Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Best Part of 50th Birthday Parties

My essay in the Connections column of The Boston Globe Magazine, October 16, 2016:

I’ve never been to a quinceanera — the traditional party given for 15-year-old girls as a sort of bat mitzvah/debutante/you-are-now-a-woman celebration popular in Latin America. However, I have recently been to several cincuentaneras (fetes for folks turning 50). And they are getting elaborate.
My sister’s 50th birthday party was a family reunion of sorts, with cousins arriving from all over the country. It was the first time we had all been together since an unexpected funeral; this was much more fun.
I realized the big-deal cincuentanera was a trend when I spoke to a woman who rendezvoused with seven of her childhood friends on a girls-only weekend out in Jackson, Wyoming. Read more

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Life as a Character

I thoroughly enjoyed Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth. In it, she tells the story of an extramarital affair and the blended family of six children that results. The stepsiblings mostly live on opposite coasts except for summer vacations when they become a tribe, wandering around the Virginia countryside.

Patchett’s books tend to be about groups of people who are thrown together and form a community -- her best-known work, Bel Canto, fits this description well -- but in this case, the bonding happens early and then we skip back and forth through time to see how deep and strong the connections between the siblings and stepsiblings are. I felt like I knew the characters so well that when I read, “Teresa had the feeling that if she lied about anything, Caroline would walk over and poke her in the stomach,” it made me laugh out loud, thinking, “That’s so Caroline!”

Very minor spoiler alert: “Commonwealth” turns out to be also the title of a book within the story. A critically acclaimed story of … a blended family of six children. There’s a weird meta-moment when I wondered if I was holding Commonwealth, “Commonwealth” or some hybrid of the two in my hands.

The internal book “Commonwealth” tells the story of a tragic event that is alluded to throughout Commonwealth. Naturally, family members are upset that their personal tragedy has become fodder for fiction, and eventually a movie adaptation.

That’s just the price you pay for knowing a writer, I thought. Because I’ve had that experience.


Kelly Link writes fantastical short stories. They are literary and full of odd turns, like villages that live in purses or girls who are so rich their parents buy them pyramids. Her latest book, Get In Trouble, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2016.

The first time I heard the name Kelly Link, I had drawn her name in the game Assassin. I was a freshman at Columbia College back when New York City was so scary and dangerous that no one would send their child there, so I had a chance at admission. For the game, I had three days to track Kelly down and shoot her with a plastic dart gun. I found her dorm room and had a brief glimpse of her before she hid inside a closet while her roommate shooed me out of the room.

The next year, we ended up living down the hall from each other and shared a dorm kitchen. Our junior year, Kelly studied abroad, and in our senior year, we hung out together a bit.

After college, however, our friendship bloomed, probably because we both liked writing and so we became regular correspondents back when people sent letters back and forth. (Funny, I don’t feel that old.)

When I started graduate school for art history at Harvard, Kelly was pursuing an MFA in writing in North Carolina. We would talk on the phone occasionally, and one day I called her up with a great idea. I knew she wrote odd, literary science fiction, and I had a great first line for a story for her: “Most of my friends are two-thirds water.”

Kelly ended up writing a story called “Most of My Friends are Two-Thirds Water.” That was not the first line of the story, but in it, an Asian character named Jak suggests that the sentence would make a good opening line.

[By the way, my Twitter handle is @jakcheng. Just saying.]

The next part of her story is adapted from something I told her about my life. I had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and took the subway home to Porter Square one night. The only other person in my train car was a young woman. We both got out at the same stop and went up the seemingly endless elevators up to street level.

This was right after I had moved from New York and I still had the impression that empty streets were dangerous. In a few more weeks I would figure out that empty streets in Cambridge are mostly just empty, but at the time, my urban paranoia antenna was on high alert.

So I kept this woman in sight. If I was going to be mugged, I wanted someone to hear my cries for help and fetch the police.

After a block of so, I suddenly realized that the woman seemed to be walking faster and that she was probably scared of me.

This was a little disconcerting.

I watched as she kept walking in the direction of my apartment building.

Not wanting to scare her, I changed my route. I took the shortcut that I never took at night, the one down the darker street where my roommate’s friend had been recently robbed.

A dog barked and lunged at me from behind a fence and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I hustled down the block.

Finally, I got to my well-lit street.

Somehow, the woman was there again. She turned and saw me, and ran. She must have already been moving fairly quickly because I had taken that shortcut and jogged half a block.

When she got to my apartment building, I could hardly believe the sight of her unlocking the lobby door. I walked slowly up the stairs and when I got to my floor, I heard the click of the door across the hall.

I had accidentally stalked a new neighbor.

Kelly thought this was hilarious, knowing me as a generally harmless individual.


In the next few years, Kelly moved to Somerville, and then I moved back to New York. Kelly wrote stories, and got them published, and some of them won prizes. She got a book contract. I was excited for her.

It was while we were both in the Boston area that she told me about this story that she had written. It would eventually be published in her first story collection Stranger Things Happen and she thought I should read it first.

Reading about yourself as a character in a story is an odd experience. I understand why Ann Patchett’s characters were upset.

After introducing the character of Jak, the narrator tells the story of how he accidentally followed a woman home. Wait, I thought, that’s my story. But… what was I going to do with it? In fact, the way Kelly wrote it, it sounded a lot less creepy than my telling it ever would.

There was more. Kelly wrote about my ex-girlfriend, and my working in Turkey as an archaeologist. Kelly wrote about how she chose to visit me the weekend my ex-girlfriend got married rather than go to the wedding; we got drunk together and watched the Princess Bride.

There was a lot that was true, but then there was a lot that was half-true. Like, the fact that Kelly brought her boyfriend with her the weekend of the ex’s wedding. In the story, the narrator lives with her dad, who has a great fondness for Jak; I don’t know her dad well, but have a great affection for Kelly’s mom.

And then there was the stuff that… I mentioned that Kelly writes odd stories, right? Well, in this one, Jak meets his neighbor, a blonde, and they fool around. It turns out that the blonde neighbor may be an alien.

I can neither confirm or deny this allegation.

There’s also a number of things that Kelly predicted with eerie specificity. She changed the location of Jak’s story to Manhattan and she describes the exact building I would later move into. She also predicted that I would marry a blonde (although, possibly other friends who knew my track record for dating could have predicted that).


This all happened years ago. The book was published in 2001, the year my wife and I married. I know my wife read a number of the stories in the book, but for some reason, I don’t remember ever talking to her about the story where I am a character. For some reason I felt a bit shy about it.

These days, I try to see Kelly when she’s in town. I don’t write many letters anymore, but I do hear from her on Twitter. One was in response to my rating her books on

In June, I wrote:

It’s fun thinking of myself as a character in a book. There’s a Will Ferrell movie with that premise called “Stranger Than Fiction” -- the title sounds so much like Stranger Things Happen that I’m afraid it’s actually about me and Kelly.

And then, last week, I got this Tweet from Kelly’s husband, Gavin Grant:

Wait, what?

Snap Judgment is an NPR podcast produced at WNYC. I thought it was sort of like The Moth with better production values and music, but apparently they do fictional stories, too.

Aside from the fact that the prose became a play, the characters became African-American. The alien neighbor is still a blonde, though, and is described as looking like Beyonce.

Listening to it was weird. I wrote to tell Gavin my reaction: “Like hearing someone else tell a dream you had.”

Or maybe it’s like a painting from a photocopy of a photograph taken long ago -- an Andy Warhol portrait. While listening to the story, I had a hard time concentrating, even as I traced details back to my own life, or Kelly’s story.

Honestly, it’s been two decades since that walk from the subway and the short story has been around for almost that long. Just reading the story I have to focus to separate my memory from the fiction, and the radio version holds up another lens to that.

I’ve heard recent brain science that tells us that memories are not storage banks; memories are stories we tell ourselves anew, each time we are “remembering.” When someone else tells your story more clearly, with more sympathy and warmth than you tell it yourself, is it any wonder that their version can seem more real?

But my wife doesn’t look like Beyonce.


I’ve written some fiction, never published.

I took classes and I read books about writing. One thing that became clear to me as I read and wrote is that every character comes from the author. Aspects that you hate about yourself may inform the villain, just as your best conceived self may be the hero. But even the sidekick, the bystander, the MacGuffin -- everyone is an aspect of the author.

That’s one reason I love Ann Patchett’s work. In her non-fiction, she makes clear that she has plenty of faults and has made many mistakes. In her novels, though, what appeals most to me is how kind she is to every character. They may be in conflict, they may make mistakes and blurt out secrets, but she understands each one, she knows why they act the way they do -- she knows why Caroline would poke an old lady in the stomach for lying. If they are all aspects of the author, then Ann Patchett is a well-adjusted human being who has learned to live with her own faults.

All characters are aspects of their authors. That’s the weird thing about Jak in “Most of My Friends…” He may have started out as me, but he’s not anymore. He’s part of Kelly. Maybe he’s what Kelly thought of me at that time, but even so, that could never really be me.

Jak has charisma. Kelly told me that after she turned the story in, one of her teachers wanted to meet me. I could only be a disappointment, I thought. I’m not sure the character Jak would have thought the same thing.


In Commonwealth, a movie is eventually made of the book “Commonwealth” and a trio of characters goes to the theater together. They don’t get through the whole screening before one of them shouts, “Enough,” and they evacuate.

Kelly didn’t use any of my stories that I considered secret, or personal or a tragedy. She told a funny story better than I could. I’ve always been kind of proud that I inspired that story in some way. I always tell myself it’s because I gave her the title, but it’s not. I mean, it’s not the words I gave her, it was because we were friends and I gave her some words. The act, not the object.

After seeing the movie version of their lives, the characters in Commonwealth decamp to the beach. “None of those people were us,” they reassure each other.

None of those people were us.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Reducing Waste Boosts the ‘Magic of Tidying Up’

Like everyone else we know, my wife and I have gotten hooked on Marie Kondo. But maybe we shouldn’t have.
After reading her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, we tidied up. We are frugal people and don’t accumulate that much stuff, but still we had many bags of old clothes, shoes and books that didn’t meet the criteria she sets for ownership: they no longer “sparked joy.” My hope, as I dropped them off at the United Way station at Rumford Recycling Depot, was that someone else could find some use for them.
As a frugal person, interested in ecology and decluttering the world, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Until this morning, when a hole in a pair of jeans widened. “I don’t love them anymore,” I thought to myself and was about to throw them away. It wouldn’t cost much to replace them, these days. We are lucky enough that buying a new pair doesn’t require much thought.
But then I started thinking about the environmental impact of a pair of jeans. Cotton is a thirsty crop, often grown with lots of pesticides. Outsourcing means that threads and fabrics and brass fasteners are shipped back and forth all over the world even before the finished product is shipped to my local store.
Some advice: Don’t Google “Carbon footprint jeans” unless you have some time to spare. Otherwise you may end up learning about why the Levi Strauss CEO never puts his jeans in a washing machine, that you can spend a lot of money on a pair of organic jeans, there are high carbon costs in just wearing jeans… you might be tempted to never wear pants again.
The truth is, while Marie Kondo’s philosophy may sound like a simple, eco-friendly lifestyle, anyone who has read the book understands that she is a consultant for clients in shopaholic, consumer obsessed Japan. Furthermore, not only are her consumerist clients desperate for her help, her methods really work best in a social situation where constant shopping is the norm. She advises, for example, never to keep those extra buttons that come with shirts — when you lose a button, that shirt has outlived its usefulness. In other words, chuck it and shop for new joy!
I’m happy that we’ve reclaimed a lot of space in our closets, and I’ve done my best to sort our items to places where they would be reused, if not recycled. However, it’s important to remember that the first “R” is the most ecologically significant: Reduce. We don’t need to acquire more stuff.
I hope Kondo’s readers are not throwing out old towels one day and then buying rags from Home Depot the next. Yes, Home Depot sells rags, but who am I to talk? I’ve spent money buying bags of rocks and dirt. (Although the best deal in town is free compost at Rumford. Free dirt!)
I guess I’ll just patch up my jeans and see how much longer they last. Although summer is here, so maybe I’ll take a 3 month moratorium from wearing pants.

This first appeared online on the Green Newton website.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Stranger Things have happened to my family

Our local NPR station, WBUR, has an "op-ed" type page on their website called "Cognoscenti." There's something I wrote about watching the Netflix series "Stranger Things" with my family:

Like many people, I indulged in nostalgia this summer watching the Netflix television series “Stranger Things.”
But not because of the content of the show.
For those who don’t know it, season one of “Stranger Things” consisted of eight episodes of about an hour each. The show follows the disappearance of a boy, the appearance of a girl, and some sort of monster prowling the woods. The cast can be grouped as the middle school kids, the teenagers and the adults. And all this is set in 1983.
But no, it wasn’t the show itself that made me nostalgic for my youth. It was how I watched it. Or rather, how we watched it.
The complete essay is here

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Why They Hate Us

After 9/11 there were numerous articles speculating on the motive of the terrorists whose suicide missions resulted in the deaths of thousands. Why do they hate us? a columnist would ask, and then the answer was often a variation of: they hate us because of our freedoms.

Maybe. Maybe it's more nuanced.

After the Orlando massacre (6/12) where a muslim American killed at least 50 people in a gay nightclub, I began to see the parallel strains of homophobia and Islamic extremism.

It's become almost a given, hasn't it, that the most homophobic people (men) are curious about the gay lifestyle? It started as a trope and then became a stereotype -- the kind of stereotype that persists because of a fundamental truth. For one obvious example, anti-gay Senator Larry Craig who was caught allegedly soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom. More examples are documented in Kirby Dick's film "Outrage."

This hypocritical homophobia seems to stem from frustration and self-hatred by men who are unable to express their sexuality and are enraged by seeing other men who are comfortable with themselves.

I've never understood the anti-gay marriage argument that same sex marriages would destroy "traditional marriage." I don't see how it changes my marriage one way or another, but perhaps closeted men and women see a problem if they might feel more empowered to dissolve a "traditional" marriage for something else.

At this moment, there is not much we know about Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter. The New York Times noted that his father noted the younger Mateen's homophobia. But Omar also allegedly called 911 to declare his allegiance to ISIS before his killing spree.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Political Theories

Here's my theory: Donald Trump got into the race as a lark, a marketing gimmick.

A lot of people have that theory. And of course he did better than expected, which was great for marketing and then people started effusively praising him which was great for his ego.

But now he's the presumptive Republican candidate and he has a problem. In the general election, he will either a) lose and become a "loser" like Romney and Bob Dole and that loser John McCain who allowed himself to be captured during war; or b) become president, a position that must look more daunting and hard to wrap your head around the closer you get to it.

Yes, I think Trump still doesn't actually want to be president. I mean, I'm sure he'd like to be president the way I would: be president for a day, with a congress that goes along with everything I say, pass three laws of meaning to me and then step down. But four years of actual presidency? And Trump doesn't like the GOP establishment, the kind of people who could actually supply him with cabinet secretaries and advisors to actually help him.

So here's the theory as of today. Trump doesn't want to be president and he's purposefully flaming out to try to avoid becoming the GOP candidate. Thus the remarks about impartial judges recently. He's trying to get fired before the GOP convention.

Here's another theory: if Trump is the GOP candidate, he will not win, but there could be a lot of trouble for Democrats in the near future.

I know that people say that Trump would motivate a Democratic base to vote down ballot for senators and representatives, but the other part of this is the GOP money machine. If Trump is the candidate, the Kochs and others will fund the billions of dollars they had ear-marked for this year into races for state houses and mayors and city councils. Those races don't make the news and people will be much more easily swayed by advertising dollars.

The problem then is that there will be incumbents leading up to 2020 and the next census. Then those state houses will redraw congressional districts and make more safe GOP seats meaning more extreme candidates from the right.

So, for the record, those are my theories of the moment. I hope some of them are wrong.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Why I Don't Love Captain America: Civil War

I took the kids (and some of their friends) to see Captain America: Civil War at 10:30am on Saturday morning the day after in opened. In other words, we have bought into the Disney/Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big way. (In contrast, when my son went to see Batman v Superman and asked if I wanted to come with, I passed.)

So, you think to yourself, the new Captain America movie didn't live up to your high expectations?

And the answer is no, I think it was quite good.

The trouble is, I came out of the theater feeling a bit assaulted (lots of punching -- superpunching) and, well, I couldn't quite remember what had just happened. I remember some great fight scenes, and some dramatic revelations, I loved the new characters introduced and I enjoyed seeing older characters again.

It took me a week, but I figured out what is bothering me: it's not a comic book.

Watching the movie reminded me of when I was 14 and collecting comics. My best friend Marcus was an X-men and Marvel collector and I was a Teen Titans/Justice League, DC collector. What allowed us to function this way was that I would go over to his house and read the latest Daredevil, or he would come to my house and see what was up with The Vigilante.

Every once in a while, there was a storyline that couldn't wait. We would sit in the mall outside the convenience store -- or sit on the subway home from the comic book store -- and open up the latest issue of the Judas Contract or Secret Wars and read it together. That first pass was just about inhaling plot, flipping those pages as fast as possible to get to the end of the issue before looking up at each other in amazement. Did that just happen?!

That's how the new Captain America movie felt -- did that just happen?!

But here's the thing about comic books: After that first quick pass, I would re-read the comic, reviewing the dialogue but also just devouring each panel with my eyes. The backgrounds, the facial features, the weird stylized illustration of a "Boom tube," the careful italicization of a single word in a dense Claremont word balloon... There was just so much to absorb.

Civil War was great and there was a lot to digest and I don't feel like I have fully absorbed it yet. I want to pore over sequences that happened quickly and think about characters and composition.

You may suppose that what I want is to watch the movie again, or to get a DVD that I could advance frame by frame.

Nah, I just want my son to be old enough that we could sit and have a soda and discuss the movie from beginning to end. He's almost there but he still gets a bit hung up on applying real science to these fantasies, and he's still more interested in spectacle than character. But he's getting there.

It's going to be great watching Avengers: Infinity War with him. Can't wait.