Monday, December 27, 2010

The Top Ten Songs of 2010

I spend a lot of time thinking about which songs will appear on my end-of-year Top Ten.  Starting around November, I start making lists and comparing play totals.  I rely on a complex formula of play counts, emotional associations, the representation of different seasons and life experiences, and how sick I am in December of songs that I loved in, say, May.  The goal is to make a list I can return to in a couple of years, play the songs, and suddenly remember how all of this has felt.  Before we proceed, let me gently remind the reader that this list is objectively correct and not up for debate.  Now, on to the music!

10. Alicia Keys, "Unthinkable (I'm Ready)" -- This year I found myself turning to more mid- to slow-tempo music, and this was the first Alicia Keys song in a few years to really grab me.  As usual, the lyrics and instrumentation are lush and sophisticated -- the thread of the rhythm guitar, the crescendo of the bridge, the deliberate pauses between chords.  I love Drake's subtle background vocals; his interplay with Alicia's main vocals seems gentle and sweet.  I've heard the remix where he busts out a full-blown rap, and it's completely unnecessary.  One of the admins in my office was singing this song for a solid four months, and I felt a strong affinity with her.  This song is fantastic.  

9. Shakira feat. Lil Wayne, "Give It Up To Me" -- I've written about this before, but when I found out L was pregnant last summer, I realized I had to do several things by the spring: (1) get a new job; (2) get a new apartment; and (3) have a baby.  Miraculously, I was able to accomplish all of these things.  To me this song captures both a sense of potential and pride in the achievement: "You can have it all, anything you want you can make it yours, anything you want in the world, anything you want in the world (give it up to me); Nothing too big or small, anything you want you can make it yours, anything you want in the world, anything you want in the world (give it up to me)."  On that last phrase of the chorus, Shakira's voice splits in two, and one track rises robotically upward on this fantastic trajectory -- it is beguiling.  The track also features a solid opening rap by Lil Wayne, and some excellent production by Timbaland.  The last great thing about this song: my hip hop teacher was prominently featured in the music video.

8. Usher feat. Nicki Minaj, "Lil Freak" -- This song is one of the more nakedly misogynistic songs I have ever had the misfortune to love.  It's about Usher at the club, soliciting a girl to go find another girl to bring home for a little menage a trois back at the condo.  I find this song to be incredibly aggressive -- "if you're coming with me... you go get some girls and bring em to me..." -- and it's a good song to listen to when I'm mad.  Comically, or perhaps pathetically, this song is my version of gangsta rap or death metal.  The two redeeming features: the twisted Stevie Wonder sample on the chorus, which brings some chaotic, swooping chords on top of the roiling, driving bass line; and Nicki Minaj's rap break, staccato like a machine gun.  Sometimes I listen to it just for those 30 seconds -- that and the last instrumental section of the song, where the misogyny takes a back seat so you can just ride the beat for a while.

7. Maxwell, "Love You" -- I got the new Maxwell album a full year behind everybody else.  I don't know why I waited; it just happened.  This album was a huge part of the mid-tempo soul revival I was talking about above; the classic vibe, clean production, and lack of any autotune or guest rappers was so refreshing and timeless.  It was hard to pick just one song, but this one was always my favorite.   The beat is driving and exuberant, and the song marches happily forward.  "I can be anything you want me to be, I just want to love you."  This always made me think of my wife and daughter, not just from the lyrics but from the happy devotion of the singer.  The single best line, at 1:06: the gentle falsetto when he sings: "Listen to the way I feel when love can change you, love arranges you."  Other highlights from the album: the scorching "Bad Habits," the plaintive "Fistful of Tears," and the insanely beautiful "Playing Possum."  That song destroys me.

6. Trey Songz, "Can't Be Friends" -- Trey Songz was my favorite singer this year.  He has a great voice with a unique vibrato (occasionally goat-like, I must say) and a solid falsetto range.  In the winter he had  "Say Aah," and then he had a whole bunch of remixes on other people's songs.  My favorites: his fantastic duel with Mariah Carey on "Inseparable," his bout with Usher and Keri Hilson on "I Invented Sex," his redemption of Toni Braxton's "Yesterday."  Unlike the rest of his songs, which portray Trey Songz as basically a horny puppy (or a horny baby goat, perhaps), "Can't Be Friends" is a lot more grown. The spare production -- the pulsing strings, a few piano chords -- belie the honesty and vulnerability of the song.  "I wish I never fell so deep in love with you and now there ain't no way we can be friends."  The best line: his ad lib at 3:06, "I wish we never loved it," as his falsetto bounces all over the scale.

5. Usher feat., "OMG" -- This is the kind of glossy android pop song that pretty much sums up where we are as a culture right now.  This song cannibalizes a few oldies, wraps them up in metallic synthesizers, adds a few crowd-pleasing chants and oh's, and then waits for you to devour it.  At this late date in the year, I'm pretty sick of this song, but it was a great for running or dancing.  We did many a warm-up in hip hop to this. is a solid producer, and he and Usher had a previous collaboration, "What's Your Name," that should have been on one of my previous Top Ten lists (2007?  2008?) but for some reason wasn't.

4. The-Dream feat. T.I., "Make Up Bag" -- Dream came up with his third album in as many years, and he solidified his place as my favorite artist of this era.  This song has a mysterious opening, as the bass line, piano notes, and synthesizer chords all intermingle, and then the lyrics turn out to be fantastically cynical about love: the guy is cheating on the girl; the girl catches him; the girl says, "if you don't want to break up, then you know what to do to make up"; to which the guy responds, "If you ever make your girlfriend mad, don't let your good girl go bad, drop five stacks on the make up bag, drop drop five stacks on the make up bag."  The key there -- that "drop drop" repeat. The song rolls forward and grows, broadening out as you wait for that chorus to kick in again.  T.I.'s rap is quick, honey-coated, and irresistible.  This is one of Dream's richer and more mysterious songs.

3. Toni Braxton, "Make My Heart"
-- Toni came out with a new album this year, and let me tell you, it was not that great.  I still think she has the best voice in female R&B, but she has moved away from the dark, sophisticated songs that really grabbed me.  Her album had a couple of stand-outs, namely "Caught," which was as good as smooth, slow-burning Toni gets.  This song, "Make My Heart," was an awesome club track: call-and-response horns, urgent beats, great bass lines, and a catchy chorus complete with "da da dum dum dum, da da dum dum dum."  I could not get enough of this song over the summer: running along the Hudson, jamming in the apartment.  There are some awesome remixes out there too.

2. Drake, "Find Your Love" -- I heard this song in hip hop, and then I heard it ratified on the streets, jamming out of car windows all summer.  "I better find your lovin, I better find your heart, I bet if I give all my love then nothin's gonna tear us apart." The strong beat kicking off the track and leading to the first verse, the way the song opens up on the chorus, like flowers growing towards the sun.  Drake's straightforward singing, the "hey hey heys" punctuating the verses.  The beat kicking in on the second verse.  Dang, just hearing it now makes me think of July.  I love the slow groove here, the lazy echo of Drake's vocal track, the piano chords grounding the song.  I just want to dance all cool with this one.  (And of course, I remixed the song for Alice as I tried to put her arms through her jacket sleeves  -- "I better find your fingers, I better find your hand...")  Over the summer I was sure this would be my number one song of the year.  Until...   

1. The-Dream, "Turnt Out" -- The first time I heard this song I was writing at the computer, late at night, and I had to listen to this song six times on repeat.  It's your basic "let's have sex right now" kind of song, but it stood out based on the beguiling introduction to the song, the guitar lick on the chorus, and Dream's clever use of falsetto.  The bridge of the song really sealed the deal for me -- he's been singing in falsetto this whole time, chorusing "I'ma do ya til you (oh oh oh) turnt out," but the bridge is in his normal range, adding a new heft and urgency and playfulness as he jumps from his lower range to his falsetto.  After the bridge the chorus kicks up the intensity, with the synth responding to the lines of the chorus with different rhythms, with Dream doing some impressive vocal runs, with the instrumentation melting together, turning out.  This is one of those slow songs you want to dance to; the relaxed beat and pace create plenty of time and space for movement, for expression.  This song is confident and hot and solid, and I still can't get enough of it. 

So that's the ten.  Thank you for reading all of this, if you slogged all the way through.  I always feel that I lack the words to describe what the music does and how it moves me.  This year I didn't feel like I listened to as much stuff as usual, but the compulsion and connection were still there.  I don't get dance hour as often as I used to -- now it's more internal, thinking how I would move, thinking how I wish I could sing -- but dang if I don't still want it.  But like they say: Too much is never enough.

Music makes me so damn happy.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


It's a blizzard night in New York as I write this.  The streets are quiet, muffled by snow and not yet lined with the tracks of cabs and plows.  Street signs blink their litanies to empty sidewalks.  From here, snowflakes are swirling and diving in all directions above the ground.  Our windows are speckled with snow and ice but the pink sky looms beyond, a haze of snowy light lacquered onto the darkness.  The snow dampens everything.

We had a very nice Christmas this year, the three of us.  On Christmas Eve L made a beef brisket, beets, roasted potatoes, green and yellow beans, and salad.  Our appetizer was parsnip and leek soup.  Dessert was double chocolate-chip muffins, with some vanilla ice cream.  Our friends came over, along with their daughter and one set of their parents.  We had a great meal, a long, warm night, listening to the same set of Christmas carols several times over.  And the most exciting element of Christmas Eve -- Alice started crawling!  Finally the pieces clinked in her head -- she could move from lying down to sitting to scooching to pulling herself up to crawling, like an extremely methodical elementary-level break dancer.  She started trundling all over the place, from the family room to the kitchen, pausing to slap on boxes or pull down Christmas gifts or check out the wheels of the stroller.

On Christmas day Alice wasn't that into the presents, although she enjoyed tearing apart tissue paper.  We went to church, where of course they asked us to bring up the gifts to the altar, which gave me something to worry about for the first 2/3rds of the mass.  But it was wonderful, with an amazing choir that really knocked the carols out of the park.  This Christmas I thought a lot about the Christmas story as the story of a child's birth and as an experience of new parenthood, which tapped into some deep and visceral emotions at unexpected times.  I suppose every parent thinks their child's birth is worthy of the choirs of angels and the shepherds and the magi.  Or at least a room at the inn; how could a parent abide with the indignity of their infant among the livestock and the hay?  Somehow it was all enough to get me choked up a little during "Silent Night," which had never happened before.   

After church we went to a delicious brunch at our friends' -- amazing quiche, french toast bread pudding.  Our friends got us amazing gifts.  Because my friend John always has these amazingly cool sneakers that I never have the guts or panache to purchase myself, he bought me a pair -- I was overwhelmed.  It was the perfect gift, since I would never dare to buy them, but would always covet them and rue my own shoe conservatism.  (I am not a good gift-giver; I'm not good at projecting what others would want.  I'm too much a creature of habit to make that imaginative leap.  This is a handicap I try to overcome every year.) 

The rest of Christmas day was quiet and relaxing at home.  We were all very exhausted.  Our exhaustion rolled pleasantly into today, and we were happy to bundle up at home amid the Christmas lights and the pleasantly churning snowstorm outside.  We ventured out late in the day, packing up Alice in her new snowsuit from Great Grammy and Great Grampy, and went up Claremont to 116th, then through the bright lights at Columbia, then down to the subway at 110th.  We passed several restaurants that looked warm and inviting, a perfect place for a drink.  But this is not the kind of winter; maybe if the baby wasn't an issue, or if money wasn't an issue -- but two strikes was enough today.  A year ago we could have gone in for a nice beer or a warm drink and an appetizer -- would have sat in the warmth and let our noses run as we took a moment to watch the snow fall on Broadway, resting and enjoying a few moments of conviviality before venturing back into the predictable discomfort of a storm.  But this is a different kind of winter.

I am excited to see the city that will greet us in the morning!  What a blessing to have our family tucked in at home as the snow globe whirls on around us.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Normally I am a cool and suave dude, but not today.  I should have known today would be weird when I found myself this morning scraping the bottom of the business-casual barrel.  No good shirts left.  No reasonable pants.  So instead I was rocking a pair of cords and one of those flowy, non-fitted dress shirts with several yards of extraneous fabric billowing gloriously around one's midsection.  Wisely, I stuffed this fabric under a sweater, which made me look like I was smuggling a wedding cake.  This is how I chose to approach the world.  Consequently, several unfortunate things happened:

First, as I was leaving the men's room at work this morning, I walked directly into another colleague who was on his way in.  This was fantastically awkward.  There was torso-to-torso contact.  Why did I not see him?  Later in the day I considered apologizing, but I thought this might actually make it worse.

Second, later on I was speaking to a colleague of the female persuasion, and I somehow mentioned that I had game, and she then said, "you have a wife and a baby daughter, you don't have game."  Trying to salvage the conversation without seeming unduly lecherous, I cried out, "But I used to!", which made me feel like no less of a creep.

Third, in the afternoon I was eating a brownie as part of the office's Holiday Cookie Exchange (somehow we never had one at the law firm, perhaps because the lawyers were too busy at night resenting their loved ones to bake) when a colleague came up and poked me in the stomach, Pillsbury-dough-boy style.  And of course he got me right at the point in my midsection where my sweater masked about eight layers of billowy dress shirt fabric, and his finger just sort of continued on, unimpeded.  It reminded me of the burrito I ate yesterday, which had guacamole in it, and when I bit into the burrito in the guacamole part the whole thing just collapsed because there was nothing solid there.  That was kind of like my midsection today. 

In an effort to redeem the day, the brownie, and my dough-boy-esque physique, I went to the gym tonight for a little lifting and a good spin class.  I was wearing a shirt with no sleeves, but thankfully no one made fun of me.  The class was great and it was a good workout.  And best of all, when I came home I saw that L had picked up the drycleaning, which means that tomorrow I will be much better-equipped for the day that is to come.

Best books of 2010

In chronological order, here are the books I loved most in 2010:
  • The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson
  • Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent by Robert A. Caro
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
  • The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann & Mark Halperin
  • The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
  • Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Privileges by Jonathan Dee

This list does not seem very long, for an entire year's worth of reading.  I read a lot of books that weren't that great this year (here's looking at you, Wolf Hall and Freedom (see more thoughts on the latter book here)).  I switched from buying books to going to the library.  I read some more short stories (including Mavis Gallant, Deborah Eisenberg, Lorrie Moore and others) but Wells Tower was the only one I loved.  Game Change was practically perfect, in its gossipy political way, but I didn't read as much history as usual.

Fiction-wise, Moby-Dick frustrated me as I read it but left me reeling (more thoughts here).  The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a book that captivated me since I was a little kid, turned out to be almost prophetic (more thoughts here), and bookended nicely by The Privileges.  But my favorite novel of the year would have to be Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs.  Although the plot of this slender book is modest and direct, I thought she wrote very ambitiously about the post-9/11 era through the lens of a small cast of characters.  I actually think she accomplished what Jonathan Franzen tried to do in a much more bloated way.  Moore's writing was impeccable, and besides from one far-fetched episode with the protagonist's mysterious boyfriend, I thought this book was flawless.

(While on the subject of Lorrie Moore, let me note that she wrote the most fantastic simile I've read in a long time, from her story "Charades" in Birds of America: "She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor's office, but it is a limited thing--like taking her gloves off, clapping her hands, and putting the gloves back on again. It is quiet and undiscoverable.")

The best non-fiction I read -- just beating out the salacious popcorn of Game Change and the ongoing train of biographical perfection that is The Years of Lyndon Johnson -- was Cheever: A Life.  After discovering Cheever's fiction a couple years back, I was very interested to read about his sad and troubled life.  I had a lot of sympathy for him, for his demons, for the suffering he inflicted on himself and on others. His was a fascinating life, and Blake Bailey created an exemplary biography, as well as a great literary study of Cheever's works.

Right now I'm read Norman Mailer's The Naked and The Dead, a great book for these dark winter days.  Coming up in the queue: a new biography of Raymond Carver and -- finally -- with baited breath -- Master of the Senate.  I'm hoping those will get me through the winter, and then who knows what's next.  I'd like to read some older, more classic short stories (maybe Chekhov or something) and am thinking possibly about Anthony Trollope.  And hey, there's always Decision Points.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas tree

Last night I went out and bought a Christmas tree from one of the street-side vendors.  This is one of those New York Christmas traditions that redeems an otherwise cruel and unforgiving place.  Transforming small patches of sidewalk into a temporary pine forest; the strapping, friendly, Portland-esque people who staff these stands at all hours of the day and night; the merrily pathetic Charlie Brown trees and the flimsy plastic shelters the Portlanders stay in to stay warm -- all of it creates a very plausible, useful, and reasonable amount of genuine holiday cheer.  Just this morning on my way to work I inadvertently got caught walking between a father and his kids and their local Christmas tree saleswoman, who the kids had clearly met before.  "Wave hi to Molly!"  the father called out.  "Hi, Molly!  Have a good day!"  Although I felt like a tool for blocking the wee moppets' view of Molly, this encounter made me happy.

Although I was pleased with our tree, I immediately had concerns that it was a little on the shrimpy side.  Yes, it's kind of narrow, but the price was right, and we're not exactly living in Versailles anyway.  You always find the tree to match your season, and I think we found the right one. 

L and I decorated tonight accompanied by Toni Braxton's Christmas CD, "Snowflakes," which was released in 2001 and has become a holiday classic (the same way the N'Sync holiday CD is a classic for my parents, my sister, and me).  There's one song on the Toni album, "Snowflakes of Love," that always struck me as treacly and overly sentimental. "On this day, snowy day/Let me thank you for the joy you're giving me/I'm so happy/I have snowflakes of love smiling down on me."  Who could actually feel that way?  No one feels that way.

And yet, last night I was listening to the song, sharing a quiet moment with Alice as we danced slowly and contemplated the tree.  "Reminiscing, I get so happy/I just break down and cry."  No tears were shed, but at last I could understand that the song had been waiting for me for nine long years.

Friday, December 03, 2010


The other night I had a dream that I was working again at my old law firm on some kind of special project.   They had call me in because they needed my expertise (as profound as it is) and familiarity with the firm.  Even in my dream state I was doubting why I had accepted this job.  "I need the money, but not this badly."  At the firm, I saw all of the old people, as well as a few strangers who had joined the firm since my departure.  I was dressed casually and felt uncomfortable, yet I was sitting around a big conference table getting ready to dive back into a particular kind of work and working environment. 

When I woke up I thanked my lucky stars once again for my change in circumstance.  I think I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about that place -- mentally mapping the hallways, checking out the current roster of attorneys on the website, skimming through Google News.  As time has passed my impressions of that place, and my role there, have changed.  In some ways I invested too much there; I put too much value on others' opinions and gave them the same tools they later used to cut me.  But who could have foreseen that.

Of course, the enduring legacy of that experience has been a lasting doubt in my own professional ability, the deflation of my self-confidence.  On some days I'm angry about that.  But all of that is over now, and only in my dreams would I ever cross that threshold again.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Single father

For the last several days I have been playing the role of single father while L attends a conference. I have thought of her often, usually missing her civilizing touch and tender loving care, but I also thought of her as I watched two episodes of "The Walking Dead," the grisly yet compelling new show about zombies overrunning Atlanta, which happens to be the city where L's conference is taking place.

On a brighter note, I have enjoyed my time as a single dad. It's fairly easy. In order to ensure a happy, tranquil baby, I recommend stuffing her to the gills with food. At night before bed she enjoys a nice hearty meal of formula plus some pureed vegetables, then she goes down very easily. On the first night she woke up around midnight for another snack. Then she woke up at 4 am for reasons that were unclear to me. She didn't want to eat, or have her diaper changed, or be in her crib. So I gave her a few sips of water and just put her in bed with me, arranging a pillow fort so she wouldn't roll out. And then she seemed calm and willing to sleep, as long as she had a hand or foot pressed into my neck. But that's a small price to pay.

Last night, she gorged on formula and pureed bell peppers. While she had the bottle she would dramatically drape an arm on top of it, obscuring her face except for her big eyes staring at me, or she would reach up a hand to gingerly and carefully try to pick my nose. Afterwards the girl was knocked out for a solid twelve hours. I actually woke up in a panic around 5:30 because I hadn't heard from her in so long. But she was fine, and was up and babbling when I got out of the shower.

I must admit, the mornings have been more challenging. How is anyone expected to bathe, clothe, feed and change (as needed) two people? I haven't managed to eat breakfast at home any day this week, and Alice has not technically had a bath in a while, and the house is kind of a mess, and I am living off the largesse L left behind for us, and most of my meals have been pizza- or burrito-based, and the laundry is overflowing, and I don't think I boiled the plastic nipples of the bottle long enough before I used them for the first time.

Going into this week I had been afraid of perpetual screaming, sleepless nights, and an inconsolable child. The fact that none of that has really happened, and that we are all doing generally okay, has been immensely rewarding.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Night run

Tonight I went on a run for the first time in a while.  By the time I got outside after work it was already pitch dark, but not too cool.  I ran across 114th to Riverside Park and ran up and down Riverside Drive, between 79th and 120th.  It was one of those nights when I felt propelled; when I was constantly trying to run faster and faster.  Lately it seems like I have these moments when I'm walking calmly down the street but I suddenly have the urge to run, to release some energy through my legs and into the receptive asphalt below.  To remind myself that I live and am a force.

I had never run at night before in this neighborhood, and I had to keep a close eye on the rolling paving stones under my feet to make sure I didn't trip.  The street lights offered bright, filmy circles to guide my way, narrowing the park to this single artery.  I listened to a new playlist of my 20 favorite songs of the year, and I kept an eye on my shadows around me, quick, consistent, faster than I thought I was. 

When I finished my legs were aching pleasantly and my throat was cold from the night air.  I felt so good.  The last great run I had was during our weekend upstate in Patterson, running along winding mountain roads, past old farmhouses and barns, beneath a storm of bright fall color.  Tonight was different, simpler, more elemental: feet pounding the road, lungs pumping air, breath and heartbeat and sweat.  A reminder that I can create force.

Of course, somehow on the walk home I appear to have lost my work ID.  A fun new project for the morning.  Two steps forward, always one back.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cry of the velociraptor, cont'd

Further entries to the index of sounds that A makes:

1. The Rebel Yell -- Oftentimes, instead of crying, Alice will opt to yell.  It sounds like this: "AAAAAAAAAH!"  There is remarkably little variation in tone.  She yells with a cartoonish consistency, an admirable lack of hesitation or vibrato.  When she yells like this her anger and petulance are cute in their intensity.  "Pay attention to me!"  "I don't like this!"  "Let me put the remote control in my mouth!"  These are just a few of the messages she conveys.

2. The Gaga Ooh La La -- Alice seems to have adopted the lyrical genius found in Lady Gaga's song "Bad Romance," the part of the chorus that goes: Rah rah ah ah ah, Roma roma ma, Ga ga ooh la la, Want your bad romance.  (As an aside, note that until just now I thought that the last lyric was "watch out for romance," which to me is more interesting, but the internet has informed me that I'm wrong.)  Not unlike Lady Gaga, Alice enjoys consonants and vowels.  We often hear her little murmurings of ba, ga, ma, da, ra, etc.  These are most likely to emerge when she is quiet or happy, sing-songing her little words to go along with the blather of the adults in the room.  This appears to be the extent of Lady Gaga's influence on our child, at least for the time being.

3.  The Constant Vigilance -- This is not a sound per se, but I find it amusing.  When you hold her against you she will crane her neck to check out what's to the side of you.  You will turn to that side, thinking you are doing her a favor, when she will lean back and swivel her head to check out the other side.  "What's happening over here?  Now what's happening over there?  Did something happen over here?"  It's kind of weird.  It seems like something a fairly stupid but lovable dog would do.  A dog...and our baby.

4. The Rappeller -- This is another behavior, rather than a sound.  Thanks to her ever-more muscular physique, sometimes when you hold her to your chest she wants nothing to do with you, so she will dig a foot into your hip or belt and push herself away from you, holding much of her weight with her locked legs and bracing herself against your chest with an outstretched arm as you keep her balanced with a hand on her back.  It's very amusing to see her hanging out there, head cocked to the side as she casually leans back into the empty space in front of you.  Can you imagine her on a little rock face hoisted up with some ropes, with her fat little baby hands covered in chalk?  Can you even fathom how cute a little baby caribiner would be?  I can't.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Truth in advertising

We're watching Matt Lauer's interview with errant schoolboy/former president George W. Bush, where W. is hawking his new book, "Decision Points."  The hilarious part, aside from the inappropriate laughter, awkward smiles, and frowny faces, is that most of these decision points turned out to be...not so great: Invading Iraq under false pretenses!  A ten-year war in Afghanistan!  No Osama! "Mission Accomplished"!  Katrina!  The great recession!  Those decisions all worked out great, huh? 

You know what would have been a better name for W.'s book than "Decision Points"?  "Fuck Ups." 

Maybe for the paperback edition.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

NYC marathon 2010

Today L and I trekked over to 125th & 5th to cheer on one of her friends who was running the New York City Marathon.  It was a beautiful day for it -- open blue skies, a biting chill in the air tempered by a strong sun.  As we approached 5th Avenue we could see the constant stream of runners moving through.  The nice thing about the uptown phase of the marathon is that it's fairly empty; we could easily take our place on the sidelines -- or more accurately, in the street, somewhat crowding the runners as they proceeded -- to cheer and clap and yell their names.  The crowd was thin but exuberant; everyone yelling out the names of people who had identified themselves, or their country, or their cause on their shirts.  "Go Amy!  Viva Mexico!  NYPD!  Go barefoot guy!  Go France!  Go Barthelona!  Go juggler!"

People would respond with a thumbs up, or a wave, or a smile.  At the time we were cheering, a lot of people were looking pretty rough.  We were near mile 21 or 22, a real low point in the marathon experience.  You're running farther than you ever have before, and you're back in Manhattan, but you're far from Central Park and the euphoria of those last turns in the road.  We saw a lot of grimaces, people limping.  When L's friend came around, she looked great -- strong and steady.  She received her hugs and kept on moving with a big grin on her face.  When I ran it, those brief encounters with loved ones gave me such fuel; I would anticipate them and then, afterwards, replay them, waiting for the next rendezvous, the next moment of sustenance.  Today one lady on the sidelines saw her friend running up, shrieked, gave her a wild hug, then started running alongside her, in leather boots. 

We saw old people, young people, blind people, people with walkers, foreign people, fit people, sexy people, chunky people, people running, walking, limping.  I felt really excited for them and really proud.  This afternoon before we left I spent a few scrambled minutes trying to find my old marathon stuff, maybe wear my medal out of solidarity.  I couldn't find it of course, so instead I just stood on the sidelines with Alice on my chest, clapping and yelling the name of every person I could identify.  It made me miss it, and think about possibilities for next year.  I had never been a marathon spectator before, and it was more enjoyable than I expected. 

It was three years ago that I ran it.  Not too long ago, but not yesterday, either.  Feeling those old rumblings rising up again... 

Friday, November 05, 2010

Sweet sorrow

On Monday, Alice was the id of our family.  We were in McLean, at my parents' house with my folks, grandparents, and L's mom.  We were heading to the train station to return to New York, but L's mom had come by to say goodbye -- she was leaving that day for an exciting year-long opportunity in Afghanistan.  It might be six months until we are able to see her again.

The house was simmering with the usual pre-departure anxiety, exacerbated by the presence of an unhappy, unsettled baby.  Alice hadn't slept well all weekend, and this morning she was crying and jabbering, arching her back against anyone who would hold her.  Her forlorn cries were the background as we bustled around with bags and last-minute details.

The goodbyes started as we made our way to the door with all of our things.  In the foyer L and her mom were hugging tearfully.  L's mom embraced me and said she loved me, and I said the same with a huge lump in my throat.  I said, "it will be good, it will be good."  In the driveway L and her mom hugged again with Alice strapped to her mama's chest.  How I wished she could remember this.  As L's mom got in her car I had my arm around my wife, who was leaning into me as our daughter craned her neck around to peer at her mama.

Soon enough we were on our way to Union Station with the realization that the goodbyes were behind us.  My grandma had said to me, "take care of your little family," and for a brief moment it felt like a daunting responsibility.  But now we are home, easing back into normal life.  Finding a way to live as our love and prayers fly through the night from our home to Afghanistan.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book review: "Freedom"

I was rabidly excited to read Jonathan Franzen's new novel, "Freedom."  I loved his previous novel, "The Corrections," and am a long-time fan of his non-fiction pieces in the New Yorker.  He writes with a strain of effete east coast snobbery that I sadly recognize in myself, but he doesn't seem too burned up about it.  As if his past work wasn't enough, Franzen was being proclaimed The Great American Novelist on the cover of Time, Oprah picked his book for her club, and he was the subject of many long, fawning reviews that I wallowed in reading, sometimes twice.

Of course, I should have been warned when those same reviews contained sentences like this: "Franzen cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism."  My thought was: Wait a second, did he write a book or build a robot?  I was also irritated by the use of the verb "tweeze."

Despite this, I forged ahead.  To read this book I broke my own personal rules about waiting until the paperback edition, and about not spending unnecessary amounts of money during this age of austerity.  I even returned the first copy of the book that I purchased because I realized that I could save $2 if I ordered it online.  And so, late last night, after purchasing in total two copies of this book, I finished the damn thing.

How do you describe the sound of the air leaking out of a balloon?  I kept waiting for the brilliance, the cohesion.  Franzen is an undeniably compelling writer, and I devoured this book -- but I never saw it as a masterpiece.  The main characters and plots were described opaquely, elliptically -- through the perceptions of the neighbors, through an interminable autobiography of 200+ pages.  I kept waiting for a strong narrative voice to come in and unify the characters, the ideas.  Instead it felt like a negative portrait of the characters -- Franzen stuffed the margins with contemporary ideas and name-droppings, filling in the excess with riffs on war profiteering or mountain-top removal mining, and what remained, silhouetted in the middle, were the main characters. (Perhaps the previous sentence is as bad as the one cited above, but then again, this is not the NYT Book Review.)

I appreciate a writer with ambition, and Franzen plotted the hell out of this -- intricate, complicated, with dynamics that emerge once and resurface again later -- but the structure and episodic nature of the book made it difficult to embrace as a unifying work.  The characters seemed flat, caricatures of actual humans: the aging rocker; the desperate former athlete/housewife, the "Republican" son, who never did anything remotely Republican; etc. 

Although Franzen nodded to contemporary events and motifs, he seemed to just throw them all against the wall in the hopes that the mere mention of Sarah Silverman or YouTube would somehow transform the book into an engrossing portrait of the era.  As if mere reflection and recitation were enough, instead of the deep digging I was hoping for.  The characters were ciphers, vessels to carry these labels, yet they never engaged with them.

Personally, it was interesting to read about Franzen's idea of UVA during 9/11, which I was present for, or of McLean, Virginia, which is my hometown.  He was sort of right and sort of wrong about both.  His writing often fell flat for me -- none of the casual poetry of Ian McEwan or Lorrie Moore -- and there were some sentences that seemed as if they had been dashed off in an email, rather than as part of this year's Great American.  Too much dialogue in ALL CAPS.

But did I enjoy reading the book?  Yes, I did.  I couldn't put it down.  There were a few emotionally resonant scenes, and I enjoyed how he toyed with the idea of freedom -- its blessing and its potential danger in our modern society.  The opening and closing sections were strong, steered by an omniscient narrator who could survey a broad community of characters and ideas, who could describe the sunset falling over a lakeside community, who could write with biting wit.  If only Franzen had not ceded the book to so many other, lesser voices.

As far as the chorus of ecstatic reviews go, I think I have been burned by the literary hype machine.  Once again I asked L if perhaps I'm just a lazy or shallow reader, but I don't think so (I've got David Brooks and B.R. Myers in my corner).  Perhaps the overwhelming praise is for Franzen's ambition, if not his execution; perhaps it's for our own self-indulgence as we read a novel about liberals with irony and Twitter streams; or perhaps this is a round of literary self-congratulation to which outsiders are not invited.  The final disappointment came when I realized that the people to whom the book was dedicated were Franzen's agent and publisher.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mel's Burger Bar: Never again

We just came home from a singularly shitty meal at Mel's Burger Bar, at 111th Street and Broadway.  We had made plans to eat there with John and Anna and Naomi early, at 5:30, so that we could return home in time to put the children to bed without any major meltdowns.  This is smart, right?  This was good thinking.

The first sign of trouble came when we asked the waiter to give us a minute to look at the menu, and he disappeared for 15.  When we finally placed our orders, the food took almost an hour to arrive.  In the meantime the babies were fussing and various adults in our party were taking turns jostling the kids, walking them around, or trying to distract them with napkins and the smacking-the-table game.  When our food did eventually arrive -- after several conversations with the waiter in which he invariably assured us that it would be out in a few minutes -- my entire order was missing.  Once my hamburger arrived, I had to ask yet again for my fries.  They also messed up John's order too.  I finally asked to speak to the manager, and the young man who I took for a busboy turned out to be it.  He explained that the kitchen was slow and that the restaurant had gotten slammed. He was not very apologetic, and did not seem to care, although he did offer to pay for our drinks.  When the food finally arrived we devoured our meals in about ten minutes; we had to go home to put the children to bed.  Our waiter came back eventually and asked if we wanted a refill or anything, but I was too pissed to look at him and declined, even though I was dying for another Coke.  I had a point to make, and opted to stew in my own martyrdom.  When the check came, we decided, after much deliberation, not to leave a tip.  And I think that was the right thing to do, under the circumstances.

What kills me about a blown meal -- whether due to restaurant staff incompetence, failure of a delivery to arrive, or the classic table-side interpersonal argument -- is that you have no way of recovering the time and the experience: that was your dinner, as shitty as it may have been, and that's that.  You'll just have to wait for the next meal to try to have a nice time.  At one point tonight John remarked that the evening was just totally gone for me, with no chance of redemption, and unfortunately he was right.  Maybe I'm being a jerk by wallowing in my own frustration, but I still have to ask: why do I, as the diner, have the burden of addressing the shitty service that the restaurant is providing?  I don't want to be confrontational.  Why doesn't the restaurant realize that the best way to build loyalty among customers is to proactively respond to a bad experience?  Had the manager acknowledged how badly the dinner had gone -- had he bought us dessert or comped the meal, or even just genuinely apologized -- we would have had a great time and would have had a positive experience at Mel's Burger Bar.  Instead here I am writing about this, trying to repeat the name of the restaurant (Mel's Burger Bar) to improve its Google hits and noting that other diners across the internet have also experienced similarly bad service at this place, which is called Mel's Burger Bar.

I think I was a little riled up based on hearing about John and Anna's encounter with a surly, unprofessional security guard at the Natural History Museum, and my own interaction yesterday with an obnoxious line-cutting woman at Absolute Bagels.  (She cut in line ahead of me to join her friend, and when I started trying to place my order, she tried to cut me off, at which point I said, "Sorry, I didn't see you standing here this whole time," and then she gave me a dirty look, although I feel I won the karmic battle when her order got messed up and I completed my transaction and left the place ahead of her.)  It's incredibly frustrating when people treat you thoughtlessly, or contemptibly, and you feel you have no recourse but to sit there and take their shit.  I don't know if it is a new confidence, or a new pettiness, or a new crankiness, but there are some times when I find myself uttering a snotty remark, or leaving a tip of exactly $0.00, because it's the most appropriate way I can think of to politely suggest that somebody can go fuck themselves. 

And that's the end of my rant.  I feel angrier than your average Tea Party participant right about now. 

Friday, October 08, 2010

Into the (pregnancy) archives

One housekeeping note:

Back when we found out about the baby, I started a private blog to write about some early pregnancy stuff.  In the interest of efficiency, and to assist my future biographers, I imported those posts into ol' Clarity.  So if you're interested in reading about the heady days of July and August 2009, here are the links to those stories:
Day one/Dandelion -- July 22, 2009

Collect $200 -- August 6, 2009

Telling my parents -- August 6, 2009


I am finding myself a little bored these days.  When the evening rolls around, we know we have to be home around 6:30 for LB to go to bed.  And, unfortunately, when the baby falls asleep, you still can't leave the house and go out for the evening -- that's frowned upon by most childcare experts.  Consequently we're left with this cavernous four-to-five-hour block of time to fill before we officially go to bed.

And do you know how we usually fill this time?  By watching television!  Depending on the night, we will watch several episodes of a completely disposable, completely interchangeable lineup of shitty reality shows!  Here is how every single show goes:  in the first ten minutes the challenge is announced.  Then we see the contestants work on it.  Then we see the judges criticize their work and the contestants receive their comeuppance.  Then someone wins.  Then there is a small degree of inconsequential suspense.  Then someone is eliminated.  Then that person talks about how they're doing much better now.  And then we start a new show! 

Tonight we were both home at 5:30.  The baby was fussy yet still somewhat patient so we decided, in the a burst of wild-hearted spontaneity, to go to a restaurant for an early dinner.  Alice started fussing but she was content to lie down on the banquette while we quickly ate.  Then we came home and put Alice to bed.  L fell asleep on the couch at 6:30.  I watched "Top Chef Just Desserts," 20 minutes of an Oprah Winfrey show about 30 year-old virgins, and "The Apprentice."  L woke up near the end of that last show.  Then she went into the bed to sleep for real, and I continued watching a random episode of "Big Love."  Scripted television is a rare treat in our house. 

So, in sum, I am a little bored.  I feel guilty going to the gym in the evening because I'm away from my family and leaving L with all the childcare duties.  But damn if it isn't kind of boring to be home all night, every night.  Too tired to read or write, too awake to sleep.  Television is easy, but it's so insipid.  

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


On Saturday we celebrated Alice's baptism.  It was a far lovelier thing than I had ever thought it would be.  

Her christening gown has been hanging in our closet for several months.  We kept it wrapped in its plastic hanger and carried it downtown to the church for the actual event.  L and I changed her from her chic Baby Gap dress into her stately gown in a bathroom tucked away in some far-flung corner of the church, standing Alice up on the changing table to put on her slip and then button her into her dress.  It took me a few minutes to work out all the pins holding the various pieces of the garment together.  We added a bangle that LeeLee had given her, and tied her into some clean white booties, and the final touch was to add the little hat that draped over her head like a wimple.  She looked like a cute little Hester Prynne of a girl.  The shocking thing, though -- the thing that I genuinely did not expect -- was that she looked beautiful.  Somehow the exorbitant dress and the funny bunched-up sleeve and her World-War-I-era-nurse hat all made sense.  She looked beautiful and pure; it seemed like the foreshadowing of a wedding day, almost, and it reminded me of how the Church is supposed to be revered as the bride of Christ.  I did not expect any of this.

She was remarkably calm through the whole ceremony.  She played with the long cords dangling from the sides of the hat, wrapping them around her fingers and trying to eat them.  When it came time for me to lower her over the baptismal font so that the priest could pour water on her forehead, she kept her eyes locked on him, calmly watching the entire thing.  My grandfather said he never saw a better-behaved baby at a christening.  The priest was friendly and kind, calling her "sweet Alice" and making sure the holy water was the right temperature before the sacrament began.

I was struck by the beauty of the language of the baptismal rite.  Here are some parts that I found particularly lovely as the priest recited the words:
My dear brothers and sisters, God uses the sacrament of water to give his divine life to those who believe in him. Let us turn to him, and ask him to pour his gift of life from this font on this child he has chosen. 
Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power. In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament. 
At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness. Your Son willed that water and blood should flow from his side as he hung upon the cross. And after his resurrection Christ told his disciples: "Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Father, look now with love upon your Church, and unseal for them the fountain of baptism. By the power of the Spirit give to the water of this font the grace of your Son. You created us in your own likeness: cleanse us from sin in a new birth to innocence by water and the Spirit.
I was very happy the we decided to baptize our girl.  I'm happy that she is a member of a faith community, even though I have many issues with the doctrine and with the way the current leadership has decided to engage the world.  I'm glad we can tell her some day that it was important to us to welcome her into a formal relationship with God and community.  I think sacraments are important things -- a way to measure life -- and I'm really happy we could give Alice her first one; that we could add her name to the rolls of a church, that we could hear a priest bless her as a member of this flawed yet hopeful flock, that we as an extended family could share a small moment of religious faith. 

I'm also glad we will be able to show her the outpouring of love our little family received on the occasion.  It meant a lot to us to see our parents, grandparents, siblings and friends gathered in that church on that beautiful Saturday. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cry of the velociraptor

Here is a partial index of the noises A makes:

1. The Ur-giggle -- My kid doesn't quite yet understand the tenets of comedy (irony, slapstick, wordplay, hypocrisy, despair, and existential angst), but she can sort of see them on the horizon.  Certain stimuli will elicit some kind of proto-laughter from her, a very special staccato grunt that you earn if you smooch on her arms from her wrists up to her shoulders, or if you pretend to chomp at her hands.  The Ur-giggle lacks all of the pitch and melodics of genuine laughter, but it has the rhythm about right.  It's like a happier version of an asthma attack, or the wheezing of a jolly long-term smoker.

2. The Velociraptor Cry -- This is a stranger one.  When you keep your face a few inches from hers, eventually her hands, in their semi-random flailing, will smack onto your skin, and find a grip in your cheeks or nose or eyelids.  This becomes a genuinely riotous occurrence, and she will express some mysterious emotion or thought (amusement? conquest? resentment?) with a single extended, shrill, piercing note.  Many times I am sitting there, letting her mangle my face, as she literally screams inches away from me.  I am so close to her that all I can see if her mouth and the little gems of saliva gathering at the corners of her lips during her high, strangely monotonous shriek.  If this was a horror movie, her skin would peel back and she would become a demon and eat my face off.  But so far she just expresses herself with the velociraptor cry.

3.  The Wail of the Dispossessed -- At least once a night, after she has been put to bed, A will cry because she has rolled over onto her stomach and now finds herself at a complete loss as to how she got there, and how she could possibly flip herself back over.  This is a comically pathetic noise.  She is crying, but her heart's not in it.  Then we just sneak back into her room, try to gently flip her over without either fully waking her up or breaking her arm, and then hightail it out of there.   Sadly, her learning curve on this particular issue has been a little disappointing. Here's a hint! Roll over again!

4.  The Woo -- We are reaching the really exciting phase of parenthood where it's okay to throw your child around.  We can toss her upwards and actually give her a fraction of a second to fly and fall in the air.  She just loves it, too.  She always seems to look at some nearby point, perhaps to ground her perception, but she just clasps her hands and offers a big wide smile.  She may grunt or chuckle but she will more likely just squeal happily, long ropes of saliva falling through the air like the massive payloads of fire retardant that airplanes drop to fight forest fires.  She is up in the air, weightless for a second at our outstretched fingertips, smiling at us as we brave the intermittent showers of spittle to laugh at her glee and to woo along with her, watching her fly above us from our place on the distant ground.

Friday, September 24, 2010

44th floor

The other night I attended a law firm cocktail party with some former colleagues of mine. I made sure to bring a tie to work to put on for the occasion. So around 5:30, instead of leaving the office and walking a few blocks north back home, I descended with the hordes into the subway and barreled into midtown. At Times Square I was walking against the mob to get to the shuttle to Grand Central; the throngs of people were jostling around me and literally twisting my bag around my body with their constant, thoughtless motion.

On Park Avenue, on the way to the right office building, I passed a few open-air bars where men in business casual attire stood holding their beers and looking boorish. When I found the right lobby I made my way through security and entered the high-speed elevator to zip upward 44 floors. The offices were beautiful and plush. From the wall of windows Park Avenue was an elegant stream of taillights, cabs moving smoothly below us. The southern view seemed strangely quiet and peaceful, an unexpected valley splayed out before us. From other vantage points I could see the lights of Brooklyn and Queens; the far-off sunset sinking into the western sky; and the Chrysler building, tantalizingly close, a friendly giant.

It was interesting to see my old colleagues again. Everything is more or less the same in that world. People I didn't know very well would ask me about my new job, and when I explained that I was now working in higher ed, I received a lot of quizzical, vaguely pitying looks. It was like I was answering their question by chirping back, "Oh, I'm a housewife now!" I felt like I was a complete visitor to that world, a world I was immersed in for a long time. I don't know if I had ever embraced it, though. I always felt weird about being yet another uniformed young man in midtown, off to my skyscraper perch to practice law or twiddle with spreadsheets or something.

After an extremely pleasant evening with the two old friends I had come to see, the elevator gently plummeted me back down to earth. Outside I loosened my tie and chucked the name tag I had received. I walked through some old familiar streets, from Rockefeller Center to my old stop on the 1 train. I felt very lucky to be the beneficiary of corporate largess, at least for an evening, and then for the freedom to return home unburdened by unbilled hours and demanding partners. Sometimes I feel like a genius for escaping that world, or a rogue, or a thief. I still can't believe I got away with it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Morning sprint

L's alarm goes off at 6:15, but chances are she's already awake. I may stir when I hear the soft morning voices of NPR float from her nightstand, but L is probably sitting on the couch half-asleep nursing A. Some mornings I find L and A asleep together, L's neck arched to rest her head on the couch and the baby lying still in her lap. On occasional mornings the alarm actually wakes her up, as the baby has deigned to let us sleep -- but these mornings are rare.

My alarm goes off at 6:45, but I am usually awake by then. Once I have showered and dressed I find out how A has dealt with her morning; whether she is placid or fiery, whether she slept soundly or battled through the night. L leaves around 7:30, propelled by currents of unconditional love and professional ambition and a subtle but unrelenting guilt; these are the forces that drive us.

If I am lucky A will let me eat my cereal and read the paper. A happy compromise is to hold her in my lap and let her wreak havoc on the bottom half of the paper while I read something on the top. I always worry about her ink-smeared hands but apparently her constant coat of saliva repels the stain. At 7:55 we are out the door; the baby is in the stroller, my work bag is stuffed underneath her seat, the baby bag (my old backpack, which has seen me from college through Asia to A) is draped over the handlebars with my lunch sack. If I am smart I have remembered the daily log to be completed by the nanny, and A's food. Then the apartment is silent.

We walk up Tiemann to Riverside, heading forcefully up the hill that flattens out around Grant's Tomb, near 120th Street. At this point I have broken in a sweat. The walk to our friends' is about a mile from this point; it's a mile and quarter from door to door. I walk quickly through Riverside Park, under the canopy of leaves and over the uneven paving stones. I pass a few joggers, a few kids in strollers staring outwards with a look of tired perplexity, a man doing some kind of martial art in the middle of the way, and dog-walkers. Today one woman informed me that A's blanket was dragging along the ground with an unnecessary measure of spite. I don't listen to any music, but I do make inane comments to my daughter occasionally to remind her that I'm still there. She is content to stare at her surroundings and feast on her blanket, or perhaps her hand. There is an unexpected measure of balance and companionship.

We cut over on 108th Street and head down Broadway for a couple of blocks, and then we have arrived. After visiting with our friends and passing A, who is aware yet compliant, to the nanny, the dash continues. I walked ten more blocks north and arrive in my office. Despite my efforts to pace myself I am sweaty by the time I get to work; damp under my shirt, the occasional bead trickling down my neck. The back of my hair is wet. Compose yourself. You have arrived at work.

In the evening, on a good day, L will pick up A and continue walking north to retrieve me from work. The three of us stroll home together, enjoying the slow pace and temperate breeze that is an unattainable luxury in the morning. If we are smart and diligent, A is in bed by seven. Then L is still working to make us dinner. In the evening we watch television, because it asks nothing of us. L will pump more milk. At eleven we shut down the apartment. L sleeps immediately, and I try to read a few pages before I can't even remember the words on the page. At some point A will wake herself up by rolling over, or she will interrupt the quiet with a piercing cry that must represent a nightmare. Her eyes won't open, yet she is inconsolable.

And then, after whatever kind of night we have, it will all start again. This is how a home becomes a household.

Friday, August 27, 2010

On old things

At home this weekend in Virginia, what struck me on that first night were the objects, the things that my parents have owned forever that have only recently returned with them from Texas: the plates and bowls with the mottled pattern of faded fruit around the perimeter; the lovely old water glasses; the ceramic pencil mug in the kitchen; the painting of the old man and the boy looking out over the sea that I found tonight in a bedroom closet.  These are the objects, the talismans, that I have used and eaten from and moved around since I was very, very young.  Tonight before I went to bed I washed my face the way I used to, the way I hated, where your skin feels raw and tiny traces of soap remain on your neck and near your eyes, and that was the sensation that brought me back to that broad scope of memory. 

Now, of course, I have a wife, and a daughter, and my own household.  Yet so much of the idea of "home" is still found in these old things.  And everything I own -- goods from national chain stores, items bought in a fit of urgency or convenience or compromise -- seems cheap and insubstantial.  How could a child ever build a life, or memories of a childhood, from the flimsy bric-a-brac I place into her hands? 

When does this improvisation yield to permanence?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

4th anniversary

Today is our fourth wedding anniversary!  After being struck by a bolt of inspiration on Sunday at the gym, I spent the last few nights working on this.  It has been a true labor of love -- it's been fun learning how to use iMovie, culling through our pictures, finding the right songs, trying to tell a four-year story in five minutes.

Of course, I've also gotten no sleep, and I fully expect to get a cold this weekend, but L is worth it.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Book report: "Moby Dick"

I spent most of July reading Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Or, If Thou Preferest, The Whale.  I can't recall a book that was so incredibly tedious to read, yet left me with so much to consider after the reading was over.  After a month-long trudge through chapters and chapters of cetology, the study of whales, and the historical and mythological overviews of the roles of whales and whaling in human history, I find myself thinking a lot about cetology and the historical and mythological overviews of whales and whaling in human history.  I mean, damn.  Maybe this was a good book!

Be warned: what follows is a book report, not for the faint of heart.

I think I spent too much of the book worried about themes I wasn't understanding, or symbolism I was missing.  What is it all about?  Nature and man?  Vengeance?  Obsession?  What does a big white whale represent?  How big is a whale, anyway?  What does the boat look like?  I was never quite sure of any of it.

Melville wrapped the entire novel -- which includes digressions into history, satire, and drama, as well as a few postmodern winks and some oddly bogus science -- in sprawling, languid sentences, long sentences like the horizon on the sea, sentences whose intricacy would be lost below their placid, boring surface, as well as by my own inattention.  I often found myself realizing that something was happening -- there is a whale hunt occurring; men are dying; wooden boats are destroyed with the flick of a tail or the seizure of a jaw -- yet I had missed the action in the thickets of Melville's language. Only when I closed the book to think about what occurred could I appreciate the magnitude of these events: desperate or unbound men gathered on a boat, acquiescing to a madman's wish for revenge against a legendary white whale, the leviathan, chasing the beast around the world until the madman's appetite was satiated, whatever the cost.

But there were a few surprising things I pulled from the book; a few discrete notes from Melville's awesome cacophany.  I really liked Ishmael, the narrator.  He was more prominent early in the book, and later he would mysteriously disappear for long stretches so an omniscient narrator could take the reins.  But as I read Ishmael's voice I felt like he would have been a friend of mine.  He was naive but earnest; friendly, curious, observant, unruffled.  Driven to the sea by his restlessness and frustration with humanity, he easily accepted the exotic people and places he found.  He seemed like a good guy. 

Along a similar vein, I thought this was a very cosmopolitan novel, in its way.  The crew of Ahab's ship, the Pequod, came from all corners of the globe.  Many were Americans fleeing shady circumstances or unhappy lives, but there were others, particularly the harpooneers, from Asia or Africa or the Middle East.  Although the book is rife with the racism of the time, on the ocean no one claimed citizenship or pride of place; they were in a no man's land, where they could not afford the luxury of prejudice, and were forced to work and live together. 

The last third of the book is the pinnacle of the voyage, when Ahab finally finds the white whale, and chases it for three long days (three days of danger, three days of death, three days of Jesus in the grave) until the final confrontation.  And here's the ending of the book (SPOILER ALERT!!!1!): the whale defeats Ahab and destroys the Pequod.  All of her crew is killed, yet none are granted the honor of a described death.  Everyone, all of the characters we have known, and all of the ones we have not, are sent to an anonymous, watery grave.  Save one: beloved Ishmael, the sole survivor of the battle, who floats in the water for two days before he is rescued.  Rescued in order to tell the tale.

A couple of things about this: although the violence and drama of the final days was muted when I first read this section, it amplified as I thought about it and returned to it.  Ahab's death was fitting yet tragic.  The loss of beloved characters like Queequeg and Starbuck was all the more powerful for its understatement (no final words for them, no last memories of home or cries of anguish).  And finally, the cataclysmic end of this book reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.  In both works, the entire universe of the novel is utterly destroyed in the final pages.  The characters and the setting are obliterated, as if they had never existed.  Here, the Pequod and her crew are dashed, except for one.  And of course, Moby Dick presumably survives to barrel through the seas and face other battles.  Maybe that's it, then: none of it remains, none of it matters, save the water, the whale, and a voice to tell the tale.

Moby Dick: I didn't enjoy it, but maybe I love it.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

State update: South Carolina

This past weekend we took Alice on her first flight, down to Myrtle Beach for a nice visit with Aunt Kelsey and the vacationing hordes.  Alice absorbed everything with her standard air of studied nonchalance.  She slept through the takeoff from Newark, pausing from her suckling of the pacifier to smile broadly after a particularly violent lurch upward.  When we held her in the gentlest rushes of the ocean surf, or when we towed her around the pool, buoyed by her hilariously absorbent diaper, she kept her poker face on -- not smiling but not unhappy either, her expressive little eyebrows raised in a face of wary enjoyment.  Hey, if she's not crying, she must enjoy it.  This is our mantra.

Today L told me that our super said that our baby is beautiful, but that she doesn't smile very much.  I was kind of taken aback by this, but I think he's right.  I think I'm learning how to reach her humor buttons -- how to get her to giggle or squeal by crowing her name in falsetto, how to make her eyes curl in a smile from a vigorous game of pattycake or a few fun lifts into the air, where she can revel in her secret identity as Space Baby.  Still, she's not the most effusive kid in the world, but this is fine. She seems to be very observant, and I like that a little better, I think.  Dig deep, little girl -- always investigate -- always ask the question -- remember your intuition, your irony -- take it all in -- save your smiles, but don't be stingy.

We had a great time in South Carolina.  The people are so distinct down there -- many of the vacationers were orange, blond, carefree people, decked in breezy shorts and dresses, coating their words in molasses and tumbling out of SUVs.  Some of the kids down there, though, the ones who seem local, have a certain wildness to them; glaring, wiry young men, and lithe young women in tight shorts with dark tans.  There's a certain hunger there, that attitude you see on the beach avenues but not while you're waiting for a table at Tommy Bahama.  Still, it was great to see Kelsey and to eat like kings for a few days.  I can't describe the exquisite pleasure of settling in to a ten-dollar plate of a full pound of shrimp dusted with Old Bay,  armed with a pile of napkins and wet naps and nice crisp Bud Light with Lime.  It was heaven.  (You know, the older I get the more I realize that it's all I ever wanted: a plateful of shrimp ready to be peeled, and a nice cold beer.  I have many fond memories of this, which makes me wonder why I don't make this happen more often.)

Anyways, I really like the photo above. It makes me think of fatherhood and what I'm supposed to be doing.  I feel like I was doing it right for that brief moment.  Welcome to the world -- I have you -- this is the ocean, it is beautiful -- we will always come back here -- I will always have you. 

Saturday, July 24, 2010

One night

Only after the tornado had swept through did he dare go out in the night.  From the window he could see the rain boring down as cars cowered on the sides of the streets.  Cords of lightening marbleized the sky and flashed through the apartment, keeping his daughter from sleep.  After it was over the sidewalks were streaked with long isles of silt left by the overwhelmed storm drains.  But people were venturing out, and the strange tornado had passed.

He met his two friends at the wine bar.  Above the din he could hear R&B songs he loved and knew well.  Occasionally voices would sing along with them.  The bar closed at a fairly early hour but they were still there as the tempo of the music picked up, as the bartender strutted behind the counter.  After the bottle of red was gone they ordered sangria.  This place made him feel sleek, that the people in the room were like the multitudes inside him.

They went to another bar, smaller and emptier.  He found refuge in vodka.  One of his friends had to leave, but the two remained.  The bartender was an artist who had made the earrings she was wearing.  She wrote down the address of her blog on two scraps of paper for them.  At some moment, when the two friends were talking about old and sad topics, he had enough of those old and sad thoughts.  He ordered some shots and decided that they would stop talking about the matter when the drinks arrived.  So they downed the shots -- the bartender poured one for herself, too -- and moved on, and his happiness returned.  A girl behind him was dancing to Lady Gaga, her arms long above her head, her eyes closed, smiling.  "Don't call my name, don't call my name, Alejandro."  He felt such joy and love!  The liquor had served its purpose.  The music, the dancing, himself and his friend at the corner of this bar.  Her earrings. 

Now they were in an empty diner.  He ordered spaghetti to sober up.  He didn't have any cash and the place wouldn't take cards.  He walked carefully to an ATM two blocks away and withdrew some money.  When he returned his friend was low in the booth and it was time to leave.

They were sitting on a bench in a median on Broadway.  Occasional white headlights coming forth, red taillights receding.  He closed his eyes to resolve himself, yet his mind pitched and rolled on its conflicting orbits.  The spaghetti returned, long and shining white on the soil.

He and his friend were walking up the street.  He suddenly realized that the darkness was paling, the sky softening into day.  He was embarrassed to see the morning come.  He wanted to be home.  He told his friend to get up, that now they should say goodbye and find a cab and abandon whatever was left of the night, before the light of a new day shamed him further.

He came home quietly into the gray light of the apartment.  His wife was on the sofa nursing their daughter.  She spoke softly, to avoid startling him, to welcome him back and to say good morning.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Back to the gym

Tonight I went to my first non-Sunday morning gym class in a very long time.  I checked out the New York Sports Club on 125th Street for the first time, after getting all of the relevant details from L.  Where is the entrance again?  What floor do you take the elevator to?  When you come out, where are the towels?  The locker room?  The water fountain?  The studio?

I am always nervous when I go to a gym for the first time.  I assume someone will pick on me.  I have been fortunate to have never really been bullied before (except in some unpleasant professional situations, maybe, and also L can really become quite merciless under the right circumstances) yet I always fear some towel-snapping juicehead is waiting to attack.  Like if I spend too much time loitering on the gym floor, or if my gym performance is somehow not up to par, some dude is going to come sauntering up: "Ha ha, check out the poindexter!  Let's do that thing where we flush his head in the toilet!"  To combat this I make a point of walking very purposefully around the gym, even when I have no idea where I'm going, just to prove to all of my would-be tormentors that I know what I'm doing.  As a result tonight I basically walked two pointless laps around the weight area, trying to look as calm as possible while my eyes were darting around furiously trying to find a water fountain.  If things really get bad, I will just stop wherever I am and do some stretches, trying to find a recognizable landmark before I break into a flop sweat.  I did this tonight, and that's how a guy with biceps the size of my beloved daughter's head almost walked into me as I was touching my toes.  But hey, at least I looked like I knew what I was doing.

Once I finished my Lewis & Clark-style reconnaissance, I did a couple of pleasant miles on the treadmill and went to a weight training class.  The class was much worse than I expected; the light weights I picked originally turned out to be too heavy, so I had to go back for even lighter ones.  And shortly after that I reached that wonderful point in the workout where I couldn't even bear to hold any weight at all, so I was doing the exercises empty-handed, like a mime, but with less dignity. 

Yet even as that was happening I was thinking how great it felt to be there.  I really like group exercise scenarios -- having someone else deciding what to do and leading a group of people all contributing to the tacit peer pressure to show up and perform.  The culture of the 125th street gym seemed to be really pleasant.  A nice mix of people, a lot of classes going on (a couple hip hop classes, two spin classes, a couple of weight classes).  I feel like I've given myself a pass from going to the gym since the baby was born -- I should be home, after all, bonding with Alice and taking the burden from L -- but I think I will be making more of an effort to get to the gym to recapture some of the stuff I loved about our old neighborhood.  I'm really glad it worked out tonight -- that I was able to get there and that no one gave me a noogie or challenged me to arm wrestle -- and I know I will be hurting tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

New TV

We have some really exciting news -- yesterday we got a new TV, one of them fancy flat-screen ones with the HD's.  We opted for the "Dynex" brand.  At first I thought Dynex was a new prescription drug I should ask my doctor about ("side effects may include dry mouth, chronic persperation, and nymphomania") but it turns out they just make TV's.  We spent a frustrating hour or so trying to get the screen resolution just right, trying to make sure our inputs were correct, comparing our zoom options, and checking to see that we weren't wasting our time on AV-2 when obviously we needed to be at HDMI-3.  What are we, farmers?

We christened our new television, which is the culmination of decades of innovation and technological breakthroughs and is designed to capture every individual raindrop, blade of grass, and glittering city light caught on camera, on a fantastically bad episode of "The Bachelorette."  I think the new TV heightened my own sense of shame and personal embarrassment on behalf of the participants, but otherwise it wasn't that different from normal, low-definition "Bachelorette."

What strikes me about this show is the weird cult mentality that seems to infect all the participants like a cold sore.   All of these people -- the bartenders, pharmaceutical representatives, teachers, lawyers, and medical equipment salespeople -- are linked along a sordid chain of previous contestants, starting with the Ur-Bachelor, who lived 3,000 years ago and rejected one contestant who went on to become the first Bachelorette, who in turn sent one of her cast-offs to be the next Bachelor, and on and on in perpetuity.   All of the participants reassure each other constantly that they are there for "the right reasons," such as serial making out and the opportunity to recreate pathetic school-girl fantasies of fairy tale romance.  And all of them aspire to be one of the lucky few who get to drag their chipper Bachelor or Bachelorette (with their telegenically capped teeth, angular jawbones, and classy hair extensions) back to their home towns, where their poor innocent family members have to spend a day ogling the couple and dividing into weird little interview clusters to talk about how all of them are all there for the right reasons.  It seems like a particularly exquisite hell to have to explain, justify and defend your make-believe-let's-pretend-TV relationship on camera to your grimacing parents, siblings, and in-laws.

All of this became much clearer thanks to the Dynex ("call your doctor if your retinal discoloration lasts longer than a week").  We have learned to fast forward through the actual date parts of the show, unless it looks like people are fighting.  Bring on the conflict!  Bring on the artifice!  Bring on the ugly cry!  These are the real right reasons to watch.

("...Please don't use Dynex if you're a werewolf.")

Monday, July 05, 2010

Independence Day weekend

We had a wonderful weekend.  But right now I am sitting at the table in our godforsaken apartment as the ceiling fan shoves great glaciers of hot air around the room and as beads of sweat gather at my temples.  It is so hot.  The heat bundles itself in these rooms and starts weighing down.  I expect the bed to buckle at any moment.  And it's 11 o'clock at night.

Friday:  We took the D and Q trains out to Brighton Beach and Coney Island.  Brighton Beach is the home of a large Russian population, and we ate lunch at a boardwalk Russian cafe, where we tried borscht for the first time.  Pretty darn good!  Like a weird gazpacho!  The quiet of Brighton Beach and the width of the boardwalk there reminded me of Rehoboth.  We walked across the hot sand to the water -- the sand of course being riddled with broken glass, because since this is New York City every nice thing must have an edge to it, which means that your typical idyllic beach will be liberally sprinkled with shrapnel -- and found the ocean to be freezing cold.  We continued up the way towards Coney Island, where we fought the urge to buy fried things and took in the spectacle.  I appreciated the history -- the parachute tower from the 1939 World's Fair, the amusement park rides from the same era.  Following our beach tradition, we had some photo booth pictures taken, and were happy to include Alice for the first time.  Later we ventured out onto the pier, passing fishermen and families and men cat-calling the women.  Looking back towards the beach, seeing the Wonder Wheel and the housing towers and the train snaking through it all, I was struck by the vastness of New York City.  Here we could feel ocean breezes, hear the caw of seagulls, see the wide blue sky over the water.  How many worlds, how many places this city contains.  (Walking along the beach, I was also struck by the sheer brazenness of people -- the  wildly inappropriate bathing suits, all those swathes of unrequested flesh -- that actually made me feel embarrassed for them, on their behalf, but I preferred to focus on the breadth of the City, thanks very much.)

Brighton Beach

Sunday: I started out Independence Day with a nice long run in the morning through Riverside Park.  As the heat settled on our skin and in our clothes, we walked down to Lincoln Center to watch a movie, baby in tow.  Here is our thinking: we did this last week with a matinee of "Toy Story 3," where the theater was empty and Alice was as well-behaved as one could reasonably expect.  L would jump out of her seat as soon as the baby started to fuss, and there was no issue.  Sunday we figured we would go see "Sex and the City 2: A Big Mistake" (see the pun there!) because (a) it's long, (b) it's playing in a place that's air-conditioned, and (c) everyone knows it's horrible, so no one will be there and it won't be a big deal with the baby.

Well, apparently the bitter old women of Manhattan did not get that memo, because they were out in full force.  Why were they seeing this movie everyone hated, six weeks after it originally came out?  Worst of all, the theater was configured in such a way that you entered by the movie screen, which means all the other patrons see you as you come in.  I could feel a collective wave of feminine disdain overtake us as we entered with our stroller, so we hustled to the back row to suffer the withering gaze of some freedom-hating old hag.  When I came back from getting popcorn, I actually took off the hat and sunglasses I had been wearing, so people wouldn't think I was the jerk who brought a baby to the movie.

But you know what, haters?  We did bring a baby, and she did great.  L had to take her out a couple times, and I had a few artificial coughing fits to camoflauge her gurgling, but she did great.  No crying. (We did note the fact that under normal circumstances, we would be part of the disdain brigade, harrumphing about how a movie theater is a completely inappropriate place to bring a baby, but thanks to the challenges of parenting and perhaps even a slight mellowing of my temper, perhaps I am evolving.)

Unfortunately, the movie was horrific.  It was really offensive against the middle east, and somehow the characters were even more insufferable than usual.  Why does Charlotte have a full-time nanny?  She doesn't have a job!  All the characters who were mothers sucked at it.  And their partners, the fathers, were simpering and spineless.  And the karaoke scene made me want to gouge my eyes out.  Other than that, two thumbs up!

We walked back to the piers on 125th Street and set up an impromptu picnic to see the fireworks.  We made friends with the sweet family to our left and watched the sunset sink across the Hudson.  The weather was perfect and the people were friendly, kids chasing each other and people eating sandwiches on their blankets.  When the fireworks started we found that our view was blocked by a clump of trees -- and then hundreds of people were shifting and jostling for a better view -- but at that point it didn't matter.

125th Street piers

Monday: Today I took my first Manhattan bike ride, after a morning stop at the local bike shop to outfit the old bike I had as a teenager, which has been dormant for about 15 years.  After pumping the tires, checking the brakes, and buying a helmet, this evening I rode down the Hudson to about 72nd Street and back.  I know it's no excuse for an actual workout, but it felt great to move, to force some air around me in the illusion of coolness.

This afternoon, after lunch, I took Alice home alone so that L could enjoy a small piece of the day.  The baby and I stayed in the cool oasis of her room. We read my favorite children's colonialist allegory, "The Story of Babar," as well as "Make Way for Ducklings," and a brief selection of "Moby-Dick," which she did not enjoy.  Then I was holding her in my lap, and we were both sitting there rocking, me relaxing in the cool air and quiet moment, feeling her weight on me, and the baby with the pacifier in her mouth, restful in my arms.  I looked at her and she was smiling sweetly, even with the pacifier, and then something happened and she was looking so clearly in my eyes, and smiling so broadly -- I started speaking to her and she would coo right in response, her mouth wide and open and happy, her eyes so intent on mine, laughing together.  At that moment I expected her to speak, to say my name or her own, or to tell a joke, or to laugh like her mother.  For a second she was not a baby, but my friend.  A brief moment of such connection.  During those moments I wouldn't have been surprised by anything.  It was so lovely.

Eventually it passed, and her adorable haze returned, clouding her thoughts, her needs.  But that moment!  My mysterious daughter.

It's been a wonderful weekend.  Now time for a last cold shower, and an escape into sleep, on top of the sheets, under the fans.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Things I'm afraid my daughter is thinking

1.  These people are idiots.

2.  Tummy time is bullshit. On my back! Put me on my back!

3.  The zoo-themed activity mat has become my personal hellscape.

4.  I wish they would take me to a Tea Party rally.  Comrade Nobama is a Socialist.

5.  I hate this apartment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Father's Day

Father's Day!  All the self-absorption of birthdays, plus the expectation that relative strangers should acknowledge it!

There's more to it than that, of course.  If there's one thing parenthood points out to the recently initiated, it's that it's not about you anymore.  You are merely incidental to the arrival and progress of the child.  Heads snap away from you and turn towards the babe.  And that's all right.

I had a pretty darn good first Father's Day.  In the morning I woke up early to run a 5 mile race to benefit prostate cancer research.  It was hotter than hell, humid, sticky, and the run was unpleasant.  Sweaty shirt thwapping against my chest.  I took my time at the water breaks, took a few steps at mile 4 to regroup for the last push.  Even though my time wasn't particularly good, I was proud that I held up muscle-wise and breathing-wise -- it was just the heat that got to me, but that's always the case.

The highlight of the race was seeing Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), an amiable, Biden-esque blowhard, who made a few remarks before the race started.  He also invited all of us to give him five as we started the race.  So I jogged over to the side of the pack and made my way to the good senator, who stood there with an open palm and a funny grin on his face as runners slapped him five and moved along.  I keep hoping someone will ask me, "Hey, have you high-fived any U.S. senators this week?", but as usual people are pretty self-absorbed and nobody seems too interested.

The rest of the day continued along this plateau of excellence.  My brilliant wife gave me a Chipotle gift card, earmarked for exclusive use when I'm enjoying some alone time.  Alice gave me a "Hop On Pop" pop-up book, and L even manipulated her tight little fists so that she "signed" the card and labeled the envelope.  It was wonderful.  Here she is signing the card:

We went downtown for lunch at Stand, walking through the soupy air with the baby strapped on my chest like a totem of parenthood.  A nice lady on the subway wished me happy father's day.  We stopped at the bookstore and they were very kind about it, too.  After we made our way back home I escaped to Chipotle by myself for a little bit, enjoying fountain Coke and reading Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun."  Along my walk I listened to Drake's "Find Your Love," which is quickly becoming my song of the summer, and thought about my great good fortune.

For dinner L made me salmon, asparagus, macaroni and cheese, and salad.  We had a little bit of ice cream for dessert.  We watched some television.  And eventually we went to bed in our sweltering apartment, the ceiling fans spinning in their taut, chaotic orbits, the curtains billowing inwards with gusts of warm night air and the dull regular groan of the train, lying under thin cotton sheets, listening for any cries from the baby's room, anticipating another day of heat, of family, of a baby.  It's a new kind of summer.