Archive for the ‘Yorkville High Street’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Giving Thanks
24 November 2011

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

At breakfast this morning, a Danish gentleman told me, in lightly-accented English, that he had only just learned that today is “a holiday for you.” “That’s why we’re here,” I said. “You’ll get to experience the meal — the turkey and trimmings — but you’ll be spared the rest of it.” The ‘rest of it’ is the folly of bringing a lot of people who have “history” and “issues” with each other together, on one special day, for the sake of playing “Family.”

But that’s not, in fact, why we’re here. We’re here, actually, to avoid the meal. Neither Kathleen nor I can look back on years of horrible Thanksgiving holidays. Dull they might sometimes have been, but never actually unpleasant. (Except, arguably, during my adolescence, when I was militantly unpleasant to everyone.) What seduced us into bailing for Thanksgiving, ten years or so ago, was the difficulty of deciding whether to have our own dinner for eight or ten (once, in our country house, we seated sixteen), or whether to accept an invitation to partake of someone else’s feast, and, if so, which one. We share a deep dislike of the traditional Thanksgiving menu — all of it. (Except for cranberries, which we enjoy throughout the colder months.) A good turkey is like a walking dog — impressive, but absolutely a lot less delicious than a good chicken.

Which reminds me of the experience that Kathleen and I had, in 2003, of Thanksgiving at Taillevent, the celebrated restaurant in Paris. Read the story here; it won’t take long. I was telling it to Ray Soleil the other day — for one reason or another, he had never heard it before — and he quickly showed me that I hadn’t understood what was going on before my very eyes! The big table with only two diners! (What big table, you ask! It’s proof that I didn’t understand the story when I wrote it down, two years later! Surely the strangest part of the story — two people seated at a table for eight, in perhaps the most exclusive eatery in town — got left out of my account because it didn’t seem integral!) An entire turkey, from which only a few slices of breast were removed! Well, said Ray — and I couldn’t believe that this had never occurred to Kathleen or to me — the older guy had clearly invited his family, or some other group of intimates, to meet his new girlfriend, and had decided to egg the lark (so to speak) by offering a custom-devised American Thanksgiving menu to his French relations. Being French, they stood him up, presumably too late for him to cancel the shindig. What bravado it must have called for, to go on with the show! No wonder the waiter who murmured, “Non, monsieur, he is not American,” seemed so shocked.  

Aside from that dinner, and an opulent lunch at La Grande Cascade in the Bois de Boulogne that also yielded some amusing anecdotes, Paris did not have much to offer in the month of November beyond some very gloomy weather, and the idea of spending Thanksgivings in Paris was dropped. For a few years, we went to Dorado Beach, in Puerto Rico, and then, in 2006, after that resort was turned into a golf condominium, we came here, and we have come back every year save one.

I give thanks for the love and companionship of my wife, for the luck of having a lovely family and many wonderful friends, and, if not for good health, exactly, then for the medical resources that allow me to simulate it. I give thanks for a mind that has given me more pleasure, and made the world a more interesting place for me, year after year. I give thanks for all of that every day, and today as well.

Today, I offer special thanks that I don’t have to eat turkey.

***

So, at lunch (fried chicken), there were these attractive ladies of a certain age (plus ten) sitting at the next table, over Kathleen’s shoulder. There was something about the one who wasn’t wearing a floppy hat that caught my eye. Then held it. The hair above her forehead had been colored in bands. A little “natural” (brown, but certainly just as dyed as the rest) and then a little “blonde.” Bands about a half-inch wide receded from her brow. When I finally managed to get Kathleen to take a look (without gaping), I was shocked to hear that this is a style that Kathleen has seen in the magazines lately, but not in person. So it must be very, very stylish. It is also very, very ridiculous, and I call it the “Ruth Madoff.”

***

You will pity me when I say that I was doing laundry on Thanksgiving, but don’t; the laundry room here is quiet and very cold. There was nobody but me, and plenty of room to lay out the Pléiade edition of Flaubert’s Oevre I (dont Madame Bovary), so that I could go back and forth. I’m not reading everything in the original, but just the passages (of which there are plenty) that strike my curiosity. How did Flaubert say that? Sometimes — rarely; let’s get real — I think that Lydia Davis might have handled things better, but mostly I’m just quietly amused by the difference between the two languages, and in one instance I stumbled upon an utterly untranslatable joke.

Charles Bovary, the dolt, has jumped on Rodolph Boulanger’s offer of a horse for exercise.

“Why won’t you accept Monsieur Boulanger’s suggestions? He’s being so gracious.”

She looked cross, contemplated a dozen excuses, and finally declared that it might seem strange.

“Well, I really don’t care!” said Charles, turning on his heel. “Health comes first. You’re quite wrong.”

“Well, how do you expect me to go riding, if I don’t have a riding habit?”

“You must order one,” he answered.

The riding habit decided her.

Of course it would. Although Emma’s carnal attraction to Rodolphe is quite genuine, it is the offer of a new suit of clothes — it would be a pair of Christian Louboutins in our day, or really any old bag from Hermès — that induces her to cross an otherwise well-policed border between propriety and im-. Emma’s a material girl, all right — in two ways at once. Flaubert’s mockery is both delicious and stunningly cruel; we can see, perhaps, why the initial installments of the book in the Revue de Paris prompted the public prosecutor to seek prior restraint. The information that it was the offer of a riding habit that decided Emma Bovary to put herself in the path of almost certain adultery is a secret that nobody really has the right to know, not, certainly, in the real world. There is a tremendous violation of privacy here. That’s what novels are for, you might say. And, if you did, you might begin to understand why there was so much resistance, in the Nineteenth Century, to the reading of novels. I had to know what “riding habit” was in French, and here’s the great joke: it’s amazone.

L’amazone la décida.

I have no idea if Flaubert’s term was facetious or slangy, or if it is really what equestrians of the day ordinarily called a riding habit for women. I’ll look into that later. But presumably the term was readily comprehensible when the book was published; Flaubert didn’t expect readers to tap their neighbors and ask “what’s an amazone, eh?” The joke is that Amazons are, if not virgins, then certainly women who prefer to avoid the company of men. An ironic vestment for Emma Bovary! And an untranslatable  bon mot.

Gotham Diary:
Aperture
21 October 2011

Friday, October 21st, 2011

As a rule, I don’t say much about the photographs in these daily entries, but I intended to explain yesterday’s, because I think it’s pretty desperate to run photographs of your own living room for no rhyme or reason. I mean, get a life! But yesterday’s snap was not your your ordinary point-and-shoot-your-standards-in-the-head. It reflects an entirely different kind of panic.

On Wednesday afternoon, during very rough weather through which Kathleen had to fly home from Washington, I was feeling unsettled, to put it mildly, a few hours after she had sent me an email from the runway. I was answering a letter to my friend JR in Paris when the anxiety got hormonal. I had been writing to JR to apologize for, or perhaps to whine about, my failure to make good use of the capabilities of my rather dandy little camera, the widely-admired Canon S95. I had never taught myself, for example, how to control the aperture and the shutter speed in order to take a better photograph than the automatic settings would produce. So here I was, feeling bad about two things, and it hit me that I could something about one of them.

I mounted the camera on the tripod and got out Dennis Curtin’s (rather maddeningly organized) Short Courst in Canon PowerShot S95 Photography, which I’ve mentioned here before. In no time at all, I was twiddling the Control Dial and twirling the Control Ring, and observing the results right on the viewing screen — something that you couldn’t do, of course, in the old days in the days when film cameras were innocent of digital technology. It would be an exaggeration to say that I “familiarized” myself with the camera; I’ll almost certainly have to reach for the Short Course next time I want to do more than take a picture off the top of my head. But it was very nice to see an interior shot, taken without a flash, that did not render lampshades as pulsing plasmas. I know that, to take good interior shots without a flash, you need a bit of indirect lighting, usually provided by spots on tripods diffused by umbrellas, and now I’m more determined than ever to provide myself the appropriate gear.

Kathleen called before I’d loaded the images onto the computer. Meanwhile, yesterday

There is still much to be learned, but not by Ray Soleil, who managed to mount the floating shelves and to hang the Blondel prints on our recalcitrant walls.

Gotham Diary:
Erythromycin
7 October 2011

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Why am I so tired? I’m ao drowsy and lackluster that I can’t think why I should be so tired. I can’t think,. Then I remember that I forgot to take a pill. I’m on a course of antibiotics, to clear up a patch of infected skin. I take the pill, and my mind curls up like an old dog by the fire.  

But first, I have a banana, so that there is something in my stomach, and that gets me to thinking about bananas, which, I read the other day, come naturally equipped with seeds the size of small stones. We don’t see naturally equipped bananas up here, of course; we see bunches of an asexual cultivar called the Cavendish, I believe, that has fallen victim to a blight in Central America, where most bananas are grown. We don’t see the blighted bananas, either. We see more expensive bananas, although I haven’t been paying attention to that. I have dropped the habit of starting the day with a banana, just as I’ve given up reading the Times first thing. Writing here is what I do first thing now, and then I have a bowl of Grape Nuts, or an English muffin with marmalade (not butter). By eleven, I’m starving again, and it only occurred to me the other day why this is the case. Thanks to Lunesta, I’ve been drinking about half as much wine as I was going through before the sleeping pill, and my body still craves those calories. I have to tell myself that the hunger is “simulated.” My stomach is not in pain. I am in pain. And I have to soldier through it. Happily, the hunger is unaccompanied by appetite; there’s nothing that I particularly want to eat. As with antibiotics, I find it difficult to think straight during these hunger pangs.

After the movies this morning (I plan to see The Ides of March, even though Anthony Lane found it disappointing), I hope to write a few more words about Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, with a view to composing a new page for Civil Pleasures. That is what I would like to do with my afternoon. Let’s see if I have my way, he said, envying Geroge I, whose biography he is almost done with, and who didn’t always have his own way, either, especially in his favorite field, which was foreign affairs — speaking of which, why weren’t we taught about the Great Northern War (1700-1721) in school, at all?

 

Gotham Diary:
The Servant Problem
4 October 2011

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Every dinner party teaches me something. This soup would be improved by a different blend of herbs; that roast might spend a little less time in the oven. Most of these lessons are lost, however, because time passes before I make this soup or that roast again. (I have two almost exclusive culinary repertoires, one for dinners for two or three, served in an “everyday” style, and another for dinner parties.) If I’m very pleased with something that I’ve done, or feeling unusually diligent, I may make a few notes the morning after. I write them down on paper, but I might as well write on the wind, because who knows where those notes go. At least I’ve learned not to keep them in a computer file!

Last Saturday night was different. What it had to teach me had nothing to do with the food, and it cried out for immediate implementation. As Eddie Monsoon put it, “Surfaces, darling.” I needed to clear off the kitchen’s surfaces. Of which there aren’t all that many.

The surfaces in my life, in and out of the kitchen alike, tend to fall victim to a powerful combination of laziness and orderliness. Instead of taking the trouble to put things back where they belong after I’ve used them, I arrange them neatly where they are, out in the open. How handy is that! No need to hunt down the farfalle; the canister holding them is right there on the rolling cart. Along with dozens of other items, just waiting for me to need them — when what I really need is somewhere to put a casserole that I’ve just taken out of a hot oven. Somewhere to place a cutting board so that I can chop up something that I forgot about until late in the game. Somewhere to line up plates for serving. The convenience of having things neatly to hand clashes with the imperative of finding urgently-needed work space.

I feel awfully old for this lesson in domestic entropy; I really ought to know better. But part of me still believes that, once you’ve organized a drawer, you’re done. That’s taken care of. Two years later, the drawer is a mess, and you can’t find anything that you’re looking for; sooner or later, you organize it once again and fall for the same pipe dream: that’s taken care of. Nothing in domestic life is ever taken care of, except maybe for ten minutes — and anything that is taken care of, anything that sits quietly and undisturbed for years at a stretch is undoubtedly something that you don’t really need. (Holding on to things for sentimental reasons is an entirely different pathology.) The trick of household management is to keep things in order before they get too far out of it.

The sad fact of the matter is that I would not hire me as a servant. I would not give me good references. I’m only good at being the master.

I did, however, clear off the kitchen surfaces yesterday. It didn’t take as long as I feared, although, technically, the job isn’t done yet; I’ve still got six clean and empty apothecary jars, one tall and five short, that I’ve got to store somewhere. Maybe I should just toss them. Apothecary jars are a problem for me, as are canisters generally; it has taken years to distinguish what I can store in them for reasonable amounts of time from what I can only entomb. Into the former class fall common baking ingredients, such as flour and sugar, and four or five kinds of pasta that I cook all the time. Into the latter fall nuts and dried fruit and crystallized ginger unusual pasta shapes that I don’t know why I bought. Strange crackers. Chocolate chips.

(A “universal truth” along the lines of “the check is in the mail”: “This will come in handy someday.” Let me tell you what will come in handy someday — each and every day: having Fairway across the street.)

In any case, I’m ready for my next, as yet unscheduled, dinner party. My surfaces are clear. Now they are. Can I keep them that way?

Gotham Diary:
Satire
29 September 2011

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Bay scallops for dinner last night. Once again, I couldn’t get them to brown — could this be the overcrowding in the pan that Julia Child warns about? — but they were tender and delicious, and we gobbled up every one of them.

Whatever we do tonight, I won’t be cooking. This evening promises to be interesting, especially given the lousy weather that’s forecast. In the earlier part, I’ll babysit with Will as usual, so that his parents can have dinner by themselves. Then I’ll head to Kitano, a restaurant bar in Murray Hill, for Chip White’s second set. We know Chip through one of Kathleen’s Brearley classmates, who met him when she ran her own jazz CD label. It’s precisely because we do know Chip, who’s a very nice guy, that we don’t make more of an effort to show up for his gigs. I know exactly what he must feel, because I feel when friends ask me what’s new, and I’ve just written it all out here. So I’ve booked a table for two, and Kathleen will meet me there. Another late night, but well worth it. Such, in any case, is the plan.

Waiting for the dermatologist in her examining room yesterday morning, I glanced through Bookforum and came across Rhonda Lieberman’s rave review of Helen DeWitt’s new novel, Lightning Rods. Did you read The Last Samurai, DeWitt’s widely-praised novel of umpteen years ago (“a hundred years ago,” I said to Kathleen, and, taking me literally, she was very surprised to hear that there was a new book)? I did, and I remember some of it — in particular, the riding round the Underground with the prodigiously gifted kid — but I don’t think that I got it. But I was ready to give DeWitt another chance, especially after I stumbled upon her very occasionally updated Web log, paperpools. Lieberman’s enthusiasm was so infectious that I whipped out my cellphone and called Crawford Doyle. They had a copy, and I picked it up after lunch. I can tell you that Lightning Rods is very funny, but that is all that I can tell you right now,  as I am only on page 4. Also the plot is highly salacious. Go ask your father.

***

Actually, the plot of Lightning Rods is hardly salacious. There’s very little in the way of carnal congress, and almost all of it is cloaked in the zippy euphemisms of a golf tutorial.

And then he thought Well, since it’s there.

So he set aside his skepticism for the moment and availed himself of the facility. It was quite a strange experience in some ways. Still, it was enjoyable enough for what it was.

Anyway, almost straight away he noticed that he was experiencing an unusual sense of well-being. …

I’ll have to read this book several times, I’m afraid, to tease out the qualities of its prose that make Lightning Rods so funny. The idea is outrageous, but it’s the writing that keeps you going. The tone of voice is so capable, confident, and easygoing that you don’t actually sense its stunted depravity. Not for an instant does Helen DeWitt abandon the tone of a self-help guru admonishing a would-be salesman not to be too hard on himself, a writerly disicpline that makes reading the book as warm and cuddly as DeWitt’s satire is icy and bleak. When you read on the dust jacket that the novelist lives in Berlin, you wonder if that’s far enough from America for her comfort.

It’s the language that is her target. I don’t that DeWitt has anything against commerce per se; in fact, commerce doesn’t really figure much more than sex. Every now and then, somebody types a memo or sends a fax, but, for a novel spoofing office life, we spend very little time among the cubicles. It’s unclear what lines of business the companies are in — the companies other than the one that shares its name (officially?) with the title. Lightning Rods, the company, is in the business of preventing sexual harrassment litigation; let’s just put it that way, and its deployment of “bifunctional” temp workers and specially fitted lavatories would stale as quickly as an undergraduate prank did not DeWitt’s prop it up with an unrelenting command of the patois of motivational self-forgiveness. 

If you ask most people what’s the hardest thing about being a salesman, they will usually say the rejection. “People always trying to get rid of you,” they say, “that’s what I’d hate.” Or sometimes they say it’s the travel that would really get to them, all those hotel and motel rooms blurring into each other, it must get really lonely. Or sometimes they think it would bother them to be selling things to people that they don’t really need, pressuring people into buying things they were not really able to afford.

Well, at one time or another every salesman has probably felt all of those things. But the thing that’s hardest about the job is something you can’t leave behind you by getting another job. A salesman has to see people as they are.

Most people spend their lives trying to avoid doing that very thing. Most people see what they want to see. But a salesman can’t afford to see people the way he might like them to be. He has to see them the way they actually are. And he also has to see them the way they’d like to be.  Because no matter how badly people want something, if they don’t want to be the kind of people who want that kind of thing you’re going to have an uphill battle persuading them to buy it. He has to see what it is they don’t like about the way they are and convince them that the way they are is OK. Or he has to see what it is they don’t like and persuade them that he has just the product to fix it. That’s the hardest thing about the job.

It says a lot about the quality of information that’s passed along in Lightning Rods that, the first time we hear the hero’s name, he’s talking to himself.

He said, “Come on, Joe. You can do better than this.”

Gotham Diary:
Damp
28 September 2011

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Running around this morning, I promise to settle down this afternoon. This stub of an entry is my hostage. Or, rather, it’s yours. Without it, I might just let the day go by without bothering to check in. This has been, and will continue to be, a bad week for getting to bed on the early side. I don’t know quite how to handle that; part of me would willingly give up all evening engagements for the sake of rising before dawn. I often feel that I’ve come to Proust’s cork-lined crossroads. Unlike Proust, however, I am happily married to a securities lawyer whose hours run late. For the moment, I must make do — or you must make do — with good intentions. As long as that “TK” stands at the bottom of the page, it means that there’s more to come. (However little.)

***

It’s a step — although it feels like a step backwards. I wrote up Freud’s Last Session, just as I used to do in the good old days of Portico, and posted it at Civil Pleasures, and you can read it here. But, oh, does that Web site ever need work. Not to mention updating. The last “home” page was posted in June.

In any case, I’ve reverted to my original thinking about blogging and publishing a Web site — two very different things. For a while, I collapsed them into one undertaking, but the result always felt like a bit of a cheat. Blogging is for writing off the top of your head, something that I enjoy doing. Writing pages for a Web site requires a reasonably comprehensive forethought. Blogs ought to be easy, not only to read, but to enter into as well. A Web site is more like a library, to be consulted as needed, or roamed in idle moments.

My plan for the Daily Blague Reader is to offer two types of entry, a daily update of the kind that you are reading, in which anything goes; and a monthly aggregator, updated daily, under the “Beachcombing” rubric that I developed earlier this year. For Civil Pleasures, I’d like to contribute one new page every week. I think that I can manage all of this and still have a life. I do hope so. Come November, and this blog (dating from its antecedents) will be seven years old. Civil Pleasures (dating from its antecedent) has been going for eleven years. I don’t remember what life was like when I didn’t feel guilty about not putting enough work into my sites, but I’d like to get beyond it.

And that’s that for today.

Gotham Diary:
Yellow
27 September 2011

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

All I want to do today is to read Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White. The subtitle is a problem, of course; if the first 75 pages of White’s highly diverting narrative give any indication, the subtitle ought to be, How Modern America Screwed Up Yet Another Major Enterprise — and Lived to Laugh It Off.  Although it describes an asteroid of financial chicanery that hit the United States before the Cival War was even over, Railroaded is very much about The Way We Live Now. From the Introduction:

At Stanford, itself a monument to a railroad fortune, I noticed something else. I came to the Silicon Valley in the midst of the dot.com boom at a time when very many people were becoming very rich by creating companies, or owning the securities of companies, that lost vast amounts of money. Having naîvely believed that owners of corporations made money from the profits earned by their corporations, I thought that this situation was peculiar. Eventually, I came to think of these new millionaires as descendants of men like Leland Stanford and his Associates. They had garnered large fortunes from heavily indebted corporations in ways that would not bear much looking into. Like the dot.coms, most of my railroad corporations went bankrupt or into receivership. The corporations failed, but very often the people behind them succeeded. The celebrated creative destruction of capitalism is, it seems, gentle with the rich. I began to see the larger theme  of this book: failure and success are not always binaries. Certain kinds of failure impose more public than private costs. In failure as much as in success, the modern world takes shape.  

 Shocked, shocked.

***

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry — so to speak. It’s eleven on the dot, and I’m still up. Eleven PM, that is, by which time, most recent nights, I’ve been asleep for a while. We did have a lovely evening out, Kathleen and I. We saw Freud’s Last Session at the Marjorie S Deane Little Theatre, in the YMCA right next to Fossil Darling’s place; and then we had a very agreeable dinner at Nice-Matin. There is nothing like the theatre to launch lines of conversation, and Mark St Germain’s play, about the hypothetical meeting of Sigmund Freud and C S Lewis during the outbreak of the Second World War in September, 1939, is full of openers. All I’m going to say tonight is that is was delightful to see Freud impersonated on the stage — excellently, by Martin Rayner — and dismaying to watch the understudy, Tuck Milligan, shoulder the weakly written part of Lewis, who becomes sanctimoniously offensive when he lectures Freud, dying of cancer, on the evil of suicide. What saves the play is Freud’s being so alive, for the moment, that all thought of suicide remains absolutely hypothetical; indeed, you wonder if Freud might kill Lewis before taking his own life. I would, at least. (But then I am so not a fan of C S Lewis. Freud just wags his finger, as if to say — as Freud was forever saying — “this is more interesting than I thought it would be.”) After the play — after the play, there was a huge pile-up in the vestibule, while Alec Baldwin, who had seen the show with the rest of us, had a long chat with a delighted Mr Rayner — we walked up Columbus Avenue to the Natural History Museum and then crossed the hump to Amsterdam, where nous avons bien dîné. More domani.

Gotham Diary:
God
26 September 2011

Monday, September 26th, 2011

By the time Kathleen walked in the door on Saturday afternoon, I had whipped the apartment into amazing shape. Everything — everything visible — was in order, and I Puritani had just come to its triumphant end. In the luxe, calme, et volupté that remained, Kathleen and I sat down to a pot of tea in the living room. Kathleen showed me her London photographs. It was the first time that I’d reviewed photographs on the back of a camera, and at first I balked, preferring to look at them in larger format, but Kathleen was eager to share, and, she does, after all, take great pictures, so I got into it. Most of the shots were of her room at The Rookery, a boutique hotel just up the road from Smithfield Market. The furnishings were plush to an almost Victorian degree, banishing the spare chill that must have hung about the rooms when they were new, sometime in the reign of George II or his grandson, and the tiny fireplaces could hardly keep up with the drafty windows, and there was no indoor plumbing. It was very cozy. But so, very frankly, was the room that we were sitting in. The apartment didn’t look at all shabby in comparison. Feeling very snappy about our living arrangements, I went over to Fairway to pick up a few things for the simple dinner that I guessed Kathleen would like best, and then, back in the kitchen, I let it all go to my head. I decided to make an omelette in a non-non-stick pan. I must have thought I was God.

Here’s how you save an omelette that, sticking to the pan, has degenerated into a dog’s breakfast: In a clean pan, melt some butter over moderately high heat and pour in two beaten eggs. When the eggs begin to set, spoon in as much as you dare of the revolting mess of Omelette #1 into what will be Omelette #2. Don’t expect this emergency procedure to deceive anyone; aim, rather, for something on the order of an egg taco. It will taste fine. There are people who make omelettes in non-non-stick pans all the time, but you are not (yet) one of them. Be happy with your cozy apartment.

***

Because Kathleen was tired after her trip, and Will was recovering from a mystery fever, we did not get together yesterday. While Kathleen read an napped, I read and read. I was determined to be done with The Submission. I can’t remember the last time a novel made me feel so bad about the world. Although smart and extremely well-crafted, The Submission is an aesthetically cynical portrait of a cynical society. No! I’ve got that exactly wrong. There is no society in The Submission. What’s aesthetically cynical about the book is that each and every one of the characters is stuck in his or her character. No one connects. Instead, the various ways in which different types of people fail to connect are paraded coolly along a fashion-week runway. Amy Waldman’s world is devoid of the two essentials that I’m dumb enough to find growing on trees in mine, humor and generosity.

As soon as I was done, I grabbed the latest issue of LRB, which I knew had a review of The Submission, and Christian Lorentzen, whose take on the book was no more positive than mine, soon restored my spirits.

Reading The Submission, I often had the feeling that the novel was written by the New York Times itself; that Waldman has so thoroughly internalised the paper’s worldview that she can’t see things any other way. The Times tends to flatter its readers in the way it writes about their educations, their ambitions and what they spend their money on, while gently stoking their anxieties – about surly Islamophobes from New Jersey, their children’s safety, or cancer. In newsprint these tropes tend to be submerged under the weight of actual events  Mebut they are all too conspicuous in the long march of a novel.

This wasn’t what I’d been thinking exactly, but it wasn’t at all inconsistent, and I remembered howling and scowling, just a few hours earlier, when Kathleen read aloud a disgraceful Styles piece by Bruce Feiler entitled “Snooping in the Age of Ebooks.” 

For his part, Dr. Gosling recommended seeking out three places in a home if the bookshelf was not revealing. First, any space where a person retreats to be alone. “That might be a potting shed, a home office or sewing corner,” he said. Second, bedrooms. He recommended paying particular attention to headboards, pillows and what people keep at their bedside. Finally, photographs. Dr. Gosling was struck, for instance, that my wife and I have no photos at all in our living room, suggesting we use the space for “down-regulating” or retreating from others. In my home office, meanwhile, I have numerous photos, all featuring people, from my children, to my family, to me with friends around the world. Alone in my office, he concluded, I seek contact with others in what he called “social snacking

Ew! This is why I don’t start the day with the Times anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t wish that the Times would go away. What’s wrong with the Times is the complete absence of competition for the “newspaper of record” title. They’ll print anything these days.

(I exaggerate, of course. Kathleen brought a copy of the Daily Mail back from London, leading me down unimagined avenues of ”Svengeance.”)

Gotham Diary:
Schlechtes Wetter
24 September 2011

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

I had no idea that this new pizza place existed until I cropped the photo just now. Maybe it’s not new! Kathleen says, you learn something every day. Not with my stiff neck you don’t. How many times have I passed under that red awning? It’s true that there is nothing about “GO!99″ that would capture my interest. I have developed immunities against the assaults of such signage. You have to, in this town.

Yesterday was very, very wet. Even indoors, it was wet. Towels refused to dry, as did the shirt that I wore to see Moneyball. The theatre was only a block away but by the time I got home after the showing, I might as well have climbed out of the East River. All afternoon, I dreaded the ordeal of getting a taxi in the rain to go downtown to sit with with Will while his parents went out to dinner. In the event, getting the cab turned out not to be the ordeal. It was listening to the driver complain about gridlock. He unnerved me so badly that I nearly asked him to turn around and take me home — this was as we were crawling down York Avenue, because, he said, the FDR was in “gridlock.” Which turned out to be piffle; it was only northbound traffic that was congested. As I was ringing the O’Neills’ doorbell when I finally got there, my phone rang, and I knew that it had to be Megan. As it was; she hung up and buzzed me in. What I didn’t know was that she was thinking of staying home with Will, who had developed a bit of a fever. She would have asked me to turn around, too. But now that I was there, and now that she had got a bit of Tylenol down his throat, she might as well try for a quick dinner with Ryan at one of their favorite places, Edi and the Wolf, a few doors up Avenue C. She would be close by if — if Will got sluggish. That is what I was too look for. He was certainly very warm. And he wanted to be held, at least for the first half hour. We watched his new favorite movie, My Neighbor Totoro, in which there is also a lot of rain. (The pluviage sharply underscores, however, the difference between rural Japan and the Upper East Side.) Eventually, Will began to want from time to time to fiddle around on his own. He brought me all the big pillows from the sofa. He brought me, one at a time, the five singles that Megan had left in case the pizza deliveryman couldn’t break a twenty for his tip. At just about the time when he no longer wished to be held at all, his parents came home. Will’s temperature was found to have dropped considerably, and Will, accordingly, was in a mood to play, specifically with his Plan Toy trains, on the understanding that his parents would join him on the floor of his bedroom. It was wonderful to be a part of this, although I wasn’t much of one. I was fading fast, having adjusted, during Kathleen’s London trip, to very early hours. Plus, really wet weather makes me — sluggish. It’s something barometric. I hugged everybody goodnight and went downstairs and caught a taxi right away. An hour later, I was sound asleep. It was still wet.

If the foregoing seems a little headlong, that’s because it was written while I was counting down the minutes until Kathleen’s call from Heathrow. When I looked up, it was 7:04, just past our noon-time date. So I called her. The phone rang and rang; because the call had been shunted to a British carrier, the AT&T lady never came on to tell me that my call had been sent &c. (A small joy in itself; I hate her.) I hung up, disconsolate. During the week, I had not once yet failed to reach Kathleen upon dialling her; and I was beginning to like the idea of business travel almost as much as Kathleen does — so long as I get to stay home. I didn’t have long to mope, though; it turned out that, natch, my call coincided with Kathleen’s paying for her ride and getting her luggage out of the taxi. She called back a moment later. Half a moment!  

***

Moneyball was fun, and thoroughly absorbing while it lasted, but, unlike Warrior and Drive, it was over when it was over. I’m not saying that it’s foregettable; it’s not. But if Warrior is about love and loss, and Drive is about the long-term malignancy of endless good weather, Moneyball is about baseball, tout court. I wonder if the game will survive the demythologizing process that Billy Beane inaugurated in Oakland, even if it did result in the Red Sox’s breaking the Bambino’s curse a few years later. Perhaps it will make baseball interesting in a new way; perhaps the United States is old enough for a national game that isn’t played by action figures whose abilities are so often the product of seasoned scouts’ imaginations. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill make a surprisingly satisfying pair of buddies, not least because, in Mr Hill’s company, Mr Pitt looks a lot like Robert Redford at his most deific. Buddies for our times: a failed ballplayer and an economist from Yale go on to triumph.

Gotham Diary:
Trim
23 September 2011

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

What I had to go through to take an out-of-focus shot! All right, maybe it’s not out of focus; maybe it’s a little beyond the lens’s capacity. I had to RTFM to find out how to use the camera’s self-timer, and I had to fish the tripod out of a dim corner. I had to remember to zoom in on the scene. The “manual,” by the way, is nothing of the kind: it’s A Short Course In Canon PowerShot S95 Photography, and I’d hate to see the Long Course. There is no index, and the instructions for using the self-timer appear on page 76, something that you find out only by reading the text on page 17 that points you there. Or you could just scroll through the Table of Contents with your index finger, hoping, hoping… I don’t usually mark up books, but I think that I ought to make an exception here.

I did not go to the movies yesterday. I got a haircut and lunched on a club sandwich at the Hi-Life. In the late afternoon, after I’d said goodnight to Kathleen in London, I went over to Fairway. I had a short shopping list, but I started out in the meat and fish section downstairs, because I was looking for ideas for dinner. I wasn’t hungry, and almost everything looked unappetizingly heavy. Even a game hen — half of a game hen — seemed too much. So I wound up with chicken livers. Talk about heavy, right? But a few go a long way. Several weeks ago, David Tanis offered an interesting recipe in the Times: French Chicken Liver and Green Bean Salad with Garam Masala. I didn’t have the clipping with me, of course, but I was confident about improvising. Having (I later discovered) confused this recipe with another, I misremembered the Indian accent as a Mexican one, and bought a bottle of Cindy’s Chipotle Ranch dressing, along with a small head of frisée, a Belgian endive, an ounce of baby spinach, a Crispin apple, and a bag of Fairway’s own croutons. I had to go back downstairs for the croutons — there is still much to be learned about Fairway, but the tiny thrill of rolling my shopping cart onto a freight elevator (something that I’ve done from time to time at Eli’s over the years) hasn’t worn off — but they valait le détour.

I sautéed four livers in clarified butter (two would have been enough), and pointlessly deglazed the pan (would you have tossed the resulting very brown syrup into a salad?). I tossed the greens with half of the apple, cubed, and I kept adding more Cindy’s. At the last minute, I grabbed a hunk of Emmenthaler and cut it into very small cubes. Toss, toss; still more Cindy’s. The result was very earthy, and it took a while for the chipotle to make itself known. I still can’t decide if cherry tomatoes would have been an improvement. A poached egg, chopped bacon, and raw mushrooms would all have been wrong, at least for last night’s appetite. My chicken liver salad was earthy — very earthy. But it wasn’t heavy.

It was a day for taking care of little things, and I’m afraid that today will be the same. I worked a bit on my Emma essay — I’m making the case that the novel’s structure is implicit in its choreography (so to speak) and its corresponding shifts in linguistic tone — so it wasn’t an entirely brainless stretch. The “problem” with getting up very early in the morning is that the afternoon yawns like a vast and vacant cave: you’re not used to having so much extra time. You might say that the whole point of getting up very early in the morning is to have as much time as you need to get everything done, and to manage your day accordingly, instead of flying from task to task in a frenzy, always doing the things that must be done but never, or only rarely, getting to the more interesting items on the to-do list.

But I’m not happy about what I’m reading. Blame it on Gchat. I misunderstood Ms NOLA’s references to Amy Waldman’s The Submission, which were frequent when the book was being talked about everywhere else, for raves. In fact, she had put the book down, as I was tempted to do midway through the first chapter. The best thing that I can say about this novel is that it makes a very good scenario. I can see the movie that will be made of it. The worst thing that I can say about it is that I haven’t mentally cast this imaginary movie, as I do whenever I’m engaged by the characters in a novel. There is a glibness about The Submission, a professional savvy that gives the book the pop of beautiful food photography. Except you can’t eat it because there’s no actual food there. You can only go out and write your own 9/11 novel. I’m not far in, but I’m afraid that I’m hooked. Maybe it will get better, and I’ll start to care about Claire and Paul and Mo.

Gotham Diary:
Triste
20 September 2011

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

The weather is glum here today, and so am I, because Kathleen is leaving for London tonight and won’t be back until late Saturday. I intend to battle my lowering spirits by going to the movies every day.

Also: I’m pooped. The exertions of the past week or so have finally caught up with me. Yesterday’s dissipated afternoon with Ray Soleil, climaxing in tea with Greenberg’s chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons, is what probably pushed me into the hither margins of oncoming-cold territory.

Have you seen the new issue of The Paris Review? There’s an interview with Dennis Cooper, whose novel Wrong I read years and years ago and got through even though I had no idea what was going on or, more to the point, why anybody was doing anything. In the interview, Cooper tells his onetime editor, Ira Silverberg, about the charms of his favorite sexual move, and while this account makes a certain kind of sense, it is not what I would call a fully human sense. On the contrary, there seems to be something fractured in Cooper’s makeup, something that prevents the union of the feelings that sympathy comprises. Either that, or his dialect of English is loaded with terms of art that are quite opaque to me.

Much more congenial is Lydia Davis’s collection of notes on translating, specifically on translating Madame Bovary, about which her thinking gleams with precision. Here she is discussing a variant in Flaubert’s description of the tile-roofed market in his fictional Yonville-l’Abbaye: 

The word he uses for “posts” is poteaux, so my translation is quite exact just there. He mentions the marketplace three more time in the novels, however, and each time he refers to the poteaux as piliers, or “pillars.” I thought this was too massive a word for an element of a market structure, and I chose not to follow him but to retain “posts”:

Then, on a trip to France, following the GPS instructions to go north by way of a small town called La Bastide-sur-l’Hers, we turned left through the main square and I saw a covered market whose tile roof rested on what were undeniably massive pillars.

Fortunately, there was still time for one more change to the paperback edition.

Which I am going to have to read now. She quite exposes the excesses of Francis Steegmuller, who wrote the translation read by most people my age I should think, with his rendering the simple en écrivant as “as her pen flew over the paper.”

Now, what’s showing?

Gotham Diary:
Vanished Way of Life
19 September 2011

Monday, September 19th, 2011

As I was looking through the photographs that I took of the apartment last night, it hit me that I hadn’t seen anything like them in the style and design magazines and sites that I follow. Bearing in mind that they’re not, after all, very good photographs, I’m still struck by how they reflect “a vanished way of life.” All those lampshades, for instance. The utter absence of anything “modern” (the exception of a halogen reading light proves the rule). And then I consider how much of this stuff Kathleen and I actually bought in a store. Not very much! In the image above, the love seats that face each other to the left belonged to Kathleen’s grandmother. The love seat to the right was one of a pair that my mother and one of her aunts bought at an estate sale in the late Forties. The dining chairs were made for Kathleen’s parents during their years in Eaton Place. There’s a small “French” chair in the right-hand corner that you can’t really see, and I don’t know where it came from. I’m pretty sure that it was, once upon a time, somebody’s fanciest piece of furniture, lovingly polished and sat on but never in. Aside from the Louis XV armchair that I bought at Restoration Hardware last spring, there’s not a thing to sit down on that didn’t come from someone else in our family. That’s what I mean by “vanished.”

When Ray Soleil unfurled the tapestry on the right-hand wall, all I could think of was Sunset Boulevard. The textile belonged to my grandparents and dates from the Twenties at the latest. We sent it to Perry Process about ten years ago and tucked it away in a closet when it came back, wrapped in tissue and brown paper. When I began to meditate moving the secretary desk from the living room to the bedroom, the tapestry presented itself as a way of preserving the desk’s vertical impact on the space it left behind. It really is very old and very dark, though — almost macabre. I don’t know why my mother held on to it; she certainly never displayed it. But then I can’t tell you why I’m holding on to the glass-doored upper half of the breakfront cabinet. Who will ever want to restore it to the bottom half, currently very much in use as a sideboard, with the snappydoodle marble top that Ray found for it, way out below the Gowanus Expressway? It’s not for me to say.

Anyway, the latest phase of our vanished way of life is complete. Everything got put away yesterday, and not just anyhow. It one minor mitzvah, Kathleen needed some fabric-covered storage  boxes that were idling in the hall closet, holding nothing much of anything. Her taking them opened up just the space I needed for items from the dresser in the blue room. In the evening, while Kathleen finished up her complete reorganization of the bedroom, clearing off the once-daunting pile of stuff on the bed, I read the story about the O’Connor twins, Consuelo and Gloria, in an old Vanity Fair that surface in the cleanup. Bob Colacello was the very writer to clean and press this lacy bit of Condé Nast laundry, which is probably what put me in the frame of mind to regard my own way of life as vanishing. After all, the surviving sister, Gloria, is only twenty years older than I am. I wonder if it’s too late to buy, as Consuelo’s husband’s grandfather did, a title.

Gotham Diary:
Growing
18 September 2011

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Somebody is tall for his age (20½ months). Somebody needs a haircut, too. Will it be his “first one”? He slept through his first one, and everyone agrees that it doesn’t, therefore, count. But what interests me most about this image is that some parts of Will are in motion while others are very still, and his head is somewhere in between.

At five o’clock, I had just put the blue room in order and was enjoying a cup of tea with Kathleen. I was slightly distraught, however, by the work that lay ahead: the dining table, every square millimeter of it, was still covered with teapots, aperitif glasses, and assorted breakable whatnots. Covered. Where would I put any of it, much less all? I had devoted the entirety of the previous day to finding new places for numerous pieces of furniture, large and small, almost completing the project begun on Monday. It was a two-pronged project, the idea being to bring the secretary desk that had always been intended for Kathleen’s use closer to Kathleen’s bedside, while removing a good deal of the clutter (which I could no longer write off as “cosy”) with a view to making the apartment safer for Will. I had exhausted my reserves of ingenuity.

When I got up to grapple with the final phase, it was 5:20, and at that very moment, the phone rang. It was Megan. Megan apologized for the very late notice, but could she and Will and Ryan come for dinner? If it wasn’t convenient, she assured me, then we could get together tomorrow, but there was an undertone in her voice that it took me a moment to hear clearly. Megan’s talk about “tomorrow” was delivered in a sort of fatalist mode, pleasant but whistly. She was perfectly sincere about wanting to get together “tomorrow” — if it were still possible, once “tomorrow” had dumped its daily ration of surprises on her household, to do so. I remembered Megan’s mentioning in G-chat that she hadn’t had a full night’s sleep all week. She was offering to come uptown now. As I looked at the dining table (where we would all have to eat, as it was too chilly for the balcony), my dismay gave way to resolution. The problem with tomorrow is that it is indeed another day. We’d have dinner tonight.

What followed is a blur. I can say that having Fairway right across the street was the deciding factor in the evening’s success; I was spared the walk to 79th Street for a nice steak. Kathleen, who had been just about to take a nap, was a great help, and between us we had the apartment in presentable shape by seven o’clock. Megan’s being half an hour late didn’t hurt, either. We were well into dinner by eight, and the O’Neills left at about nine.

There is a Bean’s tote bag in Kathleen’s bathtub that is full of silver service. Porcelain and glass items cover the balcony table and (on a tray) one of the easy chairs. I have all day to deal with that. Some parts of the apartment are in disarray, while others are very tidy. Most of the place is, warmly and livably, somewhere in between.

Gotham Diary:
End and Ongoing
16 September 2011

Friday, September 16th, 2011

By the end of the day — long before the end of the afternoon, I hope — it will not be possible to take another version of this photograph. This pretty if untidy arrangement of books, papers, globe and mahogany will come to an end, and another arrangement, perhaps more useful than picturesque, will take its place. I should tell you more about it, but I am busy at the moment, searching Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essay on Jane Austen (in the book atop the pile of three) for the epigram about how hard it is to catch Austen in the act of greatness, a remark with which Richard Jenkyns (in the middle) disagrees, and which Rachel Brownstein (bottom), acknowledging Jenkyns in her notes, paraphrases.

Gotham Diary:
Creeping Back
15 September 2011

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Never has half a month whooshed by so quickly and quietly. The fifteenth already? I’m feeling like a man in a barrel going over the Niagara of time. “Make it stop!” Except — don’t.

My time at the Infusion Therapy Unit yesterday passed uneventfully. After catching up on the nurses’ experiences of Irene, I had a long talk with the chief nurse, who lives in the neighborhood, about the wonders of the new Fairway. Like many whom I’ve talked to, the thing that she liked best about Fairway is that it has pulled the rug out from under the supermarkets that have been “overcharging us for too long.” A longtime patron of the huge Fairway up on 125th Street — which is patronized almost exclusively by customers who stuff the trunks of their automobiles with bomb-shelter quantities (a frugality that is very difficult to live with in Manhattan’s bomb-shelter-sized apartments), she is, like me, enjoying the convenience of busying no more than what she immediately needs.

Then I settled down and read most of Why Jane Austen? At one point, I took a break and found the Jane Austen Action Figure that appears on Rachel Brownstein’s dust jacket (Catherine Casolino’s design and photograph) at Amazon. Gotta have it.

In the evening, we went to a cocktail party, at a deeply charming penthouse in the East 70s. The hostess and Kathleen met at Sacred Heart in the third grade; the gentleman whose birthday occasioned the party began escorting Kathleen to dances when she was fourteen. I’ve known most of the guests for years, and everyone looked at least a little bit older, except for one woman, always a beauty, who really seemed to have found the fountain of youth. It wasn’t just that she looked young (and very much herself at that; no discernible “work”) but she moved young, too. At the risk of sounding ludicrous, I must insist that she was hot. The hostess’s daughter, truly young, I met for the first time — she grew up in Dublin and London. She is about to move, with friends, into a flat in Stuyvesant Town, just blocks from Will and his parents. When I mentioned my grandson, she declared an interest in babysitting. I rather helplessly asked her if she had a card, but she didn’t. A lovely young woman. Instead of birthday cakes, there were genuine Parisian macaroons, as beautifully-colored as the ones that you can buy anywhere but radically scrumptious.

Afterward, we went round the corner to a favorite bistro, where among the crowded diners we detected bits of Fashion Week flotsam and jetsam that had washed uptown. I had île flottante for dessert. It was the perfect way of turning the corner and coming back to life.

Gotham Diary:
Mush
13 September 2011

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

This is just to report that I have no brains today, just mush in my skull, after a long afternoon of moving just about every other item in the blue room, including the contents of two tall bookshelves.  It was the first part of a two-day project that will wind up with Kathleen’s having the secretary desk close to her bedside. We have always known that Kathleen is a secretary-desk sort of person, but it has taken years to figure out how to put the user and the accessory in the same room. The second part of the project is scheduled to take place on Friday.

What’s all that got to do with the blue room, you may ask. (I flatter myself.) It would take too long to explain; the thing to know about yesterday is that the rooms two computer constellations were disassembled and reconstituted in new places. I can’t count the number of digital doodads that got unplugged and disconnected, reconnected and plugged back in, partly because I didn’t do any of it myself; the wonderful Jason Mei was on hand to oversee all of that. Ray Soleil and I did the heavy lifting, almost all of which involved the three pieces of furniture shown above.  I managed to do my share of the work with the help of the few remaining globs of Remicade in my bloodstream. As Ray said later, I too tired to fuss about anything, and the hours flew by in strange harmony. When Kathleen came home from work, Ray and I were gossiping about the duc du Maine and Mme de Maintenon as usual, and presently we went across the street to Maz Mezcal for dinner. I turned in on the early side.

When I got up this morning, not on the early side, I really wanted to read the Times, but I was firm, and booted up the laptop instead. During the time at Fire Island, I broke myself of the habit of beginning the day with the Grey Lady. Now the first voice that I hear in the morning is my own, and for me at least that gets the day off to a much better start, even on days like this when my mind is blank. Even if my mind is blank, my list of starred items at Google Reader is anything but, and I’m reminded that I was thinking about a provocative blog entry that I read the other day. In a down-hearted entry entitled “What is the point of learning history?” Historiann writes, “What have we learned in the past 2,500 years or so that Herodotus didn’t already warn us about:?  Hubris!

 Du calme! Is the stretch between Herodotus and us a meaningful one? I don’t think so, not when you back it up with the 170,000 years, give or take, of fully human existence, most of which was spent untroubled by abstract formulations. For most of that time (I speculate, rankly), human beings were just doing what all the other beings do, struggling to survive by any means available. The problem isn’t that we haven’t learned anything since Herodotus — and I think that we’ve learned a very great deal although, admittedly, not much about will-power. The problem is that we’re still, constitutionally — genetically, if you will — what used to be called “savages.” For several millennia, the Judeo-Christian stream of religious belief attributed this to a “fallen” state. Better to grasp that we haven’t quite got round to rising yet. We can imagine what it would be like to be better, but it’s perhaps just as well that our ideals remain out of reach. If our ideas of “better” are vastly superior to those of an educated person of merely a thousand years ago, they still need work. It’s a good thing that we can’t really live up to them.

A really convenient way of looking at things if your brains are mush, you will say.

Gotham Diary:
Anniversary
11 September 2011

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

We have just had Sunday breakfast, which included the first cantaloupe to be purchased at Fairway — a nine if not a 9.25. “Now, that’s what a cantaloupe tastes like!” raved Kathleen. I bought it yesterday on the second of two excursions. The first was to Gristede’s, where I still prefer to pick up non-food items such as dishwashing soap and Kleenex. Gristede’s was so bereft of customers that I wanted to cry. There were perhaps four of us. The stock was arranged nicely and neatly, as if what has never been a terribly prepossessing market were determined to put its best food forward. The best feet, unfortunately — the ones belonging to paying customers, anyway — were circulating through Fairway, a block to the west. (And not, as Adam Gopnik has it, on Third Avenue!) I’ve heard that the Food Emporium, downstairs in our building, is set for an overhaul, but it can just disappear, for all I care. It may be spiffier than Gristede’s, but I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to be sure of finding certain items on the shelves, then I ought to head for the larger store. I do hope that Gristede’s survives! Not that I’m going to stop going to Fairway every day, though, buying the smallest quantities of everything on my shopping list — and nothing else.

It’s only 10:30, and there are still plenty of hours left in which Events might occur, but it is difficult, after a Sunday breakfast anyway, not to feel sanguine. 9/11/01 left me wishing that New York City could be like Hong Kong or Singapore, the kind of small but rich and vaguely parasitic entrepot that most Americans think it is anyway. (I also wished, as I had wished since the day I first saw a photograph of them, that the towers had never been built — not here in New York, that is.) The supreme irony was that Mohammed Atta and his crew regarded New York as the central symbol of the United States. If only! New York is where two classes of people congregate, those who intend to thrive on its enormous cosmopolitan advantages, and those who cannot bear to live among the neighbors whom they have left behind. Many of the city’s immigrants already carry American citizenship.

The Gopnik piece to which I’ve alluded, “Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat,” ends by concluding that declinism — the conviction that the country is going to hell in a handbasket — is a bad idea but an irresistible one, because “the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up.” This is not an outlook that I share, perhaps because I am not given to nostalgia. Positioning the new Fairway on Third Avenue (which Gopnik does as a way of illustrating Paul Krugman’s point that nations do not compete in the way that firms do) is not the essay’s only misstep; there’s also the blank space between its title, which seems taken from a bottle of shampoo, and pervasive references to Beatles hits. Sometimes, writes Gopnik, the old songs are better than the new songs. At the moment, I’m listening to Schubert’s Ninth, which is a funny kind of old song because nobody really knew until it was several decades old and the composer had mouldered into Viennese dust. When the old songs are better than the new songs, it’s because they really are better now, not because they summon up the labile adolescence in which they were first encountered. No one writes with more sophisticated deliberation than Adam Gopnik, but like most well-known writers he boasts of a head packed with pop-culture references that occasionally seem, well, disingenuous.

One of the books under Gopnik’s review is That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, and its exhortation to our presumed can-do spirit provokes a livid and sour rebuke:

The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised. … In the long story of civilization, the moments when improving your lot beats out annoying your neighbor are vanishingly rare.

While I agree with Gopnik — peruse this entry for hints of a wish that New York City could be semi-detached from the United States, and you will not be disappointed — I don’t think that the point is usefully lingered on. Far more helpful, in my view, is the argument made by David Frum in his review of That Used to Be Us, which appears in today’s Book Review.

Friedman and Mandelbaum at one point praise the beauty of solutions that rise from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. This praise is not consciously insincere, but pretty plainly it does not accurately represent their operational plan. Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that! Societies inescapably generate elites. Those elites can be ­public-spirited and responsible or they can be selfish and shortsighted. An elite can have concern and care for the less advantaged or it can callously disregard them. Maybe not surprisingly, the language of anti-­elitism has often been a useful tool of the most rapacious and merciless among the elite.

American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend. They say less than might be wished about what a more ­public-spirited American elite might do. But they have eloquently described what such an elite should want to do.

I don’t know how Adam Gopnik, as a busy member of the elite, really finds time to “listen to oldies stations on Sirius radio as we drive back roads on holiday” — it can’t be something that he does often enough to support generalizations about the importance of history. The Beatles are great, and anybody can enjoy them. What are the pleasures that Adam Gopnik has had to work hard for?

Gotham Diary:
While Barred Clouds Bloom
8 September 2011

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Among other things, I baked a loaf of date-nut bread yesterday. Thomas’s, the only company that knows how to make English muffins, used to offer a date-nut loaf; that’s how I came to like it. At some point, I learned to make it myself, from a recipe in one of James Beard’s books I believe. You begin by soaking a clutch of pitted, chopped dates in a mixture of baking soda and boiling water — not very appetizing. Brown sugar gives the loaf an agreeably burned flavor; if you could grill a piece of cake, this is how what it would taste like. Date-nut bread is hardly more complicated to make than banana bread, but of course nobody has a pile of overripe dates cluttering up the fruit bowl asking to be made better use of. I put walnuts and dried apricots in my banana bread, but even with this “cockaigne” treatment, it still tastes to me like homework. I can still enjoy date-nut bread, either by itself or sandwiching a thick slater of cream cheese.

While I was making the bread and prepping dinner and generally reacquainting myself with my kitchen, I watched My Geisha, the 1962 feature that gives Shirley MacLaine an opportunity to purr on all cylinders. She plays two roles. First, she’s Lucy Dell, a big American movie star, a popular comedienne something like what MacLaine herself was but bigger and more sophisticated — more French, somehow — than Hollywood had room for in those days. Married to Paul Robaix, a Frenchman who has become eminent largely by directing her films (Yves Montand), she is piqued when he decides to make a film version of Madame Butterfly, shot on location in Japan and using real Japanese actors. She thinks that she’d be great in the part, but Paul tells her that Cio-Cio San is “out of her range.” Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, you know right away how Lucy is going to respond to this challenge. She’s going to make herself up as “Yoko Mori” and snag that part, with lots of giggling from the geisha who train her to tame her American sprawl. Paul discovers the deception at the last minute, and is deeply wounded — this movie was to be his declaration of artistic independence, but Lucy has stolen it from him — and he retaliates by pretending to make love to Yoko, which of course breaks Lucy’s heart. The final scene of the movie is a tremendously effective reconciliation. While Paul sulks in the wings after the film’s premiere, Lucy comes onto the stage as herself. She was supposed to appear in full geisha fig, and then surprise everyone by pulling off her wig. But Lucy has lost the taste for this kind of stunt. When she tells the audience that Yoko has entered a convent, and that “We will see her no more,” Paul instantly forgives her, and then, while the couple take their bows, he reveals that he made love to her knowing perfectly well who she was. She bows a few more times and then plants her head ecstatically on his chest. It’s terrific.

My Geisha was one of eight-odd titles that came to me while I was out on Fire Island. Black Widow and Brief Encounter were also on the list, along with Compromising Positions, which seems never to have come out on DVD. I didn’t want to see any of these movies while I was on vacation, but rather I enjoyed looking forward to seeing tham, something that doesn’t happen at home. If I conceive a desire to watch a film at home, I want to see it right away. But then that’s what vacation is all about — not doing the thousand and one things that fill up everyday life.

Was that a ray of sunlight just now? It was. But then it vanished. The air is cool and damp and altogether autumnal. The tables on the balcony are splattered with blobs of rainwater that seem in no hurry to evaporate. We’re told to expect a “seasonably warm” weekend, which I think means a high of about eighty; it’s also going to be humid. I do miss the sea breeze that blew through Robbins Rest almost uninterruptedly, just as I miss walking up and down the beach every afternoon for about an hour — both incomparable tonics. But for the most part I”m glad to be back in town with my fall projects. I had a great break in August: I understood better than ever how lucky I am to have the regular life that I do.

August:
The End of August
7 September 2011

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

Although far from pleasant — perhaps because it was so far from pleasant — yesterday’s horrible weather offered the most gracious way of ending a summer vacation. Gedouddaheah!

Did we mention the Vital Transportation driver who sped us from the Bay Shore ferry terminal to our own front door in one hour and ten minutes? Terrifying as it was, that early-August drive came fondly to mind yesterday as we occasionally inched our way along the Southern State Parkway. Conditions on the Cross Island were smoother, and traffic on the Grand Central Parkway was surprisingly fleet, given the tropical-storm grade downpour. Miraculously, the FDR wasn’t flooded. But it was a terrible day to be on the road, even if we weren’t doing the driving. 

The first thing I did when we got home was to make a pot of tea. The second thing was to order Chinese. Perfect weather for steaming bowls of pork lo mein.

We camped out in the living room. The dining table has been serving as a distribution hub all summer, piled high will all manner of printed and stamped information, but, thanks to the agreeable balcony setup, we haven’t been inconvenienced. No sitting on the balcony last night, though! I read Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City. That would be a better title, I think, if it wound up with “…and Put an End to Urban Renewal.” Fifty years later, American cities remain largely untransformed (if you ask me), and that has made it possible for some of them to become charming. ”Urban renewal,” in any case, was a euphemism to rank right up there with “ethnic cleansing,” which it substantially resembled. Flint’s second chapter, “The Master Builder,” necessarily retraces ground so ardently mapped by Robert Caro, in The Power Broker, and I haven’t seen anything that I didn’t encounter in the bigger book, echoes of which still haunt me weeks after I read it. But Flint is certainly more temperate about Robert Moses — so far, at least. In case you just tuned in, let me remind you that the three parkways that I mentioned earlier were all early works of the “commissioner for life,” as Moses came to be known. 

At some point before eleven, I decided to turn in. I took my pill and climbed into bed with my book, put on my reading glasses, and got comfortable. Then, without reading a word, I took off my reading glasses, put the book down, and turned out the light. That was it for me.

At some demented moment yesterday morning, I ventured to suggest to Kathleen that we didn’t need to ship any boxes of stuff home; there wasn’t so much that we couldn’t ferry it across the Great South Bay and into the trunk of a commodious Town Car. Happily, she paid no attention to this — pretended that she hadn’t heard it. We packed our four boxes of stuff and mailed them off and we still had four groaning tote bags — the ones that are so big that Kathleen has to put them on her shoulder, because otherwise she can’t lift them off the ground — and Will’s Maclaren (taking which out to Fire Island was the dumbest thing I did all summer, by far) to haul. As I lugged these through sodden lanes and sandy stretches toward our final ferry ride, I could only bless Kathleen’s providence.

August:
Gotham Intermezzo II
28 August 2011

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

When I told Kathleen that I was going to right the table, she sighed, “Well, if you’re sure that we’re not going to have any more high winds…” I groaned. “Whatever winds we’re going to have, my dear, they’re not going to be hurricane winds.” Irene had long since been downgraded to tropical storm status. What was puzzling was its complete dissipation. As the eye crossed over Brooklyn, our local weather became understandably calm. But that never really changed afterward. What happened to the rest of that huge mass of wind and rain?

The balcony floor is drying up rapidly. As soon as I get the hutch back up on the dresser, all the extra glass- and china-ware that I store in it (all of it having been run through the dishwasher yesterday) can take leave of the dining table, which will be convenient. I’ve already started taking the potted plants back out to the étagères, which I weighted down with bricks. Soon, everything will be back and in place, and I will have only one little problem: water, water everywhere.

There are the bottles of Deer Park and Poland Spring meant for drinking, and the gallons of some cheaper stuff that I kept in my bathroom. There are various household vessels, ranging from a humongous lobster pot to a wine carafe, filled nearly to the brim with water. There’s even a stovetop teakettle ready to go. Because we’re by no means through the hurricane season yet, I’m going to find a place for the store-bought water. As to the rest — my hope is to conserve it for watering plants. Given the reduced number of plants (I threw away anything the least bit scraggly), we’ll see how long that lasts.

Power was cut to Fire Island at 6 PM yesterday. That means that I’m in for a treat when I get out to the (presumably undamaged) house in the next few days. The prospect of cleaning out the refrigerator tempers, if only slightly, my rejoicing at seeing the last of Irene.

I took great comfort throughout the ordeal from Andrew Thompson’s history of the reign of George II. I wouldn’t want to have to live in the 1740s, but I never tire of dreaming about them.