Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Leaping into a Canyon of Dreams
Subtitled: Shocked & Odd

I'm tired of blogging about politics for the moment. I have better things on my mind to worry about: namely, how I'm ever going to get through this week without looking more and more like Hank Paulson. In other words: real, real tired, kind of wrinkly, saggy, and definitely gaunt. Come to think of it, I look like my great-grandfather, who is long dead, but forefront in my memory in the likeness of Mr Paulson.

However, I'd instead like to pose a question to you readers, one which was posed to me recently. The question was, more or less: How do you know when the gig is up? In other words, you've made a bet on YOU. You've left something dear, walked away from conformity, and 'leapt, expecting the net to appear', as Julia Cameron so eloquently describes it in The Artist's Way.

But now that you've leapt, your arms are flailing, your eyes wide with terror that the net won't ever appear. You're falling and falling, and falling some more. Where is the bottom? Where is the net you believed in?

Your heart tells you the net will appear, at just the right time. Your head tells you the edge of the cliff wasn't so bad after all.

Your choice? Well, as it happens, there is a branch sticking out of that cliffside, the one you just jumped from. While you sail down into that canyon of dreams, slowly of course, because this is your imagination, you see that branch and you are welcome to reach out and grab it. In so doing, you'll crawl back to the edge of the cliffside, little by little, bedgraggled and with skinned knees. Who knows, maybe you'll break a limb. Worse, you'll end up with a broken spirit. But you'll make it back. And when you do, will you spend the rest of your days peering over the edge of the cliff, wondering what the canyon of dreams was all about? Or will you be glad to have crawled back to safety?

About a year ago, I sat with a journalist acquaintance, someone who's spent a lot of time covering wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now he's someone who's truly lived on the edge, and I'm not talking about just dreams. He's lived knowing each day that it could be his last. But that's not the point. The point is what he said about mankind.

He told me that he sees dead people. No, I don't mean in the Sixth Sense of it; I mean his view of people, of everyone, is that most people aren't alive. That, in essence, they have already died, having chosen to stop living. I was shocked at the odd concept. But I didn't disagree. After all, I have plenty of unconventional beliefs of my own.

So I pose this question to you: Who are the dead (wo)men walking? And if you do have a say in the matter of life or death, how do you know when choosing life is killing you?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Port-fall-io

I have just lost my shirt. And my shoes, my future kids' education funds, possibly my future kids themselves if I can somehow sell them or their likenesses. Needless to say, I own Goldman, Citibank, and AIG stock. I have been attempting the un-attemptable: buying on the cheap. I think that's what they call catching falling knives. 

The only thing I have of worth is a gold necklace. Given the move in gold prices, I may melt it and sell it. Until then, I'm wearing it as a badge of intrinsic value. Even dollar bills are looking attractive as fuel for the winter.

I took a walk in Manhattan this morning after having breakfast with a close friend and ex-trader colleague. In his day, he was what Michael Lewis referred to in Liar's Poker as a "big swinging dick". He coolly made prices for and traded the derivative value of billions of dollars. More often than not, he came out winning. Earlier this year, he smelled a rat in the market and cashed out. He seems to be one of the few that got the getting-out timing just right.

But back to my morning stroll. As you may imagine, I passed a lot of bars as I walked through the city. Oddly, given the early hour, they were open and they were absolutely not empty. Stressed-out looking men wearing loosened ties, shirts open at the collar, and that ubiquitous khaki pant typed on laptops while talking on cell phones, or stared numbly at TV screens which were almost exclusively featuring CNBC breaking news headlines. It wasn't a stretch to guess that these men were bankers, or that they had been bankers as of yesterday or even just earlier this morning.

I recognized the dazed look. When I first quit my banking job in 2006, I walked home from work on a beautiful day: warm, sunny, a cold April breeze blowing. I bought myself flowers, thinking this was something I should do. "Surround yourself with beauty!" I told myself. "Drink in this moment; smell its entirety!" I took my flowers home, walking very slowly past a lot of people walking very quickly. After I put them in a vase, I cried for a really long time. "What am I supposed to do now?" I asked myself. And then, "What about tomorrow, too?" But no one answered me. I sat alone in my apartment wondering what to do and where to be.  

Oh, I know what you're thinking: "Poor you!" And in some ways, I admit I'm thinking it, too. Bankers have had a pretty bubbly run of it for the past several decades. One in particular, a cantankerous Patrick Bateman-type character (familiar to those who've suffered through reading American Psycho) summed it all up as follows: "There is no meaning in life but money. It's the joke that only bankers understand."

I thought about that colleague as I got on the subway. Standing in front of me, with tired eyes and struggling with deep tearful swallows, was another wandering banker. He paced throughout the subway car, occasionally taking out his Blackberry. Without ever looking at it, he would shake his head and put it back in his pocket. He looked as if his job loss had been fresh. And that maybe he, too, shared in Patrick Bateman's life philosophy. He won't be the only one. 

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Give me liberty, or give me death!" -Patrick Henry, 1775


Picture, if you will, me saying this while stomping my feet, arms folded, scowl planted on my face and threaded through my eyebrows.

It's been three days since I had surgery, which should come as a surprise to few of you as I've worried aloud for three months that I was dying. Aside from the prospect of having something really wrong with me, I was worried that I'd gone to rather great lengths (Mongolia, for starters) to follow a dream that would end in...well, end, period. 

As it turns out, my concerns were very much grounded, but I'm going to be fine. However, there is a catch. I can't do anything for three weeks. Huh? You mean, I have to be off my feet?

Well, you know what that means. It means I've been sitting here in my apartment doing what an un-busy person does: procrastinating and thinking about planning a revolution. No, that is not hyperbole. I'm alternating sitting and lying here, not looking at the massive, gargantuan editing task before me for The Book, but I'm trying to stir up cinders of Patrick Henry (from American primary school days, you'll remember him as the man who angrily uttered, "Give me liberty, or give me death!"), and start a revolution against what our country is undoubtedly about to befall itself to. 

Incidentally, I'm also mangling sentence structure: "befall itself to"?, but I'll blame that on the Vicadin.

Recently I met with a man, a distinguished older gentleman who does not give out business cards, and knows a lot about everything, more than just in his field of expertise, which is investigation. This man said to me, "This is not the 1960's. People are not angry enough. Without a lead on anger and outrage, Obama does not stand a chance with polling numbers that roughly match McCain's." 

In quick succession, I became angry and outraged. I wrote a blog post! I emailed people! I broke a rule about donating to a political campaign! 

And in just as quick succession, I received an email from an American friend I traveled with while in Mongolia, who commented on my rage: "The salient point here," he began and from here on I won't quote him (I just had to begin with his turn of phrase, because it is always so clever), is that we'll all go back to work on November 5. We won't begin a campaign to wage war to bring to a premature end to the people that this country has elected into office, whether we like them or not.

Well, then, fine. But what am I supposed to do with all my extra time sitting on my haunches, not editing, not working, and not feeling satisfied with where our country is going?

I can satisfy myself with just one more twinkle from the past, this one from 19th-century French diplomat Talleyrand, who said, "Treason is a matter of dates." 

Without the ability to stand for very long, I humbly declare myself an armchair revolutionary. Unless someone can give me a better idea of what to do with my time?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Literary Pompeii 

I tend to shy away from blogging about political stuff. 


Recently, I received an email whose purpose was to canvas opinions of mostly-conservative family members (myself entirely excluded from this dark, dark part of the Roy G. Biv spectrum). In fact, the email was less a well-thought-out email, and more a forward from a conservative writer, whose name I shall not reveal, for my opinion of this conservative author is "lower than a snake's belly", as my grandmother is fond of saying. In any case, it was sent from a very well-read relative, who had not read the forward in its entirety before sending it on.

The contents of the forwarded email, as you may have already predicted, caused an outpouring of heated rage, possibly something like a Literary Pompeii. I cannot claim to have risen above the depths to which we all sunk. For example, I derided those that suggest that late-term abortions were for cosmetics, ignoring the fact that few suggest that late-term abortions are performed for cosmetic purposes. And one particularly conservative relative retorted in kind, angrily typing in symbols rather than letters that "it's amazing to me that we live in a society that completely overlooks the fact that unmarried women are ######## and using abortion as a form of birth control." 

See what I mean about the symbols? Aren't you angry at the mere symbolic suggestion that women should be following someone else's version of morality? I feel like writing into On Language by William Safire of the New York Times to see what his take is on the use of symbols in lieu of actual words, which presumably were: 'screwing', or it's far more harsh cousin that's starts with an F. However, linguistics is not my point here.

The retort's angry response to my original retort went on to suggest that all Obama supporters are the "lucky recipients of a government handout" and that we (meaning we Obama supporters) should be thanking someone, although the responder didn't say who. As an Obama supporter, I guess I'll start with thanking myself, considering the amount of money I've paid in taxes since I started working at age 16.

Yet I digress. 

My point here is two-fold: one to balance the tight-rope that is discussing politics amongst family members, and two, to ask the uncomfortable question about who we're unfortunately likely to elect.

First: Why is it that we can't just talk politics? In my own, thereby anecdotal, experience, I've only ever come in contact with one person who is able to extract emotion from the debate. My brother Tim responded to the back-and-forth snark of that aforementioned forward by trying to quantify the cost-benefit analysis of immigration (another heated topic we'd embarked upon). His response was really just a balanced set of questions that forces you to uproot and examine what you've held as comfortably dogmatic. 

Second: (And this is going to be anything but balanced). Are we really (really?) going to elect an evangelical Christian who is a lifelong member of the NRA to be a single heartbeat away from a septuagenarian's death? If we can forget for a moment the NRA and the religious overtones, let's take a look at what the UK's Independent has to say about her environmental track record: "The woman has an environmental policy so toxic...it would make George Bush...blush." The article details, as follows: "She wants to start drilling. She wants to block US moves to list the polar bear as an endangered species. And she has allowed big game hunters to shoot Alaska's bears and wolves from low-flying planes." Why, you ask, would she do such a thing? Because, as the Independent writes, these federal decisions will cripple energy development offshore. 

Oh, I see. So it is more of the same, then. No, it's more of the worse. 

Fact is, everyone, according to Foreign Affairs, 40% of Bush's 2004 vote came from evangelicals. Forty percent

What's the conclusion? In my mind, anyway, and I am happy to hear how wrong I am (join the lynching mob of those that read my vitriolic response to the conservative email), we are about to elect the sort of crowd that rolls back the clock for women, for the environment, for minorities, and for simple logic (humans are simply not 4000 years old). 

Could someone buy me a vowel? An "A", please. Make it red. Scarlet, even. And pin it to my lapel. Call me Miss Prynne. 

Monday, September 08, 2008

Continued from "The Kittenskills"

"Hi-ho, neighbor!" a man chirped metaphorically the next morning. A cute blonde family wearing Keds and Dockers were up at the crack of dawn. This version of Ned Flanders was smiling as he cooked, his four (yes, four) kids were under ten but were silent, smiling and looking fondly on Dad, who was whipping up made-to-order omelettes for his perfect family.

"Oh, my head," Jesse and I both said in unison. And then, "Coffee."

While Ned smiled some more and deeply inhaled the evergreen-smelling Catskills, Jesse and I boiled water and squeezed it through torn coffee filters to make our own version of French press coffee. Hmph, we both grimaced, we can make eggs, too, just like Ned.

"Honey?" Ned called out, beaming in our direction, "Fried or sunnyside up?"

Mrs. Ned had a choice of eggs? Jesse and I didn't even have a pan to cook ours in. Not to be thwarted, we made runny omelettes and pretended like they were delicious, praising each other just loudly enough for the Ned and Mrs. Ned to hear. 

After securing our Monopoly game-pieces with paper-weight rocks and candles, we set out for Kaaterskill Falls, one very steep foothill of the Catskills.

Kaaterskills Falls is a double waterfall in the eastern Catskills. At over 250 feet, they are the highest falls in New York state. Yes, taller even than Niagara Falls, but nowhere near as wide. Jesse and I drove to the base of the falls, and started climbing. Negotiating footfalls over craggy rocks in a cool pine forest, we reached the top in no time. After playing in the cold pools and splashing the mineral water on our flushed faces, we hiked the cliffside of Kaaterskill, then drove to Woodstock for lunch.

Old hippies with long hair and beards played banjos on street corners, women dressed in black protested war, and a grizzly but cheerful Vietnam vet sold creative smoking products. Sounds like a cliche, but it wasn't. This was the real Woodstock, with perhaps a few coats of paint and some new-age Sufi wisdom offering you the chance to view your aura (we ate pizza instead).

After spending a few hours getting lost in the maze of green that is Route 32 North, Route 32 South, Old Route 32, and Route-32-off-Route-212, we napped on the shores of North-South Lake, a crystal blue heaven whose calm was only interrupted by quiet little angels being screamed at by their incredibly overweight parents. 

Jesse and I left to hunt and gather at the supermarket. Prime steaks and a fine wine in hand (again), and we returned to our campsite. We'd finally invested in a disposable grill, and on it we slowly grilled our kill over a charcoal fire, marinating them in a local exotic mixture of nothing special but everything delicious. The Ned Flanders family had left, which was a real shame, because Jesse and I had finally hit our culinary stride. Tucking in to steak, buttered corn, and grilled asparagus, we ate until it hurt. And then found room to polish off half a bag of jumbo marshmallows.

We didn't stop there. I had a Monopoly championship to win. 

Sidebar: The only time I've ever lost a game of Monopoly, or ever come close, I was about 13 years old and faced with being bankrupted by my younger brother (my own brother!). In protest, I overturned the board and its contents and stormed off. Although my undefeated reign is disputed, I (alone) stand by it.

As I wrote in my last post, the night before, Jesse had suggested trading my Boardwalk for his Pennsylvania and North Carolina Avenues. I'd readily agreed, pouting and acting sorry that I had to make such a big concession. Eyeing each other warily, we both bought little green house after little green house, building up our Monopolies (oddly, the rest of the board's real estate was divided equally between us). Finally, we invited the developers in and paid for hotel complexes. Like suburban America, it was the beginning of the end of someone's empire. 

Jesse landed on my North Carolina.

I didn't land on his Park Place or Boardwalk, instead passing to Go and smiling wickedly in the process.

Jesse landed on North Carolina, again.

I didn't land on Park Place or Boardwalk.

Jesse landed on my Pennsylvania. 

I didn't land on Park Place or Boardwalk.

One last time, Jesse landed on North Carolina, and it was all over. America took the Monopoly cup in her hotly contested match with one fantastic kiwi.

I comforted my opponent with the second half of the bag of marshmallows, trying to toast them to a crispy golden brown, but mostly getting impatient and setting them alight.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Kittenskills

Armed with way too much wine and beer for two people on a short-ish long weekend, Jesse and I drove to the Kittenskills, our nickname for the foothills of New York’s Catskills mountains.

The plan was to hunt & gather, kill with our bare hands if necessary, and camp next to a roaring fire (ignited not with those new-age things called matches, but by rubbing two sticks together). Fortunately for the squirrels residing near our tent, there was a supermarket not far from our campsite.

After we put up the tent – by “we” I mean “he” – I took on the important task of chilling our beers, wine, and non-squirrel meats. Jesse rubbed two sticks together for the longest time, nearly gave himself blisters, and settled on using a lighter to start our fire. Settled in, we began a two-day outdoor Monopoly championship match between America and New Zealand. But not before we began to roast cubed steak and corn on the cob over an open fire.

Sound romantic? It is. Except that the cob that sheathes corn is flammable. Which is to say that it burns brightly and quickly when put over an open fire. Oops, did I say “put over”? That’s not quite what happened. When Jesse and I planned our trip, we weren’t too sure how it would all turn out. We’d only met a few months ago, and had never camped together before. Rather than invest in luxurious accessories such as cooking utensils, we borrowed a tent from a friend, and planned to make do with the rest of the equipment by being resourceful.

In so doing, Jesse built for us a small and highly flammable grill made of wood. On it, we deposited our corn. The grill went up in flames (as wood is prone to do); the corn went with it. To avoid the same mistake with our steaks, we held them over the fire. After cooking our hands and our steaks, we tucked in. But not before we realized that between the two of us, we had only one spoon. Again, we had just one spoon – to eat two tough cuts of cubed steak. We suibstituted knives and forks with our hands and teeth.

Two bottles of wine later, Jesse offered his Pennsylvania and North Carolina Aves for my Boardwalk. The trade would be a fatal mistake for one of us. Possibly more fatal was breakfast the next morning.

To be continued...(let me know you're reading, even just one of you!)