I’ve always loved Miss Manners, ever since college, when my friend Joel Derfner declared himself a fan.
“Really, Miss Manners?” I asked.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said. “She’s really quite witty, and she has excellent advice. For example, she says that if someone points out some flaw, like a hideous mole on your face, you should say, How very kind of you to notice. And if someone totally overshares with you, then you should say, How nice for you. Isn’t that great?!”
I wasn’t sure about these methods, until a few weeks later when a classmate came up breathless to me in the dining hall:
“Guess What? I’M ON THE PILL!!” she announced — and very loudly, I might add.
Although flabbergasted by this announcement, I was still able to stammer out a response:
“How nice for you.”
Then I saw Miss Manners’ genius.
One of my absolute favorite pieces of Miss Manners’ writing is when she explains how to say “no.”
Here’s the text, excerpted from Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior:
The ability to say no politely is an essential social skill. All that is really needed is the ability to repeat “No, thank you,” interspersed with such small politenesses as “I’m so sorry” and “You’re kind to ask” and “I wish you luck.”
Elaborating is what gets people into trouble. Excuses that are false are traps one sets for oneself, but even true excuses encourage the audacious to argue: “Can’t you do that another night?” “One little piece of cake isn’t going to kill you.” “But this helps more people.”
Yet most people can’t help blabbing on to soften the “no,” which is apt to be so softened as to give way. So here is a small sample of supplementary sentences:
“I’m afraid I’m not taking on anything else right now.”
“Sorry, I never discuss my finances.”
“I’m sure it’s wonderful, but I’m not going to have any.”
“We never go to balls, but we’d love to see you privately.”
“I’m so sorry, but that’s not something I can help you with.”
“If you care to send me written material, I’ll get in touch if I find it interests me.”
“I didn’t realize what this involved, and I think I’d better bow out.”
And the ultimately correct, no-excuses refusal:
Dr. Peony Wilson
regrets that she is unable to accept
the exceedingly kind invitation of
Mr. and Mrs. Popinjay
for Saturday, the first of June
I am honored to say that my song “Dark Matter” has been featured on another episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk Radio. My geek cred has just gone up exponentially.**
The new episode is Cosmic Queries: Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Full of all sorts of geeky goodness, including Dr. Who references, and Neil explaining why Dark Matter should really be called “Fred.”
** So exponentially, I want to write a function for the increasing slope of my geek cred.
Lately, I’ve noticed that every outlet on the web has resorted to Crazy! Amazing! Magnificent! titles to get readers’ attention. Every single link I see on Facebook is “The Most Amazing Thing You’ll Ever See!” and it’s, like, a panda farting or something.
If we use the word “amazing!” to mean “just ok,” then how do we know something really is “mind-blowing,” “world-changing,” etc.? What we have here is Awesomeness Inflation. So maybe a sort of conversion system to regular currency of human interest would help:
“Most Amazing News!”……………………………. common knowledge to anyone not living under a rock
“Incredibly Mind-Blowing!”………………………slightly more interesting than watching paint dry
“Shocking News about Your Health!!”…………………..apparently, fruits and vegetables are good for you
“This Will Change the World!”………………..some rich guy made a video about poor people, but didn’t give any money to them
“So This Happened.”……………..incredible; will blow your mind
Props to Wil Barbour for funny contributions.
A few years ago, Blaxploitation films came back into vogue, and people started talking again about Melvin Van Peebles’ “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”
Just for the record, I’ve never seen the movie. I’m going to take a wild guess, and assume it’s about somebody getting some vigilante justice, to the tune of funky wah-wah peddles.
But while all these articles were coming out, all I could think of was the poor copy editors at the newsroom: “Wait, how many a‘s are in Baadasssss?”
I’ve just posted my audience-favorite song Geek Love. What happens when socially-awkward folks fall in love at Star Trek Conventions? This song finds out!
Geeks! Do you know who Neil Degrasse Tyson is?
Well, you should! He’s a badass astrophysicist. Head of the Hayden Planetarium. Frequent guest on The Daily Show. And host of an all-things-science-and-geeky podcast called Star Talk Radio.
(How geeky is the podcast? He interviewed Whoopi Goldberg about her role as Guinan on Star Trek. Yesssss! So Awesome!)
Aaaaaaand (drumroll please): My song Dark Matter was featured in a short clip at the top of his latest podcast!
I am such a geek! I have achieved Nerdvana!
I will now sit atop my Geek Mountain while other acolytes come to me, seeking to attain GeekLightenment.
It must’ve been around a decade ago that Chris invited me to L’s new apartment for a housewarming party.
I was confused. Wasn’t her old apartment incredibly affordable? Why would she ever move out?
“She had a great opportunity, and she jumped on it.”
L. was going to be sharing a place with 2 other people. So Chris and I went over for dinner and drinks.
I was expecting the usual gritty apartment that twenty-somethings have in New York, so I was extremely surprised when I got to the address. There was an enormous, ornate building, complete with gate, and circular driveway. Stationed at the gate was a doorman in full livery – epaulets and everything. He signed me in, and told me how to proceed.
Then, I got into a gorgeous, mirrored, private elevator. And I got out at L’s place.
The place was ginormous. It was old – hadn’t been renovated for 50 years – but it was as fabulous a space as ever I’d seen in New York. Enormous ceilings. Enormous windows. Huge gilt-framed mirrors hung from the walls. Fireplaces. And room after room after room after room…
L. wasn’t the leaseholder — that was her friend David. David seemed normal enough. He had the usual things that geeky dudes in their twenties have — action figures and comic books — and he didn’t have super-expensive furniture. Nevertheless, I found it hard to concentrate as the evening progressed. You see, in nearly 10 years in New York, I had never seen an apartment anywhere near this nice. Not when I installed DSL in the apartments of investment bankers. Not even when I got to see the living space of a famous musician. All of their apartments paled in comparison.
So I sat there, eating salmon and broccoli, thinking, “This guy David must have, like, $50 million dollars! He must be incredibly, incredibly wealthy!…be cool, be cool…”
At the end of the evening, Chris asked me what I thought. I said, “That is the nicest apartment I’ve ever seen. Is his father a multi-millionaire?”
Chris said no, they were paying $1200 a month for the apartment.
And here is the story. Long ago, a woman had moved into this apartment as a renter. At that time, all apartments in New York were rent-controlled. So, the longer you stayed in an apartment, the better deal you got.
She stayed for 50 years.
As she grew elderly, her nephew moved into her apartment to help take care of her. In New York, you cannot pass on your rent-controlled apartment to your heirs, but you can add someone new to the lease if they live with you for a certain length of time. David lived with her for a couple years, and then she died. So now the apartment was in his name.
This apartment building was one of the fanciest addresses in all of New York City. Movie stars and scions of industry paid top dollar to compete for a place there. Maybe you’ve heard of The Dakota? This place was just as nice, if not nicer.
When David got the lease for $1200, the management offerred him a deal: If you move out, we’ll pay you $2 million.
Instead, since the rent on his gargantuan apartment was a little too high for his taste, he got two roommates. Now they would each pay $400 a month. To live with millionaires and movie stars.
When I heard this story, I started laughing. Perhaps a little maniacally. I was thrilled, gleefully happy.
New York City is brutally hard to live in. Getting through the day and getting out from under take an enormous amount of will. Everything’s paid for; nothing’s free.
But in this whole wide city, I’d finally found it. Somebody, somewhere, had finally gotten something for nothing.
And in a way, he did it for us all.
My friend J. told me this story.
Once, a decade or two ago, J. was looking for a decent apartment in New York City. She answered a “roommate wanted” ad for an apartment that seemed suprisingly affordable.
The apartment was spacious. Both of the women living there seemed nice. But at a certain point, one of the women said, “Well, have you showed J. our other roommate?“
J. said, “What “other” roommate?”
The two young ladies took her downstairs. They were laughing uncomfortably. There, on the wooden floor of the living room, was a strange…stain that could only be referred to as “man-size.”
Apparently, the previous occupant of the apartment had died, reaching for the phone to call for help. No one had found his body for a long time. In the meantime, his body had sort of…melted into the floor, providing a permanent stain and indentation in the floor. A frozen moment in time.
And that’s why the apartment was so affordable.
J. did not move in.
If you’ve ever lived in New York City, you know that, for people living there, “real estate” forms an even larger part of your brain activity than “sex.” Every month, you write your landlord a surreally large check, all for the privilege of living in a space your friends back home would refer to as “a walk-in closet.”
It’s no wonder you get a bit obsessed. Is there a better deal out there? Could you buy the apartment next door, and actually have a bedroom? People go to outrageous lengths to get and keep apartments that would baffle any outsiders. Case in point, a story I like to call,
The House on Poo Corner
In 2003, my friend Darryl Purpose was performing in an artist’s live/work space in Greenpoint, Queens.
The building was in a gritty, industrial neighborhood, and the apartment itself was enormous. Room after room, with high ceilings, and lots of light. Along with the nickel tour, I got the usual story from the apartment’s tenant, “Oh yeah, when we moved here, the place was a mess…but now the neighborhood’s gotten a lot more established…our landlord’s trying to jack up the rent big-time, but we’re taking him to landlord-tenant court…it’s just too good a deal…we’re definitely going to fight, I think we’re going to win…”
I listened with one ear, and certainly envied the large, airy space. But there was one thing that kept distracting me.
Yes, wherever I went in the house, it smelled like poo. It was pretty strong. Maybe the toilet had overflowed a couple of days before, and the smell hadn’t dissipated yet. Whatever it was, I was too discreet to mention it, as I assumed the tenant was aware of the problem. I didn’t want to embarrass him.
As day turned into evening, I noticed what looked like a huge flame out the window, against the night sky.
“Oh yeah,” said the tenant. “That’s the methane burnoff from the sewage treatment plant half a block away.”
I suddenly realized that the awful smell was not temporary. It was permanent. Every day, and every night, 365 days a year, it smelled like that.
That night I thought, I can’t do it anymore. I can’t live in the kind of city where people fight tooth and nail for the privilege of living in an apartment that smells like raw sewage.
I moved six months later.