28 February 2006


This January 1st, in order to keep Coordinated Universal Time in synch with Mean Solar Time, the international atomic clocks were set forward a second, the so-called "leap second". This leap second is added every 18 months or so, but for reasons having to do with parabolas, the last one was 7 years ago, so this year's got a lot more attention than usual.

What did you do with your extra second?

Though there are people who think we could do away with leap seconds, for the most part, the worldwide change is accepted on its face, people incorporate the extra second into their lives quite easily, and go on about their business.

I've often thought that there are more things that should be done by this kind of universal consent. Not every year, which would be too often to absorb, but maybe once every four years or so, like the Olympics, we could get together on something that needs to be changed, and simply change it, as of January 1st.

I was reminded of this plan this morning as I watched a woman throw her lit cigarette down a subway grate outside of Penn Station. Nevermind that it's littering. At least she could have stomped it out first. What if there was something flammable at the bottom of the shaft under the grate? Or is it inflammable?

Flammable. Inflammable. You know they mean the same thing, right? Capable of being set on fire. Arguable and inarguable mean opposite things, as do decorous and indecorous. Decent/indecent. Digestible/indigestible. I could go on.

Inflammable just makes no sense. Plus, it would be helpful to have a word that meant incapable of being set on fire. (Capable/incapable, there's another pair.) This first universal decree would only effect the English-speaking world, so I think it would be a good test case, New Year's Day, 2007. Who's with me?

(Note to snarky anonymous posters: no need for an etymology lesson about the different meaning of the prefix in-, thanks.)

27 February 2006

Bleak Street

Last night was the final installment of the BBC version of "Bleak House"; I ran home from my choir benefit in order to catch it (note to self: get Tivo already). I know I'm an anglophile, but I think one of the main reasons I love Dickens is that the stories are always so good. Of course he's a master of character development and description, too, but really, he's always got a half dozen cracking good plots going, nearly too many to keep up with.

But it was the Bleak House atmosphere I was thinking about on Saturday, as I walked in the West Village. What Dickens would make of our social scene in New York? Would he think it much different than the 18th century London he wrote about?

The Meatpacking District is hot these days. When I worked in the West Village in the late 90s, it was dominated by, you guessed it, meatpacking warehouses. There was, and still is, a great all-night diner called Florent, a couple of darkly lit bars, and a BBQ restaurant called The Hog Pit, but otherwise, the only people on the street at night who weren't wearing blood-soaked aprons were transvestite hookers and their customers.

No more. There's a Diane von Furstenburg store going up. Chi chi Belgian restaurant follows high-end housewares purveyor follows a Stella McCartney boutique follows a La Perla lingerie shop. You get the idea. But here's the thing: not only are the streets still rough cobblestones -- don't think you're making it across W. 14th Street in your Manolos, honey -- the odor of the dead animal carcasses still hangs in the air. I guess not all of the meat businesses have been run off.

Oh, isn't it cool? Isn't it just too edgy? The identical blondes in their identical shearling hats and spray-on tans, posing on the street corner, deciding whether to have a coffee at Pastis or buy a new coffee pot at Bodum. They're not interesting, but they have the money to spend here, and dammit, they're spending it.

Contrast them to the people on the opposite corner, at the car wash. A dozen Hispanic men rush around the Mercedes just out of the wash; another team is finishing up a Porsche. A duo of African American men in work overalls stops me short as I try to pass. "Don't walk there sweetheart," one says, pointing skyward to a crane delivering its heavy payload to the building right above my head.

There's a part of me that loves the juxtaposition of grimy workers and taut socialites. If class distinctions are going to be always with us, better they be out in the open.

24 February 2006

Do I really want to do this: The Co-op Board, Part 4

This is an email I just had to send to three friends:

Hi referers,

So, the broker says that my personal reference letters aren't up to snuff (form, not content). She advises that they need to be printed on letterhead, or in the absence of letterhead, at least high-quality stock. I can get you the latter if you don't have any. ALSO, she noted that a couple of you didn't get the address exactly right, which is totally my fault. It should be:

The Board of Directors
Really Annoying Owners Corp.
At the same address, really, as the old one, but in a slightly different format
New York, NY 100--

I'm really sorry to ask you to re-do this. I'm getting pretty angry at the whole process, to be honest with you. I mean, why should a PERSONAL reference letter be on letterhead? I'm vowing to save every penny so the next place I buy will be a freestanding house, without a ferkakte co-op board.

If you can redo this, I can come pick them up from you personally, since I need to get them in asap.

Drinks, dinner, something, on me, really soon...


Overheard on 34th Street

While I was walking to the subway, there was a guy on a cellphone:

"Remember that place, the one where we almost beat up those guys?"


"They have an excellent Mexican brunch."

23 February 2006

Do I really want to do this: It's out of my hands now

A messenger just came to pick up my co-op board package and bring it to the realtor. It was, I'm not exaggerating, over an inch thick. And that's just one copy of all the required documents. By the time the managing agent gets it, it'll be seven.

I wish I'd thought to take a picture of it. I separated all the sections with alternating bright yellow and green papers (which of course were labelled as to what followed), and an orange sheet on top with my name and phone numbers. I hope they appreciate the arts and craftiness of it.

21 February 2006

At the gym

I took the day off work today, and used it to do all sorts of meaningful, virtuous things. Like grocery shopping and cleaning the refrigerator. I chopped up vegetables to use to make salads with for the rest of the week. I went to the gym.

The gym in the middle of the day is a different place from the after-work gym, or the weekend gym. People stay there for hours, for one thing, instead of the efficient 45 minutes the after-work crowd allots themselves. In the entryway were a half dozen Peg Perego strollers. I thought at first that the mothers had brought their children to the gym and put them in daycare while they worked out, but it turned out that the children's nannies had them in a tots' work-out session in the basement. One of them set off the fire alarm by opening the wrong door.

I recognized one woman from my work-at-home days; any time I was there during the week, she was too. I figured she was there a lot, since I wasn't on a regular schedule. She always did the same thing: the stairmaster. And she didn't just do the stairmaster, she did it in a very particular way, taking very small steps up. If the machine had been real steps, she would have been walking up the stairway in a dollhouse. Like so many gym-toned women, she always had a grim look on her face, taking all those small steps, never getting anywhere.

In the locker room today, she was talking to another woman, who looked like she could have been her sister, about dehydration. Step woman wanted to know if the other woman got headaches when she got dehydrated. The other woman was adamant: she never got headaches when she was dehydrated; she forced herself to drink water all day long to avoid it; when she was at home, she and her husband did nothing but drink water.

She insisted, "really, when you think about it, we're all walking around dehydrated most of the time."

I pictured the streets full of the dessicated masses, zombie-like in their pursuit of bottles of Evian.

Then the other woman asked whether the Step Woman was going to do the Stairmaster, and of course, the answer was yes.

19 February 2006

Keeping it real

My cousin, Stunt Mother's sister, is getting married in July, and I have to do something about it. I don't mean I have to stop the wedding -- after what she and her fiance have been through, it would take a thermo-nuclear event to do that. I have to do something about what I am going to look like in the family photos, which will replace the last set of family photos on my parents' fridge. That last set was taken at my younger brother's wedding a year and a half ago, and I look the same in all of them: awkward, jolly and fat.

Even the most excellent walking cannot make a person much thinner, and it does nothing for one's arms, which, at a July wedding, are sure to be bared by a sleeveless dress. (Have you noticed that even winter dresses have turned sleeveless in the last few years?) In addition to lifting weights at the gym -- don't be too impressed, I seem to be doing it once every 10 days -- I have been swimming on Saturday mornings, at a pool in a hotel near Times Square.

I am not a good swimmer. As a child, I took the requisite lessons at the Y, and passed the tests that certify that you won't drown when thrown in the deep end, and, in fact, I would never drown in calm water. I can tread water and if that gets too tiring, I can flip over and float on my back for hours.

But that's not the same things as being able to swim. When I passed those tests, I did what I have done my entire life when things are hard: I faked it. I never mastered the breathing technique you use in swimming. Breathe, face in water, breathe out underwater, head up just enough to take another breath, repeat. What I did instead was take a breath above water, hold it under water, let it out above water and take another quick breath before going under again. I faked it, and they bought it.

It was okay. I would never be on the swim team, but I could enjoy playing Marco Polo when Stunt Mother's family took me to their pool club, and in college, using a kickboard and spending a half hour chatting with a friend as you kicked up and down the lane was a perfectly acceptable form of exercise.

Somewhere in my mid 20s, the sham fell apart. I became afraid of things I'd never been entirely comfortable with, but had managed to do anyway. Swimming was not the most important of them. It took my weeks of raising my courage to make a doctor's appointment, for instance, and the interval between making the appointment and going to it was filled with constant anxiety. Now I can see that my depression probably began in those days. The effect of all that fear was that I stopped doing things that were hard or discomforting, and I didn't yet realize that there wasn't anyone who was going to notice, or if they did, who was going to make me do them anyway.

So, swimming on Saturday mornings. It's a big deal for me. I cannot put my face in the water; even dunking under the lane markers to change lanes, which takes all of 2 seconds, is impossible. I do a lap or two of butterfly stroke, then several of backstroke, use the kickboard, then begin again. I'm horrible at the butterfly stroke, but I don't have to go underwater for it. I'm good at the backstroke. It's getting easier for me to be in the water. Sometime this year I will confront going under. My arms are even starting to show vague indentations where there might someday be defined muscles.

Yesterday, when the lifeguard, a 20-year-old kid, walked over to my lane as I was approaching the end of a butterfly lap, struggling, but feeling good, like I was getting a workout, I thought he might be coming over to adjust the water hose that was rushing cold water into my lane.

"Do you know how to swim," he asked.

"What," I stopped before I reached the end.

"You're just," he made some flailing motions with his arms. "I could show you a few things."

"Don't worry," I replied, indigant, flustered. "I know how to swim. I'm not going to drown."

"I don't think you're going to drown. It's only four feet deep."

I was about to say that, no, thank you, I didn't want any lessons, I'm getting back into swimming after developing a phobia of going underwater, and I'm not up to dealing with it right now, but then why should I explain myself to this kid? Get away from me! Don't come over telling me I don't know how to swim then expect I'm going to be grateful for your help.

But instead, "no, thanks, I'm good," I said, emphatically pushing off the wall into a backstroke. He wandered back to his chair.

I know he was just trying to be nice. He's sitting there with nothing to do but watch four people move 30 yards up and back, over and over. Coaching me would add a little interest to his day.

I was afraid he was going to come back if I attempted a butterfly stroke again, so I continued to do backstroke until I couldn't anymore. I felt horrible. Maybe I should have listened to what he was going to tell me. If it was bad advice, I could have ignored it.

For someone who was never confident in her physical self as a child, any time I do something that is primarily about my body, in public, I just cannot feel any way but like that awkward kid, unable to exhale underwater, unable to throw a softball or run a mile in under 10 minutes. Having someone point that out to me as an adult means that I'm not successfully faking it anymore, and even though I no longer want to fake it, I want to do the real thing, it's still humiliating.

16 February 2006

I Hate These People: The Co-op Board, Part 3

Why, oh why, must you torture me so, managing agent of the co-op board? Why do you insist that I have my accountant review and sign my financial statement? What if I didn't have an accountant? Not everyone does, you know. There is such a thing as filing your own taxes, and even though I do have an accountant, she has nothing, do you hear me, nothing, to do with anything other than preparing my yearly tax returns. She doesn't look at my bank statements; she doesn't advise me on investments. Why does her review and signature mean anything to you other than that you've gotten me, your faithful dog, to run downtown to her office and write her check? What do you care? It's only money!

(I love my accountant, btw. She spends twice as much time with me as she needs to, because she's such a schmoozer. She'll probably do this for free, but that's not the point.)

12 February 2006


Normally I don't talk about work here, but I really need some advice. This will be a little light on details, but I hope it's not too cryptic.

I've been at my job for nearly two years. There has been a problem with one of my co-workers since before I came, and because of what his job is, it affects the whole company. Other colleagues come to me when they are frustrated by him, because in nearly every other situation, I can give them advice or fix the problem myself. I have tried, in various ways, to solve this problem, but this co-worker doesn't work for me, so he has no reason to listen to me.

I've talked to his manager. I've talked to his manager's boss, who is my boss, too (and the co-owner of the company). I've talked to them too many times to count, over the course of at least the year and a half. Those two people keep promising change, keep promising serious action if change doesn't come, but change doesn't come, and there's no accountability.

We had a big meeting about it on Friday -- during which the owner of the company who is not my boss pointed out that we've spent hours and hours discussing this problem, wasting money and time, and have never come close to solving it. I said some things that I regret. Not because they weren't true, and not because other people don't agree with me, but my boss is very loyal to the problem worker's manager, and he took it very personally. My position is that if there's a problem with a worker, it's ultimately his manager's fault if the problem isn't fixed. But my boss is not going to change his mind about the manager; this much has become very clear to me.

What I would like to be able to do is detach from the situation. I've said all I can say; the decisions are not up to me, the responsibility is not mine for the worker's failures. It's hard for me not to be engaged with my job (and this situation is taking up more and more of my time), but I'm nearly certain there is nothing I can do.

This is what I need. How do I accomplish this detachment? I need a mantra or something to start saying to myself whenever the conversation turns to this problem so that I don't get involved. Getting involved is a major part of my personality, and detachment doesn't come easily to me, but since it's so clear that the boss, manager and worker are not going to change, why should I keep banging my head against the wall?

09 February 2006

Family: Oy

I have two brothers, both married, which means, in the retro way my family works, I rarely see them without my parents, and almost never without their wives. That's okay; I like their wives. But it's not the same thing as just hanging out with your brothers, you know?

My older brother (OB) lives in Boston and travels a fair amount. He comes to NYC maybe once every 2-3 months, and on those occasions, usually sends me email suggesting we have dinner. This is always the sequence (EW is for Excellent Walker, gettit?):

OB: Coming to town on the 10th, are you around for dinner?
EW: Sure, that'd be great.
OB: We may have to invite Mom and Dad. Last time they got pissed we didn't include them up front.
EW: Then don't tell them.
OB: Maybe. But they'll find out.
EW: Not if you don't tell them. Or tell them at the last minute and they won't be able to come.

A day later, I get a call from my mother.

"Your brother is coming into town on the 10th. Are you free for dinner?"

He always caves and tells them, always.

But then, I'm not so bright, either, because I usually admit that I knew OB was coming into town, and my mother wonders why I didn't tell her. I lie and say I forgot, which she knows is a lie because I never forget anything.

And no, saying "OB and I would like to have dinner alone" or anything to that effect, doesn't feel like an option.

Maybe it's wrong that I have so little problem lying by omission to my parents. Maybe it's wrong that their feelings would truly be hurt if my brother and I went out to dinner without them. But the OB and I don't have much of a relationship anymore, since we never see each other outside of family events. A one-on-one dinner every now and again would go a long way towards fixing that. My mother often says she wants her children to have real relationships with each other.

I love my family, really, I do.

06 February 2006

Do I really want to do this: The Co-op Board, Part Two

Throughout this home-buying process, the only thing I've been worried about has been the co-op board review of my financial documents. What are they looking for? The ability to pay my bills on time? They know how much I earn in a year and what my credit score is; they know I can pay my bills. My banks have written letters telling them how much money is in my accounts; they know that I have the money for the downpayment. So why should they need to scrutinize my bank statements? Even the bank that's going to lend me close to a quarter mil isn't going to look at the details.

Here's what I think. The details are where the person starts to emerge, the person they are going to be living with. They're looking at how many ATM withdrawals I've made in a month; too many and I'm a poor planner. They're looking at what I've debited; what you buy says a lot about you. If I'd known this co-op purchase was happening so soon, I'd have stopped debiting altogether, but especially stopped the frequent burrito bowls at Chipotle and any purchases at Nancy's Wine for Foods. Will they wonder what I bought at Ricky's, and judge me on the basis of where I get my hair cut? (Devachan; they specialize in curly hair. What if they don't like curly-haired people?)

They're looking at the fact that in January, I went deep into overdraft, due to a pretty stupid clerical error I couldn't correct; they could easily reject me for that alone.

Money money money. I have more money than 5.9 of the 6 billion people alive on the earth today but to the co-op board, I'm nothing.

03 February 2006

Of course I want to do this: The Brokers

There's a phenomenon, perhaps not common only to New York, but certainly prevalent here, of needing to have The Best. From pre-schools to cheeseburgers to custom furniture renovation, New Yorkers will only choose the best, even if it means going 80 blocks and a crosstown bus out of our way, and even if there's something that's really just as good in our own neighborhood. It makes us feel good about ourselves, I guess, to know that we know top quality when we see it. How else to explain the popularity of the ubiquitous "Best of" issues that every newspaper and magazine puts out, at least once a year? We congratulate ourselves on our superior judgement.

Nowhere is this besting more noticeable than in relation to the medical profession. If a person has quadruple bypass surgery and lives, his cardiac surgeon is thenceforth the best, and if that person ever hears of someone else needing heart surgery, you can be sure that he'll say, "Dr. Rosenrosen is the best cardiac surgeon in the country; you can't go to anyone else."

When really, it's just that he survived the surgery to tell the tale. That doesn't make Dr. Rosenrosen the best, even if there is a certain way of determining such a thing.

But let me tell you, my brokers are the best.

First there was Judy, the real estate broker. I met her last fall at a sparsely attended open house, and since she had nothing better to do, she explained the co-op buying process to me, clearly and specifically. A month or so later, she was featured in the New York Times for taking in a client and his family when they were between apartments, which just confirmed what I'd already been thinking: when I'm ready to buy, she'll be the one I go to. (Plus, her late husband was David Maysles, director of, among many other films, Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. How cool is that?)

But Patti, the seller's broker, was the one handling the apartment already, before I'd even contacted Judy. I didn't feel comfortable even contemplating making an offer without professional guidance, but would Patti feel resentful at being done out of half her commission, as she would if Judy came in on the deal?

Judy came with me and my parents to look at the apartment the second time I looked at it, then gave us advice for an hour and a half at the Starbucks down the street. The next day, when I was ready to put in my offer, she told me what I needed to include, looked it over, then told me I'd probably fare better with Patti if she were out of the picture. An honest broker! One who is looking out for my interests! If you are considering buying real estate in Manhattan, please go to her.

Then there's my mortgage broker, Paul, who does not have the interesting life story that Judy does -- at least, he hasn't shared it with me if he does -- but is direct and funny; a real mensch. I haven't gotten the mortgage yet, but I know that when I do, it will be The Best.

01 February 2006

Do I really want to do this: The Banks

I need three financial letters, verifying account information:

I call ING customer service and immediately get a nice woman named Paula in Minnesota; my letter should be coming in 24-48 hours.

I call Fidelity. They give me the fax number of their verification department to send my information to.

I call Citibank. After spending six minutes trying to get through to an operator, I finally get a man named Sujin, who is in another country, probably India by the sound of his accent. Sujin has no idea what I'm talking about, and puts me on hold while he researches my request. He comes back three times to say, "it will take an additional minute or two; can I place you on hold for an additional minute or two?"

After 15 minutes, Sujin's research has led him to believe that Citibank can in fact send me this letter. But he puts me on hold again to research whether he can fax the form to me, as I requested. He comes back to tell me he can -- hallelujah! -- and it will cost me $12. The entire transaction lasted 22 minutes.

I am so switching banks when all this is over.

Let's recap, for those who haven't been keeping up with the global economy: Corporations save money by outsourcing their customer service, but other corporations are losing it because their employees have to wait on hold with inexperienced overseas customer service reps while they should be working. Even with years of experience, there is no way someone living in India can be expected to know what an American expects of an interaction like this. We may both be speaking English, but we're not speaking the same language.

Plus, for a lot of Americans, these customer service calls are the only dealings they have with non-Americans (and vice versa for those in other countries). What kind of impression must Sujin have of Americans after I got increasingly frustrated with him? It's not his fault my request wasn't in his training manual. But the bank has my money to do with pretty much whatever they like, in the five days it takes to clear a check. Why shouldn't I get excellent service for that?

We may be exporting jobs, but by frustrating their customers, American companies are hardly exporting a lot of goodwill, that's for sure. Is it any wonder people hate us? Good system.