Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Lumberjack's Swan Song

Went to the mall today to return a summer shirt that Mary had vetoed and pick up a flannel shirt. There were no flannel shirts to be had, and chamois was right out.

What can we say about this. Clearly, the income gap and the internet and whatnot have changed things since we were in high school, when there was a smoky anti-glamor to the construction worker and the worker in general, the days when the likes of Burt Reynolds and John Voight went around slamming pickup truck doors with tall boys in their hands in movies from Silkwood to Smoky and the Bandit to the frickin Deerhunter. A time when Bob and Doug McKenzie could at least exist. Flannel ain't cool no more.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Passport photos

(This is the kind of topic that comes of sitting at a desk all the time)

At long last I got my new passport back from the Federal Government, so I can travel. I can travel! At least, I could travel, had I more ducats.

In any case, they sent me back my old passport too with a copy of the new picture across from the old one, which was taken in early '97 when I was gearing up to go to mother Russia for dissertation work, towards the outer edge of my Manhattan period.

So lets compare and contrast. From '97 to '07 I didn't put on much weight, though, as Mary might note, I didn't lose much either. The hairline stayed largely in place, moving much less than, say, the icecaps. Most notably, the eyelid that droops a little for the sake of character now droops a little bit more. And there is a general loss of freshfacedness, replaced by a gentle tincture of malevolence, which belies an uptick in actual good-naturedness brought on by the peace and harmony of the our Garden State.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tale of the Boogeyman

At a birthday party a couple of weeks ago for Sally, we saw some terrible shit. Her dad Fred's brother Johnny and his wife had apparently gotten in the habit of reigning in their elder boy during moments of wildness by telling him: "Your uncle Sonny is gonna get you." Now Sonny, it must be owned, reportedly broke all the bones in his face when he was younger in a bad car accident and so, in the kind words of his sister, "Isn't as handsome as he was before." But she was kind but not euphemizing, the guy looks fine, just a little different. But out of sheer laziness and stupidity, Johnny and wife turn Sonny into the boogeyman.

So here's the birthday party and here comes Johnny and his family and over there we got Sonny and.... the elder boy flips out when he sees him, and there he is, six years old wearing his soccer uniform, face planted in his mother's lap, sobbing and moaning, until they disappeared off to the bathroom or something. I cannot recall ever seeing a more reprehensible instance of parenting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A sign of our Times

Met an old reporter for the New York Times today at an intermittently fascinating conference on Securities Lending. Grey, paunchy and somewhat curmudgeonly, studiously underdressed, he was in all rather Lou Grantish.

But mostly the guy was an object lesson in the trajectory of the papers of record, and especially this institution that is delivered to our doorstep each day, which continually morphs and shrinks, as does its cousin the Journal, which in its most recent pre-Murdoch state was consciously inching away from news towards being an opinion broker. Will the Times and the Journal eventually be wires plus magazines? Who knows. But I think my recycling container is going to get lighter and lighter and time goes on.

And what if the New Yorker too succumbs to its senescent demographic (which would include us)? Then what will become of my household?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The tomatoes of Archangelsk

Thanks to Mark Izeman of the NRDC in Moscow for forwarding this BBC story.

The Russians aren't too stressed out about climate change: "We are not panicking. Global warming is not as catastrophic for us as it might be for some other countries," Rinat Gizatullin, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Ministry, says. "If anything, we'll be even better off: as the climate warms, more of Russia's territory will be freed up for agriculture and industry."

This is much like the Bush claim that we'll just use AC when it gets hotter; it's cynical and self-serving.

Meanwhile, Moscow's hope is that Western polluters will be queuing up to buy its carbon
emission quotas. The money they get will then go into improving infrastructure and
energy efficiency. Yeah right they will.

If they realize that energy efficiency is what they need (and they do), why don't they purpose some of their $130 billion in reserves from oil sales to infrastructure that hedge fund manager and Russian Senator Andrei Vavilov wants to privatize and invest in... alternative investments, mgolly. I think a chunk of that aimed at all Russia's leaky above ground heating pipes could be kind of helpful.

Our guy in Lowe Library

President Lee Bollinger, Columbia University's answer to Chuck Norris, is at it again. As we all see from the headlines, he invited Iranian President Ahmadinejad up to Columbia to talk and then shat all over him as he came in the door. All for the sake of intellectual freedom? ("He can think what he wants but I can fight with him about it").

Methinks not. Instead, Bollinger just wants to keep Columbia in the news, make it a "player", so he can keep raising funds and consciousness to further the Northward enhancement of the university into Harlem, and the establishment of a Columbia campus on each continent. Oh yes, he will be king.

I suppose that's the modern way to go. But do alums really want to give money to guys who invite delusional and dangerous heads of state and then pummel them on arrival? This one doesn't.

How did he know Ahmadinejad wouldn't pull a smooth one on stage and leave egg on Columbia's face? Can you be sure a guy is delusional and not just faking?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Graham poops in the potty

For those of you who are perhaps tiring of my abstruse theoretical and journalistic noodlings, let the news ring out across the land: Graham, the last holdout in our family for diapers, has pooped in the potty. We know well that there may yet be a rough road out ahead of us, but he has done the deed, and it was well-formed too. Soon we may be a truly happy family, pooping together in a diaper-free household.


As ever, Mark Hulbert's been scanning the newsletters for opinions on what's up with the market. There are those, he says, who see parallels with the August 1998 implosion of the Russian debt markets which brought low Long-Term Capital Management and (let us not forget) almost nailed DE Shaw and thereby the BofA-Nationsbank merger. Coming out of that, the markets had their big run-ups to the spring 2000 booyah peaks.

I'm reminded of 1998 in a different way. When the Russian debt markets blew up, there was a massive devaluation of the ruble, which made it hard for Russians to keep snapping up all the imports they had been favoring. This meant that the final years of Yeltsin's administration bolstered Russia's declining industrial base and laid the groundwork for a redevelopment of payrolls and confidence under Putin. Could a similar fate await Detroit and the rest of the industrial heartland as the dollar continues its slide? Will Bentonville look to Biloxi rather than Beijing for extruded goods?

If it works, there's a good chance a Democrat could ride a neo-populist wave. Perhaps a $400 wave.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Front row junkyard

On a forlorn earthen lot on Main St. in Somerville, New Jersey, just down the hill from the Washington Hotel -- "Oldest continually operating hotel in America" -- there is a used car dealer that jams the most cars onto his space I've ever seen. Not just cars, but classics and would be classics: Firebirds, Impalas, El Caminos, Beetles. Towards the front today was a circa 1986 Plymouth Reliant convertible. Also a 1997 truck that might actually be salable. And could actually be gotten off the lot.

This lot has been there since we came to Central NJ some 10 years ago. At that point in time it had some pretty cool old cars. I believe some of them are still there today. There is one Camaro nestled in tight next to some Olds about four rows back. 6 inches apart. Between them grows a sapling. Back towards the office at the back of the lot, there are cars with no engines and no windows. "I'll have one of those," I almost cried out.

It's a junkyard, really, on Main Street, clearly owned by some pathological hoarder of transmissions and frames. Keep on not truckin! That's what I say.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thick as Thieves

Email from Lee I learn that he "doesn't talk much to Yalies anymore " and from Sarah that she "doesn't talk on the phone much." And, indeed, it's harder to get even me excited to gab on the phone much.

It seemed like there was a time in our early 30s when people settled down and found something resembling a career and had kids and whenever I would see people there would be total joy and gabfest, even people I never used to like.

Does the power of shared experience diminish as we age? Does the succession of milestones: marriage, kids, graduation, deaths, divorce, financial crisis, medical trauma, job loss, do all these things become so prosaic themselves that it becomes more difficult to bond over them? Does it become harder to maintain strong relationships? Or just more labor-intensive. Seems like when you talk to em lots of people are like: "whatever, we're aging and we're all gonna die anyway, I'm going home to bed."

I know I know, I should get my butt back to NC and eat some Q. But I feel like there's I'm witnessing a general if gradual emotional pullback of sorts, if not necessarily from my intrepid readers.

Here's what I mean.

The Jam

The Jamm

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What is there to tell?

A fine day in Jersey. Went and got my hair cut. The barber guy started going off about OJ and some other criminal on the flat panel TV and the question of appropriate punishment. You can imagine. "Some guy comes in my house and is raping my daughter, I think I got a right to kill em." Indeed, the law provides for these situations. "And what about those guys who are having sex with babies and kids and stuff. I mean, what do they do? I can't imagine it." Apparently you can and do, buddy. And not infrequently.

We expect conversation and amusement from those who cut our hair. Like the Kosovar guy who cut my hair in Larchmont last month. He had a tale to tell.

I was going to say that's why we need gay men to cut our hair, but I would add to that immigrant men, who are engaging at least for the first cut. And it's always good to have ladies touching your head, though they can be as lame conversationally as their male colleagues.

Our maybe it's better to just let your hair grow.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Natalie as Kurt

That unkempt hair, the wrinkly shirt... I know I've seen it somewhere... Has my beloved daughter turned into Kurt Cobain?

There is, truth be told, no musical evidence of it, though she does sing a lot. And, given that she can still get excited about buying herself some chicken nuggets for lunch, I'd say she's not too despondent. Thought she does lock herself in her room to read those books about that magic boy with glasses and other crazy, wierd stuff.

And she is still mighty ticklish.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Refreshing honesty

From Marketwatch:

Greenspan said he said he supported the removal of Saddam Hussein as Iraqi dictator. "Saddam Hussein was obviously seeking to get a chokehold on the Strait of Hormuz," Greenspan said, referring to the narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which oil-carrying vessels pass. That would have caused chaos, he said. Greenspan said he believes the Iraq war was about oil but that he wasn't saying that this was the principal motivation of the Bush administration in invading the nation in 2003.

OK. So he contradicts himself a little towards the end, but it's basically straight no chaser, in a very Ayn Randian way. And when you put it that way: "Take out the dictator so he'll cause less economic chaos" rather than "the government is in the pocket of big oil," it sounds a lot better. From a Green perspective Hussein@Hormuz would expedite peak oil and the adoption of altfuels.

But it's hard to see how he would have ever pulled it off, what with Iran and Saudi Arabia in the way.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Why Russia?

One of the questions most often asked of me -- along with

"What do you want to do next?" and
"Where'd you get those two blonde blue-eyed kids, you swarthy one with a brown-haired brown-eyed wife?"

-- is "How did you get into Russia?" Although there's much truth in my stock answers that I grew up during the Cold War and that Russian literature, in particular the novel, represents an apogee of civilization comparable perhaps only to Elizabethan drama and classical music from Bach through Beethoven, but as so often, there's more to it.

Shuttling back and forth between New JerseYork and North Carolina recently suggests another possibility: from a young age, Russian literature struck a nerve in my perception of the relations between center and periphery, capital and province. All these Russian superfluous men, lying in bed and sitting on park benches pondering and dreaming of life in Petersburg or Moscow or, for those who were already there, Paris and London. Measuring themselves against the capitals, dreaming of conquest, and then, perhaps, time for dinner or a stroll with a ladyfriend, as the demands of the here and now made themselves heard. And, in the end, the Russian novel -- child of the periphery -- won, pushing aside the French and English in the battle for preeminence, everywhere, that is, but PBS. And the superfluous are remembered from the Volga to the Hollywood Hills, where they peek their heads up now and again and claim center stage at the hinges of epochs.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Graham scared the shit out of me today at the library. I was checking out the books, and he and Natalie and Margaret were standing next to me. When I had checked them out I looked up and only Natalie and Margaret were standing next to me. I looked down at the end of the rows of books, in the cafe, the obvious and easy places. Anne Blenman walked in. "Have you seen Graham," I ask. "No." Outside to check that his scooter is where it was. It is.

Natalie and Margaret are planted in the cafe. To the third floor, he's not there. Nor on the second. I begin to spin childnapper scenarios, but do not show panic. I alert the library staff. Anne is looking too. I go past Natalie and Margaret in the cafe. "Have you seen Graham?" "No," says Natalie, "and I'm hungry."

Finally, I go outside to where the book signing party is going on. After alerting one more person
I turn around and there's Graham marching along, kicking his legs up, perfectly relaxed. I pick him up and chastise him. Three minutes have passed, maybe five.

Later, on a perfect autumn day, Graham pushes himself home on his hot pink scooter, displaying admirable control and judgment over bumps, a bit of the the crack of his little ass peaking through between T-shirt and shorts. Turns out he wasn't wearing underwear.

A big 10-4

All systems are go for Graham's birthday party tomorrow. The cupcakes are cupped, frosted, and squirrelled away. It was hard not to eat one when I was frosting them after going running, but somehow I managed. Mary had, after all, counted them.

We will convene at Rosedale Park, a place which like so much else around here comes from the largesse of the Johnson family. As in Johnson & Johnson, only there are more of them than 2. (As the word Johnson has occurred several times, please insert enhancement jokes here _________). But seriously, the Johnsons are huge. Sometimes it feels like we live on their estate, like that old Bongwater refrain: "It's Frank's world, the rest of us just living in Frank's world."

To return to the point. We have cupcakes. There will be a playground. The task from here on out is to keep it from expanding further.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Ghosts of days past

Going through the Eurasianet website -- still the world's authoritative Anglophone source of information on the Caucasus and Central Asia -- I was pleased to see many chestnuts left over from the day I sat in the cockpit of that bitch.

For example: gaze upon the smooth stylings of the travelling East of Magnum exhibition.

Then there's also two themed pages on the Aral and Caspian Seas, at their time groundbreaking, by now decrepit and full of dead links but still standing.

Those were the days when information really wanted to be free.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Snake

When I came downstairs to get lunch, Mary had hooked the kids up with a video and gone for a walk. It was a Harry Potter video, and I came down right when there was a very scary looking monster serpent trying to put a hurt on Harry, who, in his turn, did smite the big snake with his sword.

But, as I said, the snake was pretty scary looking, and I asked the kids if they were a little scared. Natalie, the hip big kid, was not touched by the thing at all. Graham, on the other hand, was scarcely able to voice his fear, and started to cry a little. So I sat down on the couch with him, put my arm around him, and sat with him until the end of the scene, which had other scary shit in it even after the snake was fully smote. Fear of nasty cinematic creatures is a pretty strong emotion, as I myself was recently reminded in 28 Days. These are great moments in parenting, when you get to shelter and comfort the little guys. I used to love that shit when I was little.

Anyhoo, I decided it wasn't the right moment to give the kids the rubber snakes I brought them from Reddick's of Wrightsville Beach, long (I'm sure) a leading purveyor of flip flops, bikinis, and assorted bric a brac.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In the numbers

My mom and my dad were born two days and thirty miles apart in 1938. So I suppose it should come as no surprise that their social security numbers are within 1200 digits of one another. But it's still a little spooky, the deja vu when I heard dad's.

All of this just goes to show that proximity does not likeness make.

Peel the onion

Balzac, it is said, was averse to being photographed, feeling that each picture of him stole a little bit of his person, like the slow peeling of an onion.

In many ways, sending out resumes feels much the same. Tweaked and versioned, they leap into the ether from my browser, these verbal mini-mes, terse little chunks of self. I have to track which went where so I can be sure the right me shows up, should a need arise.

But if one page seems so little, it is much longer than the words on my future gravestone, with which it will share precious little text. I hope.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sea you later

Dashed out of conference today to go swimming in the ocean, a nasty tide heading North along the shore. Once more felt childhood coming over me, but resisted the temptation to scamper and frolic.

Now must rush to the fabled RDU.

Monday, September 10, 2007


After almost twenty years of absence, of vacations spent in such Northeastern watering holes as Fire Island, Martha's Vineyard, Block Island, various rocky shores of Maine, the Finger Lakes, the friggin Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, with all of their fancy restaurants and cliffs and nature preserves and whatnot -- the Grouse returned to the North Carolina shore, home of Beach as Such.

Starting with the 70s-era motel blessed by Jimmy Buffett himself and the sea air thick with salt and moisture never heard of in the North, I knew I was back on familiar ground. Checked in, I headed off to the beach. Now, to be sure, there is sand where land meets water up North. Sometimes. But rarely in such quantities, and rarely stretching off into the distance, and never so damned soft.

And off along the beach, to a pier mysteriously made of concrete rather than treated pine, charging money just to go out on that bitch. Through the tidal pools we referred to as the puddles, to which Leslie and I would head on beach mornings before the heat of the day came accompanied by one parent or grandparent, in what I now recognize to be a classic child care pawn-off. To a convenience store staffed by some old dude who couldn't even tell me that the road I was on was right and would take me to my motel.

Memory after memory. Oh yes, we will bring the kids.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Our man for the Senate

The Grouse would like to take this opportunity to officially endorse Joshua Harold Stein in his bid to represent the 16th District in the North Carolina State Senate. It has long been apparent to members of the Greater Piedmont (encompassing New Jersey) that Mr. Stein is well-suited for discharging the duties of elective public office. Specific achievements supporting this hypothesis include:

  • Manifesting steely will in scoring the deciding goal for Chapel Hill High School in the shoot off against Raleigh Sanderson* in the semi-final of the 1983 North Carolina State High School Soccer Championships, catapulting his team on to eventual victory.
  • Displaying equally firm resolve when, head dripping with blood after banging against the concrete floor of his garage, Stein did stretch forth his hand for a penny on the ground even as his father carried him off to the ER.
  • As an adult he is a progressive thinker, just as in youth he outstripped his peer group in achieving many common goals.
For these and several other reasons, the Grouch beseeches its readership to dig down and support our man in his bid.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

At rest

The first day of school has passed.
From the backyard, a faint breeze.
From the front, the sound of churchbells a few blocks down.
Mary took the train to the city for Tanya's opening.
Graham's poop has been cleaned from his underwear, the smell is gone from my hands in relatively few washings.
Natalie had mango with Beethoven's late quartets, while Graham mashed frozen blueberries against his face.

By now my uncle Heywood has probably breathed his last, succumbing to a nasty aggressive cancer.

After dinner, Natalie drove forward with Harry Potter #4, and Graham took his first ride along the sidewalk on a salvage bike, its tires just inflated.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Back to the Apple

I avoided New York as much as possible this summer, for obvious reasons. It's a nasty, smelly place to be when it's hot, and anybody with any money gets the fuck out. So I, in an attempt to mimic the rich, I stayed out.

But summer comes to an end for everyone and every place, and today I was back in the apple saddle. Five degrees cooler and I'd call it glorious, but it was OK. And fashion week in Bryant Park, lots of people milled about hoping for something to ogle, and there was that cleavagy chick in the pink dress waiting for a limo, perhaps somebody. And as I walked down sixth there were many examples of leggy and skinny, but were they fashion week related? You just never know. It's just Manhattan.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Inflection points

The year was 1979, and Freddie Kiger had foolishly piled half the 8th grade of Guy B. Phillips Junior High into school buses and hauled us across state lines to the PA-VA-WV border, home to some truly awesome Civil War battles and equally good biscuits and fried chicken.

Somehow they forgot to enforce any kind of curfew for us, and we found ourselves watching Saturday Night Live, back in its heyday. And then the musical guests arrived, what did we feast our 13-year old eyes on. Sadly, not exactly the clip below (for once, YouTube disappoints), but it was the Specials, playing "Gangsters". Like visitors from another planet to the land of the Commodores and Christmas Rappin.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Exact copies

After discussing musical and delectable goings on at the Indian Fair out at the Mercer County Park, Craig told me about how an Indian in his crew at work had described the status of Indian performance in America. In India, within certain castes, all kids learn how to perform something: singing, tablas, other instrument, etc. The emphasis there is on breadth of repertoire, as in back in the day before TV and radio when somebody had to entertain. But it's very competitive.

In the States these days, it's all about learning one or two songs, and not just songs, specific classic performances by greats, which kids ape down to the quarter-trill (Craig's phrase). So you can have a competition where ten kids mimic the same canonical performance by some great. Thrilling. Like "American Idol" on steroids.

This is, of course, repulsive to the Grouse, and to anyone else reared in the "letter killeth spirit giveth life" tradition, or indeed in the post-Romantic vision of art as expression of individual self, or the post-punk do-it-yourself way of being, which are all bound up with one another. Shit, it ain't very 2.0, for that matter. But it's plenty corporate, in the old way.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Why won't Google maps print the screen?

This is something the Sith Lords of Mountain View might think about working on. If I pull up a map in a browser, it's not unlikely that I want to print what I'm looking at. But Google Maps cuts off about a third of what I see in Firefox, at least. Maybe they're cozier with IE. But if they're serious about not doing evil, this is a great place to start.