Archive for October, 2012

Gotham Diary:
31 October 2012

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

We have company today. More anon.


And who knows when I’ll be back tomorrow. The O’Neills will probably arrive a little earlier and certainly stay a lot longer. Which is, literally, such fun. Will was an angel today, playing with his Plan Toys trains and watching Kipper, until it was time to go home. For the first time ever, he did not want to go home. He had probably picked up something of the distress that his mother had successfully bottled up, while coping was important, but was ready to share with us as soon as she could relax. The storm surge rippling up Avenue C, as though a car had driven by, only it hadn’t. The water pouring into a basement-level area in the building next door. (The water pouring into a lot of basements, as Megan realized: what flooded the street was just so much cream on the milk, as it were.) The cold: their apartment’s temperature was dropping into the fifties, which however bracing out of doors is simply alarming within. The dark, the lack of hot water. The inability to heat up anything on an electric stove. At some point, it seemed, Will decided that our apartment was where he wanted to be, even if it wasn’t home. He resisted departure with all the eloquence (and grip) of a child his age. In the end, I think he recognized that, as he would rather be with his parents than not, he would simply have to go along. But it was a struggle. Power is expected to be restored to his neighborhood on Saturday, and “Sandy the storm,” as he calls it (her), will become an adventure.

I should point out that Will is very interested in resistance generally, as, again, is normal at his age, which is not yet three. (How can this be? He is so brilliant!) Will and I have always got along on the most capital terms, but lately he has opened a front of belligerence by insisting upon sitting on my chairs. There aren’t very many of them, just one in each room, and he knows which ones they are. He is sturdy and obstinate in his occupation, and it is difficult to withhold admiration, no matter how badly I want to sit down (often very badly). He is so little and I am so big, but that’s no matter. He’s not afraid of the likes of me! (Except when he wants to be.)

He has discovered my Falstaff thimbles. I’ll let you steep in that for a moment, considering the unfailing craziness of me. The Falstaff thimbles come from Bermuda, which means that they’re tremendously Olde England, and the second thing that I want to tell you is that I have never used them (as thimbles). They are small tin statuettes of Falstaff, quaffing an ale, and the merry wives, Mistresses Ford and Page, reading his love letters side by side. Will has put these “people,” as he calls them, to good service, in the capacious cab of his Bruder bulldozer. Watching him shut them in, all I can dream of is introducing him, at some still distant point in the future, to the joys of Verdi’s “Fulgida Alice.” Oh, the laughter!

Gotham Diary:
Not Quite Aftermath
30 October 2012

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

What a drag — no Times. No Times delivered to my doorstep. I wasn’t expecting one, and I don’t know what use it would be. The online articles are all jumbled and impressionistic, and there’s no news at all about getting back to normal. There can’t be. Although the storm’s effect on our household has so far been limited to splattering the windows with dirt — something that never happens ordinarily — it’s clear that we’re on an island within an island surrounded by widespread devastation. Skies are still grey; the wind, while no longer howling, is still gusty, and every now and then a bucket of rain comes out of nowhere. It is very quiet. The Mayor is going to deliver a report momentarily. 


This isn’t the place to wax rhapsodic about Mayor Bloomberg, but I’d happily make him tsar of everything for life. He outlined the power and transit situations and offered a few semi-definite figures, conveying the impression that the return to normal is well underway even if it’s going to take “four or five days” to get the subway system running and a little bit longer to restore power to everyone who lost it. This afternoon may see limited bus service. Taxis and livery cars can pick up multiple fares. NYU hospital has got its backup generator working. And so on and so forth.

I’m wondering how long it will take for the supermarkets to restock their shelves, and what the local restaurant scene will be like in the next few days. (And I haven’t heard a word about the Postal Service.) For the time being, however, I’m staying put.


I did go downstairs to see what there was to see — my first time off the floor since Saturday. There was nothing to see. There was nothing in the mailbox, and the valet/package room was closed. As expected; but it was something to do. We’re thinking of going out at about six, to see what the restaurants are like, and to try to buy milk for Will.

Will and his parents will come up tomorrow on bicycles. I just heard from Megan two minutes ago, at the turning point of a trial run. She had to cycle up to Murray Hill to get a cell phone signal. Her landline was knocked out by the flooding (which has receded), as I discovered to some chagrin this morning. Ryan’s mother, just as concerned, gave me a call; she and Ryan’s father, living near the Jersey Shore, have been out of power since yesterday and don’t expect restoration anytime soon. (They had a long wait last year, in the wake of Irene.) When I called Fran back with my news, I was not surprised to find her phone switched off, and I tried but failed to leave her a brief but comprehensive message.

I’d like to post a status update at Facebook, but I have no interesting photographs, and you can’t just say something at Facebook without a picture. Well, you can… 


You would hardly know that anything happened, in the aisles at Fairway. First of all: plenty of milk. Really! That’s why I went. I expected bare shelves, but no. Plenty. And I bought what I wanted, not what I had to. I did note that there wasn’t much in the way of orange juice. (What is it about New Yorkers and orange juice? Why don’t they squeeze it?) But there was plenty of everything else. Plenty of customers, too.

The milk is for Will. Megan asked me to look for some, so that she wouldn’t have to schlep it uptown. I was daunted. I had no idea whether Fairway might be open. Or if the other supermarkets were. My first reaction was to put the errand off. “Let’s go out at about six and see what’s what,” I said to Kathleen. Half an hour later, I snapped to attention. “I’ll go look for it now.”  

The intersection of 86th and Second was packed, and very lively. Everybody seemed mildly excited; everybody was talking. The stoplights weren’t working — at this intersection only — and it was difficult to see who was directing traffic, which was heavy. Nobody was minding Mayor Bloomberg’s plea to stay off the roads.

I bought eggs and butter as well. It occurred to me to look for something for dinner, something besides what I’ve already got. But nothing appeals to me. My gut has been off for several days. I’m hungry, but nothing is appetizing. This morning, I thought, “I’ll make a nice chicken salad for dinner.” But the idea of chicken salad became insupportable. So, alas, are all the other ideas. Kathleen, who feels much the same, thinks that she’d like an omelette.  

Gotham Diary:
29 October 2012

Monday, October 29th, 2012

We still have power. It’s 8:45 in the evening, and the wind is howling again. It has been howling as though we were at the seaside in a storm. There was a lull at about six. It lasted for forty-five minutes. Then the howling resumed. In any ordinary place, the power lines would have come down long ago. But in any ordinary place, we wouldn’t be on the eighteenth floor, listening to mountaintop winds.

The rain, when we could see it, was horizontal: very fine, but very horizontal. That happens with snow, yes. With rain, not so much.

I baked bread this afternoon. I wondered if the power would hold — a problem because, although we have gas, the ignition is electric (and gas ovens cycle on and off, their two states; they don’t “do,” say, 375º), and I have no idea how to do what the sparkplug does. There was no “reason” to think that the power would go out: no one has lost power in Manhattan so far except for the people whose grids have been cut off by Con Edison, proactively, to protect equipment. A few minutes ago, Megan called to say that she still had power. She had power even though the storm surge was lapping at the doorstep of her building. She and Ryan have been cooking for two days; assuming that the cold and the wet don’t make their lives impossible, they’re set, although I hope that they’ll be able to come up here if they’re without power for more than a day. I also hope that our apartment will be a place worth trekking to.

Ordinarily, the second loaf goes to Megan and Ryan, but that wasn’t going to happen, so I took it across the hall to neighbors who have lived here even longer than we have done. We remember when their children were in grade school. Now they’re both parents. The daughter, who lives in Astoria, is here with her husband and her son, who’s a doll. He’s almost a year older than Will, although Will towers over him. Will, whom I spoke to as well, is fascinated by the water at the doorstep. His mother thinks that he won’t be so fascinated by the power outage when it comes. No comment.

Now I am going to shut the computer down, just in case. The dishwasher, half full, is running. Kathleen’s bathtub is filling. But I wouldn’t dream of saying that we’re ready for anything. For now, we’re okay. Thanks for all your good thoughts.

Gotham Diary:
26 October 2012

Friday, October 26th, 2012

It was 8:50 before I got up this morning. I’d have stayed in bed longer, but that gondola appeared just beyond the balcony, and two little men hopped out of it and got to work, making further relaxation impossible. They nailed a square plank over the door, which opens outward, and then they removed the (very tacky) partition that separated our space from the neighboring apartment’s. (We haven’t had an actual neighbor in some time.) By degrees, I got dressed and ready to go to the doctor, the Mohs surgeon in this case, to have the staples removed from my scalp. I walked down to 69th Street in the ongoing glum weather, and was in and out of the office in minutes. The staples were removed without anaesthetic. I felt nothing; it was the listening that was disagreeable. (But not very.) Back on the street, I headed to my internist’s office to fetch a prescription, one of those that has to be submitted in writing. (All of my doctors have offices within a fairly small area, convenient to New York Hospital and to the Hospital for Special Surgery.) I headed up First Avenue to the man who shines and repairs my shoes, and then crossed the street to Agata & Valentina, where I bought some veal scallops for the weekend. (And a few other things — but only a few; the total came to only $45.) By now, it was time for lunch, at Hi-Life, a block away on Second. I read Daniel Mendelsohn on Horace while I ate a club sandwich — a yummy combo. I resolved to read more in Italian.


The walk to the doctor was helpful because it wore off the shock of reading about the Krim Family tragedy. Later in the day, Megan told me about the cannibal cop — I hadn’t heard about him. Actually, he hasn’t caused any bodily harm yet, unlike the presumably deranged nanny. I asked Megan to give Will an extra hug from me. Nothing is sure or truly safe in this world.  


Ms NOLA just tipped me off to a sensible piece by Tamar Adler, author of The Everlasting Meal (a book that I need a few days of peace and quiet to study), at The New Yorker blog. Her complaint, with which I could not more wholeheartedly agree, is that there is something poisonous and, worse, infectious about Anthony Bourdain’s vulgar machismo. Adler praises Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s first book, and I must confess that I got a few things out of it as well — but that was enough for me. Bourdain writes too well to be the boor that he affects to be. Pandering to men whose greatest fear in the world is being taken for a closet sissy is no way to serve the culinary profession. Guys who worry about how tough they really are don’t need encouragement. They need space travel.

At the other end of the journalistic-wisdom spectrum, we have this week’s Economist cover story, “The Man Who Must Change China.” I have seen headlines just as stupid but nothing more stupid; that this pointless statement graces the cover of the world’s most expensive “newspaper” greatly amplifies its moronic quality. China needs reform, agreed. Almost everything needs reform. But what’s that must doing there? Says who? The editors of The Economist? I hope that it made them feel better to say so. Otherwise, they’re wasting everybody’s time with their retrograde assumptions about the purpose of journalism.

I would have canceled my subscription by now if I had the energy to spare on the exercise; as it is, I’m waiting for it to run out. About a year ago, I realized that the magazine is stuck in amber, working under the misapprehension that it is still 1985 or 1990. Its view of capitalism rejects distinctions on the point of size; all chief executives have the same powers and responsibilities no matter what the size of their outfits might be. And it is bedazzled by notions of “economy of scale” that have not been adapted to the emergence of the Internet.

To be sure, few business writers seem to have a clue about where business is going, which is why we’re barreling toward the future predicted by Alan Blinder several years ago in Foreign Affairs: a world composed of rentiers and their professional or menial personal servants. The Economist ought to be a visionary publication. It settles instead for a more reactionary tone. A recent header calling for “True Progressivism” ended thus:

The right’s instinct is too often to make government smaller, rather than better. The supposedly egalitarian left’s failure is more fundamental. Across the rich world, welfare states are running out of money, growth is slowing and inequality is rising — and yet the left’s only answer is higher tax rates on wealth-creators. Messrs Obama, Miliband and Holland need to come up with something that promises both fairness and progress. Otherwise everyone will pay.

This is not helpful. Why don’t the editors “come up with something”? They talk about means-testing welfare benefits. I’m all for that, assuming that the health-care industry can be steered away from wealth-maximizing operations and restored to the path of public service. (I’m not opposed to doctors getting rich, but Big Pharma is a runaway train.) Why don’t the editors give union-hating a rest, and concentrate instead on ways of dissociating school funding from property taxes? Why not try to work with the best ideas on both sides of the aisle? Because The Economist is preaching to its choir, not to the rest of us. Bear in mind that fewer than a million people read it.

As for the “ultimatum” to Xi Jinping (apparently China’s incoming leader), it is high time that the West stopped barking admonitions at the Chinese. What’s needed is not The Economist‘s list of reforms (independent judiciary, the release of political prisoners, an easing up of political correctness, and an end to censorship), obviously desirable as those might be in Western eyes. What’s needed is a genuinely Chinese critique of China, a critique that would help China become a better China. The only alternative is a worse China. China will always be a relatively authoritarian sovereignty, and I cannot say that the example of Western democracy provides any kind of lesson to Party leaders. Instead of aiming for transparency, which will not happen in the foreseeable centuries, the Chinese need to learn how to make their belief in personal business connections more constructive. One way to begin would be to develop an ethic of marginalizing violent or larcenous family members from within the family itself. A tall order! But one that harmonizes with the persistent Confucian mindset. Another: to make women first-class Chinese people, again within the family. This would not be a matter of entitlement but rather one of expectation. Another very tall order. But imaginable, unlike the West’s arrogant pipe-dreams. “[Xi] must be ready to break with the past” — such emptiness!

Gotham Diary:
Tweaking Greek
25 October 2012

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

My least favorite thing about growing old is my sensitivity to the weather, which, in a climate as changeable as New York’s, can be an awful inconvenience. Glum weather makes me glum — physically. (I’m convinced that what I’m sensitive to is barometric pressure, on the molecular level.) Today is very glum. I am trying not to be.

It reminds me of something else that I was reading in the LRB, Christian Lorentzen’s review of the new David Foster Wallace biography by T J Max. It is an awful shame that Wallace, who suffered so horribly from it, never applied his genius for words to the development of a term to replace “depression” — surely a name that seems itself to suffer symptoms of the disease that it refers to. Depression is what I’m feeling on this day of “clouds and fog” (according to the Times). I feel a bit low, a bit inert. What we somewhat witlessly call “clinical depression” — And what does clinical mean, here? That the illness is “serious”? That it has been diagnosed by doctors? That it requires medication? Do we speak of “clinical cancer” or “clinical heart disease”? No. — this is not some worse version of what I’m feeling today. It’s significantly different, different enough to warrant a different, and, hopefully, a more meaningful label.  

Wallace certainly described the illness with informing rigor — twice: first, in an uncollected story, “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” and then in a passage in Infinite Jest. Here is the latter; Kate Gombert, a would-be suicide, explains why “depression” is the wrong word:

When people call it that I always get pissed off because I always think depression sounds like you just get like really sad, you get quiet and melancholy and just like sit quietly by the window sighing or just lying around. A state of not caring about anything. A kind of blue kind of peaceful state … Well this … isn’t a state. This is a feeling. I feel it all over. In my arms and legs … All over. My head, throat, butt. In my stomach. It’s all over everywhere. I don’t know what I could call it. It’s like I can’t get enough outside it to call it anything. It’s like horror more than sadness … Have you ever felt sick? I mean nauseous, like you knew you were going to throw up? … But that’s just in your stomach … It’s a horrible feeling but it’s just in your stomach … OK but imagine if you felt that way all over, inside. All through you. Like every cell and every atom or brain cell or whatever was so nauseous it wanted to throw up, but it couldn’t, and you felt that way all the time.

“I can’t get enough outside it to call it anything.” If we could somehow tweak that in Greek, we’d have half of the new name. The other half would come from the bit about every part of the body’s wanting to throw up, but being unable to.


Another question that comes to mind whilst thinking of DFW is whether it makes sense to speak of celebrity as a kind of power. To be fair to the writer here, I ought to speak, in an old-fashioned tone, of Fame. (There seems to be an implicit consensus that, even if you can become famous just for being famous — pardon that ontological backwardness — that kind of famousness does not involve Fame.) The fame that Wallace sought was the kind that perdures for centuries. He wanted to be famous for writing extraordinarily well. It is too early to measure his success, largely because it will depend on the influence of his work, which has yet to tell. But he seems also to have been aware that the pursuit of fame can be corrosive as well as exhausting.

The fame that Wallace achieved gave him a degree of worldly power, in the literary and academic worlds. At least I assume so. I assume that his nod was a very potent recommendation. He appears to have gone out of his way to be nice about this; indeed, he seems to have been tortured by the longing to be nice, to the point of falling into paradox: it is not Nice to pursue Fame. It is disingenuous to keep an eye on your status while you are striving to bring Light and Truth to Mankind. I can’t help thinking of this as a deeply Midwestern conundrum.

But I’ve been digressing. I don’t, in the end, regard celebrity as a kind of power, not in the way that power interests me these days. Power is more than the celebrity’s ability to allow or encourage. It is a matter of compulsion. The powerful person can make other people do things, whether they want to or not. Nothing would ever get done without power, but from the very beginnings of our intellectual history, we have been trying to figure out how to mitigate the ghastly side effects of vesting power in any given individual man or woman.

It seems useful to regard power as creating an addiction, much as an addictive drug does. This is really the only way to explain the difficulty of setting power aside after a term. It’s interesting to note how assiduously our social arrangements for retired possessors of power attempt to mask the retirement: unless a formerly-powerful person is bent on self-destruction, he or she will continue to enjoy many of the perquisites of power, by being awarded more or less authoritative positions with more or less authoritative insitutions, not to mention the rituals of respect and convenience embodied by a car and driver. The formerly-powerful person will be provided with a troupe of de facto servants willing to jump when so bid. This illusion of continued power appears to be an effective treatment of the addiction.

But the unwillingness to retire is not the worst thing about the addiction to power. The worst thing is the deformation of judgment that induces powerful people to prefer short-term tactics for preserving their power to long-term strategies for accomplishing the goals that (presumably) fueled their launch to power. Might it be possible to inoculate candidates for powerful positions against this deformation? I’m not talking about a book of wise sayings or best practices. I’m talking about a simulation, not unlike the simulation of power that I’ve just described in connection with retirement.

When she was in elementary school, Kathleen and one of her classmates vied for slaves. I don’t think that anything particularly onerous was involved, and the girls who were slaves may simply have gone along with the game so long as it was a game. The idea was not so much to have slaves as to have more slaves. But eventually Kathleen awoke to the sensation that having slaves at all is pretty crummy, and she has never tried to control anyone else’s life ever since.

Gotham Diary:
Yet Another Modest Proposal
24 October 2012

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

It was a good day for visiting the Museum, because it was a pretty dreadful day for being anywhere else. It wasn’t very wet, it’s true, but it was very dark, the sky carpeted in grey pile. It wasn’t the best day for me to visit the Museum, however, because I was still pretty tired, and not thinking entirely clearly. Having done nothing but read about the Congress of Vienna, I was poorly primed for conversation. My one great idea was to ask Ray Soleil to came along; he was a far better guide for our out-of-town friend. There have been people in deepest mourning who sparkled more brightly than I did.

We ran through the Bernini show — again, for Ray and me; we saw it a few weeks ago — because it was right there, outside the cafeteria after lunch. (Yes, I was running on cafeteria speed today. A proper restaurant would have been a stretched-out waste.) The terracotta models of saints and angels that constituted the bulk of the objects on exhibit looked much older than they were; they looked like Shang dynasty funerary pieces. The features were sketchy and most of the pieces were damaged. If I squinted, though, and saw beyond the surface, the baroque contours of wing and drape reminded me what I was looking at. Everything actually beautiful was to be seen in a photograph or drawing of the project for which the model was a preliminary. Would it be neat to own one or two of these little clay statuettes? Cool, perhaps, but neat, no. They’re just dirty old bits of clay. They were probably not intended to survive into the Twenty-First Century. (There is an attractive head of St Jerome. But I have problems with Jerome — Jerome and Augustine. They’re deeply irritating figures, as regrettable in their line as Sandy Weill in his.)

Then, because our friend hadn’t been, we went upstairs to the paintings in the American Wing. My current favorite, Mary Cassatt’s picture of Mary Dickinson Riddle, was looking sharp, but John Kensett’s beautiful Eaton’s Neck was too subtle for me in my exhausted state. I wondered what it would be like to live with the picture. It would be creepy, that’s what; I’d think about how much it must be missed at the Museum! The exhibition entitled Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before PhotoShop was not bad, but it had a Barnumesque feel, because almost all photographs were manipulated in the old days. There were two well-remembered images by Jerry Uelsmann at the end. I loved them when they were new and I love them even more now. (I see how Victorian they are in their deliberateness; this grounds their vaguely surrealist fancy.) When Ray proposed that drawing an arc across the cloudy moonlight sky in the second image would transform it into a painted ceiling, I had to protest. Wrong trompe l’oeil!  


I read with great interest Emily Witt’s piece about Internet dating, in the current issue of the LRB. It’s a very intelligent essay, blending personal history with a bit of research into the origins of the game. Witt sounded like someone I’d enjoy talking to, in general; but also in particular, because she put in this bit of wisdom:

I went to a lecture by the novelist Ned Beauman who compared the OK Cupid experience to Carl Sagan pondering the limits of our ability even to imagine non-carbon-based extraterrestrial life, let alone perceive when it was beaming signals to us. We troll on OK Cupid for what we think we want, but what if we are incapable of seeing the signals being sent to us, let alone interpreting them?

By the end of the piece, Witt went further:

Internet dating alerted me to the fact that our notions of human behaviour and achievement, expressed in the agglomerative text of hundreds of internet dating profiles, are all much the same and therefore boring and not a good way to attract other people. The body, I also learned, is not a secondary entity. The mind contains very few truths that the body withholds. There is little of import in an encounter between two bodies that would fail to be revealed rather quickly. Until the bodies are introduced, seduction is only provisional.

We don’t know how to write about what someone else might find attractive about us — about, very specifically, our physical presence. Most healthy people, I believe, go through life without ever grasping such attractions as they possess clearly enough to state them. (The exceptions to this rule are probably mired in narcissism: they know far too much about themselves.) If I sign up for a dating service, I want to meet you, not encounter myself in a fun-house mirror. But I don’t know the first thing about you — that’s very much the point — so I have no idea what to say about myself that, assuming it appealed to you and you could understand what I was saying (and believe me), would make me a likely prospect for romance.

There’s another problem that Witt doesn’t mention: we have to meet people at the right time. Five years too soon, and I wouldn’t have been smart enough to see the magnficence of Kathleen, and she wouldn’t have had much to say to me. (Looking back, I see that it was very important for me that I fell in love with her at once. This was not a case, on my side, anyway, of taking a friendship further. Oh, no. I went straight to the finish line.) Five years earlier, I didn’t have the personal organization required to be a first-year law student at a decent school. Also, five years earlier, I was married to someone else. Timing, like the body, is “not a secondary entity.”

Please don’t think that I’m against Internet dating. Here’s Witt’s ultimate nugget of wisdom: “I soon discovered, as most do, that it can only speed up the rate and increase the number of encounters with other single people, where each encounter is still a chance encounter.” Speeding up the process is good. Witt met a lot of interesting people, as she says, and she learned a lot about interviewing (which she doesn’t say). She clearly learned how to have a good time just-for-tonight.

Internet dating is important largely because higher education comes at the wrong time for most people. It ought to occupy one’s mid- to late-twenties, after a substantial workplace experience during which being single is firmly normative. As thirty approaches, people today begin to be old enough to meet — to recognize and appreciate — a significant other. The current 19-22 window is ridiculously early; we might as well expect toddlers to be nubile. It isn’t just a problem of romance, either — it’s too early to make life-long friends as well. But college does remain the horn of plenty, the cornucopia of chance encounters with likely people. Which is why waiting seven years to go to law school and meet the woman of my dreams worked for me.

Gotham Diary:
Tidied Up, cont’d
23 October 2012

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

There,  that’s better. For quite a while, on Sunday afternoon, it was impossible to take a step without checking out the litter of toys on the floor. Bits of Lego, matchbox cars, puzzle pieces, and, eventually, the contents of Will’s backpack, which he dumped out in an already tight spot, all contrived to give the carpet a rather different pattern. It was futile to pick up after him, but I couldn’t help myself, especially as this allowed me to keep stock of things. The “tidy” arrangement in yesterday’s photograph was composed while he fell asleep in his mother’s arms.

Kathleen is flying to London today; because she wants to be fresh in the morning for her conference, she decided against the usual night flight. When she was away, the weekend before last, visiting her ffather, I was a dynamo of domestic upkeep, but I’m good for nothing at the moment — nothing but reading, that is. Tomorrow, I’m going to tour the Museum with a friend; I expect to have the energy for that. Just to be sure, though, I’m observing a second day of idleness.

When I emptied the dishwasher this morning, there were only three or four items to put in it, and I thought, no, I’ll wash them by hand. Modified idleness.


All I can think about, when I’m not reading Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace (I’m  nearly done — and I’ve grasped everything better, especially the geopolitics, the second time round — is the difference between Miranda Hart’s sitcom and her book. I don’t know what I expected the book, Is It Just Me?, to be, but I was fairly sure that I’d be entertained, and indeed I was. A few of the jokes were recycled from the show, but context soon proved to be entirely different. Miranda is a dramatisation of what life was like for Hart before she dedicated it to becoming a “comedy actress,” as she calls herself in the book. The Miranda of the sitcom understands that she’ll never be like her schoolmates, but she can’t help trying to keep up with them. She has used an inheritance to run a “joke shop,” but has absolutely no interest in actually running a business: a dandy metaphor for the amiable pointlessness of Hart’s years as an office temp. This Miranda is still paralyzed by the unknown complications of the “thethxual.” At the same time, she is humiliated by her failure to gratify her mother’s impatience for a husband and a brood.

The Miranda who narrates the book, replete with lessons for her eighteen year-old self, is the same person with one important difference. She has discovered what she really wants to do, and is no longer beholden to anyone else’s expectations, especially including the ones that she herself built up as a schoolgirl. All she had to do was dump the conviction that she couldn’t possibly make it as a comedian. (And then work her tail off performing in grotty pubs and perfecting her routines.) A tall order, yes, but a simple one. The interesting bit about this follow-your-dream story is that doing what she wants to be doing, and doing it well, allows Hart a more extensive privacy. She is no longer betrayed by stumbles into dead ends.

A bit of Googling informs me that Miranda Hart is on a diet. I hope that she doesn’t take it too far.  As she says in the book, plump people have better skin. I’ve become an admirer of her beautiful complexion.

Gotham Diary:
Tidied Up
22 October 2012

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

When I got up this morning to fix Kathleen’s tea and toast, I knew that I’d be getting back into bed as soon as we had read the paper. I’m on the edge of a cold, and the very fact that I wanted to go back to bed indicated exhaustion. So I lay propped up on pillows and listened to four of the seven disks of Is It Just Me?, Miranda Hart’s wonderful book, in which the cast of characters from Miranda — Gary, Stevie, Penny, Tillie, Clive and the rest — are replaced by Miranda Hart, aged 18. Little M, as the author calls her, barges in on the reading from time to time to complain bitterly, in Tillie-like tones, about her elder self’s complete failure to realise any of her girlish expectations, only to learn that, in fact, actual dreams were realized instead. I cried at the end. I laughed throughout.

But I was also exhausted, and I fell asleep during the bit about Peggy, her dog. Rude!


We spent a lot of time with Will this weekend, on Friday evening and for most of Sunday. I was unable to get him to take a nap on Sunday afternoon; it was only when his mother arrived to pick him up that he let go and fell asleep. So we let him stretch out on the bed and had a nice long chat. In my impartial view, he is simply the best kid ever.

Gotham Diary:
The Kitchen Dock
19 October 2012

Friday, October 19th, 2012

I used to have a small television in the kitchen. A screen with a built-in DVD player, it didn’t cost very much and it worked well enough for a few years. Then it developed a sound problem that auxiliary speakers didn’t solve. This was a serious drawback, because I don’t so much watch movies in the kitchen as listen to them, giving the picture an occasional glance, while I’m working. It got to where I could hear the sound only when standing perfectly still. So, in the middle of last month’s dishwasher crisis, I decided to get rid of the thing, in the interest of opening up counter space for a dish-drying rack. When the crisis subsided, I meditated on a replacement.

I will spare you my thought process. The old television’s replacement is not in the kitchen. I already owned the most expensive component, an iPad. For a third of its list price, I bought an Altec dock from Amazon. I moved the wireless booster in the living room so that the signal would reach the corner of the foyer nearest the kitchen. (My tech guy tells me that New York City’s rules about plastering walls over chicken wire makes each of the rooms into a “Faraday cage.” I haven’t looked that up yet, but I love the idea of living in one.) And I subscribed to Netflix.

Before doing a couple of things in the kitchen yesterday morning, I browsed through Netflix in search of an action/adventure movie, which is the sort of thing that I find most entertaining while battling with pots and pans, and came across Ca$h, a French film starring Jean Dujardin that I hadn’t, for some reason, been able to acquire in DVD form. I see that there is another film of the same name, released two years later and starring Sean Bean, but I doubt that it’s a remake. Eric Bésnard’s film is a sparkling, light-fingered caper that doesn’t wait for the ending to pop a few surprises. Almost everyone in the story is a con artist, and Bésnard keeps you guessing while beguiling the eye with luxury settings and beautiful women (Alice Taglioni and Valeria Golino). It is arguably Jean Dujardin’s best film, because it highlights his breathtaking insouciance while keeping a lid on the actor’s inner doofus/clown. I wonder if the film’s availability at Netflix foretells an American release, with subtitles.

Ca$h was not a good choice for the kitchen, though; my French isn’t that good. I wound up watching it after dinner, with headphones, in my reading chair.


It’s a dreary, wet day, and I’d love to stay home, but I have an appointment with the Mohs surgeon right after lunch, and a date to pick up Will after school, to take him for a haircut. It’s terrible of me, but I can’t remember: will this be his fourth haircut or his fifth? Whatever it is, I plant to sit down in the back this time, and not hovering around the chair. It’s no longer necessary — it probably wasn’t necessary the last time — and the barber will be happy to have me out of the way.

Gotham Diary:
Talleyrand’s Toilette
18 October 2012

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Yesterday, I almost copied the first of the following passages, from David King’s Vienna, 1814, into the day’s entry. I’m glad that I waited. I did mention that I was going to continue re-reading Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace as soon as I was finished with King, but later decided to return to Zamoyski at once. The frame of Zamoyski’s narrative is larger than King’s; whereas King begins in Vienna, with preparations for the Congress, Zamoyski starts in December, 1812, with Napoleon’s lightning return to Paris from the debâcle in Russia. Fully a third of the book covers the campaigns, military and diplomatic, of 1813. We get to know most of the principal players very well. But Talleyrand is not introduced until page 173.

Talleyrand was the undoubted genius of the Congress. He would have been a brilliant aristocrat at any time, but the upheavals in France that coincided with his maturity allowed him to exploit a strategic boldness (not to mention a grasp of public relations) that would have gone unused in times of peace. King repeats Napoleon’s two most pungent quips about Talleyrand: “shit in silk stockings” is one. “I have made two mistakes with Talleyrand — first, I did not take his good advice, and second, I did not have him hanged when I did not follow his advice.” Zamoyski can put off mentioning Talleyrand for so long because, during 1813, Talleyrand was no longer serving Napoleon as Foreign Minister; he was simply the Chamberlain, a ceremonial role that freed him to connive with the Bourbons.

Instead of writing at greater length about the importance of Talleyrand &c, I want to compare the way in which a particular nugget of gossip about the man is handled by my two authors. I call it “gossip” not because it’s untrue but because it’s personal information of a vaguely scurrilous nature that we can be sure Talleyrand himself wanted to be generally known: one of his most successful tactics was to dazzle interlocutors with his courtly eccentricities. The very idea of entertaining guests while getting dressed reeks of royal diffidence, and Talleyrand had a magical capacity to swell to royal dimensions in the absence of the genuine article. So he and his valets choreographed a routine that was duly captured by eyewitnesses.

Getting ready for the day ahead, Talleyrand entered his dressing room and took his seat by a porcelain stove. Three valets waited on him, one supervisor and two assistants dressed in gray livery, covered with long aprons. The team began removing his flannel and stockings from the night before, and placed them in a bucket of eau de cologne. One handed him a cup of camomile tea, and the others set about taking away the rest of the night garments, the “drawers, vests, dressing gowns, with all sorts of odds and ends flopping about.”

After the nightcap, a cambric bonnet tied with lace ribbon around his neck, was removed, two valets attacked his hair, “combing, curling, pomading and powdering him.” In the meantime, Talleyrand refreshed himself with a glass or two of warm water, which he then emptied into a silver basin, as one eyewitness described the maneuver, “sucked in through the nose and spit out, much the way the elephant uses his trunk.”

A warm cloth was applied to his face, and his feet were washed in unpleasant, medicinal eau de barèges, dried, and then perfumed. His valets put on his white silk stockings, his breeches, and his shoes. As he stood up, the valets skillfully removed the last dressing gowns and maneuvered the shirt over his head — everything was done modestly, as he often entertained guests at the same time. By the end of the lengthy ritual, usually just under two hours, Talleyrand was immaculately dressed in velvet, silk, and satin. He was ready for his first showdown.

King notes his sources for this picture; they include the memoirs of the Comte de Rémusat, which mention the elephant snort. Zamoyski relies only on Rémusat. But observe the way the same material is structured.

Talleyrand was at his toilette. This was a remarkable daily performance, often enacted before a series of callers who, in the words of one who witnessed it, could at first “see only an enormous assemblage of flannel, felt, fustian, percale, a mass of white” being attended by two valets in white aprons under the direction of a third in silk stockings and powdered wig. From the upper reaches of this ragged mass, out of a coil of cravats, jutted a firm chin, a permanently curled lip and a small upturned nose. The valets would begin by removing the woollen stockings and strips of flannel from his legs, which were plunged into a small basin of mineral water. This was the only part of Talleyrand that was ever exposed. “The remaining parts of his person were covered by drawers, waistcoats, dressing gowns, with various pieces of cloth hanging off every bit of him, and his head wrapped in a kind of tiara of percale, held in place by a pale colured ribbon,” continues the diarist. “The two valets would then begin to comb, curl, pomade, powder, while he dabbed at his face with swabs which he dipped in a silver dish held before him for the purpose. Among the more remarkable elements in his toilette was one, curious enough to overcome the disgust one might have experienced witnessing it, which involved the consumption of one or two large glasses of tepid water which he sucked in through the nostrils and then ejected, more or less like an elephant, through his nose.’

Interestingly, Zamoyski sets the scene in Paris, while King has it in Vienna. The difference is inconsequential in itself — the ritual was enacted every day wherever Talleyrand happened to be — but King does something else that shows up the difference between writing history and writing for Vanity Fair. He embeds the toilette in his account of a particular day, the one on which the Great Four Powers finally condescended to receive the French plenipotentiary. That’s the “showdown” to which King refers. Zamoyski is writing of a particular day, too, just before the arrival of Allied forces in Paris several months earlier. But Zamoyski begins by detaching anecdote from history. Talleyrand’s toilette is an entertaining sidebar, and Zamoyski quotes the block of Rémusat as a way of indicating that he, Zamoyski, does not consider this material worthy of historical re-evaluation.

King, in contrast, works hard to convey the illusion of you-are-there. Instead of Zamoyski’s single, streamlined paragraph, we have three short paragraphs of one-damned-thing-after-another. The climax of the anecdote — the elephant business — is not saved for the end, where it serves to nail the fact that this is an anecdote, but presented in chronological order, as a kind of pseudo-history. Or, as it might be, a shooting script. Throughout his book, King strives to put the reader in the picture, and he is very good at it. But genuine history is concerned with keeping the reader out of the picture. Historians struggle to present the past as comprehensible (up to a point) but not familiar. This is not because “no one really knows what happened.” It’s precisely because we do know what happened. At least, we know most of what happened that matters, and more and more and more of it as the period in view approaches our own. But to know how things are going to work out is lose a fundamental quality of life as it is lived, which is in ignorance. This is the price of learning history, and many, perhaps most, readers consider it too steep, because they have not been taught history’s rich uses.

I’m not going to make nice and say that I think that these books are equally excellent in their respective ways, because in the end the Vanity Fair way is so decidedly inferior. It is designed to skirt perplexity, and it does not encourage thinking about structural problems such as the nature of power — something we understand very poorly, I believe.

Gotham Diary:
The Higher Trash
17 October 2012

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

I am thinking of reading the notes to David King’s Vienna, 1814. And just the notes. By chance, my eye fell on a long one just now, about the letters of the Empress Marie Louise — how they turned up here and there in Europe after her death — and I couldn’t stop reading it. King’s writing in the notes is somewhat less frothy than his text, which can only be called tarted up. Both notes and text read like an article in Vanity Fair, but the relative sobriety of the notes, which discuss King’s sources, suggests that it’s the reporter’s job that really interests him. His attitude to the Congress of Vienna is more jaded; he writes of it with something of the tabloid muckraker’s disingenously wide-eyed shock. It’s an assignment that he’s got to sell. So we’re treated to an invasive account of Talleyrand’s morning toilette, frequent references to thousands of blazing candles, and the ballerina Emilia Bigottini’s “breathless performances.” There is also a pile-up of infelicities, such as the gratingly repeated “Vienna Congress” (King appears to dislike the word Viennese), the “Russian tsar,” and “quick diligence.”

My complaints are not very heartfelt; of all the historical events that I can think of, the Congress of Vienna is the one most deserving a Vanity Fair-style treatment. Like a grand country house, the Congress had a business side and a pleasure side, and as pleasure sides go, it was the Versailles of glittering turnouts. A tsar, an emperor, the King of Prussia, with all the sisters and their cousins and their aunt living in the same palace — it’s a wonder the Hofburg didn’t levitate. The antics of Talleyrand, the rivalry of the “Russian siren” (Princess Bagration) and the “Cleopatra of Courland” (Wilhelmine de Sagan), two ladies installed on the same floor of a building called the “Palm Palace” — it’s wonderful stuff; wonderful fluff. I’m delighted to learn that Nesselrode pudding, which was still appearing on menus when I was a boy, was concocted in the French plenipotentiary’s kitchens. Not to mention all that waltzing! (It’s a pity that King offers only a translation of the Prince de Ligne’s famous pun, “Le Congrès ne marche pas, il danse,” in English only. Marcher means “to function” as well as “to walk.”) Above all, there is the superb fatuousness of Prince Metternich, torn between saving the world and holding on to Cleopatra’s affections. King is not bad about the business side, but he is careful not to try the reader’s patience with complexities.   

But I’m going straight back to Adam Zamoyski’s more comprehensive Rites of Peace, which I began (re-) reading by mistake, as soon as I’m done with King. Which won’t be long; the pages fly by.


On Monday, I opened up the work that I began on Fire Island — I have divulged the name here, but I prefer to call it “my writing project” — for the first time since vacation, and looked over what I’d done. I added more material yesterday. But I haven’t found the tone yet. That’s not terribly important at this stage, I don’t think; at any rate, it’s not as vital as simply getting things down. I looked at the section on “Books” and realized that the second sentence was really the beginning of the section’s ending. So I hit “enter” and wrote something else. I began to see that I don’t understand very well just what it is that books mean to me. There’s a sense in which they’re too intimate to have a meaning. There’s another, though, in which they’re just books. I keep them because I have always kept them, which is a good reason and a bad reason all in one. The good reason is the utility, convenience, and continuity of a library. The bad reason points to the lack of a rigorous criterion for disposing of books. I think that I’m pretty good, now, about not holding onto books that aren’t that great. But I have books that I bought thirty years ago and more, for reasons and in pursuit of interests that are now obscure. But they’ve always been there, on the shelves! How can I dump them now? Well, he said, rolling up his sleeves and opening a shopping bag, watch me.

Gotham Diary:
Breadwinner Conservatism
16 October 2012

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Michelle Goldberg, writing in The Nation, does not think very highly of Robert O Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, but she gives him credit for coming up with a very handy label, “breadwinner conservatism,” that explains the alignment of patriarchal family values with starve-the-beast fiscal views. The term explains it so well, in fact, that I’m encouraged to hope that Democrats and progressive people generally will finally understand their opponents and the depth of that opposition. Goldberg wraps up,

The contemporary conservative movement has succeeded in part by painting the government as the ultimate cause of emasculation. As Ryan said in his speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, “None of us — none of us should have to settle for the best this administration offers — a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.” Seen in this light, any man who longs for a life with more authority, vitality and dignity, who wants to control his own destiny and that of his family, must battle against the suffocating power of the state. Further, in this view, the more privileges government accords to women or minorities or the poor, the more its supremacy grows. Self understands this. As he writes in the epilogue, “breadwinner conservatism legitimated the transition to a neoliberal ethos in American life; heterosexual male breadwinners, as conservatives saw them, were not dependent on the state for either welfare or rights.*

This is nothing new to me, but I don’t think that I’ve ever put it more succinctly. Here we have the issue that divides the country. It has wrinkles — the role of the black heterosexual breadwinner, for example, rests on an ambiguous revival of the “separate but equal” thinking that manifests itself in gated community and Christian academies throughout the South — but it remains the issue. There are no other issues, because no other issue can be debated and decided until this one is settled. I myself don’t see how it can be settled within the framework of one sovereignty. Patriarchy is as repugnant to me as slavery would have been two hundred years ago. I would not go to war over it, not because I lack courage but because I have no faith in the ability of war to settle cultural issues. Rather I would argue for a partition of the nation, at least into two autonomous provinces. I have no time for men who want “more authority, vitality and dignity” in their lives — I know that that’s code for — and I don’t want them setting bad examples for boys in my community. I believe that they are wrong precisely to the extent that they believe in their righteousness — their righteousness is the very seal of their error. They fail to acknowledge that their preferred way of life diminishes the lives of others. They entertain a perfectly adolescent idea of their inherent superiority as human beings: the formula “all men are equal” bears an occult limitation to “normal” or heterosexual men, but otherwise it means only what it says. The corollary is clear: Men and women are not equal. This is as reactionary as the medieval thugocracy’s belief in its inherent superiority — and just as doomed. Eventually, we shall leave such thinking behind. But I often fear that Americans will be among the last to do so.

*Goldberg finishes with a sour sentence (“While All in the Family names and defines this way of thinking, it ultimately doesn’t do much to illuminate it.”) that dampens the thrust of these powerfully-phrased observations.


Kathleen took forever to get home from North Carolina last night, thanks to spotty weather over LaGuardia; I passed the time reading Adam Zamoyski’s Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, under the mistaken impression that I hadn’t read it already. I thought that I’d read the other fat book on the same subject that stood next to it on the shelf: David King’s Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna. But, no. Zamoyski’s book came out in 2007, and King’s in 2008, which is why I didn’t read it; I’d just read Zamoyski. Not surprisingly, Zamoyski’s account was familiar, but it never occurred to me that it ought to be. Now I shall set it aside and read King, which promises to be a somewhat frothier tome.

I have long nursed the notion, which I haven’t mentioned recently, that modern manners were set at Vienna. I’m thinking of table manners in particular, but also, more generally, of the way to behave at receptions. Mind, I don’t claim that they were invented in 1814. But at this gathering of the great and good, representing almost every corner of Europe, the endless round of dinners and balls encouraged the evolution of a standard way of doing things. What also encouraged consensus was the severely diminished role of the French. French was very much the language of diplomacy and well-bred courtliness, and stylish Parisians were the arbiters of elegance. But the restored kingdom of France did not have its customary place at the head of the table. It had only just ceased to be a defeated empire. This took some of the sting (I surmise) out of adopting and adapting French manners. France would grapple and grope for greatness after 1815, but it was to remain what it is today, a nation of Candides, cultivating their gardens in smart turn-outs. All the more estimable!

In any case, I am always on the lookout for glints of supporting evidence. Even in books that I’ve already read.

Gotham Diary:
15 October 2012

Monday, October 15th, 2012

Having spent the weekend taking things out of closets and putting them in, I wonder how long it will be take for the word “closeted” — assuming that there’s any use for it at all — to become a dead metaphor, a turn of phrase whose underlying image no longer comes to mind. I’m not a scholar on the point; I don’t know anything particular about how the word came to be used to describe a sexual preference hidden from the world and possibly from the hider. But it seems to me that actual closets are not what they used to be. They are less like attics — those roomy but airless places in which discards become secrets — and more like carry-on luggage, packed as lightly but tightly as possible for the demands of unforeseen circumstances.

Closets can be a terrible embodiment of the saying, “out of sight, out of mind.” Put something in a closet and — forget that it exists! Until, that is, something presses you to find it, and you can’t think where to begin. You can’t even remember if you still have it, whatever it is.

Another closet curse: “This may come in handy some day.” The only things that come in handy some day are the ones that don’t prompt the question. I’ve only read the Introduction, but I’m already wondering if Project Management for Dummies will ever come in handy.


While toiling away yesterday, I listened to Juliet Stevenson’s reading of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Victorian sensation novel, Lady Audley’s Secret. I read the novel ten years or so ago, long enough to forget all but the broadest plot points — actually, all that I remembered for certain was that the very pretty Lady Audley is also very wicked. So I enjoyed the sensation quite as much as if I hadn’t read it at all. The quality of the novel itself didn’t much matter, though, because Stevenson’s reading, a three-ring circus of accents and impersonations, completely upstaged it. Juliet Stevenson is one of my favorite actresses, but also one of the most highly seasoned: the roles she plays are almost without exception (I can’t think of any exceptions) keen, sceptical women who don’t suffer fools gladly, even when, like her immortal Mrs Elton, they’re the only fools in the room. In the reading, however, this seasoning dissipated altogether. I forgot that “Juliet Stevenson” was reading. Her impersonations of Sir Michael Audley, the ageing baronet who has married the lovely young woman of unknown provenance, and his nephew, Robert Audley, were consummate in that they made me forget that a woman was doing the talking. (Her rendition of Luke Marks’s deathbed confession was so hearty and vernacular that it put the other characters completely out of mind, just as the confession itself retells key points of the plot.) If Lady Audley’s Secret were a greater book — on a par with Jane Austen or George Eliot — there might have been an unseemliness about the virtuosity of the reading, but all I could think of was how great it would be if Stevenson tackled Wilkie Collins. I lost myself in the feast of storytelling, and I can’t recommend the recording highly enough.


I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but, reading Zachary Wolfe’s report of last week’s Orpheus concert, I couldn’t help thinking how wrong-headed it was, from start to finish, especially in comparison with my own. Going on at great length, but without saying anything favorable or illuminating, about the new piece, Earth Echoes, was almost as fatuous as not pronouncing a word of judgment about the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth.

Gotham Diary:
Found Object
12 October 2012

Friday, October 12th, 2012

If I had known what was on the program, I should have stayed at home. I didn’t want to go out; I was feeling a bit gassy, and still pale and blank from the previous day’s strange hangover. Kathleen couldn’t go, for a handful of very good reasons. But when I totted up the excuses, they didn’t add up to much, and I bore in mind that the responsibility to attend concerts for which one has purchased tickets is not so much a financial one (there is no waste, if you have something better to do with your time; and your money has gone to a good cause) as a social one: the musicians want people in the seats, of course; but beyond that there’s the need to remind oneself — one’s physical listening apparatus — that the music one loves could not have become known, when it was written, if audiences never showed up for it. It’s the opposite of what they say about the movies (bosh, in my view); it inverts the alleged importance of thrilling to a spectacle in a dark room full of people one can’t see. At a concert, audience response (coughs or the utter absence of coughs, for example) is a register to which musicians are attuned, and a feedback to the audience itself. So I took my seat in Row T and played my part as a member of the crowd welcoming Orpheus to its 40th anniversary season (not its fortieth in Carnegie Hall — I don’t know when that will take place). But if I’d known what was on the program, I’d have stayed home, and made one of the biggest mistakes of my concertgoing life.

Beethoven’s Fifth, that’s what was on the program.

It’s a work that I never, ever listen to. It appears on no playlist. There is a recording, by Carlos Kleiber, much-admired, that I pull out once every ten years. I ought to be very unfamiliar with the Fifth. But I seemed to know every note of it last night. At the same time, and by the miracle that is the Orpheus way with music, I had never heard it before. The Fifth that I had heard before was portentous and saccharine by turns, with gruff bits of fugato and a clanging, “heroic” finale. Fate knocking at the door and all that. The Fifth was a symphony that came in a brass box, lined with dead velvet, reeking of another era’s idea of human greatness. It was a cliché and a bore. Beethoven being “Beethoven.” The Fifth was an unbeautiful leftover.

Last night, however, this is what it was: a piece of music that, at the group’s inception, no member of Orpheus would have considered playing. Forty years on, its performance was still somewhat controversial among the players. But because of the way that Orpheus has developed for learning complex scores and playing them without a conductor, last night’s Fifth came off as a manuscript recently discovered in an attic. The musicians had looked at it every which way, practiced it alone, in groups, in sections, and altogether, and, when they were ready, they decided to play it for the public. What they played sounded like a missing link between Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and Schubert’s Unfinished, while at the same time making the point that Beethoven, unlike Mozart and Schubert, was not Viennese. Every note, every passage was fascinating. The symphony glistened and gleamed and sounded like music, not some big idea. There were no ideas, except possibly the professional one of outdoing Jupiter‘s last movement.

At the climax, the model and inspiration for a century’s soaring finales (culminating in Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder and Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand), instead of daydreaming about heroism and being the best that you can be &c, I choked up at the thought of the once-scrappy little chamber ensemble, playing gigs on the Staten Island Ferry and suchlike, triumphing in the temple of Carnegie, nailing chord after hammering chord in perfect accord, but sounding nothing like the bored orchestras that made music sound like canned fustian when I was growing up. This was no sell-out of the early-music, eclectic-repertoire ethos that prevailed among the generation of musicians from which Orpheus emerged. This was the apotheosis of that ethos: to make something new not by making it different but by making it as best it can be made, from the inside out. 

The event was simulcast on WQXR. I don’t know how much of the grandeur of the performance came through to radio (and Intenet) listeners, but I don’t much care, because you really did have to be there to feel what was happening. You had to be sitting in the hall, coughing or not coughing. (Nobody was coughing.)


There were two other works on the program, the overture to Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri — an astute warm-up for the Beethoven — and a song cycle for mezzosoprano and baritone, Earth Echoes, by Augusta Read Thomas, a fortyish composer currently working in Chicago. The singers were Sasha Cooke, who had a warm voice, big but firmly in control, and Nathan Gunn, who sounded suave but underpowered. The writing for voice was agreeably lyrical, in contrast to the score for the orchestra, which managed to be both grandiose and meandering, like a monument stumbling about in search of a plinth. (But not as delightful as the Hockney image that my metaphor might suggest.) The texts were drawn from an A-list of world poets (Rumi, Dickinson, Basho, Wordworth, and so on — even Mahler’s adaptation of Wang Wei, from the end of Das Lied von der Erde), and the words were as unintelligible as English always is when it is sung at full voice. (There’s a reason why pop style is an Anglophone invention. It’s the only way our vowels can be understood.) I used to find works like Earth Echoes an utter trial, but years of listening to new works played by Orpheus has made me a connoisseur of virtuoso ensemble playing. At a concert a few years ago, a composer revealed in the program notes that he had set out to write something so difficult that the Orpheus musicians wouldn’t be able to play it, but he soon conceded that he was the one faced with an impossibility. Last night, I watched Laura Frautschi (on whom I am certainly not the only one to have a big crush) beat out the tortuous time with her upper body, whether she was playing her violin or not. I would not dream of passing judgment on Earth Echoes; I’ll leave that to time and future performances. I will only say that Orpheus did not fail to make it very interesting.

Gotham Diary:
Dim Views
11 October 2012

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Despite (or perhaps in homage to) an inexplicable hangover yesterday — not that it takes much (certainly not intoxication) to induce one — I went to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Friends had made a point of saying how much they had disliked it, how misled by the “must-see” reviews that this sort of movie is always sure to get. It is a must-see movie. It’s also an unpleasant and disagreeable one, with a disturbing narrative instability. Where is the story going? What is it about? The passages in which these questions recede, as they always recede when films follow familiar trajectories, never last for very long. The Master is certainly not an account of the early days of a Scientology-like cult. It contains the element of such an account, but it plays 52-pickup with them, and never ventures any suggestions about the career of Lancaster Dodd up until the moment that Freddie Quell drifts into his orbit. Lancaster Dodd (the character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a masterful sort of person, certainly — he’s born that way — but what is he a master of? Geoffrey O’Brien, whose acclaim in the The New York Review of Books made me keen to see what he was talking about, writes, “Dodd has the knack of sucking up everyone’s energy and playing it back as if it were his gift to them, all the while visibly delighting in the process, surprising himself with his own capacity to enchant and control.” But he doesn’t enchant us, sitting in the audience. We’re amazed that he gets away with his mountebankery. Amy Adams is lovely as his wife, Peggy, except that we are eventually forced to conclude that she, too, is either crazy or a fake. And Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is very hard to watch. He looks dangerous at all times, not just the moments when he means to be.

The movie is set in 1950, an ostensibly “innocent” time, when Americans were trying hard to make being American look superheroic if not supernatural. The postwar settlement was not at all what Main Street had had in mind, and the country’s unwashed isolationism could not be concealed by sophisticated cologne. I don’t think that Anderson means to say that 1950 was an especially crazy time in American life. It appears that he finds American life crazy wherever he picks it up. But in 1950, with the War put away and the Civil Rights struggle still well over ten years off, things looked good. It was a time of shiny cars and big lawns — or shiny lawns and big cars; take your pick. O’Brien writes,

This is where we live, and it is a country of deep loneliness — that same loneliness that permeates all of Anderson’s films, and against which his characters are forever forming themselves into protective families or parodies of families, a population of paternalistic strangers, adoptive sons, surrogate mothers, fake cousins.

And, of course, cults that explain away our smallness and our isolation. Bogus, all of it.


Back at home, I picked up The New Yorker and was promptly hurled into an abyss of anxiety by James Surowiecki’s column about the “fiscal cliff.” Surowiecki was explaining why the “pre-commitment” idea hasn’t worked for Congress, and can’t.

For a start, there is no such thing as a single, unified “Congress” that can truly make a resolution—a fact that’s easily overlooked. Instead, there are lots of congressmen, all with slightly different incentives, and there are two political parties, with profoundly different views on the best way to cut the deficit. Then, too, the hopes for an agreement were built on Democrats’ expectation that, when push came to shove, Republicans would vote to raise taxes. This was never going to happen; in fact, most congressional Republicans have signed a no-taxes pledge, which is a kind of pre-commitment device in its own right.

The hidden message here is that the government of the United States can be treated by the various members of Congress as a scapegoat, heaped with impossible obligations and impractical regulations. When the government goes over the cliff, it is the fault of no individual congressmen, and, as Surowiecki points out, we it makes no sense to talk of a collective congressional identity. The United States itself, as a sovereign nation, is without representation in the Capitol. The national interest is off the congressional map. 

It’s easy to feel bleak about the future of this country, especially given the one ray of sunlight — the reasonable expectation that today’s culture wars will recede, and a willingness to compromise reappear, as the Boomers die off. As one of the older members of that admittedly short-sighted generation (possibly the most short-sighted, from having sat too close to the television set as children), I cannot welcome this prospect with unmitigated enthusiasm. And we’re still very much in power — the youngest Boomers are just turning fifty — and our scope for mess-making remains practically unlimited.


The Master, although unattractive, is a very beautiful film, even when the settings are banal. Anderson has always been a master of putting his viewers into the picture, without any of the gimmicks of Senssuround or 3-D. His serious approach to composition gives his shots a weightiness that can be oppressive or frightening but never ephemeral; never for a moment are we allowed to reflect that “it’s only a movie.” A great movie is never only a movie. I cannot recommend The Master to anyone who expects to have a good time, but I will claim that it is unsettling in important ways and for good reasons. There is, for example, a scene of truly shocking indecency — and you thought you couldn’t be shocked, no longer knew what indecency was. Well, think again. O’Brien describes the scene lightly, in a sentence that follows the first one that I quoted.

[Dodd] is mischievous, buoyed up by the powers of improvisation that enable him, for example (in a scene that may be a visualization of the dynamics that lie just under the surface), to persuade a roomful of women of all ages to strip for him, in an atmosphere of singalong merriment.

O’Brien doesn’t mention that what makes this scene indecent is the presence of a crowd of clothed men. I cannot wait to hear what the wild lady critics have to say about it. But the scene is not emptily shocking or indecent. It’s telling a terrible truth about the relations between men and women in this country, that we are still not so far from a time when it was considered “cute” of women to abase themselves, not as individuals but as women, and in ways that wouldn not lead to actual physical gratification for anybody. (We are not far at all, if those salacious images of busty topless girls atop motorboats on large Southern lakes are any indication.) I found it the hardest thing to watch in the entire film. It’s of no small interest that Dodd’s persuading is not shown. Anderson simply cuts into the state of nakedness. And nota bene: “of all ages.” <Gasp>

Gotham Diary:
Cooking Redux
10 October 2012

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

While the dishwasher was out of service, I managed nicely, and didn’t mind washing dishes myself, but I prudently avoided the use of certain implements, such as the Oxo ricer that I depend on for dreamy sweet potato purée. If I had a dishpan, and could leave things to soak for an hour or so, I’d feel more confident about cleaning greasy utensils with small sharp bits. But I don’t have room for a dishpan. Now that the dishwasher is working again, I don’t need one. Last night, we had the sweet potatoes, and they were very dreamy. (I stir in dribbles of butter, cream, and maple syrup.) They accompanied a Piedmontese strip steak that I picked up at Agata & Valentina a few weeks ago (or perhaps even longer ago than that) and, before freezing, covered in dry rub. I discovered the steak while cleaning out the freezer. I try to keep one on hand for nights like last night, when Kathleen works late. Steaks cook quickly, so that I can wait until she actually walks in the door before putting anything in the oven. (The sweet potatoes, on the other hand, can sit around over warm water for hours, and puréed while the steak broils.) A handful of haricots finished the plate.

This is the sort of meal that I hope will become the exception rather than the rule on weeknights. A piece of meat and two vegs, as the British put it, is not only not very interesting but also badly timed: who wants to be cooking at dinnertime? Much better to have soups and casseroles and even salads to warm up or toss and serve forth without fuss.

Last week, I took the leftover breast from a roast chicken and turned it into something not terribly unworthy of the sobriquet “Tetrazzini.” Kathleen and I both grew up with Stouffer’s frozen Chicken Tetrazzini, a pleasant if bland combination of chicken, spaghetti, and cream sauce, and I’ve been working on a recreation. (Some years ago, I found a recipe for the original dish, gala enough to be named after a world-famous opera singer, and was underwhelmed.) My latest mistake: concocting the sauce as a béchamel (milk) instead of as a velouté (broth). I’m also unhappy with my fallback herb, tarragon. I’m not sure that anything but parsley is right. And perhaps I’ll think of something to assist the light punch of nutmeg. But the handful of frozen sweet peas that I toss in when combining (and reheating) all the ingredients is a keeper.

I don’t intend to keep containers of this casserole lying around in the refrigerator. Oh, no. Rather, what I want to master is the portion control that will allow me to put together just enough for two (or three, or however many) a few hours ahead of time, so that all I need to do before sitting down is run a gratin dish under the broiler. I usually have the chicken on hand, and boiling a bit of spaghetti is no big deal. The sauce is the trick, not because it’s difficult to make but because it’s almost impossible to make just enough for two. The basic sauce recipe calls for a cup of scalded liquid to be poured into a cooked mash consisting of three tablespoons each of butter and flour. I could cut the quantities back to one tablespoon each and a third of a cup of liquid, but I’m not sure that I could cook it properly. I’ve never stored sauce as such. New worlds!

Behind this casserole magic is Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, which the author describes as an homage to MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Fisher was writing about the deprivations of rationing in wartime; Adler’s concern is the long-term urgency of cooking responsibly, not just for health but without waste. The first chapter, “How to Boil Water,” reminds us that Julia Child tasted the salted water that she was bringing to a boil several times along the way. “This may at first feel ridiculous, and then it will start to seem so useful you’ll stand by the pot feeling quite ingenious.” (That’s a typical Adler construction, and where we would expect but.) After presenting a complete re-think of the modern wisdom about cooking vegetables, Adler sends us off to the farmer’s market to buy a real chicken — and boiling that as well. Well! Not boiling, exactly. The chapter is so warm and homely and unspectacular that I’m convinced that I’ve got to master its precepts before continuing with the book.

This is because Adler’s governing idea, as the title suggests, is that no good meal has an absolute beginning. You don’t go to the store and buy everything that you need. You already have some things on hand, such as the chicken breast that I was talking about, or frozen mirepoix, or the remainder of a good sauce from last week. An Everlasting Meal preaches a simple sermon, but one that any cook will quickly see calls for extremely good habits. For one thing, you need to know exactly what you’ve got in the fridge — and how long it has been there. This in turn means that you can’t always make whatever dish suits your fancy; you’re constrained by the perishable ingredients in your larder. (And all ingredients are perishable, eventually, excepting, possibly, salt.) You don’t think in terms of “dinner tonight.” It’s “dinners this week.” The most breathtaking chapter, “How to Stride Ahead,” has Adler coming home with her haul of fresh vegetables and cooking or pre-cooking all of them in the course of an afternoon.

Start checking everything but beets for doneness after half an hour. You may still be scrubbing and washing or peeling. By your fourth or fifth (or tenth) week you will be wiping down your cutting board. By your twentieth, your greens will be nicely washed and cooking in their sauté pans on the stove. For now, stop wherever you are in your preparations and check.

We are not talking recipes here. This is a way of life. And it’s fitting that someone is teaching us at last. This is the final step in replacing the servants who used to possess this wisdom. For several generations, we have tried no more than to prepare the distinct meals that they brought to the table. Now we’re going to learn how to run the kitchen, and to do so in such a way that dinner is not preceded by frenzy.  

As for dinner tonight, I’ve got a spatchcocked chicken, seasoned beneath the breast skin with tarragon butter, mellowing in the refrigerator. Cranberries and spaghetti on the side. (Does anyone know how to make just a little risotto?)

Gotham Diary:
9 October 2012

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

This will be brief. Would you rather it weren’t? Would you like to hear about my day yesterday? I will thank you for your good wishes, because I was lucky at every turn, even the wrong one that the taxi driver took in Harlem. By eight-something in the evening, I was at home,  dressed for fed, and dying for Kathleen to come home so that I could tell her a very funny a story. (You have to know the guy.) But she was very late, and I very tired, so the story will have to wait for this evening. As you can imagine, a day that began with movers and yet ended with a funny story had to have gone well.

I had been given a window of noon-to-four. That’s to say that the mover’s dispatcher would call me between eleven and three to give me an hour’s notice to get to the 62nd Street storage unit. The call came shortly after noon, before I’d even begun to wait for it. I was dressed and ready, of course, so I scrambled outside and hopped into a taxi. I was at the facility in no time. Presently, Ray Soleil appeared, in a last-minute assist. I’d thought that I could manage the day by myself, and I probably could have done, but not so comfortably and companionably; and certainly I should not have arranged the boxes and the balcony furniture and the clothesracks as adroitly as Ray did. But I’m getting ahead of my story. The movers appeared punctually; they carried away, quickly and without incident, the things to be moved; and, although Ray and caught a cab almost immediately, they showed up while I was still filling out paperwork for renting the uptown unit. I was still in bureaucracy mode when the movers were done carting our stuff upstairs. Because of an arrangement between the storage facility and the moving company (and our commitment to rent the unit for a year), I did not have to pay the movers myself, for the moving. But I did have to pay $3.65 for gas. When I was done at the front desk, Ray took me back upstairs to see what he had done (bravo!), and then we walked out onto Tenth Avenue and up to the IRT station at 215th Street. We were done. The entire operation had taken a little over two hours. 

So, now we had a late lunch, at the Seahorse Tavern, and after taking our time over that, we repaired to the apartment, where we had a look at the small plastic storage chests that I wanted to move into the now-vacant center of the 62nd Street space. (The walls are lined with plank-and-cinderblock shelves, laden mostly with books.) There turned out to be five such chests, and only half of the drawers were taken up by Kathleen’s crafts materials. Three large drawers were full of Christmas ornaments, some of them so old and rare that Kathleen won’t let me hang them on the tree. One half-empty drawer contained nothing but pre-recorded cassette tapes, classical albums mostly. Withing a very short space of time, Ray and I reduced the number of chests to be put back into the closets down to two; we taped up two more chests for transfer to 62nd Street, and discarded one. (The poor dining table is littered once again.) Then I freshened up, and, grabbing a framed poster that I’d meant to give to Fossil Darling for his birthday in July, we schlepped the two chests into a taxi, dumped them at the old storage unit, and took another taxi over to the West Side, where Fossil awaited with apéritifs, after a few of which I took him and Ray to Shun Lee West.

I have finally arrived at the point of not waiting for anyone to show up somewhere to something to make it possible for me to get on with this Project that I am Managing (even without the help of Project Management for Dummies, which has not yet arrived): culling the unnecessary from our worldly possessions. While I was out at Fire Island a month ago, I fondly dreamed that I wouldn’t be needing anyone’s help (other than Ray’s now and then), but I wasn’t reckoning with clearing the balcony (I hadn’t thought that it would be necessary so soon) or replacing the motor on the dishwasher. So it is only now, three weeks later, that I find myself where I thought I’d be in the middle of September. Now, at last, I can get to work on the library.

But not today. Please, not today. I have a small job to see to before dinner time, and I have to go to Fairway, but for the better part of the day I will be staring vacantly into space. I’m reading a fabulously funny book, Chuck Thompson’s Better Off Without ‘Em, but rather regretting the funny bits, because Thompson’s “Northerner’s argument for Southern secession” is quite serious at heart; I’ve been saying the same things for years, and feeling like a crazy, cranky outsider for doing so. Thompson’s “language” can be cringe-inducing, and it hardly makes the argument more respectable. The chapter directly ahead of me concerns SEC football, which, as Thompson will, I expect, argue, simply perpetuates the economics of slavery for the sake of entertainment, as if that made it all right. I don’t think I can handle that today.  

Gotham Diary:
My River
8 October 2012

Monday, October 8th, 2012

“My river,” said Will, in a quiet voice, as we turned onto the FDR Drive at 79th Street to take him home. It was not an assertively possessive statement, not like “MY truck” or “MY teddy bear.” It was, rather, meant to share. The East River is one of Wil’s many possessions, and he felt very good about having it. I was immediately struck that “my river” is what has always linked “my house” to “Doodad’s house.” He has been taxiing up and down the river, between the two flats, all his life. And for all his interest in trucks and cars, what catches his fancy on the Drive is not the immediate traffic but the placid ribbon of water the runs under the bridges and floats the occasional boat. We had stood at the railing of the John Finley walk earlier in the day, and he had been disappointed by the absence of river traffic; a pair of barges lashed to a tug could be seen lumbering along, almost motionless, down off Kip’s Bay, but we couldn’t tell which way they were headed, so we didn’t wait. Now, in the early evening, the taxi slithered from East End Avenue onto 79th and then onto the stub of an access road, and the river in front of us was part of the ride. “My river.”

His river, but it has a name, and he repeated it after I said it. (“East” is not in his vocabulary yet. “Left,” especially, and “right” are.) 

At the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C, Will surprised me, because I thought, erroneously, that the darkness of night would impair his sense of orientation. It didn’t in the least. He pointed ahead and to the left, over the slim triangle between 2nd and Houston Street, and said, “I go to school that way.” Which was absolutely right. Houston and the Drive (with the river) are the arteries of Will’s everyday travels.

Well, not “everyday” in the case of the Drive. He had not been up to our place since August, before Fire Island. On Saturday, he walked around as if taking inventory. He did claim Kathleen’s teddy bear as his own, and I had to allow that it was hers before it was his. In all fairness, he has never seen Kathleen play with the teddy bear, unless she was playing with him as well. And he does not fully grasp the fact that there was a time when he didn’t exist — when we were here, but he wasn’t. You can see glimmers of comprehension, but it’s nothing to push. He’ll get it soon enough. Will certainly understood that his teddy bear lives in our apartment.


It’s a local holiday here, Columbus Day (once upon a time the big Italian-American day), but it’s a working day for Kathleen, and I’ve got some business to attend to this afternoon. At some point between noon and four, I’ll get a call from some movers, to give me an hour’s notice. I’ll run down to the storage unit on 62nd Street and meet up with them. I’ll tell them what to take out off the storage unit, for the move up to the new storage unit in Inwood. Then, I suppose, I’ll go up to Inwood, to see the new unit and to lock it up. I’ll be glad when that’s done. 

Everything that had to be taken off the balcony will go to the new unit, but so will two clothesracks of dresses that Kathleen is determined not to give away, not quite yet. And a piece of furniture, also not to be discarded quite yet. The old storage unit will feel like a ballroom. That won’t last for long. By the end of this weekend (which Kathleen will be spending in North Carolina, visiting her father), I’ll have schlepped any number of bags and boxes down to 62nd Street. I’ll empty out great portions of several closets in the apartment — so that I can fill them up again, don’t ask with what. (I hope that Project Management for Dummies arrives in time to help me do it right.) In a couple of weeks, I may even be able to walk into the blue room without feeling that I’ve fallen into a bog of books.

Wish me luck.

Gotham Diary:
Project Management
4 October 2012

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Since the superior repairman departed yesterday, at about 1:35 (he’d been promised for nine-to-noon, and arrived a few seconds before one), the dishwasher has run through two cycles without event, but I still don’t quite trust it. By the time I forget to worry about it — that’s when it will break down again.

This leaves one item on the list of things to be done requiring other people: moving the stuff that we saved from the balcony (chairs, a bench, and boxes of plastic bricks for the flooring) from our storage unit on 62nd Street to a new, smaller one way up in Inwood. This has been penciled in for Monday, even though it’s a holiday for many New Yorkers (not for Kathleen, though), and I’ve got to confirm it this morning. We’ll be sending some other bulky items uptown as well, so the older unit will be almost roomy. More important, two closets in the apartment will open up, when I transfer the drawers of Kathleen’s craft supplies to 62nd Street.

Because the mess in the blue room can’t really be dealt with until the closets are empty, I passed the afternoon organizing our jazz library, something that had gone untouched after a rousing spurt several years ago. I don’t know jazz nearly as well as I know classical music, and I haven’t been very creative with the iTunes playlists; in fact, until yesterday, I had done nothing more than dump all of Keith Jarrett’s trio recordings into a shuffle along with performances by other small groups. It was only the other day that I realized that serious jazz is far more album-centered than classical or pop. Right now, I’m listening to The Comedy, a suite of pieces inspired by commedia dell’arte, written, I suppose, by John Lewis, and played by the Modern Jazz Quartet. These are not cuts to be played out of order, much less shuffled in with other stuff. I might just as easily listen to the CD, but when The Comedy comes to an end, I’ll see if I want to hear one of the many other albums that I loaded onto a Nano yesterday. If I want to hear something else, I have only to upload it from this machine to the Nano.

It has taken years of working with playlists to learn how to do this: how to treat jazz properly, and not like other kinds of music. That said, I’ve ordered Project Management for Dummies. It occurred to me the other day that that’s what housekeeping is: a Project needing Management.  


I don’t know how many CDs I have, but it is a great many. As long as ten years ago, it was clear that, unless I wanted to pretend that walls of CD shelving might be regarded as decorative, I had to find some other way of housing the collection. The collections, that is: The operas, the classical CDs, the jazz, the pop, and the curiosities (such as a recording of Jessica Mitford singing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” — this is the fun part of my library, and it is not small). I should certainly have to lose the jewel boxes. I don’t know whether I hit on a good system before or after I began to use iTunes, but it’s almost complete on the classical front. There are about a hundred classical CDs still to be uploaded into the computer library and then broken down into paper and disc and filed in the appropriate drawer. (It took years to hit on the right way of doing this as well. Having removed everything from the jewel box, I lay down the top matter, the booklet it usually is, then the disc in its new paper sleeve, and finally the back matter, with its handy spine flaps, all oriented so that the flap covers and protects — sort of — the sleeve and the booklet, while presenting a legible label at the top. This would not be a viable system if I needed frequent access to the discs; the back matter’s paper would begin to tear in no time.) 

In the storage unit at 62nd Street, there are about a hundred LPs, perhaps more. I don’t have anything to play them on, but when I did, and attempted to render a few of them into MP3 files, the results were not satisfactory. They say that “vinyl” is valuable now, but I don’t believe that that holds for bread-and-butter classical recordings. A preference for LPs in this day and age strikes me as preposterously affected. I’ve thought long and hard about why I prefer MP3 files to the old analog recordings, and I’ve concluded that I never had much use for sense of “presence,” the capture of the acoustic peculiarities of the recording space. Perhaps because I overdosed on Mantovani at a tender age, I’m not thrilled by luscious string sonorities or other kinds of ear candy. (And, when I want ear candy, I know where to get it: Harold Faltermeyer.) My taste in music is somewhat more abstract, and MP3s simply sound clearer and less cluttered to me. Even in some extremely familiar music, music that I’ve been listening to for fifty years, I’ve heard things — inner lines of counterpoint, mostly — for the first time in MP3 format. When I think of listening to vinyl, all I can imagine is the surface noise — the clicks, purls, and distortions — that I always found terribly distracting. As soon as I can get to them, the LPs are going to HousingWorks.

Gotham Diary:
4 October 2012

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

There was a reason why Vinnie, one of the ladies who takes care of Kathleen’s hair, recommended The Enchanted Cottage, an RKO release from 1945, but it wasn’t that Kathleen and I were about to celebrate our thirty-first anniversary. I still don’t know what brought it up. But as we watched the video last night after dinner, the tears were streaming down my face, because the film’s message is only too true: when you are in love, you are in love with someone beautiful, and this beauty deepens and intensifies as your love grows over the years. The psychologists would probably chalk this phenomenon up to a projected vanity, but of course that’s not what it feels like. What it feels like is wonderful, to be married to be someone so beautiful.

I do not recommend The Enchanted Cottage, however, to anyone who has been married for fewer than thirty-one years. Despite its glints of brilliance, the movie is, overall, dated and unattractive. The exterior sets are barely better than what Ed Wood was capable of — really quite laughably fake-looking. The screenplay, based on a play by Pinero (now there’s a forgotten name), is preachy and cloying. There is a great deal of noble uplift and melodramatic weakness. The performance by Herbert Marshall, as a blind pianist who utters wisdom in his inimitable monotone, is almost camp. Mildred Natwick is pretty camp too, as the laconic widow who owns the cottage, but there’s a wink in her smile that suggests that she might be on loan from John Waters. Spring Byington and Richard Gaines are silly society people, and Hillary Brooke — well, Brooke is blondly gorgeous, but she’s no Claire Trevor, and you can see how she wound up playing third banana to Abbott and Costello. Alec Englander must have been related to the producer, to get the role of the ten year-old boy who guides Marshall’s character around; he looks something like Jerry Mathers but he also makes Jerry Mathers look like Olivier by comparison. The two stars, Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire, however, are very, very good; they do more than their best with the material that they’re given.

The idea is that McGuire is a plain Jane who falls in love with Young when he rents Natwick’s cottage for the honeymoon that he’ll be spending with Brooke. Young is a dashing airman who doesn’t expect to be commissioned anytime soon, but, what’s this? The calendar says “December 7, 1941.” The next thing you know, he’s the phantom of the opera, or nearly; some sort of trauma has caused the right side of his body to sag. His face is disfigured by an operatic scar, a dropping eye, and a pendulous lower lip. It’s really a pretty good job, and it changes him. He’s angry and doesn’t want to see anybody. (Another good job is the recreation of pre-war fashion.) Wounded by the look of disgust that Brooke gave him when he came back from the war (offscreen), he has returned to Natwick’s house to be alone. This naturally entails spending a lot of time with plain Jane.  Guess what: propinquity is nine-tenths of romance.

I forgot to mention that the cottage is enchanted, because that’s the title. The cottage, the opening backstory goes, was rented out for over a hundred years to happy young couples, “for as long as they liked” (presumably until children arrived), by a fine old English nobleman whose great house on the Maine coast had burned down, leaving only a sort of attached outbuilding. Imagine that, a ruin in America! A diamond-paned window has been inscribed with their autographs, as if it were a tree trunk. Young and McGuire get married, as a mutual convenience (turn up the nobility and the weakness), but that’s of course when the enchantment can begin, because now they’re husband and wife. Within a few days, they undergo a change: McGuire sees Young as he was before his crash, and Young sees McGuire as she appears in Gentleman’s Agreement. But other people see them as they really are, so Natwick and Marshall display the greatest tact in not looking at them. Byington and Gaines can’t manage it, and they almost ruin everything. The switches of point-of-view in the final scenes are expert and persuasive: you believe that what the lovers see is real.

I couldn’t stop registering the disparity in physiognomic drawbacks. The right side of Robert Young’s face is really pretty ghastly, something you want to turn away from. Dorothy McGuire, in contrast, is afflicted with nothing that a good hairdresser couldn’t fix. She has one of those Hollywood makeover roles, like Bette Davis’s in Now, Voyager. The moral of the story is that a woman’s love can embrace the genuinely ugly, but don’t expect a man to pursue a woman who can’t be bothered (or lacks the wherewithal) to look sharp.