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.