Archive for January, 2011

Daily Office: Vespers
In Little Egypt
Monday, 31 January 2011

Monday, January 31st, 2011

Across, the river, in the Little Egypt part of Astoria, the locals exhibit a progressive grasp of American foreign policy.

Today, there are at least 10 mosques in Astoria, several Arabic newspapers and a flourishing cultural scene that is attracting young hipsters from Manhattan. The 2006-2008 American Community Survey found that roughly 14,000 Egyptians were living in New York City, though community leaders say the actual number is higher since some are undocumented.

For some of the Egyptian-Americans of Astoria, who have long prided themselves on their assimilation into American life, the events in Egypt have tapped into divided loyalties. Many expressed support for “Barack Hussein Obama,” revered by many in the Arab world for his outreach to Muslims. But they also chastised him for what they described as his tepid rebuke of Mr. Mubarak and for American hypocrisy in the Middle East in general.

Mr. El Sayed was emphatic that he identified with both the protesters on the streets of Cairo and the man in the White House. “The U.S. has always supported tyrants, look at the shah, look at Saudi Arabia, we even supported bin Laden. So in Egypt we are now playing the same game by supporting Mubarak,” Mr. El Sayed said as he prepared his mother’s recipe for baba ghanouj, a dish of mashed eggplant. “But I would give my life for this country. We Egyptians here are American, and proud of it.”

But others said their patience with Washington was being tested. “Why doesn’t Mubarak appoint Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden to his new Cabinet since they are the ones who are saving him?” asked Hani Abdulhamid, 30, a filmmaker originally from Aswan, in southern Egypt. “They say he isn’t a dictator because he works for them.”

For those not lucky enough to emigrate to the United States, radical Islamism just might be the only response to American-suppolrted tyrannies.

Gotham Diary:
Will E Makit

Monday, January 31st, 2011

My friend Eric’s account of his holiday trip to Paris reminded me not as much of my own three visits as of my fear that I would never get to Europe — a fear that overshadowed the first half of my life, or nearly. I was 29 when I finally got to go — late in the day for someone who had committed the English succession to memory in grade school. I was to go to Angers in my sophomore year at Notre Dame, but my life fell apart for a while before that could happen, and my sophomore year turned into a second freshman year spent very much in South Bend. And once I’d graduated, I was more concerned about getting back to New York than with making it to Europe. My scheme for getting back to New York via law school ultimately worked, more or less, but it turned out that I crossed the Atlantic first. My mother died, and my father took me to Europe in her place.

In an impish comment at Sore Afraid, I suggested that the trip was booked before cancer treatments killed my mother (this was in 1977). Of course that’s not true. All we were thinking about for most of 1976 was whether the doctors would turn out to be right about how many months she had to live. They were. Oh, and one other thing: how to relate to a woman who let it be known from the first inklings of illness that her demise was not to be discussed. Her last words to me, which I could barely make out (to her towering frustration), were: “Did you put the leftover ravioli in the freezer?” We’re talking big-time denial here. Mother was dead within the hour, as we were driving home from M D Anderson.

Soon after that, my father developed throat cancer. At least, his doctor was worried that that might be what had turned his throat a chalky white. By now, the trip to Europe was booked. It would be a road trip, just like the trips that my parents loved to take wherever they were, even if it meant hiring a driver. I truly believe that my father’s favorite thing in life was to zoom along an Interstate Highway at 110 0r 120 mph, preferablyin Kansas, bombing from El Dorado — a town that exercised a mysterious attraction for him, perhaps because there was a super deluxe motel there — to Kansas City. I think that he liked it best when my mother was doing the speeding. They really loved their cars, which may explain why I’m just as happy not to own one.

We would fly to London and then to Paris, my father and I. From Paris we would drive straight east, through Munich and Salzburg, to Vienna. Then would fly to Ireland, spend a few days at Dromoland Castle, and come home. I can’t say that I was looking forward to all that driving, but in retrospect I think that it would have been the best part of the trip — which was not canceled because of Dad’s throat cancer. Dad didn’t have throat cancer. The white stuff on his esophagus had been deposited there by aspirin tablets, which my father had fallen into the habit of swallowing without drinking water. We did go to Europe after all. But once we were there, Dad’s life fell apart. He discovered that I was not the fun traveling companion that my mother had been, and his mourning commenced in earnest.

It started on the flight over. I was cross because we were seated in coach. For seven years, I had not flown on a commercial airliner, much less in coach. I piggy-backed rides (rarely offered) on company planes. I got used to driving up right up to the jet, and even more used to climbing the stairs without a thought for the luggage, which was stowed by the crew. It turned out that I have a natural and abiding affinity for first-class travel. If I have to settle for less, I’d just as soon settle for staying home. I know that now. I was only beginning to learn it as I sat next to Dad in the vastness of Pan Am’s steerage. I tried to distract myself with a book. For the life of me, I can’t remember Dad’s exact words, but it amounted to a request for conversation that, ungrateful wretch that I was, I couldn’t think how to grant. I was too busy worrying that one of the large families occupying the center bay of seats would produce a farm animal.

Also, after all those years of neat little Havillands, I couldn’t see how a 747 could stay airborne. My fear of flying blossomed two flights later, crossing the Alps in a Caravelle. For the duration of the flight, my body fairly screamed its conviction that the plane was locked in a whistling descent, hurtling toward the Matterhorn. Conversation was once again out of the question.

We were on the Caravelle, and not in a sedan, because — d’you know, I forget why? Every morning, in London and then in Paris, Dad announced that we’d be going home the next day. I think that he substituted the flight to Vienna just to do something. A premature return to Houston would have entailed embarrassing explanations. And even Dad knew that I wasn’t entirely to blame for not being Mom. Nor was I to blame for the doctor’s visits, at the Grosvenor House and the Intercontinental in Paris. Both of them declared that he must stop drinking if he wanted to stop falling down. So we flew to Vienna for the few days that we’d meant to spend there, and found that our hotel room was wallpapered identically to the dining room in our Bronxville house, which my parents had (treacherously, as far as I was concerned) abandoned for Tanglewood in 1968. Maybe the wallpaper made the mourning easier. Maybe it was the fact that I had no real agenda in Vienna. My father sat through a pops concert with me — that’s all that was on offer, what with all the real musicians off at various summer festivals, and I remember thinking that I’d be the only person in nearby St Stephen’s if I got to an organ concert ten minutes earlier. I had to stand at the back of the nave, a nice little lesson in Viennese musicality. By the time we flew to Dublin, I was almost out of the doghouse. But only almost. Dad blew his top when all the books and records that I’d bought in the three capitals added sixty dollars in surcharges.

In Dublin, we spent the night at the Gresham. I did not sleep; the sound of pub-crawlers never let up. But I must have dozed, because in the morning I was awake enough to get behind the wrong-sided wheel of a car for the first time in my life and drive right across Ireland. And now that we were in a car, my father and I really had fun. I don’t know what we talked about, but there was laughter, and I basked in his admiration of my driving skill, which was largely exhibited in a series of near misses with death. What fun that drive across Bavaria would have been! Plus, it would have kept us on schedule. Now we were arriving at Dromoland castle — a first class hotel if ever there was one — a few days early, and they weren’t ready for us. We had to stay in a motel on the property, a decidely non-super deluxe motel. That was all right; we spent the days driving all over Counties Clare and Galway. Aside from the Cliffs of Moher, the ruins of an abbey, and an unspeakably flavorless tapioca pudding, I have no recollection of seeing anything. It was wasn’t important. Driving was important. We drove around, as aimlessly as teenagers, and had a blast.

Dad did not fall down in Ireland. He almost fell, but he caught himself before he tripped over me. I had given up on the bed and was trying to sleep on the floor — surprise!

After doing some research, Dad discovered that Aer Lingus wouldn’t impose TWA’s luggage surcharges, so it was in an Irish brogue that I learned, midway across the Atlantic, that we’d be landing at JFK in the middle of a blackout. How would that work?

Daily Office: Matins
Lurch
Monday, 31 January 2011

Monday, January 31st, 2011

We applaud Ross Douthat for reminding us how foolish it is to act according to principle in foreign affairs.

The memory of Nasser is a reminder that even if post-Mubarak Egypt doesn’t descend into religious dictatorship, it’s still likely to lurch in a more anti-American direction. The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire. But then again they might be worse. There are devils behind every door.

Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

We wish that America, given its pathetic losing streak since 1945 (and, no, we did not win the Cold War), could lurch likewise.

Daily Office
Grand Hours
Saturday, 29 January 2011

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Matins

¶ At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok endorses the ethical sentiments of economist Ed Glaeser, who writes in a somewhat self-congratulatory way about the “respect” shown by liberal economists to individuals when they allow them to make their own decisions about such controversial actions as selling their organs. “Economists like John Stuart Mill thought that all people were able to make rational choices, that trade not coercion was the best route to wealth, and that everyone should be counted equally, regardless of race.” This is either blinkered or naive — blinkered, we suspect. How can anyone be so naive as to think that an uneducated woman, wholly dependent upon the men in her family for her material needs, would not be vulnarable to all manner of low-level extortions, culminating in an effectively arranged marriage? That’s why we go for blinkered. When Mill speaks of “all people,” he means “all heads of households,” the only people whose decisions naturally matter to economists. The trick for us is to allow the heads of households to follow their self-interest, while protecting members of their families from their petty tyrannies — in a way that does not give rise to two or more legal classes. ¶ “Questions About Heaven.” We have the answer: heaven is an incredibly infantile concept. God forbid! (The Awl)

Lauds

¶ Righteously scoffing at the prospect of a new opera about, of all things & people, Anna Nicole Smith (who was who, exactly? No — don’t remind us), Adrian Hamilton explains the power of grand opera in a few succinct sentences that anybody can grasp. (Independent; via Arts Journal)

Opera’s unique justification as an art form is that it uses the greatest of all musical instruments, the voice, to express the most fundamental drive of all society, the human emotion. At its grandest, as in Verdi, it can set the voice of the individual against the great swirl of events as expressed in the music. At its most intimate it can, as with Mozart, portray the frailty and humour of man by setting music not just to support the voice but to comment on and even contradict it. Music can make you feel what you want to feel – pride, pity or patriotism – but opera can also make you sense what you don’t want to – the dangerous yearning for a new beginning in Wagner’s Parsifal, sympathy for a witch in Handel’s Alcina, admiration for a philanderer in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

¶ We’re not sure why Eric Freeman entitled his Awl entry about The King’s Speech The Dark Side of Oscar Bait,” because the whole point of the piece is how well the film presents the stammerer’s agonies. Mr Freeman knows what he’s talking about: he share’s George VI’s affliction.

Prime

¶ Yves Smith dismantles Joe Nocera’s comparison of the recent housing bubble to the “tulip mania” that erupted in the Netherlands in 1636. First, she reports recent research that alters the picture first presented by Charles McKay a century and a half ago. Second, she challenges the claim that the housing bubble was the root of the recent financial crash; in Yves’s view, the housing bubble was no more than the ignition that detonated a larger, worldwide mass of imprudent gambles — risks by and large taken on by “sophisticated” professional investors, not the “men in the street” alleged to have paid too much for tulips and houses. A must-read for clear thinkers. (Naked Capitalism) ¶ Have we been saying this for years or what?: Health care costs must be dealt with before health care payments can be addressed. Thanks to Atul Gawande and Donald Marron, we’re getting closer to a mainstream understanding of that point.

Tierce

¶ We confess that our weakness for virtual explorations of the Mandelbrot Set severely challenges our ability to evaluate a new claim that partition numbers are predictable — that they follow patterns that mirror the Mandelbrot Set’s structures. That, and the fact that we’d never even heard of partition numbers before, and couldn’t tell you one useful thing about imaginary numbers  (which is what the Mandelbrot Set is made up of, no?) means that we have no business noting this development. (Wired Science) ¶ In Boston, an outfit called Gym-Pact will arrange for you to be penalized if you don’t show up for your appointed workouts. “Honey! I saved hundreds of dollars, and I lost forty pounds!” Somehow this reminds us of Sid Caesar: “Why don’t we not go to Paris and save a thousand dollars?” (GOOD)  ¶ Without the help of Gym-Pact, Carrie Fisher lost 4.8 pounds! That should get her to San Miguel de Allende at least! ¶ Carol Tavris reviews Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, a book that includes a delicious “romp through the fields of neurosexism.” Our favorite example of a difference without importance: the toy choices of four year olds, a/k/a “the gender police.” (TLS; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Yet another reason for anticipating with pleasure the day when private automobiles no longer make sense: songbirds are singing at night because they can’t be heard during daylight. We do, however, hope to hear a real, live nightingale before we die. (Nigeness)

Sext

¶ James Ward takes a jaundiced view of a British ad campaign that seems to rest on a weird internal Schadenfreude. You may feel guilty about giving tourists bad directions, but you won’t feel bad about eating our low-fat chips! James is right: it’s wrong-hearted and -headed to infuse a pleasure with the consciousness of not doing some wicked thing that we’ve done in the past. Quite aside from the monstrosity of giving deliberately misleading directions. (Except, of course, for that great episode in 2 Days in Paris. (I Like Boring Things) ¶ Hallie Bateman writes about being mistaken, in high school, for “shy.” Whereas in fact she was determined never to speak unless it was “absolutely necessary.” Distinctly un-American! (The Bygone Bureau) ¶ “Fun to read” — Frédéric Filloux is writing about the Guardian and the Times, vis-à-vis Le Monde. We’ve been wanting to send a similar message to the good folks at The Nation, which has become an extraordinarily penitential experience.

Nones 

¶ Are we ready to talk about Egypt? The inestimable William Pfaff is: “Uprisings, From Tunis to Cairo.” (NYRB) ¶ “Gordon Reynolds’s” account of Cairo’s Friday. It’s a happening place — too much so for our reflective comments. We could make all the obvious criticisms of yet another failed oligarchy, but the only thing that matters is what happens next, and it hasn’t. (The Awl) ¶ The forgotten Christianity of the East, brought to life by Philip Jenkins. (Armarium Magnum)

Vespers

¶ While we agree as a matter of course that Orhan Pamuk is right to deplore the resistance of Anglophone literary life to translations from other languages, we also agree with Claire Armitstead, who disputes Pamuk’s claim that English and American critics “provincialize” him by observing (correctly, in our view) that the Turkish writer’s novels are “rooted in their particular social context” — which is what makes them the imaginative magic carpets that they are (at least for Anglophones!) (Guardian; via Arts Journal) ¶ Speaking of the Jaipur Literature Festival (where Mr Pamuk made his complaint), Karan Mahajan has a very intriguing piece about William Dalrymple at Bookforum, “The Don of Delhi.” And here we thought that Mr Dalrymple was a study-wuddy. Unh-unh. He’s a baronet’s grandson and the descendent of a Scots adventurer who got to be known as “the biggest liar in India.” Mr Dalrymple, who runs the Jaipur festival, is as colorful as his Mughal and Company subjects. ¶ A cheerful look at the JFL at Globe and Mail.

¶ Meanwhile, when it comes to selling books, and not just sellebrating them, Sir Basil Blackwell said it all in 1935. Bookselling is indeed a timeless business. (The Age of Uncertainty).

Compline

¶ At The Baseline Scenario, Simon Johnson worries about what we call the Blinder Prospect, after Princeton economist Alan Blinder, who blithely forecasted it several years ago in Foreign Affairs. In “Davos: Two Worlds, Ready Or Not,” Johnson points out the “cognitive dissonance” (we’d call it hypocrisy) that allows flourishing CEOs to disavow responsibility for public health while claiming benefits from the public weal. If unchecked, this leads to a world populated by rentiers and their employees. ¶ The Humble Student of the Markets illustrates the point with some clear and distinct infographics. ¶ What doesn’t help in this murky environment is cultural anti-elitism, a confusing smoke-screen behind which the power elite pull the strings. At Brainiac, Josh Rothman makes a valiant attempt to deal with the chewing-gum qualities of the term “elite”; clarity would be too much ask for. ¶ Ancient History: AO Scott addressed the problem of cultural elitism in the middle of January. (via The Rest Is Noise) ¶ Jason Kottke reminds us of a great mission statement that expresses everything that’s good about entrepreneurship — and, by implication, how far the titans of Davos are from embodying it.

Have a Look

¶ TJB has a look at Hollywood’s own Rose Bertin, Edith Head. (Stirred, Straight Up, With a Twist)

¶ Der Rosenkavalier turns 100. (MetaFilter)

¶ A clip from Enthiran: have you heard of this Indian film? Well, you have now. (MetaFilter)

¶ The Gentleman’s Directory. (A Continuous Lean)

¶ The Hydraulic Escalator. (For Firefighters) (BLDGBLOG)

¶ Duncan Gray. (Find the Beethoven!) (3 Quarks Daily)

Noted

¶ Marilyn analyzes Sigmund (inter alia). Can this letter be for real? It’s certainly very readable, and we didn’t spot not one single typo! (Letters of Note)

¶ John Williams writes that Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule charms and befuddles.” (The Second Pass)

¶ Ongoing corona research. Sun. Beer. Penis. (Discoblog)

¶ We hate to admit it, but Choire Sicha’s Learn-to-Love-Flying program is the only one that will ever work. (The Awl)

¶ Elegant Variation. Maîtrisez-le. (Daily Writing Tips)

Weekend Update:
Winter Hours
Saturday, 29 January 2011

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Here it is, the end of January, and I got to the Museum for the first time this year only yesterday. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to go. It’s that my priorities have been difficult to establish, beyond rescheduling all of the everyday routines, some of them forty years old. If I’d tried to pull of such a palace coup any earlier in my life, it would have killed me. This time, I waited until I knew where all the bodies were. (That is, I had taken full and honest measure of all my weaknesses and bad habits.) Regime-change at home has made it difficult to conceive of outings abroad, so it was helpful that Ms NOLA wanted to go to the Museum, too. I might not bother to go for myself, but I would go to indulge her.

And a good thing, too, because she quickly spied a notice for the current photography show, Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand. Three rooms packed with beautiful prints of iconic images, including three large variants of Stieglitz’s image of the Flatiron Building. The dozens of largely unfamiliar images in a pendant show, Our Future Is In The Air: Photographs from the 1910s, mounted in the photography gallery proper, made an apt antiphon to the Americans’ show. We found, when we strolled out into the chamber of horrors, that we’d looked so intensely at the photographs that we didn’t want to see anything else. Which was a shame in a way, because the crowd was unusually thin, and we should have had most galleries to ourselves.

We soldiered on, to Crawford Doyle and Williams-Sonoma, and how I’d have got myself and all my purchases home without Ms NOLA’s help I’ve no idea. My arms felt ready to pullfrom their sockets before I had even crossed Lexington Avenue. Four books and my shoulder bag in one hand (the shoulder bag won’t stay on my slopy old-man shoulders), a Staub Cocotte in the other. Cast iron and paper — all I lacked was a backpack full of bricks. Ms NOLA carried the lightweight but bulky box of Riedel wine glasses that were available in a pay-for-six, get-eight stems carton. Later, at dinner, Kathleen and I would wonder if we’d opened a freak bottle of our house wine (a Montes Alpha syrah), or if drinking from proper wine glasses really made the difference.

Now I am on my way downtown. A certain grandson came down with an ear infection this week, and his parents need a break. I don’t think that Will and I will be going for any walks, but I’m taking the carrier just the same, along with a box of delicious boat cakes that J— brought up the other day when he came to configure my new laptop.

Ms NOLA and I were both surprised to see the Museum’s fountains burbling amidst the piles of snow. They’ve been shut off for so long that one hoped that one had seen the last of them. Not having swung by the place in a while (as I say), I couldn’t say when or why the fountains were restored to life. I couldn’t complain.  

Daily Office: Vespers
Smeary Christmas?
Friday, 28 January 2011

Friday, January 28th, 2011

The Times has taken the nomination of an openly gay lawyer, J Paul Oetken, to the Federal Bench as an occasion to revisit the aborted nomination, last year, of Daniel Alter, a matter that gets more coverage in Benjamin Weiser’s story.

Mr. Alter declined to comment on Thursday, but told The New York Law Journal in October that his nomination appeared to have run into trouble because of “certain false attributions” to him of statements that he denied making.

The Washington Blade had earlier reported that Mr. Alter, while working for the Anti-Defamation League, was quoted in a news service article as recommending against merchants using “Merry Christmas” instead of a more generic greeting and in remarks in a magazine suggesting the group favored legal challenges to the use of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Mr. Alter told The Law Journal: “Neither of the quotations attributed to me are accurate or in any way reflect my personal reviews.” The White House has declined to comment on the issue.

Last summer, 66 of his former colleagues in the United States attorney’s office wrote to Mr. Schumer, urging the senator to fight for his nomination.

A fasten-seatbelts warning to Mr Oetken?

Moviegoing:
The Company Men

Friday, January 28th, 2011

I hustled down Second Avenue to the Beekman Theatre this morning for the first show of John Wells’s The Company Men, a movie that came out just in time to get lost in the Christmas rush. It also did not open wide, which is not surprising, given its extremely thoughtful mood.

Te Company Men is a film that wants us to think about the humiliation of losing your high-status job, but not to wallow in it. Because getting fired is a bummer that we all worry about from time to time — not to mention something that has happened to millions of hardworking Americans in the past thirty-five years — Mr Wells can present the familiar nightmare in loosely arrayed, quickly-drawn details that leave us relaxed enough to consider the reasons for corporate downsizing. There is really only one reason, and it’s stated by the bad guy, James Salinger (Craig T Nelson): “We work for the stockholders now.” If this is true, then nothing is more important than the happiness of rentiers. How do we feel about that? 

The action pivots toward a happy ending when one potential rentier, discharged senior executive (and Salinger’s former best friend) Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), decides that he would rather work than live on dividends. He would rather start his own company than benefit from the success of someone else’s. He would prefer to risk his capital in a manner requiring lots of job creation. Once he makes up his mind to do this, you wonder why it took him so long, but then you see that of course it would take someone in his position a long time to snap out of a lotus-eating career that dulled the social conscience. When Gene confesses to a former protégé. Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), that he enjoys $500 lunches and private jet flights, you understand why it took a colleague’s suicide to wake him up. 

By this point in the story, Bobby has finally accepted his own fall from grace. Denying it, or believing it to be temporary, was an important element of his make-up at the beginning; he’s the kind of regional sales director who regards the slightest acknowledgment of defeat to be the first step in an irreversible slide toward failure, and the movie focuses on the way in which holding on to stuff — a zippy Porsche, a country club membership, his son’s X-Box — is a vital part of keeping failure at bay. Except, as his wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt) has to remind him, he is a failure. She does this with all the kindness in the world, hoping desperately to get through to him the need to change their way of life. In Bobby’s eyes, changing their way of life is to abandon all hope. He has to learn to see things differently, and eventually he does, going to work for his brother-in-law (Kevin Costner), a small-time contractor who does his own carpentry. Everything is done to cushion the transition from executive to laborer. We can see that it’s got to be tough, but there are no scenes or tantrums, even though the brothers-in-law have never been friends. Mr Wells trusts Mr Affleck to show us that what seemed too horrible to imagine at the beginning has become almost redeeming. Some viewers will object that the director has pulled his punches, and that is exactly what he has done. He wants to remind us that an decent, ordinary guy can transcend his own drama. 

With regard to the third leading role, that of Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), Mr Wells is willing to make concessions to the grim realities of ageing in corporate life. The simple fact that Phil is sixty (and looks it) means that he has no future. It is also true that Phil doesn’t have much imagination; nor does he have Bobby’s most formidable resource, a loving wife. The only question about Phil’s downfall is whether he’ll take out anyone with him when he blows. Mr Wells is to be commended for eschewing the sensationalism that might have capped this plot line.

The astonishing thing about The Company Men is the commitment that this handful of very capable actors bring to their roles. I resist the word “intensity,” because melodrama is not on the menu; if The Company Men is about how executives deal, or don’t deal, with the ultimate adversity, it is nevertheless not about how they landed there. The gratuitousness of their discharges — all in the nominal interest of increasing shareholder value, but in the actual interest of preserving Salinger’s hold on power — means that the disaster is not about them. (At the same time, this is not a show about capricious Greek gods whose whims must be accepted by mere mortals. It’s a movie about the derailed juggernaut of financialized capitalism, where you make money not by making things but, essentially, by not spending money.) Messrs Afflect, Cooper, and Jones all do things that I’ve never seen them do before; again and again, they ask, wordlessly but with eloquently troubled faces, if the economic mess that we’re in can be fixed.

The women are great, too — especially Ms DeWitt, who to my mind deserves Maria Bello’s billing, not because she’s better than Ms Bello (who plays the company’s HR hatchet, and also Gene’s mistress — a relationship that survives her firing him), but because her part is so much bigger and more essential a strand of the story’s web. We hope that this will be a breakout role for Rosemarie DeWitt. Another face to watch is Anthony O’Leary, who plays the Walkers’ son. The resigned dignity with which he shows the boy preparing to be tucked in by his father, once the family has relocated to the vernacular atmosphere of Bobby’s parents’ house, is striking for such a quiet moment. He pulls out his earbuds with all the heaviness of a man prepared to hear a terminal prognosis. 

I can’t wait to see this extraordinary movie again.

Daily Office: Matins
Dirty Work
Friday, 28 January 2011

Friday, January 28th, 2011

The murder of David Kato, in his own home and by someone whom he knew, reminds us that, in Uganda as elsewhere in Africa, homophobia is encouraged and even legitimated by evangelical christianists from the United States.

The Americans involved said they had no intention of stoking a violent reaction. But the antigay bill was drafted shortly thereafter. Some of the Ugandan politicians and preachers who wrote it had attended those sessions and said that they had discussed the legislation with the Americans.

After growing international pressure and threats from a few European countries to cut assistance — Uganda relies on hundreds of millions of dollars of aid — Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, indicated that the bill would be scrapped.

But more than a year later, that has not happened, and the legislation remains a simmering issue in Parliament. Some political analysts say the bill could be passed in the coming months, after a general election in February that is expected to return Mr. Museveni, who has been in office for 25 years, to power.

Surely this dabbling in foreign affairs gives grounds for rescinding 503(c)(1) status.

Daily Office: Vespers
But Is It Art?
Thursday, 27 January 2011

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Thanks to Amy Chua, for making “Mom, You’re One Tough Art Critic” a bit more newsworthy- and less slow-news-day-looking than it is.

Ms. Hanff is always on the lookout for “exceptional” drawings. But this entire batch would soon be archived in the rubbish bin. “I’m not sentimental about those at all,” she said. “It’s my job to avoid raising a hoarder, and I’m leading by example.”

But Elisabeth has been known to fish her drawings out of the trash and present them to her mother. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, thank you,’ ” Ms. Hanff said. “We’ll have a discussion. I’m not callous. But once she turns away, often I’ll toss it out again.”

Elisabeth’s creative work, it should be noted, can be found all over the house. (At this point, her 2-year-old sister, Charlotte, doesn’t claim as much wall space.) Elisabeth started embroidering last year. And her grandmother gave her a grown-up watercolor set. In a vaguely Dadaist spirit, Elisabeth used a floret of broccoli to paint the pointillist color study that hangs in her bedroom.

“I do think my kids are awesome,” Ms. Hanff said. “I tell them how great they are. But we’re not going to build an addition on the back for every piece of crayon art they’ve ever done.”

An addition might be cheaper than years of analysis. (We’re kidding!)

Happy Mozart’s Birthday!

Reading Note:
Too Much Daylight
Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I wish that I liked Matthew Gallaway’s new novel better. The Metropolis Case is imaginative — to a fault, but that’s not what put me off — intelligent, and often enormously moving. The characters are fully realized and quite likeable — even the difficult Maria Sheehan, who sings like a goddess but who has a punk mouth on her. The novel’s areas of interest, so to speak, are opera (with a major in Wagner) and New York City — what’s not to love. The plot ingeniously weaves together narrative and symbolic strands from several masterpieces of the lyric stage, and it delivers, in its way, on its title reference, which is to an opera by Leos Janaček, Več Makropulos (The Makropulos Case). I am not going to unpack any of these references; it’s enough to say that Gallaway handles them sensitively. He knows what he is doing.

If only, I wished, he knew how he was writing. Well, no doubt he did and does. But his choice of tone was both grating and disappointing. The richly brooding quality of his stories called to mind some of the greatest contemporary writers, Joseph O’Neill, Andrew Holleran, and Colm Tóibín. This is a book that fearlessly confronts the tragic side of love — the loss of it, the impossibility of it — on both the parental and companionate scales. Like Darren Aronofksy’s Black Swan, The Metropolis Case recreates and re-imagines works that its characters are engaged in performing. The dark moments in the book are well-composed; they wouldn’t be moving, otherwise. It’s what fills up the book in between those moments that’s annoying and mistaken. Instead of fixing on a tone of suggestive restraint, Gallaway is prodigal with scenic details, and his default setting is ”novel of manners.” This essentially comic voice is what grates. It’s not that the book is funny; it’s not (although there are a few good laughs). But it is very much a novel of daylight. In a book that breathes the heavy aura of Tristan und Isolde, daylight is the last thing that’s wanted.

About two thirds of the way through, I imagined a frightful conversation between the author and some of his friends, in which they cautioned him that a book about opera that takes place partly in Nineteenth Century Paris and Vienna would be lacking in hanger appeal. Maybe nobody mentioned another opera, Hansel and Gretel, but that’s what I thought of: like the witch, Gallaway compensated for the récherché nature of his material by piling on loads of name checks, related with a chatty-Cathy determination to put the reader in the picture.

Having addressed the needs of his new charge, Martin sliced himself two pieces of French sourdough; on one he spread his favorite Pierre Robert Camembert and on the other placed several slices of prosciutto di Parma and a sweet sopressata. These he took back to his study, along with a bottle of Shiraz he cradled in the nook of his elbow; a large wineglass, and an opener he carried in the fingers of his left hand, which in the course of the past hour or so had again started to ache. Dante, apparently full — although he did not say so, to Martin’s slight disappointment — sat quietly on the corner of the rug. “Good job,” he patenrally addressed the cat, who looked through him with an utter lack of acknowledgment that Martin did not fail to appreciate, for it seemed to reinforce his expectation that dante was not the sort who planned to run around breaking things, or even needed to be told otherwise.

I’d have preferred to jump into Gallaway’s imaginative brick oven without such enticements. Dante, the cat in the foregoing paragraph, is soon joined by Beatrice, whose eventual death is lovingly, almost climactically, retold at the end. (It could not be clearer that this is a passage taken straight from the life.) The fact that Beatrice meets her sad end at the Animal Medical Center, a facility a few blocks south of where I receive quarterly infusions of Remicade, did not exactly conduce to a transfiguring literary experience. But that’s just me.

The worst thing about such a profusion of details is that one or two inevitably clatter to the floor and break — because they’re wrong. In a comedy, who cares? On a walk with love and death such as this book takes us on, the racket is jarring. The first accident that I noticed occured on page 33, where we’re told that Lucien Marchand’s father has been “awarded a life tenancy for providing the beleaguered emperor with a cure for what in polite society was called la condition infernale…” The problem is that this entry is dated — each chapter begins with a date-stamp — Paris, 1846. To the best of my knowledge, there was only one emperor on earth at that time, Asian potentates and the Tsar aside, and, living in Vienna as he did, the Kaiser was unlikely to have the gift of life tenancies on the Ile St-Louis. Louis Napoleon would not preside over the Second Empire for a few years yet. This error could have been fixed at a stroke; France had a king at the time, and kings are no less familiar with impotence than emperors. If you’re going to name a monarch, you’d better name him correctly. The last error that I caught was even sloppier: Lucien addressed his first male lover, in his death-throes, as “mon chère.”

I hate coming away from a book disappointed; I feel that I haven’t done it justice. I can at least say that wishing that I’d like it more is honest: I did like it, often very much. More and more as it went on — as it went on, the narrative got thicker and richer. But oh, I wish that Matthew Gallaway had trusted more in what Tristan and Isolde have to say about Nacht and Tag.

Daily Office: Matins
Pacem appellant
Thursday, 27 January 2011

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

As an unforeseen youth movement rocks Egypt more precariously than any previous opponents of Hosni Mubarak, the United States, stupefied by its fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, risks wrong-footing its relationship with the new régime, largely by hoping that there won’t be one. Mohamed ElBaradei,  a Nobelist and former head of IAEC as well as a champion of liberal reform, expected better of us.   

Dr. ElBaradei, with his international prestige, is a difficult critic for Mr. Mubarak’s government to jail, harass or besmirch, as it has many of his predecessors. And Dr. ElBaradei eases concerns about Islamists by putting a secular, liberal and familiar face on the opposition.

But he has been increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the West. He was stunned, he said, by the reaction of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Egyptian protests. In a statement after Tuesday’s clashes, she urged restraint but described the Egyptian government as “stable” and “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”

“ ‘Stability’ is a very pernicious word,” he said. “Stability at the expense of 30 years of martial law, rigged elections?” He added, “If they come later and say, as they did in Tunis, ‘We respect the will of the Tunisian people,’ it will be a little late in the day.”

Daily Office: Vespers
Dilatory
Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

It would have been nice of Sarah Lyall to give us some idea of how long the Labor peers can keep at their filibuster to prevent voting reform in Britain.

“It’s never been like this before, with such a palpable sense of anger,” said Baroness d’Souza, convener of the cross-bench peers, who have no party affiliation. “I believe that if this isn’t resolved quickly, what we’re seeing is the beginning of the unraveling of the House of Lords.”

The bill would trigger a referendum May 5 on whether to change the way election votes are calculated, and it would redraw Britain’s parliamentary boundaries, reducing the number of seats in the House of Commons to 600, from 650. The coalition government wants it, because it would fulfill the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to enact voting reform, and because the Conservatives would benefit from the boundary changes.

Labour is resisting because, while it supports voting reform, it vehemently opposes the redistricting proposal. The measure must become law by Feb. 16 in order for the May 5 referendum to proceed, and Labour is determined to delay the bill so that it misses the deadline.

Nano Note:
Playing Favorites

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

The other day, my daughter asked me if I’d like to have a box of classical-music CDs that she was getting rid of. Either she didn’t care for them or she had copied them into her iTunes library, but I was happy either way to take them home. When I went through the discs, I saw that I’d given  some of them to her myself, years ago, and for pretty much the same reason that she was giving them back to me: a shortage of house room. (I certainly don’t have more storage space today, but by getting rid of jewel boxes I can store discs more compactly.) Most of my handovers were what I thought of as secondary recordings of beloved works, purchased for the CD library that I kept at the apartment at a time when I was spending most of my time at our house in Connecticut. When we sold the house, I no longer needed these extras, because I would invariably listen to my favorite recording of almost anything, given the chance. Of course there were things that I loved so much that I had multiple recordings. Mozart’s piano concertos, and his later operas (I have six Cosìs alone; seven if you include a DVD.) But I thought that it was enough to have just one recording of most pieces of music. My youthful impulse, not surprisingly, had been to have many different compositions in my library, and this necessarily limited the collecting of different performances of the same compositions. One set of Chopin’s Nocturnes was enough. I don’t think that there was anything unusual about this outlook. 

There are two ways to hear classical music: you can select a recording and play it on some device or other; or, you can tune into the radio (more likely, its successors, XM and Pandora). You can choose what to hear yourself, or you can leave it to others. Leaving it to others is always easier, and unless you are sitting down to listen to a particular performance — and doing nothing else, except possibly following the score — it is something of a bother to take on the job of filling the air with music. What to play? The decision alone is laborious in its way, but the real work begins when you get out of your chair, paw through your library, find what you’re looking for, remove the LP or tape or CD from its sleeve, fiddle with the playback device (fiddling is inevitable; you have to put away whatever you were listening to before), and then go back to doing whatever you were doing. The burden of this effort and interruption is not very onerous, of course, but it’s onerous enough, especially with repetition, to steer you toward choosing what you think will be the best music to listen to; and, once you’ve picked the composition, an even stronger bias exerts itself in favor of the best recording that you’ve got of whatever music we’ve chosen. This is what makes those secondary recordings superfluous. If, whenever you want to hear Schubert’s Quintet, you’re going to choose the Alban Berg Quartet’s recording (even though you know you ought to give other performances a listen every now and then), why clutter your library with CDs that you’re never going to choose? That’s why I was glad to give my daughter the other one.

I had a favorite recording of Chopin’s Scherzos and Ballades (works that are often coupled on CD, as are the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos): Vladimir Ashkenazy’s. Well, perhaps it wasn’t my favorite recording, because it was my only one. I liked the music, but I didn’t know it well enough to appreciate different performances, so, following the law set forth above, I invariably chose what in fact was the only recording in my library. I wasn’t aware of doing any of this until I began to compose iTunes playlists. In the early days, two and three years ago, I’d stick in a scherzo or a ballade on a playlist the way that I’d have inserted it in an hour-long program at the radio station, to vary the tone and texture. At the station, I had several recordings to draw on, but with my iTunes playlists, it was always Ashkenazy’s recordings, and I was perfectly happy with that. I heard Chopin, not Ashkenazy. Until, one fine day, I came across a CD of the same music played by Arthur Rubinstein. I can’t remember why I bought it — undoubtedly it was in the interest of “giving other performances a listen every now and then.” That hadn’t happened; the Rubinstein CD mouldered among the RCAs. But for whatever reason, I copied the disc onto iTunes and used all of it in a playlist that I was putting together at the time. 

If you stop to think that listening to a twelve-to-twenty hour playlist, weeks, months, or years after assembling it, is a lot like listening to the radio, especially with regard to cutting out the effort and interruption of choosing what to listen to piece by piece, CD by CD, the you’ll see where this is going. Not long after stocking the playlist with the Rubinstein Ballades and Scherzos, I was shocked by how different the familiar Chopin sounded. How much bolder and more youthful! Not that I prefer my Chopin to be bold and youthful; on the contrary, the Ashkenazy recording would still be my favorite. But here I was, listening to Arthur Rubinstein, without having made any effort to do so, and that was fine. A nice change! (It’s also worth noting that I was hearing each Scherzo and Ballade one at a time, spaced out over a playlist that lasted all day, and not all of them at once.) It wasn’t long before I took a new look at Bach in Order playlist.

I had thought, initially, that I would rotate performances within the one playlist. (At the time, I had two sets of Bach’s Cello Suites and several performances of the French Suites.) Now it occurred to me that it made more sense to have multiple playlists. I’ve just put in my order for the recordings that will fill out Bach in Order IV. To create Bach in Order V — which is probably where I’ll stop — I’ll have to resort to harpsichord recordings, which I’d very much rather not do, but there aren’t many complete sets of the keyboard suites. Only three really great pianists — Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, and András Schiff — have recorded all three sets. And when I say what a shame it is that putting the fifth playlist together is so difficult, you can see what has happened to the constraint of the “favorite recording.” Shackles broken!

Composing playlists is hugely laborious, especially if you’re working with a single computer monitor. But you do it just the once (plus fiddling — there will always be fiddling). Then you can listen without choosing.

It probably makes more sense to get a Pandora station going. But then, you may not share my passion for doing my own programming. Then again, if you’re like most of the men I know who listen to serious music…

Daily Office: Matins
Manhattan Pilots
Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Much as we detest the sound of chitchat on the street — when we’re not wearing our own sound-blocking Nano, that is — we squarely support the right to bear cell phones. We think that laws intended to “protect” pedestrians from vehicular injury by prohibiting the distraction of music and conversation has it exactly wrong.

But some outdoor exercisers who rely on music for a boost see the proposals as little more than a distraction for law enforcement officials. “Chasing down the runner who has his headphones in instead of chasing down the driver who’s been at the local pub sounds like they’re trying to pick the low-hanging fruit,” said John Wiant, 43, a runner from Newport Beach, Calif.

In Arkansas, an avalanche of criticism on Tuesday led a legislator to withdraw a proposal that would have banned pedestrians from wearing headphones in both ears. Other lawmakers have tried to strike some sort of balance between public safety and the gravity of the offense.

It just occurred to us that, taking the example of Venice, Manhattan’s car-rental business could be consolidated at the Port Authority depots, capturing all inbound private cars. That would clear the island for professional drivers, much like airline pilots. Pedestrians would have nothing to worry about

Daily Office: Vespers
Cheesy
Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Behavioral researcher Paula Niedenthal was on the phone with a Russian reporter, talking about her research on facial expressions.

“At the end he said, ‘So you are American?’ ” Dr. Niedenthal recalled.

Indeed, she is, although she was then living in France, where she had taken a post at Blaise Pascal University.

“So you know,” the Russian reporter informed her, “that American smiles are all false, and French smiles are all true.”

“Wow, it’s so interesting that you say that,” Dr. Niedenthal said diplomatically. Meanwhile, she was imagining what it would have been like to spend most of her life surrounded by fake smiles.

No wonder sitcoms are so popular! Actors, at least, know how to fake a real smile.

Gotham Diary:
Immer mehr Schnee!

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Even the snow is tired of falling. It hangs, floating in midair, drifting every way but down. Or so it seems.

Snow or no, I must go out today. I must go to the Post Office, my least favorite place in town, not excluding the colonoscopy clinic. If you could see our post office — it’s called “Gracie Station,” but all grace ends with the name — you’d understand; it is one of the dreariest relics of Fifties functionalism that’s still standing. A blank barn of a room with too much fluorescent lighting and counters that look as though they’d been thrown up in an emergency, the place makes you wonder if Joe Stalin didn’t win the Cold War, after all. Because this is a place where you expect to have your papers examined by petulant and capricious clerks who might just for the hell of it dispatch you to a gulag. I won’t say that the post office clerks are nasty, but you can’t wonder that they hate working there. It doesn’t help that the neighborhood’s affluent citizens rely on their office mail rooms, setting an Emma Lazarus default on the already cheerless atmosphere.

And I’ve a yen for Shake Shack that nothing else will appease. This is just the day for sitting outside, no? I think, if I get there early enough, there won’t be a crowd and I’ll find a table inside. But I never do get there early enough. That’s to say that I don’t even try, because by the time I’m ready to leave the house it’s too late.

I hope that the snow isn’t spoiling Will. Who knows when we’ll have so much again? Not that we played in it on Sunday, when I took him for a walk. We watched the dogs in Tomkins Square Park, coming and going (completely different crowds), trudged down Ninth Street to St Mark’s Bookshop, comme d’habitude, and stopped at Dinosaur Hill on the way back. When he is in the carrier, strapped to my chest, Will doesn’t interact with the world very much, although this week he did give the dogs some attention. But the moment he was planted back on the floor, back at home, he made a beeline for the front door and beamed at me with Harpo-Marx intensity.

Something else that he did that was neat to watch: he was playing with something at the table that was not food. At least twice, I saw him push it to the edge but then stop pushing. He’s done the gravity thing. For half of last year, he broke me up by staring down at things that he’d just given the heave-ho to, as if his special eye-power would levitate them back up. He appears to have tired of that experiment.

Now, if I can just throw on some clothes really quick and get out of here…

… success! Shake Shack was super, and I had a table to myself the entire time. I read Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case while I nibbled away at a Shackburger, krinkly fries, and, of course, a chocolate shake.

But was I trying to make predictions about how awful the post office would be? Three windows were open: one for special delivery and supplies, one for stamps and money orders, and one — just one — for all the other things that you have to go to the post office to take care of, because they’re cumbersome and time-consuming. The minutes flew by like hours, without anyone in the entire joint moving more than an inch in any direction. Just one. But it got done.

Daily Office: Matins
First Things First
Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

We are big fans of French finance minister Christine Lagarde — she sounds like a genuine mother superior, someone who really knows how to get things done. Or, failing that, to sound like she does. You can bet that, this time around, the stress test of PIGS banks is going to be substantive, and that there won’t be any loose talk about “harmonization.”

Before the related issue of restructuring the mountain of bad debts at European banks can be addressed, Ms. Lagarde said, European countries need to conduct meaningful tests on the health of their lenders’ balance sheets. Such stress tests have been carried out twice during the current crisis but failed to win investor confidence. Since the last round, published in July 2010, further problems have emerged, notably at Spanish and Irish lenders. The results of the latest tests are expected to be published in June.

“We will test banks in a very comprehensive manner and a more credible fashion than we did last summer,” she said. “We need to improve the overall credibility of the process, and that includes communication, range, scope, a combination of bottom up, top down quality control.”

She argued that in France, at least, there is no sense that taxpayers are losing out as government bail out their banks without asking bondholders to take write-offs, known as haircuts. Paris set up facilities to help its banks in 2008 and 2009, but it was not on the scale of the assistance required in countries like Ireland and Britain. “My taxpayers are quite happy because they have collected fees — or, rather, interest rates — and they haven’t paid anything.” she said, adding that investors in many euro-zone countries had already been losing money without a coordinated restructuring.“Ask the Anglo Irish shareholders if they’ve taken a hit or not,” she said, referring to the debt-laden Irish lender, which has proved an Achilles’ heel for the economy of that country.

Daily Office: Vespers
Hypocrite
Monday, 24 January 2011

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Gerritsen Beach seems about as far from our part of the world as it’s possible to go — and still be part of New York City. You can’t get there on a subway, but that’s true of many neighborhoods. There’s a volunteer fire department — I have no idea how unusual that is, but it seems odd. But what gets me is this story, from the blog GerritsenBeach.net, about teenaged hooligans locking patrons in a laundromat that’s owned by a Chinese woman; they do this “at least once a day” for the fun of winding her up. NYPD does not appear to be much of a presence in Gerritsen Beach.

Reading a spate of recent blog entries, however, we came across nothing to do with Tim Stellon’s story about Daniel Cavanaugh, the man behind the blog, and the trouble that he’s in with neighbors who would prefer that the larger world continue to ignore goings-on in their enclave.

At 8:48 the next morning, he posted “No Police Response Despite Massive Damage by Local Teens.” It included more than a dozen photos of the offending youths, along with images of public Facebook profiles. Status updates described pelting the police and breaking bus windows.

Two days later, when the property owners’ association held its monthly meeting, the audience railed against Mr. Cavanagh.

In a video of that meeting posted on the blog Sheepshead Bites, Renee Sior-Cullen — whose son had been shown on Mr. Cavanagh’s blog — said the boy was just a 12-year-old trying to impress his older brothers. Ms. Sior-Cullen also charged that what Mr. Cavanagh did with her son’s Facebook posts was criminal.

“It is illegal for a grown man to take a minor’s post and copy it and repost it,” said Ms. Sior-Cullen, who did not respond to requests for an interview.

Ms Sior-Cullen is worthy of Melissa Leo’s Alice, in The Fighter.

Reading Note:
Idle Conundrum
Finishing As Always, Julia

Monday, January 24th, 2011

How can a collection of letters between two middle-aged women, writing in the 1950s, be monumental? It’s taking a while to sort that out. What’s not in doubt is that As Always, Julia: Food, Friendship & the Making of a Masterpiece is a monument. The letters running back and forth between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto are a great read, but the book itself is a commemorative object,  preserving the record of something important. The ‘something important’ isn’t the back-story to Mastering the Art of French Cooking  or the How-Julia-Got-Famous legend. What I mean is the testament to exceptional humanity that exudes from the correspondence. (Never has an exchange of letters more ardently lived up to that term!) My talk of monuments and exceptional humanity might conjure expectations of heroism and bravado that the book will disappoint, but I’ll take that risk and venture to propose other expectations: what we find in these letters is the ready ability to make truly interesting writing out of everyday whole cloth, and perhaps because I am in late middle age myself I find ordinary life more challenging than emergencies, precisely because the challenge of the ordinary, unlike that of an emergency, can be disregarded with impunity. You can just look the other way while your life courses through the neck of the hourglass. People do it all the time. (How else to explain television?) Avis and Julia were fortunate women, and they knew it; and we know it because their letters are imbued with a gratitude that takes the form of attentive appreciation of the world before them. The letters, no less than the great cookbook, repay good fortune by opening it up to us. 

As the years passed by — the letters span for nearly a decade, from early 1952 to the spring of 1961 — I was tickled by an idle conundrum: to what extent were these women feminists? From one perspective, neither was interested in what we call women’s issues. They came from relatively lofty backgrounds (Julia especially), were highly educated and well-traveled, and married interesting, good-natured men — whom they loved. They were not unhappy with the prosperous housewife’s calendar of duties, and Avis appears to have been a doting mother. It’s clear that Julia occupied a remarkably unusual position in American culture, in that she practiced a domestic art with professional rigor, keeping her eye on the ball while extending a vaguely maternal welcome. Because no one with a voice like hers had ever appeared regularly on television, she was a sensation in the way that maiden aunts can be sensational: unintentionally funny but wholly endearing. (As the years passed by — the real ones, I mean — we would learn that there was nothing ridiculous about the woman.) Because she had so little to do with the general idea of “femininity,” there was little to antagonize the feminists. There she was, counseling housewives to spend hours over hot stoves, because it was fun.

Whether anyone would listen to her was very much the matter that the publishers disputed. Like the women’s magazines, which consistently refused to print any of the recipes that would go into Mastering the Art, the businessmen at Houghton, Mifflin foresaw the dismay with which “housewife/chauffeurs” would recoil from the book’s exhaustive instructions. William Koshland, at Knopf, in contrast, saw that the instructions would make good cooking easier — because they were clear, lucid, good instructions. Once you familiarize yourself with the method for making a soufflé, and commit a few measurements to memory, making a soufflé is as straightforward as making a ham sandwich, and you never have to look at a cookbook again. This distinction, with some people seeing enlightening complexity where others see alarming complication, does not run on an axis that is easily oriented to arguments for and against feminism. That’s why the conundrum is idle: it doesn’t matter whether Julia and Avis were feminists. They were passionate Democrats!

It did not take long for me to decide that Avis was the more natural writer. Not the better writer, necessarily, but the one more compelled to express herself in prose. (I don’t begin to know enough about her long association with Bread Loaf to understand how it failed to inspire her to have her own career as a writer.) Hers is the greater emotional range, and hers the wider array of registers. She also wrote more — much more, if you discount Julia’s discussions of her book. As the mother of two young men — the book ends, quite sweetly, with her offer to get Harvard Commencement tickets for the Childs; her son, Mark (who turned 71 the other day), was about to graduate — and the wife of a college professor, Avis was in touch with youthful speech patterns, and her tone is often what used to be called ‘smart.’ “Everybody horribly restless because after four-day frightful heat wave a real humdinger of a storm is toying with us…” At the risk of confusing apples with oranges, I’d have to say that Avis’s style is what the French call BCBG — bon chic, bon genre. For all her housewifely devotion, you can imagine Avis rewriting the Cindi Lauper song: “Girls Just Get to Have Fun.” Not that they get to have just fun. In the middle of the book’s time span, Bernard suffers a fatal heart attack in a New York hotel room, and Avis’s devastation is marked mostly by silence. A slightly more distant passing, however, prompts a profoundly memorable letter to Julia:

I wrote you a note from St Petersburg and I hope it reached you. My old pa telephoned Sunday midnight last week to say my mother had just died in the hospital. He was all in pieces and wanted me to come down so I flew down next day and took over. It was a rugged five days, and I thank God is all I can say that it was so quick. Cancer of the breast, and two more weeks in hospital and then all over. She was lucky. So was Dad and he knows it now. The thing I have always dreaded most is having either of them require long nursing, which is so terrible for everybody and would pretty well put me in the soup financially as well. I had to arrange everything, and funerals in the hinterland are something — viewing of the remains and all that. But it all went off rather smoothly, none of the horrors I had expected, and I cleared everything of hers out of the apartment, but quick. Only thing to do. Incredible woman. She saved things like the Collier brothers. Eighteen boxes of notepaper and she used to write me on the backs of old Christmas cards. Unopened boxes of stockings I had sent her. Forty years of medical clippings, some of them yellow with age and quite outdated. And yet when she was sickshe never wanted anybody to know anything about it until it was over, for which I am deeply grateful. Nobody but Dad knew she was in the hospital this time. I never got along with her, but I will hand her this, and it’s a great deal — she never clung, or whined or complained, and she let me live my own life. 

My father is 86, thin and reasonably spry and except for bad eyes, in good health. He seems to be the only Democrat in St Petersburg and we cheered each other up considerably by discussing politics, about which he knows a great deal. He’s a cutie — Scotch and deadpan and full of wry humor. And now an old, old man. St Petersburg is about as non-U a place as there is in this country — dreary beyond measure to me, but he is rather used to it now. And by God they do take care of the old people — everyone exceedingly kind and gentle and friendly. Living is incredibly cheap. Cafeterias are just wonderful. For a dollar and a quarter you can get a big piece of good roast beef and everything that goes with it, good vegetables, fine salads, and superlative apple pie. He does this once a day, and picks up his other two meals in his own little kitchen. Not much appetite at that age, so I left him three bottles of rye with orders to take a little nip in the evening, for his appetite’s sake. He ate lunch and dinner with me at the hotel while I was there and had a drink each time — the first in years. His landlady is one of those wonderful lower middle class types who never read a book in her life, but is pure gold, full of energy and kindness. And he has many friends close by. So I will try not to fret about him. But he knows and I know that the next call from St Petersburg will probably be for me to go down and bury him. Such a nice man. And it’s just hell to be old and have no function in life.

There is nothing like this in Julia’s letters. Nothing quite so personal (about another person), and nothing quite so detailed (about another person’s life). The material is instinctively well-organized, The two paragraphs share an emotional trajectory, beginning with a generalized, social sorrow (the death of a parent; the dreariness of retirement communities), passing into engaging anecdote (the things her mother hoarded; her father’s diet), and concluding on a note of intense but restrained regret (“I never got along with her”; “But he knows and I knows and I know…”).What Avis has fashioned of her grief is nothing less than a pair of fine silhouettes of her parents; one can almost see them hanging on the wall, in matching oval frames. The world of Mastering the Art couldn’t be further away from the atmosphere of cached stockings and cafeteria roast beef — or so you might think. In fact, as this book of letters shows again and again, one of the finest and most useful treatises ever published was brought forth by two American women who were remarkably open to life, and cheerfully rueful about shrugging off its banalities.

Daily Office: Matins
Bloat
Monday, 24 January 2011

Monday, January 24th, 2011

Gretchen Morgenson is shocked, shocked to report that $132 million in “taxpayer money” has been spent on the defense of three former Fannie Mae executives in myriad lawsuits. A stark paragraph in her piece (reeking of editorial insertion) reminds readers that such indemnification of legal expenses is perfectly — if regrettably — normal. It is perhaps too much to expect of a civil servant functioning as an “acting director” to ask Edward DeMarco to rock the bloat.  

Richard S. Carnell, an associate professor at Fordham University Law School who was an assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions during the 1990s, questions why Mr. Raines, Mr. Howard and others, given their conduct detailed in the Housing Enterprise Oversight report, are being held harmless by the government and receiving payment of legal bills as a result.

“Their duty of loyalty required them to put shareholders’ interests ahead of their own personal interests,” Mr. Carnell said. “Had they cared about the shareholders, they would not have staked Fannie’s reputation on dubious accounting. They defied their duty of loyalty and served themselves. At a moral level, they don’t deserve indemnification, much less payment of such princely sums.”

Asked why it has not cut off funding for these mounting legal bills, Edward J. DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, said: “I understand the frustration regarding the advancement of certain legal fees associated with ongoing litigation involving Fannie Mae and certain former employees. It is my responsibility to follow applicable federal and state law. Consequently, on the advice of counsel, I have concluded that the advancement of such fees is in the best interest of the conservatorship.”