Monday, May 12, 2008

Mothers Day – Ambivalence

I spend a lot of time trekking down to suburban Philadelphia to see my Mom - almost every weekend lately. So even though it was Mothers Day, this weekend’s trip was standard procedure.

R comes with me most weekends. I know it ain’t fun for him but he (usually) is willing to help me through it. Plus he gets to do laundry at her house so we don’t have to deal with the Laundromat across the street that sporadically catches on fire if you put more than 2 minutes on the dryer.

But this weekend, I realized I’m burning out. She just wears me down after a while.

Conceptually, I appreciate her. I know she has sacrificed a lot and would do anything for me. And I feel obligated to take care of her.

Yet, the thought of ever having to live with her full-time terrifies me. She is way too high maintenance – even though she tries not to be. She is who she is and that can be really wearing at times.

Like this weekend. When we arrived, she was cutting hedges. Which in my mother’s passive-aggressive communicating style, is a request for me to cut the hedges. She knows that I am unable to let my 73-year old mother who has a lame right hand cut the hedge with the electric hedge-clippers.

So after driving 2 ½ hours, I had to get out of the car and immediately start cutting hedges. Even though the hedges are only about 1 inch too high - in spots. God forbid a leaf should grow out of line.

Then, after cutting and cleaning the hedge, we have tea and she launches into part 2 of the “get Michael to do as many chores as possible” campaign which constitutes weekends with my mother.

She just was so curious that she had to pull up a corner of the wall-to-wall carpeting in the upstairs bedroom to see what the floor looks like. And it looks OK - though there is a “little nothing” nailboard around the entire edge where the rug can be stapled to the floor. Should we look at it? No, no, no not now…Finish your tea… Well, do you want any more tea? Are you sure? OOOK. Welll….

Finally I break down and go upstairs to look at the goddamn rug. She gets down on her hands and knees and starts to crawl into the corner where she pulls up the corner of the rug. And sure enough there is a medieval looking 1-inch strip of board with nails sticking up adhered to the entire perimeter of the room. I tried to explain it’s a big job. She says “Really? You think? I think it would come up pretty easily”

I try in vain to point out the 100s of nails that attach the nailboard to the floor, the imperfections that will remain after the rug is removed, the possibility that this task could be done next week. I know its futile. She is like a waterfall that just pulls you down until you go with the flow.

At some point, its like she just doesn’t even hear what I’m saying – which is possible since she is apparently losing her hearing. Not that I’m supposed to know. I realized that she surreptitiously had a hearing aid put in when, while hugging her hello, I heard loudspeaker-type feedback coming from her head. She never mentioned it. And neither did I.

So, I give in and start the process of rearranging the furniture and pulling up the rug. All the while she circled energetically, moving things that she could and otherwise acting like a mosquito buzzing a cow.

I understand how she got this way. And I empathize. But it doesn't make it any less challenging.

Born on an island in the middle of nowhere, her dream of big city life was fulfilled when, in one of many cruel twists of fate, her father died at 11. Her mother, unable to provide for her 7 children, sent her and one sister to live with her father’s brother in New York. Though it allowed the girl from an island on civilization’s edge to escape to the island at the center of civilization, the abandonment has left scars.

One of which is an obsessive case of domestic pride – an attachment to the idea of home which, having once been lost, is now the most important thing in her life. Another of which is the fear of anything smelling remotely of poverty or want – like an old rug or overgrown hedge.

So I do my duty. Out of love. And guilt. And gratitude. But not without a little griping.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Birthdays and Friendships

So went to my friend Rich’s birthday get-together at Splash last night.

Yeah, Splash. But, you know, it can be fun even if I have been there a thousand times since 1991. Not that I feel particularly nostalgic when I’m there since it has been renovated multiple times and now has a dance floor which, I guess, is kind of nostalgic in Footloose-era NYC. It feels familiar yet stimulating in that it is gay, gay, gay in an increasingly mixed world. The density of gay men, gay entertainment and gay cruising make it comfortable while also providing plenty of eye candy and social frisson.

The party was a reunion of friends who I don’t see as often as I did, or perhaps should. I get grief for not keeping in touch which, admittedly, I am horrible about. But then I also think “The phone works both ways”.

I know I should make more of an effort to keep in touch with friends who I consider my gay family. But in daily life, I’m more likely to just go out with R instead of calling friends to hang out. Which I guess is laziness. Or perhaps shyness. In either case, I know I need to make a concerted effort to keep in touch with my network of friends. They are a key pillar to a happy life along with family, lover, health and career. The challenge is to juggle them all. But I tend to lose sight of one or two pillars at a time as I focus on the others.

I remember my father, who was even less of a social being than me, making a big production of calling one friend each Sunday night. It always struck me as strange that it was such an effort and drama. But now I think I might need to adapt that model. In busy adult life with a partner and family and career, maintaining contact with friends can be a challenge. But just as my father was always a happier person after he made those Sunday night phone calls, I think I would be a little more content and balanced if I rebuilt some of those friendships that I’ve let decay in 8 years of coupledom.

When I got to the party, it was a little awkward since I only knew Rich and one other person. In the past few years, Rich has developed a new network of friends who I don’t really know. So for the first hour I talked to Rich a little and made some small talk with another guy. And watched the videos as if I was really interested (which is what I love about video bars). But mostly I reminded myself how much I hate social situations.

Eventually, our mutual friends showed up. It was good to see them all though everyone was a little awkward since, at this point, there were about 20 people all crowding around a small table and surrounded by a growing crowd.

We had a few drinks and everyone relaxed and had a good time. We shared the ups and downs of work and boyfriends and the fears of aging. We pretended to be the hip, pretty, young clique that we were in our 20s. If only for a night.

It was like recharging a battery. Renewing and tending friendships can be so invigorating. It reminds me that everyone is struggling. Everyone has their own busy, challenging lives. But we still remain friends. I remember I have shoulders to lean on and ears to bend other than R and my family. Which takes the pressure off of them and makes me feel less constrained and alone. We’re all in this same struggle but we have each other. Even if it is only once a year for our birthday.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Barbara Walters – Greed and Sexism

So Barbara did another press junket for her new book. This time on her own station with people she knows (and can presumably control in some form).

Interesting highlights:

1) She only now feels financially secure, at 79, after making what I believe is close to $100 million (she was making $1 million a year by 1976 and has made huge profits from The View for 11 years)

Issue #1:
To only feel financially secure after making close to $100 million belies a dependence on and assumption of an extravagant lifestyle. I think the average person would feel pretty secure after making $1-2 million. Even in NYC, most wealthy people I know have a goal of $10 million to kick back and enjoy.

Which says to me she is kind of greedy and believes that lots of money (beyond basic sustenance) is necessary and good. The need to make $100 million to feel financially secure is kind of greedy and ignorant. Yeah, everyone has the right to make money. But I have to agree with, of all people, the Pope (?!?!) that excessive wealth is a crime against humanity. The need for excessive wealth can only be ascribed to greed, willful ignorance and absence of empathy for other people. It says to me she is an overly pampered celebrity who doesn't realize how much she has been given and has no clue how normal people struggle just to pay the rent and get food on the table.

The Republican assumption that we as a society are better off taking care of our individual interests is, to me, the essence of evil. I reject the extreme individualist philosophy of Ayn Rand (“The Foutainhead”). Capitalism without socialism is evil. As is socialism without capitalism. We can’t think in black and white terms. We need to allow individual success, with limits. We need to provide a social safety net, with limits.

The accumulation of excessive wealth is, I believe, one of the great moral challenges of our era. As the top 1%-10% become increasingly wealthier beyond all rational need, the poor are starving and the middle class have to send both parents to work 60 hour weeks to maintain the lifestyle that my father provided with one working class job.

So Barbara, you’re part of the spoiled, greedy, uber-wealthy who fail to see that they have enough because they have so little understanding of or empathy for the suffering of the world and have been given encouragement by their society at large to accumulate excessive wealth without end.

# 2) All the anchor men they interviewed and the interviewer himself, Charlie Gibson, made various comments about her looks, her legs, sleeping with men to get to the top and “flirting” with interviewees.

Issue #2:
The questions and comments from the male anchors were sexist. Pure and simple. Would a woman ask a man about his love life as a primary question? Would a woman tell a man because you had a relationship with a co-worker after you were hired that you had “slept your way to the top”? Would a woman tell Sam Donaldson or Dan Rather that one of the main reasons they got to the top was because of their legs (or chest or ass)?

Feminism is dead. It is now OK to refer to the sexual characteristics of a woman as their primary asset and reason for success. Its as if Paris Hilton is the new feminist role model and female sex appeal is the only weapon available to make it to the top.

Hillary Clinton is the perfect example. It amazes me the vitriol directed towards her for displaying characteristics inherent in any male politician. And what’s amazing is how women are part of it. Like Muslim women, they seem content to be criticized, downplayed and marginalized and to attack their own for not being feminine enough (i.e., Maureen Dowd). The comments include “she looks old”, she’s cagey, she’s too ambitious. Um, the Republican is McCain who is 73 going on 80. Do we really think politicians are direct and honest people (Bulworth was a movie)? Has any President ever not been too ambitious (OK, maybe Bush 2)?

Yeah, yeah – I know its PC. But political correctness is Republican wordplay for empathy and mutual respect. In the past 15 years, the attack on any sensitivity to others has been relentless and blind. Its as if the whole country has taken desensitivity training. Maybe its my Quaker education, but it seems to me that “political correctness” is a noble goal in that it strives for understanding, respect and empathy for others’ struggles

So Barbara, you’ve just shown the world that we’re not that different from the Muslim world, except instead of forcing women to dress up in a hijab, we insist on a short skirt and low cut blouse.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Hillary – The Ongoing Saga

So, as expected, the pundits are saying Hillary is done because she lost North Carolina and only won Indiana by a small margin. Which was totally expected but these guys make it seem like it was a big revelation.

My argument remains that she is the only one who can beat McCain and end this Republican tyranny. But the idealists and Hillary haters still want Obama because he has more Democratic delegates (though not enough). Which is as fraudulent as saying that Hillary has already lost. Why is everyone ignoring Florida and Michigan and pretending they don’t exist? Why don't people focus on Hillary's proven ability to win key swing states? Why don’t they care that polls show Obama will lose to McCain?

Its consistent with the whole Obamaites head-in-the-sand approach to this election. St. Obama is the Chosen One. Even though he’s not really – he barely has more than 50% of the popular vote. “We can, we can” but, ummm….polls already show that he can’t beat McCain and Hillary can.

I’m beginning to accept that the pundit bias, the blind allegiance of Obamaites and the technically deficient delegate process will result in Obama getting the nomination. So once again, I’ll be standing on the sidelines as the country elects another Republican President. And the high-and-mighty idealist Obamites who should take the blame for forcing upon us another 4 years of Republicanism will blame Hillary for fighting too hard.

And I’ll feel hopeless and powerless and depressed like I have after the past 2 elections. And I’ll begin to disconnect from politics because its just not worth the agita. I should stop caring so much and focus on taking care of myself – gee, I sound like a Republican.

An Apartment in the West Village

In 1991, as I finished grad school at NYU and the lease was expiring on the apartment I shared with 3 guys from school, I began to look for my own apartment. Having to share an apartment killed the joy of living in NYC - especially with 3 straight boys from Wall Street to whom I wasn’t out. Even back then, the financial reality of Manhattan was a bitch.

Fortunately, I had started dating a real estate broker. Yes, he was 38 and I was 22, but it wasn’t all about the real estate. I kind of liked older men growing up. In part because in my late teens/early20s, pretty much all the guys were older. And it was just easier being with someone who was more mature and comfortable in their skin when I definitely was not.

Anyway, I had the good fortune of:
1) dating a real estate broker who had been in the business for a while, knew NYC and managed the rental department of a shady real estate management company.
2) looking for an apartment in the early 90s which was the nadir of the real estate market in the past 25 years and before the skyrocketing gentrification of the Far West Village

With that in my favor, I remember seeing a lot of crappy stuff which was all under $1000 but looked it (which would be $3000 today). I considered the Upper East Side and the East Village, but I knew I ultimately wanted to be in the West Village.

I almost took a studio on the top floor of a 5-story walk-up on Gay St. (Un)fortunately, I was just coming out and my gay panic set in and made me question if I wanted to tell all my coworkers, family and friends that I lived on Gay Street. So I waited another two weeks until my boyfriend found a small 1 BR on West 10th Street - FAR West 10th Street.

FAR is relevant because in 1991, “the Village” for straight people was east of 7th Avenue. The FAR West Village hadn’t been fully gentrified and was still considered a “gay” neighborhood. It also wasn’t particularly hip in a straight sense.

The 5-story building was at the corner of 10th Street and Hudson. Though it wasn’t the prototypical tenement building (having been built in 1945 with an elevator), it had all the characteristics you would associate with a tenement –all studio or 1BR units, a front door of battered steel with a small chicken-wire window, an abandoned ground-level storefront with bricked-over windows and metal grates on the apartment windows.

It being 1991, crime was an issue. Not that it affected me particularly, but it was constantly in the news which created a sense of paranoia (that Giuliani capitalized on so well). So one of my concerns about being so far west was the relative desolation and frontier-like neighborhood. In retrospect, this is exactly what I miss most about the neighborhood – walking around deserted streets and derelict piers that no one else cared about. But in 1991, I found comfort in the presence of a police station down the street.

The way I got my apartment was as follows:

  • The building was in bankruptcy (due to the crashing real estate market).
  • The bankruptcy court trustee appointed my lover’s company as the managing agent.
  • Two men died from AIDS and their apartments became available.
  • I paid $2000 “key money” to the owner of my lover’s company. “Key money” is basically a bribe to get the under-market lease.

I thought at the time that I would stay here one or two years until I started making more money or moved to San Francisco. Almost 18 years later, I’m still here. Which is a little depressing if I compare it to my dreams of the future when I was 22.

But what I’ve come to appreciate is that I don’t need a lot. I did get a big loft in Soho for a few months, then a bigger loft in Williamsburg and then an even bigger house on lots of land in Connecticut. But all that really changed was my monthly bills. Yes, it was nice to live in a big space. But you adapt to your environment. After a few months, coming home to a 2,500 square foot loft didn’t give me the high it once did. Those 4 walls were the same 4 walls and it felt kind of lonely. And it required a lot more maintenance. And a lot more furniture. Which meant staying in a soul-sucking job on Wall Street. The only real satisfaction came from having parties there. But that satisfaction was more about impressing people than enjoying my everyday life.

Now, I’m back where I started. I sometimes wonder if this apartment is preventing me from moving on with my life. But the freedom to live my life without a crushing financial burden, yet with the pleasure and privilege of living in the West Village, means I’m not likely to walk away anytime soon.

Especially since I just found out the apartment below me is renting for 5 times what I pay. I’m too cheap to ever give up such a good deal even if it is a little small for two grown men and a cat. I’ll end up one of those crazy old Village people who are carried out on a stretcher at 80. But it will have been a life well lived in a place that I consider home.

Barbara Walters on Oprah

How could I not watch? Two alpha females - savvy, headstrong, controlling and accustomed to getting their way (aka, divas).

Barbara is out the box. Partially due to being old and maybe just not giving a shit anymore. But hard to believe that its not strategic in some way.

Especially since she started by dishing dirt on Star and Rosie in a way that deliberately made her look like the saint. Star was "so obese she could barely walk onto the set” and “was lying to our audience” about how she lost weight. Rosie has rage issues because “you know her Mom died when she was 11” and “she suffers emotional issues, she’s said in her book she has depression”. Meow.

Oprah was not happy with someone being negative about other people on her show. She was looking at Barbara like “you really need to stoop that low?” She even said to Barbara “But don’t you think these are small issues?”

In reality, Barbara said, she wrote about Rosie and Star and is talking about them because that’s what people, including Oprah’s audience, want to hear. Which is honest and less hypocritical than Oprah asking her to dish then getting righteous when Barbara does.

But in the second half Barbara was more honest about her own shortcomings, though still defensive. She talked about how she dated a married man – defending herself by saying the marriage was a sham. Then about her sister who was autistic, who embarrassed her and whose death she missed because of work.

The underlying message was that Barbara felt guilty for having ambivalent feelings towards her sister and bringing about the end of a politician’s career. She “had to support” her sister all her life but she was “embarrassed” of her. Which is what made her ambitious and driven. And she couldn’t feel purely good feelings towards her.

Which makes sense. And is honest. We all feel ambivalent about family, friends, lovers. That is because the world is not black and white, good and evil. We all have positive and negative feelings and qualities. To deny them is escapism. When we say we love, it doesn’t mean we always feel positive things about that person. As was said in a classic 40’s film whose title I’ve forgotten “I’ve hated him often, I’ve even wanted to leave him at times, but I stay because I love him and that never changes.”

So it seems Barbara should be given credit for exposing some truths about herself. Self-awareness from ambitious, powerful people is such a rarity that it deserves to be noted. But kind of disturbing that she attacked Rosie and Star in such a harsh, bitter way based on weight and childhood trauma issues. I think that’s where old age comes in. She just doesn’t try as hard to be politically correct. Which makes for great television.

The interview was also a reminder that the ambition that fuels success is borne of pain and insecurity. I think most “successful” people prioritize external accomplishment because of deep-rooted issues. People who are happy with who they are and what they have don’t need to prove to the world that they are worth something. Having the intense ambition to be hugely “successful” is not the blessing the American Dream implies.

Barbara said her book title is “Audition” because she has always felt that she was auditioning. For all the accomplishment, how sad to live a life never realizing that your moment on the stage is now and that the curtain could come down at any minute.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Los Angeles

I’ve become increasingly attracted to LA – LaLa land, home of broken dreams and fabulous housing. I always preferred San Francisco since I was a teenager. I like the relaxed vibe, the cool, foggy weather and, most importantly, the wide open unpopulated northern coast to which San Francisco provides easy access.

But in the past few years, I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time in LA, largely due to the diaspora of many Manhattan friends to LA. And I’ve begun to appreciate the attraction. It seems to combine some of the benefits of San Francisco (nature, more relaxed) with the benefits of New York (size, jobs)

First, its slightly more affordable than NYC and San Francisco. At least you get more for your money. Instead of a cramped, dark, decrepit studio, you can get a sun-filled, newer one bedroom that actually seems livable.

Secondly, the natural beauty of parts of Los Angeles can not be compared to NYC. Being able to watch a sunset over the ocean, jog on the beach or hike in a canyon is a huge stress-release and life-grounding that you can’t get in NYC.

Finally, there is something to be said for the (admittedly superficial) pleasantness of everyday experience. Not quite the hippy-hugging love fest of San Francisco, but you’re more likely to encounter a certain new age-y friendly vibe that you just don’t get in NYC. There is a lot to be said for a friendly hello rather than the “get the fuck out of my way” hassle of NYC. In NYC, everyone wants to look busy and angry and overbooked. In LA people try to act more calm, relaxed and casual which helps to minimize reflected stress.

The downside, of course, is the car thing. Though I guess you can survive somehow without one, it defeats the purpose of being there. So a car is an extra cost and kind of a hassle. But the benefit is you get to drive to the ocean for sunset, go hiking in mountains, and shop at a grocery store.

The other downside from my perspective is the pressure to have more – a better body, a bigger house, a nicer car. The conspicuous consumption of LA can make you feel unaccomplished and unsuccessful and wanting more. In NYC, you can ignore a lot of it because the fabulous apartment or expensive restaurant is hidden behind a bland brick building. In LA, its hard to drive through Beverly Hills and not desire that wealth.

But you can also isolate yourself from both the too much and the too little. You can live a life that is filled with simple pleasures not centered around work.

Which is why I think age has something to do with it. I’m less concerned with quantity (of clubs, people, opportunities) and more focused on quality (of life, friendships, nature). While I’ve always considered that I might retire to San Francisco, LA seems like a happy medium between having opportunities and maintaining a simple life. Kind of a bridge between the hectic pace and excessive stimulation of NYC to the smaller town, know-your-neighbors, watch the sunset life of San Francisco.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Budgeting and Spending in NYC

I’m an obsessive budgeter. And kind of a tightwad. “Kind of” in that when I had money, I spent it. But now that I don’t, every penny spent is like childbirth.

Which is how I’ve managed to live without working for 4+ years. But it probably isn’t the healthiest approach to living. Penurious, cheapskate and tight ass are all apt descriptions about which I am somewhat ambivalent. Fortunately, I have a lover who is the exact opposite but still appreciates this trait – for the most part.

So, after a financial meltdown in March and lots of money anxiety, we decided to track everything we spent this past month. And we did better than the budget though in totally unexpected ways.

While we spent much less on dinner because we ate in (read: ordered) almost every night-a huge savings- we spent money on parking tickets, doctor visits and prescriptions which were not budgeted.

Of course, when I do budgets, I try to be conservative so I get the (un)expected thrill of beating my goal at the end of the month. But it seems like there is always a surprise that justifies the budget-padding that I do.

The harsh reality: living in NYC is expensive no matter how hard you try to save money. When I lived in suburban Philly, you couldn’t spend money unless you got in a car and drove somewhere which required conscious decision-making. In NYC, you HAVE to go out and spend money because you’re cooped up in a small space all day and it seems like life only happens “out there”. You feel guilty for staying at home when you can hear and see people on the street “living” life while you troll the internet.

Which is an elaborate excuse for the amount of money we spent on drinks. Though we don’t go out every night and we try to go to places with cheap happy hours, we still spent $600 on drinks!!! Which makes me feel like I need to just stop drinking altogether. But then 6:00 rolls around and I’m tired of being cooped up all day and want to just go out and enjoy life a little. And if you break it down, it is only $10 per day per person – a small price to pay for sanity in NYC.