Archive for the ‘Inventory’ Category

Gotham Diary:
Good Habits
14 January 2013

Monday, January 14th, 2013

Blame it on the Sixties, but when I learned that Aristotle considered virtue a habit, I was disgusted. To the extent that habits were unconscious, they seemed a kind of death. The automation of behavior was a step toward body snatching. To be here now surely meant to be open to all the possibilities at any given moment, to consider every case afresh. Habits chewed up life before experience could be savored. By all means, blame it on the Sixties (and the Seventies), a period in which old habits were being outgrown and discarded everywhere you looked. Everything from dress to diet to sexual outlook was subject to change.

Now, of course, we know that the constant exercise of will power is physically exhausting, resulting in poor decisions. On a perfect day, will power is never called upon. It’s this freedom from hard choices that keeps the experience of life rich and fresh. On an ordinary day, good habits mean that you can find your keys and your wallet without tearing the house apart. There is a fresh box of dishwasher detergent in the closet. You do not get calls from bill collectors. Friends thank you for remembering their birthdays. If you have the habit of taking good care of yourself, then you can count on having enough energy to keep all the other habits going.

What I didn’t understand, although Aristotle was certainly trying to tell me, is that the best habit is a kind of knowledge. It is the distallate of observation and judgment, powerfully available in the moment of action. The better the observation, the more informed the judgment will be. I like to think of the habit of paying attention as a kind of acrobatic skill: how many connections can you run from whatever it is that you’re looking at to the different parts of your mind? (This is the very opposite of multitasking, which requires paying as little attention as possible — a dreadful idea.) How much can you take away from any given moment? You can take more, if you can rely on good habits to get you to the next one. Observation and judgment and habit — they begin to look like the same atom, seen in different phases.


The interesting question of “bad habits.” There are vicious practices — going out of your way to step on ants on the sidewalk, for example — that are merely untrammeled impulses. There are default behaviors — paths of least resistance too passive to merit the label of “habit.” All habits could be improved — more about why in a moment — but some clearly deserve to be called “poor.” (Multitasking, for example.) But a poor habit is probably better than no habit at all. As for addiction, it is involuntary, and “habitual” only in the vernacular.

The taxonomy isn’t important. Everything just mentioned puts a burden on will power. Vice and addiction overwhelm will power altogether. Poor habits, and the lack of habits, create a confusion that it’s difficult for the will to sort out.


Habits can always be improved for the same reason that I’m thinking about them: not only do we all need lots of (good) habits just to get things done, but we also need habits to resolve the conflicts that arise between different kinds of habits. I have the habit of writing an entry at this site every day. It is generally paramount; other things will have to wait until I’ve scribbled a few paragraphs. Every now and then, however, the priority is inconvenient or impossible. I might — as I did today — have doctor’s appointment. And that appointment will almost certainly elicit my habit of running as many errands as I can on any outing. So I did not just go to the dermatologist today. I went to the bank, the fancy dry cleaner, the video rental place on my way to the doctor, and, on my way home, after lunch, I shopped for dinner, had my shoes shined, and made separate stops to buy wine, a whisk, and bath soap. Then I came home. Then I sat down here.

Meanwhile, there is a terrible post-holiday messiness everywhere but in the bedroom. I would have better habits about giving large parties if I gave them more often, but that’s not going to happen, and in the year the passes between our routs, I am going to forget lots of little pointers. I’ve tried writing them down. The problem with that is that I do nort have the habit of beginning party preparation by reviewing notes from previous events (which, if not copious, would be useful). Instead, I have the vice of pretending that giving a bit party is “no big deal.” Disaster is averted because I do have a lot of habits about aspects of entertaining — lots and lots — and these more or less guarantee that there will plenty of everything and that no one will be poisoned. Nevertheless, I don’t have effective habits as a host. I can’t decide — which is to say that my poor planning saddles me with the decision — whether to spend time talking with my guests or to run about refreshing the refreshments. This year, all I could think of was how great it would be to carry Will around to meet my friends. And that was pretty great. Meanwhile, I completely forgot to serve the orzo salad. I’ve got tons of orzo salad in the fridge, not to mention mint-condition paper plates and bowls. And silvered plastic forks.

A few years ago, Kathleen and I hosted an important family party. Knowing my weaknesses as a host, and my great fondness for conversation, I hired Ray Soleil to run the back of the house. The party was a great success, and I enjoyed it as much as anybody. And that is where we are going to pick up this discussion: where the “servant problem” creates the need for good habits.

Gotham Diary:
Where to Find My Library
10 January 2013

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

Mr Morgan’s Library  

The last essay in James Wood’s new collection, The Fun Stuff, concerns his late father-in-law’s library, which it fell to his charge to pack. I read the essay with bulging interest, as the disposal of my library is much on my mind these days. It’s not that the end seems nigh. What has dawned is the realization that nobody will be interested in possessing my collection of books as such. It will be as individual volumes that the books dissolve into the used-book universe. I am learning not to regret this, learning, that is, what my library really is, and where it actually exists.

Two of Wood’s anecdotes — neither about his father-in-law — stuck with me when I put the book down. One of them I had heard before. It was something that happened to Frank Kermode when, toward the end of his life, he moved house, and the boxes of books that he wished to keep were mistaken, on the sidewalk, for rubbish, and carted away, leaving him “with a great deal of literary theory,” Wood writes.

The story once seemed horrifying to me, and now seems almost wonderful. To be abruptly lightened like that, so that one’s descendants might not be lingeringly burdened!

It still seems horrifying to me, because poor Kermode was still alive. The other anecdote presents Susan Sontag in a now=familiar blaze of insecurity. I won’t repeat it entire; here’s the end:

… and it seemed strange of her not to comprehend what I intended to say, which was simply that, like her essays [Sontag’s point], her library was also more intelligent than she was.

I understand what Wood means to say here, but I would put it differently, probably because his essay sparked my mind on to what I think is a better grasp of the matter. I would say that anyone’s collection of books is more intelligent than its owner. But I would insist that the library itself, the library within that collection, is centered in the mind the person who has read the books in it, and held on to a memory as well as to the book.

That is why my library will not survive me, even if someone begs to take the whole lot, even if someone goes so far as to replicate the blue room in a museum. To anyone but myself, the collection will be just that, books on a shelf. What binds those books into a library is the web of connections in my head, some of them quite conscious, others all but unavailable. This had already been intimated to me by the work that I’ve been doing on culling the books, but I lacked the manner of expressing it.

My misgivings about personal libraries were awakened several years ago by a visit to the Morgan Library and Museum. In the grandiose library, I was peering at the spines through the grilles. It was all rubbish. Old travel books, I recall, or old translations of things. The books might have been valuable as objects, but their contents would be of no interest to anyone but a scholar, and, as such, ought to be uploaded into the clouds for permanent and universal access. It is not a library at all, but a collection put together for the greater glory of J P Morgan. It is hard to imagine him reading much of it. To put it another way, I should like to know of what books Morgan’s true library consisted. That would be interesting to know. (I do hope to leave behind a book list!) The library itself, however, died with Morgan.  


Scouting the Internet for reviews of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, I felt a bit foolish getting so excited by a book that came out last spring. I know why I shouldn’t have read it then. I was in the depth of my English commitment, reading one Elizabeth Taylor after another, and then, as i recall, reading and rereading Alan Hollingshurst. I was also loosening the compulsion to read all the new reviews. The mere appearance of “halftime” in a book’s title would have steered me away.

I don’t think that you’ll find me compiling ten-best-of-the-year lists of anything, but I have to say that it was the way Ben Fountain’s novel kept coming up on other people’s lists that concentrated my attention. The decisive pointer was Laura Miller’s rather harsh list of five books that she couldn’t pick up or get through. One of them was Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, the “other” Iraq novel of 2012. Miller compared it unfavorably to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. The buzz had piled up in my mind. That, too, was part of my library; it still is. And, now that I’ve written it down, what is it? An annotation to my book list, I suppose.

Gotham Diary:
20 November 2012

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

On Friday, I went to see Skyfall, and I enjoyed it in an unthinking way. Every time I did think, I objected, but then I’m that rare bird who has no desire whatever to live in the world of James Bond. And, much as I like Daniel Craig in the role (in any role), he makes one feel his pain. I mean Craig’s pain, not Bond’s. The real pain of sprinting and jumping and punching. It’s wearying. I’d have liked to see more of Bérénice Marlohe; her scene at the bar was the best thing in the movie. More Ben Whishaw, too. Rory Kinnear reminded me of his father even before I knew who he was. (Two Help! references in as many days.)

Fossil Darling, claiming to have the inside scoop, told me yesterday that, notwithstanding Dame Judi Dench’s claim that she retired from the role of M voluntarily, the decision was really Barbara Broccoli’s. No one, he claims, has appeared in more than seven Bond vehicles, not even Sean Connery. Well, he would know. It’s very strange, knowing that Dame Judi has suffered a degree of macular degeneration that leaves her effectively blind; it’s as though she has passed on to some higher plane. She puts a new oomph into the idea of acting, quite the opposite of a sighted actor’s pretending to be blind.

The motocycle chase atop Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar made me wish more than ever that Orhan Pamuk would write a sinister screenplay to show off his beloved city — preferably in a January fog. From a grandish room in something like his family’s old apartment building, a formidable matron would run an operation dedicated to corrupting promising young politicians with the favors of temptresses played by the likes of Marion Cotillard. The story would be set before World War I, so that all the men would wear fezes. (We watched Pascali’s Island the other night. You still can’t get it on DVD, but the VHS tape worked.)

What I really wanted to see on Friday was Arco, but the showtimes didn’t work for me.  


Thanksgiving is just two days away, and I’m not sure how many people are coming. Six for sure — and probably just six. But I’m preparing for ten. I’m shopping today and cooking tomorrow. It’s a tremendous bore not to have access to the balcony, which always serves as a pantry when I have a party; I’ve nowhere to put anything. That goes for the apartment generally. I’m nowhere near having the emergency closet space — empty most of the time, that is — that my sanity demands. Progress on the de-accessioning front is slow. But it has finally touched the library. Yesterday, I took four shopping bags full of books up to HousingWorks. Four shopping bags — containing only forty books. True, many of them were big fat books, books like Simon Schama’s Citizens (it took a while for me to realize that Schama is Not For Me). But the total of books culled so far is a measly 49 — not even one-twentieth of my goal.

Going through the history books, I tried to sort by time (Antiquity, &c) and space (Asia, &c), but I ran out of room very quickly, and the European pile was soon toppling over all the others. It was more a miscellany than a collection. Two books that I wanted to give away but didn’t were Jonathan Spence’s In Search of Modern China (still basic and comprehensive, even if it has little or nothing to say about China today) and Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money (concise on the origins of modern banking, even if Ferguson is a dreadful old Tory).

I’m keeping a record of all the donated books. I opened a new database on ReaderWare a while back and I’m filling it, initially, with culls. In the “Location” field (which I had to insert myself), each book is shown as being shelved at “Donate 2012.” According to this new database, the only books in my collection are three novels by Elizabeth Taylor. (I entered them when I created the database because they were piled on my desk, and I wanted to give the new barcode scanner a go.) Their location is (unhelpfully) given as “New.” Happily, I know where they are; the information is stashed in the A:\ drive crammed within my skull.  

Gotham Diary:
8 November 2012

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Permit me to begin on a scholarly note: most of what I have to say about genius just occurred to me the other day while thinking over Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical writings and, for context, re-reading parts of Hermione Lee’s 1996 biography of the writer. My thoughts are entirely sketchy and impressionistic. Aside from a glance at Wikipedia, no study of any kind was involved.

What I brought to this deliberation was something between a hunch and a conviction to the effect that “genius” is not a helpful concept, not a meaningful label. It means nothing more than “very smart person,” where “very” may be exchanged for any number of emphatic adverbs (“extraordinarily,” “unusually,” “immeasurably,” &c). In other words, it is not a grade; it does not signify a class. “Genius” is a romantic word, loaded with hokum.

As the Wikipedia entry points out, genius was the ancient Roman term for a family’s “tutelary deity,” whatever that was. It picked up something of its modern sense when the genius of certain families came to be thought of as the explanation for their prominence in affairs. But until the Nineteenth Century, genius was a possession, not an identity. You might speak of “the genius of Shakespeare,” but without claiming that “Shakespeare was a genius.” The genius of Shakespeare is reflected in his plays, in the the works that this genius inspired. Shakespeare taking a walk or a nap was not being a genius.

The idea of being a genius seems to have emerged in response to the grandeur of Romantic art and philosophy. Did Kant and Hegel write about genius? It doesn’t matter. They came to be regarded as geniuses themselves, as were Keats and Shelley, posthumously. Mozart and Beethoven also became geniuses after their deaths. (In Beethoven’s case, the reception of his late quartets is a gauge of the development; thought to be the product of a diseased or deranged mind when they were first played, they came, by virtue of their craggy inscrutability, to be proofs of genius.) Genius was sublime.


Genius was allowed to be eccentric. Tennyson dressed like a tramp. Genius was not obliged to behave like a gentleman — witness Carlyle and poor Jane. Geniuses, as the Victorian era deepened, became a sort of upmarket Barnum attraction. Here is a picture that Woolf paints of her mother’s youth:

Little Holland House was her world then. But what was that world like? I think of it as a summer afternoon world. To my thinking Little Holland House is an old white country house, standing in a large garden. Long windows open onto the lawn. Through them comes a stream of ladies in crinolines and little straw hats; they are attended by gentlemen in peg-top trousers and whiskers. The date is round about 1860. It is a hot summer day. The tables with great bowls of strawberries and cream are scattered about the lawn. They are “presided over” by some of the six lovely sisters, who do not wear crinolines, but are robed in splended Venetian draperies; they sit enthroned, and talk with foreign emphatic gestures — my mother too gesticulated, throwing her hands out — to the eminent men (afterwards to be made fun of by Lytton); rulers of India, statesmen, poets, painters.  … The sound of music also comes from those long low rooms where the great Watts pictures hang; Joachim playing the violin; also the sound of a voice reading poetry — Uncle Thoby would read his translations from the Persian poets. How easy it is to fill in the picture with set pieces that I have gathered from memoirs — to bring in Tennyson in his wideawake; Watts in his smock frock; Ellen Terry dressed as a boy; Garibaldi in his red shirt — and Henry Taylor turned from him to my mother — “the face of one fair girl was more to me” — so he says in a poem. But if I turn to my mother, how difficult it is to single her out as she really was; to imagine what she was thinking, to put a single sentence into her mouth! I dream; I make up pictures of a summer’s afternoon.

It is difficult to put a sentence in Julia Jackson’s mouth, I surmise, because she is a young girl in the shadow of geniuses. The presence of genius drives out triviality and invests everything with significance. Everything, even the household chores. Woolf describes the process in “Reminiscences,” a journeyman piece composed under the influence of Henry James, before she found her own voice, with an ingenuousness that it’s impossible to imagine her older self not taking issue with.

She [Julia Stephen] delighted to transact all those trifling businesses which, as women feel instinctively, are somehow derogatory to the dignity which they like to discover in clever men; and she took it as a proud testimony that he came to her ignorant of all depressions and elations but those that high philosophy bred in him.

In her mid-twenties, Woolf (or Virginia Stephen as she then was) still bought this brand of the feminine mystique. It would take years for her to acknowledge and articulate her disgust with her father’s genius act.

This frustrated desire to be a man of genius, and the knowledge that he was in truth not in the first flight — a knowledge which led to a great deal of despondency, and to that self-centredness which in later life at least made him so childishly greedy for compliments, made him brood so disproportionately over his failure and the extent of it and the reasons for it — these are qualities that break up the fine steel engraving of the typical Cambridge intellectual.

There is a glee in this deconstruction of her father’s aura that makes “A Sketch of the Past” just about the most exciting thing that Virginia Woolf ever wrote.   


Even when that disgust was disgorged (beginning with To the Lighthouse), Woolf continued to live and write as though the “dignity,” of which her mother was so solicitous, continued to glimmer in her life, a lamplight that would give all other things their contours of significance. The most menial chores would be relieved of drudgery by the presence of this light. But the light did not shine for her as it had for her mother; Virginia herself wished to be a genius. She was able to wish it, without sounding the depths of her father’s miserable self-doubt, and the prospect must have seemed provisional to any woman born in the 1880s, growing up a thicket of geniuses all of whom, with the arguable exception of George Eliot, were male. But her relentless high-mindedness interfered with her sense of humor. It placed a high lower limit on admissible fun.  

Had she been able to forget this dignity from time to time, she might have left us much more in the vein of “Am I a Snob?”, a speech that she wrote in the Thirties to be read before old friends. What does it mean to be a snob? It means setting true values aside, hobnobbing with aristocrats, and having a lot of guilty fun.

Margot Asquith — “a lady whose birth is no better — perhaps worse — than my own” — was, nevertheless the Countess of Oxford when she wrote to Virginia to ask a fatuous favor: “When I die, I would like you to write a short notice in The Times to say you admired my writing, and thought that journalists should have made more of me.” It seems that Virginia had actually allowed that Margot was a “good” writer. “This, coming from you, might have turned my head as you are far the greatest female writer living.”

Now I was not, I think, flattered to be the greatest female writer in Lady Oxford’s eyes; but I was flattered to be asked to lunch with her alone. “Of course,” I replied, “I will come and lunch with you alone.” And I was pleased when on the day in question Mabel, our dour cook, came to me, and said, “Lady Oxford has sent her car for you, ma’am.” Obviously, she was impressed by me; I was impressed by myself. I rose in my own esteem because I rose in Mabel’s.

When I reached Bedford Square there was a large lunch party; Margot was rigged up in her finery; a ruby cross set with diamonds blazed on her breast; she was curled and crisp like a little Greek horse; tart and darting like as asp or an adder. Philip Morrell was the first to feel her sting. He was foolish and she snubbed him. But then she recovered her temper. She was very brilliant. She rattled off a string of anecdotes about the Duke of Beaufort and the Badminton hunt; how she got her blue; … about Lady Ripon, Lady Bessborough; L Balfour and “the Souls.” As for age, death and obituary articles, The Times, nothing was said of them. I am sure she had forgotten that such things existed. So had I. I was enthralled. I embraced her warmly in the hall; and the next thing I remember is that I found myself pacing along the Farringdon Road talking aloud to myself, and seeing the butchers’ shops and the trays of penny toys through an air that seemed made of gold dust and champagne.

Now no party of intellectuals has ever sent my flying down the Farringdon Road. I have dined with H G Wells to meet Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett and Granville Barker and I have only felt like an old washerwoman toiling step by step up a steep and endless staircase.

I think that Virginia Woolf felt like an old washerwoman a lot.

Gotham Diary:
Moments in Being
6 November 2012

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

It got very cold yesterday, and we were dismayed to think about — or to feel for, as we did reflexively — people without warm homes.

Everyone I know is “worried about the election.” I think that it is beginning to dawn on everyone I know that this presidential election is not a race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, however insistently we focus our transitory attention upon the sayings and doings of the two men. It is a battle of assymetric ideologies. On the one hand, Republican voters, as committed to the party line as the reddest Soviet; on the other, people who prefer to “think for themselves.” Many of the second group will vote for Romney because they like him, but most of the Republican’s supporters won’t give the man himself a second thought. Control of the Executive (and, through it, of the Judiciary) is what they hope to gain, not the right man in the White House. The right man is a cypher. That’s how ideology works.

Very few on the left are ideologues — anymore. If it were otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much carping from people who were wowed by Obama in 2008 but have since felt “disappointment.” Ideologues would recognize that the President said the right things to get elected and then did the right things (to the extent that he could do anything) in office. There would be no criticism (from the left) of the President’s aloof manner. There would be little rhetorical regret about the President’s failure to close the prison at Guantánamo. Most difficult to imagine, there would be no squabbling among Democrats.

But Democrats, who ought to be the majority party in any election, have not developed a post-New Deal, post-Civil Rights Acts platform. Much less have they developed an ideological cohesion to compete with that of the Republicans. It’s worth noting that ideological cohesion is rarely rational, and certainly not a matter of logically outlined objectives. The nub of Republican ideology — a commitment to the conversion of public wealth into private property — is never stated by Republicans. And Democrats are too disorganized to fight it.

Hence a close election that should be a shoe-in.


By “moments of being,” Virginia Woolf had something somewhat mystical, somewhat spiritual, in mind. In her discussion of the matter, in the early pages of “A Sketch of the Past,” a memoir that she composed over several years at the end of her life, she begins by distinguishing moments of being from those, by far more numerous, of non-being, of unremarkable triviality, whether pleasant or tedious. Gradually, she shifts into thinking of moments of being as “shocks.”

I only know that many of these exceptional moments brought with them a peculiar horror and a physical collapse; they seemed dominant; myself passive. This suggests that as one gets older one has a greater power through reason to provide an explanation; and that this explanation blunts the sledge-hammer force of the blow. I think this is true, because though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together. Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of aart; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

I myself don’t believe that there is a pattern underlying the cotton wool. “… it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.” It’s curious that Woolf speaks of making real something that is already real. I agree with the second clause: she makes the evidence of pattern real by writing about it — and well deserves the rapture of getting things right. Meaning is a human construction. I say “construction” because the fashionable “construct” suggests a flimsy, improvisatory model that can be knocked down at will. Human meaning is really quite durable in contrast, not “artificial” by any means, and we have built it up as we’ve gone along. We find what works by trial and error, but what works works organically, not mechanically: human meaning is not a machine. The development of human meaning has been prone to a consistent type of error that has all the same dwindled in its impact over time: this is the tendency to see more pattern than is truly visible, to infer gods and ideals from violent storms and pleasing regularities. It is even arguable that the vast useless systems of meaning constructed by religions ancient and modern provide an indispensible prototype for the truly anthropocentric system of meaning that underlies modern secular democracy. “Anthropocentric” — a good word, but probably one that needs to be replaced. It suggests that mankind is the most important kind. This makes no sense unless you are still thinking of having stolen importance from gods or stars. The minute man becomes most important, the very idea of importance evaporates. What takes its place, and what the replacement for “anthropocentric” will have to connote, is that mankind immediately shoulders all responsibility, not for the world, but for mankind.  

Gotham Diary:
Project Management
4 October 2012

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Since the superior repairman departed yesterday, at about 1:35 (he’d been promised for nine-to-noon, and arrived a few seconds before one), the dishwasher has run through two cycles without event, but I still don’t quite trust it. By the time I forget to worry about it — that’s when it will break down again.

This leaves one item on the list of things to be done requiring other people: moving the stuff that we saved from the balcony (chairs, a bench, and boxes of plastic bricks for the flooring) from our storage unit on 62nd Street to a new, smaller one way up in Inwood. This has been penciled in for Monday, even though it’s a holiday for many New Yorkers (not for Kathleen, though), and I’ve got to confirm it this morning. We’ll be sending some other bulky items uptown as well, so the older unit will be almost roomy. More important, two closets in the apartment will open up, when I transfer the drawers of Kathleen’s craft supplies to 62nd Street.

Because the mess in the blue room can’t really be dealt with until the closets are empty, I passed the afternoon organizing our jazz library, something that had gone untouched after a rousing spurt several years ago. I don’t know jazz nearly as well as I know classical music, and I haven’t been very creative with the iTunes playlists; in fact, until yesterday, I had done nothing more than dump all of Keith Jarrett’s trio recordings into a shuffle along with performances by other small groups. It was only the other day that I realized that serious jazz is far more album-centered than classical or pop. Right now, I’m listening to The Comedy, a suite of pieces inspired by commedia dell’arte, written, I suppose, by John Lewis, and played by the Modern Jazz Quartet. These are not cuts to be played out of order, much less shuffled in with other stuff. I might just as easily listen to the CD, but when The Comedy comes to an end, I’ll see if I want to hear one of the many other albums that I loaded onto a Nano yesterday. If I want to hear something else, I have only to upload it from this machine to the Nano.

It has taken years of working with playlists to learn how to do this: how to treat jazz properly, and not like other kinds of music. That said, I’ve ordered Project Management for Dummies. It occurred to me the other day that that’s what housekeeping is: a Project needing Management.  


I don’t know how many CDs I have, but it is a great many. As long as ten years ago, it was clear that, unless I wanted to pretend that walls of CD shelving might be regarded as decorative, I had to find some other way of housing the collection. The collections, that is: The operas, the classical CDs, the jazz, the pop, and the curiosities (such as a recording of Jessica Mitford singing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” — this is the fun part of my library, and it is not small). I should certainly have to lose the jewel boxes. I don’t know whether I hit on a good system before or after I began to use iTunes, but it’s almost complete on the classical front. There are about a hundred classical CDs still to be uploaded into the computer library and then broken down into paper and disc and filed in the appropriate drawer. (It took years to hit on the right way of doing this as well. Having removed everything from the jewel box, I lay down the top matter, the booklet it usually is, then the disc in its new paper sleeve, and finally the back matter, with its handy spine flaps, all oriented so that the flap covers and protects — sort of — the sleeve and the booklet, while presenting a legible label at the top. This would not be a viable system if I needed frequent access to the discs; the back matter’s paper would begin to tear in no time.) 

In the storage unit at 62nd Street, there are about a hundred LPs, perhaps more. I don’t have anything to play them on, but when I did, and attempted to render a few of them into MP3 files, the results were not satisfactory. They say that “vinyl” is valuable now, but I don’t believe that that holds for bread-and-butter classical recordings. A preference for LPs in this day and age strikes me as preposterously affected. I’ve thought long and hard about why I prefer MP3 files to the old analog recordings, and I’ve concluded that I never had much use for sense of “presence,” the capture of the acoustic peculiarities of the recording space. Perhaps because I overdosed on Mantovani at a tender age, I’m not thrilled by luscious string sonorities or other kinds of ear candy. (And, when I want ear candy, I know where to get it: Harold Faltermeyer.) My taste in music is somewhat more abstract, and MP3s simply sound clearer and less cluttered to me. Even in some extremely familiar music, music that I’ve been listening to for fifty years, I’ve heard things — inner lines of counterpoint, mostly — for the first time in MP3 format. When I think of listening to vinyl, all I can imagine is the surface noise — the clicks, purls, and distortions — that I always found terribly distracting. As soon as I can get to them, the LPs are going to HousingWorks.

Gotham Diary:
The Trays
1 October 2012

Monday, October 1st, 2012

On Saturday night, after dinner, Kathleen remarked that she never heard anyone other than an infant addressed as “baby” until she was in her teens — what a proper upbringing! I knew that “baby” was not used by the nice people among whom I grew up, and was vaguely disturbed by the suggestion that a man who called his wife “baby” was still overtly in love with her (that is to say, adolescent). “Babe,” however, happened to be the nickname of one of my parents’ cocktail-circut friends. Like the famous batter, Babe Shea was a man; unlike him, a very tall one. I remember Babe Shea as looking something like Gregory Peck; he was certainly that nice. He and his wife, Hope, lived in an old stucco house a few streets away — just outside the Village but quite close to Siwanoy, the country club — that was notorious for its flooding basement. A sump pump had to be run at all times. This was regarded by my mother as a deep tragedy, worse than childlessness. A leaky foundation was something like untreated cancer, you’d have thought.

I had been looking for something in the afternoon, and the blue room was a tumult of ejecta from the closets. It so happened — I remembered, as we talked in the evening — that one pile of stuff was topped by two silver trays, the trays that I can’t use and can’t think what else to do with. One tray was presented to my parents when they moved from Bronxville to the Texas, in 1968. The other was given to my father on his sixitieth birthday, in 1974, by a new group of friends. Both trays are covered with engravings made from my parents’ friends signatures, surrounding (in each case) a big gothic “K.” I remembered, mentioning Babe Shea, that he and Hope were represented (in her hand, I’m sure) on the Bronxville tray. Sure enough.

My sister and I are the only people in the world who could possibly recognize any of the names on both trays. There are perhaps two hundred people at the most who would recognize most of the names on either — possibly far fewer. The Bronxville tray will be fifty years old in a few years, and, given the American penchant for moving about the country, the network that connected my parents and their friends has largely broken down. Someone for whom the names of Edna and Johnny Caesar might ring a bell would probably not have a clue about Jeanne and Matt Leckey. Already in 1968, there were two widows, Kay Schramm and June Black. (I’d gone to grade school with Kay’s son and June’s daughter; years later, I ran into the latter at a party, and learned that she had pursued a successful career as a hands model.) And the Clearys didn’t sign, because, dear as they were to my parents, they had perished ina plane crash thirteen years earlier.

The autographs on the Bronxville tray bring back most of the signers with great clarity, because I cannot really remember a time at which I was put to work, on New Year’s Eve, passing hors d’oeuvres to them in our living room. I was not much of a reader as a boy, but I remember Johnny Caesar very much as if he were a favorite character from a story book. (It’s no wonder that I’ve always been inclined to drink more than I ought.) Grace Byrnes, who with her husband had moved to Southern California before my parents went to Texas (we visited them once), did not sign the tray, but she comes to mind along with the people who did, because she was my idea of a fairy godmother, and I would bring her special plates until my mother put a stop to such foolishness. These were the characters who decorated my childhood. The tale is not one that I would pull down from the shelf and read, but the tray is like the spine of a thick book. I suppose that, for the tray to have any continued meaning after I’m gone, I should have to write out the text.

It would not make for hours of reading. A few of the names mean nothing even to me. And, aside from the fact that he worked for JC Penney, which nobody in Bronxville had ever heard of (at that time), I’ve already told you everything I know about Babe Shea.

Gotham Diary:
Niente, cont’d
24 September 2012

Monday, September 24th, 2012

A souvenir of Fire Island 2012: the night before we left, we had dinner at Maguire’s, in Ocean Beach, where preparations were underway for a wedding the following afternoon. The flowers had already arrived — in their little Fire Island wagons. I’ve been thinking, ever since the last few days of vacation, that a wagon would be handy in town. Not one of these miniature numbers, but a real kid’s wagon. But you can be sure that I’m not going to buy one until I know exactly where I’m going to store it.


That’s what the weekend was all about: finding places for things. Or not, as in the case of the “Alice” china, a Laura Ashley pattern that served as everyday tableware at our country house. I’ve been edging it toward donation to Goodwill for years. The balcony allowed me to postpone the act; I buried it in the base of the hutch out there. Now the hutch itself is gone, and so will the Alice be, by about lunchtime today. There were two mugs and a very pretty (but very vernacular) old Sunsweet prune juice bottle that were dear to Kathleen; I persuaded her to keep them at the office for the duration. That leaves me with a stack of Fiesta plates in different colors; two broken candlesticks that I’d like to take over to Glass Restorations in case something can be done with them; an espresso cup and saucer from the Café de Flore (I actually envisioned having these turned into a bijou lamp, which was funny and decisive — never!); four oversized chargers from Tiffany, two in cobalt and two in a mottled turquoise that goes with nothing in our china cabinet, into which, by the way, the chargers are too large to fit; and a spongeware tankard that I used to drink tea from before upgrading to Fitzhugh. Oh, and the oil lamp.

The oil lamp is a French number in the Grecian style from, I should say, the early days of the Third Republic. I don’t know what the metal is — Ray could tell me, when he gets here to wash the windows — but the oil well is very heavy crystal. My mother bought it as an accent piece for her coffee table, and it looked pretty cool with the very contemporary straight-sided chimney that she found for it. That broke, of course, not long after I came into possession. I had a shade made at Oriental Lampshade; it was a silly idea, but one that taught me how welcome electric light must have been. I think that it is time to let the oil lamp go. I suppose I’ll have to clean it up a bit first, and discard the (unscented) oil in the well.

I forgot the four Venetian glass goblets, more inherited loot. There are eight altogether, and the other four are tucked into the sideboard. They’re not goblets really but more like octagonal dessert bowls, mounted on very long, thin stems that scream “fragile!” I don’t use them often, but I do like them, and they make custards and mousses taste twice as special (which is different from “twice as delicious,” an impossibility). I really do not know what I am going to do with the four goblets.

These objects cover, without crowding, about a quarter of the dining table. They do not appear to amount to a lot of stuff. Once upon a time, I’d have pushed them under a sofa, but those days are over: things must now be stored appropriately. And there is no appropriate storage room for them in the apartment, not unless I get rid of other things. Nor do I see the point in lugging them down to the storage unit. (The Venetian goblets, maybe.) In round after round, over the weekend, the other items on the table (covering it completely on Friday) have moved on, one way or the other. The remainder has me stumped — but only at the moment. By the end of the week, at the very latest, it will have moved on, too.

Ray Soleil has just called from 86th And Lex. Will he manage to wash the windows before the gargoyles flap in to bolt the balcony door shut? There’s no end to the excitement around here these days.


Yes, he did. Ray also tucked the Venetian goblets, all eight of them, behind the coping atop the bookcase, where they’re visible only to extreme paranoics. Please remember that, in case I forget.