Alexander Lutchek refused to be wet. This resolution passed through his mind as he stood outside the “Hot Yoga” studio on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. To those passing by, including the local artist, Thomas Brown (who would later that evening paint the most famous work of his life, Connecticut Clown), Lutchek presented a most incongruous figure. Six feet tall, decked in a bright green jacket and bearing several large and brightly wrapped Christmas presents, Lutchek was, despite his refusal, drenched to the skin. Until that moment Lutchek had been having one of his better days. The majority of the gifts that he had purchased for loved ones, near and far, were perfectly suited for their intended recipients. This made him happier. So much happier in fact that the co-occurrence of these events seemed numinous to him. Fundamentally, he felt, his very fate had changed. He had spent much of the day imagining these gifts being opened on a chilly Christmas morning, beneath a perfectly appointed and illuminated tree. Even though he would not be there, he foresaw how the gifts themselves would eagerly escape their wrapping, inhale the pine and roast-turkey scented air of their new home in a distant land. Mother. This joy he felt in being outside of his own preoccupations, the interminable imprisonment of his own mind, led perfectly to a mood that guaranteed the spiritual success of his evening yoga class. Like the dawn breaking across a large expanse of flat countryside, this feeling of oneness with the world, this happy conclusion that all-in-all, most was best throughout the commonwealth, began to call forth thoughts of New Year’s resolutions and various enterprises for self-improvement. “It’s a matter of style, it’s how you carry yourself,” he thought as he reached for the door. Everything would fall into place. And then, as he opened the front door of the studio, one of DC’s blond-haired, white-pearled, BMW-driving K Street lobbyists, summarily splashed the contents of the city’s largest pothole directly, completely, and exclusively on the person of Mr. Lutchek. As the smell of discarded cigarette butts, strip-club detergent and the rubber-residue of a thousand tyres journeyed up his nose, the elegant calligraphy of the notes he attached to each of his deftly wrapped presents, began to dissolve into illegible, blackrose murky inkblots. It was precisely this scene that Brown would hang in the nearby National Portrait Gallery the following summer. Though one of the gallery’s most regular visitors, Lutchek would never see this painting.
The deep red hue of the traffic light drove Alice Foley into the past. Ringless fingers tightened on the steering wheel. At the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and S Street NW she lay under the Christmas tree as a child. Staring into the multicolored lights, she enjoyed how each one in turn had the capacity to change her mood. The pink; all things sweet, an August pencil case. The green; mercurial and otherworldly, a Victorian bodice. The blue; cold and industrial, things that had to be done. The red; the warmth of her father’s face. She missed him then and missed him still. No man since had such a light. No man since had ever been able, even in the most intimate of ecstasies, to lessen her grip on that want. She saw her small hands on his face. Now those hands were long, the flesh looser again this year. She lost awareness of herself and where she actually was when she imagined hearing that key in the door, the inhalation of his lifting, the evening stubble on his face, the solidity of his embrace, the guarantee that he would always be there. She knew that she ought to be grateful to have friends that would invite her to their celebrations this year, as they had so many before. She saw herself, navigating around strangers as she filled her plate from the credenza. An insufficient man would again carve the turkey this year. She was never stuck for words. It was her profession. She would drink no more than two glasses of wine. How had it come to this? Her foot pressed on the accelerator, even before the light had turned. She saw the yoga-studio and the door opening. She accelerated rapidly towards the pothole. Her feelings likewise dashed faster than her ability to analyze or stop them. She found a forbidden peace in letting go. As the author, only I can tell you what she never will. Since her father’s death in the Vietnam War, she had, as so many of us do, sublimated and redirected her feelings into a determined work-ethic. This had served her well, materially, but as we can see from the above, there were obvious wounds left untended. She associated the yoga studio with a self-indulgence she claims to have never afforded herself. She had of course never been inside a yoga-studio. No. That’s not true. She had once, briefly, to convert a gift voucher she had been given into cash. In any case she considered such things affected, impractical “balderdash.” (Her father had never actually used that word). Beneath her indictment, lay a reluctance to turn inward to the things that sat waiting for her there, and beneath that reluctance a knowledge that she would remain forever staring at a stoplight until she did.
It was not gallantry that inspired Gabriel Guttman to let the blond-haired woman in the BMW into the lane before him. He loved BMW. As he watched the curved hips of the vehicle present themselves before him, he thought of how perfectly each component within performed its function. He relished thinking how the pistons moved cleanly in each cylinder, the timed ignition of the controlled explosion in each chamber. It was the precision, the order of it all, that drove his lust. It represented a predictability in the affairs of man, a deliverance from arbitrariness and compounded misfortune, that he reluctantly felt could only exist in the the north. That is why he left. That is why, for now, he filled potholes for the City. He reached into a small box beside him for one of the cookie rings that his son had made for him. It was an incredibly good cookie, crumbly but moist. He looked at it in his hand, disbelieving. He placed the remainder in his mouth. My son. There was a card at the bottom of the now empty box on which was written in precociously elegant hand; “Por Papa, Todo mi amor.” He gasped to stop himself from reacting in a way that would embarrass him. When he thought of Christmas he was filled with trepidation. He loved how the house would fill with his brothers and their wives and children. He loved how he and his brothers would tell the same stories they always told each other about the ridiculous excuses that they had invented on the spot as children to appease their angered German-immigrant father. ” . . . era el chupacabras” was the punch-line that could still bend them all over in tears of laughter after all these years. Gabriel knew his son was gay. And despite his wife’s suspicions, that much did not bother him. At least not as much as she thought. He knew to the extent that it did so, such feelings were merely a function of the world in which he had grown up. He knew that there was another world, the world that he wanted for his son, in which it didn’t matter. “The greatest artists of the world. . . Alexander the Great . . . ” he found himself rehearsing the defense. But he knew that with his brothers, this defense would be futile. He prayed that there would be no incident this year that would would cause his oldest brother to stare at him. But in truth, he didn’t care what he had to endure. He worried most of what his son would have to endure. And he knew that eventually his son would seek an end to the need for such endurance. He had watched others leave their families before. He sometimes saw men alone on Christmas Day in the city and thought that that must be why they were alone. Men without women. “Will I lose my son?” “Todo mi amor?” He reached for the clipboard beside him that listed a large pothole at the corner of Connecticut and S Street NW. As he turned on the emergency stop lights, he drew a line through this, the last job of the day. He was excited to imagine his key in the lock of the front door to his house, to anticipate feeling his daughter’s small hands on his face as he lifted her into the air. He shifted the gear into park. He stopped. Sat back in the seat of his truck. He caught his own eyes looking at him in the letterbox rear-view mirror. “I swear, I will never lose my son.” The BMW in front of him left skid-marks as it accelerated. Gabriel winced in anticipation. He heard the wheel of the BMW hit the edge of road. A large wave of water arched several feet into the air and soaked a man as he stepped onto the street. Gabriel felt guilty and sorry that he had not gotten here sooner. He thought the man looked like a type of clown. Drenched in bright colors.
I had lunch today at the Taj Mahal restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC. I love the Taj, even though it is not the best Indian restaurant in the city. Far from it in fact. My gratitude to the incredibly polite waitstaff chastens my descriptions. It may be sufficient, and sufficiently cryptic to say that any young man leaving the restaurant after a successful date should immediately marry the object of his affections. For the captivating charm of the Taj remains hidden to most. In short, it looks and feels like a hotel in Delhi in 1979. Or at least what I imagine such a place and time must have felt like. The timber laminate walls, the golden chandeliers, the red cloth napkins stuck in stout glasses. Its all so excellently retro, so precisely in accordance with my imagination. You’ve got to admire someone who stays out of the loop for so long that now they are back in it. Its a variety of chutzpah. It is perhaps odd for a non-Indian to say, or just odd to say, that the Taj to me feels gemütlich. Forgive me for reaching for words from foreign languages to adequately explain its poignancy, but English is simply insufficient to capture the meat of the matter. As I look around the second floor, my mind starts imagining the type of conversations that would have occurred in such a place at such a time; whispers of Kashmir, non-aligned nation foreign policy, third-path economic development, nationalization, the implications of Chinese-American detente, ridiculous eyewear. Despite the current much improved situation in India, the 70s in Delhi had their charm. I can say that with all the certainty of one who just arrived. Or maybe its just that looking back I know how things will turn out. Every hostage thinks of breakfast. There are not many places in America as honest and easily genuine as the Taj. Restaurateurs spend millions to convince me that I’m in an American steakhouse. I don’t think I say that just because I’m a foreigner in the US. I’ve been a foreigner in many countries and yet as such I’ve been blessed enough to feel the spirit of Japan’s ancient martial traditions in a kendo hall in Tokyo, the serenity of Thailand’s monasteries, the love of life in a Roman neighborhood, the bohemian carelessness of a Parisian dive. America is in such a rush that its ghosts can’t afford the rent. Ignorant reviewers describe the Taj as a dump. But there is a difference between a dump and a place of rest.
At the outset, it is worth mentioning that as I watched President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan tonight I realized that the luxury of not being governed by an idiot has yet to wear off. Obviously, the entire Iraq War has been a complete distraction from the efficient prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. On somewhat of an aside, I also appreciated Obama’s reference to Eishenhower’s principle that every issue of national policy must be placed in balance with every other issue. I thought his short-list of our present challenges as (1) the economy and (2) China, showed the proper focus, or at least one with which I agree.
Now with respect to Afghanistan, I see 2 challenges.
The first is the definition of success. In this speech Obama defined success as destroying Al Qaeda’s ability to act. He did not include in the definition of success building a vibrant and successful Afghanistan. That was wise. Although I am only half-way through Ahmed Rashid’s excellent book on the Taliban (Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia), I can already appreciate just how far behind Afghanistan is in terms of thinking of itself as a single nation and possessing national institutions that command the loyalty and support of the civilian population. The problem is whether you can quench Al Qaeda’s ability to operate and avoid having to suckle a fledgling Afghanistan. Didn’t Al Qaeda select Afghanistan precisely because it was unable to hold itself together? (By the way, there is no shortage of failed states, which has always led me to wonder why we define the theatres in the “War on Terror” with such a geographical emphasis). I agree no nation can afford to bankroll Afghanistan, especially the United States in its current condition. But the ability of Afghanistan to have a concept of itself as a multi-ethnic nation and rise up from the ashes of ethnic and tribal violence does not at this point look promising. There will have to be some nation-building, the question is how much time and how much money will it take to get to a critical mass that can effectively police disrupting influences like Al Qaeda.
The second issue is Pakistan. An Al Qaeda or Taliban leader watching tonight’s broadcast will probably go through the following considerations if he hasn’t done so already. An enlarged American force is on its way. The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to avoid all confrontations with a superior force and to instead wear that force down by hit and run tactics, draw it into situations where its size becomes a disadvantage and target its weaknesses. In his speech tonight Obama said that he would start pulling troops back from Afghanistan in 18 months. This weekend I briefly caught an interview with Reza Aslan who has written the book, How to Win A Cosmic War, God, Civilization and the The End of The War on Terror. He captures quite well the perspective that Islamist fundamentalists have of this conflict as one which they don’t see ending any time soon. So for them, it is a viable option to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, probably to Waziristan in Pakistan, wait there for 18 months and return once the Americans start to leave. The question then becomes whether Pakistan will attack them in Waziristan. Pakistan is an anemic state. Since partition it has failed to build up the type of democratic institutions that might have at this point afforded it greater economic growth, reduced poverty and inequality, rule of law, a military under civilian control and reduced corruption. It has none of these things so it has little ability to act. Pakistan is also disinclined to act because their number one priority is to counter their heightened sensitivity to Indian influence in Afghanistan. Given the precarious position in which Pakistan finds itself (specifically the the high water mark of concern re the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons during the Swat Valley insurgency) this obsession with India seems to me a poor choice of priorities. But Pakistan believes that the Americans are not in Afghanistan for the long haul. And they are right. So Pakistan sees the relationship between its security services and the Taliban as a potential pawn that they can use in a post-American Afghanistan to counter Indian influence in the region. If Pakistan does not prosecute the war on their side of the border Al Qaeda will not be neutralized in Afghanistan. They will merely move to Pakistan and lie low. Pakistan is key. And the key to Pakistan is India.