On the Value of a Private Life

The way I remember it, we were in a bar in the lower Haight, day drinking on Bloomsday. I was ribbing Chris about the time he spent reading literature.  I was young and at the height of my sanctimonious leftist phase. I think my argument probably went something like, “its bourgeois to spend time reading literature when you could be reading revolutionary theory”… or something like that.

Chris was a bit older than me, much smarter, and much, much more well-read. Being the good-natured friend he was, he didn’t just tell me to just fuck off. Instead he said something along the lines of, “there is value in having a private life, a life of ideas and art that exists outside the market and outside politics. There’s a value to reading something beautiful just because it’s beautiful”.

Now to you, that may seem obvious. But to me it was a revelation. And the older I get, and the more demands are put on my time, the more important it is to me to protect that space, to continue to have that private life.

For many people I know, reading and reflection, art and music, have become luxuries they no longer have the time for. If we read, we read the twitter comments on the book; or we 2x the audio book on our run. If we listen, we listen in the background, while chasing after our kids, or doing the dishes.

I’d argue that this is a mistake. That we (and by “we” I mean “I”) need to take back a bit of time for the private life. For pursuits of depth that do not appear to have any utility. I think they do have utility. I think their depth and their unmonetizable nature make them uniquely important, and I think they make us better humans.

I realize this is easier said than done. I realize I am no longer a 22-year-old kid in a bar in San Francisco.

You’re not either.

I also realize that, as a reasonably successful dude, it is easier for me to say this that it is for others. And I realize that I cannot let the pursuit of a private life put an unreasonable burden on those around me. My wife cannot be asked to mind our children while I disappear to learn Greek. But finding the moments for reflect, however brief, and putting in the effort, however modest, to remove oneself from the daily scrum, if only briefly, if only to engage with a poem for fifteen minutes before bed, is, I think, worth it and worth protecting.

Michel Foucault

Me (in just about a thousand words)

I was born into a middle class Irish American Catholic family in Bridgeport Connecticut in the 1970s. I grew up mainly in the small town of Rockville, Connecticut in a family with a mother, a father and two sisters. I wasn’t the best student in school, often bored and distracted. I was more interested in the reading and experiences I was having outside the schoolhouse than in it and it showed in my grades.

In high school, I was involved in the surprisingly robust punk rock scene developing around me, including contributing to various fanzines of pretty universally poor quality. The world of misfits, geniuses, self starters and weirdos that punk rock introduced me to changed my life and I cannot imagine where I would be without it.

Eventually, after barely graduating from high school, I moved to New York City. While in New York, I got involved in the club/rave scene then popular in the city, while maintaining many of my friends from the punk rock world. I lived first in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, then the Lower East Side and worked as a clerk in the now defunct Tower Books, an experience, which though I didn’t know it then, would be formative in my development. Books stores, and books, would become one of the central refrains of my life.

After about a year, I split New York, taking a bus to the Bay Area. I lived first in a ramshackle punk rock house on the Oakland Berkeley border working as a tele-fundraiser and house cleaner. Eventually, I moved to San Francisco, first in the Tenderloin, and then behind an anarchist bookstore in Haight Ashbury. I worked a number of not very good jobs including as a shipping clerk, truck loader and clerk in a book store (again, though this time in the famous Green Apple). I became very involved in left politics, joining the collective that ran Bound Together, an Anarchist bookstore. I was part of the team that established the Bay Area Anarchist Book fair and was involved in scores of demonstrations and actions. I was also deeply involved in the punk rock music scene, going to hundreds of shows and volunteering at the legendary punk rock music magazine MaximumRockNRoll first as a zine reviewer, and eventually as one of the “coordinators” of MRR, co-running the magazine for a bit more than two years.

Running MRR is one of my proudest accomplishments, and I wish I’d stayed longer. But love brought me back to New York City where I got another crap job (in a video duplication house) and immersed myself further in politics. I spent scores of nights in my twenties in meetings in activists spaces, apartments and cafes. I was one of the founders of Critical Resistance NYC, a prisoner rights organization and helped organized our conference at Columbia University. I also worked on immigrants’ rights and other issues for a number of different organizations.

Somewhere along the way, it began to dawn on me that I’d reached an end of sorts for what I could do, both professionally and intellectually, without a college degree. So I started attending Brooklyn College at night and on the weekends as part of a program for “returning students” (read, old people). At the same time, I was working in communications for the legendary impact litigation organization, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). At CCR I was lucky enough to work on a number of historic cases, including the defense of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other post-9/11 litigation.

I was inspired by the work being done by the litigators at CCR and as graduation approached (double major in economics and philosophy), I began applying to law schools, eventually being accepted at Georgetown. I left CCR, upended my life, and moved to D.C. Soon after arriving in D.C. a long term relationship ended and I began spending time with a gorgeous and brilliant New York transplant known around here as E. Someday, she’d be my wife.

In law school I focused my studies on so-called “corporate” law, taking advanced classes in taxation and corporations. I also started running regularly, something I still do today, despite being down-right terrible at it. I spent my first summer of law school working for a law firm in Cairo, Egypt, and my second with a law firm in D.C. which specialized in representing nonprofits.

After law school, I accepted a position with the D.C. firm while E moved to New York to begin work at her firm.  Six or so months of long distance relationship followed, during which I underwent a conversion to Judaism which is complicated and personal and hard to explain. Eventually, E and I got formally engaged and I moved back to New York, taking  a position as a staff attorney with the Fair Housing Justice Center, where we litigated cases of housing discrimination. Thereafter, I worked briefly at a boutique litigation law firm before returning to my area of passion – working for nonprofits. I now work as in-house general counsel for a large New York nonprofit. .

Professionally, I’m an expert in exempt organization law and am interested in the way our current political situation has lead to the rise of private governance, non-governmental actors, and changed the way we work (or if we do at all). Privately, I’ve continued my interests in all the random stuff you see around here – running and other endurance sports, reading, ancient history and thought, Judaism, mindfulness, health and nutrition, and whole bunch more.

What can I say? I contain multitudes.

Though I rarely write about it here, the most important pieces of my life are my family my wife, E , and our kids L born in December of 2013 and A born in May of 2016.

If you’d told 20 year old me splitting a room in punk house in Oakland that someday I’d be a lawyer, with a wife and two kids and a weird internet site where I wrote book reviews and stuff about running, I’d have thought you were crazy. Yet here we are.

When not blogging, running, or working, I carry small children on my shoulders.

1000 Little Memories: The Gamelan Player

New series of very short posts recounting specific moments in my life.

I was living at Post St. in San Francisco, a punk house of some renown. We had tons of people staying their all the time. Bands, friends, and friends of friends from around the world. There was one kid, a traveler type, beard, dreadlocks, back pack, who told me he was part of a train hopping gamelan group which would convene in random cities, create their instruments out of discarded materials, and give free concerts.

Today such a thing would have a facebook group and an instagram hashtag. But this was the 90s, and if it existed at all, its now lost to history.

Chance encounters like these are one of the few things I miss about living in over crowded punk houses.

See all the little memories here.

Lessons From Re-write

When my dad was a young reporter, he used to be a stringer for the New York tabloids. He’d work a story, get it down in his notebook and call it in, reading it (including all punctuation and paragraph breaks) to “rewrite” over the phone.

The first time he did this, he started reading his finely crafted magnum opus. Reaching the end of the first paragraph, he said “Period, graf”.

To which rewrite responded, “Period graf? Kid, that’s your whole story.”

I still live by this advice.

How I Read 52 Books A Year

My goal, every year, is to read 52 books. Here’s how I do it (as randomly illustrated with pictures from the Wire):

1. I prioritize reading books. I endeavor to read, at least for a couple of minutes, everyday. I’m lucky in that I live in New York City, and can read for about an hour to an hour and half every day on my commute. I also read every night before bed, while I wait in line, and anywhere else I can find the time.

But it’s not only that I prioritize reading, I prioritize reading books. I read only one magazine regularly (the New Yorker) and one newspaper (the New York Times) and even with those two, I am very selective in which article I read. It isn’t that the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, or the Economist aren’t doing great things – they are—but I’ve chosen to focus on the long form and that means choosing not to read things elsewhere.

2. I listen to books. This is probably the most “controversial” thing I do to get to 52 books a year. I run quite a bit and when I do so, I am almost always listening to an audio book. Some would say “this isn’t reading”, to which I respond, “whatever.”

I read for a number of different reasons. For information, for aesthetics, for pleasure, and for distraction. That means I read lots and lots of different kinds of books. Some lend themselves to the audio book format (I think memoirs and narrative nonfiction do well) and some (literary fiction) do not. The real talk is with two young children, I serious doubt I’d make it to 52 books a year without audiobooks, getting an audible account, and into audio books, was one of the best investment I made in my reading in years.

Here, take this.

3. I (try) to put the phone away and turn off the TV. I try my damnedest to not have my phone near me when I read. I don’t pull it out on the subway, and, lately, I’ve been making sure it is charging in another room when I crawl into bed with a book.

I struggle with this. Like many others, I am always wanting to be grabbing the phone to see what the president has done or how badly the Knicks have lost. But those quick fix news moments are fleeting, and I’m try (but often failing) to get at something a bit more substantive, which I find in books.

Similarly, I almost never watch television. This isn’t to say there isn’t great television out there, but with only so many hours in the day, it’s something I’ve scarified. I now watch television (a) if E (my wife) wants to or (b) if I’m on the treadmill. That’s it. Removing the television from your life gives you scores more hours for books, if that’s your thing.

All the pieces matter

4. I keep track. I have recorded in a series of notebooks every book I have read for the last twenty something years. I also have a google sheet I use to track my progress through the year, which automatically calculates how many books I need to read to read reach my total number goal, and my diversity goals.

This is some highly geeky stuff, but it helps keep me on track. I always know if I am ahead or behind in my reading, and I always know the rate at which I need to complete books to make the goal.

5. I juke the stats. If it’s December and I need to read eight books by the end of the month, I’m not above selecting books by their page count. You might think that’s crazy, and you’d be right. But here we are. I enjoy hitting the 52 book mark every year and if that means I need to focus on short works of literature here and there, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

 

1000 Little Memories: Here’s My Jimmy Breslin Story

Here’s my Jimmy Breslin story:

I was working at the Center for Constitutional Rights on a campaign to stop the price gouging of collect calls from prisoners and I was pitching every single columnist in New York City to cover our story.

The only person to call me back was Breslin.

I was at dinner at an Indian Restaurant when I got a call from an unknown number. I picked it up and the man on the other line said “Yeah is this Sean? This is Jimmy Breslin”
Having been raised by an old school Irish newspaper man, I about had a heart attack. I kept calm and pitched him. He was interested, so I gave him the background explaining the insane rates prisoner’s families pay for collect calls and what we were trying to do to stop it. I offered to put him in touch with a family member and he said something along the lines of “I’ll fight for these people, but Jesus, don’t make me talk to them.” He was a far from perfect man. He ended up quoting me, unfortunately. But he wrote about our campaign in his standard Breslin style — direct, passionate, pissed off — in his weekly Newsday column.

It was the first media hit the campaign got, and it made other journalists take us seriously. .

I left PR soon after that, my work complete.

Rest in peace, Jimmy. They really do not make them like you any more.

Here are all the rest of the little memories. 

I have No Taste: Thoughts on My Less Than Authoritative Book Reviews

There’s something ridiculous about these books reviews. They’re short, for one, and rarely contain any original insights. Indeed, for many of them (especially those dealing with classic works), they tell you next to nothing. My goals in writing them are, first, to force myself to articulate at least some thoughts about the books, even if those thoughts are not particularly original or insightful, and two, to perhaps give you a bit of flavor of what the book is about and whether you should spend your time reading it.

The reviews are all keyed with one of three ratings:

“Recommended” means that I think the book would be of interest to most readers – its something at least a little special.

“Recommended for the Enthusiast” means that if this is your jam (i.e. crime fiction, classical history) it will be of interest, but if this isn’t your section of the library, perhaps you should avoid it.

“Not Recommended”. means you shouldn’t waste your time.

Some caveats:

I have no taste. I read heaps of crime novels, spy novels, and science fiction novels. Some of which are real literature, some of which are page turning mind candy.

I also read widely in subjects in which I am not an expert. For example, I have lately been reading extensively in ancient history, but I have no academic background in classics.  Take everything here with the knowledge that I’m just a white dude from a small town in Connecticut who went to mediocre schools. There is nothing special or authoritative about my opinions.