Archive for the ‘Yorkville High Street’ Category

My Pocket Was Picked!
21 August 2011

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

At Bayshore, this morning, my back pocket was picked, and a credit card was stolen from my wallet. I had no idea that I was missing the wallet until the boy who collected fares for the bus between the ferry and the train came up to me at the station and handed it to me. I’ve never lost a wallet from my back pocket in my life, and I was flabbergasted at the idea that it could have happened. On cursory inspection, it seemed intact, and I didn’t miss the credit card until I got into town. A quick call to the credit card company informed me that the card had been used at an ATM in Jamaica, Queens — a town that I had passed through on the train from Bayshore to Penn Station. I have my ideas about how it was done, but for the moment I’m shuddering in a strange relieved shock. I’m not wondering where I lost my wallet, and I’m not wondering where I left the missing credit card. I know almost everything about what happened, and, on Wednesday, when the replacement card arrives, I’ll be whole. But still shocked, I expect.

Weekend Update:
On the Eve
Sunday, 31 August

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Part of it is, I’ve gotten tired of the sound of my own voice. Part of it.

On this last day of July, I’m preoccupied by what Augsut will bring. Kathleen and I have agreed that we will aim to take the 4 PM ferry from Bayshore to Ocean Beach (why does the schedule say “Ocean Bay Park”?) to meet our landlord at the Fire Island dock. In order to do this, we will take a train from Penn Station and “change at Jamaica.” Thirty years ago, the last time we did this, that meant crossing a platform. I hope that it’s still so simple. We’ll have twenty minutes to make a five-minute taxi ride from the station to the ferry.

We expect to spend the night in the house that we’ve rented, and to return to New York early on Tuesday morning. I’ll probably return to the house on Thursday. Everyone else will arrive on Friday, some for the weekend and some for longer stays. Megan and I have blocked out a calendar that indicates who’s coming when.

Beyond that, I know nothing. I don’t know what the supermarket in Ocean Beach is like, or how long it takes to walk from the ferry to the house, which is not in Ocean Beach but Robbins Rest, a two-lane development off the western edge of Ocean Beach. I don’t know what I’ll want to bring out to use in the kitchen. I don’t know what kind of wireless reception we’ll have. I have no idea at all what I”m going to want to do with myself.  All I know is that I”m going to the beach for a month (with a few quick trips back into town), and that whole point of being at the beach is taking it easy. Which means letting go.

Letting go doesn’t come naturally to me, but it seems that I’ve been doing nothing else for weeks now. I’ve been reading instead of writing. And I’ve been reading books instead of reading feeds. I’ve sunk back into the old world of long reads and limited voices. That has perhaps inevitably meant spending time in the company of older minds, and I’m almost ashamed to say how congenial I’ve found that.

Sometimes, I think that I’m molting, shedding an old, outgrown skin. Sometimes, I think that I’m having a nervous breakdown in slow motion, too stretched-out to be painful. Sometimes, I think that I’ve undergone a Copernican revolution: I’m simply no longer at the center of my own life. My grandson is. This isn’t to say that I love him more than I love Kathleen or anyone else; it’s not really a matter of love. It’s a matter of meaning. To put it another way, Will is the future, and I’m not. They say that you don’t appreciate your mortality until your parents die. I’m finding that you appreciate it even more when your first grandchild is born. What can I give to Will that he’ll find useful to take into that future, even if its value isn’t apparent to him until long after I’m gone?

I have decided not to make a decision about posting here (or elsewhere) during August. Regularity means a great deal to me; it’s often all that gets me going. I’m thinking of posting very brief daily entries here — as one blogger years ago put it in deep shame, “What I had for dinner last night” — while keeping an ongoing diary, with the oldest stuff at the top, at Civil Pleasures. But that thought will have to contend with the realities that I encounter late tomorrow afternoon and the next morning.

Wish me luck. I wish you a cool and pleasant August.

Gotham Diary:
Opening Day
20 July 2011

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

Right on schedule, Fairway opened its latest branch here in Yorkville today, and I paid the first of Nn visits. I bought two items, a quart of milk (needed) and a pound of Kona (also needed). Getting a pricetag for the Kona was problematic; in fact, it was impossible. The computer wouldn’t recognize the PLU. So the clerks and the sub-manager devised a sort of written math problem involving two vessels  — don’t ask me, but Ray Soleil thought that it was pretty clever. In case you’re wondering, the Kona is not a bargain, at $39.95; late, lamented Rohr’s, the tea- and coffee-shop that closed a month or so ago, used to sell it for $31. But Rohr’s isn’t in business anymore, is it? Before he ran into the computer problem, the clerk wanted to be sure that I knew how much the coffee was going to cost. What can one do? It’s the best coffee on earth.

The closest I have ever come to a Fairway store in the past is as a years-long FreshDirect customer. FreshDirect was founded, I believe, by a former Fairway partner who left in a huff to start his own business, or words to that effect. But a little of the Fairway gloss glittered on my FreshDirect boxes. FreshDirect used to sell Kona, but it stopped, just as it stopped selling a lot of the special groceries that kept me coming back. Finally it was no better than the brilliant specialty markets that have been in the neighborhood for years, Agata & Valentina and Eli’s. By that time, I’d learned that the last thing I needed was boxes of food delivered once a week. I need small bags of food purchased every day. Every day. I won’t mind, now that there’s Fairway.

On the way home, neighbors on a lower floor who have for years been regular customers at the mother ship, on the West Side, assured me that it’s always going to be like that in there, meaning crowd scenes suggestive of a bus station in an earthquake, with just a hint of menace that the whole place is about to flip over like the Poseidon. I predict that guidebooks will soon be directing Museum tourists to the other end of 86th Street, before or after the art, for a look at New Yorkers in the raw. By local standards, Fairway is immense, with sky-high shelves stocked with unimaginable variety  — unimaginable to Manhattanites, that is. What’s on the shelves will only elicit yawns from sophisticated out-of-towners, especially those within driving distance of a Wegman’s. But the clientèle may take their breath away. If opening day is any indication, the West Side store’s celebrated atmosphere of crazed-grandmas-on-steroids-death -match-roller-derby has been piped into the new store as well.

No matter how hard you beg, the clerks are not going to let you leave by the entryway. You have at least to go around the produce shelves and past the checkout counters. I had hardly walked in when I heard at least two whimpering young men all but pleading entrapment, as though they’d stepped through the door unaware that food was for sale (surely anyplace so happening — see that TV truck? — must be selling Apples) and now wanted only to turn on the heels. Not allowed!

It’s not the exotic variety that I’m after. I don’t mind walking a few blocks to buy something unusual. What I want right across the street, when I need it because, damn it, I thought I had another bottle in the cupboard — and am now going to get — is superb produce and amply-stocked staples. Fairway has turned the local Food Emporium, and, to a lesser extend, the better-run Gristede’s, into dodgy convenience stores. Indeed, I can’t imagine how Food Emporium will last a year. We shall see.

I was not too superior to accept one of the maps that those exit-forbidding clerks were handing out. The key to the aisles has three columns, “traditional,” “organic,” and “specialty.” There’s a kind of honey in each category, and they’re all in different parts of the lower level (along with a tripartition of jams). There are also sodas in all three categories. But what about “specialty organic”? Don’t tell me that Fairway is missing something!

Next Day Update: This time, I went to shop, with a list of ingredients for dinner. I stuck to it, too; the only extras were a ripe avocado (ready to eat! what a concept!) and some of Kathleen’s preferred yoghurt. Some of the items on my list were “specialty” — wild rice, for example — while I was also on the lookout for “traditional” (that is, ordinary) ice cream bars and fruit pops. And then, some beautiful green beans and small button mushrooms. I can’t remember the last time that everything on my list — even a short one like today’s — could be purchased under one roof. And the bill came to pennies more (pennies!) than the cost of a pound of Kona. (A quarter of that went for the wild rice.)

Moviegoing (at home):
Friday, 15 July 2011

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Instead of going to the movies today, I watched one at home. Watching videos has become somewhat unusual in recent months. I don’t know why, but it hasn’t stopped me from buying them, especially the used ones at the Video Room that go for five dollars a pop — about a dollar more than a rental. Most of them are movies that I saw in the theatre, and I’ll watch them when I get around to it; but one of them, Catherine Corsini’s Partir (Leaving), I haven’t seen. Why did I buy a DVD of a film that I haven’t seen? Because, in this case, it stars Kristin Scott Thomas.

How many stars,  if any, have had two such distinct film careers? It’s not that Ms Scott Thomas is bilingual, it’s that she plays entirely different sorts of women in her two languages. In the movie that she made after Partir (2009) — it was the next to be released, at any rate — she played John Lennon’s hyper-respectable Aunt Mimi. Other recent anglophone roles include the exasperated Mrs Whittaker, in Easy Virtue, and Anne Boleyn’s mother, in The Other Boleyn Girl. In the latter film, she is almost as upholstered as Carol Burnett in Went With the Wind. In French, however, the actress is both haunted and passionate.

Partir is the story of an adultery. Suzanne, the wife of a well-connected physician (Yvan Attal) in Nîmes, and  the mother of two student-age children, falls in love with Ivan (Sergi Lopez), a laborer who has just come out of prison for “bricolage.” The affair comes as a surprise to her, because in the course of her marriage she has put sexual satisfaction out of her mind. Once reawakened, her longing spins her life out of control. Her first response to its terrifying power is to confess her love to her husband and to promise that “c’est fini,” but of course it isn’t. Her husband doesn’t want to let her go, and his way of showing his affection is to beat her up — and then to withhold financial support, blocking her savings account and having the laborer fired. Although we are persuaded that Suzanne and Ivan are very much in love, there can have been few depictions of star-crossed romance as dismal as this one. (At one point, the couple are forced to take jobs as migrant workers at a melon farm.) Suzanne’s response to hardship and humiliation is to dig in her heels, but the novelty, perhaps, of having to scrounge eventually inspires her to talk Ivan into doing something stupid.

Ms Scott Thomas, who looks hardly a day over forty, much less her actual age of 48, has rarely, if ever, played anyone as naive and impulsive as Suzanne; her characters usually crackle with intelligence. This gives a movie a strange power, because as you watch it you think, Even Kristin Scott Thomas can’t prevent this awful mess. Suzanne is not very gifted at prevarication, and her persistent belief that her husband will come round to see the justice of her position is almost stupid — as is the childlike pleasure that she takes in Ivan’s company. In her view, the fact that she can’t help loving him makes everything all right, and she suffers no pangs of conscience. She behaves like a passenger who has awakened to find that she has boarded the wrong train, an error that she tries to correct with steadfast determination. Her huaband is the wrong train. Her family is the wrong train. On two occasions, she argues that her husband owes her something for having raised his children. Ms Scott Thomas is radiant, but Suzanne is far from entirely sympathetic.

On the verge of the affair, Suzanne brings a big bunch of flowers to Ivan, whom she has inadvertently injured in a scene that would in almost any other movie be comic. As she walks down the corridor to his low-income apartment, she looks less like someone who might be making a mistake than someone who is unhappy to see someone else make a mistake. This is the moment for Suzanne to stop, but she has no will do so. It is also the moment when she’s about to find out what it’s like to touch Ivan and to let him touch her. Who wouldn’t be apprehensive? Suzanne has no idea of the force that she is about to unleash.

A few years ago, I believe, Ms Scott Thomas was invited to play the title role in Racine’s Phèdre with a French touring acting company. I wonder how much of that performance is on view in Partir. Suzanne is no Phèdre, but she acts with the Greek queen’s intense helplessness and brings everything crashing down around her. That’s what makes this umpteen-thousandth French movie about infidelity compelling. Notwithstanding some sweaty sex scenes, the experience that we share is Suzanne’s alone. Even when she hugs her lover, she is frighteningly solitary, as we all are, at the mercy of fate and circumstance. There are no lessons in this movie. There is only the stunning portrayal of an ordinary, middle-aged woman who has the dramatic good fortune to be played by Kristin Scott-Thomas.

Yorkville High Street:
Nothing to Report/Excitement
Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

We’re having hot and humid weather again, and I’m finding it difficult to pay attention to anything. Well, there have been plenty of distractions — real distractions! For example! Did you see the picture of Queen Elizabeth outside 10 Downing Street yesterday? She was wearing a printed skirt with a solid top, and no hat. If proof was wanting that Rupert Murdoch’s End Times are upon us — upon him, I mean — surely that photograph closed the gap. It is very hard not to wish for terrible, terrible things to happen to Rupert Murdoch. For many of them, he’s responsible. For others, he’s not — few people can have been coerced into watching his television network or buying his newspapers — but then that’s why scapegoats were invented, and you have to admit that Rupert Murdoch looks like a scapegoat. In the words of Ko-Ko, I don’t think he’ll be missed.

Then there was the fire, which by the flukiest of flukes I saw with my own eyes. The building that houses Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, built in 1872, was gutted by a roaring blaze last night. The fire started about five or ten minutes before I stepped out onto 86th Street, heading west to Madison to have dinner with Kathleen at Demarchelier. Because of my (painless) neck and back problems, my gaze is usually confined to the pavement when I walk, but something made me pause and look up. At first I thought that it was a violent thunderstorm sweeping up Central Park. Then I realized that this strange weather was not only much closer than the Park but smoke, not clouds. Because the wind was blowing west, I didn’t smell the fire until I was halfway between Third and Lex. (The synagogue stands a few doors in from Lex toward Park on the north side of 85th Street.) The crowd at 86th and Lex was almost impassable, and almost everyone seemed to be taking pictures with a cell phone. I couldn’t see any flames, but the smoke near the rooftops was illuminated by a hellish red glare. I happy to find that I could  cross Lex and continue on my way. (On our way home from dinner, Kathleen and I found the policemen pulling down white tape that would have obliged us to detour to the north — I was glad that I had lingered over dessert.) At Park, I walked into low-lying smoke and found it unpleasant for a moment or two to breathe.

When we got home from dinner, I was good for nothing but searching the Internet for news of the excitement. Pix (Channel 11) was first to post a story, then NY1, and, eventually, the Times. Not only had no one been injured (except for a few firefighters suffering minor injuries), but in view of its renovation the building had been stripped of all sacred objects, such as the Torah scroll. So, as Rabbi Hankel Lookstein said, it was only the building. This news made the excitement of passing a violent scene a lot less depressing and shameful than it might have been. And that’s when I spotted the picture of Her Majesty, for the first time in my experience not swathed from head to ankle in one color. How would I ever get to sleep?

Then, this morning, the sofa in the blue room came back from the upholsterer.  The sofa was built for my mother-in-law fifty-odd years ago, and we had it reupholstered when we came into possession in the mid-Eighties. If it hadn’t had a sentimental appeal for Kathleen, we might have deaccessioned it some time ago, because it is very wide for a sofa that seats only two people comfortably. (Three with drinks, if you know what I mean.) That’s not to say that I don’t like it; I do, very much. It’s a convincing replica of a Louis XVI piece, with beautifully distressed woodwork washed in pale blue. The upholstery from the Eighties had gotten very tired looking, but we had no plans to do anything about it until Will leaned over, shortly after he began to take steps, and took a bite out of the padding at the armrest. He couldn’t have done any damage if the fabric hadn’t been quite worn out, so Kathleen set to finding some new material. That was the cheap part; the fabric cost about 1/20th of the repholstery labor. But what beautiful work Jeff Alexander does!

Ray Soleil helped me carry the sofa upstairs, and later, after lunch, we drank a pot of tea while discussing the Greek debt problem and Ray’s conviction that the French really want to reinstate the monarchy. I can think of one Frenchman who doesn’t! I wrote to him just a little while ago, to tell him most of what I’ve just told to you, explaining that I therefore had nothing worth writing about here.  

Gotham Diary:
Watching and Learning
Thursday, 9 June 2011

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Over the past few weeks, the mother of a friend of mine has been dying. I am in no way a friend of the family, so I knew nothing about her illness beyond what my friend told me, and, as I wasn’t a friend of the family, and we are both reserved to the point of being French about eschewing personal disclosures that might seem offhand, he did not tell me very much. When he mentioned hospice care, and the need to keep his mother comfortable, I knew that death was at hand, but it was not in the nature of our friendship for me to expect a trumpeted announcement that it had arrived. I felt sad for my friend for all the usual reasons but also for a few quirky ones. (His mother was my father’s age when he died, twenty-six years ago; from which another special reason might be deduced: she was twice as close to me in age as he is. My friend is only a few years older than my daughter, and I worry a lot about dying before my grandson, who pretty clearly loves me as deeply as a child his age can, is old enough to remember me.) The illness had come on suddenly, one of those factors that is a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective at the moment. I hoped, as I think we all do, that when it came to my friend’s telling me that his mother had died, I wouldn’t say anything fatuous or otherwise unwelcome.

Being me, however, I would certainly want to say something, and that is how Facebook presented a problem. My friend mentioned the hospice care to me, as I’m sure he did to other friends, but he said nothing about it at Facebook. He said very little at Facebook, counting, I believe, on his friends’ intelligence and empathy to infer the absolutely necessary information, which he had also stated, in one sentence (saying that his mother was very ill), on his Web log. I want to make two points here. The first is that my friend’s Facebook page was, laudably, a place of implication, at which friendship was honored by the absence of bogus intimacy (chitchat, gossip, and drama). I find that I cannot get round the word “noble” when thinking of it. The other day, for example, he posted an album of photographs that he has taken while attending to his parents out of town. He is a talented photographer, and his pictures were, under the circumstances, eloquent without being garrulous. It was done, if I may say so, as Elizabeth Bennet would have done it, not as Mrs Bennet would have done.

The other point is that I tied myself to the mast when reading the comments of Facebook friends who were friends of the family. One friend commented on the photo album by saying that she was so sorry to hear what her own mother had just told her. (Ah, so it has happened, I said to myself. Then I said to myself, told her what?) Another friend appears to have committed the faux pas that I was determined to avoid, regretting my friend’s loss before it actually occurred. Once upon a time, that’s exactly what I’d have done; I’d have been unable to resist the occasion for expressing my condolences, because, frankly, I couldn’t help displaying the possession of knowledge. I don’t care for the cruder forms of power, but I have a passion for the latest information. I don’t so much want to know things before other people do as I want to know them at the very first instant when I might reasonably be expected to know them. Every now and then, this leads me to bank on an inference, and in the past my banking has been more than occasionally imprudent. Now that my natural impetuousness is fading with age, I’m better equipped to resist such temptations.

This morning, the announcement came, at Facebook; my friend’s friends were linked to a handsome Web site that included an obituary published in the local city newspaper. My relief at not having made a fool of myself was, under the circumstances, arguably unseemly, but nobody saw it and I mention it now for the edification of others: since I believe that we ought to risk a little more than we do making fools of ourselves, I have to prize the moments when foolishness is averted, because it is not as a matter of policy. (Let no one imagine that tying yourself to the mast as Odysseus did is a policy.) My friend wrote to me, briefly, and in his email he mentioned a piece of music that he has been listening to. It was something that I knew only a famous excerpt of, but whether from freakishness or synchronicity, a CD of the work sat atop a very small pile of dics within reach of my workspace. So I listened to it, all of it, and I allowed myself the largely but not wholly ignorant speculation that my friend’s mother would have smiled to know that I finally did. 

Gotham Diary:
Unfolding Ceremony
Friday, 3 June 2011

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

A spell of fine, dry weather has set me to a thousand household chores that were unthinkable during the dark, dank spring that preceded the blisteringly sultry spring that made the even more unthinkable. Ray Soleil came by this morning, to help out with one or two things (such as hanging the three photographs from Christian Chaize’s Praia Piquinia series that I picked up at Jen Bekman’s 20×200 Project). After lunch and a bit of shopping — when we walked into Crawford Doyle, Dot McCleary was holding up the Times obituary of Hans Keilson, which prompted me to buy a copy of The Death of the Adversary — we came back to the flat, and I decided to rearrange my closets. Although strange in many ways, I am quite normal about closets, and habitually throw things into them for as long as I can get away with it. About two months after I stop getting away with it, I do something. Reorganizing the closets this afternoon turned out to be farily straightforward, and it was done in the short time that it took Ray to watch Blame It On the Bellboy, Mark Herman’s glorious 1992 farce. What I’ve still got to deal with is the clutch of shopping bags that had, over time, been thrown into the closet for lack of a better hiding place. One of the bags, naturally, is stuffed with neatly folded shopping bags. It is not the only one in the house, I’m afraid. What do you think would happen if I threw it away?


Thanks for the encouragement and  inspiration! I threw away another bag in its place. The bag of bags that emerged from the closet was packed with really big bags, from Venture Stationery, Eli’s, and Gracious Home. But if I couldn’t quite do without them, I resolved to get rid of the bag of bags in the hall closet, the one that’s full of the cheap paper bags in which the laundry returns my “boxed” shirts, as well as a large accumulation of plastic shopping bags from Agata & Valentina. Agata & Valentina used to dispense a stout paper shopping bag that was perfect for storing just about anything, from a stack of books to a half-dozen short-sleeved summer shirts to an entire collection of Silpat bakeware. But, at just about the time when these bags were discontinued, I became incapable of overlooking the downside of storing things in shopping bags, so I don’t miss them. I’ve also gotten rid of a lot of the stuff that I was storing in shopping bags. Getting rid of the bag of bags just now was yet another breakthrough in my resistance to the permanent attachment of everything that comes through the front door and doesn’t rot.


In addition to The Death of the Adversary, I bought two other books, a first edition of Edith Sitwell’s English Eccentrics that beckoned alluringly from the shopwindow (Edith Sitwell is the most gloriously perfectly genuine old fraud that ever was) and something that I hadn’t heard of, John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization: Reclaiming a Tarnished Idea. I’ve been getting better at resisting the appeal of books that “look interesting” (meaning that I didn’t know they existed five minutes before), but I’m pretty sure that Armstrong’s book is not going to make it into the Guilt Pile. It’s not very long (195 pages) and the objective stated in its subtitle could not be more arresting. Even if I disagree with Armstrong’s ideas, I’ll get plenty out of the book — and the prospect of serious disagreement is very doubtful, if my random glance at the discussion of the Japanese tea ceremony can be generalized. “The lesson of the tea ceremony is not that we should copy it exactly. The lesson is that we can take fairly minor ordinary activities and raise them to a higher meaning.” Good heavens, this was written for me!

When I paid for the books, I told Dot that I didn’t need a bag. I’ve already got dozens, folded neatly in a shopping bag.

Gotham Diary:
Going Ahead Anyway
Friday, 20 May 2011

Friday, May 20th, 2011

After taking yesterday off — off from writing here — I hardly expected to prolong my absence. But what I expected to be a simple delivery turned into a big deal, and I had to summon the help of Ray Soleil. This led, unaccountably, to standing in the rain at four in the afternoon, trying to hail a cab. It doesn’t get much dumber than that! Great things were accomplished on the shopping front, as it turned out — the economy will live, if I have anything to do with it — but I went from sipping late-afternoon tea with Ray to freshening up for an evening movie with Kathleen, and now it’s midnight, or nearly. I am reduced to writing off the top of my head.

The great conundrum of keeping a diary, online or otherwise, is that, the more you have to do that’s interesting, the less time there is for writing it up. So I’ll beg your indulgence while I check off some names. I’ve read William Deresiewicz’s wonderful book about Jane Austen, which really was hardly what I expected to do after writing about his college-blues piece in The Nation. I liked A Jane Austen Education better at the beginning than at the end; my own take on the class issues that Deresiewicz raises, particularly in the part of his memoir that’s attached to the discussion of Mansfield Park, can only be described as quite similar but entirely different. Forced to put the entire difference simply, I think I’d say that I haven’t given up on the salubriousness of reminding indolent and privileged kids about the workout that the guillotine got in 1794.

This afternoon, I glanced at William Pfaff on George Kennan and John Lukacs: it would be hard to add a fourth name to this august trio; almost everybody younger than I am (all those smart men who write for Condé Nast publications, for example) seems, in comparison, clever but facile, and strangely out of it — yet another Idiocracy alert, I suppose.

The movie that we went to see was François Ozon’s Potiche, which I think ought to be renamed La Reine, because that’s exactly what Catherine Deneuve is here, combining in one person Elizabeth II and Helen Mirren. There is in this film the most transcendent sense of acting without impersonation. How many movies has Deneuve made with Gérard Depardieu? He’s heavier than ever, but she lost a few pounds for this film. Still, there’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter what she looks like. It goes without saying, by the way, that Ozon has made the definitive Seventies period movie.

Now I’m going to turn in with Judith Martin on Venice. We were told about this book at a cocktail party last week. We — and I mean Kathleen and I, here — responded with praise for Donna Leon. Once I had No Vulgar Hotel in my hot little hands, I went straight to the index, where I found two entries for my favorite baroque opera impresario. Neither was anywhere near hardly expected. Here’s a snip from the first.

Fans of Donna Leon’s mysteries give themselves away by their abnormal interest in mundane places — a counterintuitive desire to visit police headquarters or a sudden cry of “Look! That’s where Guido buys flowers for Paola.”

It gets better.

Gotham Diary:
Under Glass
Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Our Tang Dynasty dancing-lady funerary ornament has arrived, and taken up a spot in the blue room that’s about as safe as any in the apartment. She’s under a dome, as you can see, although the base of the dome is already in the shop, having a slightly aged piece of mirror cut to fit. (I’m afraid that the camera focused on the reflected light, leaving our lady a bit floue.)

Is she real? We did not spend so much that finding out the circumstances under which she was counterfeited wouldn’t make an agreeable part of her provenance. There are many signs of repair, most notably about the neck (the poor dear was decapitated at one point). More than that, though — she’s just livelier and more graceful than the Tang figurines at the Museum. She might very well — for all we know — a Ching “reproduction,” improved as reproductions invariably are. I don’t begin to have the conoisseurship required for intelligent comment. We love her the way she is.

We’re considering two names for her. WWW, whose taste for chinoiserie is highly developed, suggested “La perle de Cathay,” which sounds like a pretty good moniker for everyday Gotham use (ie, “Poil”). Our friend Alison, who is a China scholar, contributed something more echt — and also more romantic.

How about Yang Guifei or Consort Yang, born in the early 8th c? not a happy ending, but she is one of the most famous Chinese beauties of them all (and same dynasty).

I’ve adopted this name provisionally; I want to hear the sad story of Yang Guifei before I commit. If it’s a truly sad story in the usual Chinese way, I’ll be fine with it. But it it turned out that Yang Guifei came to an end at all unspeakable, I’ll have to reconsider.

Whatever her name, I can’t really believe that she’s genuinely Tang. That would mean that she was a thousand years old while China was still ruled by emperors. That would mean that, when she was made, the works of Confucius were not fifteen hundred years old. It’s enough that she makes me think such things, and with all the grace in the world.

Gotham Diary:
Cold Seat

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Ten days or so ago, in a burst of strange enthusiasm, I bought a couple of expensive opera tickets. I almost immediately regretted having done so, and this regret materialized in the form of a certainty that the tickets would not arrive in time via the mail — which indeed they did not. I was assured that this wouldn’t be a problem, and indeed it wasn’t: when I called the Metropolitan Opera this afternoon to report the problem, I was told that tickets would be waiting for me at the box office. But I asked instead to donate them. Now I can wait for a tax certificate instead.

The opera in question was Capriccio, which for all of my adult life has been a beloved work of art. I know every line; I even own a full score. The flash of enthusiasm that I felt ten days ago, excited by an ad in the online edition of the Times, was an urge to see the role performed by a great exponent of Richard Strauss’s music, Renée Fleming. I booked two aisle seats in the parterre. They were fairly far back, but still very pricey.

If I’d bought just one ticket, maybe I’d have gone. The prospects of hustling to Lincoln Center in time to fetch the tickets at the box office, on the one hand, and of dragging Kathleen along with me, after her week in bed with a bad flu, on the other, combined to transform an evening to look forward to into a nightmare. And in fact I had a bad dream about it this morning, one that woke me up. 

There was a third worry: Capriccio, properly performed, runs for two and half hours, without intermission. I’m certain that I would spend the final hour — full of beautiful music thought it be — longing for a bathroom. Some pleasure. Until the seat donation was settled, I

Most people would probably agree that my ability to take pleasure in anything is too dependent upon my physical comfort. But I can’t enjoy anything if I’m irritated by aches and pangs. I can endure. But few things are as wicked, in my view, as enduring what ought to be pleasure. The falseness is unspeakable.

I saw Capriccio at the Met thirteen years ago, when the production was new, and I recall that the great pleasure of the evening was sitting in a theatre full of people who, thanks to Met Titles, were enjoying the civilized repartee that constitutes the opera’s libretto. Like almost all of my recollections of evenings at the Met, beautiful music did not figure much in what was memorable. This isn’t to say that the performances were unsatisfactory; but there was no special joy in hearing familiar music in the opera house.

Give me a concert performance at Carnegie Hall any time.


Gotham Diary:
The Dump

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

The Times is running a new feature in the Thursday Home section, “Domestic Lives,” in which writers — novelists, so far as I can tell — revisit the scenes of their youth. I don’t know how long the series has been running, but I noticed it for the first time last week, when Kevin Baker went back to Rockport, Massachusetts, and wrote warmly if ambivalently about the town. “Rockport, as a good town should, showed me the way out when I was young and I seized those invitations.” This week, Francine Prose revisited her childhood home, a big house in Ditmas Park, a once-grand part of Brooklyn. She was welcomed by the Grenadian family that owns the house now, but only to enter the living room, not the rest of the house. She left with ambivalent feelings as well, although in her case these were attributable to the work of time. In any case, both pieces surprised me with the realization that I’ve grown very detached from my own childhood. 

This feels like a side-effect of grandfatherhood: It’s Will’s childhood that’s interesting now. But it’s easy for me to feel that way, because my own childhood was not interesting — or, rather, it was interesting in a lot of unpleasant ways. I was an odd little boy and I felt that this made me a bad little boy, because oddness was not appreciated in the Fifties, not at all. I have never entirely gotten over the feeling that there is something deeply wrong with me, wrong at the core — and all the worse because I’m untroubled by it. If the atmosphere in my parents’ house had been religious, I suppose I’d simply feel like a sinner. Instead, I feel like a deviant, and nothing makes that sense of deviance sharper than the idea of returning to Bronxville. 

It’s hard to talk about an unhappy childhood without seeming to blame somebody, and I’ve long outgrown any desire to complain about my parents. I reserve my complaints for the adoption racket that placed me with them. I don’t mean that somebody at the Foundling Hospital made a bad choice. It’s rather the system itself, which encouraged everyone involved to simulate the appearance of natural bonds. “We couldn’t love you more if you were really ours,” they were told to say. I don’t think that it took long for my mother to fear that she didn’t mean it. She could never have produced such a strange little boy — such a critical little boy. 

From an early age, I thought that our house could have been much nicer, and I often said so. I hated my own room, which was furnished with what was supposed to be manly, Southwestern-themed oak; I thought it was tacky. So I hung out in the basement and played with my train sets (which were always pathetically juvenile — I have never lusted after anything with my eyes the way I did the amazing layouts in Model Railroader). Or I wandered through the undeveloped forest across the road, telling myself stories about building a house for myself in the middle of the woods. This house would be small and neat, like the ones in the mural of New Amsterdam that hung on the wall of the den, over the sofa. I would live either in the basement, with a high window at sidewalk level, or in the attic, in a cosy dormer. (This is how I spent my time, instead of tossing balls of one size or another at other boys.)

My dreams of snug corners didn’t mean that, for the time being — until my new town with its canals and squares occupied the vacant lots — I wouldn’t prefer to live in a larger, more imposing house, preferably one with columns along the front. Eventually, the appeal of columns paled beside that of a rambling late-medieval manor house, like one of the impressive exemples of faux-Tudor architecture that clustered in the triangle made by Masterson Road, Elm Rock Road, and Studio Lane. Not that I’d have wanted to live in one of them, though, because they were in Bronxville. 

I don’t want to complain about Bronxville, either. But the thought of living there is so horrifying that it almost stops my heart. Let me just say that I have every reason that Bronxville’s is still the kind of community that it was when I was a boy, and that I could never live in such a community. Not ever. Which is what makes the essays by Kevin Baker and Francine Prose so interesting. They can write about their childhoods more or less equably. I have a hard time keeping mine from sounding like a Dickensian nightmare. Which it wasn’t. But I’ve long since fallen into the habit of associating the good memories with “who I am proud to be today,” and all the bad ones with “childhood.” I can’t go back, because I’ve turned the past into a dump. 

So, even though I grew up in one of the most affluent and comfortable spots on earth (I do not exaggerate), I think that my grandson is a great deal luckier to be growing up a block away from Tomkins Square Park in Alphabet City, a neighborhood that my parents wouldn’t think much of even in its current semi-gentrified condition. Manhattan life never appealed to either one of them; they knew that the island was home to a lot of strange people, people whom one wouldn’t know, people odd enough to enjoy being alone in the middle of a crowd. In creaky old Yorkville, I have found something that i never had when I was a little boy. I’m inclined to call it “privacy.” 

Gotham Diary:
Exhaustion from Diligent Service

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

The weather was awful — snow! — but I had to get out of the house. I had to get a haircut, but that’s not what I mean; I had to break out of the ordinary routines, which regular readers will know about my fiddling with since the New Year. The new ordinary routines are working well; they’re much more flexible thant the old ordinary routines. But they’re also much more conservative: the list of things to do is quite a bit smaller. In fact, it’s comprised of necessities. There has been no room in the routines for optional entertainments. That’s why, although I’ve been writing well and regularly, I’ve been circling my navel so far as subject-matter goes. I had to get out of the house in order to have something fresh to report. 

How conservative? My idea of “something fresh” was a trip to the Museum. Oh, boy; how exotic! Sad truth is: it has gotten to be exotic. I’ve been to the Museum once this year, and that was to take my grandson on his first visit — to get him out of the house on a cold day. He and I did not study the curios, exactly; from my point of view, the trip was all about him, not the Museum. 

Today, I vowed, I would go to the Museum and see something new. The Qianlong Emperor obliged. More about him in a minute. Even better, the Museum’s curators obliged. I saw something old — old and very familiar. In a show complementing the exhibition of knickknacks from the emperor’s retirement pavilion, constructed in the Forbidden City in the 1770s, the Museum has displayed one of the few treasures that I long to possess — a large painted-enamel ginger jar. The Museum has two of them; I’d be happy to let it keep one. (As long as they’ve got the pair, though, I wish that they’d turn one of them around, so that I could inspect the back.) 

What I love about the jar, aside from its riotous tackiness, is its cosmopolitan flavor; in a vitrine with other Chinese decorative objects, it stands out as  foreign. And it is foreign. According to the label, one of the patterns beneath the illusory wrapping looks more Indian than Chinese. The technique of painted enamel was developed a few centuries earlier in Limoges. The Chinese, after all, didn’t invent everything. The Qianlong period (1736-1795) was unusually open to foreign styles; the Jesuits were still providing the emperor with a window on the West through which European styles were allowed to pass. One of the objects on display this afternoon — I don’t think that it came from the Forbidden City — was a perfectly frightful vase with long panels showing ladies in French court attire romping beneath parasols; the panels are “framed” with half-carat crystals. Unlike my ginger jar, it’s heavy and dreary and an embarrassment really. 

The conceit of the ginger jar lies in the incompatibility of the patterns above and below the trompe-l’oeil cloth wrapping; it’s as if the broken top and bottom of completely different jars had been glued together, with the swath of ribbony fabric concealing the join. You don’t notice this right away, though, because the cloth itself is so busy: layered fantastically in three colors, embroidered with a tiny pattern, and overlaid with floral emblems that don’t quite tuck into the folds. The whole thing comes this close to being one of those horrors that you used to see in the furniture showrooms on Grand street — when Grand Street was still part of Little Italy. With a ghastly tasseled lampshade. 

I can’t help thinking of the Qianlong Emperor as the Chinese Louis XV. Their long reigns overlapped considerably, and were characterized by an easygoing opulence and a nonchalant grandeur that inspired the production of a lot of beautiful things. (And their régimes were equally doomed, even if it took China more than a century longer to tumble into the abyss.) Of course we know a lot more about the French king than we ever will about the Chinese emperor; it’s not difficult to bring the lazy and sensual but warm-hearted and good-natured Louis to life, but the personal qualities of the Qianlong Emperor are so much rubble beneath the official transcripts of his reign, in which almost everything occurs as it was supposed to occur. (There are no reliable unofficial transcripts.) Poor Lord Macartney never got to have the tête-à-tête that would have allowed him to take the emperor’s measure; the wall of officialdom that blandly blanketed the empror was never breached. 

A nearby vitrine held an assortment of medium-sized lacquer dishes and boxes. I wondered, as always, what they are like to hold. The thought of what it must be like to have to keep a piece of lacquerware dusted led immediately to the guilty recollection that I’ve forgotten all about my resolution to re-read The Dream of the Red Chamber, also known as The Story of the Stone, all four Penguin volumes of which rest beneath my bedside table. I have Volume I in my hands as I write. A Taoist  is talking to a large, inscribed stone — a stone that has everything written on it save the authentication of a dynastic date. Somehow, the stone is going to be sent down to participate in the great illusion of human life — it’s probably best not to dwell on the mechanics. When does the story get going? If I could only get past this prefatory mumbo-jumbo….

I have been thinking lately that I ought to stop reading new books for a year and just re-read old favorites. The Tale of Genji. Austen, Eliot, and James. And Forster. And Waugh. The barber today asked me to recommend a book. He’s from Peru and he wants to improve his English by reading a book that is interesting but not too difficult. I almost suggested Vile Bodies. The language itself is not very difficult, as I recall. But the goings-onmight shock him, might sail right over his uncomprehending head. I recommended Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live, the book about Montaigne. Tito may never ask me to recommend another book, but it will be for a perfectly respectable reason. 

Ah, there’s nothing new here at all! It looks like I’ve fallen back on my old game, trying to write about the same old things with a hint of freshness. How well I’d have fit in at the Qianlong Emperor’s retirement pavilion,which was called, by the way, the Juanqinzhai — the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service.

Gotham Diary:

Friday, March 11th, 2011

By the time I heard from Kathleen —After a delayed but otherwise uneventful flight to Raleigh-Durham, Kathleen enjoyed a nice lunch with her father and her brother. Then she called me to check in. Ordinarily, she calls whenever her flight lands, but today she decided not to, since I’d be at the movies as usual. Trouble was, I didn’t go to the movies. I’m not sure that it would have calmed down to surmise what turned out to be the case, because it had never happened before. But once I heard her voice — well, it seems in poor taste today to talk of floods of relief.

I didn’t go to the movies because when I finally did stagger out of bed at 8:30 this morning (Kathleen called to say that her plane had just arrived at LaGuardia, when it ought to have been taking off), every joint and tissue clamored for a day off. I wanted only to spend the day reading and watching movies. Kathleen’s being away for the weekend was slightly liberating but largely dispiriting; more often that not, when she’s out of town I feel like the gods in Das Rheingold after the giants carry off Freia, the goddess who tends the orchard where the apples of youthfulness grow.

It’s amazing, though, how quickly a day passes when all you’re doing is reading a book like James Gleick’s The Information. I’m struggling to keep my head about the symbolo-logico-mathematical waters. I nourish a fond hope that Mr Gleick or some other worthy will sex up set theory for me, so that I can at least imagine being interested in the topic. Despite all my years in radio, I have absolutely no palpable grasp of how sound waves, converted into electromagnetic ones, shoot through wires or zoom through the air. I can’t see how it works, and the words get in the way. And whenever the pursuit of abstraction begins to look like a game, I not only lose interest but become annoyed. I don’t like games.

I used to like a lot of games (although never athletic ones), but the passing years presented me with ever-better things to do with my time. I used to do Thomas Middleton’s acrostics whenever they appeared in the Times — something that I had occasion to remember when The Information taught me the counterintuitive but absolutely sound equation of certainty with the total lack of information. If the message can say only one thing — if there is not even the possibility of the message’s not being sent or received — then it is completly devoid of information. It was always very helpful, when solving the acrostics, to try out suffixes such as tion. (And, if that didn’t work — if, say, I had ti for sure — then ting.) But even though I’ve waded through pages about Claude Shannon and bits, I can’t quantify the amount of information that is conveyed by the difference between I  and a, the only two words that can fill a single space. It’s lots, though. A passage narrated in the first person calls up a world of probabilities that distinguishes it from other kinds of prose.

(Playing games with Will will be different. I don’t in fact have anything better to do with my time than play with my grandson. I expect to have at least as much patience with games as he does.)

As for the day’s videos, I’ve watched the latter half of Morning Glory; all of Coco Before Chanel, a picture that I missed in the theatres, heaven knows why; and a strange BBC thing about Agatha Christie with Olivia Williams and Anna Massey. The last is a sort of enacted documentary, with a script taken from genuine records and from Christie’s press talk at the umpteenth anniversary of Mousetrap. I’ll watch anything with Olivia Williams in it, and I just about have.

Kathleen is going to calls tongiht, after dinner, she is bound to have more to report than I do.

Weekend Update:
No Time
Sunday, 13 February 2011

Monday, February 14th, 2011

This brief note will acknowledge the obvious: this week’s Grand Hours never got written. It ought to have been composed during the work week, of course, but the blagueurs and I haven’t begun to figure out to do that. And the weekend turned out to be unavailable for reading, writing, and reflection. When I got back this afternoon from taking Will for our Sunday walk, I sat down at the desk and — hey, presto! woke up ten minutes later when a friend called to thank us for yesterday’s party. I realized then that, while the flesh was willing to sit through the ordeal of putting together a few interesting links, the spirit was entirely AWOL.

As for the party, it was as good as ours ever are (which is pretty good, in my opinion) — but it was also incomparably super. Technically, this was Will’s second party at our house, but let’s be realistic: he was a baby last April, when we celebrated Kathleen’s birthday, and he is not a baby anymore. His parents decided that they would stay as long as Will seemed to be having a good time, and that turned out to be an incredible four hours. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when Will adds conversation to his bundle of charms. 

I’d better publish this before I fall asleep again. What is it about age that is supposed not to wither? That part’s not working for me.

Weekend Update:
In Which Will and I Pay a Call

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

This afternoon, Will and I paid our first social call. Until now, our Sunday walks across the East Village have always had the same destination, St Mark’s Bookshop, on Third Avenue at Stuyvesant Street. I’ve longed to go someplace where we might take off our coats, sit down for a minute, and visit. The “visit” part, of course, would consist of my showing off my grandson to admiring friends. But that’s putting it crudely. Will would show himself off, without any plugging from me. And that’s exactly what happened today.

From the moment that I unzipped his snowsuit and sat him on my knee, he behaved like an angel — and angel who dropped a lot of crumbs on the floor, but an angel all the same. He munched on bits of mini-cupcakes from Le pain quotidian — our hostess bought them specially for our visit — and took a few sips of water. But it was obvious that his attention was held by new people and new surroundings, and not once did he attempt to place himself at the center of ours. After half an hour or so, I felt that we had visited for long enough, and I zipped Will up without any making any announcements. I had to be helped a bit with his arms and legs; this was the first time that I had taken him out of the Becco carrier, much less unzipped his coat, without one of his parents’ being in the vicinity. Getting him back into the carrier was awkward, too, but Will didn’t complain.

When we got back to Will’s house, his mother was a little bit anxious; we’d been gone for almost two times longer than ever before. And Will had fallen asleep as we walked thorugh Tomkins Square Park. Was he okay? Watching Megan peer at him with concern just about sank me, but as I lifted him out of the carrier he showed all the desired signs of life. Waking up, he looked just like hisGreat Grand Uncle Fossil after a nap — faintly surprised to find himself on Planet Earth, still, but deeply pleased to have stolen a few Zs.

But I’d forgotten that I’m an old man. Buoyed up by the mildness in the air — it wasn’t warm by any means, but there was no bite to the temperature — I’d walked across the East Village as if I were worried about being late, which is standard whenever I’m doing something for the first time. When we got to the house of our friend (whose delightful contribution to our Valentine’s Tea next weekend gave me the delightful idea of picking it up at her house today) I was a Niagara of perspiration. I was even damper when we got back to Loisaida Avenue (via St Mark’s Bookshop, natch). I didn’t stay long at the O’Neills’; I wanted to be sure of catching a cab before the witching hour of 4 PM. I asked to be dropped off at Agata & Valentina, where I picked up a few supplies (but not the pancetta that was on the list that I’d — left at home; just as well; the charcuterie counter was mobbed). When I walked back outside, my undershirt went chilly, and I knew that I’d better get home and into dry clothes as quickly as possible. What I didn’t expect was that the moment I sat down, showered and dressed, I’d feel totally bushed. Well, duh. (But that’s why Advil was invented.)

When we crossed Second Avenue the first time, I pointed uptown and told Will that Doodad’s place was eighty-two blocks thataway. “That’d be a long walk! But we’ll do it someday.” After today, the sky’s the limit.  


Gotham Diary:
Will E Makit

Monday, January 31st, 2011

My friend Eric’s account of his holiday trip to Paris reminded me not as much of my own three visits as of my fear that I would never get to Europe — a fear that overshadowed the first half of my life, or nearly. I was 29 when I finally got to go — late in the day for someone who had committed the English succession to memory in grade school. I was to go to Angers in my sophomore year at Notre Dame, but my life fell apart for a while before that could happen, and my sophomore year turned into a second freshman year spent very much in South Bend. And once I’d graduated, I was more concerned about getting back to New York than with making it to Europe. My scheme for getting back to New York via law school ultimately worked, more or less, but it turned out that I crossed the Atlantic first. My mother died, and my father took me to Europe in her place.

In an impish comment at Sore Afraid, I suggested that the trip was booked before cancer treatments killed my mother (this was in 1977). Of course that’s not true. All we were thinking about for most of 1976 was whether the doctors would turn out to be right about how many months she had to live. They were. Oh, and one other thing: how to relate to a woman who let it be known from the first inklings of illness that her demise was not to be discussed. Her last words to me, which I could barely make out (to her towering frustration), were: “Did you put the leftover ravioli in the freezer?” We’re talking big-time denial here. Mother was dead within the hour, as we were driving home from M D Anderson.

Soon after that, my father developed throat cancer. At least, his doctor was worried that that might be what had turned his throat a chalky white. By now, the trip to Europe was booked. It would be a road trip, just like the trips that my parents loved to take wherever they were, even if it meant hiring a driver. I truly believe that my father’s favorite thing in life was to zoom along an Interstate Highway at 110 0r 120 mph, preferablyin Kansas, bombing from El Dorado — a town that exercised a mysterious attraction for him, perhaps because there was a super deluxe motel there — to Kansas City. I think that he liked it best when my mother was doing the speeding. They really loved their cars, which may explain why I’m just as happy not to own one.

We would fly to London and then to Paris, my father and I. From Paris we would drive straight east, through Munich and Salzburg, to Vienna. Then would fly to Ireland, spend a few days at Dromoland Castle, and come home. I can’t say that I was looking forward to all that driving, but in retrospect I think that it would have been the best part of the trip — which was not canceled because of Dad’s throat cancer. Dad didn’t have throat cancer. The white stuff on his esophagus had been deposited there by aspirin tablets, which my father had fallen into the habit of swallowing without drinking water. We did go to Europe after all. But once we were there, Dad’s life fell apart. He discovered that I was not the fun traveling companion that my mother had been, and his mourning commenced in earnest.

It started on the flight over. I was cross because we were seated in coach. For seven years, I had not flown on a commercial airliner, much less in coach. I piggy-backed rides (rarely offered) on company planes. I got used to driving up right up to the jet, and even more used to climbing the stairs without a thought for the luggage, which was stowed by the crew. It turned out that I have a natural and abiding affinity for first-class travel. If I have to settle for less, I’d just as soon settle for staying home. I know that now. I was only beginning to learn it as I sat next to Dad in the vastness of Pan Am’s steerage. I tried to distract myself with a book. For the life of me, I can’t remember Dad’s exact words, but it amounted to a request for conversation that, ungrateful wretch that I was, I couldn’t think how to grant. I was too busy worrying that one of the large families occupying the center bay of seats would produce a farm animal.

Also, after all those years of neat little Havillands, I couldn’t see how a 747 could stay airborne. My fear of flying blossomed two flights later, crossing the Alps in a Caravelle. For the duration of the flight, my body fairly screamed its conviction that the plane was locked in a whistling descent, hurtling toward the Matterhorn. Conversation was once again out of the question.

We were on the Caravelle, and not in a sedan, because — d’you know, I forget why? Every morning, in London and then in Paris, Dad announced that we’d be going home the next day. I think that he substituted the flight to Vienna just to do something. A premature return to Houston would have entailed embarrassing explanations. And even Dad knew that I wasn’t entirely to blame for not being Mom. Nor was I to blame for the doctor’s visits, at the Grosvenor House and the Intercontinental in Paris. Both of them declared that he must stop drinking if he wanted to stop falling down. So we flew to Vienna for the few days that we’d meant to spend there, and found that our hotel room was wallpapered identically to the dining room in our Bronxville house, which my parents had (treacherously, as far as I was concerned) abandoned for Tanglewood in 1968. Maybe the wallpaper made the mourning easier. Maybe it was the fact that I had no real agenda in Vienna. My father sat through a pops concert with me — that’s all that was on offer, what with all the real musicians off at various summer festivals, and I remember thinking that I’d be the only person in nearby St Stephen’s if I got to an organ concert ten minutes earlier. I had to stand at the back of the nave, a nice little lesson in Viennese musicality. By the time we flew to Dublin, I was almost out of the doghouse. But only almost. Dad blew his top when all the books and records that I’d bought in the three capitals added sixty dollars in surcharges.

In Dublin, we spent the night at the Gresham. I did not sleep; the sound of pub-crawlers never let up. But I must have dozed, because in the morning I was awake enough to get behind the wrong-sided wheel of a car for the first time in my life and drive right across Ireland. And now that we were in a car, my father and I really had fun. I don’t know what we talked about, but there was laughter, and I basked in his admiration of my driving skill, which was largely exhibited in a series of near misses with death. What fun that drive across Bavaria would have been! Plus, it would have kept us on schedule. Now we were arriving at Dromoland castle — a first class hotel if ever there was one — a few days early, and they weren’t ready for us. We had to stay in a motel on the property, a decidely non-super deluxe motel. That was all right; we spent the days driving all over Counties Clare and Galway. Aside from the Cliffs of Moher, the ruins of an abbey, and an unspeakably flavorless tapioca pudding, I have no recollection of seeing anything. It was wasn’t important. Driving was important. We drove around, as aimlessly as teenagers, and had a blast.

Dad did not fall down in Ireland. He almost fell, but he caught himself before he tripped over me. I had given up on the bed and was trying to sleep on the floor — surprise!

After doing some research, Dad discovered that Aer Lingus wouldn’t impose TWA’s luggage surcharges, so it was in an Irish brogue that I learned, midway across the Atlantic, that we’d be landing at JFK in the middle of a blackout. How would that work?

Gotham Diary:
Immer mehr Schnee!

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

Even the snow is tired of falling. It hangs, floating in midair, drifting every way but down. Or so it seems.

Snow or no, I must go out today. I must go to the Post Office, my least favorite place in town, not excluding the colonoscopy clinic. If you could see our post office — it’s called “Gracie Station,” but all grace ends with the name — you’d understand; it is one of the dreariest relics of Fifties functionalism that’s still standing. A blank barn of a room with too much fluorescent lighting and counters that look as though they’d been thrown up in an emergency, the place makes you wonder if Joe Stalin didn’t win the Cold War, after all. Because this is a place where you expect to have your papers examined by petulant and capricious clerks who might just for the hell of it dispatch you to a gulag. I won’t say that the post office clerks are nasty, but you can’t wonder that they hate working there. It doesn’t help that the neighborhood’s affluent citizens rely on their office mail rooms, setting an Emma Lazarus default on the already cheerless atmosphere.

And I’ve a yen for Shake Shack that nothing else will appease. This is just the day for sitting outside, no? I think, if I get there early enough, there won’t be a crowd and I’ll find a table inside. But I never do get there early enough. That’s to say that I don’t even try, because by the time I’m ready to leave the house it’s too late.

I hope that the snow isn’t spoiling Will. Who knows when we’ll have so much again? Not that we played in it on Sunday, when I took him for a walk. We watched the dogs in Tomkins Square Park, coming and going (completely different crowds), trudged down Ninth Street to St Mark’s Bookshop, comme d’habitude, and stopped at Dinosaur Hill on the way back. When he is in the carrier, strapped to my chest, Will doesn’t interact with the world very much, although this week he did give the dogs some attention. But the moment he was planted back on the floor, back at home, he made a beeline for the front door and beamed at me with Harpo-Marx intensity.

Something else that he did that was neat to watch: he was playing with something at the table that was not food. At least twice, I saw him push it to the edge but then stop pushing. He’s done the gravity thing. For half of last year, he broke me up by staring down at things that he’d just given the heave-ho to, as if his special eye-power would levitate them back up. He appears to have tired of that experiment.

Now, if I can just throw on some clothes really quick and get out of here…

… success! Shake Shack was super, and I had a table to myself the entire time. I read Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case while I nibbled away at a Shackburger, krinkly fries, and, of course, a chocolate shake.

But was I trying to make predictions about how awful the post office would be? Three windows were open: one for special delivery and supplies, one for stamps and money orders, and one — just one — for all the other things that you have to go to the post office to take care of, because they’re cumbersome and time-consuming. The minutes flew by like hours, without anyone in the entire joint moving more than an inch in any direction. Just one. But it got done.

Gotham Diary:
Natural Selection
28 December 2010

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

For someone wishing to remain a communicator of words and concepts, this poses an unusual challenge. Gone is the yellow pad, with its now useless pencil. Gone is the refreshing walk in the park or workout in the gym, where ideas and sequences fall into place as if by natural selection. Gone too are productive exchanges with close friends — even at the midpoint of decline from ALS, the victim is usually thinking far faster than he can form words, so that conversation itself becomes partial, frustrating, and ultimately self-defeating.

That’s the late, great Tony Judt, writing earlier this year about the impact of ALS on the life of the mind, in The Memory Chalet. I quote the entire paragraph, but it is only the second sentence that concerns me here. I had to put the book down when I read it; I was overcome with envy and regret. In my case, “natural selection” has ordained a disconnection between thinking and doing. Nothing shuts my mind down with grimmer efficiency than physical exercise. No, that’s not right: my mind isn’t shut down; it’s reduced to a dreary concentration camp. My imagination is bound and netted by the essential pointlessness of exercise: doing nothing (from an intellectual point of view) is a waking nightmare. “Refreshing walks in the park”: I must ask if the phrase has an actual meaning in my life. It doesn’t, not in Judt’s sense. A walk in the park, with no mindful destination or purpose, is simply a succession of dumb steps. A walk to the bookstore requires the same number of steps, but my mind is alert — in pursuit of the contents of a book, or perhaps only the pleasure of bookstore bookchat. And  the only thing that I can compare a workout in the gym to is a weird sort of self-induced rape, where you make yourself have sex with someone whom you don’t want to touch and whom you don’t want touching you. If that’s hard to imagine, then you can see why I don’t belong to a gym.

I know what Judt means by “natural selection,” because I’ve seen it represented in the movies. Ron Silver, in Reversal of Fortune, comes to mind. He’s playing Alan Dershowitz, who is playing basketball in his driveway. Suddenly Dershowitz stops, or, rather, he doesn’t stop suddenly, it’s as though suddenly the life were beginning to drain out of him. But it’s only the energy that basketball requires; that energy is being diverted to his brain, where a breakthrough in the von Bulow case has just been announced. The breakthrough has presented itself; Judt might as well have written “magically,” and, as we all know, magic can’t happen if you’re peeking. Dershowitz stops playing basketball and gets back to work, his vigor manifestly renewed. The lesson is clear: it’s important to stop thinking altogether, sometimes, and to abandon yourself to physical challenge. Otherwise, you’ll never figure anything out.

But that doesn’t work for me. As I say, I can think things over while I’m walking to the bookstore, or to the theatre, or to any destination at all, so long as I am not walking for the sake of walking. And walking is obviously the only permissible activity: there is no call for running or jumping, no point to strenuous exercise other than indulging it for its own sake, which stops thinking cold. I do a great deal of reaching and carrying in my householding life, and I spend hours standing in the kitchen, but none of this is exercise; it’s just life. I’m usually thinking about what I’m doing: dusting a bookshelf, or sorting through the papers in a folder. Interesting thoughts fly by every now and then, and I’m trying to discipline myself to stop to write them down, not as dashed-off notes that won’t make any sense an hour later, but with an intelligible imprint of context, as if to capture what the thought felt like. For the most part, though, I do my thinking when I’m reading, writing, or talking. It’s only then that I’m informed by the sharp and vital editorial voice that tells me that I’m mistaken. Without that, my mind is a foggy blob.

This isn’t to say that I never enjoy a refreshing walk in the park. I do! But it’s only when the thinking has been done, the long piece written. And the walk is refreshing because there is nothing to think about. After a good walk, my brain settles into an ox-like stolidity that is blind to abstraction. It is something like sleep. My mind takes a while to wake up. During that time, I don’t mind being stupid; I’m too stupid to care. I can’t imagine that Tony Judt was ever stupid for a moment. 

Gotham Diary:
Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

I spent five hours at the Hospital for Special Surgery this afternoon — that’s why I didn’t schedule a Daily Office. That, and my not feeling very well. Owing to nobody’s fault in particular, I was discovering that I can’t quite make it for fourteen weeks between Remicade infusions. Thirteen, yes; but no more. Days into the inadvertent fourteenth week, I was having to think twice before leaving the apartment, because my colon had reverted to its natural, irritable state. I’d run out of Remicade molecules! The last thing I wanted to do was languish in hospital waiting rooms, but I would only feel worse if I gave into that declension. I wanted to stay home because I needed what I’d have to go to the hospital to get.

It’s a very nice hospital, Special Surgery. I’ve certainly never been in a nicer one. That has something to do with the parts of the body that are treated there, bones and their integuments. The limbs that stretch away from the brain and the thoracic organs. No heart disease, no cancer, no emphysema. There may be unimaginable pain and crippling, but it isn’t, for the most part, potentially fatal. There is a sense in which every HSS patient is an athlete on the mend. We’re all getting better — and that’s obviously great for staff morale.

But the hospital also takes advantage of its location. The waiting room for Radiology and the visiting areas for inpatients all overlook the East River. That’s an understatement; they’re on the East River. Which regular readers know is a strait that flows in both directions, depending upon the tide, bearing ships and barges and police cruisers and sailboats and even (idiotic) jet-skis. No matter how bad you may feel, the misery of being shut away in a fluorescent hell isn’t making things worse.

So I felt better the moment I arrived at the hospital, an hour early for my appointment with the rheumatologist (a Facebook friend, by the way) who always looks me over before infusions. When I last saw him, in September, he ordered some X-rays of my cervical vertebrae, just to be sure that carrying my growing grandson around isn’t the reason why I’m suddenly capable of slight nodding: my neck really isn’t supposed to move at all at this point. It was inevitable that I would put off actually having the X-ray until my next visit to the hospital, i.e. today. What wasn’t inevitable was that I’d go to the hospital an hour early because I felt so lousy that I’d just as soon be in a hospital. It was even less foreseeable that I would start feeling better, as I say, as soon as I got there.

From 2:15 until 3, I waited for an X-ray slot. At 3, I put that wait on hold and went upstairs to see the rheumatologist. I was back downstairs by 3:25, and by 3:35 I was sitting in an X-ray room in my undershirt. (It’s cold in New York!) It took a long time to get all the X-rays, because, you see, my neck doesn’t move, and this confounds a lot of everyday technician wisdom. The guy who took my pictures was smart enough to know what he didn’t know, and a whizbang colleague was brought in at one point to kibitz. Radiologists were consulted, as well as the rheumatologist. I was feeling so much better by this point in the afternoon that, frankly, there wasn’t much to distinguish me from Norma Desmond; of course I was difficult. Or, rather, my body was. I myself couldn’t have been more obliging. I held odd positions for long stretches without a whisper of complaint. At one point, my butt was hiked up on a huge triangular ridge of foam, while my mouth roared wide open in silence. “Don’t breathe!” When it was all over, the technician thanked me for being a “good patient.” But of course, Mr De Mille! It was 4:30, time for Remicade.

The nurses at the Infusion Therapy Unit — only one of whom, Sara, was there when I paid my first visit, seven years ago next April — were Doodad’s best friend when it came to cooing over Facebook pictures of Will. Sara herself pronounced Will “one happy little boy.” Earlier, the rheumatologist, who seemed to have all the time in the world to hear about Will’s eager appetite for asparagus and mushroom soup, beamed at me and said, “I don’t know you know you, but I know you well enough not to be surprised that you’re a big softie about your grandson.” I took that as a compliment. Also as a suggestion to lose weight.

At 7:10 — I was so eager to be up and going that I wanted to offer to drink the last few milliliters of Remicade — I dashed out into the night, eager to catch Kathleen on her cell phone; she had just landed in St Louis for an overnight business trip. I got a taxi right away — and why not? New York was going my way. Every hospital stay should be as restorative as mine was today. I could swear that the Remicade is already working.

Housekeeping Note:

Thursday, June 17th, 2010


It’s not so much a matter of running late as it is one of not having run early. Happy Thursday! Meaning that Will and Megan are here, and we aren’t planning to spend much time online. Ought to that about that last night, right? But we went to the theatre and saw a rather exhausting (if awfully well-done) play about a broken upper-middle-class English family. This required a long restorative dinner, after which there was nothing for it but to go to bed. Up first thing this morning to unpack the Pack ‘n’ Play.

But we did get the Book Review covered yesterday. Can you believe that we’re still doing that? This is the sixth summer. Ha!

More anon, we promise.