Monday, December 28, 2009

Best books of 2009

In chronological order, here are the books that I loved the most in 2009:

The Stories of John Cheever
The Beautiful Struggle
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Free Life by Ha Jin
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Lush Life by Richard Price
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
The Other by David Guterson
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
The Stories of Richard Bausch
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro
Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx

I didn't read as many books this year as usual, but in my defense there are some real door-stoppers on this list. I continued my exploration of the short story, starting with the master, John Cheever, and continuing through my second Carver collection (even better than What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) and read the stories of Richard Bausch. Discovering Bausch's work was a revelation; his writing is a synthesis of the writers who came before with a modern, literally Virginian sensibility that immediately felt familiar yet utterly new. I loved his stories passionately and they almost felt within my reach. The idea that my friend John actually studied short fiction under him is boggling.

Besides short stories, this was the year I discovered Robert A. Caro. The Power Broker is one of the best books I've ever read. It changed the way I look at New York, at government, at urban planning, at the use of power. More than once I have found myself in a sticky political situation at work and asked myself, what would Robert Moses do? It made me think about ambition and happiness and the tensions between the two. I also started reading Caro's unfinished four-volume biography of LBJ. Johnson, like Moses, was a real bastard, so it makes for fascinating reading. I am excited to continue the LBJ saga (he's not even a senator yet and I've read 700 pages about the man) in the new year.

I think my favorite novel of the year was David Guterson's The Other. Beautifully written and artfully structured. I wrapped up the year with a volume of Annie Proulx stories, including a stunning piece originally from The New Yorker, "Tits-Up In A Ditch." The book also included "Them Old Cowboy Songs" and "Testimony of the Donkey," which were nearly as good. Now I'm devouring Stephen King's Under the Dome, which I requested for Christmas, and I'm loving it.

Looking ahead to 2010, I want to continue my trek through the life of LBJ, courtesy of Robert Caro, and I might tackle Moby Dick, too. I can't wait for Blake Bailey's Cheever biography to come out in paperback in mid-March. And then, of course, the baby arrives, and my reading life will change too -- I'm trying to do consume as much as I can before my attention is redirected.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

This is our first Christmas alone in New York, uncomfortably far from our families. This afternoon we set out to buy a Christmas tree, my first in the city. Earlier this morning I stopped a guy on our block to ask where he got the Christmas tree he was lugging in his handcart -- for you non-New Yorkers, here they wrap your tree in tight netting for the trip back to your apartment. It looks like you are holding it hostage, but really it's a sign of good cheer and merriment.

As the afternoon started darkening we headed over to Amsterdam and La Salle to get a tree. We also needed a Christmas tree stand, and we assumed we could get one where we bought the tree. But, like Mary and Joseph getting rejected from all the good hotels in Bethlehem, this was not to be. We then embarked on a 40-minute trek through the neighborhood, stopping at many pharmacies, bodegas, 99-cent stores, houseware stores, and hardware stores until, again like Mary and Joseph, we finally found a reasonably-priced Christmas tree stand. Then we lugged the stand back to the original tree place on La Salle, and selected a slim little fir tree to wrap up in netting and parade back to the apartment: our festive little holiday hostage. As you can see, she's a real beauty.

Tonight we had lasagna for dinner, a nod to the Christmas Eve Stouffer's lasagna dinners of my childhood. Tomorrow we are eating L's classic beef brisket, which is marinating in our fridge. L bought some cheap stockings from a dollar store in Florida to bide our time until she finishes cross-stitching our real, long-term stockings, and we have a handful of ornaments we've gathered from the last few years -- a few brightly colored balls, a couple of random Bush-era White House ornaments, and some quality ones we got as wedding gifts. We have the ornament we received from my cousin who passed away (the card says, "special delivery from heaven") and the crystal snowman I received from my late Aunt Evie. It's a little funny because our tree is severely under-decorated -- we had to be strategic about where we placed the ornaments, because we don't have many. Originally I thought we should divide the tree into equal sectors and decorate accordingly, but for some reason this plan was not implemented. We didn't have a star for the top of the tree, either, so we ended up tying a bow out of a length of ribbon -- and it wasn't even a pretty bow, but more like a utilitarian shoelace bow. In the end, though, I'm very happy with the result. It felt lovely and genuine to listen to old Christmas songs and decorate our tree and welcome our family, in whatever small way we could, into our new home.

Merry Christmas, everybody.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Barrow Street

We just finished packing for the move tomorrow morning. It has been too busy a night to feel sad or anything besides relief that we are finished with the task at hand. Taking the pictures off the wall was kind of sad, though. The movers estimated that we would have 15 boxes per person, yet I think that we have about 50 total. A couple of minutes ago we shifted a few boxes to the side to veg out and watch some TV for a little while before bedtime. This week has been another epically bad week at work and all of my thoughts have been clouded by anger and sadness for the last 48 hours. I needed to clear my head, and packing up our house/lives has been a good distraction.

Barrow Street. We have enjoyed four good years here. This has been the home we returned to as husband and wife. We earned a couple graduate degrees here. We had some good professional experiences and some bad ones. Our marriage was formed here, and we endured those early crucibles here. Hell, the baby was created here. We've started new traditions here, like Faux Thanksgiving and those rituals that punctuate our daily lives together. I could tell you dozens of stories about every room in the house -- the places where we have laughed and wept and fought and made up and made out. It was all here. I am so thankful we had this time together, in this place. L and me. How we will bore our children with stories of these days.

I am really tired right now. I tell myself that we could always move back to this neighborhood someday -- there's always that possibility of return. I'm the kind of person who needs to find that doorway back.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Baby by Chipotle

Tonight L and I went out to pick up some Chipotle for dinner. We were both tired from work and our kitchen was full of broken-down boxes in anticipation of the move -- there would be no home cooking tonight. At Chip we saw the usual motley crew, and they were excited to see L in all of her pregnant glory (she is honestly a really objectively good-looking pregnant lady). One of them said she had a present for us, and she ducked in the back -- and she came back with the onesie you see above (sorry for that word, "onesie", which sounds like a game girls in Britain played in the 1940s) as well as a bib that says something along the lines of "When I Have Teeth I Will Want to Eat Chipotle Products." On the front of this onesie, it says "food goes in here," with an arrow pointing to the kid's mouth, and then on the back, it says "food comes out here," with an arrow pointing towards the rear end. This is not only factually true, but it's also classy.

We were both really touched by this. Will our child grow up to enjoy Chipotle? Yes. Will we dress her in Chipotle-branded clothing, making her into an adorably fat little billboard? Hell to the yes.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Top Ten Songs of 2009

Whenever I need a break from (1) thinking about our mysterious incoming baby, (2) worrying about work, or (3) moping over our upcoming move from the West Village to upstate New York, I think about which songs will make my annual top ten list of the year. Music is the currency of my life, in a lot of ways, and listening to these songs already provokes such a rush of emotion and memory. Without further ado, and keeping in mind that this list is objectively correct and not up for debate, here are my top ten songs of 2009:

11. Kanye West, "Heartless" & Kris Allen, "Heartless" -- I spent a lot of time this winter listening to Kanye West's bleak, spacey new album. In January I spent several long Saturdays in Newark for continuing legal education, and I have one particularly tart memory of a late January afternoon on a platform at Newark Penn Station, waiting for the train to take me back to Manhattan, watching the snow flurry down through the overhang and onto the cold tracks below. In its own way, it was perfect. Later in the spring and summer I listened to Kris Allen's cover of "Heartless" -- he added a warmth and a fullness that was deliberately absent from Kanye's pulsing, insistent synethesizers. And, unlike a lot of acoustic/white versions of R&B or hip hop songs, Kris did not try to be cute and ironic about it. He played it straight, and the result was greater depth and some beautiful vocals. I wrote about it a little bit here.

10. Adele, "Hometown Glory" -- This summer, when I was really trying to focus on my writing and dig something deep, "Hometown Glory" was the song that opened me up to the process. When James was in town this summer we talked about this song, and I told him how this song just seemed to split me open down the middle. He asked me why this song had such an effect on me, and I really struggled to answer. Maybe the melody, I thought, or the lyrics about home or nostalgia -- but it really isn't any of that. I still don't quite know, but the song retains its undeniable alchemy, its potency. This song goes deep. I talked about it before here.

9. Drake, "Best I Ever Had" -- Ohhh! Heeeey! It's a hip hop love song, y'all! This song is so exuberant, it just makes me feel great. It makes me think of L. It reminds me of Method Man and Mary singing "You're all I need to get by." Drake's rapping and singing, finely retouched with some autotuning, seems genuine and heartfelt yet full of swag. This song makes me dance dorky to it, every time.

8. Ron Browz, Jim Jones, and Juelz Santana, "Pop Champagne" -- This was the song of the night the first time I ventured up to Alvin Ailey for some hip hop, back in January. To me this song sounds vaguely sinister, between the sing-songy chorus and spare instrumentation. Once you embrace that aggression, though, and make it work for you, this song has everything. I wrote about it a little bit here.

7. Black Eyed Peas, "Ring-a-Ling" -- This was another Alvin song. I have really come to appreciate as a producer, and this song, as well as "Imma Be," from the new Black Eyed Peas album, are fantastic. At Alvin, we were doing some popping and locking to this song -- two styles of hip hop I am not good at, not at all -- but this song made it work. The guys are rapping and Fergie is riding into the track on a wave of synthesizers like some kind of electronic sex goddess. The syncopated bass line and the relentless melody, skittering all over the place, capture the sheer impulse and dizzying logic of the late night call. And at the end of the song, when there's about a minute left and he finally admits what the song is about -- a booty call -- there is a slight shift in the music and you get one of those sequences that I just want to live in, when everything is working together and you can think of a million ways to fill the space the song creates.

6. The-Dream, "Take U Home 2 My Mama" -- Dream had a new album, not as good as the latter-day classic he created the last time around, but this one had its moments. This song is pure exuberance, kind of stupid, completely good-natured, like a hip hop golden retriever. This song is another good one for the corny dancing. Yet there are also a few plaintive moments in the song, perfectly balanced by his own smart-ass echo on the verses and his wordless appreciation of his paramour's assets: "her t****** like wooooooo, her booty like oooooooo." You know exactly what he means.

5. Mariah Carey, "Inseparable" -- Mariah's new album turned out to be awesome in a completely unexpected way -- she included a few slow- to mid-tempo tracks that to me captured the essence of 90s R&B. Something about the production, the wordy verses packed into the melodies, a certain sense of melancholy and nostalgia perfectly expressed in a minor key. I have read criticism of her that she doesn't sing in full voice enough, but this song, like several others in the suite, is remarkably restrained until the end, when the wall comes down and she is finally singing and emoting the hell out of it all. As she lets it all go her upper octaves come in and provide some texture, and she is off to the races. One thing I appreciate about Mariah is that I feel like her runs and ad libs are always absolutely focused and necessary - there is never a spare or inarticulate note. This song is my favorite on the album: "no one is inseparable...except for us." My neighbors must love this song too, because I sing the hell out of it whenever I can get away with it.

4. Ryan Leslie, "Out of the Blue" -- This is one of the best slow jams I've heard in a long while. I really love this guy's production, and his vocal range is right where mine is, so I have worn this song out. There is also a moment after the bridge when he is singing, at approximately 2:13-2:28, "I almost died when you left me, baby" -- and this line honestly gives me chills, even now, even when I'm running or standing on a crowded subway. For some reason he says "baby" more like "booby," and what is in his voice at that moment is so honest and genuine. The emotion in this song really strikes a chord with me.

3. Mariah Carey, "Obsessed" -- Ok, this is a dumb song. I understand that. But it was produced by The-Dream (as was "Inseparable," no. 5 above), and I just like it. I like all the broken up "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh"'s. I like The-Dream yelling "Ay ay ay ay!" in the background. Like "Hair Braider" from last year's list, this song is not particularly ingenious or clever or otherwise meritorious, but sometimes it's enough to make you get your groove on while riding the subway, tapping your foot or snapping your fingers or even flexing your butt to the music and assuming no one can see you. And any song giving a shout-out to a dude's napoleon complex is kind of funny.

2. Jamie Foxx and T-Pain, "Blame It" -- I was really late on this song, but it propelled me through the first half of the year. T-Pain's verse is more lively than Jamie Foxx's, but the chopped up chorus is irresistible. This was another Alvin song, but they played it only once, as the class was leaving and we were all filing out, so I was getting my bop on and shuffling across the floor with my jacket and my bag over my shoulder, stopping a minute to groove with the teacher and her pals. It was the kind of song and moment that I really missed.

1. Beyonce, "Sweet Dreams" -- The video to this song actually does it justice -- it captures the groove, the sensibility, the sense of strangeness. I like the ambivalence of the lyrics, the poetry, the changes in mood. I have been interested in this song for months now, thinking about the disparate elements and how they come together, and I think it's a really fascinating piece. My favorite element is the roiling bass line, which envelopes the melody and folds itself around you. Sometimes I listen to the song just to follow that low groove, listening to the song dance on top of it. And then the bass finally relents as the song fades: "Either way I don't want to wake up from you..."

So those are the ten songs that sum up this past year. If you read all this way, kudos and thanks. Once again, it's all about the music that moves me to get my groove on or sing my heart out or take a pen to paper. In a certain way, music does more for me than anything I read or see -- finding music to love is like discovering a new vocabulary, even though I feel like the words I use to describe it are so limited. But it's undeniably there.

Music makes me so damn happy.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Strange weekend at home. My parents are moving from Virginia to Austin in a few weeks, and they have been busy packing up the house. As it happens we are moving that same day from our home in the village to the new place uptown. Originally we planned to pick up a U-Haul on Saturday in Virginia, load it up with the bed, rocking chair, wedding gifts, and books for the baby, and then drive it all back to New York on Sunday. I was nervous about timing, though, and traffic, and work. So we decided to pack up the truck and drive out late Saturday night.

As I sorted through all of the old stuff in my closet, I tried to move too quickly to feel sentimental. I let my eyes fall on old programs, tickets, letters, awards, cards, trophies, yearbooks, and threw most of it away. I saved the journals and the photos. I couldn't let myself think too hard about any of it.

Last night, after we had a great dinner with my parents and sister, we loaded the last of our stuff into the mighty U-Haul and pulled out. We left so quickly. "Don't think about what's happening right now," I said to L, and to myself. I tried to honk the horn jauntily as we pulled away into the night. That was my last time in that house, the last sight of my parents and sister waving from the driveway. Inside the house was a tangle of half-packed boxes and old objects on their way out of the house and our lives. Things had already changed.

It was a weird feeling driving through the cold night from Washington to New York. We left after nine and arrived around 2:30 in the morning. The highways were dark and vacant, no traffic anywhere. The U-Haul rattled mercilessly, cold air hanging around us in the cab as the engine wheezed below us. We listened to pop songs and NPR, kept our jackets on. As L closed her eyes in an attempt at sleep I sang along to the music just to make a sound. The string of headlights on the other side of the highway flattened into a broad smear before my tired eyes.

Driving through a cold night in a truck that isn't yours, carrying your old bed and the rocking chair from which your parents read to you as a child, from which you can still remember sitting in your dad's lap with his soothing arm around your shoulders, listening to the deep timbre of his voice and relaxing into the comfort and security of another night's sleep.

And now: we were hurrying towards a new room, a new dad, a new sleepy child. There was a reason we couldn't wait. Despite the late hour and the cold air and the thoughts kept at bay, it still felt, in its own pained way, like some kind of beginning.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gratitude 2009

1. For my lovely wife and the clearly gifted child she is carrying

2. For friends, the ones who are seen regularly and the ones who swoop into orbit, comet-like, more rarely

3. For the family we're going home to this weekend

4. For parents who are gutsy enough to go west, looking to start fresh with the liberal politics and live music scene they so profoundly appreciate

5. For the few and hardy people at work who say "please" and "thank you," sometimes even in the context of discussing work assignments

6. For Chipotle

7. For the neighborhood where we've spent the last four years building a marriage and a new phase of our lives, anchored by the small daily relationships that somehow create such a deep sense of connection and community

8. For the three-bedroom manse waiting for us in Manhattanville, for the clean white walls and shiny hardwood floors and sky-filled windows that will soon house us and our tiny little new person

9. For the neighborhood to come, for Riverside Park and Morningside Heights and the new rituals we'll discover

10. For "Imma Be" and "Ring-a-Ling," two songs by the Black Eyed Peas that have really gotten under my skin

11. For the works of Robert A. Caro, whose massive biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson have made me think a lot about the relationship, tensions, and balance between happiness and ambition

12. For our health

13. For this moment in our lives, and recognizing the good fortune of a happy marriage, prenatal normalcy, gainful employment, and reasonably successful urban living

14. For maintaining a clear vision of how we want our lives to be

15. For the tenacity to make that vision happen

16. For yams

Some of these are thanks and some of these are prayers, but maybe that is a meaningless distinction. Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


There were two significant things today amidst the usual daily cacophony.

First, L went to the doctor to check out the baby, our little man. And it turns out that a GIRL. It's a Girl! Not a Boy! This news left us both reeling. How did they miss this information? Are they using a sonogram or a dowsing rod? What year is this? It's very weird how you can spend a month imagining a very particular life for yourself with the utmost certainty that those ideas will be realized. For some reason the most vivid thing I could imagine was introducing my kid to other people, saying, "this is my son, X," as a shy toddler hid behind my legs. This was the vignette that gave life to otherwise abstract ideas of fatherhood, identity, and devotion. And now I am reworking those ideas, those scenarios, to wrap my mind around the idea of a daughter. It's surprising how quickly the track shifts. Worries about autism give way to questions about how girls pee. It seems as if life is now cast in a different yet more revealing light. From our little man to our sweet girl, the way it was before we even knew it. Our girl.

Second, today we were approved to sign a new lease on a three-bedroom apartment in Morningside Heights, right on the edge of Manhattanville. The apartment is on the top floor of a pre-war six-story elevator building. The rooms are large and flooded with light, with pleasantly warped hardwood floors and crisp white paint over the walls and moldings. The kitchen is large, although a little dated. L and I both realized that this was a good apartment as soon as we entered. The price was fantastic and it's right by the 125th stop on the 1 train, an easy 20 minutes from my office. It's farther north than we expected, and I worry about some of those ramifications, but now we've got it and we have a new home waiting for us. We'll be moving in around the middle of December.

So today has been a day of change. We knew these changes were coming, that this would be a season of transition. In a few weeks we will be taking our stuff and our lives and the new idea of our daughter to a new home, the place where she will enter this world and experience some love and solace and security. I feel very aware that we are entering a new stage in our lives. I can see how these last few years -- our years in the village, years of walking to the bookstore and the gym, years of idleness and books and wealth and thought -- are giving way to something else: possibly something more grounded, more tightly woven. Days of looking out over the roofs of Morningside Heights, wandering with our daughter through Riverside Park, singing her songs she can't understand yet. Teaching a new person empathy and kindness.

There is so much excitement to bear, but there are also fears and doubts. Change requires endings and beginnings, and I've never been able to face an ending without some measure of doubt and nostalgia for the places left behind. Today seemed like a a prophecy, and it left us exhausted.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Luxury, thy name is Trump

L and I had a very enjoyable long weekend at the Trump International in Miami. From the moment I opened the trunk of the cab at the Miami Airport, only to discover a tidy pair of men's briefs lying there, I knew this would be a special weekend. And it did not disappoint.

We never left the Trump compound. We hovered near the pool, splashing under its waterfalls and looking out to the ocean just beyond the deck. We ate at the Trump restaurants, unless we ordered room service, or unless I had a pina colada for my meal. I read a Richard Yates novel, "Young Hearts Crying," which was beautiful and inspiring. I read the Atlantic and the New Yorker. I kept my phone off for hours at a time. It was wonderful.

Take a look, then, at this photo, because it captures most of it. See the pink sky rolling slowly from the horizon. See the lifeguard cabana keeping vigil down by the sand. See the tips of the palm trees. See the bowl of tortilla chips. See the LBJ biography I'm starting to read. And see a pina colada, soaked in rum even up through the straw, decked out with a cherry and a thick wedge of pineapple. It was a delicious cherry.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Key be to lock"

Last night at hip hop we were doing some hard, intricate stuff, to some new song built around that old Digable Planets couplet, "We be to rap what key be to lock." There were a lot of regulars there and there was a great energy in the room -- the air felt hot, electric. Some of our teacher's cool hip hop friends came in and joined the group, and that amped things up too. I saw them and I thought, hey I can do that. By the end of the night I was sweaty and my knees hurt from jumping and coming down just so, but it was fantastic. On my way out one of the teacher's friends stopped me to give me five (or do that urban handshake thing, you know) and was complimenting me and saying I was the one to watch. He turned to my teacher and then she said, "Oh, him? That's my man, I love him," all matter-of-factly, like it was as obvious as anything. "He goes in."

Tomorrow L and I are going to Miami for three days of sun-splashed leisure. It is a rare vacation in which none of our relatives are participating (except Little Man, of course). We're staying at a fabulous Donald Trump resort property just a little bit north of Miami, with a beach and several pools and plenty of restaurants. I don't know if we'll ever venture out of Mr. Trump's comforting, opulent arms to actually check out the city, but I think some beach-side R&R will be enough. We will read books, L will get tan, I will get tipsy. And I love the fact that we're staying at the Trump International. If there's not a solid gold bidet in our room, the concierge is going to hear about it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

New Yorker Festival 2009

This weekend was one of my favorite events on the snooty Manhattan liberal calendar: the New Yorker Festival! It's that one weekend where you can turn your solitary magazine habit into a smug social gathering of your socioeconomic and demographic peers: it's just you and a bunch of young people in black plastic glasses and old people in socks and sandals, sipping on wine and laughing at Sarah Palin. This year we went to two events: the political roundtable and a lecture by Atul Gawande.

First, we went to the political discussion featuring Hendrik Hertzberg, Ryan Lizza, Jane Mayer, and moderator Dorothy Wickenden, down at City Winery. When we were there, we ran into an old friend of mine I hadn't seen since a New Yorker Festival event in 2007. The political conversation was interesting although a little predictable. Some woman asked a question about Afghanistan and she spoke in such a halting, gasping way that it sounded like she was about to cry. Another old lady in a funny hat asked a weird, non-political question that had nothing to do with anything. I wanted to ask about how the Republican party can pull itself together, but I didn't. At the end we saw Tate Donovan, which was exciting, and I got Hendrik Hertzberg to autograph my copy of his book, which made me feel like a huge nerd. I felt like such a chump lugging his book around beforehand. But he seems like a very sharp, intelligent, good-humored guy, and I wished I had more to say besides the usual praise and platitudes.

Today we went to a lecture by Atul Gawande on similarities between the construction of skyscrapers and the practice of medicine -- focusing on the use of checklists to bring different disciplines together instead of relying on one master builder or physician. It was interesting, but I felt like I had already read the article that was the basis of his discussion, and also, I found it a little bit boring. But that was more my problem.

Monday, October 12, 2009

It's a boy

As L said, the little one is a boy. We went to an anatomy scan on Thursday, and our technician assured us it was a male. She showed us his junk on the sonogram, and if she thinks it's a boy based on that, then I will take her word for it. The doctor came in and agreed, so there you have it: our little man.

Now that we can get a little more specific in our planning and in our imagining, my thoughts have immediately turned to what we will name this child. Obviously, the top three possible names are: (1) MKD Jr., (2) Barack, and (3) Justin Timberlake. This list may evolve as the months roll on, but I doubt it.

After our appointment on Thursday we walked through Central Park to get back to the west side. We celebrated with some hot dogs and an ice cream from a street vendor. We ate on a bench and thought about the future. There were some Little League teams practicing in the fields as we walked by, little uncoordinated boys in uniforms and oversized caps, stumbling around and and hollering and missing catches. Then yesterday we saw a father playing with his sons in the Park, batting them easy grounders and laughing good-naturedly as they threw the ball towards each other, waving their tiny mitts in the air. I saw all of that and I thought, I can't wait to do this.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Robert Frank's "The Americans"

We saw the Robert Frank photography exhibit at the Met today. In the mid-1950s, with a Guggenheim fellowship in his pocket, he drove all around the country taking pictures of the people and places he encountered. He picked through his contact sheets, selected 80-some images and carefully organized them into a book that became a lightning rod of political and artistic criticism. He was a deft photographer who arranged his images carefully, so that each one bore some relation to the images that came before and after. He discovered and chronicled a nation of highways, jukeboxes, sharply-dressed men and elegant women, lonely shoe-shiners or elevator girls, crowded trolley cars, bustling dinettes, couples in love, wary bikers and transvestites, cads and children, bars and funerals.

I bought the reprint of "The Americans," complete with a breathlessly verbose introduction by Jack Kerouac. It's no comparison to seeing the prints inflated on a museum wall, but it packs a punch. There is a lot to admire in this work, not least of which is Frank's own ambition. Who embarks on a road trip with the intent of capturing the national character of a sprawling place like this? Does anyone even try to do that anymore? Sometimes I stumble on a novel or a movie or a portfolio like this, the effort of someone who has tried and attained some degree of success in the endeavor, and every time it happens I realize that this is my favorite kind of art.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Stella on Sunday

One of the most decadent ways to spend a Sunday afternoon must be sitting outside at a bar drinking a beer while you read for pleasure. Who gets to do that? Rich people? Although I felt sort of guilty taking up valuable table space with my used UK copy of "Rabbit is Rich" (which included a French train ticket stub from 1991 tucked between its yellowing pages), that did not stop me from enjoying a Stella or two while L sipped on tea and read her book across from me. Walking inside to use the restroom, I saw other readers enjoying their books and newspapers at the bar, and people lounging at tables snacking on french fries and bar food and sipping on drinks. It felt like a conspiracy of leisure: the lazy afternoon sunlight filtering through the warren of rooms, voices raised in slow-paced laughter and conversation, all of us sharing in the seemingly illicit pleasure of entering a night space and claiming it for the beautiful, unhurried day.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Exciting news

Here's some exciting news: L is pregnant. We are in the family way.

It's such a tremendous thing, and we've known for a while now, but I am still trying to grasp it all the way around. Nothing will ever be the same, that's for sure. L is due on March 27, which happens to be her mom's birthday, and we are now in the second trimester, on the brink of week 15. Each Saturday we get a fun email explaining what the little one is doing ("your baby is now yawning, winking, and cracking its knuckles...") and offering a new estimate of approximate size ("...and is the size of a beet"). Anticipation of these emails is the force that gets me out of bed on Saturdays.

I have been conspicuously quiet on this blog for the last several weeks, and this beautiful new fact is a main reason behind it. Thinking about this baby and our new lives has been such a source of joy, of refuge, for me these last few months, no matter what other storms we are weathering. Realizing that I'm going to be a father soon, just on the other side of this coming winter, has inspired in me surprising feelings of cool confidence and serenity. I was afraid this would magnify my stress in other aspects of my life, but instead it has acted as a counterweight, reminding me of what is important and urging me towards the knowledge that I need to get my life together by the time this kid arrives. To make the nest. I am excited to enter a season of change, of preparation.

L and I spend a lot of time musing about the kid and who he or she will be. I think a lot about how amazing my parents are and have been, and how I can support this kid and love him or her and be a guide and a protector. What if this kid is dumb as a brick, and an extremely good athlete? What if it hates reading? I won't know what to do with that. What if the kid has eyebrows like Bert on Sesame Street? This is a real possibility, genetics-wise. Let's be honest here.

I have a million things to say about all this. My beautiful wife is looking lovely and voluptuous, with that baby curve already announcing itself. We are batting names back and forth and musing about how we'll be as parents. L will be patient and kind, and will expertly know how to deal with a child, while I will make be making fun of the kid for my own amusement like the dad in "Calvin and Hobbes."

I really love this sonogram of the little one. Those are his or her legs flailing outward, floating in its little nest while we are outside surrounding it with love. I am so glad this adventure is with L and me. No matter what else is happening, these are such bright days for us. There is a world in every minute.

Monday, September 21, 2009


One of my goals for the fall is to follow the Redskins and pay attention, as a true son of Northern Virginia should. Football is a sport I actually don't suck too badly at, but I usually don't follow the sport very closely because (a) I don't spend a lot of time watching sports on TV and (b) I'm not entirely sure that I totally understand the rules 100%. Sometimes I ask L stupid questions like, "what exactly is an offensive line?" or "remind me again how downs work," and she starts to explain it, and then I get mad because I knew it all along and then I look like an idiot.

The big difference this year, though, is that some of my colleagues at work are actually somewhat aggressive in their sports talk, and they expect me to represent for the Skins. Every Monday one of them will come lumbering into my office, where I'm very intently trying to do some work or read the internet, and launch some open-ended ambiguous question like: "So, how about your boys?" or "So what do you have to say for your Skins after yesterday?" and wait for me to respond. And I can't just flee the scene, because it's my office. There's not a lot of wiggle room there.

After two weeks of trying to follow along, I've been pleased with my progress. I like the Washington Post's sports coverage way more than the New York Times' (in large part because NY teams are almost uniformly vile) and so I usually read their sports columnists, which gives me most everything I need to know. And football gives you some great narratives, spread over a reasonable period of time, with only a small number of games to dissect and analyze. Right now I know enough to worry about said offensive line, to wonder if Jason Campbell will ever throw a touchdown pass, to grow impatient waiting for Zorn's west coast offense to pan out, to hate and scorn Danny Snyder for suing little-old-lady season ticket holders, and to be relieved and anguished by last Sunday's pathetic dribbling victory over the Rams.

I have an autumn fantasy where L and I spend some chilly Sunday afternoon ensconced in some bar, getting pleasantly drunk and watching the game and clinking glasses with garrulous Washingtonians and singing "Hail to the Redskins," verse and all, after a victory. The Redskins are a really big deal back home and it makes me feel good to root for them. The brash colors, the racist name, the legacy of greatness tarnished by a decade or so of mediocrity - it's all a part of it, of us. Fight on, sons of Washington.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Hello, my dusty old blog. I am trying to remember how to write again. Bear with me.

The weather has been changing, a shift is taking place. The night air comes in and we sleep cool under all the blankets. Saturday morning was a grubby, gray day, gusty winds and half-hearted rain. It was the first day in a while that I've worn my jeans and sneaks for the day. We went to the farmers market, loading up on the last of summer vegetables and welcoming a new array of pumpkins and squashes. We read for a while at home (I'm plowing through Richard Bausch's stories - what a master he is) and then ventured out for a movie. We saw "Julie and Julia," which, honestly, was not that good. I had a weird altercation with the man sitting in our aisle, which was actually the fault of a miscommunication between L and me, which left me feeling like a jerk.

After the movie we wandered over to The New French on Hudson Street for a late dinner. There is really nothing I like more than sitting across a table from L, seeing her in night-time sepia: a little candle light, the street lights shining through the dark slatted blinds. We talked about everything, ate some white pizza and home-made sausage. I felt so lucky. I had three glasses of wine and a bowl of mussels. Our hipster waiter was friendly. We ate dessert. It was wonderful. We came home around midnight and I had dance hour for a little bit, singing low songs like "Can't Help But Wait" and "Officially Missing You" and "Do You Remember When" - songs that really let me dig deep.

Then I got an email from work saying they needed my help on Sunday, and when could I come in. I deflated.

Today we had lunch with John and Anna and young Naomi. I left to head into the office to tackle my work. Radio City was decked out for the MTV Video Music Awards. The building was ensconced in rigging, lights and cranes and cameras. People were already gathering behind police barricades, armed with their cameras and craning their necks to see across the way. Throughout the afternoon and evening I could hear the roar of the crowd from my office. Sometimes their sound would become strange and urgent, rising to a new pitch, provoked by some unseen stimulus. For a while I could hear Taylor Swift singing "You Belong With Me," a great song with some really endearing lyrics. Her voice sounded warped and rounded by the time it reached me in my perch, like she was singing underwater. The crowd seemed broken by ecstasy.

One of my first years in New York, I remember watching the VMAs with friends in someone's apartment -- friends I have mostly lost track of, most of whose names are long gone -- and afterwards, around midnight, we all went to a secret Justin Timberlake concert at Roseland Ballroom. I don't know how we had tickets, and I didn't find out about the concert and I found out we were going. That afternoon I bought a cool new shirt at some vintage store near my apartment at the time, a shirt I wore exactly once, for the concert, and never wore again. After the VMAs ended on TV we left the apartment and headed down to the show. After waiting in line outside, we were packed in the room, and finally around one or two in the morning the concert began. I was stunned by the celebrities who were there, like Cameron Diaz and Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, who seemed important in some way, and John Mayer and Pharrell up on stage. It was a night that seemed to justify everything.

Before the concert we had to relinquish all of our cameras, so the disposable camera I had brought, which was full of pictures from a friend's recent wedding, disappeared with the security guards. After the show I was shocked to find out we couldn't recover our cameras, and soon I was poking through garbage bags in a useless effort to find it. It's funny to think about, and kind of embarrassing. How young and foolish you can be, stumbling into secret concerts and then pawing through the trash, trying to find pictures you could barely remember taking, pictures that are of course long gone now.

It's a happy memory, don't get me wrong. It's just funny to think about.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Three years

You know what always makes me think of my wife? That line from Beyonce's song "Upgrade U" where she says, "It's very seldom that you're blessed to find your equal." Indeed. But I definitely lucked out with L.

Happy anniversary, love.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Inside the fortress of solitude

I haven't said very much this weekend. L went down to Florida to see her grandma, so I've been on my own since yesterday afternoon. I have taken this time to briefly withdraw -- from the world, into myself. I feel like I needed time to regroup. Today I only left the house to go to the farmers market, and then again to eat lunch and read "The Power Broker," and finally I went on a walk around the block a couple of hours ago. I have spent a lot of time reading and watching television. I watched "Sophie's Choice" and "The Contender." I thought a lot about writing, which I've put on the backburner after a couple of daunting weeks at work. I've been listening to a lot of music, too, and when John Mayer's song "Home Life" came on, I felt that strange feeling of nostalgia that music can provoke. It is almost palpable, like drunkenness, like feeling something rolling over your shoulders and consuming you. Hearing that song made me think of how much my life has changed in three years, made me think about how I live and what I have now. It was one of those nights where I was just shuffling through all the music on my ipod, rediscovering old stuff and cobbling together a strange and rich medley of stuff, enough to put me in a reflective mood.

Throughout the day I wondered if I should call somebody up or try to meet anyone for a meal or a drink, but I decided not to. Not to mention that the list of potential invitees now seems pathetically small. It was a beautiful day and I felt bad for not running or spending more time outside, but it was enough to run my errands and feel the breeze coming inside, through the plants and the herb garden perched on the fire escape. I didn't even shower today. But that was my choice, and I figure tomorrow when L comes back I can get all spruced up and be sociable. Today it felt good to dig in.

Also, last night I went to an intermediate hip hop class and really got my ass handed to me. It was pretty tough, intricate stuff and I realized I was out of my league about twenty minutes in. There were only a handful of us in there. Two of the other people had clothing with dance studios' names on them, which was a bad sign. Somebody else was some high school prodigy who had learned choreography from our teacher's DVDs. And there I was in my running t-shirt and sneaks, knowing this may have been a mistake. The teacher, who is a pretty accomplished dude, taught really quickly and didn't break things into eight counts. Instead everything tracked the lyrics of the song, so it was tough to place it within the music. Once I realized that he was really hitting the bass notes, things made more sense. By the end of the class I was about 70% there, I would say. It was fun but also very trying. He was calling me out at times during the class, telling me to not think too much and get stuck in my head. There were moments when I would feel those first hot pangs of stress and panic and embarrassment, and I tried to push it as far away as I could. Beneath the immediate knowledge that you alone are very conspicuously not doing something correctly is a deeper and more gnawing realization that you are not as good as you think you are, Mr. Hot Stuff. It was not fun in those moments. And frankly, if I want to feel bad about myself and get yelled at, I just show up at work. No need to extend that into my...hip hop life, as it were.

Maybe that class is what set me on this course for the last twenty-four hours. Quietness, minimal talking, books and the tv, a few strangled verses of old nostalgic songs. Yet for one day it's enough.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Telling my parents

My parents were in town this past weekend, and we got to tell them the great news. After two really long, stressful weeks at work, I was so excited to see them and tell them. The idea of that moment kept pulling me through.

My parents and L were waiting for me at their hotel on Washington Square. We spent a few minutes visiting and checking out the room, and then we started meandering through the park on our way to dinner. We were going over to Stand for some burgers. It was turning into a very nice evening -- the heat had broken, the sky was a watery bluish pink, and people were strolling all around. We pointed out some of the renovations made to Washington Square lately, the wide boulevards and colorful flower beds and wrought iron fences and lightposts. We were just talking about work stuff, nothing major, just visiting with each other. We were over by the south side of the fountain, watching the jets shooting up, standing in a little circle. I had made eye contact with L and she gave me the go-ahead.

"Guess what?" I said. My parents looked at me expectantly. I looked at my mom and then at my dad as I said, "Lillian's pregnant!"

There was a real moment of silence then, as what I was saying settled in with them. Then it was all hugs and good cheer. L said later that she saw my dad tear up as soon as I said it, but there was a real moment of astonishment there. They were so excited. "Oh, this is so special!" Dad said. "How could you not tell me?!" Mom said. It was such an exciting thing. Mom said later she thought that maybe we were getting a dog. She started crying a little bit out of happiness, and told us how much we would love our child. She said Kelsey's and my cheeks used to turn red because she would just kiss us so much. "You will not believe how much you love that child, you will kill for your child, you will kill for your child," Mom said in a way that was funny and only a little weird.

I'm smiling even now as I write this. Dad said we must have planned this, to tell them this news in such a perfect setting -- in the middle of Washington Square under a clear pink sky on a great July evening -- but we really didn't. Telling them cast the rest of the weekend in this great glow of love and excitement. My parents said they would be talking about this for a long time that night. Mom insisted on calling her friend Jill to share the news immediately ("I'm going to be a grandmother!"). It was so wonderful to feel such love and support from them. I had this strange fear that they wouldn't be excited -- that they would think it was too soon, or that we were too young or not established enough or too indebted or something -- and even though I knew those fears weren't rational, it was nice to have them dashed anyway.

Telling my parents was different from telling friends. Like marriage, having a baby is a significant event in the life of an entire family, not just the immediate participants. It was nice to add another circle of love around the little one.

Collect $200

Every week we are getting emails from that talk about the baby's development, its size, and other issues that will pop up. Every week there is some tidbit about how wives can get their stupid, lazy husbands involved. These are tips for women married to comically inept men, and the suggestions are all hilariously inane in their own right. "Invite your husband to come to the doctor's appoint with you." "See if your husband would like to think of some questions that he'd like to ask." Who are these people? The other fun thing is this "Quote of the Week" feature, which highlights some twitterish lines from some random pregnant woman somewhere on the internet. They tend to be depressing. "What's happening to me? I feel sick all the time. It's like my scalp is on fire" -- Jenny, from Buttock, Iowa.

The really exciting thing, though, is that by the time you figure out you're pregnant, it's already week 4. (True, pregnancy is something like an 80-week process, but it's nice to not start all the way at square one.) It feels really good to dive in with a few weeks under your belt, like in Monopoly when you collect $200 just for passing Go. We're really moving now.

Currently, at the six week mark, Little Blabe is about a quarter of an inch in size. This is a real measurable quantity! No longer comparing the baby to seeds! L.B. also has dark spots on its head that will turn into eyes, which seems weird, and its heart is beating furiously quick - something like 100-160 beats per minute. Our little lentil bean.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Day one/Dandelion

I came home tonight after another long, rainy day at work. I was chatting with L as I stripped out of my dress pants and shirt, putting on shorts and a t-shirt. I was telling her about my day at work, a day of minor victories and defeats, long waiting hours. I asked her about her day, if she was feeling better from the fever and headache that kept her home. She was feeling better, and in bright spirits, except for a dull headache. The apartment was clean and she looked sweet and pretty, wearing a light blue t-shirt and a summer skirt. L said, "I'm pregnant!"

I started laughing. I was happy but also just amused by the whole thing. We've been trying for a mere three weeks, and you're pregnant already? And, after telling me that a wife's announcement to her husband is like her own version of a proposal, and thus can be done with any degree of creativity and romance, this is how you tell me? These two thoughts were running in parallel through my head. Just this afternoon I was worrying about if it would take a long time, if it would be stressful if it would even be possible. And now this?

I felt so, so happy. Just a big grin on my face. I felt a new wave of energy and we talked about how incredulous we felt. She had already taken two pregnancy tests, as well as made a call to the doctor and done a bunch of research online. It looks like we're in week 4 of the pregnancy. The baby is but a mere bundle of cells. I am happy that we are aware of the kid now; that while it's still forming and developing, something out of nothing, there are already people in the world who love it. We love you.

I still can't believe this is happening. We read about how 20-30% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, and I hope our little babe makes it through. I spent a lot of time tonight kissing on my wife's belly, telling our new kid that I loved him or her. L will be such a beautiful mother. She is already. Of course I told her, half-facetiously, how they say you're not really a father until you see the baby -- but I am enraptured nonetheless.

I wandered to Chipotle to pick up some dinner in a happy cloud. I listened to Musiq's "So Beautiful," which seemed appropriate. We ate dinner, watched television. I called James to tell him this unbelievable, wonderful news. It was so good to tell him. He was impressed, as was I, with my ability to get this job done quickly. We had a good laugh over that -- I told him how I figured I should be able to do it, since even my limited knowledge of my genetic background tells me that indeed, those kids were able to do the trick. I feel proud of myself in a dumb, masculine way, but still proud. I am so happy L and I were able to interlock ourselves in this way.

Tonight I keep thinking of the blossom on a dandelion. Our little guy (or girl) is but a mere puff of cells right now, something small and beautiful and perfect and loved. So delicate, yet strong, the miracle of life itself. Please don't scatter, dandelion -- remain and grow and come to us. We are in love with you already.

Such awe and gratitude tonight. And laughter -- incredulous, genuine laughter.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

State Update: Bethlehem, PA

L and I have spent the last two Saturday mornings taking a bus from Port Authority to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in order to go visit James. Bethlehem is the kind of snug little town where one might move in order to participate in the Witness Protection Program; James is there, however, for grad school classes at Lehigh, so the only logical thing to do was head over to Bethlehem to check it out.

It seems like the history of that town is symbolized by the great steel mills hunched over the river. They used to be the engine of the town's economy and culture, yet they now rest empty and disintegrating. Walking through the south side of town last week, we were struck by the vacant parking lots and the eerily quiet sidewalks; it seemed like the town had been built for people who were no longer there. All of the mills shared the same rusty color, the same uniform degree of decay. A few broken windows, a few tall weeds.

But if that's the past of this once-proud city, what, pray tell, it its future? The Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, baby! That bus we took from Port Authority brought us to the door of the casino. To reward us for riding the bus, casino personnel clambered aboard as soon as we pulled up and distributed plastic cards pre-loaded with $30 for use at the machines, a little gift card to encourage your gambling and ever so gently nudge you towards the slots. The casino itself appears to have been built in the husk of an old steel facility. The great central room is bright and vibrant and orange; there is an audible hum coming from the scores of computerized slot machines speckled across the floor, a single golden high note ringing constantly. It sounds like angels, it sounds like money, it sounds like action. To me this strange constant note was the most memorable part of all of it.

If only the patrons of this golden orange palace could match their surroundings. Most people we saw were at least two of the following: old, overweight, pushing walkers, and/or smoking constantly. It was somewhat grim.

When we arrived today we fled the casino immediately to experience the Blueberry Festival in town. This was delightful. We went to a petting zoo, but didn't touch any animals (including goats, sheep, pigs, and a calf, and a number of mangy birds). We ate barbecue. We walked through grassy lawns looking at crafts booths, like hand-woven baskets and homemade baby clothes and ipod cozies. We ate blueberry funnel cake. We saw a horse-powered carousel. We watched a pie-eating contest. We went on a tour of the plantation where the festival was held, and learned all about the Moravians, who, to my disappointment, were not an alien race who colonized parts of Pennsylvania and then interbred with the locals, but rather a group of Protestants who seem perfectly nice and reasonable.

We returned to the casino for a few rounds of gambling with our free $30, as well as dinner at Emeril's Chop House, the fancy Emeril Lagasse restaurant that is his only establishment in the entire northeast. We had a lovely time, although the restaurant seemed surprisingly sophisticated for being nestled in the desperate, smoky heart of a casino. We felt awkward in casual clothes and flip flops, and I was clenching my feet as we walked to minimize that thwacking sound, and holding my head high with the knowledge that I was indeed wearing my finest cargo shorts.

On the way back tonight I just listened to music and watched the darkened countryside slowly assemble itself into the city skyline. It was good to leave the city, even better to spend a few hours with James. Not bad for a Saturday.

P.S. This last picture was from last Saturday, thus the different clothes and the longer hair on me. Do you know how much that beautiful pitcher of beer cost? Maybe four bucks. I'm telling you, it's a great town.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Michael Jackson

I always felt a connection with MJ. As a kid, I found the fact that he had the same name as me confusing, but vaguely positive. Whenever my parents played "Beat It," I would start dancing furiously in a move that came to be known as the "Boot-head Shuffle." Even now, when I hear those first few strains of the song -- those guitar chords pulsing relentlessly, the drum kicking in -- I still feel the ghostly echoes of whatever that old feeling was. Whatever the feeling is that makes a three year old plaster on a scowl and then dance like his ass is on fire for the next four minutes. When I heard "Beat It," I didn't even know the force that was driving me, but lord knows that same thing still pushes me forward every day. I must have heard "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" around that time -- I remember thinking how cool it was that Michael Jackson had a tiger on his album cover -- but nothing shook me up like "Beat It."

Only later did I go backwards to his earlier work -- the disco perfection of "Rock With You," "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough." (Hell, only a couple months ago did I hear "P.Y.T." and think to myself, wow, this song is great.) The kid who did those songs, the kid dancing with his big smile in a '70s spacesuit amid the green laser lights, is the one we've all been mourning. He seems so fresh and talented and new, even now, even knowing everything we do. As an obnoxious seventh grader I wrote a paper about MJ and how weird he was, and why that might be. His decline was such a horrible spectacle. Our shameless pleasure in watching him destroy himself was only tempered by the knowledge that real kids actually seemed to be getting hurt. Had he died tragically in, say, 1992, can you imagine the sterling legacy he would have left? Nothing worse than a few weird habits, a chimp, strange but harmless.

But then again, if he departed in 1992 we might not have had "Remember the Time," and that was my song. Also his later stuff -- "Break of Dawn" and "Butterflies" breathed some life into his music on the contemporary R&B charts.

He was a tragic figure, but there was a time, a time of "Off the Wall" and "Thriller" and the Boot-head Shuffle, when he seemed to capture everything that was great about music and let everybody else experience it, too. He was the genesis. At hip hop on Wednesday night we did "Thriller" as a tribute, and coming up this week is "Remember the Time," but our teacher took a few minutes to talk about her own experience of MJ -- the fact that she had auditioned for his last volley of shows in London, that the energy in the audition room was palpable and unlike anything she had seen before, that the people dancing there were giving everything they had, sweating through their shoes, even though Michael wasn't even in the room until the final round, when he was merely a soft presence in the back row of an auditorium. She said she was telling us about that experience because it didn't solely belong to her, but it belonged to all of us, to everyone, and that we should share it too, because it carries on. And so it does.

Monday, June 08, 2009


Last night I woke with a start, opening my eyes to a pitch-dark bedroom. Outside there was a strange murmur of voices, and I knew something was wrong. It was too late for people to be outside. I lay in bed and turned towards the windows in the far room, listening to the litany of voices churning outside. It didn't make sense.


I cowered in bed for a second, ashamed and afraid. My heart was pounding.


I thought about calling 911. I thought about Kitty Genovese. I thought about the previous time I called 911, when my phone locked itself in 'emergency phone' and the police called me back a few minutes later with questions I struggled to answer. The woman screamed again. I leapt out of bed and ran to the window, grabbing my glasses and my cellphone. Angled against the glass, I could see several police cars parked askew in front of our building. Their lights and sirens were off, making the cars look oddly demure. The police were standing around, and the person screaming was strapped to a gurney that they were loading into an ambulance. Her cries softened, and then stopped.

L was awake at this point too. Across the street I could see a few more lit windows separating themselves from the uniform darkness of night. I came back to bed, noticing that it was 4:30 in the morning.

I lay in bed for a while, waiting for my heart to slow down. James and I used to talk about the worst things about living in the city, and for me it was always this: there is no insulation, no protection from ugliness of so many kinds. Since I've lived here I've heard screams of abject fear. I've called 911 to help someone who was being attacked. I've seen people doing drugs on the street in front of me. I've seen people whose lives seem so irrevocably broken.

Last night was one of those nights when the city seems like a place of chaos and fear. There is no luxury of ignorance here. Eventually I fell back asleep, and woke up again to another new morning, no police cars in sight. How this place can turn on you.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Writing class

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to take a writing course this summer. I feel like there's a lot of stuff inside me that I want to get out, but I don't feel like I have the tools or structure or discipline to do that. And I thought summer would be a good time to challenge myself and try to think in a creative and different way about things. Since I have been so into short stories lately, I signed up for a 9-week online short story class.

Of course, since work has been pretty exhausting this week, I am now struggling to turn in my assignment by the Saturday noon deadline. But I've been hammering out something and I think it might be ok. As I was writing it I was trying to be clever and symbolic and theme-y, and I fear that when I start going down that road the strings and seams are very evident, but that's why I'm in the class. Sometimes I feel so stunted and immature as a writer, which feels wrong since I read so much and feel like I should be better, just through osmosis.

I do love writing late at night, though. You want to know my ritual? After L goes to bed I sit at the desk and put on my headphones and listen to Adele's "Hometown Glory" a couple times. That song opens me up, man. It's so beautiful and reflective and mournful. It gets my juices flowing and helps me find the words. Then I skip around my itunes list, playing whatever slow, night music strikes me. The crazy thing is the visceral reaction some of these songs produce. Sometimes it will be Frou Frou or Coldplay or Jill Scott or David Gray or Erykah Badu -- and it takes me back, and it's just this rush of sense memory and it feels like I am 20 or 24 or 26 again, sitting in a different room with a different set of circumstances. Sometimes the only common thread is the love of a song. Sometimes it's a lot more. Either way, it gets me going and makes me discover a place where the words introduce themselves.

I am really excited about this writing class. I want to do it well. I think I have a gift that I've ignored for a while, and if there's one thing working full-time as a lawyer has taught me, it's that I have to hold on to every damn scrap and piece of myself that I can. Preservation of self, preservation of sanity.

Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Kris Allen's cover of "Heartless"

We didn't watched "American Idol" this year, but I heard about this clip and I think it's great. Unlike most acoustic versions of R&B or hip hop songs, this one isn't smirking about white appropriation of black vernacular; this is just a really solid version that actually brings out the musicality of the song and gives it an emotional heft, that Kanye, as a not-great singer, simply can't. Kris Allen's version of "Heartless" makes me love the original in a new way. Congrats to him on his big win, I guess. This is the beauty of pop music, right here.

Terminator Salvation: Not a good movie

Last night L and I watched "Terminator Salvation." It was really stupid. I wasn't expecting a work of art, but I was hoping for an effective, zippy action movie to while away the night. Unfortunately the movie was pretty tedious and cumbersome. Christian Bale was working his best Batman growl, and Common was unintentionally hilarious as The Black Sidekick, but the movie was incomprehensible. I don't know enough of the Terminator mythology to really get into it, but every time someone asked somebody else what their name was, the person would say, "Kyle REESE," or "Marcus WRIGHT," in this fantastically overwrought way, and then wait eight seconds for the audience to stop gasping before they resumed their conversation. When people say, "What's your name?" no one answers like that; they say "Kyle," or "Marcus," and then try to give you their business card.

Some of the action pieces were entertaining, and the movie had a bleached-out color palette and dystopian vibe that I enjoyed. The time travel elements were silly, and the ending made no sense. So they destroy Skynet's central headquarters (oops, spoiler alert) but the war isn't over? Then why did we just bother with this whole thing? Also, the Marcus Wright character, who was sort of a terminator but didn't know it, was way cooler than boring, sanctimonious John Connor, who couldn't go five minutes in this movie without wrecking a helicopter.

Finally, if you were a brilliant self-aware network of machines, and you wanted to design a terminating robot to destroy humans, why would you design your own human-like robot? Why not just put a gun on top of a wheel, or something? To see these slow terminators lumbering towards their targets -- and then when they reach them, instead of doing something smart, like crushing their heads or shooting them, they pick up the human and throw them into a cabinet or something -- and then continue lumbering towards where they threw the human, so they can throw them at a car and hope maybe that that throw turns out to be the death stroke -- really? Really, Skynet?

It's a dumb movie. Unlike Skynet, it's not self-aware and is crushed by the weight of its own stupid backstory. On the plus side, we got to sit near the handicapped section of the theatre, so we had plenty of legroom, and our popcorn was delicious.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Flag day

The other day we had an interesting talk with John and Anna -- who seem to have acquired a lot of wisdom lately, like some collateral grace of new parenthood -- and they remarked that in order to live happily in this city, you have to really love other people. Not just the people who are easy to love, like your friends and relatives, but other, crazier people: unruly youths, drunken professionals, midnight dogwalkers who blather on about Mets tickets while their dog barks wildly, just outside your window.

I thought about this observation yesterday, when I spent the whole day battling crowds to find my own little piece of quiet. I got up early to do a 10K in Central Park. As soon as the race began, the rain did too. Small, occasional droplets gave way to a pelting, determined rain, drenching everyone and making my shirt slap against my skin. All the water in my shoes bogged down in my toes, adding a degree of suction to each step. I thought about just pulling off or seeking refuge at a friend's near the Park -- I mean, why bother. Ultimately the rain stopped after three miles, but the misery endured. I finished the race somewhat respectably, although I felt like I was passed by successive waves of people as I kept on my dogged old pace. It felt like a new cloud of people would overcome me every few minutes, and I would be dodging people coming up on either side -- was I really going that slowly? After the race people milled around, wet and relieved. As I walked back to the train I watched other people approach the finish line -- older people, heavier people who were trying so hard and doing so well. I felt proud of them. Three spectactors eruped in joyous screams as their friend ran past and I couldn't help but smile. So encouraging.

All I really wanted was to go home and take a nap and read my awesome new book, Nixonland, a big fat history of the 1960s. I felt so exhausted and wet and beaten. But Saturday was the day of our annual neighborhood fair: streets lined with tents and kiosks selling all kinds of jewelry, art, artisanal soaps, and ironic t-shirts, all of it seemingly designed for cynical college girls; hundreds of people milling about directly in front of our building, sitting at folding tables and dancing to the succession of bands on the main stage, blasting music towards our home; a magnificent 30-foot American flag fluttering between the buildings; a fat trailer of Bud parked by our front door. They had some jazz sets, a few warbly olden-time lady singers, and some funk bands, all of them relentlessly hammering their music through our windows. I tried to read and couldn't concentrate. I tried to nap but couldn't fall asleep through their public announcements about throwing away garbage and locating temporarily missing children. We watched TV at top volume but it was useless. The constant hum of the crowd was not a problem, but the music was just so damn aggravating. At L's suggestion, we took a walk and made our way to Abingdon Square. "I just wanted to take a nap and read my book," I kept repeating. I was so tired from the run and general sleep deprivation. "I am being literally tortured," I said, even though this was not true.

That night we escaped the bands and the crowds and the beer smell around our house to go celebrate Ashesh's birthday. On our way back we encountered one of our wacky neighbors as the festival wound down; the stage was already gone, the people had dispersed and only a few empty cups lined our front steps. "Were you here for the dancing in the streets?" she asked us. She seemed happy and drunk. We explained that we had been at a birthday dinner and had unfortunately missed it. "Well, where else can you dance in the streets?" she said lightly. "Nowhere but here, not with all these bloody-hell regulations...We can only do it because we were grandfathered it. Now did you see the firemen putting up the flag today? It took them two hours! I don't know how they did it. We used to leave the flag up 'til Flag Day, or at least the Fourth of July, but this one is so big it has to go down tomorrow. It's a real shame."

We commiserated over the flag, which waved lightly over the street from a rope strung between buildings. It was so bold and brash; even in the dark the bright swathes of color were beautiful. Over the emptying street it felt like community, like country. After a few minutes we headed inside and finally fell into a long-awaited deep and grateful sleep.

And sure enough, by mid-day today the flag was gone.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I haven't written in a while, and that's because things have been generally awful. But after two weeks of misery, work has been a lot better in the last couple of days. Before I would feel a pit in my stomach as I approached the building, and would spend the entire day braced for something bad to happen. I lost a lot of confidence in my own ability and intelligence, and I still don't feel like I trust myself to be sharp. As it happened I got yelled at/reprimanded/embarrassed every Thursday, and I'm hoping tomorrow can break the pattern.

Lately I've put a lot of time in at work, in an effort to prove my stamina and dedication. Some of it was misguided, some of it was wrong. But nobody questioned my commitment. Now I have a new feeling about work, and the new buzzword is: tenacious. I feel like I'm holding on to some bucking bronco, I am getting jerked around and beat up and bruised, I am landing in the dirt and getting mud splashed in my eyes, there might be people laughing and jeering at me, but I don't know if I can hear them -- all I know is that I'm not letting go of that damn bull.

Last night in bed I felt it again, the same sense of nervousness and anxiety seize my body as I lay in a dark room, waiting for sleep. I thought about tasks that had to be done and mistakes I feared I had made. I felt imprisoned.

There are some really good things going on, too, but I haven't had the stomach to write about them: our friends' beautiful new baby, the Tobias Wolff stories I'm still reading, the great sandwich place on 12th we just tried. All of these things waiting if and when I can break the surface and come up for air.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

My role model

This was a singularly, spectacularly, bogglingly shitty week at work. I didn't think I would make it, and yet somehow here we are again on Sunday night, standing at the precipice, at the brink of another week.

I had an epiphany a couple days ago about how I need to approach everything, and I feel dumb that it took me this long. When I first started, one of my colleagues told me that I remind her of Kenneth the page from "30 Rock." She said it was about my willful good cheer in times of strife. Kenneth the page needs to be my role model at work. He is competent, relentlessly cheerful, and blithely unaware of the slights and insults and stresses that thunder down on him on a weekly basis. He just keeps chugging forward with his permanent grin, homespun wisdom, and maddening courtesy. I need to be more like this. Do your job, keep smiling, don't break a sweat, and let everything else just slide on past you.

The other little thing that's helped me figure some things out is a Coldplay song. Just because I'm losing, doesn't mean I'm lost.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cold Spring

We had a monumental weekend. We spent Saturday in Cold Spring, New York, just an hour or so up the Metro North, riding rails that hugged the Hudson shoreline as the mountains emerged around us. The town itself was pretty and quaint. We walked from the train station a few blocks along Main Street, past an outfitters', a few cafes, an ice cream place, a couple of restaurants, and a B&B or two. People come to Cold Spring to hike Hudson Highlands State Park or kayak along the river; people also seem to bring their kids here. I particularly noticed how many families were toting babies of a different ethnicity, like we had stumbled into "Take Your Internationally-Adopted Kid to Cold Spring" Weekend without realizing it.

After getting situated at our place, the Pig Hill Inn, with its creaky, wide floorboards and charming European hostess, we set out for a sturdy two-hour hike in the Park. We had to walk along Fair Street to reach the trailhead, past a stately Catholic Church with American and Vatican flags fluttering and a Little League game enjoyed by a handful of relaxed parents sitting in folding chairs in the shade. We did a nice two-hour loop along several well-marked trails: Washburn (white blaze) to Undercliff (yellow) to Brook (red) to Cornish (blue), beginning with a steep ascent past an old quarry and gradually circling back down, almost to river level, past the ruins of the Cornish estate gaping at us through the trees and grass.
The views, once we reached them, were incredible. This is a different New York, this is Washington Irving country; a country where apples are grown and headless horsemen ride and where something strangely exotic yet elemental, something Dutch, still thrives. From the rocky heights we could take in an expansive view of the broadly sweeping river and the town laid out below. We could see the baseball field far down. The curves of the river looked swollen and rich, a fertile crescent. We could see the buildings of West Point and the foamy trails of boats as they chugged upriver. We were in New York, and we were in something greater.

That night we had dinner at a B&B by the river, sitting on the porch eating filet mignon as bored local kids rode bikes by the water. Back in the room, L fell asleep at 9:30 in her cute dinner dress and I sat in the chair, reading Tobias Wolff stories and the current Atlantic. In the morning, after breakfast, we got back on the train and chugged back home to the city, leaving behind the mountains and the clear watery air to dive back underground, where what you see beyond the windows of your train is not a mountainside dressed in old lively trees, but an inky blackness that reminds you of nothing so much as an absence of anything. Yet somehow it felt like enough.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bizarro L

Tonight around 6:30 I changed into my running clothes in my office, and then set out for the park, nine blocks north, for a nice 6 mile run to kick off the weekend. As I was leaving I noticed a girl walking up from Rock Center towards the Park too, dressed in workout clothes. Huh, I thought. We sort of walked near each other through the wandering hordes on 6th Avenue, past the restaurants and bars with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk, past the commuters and past the glassed-in cigar store with large men smoking imperiously. At the park I took a minute to stretch while this girl took off running.

It was a perfect day to be there. The trees are just starting to lose their flowers for fresh new bursts of leaves. The sun was setting slowly, casting a warm light on the stocky skyline of the east side and sending long shafts of light along the grass and the road. Everyone was running or walking, riding in carriages or lounging under a tree. About a mile in I realized I was approaching the girl from before, and I passed her and kept moving. I continued along the great hill at the north end of the park, dipping briefly below the sunlight to climb back up the rocky hillside. Later, as I was nearing the last half mile, I saw this same girl trucking along -- she must have done a shorter route and gotten ahead of me, while I took the long route along the great hill -- and sure enough I passed her for the second time, just a few yards from the 6-mile mark where I was finishing.

I took a few minutes to stretch my legs again, my shirt cold against my back as the temperature began dipping. The girl passed me again, leaving the park, as I stretched. A few minutes later, walking back down 6th to the office to gather my things, I realized this same girl was walking a mere few feet away. Kind of strange. After a few minutes she took her earphones out and said to me, "Apparently we have the same pace, we should be running buddies."

Now, this is the point in the story where L's expression turned from benign amusement to skepticism. And I can see how this could have ended dramatically badly. But rest assured it did not. I ended up chatting with this girl as we walked back to Rock Center -- she works there too, and she ran the marathon the same year I did. And here's the kicker: she looked a lot like L, but frankly, a lot less attractive. She was short, and had dark hair, and sort of the same features, except things were slightly off and the overall effect not as appealing. She looked like a police sketch version of my wife. It was funny, though, because she had been training to run the same half marathon as L, and there seemed to be a few other weird similarities. Who was this girl?

So, on my run tonight I got to casually interact with a strange, less-attractive version of my wife. It was kind of fun and kind of weird, like trying Vietnamese food for the first time. After reassuring L that there was nothing sketchy or weird about it (besides the fact that it happened in the first place) she was fine with it too, and ended up making fun of me, which is how our conversations usually wind up.

With that auspicious beginning, tomorrow we're heading up to Cold Spring for a night away from the city. And then Sunday: L's birthday.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Day at Citifield

Yesterday Ashesh, Mona, L and I braved the 7 train to check out the Mets/Brewers game at the brand-new Citifield. Everything -- the ballpark, the weather, the seats, the outcome, the Blue Smoke ribs, the time we appeared on the Jumbotron, the margaritas we enjoyed back in the neighborhood afterwards -- was spectacular. It was a great day to be a New Yorker.

Although Citifield is definitely cut from the same Venerable-Old-Timey-Ivy-and-Brickwork aesthetic now dominating most new baseball stadiums, I thought they actually showed some restraint in not laying it on too thick. For all of the masonry and elegantly arches welcoming you to the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, there's plenty of exposed piping and darkly painted I-beams running along everything. The Rotunda itself was beautiful, an exceptional welcome to the new ballpark, with some genuinely inspirational inscriptions along the walls and floor. Near the center of the floor are a giant pair of bright-blue numbers, 42, behind markings representing Robinson's footprints. This area was mobbed with people taking photos as the game ended, and it made me really happy to see it. The whole thing was reverent and historical but still accessible and human-scale, like the game itself. How stuffy can you be when you are mere feet away from a men's room with dozens of urinals lined in a row?

Food-wise, they had plenty of your typical baseball fare, and tucked behind center field, rght alongside the whiffle ball diamond, is the ridiculous foodie oasis that seemed to really capture the modern Manhattanite's obsession with normal dishes somehow made exotic or locally grown or inexplicably expensive. Blue Smoke! Shake Shack! Fancy beers! Fancy tacos! It was unbelievable. The ribs were ridiculous, although I found them really hard to eat and could have used more wet naps.

Anyways, the day was perfect -- bright blue skies, a breeze keeping the flags lining the top of the stands in full view. Our seats were right along the first base line, giving us a great view of most of the action. The game was quick, with awesome pitching by Johan Santana that made up for the general lack of batting action. I tried to take a few photos with the old iphone, but between the bright sun and the barbecue sauce smeared all over my fingers (and face, let's keep it real) it was sort of challenging.

Here's a view of the infield from our seats. These seats were so good, the first thing I thought about as we settled in was that we could be killed by a foul ball in the blink of an eye. It was exciting!
Here's everyone going crazy as Mr. Met started shooting t-shirts into the crowd:
What a great day. I can't wait to go back. It made me want to buy a whole bunch of Mets stuff, too, like a cap, although wearing a baseball hat here is like making a strong political statement that half of everyone else will find extremely obnoxious. Like if you walked around with an "I'm GLAD we're in Iraq!" hat. Not that being a Mets fan is equivalent, but I would feel pressure to be knowledgeable and ready to defend the team, especially since a lot of these smarmy corporate types I tend to spend time with these days are usually Yankees fans. I just don't know if I'm ready for that commitment. But days like this definitely push me in that direction.