The Miss Mingle Blog


Trumpkin Pie: Surviving Your 2020 Family Holiday Dinner

Posted on November 24, 2020

For some, part of the admittedly very small sliver that is the silver lining of the Covid quarantine is being able to avoid the dreaded political conversation that often erupts at Thanksgiving dinner.

It’s no secret that our country is more politically divided that it has been since the Civil War. The fear of political arguments with family, if that family includes members of the opposite political party, has been so widely written about that it has become a trope. While there have always been political disagreements at social functions (otherwise, the old adage about never talking politics or religion at the dinner table would not exist) we are experiencing a relatively new, increasingly intense ideological polarization. Everyone is on the defense, ever alert for differences instead of commonalities. While finding common ground should be easier within families, because of shared personal history, unfortunately the 24/7 media cycle, social media, and the continual erosion of fact-based reality have polarized the country’s belief systems and are causing a rift between us that is getting wider than the Grand Canyon.

Why does it hurt so much when a family member seems to have “drunk the Kool-Aid?” For one thing it can be disturbing when relatives you’ve been raised with have a completely different way of seeing things. Because they are, in some sense, a part of you, it can seem as though the body snatchers have replaced your family members with pod people. The growing political “us versus them” feeling feels worse when it comes directly into conflict with your family identity.

Most people have a simple solution: They decide they absolutely won’t discuss politics when they know their relatives are on the opposite side. However, no matter what your intention is when you walk through the door, this is not always possible, because these days any and all conversations can lead to politics. Obviously, for safety reasons, this year a lot of people are not getting together in person with their relatives. But remember: Even video chats can quickly devolve into vitriolic chats.

Here are a few quick tips for your face-to-face or virtual holiday get-together with opposite-party relatives.

1) Commit ahead of time to curbing your alcohol consumption
This may seem counterintuitive. Your first thought may be that you need to drink more heavily than you ordinarily do, in order to get more relaxed, to get through the ordeal. The problem is, the main effect of alcohol consumption is that it lowers inhibitions. As in, impulse control. So while you might normally say, “That doesn’t sound quite correct,” after a few martinis you might say, “Are you completely INSANE?!”

2) Positive memory sharing
Almost everyone has at least a few wonderful memories of family–memories they cherish. When you sense the conversation hitting the skids, try to bring up one of these memories as quickly as you can. If the celebration is in your own home, you can suggest playing old videos or sharing childhood photos of fun vacations. This will help keep things in the love mode, which is where you want them.

3) Ask for help or advice instead of discussing beliefs
Let’s say you’re the middle of dinner, and you’re happily talking to your nephew about relocating to a new area. Suddenly your father-in-law barks at you, “So you’re moving to that (town full of white supremacists /city full of communists)?” You don’t have to take the bait. Instead, you can quickly switch to advice-asking mode. “Yes, I’m moving in next week,” you might say. “By the way, do you know anything about moving a piano? My mover won’t do it.” You can ask your brother’s husband about buying a new computer, ask your mother about recipes, ask your father about gardening. Everyone likes feeling needed.

4) Utilize the family pet
While you can’t count on a household pet always being available at the perfect moment, a pet really is like a magic wand or a secret weapon. When things get heated, interject, “Where did that cat Spooky get to?” Or, “Hey, where’s my cutie-pie little doggie?” Or, “What the heck is that crazy Buddy doing?” Look for the dog, praise the dog, ask after the dog’s health. Get the dog to do tricks. And if things are really bad, go out and walk the dog.

5) Divide and conquer (or at least contain)
When you DO feel like having a meaningful conversation about an issue with a family member, it’s best not to try it at the dinner table, with everyone else watching and listening. Often if you can get this person away from the group and have a quiet moment together–whether it’s going out to get wood, going to the store for supplies, or sneaking out to have a beer–guards will be down. Separating from the pack is a good way to lower the stakes, and bond.

6) Teach by doing. Set an example of good behavior
I can’t tell you how effective it is to simply behave as you want others to behave. It’s a cliché because it’s true. If you have the fortitude to change your behavior, it will cause others to follow suit. Maybe not instantly, but over time. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: No matter what anyone else does, you will show respect, even when the other one doesn’t. Here are your basic tenets:

–Communicate, don’t attack.
–Talk about the issues; don’t talk about particular politicians.
–Be curious about what other people think, even though after countless Thanksgivings, you’re convinced you already know what they think.
–Never show contempt.
–Be grateful. Gratitude is powerful. It can transform situations. Thank your unlike-minded relative for anything you can think of: for making your bed up, for building a fire, for making the dessert, for complimenting your hair.
–Forgive. Learning to forgive is like learning a martial art–you have to practice it to get better and stronger at it. Within families, it can be essential for your future happiness. Forgiveness is an essential part of wisdom.

7) When all else fails, resort to technical difficulties
On Zoom, say, “We’re running out of time, gotta go.” Or “I’m losing my signal.” (When it’s really, “I’m losing my sanity!”) And if you are in a face-to-face danger zone this holiday, escape to your sleeping area, or go to the bathroom and never come back.

“Fell asleep,” you can say the next day. “Must have been that turkey and wine thing everyone is always talking about.”

Salsa Verdi

Posted on February 1, 2017

At first it seemed like a normal neighborhood restaurant. The Mexican Festival on 102nd and Broadway in Manhattan is colorful, crowded and noisy. It was Friday about 10:45pm and the customers who were finishing up their dinners were talking – even yelling – over the live mariachi band. I took a seat at the bar, which was a little quieter and darker than the main dining room.

At around 11, the mariachi stopped. I wondered why the bar seemed to be getting more crowded instead of less. A man sat down and opened a small upright piano, which I hadn’t even noticed was there. A young woman handed him sheet music, and he began to play. She opened her mouth and began–dramatically, beautifully, caressingly–to sing a German aria (I believe it was a Schubert lied, the last thing I expected to hear in this venue).

Welcome to opera night at Mexican Festival, where in the midst of lively bar chatter which only seems to diminish a little for the performers, classical singers get up to sing their hearts out, one after the other–sometimes alone, other times as a duet or trio. Many seem to be students. Some are dressed up in sparkles, and some are in sweats or jeans and you would never expect what was about to come out of their mouths.

A few of the singers seemed nervous as they walked up to the piano and plopped down their music, but that vanished with their first intake of breath. They knew they were good. Besides Mexican tenor Juan del Bosco, who moves his audience with an amazing combination of verve and sweetness, I was delighted by a powerful tenor named Lindell Carter as well as an artful soprano, Heather Bobeck. When Bobeck sang “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata, all the singers boisterously sang the responses from wherever they happened to be sitting around the room, including the man sitting next to me at the bar. I admit, it startled me at first. Later, one plaid-clad mezzo, deep into her role, flirted her way down the room as she sang “The Habanera.” Hardly anyone seemed to be listening, but of course I was wrong: A dozen people belted out “Prends garde à toi!” exactly on cue–then went back to their drinks.

Being at Mexican Festival on Friday nights is a bit like being on the set of an opera—as if you are one of the extras on stage who happens not to be singing–or like being at an opera cast party. It’s Cheers for opera lovers. Juilliard with a shot of tequila. There is an extraordinary sense of camaraderie. The place oozes good spirit, encouragement, and fun. Naturally, one of the songs that inevitably gets performed is “Toreador” from Carmen. Even the non-singers will join in on that one.

To me what makes this such a unique phenomenon is the combination of casual atmosphere and formally-trained voices. A lot of people seem to be just hanging out, talking to their friends while the singers are performing. Until your senses become adjusted, it seems oxymoronic to be listening to such proficient opera singers in this dark Mexican restaurant on Broadway and 102nd St. at midnight.

Mexican Festival
It all began one day when the aforementioned Juan del Bosco happened to stop by the restaurant and discovered they had mariachi. In Mexico in the early decades of the 20th century, mariachi was actually sung by operatic tenors. So it was natural for Juan to ask if he might sing occasionally with the band at Mexican Festival. He soon got to know the restaurant’s two owners, Tony Carcamo and Jaime Lucero, and he started inviting friends to come there to hang out – they were mostly singers, dancers and musicians.
Then one night Juan said to Tony, “What if we do opera night here?”
Tony said, “What do you need?”
“Just a piano.”
And so Tony bought a piano. (You know what they say: Build it and they will come.)

In a city that is choking with tourist traps, chain stores and entertainments that most people can’t afford, it feels miraculous to find a pocket of secret musical magic going on in this unexpected corner. I guess it shouldn’t surprise anyone, given how many creative people are clustered on this island; indeed three of the best music schools are right here—Juilliard, Mannes and Manhattan School of Music. Still it’s amazing to wander off of an almost deserted Broadway into such a treasure trove of talent and musical communing. It’s obvious that many of these singers are friends. Whenever I go I always get the impression that I had somehow gotten into a private party – or some sort of relaxed audition scenario I am able to watch because I knew the secret password.

A couple of weeks ago I took some curious friends there for after-dinner drinks. Juan was there to greet us (when he is not singing, he serves as host), as was the ever-charming co-owner, Tony. Only in a small town does one usually experience that “we’re-closed-but-who-cares-it’s-just-us” feeling. In fact, it struck me that there is no sense of Diva behavior here; everyone supports each other, there is no visible competitiveness. One of the reasons for this might be that no one is paid to perform – except the pianist. (According to Juan there are three or four different pianists, who rotate depending on which one is free that night). And just to make it even more appealing, every once in a while, a opera superstar will perform there, such as the renowned Javier Camarena, who sang there last March, on his birthday.

I love opera, so I’m in heaven on these Friday nights. But a part of me wishes I could have experienced the karaoke hour that reportedly used to follow the opera, but which has since been (apparently) usurped by the opera crowd. To have been taken on the strange odyssey from mariachi to Madame Butterfly to “Mack the Knife” all in one night would certainly have been one for the books. And then who knows, by 2am I might have taken the stage myself.

Ask Miss Mingle: “The Human Sacrifice”

Posted on December 15, 2015

My friend Joelle recently had a harrowing cocktail party experience. She was cornered by one of life’s most dangerous predators — the Crashing Bore. Obsessed with his family’s genealogy, he just wouldn’t stop pontificating about his great-great-grandmother no matter how many times Joelle tried to change the subject. (Apparently he was descended from a very old family of Boston blue-blooded Bores.) After fifteen minutes, she tried a common-variety escape tactic: She said she needed to go get a drink. This proved ineffective, as the Bore followed her to refill his own glass. After another 20 minutes, she gave up and left the party.

What Joelle really needed was one of the most popular techniques from my book The Art of Mingling, a maneuver called the Human Sacrifice. Miss Mingle wishes to pass on this time-honored technique to her blog readers, so they might avoid suffering a similar fate during holiday parties. The Human Sacrifice is a particularly clever ploy because — when executed well — it poses as a social grace. Here’s how it’s done:

Step One) Surreptitiously look around you and locate someone you either know or have just met. (Don’t worry, if the person you are with is a bona fide Bore, he won’t notice your eyes wandering a bit.) Proximity is important; you are going to have to be able to reach out and shanghai this third person.

Step Two) While nodding enthusiastically to what the Bore is saying, pull this new person into your twosome. Immediately you will feel a shift, a loosening of the Bore’s hold on you.

Step Three) Introduce the sacrificial lamb to the Bore in a way that implies you are just being a good mingler by introducing two people who will probably have a lot in common.

Step Four) As soon as their eyes meet, leave immediately; you must fade out of the conversation within twenty seconds or this substitution will not work. A pleasant “Excuse me” will also serve as an alternative to a silent fade-out.

The Human Sacrifice may sound mean to some people, but I assure you it is perfectly acceptable party protocol. You can’t be considered rude to the Bore since you have procured a new conversational partner for him before leaving. And the person you just used as the sacrifice can just as easily find his own way out, if he wants to. Remember: All’s fair in love and mingling. (Tweet me @Miss_Mingle or email me at with your social dilemmas.)

Please Pass the Paranoia: On the Dangers of Sitting Down

Posted on June 16, 2015

When having a private conversation in a public place–even a crowded New York City restaurant–you can never be too circumspect.

One evening, after a particularly stressful audition, an actress friend of mine named Katie decided to stop into Café Loup in Greenwich Village, to unwind a bit over a martini and some country pâté. After ordering, Katie took out her New Yorker and began to read when suddenly, amidst the ambient sound of the dinner hour bustle, she thought she heard her full name uttered–and in an oddly conversational tone, not as an address. It had come from the table next to her.

She hadn’t been paying attention to these nearby diners. “But when you hear your full name spoken–and as you know, my last name is not a common one–it really gets your attention no matter how engrossing Malcolm Gladwell may be,” she told me. Thinking it was someone she knew who had spotted her and was trying to be funny by casually dropping her name, Katie looked up pointedly and expectantly at the group, preparing to smile in recognition. She made eye contact with the person facing her. It was a woman she’d never seen before. At the table were another woman and a man, neither of whom she recognized. Katie looked back down at her magazine, thinking, Maybe I just imagined that, maybe I’ve got post-audition auditory dysfunction. But she kept listening. While she could not make out every word over the noise of the restaurant, she could tell the man was regaling his two dinner companions with a story about a friend of his who had expressed interest in a woman after seeing her online dating profile.

“Apparently from her photo this Katie ____ (here he used my friend’s full name again!) has really huge bazongas,” she heard the man say. “But Pat says her description made her sound kind of overly ambitious.”

Embarrassed, Katie didn’t know what to do. Should she get up and leave? Confront them and ask them to stop discussing her? In the end she stayed and finished her martini as quickly as possible, feeling confused and uncomfortable. She had no idea what photo the man could possibly be referring to–since the only pictures of herself she could remember posting were from the shoulders up–but she resolved to stay away from any suitor named Pat. To Katie’s immense relief, the diners soon went on to other topics. But her much longed-for relaxing interlude was ruined.

We think because we live in a big city that the odds are slim to none that anyone we might be talking about will be within earshot. While people in a small town assume everyone knows everyone, and behave with corresponding discretion, we city-dwellers have this illusion of anonymity. We talk about the most personal things on a packed subway train, in the midst of crowded stores, buses, theaters, and restaurants. We offer up our intimate thoughts and feelings, and gossip about other people, completely ignoring the strangers present. Funnily enough, the more people there are, the more privacy we convince ourselves we have–when, mathematically speaking, a crowd actually increases the odds of someone knowing the person we are talking about. While it’s true that a high level of crowd noise can create some privacy, it can also serve to make us more careless; invariably the din subsides at the very moment we are talking loudly about the illicit affair a colleague is having with her next door neighbor.

Also, in New York City, the connectivity of people exists with about three degrees of separation rather than six. People in the same fields tend to go to the same restaurants, parks and often even travel on the same subway lines.

It is for this reason that one editor I know uses code names for all the professional people in his life whenever he tells me about them over drinks. Super-paranoid about being overheard talking about people in his industry (he has a high-profile position in book publishing) he’ll refer to his boss as “Red Balloon,” his departmental nemesis as “Evil Kitty” and the head of the company as “Elephant.” If anyone was actually listening to us during one of these discussions, it would sound more like a children’s book plot than work gossip.

Just recently I was at Gennaro’s restaurant on Amsterdam, talking to my friend Lisa about a mutual friend named Bob who was having a marital problem. It was 8:00pm and the restaurant was crowded. I leaned forward so as to speak directly into Lisa’s ear, but not before craning my head around to the right and to the left to check out who might be at the tables beside and behind us. (Especially to see whether there were any singles. People sitting alone at a restaurant are always listening to conversations around them; they can’t help it.) Lisa started laughing at me and shaking her head.

“Jesus, who do you think you are, Deep Throat? You think out of millions of people, Bob or one of his friends is going to be sitting at the table next to you?”

I refused to be embarrassed. “You just never know,” I said.

And the thing is, you never do.

Of course, my mother would say the answer is to never gossip about anyone, ever. She is fond of quoting the old adage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

My advice? If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it in a whisper.

Museum Selfie-ishness

Posted on November 26, 2014

Recently, at the Museum of Modern Art with my niece, I found something unexpected blocking my favorite Van Gogh: a young woman standing with her back six inches away from the canvas, taking a “selfie.” As we strolled around the galleries, I spotted more of them. Selfies in front of the Jackson Pollack. Selfies in front of Monet’s Water Lilies. Selfies in front of Campbell’s Soup Cans. Like most technology-driven social phenomena, museum selfies seemed to have mushroomed overnight.

Until recently, the only digital annoyance I remember having to contend with in art museums was other visitors photographing the art at close range. Many museums allow non-flash photography, and it’s true that if a lot of people are taking pictures it can obstruct others’ view of the painting. Still, why shouldn’t someone be able to photograph a work of art they love — in order to enjoy and remember their museum experience later? Obsessive photo-taking might be somewhat self-centered in that there is no consideration about how it is impinging on the sight lines of others around them. On the other hand, the desire to capture the beautiful images of the art makes it ultimately a forgivable practice.

However, the narcissistic knee-jerk act of the museum selfie is in a whole other category. Now, not only can’t we see the art because someone is standing right in front of it, we are forced to look at the selfie subject(s) instead of the art. The art is now the background to the selfie-taker—as if it were wallpaper, or the view from the Empire State Building. The implication is that the work of art is secondary in importance to the person in front of it. Obviously it’s your choice if you want to have Van Gogh’s The Starry Night as your own personal backdrop (although I myself do not have that kind of hubris). The problem is that you are changing the art experience of those around you. Even when selfie-takers are not completely obscuring the art, it’s psychologically impossible to ignore it when someone is making themselves the subject; it’s hard to look past them at the painting. It is just like trying not to listen to someone talking on his cell on the train.

It’s difficult to say which is worse: The fact that we seem to need to document every moment of our existence or the need to put ourselves at the center of everything. (The selfie has become such a part of our culture that it was even the title of a TV show on ABC.) Because digital photos are free and easily deletable images we are in the habit of taking them without much thought. In museums, we sense we are having an important experience. We see beautiful art. We are moved, excited. The contemporary conditioned response to this emotion is to whip out the camera. And it is also highly contagious behavior. Once you see someone else doing it, you figure: Wait, maybe this would make a cool picture—me in front of a famous painting. This would be great on Instagram.

It’s pretty hard to fight the sweeping tide of cellphone selfie-taking per se. Besides, selfies are not all bad. In the old days when you traveled to Paris, you would have to ask a passerby to take a photo of your and your friend in front of the Eiffel Tower. Now you can just take it yourself. Isn’t this convenience an improvement? I have also seen some wonderful museum selfie photos that are a playful or ironic statement on the art: for example, a picture of person standing to the side of the painting imitating the pose of the subject in the painting, or a photo where it looks as if the person depicted in the painting is actually holding the phone. This kind of art riffing—which some people might find offensive—demonstrates a creativity I can’t really object to.

What I will object to is the “selfie stick,” a device for extending the cellphone an additional arm’s-length away. Even though I caught many people taking selfies in the museum, thank god I did not see anyone using one of these relatively new gadgets. (Is it just me, or does the term “selfie stick” sound pornographic?) The sticks are already in wide use in Asia, which is a sign they will probably be trending here very soon. What these accessories will mean in museums, of course, is an even more hindered view of the art, as using the stick allows for more people to fit into a group selfie-portrait.

So there I was, at MOMA with my niece, frowning inwardly and eschewing the whole self-involved, self-aggrandizing selfie trend. Until – er… guess what? My niece suddenly whipped out her iPhone to snap a selfie of us standing in front of a Gauguin. Did I resist? Did I take a stand against the decline of respect for great art? Or did I lean my head happily against my niece’s, open my eyes wide and smile gaily?

Like I said, these technology things are contagious.

Beware My Derriere: The Etiquette of Sitting Down at the Theater

Posted on June 11, 2014

Every time I go to the theater and I find myself having to enter a row where there are people already seated, I experience the same moment of indecision: “How do I navigate this? Which way do I go in — facing the stage or facing the people?” Most people I know go in with their backs to the others, but this always seems wrong to me. Especially if my row-mates remain seated as I am squeezing in, I am acutely aware of my butt having to travel by embarrassingly close to their faces. And if I should happen to step on someone’s toes or bump their knees in the process, it is difficult to apologize over my shoulder.

However, after researching various “official” opinions as well as conducting an informal canvass of all my theater-going friends, it is clear that although European custom requires the theater or movie-going patron to enter the row while facing the back of the theater, the accepted practice in the United States is to go in facing the stage. In fact, both Emily Post (in her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922) and Amy Vanderbilt (in Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette, 1963) declared this back-to-face sliding-by operation to be absolutely the proper etiquette.

But even among Americans there are varying opinions, many of them adamant. One etiquette expert I came across professed the proper form to be that men go in facing the back of the theater, while women go in the opposite way — a piece of etiquette-ology I find fairly bizarre. I mean, since gentlemen’s feet are generally bigger than ladies’, and ladies’ rears are generally bigger than gentlemen’s, if you were going to make a gender differentiation I would think it would be the gentleman going in facing front, and the lady facing the back of the theater. But either way it would look like some kind of weird line dance.

The argument for facing the stage is that it is more efficacious, because you can bend forward a little and slide in while pressing as far as possible into the seats in front of you. This way you are less likely to step on anyone’s feet, and also you can preserve the illusion that you are not inches away from people, as you can’t see them. Moreover, most people feel the close proximity makes it too embarrassing to pass by front-to-front. It’s like facing someone in an elevator. “It’s too intimate,” etiquette maven Letitia Baldridge once wrote. “It looks like they are going to kiss.”

I don’t know about kissing but I almost always vote for conversational contact. (They don’t call me “Miss Mingle” for nothing.) The rationale for facing people while making your way to your seat is just that–that you are able to interact with the people whom you are incommoding. It is considered good manners to thank people (or apologize, if you are coming in on the late side) as you inch by them, and it is much harder to thank people if you go by backwards; you cannot make eye contact easily. And of course there is the avoidance of the aforementioned butt-in-the-face issue (which I admittedly may be overly sensitive about, as I happen to have a particularly protrusive posterior.) Sometimes your course of action will depend on whether or not the row stands up for you (which if they are well-bred they will do). In that case, you can even go in slightly sideways.

Every decision regarding proper etiquette is made up of one part not discomforting others, and one part not looking like an idiot. What the theater seating question really comes down to is a choice between two variations of feeling awkward. I think for me, the point at which I started gravitating towards the face-to-face method happened a few years ago when, going in backwards along with the others in my party who were doing the same, I stumbled over someone’s umbrella lying on the floor and ended up sitting in the lap of a rather portly man.

This was bad enough; but unfortunately, in my surprise and embarrassment, instead of saying, “I’m so sorry,” I said “Thank you” — which were the words that were on the tip of my tongue, since I had been murmuring them to everyone else in the row I was passing.

“Oh, no, thank you,” the man laughed in response.

Over-Thanking It

Posted on December 12, 2013

These days everyone seems to be bemoaning the disappearance of courtesy. It’s certainly arguable that — in large part — manners have been discarded along with land lines and typewriters and the milkman. I’m not sure about the milkman, but I know the loss of social niceties is, in general, not a good thing.

To have good manners is to consider the emotional well-being of someone besides yourself, which is why I have often emphasized the importance of saying “thank you” to anyone who has done something for you. But is it possible to thank someone too much?

Recently a friend of mine was invited to a house party on Cape Cod. (Well, it wasn’t so much that she was invited as that she invited herself to tag along with mutual friends who were already going — which is probably why she went a little overboard on the gratitude). To begin with, she brought two bottles of wine, as well as a “hostess gift” consisting of a large basket of gourmet cheeses, jams and syrups. After all, she reasoned, she was staying for several days, so a “pre- thank you” gesture was completely appropriate, right? During the three-day weekend, she made sure that whenever there was a shopping expedition, she chipped in. The morning of her departure, at breakfast, she expounded in an effusive manner about what a wonderful time she had had. As she was walking to the car to go home she thanked them again.

The night she got back to New York, she emailed some photos taken on the beach, along with “many, many thanks.” The next day she snail-mailed what she had been taught by her grandmother was the obligatory hand-written thank-you note, in which she penned several more lines about how fabulous the weekend party was.

A few days later I happened to be chatting with her, and she told me she could not shake the disconcerting feeling that she had gone overboard on the thanking. When I heard the whole story, I had to agree.

When you thank someone over and over (and over), the “thankee” can begin to think something is required of him in return. He might begin to feel pressure to respond with, “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it,” or “It’s fine, I loved having you.” The fact is, over-thanking can negate the whole purpose of a thank-you: to make the other person feel good. Instead, you may make him feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

Excessive gratitude can also cause an imbalance of power in the relationship; it can make the thankee question his own generosity. He may wonder, Gosh, I must have done something extraordinary to have this person thanking me so excessively. Maybe I shouldn’t have been quite that generous. Over-thanking is in the same category as saying “I’m sorry” too much. It’s potentially unsettling.

Of course, modern technology tends to inspire an overabundance of knee-jerk gratitude. As Nick Bilton pointed out in his New York Times blog in March, there are a lot of people dashing off unnecessary thank-you emails. (Never mind automatic-reply Twitter DM thank-yous — that’s a whole other level of inanity). For example, an office worker might send a group email to twenty people, attaching the minutes to a meeting, to which fifteen people press Reply (or worse yet, the dreaded Reply All) simply to write “Thank you.” Multiply that by several times a day and you end up with a LOT of unnecessary emails to open. Most people feel that this is a waste of time; instead of being polite, you are actually annoying. Not only that, but when you overuse a word it tends to lose its meaning — then when gratefulness is really appropriate, the expression of it can ring hollow.

However, it’s not just thoughtless individuals causing the problem. I know someone who is the opposite of thoughtless. He is so gallant that he routinely sends a thank-you note in response to receiving a thank-you note (true story, I swear). I told him this practice reminded me of when I was seven. I used to walk my friend Beth home from our playdate, whereupon she would turn around and walk me home, then I’d walk her home again…The goodbyes took longer than the actual playdate. Where does this kind of thing end? Unchecked, thank-you madness can also last forever, an interactive loop from which you can never escape.

What is the correct amount of thanking? Obviously it depends on the situation. Opening the door for someone engenders one kind of thank-you; having someone stay in your house for the week another. Old friends may not say “thank you” at all. Strangers may thank each other a lot. (I counted my thank-yous yesterday when I was in the bank: It was a whopping five). But ordinarily, unless someone has given you one of their kidneys, I’d say one or two sincere thank-yous is really thanks enough.

So did you enjoy this piece? If so, you don’t have to thank me.

Attack of the Alien Armchair: The Adventure of the New “Luxury” Movie Seats

Posted on October 25, 2013

I entered theater 6 at Manhattan’s 84th Street AMC Loews in that relaxed, absentminded way you do when you are confident of the physical surroundings that await you–the way you do when you are entering your neighborhood grocery store or the lobby of your apartment building. To my utter shock, instead of familiar movie seats, what I found stretched out in front of me was a strange-looking sea of huge, carmine-red armchairs. It reminded me of a furniture showroom.

My movie companion that evening, a native New Yorker and a purist in all things cultural, stopped dead in the doorway behind me. “What is this? What’s going on?” she said. Dazed, we made our way down to our reserved seats in Row D. As she dropped into the chair beside me, my friend shook her head in disgust. “Well this is just ridiculous. This marks the end of movie-going for me.”

Stupidly, I at first thought that these were merely comfy chairs with an enormous amount of foot room, until I saw someone nearby fully reclined, and then I located my own control button on the left side of my chair. Wow! UP my feet came, OUT stretched my body and BACK went my head. It did feel luxurious, though as someone who is not accustomed to recliners, I could not help but think of a dentist chair.

However, despite my own wariness and my companion’s grousing, I determined to try to be open-minded. “But wait,” I said to my friend. “It’s really kind of cool. No more cramped knees, and–see? You can take the weight off your spine.” I pushed my button some more and tipped farther back. “Maybe this is good. Just think: No one kicking the back of your seat, and no tripping over people and their buckets of popcorn to get to the Ladies Room.” I also pointed out that it was nice not to have to dread that last minute giant who inevitably sits down right in front of you just as the movie is starting. There was certainly no possibility of head-blocking here.

The two faux leather seats assigned to us were actually attached–a kind of love seat with a movable armrest in the middle–presumably so two people on a date could cuddle. The material of the chairs was slightly clingy or cloying, with a vaguely vinyl feel. I couldn’t help it; I did not like the idea that my hair and my head were touching where countless strangers had also laid their heads. I had a fleeting desire for one of the paper headrest covers they have on Amtrak trains.

But by the time the previews were over I realized the main problem, at least for me: it’s everyone lying down together. It seems somehow too intimate. It felt like a weird dream where you are in your own living room but there are strangers present. There is something decidedly off-putting about seeing other people’s elevated legs out of the corner of your eye. I don’t want to be aware of other people; I want to focus only on what’s up on the screen. In the traditional seats, you may have to fight the person next to you for the armrest, but somehow the “from the neck up” perspective allows for a feeling of anonymity, and you can more easily disappear into the dark crowd as the film commences. You can forget where you are, and therefore enter wholly into the fantasy world of the movie.

Reclining in these big chairs also feels super indulgent, hedonistic, and frankly a little bit…. well, obscene. I mean, just how comfortable do we have to be? I know we are all craving more leg room on airplanes, but could putting BarcaLoungers in movie theaters be going too far? And what about the inevitable napping? I can’t imagine there won’t be some snorers in every showing–although maybe not during the riveting movie we were seeing, Captain Phillips. (Halfway through the unrelentingly intense action I had to un-recline my chair. It just felt more normal to hyperventilate in an upright position.)

Reportedly AMC Loews has converted about 25 of its nationwide theaters to what it is calling their “plush power recliners.” Obviously the chain is trying to make the movie-going experience more appealing. But is the way to get people out of the comfort of their own living rooms to try to duplicate it? No matter how cushy the chair, you are still in public; you are having a group experience. To me these power recliners are the worst of both worlds. It’s not as relaxing as your living room, and it’s not as satisfying as an auditorium experience.

What’s next? Chaise lounges in Carnegie Hall? Beds on Broadway? I couldn’t help thinking, as I glanced around the darkened theater after the heart-pounding, climactic scene of Captain Phillips: Isn’t this what it looked like right before the fall of the Roman Empire? Everyone in reclined positions, gorging themselves on too much food and drink, watching people getting killed for entertainment, as they, the audience members, remain ensconced in total sensory comfort?

Horror in the Guest Room

Posted on June 26, 2013

scarydoorWhen my hostess wanted to know if I would mind sharing a room, I just assumed she meant with another human.

“Be careful not to get too close to the bureau,” Margaret said, as we entered what was to be my guest quarters for a weekend visit at her lovely house in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of D.C.

I glanced over to my left and saw, arranged symmetrically like giant honeycomb bee cells, sixty or seventy petri dishes lining the top of the bureau. They gave off a funky, murky odor.

“Annie’s growing bacteria for her school science project,” she explained, setting down my suitcase in a spot on the floor which, to my mind, was much too close to the aforementioned bureau.

“What kind of bacteria?” (I was trying with all my might to sound more interested than terrified, without much success.)

“To tell you the truth I’m really not sure,” Margaret answered with a half-embarrassed, half-nervous giggle. “I think it’s something to do with parasites.”

At the end of the first evening, having very purposefully consumed more wine than usual in the hopes that it would make me forget my replicating roommates, I got into bed with the kind of creepy-crawly feeling I had not felt since twenty years before when I lived in a roach-infested tenement apartment in Manhattan’s Little Italy. I tried everything I could not to think of the teeming germs nearby. They can’t jump out of the dishes, after all, I thought. Or could they? I told myself to get my mind on other things, but found myself counting bacteria instead of sheep: one cell enlarges, and then splits into two, then into four, then eight…

Margaret and her husband are good friends, charming and generous hosts, fabulous cooks and delightful company. But this experience reminded me that no matter who you are visiting, you never know what awaits you once you decide to accept the role of house guest. You have to be ready for anything. And willing to go with the flow (or in this case, go with the grow.)

The next morning over breakfast my hosts asked me cheerfully how I slept.

“Wonderfully!” was my enthusiastic answer, as of course it should always be, when one is fortunate enough to be invited to stay at someone else’s house. However, as these were very old friends of mine, I could not help adding, “Although I think I dreamt that I was in The Andromeda Strain.”

The Seven Rules for Happiness

Posted on May 31, 2013

I give people advice for a living; in fact, I have published seven self-help books. I thought I knew it all. But having just come back from a revelatory weekend retreat in the mountains, where I engaged in extensive meditation and other spiritually-oriented, self-realization exercises, I am here to tell you that I have, at long last, discovered the secret — the ultimate seven rules for leading a successful and happy life:

Rule #1: Always complain.
Chronic complaining is essential for getting attention, and is very important not only for you but also for the people around you who may be bumbling happily along on their life journeys, woefully ignorant of their truly bad circumstances or surroundings.

Rule #2: Never finish anything you begin.
It’s certainly easier not to, and anyway the beginning is always the most interesting part. Plus if you don’t finish you will never have to face the whole pesky question of success versus failure.

Rule #3: Always try hard to control what others do and say.
This is called power. You need it for your survival.

Rule #4: Never try anything new.
Sticking to what you know is a safe strategy as well as a comfortable one. So what if you are unhappy with what you are doing? It’s the devil you know, right? And it’s completely sensible to fear anything that is unfamiliar.

Rule #5: Don’t be yourself.
Ever. Really. There is a good chance people might not like you.

Rule #6: Never offer to help others.
It takes too much time and energy, and people will not appreciate it anyway. They definitely will not thank you enough. Life is a marketplace; nothing is for free.

Rule #7: Always look back at the past with regret.
Even if it is merely a blog entry that you just posted. (I mean, only think how much better it might have been!)

NYC: My Own Personal Cocktail Party

Posted on April 19, 2013

Oddly enough, this year Tax Day reminded me of what I love most about New York City.

I always do my taxes at the last minute, partly because I need deadline pressure to get anything done. So on the afternoon of April 15th, I was getting ready to e-file my return. (New York State now mandates that anyone using computer software to prepare their tax returns must file them electronically, which I had never done before).

Even though everything had been double-checked, I sat for over an hour in front of my laptop, stalling, unable to make myself push the “e-file” button. I knew this method was easier, cheaper, and quicker than snail-mail, yet I felt a strong urge to do it the old-fashioned way. I thought to myself: Why am I resisting this so much? Am I really that much of a Luddite?

I found myself picturing the scene I had been a part of for so many years: walking to the post office at 4:45 on Tax Day with that particular feeling of jangled nerves and accomplishment, noticing out of the corners of my eyes my fellow New Yorkers — their own bulky envelopes in hand — all eagerly headed in the same direction.

That’s when it hit me: What was bothering me was that I was going to miss the camaraderie, the excitement of walking up to the post office, communing with other last-minute filers, smiling with them, exchanging jokes about just making the deadline.

I admit this sounds like a relatively insignificant thing, a piece of social minutia. Many of you may be thinking: Jeez, she gets excited about going to the post office? But I swear am not totally people starved or anything. It’s just that to me — a person who always loves talking to strangers, anytime, anywhere — New York City is basically one big cocktail party. Not only that, it’s a cocktail party with interesting, emotionally available people.

At the risk of seeming New York-centric, I believe people here tend to be more culturally-diverse and more engaged in what goes on around them than people in most other places, so our conversations tend to be more interesting — and often more unguarded.

Maybe it’s because we all have a “we’re in this mess together” feeling or it’s because we are in a hurry, but New Yorkers have a way of cutting through the polite nothings. We tend to start talking as if we are already in the middle of a conversation with a friend. We will dispense with the usual pleasantries and go right to the heart of things.

Without any preamble, without any “hello, how are you?” we will just start speaking, as if we already know the person next to us: “God, I wish the train would come, I’ve got someone waiting at the theater for me, and if I keep him waiting one more time, I swear he’s going to break up with me.” Revealing personal details of our lives comes naturally in the Big Apple.

Once when I was in the park with a friend, we came across someone whose parrot had escaped and taken refuge high up in an elm tree. Soon a small crowd gathered, and we were all chatting to one another about pets — about losing them, finding them, and loving them. The man next to me said, “I always wanted a mynah bird when I was little but my father told me, ‘Bad enough you learned to talk.'”

New York life is filled with opportunities for intimate five-minute conversations. I’ve had passing exchanges with strangers 10 years ago I still remember to this day. We are often accused of being rude, and that may sometimes be true, but we are, for the most part, very open and willing to connect with each other.

In the end, of course, I e-filed. But later when I went to the drugstore, don’t think that I did not engage the stranger standing in front of me in line. I heard her talking on the phone about Schedule C (it sounded as though she was talking to her spouse).

“So do you file your taxes electronically?” I asked her after she hung up. “This was my first year doing it.”

She smiled, slightly sheepish. “No, we are mailing ours. I kind of love the tactile feeling of it, and the comfort of seeing other people there who are as late as I am getting it done.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” I replied, laughing. And in my imagination, we clinked glasses, as a waiter passed by with a plate of hors d’oeuvres.

TMI: Too Much Intinerary

Posted on April 13, 2013


I was just wondering how soon my friend Ruth might be coming up to New York for some long-overdue museum hopping when I happened to log onto Facebook, and there she was, in living, hi-res color. It was a post from the night before: “I’m in the Big Apple. Here I am at 55 Bar, drinking a hot tamale martini! ☺”

I felt a small but distinct pang of hurt. Harrumph. Why hadn’t Ruth told me she was coming? Did she not want to see me for some reason? She usually stayed at my apartment when she was here. Did she find another person to stay with? Had I been nothing but a hotel to her?

Then I stopped and thought about it, and I realized that Ruth planning a New York trip that did not include me was not really the thing that was upsetting me. After all, New York is a city of eight million people; it would be unrealistic — not to mention egotistical — to think that my friends don’t ever come to see other people besides me. (It’s different when you are visiting a small town. If my friend in Essex, Connecticut found out I had gone all the way out there without calling him, it would be hard to explain.) No, it was the fact that Ruth did not seem to care whether I saw she was visiting. It was the unabashed public announcement of her presence that felt like a slap in the face.

“Checking in” on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and Path has become de rigueur for many people. I admit I don’t really get it. When I see something like, “Jim Smith just checked in at the IHOP on 14th Street,” I always wonder, am I supposed to hightail it on down there? Or maybe I’m supposed to ask what Jim is eating?

Why is it that we feel everyone has to be alerted about everything about our lives? We have become a society of over-sharers. (The very word “share” has changed in connotation. “Sharing” photos of your kids or news of your latest accomplishment is not quite the same as sharing a loaf of bread with someone who’s hungry, or sharing the secret of happiness.) As if the me-generation wasn’t self-involved enough, it has evolved into the please-look-at-me generation.

Not surprisingly, many people tease me about my circumspection regarding the Internet. One, referring to what he called my “sharing squeamishness” lectured me, “This is the information age! Privacy is old-fashioned. Too much information? Get over it. Embrace the new transparency, the new, more open life.” I’ll admit it’s true that for the most part these trivial check-ins are harmless — if sometimes annoying in their banality. However, it’s not harmless when someone posts about invitation-only events in a forum where there are people who were not invited, people whose feelings might be hurt unnecessarily.

These kinds of manners used to be a given. We learned the rules when we were six years old and started inviting people to our birthday parties. “Don’t tell Susie Johnson about the party, honey, if you’re not going to invite her,” our parents told us. “You will hurt her feelings. How would you like it if you found out there was a party you were not invited to?” What most of us didn’t realize when we were six is that when we grew up, this rule would be thrown out the window, thanks to social networking arenas where it is considered perfectly fine to break this basic rule of kindness. (And to add insult to injury, we are all supposed to “like” these posts.)

I have written much on the generosity of not always telling the truth. In fact, many readers have criticized me for “promoting lying,” because I believe in going out of your way to protect someone else’s feelings, and that certain small acts of prevarication are the cornerstone of civilization. Being totally open and completely honest every second, no matter what, is not spiritual or emotional health in my book. It’s narcissism (even, in its extreme, a kind of social schizophrenia). When did we become a culture unable to tell the difference between dishonesty and discretion?

I am a firm believer in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to social plans. This goes for dinner parties, cocktail parties, weddings and other special events, and, yes, out of town visits. We should always think about how what we are saying (or posting) might affect others. It doesn’t matter that you yourself might not care one way or the other if the roles were reversed and you were the one reading the post. Be aware of your audience.

Here, in my opinion, is the proper travel itinerary etiquette: If there is a good possibility someone you are not planning to see is going to find out you are visiting in her area, preempt — tell her you are coming but that you are zipping in and out and that you are mostly there for business, or for family obligation. You want to make it seem as though you are truly disappointed not to be seeing her. Otherwise, just don’t say anything about your trip. If you happen to run into her on the street while you are there (which is unlikely in a big city) you can tell her, “I knew I was not going to have time to see you this trip, so I didn’t call, but I hope we can arrange a visit soon!”

I went somewhere last weekend under such a cloak of invisibility, to ensure I did not step on certain people’s feelings. It was not a secret; I simply did not broadcast it. I did not tweet or post my plans. I did not alert the media.

So where did I go? You can forget trying to find out. Go ahead and call me old-fashioned, but I did not leave any cyber-footprints.

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