Monday, February 28, 2005


I am currently reading two books: St. Augustine's "Confessions" and Alain de Botton's "The Romantic Movement." Both of these books take a certain amount of effort to read - Augustine demands patience and some thought, which is how I want my religious books to be. His lack of inhibition about sharing his debaucherous youth is actually pretty darn inspiring, and much more easy to grasp than the radiant lives of many other saints, the ones who never stray too far from their stained-glass perfection. Alain de Botton is more of a pretentious young jerk, writing about a romance between two people who shouldn't be together and who are too broken and insecure to be with anyone, really. He peppers the novel with pithy subheadings, charts, and digressions into some philosopher or another (although most of the works he opts to cite in footnotes were written in the two or three years just before his book was published - real impressive, Alain).

But there are common threads emerging in these two books: something about looking for the right things, or how having the wrong idea of love and devotion can lead you very far astray. How it all starts internally, and once you are grounded in yourself then you can begin relating to other people. I was really surprised to see some similarities in these books. But if the character's in the other book would read some Augustine, they would be much better off.

I know this is not an earth-shattering observation, and I realize that so far this compare/contrast is on its way to a solid B-, but it was on my mind. St. Augustine is blowing me away with some of his ideas. He wrote about God melting sin like ice, which reminded me of my dream the other day of water streaming out of my hands. And he wrote that "I had an instinct to keep myself safe and sound, to preserve my own being, which was a trace of the single unseen Being from which it was derived" (40). To me one of the clearest ways I think that our friendly neighborhood unseen Being makes itself known is through the desire of every creature on earth to keep living. Everyone has an innate desire to simply continue existing - and I don't think that could emerge from the ether via a few darwinian contortions.

Not that I'm endorsing intelligent design or anything. But I'm just saying. You think about it sometimes. Seacrest out.

Friday, February 25, 2005

25 reasons

1. My parents and family, the relationships we have
2. L
3. The friends who grace me with their company
4. Generally good health and an able body
5. Independence
6. A life I'm excited about - opportunities that have me raring to go
7. R&B music I love
8. Books that have changed the way I see things
9. The New Yorker
10. The Washington Post
11. NY Times Book Review
13. Dance hour
14. Chipotle
15. Fountain soda
16. Going to the movies
17. Going running
18. My Ipod
19. Polo shirts
20. Finding a church I like
21. Living in an apartment I love
22. Having a job I enjoy, with people who are smart, funny, compassionate
23. Being able to travel
24. Having amazing options for the next few years
25. Being able to appreciate a transitional moment, being able to acknowledge those fleeting periods in life when you take a look around and think, "Yes, this is it, right now, this is happiness, and I am thankful."

It's my birthday!

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Women we love: Vivian Green

Tonight I saw R&B chanteuse Vivian Green sing at S.O.B.'s. Her first album came out a couple years ago and included two smoky mid-tempo numbers: "Emotional Rollercoaster," which I have to pronounce the way she does in the chorus, so it's actually "E-mo-tion-al Rollah-coastahh"; and "What is Love," a song that is blessed with perhaps the sultriest first 25 seconds in all of neo-soul. These were the only two songs of hers I know, but the concert was great. She only did about 10 songs, most from her new album, but she was charming and funny and self-deprecating. She's a great songwriter - she comes across as a full-blooded woman, not just a dramatically romantic silhouette - and you just know she and I would be close if I, you know, knew her.

The arrangements were good and my neck was doing its back-and-forth work the whole night. Several times I caught myself marvelling at how much I love this music - how I can't imagine being who I am without this music. Hardly any of my friends know Vivian Green or her style, and yet it taps into something that's deep within me. Anyways, it was an interesting crowd, too: mostly a buppie haven, many industry types (including the freakish Wendy Williams ["is she really on fire?" "I don't know, maybe just her weave"]), a few white people, an unexpected contingent of gay men. I suspect we were the only ones who paid full price for a ticket.

But I would do it again! I walked out happy and rejuvenated. Even if you listen to music all the time, it's great to occasionally devote all of your attention to it - to hear it in a communal environment, to feel the bass in your chest, to watch it being created and consumed and reciprocated. Encore, please.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Soup time

Yesterday, at lunch, a man in Milano Market yelled at me unreasonably. He was getting soup; I was trying to maneuver around him to look at the soup selection and weigh it against the sandwiches. I ended up saying "excuse me" three times in my efforts to get by him. He stopped and looked at me and said, "Jesus Christ, have some patience! Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me. Just wait!" I was taken aback. I'm not used to being reprimanded publicly. I sputtered something like, "thank you for your patience, sir." It was all I could do. Throughout the rest of the afternoon I thought of things I could have said - not witty or clever things, but things that would have dripped with sarcasm and malice. Like: "Ok, buddy, don't spill your soup," or "Sorry we can't all live on your soup time, friend." But none of these would have been funny or stinging. (Or would change the fact that the whole thing almost certainly affected me much more than it did him.) The rest of the day this made me kind of sad and definitely angry. I said 'excuse me'! And I meant it! Who yells at someone for well-intentioned politeness?

On my way out of the market, in an effort to restore some karmic balance to the dynamics of the white-collar lunch hour, I tried to be friendly to the cashier. "Hi, ha yew?" I said in my best Virginia drawl, a grin clamped over my mouth. She didn't reply. I said again, "hi, ha yew?" But she didn't reply, or make eye contact, during the entire transaction, speaking in uninterrupted spanish to her colleague across the way.

I don't think this happens in places that are not New York.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Not a compliment

As I walked down the street, feeling basically comfortable with my personal appearance, a man on the street said to me: "You look like Bill Gates. Are you related to him?"

I hope this was the start of some kind of a scam, rather than an accurate reflection of how I look to others. I spent the rest of my walk peering at my reflection in doorways and store windows, muttering Bill Gates' name and trying to figure out if the guy was serious or not. Am I doomed to a middle age of aviator-style glasses and overall jowliness? I would suspect so.

Incredible journey

I have been thinking a lot about Lent lately - I have had church on the brain. I struggled with deciding what to give up or what kind of a commitment to make for the season of Lent, a season which for me often only amplifies the less pleasant aspects of the religion. Faithful readers will recall that familiar question, 'What do I have to feel guilty about?,' and the Lenten journey for me often seems to add more and more layers of guilt. Along with regular bad feelings for not going to church, or not praying enough, or praying insufficiently, or whatever, I can now add guilty feelings for the Lenten promises I have abandoned and the vows I have swept aside.

But this is the wrong way to look at things, I realized with some help. If I am focusing too much on the self-flagellation aspect of the whole thing, I am missing the point and instead fixating on this idea of pain and self-denial for its own sake. This year I am trying to take a more sane route: going to church every sunday at 9 am. This is much more palatable when I have some good brunch plans to follow the mass, as I have had for the last two weeks. And it's been really nice so far, so I think I am making some progress.

Last night I had a dream, though, about Lent. I was going through some kind of crucible - it was like a test or an obstacle course or a walk through fire, to cleanse myself and get right. It was amazing, because I found that when I concentrated hard enough on purifying myself, streams of water would run from my fingers and all of the sin and guilt and darkness washed right out of me. It was the kind of tangible symbol I long for, yet know I will never receive. Ascension was the theme of this dream: as I kept moving forward, the water kept flowing from my hands, and I just rose higher and higher into something good.

It was a really wonderful dream. I am happy how this Lent is going. It's not about giving up soda or dessert, but it is about something. Oh, gratitude! Redemption! How sweet you are. Every day is another chance.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Wild kingdom

Last night I was brushing my teeth to go to bed at 2:20 (don't even get me started) - bleary-eyed and exhausted from doing nothing for three hours. I was reading and brushing when I noticed a flicker of movement on the wall and saw a hale and hearty cockroach nonchalantly strolling up by the shower. I just watched it for a minute, transfixed, and then banged the wall. It skittered away into a small crevice between the plastic shower unit and the wall. I was horrified. Should I buy those cockroach things that probably don't work? Should I put duct tape over the gap from which it came? I felt guilt about that idea, and imagined my horror when I would discover that the bastard had chewed through the tape or peeled it back with its devilish pincers.

I went to bed thoroughly skeeved out. Lying there I thought about cockroaches and their nighttime journeys and imagined them nearby until I could feel the psychosomatic pin-pricks along my legs and back - my head conjuring up ghostly bugs to brush my skin and turn me to dust. When I woke up this morning I felt unsettled, and my first coherent thought of the day, honestly, was:

What do I have to feel guilty about?

Ah, yes. The cockroach. As if this were some personal fault of mine. I think I am losing my mind.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Not quite professional

I went for a run today around Central Park. Brilliantly, I brought long workout clothes to the office this morning. Late in the afternoon I changed clothes in my office and tried to illicitly tiptoe out of the suite in my not-quite-flattering workout pants (the stretchy kind that are not technically leotards, but still make you check with the sales clerk to make sure they are, in fact, men's clothing) and about eight layers of t-shirts. But no, sir! I happily ran into three of my extremely female coworkers on my way out, leading me to wonder: can they see my underwear? are my bits and pieces apparent? do I have any awkward sweat stains?

Well, who would know, since none of the coworkers were too anxious to make eye contact with me. But these fears disappeared like Gatorade stains in a shag carpet as I began the run. I huffed the whole six miles and enjoyed the gates - I'm sorry, I mean The Gates - in the changing light. It seemed as though every hill, every crest, every angle, provided a new pretty view of the park. The setting sun, the wind, the light, made everything great.

I realize I'm turning into a gushy Christo disciple but damn it, I love the Gates. There were some hysterical letters in the Times today from indignant people sneering at the whole thing, since some people apparently hate things like "art" and "civic works" and "things that make other people happy." Relax, homeboy. For two weeks enjoy the damn thing - I love the barren February landscape as much as anyone, but this is a nice temporary change. Central Park is that girl who goes into the expensive store in the mall and tries on a nice dress just to see how it looks. Then you just sit back and tell her it looks great no matter what, and wait patiently until after she comes out in her normal clothes, because then you might get to go to Auntie Anne's for a celebratory pretzel in honor of your unflagging support and devotion. So in conclusion: you look great, Central Park! Very svelte! I'll take mine cinnamon sugar.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Turn the lights down, it's time to get romantic

Ooooh, Valentine's day. How I love thee. How I regret the commercial saturation of this vaguely christian, vaguely pagan holiday; yet how I succumb to your sweet temptations of swoony cards and sugar-laden confections. Be Mine. Call Me. I'm Yours. Eat Me. I shall!

Tonight L and I will have a romantic rendezvous in my apartment. I will light candles. I will carefully select compact discs from my library of nearly 40 compact discs in all. Some songs will be fast, more will be slow. Most will be sung by black people, Sade in particular. The candlelight will glint romantically off the tin foil wrapping of the burritos we shall eat. And we shall have a wonderful romantic and seductive evening, until 10 pm, when "CSI: Miami" comes on.

Can you feel the romance in the air?

"Your love is king, crown you with my heart. Your love is king, never need to part..."

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Release the gates

This afternoon I took a stroll through Central Park to see Christo and Jeanne-Claude's new art project, The Gates. They've taken twenty-some miles of paths throughout the Park and put up these bright gates with folds of orange cloth hanging down, thousands of them standing sentinel for the next two weeks.

It was striking to be there. There were a lot of people in the park, more than I would expect for a cold unexceptional day in February, and people were walking about as aimlessly as one can in Manhattan. They were taking photos in seemingly random directions, trying to capture the curve of a path or a billowing gate or the effect of walking through a canopy of orange. It was wonderful to see these staid New Yorkers climbing up the muddy hillsides to find a better vantage point and clicking photos as relentlessly as the tourists. We were easy-going and generous with eye contact. One woman remarked that she would love to have one of these gates for her garden.

I read that they chose the orange color to capture the light and highlight the different trails and boulevards through the park. But it struck me that it is the same color as traffic cones and municipal signs, the color of civic government. To see this art project, 25 years in the making, and to see such a cross-section of the city come out to welcome it on a blustery weekend - it was a civic holiday, a new one, that we had never observed before.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

"Read in order to live"

Today my wise and irreverent boss gave me my Christmas present - a small notebook labeled "Books to Check Out," fashioned to look like the card tucked in the back of library books. It has a few clever quotations about books and reading, and has space to list books you've loved, books you covet, etc. But I am using mine to list the books I've read for pleasure. I started keeping this list on loose leaf in December 2000, and I tell you, it is one of the best decisions I've made.

Tonight I transcribed the old list into the new book, and as I did it, all these memories of where and how I read books came flooding back: reading Dave Eggers in the backseat of a rented Malibu in California; William Styron at beach week in Myrtle Beach; Zadie Smith in Seattle; Italo Calvino in the bathroom of my apartment in Charlottesville; Colson Whitehead in Boulder; Michael Chabon at home; Alice Sebold on my first night in New York City; Graham Greene in Barcelona; Leo Tolstoy in Chipotle; Margaret Mitchell in Costa Rica.

Anyways, this made me really happy tonight, to consider where I've been and what I've read. Among the many identities I carry around with me (white, Catholic, male, etc) "Reader" is one that I have come to treasure. Here is the list of the most well-loved books I encountered in the last four years - the ones I devoured, the ones that devoured me. Chronologically:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Personal History by Katharine Graham
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Silence by Shusaku Endu
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Washington Square by Henry James
You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Why I Am A Catholic by Garry Wills
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

.... To remember these books and recall how they affected me, how they changed the way I see the world! To me it's more than a list - it is a spell, an incantation. I am so thankful to be literate.

That title quotation is from Gustave Flaubert, 1867 (as if I needed to tell you that!).

Tuesday, February 08, 2005


This morning in the shower I was thinking about "The Woodsman," a movie I didn't particularly enjoy, but one that made me wonder: what would it take for me to threaten violence against someone - to threaten to kill someone and really mean it?

Then I thought about writing, and how I want to write a story where things really happen, and the pieces started coming together. I want to write a tale wherein the protagonist's sibling had been victimized by the bad guy, but the bad guy was acquitted in the trial. Afterwards the protagonist told the bad guy, in front of witnesses, that if he ever came near the beloved sibling again, he (the protagonist) would kill him (the bad guy).

Well, lo and behold, a few months later the bad guy is murdered. And all signs point to our beloved protagonist, who happens to be innocent. As the merciless hand of the law tightens around him, he must prove his innocence and catch the real killer (who is none other than the bad guy's own sibling! Can you see the parallels? Can you?)

This would be a thrilling story of suspense, complete with: unexpected twists! A thoughtful reflection on the nature of family and sibling relationships! Buxom women! Exotic locales! And a sex scene that will curl your toes.

We'll see if anything comes of this. Not the most original idea ever, but it caught my attention today. One sibling's name would be Rory. There would be a woman named Linda involved. But so far that's all I've got. Don't steal my idea, por favor.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Be mine, valentine

Today I received word from Con Ed that my old account at the old apartment had been closed. They said:

"As requested, we closed this Con Edison account. This is the final bill for service through Feb 1. We enjoy servicing good customers and especially appreciate that the payments were kept up to date."

Awwwww, Con Edison. Thank you very much. I enjoyed being serviced.

A good man: Thomas L. Friedman

I saw Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times columnist I agree with 95% of the time, on Tim Russert's CNBC dog-and-pony show on Saturday. Man, I love this guy. He's one of those people who says the name of the person he's talking to very frequently, and he's got this condescending tone to his voice, like he's trying to explain the differences between Sunni and Shiite Islam to a sheepdog. He uses all of these godawful rhetorical questions and hypothetical monologues, newspaper headlines, etc. But he can get away with it, because he's usually right.

On Saturday Tim Russert sat back and let Big Tom basically recite his Sunday column - about how we should reduce the awards we offer for the heads of Osama and Zarqawi instead of increase them, how we should let the moderate Arabs catch them themselves, how we should use the reward money to create scholarships for muslim students to study in the US. The best part was when he stated that we should reduce the award to a bag of pistachios and an autographed picture of W. [Note that in the column, he said the award should be a lone pistachio - I guess the klieg lights inspired a fit of generosity.] I love it! A bag of pistachios! Can I donate the bag? Where do I send it? Big Tom, can you hear me?

Back home

I went home this weekend and had a very nice time with my parents. It's good to see them doing so well in the empty-nest phase of life. They're both in great shape, they're busy, they are social. Their newest project is researching possible retirement spots - this week they're headed down to beautiful Sarasota to scope it out. I have mixed feelings about this: I don't want them to leave our familial manse in McLean, yet on the other hand, if they go, I don't have to feel any guilt about not living in northern Virginia. Every time I go back I grow to resent 66 a little bit more. But the parents are great.

We went to a "Superbowl" "party" at my great-aunt's house last night. Man, was that a doozy. My 13 year-old cousin and I were the youngest people there by a good generation or two. But it was kind of fun, in that I felt like I was scoring "good son" points. My mom gave me a nice compliment, too - she said I always make people feel good about themselves. That was very touching to hear.

Oh man, my family! I love them so much. It's weird to write about them here in this acidic, caustic, sarcastic, poetic reflection of gritty Manhattan life. But I really love going back to see them, I love the fact that the four of us are all in pretty good places in our lives as individuals and as the group. The transition back is always odd - riding a subway with the professional, the old, the indigent, the lost, the hopeful. Seeing a turd on the stairways to the subway. But these are the choices we make, I guess, and it just helps you realize how good you have it.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

An announcement

Ok, so here's my thinking on social security, after half-heartedly watching (and meticulously reading about) the State of the Union last night. There is definitely a problem coming up, and the system, as it is now, is unsustainable. Bush's idea of giving people the option of diverting some of their social security money into private accounts seems reasonable to me - no one is forcing a change, and I feel comfortable assuming that the market will continue to rise overall for the next many decades. (I say this without understanding the fine print - Paul Krugman, please wipe the flecks of spittle from the corners of your mouth and explain this to me.)

The problem is, there's no real debate on the issue because the Democrats don't seem to acknowledge that there's a problem. All of this sniping over when the crisis will actually occur (2018! 2042! Hike!) just begs the question. I want the Dems to be a real opposition party, not this sniveling posse of haters I currently see. Like those two dudes on In Living Color: Iraq War? HATED IT. Social Security Reform? HATED IT. Well, give me some alternatives then - we all see the problem, and Bush is proposing one solution which many people think is idiotic. So what’s your idea?

It was very shrewd of Bush to mention social security reform ideas from prominent Democrats through the decades. It only highlights the current (dare I say it? OK, I will) impotence of the Democratic party. They need to acknowledge that, for now, Bush is setting the agenda, and they need to start being constructive. I saw Harry Reid giving the rebuttal last night and it was depressing, seeing him try to chuckle about Bush's foolishness when, in fact, ho ho ho, there's no problem at all, heh heh heh.

Maybe there's a parallel here to Chicken Little, but I can't quite see it. Maybe Bush is running around saying the sky is falling, and the Dems are standing calmly, noting that the sky isn't scheduled to fall for another ten minutes, so everything is fine. What the hell happens then?

There's only one thing to do: I'm running for Congress.

A new month

I wanted to write a poem about February because it's such a great month, but the only words I could think of that rhyme with February were: apothecary, dromedary, corollary, honorary, temporary, statuary. This was not helpful. May would have been easier.

I find the pleasures of february
Fleeting, brutal, temporary:

Slush alongside sloppy streets
Chapped lips and other wintry treats

Despite short days and frozen slopes
Like the white bright sun there is yet hope:

Winter doldrums are just a myth
Especially on the twenty-fifth.