Archive for September, 2009

Dear Diary: Make 'Em Laugh

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


Last week, I was so productive. This week, not so much. Not at all.

I know that I had an interesting idea for this entry when I got up this morning; I ought to have written it down. Later, I did a bit of cooking. I used the grinder attachment to the Kitchen Aid stand mixer for the first time in several years, possibly ten. I had been organizing the top of the cabinets, and the Le Creuset terrine looked so forlorn that I resolved to make a pâté maison, using Mrs Child’s recipe in The Way to Cook, as soon as possible. I’ve been moving so slowly, however, that the ingredients that I bought on Sunday almost exceeded their cook-by date. (The result seems tasty enough.) I also baked a quiche, this time remembering to toss in the cheese. Cheese is not a canonical ingredient of quiche — quiche Lorraine, anyway — but it makes a big difference. Forgetting the cheese two weeks ago produced a quiche that I can only describe as non-dairy. There was milk in it, yes; but isn’t milk the most non-dairy of dairy products?

I’m horribly distracted, these days, by the conviction that the world has taken a bad turn. (It’s probably just fatigue.) I worry a lot about the day when the guys at Con Ed wake up and just don’t give a damn about whether we have any power. That day seems foretold on almost every page of Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages (which I hope to write up tomorrow). I always pray that I won’t be in the elevator.

On a positive note, Megan’s pregnancy has entered its third trimester. My daughter is blooming; she is one of those expectant mothers who makes carrying a child seem like the most wonderful thing that a person could do. Not the most “natural” — she’s not at all obnoxious about it. In fact, she has begun to find the climb out of the subway, in the morning commuter rush, a bit of a trial. But it’s definitely wonderful: I do envy the little one. His mother is definitely going to love him; there’s no doubt about that. But/And she’s not going to love him too much. She’s not going to be a needy mom, not at all.

Maybe I’m quiet because I’m loudly aware that neither of my grandfathers, if they could see me now, would acknowledge that I’d grown up by so much as a day, since they walked the earth (in the mid-Fifties). I still wear short pants, and I don’t have a job! There’s being a grandfather — which can just happen, if you have children — and there’s being a “grandfather,” which, actually, I expect to be rather better at than either of them were willing to be. One was too dashing to be a grandfather; the other was too cantankerous. And neither one of them knew how to change a diaper. They would have considered it indecent to be in the same room as a naked infant. Perhaps our sex-offenses laws have brought us full-circle on that one.

Whether my grandfathers liked babies, I can’t say. I rather think not. I do like babies, though, enormously. The better part is — and I’m hoping that my grandson won’t prove to be an exception — that babies like me. I make them laugh.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009


¶ Matins: Jonah Lehrer meditates, briefly but beautifully, on a connection between the recent findings about social networks (the viral spread of obesity, &c) and free will.

¶ Lauds: Barbra Streisand sings some great songs  (for a change) at a great venue — how like “the good old days” is that? (via Speakeasy)

¶ Prime: A disturbing report finds that the profession of journalism is no longer open to the children of working-class families. (via MetaFilter)

¶ Tierce: In the ancient port of Muscat, a photograph stabs an expatriate with nostalgic longing.

¶ Sext: The McFarthest Map, at Strange Maps.

¶ Nones: The decision to shut down two media outlets, already regretted by the Micheletti government, makes the fairness of the 29 November elections even less likely.

¶ Vespers: James Wood aims his gimlet glance at the novels of Richard Powers. A bit of ouch, what?

¶ Compline: Arthur Krystal’s essay, “When Writers Speak,” reminded us of a Bloomsbury anecdote.


Dear Diary: Reversal?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009


All I could think of, this morning, was the testosterone replacement piece that cost Andrew Sullivan his job with the Times. “Antlers”! What was I thinking?(How much was I drinking, is more like it — we had been out to dinner with an old friend.) All I knew was that I couldn’t bring myself to read whatever it was that I’d written. I still haven’t.

This decision was facilitated by the fact that it was all that I could do to read the 584 feeds that had accumulated, like mushrooms, on my Google Reader page. We had what is known as “a long day.” I wasn’t put out; I’d been firing on all cylinders for four or five days, and was due for a collapse, or at least a lie-down. Until this year, I’d have spent the day reading. I might not have gone near the computer at all. But now I’m a professional. So I had “a long day” instead.

At the end of this long day, utterly devoid of incident worthy of report, I found myself at a loss for a concluding paragraph until, just a moment ago, I read the following paragraph in the Book of Cake (explanation to follow):

In April 1917 Albert Einstein wrote from Berlin to a friend in Holland of the way in which nationalism had altered the young scientists and academics he knew. “I am convinced that we are dealing with a kind of epidemic of the mind. I cannot otherwise comprehend how men who are thoroughly decent in their personal conduct can adopt such utterly antithetical views on general affairs. It can be compared with developments at the time of the martyrs, the Crusades and the witch burnings.

And how right he was. At least he took his own advice, and contrived to die at Princeton, and not — somewhere else, earlier.

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009


¶ Matins: Truckers engage with communications devices — cell phones, on-baord computers — up to “90%” of their driving time. Efforts to curb that distraction are likely to meet with frustration.  

¶ Lauds: Textile designer Ilisha Helfman, in Portland, Oregon, fashions outfits for her antique paper dolls from the covers of the Sunday Times Magazine.

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon comments on the economics of the Urban Diet.

¶ Tierce: The cheeky devils at Improv Everywhere had some fun on the subway: the Class of ’09, Lexington Avenue Laughing Academy. (via

¶ Sext: This time, the descent into the Dark Ages will be recorded — at craigslist.

¶ Nones: President Obama will campaign on behalf of his wife’s hometown, seeking the 2016 Olympics for Chicago.

¶ Vespers: Richard Crary gets round to Civilization and Its Discontents, enjoying the read for the most part but pricking his ears at Freud’s anthropology.

¶ Compline: Don’t expect that famous writer sitting across the table to be a gifted conversationalist, critic Arthur Krystal warns.


Dear Diary: Antlers

Monday, September 28th, 2009


After lunch, I threw on some trousers and ran a couple of errands. Stepping outside, I was surprised (as one always is, here) by the latest bit of striptease. The caissons had been pushed back from the driveway to the doorway, so that we can now walk across the broad terrace that will soon be our entryway. Only yesterday, and the day before that, when those barrels stood in the driveway, forming a very narrow passage, I found myself engaged in sizing-up exercizes with guys who were headed in the opposite direction. Now, that walkway has been erased, leaving a vapor of unreliable memories. There is plenty of room for everybody, and the calculus of do-I- or don’t-I-forge-ahead will be forgotten with relief. It was interesting while it lasted, though. I was bigger than the other men, and older, too. My eye was still sharp, and from years of living with “oblivious” princesses I had learned not to be outwardly cognizant of potential difficulties.

At the beginning of the third act of Siegfried, Wotan waits on a hillside for a token but determining battle. What has always interested me about this scene is Siegfried’s impatience: the old man (whom he doesn’t recognize, having no reason to do so) is an interruption in his program, which is to climb the mountain and see what there is to see. Wotan, for his part, is fulfilling a bargain, making it as difficult as he can for an intruder to violate the chaste imprisonment into which he immured his daughter (Siegfried’s aunt, as Anna Russel never tired of pointing out) several generations ago. I often feel like Wotan, obliged against my will to prick young men into acting like gentlemen, ever ready to be told that my services aren’t wanted. We love the old men with whom we have grown up, but we dislike all the others. Old men are truly a pain in the wazoo.

I wish I were young — oh, do I ever — but if I told you why, you wouldn’t believe me. Of course I’m going to tell you! I wish I were young so that I could do my homework, so that I could take advantage of every educational opportunity that was dropped in my lap when I was young. I wish that I could atone for my sinful derelictions in language labs: I would be able to speak French fluently today if I had been more diligent. I wish, in short, that I could have been sixty when I was eighteen. I wish that I had spent my entire life being sixty, because being sixty has really been working for me — well into being sixty-one! And yet — or perhaps it’s ipso facto — I find that I am more physically competitive than ever, ready to sweat the small stuff with other men at the drop of a hat.

I’ve learned something from the older guys as well. The older guys are older. Life used to be great for them, but it isn’t any longer. They wear the failure of jeunesse like a cologne. This is where coming into my own at a very late age sets me apart from my cohort. It also reminds me that, when were all fifteen or twenty, I hated the schmucks. I’m glad that they’re feeling old and useless; they had it coming.

And they say that antlers are for cuckolds. Nonsense.

Nano Note: Don't Make Me. Please.

Sunday, September 27th, 2009


Week after week, this season, I’ve been marveling at Don Draper’s moral stature: he seems to be the only character in the show who knows right from wrong. True, his morality is pragmatic. But it is very firmly rooted in a desire to avoid causing unnecessary pain to other people, and I don’t ask much more of a moral system than that.

This week brought me back to earth. Don certainly does know right from wrong. But he still has a lot of junk in his head, a lot of adolescent sap to metabolize. Else why would he have picked up a pair of strange teenagers on a dark and, okay, not stormy night and taken them to a motel for a party? The episode’s writers set it up so that we knew ahead of time where this frolic was going to lead (a beaten-up, drug-rattled Don, lying face-down on a strange carpet), so it was a relief to find out that our hero wasn’t in much worse trouble. The true folly, however, was Don’s refusal to sign a contract with Sterling & Cooper. This had become, inadvisedly, a point of pride with Don. Free to leave (and to work anywhere else) at will, Don came to see his unbound status as the biggest trophy in his case.

The advent of Conrad Hilton’s account, however, has given his firm (both Roger and Bert at the near end and Lane as the British rep) a perfect occasion to demand businesslike commitment from Don, in the form of a three-year employment contract with the usual non-compete clauses. From the very moment the topic is broached, it is tremendously clear that Don is not going to be able to sidestep this hurdle to his pride; if he leaves Sterling Cooper in a snit, he’s going to have to sign a contract wherever he goes. He knows this and they know this and everybody knows it, so well that Roger Sterling very foolishly decides to push matters along by enlisting Betty’s home-front support. Betty doesn’t know what Roger is talking about, but, smart girl that she is, she doesn’t let on, and hangs up on Roger’s impertinence. But of course she’s furious with Don for thinking that he’s a special act of creation, and it’s when she calls him on this that he turns on his heels and drives off into the night, with a highball in his right hand. Because I can, you can almost hear him insist. He picks up the hitch-hikders because I can. He pops the proffered “reds” because I can. He gets a bit of the shit kicked out of him because he can.

And then he signs the contract — helped along by Bert Cooper’s superior understanding of affairs — because he can’t not.

Monday Scramble: No Bad Reviews

Sunday, September 27th, 2009


An advance copy of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, by Allison Hoover Bartlett, was sent to the editor by a publicist. It was perhaps the fifth book that he has received in that way since we began keeping The Daily Blague — and it was easily the tenth offer. He tries not to ask for books that he won’t like, not because he feels obliged to publicists but because he doesn’t see the sense in writing more than a few lines about things that he doesn’t like. Happily, he was not wrong about The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. As a rule, we steer clear of books about books, but Allison Hoover Bartlett’s adventures with a non-violent sociopath make for a tale that we found both arresting and very funny.

We thought about the “no bad reviews” thing all last week, as thousands cheered (or so it seemed) for Deborah Eisenberg, new winner of a McArthur grant. We don’t begrudge Ms Eisenberg the prize — except perhaps her popularity with many people who matter, which depresses us.

The editor sat down to write about “Temporary,” the New Yorker story by Marisa Silver, with indistinct admiration but some uncertainty about what to make of the ending. As he wrote, however, focusing on the title, everything fell into place, especially the ending. There are people who believe that you ought to write about what you know. We believe that you ought to write about what you want to know. Not that big a difference, really.

The page on Guillermo Arriaga’s The Burning Plain  fulfills the “more anon” promises made in this Dear Diary entry, posted last Thursday. This week’s Home Theatre choice (Peter Webber’s Girl With a Pearl Earring) was motivated, of course, by the Milkmaid show at the Museum.

Finally — the only page that was not completed on Friday — this week’s Book Review review.

Nano Note: Beethoven in camera

Saturday, September 26th, 2009


For a long time, I’ve been wanting to put together a playlist of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, in order of publication (which is to say, in opus-number order). Now that I’ve done it, I want to make a few variants, and one of them, at least, is going to have to be structured in compositional order, or it won’t work any better than the publication order.

That’s because there are no piano sonatas with opus numbers that fall between 60 and 68 — the opus numbers of the Fourth and Sixth Symphonies. Nor can any fall between the numbers attached to the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, which are sequential (92 and 93). A playlist that lines up the symphonies and the sonatas in opus-number order is unlistenably imbalanced. Nearly a third of the sonatas precede the First Symphony. The Second Symphony follows the 18th Sonata (the “Hunt”). Three sonatas later, we reach the Third.  Only the 23rd Sonata, the “Appassionata,” falls between “Eroica” and the string of three symphonies that I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph. Four sonatas, including “Les Adieux” but also two shorter sonatas, fall between the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. After that, there’s the massive chunk of the final five sonatas. On top of which: the Choral Symphony. End of playlist. From a programming standpoint, it’s a disaster.

So I’m going to do a little research — rather, I’m going to hope that a little research will break up these alternating masses of symphonic and solo music. Perhaps it won’t. In that case, I doubt I’ll listen to the sonata-symphony playlist more than once.

Meanwhile, I’m going to line up the sonatas with the string quartets and the piano trios, with perhaps the Piano Quartet (Opus 16) and the String Quintet (Opus 29) thrown in for good measure. Beyond that, my familiarity with Beethoven’s chamber music peters out. (I’m not including the popular Septet, Op 20, because, like Mozart’s Horn Quintet, K 407, it is entertaining concert music on a reduced scale, not true chamber music.

OMG! The violin sonatas! Of course I’ll throw them in, too. 

Weekend Open Thread: Playground

Saturday, September 26th, 2009


Constabulary: Gamblin' Man

Friday, September 25th, 2009

In 2007, a police sergeant over in New Jersey pleaded guilty to a charge of running a gambling hall. His request to withdraw that plea, and to take the case to trial, has just been rejected by a judge. The croupier cop’s extenuating circumstances left hizzoner unmoved.

Winstock told the judge on Thursday, as he has in the past, that his wife threatened to leave him if he didn’t plead guilty, and that he believed when he did, he would receive one year probation. The judge bristled, noting that the plea agreement called for no set period of probation and up to 364 days in the county jail, which Winstock never got.

“I agonized whether I would place a person who had been a public servant, apparently a good one, and place him in an environment which would be hostile to him,” Ahto said to Winstock, in explaining why he elected not to impose time behind bars.

Winstock said he appreciated that he wasn’t sent to jail but that he now wanted the chance to tell a jury his side of the story.

Don’t miss the comments! If it had been a ring of black laborers, you can bet that the drift of the comments would have been different.

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, September 25th, 2009


¶ Matins: David Kushner files a report from the future — where everyone drives a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle. (via The Morning News) 

¶ Lauds: Forget the Summer of Death: Blanche Moyse turns 100.

¶ Prime: Mistaking the complex for the profound — always a problem for us smartypants. David Hakes, an academic economist at Northern Iowa U, admits that he committed preference falsification.

¶ Tierce: The Aesthete notes an interesting sale at Christie’s: Ismail Merchant’s knick-knacks will go on the block in a few weeks.

¶ Sext: We like Balk’s take on the 19-pound baby.

¶ Nones: More on Manuel Zelaya:

He’s sleeping on chairs, and he claims his throat is sore from toxic gases and “Israeli mercenaries” are torturing him with high-frequency radiation.

We’re not making this up! (via The Awl)

¶ Vespers: Esquire executive editor Mark Warren writes about the surprise literary thrill of discovering Sartre’s Nausea in Baytown, Texas.

¶ Compline: Josh Bearman writes about automata, the fancy toys, such as Vaucanson’s Duck, that may bring the word “animatronic” to mind. But automata actually do things.

Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary: Not Cool

Thursday, September 24th, 2009


Because the weather was going to be unseasonably warm today, I planned on going to the movies. If I stayed home, I probably wouldn’t get any work done — for the second day in a row. Now that I’ve emerged from my estival depression, temperatures in the high seventies are totally unendurable (and it was supposed to be even warmer today). I’m done with that for 2009. Tomorrow is supposed to be lovely — perhaps even a tad brisk. I’m looking forward to a productive day.

(Which is foolish, because almost any contretemps can disable the higher functions that allow me to write with pleasure.)

The only movie showing that a) I hadn’t seen or that b) wasn’t out of the question — there seems to be an awful lot of animation (9) and dystopian fiction (District 9) on the city’s screens at the moment — was The Burning Plain, about which I knew nothing more than what IMDb could tell me, which wasn’t much. Charlize Theron, check; Kim Basinger, check. Joaquim de Almeida would have been a check if I’d remembered seeing him in Clear and Present Danger, but I didn’t place his name. Other prominent members of the cast have done a lot of television work, but that only means that, as for me, they might as well not have bothered.

I wasn’t looking forward to The Burning Plain, which I’ll be writing about tomorrow, but I loved it; more anon. When I got home, I was so demoralized by the humidity (and by not being able to reach Kathleen, momentarily) that I read A O Scott’s review of the film — something that I wouldn’t ordinarily do, for the simple reason that I might spoil my write-up by thinking too highly of somebody else’s. The danger in this case, however, proved to be entirely hypothetical. Beginning with this crack,

… which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday after spending about a month as a video-on-demand insomnia cure.

Mr Scott launches a seriously nasty review — as well as one that isn’t particularly funny. (Gloriously savage reviews that make me howl with laughter are my guiltiest pleasure.) As if the weather weren’t depressing enough, the review lowered my spirits even further. Why publish such nastiness? You can always say, “I didn’t care for this movie,” or “It wasn’t for me.”

But those movies, which were directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, balanced their silly conceits with some seriously good acting. (Mr. Arriaga’s best script, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” was directed by Tommy Lee Jones, who also starred.) In this case, with Mr. Arriaga in the director’s chair for the first time, the acting is merely serious.

I don’t think that it’s crazy to say that Kim Basinger, always a luminous movie star even if you wouldn’t particularly want to see her play Shakespeare or Racine, may have done her best work ever in The Burning Plain. Again: more anon. What’s offensive about A O Scott’s review is its jerk-off presumption that no intelligent moviegoer could possibly enjoy the movie as I did. What kind of cool club is he striving to please, by pissing off the filmmaker, a regular reader, and Charlize Theron?

Second Avenue, by the way, was a parking lot, thanks to UN Week. I would never have gotten to the Beekman if I’d hailed a cab. I’d still have been in it two hours later, when I walked back home.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, September 24th, 2009


¶ Matins: Michael Specter takes a good look at the potentially scary field of synthetic biology — and does not panic.

¶ Lauds: Booing at the Met: Luc Bondy’s Tosca. (Not to be confused with Puccini’s, no matter what they sang. Maybe Sardou’s, though.)

¶ Prime: Engineering in the Age of Fractals, or “Why Bankers Are Like Bacteria.” (via Felix Salmon)

¶ Tierce: Abe Sauer’s quite informative Essay Touching Upon the Economics of Britney Spears’s Circus Tour Show in Grand Forks, North Dakota; or, Don’t Blame Ticketmaster.

¶ Sext: It’s a bit early for us, but our cousin Kurt Holm will be on the Early Show tomorrow morning, and CBS Studios at 59th and Fifth will be the place to hang out.  (Between 7:15 and 9, I’m told.) This week at notakeout: Mark Bittman guests!

¶ Nones: Yesterday, we were reminded of Il Trovatore. Today, it’s Rodelinda. How did Manuel Zelaya get back into Honduras? The sort of question that never comes up in genuine opera seria. Maybe this is opera buffa.

¶ Vespers: The book to read before it’s sold over here: The Queen Mother: The Official Biography, by William Shawcross. Why? Because she was “Past Caring.”

¶ Compline: Mash-ups considered as the model for creative intelligence, at The Frontal Cortex.


Dear Diary: Maritime

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009


This week, I’ve resumed listening to Teach Yourself Dutch on my daily walks — which I have also resumed, on a minimum-of-twice-weekly schedule. I had taken a few walks in August with my pop shuffle (see “Endless Summer“), and I expect to take a few more, but the arduous business of learning foreign languages is what autumn is all about, at least for cosmopolitan intellectuals such as myself. French is the language that I ought to know, but Nederlands is the language that I wish I could speak, because I think that it is my homeland language. I have not given up on the idea that I might find myself living in Amsterdam someday. Everybody in Amsterdam speaks English, but I would not let that get in the way. Angenaam kennis te maken!

So I walked over to the river and what did I see, but this Coast Guard vessel (pictured, above and below, left — the lower image is simply a detail) parked in the middle of the East River. It was that what-d’you-call-it moment when the tides aren’t running one way or the other. It took me a while (I am not the brightest bulb in the box) to realize that the ship was there to guard against terrorists who might want to launch a bazooka at the United Nations headquarters from their Chris Craft. Then I really paid attention.

The players are all in the crop. The Coast Guard vessel, stately and off to one side, guarding against Iranian aircraft carriers — or maybe French ones. I understand that. The large ship’s disinclination to engage in the contretemps that bothered the smaller boats was right out of Ms Gaskell, or perhaps early Trollope. It was hard not to think of dogs. Sniffing. Just look!

The police boat (blue hull) steamed up, as it were, from downtown to have a look. For a while, it flashed its overhead light, just like a cruiser pulling you over. But it accomplished nothing. It was the grey and orange slip (another Coast Guard vessel, I hope) that finally, after I really can’t tell you how many feints and false resolutions, sent the white pleasure craft on its merry way down the East Channel. Young people deciding whether to have sex for the first time cannot have been more tentative than these sailors. 

And I thought: let’s just let them blow us up. It would be better than this nonsense. If we have to park idiots out on the East River to deal with other idiots who know that they oughtn’t to be cruising down Moon River while the UN is in session — well, clearly, these guys are not going to protect us from the brains who could blow us all up in a trice. 

Make no mistake: I admire the Coast Guard vessel (the Ridley) for staying out of whatever was going on over there — which, for all I know, was a confab between a security officer and his brother-in-law — hostile, but not Orange Alert.  But I’ve been reading Chris Wickham on the Dark Ages, and learning that when security becomes our most important product, you might as well give up and ask the Taliban in.   


On the way home, I stopped in at Gristede’s to pick up a few things for dinner, but, as always happens when I go off-shopping list, I found when I got home that I’d have to go out again. This time, I went to the Food Emporium, which is in the building, facing Second Avenue. When I turned the corner, I almost fainted. The row of lovely Bradford pear trees were gone. I knew, right away, why: to make way for the construction of the 86th Street Station of the Second Avenue subway. But it was another example of heavy-handed violation of the fabric of civil society, and even less necessary than protecting the United Nations from rogue pleasure craft. I’m still heartbroken; I probably won’t see those trees again in my lifetime.

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009


¶ Matins: In an important editorial, the Times argues that corporations ought not to have the same set of constitutional rights as human beings.

¶ Lauds: At The Best Part, four terrific photographs that William Eggleston did not take — but clearly inspired John Johnston to take.

¶ Prime: The Netflix Prize — a million dollars to whomever improves the performance of its Cinematch engine by ten percent — is not really about the money.

¶ Tierce: Devin Friedman decides to have more black friends, runs ad in Craiglist… the beginning of quite the project. “Will you be my black friend?“, at GQ.

¶ Sext: Three things that V X Sterne would rather chat about than “So, What Do You Do?

¶ Nones: In what seems like a turn from Il Trovatore, ousted Honduras president Manuel Zelaya steals back into Tegucigalpa, where he takes refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.

¶ Vespers: Alan Gopnik reviews Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol — but not in the back of the book. As the lead Talk piece instead. Ho-ho-ho.

¶ Compline: Nige takes the week off, bumps around Norfolk with an old friend, and visits a famous French cathedral. We are so living on the wrong continent.


Dear Diary: Marital Episode

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009


After dinner, as I was ironing the napkins — not my favorite job, but somebody’s got to do it — and watching “Music to Die For,” the second episode of the second season of Lewis, the great successor to Morse — my dear Kathleen, her back to the screen, her attention ostensibly fixed on the purchase of baby clothes for the little one, blurted out, “She’s the murderer.” I thanked her very much for reminding me, you may be sure. (All I remembered was that the fantastic Cheryl Campbell has a part — I even forgot that she was playing a German!) What was worse, deeply disingenuous Kathleen immediately claimed that she might have been mistaken. Don’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry for spoiling your suspense!” Say, “Maybe I was wrong.”

Like bloody hell — and at least I didn’t fall for it. Kathleen is always right about whodunits — she never forgets. She knows whodunit even when she hasn’t seen the movie before; there’s a Hollywood job in there somewhere. (Fool Kathleen and they make you change the ending, because nobody will find it plausible.) When her gross lie was revealed at the end, and I told her what a horrible person she is, not only for giving away endings but for trying to cover up her indiscretions, she ran through her repertoire of adorable gargoyle faces, and I had no choice but to forgive her. It’s hard not to love a basilisk who thinks she’s a comedian.

We will draw a veil over her claim that I used to be even worse….

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009


¶ Matins: The Economics Department at Notre Dame plans to dissolve its humanist, “heterodox” wing, and focus exclusively on “sophisticated training in quantitative methods in addition to a liberal-arts emphasis.” (via Marginal Revolution)

¶ Lauds: Michael Johnston ogles a book of “camera porn” from the George Eastman House. SFW!

¶ Prime: James Surowiecki calls for detaching the ratings agencies from official securities regulation.

¶ Tierce: Tom Scocca, Dad with a pen, goofs again: “It was a mistake to get on the Metro train with the kid riding on my shoulders.”

¶ Sext: Of the lower 48 states, 5 birds are 26 states’ official avian: Cardinal (7), Mockingbird (6), Meadowlark (6), Bluebird (4), and Goldfinch (3).

¶ Nones: Wake-up call from New Delhi to Indian state governments: “Leak reveals India Maoist threat.”

¶ Vespers: Emily Gould’s report on a panel discussion about the future of fiction is the sort of document that we don’t want to lose sight of: this is how published authors regarded the Internet/marketing/branding in September 2009: still in the old-fashioned way. (via The Rumpus)

¶ Compline: “Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres”: Project Gaydar at MIT. (via The Morning News)


Dear Diary: Vikingr

Monday, September 21st, 2009


That’s not a misspelling! It’s the Scandinavian for “pirate.” I have always wondered what kind of word “viking” is, and what it means — and now I do, thanks to Chris Wickham!

In addition to providing a more convincing explanation of  the “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire than I’d have thought possible (after all the murky ones that I’ve read), Mr Wickham has a way with the scant relicts of Early Medieval Europe that maybe just as deformed by current outlooks as history at any time is likely to be, it is a way that makes sense. Consider his take on the remains of the Northumbrian palace complex at Yeavering:

We are not so far from [Hadrian’s] wall here, and Roman material culture was thus at least physically available to the Bernicians [as the Northumbrians were known]; but for Anglo-Saxons living north of the Roman province of Britannia deliberately to adopt a Roman-influenced construction for something as emblematically Anglo-Saxon as a public assembly point sheds considerable light on royal aspirations, particularly because it seems to predate Christianization, which would make Roman influences more obviously culturally attractive. Indeed, this may go some way to explaining the readiness of Anglo-Saxon rulers to be converted relatively quickly.

In many cases, as here, Mr Wickham simply turns conventional wisdom around, and we see that the history that we were brought up on was the history of the Nineteenth Century, applied to earlier eras.


I’ve been reading The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000, with the greatest interest. Chris Wickham is a gifted writer who can make almost anything seem interesting; if he’s hard to follow at times, it’s only because one doesn’t have his ready grasp of the difference tetween BCE 500 and BCE 700. To must of us, there’s no difference at all; nor is there much more difference between the dates that bracket Mr Wickham’s period.  At the level of simple visualization, most educated people can distinguish the look of the Reformation from that of the Enlightenment (even if they can’t recite any specific dates), because they have some traction on what happened between 1500 and 1750 What’s dark about the Dark Ages is our blanketing ignorance of them.


When Kathleen travels, I never make promises to gods that I don’t believe in to be a better person in this or that way if she is returned safely to me. I’m not wired for that (which may explain why I don’t believe in gods). Instead, I think of all the things that I won’t do anymore if she doesn’t come home. Kathleen has always returned, so far, without my having become a better person; but I’m quite sure that I should be a worse one without her. Perhaps that’s a false prophecy, but I have no desire to put it to the test.

This time, she returned with her mother’s jewelry. Laid out on a length of white cloth, it looked like something that might have been dug up at Yeavering — not in style, of course, but in its slightness. Except for the most extravagant regalia, women’s jewelry is, for obvious reasons, normally small, and especially small-looking when arrayed on a cloth. The lovely brooches had the vulnerability of tiny birds. The pearls, although entirely correct, had a pagan opulence that seemed vaguely archeological. But the rings — and what is more regal and symbolic than a ring? — were a puzzle.

I remember my mother-in-law as a wearer of power rings. Not the bizarre extravaganzas that my own mother wore on her very long fingers, but quietly serious jewelry that looked exactly as valuable as it was — and no more. (Although an Irish Catholic from Long Island, my mother-in-law was a genuine tai tai.) But the power was evidently in my mother-in-law, not in the stones. Aside from a handsome knob of enamel and gold, none of the rings was at all impressive on Kathleen’s hand.

How can we be surprised, then, that the imperial self-confidence of Hadrian’s time, once shaken off, took fifteen hundred years to retrouver?

Monday Scramble: Rogues

Monday, September 21st, 2009


Now, Michael Gross’s Rogues’ Gallery is not my kind of book at all, and I knew that it wouldn’t be; but I read it because of its nominal subject matter, the making of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’m sure that readers who have liked the book would not have wanted Mr Gross to say any more about art (as in “pleasures of”) than he has done.   

This week’s New Yorker story, “Land of the Living,” by Sam Shepard, would be a heartbreaker if it hadn’t been for a distracting odd couple that seemed to appear in every scene. What were they about?

On Friday, we saw Steven Soderbergh’s new movie, The Informant! , starring Matt Damon in top form. We did not come away pining for the bucolic pleasures of Decatur, Illinois. How do they manage, out there, amidst all that corn? No wonder Mark Whitacre embezzled millions.

Finally, this week’s Book Review review. One of the shortest ever.

Mad Men Note: Envoi

Sunday, September 20th, 2009


We had not expected that a tourniquet would ever be required in an episode of Mad Men — much less in the offices of Sterling Cooper. We ought to have seen it coming, we confess, when Ken Cosgrove drove the John Deere lawnmower through reception. But we didn’t, and neither did Guy McKendrick, the ghastly sack of glittering prizes who is not destined, in the end, to captain the parent firm.

Two things about the show: the horribleness of Brits and you’ll miss me when I’m gone. These themes are too intertwined to deal with separately.

When St John what’s-his-name (wake up, IMDb!) and Harold Ford present Lane with the stuffed cobra and tell him that he’s going to be transfered to Bombay, it’s as though The Jewel in the Crown has taken over the episode, and not because Bombay is in India. “Don’t pout,” says Harold (I think). “You’re best quality is that you always do as you’re told.” Lane struggles to drink the hemlock manfully, and he almost pulls it off. And we root for him! As does everyone at Sterling Cooper, now that they know what’s next. “They just reorganized us, and you’re the only one who got a promotion” — or words to that effect — says Campbell to Crane.

But then, at the “fête” — McKendrick’s word, never to be used by him again, one expects — some jackass fires up the John Deere and, the next thing you know, one of the secretaries has collided with Guy’s foot. How, we don’t see, and, frankly, I couldn’t imagine what happened. It is clearly arterial, though, as Crane and his colleagues are splattered with blood, which doesn’t happen when someone runs over your foot (does it?). Joan, as the wife of a passed-over resident who lacks “brains in his fingers,” saves the man’s life by calling for a tourniquet. But McKendrick does lose his foot, even if it’s for the greater glory of Roger Sterling’s deliciously inappropriate joke. More Brit horribleness: “He’ll never play golf again.” Ergo, McKendrick’s career is over, which even Don Draper doesn’t see right away.

Speaking of manfully, Don’s interview with Conrad Hilton is everything that’s useful about macho and nothing that’s bad. Don is not cowed by the great hotelier, but he’s not a jerk, either. The two men may have bonded in a country-club bar while playing hookey from two boring parties, but that doesn’t mean that Don is going to do free work for Connie. (By the way, was I the only one who was reminded of The Best of Everything by that jump-over-the-bar scene?

In the hospital waiting room, Lane buys Don a soda — imagine! Lane is going to stay on as liaison/boss after all, but we can tell that this is a good thing, if only on a devil-you-know footing. The crisis of the Londoners’ visitation and its bloody upshot have metamorphosed the pre-existing relationships. Lane, who says that he has been reading Twain’s Tom Sawyer stories, might well readjust his priorities in the wake of the stuffed cobra.

As for Joan, who thought that she was retiring, but who has been told by her husband that she needs to keep her job, or to find another one, everyone who has been watching the show since its launch is going to be glued to the set next Sunday night, dying to see if and how Joan swings a Sterling Cooper comeback. Meanwhile, there’s the slight problem that, while nobody at Sterling Cooper likes Roger Sterling anymore, viewers have never been crazier about him. I tip my hat to the first male to pull of the Joan Collins thing.

I cannot believe that I’ve been reduced by the excitement of Guy McKendrick’s limb loss to scribbling this breathless storytelling.