Monday, April 30, 2007

Don't sweat the technique

The alarm went off this morning at 7:30 am, way too early for a Sunday. Once I registered the facts of the alarm and the radio and the morning itself, I was immediately aware of the insistent ringing in my ears and the dull hum in my brain, remnants of L's birthday festivities from last night. So, with about five hours of sleep under my belt, I lurched out of bed and got ready to run a 4-mile race in Central Park. I brushed my teeth, put my contacts in, and headed uptown on the train.

Last night we kicked things off with a tapas dinner, which sounded great in theory but in actuality may have left all of us slightly hungry. I know I was about ready to eat my napkin. Then we moved on to our latest nightspot of choice, conveniently located two blocks from the apartment. Knowing I had this race in the morning I kept my alcohol consumption to a minimal degree, for me, at a birthday party, with fun people. We were having a great time, the music was lively, except for a weird Bon Jovi interlude, but as the night progressed, Ashesh rightly pointed out that "the crowd was...changing." Changing into a more surly, outer-borough, inappropriately-dressed permutation of its previous self. (Ladies: keep your bras under your clothing. This applies to most of you.) So finally we left, got some pizza, and went home. Success.

On the train up to the park this morning I assembled these recollections in my brain as I thought about why I was running, and also tried to focus on not getting mugged by the other tired and untrustworthy people around me. My head felt a little inflated and my body was exhausted. L had just rolled over when I left the house.

So I finally started doing this run, then, and it seemed pretty standard: pick somebody up ahead of you and gradually overtake them; run on the periphery of the road so you don't waste too much time jostling past other people; take note of the dreadlock guy you see at every race, who runs at about your pace; don't stop for water, don't even think about it; focus on your breathing; note how pretty the park is in the springtime; let gravity speed you up on the downhills; consider the communal nature of these races, the fact that you can dissolve into a sea of 8,000 runners with 16,000 legs pumping on the asphalt just like yours, the way that the crowd becomes something almost organic; just listen to your music and keep moving.

I felt winded at points and felt like I dropped my speed down to a crawl. At other times I really pushed hard and basically stalked some hapless runner until I passed them. I was dying to come across mile marker 3, and when I finally passed it, I didn't feel like I had much left for the remaining mile, and I couldn't even muster up a decent sprint for the very last stretch, when the banner at the finish line is in sight, an actual crowd is present along the edges and the thumping dance music obliterates whatever club tune you've been listening to. But I crossed the finish line, gave myself a high-five over my head (which may look like an ordinary clap, but it's not), gathered my complimentary water and sportsdrink and tart macintosh apple, and headed home.

Later in the afternoon I checked my results out on the web, and it turns out that today I posted my fastest pace-per-mile time ever, in the two years I've been running these things. It was a solid twenty seconds quicker than my usual effort, and I beat last week's time, in the same distance, by a solid minute. Maybe I didn't waste as much time dodging other people today, or maybe I happened to just hit some nice new peak of fitness today, but whatever the case, I felt really proud of myself.

I'm already thinking about what my goal time is for the next four-miler I do, and the next threshold for my pace time. In hindsight (of course) it felt great to wake up early and get out of the house and do something, to wipe away the cobwebs left over from a night on the town and embrace the day. When I came home the ringing had subsided in my head. Today I felt a certain pride and contentment that I doubt I could feel from, say, Federal Income Tax, or Professional Responsibility, or Entertainment Law, which are the exams I'm facing in the next couple days.

I guess the moral of the story is, if you can't eat your Wheaties, try knocking back a few Heineckens and not sleeping for a night, and watch your athletic abilities soar! You'll see a real spike, I guarantee it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Groove salad

The latest thing I have found to help me stagger through this round of final exams is a radio station on iTunes, filed under Electronic, called "Groove Salad on SomaFM." The Salad describes itself as "a nicely chilled plate of ambient beats and grooves." That well-turned phrase illustrates everything there is to know about it, and I have come to love this random little station.

I listen to this as I cobble together my outlines, and the mostly lyric-free, synthetic beats and whirrs are the perfect complement. Occasionally a vocal will waft along to ride the spare drumbeats and syncopated clicks and clacks. Sometimes I will be immersed in the sounds and suddenly I am no longer at my desk alone in the middle of the night: I am on the midnight flight from Reykjavik to the Northern Lights, the Japanese stewardess is strutting up the aisle carrying my vodka gimlet on a silver tray and the man across the aisle in sunglasses is raising his glass in a toast, and there's dry ice everywhere, and suddenly I am behind the eclipse or in the center of the moon in a room made of ice and light, like the Fortress of Solitude, but instead of Superman there are harajuku girls and aliens and a dolphin in a nightclub, tiny candles everywhere, floating upwards like bubbles in champagne, then the Northern Lights come on and the jet flying me from Reykjavik to infinity gently lifts up, up, up, and the stewardess and the sunglasses man and the dolphin are there, and we all raise our glasses in a toast to ... we raise our glasses in a toast to ... oh no ... that's it.

I lost it. Suddenly I am back to the books, realizing I read the same paragraph about federal income tax three times. The nouns are interchangeable at this point. Undaunted, I must press on and keep reading and typing, carefully, with reflection, until the next flight from Reykjavik leaves for a brief sojourn away from the desk and the books and law school. This is why I love Groove Salad.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

A couple of days ago I finished reading The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I was particularly excited to read it because it was at the cross-section of two of the most powerful forces in publishing: Oprah picked it for her book club, hence the gaping "O" sticker on the cover, and it won the Pulitzer Prize. I love the Pulitzer prize, but in recent years, I feel that it has gone to these small, modest character studies (see Gilead, March) where intense introspection occurs in front of a rainy window, yet nothing seems to transpire. I like a novel that is ambitious - some big, brawny book spanning decades, where the author tries to take the ideal of the Great American Novel and wrestle it in between two covers (see Middlesex, Kavalier and Clay). So I was excited when the Pulitzer chose this book, and I was excited that Oprah's blessing upon it moved the paperback publishing date up by about six months.

I read this novel over the course of three weeknights, from midnight to two in the morning. It was one of the most bleak books I've ever read: about the sojourn of an unnamed man and his son through a near-future, post-apocalyptic America. In the wake of some horrible undisclosed nightmare, when the planet and most of humanity have perished, this man is hoping to follow the road to the coast, where hopefully something better will await him and his son. As they encounter other stragglers and scavenge abandoned homes and towns, details emerge of the hellish world that has reconstituted itself in the face of utter disaster: roving gangs, slavery, cannibalism. Out of chaos, this order has formed.

The redemptive quality of the book comes from the bond between father and son, the father's selfless and ingenious devotion to the boy. The father can remember the world before this disastrous event occurred; he can remember the boy's mother and knows why she is not with them. But he protects his son from these facts, and tries to teach the child decency and compassion when these ideas are completely untethered from their reality. His love for the child is so bright that it carries the novel forward.

Now, several days after I reached the last page, I'm still thinking about the book and wondering what happened to its protagonists. It was the most harrowing book I've read. I read it as L slept beside me, and when I finally put it down, my eyes weary but my mind racing, I would sleep with a hand on her shoulder or around her waist to remind me that the book was not real, and that I was safe in my cozy yellow bedroom with my wife in our too-small bed.

I have always been superstitious about the talismanic power of books. As a kid I couldn't sleep with the cover of a Stephen King novel facing upwards on my nightstand. When I read American Psycho a couple years ago, the most unredeemably horrifying book I had ever encountered, I wouldn't keep it in my bedroom, and when I finally finished it, I dropped it into a trashcan on the street the next day. I didn't want it in my home.

With The Road, I placed it face-down on the dresser at the end of each night. One of the reasons I read so late into the morning hours was that if I encountered an idea or a passage that was especially bleak or gruesome, I couldn't stop there - I had to create more distance between myself and the offending paragraphs. In a way I was on my own journey to parallel that of the characters, searching for the same happy ending (to use a pat phrase) that they sought.

With that said, I can't recommend this book highly enough. I don't think it's for everyone (I think L would chuck it out the window), but it does fit in nicely with some of the other dystopian literature I've been encountering lately. I read this book after reading EB White's wry and wistful essays, and now I've moved on to more of Joan Didion's acerbic and incisive prose. But The Road has stayed with me; I've picked it up to read the first few pages again, to try to see how McCarthy did it. In the face of such disaster and horror, his ability to find love and bravery for two unknown people recalled the best of what his characters had lost, the best of what we all could lose.

I will also say this: this is the ballsiest book club choice Oprah has ever made. The ladies are about to get their socks knocked off.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Patriotism, part II

This semester I have been interning with a judge downtown, and today I got to see a naturalization ceremony where 250 people became American citizens. They were sitting in a massive room in the courthouse, people of all ages and from all over the place, many of them dressed in their best. The largest contingents were from the DR and China, but there were people from Armenia, Malawi, France, etc, and even, thanks apparently to the benefit of time travel, the USSR. A couple Iranians and Syrians, but no Iraqis (good luck, you guys! As you stand up, we'll stand down! So try to stand up without being blown to bits!). Anyways, I digress: today all of those people became Americans.

First, a clerk made everyone stand and repeat an oath of citizenship, which required people to serve the country, if necessary, to pick up arms in defense, and to pay taxes. This seemed much more stringent than what we require of native-born citizens, but that was fine. It was amusing to note that many of our newest citizens still have no grasp of the English language, though -- when asked to repeat after the clerk, a lot of people moved their mouths and looked around without making any sound. Or maybe they were just deaf new citizens, I don't know.

Then we all said the Pledge of Allegiance, which was refreshing. Then the judge (dare I say it, my judge) gave a speech where he talked about how America is the greatest country in the history of the world, and now everyone in the room is an equal, with the same rights and freedoms. We are all immigrants, from some other place, and no one has any standing over anyone else. Your citizenship, which is ten minutes' old, is good and solid and equivalent to that of a federal jduge, like him. With this freedom comes responsibilities: honoring our fellow citizens, respecting them, voting in elections, paying taxes. This is a happy day, one of the most important days of your life, and you should go celebrate with your loved ones after you leave here, because this is a wonderful occasion. You are a citizen of the United States of America. It was really a great, beautiful speech, which I utterly failed to recapture here. I wanted to copy it when we returned, but that would have been strange.

Afterwards, like graduation, they read everyone's name, and the people walked or strided or hobbled up and received their certificate and a handshake with the judge. Family members would occasionally clap. I sat there with a big smile on my face the whole time, watching people as they looked at their names and photos on the certificate, or made fleeting eye contact with the judge as they shook his hand and then left. The US Marshals were congratulating people too and clapping them on the back. A few people even made eye contact with me, and I would give the ol' smile-and-nod, American to American.

As we left I thought about how April 20, 2007 would be a memorable day for so many people. I thought of the risk and strength and courage it would take to leave your home, either willingly or under duress, and seek a new home and a new identity elsewhere. I am very fortunate to have never faced those trials, and now there are 250 more people in this great city with the same rights and freedoms as me, despite whatever differences of culture or language may exist between us. In that room was such a sense of unity and pride, only amplified by the complete heterogenity of the assembly. All of us are sheltered in the arms of this great country.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


In the months after 9/11 Vanity Fair featured an Annie Leibovitz cover of George Bush and his team in the Oval Office: Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Don Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, George Tenet. I went out and bought the magazine and carefully cut out the cover and put it up on my wall. They looked strong, and intelligent, and capable. I felt reassured to see them, and I felt that America had some direction. Watching President Bush give his speech to Congress on September 20th gave me a certain courage and hope that was difficult to find during that time.

And yet now, of course, that sense of hope and unity is scattered to the wind. Every name I listed above is now weighed down by a litany of errors, mistakes, and examples of striking incompetence. What we are doing in Iraq is simply wasteful, of so much: the lives of our soldiers; the existing Iraqi society, which is now ripped to shreds; the good faith so many decent Iraqis placed in us; and the goodwill of the international community that buoyed us when we were at our lowest.

And yet - John McCain is out there advocating for more troops, more strength, and a longer commitment in Iraq. And the damned thing is, I think he's right: if we expect to pull any kind of success out of this debacle, we have to stick it through. But his problem, and the president's, is that our nation has lost the will for the fight, and for good reason. Once the president gets out of office, he will spend the rest of his life justifying and defending this war, and trying to come up with a narrative to vindicate his own errors. John McCain, I think, is acting honestly right now, with integrity. He's not pandering to anyone, because no one agrees with him; but he is insisting on this course, and staking his political future on it, because he thinks it's the right thing to do. And for that reason, I think what he is doing is an incredibly noble thing.

I'm a bit worked up now from reading Newsweek late at night. And at this hour of the morning I'm telling you I can see the threads binding this Imus debacle to our national fatigue with Iraq to the Duke lacrosse scandal to what happened at Virginia Tech today. Maybe all of those elements reveal a certain lack of honesty in our society, a coarseness, a cruelty, a rush to judgment, a lack of deliberation.

Oh Lord, we need a change right now. The national grief that we're about to endure - we've endured it before. The jockeying of the politicians, the race cards thrown down with such glee by all sides, the lies we've grown accustomed to, the parsed language that says nothing at all, the relentless sense of entropy...! I've had it.

I think this country is anticipating the next election because we are desperate for a change, desperate for a signal of different things to come. I voted for John McCain in the Virginia primary seven years ago, but I think his moment has passed. I am tired of the Bush/Clinton seesaw, where one half of the country violently hates our president for four or eight years, and then we switch. If Chuck Hagel can jump in the mix, and get the Republicans to pull their heads out of their butts about evolution, stem cells, gay marriage, and other issues, I might look to him. But to be honest, right now I feel the language and unity and hope and fresh air of Barack Obama is exactly the remedy this country needs.

So, in this dark night - as the last shreds of a nor'easter bluster outside the window, as the carnage burns in Iraq, as thirty-some families mourn the loss of their kids and spouses in Blacksburg, as the professional screamers and sycophants in our society sleep in preparation for another day of meaningless combat, as we all get another night older - I'm voting Obama for president. May the election come tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

E.B. White, "Here is New York," 1948:

"On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city's walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill them, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I love television, so what

This weekend L and I returned home, for the first time since January, to celebrate Easter. By "celebrate Easter," of course, I mean "lie in bed until eleven, enduring a sinus cold that had my head vibrating like a tuning fork and made me feel like my nose was full of gravel." Fortunately I think I have beaten the head cold into submission, but this is yet another misadventure in my travels with L in 2007. A pessimistic person might point out that something ranging from irritating to terrifying has happened every time L and I have ventured from the City this year: in Hawaii, there was the health issue that basically made the earth stop spinning; in Florida, there was the unseasonable cold front, the coldest weekend in months that of course warmed up as soon as our plane to New York left the tarmac; and now, for Easter, my sinuses were going crazy the entire time, so that it was a struggle to eat food, given that it's difficult to chew when you're also focused on breathing through your mouth. Well, fortunately I am not a pessimistic person, so I don't look at things that way.

We came back home ready and willing to buckle down and work hard, and wrap up this semester and look forward to what promises to be a great summer. L's tulips and hyacinth had bloomed, the apartment was fresh and fragrant, and the sun was shining. And then, yesterday afternoon, as I was cruising among the Internets and absent-mindedly watching, um, Oprah, the TV inexplicably shut off by itself. You homeowners out there know where this is going: THE TV WOULDN'T COME BACK ON. Five hours later, after long phone calls with the people at Philips and Circuit City, I had to accept the fact that our television had died. And unlike Jesus or the proverbial cat, it will not be coming back. Thanks to our warranty, they will be replacing our TV, hopefully some time within the next ten business days. As far as I am concerned, ten business days is an eternity in TV time, but I think this is God's way of punishing me for being too sick to go to church on Easter.

Now it's like, why bother to go back to the apartment? What are L and I going to do, talk to each other? I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I can schedule my gym-going to watch TV while on the treadmill, or figure out which networks let you watch free episodes, or what we can buy on iTunes, in an absolute worst-case scenario. But ultimately I think this will be good, at least in terms of studying and reading for pleasure and taking advantage of springtime.

Last night L wrote a message on our dusty TV screen with her finger, a suitable epitaph that is now, literally, the only thing to watch:

& MY TV.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Things I wanted to write about...

...but the moment has passed:

1. The 10K I did on Sunday, where two guys almost got in a fight, mid-run, and the antagonist, who was a real jerk, was actually slower than the guy he was picking on, which was hilarious. Also the fact that my calves were sore for days afterward because I haven't run downhill in months, which is sad (yet in my defense, the treadmills at the gym don't have a downward setting).

2. Joan Didion's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," where I basically underlined the entire book and have spent weeks mulling over the last line of her preface: "writers are always selling somebody out."

3. R. Kelly's song "I'm a Flirt," which is like the perfect complement to Diddy's "Last Night," and I love both of them. I think if I had to identify the top songs of 2007 so far, they would be Omarion's "Ice Box" and "Last Night."

4. The fact that I have hit some sort of extracurricular wall at law school, and I am just sick and tired of planning events and running things and ordering food and being excited about everything. I spent huge chunks of time in high school, college, grad school, and work doing all of that, and dammit, I'm 27 years old and I've had enough.

5. We had a really nice spring evening last Tuesday: I darted home to run outside after school, and then we went to two different tapas places in the neighborhood, sitting outside and enjoying sangria. And a waitress complimented my Spanish accent. I wore shorts the whole day and it felt as if the entire city had let out a sigh of relief - there was a palpable sense of happiness and activity and community as we watched the city stroll by.

6. The other day at law school I got totally busted dancing in the hallway, listening to my ipod. As the person passed by, looking at me weirdly, I had to pretend my dance face was my standard countenance and sort of jerkily transition into a normal walking motion. It was not seamless, I'll tell you that.

7. Speaking of which, at hip hop last week, we were rocking out and then, in the middle of everything, at that moment where the music (a hot remix of "Ice Box," see above) fuses with the motion to create this perfect expression of humanity and joy, the teacher bellowed, "WORK, Mike!' in this way that was like a compliment and a command and a life lesson and a request all at the same time. I have been reliving this moment frequently.