New York, and other fun things

I really thought I'd have time this week to update the blog with all the activities but it seems I can't quite carve out enough time for, well, anything. I suppose such is the nature with the end-of-semester crunch, not to mention the end-of-fellowship pressure. 032706 New York 57We've only a few measly weeks left now and, to punctuate that thought, it’s interview weekend at Wallace House. From nearly 150 or so US applicants, 36 of them will undergo the interrogation Chris and the gang suffered last year to see if they fit the bill.

There’s nothing better for taking the wind out of your sails than meeting your potential replacements. The fellows are on duty all weekend to meet ‘n greet the candidates and we spouses shall show up and do our part, too. It’s a strange mixture of feelings – proud and protective of the program that we have come to love and the inevitable sadness that comes with knowing we’ll be passing the gauntlet after graduation just 19 days away.

We are, however, doing our damndest to pack as much fun as possible into this last phase. Last weekend, a bunch of us took a trip to the Big Apple to check out the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Daily Show. (I probably don’t need to tell you which option excited me the most.)

It’s kind of embarrassing to admit but, for all the traveling I’ve done, I haven’t been to New York since I was 10. My recollection then was that it was vast and overwhelming with throngs of unfriendly people against a dull grey backdrop. I’d honestly felt little to no reason to go back since then, some 25 years ago. I figured, everyone else loves New York. It doesn’t need me to jump on the bandwagon. And so I came to sort of a position of being anti-New York, all of it purely in theory. It’s too big. It’s too dirty. The people are rude. It’s unsafe. I don’t even like musicals. What’s the point? I wasn’t even that eager to go on this trip, although a glimpse inside the Times – including lunch with managing editor (and KWF board member) Jill Abramson – is tempting. But when I heard that Graham’s college roommate Jim Margolis, a producer for The Daily Show, could get us tickets to a taping, including a brief backstage tour, I was sold. I’m just that kind of Jon Stewart sucker.

032506_058So, last weekend began with the Butters girls’ fairy tale party, where we all dressed in costume and hailed the adorable princesses – technically, one princess, a cow and one Alice in Wonderland. It was good fun, especially when Tony showed up in a head-to-toe wolf outfit that scared the living daylights out of a few of the kids. Chuck had BeBe Butters practically quaking with his red-beaked troll get-up and menacing black cape. Chris and I scared absolutely no one as two of the three blind mice. (Yes, people inquired about the third, but we explained he didn’t get the fellowship.)

Afterwards, Graham, Chris and I headed to New York, to join Fara, Lisa, Vanessa, Charlie, Kim and Gerard who had all arrived the day before. (Jamie arrived Saturday too, I believe, but separately.) We made our way first to the Priceline’d Radisson Midtown at Lexington & 48. Wasn’t too bad, considering we were staying in Manhattan for around $100 a night.

We went with Graham to Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side for dinner, meeting up with Jim, his lovely wife Leslie and a former roommate of Rainey’s, Ann Marie, who happened to be in town for the weekend. We ate giant piles of various meats on rye bread accompanied by the best pickles I’ve ever eaten. Then we headed off to the Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery for coffee ‘n cupcakes. I was disciplined enough to only eat ½ of one of the latter, but the mere sight of the display case with trays of beautiful brightly colored cupcakes covered with glorious sprinkles instills in one a strange giddiness and childish glee.

Sunday was our free day, so to speak, and Chris and I started it off rather late, with lunch at French Roast in the East Village. We met there with Gary Weiss, a former Business Week writer who has penned a number of books. The latest, Wall Street Versus America, cites Chris’ stock fraud series in the Post-Dispatch. Besides getting some excellent book-publishing advice, we also enjoyed a really delicious lunch.

032606 New York 34_edited-1After that, we walked. And walked. And walked. And I made the rookie tourist mistake – as I often do – of walking the first day until my feet were throbbing, which would make Monday more uncomfortable than necessary. But we had a grand time. It’s our favorite way to see cities, just to wander around and watch the people, begin to understand the layout. So we walked north from our hotel, headed west over to Fifth Avenue and gawked at all the retail institutions (Tiffany’s, etc.) and buildings (gothic St. Patrick’s Cathedral and garish Trump Tower).

It was a blustery day, a little chilly but not too bad until we emerged from the protective wall of skyscrapers to the mouth of Central Park and a sudden blast of wind took us by surprise. We then wandered around the park for a good long time, starting on the lower east side and winding our way across. We found Strawberry Fields, which is a much smaller area than I envisioned and, at this time of year at least, offers little to look at other than the “Imagine” tile mosaic.

Then it was back across the park and up to the Alice in Wonderland sculpture. It was late afternoon and starting to get dark, so we headed out of the park on the east side around 72nd (I think) and decided to treat ourselves to one of the infamous frozen hot chocolates at Serendipity 3, a favorite haunt of Andy Warhol, among others.

Our idea was that we might sate ourselves until dinner later with some fellows, but we underestimated both the distance to the restaurant and the wait. However, by the time we got our table, an hour after arriving, we were starving and fully exhausted, so we just dined there. Not a bad choice either – the hamburgers were surprisingly good. And, yes, the Frrrrrozen Hot Chocolate was worth it – a fantastic, rich, chocolatey concoction somewhere between a milkshake (sans fat) and a granita. Terrific idea.

032706 New York 04Monday morning I skipped the Wall Street Journal visit in favor of a little more sleep and made my way over to the Times to meet up with the gang around 11:30. There, we got to sit in on the noon meeting, where Jill held court making on-the-spot decisions about the content of Tuesday’s paper. Then she took us up to the Executive Dining area (ooooo…fancy!) where we had lunch and informal discussion with her about newspapers in general.

Afterward, Senior Editor Bill Borders gave us a quick walk-through of the third floor, which houses their news room, for now. They’ll be moving to a new building soon. It’s quite an impressive layout, although the vast majority of seats appeared to be empty, no doubt vacated by hard-working reporters out tracking down ground-breaking scoops!

From there we walked over to The Daily Show studio which was, approximately, 800 miles from the Times over in the charming Hell’s Kitchen area. And when I say walked, I mean hobbled, feet throbbing and protesting with every step. Vanessa even stopped on the way to buy sandals, so punishing were her smart pumps. We’re such amateurs!

We had a long wait when we got there but it was the most beautiful day, so none of us minded killing some time in a little park adjacent to the building. People were already lining up under the blue Daily Show awning, accented with larger-than-life portraits of the correspondents in their best-reporter stance accompanied by tag lines. Ed Helms: Trustworthy. Rob Cordry: Acquitted. You get the idea.

Jim came to get us and gave us a quick walk-through of the offices, then we waited in the conference room until it was time to go in. As VIPs (we’re SO important), we were treated to really fantastic seats. The studio is much smaller than it seems on TV, thanks to the fancy swooping crane-mounted camera. But Jon Stewart isn’t. In fact, after reading a thousand times how tiny he is, I half expected a midget to come out on stage. He seems a perfectly normal size, frankly, except for his hair which is gigantic.

032706 New York 60It really was a blast, watching the show, sitting just 15 feet from Stewart and within slapping distance of Ed Helms when he stepped out to do his bit. Thanks to a pre-show warm up comedian, the audience was well-prepped to produce thunderous applause on cue – something the fellowship group has come to excel at. It was all over entirely too fast and we spilled back out, reluctantly, onto the now-dark streets.

We split into groups after that. Chris and I were trying to position ourselves for a convenient post-dinner hook up with my old college friend, Matt Tauber, on the upper Upper East Side. Fara used to live in that neighborhood, so she accompanied us to Mexico Mama, her favorite Mexican restaurant, at 102nd and Broadway. Service was really slow but the food was good and the guacamole prepped table-side was fantastic.

Matt met up with us there. How funny to see people after 15-odd years. He’s all growed up! We headed across the street to a really lovely little café for some fantastic dessert and coffee. (Yes, I got a gigantic sugar headache and hangover, but really, sharing the chocolate mousse and molten lava cake was absolutely worth it.) I just wish I could remember the name of the place because the waiters were really lovely and it had such a cozy, relaxing vibe.

Matt and I met our freshman year at Webster University in St. Louis. We lived on the same floor and he’s one of the first friends I made in college. He stayed at Webster until, I think, our junior year when he transferred to Ithaca to finish his degree. Over the years, we’d lost touch completely but I’d heard tales of him from mutual friends. I knew that he’d started a theater company in Chicago and that he was very successful – and talented – at both writing and directing.

I also knew that he’d started working in movies in the past ten years or so and it was through his production company, Sly Dog Films, that I found him during a random and nostalgic where-are-they-now Google search. So we’d been back in touch for the past couple of years in a touching-base sort of way, purely email. And he just happened to be in New York that weekend we were there, so it seemed we had to get together and chat.

I’m really glad we did. Although it’s strange to see our teenage friends in grown up bodies with real jobs and all that, it’s nice to see people who have really remained true to themselves and who seem happy with the choices they’ve made. Matt is in post-production on his directorial debut, “The Architect” (Anthony LaPaglia, Isabella Rossellini) and his previous movie, which he produced, “The Great New Wonderful” (Edie Falco, Tony Shaloub, Maggie Gyllenhal) is going to be out in limited release in a few months. Very exciting stuff.

Tuesday morning didn’t offer time for much, but I had a quick breakfast with Fara at the Comfort Diner, a lovely lost-in-time joint, complete with chrome accents and long banquet seats. Then it was off to the airport and back to Ann Arbor again.

The week since then has been an absolute blur of activity. Wednesday was a great lunch with Charles Fisman, Fara’s former Fast Company colleague and author of the best-selling book The Wal-Mart Effect ( He was a lot of fun and offered some fascinating insight on the challenge of reporting on a corporation so giant none of its suppliers will talk to you – as well as some great tips and insight on the book-writing process himself. Seems like a good guy.

Thursday’s seminar was an address on the state-of-the-union of newspapers from none other than Chris’ former Post-Dispatch editor, Ellen Soeteber. She was a fellow 20 years ago and was back in town to sit on the interview committee this weekend. We had a nice chat over dinner afterwards, along with her husband, former journalist, novelist and screenwriter Dick Martins.

Friday, I met with yearbook committee – which is composed of those of us who are insane enough to think a yearbook would be a cute idea while having absolutely no idea how much time it would take up. Then I had our writing workshop in the afternoon, where I was up for my first fiction attempt in years and years and got some good feedback and, perhaps more importantly for me as I consider MFA schools, some encouragement.

I raced off after that to finish a slide show I’d been working on for last night, when we held a Wallace House dinner in honor of Ferhat Boratav, our wonderful host in Istanbul and editor in chief of CNN Turk. I had many last-minute technical panics and the music we’d spent a lot of time picking wouldn’t play for some reason, but it went over swimmingly and we enjoyed a good, if crowded, dinner last night.

Now, I’ll go about my day. I’ve loads of writing to do for Screenwriting Class, plus I’m actually motivated to work on my short story and I know well enough to harness that energy when it comes. I’m feeling very excited right now, if a little stressed. You know that feeling you get, like you’re on the verge of something, some kind of change, but you’re not sure what it’s going to look like? I feel that.

And then I’m off to chase off fellowship candidates with a stick in the hopes that no candidates for next year means they have no choice but to keep us on for another.