05 December 2013


I encountered my favorite smell again today.  I call it a smell because I can’t think of a better word for it, but it’s something you rather breathe than sniff; you feel it not in your nostrils but way back behind your nose, at the top of your throat, in the center of your head.  It’s wet, it’s rich, it’s slightly sweet and it’s somehow electric.  Maybe like some kind of fresh and elemental cigar.  Yes, there is a burnt quality to it, but it’s more charged than charred.  Again, electric.  Exhilarating.  Heady mystery, incomprehensible fullness.  Humid and electric and faintly sweet like the world just barely got done being made.

I found it while I ran along the Charles in fog so thick I had to stop twice to wipe it off my glasses.  A hint, a note, as I passed through the densest sliver of woods.  This smell is like a fairy godmother, cropping up from time to time in my life when I least expect it.  I remember it from when I was small and my mom put a humidifier in my room; from the foggiest day I ever experienced on my mission in Ciudad Evita; and most strongly from the tunnels of the Línea A in the Buenos Aires subway.  Maybe it crops up when I most need a confirmation of the world’s lush fathomlessness.  To be surprised by something familiar.

04 December 2013


In the fall, birds would hop and flit and perch on the branches not five feet in front of my face.  Bodies black, sprayed with white stars.  The interaction of sun and wing.  They gobbled the bright orange berries among the tree’s thinning, yellowing leaves.  They flashed and glinted and without warning launched themselves effortlessly, wings spread, out of the field of vision framed by my window.

The light goes early now.  Midday feels like afternoon; afternoon feels like dusk.  Night falls by five.  This morning two squirrels slalomed my tree’s bare branches, one black, one gray.  A solitary bird came by later, his feathers darker than I remembered, his beak half-dipped in ink.

29 August 2013

Notes from run along Charles, 29 August 2013.

Today the earth is made of Viking monosyllables: raw and wet and ripe and full.  The sky is gray and low and close, and the earth is raw and wet and ripe and full.

Today is just this side of the calm before some storm; the wind is gathering, pregnant with anticipation, electric with possibility.

Today is urgent, insistent.  There’s no time to lose.  The iron is hot.

Today, all of us -- rowers, runners, bus drivers, geese -- are conspiring to create the world.  We glance at each other with subtle, knowing smiles.  We barely hold back our laughter at the sheer delight and nerve of building something that no one will believe.

Today the brooding world is tight-wound, wire-taut, skin-tense; at any moment it bursts.

Keep your carefree, blue-skied, springtime afternoons.  Christ comes on a day like today.

19 August 2013


An ugly thing flew into my heart today and is trying to make its nest there. It found a tiny wound of rejection and solitude and started gnawing at it. It made a fire out of some resentment it had brought along; it threw fuel on the flame from my ample reserves of pride. Then it gathered up all the scraps of self-doubt lying around and nestled down cozily in them.

Go away, thing. Fly off, ugly dark thing.

02 June 2013


This is it; this word is it.  The keystone, the code, the fragment of DNA that maps the whole genome of Brazilian Portuguese.  Or at least the whole big space it occupies in my imagination. Spanish's mover is so torpid; its menear is even worse. I mean it's to Spanish speakers' great credit that they move at all (in fact I'm pretty sure they do, much better than English speakers, notwithstanding to move's relative gusto).  But mexer?  There's a word that does its job.  That subtlety.  That verve.  Imagine how the world could move with a verb like mexer.  Or maybe couldn't -- maybe God put mexer in Brazil because he knew that's where it would fulfill the measure of its creation.  Well, it worked.

Falsa Baiana by João Gilberto on Grooveshark

16 May 2013

John 5.

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.
I was running at night on the Watertown side of the Charles, along the stretch where the path nestles right up against the river.  As I ran I gradually became aware that the water in the shallows next to me was, well, troubled.  It wasn't noisy or predictable, but every so often some part of the still surface would betray an isolated burble.  I stopped, and walked down to the edge, and perched atop a rock that jutted out into the water, and watched.  And listened.  At intervals of 10 or 20 or 40 seconds, each time in a different place, the water would be ever so slightly broken.  Silent ripples would race around the surface, hinting at an abundance of movement I could only murkily perceive.  It seemed for all the world like the path of someone dancing in the air, with toes only occasionally grazing the water. I stared into the dark, hoping to catch a clear glimpse of the unseen mover.  No such luck.  Which was fortuitous, since I left there steeped in magic and contentment, knowing that some fish or some angel was having a ball.

15 May 2013


I just barely got back from a big, explosive, rumbly space blockbuster in IMAX 3D, shown in a theater attached to a furniture store which also features a trapeze school and human-sized flowers made out of jellybeans.  It was a blast.  It was a little stupefying to watch the credits roll the names of the thousands of people who helped craft that world.  They did a bang-up job -- it is a big, explosive, rumbly world.  I mean the flick was a total blast.

But there's more than one way to make a world.  Just listen to these three guys in these nine minutes.

Joy Spring by Oscar Peterson on Grooveshark

I spent as much time in this song today as I did in that movie.  Have you heard Herb Ellis do that thing that makes a guitar sound just like a sigh?  Have you heard Ray Brown treat every single quarter note like it's the loveliest woman on earth?  Have you heard Oscar Peterson growl?  Have you heard that groove??

That groove is a world.

25 April 2013

Is Kanye West an emissary from the future?

I'm wondering because on Jesus Walks (2003) he quotes his own future song Hey Mama (2005).  UNCANNY.



As always, Wikipedia destroys the mystery by informing that Hey Mama was actually recorded in 2000, citing an MTV interview.  Still, it strikes me as pretty ballsy to steal from one's own unreleased track.  I see it as a glimpse of Kanye's early clear view of the long game.  He lays it all out in that 2003 interview, which paints his ambitions as kind of adorable:  he "earnestly" says he'll follow up The College Dropout with Late Registration and then Graduation.  "Is this an overly optimistic projection of his hip-hop future?" asks the author.  "Maybe."

Nope.  It's fascinating and kind of disorienting to look at this snapshot of the pre-Kanye world.  Another anachronism is the reference to Yeezy's "typical disarming modesty."  The nuttiest part is that it backs up the claim with quotes which actually do exhibit disarming modesty.  "I gotta give myself the best chance because I don't really feel like I'm the best [rapper] out there."  With a decade's hindsight, it's easy to forget there was a time when KANYE WEST knew how to say things like that.  Who knows, maybe he is a time traveler, and in the future he went back to 2003 because he didn't like what he had become.  Maybe this time he'll figure out how to be happy and peaceful and fulfilled.  Only one way to find out.  Imma let him finish.

18 April 2013

Oh Maybellene.

Why can'tcha be true?

I wish I knew how to fix cars. I feel like in my dad’s generation, the minimum functional level of cultural savvy included the capacity to open up the hood of a car and poke around and pronounce casually authoritative assessments using words like “torque” and “gasket.” I can’t do that. I wouldn’t know a gasket if it punched me in the nose. Much less a torque.

I take solace in the observation that at least among my generation, I’m not alone. I don’t think the median twentysomething American knows much more about fixing a car than I do. And I blame the machines themselves. In 1959, when my dad was born, all cars had the same basic elements, and the way they interacted was transparent and reasonably intuitive. Not so now! Cars, like the rest of the world, are run by computers. I actually felt a stab of irreparable loss when I was listening to Car Talk a couple weeks ago and heard Tom and Ray mention “the computer.” I know, it’s the twenty-first century, and it’s their job to understand comprehensively whatever someone decides to put in a car. But it jarred. I don’t turn on NPR to hear Click and Clack talk about computers. I want to hear Carburetor and Spark Plug and Belts. I want to hear Gasket.

I mean the Gaskets are still there, of course. It’s just that they’re controlled by the computer. Okay, maybe the gaskets aren’t directly controlled by the computer -- I can’t actually say because I still don’t know what a gasket is -- the point is, fixing a car in 2013 requires some understanding of a computer. But the computer is made by a human, and I want to propose that what cars were to my dad’s generation, computers might be to mine. I don’t mean that we all have to be able to write machine code, any more than my dad’s generation was all professional mechanics. But I think today, cultural savvy increasingly requires familiarity with a basic toolbox that helps you bend computers to your will.

I’m late to the party. It took me a while to get excited about telling stories with numbers (there is another post to write about that). But lately I’ve been learning how to scrape screens and do some basic automation with Python, and it’s opened up a new world. Sure, real codeheads might guffaw at how infantile the stuff is that I’m getting excited about. (Although to their credit, I’ve found computer geeks in general to be indulgently supportive of humble outsiders who want to learn.) But that’s just my point: it’s not that hard to reach a level of basic conversance which, while not exhaustive, is still really useful. I can tell Python to go gather data for a paper I want to write, or tell it to email me when a band I care about is playing nearby.

This is empowering. Eisenhower’s interstate system opened up the country and helped create the abiding American myth of the Freedom of the Open Road -- and cars, as the vehicles for accessing that network, became the symbols of that freedom. As much as I hate to perpetuate a cliché as exhausted as the “information superhighway,” it’s really apt for this metaphor. The world’s data beckons, and the vehicle which now embodies the freedom of that network is code.

I’m making a comparison, not drawing equivalencies. Until I can sit at my keyboard and feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my gangster-leaning arm -- as I listen to some artist who does for the Internet what Chuck Berry did for the Interstate -- I’m not going to pretend it’s an unambiguous step forward for humanity. But it’s pretty cool to be able to tell a computer to download all the data from a government website, crawl through it, and tell you the parts you care about. Or write a script for a game of Battleship! Who knows; maybe within another generation computers will get so complex that, like cars, they will become the exclusive realm of specialists. Like Chuck Berry, we live in a time when amateurs can still customize their own machines as an expression of personality and independence and creativity. Let’s do it, amateurs.

17 April 2013

On the sunny side of the street.

On the Sunny Side of the Street by Ella Fitzgerald on Grooveshark

One of the thousand independently sufficient reasons to live this life must be its constant newness.  That's got to be near the top of the list.  Even its oldness can be new.  I've been hearing jazz for 26 years, and somehow I never noticed this glowing old standard -- copyright 1930 -- until this week.  I know the words sound saccharine.  But there is depth to it.  Listen: some of the turns in those chords describe pangs of sharp melancholy.  Ah! those first bars of every chorus, that I III7 IVM7 VII7 vi. Remembering hopelessness, yearning for present joys to stay, accepting that times will be dark again, and that they'll be good again, but they'll never be quite the same flavor of good, and ultimately celebrating the gift of this day along with a touch of lament at its passing.  THAT is what that I III7 IVM7 VII7 vi says; that's why the song can be taken seriously.  It is triumphant and optimistic.  But it has been around the block.  It knows whereof it speaks.

I must have listened to this song a hundred times this week.  There are lots of wonderful recordings of it by different folks; I've picked the incomparable Ella.

16 April 2013

On darkness and storytelling.

I keep thinking of this piece, Leap, by Brian Doyle.  And of his premise -- our premise, right? -- that we doggedly persist in the face of cowardice by knowing and telling and breathing our loved ones' stories.  Our stories.

Of course it's too soon to know what this thing means, or how we'll look back on it, or what should have been clear.  What there is now, as near as I can tell, is confusion, compassion, and some pretty incredible stories of grace under duress, including some from my friends, who were there.  Also little declarations of stubborn solidarity from New Yorkers, bless them.  I don't know how to deal with loss.  I don't know what to say to those coping with loss right now.  But we can tell stories.

03 April 2013

Meine Schwester.

Anne LaMyrl Sandholtz, as anyone who knows her can tell you, is brilliant, compassionate, thoughtful, creative, articulate, curious -- she is, ahem, literally a peach. She is also my sister. She is also Jesus’ sister, and will be spending the next year and a half telling everything she knows about him to anyone in Portugal who will listen. This project is bound to produce stories hilarious and life-affirming and heart-wrenching and true. She has promised to tell us about them in her letters, which will be posted on her blog, which I recommend to you, gentle reader:

Hurrah for Israel.

25 March 2013


Somethign in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover.
Somethign in the way she woo-ooos me.
Weird song, right?  I don't even know how to pronounce the words in that song.  There's probably a reason George Harrison didn't write that song.  I bet part of the reason is that he was writing with a calligraphy brush on some kind of a vedic parchment at a monastery in Dharamsala instead of typing on a laptop.  All I know is, if it had been twenty-first century Wayne typing that song on a laptop, it would have come out "Somethign" the first seventeen tries.   Guaranteed.

I'm a Millenial, or whatever they're calling my generation; I mean I've been typing on computers since AIM was The Thing.  But somehow there are still words I use all the time that my fingers stubbornly will not learn how to type.  Maybe these words actually mean sometihng[SIC!].  Maybe there are subatomic particles out there called questinos and informatinos, just dying to make themselves known by shooting out of my typing fingertips.  Maybe wtih was a conjunction favored by Shakespeare before the rule-bound grammarians in the 18th century legislated it out of existence and history.  Governmnet, I'm convinced, is a euphemistic profanity employed by libertarians, along with its close cousins governemnt and governmetn.  (Governmetn's great, actually -- I may follow the libertarians on that one.)  What all these words have in common is that they have valiantly resisted the most dogged attempts to eradicate them from my first-draft prose.

I twice heard Brian Doyle say, If you want to be a writer, learn how to type.  Mr. Doyle, I'm trying so hard.

27 February 2013

Time travel.

Hell, I'm convinced, is not a physical place.  It is a customer service hotline.

The vein-throbbingly maddening call I made to my mobile carrier today was the culmination of a series of vein-throbblingly maddening interactions I had with various customer service representatives over the last few weeks.  This must be part of phone companies' strategy -- each employee is trained to mislead you in a different way, and to inform you that whatever the previous employee told you was wrong.  As the wrong turns build up and twist in on themselves, they constitute a labyrinth of policies and fine print and exceptions, and as you try to explain your way through it to the representative on the other end of the line, you feel like a mental patient, and decide to cut your losses and hang up before you lose what little sanity you have left.  They're dastardly.  Their schemes are masterly.

But today I made it past that threshold, out into the insane realm on the other side.  Throwing prudence to the wind, I stayed on the line, using stronger and stronger profanities until I was transferred to "John".  And then a miracle happened.  John listened.  John responded.  As I carefully walked John back along the convoluted trail of bread crumbs detailing my blind struggle against the customer service hydra, one fee after another fell away like scales from my eyes.  It felt good.  A past-due bill of $121.60 became (over the course of 29 minutes and many soothing, faintly accent-inflected words from John) a non-past-due bill of $38.

By the end of the call, I was brimming with such gratitude that I had to know more about my angelic benefactor.  I asked John where he was from.

John: "To be honest, we're in a different century."

me: "You're in a different century??"
John: "Yes, a different century.  We're in the Philippines."

I told him he had excellent English (which had been emphatically true for the first 28 minutes of our conversation), hung up, and praised God.

19 February 2013

Spit and sweat.

My shoes are still squelching, my hair is still sopping, Rooney’s earnest, hormonal guitar riffs still jangle in my ears. I just got back from another running date with the river in the rain at night, and before anything else I just have to record that the alluvial world is rich and fertile and wet and just lends itself to being alive in. Being alive in it, in fact, feels great.

30 January 2013

Put the ghost in my sail.

Here's one of the days when happy endings seem like a foregone conclusion.  The ice is breaking up over the Charles in gorgeous fractals.  Café Pamplona serves Spanish tortilla.  Brainy youths walk around talking to each other about Hebrew and Math and the Baldini sisters, one of whom butchers fish for Legal -- that was the exact word this youth used, who I overheard talking about the Baldini sisters.

Do you love Boston, I was asked recently.  I hemmed, I hawed, and I answered that I like it.  I like it more and more, such that falling in love seems likely but not certain.  Today, though, I've been lofted by a potent gale of breathtaking infatuation, to which the L-bomb seems the only possible response.  Love.  There, Boston, I said it.  Love love love love love love.  And I mean it.  

Here's one of the days when everyone I meet seems brave and beautiful.  I know a girl who loves Boston so much she wants to have twin girls so she can name them Wellesley and Waverley.  Okay, let's not get carried away, but still: the immutable fact is that it's 60 degrees in Boston on 30 January 2013.  Did you hear that?  Twenty thirteen.  I know it's arbitrary, but this year has a different air than the one I just lived in, a different smell.  It fits better in the sleeves and in the shoulders.  There is a manageable number of people who I know well enough to learn, say, what they want to name their twin girls.  Gentle reader, I'm naming mine Georgia and Wren.  People are good.  Christ plays in ten thousand places.  Here's one of the days when the world begins.