Monday, December 12, 2011

Hello Again, Internet

I signed up for Twitter.  So far one person has clicked over here from there, so ... Hey, man.  (Or lady.)  Feel free to click around a bit.  When I'm not busy with real work I write stuff here, sometimes a few days in a row and sometimes with months-long gaps in between.  I like to think it keeps the readers on their toes.

Meanwhile, according to google's stats, most people reading this blog who don't know me personally have landed here after searching the phrase "things to say to new parents."  Which continues to be bizarre, because for one thing, I didn't know that was a difficult issue.  Some further advice for that subset of my readership: Just say whatever you said to them before they had the kid, and also, "congratulations."

I want to make some kind of joke about this here, but on the other hand there's something about the earnestness of the question that's stopping me.  So there's the honest answer -- won't steer you wrong.  Please check back for answers to your other etiquette queries.

In other news, while I'm on here solving everybody's problems I wanted to pass along links to a couple of things I found professionally inspiring.  One is this Deadspin story, about George Kimball, who was a boxing writer.  It's surprisingly nuanced -- I like Deadspin, but they aren't always known for that -- and while it conveys what was good and laudatory about the guy, it also has an undercurrent of sadness that I think a lot of frustrated newspaper people (I think that's all of them) can relate to:
He drank, he smoked, he ate sticks of butter with mashed potatoes in a river of ketchup, slept in a coffin over McSorley's tavern, and fretted that he'd never written a meaningful book. It wasn't just the booze and drugs that got in the way; it was life on the road: the next fight, the next deadline, the next bar, the next party. "He was always impatient to get to the next thing," said Jenny Dorn, the wife of the poet Ed Dorn, an old friend of George's, "which is why a newspaper was the ideal place for him. Maybe he felt safer in that realm to avoid something else."
George didn't think he'd live past 40 and nobody who knew him ever got the feeling that his work had his full attention. "He was never ambitious," remembered his friend Bill Lee, the pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. "He was just there for the moment."
But he lived beyond his wild years, and when his time grew short, it turned out that George had more than a trace of ambition left. He burned to leave something that would last.
There's a sort-of-happy ending, in that when he was staring death in the face, he got his act together and got a few books out.  But let's just say I found this to be an inspirational story of the cautionary-tale variety. It's so easy -- and perversely comforting -- to get caught up in small stuff, and you'd hope that it takes something short of a fatal disease to shake you out of that.

Somewhat related -- though I think at least a little bit cheerier, in terms of realized ambitions -- is this video clip of Louis CK remembering George Carlin and talking about what he learned from him, professionally and personally.

I don't want to give the whole thing away, because he tells it better than I can, but it's about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, and the unique kind of payoff that can have.

Not that I need any of this kind of motivation personally, of course -- I've got a blog and a Twitter account, for Pete's sake!  My life is in order!  But you know, for the rest of you guys, I just thought it would be helpful.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Should Just Let This Go

I'm sorry, but I can't seem to stop being irritated about this story. Or, just part of it.  The stuff previewing the marathon: fine, whatever.  Interviewing Coach Cane: no-brainer.  Esposito's rice balls: Awesome. Been eating them since the days when Jason Gay thought Brooklyn was too far away.

The part that is getting me, specifically, is this:
If anything, the Brooklyn craze has gone too far; the backlash is coming, if not here already. It's become a bit much: the rustic-table restaurants; the real-estate obsessiveness; the suspender-wearing bartenders who dress like they were born in 1883. There are neighborhoods with more yoga studios than trees.
It's not even the laziness of this paragraph that kills me, though if there weren't worse things to focus on, the laziness would definitely be an issue.  Yoga, hipsters, blah blah we get it.

Here's the thing: It's a borough with about three million people living in it -- the most populous borough in New York City. The people who live there are there because of some combination of aesthetic and economic reasons.  I.e., some of them like the scale better, or the proximity to where they work or where their families live, or, hey, sure, the number of yoga studios.  Yes, some people in Brooklyn like to do yoga. Others are there because they can't afford Manhattan, but are doing well enough that they don't have to live in someplace even shittier.  Or whatever.  There are probably something like three million reasons why people live there. 

But now, word comes from on high, from a magazine writer blogging in the Wall Street Journal (!) that ... THE BACKLASH IS COMING.

Which means, what exactly?  What effect is that supposed backlash, when it does come, supposed to actually have in real life?  I joked about it yesterday, but seriously -- are people supposed to, like, move?  Or just feel less psyched about where they live?  Stop writing articles about how cool it is in GQ?  (This is actually the correct answer.)

Will the yoga studios close because the yoga practitioners have all decamped for elsewhere?  I'm not trying to be obtuse here.  I'm trying to actually picture this backlash that this dude is forecasting.  And it's impossible, because it's not going to happen in any meaningful sense, because it's an imaginary idea.

By which I mean, this is solipsistic culture-writer crap.  And on the flip side, the idea of Brooklyn being some kind of mecca for homemade fedora buttons or whatever is also culture-writer crap.  These people need something to to fill column inches with, so they come up with these stories -- "Brooklyn is the coolest place in the world, even cooler than Istanbul and Prague and Berlin, duuuuude!" or "OMG Brooklyn is so totally over. Look at that guy's suspenders." The stories are, basically, made up.  Not to say inaccurate, because their accuracy is fundamentally unprovable and therefore beside the point.  They're confections, basically, which is fine, except that in some cases you can tell that these people actually really believe them.

Here is what the backlash is actually going to look like: A certain kind of journalist is going to stop writing one kind of bullshit story and start writing another kind of bullshit story.  There you have it.

None of which will have any effect on the vast majority of people in the area they're writing about.  Not that it matters.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I Went to the Brooklyn Marathon. Look at How Hip I Am.

The first Brooklyn Marathon was in Prospect Park on Sunday morning, and even though they're both fun, it's not inaccurate to say the race was basically the opposite of the New York City Marathon two weeks earlier.

The New York City Marathon gets a special section of the New York Times dedicated to it on the morning after the race. The Brooklyn Marathon got ... me, on New York Magazine's web site.  And a camera crew from News 12, I think. Although the reporter wasn't carrying her own camera, so it was a pretty ballin' News 12 crew if that's what it was.

That's not fair, actually. There were a few stories previewing the race, too, including one in the Wall Street Journal in which Jason Gay wrote, "If anything, the Brooklyn craze has gone too far."  Oh ok, man, thanks for the heads-up.  Damn, I had no idea.  Ella, pack your stuff -- we're moving to the Bronx.

(Fun fact: I learned from an anonymous source that emails from Jason Gay have a tendency to get caught in spam filters.  Just writing about this is going to add a whole new dimension to my Google analytics stats.  (The word "analytics" can't hurt either.) )

Anyway, low-key race. I chatted with a couple of runners beforehand, and it was a varied crowd.

Rainbow Shaw-Giaquinto (real name!), a gym teacher from Philadelphia who had run her first marathon a month earlier in Atlantic City, said she uses running to teach her students about goal-setting, time-management and organization. Besides teaching, coaching college volleyball and raising two kids, she added, she has been logging 40 miles a week in training.

“And I’m slow,” she said. “You can imagine how much time that takes.”

Speed, of course, is relative. Andrei Volik, from Manhattan, walked by in a Boston Marathon warm-up jacket. He had run the Chicago Marathon in October, he said, and New York earlier this month. And how had he done?

“Slow,” he said. “2:54.”

Once the race started, there were mere handfuls of spectators.  But enthusiastic handfuls!  I hung out for a while, near where volunteers were setting up the finish line, with a couple of longtime runners and Brooklynites who had come out for the race despite not knowing any of the entrants. Granville Murrell, 62, is in the NY Mag story -- he's the guy who said he had prayed for a marathon to come to Brooklyn.  He lives nearby and heard about it the day before on the TV news.

"I said, 'Prospect Park -- are you kidding me?' " he said, happily.

He was standing near David Leman, 76, who he had never met but who had also been around local running a long time. He ran the NYC Marathon "a number of times," he said, with the last coming in 1991. He was holding that day's New York Post, and thought for sure that they would have written about the race. He started flipping through the pages, browsing aloud:

"Zuccotti Park ... Lady Gaga ... The ex-wife stabbed her husband and dumped him in the woods ... Gotta be in here somewhere."

I don't think it was, but his optimism fit the mood of the day.  You know who was conspicuous by his absence, though? Marty Markowitz, the borough president.  Beforehand, I would have guessed they'd have to drag him away from something like this. Not that I'm implying he sincerely wanted to be there. But, showing up at this kind of stuff and talking about Junior's cheesecake and Coney Island and Ebbets Field is just kind of his thing.

Well, it turns out that Marty wasn't much of a help to the race organizers.

"He ignored our pleas for help, he didn't take our phone calls," said one of the planners, Michael Ring.  I'm not going to speculate on why that might have been.  I'm just not.

Marty or no Marty, though, people were having fun. A pair of girls running up by Grand Army Plaza -- just popping into the park for part of a five-mile job -- marveled at a course that includes six full laps of the park's 3.35 mile loop, plus two-and-a-half shorter loops.

"That would take a ton of mental strength," one, Lindsay Zelinski, said. "I did this park twice one time and it was awful."

They headed off running, in the same direction as the race. "It's great," she said. "We're going to have people cheering the whole way."

A pair of weekend-cyclist types pedaled mountain bikes onto the loop and one rider said to his companion, "Maybe there's a race of some sort." A little ways ahead, a woman was holding  a sign that read, "Where are you guys going?"

The course map was crazy, by the way.  At one point in the southern part of the park, there were five mile markers in quick succession: 25, then 15, then 5, then 3, then 1, all within a few hundred feet of each other.  Runners were using GPS watches to keep track of which lap they were on.

Making my way around, I wanted to talk to a dog owner, because they're one of the park's other very enthusiastic subcultures (along with runners, cyclists, stroller-pushers and that crazy guy who walks around the loop singing at the top of his lungs, who I'm going to say comprises a subculture of one).  Eventually I spotted a man walking a dog and pushing a stroller at the same time, and thought, bingo.

Well, as it turns out out, he was also a runner and a triathlete -- and firefighter -- named Greg Santini. He'd run the NYC Marathon a couple of weeks earlier, and was having some seriously conflicted feelings about not signing up for this one too. "I could've done it.  It's just a matter of my wife not letting me," he said.

For those that don't know, being married to someone who enters distance races is best described by this actual t-shirt illustration:

So, his wife probably has a point.  I knew how he felt, though, because it was a beautiful day and I kept wishing I was out there.  He kept saying things like, "It's awesome. I should be running," and "This would be great. It sucks that I'm not running."  I have a strong feeling you'll be seeing him in the race next year.

Back towards the finish line, I met the winner's dad, before either of us even knew he was the winner's dad.  At that point all we knew was that his son had been near the front for the whole race and was closing in fast.  It was a legitimate thrill to see his son, John Paul Montes, come around the last curve in the lead and kick to the finish line. The guy is from Carroll Gardens, which is, as the Junior's Cheesecake billboard says, "as Brooklyn as it gets."

I had borrowed a pen from Lou Montes, the dad, just before the finish when mine ran out of ink and my backup got lost somehow.  In all the excitement, I forgot to give it back. I'm basically treating it as my own at this point.  I'm definitely jealous of everybody who got to participate in the inaugural version of this cool event, though, so I figured maybe I'll just treat the pen as a souvenir.  It's not a finisher medal but it'll do.

Bonus content: A Brooklyn marathoning history lesson from Johanna Bjorken. And Geoff Badner with notes on how it feels to run quickly around Prospect Park for three hours.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I've Seen the Mountains But I'm Not In Love

As befits the occasion, this is a long one.  I want to get it all down before I forget.

I ran in the New York City Marathon yesterday, which is something I've been waiting to do for either a few months (the time it took to train for it) or a couple of years (the time since my last marathon) or the better part of a decade (the time since I first saw the race in person and had some inkling that it looked like fun, even though I couldn't have run two miles without stopping at that point).

There was so much buildup that I worried in advance (which is a thing that I do.  Also, parentheses) ...  I worried in advance that it wouldn't live up to my expectations.  I ended up running well, or about as well as I had hoped to, but the main reason it was such an exciting day is that the race, and the city, showed why they're so easy to love sometimes.  I always wondered, going out and cheering for a while at previous years' marathons, just how much spectators mattered to the runners.  The answer, I can now say, is a ton. Really, they're everything.  It's not like New York is a particularly attractive city, physically -- and certainly not along the marathon route, which, with a few exceptions, alternates between too-wide boulevards and on-ramps and industrial zones.  But what makes the experience of passing through the race course special is the same thing that makes the city special: the people. Diversity is such an overused word, but it's something like that -- so many different faces, different languages, different kinds of music, all radiating goodwill in a place where it's too often in short supply.  It is just a really charming experience, New York at its best.  I wish I could do it again tomorrow.

Obviously for most of the day I was busy with mundane running-related stuff.  People who don't run tend to ask me what I think about when I'm running, and I usually say that I don't really know. The truth is that it's a lot of boring things like, What does my watch say? Should I speed up or slow down? Are my shoulders tight? Are my steps quick enough? etc.  But you're also taking in all kind of stimuli and absorbing them in varying degrees, so your perception changes, from something resembling a movie to something resembling a collage.

Anyway, a few snippets of experience stand out from the day:

-- Arriving at Jackrabbit Sports, my local running store and former employer, at 5:30 a.m. for the bus to the starting line. It was still dark but there was a nervous little crowd out front and inside -- people dressed in crisp new sweatsuits that they'd be throwing away in a few hours. (There's a long, cold wait at the starting line on Staten Island, so people buy cheap throwaway clothes, which the group that organizes the race then collects at the start and donates to charity.) Some people, unbelievably to me, were in the store trying to figure out what to eat or wear in the race that day.  I say unbelievably because I think I had planned this all out in my head weeks in advance, at least.

(This is as good a time as any to throw in a plug for my friend and coach Geoff Badner, who works with runners of all different levels -- I'm somewhere in the middle -- and besides coming up with super-detailed training plans, is very patient with pre-race jitters.)

-- Seeing Todd Colby and Larry Lewis, who between them have thousands of miles worth of marathon experience, just before getting on the bus.  It calms a person down.  I asked Larry for last-minute advice and he said, "No matter how good you feel, slow down." If you still feel good with 10 miles to go, he said, you can speed up then.  I actually did this -- as well as I could, considering how amped up I was -- and it worked.  The man knows what he's talking about.

-- The sunrise over Brooklyn, viewed through the window of the Prospect Park Track Club bus and the cables of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  I don't see a lot of sunrises, and this was an exciting one.

-- Stepping off the bus just as the Jesus and Mary Chain's "New York City" started playing on my headphones.

Laura and I put this on the mix CD we gave to our wedding guests, but I insisted that we not include it on the printed tracklist, because of a very Jesus and Mary Chain-esque reference that he makes to his dick about halfway through.  I dunno, I was afraid elderly guests would go, "Oh look, Dear, a song about New York City!" and skip to it and be scandalized.

Anyway, though, the second half of a second verse, in the crisp morning air on a sunny day surrounded by all the energy and humanity of that pre-start waiting area ... big goosebumps.

-- Sitting on a curb in Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island at 8 a.m., chatting with the Dutch guy on one side of me and the Canadian twins on the other.  Nothing important -- just the course, energy gels, the financial crisis, what to do if you have to pee during the race.  But I really had the feeling I could have gone up to anyone there and started talking and it would have been cool.  There was so much nervous energy in the air that it left people emotionally naked, in what worked out to be a good way.  I didn't get either of their names, and find myself wondering how they did.

-- After you check your bag and have been herded from one corral, to another, to the Verrazano Bridge toll plaza, you hear the national anthem and the elite runners being introduced. Then they fire off a cannon and the elites take off, and the sound system starts playing Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" on a repeating loop at earsplitting volume.  It's hilarious, and completely schmaltzy, and at that moment is just the most emotionally powerful thing in the world.  These French guys behind me were singing along with it and I wanted to hug them.

-- Running over the bridge to start the race, with TV and police helicopters hovering off to the side, the Manhattan skyline in the distance to the left, a few random bridge workers looking on from the side. I read recently where Deena Kastor called it the most exciting starting line in the history of marathons, and she would know better than me, so I have to say that from my limited experience she's got to be right.

-- I'm not going to say in this space that I peed off the Verrazano Bridge. But if you've overhydrated a bit in the start area, and you're jogging along and you see all these other dudes peeing off the side of the bridge, you start to think things to yourself.  And what I thought was, "When else could I urinate off something this tall?"

-- After this it gets blurry. Running through Bay Ridge in the early miles and thinking about how my dad grew up a block from the route.  Slapping hands with rows of little kids alongside the road in Sunset Park.  Picking out friends I had been looking for, and friends I hadn't expected to see, in the crowds along Fourth Avenue in Park Slope.  I waved to my old block on Carroll Street, even though I don't think any of the neighbors there would recognize me if they saw me.  Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene was the loudest, where the street narrows and the people are closer to the race. A high school marching band plays the Rocky theme over and over. In South Williamsburg you get plenty of bemused stares, and the occasional quiet word of encouragement, from the local Hasidic men, who are wearing approximately 50 times as many clothes as you are and look somewhat more relaxed, too.  Up past Peter Luger's, thinking about the hamburger with old friends the other day or the steak for the next special occasion, and under the Williamsburg Bridge toward Northside Williamsburg, where the streets narrow again and the kids are loud. Then Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, with Jay-Z blasting out somebody's window and a bizarre Polish guido dance-rap act performing on a sidewalk.

-- Brooklyn, in short, is just far and away the best borough of the race.  There's this trope that you hear a lot of in the weeks approaching the marathon, something to the effect of, "When you come off the Queensborough Bridge onto First Avenue it will be the loudest cheer you'll ever hear in your life."  Well, no.  When I came off the bridge -- and this, relatively speaking, was near the beginning of the race -- I saw a giant crowd on the sidewalk, staring silent and slack-jawed.  I don't know what they were waiting for, but they certainly weren't cheering.  I hate to do the obvious thing and make the various boroughs' marathon-spectating behavior into a metaphor for their broader personalities, but ... yeah.  Brooklyn was where all the most genuine energy in the city was, and Manhattan was full of people who had heard it was where they were supposed to go, but then didn't know what to do once they got there.

-- Now I'm getting out of chronological order.  Queens was fun.  It's funny how the music along the course varies with the neighborhood.  Heard more than a little unironic metal music in Queens.

-- The Queensborough Bridge is the race's steepest hill aside from the very start, but what's eerie about it is that there are no spectators.  You go from a couple hours of people screaming at you into a zone of relative silence, where the only sound is your own breathing, the breathing of the runners around you, and the shuffling of everyone's shoes.  And you're running on the lower level, so it's basically a dark, quiet tunnel with occasional glimpses of the river and the Empire State Building out the side.  It has a bit of mystique among NYC marathoners, and deservedly so, if only because the vibe is kind of badass.

-- After First Avenue in Manhattan, which does actually get friendlier and louder as you head north and the frattiness quotient increases, you cross over into the Mott Haven section of the Bronx for a mile or two.  The Bronx has a reputation, probably well-earned in past years, for being a bit of a dead spot along the course.  The thing is that Mott Haven is the lowest-income neighborhood the race passes through, and most of the people who could be out watching there have better things to worry about.  But it did seem to me that the Bronx is making an effort to represent, and that gave me a really warm feeling. I tried to slap more hands here, to smile at more people who yelled my name, because I wanted them to know that their presence out there, cheering for an event that really can turn monotonous for a spectator, was appreciated.

-- I should probably explain here that nobody in the Bronx, with a couple of exceptions who weren't present at the race, knows my name.  The thing is that, like most of the runners, I had written my first name on my shirt so that people could see it and cheer for me.  This always seemed a little dumb to me: "If you know they don't know your name, why do you care if they're yelling it?  What difference does it make to have the encouragement of some stranger who has to read your name off your shirt?" Yadda yadda.  Well, I can't fully explain why -- I think it has roots in the early childhood process by which we learn our own names from our parents -- but hearing anybody yelling your name in an encouraging way, stranger or not, feels great.  So every time I do one of these, I write my name on my shirt, and feel silly doing it, and then during the race I'm incredibly happy that I did.

-- The only thing is that by the end of a marathon, you've heard your name shouted by strangers so many times that it has basically lost all meaning and become a nonsense sound.   Still, it was a nonsense sound that was good to hear during the race's hilly last few miles in and around Central Park.  Again, I knew intellectually that when people yelled that I was looking good, they were just trying to be encouraging, and that they really don't know what I usually look like for comparison.  But intellect has no place at this stage of the race, and, while I wasn't one of the unfortunate people walking at this stage, I did think to myself, "There's no way I'm slowing down with all these people watching."

-- And then we ran down Central Park South, and back into the park at Columbus Circle, and it was over. Almost caught Apollo Ohno, but not quite.  Had a nice chat with an Icelandic guy who lives in London while we got our foil blankets.  Shared a mean laugh with a nearby finisher about a third guy who was throwing up by the bag-claim area -- "He made it this far, for that!" -- and then emerged onto a sunny New York City street where it was ok to walk.

My pal Nathan Schiller, who has a literary magazine, published an essay the other day wondering why so many normal people sign up to run marathons.  I don't think he'd mind my saying that he comes up with more questions than answers.  It's a thought-provoking piece and you should read it.

It was rattling around my head in the days before the race, though, partly because of some of the points Nathan makes and partly because it reminded me of other points that he doesn't make.  Nathan -- who is a way better runner than me, by the way, and I say that with no false humility -- is conflicted, and I daresay a little sour, about a lot of the hype, marketing and sentimentality that have come to surround marathons in general, and the New York City Marathon -- pardon me, the ING New York City Marathon -- in particular.  And in some big ways, he's right: The endless selling of shirts is lame, as is the underlying premise of the "finisher medal" that everyone gets, not to mention the mechanically personalized email I got today from race director Mary Wittenberg informing me and every other finisher, "You are incredible -- a champion in your own right!" (This is a woman who was once a nationally competitive marathoner and who knew Grete Waitz personally.  I might be many things to her, if we were ever to meet, but I doubt I'd strike her as incredible.)

I even laugh a little, not necessarily out loud but somewhere deep inside my intellect, when people shoot holes in the concept of the marathon-as-meaningful-accomplishment, inevitably noting the efficiency with which it transfers money from rich, slow white people to poor, incredibly fast Africans.

(There was a part of Nathan's essay that cracked me up, in which he described watching the race go by:
When the three-hour group rolls past, I’ll be wondering if I, too, look that slow. And when all the four-hour-plus marathoners plod on by, with friends and family cheering their magnificent accomplishment (can you imagine how weird it’d be if we did this for our friends’ rec league basketball championship game?), I’ll wonder if they’ll ever run again.
As a three-and-a-half-hour marathoner -- so somebody exactly halfway between "Do I look that slow?" and "Will he ever do this again?" -- I can only imagine what thoughts I might have evoked. Maybe something like, "My God, must he continue with that?")

What I'm trying to say is, this is not a day about which I can feel cynical, or even particularly analytical.  The rec basketball thing is an aside that he probably doesn't mean for people to dwell on too much (sorry), but here goes. All I can say is that the New York City marathon, even leaving aside all the hype, really is different from rec basketball.  In short, It's harder.  And it's nice to watch people try hard things and succeed at them.  It's ennobling, and inspiring.  So that, I think, is why the spectators come out.

As for the runners , I guess I'd point to the entire rest of this post as my personal answer.  The marathon can be a pain in the butt, and too expensive, and self-important and a lot of other bad things, but -- much like a lot of Frank Sinatra -- that doesn't mean it isn't fun too.

I'm reminded of a night, after my first marathon (Philadelphia) when a different friend raised basically the same question.  We were sipping beers, and I was complaining about how sore my legs were and the blisters on my toes, and he said, "Why do people run marathons?" I said something about liking the challenge, and the process of setting a goal and preparing for it, and being a fundamentally competitive person and liking to test myself.

All true enough.  But what I wished afterward that I had said was, "Why do you play the piano?"  It's an equally valid question, and equally pointless.  They're both hard to do, and in both cases the difficulty you overcome is a big part -- though not nearly all -- of what makes them so rewarding.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Another post: Raekwon, whiskey, photos and terrible famous writing

I am liking these Norm MacDonald-as-Larry King random-thoughts posts.  At the risk of getting a reputation as some kind of a complainer (ha ha), here's more:

1) I found another terrible thing in GQ. In that music issue where they fawned over Lou Reed and Metallica, they found space for a little featurette about Raekwon, on the table of contents page.  He's never been my favorite Wu-Tang member but it was cool to see him in there, sporting hipster eyeglasses. The text, though, claims that these days, he's "making the only Wu-branded solo joints that matter."  Even leaving aside the labored, Thomas Wolfian faux street lingo, that is a pretty ridiculous statement.  Big Ghost is like, "Excuse me?"

2) I actually like GQ a lot -- they've got me dressing a lot better! -- and they run really good stories all the time. They also profile the shirtless guy from the GI Joe movie like once every eight months, but that's neither here nor there.  I would be happy to write for them, though they have not yet asked.

3) This is really not even worth getting into, but what the hell.  My local wine store, which recently started carrying liquor, is having regular whiskey tastings, which is great.  The downside is that they don't seem to actually know much about whiskey, so the stuff they're pouring is kind of out of left field.  This week's tasting involved an un-aged rye, which is pretty unusual, and which I wanted to try for the novelty value.  Un-aged whiskey is clear, because whiskey gets its color, among other things, from being aged in wood barrels.  Or, this is how the store's promotional people describe the situation:
Good whiskey gets its color from the barrel it is aged in, and great whiskey gets its character from the grain that is used to make it. ...  The decades of barrel aging that many whiskey makers tout on their labels often only serves give spirits their color and to mellow out them out for the unadventurous palates who are afraid of whiskey with a little bit of gumption
That is basically the stupidest thing I've read all week, or at least since I read that thing about Raekwon. Just FYI, people have been aging whiskey in wood barrels for, give or take, hundreds of years. But some hipster comes along and decides not to, and all of a sudden all these long-deceased Scotsmen are a bunch of pantywaists.  Sure.  Literally all of the best whiskeys in the world, of varying styles and nationalities, are aged for years.  But now this place that's been selling the stuff for a month is going to free us all from the Matrix, and boy, are we going to feel silly.

No.  I skipped this thing because it was snowing out, and instead my unadventurous palate is going to enjoy a glass of something that's dumbed-down just the way I'm silly enough to like it.
4) There are some cool things on the Times' Lens blog.  I guess some of them have been there forever, but I don't usually read it, so they're new to me.  One is a piece by photographer Damon Winter, who won some kind of award for a photo essay he shot on an iPhone, with Hipstamatic.  This apparently started a whole controversy, and his eloquent defense of the techniques and equipment he used, is here, along with the original, really good, pictures.

Also, here's a post with some old pictures from New York City's subway system, from one of the late 70s/early 80s, one of the low points in the city's history. I don't think it'll let me link to individual images -- and anyway, they're all good -- but the use of text in numbers 12 and 13 are especially cool.

5) I realized just now, in referring to Thomas Wolfe, that I never wrote a post I meant to write a long time ago. It's about Wolfe's famous story, "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn." Now, if you're like I was a few months ago, you've probably heard the title of the story a bunch of times -- it's a great title -- but not necessarily read the piece.  It's one of those things that has entered the vernacular in a fragmentary way, so people refer to it all the time without always knowing what they're referring to.  Well, circumstances required me to look it up for a thing I was writing a while ago, and ... it's terrible!  It might actually be one of the worst things I've ever read, and is certainly the worst famous piece of writing I can think of.

Go ahead and check it out, and see if you can get through more than a few lines.  But beyond its nonexistent readability, the thing just leaves a seriously bad taste.  Near as I can tell, the moral seems to be: "Ha Ha, people in Brooklyn talk funny! Look at what baboons they are!"  It is probably something less than a coincidence that this was originally published in the New Yorker, which continues to have a complicated relationship with the borough.  (Please don't take the link in the previous sentence as any kind of endorsement of Marty Markowitz.) And written by a southerner.  But, my God.  Is there any possible reading of this story in which it isn't, basically, minstrelsy?

I don't have a Brooklyn accent -- mine is more generic-suburban-nerd -- but my grandparents did and my parents do to a lesser extent.  I'm trying to figure out how this story isn't basically ridiculing them, and nothing more.  I am drawing a blank.  Good title, though.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Oh hey, how's it going?  It recently came to my attention that at least one dude is still checking for updates here, and since he doesn't even have Facebook, I thought I'd better post something.  Things here are good, and a little different.  The baby's hobby used to be lying on the shag rug like a potato, whereas now it's crawling around and trying to stuff pieces of said rug into her mouth.  Also, she thinks I'm hilarious, which ... well, let's just say it's about time I got some appreciation.

Anyway, here's a bunch of random things from the last six months, in no particular order. I'm going to shamelessly steal from myself in several places, so if anything feels familiar, just try to pretend you don't have Facebook either.

1) It's an amazing thing to say, but the lamest thing in the new GQ actually isn't Lou Reed and Metallica looking all Weekend at Bernie's in the "Rock and Roll Wax Figures" photo spread.  It's the package about how -- brace yourself, lest your mind be blown -- Brooklyn is cool now!  Swear to God -- I read it in GQ so I believe it must be true.  Although, their map of Brooklyn didn't actually include my neighborhood.  But I think that's ok, since it just means that in another eight years they'll do a story called "The Five Artisanal Shoe Stores You Must Visit on Newkirk Avenue."

It's actually hard to say this any better than the one guy from Gawker did. (Should I say a Hail Mary or something for liking a post on Gawker?) I guess I'd just add, if a large percentage of places in your story about why a city is cool are places that I regularly go to and enjoy, then you have not found cool enough places. I say this not to toot any horns, but my first EVER story in a major media outlet (not including the Daily Progress) was in large part about how Brooklyn was "over" for cool people.  And I've got a grey beard and strong opinions about the pros and cons of various jogging strollers, so you know that was a while ago.

2) Lou Reed and Metallica, though -- oh my God, terrible.  Way to invalidate the entirety of your previous output, dudes.  An adolescent me spent a day in Giants Stadium watching Metallica and Guns and Roses on their tour together in 1992.  (Did I say adolescent?  I meant to say I was like four years old in 1992.  That's the ticket.)  Even at the time, I could have grudgingly predicted that GnR would someday make a record like Chinese Democracy.  But if you'd told me Metallica would make this, I wouldn't have believed you. Or, I might have.  It was one of the first times I ever drank beer, so I was impressionable.  But anyway, seriously, listen to how much this sucks.  Doesn't it make you wonder, a tiny bit in the back of your head, if the whole Velvet Underground thing was just a lucky accident?

3) If I seem like I'm having a ton of fun, it's because I just had a glass of Black Maple Hill bourbon, which is delicious.  Interestingly, though, nobody seems to know where it comes from.  The whiskey business is weird.

4) Ever read David Pogue's tech columns in the Times?  Seems like a sincere fellow, but it's like, they're just phones, man.  Relax.

5) Chinese Democracy, by the way, is actually not terrible.  Not the best thing Tommy Stinson ever played on by a long shot, but not terrible.  Now I've agreed with Gawker and Chuck Klosterman in the same post, so I must retire from writing and light myself on fire.

6) Here are some links that are sure to get me hits from Google:
Tony LaRussa sucks.
Joe Buck and Tim McCarver suck.
Guy on a Buffalo rules.
Guided By Voices rules.
I mean, obviously.
High on Fire ... enough said.
John Sterling sucks, but now I feel bad about saying that.
There's a Wocket in My Pocket rules.
And, related, the fact that there's a defunct Bay-area doom metal band called Noothgrush ... it also rules.

7) And what have I been working on, you ask?  Oh, this and that.  The most interesting stuff, I can't seem to find a home for, unfortunately.  It may end up here, and then all eight of you reading this can send me a check in the mail when you finish it.  (That's how freelancing works, right?)  But, in recent months, I thought this was pretty good.  This too.  Things are generally ok, though.  I haven't had to explain a medial post, at least professionally, in a while, and somehow I'm still able to purchase multicolored heirloom carrots for the baby.  So I must be doing something right.

I think that's all I've got right now, actually.  I know there were at least a half-dozen other ideas for posts that I had over the last couple of months, but I can't find the piece of paper I scribbled them on.  Maybe I'll find it and write them soon, or maybe I'll start a new list.  I'm fairly certain this is not the way blogging is supposed to work, so maybe I'll find a way to cut out some of the middle men and just write stuff as I think of it.

In closing, please enjoy this moment with Beavis and Butthead, who taught me everything I know.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Crowdsourcing a Very Important Question

In this post I'm asking for help from my readers who have spent time in Ireland.  Google stats tells me that I've only had one pageview from there, out of like millions basically, but maybe the rest of you with friends in Ireland can forward them this link or something.

OK, here goes: You know the song "The Boys are Back in Town," by Thin Lizzy?  If not, well, that's kind of weird.  But here, watch this.

So, there's a part of the song where Phil Lynott, the singer, is talking to one of his boys, about some of their friends who have been away somewhere for a while and are back, and he's basically reminiscing about old times.  In particular, he talks about this one incident that happened at their mutual friend Johnny's place.  He doesn't get into particulars, but there was an attractive woman there, one who liked to dance a lot and who was already known to the guys in this crowd for her dancing prowess. Well, long story short, on the night in question she got up and slapped Johnny's face.  

If you ask me, from what we know about Johnny, he probably had it coming, but that's not what I want to ask about.  I'm wondering about the line right after Lynott recounts the face-slapping.  Almost every internet lyrics site I've seen transcribes the line as, "Man, we just fell about the place.  If that chick don't wanna know, forget her."

Here's the thing: I had always heard the line as , "Man, we just fell up out the place," as in, they left. But now I'm really not sure.  Why would Johnny and friends have left Johnny's own place in response to the slap?  I don't know, but to my mind there are just as many question with the "fell about the place" transcription.  For starters, what does "fell about the place" even mean?  That they trashed the place?  Probably not, because again: Johnny's place.  Does it mean they cracked up laughing?  If so, why does he seem to be so angry towards the slapper in the following line?  

To my mind, none of these internet lyrics sites can be trusted -- they're basically all google bait, and most of the transcriptions on there are uploaded by users anyway, without being checked.  Many of them, for example, have Lynott singing, in the first couple of lines, "I still think them cats are great." Which is just comically wrong, and would honestly be kind of embarrassing, if lyrics transcription web sites were capable of emotion.

So I'm just wondering if people can tell me: Is "fell about the place" a commonly used expression in Phil Lynott's native Ireland?  Is "fell up out the place"?  Or alternately, was anyone reading this personally acquainted with him during his lifetime by any chance?  I would really like to know for sure what he's singing here, and the internet is surprisingly little help so far.  I'm hoping it can redeem itself starting now.

Newish Story

I forgot to say, I wrote this last week, about the short-lived showing of the Atlas Shrugged movie in Park Slope.  It was fun, though the hour and 42 minutes I was in the movie were definitely the weak link in the evening.

Some random thoughts that didn't make it into the story:

-- Aside from the obvious issues with the culture of the neighborhood, the movie faced some obstacles in Park Slope.  It had scored an 8 out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes (that's down to a 6 now, by the way), and then there's the theater.  The Park Slope Pavilion has had what you would have to call some challenges recently.  There was a bedbug rumor (which the owners denied) and general disrepair so bad that the theater's 23-year-old manager wrote a heart-rending letter of apology to the Park Slope Parents internet group.

(Digression: Literally every single time I think of the Park Slope Parents internet group, which is an even more bizarre slice of the neighborhood than the Co-op, I laugh to myself about the saga of the "lost boy's hat."  It will be very old news to many of you, but if you're from Mars or something and haven't heard about that brouhaha, do yourself a favor and read up.)

-- I thought Tea Partiers hated high speed trains?  In the dystopian year 2016, they love them.  Who knew.

-- It's a movie about the glory of rich people, more or less, but one with a relatively limited budget.  This produces some unintentional comedy in the wardrobe and set design departments.  Lotta rich guys shopping at Men's Wearhouse in the year 2016, apparently.

-- I've googled around and I may have been the only person in the world who noticed this one.  Much of the film is set in Manhattan, albeit a Manhattan without an Empire State Building or basically any iconic skyscrapers, and one that in fact is pretty transparently downtown L.A. or Vancouver or something.  But there is a very quick glimpse of the heroine outside a subway station, and the stop is marked something like "Second Avenue/Seventh Street."  That's right: They've got a Second Avenue subway in 2016!  How dystopian can the future be if they've got the Second Avenue subway built?  Maybe union workers aren't so bad after all?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Mathematical Sublime

I had the strange experience this week of looking through a few dozen stories that I wrote 10 years ago in my first job, at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va.  Strange because I had to get my parents to send them to me -- they were in a box in my old room, because I never thought I'd have any reason to look at them again.  But somebody wanted to see them, for reasons that are a little complicated to explain, so here I found myself getting decade-old ink all over my fingers -- and cheap ink, as I shouldn't even have to say that the Daily Progress uses, truly does get all over your fingers -- and reading stories I wrote when I was 23.

The big question you are all of course waiting for me to answer is, were they good? And my answer is, actually, yeah, some were.  Maybe slightly dated, given that I referred to email, in one of them, as a "relatively new technology." Either way, some that I remembered being good were not so good, but a few that I didn't remember at all were pretty decent.

You'll just have to take my word for it, because at the time I worked there, the Daily Progress didn't archive stories on its web site.  This was a source of great frustration to us writers at the time, but honestly, maybe it's for the best.  This way I can tell you that I wrote some really solid stuff back then and you have to believe me.  (Although, I guess some will believe me and some won't.  This is why I found myself in the 99-cent store photocopying the paper copies of a few of the stories today: to provide one such doubter with proof.  There is a higher threshold of proof in some quarters.)

At this point, the truly curious reader does have one other recourse: If you google me just the right way, you can find stories of mine that random people copy/pasted onto random web sites.  Like, the Rivanna Trails Foundation has a story I wrote about the Rivanna Trail.  By the looks of it, I wrote it either just before or just after a very long Friday lunch.  Upon finding this story the other day, I figured I could save myself a bunch of photocopying time if I could just find some of the old stories online that I actually liked.  This led to a spiral of self-googling and, at the bottom of that, a deep existentialist dread brought on by the vastness and depth of the internet.

Long story short, I didn't find any of the good stories.  I found a strange one about a guinea fowl named Peep who appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell Show.  I found some people (who I hadn't really forgotten about) who think I conspired to get a Republican elected to the City Council -- which makes perfect sense, right?  And, most intriguing, I found this: a blog post, written in Charlottesville, about a different blog post I wrote in New York, for the Times.  It's a little hard to explain why exactly that link made my head spin, but I'll try.

(Tangent 1: The dude who wrote that blog post must not have been paying his hosting bills, because it seems to have been taken down.  But I'm hoping that the magic of Google cache will keep it viewable for a little while longer.  If not, I'll summarize: In my post for the Times, I referred to Charlottesville's bygone yellow bike program.  This blogger saw that post, and my mention of having lived in Charlottesville, and wondered where I used to work when I was in town.)

(Tangent 2: This wasn't what made my head spin, but I was nonplussed to read the comments at the end of that post, in which somebody proclaims, "I have it on the best authority that Mooney is a total arse. LMFAO."  I don't remember offending any British people down there. Still,  I'm sure it's possible or even likely.  Those were the days before I was saved by the love of a good woman.)

(Tangent 3: This commenter is great:

30 Nov 2007 at 5:35 pm
Horatio said:
Apparently Mooney did not know that Charlottesville stole the idea from Portland, OR (or some other city on the west coast), which in turn stole it from countless cities in Europe.
Makes sense that Mooney used to work for the Daily Progress, as fact checking has not ever been at the top of the reporter’s creed there. Surprising he can get away with it at the NYT…

30 Nov 2007 at 5:37 pm
Horatio said:
Perhaps I should have read the column at the NYT before posting, as Mooney did in fact acknowledge the other cities before Charlottesville. Talk about not fact checking…

Hahaha.  Nice posts, guy.)

Anyway, anyway.  What made my head spin.  Since this post is now too long, I'd guess I'd just say, the vastness and depth of the internet.  It's amazing when you start to think about it.

The thing is, when you're writing for a newspaper, at least in my experience, you're generally not thinking about the number of people who are actually going to read the story. But even if you are, the numbers are basically finite -- as long as the internet isn't involved.  If the Daily Progress circulates to, say, 30,000 people, then you can figure that some percentage of 30,000 people are going to read about Peep the guinea fowl.  (Probably a pretty small percentage, since from what I remember, roughly two-thirds of the paper's readers buy it just for the supermarket coupons.)  Even with a big paper, like the Times, I could guesstimate the number of readers, and the number of readers in New York, and the number of readers likely to flip to section Q or whatever the City section used to be.  And that's how many people would see the story.  And then a short time later, all the paper copies of the story would end up in the dump or in the library and that would be that.

But with the internet, this stuff just keeps expanding and expanding outward.  The number of readers is potentially limitless.  I was talking with somebody about all of this after a bunch of Old Overholts the other day, and he started telling me about the philosophical concept of the sublime.

The sublime, Wikipedia reminds me now, has to do with greatness or vast magnitude and its effect on us. There are a few different types of it.  Here I'm going to borrow from Kant, as explained to me after a bunch of whiskey, so please bear with me.  As he saw things, the first type, the dynamical sublime, has to do with when we're awed by an overwhelmingly powerful natural force, like a thunderstorm or the ocean. Its strength makes us ponder our own weakness, etc. The other type is the mathematical sublime.  To quote a guy on the internet:
The experience of the 'mathematical sublime' is occasioned by an almost ungraspably vast, formless object. Kant suggests that at a certain point, the powers of our senses and of our Imagination (the faculty of the mind that schematises and grasps the sensory world in images and 'forms') fail to be able to synthesise all of the immediate perceptions of such a huge and formless object into a full and unified image of a single figure; its sheer scale threatens to overwhelm the mind's powers of comprehension, our ability to grasp its magnitude with 'the mind's eye'.
This is how I feel when I google my stories and see all the weird places they've ended up, and imagine all the weirder places where they still will.  It's also, incidentally, how I feel when I look at the blog stats that Google helpfully provides and see how many people are reading this crap, some of them in countries where I'm fairly sure I don't know anybody. Basically, I think that roughly 90 percent of you are people who know me personally.  But that 10 percent, even that little bit makes my head spin.

I used to have this recurring nightmare when I was a kid that I could never really explain, and still can't.  Basically I'd have the feeling of being in the presence of something overwhelmingly large, and being dwarfed by it, and I'd wake up with a sensation of unplaceable dread. (Fun kid, right?) But I guess that's the mathematical sublime.  The mathematical sublime is also when I imagine my stories being read for the rest of eternity. And it's also when I consider how many people reading them think I'm an "arse."

Bonus content, because anybody who read all of that deserves a little bit extra...

-- Here's some stuff I wrote and actually got published recently:
City Limits
New York Magazine

-- I'm working on a thing about the NYC bike lanes now. If you haven't read the New York Magazine story on them yet, it's really good. Also, this piece by Tom Vanderbilt, who is a terrific reporter, and who sold me my current desk chair.  (Great chair. Around the same time, I sold my portable dishwasher to the guy who played piano on Range Life.  It's the circle of life.)

-- The original conversation on the mathematical sublime ... man, you should have heard it.  Much smarter than what I've managed to scratch out here.  Unfortunately -- Old Overholt, etc. -- most of it is lost to history.  Reminds me of a story I heard about Dylan, from around the time the Eat the Document documentary was made.  I guess he was staying up late in hotel rooms with Robbie Robertson writing some of the best stuff either of them ever wrote, but they were both so tired and strung out on drugs at that point that they never bothered to record or even write down most of them.  The little fragments that survived -- and please click on that link, because it's so beautiful -- just make you heartbroken that there aren't more of them.  And yes, I am comparing me and Austin and our butchering of Kant to Dylan and Robbie Robertson. Though I will grant you that Robbie Robertson is ever so slightly cooler in that video than we were at the bar.

-- Finally, somebody is impersonating Ghostface Killah in blog form.  There's something sublime about that too, though I'm not sure which type.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Saw a story in the New York Times magazine about the Phillies' rotation and groaned, because I have Cliff Lee fatigue (sour grapes) and because I think they're overrated as a team, considering Ryan Howard's limitations against lefties and Chase Utley's physical state.

BUT, it's really good.  Pat Jordan is a terrific magazine sportswriter.  I had never heard of him until he started popping up on Deadspin a while back, but maybe that's just because I stopped reading Sports Illustrated a long time ago. I keep thinking maybe I should buy his book.

Anyway, cool piece for those who care too much about baseball, like me, or those who like it a little bit but want to learn more about the subtle physical and strategic stuff that isn't apparent on the surface.

Also, from a journalistic perspective, I can't believe he got so many people in the game -- Mike Schmidt! -- to go on record as candidly as they did.  There's a little bit of this phenomenon at play where old players always want to think everyone was better and tougher in their heyday, like when Goose Gossage refuses to fully acknowledge the greatness of Mariano Rivera.  But still, impressive to see player talk that goes beyond platitudes.

Finally, since I'm officially a blogger-in-my-pajames now (though currently not in my mom's basement), how about a prediction: I think the Braves will beat them.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Google stats tells me that somebody found my blog today by searching "what is ok to say to new parents". If you're still out there, friend, go with the bourbon thing.

Also, shoutout to my fans in Denmark, Austria, Panama and the United Arab Emirates.  I think I know who most of you are.  Stumped by Canada, though.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Clearly, More Than a Slum

I was writing a newspaper story about the Upper West Side of Manhattan the other day -- a real estate story about, basically, what a pleasant, family-friendly, and expensive place it is to live.  Whenever I'm working on a story like that, I find myself thinking of my father's great-aunt and great-uncle.  As it happened, they lived on West 85th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues -- owned a house there -- and my dad, who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, used to stay with them for extended visits in the summers.

The reason I always think of them on stories like this is that their Upper West Side was a very different place. Very nearly unrecognizable, I'd say.  The reasons are pretty complicated, rooted partly in housing and immigration policy and in partly in the postwar economy of New York City, but let's just say, for the moment, that it was rough.  At one point, actually, mayor Robert F. Wagner famously declared a block of West 84th Street, exactly one block south of my relatives' house, the worst block in the city.

My dad has one particular story he tells, about a racially charged gang war that culminated in a mob trying to storm my relatives' neighbor's house, and that neighbor then shooting one of the intruders and going to jail.  There is, in fact, still a bullet hole in the front of one of the townhouses up there on 85th Street, and my mom and dad have seen it, and I keep meaning to swing by one day myself.  I'm not sure I'm getting all the details of this incident right, because I haven't been able to find any news accounts of it.  That, actually, is what brings me to the point of this post.

The other day I was thinking about all of this again, because I had been talking to a real estate agent who also grew up on 85th Street.  So I went searching the Times' web site for some contemporaneous accounts of the neighborhood, including the "worst block" one block south.  Didn't see anything about that one shooting, but I did come across this.  Do yourself a favor and check this story out, because it's a doozy.

So ... where to begin?

How about that lead? (Note: People in the newspaper business often refer to the opening paragraph as the lede.  I have no idea why it's spelled that way, and it's always bothered me.  So I'm just going to say lead.)  So, how about that lead?  Are there any of the seven deadly sins that don't take place on this block?  Also (and thanks to Jeff for the tip on this), if you want to play a fun game, try scanning the rest of the story to see where homosexuality fits into the whole brawl.  It might take you a while, because homosexuality is never mentioned again.  McCandlish Phillips evidently just figured he'd throw it in because, what the hell, why not?  Just for fun, though, try substituting some other, equally random detail into the lead: "Drunkenness. Unemployment. Gambling. Overcrowding. Prostitution. Sweet Potatoes." Doesn't have the same ring, I guess, but it's equally relevant to the narrative. (Edit: No.  I mean more relevant.  At least sweet potatoes actually come up later in the story.  And they're delicious and good for you, by the way, so I don't really get the hate in there.)

Oh and also: "fighting for they knew not what"?  Because they were "Negroes and Puerto Ricans," presumably?  I mean, can't we just give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they knew what they were fighting for?  Or does only The New York Times know that?

At this point you may detect a certain snideness in my tone toward the story and its author.  This is because the more I read it, the more it bothered me.  Don't get me wrong: My initial reaction, and a large part of my reaction still, is to laugh at how hilariously overwritten and self-consciously dramatic it is.  It's just that, by all accounts my relatives, the McGinleys, were nice people -- certainly not, let's say, sociopaths.  Which is what the story's author basically comes out and calls them and their neighbors.  Am I reading this wrong?  I don't think so: "This is, clearly, more than a slum. A slum is good people in bad houses. But this, as one man put it yesterday, is 'a ghetto of sociopaths.'"

So, you're sure it's not just good people in bad houses?  Or maybe only some of them are good?  Nope.  Ghetto of sociopaths.

Let me digress for a moment to explain another newsroom phenomenon. A lot of the time, vivid writing isn't the top priority in the newspaper business -- it's mostly about conveying information, and you can get fairly successful as a reporter while being basically fairly utilitarian as a writer.  I actually think that's a good thing.  But then every now and then, in this environment in which writing tends to be fairly straightforward and writers fairly humble, you get a guy who fancies himself a wordsmith.  And somehow, through self-promotion or just by being somewhat more of a stylist than everybody else in the office, he gets a reputation as "the best writer at the paper."  Every paper has one or more of these guys, and often their writing really is good (I read a Rick Bragg story from the 1990s the other day that was genuinely emotionally affecting).  But just as often, it's terrible, because in a newspaper environment, when a writer gets a reputation as a stylist, people start encouraging him to be more and more vivid, and he starts believing the hype more than he used to, and editors are less likely to rein him in, and eventually you have pretentious florid disasters like this story.

I was thinking about all that when I figured I'd google McCandlish Phillips, and sure enough, this popped up:
Gay Talese, who left the paper in 1965 and became a best-selling author, says, “He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural. There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”
Well, Gay Talese is a living legend and I don't want to contradict him in any way, so I guess I'll just say that even in his best season Ted Williams only got a hit in four out of 10 at-bats.

Oh, and the last thing that gets me about this story? See in the second-to-last paragraph where it notes, not disapprovingly, that the area is in for some slum clearance?  And that "Fifteen buildings on Eighty-fifth Street and six buildings on Eighty-fourth Street, near Columbus Avenue, have already been condemned and vacated to make space for a new grade school"?

That resonated with me too, because I know what happened to the McGinleys on the Upper West Side: The city took their house away.  They got some money in return, sure, and it was an amount consistent with the ghetto of sociopaths they were living in.

At times like this, though, I can't help wondering how things might have been different if someone from the family had managed to stick around.  Entire buildings don't come up for sale often on West 85th Street, so this is just a rough comparison, but when I think about the whole situation, I think of places like this: A building a block away that's selling for $5 million.

Clearly more than a slum is right.

Unhelpful Things People Say to New Parents

"You should sleep when the baby sleeps."

This is a thing that people tell you as advice, in response to the fact that babies tend to wake up at, I don't know, 4 a.m., and want to suck on your finger for an hour.  Whereas at 4 p.m. they're basically paperweights. So just sleep when they sleep during the day, the thinking goes, and that way later, you won't mind sitting in a rocking chair with the Sleep Sheep in the dark hearing your neighbors snoring and/or having sex through the walls. (Hello to the people in E-23. Please don't feel awkward.)

It sounds like it makes a lot of sense. In fact, I think I remember somebody saying it to me before I had an actual baby, and my reaction being something like, "Oh, good idea."

Well, it's a dumb idea and people should stop saying it.

Here's the thing: One, as adult human beings, we don't have off-switches where we can sleep on command in the middle of the day, just because a one-month-old has closed her eyes.  Two: OK, so say her eyes are closed.  Are they going to stay closed?  And after that?  Hint: Nobody has any idea.  I know that because I now spend my entire life trying to answer these questions, and if I don't have any idea, nobody does.

Finally: When the baby sleeps, that's when I want to, you know, "do things." What things?  Well all kinds of things that I used to really like doing around a month ago, like read about the Yankees or listen to a record, or, like, wash my clothes or shave or do journalism or something. Anybody who thinks I'm going to waste my precious baby-is-asleep time on sleep for myself is out of their mind and deserves scorn.

Thank you for trying to help, though.  Sorry.

Dad blog bonus content: This is pretty funny.  I need to figure out how to write dad shit for the Op-ed page for money.

Dad blog bonus content, part 2, or, Helpful Things To Say to New Parents:

"Please enjoy this glass of bourbon while I empty your dishwasher."

"Lunch is on me."

That last one might actually belong under "Helpful Things to Say to Freelance Journalists."  Either way.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Atlantic Terminal Target is a Hell Hole

Embracing full-time Dad Blogging, I guess.

Visited Target this afternoon to look for this Fisher Price Swing Monstrosity that Will Make the Baby Be Quiet, which their web site says is there. (Try it: Click here and click on "Find it at a Target store," and enter 11215, the adjacent zip code.  As of 30 seconds ago, for the Atlantic Terminal store, it says "Available".  This is important to know, to fully enjoy this post.)

Looked around, didn't see it, looked around again, waited for a group of staffers' conversation to end and then cornered one.

Me (attempting sane voice) : Hi ... So this swing, the web site says you have it here, but when I look over there I just see display models of other swings, and no swings at all in boxes.

Him (nodding knowingly) : Oh yeah.  The one on the web site is probably online-only.

Me: Yeah but ...  no, I actually put in the zip code and it said that there's physically one here.

Him: Well whatever is out there is what we have.

Me: There aren't, like, more in the back or anything? [note: besides my journalism heroics I work in a retail store and there are frequently more things in the back.] Because the web site says that you have them here.

Him: No, the ones on the web site are probably online-only.

I hate to belabor this but the web site actually says the opposite, which is that it's NOT available online, but can ONLY be purchased in stores, such as the Atlantic Terminal store, where it's "Available"

Anyway, now I'm home, and not with a swing. Which is kind of OK because they're hideous, but kind of not OK because apparently babies don't know that and actually like them.  I found myself musing earlier that Design Within Reach should make a baby swing that's cool-looking.  But then, as a friend pointed out, they'd cost $5,000.  Aha, but then, I countered, you'd be able to buy them used on Craigslist for like $200, and would feel like you'd gotten a bargain.

I probably would pay $200 to have retroactively not gone to Target today.

Although, hahaha, of course I don't have $200.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Letter From Baby Island

Here, because my daughter (!) is momentarily not shouting at the universe, are some semi-related thoughts, unapologetically recycled from my email correspondence and family conversations in recent days:

-- The Sleep Sheep. Do you know about the Sleep Sheep? It's a stuffed animal that emits ambient noise, of a few different kinds. The settings are something like "rainforest," "ocean," "heartbeat," and, a little randomly, "whale." I could double-check them, but I'd have to move it, and right now it's three inches from Ella's head and is somehow keeping her quiet. It's great. Apparently babies like white noise because the womb is a noisy place and they miss it. Which makes sense, but which doesn't explain why I like it so much. She's supposed to get better about calming herself in the next couple of months, rendering the sheep unnecessary. But the sheep may remain a fixture in our household regardless. The only downside is the timer that shuts it off, which I just overrode for the third time in a row.

-- Current nickname for Ella: "Yella," and not because of her skin tone, because that would be wrong.

-- When my band releases its difficult second album, I am going to lobby for it to be called "Nipple Confusion."

-- The Happiest Baby on the Block -- Has there been a worse-written book that has been pored over quite so closely for meaning? (The Bible? Hahaha, just kidding -- sorry, religious folks; I'm getting punchy here.) Anyway, this is not actually a book about making your baby happy. It's about making yourself happy, by getting your baby to just stop shouting for a couple of minutes. Gotta say, it's got prose like a fourth-grade reading comprehension workbook that's had a box of exclamation points spilled on it, but the advice does seem to do the trick. Amusingly, one of the tips is to make harsh shushing noises directly into their ears, because, again, this reminds them of the noisy womb. Basically you know you're doing it right when passersby think you're having a nervous breakdown.

-- Corvino buffalo mozzarella -- Packaged in water. Goddamn amazing and makes the trevails of Food Co-op membership worthwhile. Best thing to happen to me all day, non-baby/non-wife category.

-- I just googled "trevail" to make sure I was using it right, and one of the definitions is "the pain of childbirth." Which means that it's a slight exaggeration to describe Co-op membership. On most days. (Co-op Authorities: If you are reading this, please don't kick me out. I finished all of that cheese and need more.)

-- Another great thing: The complete New Yorker DVD set. I actually bought this when it came out, several years ago, intending to get the City section to reimburse me for it, which they actually agreed to do. Then I forgot to submit my receipt and never got the money. Then I never took it out of the box. Dumb move. I'm doing research today for a magazine thing about New York apartments and have looked up two completely obscure stories from the New Yorker archive (one from 1950 and one from 1982), and both were great. One unintentionally so, I think, but that's fine. I'm strongly tempted to quote from them, but I should probably wait until the magazine story in question runs, just in case they decide to use the stuff I found. Or alternately, when they inevitably cut my story in half and remove everything I like, I'll just post the good stuff here to make myself feel better.

-- In closing, a teaser: We have begun naming the various comical faces little Yella makes. Favorites include "Old Man," "Saarsgaard" (I swear to God she looks just like him sometimes -- it's bizarre.), "Animal" and "Crazyface." I want to document them photographically and make a post about it, but they're surprisingly elusive. For all of our sake, let's hope I get quicker with my shutter finger.

OK, I see that the sheep is wearing off and it's time for more insane shushing. Thanks for reading my first post of Jake's Blog 2.0: Dad Shit. If only I'd started this thing like a month earlier I'd have had all kinds of insanely hip stuff to write about, believe me. Now you get this.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Media Crit 2

We just had a baby a little bit ago, so I think I should be forgiven for being behind on my weird Brooklyn political scandals. But I have to say that, reading for the first time about the saga surrounding the arrest of State Senator Carl Kruger, I found myself wondering just what the heck the Times was trying to tell me about him.

Here's the story in which I first heard about all of this. It details how Kruger was charged in a complex bribery scheme, along with a bunch of other men, including the two sons of the local community board's district manager, Dorothy Turano. (For what it's worth, I've talked with Kruger and Turano on the phone, separately, years ago. They were nice?). Anyway, the weirdness starts -- at least for me, a guy who hasn't been paying attention to the news, and who is reading all this cold -- a few paragraphs in. It describes Turano's sons this way: "two never-married middle-aged brothers". OK, interesting choice of emphasis, but let's move on.

For more than 25 years, Mr. Kruger and the Turanos of Mill Basin have forged the most unconventional of domestic arrangements — at once public and opaque, widely whispered about and poorly understood.

Hmmm ...

The Turanos are variously described by friends, neighbors and colleagues as the senator’s social acquaintances, lovers or surrogate relatives.

Whoa, whoa. Now how about that for a sentence? To just attempt to diagram it: Its subjects, three of them, are Dorothy Turano and her two sons. So they (collectively? All of them?) are described as his social acquaintances, lovers (!) or surrogate relatives? Or, they're variously described as those three very various things? But we don't get to be told who in that list is described, by whom, as which thing? Which is kind of important, right? (Or, arguably, not at all important. But the people who produced this story obviously think it's worth dwelling on somewhat.)

Here is my point: Is the Times implying that Carl Kruger is gay? If so (and of course that's what they're doing), why don't they just come out and say it?

Here is as close as this particular story comes:

Investigators, who tapped the senator’s cellphone for months, have both muddied and clarified the situation, suggesting that Mr. Kruger, 61, had his most intimate relationship with Michael, 49, picking him up at the office and fielding phone calls from him throughout the day. “Kruger spoke with Michael Turano,” court records say, “in a manner that revealed that they relied on and supported one another.”

But when asked whether Mr. Kruger was a close friend of her son, Ms. Turano, through the security intercom at her front door, said: “He was my friend. That’s why I don’t understand about this. Whatever comes out is going to be so wrong.”

A mischievous reader might suggest that this passage both muddies and clarifies the situation.

At this point in my reading experience, I think, I closed my laptop, went to change a few diapers, and forgot about Carl Kruger and his acquaintances/lovers/surrogate relatives for a while. But today I found myself thinking about it all again. Kruger's domestic situation is no doubt pretty fascinating. (Fun fact: He and the Turanos apparently all live in a house that was first built as the mansion of a mafia boss.) But, while I get the impression from this story that a lot of interesting stuff is going on, also get no clear idea of just what all that interesting stuff is. The story actually seems to be trying to prevent me from understanding what it's also trying pretty hard to tell me.

Look, I understand libel law and whatnot. And I know that sensitive stories like this get a pretty thorough once-over from the paper's lawyers, and that editors are careful. But after a while, isn't it fair to wonder, What's the point? By which I mean, if you aren't willing to come out and directly state the one thing that your story is pretty strongly about, then should you still be publishing the story in the first place?

Postscript: It actually wasn't hard at all to find clarity in this muddy situation -- once I looked outside the pages of the Times. The Post was pretty succinct about it:

As were New York Magazine and this random blog that Google pointed me to.

So, basically, my bad for stumbling on the most confusing possible story about this whole mess as my first exposure to it.

And, just to be clear, I don't actually think that Kruger and the Turanos' personal life is a very important part of the story, other than as a sideshow. But I do think that, if papers are going to write whole articles about that aspect of the story, they might as well come out and say what they're saying, for everybody's sake.

Media (self-)criticism

I love the New York Times and read it every day, as everyone obviously should. Also they pay me on time, and more or less in fair amounts, so I feel warmly towards them for that too. It goes without saying that they print lots of interesting stuff all the time. (Check out this great graphic explaining problems nuclear power plants. Though actually, before you do, check out this also-great Popular Science story about how nuclear power plants work. I lived in the same freakin' town as one of these things for 20 years and never knew this much about it. Now I'm embarrassed.)

But anyway. Great paper, the Times. But I have to say that the most memorable thing I've read in there in the last couple of weeks wasn't even a story -- it was a letter to the editor. I like reading the letters to some sections a lot. In the Travel section in particular, they have a great outraged know-it-all quality, because everyone who writes in believes that they are the true experts, and the ones who should be writing the travel stories. And also because the Travel section pretty often does do truly silly stuff, like make lists of "The 50 places you must visit this year," in which 48 of the 50 places on the list are there because a new $1,000-a-night luxury hotel just opened.

Anyway, anyway. The letter I'm talking about this time was in the Home section. It's not a section I've written for before, but the letter nevertheless hit uncomfortably close to, um, home. I'm new to this blogger etiquette, but I assume it's ok if I just reprint it (with a link, of course) :

Re “His Real Estate Agent? Craigslist,” (Feb. 17):

In this piece David Hay profiles a carriage house in Red Hook, Brooklyn, that was “cramped” and “uninhabitable” until its current owner, an architect, purchased and renovated the building for close to $1 million.

I lived in that house from 2002 to 2008 with three friends in their early 30s until a developer purchased the entire block and forced us out. It was neither cramped nor uninhabitable. In fact, that carriage house was the most spacious, affordable and habitable New York home in which any of us had ever lived. During the six years we were there, we put a lot of love into that house; we built a recording studio, a video-editing suite, created spaces to make art, grew vegetables, hosted bands, artists and travelers from around the world, and screened films in the backyard.

Last summer I stopped by the house and met the new owner, who graciously gave me a tour. I was heartened to see that he was putting so much energy into the place and was not a speculator intending to flip it for a profit. But, it was also a reminder that a building that once provided affordable living and studio space for four working artists (and their friends) was now the private home of a single person.

I find myself frustrated with articles about supposedly blighted buildings or neighborhoods being renovated by quirky, “pioneering” individuals. Such writing decontextualizes a larger story that is about development, race, class, power and money. I understand that Mr. Hay’s article is simply a profile of an interesting home in what’s perceived as an “up and coming” area of Brooklyn. But I believe it would be more responsible, engaged and interesting storytelling to dig just a little deeper and consider this home in the context of a changing neighborhood’s past and future.

Todd Chandler

That is a heck of a letter! The thing is, I had read the story it refers to, and enjoyed it, because it really was well-done. More to the point, I've probably written more than one story like it. Not stories that are wrong, exactly, but stories that, while smooth and compelling in their own way, also squeeze a messy or complex situation (which, really, is basically all situations) a little too neatly into a particularly tried-and-true narrative format.

It is possible to write stories for Home, or Real Estate, or whatever, without oversimplifying them, of course. But it's hard, which means it's important, if you're trying to do that, to be wary of the pitfalls. Those tried-and-true narratives work so well that they're easy, even a little tempting, to fall back on. My experience is that you get better, richer, more surprising stories when you resist that temptation, but also that doing so can be trickier up front. Still, I know that next time I have to write a story like this, I'll have this letter in mind.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Brooklyn II

By the way, I recently was in a conversation with someone from our childbirth class (Yes. Long story.) who referred to this other couple from the class as "not very Brooklyn." I knew what she meant, but was thinking about it afterwards, and realized I disagreed. The people in question, in fact, are Brooklyn as hell. What she meant to say was, they're not very Park Slope.

If you doubt that there is a distinction, let me direct your attention to this episode. In short, a noisy bar is set to open on a busy street near where they're building a giant basketball arena. The people who live in houses right near there are upset, very justifiably I'd imagine, and one of them has started a petition. The petition uses language and argumentation that are, oh, a tiny bit racially insensitive. It's hilariously clueless and *very* Park Slope.

(I love Park Slope, by the way, but am a little relieved not to be able to afford to live there anymore. You get tired of defending it to people, especially when stuff like this happens.)

The latest stories, including one in the Wall Street Journal (!) are suggesting that the letter's author doesn't really exist. If that's true, I think it's a little bit of a relief, but also a little sad. The letter is such a pure distillation of a certain kind of person that it'd be a shame if it was fiction. But in that case, whoever did write it is a very talented satirist. And Park Slope certainly needs more of them.