Archive for September, 2007

American Sclerosis

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

The American knack for reinventing the procedural impediments of medieval Europe – how to keep anything from happening – never fails to force a little gasp. How could the land of the free and the home of the brave be the depot of the dumb? For eight days, according to William Yardley’s story in the Times, Tania Rider lay pinned in her Honda at the base of a ravine in a Seattle surburb after sliding off the road. For eight days, her husband, Tom, tried to enlist local authorities in a missing-person search. But rules and regulations vitiated his appeals. It was not until Mr Rider offered to present himself as a suspect, knowing that he was innocent of any guilt, that investigators paid attention. They turned on their cell-phone tracing thingies and eventually found his wife within five miles of a transmission tower. Her kidneys were failing, and there were a few broken bones, but youth and good health promised a solid recovery – assuming that Ms Rider will ever be able to overcome the horrible memory of lying helplessly and unhelped at the base of that ravine.  It’s true that the police cannot be expected to open investigations every time someone doesn’t make it home for dinner. Men presumably still tell their wives that they’re just going down to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes,  knowing in their hearts that they plan never to return. But hard and fast rules governing the opening of investigations are inappropriate. Police officers need to be better listeners; and I have no objection to helping them out with obligatory GPS transmitters on all vehicles. When a man comes into the precinct house to report that his wife and her car are missing, attention ought to be paid, because the guy is either telling the truth or he’s a murderer. Either way, it’s a big deal, and no time for parsing the rule book

Friday Movies: In The Valley of Elah

Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Going to the movies within days of discharge from the hospital – a good idea? Because I was determined, for safety’s sake, not to leave the neighborhood, there were only two possibilities, but one of them, Eastern Promises, just looked too uncongenial for a convalescent, chipper though I’ve been. In the Valley of Elah didn’t start until one, which would ordinarily be a mark against it, but my time is a little more flexible now that I’m forbidden to do 90% of the things that make this apartment bearable. In the event, Elah was showing at two, and the theatre that lies in the other direction. I spent the intervening hour cleaning the desk in the bedroom, which was dustier than the most neglected corner.

I’d promised to call Kathleen when I got to the theatre at one. Instead, I called when I got back to the apartment, promising when I got to the theatre at two. This I forgot to do. I called the moment I was back out in the street, but the damage had been done. “I finally gave up being sick about your lying in the street, thinking that somebody must have called.” Ouch. I really deserved that.

The movie that I did see was, I think, just about the perfect film for me today. I’ve been a fan of Tommie Lee Jones since The Eyes of Laura Mars. He was more promising than great in that extravagant portrait of New York City’s Titanic period, but he has borne forth more and more of his promise with every film that he has added to his list. In the Valley of Elah puts him, without a doubt, in the company of Newman and Redford – men who can convey all the sorrow and disappointment of American life without opening their mouths.

¶ In The Valley of Elah.

Morning News: Whether to Laugh or to Cry?

Friday, September 28th, 2007

You can’t say that the top brass never learns. After the failure of the Deepwater project, in which eight cutting-edge patrol boats were hauled out of the water because they were riddled with design and structural flaws, the Coast Guard decided to take an unusually early look at its new line of ships, called “national security cutters.” It was not pleased with what it found. Eric Lipton’s update, “Early Flaws Seen in New Coast Guard Cutter,” of a story scooped the other day by Wired is not his most lucid, but it does convey the man in the street’s dilemma. Ought we to be pleased that problems have been detected before billions have gushed into Lockheed Martin sinkholes, or should he lament the American soi-disant “advanced technology company” is supporting our troops and our nation with vessels compromised by “design flaws and improper installation of cables for its classified communications systems”?

Half full, or halp empty?

Brief Outing

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

The physical therapist who will pay four visits at the insurer’s expense but who says that there’s not really going to be any need for that many, doesn’t want me walking out in the streets unaccompanied until she gets to take a stroll with me on Monday down to Carl Schurz Park. While I observe the flora and the fauna, she will observe me.

But she did tell me that I must walk, and walk a lot, so I enlisted the help of Nom de Plume this afternoon. She’d had a long, all-day meeting, and I’m sure was hoping just to sit by the virtual fire and sip tea, but she readily agreed to walk me the two blocks up 86th Street to the “better” Barnes & Noble – better than the one across the street. I was looking for audiobooks, because sometimes my eyes just can’t take any more reading. The problem was, I’d either read the book, owned the book, or knew from the Book Review that the book wasn’t for me. I did find two titles, though, more about which later. I’m too tired to cross the room to fetch the shopping bag. We were out between five-thirty and six-fifteen. Yorkville High Street was very crowded, and I was lightly afraid of being jostled from behind. But our trip passed without incident. Somewhere between Wu Liang Ye and Laytner’s – both on the north side of 86th between Third and Second – I said to Nom that I felt that we’d walked halfway to midtown. I needed to walk!

I feel sure that I’ll sleep tonight. I don’t count on it, quite, not after I don’t know how many years of steering clear of bed until a few drams of alcohol have lulled my senses. Increasing numbers of drams. Right now, Valium is doing alcohol’s job, and I have every confidence that I’ll be able to cut back on the relaxant. Over the years, the doctors have prescribed every manner of sleeping potion (except the big guns, such as Ambien), but only one has worked, and I was dumbstruck when it was taken off the market as a recreationally-abused drugs. Qaaludes, which I started taking the day after they hit the market, worked perfectly for me, and I was amazed that they didn’t work for everyone. Typical, really. Want to know which one of a half-dozen proposed china patterns won’t sell very well? Just ask Kathleen and me to tell you our favorite. That’s the one.

In the Book Review

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Working my head off, I’m catching up faster than I expected to. It must be the fact that my body is as dry as Moore County. Here’s my review of this week’s Book Review. That leaves just one issue to deal with – the one that I ought to have spent the afternoon writing up, instead of going out on a tout and coming home so that I could break my neck.

¶ Meet the Supremes.

Souvenirs of Happy Times

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Knifey Mikey

Fossil Darling plays nurse’s aide.  He’s new at it, though, and doesn’t realize that what’s called for here is a spoon. I bear up well, don’t you think? Not a crease of impatience.

How Long I’ve waited…

On second thought, maybe the knife was less lethal.

Escape Agent

All the nurses and techs at the Hospital for Special Surgery are great (the doctors, of course, are gods), but if it weren’t for the indefagitably cheerful Colleen, I’d still be waiting for my release paperwork.

The Atrium/Solarium

Not that I’d mind looking out the window. Built directly over the FDR Drive, the new wing of the Hospital for Special Surgery makes the most of its views. That’s Roosevelt Island across the East River – home of “Main Street, New York.” The river is the real star of the show, because it’s always up to something different. It can lie still as a lake, or boil like a tidal bore. It flows north; it flows south. Unfortunately, the strait is so long that tides alone are incapable of flushing it clean.

Anyway, you can see why I hated to trade the scene of such lively frolics for the routines of home life.

Hurricane Tania

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Ho, my hearties! Don your foul-weather gear! Our shores are about to be swept by Hurricane Tania – not a weather system, but a Force Five Scandal, all the deadlier for appearing, at present, to be free of pecuniary drag. The sentimentality about “9/11″ (a semi-mythical event, replete with more heroes than the Iliad, but with tenacious roots in fact) is about to clash with the too-long leashed hounds of critical thinking.

Until just the other day, Tania Head, one of the very few survivors from a tower at or just above the point where the jetliners struck, was the president of the Survivors’ Network. There is no sugggestion that she has done anything wrong (such as misappropriating funds – it’s not even clear how she has supported herself) in this office, but there is also no suggestion, beyond her own, that her story of what happened on the 78th floor of the South Tower bears an iota of truth.

In their Times story, “In a 9/11 Survival Tale, the Pieces Just Don’t Fit,” David Dunlop and Serge F Kovalevski portray a woman who exploited the city’s psychological disarray to create a new identity for herself. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, Ms Head’s story worked like an “open, sesame,” to give her entrée to a ring at the circus of grief that became our obligatory entertainment for a few months before it was decided by harder heads that it was time to “move on.”

Ms Head claims to have attended Stanford and Harvard, but her multiple CVs suggest a fabulist without benefit of university training. Eventually and inevitably, a couple of journalists got interested in trying to patch her anecdotes into a coherent quilt. They couldn’t. Let’s see if, say, Rudy can.

My Touch of Wellsperger's

Thursday, September 27th, 2007

Because I know next to nothing about Asperger’s Syndrome, but believe that I present a few of the symptoms; and, furthermore, that reviewing my life in terms of cognitive gaffes, which appear to be the most striking aspect of the malady to healthy people, seems to explain a good deal of hitherto obdurately inexplicable behavior; and, finally, because I’m mindful that there are many sufferers whose lives have been crippled by the disorder, while mine has merely been inconvenienced, I have decided not to talk about Asperger’s at all. While I was in the hospital - under the influence of morphine, no doubt - I ran into many language labyrinths. I could never say “Percoset” right off. First of all, I had to reject “Prednisone.” Then I would thrash my way through verbal salads of “Penobscot,” “Pemaquid,” finally landing on “Butternut.” The Butternut phase was followed by an easy ability to say “Percoset.” All the while, I was thinking, in this or that connection, “That’s my Wellsperger’s talking.”  

In the essay that I linked to a couple of weeks ago, Tim Page makes the extraordinary claim that he learned how to interact with people from Emily Post’s handbook of etiquette. I had the advantage of direct tutorials from my mother, who would take me out to dinner before a Philharmonic concert every now and then. (As always, I went overboard. I wasn’t supposed to like the music; I was there to learn to sit still.) Ordinarily contentious, our relations during these evenings were almost playful. I was learning a game, and the object of the game was to fool waiters and headwaiters and other adults into regarding me as a well-behaved teen-ager, a “young man.” In the ad-libbed environment of high school free periods, with no script to work with, I was hopelessly clumsy. Every once in a while, I came up with a clever remark, but that made me tolerable, not admirable. Having absolutely no lust in my own breast, I couldn’t explain the knack that classmates had – especially the attractive, popular ones – for making themselves miserable because their passions were not satisfactorily requited. I hope it won’t offend readers to learn that I sailed through adolescence - and the rest of my life – untroubled, if that’s the word, by “nocturnal emissions.”

So I learned how to make friends and influence people from the outside in. I whistled happy tunes.

I whistle a happy tune
And ev’ry single time
The happiness in the tune
Convinces me that I’m not afraid.

Make believe you’re brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are….*

Eventually, I didn’t even have to whistle. This was a mistake, of course, because I still had much to learn  about people, and the memories of mistakes and inadvertent insults that I compounded during my twenties (when I was also a lobster out of water in Houston) can still make my blood run cold.

In any case, the idea of “acting naturally” strikes me as totally outlandish. I can fake acting naturally, but only after I’ve had thirty or so minutes to study my environment.

Here is the note that I want to close on, this morning: the time and effort that I have put into honing antennae and sizing up a roomful of people have cost me, if not a Nobel, then at least a MacArthur grant. Am I resentful? Certainly not! It’s a relief to know why.

* Rodgers and Hammerstein, The King and I.

What I'm Reading/In the Book Review

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

While my neck was broken and then under repair, I read a great deal, although my reading comprehension was occasionally impaired by Dilaudid. The stack of books to write up gets higher every day. Like every book that I’ve read since Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods: the Strange Rise of Modern India, Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer:The Secret History of the End of an Empire presents a territory in which massive inertia inevitably thunders calamitous slippages, and the bloodletting of the summer of 1947 makes celebrated disasters such as the Mutiny of 1857 look like backwoods honor-feuds. Ms von Tunzelmann definitely belongs to the historiographic tradition that holds that different players would probably have yielded different outcomes. Hers is not a book for Gandhi venerators.

I’ve started in on Tim Blanning’s huge The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815. Despite its title, this is a book fond of facts and figures, but it’s readable in moderate doses. I expect it to tell the story of how Europe managed during those two-and-a-half centuries to put itself in the way of the Industrial Revolution. The period also saw the birth of that most noxious of modern inventions, nationalism. (It’s interesting to note, reading Indian Summer, that India “caught” nationalism from the British. What had been benign and constructive on England’s island turned fratricidal in the Subcontinent.

Ms G, who together with Ryan was a perfect angel about visiting me the night before my surgery and packing a bag of very handy items, brought me her copy of a book that she had enthused about at dinner recently: Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. At the frontiers of brain science, the principal activity seems to be the demolition of long-established but probably erroneous assumptions about how the brain is set up. For all the “stories of personal triumph,” this is not a flightly or sensational book. Now that my drugs and venue are back to normal, I’m getting back into the book, some of which is familiar from other sources and all of which is fascinating.

As for fiction, I’m just in the right mood for Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock.

And as for the Book Review that I wrote over a week ago, with a broken neck,

¶ Lust for Numbers.

Morning News: Where to Begin?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

The Times is probably the same paper every day; it’s I who change. Most mornings, I can’t get the turnip to bleed; the very newsprint seems to be reverting to its aboriginal sawdust in my hands. This morning, however, is different.

¶ Sharing page A18 are stories about Fundamentalist Mormons and Liberal Episcopalians. Warren F Jefffs, son of the redoubtable Rulon, has been convicted as an accomplice to rape. All he did was arrange the marriage of a fourteen year-old girl to a cousin whom she didn’t care for. He wasn’t even in the room! But he wasn’t allowed to hide behind the fig-leaf of religious expression, either.

The prosecutor, Brock Belnap, said religion was not only irrelevant, but also a deliberate distraction that he said the defense was trying to inject to cloud jurors’ judgment. He said after the verdict that he expected an appeal.

As for the Episopalians, they seem prepared to bury their hatchets (if not very deeply) to repel the obnoxious intrusions of primarily Third-World brethren within the Worldwide Anglican Community.

Contrary to recent news reports that the conservatives were close to forming a unified new structure, Bishop Minns said there were no plans to announce the formation of a new Anglican body that would consolidate all the conservative groups that have broken with the Episcopal Church under one umbrella.

¶ Then, there’s the “What Can We Do About Protecting Our Kiddies From These Sociopathic Rap Lyrics” perennial. This would not be a particularly interesting story if it were not for the craven self-interested testimony of “industry” executives.

Under questioning, Mr. Bronfman and Doug Morris, chairman of the Universal Music Group, stood by the industry’s existing method of handling explicit content, including the voluntary labeling of graphic CDs with parental-advisory stickers. Though they defended the industry’s practices, Mr. Bronfman and Mr. Morris lamented that efforts to restrict young listeners’ access to explicit music had become futile amid the proliferation of copyrighted songs and videos online.

In other words, it’s the government’s fault for not granting the “industry” even more rapacious intgellectual-property rights than it already rather feudally enjoys.

¶ The only story with no sex oomph – and this is odd, considering the source, is Marc Santora’s “Candidates Battle the Slow Season for Fund-Raising.”

Mr. Giuliani seems to have outdone other campaigns with his effort in Kazakhstan, a country made famous, or infamous, by the movie “Borat,” starring the British comedian Sasha Baron Cohen. Though only Americans can contribute to presidential campaigns, Kazakhstan has many American oil and gas workers in addition to an office of the law firm where Mr. Giuliani was a partner, Bracewell & Giuliani of Houston.

He will appear in a videoconference, the campaign said.

His fund-raising there is raising eyebrows among human rights activists, primarily because President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been accused of being antidemocratic and abusing individual rights.

I’ll bet you anything that Mr Nazarbayev has an excellently-stocked humidor.

Morning News: The Reformed Roué

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

One begins to suspect that, if anyone can keep Rudy Giuliani out of the White House, it’s Times columnist Clyde Haberman. In today’s piece, “Call Him an Oddball if You Must, but Do Call,” Mr Haberman recounts the following extraordinary lapse in common sense – “extraordinary,” except that it has already happened once before on the campaign.

Non-New Yorkers got a taste of it the other day when Mr. Giuliani interrupted his speech — a very important speech — to the National Rifle Association in Washington. His cellphone rang. It was his wife, Judith. Smack in the middle of his talk, he whipped out the phone.

“Hello, dear,” he said in a syrupy voice. “I’m talking to the members of the N.R.A. right now. Would you like to say hello?” He listened, and laughed. “I love you, and I’ll give you a call as soon as I’m finished, O.K.?” he said. He listened a bit more. “O.K., have a safe trip. Bye-bye. Talk to you later, dear. I love you.”

Campaign aides said it was a spontaneous moment, with Mrs. Giuliani calling just before she boarded a plane.

Granted, lots of people call loved ones before a flight. But a presidential candidate doesn’t shut off his phone, and instead takes a call, in the middle of a major speech? The episode was so bizarrely cutesy-poo that more than a few people in the audience went, Eeeww! Nor was it an isolated incident; the same thing happened in Florida three months ago.

Mr Giuliani is behaving as ridiculously as the reformed-roué papa in Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend.

I'm Home!

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Incredibly, I’m at home. Thanks to everyone who sent so many good wishes; I hope to return the favor with a few good stories. But what a whirlwind! A week ago today, I was seeing a spine surgeon for the first time – and he was thinking that it was unsafe to let me go home to pack a bag. The next day, the surgery took either five hours (according to the MASH surgeon) or eight (according to the much more sober anaesthesiologist). Neurologists were on hand, continuously testing the integrity of my spinal cord.

Let’s not talk about Recovery (Thursday); it seemed to take place in a different country, one in which any high-tech support was well-hidden. They meant well, though.

The three days that I spent hanging around my double room made a story in improvements, and, just when I’d worked out all the right routines, it was time to go. Don’t worry – I wasn’t tempted to stick around.

I will leave you with the three Blessed Miracles:

1. When I take the neck brace off in March or sometime around then, my head will stand more erect than it did before the fall.

2. Unlike that of most ankylosing spondylitis victims, the constitution of my vertebrae is robust. For that reason, I’m not sporting a halo.

3. I can now undergo a CT scan without major ingestion of painkillers. Why it didn’t hurt in the least. The third one, I’m talking about.

God bless the good people – the very good people – at the Hospital for the Ruptured and the Crippled!

Health Update

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

I am aware that many of you have posted good wishes and I am very appreciative.

I am doing very well, am up and walking, and expect to be home in the next few days.

RJ

Disabled List

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

My condition has deteriorated and I now find myself in the hospital for back surgery.  No worries – I am under expert care and will return very soon.

What Are They Thinking?

Monday, September 17th, 2007

What is it with all these kiddies running around Manhattan – in flip-flops? I don’t see any sand; do you?

Morning News: Should We Laugh or Cry?

Monday, September 17th, 2007

USA Today marks its first quarter-century today. Richard Pérez-Peña’s story in the Times hails the upstart newspaper for a recent series of tough stories about underequipped American troops in Iraq, and one must grudgingly concede that its embrace of microarticles and graphics have probably contributed to a (slightly) better-informed electorate, at least among traveling businessmen. But it is also a testament to the degredation of thoughtful leisure in this country. Without a standard – however disregarded in practice - of carefully cultivated critical reflection, a society as big and complicated as ours is bound to wind up in some “inexplicable” messes, such as ill-conceived wars and exploding deficits.

In short, there is still nothing of the long-range frame of mind at USA Today.

Slight Improvement

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

If I don’t feel much better today than I did yesterday, that may be because I tackled too many jobs. I made a simple dinner for the two of us last night – spaghetti in Buitoni arrabiata sauce – and breakfast this morning. No big deal, ordinarily. But I’m coming to the tentative conclusion – nothing’s firm until the surgeon goes over my X-rays (the taking of which was a surprising ordeal) – that I ought to do as little as I can. At the same time, I’ve ordered from all the local eateries two times over. A diet of diner food is demoralizing.

As for reading, I’m maxing out. I may have to take a day off from the printed word, and just watch movies. Yesterday, I finished Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travelers. I was sobbing. Today, I read half of Katheryn Davis’s The Thin Place, a good book but not one that speaks to me as powerfully as the Mallon or as the even more astonishing Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra. That nine-hundred-page masterpiece kept me busy for over three breathtaken days. I’ve also started in on Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, in which the CIA is held up as a misconceived and incompetent organization run/ruined by Ivy League cowboys. It is a long way from the quiet piety of The Good Shepherd.

Speaking of movies, I’ve watched a few. Under the Tuscan Sun, the other night with Kathleen – a great fave of mine, and she had seen it only once. The Dreamers, Bernardo Bertolucci’s steamy movie about Soixante-Huit. Then, yesterday, Top Hat. It struck me as the most elegant American picture ever made, and to underscore its remarkable achievement, I watched its immediate predecessor, The Gay Divorcée, this evening. Everything vulgar and heavy about the earlier, much longer movie gets cleaned up in Top Hat, which, among other things, tamps down to the minimum the Busby Berkeley excesses of “The Continental.” Silly Alice Brady (whom I usually adore) is replaced by the delightfully mordant Helen Broderick. And, let’s face it, the clothes are much, much crisper. Top Hat gets everything right.

It did occur to me, though, that a song in praise of puttin’ on white ties and tails couldn’t possibly be sung by someone who had to do it with any regularity. That’s not because tails are uncomfortable, but because white-tie events have a waxworks aspect that is anything but invigorating.

I’d feel a lot better if I could raise my head a centimeter or two, but that’s a matter of morale, not pain. The pain is greatly reduced, and would be lesser still if I would just stay out of the kitchen.

Kathleen goes to Washington tomorrow for a conference, and she won’t be able to accompany me to the surgeon. But I’ll arrange for his secretary and Kathleen’s priceless Mona to set up an appointment, so that he can explain to her what he has told to me. I’ve reached the age where you don’t see a new doctor alone. You’re too anxious (at best) to pay attention to all the details.

Have the best Monday possible!

Convalescence

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

Convalescence is also the mother of invention, I’ve concluded. It is, after all, a kind of necessity. 

Since I was forbidden by Kathleen to undertake the weekly cleaning of our dustiferous apartment, I settled down with the Book Review. The idea of reading it, however, with no prospect of sitting at the desk in the blue room to write up my weekly feature, was too bleak. I resolved to get out the new laptop, which I haven’t used very much and which is therefore unfamiliar, and to write a note or two about each review as I went along, in the form of an email, which I would then send to the desktop for formatting. And that’s how I spent the mid-afternoon. It worked! But that’s enough for today.

Thanks to all the readers who have wished me well in comments and emails. I slept very well last night; the Valium seems to be fulfilling its primary function, as a muscle-relaxant. My head is still pushed downward, so that “eye-level” means “floor-level,” but I’m managing. I see a spinal surgeon on Tuesday, to rule out fracture. Fracture seems unlikely, but the possibility has to be looked into. Meanwhile, I’m left with spasming, inflamed neck, shoulder, and upper-arm muscles. If I sit still, the pain is slight to none. When I read, I place the book on a pillow in my lap. Oh, the reading I’ve done.

Happy weekend to all!

Sick Leave

Friday, September 14th, 2007

The other day, I had a bad fall, with still-undetermined consequences. Doing just about anything besides reading is painful, especially thinking and typing, both operations that this blog takes for granted. I will try to provide daily updates, but, for the time being, regular features are suspended.

Morning News

Wednesday, September 12th, 2007

As if the people of Iraq weren’t already suffering enough, they now face a country-wide epidemic of that old-fashioned but by no means extinct horror, cholera.