Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Champion of the world

Seven pm found me at hip hop class, at Alvin. I've realized that if I change into my gym clothes at work, and quickly dart from my office to the elevators without being spotted by anyone wearing business attire, then I can nimbly walk over to 55th and 9th in about fifteen minutes.

This was my third time at this class, and the teacher, who is awesome and pretty funny about the whole thing, was playing some straight-up Usher: "Take You There," great beat, catchy tune, exactly what I was hoping for. There were some moves where I could really get into it, add a little swag or aggression, make it look sharp or loose or fluid, however it needs to be done. About halfway through the class I realized the teacher was watching me, with a half smile on her face. After the combo, she stopped and said to me (in front of the other 20 or 30 people in the room): "I am so glad you are taking my class. I've been watching you since day one, you don't know it but I have, and you're all" -- and here she started rocking my dance face, thrusting her hips and swatting away at some imaginary partner -- "I love it! So masculine! I love your attitude, I am so glad you're here."

Well. I think for me, and perhaps many other men, having a woman like that compliment your masculinity basically opens the floodgates. After that I was trying to do good, but not too good, and just rolling with the beat.

A little while later she was watching me again, and I saw her, so I was trying hard to not screw up (since overconfidence and overthinking is the end of me every time) and afterward she came up to me for a pound: "Yeeesssssss! You do it!" A couple minutes later she had everybody change directions, away from the mirrors, and she told me and a few others to go up front, where we were basically leading everybody else. Then she made us go up front again, once it was time to face the mirror.

As the class drew to a close, after a few more rounds of our eight-counts, when my heart was pounding and I was good and sweaty, after she gave me a few more tips ("push your arms out -- it looks cool the way you're doing it, but for tonight just push your arms out"), she spoke to the whole group: "Don't think too hard, because when you think too hard you lose it. Find the nuances in this song -- this dude [pointing to me] is rocking it out [here she started working my dance face again, people kind of laughed], he's doing him and grooving out...He's feeling the nuances of the beat and not worried about the counts." She went on to highlight somebody else too, but I was not listening that hard. I felt that weird mixture of pride and embarrassment -- pride that you are doing good and doing it with passion, tempered by a little embarrassment that you're in the room to to begin with.

I have really been missing the hip hop element of my life, and tonight was spectacular. I didn't think I would be able to go to class because of work, but I'm so thankful I made it over. In some ways I feel like such a fish out of water at Alvin: too male, too old, too lawyerly, too married, too white. But to lose those preoccupations and just revel in the moment -- and then to have some outside validation that yes, I get it and yes, I belong here -- it makes everything else feel real and true and authentic.

Old white married lawyers doing eight-counts, what?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

'The Stories of John Cheever'

Impeccable. I have been reading these stories for weeks now, and I finally finished them tonight. As I read I tried to think about what kind of holistic picture Cheever was creating; what this body of work (representing more than thirty years of a writing life) was conveying. The quick answer, boiled down to a near-cliche, is "suburban angst." There was plenty of that (men in desperate affairs with their neighbors' wives; women crying out for a life beyond the kitchen and the nursery; the patter of conversation waiting for the morning train; the alcohol-soaked evenings) and I loved it. Many of his stories took place on a few streets in the Manhattan suburb of Shady Hill, featuring a familiar litany of family names ("The Farquarsons, the Beardens, the Bentleys...").

The greater thing, though, was his portrayal of universal emotions in such a specific time and place. At our present cultural moment the domestic life of the 1950s is treated with a knowing wink and nod, but Cheever won't let you escape with that kind of pat analysis. His characters are the same tangled mess of contradictions, jealousies, desires, aspirations, and disappointments that we are today. This book made me think of my grandparents and their young adulthoods. Although at times Cheever veered into the coldness and near-irony of "Revolutionary Road," over the course of this volume he was able to flesh out something richer, more alive, more true.

I can't imagine what it's like, as a writer, to have thirty years of work in one fat, proud volume. I wished I could have known when each of the stories were written, for a better sense of context. Appearing chronologically, the first half of the book seemed stronger to me. The stories were set in New York apartment buildings with elevator men and servants' entrances, and then moved to the post-war utopia of Shady Hill. In the last section of the book, Cheever the technician was in full force, with stories frequently set in Italy, with disarmingly explicit sex and unmannered cursing -- it was a shock. It seemed as though Cheever's moment had passed, and that he knew as much.

I was tempted to devour this book, but I tried to pause between each story, to take a moment to consider it as its own independent thing, before diving in to the next. Individually, these stories are impeccable and beautifully written and jarringly true; collectively, they are miraculous -- dozens of voices crying out for something more or something genuine, cacophonous yet harmonious. I really loved this book. Cheever was the genesis.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

...Hello, 44

Such a sense of excitement in the air this morning -- pure electricity. I was sitting in a conference room with my colleagues, watching the proceedings and listening to the roar of the crowd from Rockefeller Plaza. After the speech most people filed out, but a few of us stayed to hear the poem and the benediction and the national anthem. During the national anthem I was a little surprised to find that all of us were standing.

As far as the speech goes, it wasn't as smooth or soaring as some of his others, but it was forceful and inspiring and realistic. He talked to us like adults. He didn't sugarcoat, but he reminded us of our aspirations. There were a few moments when I felt a lump in my throat -- not only at the words that were said, but at the faces in the crowd, in the fact that so many of our friends and countrymen wanted to endure the cold to witness this occasion. What a fortunate time to be alive. What a wonderful country we are blessed to live in.

I was thinking about how in some parts of the nation, people still keep photos of Bobby Kennedy or JFK or Martin Luther King, Jr. on the wall. I never understood why someone would put the image of a national leader, someone they had probably never even met, inside their home. Today, though, I think I do understand. I've never had as much respect and admiration for a president as I do today. He is an able leader and he is someone to emulate. President Obama: I am so thankful that he is at the helm.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Goodbye, 43...

Dear Mr. President Bush,

Well, thank God it's finally over, huh? I don't know who's more relieved, you or the rest of the country. I wanted to send you a brief note to wish you well and get a couple of things off my chest. But I won't say too much, because I don't want to get agitated and my mom doesn't like it when political discussions get heated.

Keep in mind that I write as someone who once supported you. I voted for you in 2000, and I even supported the war in Iraq. I wasn't totally on board with it at the time, but I trusted you and (perhaps more importantly) your office. By 2004 this trust was long gone, mind you, but there was a time it existed.

Like you I have a few "disappointments" with your administration. In addition, I have a few "things that make me angry" and "things that are so frustrating, so willfully misguided and cynical, that I don't know whether to cry bitter, bitter tears or just grit my teeth until my jaws ache."

My overall complaint about how everything happened, and this is an idea that to me encompasses the planning and execution of the war, the torture of prisoners, the signing statements, the aftermath of Katrina, the irresponsible tax cuts, the economic meltdown, the vilification of your political opponents, and the accumulation of unlawful power in the executive branch, is a sense of fundamental dishonesty. You never told us the truth about any of it. You were always trying to gloss over problems, to tell us that missions were accomplished and that we should go back to our shopping while the earth burned. As president you worked to appease your base (rich people, and maybe later on evangelicals) but you told us you were working for everyone. The reason that no one has paid attention to you in the last two years is that no one believes you. We don't trust you. You never gave us a reason to trust you.

You could have asked us to sacrifice after September 11th, and boy, we would have. We wanted to. Remember that telethon with all the celebrities, when the country spent a night weeping in front of the tv and opening our wallets, because it was the only thing we thought we could do? That should have been the tip of the iceberg. We were ready to change our lives, to strive for something bigger, and all we wanted was direction. We just needed you to say the word. But you said nothing.

So that's my beef with you. Also, one other small thing: you and your friends have spent the last month crowing about how you've kept us safe all this time. My question (and maybe this is more of a quibble) is, are you including September 11th in that statement, or what? Because you were president then, and you were receiving briefings with names like, "Oh Shit, Osama's Going to the Airport." Now, I am not blaming you for September 11th -- I am most definitely not -- but I am saying that I don't know if it's right to be bragging about how safe we are thanks to you, when September 11th remains such an open wound. I think about terrorism every time I go to work, riding the elevator to the 24th floor of my landmark building. Every night when I leave I thank God I made it out yet again. You may be leaving office, but the threat has not diminished.

That's all I should say, I guess. Despite everything I have moments of sympathy for you, and you seem like a nice person, until you start teasing reporters in jerky ways. Also, I have an abiding affection for Laura Bush, because she reminds me of a frumpier, more docile version of my mom. And, your daughters aren't bad looking. Now you get to go back to Texas and the country gets to begin a long process of repair. Thank God we've bottomed out.

Safe travels,


Friday, January 16, 2009

That's a good look

I felt the need to change the template of the blog. True, everyone and their mother is going for the minimal look (including my wife, my best man, my former work buddy, my cousin-in-law and many others), but it made sense to me as well. Even though millions of other people's blogs look basically exactly like mine, I do feel that this stripped-down look fits where I am right now. I also like the standard font the text appears in, and the simplicity of the blank, white page. It makes me feel like a writer.

So this is the new look, and we'll try it on for size. Minimalism. Simplicity. Clarity.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Flight 1549

What a story: on an otherwise inconspicuous January afternoon, a plane takes off from LaGuardia en route to Charlotte. Somewhere above the City of New York, something happens, a "bird strike." Moments later the plane is sinking into the sky above the Hudson, and then, with one hell of a splash, this jet is in the water, nose up, tail down. As commuter ferries and rescue boats dart towards the airliner, shaken passengers emerge to wait on the submerged wings, seemingly standing on water. One hundred and fifty five people exit the fallen plane, women and children first, and everyone is okay -- as okay as one can be. At first the tail of the jet juts upwards from the water, like some bizarre shark fin; as the afternoon progresses and the rear half of the plane begins its inevitable descent, only the nose of the plane is visible, peeking over the surface of the water. I thought it looked like a puppy, plaintive, out of place.

There is something jarring about seeing a jet plane in your local river. What was I doing while a smart and brave pilot was saving lives? What was I doing while scared and sensible people rescued themselves? I was reading the internet and waiting for work, wholly unaware of the drama playing itself out a mile or so away.

Beyond a sense of awe and gratitude, this incident raises questions: Are they going to pull the jet out of the river? I already have a vision of a sunken, moldy plane housing scores of fish and crabs and plant life. Will everybody get their luggage back? Who knew that bird strikes were a regular (and somewhat inevitable) threat to air travel? And, given that this plane was flying the route my sister takes to visit us, will she ever dare fly to New York City again? ("One bird strike and you're out.")

Friday, January 09, 2009

Is this thing on?

THE SCENE: After-work happy hour at a midtown bar. ME, LAWYER 1, LAWYER 2, and LAWYER 3 stand around holding beers and chatting. The topic: good places near the office to take clients out for a drink.

LAWYER 1: I had a bad experience taking a client to Bar X. It was too loud, horrible drinks, bad food.

LAWYER 2: One time I took a client to Bar Y, and it was awful. Never again.

ME: Well, one time I took a client to the American Girl Cafe, and let me tell you, that did not go well...

[LAWYER 1 and LAWYER 2 look at ME expectantly. LAWYER 3 laughs a little bit]

LAWYER 1: Well, what happened?

LAWYER 2: What was wrong with it?

ME: Oh, uh ... nothing. It was a joke. I never took a client to the American Girl Cafe -- I don't even have any clients.


ME: See, the American Girl Cafe is this place where little girls go to drink tea and buy these really expensive dolls.

LAWYER 1: Huh, that went totally over my head.

LAWYER 2: I thought you said American Grill Cafe.

LAWYER 1: I heard you say that too. I asked myself, where is that?

LAWYER 2: What's the American Grill Cafe?


ME: I said American Girl Cafe.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Monday night found me at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, where I was summoning all the courage and swag I could find to walk through the doors and into my first hip hop class in months. I've been thinking about it a lot, and after months of no eight counts, no energy, no hip hop, I was really missing it. It's good for my mental health. I spent a few weeks poking around the internet and decided to just go ahead and try it out. I'm a grown-ass man with a life and excessive graduate degrees, and I will take hip hop if I want to.

I arrived insanely early to the class and just stood there and fretted, leaning against one of those ballet bars and wondering how I had got there. "Hey," I thought. "I'm a lawyer trying to dance, not a dancer trying the law." For some reason this made me feel better, even though at this point, I might be a better dancer than I am a lawyer. I don't know if that's a good thing or what.

Eventually everyone arrived and there were thirty or forty people in the studio, a lot of women of varying types and sizes and a fair number of guys too. I didn't feel as uncomfortable as I feared. As we got started, we did some familiar stretches and then learned a pretty simple combo of four eight-counts. The song was "Pop Champagne," which is deceptively simple but has some deeper stuff you can really get into. I got looser and was really into it, riding the beat a little bit, putting my own touches in it and letting the music determine everything. I forgot how much I loved the positioning of hip hop, the confidence, the swagger. In a strange way I feel like I forgot about that attitude and how much I gain from it, even if I am about as un-hip hop as it comes, based on the exterior.

Anyways, it was a really fun time. I will definitely go back. Near the end of the class, the teacher shut some of the lights and raised the curtains that blocked the studio from the sidewalk outside. Suddenly one side of the room was all glass and the street was right there, with pedestrians walking by and some people already peering inside at us. The teacher split us in half and we took turns dancing on the floor, spread out, with nowhere to hide and plenty of room to move. I was hesitant for a moment, kind of embarrassed and second-guessing my presence there, but the beat was undeniable, and soon I was up there with everybody else, getting lost in the music, rocking the dance face, and oblivious to the world outside the glass, because for those fleeting eight counts none of it mattered.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Angry weekend

It's been kind of a weird weekend. I spent a lot of it being pissed off for no clear reason, until things turned around today.

On Friday I was excited to go see "Gypsy" with L -- I had bought the tickets for Christmas, since it's a cool show and people are basically throwing themselves off the balcony from the sheer joy of the experience. I spent the work day of Friday getting random tasks done in the office and trekking from Rock Center to 9th & 55th not once, not twice, but three times. Given the traffic and bovine-like holiday crowds, this was very unpleasant.

As we prepared to go to the show, we didn't have much time to eat -- we ended up at the Most Miserable Subway location in Manhattan, the Subway the size of a walk-in closet near the West 4th train station. The woman behind the counter was hacking and coughing into her sanitary gloves and she smelled like B.O. The other people in the restaurant were incorrigible youths and a sad-looking old man. Once we made it to the theater, I was pissed with no clear rationale; after a woman cut me off, I grimaced and muttered, "she could have said 'excuse me.'" L pointed out that she did say excuse me, but this did not improve my mood. We wandered up to Starbucks to get a hot tea before the show and the crowds made me angry -- the lumbering, the slow pace, the random jerks who would clip my shoulder or smack me with their bags. I was livid, and I wanted to shove these offensive walkers, and I didn't understand why it was getting so far under my skin.

The show itself was fantastic; my foul mood lifted long enough to appreciate it. The young woman who sat next two L arrived in a long, ratty fur coat with makeup slathered on her face. She took the coat off to reveal a sequined red evening gown, bunched around her hips. She laughed raucously and applauded when no one else did. After the show we headed downtown and were going to stop for a glass of wine, but the bar was crowded and people were saving bar seats by placing their scarves across them. This was too much; I was tired of crowds, and slow walking, and compromise, so we left.

I spent all day Saturday in New Jersey for a continuing legal education session. I will be in New Jersey for the next five Saturdays, attending six hour lectures. I leave home at 7:45 am and arrive back home at 5:00 pm. This did not improve my mood, either; I came home exhausted and unhappy and did not want to do anything.

You know what improved my mood? A killer workout this morning. This workout was so good that once again I threw up in the middle of it. Following the third set of modified pushups I discreetly got up, walked out of the studio, and hunched over a garbage can on the main floor. I threw up, and then I went back in and resumed doing my crunches. And that was it. After the class I felt better, and right now I feel like a lot of then tension and anger I've been carrying for the last several days has lifted. We had a nice afternoon reading the newspaper at Chipotle, and then I read some more Cheever short stories at home.

I don't know what got into my head for the last few days. A lot of frustration with the demands on my time, maybe, combined with some of the negative aspects of city living. It is so hard to pull yourself out of a bad mood, even when in hindsight it is so obviously a complete waste of time.