I posted this little video on Facebook, and no one seemed very interested in it, but then again, I enjoy experimenting with different ways to tell a narrative. Â I’m using a very old technique here — patching together still photographs into a sequence, Â and then using a voiceover to give it some meaning. Â It’s a little pretentious, but it’s my first try playing with this idea.
It was a rainy Rosh Hashanah in New York City. It was the second year I was attending a progressive service in Manhattan, one in which God’s name was rarely spoken and there was discussion about getting a vegan shofar made of plastic for next year, instead of the one used by Jews for thousands of years, made from a ram’s horn.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a time of reflection. JewsÂ look back on the past year, and prepare themselves for being “inscribed into the book of life” onÂ Â Yom Kippur, when the “book is closed.” Â Jews — they are into metaphors involving books.
Halfway into the service, the rabbi turned her attention to the congregation.
“How have we all used our time over the past year?” she asked. Â “Have we done good deeds? Have we been of service to society?”
One congregant immediately rose her hand. Â Â Clearly she was once the teacher’s pet in third grade.
“I volunteer at a homeless shelter twice a week and joined the Central Park Conservancy executive committee.”
The rabbi nodded in approval. Â The rest of us clapped, honoring her service.
A younger man stood next; he wore a yarmulke coloredÂ like the LGBT flag.
“I directed a film for marginized teenagers. Â It was shownÂ in the public schools throughout New York City schools, and I believe it has helped many overcome their personal shame.”
The next two sharers helped run a successful fundraiser for a cancer clinic at a hospital and organize last week’s People’s Climate Change March on Wall Street.
The mood in the room took a surprising silent dive after these four congregants shared their good deeds. Â There was a tangible feeling of embarrassment about our own accomplishments over the last year. Â The moment reminded me of that feeling you get on on Facebook when you read about someone’s exotic vacation in Costa Rica, and you don’t want to tell anyone about your low-key Thanksgiving at your Aunt Mildred’s home in New Jersey. Â How can you compete?
“How have we all used our time over the past year? Have we done good deeds? Have we been of service to society?”
These were the questions of the rabbi. Â Good questions. Â Questions aimed at making us think about how we treat our fellow man. Â But the first four responses sounded more like references you would add to your college application.
It took an older woman to break the ice. She stood up to face the rabbi. Â She was wearing a green wool dress that added color to her short gray hair.
“Well, just last night, a friend called up and said she was having an anxiety attack about her granddaughter in California, so I got dressed, took the cross-town bus over and talked with her until she calmed down.”
Some of us giggled, because it was a rather absurd example in comparison to the others, but then we all applauded, sensing her wisdom. She had expanded upon ourÂ definition ofÂ a good deed, so it included the small and personal as much as those larger actions that are part of the public record.
And suddenly others stood up, energized by the older woman. Â One by one, congregants Â mentioned minor actions, decisions, and choices that would never make the newspapers or news, but made their past year one of good deeds, their existence worth living.
Last week, I watched the PBS documentary on the Roosevelts. Â Their accomplishments were fascinating. Â FDR was Governor of New York and President of the United States. He created the New Deal and Social Security. He led us out of the Depression AND World War 2. Â But would FDR have taken the cross-town bus to calm down a friend having an anxiety attack? Â I don’t think so.
Lyrics from Seasons of Love from the musical, Rent.
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?
How about love?
My name is Joseph. I’m a novelist living in Manhattan. My latest novel, “Upper West Side” was skewered in this month’s New York magazine by a young, feminist book critic. She called my female characters “cardboard cutouts” and “male fantasies” who only spoke about love, sex, and romance.
“Has this male author ever listened to real New York women talking with each other?” she wrote. Â “I suggest that he leave his apartment one day and stop wanking off onto his page. Â When I am with my BFFs we rarely talk about love, sex, and romance. Â We discuss feminism, racism, literary criticism, pop culture, and the best new places to get Indian food. This is a book that should die a slow death. Shame on you Random House for publishing such tripe!”
I have to admit, I was hurt by this review. Â And the comments were even worse, especially the ugly one where someone suggested women should get together in book clubs and discuss fun ways to cut off my dick.
But I’m not the type of guy to lash out. I believe that criticism is important, and I always try to learn and grow. Â Criticism of your work is part of the job.
And maybe the book critic was right. Â I do live a solitary life. Â Writing is a lonely profession, and I spend countless hours by myself. Â Maybe I need to understand women better.
Wasn’t it just last Saturday that my daughter, Julia, suggested I go on a date with someone, maybe one of my editors?
“I’m too busy for dating,” I told her. “I need to write.”
Besides, Saturday exists for my daughter. Â Saturday is my happiest day. Â Julia lives in Connecticut with her mother and step-father, and I live for our one day a week to see a Broadway show or new foreign film.
But how can I be a good father if I don’t understand women? Â Is this why my marriage failed? Â Did I not understand Kathy? Â Do I only see women under the filter of Â love, sex, and romance, but not living with the same worldly dreams, ambitions, and goals of men?
I decided to take the book reviewer’s advice to heart. Â After lunch, I closed my laptop, and I took a walk down Broadway, something I never do in the middle of the week. Â I continued downtown until I noticed three women sitting on a bench, chatting together. They were of different ages; I assumed they were related. I took my position on a bench across from them and closed my eyes to focus on their voices and conversation. I wanted to learn, “What DO women really talk about?”
And I listened. Â One woman, I think the younger one, had a higher-pitched voice. The older woman was tentative in her speech, but the others responded with respect for her life experience. Â The third woman was the most educated. Â She mentioned her advanced degree from Columbia at least three times.
The feminist book critic from New York magazine was correct. I listened with my eyes closed for forty minutes, and NONE of these women mentioned the subjects of love, sex, and romance.
What did they talk about? Â Â They discussed a job opening at a publishing house, an acquaintance who was recently unfriended on Facebook, Â a vacation rental apartment in Prague, a sale on fall jackets at Burlington Coat Factory, a recipe for challah for Rosh Hashanah, whether Hillary Clinton would be a good president, and where to find a good math tutor for the middle woman’s struggling son.
I had finally learned what women discuss with each other.
“Basically, love, sex, and romance,” I said to myself.
I chuckled, then returned home to write a new book.
I’m sitting in McDonald’s with my free morning coffee (some promotion for the last two weeks of September). Across from me is a sixty year old woman wearing a fall jacket. She has red hair that is too bright, and full lips. She is an attractive woman. Years ago, back in high school, Â she was probably the girl everyone wanted to ask to the prom. She leans against the window and the morning sun is shining in, coloring the left side of her face with golden light. It’s a scene out of Renoir, if Renoir lived in Queens rather than the French Riviera.
I have an urge to take a photo of this woman, to capture the moment, but she seems alone in her thoughts, and my instinct tells me that it is inappropriate to take out my iPhone. I cannot explain to you why one moment feels right to take a photo and the other an invasion of privacy. I just feel it.
There is a slippery slope of morality in taking photos of strangers. I can give you arguments rationalizing the importance of street photography — historical record, artistic license, celebration of the city — but I don’t like to bullshit you. Â For me, there is an element of escape to street photography, an unburdening of loneliness. Taking a photo makes me feel as if I am part of something bigger, a city in motion.
But the truth is I envy your photography online, especially that which is connected to your domestic life. Â I wish I could have your wonderful subjects — such beautiful children, spouses, dogs, and houses. Â I can think of nothing more thrilling than taking photos of my kids at a birthday party or my wife posing naked for me. Â Â Street photography is impersonal and lacking in heart.
My week in Nova Scotia was a magical one — the scenery, the music, the people, old friends and new, and even the cookies that Kate’s mom baked for the occasion. You can read about it on Kate’s own blog. Kate’s Shed brought me back to the first time I actually met Kate — back at our first BlogHer conference, before she had published her first book. It was a time when blogging conferences had intimacy to them, something now lost.
I have a hard time coming up with a narrative thread for an experience that contains so many threads — friendship, tourism, and learning, so I’ve decided to just pick the one moment that had the most impact on me, the experience that I still think about today.
It was my short time taking photos of C.
C was a participant at Kate’s Shed photography workshop, and I didn’t talk with her much. Â Yet, one of the assignments on Saturday was to split into pairs and take portraits of each other. I was paired with C. I was insecure, as if I was going to be unmasked as a fraud. Â Kate lent me her Canon DSLR, and I hated leaving the comfort zone of auto and the ease of a zoom lens. Â I didn’t know whether to tell her that I had never used a DSLR until that day. Â Even worse, the only way to make her comfortable enough and trust me to take her portrait was to, uh, TALK to her.
It’s difficult to judge the results, but I was happy with them. Â I believe I “captured” something about the spirit in her heart, even if I can’t put my finger on what it is. Â It didn’t happen immediately, but I didn’t rush it. Â I took my time. Â I moved her to a new location. Â I coaxed her out of her discomfort. Â I waited for the light to hit her. Â I didn’t think of myself as an external camera, but as two people doing some sort of visual dance, and for a brief moment, this woman was the most beautiful and interesting women in the world to me, and I felt it.
It was an experience both professional and intimate. Street photography is hiding in the bushes. Portrait photography is engagement. And the result is a moment captured.
I doubt I will ever see C again. After the shoot, we didn’t bond in any special way. Â Our special moment disappeared the minute the camera was off. Â We continued on with the workshop as two relative strangers. Â But there was something about that moment that changed my view of photography. And it had nothing to do with using the DSLR instead of a smartphone. It had to do with connecting with your camera, and with another person. Â I had experienced something about photography that I had never felt before. Â And I suppose that was the point of the workshop.
“What’s that ring tone?” asked the customer, a young black man with dreadlocks.
“It’s an old song. From the 60’s. When I was young.”
Milt sold shady, refurbished, jail-broken cell phones from a corner in Astoria, Queens. Everyone from the local high school knew where they could find him — the strange old man slumped over in his torn windbreaker, and kept his “merchandise” in the back of a broken down Ford van. Â Today was a busy day for Milt. Â With the introduction of the iPhone 6 the day earlier, students of Benjamin Franklin High School knew that he was getting rid of the iPhone 5s for cheap.
Milt never dreamed that he would be spending his Golden Years selling contraband iPhones and Androids to selfie-addicted high school students. Â He was not a techie. Â He attended Brooklyn law school back in the day. That’s where he met Renee. Â It was also the start of his drinking, first one glass, and then as winter approached, a whole bottle of Dewar’s at night. Â Milt always said that he didn’t hit Renee across the face that Christmas night. Â The liquor did. But it was the start of the end. Renee moved to California and never returned his calls, back when telephones were still attached to the walls.
Milt had no interest in cell phone technology. Â He saw a business opportunity. He knew the kids loved the phones, and it was better than selling them drugs.
“What that ring tone?” every young customer would ask him, boy or girl, black or white.
“It’s an old song. From the 60’s. When I was young.”
It was his signature. Â The way Rolex put their name on a watch. Â He personalized every ring tone before he sold it on the street. Â And every phone had the same song.
Just walk away, Renee
You won’t see me follow you back home
The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same
You’re not to blame
From deep inside the tears that I’m forced to cry
From deep inside the pain that I chose to hide.
In all my years of blogging, I have never written anything with the aim of inspiring you. It’s not my style. Â I’m not a teacher or an advocate. Â I don’t consider myself inspirational.
But that changes today.
The night started with my own search for inspiration. I’ve been feeling scared lately, fearful, unable to take steps that could improve my life. Â I searched online for advice. Through Google, I found all sorts of gurus, wannabe gurus, psychologists, happiness experts, and thought leaders who were eager to help me. Â These articles wereÂ written by two categories of authors — those who never faced fear, and those who learned to overcome it. Â Whether written as Â longform or Buzzfeed listicle, on an academic website or online women’s magazine, the advice was always remarkable similar, pretty much expanding on Nike’s advertising copy of Â “Just Do It.”
“You can’t succeed without failure.
You will never know until you try.
Change your way of thinking.
Fight the fear and do it anyway.
Twelve Ways Successful Entrepreneurs Win at Business.
Get the Love You Deserve By Risking it All.”
All night I read articles that felt cold against my skin, clichÃ©s tossed at me to sell e-books or writers promoting themselves. I was not inspired by someone who once feared air travel and now jumps out of an airplane every day at lunch. Â What if you’re still finding it hard to call up American Airlines to change a flight?
These articles just made me feel inept.
“Just do it,” they said. Â That sells stuff.
“Fuck you. Â I can’t do it yet,” I answered. Â That will never sell anything.
So, I am here to talk to those who fear change, risk, or rejection. I cannot tell you to fight that fear, because I have not done so myself. I give you no tips on how to overcome obstacles because I frequently falter.
My only inspirational message is this — if you fear something, you should feel it. That’s it. Save fighting it for another day. Â Just feel the fear. Â And know that others feel it too. Â That’s my inspirational message. Â It’s the only way I can help you.
That is what I was searching for tonight. And since I could not find that inspirational article on any website, I wrote it myself.
As I mentioned on Facebook earlier, I was walking home from my first ever check-up at the dermatologist (no problems, yay!), when I passed Lincoln Center and I noticed a group of people taking photos. I had no idea that it was Fashion Week.
Some guy asks me, “Are you a fashion blogger?”
“Well, sort of,” I answered, figuring I needed a post for this week’s micro-blog Monday. (I did recently blog about my new jeans, right?)
On the third day of my honeymoon, I knew my marriage was a mistake. Scott and I were in our hotel room, in bed after a long day sightseeing in Paris, when I looked over at my new husband. Â He was reading from the Frommer’s Guide. It was at that very moment that I saw my future life, married to a respectable man who favored organization over spontaneity. Â Scott was using the same guidebook as my parents. Â Here we were — a young, vibrant couple in a five star hotel in the most romantic city in the world, and my husband was reading from the Frommer’s Guide. Why weren’t we fucking so hard that passerbys could hear us on the Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es?
A few weeks after our return to New York, I met Victor on the elevator in my office building. He worked at the Cruise Company on the 38th Floor. Â He was a few years younger than Scott, and not as financially stable. Â He was not the type of man that I would usually be attracted to, Â but he was funny and he liked me.
One afternoon, we played hooky from our jobs to sing Michael Jackson songs in that Korean karaoke place on 43rd. After a rousing duet of “Thriller, he kissed me and pressed me against the wall, and like an over-anxious schoolboy, I could feel his urgent need for me growing in his pants.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said.
It wasn’t as if I was indecisive about wanting an affair. I knew what was going to happen. That morning, I shaved my legs, painted my lips with the reddest shade I owned, and slipped on my dress like the shameless harlot I hoped to become for the day.
Victor and I took a walk to the Highline. He pointed down 23rd Street to an apartment building a few blocks away.
“That’s where I live. My roommate isn’t there.”
“Good.” I said. Â It was time to break free from a mistaken marriage. Â I closed my eyes and thought about the pleasure and pain I would feel as Victor pinned me to his bed.
Victor noticed the pause, and bit his lip. He was new to all this – dating a married woman. Victor was not a “player.” Â Â He had only slept with one woman, an ex-girlfriend, and he still hoped to one day win her back. Â He was deeply moral, born to a Christian family, and had mistakenly understood my pause for old-fashioned guilt.
“It’ll be our little secret,” he said, assuring me of his trustworthiness and sense of propriety.
And then, as happened when seeing Scott reading the Frommer’s Guide on that night in Paris, I knew Victor was the wrong man for me. Â Scott was following the rules of marriage. Â Victor was following the rules of infidelity. Â And I did not want to be chained down by rules.
I wanted a man withÂ such all-consuming passion for me, needing my body, mind, and spirit so completely that he would have no other choice but to shout it out to the entire city below.
Tom’s Coffee Shop, near Columbia University. This morning. I am sitting with my two old college buddies, Barry and Rob. Just like we used to do in the past.
Neil: It’s so great to sit down with you both in a real coffee shop, and just talk. I’ve missed our talks together, like back in college. Now all we do is talk to each other on Facebook, never face to face.
Barry: It’s great to hang out with you again, Neil.
Rob: You said that you wanted to talk to us about something, Neil?
Neil: Yeah. Well, it’s more like sharing something.
Rob: We’re here for you.
Neil: I just feel a little sad lately. Like it’s finally hitting me, I’m alone. Like I’ve finally moved on from Sophia or Juli, but yet I really haven’t moved on at all.
Barry: So, are you depressed?
Neil: I don’t know if it is depression. I don’t know, maybe.
Barry: Have you ever read the Bloggess? She writes about depression.
Rob: Yeah, depression lies.
Neil: Yeah, yeah. I’ve read her. But that’s a different type of depression.
Rob: Here’s a link to one of her posts.
Neil: Yeah, yeah. I’m just not really in the mood to read the Bloggess right now.
Rob: She’s so funny. I love her last post. It’s not about depression. It’s about ten words that sound like vagina. It’s just so funny. Here’s the link.
Neil: Not in the mood for funny today.
Barry: You know, the best thing ever written on depression is by Allie Brosh from Hyperbole and A Half. Here’s the link.
Neil: Again, I’m not sure it’s depression. And I don’t want to read anything. Just hang out with you guys. Have a real connection. I already spend too much time online.
Barry: I hear you. Everyone only shows a faÃ§ade on social media, avoiding real interaction. Here’s the link to an op-ed in Slate Magazine suggesting that Facebook makes all of us jealous and unhappy.
Rob: I read that op-ed. She’s a Luddite. You need to check out this link on Wired magazine to learn that there are no fundamental differences between friendships online or offline. There’s a pop-up in the link, but just ignore it.
Neil: Maybe I’ll never find love again. I mean I know it’s not true, but I feel it in my gut.
Barry: Your story would Juli would make an excellent memoir orÂ Modern Romance piece in the New York Times. Â Have you seen the Modern Romance submission page? Â Here’s the link.
Rob: Actually, I read that romance stories are not selling that well in the Publishers Weekly, unless it is YA or a sci-fi twist. Here’s the link.
Some guy at the next booth turns around.
Guy: I don’t want to interrupt, but since I am overhearing your conversation, but I’m not listening very closely, I just wanted to tell you that I’m on a date right now, my fifth date since breaking up with my wife of 15 years, and here’s a link to my article in the Huffington Post “How I Got Back Into My Groove After 15 Years of Marriage.” Let me give you that link again, in case it was wrong the first time.
Barry: I never go to the Huffington Post after I read how they treat their writers. Here’s a link to an article in Gawker from one of their former writers.
Rob: Oh, I love that writer. He’s also an excellent photographer. Here’s a link to his Instagram account.
Neil: I know you guys are trying to help. But I just want to hear what you think. I just miss our talks at Columbia. The way we used to share thing with each other.
Barry: I miss our days in college, too.
Neil: Did you see the story from Columbia about that student who is carrying around a mattress as an art project to shame her rapist? Shocking how irresponsible the administration has become making the campus safe for women. Here’s the link.
Rob: The world has gone mad. And no one expresses it better than Chuck Wendig at Terribleminds.com. Here’s the link.
Neil: Do you ever have this feeling, that your heart is breaking? That love is slipping away, like time…
The waiter approaches.
Waiter: I’m Joseph, your waiter, but before I take your order, I’d like to tell that your heart breaking is inconsequential when compared to the broken rubble of the victims of the Israeli genocide in Gaza, or the broken spirits of colored people in this country who face police brutality every day. You can educate yourself on my blog at this link. Now, would anyone like to hear about our specials of the day?
I’m terrible at joining communities online, unless I start them myself. Â (Ha ha, what does that say about me?)
But Melissa of Stirrup Queens always has new ideas to build community, and this one had special appeal to me. Â The idea of #Microblog Mondays is to post something once a week on our blogs that we would normally do on social media. Â And theoretically this will inspire us to all come back to blogging. Â Melissa’s idea is so idealistic, crazy, and ultimately hopeless, that I just knew I had to join up.
Take anything you would have thrown up on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and place it on your blog.Â A passing thought.Â What you did over the weekend.Â What youâ€™re looking forward to during the week.Â What youâ€™re worried about.Â The strangest thing you observed on your way to work.Â The funny thing your kid said.Â A great picture you took during a hike.Â A funny picture you forgot about until you found it while looking for something else.
You can read more at her blog.
OK, here’s my one paragraph post that I would normally put on Facebook. Â Be glad that I am not boring you with it over there.
While I enjoy writing these Fictional Characters of New York that are flooding my blog lately, I am fully aware that I am hiding behind them. It’s as if I don’t know how to write a blog anymore. Â A personal blog is not a memoir. And I don’t want to create some sort of two-dimensional character that is a stand-in for the authentic self. I just don’t feel safe being myself with you, because I don’t know who you are.