Monthly Archives: November 2003

Kedves Olvasó!

11/18/03

My brother Sean sent many of you here today to experience “good writing and coherent ideas,” but you got me on a weird day. I’m knee-deep into a novel called The Company by Robert Littell, which is actually an audio book stored on my iPod courtesy of audible.com. Over 40 hours in length, this is the kind of book I never read – a spy potboiler spanning the entire Cold War, from Berlin to Gorbachev – but I am absolutely mesmerized. Perhaps the oral tradition makes a spoken novel so powerful, but my mind has been behind the CIA bunkers in Eastern Europe for days now.

The novel just reached a particular crescendo with the Hungarian rebellion of 1956, something I knew absolutely nothing about until I experienced it in the novel. I suppose it was on a test in Mr. Oberdorfer’s “Modern European History” class back at Norfolk Academy, but I obviously was too busy hiding my acne and festering a crush on Sharon Fine.

Anyway, before all of you start skimming and get bored, here’s the basics: having seen that Poland was weaning itself off the great Communist teat, in 1956 the students, poets and intellectuals of Hungary decided to do the same. The Hungarian secret police – the brutal AVH – were basically the bastard stepchild of the KGB, and opened fire at a rally, killing 80 peaceful demonstrators. That got the entire country enraged, even the proletariat workers, who took to the streets on October 23, raided the barracks and routed the AVH and what was left of the Russian army stationed there.

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For 18 days, Hungary was free, basically, in tense but hopeful negotiations with the Russians. There was much celebrating, carousing, and plans for a democracy. Some say if things had stayed the course, the seeds of revolution would have toppled Russia back then, in the late ’50s.

But on November 4th, Kruschev ordered the Russian army into Budapest, where they flattened the city with tanks, murdered the wounded, lined up women and children and blew their heads off. After they were done, more than 20,000 Hungarians were dead.

If a Hollywood script doctor were finishing the story, the Americans would have come, and along with the ragtag Hungarians, they would have vanquished the forces of evil.

This being reality, the United States sat on its hands, and Hungary suffered under 34 more years of Soviet rule. YAY!

Anyway, in the novel, one of the Good Guy Americans has just escaped Budapest, and it’s a swath of fantastic writing. I’ve spent the last evening researching Hungary, a place I’ve never been, and never thought about. I dated a Hungarian girl once, whose elderly father had a liquor cabinet full of Unikum, a 2-shot requirement for any interaction with his daughter. It was hard, amazing stuff. I wish I’d known all this about his country while I sat on his plastic sofa, slowly getting drunk, wondering what to say.

cast, away

11/17/03

I don’t know how many of you have bug-bombed your entire house before, but the results are quite fascinating. My first real self-fumigation occured at the Purple House in ’92 or so, when I bombed the upstairs, only to find out that a squadron of bugs descended on the downstairs like rats leaving a ship. Matt and Clay were furious, as their ceilings started to move.

Having learned my lesson, Scott Bullock and I went into the basement of the Pink House about four years later to find a flea infestation that was rivaled only by rowhouses along the River Thames during the Black Death. We sealed the house, bombed every room, and dragged Jiffer to go see the Disney “Pocahontas” flick while the place detoxed.

I am now a “homeowner” of sorts, and after getting an awful spider bite last week, I decided to seek my wrath against the various entomological varmints of Columbia County, New York. I set twelve bug bombs off around the house, then sat out in my car, like a nervous mother awaiting her child’s appendectomy. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and drove to Hudson to sneak into a local movieplex and catch the last heartwarming, heartstring-tugging minutes of “Radio.” Side note: did you know that Ed Harris was once my babysitter? His father managed my dad’s orchestra in Iowa. We played football with the Harris boys when I was barely old enough to carry the ball. How’s THAT for name-dropping?

Anyway, when I got back to the house, it was the insect equivalent of that dolly shot in “Gone With the Wind” when they pan over the Civil War wounded and dead. There were bugs on the floor that I have never seen, not even in textbooks. Thousands of ladybugs sputtered on the tile. In short, I think I murdered 45,000 of God’s creatures last night, just so I don’t get bit by another spider.

I was feeling a little guilty, I mean, I kinda like ladybugs. And then, in the shower tonight, I was lathering up, opened my eyes, and one little baby spider was hanging from a thread, right in the shower with me. We exchanged pleasantries, agreed on a truce, and she went back up into the ceiling.

Sometimes I get the feeling these blogs sound like I wrote them on an island, put them in a bottle and threw them to sea.

mazeltov

11-16-03

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We had the distinct pleasure of attending Virginia Heffernan and David Samuels’ wedding last night, held in the library of the Century Club under the watchful ghosts of Manhattan writers past; vast seas of books and peninsulas of candles surrounded them as they exchanged vows in perhaps the quickest wedding ceremony this young reporter has ever seen. Virginia looked beautiful, and David worked the crowd majestically, which was no mean feat, as many Big Names in the New York literati world were there.

We got to see old friends like Jim Surowiecki and E. Wurtzel, and new ones like Jodi K., the vivacious editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of our favorite local paper. I did my best to hold my end of the conversation, but five glasses of champagne had rendered me into Aging Fratboy™, so mostly I listened while my better half asked all the important questions.

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with Jodi and her husband Ron

Tessa and her friends Lorraine and Nell all wore bustiers, and were sporting enough cleavage to bring some welcomed raunch into the evening. Despite the erudite surroundings – or perhaps because of them – there was a lot of skin, some showing of panties, and conversations centering on general issues of prurience.

At some point, our friend Linda showed up with a pile of glow sticks and everyone tore into them, as the band worked the crowd into a crescendo. The busts of Greek scholars were all wreathed with glow beads, and the place began to rock – the Century Club hadn’t seen that much action since Plimpton breakdanced on the marble floor during the ’84 Book Fair.

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George Plimpton never breakdanced during the ’84 Book Fair

Oh, and to answer your question, fair reader: I wore my double-breasted zoot suit, purchased for $40 at a thrift store in Pittsboro, NC – the bowtie is the Skylark from the Bow Tie Club. I don’t care if I look like a drunk Southern lawyer, as god is my witness, I’m bringing the bow tie back!

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And congratulations to Virginia and David. The Year of Weddings has gone out in style.

horrfff

11/14/03

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Scotty and me, Times Square, 9:44pm

You can’t always get people to come out to Brooklyn, so I met Scotty in Times Square in time to see Master and Commander at the Mega-Dodeca-Googleplex on 42nd Street. That part of Manhattan is so profane, like a scene out of “Blade Runner” but not as interesting. Crews of German, Australian and Japanese tourists line up for abuse at the hands of ruthless middle-aged men hawking stereos jacked-up fifteen times the price at electronic stores; the Olive Garden on 45th St. routinely fires employees who don’t foist 1.5 bottles of awful wine per table.

Each network has their own 7-story television monitor piping the video feed over a vast sea of smelly, loud, arrogant people who never, as is the tradition in New York, look up. If your pockets aren’t zipped shut, you’ll return home without your wallet, keys, Palm, iPod and dignity.

After the movie, I got on the 2 train, ostensibly heading back to Brooklyn, not knowing the entire line is under construction. We were forced off the subway at the Atlantic Avenue station, which looks like the St. Marylebone barracks in London after the 1944 blitzkreig. Shrapnel is underfoot, wires hanging from the ceiling of underground caverns, with slick water sluicing off them into black puddles below.

I made my way down to the deepest level of the Atlantic station, three miles into the Earth’s crust, with barely any oxygen to breathe as I tried to find the Q line. Upon arriving at the platform, a cadre of hollow-eyed travelers looked up at me as though they had been waiting for the train since 1955. It was dead quiet, the kind of silence that severe ear infections bring.

I looked down into the well between the train tracks to see a river of stagnant brown water, lined with ancient bags, spittle, and decay. The putrescence wafted up as a family of rats darted through the water to the other side.

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In a fit of macabre hopelessness, I wanted to jump in and wallow in it, for this is one of The Worst Places in North America. I wanted to lie down in this filth, braise in it, just to see how long I’d last. A few more seconds thinking it, and I almost began to dry-heave on the platform.

I am going to drive upstate on Sunday, get out one of our Adirondack chairs, face the sun, and think of nothing.

fight for blue and white

11/12/03

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My exceptional nephew Sean Patrick wrote to me from his pad at the University of Iowa last night, saying that he was seriously thinking about transferring, and due to an undue amount of influence from his uncles (my brother Sean and I) he was leaning in the direction of our alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From his letter:

I want you to convince me, through whatever means you can, that UNC is the place that I should go to school. I’m sure you both have prepared rants on this topic, that is a given. Shit, if you want, email this challenge to your fellow UNC cronies and have them flood my inbox with pro-unc rants. Come on guys, you have been waiting for me to ask you this since I was old enough to ask why Eric Montross threw up so many bricks. Shit, the earliest memories I have of Ian is the trip we made to North Carolina when he showed up with Sergei the ferret and my brother punched him in the nuts. Punched Ian, not Sergei, I might add. I remember that on that trip you were already starting to indoctrinate me, so you have a head start.

Convincing people where to live is something I gave up in late 2001, since I found it to be way more about me than the person asking (or in most cases, not asking) my advice. I’ve always believed that whatever you do, it was what you were supposed to have done. I’m still trying to figure out why I moved to Los Angeles from 1997-2000, but I have faith I’ll figure it out eventually.

But mention UNC and I get irrational. Truly, the only reason I applied to North Carolina was because a guy at my prep school had a brochure about the school, the cover of which featured a guy and a girl holding hands in front of the Old Well, which looks something like this:

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watercolor by Sam Bissette

Dreamy-eyed, I knew I wanted that – whatever that was. I wanted to fall in love with a smart, pretty blonde girl who went to the University and take walks by the Old Well in the spring. This took 15 years to come true, but it did.

We were truly spoiled in my years at Carolina, so spoiled that a comparison probably isn’t apt. The sheer amount of talent walking through those hallowed halls in the late 80s and early 90s is downright confusing. In my fraternity alone, we had the eventual founder of the Motley Fool (David Gardner), director of “Bring it On” (Peyton Reed), a Saturday Night Live writer (Ali Farahnakian), a Broadway star (Fred Weller) and about 50 other people running the companies you use every day (oh, and Chip). I was in plays with Billy Crudup, Laurie Dhue, Laurel Holloman and Lindsay Bowen. Don’t even get me started on the Lab! Theater, as I have done so before.

Is the present cohort of Carolina grads as cool as we were? No idea. As many people have mentioned, it is not the place to go if you need to be told what to do: if you crave structure, you will drop out and sniff glue. However, if you want to create something huge on your own volition, there are 45 compatriots willing to help. It is easy to get B’s at Carolina, but almost impossible to get A’s, if that makes sense.

You can’t beat the environment. Close to both the ocean (a sprint down I-40) and the mountains (a jog the other way), autumn lasts a month longer, and spring arrives two months early. The female-to-male ratio is oft lamented by the fairer sex (3:2, I believe) but the omnipresence of easy intimacy actually allows for true, Platonic, satisfying relationships between men and women. In other words, when there’s so much random hooking-up to be had, you don’t hit on your actual friends. And yes, I realize I am the wrong person to be talking about this, but that was a long time ago and I’ve already apologized to most of you.

The student newspaper is the best in the country. If you get the classes you want, your professors will be at the top of their field. Your fellow classmates will be a mixture of redneck slobs who spill their spittle collection on your dorm rug, and rocket scientists who can diagram sub-atomic quarks: frequently, they will be the same person. You will see hordes of sorority girls singing “Thank God I’m A Chi O” while wearing straw hats, all of them blitzed on Jaegermeister. You will see the intricate step shows of the black student groups. You will no longer be in Kansas, or Iowa, anymore.

But should you transfer? In the end, all I can say is that it is ineffable. Everyone loves something about their college; my UVA friends tell wonderful stories, my UCLA friends wax nostalgia, I’ve even heard that some guy who went to Duke actually liked it. But Carolina fills me with good feeling. I came to the school a bespectacled dork who hadn’t even kissed a girl. I left with my virginity long gone, a cadre of 147 friends that I still have fourteen years later, an inner circle of Tessa ’91, Chip ’89, Jon ’89, Lindsay ’93, Dana ’94, Salem ’90, Bud ’93

In-Line Dimmers & Relay Modules!

11/10/03

I’m such a spasmodic technophile that I’ll drop any important project to obsess for hours over something that looks exciting and cool. Even though it’s been around for years, the X10 technology recently caught my eye, and I’m going to figure out how to use it.

For those of you who are already bored, X10 is basically the way a controller can talk to one of your home appliances over the existing wiring in your house. You set up some sort of base station – like a Mac computer – and make it tell your lights to go on and off, water your garden, activate a camera, fire up a Jacuzzi, turn on your stereo, whatever you want.

But get this – via the internet, you can control it anywhere in the world. I can sit here in Brooklyn and send an email to my Mac in Columbia County and say “turn on hallway light” and it does! With a pivoting camera, I can even make sure it happens. Since it’s internet-based, the system can know what the temperature is, and what time the sun is supposed to set, and act accordingly.

This is what I want to do: I want to go to Mombasa, Kenya, and send an email to my house that turns on my porch light in New York. You know why? BECAUSE I CAN, GODDAMN THE LOT OF YOU!

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I’ve heard the stories about X10, how certain appliances can make your lights come on in the middle of the night for no reason, how you need a bunch of filters and all that. But there is something so cool about that kind of automation, something House of the Future(tm) about it, that I want to go foraging through the technological underbrush and bring it to fruition.

I also like the Southwest Chicken Salad at Wendy’s.

I’m very, very lonely.

Oh, Big Daddy!

11/7/03

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Broadway and 45th Street

Because I am a bit of a neophyte when it comes to this “New York City” thing, I thought “off-Broadway” meant those theaters that were just off Broadway, you know, like on 45th Street near 8th Avenue. I thought “Broadway shows” had to actually be on Broadway. Boy is that wrong. “Off-Broadway” means “somewhere in Soho.” “Broadway” means “almost anything in midtown.”

I should write a book called “New York Late Bloomers” so none of you say the stupid things I’ve said.

Anyway, we saw “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” tonight, with Ashley Judd, Jason Patric and Ned Beatty. The reviews had been unkind to Ms. Judd, so I expected a debacle, but I thought she comported herself well. Ned Beatty, of course, was fabulous, but he’s been one of my favorite actors since he played Otis in the first “Superman” movie.

We’d come to see Michael Mastro and Amy Hohn as Gooper and Mae, and naturally, they oozed with humor and talent. Those two are the ultimate “working actors,” quietly turning in wonderful performances for years. Just so you can get them in your mind’s eye, Amy was in “Meet the Parents” as the airline attendant who spends five minutes typing in Ben Stiller’s request for a seat (she’s very funny). Michael was most recently one of the gay best friends of Helen, the object of affection in “Kissing Jessica Stein” (here’s a picture).

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Tessa, Amy and Michael backstage at the Music Box

After the show, we went to Joe Allen’s for a burger, which is one of the age-old traditions of Broadway. Sitting next to us was Al Pacino, who looked more like the Unabomber than a movie star, but he’s earned it, I guess.

When you’re inside Joe Allen’s, you can feel the euphoric, nervous tension of decades of theater ghosts. One tradition: back when the New York Times was printed in midtown, the actors, producers and director of any given play used to come to the restaurant after opening night. There they would wait for the NYT review to come out, no doubt plowing through three or four anxious martinis. Around one in the morning, someone with a paper, ink still wet from the press, would rush in � and the crowd would gather in hushed excitement. A rave meant they might be stars; a bad review meant they might be closing in two weeks. It must have been pure ecstasy in that restaurant when the critics glowed and the place exploded.

Now the Times is printed in Jersey and doesn’t get to the city until 5 in the morning. Most stars read their reviews on the internet at 3am, by themselves in the cool glow of a lonely screen. Nobody to share their excitement, or commiserate their defeat. The internet has been fantastic for many things, but not this.