Archive for April, 2015

People Note:
The Age of Expectations
30 April 2015

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

When Kate Bolick was a teenager,

my mother wrote a short essay about the time a neighbor had spied me walking along the street, and she gave it to me as part of my high school graduation present. “Kate has your bearing,” the gentleman had said, “the same narrow shoulders held erect.” My mother was delighted with the comparison and concluded that, long after she was gone, she would live on through me, there in my very deportment. I told her I loved the piece, but inwardly I cringed. Really? Was I doomed to look like her forever? (25)

This passage is the kernel of a cluster of reservations about Bolick’s mother, and the life that she might have led had she been just a few years younger. In that case, she might not have “pushed aside her ambitions, raised two children, and in her mid-thirties [begun] finding her way towards work she enjoyed, only to discover that she had an awful lot of catching up to do.” (24) Bolick loved her mother, and was devastated to lose her to breast cancer, when she was right out of college. But Nancy O’Keefe Bolick was a cautionary figure for her daughter. She lost her life before realizing its potential because she did what everybody did at the time: she got married. For all that Bolick points to lessons learned from her “awakeners” — the five writers whose stances on marriage and career shaped her image of her own life — it is clear that Nancy Bolick (also a writer) prepared the ground — by riddling it with sinkholes. It is as though Nancy were a vision: She holds a cookie labeled, à la Alice, “Eat me, and you will have a lovely family of your own.” Nancy herself whispers, “Don’t.” Don’t do what I did. Don’t be like me. Unwelcome warnings from a strong, accomplished — but short-lived — mother.

The book that Kate Bolick hasn’t quite written would apply her considerable literary skills to an analysis of the transformation that occurs when people get married — when they get married young, at least, and for the first time. Up to the moment where the groom kisses the bride, the two parties to the marriage constitute distinct individuals, making free choices and thinking for themselves. But the moment they take up housekeeping in a situation that remotely resembles those in which they grew up, the groom becomes his father, and the bride her mother. They do this eagerly, at first, calling it “growing up.” If the man’s father helped with the dishes, that’s a great example; even better if he helped with the babies. But most fathers won’t have set these examples. The bride will probably not give washing the dishes a second thought, nor changing the diapers. She may simmer a bit, only now realizing the extent of her mother’s sacrifice, but she will probably conclude that there is no point to “dwelling” on the matter.

The book that Kate Bolick has written is shot through with anxiety about this transformation. As I suggested the other day, she is acutely attuned to the “innocent” remarks made by her boyfriends.

Often after work R and I went running. Once, we saw a woman jogging along with her toddler in one of those rugged, all-terrain strollers — the embodiment of modern motherhood, multitasking exercise and child care. Mrs Having It All. R smiled and pointed “Look, there’s you someday.” My stomach lurched. There was no way I was going to become that woman, but I didn’t know how to say it. (58)

Kate may not have known how to say it, but she knew how to deal with it: she withdrew sexually. Shortly after R complained about this, she let another man kiss her — sex with anyone but R was okay. She didn’t intend to be unfaithful to him, but, at the same time, she could not afford to be faithful.

For six weeks, I waded through the wreckage, searching for the courage to tell R what we both already knew and couldn’t bear to admit. We were through. (75)

R would be Bolick’s last long-term boyfriend until the present: at the end of the book, she tells us that she is involved with a younger man and feels good, most of the time, about settling down with him. She is somewhat on the old side for a first-time mother, but it’s unlikely, now, that motherhood would undermine her sense of self. She has survived the age of expectations, which, in my experience, boils through the greater part of the two decades after college. By one’s mid- to late-forties, one is actually living, for better or worse, one’s life, and not wondering how to live it. The inconvenient development in modern civilization is that the age of expectation coincides with the years in which parenthood is least taxing, from a physical point of view. At the same time, young parents are also ignorant and inexperienced parents, far more likely to make (terrible) mistakes than older parents. An older parent is also more likely to have found a genuine lifetime companion, and not to have settled for the superficial attractions that are so dazzling in high school. The moral of the story, I suppose, is that you had better take good care of yourself, if you want to see your grandchildren.

***

I mentioned a moment ago that a new husband becomes his father, but it might be more accurate to say that he becomes the man that his mother has permitted him to be. In a truly enlightened society, mothers would raise their sons to be loving husbands and domestic helpmeets. In our world, they appear to do no such thing. When I asked myself why this might be — why a mother would not embrace the opportunity to make the world a better place by seeing to it that her boy was helpful around the house — I was immediately struck by the conflicting romance that beguiles so many mothers of sons. A mother, contemplating her adoring child, has little incentive (and even less desire) to merge with the sisterhood of women. No: for this one little male, she is in a class by herself, and he will keep her there if she does not complicate their relationship by suggesting that he ought to treat the other women in his life as he treats her. Some, dare I say it, go so far as to approve of their sons’ manly thoughtlessness.

Nowhere is the inequality of the sexes greater than in the career opportunities open to parents. It is precisely during his years as a young father that the ordinary man throws himself into building his resume. He knocks himself out on the job. The mother who does the same will find herself visited by people from the Child Protective Services. Marrying late is one way of avoiding the problem. Are there any others? Or are we doomed to repeat the old patterns?

More anon.

Cognitive Note:
Focus and Distraction
29 April 2015

Wednesday, April 29th, 2015

Now, a good storyteller would know how to fashion entertainment out of the tedium that carpeted yesterday afternoon, but, thinking back on it, all I see is tedium, and I want to change the subject. Waiting for furniture deliveries in a building with tight restrictions on access to the service entrance by non-residents (certificates of insurance are required) is a miserable business, and when, at twenty to five, the truck has not yet shown up, and a call to the agent (who only yesterday promised delivery between one and five) is routed straight to an office in Chicago, because “the system is down,” and nice women at other telephone numbers, out on Long Island, are sympathetic but unable to help — ! At least one of them mercifully granted my request that she not put me on hold any more, and spared me further exposure to the looped assertion, made by a vixenish voice of unplaceable British-Australian provenance against a retro jazz background, that “We deliver what others promise.” I wonder what the great existentialists/absurdists would have made of being not just kept on hold but forced to listen to endless assurances that “your call means a lot to us.”

Just when I had reconciled myself to the non-appearance of a wide but shallow writing table that would be perfect in the dining ell, serving as both sideboard and as house desk; just when I had dragged in one of the picnic benches that we held on to in the move, and set it up where the writing table would go, simply to have a surface on which to place house-desky things — an oval desk box (stuffed with, inter alia, recipe clippings and two books, one by Elizabeth David and one featuring 101 things to do with bacon), a small printer, a ream of paper, a few clipboards, and the bargello-covered bean bags that I use to prop up reading material when I’m eating by myself; just when I’d started the Tuesday laundry — just then, the truck driver called me. It was now about 6:40 PM, and he said that he was “on 38th Street.” He would be at my place in forty-five minutes. I told him that I’d have to see if it would be possible to take delivery at this hour, and that I’d call him back.

The service entrance was closed for the night, as I expected, so I went up to the lobby and approached a favorite doorman. When he was assured that I’d be carrying the “small piece of furniture” in through the main entrance all by myself, with no help from alien truck drivers, he winked. I began wondering in earnest how I’d ever manage to lug in a desk said to weigh eighty pounds. We had been told that some assembly would be required. Would the desk really be in a box, waiting for someone to screw in its legs? I was hoping so.

The driver must have meant 38th Street in Brooklyn, it took so long for him to show up. (Kidding!) I declined his offer to roll the box up to the door on a dolly and rather severely undertipped him. It was impossible not to think of Jesus during the ensuing minutes. Seeing my exertion, the doorman brought out a luggage cart. The luggage cart was obviously not roomy enough to accommodate the box, but the doorman body-Englished it aboard, and whisked it off to the service elevator (not to be confused with the service entrance). From the fourth-floor landing, even without the luggage cart, it was mere shlep to our front door.

A more comic writer would make the most of the agony of using an Allen wrench, not a screwdriver, to tighten the screws that attached the legs to the desk-top. What with cunning structural brackets running on the diagonal, the Allen wrench could be turned through no more than a sixth of a circle at a time. Slow going! On my poor old knees! With sweat dripping onto my glasses and my glasses falling off my nose. Such fun. But presently, done.

***

What is a house desk, you ask. I don’t yet know the details, but the purpose of a house desk is to provide a room of one’s own for household affairs. The desk is in the dining ell, but it itself is the room.

The desk itself has three smallish drawers. Not very practical for holding household materials, you say, but I don’t believe in lots of drawers. Drawers tend fatally toward the tomb-like. As with all convenient containers, it is much easier to drop things in than to sort them out. I have pandan boxes for some things, and shopping bags for others, but my idea is to get everything onto Evernote. As I empty that oval desk box, I shall know better just what I am doing — and exactly how virtual the house desk/housekeeping room can be. The piece of furniture itself will always look like and function as a sideboard when we have dinner guests. Laptops will be folded up and put away; the printer will be made to disappear somehow.

But when I am working on household matters, I will not be sitting in the book room. I will be sitting in a much brighter space, adjacent to the kitchen.

How to continue without using a word that I have come to loathe: creative. “Imaginative” will do. Writing, as in reading and writing, requires one kind of imagination, or rather it calls for putting one’s imagination to a rather narrow and focused use. Your typing fingers are driven by an imagined vision of what the world really is, or what it might become. Neither is apparent to the senses. The world that you actually inhabit must be left behind, or at least ignored. When you are writing, the real world is nothing but a cornucopia of potential distractions. Many people find libraries to be ideal places for shutting out distractions. But nothing is more distracting to me than the presence of other people, and that rules out Starbucks as well. I must stay at home. Anyway, all of this stuff about focus and writing is well known. That’s why there are artist’s colonies.

Keeping house calls for an exactly complementary use of the imagination, for housekeeping is nothing but a matter of distractions. In a well-run household, no single matter is either important or urgent, but just same-old. This does not mean, however, that housekeeping doesn’t require thought. It does: just not the kind of thought that occupies philosophers. It requires attentiveness to all the contingencies of here-and-now. The pressure must be kept low. When I write, tension can build to explosive levels, as, every now and then, I totter on the edge of an insight that I’m not yet capable of reducing to words. When I think about keeping house — when I consider new recipes, or remember what’s in the fridge with a view to making dinner, or try to fix something that’s broken, or sort through old papers, or pen a note to my grandson, tucking in our monthly contribution to his allowance — I have to stay relaxed. Focus is not helpful: it blocks out the interconnectedness of everything that belongs to the household.

I know lots of men capable of compartmentalizing their lives. They could, presumably, run a house from the office. Strangely, however, very few seem to be at all interested in running a house. Surely a house runs itself? Surely there’s an app for that? These men do not set much of an example.

Nor does the East Wing.

So I shall have to learn how to make the house desk work; how, without accumulating a clutter of “things that I shall get to someday,” the house desk can help me with the very different kind of thinking that housekeeping calls for. A mind of its own.

People Note:
Ayn Rand and God
28 April 2015

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Yesterday, I got my hands on Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. It’s funny and curious by turns, as books about English as she is spoke usually are. A long-time copy editor at The New Yorker, Norris has long since replaced her white blood cells with parts of speech, and is capable of some very sly moves. My favorite:

Not long ago, a young editorial assistant getting her first tour of the New Yorker offices paused at my door to be introduced, and when she heard I was a copy editor she jumped back, as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas. (35)

(I do hope that no regular reader will ask what’s so delicious about that.) The curiosity of the book lies in its painstaking (but wiseacre) lessons about common solecisms, such as the pronominal goof that her title is meant to correct. Earlier on, there’s a long riff on the difference between that and which clauses; I agreed with every word but tried in vain to imagine a reader who might be interested in the discussion and yet unsure of the usage. More interesting was Norris’s take on dangling modifiers: sometimes, there is no way around them. She cites a sentence by Edward St Aubyn, that paragon of perfection, that, like so many danglers, begins with the word “walking.” Walking always seems to invite dangling. Walking down the lane, the house looked warm and inviting beneath the stars. St Aubyn’s sentence is more complicated, and Norris’s diligent efforts to fix it convince her that the confusion inherent in danglers is the essence of what St Aubyn means to convey.

Between You & Me is — so far, at least; I’m about two-thirds in — a highly selective memoir. Norris has no intention of laying out the course of her life or her career, and there is very little tittle-tattle about the magazine. But, grammar lessons notwithstanding, Between You & Me is a book by and about a woman who is professionally committed to clear language. Clear language, in my view, conveys an intended meaning without calling attention to itself. (The occasional felicity is allowed, so long as it is not too obtrusive.) It is not necessarily simple language, and it might not be entirely straightforward, either. We do not speak as engineers, even if engineering has been the ideal human activity, beyond which lies only sublime and ineffable poetry, since the Enlightenment. By now we have learned that the human condition is not an engineering problem. Our language must accommodate ambivalence and ambiguity. But it must never introduce either for no reason. It is Mary Norris’s job to police the border. Style books may be handy, but in the end, what’s called for is the humane judgment of an endless series of unique cases.

One unique case is that of the author’s younger brother, Dee. As Norris puts it, referring to the first sentence that she framed while taking an Italian class, Mio fratello vuole essere mia sorella: Dee “announced that he was transgender.” Norris relays the agonizing maladroitness that accompanied her efforts to rejigger a lifetime of referring to a certain person as him. Dee is presented as a living emodiment of the “gender problem,” which most speakers rather thoughtlessly resolve by falling back on the third person plural (thus giving rise to what The New Yorker’s grammar dragon, Eleanor Gould, called “number trouble”): Does everybody have their ticket? I don’t care how common this usage is; I refuse to resort to it. In practice, it doesn’t come up. I suspect that the horror of short-circuiting a sentence with number trouble has conditioned me to avoid beginning sentences with constructions that might lead to such a regrettable outcome. And I’ve learned from the French to consider replacing possessive pronouns with articles. In French, you don’t brush your hair, but the hair; ditto the teeth. That might sound a bit alienated in English, but it does suggest the possibility of saying that everyone bears a measure of sorrow. Dee’s gender shift has, however, simplified things: Each sibling has her own way of applying lipstick.

There is a long discussion of the serial comma, complete with three hilarious examples of of the unintended humor that neglect of this comma, which precedes “and” in a series of nouns or attributes, can cause. I noticed that all three shared a common characteristic. The first term in the series is a collective noun; the second and third are proper names, whose bearers might well be members of the collective. Whether or not you decide to make use of the serial comma as a rule, a simple test will highlight rare cases of true ambiguity. Simply replace the comma (for there is always a first comma for the serial comma to follow) with a colon. If the sentence makes semantic sense, no matter how absurd its implication, then it needs the serial comma.

At the zoo, we saw lions, tigers and elephants. Lions: tigers and elephants — this does not compute. The serial comma (after tigers) is optional.

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God. My parents: Ayn Rand and God. Oops! A serial comma is required. (Also required: a more principled publisher.)

In a passage that has been cited by at least one reviewer, because of its relation to novelist Philip Roth, Norris remarks that she is “still available.” (37) That is the extent of love-life talk in Between You & Me, so far, at least. I always say that New York (Manhattan) is a terrible place for meeting a long-term partner, especially across the heterosexual divide. There is too much stress, and too little occasion for hanging out with a crowd of friends. Hanging out with a crowd of friends is vital because it provides the only glimpse of a prospective companion’s sociability. This is important not because couples need to be sociable in the same way (although it helps) but because when the magic spell of new romance wears off, as it must, it is replaced by a little society of two. How a man or a woman acts with friends and acquaintances is a strong indicator of how he or she will (eventually) treat a lover. Romance in New York is all foreground, no background.

No sooner do I say that than I remember Kate Bolick, who moved to New York with her adorable boyfriend from Boston, where they met while working in the same office. She knew who he was, I think; it was she who was the mystery. You can turn it around, of course, and point out that R, the boyfriend, wasn’t really paying attention. He doesn’t seem to have picked up on Bolick’s ambivalence about marriage and rest. She claims, guiltily, that she concealed it from him. But this ought not to have been possible.

So, anyway, I’m a little curious about Mary Norris at home, as it were. Not that I fault her discretion for a moment! I’m curious only because I’m thinking about love and marriage a lot. There used to be nothing to think about. Love and marriage could not have been more standardized; the only problem was to fit the mold. Now, of course, there is no mold, or not much of one. This is liberating but also bewildering, and potentially damaging — just as is our engineering prowess, which has given us the benefit of healthier lives but also the risk of destroying life on the planet. (No wonder men like Scott Walker and Ted Cruz are so popular!) But there is no going back, and speaking clearly has never been so important.

More anon.

People Note:
Spinster
27 April 2015

Monday, April 27th, 2015

There’s nothing so bracing as running into a really good idea on a Monday morning.

In today’s Times, an engineer at Berkeley, Lina Nilsson, writes,

Women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good. Curious to learn whether that was true at other universities, my colleagues and I contacted the dozens of universities that have programs aimed at reducing global poverty and inequality. What we found was consistent and remarkable.

The undergraduate-level international minor for engineers at the University of Michigan reports that 51 percent of its students are women. Those women are predominantly majoring in some of the oldest and most traditional engineering fields — industrial operations and mechanical and chemical engineering — where, arguably, gender stereotypes are most entrenched.

This makes a lot of sense. It is confirmed for me by my daughter’s experience. (More on that some other time.) What’s more, programs aimed at reducing global poverty and inequality are not rush jobs. As these undertakings mature, they will focus less on completing isolated projects here and there and more on accumulating a professional wisdom that doesn’t yet exist. Because the beneficiaries of this work are not entrepreneurs who want everything done by yesterday, but rather disadvantaged people who depend on professionals to get things right the first time, even if that means postponing execution until getting things right becomes a reasonably sure thing, the pace of these programs can slow down — slow down, that is, to accommodate working mothers, women who might take three to five or more years on semi-sabbatical consultancies, without suffering career regression, while their children are small and the first claim on their attention. In this way, a program to help the poor far away might also help educated women here at home. Let the boys work flat-out on their games and apps! Making the world a better place is very much a long-term job. Progress will reveal itself over generations, not quarters.

If I responded so quickly to Ms Nilsson’s piece, it was largely because I spent a fascinated weekend with a new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, by Kate Bolick.

The title, especially as it is illustrated on the dust cover — a pretty, demurely smiling girl, with lustrous long hair, wearing a simple blue dress and black pumps that aren’t too high, one hand poised on a kneecap (showcasing nice legs), the other holding a fon-fon teacup-and-saucer, perched on a tufted Victorian sofa — is meant to cause a double-take. When we think of spinsters today, we think, unaware of the incongruity, of Whistler’s Mother and American Gothic. We think of plain, prim women with pursed lips, women who disapprove of fun on principle. Such women are rare today (at least I don’t see many in Manhattan), but the stereotype remains current, largely, I believe, because it comforts men, who draw strength and comfort from the myth that an unmarried woman must ipso facto be miserably lonely.

But Bolick’s book is not a complaint about men. Bolick likes men, loves them, even. Her long-term boyfriends have all been sweethearts, soulmates. They have been kind and supportive. What Bolick never quite articulates, blinded, perhaps, by fondness for these fellows, is that they all seem to be herding her, however unconsciously on their part, toward the top of a chute, from which she will be plunged into an apparatus that will denature her character, leaving her little more than a wife, housekeeper, and mother. The only way that she can survive this apparatus is to know who she is beforehand, and Kate Bolick, even at forty, does not quite know who she is. And no wonder.

The dust jacket copy calls Spinster a “slyly erudite” book, and it is certainly that. I’m not sure that I’ve got this lingo down, but I think it possible to say that Bolick maps her own story, the bildung of a contemporary woman, over the respective careers of five “awakeners,” women from the past who put writing ahead of coupling, at least when they were young and trying out their hard-won independence. The first of these awakeners, not in history but in Bolick’s life, was Maeve Brennan, The New Yorker‘s Long-Winded Lady. When I learned this from a book review, I ordered Spinster instanter.

The others were Neith Boyce (of whom I’d never heard), Edna Millay (Bolick drops the “St Vincent,” and I’m ready to go along with that), Edith Wharton, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All of these women married, even Brennan, if briefly. Like Brennan, Wharton divorced her husband, once she made up her mind that he was unsatisfactory. The others had long marriages, with different degrees of the companionate and the open. They are not models for Bolick, but more in the line of object lessons, lessons so complex that Bolick is probably still puzzling them out, even with her book behind her.

In the fifteen years covered in Spinster — from college to now — Kate Bolick pursues a career in journalism, although she believes that she would prefer to be a poet. I hope that she writes a book about journalism someday, because I think she understands what it is.

What I think journalism is is illustrated by an anecdote that a friend shared with me at lunch the other day. She was watching Charlie Rose, and the unctuous host was interviewing Michael Lewis. At one point, Rose asked Lewis why he didn’t write the biography of one of the interesting characters whom he has encountered in his long encounter with men, math, and money. Lewis had to come up with several answers, because Rose wouldn’t let the question go; indeed, he was so insistent that my friend wondered if “he’s drinking again.” Among other things, Lewis said that he didn’t want to spend the time with any one person that writing a biography requires. He said that he was interested in stories more than in characters. All of which ought to be obvious to the reader of his very good books — each of which, I spluttered, beyond impatience with Charlie Rose, demonstrates that Michael Lewis is a journalist, not a historian. It came out of my mouth before I grasped how monumental this distinction is in my own mind.

Kate Bolick may be a journalist, but Spinster is not journalism, notwithstanding the well-served sketches of Bolick’s awakeners. It is saved from journalism by virtue of being a memoir, a long-haul examination of the self. (I suspect that the character with whom Michael Lewis would least like to spend a lot of time is his own.) From certain angles, Bolick’s inquiry might seem vapid and retarded, because her attempt to figure herself out doesn’t yield much in the way of positive wisdom, or things learned. The angles I have in mind are all masculine: no man could have written Spinster. A man’s version of this book would either be stuffed with peppy pointers, variations on the great theme of how to succeed, or it would be an existential cri de coeur, an excoriation of the meaninglessness of life — and no publisher would touch that. Kate Bolick is an optimist, but a cautious one: her book gave me the idea behind the phrase, up above, about the importance of getting things right the first time, even if this takes a while. Bolick is still working on it.

And the reason she is still working it, I conclude, is that there is no language yet that is capable of describing the life of a woman who is both fully-realized and fully-integrated. Spinster shows us that women have developed a language for describing a high degree of self-realization; but this realization is not yet quite complete, because self-realization, so far, requires a withdrawal from or rejection of integration — integration meaning marriage and motherhood, or, to put it more causally, the consequences of living in love with a man. Women who don’t want men and who don’t want children are not part of Bolick’s problem. That is what makes her book urgent. She wants to have it all, but she is determined to have herself. And so her final chapter is entitled, “Are Women People Yet?”

More anon.

Out & About
Reiko Uchida and Friends at Weill
23 April 2015

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Over the weekend, I received an email from baritone Thomas Meglioranza. Tom was letting friends and fans know that his accompanist, Reiko Uchida, would be leading a chamber-music recital at Weill Hall on Wednesday. While part of me stepped aside in amazement, the rest of me clicked through Tom’s link for buying tickets, selected a pair of seats in the second row, and even sent a note to Ray Soleil, asking him to join me. Most amazing of all, despite yesterday’s gruddly weather and its atmospherically-induced fatigue, I got dressed, walked up to Lexington Avenue, caught the train, and arrived at Carnegie Hall in plenty of time.

(Weill Hall, formerly known as Carnegie Recital Hall, is a beaux-arts ballroom, kitted out with proper seats, that is tucked into the attics of the main auditorium. I visited it first as a child. My best friend’s piano teacher staged her pupils’ annual recitals there. When he wasn’t playing, Joey and I ran around exploring. At one point, we opened a door and were quite literally stunned by the sudden vista of a mighty orchestra, pouring out a racket of music, miles below us, at the bottom of a cliffish incline that was lined with thousands of immobile people. We both felt that we would be sucked into the pit if we so much as breathed.)

Yes, I went to a concert. A concert that I didn’t even know about a week ago.

Reiko Uchida has always struck me as an extraordinarily forceful pianist, with a gift for giving inner voices the near-equality that they deserve. Perhaps I exaggerate the strength of her playing because she cuts such a wraithlike, self-effacing figure. (Then she sits down, and watch out! Also, the acoustics in Weill Hall are very bright.) So although I did buy my tickets out of a sort loyalty/solidarity, supporting an artist I admire, I never expected to have less than a very good time. So what if all the works to be performed were unknown to me?

They were unknown to me only because the part of me that actually knows things was standing apart, dumbstruck at this response to Tom’s note. This wasn’t like me! I hadn’t been to a concert in over a year! I was retired from concertgoing! I would reconsider retirement — when the new subway started running! Even at my most active, I required more notice. Buying tickets on a Saturday for a concert on Wednesday? Nurse!!

My mad, executive self was incapable of reading fine print not connected with the transaction of purchasing tickets online. “Works to be performed, blah blah blah, Debussy, Prokofiev, blah blah…” Somehow Chopin seemed too inevitable to note, but I honestly don’t recall seeing Brahms’s name. In the event, only the Debussy Cello Sonata and Prokofiev’s 5 Mélodies for violin and piano were unknown to me. Not absolutely unknown, in the case of the Debussy, but not familiar. I knew everything else. Well, I thought I did. Brahms’s first viola sonata, and the Piano Quartet Op 26, I know these as well as I know anything. And of course Chopin’s fourth ballade.

Two hours and ten minutes after the recital began, I walked out with my teeth rattling. Once again, I’d heard everything for the first time.

Reiko Uchida had gathered three friends who all proved to be as strong as she is. Cellist Sophie Shao appeared first. She played with an authoritative passion that matched Ms Uchida’s. No matter what the phrase, it was played with the assured conviction that this was how it ought to be done. Dreamy lack of focus was not permitted. There were no rough edges, but there were no soft edges, either. I found this exciting, but I can well imagine that some listeners might find it — brash, or perhaps unsubtle. I don’t care much for “subtle” in music; to me, it usually signifies mush. And I like my Debussy especially crisp, performed with baroque brio. When attacked with verve, he comes across as an interesting modernist.

Violinist Jessica Lee allowed a small measure of melancholy to color her performance of Prokofiev’s mélodies, which really are tunes, if very sophisticated ones. Her violin gleamed beautifully. I knew that I had to get to know this suite well, and in fact I am listening to it as I write. I’ve assembled a playlist from the program; the Prokofiev was the only work that I had to buy (at iTunes). Joshua Bell is playing. He’s super, of course, but I wish I could be hearing Jessica Lee again. I owe the discovery of these pieces as beautiful music to her.

The one disappointment was wholly expected, so much so that it didn’t amount to a disappointment. Much as I love the viola, I don’t understand why Brahms ever yielded to a music publisher’s request for transcriptions of his two clarinet sonatas. If there is an instrument that lacks the clarion sharpness of the clarinet, it is the viola, which sounds simply woolly when trying to negotiate the flourishes that Brahms wrote for so different an instrument. Dov Scheindlin did his best, but it was only later, paying close attention to his contribution to the piano quartet, that I felt his artistry. (I’d also have voted for playing the other sonata, which begins with one of Brahms’s most beautifully-spun cantilena lines.)

Did I say that I knew the Chopin? That’s hard to square with how much of it sounded really new and unknown. A few years ago, I went on a Chopin blitz, larding playlists with rafts of pieces that I knew not particularly well. As a result, instead of learning them, I got them all mixed up. I recognized the theme of the ballade, but not the music with which the piece actually opens. Reiko Uchida played it as though her life depended on it. Such urgency was a tonic antidote to the blasé mastery that so many big names deign to display.

Brahms’s first piano quintet — he wrote three: this one, a quite sublime one next, and then, in the Opus Seventies, a third that doesn’t compare with either of its predecessors — was famously orchestrated by Arnold Schoenberg, half in admiration, half in impish subversion. Schoenberg’s scoring manages to copy the original music with effects that would have scandalized Brahms. It’s a great piece of fun, and the zooty instrumental carryings-on release the enormous pressure of the original. Just how enormous this pressure is I found out last night. I thought we were all going to explode. The meatiness of the work’s textures accommodates the comprehensive display of things that Brahms likes to do, ranging from expressionist doodles in the piano part to bedrock “German” hymns. And the finale is a contrasting venture in the “Hungarian” style, with rhythms that flirt with recklessness and dynamics that threaten to be too extreme. It’s as close as Brahms ever came to vulgarity — which is what must have tempted Schoenberg into introducing an aural kick-line into his transcription. Although there was nothing vulgar about their performance, there were moments when I wondered if Reiko Uchida and her friends were trying to create the illusion that we were listening not to four players but to an immense orchestra.

Listening to my playlist, I can’t tell you how ho-hum it sounds, against the bold musicianship that I heard last night.

Golsoncott Note:
Bon-Bons
22 April 2015

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Not having paid attention, I didn’t know that Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked is not a novel until it arrived. No: it’s a memoir, based not on Lively’s own life but on her grandmother’s house in Somerset, in the West of England. The house and some of its odd contents are touchstones for recollections of and meditations about the gentry way of life in its pre-war sunset. I’ve begun work on a similar book myself, and I hope to get on with it. But Lively has left me wondering if I’ve got what it takes. I guess I’ll be finding out.

A House Unlocked manages to be a little history of England, a documentary collection of evidence pertaining to a kingdom and a culture that have almost completely vanished. Some of this evidence is in the nature of behavior — how people acted, what they said — but there is a magical impersonality about the project, because, for the most part, Lively’s grandmother, aunt, and other relatives are only doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Nobody is wretched, and Lively’s grandmother, although she certainly knew her own mind, does not come across as formidable. There are a few surprises. One of the grandmother’s friends was a half-English, half-Russian emigrée from Petersburg, whose husband was shot by the Bolsheviks. This woman often stayed at Golsoncott, as the house was called, and wrote two books there. The surprise is that her daughter grew up to become Maria St Just, Tennessee Williams’s great friend and correspondent. Well, it’s not much of a surprise; it’s exactly the sort of surprise that one ought to expect in this book. Typically, while Lively reports that Maria “married a lord,” she never identifies her as Lady St Just. She’s just Maria.

Golsoncott was built in the style of early Lutyens. It was dignified, in other words, without being quite formal; large, but not at all palatial. Behind it, there stretched expansive gardens, in the style of Gertrude Jekyll. These are rather comprehensively toured. Lively’s relative lack of interest in describing the house itself symbolizes, for me, the ambivalence of gentry status. Lively’s grandfather was the scion of a modest industrial fortune; the family firm produced household products such as laundry starch and brass polish. (Lively assigns similar good fortune to Charles, in Family Album.) The family were only several generations from yeomanry. They did not think of themselves as squires at Golsoncott, but they appear to have taken the place of a squire. They were, for example, in charge of keeping the church ship-shape. Perhaps, in several generations, the Reckitts would have risen to the top. But the top evaporated before they could do so. The church, as of Lively’s writing over ten years ago, was reduced to fighting for its life, with only a handful of local people regularly attending services. And of course Golsoncott itself became unmanageable. It was built to be tended by servants.

The servant problem comes forward in the memoir’s final chapter — as does the way of life that required service. Its title, “The Knife Rests, the Grape Scissors and the Bon-Bon Dish,” encapsulates the nature of social change that swept over England (and all of the West) in the second half of the Twentieth Century. We no longer have much use for grape scissors, and we’re even less inclined to keep such things bright and shiny. Once a hostess’s pride and joy, bon-bon dishes have become lumber. Aside from being exhibited in museums, these objects have no place in the world; their very existence is almost intolerable. Assuming that a horde of willing and affordable servants were to descend upon us, I doubt very much that knife rests would come back into use.

I myself inherited two bon-bon dishes. One is a smaller version of the other. Both are made of heart-shaped silver, with most of the decoration in the form of cut-outs — just like the one illustrated in A House Unlocked. (Did Lively produce the illustrations? No one is credited for them.) I have never known what to do with these things, but that isn’t terribly important, because they have always been there, and I don’t mind polishing them. But I should never in a million years spend a penny to acquire them; they’re almost hideous. I have gotten rid of a lot of things less useless and less ugly than the bon-bon dishes, even silver things. But the bon-bon dishes linger on. I’m not sure that I know what a bon-bon really is. The only thing that comes to mind is a chocolate truffle. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know that my pierced silver dishes were for bon-bons, until Lively showed me.

Lively’s grandmother, and the aunt who took over the place after the grandmother’s death (well into her nineties), did not go in for polishing silver. When the aunt died, and the household had to be broken up, the silver was black with tarnish — ironic, given the source of the family fortune. Neither woman could bring herself to do housework. Lively believes that it would have been “taboo” for ladies to engage in housework, beyond the minimum of strict necessity. They didn’t care to wash up after dinner. Or to cook it, for the matter of that. Lively doesn’t say much about her mother, but she makes it clear that, from the beginning of her marriage, it was she who kept house and raised the children.

For some odd reason, it was washing-up that mainly broke the spirit of the post-war middle class. Confronted with a sink of dirty crockery, robust women were reduced to gibbering wrecks. … To my mind, washing-up on a normal domestic scale is a rather satisfactory job: you can see what you’ve achieved. For my grandmother and my aunt — both vigorous and energetic women — it was a personal affront. My aunt, younger and always more flexible in her outlook, came in time to accept the situation, though retaining a dismissive disdain for domestic chores. For my grandmother, it was the final rupture with the world in which she had grown up. (199)

I ask myself if I have experienced a rupture with the world in which I grew up. The world in which I grew up was buried in the ashes of an earlier way of life. It was a great loss for Penelope Lively’s grandmother, but I’ve had the sense, since then, of our all putting together a new way of life.

Pack Animals Note:
All Talk
21 April 2015

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Like everyone else, I’ve been reading about the modern revival of shaming. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed seems to have been reviewed everywhere, and the reviews themselves have been more than usually interesting, at least to me, because there seem to be two disconnected outcomes to the shaming experience. You can be shameless, like Max Mosley. (Mosley lost his job as Formula I boss when photos surfaced in which he was shown being “tortured” by babes in military drag that, he argued, was not Nazi — so what’s the problem? That Mosley’s parents had been married in the apartment of Joseph Goebbels was just a coinky-dink.) Or you can be hounded into reclusion, or driven to suicide, as so many female victims of shaming have been. You can, in short, be a heterosexual male or a something else. As a straight man, you’ll be allowed, eventually, to brush it off. As a something else, you’ll suffer death threats and monstrous insults. The initial impulse behind shaming appears to be unvarying, no matter who gives offense, but the sexual identity of the shamee quickly determines which of the divergent courses the onslaught will take.

Well, duh, I suppose. What is surprising about this?

What’s surprising is the ending of Choire Sicha’s review, in The New York Times Book Review.

The experience of women online is the great link between speech and violence, between offense and abuse. For women — and for all gender offenders, from gays to trans people — insult and the threat of murder are issued simultaneously. Like almost every other book, then, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed would probably have been handled better by a woman. Often we send a married, middle-aged man who makes $250,000 a year (half a million in a good year, apparently) to do the job. It’s fine! Ronson is a sweet and particularly talented man. But the actual problem with the Internet isn’t us hastily tweeting off about foolish people. The actual problem is that none of the men running those bazillion-dollar Internet companies can think of one single thing to do about all the men who send women death threats.

That’s exactly where the discussion of this issue ought to go: to the question, why civil men, who are almost certainly the vast majority of men, can’t think of a way to rein in the nutcases. This question rarely slipped from consciousness while I watched, yesterday afternoon, a DVD of Boyhood.

Boyhood is an extraordinary movie that was made, as everybody knows, in snatches, over a twelve-year period. It is cut so seamlessly that the passage of time is signaled almost entirely by haircuts. Mason Evans, Jr, the boy of Boyhood, proceeds from the beginning of elementary school to the end of high school and the first day of college. Boyhood is ostensibly about the ups and downs of family life for the two children of a smart woman who is unfortunately attracted to abusive men — a story that has been told so many times in American film that it doesn’t get in the way of the true subject, which is the growth, right before your eyes, of Ellar Coltrane’s body, from child to man, in the space of two and a half hours.

Mason is a thoroughly decent kid. By the time he gets to college, he is a gifted photographer who is puzzled by the challenge of living without a script. It is clear that his meaningful life is going to be conducted in the company of women. Men, throughout the movie, are either feckless, like his father (Ethan Hawke), or disciplinarians. They serve Mason primarily as models of what to avoid. Except to his girlfriend, Mason speaks not one unnecessary word, and his dislike of confrontation is visceral. You know that he is never going to send anonymous insults or death threats to anyone. But you also know that he is not going to be in a position to stop anybody else from sending them. Like most “sensitive” young men, Mason opts out of the pack system.

Because I already had Choire Sicha’s insight on my mind, I was perhaps a bit harsher with Mason during a troubling scene than I might have been. Mason, by now in the eighth grade, has been invited by a chum to “camp out” at a house that’s under construction (and therefore empty on the weekends). It’s the chum’s older brother who has access to the house, and the brother’s blowhard friend is there, too. Rounding things out is a very slight classmate of Mason’s, a small boy of South Asian background, I should say. The high school boys bully this kid in a more or less amiable way. They pressure him to drink beer, interrogate him about his sexual experience, and decide, bluffly, that it’s all right if he’s gay. The little fellow is no dummy; he gets in a good line, wondering why the older boys want to spend time with eighth-graders. But I winced, wanting to spirit him out of the house. And I was disappointed that Mason just kept his head down.

I’d have done the same thing, if I’d been there at all. I’d have learned that I didn’t enjoy this kind of camping, and I’d never be tempted to do it again.

There’s no doubt in my mind that men who send anonymous threats are proving to themselves — not just trying but actually succeeding — that they are worthy of a place in the pack. Having dispatched their loathsome missives — having dared to be loathsome! — they stand a little taller, speak a little firmer, and look other guys in the eye. Anyone who wonders why they don’t feel ashamed of themselves is completely missing the point, which is that these men have not outgrown the need to belong to something without actually doing much of anything. You can root for a team with your pals at the tavern. You can engage in re-enactments of Civil War battles. Beyond activities of this type, however, which give hanging around an air of purpose, men get together to demonstrate real skills. They play golf, or they build model railroads. If you do these things, you’re supposed to do them well; your skill establishes your standing in the group.

Not so with the pack. The pack is all talk. And poison pens.

Gotham Diary:
Dysphoric Democracy
20 April 2015

Monday, April 20th, 2015

It becomes, every day, more difficult to be optimistic about the near future democracy in the United States. For one thing, fewer Americans seem to care much about it. What they care about is keeping other people’s noses, especially the government’s, out of their business. They don’t want to be told what to do. The very suggestion that it might be a good idea to do something seems to inspire doing just the opposite.

Despite falling crime rates, to which the phenomena of mass killings make a bizarre counterpoint, increasing numbers of Americans are arming themselves with guns. Charles Blow writes about this depressing development in today’s Times. He asks, “Has the NRA won?” But I don’t believe that the National Rifle Association has emerged from the murk of fringe groups on its own strength. I believe that it has been sucked into prominence by a vacuum. This vacuum was created by the collapse of an American conception of prosperity in the 1970s.

There had been a kind of folk myth about this country: it was a land of opportunity in which we might all get richer and better if we all pulled together. It operated most powerfully at the level of towns and small cities, where volunteer civic associations addressed numerous local needs, and it worked best where local populations were homogenous. It is human nature to want to help people like yourself. It is human nature to fear people who are different. The problem with the old vision of a land of opportunity was that it was lubricated by bigotry and racism. When the federal government stepped in to eliminate or suppress these weaknesses, it became unpopular. Everywhere. Americans became the people who don’t like to be told what to do. They stopped pitching in. (Let the government do it all!) Contrary to the wisdom of common sense, Americans became gun people.

Am I saying that the push for Civil Rights in the Sixties was a regrettable mistake? No — because it had to happen. It was unconscionably overdue, in fact. But other things ought to have happened that didn’t. Our élites, who can be as maddeningly self-righteous as any segment of the population, turned their backs on bigotry and racism but gave no thought whatsoever to a lubricant that might replace them. The great majority of Americans, overwhelmingly white at the time, were told that they had been very naughty. Their punishment would not only oblige them to treat former inferiors as equals but, much more horrifically, put an end to their majority. Of course, this ought not to have been presented as a punishment, but it was. En masse, American élites stuck out their tongues at the yokels and the rubes. I am not in the least bit surprised that guns were bought, and are still being bought, in pursuit of a new and awful American dream. I leave it to you to imagine what I mean by that.

The centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination has occasioned an equally unsurprising outpouring of reverence. Surely there is no greater American than Lincoln? I myself don’t doubt the high-mindedness of Lincoln’s mission, or the canniness with which he pursued it; the man was unquestionably possessed of a noble mind. But he was an exponent of an unfortunate commitment to the union of the American states. I have finally gotten over regretting Lincoln’s response to the secession of the Southern states, but at the expense of regretting the American Revolution. This is not because I’ve watched too much Downton Abbey. (I’ve never seen a single minute of it.) It’s rather because the Revolution — an early secession — could only be undertaken by the hellishly insincere alliance of Yankee business men and Southern planters. How on earth could a war for liberty be waged by slave owners? But it was never a war for liberty — that was just the usual propaganda. It was a war for commercial independence from a mercantilist empire. It was a business proposition. So was the third sentence of the Constitution, with the bit about counting each slave as three-fifths of a person for (oh, the irony) representational purposes. It was all business, and it nourished a dream of American prosperity that could not coexist with a genuine commitment — even Lincoln’s — to liberty and justice.

I’m beginning to believe that democracy — as distinct from our way of muddling through, which is something else — only makes sense as a political ideal when opposing systems, such as monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and military dictatorship are in power. Without these authoritarians to fight, citizens lose their sense of democratic purpose. Now that the federal government of the modern world’s oldest democracy has been cast in the role of yet another authoritarian, do freedom-loving Americans have any alternative to stocking up on weapons?

***

I have begun reading John Dunn’s Breaking Democracy’s Spell, a thin but very dense volume in which are collected Dunn’s Stimson Lectures, recently delivered at Yale. Dunn is a retired professor and a Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge. My initial impression is of a great mandarin. Dunn writes in a plain, not inelegant English that is made somewhat difficult to comprehend by a penchant for describing and enumerating things before saying what they are. As someone prone to such baroque inversion myself, I feel stung as well as stupid.

So: here is the first sentence of the jacket copy:

In this timely and important book, eminent political theorist John Dunn argues that democracy is not synonymous with good government.

This is not meant to say that democracy and good government are incompatible. Rather, the “spell” cast by the idea of democracy is the implication that good government follows naturally and inevitably whenever and wherever democracy is put into place. It does not. The only problem addressed by democracy is the (s)election of those who will exercise the power that an effective state must wield. Democracy rules out hereditary  princes. It does not rule out scoundrels, mountebanks, or demagogues. It does not rule out Hitlers. It did not rule out Richard Nixon, and it may fail to stop Ted Cruz. Only voters can keep malefactors out of office.

It becomes, every day, more difficult to trust the judgment of voters who believe that guns make homes safer.

Dept of Convention:
The Wages of Sin
17 April 2015

Friday, April 17th, 2015

Whenever I see David Brooks’s byline in the Times, I fold the last page back behind the rest of the section, because I know that I’m going to read every word. Why? It seems to me that Brooks and I want the same good things to happen, but that we disagree somewhat about how to get there. What we disagree most about is religion.

Brooks is very subtle about religion. Sometimes he mentions the concepts of faith and sin explicitly. Usually, he doesn’t. I don’t want to accuse him of being sneaky, but he quite often garbs his judgment in code. From today’s column, for example:

But I would say that we have overshot the mark. We now live in a world in which commencement speakers tell students to trust themselves, listen to themselves, follow their passions, to glorify the Golden Figure inside. We now live in a culture of the Big Me, a culture of meritocracy where we promote ourselves and a social media culture where we broadcast highlight reels of our lives. What’s lost is the more balanced view, that we are splendidly endowed but also broken. And without that view, the whole logic of character-building falls apart. You build your career by building on your strengths, but you improve your character by trying to address your weaknesses.

So perhaps the culture needs a rebalance. The romantic culture of self-glorification has to be balanced with an older philosophic tradition, based on the realistic acknowledgment that we are all made of crooked timber and that we need help to cope with our own tendency to screw things up. That great tradition and body of wisdom was accidentally tossed aside in the late 1940s. It’s worth reviving and modernizing it.

I couldn’t agree more with the gravamen of this passage, but the presence of “broken” and “crooked timber” makes me uncomfortable. They are bywords for good old sin, sin of the original kind, the kind that we’re born to because we are the children of Adam and Eve. Jews and Christians alike, we have been condemned by their transgression to taste the sweat of our brows. Only religion can cleanse us of sin. Once upon a time, Brooks’s column suggests, we ordered our society in accordance with this understanding; we were all good Protestants. Then, after World War II, we lost our taste for self-denial — and now look what we’ve done.

My trouble with religion has nothing to do with my agnosticism. I celebrate the religion of my wife, and that of the many other good church-goers whom I know. I often wish that I shared their faith, for the comfort that it brings, certainly; but sometimes just for the pleasure of taking part in a liturgical service, and not observing it from outside. If I thought that the religious revival that Brooks is calling for would culminate in the moderation and respect that distinguish my religious friends, I’d be the first to join in his appeal.

History, however, tells me that revival is unlikely to be moderate and respectful. We have already had four Great Awakenings in the United States, and it is not entirely idle that Upper New York State, the birthplace of one of them, was long known as “the burnt-over district.” I don’t want to live in a burnt-over district. If I grew up with the naive American understanding of “enthusiasm” as a blandly good thing, I have learned better. Sometimes these awakenings can be deadly without being enthusiastic, as happened in Prussia in the first half of the Nineteenth Century, where religious revival stunted intellectual vigor and prepared the ground for Hitler.

The older I get, the less prepared I am to accept the reality of sin. There is something horribly presumptuous about the very idea of it. It suggests that we can look into the minds of others and ascertain wicked, as distinct from merely weak, motives for their actions. That is sin as the failure of others. Sin as one’s own failure, as the conviction that, whether or not anybody else knows about it, we have done something wrong, is much more interesting. Only very good people, unfortunately, are able to treat the sins of others as no worse than their own; or, more to the point, their own sins as equally indefensible as others’. One kind of sin is problematic enough, but in effect we have two kinds. I think that we ought to give more thought to resolving them into one sort of failure: the failure to observe a convention.

I have a lot to say about convention, and I’m obviously having a problem working it out in a series of thousand-word blog entries. I keep going back to beginnings; I never get round to working out the consequences. When I read Brooks’s column this morning, I was thinking, What he means to say is that postwar American culture threw off the the respect for conventions that governed social cooperation because they were stifling growth and change. As Brooks writes, in the paragraph preceding the ones that I’ve quoted,

This more positive view of human nature produced some very good social benefits. For centuries people in certain groups in society had been taught to think too poorly of themselves. Many feminists and civil rights activists seized on these messages to help formerly oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations.

We needed to dump a lot of conventions that stood in the way of civil equality for blacks and for women. For homosexuals. For the homeless and the disturbed. For those formerly known as “the handicapped.” The prewar social arrangement still rested on the convention that white men talk to God, while everybody else talks to white men. There are still pockets of respect (some of them, I’m afraid, much too large to be called “pockets”) for this repudiated convention.

Somehow, however, the idea took hold that the very idea of conventions was reprehensible. Conventions thwart spontaneity, individuality, creativity! I don’t think that I can capture the vehemence with which, throughout the Sixties, “convention” was associated with stultification, suppression, even totalitarian conformism. Perhaps because the mass of prewar conventions was so grossly monolithic, it was hard to believe that conventions could be arrived at imaginatively, that they could leave room for plenty of individuality, and that they might even create occasions for spontaneity.

In fact, as I think Brooks suggests without meaning to, when you jettison conventions that no longer work, you must replace them with conventions that do a better job of negotiating our everyday transactions. We cannot function without pre-set understandings of the consequences of behavior. And, here in Manhattan, we don’t try to. Come visit sometime, and, instead of gawking at the buildings and the prices, pay close attention to the way New Yorkers pay close attention to one another in every public moment. (The young omadhauns who don’t pay attention stand out like the jerks they are.) These conventions are not trivial; they are backed up by a community spirit that every now and then bursts out into the open. (“Is this a line?” Glare.) For the most part, it doesn’t have to. Thousands of people walk by Tiffany & Co everyday without anyone’s trying to rob it. Considering the size and exhausting exuberance of New York life, violent disruptions of the conventional fabric are vanishingly rare.

The very idea that human beings are constituted of “crooked timber” is an Industrial Revolution insult — and how like Kant, who probably didn’t know how to operate a pencil, to make it. We are not straight, we are not regular, we are maddeningly varied. And that, that is what’s great about us: we are all human resources. With the help of a few wise and fair conventions, we can accommodate just about anybody.

Library Science:
Just In Case
16 April 2015

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

And so the last boxes left the apartment. Three of them were filled with plastic bricks. Our new balcony is somewhat larger than a third the size of the balcony upstairs. Our good friend and former ‘cross-the-hall neighbor has a balcony that’s the same size as our new one, and we gave her enough bricks to pave it. The remainder filled three book boxes and half of a garbage bag. I’ve held on to the garbage bag, but the boxes are gone.

Some of the nine boxes of books had not been opened in this apartment. One of them was marked “Trollope,” and it contained very little else. I know where to go if the urge to read about Barset or the Pallisers overcomes me. I expect that it won’t — not anytime soon. I did re-read Orley Farm in the summer of 2012, and I did enjoy it, but I had been reading the “sensational” novels of Wilkie Collins, and was primarily interested in comparisons. I can’t remember the young lady’s name — the inevitable Trollope virgin who falls in love once and for all — but she was relatively plausible, making appearances so widely spaced that I never quite tired of her, and could just tolerate the loitering fragrance of Trollope’s unpleasant high-mindedness about girls. It will tickle me no end if I manage to overlook this kink and live to rediscover a fondness for Trollope. For the moment, his novels are safe in storage.

Why am I keeping the bricks and the books? Why not just let them go?

The bricks are not available anymore. In a year or so, I may accept the unlikeliness of our ever needing the bricks in the boxes, but right now all I can think is that I should never forgive myself if the need arose and I were no longer able to supply it. It’s for this reason that I’m still holding on to the top of my mother’s glass-fronted breakfront cabinet. Once again, I believe that the course of the year to come will see changes in my thinking on this issue. “Just in case” is an inversely spendthrift principle.

As to keeping the books, I understand the meaning of a personal library less and less every day. When I was growing up, they were, at least in the eyes of people I admired, unambiguous boons. There was nothing wrong with having a lot of books. Books were, overwhelmingly, the principle source of information. They were also solid evidence of learning. (What about people who never read the books they owned? Their amalgamations of volumes might just as well have been stamped, “For Show, Vol XXIII” or “Fake, Tenth Edition.”) And books were unbreakable; they were forever. Physical books arrayed on physical shelves — ideally, an arrangement of wood on wood — were timeless artifacts of the permanent world that both precedes and survives us.

That was then. Books are now rather unreliable sources of information. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases — they’re no more in general demand than are telephone directories (which used to be an important resource in every major public library). I doubt that scholars will ever manage to do without dictionaries altogether, but for ordinary purposes it makes much more sense to turn to a smartphone. Encyclopedias and atlases go quickly out of date, or would do if anyone were still printing them. Yes, I understand that the Internet is unreliable, too; but it’s early days for the Internet; we’re where books were in 1500. (Books could be ludicrously unreliable in 1500.)

Somehow, “timeless artifacts” have degenerated to “stuff nobody touches from one year to the next.” I wince to think how often a shelf of mine has been sorted and catalogued, only to proceed into undisturbed limbo until the next round of sorting and cataloguing, years later. Books take virtual root: having occupied space in a bookcase confers upon them the right to go on occupying space. The presence of certain books in certain places becomes reassuring without regard for the usefulness of their contents or the grace of their language. Few possessions transform themselves into fetish objects as frictionlessly as books do.

We have become much less patient about the evidence of learning. A wall of books is too indirect. Open your mouth, and show

***

Even though I understand how the sands have shifted beneath my bookshelves, I nevertheless grew up in a time when libraries were greatly respected. I feel rather like a hereditary grandee of the Holy Roman Empire must have done after World War I. Napoleon had put an official end to the Empire a hundred years earlier, but now the constituent territories were thrown completely out of alignment with the old order. Austria became unthinkably insignificant. About a third of Hungary went to Romania, not to mention the loss of Slovakia. Who even knows where Pomerania was anymore — Pomerania, Silesia, Galicia, all gone. Countless aristocrats became Counts of Nowhere. Lots of smart people today are no less eager to wish good riddance to the old rubbish of books.

And why do I have the books that I have? Why do I keep some of them a mile away in a dark room? How do I decide whether to stand a book at the edge of the shelf, and thus to have it handy, or to stack it horizontally behind the ones in front, so that I can forget its existence? I have written about these matters for years now, and I’m forced to the conclusion that the only explanation is varnished caprice. Right now, such and such a book fits well in the orbits of my mind, but it might not do so in a year or two: so much for timelessness.

All of a sudden, holding on to books just in case I might want to re-read them is looking both untenable and idiotic. Surely there must be some principle to guide and govern the maintenance of a personal library. Have I been looking in the wrong places?

Idle Hands Note:
Stitchery
15 April 2015

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

I had hoped to get it done this morning, but, as we seem to have forgotten, the car service needs twenty-four hour notice to reserve a van or an SUV capable of carrying boxes. So: tomorrow I’ll load the luggage cart with the twelve boxes remaining in the apartment — nine containing books, three filled with extra plastic bricks for “paving” the balcony; don’t know when we’ll ever need them, but nobody makes them anymore and you never know — and roll it down to the driveway. No further discussion of our complicated storage arrangements, please. The point is that, for the first time in well over six months, I won’t be living with 16x12x12 inch brown cardboard boxes.

Yesterday was overcast, but today, it’s lovely again, and I hope to spend at least an hour out on the balcony, working on a needlepoint project.

It has been years. Four or five years ago, I climbed up to Rita’s, on 79th Street right next to the dermatologist’s office, and bought the materials for remaking a bargello pillow that I stitched in the mid-Eighties. It had begun to fall apart. The colors range from very pale to very deep green, and the pattern is a simple undulating stripe, the sort of thing that you can make up to suit yourself. I stitched one row of deep green, actually not even the entire row,  and then set it aside. Four or five years ago.

In San Francisco last month, Kathleen wanted to go to Needlepoint Inc, a stylish establishment that is now right across Union Square from the St Francis. (We had tried to go in January, but the shop was closed for the holidays.) I went along for the ride, and of course it was I who ended up spending all the money. I was captivated by a set of Lichtensteinish exclamations — BAM, POW, ZAP — in lightning lettering, set against the angular clouds that signify cartoon explosions. These, I thought, wouldn’t be too difficult to stitch, and, made up into pillows, they would make snappy replacements for a set of four pillows that my mother stitched in the early Seventies. One of the pitfalls of growing old is discovering that needlepoint is not forever. My paternal grandmother died, like all my grandparents, when I was young, but I remember her very fondly, and it killed me to throw away a floral piece that had come down to me, only to begin falling apart. I was assured by everyone that it couldn’t be saved. If we’d still had the house by the lake, I’d have burned it. Tossing it down the garbage shute seemed sacrilegious.

I won’t mind doing the same with my own pillow from the Eighties — so I say now.

Another drawback to needlepoint is that it costs the earth to have your work “made up” into something presentable — a pillow, a drinks coaster, even a “picture” suitable for framing (still more expense!). In order to get more bang for the buck, I like to have two identically-sized panels made into one pillow, and that’s what I’ll do with the undulating stripe. I’ve decided to start off with that. It will awaken all my sense memories of stitching, so that when I turn to the BAMS, which have to look great to be in the living room, my pace will be steady and the tension of my stitches will be even. When I got back from San Francisco, I conducted a rutheless triage session, and got rid of everything in my dusty work bag except for the undulating stripe, another piece of free-style bargello that was intended to be quite large but that will now be “lumbar,” and an initial “R” composed, origami-like, of folded Japanese paper printed with contrasting patterns. (Such is intended to be the illusion.) These projects, together with the three cartoon pillows, will keep me busy for a very long time.

But that’s just it: they won’t keep me busy. They’ll keep me quite calm. On Sunday, I spent about three hours on the undulating stripe. As is typical of projects that are either new or taken up after long neglect, I had to rip out a lot of work. One of the mistakes I had just made; the other was in the original stripe, stitched four or five months ago. Had the missed stitch been off to one side of the panel, I might have let it go, but it was going to interrupt the flow of the undulation right up and down the center of the piece. I minded the ripping out horribly — at first. It took a while to understand that ripping out is just another way of going forward. The mistake that I made on Sunday was really a lesson unto me. I had pulled the needle up through what turned out to be the wrong hole, and instead of pulling the yarn off the needle and tugging it back through the mesh, I tried to stitch my way out of the situation by aiming the needle back through a corner of the wrong hole. That was dumb; dumber was blithely stitching on without looking at the back of the panel. When I reached the end of the length of yarn and prepared to tuck it in, I was horrified to see a dustball of tangles back at the wrong hole. So all of that had to come out. But when it had all come out, I felt quite clear and cleansed. By the time I stopped working for the day, I liked the look of the back of the panel better than that of the front. It was neat as could be. I had never done such presentable work!

And as I stitched, my mind wandered in the most agreeable way. If it hadn’t been for the ripping-out, which I had to pay attention to, I’d have floated serenely above myself, calm and collected. The causality here is somewhat shaky: it may well be that stitching just isn’t on in chaotic circumstances — not on for me, that is. For me, stitching seems to be a kind of weather check: if I can do it at all, my house is in order. If I can do it well — but I can’t generalize on that yet, as I’ve been too erratic to do it well as a matter of course. But stitching is as close as I am ever going to get to meditation.

I think of Penelope. The problem that I have had with needlepoint in the past — and I’m aware, by the way, that it is no longer the done thing to use “needlepoint” as a verb, meaning “to work at tapestry stitching”; but doing so quietly brings my mother and my grandmother into the room — is the word “project.” The whole point of a project, in America, is to get it done, to finish it. Good craftsman deal with this inane pressure by setting high standards for their work, but, to me, high standards always meant difficulty, and difficulty was inconsistent with recreation. I was simply too impatient.

A cognitive cure for impatience, a non-medical technique for relaxing the highly strung: how different such a miracle would have made my life! But age seems to have done the trick for now. I can almost imagine stitching away but never finishing anything.

Reading Note:
Character and Contingency
14 April 2015

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

About ten minutes ago, I finished reading Penelope Lively’s first novel, The Road to Lichfield (1977). I had to put it down last night because I’d grown overtired, and forgotten to take my pill until rather late. I was too sleepy, and at the same time too anxious about the difficulty of falling asleep, to attend to the fine points of Lively’s wrap-up; knowing that, if I pushed through and read to the end, I should only have to re-read it today, I turned out the light — and was soon asleep.

The Road to Lichfield struck me as the perfect first book, not just because it’s very good and surprisingly assured, but because it serves as a sort of norm, a set point. It is rich in material that later novels will develop in different ways or, in fewer cases, not take up at all. Then there is the author’s entwining beliefs that the lives of affluent, professional middle-aged people are too stable to be easily capsized, and that those same people are even more susceptible to the shocks of passion than they were when younger. Life is therefore safe but terrifying — an interesting conundrum to be sure. Youth is wasted on the young, not least because the young can cut and run without consequence.

To me, the novels are fantastically varied, but I’m not sure that everyone else would feel the same. To some ears, the repeated theme, no matter how cunningly varied, becomes tiresome. I rather find that the variations are interesting because they’re grounded in the theme. I thought of this often while reading Cleopatra’s Sister. Lucy, an ambitious journalist who finds most men wanting, prefigures Gina, ditto, in Family Album. But Lucy also prefigures Chloe, in “The Albert Hall,” one of the contrafactuals in Making It Up; both women have flaky, unrealistic mothers (who nonetheless land quite nicely in the end). It would be a mistake to think of Lively’s themes as archetypes. They’re professions and relationships rather. There are many ways to be an ambitious journalist, many ways to hit upon the right man after years of bad dates. Lively has a repertoire of favored professions and difficult relationships, but she creates new individuals to fill those roles, in book after book.

I hope that my Lively jag doesn’t look like an obsession. It’s just that Lively is the right novelist for me to be reading now, when I’m busy reorienting so many of the pieces in my own mind. Life offers each of us a limited number of entry points; by the time we reach adulthood, our options have narrowed almost to the vanishing point. And yet we bring to these options, or at any rate to the option that we elect (or fall into, as the case may be) a dizzying range of idiosyncrasies, just as do the people alongside whom we work and whom we meet at parties and fall in love with. They pop up in our children, who, as teenagers, fight so desperately to remain opaque to us. To perceive these idiosyncrasies, we have to see through the conventions — but that’s what conventions are for, providing an appearance of regularity through which we need look more closely only when it suits us.

Here it is important to remember that most of Lively’s heroines have had university educations, Oxbridge as a rule, and therefore stand out from the ranks of bland conformist women, not much on view in Lively’s fiction but deadly whenever encountered precisely because they have stamped out their idiosyncrasies (Joan Thwaites in The Road to Lichfield, Margaret Baseley in “Transatlantic” (also in Making It Up). Lively appears to believe that we have seen all that we need to see of such people, and she is not the writer to draw excitement from taking pot  shots at them. That’s an important example for me.

Finally (for today, anyway), Lively has a wonderful way of conveying that people can be attractive — very attractive — without being terribly admirable, and that their failure to be admirable is not really a failure at all. Admirability is a distracton, a superfluity; everyday life has little use for it. It is never admirable to be unfaithful to one’ spouse, but it is often understandable, and, in Lively’s fictions, always responsive to a deep, if sudden, need. (In The Road to Lichfield, Anne’s infidelity is all but occasioned by the twin discoveries of her father’s dementia and of his long-term mistress.) When the cuckholded spouses find out about the fling and forgive it, as they usually (always?) do, even this is not admirable. It is simply the right and human thing to do. (It ought probably to be pointed out that Lively’s flings are, where women are concerned, usually one-offs.)

I’m aware of reading these novels for the first time, and missing a great deal of the complexity that underpins them. I am trying to resist making too much of a likeness to Jane Austen. I may already have mentioned that, just as Austen derived a great deal of her rhetorical (and comedic) power from a thorough grounding in the prose of the Augustan masters, particularly Dr Johnson; similarly, Lively appropriates the narrative style of an earlier generation of university-based historians who wrote for the broad reading public; more than just a style, it was a creed for reconciling character with contingency. Like nature/nurture, character and contingency are convenient poles along which to range our discoveries about human behavior; as pertaining to humans, their either/or tussle can never be resolved.

***

I don’t know how long I spent out on balcony yesterday. To see the street life better, now that it was so much closer, I knelt on the settee with its back to the railing, and rested my cheek on a fist. Every now and then, there would pass along the sidewalk on the other side of 87th Street a distended cluster of commuters, drifting east from the subway station at Lexington Avenue before fanning out along First Avenue and its side streets. I had the impression — this is the sort of just-so thing with which imaginative observers can plug any lack of evidence — that the people I was watching had all made more or less conscious decisions not to head home along much busier 86th Street. (It was also “clear” that they chose the north side of the street because our side is still covered with scaffolding related to the balcony-railing project. I’m told that the scaffolding is going to come down “in four weeks.” Bravo!)

I have already discerned two types of mobile users. Members of the first group cannot be heard at all over the distance to my balcony. The second type bellows, public-speaking style. Every now and then, there will be a guy who is speaking loudly to a pack of other guys, but, for the most part, if I can make out the words that I’m hearing, the speaker is quite alone, and barking into his phone. I can rarely make out what women are saying, but they laugh in groups. It is endlessly the same, and endlessly different.

Off His Trolley:
Acting on Principle
13 April 2015

Monday, April 13th, 2015

If you peer a bit at this picture, you may note that the allée of cherry trees in Carl Schurz Park has suffered the loss of two trees (on the right); perhaps you’ll have to take my word for it that they have been replaced by saplings. A chilling discovery for a chilly day. How established will these spindly twigs be, when I see them for the last time?

Another thing that you may have noticed is that I haven’t mentioned novelist Penelope Lively this month, not until now. That’s because I had to put down the novel that I picked up after Passing On. Like Moon Tiger, Cleopatra’s Sister has a North African setting and an unfortunate title. Come to think of it, it is also rather darker than the run of Lively’s fiction, although in an entirely different way. Where Moon Tiger looks back on a doomed wartime love affair — The English Patient without the hokum — Cleopatra’s Sister features contemporary state terrorism. A plane en route from London to Nairobi makes an emergency landing in Marsopolis, the fictional capital of fictional Callimbia (situated between Egypt and Libya, it seems), and its English passengers are caught in an ongoing revolution.

This diversion occurs midway in the novel. Up to that point, the chapters alternate between Howard, a paleontologist, and Lucy, a journalist. It is all but obvious that Howard and Lucy are going to meet and, in their dry English way, fall in love. (No gushing! We’re British!) The novelty is that we get to know them on their own, and not through the other’s shyly infatuated eyes. In between the Howard and Lucy chapters, Lively inserts brief instalments of the history of Callimbia through the ages. This doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything, which is also a novelty, since Lively’s experimentalism is no more blatant than her lovers’ passions. Shortly before the midpoint of the novel, however, there is a scraping twist: Callimbia’s military dictator turns out to be the son of an Englishwoman who served as a nursemaid in prewar Cairo and then settled down as a well-to-do Levantine matriarch. Suddenly, Callimbia isn’t so far away. Moments later, a crippled plane, holding, among others, Howard and Lucy, is making an unscheduled descent upon it.

What happens next, and next after that, and then after that, isn’t a lot of fun. Of course I cheated and went straight to the last pages. Even then, I could not bear the situation. Howard and Lucy were going to meet and fall in love, all right, but under such conditions! Conditions of awful discomfort and worse uncertainty. It was embarrassing to learn how safe I had felt from such misadventures in the pages of Penelope Lively. What a fool! I put down the book and picked up The Sitwells. Much better Eastertide reading, no? When the hubbub subsided, and the semi-annual visit to the cardiologist went so nicely that, henceforth, it’s to be an annual visit, I picked up Cleopatra’s Sister and marched through its second half.

Never stated in so many words at any point in Cleopatra’s Sister is the well-known axiom of Anglophone foreign policy: concessions will not be made to save the lives of hostages. If Howard and Lucy came out of this alive, it was not going to be thanks to kindhearted folk at the Foreign Office. It’s the principle of the thing! I got quite worked up about this as I labored through the suspense. My anger was a form of relief that distracted me nicely from the grave misgivings of the new friends. I could set aside what would become of them and punditrate on the wickedness of putting principles ahead of people.

***

And, all at once, I wished I were in college. Not young myself but surrounded by young minds. How much I’d like to sit in on a discussion of this point. Is it ever just to put the implementation of a principle ahead of the safety of a human life? Let’s grant that the human being in question is a countryman of the officials charged with acting on principle. Howard and Lucy are born Britons; the safety of their everyday lives is upheld by the power of the British government. Is it ever permissible for a government to withhold its power of protection in the name of a principle? I think not, but I should like very much to be challenged by a cascade of youthful hypotheticals.

I’m not talking about trolley problems — emergencies in which the “right” decision, whichever it is, will cost human lives. I don’t believe in reasoning by emergencies. What you or I would do in an emergency is something that we shall never know until we are faced with it, and there will be no time for rationality then. Emergency response is a gut maneuver. You fight or you fly without premeditation. To philosophize from such a vortex of contingency is inane.

I’m talking about the relatively deliberative situation that Lively sets out in Cleopatra’s Sister. The Callimbian government, now in the hands of a revolutionary general, seeks the return of enemies who have taken asylum in Britain. It holds the British passengers of the disabled plane as hostages. Please tell me what would be wrong with British cooperation? The Callimbians, who have presumably chosen to be enemies of the victorious dictator, must face their destiny at home. The hapless Britons would be rescued.

But Such cooperation is ruled out by the standard playbook, simply because cooperation is a kind of concession, and concession is a sign of weakness. So the British hostages must die in order to preserve the appearance of British strength. Excuse me, but who put something in this Kool-Aid? How is the British government clear, in such a case, from complicity in murder?

Like all systems, principles are conveniences. They solve crises with pre-packaged judgments and abstract exonerations. If/then. They are morally ambiguous: far from resolving moral crises, they render them murkier. The whole point of principles appears to be the evasion of difficult decisions. Of course you must have them in order to get through the day. But they are tools, not virtues. They are never, ever worth a human life.

In the stirring recent film about Alan Turing at Bletchley, The Imitation Game, no sooner is the Nazi Enigma code cracked than Turing’s team is forced to conclude that a convoy now discovered to be in harm’s way cannot be saved, lest the diversion tip the Germans off to the English discovery. Not a minute of film time later, however, Turing and his lovely sidekick, Joan Clarke, are making statistical calculations of plausible saves. Geniuses that they are, their minds don’t seem to have worked out quickly enough that the convoy, in which one of the team’s brother was sailing, might simply have been the first of the “lucky” — to the Germans, inexplicable — escapes. No, at Bletchley, as everywhere else in the world of Anglophone power, the first reaction is a show of impassivity. Nothing is done to protect lives at risk, lest the Germans figure out that Enigma is enigma no more. Only thereafter do the stalwarts grasp that, gee, some lives can be saved.

(Bandleader Glenn Miller was not one of the lucky ones. Ultra, as the new British fate-dispenser was named, did not make exceptions for cultural treasures.)

Does acting on principle signify strength, or merely inhumanity?

Dept of Human Nature:
Nothing Harder
10 April 2015

Friday, April 10th, 2015

It must be repeated that in all the social sciences genuine scientific detachment is difficult to attain, and in any “absolute” or “pure” sense impossible of attainment. Even in the natural sciences, desire to prove an hypothesis or a theory of one’s own may bring to the distortion or neglect of facts some of the most powerful sentiments in human beings. But the natural scientist does not want to improve a molecule or an amoeba — at least, not “morally.” Upon the social scientist, however, there pours the full force of those sentiments we call moral as well as those we call selfish. He can hardly avoid wanting to change what he is studying: not to change it as the chemist changes the form of the elements he compounds, but to change it as the missionary changes the man he converts. Yet this is just what the social scientist must try to avoid as a better man would avoid the devil. One of the hardest things to do on this earth is to describe men or institutions without wanting to change them, a thing so hard that most people are not even aware that the two processes are separable. (20)

That’s from the Introduction to Crane Brinton’s classic study, The Anatomy of Revolution, first published in 1938. It’s a book that I read a long time ago (although not in college) and have always meant to re-read. If now is the time for re-reading it, that’s because the move to the new apartment has placed enormous pressure on my possession of individual books: Do I really need this one? Will I ever re-read it? So far, however, I’ve wondered if re-reading is really the word. Much in the text is familiar, but its meaning seems altogether fresh and new. Brinton is telling me things that I’d never heard before, because I couldn’t. To understand, you must already understand — the intellectual equivalent of the paradox about not being able to get a job unless you already have one.

One of the hardest things to do on this earth is to describe men or institutions without wanting to change them.

What amazing wisdom! The desire to change “men or institutions” is indeed so overpowering that it goes unnoticed. We profess to describe; in fact, we critique. It is only when this proclivity has been acknowledged that our analysis of anything becomes useful or trustworthy. I would add only that our descriptions are doomed by incompleteness; we can’t know enough to describe anything in full. We fill in the gaps with wishful thinking.

Brinton’s aperçu sheds an intriguing light on something that I think about almost every day: how to explain the collapse of liberal optimism in the 1970s. This is often attributed to shifts in economic winds attributable to increases in fuel prices, and there’s no question that an air of rude awakening characterized the middle of the decade. I think that it’s important to stress a backlash against liberal social advances of the previous decade, especially those concerning equal civil rights for black Americans. But Brinton reminds me that liberals, during their postwar halcyon, had made the same mistake that progressives in power seem always to make sooner or later, at least in modern times. They believed that they could change human nature. With the right kind of laws, incentives, and whatnot, they expected to transform the United States into a truly great society. Having commended themselves on their virtue, they stopped thinking.

The inevitable backlash was embryonic and mute, at least until the appearance of Ronald Reagan in the White House. Ever since, it has become persuasive and eloquent, while liberals have either babbled in bewilderment or talked businesslike mush. Conservatives always hold the Ace of Spades: they don’t believe in changing human nature. The human condition permanently reflects the fall from grace caused by Adam and Eve. We are all imperfect sinners, and there’s no sense in expecting us to be any better. Bigotry and racism are incorrigible elements in human nature. So is greed. What’s good is not greed itself but accepting its inevitability. Plan on the greediness of others, and you’ll do very well yourself. Punishment is the lot of the weak and resourceless.

Liberals, as children of the Enlightenment, believe in top-down improvement, if not perfectability. Champions of freedom, they fall hard, again and again, for essentially coercive solutions to social problems that are borrowed from the Industrial Revolution. It is a Disneyland fantasy, also a nightmare: lock people up in a well-designed, Utopian theme park, and they’ll develop correct attitudes “spontaneously.”

The conservative failing, like that of the liberals, lies in its strength. Acceptance of human nature leads insensibly to a program of pandering to powerful interests, instead of one that curbs them. The fact that we are all sinners ought to inspire conservatives to protect us from the depredations of the biggest sinners, but that’s not what happens. What happens is the legalization of corruption: see Citizens United.

***

Regarding businesslike mush: in the current LRB, Marina Warner, in a continuation of her report on the perversion of Anglophone higher education, mentions a useful term.

Like Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty Four, business-speak is an instance of magical naming, superimposing the imagery of the market on the idea of a university — through “targets,” “benchmarks,” time-charts, league tables, “vision statements,” “content providers.” We may laugh or groan, depending on the state of our mental health, at the thickets of TLAs — three-letter acronyms, in the coinage of the writer Richard Hamblyn — that accumulate like dental plaque.

Although conservatives such as Margaret Thatcher are blamed for the deterioration of modern academia, I believe that the dirty work has been done by dispirited liberals who believe that business-speak and TLAs make them sound serious and grown up, providing substantive backup to their exhalations about progress and improvement. I remember the beginnings of the betrayal, when students on the left began calling for “relevance” in their studies, as well as the right to evaluate their professors. Nothing has surprised me in the forty-odd years since.

The next time someone throws a TLA at you, demand a rendering in plain English.

Rialto Note:
Friends Growing Up
9 April 2015

Thursday, April 9th, 2015

Here I’ve been writing about the gloomy old Sitwells, when I could have been writing about gloomy old New York, beset with a gloomy non-spring. The grey days are chilly, damp, and raw. The nights are interior, lamp-lighted, and much easier to take. They are also shorter, which makes them even less unwelcome. Mornings are the worst; they entirely lack the pop and dazzle that give one a reason for getting out of bed. If I were rich, I’m afraid that I should shed all my scruples about servants, and sink back into a well-pillowed life of being waited on, hand and foot.

One of the scariest things about ageing, were it not so comfortable, would be the ennui-free pleasure of utter idleness. This pleasure is somewhat metabolic: have something to eat, and it comes to an end. Do anything at all, beyond paying the simplest visits to the bathroom, and you are cast out of Eden. I have always harbored the suspicion that I’m a malingerer at heart, lazy and good for nothing; and now I know that suspicion is warranted.

Notwithstanding all of which, I’ve done a good deal of running around. In addition to cleaning up the “royal mess” that seems to have been triggered by the arrival of the glass curtains, and preparing Easter dinner, I’ve been to the theatre, to see Bathsheba Doran’s play, The Mysteries of Love and Sex. Hell, I went to the theatre to see Diane Lane, whom I have worshipped since A Little Romance, made when the actress was fourteen. Now she’s fifty. She is just about the most attractive woman in the world, half gorgeous sweetheart, half just the opposite. (Unfortunately, the folks at the Academy see only the outer half, but that’s tinseltown for you.) I ought to clarify: “just the opposite” does not mean “real bitch.” It means “inner-directed human being.” Paradoxically, it is easier to be a stable, centered woman if you are good-looking and good company, but it is harder to be perceived as such.

Another thing about getting older is that I no longer worship movie stars. I admire them. I admire them as they are, and don’t think about what I can’t see.

The play was well-crafted. The dramatic moments — or, I ought to say, the expanses of dramatic dialogue, punctuated with “dramatic” silences, so typical of Anglophone dramaturgy since Miller and Pinter — were always cut short in good time, usually with a sassy line that made light, if not a joke, of the proceedings. The Mysteries of Love and Sex is about two young people who have known each other since they were nine years old. When we meet them, they are about to graduate from college, and it soon becomes clear that the don’t ask/don’t tell regime that their friendship has provided, as a means of avoiding questions about their inconvenient sexualities, is about to crumble. Charlotte (Gayle Rankin) is the daughter of Howard, a “New York Jew” (Tony Shaloub) who writes successful detective novels, and Lucinda (Ms Lane), a Dixie belle; Jonny (Mamoudou Athie) is the black boy next door. It emerges that both are gay, something that it is much harder for Jonny to deal with because of his strict evangelical upbringing. The play tracks the twists and turns of the evolution and eventual survival of a childhood attachment into adulthood — a closely-run thing. Entertainment is provided by Charlotte’s parents, whose marriage breaks up long before the old friends find their new selves. Lucinda meets the discovery of her daughter’s lesbian life with a cheery but false acceptance, qualifying it as an “experiment.” That’s what college is for, she tells Charlotte. That’s all she did in college — experiment. Howard was her “Jewish experiment,” she concludes ruefully, undoing everything that she has just said. Howard and Lucinda do a lot of growing up, too. With a little bit of cutting, The Mysteries of Love and Sex would make a heartwarming television production. I’m speaking about the script. As brought to life by the strong cast at the Mitzi Newhouse, it was a stirring evening of theatre.

It emerges that both are gay. Charlotte and Jonny were much on my mind as I read John Pearson’s book about the Sitwells, in which some things never quite emerged at all. I envy the people of the future for whom such emergences will be too natural to merit comment. Children will always be unspeakably cruel about personal differences, but there will, I hope, come a day when a kid will be no more or less likely to be beaten up for sexual preference than for religious profession — and certainly no more likely to keep either a secret. There are many good reasons for not liking other people, but sexual identity will never be one of them.

***

A few final words about Pearson’s book. I left out a sentence in yesterday’s entry: my law school UCC professor would have taken ten points off just for failing to state the obvious. (Sometimes, it is very useful to state the obvious, at least if you go in for complex sentence structures.) I thought about editing the piece, but I’ll save that for later. For now, I’ll just say that the missing sentence, wherever it appeared, would have observed that the outing of Osbert Sitwell as a homosexual writer implied the outing of his “friendships” as romances. What would have been discreet otherwise became evasive.

Good reason for that, though, might have been the fact (if it was a fact, as I surmise it was) that David Horner was alive at the time of writing. The fact that Sacheverell Sitwell was also still alive would explain why the “family” biography scants him extensively, along with his wife and his sons. Pearson would have done much better to subtitle his book, “A Family’s Fracture.”

Indirect proof of evasion is given at two points. In the first, Pearson speculates that, in her sad old age, when she was all too willing to tell anyone that her life had been an unhappy one, Edith Sitwell might well have bitterly regretted never having known the consummation of physical passion. Such hypothetical regrets are quite conspicuously never vouched for Osbert. Second, we are told that Lady Aberconway, who was instrumental in dissolving the Sitwell-Horner menage with a minimum of fuss, had never been deceived for a moment (or words to that effect) by the nature of the men’s “friendship.”

The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography might have ended in a mellow tone, with Osbert sinking, sane but accepting, into the infirmities of Parkinson’s, enjoying his Tuscan castello and the compansionship of a manservant-turned-friend (whether friend or “friend” no longer matters), but instead, the final note is extremely sour: Osbert couldn’t resist writing a will that would force his heirs into mutual discomfort. His father couldn’t have done it “better.”

Let me not bid adieu to John Pearson’s book on a sour note of my own: for all the limitations that I have carried on about, it’s highly informative and extremely readable. I carried it about everywhere, even though it was a big old thing.

Reading Note:
Transitional Protocols
8 April 2015

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

Although this entry is about John Pearson’s The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography — published in 1978 — it does not really concern the Sitwells. My subject today is rather Pearson’s intriguing handling of the elephant-in-the-room topic — as it still was in those days, almost forty years ago — of Osbert Sitwell’s homosexuality.

For well over two-thirds of the book, Pearson appears to treat the matter with old-fashioned circumspection. Although the H word is attached to a small number of minor figures, and to the artist who was the focus of Edith Sitwell’s most painful fixation, Pavel Tchelitchew, it is not used in reference to Osbert. We hear instead of Osbert’s “friends,” of two friends, to be exact. (He appears to have had no “friends” at all as a young man, not even at Eton.) The friendship with Adrian Stokes is not long-lasting, but the fact that it peters out after a short time, along with that of the age difference, suggests that the relation was something quite other than the platonic mutuality of two peers. The friendship with David Horner lasts for decades, but not once is carnal contact so much as hinted at. We are in the old world in which such things were not mentioned. Anyone with an adult, reasonably cosmopolitan mind could infer them. Although we now regard such discretion as both evasive and repressive, it had a lot to recommend it. I myself didn’t fault Pearson for observing the traditional protocols.

What shocked me was the way he dropped those protocols, like a stack of china plates, in a late chapter that is dated 1949-1952. (Osbert’s dates: 1892-1969.) Nothing to do with sex!

Cyril Connolly defined the natural qualities of the homosexual writer as “combativeness, curiosity, egotism, intuition and adaptability,” and one can see how much Osbert had relied on all these literary advantages to complete his monumental work. (407)

Typing it out now, I’m still shocked. Everybody knows, it seems, that some men like to have sex with other men, and only with other men; there’s no need to call attention to this in print. “Homosexuality,” it appears, means something else, something that comprehends an aesthetic, an artistic style that Cyril Connolly obligingly unpacks for the gentle reader. It also appears, in 1978, that, where art is concerned, the love that dare not speak its name can shout it — so long as love has nothing to do with it.

The thick plottens a few pages on. Even after pointing what “one can see,” Pearson continues his policy of not identifying the relationship between Sitwell and Horner as homosexual. But the euphemism of friendship undergoes a terrible strain, not least, one imagines, because Osbert was by this time well into the onset of Parkinson’s Disease.

But inevitably the illness made him more of a recluse, and more and more dependent on the few close friends he had. He became gentler and more accepting of his lot, and very tolerant and thankful for the affection that he could command — particularly from David. He seems to have been very wise about him now. He knew that it was only natural for David to have other friends and something of a life away from him. This always had been a condition of their life together and it still applied. But David was still fond of him, still spent the greatest part of every year with him, and he was grateful. (436)

Other friends… This is not the way one speaks of friendship. It is a way of talking about romance, particularly the imbalanced romance that subsists between lovers who do not love equally. David is “fond” of Osbert, and no more has been imputed to him at any earlier point in the narrative. Osbert, in contrast, has been explicit about his love for David, especially in letters that might have been copied from Wilde. Whether the romance had a sexual aspect is of course nobody’s business, but it would appear to be more candid to speak of David and Osbert as lovers. The want of such candor screams two pages later.

But Osbert had more serious troubles to contend with now. Gossip had started about him and David, and while he was still in Florida he received a disturbing letter from David saying that there was talk that they were breaking up. (438)

Now we are beyond the problem of nomenclature, and clearly in need of more explicit descriptions of the actual relationship between the two men. Gossip? Breaking up? Why would David be the one to report this? Had he given grounds for such a rumor? He very possibly had, with one of his other friends. But Pearson tells us nothing. He tells us, in fact, no more than Sitwell himself did in his multi-volume autobiography, in which David was mentioned, Pearson tells us, once. Pearson might just as well have done the same. Osbert’s friendship with David occurs entirely off-screen. Rather, it takes place entirely in public, but with an altogether unnatural invisibility.

As a result, there is no preparation for the startling development that occurs shortly after the events that I’ve related. This development is nothing less than Edith’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, which is, long story short, attributed to her attempt to deal with the rage occasioned by David’s mistreatment of ailing Osbert, a mistreatment that is not specified in even the grossest detail. Without David’s having appeared to do anything, he moves from being Edith’s friendly correspondent about her brother’s health to the arch-villain of the piece.

And, once again, I should understand this coy confusion perfectly well had not Pearson barged in with the news that Osbert was a homosexual writer!

The fact that Pearson was writing years and years ago, in a very different climate, when homosexuals were beginning to be tolerated, but still not quite accepted, doesn’t explain much of anything — does it? In fact, I’ve just put my finger on it. Homosexuality was, at least in sophisticated circles, tolerated. That Osbert Sitwell might be a homosexual was no occasion for contempt or ostracism. But homosexual relationships — the ways in which two men might express their love in public, with their clothes on — still made the heteronormative world uncomfortable. Such relations, it was hoped, would continue to remain closeted.

So, what the hell did David Horner do?

Gotham Diary:
Tidying Up Memory Lane
7 April 2015

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

Last night, after dinner, while Kathleen and I were reading quietly, I was stunned by a instance of eccentric excess that beat just about everything. A Rolls-Royce fitted out with a harpsichord! As this automotive wonder was said to have plied the roads of Europe between the wars, what was almost as stunning was my never having run into the anecdote before. During the early Seventies, I did practically nothing but scoop up tales of musical curiosity, usually from the liner notes of classical LPs. How could I have missed this one?

Before Kathleen could fill out a search request, I was already wondering if the keyboard instrument in question might not be a clavichord, rather than a harpsichord, so I suggested searching for “chord,” and, wouldn’t you know,  I was right. The downgrading dropped from there. Not only was it a clavichord, but it was not actually installed in the Rolls; rather, it was packed in a tool compartment under the front seat. The instrument could not be played en route. Having built and owned a clavichord myself — I built it from a kit — I understood the practicality, insofar as a very wealthy musician might have to worry about practicality, of toting the most quiet of instruments on road trips. The vision of bizarre self-indulgence that would mount a harpsichord keyboard on the back of the panel separating the passenger from the chauffeur evaporated before we could stop laughing at it. Kathleen was sorely disappointed: she had hoped for a photograph.

Let me tell you a funny story about Lord Clavichord. Annoyed by a lesser, not-yet-titled acquaintance in whose Chelsea house was prominently displayed a large bowl full of press clippings, he placed an even larger bowl in his entry hall, and deposited into it a single, utterly uninteresting snippet from the Times, announcing that he had returned to London from a trip abroad. Not that I can vouch for this story any more than I should for the harpsichord in the Rolls. Both tales come from the same source, John Pearson’s 1978 book about the Sitwells. (Osbert Sitwell was the friend with the smaller bowl and the deeper thirst for vainglory.) I hope to learn more about Lord Berners, the musical millionaire, from a recent book — well, not so recent that you can’t buy it used at Amazon — that the NYRB just got round to reviewing (with a nice notice by Alan Hollinghurst), Sofka Zinovieff’s The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me: A High-Society Scandal and an Extraordinary Legacy. Meanwhile, I’m filling in a long-partial picture of the sometime literary trio.

I can’t remember why I bought Pearson’s book, but I’m glad that I did. I’ve tried to read biographies of Edith Sitwell, but I’ve never got very far, because she was so hysterically self-important. The family approach works much better. Just when I want to put Edith on a diet of arsenical buns, Pearson shifts his focus to someone else in the family. Osbert, if hardly more likable, was not quite so mad. The poor fellow was always trying to achieve a literary success that would make him rich. Like his sister, he had a nose for notoriety, but although everybody knew who the Sitwells were, or at least that they existed, it was difficult to transmute this celebrity into pounds sterling. Which was all the more galling because Osbert had expensive tastes, having cultivated them as the son of a wealthy but disapproving baronet. Money was everywhere, around Osbert, except in his pockets. The third child, Sacheverell, was far better-adjusted than his siblings. Indeed, he enjoyed a long and happy marriage to an attractive Canadian, complete with children (and  heirs). The villain of the piece is Sir George Sitwell, the meddlesome but unloving father. Having reached the year 1930 — each of Pearson’s chapters is dated — I suddenly had to know how much longer I was going to be asked to put up with Sir George, and I was shocked to learn that he would be around for another thirteen years. Sir George Sitwell was so mean that, rather than pay his wife’s gambling debts, he allowed her to be packed off for a three-month stay as His Majesty’s guest — at Holloway Prison. Oh, the horror!

But why, you ask, am I reading about the Sitwells at all? Out of a kind of completism, I suppose — tying up loose ends that have been dangling for decades. Permit me to explain. In the first years of the Sixties, I should say for Christmas 1961, I presented a wish list of books that represented, more than any physical development, my jump from childhood into adolescence. All of a sudden, and out of seemingly nowhere, I became a reader of more or less serious books and a listener to classical music. It took a few years for my taste to cohere, or for me even to know what was going on, but what I can reconstruct of that wish list is evidence of my mind in embryo. I still have two of the books, both of which were new at the time, which is how I learned about them, probably in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. One was Edith Sitwell’s The Queens and the Hive, a narration of the deadly duet that Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart danced for almost thirty years.

So that’s how I came to know about Edith Sitwell. Not from Façade (although I quickly got to that), but from a book not of poetry but not really quite history, either. I haven’t looked at The Queens and the Hive in ages, but I think it safe to say that the writing is more colorful and expressive and, yes, even poetical, than is usual in worthy histories. Over the years, I learned that Sitwell was not considered, by anyone who mattered, to have been an important literary figure. Worse, she was something of a clown. Along the way, however, I had acquired a pile of books, most of which I still have simply because I have had them for so long. (Memo to Marie Kondo: they still spark joy when I hold them.) I had one book by each of her brothers, but I have read neither. (I came across Osbert’s Noble Essences just the other day. I suspect that I’ve held onto it because there’s an Edward Gorey drawing on the cover.) For some reason or other, I appear to have felt, when I ordered The Sitwells: A Family’s Biography, that it was time to pin them all down, to organize the information accrued.

I was also interested in the Sitwells as social creatures in civil society. It cannot be said that Edith or Osbert behaved particularly well. In fact they were awful. They combined the lurid hauteur of the anxiously titled with intellectual-class disdain of the masses (no less rooted in fear than their snobbery was), making a classy cocktail of modernist contempt. I fear that I shall have to place them in my rogues’ gallery. Lord Berners, with his clavichord and his bigger bowl, promises to be much more sympathetic.

The Admiral said, “You could never call —
I assure you it would not do at all!
She gets down from table without saying ‘Please,’
Forgets her prayers and to cross her T’s,
In short, her scandalous reputation
Has shocked the whole of the Hellish nation;
And every turbaned Chinoiserie
With whom we should sip our black Bohea

Would stretch out her simian fingers thin
To scratch you, my dears, like a mandoline;
For Hell is just as properly proper
As Greenwich, or as Bath, or Joppa!

(En Famille)

I had to pull down the text, but only for the inaudible elements of punctuation and capitalization.

Kafkureaucracy Note:
The Hobsbawm File
2 April 2015

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Also in the current issue of the LRB (37/7) is Frances Stonor Saunders’s report on MI5′s thick file on the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. The report covers a twenty-year period dating from the beginning of World War II to a moment in the Sixties when the bureaucratic clock ran out, fifty years ago. MI5, Britain’s version of our CIA, cannot release files that are less than fifty years old. It is further prohibited from releasing files kept on living persons, which is why Hobsbawm, who made repeated requests, was never permitted to see what MI6 “had” on him.

What they had, it turns out, proved absolutely nothing unless glanced through the agency’s ludicrously circular suspicions, all founded on that most essential of bureaucratic proclivities, the idea that, once you have come to the attention of an organization charged with gathering important information, you can never cease to be one. This doesn’t mean that the spooks will keep tabs on you just in case. It means that they will see betrayal in your every move. The Hobsbawm file is thick with evidence — taken from correspondence and phone calls — that Hobsbawm’s relations with “Moscow” and with any kind of party orthodoxy were openly hostile. To an intelligent observer, this would have suggested reducing the intensity of surveillance. To the bureaucrat, of course, it was proof positive of Hobsbawm’s devilishly clever malignity.

Following his reprimand, Hobsbawm pulled his neck in, but MI5, working on the principle that any change in demeanour must be a stratagem, a calculated deception, continued to monitor him. Their suspicions were further aroused when Southern Command reported that Hobsbawm knew he was being watched. For a surveillance operation to be effective, it must go unnoticed by the target; nothing should be discernible, not a whiff. Literally. Cornwell [John le Carré] recalls that MI5 burglary teams in the 1950s – tasked with breaking and entering for the purpose of photographing records or installing eavesdropping equipment – were acutely conscious of leaving behind their own smell (habitual smokers in a non-smoking house, unfamiliar aftershave, women’s scent and deodorants etc). Hobsbawm was now, in MI5 usage, ‘surveillance sensitive’, which would explain his muted posture and the interruption of contact with Kahle: he was trying to throw them off the scent.

That Hobsbawm might instead be attempting a retreat from what he later described as a ‘combination of priggishness and immaturity’ (an unwitting echo of his commanding officer’s view, as expressed to MI5, that he was ‘patriotic’ but ‘juvenile’ in his judgments) was never considered. Nor was the possibility that this passionate anti-Nazi could do something more useful in the war effort than teaching soldiers the correct pronunciation of ‘Wo ist das nächste Bordell?’ This is how intelligence works: it’s a parallel universe of unfalsifiability where evidence is fitted into a context already believed to be true. Just as when Alice B. Toklas throws down the map and shouts at Gertrude Stein: ‘This is the wrong road!’ Stein drives on: ‘Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.’

So, Hobsbawm’s file continued to gain mileage.

Meanwhile, of course: Philby, Maclean, Burgess, and Blunt — the agency’s own. This quartet of traitors proves not so much that MI5 didn’t know what was going on — suggesting that stepped-up precautions would have found the  toffs out. What it proves is that the mere creation of organizations such as MI5 leads inexorably to the darkest kinds of espionage. An unintended but inevitable consequence of its founding is that MI5 exists to host counterspies. How could it not? What could be more attractive than the opportunity to game a system that, in order to assure regularity and to minimize the effects of idiosyncrasy, substitutes rules and procedures for individual judgment? Who can be fooled more easily than clerks taught not to think for themselves?

(And then, of course, the obvious stupidity of entrusting the security of a superpower to bureaucrats is used to “justify” rogue activities.)

What we can learn from this is that security operations decay when they become routine. In police forces, routine operations lead to looking the other way at best and outright corruption at worst. The comic books have it right: it would make more sense to hire free-lance teams of brilliant misfits to ferret out the information that would either prove or disapprove official hunches. One per customer: no repeat investigations by the same team.

Bureaucracy is yet another example of the misapplication of Industrial-Revolution discoveries to the civil life of human beings. It purports to solve the problem of trust. How can you be sure that Official X is doing what he’s supposed to be doing? You can institute rules and procedures to trammel the activities of Official X, if that makes you feel better. But this is as effective as a diet of cholesterol triggers. The fact is that you cannot, ever, be sure about Official X. You have to trust him. You have to use your judgment. You and Official X have to be good at what you do, and good people as well. There are no shortcuts. And why should there be? Bureaucracy is, after all, merely a pipe dream that promises an end to the need to pay attention to boring matters.

***

Beyond the general dim-wittedness of bureaucratic policing, the Hobsbawm file lights up the aurora borealis of anti-Communist anxieties, which raddled the developed world as soon as the Tsar and his family were shot, and Paris flooded with the beleaguered owners of salvaged samovars. Vladimir Putin is currently teaching us that we should have done better to confess our fear of Russia. We seemed to believe that the nation that the Bolsheviks conquered had formerly been a dreamland of ballets, palaces, and odd French. We pretended that Peter the Great, stylistically a Westerner, was a figure of the Enlightenment. We forgot about the awful Ivans and the bad Boris. We forgot about the lockdown of civil society enforced by a monastic establishment as grim as ISIS. And now they are all coming back, waking up like Sleeping Ugly.

It was because we were really afraid of Russia that we feared the world-wide spread of Communism. (There is really no other way to explain “Nixon in China.”) It was the fear of Russia that made us that warranted, in Eric Hobsbawm’s instance, the constant antagonism of an Anglo-German, Marxist scholar who never, as an adult, committed the slightest breach of faith. It was our fear of Russia that inspired our leaders — everyone but Churchill, and then Roosevelt — to prefer Hitler to Stalin.

When I was a student, there was a puzzle that caused a lot of discussion. How was it that, at their most radical, fascism and communism were equally totalitarian and dehumanizing? It was as though political activity took place not in an arc, from right to left, but in a ring, in which the extremes simply fused.

Thinking about this yesterday, and knowing a lot more than I did as a student, I saw that the very different attitudes toward human nature that are exhibited by the left and the right lead to the same horrors because neither the left nor the right respects human nature. The left is unhappy with the tendency of human beings to fall short of their potential, and it tries to legislate, and then to coerce, improvements. (This is one of those lamentable afterlives of Enlightenment ideas.) The right is unhappy with the tendency of human beings to complain about falling short, and it tries to silence “opposition.” The left disapproves of human nature; the right wants to pander to it. Neither sides accepts the unavoidable complications of human nature. Our political philosophies all begin with statements of where we want to go. It is time to begin with an understanding of who we actually are.

Gotham Diary:
Exhaustipated
1 April 2015

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

In the spirit of April Fool’s, I probably ought to leave today’s photograph unexplained. Not many years hence, nobody, but nobody will able to figure out where it was taken. For all I know, the three stones are no longer lined up alongside the street that had been repaved just the night before. They are probably not even three stones anymore.

I took the picture as a souvenir of Will. The night before, we had been walking to a restaurant. Will climbed the stone in the foreground as soon as we turned the corner and saw it. He paused at the far end, assaying a jump. I held his hand, in case. Somehow, without saying a word, we both decided that the gap, in the neighborhood of a yard, was too broad  So he jumped down instead, and climbed the second stone, from which a hop to the third was easy-peasy. The next day, as I was on my way to lunch at a restaurant across the street from one where we had dined, the stones were an almost shocking reminder of my precious grandson. So, Mr Potato Head that I am, I took this very dull and inherently inexplicable picture. When I saw it again a few minutes ago, it took a moment for the recollection of Will to click in. But I remembered the location perfectly well. California Avenue, just south of El Camino Real. Palo Alto, California. Monday, 23  March 2015. Pretty soon, I’ll forget that, too.

I’m exhaustipated. I went to the dentist at eleven and the dermatologist at 2:30. I had a nice lunch in between, but I ran errands after the second appointment, and had to lug a bunch of bags from 79th Street home, faute de taxi. I’m planning a very simple dinner, but cooking of any kind seems beyond me; I won’t be surprised if we order Chinese.

I’d forgotten all about Easter when Fossil Darling mentioned it on Saturday. I called my late mother-in-law’s butcher first thing Monday morning, and sheepishly asked for a ham. It turned out not to be too late to make such a request. The butcher will cut the ham roughly in half, and slice the smaller half into steaks, which I shall distribute, frozen, to our dinner guests, for them to enjoy some other time at home. I have discovered that the ham steaks don’t take prolonged freezing well. Two months is about the limit. Also, one wants one’s freezer space for other things. I wish that butchers would sell ham steak, but there doesn’t seem to be any demand for good ones. The pathetic ones that hang in plastic in supermarkets are too small, too watery, and too pallid. Also, without the bone, they’re worthless. Better to have a ham sandwich from the delicatessen.

I shall roast half of the ham according to a recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a recipe that Julia Child recycled for ham steaks in The Way to Cook. (Pineapples are not involved.) Ray Soleil will bring his fabulous ultra-chocolate mousse, which Kathleen, who gives up chocolate for Lent, cannot wait to devour. Ms NOLA will make a healthy and delicious salad. This will be our first holiday dinner in the new kitchen, which will hold all three of us.

***

“Exhaustipated” is a word that has emerged in the household lingo that Kathleeen and I speak, by no means privately. Who knows which one of us made it up. We coin new words all the time, and most of them fade into oblivion pretty quickly. Kathleen came up with a keeper the other day, though. Instead of saying “I have to get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow,” she said, “I have to get up at the crackola.” (Accent on the second syllable, for those of you who can’t tell never-you-mind from Shinola.) I love it. “Crackola” emphasizes the fact that you have to be cracked, screw-loose, out of your everloving mind to make an early-morning appointment. Or, in Kathleen’s case, spdrwoman.

It’s probably a preppy thing, but a lot of our patois consists of highly-abused French. C’est le storois, for example. (Store-WAH.) Kathleen says this all the time. It doesn’t really mean, “That’s the story, but something closer to “That’s all, folks!” A very good friend of mine used to be unable to call the premium Ford automobile by its proper name; he had to say, Lincogne. (Lean-KUN-ya.) A real fan of the ancien régime, he called the little triangular vent that appeared on the rear doors of Detroit’s luxury cars — all front doors had them, but only rich people’s rears — the “let-them-eat-cake” window. If he was actually sitting in the back seat of such a car, he would open the vent and mime throwing crumbs from it. Sometimes the crumbs were real. This friend went missing about ten years ago. Perhaps he encountered a stray guillotine.

It’s a sign of our debased culture that, instead of Shakespeare and Horace, Kathleen and I garnish our conversation with lines from the movies. “I am, after all, me.” (Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl.) “But where do you keep your wallet?” (Gene Wilder in The Producers.) The monologues of Ruth Draper constitute a rich seam of source material. “I don’t know how you drank that.” “That’s what minds are for.” “Goodbye, and don’t come back!”

Speaking of preppy, did anybody see the (faux) death notice for Bunny Bixler?

***

In addition to being tired, I’m very upset about Jenny Diski. I hope that you don’t have to ask who she is. Hers has long been the first name that I look for in every new issue of the London Review of Books. Her dry humor exudes an essence of impatience so fine-grained and concentrated that it is fragrant rather than annoying. She does not suffer fools gladly, but you might say that she suffers fools for the wicked fun of it. And now she has small-cell lung adenocarcinoma. I asked the dermatologist about this, and she gave me a shrug of hopelessness. It’s not good, she said. It is not brought on by smoking, she added, and it kills more women than men. The mother of a friend of hers has been in remission for three years now but they say that she could go at any time. (That rather sounds like remission as a tire with all the air let out.) Genetic, surmised the dermatologist.

Jenny Diski has been publishing a sort of cancer journal, and in the latest entry she reports that the only thing that consoles her is knowing that she has not-existed before — before she was born. I’m glad that this thought gives her comfort, but it wouldn’t do anything for me. At least, I don’t think it would. I’ve been meditating on the idea all day, in between sighs of fatigue.

Would it have been better just to take the day off?