Friday, December 30, 2005

Oh yeah

Had lunch with my CEO today at Teriyaki Boy and he didn't even pick up the tab. And this one week after the only other would-be junior rainmaker in the firm walked for a job in Seattle.

Whassup with that?

The Holidays

Standing in the Unitarian Church in Wellesley, watching my sister singing in a dorky skit about carolers , it was hard not to start bawling from just thinking about how it must feel to her to have come through to the holidays, after what she's been through this last year, after her bout with near cancer. So I'm a sap.

The odd thing is, you tell people your sister went through that, they're like "uh-huh" or at best share a moment of pro forma piety, and then move right on. Because, fact is, everybody got somethin. Over here somebody's dad is dying of blastoma, over there a mom goes down to Parkinson's disease. At some point in time things tip and all of a sudden there's more death then birth going on, to say nothing of weddings. And near death starts to pale beside the real deal "the chemo worked? So shut yer cake hole" they may say.

I'm not quite there yet, though.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A mess of Natalies

Listening both to Dan Zanes's band and the New Pornographers recently, I have heard female singers who sound suspiciously like Natalie Merchant. I begin to suspect that she and the 10,000 Maniacs were a more influential band then I ever gave them credit for.

And surely Merchant is more likely to be behind the rapid growth of popularity of the name Natalie than her name-sharer Portman, who may one day soon complete puberty. The name, indeed has rocketed to #19 (#5 in California) on the Social Security charts since our own one was born, giving us the distressing if accurate sense of being trend participators rather than initiators.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Methinks the text protests too much

Reading a friend's manuscript about the history of Baltimore recently, found myself struggling to keep turning the pages. The author fairly overwhelms his subject matter with flashes of wit and daring and intellect, trying in every sentence to shine. So that each paragraph my easily contain 5 0r 6 mini-performances, and the paragraphs themselves pile up on the themselves numerous pages. It all begs the questions: what is he writing for, and what is he writing about? Style obstructs content, or doesn't let it flower.

This is a pretty valuable lesson, dialling back the style. If what you have to say is worth saying, then you don't need to work it too hard, just like how those with both buff bods and a strong sense of self needn't parade their abs and other marquis muscles.

And you have to know when to stop.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The morning after

Must prepare to officiate shotgun wedding of my mother and David Ontjes, thrown together by Natalie and Caroline as an excuse for a flower-making art project and also to be flower girls. Graham has been appointed ringbearer, as it is believed he will run straight to David, to whom he has taken a proverbial shine.

Should probably shave.

Meanwhile, contemplating dash to mall to pick up all the eminently giftable items that I actually need, but which fell victim to the emerging ban on present-giving amongst adult members of the family.

Friday, December 23, 2005

On the road

Hitting the road for Wellesley shortly. Must find presents for Caroline and mom. Where did I put them?

Watching Christmas Vacation the other night, scene where Clark W. Griswold discovers an anniversary present stashed in his favorite secret spot in the chimney. Perhaps not too far off indeed.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Some time ago it occurred to me that this blog was not so much a stopgap and supplement to my memory which, fade though it may in time, will nonetheless better recall the events of these years than will those of the kids, for whom childhood will likely blur into a morass of indifferentiation and exposed nerves.

So I'm gonna try to transcribe some rituals.

First: Bedtime, ca 12/05

7:00-7:15PM Told it's time to go upstairs, Natalie waffles and defers until I say: "I'll beat you to the top!" Then, she runs, declaring: "No you willn't". Somehow, she always wins. Graham may or may not follow, depending on his mood.

Next hurdle. Getting her in her jammies. Various tactics attempted until one works.

The reading of stories. On Granny's bed. Natalie closest to the lamp. Somewhere into the first book, Graham shows up and plunks on a pillow to my left. Maximum 3 books, depending on the length. When the book(s) are done, Natalie lays on me and says: I'm not getting up until you read me another book or give me a piggyback ride. It's always the piggyback that wins. Upon hearing "piggyback," Graham also wants one. Natalie first.

7:40-7:45 Piggyback into bathroom (alternately, into "our guys' room" to be thrown on bed). Natalie flicks on the light from position on my back. I put her down standing on the toilet seat, where I brush her teeth, kissing her on forehead at the end. Graham, all the while, tries to put cups and boats underneath tap and turn it on, which he cannot. Graham refuses brushing.

7:45-7:50 Back on Granny's bed, time for Graham's stories. Always 3 shorter books. Perhaps preceded or succeeded by a game of "hide and seek", blankies over our heads. Graham usually knows the last word of each rhyming line, and reads it with me or instead of me. When over, another piggyback. Then diaper change. Then bed. 2x Rock-a-Bye baby, perhaps him singing along. Demand for water. Whatever pacy he's given, he wants another one. If lucky, door closes without event.

8:00-8:10 Time to snuggle with Natalie. Perhaps tell a story with stuffed animals: "Once upon a time there was a bear who was sitting on a log..." After a while, give two minute warning. Natalie climbs on or leans against my back. She may purchase 1 additional minute by walking on my lower back. As end approaches, I ask for the magic word. This is typically long and hard to remember: "Unicorn unicorn star, unicorn unicorn fairy, star, Caroline, Allison, Caroline, Allison, princess princess flower" Would be a short and easy one, with typical components. Once I nail the magic word, I can give up, but only after kissing her a fixed (often 14) number of times while counting in Spanish, German, Serbo-Croatian, or some other language.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Spirit of the Holidays

Vaguely hallucinatory, the taste of envelope glue on my tongue, listening to ethereal medieval Hungarian kyries over and over again, writing our four names out in various orders next to a picture of the kids on the stairs.

One of the best things I do all year.

Robert Maguire, in Memoriam

Reading Elizabeth's manuscript for a book on Moscow I learned that Robert Maguire, longtime fixture of the Columbia Slavics department, had passed away at 75 or something back in September. Maguire advised me on my master's thesis on Ilya Kabakov way back in the early 90s, though he knew nothing of contemporary art. Nor did anyone. That's what made it such a great topic.

I always saw Maguire as a gay combination of the John Houseman Paper Chase character and Sherm from MASH, torn between a desire to be stiff and crusty and a native tendency to kick back and gossip. I think he half thought he wanted to teach, where he really wanted to perform. Certainly he was a finicky and thorough scholar. He was often in his office with door open on Friday afternoons and ever ready to thoroughly chew the fat amidst the dust and books of a classic professorial office.

I bought his translation of Dead Souls some weeks before his death.

He was a good guy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Some sick kind of pastoral

There we were, in the parking lot of the big boxes on Rte 1 in the wan orange light of a December mid-Atlantic sunset. Across many rows of cars, over in the WalMart area, gulls gathered, circled and dove down at something tasty.

We sat in the car and listened to the Peanuts theme as the car's heat slowly dissipated, and as Natalie gassed herself up with a cereal bar and some milk before we headed into the dollar store to blow all of her tooth fairy money in one fell swoop. Perhaps because I had recently exercised, perhaps because it was just the two of us, a rarity, it was peaceful and lovely.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Meaning of the Grouse

Eat your pineapples,
Chew your grouse,
Your last days are coming,
You bourgeois louse.

- Mayakovsky, 1913 or so

I think everybody always assumes that the Grouse in question on this blog is a verb. It is, in fact, a bird, and looking back at the Mayakovsky, we can clearly see this was some sort of luxury bird back in the day in Russia. Grouse chewing was sort of an apocalyptic thing for the rad young Marxist.

For me, by now, the stakes are kind of different. While I've never actually had grouse literally, I must confess I am generally pro-grouse and wish in fact that there was -- if not a grouse in every pot -- at least a hearty soy-based substitute.

So that the themes that permeate this blog would appear in some sense nostalgic or even conservative, arguing in favor of preserving:

  1. The so-called environment
  2. The way we live -- our house, financial stability, my frickin teeth, etc.
  3. The America I thought I grew up in, characterized by open-mindedness and tolerance, both in somewhat short supply of late.
  4. A sense of curiosity about things not going on around me, or going on not around me
The point is, in the end, for it to be worth Graham and Natalie's while to be living in this overpaved land of blockbuster releases 30 years out, to defer Mayakovsky's last day.

Friday, December 16, 2005

We believe in God, right?

So asks Natalie at the breakfast table not long ago. What am I supposed to say? Should I say, no, we don't, we're Episcopalians?

Who put these ideas into her head? The devout 5-year olds of Princeton? Do I take her to church now?

Or do I just pretend it never happened: "Could you pass the butter?"

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Insulation Contractor

What can we say? He might as well IPO, cuz he's pretty transparent already. Blown insulation, fiberglass bats, you name it. Basically has a monopoly for Central Jersey.

  • Never been investigated by Better Business Bureau (told me thrice)
  • Other business, foam wholesaling, has $500k-$700k monthly revenues
  • Plans to install fixed LAN with no wireless in new office (ironically, "for security reasons")
  • Truck cost $80K: "What'm I gonna do, have some Mexican drive it around?"
  • 30-yr old Lithuanian wife recently returned from a visit to the old country with an illegal and non-spousally sanctioned breast augmentation (this he told Mary)
  • Used to work in asset-backed securities for Citigroup
  • Partial to pork roll and cheese
  • Fails to clean up mess made by team at dining room table
  • Gets dust all over everything, doesn't bother covering with tarp.
  • Kentucky-based partner, the IT guy, has been charged with some sort of sexual advances on a 12-year old: ("I know it ain't true, the guy's got 3 kids and I see him with them. But he's gonna need a lawyer.") The guy also recently diagnosed with liver cancer.
  • Office without walls:
    • Makes or takes "600" calls a day on cell phone (uh huh).
    • Likes to print documents at other people's house
  • Forgets to patch up holes in the wall on the third floor

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Princeton Record Exchange, 12/12/05 12:42 PM

I went to the Princeton Record Exchange today at lunch, though I probably could have gotten the the Charlie Brown DVD by the register and Starbucks and gotten a good solid cup of coffee too. My thinking was to patronize a local establishment, and deny Amazon some portion of my media wallet share.

As I strolled through the shop, I passed records of days gone by: the Descendents, Dinosaur Jr. It was dim and dusty. Ornette Coleman was a blaring. The black clad staff were a glaring. Especially the guy who still looks like he's still cheesed off for not getting cast in Spinal Tap. Time had stopped, just like it does in some diners, but in a different place.

And I found myself thinking: are indie record stores valuable archives of musical diversity, great centers of resistence to relentless corporatization, or are they just mouldering relics of a great moment in cultural history which has passed?

nb. Got the Peanuts. Natalie has taken to track 8, the wonderfully naive "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

Monday, December 12, 2005

A Griswold am I, pt II, or the white lights

Back at the house, Mary began to search for the white fairy lights we string along the porch. She looked for them for some time, digging through the attic, muttering under her breath unintelligibly, thankfully. I hung the wreath and whatever you want to call that stuff around the door.

Time to put tree in stand. Natalie is very excited. Is it the tree? Is it the present for mom? Who knows. Out on the porch, it's cold. It quickly becomes apparent that this stand is not going to work with this tree. The tree is too scrawny. Thank god for Ace, 5 minutes away, saving me from the throngs in the big boxes.

The precious nap time was passing. One of us needed to exercise. I went. It was colder outside than I had thought. I wasn't able to cheat and slow down and walk as much as I like, just in order to maintain a good core temp. When I got back, Mary glared at me with only a hint of love. Turns out, I had brought the white lights down earlier. "At least you organized the attic some," I offered. This silver lining was not too shiny.

At long last, it was time to decorate the tree, but sadly I couldn't find the music from the Charle Brown Christmas, which is our traditional accompaniment. Mary liked her present from Natalie. Nice tree, if not exactly what we usually get.

Kids dinner, and it's time to string the white lights outside, around the columns and along the tops of the porch. Mary vetos the dangling strand of white bulbs I called the "tendril of light." It's cold as hell, but at the end, I had the warm feeling of neighborhood beautification and homeowner's pride. I go in and get Mary, then the kids, one by one, and show them the house all bedecked with glow. Clark W. Griswold indeed.

A Griswold am I, pt 1

Yesterday was pretty much taken up with getting the Christmas tree and decorations in gear. As per usual, a number of mishaps befell us.

10:00AM Natalie and I were all excited to wrap up the new ornaments (bird and butterfly) that Natalie had picked out for Mary during our rare cameo at the mall. She selected a lovely blue wrapping paper with sparkly snowflakes and we did as fine a wrapping job as a 5-year old and a ham handed dad (I had trouble tying the bow) can do. While grabbing scissors from the ground floor, I took a couple of boxes of Xmas stuff from the attic downstairs, without really looking at them.

11:00AM Mary, annoyed that I took kids upstairs when we could have been taking Xmas picture in the "good light" (photographer speak), declares it's time to get tree. Off we go to tree farm, where all is mighty picturesque in the snow and we ride in an ATV through streams and gullies, but all the live trees are pretty scrawny. One of the pre-cut ones is OK, and we grab it out from beneath this other family, who are sizing it up, on a "we were there first" basis.

Feet are cold. There are horses in the snow, to delight of kids. Men are loading hay into barn. One declares need to take his wife to work, but he'll be back in an hour, a prospect with dubious economics. Two 12- year old boys in overalls by the barn are discussing the fine points of physics, with a youthful openmindedness that CEOs would love to rekindle: "Imagine if, instead of going down, things went up!"

Tree on car. Home for naptime.

Next time: searching for the white lights.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Snow day

As promised, snow arrived last night, after 4am, to be sure, cuz I was up and peaked out the window. And the whole of Princeton was a winter frickin wonderland, even though it's technically fall. I guess Princeton isn't very technical.

And now Mary's off to Manhattan to have dinner with the Yale photo mafia of the early 90s, so I'm here at the house with Graham, who's staying in his crib long after waking from his nap, calling out occasionally for me or mom or Natalie. It smells like he pooped, but he didn't. We've been getting a lot of that recently.

It's calm, but soon Natalie will burst in from sledding and playing dress-up at Helen and Margaret's, and it will flow straight through till dinner.

OK. Now Graham's being fairly insistent with his "Dad!"

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hard to believe

At a seminar today at the Princeton/Columbia Club on 43rd -- a pretty hideous place, I'll have you know -- on Counterparty Risk Management or, how not to get burned by a Refco, and in strolls this woman from a hedge fund that shares its name with a beer. Asian woman. Got one of these full-sized computer notepad thingies.

And she asks a lot of questions of the speakers. Stupid questions. And shares here own experience freely. How she bought Refco at 10. Lost whole position. Sometimes she trades like that. Still, hey, she's up 15% for the year, so it's OK, ha ha.

And she made a lot of noise clicking on her little notepad thingie, especially when she was playing solitaire. And then she checks voicemail. And then her slinkie little Ipod phone rings -- and she's forgotten to put it on vibrate.

It a was pretty astonishing performance, verging on psychopathic. Luckily, I wasn't the only one that noticed it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Restaurant proves Russian

Why was I not shocked?

Off in a group of 6 on a covert mission to evaluate New Jersey eateries for a certain newspaper which we will refer to only as one of the three papers of record as part of the research team of our neighborhood critic, who shall be called Jane. Drive down to Cherry Hill to an utterly non-descript strip mall. The decor was odd. They had not litres of Pellegrino. The salads were eclectic. Funky dishes. Somewhat innovative. Not altogether successful.

Waiter has a clearly Slavic accent. Is he Serbian? No. Russian, it turns out (how had I missed it?). Suddenly, it all fell into place. I felt right at home, and the proprietor is my new best friend: "You understand deep soul of Russia, my friend."

At least we can say that the menu didn't choke on adjectives.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Teach your children, well

A Times article on Wilton, CT cites the woodsy little community's dedication to fine and performing arts education. A common theme, fine and performing arts. The crown jewel in a wealthy and tony little town's crown, a way of saying "our kids don't have to worry about getting jobs." Is this trend just a fetish of the upper-middle and upper classes? A class marker pure and simple?

My mind flashes back to Yale this last spring. A small town educator asked a panel including Yale President Richard "Rick" Levin and Pepsico President Indra Nooyi what his school system should be focusing on, and the two looked at each other significantly, leaned their heads together and chimed together "Math and Science."

On the one hand, all the press has foregrounded America's deficit in math and science education and the risk it poses to future productivity. On the other hand, the American elite thinks itself philistine and so pursues refinement.

I myself, possessed of a PhD in Russian Literature, am forever conflicted by the fact that, on the one hand, math kinda sucks, and, on the other, working in financial services means advanced math would be rather useful. Very useful, in fact.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Green Baywatch and Indian car culture

An article in the Times on the emerging car culture in India reminded me of one of my superdeeduperdee ideas from the 90s: Green Baywatch. Those were the days, of course, when Baywatch was the world's most watched and loved program, when Hasselhof, Anderson, and Bleeth were prominent ambassadors of the American way. Why not, I postulated, throw together an ecofriendly version of the show, where buff boys and girls rode about on bikes catching industrialists and other eco-fiends, all while jiggling and flexing. This would be a great way to promulgate sustainable values to the developing world, to show poorer nations that wealth need not necessarily be objectified in steel and asphalt.

Alas, such a show was never meant for this world. In the era of Mecca Cola and widespread disgust with American foreign policy and culture, Anderson's breasts have diminished moral authority. Internet pornography has made it easier for people the world around to find jiggling without consulting their television schedules. A great opportunity to stem environmental decline has been squandered.

Next week: The Fast and the Furious: the Footrace

Sunday, December 04, 2005


It was supposed to snow last night. It did.

I knew I should have brought the car seats in off the back porch. I didn't. Not too too much snow on em, though.

It was a slushy, dense snow, more suited to snowpersons than sledding. So we did both.

Graham, for once, let Mary put a hat on him. But his mittens, which were suspiciously ill-functioning and photogenic (given Mary's stated intent to grab a camera), kept coming off. So he was cold quickly and didn't fight coming back inside for lunch and the nap which, inexorably, follows it. I'm gonna work such a nap into my next contract.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Dental hijinks

Went to the dentist this morning. It's a 15-mile drive, but a pretty one, and this is the tough love guy who pretty much saved my teeth seven years or so ago. Farzaneh, my personal dental technician, shot some computerized and then gave me a cleaning while cooing about how good I had become (by contrast with the now long gone days a dental neglect). And indeed, from my POV, the cleaning was quick and painless.

And then in comes dentist man, all firm handshake and psychotic piercing blue eyes, pokes around my gums with the sharp thing and then sits down to look at the x-rays. All good...
Except for these small areas on the sides these molars. Ca $600, twill be.

So, just like last year, I'll come back in January when my new pot of FSA money kicks in. Aside from being a good dentist, he's a good businessman: shoot xrays at the end of the year, when insurance-free people will have tax-preferred money coming available. Get the cash before the other health service providers do.

He's a good dentist, but he lacks the rabbinical presence of my periodontist. More on that later.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Ivory and ebony

The question of race and children's commodities is at once more complex and simpler than you would think. Books, toys the like.

I remember when we were headed to the house of a black classmate of Natalie's, we were a little uncertain of what kind of book to give: it was odd, it seemed, to give a book of all white kids cavorting about in some idealized pseudo-agrarian land of plenty, of which there is no shortage. But then we get there and what to they have, Mary Kate and Ashley, Barbie out the wazoo, and so on. No offense, apparently, taken.

The other day I saw a mother with three little black girls dolled up going to Nutcracker, with its neo-imperialist spectacle of Clara and the prince or whoever sitting up on thrones watching the dances of the Chinaman, the Russian, and so on. Sugar plum fairies are clearly universal, as the Allen Blooms of this world could have told us.

I'll tell you this, when selecting children's books, I reflexively turn away from books with kids of mixed race, because I need to choose quickly, and the overwhelming trend of these books is towards cloying politically correct hoo ha. All black or all hispanic books or all Asian books are less likely to be revoltingly pious.