Sunday, December 28, 2008

Stan and Jeannine

When we were home this weekend for Christmas, I started cleaning out my bedroom closet in anticipation of my parents' move to Austin sometime in 2009. This is a daunting task, but I started by going through all of the stuff I accumulated from the summer I spent in Madrid, the summer of 2000, between my second and third years of college.

Even though I know I'm the sentimental type, I was unprepared for the onslaught of emotion and memory and feeling that came rushing back. That summer has taken on a huge significance in my mind; that was the summer I learned to love cities and urban life, and the things I did in those short weeks set in motion patterns and ideas and behaviors and habits that basically guide my life today. It was the beginning of the modern era.

I began that trip basically in a state of abject terror, afraid of being alone in a foreign country and so far from home for so long. I felt that the trip would surely end with rival gangs of chain-smoking gypsy pickpockets arguing over who got to keep my fillings as a trophy. By the end of the summer I was ready to come home, but I was tan, feeling like someone new, and flush with confidence after spending eight weeks with the best kind of temporary friends. The people I met and loved were completely separate from my normal life in Virginia; they entered my life so rapidly, and just as quickly, they were gone. There were two in particular:

My roommate, Stan, originally from Arkansas, was a year behind me at Yale. He and I would spend evenings at the Plaza Mayor, sipping sangria and watching the crowds go by. Once someone called us "the Southern intellectuals." He told me how he used to sit on his front porch in Arkansas and watch fireflies. He was into photography and literature, and he was artistic and mercurial, disappearing for days or weeks at a time without a word to anyone. Once I hadn't seen him in Madrid for several days, then unexpectedly ran into him at the Guggenheim in Bilbao -- we spoke briefly and then he disappeared again. At one point in the summer I bought a John Irving paperback to read, and later lent it to him; years later, opening the book, I found a handwritten paragraph on the front page describing a particular rainy afternoon, written in the overwrought, maddeningly sincere prose of the ivy league sophomore. He was urbane and sophisticated, younger than me but cooler and savvier all the same.

The third piece of the puzzle was Jeannine, also a year younger than me and a student at Yale. Her dad owned a strip mall in Wisconsin. She was a girl straight out of Botticelli, curly hair, light blonde, with beautiful light blue eyes. She was the kind who didn't realize, at that age, what a knockout she was. I remember the feeling when she would pull me by both hands out to dance, the smile on her face, the expectancy. The three of us, Stan, Jeannine, and I, were inseparable for those weeks. Before the trip I had read The Sun Also Rises, and was shocked to see the three of us assume the roles of the principals in that book, as if Hemingway himself had foretold our trip and how we would interact with each other.

There were the predictable love triangles and jealousies, all in a foreshortened time frame, which only gave them more heat and intensity. By the end of the summer Stan had mostly disappeared and Jeannine and I had a tearful goodbye. I think Jeannine and I sent a few emails back and forth, but I never heard from Stan. During that entire summer, I meticulously kept a journal noting what happened, and I tried to be as scrupulously honest as I could, including maybe 85% of what really happened (the remaining 15%, of course, I can still remember vividly today). Even though that summer was eight years ago, I have never reread that journal -- the idea of revisiting those distant times, when everything meant so much and my ideas of the world were changing so rapidly, is still too much to bear.

That's what I was thinking about over the weekend, as I methodically threw away blank postcards, ticket stubs, brochures, museum prints and class notes. The photos are safely tucked away, and the journal remains unopened. Stan and Jeannine, I hope you're out there.

Best books of 2008

In chronological order, here are the books that I loved the most in 2008:

The Mistress's Daughter by A.M. Homes
Let Me Finish by Roger Angell
The Appeal by John Grisham
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
Supreme Conflict by Jan Crawford Greenburg
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Close Range: Wyoming Stories by E. Annie Proulx
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

I was particularly enamored with short stories this year: Carver, Lahiri and Proulx blew me away with their particularity, economy, and narrative force. On the other hand, Mailer's sprawling, forceful narrative, boggling in its breadth and specificity, seemed to nearly encompass everything there is about this nation. Angell's memoir was unexpectedly moving and made me ache with a certain kind of nostalgia for old New York. Parts of Homes' memoir seemed as if she had written them specifically for me. The last ten pages of McEwan knocked me for a loop and gave me a new mantra for marriage and life: love & patience. Rushdie's novel journeyed from the quotidian details of late-century London to the epic themes of fairy tales and myths.

The upper echelon, then: Let Me Finish, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, On Chesil Beach, Close Range, The World Without Us. And the very best book of the year, for this reader: The Satanic Verses. It was worth the wait.

Now I've picked up The Stories of John Cheever and am looking forward to a new year of reading. I might try Bolano, although I haven't enjoyed him yet. I have War and Peace on my list, perfect for some late-winter Russian. And who knows what else may come down the pike. A new story for a new year.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Last night we went to church for Christmas eve mass, my first time at church in ... a very very long time. I was surprised at how I remembered all the words, and how much I enjoyed the utterly predictable rhythms of the mass. There were a lot of old people and young people who didn't seem to want to be there; the cantor picked songs that nobody knew, and sang them at a dirge-like tempo; the homily didn't seem like anything special. But there was a moment after communion when we all sang "Silent Night," accompanied only by the occasional low note of the organ. As we sang into the second and third verses I wondered if I would remember the words, the way I had remembered the profession of faith and the eucharistic prayer and the rest. Sure enough, as the later verses came I found myself singing along, the words tumbling forth without a conscious awareness that I knew them. Words I didn't think I knew; memories that sustained.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Eleven Top Ten Songs of 2008

This year I changed my methodology for calculating the top tracks of the last twelve months. Rather than striving for a representative sample of each album I loved, or each artist I was into, this year is strictly by the numbers. I looked at all the new music I acquired this year, compared the play counts, and ended up with this list as a result. The-Dream has five of the top ten songs, and makes an appearance on the sixth; while his was definitely my favorite album, and he sort of deserved that number one slot, it had to go to DK. The numbers don't lie. And with that, here you go:

11. Raheem DeVaughn and R. Kelly, "Customer (Remix)" This summer, when I was in the throes of bar exam-related depression and ennui, do you know who saved me? It was R. Kelly. Sure, he's had some legal troubles related to child pornography, but the man has talent. And he was acquitted. I already wrote about this song (and "Hair Braider," further up on the list) here, but I actually only added this song to my ipod a couple weeks ago. It is an honorary number 11; I still love it, I love everything about Kelly's verse, his ad libs, everything. Now I ain't tryin to smash or outshine nobody, but I just gotta be true, yeah. Doesn't everyone? I recite this line to my colleagues at work constantly.

10. Ryan Leslie, Cassie, and Fabolous, "Addiction" This is a great song to dance to. Textured beat, simple lyrics, long vocals. A great verse by Fabolous at the end, who really reemerged for me this year (between this song and "She Got Her Own"). If I wanted to live inside a music video, this might be one. This one is really fun to sing, too -- his range is right where I am. And this is the guy who produced Cassie's "Me & U" and "Long Way To Go"! Awesome production.

9. Mariah Carey, "For the Record" I was shocked that this song is on my top ten. I didn't think I liked it that much. I was disappointed with her album but this song jumped out at me with its catchy hook, crazy backward-sounding instrumentation and plaintive lyrics. I also feel, and maybe I'm wrong about this but I doubt it, that you could overlay parts of Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You" into this song, and it would sound really nice. That's like a free remix I just gave you.

8. Mariah Carey, Rick Ross, and The-Dream, "Touch My Body (Remix)" Ok, this song redeemed Mariah Carey for me. This was another song that represented the freedom of summer, escaping bar exam prep and going to Chipotle for lunch, as I previously discussed. I found the original version of the song cloying and a little too chirpy and cute, but the remix dirtied it up and made it something to sink your teeth into. And those last few bars, with the chopped up synthesizer -- that's the heart of it, right there.

7. The-Dream, "Luv Songs" Ok, welcome to The-Dream love fest. I had no idea how much I loved so many of his songs. This was the album I listened to all winter and spring, and into the summer. It's one of the rare albums where I know basically every song; it's in the pantheon of my all-time favorites, like "Rhythm Nation" and "Parachutes" and "White Ladder" and "Justified." You know what brought out the beauty and genius of this song for me? Hearing the Chipmunks version on YouTube.

6. The-Dream, "I Luv Your Girl" I didn't like this song at first; as the fall progressed, it grew on me. The laidback vibe. The finger snapping. This song is all about eye contact across the room.

5. The-Dream, "She Needs My Love" This song is part of a suite of several songs on the album, all seamlessly blending into one another. The last minute of this song, when the beat changes, gaining intensity and urgency (Call 911 if my love ain't there -- love that line) and then dropping out, paving the way for something new.

4. R. Kelly, "Hair Braider" The beat of this song is so slow, so fat, so summer-like. I know this song is stupid and everybody hates it, but I loved it, even if it wasn't up to Kelly's usual standards.

3. The-Dream, "Falsetto" This was hands-down the sexiest song of the entire year. This song to me captured all of it, from the eyes to the bumping and grinding to the (how shall I put it) denouement. I loved the words of this song and I loved his lack of vanity in killing those high notes. I felt such a connection to this song that it shocked me to hear it on the radio or see it on tv; I thought this song was mine.

2. The-Dream, "Shawty is a 10" Hey! Party song! This one grew on me for several months. Gotta love the litany of names, the hands-in-the-air, the call and response. I sort of wanted this song to be number one, even though his voice sounds really pinched and rodent-like.

1. Danity Kane, "Damaged" Can't be denied. This song leeched onto me like a parasite for many months, as I discussed earlier. As the year progressed this song developed a surprising emotional resonance for me, and that's the reason it's number one. Behind the slick production and plasticky vocals, I was shocked to discover some real emotion, emotion that stuck in my gut for a long, long time. In some ways I feel like my relationship with this song traced the arc of the year. When I was sick of this song, I didn't need it anymore, and that was all the better. But it was a hell of a thing while it lasted, like the year itself.

With the old year behind us, now I'm looking forward to a winter with the new Kanye album and whatever else catches my attention. I love that feeling of discovering a new song and knowing that soon you will love it and know it inside and out, that you will enjoy it on the surface now, and that even later on, when you hear it you'll be reminded of this particular moment; but for now, you are content to let yourself be surprised and get lost in the beat, enjoying its foreignness and unexpected novelties, maybe later looking up the lyrics online or seeing what the kids are doing to the song in the dance studios and remixes on YouTube. All for that new song with quick lyrics and an eight-count beat.

Music makes me so damn happy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter Saturday

Today has been pretty ideal, so far. We woke up to find that yesterday's snow and sleet had frozen into an icy white sheet resting on car roofs and latticed among tree branches and fire escapes. I pulled on my long johns for the first time since Armenia. Feeling enough emotional strength to withstand a haircut, I ventured over to the Russian hair cutting place, and after it was done, the guy offered me a shot of vodka. I hadn't eaten anything, and it was 11:30 in the morning. "Yes, I'd love one," I said. It burned going down, and then he offered me a piece of chocolate as a chaser. I walked through a Christmas tree stand on my way home, smelling the pine and feeling a little dizzy and stumbling over the ice, and all was well.

When I came home L and I ventured back into the piercing cold. We stopped at the bookstore, where I bought a book to send to a friend and L gave them some of her homemade candy. We dropped off some books at the library and then meandered down to the Angelika to watch "Doubt." The popcorn and soda made a lovely brunch following my vodka and chocolate breakfast. And there is nothing I love more than spending a cold winter Saturday curled up at a matinee showing of a good movie. Sitting in the dark I had that great feeling of being a little cold, but a little warm; an awareness of all the layers you're wearing, and a sense that they are enough.

Afterwards we did a couple more errands (farmer's market, grocery store) and now we're back at home. L is bustling in the kitchen, making cookies I think, and I can hear Christmas carols coming from her ipod. I am sitting in the big blue armchair. I just finished reading the New York Times magazine. The cold evening is to my back, beyond the darkened windows, but in front of me is our little Christmas tree with its lights and our warm apartment. I just finished a Coke; soon there will be cookies. I have 200 pages left in the great book I'm reading. And my long johns are still keeping me warm. If this isn't happiness, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Did anybody want to tell me about this?

This is the video for "She Got Her Own," by Ne-Yo, Jamie Foxx, and Fabolous, the bonus track at the end of Ne-Yo's current album. Once I had heard this song I was hooked. I've been loving it for a couple months now, copiously learning each guy's part, from Jamie Foxx singing over himself to Ne-Yo's backup vocals to every syllable of Fab's verse. Yet it was only yesterday that I realized there's a video for this song! I feel pretty dumb and behind the times, especially since the video was out since the end of September. I would hear this song playing from passing cars, or hear Jamie Foxx singing a few bars on some tv show, and I'd think, "huh, I love that song, I'm glad somebody else does too." And it's a hit! This evening when I got home I was still so excited by my discovery that I took advantage of my solitude in the apartment to really wail the hell out of the Jamie Foxx verse, twice, which I'm sure my neighbors appreciated.

The video features many of the conventions of R&B/hip hop videos that have marked the genre since time immemorial (that is to say, the early 1990s). The black and white. The unnecessarily letterboxed screen. The empty, dimensionless background. The fake slow-motion effect. The girls moving slowly or looking sensually towards you. There's absolutely nothing new to this video, but it works.

Coming soon: the Top Ten songs of the year!!! (Plus a bonus song.) (Also, the other song that's killing me right now, that I heard at the gym the other night and coveted immediately: Usher's "What's Your Name.")

I had to ask her what she doin in the Caddy
She said 'cuz you my baby I be stuntin like my daddy'

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Weekend in Myrtle Beach

This weekend we went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to celebrate my sister's graduation from college. I knew it would be a good trip when the man in front of us in the security line at LaGuardia was Don King. He traveled with a posse of about four other men, one of whom forgot a duffel bag on the far side of the metal detectors after he himself had passed through. Had I been Don King, I would have fired that man immediately.

Apparently Don King is more charitable than me, because after we made it through, he sauntered into the terminal, grinning broadly and holding a small American flag in one hand and an unlit cigar in the other. "Hey, everybody, it's me, Don King, and I hope you're having a great time tonight here in Terminal B," was the message he was sending.

Myrtle Beach once again delighted us with its flat expanses of freeway, seasonally brown grass, and strip clubs galore: The Penthouse Club, The Bunny Ranch, Bottoms Up, Derriere's, the venerable Crazy Horse, and the grossly and opaquely named Inserection. We spent the bulk of our time moving my sister from her old undergraduate apartment to her new apartment in a new town-square development that had L and I drooling with envy. Kelsey now lives above an Ann Taylor, with a movie theater, Barnes & Noble, and Starbucks a block away. She can actually walk to her grocery store, Piggly Wiggly. It's just like how we live in the Village, except in the Village the buildings are taller, and in Myrtle Beach, people all go to church on Sundays before they head to The Bunny Ranch.

Saturday morning's graduation ceremony was very interesting. By "interesting" I mean "vaguely unconstitutional," since we opened and closed with a prayer, which you don't often find at public school events. But since we were in South Carolina I wasn't going to say anything. L did not share my polite demurral, however, when one speaker told the graduates that they should thank their "fathers and grandfathers" for all of their help and support over the years, and then instructed the "fathers and grandfathers" to stand for a round of applause. L went apopletic, spluttering that this was ridiculous and imploring my mom to stand up too. Hooray for fathers and grandfathers!

It was that kind of weekend. We had a very nice time with the whole family, and enjoyed a bunch of delicious South Carolina meals (and one rotten one). The usual sadness of saying goodbye was tempered by the fact that we'll see everyone in a week and a half for Christmas. The important thing, though, is that my sis graduated from college and that we were all there to celebrate it and let her know how proud we all are. And the fact that she's making her home in the kind of classy town where the government insists that Derriere's is the only full-nudity establishment within city limits -- well, that's all the better.

Monday, December 08, 2008

"Like men betrayed"

From the new issue of The New Yorker, an excerpt from James Wood's assessment of Richard Yates' amazing novel, Revolutionary Road, describing the main character, Frank Wheeler:

Frank works in New York for Knox Business Machines but prides himself that he takes his job ironically, that he cares nothing for it, and that his real life is elsewhere. Yates was playing a morbid joke on himself when he created Frank Wheeler, because Frank is Yates without the writing: he is saving himself for an invisible “creative” life that he is too unimaginative to envision.
This is definitely one of my greatest fears for my future, or my present. The idea of wrapping your external life in irony and disdain to protect some genuine core that you are ultimately unable to bring to fruition -- too feeble or scared or (yes, let's go there) impotent.

Amazing that Yates was able to capture this wariness that seems so typical of the professional male; amazing how it rings true through the decades. And with that, back to work.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Cardio hell

For the last few Sundays, L and I have been trekking up to the Equinox at 17th & 11th (walking through a dormant meatpacking district, cutting through a gas station, and bracing ourselves against cold winds blowing in from the water) to attend a gym class that I like to call "Cardio Hell," taught by our friend and hero, Arnold. The class is supposed to be about strength-building, but there's a strong cardio element to it as well. You go from jumping over a step to do squats, to doing modified push-ups with one arm elevated, to some kind of squat/shoulder lift combo, and all the while you're thinking about how to manage your breathing and prevent your heart from jumping out of your body and running out of the room, because damn this class is hard. I actually sort of dread it every week.

Typically I spend the class feeling woozy, light-headed, out of breath, wan, and uncomfortable. In fact, a few weeks ago I spent about twenty minutes after class vomiting on the floor of the gym studio, which was embarrassing and made me thankful that we don't usually attend this gym, nor are we responsible for laundering the towels.

Today there were snowflakes swirling around the glitzy warehouses around 14th street, and it was difficult to leave our warm home to head out into the streets, but as usual I'm glad we did. After the class you feel tired and exhausted, but also strong and alive; it's a good reminder that we are more than the sum of our email accounts and our outlook schedules.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Reunion / melancholy / redemption

This weekend I went to my high school reunion. The night before I looked at the old yearbook ("Reflections") and felt an unexpected rush of feeling -- not quite emotion, really, but a vivid recollection of how it felt to be 18 and going to school with all these people. Looking at their photos reminded me of who I liked, what I thought about, how I tried to fit in to the larger puzzle. I was reminded that there are parts of myself -- significant parts -- that really haven't changed at all in the intervening years. Heading into the reunion I was very nervous, even though I knew I wanted to see a lot of people and was excited to share my life with them, the way it is now.

One problem with the actual event is that when I got there, I ended up drinking copious amounts of vodka. This had consequences. Afterwards, as the night wound down and I sat in the front seat of my mom's car, slumped down and watching the rain hit the windshield as L drove us back home, I was feeling vaguely sad about it all. I had had too much to drink, wasting the chance to see people I had missed and at one time loved. I didn't know why I had talked to some people but not others. I lamented that it would be another five years until there was another chance to do it right.

The next day, as an unhappily sober person sitting on a bus to New York, I still felt melancholy. My melancholy stemmed more from the ineffable progress of time, the sadness of stale relationships, and the shock of dealing with the consequences of choices you didn't realize you were making -- the drunkenness was a piece of it, but not the whole thing. Part of it was knowing that there are good people in your life, people you want to be friends with, or maybe were at one point, but now, for whatever reason, that's just not the way it is. You can't be close to everyone you want to be close with, and sometimes that's the result of choices you made, and sometimes it's the result of other circumstances, or the result of choices you made passively, by not choosing anything at all. Not mistakes we knew we were making, but decisions we didn't know we had made. It got under my skin.

The good news, though, after the alcohol and melancholy had dissolved, was that there is another chance every five years to see these people and give them another evening. On that night, we probably won't remember or talk about this reunion, just like how nobody really talked a lot about our actual four years in high school. Looking at the yearbook may have been a mistake -- I should have gone in blind, just seeing everybody as they are now without one foot stuck in the past, thinking about how we were then, and how we could have been, before all this time passed us by.

Of course, at the actual event, I wasn't glowering in the corner, nursing my gimlet and thinking about the march of time; I was laughing really hard, and dancing, and saying hi to people and telling them they looked good, even if they didn't. I was drunker than I meant to be, yes, but I was there in the room, and I'm glad about that.

And every reunion is another chance. I may have to wait five more years for a shot at redemption, but redemption awaits.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Faux Thanksgiving 2008

Last night, for the third year in a row, we celebrated Faux Thanksgiving, the annual event when we have our friends over to make a full Thanksgiving dinner and then play Taboo until the clues become overly offensive. As usual, it was a fantastic meal. We started out with a twelve-pound turkey:

I was very proud of myself for successfully detaching both turkey legs, which required only a minimal amount of sawing away at the bone. In another lifetime I would have been an excellent surgeon. The final spread looked like this:

All in all, it was great. Good friends, good food. Despite coming a week early, and despite the absence of our family members and other loved ones, I'm not sure you could find a better way to celebrate the Thanksgiving spirit. You look at the six of us and think of what the last year has brought (marriages, pregnancy, graduation, new jobs, new apartments, new opportunities) and there's a lot to be thankful for, in addition to homemade pumpkin pie and the nice bottle of champagne that was chilling outside on the fire escape.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Above the bar

A few quick things:

1. I passed the bar. After four months of worry and abject fear, it turned out I passed the damn thing. The morning the bar results came out, the website was immediately clogged with people -- it took two and a half hours to fight through the hordes of bar applicants to get the results. When the screen finally loaded, it was two solid paragraphs of text. "WHAT DOES IT SAY WHAT DOES IT SAY," I said to L. I couldn't find the word "pass," but I also couldn't find the word "fail." My heart was pounding. "You passed, you passed!" "ARE YOU SURE," I said. I tried to breathe deeply. "Yes!" she said. "IS THAT MY NAME? ARE YOU SURE THAT'S MY BIRTHDAY? DO YOU EVEN KNOW IT?" I said. I was in a scared and lonely place. "Yes, yes, you passed!" And lo, after months of tedious study, butt-clenching fear, and pathetic self-doubt, I passed the bar.

2. On Sunday we got iPhones! Now, instead of going to work juggling my ipod, cell phone, and blackberry, clipped to my belt like a sad white-collar Batman, I have one sleek bullet of a device. I am loving it.

3. Saturday night found me with my friend Freddy at a local gay bar, and due to a series of rapidly changing and confusing circumstances, I found myself being introduced by a friendly drag queen to sing karaoke in front of the crowd. "Ooh, he's kind of cute," she said as I stood there, lights shining on us, unable to see the crowd milling around. I introduced the song I was singing with a dedication: "This one's for you, Aubrey. We miss you, girl." "Whoo! Aubrey!" someone yelled. It was a promising start. After the song ended, approximately a year and a half later, the drag queen grabbed my hand to stop me from getting off the stage. "You know what he needs?" she said into the microphone, looking into the lights. "Blue tights! You know why?" I did not know why. I was ready to get off the stage. "Because he kind of looks like Superman! You Superman!" And although at that point I basically bolted back into the anonymity of the crowd, somehow it all actually made sense at the time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Callie girl

Tonight my parents called me to say that they had to put down our dog, Callie. She's had a rough time for the last few years, and they recently found out she's been fighting cancer. Tonight, after a good day, she collapsed and couldn't move her hind legs -- she was paralyzed. She was nervous and vocal, struggling to pull herself along, and my parents went to the ER vet, and they put her down.

We've had Callie since before I started high school, I think, back when we lived on Chain Bridge Court. Although we thought she was a lab when we got her at the shelter, she was a mutt through and through. As she grew her body maintained its pinhead-like proportions, her head small like an arrowhead, her tail arched proudly over her back. She had a scar on the bridge of her nose from the night our other dog, Belle, first came home, when I was a junior in high school -- they got into a scuffle and Belle's bite drew a thick bead of blood along her snout. My dad and I got in the car and Callie sat in the middle seat in the back, perfectly still, stoic, as we drove in the dark to the same hospital where she passed away tonight.

Her most notable trait, without a doubt (excluding her lovely pinheadedness), was her vocal stylings. Any time one of us walked through the door, you would hear the clatter of paws on hardwood, and then, once you were in sight, you would be greeted with a long, heartfelt "AroooORRooOWOWWWOORRRRR" for several minutes. This was the sound of a happy dog, letting loose with an ugly old yowl to celebrate the return of her pack. Coming home from college, I couldn't wait to hear that sound. She wasn't very friendly with others -- she barked at other dogs and had little use for people; it was remarkable to me when she finally started accepting my grandparents -- so she would constantly bark at guests in our home, cars in the street, or neighbors walking by. The sound of the doorbell would make her go berserk. In the old house she had her perch in the office where she would sit and watch the world go by through the slats of the blinds. From outside you could see her little brown head, ever vigilant, darting from side to side to follow all the action.

We all loved her, for so many reasons. Late at night when I would be up watching SNL, she would meander over and just sit next to me on the floor, staring intently as I absently rubbed under her neck or stroked her back. Sometimes she would growl contentedly, a low pleasant purr. Several times over the years I had dreams where she could talk and we would converse about various topics; on the mornings that followed it always seemed as if she were giving me the eye. On Christmas mornings she would sit at the top of the stairs with my sister and me as we waited to hurry down to the family room.

I remember Gene Weingarten writing about how having a pet teaches children about love, and how the death of a pet is so affecting because it reflects our entire lives in one brief existence. Callie was such a good dog -- loyal, affectionate, beautiful, protective, quirky, prickly, and endearingly stupid. My parents have spent these last few months caring for her with all the love and attention they would lavish on my sister or me, cooking her eggs and chicken and steak (and of course giving some to Belle so she wouldn't feel left out). They treated Cal like a queen in these finals months. I was glad Callie had a good day today, glad she could move around and bounce up the stairs for one more day, enjoying her home and the people who loved her. She lost a lot of weight as the end came, and her face is covered in snowy gray, but you could still see glimmers of the puppy she was. She was such a good girl, our Callie.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Now put your hands up!"

And now for something completely different. For those who find politics tedious, or who don't share my joy in the Obama victory, or are somehow less than riveted by all the election post-mortems that I'm devouring by the paragraph, here's Beyonce, grinding away for three and a half minutes in her new video, "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)." The song is catchy, produced by my favorite The Dream and his partner in crime, Tricky Stewart, and the choreography is bananas. If this doesn't send a tingle up your leg, Chris Matthews-style, you should maybe check for a pulse.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


There was a moment last night, after they called it for Obama, President-Elect Barack Obama, when the news anchors wisely realized it was time to shut up and let the moment speak for itself. As the camera panned over thousands of people gathered in that park in Chicago, flags waving and people crying and cheering, as the crowds outside Rock Center jumped and clapped, as people wept, there was this sense of amazement -- disbelief that it really happened. In that moment I felt such a sense of happiness, relief, and pride. As a symbolic gesture, Obama's election, forged by a new coalition and encompassing an entirely new collection of states, is hard to top. He has entered the pantheon -- the Kennedys, the Kings, the modern American figures who transcend the ordinary to become heroes. That's big talk, I know, but last night it was hard to fight those sentiments.

His speech was characteristically beautiful. There was one part that I found especially compelling, that poignantly recalled Martin Luther King and reminded me of the long and exciting road ahead:
We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America -- I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you -- we as a people will get there.
He promised, and last night we believed him. Today is a great day to be an American; a great day to remember what America is and what it can be. Like the man said: we will get there.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The official endorsement: Vote Obama

The remarkable thing about this election is that there's a candidate I really respect and admire, unlike every other time, when it's been two vaguely repulsive figures. Back in 2000, Gore was too sanctimonious and Bush seemed like an amiable dunce. Go for the dunce! What could possibly go wrong? In 2004, I had recognized the error of my ways and was looking forward to voting for Howard Dean, who was like a "West Wing" fantasy come to life (plucky Northeastern governor comes to Washington) yet I ended up voting for John Kerry, who looked and acted like one of those dour talking trees in "The Wizard of Oz."

This time around, I hitched my star to Obama way back in April 2007, and boy, have I been pleased with how that turned out. From the stunning victory in Iowa to the soaring convention speech to his cool, professional demeanor in the debates against grumpy old Senator McCain, he and his campaign have had remarkably few missteps. Not only do I see Obama as an inspirational figure in America -- a symbol of progress and a bellwether of great things to come -- but McCain, for whom I voted with passion in the 2000 Virginia primary, has done a thorough job of losing my vote: The selection of Governor Palin by a man who promised "country first." The constant drumbeat that the city where I live and the region where I grew up is not "the real America." A wholehearted embrace of smear tactics and strategies designed to appeal to our worst impulses and fears. An acceptance of the right-wing ideologies that he fought so long against. And the introduction of Joe the Plumber to the national scene. Every time I read "Joe the Plumber" I hear it in the chirpy cadence of a parrot voice. Thanks a lot, John McCain.

So, in the spirit of these final few days, as everybody hunkers down and all the newspapers and magazines put their cards on the table in one last appeal for wisdom and clear judgment, here's my own, the first official presidential endorsement in the history of this blog.

Take it from your old pal Mike the Lawyer: vote Barack Obama for president.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Young, gifted, and white

Tonight I was at a country club steakhouse in Carlsbad with six other partners and associates from across the country. After a couple vodka gimlets and a glass or two of red wine, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and asked the hostess if I might borrow a pen and paper, and I wrote this:

To be young, gifted, and white: arrive at a steakhouse in Carlsbad - gilded walls, warm familiar lights. Loud red-faced men in dark blazers represent a possible future. A room of garrulous laughter, multiple cocktails per setting - rich men, white men, salads of prosciutto and greens and thick beet juice dribbling down our chins. The power! The ease! Who have we become?

Yet the music - Jill Scott, John Mayer, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo. "Cross My Mind," "He Loves Me," "I Don't Trust Myself," "Didn'tcha Know." Even here, in Carlsbad, among the privileged class, with a blazer and a soft belly awaiting me in some hazy potential future - this is who I am. I tell the waiter the music here is fantastic - amid everything else, he agrees.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Blogging by blackberry

Right now I am in Los Angeles, blogging with my thumbs on my brittle little blackberry because this is my lone connection to the internet. I'm here for new associate training, where they teach us how to be lean, hungry, fire-in-the-belly type lawyers. We came here as boys but we'll be leaving as men.

Soft, pasty men, actually, since we haven't really left the hotel compound where we eat, sleep, abd slump in conference rooms all day (except for last night's dinner, drinks and salsa dancing downtown, which should not be underemphasized--these hips, after all, do not lie). Tomorrow we move on to a resort in Carlsbad for another three days of rest, relaxation, and powerpoint. For now, here's a poem I wrote during a session today:

Hotel conference room
Downtown Los Angeles
Beige room, chairs
Outside, California dream
Tangle of freeways
Cars' dull roar
Bright empty sky
Stifled behind glass.
My golden state
Of nowhere. California!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

October farmers' market

Yesterday at the Farmers' market the bins and crates were bursting with color. As L diligently sorted through the apples and squashes to find our week's worth, I was swooping through the crowds with the camera, waiting for the elusive moment when my view of the riotous color was unbroken by a reaching hand. There were as many people taking photos of the produce as actually purchasing it; maybe us city folk have an acute need to memorialize the changing of the seasons. To capture these delicious colors so they'll endure longer than this brief, perfect moment in the year.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The email I expect to receive every time my Blackberry buzzes on evenings or weekends

Why aren't you here? Everyone is here working hard, and you're not. That's really disappointing. You really screwed the pooch on [some work issue] by (a) being bad at your job and (b) not being at your job right now. If you're going to be bad at something, at least be bad at it here in the office. That's just common sense.

You know what we all thought you were? A team player. But it turns out we were wrong. You're not a team player. Playing on a team with other people is not something you're good at. Maybe that's why running is the only sport you're sort of good at. One of us came up with the idea (but the rest of us agree) that if you were running in a relay race, you would probably mess that up too, because you would toss the baton into the street, or just not show up for the race, like how you didn't show up for work right now. Because you're not a team player.

We are so disappointed in you. Don't even bother coming back. Learn to play on a team. But not our team.



Monday, October 06, 2008

Aunt Evvy

My great-aunt Evelyn died today. She was old -- ever since I was little, she was old -- and she lived a good 90 years or so. After a long battle with illness, her death came as a relief, and she died with her sisters and loved ones nearby.

We called her Aunt Evvy, although I've seldom seen that name written down, so I'm not even sure how to spell it. As I said, even when I was little, she was old and wizened. She was a tiny woman, small and trim, with a heavily-styled bloom of white hair and a raspy voice worn by cigarettes, a gruff voice leavened with kindness and reassurance. Like many of the older folks in my family, she carried a smell of cigarettes that was somehow rich and comfortable.

But the remarkable thing about Aunt Evvy was that she had none of the coldness, or detachment, or impatience that you think of when you think "wizened old lady." She was always so kind and thoughtful. When I was little we would go to her house and she would give me my first haircuts. She always had candy in a bowl in the family room, and a painting of dogs playing poker in the basement, near the pool table, which seemed to be Uncle Dan's domain. He carved wooden ducks as a hobby, mallards with brilliant green heads and the females with a more subtle palette of browns and grays. When I would spend the night at my grandparents' on Saturdays, Uncle Dan would always drop by in the morning with the Sunday paper, and we would all sit around the kitchen table and eat donuts, me reading the comics while they all drank coffee and smoked.

Aunt Evvy was known among the family for her pies. She was a brilliant cook, but dessert is when she really flexed her muscle. My favorite was her chocolate pie, but she had plenty of others in her repertoire, and she would bring several to every family event, enough to leave entire pies to be divided -- thick, overflowing, rich and painful pies that would kill lesser men than us -- after everyone had eaten as much as they could bear.

She and my mom seemed to have a special connection. My mother has been utterly vigilant during Aunt Evvy's long illness, and I heard about many visits where Aunt Evvy could barely communicate, or struggled to talk, or just spent her time yelling at the nurse, which was reassuring to see. But there were moments when Aunt Evvy was lucid and able to communicate with my mom, and I heard about times when the old Evvy was shining through -- kind and loving, rubbing my mom's back to comfort her even as she had come to comfort Aunt Evvy. I was so happy Mom got to share these moments with her.

In the last couple of years, she suffered a lot of loss and pain in her life, and death seemed to be a welcome relief at some moments. I wrote about it here, a couple of Easters ago. She was a strong and resilient woman. It seems fitting that as I sit here writing, I can smell the pumpkin pie L baked tonight -- the first pumpkin pie of the season.

For my entire life Aunt Evvy has been a fixed point in my family -- part of the bedrock of men and women who had always been around, whose proximity and reliability and good will and assistance and love were taken as a given. I think about how close she and my grandma were, how much my mother loved her, how much my grandfather valued his friendship with her and Uncle Dan, and that's when I get a better sense of the brunt of the loss. She was a good and beautiful woman, and even after the pain of these long last months, there's nothing to do but miss her.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Get this: yesterday I worked all night. I went to work on Wednesday, expecting another normal day at work. Cut to the part in a movie where the hands of the clock keep spinning, yet I remained working at my desk. Outside it got dark out, and all the lights in the buildings came on, and I was still working. Even later the lights of midtown started flicking off one by one, and I was still working. Even later the sky began lightening again, which was surreal, yet I was still working. A couple hours later people started coming in to work -- people who had showered, wearing clothes they had just put on, and I was still there, looking like a zombie with greasy hair in some extremely battered business casual clothes. "I haven't gone home yet," I croaked to my admin.

By 10 am this morning I felt like death warmed over. I could barely concentrate and was closing one eye to read. My contact lenses felt like hockey pucks in my eyes. Thankfully once our work was done I came home early, around noon, to eat some food for the first time since dinner and get myself cleaned up.

I was really excited because I figured I could easily make the gym tonight, then be home in time for the VP debate. I took a nap around 3, figuring I would wake up in time for the gym. Later, much later, I woke up to find a dark apartment. At first I thought it was early in the morning, and that L had woken up before me, but then I remembered that I hadn't had a night yet. I looked at my watch, and it was 7:15 -- too late for the gym. But I guess I was too tired anyway.

Here's the thing about literally working all night: I felt kind of tough, like I'm proving myself in an admittedly stupid way, and I feel sort of ridiculous for having to do it. The last time I did this I was in college, writing a horrible paper in Spanish about Erasmus. (Or, as he's known among the Spaniards, "Erasmo.") But the real kicker is the fact that it messed up my Thursday plans, and I suspect I'll be a little run-down through the weekend as well.

My tips for working all night: (1) Don't eat crap. I stuck with ice water and frequent trips to the bathroom to stay awake, and ate some candy but otherwise didn't eat a lot of junk and soda the way I wanted to. (2) Listen to music, but keep it mixed up, so nothing gets labeled as "the music I worked all night to," because then I would grow to hate it. And I just got new albums by Ne-Yo and Eric Benet, who seem to be bookends in a way (I feel like Ne-Yo's stuff represents my past and present, while Eric Benet is singing about the kind of love and relationship that I'm still a couple years away from experiencing, in some ways), and as great as both albums are, I didn't want to permanently associate them with my wretched night in midtown.

Moving on...

Debate-wise, tonight I thought both sides did pretty well, given the expectations that were set. I really appreciated the dialogue between the candidates and the points of mutual respect and agreement that both sides were happy to note. But I thought Biden wiped the floor with Palin, in terms of specifics, directness, context, and understanding. I don't need or want a Vice President who winks at me from the television.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Too much

I think I'm becoming a weirdo about recycling. The combination of L's locavore wisdom and scathing disdain for bottled water, plus the reams of paper that fly around my office on a daily basis, have pushed me over the edge.

Our printers at work (where I am at this moment, mind you, and there's a long time yet before I'm going home) are set so that the first page of every document is a paper identifying who printed the thing. So today I casually told my administrative assistant (!!) that if she wanted to set aside all those papers, I would be happy to bring them home to recycle, since there isn't really any recycling here at the office. She looked at me like I was crazy. I began to feel stupid, and all of my environmental righteousness leaked out of my body like toxic waste out of a drum barrel as I explained how I set aside all my recyclable, non-confidential papers to recycle at home. Is that weird?

At Chipotle tonight for my pathetic lonely dinner, which I squeezed in between billable minutes at some alien midtown Chipotle, I set aside the bottle I had purchased with my meal so they could recycle it. Then I saw another bottle lying on top of the garbage, so I plucked it out for recycling, too. Then I noticed a second bottle in the garbage, under some napkins that didn't look too dirty, so I pulled that one out. Then I saw a third bottle, just a little deeper, and I was going to reach in when I realized -- you need to leave. Do not root through the garbage at Chipotle. But that's not weird, right?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


During our trip to Asia I eventually got sick of taking self-portraits of us, where I hold the camera out in front and aim it backwards, and then, thanks to a miracle of perspective and proportion, a nice picture comes out. We would be standing in front of any kind of vista or open window or body of water, and L would thrust the camera towards me and say, "here, take one of your pictures." Gradually I became self-conscious doing it, especially when there were other English-speaking people around, because I feared that it made us look weird and untrusting. Sometimes people would stand nearby sort of expectantly, ready to engage in the tacit tourist pact where someone asks you to take their picture, with a subtext of "...and please don't run away with my camera," and then you actually do it and give it back. Being the antisocial misanthropes we are, we rejected this whole thing and just did it ourselves. Because otherwise we would have spent the whole trip apologizing extravagantly for interrupting other tourists from their sightseeing, and then discreetly wiping the camera down with Purel after those dirty Europeans returned it to us.

Also, here you can see that L and I basically have the same glasses, since we got the his 'n' hers versions. Stateside we are careful to avoid wearing them at the same time, since we've already started dressing in a dangerously similar fashion ("Hey, you're wearing Gap jeans, Reef brand flips, and a North Face fleece over a t-shirt? Me too!" "Ha ha! How white does it get!"). But eventually we realized that of all the reasons the local Asian people would be laughing at us, identical eyewear is probably not at the top of the list.

Finally, I like this photo because I feel like it tells a nice story as you read it left to right: first you see a pretty mountain backdrop, then you see L looking all cute and happy to be there, and then your eye keeps moving to find me apparently asleep and completely disinterested -- I think it's kind of funny.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Travel journal

This was when we were in Koh Tao, Thailand. We stayed in a little bungalow perched on top of a pile of large rocks. All we could see from our rickety bamboo balcony was the open sea, occasionally cut by a water taxi making its way around the island. There was a small oil lamp near the door and I spent a good amount of time trying to light the wick, but it never took. Instead we sat under the yellow bulb and watched the night settle in around us.

In this photo I was writing in my travel journal, which has come to be an essential part of any trip. Before I got this volume I would write what we did in the margins of guidebooks or scraps of paper, trying to remember the names of restaurants and tour guides, and the results were always cryptic and useless later on. Once I got smart and got a journal, I started writing more and taping in small relics of the trip: ticket stubs, postcards, etc. This particular volume accompanied me to Italy, Spain, California, Montana, Hawaii, and ended its career in Asia. I read something by Italo Calvino in college about how the cities we visit both ask us questions and answer our questions. So I always find myself wondering what a particular place is asking of me, and answering for me. (New York asked me everything.)

Anyways, so that's my travel journal, and here's a photo L took of me slumping over to write in it. In the photo you can see the oil lamp to my left, along with a thick copy of Thomas Wolfe's "You Can't Go Home Again." To my back is the wine-dark sea. The first chapter of the Wolfe book had me energized and feeling young and literate and alive, but unfortunately it went downhill from there. But for that brief moment it was spectacular.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Where did it go

Today I spent eleven hours at work. Today was also Sunday. Yesterday I spent a good four or five hours at work, and Friday was another eleven and a half.

Today someone asked me in a way that I hope was at least partly in jest: "Do you hate your life?" And I said, "I don't hate my life." Seeing an opportunity, my interlocutor said, "Do you hate your job? It's ok if you hate your job. You can tell me you hate your job. I do sometimes." But I wouldn't say it.

The thing that gets me, though, is that work has effectively demolished my weekend. I came home tonight a little after ten, after walking forty blocks in the rain to get home, but I was still tense and angry and frustrated. I hate feeling this way. And as I was leaving work, I thought, hey, in twelve hours you'll be back here, and it will only be Monday!

Today in my office I was listening to music, and I turned it up louder and was singing along and dancing in my special ergonomic office chair, since work is the only place I've been able to do that. During James Taylor's "Mexico," I realized that I felt like Rapunzel, imprisoned in that tower. Do you think Rapunzel billed by the hour? I kind of do, because I do, and it seems like she and I have a lot in common, as far as being imprisoned in a tower.

I'm trying not to be bitter or frustrated but it's getting increasingly difficult, when I can't plan my evenings, I can't enjoy L's good home cookin' and I can't even enjoy the nice evening time with her I've taken for granted for so long. I don't want to get used to this lifestyle because it sucks. There comes a certain point in the workday, once the day has turned to night and I don't even realize it until I turn around in my seat and see that the view of midtown has been cloaked by darkness, that I look out the window and wonder how I got myself in this situation, where there's an expectation of such unrelenting availability and devotion to work. Is this my life? Is this who I am now?

(Today I was walking the halls, knowing I was alone, and the tune to "Damaged" was in my head, since the song has been a blight on my soul for like five months now, and instead of singing "how you gonna fix it, fix it, fix it," I was singing, "I think this is bullshit, bullshit, bullshit," and it's an indicator of the way we live now that this was a major victory in my day.)

My goal for the week is to reclaim myself, and to be less angry and more happy. I need to see my wife, read more for pleasure, get some more exercise, and write more. The thing that kills me about legal writing (or at least the legal writing I encounter) is the overwhelming artlessness of it. I'm going to try to update this old blog every day this week, with at least something. It will probably not be very profound or artful, but it will be a part of me that is not watching time slip away in six minute increments.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"First day, first night"

On Monday, my first day of work as a lawyer, I came home at 2 am.

On Tuesday, I came home at 9:30 pm.

On Wednesday, I came home at 12:30 am.

On Thursday, I came home at 6 pm (things were slow).

On Friday, I came home at 12:00 am.

On Saturday (!), I came home at 7:30 pm.

On Sunday, I rested, and wondered if this would, or could, continue.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


1. The end of my computer. My computer died on Thursday. One minute it seemed to be fine, then it froze, then when I rebooted, instead of the reassuring Apple logo I saw a flashing file folder with a question mark on it. This was clearly not a good sign. It turned out the hard drive was fried, so I lost everything on it. I spent the whole day trying not to freak out and consider the magnitude of the loss; like a moron I never backed up my files. As a result, I lost all my music, all my photos, and three years of law school notes, as well as other miscellaneous writings (aborted attempts at fiction and my resume) and who knows what else. On the plus side, most of my law school notes are floating around my email account, I recovered my music from my ipod, and L has most of our photos. But I feel like a complete, complete idiot. Over the weekend I got a new hard drive and have begun the long road back. Incredibly aggravating. If you have photos of you and me from this modern era of digital photography (2003-present) please send them to me so I can reconstruct my life. I feel like such an idiot. It's hard to overemphasize that point.

2. The end of my high blood pressure.
For the last few weeks I have been worried that I have high blood pressure, but now those fears have ended as well. At the optometrist's a while back they took my blood pressure as a perfunctory matter, and it was alarmingly high; at the end of the appointment it was even higher, because I spent the hour worrying about it. Then when I returned to the doctor later in the week it was high again. I looked up high blood pressure on the internet (never a good idea, I am not allowed to look up possible medical conditions on the internet, but I made an exception for myself) and there was absolutely no reason for me to have high blood pressure. I looked at the ingredients of Chipotle and wondered if maybe sodium was the problem. My nutritional regime had been based on things like calories, sugar, trans fats; it turns out sodium is this whole other axis that has nothing to do with anything else. But then this weekend I was home with my folks and my mom took my blood pressure multiple times with multiple devices, and my blood pressure is fine. I think the earlier doctor had a bum machine. Realizing I don't have pre-hypertension was seriously the best news of the weekend. I celebrated by eating a salt lick dipped in melted cheese and not exercising.

3. The end of a tire.
Driving around Virginia yesterday, one of the tires on my mom's car blew out. We were rounding a corner and singing along to John Legend's "Green Light" on the radio when there was a sound like a gun shot and the car seemed suddenly unbalanced. I pulled into a handicapped parking spot and discovered a half-inch sized hole in the side of the wheel ... how the hell does that happen? Being a non-driving city dweller I hadn't had to change a tire since high school, when my failure to engage the parking brake caused the unoccupied car to roll forward when my dad jacked it up to replace the tire. This time around my father-in-law was there to help us figure things out; by the time we ate lunch I was a sweaty disaster. But at least it wasn't my fault.

4. The end of an era.
In addition to the end of my computer, my brush with hypertension, and my mom's rear passenger tire, one other thing is ending too: my late summer indolence. Tomorrow is my first day at work at the law firm; my first day of work as a lawyer; my first day of work in a new career; my first day of a new life. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sarah Palin

I was feeling really good about this presidential election until last week. Back in the olden days of late August, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Americans would do the right, practical, courageous, intelligent, inspiring, obvious thing, and vote for Obama, and he would be president, and all would be right with the world. L and I woke up early in a hotel in Singapore to watch his acceptance speech at the convention, and were high-fiving each other in our fluffy hotel bathrobes as we cheered this small culmination of the American dream.

However, wily old John McCain had a trick up his sleeve. Initially his selection of Sarah Palin as VP was baffling: not only was she blatantly and irredeemably inexperienced, but she had all these issues with ethics investigators and state troopers-in-law and her own inconveniently pregnant children. It seemed like another Harriet Miers debacle, and I expected a similar result: she would last maybe a week, and then we'd have a much more appropriate candidate, like the buffoonish Mitt Romney.

Boy, was I wrong. Now I'm sort of terrified of Sarah Palin, and not just because she can kill a moose with her teeth. In one fell swoop, she revitalized an entire political party, turned the entire campaign on its ear, and stole the momentum of the Obama campaign, Sarah Barracuda-style.

(Incidentally, there were some moments of sublime ugliness at that RNC convention: thousands of people chanting "drill, baby, drill"; the mockery and derision of community organizers by people who have never needed them to secure their basic rights; and Mitt Romney's blithely incoherent speech, summing up the intellectual acrobatics required to make any kind of sense of the Republican message: "We need change all right -- change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington! We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington -- throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain!" Obviously.)

If you boil it down, the reason I am so exasperated about the Palin-McCain movement is that is has proven to be extremely effective and extremely powerful. Obama has been laying low for a while now, and it seems like he's ceding the floor to the Republicans, letting them control the narrative. McCain's campaign manager has said that "this election is not about the issues," but rather "a composite view of what people take away from these candidates." Obama needs to bring it back to the issues. He needs to come up with a new explanation for why the hockey mom can deliver neither the change nor the experience that we need. He needs to wake up before McCain walks away with an election that was Obama's to lose. That's why I'm feeling nervous these days, because I have no idea how to do that.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Shop by numbers

Like a fool, I went to Macy's (excuse me, Macy*s) today to take advantage of their one day sale, which was technically two days. I had a simple objective: buy a couple of pairs of pants and a few dress shirts for my new job, which starts in a couple weeks. This is a very auspicious occasion, as it marks my triumphant return to a regular income and adulthood itself. So what better way to mark the event than to battle hordes of bargain-crazed shoppers for the last Fitted Wrinkle-Free Large Satin Stripe in all of Manhattan?

I wandered all over the store, up and down the rickety old wooden escalators, until I made it to the Mens Department. Recently the New Yorker had an article on how department stores deter shoplifters, and they noted that men shopping by themselves automatically raise a red flag among security personnel, since men are typically not avid shoppers. As I wandered through the store I tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, which actually made me sweat a little bit, which probably really reassured the thugs in the security camera room of my good intentions. (It actually reminded me of what I learned about false imprisonment for the bar exam, where a common scenario is when shopkeepers detain suspected thieves; good thing I know my rights as a law school graduate and bar exam applicant!)

The actual dress shirts section of the store was a madhouse, predictably. Hordes of people tussling among piles of shirt wrapped in plastic, clutching at the bags, reading the numbers furiously, then tossing them aside. Some people were actually just sitting on the floor, looking for their numbers, like sad old bingo players. I tried to stick with my standard exciting sartorial palette of blue and white, and was blindly picking shirts based on my collar size a year ago, on the assumption that my neck fat has not really increased since then. After I had wrestled four shirts away from some New Jersey moms and an old lady in a wheelchair, I descended to the pants section.

Compared to the mind-boggling array of options in the pants section, the many varieties of shirts seemed about as different as prison uniforms. I knew I wanted flat front pants, since I've heard pleated pants are uncool. But do I want straight leg? Is "relaxed fit" a signal for dumpy-butted people? I couldn't remember. Fearful that I would end up prancing into the office in flared jeans or capri pants, I sought out the familiar shelter of the Dockers area. I managed to find two pairs of their super premium khakis, the ones in a variety of somber colors with a stiff sheen of professionalism. These are not the ratty khakis I slouched around in as a preppy undergrad; these are khakis that say, "I probably have a Blackberry."

So I came home without actually trying anything on, by selecting items by the numerical sizes I already had. I figure I can try things on at home and get L's approval, or else we'll both return to sort it all out. I couldn't spend any more time in there, and I am not going back there alone.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Back home from Asia

It's hard to figure out where to begin to talk about our trip to Asia. I can't believe we were there; I can't believe it's over. After three and a half weeks the region lost none of the exoticism or mystery or romance that drew us there in the first place. We were only able to scratch the surface -- there was never enough time in any place we visited, not to mention the innumerable places we missed this time around.

Yet what we did encounter was tantalizing. The natural beauty was stunning, whether it was the view from Kho Tao, where our bungalow was perched on top of a pile of rocks, offering a view of nothing but the sun sinking into the calm uninterrupted sea; the islands of Halong Bay in Vietnam, where narrow mini-mountains jutted upwards from the green waters; the view from the peak of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina, where the clouds were rushing up towards us and it felt as though we had reached the very end of the earth. The culture of the region: the calmness and sanctity exuded by the Buddhas we saw in temples throughout, whether made of wood or stone or gold or jade; the imposing temples of Angkor Wat, which possessed a grandeur and sheer power that seems to have only increased with time; the narrative of the Vietnam War we encountered at the Hanoi Hilton, where the story of those tragic years is quite different from the typical American version.

The element that nagged at me, though, was the ambivalence I often felt about our presence as tourists. Parents would teach their kids to rush up to Westerners, offering bottles of water or necklaces or pieces of embroidery, hammering us with questions: "Where are you from? What's your name? Will you buy from me now? Or when you come back buy from me later?" We grew a little less compassionate, with an uncomfortably thick skin, to learn to ignore their entreaties and keep going. In Angkor Wat indigenous villagers sell food, t-shirts, and water to visitors. As you approach the bank of vendors, women and their kids start rushing to you, keening for you to patronize their particular little shop -- I found I couldn't bear to decide who to buy from; I would look down and let L guide us to one in particular. How do you decide who gets your measly few bucks, for a couple of waters and some fried rice?

Cambodia was particularly striking. We stayed for a few days in Siem Reap, near Angkor Wat, the country's biggest tourist attraction. I found the people of Cambodia to be the friendliest of everyone we encountered, yet as got acclimated to the rhythms of the town, the legacy of war and genocide that haunted this country became unavoidable and distinctly personal. Land mine victims would be playing music near a shop, or amputees would offer books for sale from a cart; mothers wheeled babies with horrible birth defects in strollers and the handicapped asked for alms in the shadows of the temples. We ended up buying more trinkets than we expected, just to put some money back into the community there.

Oftentimes I was very aware that we were extremely typical tourists: doing the same activities as everybody else, seeking the same photo opps and statuettes and restrooms, asking the same questions and wheeling our wagon through the well-worn tracks of others. Seeing how these towns had adapted themselves to the pleasure and comfort of Westerners seemed like some kind of international gentrification, and at times I felt guilty for participating in it. But if Westerners are going to come marching through town in our North Faces and Timberlands, shouldn't the locals be better off for it? I wrestled with this stuff a lot.

Throughout Cambodia, and especially among the temple ruins, kids would sell western books about their nation's history, deeply discounted and wrapped in plastic. After talking to a few kids who could say basic greetings in ten languages, I bought a memoir about the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s ("First They Killed My Father," by Loung Ung). On the plane home I finally unwrapped the book to start reading it, and found that it was not the typical American book it appeared to be; the text inside had all been xeroxed from some other copy, and even the cover and bindings were made of regular flimsy paper, rather than the sturdy material I expected. The book is perfectly readable and useful, but it's a little more fragile than I thought.

It was a lovely trip by all standards: I saw some amazing things, I learned a lot about a place I had never really considered before, and I got to slip out of the daily trials of life to enjoy a few exotic weeks alone with my wife. There were a lot of brilliant and strange moments along the way, episodes that merit their own short stories, which maybe I'll try to write in the next few weeks. In the meantime, though, I still feel as though my mind is back there still, and I'm still wrestling with the things I saw and learned, trying to figure out what exactly our journey meant. It's not an easy question.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Let's go exploring

Tomorrow morning we're flying to London, and then we fly to Singapore, and then we fly to an island in Thailand whose name I can never remember. We have the suitcases we need, and the thousands of pages of reading material, and all sorts of hygiene products in handy travel sizes. We have identification documents and flesh-colored wallets to wear around our necks to deter wily thieves. We have a new camera. We have bold plans and a lot of time. We have each other.

I've never taken a vacation for this long before. Hopefully the experiences of this trip will scrub my brain of the lingering stress of that charming little test I took last week. I'm excited to get away, but obviously L and I will be hustling our way into every internet cafe we can find to check on how the Olympians and the Democrats are doing with their respective moments in the sun. Nobody screw it up, please.

I've got some serious travel anxiety at the moment, but I'm trying to appreciate the pure excitement and unknown possibilities before us. Our trip is an unwritten book. And I love books! What could be better?

More to come in September.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Emergency mode

I finished the bar exam. It's over. The bar exam is past tense.

The last few days have been pretty rough, I can't lie. The night before the bar exam we decided to go see the new Batman flick, to relax. Unfortunately I didn't realize how dark and disconcerting the movie would be -- it made me really anxious, although it was a great flick. Then on the walk home we were walking by Stuyvesant Square Park, and I saw two men seeming to tussle over a cane or was odd but didn't seem serious. Then I saw a woman on the ground moaning, crying for help and for someone to call 911. Like any concerned New Yorker, I kept walking, but I did call 911, for the first time in my life. The woman on the other line asked me a million questions and made me give my name and number, which I didn't expect. I hung up but my cell phone was in self-proclaimed "Emergency Mode," which meant the ringer was up high and had a different, more urgent tone. The 911 people actually called me back a few moments later to get more information, as the sound of sirens in the distance drew closer. After that experience, I went home and tried to get ready for the first day of the bar exam. Here are notes from the three days:

Day 1: New York Essays.
Many, many people here: a lot of girls in workout clothes, and everyone seems to be wearing t-shirts from their law schools, which seems lame in a very basic but profound way. Happy to find that my seat is in the back, near the Men's Room. The essays are hard, but manageable. Several of them have issues or topics that I really sink my teeth into, which is nice. A woman behind me is shaking her box of Tic-Tacs like they're maracas -- give it a rest, Carmen Miranda. One of the essays doesn't really make sense -- I read it over and over to see what I'm missing, but the whole thing just seems askew. Shake it off. I walk home feeling angry and frustrated. Thirty minutes later I arrive home a sweaty wreck, am forced to change clothes immediately.

Day 2: Multistate Multiple Choice. Shit. Hot shit, this is hard. The exam is really tough, nothing like the practice tests. The questions they guaranteed would be on the test are not on the test. There are very few easy questions where I feel totally good. I always boil it down to two choices and then pick one seemingly at random. I feel like I have no knowledge in my head, and instead turn to animal instinct. I go through waves of fatigue and antsiness. In the mens' room there's a guy breathing heavily, because apparently he just vomited. On the plus side, Carmen Miranda is keeping it down today. Afterwards I walk home again filled with despair and self-loathing. Very sweaty at home. Am feeling exhausted, fatigued. My contact lenses have been in for too long, and I feel like I'm two days away from a head cold. Tonight L and I go to New Jersey, to stay at a Holiday Inn before the New Jersey test. This whole Jersey endeavor seems idiotic. When did we ever want to live in New Jersey? We eat dinner at a Chili's restaurant, and consider the path not taken.

Day 3: New Jersey Essays. The theme of the day: "fuck it." But wait a second! The first four essays are almost delightful in their clarity. I feel good moving through them. Lunch at Chipotle, which is $2 cheaper yet a lot saltier. The afternoon essays are a lot harder, and when I tackle the contracts essay I realize that all of the knowledge has leached out of my head. Oh well -- recall the day's theme: fuck it. Indeed. Hitch a ride back to the city with a friend. Go home to find a mass of balloons waiting in the dark kitchen -- my hearts skips two beats out of fear when I open the door. Go to the gym, go to the bar, to celebrate the end of the process. Couldn't really celebrate, but five Yeunglings helped.

I still feel pretty anxious about everything. I try to tell myself it's fine: I worked hard, I should have confidence, I went with my gut, and statistically, I am probably going to pass. But it's hard to let go of the anxiety, even though rationally I know there's nothing more I can do at this point. I just hope all the hard work of this summer was not for naught. The bright spot, though, was all the support I felt from everybody. I really appreciated the emails and comments and prayers and thoughts.

...And coming up on Tuesday: ASIA. What the hell?

Sunday, July 27, 2008


We're now at about the 48-hour mark before the bar exam starts, and for the last few days the craziest thing has been happening: I've been feeling pretty happy. There have been moments here and there -- walking to lunch on Friday, at the gym earlier today, hanging out with L in the apartment -- where I feel a sense of contentment and freedom that has been missing from my life for a while now. I think it's the knowledge that this wretched process will end very soon, and all I have to do is make it through the next few days, which will be no longer or shorter than any other.

I have been feeling pangs of confidence, and I think I'm at peace with the knowledge that I have and the knowledge that I lack. In Donald Rumsfeld's parlance, at least I know what I don't know. But I actually do know a lot of stuff, it turns out, and my head is chock full of rules and exceptions and stupid acronyms. I have a pile of flash cards six inches thick that I've run through a few times (not to mention toiled over to create) and I think I'm about where I need to be, hopefully.

I am finding some peace in the fact that life has not stopped for everybody else the way it has for me this summer. Today was the NYC Half Marathon, which I missed for the first time in three years, but a friend of mine ran it and I was excited for her. Elsewhere people are having babies and going on trips and getting married, and the wheel keeps rolling along for all of us. For me, it happened that the first few months of summer 2008 were a tad on the unpleasant side, but I'm only one person, and it's only one summer. In any event, I am happy to be at this point, knowing that at any moment I could explode (emotionally and legal-knowledge-wise) if it turns out that I completely forgot, say, an entire unit on maritime law.

The photo above is from our trip to Hawaii, which is in the Pacific Ocean, and if you majored in geography you'll know that the Pacific Ocean takes you right over to Asia, and that happens to be where L and I are going in nine days.

Friday, July 18, 2008

New horizons

The view to the north.

And the view to the south.

Another week and a half, and it's over.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Another awesome Manhattan Friday night

You know what's going on right now? L is at a wedding in Long Island without me, because I'm studying for the bar exam.

Today, so far, I've outlined a 2.5-hour lecture, did a 35-question problem set, reviewed 4 essays, and did a 45-minute exercise in craziness. Still on tap for tonight is another 35-question problem set and 2 more essays.

Our kitchen smells weird and I don't know why. I took the garbage out. I sniffed around under the sink. I even applied my secret cleaning trick (squeeze out a healthy amount of dishwasher liquid into the sink, swish it around with some water and let it sit) but it didn't work. Consequently I don't like going into the kitchen.

Today I watched "I Love Money" on VH1 and I hated myself for it.

Of the last four meals I've eaten, Chipotle has been...three of them. Thank God they're closed for breakfast.

Speaking of which, we ran out of Cheerios this morning, so tomorrow's breakfast is looking bleak.

This afternoon my pencil sharpener seems to have broken; it only sharpens them up to this pathetic degree where I'm left with this stubby little nub, so that rather than a nice sharp point I'm dealing with a little plateau of lead. I have been giving myself carpal tunnel trying to twist the shit out of these pencils to get a point. I tried poking into the sharpener with a screwdriver to take it apart but it's impossible for me to do. So I'm left with these crayon-like pencils and a crap sharpener.

Right now in this city people are drinking, looking sharp, dancing, riding in cabs, going places, watching movies, and eating food without black beans in it. Tonight I wish I was one of those people.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Time for another installment of the series, "Things I wanted to write about, but the moment passed." Thanks to my immersion in bar exam preparation, I have basically abandoned emailing, seeing, or really even talking to anyone who (a) I'm not married to, (b) doesn't already have their own keys to the apartment, or (c) doesn't go to the gym or my local Chipotle. With that in mind, here's my email to the world:

1. Last weekend L and I had our best New York City Independence Day, ever. We began with a question: What's more American than Staten Island? Obviously, the answer is "nothing," and that's why we booked passage on the renowned Staten Island ferry to go see the S.I. Yankees play the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Seriously, minor league baseball is the way to do it. It felt great to escape Manhattan, and although Mahoning Valley was not well-represented in the stadium, Staten Island certainly was. Strong accents, husky people. It's a good thing they have their own island.

The best part is that the stadium was shrewdly designed so that the outfield opens up to the water, with a great view of lower Manhattan, the coast of Jersey, and the statue of liberty. Consequently we had great views of several fireworks displays, as well as a show at the stadium itself, where the fireworks shot above center field as the PA system piped in patriotic tunes like Lee Greenwood's elementary-school era classic, "God Bless the USA."

2. On Sunday I took a practice bar exam: 200 multiple choice questions divided into two three-hour blocks. We took it at the Javits center, where nearly a thousand people (I believe) sat in a room that was like a parking garage, but with fewer frills. I managed a seat in the second row, and as I would return from the bathroom I would look at this literal sea of eager beaver bar applicants and kind of laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Needless to say, the exam did not go as well.

3. Musically, I'm still in a very intensive R. Kelly phase right now. I'm at the point in my knowledge and understanding of "Hair Braider" where I cue up the song, google the lyrics, balance the computer on top of the TV so I can read the words standing up, and then sing the hell out of it, especially the part where R. notes, "My hair braider so hot, I call her my booty shop."

4. Also on the musical front, I finally figured out how to stream my favorite Washington radio station from their website. I feel like I have uncovered a secret passageway back to my core. DC radio is a lot better than New York radio, if you ask me. The DJs are a lot less crude and they are very attuned to DC's musical culture (namely, gogo, and a bizarre tendency to play Maxwell's modern classic "This Woman's Worth" multiple times a day, still). I feel like they resist some of the lockstep programming decisions that forced us all to hear songs like "Apologize" eighteen times in one hour on eight different stations for a year and a half. The link to the site, which, like most radio station sites, is comically bad and stuffed with visual crap and nearly impossible to navigate, is to the right.

5. On the white music front, I've been listening a lot to the new Coldplay album and I'm really liking it. I need to hear it some more to get a full sense of its textures and everything, but it's a marked change from their old stuff (nice work, Brian Eno) but it feels like a very natural progression. They are definitely pushing themselves and moving in a new direction, which I appreciate, especially since a lot of recent music seems like it's just trying to copy previously successful formulas (I'm looking at you, Mariah Carey).

6. Also, at Chipotle the nice lady recently took a look at my credit card when I was paying the other day and now knows my name. This is great, except now other employees know my name too, and I feel uncomfortable. Today some woman was giving me crap for ordering something innocuous like corn ("Whoa! Something new today, huh? Changing it up! Watch out!"), and it made me feel like an idiot. My tip for people in the restaurant industry is to consider that there is a fine line between making regular patrons feel appreciated, and making them feel like giant losers for eating at the same place every day. Today that line was crossed.

7. This afternoon we got our shots and prescriptions for our Asia trip. My shoulders are still sore from where they gave me vaccinations for polio, Hepatitis A, typhoid, and TB. We also have prescriptions for anti-malarial pills and something to help us out when we inevitably get sick from the food. Like most other people, nothing gets me more fired up to travel than the thought of Hepatitis!

8. Also, finally, the bar exam is kicking my ass. They told us things would intensify in July, and they have. But I cut my studies short tonight because I am exhausted and needed a breather. This morning after the gym I came home and puked up water into the toilet before my shower -- that is the sign of a tired person who is not managing his fluids, let alone his mastery of the law. So tonight I'm taking it easy, and then tomorrow we're back at it. The slow boil is heating up -- next Wednesday, once our formal preparation program ends, we're basically in a sprint for the next ten days or so before the exam. And then the exam. And then it's done. Like Diddy says, time and time again: "this too shall pass."