Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Struggles: An Appreciation

A favorite pastime of many New Yorkers is kvetching and kvelling about daily struggles and comparing them to people around us. Often, the comparison becomes a competition. If you are not familiar with the Yiddish vernacular that is peppered into the conversations of New Yorkers, Jew and Gentile alike, I will teach you the necessary terms.

Kvetch - verb: to complain habitually : gripe
Example: “Rachel is always kvetching about her nephew who won’t get a job and find his own apartment.”

Kvell - verb: to be extraordinarily pleased; especially, to be bursting with pride
Example: “Rachel won’t stop kvelling over her son who was recently accepted to law school, much to the dismay of her knitting club.”

As odd as it may seem to outsiders, these two actions are usually performed in tandem, and sometimes applied to the same topic. There is a subtle art to master in complaining about a thing while also turning it into an object of pride.

Maladies and Ailments

Among friends and casual acquaintances, discussions of physical discomfort are as common as commenting on the weather. New Yorkers delight in sharing war stories about the realities of living. Such conversations can escalate into competitions to see who can claim the worst affliction that was suffered in “silence” while life went on as usual.

As an example, I meet with my good friend M every Thursday, and we reserve at least ten minutes to discuss our current bodily afflictions over a drink. If we can’t fill the time with our own afflictions (which is rare), we will invite the bartender to join the conversation. In doing this, we gain new stories to share in future conversations with others, so if our own ailment isn’t applicable, we can at least borrow from a friend; thus earning credibility by proxy.

There are levels to which conditions are appropriate in a given situation. Below is handy reference that will aid in avoiding a mis-step.

(A) New or Casual Acquaintances and Co-Workers
  • Cold, flu, stomach virus (without gory details), minor injuries, minor genetic/hereditary defects, dental procedures, optical problems, ravages of aging (without gory details), rumors of upcoming pandemics and unusual cures.

(B) Outer-Circle Friends, Extended Family Members and Significant Others of Friends
  • Section A, plus: Gastro-intestinal distress (in limited detail), parasites, minor medical procedures and socially-acceptable mental health problems (i.e. Seasonal Affective Disorder).

(C) Inner Circle (choose wisely!)
  • Sections A and B, plus: Gastro-intestinal distress (in full detail), colonoscopies, sexual dysfunctions and/or other related health concerns, weight struggles, substance abuse, taboo mental health problems (i.e. suicidal/homicidal thoughts), documented allergies, full details of medical procedures, incurable or terminal illness and favorite medications.

There are also certain topics that are never appropriate and best kept to oneself.

(X) Nobody
  • Self-diagnosed allergies or gluten intolerance, veganism or any other voluntary food restrictions, aromatherapy, involuntary weight-loss and humble-bragging (i.e. “I can eat whatever I want and never gain a pound”).

Transit Woes

In a metropolis of five boroughs connected by trains, ferries, bridges and tunnels, getting from one place to another is often a process fraught with strife. Between signal failures, track maintenance, re-routes, unscheduled police investigations and “passenger emergencies,” it is common to experience delays multiple times in a day.

Even though these struggles are universal and common, we never tire of sharing the horror stories. They transform even simple tasks, like going to work or picking up groceries, into epic adventures and heroic tales, the best of which should be retold in three minutes or less (because who has time?). Unlike our suburban counterparts, mundane things like buying milk, stamps and laundry detergent in one outing might require three separate stops and more than one method of travel (i.e. bus to subway to foot).

Rather than feeling deflated by the extra effort required to live our lives, real New Yorkers are energized by the challenge and feel triumphant. This reality of metropolitan life inspires us to kvetch over the conditions of our struggles, and kvell over our resilience and determination. There is also a hidden bonus to the constant unreliability of our transit system, which is the socially-acceptable practice of blaming one’s own tardiness on the Metropolitan Transit Authority, when in reality: you just overslept.


Thriving in New York is not cheap. This is evident in the astronomical prices of generic pain relievers at Duane Reade pharmacies throughout the city (who are they kidding?). Everything from french fries to electricity is set to its own inflated value that hovers high above the rest of America (with the exception San Francisco). This lead to the formation for the “Rent is Too Damn High” party founded by folically-memorable Jimmy McMillan in 2005 (Google it, you won’t be sorry). Although nobody likes relinquishing their hard-earned money, we do take delight in talking about it whenever possible. This gives us a chance to practice kvetching and kvelling simultaneously. Below are a few common expenses that are discussed frequently by New Yorkers.

Real Estate
In most places, discussing one’s rent is taboo, but not in New York. It is perfectly acceptable to go to a party and ask the host what they pay for the dwelling in which you are consuming free booze. New York landlords and realtors are a whimsical tribe, imagining that anything with four walls and a toilet above the first floor can be listed as a “loft.” A bathroom sink in the living area accessorized with a hot plate and microwave is imaginatively called a “kitchenette.” A fire escape constitutes “outdoor access.” Contact paper newly adhered to the bottom of a drawer counts as “renovation.” Each of these “amenities” has a price tag, and each of these added living costs give the New York tenant more to discuss in mixed company.


New York is a city of restaurants. New Yorkers, as a group, tend not to cook very often (see description of kitchenette above), so there is a beautiful marriage of supply and demand that makes a true capitalist smile. Restaurateurs throughout the city have devised ways of arranging very small portions of food on very large plates to make diners feel like they are being served a work of minimalist art, when in reality, they are just paying for “negative space.” Although the substance of the meal may be minimal, the bill is anything but.

Mental Health

Many New Yorkers have therapists. I think the only other American city that rivals New York in the amount of psychiatrists per capita is Los Angeles, for obvious reasons. If I were a smarter man, I would have become a therapist myself since I believe the only appealing reason to listen to someone discuss their feelings is for profit. Luckily, I am too poor to acknowledge my feelings, so I do without the luxury of mental health. If I were one of the many New Yorkers that throws their money into the black hole of the mental health establishment, you bet I’d bring it up every chance I could!

Dating and Romance

As in any other city, many New Yorkers are looking for love. Dating in the Five Boroughs is like going to a Sizzler. There’s an endless buffet, constantly replenished with new fare, but the more you eat, the sicker you become. Common challenges of dating in the city are the following:

Location, Location, Location

It is just as dangerous for someone to live too close as it is for them to live too far away. Although New York is big, it can become a very small town in relation to unwanted contact with an old flame. If you date someone in your neighborhood, you risk running into them too easily if things don’t work out, and it’s a big ordeal to find a new grocery store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, local bar and subway route. On the other hand, if the object of your affection lives on Staten Island and you live in Harlem, traversing the New York Harbor on a boat to see them, regardless of how charming they may be, is too much to ask. My ideal relationship would take place on opposite sides of the park, two days out of the week with the stipulation of keeping separate friends and private bank accounts indefinitely.

Too Many Fish

Due to the abundance of options to choose from, many singles in the city become too choosy (myself included). Knowing that there are more than twenty million people in the New York Metro Area (including places accessible by commuter rail), it is difficult to overlook even small flaws in a potential mate. This makes for a culture of flaky singles with the nagging belief that they can always do better. It is for this reason, among others, that many singles in the city remain single, which is typically a much wiser choice.

Cultural Differences

One of the perks of living in New York is the opportunity to encounter new and exciting cultures. If you date someone from an exotic culture, what seems like a fun novelty in the beginning can quickly devolve into constant arguments over food preferences, media consumption and incompatible world-views. Unrealistic fantasies of meaningful cultural exchanges are usually tempered by the reality that past one’s early twenties, we become set in our ways. Rather than acknowledging that fact, it’s easier to find the other parties’ ways intolerable, and call it a day. These are not always insurmountable challenges, but the success rate of long-term union is not promising.

* * *

Struggles make us who we are. They reveal our inner strengths and weaknesses, they steer us on our path of life, and they ultimately distill the “purest” versions of ourselves from the disjointed mess we begin with. People who don’t struggle enough are insufferable, which I know from experience because I have been to California. Rather than lamenting over our struggles, we should appreciate them, hold them dear to our hearts, perhaps even sit with them sometimes and tell them that they’re pretty. If all else fails, our struggles make good conversation starters, which anyone who spends time with the elderly, knows very well. So take pride in your life’s heart aches, love your past regrets and always remember that without them, you’d have nothing to fall back on when you’ve run out of witty repartée.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Feelings: A Linguistic Ailment

I feel, therefore; I am?

Over the last decade or so, an alarming disease has spread across the American language. It has rendered speakers, mostly under the age of forty, incapable of articulating a firm declarative sentence. This affliction can be observed in people of nearly every race, religion and credit rating. The most commonly noticeable symptom of this linguistic ailment is an inordinate use of the phrase “I feel” at the beginning of statements where it does not belong. If one is asked an “Either/Or” question, feelings are irrelevant. For example; if a barista asks if you would like whole milk or skim in your coffee, responding with “I FEEL like I want skim…” is unacceptable. The barista, who is getting paid very little to wake up early and be scalded all morning, has no interest in your feelings. The barista simply wants to complete your order and move on to the next dehumanizing task of the day. They are not paid enough to acknowledge your feelings. Nobody is. This is why therapists charge such steep hourly fees. So what, you may ask, has caused this castration of linguistic fortitude? I have a theory that it correlates with, but is not limited to, the following cultural trends and events:

Self Esteem “Self Esteem" was invented in the 1980’s. Prior to this time, people were not encouraged to think highly of themselves by default. If one does not have an artificially inflated sense of self-worth, one is less likely to share their personal insights with strangers. In previous generations, a person had to actually accomplish something meaningful in order to be asked for their opinion. Now, one gets a medal just for participation - AND the false sense of entitlement that comes with it.

Home Video Cameras In the 1980’s and 90’s, American homes were saturated with a new form of technology that turned every family into the stars of their own poorly produced TV shows, still in re-runs during holidays and family reunions to the present day. The home video camera, which began as an expensive novelty item, quickly turned into a ubiquitous documenter of mundane events that could be replayed ad infinitum, or until an overworked VCR scrambled the tape. Previous technologies that produced choppy silent films which required an empty wall and a bulky projector to consume were no match for the ease and portability of VHS tapes. People became accustomed to watching instant replays of their Christmas mornings, Thanksgiving dinners and high school band concerts almost immediately, thus giving everyone the ability to consume themselves as their own entertainment source.

The Writers Strike of 2007-08 In the fall of 2007, a consortium of TV writers banded together for several months and refused to write sitcoms and crime dramas, citing mistreatment and under-appreciation by their producers. Unfortunately, the TV networks were prepared for this. They had amassed an emergency reserve of “reality” shows to fill in the gaps. The American Public quickly adapted to a steady diet of nouveau riche housewives, teen singing contests and food pornography, all of which promoted the culture of self-indulgence and unfiltered “confessional” sharing. When the strike was resolved in 2008, the writers returned to an industry that now demanded more “reality.” Obviously, their plan had backfired. Post-stirke, instead of writing cheesy dialogue accompanied by canned laugh tracks, they had unintentionally created the Bravo network and the catch-phrase, “I’m not here to make friends.

Weblogs, or as we now call them; “Blogs” In the late 1990’s, when the internet was measured out in minutes on a phone bill, a new form of self-publication was invented called the weblog. In their primitive form, these weblogs existed as strings of plain text written by mole people for other mole people who needed a medium more permanent than email, but less formal than journalism. The rest of the world was unaware of their existence until the early 2000’s when the masses were given access to things like LiveJournal and Myspace, thus inventing a medium for angsty teenagers, disillusioned college students and under-loved adults to “express” themselves immediately without the buffer of an editor. Every emotional trauma could be published online for the world to consume. This eventually gave birth to current (as of 2016) mediums like Twitter, Instagram and a pile of other instant gratification services that have given the public a false impression that their problems are unique and that their thoughts are valuable.

• • •

So how can we combat this unseemly malady that has turned the American public into self-obsessed whiners? How can we persuade cultural figures like Lena Dunham to stop perpetuating the preponderance of hedonistic turns of phrase in the dialogue of premium episodic dramas that we shamefully hate-watch without cessation? How can we find a balance between self-worth and self-indulgence? These are questions to be left to you, dear reader. Next time you have the urge to provide an explanation for something, qualified by the phrase, “I feel,” ask yourself; why? Do you really “feel” like you need skim milk in your coffee, or can you just ask for it like a grown-up without having to resort to that level of personal oversharing that benefits nobody?

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Why Hayley Mills Ruined Our Lives

Hayley Mills with an apple.

Like many homosexuals over the age of thirty, my childhood was saturated with the films of Hayley Mills. From Pollyanna to the Parent Trap to her role as Miss Bliss on the first season of Saved By the Bell, she seemed to be everywhere. One may recall her girlish charms and jaunty British-ness and draw the conclusion that she was harmless and benign. This was the genius of the Disney company and their diabolical scheme to create a society reliant upon therapists, antidepressants and extravagant theme park vacations.

If you are not familiar with the work of Ms. Mills, let me fill you in. She was Walt Disney’s blonde sweetheart of the 1960’s with a vague English accent that never made sense in most of the American film roles she landed. She was relentlessly cast as an innocent young girl placed in troublesome predicaments that were cleverly resolved in the end with the aid of catchy musical numbers and ill-founded hope. Hayley made being a teenager look like a wholesome and light hearted endeavor. Whether it was discovering a long-lost twin at summer camp, solving mysteries on the beaches of Greece or climbing mountains with explorers in search of a missing relative, she promoted an illusion that anything is possible for those with the right outfits and the belief that “things just work out.”

Let’s examine some of her notable films:

Pollyanna (1960)

Pollyanna is a misguided young girl who suffers from delusional thinking. She is, of course, an Orphan sent to live with an estranged miserly aunt played by Jane Wyman, who built a career on perfect posture and crisp diction. Pollyanna’s dead parents were voluntarily destitute missionaries who taught her to always find the silver lining, which they had to do often since they had no money and Pollyanna never even had a doll to play with (which becomes a central plot point later in the story). A series of very dull things occur that I don’t really remember, but the main takeaway is that the horrible aunt doesn’t like the little girl, and the little girl just wants love and approval and a doll to play with. She does everything she can to please the aunt, but it’s never enough, and instead of choosing to appeal to a new target audience, Pollyanna continues to make every attempt to gain the affection of this woman who really needs to get over herself. Somehow the little girl finally acquires a doll at a church carnival, but due to a clever plot twist, the doll falls out of a window and into a tree. Pollyanna then attempts to rescue the doll and predictably falls out of the tree, becoming a paraplegic in an age before public accessibility standards were in effect. Her positive attitude falters for a brief moment, but it is immediately restored when the people of the town all come to visit her in her wheelchair and the aunt finally decides to give up and be civil.

Moral of the story: if you are persistent enough with people who don’t deserve your respect, you can eventually wear them down and force them to like you.

The Parent Trap (1961)

This is perhaps Ms. Mill’s most famous role. Using the magic of primitive trick photography, one actress is able to play twins named Sharon and Susan who were separated at birth and never made aware of each other’s existence. Through a twist of fate, both girls are shipped off to the same WASPy summer camp for affluent white girls. Self-internalized misogyny runs rampant and the twins become enemies instantly after discovering one another. The girl-on-girl drama escalates, elaborate pranks are performed and eventually the pair is forced to live together in isolation as punishment for causing so many camp disruptions. Rather than having a mud wrestling fight to the death, the two girls acknowledge the obvious fact that they are sisters and form an alliance. They spend the remainder of their time at camp engaging in an elaborate espionage scheme to trade identities and manipulate their divorced parents into getting back together. More drama ensues, the parents finally catch on that they’ve been played, and everyone reunites in time for Ms. Mills to perform an upbeat duet with herself that inspires frivolity and re-kindles a spark between the estranged lovers. A few final complications occur, causing the viewer to doubt the effectiveness of the hair-brained scheme, but in the end, all is made right and the girls’ plan is a success.

Moral of the story: If you prey on the emotional weaknesses of others, it is possible to manipulate everyone around you into denying their own experiences and adopting new patterns of behavior to meet your own selfish needs.

Summer Magic (1963)

Set in the ragtime era, this period comedy must have been pieced together from remnants of other failed ideas as fulfillment of an obligation to feature Hayley in a musical. In this film, Ms. Mills is poor again, and forced to abandon city life, following her widowed mother to begin a new life sequestered in a small town in the country. Burl Ives shows up to sing a few songs while helping the family fix up the run-down (but giant) house they are squatting in. Just as the family is starting to feel comfortable, tragedy strikes again, and they are compelled to take in a recently orphaned cousin with chronic PMS. The two girls dislike each other at first, but then bond over teaching a younger girl how to please a man by appearing to be weak and useless in a musical number called “Femininity.” The newly bonded cousins combine feminine forces to beguile wealthy men at a Halloween party in hopes of exchanging their youth and beauty for the resources hoarded by the aforementioned wealthy men.

Moral of the story: If you perpetuate unrealistic gender biases that promote female objectification, you too can escape a cycle of poverty.

Perhaps the rational conclusions to be drawn from these facts are obvious, but just in case, I will break them down. Hayley Mills acted as an agent of the Disney company to lie to generations of American children, setting up unrealistic expectations that made growing up more tedious. Some have reacted to this betrayal by spending unnecessary hours in therapy talking about their feelings. Some have been driven to drink or abuse prescription mood enhancers. Personally, I decided to become a New Yorker, which has been the healthiest of possible outcomes. If you have been wronged by Ms. Mills as so many others have, know that you are not alone.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Sustenance Abuse

An example of a photo that should not be taken, especially with a flash.

For many New Yorkers, a refrigerator is place to store condiments, leftover takeout, cocktail mixers and unsorted mail. Preparing one’s own meals at home is an activity stigmatized by the micro-kitchens found in most Manhattan apartments. This is not to say that knowledge of how to cook is lost on us, for how can one send a steak back to the chef without being able to provide specific instructions for its fine-tuning? Part of what makes living in New York so great is the unending variety of restaurants and cafes that are used in place of home kitchens to keep us nourished and sustained. New Yorkers have uncovered primal instincts locked deep inside of our ancestral DNA that allow us to forage all about the city, finding hidden food sources in unlikely places. Any seasoned local knows at least five meatball sub shops that are off the grid and no more than two street meat carts that will not induce regret. This knowledge comes over time and sometimes at a price paid in antacids and emergency visits to Starbucks restrooms. One of the downsides to this utopia of culinary delights are the types of people that frequent certain establishments. I enjoy a good meal just as much as anyone, but after several years observing various trends in dining behavior, I have come to the conclusion that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to enjoy oneself while eating out. Picture Imperfect A well presented plate of food is a delight to the eyes as well as the stomach. Many restaurants in Manhattan, and even some parts of Brooklyn now, have perfected the art of laying out food on a dish in such a way that it almost seems a shame to disturb it. A shame as it may be, food is meant to be eaten, not gazed upon. This realization that life is but a fleeting series of ephemeral moments should not spoil one’s appetite, nor should it be cause for documentation. Very few things, aside from a fussy child or a marriage proposal, ruin the ambiance of a delicious meal as much as flash photography igniting flickers of lightning at inopportune moments all over a dining room. The idea of photographing a meal is something that seems akin to a very sad kind of homemade pornography, for what is the appeal of seeing a perfectly grilled salmon steak on a bed of mediterranean risotto that I did not have the opportunity to experience for myself? It’s like reading a cookbook only for pleasure, which I find to be a rather hollow and ungratifying experience. I’d be very disinclined to meet a person who actively seeks out photos of his or her friends’ weekend meals to fill the sad hours of an uneventful life. The biggest offenders used to be young women from general studies programs at NYU with rhinestone encrusted fingernails, but now the disease has spread to grown men and women who really ought to know better. Now, every restaurant patron may be under the false impression that he or she is the next Ansel Adams of crème brûlée. This behavior is unacceptable and should be stopped. You Are What You Don’t Eat Every few years, a new trend in voluntary food restriction sweeps the movers and shakers of the New York dining elite. One moment, it is the highest fashion to abstain from wheat and the next it is consuming dairy only from cows who are sung to sleep by opera singers in the better regions of Long Island (far enough away from Fire Island not to be kept awake by electronic dance hits and lingering fumes of amyl nitrate). Ultimately these practices come and go, but the communities of wretched people who adopt them stay the same. It is disconcerting to go to a diner only to see a newly printed menu highlighting the vegan mozzarella sticks, paleo health shakes and gluten-free bagels with free-range lox and tofu schmear. No thank you. This is not what New York is all about.  Such crimes against the culinary arts should be confined to Los Angeles where they originated. One does not become noble for choosing to omit a perfectly fine source of nutrition from his or her diet. Abstinence from baked goods never made anyone interesting. New York was built on pastrami on rye and kosher franks. Glorifying yourself by bragging about that which you do not eat is not something to celebrate, it is a topic of conversation to be avoided. The Ball Jar Some fashions in dining can start small, and spread virally, like the subway bed bug infestation of 2010. Unlike bed bugs that cause irritation without being visible, other societal ills can be seen with the naked eye. One trend that I have observed taking hold over the last several years, most likely originated in Brooklyn (and I’d bet money on Williamsburg, specifically). It was a small regional outbreak at first, which escalated rapidly. Now, every “cute” bar and cafe from the Far Rockaways to Chelsea to the Marble Hill serves its beverages in old-timey Ball jars. If you are unfamiliar with Ball jars, they are the glass containers in which rural-American grandmothers store their homemade jams and jellies. They should not be used as serving vessels for $16 cocktails. If one is spending $16 to $18 on a watered down drink with a column of hand-carved ice occupying the majority of its volume, it is insulting to have it served in a container worth 25 cents. Idealistic young people who yearn for “simpler times” they never witnessed (à la the great depression or the glamorous days of war rationing) find it charming to be taken advantage of in this manner. These are the same people who believe that online petitions can affect broad social changes. If I wanted to drink out of re-purposed containers, I could just stay home and drink alone, which would save a great deal of money. It is because of this, that I opt to stay in most evenings and enjoy my own company.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

In-Flight Entertainment

I have come to the conclusion that anyone who strikes up a conversation on an airplane has given you their permission to be lied to. I try to avoid unnecessary chit chat as much as possible, especially while belted into an uncomfortable seat. An ideal flying situation is one that involves a deaf foreigner sitting next to me who has politely taken a sedative.

It’s not that I advocate lying in real life. I am terrible at remembering what I’ve said from one day to the next, which is an important skill one needs to manage successful deceptions. Lying is almost as dependent upon a sharp memory as it is on a creative sense of morality. Luckily for me, my short-term memory can retain events for up to five hours without too much degradation, which is sufficient for a flight from New York to San Francisco.

I look forward to air travel about as much as the average person looks forward to a colonoscopy. I do not have an inordinate fear of dying in a plane crash, but rather, I dislike being crammed into a metal tube with 100+ strangers for several hours who all believe that their time is more valuable than anyone else’s. Usually I do my best to keep to myself and stay occupied with reading materials and the in-flight beverage service. The social contract I strive to uphold in these situations is to mind my manners, remain calm, and interact with my fellow travelers as little as possible. Unfortunately, this standard of behavior is not as widely practiced as it should be. When these rules are broken, the aforementioned social contract gives me the liberty to entertain myself as in the following cases.

Stacey from Portland

Portland, Oregon is a friendly enough place inhabited by mostly well-mannered white folks who are all “unique” in a similar way. On a flight from Portland returning to New York, I had just belted myself into my aisle seat when an art therapy student in a dung-colored skirt and clogs sauntered down the aisle and took her seat next to me. She smelled of Nag Champa and misguided optimism. As the flight attendants began to secure the cabin, she tapped my shoulder and introduced herself as “Stacey!” to which I replied with a nod and a half-smile. I tried to return to my reading, but Stacey had other plans.

“Hello again! I’m not sure if you heard me, but I’m Stacey. I get a little nervous when I fly, and they say that making friends with the people around you helps to ease the tension - So… I hope you don’t mind that - I mean, you look friendly - I mean, I don’t want to tell you how you look or anything, but you seem friendly...” she kept babbling on for about five minutes before taking a breath. Obviously, Stacey was not good judge of character. I decided this was a trait that needed to be exploited.

“Oh, Stacey, you’ve caught me at an awkward time,” I said mournfully. “You see, Eduardo, my lover of five years left me for another man, who happens to be my former best friend, Ted. They kidnapped my beloved cat Charles and started a new life together in New York. Unfortunately, Ted was out walking the the cat in the rain on Central Park West last Tuesday when a taxi lost control and ran into both of them at the Mariner’s Gate on West 85th Street. Poor Charles was killed instantly, and Ted is in a coma at Lenox Hill. There was nothing to do but cremate the cat, whose ashes I am on my way to collect now. So, I am sorry... Stacey, but I would prefer to be left alone...”

Poor Stacey, overcome with the inability to generate an appropriate response, left me alone for the duration of the flight, allowing me to read and enjoy the beverage service in peace. 

June from Roanoke

The flight from Roanoke, Virginia to New York takes about an hour and a half, which is just enough time to peruse one issue of the the New Yorker from cover to cover. The small regional airport in Roanoke has several gift shops, but no bar, which I find troubling.

Upon boarding a medium-sized commuter aircraft from a staircase on wheels that was rolled on to the runway moments before, I found myself seated next to a marshmallowy woman in a floral leisure suit. I could tell she was a talker before I even sat down, and so I decided to pretend I was a non-English speaking tourist from Québec. I figured my poor French would be enough to fool her.

“Well hello!” she said in colorful tone, pregnant with unnecessary extra syllables that matched her outfit. “I’m June!” I smiled and nodded, trying to look as foreign as possible. I sat down and buckled myself in, hoping maybe she’d take the hint and pull out a Danielle Steel novel or some knitting. She did not. 

“Is New York your final destination or are you connecting? I’m meeting some of my gal pals for a Carnival Cruise out of New York tomorrow and I am just so excited, let me tell you. We do this once a year together and it’s just soooo much fun! Have you ever been on a cruise?” She waited for my response with anticipation. I thought carefully.

In my best fake Canadian French I said “Je suis très désolé, madame, mais je ne parle pas l’anglais.” She looked disappointed, making a little grimace, and then pulled out a bag of potato chips. I felt very satisfied that my ruse had worked, until I realized I had a New Yorker magazine in my hands, which was obviously (even to June) printed in English. I proceeded to read the magazine in English, while pretending to only speak French, and June avoided eye contact while eating two bags of ranch flavored low-fat potato chips until we landed at JFK.

Thus I learned that a lie told while on an aircraft does not always have to be believed in order to be useful.

Sigríður and Hildur from Reykjavik

There is something absolutely the matter with American teenagers, especially in contrast with their foreign counterparts. I’ve met a wide range of teenagers from other countries who manage to be pleasant, well-mannered and even appear happy while in the presence of their parents. This is abundantly true for the young people of Iceland.

On a connecting flight from Paris to New York, I made a stop in Reykjavik just long enough to buy a sandwich for hundreds of Krona, hoping that the exchange rate to US Dollars would be favorable. Since I never left the airport to see the “real” Iceland, I have a limited amount of information upon which to draw a conclusion of their culture. From what I could gather, everyone is astonishingly pleasant and there is a national reverence for dried fish products and licorice-flavored beverages in colorful packaging.

Once I boarded the plane, I took my seat next to two very blonde girls with porcelain skin. I was suffering from a cold that the Parisians had given me as a souvenir to bring back to New York. As soon as I sat down, the girls offered me a tissue, noticing my drippy and swollen red nose. Their tissues were a great relief, since I had been forced to use a roll of toilet paper that I stole from a restroom as Charles de Gaulle earlier in the day, which in true French fashion, was stiff and non-accommodating.

They introduced themselves at Sigríður and Hildur (no, I could not pronounce these names either, but I had the girls write the names down so I could at least see what I was saying incorrectly). They informed me that they were both fifteen years old and this was their first trip to New York. They were traveling in a large group, which was scattered all about the plane. I scanned the surrounding area and saw small groups of equally polite young aryans talking quietly and not making a fuss.

“Siggy” and “Hilda,” as I decided to call them, were delighted to learn that I lived in New York and they wanted to know all about my exciting lifestyle. They were so wide-eyed and full of hope that I didn’t have the heart to tell them I had a terribly dull job in a hideous building located in the armpit of midtown and that my diet usually consisted of street hot dogs and the stale coffee I stole from work. They didn’t want to hear about the ceiling flaking off in my tiny closet-less bedroom in my fifth floor walk-up that smelled like rotting Chinese food from the grad students below. I decided to give them the version of New York that they wanted to believe was real, and that in my heart, I knew I deserved.

“Well Siggy and Hilda,” I said in an authoritative tone, “New York really is everything you’ve heard, possibly even more. I wake up every morning in a spacious apartment with hilarious roommates who have become my best friends. We work each day in fast-paced city careers looking out over the skyline of Manhattan from our well-organized desks and drink imported espresso from bone china. In the evenings, we frequent all of the trendy restaurants and hip new bars while sensibly enjoying cocktails and exchanging stories of our exciting dating lives. Each new day brings new possibilities. I feel like the luckiest guy in America!”

It was quite fun to be the embodiment of every New York sitcom and big budget movie to a couple of foreign girls who I’d never see again. For five whole hours, high above the Atlantic Ocean, I had it made.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Five Months in Park Slope: A Non-Scientific Urban Ethnography

A typical street in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Being a single childless New Yorker in my early thirties easily places me in a bubble, a rather nice one that I enjoy very much. Every now and then, the membrane of this bubble is penetrated, forcing me to acknowledge other parts of life that I forget about if I’m not careful. Some would call this a “reality check.” For me, it feels more like an involuntary social experiment.
On a hot day last summer, I was enjoying a frozen margarita with a friend at a neighborhood bar. Normally, this is what I would consider to be an adults-only activity, but apparently mine is not a universally held opinion. Our evening of socially-acceptable drinking was interrupted by a shrill sound, followed by a brown smell, oozing out of a small bundle in the arms of a woman at the end of the bar. She looked tired, but had managed to put on some lipstick and a pair of earrings. With an infant supported by one hand, and a drink supported by the other, she introduced me to a cultural phenomenon I’ll call the Park Slope Happy Hour. In any given local bar in this corner of Brooklyn, when the sun is beginning to lower in the sky; worn out nanny-less mothers take their seats on stools with their offspring. They do their best to juggle the responsibility of parenthood and the necessity of release in a utopia built of red bricks and mood stabilizers.
Park Slope is a lovely neighborhood in Brooklyn known for its beautiful architecture and abundance of affluent white people in their early forties who practice a form of digital attachment parenting. These members of Generation X who’ve grown up to become attorneys, tech start-up entrepreneurs and small-batch whiskey purveyors inhabit the beautiful brownstones and townhouses that are now a breeding factory for future generations of non-functional humans.
I have been renting a small room in the middle of this cultural ecosystem for the last few months, and I have made the following observations which I will list in no particular order:

A Child by Any Other Name:
There is a hierarchy of names given to children in this community which are used by the parents to define their place in the social caste system:
Literary elite: Names based on obscure literary or historical references that show the amount of liberal arts education the parents have. These names are assigned with the intention of making other people feel stupid.
Organic elite: Names based on heirloom herbs and spices or endangered species of medicinal plants.
Genealogical elite: Names of ancestors, pre-immigration to America, i.e. Stanislav, Olga, Lucius or Gretl.
Former recreational drug users: Made up names with impossible to decipher pronunciations which should be considered a form of child abuse.
New-comers: Names chosen by parents who are new to East Coast liberal society, possibly from Texas or the Midwest. They are usually just standard names with an arbitrary spelling, i.e. Mykael, Ashlyiegh, Ehvahn or Zben (pronounced “Ben,” the Z is silent).

Technology is rapidly evolving and we’re told every year our lives should become better, faster and more efficient. Each new day brings an updated version of a familiar invention that surpasses our previous expectations. Although this logic can be applied to telephones, cars and cameras, the opposite is applicable to humans.
Children in all of the aforementioned social castes are more fragile and helpless than the children of thirty years ago. I can speak from experience, because I have been here the whole time, observing and taking notes. On the sidewalks of Park Slope on any given Saturday, it is not uncommon to see children as much as eight years old being carted around in baby carriages the size of modest Jeeps. Even for those who have somehow acquired the skill of walking, they are never allowed to do it alone. There is always a mother or father (sometimes both) moderating every slight behavior or decision the child makes, thus preventing the development of independent thinking or learning through empirical observation of the world around them.
Once these stunted offspring approach puberty, direct surveillance by parents is replaced by electronic devices that the children have been lead to believe they can not survive without. Oddly enough, the children voluntarily report all of their activities by taking photos and videos of each moment of their lives, and publicly sharing them with others. They no longer remember things like addresses or phone numbers, or how to get from their apartment to school without the aid of a Global Positioning Satellite. Without a batch of photos of the previous day's activities, their atrophied brains would suffer from a perpetual inability to access their own short term memories.
This problem is not isolated just the children, but at least the adults who have adopted such cerebral crutches once had the mental strength to “walk on their own.” The next generation of children will be victims of voluntary de-evolution. In the years to come, we will have amazing microwave ovens with new abilities beyond our dreams, but there will exist a new race of miscreant people who will be helpless to function without them.

Curated Facial Hair:
In the decades to follow our current epoch, the quickest way to visually determine the age of a photograph will be to see the facial hair worn by the men in it. This will be augmented in the photographs taken by the residents of Park Slope. To be completely upfront about my stake in the matter, I have worn a modest beard since the age of eighteen, and I take no issue with facial hair in moderation. I think that a nicely grown and properly maintained beard is quite an attractive feature. There comes a point, though, when facial hair takes on its own identity in order to express something about its owner’s self-image. I have observed the following outlandish trends on the streets and in the fine establishments of “the Slope” over the last few months:

The Waxy Moustache:
In an attempt to revive ye olden days of barbershop quartets and a world before Women's Suffrage, a cohort of men have brought back the waxed handlebar moustache. When walking into a bar, seeing one of these shiny lip adornments is amusing at first. Upon further inspection, seeing a dozen of them is disconcerting. It’s like being surrounded by a room full of automatons pulled from a ride at Coney Island who have been dressed in skinny jeans and band T-shirts and served craft beers. They can be overheard talking about their “complicated” relationships.
The WASPy Rabbi:
It is common to see blue-eyed men with honey colored hair sporting cascades of precisely trimmed beards that fall anywhere from their collar bones to their nipples. Often these men are dressed in some sort of tweed and they smell of lavender or patchouli. They wear impeccably polished leather shoes and they are fond of vests. The group is mostly comprised of Gentiles who have appropriated the essence of their Hasidic neighbors in Williamsburg to the north, and then had it styled by Brooks Brothers and Cole Haan. Many of these men have rings on their fingers, but it’s anyone’s guess as to the gender of their spouses.
Seeking Mrs. Claus:
A more casual version of the designer Rabbi look is the eventual Santa Claus look. These tend to be men who are less interested in precision and more interested in comfort. Their beards have been allowed to grow without the intervention of pruning. They probably don’t iron their pants, and they may go a day or two without changing their underwear. Rather than smelling like a meadow, they usually smell more like a college dorm room. Often, these men are single, but still hopeful.