Category Archives: life in new york

SLEEP NO MORE and My One-Night-Hand-Stand

vanity fair sleep no moreLast night a strange man held my hand. That’s right: I, Ester Bloom, married lady, mother of a young child, partnered with the same dude since I was 18 years old, committed hand-adultery. I had an anonymous one-night-hand-stand.

Mr. Ben and I were at SLEEP NO MORE, the immersive theater experience where you wander around a huge, five-floor, dimly lit but extravagantly designed set that was once a hotel, forbidden to speak or to remove your opaque white mask. Around you, actors and dancers silently recreate scenes from and inspired by “Macbeth.”

To reach peak surreality, as an audience member, you are encouraged to explore the dreamscape solo. Mr. Ben, who takes this shit very seriously, waved me goodbye early on and dashed off to try to get as many one-on-ones as possible. (That’s when certain cast members take you “off-stage,” into a small enclosed space, for a special bonus dose of weirdness.)

So there I was, be-masked, silent, and alone, watching the banquet scene in the basement, when another audience member — a well-dressed white dude — took my hand. TOOK IT, LIKE IT WAS HIS. Like he was Christopher Columbus and my hand was America.

I cycled through several immediate thoughts:

+ Oh, how embarrassing for him! He must think I’m someone else.

+ Is he a member of the cast who’s going undercover, The Prince and the Pauper-style, by wearing the mask of an audience member?

+ His hand-holding sure is confident! He probably works in derivatives.

+ If I can’t speak, how can I say “no”?

+ Is this like improv, where I’m not supposed to say “no,” at least unless he does something super creepy?

While I was wrestling with all that, Christopher Columbus assertively led me out of the ballroom and to another scene, and then another. After a few minutes it became impossible to shake him off, not just because he was holding my hand so tightly but because perhaps I had missed my window of opportunity. Soon we would be joined together for life! What would I say to Mr. Ben and Babygirl? “Sorry, Christopher Columbus grabbed me. Gotta go. See you maybe in twenty years when he lets go!”

His hand was very warm, yet dry. I didn’t hold his hand back, per se, but I did allow my hand to be held. In almost fourteen years, this is as close as I’ve come to sexual contact with a person besides the father of my child.

Finally, Christopher Columbus led me to the bar on the second floor, which is the oasis in the SLEEP NO MORE desert: the place where you’re allowed to eat and drink and catch your breath and talk.

“Hello,” I said, because I’m exceedingly clever and make my living using words.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he said.

“No thanks?” I said.

He shrugged and smiled and disappeared. That was the last I saw of Christopher Columbus. I put my mask on and went back to SLEEP NO MORE.

“For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.” —
Romeo & Juliet

A Stand-Up Kind of Town

Let it never be said that New Yorkers aren’t polite. Ever since my belly really popped over the last month or so, strangers have been showing the kind of consideration that would bring tears to your eyes.

At some point I started counting the folks who stood up for me on the subway and keeping track of demographic information, because it was fascinating. Here are the stats so far:




WHITE MEN: 2 (both foreigners–one Russian it seemed like, one European)


The one white woman may not even count, since she didn’t actually get up or offer me her seat; when a seat opened and we were both standing near it, she asked if I would like to take it. But it feels nicer to say 1 than 0. The men of color have been black, Hispanic, and, as of today, South Asian/Middle Eastern (I couldn’t really tell and certainly couldn’t ask). Almost all of them have been young. Another black guy not counted here also put up his hands to steady me at one point when it looked like I might fall. I smiled at him in thanks and he nodded seriously like some kind of mid-century superhero just doing his duty.

This may be the best unexpected pregnancy perk: The random, sweet interactions with strangers with whom I would otherwise have no reason to even make eye contact.

If you had asked me what I thought the demographics of this kind of courtesy would look like, I would have been entirely wrong, because I would have guessed that the people most likely to notice and offer assistance would be the people most likely to identify with me in some way. Instead, it’s been the opposite. Apart from the one white girl who only sort of counts, so far, my experience has been that the surest route to remaining on my feet in the train is to plant those feet in front of someone who looks like me. That’s pretty sobering. It makes me reflect back on my own train behavior. I have given up my seat, because my father set that kind of example for me growing up (he helped women carry baby-strollers and always held doors) but on lots of rides, I’ve also been so absorbed in whatever I was reading that I barely noticed what station we were at, let alone who standing in front of me may have needed my seat more than I did.

For now, I almost always smile and shake my head at the person trying to get me to sit, because I’m still feeling fine — walking briskly, going to the gym, wearing regular shoes. There’s no reason I need to sit down. As the summer gets hotter and this planet inside me expands further, I’ll have to adjust; but I don’t want to take advantage of anyone’s kindness before I have to.

That the kindness exists, though, makes me swell with joy.

How to Look Pretty

I am the beautiful reflection / Of my love's affection ...

The Gray Lady has been full of useful advice for the ladies the past couple of weeks! Here are some of her thoughtful suggestions:

Feeding tubes for brides. Looking to fit into that too-small wedding dress in a too-short amount of time? Why not go the Terri Schiavo route? Members of Congress might not judge you brain dead but I certainly might.

Get your husband to sponsor your waxing and obscenely-expensive footwear.

Take multiple exercise classes per day.  Take so many, in fact, that you have no time for men and totally lose sight of why you’re trying to get thin in the first place: “Ms. Greisman, who is single, said she often forfeits other social events for her workouts — ‘the gym is where my friends are,’ she said — and does not make plans on Saturday apart from three of her favorite classes, which run from 11:45 a.m. to nearly 5 p.m. Dating, she mused, ‘would be challenging.'”

* Last but not least, corsets! “Getting the look requires some grit. Tugging on a faja can become a desperate bout of woman versus fabric. Flesh must be coaxed inside, battened down by hooks and, finally, sealed with a zipper that can force the air out of your lungs. ‘The first day you can’t stand it,’ Ms. Murillo said. ‘But then it loosens it up.'”

Stumbling Toward Diversity

Pop culture doesn’t reflect the diversity of day-to-day life in America, especially in urban centers. Lena Dunham’s new series “Girls” on HBO — so wonderfully, awkwardly realistic when it comes to depicting bad job interviews, the vagaries of friendship, and bad sex — flails like a dying fish when dealing with race. Its world is so homogeneous that the show would be more accurately titled “White Girls.” NBC’s “The Office,” set in Scranton, PA, is more ethnically-mixed than Dunham’s Brooklyn; so is the Seattle of ABC’s “Gray’s Anatomy,” which led the charge with color-blind casting in 2005. According to the New York Times:

 “Grey’s Anatomy” has differentiated itself by creating a diverse world of doctors – almost half the cast are men and women of color – and then never acknowledging it. …

When Ms. Rhimes wrote the pilot, she didn’t specify the characters’ ethnicities, so her casting process was wide open: Mr. Washington, who once played a gay Republican in Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus,” was nearly cast in the role played by Patrick Dempsey, who is white; his Dr. Burke was to be played by a white actor who was forced to drop out at the last moment. Ms. Rhimes imagined “The Nazi” as a “tiny, adorable blond person with lots of ringlets,” until Chandra Wilson walked through the door (“I thought it was endearing,” Ms. Wilson said of her part. “Endearing as the word ‘Nazi’ can be.”). And even though some network executives assumed Ms. Oh’s hypercompetitive character would be white, Ms. Rhimes did not – in the pilot’s script she wasn’t even given a last name – so all it took was one “fabulous” audition from the “Sideways” star to christen the character Cristina Yang. …

Ms. Rhimes has also worked hard to extend diversity to her show’s smallest roles. Determined not to have a program in which “all the extras are white, except the lone janitor,” she has created one of the most colorful backgrounds in television, a hospital in which punked-out bike messengers and suffering Hasidim roam the corridors. “Shonda’s only rule is drug dealers and pimps cannot be black,” said Dr. Zoanne Clack, a black writer for the show who also practices medicine. Even the episodic roles – a gay African-American, a young Hispanic couple – are multicultural.

Rhimes’s choices of seven years ago were bold but incredibly successful. Why haven’t they been replicated? After all, following the enormous impact of Twilight, Young Adult bookshelves exploded with copy-cat novels about vampires and virgins and the occult in general, and one fully expects “Mommy Porn” to become its own genre in the near future now that Fifty Shades of Grey has sold 3 million paperback copies in April alone.

One answer is that Rhimes, as an auteur, breathes rarefied air. Like other writer-directors/producers — a talented but small and exclusive fraternity that includes Alan Ball, Joss Whedon, Matthew Weiner, David Chase, and David Simon — she has an unusual amount of creative control over her finished product. If diversity is a priority for her, she can make it happen. Dunham, as this frat’s newest pledge, is still trying to figure out what her priorities are, and some of them are stellar, like being funny and worth watching. As Jenna Wortham of the Hairpin writes, part of the reason that “Girls” has become a lightning rod for the frustration that people of color don’t get to see their experiences reflected on screen is because it “is actually good. It gets So. Many. Things. Right. It’s on point again and again, hitting at the high and low notes about being in your twenties ….”

Dunham prioritizes reflecting her own life experiences and those of her friends in an authentic, engaging way, and apparently this is her world: part Jewish, part WASP-y, and overall fifty shades of pale. She is hardly unique in having a friend circle that reflects her own heritage, although she may be the first well-known person to be publicly shamed for it. Salamishah Tillet in the Nation points out that this larger issue needs to be addressed, since many of us live segregated social lives, and it affects us whether we realize it or not.

Still, we can sympathize with Dunham’s choice to remain true to [her] life and simultaneously be disappointed, because it implies that Dunham, for all her creativity, ambition, wit, and skill, lacks imagination. How hard is it, after all, asks Sarah Seltzer in the NYT, to at last break free of the traditional paradigm where “Characters written as racially neutral (or even as nonwhite) are virtually always cast as white even though movie-watchers and TV watchers of all backgrounds will search for a mirror, an entrance point, among the faces they see on screen.”

Dunham is far from the only auteur, though, with this failing; as Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic points out, why should a 24-year-old just starting out be blamed for not diversifying media when the problem is a systematic one? Judd Apatow is one of Hollywood’s most successful producer-writer-directors. He’s prolific, too: a typical year finds him involved in 2-4 high-profile projects in one capacity or another. And he’s not afraid to take risks, including, most recently, working with newbie Dunham to bring “Girls” to the screen. Yet no film of his has had a single leading character that Joey Drayton would have to think twice about bringing home to her parents. (Unless Tracy and Hepburn have a problem with emotionally-stunted man-children.) The few non-white characters in Superbad, Knocked Up, Pineapple Express, and the others in his stable, even 40 Year Old Virgin — featuring Apatow’s most diverse cast and his smartest script — exist on the fringes of the story and are there mainly for comic effect.

His most recent foray into relationship comedy, Five Year Engagement, which I recently reviewed with writer Adam Freelander for the Billfold, wastes the talents its few non-white actors by rendering them as depressing stereotypes: the bespectacled, socially-awkward Asian guy, the dick-obsessed black man, and Mindy Kaling, who, as Adam puts it, plays “Mindy Kaling, which is technically not an ethnic stereotype, though I’m concerned it soon will be.” The movie’s inability to deal with race in any kind of sophisticated way distracts from its otherwise poignant, interesting exploration of real-life problems.

Is it better, ultimately, to write minority characters, even when you end up making an ass of yourself, or should you stick to what you know at the expense of relegating minorities to the margins, if you remember to include them at all? Put simply: Try and maybe fail, or don’t try?

Unfortunately, as long as “don’t try” is an option, too many filmmakers and showrunners will quail at the prospect of doing it wrong and getting criticized and will revert to what feels easier. We need a sustained outcry against having movie after movie and TV show after show that is as white as a “New Yorker” cartoon. This is not about Lena Dunham; this is about our culture, and how much more we will all benefit from color-blind casting in our media and, hopefully, in our lives. Studios needs to stop considering it an option to have a totally vanilla cast, or one that pretends to be a sundae just because it has a couple of sprinkles here and there. Producers need to insist on better minority characters, and to recruit minority writers, directors, and producers to help them and their staffs see around their blind spots. Everyone will be better for it.

And writers, have a little courage! Expand your boundaries. Good faith efforts are often rewarded, especially as long as the quality is there. Just ask Shonda Rhimes, whose show was just renewed for a ninth season. Channel the advice of one memorable minority character from a 1977 classic: “Do or do not. There is no ‘try.'”


ETA: Cross-posted to Huff Po here.

What Makes You Cry

Recently, some friends and I faced an important choice, one approached soberly and with purpose by millions of people across this great country of ours: the Descendants or the Muppets? Most people chose the Muppets, a reportedly sweet reviving of the old-school franchise, which is cool, but the new Alexander Payne tragicomedy, wherein a wealthy man must deal with the dissolution of his family, also did respectable business.

According to the newly-posted Top Ten lists of the Most Important Davids In the Universe, Denby and Edelstein, we made the right decision. Indeed, I was entertained by the film, though I agreed with the Slate Culture Gabfest that it had its perplexing points and that George Clooney’s role was both miscast and underwritten. I enjoyed watching Clooney because, you know, I have eyes, but I didn’t believe the set up (that guy is a cuckolded workaholic lawyer? Come on) and then I most certainly didn’t buy the halfhearted resolution of the land deal.

But what really struck me is that I didn’t cry. Not even a little.

Shortly thereafter, though, I was at the gym re-watching, for the nth time and on my iPhone’s little screen, “Once More With Feeling,” and I was crying so hard I had to keep wiping my face with the locker room towel. Are you bemused by that? I am. My life feels so topsy-turvy these days that a mom dying in a hospital leaves me tepid, while I am reduced to bawling on a treadmill by the 10-year-old emotional turmoil of a scrappy teenage girl. And not just any girl: a BLONDE. (As another brunette once asked Liz Lemon, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”)

Mr. Ben and I are moving slowly, steadily toward buying — and then moving into — our first apartment. It’s not much, but it’s ours, or, well, hopefully it will be. Meanwhile, everyone in my office is tense and working overtime. I am about to deliver my first draft of my manuscript to my literary agent. (One of the essays I wrote in Virginia has already been published in Bluestem; another is due out in Phoebe in January.) Big things are happening to my friends. I’ve barely had time to blog. Hopefully, in the new year, everything will be a little calmer, a little simpler, but no less fun. Here’s hoping.

Out of House and Home

Together, Mr. Ben and I have been preparing to embark on the incredible journey of Home Ownership. It is a quintessentially American journey, more American than Route 66 or McDonald’s or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps — at which, by the way, apparently our people take a back seat to the Danes, Swedes, Canadians, and lots of other pinko-commies who have supposedly grown fat and lazy sucking on the government’s teat.

Over the years, we have pinched our pennies until the outline of Lincoln’s hat remained etched on our thumbs, and stretched a dollar til it was so thin you could read through it. Despite bouts of unemployment, Mr. Ben’s law school debt, and the fact that we got engaged and then married, we now have enough money for a down payment. What’s the secret, you ask? Well, for one thing, you let your parents pay for the wedding, even if it means they do everything their way and you get about as much say as the flower girl. For another, you re-use everything. Those sweatpants your mom bought you from the Limited when you were ten? Why *not* wear those to gym? So what if you look like Liz Lemon on an off day?

SIDE NOTE: I love it when people compliment Liz Lemon.

“You’re Liz Lemon, damn it. In certain lights, you’re an 8! Using East Coast, over-35 standards, excluding Miami.” –Jack

“There’s something about you lately. Make me want to put my feet in your mouth.” –Tracy

Um, I’m getting off track. The point is, I’ve been looking at apartments since late summer and discovered, as many good people have before me, that in New York, the definition of “amenities” has been broadened to include many things that residents of other places take for granted, such as “light,” “floorboards,” “non-lead paint,” etc. In order to get a whopping three (3) rooms, plus a kitchen and a bathroom, in a Stuff White People Like neighborhood, you need to produce a huge amount of money, the kind of dough that bought a prize racehorse in the Godfather

Poor Khartoum came to a sticky end, as perhaps you recall.

Anyway, we have an accepted offer on our apartment of choice, and it’s all terribly exciting. In honor of this development (and in honor of Filmspotting, which I’ve been listening to regularly now for almost a year), I thought I’d do a Top 5 list of movies about houses, and I’m soliciting suggestions. What are your favorites?

In any such endeavor, rules are crucial:

1) The house must be a character of sorts in the film and not just a backdrop (so, like, the Austen novel Mansfield Park would count, but the Austen novel Emma would not).

2) The hotel in The Shining does not count as a house. Neither does the prison in The Shawshank Redemption. We’re being strict here, people.

3) The action must take place largely in or around the house; the house must be central to the plot and even the identity of the film.

So! Recommendations? Suggestions? Let’s hear ’em.

Occupy Kol Nidre

This Friday at 7:00 PM, for the first time, I will join the Occupy Wall Street protesters. In prayer.

Yup! Those over-educated anarchist 99%ers are going to observe the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. They have an objective, which is simple, straightforward, and clear: Put on a Kol Nidre service. Will it be audible? Will it even make sense? I have no idea. Will it be memorable? How could it not be? And that’s what I care about.

A co-worker is considering coming too. I stressed the memorable argument — after all, how many Kol Nidre services will you think back on in your life as distinct, individual events, as opposed to a blurred succession of evenings in shul? But she countered with a question: “Will it be spiritual?”

This is a fair point and it wasn’t anywhere on my list of concerns. I’m not even sure what spiritual means. 13 years of religious school, summers of religious summer camp, thousands of Shabbes dinners, holidays, & bar and bat mitzvahs, a semester of living in Israel, being called “Super Jew” my first year in college until I better learned how to present myself, officially joining a synagogue at 29 with my Jewish husband who I married under a chuppah and everything, and now 2+ years working at a Jewish non-profit — and I still know bupkis about spirituality.

Frankly, I’m okay with that.

My boss bemoaned the fact that her teenage son wasn’t into religion. “Think of it this way,” I told her. “There are only two possibilities for a 16 year old boy: He could either be totally secular, or he could be blowing himself up. So, secular is better.” It made her laugh, and that was part of my intention, but I also kind of meant it. A personal relationship with an entity you conceive of as almighty and infallible and in charge of the universe can be super, in theory. In practice, it tends to make people act in unfortunate ways, like, you know, bringing down the World Trade Center or launching the Crusades.

One of the things I really like about the high holiday liturgy is the emphasis on the community. You didn’t sin this year; we did. So we gather together to ask for forgiveness as a body. After all, maybe you yourself gave blood every month and honored your father and your mother and skipped bacon at brunch. It doesn’t matter much if the guy next to you works as a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs. We’re all in it together, communists and capitalists — frankly, Jews have always excelled at being both — and we’re all culpable.

It hasn’t been said much, except probably by people like David Duke: A lot of those people on Wall Street are members of the tribe. There are many more of us, of course, who are merely suffering through the repercussions. Regardless of whether you work for a bank or are still paying off your college loans to one, this is the time to atone, and we should do it publicly. This isn’t about self-hate, or shame; this is merely the time of the year to say “I’m sorry for what we’ve done” and Z Square is the best place to do it.

Good on Occupy Wall Street for setting this up. This is an agenda I can support.

Growing Up

How do you know when you’ve crossed the fuzzy line between prolonged-adolescence and adulthood? When you pay your own rent? Do your own taxes? When you lose a job, get another job, lose THAT job too, and keep going? When you surrender your wisdom teeth to a terrifying hobo dentist?

When all the adult men in your family are dead?

When you publish writing for money? When you can loan out money? When you begin to think of a womb as a space that, conceivably, could be filled, instead of negative — and I do mean negative — space?

When you realize that you’ve been married for four years, and four years is a presidential term, is an undergraduate education, is high school, is a LONG TIME? And you vote not to switch horses in midstream? Four more years! Four more years!

When you think about buying an apartment in a neighborhood that lacks all white-people amenities you’re used to being surrounded by (cupcakes, coffee shops, boutiques, indie bookstores, Trader Joe’s) because if you’re going to push a stroller anywhere it may as well be in this modern-day Sesame Street: past small cafes filled with families, and through a park overrun with kids, and along sidewalks where old men at tables play dominoes and bridge?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially while watching the Hogwarts kids we’ve been following for a decade finally leave the school (after getting to defend AND destroy it, which feels like an excellent metaphor to me), while reading this mind-blowing Cheryl Strayed essay, “The Love of My Life,” while bracing myself to turn 29. As you know, American women do not age beyond 29 until they hit menopause, and then they resume aging*, however grouchily, so this is quite a milestone.  (*Exception: All “Real Housewives” everywhere.)

Am I an adult? Dr. Worthless told me I was in 2007:

The original prescription for adulthood

He also gave me prescriptions for real drugs. The transactions were simple: I gave him my $40 co-pay; he gave me a scrip. “What separates you from a drug dealer?” I asked him once. “Ha ha ha!” he said. “Ha ha! But seriously, drug dealers don’t care about your health.”

Now I have a new doctor I largely trust, one who keeps me chemically in order. I also see another guy who does therapy through body work. It’s fascinating. The therapist, who I call Obi Wan for his demeanor and dress, presses on a particular muscle and associations push to the surface. Getting up off the table after an hour, I feel like Frankenstein’s monster, hyper-aware of every limb and how each connects.

And I have a new job at my job. Believe it or not, I am the “Manager of Institutional Development,” meaning I do research into various foundations and them write them earnestly to make the case that my foundation deserves their cash. That is an adult title, and my office gave it to me rather than telling me to take myself out along with the trash. (True story!) That’s progress.

Except growing up isn’t progress once you’re past 21, right? Isn’t that what we learn from the horrifying posters for The Change-Up? Babes make you happy while babies make you miserable. Commitment corrodes our free-loving souls.

Thanks Hollywood

Or is that only true for men?


Maybe you never actively identify as an adult until one day there are enough kids around — or twenty-somethings, but they look like kids — treating you as one. Maybe that’s how it happens. Or maybe it’s when random men stop asking when you’re going to graduate from college. I’ll just have to wait and see.

Reading Papa on Trains

My new thing: Inadvertently picking up boys by reading Hemingway in a public place.

SCENE: Uptown 1 train during rush hour

CHARACTERS: A whole train full of them, leaving only scattered seats available for our heroine, ESTER, who carries a purse, a tote bag, and a paperback copy of The Sun Also Rises. She navigates her way towards an empty spot next to a young white male HIPSTER, with unwashed hair and metal stuff in his face, who is sprawled casually across several seats. His feet rest against the pole.

HIPSTER: That’s a good book.

ESTER: [smiles politely, like she always does when strange men speak to her uninvited.]

HIPSTER: [louder] That’s a good book!

ESTER: Uh huh! [unspoken: Actually, I’m finding it pretty boring, but I’d like to keep reading, so if you –]

HIPSTER: I love Hemingway. He’s so great.

ESTER: Yeah! Well, except, his voice does seem pretty similar book to book. I just read A Moveable Feast and —

HIPSTER: A Moveable what?

ESTER: Uh, A Moveable Feast.

HIPSTER: I don’t know it.

ESTER: It’s his memoir of life in Paris. You should read it — it has F. Scott Fitzgerald in it.*

HIPSTER: [blank stare]

ESTER: Anyway, it strikes me as funny that the narrator there is essentially exactly the same as the narrator in this one — and this one’s supposed to be fiction.

HIPSTER: But that’s the thing! It’s all HIM. It’s so real.

The man himself

ESTER: Sure! And he seems so happy, drinking, living in Europe, meeting women …

[HIPSTER smiles suggestively. He is good-looking, although not as good-looking as he thinks he is, and his feet are still on the pole. He is taking up enough space for at least three people.]

HIPSTER: Yeah. He had the life!

ESTER: Yeah! The details are so strange, though. He’s totally into cataloging exactly what he ate, what he drank, and then the streets he took to get home to his apartment in Paris, but then his wife has a baby and you don’t hear anything about that til the kid is 6 weeks old. I guess it’s no surprise he got divorced. … And then he killed himself.

HIPSTER: Yeah! What’s up with that? Isn’t that weird?

ESTER: Seriously. To go all around the world, sleep with everyone, be a writer, eat and drink and have a great time, and then blow your head off in Idaho. … Here’s my stop! Have a nice day.


* The best part of that entire book is a conversation between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway in a cafe where Fitzgerald confesses that Zelda told him his penis is too small to give a woman pleasure and he is now terminally insecure about it. Hemingway takes him into the bathroom to see, tells him it’s fine, and then takes him to the Louvre to look at naked statues. Even that doesn’t alleviate poor Fitzgerald’s concern. But you have to admit, Papa was a good friend.