[25 random facts about me]

Note: This is a meme from FaceBook, thus the instructions are Facebooky. 

Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you.

At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.

(To do this, go to Notes under tabs on your profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people [in the right-hand corner of the app], then click Publish.)

1. I have a teddy bear named Elver, which I thought was a perfectly normal name when I gave it to him, at my cousin Louise’s bat mitzvah. This bear is somewhere in my parents’ house back in California.

2. Throughout much of my childhood, I was deeply concerned with war. Specifically, the war between the good people of Planet Salvania and the bad people of Planet Alto Deto over the resource-rich jungle planet of Reorilia. I made this all up in my head, of course.

3. The highest place I’ve ever been (outside of an airplane) is Muktinath, a Buddhist and Hindu shrine in the Himalayas of Nepal.

4. In middle school I stayed back a year, repeating sixth grade by taking a year off from Hebrew school and going to the local middle school. That year, I discovered that I was a nerd and made the transition to wannabe, buying Bugle Boy jeans and T&C surf shirts and totally failing to fit in.

5. The first time I heard “Loser” by Beck, it was on my car stereo, and I actually pulled off the highway to make sure I wouldn’t lose the signal before I found out who the singer was. I felt like I had been waiting for exactly that song for years.

6. The first time I heard “Hand on the Pump” by Cypress Hill was at the Berkeley Square, a fantastically hip little club on University in Berkeley back in the day. It blew my mind so completely that I asked the DJ what it was. “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of/Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of…”

7. The first tape I ever bought was Quiet Riot’s Metal Health. The first time I heard Quiet Riot was in the car with some friends, and there was heated debate over whether the singer was a boy or a girl.

8. I’m a big fan of a local Brooklyn artist by the name of Elyse Taylor.

9. I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one of my absolute favorite works of art there is a miniature sculpture of the goddess Durga killing the buffalo demon, Mahisha (Mahishasuramardini).

10. When I decided to go to Korea, I had never even tried Korean food.

11. The first time I was given a seriously grownup book to read in English class, it was with Mr. Poirier in seventh grade. We read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. It was breathtakingly magisterial. I just reread it, and it wasn’t as brilliant as I remembered.

12. I like that breakfast cereal that’s made of oats and is super high fiber, and it’s kind of like square Cheerios made out of granola dust.

13. I keep my old heavy metal T-shirts in a trunk because they simply can’t be thrown away.

14. I’m an inconsistent meditator at best.

15. When I was little, I assumed that everyone wanted to write books when they grew up, and the only reason not everyone was a writer is that we need people to do other things sometimes. It was a shock to discover that there were people with no interest whatsoever in becoming writers.

16. I’ve always had a legalistic, argumentative streak, and for a while I thought I might want to be a lawyer.

17. My very first time on the Internet, I went fishing in Gopherspace and discovered instructions for seducing a horse.

18. I’m not sure I believe in God, but I pray a lot anyway.

19. I’ve always been fascinated by the exotic. When I was very little, I would imagine that my bed was a lifeboat drifting off to some undiscovered country. When I got older, I thought Ozymandias and Kubla Khan and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner were totally cool. I also really liked The Horse and His Boy, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was my favorite Narnia book.

20. I will contemplate the other desserts with due seriousness. Then I will choose the chocolate one.

21. My favorite pair of boots ever was the biker boots I got at Daljeets on Haight Street.

22. My first car was my dad’s old Toyota Corona, which burst into flames early in the morning of New Year’s Day, just after I’d dropped off my friend Teresa, having gone to a concert together that night.

23. I know that the battle sequence at the end of Star Wars takes longer than the time that’s stated in the movie. I know because I’ve timed it.

24. At various times, the Beastie Boys, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, the Beatles, Metallica, Guns’n’Roses, Bang Tango, the Cult and Soundgarden have been my favorite band. 

25. Briefs.

[thailand in crisis]

In 23 days, I am planning to fly into an airport that, at the moment, is being occupied and shut down by a protest group called the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

This is not good.

I expect that this situation will be resolved in 23 days. I will almost certainly go ahead with my trip. But it’s unnerving, and I’m stuck with the lingering worry that the situation will worsen, and then what’ll I do? I’ve already bought the ticket.

I’ve been down something like this road before. The day after I arrived in Nepal in 2002, King Gyanendra dismissed the prime minister and dissolved the parliament. There was some tension, but it all seemed to be happening above the heads of average Nepalis.

This PAD situation in Bangkok is much more serious. And it’s growing into a standoff, with no easy end in sight. And so, from an incredibly selfish perspective, I worry about my vacation.

[progress in nepal]

Nepal is officially becoming a republic, having abolished its monarchy after 240 years. The country is also finally shedding its status as officially Hindu, a designation that made little sense in a land with large numbers of Buddhists and a syncretic culture generally.

The monarchy in Nepal was officially divine, and until seven years ago, most Nepalis seemed to perceive it that way. But on June 1, 2001, the king and most of the royal family were murdered by (probably) Crown Prince Dipendra, and it’s sort of hard to recover your image as benevolent divinities after something like that. The unpopular Gyanendra, conveniently away during the massacre, took the throne, and Nepal learned that a monarchy is just fine until you have a bad king, and then it’s awful.

Well, now they’ve done away with the king, which is all for the good, in my view.

[swastika hysteria]

Fashion house Zara has gotten itself into trouble by accidentally selling purses with swastikas on them in the UK. Denis Fernando, national secretary of Unite Against Fascism, responded forcefully: “Fascism and racist symbols are sometimes legitimised in popular culture, this is one of those times.”

Except it’s not. As a nice Jewish boy with a swastika on my living room wall, I’d like to explain.

Like most people in the West, I grew up associating the swastika strictly with the Nazis, and I was appalled by any display of it, in any form. It had a kind of radioactive power that compelled disgust — an entirely appropriate response to any attempted glorification of Nazism, however crude. When my German-descended high school classmate drew them on his desk (in pencil, crookedly and backwards), I took it as a personal insult, and that’s how it was intended.

It was my trip to India in 1997, just after college, that changed my perspective on the swastika. Again and again during my four months in the Subcontinent, concepts I had never thought to question turned out to be completely contingent on cultural context, and swastikas were no exception. In Nepal, I was amused to find that the swastika was included with the hammer and sickle in a pro-communist graffito, a juxtaposition unimaginable in the West. In India, I saw swastikas branded on camel’s butts, put on goofy stickers for kids, painted on people’s faces. I even saw snacks arranged into swastikas. Three years later, in Korea, I became even more used to the ubiquity of swastikas, which tended to mark Buddhist gathering places or shamanistic fortune tellers’ shops in otherwise nondescript streets of three-story brick suburbia.

The swastika on my wall is on the palm of the Hindu god Ganesh, in one of four extraordinarily beautiful posters I picked up for a few dollars on the street in Mumbai back in 1998. It’s a symbol that can mean death, horror and destruction, but also means welcome and good luck to millions upon millions of people in our world. (In this respect, it’s not unlike the cross or the crescent.) Ganesh’s swastika is not the Nazi black outline on a white circle in a red field. It’s red, trimmed with gold, hand-painted with affection. Likewise, the Zara swastikas were a cheerful green, enclosed in a red sunburst.

What interests me in all this is the way this fundamental shibboleth of Western culture makes absolutely no sense in the context of a globalized world. This won’t be the last time some Asian swastika sneaks its way into the West. At the same time, the whole Danish-Muhammad-cartoon crisis makes it clear that these kinds of misunderstanding can run in every direction. What is necessary on all sides is a ratcheting down of the knee-jerk rhetoric, a consideration of context before the declarations of outrage.

I recognize that this won’t be easy. Some jackass is always willing to scream bloody murder just to get attention. But we should remember that any symbol sent from one culture to another is in need of translation. A swastika from India is no more an obscenity than a Vietnamese person named Phuc.

[un to nepal]

After UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour culminated a tour of Nepal by calling for war crimes trials, the New York Times reports that the UN Security Council has decided to send a political mission to Nepal to oversee the ceasefire.

This is the first time since my arrival in UNistan that the organization has begun a serious involvement with a country I actually know something about. I’m certainly not a Nepal expert, but I’ve been there twice and followed its story over the years. And I’m not at all certain that the fragile new order needs outside interference.

Like Thailand, another tourist favorite, Nepal was never colonized. Certainly it has deep-seated problems, but they are not the problems of post-colonial societies. The thought of Western good intentions going awry in Nepal fills me with dread; I imagine Nepal’s warm hospitality — which, let us not forget, is its only really viable product for foreign trade — curdling into the bitterness and resentment of the colonized.

On the other hand, my concept of Nepal’s internal sensibilities comes from visits to the Kathmandu Valley, one particularly tourist-favored stretch of the Himalayas, and one small town on the edge of a lowlands national park. The angry part of Nepal is down there, in the area known as the Terai, where the draining of malarial swamps has opened up new land for farming, but where the zamindar system of landlordism keeps most people impoverished and powerless, just as it does in some neighboring Indian states. Or so I have read. Maybe these sections of the country feel just as colonized as anyone else ruled by people who speak another language and see them as less than fully human.

In any case, it’s a test for the UN and for Ban Ki-moon, and one in which I feel a personal sense of anxiety over its outcome.

[peace in nepal]

Fantastic news! After ten years and 13,000 deaths, Nepal’s civil war is over.

The leader of Nepal’s Maoist rebellion, Prachanda, today renounced the path of violence and agreed to dissolve his parallel government that operates across much of Nepal once a new constituent assembly and constitution are adopted.

In return, the rebels will become the second-largest party in the new assembly, which will decide the fate of the king by simple majority vote at its first meeting.

I sincerely hope that this is really, truly a new dawn for this lovely, welcoming, beautiful country.

[why nepal doesn’t matter]

From Overheard in the Office:

Rep: The King of Nepal has declared martial law and has cut off all
communication, so I cannot check the status of that rug order…

As a rule, if the major economic impact on the rest of the world of a country’s total collapse is a delay in carpet shipments, nobody is going to care very much that the country is collapsing. A tiny hiccup in oil delivery can shake the world, and big industrial players and consumer markets are important too. But poor little Nepal isn’t even a terribly major carpet producer. Its main product is itself, in the form of tourism, but political instability has a way of killing tourism. So now Nepal’s major product is, I guess, nothing. (And no, you can’t build an export economy out of tiger balm, wooden chess boards and tiny violins.) Which means that no one beyond Nepal is going to do much about its current crisis — unless, of course, Nepal threatens the economies of larger, more developed nations (cf. Afghanistan, an economic basket case if ever there was one, but a basket case that managed to close the New York Stock Exchange). If you’re hunting for international intervention and aid, exporting terrorism is evidently more effective than exporting nothing.

Let’s just hope dirt-poor sub-Saharan Africans and Latin Americans don’t figure this out, or we’re in for exceedingly nasty weather.

[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.