Archive for the ‘Weekend Update’ Category

Weekend Update: The Koestler Problem

Sunday, January 24th, 2010


Back in callow college days, when I was assigned The Watershed, the book about Johannes Kepler that Arthur Koestler excerpted from The Sleepwalkers, I knew Koestler’s name, and I knew (from the jacket copy on The Watershed) that Koestler was the author a familiar title, Darkness at Noon, although I knew nothing about this latter book. I didn’t know much of anything about the Spanish Civil War, beyond Picasso’s Guernica, and it would have surprised me, in those days, to learn that the same man could face death in one of Franco’s prisons and, later on, write up Kepler’s search for the music of the spheres. But I’d have adjusted right away, because I somehow knew enough to place Koestler under the same rubric as Norman Mailer.

Arthur Koestler, in other words, wasn’t someone that I had to get to know right away, because he was one of those culturally immanent presences that float overhead from year to year, so constant that we don’t notice that they’ve been fading until something obliges us to look at them closely. That something, in Koestler’s case, was his suicide in 1983; which would have been unremarkable if he hadn’t been joined in the act by his younger, perfectly healthy wife. When I heard about that, I realized that I hadn’t heard Koestler’s name in quite a while, and that in fact I had never really known why he was famous.

Increasingly, fame feels like a kind of style; it is bestowed upon those who for one reason or another are in tune with the intellectual fashion of the moment. And it is withdrawn to the extent that its beneficiaries have committed themselves to looks and feels that have dated and staled. Koestler’s case is more encompassing. As Anne Applebaum notes in her review of a new biography of Koestler, the most urgent topic of Koestler’s prime has vanished from everyday discourse.

The most important change, however, is political. To put it bluntly, the deadly struggle between communism and anticommunism—the central moral issue of Koestler’s lifetime—not only no longer exists, it no longer evokes much interest. Thanks to the opening of archives, quite a few Western historians are, it is true, still investigating the history of the Soviet Union and of the international Communist movement. But outside of a few university comparative literature departments, Soviet-style Marxism itself is not a living political idea anywhere in the West. In the wake of the Lehman Brothers crash in the autumn of 2008, there were calls for a government bailout of the auto industry. No one—no major newspaper columnists, no leading politicians, no popular intellectual magazines—called upon the vanguard of the proletariat to rise up and overthrow the bourgeois capitalist exploiters. In the Europe of 1948, somebody would have done so.

What that means, though, is that the entire political context in which Koestler, Sartre, and Camus functioned—and in which Koestler’s most important works were written—is now gone.

Ms Applebaum goes on to suggest that, if Koestler is to regain anything like the fame that he enjoyed sixty years ago, it won’t be because he wrote about important things, but rather the reverse: he’ll be read, if at all, because he convinces readers that, beneath the political dramas that he addressed in his work, there is a timeless struggle between forces that bear more universal names than “communism” and “democracy” — a struggle that he understands with compelling clarity. Ms Applebaum doesn’t appear to find this eventuality very likely.

This has always been much on my mind, this “Koestler problem.” It’s one thing to be forgotten because you didn’t really grasp the issues that interested you. That’s a risk that we take knowingly when we publish an essay. What you can’t really grasp is the possibility that the issues that you address so well will fall away, and concern nobody. You can’t grasp it because you can’t see where things are going. You can guess, but you can’t see.

If you’re a journalist, you probably don’t care.

Weekend Open Thread: A Single Day

Saturday, December 19th, 2009


The secret of the day was that I never yielded to the voice that said, “Take it easy. Take the day off. Take the rest of the day off. Rest.” It’s the hardest thing in life — when life isn’t actually hard, that is — to decide when to listen to this voice and when to ignore it. Sometimes, perseverance is foolishness, and it only makes things worse. Yesterday, though, I was in touch with myself, or so it seemed; I could count on what I felt. I had a long list of things to get through, and I got through it.

This is not to say that the voice wasn’t insistent. The day began with dithering. I’d made a date to see A Single Man with Quatorze at eleven. He wouldn’t mind very much if I canceled, but I didn’t like to do it. And that is really the only reason why I went to the movies yesterday. I’d really rather have stayed home.

For once, I left the house in plenty of time. I usually leave in just-enough time, but this means that Quatorze is already there (wherever “there” is) when I show up, and thus I’m at least late for him. I was lucky with the trains. A downtown 6 was pulling out of the station when I got through the turnstiles, but an express came along soon enough for us to pass it at Grand Central — it came in as we left. We passed another train just before 33rd Street. When the express reached Union Square, a local train’s doors were closed just as ours were opened, a virtual insult of sorts. I made my way to the forward tip of the platform. (To minimize travel time to the Angelika from uptown, you want to be in the first car of a 6 Train when it pulls into Bleecker Street. This puts you directly under Houston Street, two blocks east of the theatre. Subway configuration allows you to cover one of these two blocks underground.) Who should appear, just as that train from 33rd Street arrived, but Quatorze himself. It was too cold for walking! 

To say that I was glad to see Tom Ford’s movie would be wrong, but I might as well say at the outset that, by the end of the day, I was very glad that I had seen it. When the movie was over, I realized that I’d picked up a great deal of very misleading buzz about the film. The combination of waiting for things that weren’t in fact going to happen while acclimating the filmmaker’s extremely dry style was a bit wilting. If someone had straightforwardly assured me that A Single Man is about the loss of a beloved companion, period, then I’d have enjoyed sitting through it a great deal more than I did. I hope that whatever I write about this picture (in the next couple of days, as usual) spares at least one viewer the unnecessary awkwardness of my experience.

Once the false, anticipated Single Man was replaced the actual, viewed oad been replaced by the actual, viewed one, I began to steep in it. As the narrative makes fairly plain near the beginning, George Falconer, the hero of A Single Man, intends this day to be his last. This brings an intensity and zest to his routine experiences that are said to come if you life each day as though it were going to be your last. Many, many worthwhile things would never be undertaken if we all lived as though the day were going to be our last — there would certainly be no literature, not even shopping lists — and I did not go about pretending any such thing. But I let myself get caught up in the draft of the film, increasingly as the day wore on.

There was no time for the long lunch in which Quatorze and I usually indulge after the movies. We boarded a 6 Train at Bleecker Street and rode up to 68th, where we came to ground two blocks south of Neil’s Coffee Shop, mentioned in gossip columnist Liz Smith’s list of eateries that she would miss hanging out in when she retired, and the only one where you would not expect to find a white tablecloth. We sat in the back of the back. Quatorze asked me how the burgers are there, and I ought to have said that I didn’t know. If I had known, I would have told him that they’re like the monsters at Jackson Hole, great mounds of barely bound ground meat that must be eaten with knife and fork. Quatorze offered it up graciously. We did not dally, but paid the bill and walked the two blocks over to Gracious Home. 

We’ll be here all day if I get talking about Gracious Home. I love Gracious Home, of course, but I’ve come to prefer the quieter (and less exiguous) aisles at the big Feldman’s on Carnegie Hill. I couldn’t be sure, however, that Feldman’s would carry one of the three “musts” on my shopping list (the others being candles and cocktail napkins): a three-way fluorescent light bulb. Three way incandescent bulbs aren’t easy to find, and I’ve never spotted a three-way fluorescent anywhere but at Gracious Home. So Quatorze and I plunged in. Needless to say, we came out with a lot more than those three items. (We even found a nostalgic wall clock for Fossil Darling’s kitchen, which Quatorze has been all-but-renovating.) We were, indeed, carrying too much to carry back to my place on foot.

I made a pot of tea and resolved that Quatorze and I would chat in a civilized manner for an hour, and for an hour only; at four o’clock, I’d change into work clothes and start tidying the bedroom. Quatorze would be perfectly welcome to stay and talk, but I would get to work. I tidy the bedroom on Friday afternoons now so that Kathleen can sleep in on Saturday, or spend the whole day there if she feels it, without holding up domestic routines. (To the extent that they are flexible, domestic routines are onerous.) I calculated that, if I worked briskly, I could get through the bedroom in time to shower and dress and get myself to Crawford Doyle before closing time at six, in order to pick up some books that I’d ordered. Then I would return a DVD to the Video Room, before heading to the Museum for a chamber concert at seven.

Shortly after four o’clock, the teapot was empty, and I got up to refill it. Quatorze decided that it was time for him to head across town to Fossil’s, so I had to decide what to listen to while I dusted and vacuumed. (I had changed the sheets on Thursday night. Pretty soon, I’ll be doing some bit of housework every day, and the pace of life will be more even than it is now. I’m looking forward to that.) In the day’s spirit of just getting on with things, I listened to the large rump of Don Giovanni that I hadn’t heard during last weekend’s housework. I threw on some shorts and went through the bedroom like a white tornado.

Not stopping long enough to think, I dressed and went out and caught a taxi and, no thanks to heavy traffic on 86th Street, got to Crawford Doyle at 5:50, in time to collect my books. Then I walked three blocks in the wrong direction (from the Museum) and returned Four Christmases, which Kathleen and I had watched for the first time the night before; in exchange, I picked up Cheri, which I also hadn’t seen. It was at this point that thinking functions kicked in, and I realized that I had never blown out the scented votive candle in the bedroom that I light whenever I’m cleaning the room. What could happen? But I was wracked by the disapproval that both Kathleen and Quatorze would voice if they knew. So I had to go back home, which I did on foot. I blew out the candle, bundled up the laundry, took an ancient chicken pot pie from Eli’s out of the freezer, and popped it into the oven (200º — what could happen?). I took the laundry down to the valet and went out to hail another cab. This time, there was no traffic, so I had time to troll the Museum bookstore. I’d have been happier to miss this part of the day. On the sale tables, I saw only books that I have already bought but not opened. It was disgusting.

The chamber recital will also be written up elsewhere, but, if you don’t mind, I’ll anticipate. Perhaps because of A Single Man, I sensed a valedictory note throughout the evening, as if this were the final appearance of the Metropolitan Museum Artists in Concert. For the first time in my experience, Edward Arron, the cellist who serves as the group’s artistic coordinator, made no preliminary or explanatory remarks; he didn’t say anything at all. The first half of the program jiggered between the interesting and the extraordinary (more anon); I had dithered about going to the concert just as I’d dithered about the movie, and once again I had decided that I owed it other people (in this case the musicians) to show up. If I had taken the trouble to preview the program, though, I might well have stayed home. The program lacked shelf appeal for me. Happily, I didn’t take the trouble, so there I was in my seat, after the interval, for a magnificent performance of music that I don’t really know, the first of Fauré’s two piano quartets. Was it just the hangover of Tom Ford’s movie that made this genially exquisite masterpiece sound like exactly the right choice for a final presentation? I’d have been in tears, if the day hadn’t become an object lesson in pleasure and good fortune. While the concert lasted, I enjoyed it. I’d worry about future events later.

As I left the Museum in the floodlighted, frigid air, I left my gloves in my pocket while I called Kathleen and arranged to meet her at the New Panorama for dinner. It did not seem that life could get any better than this, and yet I knew that it was as good as it was precisely because there had been earlier moments that pointed in the same direction. We enjoy and love life because we have enjoyed and loved it. If you live long enough, the love that you have lost teaches you how to love what you have.

Weekend Update: The Servant Problem

Sunday, December 6th, 2009


The most astonishing thing happened this morning. I not only remembered that I had had an idea just before going to bed last night, but I remembered what it was. I hardly know which is more remarkable! I remember pulling back the bedspread reprovingly: write this down, I said to myself. But I was tired and comfortable. Short of a brass band’s marching through the bedroom, nothing could have put my happy sleepiness more at risk than pen and paper. So I hoped for the best. What do you know!


Because I spent last week in funseeking-missile mode, there was an awful lot of housekeeping to see to today. Ordinarily, I go about my weekend chores with a determined resignation that is always disappointed. Permit me to unpack that clause. I’m resigned to doing the housework. I’m determined to do more interesting things when the work has been done. But I’m almost always disappointed, because three or four hours of dusting and vacuuming, while hardly arduous, drudges the brain.  You can imagine what it would be like to sit down and write deathless prose, but you can’t actually do it.

The servant problem is still very much with us. Oh, there are no servants — don’t misunderstand. That is, there are no people who are just servants. The result is that we are all servants, all obliged to see after ourselves. I don’t regret this — nobody’s life ought to be centered on the care and feeding of another adult — but I hope that the coming years will offer more in the way of on-the-job training. When I was young, I thought that the computer would pick up some of the slack. I draw a veil over my conclusions about why it hasn’t done so. May it in future.

Ordinarily, housekeeping and writing run on parallel tracks: whichever thing you’re doing, you can see the other thing, but you can’t do it. The sterling exception to this rule is library work. Every once in a while, it becomes imperative to re-shelve books that, over the past six or twelve or eighteen months, have stacked themselves in no very rational order. You find that you can no longer live with the Chaos Decimate system, which absolutely precludes finding any book that you’re searching for. So you set your jaw and have at it.  

Nothing looks more like “housekeeping” than library work. There are stacks of books on every plane surface — and on most of the upholstered ones as well. Five minutes into the project, and your rooms are a wreck; you have no choice but to stumble on blindly, as through a Siberian blizzard, in the hope that some degree of order will have been imposed by the time that you run out of steam and start throwing books back onto the shelves just to tidy the mess.

Unlike all other housework, however, organizing books is a Feast of Tantalus. For the most part, it’s true, you say of the books that you lug from pile to pile, “I wish that I could be done with these clods of printed matter.” You don’t really mean it, but you’re relating to the books as an Upper Parlormaid, not as Sir Leslie Stephen. For the most part only, however! Sooner or later, you will encounter a book that you’ve forgotten all about. Perhaps it’s a book that you have really and truly meant to read, honest; perhaps it’s a book that spontaneously kindles a desire for greater intimacy. Either way, you want to sit right down (if only there were an empty chair) and fire up peruse mode. But can you?

Of course you can. You may, even. But as the overseer of a very disorderly project — most of your books seem to be in places where no books belong — dare you indulge yourself?

And that, my friends, is the servant problem.


The idea that I wanted to remember was this: even in a democracy, we don’t chose our leaders. Rather, we ratify choices made by the small coterie of gate-keepers and power-brokers who get to examine the political horseflesh up close and personal. I don’t take any credit whatsoever for this perception; it was written into the United States Constitution, whereby (originally) senators were elected by legislatures (not voters) and the President was elected by — the Electoral College, all by itself and not in spite of some popular vote.

If the direct voting that we favor in principle actually worked, then the gate-keepers and power-brokers would be free to choose men and women likely to prove to be excellent leaders. But it doesn’t. They have to choose candidates who will appeal to us directly — as if they weren’t there to do the job!

Monday Scramble: Backwash

Monday, November 23rd, 2009


Last night, we gave a small dinner party, partly in order to introduce a young artist to some old friends. The young artist came down with something in the afteroon and wasn’t able to make it, but his mother, whom I hadn’t seen in almost forty years, and who happens to be in town at the moment, was, and so the mini-reunion part of my plans met with success.

The only problem (aside from the lees of red wine) is that I am tossing, today, in a backwash of recollections that, for the moment, only grows more turbulent. To meet with an intelligent friend whom you haven’t seen in forty years is to take a very quick measure of the ground that you have covered in that time. There is also the perplexity of looking at an old snapshot of yourself that you have not seen before. These personal sensations are enveloped in a dim but vast awareness that it really is not, repeat not, all about you.

It is not unlikely that these roiling impressions are inspired by recollections of the great friend whom the young artist’s mother and I had in common, Michael Patrick O’Connor. As I was making the bed this morning, it struck me, with all the force of Rilke’s famous last line, that Michael Patrick was our Archaic Torso. To spend time with him was to know that you must change your life.

Wealth and ease invite us, we forget.
Renouncing talents that you do not need
in moonlit snaps of tourist Attica
discover sleep as an exercise
for the whole body and five eyes
Ignore the rain that has not filled the skies.
                                            (From “Coming Out”)

“Running late” barely attains the level of understatement.

Weekend Update: Huge Fight

Sunday, November 15th, 2009


Kathleen and I just had a huge fight. She believes — if “belief” can be attached to a reed so slender that reason cannot support it — that The Angels’ hit tune, “My Boyfriend’s Back,” from August, 1963 —  is sung by an innocent childess who has been pestered all summer by a teenage molester in whom she takes no interest. How can Kathleen possibly not see that the singer is a minx who has had her fun with some shortsighted twerp whom she is now dumping à la royale? How is it possible that Kathleen thinks that the singer is innocent, when she is obviously the worst sort of demimondaine?

Kathleen said that I ought to take a poll at The Daily Blague, so here it is — not that anyone’s going to mind. Whose side are you on, when you hear “My Boyfriend’s Back?”

(Electrolysists needn’t reply.)

It’s dreary work, being married to twerps.

Next up: a song as to the sublimity of which Kathleen and I  are in complete accord: “Easier Said Than Done.” 

Weekend Update : Flowers on the Floor

Saturday, October 31st, 2009


Although no one has asked, I know that you’re all dying for a look at the new rug. That’s the sort of intuition to which may brain has been reduced by this month of low-key, low-budget (but not, in the aggregate, inexpensive!) domestic upgrade.

As I wrote (in gratitude) to Quatorze last night, every time I walk into the bedroom, I want to drop to my knees and say a decade of the Rosary.


We began shortly after eleven, and finished at about two-fifteen. By the time Quatorze arrived, I had emptied the room of most small things — the desk chair, the hamper, the old tea table — leaving only the nightstands and the bed to contend with. I had warned Quatorze that we might have to empty the tall bookcase in which Kathleen keeps her collection of old children’s books and her accumulation of books on knitting, needlepoint, and beading; and I was glad that I did, because it would have been an unpleasant surprise indeed to find that this was so. In the event, foresight made the task bearable. By then, we had lifted the massive mattress off to one side, stood the box spring alongside it, and carefully tilted the bed frame — long ago bolted together — so as not to put too much torque on the two supporting legs. We had then rolled out the padding and then the rug (bear in mind, please, that Quatorze was a good 80% of “we”) and replaced the bed.

So now we had only to remove the books from the shelf (carefully, so that they’d be easy to re-shelve), carry the bookcase around the bed, finish rolling out the padding and the carpet, and replace the bookcase and finally the books. A lot of vacuuming and dusting was done along the way; we really ought to have been wearing surgical masks. Once the desk was back in place — it’s much heavier than it looks to be — I decided that we ought to break for lunch.

Afterward, Quatorze came back to the flat and re-hung some pictures in the living room. The paintings over the newly re-upholstered love seat, which has a somewhat higher back than the sofa that it replaced, were “driving me crazy,” he said. At about five o’clock, declaring that he would be burning his clothes, Quatorze left for home, and I went back to the bedroom for a few hours of Putting Things Back. When everything else was tidy, I made the bed.

And that was that! It was deliberate and methodical, if I may indulge in surplusage. “Deliberate and methodical” is Quatorze’s normal setting, but it isn’t mine; what came to my aid was an extended fatigue that has crushed my habitual impatience. I had neither the energy nor the snap to get cute. I plodded along tortugously. Eventually, it was all done. 

Weekend Update (Late Edition): Spent

Monday, October 26th, 2009


My candle, burning at both ends, has consumed itself at last. If I’m running on fumes at the moment, I wasn’t running at all about five hours ago. If I weren’t so tired, I might try to spin an engaging account of how I spent the day — and how I spent last night. Narrative aside, last night was a great wallowing in the thing that is right and truly better than sex: talk. I talked all night long. I listened a bit, and I remember most of what I heard. But I had a magnificent time of it talking. Angels of loquacity, if not of eloquence, perched on my shoulders, pouring words into my brain that I had no idea of until I heard myself saying them. This morning, I felt utterly used up.

Waking up spent would have been delicious, if only I hadn’t had to shepherd our old dining table up to Hamilton Heights. Quatorze surprassed all expectations of helpfulness. Quite aside from the heavy lifting (not really so heavy this time), he ran conversational interference for me at several key intersections; I wish that discretion allowed me to be more specific.

When our adventure became a success, and we returned to the apartment for a cup of tea, I had one of the happiest hours that I have ever known. Kathleen woke up from a nap and joined us while I showed Quatorze the catalogue of the American Stories show, and pulled down the Americans in Paris catalogue to appraise the overlap. So many pictures appeared in both exhibitions! Having begun the day in a used-up state, I was now approaching the absolute zero of personal depletion, but because everything was so handsome in the noon light, I was happy rather than cranky. I would become cranky when it got dark, at least for an hour or two.

Before that, however, I realized that life must go on: lunch. Stumbling around the kitchen, half-conscious, I threw together what turned out to be the most baldly scrumptious chicken salad that I have ever eaten, and it was simplicity itself. (Yes, of course: it was delicious to the extent that I was exhausted.) A simple dressing of mayonnaise, curry powder, and lemon juice; cubes of leftover chicken from Friday night’s roast, a cut-up avocado at its very peak, and thin slices of seeded tomato. A tablespoon of minced celery. Tossed in a silver bowl that I fished out of box for which I no longer have a place, the salad was accompanied by cranberries, a camembert, and crackers.

Plus a bottle of Schramsberg. It was heaven to drink champagne — even though I suspected that it would make me cranky later. Later, it would be dark. While it was light — while it was afternoon — life was transcendent. Over the past couple of weeks, several heavy objects have been taken out of the apartment, but only two have been brought in. I will never lead a truly simple life; I would find it parching. But I’m beginning to believe that I may be able to keep track of its contradictions.

Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Aztecs

Friday, October 16th, 2009


When I looked at the program, my short hairs stood on end. They were playing K 563, and I almost didn’t go.

If I were a Renaissance pope, but in a world of music, not Christianity, I would found churches everywhere in honor of my favorite saint, Mozart’s Trio in E-flat for Vioilin, Viola and Violoncello. In that alternative world, I might hear my desert-island music more often. Mozart called it a “divertimento,” and yet it’s very difficult to play. That puts it at the North Pole of the Mozart-Liszt axis. Mozart wrote difficult music that sounds very straightforward and easy. It’s no wonder that more virtuoso reputations have been made playing Liszt, who wrote relatively straightforward music that sounds fiendishly difficult. It’s all very nice to have aficionados in the audience who know the score, but they’re never going to be numerous enough to fill Carnegie Hall. Or even Grace Rainey Rogers.

I did go, though. I was there, I mean. I was there, and the MMA Artists were going to play Köchel Werke Verzeichnis 563. I couldn’t believe that all I had to do was hang around until after intermission. I expected an interfering inconvenience  of some kind; when you’re my age, you just do. But I was fine. Considering that I was alone — Kathleen is in North Carolina this weekend, counting the silver (to make sure that her mother didn’t take any of it with her) — I was about as happy as it’s possible to be, in an unexcited, no-big-deal sort of way. I went a bit early, because it dawned on me that, on a Friday night, when the Museum stays open late, there are things to do, or at least to look at, if you arrive in plenty of time. I walked in and immediately felt that I owned the place. In a way, I did. Nobody, as we lawyers say of easements, had a better right to be there than I did.

I went and had a good look at The Milkmaid. I felt that I’m beginning really to like this picture, even though I have a thing about glamorizing servants. (It’s a sin against them, really.) It was very clear to me that I’d take The Milkmaid any day over the later and “more accomplished” Young Woman With a Water Pitcher — a painting that got a very notable second-best boost from Girl With the Pearl Earring. The Young Woman is mine — ours — the Museum’s, but that doesn’t influence my judgment. Good heavens, no; I’m actually praing that the Museum will sell the painting that is undoubtedly Vermeeer’s worst (what was he thinking?): the Allegory of Faith. (Even though I’m very fond of the tapestry curtain in the foreground.) My favorite Met Vermeer, more and more, is Woman With a Lute.

I almost bought Walter Liedtke’s plush monograph on Vermeer. I want it, certainly. But we’ve been spending money like water here lately, buying all the little things that will “pull the apartment together.” I doubt that Liedtke on Vermeer (as the book would have been called in more learned times) is going to go out of print anytime soon. I bought some postcards, and that was that.

Liedtke, by the way, speculates that the Woman With a Lute is waiting for a man to join her — a man with whom the spectator might identify. This seems truly peculiar to me. I see a woman who’s having a good time playing music in cloudy weather. I don’t see myself in the picture at all. Happily, I can’t possibly interrupt the music.

I had a choice of routes back to the Great Hall, which I would have to cross, in order to get to Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, where Edward Arron and his colleagues would be playing chamber music. (That was all that I knew; I hadn’t bothered to check out the program ahead of time. I’d bought the tickets months ago. That’s why I almost didn’t go. In a perfect world, there would be no need to buy anything ahead of time; you could just wait to be in the mood.) I could go through the Medieval Hall or through the Greek and Roman Galleries. I was in the mood for Greek and Roman, but, in the event, I never paused to look at anything there, because, in order to reach Greek and Roman, I had to pass through the multi-purposed wing that, for the moment, I’ll call “Aztec.” This is a part of the Museum that I don’t know at all, and am indeed unpardonably sniffy about. But I was feeling expansive. Someone I knew might want to see something in these galleries, and I ought to know where they were (call me Teddy Wharton). I was feeling so comfortable and pleasant and mentally enlarged that I decided to do the Aztecs a favor, and have a look at them. Horrible to put it that way, but, in the end, that’s what living with art comes down to, and don’t let ’em tell you otherwise.

Because it’s way past my bedtime, I am not going to chatter about the Aztecs. The gold items were luminous and intriguing, but they were also impossible to look at without thinking of Indiana Jones… The silver items, however, were very fresh. There are two vases — not intended as such, perhaps, but that’s what we’d treat them as — that really ought to be copied by Tiffany; I’m sure they’d sell like hotcakes. Very simple, very Thirties — only, better than Thirties. You have to see them. Of course, I do live under a rock. It’s entirely possible that Renny Reynolds and Robert Isabel cloned them decades ago, and that, even as we speek, Palm Beach hostesses are trying to persuade their housemaids to accept them as bonuses. As you can see, though, my visit to the Aztecs was not without interest.

I’d thought that I’d have dinner somewhere afterward; I’d even brought reading matter to sustain me at a table for one. I ended up coming home, though, and making spaghetti alla carbonara. What I really wanted was the roast chicken at Demarchelier, but, when I passed by, the restaurant seemed not only packed but attitudinal. What can I say? I’m always comfortable at La Grenouille, one of the grandest restaurants in the world, but Demarchelier persistently reminds me that I live on the wrong side of Lexington Avenue. And Third Avenue. And Second Avenue! Turn the glass over, and I live on the wrong side of East End Avenue as well. Demarchelier is an Upper East Side restaurant. I live (four blocks away) in Yorkville. Maybe the Aztecs had exhausted my cultural imperialism.

But I’m just like you in this respect, I had as good a right as anybody to check out the Aztecs.

Weekend Update: Breaking Up the Breakfront

Sunday, September 20th, 2009


First, a word about the crap in front of the breakfront. The cute boxes with the ribbons contain a number of smaller pieces of silver that probably ought to be given away. (Wouldn’t you like some?) Beneath the skirted footstool lies the household supply of soft drinks (Kathleen does not believe in ice). On top of the boxes, a serving dish sits beneath a cunning screened dome, designed to keep insects away from outdoor treats. (I don’t need it at all, but I can’t get rid of it. Perhaps this photograph will shame me into taking action.)

Second, a word about the crap in the breakfront. You can’t really see it, but I want you to know that it’s all on the way out — either to the hutch on the balcony or to HousingWorks.

Third, a word about the pile of crap to the left of the breakfront: history in the making — if you know what I mean by “history.”


Aside from half an hour at the beginning of the day and another half hour at the end, I spent all of Friday with Quatorze. We were to meet at the Orpheum in time for the ten o’clock showing of The Informant!, but when I crossed Second Avenue, there he was, early as usual, killing time by walking an extra block that he would only have to backtrack. I don’t know who is going to win this particular war. Will Quatorze shame me into being as ahead-of-time as he is? I used to feel ashamed, and rightly so, because I used to be late. But now I am punctual and Quatorze is early. I’d much rather hang out at home until the last minute than spend extra time at the Orpheum, wondering if the projectionist will ever get round to starting the feature. As long as I’m not late, I’m not keeping anybody waiting — technically. But I feel ashamed of being the second person of two to show up.

After the movie, we had lunch next door, at Burger Heaven. This wasn’t to be one of our leisurely lunches, because we had a job to do. Quatorze wanted to know if the top of the breakfront/secretary desk could be detached from the bottom. We would discover that it can, thanks to Quatorze’s knowledge of furniture construction, nimbleness with tools, and heroic determination.  We would detach the upper, glass-fronted part of the breakfront from the lower part. Then Quatorze would convince me that the best place for the upper part, right now, is right where it was. We settled it on the dowels that projected from the lower part. The screws went into a ziploc bag.

We learned that the bottom has no top. When you take the upper part of the breakfront away, you see a lot of struts and braces, and some very fresh-looking mahogany, but no surface — and, thanks to those dowels, no easy way to improvise one. The plan is to have a top made — Quatorze recurs to the manmade composite known as “quartz” — and to put the glass-fronted top, which needs expensive repairs, in storage. That I should even think of removing the top is a sign of how profoundly my regard for old-timey possessions has shifted. I have resigned my position as curator of childhood dreams.

We’ll discuss the whys and wherefores some other time. Right now, it’s enough to say that, after the successful detachment of the piece’s two halves, I had to figure out what do with the contents, which ocvered almost every surface in the living room. I not only did the figuring out, but I went to the store and bought provisions for an impromptu dinner party. Discretion forbids my enumerating the guests, but Quatorze and Fossil Darling were of the party, which wouldn’t have taken place without Quatorze’s incredibly savvy assistance. Knowing Quatorze as I do, I have no business saying “incredibly,” but I claim poetic license.


We all had a great evening, and nobody stayed up too late. But I was shocked to be reminded by Fossil, when we talked the next morning at around noon, that I’d agreed to cross town for dinner at Shun Lee West. It was the last thing I wanted to do, if only because it involved leaving the building and crossing a street. Many streets! But one street was too many. Among the consequences of having a great time with friends the night before was the fierce desire to see nobody the morning after.

I went about my usual Saturday business, listening to opera and tidying the apartment. (I also ran two dishwasher loads.) But I never went for five minutes without worrying about dinner. Should I cancel? I wanted to cancel, but I was also suspicious of this desire. Why did I want to stay home on a Saturday night, cleaning out the refrigerator, when I could be enjoying Peking duck at Shun Lee West? And don’t give me that crap about how hard it is to get from Yorkville to Lincoln Center.

All afternoon this went on. Should I cancel? Or should I just go? And, if I decided to cancel, when should I tell Fossil Darling? What was the latest polite moment for letting him know that the reservation ought to be changed? Six o’clock, I decided.

There was so much that I wanted to do at home!  After tidying the rooms, and cleaning out the refrigerator, I planned to go through the mail. (A three-foot stack! Okay, mostly catalogues.) Then I would assemble a couple of cool new playlists. The gernaiums would be dead-headed! And maybe, if I was really dutiful, I’d write up a page or two for Portico.

The urge to write was kindled by Eric Patton’s latest entry at SORE AFRAID. On the eve of his fortieth birthday, Eric has been writing poignantly about the passage of time and the disappointment of early dreams, usually without calling attention it, but occasionally unfurling a banner:

We headed out to the Teas.  They were not very crowded.  I decided that I really liked the Madonna song of the summer, although the lyrics seemed to be mocking me on such a sad day.  Everybody wants to party with you?  It’s a celebration?  No more.

The wistfulness intensified with each parting ferry.  I wanted to stand atop the day and yell “stop”!

The last statement is truly worthy of Wallace Stevens, don’t you think? All right, it’s a tad emphatic. But when I read Eric’s entries, I feel that I’m reading Proust in English for the first time. My desire to encourage Eric is not unencumbered by the fanciful idea that, someday, readers might think of Marcel as the French Patton. But genug schon with the mash notes.  That the scene of Eric’s elegizing is Fire Island Pines simply ups the poignancy. I think: nearly thirty years ago, when I was not quite ten years younger than Eric is now, I drank even more deeply of the draught of Piney nostalgia. At the end of the summer of 1981, I did not tell myself that it was the end of the summer of 1981. What I told myself was that I should never be back. If I ever set foot on the dock by the Boatel and the Pavilion and the Miramar again, it wouldn’t be for many, many years; and, in fact, it has not yet happened.

What I learned in the Pines in 1981, at the beginning of the life in New York City that I had dreamed about since my childhood — a mere sixteen miles from Times Square and more dozens of layers of social awareness than I could count — was that familiarity, for me, would lead to unhappiness. If I ate the cookies that movies and magazines had made so attractive and appetizing, I’d always know where I was, but where I’d be would be in misery. I decided, that summer, against being miserable. The alternative was: difficulty. I settled on figuring things out for myself. It was not necessarily an intelligent to do. If the Internet had not been made available to civilians, I’d be worrying about mildew on the monarda, and wishing more than anything else that my lupines would prosper. I don’t regret my stint as a gardener in Litchfield County (all right, New Milford).  But the idea that I should find satisfaction in the health of a bed of plants makes me laugh now. I’m not that good man.


Between five and six, I slowly ran out of steam. It also happened that, minutes after the stroke of six, I finished the apartment-tidying. I put the vacuum cleaner and the Pledge Clean away, and threw the dustrags in the laundry. I could call Fossil — or I could stop whining and just go, like a grown-up. Let me tell you: being me wasn’t fun! Then the complexion of the matter underwent a hormonal change.

It took, I should say, five or six seconds. Earlier, I’d thought about walking over to Fossil’s apartment before dinner. How virtuous would that be!

Even more: how solitary. But this scheme was premised on the idea that I would put off the Saturday housekeeping until Sunday, and spend the day either following through on the myriad projects that detaching the top of the breakfront inaugurated (I’ll spare you the list) or reading Chris Wickham’s riveting book about the early Middle Ages: a day of bourgeois Talmud. But now that it was six, and I had spent hours on my feet, dusting and vacuuming, I was hardly keen on more exercise. And yet, within those five or six seconds, it became the thing that I wanted more than anything else. I showered and dressed with the haste of someone who had just received a coveted invitation. As I did, I thought of this passage in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. 

There followed as pause during which, I decided, this woman was considering the retrospective significance of a taxi journey up the Edgware Road many years ago. Her hand made its way up to my thigh and tenderly applied pressure there. “Anyhow, I think that’s why I trust you,” she said, her nearest eye darting at me and then back at the ceiling. “Because you were a complete gentleman.” The phrase made her laugh loudly, and she began to make a lesiurely, more sensual motion with her hand. I reached out to touch her breasts, and it asonished me how much pleasure this gave me. Suddenly, in spite of all the notions with which I’d dismissed the possibility, this woman had my attention. I was fully alert now and fully aware of her particularity.  

I was fully aware of a desire to be out on the street, walking through the beautiful twilight toward Lincoln Center. The fear of getting mixed up, yet again, on the far side of the Sheep Meadow was just the right kind of bother. I’d figure out when to stop heading toward the towers of the Time Warner Center, even if it did mean traipsing through the Tavern on the Green’s parking lot. I’d step into an elevator and ride the nineteen floors to Fossil’s feeling as solid as mortal man can feel. Oblivious of all the crap. 

Weekend Update: Constabulary

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

Al Baker in the Times: “Brooklyn Man Killed at South Street Seaport

The argument that preceded the killing erupted among people debarking the Atlantica, which had been chartered for a party but which never left Pier 17.

People yelled and hurled bottles as they walked off the boat and into an area of shops and restaurants — most of them closed for the night — near South and Fulton Streets.

Then shots were fired, the police said, and as the crowd scattered, Mr. Trent fell to the ground with a bullet wound to the head, the police said. Emergency medical technicians pronounced him dead at the scene.

The Atlantica’s captain, Dennis Miano, said in a telephone interview on Saturday that “a little over 500” people had arrived on Friday night for what was billed as a moonlight cruise. But he said the 150-foot boat “can only handle about 425 to sail with.”

“That’s why we did a dockside party,” said Mr. Miano, 60. “We didn’t sail the boat.”

Monday Scramble: Central

Monday, August 10th, 2009


 New at Portico:  Well over a year ago, I read one of the greatest novels that I have ever encountered, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. I was hugely impressed, but I was also in love — with the result that my response was short-circuited. I might have managed to squeak out a word or two if I hadn’t also been convinced that most of the reviews, even when they were favorable (and most of them were), were wildly off.

I read the novel again at Thanksgiving, and then again after Christmas. I took lots of notes, but my paralysing intimidation only increased. The paperback edition came out; President Obama was said to be reading it; sales spiked. Good for Joseph O’Neill! But what about me? Determined to say something at Portico, iI ferreted through my notes bowl and found a fragment that seemed publishable. It’s more a first word on the novel than a last word, but it’s up, and I’m not unhappy with it. I argue that Netherland is a novel about wistfulness, and I argue also that wistfulness is the polar opposite of nostalgia. These are ideas that I contracted from reading Netherland several times.

The week before last, I didn’t get round to writing up the New Yorker story, and this left me with two jobs. I took care of both of them, but not without a lot of revision. The page on Joshua Ferris’s “The Valetudinarian” had to be rewritten from scratch, and “War Dances,” by Sherman Alexie, threatened to be alien corn.

This week’s movie was, of course, Julie and Julia. The movie would probably have been heaven anyway, but more like paradise lost, because I’d have had to explain to Kathleen later. Under normal Friday-movie circumstances, that is. But Kathleen was determined to see the movie with me, so it was just plain paradise.

Last and least: this week’s Book Review review.

Monday Scramble: Rorschach

Monday, August 3rd, 2009


Everyone was talking about the Rorschach inkblots last week, after a Canadian psychologist posted a Wikipedia page that was something of a vent. Who knew there were only ten? That was the impression conveyed, anyway.

I was obliged to take the Rorschach test in elementary school, and it was all I could do to keep frpm giggling. “What this looks like, doctor, is that you’re an idiot to place any diagnostic reliance on a bit of fingerpaint.” Not in so many words, perhaps. I should have just come out and told the doctor that I was sure that my mother wanted to kill me, if only he’d asked nicely. (And I was!)

Clancy Martin’s Diary entry about his substance abuse got a lot of follow-up. Other long threads raveled Mad Men avatars, Chinese students’ identity theft, and Jamba Juice.

New at Portico:  Unprofessional as it may be to do so, I’m going to blame this nasty summer cold of mine for a slackening of page production. I have done the writing, I assure you — but not the editing, the formatting, the uploading, and so on. Stay tuned! At least I’ve taken care of the Book Review review. I also posted the first draft of a page about L J Davis’s A Meaningful Life, because I wanted to show off about having read it.

If I didn’t quite get to (500) Days of Summer on time, that’s because I wanted to tuck Adam into this entry along with it. Now I’m completely up to date on that front.

Monday Scramble: Flying What?

Monday, July 20th, 2009


The death of famous people is something that a lot of bloggers feel obliged to report, perhaps because it is the last word in news. Walter Cronkite’s death last week was very widely mentioned, even though he must have been, for most bloggers, an historical figure whose most important work, between the Fifties and the Seventies, preceded their birth — or at least their post-toddler sentience. (As I noted at Twitter, broadcast news ought to have ceased when Cronkite retired; the man who defined the genre proved to be irreplaceable.) Frank McCourt’s more recent celebrity (his best-known book, Angela’s Ashes, was published thirteen years ago) is a different matter altogether — in terms of fame, McCourt was a contemporary of the late David Foster Wallace.

But the big story, the one with plenty of wrinkles still to be ironed out, concerns Amazon’s blunderously peremptory removal of digital copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from the Kindles of people who had bought the book. The purchase price was refunded, but all the legal arguments in the world are not going to restore faith in Amazon’s probity unless it makes clear that it will never do any such thing in future. M Ryan Calo rounds up some of the better write-ups of the Orwell fiasco at The Millions.

Also, not to be confused with the Flying Spaghetti Monster: Humboldt squid, at the Guardian, and at Outside.

Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): Making It Clear

Sunday, July 12th, 2009


Notwithstanding Kathleen’s convalescence, we had a good weekend, which I rather think we were owed. I had a wonderful sense of being ahead of schedule, whatever that means. What difference does it make whether I finish reading The Economist before 2 PM or before 3 PM? I don’t know why, but it makes a big difference. I’m learning that the passage from 2 until 4 is the tricky part of my day; the morning ends at around 2 (finally!), and the evening begins at 4 (already?). With only two hours of afternoon, it’s no wonder that I get edgy. It would be nicer, though, if I had a clearer idea of this Platonic ideal that my schedule is pinned to — and where it came from.


What if I gave away all but three or four cookbooks, and stopped reading Saveur? What if I threw away all the food catalogues? I think I’d be happier — I do! — but I’m not willing to risk having to buy new copies of all those cookbooks. Perhaps I ought to experiment with the catalogues and the magazines, though. Talking with Ms NOLA the other day, I realized (or said out loud for the first time) that I already know everything about cooking that I’m ever going to need or use.

This certainly doesn’t mean that I plan to rely on the same old recipes for the rest of my life. Quite the reverse, in fact — and that’s the point. I have a sound culinary technique, I know the foods and the flavors that I like, and I’m far more likely to turn out a good dish by relying on my own imagination than by following somebody else’s ideas.

This afternoon, for example, I was casting about for a sauce for cold salmon. Kathleen couldn’t eat mayonnaise (just to be safe), and dairy was out as well. But the doctor had excepted yogurt from the dairy ban, and I decided to except avocado from the raw-vegetable ban. I happened to have a tub of plain Greek yogurt in the fridge, and a perfectly ripe avocado in the vegetable basket. I had already run downstairs for a bunch of dill: preparing to poach the slice of Scotch salmon, I’d sniffed the jar of dried dillweed and smelled only dust. And, for that prized frugal touch, I had a quietly aging half-lemon lying on the counter. Into the food processor with all of it!

The result was not perfect. The taste of (one) avocado was muted by the plain yogurt. And a teaspoon of curry would have added significant interest, if (a) Kathleen weren’t convalescing and (b) I’d whipped up the sauce about three hours earlier. To thin the sauce, which was thicker than mayonnaise, I added a few tablespoons of water — which felt very odd but which was just right, as I needed liquidity without (extra) flavor. The sauce, spooned over the chilled salmon, went delightfully with steamed zucchini slices as well. Capellini tossed with parmesan cheese completed the summer-luncheon plate.

I’m sure that the avocado-yogurt-dill-lemon sauce appears in a million cookbooks. It’s even possible that I followed a recipe for it once, long ago. It really doesn’t matter. Originality is not the name of the game.

When I asked Kathleen yesterday what she wanted for dinner, I could see her flesh crawl at the prospect of yet more chicken. But the more robust choices were out. How about veal, she asked. So I toddled down to Agata & Valentina and bought a nice rib chop. This I rubbed with a drop of oil and a tablespoon of crushed sage. Broiled for eight minutes on each side, the chop was done to perfection, retaining the faintest blush of pink at the center. I served it with haricots verts and Yukon fingerlings. The potatoes were steamed, and Kathleen had hers plain, without the butter that I swirled mine in. The beans were snipped, parboiled, and sautéed — in Benecol. The Benecol didn’t fool me into thinking that the beans were buttered, but it came close enough.


At Crawford Doyle on Friday afternoon, I remembered that Ms NOLA had strongly recommended reading Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. She also assured me that I’d “knock it off in a day.” Which indeed I did, even though I didn’t start reading it until late yesterday afternoon. I not only read it, I read most of it aloud to Kathleen, while she knitted receiving-blanket prototypes. I was hugely moved.

Well, as you know, I’m hugely moved all the time — I’m lucky that way. But yesterday’s movement was more of a scraping. The way that I’ve developed of remembering my adolescence was what got scraped away. So much of Mr Cameron’s book reminded me of what my teens were really like — which was somewhat surprising, since the novel’s narrator was born in 1985 or thereabouts, nearly forty years later than I was. You’d think that our experiences of adolescence, given everything that has changed, would be rather different, but no.

James Sveck is a very intelligent graduate of Stuyvesant High, class of ’03. He spends the ensuing summer scheming to avoid going to Brown in the Fall. He thinks that college will be a waste of time, and he is very articulate about why. Reason Number One: he hates people his own age, probably because they are adolescents. This displacement was extraordinarily familiar. Teenagers are supposed to suffer all sorts of existential doubts about themselves, but, like James, what I experienced instead was a conviction about others. Especially other adolescent males.

“What’s so bad about college students?”

“They’ll all be like Huck Dupont.”

“You’ve never met Huck Dupont.”

“I don’t need to meet him. The fact that his name is Huck and he got a full hockey scholarship to the University of Minnesota is enough for me.”

“What’s wrong with hockey?”

“Nothing,” I said, “if you like blood sport. But I don’t think people should get full scholarships to state universities because they’re psychopathic.”

I may have put it better myself at the time, but never mind. Forget Holden Caulfield; I knew how to piss people off big-time. As does James.

There’s one line in the book that screamed RJ! so loud that I felt slightly violated. Having “acted out” — a phrase that sadly didn’t exist in my day — on a school trip, James has been sent to a therapist. After weeks of sessions, the shrink finally confronts James about his meltdown. Typically (I’m speaking from experience), James parries her questions with further questions, as if he were the doctor. But he’s not the doctor. At a crucial point, she gets a rise out of him.

“So you assumed I was arrested?” 

“I suppose I did.”

“Well, I wasn’t arrested. And the so-called trouble with the police wasn’t my fault. It was my parents’. They got the police involved. They filed a missing persons resport. If they hadn’t done that, everything would have been fine. Or less bad.”

“Were you missing?”

I realized she had tricked me into talking about what had happened in Washington, and even though I felt okay about talking about it, I wanted to make it clear I was aware I had been tricked, so I didn’t answer.

I think you could say that I spent my youth — not just my adolescence, but my the years between the time when I was first commanded to play baseball (to which I responded with a passive ressistance that I did not need Gandhi to teach me, perhaps because even in fourth grade I was larger than Gandhi) and the time when I decided to buckle down and study for the law boards —  you could say that I spent my life “making it clear.”

Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Visibility

Friday, July 3rd, 2009


How about this: the world is divided into two groups. Photographers who like to include people in their compositions and photographers like me who wish that everyone would stay at home. Just staying out of the frame isn’t good enough; I see best when no one is around. When I’m trying to think, the presence of other people is cripplingly distracting.

Which certainly makes New York City an exciting place for taking pictures!


This picture would have been pretty good (allowing for its many technical imperfections, notably a slight blur due to palsy), if only the fourth finger of my left hand hadn’t been doing its thing, hovering over the lens (not shown). Here’s “what I saw”:


So, knowing how I could crop the shot, the obtrusion didn’t really matter. But if I’d wanted to use the whole image, I’d have been in for a long wait, because the emptiness proved to be totally momentary. Head bobbed up from below; worse, bodies coming in from the left blocked the view. It isn’t that I wanted to take a picture of a “deserted” subway station entrance. It’s just that the entrance interested me because, deserted, it was visible.

After Public Enemies, which Kathleen, LXIV, and I saw at the Union Square Thetre, and a nice long lunch at the Knickerbocker, I headed up to Union Square by myself, to take some snaps for next week’s Daily Offices. It was an assignment that I was prepared not to enjoy. There were a lot of people in the park, and they all looked alike: young. Given the location, what did I expect? People my age still regard Union Square as the ideal place in which to catch a disease, possibly death. It seems quite safe now, but the presence too many young people is as off-putting as that of too many old people. En masse, demographic groups always look their worst. All one can think of (vis-à-vis crowds of young people) is the flood of rude health and easy beauty, thrown away on minds that are either callow or naive. Young people of both types think that they know a thing or two about the world, and they’re right, but they don’t know very much about themselves. Such as, for example, the remorseless dispatch with which time is going to steal the unearned benefits of being twenty-one.

The upshot is that a park full of young people is almost as depressing as a mausoleum.


Almost but not quite. When my quiver of images was tolerably full, I contentely blocked that view with my very own self and was soon speeding homeward.

Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): Balking

Sunday, June 28th, 2009


What might have been a lovely weekend was bruised on Saturday morning by an unexpected encounter. As Kathleen and I were walking out to have breakfast at the coffee shop across the street, there in the makeshift lobby was a member of the building’s tenants’ association. He was seated at a card table, and he was soliciting signatures for a petition. The petition opposes the MTA’s plans to plant an entrance to the Second Avenue subway right in front of our building. Opposition to the MTA and its works has been simmering here for years, and it has always struck me as the rankest NIMBYism. But I’ve never investigated the issue for myself. The very fact that there was a vocal opposition to the proposed subway entrance meant that I was for it.

The committee member, whom I chat with occasionally, was genuinely surprised when I announced, with one of those smirks that make you want to hit somebody, that I was “on the MTA’s side.” This idiotic remark was true only in the sense that the enemy of my enemies is my friend, for the tenant’s association is my enemy. Okay, not my enemy. But I don’t approve of it. I don’t believe that such groups are effective or, if effective, intelligent. I do not, on the personal level, believe in democracy at all.

It was unpleasant to be reminded of how thoroughly uncooperative I can be, especially when I am asked to be cooperative. The acid reflux revives the dread that I had, throughout childhood, of ever having to serve in a military unit. I knew that the only outcome of military service for me would a court-martial proceeding triggered by my gross insubordination, and then death by firing squad. Even the Boy Scouts, then a rather genial organization, was far too regimented for me.

You might think that I display high levels of cooperativeness just by walking down 86th Street in an attentive way, and by doing all the other little things that make dense city life bearable, but you would be wrong. I am Setting An Example. Abominable conceit is what it is. And when this abominable conceit isn’t functioning, I can be sociopathically surly.

Kathleen signed, of course — on the way back. We did not discuss it. I knew that my resistance was a matter of private pathology.

Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): College

Sunday, June 21st, 2009


This afternoon’s junket to Coney Island, to see the Cyclones play at Keyspan Park, was scrubbed pretty early in the day, owing largely to uncertain weather. I shouldn’t have been able to go even on a good day, because I contracted a touch of Kathleen’s malady, and would have found the long subway ride — inconvenient. But plans were changed without regard for me, thank heaven, and most of the party got together at Jane, a restaurant on Houston Street that Megan and Ryan like. (Me, too — although waspish words may quite reasonably be anticipated from LXIV, seeing as how the kitchen goofed his order, so that his dinner was limited to strawberry shortcake.) In connection with the Solstice, both Megan and Ryan reminisced fondly about enjoying the long and late twilight in Amsterdam last summer — before venturing to Uganda, where there was no twilight at all.

Kathleen suffered a bit of a setback yesterday, but she rallied in the evening, and we went to the 7:15 show of The Proposal. If you’re a regular reader, you already know this, from my Aviary of Ideas tweet. Also, if you’re a regular reader, you can imagine that I wouldn’t shut up about the movie when we got home. While Kathleen experimented with various knitting stitches, I went over what increasingly seems to be an extraordinarily well-scripted show. Why the critics don’t share our enthusiasm (the Metacritic gives it a score of 48, which seems nothing less than cognitively dissonant. Conspiracy theories, anyone? Or is The Proposal one of those movies that appeals specially to New Yorkers? A great deal of the film’s narrative richness is implicit — maybe that’s what it is. Well, it will be a challenge to write up. I wasn’t taking notes last night, and many of my aperçus will have flown forgotten, as a dream dies &c.

What does “college” have to do with any of this, you ask. It is part of a family joke that will be explained in due course of time.


Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Guys and Dopes

Friday, June 19th, 2009


Comparing notes afterward, Ms NOLA said that she’d wondered why the marquee lights weren’t blazing, while I remarked that the emptiness of the sidewalk had struck me as very odd. When we all assembled in front of the Nederlander Theatre to see Guys and Dolls this evening, we were met by a closed production. Our money was promptly refunded (quite a sum), and we headed uptown for dinner at Cognac (also quite a sum).

Who was asleep at the wheel? How was it that none of us had noticed that the show closed last Sunday? Ahead of schedule, yes, but not without notice, I’m sure. A handful of other ticketholders showed up, just as confused and disappointed as we were, but most of the prospective audience, it was clear, knew to stay away. Unless, of course, those of us who showed up were the only people who had bought tickets for the evening’s performance.

It was the damnedest thing, and neither Kathleen nor I had ever heard of the like.


Although I doubt that we should ever be friends in real life, I wouldn’t want anybody to think that I don’t hold Times movie critic Manohla Dargis in high esteem. I disagree with her about everything, but I have schooled myself to allow no unpleasant feelings to poison my response to her reviews, which I find to be salutary. They remind me that not everyone sees the world as I do, and that people who see the world differently can be quite intelligent about it.

In her review of The Proposal, which appeared in this morning’s paper, ready for me to read before I actually went to see the movie, Ms Dargis wrote,

The director marshaling all these clichés and stereotypes is Anne Fletcher, whose last gig was the similarly obnoxious “27 Dresses.” Working from a script by Peter Chiarelli, Ms. Fletcher betrays no originality from behind the camera and not a hint of visual facility. The opening scenes, including shots of Andrew rushing through the streets while balancing coffee cups, are right out of “The Devil Wears Prada,” minus the snap. The scene in which Margaret runs around naked is borrowed from “Something’s Gotta Give,” though here the point isn’t that desirability transcends age but that at 44, Ms. Bullock still has an amazing body. The rest of the movie looks like many industrial entertainments of this type: it’s decently lighted and as lived in as a magazine advertisement.

I didn’t see 27 Dresses, but I may rent it now: The Proposal became one of my favorite pictures before it was halfway through. It may be the only genuine screwball comedy to have been made since 1945. (I may be daft.) I wasn’t reminded of either Prada or Something, despite Ms Dargis’s warning that I ought to be.

I watched the movie carefully just to see if I thought that there was any merit to the “visual facility” crack. I did not. I found The Proposal to be gorgeous, and never moreso than in its existentially simple close-ups of the principals, eerily lighted and with nothing more than the oceanic horizon behind them. There’s a lot of darkness in The Proposal, and if it is an “industrial entertainment,” then I beg for more, at least of the same caliber.

Here’s why I doubt that Ms Dargis and I could ever be friends:

(Mr. Reynolds is equally likable, though more decorative than anything else.)

I may have said this before, but Mr Reynolds has a knack for playing men whom I should like to grow up to be — even if he is only slightly older than half my age. In The Proposal, he seems decorative in the way that Henry Fonda, say, might seem decorative.

Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): Poorish

Sunday, June 14th, 2009


It wasn’t the most thrilling weekend in the world, but it did what a weekend ought to do: refresh and restore. It would have done the job a lot better if Kathleen hadn’t been struck by a nasty intestinal flu. Is anything more miserable? Being me, I hated my impotence. The only thing that I could do that was guaranteed to be effective was to leave Kathleen alone.

But I read all of Jeff in Venice, and really liked it; and I concocted another chicken salad, this one with avocados and corn, parsley and cilantro, in a curry mayonnaise. Of course, there was far too much for one.

Now: how boring can I be about my DVD collection? In one sentence: since I no longer have room to keep the DVDs in their plastic boxes, I’m storing them in paper sleeves, with round plastic windows on one side and Dymo labels on the other. It’s all very neat and efficient.

It’s all very neat and efficient, that is, if I know what I’m looking for. Most of the time, I don’t. I paw through the boxes just like anybody else. (I find that the first DVD that captures my interest is the one that I’ll end up watching, so now I just go with it.) In an intermediate phase of disc storage, I kept 250 movies on a bookshelf in the hallway; these were the pictures least likely to require a special frame of mind for viewing. (Consider, as an alternative, Eraserhead. You may be someone who would watch David Lynch’s amazing subcutaneous debut without any prior deliberation, but I’m not.) The rest of the collection — more than half — was kept in vinyl albums from Staples. Each album held 96 discs, variously grouped: Movies made before 1970. Foreign-language DVDs. TV series (I have almost all of the Inspector Morses. ) I would leaf through the albums in search of something to watch. Sometimes, the relevant information about a DVD is printed in maddeningly small letters around the inner rim, but, for the most part, each DVD is a kind of poster for itself.

For reasons that I’ll spare you right now, the prospect of flipping through the drawers of paper sleeves and uniform Dymo labels had to be rejected out of hand. If nothing else, it would subject the sleeves and the drawers to a lot of wear and tear.

I had a brainstorm. As your reward for wading through the preceding verbiage, a picture will tell the rest of the story. My very provisional “Top 20” list, at Portico.

Other “categories” to come:

  • Top 100
  • Screwball comedies
  • Films noirs.
  • Depressing movies
  • Alfred Hitchcock
  • Really scary!
  • Corporate sci-fi
  • “Why did I buy this?”

Conceivably, any one movie could appear in all of the categories — that’s the beauty part. For example, Mr and Mrs Smith would appear on both the Screwball Comedy and Alfred Hitchcock pages.

So, I got that going. There is much to be learned about the HTML of tables. I’ll try not to be the one who has to.

Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Workplace

Friday, June 12th, 2009


Of all the side-effects of discovering my vocation at the age of sixtyish, the urge to have a distinct workplace is the most unexpected. For all of my life, I have been a dedicated home-worker. So far as I have worked at all, that is — and it didn’t amount to much until a few years (or a few months!) ago. I’m talking about work here, not “productivity.” I’m talking about meeting defined goals whether I’m in the mood to do so or not.

Although I still believe in the ideal of a harmonious (if hardly seamless) overlay of domestic life and personal industry — living above the shop, as it were — I recognize the impediments more honestly than I used to do. If I were a Victorian master of the house, I could close my study door and expect not to be disturbed; but in fact my position is much closer to that of the Victorian mistress of the house: I’m the one who has to see that the household hums. Don’t we all? Only the richest of the rich can afford to employ the kind of servant who is truly capable of housekeeping, and in fact such employees are not called servants anymore.

So: wouldn’t it be nice to “go to the office” for at least part of every day? Wouldn’t it be loverly to have a room, somewhere in the neighborhood — a studio apartment, say — to which I could move the contents of the blue room (books, mostly). I wouldn’t have a landline, and hardly anyone has my cellphone number. For a few hours every day, I wouldn’t see anything that didn’t pertain to site-related projects.

That’s the problem right there: I wouldn’t have a moment’s peace. I happen to be one of those creatures who is more disturbed by what he can’t see than by what’s in plain sight. I’d worry about a break-in at home. I’d remember that I’d forgotten to water the pots on the balcony. I’d obsess about dinner (what to make, which store to shop at, the possibilities of ordering in). I think far too much about dinner as it is, but I don’t obsess, because the kitchen is right here, and I can have a look in the freezer at any time. (Later, thanks!)

So I pigeonhole the dream of a separate workplace among my other fantasies — arrangements that cannot obtain in the universe as it is currently constituted. Then I get out the vacuum cleaner.