The Unspeakable Number Explained

During an August visit to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I enjoyed the huge exhibit “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950.” It ranged over painting, prints, photography and murals, with plenty of explanation of the pieces’ context.

And then I came to one that stopped me cold and sent my memory back 50 years. The exhibit showed a poster with the title “Los 41 Maricones” and below that a poem “Aqui Están Los Maricones . . . Muy Chulos y Coquetones,” based on a 1901 scandal in Mexico City where 41 men were arrested at a social event where 19 dressed as women. The exhibit translated the title as “The 41 Faggots . . . Very Cute and Coquettish.” The history of the episode can be found here.

The notorious illustration.

The notorious illustration.


The poster and explanation stunned me because it explained a mystery that goes back almost 50 years. During my 1960s days at William Jennings Bryan Elementary School in Mission, Texas, boys regularly invoked the number “41” to signify something. What, nobody knew. But the meaning always spanned naughty to rude to vile and shameful. I never asked, and I wonder if anybody, kid or adult in my heavily Hispanic town, knew. If anybody knew, they weren’t talking.  Maybe this was common knowledge that the gringo population never picked up on, in our ignorance (emphasis on “ignore”) of Mexican culture and history.

Mystery surrounded the number 41. When smirked on the playground, it had vague but alarming vibrations, something best avoided. By the time my classmates and I reached Mission Junior High School, puberty ran wild and numerology mattered far less than the adolescent blossoming all around us.

The forbidden number sank like a stone to the bottom of my consciousness. But it’s there. To this day I can’t see the number on a sports uniform or license plate without a tiny shake of recognition. He said 41. Still, I never knew what it meant and never even looked it up.

Then, at the Museum of Fine Arts, I read all about it.

The explanation made perfect sense, a direct allusion to homosexuality that nobody, but nobody, back then would want to explain or acknowledge except as a sneering shorthand.The number and the episode behind it referred to matters far beyond social propriety. Hearing it in South Texas made sense, given that Mission was three miles from the Rio Grande. The permeable border allowed cultural influences to cross both ways. Over the decades the Mexican meaning of 41 seeped into the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. It became part of the myths and mysteries that kids passed along.

Does the meaning still resonate in the Valley? I don’t know. Maybe this essay will shake some memories out of the trees of 50-somethings. I did discover that the 1901 scandal continues to echo, with a group reversing the number’s shameful meaning into an affirmation. describes itself as

Honor 41 is a national Latina/o LGBTQ online, 501 c3 non-profit organization that promotes positive images of our community, creates awareness about our issues and builds an online family/community.

The word “Honor” means pride in English and Spanish.

The number 41 has a derogatory connotation in Mexican culture. For over 100 years calling someone “41” or associating anyone or anything with that number labeled them maricon/joto which in English translates to calling someone faggot/gay.

By adopting 41 in our name, we take away the negative, oppressive power associated to the number; we educate others about this important moment in LGBTQ history; we honor their legacy; and honor our own lives and contributions to society.

Honor41 envisions a world where Latina/o LGBTQ individuals can live their lives with honor, by being “out”, with acceptance from their families and community, and fully integrated in all aspects of society.

I like that approach. Take the term, turn it around, own it, use it for good. Take 41 out of the shadows and nullify its sting. Maybe the meaning will be different for the next generation.

A Retro-New Look for the Rocketman

All the distracting uproar over the colorful beach shirt worn by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta project scientist for the European Space Agency’s successful effort to put a probe on a comet, sent me to my bookshelves, pawing for a paperback my father gave me 40 years ago as I (or rather, he) planned my post-college corporate life: “Dress for Success“, by John T. Molloy.

I couldn’t find it, but from reading the Amazon comments on the book I could recall its advice on suits, shirts, shoes and how clothes should fit. It served me well in the years when I had jobs that required wearing a more corporate look. When I started in the firmwide communications department at blue-chip accounting firm Price Waterhouse in 1996, everybody wore suits, with a casual Friday. Then that morphed into casual summer and by the the time I left in 1999, casual 24/7. And so the code remains with even more looseness in the corporate circles I’ve encountered. I thought, too bad that Taylor didn’t read it before he appeared in all his tattooed slacker glory on the world media scene. His haircut and beard trim looked quite presentable, at least. Somebody cleaned him up a bit.

Molloy’s ideas continue to influence how I dress. Every business shirt in my closet is a button-down, either blue or yellow or pink. My ties are silky with deep rich colors (my favorites are my Jerry Garcia ties). My suits, some still hanging around from the late 90s, are dark blue or charcoal and either plain or slightly pinstriped. My fashion-forward late-80s Hugo Boss suit, shimmering grey with the chunky shoulders, hit the racks at Goodwill years ago. On the spectrum of male work clothes, I’m far more Malloy than nerdy-techy, in theory if not practice.

Taylor’s shirt makes me wonder not so much about the latest social-media rage spiral, but the space agency’s media relations department and Taylor’s own common sense. Having worked as the back-up press spokesman for a New York law firm, I know you want to think about every contingency before an interview, especially one for TV. Media trainers should have spent serious time with Taylor drilling him on what he was going to say and also the impression he would make after the landing.

The uproar doesn’t reflect poorly on Taylor, who probably lives on an intellectual-technological level far beyond the dreary concerns of dress codes. Instead, the fault lies with the people who put him in front of a camera, like a lamb before the wolves. Somebody in PR was asleep or on heavy medication. Taylor may not have much in the way of a corporate sartorial sense, but the communications pros at the European Space Agency should.

If Taylor and the European Space Agency wanted to fire up enthusiasm for intergalactic exploration, might I suggest a retro-modern look? Take the conservative sensibility of John Molloy and cross-pollinate it with the practical, authentic, cool-in-the-clutch look so common at Mission Control during the space race of the 1960s and visible in “The Right Stuff.” Short bristly hair, black plastic glasses, pocket protectors — they all screamed “competence” in a way that can’t be duplicated so easily with the unkept look. With some long sleeves and sensible haircuts, the Taylors of the world world would look a bit more presentable. And, I might venture, warm feelings based on the great era of space exploration could come back and public interest in space might blossom (and that translates enthusiasm for increased funding, if you want to be a cold-blooeded realist about the impact).

The only risk is that the rage spiral would then focus on regressive exclusionist male privilege styles–you know how that drill goes. Still, the European Space Agency should boldly go where fashion had gone before. Think of it as “Mad Men in Space.”



Junior High Confidential: Teenage Dance Party, 1971!

Hormones + a dark room + Jackson 5 records = a fun evening for all, according to my notes from autumn 1971, a Facebook ThrowBackThursday special.

November 6, 1971. Tonight is Lois’ party, + I guess I’ll go. It’s from 7:30 to 11:30 pm, at Lois’ house (I guess) + I’m looking forward to it. The only problem is since I’ve never been to a party like this, I don’t know what to expect, what to wear, + how to get home. Mom says I can call her, but getting her up from bed at 11:30 (if I stay that long) or later isn’t too appealing.

November 7, 1971. Last night I went to Lois’ party + had a lot of fun. Good many people there: me (of course), Daniel, David, Joe Sietz, John N., Tito, Abel, Johnnie Martinez, Ridling, Dean Williford, Pee Wee, some high school guys, Robert Rojas, Joe Gonzales, Ricky Garcia, Eli Ochoa, + others I don’t know or remember. Oh, yes, Larry Bray was there, as was Gabby Garza + Ricky Hinojosa. The girls were: Lois, Angie, Sylvia, Dee Dee, Dalia Martinez, Janet, Stephana, Sandy Miller, Mary Ann, Cynthia Nelson, Raynell, Hilda Perez, Teresa C., Rachel Currie, Sheri, Bertha Hernandez, Joe G’s sister, Rhonda, Sandra Kemp and some more I can’t remember.

Anyway, I got there about 7:45 pm at Lois’ house at 16th + Conway. I walked to the door + peered thru the darkness + saw that it was the right address (1623 Conway) + told Mom + Coop who where parked on the curb, told ’em it was the right house and to leave. So I walked to the door.

The 1st time I went up to the door I  knew it was the right house because I could hear young voices inside + an Osmonds song on a record player.

As I walked in the room where the action was was in almost total darkness, illuminated by a candle at each end of a room 7 yds wide + 15 long. The walls were jammed with people. The 1st person I saw was Daniel + Charlie + Ricky Garcia, by the door. We talked a bit + they told me David was at the far end of the room.

He was, with Joe, John + Belinda, Ricky + a few others. We sat + talked a while, every so often someone moving to a refreshment table at the corner of the room across from us.

After an hour or more (Time got too fuzzy to remember when things happened) I danced with . . .

The music was well fitted for the occasion, lots + lots of slow 45s like the Osmonds, Jackson 5, Carpenters, etc. They must have a huge collection of records but only 1 album was out “Cosmo’s Factory” + it was played for only parts of 2 songs. I left a little before 11:30. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I, Gym-Rat Tribute

I’m a jaundiced consumer of marketing messages. Sales don’t impress me, corporate incentive programs rarely catch my eye, and I save money when shopping by not buying anything–I can swing through Macy’s or a mall and enjoy the shopping experience without actually buying stuff to clutter my life. But a marketing pitch that combines simplicity and cleverness can grab my attention. And even inspire a blog post.

So here I am, gazing with fevered curiosity at a program that I picked up at the Westport branch of the New York Spots Club yesterday. Do I have what it takes to “TRAIN LIKE A TRIBUTE-CAN YOU SURVIVE THE GAMES?” Today’s the deadline! Order now at the low, low price of $105 for four one-hour sessions! Should I?

NYSC, employing nothing more advanced than a black-and-white printer, caught my eye with a deal for a fitness program geared to The Hunger Games. As fate would have it, I read the book about six weeks ago and greatly enjoyed it. Now, here’s the NYSC rolling out a program, “limited to 12 members one for each district,” mimicking the skills used to deadly effect in the book by survivor Katniss Everdeen.


To train like a tribute, the NYSC mixes traditional fitness-class moves with some Hunger Games specialties: You get archery (ka-zinggg!), tree climbing simulation, speed work, strength training, and high-intensity cardio with weight-lifting exercises. Given my age, I’d probably keel over before I reached tribute-level fitness level, but, still, I’m curious. If the sale continues past today, heck, I may do it. I could use some diversity in my workout routine, which mostly centers on hand weights with a focus of not overdoing anything that would result in a yanked muscle or tendon.

Thirty years ago, I would have laughed if anybody had suggested I sign up for a fitness class, let alone join a fancy-pants place like the NY Sports Club (fancy only in my imagination, given that my previous gym experience was limited to the weight room at the PE center of Mission High School). I disdained gyms in favor of relentless walking around New York and Brooklyn. If I wanted to push myself, I’d jog along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, starting around the fabled Brooklyn House of Detention and plodding along to the intersection with fabled Flatbush Avenue. I’d stagger back home and collapse, waiting for any twinge in my knee to blossom in to a full-blown health crisis. It never did, but I never became a regular jogger.

My attitude changed once I moved to suburban Connecticut and eventually became a commuter in 1996, on the train daily from Westport to Grand Central Terminal, and then on to blue-chip accounting firm Price Waterhouse on Avenue of the Americas. Soon after I started this job,after a year of unemployment, I heard about the employee discount program for memberships at the NYSC. Somehow, the idea that I needed to take better care of myself as a new father penetrated my sometimes-thick skull, and I became a member.

Except for a four-year period between 2002 and 2006–when I dropped my membership due to post-divorce financial reasons, then joined the Jewish Community Center with its own fitness center in Stamford–I’ve been a member ever since.

I’m the most surprised person in the world at this evolution from sluggard to gym rat. In the early years I mixed treadmill workouts (timed to coincide with watching the soap opera Days of Our Lives on the big monitors at the club) with total-body conditioning classes. I mostly stick with weights now, with the occasional session on the elliptical walker (where I usually watch country-western or 80s/90s videos on the machine’s monitor). Frankly, I’m in a rut. A few years ago I tried cardio kickboxing, and before that yoga, but breaking out of the typical routine takes effort. Separate from the club, I also took a 10-week krav maga class in Stamford in 2007, which was the most exhausting physical workout I’ve ever had

Thus, the tribute program jolted me with the promise of something new, something fresh and engaging. Archery and tree-climbing: well, those are ways to break out of the routine. I just hope I don’t break a bone — after various aches and pains from overdoing workouts over the years, I’m very attuned to my limits.

Do I dare rise beyond the routine to become a Tribute, proudly representing District Westport in the Fairfield County Games? Stay tuned.

Before Lena Dunham (Girls), There Was Lena Nyman (Yellow)

The slow-building surge of publicity for the third season of HBO’s Girls is beginning, with ads, cast profiles and soon, no doubt, magazine covers. Lena Dunham knows how to capture an audience. I find Girls’ characters sometimes tedious, but the series is compulsively watchable — and I can identify with some of their concerns? After all, I spent my 20s in Brooklyn, fresh out of college and scraping for work and romance as a creative type, back in the Jurassic Age.

While I’m waiting for the new season, I’m wondering about the significance of the show. The NY Times can scarcely go a day without mentioning it in some context. So daring, so of the era it is.

But how controversial and pathbreaking is Lena Dunham compared to another Lena — Lena Nyman, who starred as “Lena” in the 1967 Swedish movie I Am Curious (Yellow), which was banned from being imported into the U.S. for being obscene. I remember reading about the obscenity case as a kid and I was always, well, curious about the film. The movie posters with the pouty, direct gaze of Nynam said nothing about the content, other than it featured a pouty Swedish actress.

Time passes. Courts rule the movie is not obscene and it becomes a huge art-house hit in the U.S. Forty-four years after the movie squirms its way into the U.S., rocking the moviegoing public with its boldly uncompromising Euro-New Wave style, I finally get my sweaty, trembling paws on a copy of what must be a sizzling piece of cinema — at the Westport, CT, Public Library. There’s the history of American morality in one movie, from banned in the U.S. to a safe little nook at the library (I expect Deep Throat will show up one of these tolerant days).

And that brings me to Lena and Lena. For all the hats thrown into the air in celebration of what Lena D. does with Girls, Lena N. paved the way for her on the sexual front in the 1960s (albeit in black and white). Topless meditation? Check. Sex in her father’s apartment? Check. Public copulation? And she did it all without a lot of distracting, skanky tattoos. The two Lenas even bear a physical resemblance, in the bare sense. They’re not beauties, fleshier than the scrawny model types, but they’re ready to make the most of what they’ve got and put themselves out for their art. Both are fearless in front of the camera.

The degrees of different in the limits of sexual expression between late 1960s and now are instructive. Yellow has full-frontal nudity, which Girls hasn’t yet leaped into yet. That must be a taboo Dunham can’t quite break. Yellow has also more roughly physical sex, enough to trouble the sensitivities of modern viewers, although Girls has its share of uncomfortable couplings. The men of Yellow and Girls show lots similarities — sneaking around and keeping their relationship secrets, working on their careers, wheeling and dealing emotionally.

The two works differ most sharply, tonally, in the ferociously political world of Yellow versus the withdrawal from politics in Girls. The first part of Yellow, to the point of tedium, involves Nyman interviewing Swedes, like an investigative reporter, about income inequality in Sweden, class issues, even their thoughts on vacationing in Francisco Franco’s Spain. She’s quite the fearless interviewer, going right into the labor union headquarter to pepper leaders with her questions. How much is real, how much is scripted? That’s part of the film’s charming mix of fact and fiction; it even includes interviews with Martin Luther King Jr., (interviewed by director Vilgot Sjöman on civil disobedience during a trip of his to Sweden), a backyard interview with Olof Palme, who later became the Swedish prime minister, and a presentation by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Nyman and her friends protest against the Vietnam War, the Swedish military and other issues. The film is a time capsule of its era.

And Girls? I’ve seen every episode and I can’t recall anything political, unless you want to say the personal is political. The ailing economy looms over the characters, Wall Street financiers are loathed yet longed-for, real estate prices are in the background (how can marginally employed characters live anywhere?), but my impressions is that Dunham and friends live in a time warp slightly distant from the realities that surround them. That’s OK with me, I’m not looking for political lectures, but the contrast is stark.

For all the differences, I’ll always link Yellow and Girls. They get people talking and stirred up, they reflected distinct visions, I was sorry to learn than Nyman died in 2011 at the age of 66. A meeting between the two Lenas, pathbreakers in their own ways, would have been enjoyable, two women talking about their times.


Head On Back to Tennessee (Williams)

Lately, people have been talking about their binges of watching Breaking Bad. I’ve never seen a minute of it. Instead, here’s my binge-lite story.

I recently saw Blue Jasmine and liked Woody Allen’s reworking of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Having seen the play at least twice, I could pick up on the references. Last night I went back to the cultural output of Williams himself with The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, with Ava Gardner and teen hottie Sue Lyon melting the DVD with fine support from Richard Burton.

This marked yet another checkmark on my list of Tennessee Williams’ plays and movies I’ve seen. Over the last six months, I’ve done my own slow-mo binge watching of his films and found them all riveting. I didn’t set out to do this; the works just crept up on me like a sinuous southern vine wrapping itself around my Netflix list and, with a drawl and flirtatious glance, beckoning me to abandon myself.

The addiction must have begun in my early years, as so many addictions do, when I saw a high school or college production of The Glass Menagerie. I’ll pay it the highest compliment I can for a literary work: I remembered part of it almost verbatim, the lines that say,

“The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.”

The current Williams kick began about six months ago when I pulled Suddenly, Last Summer off the shelf of my local library, mostly because I was going through an Elizabeth Taylor movie binge. While I didn’t know what to expect, I was familiar with the iconic beach photo of La Liz, with her wind-tossed hair and tight one-piece swimsuit.

What a treat awaited me! The film’s over-the-top Southern atmosphere (always appealing to me) with high-voltage performances by Taylor and Katherine Hepburn, haunted by the mysterious death of Hepburn’s son on a European vacation, drew me in. Mental illness, asylums, lust-crazed patients, the final confrontation that explains everything and plenty of shrieking and emoting by Taylor made the movie appealing.

I checked out other movies as some buzzer went off in my head in response to external stimuli. When Scarlett Johansson played Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, I decided to see the original film with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. This was one of those plays and movies I had always heard about but never seen. The title and general outline are so much a part of American culture that I had a sense of deja vue—like I had seen it, but I really hadn’t. And as I did see it, I felt I wasn’t seeing what I expected. Taylor delivered all the voluptuousness I expected, but the undercurrent of childlessness deeply moved me, as her yearnings collided with her husband’s drinking and unspoken feelings about a friend’s suicide.

Night of the Iguana took the basic elements of regret, alcohol, confusion, male dissolution and repressed female yearnings in a Mexican setting, with Richard Burton the fallen minister leading a tour group from a Texas Baptist college on a tour of Mexico. He’s got a troubling penchant for young women, and Carroll Baker steps smartly into the role to show that you don’t have to be unclothed to be steamy.

She soon leaves the stage as Ava Gardner’s Maxine, a hotel proprietor, takes the stage. I had never seen Ava Gardner in a movie before, and let’s say she made a big impression with her tousled hair, forward style and glimpses of longing and vulnerability. She plays off another female character, Deborah Kerr, as a hotel guest. I had to chuckle at the scene where Gardner romps in the Mexican surf with two shirtless Mexican houseboys at her hotel – the scene reminded me of Kerr’s aquatic embrace with Burt Lancaster in the Hawaiian surf 11 years earlier in From Here to Eternity.

Iguana rolls to an explosive end (typical for Williams material) with Burton trussed up in a hammock as he roars through his alcohol addiction. The romantic hopes and tangles sort themselves out and the movie concludes with a tentatively hopeful note.

I’m already looking forward to the next entries in my Williamsfest s drawn from this best-of list – Baby Doll, Summer and Smoke, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. I may not score many points in the pop-culture department, but I know what I like when I see it. Call it the writing, the late 50s-early 60s acting style, the Southern settings – whatever it is, I’m ready to curl up with some more Williams. And based on what I’ve seen, I’m going to spin off into more of Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner.

The Jong Show, Lust Made Flesh

Author Erica Jong is now marking the 40th anniversary of the publication of Fear of Flying. She has sold 27 million copies of it. She can probably be published anywhere she wants, on any topic. She’s been a media celebrity since the Nixon era and she’s working on a new book called, daringly enough, Fear of Dying (it’s not a sequel). She’s written 22 books, is 71 years old and looks and sounds great and she likes to write and talk about sex.

When I learned she would be speaking at the Westport Public Library last week, I knew I had to drop everything to get there to hear her. After all these decades of quietly, politely lusting after her, our moment of spiritual communion had arrived.

Erica Jong 111-edit

Actually, I didn’t pine for her so much as for the concept of her. Erica the lusty (those early pictures of her!), Erica the educated, Erica the Jewish — she fit into the image of women that fascinate me. I wasn’t a groupie, wasn’t a big reader of her non-Fear of Flying works, she just hovered in my imagination more so than, say, Mary Higgins Clark. And the fact that Jong and I live in adjoining towns means that we share even the same physical space–if she likes to go to the Stop & Shop in Westport, CT, that is.

After a slowww commute home from Manhattan, I raced to the library and found the meeting room jammed. I squeezed in and leaned against the back wall, camera and notebook in hand.

“It’s an amazing event that Fear of Flying is 40,” she said in a wry tone. “I wish I was 40.” The sales went far beyond any possible expectation. She aimed for sales of 3,500 given the literary nature of the book. Instead, it found an audience and now three new editions are in the works, along with the digitization of her back list and decades-long discussions about a movie version (big-name actresses like Goldie Hawn and Barbra Streisand have aged into their golden years waiting for the role to materialize).

She gave the audience, mostly middle-aged and above suburban women, a shiver of naughty delight by reading passage of Fear of Flying about the world-historical concept of the zipless fuck. She read,

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

“Nowadays they call these things ‘hookups.’ Are they better for today’s girls? I don’t think so,” she mused.

Whatever Fear of Flying accomplished, it did not herald an ongoing surge of sexual delight. Forty years on, she says with dismay, she’s hearing from young women that “the sex out there is not that great,” what with men so exhausted and disoriented by computer sex that, come the opportunity to engage with a real-life woman, they just can’t perform. Yes, impotence casts its fierce and flaccid shadow across the land.

I was surprised by the amount of time Jong and the audience spent slagging 50 Shades of Grey (soon to be a major motion picture, which Fear of Flying has yet to achieve). She called it “unreadable” and repetitious, badly in need of a copy editor. Not only the writing but the characters came under her harsh commentary. The main character, the young and sullied innocent Anastasia, disappointed Jong with her eager acquisition of stuff, a long, long slide from the enlightened women of the early 1970s, when Fear of Flying raised hopes that “we were new kinds of women” and nobody would have sex for money.

(Jong’s comments echo a past theme of hers. In 2011, she edited the anthology Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex, which in one online ad compared itself favorably to 50 Shades, as if the two were in some kind of psychic, feminine competition.)

Time flies, and flying (a reference in part to Jong’s literal fear of flying) will soon share space with dying in Fear of Dying. The book, 10 years in the works, is about a 60ish actress, Vanessa Wunderman, who can’t get good parts and has to deal with the ageing process, made more painful because of her beauty. Death surrounds her, even her dog, a “Jewdle,” or Jewish poodle. Still, “sex and death dance well together.”

Asked by an elderly wag who yelled from the back of the room, “Is there sex after death?”, Jong quipped, “I hope so. It’s supposed to be the ultimate sex.”

At 71, Jong knows about mortality, involving lives lived long and deeply. Her mother lived to be 101, and her father into his 90s — she noted that the day after the Westport presentation was the yahrtzeit, or Jewish anniversary, of her father’s passing.

Jong made her politics very clear through the evening. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Tea Party, even the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg — all the personifications of pure evil. Scandinavian democracies and progressive politics — all good! I wanted to ask her if she had any political views that deviated even one iota from the standard progressive thinking, but I kept quiet. I didn’t want to wreck our special time together with a dumb statement (I’m a master of that, you know) and, anyway, I didn’t want to be mauled by the suburban matrons who clearly agreed with everything Jong said. She delivered her message and answered questions with grace and energy and the polish you’d expect from a veteran of decades of readings, interviews and appearances.

I’ll check out some of her other books and see how they sound now that I’ve seen the author in the flesh. Maybe I’ll pick up some good writerly ideas.

I should be so blessed at 71 as Jong is.

My Life as a Watch Man

Photos of me from 30 years ago show a young man dressed about as I am now — blue jeans, button-down cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The glasses changed from the aviator style to something more classical (less 1980s, that is) and I augmented the thinning hair with beards and goatees until I finally settled on my current look a decade ago. So while I’ve never been a fashionista,  a close observer would notice some attention to detail, within the rigid limits of straight male style.

Here’s an example.

Coming home on the train yesterday, I noticed a man with a tie that caught my attention. Its swirls and blue-green tones looked exactly like something I would ear. He had a grizzled look, prep-school baseball cap turned backwards, probably a coach or aging jock, approximately my age. We stood by the door, both leaving at the same station. I decided to break through the thick silence among suburban male commuters and remarked, “I really like that tie,” I told him, as a third man, whom I recognized from the regular slog to New York, looked on.

“Yeah, it’s a Jerry Garcia tie,” he said.

That explained the magnetic attraction — I have two Jerry Garcia ties, beloved gifts from my marriage, and they are essential to my personal style on those rare occasions when I wear a tie to the office.

“I’ve got two of them myself,” I said. “I love the design.” After at least 15 years of steady use, they still look great.

The man standing with us chimed in with a comment about the Grateful Dead. Suddenly, we three strangers had a bond to tie us together. The first man, Grizzled Jock, had met Garcia several times while a college student.

“He keeps making money even after he died,” he mused.

The doors opened and we went our separate ways. The talk inspired a New Year’s resolution — wear more ties. I have a lifetime collection, enough to keep me in fashion in the most formal of work environments. My closet includes two orange-and-black ties, purchased at the Princeton University Store, required wear for any alumni events I attend (as well as the occasional corporate event at the Harvard Club in New York). I’ve got plenty of plain blue, yellow and pink shirts perfectly ready to be worn with my black and dark-blue khakis and brightened with ties from J. Garcia and other purveyors of men’s style, often with an Art Deco motif.

Besides ties, the urge for ornamentation exists primarily on my right wrist. I’ve always enjoyed watches. As a teen I gravitated to the trendiest 70s look with leather bands sporting multiple buckles. When I graduated from college, my father gave me an inscribed TAG Heuer watch with both digital and analog displays. It constantly broke down and multiple repairs couldn’t keep it running. I soldiered along with forgettable watches until I experienced a time-keeping epiphany at a flea market on New York’s Upper West Side in the late 1980s. A watch dealer displayed an incredible Art Deco watch with a rectangular face and a sleek gold-toned band. I had to have it and I bought it immediately. For decades it was THE classiest watch I had, the perfect detail for swanky nights on the town and serious job interviews. This was nicknamed the Deco watch.

My stable of watches grew over the years. Each purchase remains a sharply etched memory. As a student of Russian history, I jumped at the opportunity to buy Russian watches newly available in the West after Mikhail Gorbachev became the last General Secretary of the USSR. in September 1989, while on my honeymoon in Italy, I bought a Raketa watch with an intriguing design; it included an adjustable monthly calendar, beginning in 1981 and concluding in the inconceivably distant year of 1999. Its blue face and cyrillic lettering gave it an exotic air. This is the Honeymoon watch.

In the 1990s, I inherited a Greenwood watch — thick square crystal, chunky metal-link band, from my friend Rena Frank,. whom I had known since 1980 through Project Dorot, which connects the Jewish elderly with visiting volunteers. Before she died in 1994, Rena, a Berlin native who escaped to London in 1938 and then on to New York in 1952, gave me the watch, which belonged to her brother. The watch had deep meaning as it came from this treasured friendship, and its connection to a vanished European world.  I call it the Rena watch.

Over a decade later, at a display stand at the long-vanished International Pavilion at the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, I celebrated the start of a new job by buying two more Russian watches. One had a dark-green face and the name “Kommandirsky,” in script cyrillic letters. The other, truly awesome, piece was the Poljot brand (Russian for “Flight”) watch. This had stopwatch functions and remains the thickest watch I’d ever seen, so massive and unyielding I nicknamed it the Soviet Bloc watch.

For years, these watches satisfied my fashion needs. They ranged from the understated and elegant Gruen and Greenwood to the show-stopping novelty of the three Russian watches. They became the signature of my personal style, to the extent a man can break out of the the dictates of officewear. I’m content to follow the khaki and button-down look. Indeed, I joke that I could pull clothes out of my closet blindfolded and they would inevitably go together. And if I happened to pull down a plain blue shirt, then any tie would also look good.

Watches galore — Honeymoon, Soviet Bloc and Kommandirsky on top, Deco and Rena on the bottom.

My fashion-mongering has one major downside: Faulty technology. Russian watches are cantankerous beasts. They look great but they are highly unreliable. You’d think a watch wouldn’t need a repair schedule like a car, but that’s been the case for years. I struggled to find a watch repair store that could handle these Russian critters at a decent price. I finally found one tucked away in a corner of a jewelry store on Brighton Beach Avenue in the far, ocean-fronted shores of Brooklyn. The anonymous repair ace — I never knew his name — would take my Russian and other watches for a tune-up when they stopped working. His rates were reasonable but I paid in time — the train-and-subway journey from Connecticut to Brighton Beach took two hours each way. Then, a few weeks later, I had to repeat the voyage to pick up the goods. Once I reached Brighton, I would stroll the Boardwalk, pick up a bottle of Slivovitz, the notoriously powerful kosher plum brandy, and buy some Russian CDs at one of the bookstores bringing culture to the Russian-dominated neighborhood. I’d also get some knishes to fortify myself for the long subway trip through the heart of Brooklyn on my way back to Grand Central.

I liked my unnamed Russian watch mechanic. I really did. Unfortunately, the watches kept breaking and the investment in time for my time pieces made less and less sense. How much would I suffer for fashion? I finally found another Russian in New York’s Diamond District, on West 47th Street very near my office. Once again I took my baggies bearing watches to another gruff European and invested about $250 in getting them up and running. And again, they worked until some stopped. The brick-like Soviet Bloc watch sort of works, but runs 15 minutes slow over the course of three hours — not my idea of accurate time-keeping.

I was just about ready to give up on these meaningful but tempestuous watches when my younger brother, a true watch aficionado with an excellent eye and great taste — gave me a 1950s watch that had sat in the vault of a Dallas jeweler for a half-century. It had the understated look I liked, from what I call the “Don Draper” era of men’s accessories. That it came from my brother made it all the more special and it instantly took pride of place on my wrist as the Russians and the Art Decos were carefully tucked into a corner of my dresser.

And there they stayed while the super-accurate, self-winding Don Draper watch rode my wrist daily and completed every clothing ensemble. I finally had an elegant, fully functional adult timepiece. End of story.

The end, that is, until the crystal fell off.

The first time the crystal fell off, I was at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut with my girlfriend waiting for a concert to start. We sat on a window ledge along a wall at the sold-out event. I felt something hit my leg and roll on the floor. I leaned down to pick up the clear glass circle. I had no idea what it was, until I brushed the front of my watch and, to my horror, felt the delicate hands exposed to the world. I jammed the front crystal on and felt it snap into place. Spooked, I kept the watch in my pocket and didn’t wear it again. Instead. I took it to a reputable jewelry store in Connecticut, explained the problem and had it sent out for repair.

When the watch came back, it had a new crystal. It turns out the other wasn’t the right size for the watch. So that was $70 well spent. The watch kept time perfectly, a new band looked sharp, I had my Don Draper swagger back. Me and my watch, taking on the Big Apple.

We took on the Big Apple a few months until the crystal fell off again, while I was on a walk in Katonah, NY after the November blizzard. By the time I realized the crystal was missing, I had already finished the walk and I couldn’t find the crystal amid the snow and fallen leaves. I futilely looked for days, walking the same route with my eyes sweeping the sidewalks and gutters, but knowing in my heart that the crystal was gone forever.

I took the watch back to the Connecticut jewelry store, which still had the record of the spring repair. Something went haywire with either the watch or the repair. I’m waiting for the latest report. After going for weeks without a watch at all, I lined up my five surviving watches (plus a Tommy Bahama watch from my brother that’s completely stopped and must need a new battery). With little enthusiasm, I wound up all five of them to see which ones actually worked.

The Rena watch worked, the Kommandirsky watch worked, more or less, depending on its cranky winding mechanism. The Art Deco watch was hopeless and the Soviet Bloc watch functioned with all the aplomb of the Soviet economy. The Honeymoon watch is enjoying a period of high functionality, for a change, and keeps good time, except a pin fell out of the watchband and I need to get that replaced so I can actually wear it. Maybe I’ll get a battery for the Tommy Bahama and get that back in the stable. Or I’ll go in a totally new direction. II was at Wal-Mart this week and liked the Mike Rowe line of rugged, manly timepieces looked like a good bet — you know, Mike Rowe, Mr. Dirty Jobs, he’s got high credibility with me.

So that’s the current status of enslavement to my idiosyncratic form of male fashion. I’ve traveled a hard road on the path to stylish watchdom, and have probably invested far more than necessary in my beloved by cranky collection. A Mike Rowe $35 special would no doubt keep perfect time. But Deco, Rena, Honeymoon, Soviet Bloc and Don Draper only come along once in life, and I’m keeping all of them.

Meanwhile, I’ll start my January by wearing a Jerry Garcia tie to the office. They never need repairs.

Some Empathy for Tom Cruise

Now that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are divorcing, Cruise will eventually be back on the market. I’m the last guy he needs dating advice from, given gorgeous co-stars and the long line of dating interests from the past.

What I can offer him is some empathy. We’re both over 50 and he’s just slightly taller than me, 5’7″, which sounds pretty good given that I’m 5’5 1/2″ on a charitable day. Height matters because Cruise is getting some pummeling these days as writers dredge up comments about his height in fleshing out stories about his marriages and even his films. I’ll set the religious issues aside for now.

The quote that really made me gulp came from Mrs. Cruise No. 2, Nicole Kidman, the Amazon from Oz, who stuck the knife in when she was divorcing Cruise in 2001 after a decade of marriage. The quote showing up everywhere is this:

When David Letterman asked the Moulin Rouge star how she was handling her divorce from Cruise in 2001, the actress poked fun at her ex-husband’s 5’7″ stature. “I can wear heels now,” she teased.


In good fun or not, the height difference and the comment take me back to my online dating days. Women and their high heels! That combination sank embryonic contacts before we even had a chance to meet. I heard that kind of comment several times — you’re too short, I like to wear heels, I need a taller man. At some point does that thinking become obvious as self-defeating, or does it remain a primal romantic sorting mechanism, in the eternal quest for the bigger, badder bringer of the DNA for the next generation? In your late 40s and 50s, I can’t see the rugged DNA angle being much of an issue, but height-as-qualifier retains its allure, as I know from being on the short end of the measuring stick several times.

While Cruise hasn’t had any trouble dating and mating women taller than him, the post-divorce comments about his height and other even more intimate issues, courtesy of Mrs. Cruise No. 1, Mimi Rogers, who called Cruise “celibate,” have got to sting. Nobody likes to see their physical attributes or bedroom behavior slagged in the press. I imagine this all bounces off of Cruise, and won’t deter him from finding the next 20-something Tall Girl to be Mrs. Cruise No. 4. Still, I hope, just talking guy to guy here, neither Holmes nor her eventual replacement pops off about the guy on these issues. If Tom Cruise isn’t safe from that kind of talk, none of us are.


Some Modest How-To Ideas

I cover a lot of ground in the book, but one topic I mostly avoid is how-to. By the time you’re in your 40s and 50s, you don’t need my advice on how to present yourself or appeal to men or women. Then again, why not some ideas from a guy who spent years out there knocking around and getting knocked around? I’m compiling a list of pithy, good-hearted guidance, initially for women. As ideas come to me, I’ll add some for men out there who are working the websites and wondering how to make them work better. So:

  • I like self-confidence in a woman, especially on appearance issues. Of course, our bodies changes as we age, and a woman’s sense of satisfaction and self-acceptance is very appealing. Put your best foot forward and save the neuroses for your girlfriends.
  • When going out to dinner with a man, take plenty of time to find a restaurant you both like. Once there, select what you want to eat with a minimum of agonized consideration; long discussions about the pros and cons of different dining options exhaust and confuse men. We like to decide on what to eat and be done with it. Save the food fetishes and phobias for girls’ night out.
  • If you had an enjoyable time with a man and think the feeling is mutual, surprise him with a hand-written thank-you note. Everybody likes to get real letters yet  nobody sends them. Break that pattern and surprise a man with your communications flair and elegant handwriting — you will make a BIG impression.
  • When using an online dating site, remember that men are intensely visual creatures. Use as many profile photos as possible, selecting those that focus on YOU in a favorable, put-together light. Let men’s imagination wander and envision themselves with you via evening wear, business wear, fresh at-home ensembles. Avoid blurry cell-phone and webcam photos, photos with sunglasses (what are you hiding?), travel pictures that make you look tiny (men don’t care that you visited the Eiffel Tower), or group photos with your arms draped around Uncle Fritz and Aunt Gerdl. Show that you care enough to get appealing photos.
  • Don’t let strong political views overly color dating profiles, since that can turn off men who don’t share those values. You may think “Republicans make me vomit!” and “Rush Limbaugh is a war criminal!” but saying so brands you as a political crank rather than a caring progressive. I found profiles with such intolerant views and they were a major turn-off. Men and women are more than their political views so it’s better to agree to disagree rather than dismiss an otherwise compatible man just because he does not think exactly the way you do. (In my experience, liberal women are far more adamant and unyielding in their politics than conservative women.)
  • While on a date, you may see other friends. It’s perfectly acceptable to stop and chat with them and introduce your date of the evening. Beware, however, if the conversation with the friend turns into a one-on-one discussion that leaves your date feeling ignored and isolated. This could especially sour an early date in a new relationship when people feel vulnerable and want to stay connected with the romantic potentiality. Save the deep discussion for later (post-date, when you’ll want to dish about the date, anyway) and keep the focus on having an enjoyable time with the man/woman of the evening.
  • GUYS: This is for you. Based on conversations with women, such as my dear friend, mentioned in the book as Chloe the Oracle of Romance, show some common sense. Chivalry is still popular: Hold open doors, stand up when a lady enters the room, push a woman’s chair in at a restaurant, observe good grooming at all times, be attentive to a woman’s interests and questions. Don’t drone on about your obsessions, be they sports, World of Warcraft, the “Saw” movies, your prostate, or anything else that could be a conversation-stopper. Keep the focus on getting to know your date and let her know about you — but not everything about you. Sure, you’re interesting — but she is, too.