Monday, October 6, 2014

On a Late-September Night in Brentwood, Los Angeles (2014)

I had dinner with my friend C- at a pleasant restaurant called A Votre Sante. We'd just taken a Sunday evening yoga class at the very-Brentwood Maha Yoga, with the setting sun spilling in on a bunch of fit well-heeled people doing pretty challenging yoga.

We sat outside at the restaurant, because C- wanted to. It was pretty outside: an ivy-covered wall in a snug but not too-tight alley; Christmas lights tastefully strung over the ivy, and black metal-frame chairs with bright red cushions.

We were the only ones out there when we sat down. Shortly thereafter, we were joined by a young dad and a 6-or-so year-old girl. The dad wore a 3-piece suit and the girl had on a simple white dress; for some reason, this didn't immediately strike me as odd, or strike me in any way. He had long curly hair that was neatly combed back -- a man out on the town. His daughter's hair was held back by a small white silk band.

After they chose tables, I leaned over to make sure they hadn't wanted the one next to ours, where my bag was parked. The man thanked me, then explained that "my daughter has asked me out for a date."

C. and I made approving, that-sounds-nice noises. And from there on were freaking riveted by the whole thing, stopping our own conversation to capture little snippets of theirs.

The little girl wanted to make an occasion of the night. Her dad went right along. She asked the waiter his name (Gustavo), and took some time getting it right -- Gustavo was nice about this. She wanted to order "chicken," so her dad and Gustavo conferred and settled on a chicken paella.

The dad asked if he should have wine or beer or just something like ice tea, and she seemed sort of confused. My read was that she was confused about what answer would make things most how she wanted them to be: was "wine" more occasiony than "beer"? I think she had a vague sense that drinking one of those-- wine, beer-- heightened an event, made it more of an occasion. I'm not sure where they came down on this one.

A few minutes into dinner, her dad asked "So, how are you doing? I know it must be hard for you..." I perked up with anxiety. I thought that perhaps this charming scene was a mid-divorce palliative of some kind. But in fact what was "hard" for the little girl was something to do with having her brother around all the time. She didn't seem too bothered about it; she clarified the specific kind of instance in which this was "hard", and seemed to say that the rest of the time things were pretty okay.

She made approving noises and comments about the food when it came. They chatted and talked the whole time.

As they got up -- their meal was quicker than ours, as it didn't involve coffee and may not, in fact, have involved desert -- C. asked if their date had been good. The little girl, whose name we knew was E. from her extensive introduction with Gustavo, said that yes it was. I asked if the food had been good, and she nodded and said yes it was.

She wandered off towards their car, a little shy and bored of us. I made a joke to her dad about how "she's off." He explained that he "apparently hadn't been spending enough time with her, that's what I was just told." Not at all in a put-upon or unhappy way; in a sort of matter-of-fact and grateful way, in fact. At this point little E. wandered back and he asked her again, continuing our polite engagement, if she'd had fun. And she said yes that she had and said, "I love you, daddy," just really very straightforwardly not at all like she was saying a thing. Although I got the sense that she was sort of glad to say it, like she'd been waiting to say it or something.

Her father jacked up; it happened in his chest and his face, and was clearly visible to two strangers from six feet away. He had no words at all; we smiled at the periphery and left him to it.

E. wandered away again, back back towards their car and towards home. Her father wandered after, wishing us both a good night as he went, and wishing us "good luck." He seemed to be imagining that C. and I were a couple, who might -- if we were lucky -- someday share and create the kind of experiences he'd had that night. Which was generous and sweet and mistaken, as we were/are two friends who'd just watched the whole little magic unfold.

Friday, October 3, 2014

HliAT, #2

How Long it Actually Takes to...

do the household stuff that needed doing the morning of July 23rd, 2014 in the city of Los Angeles after eating breakfast but before settling to work, to wit: take 3 Aspirin; make bed; clean up cat puke; change loo paper roll; put cat litter in littler box; pull the blinds): 5 minutes, 8.26 seconds

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reflections on Not Fighting on June 20th, 2014

I began this post awhile ago. Then it got too long; then other stuff happened.

I'm going to finish it now, tonight, whatever that means. It will mean combining a number of posts into one single, massive post; a post that is almost like a "piece of writing," except totally solipsistic and unedited by myself or others. WHO ARE YOU? WHY ARE YOU READING THIS? THANK YOU FOR READING THIS.

Hey how are ya? Here we go.

This is a story about how I got injured, and then I got better through the miracle and grace of our bodies and nature, and a couple of thoughts I've been having as -- now -- I get back into the swing of things, (touch wood, for the moment:) totally healthy.

On July 20th, I was supposed to have a fight near San Diego. Here’s the ticket:

I had a blog post planned for this pic, or maybe just a tumblr. My note for it was 8 days to fight: okay, this is kind of cool” because really- this is like a real ticket. Cool, huh?

But then, 10 days before the fight, sparring at my gym, I got chopped with a low kick. No one was being aggressive or reckless. It was a chop kick to my right leg; it happened while I was moving backwards because the technique R---, my kicker, was doing was one in which you shove your opponent back then chop at the right leg while his/her weight is on it. My right leg first of all isn’t used to taking low kicks; if you’re a righty (I’m a righty), you spend all or most of your time in a stance with your left leg front, which means the left leg is taking the chops. Also, my leg was in motion and the muscle was engaged -- this being the point of the technique. So I trained for 45 more minutes, not being tough -- I really didn't feel much more than a "hey, I sure took a shot there." And then about an hour after practice, this happened:

Back when I thought I would be doing these separately, the post for this pic was something along the lines of: 10 days to fight: holy s$!@ my f_____ leg

It came on suddenly; I was sitting and having a post-training meal with a friend, my awareness of the leg went like this:

- Hunh, yup I got low-kicked

- Hunh, guess that low kick hurt more than I thought

- Ah darn. That low kick banged me up a little. Maybe I won't do that run tomorrow



I’d gotten what’s called a corked thigh, which is a bad bruise to the quadricep. I had a sort of epic one, intra- and inter-muscular; when I finally went to the doctor there was lots of "hey, come look at this" between the docs before starting me on a couple of months of physical therapy with admonitions to stay off it, not get hit, et cetera et cetera.

I didn’t know this right away, of course. You get hurt doing muay thai and, while this was bad, I figured I’d see how the swelling was the following morning. Getting into the car was difficult, as was driving.

The following morning it was bad, but not awful. I switched out my run and instead lifted weights and did yoga.

On Saturday, two days after the kick, I trained. The leg hurt and was clearly impaired and was starting to feel like an injury rather than a hurt, but it still seemed like maybe something to just power through.

On Sunday I lifted and did yoga.

On Monday I did yoga and trained muay thai. This is one of the many blog posts I'm folding into this one; one about “6 days to fight: unknown strength”. That’s because by this point the leg was a problem, a problem I was worried about; it was stiff and painful and weak and unsteady. That permeated my yoga class, of course, making my yoga tentative and injured and lame. But then, at the end, I really nailed my head-stand to an unusual degree: it was strong and precise and I felt like I could’ve stayed up there for ten minutes. Hence "unknown strength": the post was to be about finding hidden wells of strength when you test yourself, on the path to fullness and to doing this fight. HAR! It’s hard to say now, but I think at this stage part of me really did think that it would be… well, not all right. I think I was annoyed that I was going to again do a fight not at 100%, in the sense that the leg wouldn’t be healed and would impact my performance.

Doing muay thai on Monday, I couldn’t knee. I tried to knee hard, which was dumb; R--- goaded me, over and over: “I’m not feeling it!” Which is good training. And not his fault because I did not freaking tell anyone about this problem. Finally I had to say something was up, and Coach got annoyed at me for not having said anything before. I also took a light kick to it, just in demonstration, but it hurt a lot.

If you're thinking right now that this story so far is a carnival of stupidity on my part, I hear you. The only thing I'll say in my defense is that I was not was not trying to be rugged; I was really just trying to train through and manage the pain of what I was still telling myself--less and less convincingly-- was a hurt, not an injury. I just wanted to get to the fight.

And then Tuesday morning, my ability to pass it off as anything but an injury was overcome. It was all fucked up; clearly all fucked up, swollen and bruised along the sides (where the blood from the hit was draining, not from the hit itself) and fucked up. A mass of purple bruising had appeared above my right knee; over the course of the next few days this mass would kind of ooze its way down my leg over my calf, doing a thing that I have never seen a bruise do and did not think they did but this definitely happened, very slowly, on my body right there.

So I went in, told coach. Fast-forward by Thursday we’d called it and pulled from the fight. I was sad and angry and frustrated and discouraged, as you can imagine. I'd trained hard, people at the gym had supported and trained me hard, and now like days before I had to drop. It sucked.

It's now the end of September, weeks and weeks after all this, and I'm hopeful (touch wood) about getting another fight in October. I think what's moving me to write all this, though, is that I really did wind up learning a lot during my period of convalescence, and I really am brimming with gratitude and happiness during this, now, my period of rebuilding.

Here's some stuff I wrote, right around July 20th, when I was still processing this:

I’m seeing a doctor tomorrow, so hopefully there will not be some dramatic uptick in my dismay . It is taking a long time to heal – it is still swollen, and stiff, and unable to bear weight – but I still think it’s just a narsty soft tissue thing.

I had this idea for another post, the note for which was “5 days to fight: omgmfl [that’s oh my God my fucking leg] p2, and why anything can be a blessing”, and that’s really the thing that’s going to set me off, here. Because it turns out that I have a lot thoughts about how this might be a blessing.

I am not feeling existentially anxious. I am feeling, of course, awake to the fragility of my own physical self, and the pleasures I take in that self and how those pleasures can be taken away. But the fact is that this is a soft tissue thing that will heal and I won’t even notice in… well, longer than I’d like [ed: present day me: it will not be fully healed by, for instance, October], but also the kind of time that you look back on and don’t even really remember how long it was.

What has changed, a lot for the moment, is my routine. Before the injury I was doing 2 workouts a day. They totaled between 2h50m and 3h30m put together, depending on what I did. With transit, &c., that means 5 – 6 hours a day were often spent on my physical self.

Now that time is open, and I am not active. I may try to ramp back into activity over the next couple of days, depending on what comes out of the doctor’s visit tomorrow. But for a week now, I’ve done nothing.

I’ve gone up and down on this a lot – certainly, being injured REALLY SUCKS, and being inactive when you want to be active REALLY SUCKS. But the heart of this blog post is still "why anything can be a blessing.” 

And then I wrote out the blessings, which now I'm going to edit, with the great wisdom of like 8 weeks (I did have a birthday!) between me and the callow young buck who originally wrote these words.

These are the blessings.

Appreciation Trite & true, both. I’m pretty good at being appreciative and “mindful” in general; I’m frequently moved to say little prayers of thanks when I’m in the mountains or out on the water, or after a satisfying training session. But obviously, nothing makes you grateful for something like having it taken from you, even temporarily. So I've been reinforced in my gratitude; in my gratitude to nature and good fortune for allowing me to be healthy; to the city I live in for being so so so full of wonderful ways to be active; to myself for doing all this stuff that I do, that I get so much out of, even though no doubt sometimes I have to push myself past some exhaustion or moodiness or whatever might be conspiring to get in my way; and yes to some general cosmic sense of goodwill and good fortune that just lets me be here, whole, a person, able to work out and be outside and do amazing things. I couldn't wait to get back, and now that I'm back I find my enthusiasm rejuvenated in a way that I’m really really appreciating (be careful, though, James: watch the leg.).

Don’t Be a Rigid Weirdo   In the complex melange of feelings I was and am feeling, which of course don't have to make sense, there is also the fact that I was, in fact, starting to feel a little hemmed in by my routine pre-injury. Fatigued in my muscles; sometimes overtired; and most of all just of in terms of time and how much structure these activities put on my day. Activities where are, after all, supposed to be fun: it's not like I'm a medical resident, here. During my period recovering, it was fun having so many nights with nothing to do (muay thai is at night); it was fun to have afternoons where I could just write, or had to, because there was no yoga or lifting or swimming or running to make work in the day. This is such a first-world type problem, I know, that it might require a whole new nomenclature of privilege. That's fine, I own that - I'm very lucky. And it feels like a valuable insight, regardless. It's led me, for example, to a simple shift in my schedule which is not such a big deal but feels like one, which is just (this sounds silly) that on days where I also do something else (lift, run, yoga) it is not always necessary for me to go to the conditioning hour before the actual muay thai part of muay thai. In addition to giving me another hour a day for writing which is of course what I'm ostensibly doing with my life, this actually improves my training, because when I'm there hitting pads or sparring that is really what I'm there to do, not part of some long thing that has gone on forever after another workout earlier in the day. Part of this is psychological, and part of it is that I was just overtraining, some. So I'm grateful to have had a chance to reassess myself in that way.

The psychological is pretty big. Here's what I wrote while I was laid up:

What’s particularly valuable to me about this is the way it spreads into many aspects of my life. By which I mean: the sense of freedom isn’t just having a few more hours a day. It’s being free of a structure that I was somehow allowing to constrain much more than that. There are a bunch of things I need and want to be doing – from dumb little personal projects that nonetheless are satisfying to complete, to taking active time to really engage the big questions of what to be doing with my life – which had somehow gotten lost in the cracks and divets between the chunks of time (3 hours writing; 3 hours business logistics; 1 hour work reading; workout; workout) that was all this schedule allowed. This is a tough nut to crack (duh: time), because it was absolutely not that I was wasting time before, or actually that I think I was spending too much time on exercise. The fact is that I sort of have that luxury, right now at least. But I was letting the schedule – and, it’s true, I think to some extent just being a little more tired – really box me into a way of thinking and a routine of days that wasn’t advancing any of these sort of “non-essential” but also essential things; again, specifically, we mean little personal projects (like catching up on blog posts) and then the opposite, vague but big thinking/researching on activities and directions for life, which I view as very much open for me, right now. Open and therefore needing time and attention I wasn’t giving it.

Don’t Ration   This is a good one, and also the one that has stuck least. Because I am already rationing again. But I'm trying to remember the lesson.

Digression, promise it hooks back to relevance: The Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival – which should really have been won by Emily Carmichael’s The Hunter and the Swan Discuss Their Meeting – was won by another admittedly good film (2 films, I guess) called Brick Novax pt 1 and 2, written and directed by Mat Piedmont. These were funny ironic adventure stories in which the titular Brick – played by a stop-motion animated action figure, as is everyone/thing else in the films – does sexy space spy derring-do while bedding ladies and dropping bon mots. And one of Brick's lines, towards the end, was: “Never ration happiness.” This could well be an aphorism, I don’t know; but it struck me and has stuck with me since, both as a good aspiration and as something I fail to do.
Do this. Just do it. Or whatever.

I ration the shit out of happiness. I ration the shit out of everything; out of music I like and time and leftover hummus and people and love and every thing. If I love going to Nijiya late at night for 20% off sushi, I’ll have these conversations with myself about "should I go? should I not? I don't wanna 'use it up'". If I love the cakes at Susiecakes, a 5-minutes walk from my apartment, I’ll not go for months and months. Not like as a sensible eating thing, I mean; I suppose one shouldn't eat cake every day. But I don't want to eat cake every day, I want to eat it occasionally, and not doing so when I want to because I might "use up" the pleasure I take in it or something is dumb. There's something to be said for deliberately spooling out a limited resource, and perhaps for keeping something special. But mostly not. Mostly: USE IT UP. DO IT. If I love going to Nijiya after a training, I should always do that whenever I want to because guess what, I might get injured – badly injured, or slightly badly  – and not be able to train for 2 weeks or 2 months or years or forever. I won’t always live a two-minute walk from a bakery I like: I should take advantage of it while I do. This idea that I have -- and that I therefore suspect some other human beings may have, as well -- of “not overdoing it” just for the sake of “not overdoing it” is straight-up asinine. The only reason to deny yourself is if there is an instrumental value in doing that: if of course you don't want to eat cake every day because you don't want to gain a lot of weight; if you can't afford sushi 5 nights a week; if you need to work or are needed at home or with a friend so you can't kick back at the ocean. Otherwise: use it up. Use it up use it up use it up. We only get once, don’t leave a fucking cent on the table. The stuff I'm taking for granted today could disappear faster than I'll ever know, before I know it, before I know to look and see if it's gone.

I went out and had a carrot cake, the day I first wrote out the bulk of these thoughts. Not today; remember, I'm editing (sort of) my young foolish self. A whole huge slice of carrot cake; the slices at Susiecakes are big. It was great. Way too much; gross. Felt sick. I may not need to do that particular thing again for a minute, although I find myself with hankering for carrot cake, writing this.

You know what, that's it. I had other thoughts for here, but it's not just how long this has all gone. They were about how it feels to be getting back to activity, and all the stuff I've been doing, but I mean: who cares? I've been getting to do lots of cool stuff, and getting to be very active. I care, a lot, and maybe even you do but the point is-- it feels good to be back, out, doing. And hopefully I can take some of this along with me. I have to. I'm 35. If I don't start learning from my injuries, there's going to be a lot of pointless shit going down.

Thanks for reading, if you made it this far. Even if you didn't.

How Long it Actually Takes (HliAT), #1

This is the first entry in what will be a sporadic and poorly maintained ongoing series. I welcome submissions from my thousands of readers in the comments below. HliAT is pronounced "hell-ee-aht".

This series derives from a simple premise:

None of us knows what the f**k we are talking about when we say how long it will take us to do something. 

We say "I'll be back in a minute" when we mean 15 minutes; we say "it'll take 2 minutes, literally" about things that literally take 11-25 minutes. We are morons about time, and it's not just a matter of usage ("I'll be back in a minute", yes, I know, carries a different meaning than the literal single "a minute"). We really don't know how long it takes to do things, make terrible estimates, and force ourselves and others to suffer.

I've been on the giving and receiving end of this nonsense for my entire life. It's time to take a stand.

This series is going to change the whole world.

A few years ago, in Chicago, I started tracking how long it took me to do certain everyday things; things which are no longer relevant even to my life, so I can't imagine how spectacularly irrelevant they will seem to yours. HOWEVER, the principal stands, and many of these things are like other things that I still do, or perhaps that you do. So I shall post them here, now, and when it occurs to me to time how long it takes me to "pop into this store for a minute" in future, I shall post that as well.

So here we go, let's change the world.

How Long it Actually Takes to...

take the Orange Line from Madison/Washburn in the city of Chicago to Midway Airport at around 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon: 24 minutes, 30 seconds

take the 151 bus to the Metra in the city of Chicago from the South Water Street stop (taking the bus to the Millenium Station stop getting caught at 1 red light, and then walking to and taking your seat on the Metra): 3 minutes, 55.9 seconds

take the 151 bus to the Metra in the city of Chicago from the South Water Street stop (getting off the 151 at South Water Street and walking into Millennium Station through the South Water Street entrance all the way up to taking your seat on the Metra): 3 minutes, 14.2 seconds
important note: This was catching the 7:48am Metra to South Chicago; catching the 7:35am Metra would be even faster (probably 30 - 40s) because they open the train doors further down the platform on that one

walk from the 151 stop at the corner of Stockton/La Salle in the city of Chicago to the door of apartment #2503 in Eugenie Terrace, a nice place to live:
2 minutes, 5.07 seconds to the elevators at Eugenie
the wait for the elevator varies significantly, from 0 to 60s
in the instance I timed it was 1 minute, 57.1 seconds from arriving at the elevators downstairs to opening the door to my flat

walk from the Metra station at 55-56-57th street, taking the 57th street exit, to the U. Chicago Cummings Life Sciences Building: 15 minutes, 23.9 seconds
note: walkways clear of snow/ice

And more to come. This is only the beginning, my friends. Only the beginning.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Rebuilding, Part 1

My life is out of sequence on this blog. I got a reasonably serious leg injury about 5 weeks ago. There is a hella long post coming about it. These briefer posts will be about the recovery.

I got the clearance this morning from physical therapy that I can do anything except take blunt force trauma to the leg (i.e., no taking low kicks for awhile). But I can run, etc.


So this is the significance of the stirring image above. That's a little volume extension cable for my headphones. I started using it because it is useful, while one is on an elliptical or a stationary bike, as a convenient way to change the volume while one watches whatever movie or TV show one is watching to make those boring, lifeless activities pass. I'd never used it before. The reason I'd never used it is that what my headphones are generally connected to is not my phone, but my tiny little iPod shuffle, and I am not on a stationary bike or an elliptical, but a real bike or my own two feet, running hard outside, and the joggling and bobbing of the volume control is annoying. So I'd never put it on before, but I put it on a few weeks ago when it became clear that this hit I'd taken in the leg was serious and that for a few weeks I wouldn't be doing those outside things.

I took it off today.

First run outside: 4.05 miles, 7:03/mile. That's 10 seconds off my target split for that length, which I was running before the injury (actually, I was running a little better than the target). But I'll get back there. I'll get back there and better. It felt SO GOOD to be outside again, running, moving through space and over earth.

I need to learn to block those low-kicks. It's hard work staying healthy when you're not young and do lots of stuff. I need to be as dedicated to that as I am to the just pushing myself, I think. That's fine. Let's go. Gosh, it was good to run again.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"The Cats Want Milk"

Here's a song I wrote about that, one evening when I came home and the cats wanted milk.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cover Letter Template

In April 2011, I moved to California. I had to spend much of that June back East, so I usually tell people that I moved here in July 2011 because that's when, in my recollection, I was settled in, comfortable.

The letter below undercuts that.

I still suffer from acute and fundamental confusion about who I am and what exactly I should be doing with my time besides writing. But even in that context, the letter below seems a little extreme. In that spirit, I submit it for your mockery and review.

I was going to humorously annotate it, but I think this lily is better ungilded.

It is a letter answering a job opening to be an assistant to the person to whom it is addressed, at a big arboretum out here in L.A.

I cannot freaking believe myself sometimes.

June 28, 2011
Dear Arborist:

It’s a real pleasure to be writing. I may be an atypical applicant for this position, but I hope you will read this later through and decide that I’m at least worth meeting, in person or over the phone.

My situation is that I recently finished graduate school and moved out to Los Angeles. I am an extremely hard-working, reliable, and stable young man (with valid SS #, et cetera). I moved to Los Angeles because the graduate school I finished was a joint MBA/MA (the latter in International Relations) at the University of Chicago, but I very quickly realized that the roles these degrees prepare a person for are not the roles I’d like to do. I would like to work outside, and I would like to develop concrete schools managing people and ecology.

At this point you might be understandably concerned that I’m writing this as part of a romantic digression and you’ll be getting someone flakey. I can’t reassure you fully of that until we meet, but I believe there are a few good reasons that you should consider hiring me.

I have a very clean cut appearance, and to the extent that any part of this job is making a good impression on customers in my person, I can do that very well.

I am 6’2”, very healthy and strong, and eager to work hard.

While I don’t want to be misleading with respect to my arboreal or gardening experience, I have spent much of my recreational life focused on the woods, the shores, and the outdoors. I’ve worked repeatedly as a camp counselor, hike trip leader, et cetera. I believe I would very quickly pick up the skills required in this job, and I’d be enthusiastic about learning them.

I have attached my resume, which may appear – once again – a little mismatched to the position. I believe my value proposition is that I am able bodied, enthusiastic, and a very quick learner. I hope you’ll consider me, and to hear from you soon.


J---- C---------

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Meta Moment in Gaming You Should Know About

I bought a Nintendo 3DS last December. I love it.

One of last year's best reviewed games for the 3DS was Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon. It's a terrific game -- a relatively easy platformer with fun puzzle elements. What really sets it apart is the wit and storytelling, however. And I noticed one thing early on that made me laugh out loud, and delighted me throughout.

The game has a soundtrack. Good video gaming scary mansion music going plonkity plink plonk as you wander through the haunting, doing the things you have to do to set the world right.

And at a certain point I noticed that Luigi, occasionally and mutteringly, hums along to the soundtrack. To be clear the music is not diegetic: there is no sound source on the screen or in the story. It's purely soundtrack: what you, the player, hear as you sit there playing. But there's Luigi, humming along with you, breaking down the 4th wall much more awesomely than I've ever felt it broken down in a video game, and as effectively as I've ever experienced its being broken down, in any medium.

Play video games, people. Not like, all the time. But stay on top of video games, even in just the broadest way. There's a lot going on.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Two Notes on Music

As discussed in a forthcoming post (which will probably be way too long), I've hurt my leg and have a little more time at the moment while it heals up. It's also left me feeling somewhat expansive. That gets us posts like this. No one's forcing you to be here.


(1) The Tug
I think it's compelling, catchy, and both very happy and very sad when songs have an element -- for me it is sense in the melody, but that's probably because I listen so predominantly to pop (broadly defined) -- that is always just out of reach. That tugs you along. It's not quite as simple as an unresolved progression or harmonic; it's a little more squishily defined than that in my mind. It's something that the song establishes and implies, generally musically or rhythmically, but never quite lands on; something that has but is absent -- that is almost clear from the way the song curves around it but never gives it to you.

For me, the tug is extremely strong on the title track, track 7, of the 1998 album Maybe You've Been Brainwashed, Too by New Radicals. I'll try to minimize the thing of describing music in writing. But what happens to me in this song is this: a spare guitar line, a chopped up melody line, and a driving simple rock beat combine to create a train that has great forward momentum but also holes in it. It feels to me like the verse melody line is always waiting to land somewhere it never quite reaches; it just keeps pulsing towards it in Gregg Alexander's tight sung melody line. The melody "lands" somewhere in the chorus, and that place is fine -- I like the song, it's a good song -- but what I love about this song is the implication of this thing during the verse, the promise that it never realizes; how there is a shadow of musical ascent traced out by what is there, and it's never ruined by actually trying to realize it.

Somewhere with more musical sophistication than me (you, probably) could easily read all this and say: "He just likes kind of tight melody lines." That might be it.

Another good example is "I'm Goin' Down" by Bruce Springsteen, which has the added awesome-song-thing of being a musically "happy"/upbeat song about a sad/downbeat topic. That is an awesome way for a song to be. But with respect to the tug, this one's a little different: it in fact almost does give the listener that vague thing it strives for, that landing implied by the rest of the song. The tightness of the verse melody line and (again) a simple guitar figure land perfectly, for me, in a chorus that is not just good but fantastic; fantastic for this song, for this melody. So, this may be a case where the tug proves itself in the exception: proves that exists not only because it does not exist, but because there are actual musical elements towards which songs that have it are "tugging" you, and they can sometimes land on it, it's just hard because those elements have to be just right so perhaps it's just as well if songs with the tug don't even try.

The last example is asinine, but I'm serious about it. It's lyrical rather than musical, and different from the other two examples also in that it wound up being the artifact of an error in hearing: it does not exist. But if it had existed, it would have been great.

For the first few weeks of the radio success of "I Get Knocked Down" (yes) by Chumbawumba, I did not think the chorus, these are the actual lyrics, went:

I get knocked down
but I get up again

I heard the chorus as this:

I get no-
but I get up again

and the "no-" was a clear cutoff, an expression of such ambivalent frustration the singer could not even complete it, allowing me, allowing anyone listening to put their own thing in the song, or more likely not put one specific thing -- not put "money" or "sex" into that gap -- but leave it wide open with their own unsayable inchoate longings, the things they aren't getting that are out of their reach and too frustrating to speak. I thought it was so great; so electrifying and great. I did not feel the same rush once I discovered what the real lyrics were.

(2) Josh Ritter's "The Temptation of Adam" and the evolution of understanding a song
To  fully appreciate this, I suppose you should go listen to this wonderful song. My general point here is simple: a rich narrative song allows for our understanding of it to deepen and unfurl over time.

(I'm also probably bad at listening comprehension. I'll point out that I was never studying the song for its meaning; that said, the "many many listens" noted below were frequently attentive listens, during which I was listening to the song with nothing else going on.)

I think, as a writer, I find this interesting: how totally clear something can be -- once you know whats going on in "The Temptation of Adam" it's not complicated at all, and there's nothing cutesy or guarded holding the listener back from getting the song -- and yet how it can still take awhile for a reasonably intelligent, reasonably attentive reader/listener to get it.

From here on, if you don't know the song, you'll be checked out.

My understanding of Josh Ritter's "The Temptation of Adam" followed this progression:

Years 1 and 2: many many listens
It's a cool, offbeat song about people relaxing together and then falling into and out of love, or in love but then she somehow has to go away, at a country house or some secluded retreat, the kind of place where wealthy and upper-middle-class people spend a few weeks over their summers.

Years 3, 4, 5: many many listens
Wow, I missed the point of this song! They're in a bunker! He's remembering the woman he loved, because they both were in some kind of bunker because there was like World War III, and then he lost her in what sounds like an explosion or maybe she decided to leave the bunker after the war I don't quite know... he "thinks about her leaving in the avalanche cascades," which sounds like an awful thing that happens when lots of bombs go off. It's sad and he's alone, and he's remembering the improbable romance of these 2 people brought together in a nuclear weapons facility by a catastrophe that annihilated mankind. And... I guess he's Adam, now, because he's the only one left? Hunh.

Years 5 - present: many listens
In Years 3 -5, there was a lot I shrugged off. I had never really understood the lines at the end; about how he "think[s] about that great big button, and [he's] tempted." And I'd never really understood the lines before that, about how something tells him that things "just won't work out above, that [their] love will live a half-life on the surface." I sort of wrote this all off on the grounds that, in the song, bombs had been dropped and so if they went up top they'd die, obviously, everything would die, but...

and then I got it, finally, and it's completely straightforward! I mean, there's nothing I need to explain. If you listen to the words of the song, all of which are clearly sung by Ritter with just a simple guitar accompaniment, it tells the story of a guy who's in a nuclear facility where he has his finger on one of the "great big buttons" that would set whatever incipient nuclear holocaust has brought him there in motion, and there is a woman "Marie" who is a technician or something in this same facility, and they fall in love, and he thinks the circumstances of their falling in love (trapped in nuclear bunker, waiting to see if all the bombs will fly and the world will end) are particular enough that their relationship would not last in the regular world, so he's "tempted" (IT'S IN THE TITLE OF THE SONG!) to press the button, to set off the bombs, so that he and Marie can have their own forever down in this bunker.

It's great; it's a terrific feat of storytelling, and I'm so baffled as to why it took me so freaking long to get it. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pictures on My Phone, 8/19/2013 - 8/29/2013

Here's how it is: sometimes, you move to a mid-tier city of a nation very far from your own for school, walk around and see the sights and make some friends and go bowling, but then it's time to dig and prepare for the semester because you came here to go to school, after all, not just bowl and take pictures of intersections, and once school starts you don't have that much time to gad about.

This is how it was for our hero for in this 10-day period.

8/19: A single image. It's sort of an odd one. I think it's of a building housing a religious organization of some kind, but I'm not sure why I think that. The shot is from the street, of an unremarkable tan concrete-block building that is clearly a "facility" of some kind. We are also clearly no longer in the city proper -- a street winds up to the right to a stand-alone house, and the facility is on a spacious lot with no buildings around. It looks suburban. There are doors into a glass-halled walkway leading off to the left, and a turret that is kind of hard to describe reaches up from the center of the structure -- this turret is why I think "religious"; this plus the fact that our hero bothered to photograph it at all. The turret has rounded lines, and echoes itself 3 times: a largest turret with a similar smaller one etched within it, then a similar smaller one etched within that. It has a sculpture that I can't identify and google isn't helping me with on top: a golden orb, with either a flame or a leaf of greenery lifting off from its northern pole. It is a bright, sunny day in Cleveland or this suburb of Cleveland on 8/19/2013. It was a Monday.

8/25: This is the nadir point of our hero's photographic exploits so far. A disgusting picture of food. The food might have been good; I'm pretty sure it is sevai kheer, which is really tasty I could go for some right now. But the picture is geee-ross. Our hero manages to accentuate everything that is yucky about food, while missing all the good points of food. The noodles look wormlike and gelatinous. The pudding around them looks even more gelatinous, and possibly infected: everything white has a greenish sickish glow from bad lighting. The bits of deliciousness in the kheer -- cashews, dried fruit -- look like growths or the accidental droppings an animal that got into this grotesquery when it was left out too long. The whole thing is presented from a bird's-eye view in a black cooking pot on a stovetop: the bird's-eye view of a sick, sad bird trapped in some bird hellhole with only this vista to look down on. 

However, I am being negative. It is great that our hero, or someone, made homemade sevai kheer because sevai kheer is delicious and I hope all of its eaters enjoyed it. And it is a nice impulse to want to snap a shot of that home cooking -- I imagine him sending this to his parents back home, showing that he's doing fine and living well and making familiar yummy things. Though it is a shame, for our purposes (which admittedly are rather far from our hero's intended purposes (whatever they were (seriously, this picture is gross))), that the execution of that impulse is so revolting.

8/26: I hope I'm nice enough about the loveliness of the cool things our hero does that my negativity about some of these pics is not too relentless or mean. Because this photo -- maybe the lesson here, actually definitely the lesson here, is that we all take a lot of dumb dumb pictures on our phones -- this photo is also not good. It is a shot of the cover of Introduction to Data Mining by Pang-Nin Tan et al. It is sideways in native orientation, so you can crane your neck or flip it and get a narrow, small photo. The book is set on a tabletop, and a pair of black-trousered legs and the white loop of shoelaces are visible at the bottom of the frame. It was taken during another one of the earthquakes that ravaged Cleveland occasionally while our hero took pictures; having taken pictures with this exact same (exact same, remember) camera, I feel on firm ground giving him a hard time about this. It's not that hard to get this phone to take well-focused shots of stationary objects in good lighting. Like, for example, a book on a table.

That aside, again, it's easy and kind of nice to imagine the circumstances of this shot. He needed to know what book to buy, and his friend had it. His friend needed to know what book to buy, and he had it, etc. Semester starting -- good times. Onward, friend.

8/28: This one is cool. A white tile column on a platform in the Tower City Rapid Transit Station in Cleveland. A linear map is on the column: white text on industrial blue. Tower City is blocked in white, indicating where we are. An old white man in a blue shirt and chinos is walking down the platform, disappearing behind the column. A young guy with short-cropped hair is seated on a public-facility metal wire "bench," back to us, reading. Our hero went somewhere on August 8th, 2013. Good for him. I'll pretend this is just like me, standing on the platform in Chicago or Boston or London or any other city where I've been new, and know exactly how he feels unless I've got the circumstances all wrong, which hey I probably do.

8/29: This one is lovely too, because it's that same building that our hero and his friends took pictures in front of on August 18th, before bowling. A different angle, but again the picture gives a lot of its real estate over to a big intersection in front of the building, which is now lit red white and blue. It's night - the sky is black and city lights are on. The photo is out of focus. Interestingly, the shot is taken through the windshield of a car: the dashboard is visible at the bottom, and the streetlamps are all splayed diffractionary through the glass. There's a white sedan in front, its rear over-illuminated by the headlights of our hero's car.

I like the idea that he liked this building so much that he took shots of it kind of whenever the opportunity presented itself. Maybe he thought it looked particularly nice at that moment, being driven back (he's not in the driver's seat, you can tell from the angles) from something, seeing it there illuminated -- perhaps for Labor Day, which was coming up that weekend.

To figure out the Labor Day thing, I just looked at my own calendar. On this same day, I was pretty stressed and unhappy. It's nice to think that our hero was doing better, and somehow it draws a straight unifying line from me not-happy then, through him hopefully-happy then, to me much happier now.

What's that, reader? You want a road trip? Well brace yourself, because next up in "Pictures on My Phone": motherf***ing ROAD TRIP.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

In 1999, I Thought This Was a Good Idea

There's a lot going on here.

Obviously, racially specific casting calls are common. But there are things about this one that are, at best, preeeety embarrassing. I created it in 1999, when I was in college, and posted it in the streets around my high school (Stuyvesant, which has had a ropey few years but remains in my mind a golden exemplar of many many good things) to try to get actors for a film I shot that summer.

One note: it worked, well -- I got a decent number of kids who called, cast a few, and we shot the movie and had fun.

So, but the poster. Part of me admires my chutzpah, part of me is mortified at my insensitivity, and part of me just thinks it's interesting.

Chutzpah: way to go. You tried to catch the eye of Asian teenagers, challenged their coolness, and got them to call you to be in a movie. And it worked!

Mortified: wow, oh my God. Seriously what were you thinking? What the hell are those pictures of old Asian men playing cards about? You were not looking for old Asian men. Are you suggesting that there is some exoticized vision of the "Asian" as a denizen of card-playing opium dens, and that you are trying to channel that vision for your movie? Because that is possibly offensive, and also not what you were looking for. Also these images look like low-res cut and paste jobs from the internet back when it barely worked and computers were like stone stenography tools, because that's an accurate description of the circumstances under which they were produced. Next, what's that in the lower-left? Is that Maoist imagery or something? What the hell has that got to do with anything? You were looking for kids like the kids you knew in high school: Asian-American kids who were into '90s hip-hop culture and repped it in how they dressed and spoke. What the f%*# does shoddy pseudo-Maoist propaganda have to do with that? These images are like a bizarre grab bag from the mind of an insane person who has never met an "Asian" person (wtf btw? can you clarify?) and is not good at graphic design. Oh my God.

Interesting: Letting myself off the hook for none of the above, I do think there's something of the way we processed and spoke about race in my high school that I was channeling with this. We had a deliberate carelessness about racial tropes and signifiers, which made us -- I'd say -- simultaneously frank and naive about the whole thing. For those who don't know, Stuyvesant is unusual for a New York public high school. It is predominantly Asian and white (do I capitalize "white"?), in which categories I am carelessly lumping together all east Asian kids, all south Asian kids, and white kids who varied from 1st-generation Russian to upper-middle class private school escapees (me). It is, famously and controversially, very unrepresentative of the city's demographics in terms of the number of black (do I capitalize "black"?) and Latino students. We were aware of all of this, subliminally and explicitly, and the way some kids dealt with it was a brash explication of race and racial expectation that basically took the form of a lot of joking. I'm sure there were ugly and hurtful incidents, and I'm sure people were bruised by some of this joking. But as the holder of a comfortable and loose racial/ethnic affiliation, I always appreciated it (even, perhaps particularly, when directed at me) and thought it spoke well of the students. I still do, actually, although I also see now that some of the ways in which we probably thought we were being iconoclastic and bold were actually ways in which people were trying on for size racialized views of people/situations, and that it's probably harder to disambiguate faking it and feeling it than we imagined it was at age 15 in 1995. But anyway -- I think that's part of where this sign comes from, my attempt to channel that. Which of course, and rightly, looks totally insane and possibly offensive now. Also, it is incredible how awful I am at anything involving visuals.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pictures on My Phone 8/17/2013 and 8/18/2013

In which ALL IS REVEALED and also there is bowling.

8/17/2013 was not a dramatic day in our hero's photograph-taking, but it was a catastrophic one in the event that he, for instance, decided to sell his used phone and neglected to wipe all the data and was concerned about identity theft. Because it includes 3 photos:

- a weird out-of-focus one of an upper corner of a room with white paint and functional plaster-work, with a door open and a blue-ish coat hung behind it. The shot is as though you lay down on the floor and pointed the camera up into the corner of the room by the door (or were laying on the mattress in your newly-moved-into flat???). Anyway, this photo looks like an accident or a test.
- a photo of the front of his driver's license. Things I think it's okay to share: our hero is from Andhra Pradesh, along with about 85 million other people, gosh-knows-how-many thousands of whom probably come to the US to study and work. Andhra Pradesh driver's licenses are functional and not too exciting, like US licenses circa 1982.
- a photo of the back of his driver's license. One other thing I think it's okay to share: our hero is 25 years old.

It's interesting for a second to think about why he took shots of his driver's license, then it's not interesting at all. He was newly enrolling in things, and in a new place, and there were probably all kinds of things with school and maybe his lease and who knows what else asking for identification. He doesn't have US identification yet, or maybe he needs this to get it (although in that case I feel like he'd have to show up physically with the actual ID).

Anyway, our-hero-about-whom-I-know-a-lot, wipe your phone better next time, dude. People can crack your s**t from your behavior on, like, Tinder. Lobbing pics of your driver's license front and back about the used electronics marketplace is not best practices.

Now some good stuff.

Because on 8/18/2013 our hero had a Night Out with Bros. And he took 43 pictures. No way am I describing each one  of them -- already, this whole enterprise has me questioning my use of my spare time. But we can relive the night through them -- if you scroll through really fast you can actually sort of see it in fast-motion, which is neat.

First, they took to the streets and -- either drunk, walking-and-clicking, or careless -- took extremely blurry street-scene shots of Cleveland's hustle and bustle. This is 3 photographs, and particular attention is paid either to a white SUV, the building behind it, or -- again -- the intersection at which it is parked; it's impossible to say.

Then, the dudes posed in front of what must be some kind of landmark building in Cleveland I have no idea. It looks mid-20th century; it tapers up to a cupola then a pointed spire with maybe some columns up there, and it's lit a la Empire State Building: on this night, red light then above it white than above that -- the cupola and spire -- green. It took a little figuring to get these photos correct: there are a couple in which our hero is small, you can barely see his face as he disappears in the intersection before the building. Then they sort it out and he's closer to the camera, looming nearly as tall as the building itself, smiling easily with one thumb hooked into a jeans pocket, wearing a grey "Varsity Fame 08" t-shirt (must have been a warm night). This is 7 photos, all together.

The process then repeats with one of our hero's friends, and honestly both photographer and subject take a turn for the worse. The friend stands, wearing a polo shirt (light blue stripe, black base) that looks to me like it reps either a football or a cricket club, his hands in both pockets and arms bowed out in an awkward/uncomfortable looking way. The shot is from far away! He's not smiling! Also the photographer (perhaps our hero) is drunk/crazy. Whatever best practices were learnt photographing the previous subject have been lost: the first photo is from a bizarrely high vantage point and tilted sideways, as though the photographer has hopped up on a park bench and bent himself at an angle. The next is blurry.

But all that's okay, because now we get to it: 30 photographs of BOWLING MAGIC. Here is the cast of characters of these photos:

-- our hero is not in them. probably he was taking them.
-- shorts and red/blue striped polo shirt guy. A buffoon, sadly. Heavyset. You can see in the shots of him selecting a ball that he is timorous about relating to and manipulating this physical object. And then you can see in the shots of his bowling that this timorousness is well-founded: he looks awkward and stuff and uncommitted in his motions.
-- jeans and red/blue striped polo shirt guy. What a stud. If we made a movie of this night, here's our alpha male. He has a nice face -- we only see it in incomplete profile in a couple of shots of his getting a ball, but it's a nice face with a strong nose but not too strong and you know has a keen gaze. And he bowls with the easy grace of a man for whom it comes easily: there's a shot of him with his foot tucked behind himself in that way bowlers do. There's a shot of him approaching the lane with quiet, certain authority, ball raised ready to go. He doesn't say a lot, this guy. He doesn't have to.
-- white button down-shirt. The aesthete. We don't see his face at all, we just get a few shots of him at the lanes. Whereas our alpha male had the unassuming grace of the... alpha male, this guy's got pizzaz. His leg kicks up almost to his butt as he releases the ball, a nearly dancerly motion. His stride up to the lane is long, as if he's devouring the shellacked wood floor between himself and release.
-- a hot pink bowling ball. They all use it some, and it's always quite prominent when they do.
-- jokesy chinstrap-beard guy. There are 2 shots of him; one of him sitting with yet another dude as they wait and he looks a little smiling, a little unfriendly, with his chinstrap and his pooched lips and his phone in his hands. But then! In the second shot in which this jokester appears, he is facing the camera bent over, his butt facing the lane, having just released the ball between his legs backwards for his shot.

Ach, bowling is fun. I'm not being ironic. There is no sarcasm on this blog. That's one of the rules. The other rules is I'm not allowed to write about anything that it's actually a good use of one's time to write about, apparently.

Now obviously, we're judging these guys purely on form, on honestly also on how I like the cut of their various jibs. For all I know, shorts/polo-shirt guy bowls a 280. But I bet he does not. There's a shot of him, face turned to someone sitting behind the ball dispenser, and the look on his face is full of questions: that guy didn't know what he was doing. The other guys seemed to.

All of the dudes are South Asian, and all dressed sort of similarly. One gets the sense that they are all in Cleveland in a similar position, although it's hard to tell if they know each other before or have simply come together as fellow students with things in common.

The lane is one of those very bright, neon-y ones with images projected over all the lanes of a full moon and clouds, white and blue and sidewalk art-ish. What's that? You want more sleuthing, more detail? Okay, hotcakes. If you blow up any of the images of the guys bowling, beneath the moon-and-clouds graphic you can make it out: Yorktown Lanes, "your bowling headquarters." Damn straight.

Now, those amongst with OCD or who are savants may be asking: yo, 3 blurry SUV shots + 7 hero-in-front-of-building-of-mixed-quality shots + 2 non-hero-in-front-of-building + 30 bowling shots = 42 shots. Slim buttons, you said 43.

I did. And that's because the dudes ate some donuts. The final shot of this dynamic series, the capstone to a night of wandering around and posing and bowling, is a shot (blurry! again! what's up with this?) of a delicious looking box of donuts. It's hard to tell, but from the lighting, the floor, and the corner of the table the box is on they are certainly no longer in the lanes area of Yorktown Lanes, and I suspect they have decamped to some late-night donut establishment by this point, because that floor looks pretty dirty. There is a jean-ed leg with a hand resting on it in the lower right-hand corner of the shot. And then, centered, the donuts: white box. 4 plain honey-glazed. 2 cinnamon bun. 2 cups of donut holes. 2 cream-filled donuts of some kind, with nuts on the frosting in that bit of frosting that cream donuts often have where a donut's hole should be. 

The donuts look delicious.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Okay, so: okay

My results for the Verdugo Mountains 10k, which I ran this morning with my fleet friend CCK. Just before you start thinking silly thoughts, the first 3.25 or so miles of this race is a pretty gnarly uphill, ~500 ft/mile. So the 8:20/M you're seeing is a blending of a 10+/M on the way up and about a 5:40/M on the (shorter) way down.

If you want to verify them, I assume because you are insane, a link that's active as of this posting is here.

Here is a complete history of my relationship to this race and this result.

Up to t - 2 weeks: "hey whatever, it'll be a fun trail run, a 10k is nothing anyway"
t - 2 weeks to t - 2 days: "okay, I should train some, I wanna do good, it's a race," make a plan, don't really follow it, etc.
t - 2 days: "margh. I semi-followed my plan, and I am sick [true; not excuse], and I am banged up from Muay Thai [true], blech blech blech"
ALSO all this time, up to t - 1 hour: "man, I'm fit as hell. I'm going to toast this race. I may even win my age group and nab that pair of sneakers!"
t - 1 hour to t, upon arriving at race registration and seeing all the very buff and/or gazelle-runner people ready to run it, and also upon hearing from my friend CCK that the female record for this race was 48 minutes: "aw heck. i'll do my best. i'll finish the thing."
t to t + 50 minutes: rising sense of possibility as I pull near the front of the pack, realizing that htere are a small number of people ahead of me, no women ahead of me, etc. "go go go go go"
t + 51m40s: "okay, good job." eat delicious pumpkin pancakes and veggie sausages served for runners
t + 70m, when they posted the results: "darn"

I think the main lesson is that you're always a little closer than you think you are, and persistent effort is generally rewarded. I'm pleased to have been in the top 25 and a little disappointed not to be higher in my age group. I think the persistent effort of generally running and trail running was rewarded, and the fact that I've been focusing more on Muay Thai than running for the last couple months (and frequently banged up from sparring) hurt me a little. Lastly, I feel like I'm getting stronger, and could do this race more quickly next year. So we'll see. If I do, I'll let you know.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Unreleased Tracks: Melancholy Cranberry

The last of my 3 unreleased pieces for The Daily; this one's kind of elegiac. It's about cranberry sauce.

On the night of November 27, 1864, as the chill of winter crept over Union and Confederate troops in southeastern Virginia, Heyward Glover Emmell, a 22-year old from New Jersey, ate well for once.  Emmell, serving in the Union ambulance corps, was sitting in his tent, “wishing that I was home to eat a good dinner, when Brother George came in with a fine turkey, cranberry sauce, celery &.”  The meal was familiar, but the components immediately recognizable today as Thanksgiving necessities – turkey, stuffing, and the all-important cranberry relish – would not have seemed as archetypal to Emmell and his brothers-in-arms, delighted though they were. America’s definitive national meal was still in formation. Public goodwill, one woman’s campaign to nationalize a New England tradition, and the practicalities of wartime came together on the bloody fields outside Petersburg to set the menu and assure the inclusion of the sweet cranberry sauce that Americans ignore 364 days a year but cannot do without on one.

The cranberry carries a rich history in the cuisine of both Native Americans and later Pilgrim settlers. However, while it may have been eaten in various forms at harvest festivals in the early 1600s, cranberry sauce was probably not part of these meals: cranberry sauce requires sugar (heaps of it) and in Colonial times sugar was a scarce, expensive commodity. By the mid-17th century, traveler’s accounts of New England begin to mention a distinctive, sweet sauce made of boiled cranberries. But there was no inextricable connection between this dressing and the meal served to Hewyard Emmell, in part because there was no universal definition of the meal itself.

Until Sara Josepha Hale came along, that is. Hale was no particular friend to the cranberry, but she was a great lover of capital-T Thanksgiving, and it was largely through her efforts that a loose tradition became a national institution into which these tart, red berries could be incorporated. A poet, novelist, and editor of the hugely influential lifestyle magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, Hale conducted an indefatigable, decades-long campaign to turn New England’s secularized feast of “thanksgiving” into a formal national holiday. She also clearly articulated its blueprint in her successful novel Northwood: or, Life North and South. Hale describes a “true Yankee Thanksgiving” in detail, complete with stuffed Turkey and pumpkin pie. She makes no mention of cranberry sauce, however – despite having already singled it out as a favorite of her protagonist’s.

The popular story that brings Hale’s mission and cranberry sauce together is this: General Ulysses S. Grant considered Thanksgiving so important and the cranberry sauce so integral to it that he ordered the provision of said sauce with the meal to all of his enlisted men. Whatever Grant’s feelings, a slightly messier narrative seems more probable.

The Union army was six months into a bloody campaign to take over Richmond by knocking out supply lines running through Petersburg and the rest of the region and it had become bogged down in stalemated trench warfare that would ultimately last through the cold winter of 1864-1865. The conflict was grinding and brutal; “We remained under a terrible fire all night and at the present moment 3 P.M. we are in line for another charge I think,” Alex Patten, a young soldier in the 109th New York wrote in his diary, “I walked over the field of yesterday and found our boys and had them buried. There is but three of us in Co. today. 66 men is the entire strength of the Regt. I cannot write no more.” Mounting casualties became a source of public lament in the north, and citizens banded together to support the beleaguered troops by sending seasonal care packages, resulting in 120,000 turkey and chicken dinners being distributed to the wet and cold soldiers. The inclusion of cranberry sauce in these meals may have been practical: a seasonally appropriate relish, cranberries are a robust foodstuff high in benzoic acid, a natural preservative, and more importantly were known for their nutritional properties, particularly their value in staving off scurvy. To the extent that Grant and other military brass were concerned with the bill of fare, these functional arguments obviate the need for any sentimental attachment to a relish.

This 1864 thanksgiving, however, was the one that could create just such an attachment. Weeks before it, Sarah Hale finally won out: on October 20th, Abraham Lincoln did “hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may be then, as a day of thanksgiving…” While Lincoln only mandated a one-off, by November 1865 the North had won the war and a desire to commemorate the Union victory and affirm national unity contributed to increasing observance of the Thanksgiving tradition, now with a new set of associations sprung from the meal enjoyed by young soldiers fighting in that gruesome, pivotal, final campaign in Virginia.

The sauce, in short, was in.

All of which was probably irrelevant to Heyward Emmell as he ate his turkey and cranberry sauce, mashing the sweet of the berry with the salt of the meat. The men knew they weren’t going home soon. “The weather is getting very much like winter; we keep a fire in our little air-tight stove all night when we can get enough wood… Here comes another fellow with a log, we are all right for tonight,” Emmell wrote. He made it home to Morristown, but over half-a-million Americans he fought with and against did not. On that night, however, each army in its way observed the holiday that would become hardwired into the American calendar: as the Union soldiers enjoyed their unexpected repast, the Confederate fighters, entrenched yards away, held fire out of respect. 150 years later the meal is an essential part of the American experience, the sweet cranberry relish now indispensable to families coming together – many still with an empty chair at the table, a loved one much further afield than Virginia, but all still sharing in a meal to give thanks, in Lincoln’s words, for “the inestimable blessings of peace, union, and harmony throughout the land… assign[ed] as a dwelling-place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”

Saturday, April 26, 2014

0-1: More Pictures, Mostly Fighting

Coach was particular about this: go over the top rope. I'm glad he said it, because otherwise I'd have ducked between the top and the one beneath it.

"Sealing the ring": you walk around, tap the corners one-two-three and genuflect; in between the corners, you run your right hand along the rope. You're getting rid of bad energy/forces. The thing on my head is a mongkol - it's a traditional totem of good fortune, and I think the fighter isn't really supposed to handle it (only his coach is).


Considering that this -- me getting freaking hit in the freaking face -- happened enough that I lost the fight, I figured I should include a shot of it. Honestly I don't have that money, because all my pictures come from my peoples. 

I like this photo and the one above it because I think it reflects what the fight was actually like: a chaotic, scuffling mess.

This one reflects what I would like the whole fight to have been like. But at least it did happen!

A deep bromance between me and L---, the dude who beat me up.

These 3 kinda tell their story on their own. Dammit.

Pictures on My Phone 8/16/2013

As promised, intersections. 5 pictures of intersections, plus 1 bonus.

Except I was wrong. I think they aren't pictures of intersections. They're pictures that include intersections, and in which the intersections are centered as if they are the subject of the photo for who-knows-why. But I'm pretty sure, in each case, that these pictures are "of" specific buildings that in any one of them look like background objects, but that in fact seem to be the defining feature that ties the photos together to tell the story of this day in... Pictures on My Phone. Here we go.

The first photo is of an intersection. There's a state road sign for "East 20", some green trees across the street, and what I assume is East 20 running diagonally away from us into the upper right of the photo. There's a bus and a gazebo with a down escalator that has a public transportation look to it. And, in the background as if incidental, there is a kind of handsome white tower with the letters "CSU" in signage relief on each of the 2 visible sides, looking out over the city and the scene. Our hero has moved to Cleveland to attend CSU, remember.

Far right on the photo, there is a sign for "Marino's Hair Cutting," with a little arrow pointing you there.

In the next photo it comes together. It's a photo of an intersection; our hero is not (yet) awesome at framing, maybe. BUT along the periphery of this photo we have several things. Foreground and 58% of the photo or so is a big spacious intersection in a big spacious American city: wide streets, street lights, scattered people crossing. Background, though: green and trees, and peaking up beyond them a handsome glass building that we recognize from earlier photos -- the handsome low-slung glass building that adjoined the courtyard our hero had photographed the day previous. Also off to the right, and it really looks incidental but subsequent photos knit it in as important, is another labeled CSU building, this one short and squat and tan, with signage along the top reading "Monte Ahuja College of Business," which is apparently currently undergoing a conversion from a 4-credit to 3-credit course system, with which I wish them godspeed it sounds like a nightmare. I couldn't find anything on its site for an abbrevation by which this long-named school prefers to be known, so we'll call it MACoB from here on out.

Centered in this photo -- perhaps this is the subject -- is a tall streetlamp pole with a banner on it, green background white letters running sideways: "Cleveland State University"; small font horizontal: "Engaged Learning".

Next is really just an adjustment of the previous. Our hero has repositioned to get a different angle on the intersection of what we can now see is Euclid Street. Incidentally, from the formal perspective of framing but probably not from the perspective of why this photo was taken, this also gives a straight-on (background) view of the MACoB building, foregrounded by street, intersection, ersatz red cable car tourist bus thing, park/courtyard from previous photo series, and trees. But it's there.

To give our hero credit, and put snark aside, these photos do a great job of conveying the physical context in which these buildings are placed. They'd be great illustrative photos to share with, for example, friends back home, or perhaps with parents whose pictures one carries in one's wallet.

The next two photos are even more of a duo, and they're what confirmed me in this "the background buildings are really the point" thing. You may disagree, reader, but you haven't seen the photos and you probably never will because once I post this I'm deleting them. (Not for reasons of narrative elegance. Because I'm compulsive and it's satisfying. Also to free them, or something. Whatever.) Anyway these two photos: guess what two intersections. A broad avenue, it looks maybe like a residential neighborhood with some city-ish multifamily houses on the left, and a kind of neat old fashioned neon "GREYHOUND" sign on a building across the street, a building with Art Deco curves and long Art Deco window channels inset. But the subject of these photos, now that we've learned to read our hero's work, is clear. It is the brown, rather unhandsome 1960s/'70s looking mid-rise residential building with one long flat side of smallish windows and one narrow side of concrete balconies facing us. It looms over the scene like an implication, which I wrote and I'm sticking with but I'm unsure an implication of what. The second photo just comes closer to this same building, with the remarkable achievement of still keeping it like a background fixture and taking the intersection one block closer as its centered subject. But there is the building again, emerging.

This is not the Statler Arms, which we'd earlier conjectured might be where our hero took up residence when he came to Cleveland. The Statler Arms looks, frankly, a lot nicer. So what is this other building? It's residential. Is it where he lives? Was he crashing at the Statler Arms? Has he not decided yet, so he is sharing the options with his parents/whomever back home was getting these photos?

Dunno. Dunno dunno dunno. Maybe subsequent photos will clarify.

The final photo of this day is different. It's a photo of a computer monitor, specifically of a web browser on a CSU Staff page: the photo features 5.5 thumbnail portraits of people with addresses and job titles. Centered -- and in this case I'm going to say I think the centered thing is the thing -- is a woman who works at the College of Business in a capacity I'd be curious about if I came to the U.S. to pursue an MBA and was looking to stay afterwards. Why take a photo of a screen with her information? My guess is just that people record important info all kinds of ways -- maybe that was easiest at the moment.


Unreleased Tracks: U.S.O., 1644

Here's the 2nd of 3 of these: another piece that I wrote for The Daily but that never ran.

It wasn’t shocking when Captain Jonathan Chaddock’s ship blew up - wood, flesh and smoking mainsail settling into the waters near the earthen platforms and cannons of Castle Island, Boston. After all, Chaddock was “a loose profligate man,” according to lay historian Thomas Hutchinson, with “a crew like himself.” They had arrived in Boston Harbor that spring of 1643, a band of unruly privateers, and fallen straight to buccaneering and loutishness: the Captain himself was brought before the magistrate and fined 20 pounds after drawing his sword and threatening to murder his own first mate in a bar. Three of their company had already drowned in a previous harbor accident.

So, when two powder kegs on Chaddock’s 30-ton pinnace “took fire and blew her up” as his crew worked that 2nd of November, no-one was especially astonished. Particularly since – according to the contemporary account of John Winthrop, then governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – the cause may have been one of them recklessly sparking pistols. Five men were immediately “destroyed”; three remaining survived with bad burns.

Far more alarming than the accident was the haunting that followed.

First: light. Two points arising from the Harbor, “in form like a man,” Winthrop tells us, traveling over the water’s surface and then subsiding back into the deep. This came sixteen days after the Chaddock explosion and was witnessed by only a few midnight sailors. A week later, the governor describes an even more extraordinary vision: two shards “like the moon” arose from the northeastern harbor and joined together, “closed in one, and then parted, and closed and parted divers times, and so they went over the hill in the island and vanished. Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles. This was about eight of the clock in the evening, and was seen by many.” 
Then: voices. “Divers godly persons” further south, near the waters between Boston and the rural town of Dorchester, heard a voice calling out “in a most dreadful manner, boy boy come away away; and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about 20 times.” This sonic apparition reappeared a fortnight later, near Noddle’s Island (close to where Logan Airport sits today).

Governor Winthrop is really our only source on this. Historians of subsequent decades – Thomas Hutchinson (also a successor of Winthrop’s as colonial governor) and clergyman William Hubbard -- faithfully recount his version (very faithfully, as one who hasn’t studied might “faithfully recount” a friend’s exam). There is no real reason, however, to doubt the long-serving Winthrop. He is credulous throughout his journals, recording what he is told without judgment, but there is no evidence that he himself is a fabulist.

Perhaps the incidents can be attributed to natural, physical phenomena? Probably not. St. Elmo’s Fire requires an object – optimally a pointed one – to focus electrical fields into its distinctive blue flame. Will-o’-wisps are a terrestrial enchantment, gases from decaying plant matter oxidizing. What the sightings sound most like is ball lightning, a phenomenon that “resembles a glowing sphere” and “does not obey the whims of wind or the laws of gravity,” according to National Geographic’s summary of numerous first-person accounts. Unhelpfully, this turns out to be basically the same as calling the prodigies “lights on the harbor that sure look like ghosts”: ball lightning is something of an umbrella term for stories like this, and science has yet to provide a clear explanation for what it could be.

Winthrop’s own opinion is simple. “It is also to be observed,” he notes, that two ships – Chaddock’s and another – had recently blown up in Boston Harbor, and that both were full of men “such as despised us and the ordinance of God amongst us.” This “It is to be observed” is a signal phrase of Winthrop’s religious disapproval: it was also “to be observed”, for example, that it was “on the Lord’s day” that a lecherous Dutchman was slain, or that three fisherman drowned while drinking.

The governor also dutifully reports another theory, based on an entirely different set of supernatural covenants. One of Chaddock’s slain crewmen, his name lost to history, was reportedly a necromancer, suspected of murdering his master in Virginia and having done “some strange things in his way…hither.” This man’s remains, alone amongst those killed in the blast and unusually for sailors lost in the Harbor, were never found. Perhaps his shade, the rumors suggested, summoned fellow apparitions in its unburied disquiet.

This focus on the man’s body is intriguing. The Puritans did not imbue the fallen human form with any inherent sanctity. Funerals and headstones were simple and austere, and the dead were not buried on Church grounds. A Puritan ghost would never hang about, demanding a proper burial.

Clearly, a different set of rules applied to a sorcerer’s shade – just as different rules applied to Chaddock and all such “proud and intemperate men” who chose to live outside the rules that so bounded Boston’s new arrivals. These rough men, indeed, were just one kind of “other” assailing the Puritans’ purity: the Quakers, forced to worship in secret on Noddle’s Island because the Puritan authorities found them so alarming; the Pequot, Narragansett, and Mohegan tribes, whom the colony’s leaders viewed with a mix of missionary and competitive zeal. The Pilgrims lived in wary compromise between their own strict codes and what must have often seemed the brutal, ongoing insanity of the new world into which they had ventured.

In this we may find, then, one root of this beguiling story. As Thomas Hutchinson wrote over a century later (in his own words, for once): “They had an ocean, a thousand leagues in extent, between them and all the delights of life which they had once enjoyed. On their backs they had a wilderness without limits. As soon as it was dark, their ears were filled with the roaring of wolves and other savage beafts, or which was much worse, the yells of savage men. Where there was any gloom upon the mind, such a scene must tend to increase it.” The strangeness of Chaddock and the rest of his godless crew may have been, to the Puritan mind, too much for even gunpowder to erase – their shades left dancing on the Harbor, like the threat of an encroaching human wilderness.