[let them be clear]

 Today Howard Dean explained his response to the capture of Saddam Hussein. “Let me be clear,” he said. “My position on the war has not changed.”

His position on the war is all well and good, but his statement raises a question: Who exactly is trying to prevent Dr. Dean from being clear?

A quick search of Google News suggests that the world’s political establishment is begging for opportunities to be clear. “Let me be clear,” pleads Sir Jeffrey James, the British Special Envoy to Nepal, “that the British government has no interest in assuming the role of facilitator or mediator.” Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, also asks for leave to be clear, then declares that “We consider the resolutions adopted by this so-called 10th emergency session [of the Security Council] to be ultra vires.” (Apparently Latin is clearer than English.)

The Google News results for “let me be clear” go on for pages and touch on every subject imaginable, suggesting that the phrase is the basically of 2003. Sort of. Except that it’s way more oratorically grandiose, which is why politicians have taken to using it. If you stand up and say, “I’m in favor of limiting the expansion of the federal deficit to $500 billion over the next 12 years,” you’re just making a statement. But if you set your jaw, look soulfully into the red light atop the camera, and preface it with “Let me be clear,” well, then you’re taking a stand.

But the thing is, no one is preventing politicians from being clear. They can go ahead whenever they’re ready. We’d love to hear it. Politicians: can you let yourselves be clear?


 After a decade of wintering in snowy climes, I still get surprised by the stuff. The first snow of the season always sets me to gaping out the nearest window. I’m still totally entertained at the whole loopy idea of precipitation that can go up. I’m always genuinely startled that such a thing is even allowed — that a modern city will permit itself to be blanketed in a foot-deep layer of a dangerous substance. It seems absurd to me, the way it must seem absurd to transplanted New Yorkers when the California ground starts to jiggle under their feet. I remember the first time I saw Columbia University blanketed in snow, during my first winter in New York. I was shocked that such an indignity could befall such an august institution. Where I grew up, snow was something you drove to. It stayed up in the mountains three hours away, which made sense to me, because the Sierra Nevada was all about radical environments.

Last Friday night, New York got hit by the first big blizzard of the season, and it dumped more of the white stuff in one go than I’ve ever experienced here — 12 inches was the going rate, although I heard that pockets of the Bronx were buried up to 23 inches. Mayor Bloomberg, always a man quick with numbers, gave estimated the cost of clearing all that snow as $12 million, figuring $1 million per inch as a rule of thumb. Apparently that’s half the city’s snow budget for the season. I’d never realized how wildly expensive it is to clear something that would, after all, go away of its own accord by the following Thursday. But I guess when you hire union sanitation workers to stick plows on their trucks and drive around all Saturday night, it adds up. (And that big fat bill may explain why thrifty Korea doesn’t bother with the niceties of salt on its roads, preferring to let its buses skid through red-lighted intersections all winter.)

Perhaps some of my pleasure at snow comes from the simple fact that I have never in my life had to shovel it or scrape it off my windshield. The snow comes, sometimes it gives me a day off, and then it becomes Somebody Else’s Problem. Which, as we all know, is the best kind of problem to sit back and enjoy. And the snow has a way of making the angular, constructed environment of the city into an elemental wilderness, at least while it’s still coming down. Going out for our customary Saturday brunch at Whim (which I will tell you about another time, because you should know), my wife and I half expected to see bears and wolves and sledges full of Russian wedding parties. (What we actually saw was a man methodically rolling his snowblower over the same patch of sidewalk, the machine launching its haul in an elegant arc that piled up neatly in the middle of the street. As soon as he disappeared, the owner of the restaurant went outside to knock snow off his awning — and onto the sidewalk.)

It’s not that I’ve never found anything to dislike about snow. Even as I enjoy the blizzardy hush, I know that in a couple of days it’ll all turn into a turgid gray-black mess of salted, shoe-destroying ice-muck. The first time I actually saw the stuff coming down was when I was 12 years old, during an episode our family still refers to as the Vacation From Hell. Our annual snow-saucering trip coincided with the worst blizzard Truckee had seen in years, and then we totaled our new car on the way back home, in the clear dry sunshine of Sacramento. And my first winter in New York happened to be the most severe the city had seen for 100 years, with 16 separate snowfalls that all stayed put until spring, melting only enough to spread ice sheets across every pedestrian surface in town. The snow banks on the sidewalks towered above my head, and crossing the street meant squeezing into the gaps that had been cut in them — and, more often than not, stepping into the ankle-deep slush puddle that had formed there, waiting murkily for access to the ice-blocked drains. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that January, having just returned from California, I was awakened at 6 in the morning by my dorm’s fire alarm, which continued to howl as they marched us into lobby, which was slowly flooding, and then sent us back up to our rooms. And when they’d finally turned off the godawful thing and I’d gotten back to sleep, I was awakened again, this time by my RA pounding on my door and shouting, “Get out! Get out! There’s a real fire!” I threw on my boots with no socks and my wool overcoat over just a T-shirt and ran down the stairs. When the firefighters threw us out of the building and into the 15-degree morning to fend for ourselves, I didn’t even have my wallet. (It was a small electrical fire in the basement.) With no student ID, I had to beg my way into another dorm where I sort of vaguely knew someone. I sat there all morning in my boots and no socks and watched pictures of Los Angeles falling down. It was the day of the Northridge Earthquake.

I suppose I’m not the only one who goes snow-crazy. A few years ago I was making my way back from Staten Island in a pretty serious snowstorm, and there were people on the deck with their video cameras out, filming the zero visibility, presumably so that they could go home to Florida or the Bronx or wherever and watch, well, snow. (Which is a disappearing artifact of pre-cable television transmission, by the way; like the sounds of rotary dials and screechy modems, televisual snow is becoming an anachronism, replaced by a less psychedelically inspiring silent blue screen.) And like all big citywide events — this summer’s big blackout, the Yankees in the World Series, September 11th — it pulls down the barriers between New Yorkers. For once, all these millions of perfect strangers have a reasonable excuse to start a conversation. It’s snowing, isn’t it? Whew! Cold out there. Careful on the ice! Can you believe it’s still coming down?

By Sunday afternoon, the snow had run its course, and on Monday there was nothing for it but to trudge into work. Having some experience of New York in the aftermath, I wore my hiking boots, which are lined with Goretex, and cheerfully stomped through whatever slush puddles were in my way. I even contributed to the upkeep of this fair city by kicking some ice out of the way, thereby draining a sizeable lake at the corner of Hoyt and Pacific. One of my wife’s coworkers came to work sporting a black eye from a falling icicle, and a house across the street from us had achieved a spectacular overhanging glacier whose gradual progress had turned a series of icicles into frightening rows of snaggleteeth. But instead of calving, as I had hoped it would, the glacier just melted away. As snow does.

[working out]

 Considering that I’ve got time on my hands, and that I’ve been eating like a vacuum cleaner since I’ve gotten home — there is no Ben & Jerry’s in Asia — I’ve up and joined a gym. Yesterday I had my free workout with the personal trainer, and I have to say that it felt great.

I’ve never been much of an athlete. My favorite sport is hiking, which isn’t actually a sport but an activity. And while I’ve done my stints on exercise bikes to prepare for major backpacking excursions, I haven’t meaningfully touched a weight machine since high school. Not that I’ve taken on Ariel Sharon’s proportions, but all that neglect has taken its toll.

So I’m hoping I get it together to actually go to the gym with some regularity. Like I said, it feels good to get the muscles working and the body moving; it staves off depression, which is a lurking danger when you’re unemployed. And I can hope that I will be in meaningfully better shape by the time I move to a new apartment, which inevitably means a vast amount of laborious schlepping.

[coming home]

 What I love about New York City is that you can go to a free De La Soul concert in the park and meet the daughter of the former royal physician of Nepal.

For those of you who don’t follow hip-hop, De La Soul had a big hit with a song called “Me Myself and I” in the late 1980s and have since gone in a more experimental direction, putting out a number of musically innovative, politically savvy records that have entered them in the New York hipster pantheon with artists like Sonic Youth and Public Enemy. Their free Summer Stage concert attracted what looked to be the entire under-40 population of the western half of Brooklyn. Jenny and I were clever enough to arrive an hour early, and even then the line already stretched for several blocks and looked like some kind of pro-diversity advertisement: frizzy-haired Jewish lesbians, thirtysomething African-Americans with picnic baskets, Asian college kids all lined up to share an afternoon with each other.

Once inside the concert grounds, we wended our way to an open patch and sat down behind a blanket that was shared by three Indian girls. Gradually over the course of the day, something like fifteen Bengalis managed to gather on that blanket, all of them terribly excited about their pot-laced cigarettes and their beer, and I actually heard someone say, “De La Soul isn’t coming on for hours, yaar!” As happens at these kinds of public events, we all got to talking, and when I mentioned to one of the guys that I’d been to Nepal, he grabbed the girl next to him and told her.

“I’m Nepali!” she exclaimed. “I feel such a kinship with you!” She was born here but had been back about a dozen times, most recently to experience a bit more of the country and go trekking up to Muktinath, the same shrine we visited. I asked whether she was Hindu — she was — and then which of Nepal’s ethnic groups she belonged to. “Actually my family is from Bengal,” she explained. “My father is a doctor. Do you know the prince who shot everyone?” I nodded, having heard in detail the story of the crown prince who went mad, killing most of the royal family and then himself. “My father delivered him when he was born,” she said.


Central Park in summer is a glorious carnival. From certain angles it looks like a liesure painting by Seurat or Renoir — indeed, it was exactly this sort of Romanticism-inspired urban park that so interested the Impressionists — except that it’s as if the exotic characters in Rousseau’s and Gaugin’s paintings had taken over from the prim French ladies with bustles. On Sunday I found myself back in the park, this time with my friend Maggie. We ended up at Summer Stage again, where we watched a couple of terrible acts from New Zealand, then continued on toward Bethesda Fountain. In the plaza above we heard drumming and followed the sound into a dense crowd of people. At the center were a group of drummers — some African, some Carribean, some Latino, some Caucasian. They made a fantastic noise with their congas and djembes and rattles and gourds, and in front of them danced a small crowd, led by an African man draped in cowrie shells, sporting a fantastic multicolored cap and waving some kind of brush in the air. There was also a stunningly beautiful African woman wearing very little, her body covered in a sheen of sweat as she stomped and twirled and shook her hips in a manner that would make Shakira jealous. Soon the two African dancers were pulling people out of the crowd and giving impromptu African dance lessons, until the central space was filled with bouncing, grooving bodies. Some of the other dancers were very good, but there was something about the African pair — a kind of intimacy or naturalness — that made me think they’d probably been doing this — exactly this — for their whole lives. I thought about what it must feel like to live in such an incredibly alien place as America must be to them, and then to come to the park and dance as they might have back home; I had the strange thought that it must be something like the feeling I got when I was in Korea and I opened up a box full of New Yorker magazines.

We moved on from the drum circle and promptly passed another, this one involving some kind of large metal horns. Next to them rollerbladers were threading their way down an impromptu track of empty bottles. Down by Bethesda Fountain a man was going through a well-worn acrobatics-and-comedy routine, and just beyond were two young white guys playing a classical trumpet duet. We walked from there up into the Ramble, the wonderful part of the park that is meant to feel like wild nature, and in which you can almost forget you’re in the middle of a giant metropolis. As we lay upon a lawn watching a gondolier punt along the lake, Maggie picked up a tune on the air: it was the same song she’d been singing that morning in her capoiera class. Sure enough, we walked back to the fountain and discovered a white-clad circle of dancers taking turns performing the Brazilian combat-dance, while a few others played exotic Brazilian percussion and string instruments.


Yesterday I got in touch with my friend Daniel to see what he was doing for the evening. “Going to see Antibalas in Fort Greene Park,” he told me. Antibalas, which means “bullet-proof” in Spanish, is a 13-piece orchestra that plays Afrobeat, a heavy funk sound invented by the Nigerian pop star/political leader/demigod Fela Kuti. They’re sort of charmingly collectivist — one guy makes the announcements and political pronouncements, another sings, yet another conducts the group — and they manage to put over radical leftist politics without coming off shrill. And, well, they lay down a tremendous groove. Fort Greene Park was bouncing, and again I found myself dancing in a racially mixed crowd, many of whom were local to the neighborhood. When Antibalas sang a song with the chorus, “Is this America?” I wanted to shout, Yes! Yes, this is America, this park full of people from everywhere, all dancing to one beat, free to groove to a political rant or to go buy a hotdog instead, beautiful and open and smiling and swaying on a cool summer evening with fireflies.

I’ve come home.

[fireworks and electroshocks]

 Last Friday night Jenny and I went to a great rooftop party in Brooklyn to watch the July 4th fireworks. We met new people and ate tofu-dogs and got tar on our shoes as the city around us crackled and popped and sparkled. As the time for the big show got closer, other groups began to appear on the roof: an older blue-collar couple, he with mullet and tattoos; an insular clan of young white hipsters like ourselves, from whose circle came wafting the occasional scent of marijuana; and finally a bunch of black kids in their late teens who seemed bent on blowing off somebody’s hand, as adolescents so often are on the 4th.

It was my first fireworks and my first July 4th in the US since 9/11, and it had certain curious overtones. I have to wonder what it must have been like last year, when it was New York’s first. For me it was jarring to see and hear all these explosions so soon after watching our Shock and Awe campaign in Iraq; I love fireworks and find them beautiful, but they’re explosions and they make me think about what it would be like to hear all this noise and know it’s hostile. We’re lucky that explosions are still cause for us to run upstairs to the roof, not downstairs to the basement.


Let me preface this next section by telling you that I’m fine. Okay, now that that’s out of the way …

Later that night, after Jenny had gone to bed, I felt my heart begin to beat irregularly. This has happened to me before pretty often — the first time it happened I was at summer camp, which gives you an idea — so I didn’t think too much of it. I’ve been told that my arrhythmia is called paroxysmal atrial tachycardia (PAT) or supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), and that it’s not especially dire, although it’s rather uncomfortable and unnerving. I tend to feel like my heart is both racing and not pumping enough blood; sometimes I get a little flushed, feel slightly nauseous or dizzy, or feel a tightness in my chest. Fortunately it usually goes away on its own, and I have pills in case it doesn’t.

On Friday night, though, the pills didn’t work. I ended up taking something like five of them over four hours, all the while afraid to go to sleep. After all, I’ve heard all my life about how my father’s father died when he waved off some chest pain and went to sleep, never to wake again. I finally collapsed at about 5 a.m. for a couple of hours of fitful sleep, but when I woke up I was still arrhythmic, so I woke Jenny and off we went to the emergency room.

I have to say that the Beth Israel ER staff was pretty good to me. I was told that what I had was a completely different type of arrhythmia from PAT/SVT, one that has no shared cause, and they were surprised to hear I had both. My new condition is called atrial fibrillation, and I was told that it’s so undangerous that “some people live in atrial fibrillation for years.” Considering my age and discomfort, however, they were determined to fix the problem.

Over the course of several hours I was given repeated doses of a drug that was supposed to slow my heart down, with the possible effect of kicking it back into normal rhythm. When that failed, I was rolled into a different room for electroshock. They shaved the left side of my chest, gave me heavy sedatives — Jenny tells me I babbled incoherently about trekking in Nepal until I passed out — and then zapped me. It did the trick, although unfortunately it left mild burns on my chest and back.

All of this I did uninsured, and it is a sign of the disastrous state of our health care system that two doctors, a nurse and a social worker all encouraged me toward various forms of fraud and obstructionism as methods of getting my bill paid. Fortunately Jenny was able to put me on her medical insurance and to make it retroactive to July 1st, which felt to us like a small bureaucratic miracle. And so life ticks on.

[freedom for pride]

As we roll into Gay Pride weekend, the Supreme Court of the United States has at last legalized homosexuality in America. The decision overturns the conviction of two Texas men who were convicted of committing homosexual acts in their own home, but it goes much further. According to Justice Kennedy, “The state cannot demean [homosexuals’] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime … Adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons.” (The complete text of the decision is available on the Supreme Court’s website.)

According to the New York Times: “Texas was one of only four states — Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri are the others — to apply a criminal sodomy law exclusively to same-sex partners. An additional nine states — Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia — have criminal sodomy laws on their books that in theory, if not in practice, apply to opposite-sex couples as well. As a result of the majority’s broad declaration today that the government cannot make this kind of private sexual choice a crime, all those laws are now invalid.”

It’s worth noting that these laws were not mere misdemeanors, either; in Idaho, the potential sentence was 15 years to life.

It has long been my belief that government has no right to enter our homes and make moral decisions for us. Any law we pass necessarily limits our freedoms, and the only justification for limiting freedoms in one way is to increase them in another. In the most obvious example, we must ban murder, because murder takes all rights from its victims. But even much more abstract laws tend to fit this mold: environmental protection, for example, limits the freedoms of polluters in order to increase the freedom of all Americans to live safely; anti-fraud laws limit our speech, but they protect us from more serious threats to our property rights.

Moral legislation, however, inevitably restricts rights for some people without increasing rights for others. When a couple’s right to commit a sexual act in privacy is limited, whose rights are increased? When an American flag is burned, whose rights are decreased? If we cherish our constitution because it guarantees our freedoms, then we must accept that those freedoms will be exercised in ways we might find abhorrent. America was founded by religious communities whose views and practices were unacceptable in the Old World; those groups chose to establish a republic in which they would live in harmony, allowing each individual his right to make his own moral decisions.

This goes for certain hot-button issues championed by conservatives as well. Perhaps we have gone too far in limiting prayer in schools, and certainly education without moral content is impossible and absurd. With school prayer as with all issues, we must look carefully to see which rights are extended by our legal decisions, and which are curtailed, and whether the balance is a worthy one to strike.

When you pose the question in this way — when you ask, What freedoms are protected, and what freedoms are lost? — it becomes difficult to take anything the government does for granted. Drug laws, highways, taxes, wars should all be subject to this line of enquiry, and we should take the results of that enquiry seriously.

But in the meantime, a shameful category of American law has at last been overturned. Adults are now free to make their own decisions about their most intimate encounters, and that is as it should be.

[hot, hot, hot!]

 Today is hot, well up over 90, but somehow it doesn’t have that pounding force that New York heat sometimes gets — what I think of as murderous heat, of the kind depicted in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, the kind of heat that makes New Yorkers riot. No, today it just seems to have driven New Yorkers to go out in skimpy outfits, which I can’t say I disapprove of. I suppose that’s probably because of the cold, drippy rainy weather we’ve been having for so long. Murderous heat usually builds up slowly over time, and you only go really psycho when it’s been like this for a month.

In any case, today I went out in a wool suit, no less, for a job interview with DE Shaw. I signed a confidentiality agreement, and anyway I’m tired, so I’m not going to say terribly much about it except that it sounds fantastic and I hope I get it and I hope I never wear a wool suit ever again on a day that hits 90. Still, for all the hot hot heat, I can honestly say that it’s not as bad as it was in South India — and that was in the middle of winter!

[a space to fill]

So here it is, a new space for me to fill with words. We’ll see what comes of it, if anything.

For now, I intend to use it as something of a journal, never mind that no one in her right mind would want to read my journal, or at least not the bits of it I’d be willing to put on the web. But for those days when no grand essay is forthcoming, this is a place where I can let out the little thoughts, the small ideas, the notions that don’t quite lead anywhere.

For example, right now I’m stuck with a couple of writing projects, so instead of writing them, I’ll come here and write about them. First of all, I’ve been trying to formulate an essay about what it’s been like to return to the US after so long abroad. I feel like there’s something important in there, some kernel of experience that has value, and that it has a lot to do with September 11th. I feel like I missed America’s sense of organic movement from there to here, but that having watched it from the outside, I have a better notion of what the world thinks of us. I also want to get into the strange dislocation that I’ve experienced — to describe how weird it is to find myself homesick for Korea, or to feel at home in New York’s Koreatown. And there’s something else as well, the experience of being an immigrant and an exile, that I think is important and that I want to describe. But I’m not sure how to frame this all yet. Maybe as three separate essays, or three interrelated chapters? We’ll see.

The other project is my collected Korea essays, which need an introductory chapter to turn them into a book. I’ve been trying to work out how to explain how I ended up in Korea — possibly as part of my essay entitled “Kindergarten” — but that whole episode of my life was messy and complicated (the deciding, not the going), and I’m not sure how much of that I want to include in a book about what happened later.

In other news, MoveOn.org is holding its Democratic Primary today. Check in for very good information about all the Democratic candidates, including a lengthy question-and-answer sesion with each (except Lieberman, who is barely a Democrat anyway) and links to their websites. Where do I stand? So far I like Edwards, but it’s a long way to go yet.