[democratic wedgies]

The Republicans have been taking a bit of a beating lately. But I’m beginning to think they’re just sharpening their wedges to divide the Democratic party from centrist swing voters.

The first wedge is already being deployed to ensure that Kerry, not John Edwards, gets the nomination. By engaging Kerry in a bit of sparring, the Bushies have made it seem like Kerry is already the nominee while diverting media attention from Edwards. The Republicans think they can beat Kerry, who has leaned left for most of his Senate career. Edwards, by contrast, has so little record that there is nowhere to attack him, and his populist message and folksy Southern style undercut Bush’s similar charms. Our political system is perverse enough to make Edwards’s inexperience an advantage, just as Bush’s was in 2000, and the Governator’s in 2003.

I imagine Republicans rubbing their hands with glee as they watch gay marriage sashaying into the center of the national debate. Much as I would like to see gay marriage legalized and gender-based discrimination eliminated from our legal system once and for all, a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that a mere 32 percent of Americans share my view, while 64 percent believe that “marriages between homosexuals … should not be recognized by the law as valid.” A Democratic candidate might bridge that gap by saying something like, “While I support gay rights, I believe that each state must make its own decision.” But I fully expect Kerry to alienate both supporters and opponents of gay marriage with some sort of tortured locution, followed by a retraction, followed by a counter-retraction.

Republicans are likewise drooling over the prospect of a national debate about Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was thrown out of office after he violated a U.S. Supreme Court order to remove a giant statue of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse steps. CNN/USA Today/Gallup found that a mere 19 percent of Americans dug that little decision by the Supremes, while a whopping 77 percent disapproved. A similar poll found that 70 percent of Americans would approve of a display of the Ten Commandments in a school or public building, but only 33 percent would approve of a monument with a verse from the Koran.

Guess what, folks? We live in a Christian country.

Democrats need to realize — and accept — that most of this country disagrees with them on religious and social issues. Bill Clinton was able to lead because he veered to the center (or the right), angering many long-suffering Democrats who wonder why their party has gone limp on traditional liberal social values, including strong separation of church and state and vigorous defense of minority rights. The answer, in part, is that these views simply don’t jibe with what America believes. We live in a country whose majority is still of the opinion that the world was created by God in six days and that the Devil is real. Like it or not, America is a Christian polity with conservative Protestant values that have always clashed with our egalitarian and libertarian strains. Democrats will win not by railing against those tendencies, but by sharing in the small-c-conservative values of honesty, fiscal responsibility, fair dealing and compassion — concepts the Bushies barely even acknowledge as existing. America may not be ready for gay marriage, but it’s ready for honest leadership, a balanced budget, help for those who are suffering in this economy, and a foreign policy tempered by compassion and wisdom.

Please keep all that in mind when you cast your primary vote.

[tongue sandwich]

A New York moment:

Today during the lunch rush in a deli near Union Square, I watched an Indian counterman banter with customers in English, then do it just as well with other customers in Spanish. Then his Hispanic comrade, who was on the phone, leaned in to ask, “Yo, pita bread issoyo?” Issoyo is Korean for “have.”

“No,” responded the first counterman. “We’re all out.”

In other words, I just watched an Indian and a Hispanic using a mix of English and Korean to talk business. In Manhattan.

I love this city.

[zen and the art of office drudgery]

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.

[oy vay]

While rereading Norman Davies’s Europe: A History, I ran across “Livy’s catch phrase, Vae victis! (Woe to the vanquished),” and it suddenly dawned on me that the most ubiquitous of Yiddish phrases, oy vay, means literally “Oh, woe!” Which is always what it seemed to mean, but I had no idea it came from the Latin.

[a merry and a happy]

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!

[driving eurasia]

A curious thought: Back in the 1960s, it was easier to drive from Paris to India than from Vienna to Prague. The hippies who first rolled into Kathmandu and Goa came overland, driving in caravans through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan: friendly territory, unlike the walled-off wastes of Eastern Europe.

I suppose my only point is to notice how much and how fast the world changes. Which, I expect, is a trend that will continue.

[name this blog]

So I’ve decided to start posting my essays and other miscellaneous babble to a blog (that’s a weblog, for those of you who follow neither Internet trends nor the rise of Howard Dean). I hope to start writing regularly about life in Brooklyn, and New York more generally, in much the way that I wrote about Korea, Nepal, and India. (Okay, probably there will be less emphasis on bodily functions than there was in the India stuff.) I would also be pleased if some of my friends here in New York (and around the world) wished to contribute with restaurant reviews, amusing happenings, musings on the weather, etc.

You can find the blog at the following unweildy address:


Which brings me to my point: I need a domain name. I’d like to start spreading this blog around, asking those of you who like my writing to recommend it to friends, whatever. But before I do, I think it needs a better name and address. I’m thinking some cool, obscure word would probably be good — something that isn’t already taken, and something that’s memorable and pronounceable. Anyway, clever ideas of all sorts are welcome. The winner will get a lot of gratitude and then no credit at all when I become rich and famous.

And don’t even bother with “zeuma.” It’s already taken.

[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.