everybody’s at disadvantage speaking with their second language

So I’m at a bar on Saturday with the other jiu-jitsu students after one of our own promoted to nidan, or second degree black belt. We rented the back room in one of the nightclubs on Boylston St, less than a block from where I work. The outside’s full of scheming scenesters with unbuttoned shirts; the back room is quiet and full of fellow students. One of these has just returned from a year in Israel, where he practiced krav maga four hours a day six days a week. He has a friend with him from Paris, who has black belts in karate and jiu-jitsu. The Parisian speaks good enough English to point across the bar I’m leaning on and ask, “What’s tonic water?”

“Well,” I begin, “it’s water that’s … tonic. Y’know, like in … gin and tonics?” My voice tightens, already apologizing for my own words.

The visitor asks the bartender for a glass of tonic, with ice, a straw (“a pipe”) and some lemon. He stirs and takes a sip. “It’s like a Schweppes,” he declares.

One of the reasons I want to be a writer – and one of the reasons I suspect I come across as a pedant – is because I’m always looking for the best possible way to convey something. I’m never satisfied with a “clear enough” explanation. When I give directions, they have to incorporate street names, landmarks, turns and fail-safes (“if you hit Trinity Church, you’ve gone too far”). When I describe someone, you not only need to know what they look and sound like, but which celebrity they resemble; if I can describe them in a way that makes you chuckle, so much the better. And when someone who speaks perfect conversational English asks me what tonic water is, I need something better than “it’s got quinine in it.”

I care more about whether something’s evocative than whether or not it’s true. Not that we can ignore truth – nothing turns me off more than the line or description that rings false – but it waits its turn behind the image. If I share a common language with someone but not a common culture, I want to find the words that bridge that history.

The bartender produces the gin and tonic I didn’t order. I was thirsty anyway. I slide a packet of bills across while the Parisian describes the search for a valid form of identification for the bouncers outside. “In the States they check your ID,” he explains. “In Paris, they check your shoes.”

and reflects no light in day or night

I work in Copley Square, one of the most photogenic neighborhoods of Boston. Once a week, if not more often, I cross the plaza to my office, by threading my way through crowds of Asian tourists. They live up to (down to?) the stereotype by pointing subcompact digital cameras in every direction and snapping pictures: some with family in front, some without. They’re not lacking for vistas: the square is bordered by the Boston Public Library to the west, Trinity Church to the east, the Hancock Tower to the south and Patrick Henry’s childhood CVS to the north. Amateur photographers pose their family members, who stand with hands folded in front of their waists or with arms outstretched. Look! Boston!

The reason Asian tourists descend on Copley Square in flocks of thirty or more has nothing to do with the square’s history and everything to do with buses. The tour buses that serve the Boston area make this neighborhood a regular stop. Copley Square didn’t play a role in Boston’s revolutionary history – in fact, it was a swamp back then – but it’s certainly photogenic. Tour bus companies recognized the square was photogenic and began including it on their tours. And now strangers to the city get out and take photos because the tour bus stops here.

copley_square

The history of Boston is neither so old, nor so mysterious, that we have to argue over which came first: did the tour buses decide Copley Square was a point of interest, or was it Copley’s status as a point of interest that got tour buses to stop here? The answer is clearly the latter. Yet seeing tourists pass through Copley Square always gives me an opportunity to revisit it with a stranger’s eyes. And I’m reminded of how much institutions – like tour bus companies – shape our view of the world, while the world also shapes the way these institutions grow.

And I hope that, in every busload, there’s at least one sullen teenager or cranky grandma who gets off the coach, draws their collar up against the St. James winds, and asks, “What’s so special about this place, anyway?”

old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were

I was walking to the gym last week when a gentlemen rolled up to me at a stoplight. “Excuse me, sir,” he asked. “Could you give me a hand getting up to the curb here?” He had a curly gray beard, owl glasses and a sleek black wheelchair with a bookbag slung over the back. The wheelchair ramp onto the sidewalk was a little rougher than usual: not insurmountable, but you’d want a bigger head of steam than you might be able to work up in a Boston intersection. “Sure,” I said, getting behind him and pushing him three feet. “Thanks,” he said, and rolled off.

That transaction could not have gone any better for either of us. I was the first person he asked (unless he’d been sitting there for a few minutes) and he wasn’t hard to move. I didn’t fumble or shove him; he didn’t feel the need to thank me profusely. Any potential awkwardness that might come from asking a stranger for help evaporated, like snow under sunlight. He asked me for a favor that cost me nothing to give; I gave it and moved on.

There might be something deeply neurotic about a healthy man in his late 20s worrying about how he’d get around were he in a wheelchair*. Then again, a significant portion of the people in wheelchairs today were once healthy and walking; it’s not impossible that I might join their ranks. Daniel Gilbert, in Stumbling On Happiness, recounts surveys in which people suggest that becoming blind or paralyzed or scarred would shatter their lives with tragedy. And yet, blind, paralyzed and scarred people are generally about as happy as the rest of us. Happiness has less to do with the nutshell you’re bound in than in what you call yourself while there.

After doing my good deed for the day, I continued to the gym, where I spent ten minutes on the stairclimber.

* Actually, the deeply neurotic part is the guy who can walk wondering how his day is affected by the guy who can’t

these words just come out with no gripe to bear

People asked me last week why Tiger Woods had to apologize to the world for his infidelities (well, they weren’t asking me so much as they asked the question within earshot, which is all the license I need). They advanced theories about Tiger being a role model, but that didn’t quite ring true. Tiger has never advanced himself as a spokesman for clean living and family values, in the way that conservatives who keep getting implicated in homosexual love triangles consistently do. He wasn’t on the President’s Council for Not Balling Softcore Pornstars. And while cheating on your wife isn’t behavior we want to endorse – think of the children, after all – neither are brandishing guns to settle office disputes, urinating in trash cans or cheating on your wife (oops). Yet the uproar over Woods’ infidelity dwarfs the uproar over Arenas, Iverson and Canseco, as Jupiter dwarfs its moons.

Woods occupies a different sphere than those athletes because of the money he makes. You could also argue he’s better at golf than Iverson is at basketball, but that’s incidental: he wouldn’t make as much money in endorsements were he not as good. It’s impossible to conceive of how much money Tiger Woods’ ability to smile and wear tight shirts is worth. He’s lost more money from cancelled endorsements over the last three months than many of us will make in our entire lives. Numbers like “six hundred million” don’t mean anything to humans; you couldn’t distinguish between six hundred million of a thing and two hundred million of it just by looking. Woods is no different. He couldn’t conceive of the amount of money he had. He’s human like the rest of us, with the same ambitions and insecurities and needs. Only he has super powers because, for him, money is no object. Are there any fantasies you’d act out if you had super powers?

In the classical economic model, wealth comes from three sources: labor, capital or rent. Labor all of us understand: it’s what you should be doing now instead of reading some guy’s blog. Capital, some of us get: we may feel in our hearts that the hedge fund owner doesn’t deserve $8,500,000 EBITDA, but we still aspire to that level of wealth. But rent’s hard to understand. It’s hard to sympathize with rent: the money you make simply by owning something that other people want to borrow. Mutual funds have to be managed, and labor is the sweat of one’s brow, but rent just comes to you. Tiger Woods made one billion dollars in his professional career by renting out Tiger Woods. He got paid to be himself in front of cameras. His wealth comes from alien sources and he used it to act out fantasies that few of us admit to.

I swear to god, in this light and on this evening

If rock and roll’s about anything, it’s about fast cars, loose women and cheap intoxicants. Of those, the House of Blues’ Foundation Room seems equipped only for the lattermost. Step through a pair of unguarded yellow doors on Lansdowne Street in Boston, opposite Gate C at Fenway Park. You’re immediately intercepted by two nattily-dressed gentlemen who check your name off a list, affix sparkling red bracelets and offer to take your coats. Up two flights of stairs to a plush foyer that isn’t so much dimly lit as heavily darkened: concealed, indirect lighting pointing toward the crown molding. Overstuffed couches form a defensive perimeter around a roaring fireplace. The bartop is black marble and a Miller Lite is $6; rather cheap for a Boston club, and they’ll even pour it in a plastic cup so you can carry it onto the floor.

tom-smith-editors

Editors, who played the House of Blues this past Thursday, don’t fit the other two criteria of rock ‘n roll either. Tom Smith, lead warbler, has three microphones to choose from: one in front of each of two keyboards and a standing mic to lean into and twitch. Chris Urbanowicz, in addition to the guitar slung from his narrow shoulders, has both an autoharp and a step sequencer to choose from. The show starts with the lights dimming, the band emerging, and a few switches being flipped: the dominating tones of “In This Light and On This Evening” leap into the dark air. The set precedes with a technical precision that would make a stage manager nod with lips pursed. Victoria, who took my extra ticket, notes that she never saw Tom or Ed Lay (drums) check in to see when the next song should start. Why would they need to?

What Editors lack in spontaneity they make up for with intensity. You never get the sense that this will be a crazy rock show, one of those rare live occurrences where anything could happen. Tom Smith would never stop two verses through his first song, apologize to the audience and then launch into “Radio Radio” (not the least reason being it’s not his song). But total control of the musical experience, in the hands of talented artists, can create a thick curtain of sound that billows over you. Editors layer gutsy guitar hooks with baroque synthesizers and an anti-artillery barrage of percussion. Like the Foundation Room upstairs, it’s all plush textures and dark corners, something you almost feel vulnerable sharing. It’s that quiet moment before the storm.

editors

this home is more than bricks and mortar

I woke up tight on Thursday.

I’ve been reading some books on writing, which may not be the best idea. Reading about how to approach the writing process right after you’ve finished a first draft creates as much neurosis as progress. Oh, hell, THAT’S how much I should be cutting out? Plus, while King (On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft) and Lamott (Bird by Bird) have been inspirational, there are notable chunks of their advice that I find laughable. Which is a fine pedestal to sit on, the unpublished novelist looking down his nose at one of the most prolific, profitable and vivid writers of the last century, but that’s how I roll.

So while my new contacts bug me and the Red Line stops and starts due to delays at Charles/MGH and I fret over the logistical nightmares of the two different shows I’m planning in April, I’m reading the following by Anne Lamott:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on you own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and you memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right. Just dance.

And as positive as that is, all I can think is oh, whatever, hippie.

The train emerges from the underground, crossing the Longfellow Bridge. It screeches to a halt midway across. I look up.

boston-skyline

I take this route to work every day. It’s always an interesting view, but it’s rarely striking. Something about the two bright tones, blue over white, caught me while we stopped. I closed the book on Lamott. Getting up out of my seat, I crossed to a window and snapped the picture you see above.

At the office, I mixed myself a cup of hot cocoa. This is an easy ritual: you pour seven ounces of skim milk into a mug. Heat it in the microwave for ninety seconds. Lift it out by the handle, not the mug; you curl two fingers around the ring and base it against your third finger. Set the mug on the counter, open a packet of cocoa mix and pour it in. Take three coffee stirrers and fan them so they form a sort of whisk. Mix the cocoa with a brisk, steady motion.

I let the cocoa cool while I got breakfast from downstairs: two eggs, two bacon. The eggs were about what I expect from cafeteria eggs: a little dry but otherwise filling. But the bacon was perfect. It crunched at the edges, releasing little jags of caramel, and the center melted with fat.

So: the Boston skyline, hot cocoa and bacon. Okay then.

I am a visitor here; I am not permanent

The Visitor: A well-tailored little indie film. Like a very nice suit.

Richard Jenkins (Intolerable Cruelty, Step Brothers, etc – one of those actors you recognize but don’t know) stars.* He plays Prof. Walter Vale, a Connecticut professor who’s stagnating following his wife’s death. When he’s coerced into attending a conference in Manhattan, he sets foot in the tiny apartment he’s owned for years but never uses. In doing so, he finds two immigrants who’ve been living there for months: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Confusion ensues.

Once it becomes clear that Tarek and Zainab are as much the victims of fraud as Walter is, Walter begins to open up to them gradually. He allows them to stay in his pied-a-terre while he’s presenting at the conference. He learns about Zainab’s day job and Tarek’s passion for the drum. And he rediscovers passion.

The Visitor isn’t perfect. It lacks the understated dignity of Tom McCarthy’s (BC ’88) last movie, The Station Agent. There are several moments that state the movie’s theme with a quiet elegance: Walter, awkwardly sitting on his sofa and drinking a glass of wine, while Tarek and Zainab hurriedly pack their things. Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) talking with Zainab over coffee in a small cafe. Little moments, well-framed.

And then there’s Walter’s rant at a security guard, the climax of the film. It’s not the temper that I mind; given what’s at stake, I wouldn’t have been surprised with more. But the dialogue, and the delivery, feel so stilted. Tom McCarthy was a featured regular on the final season of The Wire, which shot right around this time: maybe he took away the wrong lessons?

But what makes the film work, even in light of this clumsiness, is Tarek’s unshakable charisma. Haaz Sleiman has an infectious smile and a warm attitude. He’s not merely believable as a lover, a musician and a guide to New York. He’s admirable. He’s the kind of lover, musician and guide – and friend – that we should all want to be. This is essential, because the latter half of the movie hinges on identifying with him.

The Visitor is about how the unforeseen consequences of our actions can hurt the ones we care about. It’s about the horrors of institutional bureaucracy. But it’s ultimately about the same existential crisis that the West has been grappling with since the 50s – that sense of alienation in one’s own home. In dealing with that, The Visitor runs into the same obstacles that every artwork tackling the existential crisis has. But discovering just how little you know about your own home can be freeing, as well as terrifying.

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* As an example of how hard it is to remember this man, I called him “Christopher Perkins” in the first draft.