Archive for December, 2011

Gotham Diary:
Duc de Noël
Holidays 2011

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Scroll down for Boxing Week updates. (26, 27, 29, 30 December 2011; 1 January 2012)

This is the time of year when all the great stories are family stories, and therefore private, not for sharing even at Facebook. But it’s grand to know that the Internet is there when you’ve maxed out on personal input. Here’s the Internet equivalent of stepping outside after a close family gathering and having a smoke: What would Voltaire have made of the Internet? What would the Internet have made of Voltaire? The second question is easy. Basic biographical material about Voltaire includes the gaming of a lottery that made the man a millionaire. It was legal, but just. It would be pretty to think that Voltaire became a self-supporting philosophe on the proceeds from Candide. Pretty.

Meanwhile, you should see the hat that Kathleen is knitting for me! Production is in its final phases as I speak. It is so capacious that I can pull it down over my mouth — but of course it will shrink in the first wash. We were arguing about how to finish it, with a tassel or a pompom. About pompoms, Kathleen said, “I know how to make them; I’ve just never done it.” I might have gone along with this assurance if I hadn’t just read Daniel Kahneman. We’re settling on a jingle bell. There’s always next year.

Ray Soleil says that Will will never refer to me as “Doodad” to his peers, and that’s probably correct. What I’m wondering, though, is whether Will will agree with the tens (I could have said dozens) of children who have pointed me out to their mothers and said, “Santa Claus!” Will Will be the opposite of Virginia O’Hanlon (thanks, Eric!), writing to the papers to insist that Santa Claus is not only real, but a denizen of Yorkville to boot?

Almost certainly not. Will will understand from the get-go that Santa Claus can’t strew gifts beneath a tree if he doesn’t have chimney access. Even if he is your Doodad, and, boy, have I got presents to strew!

The other story about Voltaire that I’m fond of tells of his colossal, almost suicidal indiscretion at Fontainebleau, which he visited with his mistress, Mme du Châtelet, during the palmy days of Pompadour. Bored after a spell of standing in the room where the courtiers were playing cards, he leaned over to his lady-love and stage-whispered, “How can you play with these cheats?” First, they were lucky to escape the château alive before midnight. Second, see the part above about gaming a lottery. My father used to say that I had more books than sense, but I’ve often thought that Voltaire had, although even more books, less sense. That’s why I keep him around. Also, he kind of looks like Dad, my dad.

Boxing Day

I’ve little more on my mind at the moment than registering that I’m alive, and tolerably well, after a couple of lovely, lucky days of Christmas. I had planned things prudently, and luck threw me a few good turns. When we sat down to dinner on Christmas eve, it wasn’t with the same people we’d expected to dine with, but, all in all, an improvement: my adorable grandsom, whom we used to call “Mr Dinner Party” because would sit through an entire dinner and eat almost everything, has developed a healthy little boy’s aversion to the idea that eating involves sitting still, or, for that matter, mealtimes. The perfectly-roasted rack of lamb would have been quite thrown on away on him, and on his parents as well, as his mother assured me. But thanks to unforeseen changes in the holiday plans of two of our oldest friends, we did not dine alone.

Exhausted by the foregoing paragraph, I have to go back to bed.

Tuesday, 27 December

The bed has been made, and the kitchen straightened out; the handyman has cleared out the bathtub that clogs up once a quarter at least. Kathleen is about to take the last of the calendars to a mailbox; they’re all stamped and ready to drop. In a few minutes, I’ll call the dry cleaner to summon our semi-weekly trade of dirty laundry for clean. It could not be more ordinary, what’s in store for today — which I hesitate to say, given the fact that the Fates are avid readers of this site and take a keen pleasure in “posting comments.” (By the way, comments are open, once again, at The Daily Blague. More about that some other time.)

Now, here’s how ordinary today is: I turn on the CD player and it picks up at the start of Mozart’s Horn Quintet, almost certainly his most disappointing chamber work. It’s not a chamber work, really, but just a stripped down horn concerto, so brainlessly breezy that it always sounds to me as if it’s about to veer into Ein Musikalischer Spass — that parody of the bubblegum music of Mozart’s time. Mozart was probably as incapable of writing such stuff as good writers are of turning out lucrative pornography (does anyone still read pornography?), but his musical joke captures the essence of hackery-quackery, and it makes us laugh at it.

At breakfast this morning, I read the excerpt of Pico Iyer’s memoir that appears in the November issue of Herper’s, “From Eden to Eton.” People seem to think that I know everything, but I did not know who Pico Iyer was until this morning. That’s to say, I didn’t know what his family background was. It seemed too improbable that a subcontinental father, no matter how learned would name his son after the great (and unread) Renaissance humanist, but that’s what happened. Also, there’s a reason why Iyer seems to have come from everywhere; at the age of nine or ten, he went back to the Dragon School at Oxford, after a year or so in Santa Barbara. I see that he was also the head of the Chess Club at Eton. Now, this is what I have in mind when I insist that I am an ill-educated lout.

Thursday, 29 December

The good thing about the colds that we catch from Will throughout the winter is that they don’t last as long as the the other kinds of colds — colds that we are glad to catch only rarely. Will’s colds come and go in three days. But the first day is usually pretty incapacitating. Being an ancient creature, I’ve learned that the surest way to recovery is to drop everything, stay home, watch videos, and order Chinese. And no email underf any circumstances! That’s what works for me. Kathleen went to work yesterday, and so she’s having a rather more incapacitating day today than I did yesterday. In a little while, I’m going out for a haircut.

I watched five movies. The first one was Get Low, which I’d bought on sale at the Video Room but never watched. This is the movie about the reclusive carpenter who wants to throw himself a funeral party that he can attend. Robert Duvall plays the old man, but the movie’s quirky tone is set entirely by Bill Murray, that master of plangent, unfunny comedy. I almost watched Winter’s Bone afterward, but instead I watched something with an actress who to my eye closely resembles Jennifer Lawrence.

All four movies, after Get Low, were in fact drawn from the same drawer of DVDs, which runs from M to P. First, I watched Nurse Betty, which I hadn’t seen in a long time. Then I watched an action movie in which Aaron Eckhart is as slick as he is sloppy in Nurse Betty: Paycheck, with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. This was followed by The Queen, also an action movie but utterly devoid of the mano a mano that clutters up Paycheck. Finally, a real drama: Quiz Show. Appalling to note: Quiz Show is nearly eighteen years old.

I suppose I ought to say a word about each of these movies. Renée Zellweger is astonishingly lovely in Nurse Betty, with her beautiful complexion and bewildered ingenuousness filling the screen like a perfectly-ripe peach. It’s fun to note the difference between her natural self and the persona that she puts on while in the fugue state occasioned by witnessing her husband’s murder. As “Nurse” Betty, she utters soap-opera banalities (“You said it to her, but you meant it for me”) with Shekespearian authority. Morgan Freeman’s character is, in contrast, a sentimental mess, something that the actor is almost capable of making us overlook. The day’s other movie about television, Quiz Show, is a requiem for dreams of the golden age of television, which never happened. Television was always bound to be crap, partly because of the advertising model, which poisons everything it touches, and partly because television flatters our overconfidence, making us feel that we understand things that we don’t understand at all. But lots of people had high hopes for it in the Fifties — “the largest classroom in the world.” (Education has stumbled so badly that this may indeed be true today.) Quiz Show reminds us that television never had much of a place for the Herb Stempels of the world.

You  may be surprised to read that I like Paycheck — every once in a while. I don’t care for all the fighting or car-chasing, and the “clever” plot does not bear much scrutiny. But Paycheck works as a video game that you don’t have to bother to play yourself; you can just watch and enjoy it. And things that are really wrong with the production — namely, Uma Thurman — keep things frosty.

There’s nothing to be said about The Queen that hasn’t been said already a million times: Helen Mirren is breathtaking, &c &c. By the time this last video was ending, Kathleen came home. What she always finds puzzling (and so do I) is Diana Spencer’s enormous popularity with ordinary people. We can only attribute it to sensibilities coarsened by — television.

Friday, 30 December

Perhaps it was premature to blame our illnesses on Will. They’ve settled in — a cold for me; and sore throat with attendant aches for Kathleen — and threaten to stay a while. We’re taking it easy, but there’s only so easy you can take it at this time of year, when, for example, friends have been invited to drop in on New Year’s Eve afternoon (that would be tomorrow). We could call everyone up and cancel, but we’re not that sick, and a few friends might find the Let Things Go look an interesting change.

I’ve spent the entire day reading. I’ve been reading a great deal, actually, which is very nice. Reading books, I mean. By books, I don’t mean printed books as opposed to ebooks; I mean books as opposed to magazine articles and Internet feeds. I’ve been marching through Jeremy Black’s George III, enjoying the odd bit of donnish humour, as in this remark about bad behavior among the Hanoverians, made of George’s father, Frederick.

As Frederick, however, did not become king, he left to his grandsons, George III’s numerous progeny, the task of recreating the monarchical habits associated with Charles II.

(What makes this funny is the satire of duty: tasks and monarchical habits were assiduously avoided by these gentlemen, crowned or not.) As I read along, I become more and more convinced that George is the present queen’s truest forebear; like him, she is shy but unshirking, modest but determined, and she knows her onions.

I have also read three smallish books that have been lying about for quite some time. I wasn’t in the mood to read any of them until this strangely blended season of holiday cheer and mourning, stretched out over a barrage of minor ailments and now this cold. (As to the mourning, the shock of my aunt’s unexpected death has not yet found its depth.) The first book, Michael Kimball’s extraordinary Us, I envisioned as an experimental downer, and regretted having been sold by its enthusiastic reception in the more interesting precincts of the literary Internet. That was before I read it, though. Once I began, I couldn’t stop. It took my a while to notice the typographical signals that differentiate Kimball’s recreation of the final chapter of his maternal grandparents’ lives from Kimball’s personal recollections, but the former is so fresh and simple and vigorously written that I was slow to realize that I was reading about elderly people. “Our bed was shaking and it woke me up afraid,” the book begins. What follows is a cordial distillate of the stream of consciousness into which medical emergency casts the victim’s nearest and dearest. Here is the husband in the hospital parking lot, distinguishing people in his situation from the hospital staff:

We looked anxious and walked fast. We were all hurrying into the hospital to see if there had been any change in our husband or wife or mother or father or son or daughter. We wanted to know if anything had happened to them while we were at home or asleep. We wanted to get up to their hospital room before they woke up or before they died.

It’s the kind of writing that makes Hemingway look baroque. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen the generality of mortality so clearly fractured by the prism of an individual’s particular experience.

Then I read Chester Brown’s Paying For It, the graphic memoir about getting satisfaction from prostitutes (and tipping nicely for the experience). So far as the story goes, I wound up wondering if the nearer degrees of the Asperger’s spectrum might very well range through a sizable chunk of the male population. But that’s not the point of Paying For It — the story, I mean. The point is the graphics, and the graphics, while austere, are illuminating. What they principally illuminate is the distortion of memory. You can tell what the narrator remembers by the number of frames that he allocates to each experience. The suspense of wondering what a prostitute will look like when she finally opens the door appears to be far more memorable than the boffo sex that did (or didn’t) follow. This makes sense: only adolescents believe that great sex is unforgettable. Or, rather, that it is ever anything more than “unforgettable” — once it’s over, that is. Although my carnal circuity (to use Nicholson Baker’s great phrase) is so different from Chester Brown’s that one of us might just as well have been a Martian, I found Paying For It to be an extremely interesting narrative of consciousness.

The third book was Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits. I read Aaron Thier’s strongly favorable review in The Nation, and ordered the book from my local shop. Right there you see the problem, or at any rate I do: Abbott Awaits is one of the great novels of 2011, possibly of modern times, but I read about it in The Nation and had to order it. This is the kind of funny/poignant book that you’d think everyone would be cdrazy about. Maybe it’s a bit too spot-on.

To tell the truth, I’m not sure how much of a novel it is, seeing how congruent the eponymous character’s life is with the author’s. It makes more sense to see Abbott Awaits as a reconsideration of The Myth of Sisyphus. A very funny reconsideration, I hasten to add. In about 9o brief chapters, Bachelder captures the existential quandary of an average sensual humanist. We have seen this character many times before; he is usually the hero of any novel written by a “trade” novelist who happens to be a man, and the butt of countless jokes when the upscale novelist is a woman (Alison Lurie, say). Here is the gamut of his character, from this —

Abbott has never told his wife this — he’s never told anyone — but he has a vision of himself as a father who, in the most gentle and loving and supportive way, corrects his children’s grammar. At the dinner table, say, buttering a roll and explaining, affably, the uses of lie and lay, for instance, or which and that. His intention is certainly not to demean or humiliate, and neither is it simply to instruct, really, but to share his passion and respect for the amazing system of English, its intricate rules and odd expressions.

— to this —

Abbott’s wife, inside the house, comes to the kitchen window below the section of the gutter that Abbott is cleaning. Her face in the window is level with his thighs, so naturally he imagines her sucking his penis and swallowing his semen.

It’s that “naturally” that clinches the portrait. The thing about these guys is that they are never sufficiently engaged by any job (other than polishing their egos) to let the slightest possibility of getting their rocks off go unsniffed. But that is not the particular Sisyphean fate that interests Bachelder. Fatherhood is, in its modern parenting phase. I’m not sure that Abbott Awaits is the book that progressive and intelligent new parents ought to be reading, but it is certainly all about them. And that’s how Bachelder comes up with an answer to life’s questions that’s somewhat brighter than Camus’s. For most exhausted and demoralized parents, it is despair that drowns in the bathtub, not the baby.

1 January 2012

The beginning of the new year would seem to be the ideal raison d’être for a fresh blog entry, but Kathleen and I remain mired in our respective ailments. This morning, I awoke so tired that I feared I must have reached the final hours of my life. But after an hour in my chair, spent discharging the night’s effluvia, I felt well enough to go back to bed and sleep some more. By noon, I felt more like someone with a bad cold than an impending corpse. Kathleen’s fever still dances around 100º, and of course we’ll have to call the doctor first thing Tuesday if this goes on.

We watched Radio Days last night, but that was our only New Year’s Eve observance (an annual tradition since shortly after the film came out, in 1986). There was no caviar, no champagne, no standing on the balcony listening to the revels and the fireworks. We had a happy time of it nonetheless. I’m delighted to have made it into 2012. 2011 wasn’t so much a bad or a hard year as a seemingly endless continuation of the “year” that began in October 2009, when I rolled up my sleeves and resolved to master my household. Since that may not sound like much of a challenge, I’ll tell you the story.

Way back in the Eighties, when I ought to have been arranging our domestic affairs (an undertaking that involves uncluttered closets, realistic budgets, and all the 0ther things that self-help books talk about, but also a lot more, stuff that you have to figure out for yourself, because your household is as intimate as your personal hygiene), Kathleen and I bought a country house instead. This gave us unlimited room for growth, as it were. When, about ten years later, the folly of running two households became impossible to ignore, we sold the house and filled a large storage unit with its contents — all but the furniture, which we simply got rid of.

This was my second chance to master my material posssessions, but instead I found another, if worthier distraction: the Internet. I launched a Web site. Then, a few years later, the antecedent of this very blog. I gave householding no more attention than absolutely necessary.

If there was a breakdown or crisis in 2009, I don’t remember it, but I remember waking up to the awareness that I couldn’t live like this anymore. Why, for example, did I maintain such an extensive batterie de cuisine if I hardly ever cooked? When was that loveseat, last reupholstered by my father in a material that neither Kathleen nor I could bear to look at, hidden by an increasingly tattered slipcover, going to be made truly presentable? What was the point of storing so many framed pictures? These are only three of a hundred such questions, all of them insistent and annoying.

When you are young, you believe that you can simply throw everything away and start over. This is like believing that you can lose twenty pounds and keep in shape. A lucky few get to pull it off, but for most of us the more realistic course is to avoid accumulating the excess. If you are the sort of person who is inclined to believe that almost anything will come in handy — a romantic delusion encouraged by reading, at too tender an age, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe — this will be difficult. You may easily find it easier to maintain your youthful waistline than to keep your closets in good shape. (And by “good shape,” I mean the state in which, when you’re in need of something, you know right where it is, and all you have to do is open the closet door and reach for it.) The worst thing about being young is that you have no sense of how likely something is to come in handy — handy to you. You don’t know who you are when you are young. You only know who you want to be. That said, I wish that I’d buckled down to the job in my mid-thirties.

There is another cruel fact of life that is even more difficult to learn: Nobody wants your stuff. Aside from the odd objet de vertu that prompts people very rudely to ask you to leave it to them in your will, nothing that you own is of any real value to anyone else, especially if you life in a relatively affluent society of fungible goods. Lets say that there’s a “market” for my collections of books, CDs, and videos — and it’s by no means certain that there is — there remains no end of other kinds of items that you’ve probably piled up in such large heaps that it’s not worth anybody’s time to search for valuable nuggets. I’m talking about mementoes — scrapbooks and yearbooks and photo albums and shoeboxes full of photographs, recipe cards, letters, clippings — and when you get to be my age you begin to wonder how much longer these things will be interesting to you.

At least this blog doesn’t take up too much physical space.

The early months of 2012 will undoubtedly see a continuation of this tedious, painstaking project. But I can say with assurance that there is a great deal less to be done than there was in October 2009. It’s conceivable that, next January, I’ll be celebrating a new year in earnest. 

Beachcombing:
Pre-Seasonal
December 2011

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

¶ We’re still reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (slowly), and we haven’t reached the part about the two selves, but we liked the nugget of great wisdom that we found in an interview that the author gave to Sam Harris. We only hope that Kahneman is wrong, or at least unduly pessimistic, when he asserts that few people would want to pursue his course for merging satisfaction and happiness. 

There is a road to convergence, but few will want to take it:  we could suggest to people that they should adopt experienced happiness as their main goal, and be satisfied with their lives to the extent that this goal is achieved. This idea implies the abandonment of other goals and values, which is surely unappealing.

We would argue that other goals and values can be folded into the pursuit of experienced happiness. (Sam Harris; via 3 Quarks Daily; 12/8) ¶ Alva Noë at the Opinionator:

What we do know is that a healthy brain is necessary for normal mental life, and indeed, for any life at all. But of course much else is necessary for mental life. We need roughly normal bodies and a roughly normal environment. We also need the presence and availability of other people if we are to have anything like the sorts of lives that we know and value. So we really ought to say that it is the normally embodied, environmentally- and socially-situated human animal that thinks, feels, decides and is conscious. But once we say this, it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.

We need finally to break with the dogma that you are something inside of you — whether we think of this as the brain or an immaterial soul — and we need finally take seriously the possibility that the conscious mind is achieved by persons and other animals thanks to their dynamic exchange with the world around them (a dynamic exchange that no doubt depends on the brain, among other things). Importantly, to break with the Cartesian dogmas of contemporary neuroscience would not be to cave in and give up on a commitment to understanding ourselves as natural. It would be rather to rethink what a biologically adequate conception of our nature would be.

Another way to put this important thought is to say that every part of you is vital to the person you are at the moment; you will be different when you get older. To be alive is to change. There is no all-time you, which is what makes paradise truly incomprehensible. (NYT; via 3 Quarks Daily; 12/6)

¶ Of all the screeds generated by Farhaed Manjoo’s rebuttal of Richard Russo’s praise of independent bookstores, we like Rachel Meier’s defense the best. It stresses the social, live-action  nature of bookshops. We believe that every reader ought to support at least one local bookstore, and for the same reason that one might have supported a church. (Monitor; via The Millions) ¶ Johannes Lichtman writes about the suicide’s Suicide: the book that Édouard Levé submitted ten days before taking his own life:  ”a nonlinear, almost plotless meditation on living and dying, and the torment of time.” (Rumpus; 12/19)

¶ The key phrase in Felix Salmon’s shout-out for Nicholas Dunbar’s The Devil’s Derivatives is this, about the behavior of the New York Fed when confronted by tough questions from the central bank in Washington: it “behaved exactly as you would expect from an institution captured by its big-bank shareholders.” It’s not enough to wave flags and hymn democracy. You have to know how regulation works in order to understand why it doesn’t. (12/2)

¶ It appears that the Eurozone crisis has concentrated the minds of Belgium’s politicans, who are nearing agreement on a coalition government. The nation has lacked a formal government for nearly a year and a half. And there’s more: the likely new prime minister will be Elio Di Rupo, a gay man of extremely humble origins. (BBC News; via MetaFilter; 12/1) ¶ An interesting debunking of Friedrich von Hayek, at least as a neoclassical economist, by David Warsh at his blog.

These are today lively concepts in laboratories and universities around the world. “It could have been that Hayek was running a different race, and the fact that he didn’t do well in the Walrasian race was that he wasn’t running in it—he was running in the complexity race,” says David Colander, of Middlebury College. Hayek may yet enter history as a prophet of evolutionary economics, a discipline dreamt of since the days of Thorstein Veblen and Alfred Marshall in the late nineteenth century but not yet forged, whose great days lie ahead.

Walrasian“? We learn something new every day. (via The Browser; 12/7)

¶ Using Google Scholar, Mark Bauerlein has developed a way of measuring the effectiveness of academic publications, and discovered that most articles sink without a trace. He argues that the time has come to put quality before quantity, and reduce the pressure to publish. We thought that the time for that came long ago, but better late than never. (Chron Higher Ed; via Arts Journal; 12/6) 

¶ Not surprisingly, The Epicurean Dealmaker comes down hard on office romance.

So keep it in your pants, boys. Keep your legs crossed, girls. At least with each other. Because if anything interferes with getting that big LBO pitch for Yahoo! done this weekend, I swear I will fucking geld you.

The problem is, Wall Street is the home of “this time, it’s different!” ¶ Imagine Jessa Crispin’s dismay when a German gent in the Berlin subway told her that she looked like Cosima Wagner — and turned out not to be nuts. It’s not fun to resemble a woman so easy to dislike. (The Smart Set; 12/2) ¶ Alexandra Molotkow, now 25, writes of “coming of age” on the Internet. Needless to say, and notwithstanding, she’s worried about “kids today.” But not too seriously: of one rather gruesome recent story that we’re glad we missed, she writes: “It’s a classic worst-case scenario, and a reminder of how kids have ruined their own lives for millennia, through any medium they can master.” (Toronto Life; via The Morning News) ¶ Nice guys do finish last! They make less money, anyway. (Frontal Cortex; 12/5)

¶ A holiday post-mortem by Craig McCarthy, who went out of his way to have a depressing Thanksgiving, but ended up having an interesting one, that ended nicely. (Bygone Bureau) ¶ Katy Henriksen remembers growing up to Joni Mitchell’s Blue. (The Rumpus; 12/2 ) ¶ Why Love Actually, despite being a terrible movie, is a Christmas classic. Maybe we have that backwards, but you can sort out Bobby Finger’s pros and cons yourself. His lists will definitely make you want to see the film again. If you haven’t already seen it — but of course you’ve seen it! (The Hairpin; 12/12)

Have a Look: ¶ Better than flashmob dancing, an Add-A-Pearl (if abbreviated) performance of Ravel’s Bolero in a Copenhagen’s Central Station. (ClassicalArchives; via MetaFilter; 12/1) ¶ A newly-discovered portrait of Jane Austen? (Guardian; via Arts Journal; 12/6)

¶ The New York Architectural Terra Cotta Works in Queens: is resurrection in the cards? (Scouting New York; 12/13)

Noted: ¶ Leonardo da Vinci was right about trees. (Physorg; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Claire Potter’s Top Ten Turkeys in American academia, 2011 edition. We couldn’t wish Linda Kathei a sweeter prize. (Tenured Radical; via Historiann; 12/2) ¶ Maybe everybody who watches football has CTE: anything less than the “full 22” zoom shot is fragmentary and arguably misleading. (kottke; 12/6) ¶ All about the creators of Marcel the Shell. (The Awl; 12/12) ¶ The Imperfect Husband (Daily Mail @ Hairpin; 12/19)

Gotham Diary:
Value At Risk
22 December 2011

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

The tree was supple and easy to decorate. It was also full without being expansive. Owing to attrition, we haven’t got many ornaments this year. (Kathleen’s priceless old ones are never used when the tree stands in the foyer. I may yet persuade her to risk one or two.) I am halfways through the Christmas-card list, and thanks to several sheets of self-stick $1 stamps, I can mail our calendar packages without further trips to the Post Office. Only two things remain: planning Christmas Eve dinner and buying some presents for Will. I hope to have knocked both items off my list before the end of the day.

***

Nicholas Dunbar’s The Devils Derivatives is not an easy book to read. It’s fluent, so far as narrative goes, but it is not shy of difficult concepts. And I still haven’t figured out quite what a “mattress” is. But a clearer-than-ever picture is developing in my mind; I can see the steps that the would-be wizards of Wall Street (working in Europe, for the most part) took to diminish the appearance of risk in order to “hoover up nickels,” as Robert Merton put it. (Or was it Myron Scholes?) The governing idea seems to have been the erection of trading platforms so immense — capable of supporting so many bets — that moderately dodgy investment vehicles would take on the rosy blush of investment grade. At some point, one or both of two things happened: greed made the traders (and the salesmen) disoriented — I keep thinking that they got something like the bends in their pursuit of higher bonuses — and the trading platforms coalesced into one hypercolossal platform, with all correlations set to 1. I’m writing this off the top of my head as an aide-memoire: I hope, re-reading it in the near future, to be able to spot every error in this paragraph.

***

What if someone had told me, when I was a little boy, always on the lookout for presents (was I ever), that I’d have much more fun when I grew up and became a grandfather and got to buy them instead? What would I have made of that? I’d have thought that it was the usual adult palaver, to which almost all wisdom seemed reducible, the most concrete version of which was “a penny saved is a penny earned,” which, by the way, is utter nonsese, since, unless it was stolen, the penny has presumably been earned already. No one did say, it however — no one ever thought to tell me how much fun I’d have when I got to be a grandfather, and could visit a toystore, such as Kidding Around, and buy more or less everything on my list, and then some.

I did take heart, though, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Looking Forward.”

When I am grown to man’s estate
I shall be very proud and great,
And tell the other girls and boys
Not to meddle with my toys.

Oh, exactly. That, I got. And so now I’ve got a lot of toys to hand on to Will.

Gotham Diary:
Reasonable But Not Rational
21 December 2011

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

That’s how I’ve always thought of myself: reasonable, but not rational. Reasonable at best, perhaps, but never rational. I weigh and consider, as Bacon put it so well, but I never process. Now Daniel Kahneman has written a book claiming that almost everybody is just like me. He adds, though, that it may be unreasonable not to master a certain degree of statistical competence, for use in making high-stakes decisions.

We will draw a veil across the high-stakes decisions that, in retrospect, I clearly bungled. It’s holiday season, no time for moping.

One of the findings that Kahneman works with is called loss aversion; the simple-minded understanding of this principle that I’ve carried away from my reading of Thinking, Fast and Slow is that it takes $2.0o in gains to offset the pain of $1.00 in losses. The prospect of winning two dollars is as attractive as the prospect of losing a dollar is unattractive. Most of us live sounder lives because of this highly conservative outlook.

Well, no sooner do I finish Kahneman’s book than I pick up Nicholas Dunbar’s The Devil’s Derivatives, the first chapter of which describes a gaggle of bonus-happy bankers as the men who like to win. What this means, we’re told, is that these are (young) men whose aversion to losses is negligible. For them, the appeal of a bet to win $2.00 is so great that it will overpower the dread of losing $2,000,000. I exaggerate, but you get the picture. Dunbar reminds us that bankers used to be extremely loss averse. Their outlook changed, however, when the very nature of risk was recast, starting in the 1990s, in fancy formulas, some of them devised by actual rocket scientists. The bankers didn’t understand the formulas, of course, but they liked the whopping revenues that the more daring young men, such as Peter Merriwether, were piling up. The money was literally intoxicating.

“Intoxicating” is a serious word, like “terrible,” that is often used frivolously. Nowadays, to make sure that the point that I just tried to make gets across, you have to say, “the money was toxic.” But of course that elides the component of thrilling fun that bankers had on the way to the graveyard.  It also misses the point that bankers gave up being reasonable because they thought they were being rational.

 

Gotham Diary:
Muddles
20 December 2011

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

After all, I did go to Carnegie Hall last night to hear Messiah. We didn’t stay until the end, because we’d never have gotten a decent dinner if we had. None of the restaurants that we likes keeps the kitchen going after eleven anymore (New York has certainly become the City That Gets Its Beauty Rest), so we took after “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” (sung a tad harshly by Emalie Savoy). We didn’t like leaving early, but we hadn’t been mesmerized, or at least I hadn’t. Kent Tritle’s direction went for lovely, light-handed clarity of texture, but at the expense, I thought, of the occasional impressive choral boom that reminds you what this music is about. And there had been muddles.

It would have been nice, for example, if I’d brought the tickets. I still had them at home, although I didn’t think to look. I thought that I had sent Kathleen off with them in the morning. But she had taken the wrong envelope — the one containing tickets for the Oratorio Society’s April performance (Dvorak’s Stabat Mater). We found this out as we were heading up to our box seats. (Box seats! I hadn’t sat in a box seat in Carnegie Hall since the last Philharmonic season there, when I was 14 or so.) The ticket-taker sent us packing to the box office, where correct tickets were issued on the spot, as soon as my name was confirmed on a list of Oratorio Society subscribers. I’d heard about such marvels from Fossil Darling, but I’d never had to test them.

The muddle might have been much worse. In the middle of the afternoon, before I’d made my mind up one way or the other, Kathleen called to say that the parents of an associate were desperate for tickets, and, much as she herself wanted to go, she’d rather give the tickets to people who really wanted them than go alone. I fastened on what I knew to be Kathleen’s genuine desire to hear Messiah at Christmas, and asked for an hour to decide. In that time, I threw on some street clothes, walked up to Staples for some mailing envelopes, came home, walked over to the Post Office to mail the cards-and-calendars that I’d already stuffed (the line was daunting, but it moved quickly), and come home again. And I felt pretty good. The air had cleared in my head a bit. Partly, it had been the exercise. Partly, though, it had been the surprising moment when, thinking of the aria that I mentioned above, I began to weep, right in the street.

Indeed, the first half of Messiah (in Mozart’s arrangement, which I’d never heard live before) served as a kind of Requiem for my aunt — a private service for just me, right there in Carnegie Hall. (This is what Kathleen has in mind when she says how appropriate it is that I was born on the Feast of the Three Kings.) As the tenor, a pleasing Aaron Blake, intoned the opening words, “Comfort Ye,” my tears welled up again, and they kept flowing through the first chorus. They bubbled up for the last time during the Pastoral Symphony. By the time the first part of the oratorio came to and, I was deeply happy about having come. And I was especially relieved that the associate’s parents hadn’t been presented with a very unpleasant booby prize when they tried to get into the hall.

After the interval, there was another muddle. It turned out that the young lady in the front corner seat of our box who was visibly attached to a young man in the adjacent box was (surprise) sitting in the wrong seat. The actual ticketholder, a forty-ish gent in a tux who looked like a knocked-down Robin Williams, not only fussed about his seat, but he helped himself to the program from my chair when he went to take it. He wore, according to Kathleen, who was stuck right behind him, some very cheap cologne. But the worst of it was that he was, tout court, an asshole. Throughout the second half of the performance, he engaged in dumbshow conversation with someone, unseen by us, in another box. During Mary Phillips’s somewhat underpowered rendition of “He Was Despised,” our natty neighbor mimed an ostentatious yawn. Later, after some squeak in the chorus that you had to want to notice, he stuck a finger in his ear as if to clean it out. I’ve never seen such behavior! It may make me sound like May Robson to say so, but I’ll say it again: I’ve never seen such behavior. As he sat directly in front of Kathleen, his bobbing and weaving — every now and then, he had to lean out over the edge of the balcony, looking for I shudder to think what — made it impossible for Kathleen to watch the performance without plenty of bobbing and weaving of her own. We werent very hard into Part II of Messiah before my thoughts were distracted entirely from the the music by the thought of tapping the jerk on the shoulder and insisting that he sit still. (Indeed the only number that held my complete attention was Kevin Deas’s fierce complaint about raging nations and vain imaginings.)

Decamping early for dinner seemed, then, doubly wise.

Gotham Diary:
In Like Flynn
19 December 2011

Monday, December 19th, 2011

There is always so much to be learned about photography. Red-eye is bad enough. Red velvet hands? What I’m really showing off here is the happy accident that Civil Pleasures, my second Web site and still more in development than it ought to be four years after launching, looks just right on the Kindle Fire without any further fiddling.

***

Watching The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex last night gave new meaning to the phrase “in like Flynn.” The 1939 Warners classic, which I’d never seen before, turns out to be almost perfectly cast. Just as Elizabeth put the stability of England ahead of personal glory, something that Essex couldn’t seem to imagine doing, so Bette Davis put the dramatic interest of the motion picture ahead of personal vanity, which couldn’t have occurred to Errol Glynn. Ethan Mordden writes that Flynn “was at his best when he let his natural charm show through” — in other words, when he stopped acting. Of Elizabeth and Essex, Mordden writes, “Flynn thinks it’s a Flynn vehicle, and he hurts the film by not refusing to respond to Davis.” Just as Essex hurt England with his vainglorious march on London. Well, “hurt” is perhaps overstatement. Neither the aristocrat nor the actor was truly significant personage in his line of work, although both were of course very popular for a spell. uy

I’ve been re-reading The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies (Knopf, 1988), and enjoying it to pieces. Beginning with Paramount and MGM, Mordden writes engaging, conversational chapters about each of the Majors (and one about the Independents as well), sifting through the moguls, the stars, and the properties to identify the characteristics that distinguished the overall output of each. What, for example, made RKO different? First of all, it was founded in 1928, at the dawn of the Talkies. It couldn’t have learned anything about making movies from the long experience that the other studios had. No wonder the studio was the first to go, bought about by Desilu in 1957.

Among other things, House Style (as I call it) is a very funny book.

Today it is common to think of Hepburn as a natural, even as inevitable. But when she was new she was thought strange-looking, affected, and possibly nutty. Hollywood likes outstanding versions of the norm, not outstanding versions of the outstanding, and the non-conformist Hepburn, blurting out The Oddest Things to the press, dodging photographers, and failing to be spotted on the right arm at the orthodox places, acted as strangely as she looked.

She played strange roles, too, no one like another: and played them not as if the studio made her do so but because she wanted to. How to get a handle on this woman? In Christopher Strong (1933) she is Lady Cynthia Darrington, a world-famous aviatrix. The very noun itself bespeaks a pride of glamour. But Hepburn shows up in silver lamé sheath with a Dracula collar and antennae. Maybe it’s supposed to suggest Garbo, but it makes Hepburn look like a Martian lounge singer.

As they say, LOL. I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed re-reading a book so much. Of course I feel terribly guilty, indulging in such pleasures when the house is bursting with unread new books. I can’t have known, back in 1988, that House Style would be one of the most important books in my collection, to me I mean, but that’s unfortunately how libraries work. You have to hold on to everything, because you don’t know what you’ll regret letting go.

Rereading the book prompted me to have another look at Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight (1932 and 1933 respectively, and both MGM. They were both signature offerings, the one of Irving Thalberg and the other of David O Selznick, and they are both haunted by silent-screen habits that won’t go away. Lionel Barrymore plays dying men in both films, but that’s all the characters have in common; Dinner‘s Oliver Jordan is an admirably modest gent, but Grand Hotel‘s Otto Kringelein is a whining, wheedling clerk who never shuts up. He would go over much better, and in fact be the figure of sorrow and pity that he is, if we couldn’t hear him. In the same film, there are times when it would better if we couldn’t hear Joan Crawford, too. She’s still a pretty girl here, but she sounds like a defective Eliza Doolittle, too much of this and too little of that. Too many of her takes seem designed to announce winning poker hands. As for Garbo, she doesn’t need the silver lamé or the antenna to look like a Martian lounge singer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Only John Barrymore, ham that he was, seems to know where movies were going, and is capable for film’s natural tendency to overstate everything.

I’ve never cared much for Jean Harlow, possibly because, like Joan Crawford, she’d have done better at Warner’s (as Crawford certainly did). What I learned from Ethan Mordden is that the studios’ different styles could be the making of an actor. It took MGM to make an outstanding normal woman of Katharine Hepburn, for example. Jean Harlow might have been funnier if she’d made more movies with James Cagney, say. Instead, at brighly-lighted MGM, she’s just vulgar, a mannequin for bias-cut satin nightgowns. And she’s sad, too — she died so very young (26). Marie Dressler, on the other hand, is a revelation: now I know where Angela Lansbury comes from.

***

Now, to finish Daniel Kahneman. A blurb on the dust jacket, contributed by Nicholas Nassim Taleb, ranks Thinking, Fast and Slow with The Wealth of Nations and Freud’s The Interpretation of Drams, and I wholeheartedly agree. Like the earlier books, Thinking completely upsets a widely-held idea, in this case that “man is a rational animal.” I hope that someone is already at work on an elementary-school curriculum that is based on Kahneman’s conclusions. For one thing, we all need much more basic training in statistics, and the whole field of arithmetic ought to be reconceived accordingly. Second, young minds ought to be shaped, to the extent that they can be, by an awareness of the biases toward overconfidence and bad decisions that are Kahneman’s book’s crown of thorns.

 

Gotham Diary:
Tech Style
16 December 2011

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Typical. The minute I feel restored to 3D by Remicade, I run around like a crazy person trying to do everything that was left undone during the previous fortnight. The result is as much a part of the rhythm of my life as the infusion itself: a day in bed. Ordinarily, I’m someone who likes to get out of bed. I may not be so keen on standing up and thinking, but staying in bed has become unappealing. This morning, I did not so much wake up as drift into a remake of Greta Garbo’s bedroom scenes in Grand Hotel (which I watched yesterday), only I was happy and perfectly content. While Kathleen read the paper, I sank in and out of dreams that were alarming simply because of their alternaty: at one point, I was pushing a grocery cart, clueless, at Fairway. What was I shopping for? What was I doing in Fairway? Even less pleasant was trying to take a sip from my water bottle: only in my dream was I holding it. I came to with a shudder.

I scratched my plans for the day, which were pretty ambitious. I was going to go to the movies, visit a toy store, and round up the holiday paraphernalia at the storage unit. Instead, I think that I’ll go back to bed.

***

But first, a word or two about Kurt Anderson’s Vanity Fair piece about the failure of style to change over the  past twenty-plus years. This is something that I’d noticed myself. I came to the conclusion, voiced but not fully endorsed by Anderson, that we’ve been too preoccupied by the overhaul in our personal lives wrought by digital technology that we haven’t had much appetite for superficial change.

In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.

But Anderson is happier, it seems to me, with a declinist reading of the matter: “After all, such a sensibility shift has happened again and again over the last several thousand years, that moment when all great cultures—Egyptian, Roman, Mayan, Islamic, French, Ottoman, British—slide irrevocably into an enervated late middle age.” There’s a fallacy here that is only beginning to be noticed by historians, who have come to see it as part of their déformation professionelle: the inclination to anthropomorphize cultures, to speak of them in terms of youth, vigorous prime, and decrepitude. What’s really being done is this: slices of the past are being weighed for their interest to us. Were the affluent families of the later Roman Empire and the dawning European kingdoms sensible of living in fallen times? I rather doubt it; on the contrary, they were preoccupied by the big new thing, which was Christianity, not only as a personal faith (a new idea in itself) but as a social network. Until very recently, historians have not found anything about Christianity as a social network to be interesting, not least because most they’ve grown up in an era of Christian retreat from intellectual life. But now we’re learning that we have a tendency to identify as robust those cultures that get to push other cultures around. Not so great. And while there are certainly periods in history of great catastrophe, they don’t appear on cue, in the order proposed by Thomas Cole’s suite of Course of Empire paintings.

Anyway, it struck me this morning that the simplest explanation is that the locus of change has shifted, from stuff to circuits, and that we have been taken through several  booming cycles of style change by the guys who set style today: tech nerds. Why, they’re not even nerds anymore! They’re usually pretty hip. But they’re private about their stuff. (And, as closet libertarians, they’re fairly apolitical as well.) The only thing that they want to share is the newest wrinkle in the technological fabric. Because this is their time in the sun — well, we’ve put them there — they make sure that we’re all caught up in the frenzy. Our social network congregates at the Apple Store.

Gotham Diary:
Passages
15 December 2011

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Last night, Will’s parents used their Night Out to buy a Christmas tree. “Oh, wow!” said Will — but that was before he’d even seen it. He is very into saying “Oh, wow!” these days; it is the new “Uh-oh!” He seemed to like the tree, but it was probably a bit too much to take in, having a fir in the apartment. What he took to immediately was the length of twine in which the boughs were bound for easy carrying. As soon as it was cut free, he began a new career of doing a million things with it. He trailed it behind him; he wound himself up in it; he even tried to do the adult thing, and loop it into a ring. (The result was an incarnation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.) I could see why Geekdad hailed string as one of the five great toys.

Then he decided to dress up. This was new to me. I did not crop his head out of the image above; I was trying to take a picture of his footwear, borrowed from his father and, more clearly that the photograph suggests, worn on the wrong feet. When he put the green Santa hat on, he looked like one of the Chinese mushrooms in Fantasia — and also, as his father said, like a little Harry Potter. For the time being, Will doesn’t need a wand to be wowed.

***

Earlier in the day, my dear aunt died, in New Hampshire. I have little to say about her passing beyond slandering the local medical profession; I thought that we were past the time when you could die of complications attending appendicitis. I’ll get over all of that. Because she lived in one of the most inaccessible parts of the Northeast, and I no longer drive (Kathleen never did), we hadn’t paid a visit recently, and I never got to show off Will. A minor regret, really — about Will, I mean. My aunt gave me something utterly priceless, even though it would have embarrassed her to hear tell of it. If I hadn’t adored her as a boy, I might not have recognized as quickly as I did Kathleen’s similar combination of smarts, chic, and kindness. And where would I be in that case?

***

The sun hasn’t come out this morning. It looks like a good day for staying home, which is what I intend, grateful for the empty calendar, to do.

Gotham Diary:
Just a Thought
14 December 2011

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Nick Carr, the superhero who goes by the name of Scout, bringing the brick-and-mortar mysteries of New York City to light even when he can’t solve them, has long been interested in the abandoned headquarters of the New York Architectural Terra Cotta Works, built in 1892 and left to rot during the 1920s. He has recently discovered that the building is being restored by its current owner, Silvercup Studios — even though no actual use for the structure has yet been decided.

May I suggest that, whatever the interior configuration that Silvercup settles upon, the Works Office ought to be occupied by a foundation — a foundation devoted to the nurturing of Internet journalism. I’ll just call it that: Internet journalism. Preferably journalism supported by anything but advertising. Whether bloggers of the future work there or have offices — well, that seems beside the point. The Works Office would serve as an archive, not just of information about New York, but of how to find it. A fellowship at the Works Office would make a decent contemporary journalist out of almost anybody upon whom it was bestowed.

The Works Office isn’t very large, but, as we all know, you can do a lot on the Internet without taking up much square footage. I’m sure that Nick Carr (who would have to be a director!) can figure it out. There’s certainly room for plenty of bicycles — can’t you just see them lined up beneath those great big windows?

Just a thought.

Gotham Diary:
“Here’s Your Diploma”
13 December 2011

Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Yesterday, I abandoned myself to the uttermost dissolution. I had a long lunch with Ray Soleil, and then we watched two old movies — and, just like that, it was time for dinner! The two movies that we watched were both in black-and-white, made within three years of one another, and shot heavily (exclusively, in one case) on location in Manhattan. They were also, both of them, odd fish. “Offbeat” would have been the non-committal judgment of the time. The one was not quite a comedy, and the other not quite a horror movie.

They were Love With the Proper Stranger and Seconds, respectively. I saw Seconds when it was new, in 1966. Several times. It freaked me out completely. You may know the story. A middle-aged banker (John Randolph) gets mysterious phone calls from a college friend whom he knows to be dead. A stranger tails him through Grand Central Terminal — this is the opening scene — and hands him a slip of paper with an address written on it. Eventually, he goes to the address, in pursuit of a new life as a “reborn.” With a dispatch that brings Ray Bradbury to mind, the banker is drugged, set up for blackmail, and forced to sign his estate over to “the company,” which, in addition to rejuvenating him with extensive plastic surgery (as Ray said, viewers were more naive in the Sixties, and would have believed that this was possible), will stage the banker’s death (with help from “cadaver procurement services”) and see that his wife and daughter were comfortably provided for. After a few fade-outs, the banker emerges as Rock Hudson, and is shipped off to California for his new life. If you don’t know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph, while I wrap up this summary. The new life doesn’t take; notwithstanding the charms of Salome Jens, Rock Hudson is even more bored and unsettled than John Randolph was. He winds up, of course, in “CPS.”

John Frankenheimer directed Seconds, and the movie shares a lot, from the auteurist point of view, with The Manchurian Candidate, made a few years earlier and also featuring the ghoulishly genial Khigh Dhiegh, born Kenneth Dickerson in Spring Lake, New Jersey, in 1910. (Isn’t IMDb great? But how do you say “Khigh Dhiegh”? Ah. “Ky Dee.” If you say so.) In many anxious scenes, Randolph or Hudson sits in a corner of the foreground, eyes moving dramatically, while someone else talks in the background. In Randoph’s case, the background figure is usually explaining the reborn program. In Hudson’s best scene, the standing figure is Frances Reid, playing the banker’s widow, who has, of course, no idea that the man to whom she is describing the emptiness of her marriage is in fact her husband. John Randolph, who had a far more interesting life than the banker — born Emanuel Cohen in the Bronx, five years after Khigh Dhiegh and blacklisted after pleading the Fifth Amendment bofore the HUAC — is hands down the better actor. But Rock Hudson’s woodenness is relieved by a discomfiture that is not at all out of place. Seconds is an occasion for Roy Scherer, Jr, born in Winnetka in 1925, and a closeted homosexual who would be felled by AIDS, to put the phoniness of his life in front of the camera, and he makes the most of the opportunity.

I hadn’t seen Love With the Proper Stranger before. Ray had “sold” it to me at lunch a while back, and, unable to rent a copy, I’d bought one. Robert Mulligan’s film captures a moment that I remember well, although I didn’t know that it was a moment at the time; nor did I know any big, possessive Italian families. There was a feeling, in the early Sixties, that New York City was simply no longer “modern.” Most of its buildings looked ancient, no matter how few decades back they’d been built, and most of its citizens were immured in powerful networks of traditional families. California was modern, Denver was modern, but New York was old-hat. And the young people of New York restlessly decided to do something about it, although nothing that would involve going without a necktie or a headscarf.

There’s a glancing, anticlimatic quality to the story. The dramatic event has already taken place, and one of the participants has almost forgotten about it. Now, at the start of the film, Angie Rossini is telling Rocky Papasano, a trumpeter who’s milling about in a casting call, that she’s pregnant. She needs the name of “a doctor.” Is this funny? It is, sort of. Natalie Wood is very cute, an adorable damsel in distress, not least because she never whines — not in front of Rocky, anyway. Steve McQueen is peculiarly inarticulate; in lieu of speech, he vibrates and rumbles and looks down to the ground as if in search of clues about what to do next. That’s kind of adorable, too, especially once you know that he’s going to do the decent thing. And then, after the grim enocunter with the abortionist — a scene that ever right-to-lifer ought to be obliged to re-enact — he does the right thing, although it takes a little while. In the course of scraping up the money for the “doctor,” the young people spend enough time together to get the idea that their marriage would not be tantamount to going back to the old ways and living with a dozen relatives underfoot. Angie’s little apartment is in Greenwich Village, but it’s bright and well-ordered, unlike the overupholstered layrinth that her brothers share with her mother, and less unlike the breezily shabby flat where Rocky is camping out with Barbie (Edie Adams), a Broadway babe.

The movie’s goofy finale nails it to its time. In a last-ditch effort to win Angie, Rocky apes the odball, still unfamiliar, faintly ridiculous gambit of behaving like a sign-carrying protestor. In the middle of the day, he stands on 34th Street, waiting for Angie’s lunch break at Macy’s. “Better Wed Than Dead,” his sign reads. As the camera pulls back from a throng of New Yorkers, our eyes are caught by the hugging, kissing younsters whose understatement and light touch promises to freshen up the place.

***

On Friday, I saw My Week With Marilyn, and it’s a very good movie in spite of the fact that, the more you think about it afterward, the less it seems to have to do with Marilyn Monroe. Michelle Williams is truly captivating in the role of Marilyn, but that’s just another way of saying that she upstages the actual actress whose films we know so well. She makes you forget that Marilyn Monroe was not a genuinely voluptuous woman. She could put on the pose and pretend, but that’s what made her a comedienne: you got to laugh with her at the pose. Naturally, she was restless and edgy. She was not incapable of relaxation but she was never (on film) self-possessed, composed. There was a rigid quality about her being at rest, as if she were afraid to muss a curl of her hair or the drape of her dress. Michelle Williams, in contrast, can do almost anything without moving. She is always centered so deeply in herself that she seems in possession of dangerous special powers. Marilyn’s powers were strictly WYSIWYG. What’s hard for Michelle Williams to pull off is Marilyn’s incompetence as an actress. Her performance hints at deep psychic wounds, but Marilyn Monroe, on the evidence, was a noodle who needed a very firm dancing partner in order to cross a room. Michelle Williams makes Marilyn Monroe a million times more glamorous than she really was.

But that’s all right, because My Week With Marilyn is not about Marilyn Monroe but about the guy who had the week with her. This would be Colin Clark, the very well-brought-up son of Sir Kenneth Clark, of Civilisation fame. Colin Clark was (is) Edith Wharton’s only godson; she left him half of her library. How’s that for an ordinary bloke who gets lucky? The point of it all is that Colin is no ordinary bloke, and luck (aside from the luck of birth) has nothing to do with the case. Clark works his way into the production of a motion picture by dint of his excellent resources. He has magnificent, yea, regal connections to call upon as a gofer. Instead of belaboring Clark’s advantages, the movie exploits them as magic tricks. Eddie Redmayne is perfect in the part, because he has a constitutional reluctance to call attention to himself that’s beautifully harnessed to an ability to put himself in the center of any scene. The vulgar word is “class.” His Clark has so much class that we wonder Marilyn Monroe didn’t write a memoir entitled, My Week With Colin. Well, we know why Marilyn didn’t. But we’re inclined to believe that Michelle Williams might.

The fun of My Week With Marilyn is Kenneth Branagh’s recreation of Laurence Olivier, which is as spot-on as his costar’s is (no less delightfully) wide of the mark. Mr Branagh has been haunted by Olivier throughout his career, and we can only hope that it will be an equally long one. The difficulty is that he is nowhere near the insidious ham that Olivier was, nor does he radiate the pixie-ish suggestion that was implicit in Olivier’s slightest gesture: Olivier was inconceivable offscreen. He might as well have been made of celluloid, so embodied in film is he. Not Mr Branagh. Kenneth Branagh is a great actor, but he is meatily mortal.

In the end, My Week With Marilyn is one of the better movies about the movies. Superficially about the making of a movie, it is in fact about its actual stars. What does Judi Dench “do” with Sybil Thorndike? What do they all “do,” these impersonators? What do we do, when we watch them? What we do is say “Yes.” When Marilyn, about to be mobbed by the kitchen staff at Windsor Castle — to which Colin has gained admittance because his godfather (Derek Jacobi) is the royal librarian — asks “Shall I be her?”, we don’t wait for Colin to answer. We say, “Yes, Michelle. Be her. Be Marilyn.” And then, right before our eyes, she does.

Gotham Diary:
Long Night
12 December 2011

Monday, December 12th, 2011

It may take so long to get going today that it will be tomorrow before I make the bed, get dressed, and do all the other ordinary morning things. It will probably be Wednesday when I get out of bed on the early side again.

Today’s low, vitiated mood is perfectly normal for the eve of a Remicade infusion (I’m to have one tomorrow), but there’s an overlay of quite objective sadness: my dear aunt is in hospice care. The sadness takes me by surprise at least once an hour, by crystallizing into jagged-edged grief.

So I’m not good for much today. Attempting to sparkle would probably be regrettable.

Gotham Diary:
“This Is Where Betty Crocker Shot Herself”
9 December 2011

Friday, December 9th, 2011

In the taxi that carried us home, the driver got off his cell phone. We were still on Sixth Avenue, but about to turn right toward the East Side. ”It’s cold,” the driver said, in a robust voice, his accent vaguely South Asian. We didn’t respond right away, so he almost turned in his seat to address us. “It’s cold,” he said, again. We agreed. “Where do you live?” he asked. We wondered to ourselves, “How many people who get into a taxi in the Village somewhere between nine and ten in the evening, and who ask to be taken to 86th and Second (which every driver in the world remembers as “82nd and Second, but that’s another story, even though this one did, too) — how many such people don’t live there,” but all we said was “Here.” “You look like tourists,” the driver said blandly, as though pleased to have made a mistake. “You look like tourists to me.” The only thing that I could think of to say to this was, ‘We’ve lived in the same building for thirty years.” This he found astonishing, although not violently so. The driver was much too friendly, and self-possessed in a childlike way, for violence. Recovering from his strangely friendly assault, I thought of something better than living in the same building for thirty years, much better. “I was born here,” I said. This got more of a reaction. “That’s right,” I said, swelling inside, “right on West 65th Street.” I was so flushed with pride, it was like a treatment at a spa.

***

Paul Rudnick is never coming to my house. Oh no no no no no! If he did, I’m sure that I would hear the “gay voice” that torments a Midwestern housewife in his skit, The Gay Agenda, when her new neighbors, the same-sex couple Bill and Stu, come to return an apple crumble pan (or is it blueberry?). They claim to admire her living room, with its tasteful colonial reproductions and plaid wallpaper, but Mary Abigail (a fantastically funny Harriet Harris) can hear, as if spoken aloud, what they must really be thinking. “This is where Betty Crocker shot herself!” It is the funniest, funniest, funniest moment in the entire history of theatre, or at least that’s what it feels like right now. I’m still laughing the next morning. Later in the evening, in another Rudnick skit, there was a joke that was almost as good, in its unlikely and unexpected comic fit: a matchmaking mother tells her son about a cardiac surgeon whom she has imagined for the purposes of one-upping a rival mom. The surgeon operates exclusively on gay children in third world countries — he’s that gay. “But how does he know they’re gay?” asks the son, of the children. It’s Ms Harris again, and she gives Mark Consuelos (did you see the smile on him?) a Jack Benny look. “Because their hearts are so big.” It’s a terrible joke, really, but that’s why it fits the circumstances so well. The creator of Libby Gelman-Waxner has done himself proud.

There are plenty of laughs in the other pieces that have been gathered together to compose Standing On Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, but they’re different from the laughs that Paul Rudnick incites. They’re the kind of laughs that you have, if you’re very lucky, during a wedding toast or a funeral speech. They’re rueful. They’re rueful for two reasons, or maybe two aspects of the same reason. Marriage isn’t for everyone, but everyone who gets married is just like everyone else who gets married in the same way that all of us are mortal. The frightful desperation of bridezillas everywhere is an annoying attempt to stand out while standing in line. Not to worry, though, because, by the same rueful token, weddings are a kind of blender that produces a slightly different drink for every couple, consisting of the odd mix of family and friends that show up, expecting to have a wonderful time. And almost every happy marriage ends with one spouse burying the other — how’s that for a reward?

Our reward was hearing Richard Thomas (yes, that Richard Thomas; he has grown up to be a pillar of the New York stage) deliver a eulogy to a lover, dead of pancreatic cancer after forty-six years of amiable argument about whether humanity has ceased to evolve. Moisés Kaufman packs a lot of material into the speech — the men met on the day Kennedy was shot; they saw the Twin Towers fall from the doorway of the DMV — and he even offers a deft acknowledgment that gay marriage is not an unmixed blessing, but Mr Thomas works through it all with the diligence of a heartsick left-behind gentleman that the illusion is complete: you may not have known Paul Foster, the deceased, but you’re at his funeral because you know people who knew him, and you mourn him. You mourn this imaginary man, and pity his survivor, as deeply as you would mourn all but your very nearest and dearest — and, who knows, maybe as much as them. And the moral of the story is that even though Paul and the nice man eulogizing him didn’t get married, they were married, and we recognize this at Paul’s funeral. There is no other word for the relationship. And our grief crowns the moral of the evening, which is that humanity has evolved, at least in part, sufficiently to recognize that all good people, regardless of sexual preference, have the right to get married. Perhaps it is marriage that has done the evolving, but that’s not much of a difference.

Craig Bierko, Polly Draper, and Beth “As We Stumble Along” Leavel round out the cast of six. Mr Bierko also delivers a eulogy, but it happens to be a device in Neil LaBute’s little melodrama, Strange Fruit. Ms Draper and Ms Leavel get to play two versions of the same couple in skits by Mo Gaffney and Wendey MacLeod, but they’re also sparring partners in Doug Wright’s On Facebook, an exercise in modern mis-manners that is significantly relieved by Ms Draper’s velvety bass0 profundo. There are ten plays in the Standing on Ceremony suite, nine of which are given on any one night. So we missed Joe Keenan’s This Marriage Is Saved, which is almost enough to make me think of going back.

***

I was born in New York City under shameful circumstances: my mother wasn’t married. And I was whisked off to Westchester before I was even two months old. When people asked me where I was from, I would never say “New York,” because that would have been cheating; I lived in the suburbs. I knew that I’d been born in the city, but the fact meant just about absolutely nothing, because it didn’t change the fact that I was miserable in Bronxville. Well, not actually miserable, maybe, but certainly training to be: I was determined to grow up to be interesting, and that pretty much meant that I was going to have to discover what “interesting” looked like, because there sure wasn’t any in Bronxville. (That was, and from what I can tell still is, the whole point of Bronxville.) It would take a long time for me to grasp that, in my case, anyway, “interesting” isn’t so much what you do or what you say as what you write, and, all resemblances to Santa Claus and Captain Smith aside, I am not a particularly interesting person to be around, unless you want me to show you round the Museum. I read, I write. I set the table for dinner with crystal and silver, and, after dinner, I wash the dishes. But I’m back where I came from, and man, is that great.

I asked the driver how long he’d lived in New York. “Ten years” was the answer. “Ten years is good,” I said. That’s about how long I’ve felt, at some moment almost every day, a deep contentment to find myself walking around on the rock where I was born.

Gotham Diary:
Vernacular
8 December 2011

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Directly beneath the photo and squib about Tom Perrotta, on the back of the box containing the 8 CDs of the audiobook edition of The Leftovers, it says, clearly and distinctly: Read by Dennis Boutsikaris. But I managed to miss this notice in my sudden eagerness to hear the author read his latest novel. I didn’t buy The Leftovers when it came out, even though I’m something of a Perrotta fan — that “something” is precisely what I’m trying to put my finger on” —because it’s about the aftermath of a Rapture=like event called the Sudden Departure. Oh, dear no; I didn’t want to read about that. But it was easy to persuade myself, in the hunt for a satisfying audio experience, that I’d enjoy the book if Tom Perrotta read it to me. When I found out that that wasn’t going to happen — I was walking out the door on my way to Saturday night’s Orpheus concert when the discovery was made, and it was too late to fiddle with alternative entertainment — I was bitterly disappointed. Mr Boutsikaris is, apparently, a veteran reader of audiobooks who sounds a little bit like Dennis Farina, if not quite so Midwestern. I am not going to enjoy listening to him read The Leftovers. But I will make the best of it; the $39.95 (gasp) purchase price will not have been a total loss.

You wouldn’t think that Tom Perrotta’s novels would be my cup of tea. The author’s being an American male, for example. I don’t read novels by American males, almost, I could say, as a rule. Brian Morton is an exception that comes swiftly to mind, as of course does Jonathan Franzen. The run of prestigious American male novelists makes me feel like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Rachel Maddow all rolled into one: when is this kid’s mother coming to pick him up? The American male novelist generally assumes that (each) the story of a man who finds himself while rejecting or transcending everyday society is an interesting and useful story to tell. It is not, particularly as what the man usually finds out about himself is that sex is a gyp. American male novelists have little or no conception of the leading role that social life has in the formation of character. That’s probably why I make an exception for Tom Perrotta. Tom Perrotta has a complete conception of this fact of human nature.

But then, there’s his suburban subject matter. “Suburban” seems unduly marginalizing, because what Perrotta writes about is where most halfway comfortable people live, but I’m still very glad that I don’t live there. Perrotta doesn’t make it “interesting”; on the contrary, he seems determined, in the course of his career as a novelist, to get as close as he can to the default settings of American life. This is not to say that he wants to write about absolutely average, mediocre people. No, he’s writing about America, after all, and that means capturing the American Dream. What’s it like to live the American Dream, at least in its vernacular versions. What’s it like to be trying to live the American Dream? Ask me if I care.

Tom Perrotta seems to know — he seems reluctant, personally, to know what his work has taught him — that the American Dream is indeed a dream, something for sleepy-time. It is not an idea of being awake. It is not a plan for making the world a better place. On the contrary, it is a profoundly anti-social goal, and that’s what makes Perrotta a powerful writer — his knowing this. I think of Tom Perrotta as a man of George Carlin’s fierce intelligence but also of a Franciscan monk’s piety, respect for the world as it is. He neither rants nor preaches, but he limns good, decent people who have been sold a bill of goods.

He always makes me wonder what I’ve got to offer that’s any better.

Gotham Diary:
Running Down
7 December 2011

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Good clocks don’t run down, ticking ever more slowly until their hands stop moving. They either tell the time or they stop. So I’m much more like a bad clock right now, a poorly designed contraption. I am definitely ticking ever more slowly. Every day is a little bit harder to get through than the one before. But only a little. It’s not so bad. It’s just perceptibly worse than normal. For which I’m very grateful — both for the normal, which wouldn’t be normal at all if it weren’t for the Remicade that is going to bring me right back to it next Tuesday, and for the marginal nature of the deterioration. I’m never actually sick. Just “tired.” And the thing that tires me out the most is making plans. The nice thing about today is that I don’t think that I’m going to have to make any plans. My plans are in place. Certainty is its own source of energy.

***

As we walked from the Biltmore to the Brasserie last night, we talked about great performances that we had seen on and off Broadway over the years. Well, we didn’t talk about them; we enumerated them. When I’d said, of the play that we’d just seen, David Ives’s Venus in Fur, that it was “one of those big nights that you put in your Broadway scrapbook,” I was thinking that, maybe, there were four or five other performances to compare with Nina Arianda’s, but by the time dinner was over, we were well past the thirty-mark — we’ve seen Stockard Channing alone on three extremely memorable occasions, in Hapgood, The Lion in Winter, and The Little Foxes; and mentioning Hapgood reminds us of her costar, David Strathairn, in Stranger, with Kyra Sedgwick; and on it goes — and we never did remember Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife. The fact is, we’ve seen a lot of great theatre. We haven’t seen everything; from a true theatregoer’s perspective, we haven’t even seen very much. Our scrapbook doesn’t have to be all that voluminous. But there will definitely be a page for Nina Arianda’s Vanda. Let me say right away that Hugh Dancy, the other member of the cast (he plays a young man called Thomas), was superb as well: he carried Ms Arianda as beautifully as Nureyev carried Fonteyn. But Venus in Fur is about the goddess in the title.

Venus in Fur shimmers from shifting perspectives. There is of course the novel by Sacher-Masoch, that caused a perversion to be branded with the author’s name, and the title of which David Ives borrowed for his play. Somewhat more distant but vastly more resonant, there is Euripides’s terrifying Bacchae. In that play, a foolish king believes himself powerful enough to subdue what he takes to be a disorderl, ecstatic cult, and fails to recognize the presence of the god Dionysus. Dramatic irony is wound to the highest pitch as the god helps the king to disguise himself as one of the madwomen, headed by his own mother, who roam the outlying hills and whose excesses the king insists upon stopping. The disguise is foolish, because the god simply betrays the king to his antagonists; his mother is the first to attack him. What this has to do with Venus in Fur is the latter’s demonstration of the updated folly of a theatre director who believes that he can tame an ambitious actress.

You can see Vanda as an incarnation of Venus, as a goddess who has somehow descended upon a hapless and confused but also somewhat grandiose dramaturge. (The conceit of Thomas’s relation to the drama that he is trying to cast is intriguing, because, as the adapter of a novel who intends to direct a production of his adaptation, Thomas is nonetheless not the playwright.) You can imagine that the thunder and lightning that frame the show signal the presence of a dangerous divinity. Living in New York, however, it’s much easier to imagine Vanda as an intense striver determined to do anything to get a part, even if it means purloining a copy of the entire script, buying an assortment of surprisingly suitable props, and and stalking the director. Not to mention a willingness to deploy no fewer than three fatal instrumentalities. There is no real need to get all supernatural and stuff. But it’s fun to do so, because Venus in Fur is, at heart, a comedy about getting what you asked for.

Nina Arianda is very funny and very agile; she’s frankly acrobatic. But what sears her performance into the mind is her dangerousness. Even when she’s being A jolly ditz, as in the earlier part of Venus in Fur, she is clearly (dramatic irony!) not to be trusted. And when she slips from her late-stage Valley Girl like-lish into the husky, artistocratic tones of the baroness in Thomas’s adaptation, the effect is simultaneously hilarious and menacing. (Barbra Streisand and Nicole Kidman are the only other comediennes I can think of who are as agile at shifting registers faster than the blink of an eye.) But no matter how deeply her performance unsettles you, you walk out of the theatre on clouds, because you know that there are going to be at least three or four utterly memorable evenings ahead. Plays are going to be written for Nina Arianda.

Gotham Diary:
Expert
6 December 2011

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Until the other day, I had never looked at a recipe for garlic bread. It had not occurred to me that garlic bread might be something that I ought to learn how to make. I thought that I already knew. I made it the way they made it at the bar nearest campus on Notre Dame Avenue. Not Louie’s, but somebody-else’s; when I went back to law school, it had been renamed, cynically, The Library. I think. Neither here nor there. That’s where I was first exposed to garlic bread. It was obvious that all you did, to make this garlic bread, was slice a loaf of Italian bread into rounds and then spread garlic butter on one side of each (with, maybe, a dusting of parmesan). A few minutes’ toasting in the oven, and voilà: garlic bread. I didn’t make it often, but I made it for years, despite the fact that it was never really satisfactory.

The other day, I was leafing through Gourmet’s Quick Kitchen, a compendium of recipes for two, for the umpteenth time, looking for inspiration. What I found instead were recipes that I’d tried once, years ago, and not particularly cared for. I ought to know this book, and its equally invaluable companion, In Short Order, by heart, but then cooking is something that I do on the side. Quick Kitchen is the fancier of the two by a hair. It begins with a suite of menus with aspirational titles such as “Lunch By the Fire” and “A Hearty Bachelor’s Dinner” (shouldn’t that be bachelors’?). My eye was drawn to the “Carefree Pasta Lunch.” Because what I wanted to make, the minute I saw it, was carefree. Carefree with a side of pasta sounds like heaven.

But of course pasta is the main event here — Pasta with Prosciutto, Peppers, and Herbs — and what’s on the side is garlic bread. With the idlest curiosity, I looked over the instructions for garlic bread. At some point — it was very quick — idle curiosity was replaced by sense memory. This is how they make garlic bread at Caffè Grazie! The garlic bread that we order the second we sit down, and can never get enough of.

(Caffè Grazie is a pleasant Italian restaurant in a brownstone on East 84th Street, just a few steps from the Museum. Kathleen and I like to eat there after concerts or previews. As long as we’re on the subject, their tiramisù is very much to my taste. They make a veal tortellini dish that is so earthy that I almost gagged the first time I had it, but I couldn’t help myself ordering it again and again. )

Forget slicing the loaf as if you were making sandwiches. Slice the loaf in half the other way, lengthwise, and then cut off six-inch sections. Combine butter, minced garlic, salt and paprika to taste. Spread the butter on the bread and toast it in the oven for about three minutes. Voilà: much better garlic bread.

***

This is the sort of thing that drives me (quietly) crazy: learning how to do things well at my age. What on earth took so long? A big part of the problem, of course, is that, like the scamps in Molière’s satire, Les Précieuses ridicules, I was born knowing everything that there is to know, and it has taken decades to cure this affliction. But there’s also a social factor. In our world, you’re expected to learn how to do things that will earn income. (There’s really not much to this, if you’re inclined to pay attention and do as you’re told.) If you’re ambitious, you may develop a sought-after expertise in some field or other. But no one expects you to be an expert at living your own life. Beyond table manners and basic hygiene, you’re not taught anything about how to live your life. I’m not talking about higher purposes here, obviously. I’m talking about getting through the day with dispatch and satisfaction.

Daily life has a million moving parts, so getting it right isn’t going to be easy. How do you balance your interest in reading, with a nice glass or two of wine, with the need to be rested? Where do you get the discipline — the courage, even — to do things that feel all wrong, like exercise and diets? Like struggling with Bayes’s Theorem on page 32 of Statistics in a Nutshell? “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is the sort of rule that you can put into practice only if you have a chauffeur. The small stuff — there is no end of it — requires some amount of sweat, or at least concern. How much is too much?

The answer is different for everyone. All the answers are, and all the questions. That’s why self-help books don’t work. A truly useful self-help book would have one, and only one, reader.

For the moment, I’m happy with garlic bread.

Gotham Diary:
Capitán
5 December 2011

Monday, December 5th, 2011

At about four o’clock yesterday afternoon — evening, really; it gets dark so early these days — Will was in his stroller and I was about to push him across Avenue C. Kathleen and I were taking him to Tompkins Square Park to play for an hour. On the opposite corner, outside the beer garden, a fair-complexioned woman in her fifties was smiling at me. She had the open, un-made-up face of a former nun, with slightly flyaway hair. She was walking with a cane that she did not seem particularly to need. I could tell this because she did not wait for the traffic light to change in favor of our crossing Avenue C. She was already across the street by the time the light changed. She had beamed at me — well, beaming is perhaps a bit intense — the whole way, and I had smiled back, something I’d never have done if I’d been alone. Will has made a proudly gregarious grandpapa out of me, and I am not shy about acknowledging the appreciation of strangers. But the woman was smiling at me, and I probably oughtn’t to have been so surprised when she said, as she passed us, “You have a beautiful beard.” Emphasis supplied.

***

On Friday morning, I went to see Hugo. I encourage everyone who likes going to the movies to see it, because, as a beautiful tribute to the inventiveness of Georges Méliès, it honors the roots from which the “filmed entertainment” of today has grown. It’s a reminder that movies can be as great as they are hokey.

Hugo is based on a Young Adult novel by Brian Selznik, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I’m finding that there are two kinds of Young Adult fiction. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, by Peter Cameron, is the best book that I can think of that really deserves the classification, but Jane Eyre is probably the most famous. The other type of Young Adult fiction ought better to be described as Ageing Child. Unlike true Young Adult novels, books for Ageing Children — and Hugo Cabret would seem to be one; David Mitchell’s last novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet turned out to be another, even though it was ostensibly aimed at Adult Adults — are closed off from complexity. Complications abound, but they’re all sorted out in the end, and often long before. There’s nothing wrong with that, really, but it can be heavy when it isn’t amusing. And Hugo’s tale is not very amusing.There is not a lot of fun in the story of Hugo, an orphan who winds all the clocks at the Gare du Nord in the middle of the 1920s. Fun for us, I mean; Hugo’s story is implausible where it ought to be interesting. But I’ll be making it sound like Dickens if I keep this up.

The joy of Hugo is that Martin Scorsese has embedded the boy’s own story in a Wunderkammer of cinematic treats. Who’s that man in round-lensed spectacles whom Hugo nearly knocks over as he flees the monomaniac station inspector, who loves nothing so much as sending urchins off to the orphanage? Why, it’s James Joyce! Why are those immense statues in the cemetery so familiar? Because they’re blown-up versions of the mourners from the tomb of Jean sans Peur in Dijon — they were exhibited here, at the Museum, last year. Most of all, stealing the show as it nears the finale, is the story of Méliès, and the recreation, in 3D, of famous bits and pieces from his vast output. As an homage to the movies, it outclasses anything every produced for the Academy Awards. The story of Hugo aside, Hugo tremendously moving without being disagreeably sentimental.

 Two things keep Hugo from being truly magical, at least for this grown-up. First, the cast. The cast is superb (insert formulaic encomia here), but its members are British, or at any rate not French. This bit of catering to American provinciality, exploiting English accents to signify “abroad,” is nothing less than embarrassing, and embarrassing more or less every time an actor opens his mouth. The other thing is the movie’s indulgence of a perverse desire to look down on the Eiffel Tower from a great height. You can look down on the Eiffel Tower from a great height if you are in some kind of airplane, or dirigible, or other flying contraption. You cannot look down upon it from nearby mountaintops, because there aren’t any in Paris, and you most certainly cannot look down on the Eiffel Tower from the campanile at the Gare du Nord, because there isn’t one of those, either, and even if there were it would only be tall enough to look up. There’s a perfectly dreadful moment when the little girl in the story asks Hugo where he lives. They’re strolling along the Seine, near Notre Dame, at this point, but that doesn’t stop Hugo from pointing, “Over there,” to a cgi shot in which the terminal is given a more convenient, riverside location. Hollywood.

***

On Saturday night, we went to a birthday party. We thought that we were going to an Orpheus concert at Carnegie Hall, but life is not simple. The concert turned out to be a tie-in, broadcast live, with the 75th anniversary of the founding of WQXR, the radio station that was owned by the New York Times for decades and that now forms a part of New York Public Radio. Seventy-five years! When I say that that doesn’t seem a very long time, what I mean is that this portal to classical music that I discovered on my own when I was nine or ten and passing the time on a sick day, is only twelve years older than I am. Which isn’t old at all, right?

What with announcements from various representatives of the organizations involved, the music didn’t begin until 7:25. The evening’s soloist, oboist Albrecht Mayer, tacked two encores onto his performance. These were followed by the world’s longest interval. You could have enjoyed a turkey dinner during the intermission, and perhaps taken in a night-club act as well. Kathleen was in agony. A nerve in her shoulder got pinched somehow, and her left arm ached no matter how she positioned it. Ordinarily, I would have offered to take her home, but I really really wanted to hear Haydn’s Drum Roll Symphony, and Kathleen indulged me. She said that she’d feel better at dinner, after she took some Advil, which, in the event, she did. But before the Haydn we had a new composition by Andrew Norman, a young composer who now lives in Brooklyn. Even in her pain, Kathleen thought that it was interesting. But she had no taste for Haydn afterward. Abandoning herself to daydreams of walking on the beach (“It worked”), she got through the final half hour without giving the music a thought.

It was exactly the sort of performance that is the whole reason for going to Orpheus concerts. It made the familiar symphony entirely fresh, which is to say, I suppose, that it completely rewrote my impression of the work. I mean to use the idea of rewriting in its recent digital or cognitive sense. The rewriting didn’t involve very much that was absolutely new, but even as it clarified my response — I saw the first movement as a study in framing, and grasped (partly, no doubt, because Kathleen wasn’t feeling well) that, aside from the minuet, its movements are reluctant to conclude. In the minuet, at about Bar 19, there’s an orchestral thickening that brings Schubert’s arduous workouts to mind, and that quite shatters any notion of a courtly dance. My overall feeling about the symphony — that it ought to go by the nickname “Creation,” not “Drum Roll” — was reinforced at almost every moment of the performance. Never more so than in the finale, however: this movement more and more strikes me as a fraternal twin of the “Hallelujah” chorus that ends Part II of Das Schöpfung, “Vollendet ist das große Werk.” Like the oratorio, the symphony is as grand as it is possible to be without an iota of pomposity.

The concert began — when it began — with Hindemith’s Kammermusik Nº 1, written in 1922 for the Donaueschingen Festival. I am not crazy about Hindemith, and I thought that I was being funny when I told Kathleen that, although the program allotted sixteen minutes to the work’s performance, its duration was actually eternal. This turned out to be fatuous. After a rambunctious but very brief overture and an agreeable opening movement, there’s an enchanting quartet for winds and percussion that sets the mood of classic Chinese landscapes, hushed, delicate, and sweetly forlorn. As for the finale, with its ostinato growls it might well be thought of as Le Sacre de Weimar. It’s otiose to ask if Hindemith had Stravinsky in mind (of course he did!), but the surprise is the completeness with which Hindemith makes his borrowings all his own. It goes without saying that a German response to Stravinsky’s mad ecstasy would, after the Great War, take the form of chamber music.

***

On the front page of today’s Times, there’s a story about the soon-to-be-discontinued visits that the submersible vessel Mir has been paying to the wreck of the Titanic. Further proof that the centenary of the world’s most famous shipwreck is upon us came to me during the coming attractions trailers that preceded Hugo on Friday. Among the many marvels that I have lived to see is the ability to refit an old movie in 3D, and Titanic, one of the worst movies ever made, is getting the treatment, for release next year. I mention this only because the trailer afforded a glimpse of Bernard Hill, as Captain Edward James Smith. It was the first glimpse that I’d had, since Willy, the barber who keeps my beard looking beautiful, took to calling me Capitán because I remind him of Captain Smith. It’s not a comparison that, given the outcome, I’m particularly keen about, but it’s certainly more dignified than Santa Claus, so I go with it. On balance, I think that I have a much more beautiful beard — er, well-shaped — than the the one with which Bernard Hill was supplied.

Not my beautiful grandson. (And he is beautiful.) My beautiful beard. But what was I thinking? I was in the East Village!

Gotham Diary:
In Place
2 December 2011

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Last night, I had a ticket to a chamber concert at Weill Recital Hall, but I stayed home. I wasn’t feeling, as they say, “100%,” and I’d been out almost all day on Wednesday, the day before. One of the things that was making me feel less than “100%” was the dining table, which was covered with stacks of mail. The past couple of days have seen record intakes of catalogues, often duplicates, almost all of which would be thrown away. (Kathleen and I recently made the decision not to hold on to bedding catalogues. We buy bed linens on the punctured-equilibrium plan, four or five new sets at time, and during the two or three years that follow these sprees, we have no interest in shopping for more. Pitch ‘em.) I was supposed to deal with paperwork on Tuesday, but I didn’t feel well on Tuesday (I felt substantially below “100%” — sick, almost). Once upon a time, I could put off the stuff that “I was supposed to deal with on Tuesday” for quite a while, more than a week, even. But those days are over. Two days is all it takes to turn neglected paperwork into rotting fish.

Besides, I had some new ideas about organizing the paperwork, and I craved a stretch of quiet hours in which to test out the mechanics.

I promise you that I am not going to share any of my new ideas about organizing paperwork.

***

Perhaps you can tell, from some tics of style in the foregoing, that I’ve been reading Nora Efron. More accurately, I’ve been listening to Nora Efron, reading her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. This book came out several years ago, by which time I’d read much of its content in The New Yorker. I bought the audio version because in those days, just after I’d broken my neck, I was religiously taking hourlong walks every day, and to divert myself from the views of pavement to which ankylosing spondylitis has condemned me, I listened to books instead of reading them. It was hard to find good titles, but that’s another story. It’s another story because, in the case of I Feel Bad About My Neck, I never opened the box. I never opened the box until Monday, when I re-introduced the regime of daily walks. I wouldn’t walk for an hour, but at least I’d get to the river.

I liked I Feel Bad About My Neck so much that I couldn’t stop listening to it when I got home. All through the preparation of dinner, I was entertained by Efron’s wry, faux self-deprecations. (People who write and direct popular comedies and still talk of “my friend, Bob Gottlieb” cannot seriously put themselves down). It was like being at a party, listening to someone very funny and wise. That happens! It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. I felt so convivial, listening to Efron talk about her romance with the Apthorpe (an apartment building on Broadway), that I drank a few too many glasses of Chablis on the rocks while I was getting dinner ready. That’s why I felt so far from “100%” on Tuesday.

I haven’t taken any more walks this week. Tuesday, I felt lousy. Wednesday, I ran errands in the neighborhood and was on my feet a great deal longer than I’d have been for taking a walk, so it’s not a total loss. Not to mention babysitting! Yesterday, I was saving my strength for an evening outing that did not take place. Today, I’ll go to the movies early (Hugo, I think), have a quick bite at Shake Shack maybe, and pick up fixings for dinner at Fairway. Even if I could take a walk, there wouldn’t be any more Nora Efron to listen to. I pretty much finished it off last night, staying home, making spaghetti alla carbonara. (I could treat myself to my second-favorite dish because Kathleen, who doesn’t care for it, had a bar association thing.) /This time, I did not have a drop of wine until I sat down to eat.

Nora Efron is an engaging, attractive reader of her own material, and I’m glad that she has made the recordings so that now for all time we will know how it ought to be read. The thing is, though, that feeling that I was at a party with Nora Efron kept reminding me of a real party that she was at. I wasn’t there, but James Wolcott was, and he writes about it in Lucking Out. He writes about having a short conversation with Efron at a party at (her friend) Mort Zuckerman’s.

At the end of our brief chat, at a loss for a swave way to take my leave, I inanely said to Nora, “Well, maybe we’ll run into each other sometime soon.” “I doubt it,” she said, not curtly, but as a clipped fact of life, spearing my empty pleasantry with a fish fork.

I suppose that the right way to regard this anecdote is to understand that, even when she is being mean, Nora Efron gives her victims good, funny copy.

***

After dinner, I poured what remained in the carafe back into the wine box in the refrigerator, filled a final mug of tea, and got to work on the papers. Having foreseen that this would be tedious work, I’d ordered a copy of When Harry Met Sally…, the 1989 classic written by Nora Efron, from the Video Room, and it had been promptly delivered, in plenty of time for my after-dinner sortings. I’d seen the movie only once before, not in the theatre, and found it so-so. It’s a screwball comedy, yes; the characters who turn out to be in love with one another must discover themselves first. But it’s fairly bleak screwball, because the humor lies almost entirely in the battle-of-the-sexes banter that Harry and Sally exchange. There is nothing in the movie to compare with, say, Cary Grant’s telling Irene Dunne that when she gets tired of Oklahoma City she can always go over to Tulsa. No, Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm is not comparable to Cary Grant saying that, or to Irene Dunne’s quip about the night-club dancer who calls herself Dixie Belle Lee. “I suppose it was easier for her to change her name than for her entire family to change their name.” When Harry Met Sally… is funny, but its lack of effervescence pulls it a long way down from the 100% of The Awful Truth.

I am not going to share any of my new ideas about organizing paperwork now. I am only going to mention one astounding insight: paperwork is never in place until you’re dead, so don’t go for it.  

Gotham Diary:
Two Boots, Three Cars
1 December 2011

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

It was good for ten minutes at least. Will struggled — but calmly, determinedly — with the problem of fitting three little train cars into two little Western boots. The boots were still a bit too big for him (had I even seen them before last night?), but the train cars weren’t so very small, and the short answer to Will’s problem was that it couldn’t be done. Neither he nor anyone else could ever fit those three train cars into those two boots. But Will, with a manner that made me feel that I was having an out-of-body experience, had to discover this for himself. What was not so familiar was his patience; he didn’t get frustrated or cross. Eventually, like the WOPR in War Games, he concluded that the best way to win the game was not to play. He may have to give the game a few more rounds before he establishes this conclusion firmly in his mind, but I won’t object, as long as I get to hold the boots, as I did last night.

***

It’s the beginning of the month, and, not only that, but it’s about to beginning of a new year, so: resolutions and changes. For a long time, I’ve been meditating a thumbnail version of this blog, so that readers could tell at a glance what the daily entry was about. (I believe that there are Daily Blague readers who aren’t interested in Georgian ministries.) Happily, there’s no need to start up a new blog; all I’ve got to do is revive an old one — and, what d’you know, it’s called The Daily Blague. Youu may remember it. During the coming month, I’m going to try to make it look more like this site — exactly like this site, actually, only with different daily entries and a slightly larger font. The idea, in case you haven’t guessed it, is to develop a site that looks great on the Kindle Fire.

Another resolution: to make one Twitter-like pronouncement every day at Civil Pleasures. (There will be no 140-character maximum.)