Sunday, December 30, 2007

Armenia journal: December 30

12/30. We slept really late. The power had been out for a couple hours by the time we woke up, and stayed off for a good while. Thanks, Armenia. Read a 60-page chunk of C&P, though. We had oatmeal for breakfast -- why don't I eat more oatmeal? I will do that more in the new year.

Eventually we walked down from Lee's house into downtown Yerevan. As we picked our way through the broken sidewalks and rubble of the neighborhood, down these switchbacks as cars clattered up the road, a stray dog started following us. He was just emerging from puppyhood -- he looked to be mostly yellow lab, maybe some german shephard too, padding through the dirt and dust and broken glass and street cap and keeping up with us. Immediately I imagined us taking him in, giving him shots, getting him through customs and teaching him to be a city dog, with a name like Armen or Army, but eventually he jogged past us and went his own way, as we trudged along the rubble and dirt, and I thought to myself: this country is fucked up.

We made it down into the main part of the city and walked around an outdoor art market, the art vernisage. Lee told us that most of the statues in the city are of poets, writers, and artists, and we saw one of film directors and actors. This, combined with the idea of an outdoor art market in the first place, softened my impression of the city and country. It was nice to see some visual art, some color to break up the monotony. Yerevan lies in the middle of all these mountain ranges, and due to some meteorological force called an inversion, there seems to be a gray grim cloud of dust hanging over the city constantly -- as a result, we can't see the mountains nearby, and this scrim of dust and grime mutes all the colors as well. So seeing this art was like a breath of life.

We walked past an outdoor skating rink, where they blasted tunes in English and where the Zamboni had not made a recent appearance, leading to a thick layer of snow on the ice. We walked through another vernisage of all sorts of junk: mechanical parts, trinkets to fix a toaster or something; more art; beaded and glass jewelry; samovars, china, figurines; wooden gameboards and inlaid art pieces; old soviet medals. Men in dark coats and hats smoked and hung around as people shuffled through the aisles. I am no fan of these kinds of bazaars (don't like them in New York either) but it's interesting to see another country's stuff, I guess.

Ate lunch at this very American-seeming cafe, Square One. Nice break from the freezing cold.

We walked through this huge new area of Yerevan, a wide pedestrian boulevard with tall new buildings rising around it; they are to be mixed-use places, condos and restaurants and shops. Expensive stuff for corrupt officials, diasporans and mafiosos. Real estate is booming around here -- all those cranes signify something -- but who is to buy this stuff? Seems like the economy is built on nothing real at all (the money of diasporans who come in occasionally, or money tainted by crime) without any real broad economic base to back it up. To see these bold new high rises next to the pathetic old soviet buildings was striking. The soviet buildings are so run-down, so mottled and ugly and abused, dwarfed by these imposing structures, maybe 9 or 10 stories high, ready to be filled with new money. But you wonder where it will all go. Today was good, Yerevan is becoming a more textured place than my first impression indicated. What a country.

Tomorrow we head out to a small village, Goris, for New Year's. During the soviet era Armenians weren't allowed to practice Christianity, so they tried to make New Year's a substitute, secular holiday, complete with a Santa Claus figure and his beautiful granddaughter. Kind of strange. Happy new year = Schnor havor nor tari. Schnor havor nor tari!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Armenia journal: December 29

12/29. Today we woke up and exchanged Christmas gifts (I got a book (This Is Your Brain on Music), chipotle gift card, subscription to Mens Health, and a great green sweater). We had some granola and yogurt for breakfast. Gagik picked us up and drove us out into the city.

Driving around Yerevan confirmed a lot of my initial impressions from the night before. Everything is made of concrete, or dark stone, or a pinkish grey stone that is pocked with little marks and bruises. People shuffled along the sidewalks and
through the streets, bundled up in dark winter coats and hats and scarves. Looking at people's faces, everyone looked grim and serious, like they had just undergone serious medical tests. Many women linked arms as they walked; many people smoked. Maybe they all looked the way they did because they had to pick out their paths in the middle of the road, or alongside construction areas and piles of debris and potholes and litter. As we waited at one stoplight I saw a bunch of small birds poking around the median separating the street from the sidewalk, and the median was full of stone rubble. What was this rubble from? Why was it still there? I wondered a lot about the trash, and broken streets, and piles of old stones. It looked like something had been bombed. The processes of construction seemed indistinguishable from destruction, but maybe that's just overly optimistic. Maybe it's a lesson in entropy.

Everything looks the same; the entire city is sepia-toned. The buildings, streets, wintry olive trees, gray skies, clouds, cobble-stones, people, stray dogs, cars, are all seen in a very narrow range of color. The visual monotony is broken by crates of fruit along the street, vendors selling oranges and pomegranates that seem utterly alien in their color. There are also a few strange monuments in the city, blocky statues of men standing resolutely in front of archways and walls, maybe as artifacts of the soviet past. There are stray dogs, sometimes roaming in small packs, but they don't seem too thin.

Our first stop was to an oriental rug factory and showroom, called Megerian. They're a big brand, featuring rugs from all over the world, but they are owned by Armenians and have a showroom in Manhattan. We saw 12 or so women working on a giant oriental rug for the Armenian president, nimbly knotting the wool threads and pressing them down to form patterns -- what dexterity and concentration it takes to prevent errors, all the while sitting indian-style on a bench. The girl who showed the rugs to us spoke excellent English and had an I-phone. She explained that they had previously tried to allow the women to make the rugs at home, but there were problems with quality control. Now, women in villages come in to work on these rugs, and this is one of the few job opportunities they have. It seemed as though they are trying to introduce a capitalist system of working formally for wages where none has existed before.

Next we went to this market area, called the Goom. (No idea how to spell it.) People swarmed through lanes of traffic to get to the market, which was a huge enclosed glass structure. Outside on thesidewalk people sold cow's feet, jauntily stuck in
pots in pairs of groups of four, and there was a table of pigs' heads. Someone had stuck an old cigarette in one pig's mouth. Inside the market, I was struck by the sweet rancid smell of meats. There were rabbits with the skin still on their legs (I was afraid it was a dog), pigs, cows, turkeys, chicken, ribs, small poultry, giant hunks of flesh hanging from hooks or lying on countertops, tongues, slabs of meat and people hacking at them with knives. The smell was repulsive. I had to breathe through my mouth and focus on the fruits and vegetables teeming on tables nearby: grapes hanging elegantly, pyramids of potatoes, stacks of apples and oranges, spices in large bowls, square hunks of cheese, dried fruit and nuts stacked and ordered all over the place. We bought some produce, potatoes, spices and flat bread for tonight's dinner and made our way back to the car.

Came home for lunch: chicken soup, beer biscuits, jello salad, some cokes. Delicious. Now preparing to do some reading or take a nap. Yesterday I read the first 100 pages of "Crime and Punishment" and am feeling good so far.

The language here: "hello" is "betev zez." "Thank you" is something hard, so we say "merci." "Happy new year" is something crazy that I usually can't remember. The characters they use are all swooping arcs and dipping lines, like mutant lower-case d's and b's. The language sounds somewhat harsh to the ear, it's all angry consonants bumping into each other and swearing, like the city traffic.


12/29. Lee had several of her Peace Corps volunteers over for dinner, and we enjoyed some good homemade Indian food. Then we loaded up into cars and drove over to Malkhas Jazz Club, a surprisingly cosmopolitan place where three Amernians (two young guys on keyboard and drums, an older guy on bass) banged out some classic jazz tunes. They sounded great; the keyboardist was really into the music and was bobbing his head and stretching his face with the music. The club was pretty empty since we arrived early in the night. I had a Katyak beer which nearly put me under the table; eventually I gave up trying to make conversation and instead focused on keeping my eyes open. I don't know why but I can't stay awake here -- jet lag? altitude? cumulative exhaustion? There was a table of a few men in the front corner of the place, who clapped for the drummer after his solo and seemed more gregarious than the other patrons. We were told they were the Armenian mafia, a force to be reckoned with here, and the Land Rovers outside the club belonged to them (they definitely stood out among the tin-box armada of Ladas that most people drive around in).

The Peace Corps folks were very friendly and chatty, and were refreshingly candid about the country and its challenges. The closed borders with Azerbaijan and Turkey have crippled it economically; the nation's focus on the genocide and other historical wrongs, however justified, limit its ability to grow and adapt to a market economy. I have been feeling guilty about being so ignorant about Armenia while I'm here, so I've been cramming some guidebook history, and the whole thing makes your head spin -- it seems like the country has been this geopolitical pawn for centuries, has been wronged so many times and is now struggling to fend for itself in a post-Soviet era. It's interesting to be in a place that really got screwed over by communism.

Also in the jazz club: a tall, statuesque, beautiful woman -- maybe Russian? along with some male friends of hers. She seemed like a celebrity of some kind.

Also: jet lag is still kicking. I thought I was fine, but L and I suddenly slipped into this deep nap this afternoon -- Henry knocked on the door to wake us up for dinner and it was such a violent transition from sleep to consciousness. Really unexpected and strange. Like you're all wrapped up in darkness and warmth and then blankets are ripped away without warning.

Armenia journal: December 27-28

When I travel I try to keep a journal of each day, to help me remember stuff. Since we are living the high life here in L's mom's house in Yerevan, the capital, I thought I would try to keep my journal online this time around and see how it goes. So here it is:

During the layover in Paris, we bought two cheese sandwiches, two Oranginas, and a Toblerone, for a grand total of $35. The guy behind the desk gave us a big grin and made a thumbs-down sign as we goggled at the total. "The dollar is way down," he said. The terminal at Charles d Gaulle was freezing, and we spent several uncomfortable hours watching other people board their planes. Every time I tried to speak French, I spoke Spanish -- si instead of oui, etc. I slept during the entire flight from Paris to Yerevan, where the meal was horrible and they tried to speak to us in Russian and Armenian, but to no avail.

The airport in Yerevan was strikingly modern and clean and beautiful. On two separate occasions we heard the Rihanna song "Please Don't Stop the Music," which was odd. We drove into the city with Gagik (sp?) at the wheel, and as we made our way down the empty highway the word that came to mind was: soviet. Even at night the road and the buildings and the dirt and the rocks seemed to share the same dull, tired character. There was debris littered along the side of the road, and everything seemed to be in a state of flux. Buildings were going up, or possibly going down. Casinos aren't permitted in Yerevan proper, but they lined the highway, garish red neon lines and flashbulb lights popping brightly. In the city itself the red neon theme continued, yet there were no shop windows or display cases, so most of the stores seemed like adult video places.

L's mom's house is huge, 4 bedrooms, with a courtyard and patio tucked along a lane of cobblestone and broken concrete. There is marble everywhere -- on the floors, all over the bathrooms, even the banisters. It's like one of Saddam's palaces. When we made it home we had some snacks and sat and chatted, and then went to bed. I took a hot, hot shower standing in the middle of a heart-shaped jacuzzi. Our bed is big and soft and luxurious. I slept soundly, woken once by the barking of the stray dogs outside (they are mostly German shepherds, it seems).

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


It was a rocky Christmas. There was some holiday tension, complete with festering resentments, all culminating in a good old round of familial yelling. This was good, though -- it's how my people operate. Once things boil over, you stand around and yell at each other for a few minutes ("Hellooooo!", "GAA!"), let the storm pass, then hug and resume a life of nicknames and old familiar jokes: my sister dropping the ketchup, me spitting a cherry tomato at a lady at Sizzler, Dad being too intense at putt putt, Mom making seagull noises. All happy families are alike, in terms of occasional moments of discord and the old webs of stories and family lore that make up a shared life. On that you can rely.

With the holidays behind us and happily resolved, though, tomorrow L and I embark on a journey to Armenia. You know, Armenia: it's at the corner of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran. I've been to Iran and I was raised in Azerbaijan, of course, but this will be my first time in Armen-- oh wait, I don't know where the hell I'm going and have never been anywhere near any place close to where I'm going. I guess the closest I've been to Armenia would be... Italy? Or wait, what if I came the other way -- is California close to Armenia? I don't know. Seattle?

I'm excited for the trip, and have not yet succumbed to the travel anxiety that will undoubtedly hit very soon. It's going to be cold out there, cold and utterly foreign, probably the place most distant to everything I know -- and that's exciting too. I'm picturing the ice planet of Hoth, from Star Wars. In any event, I've never been less prepared for a trip -- I haven't read any books, haven't looked at the language or seen a map other than the one below. I'll be relying on the expertise of my savvy mother-in-law and the fundamental decency of the Armenian people. January 6 is the date of my return, to start my last semester at school, and there will be more to report then.

To Armenia!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmastime is here

Notes from McLean:

1. My mom has cooked dinner the last two nights; L said she never had my mom's cooking before. The food has been so simple and good. Between regular rounds on the treadmill and dinners at home, I'm not feeling as comatose as I usually do upon returning home.

2. In what is becoming a holiday a tradition, L is feeling sick with a cold -- she's been partially quarantined in the bedroom and is excused from all family/holiday outings, as needed. But she is trooper and is bucking up as we speak.

3. I got a couple of new cd's on my ipod before we came down: Keyshia Cole's "Just Like You" and The-Dream's "Love/Hate." These will propel me all the way from Virginia to Armenia. There are some awesome songs here, and it feels very current -- like, this is what R&B sounds like in the last quarter of 2007; you got it, you're not missing it. I can't wait to blast it in the apartment so my neighbors can love it too.

4. We saw "Juno" last night, with my sis, and it was just as good on second viewing. Also spotted at the movie theater: Senator Chuck Hagel! Score!

5. We spent Friday night with Trish, Matt, Patrick, Cynthia, and Kateri -- very fun, very boozy. It was so good to see people I love, who know me well and where I'm coming from -- sometimes in New York you forget how that feels or how much you need it.

6. Tonight we're having a really early dinner (lasagna), then church, then preparing for tomorrow -- wrapping gifts, hoping everybody likes theirs, looking forward to that great period of 25 minutes when everyone's sitting around in pj's opening presents and feeling generous to the world. It hasn't really felt like Christmas lately (the mid-50s weather doesn't help, but thanks, global warming) but I know tonight that it will. I like the mysterious and spooky elements of Christmas -- thinking about Christmas Eve, carols of the bells, "silent night"/"night of silence," all those things that make the nighttime still and laden with meaning. Star of wonder, the shepherds in their fields, Linus on stage with his blanket. Things like that.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Can't sleep

"I can't sleep at night, when you are on my mind, Bobby Womack's on the radio, singing to me 'if you think you're lonely now...'" That's a line from the 2005 Mariah Carey hit, "We Belong Together." When I think of the phrase, "I can't sleep," that's the line that my mind inevitably recalls. Thanks, brain. Definitely helping out here.

Why can't I sleep? What's on my mind?

1. It's too hot in the apartment; the heater's been on for days to combat the icy winter dreck outside. My skin is starting to feel crackled and scaly, like I'm made of tectonic plates.

2. I set the alarm to wake up for a 6:45 strength class tomorrow, which always leaves me feeling anxious to a completely unnecessary degree over stupid, made-up problems. What if I get to the class too late to claim an optimal spot, leaving me uncomfortably close to the front or the back? What if I miss the warm-up? What if, God forbid, I miss the class all together? Also, who the hell cares?

3. I have my last exam tomorrow, thank God. I want to beat it with a shovel.

4. Then I'm going to the law firm holiday party, which should be fun. I hope it's not awkward, though, and that I can navigate the social currents in a good way. Be dashing, charming, etc, always leave them wanting more.

5. I'm hungry, and it's too late at night to eat.

I looked outside and all the windows are dark in the buildings across the street -- it's a lonely vigil tonight. Today was a strange day; we slept really late, until 11, and I only left the house once, to grab some dinner. The day was getting dark before I had the chance to acknowledge it; in some ways I feel like time just passed me by. Maybe that's unsettling, too. "Don't let real love pass you by." That's from a Boyz II Men song I liked, but nobody else ever heard it.

Now I will try to sleep least tomorrow I can pencil in some time for a nap. Assuming I make the gym class, of course. I'm trying to type quietly so as to not disturb L, but I don't know if it's working. In any event, my mind is now empty before you.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Grab your torches

Tonight is one of the most decadent nights in the TV season: the night of the "Survivor" finale on CBS. Two hours of the finale, bleeding into the ridiculous live vote-count announcement, followed by the nearly unwatchable reunion show, which I somehow usually find watchable. I really love "Survivor," which I know puts me squarely in the 2001 time capsule, but it can't be denied. I love it.

I rediscovered "Survivor" a few years ago and it became a staple of my Thursday nights. I like talking about strategy during the show, figuring out how scenarios might play out, who should vote for who, etc, and I even find myself thinking about these things during the rest of the week. The theme music is good (vaguely ethnic, vaguely world-beat) and you can pronounce the contestants' names in funny accents as they appear. Plus, the challenges are usually pretty creative and well-organized (unlike MTV's lame Real World/Road Rules challenges, which always end up in disqualifications and ties because the producers make things too difficult for their hung-over, drug-addled and over-sexed cast; don't get me started) and CBS dumps a whole lot of money into making hokey things like "tribal council" somehow seem vaguely cool (if not really authentic).

Like most other reality shows, I definitely would not want to be on it, for a lot of reasons. I don't know if I could handle the rest of the weirdos they cast; I don't want to put myself in gym-class-like scenarios, with money on the line; and I don't think being on a reality show would be good for my life, overall. But on the other hand, I would really enjoy the part where you write down somebody's name to vote them off, and then whisper into the camera your rationale. I would write in big block letters, every time, and the producers would end up coming out from behind their duck blind or whatever to make me stop writing, because after I voted out somebody in the game, I'd continue writing down names of people who simply need to go, and explaining why to the camera: George W. Bush, my copyright professor, Osama Bin Laden, etc. So that when the wankerish Jeff Probst read out the votes, the results would be like: four for Regine, two for Diego, and one for Mitt Romney. And I'd be sitting there wondering why my anti-Mitt alliance only scored one vote, again.

Anyways, so I'm excited for the finale tonight. This has been a fairly boring season: no real David and Goliath success stories, or miraculous triumphs, or good guys vanquishing bad guys, but there are still some interesting possible outcomes. It's something to look forward to at the end of a cold and slushy Sunday, when the city gets stuck with all the horrible leftover parts of a nor-easter (meteorological meat loaf), rain and wind and cold without some thick fat snowflakes to pretty things up and muffle the noise. But there will be time for that later; tonight it's time to eat a lot and yell at the tv. Grab your torches, head back to camp.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Best books of 2007

This year had a lot of great books in it. I discovered Joan Didion and read a bunch of her stuff; I read three Richard Fords, whom I have loved since college; and I read a bunch of books from the middle of the century that showed that there is never really anything new under the sun. And of course The Road, which was utterly harrowing and technically amazing. Of all the books I read, these were my favorites (in chronological order):

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman
The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Interloper by Antoine Wilson
The Emporer's Children by Claire Messud
Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks
Stoner by John Williams
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
Butcher's Crossing by John Williams
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The Innocent Man by John Grisham

Of those, my absolute favorites would be Stoner, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I hadn't heard of John Williams until New York Review of Books started republishing his novels in extremely good-looking editions. I read two of his books this year and both made it to my list. He writes so cleanly, with such economy, about things I don't know a thing about. Stoner was about the life of a man who grew up in the midwest and became an English professor out there in the first half of the 1900s, adopting a career that his farmer parents can't understand. The book is short, but swiftly covers events in his entire life. To tell the truth, his life is somewhat sad in many ways -- bad marriage, alienated from his kid, thwarted at work by academic politics. But his stoicism, and passion for his work, and sheer resilience become admirable, and by the time the book ends you're left a surprising affection for this poor old sack of a man, who by then seems no less than heroic. This book reminded me of The Namesake, and I devoured it over three days in August. Amazing.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem was better than all the other Didion stuff I read this year; she was reporting on the counterculture of the 1960s as an open but skeptical observer, writing with such intelligence and humor and creativity. I've tried to copy her style at times here, like when I wrote about the JT concert over the summer. The highlight of the book was the final essay, "Goodbye To All That," about her departure from New York -- when she realized her time as a young adult in the city was inevitably winding down. It rang extremely true and seemed like an prophesy as well as an elegy.

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
was simply amazing. I wrote about it in January when I was reading the book. I admired Murakami's gutsiness and bizarre creativity -- who knew you could be so weird in mainstream fiction? Yet the work is consistent and believable and emotional. I find his protagonists so easy to relate to, despite their troubles and dabbles in magical realism. I'm really glad I found him and have plenty of books to catch up on.

A great year of reading. For our trip to wintry Armenia in a couple weeks, L and I have stacked up on the Russians: she'll be tackling the new translation of War and Peace, and I'll be filling an embarrassing gap in my knowledge by taking on Crime and Punishment. I hear both books are breezy and hilarious. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Stones in the lake

Extended metaphor: Sometimes I view my life as a deep, still lake. And at the beginning of things, early on, large heavy stones were thrown into my lake -- their entry into the peaceable waters caused waves and ripples to reverberate from the center out to the farthest shores, chaotic and white-capped waves crashing far beyond, and yet eventually things were calm and the surface of my lake was pristine and blue and clear. And yet: the stones thrown into the lake remain, tumbled at the bottom in the mud and vegetation. Sometimes I will dive down and look at those stones, smooth as they are by now, and yet undeniable and a part of me: the currents change and refract around them, the fish and plants and life underwater have incorporated these stones into their homes and shelters, the shadows of these stones on the lake floor are topography as recognizable as any mountains you can see. You can dive down and touch the stones, you can even pick them up and throw them through the still water, you can send them cascading somewhere else, dirt and silt blossoming from the lake floor as the water churns about, until it too subsides and things are calm again. Sometimes I go down to see the stones, I might touch them and feel the familiar cool hardness, something that cannot be denied or changed. Sometimes I will roll the stones along the murky wet earth, sometimes I will upend them, sometimes I will hoist the stones onto my shoulder and pitch them up through the surface, lunging forward and breaking the placid surface with my effort, and yet when the stones land they tumble back down into my lake, in a new configuration, a new way to see and understand them, but they are always there. Sometimes other people try, it's not even me, someone comes along to rile the stones at the bottom of the lake, and the water may be white-capped with the motion and energy churned up from below, but no matter what happens the stillness of my lake will be restored. Two truths emerge: the calmness always returns, and no one will ever get those stones out of my lake.

Tonight we saw this movie, "Juno," about a wisecracking 16 year-old who gets pregnant, plans on giving up her baby to a nice yuppie couple desperate for a child, endures various trials and tribulations, and eventually has her baby and sends him on his way into the world. This movie was great, very funny and sensitive and smart, and it hit me hard. I couldn't speak for a while after it was over. I thought about the closing images of the movie (spoiler alert, dudes), of the adoptive mother with her new baby, of the young girl weeping in her hospital bed with her gangly college boyfriend, the biological father of this kid, lying beside her in a tender and ungainly way, and the thought struck me: this is the best possible way it could have happened. If you moved this scenario back in time 30 years, this is the ideal thing I could have hoped for. And that idea was hard for me to bear, and it's hard to explain why.

Earlier this week, we spent the last session of my family law class talking about adoption. I was appalled by some of my classmates' comments. They were completely ignorant and stupid, seeing adoption as little more than an 18-year babysitting assignment rather than something full of the mystery and joy and unconditional, undeniable bond of parenthood. In that class I was literally trembling with anger and emotion. I didn't trust myself to speak, and I wasn't willing to put myself out there for their judgments and small-minded proclamations about what it is to be a parent or a family. Fuck them, I thought - they are not worth my story. Which was a sad thing to think about, really.

This movie tonight really touched me deeply with its compassion and mercy. It presented things in a new way to me, yet the overall narrative was so familiar; my own book of Genesis. To see this movie, with hundreds of strangers beside you, and to reach the end of the narrative, when the adoptive mother is full of joy and the birth mother is weeping but with her friend beside her, loving parents waiting outside and a promising future for all the players -- to see this and think, I hope this is how it was. This was the best it could have been. This is the ideal.

That is a lot to bear.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Finals postcard

Where things stand:

I turned in a 32 page paper yesterday. It was good, but it could have been stronger. I'm at that point where I'm hoping that maybe it's just gone stale before my eyes, and it's actually quite crisp and insightful and clever to somebody else. This seems unlikely though.

On Monday I have an exam in Evidence, which promises to be grim. On the last day of class the professor noted that this is a hard class, and seemed taken aback that the exam would be on Monday, the first possible day to take the test. You and me both, pal.

On Wednesday I have my Family Law exam, which should be under control except for the fact that I've got Evidence snapping its teeth at me. Remember that clip from one of the Alien movies, when the alien was right behind Sigourney Weaver, breathing heavy and bristling and oozing tendrils of snot at her back? That's my relationship with Evidence right now. But once that's over on Monday, I'm hoping a solid 24 hours is enough to prepare for the exam.

Then I have to teach myself Trademark law to prepare for the exam the following Tuesday. At that point things should be easy, although the last exam of the semester always gets a little short-changed because of the sheer exhaustion and tedium of the process.

The undercurrent of all this, though, is the joyous fact that classes are over for the semester, and I am almost 5/6 finished with law school. I am quite glad that classes are done. I had high expectations for the semester, I was really excited about my coursework, and those expectations were not met. Let's see, a sports analogy: like if you're driving in the team bus to go play in the Superbowl, right, and then the bus gets a flat tire. And then the bus pulls over to the side of the road, and when you get out of the bus to check out the tire, a bird poops on you. And then, when you are recoiling in disgust, you get hit by a car. And then the bus bursts into flames and the entire team is charred to a crisp. That's what the semester was like.

If law school was my job, I would be sending resumes out and looking for a new one; if I was dating law school, I would break up with it. I am ready for a change. The great news is, a change is coming, and it's a good one, and it will be here eventually; I just need to grit my teeth and endure until then. And remember that next semester, like every day, is another chance.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Top songs of 2007

Another great year of music. Reviewing what I listened to and what I purchased in the last twelve months, most of it emerged at hip hop class or helped propel me through training. I've been thinking about my top ten list for several weeks now, and I feel solid about it. The list reflects my devotion to R&B and my affinity for beats that guide you to a dance floor. The list is completely subjective and reflective of my own personal tastes and life experiences; with that said, if you disagree with it, you're wrong. Without further ado:

10. Maroon 5, "Makes Me Wonder." I liked this song a lot this summer; it was extremely catchy, the lyrics were self-righteous and pissy in an awesome way ("it really makes me wonder if I ever gave a f*** about you"...burn), and it kicked off an album that I really enjoyed. The whole time in California I felt like I was trying to pretend I was in a Maroon 5 video. But despite all of these great qualities, why do I feel that the song and the band are included on this list merely as the token whites?

9. Timbaland, Keri Hilson, & Sebastian, "Miscommunication." This song is an echo of my top pick for the year, and it has been unstoppable for me in the last few weeks. As usual, Tim's beat is undulating and constant. Keri sings Tim's verse right alongside him, then grabs hold of the song and doesn't let it go for the next three minutes. The chorus moves from a warbling staccato barrage of "you"s to longer, loopy "do"s, and in the second verse Keri's accompanying herself in a lower octave, hilarious lines that she beats to death (in the good way), even mocking Tim at the same time ("only gave you my number cuz, drinks made you cuter plus, you were lookin sad and lonely...") Then, Sebastian cames in with a rap, lazy, nonsensical, bringing the song to an abrupt close, leaving you mad for more. You could have recited a grocery list over that beat and it would have been one of my top ten. Perfect.

8. Kanye West, "Flashing Lights." To me, this is one of the most polished, smartly-produced tracks I've heard in a long time. The first time I heard it was on my 10-mile training run (how naive I was back then) and I replayed it twice, immediately, as soon as the song ended. (If I hadn't been in the midst of a run, I would have stopped to dance, yet even as I ran, I managed to work in a few of my patented forearm raises in appreciation.) Besides the "My Love"-like production, the catchy chorus from Dwele, and the disembodied female voice chanting the song title for an unclear reason, the song marks the rare occasion when Kanye isn't rapping about how awesome he is. All that, plus some of the rhymes and meters of the lines are brilliant: "if somebody woulda told me a month ago frontin' though yo I wouldn't wanna know; if somebody woulda told me a year ago it'd go get this difficult..."

7. Ne-Yo, "Do You." This was one of those songs that seemed like a typical R&B ballad at first, but I was compelled to get it, and once I did, the only thing our neighbors heard for weeks was me sounding like a strangled cat trying to sing along. This is a great song because: it builds the entire time, from first verse to last adlib; it tells a coherent story, of a guy wondering if his old girl (now with kid and fiance) ever thinks of him; and the song is built around long notes, notes long enough for you to bless them with your own interpretations and runs. There is something great about the time when you first learn a song well enough to know the words, but it's still new enough to add your own spin without every recorded vocal dip and trick cluttering up your mind. I really loved learning this song and singing it my way, then Ne-Yo's way, then in a country way. Maybe I'll try it in spanish next, I don't know. But it's beautiful, Mary J. Blige turned it into a great duet, and that last 80 seconds kill me -- I can't help but follow the dude on every word, and then close it out singing along with the flute blipping up and down the scale, as Ne-Yo presumably breaks down into a sobbing heap contemplating lost love. Because that's what it sounds like he does.

6. Beyonce, "Kitty Kat." A lot happened in 2007. For example, I got sick of Beyonce. But before my Beyonce fatigue set in, I was captivated by this track. Another extremely typical R&B confection, perhaps, with her signature spare beats, except this has a couple distinguishing elements: 1) she is sing-songing the chorus and has this killer rap-chant at the end that is the sexiest she has ever sounded, and 2) this whole literary device of a kitty cat -- the kitty cat as allusion, kitty cat as metaphor. What could she possibly be talking about? "Let's go, kitty cat, it's time go, kitty cat..." Who would let Beyonce's kitty cat walk out the door?

5. Omarion, "Ice Box." I had to remind myself how passionately I felt about this song in the first half of the year, because I'm kind of sick of it now. But Timbaland added his weird, lovely rhythms to it, and the chorus has some unexpected beauty: "I've got this ice box where my heart used to be." Omarion threw some intensity into his vocals on his second verse, and he really comes at this song with some tenacity. And who can't love a song with Tim muttering, dozens of times, "I'm so cold, I'm so cold, I'm so cold"? The song has this goofy literalism that makes it fun to dance to in a regular way as well as an extremely dorky, direct-interpretation-of-the-words sort of way.

4. Lloyd, "Get It Shawty." This song! Oh sweet lord above, this song. This track is so light, so ethereal, it doesn't even seem to have a bass line. Lloyd's thin, wispy voice wanders throughout the track, around the little sample from Technotronic, but the song brings some surprising force. The first time I heard it was in hip hop -- we were doing some other song, but Russell put this track on, and the class just came alive, like this big communal awakening, as we all realized that this song is ridiculous. Like a few other songs here, it ends with a playful little rap verse, which I really dorked out to in San Diego and performed for a bunch of people, which happened to be caught on film, which I sort of regret. But this is a great track, cool and smooth, perfect for a summer night.

3. R. Kelly, T.I. & T-Pain, "I'm a Flirt." This song perfectly encompasses the cheesy brilliance of R. Kelly. "I'm a flirt," it's a verb and a noun, a boast and a warning, a confession and a lifestyle. The piano beat and bass line are simple enough for all three artists to really throw some of their best into each verse. And maybe this is me projecting, but I swear on his final chorus Kelly is throwing some emotion into the words -- some rueful lines, maybe, explaining himself to the hearts he's broken? When that last verse kicks in, what else can you do, really, but dig in your heels, breathe deep into your stomach, warm up your upper register and sing the hell out of it? There's nothing else you would want to do.

2. Diddy and Keyshia Cole, "Last Night." At first it's another Diddy vanity project, one in which he seems to be flaunting his own vocal mediocrity and tunelessness. Over a decent drumbeat, and with a haunting melody provided by something (a harpsichord? who knows), he's complaining about last night's romantic battle and the emotional paralysis that followed. Just when you think you're about to endure four minutes of his muttering, a revelation: Keyshia Cole steps in, offering her own verses, choruses, bridges, ad-libs -- and not only that, she is singing with all the emotion and pain that Diddy can't find himself. Is she responding to what he's saying, or (this is my theory) is she expressing the words that Diddy can't? The song becomes a six-minute epic, both sides battling for love, reaching a climax and surprisingly good denouement as Diddy picks up the phone to call the object of his love and frustration. I couldn't get enough of this song this year; I was singing it in Barcelona, on the train, in school. Yeah, I threw out "denouement" in the context of a Diddy track. It's that good.

1. Timbaland, Keri Hilson & D.O.E., "The Way I Are." The first time I heard this track I was in hip hop. Within about 30 seconds, I thought to myself, oh, snap this song is good. Except instead of snap, I said shit. Tim takes his sweet time bringing in the beat, and when he does it's another staccato, chopped up tone like in a lot of his recent work. He kicks in some verses explaining how he has no money or wealth to offer his lady, and then he gives the four-word command that really sums up the musical year for me: "Talk to me, girl." And in response to this incantation: Keri comes swooping down on the electronic beat, multi-layered, hard to pinpoint for a moment, surrounding this song in this melodic tone, and kicks into her lines leading up to the chorus, all the while accented by these synthesizer curliques that keep the song bouncing upwards. The chorus has Keri and Tim (but a better sounding Tim) trading lines: "I like you just the way you are," "can you handle me the way I are?" Grammatics aside, the song rides this great beat, these quick, smart vocals with interior rhymes, those quirky repeating high notes, into a great little rap that ushers in a fantasic, easy-riding close to the song. I've heard this song hundreds of times now and it still feels fresh and fun. I relate to the message of the song, as much as it relates to cockiness without financial resources to back it up. I was shocked when the song became a hit and they started playing it out on the town; hearing it at the JT concert was a highlight of the night. In sum, this song is loose, upbeat, unserious, textured, flirtatious, humorous, and undeniable. Like a fine wine.

I like writing about music because I try to capture how a song hits me, but without the benefit of knowing what I'm talking about musically. I listened to all these songs as I wrote this stuff down, and obviously I could say a lot more about each one (perhaps that's why I'm doing this instead of writing about the transformative use doctrine in copyright). As difficult as it is to articulate why you love something, let me just say that these songs brightened my days this year and brought me a lot of joy.

Music makes me so damn happy.