Archive for November, 2008

Open Thread Sunday: Lucky

Sunday, November 30th, 2008


Reading Note: Wistfulness

Friday, November 28th, 2008


From the beginning of the third and final part of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland:

But nobody here holds on to such notions for very long. The rain soon becomes emblematic. The double-deckers lose their elephants’ charm. London is what it is. In spite of a fresh emphasis on architecture and an endless influx of can-do Polish plumbers, in spite, too, of the Manhattanish importance lately attached to coffee and sushi and farmers’ markets, in spite even of the disturbance of 7/7 — a frightening but not a disorienting occurrence, it turns out — Londoners remain in the business of rowing their boats gently down the stream. Unchanged, accordingly, is the general down-the-hatch, who-are-we-fooling lightheartedness that’s aimed at shrinking the significance of our attainments and our doom, and contributes, I’ve speculated, to the bizarrely premature crystallization of lives here, where men and women past the age of forty, in some cases even the age of thirty, may easily be regarded as over the hill and entitled to an essentially retrospective idea of themselves; whereas in New York selfhood’s hill always seemed to lie ahead and to promise a glimpse of further, higher peaks: that you might have no climbing boots on hand was beside the point. As to what this point actually was, I can only say that it involved wistfulness. An example: one lunchtime, Cardozo, mulling over popping the question to his Worcestershire girlfriend, points out a beautiful woman in the street. “I’ll no longer be able to go up to her and ask her out,” he says, sounding dazed. Plainly the logical response is to inquire of Cardozo exactly when was the last time (a) he asked out a girl on the street, and (b) she said yes, and (c) he and she went on to greater things; and in this way bring home to him that he’s being a dummy. I say no such thing, however. We are in the realm not of logic but of wistfulness, and I must maintain that wistfulness is a respectable, serious condition. How, otherwise, to account for much of one’s life?

I’ve copied out the first couple of sentences for the sake of coherence; the nugget of the passage begins with “As to what this point actually was…” And it’s the last line that sticks and sticks.

The last line sticks so well (the second time around, at least) that it impresses me as the key line in all of Netherland: a novel, I now see, of wistfulness. That’s slight-sounding, I know. Surely wistfulness is one of the more disposable states of mind. Or it was, until Joseph O’Neill argued, in the way of literary argument, that much of life simply doesn’t make any sense without an idea of wistfulness, without a sense of its pervasiveness. At first, I thought that the wistfulness was a masculine thing, but that’s just the accident of Cardozo’s sentimental randiness.

Why is wistfulness a “respectable, serious condition”? My sense is that the novel answers the question, but I reserve defense of the proposition for a later date. I suspect that it has something to do with the sheer fecundity of the cornucopia beneath which privileged men and women of the West live, trying to preserve a durable identity from its ceaseless onslaught of novelty, opportunity and possibility — trying to live, in other words, with difficult facts: that they will know most of the people whom they encounter in life, necessarily, for a little while only, and no more; that yesterday’s vital preoccupations have become today’s alien recollections.

Vacation Note: Partay

Friday, November 28th, 2008


We had a bit of fun last night. Multiple bottles of Cabernet sauvignon were consumed, and not just by me, either.

It all began when we went up to listen to Steve Katz, the really gifted guitarist whom we always look forward to hearing, play what the hotel’s daily bulletin called “Flamingo Music.” We thought we’d listen to him for a while before going in to dinner, which we’d booked for 8:30.

Or rather it all began when the singer called Malcolm and the Roy Davis Band, the jazz trio that followed Steve in the lounge, dedicated a song to us, possibly because we were actually paying attention. And what do you suppose the song was? One that I’ve always wanted to hear sung: “Stella By Starlight.” It’s usually an instrumental. Of course, I caught very few of the words. But it was great fun. I was glad that I’d dressed up: in my coat and tie I felt very grown-up. (A pathetic illusion in more ways than one!)

The second fun thing was not being able to remember Dexter Gordon’s name. What prompted this was the trio’s performance of “Willow Weep For Me,” an old song that seems to be very popular down here — everyone but the classical flutist seemed to play it at some point or other. “Willow Weep For Me” happens to be the one song on the Dexter Gordon compilation, “Ballads,” that Kathleen always used to ask me to skip, in pre-Nano days, because it has a (misleading) bump-and-grind introduction.

Anyway, we couldn’t remember Dexter Gordon’s name. All we could remember was the name of another (somewhat greater) saxophonist, Lester Young. “Lester” put “Dexter” entirely beyond the reach of our ageing brains and squarely within senior moment territory. I had to go to the computer in the lobby, which guests are asked to use sparingly, to refresh my memory. Searching the song title at Amazon did the trick very quickly.

The third fun thing was the Tomato Surprise. So to speak. As I wrote the other day, another wedding party has descended upon the Buccaneer, this one quite a bit larger than last week’s. But who was the bride, and who was the groom? The waitstaff didn’t seem to know, and no happy couple stood out as obvious candidates. So, toward the end of dinner, I walked up to an authoritative-looking gentleman, a few years older than I am I think, who was standing alongside the really lengthy table — it must have seated forty — that ran along the inner arcade. I asked him if he could clear up our ignorance and point out the happy pair. This was the moment of the Tomato Surprise, because when he said that he was the groom, I felt as if I’d sat on one.

That explained the size of the party: between them, he and his very attractive and wholly age-appropriate bride could count fourteen grandchildren among the guests. Eh comment! 

Vacation Note: What did I tell you?

Thursday, November 27th, 2008


We’re staying another day. We’ll on Saturday and go straight to New York. Via San Juan, but without leaving the airport. Kathleen is in heaven. I ought to have suggested this sooner: we got the last two seats on the plane.

And I wrote all the postcards that I’m going to write.

Vacation Note: Paradise

Thursday, November 27th, 2008


Just so you know what paradise looks like.

This is our last full day here. Tomorrow evening, we fly to San Juan. (That’s the current plan, anyway; our vacation endgames are notoriously open to rearrangement.) There, we will spend the night in one of the big hotels in Isla Verde, on the Atlantic, only minutes from the airport. On Saturday, we’ll return to New York. (That’s the plan, anyway.)  

It has been a very simple vacation — or so I think of it. It has been simple for us. A battalion of housemaids, gardeners, cooks and servers has made simplicity possible. We’ve had to do little more than show up for meals. Kathleen has alternated needlework with a rather comprehensive history of the West Indies (full of treaties and other diplomatic complications). I have read several books and re-read two others (taking notes in the latter case). If I haven’t spent as much time studying Nederlands as I might have done, I’ve been very thorough about my lessons. We have walked most days, either along Beauregard Beach or out on the headlands. In the early days, we watched a few DVDs, but for the most part we have spent evenings quietly and gone to sleep early.

Kathleen never made it into Christiansted, and I haven’t written any postcards.

In our room above the beach, the pounding of the surf has been audible at all times, even with the door shut and over the air-conditioning’s low groan. I’ve spent a positively boyish amount of time watching the waves wash grains of sand and small rocks back and forth across the strand, trying to grasp the millennia during which all this beauty transpired without anybody to see it. Then I think of how long it took human beings to see the beauty in it.

And I’ve thought of all the messages that I have tucked in bottles, just like the one that you are reading, even before the InterSea was discovered! I think of all of everyone’s messages, bobbing about out there — and of the many more that have sunk forever to the bottom, as unlikely to be retrieved as if they’d fallen into the Mindanao Trench. Is it not amazing that any are ever read!

Vacation Note: El-eat

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Very grand accommodations: not ours!

The terrorist attacks on Americans and Britons in Mumbai have made it hard for me to work up even a modicum of Thanksgiving spirit. Sorry — I forgot to mention that I’d been reading about all the passengers stuck at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok — among them the mother of a friend. The two incidents are utterly different in one respect: the Thai protests have little or no international dimension. And yet perhaps for that very reason they trouble me more. I’ve been watching Thai democracy founder for a few months now, and what bothers me the most is that I’m on the protestors’ side: my instincts, too, are to disenfranchise uneducated, semi-feudalized rural voters. I’ve wanted to disenfranchise rural American voters ever since I lived in Texas, in the 1970s.

I say “wanted.” I didn’t say that I thought it would be a good idea. Clearly it would be best to bring rural Thai voters into some kind of cultural synch with their educated urban countrymen. But what if they don’t want that? What if, like so many Americans, they’d rather reality television?

My democratic impulses, obviously, are a lot more head than heart at the moment. So it’s a good thing that the most problematic of American holidays (in my book) will find me at a table for two with Kathleen, far from home, eating anything on the menu that isn’t a turkey dinner.

Vacation Note: Thanksgiving Joke

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008


John Smith received a parrot as an early Christmas gift. The parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude, obnoxious and laced with profanity.

John tried and tried to change the bird’s attitude by consistently saying only polite words, playing soft music and anything else he could think of to ‘clean up’ the bird’s vocabulary. Finally, John was fed up and he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back.

John shook the parrot and the parrot got angrier and even ruder. John, in desperation, threw up his hands, grabbed the bird and shoved him in the freezer.

For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then suddenly there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute.

Fearing that he’d hurt the parrot, John quickly opened the door to the freezer.

The parrot calmly stepped out onto John’s outstretched arms and said “I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I’m sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude and unforgivable behavior.”

John was stunned at the change in the bird’s attitude. As he was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change in his behavior, the bird continued …. “May I inquire as to what the turkey did?” (Thanks, Fossil Darling)

Vacation Note: Regrouping

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008


Last night, at dinner, Kathleen asked me why I looked so sad; and when we walked back to our room on the beach, I knew for the umpteenth time how lucky I was and am to have found her.

The night before, I had selected Red Dust from the wallet of DVDs that I’d brought along for our viewing pleasure. Kathleen hadn’t seen this movie, about a Truth and Reconciliation proceeding in South Africa, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Hilary Swank. I had completely forgotten the brief flashes of gruesomeness that punctuate the film whenever Alex Mpondo (Mr Ejiofor), currently an MP, is obliged to remember his persecution under the apartheid regime. Kathleen found the movie excellent but was troubled by the blood. It woke her in the middle of the night, and she had trouble getting back to sleep.

If reports of bad dreams and sad faces sound contrary to the spirit of vacation in Paradise, don’t be daft. This is what our vacations are for: slowing down to a point that allows unpleasant things to be registered and dealt with. Unlike all previous vacations that I can think of, this one is lasting long enough, and quietly enough, for us to break past the running-away phase with which all vacations begin: we can’t believe that we’ve escaped! Now we’re beginning to think of going back, not in the do-we-have-sense (although there’s certainly that), but in the more constructive frame of asking how regular life might be made more like this.

Walking downhill after breakfast, Kathleen wondered if people who grow up in St Croix realize how beautiful it is. I answered that no reasonably healthy young person can live on beauty alone. That’s for folks our age, at least the ones who have amassed plenty of interesting stuff.

Reading Note: Re-reading Netherland

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008


Over the weekend, I re-read Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. One of the great books of the year (at the very least), Netherland was too big and beautiful a fish to catch with only one reading, and for months I despaired of finding the time to sit down quietly and read it again. Then I remembered: St Croix at Thanksgiving! And in the event the confluence of heavenly weather and even more heavenly prose has been a pleasure the likes of which I haven’t had since I re-read Emma, for the sixth time, in Maine, in 1996.

What follows is a sketch of the opening paragraphs of the Portico page to come. If you haven’t read Netherland already, don’t wait to run out and get a copy!


Vacation Note: Windy

Monday, November 24th, 2008


In the late afternoon, Kathleen and I took a walk round one end of the golf course, the part that sticks out into the sea. The wind was relentless, a steady blast from the northeast. The shadowed grounds were  a matte green, almost a colorless grey. The leaves on trees already permanently slanted by the wind shrieked and frizzled like pennants announcing the grand opening of a hurricane. But it was just a windy day.

It was odd to be out in such conditions without being soaking wet; for there wasn’t a drop of rain.


Vacation Note: No News

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008


We have reached that delicious sweet spot of complete relaxation. We are no longer looking around to see what has changed since last year. We aren’t paying attention to the other guests — or not so much, anyway. Why, we don’t even know where yesterday’s wedding reception took place. We didn’t ask and we didn’t see.

Ordinarily, that sweet spot is soured somewhat by the knowledge that we will be leaving in a day or so. Not this year! The halfway point in our visit will come at midnight. Now, that is bliss.

The Mermaid, a beachfront café where we usually eat lunch, will be serving dinner this evening, and we’ve got a 7:30 reservation (the last seating!). I will presumably have something different for dinner, instead of the steak sandwich that I’ve ordered, four nights running, in the bar up at the main house. That’s about all the variety that I can handle.

Our vacation has been clouded by two technical glitches that a bit of preliminary checking would have avoided. It took forever to realize that the extra cell-phone charger that Kathleen picked up a while back, identical twin to the one that we use every day at home, doesn’t work. We (I) thought it was everything else. Much tohu-bohu on that score. And I neglected to load the software for Kathleen’s Digital EOS Rebel on to any of the three (!) laptops that we have with us. It’s true that she has not used the camera since our trip here last year. I know that there’s a trick to making the camera act as an external drive, but I can’t remember what it is. Last year, I was using a smaller Canon camera myself. Oh, well. We’re managing.

Oh, yes: we’re managing all right.

Open Thread Sunday: Blue Horizon

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008


Vacation Note: Another Wedding

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008


Here is a very discreet shot of the marriage that was just celebrated a few dozen yards from our terrace. The bride and her father made as they approached the waterfront structure — a sort of topless huppa — where the groom and the scarlet-robed celebrant awaited them.

The bride’s veil drifted over the sand just as dreamily as you might think it would.

Vacation Note: Breakfast

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008


I’ve made it a point, this vacation, to get up early in the morning and head to breakfast. It’s very simple: I want to be tired when it’s time to go to bed, without having had a lot of wine to drink. So I’ve been getting up before seven, or shortly thereafter, and climbing the hill in hopes of snagging a table with a view like the one above, which I enjoyed for several hours this morning. On my way out of the room, Kathleen promised to join me, “in a while.” It’s true that, when I finally called the room to see how she was doing, she answered immediately and was obviously awake. She crested the hill about fifteen minutes later.

Between finishing my own breakfast and Kathleen’s arrival, I finished reading Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech, a novel as important as any that she has written and particularly important reading right now, when Americans are thinking about getting their groove back in the world. It’s largely about the waste of American intelligence — particularly the intelligence of women. I didn’t have much left to read; I’d had to put the novel down in the middle of the 42nd chapter — out of 45 — shortly after eleven last night. (See? My plan is working.) Then I got out my notebook.

I do not plan to write up Lulu while on vacation, but I do intend to take notes that are good enough to allow me to write it up later without feeling that I have to reread it. This is something that I ought to have gotten into the habit of doing a long time ago. In the summer of 2007, I read about ten books without either taking notes or writing them up promptly, and now they’re as good as unread. (I’m particularly distressed about Vikram Chandra’s amazing Sacred Games — which I wouldn’t mind re-reading if re-reading weren’t so very, very expensive in terms of time.) This summer, four books slipped by, two of them novels of the first rank: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba. In fairness, it wasn’t just poor note-taking skills that held me back. The power of both novels seemed to derive from something concealed beneath their smoothly engaging surfaces. Both were exciting, but the excitement struck me as a kind of sleight-of-hand. I brought both with me to St Croix, and I hope to start re-reading them tomorrow or Monday. In addition to taking notes as I read, I’ll try hard to summarize my immediate impressions right afterward.

Yes, it’s obviously the thing to do, and I point out my not having done it as a sort of incidental indictment: there are things that I don’t do very well, usually for the reason that, until I began keeping Portico, I didn’t need to do them at all. Oh, I ought to have mastered these skills when I was in school, but — school! As I’ve aged, I’ve grown less thick-headed. When I was young, I could not learn a thing that I wasn’t ready to learn: a vicious circle if there ever was one. Like the people who say, “What do I need a computer for? I get along perfectly well without one!”

As I say, the waste of American intelligence. It’s got to be something in the water.

Letter from Yvonne: In Which I Actually Grow Fond of Those Sourpusses from American Gothic

Friday, November 21st, 2008


Dear R J and Daily Blague readers,

Help! American Gothic keeps jumping out at me! From the museum wall in Chicago, from The Daily Blague, from the book I began reading last week…someday that pitchfork is going to put my eye out.

I’ve been reading about the painting, but am still uncertain: did Grant Wood conceive it as a satire? A critique? Or was he paying tribute to a notion of “real America”, as Sarah Palin might put it? Wikipedia tells me that his fellow Iowans were insulted by this depiction, and that “One farmwife threatened to bite Wood’s ear off.” Well, my goodness! That could cause a man to retroactively adjust his intentions, at least for public consumption. It’s clear that other details of the storyline were changed, or at least allowed to become ambiguous.  Initially the man and woman were husband and wife; this was later amended to father and daughter (sometimes, with cruel precision, “spinster daughter”) — or husband and wife.

Whatever the narrative, this image has been creeping me out for over 20 years — ever since my encounter with the real thing in Chicago. (more…)

Vacation Note: Spy Update

Friday, November 21st, 2008


As a vast wedding party descends upon the hotel, trying to work out who’s related to whom makes for a fantastic parlor game. Kathleen is much better at it than I am, because I tend to let my imagination run wild — like the children in the gathering who are having a blast. Kathleen will overhear a key remark and say, “See? I was right.”

It’s hard to believe that, only last weekend, I was a father of the bride!

We talked about the snow and cold back home. That’s what everybody here is talking about. “Have a wonderful day,” said the assistant at the general store. “Every day here is a wonderful day,” said the customer, a man of about my age. “Where I come from, it’s seventeen degrees!” (That would be Fahrenheit.)

“Well,” said Kathleen as we came down the hill, “this year, I don’t feel guilty about enjoying the good weather while everyone back home is suffering. I just don’t have the energy.”

Vacation Note: Uncertain

Friday, November 21st, 2008


I almost fainted at breakfast, when I read yesterday’s Citigroup closing price. I thought that I was getting away for a bit of vacation. Instead, I rather feel that I’ve left the house on fire.

Reading Robert Shiller’s The Subprime Solution yesterday, while edifying, was probably not great vacation reading. Slim, readable, and chock-a-block with magnificent and profoundly capitalist ideas — what could be more capitalist than shorting real-estate futures? — the book is ultimately depressing, because, as Mr Shiller often says (and as I myself know from having attended a couple of panels in which he was a participant), the financial establishment regards him as something of a wild man. In fact, he is the soul of good sense, endowed with an American knack for the new idea. Next to him, the people who actually run things are shown to spout nothing but eyewash and bromides.

Another depressing thing: remembering the awful reviews that Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakesh got in both the daily Times (Michiko Kakutani) and the Book Review (Erica Wagner). Both reviewers completely misread the narrative, which is, to say the least, unreliable. As I recall, they both thought it unlikely that the CIA (unnamed in the novel) would hire a simpleton like Lulu Sawyer. It would appear, however, that she is exactly the kind of simpleton that the CIA goes in for. It takes a special kind of dingbat to refer to a fellow houseguest as “a gangly British laureate poet.” Thanks to Francine Prose’s praise in The New York Review of Books, I realized that my doubts that Ms Johnson could have written the bad book that the ladies of the Times reported were justified.

Vacation Note: Room Service

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Kathleen claims to have seen the reflections of clouds on open water back in our part of the world. Not me.

To move or not to move: that is the question. We thought we’d been given the room that we had last year. But in fact we were given an even nicer version of the more deluxe room that we had the first year. The difference is very simple: the room that we liked — at the moment, it’s more the case that I liked it; Kathleen is quite comfortable where we are — had a more beautiful view, since it’s high up on a ledge, and the view could be seen through a pair of arched French doors.

The room that we have is twenty yards from the surf. The view is, indeed, quite nice, but it’s visible through a great plate-glass window. I hate picture windows. To me, they represent everything that is wrong with the modern world. All right, almost everything.

When we arrived yesterday, all the rooms of the type that I wanted were taken, but several will open up tomorrow. We’ll be offered a choice then. Do we pack up and head up the hill? Or do we stay put? Place your bets.

Vacation Note: RJ the Spy

Thursday, November 20th, 2008


At breakfast this morning, I recognized a couple from last year’s visit. They’re from Denmark. I know this because I stood behind them on line for the plane back to San Juan when it was time to go home, and the tags on their carry-on luggage bore a Danish address. (Denmark is one of the previous owners of this colonial isle. That’s how the town across the bay comes to be called Christiansted.)

You could call it “spying” if it involved anything meant to be private, but all of my speculations about fellow-guests at the Buccaneer are conducted in the rather full publicity of mealtimes. Last night, a Proud Papa showed up at the bistro with his three little children, two boys and a girl. A Proud Papa is, typically, a fit, conventionally good-looking father in his late thirties or early forties who radiates the satisfaction of paying his own way in the world. It is of the essence of Proud-Papa-hood that children are truly part of the vacation. Unlike Dads of the past, today’s Proud Papa can be seen playing with his children at some point each day. He probably works in a round of golf, but he does not live on the course.

It is also very typical of the Proud Papa to shepherd the children to dinner while Mom — well, who knows what Mom does; the point is that she has a moment to herself. Last night’s Mom materialized about twenty minutes later. It is of the essence of Moms married to Proud Papas that they are quietly lovely. Although often radiant, they do not call attention to themselves. They smile, but you don’t overhear them laughing, unless everyone else at the table is laughing louder.

Fifteen minutes after Mom appeared, another couple showed up, sans kids, and was greeted warmly by all the children. This almost certainly meant that one or the other of them was the (presumably younger) brother or sister of Mom or PP.

It is of the essence of this game that I play that I “win” when all my deductions are shattered by the facts. That is always great fun — not to mention a learning experience. It doesn’t happen very often, because the facts rarely reveal themselves. People come and go at a resort; they check in and out without warning. What usually happens is that at the very moment that my family portraits teeter tantalizingly on the verge of corroboration, the parties involved are heading for the airport — and I never find out if that surly teenager merely suffered hormonal surges or really hated his step-father.

I remember being very surprised, a few years ago, when almost everyone staying at Dorado Beach checked out on the day before Thanksgiving. I had thought that, like us, our fellow guests were escaping Thanksgiving at home. Evidently not: a learning experience.

In the Book Review: Lucky George

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008


Talk about a book that needs no review! If George, Being George is anything like the oral biographies that George Plimpton produced, it will be impossible to put down. The sense of gossip becoming myth right before your eyes is electrifying. Graydon Carter is the exactly-right reviewer.

Also of interest is David Orr’s thoughtful essay on the career of Ted Hughes, as reflected in his very readable Letters.

¶ Lucky George.