Friday, August 17, 2012

clarification: Brighton Beach & the Russian community

To my readers in Russia: I wanted to clarify what I wrote about my experience living in the Brighton Beach community, which is heavily Russian. I had a lot of hopes when I moved there. Apart from having found a beautiful apartment and being so close to the Boardwalk, I was hoping to make friends in the community, learn a little something about the culture and customs, and even learn a bit of Russian. My intentions were all the best. I was deeply disappointed by the hostility and unfriendliness I found there. The only person who was at all nice was one woman who sold pastries at a particular store: she was always smiling and pleasant to my husband and me. No one else treated us nicely or even politely. My feeling is that the community is very insular and although very interested in their opportunities in the US, were not particularly interested in mixing with Americans, at least not in their community. I did not mean to imply that Russians as a whole are not likeable or pleasant. It was just that we were unwelcome in a community that was almost entirely Russian.

And if someone would like to leave a comment and let me know why so many people in Russia are reading this blog, I'd be really interested to know.

I went to Rifftrax Live last night, and it was truly enjoyable. Then I got home and Barry was back from his trip; he and three other counselors took seven men from the residence to Baltimore and DC for four days. So I didn't see him for five days (Sunday was a travel day), and we missed each other a lot.

We now have tickets to see Raghu Dixit in New York on September 3. I'm excited, and got a nice tweet back from him when I said I had my tickets and was looking forward to it.

It's Quiet Time at work, the calm before the storm. Next week I'm interviewing for a second fall intern (Caitlin is staying on), and after Labor Day (September 3), everyone comes back. Classes start on the 10th. This is one of the couple of truly dead weeks in the year, when I can kick back just a little.

I have started seriously lusting after a Smartphone, and am going to try to make that happen soon.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

once again, the insomniac ramble

First off, I'm not really an insomniac. I have two problems regarding sleep. One is that I have sleep disturbances, meaning I wake up in the middle of the night, often multiple times. This became an issue at some point before I began being treated for depression. I started taking medication for depression in early 1997, and when the sleep disturbances continued for another year, the psychiatrist gave me a medication to help with that.

I take something called trazodone, which is an antidepressant with the beneficial side effect of helping with sleep. I take it an hour before I go to bed (this is not my main antidepressant, which I take in the morning). It doesn't do much in the way of making me tired, but it permits me to sleep through the night when I do go to sleep.

The second problem is a little more recent. Often when I try to go to sleep, I start obsessing about all kinds of things, and then I can't fall asleep. The medical assist for this is an anti-anxiety medication called lorazepam. (This one also helps with the occasional anxiety attack or mood dip.) Sometimes I neglect to take it, and that's when it's time for the insomniac ramble. I get up, take the lorazepam, and do a little writing.

The most common obsession - and this is the one that got me tonight - was the break in my friendship with V. I've mentioned V. here, but it's very little compared to the amount of space he continues to occupy in my head. And it's because there are certain confidences that need to be kept. It's important that he not be recognized here, and there are some things about him and about the way we were connected that are so singular and peculiar that they cannot be concealed by a fake name. ("V" actually stands for "Valdemort," which is how Jannah and I occasionally refer to him.)

For those of you joining us late - I think I can say this much: V. is a musician I started listening to when I was 14 and met when I was 18. We spent very little time together when we met, but we had a connection that stayed very special, and although we saw each other very little for many years, I always felt connected and had a sense that he was someone very special. I can't really speak for how he felt but I think it's safe to say that he remembered me fondly.

We started to reconnect in the early 90s, and became very good friends. I met and became friends with his wife and kids, visited with them around once a week and spent hours and hours talking with V.

Toward the end, his considerable charm wore off, and I realized how extremely self-involved he was, and mostly interested in what other people could do for him. Textbook narcissism. Our friendship revolved around his interests, which were many and diverse and very enjoyable for me. But I was not permitted to bring anything to the table; he didn't want to participate in anyone else's preferences or ideas. I was more of a loyal subject than a friend.

I'll tell a story about how he treated someone else, who I'll call Jack. V. and I met Jack through the newsgroup, and Jack did a lot of things for V. Jack got him gigs, ran interference for a reunion with V.'s former (and difficult) musical partner, and he and his girlfriend hosted rehearsals and parties and jam sessions for V. He let V. and other musicians stay at his home (about 200 miles from NYC).

When Jack and his girlfriend decided to get married, Barry and I were invited, as were V. and Mrs. V., and some other people we had met online. When I asked V. if he was going, he said, "Why should I go?" I was kind of startled and actually had to say that Jack considered him a friend and it was an honor to be invited. He did end up going, but I realized later that his real question was, "What's in it for me?"

The final break was when he blew off an event centered around me, when I had said flat-out, "It's very important to me for you to be there." Two days later, I told him over the phone, "Any time I have anything to do with you, I end up feeling hurt and disappointed," and said I wanted nothing more to do with him.

It's almost four years now. My therapist says that it's not unusual not to be over it yet, which makes me feel a little better. I'm still angry and still bereaved. I don't know if he's stayed out of touch out of respect or because he forgot me five minutes later, and either way is fine by me. It's not fixable. But I do miss what I perceived as friendship; and even if he didn't see it that way, I have to say that we some really great times together. For many years, I enjoyed being with him and doing things with him more than just about anything else. I was intensely focused on him, and we spent a lot of time together.

I still don't like that I can't keep him out of my head as much as I would like. I don't like that it can still render me sleepless. (And I fucking hate it when Facebook suggests that I "friend" him, which happens every so often because we have friends in common.)

Don't know whether or not it was helpful for me to obsess here rather than in bed, but I'll try bed again and see if perhaps I've discharged enough bad energy to permit me to sleep.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

bad jobs: the one that got away

I went to an employment agency and was sent to interview for a job as assistant to an architect. He had been a friend of the employment agent's late husband, as I recall. I had a first interview with someone other than the boss - maybe the assistant who was leaving or an office manager or HR person. She indicated that the boss was very particular and not easy to work for. The salary was what I used to call "combat pay": a high wage in line with the difficulty of the boss. But I was up for it.

Then I interviewed with the boss, who was not exactly warm and fuzzy, and he was very clear about what he required and the performance he expected. It went well; I was offered the job, told the salary, and a start date was agreed upon.

About a week later, the employment agent called me, practically in tears. It seemed that someone the architect had wanted to hire in the past stopped by to see him, and he hired her instead.

This is why, even with the nicest employers, I ask for a hire letter when the job is offered. If I had had a hire letter from the architect, I surely would have sued him. I was particularly upset about the potential job-hunting time I lost because I thought I was starting a job in a couple of weeks.

And speaking of combat pay...I had a first interview for a combat-pay job, working for a famously difficult publisher. I never got to meet the publisher. The HR woman deemed me "too nice" to work for her.

I should mention that I worked for many years at NYU, back in the days when university pay was way lower than private-industry pay. (This is no longer the case - university pay and bennies are now better than many jobs in the private sector.) So when I left NYU, I was interested in a substantially higher salary than I'd earned there. (Ironically, the salary I was earning when I left NYU in 1998 is $5K less than I'm earning now.) This is why I had the many flirtations with corporate-type jobs, like the family-office thing. I wanted more money. Silly me. I am breathlessly happy these days with less money and a great work environment.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

return of the insomniac ramble

A friend emailed me this joke today:

An Arab Muslim enters a taxi cab in Dallas, Texas, and once he's seated he asks the cab driver to “turn off the radio because he must not hear music as decreed by his religion, and in the time of the prophet, there was no music, especially Western music, which is music of the infidel's and certainly no radio.”                So the cab driver politely switches off the radio, pulls over to the side, stops the cab and opens the back door.               The Arab asks him: “What are you doing, man?”               The Texan answers: “In the time of the prophet there were no taxis. So get out, stand on the curb and wait for a camel.”              

I I maybe overly liberal? I found it offensive. I guess I'm a little sensitive about Muslim jokes, especially since American prejudice against them has been huge and quasi-acceptable since 9/11. It's one of those things that makes me uncomfortable about being American at times. I've probably mentioned this before, but Shah Rukh Khan, the very famous Indian movie star, gets detained by Homeland Security almost every time he comes to the US. It is estimated that half of the people on the planet know who he is. Moreover, he's pretty much totally apolitical. (It's kind of like the way African-Americans talk about the police pulling them over for "driving while black," except for Shah Rukh, it's "flying while Muslim.") This has happened twice in the nine months since I've been following Indian film.

I have a few on-line correspondents who are Muslim, and encounter a lot of Muslims in New York City. I try my best to be respectful, as I do with people of all faiths. (Every year on Thanksgiving, Barry and I take a 4-hour round-trip drive with Dad's sister-in-law and her roommate, who are nuns. We refrain from cursing and from topics that might be offensive. Apart from the fact that I love them, I am conscious of not wanting to offend them.) 

There are fanatics and hostile fundamentalists in every religious group, even my own. Plenty of homegrown American fundamentalists who would like to interfere with the rights of everyone because they believe their religion tells them to. There are bad fringe groups everywhere. But just as the religious right is a small contingent of Christians, so the 9/11 hijackers were part of a Muslim fringe. There are hostile and dangerous people all over. But it's not most of us.

I don't think 9/11 should be considered carte blanche for Americans to discriminate against all Muslims, to paint them all as terrorists. Faith is faith; crazy is crazy.

The friend who sent the joke is on Facebook but not Twitter, so I posted a series of tweets about this tonight. During that sequence of half a dozen tweets, the very funny comedian Jim Norton tweeted something which basically said it was OK for comedians to make fun of Muslims. Some coincidence, huh? (He doesn't follow me, so his tweet was totally unrelated to mine.)

So this got me to thinking about the comedy angle. I love comedy, and enjoy Norton, who can be pretty outrageous. But recently, I was re-watching a Comedy Central "roast," where comedians basically make fun of the guest of honor and of each other. I found myself a little bothered that almost all of them were joking about the others being gay. (Example: "Jon Lovitz is the most famous Jew in a closet since Anne Frank.") There were also the usual fat jokes (Jeff Garlin was targeted), age jokes (Cloris Leachman got those), ugly jokes (Jeff Ross and Gilbert Gottfried), etc. But those people were actually fat, old, and ugly. So those jokes were certainly mean, but didn't strike me as prejudiced. But when a heterosexual person is being called "gay" as an insult, it seems very different to me. It certainly implies that being gay is a bad thing to be, and seemed to be a more popular insult that the ones that had some basis in fact. Making a fat joke about a fat person is mean; pretending someone is gay as an insult is prejudiced. So say I. Or at least, those jokes bothered me.

And boy, it's not that I don't have a sense of humor or dislike extreme comedy. The first time I ever saw Jim Norton, Jannah and I happened across him on TV, and laughed our asses off because he is so filthy and so over-the-top. 

Louis CK, who is my absolute favorite current stand-up, did a little impression of a very flamboyant gay man - described him wearing little tight shorts, a scarf around his neck, and yodeling "Yoo hoo!" Then he said, "I don't laugh because that guy's gay. I laugh because he's funny." And I get that. Some gay guys act like that, and sometimes it's very funny.

Sidebar: I once took a speaking commitment at an AA meeting that was nicknamed "The Follies" because so many drag queens went there. After I qualified (= giving my history before, during, and after drinking), a man in drag raised his hand, and said, "I identify with everything you said! Well, except for the part about getting pregnant. I tried, but I guess I always got it...ass-backwards!" Everyone laughed. Not because he was a drag queen, but because he was funny.

Louis CK does a lot of observational humor and tells stories drawn from his life and kicks around ideas, but none of it's, "An Arab guy sat next to me on the subway, and I was nervous, because he could be carrying a bomb and planning to blow us all up..." etc. I don't think I've ever heard him say anything prejudiced, and he's also quite edgy and outrageous.

What I'm saying is, it's very possible to be extremely funny without using religious or ethnic slurs. "Arab" or "Muslim" should not be a code word for "backward but dangerous" or "stupid and weird" or whatever. 

Living in a fairly cosmopolitan and heavily Jewish city, I've rarely encountered prejudice against me as a Jew. (Having said that, a lot of people here dislike Orthodox Jews because they're clannish and keep to themselves, and many of their customs are outside the American norm.) But once, in my bottlecap-collecting days, I was at the convention in Pennsylvania, having lunch with V. and a man from Vermont whom I liked very much. I was talking about a soda cap I'd bought, from the '40s, that said "Kosher for Passover" in "Jewish writing" (which was my way of explaining Yiddish written in Hebrew characters). The Vermont guy said, "Hey, you wanna see some Jewish writing?" Then he took a napkin and drew a big dollar sign on it. I was horrified. I didn't say anything, and neither did V. (who was raised Catholic, mostly practices Buddhism, and is married to a Jewish woman). But I never felt the same affection for the Vermont guy again (although I always did drink the bottle of Moxie he brought every year). It was really horrifying and shocking, whether he knew I was Jewish or not (although my married name is obviously Jewish, my maiden name was odd and not particularly identifiable; I can't remember if this was before or after I was married). Just as bad either way, as far as I'm concerned.

The only other incident that ever came close was in New York; a classmate had invited me to a party that was way out of my league, a lot of very rich blueblooded folk (since maybe this isn't the right time to say "WASPs") in an honest-to-God Park Avenue penthouse. An older woman asked my first name, then my last, and then asked me what kind of name that was. I didn't realize I was being baited - my peculiar last name was certainly not old-school American. Plus, I was a little loose on champagne, so I said, quite cheerily, "It's Latvian. I'm Latvian on my father's side, and Austrian on my mother's - basically, eastern and middle-European Jewish." Her reply, dripping with sarcasm, was, "Isn't that interesting?" And she walked away. It really didn't hit me until a little later just what had happened there. Later, drunker, I was pretty angry, and responded in a fairly typical drunk-days fashion: it was actually her apartment where my friend was throwing the party, and I ended up stealing a couple of things from the bathroom, some expensive perfume and I don't remember what else, maybe a trinket of some sort. It's not the way I would behave today, but it was a pretty classic alcoholic response.

It's hard to confront people who offend me in that way, especially someone like the Vermont guy, who clearly didn't have a clue that he had made an offensive joke. I certainly wasn't going to convince the Park Avenue woman that Jews were like anyone else. And I don't know what the hell to say to the guy who sent that joke, although it's clearly caused me to do a bunch of venting.

So what do I do about the guy who sent the joke? I know that his intention was to be funny, not to be offensive. I've known him for years as a sweet, easygoing guy; he was at my wedding and I was at his. Do I get all stiff and say, "That joke is offensive to me!", maybe with a little lecture about the Brotherhood of Man? Do I snub him forever without explaining? Do I continue to be his friend, knowing that he is (possibly unknowingly) prejudiced? Do I simply put it aside and move on?

I have a very dear friend who is violently pro-Israel and anti-Muslim. She used to email me all kind of shit about how all Muslims want to convert or kill the entire world, etc. I made it clear that I thought that was true of some fringe elements but not Muslims in general; and also, that I didn't think every Jew and every Israeli was always right and always a better person than a non-Jew or non-Israeli. I believe I once said that I'd prefer a Muslim vice-president to Joe Lieberman (a dangerously conservative senator who ran with Al Gore). She was horrified. But we talked about it. What it came to was that she stopped sending me or spouting anti-Muslim screeds, and I stopped lecturing her on why she shouldn't shop at Walmart. (Don't get me started on Walmart. Those stores not only shit on their employees, they shit on every community they move into, and on many, many American manufacturers. Fuck their low prices.) So we reached a friendly detente and move ahead with our friendship.Maybe it was easier because we had an ongoing dialogue about those topics, and finally agreed to disagree. Is it wrong to be friends with someone who's prejudiced, even if I don't share or promote or approve of her prejudice?

Of course, I am the daughter of a hopeless liberal. My mother was so overly liberal that whenever she mentioned a black person, she always made a point of saying how handsome or beautiful they were, even if they weren't. I am fairly certain that her parents always described black people as ugly. I remember once, very vividly (although I couldn't have been older than eight or nine), watching Ed Sullivan at my grandparents' home, and Melba Moore was performing. My grandfather said, "That's the cutest little colored trick I've ever seen." No one said anything, but I'm sure my mother was hugely offended. I knew that "colored" was not a polite way to refer to a black person (this was in era when "Negro" was still used a lot, but was quickly giving way to "black" - which, by the way, I'm never sure whether to capitalize or not). But I had been taught never to criticize or correct my grandfather. When I was older, and realized what he meant by "trick," I was doubly offended.

I'm not blindly liberal like my mother; I knew full well that the black kid who sometimes came over after school was a really nice kid, but he was definitely not handsome. (The only guy I was ever involved with from my high school was also black, and he was handsome, big-time.) I certainly don't walk around saying that all Muslims are wonderful or make a point of trying to befriend every Arabic person or Muslim I meet.

I will admit freely that I dislike the Russians who live in Brighton Beach. We lived there for seven months, and every single person I encountered was rude or unfriendly. We would actually stand at a store counter and the clerk would help every single Russian person before even acknowledging us. They were terribly clannish and not at all interested in participating in any culture other than their own. It wasn't a threatening place to live, but it sure wasn't comfortable or welcoming. And yet - my new primary doctor is a Russian in Brighton. And I adore him.So there goes that. I know there must be a lot of other newish Russian immigrants like him, but I just never met them on Brighton Beach Avenue.

Maybe I'm sleepy now. I'm certainly ranted enough.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

bad jobs: the family office

This job was at a firm, about 20 people, who did nothing but manage the wealth of a very rich family. The grandfather had made a killing in retail (sold his share of the business and wound up with piles of cash), and the money was in something like 200 trusts and accounts. I worked for the big guy.

I can tell you that any time I worked as an Executive Assistant, or for a C-level individual (CEO, CFO etc), or for a president or vice-president, it never worked out well. I'm not a corporate type; me and corporate don't go.

And this family office was very corporate, even though I suppose a family office wouldn't have to be. But the boss was a corporate dude; he was a business guy, which is probably why he was running the whole shebang. He had actually worked in the Carter administration, in an economic position - a high one. He was probably the WASPiest Jew I ever met.

But mostly, I wasn't involved with the money. The boss served on numerous boards of directors, had a foundation, and owned five homes. He was also invested in a few companies in which he was personally involved. One in particular I never understood; software that categorized your files. I don't think it did anything that Windows Explorer doesn't do, except it was a little more visual.

So I scheduled a lot of meetings and travel, typed correspondence, and called the caretaker to turn on the water in the Maine home - pardon me, one of the Maine homes. (One was on a private island. The others were in New York, Paris, London, and a ski place somewhere like Utah.)

He was not a bad guy; he was demanding, but also rather sweet and at times awkward, at least around me. He also loved technology, but it was kind of a clunky time for technology: the poor computer guy couldn't manage to get the computer and the Palm Pilot hooked up just right, and it never synced properly, which pissed the boss off. He did enjoy his Bloomberg stock feed, thought, and would call me from out of town and ask me to read him the prices on certain stocks. (He had a lot of AOL, which was very hot at that time.)

The problem was his wife. She was always around, and always badmouthing me to him. If I made a mistake or was slow with something, she would remind him about it all the time, something he probably would have forgotten in a day. I had a lot of work to do and it was often very complicated, but as good-natured as he was, she was a dreadful bitch (southern belle variety).

Soon before I was canned, the head of the foundation (a woman) explained it to me: the wife was uncomfortable with any woman who worked around her husband, and none of his assistants ever lasted longer than a year. The boss in no way had a roving eye and wasn't attractive by any means; maybe she thought any woman in the world would take him because of the money. Anyway, I was fired after six months. During my notice period, the wife would no longer let me write checks, which was just plain mean.

One good thing about that time: the boss and his wife went to a lot of plays and talked about them. At the time, Barry and I were probably making more money combined than at any other time, so we also bought tickets and went. In some odd way, this was probably the easiest and most personal thing he and I shared, having a brief chat about a play we'd both seen.

Also, I met a guy in the accounting area who stayed a friend for a few years; we bonded over being Elvis Costello fans. He was a little younger than I was, and I can't lie - he was good-looking. Even though it was never more than a friendship, and in fact Barry and I went out with him once or twice, Barry was a little jealous, which probably contributed to our falling out of touch. (I seem to recall the guy was unattached and looking, but certainly not at me.)

One more good thing: the woman who ran the foundation wore really pretty jackets, all by a designer named Zelda. I actually found a Zelda jacket on, the only thing I ever found there in my size, and bought it for $100; I believe it's the second-most expensive piece of clothing I ever bought for myself. I still have it, and it's still beautiful. (In fact, I should see if I can make it work with any of my current wardrobe.)

A sidebar about corporate clothes: they are also not me. I hate a suit like the plague. And since I was a plus-size, it made things harder and worse. It was hard to find well-made and gently-priced corporate wear in plus sizes. Plus it pretty much didn't flatter me at all. I tend to carry weight around my middle, which means nothing with a shirt tucked in really looks good on me. And the dry-cleaning costs! And the endless pantihose! And the fucking heels! I still have some nice pieces from that era, although I don't really know if I'll ever get much use out of them again. And I will be very glad if I never again have to see those shopping spots again. I used to go to King's Plaza mall, because they were all there: Avenue, Lane Bryant, the plus-size department at Macy's, the plus-size department at Sear's. The latter two were where I scored the best stuff. Macy's carried a designer named Rena Rowan who made beautiful silk clothes (I still have a mint-green jacket) and Elisabeth (the now-defunct Liz Claiborne plus-size line) and Jones New York. Sear's, surprisingly, also had some nice things, in particular another now-defunct Liz Claiborne line called First Issue, which had both regular and plus-sizes.

And one more story about my family-office boss: I have a small bird tattoo on my left forearm, and always wore long sleeves or jackets at work. My last week, I finally wore short sleeves, and he said, "I never knew you had that!" (Just surprised, not judgmental.) I replied, "I never let you see it." He seemed impressed. I don't think he liked firing me, to be honest.

What I (eventually) learned: a corporate climate is not right for me. I tried it several times because the money was always good.