Archive for July, 2009

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, July 31st, 2009


¶ Matins: The Urban Mole won second prize; I’d have made it the first-prizewinner. (via Good)

¶ Lauds: A forgotten instrument from a famous score has been re-invented (one hopes!): the steel glockenspiel that Mozart had in mind for The Magic Flute.

¶ Prime: One of the biggest problems in the way we do business — literally — is the slapdash way in which we do or don’t clean up after ourselves: “When Auto Plants Close, Only White Elephants Remain.”

¶ Tierce: Unexpected but inevitable: what happens when lightweight Smart Cars are parked near canals. (via Infrastructurist)

¶ Sext: How To Cook Like Your Grandmother. (via  MetaFilter)

¶ Nones: After more than six years of expense, it has come to this:

“If there ever was a window where the seeds of a professional military culture could have been implanted, it is now long past. U.S. combat forces will not be here long enough or with sufficient influence to change it,” wrote [Col Timothy R Reese]. “The military culture of the Baathist-Soviet model under Saddam Hussein remains entrenched and will not change. The senior leadership of the I.S.F. is incapable of change in the current environment.”

¶ Vespers: Will Blythe writes up the new new Thomas Pynchon novel — a noir detective story — at The Second Pass.

¶ Compline: At the Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer discusses some recent findings about television as a balm for loneliness.

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary: Art

Thursday, July 30th, 2009


Although I spent most of the afternoon talking about art with a with a young man who has just arrived from California to study at the Grand Central Academy of Art, and notwithstanding the many clever and memorable remarks that were made by one or the other of us, what I want mention this evening is an earlier exchange with Nom de Plume. Briefly, Nom de Plume said that I am late-blooming artist. Whatever I am, it’s certainly late-blooming. But an artist? I was uncomfortable with that. Nom de Plume is used, by now, to having her compliments deflected as if they were bullets, but I do wonder, generally, how women put up with the cantankerous blend of humility (I’m not good enough to be an artist) and grandiosity (Let me tell you what I really am) that I’m not the only guy on the block to manifest.

It’s simply this: when I was growing up, writers were not artists. They were writers. The idea that a novel was somehow comparable to the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling was laughable. After all, anybody with a few years of grade school knows how to write.

As I say, cantankerous blend. Writers knew that they were better than artists. Compared to writers, artists were idiot savants, congenitally incapable of saying anything intelligent about their work. Which is why there had to be art critics — writers. Writers could explain the hokum.

Show me an American writer who doesn’t believe, in his heart of hearts, that he is really William Demarest, and I’ll show you somebody who belongs at a quilting bee.

Special Bulletin: This One's On Me

Thursday, July 30th, 2009


We interrupt this blog cast to bring you a live report from the Cambridge 2 Summit that was held at the White House this evening. Amazingly, Alex Balk of The Awl has obtained a transcript of the conversation. A choice excerpt:

BIDEN: [Brightly] Afghanistan is going to make Iraq look like Grenada!

OBAMA: [Glaring at BIDEN] Okay, drink up, gentlemen, the bar’s closing. I’ve wasted enough of my time on this ridiculous sideshow. I trust you’ll both announce that you found the meeting amicable, that we’ve reached some common ground, that America still has a long way to go on its journey to reconciliation, but that the first step is for men and women of goodwill to sit down together and… I dunno, whatever the fuck Favreau tossed off, Rahm will give you the talking points on the way out. Any questions?

CROWLEY: [Talking softly, gesturing at BIDEN] Is he really always like that?

OBAMA: Actually, this is one of the good days. But don’t worry. Between us, the Secret Service has standing orders to take him out immediately if anything happens to me.

CROWLEY: That is the most reassuring thing I’ve heard in two weeks.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, July 30th, 2009


¶ Matins: At Politico, nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge writes from up close and personal about the runaway unhealthiness of life in our Capitol. (via The Morning News)

¶ Lauds: At the London Review of Books, Michael Wood exposes the “rococo” nonsense of North By Northwest, and thereby explains why Hitchcock’s masterpiece is so gripping.

¶ Prime: In two posts, Felix Salmon asks two good questions: Has the NYC housing market bottomed? (No.) Have we “wasted” the financial crisis? (Yes.)

¶ Tierce: Lee Landor, deputy press secretary to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, resigns subito when some of her Facebook comments, calling Henry Louis Gates a racist and referring to “O-dumb-a,” were forwarded to her boss.

¶ Sext: In a somewhat more serious social app boo-boo, Amanda Bonnen of Chicago has been sued by the company that managed her former apartment, for libel by tweet.

¶ Nones: At the London Review Blog, Hugh Miles writes about a scandal in Libya — or is it a scandal on Capitol Hill?

¶ Vespers: In The Atlantic Fiction 2009 issues, four international writers, all of them Anglophone but none American (although Joseph O’Neill has become a US citizen), discuss the tension between nation(alism) and literature.

¶ Compline: Any story that links soldiers and information makes us happy. “In Battle, Hunches Prove to Be Valuable.” And we remember when intuition was for girls.


Dear Diary: Happy and Content

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009


Only a moment ago, I was sitting here with nothing to say — a problem that, for me, unfortunately, is not a problem. Then I got an email from Ms NOLA that saved everything. Kathryn Stockett’s first novel, The Help is “the sleeper hit of the summer,” according to USA Today. I should point out that Ms NOLA is at JFK, waiting to fly off on vacation.

The Help is one of the handful books that I’ve been asked, as a blogger, to read in advance. When I say “handful,” I mean “the fingers of one hand or fewer.” I was very careful not to discuss the book with anybody before its publication date. Except for a few friends, to whom I gushed that the book was going to be huge. And I do honestly hope that The Help will be huge. It deserves to be! A book of many threads, its story of a privileged white girl’s struggling to encourage black housemaids to tell their stories without fear of reprisal is nothing less than electrifying! Plus, it features one of the most hateful society witches in American fiction, and we can only regret that Madeleine Kahn did not live to play Hilly.

But enough about The Help. What about the anxiety of influencelessness? I wrote it up in February. Nobody listened to me when I said that The Help is a fantastic American novel, spanning from popular to highbrow.

Before Ms NOLA’s email, I was blathering on about how my personal weather today ranged from Content to Happy, and how boring that was for Dear Diary purposes. Indeed! Thank heaven I’m not happy or content now! The worst of it is knowing that, when you finally do get round to reading The Help, you won’t be thanking me for the recommendation!

Anybody who tells me six months from now that A Meaningful Life is a really great novel is going to get socked. Unless I’m thanked for the recommendation, that is.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009


¶ Matins: Michelle Haimoff proposes a pay scale for HuffPost contributors. 

¶ Lauds: Nige makes me wish that I were in London, to see the Corot to Monet show.

¶ Prime: Carol Smith, an SVP at Elle, claims that women make better managers. Even better, she hates single-sex workplaces.

¶ Tierce: A Web log devoted to bookmarks found in old books (!) reminds us of telegrams at weddings. How old, we wonder, is the youngest person to remember this feature of wedding receptions? (via MetaFilter)

¶ Sext: Steven Heller explains the test pattern.

¶ Nones: An update from the country that can’t: Kurdistan.

¶ Vespers: “It’s enjoyable if you like reading Nexis printouts” — Nicholson Baker on the Kindle DX.

¶ Compline: Drake Bennett reports on some recent studies of attention deficits in older drivers — and how older drivers compensate. (via The Morning News)


Dear Diary: Reminiscence

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009


This afternoon, I took a spontaneous walk. It has been a very long time since my last planned walk, and spontaneous acts of any kind have been uncommon. Ever since the beginning of the year, I’ve been living in a sort of wartime state of mind, prepared to sacrifice everything to the production of four Daily Office entries a week, and three or four Portico pages as well. And that’s the minimum. I have no idea what the maximum ought to be. Taking Sundays off has proved to be not entirely satisfactory. Not since law school, thirty years ago, have I lived with the same overhanging cloud of responsibility: there is never a time at which I ought not to be working on the blog.

Meeting the minimum, though, has gotten to be, if not easy, then panic-free. I don’t worry about reviewing the Book Review. I just sit down and do it, and in not very much time. Lately, compiling the Daily Offices has taken on an inner logic, as I’ve come to recognize the kinds of follies and stories that it seems worth my while to follow. Knowing what I want to do is pacing only slightly ahead of knowing how to do it.

Hence the restlessness that drove me out of the apartment shortly after lunch today. I had gone downstairs to collect the mail on the early side, because if The New Yorker wasn’t in the mailbox I wanted (a) to discuss the problem with the mail carrier, if she were still around, and (b) to run across the street to buy a copy at the newsstand while it could still be had. The magazine was waiting for me, and on top of that cheering development was the arrival of a doodad that I bought a few months ago, long before it was released for shipment. I keep calling it a “tail pipe,” but its manufacturers call it a “tap line.” It allows you to use any headphones you like with your iPod Shuffle. Don’t ask why, in addition to the eight or nine Nanos in the house, I own a Shuffle. The purchase was a mistake. But there are things about the device that I like quite as much as I hate the headphones that came with it. Which you must use if you intend to adjust the volume or pause the playback. So, now that I had my tail pipe, I was suddenly in the mood to give it a spin. I was hoping that “It’s a Sin” would come up in the rotation, and it did.

I’ll write about why I’m crazy about the Pet Shop Boys some other time; basically, the band’s output belongs in a stream of European pop that is a lot closer to classical music than anything produced in the United States. (I have never liked real rock-‘n’-roll any more than sports.) By the way: I’m listening, right now as it happens, to the Overture to Bach’s Fourth Orchestral Suite (my favorite of the four; but on this playlist they all come up), and every time the brasses punctuate the slow-and-stately parts (as distinct from the skipping, contrapuntal parts), I’m viscerally shocked by the reminiscence of Rufus Wainwright’s song, “Slideshow.” If you know the song, you’ll recall the thrilling eruptions of brass that seem to claw down a prize from heaven. Before Release the Stars, the Suite wasn’t reminiscent of anything except itself. It ought to be the Rufus song that’s reminiscent, but I paid attention to it, from the first time that I heard it, to a degree that I didn’t attend to this part of the Bach, anyway, until after I knew “Slideshow.”

The weather was grand, considering the heat, which was well above my comfort zone. As if heralding a storm (which might well have hit somewhere else), the air was blustery and, along the River, reminiscent of a wind tunnel. Or it would have been if I had ever been in a wind tunnel.


In addition to the walk, I read two stories. One of them, Joshua Ferris’s “The Valetudinarian,” I had to read, since among those Portico pages that I’m committed to composing every week is a write-up of the week’s New Yorker story. I loved Then We Came to the End, Mr Ferris’s big novel of 2007. I didn’t love “The Valetudinarian,” and in fact I’m not sure that I understood it. I’m also unsure about “A Day’s Work,” the Katherine Anne Porter story in the Library of America volume that I’m approaching dutifully. (Porter’s Ship of Fools had just appeared when the reading-for-pleasure lightbulb went on in my adolescent brain, thus marking her forever as someone whom I would read when I grew up. Here, ahem, I am.) The book has rested on the ottoman beside my reading chair in the living room since it arrived, but I’ve only read one other story in all these months. So my reading today was extra dutiful.

The story is very depressing. I don’t mean that it ends unhappily — I’m not really sure how it ends — but that it depicts a vanished New York that still gives me the willies. It’s the “New York” of my childhood dread. I lived in an apartment building on Palmer Road in “Bronxville PO.” Don’t ask me how I knew, but my sense of living at the high end of the range of middle-class apartment buildings stoked a scary idea of what the other end must be like, and that’s where the unhappy couple in “A Day’s Work” live. They quarrel in the clear understand that their altercation can be heard by everyone else in their building (on a Perry Street incapable of dreaming of Sex and the City) and in the one next door as well. The telephone is in the stairwell, and needs to be fed coins. The once beautiful wife takes in laundry, only to denounce its owners as sinners whom she wouldn’t give the time of day if her husband could keep a job. It’s the New York evoked poetically by Joseph Mitchell; by “poetically,” I mean that Mitchell’s evocation obscures the fact that most New Yorkers’ lives in those days was materially barren — which is not at all the same thing as “simple.”


Kathleen decided to work late at the office, and I didn’t know what to do for dinner. I wanted to order in, for the obvious reason that ordering in is very easy. But there wasn’t anything that I could order in that I very much wanted to eat. (A burger from Ottomanelli’s was very tempting, but I knew that I’d be disappointed.) So the matter was settled by an avocado in the vegetable basket. It was at its peak, and this created an urgency. I mashed the avocado with a quarter cup of plain Greek yoghurt, a dash of curry powder, and the juice of an entire lime — too much lime, I’m afraid. I tossed in a handful of cubed roasted chicken, a chopped, seeded tomato, and a load of cavatappi (one of my favorite pasta forms). The result needed something  — maybe cilantro, perhaps water chestnuts. But the fact that I hadn’t really fiddled over the salad contributed mightily to its flavor. When I was finished, I had to admit that, après tout, j’avais bien diné.

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009


¶ Matins: The gay divide on marriage in general and on opposition to Prop 8 in particular sharpens along the line between affluent elders and activist youngsters.

¶ Lauds: Paul Johnson extols the work of Charles Cecil. an American whose studio in Florence trains students in the traditional craftsmanship of portraiture.

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon continues to ponder the Summers swap. It’s intricate going, but we want Larry Summers out of the White House. Yesterday.

¶ Tierce: At least he acknowledges that she had fun: Michael Knox Beran takes a contrarian look at Brooke Astor and her works. (via Estate of Denial)

For half a century she acted the part of Astor sultana with skill, cunning and almost indecent joie de vivre.

¶ Sext: This ad at You Suck at Craigslist will send older folks into gales of laughter. But we remember reading that there are many young people today who have never purchased a postage stamp.  

¶ Nones: “Boko Haram!” is the war-cry of Muhammed Ysuf’s Nigerian followers. It means, “education is prohibited.” 150 dead in two days of violence, according to a BBC report.

¶ Vespers: John Self re-reads Franny and Zooey, and disagrees with Janet Malcolm’s claim that it is “no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby.”

¶ Compline: Although it’s a rather long read, we urge you to take the time to digest Mark Oppenheimer’s compassionate profile of two Holocaust-deniers who have fallen out — so much so that one of them no longer denies the Holocaust. (via MetaFilter) (more…)

Dear Diary: Droit de Seigneur

Monday, July 27th, 2009


This will be very brief, because a brief is precisely what it is not going to be.

It took a while for the toxicity of last week’s now infamous Gates-Crowley encounter to hit me. The poison, for me, has nothing to do with race — but I didn’t see that for a day or so. President Obama’s suggestion that Officer Crowley might have acted “stupidly” reassured me, but what I wrote about it in the Daily Office last Friday shows whither my thoughts were listing. “Police forces also need a re-think,” I said, and I said it from personal experience with police officers, not from a background of racial prejudice. My experience with policemen has not been extensive, but in almost every instance it has stunk of the sour mutual dislike of the good-natured jock and the high-strung intellectual. Imagine two men who dance very well — gifted ballroom dancers — each an assertive natural leader in his own way. One excels at the tango, the other at the waltz. Now imagine them trying to dance together. Who’s the lady?

Don’t make the mistake of imagining that the high-strung intellectual is any better than the good-natured jock at packing away his testosterone. Consider, rather, that the high-strung intellectual regards himself as the one who doesn’t need a gun. He’s the one with the brain!

A constabulary worthy of the Information Age, staffed with a few low-strung but insightful intellectuals as handy with a keyboard as with a weapon, would go a long way toward bridging the rather abyssal divide between the men who imagine better societies and the men who protect them. I’m not suggesting that clever people are above the law. I’m just wishing that more clever people were the law.

Monday Scramble: Zoom!

Monday, July 27th, 2009


It’s may be too early to tell (we’re awfully credulous about “jokes”), but the Manhattan Airport Foundation’s plan to transform Central Park into an international airport, which raised blood pressures all over the Blogosphere last week, is probably a hoax.

A video that seemed to capture everyone’s fancy was “Jill and Kevin’s Big Day.” We confess to shedding copious tears of happiness for the young couple, but then what we saw was a bridal party that was celebrating a marriage. Some viewers saw a crudely amateur performance. The dissonance between these views can disturb any wedding that’s at all out of the way, but probably only in the developed West, where a large corps of professionally-trained performers sets a very hight standard for — hoofing.

New at Portico: This week’s Book Review review. Yes! We took care of it yesterday, in about an hour. Back in 2005, when the feature was introduced, it took about eight hours to prepare, which is why we stopped trying to get it out on Sunday.

Exercice de Style: Dangling

Sunday, July 26th, 2009


In an entry at The Rumpus, “The Inevitability of Fashion,” Ted Wilson dangles:

As a society, there are specific fashion trends we all look back on and can pretty much agree were horrible mistakes. But some of these trends were only mistakes until recently, when they again became fashionable, mostly to people who weren’t alive when they happened the first time. Other trends are new, but equally unpleasant.

As dangling modifiers go, this is not a howler, but it’s as erroneous as any, betraying the impatience with preliminaries to which excited writers are liable.

Because danglers are only rarely misleading, one might ask why they’re the capital sin that we find them to be. If we “know what you mean,” then why get testy? Here’s why: syntactical carelessness is structural. It has nothing to do with the “typo” class of innocent error — typing “that” for “than,” or “1789” for “1792.” Those are details. The dangler betrays a faulty grasp of the ideas in a sentence, an unwarranted shifting of point-of-view that illegitimately converts subjects into objects and vice versa.

The classic, and comical, dangler is this:

Walking down the lane, the house came into view.

Technically, what’s wrong here is that the person walking down the lane — the implied subject of the opening clause — is replaced, without warning, by the house, which stands as the subject of a statement in the passive mood. (Houses come into view, but they do not walk down lanes.)  Psychologically, what’s wrong with the sentence is the ramming together of two statements without cleaning up the debris. 

I was walking down the lane, and the house came into view.

As I walked down the lane, the house came into view.

Both of these correct statements are easy enough to say. If you believe that “As I walked down the lane” and “Walking down the lane” are somehow “functionally equivalent,” then you ought to find something else to do with your time, and leave writing to people who do not allow considerations of functional equivalence to operate their pencils.

What Mr Wilson ought to have written:

As a society, we all look back on specific fashion trends and can pretty much agree that they were horrible mistakes.

Dangling is not a horrible mistake, just an insidious one. Good writers just don’t.

Weekend Open Thread: Neutral Café

Saturday, July 25th, 2009


last Week at Portico: Only three new pages this week. I was hard at work on a fourth when Ms NOLA and J— breezed by. Sitting on the balcony with them, enjoying the olives and the baguette that they brought, the Chablis and the cheese that I found in the fridge, and the berceuse of a blue evening was vastly more amusing than writing, so I ditched my responsibilities. No guilt was felt. It’s the end of July, the beginning of August (is that a movie title?), and while I won’t say that I deserve a break, I’ll admit to enjoying the hell out of one.

Last Friday’s movie was Humpday; despite its Jude Apatow title, it’s a serious and sophisticated comedy, written in a key with lots of sharps. In The New Yorker, Kirsten Valdez Quade’s story, “The Five Wounds,” marked a very impressive début. Et enfin, the Book Review review.

Dear Diary: Lewis

Friday, July 24th, 2009


A couple of hours ago, while I was doodling at the computer in an intermezzo sort of way, there flashed a Facebook update from Andy Towle: “What are you doing tonight?” I’d tell you why I found this flabbergasting if I weren’t sick of talking about me, so we’ll just pass on to my replying comment. “I was asking myself what you are doing asking the question,” or words to that effect. I meant this to sound avuncular — what’s a nice kid like you doing polling your friends on a Friday night, when you ought to be out having fun. But I could see that my reply was open to many other constructions, so I deleted it and replaced it with the comment that’s still there: “I’m thinking that you’re too young to be asking such a question on a Friday night.” It’s still hopeless, but if I change it again I’ll look like a perfectionist.

If I were to change it again, I’d say that I was watching the last episode of Season Three of Lewis. Mad as I am for Mad Men, I’m madder for Lewis — the Oxford procedural that follows Inspector Morse. Robbie Lewis (Kevin Whately) used to be the sergeant attached to Inspector Morse (John Thaw), but now he’s an inspector himself, and his sergeant is James Hathaway (Laurence Fox). The great joke is that, having been bossed around by an Oxford-grad boss, Lewis is now bossed around by a Cambridge-grad underling (a theology student to boot!). As this series has progressed, however, Hathaway has become less prim and more assertive, principally in the swing of his shoulders. He is about a million times more buttoned-down than his father, James Fox, but only about ten times more repressed than his uncle, Edward. You almost dream of his remaking The Day of the Jackal. But you don’t really, because, self-controlled as he is, Laurence Fox projects no bitterness. Edward Fox couldn’t say “I love you” without sneering.

In the episode that we watched tonight, “Counter Culture Blues,” the magnificent Simon Callow, who was fished out of the Isis in the nude in the Morse episode, “The Wolvercote Tongue,” returns at the top of his game — perhaps even over the top. A delicious old queen who’s querulous about the wherabouts of the Randolph’s prettier bellhops, Vernon Oxe is determined to reconstitute a great Sixties band, the Midnight Addiction. Great fun! Much as I love Joanna Lumley, I knew that her Esme Ford was a fake.  (She was really the late Esme’s sister, Kathleen.) I also knew (as who did not) that someone would be thrown into the “macerator,” a toothy septic composter, but I assumed that the person would be dead, or too drugged to care. I certainly didn’t imagine that Hathaway would jump into it, or that Lewis would have an appalled moment of wondering if the man dragged out of it would require mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

As it has been a while since I have made this spiel, I’ll indulge: I’m very proud that Andy Towle is a Facebook friend. As chance would have it, his was the first blog to strike me as handsome, and worthy of emulation; if nothing else, it taught me that links needn’t be underlined. (Remind me to tell you why underlining is one of the ten things that I hate most about life on Earth.) Maybe it wasn’t chance after all — because I can’t think of any blogs that look better than Towleroad, and precious few that look half way as good. You wouldn’t be reading this — because there would be nothing here to read — if it weren’t for the inspiration of a very smart young man who, come to think of it, isn’t so young that he can’t appreciate the pleasures of a quiet night at home.

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, July 24th, 2009


¶ Matins: Two related safety stories this week, at Infrastructurist: Rail/Road Safety; Cells and Speed.

¶ Lauds: Alexander Hemon’s playlist for writing.

¶ Prime: In “Too Small to Fail?“, Jay Goltz issues a call for better training for small business owners.

¶ Tierce: Even though the 13 week-old Marshall trial hasn’t even gotten to the defense, there seems to be a wilting factor, as if everyone from the judge on down were just too tired of all this nonsense. In any case, no reports have been filed this evening with any of the papers. Or hadn’t been, when we last looked an hour or so ago.

We were going to invent something, and tell you that the Marshalls, having followed our coverage of the coverage, took advantage of an early recess to drop by our apartment, and that, while Mr Marshall took a little nap, Mrs Marshall turned on her Southern charm (to which we’re so susceptible!), and we suddenly realized what a lovely woman she is. That we’d be posting soon from a guest room at North Cove, or Cove Point, or Cape Fear, or whatever they call the place up in Maine.

¶ Sext: Coming soon to Pi Mensae: Howdy Doody.

¶ Nones: Kudos to President Obama for weighing in on the “stupidity” of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in his own Cambridge home.

¶ Vespers: Mark Athitakis, at The Second Pass, writes about an out-of-print novel by Ward Just, a writer whose work we almost always find totally engaging.

¶ Compline: This weekend’s indispensable reading is Slavoj Žižek’s essay, in the London Review of Books, “Berlusconi in Tehran.” New meaning is given to the phrase, “constitutional democracy.”  

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary: Dandy Gelatine

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009


There was a story in today’s Home section that has bothered me all day. (I’m not the only one.) “After the Breakup, What About the Lake House?” is one of those optical illusions that shifts unstably before your eyes: is what you’re look at a vase, or is it a pair of profiles? Is it new and provocative, or is it garbage and a disgrace? The profiles in the Times story, as by now is legendary, were hung “facing” one another in the early days of the relationship, but at the eponymous lake house, they were hung the other way, as can be seen in an accompanying photograph. How symbolic is that? One feels that even Jerry Bruckheimer would blush at the obviousness.

So these guys were going to get married but by the time the party date rolled around they’d broken up, so that Bradford Shellenhammer paid his first visit to the house in ages. They had the party anyway, you see. The former lovers are working on being future friends. Meanwhile, they’re stuck with this house, which they decorated within an inch of its footprint — apparently exhausting their mutual attraction in the process.

Their tale of lost love has a familiar arc — love sparks, then blooms; lives intertwine; moments are lost and misunderstandings creep in; eventually the two begin to live as strangers — and an epilogue that has become increasingly familiar as well, as unwanted houses become prisons rather than cocoons.

This was supposed to be a story about the house, Mr Shellhammer’s blog informs us, but of course romance will always trump paint chips, especially when it’s the romance, and not the paint, that has faded. How could Timeswoman Julie Scelfo resist?

What has bothered me all day is the inability to explain my deep disapproval of this story, but, hapily, having been bothered about it all day, I have cleared up the confusion. You could say that the story is obnoxious — that the two gents are exploiting the end of their affair in the interest of dashing their story with a memorable piquancy. “Oh! Aren’t they the ones who did their house over in the style of the Brady Bunch‘s therapist’s trophy-wife sister?” According to this reading, Mr Shellheimer and Benjamin Dixon have pursued publicity.

That’s very bad, but in fact it’s so bad that it absolutely vaporizes any claim to one’s attention that these men might have had. Such a claim would rest on the theory that they allowed the publicity, in the interests of sharing their situation with Times readers, who might find the example helpful in some way. A public-spirited exercise, you might say. And in fact I do say. I believe that this is what the ex-lovers had in mind — to the extent that they had anything in mind, given the fact that their strange home near the Taconic has become a prison.

If this were the case, however, the men are transformed from reptilian publicity hounds into deeply shamed individuals. How could they let the world know who they were? Why wasn’t their story presented without names? I don’t mean “anonymously”; I mean “discreetly.” By all means, run the picture of those back-to-back profiles. Let those who are familiar with the silhouettes and their owners tell their friends. But I can’t not feel that Mr Dixon and Mr Shellhammer ought to have balked at identifying themselves with their painful loss of love. I can’t not suspect that the lack of pudeur now is the consequence of a lack of genuine affection back then.


Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009


¶ Matins: A counter-intuitive HIV-prevention strategy that is gaining traction. (via Good)

¶ Lauds: At The New Republic, Antoni Cimolino argues against “adapting” Shakespeare for modern ears. (via The Morning News)

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon (who happened to see the eclipse in China) is not convinced that the advent of 401(k) plans was a positive financial innovation.

¶ Tierce: Nothing really happened in the Marshall trial today, but I sense a sea change in the case.

¶ Sext: Tom Scocca sings of time and the bed — and a kid who’s discovered “testing.”

¶ Nones: Sudan takes an important step toward partition (between North and South) — at The Hague.

¶ Vespers: Anglophone literature in India takes a new turn: with more Indian readers, writers can focus on local life to an extent that makes their work difficult to follow outside of India. (via Arts Journal)

¶ Compline: The story following this headline actually lives up to it: “Laptop? Check. Student Playlist? Check. Classroom of the Future? Check,” by Jennifer Medina.


Dear Diary: Mortemart

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009


As someone in the second half of his 62nd year, I’m appalled by the fact that the Internet has disinterred and revived a dreadful adolescent folly of my youth: the convinction that some people — a lucky few — are preternaturally interesting. Their slightest word is very manna. An email from B— or E— makes my day — even though very, very few days are thus made. In frequent fits of Stalinist self-denunciation, I convince myself that, in this way or in that way, I have gravely offended these Olympians. It’s entirely likely.

What makes it all so much worse is knowing that, if Facebook (and the Internet, &c &c) had existed when I was a teenager, I’d just about rule the world by now. I’d have insulted so many people in so many unforgettable, zingily toxic ways that money would be all that I could hold on to. This is why I spend hours wondering if I have offended B— and E—. When I was twenty, I was capable of amazing offensiveness, calmly and deliberately reminding victims (and informing bystanders) of disadvantageous revelations made in unguarded moments, twisting them for maximal linguistic éclat. Forty years have slowed me down, but I am still capable of the occasional appalling “observation.”

My mother (who was not my mother) used to say that I liked to tear the wings off of flies. For years, I kidded myself by dismissing this as her dimwitted resentment of my intellectual dispassion. But she was right: I do like something that I’m not supposed to like. Although I feel sincere when I say that I hate to see people suffer, this is the case only when I myself haven’t caused the suffering with the mocking troll that lives beneath my tongue, and that surprises and shocks me no less than it does everyone else.  

You’d probably like to hear an example of my “wit.” Almost immediately, though, you’d wish that you hadn’t. It isn’t so much a matter of bons mots as it is one of completely unscrupulous license: it isn’t what I’ve said, it’s that I even thought it, much less said it. All that you need to know now is that my way of honoring the remarkable people whom I meet is, all too often, to mortify them with my Mortemart wit.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009


¶ Matins: At Coming Anarchy, the entry “Microstate Madness” describes potential breakaway statelets across Europe, from Sardegna to Scotland. (via Joe.My.God)

¶ Lauds: Now that the bubbling (not to say gaseous) wake of the Venice Biennale has subsided into the barcarolle of the canals, Barry Schwabsky’s lucid report, “Hubbub and Stillness,” in The Nation, is an even greater pleasure to read.

¶ Prime: Variation on an old Chinese curse: business narratives have become (Titanically) interesting.

¶ Tierce: What if the Marshall case veers from incompetence to duress? It’s just as bad.

¶ Sext: How TV news would cover a first moon landing today.

¶ Nones: Honduran would-be president (the only kind, these days) Manuel Zelaya might well take a look at what his opponents are afraid of, as it plays out in Venezuela’s Barinas State.

¶ Vespers: At Intelligent Life, Tom Shone inquires:  Is sobriety good for literary types? (via The Morning News)

¶ Compline: Boudicca Downes discusses her parents’ decision — somewhat more controversial in the case of her conductor father, Sir Edward — to take their lives at Dignitas, a clinic in Switzerland.


Morning Read: Wise Atheist

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009


¶ Lord Chesterfield writes very pragmatically about religion and honesty.

Depend upon this truth, That every man is the worse looked upon, and the less trusted for being thought to have no religion; in spite of all the pompous and specious epithets he may assume, of esprit fort, freethinker, or moral philosopher; and a wise atheist (if such a thing there is) would, for his own interest and character in this world, pretend to some religion.

As for lying, Chesterfield distinguishes between the naked untruth that a diplomat might proffer and the self-puffing misrepresentations made by vain people. He is opposed to both. In between there is a rather murky, or at least underdeveloped, passage about Bacon’s distinction between simulation and dissimulation. Chesterfield seems to be marking this just for the sake of comprehensiveness, but also to be withholding any conclusions that his son might misuse, for want of a more worldly understanding.

It is most certain, that the reputation of chastity is not so necessary for a woman, as that of veracity is for a man.

¶ In Moby-Dick, a geeky chapter entitled “A Bower in the Arsacides.” At some point in the past (having nothing to do with the present tale), Ishmael took it upon himself to measure the skeleton of a whale that had been mounted, so to speak, as a pagan chapel.

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tatooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistic. But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untatooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches; nor, indeed should inches at all enter into a congenial admeasurement of the whale.

Make that, literary geek.

¶ In Don Quixote, the windmills of the first part give way to watermills — by which our hero and Sancho are almost pulverized, as Don Quixote drifts to the rescue of (imaginary) ladies and knights. There is a small business of lice that is not terribly nice, but Cervantes makes up for that with this droll scene:

And saying this, he put his hand on his sword and began to flourish it in the air against the millers, who, hearing but not understanding this nonsense, began to use their poles to stop the boat, which by now was entering the millrace rapids.

Sancho was on his knees, devoutly praying to heaven to save him from so clear a danger, which it did through the efforts and speed of the millers, who pushed against the boat with their poles and stopped it but could not keep it from capsizing and throwing Don Quixote and Sancho into the water; it was fortunate for Don Quixote that he knew how to swim like a goose, although the weight of his armor made him sink twice, and if it had not been for the millers, who jumped into the water and pulled them out, it would have been the end of them both.

¶ In Squillions, Noël Coward buys a house outside of Montreux, and decides to divide his time between Switzerland and Jamaica. A letter “to an unnamed friend” is quoted. 

When the public is no longer interested in what I have to write, then it will be brought home to me that I am out of touch; not before. Nowadays, though I find that I rather enjoy my downfalls; to me it’s acridly funny when something flops that has taken me months to write and compose.

Not bloody likely, I should think. This sounds like a draft that Coward sent to nobody, because nobody would believe it. 

Dear Diary: Frazzled to a Crisp: The Etiology

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009


Here’s what happened:

¶ Saturday: I forgot to turn off the window unit in the blue room before running the electronic broom (not even a vacuum cleaner!) over the carpet. This threw the  circuit breaker — largely because, I’m reminded, I’ve got a thousand peripherals plugged in in here. Not to mention the two monitors: it used to blow out when I had only one.

No big deal, but, with the power back on, the modem wouldn’t work. Big deal. Much sweating and agonizing between recognizing modem problem and, realizing that I ought to unplug the power supply as well as the modem, fixing it.

¶ Sunday: Uneventful, until —

¶ First thing Monday morning: Kathleen said, “By the way, the browsers on my laptop keep clicking through to some malware site.” The Malware Abyssal opened up beneath me!

¶ Last thing Monday night, the cable connection disappeared. If it hadn’t been for previous events, I’d have understood what was happening — a neighborhood-wide outage — but, instead, I was sure that I’d Done Something. I hadn’t, though; very late, I went to bed relieved to have a restored connection. (Meanwhile, thank heaven for Mi-Fi!)

¶ Tuesday: Done Nothing? Ha! Realized at about 11 AM that, in the course of rooting around behind the CPU last night, trying to figure out how I had caused the connection outage, so that I could fix it, I had unplugged the speaker jack.

¶ Hooking up the speaker jack wasn’t enough. Rebooting required. Upon rebooting: no monitor connection!

¶ Tightened monitor plugs. Rebooted. Happiness.

I have omitted the part about updated wi-fi drivers, which really did improve conditions, when, at least, there were conditions (an Internet connection) to improve upon. Also, Kathleen’s browser problem was fixed — for the time being. These good things were not of my doing.

When all of this started, all I wanted to do was to watch Coma (a fave). Long before it was over, I just wanted to be in it. Paging Dr Harris!