Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Laundry lessons

This morning, when I was planning on picking up the laundry I had dropped off at the nice Chinese laundromat around the corner, I realized I had lost my receipt. I remembered the price, $20.20, both because it was unusually expensive and because it reminded me of how I used to spend Friday nights. I searched around the apartment, but I could not find that stupid slip. Immediately the nervous old woman inside of me launched into action. "Do you think they'll let me pick up my clothes?" I said to L, knitting my hands together worriedly. "Of course," she said. "What if someone finds the receipt and steals my clothes?" I whimpered. "That's not going to happen," she said.

But it might happen, I thought as she turned away. As I walked to the subway, dejected, I tried to make a mental inventory of my clothes at the cleaners -- basically everything I own, plus assorted bedding. I know those Chinese ladies pretty well, but would they stop a potential thief from handing over my receipt and receiving all of my clothes, valued in the tens of dollars?

Immediately after class ended this afternoon I went to the laundromat. "I DON'T HAVE MY RECEIPT," I said. I spoke loudly, since they're not native English speakers. I looked around for my white mesh bag, and the nice lady pulled it down and brought it to me. "It's heavy," she said. The bag looked familiar, but something wasn't right. "THIS ISN'T MINE," I said helpfully. Suddenly it clicked in my head. "THIS IS MY WIFE'S, IT'S NOT MINE," I explained. "I WANT MINE." With relief I located my bag, with my clothes, with the proper price ($20.20), safe for me to retrieve before some receipt-wielding thief rushed in and caused some sort of wash & fold dilemma. Thank God. "OK, I'M ALL SET," I said, indicating that the situation had been resolved.

The nice lady was looking at me. "I'LL TAKE MY BAG," I said. She looked at me still. Then something clicked in my head. "YOU KNOW WHAT? WHY DON'T I JUST TAKE BOTH BAGS, MINE AND MY WIFE'S."

The nice lady nodded. "Good boy," she said. "Good boy."


And on a completely unrelated note, this happens to be my 250th post on ol' Clarity. Not too bad.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Could have been a country boy

It's happened on a few occasions in my life, especially back in college. It happened in Nashville a couple years ago. And it happens a lot more frequently now, thanks to L: the feeling that maybe I should be listening to country music. Country is like the flip side of R&B, the twangy yang to the soulful yin. Despite the differences, I do feel like the white people singing country approach their craft with the same kind of emotion and vocal expression as any good R&B singer.

I've been thinking about this lately because I read a great article by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker, talking about the lack of what he calls "musical miscegenation" in contemporary rock. Unlike previous eras, today's whiny indie/emo musicians seem to ignore the black heritage of most rock music. Frere-Jones talks about how most great rock incorporates the rhythms of black music, offering as an example the drumbeat in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- it could belong to any dance track. Yet today's music (and he called out Arcade Fire and the Decemberists and other bands I could care less about) seems more focused on precious lyrics and affectedly bad singing than rhythmic impulse. Why would anyone do such a thing?

He traced one vein of "musical miscegenation" (still not sure how I feel about that term) back to the old recordings of folk songs from the 1930s. Songs sung by white country folk were nearly indistinguishable from black blues recordings. From this common source you get both country music and R&B.

The Oxford American magazine puts out a southern music issue each year, including a CD, and I always try to remember to grab it -- it's introduced me to some great tracks by southern and country artists I never would have heard otherwise. And the similarities to the black music I love are striking -- the same kinds of narrative, the same subject matter, the same vocal acrobatics and ad-libs.

L, of course, has provided me with a steady country diet, adding artists like the Dixie Chicks, Keith Urban, Sara Evans, and Johnny Cash to my iPod (I've also added some Keith Anderson, Chely Wright, and LeAnn Rimes on my own). Some of these songs are so striking and so beautiful. Many of the elements of country music are completely enjoyable in their own right: the twangy guitars and wurlitzers, the celebration of a rural American ideal, the optimism that marks most of today's country-pop. Even the reliance on real live instruments can be a breath of fresh air, when the purely electronic beats of, say, Beyonce, seem utterly synthetic and unreal.

What's most interesting to me are the songs that could fall into either camp: Ne-yo's "Do You," Keith Urban's "Tonight I Wanna Cry" (or as L calls it, "Just Drunk Enough"), or the Reba/JT collaboration, "The Only Promise That Remains." Any of these songs could be a hit in the other genre, simply by adjusting the instrumentation and changing the vocal style just a bit. I was trying to figure out how to sing "Do You" in a country way, and after a long while I tried to slow the song down, add some twang and some of those old-school country swoops where your voice drops in the middle of a word and then comes back up -- and it sort of worked.

Country music: the genre I could have loved. Clearly I don't know what I'm talking about with any of this, but I do enjoy thinking about it -- trying to figure out precisely what thrills you about music, what makes the music so vital and necessary to you, and then searching for that same thing in unexpected places. And then, of course, the startling thrill of actually finding it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

November Sunday

Sunday turned out to be a really pleasant day. Here's what happened:

1. Abruptly woken up at 5 am by the incessant clanging of the pipes in our apartment. For whatever reason, the pipes, which seem to be carrying lava directly from the bowels of hell, make this horrible series of clanging noises every few hours. You try to be polite and ignore it, but it's like the infrastructure of our building is having a heart attack. So I was awake and thinking about this already when the carbon monoxide alarm started shrieking, perhaps in the wake of an extremely successful Second Annual Faux Thanksgiving, which required the oven to be on all day. Ultimately I took the batteries out but not before noting, first, that we don't have a smoke alarm in our apartment, and, second, the neighbor's carbon monoxide alarm also seemed to be going off.

2. Woke up alive.

3. Spent two good hours at the gym, sweating out the red wine and yams that I steadily consumed for five hours the day before.

4. Had a fun breakfast at a fantastically lame restaurant, Johnny Rocket's, with my friend Russell from hip hop. Got a coke from Chipotle to pull it all together.

5. Read the paper, including some really good op-eds and a column discussing the design elements of the candidates' logos and bumper stickers. This is one of those topics I really get into, thinking about fonts and momentum and what colors mean.

6. Embarked on a meandering walk with L: to the bookstore, where we had a nice chat with the owner; to Rickshaw for a snack; and then on to the Angelika for a random screening of "Margot at the Wedding." It was the perfect kind of movie to see when you're wearing winter clothing: a moody indie film, bland colors, with screwed-up families and relationships that make you feel better about your own life. But I was perfectly entertained by it, there were some funny parts, Jack Black was less insufferable than usual, Nicole Kidman was great, and I really liked the ending -- emotional, kinetic, definitive, and unlike the rest of the flick. Thank you Angelika for these random winter afternoons.

7. Came home, did some work, and enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner again. Everything tastes even better a day later. Went to bed happy.

And now I'm off to Virginia in a couple hours. Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

A.M. New York

On Saturday night L and I had the great fortune of celebrating the engagement of two of our favorite people in this city of millions, Ashesh and Mona. We had known Ashesh was going to pop the question; being the astute woman she is, Mona figured it out too, which meant for several days we were all tap-dancing around the issue and asking prodding questions and trying to keep a straight face. But on Saturday night everything happened, and we happily crossed the hallway to Mona's apartment to celebrate with champagne and the kind of boozy good cheer that is the best part of having friends and alcohol in the same night.

I've known Ashesh since my third year of college, I think, when he and I were fellow history nerds. He kept me sane through college; he kept an eye on L in Greece. Margaritas at Amigo's in Charlottesville smoothly transitioned to margaritas at Benny's in the city, and wherever we are, Ashesh's intelligence and humor have brightened many of my days. And who can forget the rehearsal dinner for my own wedding, when he was the only person to make fun of my grandfather during his toast! I certainly can't. I can't wait to mock his relatives to their faces, as soon as I get the chance! Point 'em out to me! Outstanding.

I met Mona through Ashesh a few years ago, and I knew I would like her when she started making fun of me moments after we were introduced. She has definitely lived up to this initial assessment, and I've enjoyed the years of mockery since then. Nobody gives a backhanded compliment like Mona.

In sum, I could not be happier for these two. They are two of the funniest, snippiest, and most generous people you could hope to meet, and I feel lucky to be able to celebrate these momentous days with them. And to know that the best is yet to come ... what an honor to share this with you. Congratulations, you guys.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Today on the way to the gym my path was blocked by yet another parade down 5th Avenue. On every Sunday that I find myself in midtown Manhattan, there is some random parade going by, and it's generally an Ethnic White Parade. The Polish people had one earlier, and today's might have been Austrian or Croatian or something -- some culture where they have white people, marching bands, and flags with rectangular blocks of color. The cops directing traffic looked utterly bored. The crowds on the streets were either dedicated groups of fellow Ethnic Whites ("Viva Bulgaria!"), or else your standard New York mix of the curious, busy, lost, indigent, visiting, or irritated ("Which white people are these? Croats?").

There are two kinds of big public urban celebrations here. The first, like the Ethnic White parades, or even the Marathon, are generally very well-organized, very disruptive of traffic patterns, and very heavily monitored by cops and other city officials. They usually end within a day and are as fleeting as a summer rainbow. The second, like Halloween and the Gay Pride Parade, are more raucous affairs, where many people barge into the city for the sheer childlike pleasure of yelling in the middle of the night and vomiting on the sidewalks. On the mornings after these events, it looks like God took a frat house, turned it inside out, threw up on it, and then put it down outside your apartment building. There's also a third set of celebrations, like the St. Patrick's Day parade (and don't even mention the Puerto Rican Day parade), that manage to combine, in a most magical way, municipal organization and drunken anarchy. Those are really special moments.

I didn't know what to write about tonight, but seeing that random Ethnic White parade got me thinking about all the other celebrations you endure here in the city. Generally you decide to hunker down and wait them out, rather than actually participate in them -- but maybe the right Ethnic White parade might change my mind.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Run Mike Run: the marathon

Yesterday I ran the marathon. It happened, it was a success. I was pleased with my time (according to the New York Times, I came in 10,012th out of some 39,000). I got 3:55:01, just above the respectability line of 4:00:00; that breaks down to 8:58 per mile. I was thrilled to complete it and to come in at that time, as I realized midway through that there was no way I would make 3:40. I had heard that your first marathon is all about finishing it, rather than making a certain time. I hadn't believed this, but it turned out to be true. It was harder than I thought, and today I still feel stiff and sore and tired, but it was wonderful. Let me break down what happened.

The night before the race, I was extremely anxious, and only got three hours of sleep. At 4 am I woke up, pulled on my clothes and caught a cab to midtown, to catch the bus to Staten Island. There was no one waiting for the buses, I hopped on one immediately and reached Staten Island, in the pitch black darkness of night, at 5:20 am. Out of 39,000 runners, I am sure I was one of the first, say, 200 to reach Staten Island. So I spent four hours -- four hours -- sitting on a curb in the cold, thinking about things, eating a bagel listlessly, finding a new curb, peeing, sitting, thinking, not talking, sipping Gatorade, thinking, sitting, squatting, sipping, peeing, and walking up the same stretch of sidewalk. It made me think of how sometimes, in adulthood, you have to do unpleasant things, things that are unavoidable and require patience and fortitude, and there's no reason to complain because there's nothing to be done and you just have to endure. I first learned about this facet of maturity on bitter winter camping trips with the Boy Scouts; the same lessons applied as I waited for a November sunrise in Staten Island, in old sweatpants and an undershirt.

Cut to the race. Four hours later the cannon (or whatever) fired, and the race was on. Twenty-five minutes later, my lowly corral of people actually started running. The first couple miles over the Verrazano bridge felt great; a few people spread across the wide smooth asphalt, the city to our left, finally running and warming up the muscles. It was profoundly quiet, considering the unending scream that accompanied most of the rest of the course. I was feeling great, and darted quickly through the first section of Brooklyn, say the first ten miles. I really didn't feel a thing. As we began to see people along the sidewalks of Brooklyn, cheering and handing out paper towels, I couldn't help but grin as I ran. It felt amazing; the first ten miles or so were heavenly.

I knew my friend Sarah would be out on the course ("Incessant Anonymity," in the links) so I looked forward to seeing her early in the race, an occasion that gave me something to think about and focus on. The best part of knowing people would be on the course was both the thrill of seeing them, that lightning flash of energy and happiness it gave you, and the ability to break down the race in terms of friend-sightings, rather than mile-markers. Much easier to think, "four miles until I see the Core," rather than, "twenty-two miles until I get to sit down."

And so it went. L and the family had bought two blue "It's A Boy" balloons, so it was easy for me to spot them all as I chugged down the pike. It was great seeing them on a few different occasions, as they darted around the city to intercept me. I saw my friends, and friends of friends, and people from law school, and work folks. It was more than I could have asked for. I saw 12 people on that course cheering me on, and I found out later that there were others who had seen me and were cheering, even when I didn't see them.

The key to everything, honestly, was the shirt that said "Run Mike Run." From now on, I will be wearing that shirt to school, work, funerals, etc. It was the best feeling in the world, to be running along and hear some random voice yell, "RUN MIKE RUN"! These people didn't know me from Adam, but it always gave me a little boost. I always tried to smile or wave or pump a fist in acknowledgment. (And let me tell you, strictly in confidence, that it seemed to be a big hit with young women of a certain demographic -- I felt quite a bit of encouragement from the twentysomething crowd. Find me on Myspace, ladies!) Sometimes, though, I would sort of want to be left alone, so I would run in the middle of the pack, where no one could yell at me by name; other times I could hug the edges of the running pack, so people would clearly read it and call out. The other funny thing was at the water stops, when I would be walking and drinking Gatorade and somebody would yell it, and I'd think, all right, for God's sake, give me a minute. But it was all meant kindly, I guess, and sometimes I would reply with an exaggerated "Okay!" of faux annoyance as I set off again.

The crowds were massive throughout. Brooklyn was fun and multi-ethnic and optimistic, given the earliness in the course; I loved the gospel singers and steel-drum bands and garage bands rocking on the sidewalk. There were desolate stretches where the locals eyed us warily as many male runners ran off the road to pee against warehouse walls. In Manhattan there was a wall of people 5 or 10 deep in places, holding signs and offering candy (I ate a lone Sour Patch kid someone offered, unthinkingly, and regretted it shortly thereafter). In the Bronx people were yelling into microphones, "You're in the Bronx now baby! South Bronx welcomes you!" In Harlem I shamelessly pumped my fist to the rap music blasting from speakers. For the final couple miles in Central Park, I ignored the crowds and ran as hard as I could, with great result.

The 26th mile was a good thirty seconds faster than the 25th; I did finish strong, which I was really proud of. The race was slower going than I had planned. Maybe I started too strong in the initial euphoric miles, but the narrow roads and tight turns made navigating the crowd nearly impossible. Spectators would loom into the roadway, and due to the odd system of start times, corrals, and staggered starts, I always felt like I was in the middle of a much slower crowd that I should have been. I was constantly battling to move ahead, for the entire race; I spent a lot of time and energy moving laterally to dance around slower runners and find a clear break where I could move ahead. This was frustrating, and I think it definitely slowed me down overall.

On the other hand, the last eight or so miles were hell. My knee was hurting, my muscles were tired, and the novelty of the experience had nearly burned away in the hazy sunlight of midday (that's a really bad sentence, but forget it). I had only done one 18-mile run, and one 20-mile run, before this; it's not like miles 18 and 19 were a walk in the park, but I was aware of those last 6.2 as uncharted territory. But there was no question of stopping, and I was happy that I didn't take any walking breaks besides the water stations. And once we hit Central Park, I shoved the discomfort to the back of my mind and the event became something between me and the road and the Park where I had traced loop after loop after loop; I tried to make the crowd dissolve and finish strong, and somehow it worked. And here I am now, 26 hours later.

I am still wretchedly sore. Last night we went to bed at ten and I slept wondrously. As soon as I finished the marathon yesterday, I felt woozy and hot and cold and feverish and twitchy. Several people were vomiting along the fence as medics were dispatched in every direction. To be honest I was trying hard to not pass out and control my bodily functions during the twenty minutes it took to inch through the crowd, and collect my medal, tin foil blanket, and bag of food. Fortunately it worked. I could barely stretch, though, could barely touch my toes to relax my muscles. Right before I crossed the finish line, and in the moments after, I did find myself getting a bit emotional; for many reasons I guess -- pride, surprise at myself for accomplishing it, disappointment that it was over, and maybe the sheer overwhelming physicality of doing this without much sleep or food. It was a heady mix of stimuli, I'll tell you that.

It meant a lot to me to think about how much support I've been shown during this whole thing. Since this started in earnest in July, I've really appreciated people asking how training is going. There aren't even words to thank my family and friends who cheered me on and made signs and t-shirts. In training, during particularly rough moments, I used to encourage myself by fantasizing about seeing my friends and family on the marathon course; the reality was even better. Their presence, and support, and faith, is what gave me the strength to do it (as well as the tacit pressure they provided by spending their own time to be there). The night before the marathon I wrote about the people for whom I was doing this run -- and it was the truth, during the run I thought about all of them, or rather, all of you, at different points along the way and it pulled me through. It really pulled me through.

Anyways, as you can see by this absurdly long post, the marathon really meant a lot to me. It's one of the best New York things I've done, it's one of the biggest (ok, the biggest) athletic accomplishment of my life, and it gave me a lot of faith and pride in myself. I stick with what I said before: the marathon was the entire 18-week period, not just this last 26.2; but damn, this 26.2 was brutal, and difficult, and sublime. I'll be turning this experience over in my head for a while, I think.

To end on a lighter note: my two favorite signs of the entire race: "YOU SHOULD BE PROUD," and the classic three-word mantra: "U GO BITCH."

Dear reader, that was the marathon.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

More reflections

You know what? I'm ready for this. This is going to be fun, and it might be amazing. I'm ready for this, I trained my ass off, and this is going to be wonderful. The marathon experience isn't tomorrow's race, it's the hundreds of miles I've been running since July, and tomorrow is the victory lap. I can do this. I'm an athlete. This is the marathon.

So, this is for my parents and grandparents and Kels; my friends (including the Core); Eliza, Russell, Arnold and everyone else at the gym who got me into shape in the last couple years; the people who have encouraged me about this whole endeavor; and the old, small, irrelevant part of myself who thought I couldn't do things like this. And most of all, for L.

This! Is the marathon!

Reflections on training for, and competing in, the New York City Marathon, on the eve before the actual race

Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit.

You try to tell yourself that this anxiety is normal, that it's something you feel when you're about to accomplish something, but still, oh, shit.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Marathon panic update: three days left

As the week began I was feeling pretty nervous about the upcoming marathon -- it was like a low rumbling underlying everything else that was going on. I felt anxious, like a squirrel, or someone who lives in southern California.

But as the week has progressed, as I've made an effort to sleep as much as possible and battle the potential head cold I'm feeling, I'm gaining some confidence. Today L and I went to the marathon expo, which was remarkable: every brand of shoe you had ever heard of set up their own shopping area, other marathons were advertising, and people had all sorts of products to sample and try: insoles, energy bars, sports drinks, gels, sunglasses, shoes, water, even beer. I bought a wicking-away running shirt from my fave running shoe company, Brooks, and later on we got it customized down at Paragon Sports (after a ride on their complementary shuttle). Now my shirt says, RUN MIKE RUN. Also at Paragon, they had a complimentary "Runners' Lunch," including pizza, bagels, bananas, apples, and water. We all ate as if we had just finished a race (and, uh, ordered a pizza) even though the most activity any of us had was taking off our jackets to try on running shirts.

Oh, one fun thing to look for at the marathon: oblivious people from other countries, who were bonking around the expo all day and seem ready to make a big splash at the race. Try to run in a general forward direction, everybody!

I'm looking forward to the marathon. We watched a documentary on PBS (we're big PBS fans in our house, naturally) featuring real, everyday, lazy people who spent nine months training for the Boston marathon, and by the time these people crossed the finish line, sobbing and running with their families and kids besides them, L and I were getting emotional too. This evening I just spent twenty minutes at the gym bouncing around on the elliptical, which is the last training thing I have to do in my eighteen-week plan. Now I'm ready for a big run, I'm ready to push my body after a fairly easy couple weeks of tapering.

I think the pieces are starting to come together here: my body is ready physically, mentally I feel like I understand the challenge and am ready to tackle it, and emotionally, as I mentioned before, I'm choking up at marathon tv shows. If that's not adequate preparation, then I just don't know what to tell you.

This is the marathon!