Archive for June, 2009

Dear Diary: Spoiled

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009


The thing is, I’m married to Sheherazade. Only, my wife has updated the job description to suit herself. I’m the one who does the talking. This is not something that I am unwilling to do, as you may have inferred from hints here and there. But she gets to listen.

Decapitation is not a risk, but when Kathleen has had enough, she excuses herself from the table. This doesn’t mean that I’ve begun to bore her; it just means that she has had enough. She asks questions. Sometimes I don’t know the answers — that’s why netbooks were invented. Sometimes her question opens a floodgate of talk. The subject is almost always history of some kind: what happened to other people some time ago. Kathleen hated history in school, and insists that she learned nothing. She also — how Sheherazade is this — insists that, if I had been her teacher, she would have loved history. I make the people so real, she says. It is true that a number of the prominent figures — disproportionately kings, cardinals, and trouble-making aristocrats — are almost as familiar to me as people whom I “actually know.” They are certainly more familiar to me than they are to a rather small number of lives in being. Every time I talk about them to Kathleen, I get to know them a little better, and not just because I’m making stuff up as I go along.

Kathleen’s conversational manner at the dinner table, then, is quite colossally flattering to me. To say that I am quite aware of this is not to deny that I am, effectively, as flattered as buttered toast.

If Kathleen does not find my disquisitions on inquisitions difficult to follow, that is because she spends her days running inquisitions of her own, into faulty and misleading legal instruments. Years of explaining and anticipating the actions of the Securities and Exchange Commission have made her rather like the ambassadors whom Venice planted at all the major Renaissance courts, suave analysts of the bottom line who knew how to ask serious questions without seeming to be rude. I make it sound glamorous, but Kathleen’s dealings do not take place in Palladian arcades. They wearyingly transpire, for the most part, on telephones and computer screens. After a day of that, it seems, it’s a pleasure to come home and listen to me chatter about Venetian diplomats at Renaissance courts. She feels the kinship to those long-dead diplomats, but she doesn’t have to know the people. Knowing about them is entertaining.

Considering the documents that Kathleen edits by the hour, my complicated sentences, in spite of being saturated with dependent clauses and parenthetical asides, are so much syntactical finger-painting. As I say, my idea of history is a matter of personalities. It is always and only about distinct individuals, so that, instead of forces and trends, there are fashions and anxieties. Despite the complexity — the occasional hypertrophism — of my verbiage, it is usually not abstract, but rather about a specific somebody who was once worried sick about making the right impression (or who ought to have been). They are just like Kathleen’s clients, except that, wonderfully, they are not her clients.

I sometimes have reason to suspect that my wife’s interest in what I have to say has rendered me unfit for general conversation. And there is something else that you ought to know about Kathleen.

She loves to hear me whistle along with Mozart, Verdi, et al. No, I didn’t believe it, either. But it’s true.

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009


¶ Matins: Ben Flanner’s Rooftop Farms, in Greenpoint, is six thousand square feet of vegetables — atop an industrial building.

¶ Lauds: At Speakeasy, Jim Fusilli asks if there will ever be another Michael Jackson. He’s not talking about artistry, really, but rather about the business. His answer is that not even Michael Jackson at his prime could sell 750 million albums today.

¶ Prime: Malcolm Gladwell reviews Chris Anderson’s Free; Tom Scocca and Choire Sicha have a laff.

¶ Tierce: Bernard Madoff was sentenced to one hundred fifty years in prison today, but as far as victim Burt Ross is concerned, that’s not even the beginning of what’s appropriate. “When he leaves this earth vitually unmourned, may Satan grow a fourth mouth…” The reference is to Canto XXXIV of Inferno.

¶ Sext: Being Tyler Brûlé, a blog that makes exquisite fun of (Jayson) Tyler Brûlé. (via Things Magazine)

¶ Nones: It’s rather maddening, but I can’t confirm my hunch that the ouster of Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was engineered by the “European” elites that own most of the property in Central America. Update

¶ Vespers: John Self writes about Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping (1981). If you missed it, Mr Self may whet your appetite for a fine novel.

¶ Compline: V X Sterne is back, at Outer Life, and it will surprise none of his regular readers that he unplugged the second flat-screen monitor that was recently installed at his place of business.


Dear Diary: Manhattan

Monday, June 29th, 2009


In the kitchen, I’ve been watching Woody Allen’s Manhattan. What this means is that the little TV/DVD player in the kitchen gets paused a lot, while I go off to do something else — sometimes for hours. (I turn the machine off overnight, and it picks right up when I turn it back on.) It’s a very personal way of watching movies, and, to tell the truth, “watching” doesn’t come into it much. It would be better to say that I listen. With vintage Woody Allen, needless to say, this works very well; the jokes don’t seem as appliquéd to the cinematic texture — which, in Manhattan, is extraordinary.

Manhattan is one of the three pivotal movies that Mr Allen made in the late Seventies; Interiors and Stardust Memories are the others. All three are unrestrained imitations of movies by Fellini and Bergman. Not imitations of particular movies, and not imitations in the cheesy “bad” sense, but imitations in the old classic sense, as in “Imitation of Horace” (a poem in the style of Quintus Horatius Flaccus). Visually, they are all extremely successful; dramatically, the tension between the intense look and feel that Mr Allen adopted from the Europeans and the cheeky dialogue of the two black-and-white films is difficult for some Allen fans, while the way too serious, out-Bergmaning Bergman tone of Interiors dares viewers to be bored. Neither Manhattan nor Stardust Memories, however, is an overlooked stepchild.

The grandeur of Manhattan owes a great deal to a third partner: in addition to the great screenplay (written with Marshall Brickman) and Gordon Willis’s gorgeous cinematography, the music is by George Gershwin, and I wish I could say who orchestrated it. (The selections all seem to come from the overtures to Gershwin’s Broadway shows.) What Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff did for an idea of old Russia, Gershwin does for the New York City that still existed in 1979. Mr Allen’s virtuoso use of some of Gershwin’s most romantic tunes, especially as hymns to the sweetness of the young Mariel Hemingway, is just about operatic.

But even though nothing visual about the film is particularly jarring to anyone familiar with today’s city — the cars look a bit out-of-date, but then cars always do — the feeling of everything is somehow different. The Manhattan of Manhattan is a more innocent, more integrated, and strangely less self-conscious place. Manhattan was the first movie to make the visual proposition that New York City is the sophisticated equal of London, Paris, Rome, and the other great capitals that Americans are too provincial to know about. It was a new idea in 1979, and very exciting. Woody Allen made a persuasive case. Nowadays, though, it’s hard to believe that the argument ever needed to be advanced.

Kathleen and I saw Manhattan when it came out — in South Bend, Indiana, where we were finishing up law school. The following year, Kathleen would take a studio apartment in the building that we live in to this day. The fact that we have stayed put has only made the city’s changes more obvious. To mention just one dossier: when we arrived, Eighty-Sixth Street was still the main street of the old Germantown, lined with restaurants such as the Ideal and the Kleine Konditorei. The Old Dutch delicatessen had a sign in the window: “this is NOT a kosher delicatessen.” (Or words to that effect.) For a long time afterward, the space was occupied by a kosher delicatessen. Now, it’s a bakery.

The interesting structure that the German department store, Bremen House, built for itself in the Eighties is now a Pizzeria Uno. (Some of us remember the day that Bremen House didn’t open. It never really closed.) Next door, the tenants at the Ventura apartments must be very unhappy, because all of the building’s vast retail space is vacant. Circuit City was in the basement, and Barnes & Noble has consolidated at a new location nearer to Lexington Avenue. That’s a lot of dried-up revenue stream! Such worries were unknown in 1980.

Come to think of it, thirty years is the life span of most traditional mortgages: a long time in anybody’s book. If I had watched a thirty year-old movie when my daughter was born, it might well have been The Palm Beach Story. Yikes! I wasn’t thirty years old at the time, and PBS might as well have been scripted by Aristophanes as by Preston Sturges — if I’d known about it, which I didn’t. (As it happened, though, I was mad about some movies that were pushing forty, all starring Fred Astaire.) Manhattan, at whatever age, will retain the poignance of having captured New York as it was when I came back to the town I was born in.

I’ll close on a dark note. I’m not entirely sure, but I believe that, in the montage that introduces Manhattan, not one of the loving scenes of the city shows the World Trade Center. I am almost certain that the WTC does not appear in the movie at all. That is very much how we felt about those towers, not just in 1979, but, even more strongly, when they were built. I wonder if, thirty years from now, anyone will remember how deeply New Yorkers felt that a pair of unimaginative spindles had let them all down. Not to mention how we felt, very quietly, later on.

Daily Office: Monday

Monday, June 29th, 2009


¶ Matins: What is intelligence? Are there kinds of intelligence? Christopher Ferguson, at Chron Higher Ed, reminds us of the question’s politico-pedagogical nature.

¶ Lauds: At The Best Part, some pictures by Brett Amory.

¶ Prime: Jay Goltz poses a superbly sticky problem in business ethics that, unlike most such puzzles, has no leading dramatic edge to nudge you in the “correct” direction. Give it a think!

¶ Tierce: “Welcome to the flip side of homophobia.”

¶ Sext: Things to do with dead Metro cards, at Infrastructurist.

¶ Nones: Why is it so hard to find Osama bin Laden? Just think of the money that has been spent on the manhunt. Julian Borger and Declan Walsh outline the difficulties — and the limitations of whizbang technology — at the Guardian.

¶ Vespers: According to Martin Schneider, at Emdashes, Michael Jackson appeared three times in The New Yorker over the years. I expect that the number would have been rather higher if Tina Brown had taking over the editor’s job about ten years earlier.

¶ Compline: Everyday depression may be a survival tactic of sorts, by reducing motivation to pursue unrealizable goals. Conversely, the American ethos’s valorzation of persistence in the face of obstacles may explain why this country leads the world for clinical depression.  (more…)

Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): Balking

Sunday, June 28th, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Open Thread: Rain

Saturday, June 27th, 2009


 last Week at Portico: ¶ I loved it so much the first time, I took Kathleen to see it the very next day: in my humble opinion, Anne Fletcher’s The Proposal is the best film (so far) of 2009. I wish it had come out in January, because then I should have made the same statement, idiotic though it be to claim a best picture in the first month of the year, simply in honor of Pauline Kael’s 1978 choice of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In my humble opinion, Pauline Kael was visually tone-deaf, too political a mentality to discuss any branch of art. The damage wrought by her influence will take at least another ten years to purge. ¶ What did you make of Stephen O’Connor’s short story in this week’s New Yorker, “Ziggurat“? I got so little out of it that I probably ought to have remained silent; but I will say that I did not dislike it. ¶ Kate Christensen’s Trouble, her fifth novel, is definitely a book for the second read (just as The Proposal, like all of Hitchcock, is meant for the second viewing), which makes it difficult to talk about — it seems so much simpler than it is, and yet the anatomy of its artful composition would be worse than useless to first-time readers. So let me just give it a rave. ¶ My friend Vestal McIntyre’s Lake Overturn gets the best (highest-quality) review in this week’s Book Review, but, wouldn’t you know, it appears in one of those infernal roundups.

Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Ah men

Friday, June 26th, 2009


Hurray and Hallelujah! After the first installment of Lewis: Season 2, Kathleen asked for a second. So we watched that, and now it is all hours, and I can no longer remember what happened today.

Lewis, as I shouldn’t have to tell you, is the successor to Morse. Everything about the original series has been turned upside down (or at least brought up to date). Now, instead of working for a nob, Lewis has one working for him, in the person of Hathaway (Laurence Fox). The ghastly boss is a woman now, and she’s just as impossible although not quite so horribly hostile as she was in the pilot. The show leaves me trying to figure out how to go to Oxford in a non-touristic manner, such that I might be taken seriously there as a wit and a scholar, or at least as a literate American, and not as a tourist. I don’t work too hard at it, because my attempt to do the same thing on the Internet has yet to bear fruit.


At some point in the afternoon, Kathleen’s secretary told me how much she had loved The Hangover. I have learned that we have very different opinions about movies, and I was hesitant about recommending The Proposal, because, frankly, I don’t want to hear how somebody hated it. But perhaps it will help us settle into being one another’s Manohla Dargis: “If he likes it, I’m not even going to think about seeing it.” As soon as I got home from seeing The Hangover, I wrote a series of notes about the film. A move that made a lot of sense, you’ll say. But in fact I did it so that I could preserve my snarkiness about the movie at its ultramost. I couldn’t wait for it to end, I didn’t dislike it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


At seven o’clock I saw that (a) I had done all the writing that could even unreasonably be expected of me and (b) I had no photographs in stock for next week’s Daily Office. So I took the tripod and the Coolpix down to Carl Schurz Park. I did not collapse the tripod beforehand but carried it fully extended —  pitifully short. I want a tripod that will see what I see, all six foot three of me. 

The Park was heaven. I couldn’t believe how pleasant it was to stand on the edge of the East River in the wake of a violent thunderstorm, snapping pictures without having to worry that they’d be blurry. I felt so free! An hour between writing and cooking — all mine. I was stoned without being stoned. Marijuana would have gotten in the way; it would also have been superfluous.


I have noticed, over the past couple of  years, an interesting gay trope: “He’s so attractive [on whatever level] that you either want to fuck him or to be him.” I have given a lot of thought to the “being him” option. I used to think that that’s how I felt about men I really admired: I wanted to take their place; I wanted, vulgo, to be “them.” In fact, however, the only time that I have ever wanted to be anybody else was when The Avengers was a new show, and I was in my early teens: surely there was hope that I might blossom into the kind of guy that Diana Rigg would like to hang out with.

Since then, I have certainly admired a lot of men in a covetous way. Watching Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal, I want to kick myself. It was never in the cards that I would be as generally appealing as Mr Reynolds, but appealing more particularly to people who knew me was never a problem. The problem was that I was not interested in being an appealing person, and that is what I should like to go back and change. I don’t want to be Ryan Reynolds. I just wish that I had given him some competition, as I would have done had (a) he been my age (and now old and a wreck like me) and (b) my head had not been conducting a colonoscopy. I wish that I had understood how wonderful it is to have people like you. I did not understand this when I was a teenager. I didn’t think that anybody really liked anybody. That was a cruel mistake.


One of the Lewis episodes was really about the Stasi. It tempted you into thinking that it was about boxing at Oxford — or maybe it didn’t; the hour was very late. But it was definitely about snitching. My fundamental existential problem is that I wish that I could stage a show trial in which all of Bronxville (the village in which I grew up) would be revealed as ghastly and hypocritical, blah blah blah; my feelings haven’t changed since childhood. But the defendants in this trial, I know, would throw up their hands and ask what they’d done wrong, even now, even today. They’d say, “what’s he complaining about?” They’re still, in the persons of their children, living the same lives today. What was wrong? I was wrong. 

Dear Diary: Caterwauling

Thursday, June 25th, 2009


When I first saw the supermarket tabloid headlines about Farrah Fawcett, I thought, but for only a nanosecond, that it was a terrible joke. Then I remembered that this was how Lee Remick died, plus many since. And that is the tragedy.

My principal recollection of Farrah Fawcett is Spalding Gray’s mention of auditioning with her, in Terrors of Pleasure. Check it out; if nothing else, it will suggest why, if you are reading this, you have no future in front of a camera.

As far as Charlie’s Angels goes, I didn’t watch the show very often — I was already well into my TV withdrawal — but, when I did, I was a staunch Kate Jackson fan. I like smart women who keep their clothes on in public. I also like smart men who keep their clothes on in public. There are statues for that! And private rooms for the lucky few.

I once had an argument with a friend that took the strangest turn. He was rather ecstatically remembering the ecstasies of a particularly well-appointed pole-dancing bar in Atlanta. I didn’t get it: I don’t want to look at anything that I can’t touch. This is, it seems, a minority view. Lots of people really do like window shopping. Pas moi. When confronted by attractive but seriously underdressed young people, I’m distressed on behalf of their parents. “I guess it was easier for her to change her name than for her whole family to change theirs.

Anyway, and I don’t mean this uncharitably, the word “airhead” has always conjured that famous picture of Farrah Fawcett. This isn’t because I ever thought that the actress was dimwitted, but rather because it had to be air up there; anyone with that much hair wouldn’t have been able to hold her head up.

Speaking of smart women, Jenny Diski’s piece about Nina Simone in the current LRB is Ms Diski at her best. It’s amply about the great singer of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” but it’s also about Jenny Diski — in the way that the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking are all about French Cooking — but also about Julia Child. I must confess to some dismaying S & M fantasies involving Jenny Diski. Smart and fully clothed, she berates me from high table. “Bourgeois swine!” That sort of thing — and richly deserved. But then comes the part that sends me over the moon. “Now, go make me an omelette.” Yes, ma’am! The first thing I do when a new issue of the London Review of Books arrives is to check the table of contents for my favorite byline.

Then I make an omelette. Just in case. If anything happens to Jenny Diski, you can count on some shameless caterwauling from me.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, June 25th, 2009


 ¶ Matins: At Brainiac, Christopher Shea asks about a “blue collar renaissance.” He has been reading Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, of course. Somewhat more solid evidence that the scope of “knowledge worker” is expanding appears in Louis Uchitelle’s Times story, “Despite Recession, High Demand for Skilled Labor.”

¶ Lauds: At The House Next Door, Shelby Button reports on the deadCENTER Film Festival, in Oklahoma City.

¶ Prime: Robb Mandelbaum traces a small-business-friendly amendment to the Credit Cardholder’s Bill of Rights Act — and speculates on its demise.

¶ Tierce: When mom forgot his 73rd birthday, Tony Marshall was quick to call the doctor and complain about her growing “confusion.”

¶ Sext: At Inside Higher Ed, Ben Elson reports on the number one problem affecting Americans today: student parking. (via The Awl)

¶ Nones: What? There are Somalian Members of Parliament? Still? Fewer and fewer, perhaps — but that there are any is surprising.

¶ Vespers: Rebecca Steinitz, at The Rumpus, writes so alluringly about Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for a Wedding (1932) that I’ve just ordered a copy.

¶ Compline: In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore draws a distinction between parenthood and adulthood. An important distinction — don’t you think?

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary: Le minimum

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009


How can I claim to have had a productive day when I didn’t get anything done — anything beyond le minimum,  that is.


Speaking French, let’s not forget to mention the six photographs that Jean Ruaud put up at Mnémoglyphes today. I know, I know — you get it: we think that Jean is one of the best photographers who ever snapped a shutter. But this is not about Jean. This is about six beautiful images. Three pairs, really: two transcendental clichés, touristic images that, for a change, succeed at being interesting as well as beautiful — but very beautiful. Then, two shop windows, one with a peacock (or lyre bird? guinea hen?), and one with a rag doll or two — and both of them loaded with reflections and other “irrelevant” information. (I wonder who’s having the sale across the street from the bird.)

Finally, two quiet street scenes with patches of sun — and (oh! ) the surprising shadow of a lanterne. Perhaps it is simply age on my part, but I do not envy Jean’s ability; I do not wish that I might have taken these pictures. It’s quite enough that they were taken, never mind by whom. That they were taken by a good friend is, I insist, incidental. Although it is true that, as he has been a good friend for a few years, I have the habit of giving his photographs my complete attention. And how rewarded am I now!


For dinner, Kathleen was ready to try chicken soup again. I took a box of College Inn that I keep in the fridge and poured it all into a saucepan — uneconomical, I know, but I happened not to have any cans on hand. Then I cut off a slice of mirepoix and tossed it in with the broth. This I warmed over the lowest heat possible, for hours. When Kathleen announced that she was coming home, I brought another saucepan of water to the boil and cooked a third of a cup of orzo, Kathleen’s favorite pasta. I served the homely results on Royal Worcester that we bought before we were married, along with a glass of water and a stainless ice-cream compote of lime Jell-O.

Never mind what I had. It was good, but I’m working on it.


In the afternoon, I finished Alex Ross’s piece in The New Yorker about Marlboro Music. I began it last night but had to put it down. It was late, but Mr Ross’s deferential treatment of Mitsuko Uchida, one of the co-directors of Marlboro and a very great pianist — and very grand — was waking me up. The sheer niceness of the coverage was putting me in mind of  Club Sonata.  (Think Mickey Mouse and Annette Funicello.)

Wolferl: Gee, Aunt Mitzi, what are we going to do today?

Aunt Mitzi: Well, kiddos, I thought we would explore the Werktreue of “Body and Soul.” Who wants treble?

Franzl: Me! Me!

It was all too wholesome. The redemptive powers of music &c — only, in this case, there didn’t seem to be much need for redemption. If it hadn’t been for David Soyer’s “Property of David Soyer” obsession, Marlboro would have come off as stunningly free of original sin.  

Verily, it is a sublime misfortune, cosmic timing-wise, that Ms Uchida will probably not figure in the gallery of Meryl Streep’s uncanny impersonations.


In the evening, there was a reception at the Museum for contributors of our level and up. The nibbles must have been succulent. Bad weather, however, suggested that the Roof Garden was not going to be the most pleasant venue in the city, if indeed it was opened at all. Ms NOLA had a prior engagement, and Nom de Plume was recovering from a chest cold. Kathleen gallantly offered to go, to keep me company, but I didn’t want to go quite that badly myself. So I stayed at home. At six, I chuckled with sagacity: the very air was sodden with misery. But when I looked up from my work at a quarter to eight, things had changed. The air was clear, and the temperature had dropped. When did this happen? Very possibly, too late for the Museum staff to shift gears. But I was sorry, for a full five minutes, that I hadn’t had the fortitude to go by myself.

If I were a normal person, I could count on meeting friends at a place that I regularly frequent, such as the Museum’s previews. In fact, it might have happend; but I couldn’t expect it. There is something about the art of acquaintance that is hidden from me: I don’t know what it is that I don’t have.


I did keep my desk tidy, all day. Desks, really — all three of them. If I didn’t get anything done, it’s because I was busy putting everything away.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009


¶ Matins: Whether or not last week’s election was rigged, the behavior of the Iranian government since the results were disputed has completely discredited it. The Amahdinejad regime’s aggressive clampdown on dissent show no concern whatever for the stability that, in China, in contrast, isalways Topic A. How do we know? Because the Internet tells us so.

¶ Lauds: The face of Penelope Tree seems to be everywhere — at An Aesthete’s Lament, at the Costume Institute’s Model as Muse show — and she’s even mentioned in Brooks Peters’ latest post (see Vespers).

¶ Prime:  Bill Vlasic’s story about Ford family solidarity, in today’s Times, makes us hope that investment portfolios have been diversified over the years. The value of the family’s stock in the company has dropped from $2.2 billion a decade ago to $140 million. At first, the drop seems catastrophic. Then we recollect that $140 million is better than $0.

¶ Tierce: “The man who likes hiding in my home“: Brooke Astor’s description of her son, the defendant, to her Portuguese chauffeur. How gaga is that?

¶ Sext: Ira Lee Sorkin (who used to be a partner of Kathleen’s), has written the most astonishingly chutzpah-tatious letter to Judge Denny Chin, appealing for leniency in the sentencing of his client, Bernard Madoff. That’s the sort of amazing stuff that you pay lawyers to do — and you can see why they’re expensive.

¶ Nones: It will be interesting, to say the least, to heed the impact of French President Sarkozy’s burka ban.

¶ Vespers: Brooks Peters writes about the bookstore that he was inspired to open by Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop — a novel that, I rather thought, has “do not open a bookshop” written between every line. Happily, Mr Peters’s account is unlikely to mislead any bibliophiles looking to make money doing something that they love.

¶ Compline: Joseph Clarke “Infrastructure for Souls,” at triplecanopy, considers the strong similarities between the megachurch and the office space as they evolved in the later Twentieth Century. (via The Morning News) (more…)

Morning Read: Temió…acobardose…tuvo pavor

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009


¶ Choice extracts from Lord Chesterfield’s letter of 24 November 1749:

…and were I either to speak or write to the public, I should prefer moderate matter, adorned with all the beauties and elegancies of style, to the strongest matter in the world, ill-worded and ill-delivered.


It is a very true saying, that a man must be born a poet, but that he may make himself an orato; and the very first principle of an orator is, to speak his own language particularly, with the utmost purity and elegancy. A man will be forgiven even great errors in a foreign language; but in his own, even the least slips are justly laid hold of and ridiculed.

¶ In Moby-Dick, a chapter of which I’ve often heard mention: “The Doubloon.” I didn’t understand a word, except for the part that I did understand, and that was astrological drivel.

Indeed, Moby-Dick has become an almost toxically depressing experience. How on earth can this dreadful rubbish be so highly regarded? Or regarded at all? It is pulp pure and simple — pulp dressed up in Joseph’s coat of many colors. .

¶ In Don Quixote, an excellent joke. Our hero becomes so engaged by a puppet show about Charlemagne’s son-in-law that he leaps to the aid of the beleaguered knight, laying waste to (pasteboard) Moors.

But this did not keep Don Quixote from raining down slashes, two-handed blows, thrusts, and backstrokes. In short, in less time than it takes to tell about it, he knocked the puppet theatre to the floor, all its scenery and figures cut and broken to pieces: King Marsilio was badly wounded, and Emperor Charlemagne’s head and crown were split in two. The audience of spectators was in a tumult, the monkey ran out the window and onto the roof, the cousin was fearful, the page was frightened, and even Sancho Panza was terrified, because, as he swore when the storm was over, he had never seen his master in so wild a fury. When the general destruction of the puppet theatre was complete, Don Quixote calmed down somewhat and said…

Although Don Quixote pays liberally for the damages, he insists that he was beset by enchanters. Whereas it was only a case of excellent theatre.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward goes to the opera.

Went to hear Albanese as Manon Lescaut and it was a grave grave mistake on account of she didn’t ought to have attempted it for several reasons. Time’s Wingèd Chariot being the principal one. She sang most softly and looked like a neckless shrewmouse. Jussi Bjoerling did a Mary Martin and belted the living fuck out of her. He contrived this very subtly by the simple device of gripping her firmly by her shrinking shoulders, turning her bum to the audience and bellowing into her kisser.

Dear Diary: Fritzed

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009


Message from the sysop:

The wireless drivers may need a update but im not sure that will fix the weird problems.

To which I replied:

Thanks! Does everyone have the weird problems?

Just checking to see if, you know, all men are mortal.

It was a rough but productive day. I plowed through the problems with a kind of desperate resolution. First of all, there were no links. I sat down to write the Daily Office and filled in three of the eight hours right away. Three hours later, I hadn’t added anything. After lunch, something budged and the logjam broke. I suspect that it was the difficulty of finding a good link for Lauds that put me in a curatorial funk. It was so bad that the best thing that I could come up with was the SchjeldahlDyer duel! But the Aesthete came to the rescue, with a gorgeous picture of Penelope Tree.

Then there were the Dymo woes. I wanted to print a lot of labels. Twelve of the labels were for bubble envelopes that I was planning to send to various friends. In the envelopes were twenty or so of the lovely little calendars that Kathleen had printed last December. She was going to send them out to clients as a business Christmas card, but I don’t think that that happened. In March or April, I had the bright idea of foisting a portion of the stockpile off on friends. You see how quickly we move here.

The other labels were for CDs that I’ve removed from jewel boxes and plan to store in lovely file drawers from Exposures.

That is what I was going to do with an hour or two of the afternoon. But the Dymo label printer was in a bad mood. It wasn’t until after I’d rebooted, reinstalled, and installed on another computer that I finally had the idea of pressing one of the blue lights on the printer. That fixed it. There was never at any time a jam. There was just a bad mood.

I persevered. It all got done.

Then there were sign-up issues at YouTube, and the “weird problems.” I want to say that I could cope better with these difficulties if they made any sense, but death and disease don’t make any sense, not really.


I read Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk this morning (when I still fancied myself ahead of the curve). I can’t say that I much liked the writing, despite what Michael Cunningham has to say about it.

The same might be said of Wescott the novelist, whose eye is so cold and precise, so hawklike, that the novel itself might suffer from an excess of clarity and a dearth of passion if it weren’t redeemed by its language.

Its language reminds me of a formdible old lady, a humorless veteran of magnificent causes, who lives in a Greenwich Village flat, surrounded by bibelots that, if you’re good, she’ll condescend to explain to you, one by one. What she won’t do is smile from her heart.

Drunkenness does superimpose a certain peculiarity and opaqueness of its own — monotonous complexion, odd aroma, pitch of voice, and nervous twitch — on the rest of a man’s humanity, over the personality that you have known sober. But worse still is the transparency and the revelation, as it were sudden little windows uncurtained, or little holes cut, into common recesses of character. It is an anatomy lesson: behold the ducts and sinuses and bladders of the soul, common to ever soul ever born! Drunken tricks are nothing but basic human traits. Ordinary frame of mind is never altogether unlike this babble of morbid Irishman. I felt the sickish embarrassment of being mere human clay myself. It seems to me that only art has the right to make one feel that. I am inclined to detest anyone who makes me feel it, as you might say, socially.

I’m not entirely sure what all of that means, but the parts that I understand are not attractive.


Message from the sysop:

Okay I’ve found information where the newest driver for the wireless card fixes the wireless connection issues.

The bear heads over the mountain, to see what he can see…

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009


¶ Matins: According to Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, an Indian IT services vendor, American college grads are “unemployable.” They don’t know anything (global history, languages) and they hate to be bored. (via  reddit)

¶ Lauds: Kodachrome comes to an end. Michael Johnston develops the picture.

¶ Prime: What email at Enron can tell us about predicting  big-company chaos/collapse.

¶ Tierce: In what one hopes will be the resolution of a ghastly situation, Anthony Marshall collapsed again (this time from the after-effects of a fall), and his wife, Charlene, attributed his last collapse, two weeks ago, to “a stroke that has resulted in a headache and blurred vision.”

¶ Sext: Department of Crossed Purposes: Philadelphia’s Parking Authority’s venture into reality television, Parking Wars, has complicated life for the city’s marketers.

¶ Nones: Hats off to Tony Judt for saying what needs to be said about the West Bank “settlements,” and for speaking as someone who can remember genuine Israeli settlements. 

¶ Vespers: Cristina Nehring rumbles the contemporary American essay, pronouncing it “middle-aged.” So that’s why you can’t be bothered to read through those worth Best American Essay anthologies!

¶ Compline: Hands on the table! When someone else is talking to you, it’s rude (at best) to check out smartphones, Blackberries, &c, even if “the etiquette debate seems to be tilting in the favor of smartphone use.”


Dear Diary: Rien

Monday, June 22nd, 2009


Nothing happened today. It was grand — until now. Now, I wish that something had happened today.

In the late afternoon, I ran a few errands, involving multiple rides on the elevator. On each of these rides but the last one, the elevator stopped at the third floor. Nobody got on; nobody got off. The last time it happened — and I fancy that this is why it didn’t happen again — my eye was teased by the ghost of a darting wraith, while my ear was tickled by a shriek of glee. Although I didn’t want to get the little ones into trouble, I stopped at the doorman’s desk to report the evident infraction. If you’re going to play with the elevators in New York City, pushing buttons just for the fun of it, you need to know the consequences — before they involve lynching.

You probably think that kids love to play with elevators, but that’s not true. Elevators are pretty boring, really — that’s why we grown-ups like them. What kids are playing with when they play with elevators are the adult passengers. The kiddies on the third floor would have given up the game in two minutes if there hadn’t been hapless old folks (twenty and up) looking a little confused, wonderring if they ought to hold the doors for someone in a hurry. Those of us who can remember being eight years old endeavor to pretend that this sort of thing happens all the time. Otherwise, you’re playing right into the kids’ hands.

Older children, the ones who suddenly find themselves on the hither side of puberty, are fond of pushing all the buttons on the elevator. This always strikes victims as totally dumb as well as unspeakably malignant, but it’s a move worthy of Sartre. By making people who have somewhere to go stop pointlessly at floor after floor, a teenager imposes the tedium of his or her miserable existence on all the humbugs who are delusional enough to think that, just because they’re paying a mortgage and getting laid on a regular basis, they’ve got their act together. Ha!

This is why there is no elevator-game theme park in New York City. You’d never be able to sign up enough adult victims to keep the patrons interested.

Daily Office: Monday

Monday, June 22nd, 2009


¶ Matins: A trio of guest bloggers at Good write about the replacement of “conspicuous consumption” with “conspicuous expression.”

¶ Lauds: It’s as if Petrus Christus and Rogier van der Weyden had taken up photography — also, recycling. Hendrik Kertens photographs his daughter, Paula. (via Purest of Treats)

¶ Prime: Alan Blinder explains why (in his view) inflation — that bugaboo of the propertied classes — is not much of a risk right now. Find something besides inflation to worry about, he advises.

¶ Tierce: Did the prosecutors in the Marshall trial jump the shark? To compute the value of an estate, it is necessary to venture a date of death. This is not a legal correlative of sticking pins in a voodoo doll.

¶ Sext: Orthodox couple in Bournemouth claims false imprisonment, owing to motion-sensor lightswitch that obliges them not to leave their apartment on the Sabbath lest they turn on the lights.

¶ Nones: Why theocracy cannot work in the modern world: “In the Battle for Iran’s Streets, Both Sides Seek to Carry the Banner of Islam.”

¶ Vespers: It’s increasingly apparent that the book that we ought to be reading is the Bible. Americans think that they know it, but they don’t. (via reddit)

¶ Compline: Is Prince Charles cruising for a bruising?


Weekend Update (Sunday Edition): College

Sunday, June 21st, 2009


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

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

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


Weekend Open Thread: Hot Dog!

Saturday, June 20th, 2009


last Week at Portico: The subjects of this week’s four pages are: Accent on Youth, an MTC revival starring the inimitable David Hyde Pierce; “Idols,” Tim Gautreaux’s story in the current issue of The New Yorker; Tony Scott’s updating of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3; and, of course, the Book Review.

Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Guys and Dopes

Friday, June 19th, 2009


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercice de Style: Clutter

Friday, June 19th, 2009


This is to announce a policy that I have already implemented. When stating names, I no longer recognize “middle initials,” as my countrymen rather thoughtlessly call them, when they follow a full given name. The usage is peculiar to the United States (and to Canada, I suppose), and it is very, very ugly.

So: no more Robert A M Stern, no more Michael J Fox — just to pick two names out of the air. Either Robert Stern, R A M Stern (a wonderful British custom),  or some permutation of Robert Arthur Morton Stern (“Robert Morton Stern” is pretty fantastic, don’t you think?). Either Michael Fox, M J Fox, or (his real name) Michael Andrew Fox. The only person allowed to go by one initial and a surname is R Crumb, and when he’s no longer with us, nobody has the privilege. You will see why in a minute.

You’ll also note another policy, one that has been in force at this site since its inception. If I dislike solitary letters (other, of course, than the indefinite pronoun and the very definite “I”), I execrate what, again rather thoughtlessly, are called “periods,” when they do not mark the ends of sentences.

Given the rule to which “R Crumb” is an exception, there ought to be no uncertainty about what the “M” in “M Poirot” stands for.

I don’t for a moment claim that any of these policies of mine are “correct.” I believe that they are readily comprehensible, and as integral to my prose style as my fondess for the kind of thought that requires semicolons. That is all that matters.