Friday, July 10, 2009

Bergdorf's, Bar Mitzvahs & Business Week

Our first son is being called to the Torah at the end of September. L'chaim! The good news is our menschy oldest boy is becoming a man. The bad news is his bar mitzvah comes at the beginning of a three day weekend that ends on Yom Kippur, which means we and our guests will be singing, reading, chanting, dancing, eating, rejoicing, fasting and ultimately, repenting for our sins, all in the same weekend.

Pray for us.

This bar mitzvah is, of course, my son's big event, not mine, but let's face it, a 13-year old boy can't become a man without his mother pounding away on her Blackberry.

This means I have spent the last six months picking my oldest boy up at the bus stop on Monday afternoons and racing him to the Temple so he could make his forty-five minute session with the bar mitzvah tutor. His tutor was fantastic---a young mother of two daughters, she is a Barnard grad and a realtor---and by the end of the school year, my son knew his Torah portion (Deuteronomy, Parashash Haazinu, The Song of Moses) and had written his D'var Torah. Yes, we belong to a Reform synagogue so the demands upon him haven't been excessive. Yes, the tutor urged him to review his Haftorah and take his Ipod to sleep-away camp so he could continue to listen to the cantor chant his Torah portion and not forget everything over the summer. And yes, we recently received a letter from the assistant rabbi, gently reminding us that our son still has to hammer out the details of his mitzvah project (which will probably involve some combination of helping to raise money for juvenile diabetes research and feeding homeless families). But other than buying a new suit, my older son doesn't really have all that much more to do to get ready except review his notes, text his friends about the girls who are coming, get his hair cut, throw his shoulders back and show up.

I, on the other hand, have plenty to do. Most of it involves the kind of administrative tasks that my 13-year old could probably take care of himself were he not at sleepaway camp: Typing up the guest list, copying addresses out of various directories, asking his grandmothers for lists of friends and families, affixing stamps to envelopes, sticking directions to the hotel inside the envelopes for the out-of-town guests, talking to the event planner at our tennis club about tablecloths in primary colors and the price of ice (Is it really over the top to have an ice sculpture in the shape of the Stanley Cup?), urging the DJ to bring "motivational dancers" whose belly buttons are covered (my idea---my husband and sons wouldn't mind some skin), begging my son's favorite local restaurant to please save 20 seats for us on the Friday night before the big day, so that our out-of-town guests have someplace other than our house to go for dinner after services.

And so on---the kinds of chores that don't require a high school diploma or any great knowledge of Judaism. Right now, our dining room table is piled high with invitations, envelopes, stamps and hotel information, and I am just waiting for a rainy day so that I can assemble these precious packages and mail them out.

In the midst of organizing all this, I ran into the mother of one of Matthew's hockey buddies. Ths woman's son had a bar mitzvah earlier in the year. I like this woman a lot; she's smart, funny and direct. We started talking about bar mitzvahs and she began to describe the joys of having her dress made for it. This is not a woman who I would normally associate with the words "dress maker." She has three sons who play hockey, and whenever I saw her at the ice rink, she was huddled in a ski parka and sweatpants. I have never seen her in makeup and I'm not sure she even carries a purse. And as far as I know, she doesn't have a babysitter, which means she probably doesn't have much time for beauty rituals. But when she started to describe getting her dress made---"You go there, and she has candles burning and she measures you and holds you and shows you fabrics, and for an hour, it's all about you"---I immediately wrote down the dressmakers's number and called for an appointment.

The dressmaker was lovely. Tall, blonde and slim, she looked like she knew how to dress for a party. But there were no candles burning (when I asked where they were, she said she needed new ones). Instead, she showed me a picture of her dog and told me to look at fabrics and rip out pictures of dresses I liked from the page of Vogue and In Style. I did as I was told and it was all very pleasant and peaceful; she showed me some gorgeous navy blue cabbage rose lace from Paris that would look beautiful over a lavender silk fabric I had chosen. The dressmaker's voice was soothing. "You might not be able to wear this dress to your friend's day events, but you can definitely wear it again to night functions." As I sat there, I realized, I have no visual imagination. Even though she's explaining exactly what this is dress is going to look like, and pointing to the picture in front of me and saying, "We'll do this instead of this, and it will be beautiful," I couldn't see it.

I went home and realized I'm really not the kind of person who wears French lace overlay from Paris anyway. So I called my friend Suzanne. I met Suzanne on a hiking and biking trip in Northern California last summer. We both had then-12 year old boys, and we spent a lot of time in Yosemite eating garp, discussing books and talking about our boys as we biked through the woods and climbed sheets of rock. Suzanne was always the first one to take off her hiking boots and jump in a lake; she is also one of the top saleswomen at Bergdorf Goodman. We had been in touch Christmas time, when I was doing a retail story for The New York Times. I had been looking around for a a retailer that would be willing to talk about how sales were going in the tough economy. Did Bergdorf's want to cooperate? (No, they didn't, and I ended up writing about Best Buy, which is as far from Bergdorf Goodman as you can get.)

I emailed Suzanne and told her I would be in the city for an old friend from Business Week's book party, and wanted to come in early to look for party dresses. I described what I was looking for and told her my budget: I didn't want to spend more than I had spent on my wedding dress, which I had bought at a sample sale in the bridal building in 1993.

"Oh, that's okay, the whole store is 70% off!" Suzanne cried. She said she would collect a few things for me and I should meet her at 3 p.m. on the third floor.

I used to cover retail for Business Week and would occasionally write about Bergdorf's and its parent company, Neiman Marcus. I once saw Cindy Crawford eating lunch there, and a couple of my friends used to go there to get their hair cut. But I had never shopped there for anything more substantial than lipstick or pantyhose; during the years I wrote about department stores, I never walked into one with the goal of shopping for shopping's sake. Instead, I would notice markdowns, traffic flow, the attitudes of salespeople and whether customers were carrying shopping bags or not. I would buttonhole customers, interview them about what they had bought, hand them my business card and ask if I could quote them by name. The result was I ended up doing my recreational shopping in small stores, that weren't owned by institutional investors or publicly traded, and where there was no risk that a pubic relations person who had given me an interview with a CEO but then hadn't liked what I'd written, might see me trying on shoes.

So when I walked into Bergdorf's yesterday, it was if I was walking in for the first time: I had the same heady feeling I used to get when I went to fashion shows. Look at all these gorgeous people, so beautifully dressed! Look at all these chic women! Look at all those platform shoes, and super-flat sandals, still hundreds of dollars even though they're 50% off!

Nobody there looked like Mommy from New Jersey.

I called Suzanne and said I was there. She was talking to her manager so she told me to wait a few minutes, and then come find her. When I did, she was beautifully dressed in a green pants suit and flat sandals; she showed me a few things and then said we should go look together. Off we went, and we found a pile of dresses on sale: A nude, sleeveless, linen pleated Prada; a plum-colored Narcisco Rodridguez; a black-and-beige jersey Donna Karan wrap; a silver Versace sheath; a speckled, green-and-black silk Michael Kors shift; an Alberta Ferretti cranberry silk, which was exquisite and marked down from $1,195 to $359; a green, satin, sleeveless Zac Posen with a gorgeous turquoise lining marked down to $529; a lovely, royal blue sleeveless linen Balenciaga, marked down to $659 from $2,195. The savings were breathtaking; I was giddy.

Then we passed the Prada department, and for fun, Suzanne grabbed a couple of dresses that were not on sale.
"They're tempting," she said.
Uh huh.

I tried all the dresses on. It took about an hour. None looked right. Some made me look fat. Some made me look like I was going to a disco. Some made me look like I worked for a brothel. Some made me look like I worked for Nancy Reagan. I saved the full-price dresses for last. One looked awful, one looked great. It cost more than my wedding dress. It probably cost more than the one the dressmaker would have made me. But it was right in front of me, and I could see it, touch it and try it on. I felt happy in it. Plus, it made me look thin.

I hurried through my rationalizations: How many bar mitzvahs would we throw? Two, because we have two sons. That meant I could amortize the dress and wear the dress twice! But because I went to graduate school and wrote an (as yet unpublished) novel between babies, our boys are four years apart. And even deluded, fantasy-prone moi knows there is no way the dress I wear this year is going to appeal to me during the next Obama administration.

Okay, how about this one: We have boys, we won't have to pay for their weddings or sweet sixteen parties...after these bar mitzvahs we're done throwing big parties? Well, that was dumb. Who knew if they were going to get married? And who knew in these gender-bending, cross-dressing times, maybe they would want Sweet Sixteen's?

To hell with rationalizations. There were none.

I bought the dress and shipped it to New Jersey so I would save on the tax. Then, I took myself up to Bergdorf's seventh floor cafe, sat near the window and ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc and a cappuccino. I looked around at the pale green walls, with the lovely birds painted on them. I gazed at the Venetian mirrors, the bleached white wood floors, the bamboo shades, and the valances with the discreet brass "BG"s on them. I saw mothers dining with their sons and daughters, and women laughing with other women. The room was peaceful and serene, vaguely European and elegant, with the big picture windows overlooking Central Park. I looked outside. The trees were thick and green; I was looking at the tops of them. The room, the view, the wine. It was heavenly.

Though I don't advocate drinking alone, I did get a nice buzz going. I paid the bill and walked over to my friend's book party. The former editor-in-chief of Business Week was hosting it at CUNY, where he now runs the graduate program in journalism. I walked in and saw people I hadn't seen in at thirteen years. I reintroduced myself to people and used my maiden name; I actually felt young again. Nobody talked about their kids; instead, they talked about where they worked and what they were writing. Since my friend had written a book called, The King of Vodka, Smirnoff vodka was flowing and people were chatty. Everyone looked roughly the way they had back then, except my friend Linda Himelstein, the book's author and party's guest of honor, who actually looks younger. I spent an hour chatting with my old editor, who had given me first byline, and then talked to another editor, who was the first person to kill a story I had worked hard on (It was about Calvin Klein's then-new advertising campaign and I had suggested it was homo-erotic. This editor said that Business Week did not want to make that suggestion.)

I think I was the only there who had left journalism to get an MFA in fiction writing. I am almost positive I was the only one who teaches creative writing. I felt a little sheepish, but fortunately, no one questioned my decision. And, my old editor is a kindred spirit; though he has a big job at The New York Times, he has written short stories, and one of his good friends recently won the Pulitzer price in poetry; another edits the magazine Poets & Writers. I told him that I had the summer off from teaching, my kids were away for a few weeks, and so I finally had time to attempt what my agent has been gently urging me to do: Turn a short story into a novel. But, I was finding it difficult to write long, layered and big, with multiple characters speaking at once; it is easier to be fact bound---just cover the news and write short.
"Writing fiction is hard," my old editor said. "Journalism is much easier."

It's true. Even though business stories can require weeks of research, reporting and fact-checking, in the end, the narrative is straightforward, and you don't have to work that hard to keep your readers' attention. You quote some experts, write about failed strategies, interview consumers and try to predict whether the company's game plan is actually going to work. Writing fiction---with its narrative arc, clever dialogue, scene setting and unexpected plots twists, plus the the tricky balancing act of trying to make the familiar seem new and the unreal sound plausible, not to mention the challenge of trying to decide whether your narrator is reliable or not---is much tougher.

One of the guys I spoke to said that of all the places he's worked, Business Week was the most congenial. Most people behaved themselves and were friendly, and there were only a couple of botched relationships to speak of. One affair had actually produced a baby and was still intact. Almost everyone at the party was still gainfully employed, though not by Business Week.

I had a great time catching up with people, but after the party, I went home and cried. I haven't written a cover story for a news magazine in a very long time, and I haven't published a book. Maybe I will and maybe I won't. I have thrown myself into teaching, blogging, writing short stories, and doing the occasional freelance business story; I have been cooking, running with our dog, driving my younger son to baseball practice and planning my older son's bar mitzvah. One of my husband's professors at business school once told his class that they could do anything they wanted, but not everything, so they should choose wisely.

Here's to wise choices.


  1. I really enjoy your writing - and mazel tov on your son's Bar Mitzvah! It is worth the dress - your the MOB, after all!

  2. Amy, thank you! And thank you for reading my blog. I really appreciate it. I never thought of myself as MOB, but I guess I am, so thanks for pointing that out.

  3. AGAIN, you make me laugh and smile! I realize this is a couple years old, but it is timeless...and GREAT and REAL!!