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.