, separate silent pastime--one with a book and the other with an iPhone.  Even though they were occupied, and not just staring into space, she said it was off-putting. Sometimes a diner is alone, of course.  With one person sitting alone, you can’t blame him or her for being quiet.  Can they help it if they have no one to talk to?  Often a singleton has a book or paper to read; he is probably still listening to some of your conversation, but you can all pretend he is not.

But how do you deal with it if you can’t forget you’ve got dumb people beside you?  I have one friend who uses code words for such situations.  Paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile media job) he’ll refer to his boss as “Big Balloon,”  his nemesis as “Devil Dog” and the head of the company as “Elephant.”  (If anyone is actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it might sound like a Disney drug deal.)  I myself always want to step in as the “therapist” when I see these no-talkers.  “Let me see if I might be able to help you two sort this thing out,”  I would say, “You guys must have plenty left to talk about!  Who wants to say 'I’m sorry' first?  Come on…..you can do it!”

Occasionally I have the impulse (which so far I have managed to squelch) to turn to the non-talkers and ask them to voice their opinion on what we are discussing.  “You two look like sensible people, did you hear what my friend here said about my new apartment?  What do you think I should do?   And by the way, is the lamb any good?”

It’s a free country.  If you and your spouse want to go out, eat dinner sitting across from one another without saying one word, that’s your choice.  But the very next time I find myself with dumb diners I swear I am going to start talking to them, and I won’t stop until I have discovered the secret of their silent repast.  You never know, maybe it’ll make me shut up too.

8/2/10

This Seat's Taken

I was just putting the finishing touches on an entirely other piece I was going to do for this Monday’s "Miss Mingle Blogs," when I discovered to my dismay that a friend and colleague was writing almost the exact same thing--and had even come up with the same title!  What could I do?  It’s not that surprising really, we are all fed by the same sources--Facebook, The New York Times, TV, Twitter.  Original ideas are few and far between.  After a moment (okay maybe two) of hesitation I took the high road and left the piece for my friend, though it left me high and dry.

But it got me thinking about all those times when you make a bee line for a seat at the movies (or a taxi) and suddenly find that your rear end and the rear end of a stranger are both trying to occupy the space.  Or when you and your dinner companion both decide you just must have the soft shell crab special before the waiter informs you there is only one order left.  Or the momentary confusion two people experience in the grocery store when they are both reaching for the same last loaf of pumpernickel. 

Obviously, if the thing in question is not sharable, you should always try to let the other person have it--especially if it is a friend.  This may not be so easy, because whether it’s a creative idea or a piece of fruit, we tend to feel ownership over something we have chosen; we feel invested in some way.  But yielding is the noble act of an enlightened human and will end up making you feel better.  (Unless of course doing so involves the loss of a lot of money or it will hurt your career and then I am afraid the gloves are off, and may the best man win.)  You never know, you may find the other person fighting with you to let you have it--as when two people argue over the check at dinner.

Of course, you can always try to find a way to capitalize on your loss--for example, by using it as the subject of a blog.

7/27/10

The Dangers of Double-Booking

It may be shocking to hear Miss Mingle say it, but there is such a thing as too much mingling

When the invitations came in the mail, for three (count ‘em, three) cocktail parties scheduled for the same Tuesday night, I confess I had the hubris to decide to attend them all.  Dashing from one party to another seemed like fun, and besides, I had never done three in one night before.  (Also I would not have to choose, which I always have trouble doing.)  So I sent my R.S.V.P.s and mapped out my route from one location to the other.  Taxis were definitely my only hope.  It was helpful that the start times were a little staggered; two parties started at 6:00, the other at 6:30.  I figured if I left the first one at 6:30 I could get to the second by 6:50, and if I left the second one at 7:20, I could get to the third by 7:40.

The first party was a book party at Sotheby’s--ice-cold vodka, smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres in the shape of little rosebuds and an interesting literary crowd.  I really did not want to leave, but the clock was ticking.  The second party was a rooftop launch party for a new wine--with hipsters consuming fun pink drinks and Thai dumplings--and the third was a very cool art opening at a Chelsea gallery.  It was sometime during the second party I began to feel like a movie stuck on fast forward.  I found myself breaking in and out of conversations with uncustomary clumsiness; I had the ill-manner to ask one of my hostesses if there was anyone there she felt I absolutely needed to meet, since I would not have time to talk to everyone.  I handed my business card to one person who looked momentarily confused, as we had only been talking for a few minutes and he hadn’t asked for it.  “Who am I?” I shuddered inwardly.  What is this break-neck, used car-salesman style of mingling that had overtaken me?  That’s when I realized I was suffering from EMD--Excessive Mingling Disorder.

By trying to attend all three parties, I could not really “be” at any one of them.  While I was at the first one, I was thinking about the second, while I was at the second one, I was thinking about the third.  By the end of the evening, I had a dissatisfied, empty feeling (not to mention sore feet).  It was as if I had been socially window-shopping and had ended up with nothing.  Not to mention that I had the impression I had somehow been rude to all the hostesses, even though they had each promised it was perfectly fine for me to just “drop by.”

There are many people who, upon first look, seem to have an enviably jam-packed social life.  But busy-ness does not necessarily mean happiness.  It’s a mistake to think of your social life as a big tasting menu; that if you sample a little bit of everything you will be full and satisfied at the end.  I mean, going to three cocktail parties should be three times as much fun as one, right?  Wrong.  It turns out that 3 x 1 is actually 0.  This kind of surface socializing is like eating only the sauce of each course, and never enjoying the full flavors or getting any substance from the meal.  A half an hour is not enough time sink in to a party, to relax and experience the event.  And having to continually calculate and recalculate your exit strategy, travel time, etc. is no way to spend an evening.

I have decided double-booking is in general a bad idea, unless the time of the parties overlaps only slightly (e.g., cocktails from 6:00 - 800; dinner party at 7:30).  So the next time I get invited to a wedding shower and a drinks party being held at the same time, I am going to think twice.  It’s only human to want to have my cake and my cocktails too, but rather than doubling my pleasure, double-booking may just be a way of double-crossing myself.

7/18/10

Proud To Be Me(ow)

When I was twenty I swore that if I were still single by the time I was forty, I would be the cha-cha-ing, poker-playing, martini-drinking sort of single gal; I would not be the needle-pointing, tea-drinking, galosh-wearing sort.  If I had a pet it would be a boa constrictor, a monkey or a mynah bird.  I was never ever going to become one of those lonely, witchy spinsters who “kept” cats. (There is a great line in the movie Desk Set where Katherine Hepburn says, “Don’t worry Ruthie, we can always get a house together and keep cats.”  To which the brassy Ruthie replies, “I don’t like cats, I like men. And so do you.”)

I did, in fact, become the cha-cha-ing poker-playing, martini-drinking sort of single gal--but one with cats.  By now, of course, I realize that this whole cat lady persona is nothing but a sexist, ageist stereotype that is unfair to both women and cats.  I got cats because cats are wonderful, and because they are fairly self-sufficient and well-suited to city living.  (I love dogs, but--call me crazy---I refuse to pick up poop off the sidewalk.)  And yet, I sometimes catch myself trying to conceal the fact that I have cats.

Just the other day I was talking on the phone to a man I had recently met when Henry snuck up behind me, leapt onto my shoulder and meowed loudly into the mouthpiece.

“God. What is that? Is that a baby?” the man asked.

“No, it’s not,”  I said uninformatively, pushing Henry off so abruptly he howled even louder.

“Hey, are you okay?" the man wanted to know. "What’s going on?”

I tried to bluff it out. “Rock star neighbor,” I murmured.  But by this time Pickering had decided to tackle Henry and they were both screeching at high volume. “Alright, actually, it’s my cats,” I was finally forced to confess. I braced myself for that uncomfortable pause on the other end of the line, followed by the inevitable question: “Um…How many cats do you have?”

I know this reaction well.  It says:  Ah--she’s one of those professionally single women, the ones who have opted for cats. And not just one cat, but cats, plural.  Suddenly the man with whom I have just been flirting is envisioning me in a dowdy flannel nightgown, twenty-seven cats crawling on my lap, all of us eating from the same tub of vanilla ice cream, disdainful of all other humans and vowing eternal independence.   

Many people have the idea that women with cats don’t really like men--or anyone, for that matter.  A pet is thought to be the alter ego of the pet owner; the attitude of the animal reflects the attitude of the person.  Unfortunately cats--unlike dogs--do not go bounding up to strangers with their tongues hanging out, desperate for affection (well, Henry does, but he has issues.) You can’t grab a cat around the stomach and pat him roughly on the top of the head (though I must say Henry likes that too.) Human beings tend to be intimidated when animals don’t need their attention.  A woman with cats in the city is seen as existing in her own complete universe, wanting nothing from the outside world.  If the cats don’t go outside, maybe the woman doesn’t either.  Maybe they all just stay in, sneaking silently around, hissing and casting spells on people they don’t like.

I’m here to tell you this is not true at all.  I have two nice cats--brothers.  My apartment does not smell the least bit funky; people do not leave here brushing clumps of cat hair from their clothing or holding gauze over cat-inflicted wounds.  I do not love my cats more than I love people.  I did not acquire my cats to serve as a substitute for anything or anyone.

I could go on at greater length, but it’s time to get into my jammies and open a gallon of ice cream for me and my boys.

7/12/10

Dining Out On It

I was swimming naked in a pool late on a hot summer night when it happened.  The underwater light wasn’t working, so the only illumination came from an eerily flashing, floating disco-ball light--a novelty item which my hostess had procured for the amusement of her guests.  I was treading water in the deep end, talking and laughing with a friend and enjoying the luxurious coolness, when suddenly I spotted the unmistakable slithering of a snake.  It was gliding along on top of the water, coming right at me--fast.  I froze in terror.  Before I could even react, it ran smack into my face!  (By accident I think--I hope).  I screamed bloody murder and thrashed my arms and kicked my legs wildly, and at last made it out of the pool.  After I had dried off and stopped shaking (and had stopped moaning “Ohmygod, ohmygod” over and over like Rain Man), a part of me realized that this unpleasant event had a silver (albeit slimy) lining: It was a story I could dine out on.

Technically speaking, the term “dining out on a story” (which seems to have come into usage some time in the first half of the 20th century) refers to having a tale so good, so interesting, that people actually invite you to dinner just to hear you tell it.  Now, while I am fairly certain that no dinner invitations are going to result from my recent close encounter of an ophidian kind, the Snake in the Pool Story is the kind of thing that people like to hear.  It always adds to a gathering to have someone there with an unusual or entertaining anecdote to share.  A good personal story inspires other people’s imaginations and memories, and engages their emotions--and therefore spurs on the conversation.

Good “dining out stories” are ones with one or more of the following elements: shock value or bizarre twists, celebrity encounters, danger or risk, or intense embarrassment or misunderstandings.  But the very best dining out stories are ones which cause the listener to be empathetic but very, very glad the thing in question did not happen to him.  This is not mere schadenfreude; it’s really more of a vicarious thrill ride--like a scary movie.

There was the time a friend of mine woke up after a long flight horrified to find her head in the lap of a strange man next to her.  Another friend got all the way to her office one morning before realizing she had forgotten to put her skirt on (she was in her slip and suit jacket).  I heard a thrilling story at a dinner party recently about a man who took part in a wild chase through the Barcelona Metro after his wallet was stolen by gypsies.  Yet another friend told me a terrifying tale about her life years ago, about coming home late to her London flat where she was squatting, which had--unbeknownst to her--been taken over by a truly bad-ass Hell’s Angels gang while she was out at a concert.  (Oblivious, she slept peacefully through the whole night, got up early and left unscathed.)  My stories?  I once dated a guy who I discovered one night was really a woman.  And once, I swear, I accidentally introduced myself as Erica Jong--to Erica Jong.

Want more details?  I’m free for dinner next Saturday night.

6/28/10

To Bemoan or Not to Bemoan, That is the Question

You have arrived at the party in a totally vile mood; you feel as if you have fifty-pound weights dragging on your soul.  Everything in your life seems to be going wrong.  And yet, (for whatever reason) here you are stuck in a room full of people who are talking and laughing and seem to be having a wonderful time.

You can’t imagine making smalltalk.  You don’t feel like forcing a smile, and you are completely dreading the question “How are you?” because you are very much afraid you are going to answer with the truth, and the truth is, “Horrible, just horrible.”  You know this is not acceptable.  Negativity, like dirty laundry, is something we all have but are supposed to keep tucked safely away at social events. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything,” people always say, and “Laugh and the world laughs with you; Cry and you cry alone.”  Or “Don’t’ be a Debbie Downer.”

But are these adages true?  Should you always suck it up and fake it, or can you--do you dare to--tell people how you really feel?  Is there an acceptable way to reveal your sorry state of mind?

Here is a little quiz for those times when you find yourself mingling under your own personal black cloud, and someone asks “How are you?”  Should you or should you not use the following lines:

Line:  “Well, if you don’t count today, I am doing great!”  
(YES   This may be not entirely true, as you may not be “doing great” in any way you can possibly imagine, but it does acknowledge your current frustration, so you won’t have to completely hide your bad mood.)

Line:  “Well, I guess a lot of us are doing pretty poorly in this world, right?” 

(NO.    This line pretends to be about something other than just you, but you might as well paste a big “L” on your forehead.)

Line:  “Don’t ask.”

(NO.  This is a sure fire conversation-stopper because--they won’t.)

Line “Okay, and you?”
(YES.   Nothing wrong with boring.  It’s better than morose.  But you better hope the other person has something to say.)

Line:  “I’ll be much better after I have a drink!”
(YES.   I like this one.  But you have to be sure of your crowd.)

Line:  “Oh my god, just wait until you hear about the terrible things that have been happening to me."

(NO.   “Wait until I hear?”  Hmmm.  Why don’t I wait over on the other side of the room, while talking to some other people who are a little more fun?)

Line:  “Actually I’m only so-so.  But I am really more interested in how YOU are.” 

YES.   An excellent response, providing it does not come off as fake or condescending.  If you are not sincere, you must at least sound sincere.

Line:  “I’m swell.  By the way do you know if there is any arsenic in the house?”
(MAYBE.   This is so out there you may be able to get away with it  But only use this if you are at a party of unconventional guests--or very good friends.)

Line:  (With a grateful, warm smile) “Until this very second, I was having quite a bad day.”

(YES.   This is the very best line, and can double as a romantic line.  You never know, with a line like this your whole miserable life could turn around, fast.)

6/14/10

City Blockers

Combine one part apathy, one part narcissism and one part urban-burnout and what do you get?  You get a Way-blocker.

There are all types of people who can be In the Way, to whom one can assign varying degrees of culpability.  People who are obstructing your view in a theater or at a parade simply because they are tall can not be blamed at all (though I think anyone over 6’ 4” should really consider sitting in the back--especially if they are thinking of sitting in front of me.)  Awe-struck tourists who stand in the middle of the sidewalk looking up may be irritating when you are late for work but ultimately must be forgiven for their naiveté.  Parents who block aisles and crosswalks with huge baby strollers do sometimes appear to have a sense of entitlement about their procreative right to slow up the world, but still, one has to take a deep breath and let them off the hook. (I mean, they can’t carry those kids around on the tops of their heads, and one must remember that most of them are majorly sleep-deprived.)  Even people who are talking on cell phones, oblivious to the flow around them, can be seen as distracted more than destructive.  Slow walkers, folks walking four abreast, people with poor shopping cart control--these are minor hinderers who can be frustrating, but for whom we all have to muster a little patience.

However, there is one form of offender that, in my book, can not be excused:  these are the people who stand smack in the way of the subway doors--when there is plenty of room further in the car--impeding the other passengers from getting on and off.

What can these blockading blockheads be thinking?  Do they really want the train to take longer? In fact, the act of standing still in public doorways of any kind is a mystery to me, unless there is a possibility of an earthquake.  I mean, you have to be from another planet not to understand what a doorway is for. A doorway is like a faucet, a highway, or a digestive tract. You can’t just hang out in the opening--in the middle of the passageway--without getting some kind of a jam or a clog.

As a society we are becoming increasingly less aware of the needs and feelings of others around us (and yes, I am so often on this particular bandwagon I get Frequent Complainer Miles). Subway door blockers seem to me to be an obvious symptom of this deterioration. But is it possible that in this case I am guilty of a similar kind of narcissism or insensitivity? After all, there are always two sides, two perspectives. If I am on my bike on the Hudson River path, for example, I sometimes can not believe the cluelessness of pedestrians; but when I am walking on that same path I can be similarly miffed at careless people whizzing by on their bikes. So maybe I am not seeing things from the subway door-blockers’ point of view.  If so, I do apologize. 

Now please get out of my way.

6/8/10

Freelancer's Lament

I woke up this morning in a state of panic. There was a gnawing in my stomach and a buzzing in my head. Through mounting guilt and fear,  I began--feverishly--to plan my day: No more putting it off, I just had to get my lying around done.

The day before had been one of those frustrating days when everything seemed to happen just to keep me from lying around.  Meetings, conference calls, you name it. Now I had so much lying around to do I didn't know how I was going to accomplish it; it was several days worth and it seemed undoable. Especially since I had been up late three nights already last week trying to catch up, and my body was really starting to feel it. But there was nothing to do, after all, except to go ahead and get as much lying around done in one day as I could. I knew the lying around wasn’t going to get done by itself.

I dragged my body out of bed and into the shower, telling myself I’d start lying around immediately after breakfast--no more procrastination!  But then of course, as always happens, the phone rang. It was my friend Jimmy.  “What are you up to?” he asked.

 “Listen, Jimmy, don’t try to distract me today. I goofed off enough yesterday, and I have a ton of lying around to do.”

“Oh, come on! All you ever do is lie around. We hardly ever see you any more.”

“Look,” I said, feeling very annoyed, “I don’t happen to have other people to do my lying around for me like you do, okay?  Now let me get back to it. I was right in the middle of a really decent doze. Call you later. Bye.” I had neglected to tell him, of course, that I hadn’t even BEGUN to lie around. Which I promised myself I would do, right after the letters I felt I just had to write to my accountant, my publisher and my agent. So much for the morning.

After lunch the pressure was really getting to me, so I actually got down to some serious lying around at 2:45. At 2:55, however, the doorbell rang. “Damn,” I muttered, rolling off the sofa. When I opened the door, I found my upstairs neighbor Lisa standing there, a tense look on her face.

“Jeanne--darling!--God I am so glad you’re home. I’m in the most dreadful fix. Really, if you hadn’t been home I don’t know what I would have done....”

“Lisa, can you cut to the chase please? I’m kind of busy today.”

 “Well, it’s just that I’ve been asked at the last minute--the last second really--to chair a committee meeting I simply can’t say no to, and well, the thing is I haven’t been lying around as much as I need to and I thought, you’re such a sweetie...”

Hold it!” I yelled.  Then I took a deep breath. “Look, I’d like to help you out, but I have way too much of my own lying around to do and I am about to have a nervous breakdown.” I squinted my eyes at her. “Besides, Lisa, I seem to remember some lying around I did for you last month you never thanked me for.”

Lisa tossed her head. “Oh, well, if you are going to make a big deal out of a little lying around!” And she huffed down the hall.

I slammed the door. I went back into the living room, fully intending to hoist myself back onto the sofa, but I was so upset I decided to wash and repaint the kitchen cabinets.

Well, you can guess what happened. After I finished in the kitchen I was too revved up for lying around, so I worked on my taxes.  In short, I have spent another entire day avoiding the lying around I was supposed to do. I probably won’t be able to sleep tonight from worrying about it.

I don’t know why I seem so incapable of lying around. Maybe I need to see a shrink, to find out why I am constantly sabotaging myself.  And anyway, there’s usually a couch in a shrink’s office, isn’t there? You never know, I could get some major lying around done.
   

 

5/31/10

I'll Show You Mine...

I took mine off.  Then he took his off.  And it was magic.

I hadn’t seen him for while.  We had decided to meet at an outside café.  It was a spectacularly sunny day; the food and wine were perfect.  So why was I not having as much fun as I thought I would?  Why were we not really connecting?  Suddenly I realized the problem: my super-polarized prescription sunglasses were making the world (and him) look great, but I was, in essence, hidden behind them.  I switched to my regular glasses and he followed suit. “That’s better,” we agreed, laughing at how much it changed everything.

It’s true we had to squint a little in the sun, but out conversation immediately became more animated, more intimate, and began to flow more naturally. I looked around at the other patrons.  Most were wearing sunglasses.  I wondered how many of them were with their spouses or best friends.  If you know someone well, you can easily interpret nuances of expression with only the lower part of the face visible (you may even prefer to take a break from that person’s expressions--nuances included.) But if you are with anyone other than but a good friend or loved one, you will definitely enjoy more rewarding communication without the shades.  Face to face (or eye-to-eye) interaction may be a rapidly disappearing practice, but while it still exists, we should at least get the most out of it.

Obviously it would not be good for your eyes to be without protection from the summer sun too often. But when socializing with someone you do not see every day (and unless you are covering a bruise, or swollen or red eyes,) naked eyes provide much more information than covered ones.  Conversing while wearing dark glasses is a bit like eating food with a bad cold.  Sure, you’re still eating, but you miss a lot of the flavor.

I have decided that my next pair of glasses are going to be ones that come with either clips-ons or flip-ups, in order to facilitate access to the most powerful social interaction tool I have: my eyes.  Why should I relinquish all nonverbal “vocabulary,” just because it’s sunny out?  For example:

Eyes widening: “Wow!”
Eyes narrowing: “I suspect what you are saying is not true.”
One brow raised: “Oh really?”
Two brows raised:  “Yikes!”
Eye roll: “Jesus!” or “Of course, that would happen!”
Prolonged gazing:  “I’m really attracted to you” or “I’m not listening to you at all, but if I look intently at you, you will think I am.”
Both eyes shut:  “Oh no. Please don’t tell me that.”
Eyes tearing:  “I feel your pain” or “I feel my pain” or “I feel the pain of the person you are talking about” or “Please don’t let me pick up the check.”

So listen up, all you cool people, shy people, people with designer sunglasses they are really proud of, and people who are worried that squinting will give them wrinkles:  Unless you are in the Witness Protection Program or have just had eye surgery, Miss Mingle says: Take ‘em off, baby, and let it all hang out.

5/24/10

Searching for Supper

It was a deserted, industrial area of Brooklyn and the only buzzer we could see on the door read “The Hosiery Company.”  No one answered when we rang.  Stymied, my friend and I and the driver all pulled out our phones to try to figure out where we had gone wrong with the address.  Just then a beautiful woman in a pale yellow dress stepped out of the car in front of us. “I bet you’re looking for the supper club I'm going to,” she said, pointing to an unmarked door halfway down the block.

A new incarnation of the dinner party that has become increasingly popular in New York is the private supper club.  The one I attended this past Saturday was catered by the Brooklyn Laundry and featured a six-course meal inspired by the recipes of Antonin Careme (1784-1833), a man widely considered to be the first great figure of gastronomy.  (He worked as the private chef for Napoleon and the Royal family of France, among other notables of his time.)  Saturday’s venue was the penthouse loft apartment of a charming young man who greeted us sporting a whimsical lace cravat, and whose name I should probably not offer up here, as technically speaking, supper clubs of this nature are more or less illegal.

First there were cocktails on the rooftop--all made with Lillet wine.  I had a delicious concoction with Hendrick's gin and orange peel and mint called “the Muse.”  (Lillet is a very versatile cocktail ingredient. In fact I think Lillet Blanc is what vermouth always wanted to be when it grew up.)  The 25 or so guests ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties and included a doctor, a lawyer, a web designer, a jeweler, a producer, and a painter.  The high-ceilinged dining space was defined by thin gauzy curtains that blew gently in the breeze, creating a dreamlike, almost surreal effect. The lighting was a soft orange “Blanche Dubois” style which made everyone look good and feel cozy.  My favorite dish was probably the “Cabillaud a la Hollandaise” (Cod with hollandaise sauce,) though the “Les Petits Vol-Au-Vents a la Nesle” (blue crab, sweet breads and morels in puff pastry shells) was perhaps the most interesting--even if it wasn’t served with rooster testicles, as it had been at Chateau Rothschild in 1829.

The supper club combines the intimacy and comfort of a dinner party with the convenience of a restaurant and the conviviality of a bar or lounge--where you can mingle with strangers.  (Add to that the exciting hint of the Prohibition Era, when you had to know which door to knock on.)  Let’s face it: Few people can afford to hold a gourmet dinner for 25 people.  This kind of “paid” dinner party allows folks to experience a little bit of the luxury enjoyed--at least by the privileged class--in eras past.

And okay, I did not get to consume a soufflé flecked with pieces of gold, as I might have at a Careme dinner in 19th century Paris.  But for 21st century Brooklyn, the evening was, I must say, superbe.

5/17/10

Socialis Interruptus

So there I was, in the middle of singing “She’s Got Freckles On Her But, She is Nice,” which as anyone who’s ever heard it can tell you, is a truly entertaining bit of musical Americana, and which I have been performing at parties since I was 16. As I paused between the 1st and 2nd verses, I noticed a fellow guest--a woman in her twenties--whipping her iPhone out of her pocket like it was a Colt 45. By the time I had gotten to “All the sailors give her chase, ‘cause they love her naval base,” she was waving it over her head, exclaiming “Hey, I’ve got more words here!  I found the Pearl Trio singing it!”

This may seem on the surface to have been a harmless, enthusiastic contribution to the fun at hand, but it broke the momentum of the party (not just of the song).  It was not the interrupting itself that was the problem; it was that the woman stepped out of the party (in the virtual sense).  She was impelled to interrupt, by the seductive certitude that she could and would retrieve information instantly on her phone. 

Now, some people may think my having the audacity to sing at a dinner party justifies whatever socially-incorrect behavior comes my way. (Though I swear it was a request from my host; anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). But the point is that this kind of thing is what happens at every party now.  Just when a conversation has begun to take on that wonderful organic spiral, with one subject leading naturally to another, deeper levels, more laughter and a heightened feeling of connection, someone will invariably stop to look something up on whatever internet device they happen to have--either to confirm some factoid, or simply because of the irresistible call of cyberspace (a drug few of us can resist for more than an hour or so.)  Of course, the information is usually pertinent.  But once someone breaks the flow by going “off-party,” the social energy in the room tends to dissipate. And once someone starts looking things up, it spreads like a virus.

In other words, before you know it, someone is looking up lyrics to another song, and then someone else texts a friend to find out where the first ukulele was made, and then everyone is checking their other texts and emails, until soon what you have at the party is a bunch of individuals staring into their little blue screens, mumbling to themselves. 

It’s more important to stay focused on the people right in front of us.  So what if we don’t get to hear the 4th verse of the song.  So what if someone can’t say for sure whether some article in the Times came out last Wednesday or last Thursday.  A party is supposed to be a sharing of fun, energy and ideas, not an exchange of data. 

In any case, I prefer the Talbot Brothers version of “She’s Got Freckles on Her But, She is Nice” to the Pearl Trio version.  And you won’t find it on-line.

5/10/10

Mother of a Mingle

One night last week, as I blew my nose, applied eye-liner around my red eyes and popped two Sudafed while getting dressed to go to what would probably be a noisy and crowded cocktail party, I thought to myself, “Why on earth am I going to this thing when I have such a bad cold?  Why don’t I just stay home?”  And yet it seemed that I must go.  A party always holds promise.

Suddenly I had a flashback:  I am in the 7th grade, and Bert Richards--the hottest guy in the 8th grade (the bluest eyes, the deepest voice, the coolest friends)--has asked me to a Valentine’s Day dance.  For this special night, I had bought, on sale at Hutzlers, a brand new outfit.  A swingy skirt and matching top with long flowy sleeves, made out of black rayon with little white and orange flowers.  It was an “ensemble” (my mother’s word) which made me look older, showing off my curvier-than-average 13-year-old figure. 

And then, disaster!  The day before I have a scratchy throat.  By the time the night of the dance arrives I have a stuffed up nose and a 101 degree temperature.  But when I beg and cry and tell my mother how it is the most important night of my life, she hesitates, worries and then--miraculously--lets me go.  She gives me a Sudafed, two aspirin and an early curfew, and sends me out with the handsome and exciting Bert Richards. 

Many people would say she shouldn’t have done this--that a good mother would have been stern and put me to bed.  But I will never forget how much I wanted to go to that dance. And it didn’t kill me, did it? I still remember dancing and laughing to “Mama Told me Not to Come” by Three Dog Night.  I swayed and twirled in my sexy rayon matching skirt and top.  At the end of the night Bert Richards kissed me with an exotic taste I would later recognize as cigarette smoke.

Of course I spent the next two days sick in bed, and Bert eventually dumped me for Cynthia somebody.  But I’m telling you that was one great dance.  Thanks, Mom. 

4/26/10

The Show Must Go On (and On, and On...)

I was in the front row, so I was forced to keep a smile plastered on my face as the man two feet in front of me wailed a horrible off-key lament, and three other poor souls in tattered white sheets backed him up as bravely as they could.   I tried not to make eye contact with the actors.  The rock opera songs were what I think of as “lemon juicers,” because they made you want to scrunch up your face in pain.  The plot featured dinosaurs, the Rapture, a car accident and zombies. The props included puppets, a kitchen ladle and some kind of fog in a spray can.

There are not too many things worse than a bad musical (especially a bad musical endured while sitting in a bad folding chair in a tiny room with no air.)  But if you live in New York or LA, you are bound to know people who are performing in shows (or writing or directing them)--friends to whom you feel you must demonstrate your support.  And even a talented friend can have a misfire or get cast in a clunker.  So what do you say to these people afterward, when you feel obligated to go backstage (if there even is a backstage) or--worse yet--go out with them after the debacle?  Do you lie to their faces or just evade?  Do you hightail it out of there and later email them:  “Had to rush home to spell the sitter but congrats on the show!”?

For those who have trouble with out-and-out lying but still want to be polite, here are some strategies:

The Obfuscator: “Wow…What you did out there!” (This is my uncle Herman’s favorite post-curtain line) or “I’m so impressed with anyone who can get up there and do that!”

The Therapist: “So how did you feel about it?”  (Whatever they say, keep asking them questions.)

The Filled-with-Joy Ploy
: “I was just so happy to be able to come to this play!  What a great night!  I love the theater!”

The Pin Pointer:  “My absolute favorite part of the production was you!”  Or “The very best thing about it was the beginning of the second act.” (Even if you hated everything, you can still differentiate, right?)

One last note: Never forget the “Two-block Buffer rule” when dissing whatever cultural event you may have just seen, whether it’s with your companions or with other audience members.  You’d be surprised how fast the actors can get out of there.

4/18/10

Stand Here Often?

For the thousands of people standing in line, sleeping in rows of cots, fighting for chairs and otherwise enduring the nightmare of being stuck at the airport, here are Miss Mingle’s DOs and DON’Ts:

1) After re-arranging, re-re-arranging and re-re-re-arranging your various screwed-up business and personal affairs--and after checking for help on the Facebook group When Volcanoes Erupt: A Survival Guide for Stranded Travelers, and the hashtag #getmehome on Twitter--DO put your various iThings away and take the opportunity to meet and bond with as many strangers face-to-face as possible.  Airport disasters may be Hell on Earth but they are also a god-given mingling opportunity.  You never know; you might meet your next spouse, client or best friend.  Adversity brings people together.  And even if you never see the person again, good conversation is food for the soul.

2) DON’T engage in one-downmanship by assuming your own troubles are worse than anyone else’s.  You are in this together; everyone has a right to want to get home.  Commiserate.  Seek compassion and company.  But try not to compete.

3) After a sufficient amount of bitching about the volcano and the obduracy of the airline authorities and how this has totally messed up your life, DO move on to other subjects.  Talk about the amazing and surprising power of nature.  Talk about fate.  Talk about sex.  Ask to see pictures of the kids or the pets.  Discuss your favorite vacation.  Ask advice.  Tell your life story.  (Note:  Try to stay away from subjects like politics.  It’s a crowded place and tempers are short.  And people may have had either too much, or not enough, alcohol.)

4)  DON’T push.  Or butt in line, or yell, “I was first, dammit!”  Don’t scream at an airline employee unless they really, really deserve it.

5) DO offer to help others: Watch their bags while they go to the restroom (never mind what airport security tells you--this is a siege!)  Play with their kids.  Share your food and your Advil and your toothpaste.

6)  DON’T  give unwanted advice.  If you see someone about to eat a cheese sandwich which you happen to know is spoiled, by all means tell him; but if he has ordered a double bacon cheeseburger with a fried egg and hollandaise on top to help with his stress, don’t say, “That’s not going to do you any good you in the long run, buddy.”

7) DO smile as much as possible, even if you don’t feel like it.  Smiling in an arena filled with fear and negativity can serve as a balm and is a humanitarian act.  (Warning:  Do NOT smile, however, at people who are crying hysterically, screaming at the top of their lungs or using their briefcases as bludgeons.  They may just re-re-re-arrange your face.)

4/12/10

Doggie Bottle

When I saw the woman doing it I really thought I was, well, not exactly hallucinating, but not correctly understanding what was occurring.  There, at the table next to me in a perfectly reputable restaurant--white tablecloths and everything--this well-coiffed woman in a beige suit was very carefully pouring the contents of her almost full martini glass into an empty, plastic Aquafina water bottle! After which she tucked it away in her purse. (I confess I immediately assumed it was a vodka martini.  I know I am prejudiced but I can’t help it.  I just can’t imagine a gin drinker doing that.)

Now, I realize the economy is bad and many people are living on a reduced income and therefore can’t afford to waste anything.  And of course all of us have, on occasion, taken home leftovers from a restaurant.   But just how far does the term “doggie bag” stretch?  Leftover wine, leftover milk?  Leftover salad dressing?  And isn’t it basically wrong not to have the waiter put your leftovers in a container, but instead just squirrel it away yourself?  Even though by far the weirdest thing was the fact that the beige-suited diner was “doggie-bagging” a liquid, to me a major indication that it was not kosher is that I couldn’t imagine ever asking a waiter to pack up an unconsumed drink.  And in a restaurant the waiter is like the teller at a bank.  He has to put it in the bag for you or somehow it’s stealing. 

People do have widely different ideas about what one is allowed to take home from dining out: A friend of mine told me she knows someone who routinely orders a second basket of bread, knowing that she is not going to need it, and then takes it home. When I worked as a waitress years ago I always had a few customers who saw nothing wrong with asking me to wrap up large amounts of the “all-you-can-eat” salad from the salad bar.  And I have heard about people endeavoring to procure not just their own but their dining companions’ uneaten portion of food “for the dog.”

It’s true that the average martini in New York costs a whopping $11, and perhaps after the first sip, the woman, realizing she was not in the martini mood, just couldn’t bare to see it go to waste.  But by the time it was carried home in warm plastic and then re-iced, the drink would not have been fit even for the hair of the dog.

4/5/10

We'll Always Have Pears

I ran into him at Whole Foods, right between the Boscs and the Comices. My heart did a wild little jig. It was Steve C--a very cute, semi-famous writer I had had a blind date with once several years before.  At the time I had felt it was a good sign that we had not one but two mutual friends, from totally different areas of my life.  He was sweet, smart, sophisticated, centered, handsome, funny, paid for dinner at an excellent restaurant of his choosing and asked me about my career.  A 100-percent-perfect date, except for one thing: It gradually became clear that I was not his cup of anything.  When he left me in front of my apartment building (oh yes, just to add to the torture, he had impeccable manners,) I let him know I was interested.  But I was pretty sure I would not hear from him again.  Later I heard Steve had married a slim, 27-year-old trilingual poet.  Just after that he published a brilliant book that got a rave (of course) in the Times.  I knew that he and his wife had recently had a baby.

And now here he was.  Looking as self-possessed as ever.  I took a deep breath and put on my very best “my life could not be going any better” smile.

“Oh!…Hello, how are you!?”  I practically sang.  We exchanged the requisite “Fine thankyou’s.”  Oddly, he seemed genuinely glad to see me.  (Boy, he did ever have good manners.)

“And congratulations on the baby by the way,”  I beamed, relieved that I was revealing no signs at all of my inner rejected self. “How is your wife? I’m so sorry, I can’t remember her name.”  He told me she was great.  We talked about the baby for awhile.  I asked how his writing was going; he asked how mine was going.  After about ten minutes I began to notice a vague hint of bafflement in his eyes.  “Maybe he can’t remember my name and feels awkward,” I thought.

“Have you seen Paul?”  I asked, putting an avocado into my cart. (Paul was one of the aforementioned mutual friends.)

Steve looked at me blankly.  “Paul?”

Suddenly it struck me with horror that this was not, in fact, Steve C, but was an entirely different person--a Columbia professor I had mingled with on not one but two separate occasions, both of these within the last six months. Each time we had had lengthy and fairly deep conversations.  Sure, both men had dark brown hair and were roughly the same size, but I’m supposed to be Miss Mingle for god’s sakes!  And I don’t even know who I am talking to!  Naturally the professor also had a wife (what straight man in New York over 40 doesn’t?) and coincidentally a new baby; and he was published, like most professors. Which is why this case of mistaken conversation had gone on so long.

I flailed. “Oh my god, I thought you were…”  (What? Someone else? At this point that seemed inadequate.)  “….I mean, you know how when you see people out of context, it can be…. (This was getting worse by the moment.)  He raised his eyebrow and smiled a cool, tolerant smile. A smile that said, “I would be insulted, but this woman is mentally impaired so I should be kind.”  That was when I realized I could not even recall this man’s name.  I mumbled something about lack of sleep and fled.

 I think all the intelligent, handsome, unavailable men I have met in this city are starting to blur together.

3/29/10

Obsessive Cell Phone Disorder

At the opera I found myself checking my phone three times (okay maybe it was four) to make sure it was off.  While Gen Y-ers’ cell phones seem like organic parts of their bodies they don’t even have to think about, I can never quite trust that mine isn’t going to misbehave somehow. I tell myself I am just a conscientious theater-goer.  After all, if my phone were to suddenly blare its raucous Latin ring in the middle of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, I would definitely wish “not to be.”

I do know other people who triple-check their phones; I am certainly not the only one. But are we merely being careful and courteous, or are we being neurotic, like people who can't stop washing their hands?  Let’s check for symptoms:

Obsessive Cell Phone Disorder (OCPD) Diagnostic Guidelines

How many times do you look to make sure your phone is turned off or set to “silent”?

1. At a live theater performance, a wedding or a funeral: 
    a)  Once (Only once is a little cocky in these venues, but it’s definitely non-obsessive.)
    b)  Twice  (Normal, especially at an opera or a serious play.)
    c)  Three times  (Okay, well, better safe than sorry.)
    d)  More than three times (You’ve checked it already! My god! OCPD!)

2. In a movie theater or at a lecture:
    a) Once (Totally appropriate.)
    b) Twice (Borderline, unless you are alcohol-impaired.)
    c) Three times (Ridiculous! You need behavior modification therapy. But don’t worry, I’m sure there’s an app for this.)

3.  In class, in a meeting, at a dinner party or at a restaurant:  

     a) Once  (Not exactly compulsive, but maybe a little overly-cautious.)
     b) More than once (This would probably be considered a sign of OCPD. On the other hand, you could just be clinging to laudable but outdated notions of propriety.)

4. At a family dinner:
    Turn my phone off?  What are you trying to do, kill me?

3/22/10

Rock-Paper-Scissors

“Sorry…Hav to tke important Skype call….ttyl”  my chat window read.  And just like that my friend vanished.

For ten minutes, I had been waiting to Facebook chat with this person--who had been tied up multi-chatting, as was his wont--so I could tell him my news. I had finally gotten his full attention (or what passes for full attention nowadays) and was madly typing something I felt was fairly interesting when…wham!  I was dumped for the Skype call.

“Hmm,” I thought, after a fleeting letdown feeling.  What does have priority, in a society where everyone is continuously plugged into several communication outlets at once?  Is it a matter of who it is who is contacting you, or is it first-come, first-served?  Or is it, perhaps, a decision that is based on the form of technology itself? 

I suddenly had this vision of the rock-paper-scissors game I used to play as a child (rock breaks scissors; scissors cut paper; paper covers rock.) It’s a game that has been used for decades--by adults as well as kids--to decide various issues, from figuring out whose team goes first to resolving legal disputes.

Does Skype beat IM? Does a text on your phone beat a Facebook chat?  When you are at a cocktail party, is taking a call acceptable?  If you are on the phone, should you put the person on hold because you have a text coming in? 

Call me old-fashioned but I believe that face-to-face interaction should almost always take precedence.  And, all things being equal (that is, the person with whom you are communicating is not in the middle of telling you he has a gun to their head and is about to pull the trigger), I believe that because a call--of any kind--involves a live person, it should be considered more important than chatting or texting.  IMing on Facebook may be happening in real time, but people do tend to multi-chat about unimportant things on the computer.  It’s more of a “while I am waiting for something in my life to happen” kind of pastime, so therefore probably least important of all.  (Never mind that we should all be reading a book instead. I have given up Luddite lecturing for Lent.)

It would be a lot easier if there were some hard-and-fast rules in this area, rock-paper-scissors style. Social rules are good for us; they lesson the possibility of confusion and misunderstanding. Okay, so here it is, folks: Face-to-face interaction trumps a call (Skype or other); a call trumps a text; a text trumps IMing.  One, two, three…go!

With this strict hierarchy in place, when my above friend got his Skype call I would not have been taken aback even for a second. I would merely have clicked quickly out of Facebook Chat and called someone up on the phone, knowing that that way, I might finally win the battle for a conversation.

Of course, I’d have to find someone who still answers his phone.

3/15/10

What Gumption

Am I the only person who is bewildered by the amount of chewing gum left on the sidewalk?

Not just on sidewalks, but on every possible pedestrian surface, New York City is speckled with thousands of round blotches, roughly the size of a silver dollar and ranging in color from light gray to black.  These more or less permanent spots are remnants of masticated gum which has been discarded and then flattened, either by foot or by wheel.  One of the most disgusting--if relatively minor--aesthetic aspects of urban life, gum pollution is to me one of the most mysterious.  I mean, once you’ve had the frustrating and humiliating experience of stepping on still-sticky gum, how could you possibly let a chewed piece of your own fall naked to the cement? 

Considering the staggering quantity of this gum waste, it seems downright spooky that in the twenty-some years I have lived in the city I have never actually seen anyone spitting a piece of gum onto the ground.  Not once.  I can’t even picture it.  (Do the perpetrators lean over and let the gum drop straight down from their mouths, or do they shoot it out like a pop gun?  Do they deposit the wads surreptitiously into their hands before sending them earthward?  Do they look both ways to see if anyone is watching?)  And it’s not just me: No one I asked has ever seen gum-dumping either.  Like most people, I have observed pedestrians doing many unforgivable things, including but not limited to: neglecting to pick up their dogs’ poop; spitting (the non-gum kind,); dropping lit cigarette butts, half-eaten foods or paper trash to the ground as they walk ; or even--less frequently, thank God--peeing against the side of a building.  I mean, I am not an oblivious person.  So why haven’t I seen these excreting gum-chewers?

Sometimes I try to imagine unusual scenarios that could justify this particular breach of civilized behavior: An alcoholic, having fallen off the wagon, chews a stick of Doublemint to cover tell-tale breath when suddenly he sees his AA sponsor coming down the street and must ditch the evidence; a woman with sudden tooth pain is terrified that a piece of Trident Sugarless is pulling out her brand new filling and so impulsively expels the offending substance; an adolescent confronted by a ragged stranger lets loose his Bubblicious to ward him off. The thing is, you would think I could find someone who has personally witnessed the commission of this litter crime.  I suppose if I really want to solve this puzzle I am going to have to keep watch at odd hours.  I may be able to discover bands of wild bubble gum gangs who come out only at 4:00 AM, chewing like mad and catapulting their gum all over the place.

There is a possibility that over-zealous artists or graffitists are the culprits, for at least a portion of the gum splotches.  I have learned there are people (I found some on the internet, I’m not kidding) who simply love the look of sidewalk gum.  One person has even made a Webgallery of photographs featuring blobs of squashed gum contrasted against different types of cement--kind of an ode to the urban polka-dot.

But perhaps folks just like to leave their mark behind, the way they do when they scratch their initials in wet cement or tree bark.  Exceptionally sentimental gum spitters may even come back to visit their old gum:  “See that one there, honey?  That’s my gum from when I was fifteen and I was on my way back from Jersey Boys.”

3/7/10

A Miss Mingle Muse

On the Number 1 train I look across the car and see a man, probably in his early thirties, balancing a huge poinsettia in his lap.

I study his face.  He looks tense; his eyes are examining every quivering red leaf, over and over.  My guess: He is bringing this as a gift and is not sure whether it is the right one.

I imagine him arriving at his destination--the apartment of a young woman he has been dating.  This is the first time she has invited him to her place for dinner; it is, perhaps, the Big Step.  She flings open the door and greets him with a bright smile. She has bouncy hair and a slender figure. She leans toward him, kissing him lightly on the lips, and then looks down at the pointy red blooms in his arms.

“Is that a poinsettia?”  Her smile has wilted unexpectedly.

“Um, yeah.  For you.  From me.”  Feeling a sudden sense of impending doom, he holds up the pot so that the top tips are just below his nose.

“Oh…thanks.  But…I don’t think that’s good for cats.  Can you just leave that out here?”  Deflated, he sets the plant next to the doormat and follows her into the apartment.  He sees immediately that she does have cats.  Plural.  In fact he spots four of them, and suspects more hidden under pianos and divans.

As he takes off his coat, he makes a mental inventory of the Match.com responses he had gotten the night before, seeds and whispers of possibility which he had not believed he was going to need.

3/1/10

Elevating Manners

I'd just been to a three-hour opera, a cocktail party and a painfully long talent show; so when I say I was tired, that's an understatement.  I was head-throbbingly tired.  The kind of tired that causes your whole being to become focused on the act of getting home.  I counted the minutes in the subway (only three more stops!), then the subway steps (okay, just a few more to the top).  At last, the final stretch: the short block to my building.  (Thank god, two minutes more and I can take my shoes off and lie down.) 

As I entered my lobby I saw I was in luck: My extremely slow elevator was there waiting for me!  A neighbor, a man who lived on the eighth floor, was already standing inside the car. We made eye contact and I smiled in greeting. Then to my dismay--which was swiftly followed by outrage--he looked away and the doors closed in my face.  It felt like a physical slap. I wanted to cry.  How unbelievably rude, I thought.  So typical of the brutal narcissism of modern society.

I took out my frustration on the Up button, pushing it furiously and repeatedly.  As I watched the elevator ascend to the 8th floor, then inch back down again, I  vowed to give my neighbor a piece of my mind the next time I saw him.  And then--there he was when the doors opened.

"I'm SO sorry," he said earnestly. " I pushed the 'Open Door' button but it didn't work.  I wanted to come back down to make sure you knew I didn't do that on purpose."

How happy this small gesture made me!  It only took five minutes out of my neighbor's life, but how many people would have gone to the trouble?  I was at once embarrassed I had thought the worst of him and cognizant that within our reach is a much higher quality of life, if only all of us were to behave as this man did.  We often forget that tiny acts of kindness, behavior that takes into account the well-being of others, can truly elevate our lives.

2/21/10

Death by Triangulation

“Thank god you’re here!  You can help Rich and me solve a small dispute we are having,” my friend Sally called out to me the minute I walked in the door. Uh-oh, I thought. 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.  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 jokes about her husband in front of you.

Threesomes in social life are always potentially unwieldy. In fact, being “a third wheel” is not so much about being unnecessary or unwanted as it is about causing instability. With three people the psychological balance is always shifting--however slightly--between one pair and another.  But 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 triangulation, proceed with extreme caution. Change the subject or, if you can, leave the house to go get a paper.  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.”

What Sally wanted me to weigh in on was whether or not she and her husband should invite Sally’s sister to come with them on their Spring vacation. I just smiled and said, “I can’t say what you should do; I make enough bad decisions about my own life.”

2/14/10

Valentine's Day Antidote

Any reasonably-intelligent single person knows that Valentine’s Day is nothing but a superficial, overblown Godiva and Hallmark hoax, the main purpose of which is to make consumers spend money they don’t have on goods and services they don’t need, and the main result of which is to put so much pressure on couples that many of them break up on or around Valentine’s Day.  So why in the world should the dateless feel they have somehow missed an Important Life Experience?

The fact is that it is impossible to be completely impervious to the sweet-smelling, pervasive atmosphere of V-Day romantic dining and gift-giving (not to mention that every bouquet of flowers and box of candy seems to hold the promise of the sex you are not having); after all we are only human.  The problem is that we are not seeing the glass as half-empty as it is.  My recommendation for surviving the evening alone?  Take off those heart-shaped, rose-colored glasses and rent or download two or more of the following movies -- films which feature couples yelling at each other, killing each other, and cheating on each other (not necessarily in that order):  Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,  A Place in the Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire, Kramer versus Kramer, War of the Roses, Sleeping with the Enemy, or The Ice Storm.  Watch with good food and wine -- whatever you and you alone feel like eating -- but not chocolate.  Just for tonight, chocolate is for lovers and will offer you only the guilt portion of guilty pleasure.

Cheesecake? That’s another story.