Archive for September, 2011

Gotham Diary:
30 September 2011

Friday, September 30th, 2011

There was no babysitting last night — Megan was down with a viral sore throat that there was nothing for but to suffer through — but I did make it to the Kitano Bar to hear Chip White Quartet’s second set. At a time when, lately, I’d be getting ready for bed, I was getting dressed instead, and sharply, too, mindful that the Kitano is in a Japanese hotel.

Before the musicians assembled, I saw the “Zildjian” marque on the back of Chip’s largest cymbal, and I remembered watching a clip about the company, which was founded by an Armenian alchemist in Istanbul in 1623, to serve the sultan’s court, and which now, somewhat more prosaically, supplies the greats of rock and pop from a factory in Massachusetts. I’m not a big fan of cymbals (except when Mozart goes for a “Turkish” effect, in which case I giggle like an unreconstructed toddler), but knowing something about the Zildjians — or, better, knowing that I had once upon a time known something about them — focused my attention on how Chip played them. What had hitherto seemed the random banging on the graduated discs now revealed rhythms and patterns that it was a pleasure to follow. Chip’s jazz is not only inspired by the classics (Parker, Gillespie, Rollins, Jackson) but an embodiment of it as well; it’s Chip’s leading from the drums that makes for a bit of difference. I especially liked his more ruminative pieces, “The Other Side of the Rainbow With Sybil” and “Rain.”

The Kitano is a great live jazz room, and I hope to go back at least a few times a year. It’s a cosy little corner of a space, and there’s a no-talking rule that didn’t need to be enforced last night. As the MC put it, “silent” is an anagram of “listen.” The frites are great, too.


Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 is a very rare treat: a charming and delightful movie about cancer. It is charming and delightful because the actor playing the young victim of a rare sarcoma, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, projects a persona that it is impossible not to care about. It is also not so much about him as about the people in his world, all of whom have a hard time coming to grips with his very bad luck. In a profound if cinematic way, 50/50 refutes the proposition that we all die alone: facing possible death during a delicate surgery, Adam Lerner (Mr Gordon-Levitt) seems aware that anaesthesia will assure that only he will miss the news of his death. Death is something that happens to all of us, more or less repeatedly, until at last it ceases to happen, along with everything else. At no point does the movie plump for hospital drama; for the most taken up with Adam’s course of chemotherapy, 50/50 underlines cancer’s spooky but debilitating uneventfulness. And, by the way, 50/50 is actually very funny. But do bring a hankie.

Gotham Diary:
29 September 2011

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Bay scallops for dinner last night. Once again, I couldn’t get them to brown — could this be the overcrowding in the pan that Julia Child warns about? — but they were tender and delicious, and we gobbled up every one of them.

Whatever we do tonight, I won’t be cooking. This evening promises to be interesting, especially given the lousy weather that’s forecast. In the earlier part, I’ll babysit with Will as usual, so that his parents can have dinner by themselves. Then I’ll head to Kitano, a restaurant bar in Murray Hill, for Chip White’s second set. We know Chip through one of Kathleen’s Brearley classmates, who met him when she ran her own jazz CD label. It’s precisely because we do know Chip, who’s a very nice guy, that we don’t make more of an effort to show up for his gigs. I know exactly what he must feel, because I feel when friends ask me what’s new, and I’ve just written it all out here. So I’ve booked a table for two, and Kathleen will meet me there. Another late night, but well worth it. Such, in any case, is the plan.

Waiting for the dermatologist in her examining room yesterday morning, I glanced through Bookforum and came across Rhonda Lieberman’s rave review of Helen DeWitt’s new novel, Lightning Rods. Did you read The Last Samurai, DeWitt’s widely-praised novel of umpteen years ago (“a hundred years ago,” I said to Kathleen, and, taking me literally, she was very surprised to hear that there was a new book)? I did, and I remember some of it — in particular, the riding round the Underground with the prodigiously gifted kid — but I don’t think that I got it. But I was ready to give DeWitt another chance, especially after I stumbled upon her very occasionally updated Web log, paperpools. Lieberman’s enthusiasm was so infectious that I whipped out my cellphone and called Crawford Doyle. They had a copy, and I picked it up after lunch. I can tell you that Lightning Rods is very funny, but that is all that I can tell you right now,  as I am only on page 4. Also the plot is highly salacious. Go ask your father.


Actually, the plot of Lightning Rods is hardly salacious. There’s very little in the way of carnal congress, and almost all of it is cloaked in the zippy euphemisms of a golf tutorial.

And then he thought Well, since it’s there.

So he set aside his skepticism for the moment and availed himself of the facility. It was quite a strange experience in some ways. Still, it was enjoyable enough for what it was.

Anyway, almost straight away he noticed that he was experiencing an unusual sense of well-being. …

I’ll have to read this book several times, I’m afraid, to tease out the qualities of its prose that make Lightning Rods so funny. The idea is outrageous, but it’s the writing that keeps you going. The tone of voice is so capable, confident, and easygoing that you don’t actually sense its stunted depravity. Not for an instant does Helen DeWitt abandon the tone of a self-help guru admonishing a would-be salesman not to be too hard on himself, a writerly disicpline that makes reading the book as warm and cuddly as DeWitt’s satire is icy and bleak. When you read on the dust jacket that the novelist lives in Berlin, you wonder if that’s far enough from America for her comfort.

It’s the language that is her target. I don’t that DeWitt has anything against commerce per se; in fact, commerce doesn’t really figure much more than sex. Every now and then, somebody types a memo or sends a fax, but, for a novel spoofing office life, we spend very little time among the cubicles. It’s unclear what lines of business the companies are in — the companies other than the one that shares its name (officially?) with the title. Lightning Rods, the company, is in the business of preventing sexual harrassment litigation; let’s just put it that way, and its deployment of “bifunctional” temp workers and specially fitted lavatories would stale as quickly as an undergraduate prank did not DeWitt’s prop it up with an unrelenting command of the patois of motivational self-forgiveness. 

If you ask most people what’s the hardest thing about being a salesman, they will usually say the rejection. “People always trying to get rid of you,” they say, “that’s what I’d hate.” Or sometimes they say it’s the travel that would really get to them, all those hotel and motel rooms blurring into each other, it must get really lonely. Or sometimes they think it would bother them to be selling things to people that they don’t really need, pressuring people into buying things they were not really able to afford.

Well, at one time or another every salesman has probably felt all of those things. But the thing that’s hardest about the job is something you can’t leave behind you by getting another job. A salesman has to see people as they are.

Most people spend their lives trying to avoid doing that very thing. Most people see what they want to see. But a salesman can’t afford to see people the way he might like them to be. He has to see them the way they actually are. And he also has to see them the way they’d like to be.  Because no matter how badly people want something, if they don’t want to be the kind of people who want that kind of thing you’re going to have an uphill battle persuading them to buy it. He has to see what it is they don’t like about the way they are and convince them that the way they are is OK. Or he has to see what it is they don’t like and persuade them that he has just the product to fix it. That’s the hardest thing about the job.

It says a lot about the quality of information that’s passed along in Lightning Rods that, the first time we hear the hero’s name, he’s talking to himself.

He said, “Come on, Joe. You can do better than this.”

Gotham Diary:
28 September 2011

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Running around this morning, I promise to settle down this afternoon. This stub of an entry is my hostage. Or, rather, it’s yours. Without it, I might just let the day go by without bothering to check in. This has been, and will continue to be, a bad week for getting to bed on the early side. I don’t know quite how to handle that; part of me would willingly give up all evening engagements for the sake of rising before dawn. I often feel that I’ve come to Proust’s cork-lined crossroads. Unlike Proust, however, I am happily married to a securities lawyer whose hours run late. For the moment, I must make do — or you must make do — with good intentions. As long as that “TK” stands at the bottom of the page, it means that there’s more to come. (However little.)


It’s a step — although it feels like a step backwards. I wrote up Freud’s Last Session, just as I used to do in the good old days of Portico, and posted it at Civil Pleasures, and you can read it here. But, oh, does that Web site ever need work. Not to mention updating. The last “home” page was posted in June.

In any case, I’ve reverted to my original thinking about blogging and publishing a Web site — two very different things. For a while, I collapsed them into one undertaking, but the result always felt like a bit of a cheat. Blogging is for writing off the top of your head, something that I enjoy doing. Writing pages for a Web site requires a reasonably comprehensive forethought. Blogs ought to be easy, not only to read, but to enter into as well. A Web site is more like a library, to be consulted as needed, or roamed in idle moments.

My plan for the Daily Blague Reader is to offer two types of entry, a daily update of the kind that you are reading, in which anything goes; and a monthly aggregator, updated daily, under the “Beachcombing” rubric that I developed earlier this year. For Civil Pleasures, I’d like to contribute one new page every week. I think that I can manage all of this and still have a life. I do hope so. Come November, and this blog (dating from its antecedents) will be seven years old. Civil Pleasures (dating from its antecedent) has been going for eleven years. I don’t remember what life was like when I didn’t feel guilty about not putting enough work into my sites, but I’d like to get beyond it.

And that’s that for today.

Gotham Diary:
27 September 2011

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

All I want to do today is to read Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White. The subtitle is a problem, of course; if the first 75 pages of White’s highly diverting narrative give any indication, the subtitle ought to be, How Modern America Screwed Up Yet Another Major Enterprise — and Lived to Laugh It Off.  Although it describes an asteroid of financial chicanery that hit the United States before the Cival War was even over, Railroaded is very much about The Way We Live Now. From the Introduction:

At Stanford, itself a monument to a railroad fortune, I noticed something else. I came to the Silicon Valley in the midst of the boom at a time when very many people were becoming very rich by creating companies, or owning the securities of companies, that lost vast amounts of money. Having naîvely believed that owners of corporations made money from the profits earned by their corporations, I thought that this situation was peculiar. Eventually, I came to think of these new millionaires as descendants of men like Leland Stanford and his Associates. They had garnered large fortunes from heavily indebted corporations in ways that would not bear much looking into. Like the dot.coms, most of my railroad corporations went bankrupt or into receivership. The corporations failed, but very often the people behind them succeeded. The celebrated creative destruction of capitalism is, it seems, gentle with the rich. I began to see the larger theme  of this book: failure and success are not always binaries. Certain kinds of failure impose more public than private costs. In failure as much as in success, the modern world takes shape.  

 Shocked, shocked.


I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry — so to speak. It’s eleven on the dot, and I’m still up. Eleven PM, that is, by which time, most recent nights, I’ve been asleep for a while. We did have a lovely evening out, Kathleen and I. We saw Freud’s Last Session at the Marjorie S Deane Little Theatre, in the YMCA right next to Fossil Darling’s place; and then we had a very agreeable dinner at Nice-Matin. There is nothing like the theatre to launch lines of conversation, and Mark St Germain’s play, about the hypothetical meeting of Sigmund Freud and C S Lewis during the outbreak of the Second World War in September, 1939, is full of openers. All I’m going to say tonight is that is was delightful to see Freud impersonated on the stage — excellently, by Martin Rayner — and dismaying to watch the understudy, Tuck Milligan, shoulder the weakly written part of Lewis, who becomes sanctimoniously offensive when he lectures Freud, dying of cancer, on the evil of suicide. What saves the play is Freud’s being so alive, for the moment, that all thought of suicide remains absolutely hypothetical; indeed, you wonder if Freud might kill Lewis before taking his own life. I would, at least. (But then I am so not a fan of C S Lewis. Freud just wags his finger, as if to say — as Freud was forever saying — “this is more interesting than I thought it would be.”) After the play — after the play, there was a huge pile-up in the vestibule, while Alec Baldwin, who had seen the show with the rest of us, had a long chat with a delighted Mr Rayner — we walked up Columbus Avenue to the Natural History Museum and then crossed the hump to Amsterdam, where nous avons bien dîné. More domani.

Gotham Diary:
26 September 2011

Monday, September 26th, 2011

By the time Kathleen walked in the door on Saturday afternoon, I had whipped the apartment into amazing shape. Everything — everything visible — was in order, and I Puritani had just come to its triumphant end. In the luxe, calme, et volupté that remained, Kathleen and I sat down to a pot of tea in the living room. Kathleen showed me her London photographs. It was the first time that I’d reviewed photographs on the back of a camera, and at first I balked, preferring to look at them in larger format, but Kathleen was eager to share, and, she does, after all, take great pictures, so I got into it. Most of the shots were of her room at The Rookery, a boutique hotel just up the road from Smithfield Market. The furnishings were plush to an almost Victorian degree, banishing the spare chill that must have hung about the rooms when they were new, sometime in the reign of George II or his grandson, and the tiny fireplaces could hardly keep up with the drafty windows, and there was no indoor plumbing. It was very cozy. But so, very frankly, was the room that we were sitting in. The apartment didn’t look at all shabby in comparison. Feeling very snappy about our living arrangements, I went over to Fairway to pick up a few things for the simple dinner that I guessed Kathleen would like best, and then, back in the kitchen, I let it all go to my head. I decided to make an omelette in a non-non-stick pan. I must have thought I was God.

Here’s how you save an omelette that, sticking to the pan, has degenerated into a dog’s breakfast: In a clean pan, melt some butter over moderately high heat and pour in two beaten eggs. When the eggs begin to set, spoon in as much as you dare of the revolting mess of Omelette #1 into what will be Omelette #2. Don’t expect this emergency procedure to deceive anyone; aim, rather, for something on the order of an egg taco. It will taste fine. There are people who make omelettes in non-non-stick pans all the time, but you are not (yet) one of them. Be happy with your cozy apartment.


Because Kathleen was tired after her trip, and Will was recovering from a mystery fever, we did not get together yesterday. While Kathleen read an napped, I read and read. I was determined to be done with The Submission. I can’t remember the last time a novel made me feel so bad about the world. Although smart and extremely well-crafted, The Submission is an aesthetically cynical portrait of a cynical society. No! I’ve got that exactly wrong. There is no society in The Submission. What’s aesthetically cynical about the book is that each and every one of the characters is stuck in his or her character. No one connects. Instead, the various ways in which different types of people fail to connect are paraded coolly along a fashion-week runway. Amy Waldman’s world is devoid of the two essentials that I’m dumb enough to find growing on trees in mine, humor and generosity.

As soon as I was done, I grabbed the latest issue of LRB, which I knew had a review of The Submission, and Christian Lorentzen, whose take on the book was no more positive than mine, soon restored my spirits.

Reading The Submission, I often had the feeling that the novel was written by the New York Times itself; that Waldman has so thoroughly internalised the paper’s worldview that she can’t see things any other way. The Times tends to flatter its readers in the way it writes about their educations, their ambitions and what they spend their money on, while gently stoking their anxieties – about surly Islamophobes from New Jersey, their children’s safety, or cancer. In newsprint these tropes tend to be submerged under the weight of actual events  Mebut they are all too conspicuous in the long march of a novel.

This wasn’t what I’d been thinking exactly, but it wasn’t at all inconsistent, and I remembered howling and scowling, just a few hours earlier, when Kathleen read aloud a disgraceful Styles piece by Bruce Feiler entitled “Snooping in the Age of Ebooks.” 

For his part, Dr. Gosling recommended seeking out three places in a home if the bookshelf was not revealing. First, any space where a person retreats to be alone. “That might be a potting shed, a home office or sewing corner,” he said. Second, bedrooms. He recommended paying particular attention to headboards, pillows and what people keep at their bedside. Finally, photographs. Dr. Gosling was struck, for instance, that my wife and I have no photos at all in our living room, suggesting we use the space for “down-regulating” or retreating from others. In my home office, meanwhile, I have numerous photos, all featuring people, from my children, to my family, to me with friends around the world. Alone in my office, he concluded, I seek contact with others in what he called “social snacking

Ew! This is why I don’t start the day with the Times anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t wish that the Times would go away. What’s wrong with the Times is the complete absence of competition for the “newspaper of record” title. They’ll print anything these days.

(I exaggerate, of course. Kathleen brought a copy of the Daily Mail back from London, leading me down unimagined avenues of “Svengeance.”)

Gotham Diary:
Schlechtes Wetter
24 September 2011

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

I had no idea that this new pizza place existed until I cropped the photo just now. Maybe it’s not new! Kathleen says, you learn something every day. Not with my stiff neck you don’t. How many times have I passed under that red awning? It’s true that there is nothing about “GO!99″ that would capture my interest. I have developed immunities against the assaults of such signage. You have to, in this town.

Yesterday was very, very wet. Even indoors, it was wet. Towels refused to dry, as did the shirt that I wore to see Moneyball. The theatre was only a block away but by the time I got home after the showing, I might as well have climbed out of the East River. All afternoon, I dreaded the ordeal of getting a taxi in the rain to go downtown to sit with with Will while his parents went out to dinner. In the event, getting the cab turned out not to be the ordeal. It was listening to the driver complain about gridlock. He unnerved me so badly that I nearly asked him to turn around and take me home — this was as we were crawling down York Avenue, because, he said, the FDR was in “gridlock.” Which turned out to be piffle; it was only northbound traffic that was congested. As I was ringing the O’Neills’ doorbell when I finally got there, my phone rang, and I knew that it had to be Megan. As it was; she hung up and buzzed me in. What I didn’t know was that she was thinking of staying home with Will, who had developed a bit of a fever. She would have asked me to turn around, too. But now that I was there, and now that she had got a bit of Tylenol down his throat, she might as well try for a quick dinner with Ryan at one of their favorite places, Edi and the Wolf, a few doors up Avenue C. She would be close by if — if Will got sluggish. That is what I was too look for. He was certainly very warm. And he wanted to be held, at least for the first half hour. We watched his new favorite movie, My Neighbor Totoro, in which there is also a lot of rain. (The pluviage sharply underscores, however, the difference between rural Japan and the Upper East Side.) Eventually, Will began to want from time to time to fiddle around on his own. He brought me all the big pillows from the sofa. He brought me, one at a time, the five singles that Megan had left in case the pizza deliveryman couldn’t break a twenty for his tip. At just about the time when he no longer wished to be held at all, his parents came home. Will’s temperature was found to have dropped considerably, and Will, accordingly, was in a mood to play, specifically with his Plan Toy trains, on the understanding that his parents would join him on the floor of his bedroom. It was wonderful to be a part of this, although I wasn’t much of one. I was fading fast, having adjusted, during Kathleen’s London trip, to very early hours. Plus, really wet weather makes me — sluggish. It’s something barometric. I hugged everybody goodnight and went downstairs and caught a taxi right away. An hour later, I was sound asleep. It was still wet.

If the foregoing seems a little headlong, that’s because it was written while I was counting down the minutes until Kathleen’s call from Heathrow. When I looked up, it was 7:04, just past our noon-time date. So I called her. The phone rang and rang; because the call had been shunted to a British carrier, the AT&T lady never came on to tell me that my call had been sent &c. (A small joy in itself; I hate her.) I hung up, disconsolate. During the week, I had not once yet failed to reach Kathleen upon dialling her; and I was beginning to like the idea of business travel almost as much as Kathleen does — so long as I get to stay home. I didn’t have long to mope, though; it turned out that, natch, my call coincided with Kathleen’s paying for her ride and getting her luggage out of the taxi. She called back a moment later. Half a moment!  


Moneyball was fun, and thoroughly absorbing while it lasted, but, unlike Warrior and Drive, it was over when it was over. I’m not saying that it’s foregettable; it’s not. But if Warrior is about love and loss, and Drive is about the long-term malignancy of endless good weather, Moneyball is about baseball, tout court. I wonder if the game will survive the demythologizing process that Billy Beane inaugurated in Oakland, even if it did result in the Red Sox’s breaking the Bambino’s curse a few years later. Perhaps it will make baseball interesting in a new way; perhaps the United States is old enough for a national game that isn’t played by action figures whose abilities are so often the product of seasoned scouts’ imaginations. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill make a surprisingly satisfying pair of buddies, not least because, in Mr Hill’s company, Mr Pitt looks a lot like Robert Redford at his most deific. Buddies for our times: a failed ballplayer and an economist from Yale go on to triumph.

Gotham Diary:
23 September 2011

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

What I had to go through to take an out-of-focus shot! All right, maybe it’s not out of focus; maybe it’s a little beyond the lens’s capacity. I had to RTFM to find out how to use the camera’s self-timer, and I had to fish the tripod out of a dim corner. I had to remember to zoom in on the scene. The “manual,” by the way, is nothing of the kind: it’s A Short Course In Canon PowerShot S95 Photography, and I’d hate to see the Long Course. There is no index, and the instructions for using the self-timer appear on page 76, something that you find out only by reading the text on page 17 that points you there. Or you could just scroll through the Table of Contents with your index finger, hoping, hoping… I don’t usually mark up books, but I think that I ought to make an exception here.

I did not go to the movies yesterday. I got a haircut and lunched on a club sandwich at the Hi-Life. In the late afternoon, after I’d said goodnight to Kathleen in London, I went over to Fairway. I had a short shopping list, but I started out in the meat and fish section downstairs, because I was looking for ideas for dinner. I wasn’t hungry, and almost everything looked unappetizingly heavy. Even a game hen — half of a game hen — seemed too much. So I wound up with chicken livers. Talk about heavy, right? But a few go a long way. Several weeks ago, David Tanis offered an interesting recipe in the Times: French Chicken Liver and Green Bean Salad with Garam Masala. I didn’t have the clipping with me, of course, but I was confident about improvising. Having (I later discovered) confused this recipe with another, I misremembered the Indian accent as a Mexican one, and bought a bottle of Cindy’s Chipotle Ranch dressing, along with a small head of frisée, a Belgian endive, an ounce of baby spinach, a Crispin apple, and a bag of Fairway’s own croutons. I had to go back downstairs for the croutons — there is still much to be learned about Fairway, but the tiny thrill of rolling my shopping cart onto a freight elevator (something that I’ve done from time to time at Eli’s over the years) hasn’t worn off — but they valait le détour.

I sautéed four livers in clarified butter (two would have been enough), and pointlessly deglazed the pan (would you have tossed the resulting very brown syrup into a salad?). I tossed the greens with half of the apple, cubed, and I kept adding more Cindy’s. At the last minute, I grabbed a hunk of Emmenthaler and cut it into very small cubes. Toss, toss; still more Cindy’s. The result was very earthy, and it took a while for the chipotle to make itself known. I still can’t decide if cherry tomatoes would have been an improvement. A poached egg, chopped bacon, and raw mushrooms would all have been wrong, at least for last night’s appetite. My chicken liver salad was earthy — very earthy. But it wasn’t heavy.

It was a day for taking care of little things, and I’m afraid that today will be the same. I worked a bit on my Emma essay — I’m making the case that the novel’s structure is implicit in its choreography (so to speak) and its corresponding shifts in linguistic tone — so it wasn’t an entirely brainless stretch. The “problem” with getting up very early in the morning is that the afternoon yawns like a vast and vacant cave: you’re not used to having so much extra time. You might say that the whole point of getting up very early in the morning is to have as much time as you need to get everything done, and to manage your day accordingly, instead of flying from task to task in a frenzy, always doing the things that must be done but never, or only rarely, getting to the more interesting items on the to-do list.

But I’m not happy about what I’m reading. Blame it on Gchat. I misunderstood Ms NOLA’s references to Amy Waldman’s The Submission, which were frequent when the book was being talked about everywhere else, for raves. In fact, she had put the book down, as I was tempted to do midway through the first chapter. The best thing that I can say about this novel is that it makes a very good scenario. I can see the movie that will be made of it. The worst thing that I can say about it is that I haven’t mentally cast this imaginary movie, as I do whenever I’m engaged by the characters in a novel. There is a glibness about The Submission, a professional savvy that gives the book the pop of beautiful food photography. Except you can’t eat it because there’s no actual food there. You can only go out and write your own 9/11 novel. I’m not far in, but I’m afraid that I’m hooked. Maybe it will get better, and I’ll start to care about Claire and Paul and Mo.

Gotham Diary:
Uncle Spam
22 September 2011

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

A friend to whom I mentioned that I’d just seen Warrior told me that the trailer had made her think that it was just a retread of The Fighter. But the pictures are so dissimilar, in their excellent ways, that to rank them or to look for parallels is a complete waste of time. Only at their deepest roots do the two movies have anything in common, and Warrior makes so much more of this common matter, and yet does so so much more quietly, that the resulting shows are no more alike than Elizabeth II and Richard Nixon — who was said to be four-hundredth-and-something-th in line for the English throne.

What Warrior and The Fighter have in common (not even the boxing rings are the same) is Uncle Spam: a United States economy that has turned against its working classes. Not only does it no longer protect and support them, it exploits them. Garrett Keizer put it to his high-school students in Vermont (as he does to his readers at Harper’s) with stark eloquence:

I did on one or two occasions tell my students they were living in a society that valued people of their age, region, and class primarily as cannon fodder, cheap labor, and gullible consumers, and that education could give some of the weaponry necessary to fight back.

Warrior takes a somewhat darker view. One of the protagonists, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), actually teaches physics in high school — so “education” has given him just about everything that it has to offer without actually pushing him into the exploiting elite. (Would that count as “fighting back”?). But education hasn’t saved him from being a “gullible consumer”; he appears to have fallen for some toxic variant on the variable-rate mortgage. He will lose his home, the house where he and his wife, with three jobs between them, are raising their two little girls, if he doesn’t come up with some money fast. A former UFC fighter, he jumps into a parking-lot ring and makes a quick couple of hundred bucks. He also gets his face knocked up, which leads to his suspension without pay as a teacher — not anytime recent has America’s taste for mean respectability been so clearly deadpanned at the movies. No, I would say that education’s weaponry has been hardly more helpful to Brendan than the Army’s matériel has been to his brother Tommy (Tom Hardy). Tommy, a Marine who, while AWOL, has saved a tankful of soldiers with some single-handed superheroics, deserted after his entire platoon was extinguished by “friendly fire.”

You could blame Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), the old man, a reformed but once-vicious drunk, for his boys’ misfortunes, but I don’t think it would stick. One way or another, he has made thoroughgoing stoics of the two of them, such that the only thing that they have in common is no use for their father. If he is beneath their blame, he can’t have been all bad.

Whatever you do, don’t stay away from Warrior because of my high-flown indignation about the American let-down. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to pin this kind of critical response to Warrior if Garrett Keizer’s bleak valediction hadn’t been ringing in my ears. Go to see the sterling performances given by the three actors whom I’ve mentioned, as well as by Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, and Kevin Dunn. I went primarily to see the startlingly versatile Tom Hardy, and to say that he did not disappoint would be the understatement of the millennium.


Jenny Diski is one of my favorite journalists, and to meet her in the pages of The New Yorker is a real treat. The Diary entry at her regular venue, the London Review of Books, is, not surprisingly, somewhat more provocative — The New Yorker already has plenty of writers who do “provocative.” Consider Janet Malcolm! — but it’s no smarter. Writing about shoplifting in the glossier publication, Diski retails a story that I thought I must already have read in her brisk memoir, The Sixties (which I’ve shelved right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education), but that I can’t, this morning, find there. From “The Secret Shopper”:

“…If you act like it’s yours no one will ask you to pay for it.” I found this to be true. Running an alternative school with almost no money in the early seventies, I made trips to a large bookstore in London and piled up reference books and textbooks until the tower nestled under my raised chin. Then I confidently walked out of the shop. Several times. No one ever stopped me. I had no qualms. It was a corporate-owned shop, and the books I stole were for the educationally and socially deprived kids I was working with. Even better than acting like its yours is righteously believing that it’s yours, or, at any rate, that you are robbing capitalistic hoods to feed the minds of the poor.

Of course, this sort of uplift is quite aside the point of Diski’s review of a new book about shoplifting — inferior, she thinks, to an earlier one from which it borrows — the point being that, hey, what a surprise, shoplifting was regarded as a gendered crime from the get-go (from the early days of the department store, that is), and then a gendered disease (kleptomania or hysteria, take your pick). Readers of The Sixties know that Diski has a particular interest in the treatment of mental unrest, and her Diary entry at the LRB is a highly discomfiting consideration of the Three Christs experiment that Milton Rokeach conducted in Michigan in 1959. Rokeach wanted to see how well three men, each claiming to be God, would be able to hold on to their professed identity if they were obliged to meet on a daily basis. Diski does a fine job of hoisting the good doctor.

“Because it is not feasible to study such phenomena with normal people, it seemed reasonable to focus on delusional systems of belief in the hope that, in subjecting them to strain, there would be little to lose and, hopefully, a great deal to gain.” This is a very magisterial “non-deluded” view of who in the world has or has not little to lose. Evidently, the mad, having no lives worth speaking of, might benefit from interference, but if they didn’t, if indeed their lives were made worse, it hardly mattered, since such lives were already worthless non-lives. It also incorporated that bang-up-to-the-minute idea that if you want to know about normality you could do worse than watch and manipulate the mad. The three Christs themselves, however, were of the certain opinion that they had something valuable to lose and made truly heroic effors, each in his own way, to resist, as well as to explain to Rokeach and his team that their lives had considerable meaning for them. All of them … had a very clear understanding of what it was to be deluded, why it might be a useful option to choose over normality, and who did and didn’t have the right to interfere in their self-selected delusions. Over the course of the research, each man indicated how far he was prepared to go along with Rokeach, how much he valued what was on offer, and when his boundary had been reached. And they did it with more than ordinary grace and dignity.

I think that it’s Diski’s ability to appreciate that grace and dignity that keeps her anger from consuming her alive.


I went to bed quite early last night; I was asleep shortly after ten. I was leaning on Lunesta pretty hard — I wasn’t actually sleepy — and it took a while to do its thing. But I did what I could to help. I concentrated on being comfortable in bed, and I thought about what I would write here when I got up in the morning. When I did get up, it was still completely dark, and as I lay in bed for a bit I couldn’t help worrying that I ought to try to get back to sleep; I had to remind myself that, no, I had slept enough, and now it was time to get up. Which I thereupon did.

Gotham Diary:
21 September 2011

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Although he approves of the way that the writing table has been arranged overall, Ray Soleil does not care for the side-by-side vases. “It looks like a shop,” says he.  I say that it’s a variation on urns. The yellow one was purchased in Key West for next to nothing; I’d have bought two if I’d thought I could pack them safely. Placed between yourself and the source of daylight, it becomes a second sun. The crystal number on the right is Steuben. I believe that it was presented to Kathleen’s father upon the achievement of some large project or other. Now Steuben itself s’achève. Only the other day, I was looking at their latest catalogue, all unaware that the famous producer of luxury goods was about to be shut down, but troubled nonetheless to see that their latest tchotchka was a crystal cupcake. A crystal apple I can see. Apples are naturally firm. Not so buttercream frosting. It was, evidently, a portent.


I saw Drive yesterday, and I really liked it! I don’t know why Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, finds it unnecessarily gory. Los Angeles is a terrible place! Beautiful in its way, perhaps, but all but overtly savage. I’m speaking, of course, of the mythical Los Angeles that has inspired filmmakers since the days of film noir. Drive feels like American Gigolo, as reconceived by David Lynch. Moments of violence are just that, compressed into short bursts that never last as long as a minute. And they are always backed up, as it were, by ghastly people, notably Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. I can’t resist suggesting that Nino is the role that Mr Perlman was misbegotten to play; and, as for Albert Brooks, it’s as though the dark swarm of mayflies that consistently blotted all sunniness out of his many comedies were finally openly acknowledged as his company of familiars, so that, for once, the actor doesn’t come across as neurotic. He’s not fussy this time; he’s demanding. There’s a big difference.

Nicholas Winding Refn’s finest directorial decision was to leave the cops out of it altogether. (We see them in the opening getaway caper, mostly through windshields; but the protagonist’s appearance in costume as a stunt driver is the last time that we see a uniform in this study of Angeleno lawlessness.) In the absence of officers of the law, Nino and Bernie (Mr Brooks) roam the earth unchallenged — at least until they run into the Driver (Ryan Gosling). Refn’s most interesting decision is to film his action story as a sequence of visual panels: I regarded Drive as a graphic movie. Movement is contained within large, fixed frames, and close-ups are as still as Vermeer’s tronies. In the earlier part of the picture, the Driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan) gaze at each other with an impassioned, soon-to-burst self-containment that hasn’t been seen since the silents, and, believe me, they reinvent the look. They pause on the verge of embrace, savoring every imaginable aspect of what it will feel like to kiss. (And when they do, it’s not just a kiss, but also an adieu and a feint.) It’s quite as though the film has stuck in the sprockets and is about to burn (a feature of moviegoing that has gone the way of the silents).


Are we at war with the United Kingdom yet? Just saying. Have you read Janet Malcolm’s piece on large-format photographer Thomas Struth yet? It’s in the current issue of The New Yorker (dated Sept 26), and the last paragraph on page 95 is where you want to start reading. Turn the page to find out how far you get before the magazine falls from your grip. I’ll spare you Thomas Struth’s “coarse reference to the royal bosom” — but note Malcolm’s incredibly sneaky manner of telling us exactly how, in former times, she would have been constrained to refer to it — and proceed to the second most-offensive paragraph in the piece, which is, again, about Queen Elizabeth, who together with her husband the Duke of Edinburgh are the subjects of a photograph commissioned by Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

My first impression was of a vaguely familiar elderly couple posing for a formal portrait in a corner of the palatial Minneapolis hotel ballroom where their fiftieth wedding anniversary is being celebrated. The pair were seated on an ornate settee, and my attention was drawn to the woman’s sturdy legs in beige stockings, the right knee uncovered where the skirt of her pale-blue silke dress had hitched up a bit as she settled her ample figure into the settee; and to her feet, in patent-leather pumps planted firmly on the fancy hotel carpet. Her white hair was carefully coifed, in a sort of pompadour in front and fluffy curls on the sides, and her lipsticked mouth was set in an expression of quiet determination. The man — a retired airline pilot? — was smaller, thinner, recessive. They were sitting a little apart, not touching, looking straight ahead. Gradually, the royal couple came into focus as such, and the photograph assumed its own identity as a work by Struth, the plethora of its details somehow tamed to serve a composition of satisfying serenity and readability.

“Fancy hotel carpet” practically doubled me over. Malcolm has a point: hotels in Minneapolis and elsewhere have appropriated the look of royalty. Question is, can royalty work on a new look? And it must be said that the Her Majesty’s shift, while evidently well made of and of good material, is a house dress.

I finished reading Andrew Thompson’s biography of Elizabeth’s venerable ancestor George II yesterday, and I hope to start writing it up this afternoon. I may have read more into Thompson’s book than is actually there, but I came away impressed by the portrait of a man who thoroughly understood how a world that has vanished worked. That it vanished — that, specifically, the Holy Roman Empire within which George figured not unimportantly for a long stretch of the Eighteenth Century, came to an end well before he had been dead for a hundred years — does not mean that George was a fool to play his cards very well, according to the rules then in force. We can look at his reign as a string of decades during which the cabinet system that currently governs Britain was given the unintended chance to germinate, largely during the king’s absences. That’s easy. Thompson makes us understand why the king was absent: while in England he was already constitutionally constrained to work with ministers who attained power within the Houses of Parliament, whether he liked them or not, George was, as Elector of Hanover, an absolute, if benevolent, monarch. Which would you rather be? I myself would find it much more agreeable to have my untrammeled way in a prosperous principality, with my principal subjects gathering in my palace every Sunday to honor me even when I was in distant London, than to deal with high-maintenance aristocrats of whose manners I could only find presumptuous. I might not be riding the wave of the future, but I’d be sitting pretty.

Gotham Diary:
20 September 2011

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

The weather is glum here today, and so am I, because Kathleen is leaving for London tonight and won’t be back until late Saturday. I intend to battle my lowering spirits by going to the movies every day.

Also: I’m pooped. The exertions of the past week or so have finally caught up with me. Yesterday’s dissipated afternoon with Ray Soleil, climaxing in tea with Greenberg’s chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons, is what probably pushed me into the hither margins of oncoming-cold territory.

Have you seen the new issue of The Paris Review? There’s an interview with Dennis Cooper, whose novel Wrong I read years and years ago and got through even though I had no idea what was going on or, more to the point, why anybody was doing anything. In the interview, Cooper tells his onetime editor, Ira Silverberg, about the charms of his favorite sexual move, and while this account makes a certain kind of sense, it is not what I would call a fully human sense. On the contrary, there seems to be something fractured in Cooper’s makeup, something that prevents the union of the feelings that sympathy comprises. Either that, or his dialect of English is loaded with terms of art that are quite opaque to me.

Much more congenial is Lydia Davis’s collection of notes on translating, specifically on translating Madame Bovary, about which her thinking gleams with precision. Here she is discussing a variant in Flaubert’s description of the tile-roofed market in his fictional Yonville-l’Abbaye: 

The word he uses for “posts” is poteaux, so my translation is quite exact just there. He mentions the marketplace three more time in the novels, however, and each time he refers to the poteaux as piliers, or “pillars.” I thought this was too massive a word for an element of a market structure, and I chose not to follow him but to retain “posts”:

Then, on a trip to France, following the GPS instructions to go north by way of a small town called La Bastide-sur-l’Hers, we turned left through the main square and I saw a covered market whose tile roof rested on what were undeniably massive pillars.

Fortunately, there was still time for one more change to the paperback edition.

Which I am going to have to read now. She quite exposes the excesses of Francis Steegmuller, who wrote the translation read by most people my age I should think, with his rendering the simple en écrivant as “as her pen flew over the paper.”

Now, what’s showing?

Gotham Diary:
Vanished Way of Life
19 September 2011

Monday, September 19th, 2011

As I was looking through the photographs that I took of the apartment last night, it hit me that I hadn’t seen anything like them in the style and design magazines and sites that I follow. Bearing in mind that they’re not, after all, very good photographs, I’m still struck by how they reflect “a vanished way of life.” All those lampshades, for instance. The utter absence of anything “modern” (the exception of a halogen reading light proves the rule). And then I consider how much of this stuff Kathleen and I actually bought in a store. Not very much! In the image above, the love seats that face each other to the left belonged to Kathleen’s grandmother. The love seat to the right was one of a pair that my mother and one of her aunts bought at an estate sale in the late Forties. The dining chairs were made for Kathleen’s parents during their years in Eaton Place. There’s a small “French” chair in the right-hand corner that you can’t really see, and I don’t know where it came from. I’m pretty sure that it was, once upon a time, somebody’s fanciest piece of furniture, lovingly polished and sat on but never in. Aside from the Louis XV armchair that I bought at Restoration Hardware last spring, there’s not a thing to sit down on that didn’t come from someone else in our family. That’s what I mean by “vanished.”

When Ray Soleil unfurled the tapestry on the right-hand wall, all I could think of was Sunset Boulevard. The textile belonged to my grandparents and dates from the Twenties at the latest. We sent it to Perry Process about ten years ago and tucked it away in a closet when it came back, wrapped in tissue and brown paper. When I began to meditate moving the secretary desk from the living room to the bedroom, the tapestry presented itself as a way of preserving the desk’s vertical impact on the space it left behind. It really is very old and very dark, though — almost macabre. I don’t know why my mother held on to it; she certainly never displayed it. But then I can’t tell you why I’m holding on to the glass-doored upper half of the breakfront cabinet. Who will ever want to restore it to the bottom half, currently very much in use as a sideboard, with the snappydoodle marble top that Ray found for it, way out below the Gowanus Expressway? It’s not for me to say.

Anyway, the latest phase of our vanished way of life is complete. Everything got put away yesterday, and not just anyhow. It one minor mitzvah, Kathleen needed some fabric-covered storage  boxes that were idling in the hall closet, holding nothing much of anything. Her taking them opened up just the space I needed for items from the dresser in the blue room. In the evening, while Kathleen finished up her complete reorganization of the bedroom, clearing off the once-daunting pile of stuff on the bed, I read the story about the O’Connor twins, Consuelo and Gloria, in an old Vanity Fair that surface in the cleanup. Bob Colacello was the very writer to clean and press this lacy bit of Condé Nast laundry, which is probably what put me in the frame of mind to regard my own way of life as vanishing. After all, the surviving sister, Gloria, is only twenty years older than I am. I wonder if it’s too late to buy, as Consuelo’s husband’s grandfather did, a title.

Gotham Diary:
18 September 2011

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Somebody is tall for his age (20½ months). Somebody needs a haircut, too. Will it be his “first one”? He slept through his first one, and everyone agrees that it doesn’t, therefore, count. But what interests me most about this image is that some parts of Will are in motion while others are very still, and his head is somewhere in between.

At five o’clock, I had just put the blue room in order and was enjoying a cup of tea with Kathleen. I was slightly distraught, however, by the work that lay ahead: the dining table, every square millimeter of it, was still covered with teapots, aperitif glasses, and assorted breakable whatnots. Covered. Where would I put any of it, much less all? I had devoted the entirety of the previous day to finding new places for numerous pieces of furniture, large and small, almost completing the project begun on Monday. It was a two-pronged project, the idea being to bring the secretary desk that had always been intended for Kathleen’s use closer to Kathleen’s bedside, while removing a good deal of the clutter (which I could no longer write off as “cosy”) with a view to making the apartment safer for Will. I had exhausted my reserves of ingenuity.

When I got up to grapple with the final phase, it was 5:20, and at that very moment, the phone rang. It was Megan. Megan apologized for the very late notice, but could she and Will and Ryan come for dinner? If it wasn’t convenient, she assured me, then we could get together tomorrow, but there was an undertone in her voice that it took me a moment to hear clearly. Megan’s talk about “tomorrow” was delivered in a sort of fatalist mode, pleasant but whistly. She was perfectly sincere about wanting to get together “tomorrow” — if it were still possible, once “tomorrow” had dumped its daily ration of surprises on her household, to do so. I remembered Megan’s mentioning in G-chat that she hadn’t had a full night’s sleep all week. She was offering to come uptown now. As I looked at the dining table (where we would all have to eat, as it was too chilly for the balcony), my dismay gave way to resolution. The problem with tomorrow is that it is indeed another day. We’d have dinner tonight.

What followed is a blur. I can say that having Fairway right across the street was the deciding factor in the evening’s success; I was spared the walk to 79th Street for a nice steak. Kathleen, who had been just about to take a nap, was a great help, and between us we had the apartment in presentable shape by seven o’clock. Megan’s being half an hour late didn’t hurt, either. We were well into dinner by eight, and the O’Neills left at about nine.

There is a Bean’s tote bag in Kathleen’s bathtub that is full of silver service. Porcelain and glass items cover the balcony table and (on a tray) one of the easy chairs. I have all day to deal with that. Some parts of the apartment are in disarray, while others are very tidy. Most of the place is, warmly and livably, somewhere in between.

Gotham Diary:
End and Ongoing
16 September 2011

Friday, September 16th, 2011

By the end of the day — long before the end of the afternoon, I hope — it will not be possible to take another version of this photograph. This pretty if untidy arrangement of books, papers, globe and mahogany will come to an end, and another arrangement, perhaps more useful than picturesque, will take its place. I should tell you more about it, but I am busy at the moment, searching Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essay on Jane Austen (in the book atop the pile of three) for the epigram about how hard it is to catch Austen in the act of greatness, a remark with which Richard Jenkyns (in the middle) disagrees, and which Rachel Brownstein (bottom), acknowledging Jenkyns in her notes, paraphrases.

Gotham Diary:
Creeping Back
15 September 2011

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Never has half a month whooshed by so quickly and quietly. The fifteenth already? I’m feeling like a man in a barrel going over the Niagara of time. “Make it stop!” Except — don’t.

My time at the Infusion Therapy Unit yesterday passed uneventfully. After catching up on the nurses’ experiences of Irene, I had a long talk with the chief nurse, who lives in the neighborhood, about the wonders of the new Fairway. Like many whom I’ve talked to, the thing that she liked best about Fairway is that it has pulled the rug out from under the supermarkets that have been “overcharging us for too long.” A longtime patron of the huge Fairway up on 125th Street — which is patronized almost exclusively by customers who stuff the trunks of their automobiles with bomb-shelter quantities (a frugality that is very difficult to live with in Manhattan’s bomb-shelter-sized apartments), she is, like me, enjoying the convenience of busying no more than what she immediately needs.

Then I settled down and read most of Why Jane Austen? At one point, I took a break and found the Jane Austen Action Figure that appears on Rachel Brownstein’s dust jacket (Catherine Casolino’s design and photograph) at Amazon. Gotta have it.

In the evening, we went to a cocktail party, at a deeply charming penthouse in the East 70s. The hostess and Kathleen met at Sacred Heart in the third grade; the gentleman whose birthday occasioned the party began escorting Kathleen to dances when she was fourteen. I’ve known most of the guests for years, and everyone looked at least a little bit older, except for one woman, always a beauty, who really seemed to have found the fountain of youth. It wasn’t just that she looked young (and very much herself at that; no discernible “work”) but she moved young, too. At the risk of sounding ludicrous, I must insist that she was hot. The hostess’s daughter, truly young, I met for the first time — she grew up in Dublin and London. She is about to move, with friends, into a flat in Stuyvesant Town, just blocks from Will and his parents. When I mentioned my grandson, she declared an interest in babysitting. I rather helplessly asked her if she had a card, but she didn’t. A lovely young woman. Instead of birthday cakes, there were genuine Parisian macaroons, as beautifully-colored as the ones that you can buy anywhere but radically scrumptious.

Afterward, we went round the corner to a favorite bistro, where among the crowded diners we detected bits of Fashion Week flotsam and jetsam that had washed uptown. I had île flottante for dessert. It was the perfect way of turning the corner and coming back to life.

Gotham Diary:
13 September 2011

Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

This is just to report that I have no brains today, just mush in my skull, after a long afternoon of moving just about every other item in the blue room, including the contents of two tall bookshelves.  It was the first part of a two-day project that will wind up with Kathleen’s having the secretary desk close to her bedside. We have always known that Kathleen is a secretary-desk sort of person, but it has taken years to figure out how to put the user and the accessory in the same room. The second part of the project is scheduled to take place on Friday.

What’s all that got to do with the blue room, you may ask. (I flatter myself.) It would take too long to explain; the thing to know about yesterday is that the rooms two computer constellations were disassembled and reconstituted in new places. I can’t count the number of digital doodads that got unplugged and disconnected, reconnected and plugged back in, partly because I didn’t do any of it myself; the wonderful Jason Mei was on hand to oversee all of that. Ray Soleil and I did the heavy lifting, almost all of which involved the three pieces of furniture shown above.  I managed to do my share of the work with the help of the few remaining globs of Remicade in my bloodstream. As Ray said later, I too tired to fuss about anything, and the hours flew by in strange harmony. When Kathleen came home from work, Ray and I were gossiping about the duc du Maine and Mme de Maintenon as usual, and presently we went across the street to Maz Mezcal for dinner. I turned in on the early side.

When I got up this morning, not on the early side, I really wanted to read the Times, but I was firm, and booted up the laptop instead. During the time at Fire Island, I broke myself of the habit of beginning the day with the Grey Lady. Now the first voice that I hear in the morning is my own, and for me at least that gets the day off to a much better start, even on days like this when my mind is blank. Even if my mind is blank, my list of starred items at Google Reader is anything but, and I’m reminded that I was thinking about a provocative blog entry that I read the other day. In a down-hearted entry entitled “What is the point of learning history?” Historiann writes, “What have we learned in the past 2,500 years or so that Herodotus didn’t already warn us about:?  Hubris!

 Du calme! Is the stretch between Herodotus and us a meaningful one? I don’t think so, not when you back it up with the 170,000 years, give or take, of fully human existence, most of which was spent untroubled by abstract formulations. For most of that time (I speculate, rankly), human beings were just doing what all the other beings do, struggling to survive by any means available. The problem isn’t that we haven’t learned anything since Herodotus — and I think that we’ve learned a very great deal although, admittedly, not much about will-power. The problem is that we’re still, constitutionally — genetically, if you will — what used to be called “savages.” For several millennia, the Judeo-Christian stream of religious belief attributed this to a “fallen” state. Better to grasp that we haven’t quite got round to rising yet. We can imagine what it would be like to be better, but it’s perhaps just as well that our ideals remain out of reach. If our ideas of “better” are vastly superior to those of an educated person of merely a thousand years ago, they still need work. It’s a good thing that we can’t really live up to them.

A really convenient way of looking at things if your brains are mush, you will say.

Gotham Diary:
An Education
12 September 2011

Monday, September 12th, 2011

Reading Rachel Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen? is great fun, but it’s also doing a fine job of reminding that I am not cut out for teaching — teaching in an American classroom, that is, in which students are encouraged to air their personal opinions without having been given much guidance in the formation of useful ones. Brownstein’s summary of the “questions” that her broadly unread college students will “ask” about Pride and Prejudice includes, for example, this gem: “Doesn’t canonical English literature, don’t the novels of Jane Austen especially, coercively instill ruling-class attitudes in her readers — the — law, that the West is best?”

They have not read Edward Said [she notes wryly], but they do watch television, and ideology trickles down.

Brownstein has a wonderful time unpacking the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice: what does it really mean?

In the famous first paragraphs of Austen’s most-read and best-loved novel, which raise questions of truth and universality and what kind of truth gets acknowledged and what kind remains unsaid, her irony is palpable, thick. But it is not clear what it is directed at. Are we meant to read the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice as calling attention to the opposite of what it seems to be saying, that society is concerned about the fate of unmarried women, not men?

And so on. None of these thoughts would ever occur to me; general questions about abstract issues do not naturally rise in my mind, certainly not when reading agreeable novels; thinking about “truth” and “universality” wastes a lot of time and does more harm than good. (In that, I am as anti-intellectual as the most red-blooded American.) To me, the famous first line of Pride and Prejudice is nothing other than Mr Bennet’s way of putting the kind of nonsense that Mrs Bennet believes. Need one say more about it than that? Well, if you’re in “the academy,” it seems that you’re going to have to. Rachel Brownstein is nothing less than engaging about the business, and if I have to sit through discussions of truth and universality, I want her to conduct them. But I’m so relieved that I never pursued the academic life that it feels like having dodged a falling safe.

In the Spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly — one of those periodicals that I regularly consider canceling, until I finally get caught up with them and rediscover their indispensability — august emeritus professor Daniel Walker Howe mourns “Classical Education in America.” He quotes Garry Wills:

Learning classical Greek is the most economical intellectual investment one can make. On many things that might interest one — law  and politics, philosophy, oratory, history, lyric poetry, epic poetry, drama — there will be constant reference back to the founds of those forms in our civilization.

A bit starchy (especially for Garry Wills), but a home truth nonetheless. The problem with Classical education, it seems to me, is that it begins as a foreign language course, taught by grammarians who are sticklers for proper declension. This is not only beside the point but insulting. I would have benefited greatly from a course in readings from Loeb Classics, with English translations on facing pages. A good teacher would have been able to persuade, I’m sure, that it would be worth the trouble to learn Latin well enough to know, understand, and feel that

linquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum, quas colis, arborum
 te praeter invisas cupressos
  ulla brevem dominum sequetur.

is inescapably better than

The earth, your house, the wife that you love so well,
Must be abandoned, and, of these trees you tend
 So fondly, none except the hated
  Cypress will follow its short-lived master.

Gotham Diary:
11 September 2011

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

We have just had Sunday breakfast, which included the first cantaloupe to be purchased at Fairway — a nine if not a 9.25. “Now, that’s what a cantaloupe tastes like!” raved Kathleen. I bought it yesterday on the second of two excursions. The first was to Gristede’s, where I still prefer to pick up non-food items such as dishwashing soap and Kleenex. Gristede’s was so bereft of customers that I wanted to cry. There were perhaps four of us. The stock was arranged nicely and neatly, as if what has never been a terribly prepossessing market were determined to put its best food forward. The best feet, unfortunately — the ones belonging to paying customers, anyway — were circulating through Fairway, a block to the west. (And not, as Adam Gopnik has it, on Third Avenue!) I’ve heard that the Food Emporium, downstairs in our building, is set for an overhaul, but it can just disappear, for all I care. It may be spiffier than Gristede’s, but I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to be sure of finding certain items on the shelves, then I ought to head for the larger store. I do hope that Gristede’s survives! Not that I’m going to stop going to Fairway every day, though, buying the smallest quantities of everything on my shopping list — and nothing else.

It’s only 10:30, and there are still plenty of hours left in which Events might occur, but it is difficult, after a Sunday breakfast anyway, not to feel sanguine. 9/11/01 left me wishing that New York City could be like Hong Kong or Singapore, the kind of small but rich and vaguely parasitic entrepot that most Americans think it is anyway. (I also wished, as I had wished since the day I first saw a photograph of them, that the towers had never been built — not here in New York, that is.) The supreme irony was that Mohammed Atta and his crew regarded New York as the central symbol of the United States. If only! New York is where two classes of people congregate, those who intend to thrive on its enormous cosmopolitan advantages, and those who cannot bear to live among the neighbors whom they have left behind. Many of the city’s immigrants already carry American citizenship.

The Gopnik piece to which I’ve alluded, “Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat,” ends by concluding that declinism — the conviction that the country is going to hell in a handbasket — is a bad idea but an irresistible one, because “the plateau just passed is easier to love than the one coming up.” This is not an outlook that I share, perhaps because I am not given to nostalgia. Positioning the new Fairway on Third Avenue (which Gopnik does as a way of illustrating Paul Krugman’s point that nations do not compete in the way that firms do) is not the essay’s only misstep; there’s also the blank space between its title, which seems taken from a bottle of shampoo, and pervasive references to Beatles hits. Sometimes, writes Gopnik, the old songs are better than the new songs. At the moment, I’m listening to Schubert’s Ninth, which is a funny kind of old song because nobody really knew until it was several decades old and the composer had mouldered into Viennese dust. When the old songs are better than the new songs, it’s because they really are better now, not because they summon up the labile adolescence in which they were first encountered. No one writes with more sophisticated deliberation than Adam Gopnik, but like most well-known writers he boasts of a head packed with pop-culture references that occasionally seem, well, disingenuous.

One of the books under Gopnik’s review is That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, and its exhortation to our presumed can-do spirit provokes a livid and sour rebuke:

The reason we don’t have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it’s that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised. … In the long story of civilization, the moments when improving your lot beats out annoying your neighbor are vanishingly rare.

While I agree with Gopnik — peruse this entry for hints of a wish that New York City could be semi-detached from the United States, and you will not be disappointed — I don’t think that the point is usefully lingered on. Far more helpful, in my view, is the argument made by David Frum in his review of That Used to Be Us, which appears in today’s Book Review.

Friedman and Mandelbaum at one point praise the beauty of solutions that rise from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. This praise is not consciously insincere, but pretty plainly it does not accurately represent their operational plan. Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that! Societies inescapably generate elites. Those elites can be ­public-spirited and responsible or they can be selfish and shortsighted. An elite can have concern and care for the less advantaged or it can callously disregard them. Maybe not surprisingly, the language of anti-­elitism has often been a useful tool of the most rapacious and merciless among the elite.

American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend. They say less than might be wished about what a more ­public-spirited American elite might do. But they have eloquently described what such an elite should want to do.

I don’t know how Adam Gopnik, as a busy member of the elite, really finds time to “listen to oldies stations on Sirius radio as we drive back roads on holiday” — it can’t be something that he does often enough to support generalizations about the importance of history. The Beatles are great, and anybody can enjoy them. What are the pleasures that Adam Gopnik has had to work hard for?

Gotham Diary:
10 September 2011

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

If I told you how I feel today — listless, achy, mildly anxious and even somewhat depressed — you might urge me to take either a quick nap or a long walk, depending upon your philosophy. Even I regard my low spirits as just that — low spirits, nothing somatic. But spirits are no less somatic than the rest of my anatomy, and the cure for what ails them awaits me on Wednesday, in the form of a Remicade infusion. I have to remind myself that the infusion will make me feel better, because I don’t feel sick at all, in the sense of needing medical attention. But I do need medical attention. It’s very odd, to have grown up in one medical environment, and then to be growing old in an entirely different one.

I did nothing yesterday but go to the movies and read. I saw Crazy Stupid Love, which, aside from its crazy stupid title, is a sweet if quirky films, one of those romantic comedies the shared fondness for which will lead some people to discover that they are soul mates. The plot, such as it is, is both abrupt and vague, a combination that certainly makes you pay attention, which you’re happy to do because the actors are so engaging. I am not a fan of the flamboyant strangeness of Steve Carrell’s impersonation of ordinary guys, but I thank him for reminding me that ordinariness is no more to be trusted, expected, or relied upon than is extraordinary behavior. It’s possible that Julianne Moore was miscast; it’s so much easier to see her as the smiling but unhappy wife of a John C Reilly or a Dennis Quaid than as the confused but happy wife of a Steve Carrell. (And better than either is seeing her as the assertively insecure drinking buddy of a Colin Firth.) But Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfect for this film, and they hang together, usually silently, in their scenes with other characters in the way the real couples do; perhaps they will make some more movies together. I couldn’t make up my mind about Jonah Bobo, but there’s no doubt that this kid will have a future if he plays his cards right. Analeigh Tipton is a lovely young lady who has the ability, exhibited best by Japanese actresses, to absorb what is happening around her and to register it for the viewer’s sake, as if privately. And don’t let me forget Marisa Tomei, whose role is something like a brick in a clothes drier — it’s the “crazy” part of the movie, structurally — but who makes the absolute mostest of what she’s been given to work with, as indeed she always does. Kevin Bacon’s role, as the man who cuckholds Steve Carrell’s character, is just about as thankless as a part can be, and it shows off the ageing of his lean good looks pretty gruesomely. I can’t say anything about the story, not only because it hinges on some well-contrived surprises, or because the loverboy spends what ought to be the big sex scene confessing an addiction to buying things that he doesn’t want or need on the Home Shopping Network. But when Steve Carrell gives Ryan Gosling’s cheek one of those friendly alpha-male slaps, and Emma Stone murmurs, “This is going to be fun,” you quite agree, and then Mr Carrell delivers another slap and it’s a wrap.

As for reading, I finished Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses and began Rachel Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen. The Epilogue of Flint’s book cleared up a big puzzle for me, which was how it came to be that The Power Broker never mentioned Jane Jacobs. It seems that there was to be an entire chapter about her tango with Moses, along with chapters on the Port Authority and the City Planning Commission, but these, together with “detail on the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” were cut from Caro’s massive tome. I haven’t written about The Power Broker as a whole, but I did notice that the narrative becomes somewhat miscellaneous after 1940. I hope that a complete edition, the “directors cut,” including all of Caro’s work on Robert Moses, will be published at some point, and I’m quite shocked that it hasn’t been republished as a two-volume set, especially given the sprawl of the author’s ongoing work on Lyndon Johnson, with its fourth volume forthcoming.

Why did I buy Why Jane Austen?? It was recently reviewed somewhere along with William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Eduction, and I was drawn to a book by a professor who is no longer sure about regarding herself as “feminist critic.” Actually, a lot of things have changed since Brownstein “came to consciousness in the mid 1950’s, when students were enjoined to keep an author at arms length, until just before the beginning of this century, when “Jane” (aka “Austen”) became a symbol of her sex and close to a sex symbol, a “name” and a star and in the common phrase an icon.” In other words, Brownstein’s appreciation of Austen is an autobiographical matter, and thus flouts a principle that students were even more stringently enjoined to observe fifty years ago: the ban on personal references. There are still curmudgeonly readers out there — some of them, even, are women — who won’t fail to smack a critic with the remark, “I don’t care what you think of Jane Austen.” Most of them are deep into Social Security territory, though. We have by and large outgrown the childish dream of objective, impersonal criticism. (Smart people no longer believe that all intellectual activity ought to be patterend on the conduct of the physical sciences.)

Opening up Why Jane Austen?, I was immediately drawn to the last chapter, entitled “Why We Reread Jane Austen.” The simple answer is that we reread Jane Austen because she gets better with reacquaintance, but I wanted to hear what Rachel Brownstein had to say. The chapter turns out to be almost entirely about Emma, which I’ve just reread for the sixth time (seven readings in all), and about which I have a few things to say — namely, that I detect a four-movement structure beneath its somewhat languid narraive course. I may write about it here, but eventually my thoughts will form part of a suite of pages about Jane Austen’s fiction collected at Civil Pleasures. And while I’m writing up my notes, I ought to read what I’ve already written at Portico, which is where the collection is currently lodged. Brownstein said nothing of Emma‘s structure — “there’s not much of a plot” — but her unpacking of the novel’s concept of “information” is spellbinding. When I was through, I went back to begin at the beginning, and in the Introduction I encountered a truth that needs to be universally acknowledged, at least among people who love to read Jane Austen.

As Juliet McMasteer wisely observes, “We all want to write about Jane Austen, but we each of us want to be the only one doing it. We want everyone to admire Jane Austen, but we each suspect the others do it the wrong way.”

Because when you’ve overcome the urge to have the last word about Jane Auste, you can enjoy reading about her, secure in the knowledge that this is going to be fun.

Before going to bed, I watched Douglas McGrath’s 1996 adaptation of Emma, which Brownstein mentions several times in the final chapter, and I was astonished, having just read the book myself, by the extent of its fabricated upholstery of dialogue and scenes. (Archery, indeed! Jane driving about in a gig!) The finished product seems largely true to the novel, but it gets there by an alternative route.

Gotham Diary:
9 September 2011

Friday, September 9th, 2011

In the middle of the afternoon, yesterday, a wave of sleepiness nearly knocked me down. Nothing odd about that, given that I’d been up early as usual and had an unusual amount of wine to drink the night before. Instead of napping, though, I read the Times, which I hadn’t read, for the first time ever, first thing in the morning. (By “first time ever,” I mean that I’ve either read the newspaper upon getting out of bed or I haven’t read it at all.) Reading it in the middle of the afternoon was certainly odd, but it was also easier to tell the interesting stories from the Pravda ones. (The Times is as pigheadedly uninformative about Washington as The Economist is about corporations.) I particularly liked the story about Sheila and Peter Potter, a well-born couple possessed of more paraphernalia than moolah. The Potters set up house in various Charleston properties in order to enhance their curb appeal, moving out when their magic has been wrought, having inhabited the premises for as little as ten days. They’re called “stagers,” and if I had known about their line of life when I was a young man I would have set out to follow it. (I certainly have the stuff.)

Kathleen suggested that I take a walk. I was totally disinclined to take a walk but i took her advice anyway. I went down the street to Carl Schurz Park, which I saw with new eyes now that I knew that much of its charm could be attributed to the fact that Robert Moses, who used to live on Gracie Square (the bit of 84th Street east of East End Avenue), would begin his day by walking through it on his way to Gracie Mansion, four blocks to the north, for morning conferences with the mayor of the moment. I’m far more embarrassed about not having known that, for all of the years that I’ve been visiting the park, than I am about my persistent uncertainty about exactly who Carl Schurz was. No wonder the park is so tightly packed with promenades and grottoes!

On my way home, I stopped at Fairway to pick up things for dinner. My first stop was the vast downstairs island where meat is offered on one side and fish on the other. I didn’t want beef; I didn’t want chicken; I didn’t want pork. Shrimp, perhaps? But before I got to the shrimp, I saw a mound of bay scallops, and I thought to myself, “I think that I know how to cook those now.” Back in the Eighties, I wasted a lot of money trying to reproduce the sautéed bay scallops that made up one of the signature dishes at Christ Cella, a late lamented midtown steakhouse. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the recipe so much as that I didn’t understand the fundamentals, which may be put in a few words: hot pan and clarified butter. Also, I thought, it wouldn’t hurt to toss the scallops in oil and chopped herbs a few hours ahead of time.

When I dumped the scallops into the hot sauté pan, they didn’t stick, which was gratifying, but they did release a lot of liquid, which had to steam off before they could begin to brown; and to brown the scallops properly I found that I had to shake, rattle and roll the pan in high sauté style. Afraid of toughening them with overcooking, I passed up the richer flavor that would have come from more browning on the stove, but the result was still very much a success. At the last minute, I poured in a tablespoon of white wine to deglaze the pan and robe the scallops in all the brown bits that they had cast off in the cooking. Kathleen was thrilled. She loves bay scallops, but she loathes sea scallops, which are a lot more common (although no longer much cheaper). She hates sea scallops so much that she was sure, when I told her what we’d be having for dinner, that I’d made a mistake and bought the larger shellfish. I make many kinds of mistakes, but that isn’t one of them.


Instead of all this culinary chitchat, I was going to write about an interesting blog entry that I read yesterday, tipped off by my good friend JRParis. The Web log is called Steelweaver, and I don’t know a thing about it. As I read the entry, though, I felt that it was clarifying an insight that has struck me ever since 9/11, which is that deeply conservative Americans and deeply conservative Muslims have a lot more in common with each other than either of them does with me.

The point, for the climate denier, is not that the truth should be sought with open-minded sincerity – it is that he has declared the independence of his corner of reality from control by the overarching, techno-scientific consensus reality. He has withdrawn from the reality forced upon him and has retreated to a more comfortable, human-sized bubble.

In these terms, the denier’s retreat from consensus reality approximates the role of the cellular insurgents in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the American occupying force: this overarching behemoth I rebel against may well represent something larger, more free, more wealthy, more democratic, or more in touch with objective reality, but it has been imposed upon me (or I feel it has), so I am going to withdraw from it into illogic, emotion and superstition and from there I am going to declare war upon it.

So, from this point of view, we can meaningfully refer to deniers, birthers, Tea Partiers and so forth as “reality insurgents”, and thus usefully apply the principles of 4GW to their activities – notably, they are clearly operating on a faster OODA loop than the defenders of mainstream reality, and thus able to respond more quickly, with greater innovation, than the sclerotic bureaucracy of institutionalised reality. the

Even before 9/11, I had decided that the only surviving casus belli in modern life is foreign occupation. Foreign occupation is doomed to fail in the long term, at least so long as the occupiers are felt to be foreign. It is a problem of personal intimacy, really; we find it intractably unacceptable to live in forced proximity to hostile strangers. A better way of putting it might be to say that having to live with people who despise us is a good definition of prison. What Steelweaver showed me was that just as the Arabs and the Persians of the Middle East have struggled against imperial oppression dating back to the Eighteenth Century, so Christianists and libertarians have struggled against what they perceive to be an intellectual oppression of roughly the same vintage.

I wish that there were a way of setting these people free, not because I support or sympathize with them but because their captivity isn’t working; they very nearly wrecked the American government in July. I wish that we could draw a few new frontiers in this big, largely empty country of ours. I would happily abandon the Appalachians and the Rockies to lawless vagabonds, in order to insulate the cosmopolitan coasts from the self-absorbed heartland.

Gotham Diary:
While Barred Clouds Bloom
8 September 2011

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Among other things, I baked a loaf of date-nut bread yesterday. Thomas’s, the only company that knows how to make English muffins, used to offer a date-nut loaf; that’s how I came to like it. At some point, I learned to make it myself, from a recipe in one of James Beard’s books I believe. You begin by soaking a clutch of pitted, chopped dates in a mixture of baking soda and boiling water — not very appetizing. Brown sugar gives the loaf an agreeably burned flavor; if you could grill a piece of cake, this is how what it would taste like. Date-nut bread is hardly more complicated to make than banana bread, but of course nobody has a pile of overripe dates cluttering up the fruit bowl asking to be made better use of. I put walnuts and dried apricots in my banana bread, but even with this “cockaigne” treatment, it still tastes to me like homework. I can still enjoy date-nut bread, either by itself or sandwiching a thick slater of cream cheese.

While I was making the bread and prepping dinner and generally reacquainting myself with my kitchen, I watched My Geisha, the 1962 feature that gives Shirley MacLaine an opportunity to purr on all cylinders. She plays two roles. First, she’s Lucy Dell, a big American movie star, a popular comedienne something like what MacLaine herself was but bigger and more sophisticated — more French, somehow — than Hollywood had room for in those days. Married to Paul Robaix, a Frenchman who has become eminent largely by directing her films (Yves Montand), she is piqued when he decides to make a film version of Madame Butterfly, shot on location in Japan and using real Japanese actors. She thinks that she’d be great in the part, but Paul tells her that Cio-Cio San is “out of her range.” Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, you know right away how Lucy is going to respond to this challenge. She’s going to make herself up as “Yoko Mori” and snag that part, with lots of giggling from the geisha who train her to tame her American sprawl. Paul discovers the deception at the last minute, and is deeply wounded — this movie was to be his declaration of artistic independence, but Lucy has stolen it from him — and he retaliates by pretending to make love to Yoko, which of course breaks Lucy’s heart. The final scene of the movie is a tremendously effective reconciliation. While Paul sulks in the wings after the film’s premiere, Lucy comes onto the stage as herself. She was supposed to appear in full geisha fig, and then surprise everyone by pulling off her wig. But Lucy has lost the taste for this kind of stunt. When she tells the audience that Yoko has entered a convent, and that “We will see her no more,” Paul instantly forgives her, and then, while the couple take their bows, he reveals that he made love to her knowing perfectly well who she was. She bows a few more times and then plants her head ecstatically on his chest. It’s terrific.

My Geisha was one of eight-odd titles that came to me while I was out on Fire Island. Black Widow and Brief Encounter were also on the list, along with Compromising Positions, which seems never to have come out on DVD. I didn’t want to see any of these movies while I was on vacation, but rather I enjoyed looking forward to seeing tham, something that doesn’t happen at home. If I conceive a desire to watch a film at home, I want to see it right away. But then that’s what vacation is all about — not doing the thousand and one things that fill up everyday life.

Was that a ray of sunlight just now? It was. But then it vanished. The air is cool and damp and altogether autumnal. The tables on the balcony are splattered with blobs of rainwater that seem in no hurry to evaporate. We’re told to expect a “seasonably warm” weekend, which I think means a high of about eighty; it’s also going to be humid. I do miss the sea breeze that blew through Robbins Rest almost uninterruptedly, just as I miss walking up and down the beach every afternoon for about an hour — both incomparable tonics. But for the most part I”m glad to be back in town with my fall projects. I had a great break in August: I understood better than ever how lucky I am to have the regular life that I do.