Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Good reads

Always eager to expand my web presence, I recently gave in to the pressure of my friends and joined Goodreads. This is a website where you list the books you've read or are reading, and you rate things based on a five-star system, and you can peruse other people's reading lists and rank the books they've read and compare your impressions. I was pretty reluctant to join because the last thing I need is another website to maintain (Ol' Clarity causes enough stress when I see the same entry staring me in the face for days on end, as I watch whatever intelligence and humor I tried to create become stale and really uninteresting, even to me) but it seemed simple enough. I've been keeping a list of the books I read for fun since 2000, and it's one of the smartest things I did that year -- now I can really punctuate the seasons and what I was doing in life by the books I read and what I thought of them. I'm not trying to reproduce the list on Goodreads, but it is interesting to see what other people like to check out. My friends were right: it's not about you listing your own books for your benefit, it's about other people checking you out (literarily, that is).

In the first 72 hours I've been a member, I've been updating and checking my little profile incessantly, seeing what other people are doing and adding my own stars to the books we've mutually read. I need to chill out a bit with this, but for now it's pretty fun. Like the New Yorker festival -- a way to make the individual experience of reading something shared and communal, which is always great to find.

If you want to join goodreads and be my friend, let me know.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Marathon training update: week 4, day 6

Today was the first long run that actually felt long: nine whole miles. Until this point, the "long runs" have not been too far removed from pretty standard distances I might cover in an ambitious weekend. But nine miles -- nobody runs nine miles for fun. It's just too darn long. At nine miles, you're either taking a subway or staying home.

I had a good plan for the run: one full loop around Central Park, as well as two laps around the Reservoir. I made a conscious effort to go slow ("slow and steady" was my mantra), as my training programs instructs. The first several miles felt great: legs felt warm, easy breathing, heart was under control. When I got to the Reservoir, though, my body kind of wigged out. I had a weird time on the unpaved path, there were too many other people around, and it was unforgivingly hot. There was no nice breeze rippling over the water and cooling me off: it was just hot like hell, with many other people hustling beside me and behind me and ahead of me.

The final couple of miles, back on the smooth newly-laid asphalt, felt great. I finished pretty strong and ended up at exactly 9 minutes per mile, which I was very pleased with, considering: (1) I was trying to go slow, shooting for between 8:30 and 9:00, and (2) I had a couple walking breaks in the middle, around that stupid Reservoir, when I just sort of lost interest in running.

I am pleased with how today went. The long runs will be morphing into unpleasant runs as the weeks progress, but I feel good having nine under my belt, since anything over 6-7 gets me a little anxious. Two more notes from today: I passed this little old black lady twice, as she was lumbering up and down the great hill (I guess she had turned around at some point), and the second time, she called out to me, "I saw you on the way down, too! Whew!" And we both cracked up mid-stride. And finally, on the train back home, I looked like a contestant in a wet t-shirt contest because of the voluminous amount of sweat I produced and the gossamer-like cotton shirt I was wearing. Very little was left to the imagination, but I held my head up high, dammit, because I jut ran nine miles.

In sum, training is going well. I have a few weird aches and pains, and I am constantly tired and hungry, but morale is high. Only about 13 weeks left until my mission is fulfilled!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Get tested

Last night we learned that L is not pregnant, and, equally important, neither am I. For surprisingly uninteresting reasons, we ended up with a couple of home pregnancy tests in the apartment last night. Obviously, we had to try them out. And I came to the conclusion that a home pregnancy test is like a gun in a couple of ways.

First, if you have one around, you're going to use it. After L told me we had an extra one, I obviously dropped whatever I was doing to try it out. I was impressed with its light weight and comfortable grip. I decided it would be easier to use if I sat down, but I quickly began to worry about how much time you had to spend peeing on the stick to get an accurate sample. As a result, when I was finished I held the test at an awkward angle, lest a flood of unnecessary urine rush past the sample area, window panels, and out onto my hand. Fortunately this didn't happen, but there was a tense moment where the liquid (which somehow turned blue) seemed to meander through the whole thing, revealing both a control stripe and the results panel, which indicated that I am ... not pregnant. Damn. Kind of bittersweet.

The second way a home pregnancy test is like a gun is that practice makes you more comfortable using it. What happened last night, with me liberally peeing on a stick while yelling through the door to my wife, is like a trip to the firing range. I got to know the home pregnancy test, to understand it, to feel comfortable with it. So that when the real moment arrives, if and when we ever have occasion to use one -- like (God forbid) the day I need to shoot an assailant or a wild boar to protect myself and my loved ones -- I will be ready to go (and not freeze up or get confused, ending up peeing on my assailant, or throwing a home pregnancy test at the boar).

Here's to a great, non-pregnant weekend -- sushi and beers for everybody.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Marathon training update: week 3, day 1

Today is a rest day, which means I don't have to exercise. I cling to these rest days like Leonardo DiCaprio, clutching that old piece of boat he held onto before he drowned in the water and old-lady Kate Winslet started throwing jewelry at him. You remember.

It's only been two solid weeks of my marathon training schedule (short runs Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, long run on Saturday, cross-training Sunday, and resting Monday and Friday) but I feel like it's going well. I have violently upended my natural clock, getting up early in the mornings and exercising before work. One potential problem is that I have not cut back on my regular exercise routine; instead I'm just adding more stuff. I'm realizing that this is not a sustainable course of action, though. You should see me in strength training, trying to lift weights as my legs shake violently underneath me. There is some sort of diminishing return happening, I think. In the next couple weeks I want to focus on running more, running a lot, and cutting back on the cross-training and lifting.

I ran a solid 10K on Saturday, yet I was a little discouraged - my breathing seemed a little raggedy, I had that weird loping gait like a marionette for the first couple of miles, and I had to go to the bathroom the entire length of the run. It was not ideal. I'm trying to run slow, as I'm supposed to on these longer weekend runs, but it's hard for me to run slow. When I first began running (7 years ago!) I honestly didn't realize that "jogging" means "don't sprint." I would run as fast as I could for as long as I could, then marvel at all the other normal joggers passing me by as I clutched my side and minced back home. A similar learning process needs to occur here -- I need to get a better sense of my timing (I can't not a run mile between 7:20-7:40, it seems) and let it slide, just a bit.

Overall, it's an exciting couple of weeks. Two weeks down, sixteen to go. I want to use this space to keep a record of my training, both to mark my progress and any obstacles that arise, and to keep myself accountable to this process by posting a public record. This is exciting! Hit the streets!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Abraham Lincoln: Believe the hype

A few days ago I finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's massive cinderblock of a book, "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln." A biography of Lincoln, it also explores the lives of his main rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination, and then moves into a study of how Lincoln included these intelligent, ambitious men in his Cabinet, shrewdly managing their skills and egos to create a strong presidency fueled by intelligence, compassion, rivalry, and, ultimately, loyalty. I don't know if I've ever written a sentence with nine commas before, but Lincoln is worth it.

One of the remarkable things about this book for me was that it truly humanized Lincoln. He was no longer the marble deity in Washington, or the severe portrait on our currency; Goodwin portrayed him as a real man, who suffered loss in his life yet found strength through his own self-confidence and natural abilities. When he was young he would listen intently to his father telling stories to other adults, and then he would ponder these stories and figure out how to relay them to his young friends, and later enthrall them with his anecdotes and humor. This knack for language and narrative remained with him his entire life and prepared him to be an amazing orator, someone who would use analogies, simple language, and folksy humor to convey profound ideas about freedom, the Constitution, the importance of liberty.

He was truly a self-taught man, studying the Bible and learning Shakespeare to make up for the elite education he never received. He lost his mother, his sister, his first love. Yet from age 23 he knew he wanted to leave his mark on the world -- although he was ambitious, he was never corrupted by the lure of power. He spoke of his political enemies with respect, and was honored by his peers for his wisdom and patience. He did not act impulsively, or out of anger.

To me one of his most remarkable characteristics was his reliance on humor. The few bawdy jokes Goodwin reproduced in the book were slightly crass, slightly tasteless, and surprisingly funny. Even in the darkest days of the Civil War, he would begin meetings with jokes and funny stories. Although some of his colleagues frowned on this, he needed to laugh in order to face the seemingly impossible tasks ahead of him.

And here's the thing: even when he was president, Americans knew that they were in the presence of a truly great man. His reputation of honesty was well-forged by the time he entered the White House. His Cabinet members constantly remarked on his wisdom and gifts as a leader, and many writers pointed out that the nation was lucky to have him at the helm during those violent years.

Can you imagine a president renowned in his own time for his wisdom, patience, compassion, humor, and conciliatory nature? A self-taught man, a brilliant orator, a man who could rise to the nearly impossible challenges of his day. People used to say that someday Lincoln would join the pantheon of great American leaders, and that his reputation may someday surpass that of even Washington. In a very small way, despite the anger and lack of charity in our political culture today, I feel proud to live in an America that honors Lincoln as the leader and statesman he aspired to be. He would not bask in the praise and glory our country has draped around his name -- around the very idea of Abraham Lincoln -- but he certainly earned it.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Rite of summer

Yesterday L and I did one of my favorite New York activities of the whole year, an event that marks the brilliance of summer as much as the sunniest weekend or the coldest fountain Coke: we went to see Shakespeare in the Park. This year's first selection is Romeo and Juliet. We woke up at 5:30 am and dragged ourselves, armed with blankets, books, and an assortment of healthy snacks, up to the Delacorte Theater to try to get tickets. These tickets are free, and passed out at 1 pm each day, so the crowds form very early (the first people usually camp overnight, or get there around 4 am). Each year I feel a unique stress as we hustle out of the house, and then, in the most horrifying moments of all, try to run in flip-flops past the already-formed line with an increasing sense of dread, until you throw down your blanket and stake your claim in line.

We were there by 6 am, so we settled in for a solid seven hours of reading and napping. You always make friends with the people around you; the two girls behind us in line were friendly grad students who had interesting stories and good choices in reading material. People in this line approach the task with the intensity and organizational focus that is characteristic of this city. Everyone listens intently as the line monitors explain the process, and people are vigilant to kick out would-be line cutters. We did not wake up at 5:30 am, and we are not spending most of the day bumming around in the park, for nothing.

So the great news was that we did get tickets, after many snacks, several trips to the public bathrooms (which, given their location in a municipal park, could be a lot grosser), and 250 pages of my Lincoln biography. Of course, a couple hundred people behind us were turned away, many of whom were only a half hour or so behind us -- we were very fortunate to get tickets, so we spent some time high-fiving, which is somewhat rare in our marriage. Anyways, here's how I spent the rest of the day: I did my first long run of marathon training (6 miles), I got a haircut (including the mandatory moment of ghastliness when my hair is soaked and the guy does this thing with the comb that makes me look tragically bald, which may or may not be true), took a nap, when to Chipeezley, and then came home for dinner, then went back up to the Park for the play.

The play. Here's the thing. We've gone to Shakespeare in the Park for four years now, and every year I think it's the best one ever, and this time was no exception. But for all the familiarity of Romeo and Juliet, I was so surprised and enthralled by this production. Lauren Ambrose as Juliet was stunning. She brought a sense of youth, intensity, and passion to her role. This was the first time I ever considered how young Romeo and Juliet are, and Ambrose infused her role with the enthusiasm and slightly spastic quality of teenage love. During the balcony scene, when the two are furtively flirting and kissing and generally mooning over each other, I was reminded of those long ago nights in high school, when a football stadium or a parking lot or a school dance created all of the romance and privacy you could possibly fathom, and this was more than you could ever dream of while it also fell flaggingly short -- the play brought back all of those dizzying emotions.

I guess while the play is about romance and tragedy and thwarted love, it's also about the the impetuousness of youth, and the utter faith you have in your own choices and destiny and view of the world, a faith that may be battered as the years move along. This play was passionate, and sexy, and funny, and gripping.

The set itself was utterly beautiful -- there was a huge, round shallow pool in the center of the stage, with only an additional structure of scaffolding to create the public squares, balconies, ballrooms, and crypts of the setting. The characters would glide or wade or stomp or fight through the water, lights would reflect and characters would become their own doubles. It was almost magical, especially as the sun set and the birds flew above us and the few stars emerged into the sky.

Basically it was an amazing night, one that fully justified my excitement and fondness for Shakespeare in the Park. The second production this summer is "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and I'm already planning on another trip when my sis is in town. Another day in the Park, lazing the morning away beneath the canopy of trees and making unexpected friends, then returning at night to be moved and surprised and reminded of how lucky you are to be here -- what more could anyone ask of a summer day?