Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Parallel Universe of the New York Times' "Style" Section

I think the New York Times' Style section is the thin connection between ours, and the parallel universe it describes to the rest of us. In this universe, people are intensely aware of the labels inside peoples' clothes. They carry $3,000 purses. They buy dresses that cost as much as their purses and wear t-shirts that cost thirty times what mine cost.

Many of the individuals in this other world appear to have small antennae that hone into nightclubs where they care excruciatingly about whether or not they gain entry. Once inside, they must locate the tables with the most prestigious people encircling them, and they will take note effortlessly of each costume in their vicinity, and they make sure their vicinity is with others with the same obsessions but who are more frequently mentioned in the newspaper.

Let's go through the rabbit hole and take a look at life in this parallel universe on one random Sunday. The universe allows visitors on Thursdays as well, but Sundays are the days when the universe parades itself most proudly.The parallel universe is comfortably homogeneous politically. It is understood that everyone is progressive. In this universe, there are no liberals, and no Republicans. But everyone believes in marriage; here, marriages are frequent, and love is exalted.

We peek now into this other world as it exists on June 10, 2007. A lead story announces that cocaine is "very visible on the social scene" and we are told that in the universe one often hears "Take a ride on the snow train," or "Skiing on the beach tomorrow?"

We see there's a man in Beverly Hills, an outpost of the parallel universe, who enjoys buying multi-million-dollar homes owned by movie stars, fixing them up, and turning a mega-million-dollar profit. Another story reveals that for some peculiar reason films are not portraying abortions in their plots. "Nearly two-thirds of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion, data from federal surveys shows." And yet several recent films, "Knocked Up," and "Waitress," use the protagonist's pregnancy as the central plot point. In this universe, where abortion is normal, the strange avoidance of it in film is worth pondering.

But the real reason the parallel universe is worth a visit is to behold its nuptials.

Many weddings are performed by Rabbis, male and female alike, though many others are performed by friends of the bride and groom who are ordained in the Universal Life Church just for the occasion. In this parallel universe, no bride is younger than 25, and no groom younger than 30. None completed their educations with high school, and most received their college degrees from elite universities. In fact, at least one partner of nearly all the couples has either authored a book, written music, is a doctor, or is descended from the inventor of something we use every day. Take the "cute meet" of Maya Alperowicz and Justin Florence, that occurred while both were pursuing their graduate degrees at Harvard. His father, by the way, is the author of nine books, including "Blood Libel" (University of Wisconsin, 2004).

Some weddings even have themes. Like the "retired" wedding: "Nancy McDonnel Maloney, a retired lawer, and Jacob Berry Underhill III, a retired insurance executive, were married on Tuesday. Beverly S. Cohen, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice, officiated at her office in New York. The bride, 57, will keep her name...The bridegroom, 80, retired as the President of New York Life Insurance Co....The bride's two previous marriages and the bridegroom's three previous marriages ended in divorce." (This is emes. Direct quote from p. 14 of the journal of the Parallel Universe, the New York Times' Style Section.)

Many couples share common professional interests. Deborah Swacker, a lobbyist, and Jeff Nussbaum, a political speechwriter, share the political bent, and the groom is co-author with James Carvel of "Had Enough?" and of "Intelligence Matters" with Bob Graham, "the Democrat who at the time was a senator from Florida." Film joined Mary Firestone, 30, a film actress ("Just My Luck," 2006, and "Little Black Book, 2004), and Napper Tandy (James Napper Tandy II), who "was a writer of 'Two Roads to Baja,' a promotional film for Toyota that played on Speed Channel cable network in January.'" By the way, "the bride is a great-granddughter of Harvey S. Firestone, the founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company."

Writing is the bond for Pilar Queen, who happens to work as an agent in the office of my own literary agent (emes again!), and Andrew Sorkin, who works for the New York Times, graduated from Cornell and runs an online Times web site. His mother is "a playwright and librettist, whose credits include '(mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story,'...and an operatic version of 'Strange Fruit'" to premier this month in North Carolina.

Yes, couples often have much in common. William Hughes is an investment partner (his mother is a professor of medicine at Tufts) whose marriage to loan officer Gray Holmes shares the financial theme. But their announcement requires careful inspection because they provided no photo, and the bride, "Gray," (MBA from Harvard) has an ambiguous name. Photos have become very useful tools when reading Parallel Universe wedding announcements. Not only do many of the couples' faces look alike, but some pairs nowadays would even look uncomfortably similar were they to appear, literally, in the altogether.

You see, in this parallel universe, connubially linking two of the same gender is, like abortion, normal. Joyful proclamations of single gender partnership, marriage and civil union mingle with more traditional combinings on the pages of the parallel universe's journal.

Andres Freyre and Morton Ballen smile from the photo above their announcement. Their commitment ceremony was led by "two friends" at Frankies Spuntino, a Brooklyn restaurant. But from the photo, we don't know if it is Mr. Freyre or Mr. Ballen with the bald pate and soul patch. Only when the body of the piece tells us "Mr Freyre (above, left)" do we get a clue.

Every issue of the parallel universe journal features one couple to celebrate in a half-page article detailing the history of their relationship, with two photos. This week, the 5-inch by 9-inch picture is dominated by Sarah Bune, leading the ceremony with arms outstretched. On either side of her stand the two partners of the wedding couple. Both in white sheath gowns.

Mary McBride, the "country-folk singer and songwriter," 37, became committed to public relations professional Leslie Klotz, 48, known for her "amazing art collection and about 27 layers of black lacquer" in her apartment entrance hall. After meeting at a Christmas party, the two proceeded through dates and emails until "Ms. McBride proposed to Ms. Klotz on Nantucket last summer. 'Without even blinking an eye, she said "Perfect,"' Ms. McBride recalled." And their ceremony does sound perfect: Mary and Leslie two-stepped before 180 guests in Montego Bay, Jamaica, "down a rose-petal aisle, each wearing a different Elizabeth Fillmore gown, to an altar made of bamboo poles and fluttering Tibetan flags." All is happy and gay in the parallel universe.

There's much more amusement to be clandestinely enjoyed when the universe displays its secrets on Sundays. But the lives described on Style's pages is not reality as nearly all Americans live it. Most everyone spends the wee hours of the night not clubbing but snoozing before a 7 am alarm awakens him for a day of activity far from Beverly Hills' multi-million dollar flipped into mega million-dollar homes. Where abortion isn't on the calendar and cocaine isn't even on the radar screen. And where most everyone gets along and has a nice wedding and doesn't feel the need to broadcast one's grandfather's inventions or mother's latest book title.

We, in the normal world, are voyeurs. We who would not buy "The Globe" or "People" at the supermarket checkout will indeed devour the Style section because while the celebs in "People" may be well-known, we don't particularly want to know when they became anorectic or who cheated on whom. Instead, we glean amusement from the sophisticated exploits of Harvard-educated brides and descriptions of three-thousand-dollar dresses and the wacky ways those so far--and yet not too far--removed from us get their kicks and then, by us, their knocks. It's a different world, and it's so nice to know that you can put it down when you've read to the end of the last page.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ban Father's Day

It's Father's Day, which is not a Jewish Holiday. In fact, I wonder why it's a holiday at all, except that retailers needed another June occasion with which to fatten their profit margins. And of course, after Mother's Day was established, it couldn't be long in this just and equitable culture before Father got his due.

Despite the fact that Dads certainly deserve kudos, few WANT them. How many dads do you know who would miss it if Father's Day was just sort of forgotten one year? Sure, they enjoy appreciation, but for guys, such expressions of emotion are always a bit embarrassing. "Gee, I love you, Dad." "Thanks a lot, son." But such words work equally well in October as in June; isn't it a bit awkward when Dad also has to unwrap another pair of socks?

All right, I'll confess it--Both Mother's Day and Father's Day are inventions of and sustained by women. The only ones who truly care about these occasions are women. On their May holiday, Mothers want those oozing expressions of adoration. On their spouse's day, mothers offer oozing affection in the hope that doing so will bring a response in like kind. Guys shift uncomfortably when others get soppy. This emotional stuff is just not a guy thing.

But, given that I'm NOT a guy, today I presented my husband, father of my children, with a poem I wrote, printed out and decorated with photos of our little ones. When I approached him, saying, "Happy Father's Day, darling!" he said, "Oh no, not a card! I wish you wouldn't give me a card! You're just trying to guilt-trip me!"

I was floored. My sincere rhymes extolling what a great father he is was seen as a mean-spirited attempt to guilt him into...what? I'll tell you: he thought that my stanzas of praise were only meant to insure that on my birthday and Mother's Day, he would provide the same for me. My response: aarrrggghh!

Are men and women the same? Should the government provide the same financing for men's and womens' sports? Should men and women be treated as equals in all things? Is John Grey a millionaire?

I say we ban Father's Day. Give Dad a tie when one's on sale. He'll feel a lot better about it. And by the way--I still love my guy, even if he can't accept my appreciation graciously. But next time I'm tempted to write him a poem--kick me.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Gossip: And your point is...?

So occasionally I find a part of the newspaper in the, uh, throne room, and a headline catches my eye, like this one from the Wall street Journal (June 4, 2007) did: "Gossip: So Much Fun People Once Tried to Make it Illegal."

The author, Cynthia Crossen, writes about quaint people in the distant past (early parts of the 20th Century) who actually thought that gossip was negative and should be curtailed. She mentions Mary Hoppe, of New York City, who in 1816 founded "Don't Gossip" clubs with chapters "in every town in the US. Its motto: 'The tongue is an unruly evil full of deadly poison.'"

Well yes, the concept of controlling one's speech does seem rather antiquated when your slogan conjures images of people's mouths popping and rolling with an "unruly" venomous snake! A Tennessee lawmaker in 1927 proposed that gossip be a misdemeanor, but it fell under the arguments that the law would be unenforcible, and the start of a slippery slope: "After a while we'll have laws making it illegal to eat peas with a knife."

Wisconsin and Kentucky were less sophisticated, passing "statues" against gossip that brought the Kentucky conviction of Maude Basham, who muttered that the local constabulary were "50-50 with the bootleggers." Concludes writer Crossen, "But as the rest of the 20th century demonstrates, no force of man or nature can stop people from tittle-tattling about others. It's just too much fun."

OK, so I read this pointless piece in the latrine and carried it out in incredulity not because of what it said, but because of what it didn't. It didn't mention that lushon ha ra, passing along gossip that is true (as opposed to motzi sheym ra, gossip that isn't) is one of the foremost personal battles Jews who take the Torah seriously face--every day. It didn't mention that the life's work, and books by the Chofetz Chaim
(Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan, 1838-1933), like the little two-volume A Lesson a Day adaptation on my shelf, are studied by Jews in an effort to improve their observance of the crucial commandment to guard one's tongue--and that success with this task can hasten the coming of the Messiah. It surely didn't mention that words are SO elemental and powerful that God created the world using words, and the instructions for living adopted by countless millions--the Ten Commandments--are better translated as "The Ten Statements." Words are not just sounds in the Hebrew language, words are things, as the same Hebrew word means both.

OK, enough basic Judaism--everybody knows all this, except, it seems, Cynthia Crossen, who suggests we throw up our hands and open our unruly mouths because it's just so much fun! That's like saying we should, pardon me, give up on monogamy, since everybody ignores it, and promiscuity is just so much fun!

On a personal level, great. But as I tell my 14-year-old son, one of the things that allowed the Jews to last so long (contrary to nations in this week's parsha--like the Jebusites, the Hittites, the Amorites) was and is our ability to defer gratification. What feels good now, might be "poison" to you later, as well as to the larger community and society. Once you've got people airing negative opinions, you've soon got suspicion and competition and jealousy. Which lead to dishonesty, sabotage, and conflict. Too quickly, you've got New York before Mayor Giuliani
. Some might say Sodom before the brimstone.

I found Teen People magazine in my daughter's room. I wasn't snooping; it was left right out there. Reminded me that before that rag existed, Hollywood stars felt it important to project a wholesome image. They hid their flaws, and even more, their misdeeds. Now, the brightest badge of accomplishment is to enter rehab. That tells the world you're not ashamed of your addiction, and, by the way, you're not responsible for your actions, because a medical condition--like cancer or the flu--made you do whatever horrid thing made Teen People last week.

So, with Teen People in my house, a spouse steeped in media, and the Wall Street Journal insisting "no force of man or nature" can combat this inbred inclination, why not at least go with the flow? Well, as my media-soaked spouse often says, the only religions that are gaining adherents are the ones who
demand a lot of their members.

I think we're hardwired to require a project, something to do, something to strive toward. We want to work on something that can produce a desirable outcome. We take jobs to bring in money, yes, but many of us go beyond that, eschewing big bucks to earn a more meaningful reward. In that vein, working to refine our speech, to focus on the ethereal rather than the earthly, is a project with an intellectual and grander payoff. And it's invigoratingly challenging, in this billboard-crammed culture where you can't buy a bell pepper without the Enquirer feeding the "minds who want to know." It gives us something to do, with the kicker of a historical and traditional context. And it's a battle, with its accompanying potential for the reward of success, that's staring us in the face, every time we answer the phone or purchase our parsley.

If we just give up and legitimize the use of words for "too much fun," we drop a rung on the long ladder between earth and heaven.

Come to think of it, it's time to clear the old newspaper out of the bathroom.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Seattle's Pike Place Market Celebrates its Centennial

Moving right along in the festival calendar, we come upon a rather momentous one...the 100th Anniversary celebration for Seattle's famed Pike Place Market. This was and continues to be a farmer's market where local produce, flowers and handmade crafts are sold, in an old, rambling building full of weird little shops. The first Starbucks coffee EVER still occupies its storied niche, always with some unique street performer attracting crowds at its ever-queue'd door.

This weekend, the Market, a tourist destination that struggles to attract sufficient nearby residents, offered a street's length of those ubiquitous white cubicle-tents, three pavilions where bands performed, and an array of startlingly weirdly decorated eight-foot-long pigs. Because a symbol of the Market is a brass pig that greets visitors at the crotch of the market buildings, supporters farmed out pig replicas to artists to decorate and later sell as a fund-raiser. The "parade of pigs" occurred on Shabbat, but its participants were stationed throughout the festival area, often accompanied by barkers urging passersby to contribute a dollar, in exchange for a snout sticker.

A week of uncharacteristically warm weather meant a jumble of people in tatoo-revealing outfits filled the narrow aisles inside the "sanitary market" and along the nearby streets. Post Alley, a snaking lane parallel to the Market's blocked-off drive, bustled with its outdoor cafes and browsers in the nook shops. The vendors of brilliantly-colored chili peppers strung into foot-long edible pendants hawked their wares. Baskets
offering clothes for a dollar, five and ten, lured ladies rifling through for a deal. Where Post Alley descended in its cobblestone path beneath part of the Market, patrons waiting for performances at the comedy club tucked in the brick passageway created the fabled "gum wall" of chicle wads.

And behind it all, sparkling Elliot Bay, Puget Sound, the curve of the Alki neighborhood, and the ubiquitous ferry boats shuttling patrons to the islands. What a wonderful way to welcome June, another reminder of the exuberance of summer.