Archive for August, 2009

Dear Diary: Return to Life

Monday, August 31st, 2009


For the first time in I don’t know how long, it is very quiet here. There is no music, the baroque (mostly Bach) playlist’s that I listened to for most of the day having ended a while ago. But more than that, the air conditioner is silent, and so is the powerful Vornado fan that sits on the floor like a devoted pooch. Outside, the city is quiet, too. It’s as though the cool weather calmed every spirit, leaving few if any drivers restless enough to travel.

I’ve been to the Cloisters again, as you can see — twice in one calendar year! Not exactly unprecedented, but certainly unheard of since about 1967. I went in May, when my good friend Jean Ruaud was visiting from Paris. I was surprised that Jean liked the museum as much as he did. It’s one of the dearest places on earth to me, but I’m electrically aware of its confected nature. Bits of stone from here and there, including heaps of loot from Civil-War-torn Spain — all incorporated into a California villa gently tweaked to look “medieval.” What a Fourteenth-Century observer would have made of the tower (a meaty erection that always makes me think of the Plaza outside Kansas City) remains blessedly unimaginable. As a child of the Critical Sixties, I know full well that there’s nothing Cluniac about the Cloisters. And yet — the place may tell us little or nothing about monastic life in the Middle Ages (my vote: “nothing”), but it has a lot to say about what’s appealing about the monastic idea today. Set in a large park, reached from one side only by the wail of an occasional Metro North commuter train, and overlooking the studiously undeveloped banks of the Hudson River on the other, the museum is so arrestingly placid that the George Washington Bridge, an unfinished, skeletal structure that dates from the depth of the Depression, looks Plantagenet by penetration, just over the ramparts of the Bonnefont Cloister. No matter how bogus it might be on strict art-historical grounds, the Cloisters is unquestionably a sanctuary.

This time, Ms NOLA was on hand to help me to make sure that DCW, our young artist friend from San Francisco, made it up to Fort Tryon Park before his tumble into the full-time oubliette of school and after-shool job. When I asked him what he liked most about the Cloisters, he mentioned the colors of the stained glass. Now, if there is anything that I have consistently overlooked at the Cloisters, it is the stained glass. I have yet to see any great medieval stained glass in situ, and the quantity of ghastly Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century American stained glass that I have seen leaves me with a deadened suspicion of the medium. How like me to be all but hamstrung by anxieties about authenticity! For my young friend, it seemed, the beauties of the color were justification enough.

We arrived at the Cloisters in a taxi, but we left on foot, wending our way through the park to bus and subway at 191st Street. Somewhat quixotically — foolishly, in any case — I was determed to climb to the belvedere that looks out over Inwood and Highbridge toward Long Island — you can see the identical-seeming Whitestone and Throg’s Neck Bridges. The stone staircase with very short steps ought to have been challenge enough; I was breathing like a locomotive when we got to the further flight. I worried that my companions might be worried, and I knew that Ms NOLA, at least, was of sufficiently practical a disposition to foresee how massively inconvenient my collapse would be in an ornamental spot some distance from the reach of any ambulance. I did not so much resolve to get into better shape as promise myself not to be so headstrong in future.

It really is amazingly quiet here. There is not even the plash of a gentle fountain.

Monday Scramble: Manhattan Strait

Monday, August 31st, 2009


At Portico, this week’s book page, a write-up of Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World. makes us want to show Peter Stuyvesant and his persistent antagonist, Adriaen van der Donck, this picture of the East River, just a few hundred years later. And what’s a few hundred years? Not one of the buildings clearly visible on the left bank of the river was standing even fifty years ago. And, who knows? It may become — “it” being what’s currently called Roosevelt Island — it may become the “island at the center of the world” someday. Probably not — but if you’re in the business of making cool predictions, you never say never.

Writing about Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, I could hardly stop thinking about Tony Goldwyn’s lovely 1999 release, A Walk on the Moon. So many parallels! The Catskills! Woodstock! The moon landing! Wordly actresses pretending to be old shmattatrixes! Liev Schreiber (even)! These parallels, however, only intensify one’s sense of the difference between the two films. And I hope I won’t be thought to play favorites when I say that Taking Woodstock has no Diane Lane character.

There is no Diane Lane character in The Big Tease, this week’s Home Theatre piece (and another movie from ten years ago), either. But we know that, at an earlier stage in her career — had there been one — Ms Lane would have been super in the Mary McCormack role. If only Diane Lane had spent four or five years as in supporting roles! The price of fame &c.

This week’s New Yorker story was Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “The Fountain House.” We didn’t really cotton to it, especially when we learned that the Fountain House in St Petersburg — the Fontanny Dom — is a shrine to the poet Anna Akhmatova. Ms Petrushevskaya’s story is set in Moscow, and is about folk tales, not poetry (there’s a difference). We’re beginning to think that The New Yorker needs a scholarly apparatus department.

Speaking of apartments, we found that we’d written up a story from way back in the spring, Jonathan Lethem’s “Ava’s Apartment,” and forgotten about it. That was then. Further Oblivion Dividends are unlikely.

Last and least &c (a relatively literate issue, though!), the Book Review review.

Mad Men Note: Only Don Knows How To Behave

Monday, August 31st, 2009


My inclination this week is to stand back and let everyone else do the talking — for talking there will be! The overarching theme will be that this was the episode that ought to have opened the season. In contrast to what we had two weeks ago, tonight’s episode was crammed with excitement. What made it exciting, though, was the preparation. As an opener, tonight’s episode would have been something of a dud.

Consider how much of it took place in one day. “The Unities Observed” would have been the episode’s  Bryn Mawr title. While Don, Peter, and Ken attended a party that Roger and Jane held at a country club somewhere, Peggy  and Paul got stoned in order to service the Bacardi account. Joan hosted a medical dinner party. All sorts of things flew right by us — does Joan’s husband have cancer already? — and there was a creative type who looked a lot like Peter Cameron but wasn’t. Peggy decided to get high — and it really did make her more creative! Betty’s Dad had Sally, his granddaughter, read Gibbon aloud to him! I never thought that I’d ever think that Gibbon could be age-inappropriate for anybody, but that changed this evening. I was dying of laughter.

Don’s hopping over the country-club bar was pretty cool, but then I’ve long since decided that Don Draper is the only man in the show who knows how to do anything. Kathleen asked, at one point, “what’s he doing?” Don was grinding herbs and spices in a mortar,  making a cocktail. One imagines that this was an expertise that went back to pre-Don times.

The Charleston, though. Peter and his wife did a Charleston. They did it very well, but they were only doing it at all because the band started to play it. As someone who danced the Charleston at the drop of a hat in the Sixties, I must complain that the famous song was never played at any dance that I ever attended; but Kathleen confirmed my suspicions that things might have been different where Yale and Princeton alums were thick on the ground. Lots of Bronxville people — that’s where I come from — came from Charleston, but they didn’t dance it.

I will conclude with a word about Sally the thief. (As distinct from Sally the reader of Gibbon.) When Sally stole an unguarded five dollar bill from her grandfather’s stuff, I was paralysed by the memory of small fortunes stolen from unguarded wallets by me. I never got away with any of my larcenies; people really did miss five dollar bills in those days. I don’t know how much a kid would have to steal today for me to notice. At least hundred dollars, certainly. The episode turned out to be wonderfully meta. When it was all resolved, we were glad that Carla, the black maid, had not been implicated in the theft, even though she certainly thought that she would be. Mad Men, deliciously, is never predictably melodramatic.

We did have one heartstoppingly exciting moment. When Kinsey’s drug-dealing friend turned on him and remarked that he’d been thrown out of the TigerTones, a gasp issued from Kathleen that could have been heard all the way from New Haven to Penn. Hey, she was a Smithereen! 

Exercice de Style: Corrections

Sunday, August 30th, 2009


Having reviewed an assortment of errors in this occasional column, I should like to say a word about corrections. That is: to outline a protocol for suggesting corrections to Internet authors. This is fairly new territory for readers, who cannot (if sane) have been expected to take the trouble to bring each and every typographical error to the attention of book publishers. On the Internet, such helpfulness is no trouble at all; indeed, it is all too easy. For that reason, I counsel Internauts to bear in mind two general rules. Both derive from the principles of good and thoughtful manners.

First of all, try not to correct an author in public. Avoid the corrective comment. If the author has written “Louis XV” for “Louis XVI,” do not point this out in a manner visible to all and sundry, no matter how sure you are of being right. Corrections ought to be suggested in emails addressed to the author. If an address is not available, it is best to bite your tongue; the author has more or less pre-emptively decided to do without your help.

The only other rule is to keep the suggestion as readily intelligible as possible. A letter of correction ought to be free of all other material. Don’t begin by complimenting the writer on his or her great work. Don’t point out how long you’ve been reading the site. Don’t ask if the writer is going to read another book by the novelist named in the offending passage. And do not apologize for offering the correction.

Even when you’re sure of yourself, try to infuse your note with a tentative tone. Instead of saying anything declarative, such as “This is wrong!”, present your correction as the offering of an ordinary reader, not as that of a higher power. For example:

I think that you might have meant to say that ‘World War I,’ not ‘World War II,’ was concluded by the Peace of Versailles.

Note the italics. The detail requiring correction ought to leap out at the recipient, so that there’s no need to guess what you’re talking about. You may prefer to underline or bold-face these details.

Typographical errors ought to be highlighted without comment. Where the writer has typed “hisotry,” you might say,

As we see from the history of banking.

Make a point of incorporating your correction; do not simply repeat the error, leaving it to the writer to figure out what to do next.

No one enjoys being corrected, but seasoned writers understand both the inevitability of error and the utility of proofreaders. Your objective ought not to be to shame or embarrass the writer, but to elicit a genuinely grateful response — whether you receive one or not.

Weekend Open Thread: King Arthur

Saturday, August 29th, 2009


Constabulary: Bong, Defined

Friday, August 28th, 2009

What made me check out the Bergen County Record? I’ll never know. “Clifton Police arrest teen drug dealer.” A very thorough report.

In the juvenile’s room, police found 20 zip-lock bags of marijuana, empty bags, a bong — a device used to smoke marijuana — and $115 in cash that belonged to him, Berdnik said. The search also turned up 21 bags of marijuana in Maloney’s sneakers and $200 that belonged to him, Berdnik said.

Detectives determined that Maloney bought the marijuana from the teen, Berdnik said.

Defendant Maloney hails from Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, which rather reminds us of Eric Blore’s version of Who’s On First.

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, August 28th, 2009


¶ Matins: Impressed by Apple’s emailed receipts — no paper! — Chadwick Matlin looks into the costs of “retrofitting” other retailers, and finds that they’re not inconsiderable. “So I begrudgingly and all-too-appropriately wave my white flag. You win, receipts.” (via Good)

¶ Lauds: Micahel Kimmelman writes about Tatort (Crime Scene), the German detective show that has been running since 1970 — with different versions for different cities!

¶ Prime: It’s when you succeed that running a business becomes truly tough. Jeffrey Pfeffer has one little word: Focus!

¶ Tierce: Tweeting, the old-fashioned way: Robert Keith posts commercially-printed “ads” in the window of his Brooklyn bed-and-breakfast: “Credit Default Swaps Should Be Prosecuted — Not Paid.”

¶ Sext: Well, what do you know! New York Governor David Paterson has hired The Awl’s Alex Balk to do a bit of “clarifying” speechwriting!

¶ Nones: Yesterday: Muammar el-Qaddafi at home. Tomorrow: New Jersey.

¶ Vespers: Beyond Orhan Pamuk (although not entirely): Selçuk Altun’s top-ten Turkish books. All are available in English translation (at least at Amazuk).

¶ Compline: Whether concerned about predatory old partiers or determined to wring more moolah from its base, MoMA defines “Junior” as “<40.”

¶ Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary: Applied Boring

Thursday, August 27th, 2009


This has not been a good week for Dear Diary entries. Either I’m so tired that I can’t see straight, or I’m preoccupied by very boring insights. Tonight, going in, I can assure you that I have nothing to say.

Which is to say that I kept my head down and worked hard all day. All day? Yes, all day.

And then I remember that I interrupted the Daily Office process to go out for a haircut. I got the haircut; I had a club sandwich at the Hi-Life, and I bought much more than I’d planned on at Agata & Valentina. Then I came home and got back to work. I’m still at work, even though I completed every project scheduled for today hours ago. But all I thought about while I was out was how I wanted to change this and that at the Daily Office.

I am Mr All-Work at the moment — which isn’t a problem. The problem is that I was brought up (by the literary lights whom I read when I was young) to look for a certain kind of story. There’s another kind of story lying around here somewhere — not that my pointing that out is at all interesting. But I’ll figure it out.

Speaking of optimism, do you think that Randolph Scott, in real life, said, “you’re swell!” anywhere near as often as he said it in the movies? He’s such a doofus that I suspect that he did. “You’re swell!” sounds like the limit of his brainpower. Gay men like to imagine that Scott and Cary Grant, when they lived together in the Thirties, had something physical going. “Don’t make me laugh,” as Grant said in about forty movies. I’m sure that Grant, who was seen trading currency futures during the making of Gunga Din, figured out a way to make Scott pay more than his share of the rent. The ideal roomate, no?  

In other news, I can’t decide whether to bore you with the story about boring Kathleen last night. We don’t call it boring, of course, even when Kathleen falls asleep at the dinner table; we just say that my voice is soporific. Kathleen asked a question about Mozart that led to a discussion — via the fact that Mozart’s father, Leopold, came from Augsburg, in Bavaria, on a sort of get-out-while-you-can basis (Leopold’s handling of his son’s very considerable child-prodigy earnings doesn’t make him the Bernie Madoff of the 1780s, but one suspects that that’s only from lack of suckers) — of the electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Even I had trouble keeping track. Kathleen would seek FDA approval, if she didn’t want me all for herself.

Ah! Kathleen just got home, and I want to read to her the funny piece in this week’s New Yorker, “For Immediate Release” by Paul Simms. I haven’t laughed so much at a New Yorker casual in — a long time.


Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, August 27th, 2009


¶ Matins: At Survival of the Book, Brian considers David Ulin’s widely-read LA Times piece, “The Lost Art of Reading.”

¶ Lauds: Prince Charles takes his (architectural) case to the public. (via Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: Robert Cringley poses the Emperor’s-New-Clothes question about American corporations that we’ve been asking for ages — only with greater élan: when did profits become more important than pensions and health benefits?

¶ Tierce: What happens in Oman at iftar, the call to evening prayer? One thing seems to be clear: the orgy is not traditional. (via  Café Muscato)

¶ Sext: Vacationing on Cape Cod, Scout looks at the hostelries along Route 6A between Truro and Provincetown, and finds a romantically abandoned motel.

¶ Nones: In the eyes of the developed world, Muammar el-Qaddafi hovers unstably between dictator and thug. Dictators, while not approved, are accepted; thugs, like terrorists, are not permitted to negotiate. Negotiating the release of the Lockerbie bomber, the colonel may have kicked himself away from the table.

¶ Vespers: While we’re getting all weepy about the end of The Book, maybe we ought to feel a little hopeful about the end of Books Like This, which never ought to be published in the first place.

¶ Compline: Edward Moore Kennedy: a princeling who had a U S Senate seat handed to him (repeatedly)? Or a little prince who had to overcome the allure of accidental advantages in order to find real strengths? We take the latter view, along with the Times, the Journal, and even the Post.  


Morning Read: An end to Squillions

Thursday, August 27th, 2009


Morning Reads have all but fallen away entirely. There are two explanations. First, my mornings are now given over to combing the Internet and harvesting links. On the rare occasion when I’m done before lunch time, I’m far too agitated and muscid-eyed for straightforward reading. Second, I intensely dislike two of the books on this season’s list.

One of these is, of course, Moby-Dick. There the blame is all Melville’s. My objections to The Letters of Noël Coward are more complicated. I have enjoyed reading almost all of the letters of Noël Coward that appear in the book, edited (if that is the word) by Barry Day. Unfortunately, there are a lot of boring businessy letters from Coward’s colleagues. And because what Mr Day’s effort boils down to is a “life in letters,” the correspondence is a poor reflection of some of the important people in Coward’s life, such as Beatrice Lillie and Graham Payn. Ned Rorem has written about his relationship with Coward, but, perhaps because there were no surviving missives among the Englishman’s papers, the American’s name does not appear even in Mr Day’s index. Frustrating at first, this sense of off-stage life builds into a monstrous annoyance.

Also missing from the book is a sense of Coward’s sparkling presence. He writes cleverly but sincerely, but at the back of even the best letters there is a sense of duty discharged. Noël Coward was a very good writer, but his métier was performance. Looking at this clip, taken from his 1955 television special with Mary Martin (and oh, the letters to, fro, and about that collaboration — which began in 1946!), we can imagine what Coward must have been like at the height of his career, performing for a live audience: a magician. He may not have done tricks, but had a way of indicating that he was about to do something interesting — and then doing it, exactly right. In most of his movies, especially the late ones (Our Man in Havana, The Italian Job), Coward comes across as a distinctive character actor, one whom you might look forward to seeing in a movie, in the manner of Eric Blore or Edward Everett Horton. It takes a weird (and fairly unsatisfactory) film such as Bunny Lake Is Missing to elicit his facially acrobatic stagecraft.

¶ Last week, I sat down with the book that I’ve been calling Squillions and read through to the last page. So I’m done with it.

The moment that came closest to undoing him emotionally was the birthday lunch given in his honor by the queen. Would he consider accepting a knighthood, if offered? she asked. For once there was no ready Coward riposte, and his name was duly gazetted in the 1970 New Year’s Honours List. On February 3 came the investiture and, to the accompaniment of a military band appropriately playing “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” Sir Noël rose on painful knee with the recognition from his country he had deserved thirty years earlier.

There was an audible sigh of relief from the ranks of the other theatrical knights, and Sir Alec Guinness spoke for all of them when he said, “We have been like a row of teeth with the front tooth missing. Now we can smile again.”

Three books remain on the list (Rochefoucauld proved to be wholly unsuitable early on, but I never did take another picture of the books). I look forward to reading the rest of Don Quixote, and the collection of Lord Chesterfield’s letters, although perhaps not as “morning reads.” I dread the prospect of tackling Moby-Dick, indisputably the worst famous book that I have ever read, but that’s what’s next.

Dear Diary: Shocked (But not shocked, shocked)

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009


Something interesting happened to me today. Let’s see if I can make it interesting to you.

A few months ago — in late April or early May — I decided that I had better make a practice of reading the fiction in The New Yorker. I knew that I was getting old, and I didn’t want to get out of touch. I’d been reading The New Yorker for over forty-five years, but I’d stopped reading the stories — reading them as a matter of course, that is, simply because they were published in The New Yorker — decades ago. As you get older, that’s what happens. Every now and then, you take up something new, but for the most part you let go of things that used to be very important. When you give them up, you sigh a sigh of relief: you’re free. Your sense of well-being is no longer dependent on whether or not you have, say, read this week’s New Yorker story.

And it’s fine for a little while; but then you begin to wonder: what are those kids up to? Can you still even read the stories in The New Yorker? I found myself asking this every time a story by T Coraghessan Boyle appeared. I really cannot stand Mr Boyle’s work. It’s not that I think that he’s no good — not at all. I can tell that he’s very good. But I can’t stand his stories. (The real mystery man for me is Philip Roth. I can’t stand him, either — but I can’t begin to understand why he’s as highly regarded as he is. To me, the fiction of Philip Roth is nothing but a mound of slipshod vernacular.) Worried about the T Coraghessan Boyles out there, I thought that I had better start policing the perimeter, as one old dodger puts it in an old Miss Marple episode.

The only way to force myself to read the stories in The New Yorker — each and every one of them, whether or not I was in the mood to do so — was, I knew, to commit to writing them up as a weekly thing at Portico. And that’s what I did. Or it’s what I thought I did.

As I was publishing my write-up of this week’s New Yorker story today (Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “The Fountain House“), I looked back at the other stories that I’ve written about. This is where the challenge of making the interesting thing that happened to me interesting to you gets tricky.

You probably couldn’t care less about the difference between a Web site and a blog, but, as you know, I operate one of each, and the work that I hope will last appears at the Web site, not here. One difference between a Web site and a blog is that Web sites require handwritten navigation. If you post a new page at a Web site, you have to update the associated menu page, or else nobody will be able to find what you’ve just written. (Blogs automate this business.)  So, after I wrote up Ms Petrushevskaya’s story, I added the title (as a link) to the list of New Yorker stories that I’ve written up. (The page has no permalink, but you can see it here.) Then I wondered why the oldest entry on the list dated to the issue of 8 June. Hadn’t I started writing up the stories in May? Or earlier?

Usually, when I dream up some new feature for my sites, I start out with blog entries. Both the Friday movies pieces and the Book Review reviews ran for ages on the old Daily Blague before I decided that they really belonged, permanently, at Portico. So I figured that there were a few Daily Blague entries that discussed New Yorker stories — written during May of this year — and I thought that I would simply transfer their contents to their proper destination. All I had to do was find them.

But the contents did not exist. I hadn’t lost the pages; I’d never written them. The first interesting thing that happened to me today was the shock of discovering that I had never written up a month’s worth of stories. I’d planned to write them up, hoped to write them up; but I’d never got round to writing them up. The second, much deeper, shock was realizing that I’d completely forgotten how different and difficult things were, three months ago.

It hit home when I found a draft appraising Jonathan Lethem’s story in the issue of 25 May, “Ava’s Apartment.” I’d written the story up, but I’d never edited it or formatted it or uploaded it or done any of the seven or eight things that have to be done to transform a raw piece of writing into a published Web page — at a Web site, without the help of a blogging platform. So I took care of that  today, this afternoon.

It’s a little thing. Today, I wouldn’t let a week go by without making sure that every new piece of prose got published. I have worksheets and tickler files to make sure that regular weekday projects (such as writing up the week’s Book Review, or the latest story in The New Yorker) are completed. In the spring, that competence was beyond me. Never mind why — just as long as you don’t think for a moment that I’m more disiciplined now than I was in May. Over the summer, by dint of concentrated effort, I’ve learned how to do a few things that I didn’t know how to do in April. It’s that simple. The surprise was that I’d completely forgotten what it was like not to know how to do the things that I can do now.

It’s the shock of reading history: we can’t believe that people used to be stupid enough to enslave other people. And so on. When we learn something, we forget what ignorance was like. We can’t quite believe that ignorance is the explanation. It’s hard to know that you didn’t know. But if you can manage the trick of it, nothing is more interesting.

Three months ago, there were all sorts of things that I wasn’t getting round to. That’s why I decided to take the summer off — from everything but work. The result is that I find it almost incomprehensible that I didn’t write up those stories and get the pages up onto Portico.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009


¶ Matins: Sorry! We missed this amazing news on Friday: “Mexico Legalizes Drug Possession.”

¶ Lauds: Christopher Hampton will adapt, Sam Mendes will direct, and Oprah Winfrey will produce a film version of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland.

¶ Prime: Tyler Cowen asks if the bailouts were a good idea, and decides that they were.

¶ Tierce: Thirteen year-old Laura Dekker wants to sail around the world, alone. Her parents don’t object, but the Nederlander government does. A tough call?

¶ Sext: President Obama has lost all “creditability,” according to an anti-health-care-plan auto-faxer that somehow came to the attention of Choire Sicha. Sure, the wingnuts are scary. But, boy, can’t they write!

¶ Nones: Why special Sharia courts in secular nations pose a threat to sovereignty: “Malaysia Postpones Whipping of Woman Who Drank Beer.”

¶ Vespers: John Self behaves himself, and reads Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains. (He had owned a copy for a while.)

¶ Compline: The awful truth about asexuality: it’s not awful! (via  Joe.My.God)


Dear Diary: Impromptu

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009


Here I was, thinking that I’d be spending the evening alone, when Ms NOLA wrote to ask if I’d like to go to a book party. The upshot of ensuing parlays was that Ms NOLA came to dinner after the book party. Over an impromptu series of small dishes, we spoke of cabbages and kings — stuff far too electrifiying to be discussed in these holy halls. Then Kathleen came home, from a dinner date with an old friend, and Ms NOLA told her the latest news.

I might have gone to the book party if I hadn’t ventured forth on a round of errands in the later afternoon. That a traingular walk — from 86th and Second to 92nd and Madison, down to 82nd and Madison, and hence home — should reduce me to geriatric biliousness is, sadly, no surprise. When I got home, I felt that strange sick feeling that overcomes me on very hot afternoons (but at no other time).

But I rallied, and dinner was interesting when it wasn’t simply tasty. I’ll report on the interesting part later. A lot of the food was purchased last Thursday, for the dinner with Irving’s parents. I’d overbought shamelessly. Among other things, we ate some delicious plums. Well, I did. There was only one of those, I realized ruefully. When I’d gotten over cooing about it, I had a plum of somewhat differerent provenance that Ms NOLA had already tasted. It did, as she said, have a “fermented” edge, quite unlike the utterly sweet and uncomplicated fruit that I’d begun with. If I were a very, very rich person, I would hire somebody just to buy fruit. Have I already told you the story about Lorenza de’ Medici (a famous Italian cook) and Lauren Bacall? The setting was a cooking promo at The Cellar, Macy’s basement kitchen shop. A propos of the dish, Ms Bacall asked, “But wherever do you get such good pears?” A true New Yorker — to which Ms de’ Medici’s truly Tuscan answer was, “Why, from your garden <where else?>.” There’s nothing like a good clash of cultures, is there.

And so to bed…

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009


¶ Matins: Sounds like a great idea, but probably isn’t: “As Voter Disgust With Albany Rises, So Do Calls for a New Constitution.”

¶ Lauds: Sounds like a great idea, and probably is: “Scottish laser pioneers lead way in preserving world heritage treasures.”

¶ Prime: Robert Rubin, Citigroup, and Glass-Steagall: a brief entry by Felix Salmon (with help from Charlie Gasparino) snaps the pieces of the puzzle right where they belong.

¶ Tierce: Meg Hourihan administers First Aid/CPR without doing anything more than holding an elderly lady’s hand and keeping her talking. (via  Mr Hourihan)

¶ Sext: And here we thought of England as a green and pleasant land! “Pubs warn over plastic pints plan.” 5,500 customers are year are stabbed with broken pint glasses! (via The Awl)

¶ Nones: What happens when a sovereign power violates its own laws in the interest of self-defense? Barack Obama is willing to think twice.

¶ Vespers: Carlene Bauer reviews the reissue of Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me, at Second Pass.

¶ Compline: Matthew Fleischer writes provocatively about the death of a squirrel in Los Angeles. (via The Morning News)


Dear Diary: All the Same

Monday, August 24th, 2009


In the movie that I was watching in the kitchen this evening, Little Children, Jennifer Connelly’s character tries to tell her mother that her husband is not like her father: he’s different. “They’re all the same,” counters Mom.

Are they? Are we?

On the whole, I agree with Mom. I don’t think that men understand the value of relationships until they’ve been taken away. Men don’t have “relationships.” They have loyalties. The great thing about loyalty is that, once you’ve sworn it, you don’t have to think about it. In fact, you’re not supposed to think about it. “Reconsideration” and “loyalty” are two words that barely manage coexistence on the same page, and never in the same sentence. A relationship, in contrast, is an ongoing reconsideration.

Not to be flip, I was reconsidering my approach to making hamburgers. I had actually opened the latest issue of Saveur, which is all about burgers, and learned the most amazing trick: slipping butter into the middle of a patty works makes for a deliriously juicy (buttery) burger. This turns out to be quite true! I did not actually read the article to learn how to do it, though. I’m having very mixed feelings, lately, about books and magazines on the subject of cookery. Well, about reading them, I mean. There is so little time, and food is, after all, only food. At the same time, I’m an eager collector of handy tips, such as the idea of tucking a pat of butter inside a burger.

Here’s what I did, anyway: I took my sharpest knife to the newly-formed patty and sliced it equitorially. The resulting halves were only slightly deformed by this operation. Once they were made presentable, I sprinkled minced green onion on the slightly larger half and spread the other with a bit of butter (a good deal less than what I’d call a “pat,” though).

Maybe it wasn’t the butter that made the burgers so delicious. Maybe it was cooking them in a cast-iron frypan. It has taken me forty years to learn how to maintain a cast-iron pan, but I think I’ve finally got it. Oh, I always knew what you’re supposed to do, but I just couldn’t do it. I just had to clean the pan after each use, because, well, not to clean it would prove fatal, no? (There was a trick that I had to teach myself, though: use a straight-edged wooden spatula to dislodge sticky bits from the pan. This is as effective as conventional scrubbing, but nowhere near so damaging to the patina of ‘seasoning” (grease) that renders a well-kept cast-iron skillet frypan non-stick.)

Surprisingly delicious burgers were yet another example of how loyalty can get in the way of learning, if you let it — which of course you have to do if you are a loyal sort of guy.

I used to think that gay men were different. And why not? They were certainly thought to be different by the straight men who felt obliged to spit on them. The great discovery of my fifties, though, was that gay men are men, after all. I was very disappointed to find this out, because I had high hopes for gay men to be interesting. I didn’t think that it was being gay that made gay men more interesting; I just thought that it was the massive rejection from the bastions of masculinity that charactized life in the Fifties and Sixties and well into the Seventies that, well, opened up other lines of inquiry. But while gay men are sharp critical thinkers about masculinity, they don’t, as a rule, choose to  live outside it. The sad fact of the matter is that gay men like men, even if they do, like straight men, find them to be very irritating.

On the brighter side, there’s a lot less spitting.

Is there no hope? If Mom’s right, and all men are “the same,” then there’s clearly no percentage in attempting a more decent profile. Inevitably, you’ll let your lover down, and in the same old tawdry way as a million other guys.  The only way to save a shred of dignity is to be firm about one thing: don’t call Mom.

Monday Scramble: Wilt

Monday, August 24th, 2009


 New at Portico: It’s nothing short of miraculous, to us at least, that the week’s heat and humidity did not impair our productivity. But perhaps the dreadful climate explains why we can’t be bothered to put it any better than that.

¶ It took a while for us to warm to Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, and, when we did, the pleasure of reading the book was somewhat clouded by that sense that the author isn’t yet old enough to do justice to his adolescence. He does capture the black-hole solipsism of the fifteen year-old male — and that’s it. That’s it? A great deal of very rich material, including the struggles of a difficult but committed marriage, goes underdeveloped. Happily, there is no law against returning to harvested fields.

¶ Our initial response to Dave Eggers’s “Max at Sea,” in last week’s New Yorker, was straight agony. Trying to read what turned out to be a children’s story as fiction for adults tied us up in knots. That The New Yorker would ever publish a children’s story as “fiction” was a conclusion that we should never have trusted our own intelligence to reach. The experience prompted a good deal of thought about the importance of “getting it,” as though literature were primarily a puzzle to be decoded. This was a case of not “getting” something that wasn’t worth the effort.

¶ More in the spirit of a hot August week, we went to see The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, a joyously terrible movie. We  hope that the movie is not a really big hit, because that will only encourage a raft of miserably inferior imitations. On the home theatre front, we watched Fred and Ginger  in Follow the Fleet without interruption. We even took notes, but they turned out to be useless, at least as copy.

¶ As for this week’s Book Review review, are we the only one to find Geoffrey Grandfield’s witty drawing more than a little unpleasant, given the context? It’s nothing less than perverse of the Times to fuss over avoiding everyday demotic in print while publishing such unseemly illustrations.

Mad Men Note: This Is How It's Going to Be

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009


Deny it if you can: when Don Draper orders his brother-in-law, William, to fall into line with his plan for taking care of Betty’s father, you’re thrilled. What gives Don such power? Like a good curry, Don’s authority is a compound of many ingredients. One of these is his manner: he believes in whistling happy tunes (so to speak). Another is his torpedo-esque acquisition of targets’ weaknesses. Way beyond Santa, Don knows how people have been naughty, and how they’ve been nice. In any case, Don’s display of primacy among his wife’s family (he has none of his own, of course) dilates the focus of a sorry, everyday elder-care problem to the scope of a ducal fiat. “The Private Life of the Medici” is what Kathleen and I were both thinking.

A friend writes,

Oh man, i just watched this for the first time tonight — what a weird show!  i’m so sorry you had to live through that time, if its anything close to what reality was.  So creepy!

Although I guess one day they’ll make a show about the 1980’s and i’ll say the same thing to someone 20 years younger than me.

Yes and no. Yes, a show about the 1980s will doubtless have to be explained to younger viewers. But it will probably not be “creepy.” What’s creepy about Mad Men is the vividly illustrated decay of conventional mores. Nobody believes in anything beyond appearances, because appearances are always the last thing to be abandoned. The meaning behind respectable life has been moribund since the show began, in 1960; it will die when the first oral contraceptive is consumed by a female character in the solitude of her own bathroom.

Why the old timber began visibly to fall during the Kennedy Administration is  a scholar’s problem. (I won’t bore you with my hypotheses.) It wasn’t that a way of life came to an end — not at all. What came to an end was a way of pretending to feel about a way of life that very few people actually followed. Why did women still wear gloves in 1963 — no matter what the weather? Impractical white gloves, at that. Who were they kidding? Not themselves.

But I hope that this show about the Early Sixties is explaining what happened in the Late Sixties. The world could stand only so much bogus. Find one character in Mad Men who is comfortable with “the way things are,” and I’ll be damned if you can find two.

This evening’s Madison Square Garden subplot was very hard for me to watch. I wanted to run out into the night and disinter the corpses of executives who dreamed up the destruction of a great civic building and its replacement by the sorriest sort of postwar “modernism.” Madison Square Garden serves as a reminder that, in the Sixties, many New Yorkers wanted their city to look more like the cereal-boxed towns to the west. Places like Omaha and Dallas never resorted to the ziggurat-happy zoning laws that became popular in New York City after the Equitable Building, at 120 Broadway, blotted out the sun for buildings all the way up to City Hall. (Think on’t, my chicks.) The idea that the erection that is Pennsylvania Station’s latest incarnation could ever have struck more than two sane people as an improvement on any level is a terribly sad comment on the fraily of human understanding. 

You might say that, if New Yorkers could be so mistaken about their own urban welfare, then the nation as a whole was bound to run off the rails.

Weekend Open Thread: I Cover the Stormy Weather

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009


Weekend Update: Constabulary

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

Al Baker in the Times: “Brooklyn Man Killed at South Street Seaport

The argument that preceded the killing erupted among people debarking the Atlantica, which had been chartered for a party but which never left Pier 17.

People yelled and hurled bottles as they walked off the boat and into an area of shops and restaurants — most of them closed for the night — near South and Fulton Streets.

Then shots were fired, the police said, and as the crowd scattered, Mr. Trent fell to the ground with a bullet wound to the head, the police said. Emergency medical technicians pronounced him dead at the scene.

The Atlantica’s captain, Dennis Miano, said in a telephone interview on Saturday that “a little over 500” people had arrived on Friday night for what was billed as a moonlight cruise. But he said the 150-foot boat “can only handle about 425 to sail with.”

“That’s why we did a dockside party,” said Mr. Miano, 60. “We didn’t sail the boat.”

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, August 21st, 2009


¶ Matins: Edmund Andrews’s story about Ben Bernanke in this morning’s Times is strangely silent about the contribution of that self-made moron, Alan Greenspan, to the mess that Mr Bernanke has had to clean up.

¶ Lauds: These kids today: 91 year-old Arthur Laurents reads “the riot act” to the cast of West Side Story, which has been plagued with calling-in-sick-itis. (via Arts Journal)

¶ Prime: Why not call it the Goldstein Curve? Robin Goldstein culled data from Craigslist (and Felix Salmon turned it into a lovely scatterchart), revealing the inverse relationship between used car/bike prices in seven American cities.

¶ Tierce: Crazy or visionary? The developers of a building to be called 200 Eleventh Avenue (West 24th Street) plan to attach a garage to every apartment — just off the living room. (via Infrastructurist)

¶ Sext: Choire Siche discovers Hallenrad! And shares some of the best.

¶ Nones: Will the new face of Duchy Originals be HRH?

¶ Vespers: Garth Risk Hallberg reminds us of something that has been gently overlooked in the recent craze for All Things Julia: Mrs Child was not so much a great cookbook writer as she was a great writer period.

¶ Compline: Precisely because Reihan Salam’s Foreign Policy essay, “The Death of Macho,” made us uneasy, we think that everybody ought to read it.

¶ Bon weekend à tous!