Archive for December, 2008

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008


¶ Matins: Is English really the indispensable tongue of the Internet? Maybe not anymore.

¶ Sext: Don’t ask me where he finds the time, but our Joe gets around.

I had pondered actually going to Times Square tonight, until a dozen or so of my friends collectively threatened to have me committed.


Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008


¶ Matins: Bubbles beget bubbles: the housing-price bubble appears to have inspired some pipe dreams of easy divorce that burst along with the market, at least according to John Leland’s report, “In Housing Fall, Breaking Up Is Harder to Do.”

¶ Tierce: The other day, Fossil Darling urged us to read one of Bob Herbert’s columns in the Times last week, “Stop Being Stupid.” I’ll have more to say about that anon, but I thought of it this morning — and hopefully, too — when I read Joe Sharkey’s “In Flight” column this morning. It would appear that Kip Hawley, the outgoing director of the Transportation Security Administration, has actually been learning on the job. I like heaps of scorn as much as anybody, at least if I’m doing the heaping; but the TSA is an organization that I would almost desperately like to praise.

¶ Nones: Now it’s the red shirts who are trying to gum up the Thai government. The new Prime Minister managed to make his maiden speech today, in a different venue. But taking to the streets in the colors of your party is tantamount to suiting up for civil war.

¶ Compline: Bob Herbert’s column today, “Add Up The Damage,” argues for some sort of formal condemnation of the Bush Administration’s attack on the Republic. I especially agree with Mr Herbert that the president “would give the wealthy and the powerful virtually everything they wanted. He would throw sand into the regulatory apparatus and help foster the most extreme income disparities since the years leading up to the Great Depression.” But I would refer Mr Herbert to his last Op-Ed piece, referenced earlier today. It’s more important to stop being stupid Americans than to punish the officials who were empowered by that stupidity.   (more…)

Reading Note: Shortcomings

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008


I’ve admired Adrian Tomine’s drawings in The New Yorker for years, but it was only recently that I gave a thought to reading one of his books. Which is to say one of his works of graphic fiction. I’m not sure that I know how to read graphic fiction yet, but at least I’ve begun to read it again. (The first couple of titles that I looked into, which will go nameless, bored me silly.) It’s much easier to figure out how to read something if you try reading it.

Is it still important to argue that a given work accomplishes things in the artist’s chosen medium that could not be achieved in any other? The question is particularly electric for graphic fiction because of its resemblance to the storyboard. I suppose that someday there will be an exhibit of Alfred Hitchcock’s famed storyboards (in which the sequence of important scenes was carefully laid out before shooting began), and we will ooh and ah not only at the Master’s wizardry but at the rich possibilities of a “neglected” format.

But storyboards are sketches that resolve themselves into a very different completed work (the film). At the same time they are not sketches in quite the same way that Raphael’s drawings are sketches. The validity, or the authenticity, or the what-am-I-looking-for? of graphic fiction depends upon its insolubility. The material would have to have some quality that could not be improved if it were pressed into either a novella or a film.

That’s the quality that I’m looking for. And I think I’ve brushed against it in Shortcomings. I won’t reproduce it here, but the last frame on page 28 (Miko regards Ben with tired reproach, but says nothing) almost stung me. In a film, the image would pass immediately.* No amount of text could capture Miko’s expression. So I’m getting something that I couldn’t get in another way.

All of which seems both precious and academic, given the wit of Mr Tomine’s characters. I don’t think I’d care to have the foregoing evaluated by Alice Kim!

* That I could go to the trouble of converting my favorite films into graphic novels is certainly interesting to think about. I expect that copyright law is the only thing that has kept rotoscopers from turning them out.

Daily Office: Monday

Monday, December 29th, 2008


¶ Matins: The sickest thing about the United States today is undoubtedly the fact that prisons are a growth industry. The processing, so to speak, of prisoners newly minted by the nation’s preposterously discriminatory penal codes, can’t be outsourced to China, so failing rural towns try to rally by competing for prison contracts. Central Falls, Rhode Island, a town that combines plenty of illegal immigrants with plenty of cells in which to incarcerate them, lives in the shadow of what sounds, from Nina Bernstein’s story, like a Stalinist terror.

¶ Sext: In this morning’s Times, Susan Dominus writes up Chelsea Technologies, hitherto “a small operation that specializes in providing information technology services to hedge funds and small investment funds around the city.” And, now, to their former employees who have “wrapped things up” and are “looking for alternatives.” Which is French for: they’re out of work and need high-quality Internet access at home. There is a slightly snarky smile behind the placid surface of Ms Dominus’s report, but you won’t hear any chuckling from me — oh, no!

¶ Compline: Here’s a story that’s getting a lot of attention in the Blogosphere: Elisabeth Rosenthal’s “No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’.”


Weekend Update: Mrs Wilson

Sunday, December 28th, 2008


This evening, I found an hour, between an afternoon of reading and the preparation of dinner, for getting started on Christmas cards. The tardiness is not, I’m afraid, uncharacteristic. Although I like to send cards at the normal time (before Christmas), that’s just one of those good-behavior impulses that so often interfere with the spirit of things. Terrified of being tired of the Yuletide season before 25 December, I quite often don’t get into the Christmas spirit until the day itself. I take “the twelve days of Christmas” very seriously: they begin on the Nativity and end on my birthday, which is only as it should be.

There also seems to be a temporal chute that gets more greasedly accelerated every year. One minute, it’s Columbus Day (second Monday in October). The next, it’s Beethoven’s birthday (16 December), and I haven’t given a thought to Christmas. That is, I’ve given a lot of thought to not giving a thought to Christmas. On or around Beethoven’s birthday — the date on which, in my Radio Days, I allowed the announcers to start filling out the hours with Christmas carols — I start thinking about Christmas. In a ducking position, mostly.

Reading John Lukacs’s “autobiographical study” of George F Kennan a few weeks ago, I was keenly aware of something that Mr Lukacs wasn’t addressing. While he praised his subject for the untiring composition of position papers, speeches, essays, histories, and generally weighty (though digestibly well-written) texts, all I could think about was what Kennan didn’t have to think about, viz: the laundry, breakfast, shopping, dinner, the dusting, shopping, lunch, sending Christmas cards, and so on. Kennan was lucky enough — there really is no other word, from my vantage — to live in a time when men, especially thoughtful, intelligent men, were expected — expected — to stick to the important stuff. Mr Lukacs does not discuss Kennan’s hobbies, if any, but it’s clear that they were never allowed to interfere with the man’s self-prescribed duties, for the simple reason that he had no wish that would let them interfere. He liked to work. That’s commendable. That he never troubled himself with having the draperies dry-cleaned is not even worth mentioning. Mr Lukacs has undoubtedly been similarly lucky himself.

It’s important to stress that I feel no resentment about having to run a household. It is not work that I dislike. I thrill every time I watch Gosford Park, not because of the aristocratical shenanigans but because the housekeeper played by Helen Mirren knows how to manage the bedlinens. But I’m aware that such concerns cut into loftier pursuits. Now that I’ve come to a point in my life at which it seems that I have a lot to think about, and a lot to say about it (however interesting or not to others), I wouldn’t complain if Mrs Wilson were to materialize in our home. (Not that we could afford her!)

Kathleen, who has such tremendous powers of concentration that she can finish a piece of work only to discover that her body has been sounding fire alarms about hunger and whatnot that must “suddenly” be addressed with the utmost urgency, advises me to relax and focus on the things that I want to do. In modern psychological parlance, she’s trying to get me to give myself permission to put off washing the windows. Her powers of concentration being what they are, she could live in the murk of an abandoned fishtank without thinking about the difference that a bit of Windex and some elbow grease might make. And as for Christmas cards, let me just ask those of you on our mailing list if you’ve gotten one from her since the Seventies.

Surely there’s an nth law of thermodynamics that holds that there can be but one Kennan in any household.

Weekend Open Thread: Chez Holiday

Saturday, December 27th, 2008


Daily Office: Friday

Friday, December 26th, 2008


¶ Matins: Oh! It’s China’s fault! “China, some economists say, lulled American consumers, and their leaders, into complacency about their spendthrift ways.” This is the moral equivalent of blaming the gin and vermouth for not being a fountain of youth.

You have to love the story, though, because it preserves a founding American myth: the people of our fine country are guileless rubes in a world of wicked con men.

¶ Vespers: Here’s a great idea: revoke Robert Merton’s Nobel Prize. Remember LTCM? That was his plane crash.


Holiday Note: Hodie natus est

Thursday, December 25th, 2008


That’s better! Decorating a wreath is not at all like decorating a tree! For one thing, you can’t count on the support of lower, longer branches. For another, the boughs on the right-hand side of the wreath all face down, ruling out the little natural niches that make it so easy to stick an ornament somewhere on the opposite side. And don’t get me started about the lighting! There is much to be learned about treating a wreath — even if, like this one, it seems to be as big as something for a truck — like a small Christmas tree.

The figures on the wreath are cloth mice decked out, we’re told, in Cambridge drag. Three or four of the seven are safety-pinned to the wreath. (This works.) On the mantel itself is our lineup of Gladys Boalt Alice-in-Wonderland ornaments.


Alice, standing up above the Mad Hatter and the Fish Footman, is the most boring of the lot, so we see her from the hem down only. My favorites are the White Rabbit and the Duchess.


In the Book Review: What A Night!

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008


If you don’t mind, I’ll quietly backdate this leader to the time at which it ought to have appeared.

Storytelling abounds in this week’s Book Review, but Liesl Schillinger’s dependence upon it is singularly disappointing. Reviewing two novels by novelists of East German background, Ms Schillinger summarizes their curious stories without placing them in the context of contemporary German fiction or addressing the aesthetic positions that, as German fiction, the books undoubtedly occupy. That’s what I’d have liked to know something about.

Imagine reading reviews of Shakespeare’s plays that merely thumbnailed their often astounding stories, and perhaps you’ll begin to see my objection to the storytelling line of attack.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008


¶ Matins: The Nation, Thailand’s English-language newspaper, runs a Web site that holds its own as a contemporary news site. Here, for example, is the page of business leaders. It’s better than what one might expect of a South Asian kingdom where English is not really the second language that it is in, say, India.

And here is its capsule report of the king’s exhortation to the newly sworn-in government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. Did I say “capsule”? It’s the entire story. No comment, no color, no links to related stories. Just the royal admonition. I give it entire:

In his speech given before Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Cabinet, HM the King said: “If you work well, the country will be in good order and it will be a blessing. If you can ensure happiness and public order, the country will go ahead as wished by all Thais.”

¶ Tierce: The shooting death of a police officer is always a hot-button crime, so it’s especially heartening to see juries pulling back from felony murder convictions in connection with the deaths of Daniel Enchautegui and Russel Timoshenko, two policemen who were shot last year while trying to deter criminal activity. The doctrine of felony murder, which holds individuals to be guilty of any murder committed in the course of a crime to which they are accessories, is a blot on our system of justice.

¶ Sext: Read about the Ultimate Paper Airplane, at Brainiac. It is rocket science!


Private Library Note: From Crawford Doyle

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008


“Under duress” would be overstating the terms of my visit to Crawford Doyle this afternoon, but I certainly had no intention of shopping for books. My tale of woe begins at Best Buy, at the corner of Lex and 86th. What possessed me to wander into those premises two days before Christmas can only be called ignorance. The place was a zoo. I hastened for the exit — and I saw that an earpiece had lost contact with my reading glasses.

I hadn’t lost contact with the earpiece, of course, because it was still attached to the lovely chain that Kathleen made for me last year. All the same, my favorite pair of reading glasses was now considerably less useful than my lorgnette. What to do? I thought about calling to ask if Kathleen had one of those eyeglass repair kits, but nixed that option at once. It was easier to walk the two blocks over to Madison Avenue, where I’d bought the glasses, at what was then Meyerowitz and is now Purdy.

Amazingly — it is only two days before Christmas — my repair needs were not rebuffed. I was asked to come back in half an hour.

What else to do, on Madison Avenue in the middle of the day, but kill some time looking at books? I used up about seven minutes and thirty-nine seconds at Venture Stationery, picking up the usual paper porn — notebooks, Uniballs, Altoids, and my Letts’ diary for 2009. I was not in a mood to daydream about quadrilled paper, though, so I had to push on.

Here are the books, then, that I walked out of Crawford Doyle with:

¶ Selected Poems, by Frank O’Hara (Knopf, 978-0-307-26815-0). I’ve been meaning to buy this collection for ages, because it has a fantastic verse that’s omitted in Donald Allen’s collection:

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic!

My library felt underfurnished without those utterly NYC lines.

¶ The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art, by Tim Blanning (Belknap [suck on that one, Alfred], 978-0-674-03104-3). Notwithstanding his breezy nomenclature, Mr Blanning is one of our most magisterial historians. What’s he doing writing about music? I can’t wait to find out.

Footnote: in correspondence with Nom de Plume today, I hit upon the name for a literary category that has long vexed me. Every now and then, I happen upon bookshelves that are full of books that I’ve never read and never will read. The titles look so earnest, so — what was that word? Magisterial? But I know that I’ll be bored to sobs if I try to read Norman Mailer, or Thomas Pynchon, or Kurt Vonnegut, or John Barth, or any of the other writers who seem so engaged with the wacky problems of being a guy in this mixed-up world of ours.

Dorm lit.

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008


¶ Matins: I wish I were still in law school! I wish I were that young. Then, the idea that Bush v Gore is a precedent-laden decision would have intrigued me.

¶ Sext: How could they do it? That’s what everybody I know is talking about. How could they give all their money to Bernie Madoff? They begged him to invest it for them, dazzled partly, it’s true, by the fantastic returns that he boasted; but dazzled to the point of blindness by his reluctance to take their money. (His initial reluctance, that is…) 

Natalie Angier explains it all to you: “A Highly Evolved Propensity for Deceit.”


Gotham Note: Christmas Now

Monday, December 22nd, 2008


It’s hard to believe that Christmas is right here! Not a few weeks away, but a few days away. I was hoping to write a few Christmas cards this evening — I have yet to write one — but I got no further on the Christmas front than hauling out the four boxes that hold all the miscellaneous Christmas stuff. Not the ornaments; they’re so special that Kathleen would store them in Fort Knox if she could. But, for example, the crèche that Fossil Darling’s late lamented mother bought for us in Spain, and the spinning top that I shove underneath the tree each year, as if there were an all-American, top-spinning boy in the vicinity.

The tree: ahem. It will be a small tree this year, just for Kathleen and me. We won’t be having the usual Christmas at-home this year, for perfectly nice reasons that I won’t go into. (Regular readers will fall into a catatonic state at this point: Not the Closets!) I can tell you that one of the reasons is my Better/Storage/Now! program of reassigning space in the apartment for this and that — and for giving away deze, dem, and doze other things that no longer fit in.

(I did do amazing things with the Spode platters yesterday, not to mention the new deep-fat fryer. Really, it’s almost as good as a new house!)

Christmas. When I think back on the Christmas-morning thrill of childhood, I don’t miss all the presents. I wish I could do the thrill justice. Crouching on the stairs when it was still too early to be out of bed, not wanting to make a sound but being too young to know what a “sound” might be. Looking at the tree from across the room, hardly daring to approach its nimbus of lights and tinsel, glowing in an empty room in what was still the night. Hoping that I’d find things I wanted and things I couldn’t imagine — which is why I don’t regret the naked lust for stuff. The fresh smack of fir tree scent lent an air of pious rectitude to what was in fact a craven longing for very material surprises. (A preview of coming attractions.)

Who knew what was under the tree? For four or five years, I didn’t. Then I wised up. As I say, I don’t miss the prospect of acquiring interesting new things at Christmas. But if I say that I don’t miss the thrill, that’s because I haven’t forgotten it.

Daily Office: Monday

Monday, December 22nd, 2008


¶ Matins: Much as I admire Frank Rich’s commentary on public affairs, I think that yesterday’s piece was a tad too populist.

We’ll keep believing, not without reason, that the whole game is as corrupt as the game show in “Slumdog Millionaire” — only without the Hollywood/Bollywood ending. We’ll keep wondering how so many at the top keep avoiding responsibility and reaping taxpayers’ billions while relief for those at the bottom remains as elusive as straight answers from those Mumbai call centers fielding American debtors.

And what’s wrong with “populist”? It ignores (or, worse, forgives) the colossal inattentiveness with which Americans have been going about their business since the tail end of our Vietnam Misadventure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered this passive-aggressive self-indulgent excuse: “Why should I pay attention to the news when there’s nothing I can do about it?”

¶ Tierce: It’s A Wonderlife Life comes to the Times this morning, in the form of a very moving Op-Ed piece by Ted Gup. “Hard Times, A Helping Hand.” Bring Kleenex.


Weekend Update: In Which I Wonder if Rachel Maddow is, After All, a Force for the Good

Monday, December 22nd, 2008


The brouhaha about Rick Warren almost crushed me this evening. I thought I’d been stupid, and gone for the easy decision. Put up with the man — I’d argued — it’s only for one day. The thought that this might have been weak appeasement undid me. Then Kathleen got hold of my brain. If not Rick Warren, then who? Is there a better Christian out there, with anything like Rick Warren’s reach?

Comparing the current fight for gay rights to the still unfinished business of rights for African-Americans is doomed to founder on the rocks of bogusness. Excuse me, “category mistake.” African-Americans were deemed racially inferior according to nationalist, “racist” ideas about biological origins — starting about four hundred years ago. Those ideas ideas are simply ridiculous. Homosexuals are deemed wicked according to profoundly rooted ideas about God and virtue — starting who knows when but fully articulated well over a thousand years ago. See Augustine if you’re confused.

Although I’m tempted to argue that Jesus himself would have shrugged off encounters with homosexual behavior, I’m fairly sure that there’s no support for that view. And almost everyone else involved with the religion was emphatically homophobic. In those days, there were no blacks to look down upon (or so few it didn’t matter), but all the thinkers hated gays.

And have been hating them ever since. Racism is a comparative novelty, ipso facto easier to undermine. African-Americans are certainly not going to come to the older problem’s rescue — even if AIDS kills all the nice guys.

Weekend Open Thread: Up On The Roof

Saturday, December 20th, 2008


Friday Movies: Quantum of Solace

Friday, December 19th, 2008


As story goes, Quantum of Solace is something of a subprime mortgage. But as long as Daniel Craig parkours about the concrete and indulges in all the other Bond 2.0 pursuits, default is always a touchscreen away. And, for once, a Bond with chemistry! I don’t mean with the girl. I mean with M! I can’t help wondering what The Mother would have been like if Dame Judi had taken Anne Reid’s role.

Maybe I’ll understand it the second time.

Letter from Yvonne: Life of Sky

Friday, December 19th, 2008


Dear R J and Daily Blague readers,

Four summers ago, the deaf kitten Sky came to live with us.  It was like being charged with the care of a magical creature:  beautiful, wild, ever a mystery.

Try to imagine a curious, clumsy, irrepressible little being who emits a wide vocabulary of charmingly expressive noises.  If that made you think of WALL-E, you’re pretty close!…Now try to imagine WALL-E as a fearless living plush-toy, rather than a skittish robot.

Sky deserves his very own musical theme.  Not like that clarinet-voiced cat from Peter and the Wolf, though; Sky’s theme would be a perfectly-balanced fusion between Prokofiev’s carefree child-of-nature Peter, and the single-minded wolf!  So please try to hear that woven through the following scenes… (more…)

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, December 19th, 2008


¶ Matins: It’s time to pay up. You’re reading this for free, and, for the time being, that’s fine. I don’t need the money right now. But The New York Times, from which I draw so many of my links, does. It’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Handwriting on the wall:

  • James Surowiecki in The New Yorker. Moral of the story? You get what you pay for; or: you pay nothing, you get nothing.
  • Richard Pérez-Peña in The New York Times. The incredible shrinking Washington press corps.

Now, I’m a paid-up subscriber who gets everyday delivery of the paper. Your cost could be much, much lower. Who knows how low? The problem is, nobody’s really asking.


Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, December 18th, 2008


¶ Matins: Wouldn’t it be nice if Arianna Huffington’s wish comes true, and the Madoff Affair puts an end to the faux-cluelessness of modern management?

¶ Tierce: Today’s verse of the Madoff chapter: New York’s commercial real estate developers. This mess begins to look like one of Stanley Milgram’s disturbing behavioral experiments. While there’s no doubt that the SEC blew this one, it’s hard to feel sorry for investors who overrode commonsense basics in the stampede to “invest.” Especially when Mr Madoff appears to have mirrored their own way of doing business.

The outsize impact on the industry may have resulted largely because Mr. Madoff (pronounced MAY-doff) managed his funds much the way that real estate leaders have operated successfully for decades: He provided little information and demanded a lot of trust.

¶ Nones: Thailand seems to have turned a corner, as defectors from the People’s Power Party in support of a coalition government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva.  

¶ Vespers: In 1618, the Defenestration of Prague launched the Thirty Years’ War. (Catholics threw some Protestants out the window.) In 2008, the ? of Baghdad ended the American Misadventure in Iraq. (Wouldn’t that be nice!)

¶ Compline: Something I’d written myself: Lee Stranahan’s plea for large-mindedness from folks unhappy with President-Elect Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren to deliver the invocation on 20 January.