Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Oh Taconic Parkway

This blog (or its writer, at any rate) is decamping to Massachussetts for a long weekend. In the meantime, if you are looking for something to read, may I suggest Sag Harbor?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Growing up

The summer after 10th grade, I started keeping a list of the books I read for fun. This list wound up spanning several sheets of tiny-scrawl paper until I moved house last summer. At that point, I began to maintain it in a draft on my gmail (an aesthetic failure of the highest order, I am aware). The first item on my draftlist, dated 7/24/09, is a reread of M.E. Kerr's "Hello," I Lied, a book which fills me with vague nostalgia for its East Hampton locale, a place where I spent many a summer, including the one when I began the book list.

This year on the 24th (and slightly beyond), I found myself reading another piece of Hamptons literature (which I must confess I had been saving for the summer for some time), Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor. And I can be less equivocal than usual and say that I loved this book. Ostensibly a novel, it's more like a set of short stories (and, one suspects, like an autobiography) charting the experiences of 15-year-old Benji ("Ben," he pleads, without much success), spending a bittersweet summer in the title town in 1985. Benji's situation is a bit different from the stereotypical Hamptons experience you might imagine, primarily because, in addition to being pretty well-off financially, his family is black. During the rest of the year, Benji goes to prep school with the rest of mostly-white moneyed New York; in the summer, he connects some more with the black part of his identity, as he goes back to the town where his family and their friends have summered for generations. Benji, who's narrating from an age-undisclosed but clearly older vantage point, frequently evokes DuBois's idea of "double consciousness," where African-Americans experience a conflict between the two parts of their identity. Add this tension to the teenager's general anxiety about where he fits in, and you get a wince-and-twinge-inducing, ruefully hilarious look at one summer. And, as the author puts it in an interview (which I merely summarize here), at the start of a summer, we all expect ourselves to change in fabulous ways; by the end, we've maybe changed .01 percent.

But charting even that .01 percent with Benji is a worthwhile experience, as we look at his family, his summer job, his friends, his (lack of) success with parties and with girls. (In one of the funny/sad scenes that I think are the novel's trademark, he suddenly fits in with a new group of cool friends...only to flee their party in ignominy after trying to stock up on a six-pack of (unbeknownst to him, only temporarily) discontinued Coke from the host's secret stash.) Benji's voice is sharp and clean, informal and poetic, rueful and comical all at the same time. I wish he could be the tourguide to my life.

In addition to its own merits (which I bet you can tell I think are legion), Sag Harbor is also intriguing when I consider it in conjunction with (my earlier-reviewed) Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude. The two share narrators who, in addition to their naturally introverted and unsure natures, come from the weird side of the tracks (hippie-gentrifier Dylan and preppy black Benji), which gives them unusual perspectives on the larger issues of race and history and grown-up relations that surround them. Both authors convey this surreal state of affairs with a by turns observant, casual, curt, flowery, bitter, knowing, beautifully descriptive, I could go on here forever... kind of voice that I've never read anywhere else. These books are novels, of course, in the stories they tell. But they are also poetry. Words are chosen for their sounds as well as their meanings; whole sections of the book adopt different tones to convey the events and emotions of the characters. Read these! I want to tell everyone, brandishing a copy for each hand. This is what a book should be. These real characters, these real places. I know people like them, and I have walked the school-threatening and summer-aimless streets they portray. Maybe you don't, and maybe you haven't, but it doesn't matter. Start reading, and you will.

I should note that there's at least one key difference between these two books, and you'll probably have realized what it is. Whereas Lethem looks at a biiiiig swath of history with his biiiiig novel, Whitehead presents a sharply-etched snapshot of a more particular moment in time. And so, if you're like I once was and you can't bear Fortress with its impenetrable density, pad down to the beach and sit a while with Sag Harbor. Its merits of cultural, place, and character description are as great, if not more so, as those of its epic counterpart.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

House party

Before the big event
they put on their faces,
just like you. Shingle
by shingle, powder
by rouge. Old stony facades
languish in rubble
while new woodskins
are built. Flowers accent
dormer windows, minimize
creeping veins. Touch-up jobs
cover freckled spackle, and oh
the perfect spired hats.

Everyone's getting ready
for the Albemarle disco
where night plays
the bouncer, lets
the revelers in or is it
the party out. Soon
dormers flicker in strobe
and shutters sway.
Thunder drops the beats
everyone can dance.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Nostalgia training

Y'all will know The National is my favorite band. Going to a National concert makes me feel like I am in the presence of rock greatness. Going to a National concert I feel surrounded by everyone else in the audience's Deep, Significant Inner Turmoil. This post is not about The National. This post is about... Weezer.

My sometime-concert buddy I.— asked a couple months ago if anyone wanted to time-travel back to the nineties and see Weezer at the Williamsburg waterfront; I promptly agreed, thinking it would be fun. But I didn't realize just how fun. Weezer puts on a live show that works on so many levels.

What struck me first of all was how much they sound like a recording of themselves. Most live shows of course provide significant variations from a record. Weezer obviously wasn't to-the-letter the same as a CD, but they did eerily replicate exactly the sounds that I remember.
Which brings me to my second point, which is that for me Weezer is not just one but two nostalgia trains. There is the Blue Album–era bone-deep recollection of songs like Undone (very early in the setlist) and Buddy Holly (the night's final rocker-out). I got goosebumps listening to these; there is something that just strikes you deepest about songs you first encountered at a really young age. Maybe it's like how children learn languages and, of course, music better than adults. This kind of memory is powerful and visceral. The second nostalgia is, for me, of a more high-school variety. The Green Album and Maladroit came around at a time when I was finally starting to find my interests and my own community, around tenth and eleventh grade; this marks a whole different era for me from the Undone one even though they're only separated by a few years, and fills me with memories of walking around feeling really satisfied for the first time.

And everyone else, regardless of their exact age, was clearly riding the nostalgia train as well. Because Weezer just makes everyone happy. I remarked to I.— that this was fascinating to me because their songs aren't really happy at all (even though the music itself is so damn peppy). Maybe I am mellower than I have been at times past, but I grinned at the groups of former frat kids rocking out, smiled knowingly at the tiny high-school-looking nerds, found the couple swaying in front of me charming rather than annoying. At this show, I felt closer to belonging to, and feeling a concrete sense of what constitutes, my generation. Maybe it isn't about what's driving current popular tastes; it's more about what we all remember, what we felt when we were growing up, what we can all look back on and see we share.

And so I found Weezer put on a much more enjoyable show than many bands I would say I like a lot more. They struck just the right communal summer evening note.

My only complaint is that there was lots of smoke floating around, of many and questionable varieties. But that's what I get for going to a concert that opened with "Hash Pipe."

Friday, July 16, 2010


We interrupt this blog with a quick question:

If someone says to you, "Can we move that back a day?" do you take that to mean the day before or the day after the original date?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I would walk 500 miles

Yesterday for the first time in far too long I took myself on a giant walk across my borough. I will state up front that any health benefit this walk might have had was neutralized before it even began: I started off in Cobble Hill because I wanted to swing by two eating establishments I'd been curious about. The first, Fultummy's, has sandwiches and, intriguingly, iced yuzu tea. I got a tea to go and found it was tasty--the yuzu sat on the bottom a bit like marmalade, and the overall taste was citrusy and refreshing. The proprietor also generously offered me two free samples--a green tea latte with jelly (especially delicious) and a corresponding coffee drink. Then I strolled up a few blocks to satisfy my curiosity about the newly-opened Brooklyn Farmacy, where I found that I could not pass up the opportunitiy for a blueberry milkshake (though I did not finish the whole thing, not being very efficient at ice cream even when my stomach is wide open empty. One of the staff, on break on a bench just outside the store, said to me, "Wow, that's a large shake." Indeed.).

Giant frozen confection in hand, I would've felt too decadent plopping down on the subway, plus my dinner plans were set for some indeterminate time in the future. So I took it upon myself to walk my way up to Windsor Terrace, with the company of Gnarly Buttons, Different Trains, and some Belle and Sebastian (who are having a concert late September--interested, anyone?). The weather was hot and oppressive, though not as bad as it has been. It looked like it might rain, but graciously held off. As always, I admired the Gowanus and South Slope paneled houses that put me in mind of saloons and Main Street at high noon. I encountered the most astonishing plant life, exploding all over front stoops--in particular, an enormous green-leaved wonder in a plastic pot in a larger size than I knew existed. And I finally, leisurely wove my way up to Prospect Park, where I sat 'til the bugs threatened to eat me alive. Fireflies and a good read (which I will no doubt tell you all about once I've finished it up) and the satisfying, contented tiredness that comes from a walk well walked. A perfect summer evening.

And so I find myself very pleased that I am once more the sort of person who will walk around for hours in adverse weather and like it. Perhaps I'll get back into running as well--I've done a bit of that the past couple of days too, with the aches to show for it...

PS: If my walk is not grand enough for you, check out Tom Graham. I am extremely tempted to do this sort of thing, only I feel a reluctance to use up all the streets. Still, I suppose by the time I got to the end, the beginning would probably be new again...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Probably my favorite part of summer--fine, probably the only part of summer I like--is the abundance of free outdoor performances. Individually, these can be hit or miss, but collectively they constitute a really great source of (usually free) entertainment for several months. A special favorite of mine in recent times is New York Classical Theatre's crazy on-location Shakespeare; Prospect Park's Celebrate Brooklyn series is also frequently a winner (Powaqqatsi with live accompaniment by Philip Glass et al, anyone?). But for this post I'll zoom in on one particular performance: the Met Opera recital yesterday at Summerstage.

This one was a bit tricky for me. I like music, and I like free events in the scenic parks of this fine city. But despite many attempts by fine and upstanding friends of mine, I am not much of an opera fan. (Though, as will not surprise regular readers of this blog, I do like some 20th century opera. Nixon in China! The Nose! On occasion I will even venture into the late 1800s with, say, Eugene Onegin.) Even with these reservations in mind, I figured a recital would prove less exacting than a fullblown opera.

My assumption turned out to be pretty well-founded. There were plenty of pieces that failed to move me (that duet from Lucia is just tooooo long), but some, like a couple of songs (can I call them songs? sorry if I am committing opera heresy) from The Magic Flute, were just plain fun. Others, like a set of Bolcom's cabaret songs, I found really compelling. And so I've spent a little bit of time trying to figure out why this was the case. I have a couple of theories.

First, the charming and talented Nathan Gunn gave some introductory remarks to the Magic Flute and Cabaret pieces. It's possible that that helped put them in context for me and made them more enjoyable. But I don't think that's the full story...

...because, earlier in the evening, M.-- bemoaned the fact that the program didn't provide plot descriptions for the pieces performed. I, however, didn't think that would put a dent in the fundamental problem--plot description or no, the lyrics are still in Italian or French or whatever. (Though I took French for many a middle-school year, my ears are not up to deciphering the operatic in anywhere near complete fashion.) This is less of a problem when you are At The Opera for real, with a program and supertitles. But even so, I think the language barrier poses a difficulty. It's funny because I've said on occasion that I prefer foreign films to English ones because I can read them (i.e. their subtitles). But for an opera, I think there's just too much going on. How can I take in the music, the plot, the set, when I'm busy just trying to decipher the words?

And so I'm left with the simple conclusion that I liked the cabaret songs more because I could understand what they were about. This must be something of an oversimplification, because I did not loooove the musical theater numbers that cropped up more near the end. (I have gradually come to realize that I don't necessarily like musicals per se; I'm just attached to ones I've worked on.) However, I do think it's an important point. Obviously, not understanding the words is not an insurmountable deterrent to the enjoyment of opera--tons of people attended the concert and I can't imagine they're all fluent in Italian; also, half the time I can't understand the words, or at least the meaning, of pop songs, and that doesn't stop me from listening. But it certainly creates an obstacle that keeps me, for one, from full enjoyment of the music.

Maybe, and I've thought this before, I just need to attend an opera a whole lot of times--once to get the sense, once to listen, once to focus on the visuals (how I wish I could have done this for The Nose especially). Though I'm not sure repeated exposure could really make me love Italian opera or, God forbid, Wagner...

(By the way, plenty more concerts and plays afoot. Hit me up if you are interested in such things!)

Friday, July 9, 2010


I have not followed the World Cup (even though I really should've--would have passed those sick hours right nicely). As I said to C.-- yesterday, I like soccer pretty well* and have no objection in principle to people getting excited about the World Cup. But I do resent the assumption that everyone is into it. Attending a 3-hour cybercrime training session earlier this week, the presenters kept interrupting to give us "updates" on the score of the game in progress (I use quotation marks because all the updates were 0-0), and I found it a bit alienating. to be honest. It's just weird to be in a place where everyone assumes you care about something you don't, and where you can only assume that everyone does, in fact, care about it besides you. It was a bit like the time I went to see a comedian during college orientation week and everyone in the audience was laughing but me, which was disproportionately disturbing. But I digress...

Because apparently everyone does care about the World Cup. Including such savvy prognosticators as Paul.** I suppose I can jump on the footy bandwagon if even cephalopods (eight feet--imagine the possibilities!) are doing it... Gooo, Holland. Or is it Spain?

*In fact, had it been field hockey and not soccer whose second preseason day entailed running for half an hour, I might have continued my middle school soccer career in high school. Alas, I did not want to subject myself to that kind of 90-degree-weather agony, and as a result lost 5 seasons of my life and 2 knees to field hockey instead.

**Whose name can't help but put me in mind of Pictures for Sad Children. Is Paul who is an octopus a more compelling character than Paul who is a ghost?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lady M (with rhyme scheme apologies)

There once was a girl from New York
Who was happy to go back to work
But her insides were sick
And her outsides all itched
So she found herself going berserk.


Monday, July 5, 2010


Writing this post as an ode to small favors. Today I finally felt well enough to leave the house and do some of my proofreading at dear Vox Pop. Never felt so good to be out and about, sitting at a table, munching away at a bagel and sipping a pomegranate lemonade. No matter that the book I'm proofreading is not very interesting, or that it is about 90 degrees out; it was so great to just be outside in the world again. What with all my walking and wandering, a week and a half spent exclusively inside is not something I take lightly.

And so even if being sick is not good for much else, it does make you feel grateful for the things in life you might otherwise take for granted. And so I will try to remember to be happy each time I go outside to do small things, or eat a meal, or manage to read 5 pages for fun without getting a headache. To say nothing of each time I sleep through the night, absent sharp pains in my legs! Like I said, being sick is not good for much.

How about you, dear readers? Are there any small things in life for which you feel grateful (even if this is not the correct holiday for that)? Did y'all spend your 4ths of July in a more satisfying manner than I?

I hope that my weeks to come will be more satisfying than this past one. (And various plans are in the works to ensure they will be.) Perhaps I will even make it back to work!