New York Food Panoramas

Last weekend we drove down to NYC for one of the major events in our secular calendar: the annual Amherst dinner at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse on the Lower East Side. This was the epochal XXVth dinner, about which a separate post is forthcoming. But even in a short visit we enjoyed so many other bounties of food and friendship in NYC. Plus, some young whippersnapper pointed out to me that in iOS 6.0 your iPhone can take cool panorama photos (be sure to click through to see them full size). Put them together and you’ve got a delightful visit and great self-entertainment options–kids with phones!

These first two shots are from DeRoberti’s, an extreme old-school joint on 1st Ave near the more famous Veniero’s. DeRoberti’s rocks the same tin ceiling and tile walls that were good enough in the late 1890s, and are good enough now. We met up with our old friend Elaine and her husband Jeff, and it was just awesome to hang out, have a few thousand quality calories, and have the place pretty much to ourselves for the kids to ogle the pastries. Elaine and I are both late adopters of being into fitness, and there’s nothing like half-marathon training and delicious coffee and pastry (she abstained! swear to G-d!) to justify each other.

I guess the true mark of a pastry’s impact is whether it turns up in one’s eating fantasies for days afterwards. This cannoli-topped cake seems to have done the job given this post from Elaine on FB today, five days after initial exposure:

I thought of a good house-warming gift! The theme is faux & real 
ricotta. For the real, I purchase the cannoli cake!! YES!!!
http://on.fb.me/WxDg8c For the faux, I make tofu-spinach "ricotta" 
lasagne minis in a silicone muffin pan, and that's part of the 
gift too. Along with the recipe. http://on.fb.me/TKlqQQ

This is a wonderful exercise in public management of fantasy combined with an undercurrent of “vegan-curious” cooking behavior, all suggesting a perfectly healthy alignment of mind, body and spirit.

After a refreshing late-morning snack at DeRoberti’s, we returned to our friends’ house in Queens (another Jewish-Baha’i family…we’re everywhere!) and dropped off our younger set for a happy afternoon of play. Then, without taking a second to reconsider doing this a few hours before Sammy’s, we went with mature Ms. A. and our friend Eric to Kabab Cafe in the Egyptian part of Astoria, Queens. Amy and I went here maybe 12 years ago with some of the same food obsessives that got us into Sammy’s trouble. The place is a true hole in the wall with maybe 15 seats. No menu. Ali, the chef and owner, comes over and banters with you and tells you what’s up. If you’re not going big guns for the lamb sweetbreads etc., but instead just want to top off before your annual food orgy that night, you can get a simple avocado salad (the avocados are presented whole but also mushed up with wonderful spices) and a mezze platter with light, tender falafel, foul (pronounced like “fool,” fool), baba ganoush, and pretty much everything else a boy could want. It is one of those NY places where all the races and nations of the world converge to eat the best foul available, and a food person can fantasize about a coming Age of Aquarius that starts when people of irreconcilable differences look up with the same expression of tearful delight from a mezze plate and realize that we are all brothers and sisters. We were sitting right in front of a 100-year-old map showing the settlement of said races and nations in the City of New York (Frenchies were in what is now Koreatown), which kind of brought home this same melting-pot-full-of-stew aspiration.

Next up: Sammy’s!

 

Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco is a post-Adrienne Rich poet-engineer dude

Monday was certainly a day for notable oratory through the ages: Obama’s second Inaugural, 50th anniversary of King’s March on Washington + the MLK holiday, 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. And, next up, the 44-year-old Cuban-Spanish-American gay poet, Richard Blanco! No jitters, man…just read the poem you managed to write in the last few weeks for perhaps the largest live audience ever to hear a poem read aloud.

As more illustrious commenters than I have noted, Blanco’s poem makes effective use of an expansive, encompassing Whitmanian approach, using the “oneness” of the day, the light, and other elements of the landscape to reference the breadth of American experiences, while bringing these together in a common experience of life. He weaves together his parents’ immigrant sacrifices, (somewhat overly) newsy/political references to Newtown and 9/11, and sensual evocations of American language and the physical sensations of life and work.

If you’re the Guardian, then you point out that even a child knows America isn’t the only place that has a sun, light, etc…but you would say that, wouldn’t you? Everyone seems to agree that Blanco struck a pretty darn good balance between the public-poetry mission of the Inauguration and the more rigorous artistic standards we might want to apply to poetry in its normally less-public sphere.

Hi, I’m not a hot Latino Robert Pinsky, but I played one at the Second Obama Inaugural

Beyond this “Winners/Losers” snap analysis of the poem’s success, reading the poem gave me a wonderful opportunity to learn about his story as the only Inaugural poet to be…wait for it…a licensed Professional Engineer! (Please read this early news article on Blanco, and his path from engineering to poetry, that manages to include the phrase “turn for the verse” in the title.) Blanco put himself through an MFA night school program at FIU in Miami while already working as a civil engineer and designing, among other things, improvements to Sunset Drive that he addressed in his only previous occasional poem, “Photo of a Man on Sunset Drive: 1914, 2008.” I’m sure that Whitman would have found a lot to admire in a poet-engineer who happens to be a smokin’ dude with a lion tattoo and a white Miata (in his younger days at least…now that he is a middle-aged man living in Maine I imagine him driving a Forester “LL Bean Edition”).

But “One Today” reminded me not so much of Whitman but of Whitman’s descendant, Adrienne Rich. In particular, Blanco’s effort to evoke America’s people and geography, summoning a shared constellation/landscape that we are invited to map and name for ourselves, draws powerfully on Rich’s 1991 masterwork “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” As I wrote last year after Rich’s death, “Atlas” offers a magisterial sense of hope and possibility, even in such a world (or country) full of pain and injustice. And I happen to know that in the early 90s, just after “Atlas” came out, Blanco was in a course on Contemporary Poetry that looked at Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Jorge Luis Borges (fun Latin American take on contemporary poetry! FIU represent!). So the odds are that Blanco opened up “Atlas” during his formative years as a poet seeking to represent America and his immigrant parents, and read these opening lines:

A dark woman, head bent, listening for something
--a woman's voice, a man's voice or
voice of the freeway, night after night, metal streaming downcoast
past eucalyptus, cypress, agribusiness empires
THE SALAD BOWL OF THE WORLD, gurr of small planes
dusting the strawberries, each berry picked by a hand
in close communion, strawberry blood on the wrist,
Malathion in the throat, communion,
the hospital at the edge of the fields,
prematures slipping from unsafe wombs,
the labor and delivery nurse on her break watching
planes dusting rows of pickers.

An Atlas of the Difficult World (Norton, 1991), p. 3

Blanco’s mission in the Inauguration was not to frame his vision of the country in such pointed or political terms, but he sure seems to have been grounded in Rich’s late-20th-century use of the Whitman toolbox. I like to imagine Blanco reading Rich’s passionate commitment to evoking “others” that make up America, and her beautiful and wrenching language of communion that links together the migrant workers, the fruit, the poison that keeps the fruit “fresh,” and the nurse who witnesses the true origin and price of this American bounty.

Blanco’s father, he writes in “One Today,” “[cut] sugarcane / so my brother and I could have books and shoes,” while Rich’s father was the first Jewish doctor tenured at Johns Hopkins. There is so much to think about and compare in these two poets’ wrestlings with their fathers, America, gay identity and what it means to think of your country…but it’s past my bedtime. Despite Rich’s famous rejection of public honors from our previous Democratic President, I hope that there is something of Rich’s spirit in all of us that feels a special pride in Blanco’s Inaugural poem, not just on its poetic merits but for celebrating the poetic lineage from which it emerges.

New Year’s resolution time! or, the art of losing

Back, you fiends! My word of the year is “Chimichanga!”

This time of year, Amy draws upon her vast reserves of positive emotional energy to rise above how pale and exhausted we look and lead her women’s gathering posse through various start-your-year-right exercises. By the time we realize it is spring somewhere else, the group will be armed with a vision board and a Word of the Year to hold up like Sting against the orcs that plague the year’s cave tunnels.The impact that Amy has had on this group over ten years is at the level of a shamaness or a powerful anti-depressant, so I have taken a Fake It Till You Make It approach to thinking about these activities. Something must be very right here!

The vision board exercise is actually helpful in getting out onto the page all of the dimensions of your life that need attention. Amy and I find ourselves periodically subject to a willful not-seeing when it comes to the piles of stuff temporarily stacked for months at a time in various places around the house, or the serious monthly conversations about budgets and careers that are missing from the post-bedtime calendar. It’s still early enough in the year that we might yet at least see what it is we need to address.

These past few weeks I’ve enjoyed a flood of beautiful writing in The Awl on how it is we come to grips with not having an answer to everything. Not exactly advice to let go of trying, but to recognize that we as adults are all in the same boat in our inability to get it all right at all times: a realization which (optimistically) could help us all get along better.

At the same time, I’ve been reading application essays to my graduate program at MIT. One of the essays asks candidates to talk about how they dealt with a setback, and the range of responses has been an interesting window into how people frame themselves for the MIT audience. Some of these responses are deeply, surprisingly personal: losses of parents, spouses, careers for people still in their 20s. A few of those who disclose these traumas are able to spin them as somehow helping point their way towards MIT; for a few others, who may be outstanding engineering graduates and leaders of people, but are not as polished as some who have been in the application rat-race all their lives, the losses are still raw. The dichotomy between these earnest efforts to talk about the worst traumas in life and the other essay responses–about why you want to work in manufacturing, for example–points to the challenge of talking seriously about loss/failure in the context of an application package that seeks to prove you are a future Chief Operating Officer

Ironically, MIT is a bastion of “fail fast,” a watchword in the entrepreneurship “space” (I love using that word, which sadly has nothing to do with the return of Vejur to the Solar System). The idea of “fail fast” is that a good entrepreneur will egolessly recognize when their brilliant idea, sunk costs, and many weeks of all-nighters have come to naught and will cut the cord to move onto the next great thing. But this ideal coexists at MIT with a long history of student suicides: people who arrive never having failed at anything, and, confronted with a campus full of people smarter than them, can’t figure out what their lives are worth. Perhaps it is those who can survive this shock to a youthful genius’ ego and keep going that are best suited to joining the fast-fail entrepreneurial elite.

Elizabeth Bishop

For the prospective MBAs who describe themselves as people for whom “failure is not an option,” and indeed for all of us at this season, our old friend Elizabeth Bishop has some great advice that keeps growing on me. What I love about this poem is that she talks about increasingly profound losses–from car keys to home countries and her beloved–with a kind of studied off-handednesss. This casual grace is all the more striking given that she conveys it through a really challenging form (the villanelle). Most of the students I’ve gotten to know are at a place in their lives where the art of losing is quite distant–though parallel–to the science of failing fast. For them and all of us, let’s hope the scorecard for this New Year’s resolutions is not a disaster.

ONE ART

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

From The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, published by 
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen 
Methfessel. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. 
All rights reserved.

 

A conversation with James Fallows at MIT: manufacturing, China and the US

Yesterday I got the chance to chat with Jim Fallows, who I’ve followed at The Atlantic for years and who just came out with both a great article on manufacturing coming back from China to the US and a book, China Airborne, on how China’s development of its aircraft/airline industry provides a lens into the overall passion/craziness/possibility of China’s development. He was giving a talk at MIT’s Center for International Studies in the beautiful new Media Lab building overlooking the Charles River. I was delighted that he agreed to meet with me and my boss to talk about manufacturing, China and Japan a few minutes before his talk. My dad also joined us for the talk.

Fallows is a long-time Atlantic writer (and past editor) and has an interest in America’s engagement (cultural and economic) with East Asia that is remarkably apposite for my program at MIT. In the late 80s he spent a few years in Japan, writing two books that challenged the fearful/blindered Western take on Japan and Korea’s rise. This was just at the time that MIT authors wrote the Made in America study on regaining economic and manufacturing advantage (from Japan, implicitly), and when MIT teamed up with major US industrial firms to create  Leaders for Manufacturing, as my program was then known. Since then, the US got a bit of its economic/manufacturing mojo back, even continuing its increasing technological edge and productivity through the Great Recession. But then as now, Americans are preoccupied with fears of US eclipse and dominance by an East Asian juggernaut.

Fallows’ take on this is grounded in a rich, humane sense of China’s many contradictions, based on his three years living there with his linguist wife Deborah, which built his view of China both as a true rising leader among nations and an assemblage of contradictory and conflicting interests that can’t possibly be viewed as one monolithic threat (or pretender). In his talk at MIT, he mentioned the Gold Rush atmosphere in China today that makes it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for journalists to find stories that reflect the country’s rapid change.

The basic framework he laid out for the coming years is the country’s process of political change, which he saw as a true contradiction: the system has to change, because the people want to evolve and the country’s society and institutions cannot progress without political change; and, the system cannot change, because of the vested interests, corruption, and fearfulness and insecurity that (it may puzzle Americans to discover) still characterize many Chinese officials’ reactions to events. His summary: “take China seriously without being afraid of it.”

Fallows, James Bond-like, surveys the Boston skyline while working to suppress the forces of Bad Beer

Enough of the serious talk…what does Jim Fallows really think about the crises of our day, the “think piece” Chevron ads in the Atlantic, and the latest accessories for iPads? I shouldn’t say–I have to save something for my Teen Beat tell-all–but, OK, he is just as genially interested and polymathically broad in his expertise in person as he comes across in his blog. In chatting with him and my boss Don, it was interesting to hear his perception that China did not now, and might not soon, challenge the US with any peer-competitive major companies the way Japan did in the 80s with Mitsubishi, Toyota and Sony. His new piece on manufacturing’s return (somewhat) from China to the US talks about an artisanal maker of iPad cases in San Francisco, DODOcase, and at one point he took out his iPad encased in the bamboo faux-book case to demonstrate something. He had mapped out his talk using a fishbone-style mind map diagram tool, and seeing this elegantly stark digital document within the retro, real materials of the case gave Fallows the sort of cyberpunk wizard aura I remember from early William Gibson characters.

All in all, it was a great moment of leveraging my unlikely identify as a spokesperson for MIT’s leading manufacturing graduate programto meet an author I admire and see the interesting parallels in his own engagement with Asia over the past few decades with our own program’s evolution. Next time with beer.

 

Amanda Palmer @ The Paradise

From the Amanda Palmer tour. Credit: Instagram user Owl_Soup

Every seven years, Amy and I rise from our suburban lethargy and go to a rock concert. Last night we saw Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra at The Paradise, on the last night of their US tour.

Our consensus was: amazing performance (2 1/2 hours), both Amanda Palmer and band (including horns and strings!) totally committed to what they are doing, but not something we really know well enough to blow our heads open as it seemed to do for most others in the crowd.

Amanda Palmer at the legendary First Avenue club (home of Prince!) in Minneapolis. Credit: Instagram user Fotodog

I can’t really say much about the music that will be helpful. You should check out her “Theater is Evil” album (click link for free album stream), on which my favorite tracks are “Do it with a Rockstar” and “Want it Back.” She started out in Dresden Dolls, which you might know for their Cabaret-punk hit “Coin-Operated Boy” of about 2004. I’m not linking to any videos because they are all deeply NSFW.

What’s interesting is how I came to know about her: Twitter. I think it happened when I somehow saw her commentary earlier this year on Lana del Rey. She was apparently blown away by “Video Games” (which I love too) and then maybe didn’t like the rest of the Born to Die disc, but still dwelled at length on Video Games and did a few covers. I got to be interested in Amanda Palmer’s musings on Twitter and on the Kickstarter project she had going to fund what became her current album. And, as part of my project to live large and get me and Amy out of the burbs monthly, I got us tickets in June for the show last night.

From left: Josh, random hot Amanda Palmer groupie

This makes two artists I like a lot that I’ve heard about because of tweets on some random subject. The first was Robyn, last year, who I heard about because of a tweet by a defense/security writer. Amanda Palmer has quite an intense social media presence–just recently she happened to send a tweet about whether people had insurance or not, and it exploded into a discussion that went way beyond her own devoted followers. The fact that I heard about her (in her new incarnation), heard about the show, and became at least a bystander to this intense community of people following/loving/hating her–all through Twitter–is kind of cool. I am glad to be not quite too old to be able to ride part of this wave.

 

Holiday convergence: Veterans Day/Birth of Baha’ullah

Last night was Erev (night before–little Jewish humor for ya) the Birth of Baha’u’llah. Baha’u’llah was the founding figure of the Baha’i Faith, which Amy has been part of since her 20s, and since the faith started in what’s now Iran most of the Baha’i folks in our local community are Iranian exiles. There is no clergy in the faith, and so worship happens in community gatherings at people’s homes (or a center in a bigger city), centered on readings and prayers. I’ve spent a fair share of time looking contemplatively at the weave of Persian carpets listening to prayers chanted in Farsi. This would be kind of like a Japanese person marrying into a Jewish family and paging through a Marc Chagall siddur at Passover every year, taking in the vibe and wondering what it’s all really about.

An ecumenical spread: from left: Persian candy-cookies, “Hajjibullin” (sic), Amy’s cupcakes

The vibe is recent immigrants, having left Iran for work or study or with urgency, many of whom have achieved professional success and comfort in the US, and all of whom are grateful for the religious liberty that is denied them by the Iranian regime. But there is always the saudades of the emigrant for home, plus sadness over what is happening to Baha’is in Iran. The Baha’is in Newton were glad to be able to celebrate the birth of Baha’u’llah with some special grub that someone had brought back from Iran. I’ll just quote without comment the explanation of the round cookies above: “A Muslim person who has been on the Hajj to Mecca is called Hajji. The baker who invented these cookies must have been a Hajji, and these cookies look sort of like nuts, so they are called Hajjibullin (sic), or Hajji’s Nuts. But I guess when they translate the name into English they use a different word.” It’s true: there is no other way to describe the taste except as Hajji’s Nuts!

A Baha’i nine-pointed star pendant for those serving in the US Armed Forces

Baha’is are forbidden from combat, but they do serve in the US Armed Forces in noncombatant roles. The juxtaposition of the Baha’i holiday and Veterans Day made me grateful that our armed forces, while full of their own troubles, have at times been able to push US society forward in some aspects of equality of opportunity. Not that this is a good standard of comparison, but suffice to say you don’t find too many Iranian Jews or Baha’is in the Revolutionary Guard.

 

 

 

Miss A. and a friend demonstrate the sheer happiness and sense of virtuous giving that comes from buying a Hostess Cupcake at the bake sale. They are kind of slumming here since we mostly were selling home made cupcakes and cookies.

As an act of service for the holiday and for her Peacemakers class, Amy organized a bake sale at a local playground. The children in her class chose to raise money to benefit people in NY/NJ still recovering from the storm. On any other mid-November afternoon it would have been a hellish mock-prison camp exercise for the girls to have them cavorting in high-40s and light rain on the fall-safe squishy playground surface. But today it was 70 and sunny, and the group sold out, earning [a decent amount].

 

Your Veil is a Battleground: Kiana Hayeri’s Photographs of Iranian Women

Last night I saw a talk by a young Iranian-Canadian photographer named Kiana Hayeri (notably in the same room where I saw a talk last month on the future of the aircraft carrier. That’s MIT, baby!)

“Mona,” before and after. Credit: Kiana Hayeri

Her work is focused on how young people in Iran define themselves–specifically their images and appearances–in the context of the country’s oppressive regime with its “morality police” and real police. She earned the trust of enough young women to be able to photograph them before and after their elaborate make-up and head-covering rituals. The side by side photos, as well as a short movie of one woman’s ritual, strike me and Amy mostly because the women are so much more provocative / sexualized in appearance “after” than in the privacy of their homes. The title of one of her projects, “Your Veil is a Battleground,” plays on the 1989 feminist artist Barbara Kruger’s well-known “Your Body is a Battleground.”

They see me rollin/They hatin/They tryin catch me ridin dirty. Credit: Kiana Hayeri

At the talk Hayeri described a run-in she had with the ladies of the morality police, who pulled her over from the sidewalk for wearing leggings instead of pants. Luckily for her she was able to find a relative to bring some officially acceptable modest pants to the morality police station. Hayeri showed side by side photos of herself before and after this incident, and the difference between “immoral” before and “moral” after is barely perceptible.

“Dena,” before and after. Credit: Kiana Hayeri

As one of the Iranian people in the audience pointed out, even the ladies of the morality police pay a lot of attention to their makeup and appearance.

Hayeri’s next project is photographing the network of underground art and cultural spaces that people have put together in Tehran and elsewhere around Iran. Her work gives the tantalizing hint of the common interests and connections Americans might form with Iranians once they get out from under their brutal political/religious regime.

Obama, Warren and the Great Seitan: Victorious

Me and O on Election Night at the Hard Rock in Lisbon

During the 2008 campaign I was living in Portugal and spent way too much time on the beautiful train ride along the Tagus River peering into the inch-square screen of my Blackberry, reading Andrew Sullivan and TPM and other bloggers’ accounts of that amazing season. I made calls into Pennsylvania and Virginia, including one election eve call to an older African-American man in Newport News who said he was going to ride his bike over to the synagogue to cast his ballot for Obama (that’s America, baby!). And when they called it at around 5AM local time, I totally lost it. It was such a catharsis after the shame and fury of the Bush years, and seemed to promise a new era for the country.

Nate Silver, statistics dude, “America’s Boyfriend”

I’m still totally behind Obama this time around, but with what Jim Fallows calls the marriage-vs.-first date awareness of his goods and bads rather than starry-eyed hopefulness. This Presidential election has been all about Nate Silver for me: what does the data say about the results of campaigning, not how do we all feel about it. Well, I guess I still tuned into Andrew Sullivan, who after the first debate chronicled one man’s descent into the O-byss in somewhat alarming fashion. I had to turn the dude off for a while.

But I also took a tip from a friend who is a fellow Obamanaut, but had also gotten out to work for local candidates. I worked for the Elizabeth Warren Senate campaign and found a very different connection to her message, which grabbed a lot of Boston-area people in a kind of unrepentant, “f@#k yeah, we are Massachusetts liberals and Scott Brown is NOT OUR REGULAR GUY” way. I made calls and on Election Day was a poll observer, watching my precinct neighbors check in to vote, ages 18 to 87. The idea was to update likely Warren voter lists in real time to allow efficient get out the vote efforts throughout the day. In the end, it was probably overkill (but good database development for the next time), as Warren won handily on an amazing night for female Senate candidates. Living in a blue state, it felt good to work on a campaign on the neighborhood level rather than just hoping to convince New Hampshire voters to grace my candidate with their favour.

His Seitanic Majesty

And now the election is over. We’ll see if evidence of the continued, dramatic transformation of the electorate can make a dent in psycho Republican obstructionism in Congress this time around. I’d like to think that these Ohio Romney supporters will wake up to realize that Obama’s second term does not, in fact, promise an America turned into a “bleak hellscape.” But, not to freak them out further, I did make what I’d have to say was truly a Great Seitan just a few days before the election. I boiled up the flour with some choice organic kelp and other gloop, made a vegan but unspeakably rich sauce, whipped up some creamed spinach and mashed spuds, and the Lady Seitan made her badass roasted veg (for our school’s progressive dinner). This was from the Candle 79 cookbook, by the chefs at a terrific NY vegan restaurant. I’m not saying this was a Seitanic ritual heralding an end-times scouring of meat from our diets, but if that’s the way you want to take it, I can’t stop you.

 

A’s first show! Niki and The Dove @ The Paradise

A is straight edge and proud

Tonight the stars aligned for Miss A. to go with me to her first real show: Niki and The Dove, my latest Swedish electronic fave (Robyn definitely the gateway drug here), playing an all-ages show as 8PM opener for some other Swedish band I hadn’t heard of (Miike Snow). My first show was with Larry R. and his dad and my dad in a box at the old Capital Center to see Van Halen supporting their Diver Down album. Memorable scene: David Lee Roth wearing chaps and nothing else. Great father-son moment there. By comparison this show was appropriately girl-friendly, early, and dedicated more to spirit animals and faux-tribalism (but charming in a Swedish way) than to sweaty men singing about what we like to call inappropriate topics.

Niki and The Dove are two Swedes in their late 20s, a girl singer and a keyboard guy. She sounds like a sweet woodland creature when greeting the crowd in English, but has a convincing electronica-soul voice on many tracks of their Instinct album. I’ve really enjoyed starting some pre-dawn runs listening to Tomorrow and Drummer (see video above). But there is also a certain Stevie Nicks-like shamaness flakiness to them that can get a bit cloying, especially on earbuds. Live, the bass really helped these tracks. Malin is a good dancer (as A pointed out, an important part of being a performer!) even in the short stage allowed an opening act.

Let’s have no more of that tween moshing, aight?

All in all a very satisfying evening with my semi-grownup daughter and a band that I like very early in their growth cycle. Though not bound for Robyn-like superstardom, maybe we will actually be able to say we saw them when…

Carrier War! military geekout over lunch

The classic board game Carrier War! Photo: boardgamegeek.com (yes!)

In a funny counterpoint to sitting in Monday on His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s seminar on stewarding our global resources, today I was able to sneak out to a lunchtime seminar on The Future of the Aircraft Carrier at the MIT Security Studies Program. Now, if you’re reading this (Mom and Dad) and wondering, Does Josh actually have a job? I can only say that I am fortunate to have an employer that values work-life balance and to have a brief lull between peak work weeks. No, for real, I partake in the intellectual smorgasborg that is MIT as part of my immersion in a dynamic faculty/staff/student ecosystem that rewards (if only tacitly, not in terms of actual professional development points) general awareness of the Institute’s multiverse. K?

While some may regard my devotion to Adrienne Rich and spending most of my career in the People’s Republic of Cambridge (not to mention veganism!) as sure signs of a pacifist hair-shirt outlook, in fact I grew up just as fascinated by war as the next lad. I fondly remember the aircraft carrier exhibit at the Air and Space Museum growing up, which may be updated now but still apparently has a bosun’s whistle piercing the air, and the Zeroes and Corsairs and other planes that were part of it. And I’ve been very interested in China’s efforts to become a carrier power at sea–punctuated just this week by “touch-and-go” operations of a land-based fighter plane on their Ukrainian-built carrier Liaoning–as part of their efforts to sort of become a responsible global power while sort of not. [If you also find this compelling please read Jim Fallows’ new book on aviation as a lens for China’s growth, China Airborne, and tell me how it is.] So this was a happy opportunity.

Comparison of different carrier sizes: from top, pre-WWII USS Langley, WWII US Essex class, Nimitz class (with 747 outline superimposed), proposed Queen Elizabeth (UK), proposed Russian carrier. Credit: Prof. Robert Rubel, USNWC

The seminar was by Prof. Robert “Barney” Rubel (Barney Rubble–get it?), the Dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College in beautiful Newport, RI. Rubel has the air of the salty 30-year carrier pilot vet he is, and doesn’t mind saying he likes ’em big when it comes to carriers, citing the disproportionate advantage the 100,000-ton Nimitz class carriers have over smaller ships in terms of “what we can throw off the front end.” He alluded to the irresistible appeal of carriers by quoting a colleague: “Don’t ever let a US President on a carrier, or he’ll let the Navy build as many as they want.” But the seminar was primarily about the arc of the carrier’s role, from initially (in the pre-WWII era) being the eyes of the fleet, to its current status as geopolitical icon and center of the fleet, to perhaps a future role as something other than top banana.

Without getting into all the details, Rubel defended vigorously the carrier’s unique ability to serve as a floating airfield–for example, providing the only operational tactical air power for the first few weeks of Gulf War I–while also noting that politicians and Naval leaders often break rules of naval disposition of forces (like not getting tied down to a land position) in order to wave the big stick of a carrier group, and that the threats to carriers of land-based missiles are now getting cheaper and more reliable. He suggested that carriers basically should never go into the Persian Gulf or the Straits of Hormuz and risk attack by small boats. The most interesting trend is towards switching out all or part of the manned tactical aircraft that now fly from carriers in favor of long-distance UAVs and/or advanced missiles. The carrier would then remain a sovereign (in every sense) airfield but regain flexibility, the ability to stand off further from shore/targets, etc.

Retro-uniformed Chinese naval officers aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning during its formal entry into service on Sept. 25, 2012

Rubel closed by talking about how the mission of the US and allied navies is to protect the global system of commerce, travel and communications, and that carrier operations and whether or not to build them should be seen in light of that mission. Interestingly, he said that he often travels to China and that he and his colleagues keep pushing the PLAN (Chinese navy) to build carriers–better that than invest in more surface-based missiles that the Chinese 2nd Artillery can use to blast US ships in a hypothetical conflict about/near Taiwan. But the real reason they push China towards a carrier is as part of a broader campaign to get them to embrace their responsibilities as a global power to join in the defense of the global system of which they are an essential part. The Chinese development of their carrier, in parallel with/in opposition to the “Asian pivot” of US military forces, will be one interesting lens through which to observe how much the Chinese take on a role of globally-minded superpower. And for kids, a 1/350 scale model is now available!

Dalai Lama at MIT

I loved this event listing: “Saturday: Parent’s Weekend. Monday: Dalai Lama.” It reminds me of when Jane’s Addiction played a small hockey rink in Fitchburg, MA, and they had one of those old white letters on black felt signboards that said “Tuesday: Junior Figure Practice. Wednesday: Janes Addiction. Thursday: Peewee Practice.”

For reasons I don’t quite understand, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has long had an association with MIT. The Dalai Lama has visited MIT several times, and despite MIT’s many dealings with China, there is even a Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT (its URL resists provocation and is just thecenter.mit.edu). I must admit I’ve seen “Free Tibet” bumperstickers on many more occasions than I have actually devoted time to learning about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. I did see the Beastie Boys’ Tibetan Freedom concert in 1997 but did not actually learn a lot, despite MCA’s best efforts. So when I had the chance to volunteer as an usher at today’s seminar at MIT with the Dalai Lama, I thought it would be a good way to check it out.

MIT Prof. Penny Chisholm talks with the Dalai Lama about geoengineering. The slide depicts results of a pilot effort in the Pacific to seed phytoplankton with iron to stimulate photosynthesis. Chisholm said this is a bad idea.

The session was organized as two sets of panel discussions, where MIT faculty and other experts presented on issues related to climate change, global healthcare, and various ethical and political issues related to the environment. The Dalai Lama was a discussant, invited to give his perspective on the various talks. My favorite of the talks was by Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. Penny Chisholm, who is an expert on photosynthesis by plankton and also a noted children’s science author. Chisholm was presenting on geoengineering–things like seeding the sky with clouds or putting mirrors in space in order to engineer a solution to climate change. She basically said that this is a bad idea because it diminishes the urgency people/society feel to address climate change fundamentals, and because the global climate system is very complex, such that full deployment of something that looks good in a small-scale experiment can ever really be predictable. And once you start major fertilization of the oceans with iron or launch orbital sun-deflecting mirrors, it’s not reversible.

The Dalai Lama’s response to this was interesting. I don’t know that I fully understood his reply but he seemed to say, in effect, because we must take the long view of addressing climate change we should actually consider some limited forms of geoengineering. Even when Chisholm replied saying, “We have to be careful,” the Dalai Lama came back to her urging more boldness.

For me the event felt like a welcome but slightly strained offering by preeminent figures in the world of Science, Engineering and Business to a preeminent figure from a different dimension. At MIT there is a significant emphasis on the power of “human factors” (a collaborative ethos, an entrepreneurial ecosystem, a platform for sharing ideas and ways to make that effective) to accelerate/broaden change that starts with technology. So having the Dalai Lama engage in dialogue with these folks is consistent. I guess that the Dalai Lama’s insights in this instance were more confirming rather than eye-opening.

 

Cheatin’ road trip pt. 2: Legends of the Wu’s-Garden Clan

Please, no photos. You didn’t see me here.

The road trip thru Hoboken to Baltimore to see Amy’s family, and for me to have an awesome run+CrossFit morning with friends, was all pretty cool. But from that base camp we (third-person dragging-Amy-along tense) had big plans to attend my 25th high school reunion in Reston and, oh by the way, cheat on over to Wu’s Garden Restaurant, which I ate at with my family about 300 times growing up and was recently praised by Mr. Momofuku himself as being the best joint in the DC area. While it may be technically possible to stay straight at Wu’s, that would mean no Kung Pao Chicken (or Kung Pao any other mammal that happens to get into the kitchen, according to unnamed critics), and really, what would be the point of that?

From top left: Kung Pao Chicken, Moo Shi Pork, chow foon, and General Tso’s chix

My ever-accommodating classmate Sarita agreed to accommodate my perverse request. We had two of my core dishes from growing up, the Kung Pao Chicken and Moo Shi Pork, plus a chow foon and a General Tso’s that someone not down with the Wu ordered. It was not quite the exhilarating/heart-congealing experience that I remembered from days of yore, but boy was it good. And what better way to make a good impression at Reunion than loading up Wu-style beforehand?

Reunion itself was basically good. Down from 200+ (out of 600) classmates five years ago to about 70 this year–one of the organizers put this down to the economy, plus Facebook letting people know what’s up with enough people that you just don’t need to turn up at reunions. There were at least a couple of people who I wasn’t already in touch with that were great to see in their evolved but not much changed middle-aged selves. The statement someone made from the 10th reunion basically held true: for those who had been so much cooler/jockier/hotter than me in high school, it was hard to recognize people because they were being so nice. And because it just doesn’t matter now.

Ishmael surveys the basket of biscuits and muffins with a proprietary gaze

This morning we freshened up with my man Ishmael and family at the Florida Avenue Grill, an amazing old-time Southern-style diner in DC. If I were true to the spirit of the place I would have had the fried pork chop with heavenly grits and two eggs like my buddy. Or the “half-smoke” (pork and beef sausage) like his lovely wife. But the biscuits are the real highlight for me–best I’ve had since a coma-inducing meal outside Roanoke 18 years ago. You can probably tell from the photo that they’ve been through the butter-misting station a few times and have an amazing crispness on the outside, remaining tender and buttery on the inside, or perhaps floury is a better description since it is mostly butter. Don’t mess with the original.

The Cheater’s Guide to Love: Eating in Hoboken

Amy and girls inside Luca Brasi’s underneath a fake pergola, which E referred to as a sukkah

We made our way down to Baltimore today with a lunch stop in Hoboken, my home during the 90s. When Amy and I were courting and she lived in Boston, having amazing Italian subs in Hoboken took the edge off her long Peter Pan bus ride to see me. Was it when we ate a Sweet Marie sub from Luca Brasi’s on the campus of Stevens Tech, overlooking Manhattan, that we Really Knew for the first time?

M. tucks into her order of mashed potatoes (??!?) while I eat a Sweet Marie

In case you didn’t know, the Sweet Marie is perhaps the least vegan-cheatin’ option at Luca Brasi’s Italian deli at the corner of 1st and Park in Hoboken, on the same block as my former shul and two blocks from my last apartment–I had it good! The Sweet Marie is scrumptious homemade “muzz” with sun-dried tomatoes and arugula. It’s been about eight years since I last had one and it (all) went down just as blissfully as in the old days.

A. with her new BFFL, the meatball sub

M. went for the whose-child-is-this-really choice of a side order of muzz and a container of mashed potatoes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! A. and E. went traditional with a meatball sub. They couldn’t finish and Amy and I were forced to help them out. This is all part of my philosophy around vegan cheating: don’t eat a chicken nugget, but cheat rarely and with quality. An added bonus is that I now have a much greater appreciation for a serious meatball.

We cheated on over to my old stomping ground, the City Hall Bakery, to maybe pick up a crumb cake Danish. But it turns out this regular old bakery is now the subject of some kind of reality show. Cake Boss–heard of it? Anyway without showing Hoboken ID you have to wait in line outside to get served.

City Hall, where Police and Parking don’t talk

Being in the vicinity of City Hall reminded me of the first week I moved to town. I had been living across the street from a synagogue in Highland Park and got a little complacent about auto security. I noticed right away that just about everyone had a Club on their steering wheel and thought I ought to get one too. Within days, while I thought about Club color choices, my car was stolen off Garden St. (in fact right outside the middle school). I reported it blah blah, got the Club for whatever car was coming next, and then, two weeks later, walked by the very same block my car was stolen from to find it sitting there with a bunch of parking tickets on the window. When I brought up the idea that maybe Parking Enforcement might have figured out this was the car reported stolen, the response was an eloquent “Whaddaya??”

Just down the block from Luca Brasi’s is another former stopping point from my lapsarian life in Hoboken. The First St. Deli is just a joint where every so often I would go in on my way to teach at Rutgers to pick up an egg and cheese sandwich, gobbling it down on Route 1 and 9 going down to New Brunswick and thinking about how to work in eggs to the day’s discussion. The title of this blog is a shout out to Junot Diaz, the Rutgers grad and MIT professor who just won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant timed to the release of his new collection, This Is How You Lose Her. One thing I’ve picked up from reading Diaz and hearing him talk about his work is how you need to always be getting more disciplined with yourself. The daily, weekly and monthly routine is essential to defining a space for success as a writer, or as a parent or as anything else that is pretty much free-form and life-long. The egg-sandwich-on-the-lap while driving approach to curriculum prep (not that that was the only way I did it, mind you) is just a reminder of how far I was from being locked in on effective teaching. Mostly eggless, I continue to try to get better.

Working the phones for Warren

Elizabeth Warren, a great American story: she transcended her floppy-tied youth to achieve great things

Tonight I did some phone banking for Elizabeth Warren, who you may know is in a very tight race against incumbent U.S. Sen. Scott Brown. In a very deep-blue state, so blue that Mitt Romney has to distance himself furiously from his tenure as our governor, Brown is working his effective “reasonable man” and down-home pickup truck driver persona to try and convince Democrats that he’s more their guy than Elizabeth Warren. As a registered Independent, Amy gets mailers from Brown bragging about the bills he joined Obama in passing. And I admit that Warren has a bit of a cloistered-in-Cambridge air about her sometimes, and has not helped herself with this Native American ancestry business, and is maybe more of a national progressive dreamboat than the ideal fit for MA-SEN. (Hysterical New Yorker cartoon this week with politicians in baseball outfits says “Warren started her career in the Indians organization.”) But you know what? Warren did some great stuff starting the Federal consumer advocacy organization and isn’t afraid to talk smack about Republican extremism and Ayn Rand BS. She is smart and independent-minded, unlike the pathetic hack Democratic candidates who lost to Romney for Governor and Brown for Senator. And Scott Brown gets NO PASS for being pseudo-moderate: he caucuses with Republicans and gets a vote on Supreme Court Justices.

Proving yet again that the Amherst Class of 1991, especially that even more awesome group that lived in the now-demolished James Hall, is full of people conducting Lives of Consequence, I found myself at the phone bank with my James ’91 neighbor Stephanie. She said she was nervous before making the calls, and her husband said, “Just imagine you’re Sarah Miller, walking the mean streets of Reno for Obama: you have to get out there and get the information your candidate needs!” And that was enough to buck her up and get her dialing for “Strongly Warren” or “Strongly Brown” voters.

I never thought of myself as a political junkie but in recent years I’ve turned into that guy who waits anxiously for Nate Silver to update his 538 blog (now part of the NY Times), with its geeky noodling over polls, and hits refresh multiple times during the day on political blogs like Talking Points Memo. And tonight the dingy surroundings reminded me of when I first worked for a campaign back in high school, when Democratic tomato can John Milliken took on now-32-year (!) incumbent Frank Wolf (R) in the VA-10 district. Milliken got just 40% but I reconnected with a girl I knew in elementary school who agreed to go on what became my first date ever. That’s the passion that phone banking can create, people! By the way, props to Wolf for supporting oppressed Baha’is in Iran.

But actually the two actual conversations I had tonight were a very helpful reminder of the weird world of “high-information voting” I inhabit, and how different it is from most people’s lives and struggles. I talked to one lady who basically was just waking up to the fact that an election was coming up and said I was pretty much the first information she’d received about the campaign or either candidate. Wow. And then another lady talked plaintively about how worried she was about a Mass. teacher’s pension fund policy that somehow precludes her getting full Social Security pension coverage in case something happens to her husband. From my perspective, that has nothing to do with a U. S. Senate campaign, but it was a reminder that I have the luxury of worrying about a whole range of policy topics that don’t put me at immediate risk of my health or livelihood. For this lady, who wakes up every day worrying about the real possibility of losing her safety net, anyone from the President and Senate on down should tell her how they can help her out with her Mass. state policy problem. For sure, it won’t be Brown that looks to throw the teacher’s union a lifeline. I’ll be making more of these calls as I begin to heed Samuel L. Jackson’s advice to complacent 2008 Obama supporters.

 

Ringing in the new year

These are what Jews traditionally call the Days of Awe, the ten days between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur when we contemplate the year that is passed, consider how we hope to be “inscribed” in the book of the year that is to come, and make amends to those whom we have upset or worse in the past year. Rosh Hashonah is full of hopes for a sweet new year and its celebration with apples and honey has spread throughout our household, so that the girls can hardly imagine eating apples without honey at any time. But a central moment in the Rosh Hashonah liturgy is the chanting of a very foreboding prayer, the Unetaneh Tokef. In this prayer the congregation declares itself in judgment by G-d and recounts both potential boons and a litany of horrible ways in which some might suffer and die in the year to come, which can be tempered–not avoided–by repentance, prayer and charity.

This litany of possible fates foretold has become very hard to take since my brother’s death, which happened in a way that could have been included in this primal list. But beyond the personal impact for me and my family, I have noticed over the past few years that, at least in our Reform shul, a lot of work is going on to frame the Unetaneh Tokef in less starkly prophetic terms. Without knowing a whole lot about anything, I suspect this is happening more broadly. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who blogs as the Velveteen Rabbi (love it), wrote of the Unetaneh Tokef in terms of the metaphorical work it does to remind of us G-d’s utter abstraction from human existence:

Ultimately, this prayer reminds us, God is “beyond explanation;” this set of metaphors is one way to approach that unknowable reality, but in the end it’s just a human construct, as all of our words for God are.

With something of this perspective perhaps in mind, this year our rabbi preceded the prayer by describing it as the most challenging part of our liturgy, and urged us to think of it in the broader context of our collective effort of repentance and hope for redemption over the Days of Awe. Then the prayer was chanted in Hebrew, but not read aloud afterwards in English. I can’t recall if this has always been our practice, but I do wonder if the greater cushioning of this section of the liturgy reflects a post-September 11 consciousness in our community. Or maybe it reflects the general impulse within Reform Judaism to see ways in which even the most unyielding parts of the liturgy are in dialogue with our desire for tikkun olam, repairing the world, which is based not on an assumption  of a messianic upending of our human world but, instead, on our unrelenting efforts to make it better in our lives and for the next generations.

A few days before Rosh Hashonah, I went to Shabbat evening prayers to say yahrzeit for Aaron: the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish prayer on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. This has become the ritual that might be the most intense connection with his loss that I experience in the whole year, and I look forward to it with dread based on past experience. This year was not as brutal as last year’s tenth anniversary, and I am grateful to have the support of my rabbis and of those at the shul who know my story. But I was struck, as ever, by the many overlapping life-cycle moments that take place in the shul at any given time: mourners, new babies and converts being celebrated, Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids with braces glinting, and others who simply want to welcome the bride of the Sabbath. I wrote a poem about this experience of mourning observance on the eve of Rosh Hashonah and the recitation of the Unetaneh Tokef. As ever, it is, in manufacturing terms, WIP (work in progress), and your comments are welcome, especially if you can point to places that were not clear, were unconvincing, or made you reread. That’s a poet’s Unetaneh Tokef right there in terms of readers’ fates.

—–

Ringing In

 

On the last Shabbat before the new year

I braced in the last row of the sanctuary,

Waiting to greet the bride

And mourn my brother.

 

At the front of the room a family

Leaned together and clasped hands,

Their happy milestone plowed together

With bar mitzvahs and me this night.

 

But as the ark opened, the rabbi’s mic

Picked up the clinks and glissades

Of the Torah undressed of its

Crowns and regalia,

 

And sent back to my corner

The noise of a box of cymbals,

Thrown down steep stairs

To crash open the door

 

Of a past year, written but

Never sealed—the last clanging edge

Wedging the doorframe wide,

A book’s worn binding struck open

 

To where it says some you love

May die by beasts, by water or fire,

The old expedients whose names

Choke beneath the song of this new year.

 

September 2012

 

Copyright © Josh Jacobs 2012

 

To an athlete: remembering Aaron, 11 years after

Me with Aaron at Mile 17 of the 1998 (?) Boston Marathon, on Washington St. in Newton, MA

This year’s remembrance of my brother Aaron on September 11th has been free, thankfully, of the national focus on the terrorist attacks that attended last year’s tenth anniversary. I don’t know what “everyone” is thinking about because I try to avoid the news for the few days on either side of the anniversary. But I could not help thinking about Aaron in the context of my triathlon training all summer and race this past weekend. Aaron ran the Boston Marathon in 1998, finishing in about 3:48. I drove him out to the start in Hopkinton and recall thinking that it took a pretty long time to get out there on the interstate, let alone to run all the way back.

When I started training for the triathlon, I thought of it as primarily a challenge to myself to get more fit and continue to rebound from surgery earlier this year. I realized along the way that I also wanted to echo (however faintly) Aaron’s achievement, and to continue to honor the way he lived his life as best I can. I was also glad for the race, which fell on September 8th, to provide a positive focus for me and my family to counterbalance somewhat the dreadful buildup of anxiety and memories that starts for us each August.

Thinking along these lines, I recently looked again at A. E. Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”. Its thesis is that the athlete who achieves fame and dies early–while still known to himself and others as the star–does well by outrunning the fading glory of athletic (and all mortal) achievements:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

For me the main point here is not so much about athletic accomplishment, but about youth and the opportunity to develop your identity as you grow older. Neither Aaron nor I were ever celebrated as athletes, but did sports as just one aspect of our identities. For him the marathon was not the grand fulfillment of an obsession, but a realignment of his life towards physical pursuits and away from the sedentary intensity of his job. The marathon complete, I don’t think he had set his sights on other big physical challenges, but surely could have taken them on in due time.

As I get further away from the shock of Aaron’s loss, and go through more and more of my central experiences in life without him, I find myself pulled somewhat reluctantly away from the attachment to painful absence that I felt in earlier years. Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., which with singularly Victorian length and eloquence mourns a friend’s untimely death, evokes for me the wretchedness I felt then, contemplating yet another beautiful sunrise or (even) early married life and fatherhood–all wonderful blessings, built on what seemed at times a “blank” foundation:

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.  (VII)

But I no longer feel an inherent effacement of my own life, or of the world, because of Aaron’s absence. I feel instead the sweep of the rich, lived adult experience I have enjoyed since our lives together were snapped off at 32 and 27, and how cruel it is for Aaron that he could not find his own path into adulthood. My opportunity to take on my own limitations and fears and complete the triathlon–as part of the longer-scale ups and downs of working to keep my health–seems such a privilege to me as I contemplate Aaron’s foreshortened life, in which his marathon becomes now a kind of capstone achievement instead of what should have been the first of many, varied, self-defined triumphs.

‘100’ (from 0 to 100 years in 150 seconds) from Filmersblog on Vimeo.

I came across this beautiful video recently in which Dutch people ages 0 to 100 state their ages to the camera. The guy aged 27 reminds me a bit of Aaron: he has an open, cheerful expression, looking as though he knows something about life but is still waiting to be surprised by much more to come. He is also so very young. Seeing the experiences written in the faces of the 73 people after him in the film brought home to me how much Aaron has missed. And how much I miss him.

——–

I wrote this poem last year at this time–my first complete poem about Aaron’s loss. I had big plans then to try and write more poetry in this new phase of my writing life, and perhaps seek publication. But while a bit more poetry has emerged, the vague idea I had of getting published — perhaps even as some journal’s seasonal poem in the early September issue — seems now both far-fetched and distasteful. Plus it remains a work in progress, though still the best I can do for now. I welcome your comments.

How They Got Down

 

The roof deck held the jet-packs, and the teams

Of passing strangers ran the checklist, strapped

 

And counted down from ten. Each stairwell had

Da Vinci helicopters, rigged from cloth

 

And wood to spiral down like maple seeds.

Some broke the glass to pull out sets of wings,

 

Hides and feathers prepped to glide. All came down,

A thousand arcs that slowed to land upon

 

A grid-deck mezzanine above the street.

At any moment they might disembark—

 

Each day the stanchions holding them secure

Let fall a fading phrase, or joke, to wrench

 

Me into smiles, ready again to hear

His part among the chorus of escapes.

The sea is my Neti-pot: my first triathlon

I emerge from the surf, tuxedo under my wetsuit

Yesterday I finished my first triathlon. The Hyannis Sprint Triathlon II, to be precise–“sprint” meaning something you just dash off before starting the real business of your day. Actually it was a big mental and physical challenge to get ready for the race, particularly jumping into the surf to do the swim part (1/4 mile) before the 10 mile bike and 3.5 mile run legs.

I took swim lessons for the first time in about 30 years, from a great instructor at MIT who happens to be a triathlete herself. She managed to convey the basics of freestyle (and breast stroke) technique that have evolved since the mid-1970s, and between her help and the James “Dorky” Bond wetsuit the swim phase went so much better than I had thought/feared it would.

Biking very sloooowly past the beautiful Cape beach grass

Then the bike phase. I spent the first mile or so marveling at just how much seawater had managed to get inside my head and was now flowing all over me (thus the title of this post: don’t knock the Neti Pot until you’ve tried the full immersion version!). Then I cruised along, head held high–actually, way too high, in what could in no way be described as an “aero” position–riding my banana-seat bike with a kickstand on the very same roads as $5000 dudemonger machines.

In case you run into me again on the course–and yes, that’s right, I’ll be back–here are my little rules for who is allowed to pass me during the bike leg:

  • Anyone older than me (age is written on their back right calf): they must be a total badass to pass me
  • Anyone younger than me: obviously they must be more fit
  • Anyone whose bike requires a special truck-mounted pump to inflate its tires
  • Anyone huffing loudly and rhythmically, as though faking orgasm or yogic satori
  • Anyone wearing a unitard: surely letting them pass me is the least I can do to help them cope?
  • The guy driving a flatbed truck loaded with Spot-a-Pots

Anyone else, you best think twice before you step to the Joshinator.

As a first-timer they waived the penalty for wearing nonmatching tri shorts and tri tops

Happily during the run leg I was able to pass some of these very same people who had so boldly crushed me on the bike course. I took particular satisfaction in passing the person who had written on her leg not her age but ਸਤਿ ਨਾਮੁ , which in the Sikh tradition means roughly “There is one god” or “Eat my dust, worm boy.” (Apologies to Sarah M. for any blasphemy there.) But beyond these earthly competitive instincts, I was psyched that I was able to keep a running pace as fast or faster than my training pace.

It was a great culmination to a summer structured by the training tips I got from a book called the 12-Week Triathlete. I was proud to join the ranks of the many other triathlon people from my age group. And having my family there, on September 8th, was a wonderfully positive way to celebrate life together during a difficult season for us all.

Japanese death cults are everywhere! or, my genre fiction hidden shame

Foundational texts for life, or the literary genre that dare not speak its name? The camera flash on Dragonquest is unwittingly symbolic of the book’s impact on my fifth-grade self. Credit: nerdybookclub.wordpress.com

This year I’ve made it halfway through two novels by esteemed literary authors that both manage to make Japanese death cults holed up in mountain fastnesses a central aspect of their plots. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas dude), and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, whose work I know mostly from stories in the New Yorker. How I stopped reading 1Q84 was actually kind of funny…my Minuteman Library e-book loan expired and it up and vanished from my Kindle. Modern times! With 1K Autumns I just sort of lost the ganas to keep going.

[SPOILER ALERT FOR LATE-ARRIVING LITERATURE FANS:] In 1K Autumns, the death cult in the mountains is devoted to hooking up the priests with unsuspecting women–shipped up the mountain by their families under the auspices of the regional priest-lord–to give birth to babies who are then sacrificed to fulfill some hideous BS religious injunction, but whose deaths are masked by a very long-term campaign of writing false letters home by the children as they supposedly grow up happily elsewhere. In 1Q84, the death cult is more directly allusive to Aum Shinrikyo as well as good ‘ol Oceania of Orwell’s 1984, with a super-power-having “Leader” figure who was just getting into the good stuff when my loan ran out and the bits of literature were slurped back into the ether.

Without getting into the depths of my ignorance about Japanese history or literature, I was struck by two globe-bestriding writer dudes happening to end up with this shared plot element in novels appearing more or less simultaneously. Both authors’ approaches to (postmodern) fiction invest the death cults with realistic, horrifying aspects, while at the same time stirring them into the general mix of plot, language and character that evoke broader questions about the nature of narrative, how that relates to society, etc. But you could do that with comic books or baseball too…why death cults? Why Japan?

Backing up a bit, Amy is running her women’s gathering tonight on the topic of favorite books. This morning she was asking me about the books that have had the biggest impact on my life, on how I think, that I have most enjoyed. And maybe because I knew she was putting the list together for a group that I (perhaps unjustly) don’t imagine has much truck with scifi/fantasy, I neglected to mention that, in fact, the books I have most enjoyed this past year include a gorge-a-thon of the entire Song of Ice and Fire series, my sixth reading of China Miéville’s The Scar, and Stephenson’s Reamde (though it might not crack my top five of his works). And at the same time, I found myself stopping Richard Ford’s Canada about 2/3 through, though I think he is one of the world’s best writers and he has answered two different fan letters from me.

Do other people who have pretensions of or careers in literature also feel this same shyness about acknowledging one’s genre-lovin’ “base” self alongside one’s “higher” literary interests? Of late there are some examples of serious literary authors (Michael Chabon, and of course Junot Diaz, who makes amazing use of Tolkein and general D&D-style lore in Oscar Wao) refusing to divide themselves entirely as fans or writers between LITratoore and scifi. But these guys can do whatever they want…it is something else, maybe, for a private citizen to have one’s best books of the year lists be dominated by fantasy.

The last night of summer: reflections on art and training

The roar of crickets in Metro West Boston has been amazing lately

Walking home tonight (later than usual, Amy and girls at sheep farm in VT) after getting off the trolley was like tunneling through a cloud of cricket and frog calls. I think even with partial low-frequency hearing loss I wasn’t missing anything (thanks, cricket tenors!) and the sensation of surround sound was beyond anything yet achieved by Disney. I was reminded that when we lived outside Lisbon, where there weren’t any crickets or other night sounds audible over constant dog barking, the girls played a Highlights game online that had a cricket soundtrack and it really brought me back to life in the East Coast USA. I was grateful to walk home in low humidity and with no acorns underfoot. There is probably some anthropogenic climate change reason why their absence at this stage in August is bad, but for me acorns signal all the melancholy of fall and I can stand to have them hold off for a week or two more.

Like many other people in my age bracket, it seems, I am training for my first triathlon in a few weeks on Cape Cod. Some big pluses this summer from the training have included some very effective swim lessons, the first since I was about ten; working out much more regularly than I would have without the fear of the event looming; and (for the reader in Brasil who may not have seen me recently) honing my Vegan Adonis form like a big ‘ol tempeh shawarma turning on a lathe in the gyro truck. There is also the general mood smoothing that comes from working out and being more fit: but, as someone who has tended to prioritize reading and indoor creativity over the outdoors and working out, I wonder if the serenity blah blah of fitness is in fact complementary to the excitement/fulfillment of successfully pushing through creative blocks and getting that kind of work done. Could it be (putting his toe into the ocean of actually committing to athletic training) that working out in any semi-serious way is a siren song, diverting the mind/body/spirit’s energies from creative commitments?

That is probably BS. But what the whole vegan switch, tri training, AND modest reawakening of writing this past year have pointed to for me is that middle age might be the time when you have to adopt a life-as-training approach. The idea is that it is only through adopting rigorous schedules, tradeoffs against other activities, and setting deadlines etc. that one can stave off the real physical decline and looming psychological menaces that come with this time of life. So why don’t we all just start charting our every moment against calories expended, miles run, poems started, cubic meters of quinoa consumed?

I’ll stay in this cage long enough to look cute, but I’m not actually captive and will emerge before you finish that couplet

I know this isn’t spilling any secrets but I think that kids and parenting pose serious obstacles to this sort of self-imposed (and, indeed, self-gratifying) training. Maybe it’s our koala parenting style (as opposed to Tiger Parenting) but I definitely find the emotional swings, unpredictable awakenings after bedtime, and fears about the heat death of the planet and its impact on college education tend to carve out disproportionate space in my head. The oldest one is grateful for the times we’ve been able to do writing together, but in general she is finely attuned to the moment when I turn my attention inward (to possible creative inspiration) or outward (to sit down and write) in a way that diverts that limited attention from her. Same with the others–this is all logical and evolutionarily correct behavior. [NB I recently read the two great comic novel memoirs by Alison Bechdel, who did the Dykes to Watch Out For comix. In Fun Home particularly, she talks about how her mother’s escape into her music and dramatic pursuits was, painfully to her children, her greatest joy in a disturbed married life. I thought these two books were fabulous and not just because the second one, Are You My Mother?, features an appearance in comic form of Adrienne Rich.]

Look at the time! It’s 11:41PM EST and once again (Amy does this too) I am greedily slurping up potential writing time that rightfully belongs to the sleep component of my training regimen. When I think about righteously waking up at 4AM to write, like the manically productive and doomed Sylvia Plath pounding out Ariel before her kids woke up, I’m reminded that the real writers do actually make major sacrifices of time, health and personal interaction in order to commit themselves to the demon Muse. How does that pursuit combine with the race to get healthier physically before we get (or feel) deader? Reprobate late-night would-be artists want to know.

Happy Anniversary, Amy!

L to R: Hope Solo, Athleta model

Amy and I have been married for eleven years this week. We met in college back in September 1987, and I actually tried to ask her out (or something…not sure I could have been so articulate) within the week, but Amy gracefully deferred having me pop the question for over a decade. I am amazingly grateful that fate and the good ‘ol Class Notes brought our paths back together again. Amy is the main reason I’m sitting here today as a basically happy and healthy person, and has become a vital member of my family and circle of friends. She is an indefatigably loving, caring and fun mom, whose comfort and attention are the absolute foundation of our girls’ own lives and no doubt will lead them on to future happiness.

Getting excellent family signal thanks to Amy

This year’s key reasons to admire and love Amy include:

Amy introduces E. to the good cop/bad cop principle of group facilitation

She is not resting on her laurels: Well, not resting at all really, but Amy is driven to figure out how to take the next big step in her professional career as we start to look ahead to all the girls being in school. Amy has always had a genius for convening people, creating content and facilitating discussions around challenging topics in the domains (broadly speaking) of parenting, ethics/values, and spirituality. I admire how she is taking on the work of redefinition (of self, career, and to some extent how the whole family works) that goes along with carving out a different path than she had as a classroom teacher. There are probably twenty people who have relied significantly on Amy’s friendship and counsel to get through big challenges this year, so the market has already spoken when it comes to Amy’s success in her future job/consulting gig.

Amy and I with her magnificent challahs at Miss E’s star turn as Shabbat helper

She supports my alternative lifestyle: When I flipped the switch last year and went from the guy who would fly to Buffalo just to eat wings to vegan guy, Amy did not check to see if I was out of warranty, but actually jumped in pretty enthusiastically to get some new cookbooks and gear up to embrace the Great Seitan. Many people over the years have assumed that because Amy is so nice she must be a vegetarian, but this truly is an extra step motivated by love. Happily I have adopted a Cafeteria Catholic approach to give a pass to anything that Amy bakes, regardless of dairy content, which helps preserve our collective enjoyment of the many deliciousnesses that she and her 50-pound bag of King Arthur Flour come up with.

M’s cake inspired by Robyn. I think Amy is like Robyn working in frosting rather than pop music.

Do you want me to spell out “King Arthur” or just draw the bag>


She is the hardest-working mom in show business:
The birthday cakes are just the highlight reel moments, but underlying that is the hourly, daily and weekly cadence of Amy’s constant attention to what the girls are eating, wearing, studying, and feeling. Oy, the feelings! Much respect to the woman who can give so much and keep a sense of perspective and balance, most of the time.

We still have a great time together: Submerged as we are in the lightly sparkling waters of Lake Girlhood, it is hard to find time to spend together. But in those fleeting moments while making lunches, or perhaps an hour side by side pecking away at our laptops late at night, we still make each other laugh and have grown with each other through life’s changes.

So to celebrate Amy, here is a poem I wrote for her way back after Miss A. was born when we were still entertaining notions of having four kids. It is told from the perspective of four kids at different ages, each talking about Amy as a mom. I have to say it has turned out to be pretty accurate so far, leaving aside the kid character’s identities.