Archive for October, 2009

Weekend Update (Friday Edition): Aztecs

Friday, October 16th, 2009


When I looked at the program, my short hairs stood on end. They were playing K 563, and I almost didn’t go.

If I were a Renaissance pope, but in a world of music, not Christianity, I would found churches everywhere in honor of my favorite saint, Mozart’s Trio in E-flat for Vioilin, Viola and Violoncello. In that alternative world, I might hear my desert-island music more often. Mozart called it a “divertimento,” and yet it’s very difficult to play. That puts it at the North Pole of the Mozart-Liszt axis. Mozart wrote difficult music that sounds very straightforward and easy. It’s no wonder that more virtuoso reputations have been made playing Liszt, who wrote relatively straightforward music that sounds fiendishly difficult. It’s all very nice to have aficionados in the audience who know the score, but they’re never going to be numerous enough to fill Carnegie Hall. Or even Grace Rainey Rogers.

I did go, though. I was there, I mean. I was there, and the MMA Artists were going to play Köchel Werke Verzeichnis 563. I couldn’t believe that all I had to do was hang around until after intermission. I expected an interfering inconvenience  of some kind; when you’re my age, you just do. But I was fine. Considering that I was alone — Kathleen is in North Carolina this weekend, counting the silver (to make sure that her mother didn’t take any of it with her) — I was about as happy as it’s possible to be, in an unexcited, no-big-deal sort of way. I went a bit early, because it dawned on me that, on a Friday night, when the Museum stays open late, there are things to do, or at least to look at, if you arrive in plenty of time. I walked in and immediately felt that I owned the place. In a way, I did. Nobody, as we lawyers say of easements, had a better right to be there than I did.

I went and had a good look at The Milkmaid. I felt that I’m beginning really to like this picture, even though I have a thing about glamorizing servants. (It’s a sin against them, really.) It was very clear to me that I’d take The Milkmaid any day over the later and “more accomplished” Young Woman With a Water Pitcher — a painting that got a very notable second-best boost from Girl With the Pearl Earring. The Young Woman is mine — ours — the Museum’s, but that doesn’t influence my judgment. Good heavens, no; I’m actually praing that the Museum will sell the painting that is undoubtedly Vermeeer’s worst (what was he thinking?): the Allegory of Faith. (Even though I’m very fond of the tapestry curtain in the foreground.) My favorite Met Vermeer, more and more, is Woman With a Lute.

I almost bought Walter Liedtke’s plush monograph on Vermeer. I want it, certainly. But we’ve been spending money like water here lately, buying all the little things that will “pull the apartment together.” I doubt that Liedtke on Vermeer (as the book would have been called in more learned times) is going to go out of print anytime soon. I bought some postcards, and that was that.

Liedtke, by the way, speculates that the Woman With a Lute is waiting for a man to join her — a man with whom the spectator might identify. This seems truly peculiar to me. I see a woman who’s having a good time playing music in cloudy weather. I don’t see myself in the picture at all. Happily, I can’t possibly interrupt the music.

I had a choice of routes back to the Great Hall, which I would have to cross, in order to get to Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, where Edward Arron and his colleagues would be playing chamber music. (That was all that I knew; I hadn’t bothered to check out the program ahead of time. I’d bought the tickets months ago. That’s why I almost didn’t go. In a perfect world, there would be no need to buy anything ahead of time; you could just wait to be in the mood.) I could go through the Medieval Hall or through the Greek and Roman Galleries. I was in the mood for Greek and Roman, but, in the event, I never paused to look at anything there, because, in order to reach Greek and Roman, I had to pass through the multi-purposed wing that, for the moment, I’ll call “Aztec.” This is a part of the Museum that I don’t know at all, and am indeed unpardonably sniffy about. But I was feeling expansive. Someone I knew might want to see something in these galleries, and I ought to know where they were (call me Teddy Wharton). I was feeling so comfortable and pleasant and mentally enlarged that I decided to do the Aztecs a favor, and have a look at them. Horrible to put it that way, but, in the end, that’s what living with art comes down to, and don’t let ’em tell you otherwise.

Because it’s way past my bedtime, I am not going to chatter about the Aztecs. The gold items were luminous and intriguing, but they were also impossible to look at without thinking of Indiana Jones… The silver items, however, were very fresh. There are two vases — not intended as such, perhaps, but that’s what we’d treat them as — that really ought to be copied by Tiffany; I’m sure they’d sell like hotcakes. Very simple, very Thirties — only, better than Thirties. You have to see them. Of course, I do live under a rock. It’s entirely possible that Renny Reynolds and Robert Isabel cloned them decades ago, and that, even as we speek, Palm Beach hostesses are trying to persuade their housemaids to accept them as bonuses. As you can see, though, my visit to the Aztecs was not without interest.

I’d thought that I’d have dinner somewhere afterward; I’d even brought reading matter to sustain me at a table for one. I ended up coming home, though, and making spaghetti alla carbonara. What I really wanted was the roast chicken at Demarchelier, but, when I passed by, the restaurant seemed not only packed but attitudinal. What can I say? I’m always comfortable at La Grenouille, one of the grandest restaurants in the world, but Demarchelier persistently reminds me that I live on the wrong side of Lexington Avenue. And Third Avenue. And Second Avenue! Turn the glass over, and I live on the wrong side of East End Avenue as well. Demarchelier is an Upper East Side restaurant. I live (four blocks away) in Yorkville. Maybe the Aztecs had exhausted my cultural imperialism.

But I’m just like you in this respect, I had as good a right as anybody to check out the Aztecs.

Office/Diary: Friday

Friday, October 16th, 2009


The weather was awful yesterday, unseasonably cold and miserably wet — although not quite as miserable as the same weather will be in March or early April, when the novelty factor has been stripped away. I ought to have stayed home and done a thousand things that need doing, but I couldn’t stand another day of domesticity, so I went to the Museum.

¶ Matins: George Packer reminds us Why Vietnam Matters, and receives a sad letter from Rufus Phillips, the adviser who tried to shout down the groupthink about Vietnam in Kennedy’s White House.

At the Museum, I discovered that I really ought to have stayed home. The place was packed, and, as always, the more people there are in the Museum, the more slowly they move. Most of them, naturally, have no idea of where they are or of where they’re going. Every move is inflected with uncertainty, especially when maps aren’t consulted. The cafeteria was jammed; I wasn’t at all sure that I’d find a table of my own. When I did, I found myself next to a nursing mother, embowered in a chatty family. I did not linger over the book that I had just bought upstairs in the gift shop — having failed, rashly, to port along a magazine.

¶ Lauds: Critics agree — Damien Hirst can’t paint.

After lunch — which, to be brutally honest, was the whole point of the Museum visit — I teetered on the verge of going back home. Indeed, I didn’t stay long. I saw the two big shows that are up at the moment, and I didn’t go anywhere near Vermeer’s Milkmaid — a big show in some ways, but not in size. The Art of the Samurai is going to open soon, but at the moment the  big shows are American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915 and Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans.

¶ Prime: We’ve been waiting for this story for so long that we actually forgot all about it: Electronic stock trading, which can be located just about anywhere, has perhaps mortally dented the action on the New York Stock Exchange and its European counterparts.

The Frank show was too crowded to enjoy; I sashayed through the rooms in a getting-acquainted state of mind. I’d have taken in the show that way anyway, but I was extra express. Frank’s photographs have never moved me in the way that Walker Evans’s do, and a lot of the images seemed, glaringly, to miss William Eggleston’s color. That’s to say that, as the photographs are documents rather than compositions, there is something false about the black-and-white, which is not only arty and un-American but missing the riotous vulgarity of the American scene. There’s no gainsaying, however, that Political Rally — Chicago, 1956 is one super-duper photograph.

¶ Tierce: In case you didn’t have all day, yesterday, for the Scocca-Gessen bout, Christopher Shea not only summarizes it but evaluates Mark Greif’s underlying article.

I’ll have more, I hope, to say about American Stories. I’m trying to figure out a way to write about shows just like it — exhibitions that I visit five to ten times during their stay. What I want to convey is a sense of the temporary collection of pictures, and American Stories gets a boost from the recent Americans in Paris, in which at least one of the new show’s very best paintings was also shown. Mary Cassatt painted it as a thank-you gift, only to have it rejected by the giver. She ended up calling it Lady at the Tea Table, but it is in fact a portrait of Mary Dickinson Riddle. Riddle’s daughter, Anna Scott, who had given the Cassatts the gilt Canton service that litters the tea table, thought that her mother’s nose had been rendered too large, so the picture went back to the discouraged painter. Decades later, it was appreciated as a masterpiece, and it is one of the relatively few great paintings to have been given to the Museum by their creators.

¶ Sext: A profoundly un-green solution to a wintry problem:

Luzhkov is a long-time proponent of fighting clouds by spraying liquid nitrogen, silver, or cement particles into the cloud mass, which forces precipitation to fall before it can reach the capital and spoil holidays like Victory Day and City Day.

(via The Morning News)

I almost fell in love with Lady at the Tea Table at the Americans in Paris show, but there was a distraction. Standing in front of the Cassatt (where it hung in that show), I had only to turn to my left to gaze at my true love, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, the almost perfectly square Sargent that hung in the next gallery. (The difference between height and width is half an inch.) It seemed obvious that Daughters was the best painting in the world, period. Making do, I’m now inclined to find in Mrs Riddle — possessor of the clearest blue eyes that I have ever seen in a top-drawer painting — the subject of an extravagantly wonderful picture.

¶ Nones. In Monocle, Matthew Brunwesser urges Turkey to expunge the infamous and totally un-European Article 301 from its constitution; insulting a nation may sound like a bad thing, but the power to enforce sanctions against deprecation is more than most mortals can handle. More about the crippling Dogan Yayin fine  from Stephen Castle and Sebnem Arsu at the Times.

As I’ve said, Lady at the Tea Table belongs to the Museum. It hangs in the American Wing — currently closed for renovation and set to open in 2011. I’m sure that I stared at it in its native ground. But I never noticed it, not really. This is something else that I want to talk about. Every show has a greatest hit (not that everybody agrees what it is — I’m only talking about my view here). It has nothing to do with ranking; one doesn’t look for runners-up. The contest is nonetheless intensely relative: to win, the greatest hit doesn’t have to be the greatest painting in the world. It merely has to seem to be the greatest, in comparison with everything else on the walls.

¶ Vespers: “It may also be true that Michiko’s judgment works on the time-release principle of certain antacids…that hindsight makes the heart grow fonder.” Garth Risk Hallberg on Michiko Kakutani’s critical maneuvers, à propos of her very unfavorable review of Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City.

In a related way, pictures gain attraction by being moved around the Museum. For a few months earlier this year, Sargent’s Madame X was thrillingly hung at the end of the André Meyer enfilade. You could see her (if you were as tall as I am) from the top of the rise in the prints and photographs gallery that runs from the grand staircase to the Chamber of Horrors (think “Cot“). That is where Madame X belonged — in so many ways. At least she was there for a while.

Compline: The staff at XXfactor give Mad Men-style office drinking a try. Result: they have a fun day but are not creative. There don’t appear to be any adults on hand to tell them that they’re not in training.

If anybody asked me, which variation on the same thing is more interesting, La Gioconde or Lady at the Tea Table — but enough silliness. If you do get to the show, try to spend some time with Mrs Riddle. She’s an American fascinator.

Bon weekend à tous!

Office/Diary: Thursday

Thursday, October 15th, 2009


The other day, before lunch, before heading off to the storage unit for a bit of pre-shuffle straightening out, I had a long telephone conversation with a friend that touched on this and that but eventually circled around my objection to being said to have a philosophy. A philosophy of any kind. Also: I reject the idea that I belong to any community — not because I’m sort of loner (although I am a bit of a rogue), but because I don’t believe that communities exist. That’s not my philosophy; it’s just my opinion. I have loads and loads of opinions; in fact you might say that I have an opinion about absolutely everything; for, if I haven’t got an opinion about something, that’s because, in my not-very-humble opinion, the something isn’t worth thinking about.  

¶  Matins: At Chron Higher Ed, W A Pannapacker writes warmly about the “middlebrow” nature of The Great Books (1952). When a fellow grad student made a crack about his shelf of leatherette volumes, he put them away.

Eventually all of those beloved volumes were boxed, hidden in a closet, and replaced by hundreds of university-press monographs on literary and cultural criticism—mostly secondhand—along with ever larger piles of mostly unreadable scholarly journals. Of course, such acquisitions only affirmed my middlebrow-status anxiety, since so many of them were motivated by what I thought other people thought, rather than by my own interests.

Reading that, we thought: that’s what middlebrow is — attending to interests other than your own.

Opinions, yes; but no philosophy. “Philosophy” is not just an aggregation of opinions. It’s an earnest attempt to understand the world in systematic terms. Logical deductions from general principles are taken seriously by philosophers because the principles are thought to have an existence outside of the mind of anyone who holds them. This I stoutly reject. As a materialist, I believe in nothing that can’t be dragged into a laboratory for measurement. And that includes love, by the way. The fact that I cannot prove, in any normal, scientific manner, that I love my wife means, for me, that “love” does not exist on the same plane as “gravity.”

¶ Lauds: The Aesthete interviews Scott McBee, a storyboard artist who moonlights as the painter of nine-foot-long elevations of the great old ocean liners. (He hates cruise ships!) Before you reach for your wallet: his prices range from two to three times nine thousand dollars.

Toward the end of the conversation that I was talking about, my friend asked why I hadn’t just said that I was a materialist in the first place. I replied that I had asserted this so many times in the past, and so completely assumed that my friend was aware of my materialism, that I thought it heavy-handed to allude to the fact. (Also, I was in no hurry to end such a lively conversation.) 

¶ Prime: Felix Salmon agrees with Calvin Trillin: it’s the smarty-pantses what did Wall Street in. Banking is best done by the bottom third of the class.

One might argue that “philosophy” and “community” are mere abstractions, convenient carryalls for multiple instances of more of less the same thing (opinions, neighbors), but I reject that. What is interesting about my neighbors is not what we have in common, but what we don’t; and my bundle of opinions is free to evade all if-then constructions. I am not especially wilful or capricious. I don’t set out to be unpredictable. If a measure of consistency helps friends and acquaintances (and neighbors) know in advance what to expect of me, I won’t feel (as many men do) found out and exposed. But my mind is not a puzzle to be solved.

¶ Tierce: Have you got all day? Owing to household uproars, we missed this when it was fresh, but the correspondence between Tom Scocca (of The Awl) and Keith Gessen (of n+1), about an article in the latter’s publication, is as close to boxing as we ever get in the world of letters. In our view, the argument is never truly joined; Mr Gessen defends one of his writers, while Mr Scocca defends his ideas. To the extent that the exchange amounts to a discussion of the history of marriage, we’re inclined to agree with Mr Scocca — not least because we quail at the thought of being on his bad side, ever — but we admire Mr Gessen for not picking up the popcorn.

“Know then thyself” — I take Pope’s advice very much to heart. You really ought to know what you think. You ought to get to the bottom of you, as best you can. You ought to change what you don’t like about yourself, but only for that reason, and not because you’ve got notions that don’t “belong in the sentence.”

(Racking my brain for an example of intellectual inconsistency has led nowhere, probably because my intelligence has been set up to sidestep discomfort, not because I have no inconsistent ideas. I know that I have them, but I can’t think of any at the moment — a besetting sin. From the high horse of generality, I find it difficult if not impossible to pluck the agreeable flowers that grow by the roadside.)

(My friends, on the other hand, may not be as blocked on the subject of me as I seem to be.)

¶ Sext: It’s easy to spot the non-readers at craigslist, what with their Plato Toys and their Candle Operas.

In the wake of the conversation, my myriad opinions took on the metaphoric charm of expensive cigars, and I became a positive Churchill, exuberantly smoking them no matter who minded. I was very happy with this picture — not least because thinking of yourself as Winston Churchill after a certain age (sixty) is quite uplifting. By sixty, one hopes, you have given up on giving up on being young, and the idea of flourishing in your eighties or nineties becomes the sexiest idea imaginable. It sounds creepy, I know; but just wait.

¶ Nones: China’s billionaires. We have to lie down now. While we recover, discuss: are Chinese billionaires more or less likely to wind up in prison than their American counterparts?

My friend Eric Patton just wrote a lovely piece about altruism in the age of Spencer. Eric didn’t mention Herbert Spencer, or Spencer’s coinage, “the survival of the fittest,” but the resonance was there. Perhaps it was overly enthusiastic of me to do so, but I read the passage that Eric quoted, about altruistic Neanderthals, as expressing an important human ideal that was severely dented by the license to be selfish that Darwinism (especially in Spencerian hands) seemed to authorize in the Nineteenth Century and that still operates as a widespread intellectual default. (Chris Hedges’s chapter, in Empire of Illusion, on reality TV shows how set in vulgar concrete Spencer’s idea has become).

¶ Vespers: Thinking of reading something by Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller? Only 5 of her 20 books have been translated from the German into English. This may be regrettable, but it’s not surprising. While non-Anglophones read more widely in translation, I shouldn’t be surprised to find that Anglophones prefer to read books in the original language whenever they are able. There’s something about English that mangles other ways of thinking. (via Arts Journal)

But what I wanted to mention about Eric’s entry was something else, slightly. “Many of us in the so called coastal elites are barely in contact with persons outside of a narrow band around our age, apart from our relatives (who we don’t usually live with) so we don’t even have to witness natural aging and death until it’s our turn.”

¶ Compline: Many of today’s problems are the result of an inversion: something that used to be scarce is now plentiful, but we’re still primed to seek more of it. Food is an obvious member of this class.  Jonah Lehrer considers another: information.

I wanted to mention this because, in my opinion, I’m an older person worth knowing. Yes! I am plugging myself. When I was Eric’s age, I knew a few crustaceans, and they were not remotely interesting as I am, especially since they smoked nothing like the expansive range of cigars (opinions) that I stock.  And if I do have a “philosophy,” it’s a passionate commitment to stealing not candy but attention from babies.

Office/Diary: Wednesday

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009


Dateline: Last night.

¶ Matins. A very good (if slightly biased) introduction to Vaclav Klaus — in case you need one — the heroic Czech anti-Communist (and would-be neoliberal economist) who is currently driving everyone crazy with his anti-Lisbon, anti-EU maneuvers. (via The Morning News)

A red-letter day; no two ways about it. Quatorze’s phone number available upon request (kindly supply references). The beautifully re-upholstered love seat came home this morning. I spent the rest of the day trying to provide it with the environment that it deserves.

¶ Lauds. The arts in a time of retrenchment: Landlords engage artists to soften their empty storefronts. Meanwhile, China’s art market is losing heat.

I ought to be exhausted. I must, in fact, be exhausted. But that information hasn’t reached the prefrontal desk yet. At seven o’clock I seriously doubted that I’d be able to compose this entry, but I rebounded after a meal of macaroni & cheese, salad and crisps, enjoyed on our restored 54″ glass tabletop (no need for place mats!). I had thought that I’d want to curl up with a glass of wine and a book, and maybe have a good cry, because, sheesh, I worked myself to the bone today; but, instead, me voici.

¶ Prime. Are you lying down? We weren’t, and we wish that we had been! Saudi Arabia thinks that we ought to pay for the oil that we don’t use in the interests of avoiding global warming. It has been making this argument since 1992 at least. All we can think of is Anna Freud on Identification With the Aggressor, our favorite “defense mechanism.”

The moving maneuvers in a nutshell: two guys from Meyers (a Bekins affiliate) appeared shortly after nine, and carted off the top half of the breakfront. Fifteen minutes later, their truck pulled up outside the delivery bay at the storage unit, but they declined to back in. Quatorze and I were standing on the quai, having already brought downstairs the other one of Kathleen’s grandmother’s love seats. Also a clunky DIY coffee table that I’ll never have to see again. The movers took these pieces away, leaving us with the top half of the breakfront, which we carted upstairs and locked into the storage unit. Then, for good measure, we walked two blocks up First Avenue. Peering down 64th Street, we saw one of the movers, standing outside the upholsterer’s shop. Concluding that all was well, we taxied back to the apartment, which the movers reached about half an hour later. It was all over by eleven. The moving maneuvers, that is. Then Quatorze and I got to work.

¶ Tierce. Life is a video game for my friend Jean Ruaud;  no, but it really is. The problem is, nothing in video games prepares you for the dangers of bathroom breaks. Jean’s entry can also be read as nearly exact précis of Kathleen’s thinking this evening (substitute “client” for “card”). Since you’ll have to read French to follow my point, you’re already on the same page.

At some point between noon and one, I realized that we had done all that two men could do, and we broke for lunch, at Café d’Alsace. Over croque monsieur and quiche Lorraine we talked about nothing but the ancien régime, which is our trademarked version of rotisserie football. Quatorze opined that things would have gone much better for the Kingdom of France if Louis XV had died as an infant, along with everyone else in his family except his great-grandfather, instead of surviving the smallpox for sixty-odd years. I couldn’t quite agree. Quatorze suggested that, as king, Philippe d’Orléans would have handled the Mississippi Company bubble better. I suggested that Quatorze read Niall Ferguson on the subject.

¶ Sext. The Grey Lady peers through her lorgnette at Cake Wrecks noting that things have got pretty meta. “Everyone in the baking business follows Cake Wrecks almost daily, if only to make sure our cakes aren’t ending up on there.”  

The first thing that I had to take care of, once I resumed work on my own, was the stereo system. This was not fun. I considered the offer made by the dealer who sold me a nice and very straightforward new amplifier: he could set it up for me! I was quite able to set it up myself, but if I were to pretend to be helpless, I would arrange for all the hookups to be optimized while, at the same time, providing myself with someone (else) to yell at when things don’t work. Is this devious?

¶ Nones. Jonathan Kurlansky writes, refresherly, about “democracy” in Thailand.

Having begun in the stereo corner of the living room, so to speak, I worked my way outward, until I subdued the locality. By 7:30, the living room was fit to live in. The foyer, on the other hand… 

¶ Vespers. New editor John Freeman answers three questions about the future of Granta. Nothing new whatsoever (except perhaps about the Web site, sort of), but we’re aware that not all of you read Granta, and we want to change that. Because what’s old about Granta, as Mr Freeman points out, is still pretty lively.

Tomorrow is another day!

What I really need, though, is another space-time contiuum. The foyer has become a refugee camp, crammed to the rafters with objects that have become homeless, stateless, de-cabinetized.

¶ Compline. A light-rail proposal for 42nd Street fails to interest Mayor Bloomberg, just as an earlier version failed to charm Mayor Giuliani. Because we expect mayors of Greater New York to act in this manner, we believe that a root-and-branch approach is required: fire the Outer Boroughs.

Kathleen, when she got home, admired the re-upholstery as much as everyone else who’d seen it. We all agreed that her late mother would have been pleased. Even. The apartment has never looked so grown up.

Office/Diary: Tuesday

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009


When I got back from the storage unit yesterday afternoon, I thought about running another errand, a quickie over to Lexington Avenue. I thought about it for five minutes — no more. As my body became aware of having returned home, it sagged like an ancient sofa. I was almost sick with fatigue.

¶ Matins. Chris Lehman writes so deliciously about Times coverage of service cutbacks endured by Harvard undergrads that we are forced to quote. “One shudders to think of how these euphoria-deprived pashas of the nation’s bogus meritocracy will forge onward in their post-Harvard professional lives.” Mad fun.

I had walked to the storage unit — 24 blocks. I had carried a driftwood lamp that became heavier with each block. I couldn’t believe my puny strength, but then I remembered how much heavy lifting I’ve been doing in the past week, especially since learning that today, and not next Tuesday, the love seat with ball-and-claw feet will be coming home from the upholsterer. Not in itself a big deal, but I’m taking advantage of having a mover on call to do some other shifting about. That’s why I had to go to the storage unit yesterday. I’ll want to be in and out quickly later this morning, something that wouldn’t be possible without a bit of preliminary clearing.

¶ Lauds. What would Vasari say? From ArtCat — where we can spend hours drinking in the prose, when we’re in the right frame of mind:

The duplicate spaces will develop incrementally along the same trajectory, but as the artists work, inconsistencies of touch, skill, and reaction will cause the workshops to diverge as a set of mutations emerge. Approaching an increasingly disconcerting, imperfect effect, the artists will engage the practice of partnership while confronting the impossibility of creating in true parallel.

On my way to the storage unit, I stopped in at the Hi Life for lunch, a club sandwich, fries, and an iced tea. Before the food arrived, my cell phone rang. It was a call from the decorator reminding me that the upholsterer would want to be paid. I hadn’t forgotten this detail, but I saw no point in bringing it up. By happy chance, the upholsterer is two blocks north of the storage unit. So I stopped in and paid the bill. The love seat was in the window, looking pretty gorgeous.

¶ Prime. The US Chamber of Commerce takes a dim view of legislation designed to reduce global warming. James Surowiecki writes about some big-name defections from the Chamber in his weekly New Yorker column; he also writes about the column.

The less said about the storage unit, the better.

¶ Tierce. John Eligon looks back at the trial that kept him busy for so much of 2009 — and taught him a lot about life in New York. Meanwhile, the Marshall twins (Philip “started it”) acquiesce to the diminution of their inheritance from their father, lately convicted of larceny.

When I realized that I wouldn’t be running any errands after my visit, I sank into the wing chair in the blue room and read Chris Hedges’s Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. If the gravamen of Mr Hedges’s jeremiad weren’t so well known to me, his book would be the most depressing read of recent times. His second chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” suggests a mortally serious rebuttal of David Foster Wallace’s far more jocular coverage of the AVN expo that appears in Consider the Lobster. Women are damaged, physically as well as mentally, in the making of pornography, and Mr Hedges will not rest until you understand that.

¶ Sext. The stories that Brooks Peters can spin from the humblest reading material! An old issue of Saga Magazine inspires a sketch of the short, racy life of Fon de Portago, which ended at 150 mph, as a bisected corpse.

Also very briefly, I considered making dinner. I rummaged through NoTakeOut‘s archives and found a lentil salad that I made a few months ago. I considered shopping for the one or two ingredients that I did not have on hand, and making that for dinner. Considering that I can barely walk across the room with complete confidence in my ability to reach the other side, there was a bone-deep stupidity about this home-cooking scheme, but I know whence it came. The apartment is about to become considerably more comfortable and smarter to boot. Of course I want to honor it with simple, thrifty fare! It’s a good thing that I also remembered that I don’t want to drop a lot of crockery in the kitchen, something that, in last night’s state, I should have been sure to do.  

¶ Nones. Kurdistan cuts off its oil, pending payment from Baghdad. If I weren’t taking the week off, we’d have something to say, but you can probably imagine every word of it.

When we came home from Panorama Café, we settled in the living room. I had thought about watching a movie, but it seemed wiser to potter, strategically shifting debris from sites of relocation to alcovial backwaters. Kathleen experimented with stitches for a blanket. Her experiment sessions bear an awful resemblance to the humiliating redactions that bigwig law-firm partners inflict on first-year memos.

¶ Vespers. John Self reads an erotic novel by the first director of the Louvre, No Tomorrow, now out in a dual-language edition from NYRB (it’s very short). John Williams tells us about The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature, an anthology edited by J C Hallman. Robin Sloan explains the Reetz-Clancy continuum of scanned books.

What am I going to do with all that “debris”? I can’t remember how I handled it in the old days, but now I play a game of musical chairs that sounds more like triage. I let everything find a place, and then the leftovers are tossed. At the moment, two rather nice (but not nice-enough) tables are at risk of heading to HousingWorks.

¶ Compline. Ian Baldwin writes about the importance of showing the Thames on a Tube map. You may not need to know where the river is in order to navigate the Underground, but you need it to tell you where you are in London.

I’m trying to remember how long it has been since the furniture in the apartment was rearranged in any significant way; I should say that it has been at least five years, and possibly longer. Age! When I was young, four or five times a year was the norm. Kathleen used to say that it was a good thing that she wasn’t blind, because, coming home late, the crashing into unexpected items would have finished her off. Now, in contrast, I had begun to think that everything had found its place for all time. And perhaps it had done so. But the decision not to reupholster a long sofa — more of a bench, really — but to let it go instead set off a chain reaction of alterations that has only just begun.

Monday Scramble: Rentrée

Monday, October 12th, 2009


In addition to being the Editor of this Web site, I am also the chief cook and bottle-washer in a modest household on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (not shown). Every once in a while — much less often than once a year — household matters require my undivided attention for much of the day. This is such a time. I shall be posting daily, never fear, but lightly. Regular postings will resume next week.

All that I’ve got ready this morning is the Book Review review. I do hope to complete a page about An Education later today — but don’t wait for that! Run out and see the movie right now. Drop everything and just do it! (And forgive my hectoring tone; I’m in no mood for (today’s fun) mucking about in the storage unit.)

Mad Men Note: Not that Sally

Sunday, October 11th, 2009


What ought to have been exciting about this evening’s episode was Don Draper’s loss of the Hilton account — on account, so to speak, of his failure to include the Moon in the range of international destinations for the new Hilton campaign. We knew that some sort of breakup was in the cards, because Don simply isn’t the right adman for a lunatic narcissist. Roger Sterling jabs his finger Donwards and says, “You’re in over your head.” In the generally understood sense of the term, that’s not true; nobody knows better than Don what needs to be done, for Hilton Hotels. But in an absolute sense — where Conrad Hilton, not his business, is the client — it’s true. 

Can  we assume that everybody knows why Sal has to be fired, even though he did nothing wrong? Can we just say that Sal is right when he calls his client-attacker “a bully”? And will the women in the audience please tells their husbands (if they’re cute — the women, I mean!) that this sort of thing happens, or used, until recently, to happen, all the time? And that for it to happen to a man (Sal) is simply a reminder that, where powerful people are concerned,  sex is about power, not pleasure?

I want to close on the opposite of a Come-to-Jesus note. Near the end of the show, Betty confesses to Carla (her black housemaid/nanny) that she is not sure that the Civil Rights drive is a good idea. Maybe people don’t like it, she says. I could hear the snickering, but the sad truth is that Betty is right. “People” don’t like civil rights for black Americans. They don’t like abortion. And they certainluy don’t like gay marriage. Roe v Wade and the Civil Rights Acts were not faits accomplis, but rather shots over the bow. They meant that things were goint to change, not that they had changed. And they still haven’t changed. I doubt that, in a smiliar imbroglio, Sal would be fired today. But that’s because it would be illegal to fire him, not because anybody wanted to keep him on. The civil rights thing still hasn’t taken with the body politic, and if Mad Men reminds viewers that this is so, it will have accomplished a great deal.

Weekend Open Thread: Elementary School

Saturday, October 10th, 2009


Constabulary: Smokin'

Friday, October 9th, 2009

Don’t worry about marijuana use complicating your business with the fine sheriffs of Florida.

St. Johns County, Florida   — A 20-year-old man has been arrested for misusing 911.

Deputies say Michael Kruse of Jacksonville initially called 911 because he felt sick on June 21st.

The call went into the 911 call center in St. Johns County.

Kruse’s speech was slurred and the dispatcher had difficulty understanding him.

Dispatch: “Are you sure you haven’t taken something sir? Because you’re not making a whole lot of sense.”

Caller: “I’ve been smoking marijuana.”

Dispatch: “You’ve been smoking marijuana?”

Caller: “Yes.”

Dispatch: “Do you want a deputy to come and take you to jail?”

Caller: “Why?”

Dispatch: “You just told me on a taped line you just got done smoking marijuana.”

Caller: “Awww. Are you serious?”

Sgt. Chuck Mulligan, spokesman with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies located Kruse, took him to a family member, and gave him a stern lecture about 911.

Hours later on June 22nd, Kruse called 911 again. This time he was driving on I-95. He told the dispatcher he wanted a police escort to see the rapper, Lil Wayne, in concert in Miami.

Dispatch: “You want a police escort to take you to Miami?”

Caller: “Or, you have a helicopter?”

Dispatch: “We don’t just send helicopters up for rappers.”

Caller: “Well, I’m driving there right now. I just wanted the fastest way to get there. I didn’t want to get pulled over on the highway.”

We know: the source looks bogus. But the reporting is vintage blotter. We’re serious.

Daily Office: Friday

Friday, October 9th, 2009


¶ Matins: Christopher Kimball, of Cook’s Illustrated, weighs in on the demise of Gourmet. 

¶ Lauds: It doesn’t get more interesting than this: the Gershwin Estate has engaged Beach Boy Brian Wilson to complete fragments left unfinished at George Gershwin’s death in 1937 — just a few years before Mr Wilson, now 67, was born.

¶ Prime: We hate to sound overenthusiastic, but Robert Cringely’s thoughts about PAID CONTENT make a thrilling read.

¶ Tierce: After a long absence, we return to the Astor Trial for the final word: Guilty.

¶ Sext: Maggie Smith has a shaky conversation with Tim Teeman, at TimesOnline.

¶ Nones: A long but very enlightening read, at The Economist, about organized crime in  China — and how hard it can be to distinguish gangs from officials.

¶ Vespers: Lydia Kiesling, at The Millions, reads harried William Manchester’s The Death of a President, and decides that plus c’est la même chose.

¶ Compline: Thanks to Neiman Marcus, a mere $200K will buy you dinner with an illustrious round table —  certainly, even under the cirumstances, a more polite and less intoxicated group of wits.

Bon weekend à tous!


Dear Diary: Mon sendable, mon frère

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


This will be brief, partly because I’m in the mood for a holiday, and partly because I found out this morning that the furniture shuffle is going to take place on Tuesday. I’m very tempted to announce, tomorrow, that the Daily Office will be suspended next week. If I don’t take the week off, it’ll be because I’m afraid of never going back to work.

The other “partly” is the fun I’ve been having at JibJab, creating “sendables.” I hadn’t given JibJab much thought since the 2004 election, but as anybody who subscribes to birthday notifcations knows, you can customize birthday and other greetings at the site. Last night, having drunk far too much tea in the earlier part of the evening and not feeling remotely sleepy, I capitulated to the request to send my latest birthday friend — Joe Jervis, of Joe.My.God — a JibJab offering. Loaded with caffeine, I found the patience to go through the sign-up procedure, and was I happy to pay the ten dollar annual subscription fee. Having chosen a cheesy card for Joe, and sent it, I went back to explore the scene of the crime, and in no time at all I discovered “sendables,” some of which can be “personalized.”


Once again, Facebook friends will be familiar with the results. I probably ought to have gone with the “Soul Train: Get Down!” solo, or, even funnier (with my head, that is), the “You Still Got It” card. But I fell for a drag act, “Chiquita.” I’m not sorry that I did, because when Kathleen got round to seeing it, she exploded —  just like Mr Too-Much-Magnesium: Crack! There is nothing finer in life than the big bang of Kathleen’s bursting out laughing.

This evening, I continued my laboratory experiments, and did a very fetching “Mexican Hat Dance” with Edith Wharton, who turned out to be a fine disco partner as well. Just a few minutes ago, the evening culminated (by fiat) with an “Irish Step” number featuring me (of course) assisted by Mrs Wharton, Queen Victoria, the Empress Ci Xi, and George Eliot. (I’d have asked Virginia Woolf to stand up, but her pictures all seemed to be in profile.) I might as well confess that the only other male head that I have invited into my workshop is that of Louis XV. I look better than he does in every JibJab scenario.

Sadly, I put so much effort into these ephemeral entertainments that I have no brainpower left for trying to explain the deeply delicious silliness of superimposing a staid head on a jitterbug body. It must have something to do with simple defacement — L.H.O.O.Q. and that sort of thing. And what about those perforated flats that allowed anybody, by putting his or her head in a hole, to become Napoleon or Abe Lincoln? Did those things have a name? There is certainly a cognitive dissonance thing going when Edith Wharton and I are throwing ourselves into disco extremities while keeping the straightest of faces. It is the humor of the incongruous — my favorite form of non-verbal humor.

A favorite moment: On Candid Camera, Alan Funt slaps a “Rest Room” sign on the door to a broom closet in a Broadway theatre lobby. There are buckets inside, but no… fixtures. The look on those faces, when they come back outside.

But that’s mean. There’s nothing mean about JibJab — except appropriating the faces of your friends. I counsel the greatest caution in that regard. It is almost certain that your friends will not find your dissonance as cognitive as you do, if you know what I mean. Stick to dead empresses. And have a great time laughing at the inner ridiculousness of you.

Daily Office: Thursday

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


¶ Matins: Christopher Shea surveys the world of Letterman Apology Evaluations.

¶ Lauds: Soon to be arriving on your iPhone: an original picture by David Hockney.

¶ Prime: Versace will close its three outlets in Japan.

¶ Tierce: Linguist John McWhorter frolics and detours at  Good: The “For Themselves” Love Drug. (Did we say “linguist”?)

¶ Sext: “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, as long as both are covered with a sharp, original, Awly take.” The Awl turns five months, sixteen days old. Two days ago.

¶ Nones: And you thought Honduras was this boring provincial story. Ha! Bet you didn’t even know the word Chavista! (We didn’t.) As in “Chavista authoritarianism” and Cold War think tanks — in Washington.

¶ Vespers: Levi Stahl reviews the Man Booker winner, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, at The Second Pass.

¶ Compline: Amazing study about city people with guns — and how much more likely they are to be shot dead.


Dear Diary: Filed on the Beach

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009


La journée de paperasse — that’s what today was. I don’t know if anyone born to speak French would put it that way, but a day spent with envelopes and catalogues — spent at the very bottom of the sea of intellectual life, in a stream of picayune decisions and stamp-pastings, paying bills and renewing magazine subscriptions, wondering if I can get Kathleen to see Hamlet and Wishful Drinking, or if I ought to settle for matinees; that sort of thing — requires the compensation of a bit of pretend glamour. 

If I do see Hamlet at a matinee, it will be the second time that I have seen Jude Law onstage in the middle of the afternoon, as well as the second time for seeing him onstage at any time of day. In Hamlet, I expect, he will keep his clothes on; in Indiscretions, lo these many years ago, the second-act curtain went up to reveal him wearing nothing but socks. The ladies sitting around me found this very distracting. I was reminded of the “wild on the beach” joke, the one about the male model who had to do something about his tan lines, covered most of himself in sand, and was espied by a once-sportive old lady, who ruefully remarked that, now she was too old to benefit from nature’s fecundity, &c.

They say that nudity on the stage is no longer shocking. I say that, if this were the case, actors wouldn’t go in for it. Nothing is more unnatural than public nudity, especially on the stage, where the appropriate reaction is no longer appropriate. A normal person is either going to be mildly disgusted by an actor’s undress, or else, less mildly heartsick. I resent all attempts to denature the naughtiness of nakedness.

Perhaps I’m the one who’s not normal. I have never gotten the fantasy thing down. Very attractive people make me want to start a conversation. Very attractive people who are falling out of their décolletage make me want to call for first aid — and not for me. I’m incapable of wishing for something that I couldn’t quite realistically have. Take time, for example. What I would wish for if I could wish for anything and have it would be a reversal of the speed with which time passes in life. It would fly by during childhood and drag deliciously decades later. But while such an arrangement would make a lot of sense, I can’t work up much enthusiasm for wishing that it were in place, even though, most days, I feel that I am circling the drain, with a surfer’s dispatch.

Wednesday already! If I hadn’t spent it on paperwork — if, for example, I had yielded to the very strong but evidently not overwhelming desire to watch the remaining two episodes of Body and Soul — I’d be frantic with guilt. I haven’t written a thing this week, and tomorrow’s schedule isn’t promising. I’m having lunch with a friend, and I’ve got an Orpheus concert in the evening. Another person might be capable of dashing off a few paragraphs during the intervening hours, but not I. The only thing that I could do with a couple of spare hours would be to finish looking over the contents of my in-basket. I’ll probably spend a quart d’heure or two wishing that I could go on a Viking River Cruise. 

Daily Office: Wednesday

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009


¶ Matins: Confidence in the once-almighty dollar is eroding. This could be a very good thing, in many ways, if it weren’t for those pesky Treasury Bills.

¶ Lauds: On the strength of Ken Tanaka’s write-up, we’ve just ordered a copy of On City Streets: Chicago, 1964-2004, by “unknown” photographer Gary Stochl.

¶ Prime: The subprime movie crisis: surprise, surprise, easy money left Hollywood unprepared for a very dry season. (via Arts Journal)

¶ Tierce: Jason Dean’s very snazzy ABCs of Branding.

¶ Sext: Box wines: nothing to sniff at.  (via Felix Salmon)

¶ Nones: The Honduran attempt at a bloodless coup is getting bloody — thanks to the return of the coupé.

¶ Vespers: Patrick Kurp waits, along with Phyllis McGinley, for “The 5:32.”

¶ Compline: Coming soon to the Internet: FTC disclosure rules.


Dear Diary: Shuffle

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009


I’ve just told Quatorze that it was one of the ten most productive meetings of my life. We sat down, after lunch, with blank legal pads, and when we got up a few hours later, I not only knew what had to be done (and what I had to do) between now and whenever the love seat with the ball-and-claw feet comes back from the upholsterer. As well as what ought to wait until afterward. The mover who picked up the love seat will be retained again (presumably). This time, the top half of the breakfront will be taken from the apartment to the storage unit, where the other half of the pair of loveseats that belonged to Kathleen’s grandmother will be picked up, and brought back to the apartment, via a stop at the upholsterer’s. Isn’t this fascinating? Let’s hope not. Let’s hope that I do the assigned homework and that absolutely nothing of interest occurs on the moving day, whenever that’s to be.

(Soon, though.)

Without our spending much money — almost nothing, quite seriously, on acquisitions; the reupholstery, a kind of maintenance, is what’s typical of our outlays — we’ll have a fairly different living area in a month or so. The big round glass tabletop, mounted on a stout pedestal, will take the place of our chaste but impractical late-Georgian reproduction dining table. The pedestal is currently doing yeoman duty as a side table; the glass tabletop is parked behind the breakfront. Once I’ve got the table set up, I’ll be able to invite up to eight people to dinner any old time, and if a few of them don’t show up, there will be more room (and food) for everybody else. I’ll be able to roast beef, pork, and capon again. I’ll bake cakes, knowing that less than half (at most!) of each gâteau will survive the meal. Dinner rolls! Soups! Stews! The dishes that serve five or more people are the ones that can be prepared ahead of time, or left to cook slowly for an hour or two. I’m longing to make them again.

Meanwhile, because the round table will be much too big for Kathleen and me to sit opposite when we’re alone, I’m going to move our smallish Pembroke table into the foyer, right ouside the kitchen door, and have a go at lifting the wings of an evening and serving dinner for the two of us on that.

There was no time for farther remark or explanation. The dream must be borne with, and Mr. Knightley must take his seat with the rest round the large modern circular table which Emma had introduced at Hartfield, and which none but Emma could have had power to place there and persuade her father to use, instead of the small-sized Pembroke, on which two of his daily meals had, for forty years been crowded. Tea passed pleasantly, and nobody seemed in a hurry to move.

Small Mr Woodhouse’s Pembroke may have seemed to Jane Austen, but I’m quite sure that it was larger than ours.

A New York apartment of less than luxurious size is like a sailboat. Everything not only has a place but must be kept in its place, or insanity ensues. Taking things out and putting them away eat up a lot of one’s time, in addition to making one jealous of spinster aunts with nothing better to do. Even after twenty-six years in this apartment, I haven’t got the hang of it. I’m still stamping out the legacies of my suburban upbringing, with its chock-full deep-freeze and its walk-in closets full of paper towels. Not to mention the dishes that it was no problem to hold on to, even if they were rarely used more than once in a decade (not that I lived anywhere in my life for as many as ten years before this place). To make things worse, the houses that I grew up in were graced with empty bookshelves. It wasn’t that my parents weren’t readers, exactly; but they certainly weren’t amateur librarians. The fact that they could have been, that they had room for plenty of books, has confounded me for half of my adult life. I don’t have the room. It is not helpful to remember what my parents didn’t do with their built-in bookcases, empty of books. I have the books, all right, but — ! I digress. Small changes in the arrangement of small apartments can change the entire flow of daily life within them.

Another nice change in the coming shuffle will be the relocation of our good prints, to the selfsame foyer, where they’ll be much easier to look at than they are in the blue room, where clutter makes it difficult to get near to almost every bit of wall.  This will make room for a print that I bought last spring, on the installment plan, from The Old Print Shop; it will hang in the vicinity of another one, by the same artist, that I have loved living with for over twenty years. 

Meanwhile: who’s going to take the “Edward” wine glasses from Williams-Sonoma off my hands? Will it be Ms NOLA, who has first dibs? Or will it be Fossil Darling, who, just the other day, spontaneously announced the need for new stems. “Funny you should mention that,” quoth Quatorze…

Daily Office: Tuesday

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009


¶ Matins: What can you do to save the Galápagos Islands’ ecosystem? Resolve to stay away, and to urge your friends to do likewise. Don’t count on Ecuador to manage the growing mess.

¶ Lauds: Stuff White People Like takes on Banksy, Thomas Kinkade.

¶ Prime: Scott Shane: “Do Friends Let Friends Open Restaurants?” The answer is obvious, of course, but the brief discussion is interesting.

¶ Tierce: Jenni Diski plays Auntie Family, faux-outraged about those gay penguins

¶ Sext: Doodle away the afternoon with Vodkaster’s “subway map” of the 250 Best Films. (via reddit)

¶ Nones: Irish voters approve the (slightly revised) Lisbon Treaty.

¶ Vespers: Eric Banks writes about an uncomfortable truth in “Poe’s Fading Star.”

¶ Compline: A tale that seems to come out of Dickens or Trollope or perhaps even Cruikshank or Rowlandson: while Simmons Bedding faces bankruptcy, the private equity investors and the former CEO walk away will amply-filled pockets.


Dear Diary: Closing & Opening

Monday, October 5th, 2009


Ms NOLA dropped by on Saturday afternoon. She had had dinner with us the night before, but only on Saturday did she remember to tell us that our favorite Chinese restaurant, Wu Liang Ye, was closed. She’d noticed, walking by it on 86th Street. The restaurant closed once before, a few years ago (anywhere between five and ten — or more), with “Closed For Renovations” written on the brown paper that blocked the windows. Kathleen and I didn’t believe it, because experience had taught us that “Closed For Renovations” simply meant “Closed,” but, that time, we were wrong, and Wu Liang Ye did re-open. The fresh brown paper that went up the other day, however, just says “Closed.” When we passed by ourselves yesterday afternoon, there was a quartet of folks our age standing outside the door — which an enterprising fellows from Wok 88 (a former competitor/survivor) had decked out with a sheaf of menus.

How dreadful. I was picking up the phone to call for a lunch special this afternoon when I remembered that no one would be answering the phone (I’d tried that when Ms NOLA spread the news). I called Lili’s Noodle Shop on Third Avenue, and their pork lo mein was fine — it was always better than Wu Liang Ye’s, to tell the truth — but my heart was heavy.

A few hours ago, a young man from the Video Room called. I knew what it was about as soon as I saw the caller ID. Our membership expires at the end of every October. This membership entitles us to twelve free rentals a year (one per month) and also free delivery. We haven’t been using the Video Room much lately, because I’ve accumulated a backlog of DVDs to watch with Kathleen. Even without the backlog, we probably wouldn’t be renting, and for the same reason that the backlog only grows: Kathleen is knitting like mad. That’s to say that she’s experimenting with different stitches and patterns, and so can’t take her eyes off what she’s doing. We can always watch a Hitchcock or a Woody Allen. But movies that Kathleen hasn’t seen are out.

But the reason for our declining rentals has nothing to do with Netflix, which I’m sure is doing something like grievous bodily harm to the Video Room’s business model. As far as I’m concerned, Netflix is no substitute. If I want to see an old Japanese movie that hasn’t come out on DVD — A Geisha is a fave — or the Cary Grant – Carole Lombard “solid soaper” (Leonard Maltin), In Name Only — Netflix isn’t going to be worth diddly.

I renewed our membership, and the young man told me that he would send over the monthly freebie coupons right away. Hermes himself would not have appeared at our door any faster. As I signed for the coupons, something fluttered to the ground. A menu had been wedged in our doorframe. Ordinarily, menus are slipped under the door, but I saw in a moment why this one hadn’t been. It was printed on plain paper, not stock. I recognized the typography, too. Although it now calls itself Wa Jeal, the Wu Liang Ye people have decamped to a storefront on Second Avenue — not far from the old Pig Heaven, I should say, and possibly in that very space.

My training as a lawyer both invites speculation as to why the move (now that we know that it was a move) had to be conducted on such cloak-and-dagger lines and fills my head with explanatory scenarios. The menu stuck in the door frame — I now believe that menus were delivered to regular customers, not, as is the custom, leafletted throughout the building — reeks of the kind of “non-compete” constraint that made it impossible, for example, for Kathleen to advise her clients that she’d be moving from one law firm to another. The clients weren’t Kathleen’s, they were the old firm’s. Barbers and beauticians are bound by the same rules.

In the case of Wu Liang Ye, the “old firm” wasn’t, obviously, the 86th Street restaurant, which has completely shut down. We’re not talking about a chef’s departure, or a manager’s. It looks as though the entire operation moved a few blocks south. But Wu Liang Ye is actually chain of restaurants, with its original location, I believe, in Shanghai (PRC). There is in any case a Wu Liang Ye in midtown, not far from Grand Central. And one must not forget that “It’s Chinatown, Jake.” I’m actually delighted to see that the closing of the 86th Street shop didn’t involve a Saint Valentine’s Day massacre (a drowning, say, in Newtown Creek) I look forward to giving the new? management a call.

Monday Scramble: Coming Up Short

Monday, October 5th, 2009


We spent a great deal of last week reading — and not writing. That’s our excuse, and we’re sticking with it. Of this week’s three new Portico pages, George Saunders’s “Victory Lap,” this week’s New Yorker story, is the first. We liked the story very much, but we’re glad that we don’t live in its part of the world.

 Which seems right next door to the setting of The Invention of Lying, a gentle comedy that will probably offend earnestly religious people. We wish that people in this movie’s part of the world really did regard churches as “quiet places for thinking about the Man in the Sky” — and no more.

Finally, this week’s Book Review review. We were glad that we’d already two of the books under review, or our wish list would be that much impossibly longer. Neil Sheehan’s Fiery Peace in a Cold War looks like a worthy sequel to Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

Mad Men Note: Al Cavalieri

Sunday, October 4th, 2009


When Don complained that the two-day Rome junket to which “Connie” Hilton summoned him meant that he would see the Colosseum from a taxi, I leaned over to Kathleen and whispered, “Just like your Rome trip!” Boy, though, what a couple of mukluks we were. Hello, Hilton. When Betty and Don sashayed into their room and the view was identical to the pictures that Kathleen took from just about the same balcony, we died laughing.

A couple of years ago, Kathleen went to a conference at the Hilton Cavalieri, which is set up in the hills behind the Vatican, in the middle of nowhere really. It’s a spa/resort — why else would you stay there? She didn’t see the Colosseum from a taxi, but it was from a taxi that she saw the Spanish steps. Her crew buzzed into Rome proper for a dinner. Then they buzzed back. I was not jealous when I saw the pictures. If there is one kind of view that does not thrill me, it is the vista with altitude. Every goddam oil club in Houston was perched on the top floor of one of downtown’s highrises, as was the Bankers’ Club in New York before that. If you visited enough of those attic eateries, you began to understand the fragility of the executive eagle. I mean ego. Flying too high with some guy in the sky is definitely my idea of a non-culinarylunch.

Is it too soon to say that Windows on the World was a terrible, terrible idea?

Something else that they say about birds in general that must hold “even more true” for large birds of prey concerns something that is not done in the nest. Peter Campbell’s misadventure with the neighbor’s au pair was difficult for us to watch, and hard to interpret as well. On the one hand, where did he grow up? On the other, perhaps it was in one of those one-flat-to-the-floor buildings, where you never run into strangers. Most New Yorkers know better than to ring a doorbell within twenty minutes’ walk of your own.

Of course, the episode was set up to look like an infidelity in which Pete would be juicily entangled. But it was really all about Joan. I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew it: when Pete asked to “speak to the manager” at Bonwit Teller, the manager was going to turn out to be Joan. And, Joan being Joan, I knew that the dress would betray Pete by being the wrong size. Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t got a crystal ball. I’ve usually been wrong about Mad Men; remember, the first season, when I was sure that Don Draper’s awful secret was that he was Jewish. What I wasn’t ready for, though, was Joan’s unhappy maquillage. She looked so unhappy! All the power had drained from her goddess face. But only from her face. She handled Pete expertly.

Speaking of makeup, it wasn’t just Betty’s Roman hairdo that was 1963. I can remember when pretty women went in for that waxy, dead look. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first to go zombie. It was glamorous, I suppose, if your idea of fun was an evening of disco at Madame Tussaud’s. But it sure turned Don on, and that was sweet. Since turning Don on always turns Betty on, I worry about the Peekskill Road reservoir.

Another name that they got right was “Saltaire.” That’s where Pete’s secretary was headed for the weekend. You don’t hear much about Saltaire, and that’s just how they like. It’s a very spruce little community at the hither end of Fire Island, oceans away from the Pines.

Perhaps the deepest pleasure of Mad Men for me is the fabulosity of its detail. The names and the places are the names and the places that I grew up with, and Mad Men always gets them right. It’s delicious, slightly vengeful compensation for a childhood of television spent in fictional burgs that always turned out to be California dreams. Nothing would make my day brigher than seeing Jerry Mathers in one of these episodes. That would right a lot of wrongs.

What was so stupid was our not seeing that the Cavalieri “location” would make it so easy to fake a trip to Rome while making it look quite authentic. A view out the window — what could be simpler? Here’s what could be simpler: counterfeiting a room in a Hilton hotel.

Weekend Open Thread: Escaliers

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009