Gotham Diary:
Floor Exercise
August 2016 (III)

15, 16, 18 and 19 June

Monday 15th

Last night, we watched more of NBC’s coverage of the Rio Olympics, and as the hours passed by — diving, track, gymnastics — the show confirmed a thought that sprouted from last week’s Olympic evenings: television is a really lousy source of the kind of information that we call explanation. Explanations tell us how things relate to other things. They are very important to any understanding of the world. Sometimes, as at the end of a mystery drama, explanations are tremendously exciting, but usually explanations are more than a little boring, because you have to remember things that you weren’t thinking about. The explanation of taxes, for example, is not invigorating. Many unpleasant explanations must be grasped and accepted in order to move on in life. Many people who are stuck in loops of futility are actively resisting explanations that wound their self-esteem.

Television is a medium of entertainment. When it was introduced, there were high hopes that it would be something else, a means of education and enlightenment. I think that the lesson to be learned from the failure of those hopes is that education requires a personal commitment, a presence in the room, that watching television is simply too passive to simulate. Many kinds of things can be learned from television — I want to talk about Julia Child in a moment — but other kinds of things, such as explanations, cannot, because understanding an explanation is an act that the student (or whoever it is to whom the explanation is addressed) must perform, and there is a big difference between thinking that you have performed this act in the privacy of your own room and demonstrating that you have performed it by discussing it with others, ideally including the person doing the explaining. Where explanations are concerned, there will always be a test.

One day, perhaps, television will be revolutionized by a truly interactive overhaul. Without descending into utter chaos, television will work both ways, so that the producers of shows will respond to viewers directly. I cannot imagine how this might happen, and I doubt that you can, either. My point is that not until then will television be an all-purpose tool of learning. The only way that television has, at present, of telling us that A is more important than B is to repeat A’s name more often than it does B’s — much more often.

Julia Child was one of television history’s most interesting stars. She started as a kind of clown. Her cooking lessons were perfectly correct; she even conveyed the information that not all mistakes in the kitchen are fatal. But hers was an improbable presence, physically and, of course, vocally. She was obviously committed to sharing her expertise, and her improvisations were inspiring — by which I mean that many viewers dared to tackle recipes that would have paralyzed them without her example. On the whole, though, The French Chef was an utterly conventional cooking show, with all the usual apparatus in addition to the novelties from France. What made it special was the nonpareil star. Mrs Child was very entertaining.

A later engagement with educational television, however, resulted in a series of VHS tapes, now available in CD form (The Way to Cook — its title borrowed from that of her American cookery book), that reflected the insight that TV shows can be watched over and over. Exploiting the Groundhog Day possibilities of video, Mrs Child ran through quick demonstrations of certain culinary skills — making piecrust in a food processor, for example — in an anonymous laboratory setting wholly devoid of the first show’s charming atmosphere. If you don’t get it the first time, just watch her do it again, and keep trying. There is a fair amount of explanation, but no inspiration.

I’ll merely note that, if, having tried and tried again, you still can’t produce a satisfactory piecrust, you’ll have to go elsewhere for further help and explanation. What I want to highlight is that The Way to Cook is a great example of video that is not “television.” Try to imagine a television show that accommodated as many repeats as each and every viewer might require for comprehension. It’s technically unimaginable, and it would also be intolerably tedious for every viewer who got it the second time. I’m interested by the way in which limits to technology overlap the limits to passive watching — the point where boredom sets in. It’s also interesting that you can’t just tune into The Way to Cook on a network. You have to buy the CDs.

Television is good at being easy. This is not to say that it makes Simone Biles’s vaults look easy. But it transforms years of very hard work into a momentary miracle. You may react, as Kathleen does, by pounding the sofa cushion with your fist and demanding, “HOW does anybody do that?!” with the air someone who has just missed being struck by a falling grand piano. But the question passes with the gust of thrill. Kathleen’s amazement is consumed by her own gesture. Soon there will be another momentary miracle. I daresay that Biles’s achievement cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who is not a serious gymnast. Indeed, the commentators repeatedly hinted, even as they predicted the scores, that many of the considerations entailed in evaluating a performance are somewhat occult. It was much easier to suggest the caprice or discretion or just plain human inscrutability of the judges than to try to explain the subtle criteria, masked by the circus flash, that the traditions of gymnastics have developed over the years. Behind the amazing twists and turns that today’s gymnasts have learned to do, there lies a demand for grace and confidence that can’t be reduced to metrics.

So far, I have been speaking of kinds of information. It’s easy to show Simone Biles’s acrobatic mastery; it is difficult to evaluate it in terms finer than “wow” or its opposite, the sound that we all made when Daria Spiridonova missed the catch from one bar to the other and fell to earth. But wait. Was this the first time that NBC had featured a performance by Spiridonova? I feel that I’ve been watching the Olympics for weeks, and I haven’t seen her before. It seemed that last night was the home audience’s introduction to many of the competitors from other countries. We had seen Aliya Mustafina compete against Simone Biles on the balance beam, but we had not seen the Russian team go through its qualifying rounds. Of course we hadn’t — there wasn’t time. Nor was there time, I suppose, to speak to contestants whose English wasn’t very good. Which was a good thing, because, frankly, I got tired of hearing athletes being asked, as Abby Johnston effectively was, to tell us how they felt about losing rather badly. For reasons not difficult to infer, NBC introduced foreign competition slowly. The heart of its story was the reality show inherent in intra-Team USA competition. Poor Gabby Douglas, All-Around Gold in 2012, denied the chance to compete in 2016, an outcome widely decried as unfair but never really explained. The full explanation would have to resolve, one way or the other, the conflict of Olympic ideals with strategic considerations. We instinctively feel that there is no place for strategy in athletic performance — not, that is, before the starting bell has sounded, as was the case here.

How much of the Olympics did we get to see? As much as most of us could take. How else do you explain volleyball in two formats?


Tuesday 16th

The first thing I did yesterday morning was to call the box office at Alice Tully Hall and donate my pair of tickets to last night’s performance of Così fan tutte. I had done the thinking the night before, and would probably have called the box office before going to bed, had it been open. I hope that the performance was a great one — as Mozart’s most sophisticated work, Così deserves nothing less. It felt strange to turn down the chance to use tickets that I’d paid for to experience one of my favorite things. But it felt absolutely right.

Many times in our life together, Kathleen and I have groaned about the nuisance of having to drag ourselves to an auditorium when all we want to do is stay home, only to find, having pushed ourselves a little, that we had a great time and were really glad that we overcame our resistance. Last night might have been like that; in fact, it probably would have been. I didn’t know anything about the performers, but the odds were that if Mostly Mozart had scheduled them, they would at least bring something fresh to the familiar.

But the reasons for staying home were unusually strong. I am in the middle of a writing project that has brought me to a patch of difficult ground: I have to be able to think a lot and to suffer a little at the same time in order to keep going. Not that I know where I’m going, either! To do this in the face of early-evening plans — getting dressed, which has become a slight ordeal as my immobile back and mortal decrepitude narrow my reach; getting over to Lincoln Center by 7:30; and let’s not forget bladder management — is not possible, not if I want to write anything worth looking at the next day. When I’m writing hard, what I need to have in my immediate future is a bottle of chilled cucumber soup, a baguette, and a wedge of good cheese. I made the soup over the weekend, and it won’t be taxing to run across the street for the bread and cheese. Last night, instead of going out, I made a pizza, with a lump of frozen dough and a block of butter sauce (both homemade), a Boar’s Head pepperoni, a handful of mushrooms, and a package of grated mozzarella. It turned out to be the first pizza, or maybe the second, that I have really liked in the eighteen months since I began making pizza. Thanks to those eighteen months, it was very easy to make. It was the perfect follow-up to hours of difficult work.

Also, I could tell that Kathleen wasn’t at all keen on sitting through an opera. She knows Così and has seen it before. “I don’t know what they’re saying,” she says, “but I followed every note.” Nevertheless, it would have been our third evening out in as many weeks. Last week’s night out was a last-minute thing, a surprised response to an unexpected invitation. Two nights of Mostly Mozart in two weeks, even if Kathleen didn’t actually do the music part the second time, was enough of a sufficiency.

What clinched it, though, was the extreme undesirability of missing Simone Biles. Yes — it had come to that. I was passing up a beloved opera in order to watch television. To be sure, it was Kathleen who really didn’t want to miss it. She never grumbled. She merely corrected me. While I was shutting down the video setup on Sunday night, I mumbled that we’d be watching again tomorrow. “No, we won’t,” she said. “We’ll be at Così.” That’s when I began to think that perhaps we had better not be. Left to myself, I’d have gone to the opera. But I wasn’t by myself.

Ordinarily, I’d have traded a lackluster, fretful day for a night of glorious music, but there wasn’t anything ordinary about yesterday, what with the writing project (which I think has reached the halfway point of the first draft) and the drama in Rio. Ordinarily, if I had made the decision that I did make, I’d have been pricked by a pang of regret when I went to bed at the end of an evening at home. As it was, all I felt was the same grinding doubt and head-down determination that I’d felt the night before. And I felt awful about Simone Biles.

As you will have foreseen, I blame NBC. I blame NBC for the hoopla about Biles. Well, everybody was excited. It was the Biles buzz that, reaching Kathleen, got her interested in watching the Olympics. Interested enough, that is, to overcome my immense inertia, amounting to passive aggression at times, about turning on the television (which Kathleen doesn’t know how to do). But the NBC chatterboxes promised miracles. They betrayed their magic thinking after Simone’s mishap on the balance beam: one of them said, “And from now on, Simone will look at the scoreboard just like everybody else.” Had Simone Biles herself really inhabited a bubble in which perfection was the only imaginable outcome? Unlike the commentators, I am not here to speculate. Had her remarkable success — three gold medals at her first Olympics — gone to her head? Conversely, was she beginning to think too much? Was she now so consumed by the dissatisfaction that she had made the mistake of confiding to somebody’s microphone — it bothered her that her public balance-beam performances were never as good as what she could do alone in the gym — that she finally lost her balance and, to keep from falling off the beam, gripped it with both hands? These questions swirl in the mind, for anyone but Biles and her coaches, it’s silly to try to answer them.

I also blame NBC for popping Sanne Wevers on us. Where had this Nederlander been? Not on television. She had evidently impressed the commentators as an exceptional gymnast, but it seems that her routine was slightly unorthodox — “more ballet and less acrobatics,” as Kathleen put it — and therefore (perhaps?) not expected to attain a high score, even if she performed it perfectly, which of course nobody ever does. Whether or not there was a slot in which those of us who have been following the women’s gymnastic events might have had a foretaste of what in fact happened, one ought to have been made, because Wevers’s victory almost ruined the story, in much the same way that a creaky deus ex machina cheats us of genuine dramatic resolution. Where did this Odile ever come from, to steal the glory from our beloved Odette?

That the silver went to Biles’s teammate, Laurie Hernandez, was very satisfying. Without wanting Biles to lose, I had wanted Hernandez to win — something. It seemed to me that she performed as well as anybody else, even if she didn’t she didn’t give Simone’s impression of sailing through her twists and tumbles on gusts of effortless ectoplasm. Hernandez was clearly working. But she was very graceful about it, and she always landed where she ought to. At least that part of NBC’s story line worked out nicely.

The point of the Olympics is to provide a forum for excellence, and the exhibition of excellence ought to be an unmitigated delight. National pride aside — and, for most people on earth, even among those who get to watch the show, national pride usually doesn’t enter into it — we all ought to take pleasure in performances that approach perfection. But perhaps that is too cold for the average viewer. The average viewer doesn’t understand all the elements that factor into the scores; the average viewer hasn’t seen enough to recognize every kind of excellence when it occurs. And the medium of television cannot teach. But I think that the telecasts would be improved by keeping the commentary to a minimum. It gums up the show with soap-opera sentiment. My experience of the performing arts and those who perform them has brought me to the conclusion that performances are most satisfying when you don’t know anything that you can’t see on stage. Backstage is another world, for insiders. I don’t go to concerts in hopes of becoming an insider, somebody who “really knows.” I go to hear a piano concerto, period. I go to hear a noted pianist surprise me from the keyboard. Then I applaud and go out to dinner. I don’t want my dinner troubled by wondering whether the woman who gave birth to Simone Biles is even aware of her daughter’s excellence.


Thursday 18th

I read something in a magazine yesterday; today, I find it in the newspaper.

How long does it take to see something, to know someone? When we put in years, we realize how little we grasped at the start, even when we thought we knew. We move through life mostly not seeing what is around us, not knowing who is around us, not understanding the forces pressuring us, not understanding ourselves. Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s, September 2016.

“I look back at my life before 40 and deplore what I see; I hate myself for my lack of seriousness, my lack of productivity,” he writes, adding: “I knew nothing, understood nothing, had not grasped how one must start working and keep working, early on and every day, if one is to create something to show for one’s life.” Ian Brown (quoted) in a review of his new book, in today’s Times.

You can look back on your life and miss the energy and enthusiasm of youth, the readiness to jump in and the fearlessness about outcomes. You can remember health so good that it was simply a feature of your identity. Perhaps your youth was capped by beauty, “beauty which must die,” as the very young Keats put it. You can remember the joy, however wobbly and uncertain, of having a long future ahead of you.

Or, you can look back on your life and see that, when you were young, you had absolutely no idea about what was going on. You thought you did, and you could sound convincing. But instead of understanding, your mind held a bucket of speculation, illusion, and projection. Not knowing much, you were easily fooled by your own inventions. “Here be dragons.” And, if you were an American, you were applauded for the boldness of your convictions and the authenticity of your moralizing.

My understanding was no better than anyone else’s, except for one tiny difference. I knew that I was ignorant. It was a tiny difference because you cannot wallow in self-reproach. You can’t be dwelling on how much you don’t know. You have to be faking it and making it. You have to speak with assurance, at least to yourself. You have to keep going. You have to learn to look like you know what you’re doing. You have to be a fake, but only slightly aware of it. You have to hope that you can handle whatever happens. None of this is optional. There are no shortcuts that will spare you the mistakes of being young.

You can look back on your life and think of all the things that you wanted to do but never did. Or you can look back on your life and see days and years wasted on things that looked good at the time.

What I’m puzzling over, of course, is how you can distinguish the true understanding that comes with experience from the false understanding that gets you through it. How can I be sure that I am not just as deluded now as I was forty or fifty years ago? Can it be reduced to writing? And unless this wisdom is to be totally useless, how can I counsel a young mind to tend that quiet fire of ignorance?


As small consolation for missing Tuesday night’s Così fan tutte at Mostly Mozart, I was spared a third taste of the weirdness of my fiftieth anniversary of Mozart Mozart concerts. That first season, I went to concerts with enthusiastic devotion. Mozart was more than Mozart at the time. Mozart was an antidote. There were people who didn’t get it, of course, who thought of Mozart as a Meissen figurine; but, aside from them, there was a widespread desire for sublime meaninglessness, not art-for-art’s-sake but art-for-serenity’s sake. A recovery of beauty. There had been enough jagged and demanding modernism. There had been too much Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. (The “three Bs, the three magisterial Germans.) And now Mahler. There had been too much tragic grandiosity. What was wanted was Alicia de Larrocha’s light andante at the keyboard. Small orchestras and young voices. Mostly Mozart promised the ideal August vacation for the world-historically-minded townsfolk of Manhattan.

It couldn’t last. After long years of wallpaper paste, it nearly expired. At the beginning of its comeback, I wasn’t even paying attention. I was wary of the festival’s overexposure. A diet of Mozart curdles the music, its richness cloying tritely. It turned out that Mozart was not a refuge. The Mozart who seemed to beckon with the understated elegance of the Age of Jackie went under a cloud, and emerged as a problem. A good problem: a workspace for interpretation, or the possibilities of expression if you like. The meaning does not lie in the music, waiting to be revealed. The meaning lies in the execution. If Mozart is the composer of music about music, what do you think he is trying to tell us? Go ahead, tell us. Tell us what you think, because nobody else does — wherein lies the greatness.

The only thing that’s fifty years old is the name, Mostly Mozart, which doesn’t — which can’t — mean what it used to do. Last year, I looked forward to elation: the festival and I would have an anniversary to celebrate. But an anniversary of what? Can we really remember?


I went to the branch of Morton Williams on First and 81st yesterday to buy Jones’s sausages. So far as I can tell, Jones’s breakfast sausages taste just what they tasted like when I was a boy. The only difference is in the package. The sausages used to be wrapped up, still linked, into a paper-covered bundle that would fit in a box just like the one in which you buy a pound (four sticks) of butter. I don’t remember how many sausages there were in a box; now there are twelve, and they are not linked, and I can’t believe that they really taste the same. They must have changed so slowly that I didn’t notice. Kathleen thinks they taste just the same, too.

Kathleen says that she and her brother were always trying to get their mother to buy Park’s sausages. Needless to say, this never happened. I, too, was drawn to an alternative: Rath’s. Rath’s sausages came in a tin, and were smaller and pinker than Jones’s. They were delicious right out of the can — the first two or three were. Then they got gross. What to do with the opened can?

I am always prone to “stock up,” so I bought two packages of Jones’s sausages yesterday, even though the freezer compartment is already crowded. If there is one bit of advice that I could pass on to today’s youth, it would be this: spend ten minutes every couple of days going through everything in the fridge. What have you got in there? How long has it been? When, exactly, do you think you’ll do something with it? Don’t wait until the fridge is a mess. Do a little bit of this every few days. It will alter your shopping; it will help you to use leftovers without feeling martyred. But this advice isn’t quite ready. I haven’t followed it myself.


Friday 19th

Gerald Grosvenor, the Sixth Duke of Westminster, died last week, but the notice didn’t appear in the Times until today. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out the cause of death, which was a heart attack. The duke was only 64; it makes me uncomfortable when men younger than I am die of heart attacks. Hugh Grosvenor, who turned 25 in January, steps into his father’s many titles. The family business, the Grosvenor Trusts, owns most of the land in the Mayfair and Belgravia sections of London. Gerald Grosvenor was the sixth-richest person in Great Britain and the second-richest citizen.

The Grosvenor family’s ascent began with a strategic marriage in 1677; its fortunes mounted from there until Disraeli advised Queen Victoria to make the head of the family a duke, because he was almost as rich as she was. But the interesting thing about the Grosvenors is that that they survived until 1677. Their ancestor, one of William the Conqueror’s hunters, a fellow nicknamed gros veneur, was settled in the Welsh marches to maintain order. The family took root and held on throughout the disorders of the ensuing centuries. They seem not to have held a title until 1622, when Sir Richard Grosvenor, knighted by James I in 1617, was created baronet. You had to pay for this honor, so there must already have been disposable cash lying about. It’s the nearly six hundred preceding years of cultivating their own garden, or at least keeping the executioner at bay, that interests me. I wonder what kind of records there are, beyond who-married-whom and -begat-whom. Probably not very good ones. Good hunters know how to keep quiet.

Wikipedia is always so up-to-date. The page for the Dukes of Westminster notes that there is no immediate heir to the duchy. Young Hugh has not yet married. Not much is known about the new duke; according to his page, his private life has been protected. His parents were still married when his father died, although the Sixth Duke was somewhat embarrassed by the scandal that brought Eliot Spitzer’s political career to a crash (the two men were clients of the same escort service).

I wonder how many Grosvenors figure in the Seventh Duke’s ancestry. In the immediate past, not very many. His father, of course, in the preceding generation. His grandfather in the one before that — two out of six. But if you trace things all the way back, how many Grosvenor daughters show up in the tree? If you go back through his mother’s family, you run through a line of Russian Grand Dukes, before landing in the lap of Nicholas I. I should find it very exciting to visit Petersburg if I were descended from Nicholas I. Perhaps too exciting. I might just stay on the cruise ship and look.

Families are amazingly concrete abstractions. They don’t really exist, because so few people belong to the same family as anybody else. Your family becomes unique on the day you marry, unless your twin is marrying your spouse’s twin. Families are like mushrooms: they have no actual center and they turn out to be connected to all other families, a feature that drains the idea of the family of most content. That, however, is the view from outside. What could be more gripping from the inside? We identify with our families from the dawn of consciousness. Or so we think. In reality, we create them around ourselves. For most of us, the sense of family does not include persons belonging to remote generations. Even someone with a claim to descend from George Washington (which, officially, no one can do) is unlikely to know much about all the families that come in between. The Sixth Duke, however, would be an exception.


And now for a few coy words about the writing project. (Watch for capitalization down the road.) I have been writing a great deal. Since launching the first draft four weeks ago and a day, I have written 54,852 words. It’s gross to keep count, I know, but that’s the point: it’s gross, you can put your hands around it. As mentioned earlier, I am following Jane Smiley’s advice, and picking up each day where I left off the day before, without looking back. Yesterday, it’s true, I broke that rule, inserting two blocks of about a thousand words each at points in the section on which I’m working. Most of what I wrote, however, picked up from the end. I have three more sections in mind, one long (the next one) and then two short. I expect that they’ll roll out of me as quickly as what I’ve already written. It’s then that the hard work will begin.

The temptation to tell you the sort of thing that I’ve been writing is nil. When I get up in the morning, and at many other points in the day, I revel in the fact that no one has read a word, no one has heard a summary, or even been given a clue. Kathleen knows all about it, and I read a page and a half of the draft to her. Even that turned out to be a mistake, because I’m not proofing the draft, and my reading was interrupted by several faulty prepositions and even a few omitted words. I don’t think that close friends and regular readers of this site will be at all surprised by the result, but working in secret is far more satisfying than I expected it to be. I am happy to say that Hannah Arendt is not the subject, in case anyone was worried, and I’ll add that I hope that what I write will make people laugh. Nothing new in that.

The downside is that I have little to talk about. My mind is always pecking away at some point or other in the ever more expansive draft. At least once a day I feel that I have occupied its world, that I am no longer living here and now. The world of any writing project is always somewhere new, with its own landscapes and geography, maps and signs. I have never experienced such a big one, is all. At the rate I’m going, the first draft ought to be somewhere between seventy and eighty thousand words, which is just right.

Now it’s time for lunch, and then I’ve got to buy bananas and paper towels at Fairway, among other things. After all that, I’ll sit down here and pick up where I left off yesterday. By the end of the day, the word count ought to have risen by a few thousand. We’ll see.

Bon week-end à tous!