Daniel Menaker

Daniel Menaker

A weeklong electronic journal.
Feb. 4 1999 10:00 PM

Daniel Menaker

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Here's to Asher Liftin, three-month-old son of Betsey Schmidt (who, when she was working with Alice Quinn in The New Yorker's poetry precinct, had an office across the hall from me) and her husband, Eric Liftin, an architect and Web site designer. Asher made a stunning social debut last night at a small dinner party that Eric and Betsey gave in Betsey's father's apartment on Riverside Drive. The apartment, a penthouse, was itself stunning, with majestic riv vus. In attendance were what I now, at the age of fifty-mnpfh years, can no longer pretend not to think of as "young people," many of them formerly or currently of The New Yorker: Cressida Leyshon, soft-spoken fiction genius; Sean Wilsey, another smart fictioneer; Daphne Beal, a gifted writer who put in a few highly literary years at TNYer; Alice Truax, the heart of TNYer's book review operations; Matt Lane, former NYer word processor and now a first-year medical student at NYU, who told me that injections in the buttocks should be administered to the upper right (or, I extrapolated, the upper left) quadrant thereof, and that if one wasn't careful one might hit the injectee's sciatic nerve, causing awful pain and possibly even permanent, crippling damage; Valerie Steiker, an editor at Art Forum; Emily Eakin, erstwhile NYer fact checker and now a senior editor at Lingua Franca; etc. But the star was the youngest of all the young people, Asher. He made a squalling first appearance, and the 'rents tried to buy him off with a bottle. Nothing doing. Betsey disappeared upstairs (that's right--upstairs, for God's sake; that's the kind of apartment we're talking about here) for fifteen or twenty minutes, aural peace descended, then came more squalling, then an enduring calm. Betsey explained the second, post-prandial unhappiness: "A burp." Asher sat on his dad's lap for the next half-hour listening to Steven Johnson, editor of FEED and a friend of Eric's from grade school, talk to Eric about something or other. I couldn't hear what it was, but I had a clear view of Asher, who seemed to be following the conversation with great intensity, as if performing a kind of facial-expression workout routine. He knit his brow in puzzlement, smiled skeptically, narrowed his eyes with concentration, widened them with incredulity, drew his wobbly head back in astonishment. The kid obviously has a pair of naturally Big Ears, which will serve him in good stead at all the dinner parties that await him.

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Betsey knew I was obsessed with the weather when we were hallmates, because the poor thing had to listen to the forecasts on my speaker phone when I called 976-1212 two or three times a day. When I left the magazine, she gave me a svelte WeatherOne radio, still on my desk and in use at Random House. Let's check in with it right now--one can always hope to hear the wonderful poetry trouvée of phrases like "high pressure building in," "moisture overriding the high," "a minor low-pressure disturbance," "visibility locally below one nautical mile," "a few tornadic cells popping up." And yes, I just caught "... the Hudson Canyon extending out to one thousand fathoms"--beautiful, a lyrical compensation for the rain that's evidently on its way north to saturate the Northeast again. Where are the snows of yesteryear, indeed?

At the party last night, the skies were clear all the way south to the Bayonne Bridge and all the way north to the Tappan Zee, and they sort of dwarfed the publishing-magazine gossipfest that Asher found so fascinating. (Views really do make a difference, requiring you to be at least a little contemplative even when you don't want to be.) The conversation naturally swirled around TNYer, Tina Brown, David Remnick, magazines in general. Old affronts, grievances, and office blues were nursed and rehearsed, new ones tried out, to see if they would fly. I joined right in. Made me feel young. Putting all the assembled indignities and complaints together, I've concluded that truly the most treacherous thing one person in a company can do to another is run down the corridor to their boss, like a kindergarten whiner, and commit a basically groundless and self-serving snitch. Shame on those who do it. They unjustifiably drag the other person into the ring of the troublemakers. They force their targets to defend themselves, which, of course, makes them sound defensive.

Back in October, after I had breakfast one morning with Tina Brown, my ex-boss, she sent me a fax, saying, among other things, "It sure sounds like you are having more fun than when I first met you, fulminating about X all day long and engaged in a weird, unresolved rivalry with Chip." (Charles McGrath, now editor of the New York Times Book Review.) She then paid me a nice compliment but qualified it, at the very end of the fax with, "even if you are, in Brit parlance, a chippy sod."

I've remembered a little more about the publishing dream I had about "my" novel--a dream I had night before last. (Hey Slate--you provide the outlet, I'll put in the plug.) In the dream, I was so pleased about its appearance on the Times best-seller list, even though it came in at No. 15, the lowest slot on the list, and somehow seemed fated not to go much higher, that I sort of physically puffed up with pride. (Yes, yes, I know what that's about.) Conscious of this, er, swelling, I walked through the halls of Random House trying physically to disguise my inner self-congratulatory state. I shuffled my feet like a bum, kept my head lowered, crept along the walls as unobtrusively as I could, and hunched my shoulders down. It worked. No one seemed to take any notice of my book's success at all. And that pissed me off. And then I woke up.

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Three hours later, in what we call real life, I learned that the book was No. 26 on the Times extended best-seller list. Not quite the dream come true. Yet.