Archive for November, 2014

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Boxed Brain
26 November 2014

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

A few minutes ago, it was snowing. Well, it sort of still is, but you have to squint to see it. A nuisance outdoors without any indoors charm. What’s more, there’s no daylight. The cloud cover is so thick that lamps must be lighted. I had been hoping to see what Ray Soleil’s paint job looked like by day. Last night, after work, he applied a wizardly mix of paint and glaze to the two lesser bookcases, and one coat over that old, dead blue was all that was needed. Astoundingly similar results were obtained on one wing of the breakfront bookcase, the one that I had foolishly painted in Loeb Greek Classics green. When you stand close to the cases, the underlying color peeks through, but from a distance, all is a warm, understated brown, verging on bronze, that suits the book room perfectly. Later this afternoon, I’ll start unpacking books. Yikes!

Yesterday, I unpacked the ornaments — a category that includes everything that doesn’t belong (a) on a shelf with other books or in a drawer with other discs and (b) in the kitchen or about the dining table. There were seven such boxes, and I got rid of five of them. The writing table in the living room — in the part of the living room near the window, which I’ve already taken to calling “the boudoir,” is laden with currently homeless knickknacks. As all the furniture is in place, it’s hard to see how that homelessness is going to be addressed. What to do with the holloware silver is particularly perplexing. I’m thinking that we’re going to have to buy something to put it in, a cupboard of some kind. Or I may just polish it all the time and keep it out. If you actually use silver, you don’t have to polish it very often. There’s a moral there somewhere.

Now the foyer was clear for me to set up the card table, onto which I loaded all the stuff that had been carelessly thrown onto the bookcases in the ten days since the move. When I bought the card table, both Kathleen and Ray cocked their eyebrows, and when I said that a folding table would be very useful in many ways, they fell back on “where will you put it.” Don’t worry: I always find a place for things that need to be squirreled away — sometimes in plain sight. Kathleen and Ray don’t have to put up with those rickety tray tables that don’t hold a proper load. And when Kathleen goes off to a convention, I’ll set up the table in the foyer (which, even when furnished, is about the size of a small but decent dance floor) and work on a jigsaw puzzle. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Ray will be here shortly after lunch — his shop knocks off early today, in view of the holiday — and I’ve no doubt that he’ll finish the job in a breeze. Also on the schedule is a bit of course correction: fractions of an inch have to be shaved from the bottoms of the closet doors, which are now catching on the rugs; also, Kathleen requires additional poles in her closets. Someone is going to take care of those problems, someone referred to us (and to whom we were referred) by our former upstairs neighbor. I’ll have nothing to do but stare out the window, squinting to see the snow.

Time for another coat of off-white.


It was  more than a little shocking this morning to learn that St Thomas More, the church where Kathleen and I were married, and her parish church for almost all of her life, may be shuttered in August, presumably so that the land can be sold to raise some of the gazillions that are being poured into the renovation of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The word had been that St Thomas More was “safe,” safe from the rash of mergers and closings that were announced earlier this month. Kathleen knew all about from our friend the deacon. When I read the news at Huff Post — one of Kathleen’s cousins had linked to it at Facebook, but also sent me a note via Gmail — I didn’t know whether to mention it Kathleen at all. She is very tired, having been working long hours lately, and of course having been dislocated by the move. (Having been doing the actual relocating, I have fared better.) She woke from a dreadful nightmare this morning with an awful headache. Selfishly, I wanted to get the moment over with, so I told her. She was really too low to take it very badly, and, if anything, it seemed to make her cross, which is a good response.

Curiously, Facebook can’t find the “Save St. Thomas More — Manhattan” page that Huff Post reporter Joe Peyronnin mentions. And our friend the deacon is in Europe.


Meanwhile, my closet door now opens and closes just as it ought to do — without my having to give the rug a thought. And the breakfront bookcase is actually disappearing into the book room. I was tempted to photograph the transformation, but it can’t be done. If there’s one thing that individual photographs fail to do well, it’s to suggest change. So, when you see the picture of a half-painted bookcase, you see disorder and mess. You don’t see anything happening. You had to be here. Even I, who was here, wouldn’t get anything out of pictures taken while Ray worked his magic. So I didn’t bother.

Instead, I prowled about the Great Wall of Books, hoping to find a box with a D or an E label, indicating the contents of the lesser bookcases. But the top boxes were all labeled A, B or C — the three ranges of the breakfront. I’ll have to go digging if I want to find a box to unpack. So I shred instead. That stack of tipped milk crates was just about to make contact with the breakfront bookcase when I began transferring their contents to banker’s boxes. The bulk of a very thick wad of old bills turned to be too old to warrant keeping, and, in a related brainwave, I realized that the place for the shredder is the kitchen, because it makes a kitchen-style mess and works best on a counter. So: I’ll keep it in a dishpan under the sink, and we’ll see how that works.

The closet work is done, and the man who did it will be happy to install the Venetian blinds when they arrive. Sono contentissimo but it’s probably just fatigue. Ray Soleil’s heroic paint job is drying. There’s nothing to do and no end of stuff to be done. What I need is another brainwave: what to do with all those pandan shirt boxes?


What am I cooking for Thanksgiving dinner? Nothing — we’re going out. The moment he heard about the impending move, Fossil Darling made a reservation at a favorite spot in the Village. Before heading downtown, we’ll visit some friends on the Upper West Side.

Here’s hoping for a warm and happy Thanksgiving for all my readers, their families, and their friends.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
There He Goes Again, On About His Cooking
25 November 2014

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

At long last, I took a day off from moving. As noted at the end of yesterday’s entry, I spent most of the day writing it. Then, for about an hour, I considered making a mad dash for several move-related errands. During that time, I became aware of being very, very tired. So I sat down at the computer in the bookroom — midday sun had forced me to set up the laptop on the dining table, at the north end of the apartment, and I’d stayed there all afternoon — and wrote a long letter. Then I ordered stuff from The Container Store. Tote bags arrived from LL Bean: both large, both the same two colors of green, but reversed, with the color of one’s handles covering the other’s body. And both monogrammed, impishly I thought, with varsity lettering. The totes are going to be my bureau drawers for bulky items, and they’ll be stowed on the floor of my rather small closet.

Kathleen won’t be home too late, and we’ll order Chinese. We had an impromptu little dinner party last night. On Friday, I had to borrow an article of domestic utility from our old neighbor on the higher floor. At her door, I asked her to tea on Sunday. On Sunday, I called and revised that to dinner. So our neighbor arrived shortly after seven. Dinner was on the table by eight, and I even remembered to take the Camembert out of the refrigerator, although, with the weather we’ve been having, room temperature isn’t warm enough to make the cheese runny. I sautéed rounds of tenderloin to what turned out to be perfection, and I made a mental note of time and heat setting. What I had taken, at Fairway, to be a sweet potato or yam turned out to be some new variety of regular potato with a greenish tinge — nobody liked it much, but how could I have known? That and a pot of my old microwave macédoine of mixed vegetables, which I hadn’t made for years, having exchanged the microwave for a second regular oven (a mistake). The new apartment comes with! So I cut up zucchini and summer squash and shallot and cherry tomato — this is my basic version — and toss the pieces in olive oil, vinegar, oregano, and salpep. (“Salpep” was an abbreviation that I used to use on Microsoft Word; it would display salt & pepper. Why not just call for salpep?) I pour everything into a covered dish or a compote, depending on the quantity, and cook it for four or five minutes in the microwave.

There was nothing special about this menu, and, but for the nice cabernet that I opened, it was just another everyday dinner. (Well, the Camembert was special.) Our neighbor surprised us with dessert: the most delicious éclairs that I’ve ever had, from the new French bakery around the corner on Third Avenue, Maison Kayser (too new for the Web site!). Shortly before ten, our neighbor went back upstairs, and by half-past ten, we were watching the Lewis episode with Juliet Stevenson.

What was different about this “first dinner” was the ease and pleasure of putting dinner on the table. It’s a pleasure to be in my kitchen, and the dining table is just through a side door. I can leave the table without leaving the conversation. I felt last night that I was getting off to a good start.

My ideas about cooking have slimmed down in the thirty years since we set up a hardwood table in the blue room upstairs. In those days, I was still fairly ambitious, by which I mean that I wanted to follow a lot of recipes for the first time. It’s a useful phase for any home cook, because the experience teaches how to deal with surprise and how to improvise, largely but not entirely the same thing, and both crucial skills. Another takeaway is the ability to get different dishes freshly to the table at the same time: this is the point on which many new cooks falter. And of course there are the techniques and flavors that would not be encountered in the same-old routine. I’m still on the lookout for new recipes — Marcella Hazan’s buttery tomato sauce became a staple immediately, and I try to have the three ingredients on hand at all times. (They are: butter — most of a stick — canned crushed tomatoes, and a sweet onion.) But I’m no longer remotely ambitious. My interest has shifted entirely, away from the cooking, which merely has to be good enough to serve, and toward the pleasure of my own company at the table. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for so many years now that I am genuinely befuddled when awarded praise. It’s like being thanked for reading a book — but then, I suppose not.

I suppose not. I think of all the women I know who don’t like to cook, or who like to cook like men — rarely. I think of Kathleen, who enters the kitchen about as often as Louis XIV, but who is much more grateful for this privilege. I remember how unusual I am — something that really has to change. There was a time when I considered putting together a collection of recipes under the title Cooking For Mashers, and sharing the insight that the way to a woman’s… I’ll let you fill in the rest. But as I didn’t teach myself how to cook as an accessory to seduction, it might be inauthentic and misleading to assume the voice of a wizened Lothario.


Whilst watching episodes of Lewis, I keep handy my three Pitkin Guides to Oxford. Two of them are recent purchases — Oxford Colleges and Morse in Oxford. The third I found when I unpacked the books for the living room. As it’s in the other room, and I’m (see above) very tired, I’m going to paraphrase its title as Oxford Town and Gown. It belonged to my mother-in-law, and tucked into it is the itinerary for a ladies’ club tour of Oxford in 1984. Aside from lunch and a bit of leisurely loitering at Merton, the ladies kept up a mad pace, running through colleges in fifteen or twenty minutes apiece. If I were a genius like Alan Bennett, I’d use the schedule to construct a comic play. The women — ladies — who would set out to “do” Oxford in a day would never get any closer to it, academically, than Cheltenham College.

I ordered Oxford Colleges when I saw, on its cover, the edifice that kept catching my eye in the pans that open so many episodes of Morse and Lewis. It caught my eye because of a certain bogus quality. And I was right: All Souls’, with its symmetrical rectilinear spires, topped by what I call, variously, “haircuts” or “product,” is not even as medieval as Christ’s Church. It’s pure Gothic Revival, the work of the excellent Nicholas Hawksmoor, the architect of the bell towers of Westminster Abbey, if you please, and it dates from the first half of the Eighteenth Century (Hawksmoor died in 1736). The long look that a Pitkin guide affords makes it obvious that the whole building is a gigantic fake, Middle-Ages-wise, but I doubt that Hawksmoor or his clients thought of it as such. They were interested in applying the “Gothick” style, like a coat of paint, to a building of modern spaciousness and convenience. All Souls’ would have seemed an improvement, and not at all intended to fool anybody.

Pitkin Guides — we don’t have anything like them over here. If I were Alan Bennett, I should know how to present these introductions to Ye Olde England as the trashy little luxuries that they are. (There is, apparently, a Guide devoted to the six wives of Henry VIII.) Glossy and succinct, Pitkin Guides capture the spirit of efficient but tasteful tourism — it’s their very tastefulness that makes them trashy, which is really my regrettable way of saying that nobody familiar with the subject of a Guide would own it, except in secret and in a spirit of mockery. Also, abominable conceit.


And I wrote this, too.

Worldly Note:
24 November 2014

Monday, November 24th, 2014

On Sunday, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan published “the column I never wanted to write,” about the newspaper’s coverage of Israel and Palestine. This coverage upsets a lot of people on both sides of the conflict, and Sullivan gets a lot of mail accusing the Times of favoring the complainer’s opponent. She writes wrenchingly well about the difficulties of trying to couch news stories in appropriate contexts, and the awkward (and irrelevant) demands of political correctness.

It wasn’t a column that I’d have expected to read. I pay as little attention to the actual fighting as possible. Since I have no palpable stake in it, the warfare is simply stupid. (This is not to say that one side or the other ought to stop fighting. But warfare as such is always stupid, and that’s the best thing that can be said about it.) As for the political argument, there is little real engagement between the parties. But the problem of adequate coverage caught my attention. It is a problem here in New York, not in Jerusalem or Ramallah. I hadn’t grasped the meaning of that.

A curious asymmetry infects the coverage problem. Whereas most of Israel’s supporters appear to be Jews, few of the Palestinians’ supporters even speak Arabic, much less claim tribal ties. (The Times does not deploy a reporter fluent in Arabic, which is rather shocking.) And the problem has to be worked out in the cosmopolitan setting of New York City, which nobody identifies as the center of a national or religious culture. The annoying but vibrant persistence of this problem, which will last as long as the fighting, together with its locus in Margaret Sullivan’s office, indicate that the contenders — the people complaining about the Times’s coverage — all inhabit the same world.

As the Israelis and the Palestinians do not. They may inhabit the same territory, but they argue, violently, about the right to inhabit it, and no world can contain disagreement on that subject. The world of Margaret Sullivan’s correspondents, in contrast, is centered on the shared understanding that the newspaper speaks to and for “the other side.” The fact that nobody asserts a better right to address the Times signifies that nobody asserts a better right to live in New York.

The problem of adequate coverage is a conundrum about “objectivity.” Objectivity supposes a neutral observer who simply describes what he sees. It is generally conceded by intelligent people that objectivity is a chimera, for no truly neutral observer can exist. The uninterested observer will not pay enough attention, while the disinterested observer, being only human, will inevitably discover an affinity for one side or the other. Nevertheless, objectivity remains the goal of serious journalism, if only as a vanishing point.

But let’s unpack another implication of objectivity: it objectifies. Objectivity transforms fluid life into a fixed form. When I objectify a group of human beings, I force every member of that group to possess the same characteristics, while at the same time reducing every member to the sum of those characteristics. To use force in support of any objectification is the essence of domination. It is a kind of killing that sometimes leads to real killing.

So we ought to be grateful that Margaret Sullivan does not seek an objective solution to the coverage problem. She wants an expansive one. “Include more,” she says.

As coinage goes, “expansify” is not very attractive, but it might be useful. To expansify something would be to bear in mind not only that it is larger and more complex than we need to think it is in order to manipulate it, but that it exists in its own time frame, subject to alternative objectification by others, including those others who have not yet been born. To expansify something would be to respect its essential otherness. (I want to say “otherliness.”)

Respect might be the word that I’m looking for, if it were not quite so tired, and if it more powerfully suggested the enlargement of the world.

The world is a complex thing. It consists of artifacts, such as buildings or texts, that embody human significance, and it also consists of human beings and the principles that they share. It consists of history, the story that people tell about their past; to a very great extent, the quality of the world is determined by the quality of this story. We now understand that the world consists of a concern for the well-being of human beings to come.

The world is always bigger than we think it is. There is only one world, and each of us sees a small part of it. The refusal or inability to recognize that the Temple Mount and the Noble Sanctuary are completely the same (and only incompletely different) is tantamount to destroying the world.


As I write these small essays on making a better world, I become more painfully aware that my ideas presuppose and depend upon a condition of material affluence and a freedom from pervasive anxiety that are unseen in most of the world, and in practically all of history. They require patience and peace. (They also mirror the ever-quieting temperament of an ageing man.) Readers in another era may regretfully have reason to think me colossally naive. But I write in a world where many enjoy greater health, wealth, and safety than has ever been known to man. I write from the conviction that it is these very ideas that justify the pursuit of peace and prosperity. Without them, we’re liable to fall into a boring materialism that is not worth saving.

When I began writing for the Internet, nearly fifteen years ago, I assumed a conventional posture, and blithely pointed out the ills of the world to my readers. Gradually, and perhaps unwisely, I have shifted my attention to the ills of my readers, which are making the world a worse place. My readers are educated and thoughtful, but if they’re at all typical of the educated, thoughtful people I see when I look around, they’re doubtful of the efficacy of generosity and decency, seeing them as well-meaning aspects of polite behavior, and not as animating spirits of great power; and they take far better care of their bodies than they do of their minds, appearing almost to believe that rude physical health will straighten the crude tangles of mortal mentality. Yet how difficult it is to pay attention!

This entry was particularly difficult to write. It’s true that I drank too much cabernet at dinner. But it’s also true that in the final stages of moving house. Beyond the wear and tear of toting boxes of potential mess, there are constant encounters with the shape of a younger self, an undisciplined fellow beset by a barely-contained wildness. No brooding, romantic charmer, this former me was obstinate, impulsive, and scary, and I am amazed that he survived the torment of his demons. At the same time, I know how he did it: he wrote. He wrote and he wrote and he wrote, until, no longer young, he began making sense to himself.

Still, he was very lucky. I hate to think how lucky. But then, we all do.

Housekeeping Twaddle:
21 November 2014

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Last night, we had an impromptu housewarming — although we shall have to have another, as Kathleen couldn’t join us. Ms NOLA had been offering to help out with the move by cooking dinner chez moi, and I accepted as soon as the new kitchen was organized. We made a date for last night, but when I went to confirm it with Kathleen, she told me that there was a birthday dinner for a friend that she must attend. Ordinarily, I’d have postponed the gift of dinner in my own home, but as I felt the need of it more keenly, I let things stand. When Ms NOLA learned that Ray Soleil would be dropping by to hang pictures, she said that there would be more than enough dinner for him and for Fossil Darling, should Fossil care to come.  So we were five at dinner. It was a riotous assembly. I was surprised that nobody called the doorman to complain.

I was out for most of the afternoon, on a run of errands built around a visit to the dermatologist — the doctor whom, thanks to my fine Irish skin, I see more often than all the other doctors together — so nothing much got done on the moving-in front. But while Ray hung pictures, I took two larges boxes out of the dining area and emptied the third, which was packed with platters. This eliminated a tight squeeze around the table, and made seating five far easier and more comfortable than it would have been otherwise. Plus I gained an empty box to fill up with discarded bubble wrap. I love getting rid of boxes.

Ray hung four pictures: one painting in the book room, two in the bedroom, and a print in the book room. He measured for two other prints, and wanted very much to drive in the nails, but I forbade it, because it was just after six, and I wanted to establish, to anyone itching to complain to the doorman, that my bangings would never be prolonged. No one did complain, which was heaven. Fossil arrived and we all had a drink. It was grand, not having to worry about getting dinner ready.

Soon Ms NOLA and Mr ED blew in. The night before, Mr ED had made the main dish, a casserole of sausage and polenta that we all first had at their rehearsal dinner at Franny’s last year, versions of which both E and I have taught ourselves to make. So he joined us in the living room while Ms NOLA got to work on the salad and the vegetables. It was wildly retro, the four men sitting drinking while the lone woman slaved in the kitchen, and everyone felt a twinge of discomfort. E and I were quick on our feet to give Ms NOLA occasional assists.

At the real housewarming, of course, there will be no great wall of books, and it will not be necessary to access the dining area through the kitchen.

In order to put a dent in that wall, I am going to spend the rest of today painting bookcases.

A few hours, anyway. What wearying work. The wood drinks up the paint, and the result is a very mottled look. Not that it matters much. I’m painting the insides of the bookcases, not the outsides. Ray Soleil thinks I’m crazy, but I don’t want the parrot green (the closest match to Loeb Classics Greek dust jackets that I could find — top that for frivolous pretention!) or the dour blue peeping through the books. A few coats of off-white latex will kill the glare. Ray will paint the outside parts, after the books are in the case. He knows what he’s doing. I’m not only not very good at painting but physically incapable, a lot of the time, of even seeing what I’m doing.

I’ve tackled the hardest part, the projecting section of the breakfront case. Some of its shelves and partitions are fixed, so there are plenty of awkward corners. I also took a stab at one of the side cases — much easier. I didn’t make a lot of progress, but I didn’t make a mess, either. The great wall of books is going to come down slowly. And there’s a lovely surprise at the end: figuring out what to do with the bookcase formerly known by the letter G. We still have it, but it’s in the living room, and it contains all the art books that used to be in a bookcase that we no longer own. I could see that there would be no room for one of the two cases, and our neighbor was happy to take the one that I chose to give away. The books, however — the books I still have. Not all of them, to be sure. I did give away a lot of books. But I don’t think that I gave away enough books to empty out a bookcase.

I can’t say how many books I gave away, because I kept no records. Almost the first decision that I made when the move became certain was that I was no longer going to use ReaderWare, the only library database manager, it seems, that’s “right for me.” I’m not going to complain about ReaderWare. I’m just sorry that there isn’t a handy application for managing a moderately large private library. “Moderately large” means “too large for its owner to know where everything is,” and “private” means “limited to bookshelves of varying heights,” thus requiring a preliminary sorting by the distinctly illiterate quality of size. Neither ReaderWare nor any other database manager that I’ve seen features a data field for “Location,” which is just about the only information about any book that I need to have, along with its title. You can add the field yourself. You can do a lot of things yourself with ReaderWare. I no longer have the time. What I have is hope that Evernote will eventually come to the rescue.

Anyone betting on whether I’ll replace those milk crates before the stack topples over?

Bon weekend à tous!

Housekeeping Twaddle:
Picture This
20 November 2014

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Ray Soleil came straight from work yesterday and got to work hanging pictures. Roughly an hour later, the house phone rang. The doorman on duty reluctantly reported that a neighbor “on your floor” had complained about the “banging.” So we stopped hanging pictures right away. The call left me feeling wretched — wounded, even (when was the last time a neighbor complained? How many decades ago?) — and worried. How will we ever get all the pictures up on the walls? Ray will come again tonight, and we’ll see how far we can get by six o’clock.

The sad truth is that there is no way that “all the pictures” are going to be hung in this apartment. The happy truth is that there is no reason to hang so many. The walls of the old apartment were plastered with pictures because, in several corners, the walls were so disfigured by nails and cracked nail-holes that they had to be covered up. In the eighteen years since the last paint job, furniture had been moved, with pictures necessarily following. The proper thing to do — removing all the old nails, touching up the plaster, and repainting the walls — was by no means impossible, but it was certainly beyond me. I dreamed of making a project of repainting the apartment bit by bit, which is what I should have done when I was younger, but I not only lack the energy for such an undertaking but, even more, have a clear sense, rather lacking in my youth, of what I ought to be doing with my time, and large-scale housekeeping campaigns are not on the list. Ultimately, it was he fact that more was involved than repainting that forestalled any attempt at renovation. The carpets needed to be replaced: how to do that without evacuating each room? (The downside of wall-to-wall, which we are trying to avoid in the new place.) The draperies in the living room and the bedroom, designed in a moment of regrettable pretentiousness and, worse, never really necessary, were filthy, but difficult to take down — and was the outfit that cleaned them last time still in business?

So. A combination of dark (or intense) colors and lavish clutter whited the sepulcher. Which we have now left behind.

A large part of the clutter was pictorial, and each picture was framed with great care. I spent a small fortune at the fine local framer’s shop, choosing mats and frames and dimensions as thoughtfully as if I were naming a child. The most whimsical items, including a postcard designed and signed by Roz Chast — very small — and, also signed, Edward Koren’s poster for Books & Co — rather large — have been hung in the long entry corridor here, where they can be seen up close. My favorite is a lovely thank-you letter from a little girl who was in the early stages of learning to think ahead. It begins, in grand letters,

Dear Kath-

Owing to the configuration of the walls, there is less real estate for pictures in the new apartment. (Also, the book room is significantly smaller than the blue room, and the bookcases almost completely line the walls.) But even if the apartment were twice as big, the evolution of my taste would prevent a repetition of Soanesque display. This shift took root a few years ago, when we did repaint the foyer, or entry hall, of the apartment upstairs. Walls previously hidden by CD shelving were decorated with a handful of well-spaced photographs. The new look was only relatively austere, but it did mean that I was no longer going to hang pictures just because I had them, and might as well get out the hammer and nails.

Tonight, Ray will hang two paintings, in the book room. And perhaps the one remaining painting in the bedroom. That will get all the paintings off the floor.


The other day, a couple of books arrived from England, books by John Carey, author of The Unexpected Professor, a memoir that I hugely enjoyed a few weeks ago. The new titles are What Good Are the Arts?, which I haven’t looked at, and The Intellectuals and the Masses, which I’m finding to be incredibly apposite to the thinking that Marilynne Robinson has been inspiring. About Professor Carey’s sociopolitical views I shall only say that they are those of someone who, when young, was a man of the left. More precise labeling would conduce to imprecision. Carey’s conception of “the masses” indicates the sophistication of his thought: he doesn’t believe in the existence of any masses. Neither, as I hope is clear to regular readers, do I.

Because I don’t believe in the masses, I am not afraid that they will damage Western civilization and culture, as a long line of artists and intellectuals has been since the middle of the Nineteenth Century. I have only just, since digesting Hannah Arendt’s essay, ““The Crisis in Culture: Its Social and Political Significance,” made the connection between the masses and what Carey reminds is only in English called modernism. Carey fleshes out this connection in the opening chapter of his book, which is all that I’ve read. It has been an object lesson in the jump from understanding something to understanding something so much better that understanding seems previously to have been lacking altogether.

Take Nietzsche. When I was a student, it was great fun to read Nietzsche, but it was essentially childish fun: Nietzsche was a sort of intellectualized Captain Hook. As I grew older, I was disturbed to see that many intelligent writers took Nietzsche seriously as a thinker. To me, he was always incipiently the mad man that he eventually became, as well as a fountain of toxic notions. (Carey quotes his ghastly warning to “frequent women” well-armed with whips.) Similarly, I’ve always been unimpressed by modernism. For a long time, I took this as a sign of my own stupidity, at least in the darkness of night alone. As I say, I only recently came to understand that modernism is somewhat misanthropic. But now I know that modernism is simply contrary to humanism: it is inhumane. Corey makes thiis perfectly clear, and then concludes,

I would suggest, then, that the principle around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity.

Which if nothing else is rendered pointless by the non-existence of any “masses.” It’s not the masses that I fear, but the intellectuals who have, in order to thwart an imaginary ogre, all but wrecked civilization with modernism.

Advisory Note:
What do you think?
19 November 2014

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

Two things in this morning’s Times — delivered to our new door this morning — seem worth thinking about.

The first is Lori Tharps’s Op-Ed piece, “The Case for Black With a Capital B,” which calls for Black American instead of black American. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I can’t think why any physical characteristic merits the highlight of capitalization. At the end of her essay, Ms Tharps writes, “We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe.” This seems doubtful to me, but it is certainly arguable. If it is true, then the name of that race or tribe must be unique to it, not an adjective denoting skin color — more exactly, a very broad range of skin colors that stands in politely for distinguishing facial features, much as Asian saves us from slant-eyed. A further objection relates to the gross bifurcation of people of African background into those carried off into slavery and those left behind. I don’t see what binds an African-American and a Nigerian beyond humanity and vulnerability to stupid white prejudice — insufficient basis, surely, for tribal association.

A name for the tribe that Ms Tharps seems to me to be describing did occur to me, one along the lines of the Eumenides, replete with grim irony: the Middle Passengers. I don’t recommend its adoption, except perhaps by poets.

The second item is a news story that appears on the first page, below the fold, about the windfall royalties that will greatly enrich a charitable organization as a result of “venture philanthropy.” The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation made a grant of $150 million to a biotechnology firm that developed a drug that treats the cause of the disease, not its symptoms. Selling the rights to this drug to a pharmaceutical company will yield the Foundation $3.3 billion. Critics worry that, its judgment clouded by the prospect of enrichment, the Foundation did not do more to reduce the projected annual cost of treatment, $300,000. This is not very constructive criticism.

It seems obvious that the Foundation has an obligation to figure out a way to use the bulk of its windfall to subsidize treatments. It probably won’t be easy, and it will probably take a while to figure out the most equitable arrangement. But the story is certainly one template for the development of new medications.

Ought these arrangements be left entirely to the discretion of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation? I don’t think so, but that’s as far as thinking takes me. Legislation on the subject ought to be strenuously avoided. The court of informed public opinion ought to prevail, and for its judges I once again call for the creation of collegial organizations to provide soft but disinterested regulation of public affairs — and the Foundation’s windfall unquestionably falls within the category of public affairs. I shall save prolonged discussion of my ideas about the membership of these colleges for another occasion, but I should want it to be both diverse and well-informed, as well as disinterested. This means, roughly, including

  • Executives who have retired from service at related organizations, whether or not run for profit, including civil servants
  • Academics who study the application of humanistic principles to civil life, and
  • Procedural lawyers.

I should also exclude anyone under forty. I pile on the last qualification quite seriously and for many reasons, some of which are comprised by the principle that membership in a college of this kind ought to be the last job (other than self-employment or work in an entirely unrelated area) that anyone ought to have. Membership, in other words, ought to have no future. Even more important is experience, which nobody under forty really has. The modern West’s campaign to liberate civil society from the tyranny of greybeards has backfired on many fronts, and nowhere worse than in advisory regulation.

For now, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation will have to find its way to equity. All that the rest of us can do is to pay attention.


I had reached the end of my remarks about advisory colleges when the sun became intolerable and I postponed finishing this entry until after a round of errands. I do miss the warmer weather, when I could run out in my houseclothes (short-sleeved sports shirt and Bermuda shorts). Until a few years ago, I would do so even on the coldest days, but increasing decrepitude made me feel not just ridiculous but pitiable.

The repaving of 86th Street in front of our building has begun in earnest. It took more than a week to fill up the hole (between the top of the subway station mezzanine and ground level) with dirt that Ray Soleil believes to be the same dirt that was dug up two or three years ago, however long it has been. “Dirt’s expensive,” Ray says. I suppose it is, at least here in the center of a very built-up region. I’m happy to report that it has disappeared beneath concrete once again.

Meanwhile, the apartment looks ever more suitable for habitation. There is still a great wall of boxed books between the living and dining areas, and the now-reassembled bookcases have to be repainted before restocking, but the litter of miscellaneous bags and totes is abating. In the kitchen and the bedroom, I have held firm, allowing no mess, but there is still a stack, about four feet long, of framed pictures jutting out from beneath the bedroom window, and a certain amount of disorder must be tolerated between Kathleen’s side of the bed and her bathroom.

One of the big changes resulting from the move is that the book room and the bedroom are separated by nothing more than the short corridor that runs from the foyer to my bathroom. In the old apartment, the bedroom and the blue room stood on either side of the living room, like different wings, and were reached by longer hallways. Now it’s as though we enjoyed a master suite. The view from my side of the bed looks through the two doors and onto the right wing of the breakfront bookcase, suggesting the enfiladed rooms of a grand house. Suggesting, I say. There is no illusion of spaciousness. But I’m not feeling cramped, either.

Last night, I roasted a chicken, which introduced me to the new oven, and we got along fine. I cleared the dining table of stuff and straightened up the sideboard, so that when we sat down dinner the improvista atmosphere that can be so charming in the early stages of a move, but that so rapidly sours, was cleared off. We had only to pretend that the great wall of books was a design element.

Which it is not.

Gotham Diaryt:
Moving Along
18 November 2014

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

This is also my view, but I can’t see it right now, because sunlight is pouring through the window, and it’s difficult to read any of the screens. I’m even wearing a cap, to protect my scalp from solar carcinogens.

It’s also difficult to write because today is a waiting day. The locksmith has come and gone (very expensive), but I’ve heard nothing from the phone man, who was supposed to appear between eight and noon. I can’t call the phone company because I don’t have Kathleen’s PIN. It’s no big deal; very few land line calls are of any interest. But Kathleen insists on keeping it, because when all else fails…in the past, anyway.

The men from the cabinet shop will come when they finish with their current job. Once the bookcases and the china cupboard are reassembled, we can begin to unpack in earnest. And yet. The china is in the linen closet, and the boxes of linens are out on the balcony, so the clutter in the apartment won’t be significantly altered by putting those things where they belong. As for the bookcases, they need to be repainted. I thought about starting on that yesterday, but I never found the moment, what with errands and visits from tech god JM (who hooked up two of the three A/V systems, and did glorious battle on our behalf with the cable company) and Ray Soleil, who hung pictures in the long entrance hall. JM was here so late that he had dinner with us when Kathleen came home. It was nothing special, just spaghetti with Marcella Hazan’s buttery tomato sauce. As for Ray’s fantastic assemblage, I found myself loitering with pleasure by the house phone, for a change, while I waited this morning for the locksmith, who had just been announced, to make his way upstairs. There is so much to look at now!

After dinner, Kathleen and I watched another episode of Lewis. We reached Season Three, Episode Four, “Countercultural Blues” I think it’s called, the one with Joanna Lumley and Simon Callow. Season Eight comes out on DVD in Britain tomorrow, and I’ve already placed my order.

Shortly before dark, when JM and Ray were both at work, I was wandering around the apartment aimlessly (not really — but don’t ask me to remember what I was doing) feeling almost faint. Kathleen was exhausted at about the same time. But we stayed up very late. It will be weeks before the panic of moving drains from our bloodstreams. Meanwhile, the tempo of Kathleen’s work has picked up; “a maelstrom until February” is promised. At the moment, Kathleen is attending a business luncheon on the subject of something called liquid alts, which sounds to me like a rather nasty kind of enema. (Remember that tremendously funny Tom Sharpe farce with scenes at an abandoned spa?)

At last, the sun is passing about to pass behind the front of the building. Is it something to do with old age? When I was young, the sun stood still, wherever it was, but now it moves. What I mean is that I can see the drift of shadows across a wall. I used to be incapable of perceiving this motion. I am not altogether happy about losing the incapacity. It is not altogether reassuring to see time change on a celestial scale. One knows all about it, of course, but seeing it — how many things there are that we know about but do not care to see.


It is taking a long time to get through the final essay in When I Was Young I Read Books, because Marilynne Robinson’s arguments are, if not subtle, then well outside what currently passes for common sense among educated people when they think about the world and especially about science. Robinson is scrupulous about excluding scientists themselves from the number of her “new atheist” opponents. Scientists “doing science” are not a problem for Robinson, which is to say that they don’t at all interfere with her faith in God. Her target is speculation, whether more or less learned, about propositions that, because they cannot be falsified, do not fall within the activity of proper science, and therefore play no part in the “scientific” undermining of religion. She makes many statements that I have already but otherwise come to agree with, such as the “religious” nature of atheism. If I feel that something is being left out of account, it is not a matter that really belongs in an essay entitled “Cosmology.”

Insofar as Christianity matters as a religion, and not merely as a complex of ethics, it requires a loving God who cares about each of us personally. It’s easy to lose sight of this when contemplating the origin of the cosmos and the meaning of life and —  easiest of all — those ethics. Specifically, Christianity insists that Jesus Christ, only begotten son of God, was crucified and died for our sin, to absolve us of Adam’s disobedience and to assure our physical resurrection on Judgment Day. Very little of this dogma can be traced directly to the utterances of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, but that is water under the bridge so far as Christianity is believed in by Christians. I myself am convinced that Jesus (who certainly believed in a God who cared about him) was more concerned about our caring for each other than proving ourselves worthy — how could we even begin? — of God’s love. God’s love was a model for us all, and I have no trouble taking the model as the ultimate authority of humanism.

So my difference from Marilynne Robinson, and from the new atheists that she writes about, and from those who speculate about the multiverse is that I feel no pressure to explain existence. I take it as a given, an axiom that I don’t need to demonstrate and couldn’t if I tried. I perhaps more comfortable with mystery than Robinson is herself.

Reading Robinson:
The Politics of Caring
17 November 2014

Monday, November 17th, 2014

This is my new view. Some might find it depressing, but I rather like it. The leaves have been shed by the tree in the yard behind the whitish building on the left, and I’ve cropped out the slice of sidewalk on 86th Street.  So there’s more to it than the photograph suggests. Also much more looking up. I took the picture standing up, to avoid the screens behind the lower window panes. Seated, I can see the top of the sliver building. That’s the one across 86th Street, smack in the middle of the picture — which captures almost its entire width. There was a vogue for such constructions in the early Eighties (living in our second apartment, on the seventh floor almost directly opposite, we watched it go up), but then, I believe, they were banned. Meanwhile, just for orientation, our old apartment was the one in the opposite corner, on the right, only on a higher floor. You can see what would be the window of the blue room, just beyond the balcony railing. The window directly opposite belongs to the bedroom of the apartment next door.

The whitish building used to be a residential hotel. Then it was gutted, leaving only the four curtain walls. It was amusing to peer over our balcony railing and pretend to be looking down into the ruined tower of a demolished castle. But that phase didn’t last very long. When first rebuilt, it served as a halfway house, and there used to be jolly holiday parties in the patio. I don’t know what’s going on there now.

So, everything is different, but also much the same.


The view seems far more familiar than the contents of my head. It’s not just the diversion of mental resources to the organization of a new kitchen, or to the million-and-one nitzy decisions about where to put what everywhere else. It’s also the impact of Marilynne Robinson. Oh no! regular readers will gasp, here we go again. Last year, it was Hannah Arendt. This year — but Robinson hasn’t, to my knowledge, written nearly so much as Arendt, so I won’t be ploughing through book after book, filling entries with my amazed impressions. Robinson’s thought is also more concentrated upon a single point. She believes that we are images of God. This means almost exactly the opposite of what you might think. It means that we are fully as wonderful creatures as images of God would be. Like God — this part is new, but it makes terrible sense of Scripture — we have awful powers, and we allow evil to exist in the world. (Very bad things, anyway.) But that’s not the whole story, and we’re simply not, according to Marilynne Robinson, the depraved monsters, at war with “nature,” that modern anthropology makes us out to be. She wants us to stop thinking cynically about ourselves — it’s a terrible habit that, like smoking, does unimaginably more harm than good. (Maybe we’re cynical because we can’t smoke.)

It’s easy to say that Robinson is a self-confessed progressive Calvinist. But, as with Arendt’s conception of the human condition, you have to rethink everything in order to grasp the remark’s implications. Our political discourse has degenerated into an absurd polarization that resembles nothing so much as a softball game played by teams that nobody would pick. The alignments — just to pick one, the association of faith in God with a conservative outlook — are unnaturally exhaustive, by which I mean that everything is on one side or the other. Liberals who believe in God don’t have a voice, because conservative refuse to believe them on this point. Widespread fundamentalism — childish nostalgia for simpler times that never were — is certainly regrettable, but so is the progressive tendency to reject everything that’s old and to become infatuated with everything new. Marilynne Robinson wants us to stop supporting this bad ball game. She wants us to stop playing games altogether, at least when we ought to be taking each other seriously and improving the infrastructure.

It seems the most natural thing in the world that intelligent women would have a far better grasp of the natural frontier that separates public life from private life than their male counterparts do, because for men in our culture, “private life” means “solitary life” and independence, whereas for women it means “family life” and caring. Women don’t fear that public life will swamp or pre-empt private life, because they trust their own sense of right and wrong to keep that from happening. Even in the most totalitarian experiments, the germ of private life has been kept alive. For all the rubbly catastrophe of the Twentieth Century, at least it taught us that human beings are not good at being engineered. Crooked timber and all that.

It will be argued that women are better at caring because they’re mothers, but I beg to repeat that I’m talking about intelligent women. Intelligent women apply their experience of family life to imagining other families with similar joys and needs. Being mothers isn’t enough; the sense of caring doesn’t come with the act of caring, but the awareness of it, and that information is no less available to men than to women. As things stand, however, women do display an aptitude. They get it, that everybody needs to be cared for in some way or another.

Absolute independence is a chimerical nightmare, not the hallmark of a strong character, because it misunderstands privacy as indifference. That’s to say that, as an independent man, I grant you your privacy because I don’t give a damn about you, and if my independence requires that you not give a damn about me, that’s not too high a price to pay. But it is too high a price, far too high. The extravagance of the price is betrayed every time a strong man has to avoid confessing the truth, that he does give a damn about someone else, especially when that someone else is also a strong, heterosexual man.

Once you start caring, how do you know when to stop? There can be no systematic, rule-of-thumb answer, and this is another thing that intelligent women seem to get. The worst thing about caring is that it calls for tough choices. But you learn to make them and try to do your best. That’s not a very sound principle for political life, but then caring is private, not public, and therefore not political. But political life does depend, very much, on the contribution, intellectual and otherwise, of men and women who know how important caring is. People who don’t care in private will never care enough about politics to do it right.

Official Secrets Week:
10-14 November 2014

Monday, November 10th, 2014


My writing table has become an island of mess in a desolate waste. The urge to sweep it clear is very strong. But sweep it clear to where?

I have made an unspecified number of trips to a lower floor. I have had plenty of help. And yet this old apartment remains, basically, crammed. The tipping point has not been reached. By the end of the week, however, it will all be over. It will have to be, contractually.

When I woke up yesterday, I managed to fix a nice weekend breakfast, but I hardly made it through the Times afterward without longing to crawl back into bed. Instead of which, I got dressed and went downstairs with Kathleen. Kathleen was busy with bubble wrap yesterday — that is her specialty. The bubble wrap work is largely complete. Most fragile items have been protected. It astonishes me to see how many of our belongings are not fragile.

I expect that Kathleen is dozing on the train. She has a meeting in Washington this afternoon, and the Acela is not running for some reason, so Kathleen will spend the bulk of the day on a train. (She looked into flights: they’re twice as expensive. When did that happen? Good that it did, though.) I will not be dozing. I will be emptying the kitchen, and making more trips to the lower floor. Many more trips. These trips are occasions for thought, but not for thoughts about anything of interest to readers of this Web log.



Just lost an entry. Was signed out but didn’t know it. Surprise! Very tired.



The computer has been relocated to the lower floor. It developed a glitch overnight, but evidently not one to disturb the communication of my lofty thoughts. At least my eyes are lifted. The new view is full of buildings that rise high about me. I had no view at all in the old apartment; my computer desk faced a wall. Even when it faced a window, there was no view, because all I could see from my desk was the balcony. Now I have a view not entirely unlike the view from the balcony (the one upstairs). No horizon, to be sure. But plenty of apartment windows, and these are now much closer. Not too close — not too close for me. Kathleen deplores the Rear Window quality of the view from our bedroom (and from the book room, which is right next to it), but I rather like it.

The view from the living room is charming — but I’ve already mentioned it. The building across the street is not in fact Victorian but midcentury urban vernacular. It’s pleasant to look at by day, because it is clad in red brick. At night, not so much. Almost every room appears to be lighted by a glaring ceiling fixture. The non-descript walls are mostly bare. All of this is obvious to the aimless eye; you can’t help but notice.

So it is all very different on the lower floor. The pluses outweigh the minuses, I think, but we’re not entirely in yet; the final move isn’t until Friday. (Then we’ll find out just how screwed we are on the closet front.) Right now, it’s just different. The weather has turned damp. The sky is a dull white not unlike the bricks of this building, which are very much part of the new view. The weather is not uplifting. But I can see it now.

I struggled all day yesterday, amidst many other tasks, to empty the old kitchen, which I had rather naively hoped to accomplish on Monday. Great progress was made, but the closer I got to attainment, the more recalcitrant and obtrusive the remaining items became. And it soon came to pass that the new kitchen was full. Nicely full, that is — not crammed. The cabinets were not stuffed with odds and ends, and I was determined to keep them that way. So the elementary rules of physics — everything must be somewhere, and two things can’t occupy the same space — are giving me a headache. That’s why I’m writing here. It’s so agreeable to accomplish something. There’s a bag in the foyer that’s stuffed with bubble-wrapped breakables — soufflé dishes, small plates — and I’ve no idea what I’m going to do with them after I unpack it.

It’s good to be in the presence of words. My own words, yes, but also those of Marilynne Robinson, whose essay collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, has been my companion this week. On equality in America:

The meaning of it is much disputed — does it mean equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? Frankly, if we were to achieve either we might find that it resembled the other nearly enough to make the question moot.

I find Robinson’s small-bore but perfectly-aimed shots at philosophy deeply refreshing. So much of what passes for elevated discourse is simply juvenile hair-splitting. To propose a distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome and then to erect a political dualism on facing fronts sounds a lot cleverer than it really is, and, what’s worse, it sucks up the energy that actually working for equality would achieve. At the risk of proposing a fatuity of my own, I’d say that we are much more agitated by gross inequality than we are attracted to generally uniform equality. We don’t want everyone to be the same, but we don’t want anyone to go without the resources of a decent life — our very idea of those resources and of that decent life shaped by the condition of fortunate people. Some day, we will know enough about the brain and its impact on personal character to match students with teachers who will most effectively educate them. Until then, university will be a hit-or-miss affair. Most university life today seems to be a social occasion. I can’t think why anyone would worry about equality of access to our “best schools.”

One reason why I lost yesterday’s entry (because I didn’t look to see if I was signed out — I never do — and because I failed to copy and save the HTML before clicking on the “update” button — which I always do) is that I walked to Gracious Home at lunchtime. I wanted to buy a card table and a trash can. I had looked at the store’s Web site the night before, but there was only one table on offer, while the array of trash cans was visually bewildering — every item was shown at the same size. The table didn’t thrill me, but I ended up buying it, because the other table that was on offer at the store was even less thrilling. As for the trash can, I chose a small cylindrical one that I should have preferred in oblong form. The oblong trash cans were all much too large. Having opted for delivery of my purchases, I couldn’t very well indulge in a taxi ride home. I couldn’t say that I needed the exercise, either, but I was too tired to be bored by the same old Upper East Side sights.

Now I must run upstairs, to get a few things that will improve the quality of life in the book room. By the way, the writing table shown above is now on the lower floor, right behind me in fact, and, aside from two potted plants, empty.

And now there’s a lamp as well. It’s time for lunch, but I haven’t the strength. I’ve been yielding to a relatively sordid impulse lately and taken to patronizing Burger King about once every two weeks. I bring the food back to the apartment. Burger King is just a few up the street from Fairway. First I do the healthy shopping, then the gross.


Still Wednesday

At Fairway, I couldn’t decide what to buy for dinner, so I bought for three. Thus was I too laden for a side trip to Burger King. So I came home and made a sandwich (ham and Swiss). I read Marilynne Robinson on one of her favorite subjects, rapidly becoming one of mine: bogus scientism. This largely is a problem of journalism, I think, of professional commentators who insult their best traditions with fuzzy, armchair ideas that generate not good writing but readable copy. Life is both too complicated (particle physics; the human brain) and too simple (hey, just look around!) for journalism. It tempts us with revelations that (the smarter we are, the better we know) we don’t really understand, and with promises of inside information that ipso facto can’t be truly “inside.” There are days when The New York Times is really too twaddlesome to read.

Robinson writes about the conundrums that bogus scientism has created about human nature. How much of our makeup reflects “adaptation,” and how much is “accidental”? “Natural” is defined, basically, as “Pleistocene.” This is nothing but the age-old complaint about Golden Ages, the Fall of Man, and the State of Nature, dressed up in a mongrel word that’s half-Latin and half-Greek. Once upon a time — well, at least we know that we didn’t ride around on the backs of dinosaurs. But life was, it is alleged, “simpler.” I rather doubt it! You try keeping clean and fresh without the help of a modern bathroom and a good washer/drier! (My dear, quipped a noblewoman at Versailles, her hands were as dirty as my feet!)

Because they usually spend so little time with them, grown men have a habit of imagining that children lead simple lives, and this is probably the root of the nostalgia for Neverland. But nobody’s life is simple, at least without the narcotizing help of stultifying routine. What life brings over time is not an increase of complexity but an ever-growing load of memories, many of them calcified into a sense of disappointment. Disappointment is not only a very bad habit, reflecting a failure of generosity toward oneself, but an indicator of groundless expectations. It doesn’t really matter what exactly didn’t happen, given all that did. This not a matter of simple-mindedly looking on the bright side of things. It is rather one of looking very close.

(What is an article about the caricatures policy at the new Palm doing in a newspaper?) (Oh, and the other day, the Times took care to identify Calais as a “French port.” I don’t think that anyone unaware of that fact — anyone raised in the Anglophone tradition, that is — ought to be allowed to read the Times.)

After lunch, I thought that I’d read a little and perhaps write a little, but I had to brush my teeth, and my toothbrush is still upstairs. So I gathered up the totes. After taking care of myself, I brought down all the remaining liquor, the fish poacher, and two desktop receptacles. One contains my little black book — actually a tiny address book produced for the Vuillard show at the Montréal Musée des Beaux Arts. The other holds a collection of neatly trimmed clippings with important recipes, such as the one for roast beef with “Henry Bain sauce” and the even more vital one for Marcella Hazan’s simplicissimo tomato sauce (long-simmered tomatoes, halved onion, and hunk of butter). Unless I decide to roast a chicken, I will need one of these recipes later this afternoon. My toothbrush, however, is still upstairs.


Thursday, briefly

We were saved by the cable guy, of all people — but to hear that story about moving day T – 1 and its abrasive effect upon marital harmony, you will have to send me a very large cheque — the kind that’s spelled that way.

In the morning, I struggled with counting bricks. Not real bricks — perhaps that was the problem — but clever faux plastic ones, half as thick and not even a tenth of the weight of a real brick, designed for garden walkways but perfect for New York balconies, which are surfaced in uninviting concrete upon which tenants soon learn that carpeting (of any kind) is not the answer. The plastic bricks, which snap together, are perfect for dirt and everything else that befalls a balcony: to sweep is to tidy. Messy particles fall between the cracks, and the worst that can happen is the stray weed.

Our upstairs balcony took about 600 bricks. A pricey proposition, but worth it. Even pricier now, perhaps, as the widgets have gone out of production — probably because it was left to me to discover their aptitude for grimy Gotham. On Saturday, Ms NOLA and her husband, ED, packed up enough bricks to pave our new, smaller balcony, which is less than half the size. Later in the week, our lovely neighbor, who has already taken so much off our hands (for which we are the grateful ones, as, knowing where our pieces are, we don’t really feel that we have lost them, change of title notwithstanding), accepted our offer to give her (for the duration of her tenancy) enough bricks to cover her balcony, which is of the same size. That being the case, I knew that we could calculate the number of bricks to pack for her. So I set out to count them.

The rest of the story will have to wait for tomorrow, as Kathleen has just finished the task that brought us down here on a midnight run (practically), and we really must get to bed.


Friday — beyond panic

How about counting boxes of books? With one of those sideways eights.

The worst of it is that the bookcases ought to be repainted (while they’re still empty). The two largest cases, moreover, have to be re-assembled by the cabinet men (on Tuesday). So we shall be living with walls of boxed books, with narrow corridors threading among them.

We still have to do something about our clothes, and the pictures on the walls — and compete with the renovators working on the 19th floor for the elevator. Fun.


Friday/Saturday, Kathleen asleep

A wonderful day, despite the awful moment when I paid a visit to the old apartment after the movers left and saw what to be moved remained. Even so, my plans for the new apartment blossomed beyond my dreams, with an unfailing spaciousness of atmosphere that I resolved to preserve from clutter of any kind, no matter what might have to go in order to keep the new place “clean.” Even when I’m done, of course, there will be twice as many objects as a normally stylish person would allow, and even now I’m coping with the problem of the love-seat echo — the sight of one sofa-for-two positioned just beyond, no further than would be the case in a furniture showroom, another. If that is to be the worst of my worries, I’m a very lucky householder.

It would not have happened without Ray Soleil. I should have felt that I was taking grotesque advantage of his generosity if he had not revealed, over and over again, the pleasure that he takes in getting details obsessively right. This zeal was matched, however, by a willingness to do brute service that one seldom encounters in an intelligent person (namely, me), and it was crowned at the end by his hanging of our largest picture, a painting whose creator, as it happens, was considering scraping it down, to reuse the canvas, when I worked out a trade involving the entirety of my classical-LP collection. There is no reason to think that the picture will ever be mounted in a museum, but it has aged — lived — well, very well, and those who get to know it tend to love it.

For about twenty-five years, it hung opposite our bed, and I can’t tell you how many imaginary faces and beasts I have seen in its sketches of Houstonian arbors — for it was then, in my radio days, that the picture was acquired. Kathleen has always been a great fan, and, lately, so has Ray. I myself was beginning to feel like the artist: I was almost ready to have the canvas unstretched and rolled, because the necessary wall space seemed to be lacking in the new apartment. But Ray pressured me to rethink my ideas for the foyer, which is where Sam Philpot’s painting now hangs, already in pride of place and obviously, at least in our apartment, a masterpiece. Even the whorehouse-red lampshades (inspired by Raise the Red Lantern, in color if not in shape) that stand on the sideboard beneath it do nothing but intensify the painting’s enthusiasm for the hue of canna lilies. Kathleen and Ray both insist that they now see a range of blues that they had not noticed before. This is going slightly too far for me. The painting, which, now I think of it, needs a title, has always been for me a study in green, greens of every kind, with counterpoint in Chinese red. It’s no wonder I gave away all my records for it (even the Karajan Rosenkavalier). But not on account of its blues.

It is like the early days of the Soviet Revolution, when brainy people had reason to be hopeful. We chant the B-52s’ line and promise to leave our behinds in the past. This means that we don’t put things behind other things, where they will stand untended, gathering disgusting coats of dust, whilst we go about our lazy lives. We don’t and we won’t. And yet: what’s behind the chairs in the bedroom but the entirety of our collection, or nearly, of framed artworks? Everything but the paintings is stacked on the floor — there was nowhere else to put it. Sam’s picture is up, and Kathleen’s Camp Wohelo paddle, and the Mexican Madonna, painted on tin, that my mother acquired during those Houston days and that I have hung reverentially (though revering I know not what) ever since I came into possession of it. Also — this was the first thing to go up — the Louis Phooey mirror, of cheval-glass length, that Ray insisted upon mounting over what we call “the commode,” a three-drawer Louis Phooey side table (Third Republic doubtless) that Kathleen and I purchased at auction when her parents were unloading their “investment” pieces. Kathleen is the only person in the world who thinks that it was normal not only to buy but to pay top dollar for her parents’ heirlooms, but I cannot claim to be bewildered or even unsympathetic, even if our bid for the five-legged fauteuil that we really wanted was surpassed by someone else’s. I never felt more authentically WASP (which of course I can never legitimately feel, having belonged to the Catholic minority in Bronxville) than when we wrote the check for that commode.

Interesting to think that there are social worlds in which the word “commode” means something very different from something that you would pay a lot of money to buy from your family.

I see that I never told the story about counting bricks. The faux plastic bricks that I was talking about, and which the movers brought down to the new apartment, then returned to the higher floor on which we used to live, placing them this time outside the door of the neighbor who wanted them, can be laid down any way you like, but they’re really intended to be placed in alternating pairs — two aligned north-south, say, surrounded by pairs aligned east-west. Counting the bricks on our balcony, I counted the pairs. Eight (or was it nine?) pairs deep, and fifteen pairs wide. The problem arose with multiplication. I ought to have known that, in the two-dimensional world that I was measuring, the pair factor could count only once. There could be eight rows of fifteen pairs, or fifteen rows of eight, but the total number of bricks involved was not the product of sixteen bricks by thirty.

I don’t have a head for numbers. Or rather, I have a head for numbers in which some numbers are far more interesting than others; say, four over seven or nine. I can ‘t say that I’m in love with foursomes, but I do love the number four — I believe, I suspect, that it is God. The fact that numbers are not equal, qua numbers, makes calculation very difficult for me. You’d think that, being the man I am, I’d have a natural sympathy for odd numbers, but I don’t. Quite the reverse.

As it turned out, there simply weren’t enough bricks to fill the boxes that I thought that our neighbor needed. Kathleen, who has become a reluctant observer, rather than a connoisseur, of my intellectual weaknesses, kept telling me that my calculations were wrong, but since her math is even worse than mine she was unwilling to press the point. Eventually I figured out that I was trying to cube, if not a circle, the balcony.

Sometimes it would be simpler just to count the goddam bricks. One by one.

As she was falling asleep, Kathleen mentioned that she was doing so on our first night in the new apartment. A very perfect killjoy, I replied that this was the fourth time that we would be falling asleep in a new (to us) apartment in this building. Kathleen managed to fall asleep nonetheless, thus answering the question that Ray Soleil asked during our adventures on this long but heroic day. “How has she stayed married to you?” Kathleen can always — always — fall asleep.

Bon weekend à tous!

Cognition Log:
Seeing What Is Seen
7 November 2014

Friday, November 7th, 2014

It can take a while to see things — to see, that is, that you have seen them.

Take the view from the new apartment. I saw it right away, of course, but I didn’t see what I had seen for several weeks.

Whenever we talk about the move, we regret that we’ll be losing our great view. It is a great view, and it is still a great view thirty years later, only slightly diminished by the many apartment towers that have been built along its periphery since we took possession. These blocked our view of the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges, but the vista, the long view not into but entirely across Queens County — the North Shore Towers, right across the Nassau County Line, glimmer on the horizon — has never been disturbed. In the middle distance, planes take off and land at LaGuardia. We can’t see the airport, except for a tiny strip of runway at the extreme eastern edge, but following the path of a flight coming in from the south can provide all the amusement that a tired mind needs, especially if it’s Friday afternoon, and the planes are coming in at the rate of nearly one per minute. And this middle distance is still so far away that we don’t hear a thing: only in the dampest weather does the reversal of a landing jet’s engines occasionally sound its thunder. We even have an interesting strip of the East River. Even if we can’t see the bridge, we can see Hell Gate itself, where the tides might be boiling. It happens that our view is parallel, not perpendicular, to that stretch of the water, so that boats sail to and fro, not by.

Although more than a thousand apartments face ours, from First, York, and East End Avenues, we cannot, aside from a few windows on the next building down 86th Street, peer into anyone else’s home without the aid of powerful binoculars. Only at night does the flickering of television screens remind us that those slabs of brick are inhabited. When the sun sets in the summer, it turns them into cliffs and mesas from a Southwestern landscape.

But this is the view from the balcony. The view from the apartment — from the living room — is of the largely blank side wall of the next building down the street. Four vernacular buildings — what we call walkups — and a bit of our building’s garage stand between here and there, so the building is not oppressively close. Nevertheless, it presents nothing but a wall of bricks. That’s what you see through the living room window when you walk into the apartment, and the view does not change until you approach the balcony door.

Our apartment has no view at all.

The new apartment has a lovely view. It puts me in mind of Greenwich Village. Through the tops of the trees on either side of 87th Street, we see a row of handsome Victorian buildings, interrupted by one mildly Gothic façade. The buildings on our side of the street are undistinguished, but of course we can’t see them. Unlike the view from our apartment, the new view is long on charm, and I hope to make that charm the keynote of our new living room. It was only when I was struggling to explain this to Kathleen that I realized that the new apartment has a view.


Similarly, as I was reading the final pages of John Carey’s The Unexpected Professor, I understood how conventional book reviews work, and at the same time understood why I was trying to avoid writing them — which is to say that I saw what I had seen. The conventional book review is nothing  more than a nosegay of impressions, offered in the hope that at least one of the blossoms will inspire a reader to buy the book. (I’m talking about favorable book reviews, of course. I don’t give much thought to the other kind.) I finally understood that I understood this when I was struggling to remember what it was that had given me the idea that I might enjoy The Unexpected Professor. I don’t think that I’ve seen it reviewed, although I may be wrong about that — but it doesn’t matter. All it took was one effective mention. No doubt the local context was important. But it’s quite clear that I was not persuaded to buy Professor Carey’s delightful memoir by a carefully-reasoned essay.

Carefully-reasoned essays occasionally appear as book reviews, but they’re usually quite long, and directed to a community in which the author, the reviewer, and the reader(s) figure, in one way or another, as professional colleagues. Essays of this kind actually made the TLS such a boring read for me that I gave it up. I cannot be persuaded to buy books. If I allowed that to happen, I’d be bankrupt in a month, and homeless, too, not on account of the bankruptcy but because the stacks of books would leave no room for me. There are simply too many books that I ought to read! Happily, I don’t want to read the books that I’m supposed to read. Something else is necessary.

Sacks’s immersion in science was rapturous, akin to what less gifted boys might find in sexual awakening. (294)

That’s John Carey on Oliver Sacks’s Uncle Tungsten. It doesn’t make me want to read Sacks, but it points to the kind of thrill that makes me pick up a book not out of duty but with desire. That desire is frequently transitory — all too often, the book that I must read right now has little or nothing to offer next week — and I am sometimes ashamed of my capriciousness. But my pleasure is both authentic and keen. I wouldn’t say that it is altogether effortless, but I can say that I’m never putting any effort into enjoying myself (except in the case of reading Ivy Compton Burnett, where making effort is the perverse jolly).

And that’s what I want to write about — that pleasure. If this means that I don’t provide a dutifully comprehensive summary of a book’s contents, then so much the better. You won’t miss it.

Bon weekend à tous!

Housekeeping Twaddle:
The Book Room
6 November 2014

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

It was perhaps a tad pretentious to call this room — this room that I’m sitting in, not the one in the photograph — “the blue room,” although it is indeed very blue. I got the idea from the White House, which has three formal rooms that are known by their coloring — red, green, and blue. I always thought that this was pretty cool, because I grew up in a world where rooms were known by their functions. I hated, from an early age, the terms “living room” and “den.” The latter is just gross, describing not a room but the regressive state of mind of an ageing American male. The former, as a result of the latter, has become ironic, because in the typical American house, if it still has a living room, nobody lives in it.

In Manhattan, space is too tight for most living rooms to go unused, but when we moved into this apartment in 1983 we were confronted by a second bedroom that was definitely not going to be used as a bedroom. A guest room, occasionally, but more often a dining room. A multi-purpose room, with the household’s television set and also the bookshelves, cleared from the living room because I had learned, or thought that I had learned, that bookshelves make many people uncomfortable, at least when they’re stocked with books. With this vision in mind, I decided that we would paint the second bedroom in a dark blue color and call it “the Blue Room.”

It must have been pretentious, because most visitors simply couldn’t bring themselves to say it. They would speak of it as “the library” or “your office.” I find the concept of the home office disagreeable and unattractive. It licenses the misuse of a proper room as a walk-in closet. Things that ought to be put away are left out in the open. Tacky and ridiculous items collect near the “workspace.” Why not go all the way and buy some knocked-down Herman Miller partitions? Then you would have a home office cubicle. Lovely.

My resistance of the use of “library” was quite different. It seemed even more pretentious than calling the room by its color. The Blue Room is blue, but it is not a library, because it is not fitted out as a library, with built-in shelves lining the walls. Also, “library” is nearly as suspect to me as “den.” It, too, describes a state of mind, in this case the aspirational outlook of somebody who would like to have read a great deal but who doesn’t in fact do much reading at all. Such people always make me think of the hair driers in beauty salons. If only there were  something that they could just stick their heads into, something that would do the work of reading while they looked at their iPhones! Libraries are nearly as ersatz. A recent cover of The New Yorker showed a woman reading amidst stacks and stacks of books. This is the library fantasy. You can read only one book at a time. In a frenzy of research, you might consult five or ten books. But stacks and stacks? They’re not books anymore, just atmosphere.

Seven or eight years ago, I moved all of my clothes into the blue room. This made a lot of sense, because I’ve always used the second bathroom, which is right next to the blue room, and never the one in the bedroom. Now Kathleen could keep all of her clothes in one room. I slept in the bedroom, watched movies in the bedroom, and kept my reading chair in the bedroom; I didn’t leave, I just evacuated my stuff. This gave the bedroom something of the getaway charm of a hotel room.

By then, the dining table was long gone, as was the convertible couch: the Blue Room was, effectively, My Room. But although it had a reasonably comfortable reading chair, and Ray Soleil and I would occasionally drink tea in here, I did very little in the room but change my clothes and write.

“The Writing  Room.” Ocean liners and grand hotels used to have writing rooms — and they were almost as opulent as the White House’s Red, Green, and Blue Rooms. In the country house that we had for a while, I painted a room Chinese red and called it the Writing Room. It wasn’t grand, but it was spare, with a table in the middle and accommodation for no other activity. Remembering the Writing Room perks me up, because it was very spruce, but then it makes me sad, because almost everything that I wrote in the Writing Room was in one way or another misbegotten.

The audacity of having a writing room was permissible as country-house whimsy; I should never have dared to use the term in this apartment. But that’s what the Blue Room is: a room for writing. The difference between a writing room and a home office is the difference between Sir Francis Bacon and David Allen. It is the difference between weighing and considering and getting things done. I do get a few things done in the Blue Room. I pay the bills every month. I pay them the old-fashioned way, with checks and stamped envelopes. Even with Quicken, the process takes me about two hours; it is aptly called paperwork. But mostly I write. I write thank-you notes. I remember to send Will his allowance. I weigh and consider and I write things down. Writing is never done. It is like everything else in a living household: the bed is never made, the dishes are never washed, the clothes are never clean. There are stretches of time when everything appears to be in order, but sooner or later someone sneezes, someone fills a tumbler with ice and water, someone slips under a blanket for a nap. Someone sits down at the keyboard. The disorder of life resumes.

But you have to put books somewhere, once you have taken them out of the hundred boxes that you have just moved downstairs. The second bedroom in the new apartment will be white, just like all the other rooms. For thirty years, I have lived with bolder colors than most interior designers would prescribe, but from now on I will look to the landlord to keep things looking fresh. The bookcases that are going from one second bedroom to the other will be distressed with coats of cream-colored paint, rubbed to show hints of their old colors and roughed up a bit to conceal wear and tear. The room that is not quite My Room and certainly not my Home Office will not be the Blue Room, either. It’s function has settled: it will be the Book Room.

Morning After Note:
Miraculous Ignition
5 November 2014

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014

Not even the glowering crenellations of a hundred boxes of books can prevent a flurry of new arrivals. The choices were disciplined: Marilynne Robinson’s wonderfully titled essay collection, When I Was Young I Read Books, and Colm Tóibín’s contribution to a documentary record of the Irish Famine, plus copies of The Blackwater Lightship to give to friends. Ian McEwan’s latest, The Children Act. At Crawford Doyle the other day, I gave my curiosity freer rein, and picked up books by Patrick Modiano (whose melancholy was instantly appealing) and Neel Mukherjee (whose tone of voice suggested the English Literature of India rather than soap opera; still, a gamble). Along, that is, with Jill Lepore’s book about Wonder Woman, which I’d asked the shop to set aside for me when it came in. Having just finished Factory Man — on the very day, of all days, on which the Wilfully Mindless Party won control of the American legislature — my reading pile was running low. No more.

But I wish I could remember what prompted me to order John Carey’s memoir, The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books. I suspect that it had something to do with Inspector Morse and his semi-ilk (Endeavour and Lewis), but there must have been more to it than the Oxford angle. I had never heard of John Carey, and that alone ought to have stayed my hand. About to be eighty, Carey has been an Oxford don for most of his life, writing studies of Donne and Dickens and compiling anthologies for Faber. Such is the rough picture that I have going in. The book arrived only yesterday, and I haven’t quite reached the beginning of his university career. But I have not come across anything so compulsively readable in ages. This aspect of Carey’s book is made all the more striking by the mellow quality of his tale, which, while not without its excitements, seems remarkably steady. He is, or was for his times, the normalized Alan Bennett: a straight academic. But he is almost as slyly funny as my favorite member of Beyond the Fringe. The Unexpected Professor is a prose classic that ought to begin appearing on the curricula of better schools pronto.

Consider the following paragraph, taken from the chapter about Carey’s national service, which he spent largely in Egypt. (I can’t think of anything that would keep a roomful of clever boys more highly entertained than this entire episode.) In it, Carey describes a visit to the ancient monastery of St Catherine, in the Sinai Peninsula.

We were not very welcome. It took a while before we managed to attract anyone’s attention. At length a monk appeared. He was robed in black, with a flat-topped black hat as worn by Greek Orthodox clergy, and had a grizzled beard. Eyeing our armaments, he expressed regret that the monastery did not receive overnight guests, but said he would show us round next day. So we unrolled our sleeping bags on the warm sand, and took turns on guard duty till dawn. He came to see us after breakfast, and took us inside. It was like a little town, and utterly deserted. Not another soul appeared. Perhaps the other monks were at prayers, or hiding in their cells. After the glaring light outside, the basilica was too dark for us to see anything, so we had to take it on trust when our monk extolled its rare and splendid icons. We declined his offer to show us the charnel house, and he declined our request to see the library. In 1844, a German visitor called von Tischendorf, to whom the monks showed their treasures, took away with him a large portion of the oldest surviving manuscript of the Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, which has never been returned, and is now in the British Library. Memory of the theft evidently lingered, so we had to make do with a peep through the library door. However, we were shown the Burning Bush, and photographed it for reconnaissance purposes. It did not look a healthy shrub. Perhaps it has never quite recovered from its miraculous ignition. The monastery garden, on the other hand, enclosed in its own fortified wall, was lush and fragrant. Date palms,  lemon trees, olives and figs spread their grateful shade. There were beds of herbs — thyme, rosemary, juniper. Jasmine scrambled everywhere. On leaving we presented our monk with some packets of cigarettes, which he accepted eagerly. In those days no one knew that smoking killed you, so we all smoked, and felt no guilt handing him our lethal packages. I came away thinking perhaps an Oxford college would be quite like this monastery — the seclusion, the scholarly calm, the garden. It was not a very accurate prediction.

This is the sort of triumph upon which the French lavish their explications de texte although its constant shifts in register are hardly Gallic. The passage begins with Carey’s trademark modesty, but only to build to richer and more amusing vistas, hinted at by the lascivious sway of “eyeing our armaments” (linked to overnight), and first accessed in the basilica, where the monk “extolled its rare and splendid [but invisible] icons.” This papery-thin irony will prompt a smile on the lips of all attentive readers, while surreptitiously preparing them for guffaws soon to erupt. With the mention of the charnel house, lips part in delighted surprise — what a touch! The tale of von Tischendorf’s larceny deliberately and misleadingly threatens to restore straight faces, and the peep through the library door seems to bid adieu to comic possibilities, but this is only to prepare the ground for the brisk production of the Burning Bush. The what? The Burning Bush is produced, photographed “for reconnaissance purposes” (why didn’t Indiana Jones think of this?), and thereupon dismissed with the cool disdain that gardeners from the green and sceptered isle have been cultivating for centuries: It did not look a healthy shrub. Blasphemy, surely. Whereupon we are struck down by the truly blazing bush of “miraculous ignition.” Not only blasphemy, but pious blasphemy: in this Scriptural setting, few words can swagger with the insolence of “ignition.” In dazzling command of his material, Carey deploys comparison to take us to the thriving monastery garden, in which his younger self thinks he foresees his future. The appreciation of this lush haven straddles a serpent-in-the-gardenish gift of cigarettes — over which Carey lingers just long enough to remind us how much time has passed since this visit to St Catherine’s occurred, as well as to lodge a curmudgeonly lament for lost pleasures. The paragraph’s final words, loitering beneath the date palms, promise a mordant read ahead.

It is brilliant throughout, but the brilliance is no more readily apparent than the splendid icons. It is the reader’s treat to unpack the magisterial understatement. On its surface, this masterpiece of Oxbridge wit remains a rather straightforward travel narrative. We went, and we saw what there was to see; now, what’s next?

Really, the officers’ mess was a better preparation for college life.

Oh, no!


Every two years at this time,  I telephone Fossil Darling to repeat my observation, first made in the second Clinton Administration, that the Democratic Party has outlived its usefulness by many, many years — nearly fifty, at this point. I do not mean the values of the Democratic Party, such as they may be, but rather the behind-the-scenes constellation of donors,  party operatives, and policy planners. These men and women have, for the best of all reasons (among others), made every imaginable compromise, and they have not only lost all sense of up and down but are training youngsters to manifest the same disorientation. The inverted crown of the party’s failure is its inability to prod the most noble undertaking of its dream of general equality — the eradication of American racism — beyond a point at which it stalled a long time ago. The Democratic Party is in urgent need of a decent burial.

To pick up its standard and carry on the struggle, I propose politics in a new key. Let’s give justice, liberty, and equality a rest; these and many other terms have been polarized into insignificance. Instead of approaching politics as the pursuit of ideal virtues, let’s allow it to be the expression of our best hopes for ourselves as stewards of this planet — a responsibility to which we have been alarmingly awakened. Let’s see how far our own ideas of decency, generosity, and self-respect can carry us.

In other words, let’s go on doing what we’re doing now, but doing it better by paying attention to what we’re doing.

Virtues Memo:
Plain to See
4 November 2014

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

Last night, at dinner, my friend ED and I were talking about Venice. Specifically, we were talking about the sestieri, the sixths (instead of “quarters”) into which the principal mass of the city, flanking the Grand Canal, is divided. We could remember the names of five, but not that of Santa Croce, which we found on a map as soon as we got back to the apartment. Our other, sharper reason for consulting a map was to determine the location of Castello.

We agreed, ED and I, where Castello is — next to San Marco — but I said that it was to the south, while my friend insisted that it was to the north. As ED is someone who tends to know what he’s  talking about, I was extremely uneasy about the possibility that I might be wrong.

It turned out that we were both right and both wrong. It probably doesn’t make much sense to apply the points of the compass to labyrinthine Venice, but if one must, it makes most sense to say that Castello lies to the east of San Marco, from which it stretches both to the north (the hospital and the Fondamente Nuove) and to the south (the Public Gardens).

If I have to be wrong, ED is the man whom I want to be right. But it still killed me to be wrong about Castello. Wrong, because I saw at once that I’d made a snap mistake a long time ago, and never revised it: I believed that Castello began on the far side of the Arsenale. It — doesn’t. I can’t count the number of times that this mistake has caused me to raise my eyebrows in the middle of a Guido Brunetti mystery, but did that ever get me to check the map? I read Brunetti mysteries map in hand, but my mistake about Castello was of the type that, all too often, pre-empts correction.

Now, here’s what’s typically me about this story. ED just got back from a week in Venice. I have never even been to Italy. ED, as I say, is someone who, more than most, knows his onions — and he was just there. strolling from San Marco into Castello. Did that stop me?



I managed to be out of the apartment for more than three hours yesterday, on a circuit of errands that I made up as I went along, just to be away from our crated chambers. After a few dozen blocks, I could actually think. What with Election Day coming up, and the strong personalities in Beth Macy’s Factory Man in mind, I found myself finishing up some connections.

It occurred to me that the virtues that I’ve been writing about here — generosity, decency, and self-respect — are political as well as personal virtues. Unlike “honesty,” for example, they function in the same way at both the intimate and the public level. Honesty is forever breaking down as a virtue because the appropriateness of candor shifts with the distance between people and the size and composition of the crowd. “Tell the truth” is as close to useless as a maxim can be. The concept of truth is hobbled by our belief that “truth” exists “out there” — that Platonic ideals such as truth exist, and, that, if we’re very, very good, we can grasp them.

The possibility that everything that exists might share human imperfection was, I think, physically unbearable to Plato. He bent his extraordinary mental powers to the development of an explanation of the world that proved to be very satisfying to intelligent men. It posited a zone free of the organic mutability of human life. In this view, humans might be imperfect mortals, doomed to death and decay, but unchanging ideals, such as truth and justice, lived on eternally, in every age the same. This is the backbone upon which grew the entire Western intellectual tradition — including the very idea of “Western.” This tradition, which was already sufficiently developed a thousand years ago for Islam to consider and reject it, has often been at odds with the capstone Christian virtues, and discord between the intellectual tradition and Christian dogma remains lively. But the habits of mind of educated Westerners are still founded on the axioms of Platonic faith.

The most regrettable aspect of Idealism is its contempt for the ordinary, for the “mere.” More than he knew, Plato was importing Greek ideas about heroes and heroism into his new faith — not the least of its appeals to those intelligent men. As a consequence, our Western ideas of virtue continue to extol the exceptional, the one-off, and especially the active self-sacrifice. We have only recently learned to appreciate — to recognize — the virtues of holding on, making a go of things over time, and enjoying “a good run,” but we still don’t know how to talk about them. Where are the clear and distinct ideas? You can’t construct much of a system with notions of generosity and decency, and “self-respect” seems almost solipsistic. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be any need for systems. The things speak for themselves. So perhaps we ought to tell stories instead of laying down the law, even if this risks cutting off the Western tradition and becoming just like everybody else. A good thing?

Many years ago, when I was engaged in a group reading of the novels of Anthony Trollope, I became preoccupied, as good Trollope readers will, by the concept of the “gentleman.” (There is a pretty good book on the subject, The Gentleman in Trollope, if you can get hold of it.) After much puffing in and out of the cerebral folds, this train of thought carried me to a simple understanding: the gentleman is someone who seeks to make other people comfortable, whatever that means. Whatever that means. Couldn’t be vaguer, as the statement of a rule, and yet, in any particular instance, it is usually very clear what will make people comfortable, at least to those who have given the matter their gentlemanly attention. (My closest approach to a general rule is that civility begins with the offer of a comfortable chair and a glass of water.) In time, my interest in the gentleman faded, but only because the term is problematic for many readers, with its overtones of masculine privilege and social snobbery. The gentlemanly ideal remains explicit in my understanding of generosity.

My virtues are messily interrelated. Where does generosity stop, and decency begin?  They don’t. It is indecent to withhold generosity. What I mean by this is not that I must empty my pockets to the beggars on 86th Street but that it is wrong to get people riled up with inflammatory news stories about Ebola or Obamacare. It is wrong to make people uncomfortable even when, from sheer perversity, that is what they seek to be. (It is like giving car keys to a drunk.) Nor does generosity imply unstinting selflessness. Self-respect imposes material requirements — again, wildly idiosyncratic — that must be met if generosity is not to degenerate into foolishness. Both decency and self-respect seem to rule out the pursuit of glory. Does that erase too much of the flavor of life? Or are video games the solution?

Plato asked his disciples to explain the movement of heavenly bodies in terms of uniform circular motion. It took centuries for bright minds to realize that the very condition, which I have italicized, made explanation impossible. The heavenly bodies that are closest to our planet travel in ellipses, not circles. Mere observation eventually triumphed. But Plato was never interested in what’s plain to see. He was haunted by what ought to be. And he built that obsession into the way that all of us, especially the smart ones, think.

Gotham Diary:
Bad Dreams
3 November 2014

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Goodness — this picture looked fine in the viewfinder of my camera, and as a thumbnail, too, when I sent it along to the cabinetmaker. I had been asked to send photos of the pieces that are to be disassembled before the move and then reassembled afterward. Happily for me, the cabinetmaker is still very much in business, and just around the corner. I received no complaints from that quarter about the blur, which, this morning, captures my uncertain state of mind. I can’t tell if I already occupy this state of mind, or if I’d just like to. The disorientation of living in a half-packed apartment, with its overall air of advanced dementia, has begun to infect my sleep, with the horrible result that I wake up from a nightmare only to discover that it wasn’t a dream!

There is a third piece of cabinetry that I have to ask the workmen about, although I don’t want them to take it apart. I don’t think that it needs to be taken apart, but I may be wrong (elevators). It’s the china cupboard that they built for us about twenty-five years ago. For the first time in ages, it now holds all the china and tabletop crystal that Kathleen and I want to keep. A lot of the really good stuff was stored rather precariously in the drawers of a sideboard. This we emptied onto the dining table. Then we made space for it in the china cupboard by moving out the doubtful items. There weren’t as many of these as I feared. Of course, we had packed up three different sets of china to give away. Two of these were kept in the cupboard, and the vanished stacks of plates left some nice empty spaces. The remaining set, by virtue of having been kept in the sideboard, meant that much less to transfer. The doubtful pieces were odds and ends that I rather liked, but to which Kathleen was indifferent. We discarded most of them. Life will be so much easier with everything not only in one place but in the right place. A bit less everything is a small price to pay.

Kathleen wrapped a great deal of china in “bubble packaging material,” using, I thought, more Scotch tape than wrap. I myself did nothing. I took the weekend off. Kathleen told me to. I didn’t even tidy the bedroom, largely because Kathleen, whose way of taking the weekend off took the form of spending it entirely at home, was always in it. (It is the only habitable space in the apartment, aside from two dining chairs and my desk in the blue room.) So I just read and read and read, until I couldn’t read any more. I was very tired, and doubtless needed the rest, but by Sunday night I was almost in a panic. I kept seeing closets, particularly the back corner of one of the closets in the blue room. Stacks of plastic milk crates stuffed with papers. If I start dreaming about that sort of thing, I’ll need a straitjacket.


On Friday evening, I finished The Iron Lady, John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. It’s worth reading, despite its disagreeable subject, just for the excitement at the end, which, in Campbell’s treatment, packs all the wallop of Aeschylus but without any of the bloodshed. I had never really understood Thatcher’s downfall, except vaguely, as some sort of palace coup. I got it mixed up with the IRA bomb that nearly killed the prime minister during a party conference at Brighton — not really, but sort of. In fact, Thatcher lost a peculiar vote of confidence in Parliament. This vote, instituted back in the Sixties by Sir Alec Douglas Home, the lame, if not lame-duck outgoing Tory, had never been exercised, and a prime minister with majority support ought to have had nothing to fear from it. But, Parliamentary peculiarity that it was, more than a mere majority was required, and Thatcher fell four votes short. Her reflexive response was to insist on a second round, but before this could happen, she was  persuaded to resign by colleagues who could no longer conceal their massive cases of Thatcher fatigue. The local cause of her collapse was some wild talk about a single currency for Europe (this was in 1990, two years before the Maastricht vote). The general cause, though, was the sheer protraction of her regime. She was beginning to look like Walpole, only without the grateful friends.

I had been dying to be done with Thatcher, but, the book closed, I rather missed her, the old witch. Campbell’s book achieved its honorable objective, which was to make it harder to dislike Thatcher in any sweeping, absolute way. If nothing else, he made it difficult to say just what it was that “Thatcherism” accomplished. But the great blot remains undimmed: Thatcher, and the American Republicans who propped up Ronald Reagan, embodied a mortal lack of humane generosity. They cared nothing for those who could not care for themselves. Nothing — Thatcher herself most brazenly of all.

I want to waste as little breath as possible on the evils of the politics of heartlessness. The problem is that those of us on the other side too often don’t know what we’re doing. We create muddles, occasionally of Augaean dimensions, that wind up bestowing the heroic aura of Hercules upon grubbily selfish bean counters. The road to hell may not be paved with good intentions, but the road to Thatcherism certainly is. In political life, good intentions are never enough. Policies must be paid for, and paid for by reasonable means (ie, without mortgaging the future). The complexity of human nature cannot be wished away by political programs.

We also fail by accepting, in the interests of an alleged pragmatism, certain objectionable features of the landscape. Once again, we must assume the mantle of abolitionists. Just as former slaves were set on the road to full political personhood (a road that, to our shame, too many of them still tread), so we must now strip business corporations of a spurious “natural” personhood that grossly amplifies the economic and political power of a few hundred CEOs, who need to be cut down to normal size. As a correlative of this campaign, we must abolish paid political advertising of all kinds, before it makes the Internet too dangerous to use.

Now I’ve moved on to Beth Macy’s Factory Man, which follows The Iron Lady with almost frightening continuity.

Between 1997 and 2000, Bassett Furniture went from operating forty-two factories to fourteen.

“We used to brag about how many plants we had,” Rob Spilman said. “But Paul [Fulton] would say, ‘I’d like to brag about how few plants we have — and how much money we make’.” (226-7)

Capitalists are like big cats. They’re adorable when they’re little, but when they grow up, they eat their employees.