Monday, December 17, 2007

Delusions of Grandeur

Yesterday afternoon, a dozen or so of HOBB's graduate students traipsed through the Urban Bungalow for a holiday brunch. What struck me instantly was their sincerity...and youth. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they were not much older than our oldest son, 23-year-old Big Babe, now living the life of the expatriate American writer-at-large in Berlin.

The presence of so many young adults who technically could have been my children made me feel a bit like The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. The presence of Little Babe, Middle Babe and Alfie the Pomeranian completed the domestic tableau.

Then again, in my high black boots, black tights and black and purple dress, I felt more like the Bungalow Babe Who Lived in a Platform Shoe and the tableau was more punk than pastoral.

After the students had all cleared out, I fell into conversation with one of HOBB's colleagues. A former editor of a community newspaper, her part-time position at the university was her only current means of employment. She had three small children whom she was devoted to raising, nevertheless, her minimalistic working status gave her "an inferiority complex" around her colleagues at the school, she confessed, many of whom were high-powered, high-profile, high-achieving journalists.

While I was inclined to protest the very notion that she should suffer from intimations of inferiority, as a forty-something who has been waiting for her "real" life to begin for, oh, the past twenty-something years, I knew exactly what she meant. For a variety of reasons -- some very different from hers (I've been horribly over-employed for much of my adult life, for instance), others similar (I am often in the company of well-known, successful writers) -- I, too, have had a complex about my personal achievements.

And I insist on the legitimacy of my feelings. After all, though I've worked hard most of my adult life and kept our family solvent and even been reasonably successful in my chosen field, what I've really wanted is something quite different: reams of articles, stories, a bestselling book or two, a writer's life, a writer's legacy.

And though I am prone to falling into the gloom of under-achievement, I still believe that my life can change course any second now.

We talked for a while, this mother/journalist and I, trading details of our lives. She described herself as coming late to journalism, to marriage, to motherhood. My trajectory was completely opposite, I said. I did everything early. Married at 22, I became a mother at 23 and freelanced my way as a journalist until it became clear that I needed to get a full-time job or my children would go naked and starve.

I changed professional course when I was 32, opting for full-time work outside of journalism.

Because of financial constraints, I didn't have the opportunity to pursue my writing, I said.

No, she corrected me. You did. But you chose something else at that stage of your life.

Her honesty took me by surprise. I resisted the idea, then considered it and finally embraced it. She was correct. I decided to pursue another means of income for a variety of well-considered reasons.

Anyway, there we were on a frigid and overcast Sunday afternoon in mid-December: two writers with six children between us, confessing our feelings of inadequacy. Physically, we could not have been more opposite; one of us is small with long blond hair, the other tall with short dark hair. One of us feels under-employed, the other over-employed. One of us is raising small tykes, the other has two children who are no longer minors and another on the verge of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I don't know her age exactly but I doubt there is a decade between us.

I look at this woman and see an enviable, balanced life -- marriage, children, a part-time job at an Ivy League institution, an apartment in the greatest city in the world. And I cannot guess how I appear to her but know that similar elements are also present in my life.

And while I will happily accept praise for any of my achievements -- including my ability to pair high black boots with a purple and black summer dress -- I retain the right to hold onto my sense of sadness in the face of unfulfilled personal ambitions because it is this very sorrow that has the power to propel me forward.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

All I Want For Chanuka...Is For New York To Be Just Like Zabar's

To see me on the street, you'd never guess that inside this Bungalow Babelicious bod resides a grumpy old lady. Lately, however, everything in this town has been getting on my nerves...leading me to upgrade one of my favorite part-time activities -- kvetching -- to full-time status.
As I've blogged recently, the inconsiderate locker room behavior of my fellow Upper West Siders has been a source of irritation, then again, it hardly compares to the menacing, loud and potentially lethal threat posed daily by NYC teens on our city's subways.
A recent video has been making the rounds, showing a group of loud and obnoxious black girls verbally and then physically harassing a white guy on the A train. The video's posted on one of my fave sites -- Gawker ( -- where the reader feedback is heated. An article about it occupies an entire page of today's New York Daily News.
While the veracity of the video is being questioned, it sure has touched a nerve among its viewers. To read Gawker's readers' comments is to discover a fellowship of urbanites who are all-too-familiar with the incidence of menacing teens in this town, especially on the subway. The racial component is either irrelevant or highly relevant, I cannot decide. reaction to outta-control teens who hold entire subways cars hostage to their thuggery (during daylight hours, at least) is annoyance, not fear. Frankly, I want them to shut the $%&* up, get off my train, stop terrorizing little kids and old people and everyone in between and learn some basic respect for humanity. I want them to stop ruining the quality of life in this town. I want them to get the message that their behavior is unacceptable...and has repercussions.
This is such a ubiquitous problem that I am astonished that Mayor Bloomberg hasn't devoted himself to the task of cleaning up our subways -- coming down hard on the offenders, dispatching SWAT teams, if necessary to patrol the subways and start handing out summonses for offensive behavior. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that there is no disincentive for these vilde chayahs to continue their wilding. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that New York's Finest are busy putting tickets on improperly parked vehicles during the very hours they should be maintaining a watch on our subway system.
No one, it seems, is minding the store.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Yesterday, while hurling myself against the windy gusts that were sweeping up Broadway, I was hit in the legs by flying debris. An entire stretch of Upper West Side sidewalk, from 82nd to 83rd Street was covered with fallen leaves, papers, crinkly cellophane and empty plastic bags.
It used to just be midtown, but Manhattan's mess is now spreading upward. I don't know who to blame for this...the a$$&*!es who throw their trash on the ground despite the fact that there is a garbage can on every single city block, the store owners who are too busy raking in the holiday bucks or the city's sanitation and maintenance workers.
All I know is that it's making me kvetchier and kvetchier, putting me deeper and deeper into an I Hate New York state of mind.
And speaking of is my final kvetch of the day, though it has nothing to do with New York City, per se. I am bloody SICK of hearing Christmas music in almost every single store I go into, a public plague that kicks in the day after Thanksgiving and infects the entire nation.
I am tired of the fascistic imposition of a regime of over-played melodies and songs conveying false cheer and relating to a holiday that not all of us celebrate, a holiday that itself has been hijacked by the spirit of consumerism. What is especially annoying is the juxtaposition between the upbeat holiday songs and the often-surly behavior of the store clerks. For an especially unpleasant shopping experience, I highly recommend The Gap on W86th Street and Broadway, a poorly-managed emporium where the clerks are either mentally-impaired or winners of the World's Most Hostile Store Employees contest... or both.
The faux holiday spirit is a problem with America, however, and the entire nation would do well to see the brilliant Reverend Billy documentary -- What Would Jesus Buy? -- which I blogged about last week. Watching WWJB?...and actually meeting Rev. Billy last week at a live performance with the choir of his Church of Stop Shopping at a club in Chelsea... I was reassured that my grumpy reaction to the pervasive Christmas spirit in stores was not, alas, anti-Christian.
I was also heartened to hear my Christmas-related kvetchiness affirmed by Big Babe, who has been visiting from Berlin this past month. Returning home two nights ago for Chanuka candlelighting, having been dispatched by me to do food shopping, Big Babe stated that the ubiquitous public Christmas soundtrack was really getting on his nerves.
The one Upper West Side store that was refreshingly Christmas Music-free, he reported, was Zabar's.
Which made me realize that the last bastion of hope on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, nay, the entire island of Manhattan, is Zabar's.
In addition to its unparalleled stock of foodstuffs and kitchen supplies and refreshingly Christmas music-free ambiance, there are no out-of-control teens patrolling the store, terrorizing the customers. The sidewalk in front of the store is always clean. Best of all, however, the same women who leave their wet towels in the steam room at the JCC (which Zabar's supports, incidentally), yap loudly on their cellphones and let their little kids run amok or sing their heads off in the locker room of that venerable establishment are on their very best behavior within the haven of the store that Saul built.
In a city where no one is minding the store, I nominate Saul Zabar, the city's best storeowner, for the position of Mayor of New York City. I also nominate myself to be his campaign manager, a position I am free to take now that it is clear that Stephen Colbert is not running for Prez and therefore does not need my services. I am confident of victory, as we will be running on a Quality of Life platform.
All I want for Chanuka is for New York to be just like Zabar's.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Mini Maria Callas Invades JCC Locker Room; Holds Innocent Women Hostage

It was cute for about three minutes.

While stepping out of the steam room at the locker room of The JCC in Manhattan, a tiny, tinny voice singing faux arias reached my ears. Walking to my locker, the sound grew stronger and soon I passed a dark-haired little girl singing to herself while her mother sat quietly beaming by her side, helping her get dressed.

At first I smiled. It was sweet, this screechy, off-key voice in baby falsetto. Opening my locker, I was therefore surprised to see women around me rolling their eyes, pursing their lips and even setting their teeth with displeasure. Wow...what a bunch of misanthropes, I thought, retrieving my knapsack from the locker. Ladeez, I wanted to say to them as I applied my body lotion, don't you feel recalled to your own childhood at the sound of this innocent child chortling to herself, oblivious of her surroundings? How could you begrudge a little girl her self-expression?

Within another five minutes or so, I found myself joining my sisters in sourness. The voice of the little girl swooped and soared with fake fealty with nary a peep from the mother to the effect that her little darling might want to keep her voice down as they were in a public place. As I hooked my bra, the screeching soprano bounced off the metal walls of the lockers in a manner reminiscent of fingernails on the blackboard. A woman next to me actually placed her hands over her ears, grimacing. I nodded in sympathy, furrowing my own brow in annoyance as I spritzed on perfume. Struggling into my pantyhose, I thought I discerned vibes of pride radiating from the silent, doting mother as she presented her little vocal prodigy to the public of the JCC's locker room.

If you want a laboratory of life on the Upper West Side, you might do well to spend a day inside the women's locker room at The JCC in Manhattan. I love this place and often plan my professional appointments around making it to my beloved 5th Floor gym (not to mention the numerous cultural programs at the facility) but after several years spent hanging out there, listening to conversations and observing behavior and interactions, I feel ready to deliver some jeremiads to my fellow Upper West Siders.

The theme of this series of sermons is Self-Absorbed Lack of Consideration.

Sermon number one would be directed to the preteen girls on the swim team who talk at ear-splitting decibel levels and generally leave their sopping towels on the floor, obviously awaiting the ministrations of the cleaning staff.

Sermon number two would be directed to moms of babies and young children who tend to occupy miles of locker room space with their paraphernalia, seemingly oblivious to the needs of anyone else.

Sermon number three would be directed to these moms and caretakers who do not seem to notice their kids running amok, popping in and out of lockers and flipping open the curtains of the supposedly private section of the space.

Sermon number four would be directed to the girls and women who hold forth on their cellphones as if they were in the comfort -- and privacy -- of their own homes, revealing details about their lives you never wanted to know.

Sermon number five would be directed to the girls and women who feel moved to leave disgusting personal items in the shower stalls and damp towels in the steam room.

And finally, my last sermon would be directed to the mother of the mini Maria Callas and all of her sisters in crime. The central message of this missive is as follows:

Your kid's singing is cute for about three minutes and we will smile in friendly acknowledgment of their innocence, charm and precocity.

After about three minutes, however, we start to entertain severe doubts about your intelligence and maternal fitness and self-esteem. It will become clear to us that you are actually getting off on the exposure your extraordinary offspring is getting by screeching to a captive audience that is trying to simply get dressed in peace. And because you remain so oblivious to the fact that the locker room is, indeed, a public space, we will fantasize about sending you and your singing darling "straight to the moon, Alice!" as Ralph Kramden so memorably and poetically put it.

Monday, December 03, 2007

God and the Exploding Zamboni

Little Babe is in seventh grade at a Jewish day school that has four classes per grade, which means that, as of last winter, his weekends have been consumed with the Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of his one-hundred or so classmates.

No matter where HOBB and I go on the weekend, we need to arrange driving and carpooling, as a great many of these events take place outside of Manhattan. So, last night, following the conclusion of the trippy and hard-to-follow Bob Dylan-inspired flick I'm Not There, we drove up to Dobbs Ferry to retrieve Little Babe and some Upper West Side kids from a partay at a club on the banks of the Hudson.

Because of the freezing temps and the morning snow, however, we found ourselves in one of those Holy Freaking Mother of God!! kinda skid-spins while pulling off 87 in Ardsley.

And once we stopped shaking and shouting and saying Shema and realized we had not been hit by oncoming traffic after all (though dozens of cars drove past us with drivers shouting and swearing and giving us the finger), we drove like geriatrics the rest of the journey, esp with Little Babe and his friends in the Bungalow-Van.

With each passing year, as I identify yet another fear I harbor, I become more firmly of the opinion that phobias have gotten a bad rap. While they are presented as some kind of pathological state of mind, what could be more rational than fear of a harmful object or substance?

Googling "fear of ice" earlier today, I found out that, indeed, there is a phobia named in its honor -- namely, pagophobia. However, I beg to differ with the classification of this fear as a phobia. Fear of ice is not a sign of mental illness but intelligence. People actually die from encounters with ice. In their vehicles or on their own two feet.

I am still traumatized by Dr. Atkins's death which resulted from a fall he suffered while slipping on the notorious "black ice," that in turn resulted from snow that fell, freakishly, in New York several Aprils ago. In fact, the word "black" coupled with "ice" sends shivers up my spine. No pun intended.

Many years ago, when we lived at the American Museum of Natural History, Little Babe developed a fear of Black Holes. Late at night, he used to call me into his darkened bedroom to express his fear of getting sucked into one and having his atoms crushed. Though I did the motherly thing of calming him down by reassuring him that he was in no danger of encountering a Black Hole anytime soon, I completely related. My fear of Black Ice is pretty similar. I am afraid of slipping on it and having all my bones crushed.

Which brings me to the ridiculous concept of Ice Skating.

Skidding on ice is a terrifying occurrence that I try to avoid during winter time. Indeed, since first observing it in my early childhood, I have failed to understand how this prelude to broken bones actually became a sport. And an Olympic sport, no less.

Yes, yes... I can understand that in the time of Hans Christian Andersen, in a place as freezing and backwards as Copenhagen, skating down frozen boulevards made sense. However, with the advent of the modern taxicab, bus, subway and car, there is no excuse for risking one's life in this manner. In fact, I think it's time to proclaim people who pursue figure skating professionally as judgment-impaired -- nay... stupid -- a view confirmed by the film Blades of Glory.

Skating parties were one of the banes of my bane-filled childhood. The skating rink was either populated by show-off skinny girls in Olympics-style skating dresses or maniacs bent on knocking you down on your butt. The music in the rink was always tinny and demonic; indoors, there was a damp, foot-scented ambiance that was only slightly mitigated by the promise of hot chocolate. The hot chocolate served by the emporia in question, however, was inevitably the rip-off version of Swiss Miss, manufactured by Pathmark supermarket.

Though I was an accomplished swimmer, cyclist and tree-climber, I was utterly unable to balance on the invariably too-tight skates that bound my ankles painfully and subjected my feet to frostbite while exposing the rest of my body to uncomfortably cold temperatures.

Fortunately, none of The Three Babes developed a fondness for skating and I can count on the toes of one, still-frostbitten foot the amounts of times I have taken my offspring to a skating rink over the two-plus decades of my mothering.

Anyway, two news stories today affirm the wisdom of my unpopular anti-skating point of view:
  • A report of a girl who drowned trying to save a dog who had ventured out onto a pond covered with a film of thin ice and,
  • A CNN report of an exploding Zamboni at a skating rink in Philadelphia
And while the death of the girl who ventured out onto ice is sheer tragedy, the Zamboni story signifies something quite different, I believe.

While there's an element in this story that hearkens to the science fiction theme of "our machines are turning against us," I discern the hand of God in the exploding Zamboni.

Obviously, the technological advancements of the 21st century have done nothing to dissuade human beings from voluntarily subjecting themselves to the dangers of ice. This failure has made God completely meshuggah with despair. Out of this sense of cosmic desperation He/She has now concocted a new and dramatic warning sign perfectly in sync with the early 21st zeitgeist, that is to say, something explosive.

I predict, however, that wily psychologists are already hard at work coming up with a snazzy-sounding phobia to signify the "irrational" fear of exploding Zamboni machines, thus training us away from our innate, natural -- and potentially lifesaving -- fear of ice.