Archive for December, 2007

Asleep Sitting Up

Monday, December 31st, 2007


It is always the same. We give a party. We go to bed. I wake up early, feeling fine, and start to clean up. When the final dishwasher load is running, Kathleen comes to, sort of, and announces that she feels as though she has been hit by a Mack Truck. I bring her a glass of water and a few Advil tablets for her raging headache, and she slips back into slumber. Later the same day she rises and stumbles into her clothes, and it is time for another nap. 

When Fossil Darling called to thank us for the wonderful party &c, he told us that it was very nice outside. Windy but sunny and not too cold. So Kathleen thought that she ought to take a walk. Would we walk to the river, or in Central Park? We walked down First Avenue to Agata & Valentina, because I had conceived a desire to celebrate New Year’s Eve with beef stroganoff. Silly me, I hadn’t thought of this before, and it was madness to think of walking into that den of maddened shoppers on one of the biggest days of the A&V year. For all I knew, there wouldn’t be any tenderloin on offer. But I thought I might check it out, and Kathleen (later told me that she) wanted to humor me as thanks for the wonderful party &c, preparing for which, she insisted, “I did nothing.” I said, pretty cavalierly, that I’d “check out” the butcher counter; if there was a throng, I wouldn’t wait.

Kathleen hates being in Agata & Valentina at the best of times. It is very reminiscent of the hole into which Alice fell through to Wonderland. The shopping area and the checkout lane compete for the same square footage. A crowded 6 train at rush hour is slightly less unpleasant, because you’re unlikely to be rammed by shopping carts as you wait for your charcuterie (or wait to be waited on). For someone my size, this is not too great a challenge, but Kathleen, notoriously not tall, finds the crush wildly oppressive. She said that she would wait outside while I “checked out” the butcher counter.

But it was too cold to wait outside. Happily, the entrance area, which used to house a small cafe, has been given over to organic vegetables, but a few of the little stools and bar tables remain. Leaving Kathleen there, I plunged into the thick and soon — very soon — found exactly what I wanted, went back to the end of the line, and duly paid for a piece of meat that was just the right size. I don’t think that it took ten minutes altogether. (The checkout line, while crazy-long, moves crazy-quick.) I walked out the exit door by the cash register and back to the store entrance nearer the corner of 79th Street. Inside the entry area, surrounded among the turnips by deranged foragers, I found Kathleen, perched on one of the stools — sound asleep.

“Shall we walk down to the river?” I suggested, once we were outside.

“I need a taxi,” was the answer.

But what about the caviar, you ask. Surely I had to wait behind the insanely picky customers for “appetizing” foods (as smoked fish and pickled salads are called in New York) in hopes of securing an ounce or two of caviar?

No, I didn’t. My sleepyhead had taken care of that on Saturday — and not at Agata & Valentina.

The Holiday Hiatus

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

Madame in her workshop.

The holiday hiatus continues. For the second time in 2007, I did not go to the movies on Friday. (I was in hospital the first time.) I’ve absolutely nothing to report, except that I’m already looking forward to getting back to regular life. The pile of books to write up for Portico is suddenly twice as tall as it was the other day. How’d that happen?

At the same time, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s party. In the past, I’d have been lost in the kitchen about now, making this and that for the buffet table, waiting for the dishwasher to run its interminable cycle or struggling to find extra room in the fridge. Not this year. This year, aside from some very minimal edibles — miniature sandwiches of a vernacular description (ham and Swiss; turkey) and a platter of cookies from Greenberg’s — and plentiful but unimaginative potables, what I’m offering my guests is each other’s conversation. Call me Tom, and get yourself some whitewash.

What I’ve discovered is that the creative part of giving a party — the part that I’ve excised this year — is not the time-consuming part. I’ve still had plenty of errands to run, and the apartment to straighten up, and a list of last-minute reminders.* If I thought I’d be saving myself any work by “not cooking,” I was right, but not in a very interesting way. I wasn’t really thinking of saving myself work, though. I was remembering how reluctant people have been at other parties to interrupt themselves in order to eat.

In the past, I’d have been frantic about not being free to slave over my own party because I’d got to attend somebody else’s. Not this year. I’m thinking of just about nothing at the moment beyond the pleasure of going out for an early evening. Very old and dear friends are celebrating their twentieth wedding anniversary, and they’ve requested the pleasure of our company. For me, at least, a pleasure it will be. 

I’ll be checking in again on New Year’s Eve.

* I just remembered, in fact, to throw some rather dusty vases into the dishwasher, so that if anyone shows up with a bunch of flowers I’ll be ready.

This ruin is inhabited

Thursday, December 27th, 2007


This is a picture of my wonderfully sweet friend George Snyder. He is the boy in blue. Whatever is vexing him, I know for a fact that he has forgotten what it was. I know because I lifted this image from his blog.

Having met George very recently, I can assure you that the passage of time has done nothing to render him unrecognizable. I would know him in an instant, and so would you. But why does he get to be so lucky? He has, it seems, always had those keen sloe eyes. I, in contrast, have had to make do with the improving effects, such as they are, of increased respectability — ie, ageing.

The edifying thing about the Mitford sisters’ correspondence — to which I’ve become addicted, not least because I never knew that the D of D was so extraorder about faux modesty (quelle pièce de travaille, celle-là!) — is that you never know when Nancy is going to pop an amazing bit of Voltaire in your face. “This ruin is inhabited by a young person” — where did he say that? It is simply how I feel all the time, now that I’m sixty!

Bloomingdale's: In & Out

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

Central Park: The Engineers Gate

In and out of Bloomingdale’s in twenty minutes — how was that possible? It was a lucky combination: I knew where I was going, and the departments that I wanted were still where they’ve been for ages. My heart did sink a bit when I found Luggage just opposite the escalator at the sixth floor. Luggage used to be downstairs, near the subway entrance. Something tells me that, had I been looking for it, I’d have looked in vain for fine china and crystal. On the sixth floor, anyway.

What I was looking for, however, was right where I expected it to be, at the other end of the floor. Kitchen gadgets and appliances. It was time for a new electric kettle. Time for a new coffee grinder. The ones that I had worked just fine, but their plastic sheathing was depressingly grungy. I know that you can clean plastic with ammonia — but then I looked inside the electric kettle. Even with New York’s wonderful soft water! And as for the coffee grinder!  Enough is enough. Time to recycle.

I didn’t mean to buy new steak knives at Bloomingdale’s. I’d had my eye on a set of staghorn knives from Scully & Scully. Appraising the offerings from Henkel, however, I did a rethink. The staghorn handles are, to put it mildly, gamy, and some diners might find them upsetting, especially as we march into a greener tomorrow. Also they are (necessarily) made with glue, and the glue (inevitably) wears out. That’s what happened to the staghorn knives that I’ve been limping along with for about ten years. The Henkel knives were pricier, but — deal breaker! — they could be sharpened on the Chef’s Choice thingy.

I also needed gloves. Kathleen said, “Wait until Christmas, when everything’s on sale.” But why would Bloomingdale’s — even Bloomingdale’s — put men’s dress gloves on sale in the middle of the holiday season, when they’re being lost right and left? Exactly. I bought two pairs anyway. Although I’m aware of the school of character appraisal that is based on shoes, I myself judge people by their gloves.

The Joy of Christmas

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007


Happy Day After Christmas! Time to wash all those dishes. By hand — it’s the good stuff. There have been great improvements in the operation of dishwashers over the years, and I expect that even the finest china and the thinnest gold leaf are safe in them now, but I’m in no mood to experiment with pieces that can’t be replaced.

A spare hour! Time to read The Sportswriter. Kathleen is not napping — quite the reverse — but I shall talk with her when the hour is up, and we shall plot the evening.

It’s hard to believe that it’s just an ordinary Wednesday. There’s a very thick atmosphere of Sunday.

What I'm Reading/In the Book Review

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007


Not much change since last week, naturally, given the holiday. When I was young, the holidays were a great time for reading, but in those days I was strictly on the receiving end of all the goodies. Now I’ve got to cook them myself &c.

Aside from The Sportswriter, which I seem to read in odd hours while Kathleen naps, I’ve begun a few other titles, including The Father of All Things, by Tom Bissell. What was the first book that I read about Viet Nam, I wonder. It must have been Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake. I was very absorbed by the I Ching at the time, and knew all the trigrams by sight. I used to “throw” the hexagrams with Tinkertoy rods, yarrow being not only unavailable but unknown to me. (I would grow it in my garden years later, as achillea.)

What I’m really working on, though, is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the Hercule Poirot mystery that made Agatha Christie famous in 1926. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this is homework: I’m preparing to read Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, by Pierre Bayard. I’m hoping that the latter will prove to be as cheeky as How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

As for this week’s Book Review,

¶ A Beast in the Jungle.

Happy Christmas

Tuesday, December 25th, 2007


With this, I send my very best wishes for the holiday to all readers and their friends. May the season be serene — however momentarily — and may the peace of the time be with you.

Whatever it may be that we are supposed to celebrate at Christmastime, what we do celebrate is memory, the memory not only of Christmases past that we have known but of long-gone holidays that we have heard about from parents and grandparents, or even read about it novels by long-dead writers. Nostalgia — the recollection of things that ought to have happened, perhaps, but did not — is an understandable hazard, but I expect that disappointment is far more common. Either way, it is difficult to place just what is important about our memories. Sleigh-bells and snow and children laughing over heaps of ribbon and wrapping paper certainly help to put one in the mood to remember, but they are not the point of the holiday. By themselves, the special effects of Christmas quickly pall. What are we looking for in our memories?

At least half of the Christmas cards that you’ve received this year will tell you: it is peace. The plenteousness of the season — what children notice most about it, and what distinguishes it from all the other times of the year for them, birthdays and circus-trips included — is meant to suggest a rampart against all the uncertainties of life, an assurance that things will go well. It’s an assurance that those of us living in northern latitudes earnestly need, as we look out the window onto weather that, however pretty, would kill us if we weren’t amply protected against it. The warmth of Christmas — the blazing hearths, the sparkling lights — promises a very immediate peace, disguised as respite. Gatherings of family and friends assure us that there are other people who belong to us and to whom we belong. As adults, we know that this peace, while not an illusion exactly, cannot last. It is nevertheless more intoxicating than any holiday potation, and once we have tasted it we want to taste it again.

Christmas makes fetishists of us all. Our attics and closets harbor boxes stuffed with special totems, which, if arranged just so, will — we rather pathetically hope — cast the spell of Christmas peace (the “magic” of the season). Too often stroked, the totems lose their power, and we may well decide not to bother with futile rituals. For a healthy person, however, not to try for Christmas peace at this most gregarious of times, whenever everyone around us is going for it, can be terribly depressing. How nice it would be, to pull the covers over one’s head, if one could be sure of sleeping right through the holiday.

But Christmas, despite the hustle and the pressure and the effort of taking on an extra long to-do list, is actually a celebration of letting go, of setting aside the world that is too much with us during the rest of the year. The paradox of Christmas reminds me of that mind-twister about the busy man — the already busy man who is the one person most likely to be able to find time for an additional job. He knows that it is the doing, and not the getting done, that constitutes living. Christmas is the one time of the year when it is indeed the thought that counts.

That thought is “peace.”

Books on Monday: There Goes My Everything

Monday, December 24th, 2007

A very inadequate zoom shot of the top of York Avenue, with Harlem a blur in the distance.

There Goes My Everything, Jason Sokol’s study of the white response to the struggle for civil rights, appears at a time when I find myself coming round to the view that struggle for equal civil rights for black Americans fractured the United States at least as badly as many white supremacists feared that it would — in what turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For a long time, as the dust seemed to settle, I stupidly wondered if the movement had been a success. A sense that its achievement was not altogether complete eventually gave way to a recognition that it was merely the opening assault in a war against patriarchy that the most fierce abolitionists may have been unwilling to undertake. “What Is Wrong With America Today”? The America that everybody professes to love and root for is as defunct as Colonial Williamsburg — and we all know it. We had better get to work on breathing some life into its successor.

¶ There Goes My Everything.

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At My Kitchen Table: Madeleines

Sunday, December 23rd, 2007


It occurrs to me that the madeleine is no longer too radioactive to write about. Nobody will expect me to (a) explain what a madeleine is, (b) relate how the French novelist Marcel Proust made the madeleine what it is today,* (c) go into raptures about how the taste of a madeleine dunked in tea (Earl Grey, of course!) takes me right back to the dorm room in which I first read Swann’s Way, or (d) say anything at all that hasn’t been said already in most of the better-known languages. Nor is anyone likely to think that I’m trying to be recherché, either.

Madeleines are, above all, delicious.

The tins in the picture have been mine-all-mine since the early Seventies, when, amazingly, my mother actually granted a request and brought them back from a trip to Paris.

¶ Madeleines.

* Or how long it took.

Friday Movies: Charlie Wilson's War

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007


‘Tis the season to empty out cupboards and closets of seasonal boxes. And this year, we’re doing it!

These amiable creatures, representing characters from Alice in Wonderland and The Nutcracker, come from a midtown shop called The Gazebo, where you could have quilts made to order. (The shop is no longer with us.) Stuffed dolls make for odd Christmas tree ornaments — they’re a little on the large side, for one thing — but we’ve come to love them. One year, we even gave them their own small tree.

We’re much too low-key to do anything like that now.

Meanwhile, at the movies:

¶ Charlie Wilson’s War.

Friday Front: The End of Retail Refinement

Friday, December 21st, 2007

The Brearley School Playground

It is only in the past few weeks that I have seen schoolgirls on the absurd platform that used to do full duty as the Brearley School playground. (Now there’s a fieldhouse, quite close to my house, that’s shared by a handful of Upper East Side “ladies’ seminaries”). I really thought that the thing had been taken out of use.  What with all the ambiguous netting underneath, the structure does have a desperate air.

For some reason, I always took the playground to be a square, but it’s not — it’s really long enough to make a field for games. Little girls’ games, anyway. Every time I glance up at the youngsters, though, what I see is “recess” - variations on hanging out. Except that “hanging out” isn’t something that little girls do, is it? They’re not quite so brachiopod-ish.

These girls, anyway, are on the inside track to the top of the tree, if I may be permitted a fearfully mixed metaphor. How many of them will still live in New York when they grow up. And where in New York? On the Upper East Side, like the majority of their parents? And where will they shop? Where will anybody shop?

¶ The End of Retail Refinement.

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Austere but Serene

Thursday, December 20th, 2007


In the middle of the holiday season, it is very still here at home. The atmosphere is austere but serene, with everything more or less quietly in its place. In a few days, I’ll buy a tree, and re-arrange the living room in order to put it up; that will inaugurate the grand interruption that Kathleen and I have been evading for some time. We haven’t “done” Christmas since I don’t know when — three, four years ago? The interesting thing is that, even though I am “doing” Christmas this year, it’s with a minimum of fuss. I’ve sent out about half of the Christmas cards. I’ve ordered the roast for Christmas dinner — and the bûche de Noël, too, now I think of it. But I don’t feel harried or rushed. Tired yesterday morning, I could take the day off and read. If I hadn’t been so sleepy, I’d have appreciate the luxury more. But I did appreciate it.

At four or so, I realized that I had to watch a video that was due back in the evening. Curious, how long it took to rent it. Last spring, Kathleen and I heard Jordi Savall and friends at the museum play music by, among others, Marin Marais. Not having any CDs at home, I ordered a few. I came across them just the other day, still unopened. They reminded me that I wanted to have another look at Tous les matins du monde, Alain Corneau’s 1991 film about Marais (more or less), starring both Depardieus, Jean-Pierre Marielle, and Anne Brochet. Which I finally got round to picking up on Sunday.

What a Protestant movie, I thought — in Seventeenth-Century French terms, that is, where “Protestant” signifies a resistance to extravagant courtly grandeur and a preference for black garments and underfurnished interiors. Somebody else’s idea, in short, of “serene but austere.”

What I'm Reading/In the Book Review

Wednesday, December 19th, 2007


In the spirit of the season, I’ve cheated like mad. Two books that I’ve been reading for so long that even you’ve gotten sick of them — referred to for weeks now as “Blanning and Pamuk” — have been withdrawn from the pile, because I’ve almost finished reading them. I shall certainly read nothing else until I do finish them. Which means, more or less, that I’ve just taken a snapshot of books that I’m not reading.

Not yet. Not yet officially. (I am well into The Sportswriter.)

I’ve almost finished listening to What Is the What, but there, for some reason, my conscience intervenes. The book stays until the seventeenth disc plays. (Or is at least inserted into the Discman.)

There are four new titles. One of them is a promotion: Maugham’s The Painted Veil. This is the third of three minor novels that I know to have been turned into major motion pictures, and if the other two — Theatre (Being Julia) and Up at the Villa — are any indication, the novel will probably turn out to be a good deal more pallid than the movie. It’s just like cuisine, really; we demand more interest today. It’s almost arresting that Maugham should be providing Hollywood with such fertile armatures.

The other three are Crazy for God, Under a Cruel Star, and Blogging Heroes. More about these titles anon.

As for this weeks Book Review:

¶ A Stranger in Camelot.

Morning News: Say It Isn't So

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Two stories from today’s front page would make me gloat if I were into Schadenfreude. Or if Schadenfreude were even on offer. The first, about warning-signs of a subprime lending fiasco that were repeatedly dismissed by libertarian boytoy, Alan Greenspan; the second, about black New Orleanians who have more or less finally cut the cord with their native city in the past year, giving the white population a majority that is not unwelcome to establishment movers and shakers. Way to go, Bushies!

For further information on the appropriated image of Nicholaes Ruts, to the left, check out Sir Gawain’s very provocative remarks about the novel at Heaven Tree. 

Orpheus at Carnegie Hall: Bach, Schumann, and Theofanidis

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Christian Zacharias

Last Saturday night, I was frankly sorry for every music-lover who wasn’t on hand to hear Orpheus and pianist Zacharias reinvent Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto. I doubt that any conductor could have led an orchestra through the minute shifts in tone and tempo that made the performance sound as though Schumann were improvising it on the spot — unless, that is, the orchestra already knew the work as well as Orpheus, in which case there would be no need for a conductor. As with the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Schumann’s own Second Symphony from last season, I’d really, really like to have a recording.

¶ Orpheus at Carnegie (Bach, Schumann, and Theofanidis, with Christian Zacharias).

Books on Monday: How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

Monday, December 17th, 2007


Pierre Bayard’s book sounds, at least from the title, like a cute gimmick, but it turns out to be a deep book, one that, if you read it quietly, will change your idea of what it means “to read a book” — and demonstrate the large roles played by imagination and oblivion in “remembering” what you’ve read.  It’s fancy and it’s French, but it is as lucid and readily comprehensible as a Stop sign.

As in, “Stop worrying about all those books you haven’t read!”  

¶ How to Talk About You Haven’t Read.

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At My Kitchen Table: Lowdown

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Jour de Ick

Why didn’t I think of this sooner? It’s the ultimate comfort food — made from humble ingredients, but first cousin to a grand dish. Replace slices of tenderloin with ground beef, and you have Hamburger Stroganoff.

One thing’s for sure: the results are not photogenic.

¶ Lowdown.

Friday Movies: Atonement

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

Jonathan Player for The New York Times

A friend asked me, at lunch on Thursday, if I was keen to see Atonement, and I said that I wasn’t. And that was true — until I discovered that Atonement would be showing across the street at ten the next morning.

I liked it better than I thought I would, but I understood the critics’ reservations. (The critics I had in mind are A O Scott of the Times and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.) I also bore in mind something that an executive producer said of the adaptation: “The one thing movies don’t do particularly well is consciousness, and the book is largely about consciousness.” The EP in question was author Ian McEwan.

¶ Atonement.

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Friday Front: Ryan Lizza on Anti-Immigration.

Friday, December 14th, 2007

A gate that never closes.

For a perfectly revolting good-ol’ boy metaphor, don’t miss what the charming Dean Allen has to say about how hard it is to tell which beardless brown-skinned furriners are here to wash dishes from the ones who are here to hijack planes.

Whoever owns the patent on Stupid Pills must be raking in the royalties.  

¶ Ryan Lizza on Anti-Immigration, in The New Yorker.  

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Who Knows?

Thursday, December 13th, 2007


Does this ever happen to you?

From time to time — although not nearly so often as when I was young — I am overwhelmed by the feeling that I can’t possibly be stuck in this time and place. In this body. I’m not talking about a thought, but a deep-seated conviction. It’s as if I were about to blink my eye and afterward discover myself in another world, myself another person. I feel quite faint when this happens.

There is nothing spiritual about any of this for me, but I can see that it might lead some people to ponder religious possibilities. The illusion that your consciousness is greater — much greater — than the body from which it looks out on the world is divinely grandiose. Curiously, this is the only time that I sense what Descartes is getting at with his famous dualism. Ordinarily, my notion of who I am is rooted in my neatly attired body, not in some imaginary homunculus running a control booth in my brain.

Lately, I have been savoring an enticing thought, one unaccompanied by vertiginous sensations. If, as seems indisputable, we never know all about one another — we don’t come even close — then what a great freedom that mutual ignorance confers! And yet it, too, is an illusion. The idea that I might somehow be different from the person I appear to be — the person who behaves in such and such a way — is closely related to the idea of the novel that I would write if only I had the time. Both ideas are imaginary. St Anselm to the contrary notwithstanding, just thinking imaginary ideas does not imply a reality beyond the imagination. My idea of who I really am turns out to be unknowable (to other people) because there’s no existence behind it! In the end, everyone else knows me perfectly well; it’s only I who am in the dark.

Thank goodness that’s not what it feels like!