In the warmth on Saturday, Jenny and I went for a long walk through Prospect Park. On our way we were passed by a Haitian protest supporting Aristide and denouncing American and French intervention.
The next day, I went to a John Edwards rally at Long Island University. On a stage full of soldiers, black people and Chassidim, he gave exactly the same stump speech he always gives, except he said he was glad to be at LIU and welcomed all the Deaniacs to his camp. I could hardly see him — the stage was actually lower than the gallery where we all crowded around — and the whole thing had the surreal atmosphere of being inside of a giant infomercial. Which is, more or less, my problem with Edwards: like a good infomercialist, he has one pretty good speech that he performs pretty well. And that’s it.
Probably the best thing about the whole event was waiting on line next to a Trinidadian woman who wandered up, asked what we were lined up for, asked if it was free, and declared, “Well, I’m stayin’ then.” She shared her views on all the candidates. She liked “that little guy from Ohio,” and she didn’t like Kerry, and she thought Edwards was okay, but she was going to vote for Sharpton on Tuesday because “He brings them to the table,” and without him, she said, the candidates would never have talked about Haiti or about black people. She has a point. Then she started in about her great dream of one day visiting Czechoslovakia (never mind that it doesn’t exist anymore). She’d heard Prague was beautiful, and that was where she wanted to go.
After the Edwards rally, I met Jenny at Satalla in Manhattan to hear Huun-Huur-Tu, the throat-singing quartet from Tuva, a small republic within the Russian Federation somewhere off near Mongolia. Playing soulful folk songs that are all about horses, they create fascinating harmonic overtones in their throats — something roughly like a Tibetan monk’s growl, or perhaps an astonishingly lovely burp, that manages to ascend into the higher registers and make melodies there that dance over the earthy strains of their bowed and plucked instruments. If they come to your town, go hear them; recordings don’t do the music justice.
Today my alarm went off an hour late. I got up, made my coffee, took my shower, checked the clock to see if it was time to go, and suddenly noticed that it was 9:03, not 8:03 like it was supposed to be. I guess somehow yesterday morning as I was whacking at my alarm clock to make it please … stop … beeping!, I must have moved the alarm an hour forward.
So I called in to work and explained, and no one seemed to mind. Except that now my whole day is shifted an hour forward. I ate lunch at 1 instead of noon, I’ll have my afternoon coffee at 3 instead of 2, and I’ll go home at 6:30 instead of 5:30. It’s like I’m living in a whole different time zone, like I’ve gone to Newfoundland for the day. Maybe I should try putting on a Newfie accent.
For a lot of people, gay marriage is not an easy issue. I have a hard time understanding why, but I recognize that many Americans are deeply uncomfortable with the extension of the term “marriage” to homosexual unions, even when they are willing to countenance civil unions that provide the same rights. Americans were also uncomfortable with miscegenation, but we now recognize that the laws prohibiting interracial marriage were wrong and immoral.
Some argue that this is different — that while race is inescapable, there is nothing that requires an individual to enter into a homosexual union. But there was never anything that required people to enter into interracial unions, either — nothing but love and individual desire and the sacred right of each person to decide for herself when she has found the person she wants to marry and share her life with.
As with the random imprisonment of Arab-Americans and legal Arab visitors, as with the Patriot Act’s provisions for spying and harrassment, as with so much that this president has done, what we have here is a struggle between collective squeamishness and individual freedom. And as usual, George Bush Jr. has come down in favor of fomenting mass nervousness at the expense of personal rights.
Why would anyone expect any better?
I don’t like my job, but there are days when I find it tolerable and days when it makes me want to rip the heads off of cute furry things and scream like Howard Dean after a bad caucus. Today was one of those days.
The problem comes down to the fact that I have three bosses. There is the Director of Marketing (we’ll call her Boss #1); then there’s the man who hired me (Boss #2), who is nebulously in charge of the marketing department, but less in charge than Boss #1. And then there’s the woman they hired (Boss #3) who is in charge of my little subgroup within marketing, and who is theoretically the person I report to. (There’s also a Senior Vice-President of Marketing, but she just gives me restaurant tips.) Having one boss is bad enough, as those of you lucky enough to be employed already know. Having three bosses who don’t talk to each other enough is like living one of those nightmares where you can’t find the bus to the airport.
So for the last, oh, three months or so, I’ve been hard at work (between bouts of web-surfing, granted, but still) developing a style guide for the marketing department. It’s been a complex process, but at last it was nearing completion. Two weeks ago I had a draft ready, which I handed out to all of the people in my subgroup, as well as to each of my three bosses, and then I went to work incorporating the edits they gave me.
Then on Thursday afternoon Boss #3 shows up at my desk and asks me how the Style Guide is going. I make the mistake of telling her it’s basically done, which leads into my suddenly needing to print the 200-page fucker and get our production department to make 20 copies for mailing to all marketing staff nationwide on Friday. I spent the rest of the evening and most of this morning in a pitched battle with Microsoft Word, struggling to the death over the matter of cross-references in the headers. But at last Demon Word was vanquished, the document was printed, the copies were made, the envelopes addressed and handed over to the mail room.
Five minutes later I’m paged by Boss #1, who has decided that the Style Guide can’t go out because half of it isn’t a style guide at all, but rather a procedure manual. And we wouldn’t want to mix up our styles with our procedures, would we? Because after all, Boss #1, in her copious spare time, is developing her own Procedure Manual. This has apparently been the case for as long as anyone can remember, though no one has ever seen a draft of this manual. Which is why Boss #2 (remember him?) was pushing throughout this process to get all this procedure stuff in there. (The fine distinction is one I’m still trying to work out, and will probably spend the next six weeks exploring to nightmarish depth.)
And so I rush to the mail room and retrieve the copies.
Then Boss #3 spends an hour in Boss #1’s office trying to figure out what should be in the Style Guide and what shouldn’t. Neither Boss asks me to sit in. Instead, I then spend another hour sitting with Boss #3, going page by page through the Style Guide and deciding what to keep and what to cut. Like all conversations with Boss #3, this one winds up with me questioning her logic and finding out she hasn’t really got any. Still, I’ll give her credit for going in to Boss #1 and taking the blame for having directed my project into a black hole of obliteration. (Okay, a gray hole of 50% obliteration, but still.)
When I started this job, which mostly involves editing engineers’ resumes so they can be added to proposals no one reads, I remember thinking that it was a perfect example of Marx’s paradigm of alienating labor, where the worker is completely isolated from the product. But somehow this particular project has managed to go vastly beyond mere alienation and into the realm of meta-uselessness. I have now spent two months developing guidelines for writing the proposals no one reads, and then it turns out that these guidelines can’t be used because they’re part of a different book that doesn’t exist.
It makes me miss the solid reality of the the dot-coms.
On Tuesday night I went to the first session of a six-week, twice-weekly aikido class at a dojo on Smith Street, not far from where I live.
Man, was it fun!
Aikido is all about defense, and in fact has no attacks. The whole idea is that you disable your opponent without injuring him. After the class, I went online and found films of the founder of the discipline, O Sensei, a little bearded Japanese dude in his eighties, getting attacked by whole squads of young guys and dispatching one after another with what looks like little more than flicks of his wrist. The term aikido can be broken down as ai = harmony, ki = energy, do = way, which means it’s the path of harmonizing energies. The basic principle is that you use the energy of your opponent, redirecting it just enough that he throws himself on the floor instead of you.
In our first lesson, we went through a slightly complicated series of steps that you can use if someone grabs your wrist. Step in, pivot, grab the attacker’s wrist, pivot, twist, and there he is on the floor in front of you. Two more steps and another twist, and he’s on his belly, helpless. The whole thing is like square dancing, except someone falls down.
And it really works. As the teacher put it, “In a lot of martial arts, the attacker is left thinking, ‘Wow, that hurt!’ In aikido, he ends up thinking, ‘How did I get here?'” As far as I can tell, what happens is that you take control of the other person’s wrist, twisting it in such a way that his body has no choice but to follow. To alleviate the pressure on the wrist, the person will actually fall down, then roll over, as you go through your moves. And of course, when it was my turn to be the attacker, the whole defense worked just as well on me.
Tonight I go in for the second lesson. Hopefully by the end of tonight I’ll be able to take down anyone who attacks me by grabbing one of my wrists. As long as he does it very, very slowly.
We have come around once again to that special time of year: Winter Day Off! However you celebrate it — as Christmas, as the seventh day of Chanukah, as the day that comes four days after Solstice, as Seongtanjeol (which is what Microsoft Outlook thinks Koreans call Christmas, but who knows?), as Kwanzaa Eve, as Eid (there must be one coming up), or as something you just invented — I hope you spend it happy and warm and safe.
Jenny and I will spend our Winter Day Off at home. She’ll cook a figgy pudding, I’ll cook a brisket, and we will both thank goodness we’re not in New Delhi right now, as we were last year. (Highlight of the day: two drunk Scots in search of the new James Bond movie, because “It’s not Chraistmas without a Bond movie!”) We will perhaps make use of our new Scrabble dictionary, perhaps spike ourselves a little egg nog, and almost certainly fail to do that bit of cleaning and organizing that needs to get done in the library.
Best wishes and be well and eat too much!
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.
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.
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.