Saturday, June 27, 2009


I didn't cry when I learned Thursday evening that Michael Jackson had died. To be honest, I didn't really give it all that much thought. But then I got to work yesterday morning and Erica and I were reading our various Facebook updates over each other's shoulders and we got to my friend Ben's most recent entry. And I sat there in my office, abruptly stunned into tears at the realization of what we've lost, of what he meant to some of us.

I know that there is already controversy and discord in the ways that people are mourning or not mourning the death of Michael Jackson. To some he was an icon, an idol, a force of nature, the King of Pop. To others he was nothing more than a pedophile, and undeserving of any accolades or grief. To still others (and I counted myself in this category) he was mostly a creepy picture on the cover of National Enquirer, pasty and noseless and strange and very, very sad.

But then I read Ben's entry and now, for me at least, Michael Jackson will forever be the person behind the song that got Ben through. And, in my mind, that's enough to make him a hero.

Ben's memorial is in four parts, given the restrictions of Facebook statuses, and he has been kind enough to give me permission to share it here:

"PART ONE I did not talk for two years. I went to college after my mother passed, and I did not talk to anyone. I made no new friends. I didn't talk about classic '80s movies, politics, the genius of Prince--nothing. I was scared to connect. New relationships equaled new possibilities for hurt. There was a bar at the end of the street that had dancing every night. One night a month was all '80s music.

"PART TWO Although it's from 1979, they'd always play MJ's "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough." It's impossible for me to describe how this song made me feel, but I guess I'll try. It was, and still is, pure exhilaration. That intro still sends a shiver through me that makes me want to jump up and down!

"PART THREE Those six minutes are filled with such joy, fear, and excitement. I could compare the feeling that I get when I hear this song to slowly climbing up that first big hill on a roller coaster, but it was really so much more. I guess I'm trying to thank MJ somehow.

"PART FOUR Through MJ's song, and for only six minutes, this scared, lonely, fat, and angry kid was able to feel alive, and, most importantly, SPECIAL, at a time when I was convinced that I was anything but special. MJ always was dramatic. He died on the 15th anniversary of my mother's death. He didn't have to do that--I would've always remembered him anyway."

(Ben Bloom, 6/26/09)

Also my favorite MJ guilty pleasure: Smooth Criminal. And when I was nine or ten, I was a little bit obsessed with We Are The World. We had the record. I listened to it, a lot. I mean, just how much more adorable could Cyndi Lauper possibly be, anyway?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

let's talk republicans, c street, abortion, & beirut (the band not the city)

Let's talk Sanford. That would be Mark Sanford, Governor of South Carolina, GOP Superstar and once upon a time potential 2012 candidate for the presidency of the United States of America. Too bad he blew that political capital (among other things) south of the border this past weekend, hobnobbing with a hot young thing (well okay, 43) in Buenos Aires instead of spending Father's Day with his wife and, you know, kids.

And what name did he mention as helping him deal with this torrid affair over the last few months? C Street. That would be the name of a D.C. rooming house for a good old boys Christian political organization (or something) known as the Fellowship or, alternatively, the Family (seriously!). They wine and dine together, and give each other marital advice and good Christian counseling when it comes to having extramarital affairs. To greater or lesser effect, apparently, given that dear old Mark thought it would be a good move to take a tax-payer funded holiday to Argentina (though he has since announced he will reimburse the State for his booty call costs). And then have his staff lie about where he was. When he should have been maybe, you know, governing.

Another member of the so-called C Street Gang? John Ensign. Yes, that John Ensign. Clearly they need better counseling. Or chemical castration. Or, what the hell, let's go all out and make it physical castration, at least for these morons who so adamantly oppose certain other people trying to have normal, healthy, happy marriages.

And yet another stand-out member of C Street is the one and only Tom Coburn (my personal favorite in this little bag o' bad boys). That would be Tom Coburn, junior senator from Oklahoma, OB/GYN who believes not only that all abortions should be illegal (though unwanted sterilizations are good to go), but that all abortion providers should be put to death (except, presumably, himself, despite having performed several abortions in the past). (No word on whether the women choosing to have the abortions should also be put to death, though it seems pretty infantalizing to not give the women equal responsibility -- what, it's all the doctors' fault? But I suppose it's hard, even for this blowhard, to argue that over a million women a year should be executed for wanting to end their pregnancies.)

That would also be the Tom Coburn who opposed the Democrats' attempt to expand SCHIP, a government program to provide health care for children, but recently proposed founding an "Office of Unborn Children's Health." Because, as everyone surely knows, the unborn should have access to government-funded health care but for the already-born, that's called socialism, and thus very very bad.

On another note, I've been a little bit obsessed with Beirut recently. That would be Beirut the band, not Beirut the city (though I did once love a book by the name of Beirut Fragments, and which was in fact about Beirut the city, and probably pre-existed Beirut the band). This current obsession is a nice change from the last couple weeks' preoccupation with Damien Rice's oh so tragic love gone wrong songs. I've become a sucker for bands with stringed instruments, horns, or, apparently, an accordion.

Also: Postcards from Italy, Ederlezi, Elephant Gun, Gulag Orkestar, My Night With the Prostitute

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

a lost art

I was looking for the cassette tape of my father's Barnard memorial service the other day to give to a friend to transfer to some other, more permanent, medium, and in the process came across a plethora of old mix tapes. And I was kind of blown away, sitting there on the floor in my living room, by these dusty piles of tapes (some with cases, some without, some labeled, some not, some with wonderful artwork, some with nearly illegible faded handwriting), and by the people they came from (some still central, some heartbreakingly far away), and by the quirky bits of poetry embedded there:

Blood is Beauty: the Empowerment Mix

I Hope you enjoy this mix of SONGS! (Love, Ben!)

Midnight Mix

Tears can be Beautiful but Anger is a Gift

Thunderstorm Mix

Tape 1 Mix: Pray to the Sunrise

Fall 2002

Music That's Better Than The Crap You Listen To

December 1997

Tanuja the Alien

The "Ode to the Dark One..." Mix (Radiance of the Sun to our Eyes... ; Dark Side of the Moon to our Mind...)

Em Mix

Evolving Robots (Fuzzy Sets/Fuzzy Logic; Indeterminancy of Translation)

Emily's Tape (Tape for Emily - Sad Side; Tape from Julia - Misc. Side)

Tape 2: No Label

It's BOILING in here But You're Only this Big

I Don't Want To Live On The Moon! (A mix for Emily)

She's Gone Insane In A Way But It Suits Her - Winter Mix 1994 (Shiny Happy Side A; Rusted Grouchy Side B)

Sunday, June 21, 2009


"Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.

Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.

And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life --
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away."
(C. P. Cavafy)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

family, or, a funny thing about facebook

Paul and I are now Facebook friends. I'm not sure how or when it started, but I think it was that I somehow ended up on his sister's email list a year or so ago, and then in turn found her on Facebook, and then their mother found me on Facebook, and then yesterday I noticed that my brother and he are now Facebook friends (and so it goes, and so it goes).

So I sent him a friend request last night, and he accepted. (What follows here now, highly subjective and probably not all true, is what I remember best, and what I still carry close to my heart, and why I find it so soul-satisfying to be connected again to Paul, however slightly, however tenuously, and where these thoughts take me.)

Paul is one of my cousins, you see, and many many years ago, going on a quarter of a century now, he was probably my favorite cousin in all the world. (And when one has had at various times over the years, by blood or marriage, six uncles and eight aunts, give or take, there tend to be a fair number of cousins.)

It was Dana, Paul's big sister and a whopping five years older than me, whom I idolized as a little girl, and who taught me to play Uno and who introduced me to the world of Duran Duran and Bon Jovi and the '80s in general, and the cousin who's hand-me-down clothes my parents were hard-pressed to get me out of. But it was Paul, a mere two years older than me, with whom I ran around in the fields and the tall grass surrounding our grandmother's cabin in Sunlight Waters, near the town of Cle Elum, in the vast great middle of Washington State.

We chased grasshoppers and chipmunks in those fields around our grandmother's A-frame cabin (built by hand by our grandparents, my parents, various other friends and relatives -- oh the stories I grew up with about the building of that house!) and fought over who got to sit in the rusted tractor seat perched on a log at the end of the driveway.

We dropped water balloons onto the heads of unsuspecting passers-by from the deck overlooking the front porch and chased each other up and down the spiral metal staircase to the sleeping loft above the main living area.

We spent hours, whole afternoons, entire days, at the Cle Elum Country Club (appropriately on Clubhouse Road, maybe a twenty-minute walk from our grandmother's house, past trailer homes and decrepit cars and rusted metal swingsets and the house with the red-headed daughters with whom I sometimes played and piles and piles of old tires and mailboxes mounted in rows on weathered wooden posts alongside the road -- decades later my then-boyfriend and my brother and I drove out to the old cabin, just to see it, just to make sure of it, despite it's having left the family years before, and the then-boyfriend, New York City boy to the core, looked slightly flabbergasted and said he bet there was a lot of organized dogfighting in the area), which consisted pretty much of an outdoor pool (home to entire imaginary worlds) and an indoor pool table in an otherwise large empty room.

We went for long walks in the winter snow (just the two of us because we were big kids then, though I remember following in Paul's footprints, step for step, still too little to go my own way) and played in the black of the windowless upstairs bathroom with glow-in-the-dark yoyos, telling each other ghost stories of our own making.

There is a picture, one of those old rounded-corner photographs in one of our grandmother's (now my mother's) photo albums, of us sitting side by side in two plastic inflatable children's chairs. The picture is taken from behind us and we are looking forward through the window of the cabin's front door, looking out at the porch and the fields and the woods and the mountains and the whole world in front of us, my blond towheaded self in sharp contrast to Paul's bright orange mop, and we are leaning in towards each other, and I like to think that we are whispering or giggling, sharing some secret joke between us.

This is all, as I said, going on a quarter century ago now. Our grandmother, matriarch of that A-frame cabin in the seeming wilderness of our childhoods, passed away when I was nine and Paul was eleven. I know we saw each other after that, perhaps as late as high school, perhaps later though probably not, but these earlier memories are the strongest, are the ones that I wrap around myself, around my notions of the past, of where I, of where we, come from.

Paul and I are friends now, Facebook friends, and we are all grown up and living our seperate lives on opposite sides of this vast country. And I don't know what that means, if anything at all, yet there is an unexpected comfort in the notion of being once again connected to him, to his sister, to their mother, to my brother and our other cousins and family friends, however deep or complex or simple or superficial these connections may be.

I was talking with Erica not too long ago about the strange Facebook phenomenon of connecting or being connected to practically everyone we've ever known, in whatever context that knowing may have been. We were talking specifically about 'defriending' people, about paring down these relationships to the ones that really matter, and she said something that has haunted me, something about the idea that even though the tens and hundreds of Facebook 'friends' might not all be people we are close to now, there is a certain sense of safety, of personal history in what can be a very frightening world, in having a network of people who care, or have cared, about what we have been doing, how we are doing now, where we are coming from.

Of all of these connections, outside of those immediate friends with whom I most interact, it is the family ties that I find most satisfying, even if it is just knowing that they are there, and reachable, not lost in the distance of childhood or dependent on family funerals or weddings for reconnection. Facebook and all those other networking sites seem to me, in a certain light, to be a modern incarnation of that interconnected family kind of thing, and even as my sarcasm-laced outlook demands mockery of these sites, there is an unarguable part of me that loves them.

Monday, June 15, 2009

father's day

I was riding the D-train home yesterday with a friend of a friend after a lovely picnic in Sunset Park (banh mi and fresh strawberries and blueberry buckle and Vietnamese iced coffee), and this friend of a friend will be moving to Berlin in another few weeks. We were talking about living in Europe, and our experiences of Germany in particular, and it got me to remembering something I wrote ten years ago. Ten years later things feel less raw, less exposed somehow, and I'm glad to be where I am now, here on the verge of another collision of my birthday and Father's Day.

Spring 1999
My father was the kind of person with whom other people felt an immediate and lasting connection. He was the kind of person that people remembered later as being brilliant and funny and quirky and so human. He was quick to anger but, as so many people have told me over the years, his anger and sometimes overly-harsh criticisms were rooted in a deep passion and caring for others, for life.

My father liked to travel, he liked history, but
that wasn't enough. He wanted to live in the places he read about in books, he wanted to live what others lived. He was a professor of history but I think for him academia wasn't enough: it fell flat, rang hollow. He was no historian living in that intellectual ivory tower; he was hungry -- insatiably hungry -- for experience. When he was writing his dissertation on the economic history of the Weimar Republic back in 1978 he dragged us off to Germany for a year, first to a farm in Ippendorf and then to the urban metropolis that was Bonn. Eleven years later, when he was just beginning the research for a book on the origins of the Great War, that ironically-named 'war to end all wars,' he dragged us off to Paris for a year. And everywhere that he went he left new friends behind who inevitably found their way to our door in California, or to the lake cabin in Idaho, or to our apartment in Paris or our home in Mohegan Lake. Everywhere we lived we seemed to have a steady stream of visitors, and he loved them all, and so we loved them all too, and though he's gone now we still get cards from some of them at Christmas time.

My father was an associate professor of European history at Barnard College, the women's college affiliated with Columbia University in New York City. He liked studying history but he preferred to live it. I think the most amazing time in his life, as a specifically German historian, was the winter we were living in Paris, and that Christmas we spent in Berlin, that winter of 1989/90, the winter that Wall came a-tumblin' down. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War -- the opening of the Brandenburg Gate, the revolution in Romania, the thousands and thousands waiting to
cross through Checkpoint Charlie and the newly-opened border, the chipping away of the Wall, of history itself. And he watched it all, drinking it in, grinning wildly, perhaps satiated.

My father, I know, has taken on near mythic proportions in my head. Larger than life, beautified (yes, almost beatified) sometimes beyond any recognition -- he was an amazing man and I am an idolizing daughter. I forget the times we fought, the times I screamed at him that I wished he wasn't my father, that I wasn't his daughter, that I hated him. It's easier, sometimes, to forget, to think that I was always good to him, but I am lying to myself. I know that. My father was a smart man, though, and I know that despite our fights he surely knew that I always loved him, surely understood that I wouldn't have bothered yelling at him, otherwise.

This is supposed to be about him, though, not me. In non-mythical measurements he was about 6 feet tall (maybe a little less), weighed about 180 pounds (maybe a little bit more). He had blondish hair that tended towards shagginess, frothing around his head in wild wisps and curls. When I was little he had a reddish orangeish mustache and beard. Years later he started to let them grow again but grew discouraged when he discovered they were coming in more gray than red and orange. He wore a suit to work most days but always looked a little uncomfortable, preferring instead his soft faded jeans and worn flannel shirts. He liked to brag that some of his advisees had blue hair and that he was friends with the mohawked security guard. He never smoked but he would hang out with the "smokers' brigade" in front of the Barnard library. He liked to tell us funny stories about his college kids at the dinner table sometimes. He had one advisee, a Columbia boy, who had earned his college money by riding new roller coasters all over the country, breaking time records. Once, when he took me to work with him one day, this particular student came into his office hours. After the student left I asked if he was the roller coaster boy. Dad, surprised, said, "Yes, how'd you know?" to which I allegedly replied, "He looked a little scrambled." I must have been eight or nine at the time. Dad took to bragging about this story for awhile.

My father died on April 18th, 1993, a week and a half before his 47th birthday, a beautiful Sunday afternoon a week after Easter. I was two months short of 17, a typical pseudo-angst-ridden suburban teenager, and suddenly I was handed on a silver platter a justification, a reason and an explanation, for my moodiness and dark clothes. Sometimes I feel like I'm stuck, like I'm still that pseudo-angst-ridden suburban teenager, even nearly six years later, even after four years in the middle of Manhattan. Sometimes, at 4 a.m., I am still that 16-year-old daughter watching from the sidelines as the mythical father's eyes roll back into his head.

I'm trying, these days, to take my father down from that pedestal, to de-mythologize him. If I can do that, if I can make him a normal person again, maybe I can be a normal person too. But this was supposed to be about him, about the mythical father, not me.

"papa went to other lands
and he found someone who understands
the ticking, and the western man's need to cry
he came back the other day, yeah, you know
some things in life may change
and some things
they stay the same

like time, there's always time
on my mind
so pass me by, i'll be fine
just give me time..."
(Damien Rice, Older Chests)


(from the Boston Globe)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

'what i am to you is not what you mean to me...'

Damien Rice, Volcano

chairs in Times Square & other local and not so local goings on

Apparently brightly colored plastic folding lawn chairs are taking over Times Square. I kid you not. I have yet to see this in person, but might have to take a wander down there just to check it out for myself. Nate and I would make fortresses out of such chairs when we were kids, out in the back yard. But we only had two of them. Imagine what we could do with the 376 chairs that are inhabiting midtown...

Also apparently the Democrats don't control the New York State Senate even when they control the New York State Senate. We should have known it was too good to last, I suppose, but still, Empire State politics continues to astound and confound me.

I found this piece on Supreme Court Justices, and how grumpy, belligerent, dismissive justices often make the best justices, oddly charming.

Also from today's Times, Verlyn Klinkenborg's lovely little take on the language, or lack of language, with which the land talks to him. I really like Klinkenborg.

Further afield, something known as 'orbital chaos' might send Venus and Earth crashing into each other, but not for another 3.5 billion years, give or take.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


I'm sitting in my office, here in this basement library, on what is turning out to be a beautiful spring day after days of gray skies and rain. The ceiling was leaking when I got here this morning (as it often does after a night of rain) so I spent the first half hour mopping up the floor and strategically placing empty plastic recycling pails.

I'm sitting here in my office on a gorgeous spring day, feeling a little bit washed out under florescent lights in this windowless, airless space, but I am also smiling and thinking about coffee.

A particular coffee, actually, and an hour or so shared with an old friend after work yesterday. She came to meet me at the library at closing time, and it was raining and windy. We walked down Broadway looking for a quiet place to hole up for a bit, ended up at Absolute bagels, wind-blown and damp and cold.

Our conversation was warm, though -- underwritten by a mutual affection that I had almost forgotten was there, had ever been there. This was Elizabeth, you see; Crazy E, as I sometimes, and horribly, referred to her in the heyday of our living together nine years ago.

We spent a year together, which somehow seemed like a good idea at the time (I was couch-hopping after an aborted attempt at living in Queens -- long story; she was having roommate issues and wanting to move out), but which, in retrospect, was clearly not such a great idea. We had an odd friendship, an intensely emotional and needy and demanding friendship; a friendship that did well, I think, to have a little space built into it. That space disappeared completely, of course, when we moved into our little two-bedroom apartment. We got two cats from the ASPCA. We set up house. We bonded. We fought. Slammed doors. Reconciled. Cried. Stayed up till the wee hours drinking and talking and partaking in certain illicit substances. Drove each other mad. Parted ways, each taking a cat with us (me just fifteen blocks further north, her back to the west coast). Didn't speak for years, first out of anger, then just out of time passing, friendships gone, locations unknown.

She moved back to New York City a year or two ago and we got back in touch, met for dinner once or twice, though the last time we saw each other was a month or two before the election last November, so it'd been awhile. She came to meet me yesterday after work and we walked down Broadway in the rain and ended up sharing an hour over tea and coffee in a little bagel shop and I remembered, then, some of what I had adored about her so much before our year of living together came crashing to an end.

It felt good, during that hour, to experience her laughter again, and her intensity; a quickness caught up in hand gestures and also a propensity for slowly mulling things over before fully giving voice to what's going on behind those sparkling eyes of hers.

We stopped in at West Side Market so she could pick up something for her dinner, then went each our separate ways to the subway. There was this moment as we said goodbye, though, when I reached in to hug her and the hug felt real, felt genuine and natural and warm, and this made me smile as I waited for the train.

I was talking with Alan later in the evening about friendships, and he said that he sees people as planets flying through space, sometimes coming in closer to each other, sometimes flying apart at speeds we can only understand in the abstract. I said I've been realizing lately that friendships wax and wane, but that sometimes, when we're lucky, maybe after we stop needing them quite so badly, maybe after we stop missing them quite so much, people can eventually come back to us.

Eventually we realized we were kind of pretty much saying the same thing, and we laughed, and I was happy to think that Alan's been around all these years, not flying off into space. This, too, made me laugh, and I went off to bed thinking about these two very different friendships, these two extraordinarily different people, that I am lucky enough to have in my life.

I woke up this morning and came to work thinking about coffee and warmth and rain, on this beautiful spring day, and found myself smiling still.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Saletan on Tiller

"The people who do late-term abortions are the ones who don't flinch. They're like the veterans you sometimes see in war documentaries, quietly recounting what they faced and did. You think you're pro-choice. You think marching or phone-banking makes you an activist. You know nothing. There's you, and then there are the people who work in the clinics. And then there are the people who use the forceps. And then there are the people who use the forceps nobody else will use. At the end of the line, there's George Tiller."

(William Saletan, Slate Magazine, 6.1.09)