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December 31, 2004

Happy New Year!


I'd love to say that what we have here is some paid advertising, but you're probably not going to believe a thing I say anyway, after the last posting. White Star has been my champagne of choice for years. This holiday season, it comes in a jolly red tin, the sort of thing that you're sure you can find some use for, but in vain. Autant que je sache, White Star is Moët's second-best non-vintage champagne; I find the top-of-the-line product, Brut, too dry and peppery. (If I were a millionnaire, I'd get used to Schramsberg - assuming that I could find it.) In any case, I hope that you're tucked in somewhere with a nice cold bottle of something sparkling. Kathleen and I are home alone as usual, with four and a half ounces of sevruga that ought to last through the weekend. After a dinner of Tournedos au Roquefort, we'll watch our New Year's Eve movie, Woody Allen's Radio Days. And dream about that alternative universe in which we would ring in the New Year at the King Cole Bar.

Extreme Makeover!

Thanks to a link from Lance Arthur at glassdog, I came across an inspiring Web site! A firm called CivicPlus, "the leader in e-government web solutions," is having a little contest. You fill out an entry form, send it to the Sales Manager, and if you're the lucky winner (beyond filling in your name and address, all you have to do is to answer the question, "Why do you think your organization deserves a new website?"), your official site will get a makeover worth $40,000! The thing is, CivicPlus's own Web site doesn't promise anything very interesting. I could come up with something better myself. But you'll have to take my word for it! Send in your name and address, and I'll give you - free! - a Web log makeover worth $10,000,000! Simply click this little link, and you may be the lucky winner.


When I picked up the Times this morning and saw the latest casualty figures from the Christmas Tsunami, all I could think of was the Wizbang post that I couldn't quite bring myself to write about yesterday; I thought I could get away with mentioning the site and faulting its English. The faultiness of the English is not interesting enough to warrant gawking, and I'm sorry to have suggested (if not in so many words) that reading it would be like listening to Florence Foster Jenkins. What I ought to have remarked upon was the stupidity of Paul-Whoever's post, the gist of which scolded blogs of the left for not "covering" the disaster as broadly as the blogs of the right have, allegedly, done.

I've been writing some, and thinking even more, about the importance of getting to know how the right thinks and why it does so. So I visit a site such as Wizbang with the idea of getting inside another person's mind. How naive! I come away fairly retching, having gotten instead inside the laundry bag full of his old socks.

Here goes: according to one of today's posts at Wizbang, liberals are "blind to irony." They fail to see the hypocrisy of lambasting the President for taking days to make a statement about the CT while failing to fill their own blogs with links to this or that disaster-related site.

This is so perplexing to me that I'm tongue-tied. For my part, I don't think much of lambasting the President for his silence. Every day that he holes up at Crawford is a good day for America. Insofar as "liberals" have used the disaster to point up yet again the President's callousness, I think they've taken a cheap shot. Far better would it be to ignore the man altogether. Complain about the things that he does, but let a glaring halo of silence surround his many lapses. Quietly knit them into a scarf, for a hopeful day at The Hague.

But I still can't reason with Wizbang. To pick up his statements is to be seized by the urge to drop them. By all means, read the stuff for yourself, if you can stand the note of chirpy childishness.

This is what we're up against. Yikes.

December 30, 2004

Gee Wizbang

Is ours a "Christian nation" or not? A concise post followed by some very interesting comments appeared on Majikthise the other day. I find myself in accord with the commenter Tristero, who argues that the United States is actually two countries, one overlapping the other, and that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land in only one of them. He also laments the fact that liberals have spent no time studying fundamentalists. Understandable, no doubt, but such ignorance has become an unaffordable luxury.

I had a look at the opposition, today, thanks to a link to Wizbang, Nicely peaceable logo, eh? And I soon noticed, going through some of the comments, that grammar-and-spelling standards somewhat sub-par. But what par would that be?

Something new on Portico: a consideration of Curtis White's The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves. The book has been around for a while but I found it in the "New Paperbacks" section at St Mark's Books not long ago, and picked it up. Flipping through it, I remembered the essay of the same name that was reprinted in Harper's in 2002. The Middle Mind proved to be an exasperating read, because Mr White is, not to put too fine a point on it, righteously pissed off. 



Like everyone else in the well-branded world, The New York Times has been selling off its peripheral assets peripherally, without reducing the value of core possessions. Retaining copyrights, it can afford to offer beautifully framed, matted, and suitably expensive prints of photographs from its archives without actually losing anything - that's the miracle of modern marketing, and I for one intend to wait and see what the consequences turn out to be (that is, I'm not going to predict them in dire terms.) Forty years ago, only weirdos wanted to "own" photographs that had appeared in the newspaper. (Young 'uns, I kid you not.) Ten years earlier, however, The New Yorker discovered a robust market for its cartoon collections, and there's nothing about the Christmas cartoon plates, via Restoration Hardware, that a very good friend gave me this evening, that is going to get the high and mighty in me all roared up. Adorno would have had a fit. Let him.

But I took exception, going through old newspapers for clippings this evening, to the following header, launched beneath the arresting aerial photograph from which the detail above has been taken. The Times, I think, ought not be shouting to the world that "Photography speaks louder than words." It's a dreadful put-down of its own principal product, which is still very much the Grey Lady's pile-up of black words on white sheets. We all know what "louder" is supposed to mean in this sentence: "better." And photographs do not speak "better" than words.

They speak faster. That's the problem. They speak much too much faster. And here we have to think a little about the history of reading. Until photography came along, reading was a straightforward perversion of vision. That was its power, and that was its liability. When you read, you don't see with your eyes. You're not (I hope) looking at "California" as an interesting arrangement of shapes. "California" is a key that your imagination turns into special suites that only you could design. Even if you were to say, "I like this Gill Sans typeface" (do I wish, or what), you would not tumble into the Underground. You would go to California, if only in your mind. Words, in a word, take you to places that you can't, in fact, see. No wonder that reading is so suspect. And let readers never forget that there are almost as many people out there who don't like to read: their imaginations are dangerously rusty.

When photographs began to appear in the newspapers, the logic of reading was altered. Now one could see, and then not see. But what one saw in the newspapers always counted for more. Editors learned this right away. They could "play" a photograph that made its subject look - look like whatever the editors wanted it to. Social scientists will be studying images of Messrs Clinton and Bush (I hope) for years, in order to unearth the tendentious use to which odd shots were been used to ridicule their subjects.

The phrase that the Times has puffed up is, of course, "actions speak louder than words." Photographs are not actions in this sense. They are shortcuts. Look at the Times of my grandfather's day, and you will see hardly any photographs at all. Reading was still the deal in those days. You let the words guide your imagination, even if, like the Judge, you would have killed anybody who accused you of having an imagination. I don't propose a return to simpler times. Photographs are amazingly effective amplifiers. But they never announce their own meaning. Their meaning still has to be got from paragraphs of, one hopes, well-written prose. Photographs will never supply that meaning. And in the absence of well-written prose, the meaning will come from demagogues.

December 29, 2004

The Shock of Recognition



Boy, does Bruce Eric Kaplan have my number! I like to think that I'm a lot nicer - a lot nicer - than the characters who appear in his wonderfully stark drawings, where there are no halftones and it is always black outside even in the middle of the day (could this be a resistance to Los Angeles speaking?). But the shock of recognition, when I opened Mr Kaplan's latest collection, This Is A Bad Time (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and saw this one, was strong enough to make me drop the book.


Before I had a chance to read Susan Sontag's obituary in the Times, a friend called to say that Jerry Orbach died last night. Both died of cancer (leukemia, prostate), and both were relatively young (71, 69), even though they seemed to have been around forever. I remember reading Sontag's Against Interpretation and wondering if I would grow up to be an intellectual.

Being a clearly labeled species of intellectual, scientists in science fiction films are always liable to crack up or go off the deep end. ... Generally, for a scientific enterprise to be treated entirely sympathetically in these films, it needs the certificate of utility. Science, viewed without ambivalence, means an efficacious response to danger. Disinterested intellectual curiosity rarely appears in any form other than caricature, as a maniacal dementia that cuts one off from normal human relations. But this suspicion is usually directed at the scientist rather than his work. The creative scientist may become a martyr to his own discovery, through an accident or by pushing things too far. But the implication remains that other men, less imaginative - in short, technicians - could have administered the same discovery better and more safely. The most ingrained contemporary mistrust of the intellectual is visited, in these movies, upon the scientist-as-intellectual.

That's from "The Imagination of Disaster," in Against Interpretation (FSG, 1966, 1986). It proved to be a useful warning.

Jerry Orbach will be remembered, I hope, for his many movie roles, among which Gus Levy (The Prince of the City) and Jack Rosenthal (Crimes and Misdemeanors) are particular favorites of mine.

December 28, 2004

The Storm Hits Home

Terrible things are always happening on the other side of the world - just count up the fatalities from Bangladeshi floods in the past twenty years - but the Christmas Tsunami has quickly come home. Formerly remote beaches have become holiday destinations for affluent Western visitors - people far too sophisticated to be called "tourists." These vacationers are educated and affluent, and when they survive a disaster they know how to talk about it. Natives, probably not very garrulous in their own language anyway, are mute to us, but Keira Colman and Carl Michael Bergman, and doubtless many, many others, will prove to have been eloquent witnesses. Thanks to their presence in what used to be far corners of the earth, this storm will be with us for a long time.

December 27, 2004

Good For You

Tying up loose ends, I realized that a page for Portico about Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park really didn't need any more fussing. Now that I've got it off my desk, perhaps I can figure out how to set up new Web log, Good For You. Perhaps I can even delay publishing this post until I have figured out how to set up &c. Why a new blog, you ask? Why another blog? Good For You is my own little cultural literacy project. Starting off with the film adaptation of one of Jane Austen's novel couldn't, possibly, make for a quirkier beginning, but that's where we are. Good For You is not much to look at yet, but here she goes!

Catching Up

In the run-up to Christmas, I fell behind on most of the blogs that I follow, most egregiously missing Fafblog's Time Magazine POTY parody. If you did, too, fix that now. Obsidian Wings ran a little contest to see who could write the funniest fake biography of recalcitrant collaborator Sebastian Holsclaw; voting on a winner ends tomorrow. Diane at Nobody Knows Anything ran a link to this uxoriously naughty page at Citizen Skein. I apologize for having failed to notice until today that Winning Argument has been shut down. Its author pleads other commitments, but, frankly, after the election, who could have had the heart to continue the mission?

I don't think that I've said a good word about Patricia Storms of BookLust. Her recent post on discussing The Fortress of Solitude with her brother qualifies her as the author of an at least partially literary Web log. I wish I'd known about it last fall, when I was surveying a list of alleged such sites. Patricia also has a great sense of humor when she draws (and perhaps at other times, too): you must not miss Tart. (Researching this paragraph, I discovered that the "Blogosphere" Department of the DB has all the laughs.)

More seriously, Andy Towle of Towleroad linked to a harrowing CNN account of surviving the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Why do I say "harrowing"? How could it be anything but harrowing?

December 26, 2004


It's the day after Christmas, and nobody's reading blogs. Which makes this the perfect moment to announce another birth: that of what I hope is another long thread on the Daily Blague (see "Against Television").

Last night, I finished Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2003). It is a must read - but never mind about that. I read a great deal of it yesterday, from the middle of the big chapter on Augustine all the way to the end. Something clicked somewhere; I remembered the lesson I'd learned from Peter Brown's The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Princeton, 1988). Mr Brown's book is an intricate tracing of the manifold obsessions with continence and chastity that marked the first four Christian centuries. Was sex good? No - everybody was sure about that. But there was the small question of propagating the race: no babies, no Christians. And lots of ordinary Christians then were just like ordinary Christians today: they were sure that their married lives were nobody's business but their own. At the other extreme were the Antonys and Jeromes, sublimated sex maniacs who were convinced that Satan was their true partner in every instance of sexual intercourse. Some priests were married, others castrated themselves. There was just a little too much diversity of opinion.

Augustine put an end to the plurality of opinions. Largely, he did so by appealing to Imperial authority: he was the first man of the church to call in the cops. I would hate him for that alone were I completely unwilling to factor in the disintegration of social order that characterized his era (which saw, among other things, the first sack of Rome). Authority aside, however, Augustine's synthesis wouldn't have held its primacy if it hadn't appealed to something both basic and widespread. The fact that it governed Western social thought right up until the 1960s - it was unchallenged in the Reformation - means that, well, it can't have been crazy.

And yet it seems crazy to many people today, or it would if they knew what it was. Let me put that the other way round: many people, if they knew that everyday red-state ideas about sex and authority were set around 400 AD by a troubled outsider, would agree that it is crazy to obey, without thought, his ideas - ideas that begin with him, not with Scripture.

Augustine is still approached with deference, if not reverence, by almost everyone who writes about him. I'm not going to do that. To me, he's just another populist tyrant.

December 25, 2004

Christmas Greetings


Back when I had hair on the top of my head... How old are we here? Six and five at the oldest, because in 1955 we moved from this apartment to our first house. (At Christmas, my sister, Carol, and I are just a year apart in age, although that ends twelve days later.) I look pretty clueless, don't I.

I hope that you're enjoying a warm and festive holiday weekend, catching up on your rest or your reading.

December 24, 2004


The Biscuit Report has an important, and very balanced, post on the subject of antidepressant medication. Biscuit has submitted several letters to the New York Times, and it's a shame that they haven't at least published the following paragraph:

There are no antidepressants on the market today (and perhaps none are possible) that take less than several weeks to have an antidepressant effect Anyone who has ever been through it could tell you that those weeks of waiting and wondering if the drug will work, if any drug will work, or if you are just to be left to rot inside you own personal mental hell, are excruciating. It doesn't matter how much doctors explain that it takes a few weeks, a depressed person responds by feeling immediately hopeful (wow, there is something actually wrong with me; there are drugs that can help) and then, when everything isn't instantly okay, more hopeless than before. When each minute is torture to live through, several weeks is too long, and the thought that the drugs might not work at all makes suicide a tempting option.

Antidepressants might not seem to be a very seasonal topic, but unfortunately they are. For anyone beyond the mildest stages of clinical depression, the cheerful, colorful clatter of the holidays can be unbearable. Healthy people will have trouble understanding why; let me suggest this: to feel absolutely nothing (besides fatigue) when surrounded by festivity is something like being buried alive. The shortness of daylight enhances the claustrophobia.

December 23, 2004


One of the first delights that I savored in the Blogosphere was a reminiscence, by JR, author of Douze Lunes (then) and L'homme qui marche (now), of the American air base outside of his home town. JR is a serious Yankophile - I will claim him for my part of the country, although he is partial to the open expanses of the West and Southwest - and although he does not post as often or as plentifully as I would like, his is one of the most distinctive personas on the Web. I urge everyone with even a smidgeon of French to have a go at this very affectionate picture of two cultures, living side by side. The punchline is knowing that, although the base was demolished, the officers' housing was not, so that there is an American suburb of the Fifties sitting somewhere in L'Hexagone. Happily, a TV show reminded JR of his reminiscence, and he published its permalink, saving me no end of searching.

Meeting the Stories of Alice Munro

In the middle of November, Jonathan Franzen gave Alice Munro a rave review. Not just Ms Munro's latest collection of stories, Runaway, but Ms Munro's entire career. I thought I had better investigate.

Now, Alice Munro's stories have been appearing in The New Yorker for years, but with few exceptions - possibly only one - I've been ignoring them for years. They're usually rather long, by New Yorker standards, and so they require the kind of commitment that I save for books. They're often set in Ontario. I have never been to Ontario, but if Ms Munro's stories are any indication, subscribers to The New Yorker must have been thin on the ground forty and more years ago, when the typical Munro protagonist was a girl or just-married. There is always at least one character who would glare at you, the reader, and demand to know why you are wasting your time on "make believe." I may not have been to Ontario, but my mother was one of those characters, and I'm still touchy about being told to go out and play or to do something useful.

Now that I've read not one but two collections, Runaway and its much-admired predecessor, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (Knopf, 2004 and Vintage, 2001), I know enough to know better than to attempt any kind of summing up, to presume to distill the experience of reading Alice Munro into a few paragraphs. That sort of thing will have to wait. This is just a beginning, something to come back to as the stories age and darken in my mind. The first thing to say is that Mr Franzen's sketch of the almost invariable Munro back-story, some part of which figures in each story, can't be improved upon -

Here's the story that Munro keeps telling: A bright, sexually avid girl grows up in rural Ontario without much money, her mother is sickly or dead, her father is a schoolteacher whose second wife is problematic, and the girl, as soon as she can, escapes from the hinterland by way of a scholarship or some decisive self-interested act. She marries young, moves to British Columbia, raises kids, and is far from blameless in the breakup of her marriage. She may have success as an actress or a writer or a TV personality; she has romantic adventures. When, inevitably, she returns to Ontario, she finds the landscape of her youth unsettlingly altered. Although she was the one who abandoned the place, it's a great blow to her narcissism that she isn't warmly welcomed back -- that the world of her youth, with its older-fashioned manners and mores, now sits in judgment on the modern choices she has made. Simply by trying to survive as a whole and independent person, she has incurred painful losses and dislocations; she has caused harm.

- except, of course, by Ms Munro herself. The miracle of it all is that knowing this template in advance actually makes each individual story richer. The variations are always intriguing. The first marriage, for example, doesn't always break up. In "What Is Remembered" (HFCLM), you're surprised that it doesn't. Meriel and Pierre are still young when Pierre's childhood friend, Jonas, dies, and Meriel has a bit of an adventure after the funeral. Pierre is not a sympathetic character, but then the husbands in Ms Munro's stories rarely are. Few are as unlikable as Mr Vorguilla, in "Queenie" (HFCLM), but all are presented in the full flower of masculine egoism. Years later, after Pierre dies a natural death (which his wilder friend certainly did not), Meriel remembers, for the first time, that the man with whom she had spent a few illicit hours refused to kiss her goodbye. Had she remembered it earlier, she muses, her marriage might not have endured, as if responding to the lover's challenging denial were the only way to grow. Most of Ms Munro's women make the mistake of so responding. They may find happier second husbands, but not in the men for whom they leave their first.

If I linger over "What Is Remembered," it's because of a paragraph that comes early in the story.

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the muddle of the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies. What a lot they had to learn, so quickly. How to kowtow to bosses and how to manage wives. How to be authoritative about mortgages, retaining walls, lawn grass, drains, politics, as well as the jobs that had to maintain their families for the next quarter of a century. It was the women, then, who could slip back - during the daytime hours, and always allowing for the stunning responsibility that had been landed on them, in the matter of the children - into a kind of second adolescence. A lightening of spirits when the husbands departed. Dreamy rebellion, subversive get-togethers, laughing fits that were a throwback to high school, mushrooming between the walls that the husband was paying for, in the hours when he wasn't there.

This becomes more extraordinary every time I go over it. I'd give anything to have written "youthful necks in knotted ties" - it sounds like Wallace Stevens - and the combination of "how to kowtow to bosses" with "how to manage wives" produces a vital insight of almost scientific weight: it captures exactly how young married men used to see their worlds, and in many cases still do. The resentment and contempt that must have accompanied these observations when they were fresh has been softened and detoxified, but their outline remains palpable. 

The failings of women are hardly elided; on the contrary, they're seen in such high detail that at first it's easy to mistake them for more neutral characteristics. As I made my way through Runaway, I came to see that the heroines who were having such hard times were hardly angels. The trio of "Juliet" stories in Runaway give the best example. (They appeared all together in The New Yorker's Summer Fiction Issue, where, once again, I didn't read them; when I was cutting up old magazines the other day I was rather repelled by the dirty photographs. I still assume that my long-late great-aunt Marion is a subscriber.) In the first story, Juliet is a young woman about to pay a visit to a married man whom she met on a cross-country train; their meeting, deeply enfolded in what might have been another story altogether, takes up a good deal of the tale, and the rest covers Juliet's arrival, some time later, in the remote coastal town where the man is a fisherman. Because Juliet is intelligent and well-behaved, she has our sympathy from the start, and she never really does anything to lose it. After all, what's so bad about giving a pushy stranger the brush-off on a long train ride. What's wrong about cherishing the letter that another, rather desirable, stranger writes to her when she gets to where she is going? And why not take the opportunity paying him a visit before she leaves his part of Canada forever? Having read all three stories, I'd have to say: more than you'd think.

What's wrong leaks out slowly, and not in "Chance," the first of the stories, the events of which I've lightly summarized. It begins to surface in the second story, "Soon," which takes place four years later. Juliet has had a child, Penelope, with the stranger - his name is Eric - but they have not married. This is not a problem for Juliet, but when she pays a visit to her parents, back in Ontario, when Penelope is a little over a year old, she finds that her marital status has had repercussions for her father. He has in fact quit his job as a schoolteacher, and taken up market-gardening.

"Did it have anything all to do with me?"

"I quit because I got goddamn sick of my neck always in that noose. I was on the point of quitting for years."

"It had nothing to do with me?"

"All right," Sam said. "I got into an argument. There were things said."

"What things?"

"You don't need to know.

"And don't worry," he said after a moment. "They didn't fire me. They couldn't have fired me. There are rules. It's like I told you - I was ready to go anyway."

"But you don't realize," said Juliet. "You don't realize. You don't realize just how stupid this is and what a disgusting place this is to live in, where people say that kind of thing, and how if I told people I know this, they wouldn't believe it. It would seem like a joke."

"Well. Unfortunately, your mother and I don't live where you live. Here is where we live. Does that fellow of yours think it's a joke too? I don't want to talk any more about this tonight, I'm going to bed. I'm going to look in on Mother and then I'm going to bed."

"The passenger train - ," said Juliet with continued energy, even scorn. "It does still stop here. Doesn't it? You didn't want me getting off here. Did you?"

On his way out of the room, her father did not answer.

Juliet is alluding to the fact that her parents arranged to pick her up at a station twenty miles away. Now she understands why, and she's angry about it. One's first reaction might be to sympathize with Juliet. It is the late Sixties, and Juliet is simply a woman struggling for personal freedom. Her parent's townspeople are narrow-minded and old-fashioned; they're conventional and probably hypocritical. But by the end of the "Silence," the last of the three stories, I was inclined to reconsider my judgment, if not my sympathies. In her anger, she lumps her father together with his antagonists: she raises her voice at him. Having taken a step toward liberation, she expects everyone else to follow.

Does this make Juliet "bad" or unsympathetic? No more so than any of us, and that may be the miracle of Alice Munro's writing. If you are expecting dramatic confrontations between good and evil, she will certainly disappoint you. Her dramatic confrontations involve people in whom virtue and vice are admixed to much the same degree, and our preferring one to another - preferring Juliet, in this case, to whomever it was that Sam got into a fight with - then we are only revealing a preference among vices. We prefer self-centered intelligence to hidebound unreflectiveness. We prefer individuality to tradition, and - this is where our vice comes in - we have nothing but scorn for those who think differently. We don't want to believe that Juliet ought to be held responsible for the end of her father's teaching career. She is certainly not solely responsible. But she shares in the responsibility. Her unwillingness to acknowledge this stands in even higher relief at the end of the story, when, looking back, she remembers with pain her blocked inability to give her dying mother the small comfort of a simple "Yes."

So it is not altogether surprising to discover, a few pages into "Silence," that the now grown Penelope does not want to see Juliet for the time being. Juliet has become a successful television personage in the Vancouver area, and a widow of sorts as well, after Eric's death in a storm at sea. She believes that she and Penelope are very close, and is more puzzled than anything else when Penelope decides to spend some time at the Spiritual Balance Centre on Denman Island. Six months later, Juliet insists on a visit, but when she arrives at the Centre, an officious woman with a baloney smile tells her that Penelope "isn't there."

In the wake of September 11, 2001, my daughter and I hit a rough patch that it took me a long time to get out of, or, perhaps I should say, even to begin to figure out how to get out of. I had to learn, among other things, something very bitter: that, although I love my daughter, I haven't listened to her very well, and in fact I have often wished that she would say altogether different things. And this had to change. I suspect that this is common among strong-minded parents, but don't think I'm letting myself off. I am in any case grateful to have had the chance at making a beginning. I say all this because Juliet is denied that chance, and if I had read her story during the rough times, it would have killed me. That's to say that it would have been intolerable; I might have given up on my love for my daughter. Juliet has done nothing specific to push her daughter away, but in taking her company and her affection for granted, she has perhaps ceased to be at all attractive. We soon learn not to care for people who believe, quite wrongly, that they have us all figured out.

Alice Munro's stories strike a note of ambivalence that is easy to mistake for inactivity, but once you have heard it, you will hear it sounding everywhere.

Easy, but...


The ingredients for Tomato Soup are not expensive, and I might as well give you the recipe:

Into a soup pot, put two choppped sweet onions with some butter, and cook them over over medium heat until they're soft. Add 30 quartered plum tomatoes and three quartered Granny Smith apples. Stir to blend. After a minute or two, pour in a shot or two of good Calvados. When the alcohol has boiled off, add four cans beef broth. Throw in a couple of bay leaves, but don't crumble them because you'll want to remove them. A few berries of white pepper won't hurt; add salt very judiciously if you must. Simmer this mixture for about an hour, until the apple skins float away from the apples.

There, wasn't that easy?

Now we get to work - and here's where the money comes into it. You will see in the picture, center, an All-Clad stock pot, flanked by a Cuisinart and, in the sink, another All-Clad item, the base of their pasta pentola. Sitting in the pasta pot is a chinois, or very fine conical sieve. The cooled contents of the stock put are run through the Cuisinart (three ladelsful for four minutes) and then strained through the chinois. I might as well venture that this is a man's work, and it takes about an hour. When you are done, there will be about three-quarters of a cup of debris in the chinois - apple skins, tomato seeds, paper labels that are hard to remove and that remain mysteriously intact during the food processing. The rest will fill the stock pot with a rich and velvety tomato soup that never tastes quite the same from batch to batch. (Although it might if the ingredients were measured by weight.)

I invite you price the equipment in a Chef's Catalog. Of course, the All-Clad and the chinois will outlive you, so thoughts of amortization are not silly. But I have to stop myself when people ask how hard my Tomato Soup is to make. "Hard" is not the hard part. 

December 22, 2004

Uh Oh

Don't read this unless you are totally strapped for time and facing non-negotiable deadlines. Jason Kottke has published a list of favorite sites.

There goes the rest of the week. Even if you don't check out the list, you must visit Mr Sun.

Or how about Thailand or Maylasia? For a cosmetic surgery spa treat. Why not take a group of the girls? I'll tell you one thing: this may be the solution to tort reform. Outsource medicine!

I found our next item on my own. Having placed a third order with CaféPress in a month (Giulio, I've found my eBay) - for a Fafblog sweatshirt (when did I last wear a sweatshirt?) - I thought I'd survey the store's other pages. And look what I found: surely there's somebody in your family who will wear a WWJD thong with pride - pride and piety!

Send your friends to the Daily Blague: "unique visitors" are now being counted.

December 21, 2004

Against Television I: Quitting

The nation that elected George W. Bush as its president is a nation that watches far too much television. Because it is difficult to watch just the right amount of television, whatever that might be, it's best not to watch television at all.

Sounds radical, like quitting smoking, dieting, or going to the gym. This long-term discussion of television will begin, therefore, with what's usually the final topic: living without television. Once all the arguments against television have been rehearsed, there remains (usually) a small problem of addiction, which does not easily yield to persuasion.

I quit smoking once, successfully, and, believe me, giving up television was much easier. In fact, I never actually gave it up. There simply came a day when I realized that I hadn't watched any television in some time. That day was years ago. Unlike smoking, television can be given up gradually, if you follow two simple rules. First, never have the TV set on when it's not being watched attentively. If you must have something going in the background, play music, or tune into NPR. Second, never drop what you're doing in order to catch a weekly show if you are happy with what you're doing, or if dropping it would be inconvenient. There is also a rule that is not so simple: don't watch television just to "be" with someone else. Try to understand that watching television is not a shared pastime. The sharing comes later, when you discuss what you've seen. There are better things to share. Movies, for one thing, are much better than television shows. They're more complex, and they're not interrupted.

Smoking is bad for your health. Television is bad for you. What's the difference? Smoking directly affects only certain parts of your human organism. Television colonizes the whole operation.

The archive will put this entry where it belongs: at the end. But (ideally) it will have been borne in mind throughout.

No, This Is Not Spam

Read "An Excerpt from Bill O’Reilly’s Upcoming Book, How to Have Hot Sex Using a Falafel: For Kids" (by Christopher Monks, at YPR.) Or don't read it, just let the cover mock-up juice your synapses. For those of you who came in late, "falafel" was a slip in Mr O'Reilly's alleged attempt at telephone sex. He apparently meant to say "loofah," but he was apparently (and allegedly) too worked up to master the more exotic fringes of his vocabulary.

December 20, 2004

No Bah, No Humbug, No Nuthin'


Here it is, the Monday before Christmas, and we have done absolutely nothing about it. We haven't even opened the Christmas cards that we've received. Presents? Don't do that anymore? Christmas Tree? Not until we get rid of one of sofas - next year. Carols? They're neatly arranged in one of the CD carrousels, and pushing a couple of buttons would initiate a shuffle through-play, but if I want to listen to anything religious, it's to Bach's very unseasonal St John Passion. We will send some sort of card to everyone who sent us one, but I'm tempted to ask to be taken off a few lists. If there's one thing that doesn't make sense in the Internet Era, it's Christmas cards.

Kathleen and I didn't give this decoration-action any forethought. I almost said that we're not acting on principle, motivated by some sort of misanthropic or political or you-name-it anti-Noël sentiment. But that wouldn't be true, because at some point this fall we both made the determination, quietly and privately at first, that we were not going to let the Christmas season wear us down and out. That's why the Christmas cards are still in boxes, and the decorations are still in the closet. If the spirit moves me this week, I will buy a small tree and put a few lights on it.

If a friend were to tell me that he was giving Christmas a pass this year, I'd assume that 2004 hadn't gone very well for him. In fact, it's been a fairly good year for us. It started out rockily enough but got better and better, and by autumn I was spending all my energy either conceiving this Web log (and attendant changes to Portico, few of which have yet materialized), or rethinking living patterns built up over nearly twenty-five years. It has been the opposite of a mid-life crisis, really, because only the incidentals are up for review. Mainly, I'm thinking of getting rid of stuff.

Entertaining may turn out to be one of the incidentals. We've done a lot of it over the years, but I don't think we've ever known why we were doing it. Our parents entertained; I suppose that's it. My mother used to give huge parties - a sit-down dinner for sixty at home, one time. I like big parties, too, but Kathleen doesn't. She wants to talk to each one of her friends at length, and anybody she doesn't want to talk to at length she doesn't give a damn about (although she would never put it that way). She is not interested in fluttering about, seeing that all the drinks are filled and that everyone has someone to talk to. And by the time the party started, I, who had made most of the preparations, was too tired. I began to be convinced that, no matter how nice our friends were about it, we didn't give good parties.

With no one passing through the apartment anytime soon - most of our near and dear ones are out of town for the holidays, or booked solid for the duration - there seemed no need to spend the time and energy on serious redecoration. As I say, I'm letting the spirit guide me. If I feel a pang, if suddenly the absence of a tree or the silence of the carols becomes painful - if, in short, I find that I'm not ignoring Christmas - then I'll switch gears. But my bet is that I'll be finding other things much more attractively significant. 

Private Intellectuals

My horizons have been broadened this weekend, and now they include The Biscuit Report. (Finally, someone who agrees with me about William Safire!) I'm going to throw away this site's Mission Statement and replace it with the following:

Private intellectuals are people who think about public policy, politics, 'issues', philosophy, the meaning of life, and all that stuff on, amazingly, their very own time. Living the examined life and all that. They are likely to be paid to think in their day jobs, but to think about things like UML diagrams, brand visibility, bond markets, databases, or other things that are important only in so much as they fuel the economy and provide a paycheck (and, if you're very lucky, health insurance...). But while some company is leasing their brain, theoretically at 100% CPU time, they actually have a lot of other processes going on in the background, thinking about the stuff that really matters. And they come home and blog about it, or blog about it at work when they are supposed to be working on a slide presentation, and maybe their blogs don't get much traffic, but in having to write down their thoughts they get to organize them, they make sense of the information overload caused by too many newsfeeds, and maybe some readers read about things they wouldn't otherwise read about, and think about things they wouldn't otherwise think about, and so the blogging of private intellectuals, we amateurs, is a kind of grassroots movement to make serious thinking into a national pasttime, so that we can become again, perhaps, a nation of informed citizens

I hope that Biscuit has just outlined your reasons for paying attention to this site.

December 17, 2004

Perpetual Motion


Beyond an everyday attentiveness to providing for food, clothing, shelter, and recreation, economic self-interest has never seemed a very compelling force to me. Most people seem to pursue their ideas of success without much regard for the personal bottom line, and most people also strike me as not wanting to think very much about that line in the first place. I've known men who enjoyed turning profits well enough, but they always had, for me, the air of happy gardeners, delighted to see what seeds and soil turned up. The person who would abandon a job paying $150,000 for another paying $151,000 (other things being equal) must, I think, be extremely rare, and quite probably troubled.

So I don't expect dollars and cents to play much of a role in political calculations. When they appear to do so, it's a front for something else. When voters appear to get mad about taxes, for example, they're really angry about how they think their tax dollars are being spent - or upon whom - or about the arguable incompetence that would explain persistent tax hikes. In the right circumstances, people will happily pay high taxes. Westchester County, north of the City, contains more than few villages where high property taxes support excellent public schools. These school districts are cooperatives, effectually, for the parents of school-aged children. When your children have gone through the system, you can stay, if you like, but you can leave, too, and make room for a family like the one yours used to be.

A parent in one of these towns might very well argue that he is sending his children to good schools so that they will eventually win lucrative employment. But that is daydreaming, wishful thinking at best, and certainly not economic self-interest, narrowly conceived.

Free market economics are popular with Americans not because they benefit from them, but because free market economics militate against schemes for the redistribution of income, or welfare. When most people feel that their prosperity is in retreat, they are understandably unwilling to allow the government to appropriate any of their dwindling resources for the benefit of those less fortunate.

Anatol Lieven reviews Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? in the 2 December issue of the London Review of Books. (In England, the book has been published as What's the Matter with America? The review is behind the LRB's paywall). On the whole, Mr Lieven likes the book, but he faults it for its economic naivete - its faith in economic self-interest. The book is in one of my many piles, but I haven't read it yet, not least because I wonder if I've really got to. I did read an excerpt somewhere, and the gist of it was a bemused incredulity at the stupidity of poor Americans who vote for policies that will make them poorer while making rich Americans richer. Don't they get it, Mr Frank seems to be asking. No, they don't, Mr Lieven replies, because they're not paying attention to being richer or poorer.

They're paying attention to being respectable. This means holding on to middle-class status by holding on to middle-class values. Away from the cities and big towns, in places where anonymity is both unthinkable and unattainable, shadings of personal virtue are more salient than shadings of personal property. If you are a sufficiently nice person, then it does not much matter what kind of car you drive (so long as you keep it clean and in safe repair). If you have to work two jobs and not just one in order to afford any car, that is all right, and certainly not the government's fault. The important thing is to be perceived as a good person. And the surest kind of good person is a traditional person. People who put being interesting ahead of being good had better head for the cities.

I don't think that it's possible for a woman's life to be traditional and interesting (even if only to herself) until she's middle-aged. For anybody, living an interesting life requires some serious disregard for tradition, at least temporarily. For a woman, it's arguably untraditional to seek to live an interesting life or to be an interesting person. To the extent that "interesting" means something more challenging than taking the kids to Orlando, it is probably to be avoided. For middle-class tradition is rooted in family life, in assuming one's God-given family role and, with luck (or grace), carrying the family onward through marriage and parenthood. To be interesting, you have to conceive of your life apart from that of your family. Not as against your family, necessarily, but simply with independence.

Thomas Frank isn't wrong to point out that most Kansans are worse off than they used to be. Where he errs (and I say this hypothetically, not having read his book) is in failing to see that this impoverishment is the very force that has pushed them into Republican arms. For although the Republican leadership is widening the gulf between rich and poor, it is also the party that upholds tradition. Its message is not so much that the middle class is the most important element in American life as it is that being middle-class - professing middle-class values - is the defining American pursuit. So long as one is middle class, and so long as being middle-class is championed, then one need not fear falling out of good society altogether and into what Mr Lieven calls the proletariat.

We in the cities don't see any of this. "Tradition," when used in New York, usually refers to cultures rooted elsewhere, whether as close as New England or as distant as Fujian. Traditions that aren't merely decorative, traditions with the kind of teeth in them that, say, force young women into arranged marriages, are regrettable in our eyes, bad habits that might, it is hoped, be eventually outgrown. We don't find meaning in the dictates of dead people whose claim upon us is mere ancestry. "Family," among the New Yorkers of my acquaintance, is an elective institution, built up over years out of friendships. Siblings are more likely to be troublesome sources of grievance than otherwise. How many people have come here simply to get away from their families? Perhaps not as many as you'd think, but life in the city is certainly flavored by the impulse. 

This makes Mr Lieven's assessment all the more chilling:

If Middle America continues to crumble, one of the essential pillars of American political stability and moderation will have gone; and dreams of destroying America's enemies abroad, 'taking back' America at home and restoring the old moral, cultural and social order might well become more powerful and more disturbing. Three factors are critical. First, Frank's conservative-voting Kansans, like most American workers, define themselves not as working-class but as middle-class. Second, religious belief and practice of a 'Protestantoid' kind is at the heart of their conception both of their own identity and of the good society. Third, as Frank writes (echoing the conservative historian Walter Russell Mead), the combination of religious, middle-class and nationalist values has created among these people a view of themselves as something like a Volk - the 'real' or 'true' American people, as Republican campaign rhetoric in the heartland has continually stressed.

Frank deals with all these issues vividly and with great insight, but like much of the left he can't rid himself of the traditional materialist belief that economic interests determine political behaviour, and that if they don't, they should.

Reading Mr Lieven's review, I began to wonder if the Republicans haven't created a perpetual-motion machine. So long as Republican policies keep exurban Americans in a state of social anxiety, they will be guaranteed the support of exurban Americans. How odd it is to be obliged to find comfort in the Bush Administration's overriding characteristic: incompetence.

Hero Sells Car, Moves East

Well, here's a surprise. My hero is moving to New York. Yes, that's why he was selling all those CDs. And, yes, that's why he has to sell his Toyota. While a West-Coast purchaser would be ideal, perhaps there's a prospective buyer from somewhere else who would be happy just to own Andy's car, and enjoy the drive home to wherever. Use your Rolodexes, folks: forward this message like mad.

Cela dit, how did Andy manage to keep the mileage of a 2001 model car at least fifteen thousand miles under the national mileage average?

December 16, 2004

Gunfire at Tiffany's


From the latest Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showing a selection of recent acquisitions, we learn that Tiffany & Company has made weapons at "several points in its long history." These revolvers were actually manufactured by Smith and Wesson and then gussied up with silver grips. Now, lets get all the other guns into museums.

Just between us, I never say "Tiffany's." It's "Tiffany." Truman Capote was one of those out-of-towners...

Preliminary Notes on John Patrick Shanley's Doubt

1. The prospect of watching a play about a zealous nun hunting down a priest whom she suspects of abusing an eighth-grader was bleak, but our reluctance was overcome by the allure of another prospect, that of seeing Cherry Jones and Brían F. O'Byrne. Ms Jones might as well be crowned Queen of Broadway, because everything that she does is astonishing. Mr O'Byrne, lately seen in Frozen, has a way of being terrifying while sitting very still.

2. In the event, Doubt is not about whether the priest has being doing what the nun thinks he's being doing. It is, rather, the confrontation of a strong woman and a weak man. The man's strength is all bluster, a garment bestowed by society generally and by his employer specifically. The woman's weakness is entirely de jure - not an iota of facto. Cherry Jones plays Sister Aloysius, the principal of a Catholic grammar school in the Bronx, in the fall of 1964, who has a nose for, and an aversion to, showing off. Ms Jones, wearing no visible makeup, her features obscured by heavy eyeglasses, looks twenty years older than her 48 years. Her lips are often so pursed that they disappear. The stunt of her performance, if it's not improper to speak of stunts, is that the embodiment of Sister Aloysius's dry flatness, while effacing all of Ms Jones's own features, brings to the stage a mightily robust woman whom it is ultimately impossible not to like. Brían F. O'Byrne plays Father Flynn, a popular preacher with a knack for coaching basketball (and suspiciously long fingernails). Watching his air of easy bonhomie curdle in the glare of Sister Aloysius' grim certainty is as unnerving as the actor's awful exchange of stares with Swoozie Kurtz in Frozen.

Continue reading about the MET Orchestra at Portico.

December 15, 2004

Autre temps...


In the process of weeding through stacks of Playbills and concert programs - a quarter century's worth - I came across this ad from the early Eighties. It looks bizarre in any number of ways now. Who'd smoke a cigarette in a locker room? And how long has it been since such a "regular guy" look has appealed to advertisers?

Does the brand still exist? Apparently so, if you can live without the "Deluxe."

Paris Syndrome?

I've stumbled on a new site, via Fafblog: Reload. Here's something mordant but marrant.

Unintended Consequences

In today's Times, Scott Elliott writes about politics fatigue in Washington State, where partisans are still trying to decide who one November's gubernatorial election. People still feel strongly about the outcome, but they don't want to talk about it. That's because the big lesson of the presidential campaign was that "the two sides have trouble listening to each other."

For most of my adult life, political conversation was conducted within the framework of the New Deal. People unhappy with the New Deal were completely marginalized until the Reagan Administrations, and even then they were unable to transpose the discussion into a key that did not take the Deal for granted. Who knows if they would ever have found a way to do so if Bill Clinton's private life hadn't been presented as some kind of proof that liberals are morally corrupt. As it happened, the really terrible legacy of the Lewinsky Affair was that it desensitized the public to outrage. And outrage quite perfectly fit the mood of those who felt that they hadn't been heard. Exploiting both the excitement and the repellence of angry insult, they finally seized the floor. But they are still very sore winners.

And we liberals are sore losers as well. We still can't believe that the dimensions of the arena have been enlarged to include people whom we were accustomed to regarding as unfit to participate in political discussion. Religious fundamentalists, libertarians, tax-starvers - what these people have in common, in our view, is selfishness: they put their pocketbook or their personal salvation (or both) ahead of the common weal. They argue that, if you can't be sure that taking action will actually fix something, it's better not to take any action at all. The inevitability of unintended consequences serves as proof that activist government is incompetent, if not evil.

We don't hear this argument, any more than they hear ours about social welfare. We can't stand by and watch obvious injustices and inequities without trying to fix them, and we're not going to wait for perfect solutions. As I've said before, we and they don't even share a common idea of freedom. For conservatives, freedom is negative, a freedom from; for liberals, it is a freedom to. Liberal freedom makes it possible for very different people to live closely together, as New Yorkers do. Conservative freedom is a portcullis that, ideally, locks the cities and their problems up behind their moats and frees the rest of the country to do what it pleases - which, in most cases, seems to be the quiet enjoyment of traditional life.

If the country really were split between all-red and all-blue states, we might learn to get along by simply ignoring each other. But if there are a few all- or nearly-all-red states, there are certainly none that are all-blue. So ignoring each other is not an option. Clearing the air of outrage is the only way to revive our civil discourse, and that is going to be very hard, because there is so much genuine, and understandable, contempt on each side. (For my part, I am outraged every time I hear the phrase "Christian nation" spoken with approval. Outraged!) Denying our mutual disapproval isn't going to do any good. Moderating it will help. But there's no getting around the bad-tasting medicine: we're going to have to learn to listen to each other. I'm not sure that we've ever done this before in the United States.

There may be one unintended, beneficial, consequence of our listening to each other. We may be forced to give up our childish determination to be unremittingly cheerful and nice. 

December 14, 2004

Oysters Rarely Lymph

The Washington Post runs, it seems, an annual contest, in which participants are invited to redefine words in a humorous way. My favorites among this year's winners (which, while all over the Web, are not to be found on the Post site) are "Oyster," which really ought to be adopted here in New York, and "Lymph," the absurdity of which is worthy of Lewis Carroll, even if he would never have stooped. PS: Annoying music alert. (Thanks to Randy Lindel)

Nicene Niceties

Reading about the Nicene Creed, in Charles Freeman's excellent The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2002), I'm struck by how impossible it would be to interest religious Americans today in the dogmatic struggle that it has long been thought to have resolved. The Creed was hammered out, under the presumably impatient eye of the Emperor Constantine, in order to establish a) an orthodox Christian position on the relation between Jesus and "God the Father" and b) a community of the orthodox who would thereupon be eligible for preferential tax treatment. One of Constantine's first acts of toleration was to relieve Christian priests of the need to serve the state (as pagan priests had to do); little did he suspect, apparently, that this would trigger a huge identity crisis among Christians. But how understandable, in retrospect: a swarm of sects, united by a handful of practices and observances but distinguished by all manner of interpretive divisions, proliferating under the rock of imperial ban, suddenly exposed to the light of Official Status. Proponents of the Nicene Creed, which held that Jesus is "consubstantial" with the Father and begotten by him out of time, would eventually prevail, but not without a century of vicious squabbles taken up against those who failed to find any support for consubstantiality in Scripture. Augustine would eventually sum up, with his own incomparable arrogance, the correct relation between the Church and Scripture: "I would not believe the Gospel unless the authority of the Catholic Church moved me." This neatly elides the fact that Augustine was speaking for and as the authority of the Catholic Church.

According to Charles Freeman, the victory of the "Nicean" contingent reflected the Church leadership's surreptitious but wholehearted adoption of Platonic propositions, not the least of which was the idea that, because only a very few gifted men are capable of grasping the nature of things, the rest of us ought to exercise our privilege of letting them tell us what to do. Mr Freeman does not have to work very hard to convince me that Plato was an intellectual tyrant; his success in the past 2500 years must be attributed to the vanity of those who, studying him, would put themselves forward as "authorities." As one Greek philosopher among many, Plato could enjoy only limited influence. there were real limits to Plato's influence, but a church that had absorbed his rationalistic megalomania would prove far more pernicious. Reason shut down in the West because critical debate was suspended, not because critical books were forgotten.

But Platonism (like authority generally) has very little hold on today's religious thinking, and I am sure that it is enough to acknowledge Jesus "as a personal savior," whatever that might mean, without being very specific about just how it is that the human and the divine are combined in the person of Jesus. As a personal savior, Jesus might well "be" certain things to you that he "isn't" to anybody else, or not to many others. You are under no obligation to share.  No televangelist is going to waste his time or yours parsing the metaphysics of Christ's godhead. Doctrinally, these are freewheeling times.

Except, of course, with respect to Topic A. Self-styled authorities draw on the full fund of Augustinian severity when claiming that matters relating to human sexuality are not open to discussion but have been settled for all time in the eyes of God. Isn't it funny? The only practice that Jesus emphatically denounced was - divorce (Matthew, 5:32). But Augustine sets the precedent. What comes first, Jesus or "Christianity"? The authoritarian institution, of course.

This May Be The Start of Something Big


The best reality show in America is going on right now in Enterprise, Florida, where Cat and Harlan Barnard have, shall we say, had it with the incapacity of their children to accept the most minimal domestic responsibilities. Unfortunately for TV addicts, you have to be in Enterprise, Florida, driving by the Barnard home, to watch. Having tried everything else they could think of, the parents of seventeen year-old Benjamin and twelve year-old Kit have abandoned home temporarily and set up camp in the driveway, where, apparently, they're receiving the warm support of numerous postadolescents.

The Barnards's strike has been going on long enough for local authorities to investigate the scene and to determine that the dear little ones are not in any danger. Already, pages and pages of Google are prepared to list sites that refer to "Harlan Barnard." Who needs TV? (Thanks to ObWi.)

BARNARD UPDATE (Keep reading)

This story is over a week old, and the Barnard parents may have moved back in with their children since journalist Christine Girardin published an update on Saturday; the strike seems to have had a positive effect on daughter Kit, who is doing her own laundry. I've found Web log postings from as far as Denmark and Australia, and they're not shy about taking sides. For a bracing dash of the Old Rancid, for example, you might visit Lord Spatula, a bloody-minded writer who, I read in passing, believes that Secretary Rumsfeld was "set up" at that Q&A in Kuwait. As Jake suggests, putting the kids out in the driveway sounds like the better idea but would undoubtedly have landed the parents in some kind of very hot water. According to Rollo Tomassi of Decadent West though (nice joke, "Rollo"), this is just a White Trash story. For a pro-Benjamin view, consult Conquistador - who is also seventeen. I could go on and on - and probably will.

December 13, 2004

Much To Be Learned

When I was setting up the Daily Blague, I made what turned out to be an incorrect decision regarding archives. It took two weeks for the mistake to cause trouble. Thanks to Kymberlie and Shelley at Movable Type for locating the problem and correcting it. (And thanks to Kymberlie for her comments!) There remains much to be learned...

Since launching Portico in 2000, I have often felt that I'm wandering in a vast desert between two highly-populated coasts - an interesting situation for any liberal New Yorker. On one coast, everyone understands everything that Jason Kottke is talking about. On the other, nobody has ever even heard of Jason Kottke. Almost everyone on the first coast is under forty, and almost everyone on the other is over thirty. The young people on the Kottke-coast, moreover, all have lots of friends to help them out with Web logging problems. I have not personally met anyone, in my five years of publishing Portico, who operates a regular Web site, much less a Web log. Well, a slight exaggeration - but very slight. I've met three people. In five years.

Not that I'm the only dummy in town. There are fourteen million stories in the Naked City, and Janet Schoenberg's is one of them. Ms Schoenberg thought it would be cute to vent her spleen on eBay, by offering to "sell" the Housing Court judge whom she believed had "shafted" her. Right now, she doesn't turn up in a Google search, not at least on the first page, but I'll bet she will, sooner or later, because she has almost certainly bought herself a benchmark libel suit. This is a woman who has just been evicted from her studio apartment. But she will doubtless not be the only defendant in the case. The prospective plaintiff  has his eye on the ball: '"Judges are ill equipped to fight eBay," he said, clearly frustrated yesterday afternoon, before the advertisement had been pulled. "How do I fight eBay?"'

An Incomplete Education


For two months, at least, I've been meaning to compare the new edition of An Incomplete Education, which is billed as "Completely Updated!", with the 1987 original. I finally got round to doing so last night. "Lightly Dusted!" would have been more like it.

An Incomplete Education is a valuable book, whichever edition you can get your hands on. It is crammed with stuff that educated people will have learned and forgotten, or, if they were being clever in school, with stuff that they got out of having to learn in the first place. Judy Jones and William Wilson (responsible for both editions), aided by a few duly-credited friends, have produced a reliable crib sheet that will remind you why "The Idea of Order at Key West" is an Important Poem, and what the numerical value of Planck's Constant is. Memorize the contents of An Incomplete Education, and you will pass for a polymath in all casual settings; you will certainly know more worthwhile things than the people around you. The arts, American and world history, philosophy, religion, and science are all condensed into twelve motley chapters that set out the goods in appealing smorgasbord.

Here, for instance, are the contents of the chapter on Art History:

- Ten Old Master Lists

- The Leonardo/Michelangelo Cribsheet

- Six -isms, one -ijl, and Dada: Your Personal Guide to European Art Movements between 1900 and Hitler

- Twelve Young Turks

- Raiders of the Lost Architecture: A Race-Walker's Guide to the Greek Temple and the Gothic Cathedral

- Real-Estate Investment for the Aesthete

- Snap Judgments.

That's four sections on painting, two on architecture, and one (wryly written by Owen Edwards) on photography. There are black-and-white pictures, photos, diagrams and dates, and plenty of cheeky prose. Of Masaccio, Jones and Wilson write, "Played Elvis Presley to Giotto's Frank Sinatra. That is, Masaccio took his predecessor's 3-D realism and put some meat on it, encouraged it to flex its muscles and swivel its hips, and generally shook the last vestiges of middle ages out of the whole performance. Thus begins the Renaissance..." An Incomplete Education may be no substitute for real learning, but it provides a useful range of pigeonholes, and, of course, an imperishably convenient refresher. It is an idea. bedside book. It is also playing an entirely different ballpark from A. J. Jacobs's. This is no trivia-trove.

But the "Twelve Young Turks" section, a roster beginning with Jackson Pollock and ending with Julian Schnabel, hasn't been touched for the new edition, much less "completely updated." Mr Edwards has added some new material to the photography section, but by and large the Education is not Incomplete in a new way. To be sure, most of the information in An Incomplete Education is "timeless"; there won't be a need anytime soon to rewrite the pages that compare and contrast Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI. Significant emendations do appear through the chapter on political science, and an explanation of AIDS has been inserted at the right place. But the index makes no mention of "The World Trade Center." Perhaps the second edition of An Incomplete Education is slightly premature; it has in any case not rendered its predecessor obsolete. (The chapter on music, moreover, still neglects Johannes Brahms altogether; the opportunity to correct a glaring omission was missed.)

December 10, 2004

Civil Action against Loud Portablistes

With cell phones about to be permitted on airliners, let Society for Handheld Hushing come to your rescue.

There seems to be a bug with the Blague at the moment: I have to rebuild the site every time a new comment is posted. Because I'm advised of that by email, comments won't languish invisibly for very long. But I do sleep late on the weekends. MT is providing its customary wonderful service.

December 09, 2004

Coming Up Short


What will be the fallout, do you suppose, of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's Q&A in Kuwait the other day? When the very courageous Specialist Thomas Wilson asked the Secretary why his unit was so chronically short of armor and supplies, Mr Rumsfeld replied rather testily to the effect that things can't be perfect. But as anyone familiar with the planning for the Iraq war knows, the shortages referred to by Specialist Wilson are the inevitable result of Mr Rumsfeld's disregard for standard Army planning, which he thought too costly. Save dollars, lose lives. It's a grim calculus, and the sooner military families wake up to it, the sooner we'll see the end of Secretary Rumsfeld.

Or so you'd think. Although there have been isolated acts of protest - some reservists are resisting orders to return to Iraq; one or two have even sought asylum in Canada - there is as yet no general movement openly or forcefully critical of the Administration. Although the Iraq misadventure is being fought by a volunteer army, the volunteers come from the same relatively underprivileged sectors of American life that staffed our forces in Vietnam. But I sense that they do not regard the the current morass with simple patriotism. While most soldiers probably do believe that taking some kind of pre-emptive action against Saddam Hussein was necessary - they're soldiers, after all, not middle-aged eggheads living in Yorkville who are busy making blanquette de veau for a family dinner party - it's just possible that many of them see that there are good ways of prosecuting a war, and bad ways, and that the Administration has been doing almost everything wrong, from taking Ahmen Chalabi's nonsense on faith to - scrimping on armor and supplies. I hope that they're wondering why the world's most powerful military has bogged down in a war of attrition. A few of them, having spent some time on the ground in Iraq, may even have good ideas about blocking terrorism.

I haven't spent any time whatsoever among military people, and I've reason to believe that my observations might sound condescending. Let me very bluntly state that they are not meant to be. My admiration for our soldiers is quite deep, not least because they're volunteers. Being the liberal that I am, I have no objection to exploiting the military as a machine of upward mobility; after all, that's how we've staffed our airlines from the start. But although a stint in the Army exposes one to an elevated risk of death and injury, that assumption of risk doesn't justify throwing inadequately armed young people into harm's way. Forcing defenseless soldiers to choose between death from the enemy and death from the officers was Stalin's response to Hitler, and it still sounds gruesome. But Stalin could claim reasons of state that are altogether missing from the Administration's portfolio.

As Andrew Sullivan says, "This is not knee-jerk anti-war sentiment. This is knee-jerk pro-war sentiment." I disagree with Mr Sullivan about the warrant for this war, but, now that it is wearing through its second year, I can see no warrant, either, for fighting it ineptly, and at unnecessary cost to our soldiers.

Christmas Shopping

Thanks to Susan, who got it from Marky: One Stop Christmas Shopping with Betty Bowers! Get some good Christian advice first, though. This is satire on, or perhaps a little beyond, the level of The Onion. The graphics are particularly entertaining. But don't miss the store, where you can buy buttons, shirts, totes, mugs, and even Christmas cards! Has anybody out there read Mrs Bowers's book, What Would Betty Do? I ordered mine today!

The site has been going for several years, and you may very well know all about it. Mean of you, if so, not to tell me.

Fear of Flying II

It sounds so easy now, like something that should have happend a long time ago. But it didn't happen until just the other day, when I was in a plane coming home from Puerto Rico. Something that Kathleen and I had talked about while watching a movie in the hotel room after dinner sank in. Deeply.

You want to know how deeply? When the plane to New York ran into some turbulence, I talked myself into believing, for the very first time, that neither the crew members nor my fellow passengers were, as I had hitherto believed (ah, paranoia), concealing their certain knowledge of impending disaster just to protect me. They were not being enorously brave. They were simply sitting on a bumpy flight reading magazines and eating dinner. Their investment in protecting me from the inevitablility of disaster was nil.

My fear of flying - what an embarrassment!

December 08, 2004

My New Mascot - Not


Breezing through Nobody Knows Anything this afternoon, I became the umpteen-millionth person to discover the enigmatic Kozo. Wherefore Kozo? If this site is any indication, Kozo is a Mariana Trench of Webbery.

Meanwhile, back at Portico, I began to make the site look more like the blog. This called for learning lots from the Movable Type templates, even though there are key aspects of the blog that appear as if by magic, without support from the style sheet. This year will definitely be "2004: The Year of Revamping Portico. Again and Again." Those of you who never liked the right-aligned paragraphs (everybody I've ever spoken to, certainly) will be pleased, I hope with the new reign of justification. For my part, I'm just glad to be getting rid of scrollbars.

To have a look at Portico's latest look, have a look at the newest page.

December 07, 2004

Mr & Mrs Sprat

If there are more charts where the three that the Times published yesterday came from, I want to see them. Take "Recreational Activities." These run the gamut from volunteering and gardening to the full range of leisure sports. Democrats are less likely to engage in all of them than the average television viewer, while Republicans are for the most part even more more likely to pursue them. The only exceptional figure, weirdly enough, is the one for dancing. Democrats are about 36% more likely dance than the average television viewer; Republicans are somewhat less less likely to cut a rug. How do Democrats pass the time, one wonders, when they're not dancing? I see that "reading" is not an option. Nor is "engaging in political discussion." The graph's Mr & Mrs Sprat effect is quite stark. But who is 'the average television viewer, and why is this person a benchmark? Because the enquiry was conducted by media researchers, of course; but is the information of interest to anybody but advertisers?

Because I don't watch television, I didn't see a single political ad during the entire campaign. When I think of all the money that was spent on the dumb things ($1.6 billion), I'm shattered. What a complete waste of money! Experience in the former Yugoslavia ought to have taught us to ban political advertising from television and radio altogether. 

Preliminary Notes on The Sin of Harold Diddlebock


1. The what? The who? Yes, "Kockenlocker" is a funnier name. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is a funnier movie. But it's not out on DVD yet. Preston Sturges fans take what they can get.

2. That's right, Preston Sturges. Who else would dream up a name like "Harold Diddlebock?" Only a writer/director/producer with backing by Howard Hughes, that's who. Who was going to make him change it? Hughes was probably afraid that Sturges would say, "All right, we'll change it, to Howard Hughes." After all, Sturges was richer. Maybe he wasn't richer, but he had just paid more income tax than anybody else the IRS knew about. (I always think that this claim to fame prefigures Sturges's impecunious end.)

3. Okay, okay. The cornice scene with the lion goes on too long. This was Sturges's besetting sin toward the end of his career. Think of the "Simplicitas" scene in Unfaithfully Yours. All those trashed side chairs! It does go on and on, and even Rex Harrison can't quite make you keep your fingers off the advance button. But if you're one of the faithful, you watch these scenes straight. They're still too long, but you know you've been admitted to the innermost chambers of the mad genius.

4. Preston Sturges's America is peopled mostly by people who hang out in the innermost chambers of mad genius. There is absolutely nothing boring about it. Even poor Harold's sister, the hyperrespectable Flora (played by Margaret Hamilton), is too monstrous to be tiresome. You can tell that she has been waiting for Harold to make a fool out of himself for years so that she could have a field day insulting him. It's only a movie, and that's sad, because Sturges made movies about the United States of Brio.

5. The Palm Beach Story is coming out on DVD early in 2005. That and Unfaithfully Yours are my favorite comedies on earth period end of discussion. If I had them both on DVD today, I probably would have given The Sin of Harold Diddlebock a pass. There is a widespread lack of enthusiasm about The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

6. Which was made in 1947. Everyone in the Preston Sturges rep company appears to be on hand, except for William Demarest. Robert Greig is great as Algernon the coachman, but it's hard not to miss Eric Blore, who, after all, was not a PSRC regular. Franklin Pangborn - Hollywood's first something - is crazy in plaids; Harold Lloyd is even crazier in the plaid suit that Franklin Pangborn makes for him. I would like to wear this plaid suit, at least once. (Steve Martin undoubtedly has.) But I would not wear the ten-gallon hat - even if it only holds two or three gallons.

7. Harold Lloyd is the original Woody Allen, without the neuroses. One of the silent-era greats, he has a fine voice - rather like Henry Fonda's in The Lady Eve - and he is a genuinely funny man to watch. He has great teeth.

8. Best for last. In the film's first (and best) set-piece, Edgar Kennedy plays the bartender-as-artist who is determined that Harold Diddlebock's first drink on this earth will be - a poem, as Jimmy Conlin puts it. What might have been a shopworn scene has all the varnish stripped off: it's as fresh and raw as if it had never even been thought of by anybody else, much less filmed. Everything about it is just different enough to keep you wondering what's next. And laughing your head off at the smart lines.

9. Frances Ramsden, the ingénue. I can't resist the idea that Ramsden is the movie's albatross. She's not bad; she plays the lovely last scene very well indeed. But that the movie's three big guys (Lloyd, Sturges, and Hughes) picked her out of the Hollywood fishbowl suggests a certain - independence of mind. I can hear them talking themselves into believing that they were launching a new star. Ahem. Ramsden had  three movies to her entire career, according to IMDb. Who was she involved with, off camera? She died, at 80, four years ago.

10. Well, rent it already. You won't be sorry.

Update: Who knew that Harold Lloyd photographed nude ladies in 3-D? But it is no surprise to learn that Lloyd "lived large"; I had deduced that from his association with Sturges and Hughes, both members of the same persuasion.

December 06, 2004

"Larger, softer men, with soft white hands,'' who have not been ''entirely successful in warding off the evil eye of sexual rejection.''

The very thought of conservative academics reminded me of Anne Norton's deadly description of the Straussians who taught her at the University of Chicago. Alan Wolfe suggests that she's a little unfair, but the shoe fits.

Long Live Liberal Education

Now that they have gained absolute dominion in Washington, conservatives have turned their attention to their primeval enemy, the liberal academics who expelled them - or, rather, who proscribed their worldview - forty years ago. Their current tactic is to decry an anomaly in academia: while universities insist upon diversity for and among students, their faculties are homogenously liberal. Tut, tut. Hypocrisy on the left? George Will whines about it, Lexington deplores it.

I'd like to argue that it would only be natural for liberal educations to be provided by liberal thinkers, but this would be playing the conservative game of glib, factitious argumentation. Universities haven't been very liberal in the past forty years; conservatives are right to suspect that something like China's Cultural Revolution has roiled through the nation's humanities departments. But the mess will have to be cleaned up by the heirs and assigns of the people who made it: the liberal professoriate. Mark Edmundson, of the University of Virginia, has a great many intelligent suggestions for healing the wounds of radical campus politics (see below). Input from conservatives would be worse than useless.

Until conservatives demonstrate - and I do mean demonstrate - that they can put open-mindedness ahead of party ideology, and that they can follow their curiosity regardless of the claims of loyalty, they will not belong on American campuses. I am perfectly well aware that they could charge liberal academics with an equally strangling ideological program, and with running humanities faculties with more attention to party loyalty than to intellectual merit. But the ideology of the left had a worthy objective: breaking the back of the nuclear patriarchy. Women and minorities would no longer be subservient to white men as a matter of course. Got it? Now that the educated half of the country gets it, liberal professors can go back to being genuinely liberal. They can allow the expression of conservative ideas. But they should not welcome the presence of conservative operatives. 

The American university's most vital mission is to make this country uncomfortable for social and economic conservatism. It has a commitment to something far older, to the humanism of the Renaissance. It must assure that the loyal soldiers of ideology do not close the Western mind a second time.

December 05, 2004

Why Read? (When there's a show like 'Book Notes'...)

When I read, yesterday I think it was, that Mark Edmundson would be Brian Lamb’s guest on the last installment of ‘Book Notes,’ I resolved to try to see it. I've just read Mr Edmundson's Why Read?, which I found to be among the most sensible books ever written, and I thought it would be interesting to see what this popular University of Virginia professor, a man about my own age, was like. Because Kathleen and I don't watch television, we don’t have the habit of remembering broadcast times, but in the event I finished a boring task just in time to tune in. I had never seen the show before and I had no idea what to expect.

It was almost immediately clear that 'Book Notes' is not about books. Mr Lamb prodded Mr Edmundson to tell a couple of stories from Why Read? that had little bearing on the heart of the book; otherwise, the book was more photographed than talked about. Mr Lamb peppered his guest with such cringe-making questions as “Where do you write?” “Do you go to church?” and “If you had the time [choice], which would you prefer, fiction or non-fiction?” If this is what ‘Book Notes’ has been like for – what? – fifteen years, then I’d have to say that it explains declining literacy. What it really is is vaccine against reading. Watch the show to rack up your points – no page-turning required! When Mr Lamb asked Mr Edmundson what advice he would have for non-readers thinking of taking it up and wondering "where to start," I had a ghastly look at the show’s likely demographics.

It would have been better to confine my acquaintance with Mark Edmundson to the dust-jacket photo on Why Read? On television, he was personable – rather too personable for my taste. His smile (great teeth!) was too eager, although that may well have been the result of television nerves, and his leather blazer was ridiculous; all I could think of was Chip Lambert of The Corrections. (Men my age have no business in leather; it makes them look truly desperate.) I found his remarks attractive but suspiciously suave, as if each point had been made, in its articulate way, many times before. Although Mr Edmundson claimed to say "controversial" things in class, he spared Brian Lamb’s audience any and all discomfort.

So much for my latest dip into TV. I come away more convinced than ever that books and television are as profoundly incompatible as any two human productions. They're fundamentally deadly competitors for the human eye, upon which they act in opposing ways: reading refers the the eye to the imagination, which television completely eclipses. As for Brian Lamb, he couldn’t touch Why Read? without trivializing it. So I'm glad, I suppose, that he didn't touch it very often. Why Read? remains one of the most sensible books ever written. More on that anon.

Ute Lemper with Orpheus


Ute Lemper was the featured artist at last night's second Carnegie Hall concert of the Orpheus season. In the program, she was identified not as a soprano or as a mezzo or as an alto, although she is all of these, more or less, but as a "vocalist." Her performance took us about as far from its stylistic core as a "classical" concert can go  without resorting to synthesizers and electric guitars. That's not to say that it belonged at Radio City; Ms Lemper's material was far too sophisticated for that venue. But her delivery was unmistakably pop. In the wilfully strident upper register of her voice, she outbelts even Patti LuPone. She drapes her femme-fatale figure in dresses that, in context, are quite provocative, she sings perched on very high heels, and she wields her mike like someone who was born on a television special. She even does a little shimmying. Meanwhile, despite big, elaborate orchestrations that bring Claus Ogerman and Vince Mendoza to mind, Orpheus almost gets lost in the background. Ute Lemper turns "concerts" into "events." All that was missing was jazzed-up lighting.

Ms Lemper gathered her material under the rubric, "Poets and Provocateurs." There were three Kurt Weill numbers, including, as an encore, "Surabaya Johnny," two songs by Jacques Brel, "Ne me quitte pas" and "Amsterdam", and two songs by Hanns Eisler, "Die Graben" and "The Waterwheel." Two songs came from the Piaf songbook, the very arty "Padam" (Norbert Glanzberg) and that rousing chestnut, "Milord" (Marguerite Monnot). There were two songs by Ms Lemper herself - in my view, the weakest items in her program, but then I'm not fond of Stephen Sondheim, from whom she appears to draw inspiration. The second of these numbers, "September Mourn," a "love-song" written to New York in the wake of 9/11, made me fidgety; the song never rose to the distinction required by that terrible wound. What I did really love were the two pieces that opened the second half of the concert, a tender Yiddish song by Chava Alberstein, "Bokserboym," and a conjunction of Amina Alaoi's "La Qad Kountou" and Nachoum Heimann's "Tzemach Bar." In the Alaoi song, Ms Lemper seemed to lose herself in the manner of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; the trance was quietly hair-raising. (I apologize for omitting the names of the many lyricists.)

The burden of all these songs is cosmopolitan, and they reminded us that people who get around as much as Ute Lemper does are fervent believers in tolerance and peace. There was an unmistakable whiff of the Cold War in her performance, which only makes sense in a child of divided Berlin, but it did not, I'm unhappy to see, feel dated. The Cold War was fought by enemies who, for the most part, declined to get to know much about each other; today's pro-war Americans share with Islamic "fanatics" and "insurgents" the belief that passports are unnecessary and possibly undesirable. Ms Lemper demonstrates that the anti-war anger of the Sixties is alive and well; it just dresses much better.

Orpheus did have the stage to itself at the beginning and then at the end. Framing Ms Lemper's suite of songs were Ervin Schulhoff's Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 2. The Schulhoff is delightfully naive take on the American popular dances that puzzled and intrigued Europe between the wars; with its klaxon and its xylophone, its "Tango" that is not a tango and its jazz-free "Jazz," the music conjures up the image of a disapproving Margaret Dumont, apoplectic in pearls. The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony, while notionally tonal, occupies a frontier well beyond that of Gurre-Lieder, and is so heavy with musical frustration that its easy, in hindsight, to see the composer's radical break with traditional tonality as inevitable. The only alternative must have been suicide.

Both orchestral pieces provoked a measure of class warfare. between Orpheus's downtown fans up in the balonies, and veteran old farts like me in the parquet and boxes. We were shshed and hissed at in our youth until it was drummed into us that applause is inappropriate before the entirety of a multi-movement work has been performed. No matter how brilliant the cadenza at the end of a concerto's opening allegro, the audience is to sit perfectly still while the orchestra and the soloist prepare for the melting slow movement. Observance of this rule has been wavering at New York concerts for some time now, and if last night was a reliable indicator, the ban on inter-movement applause is not long for this world.

Friendly Persuasion

Don't miss Rob Walker's piece, "The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders," in this week's Times Magazine. It's about volunteer word-of-mouth marketing campaigners who, for the most part, don't see what they're doing as "marketing." They're just recommending things that they like - books, movies, chicken sausage, you name it - to their friends. At the moment, I can't decide whether the promotions engineered by BzzAgent (a freestanding outfit that will let anybody sign up) and Tremor (a division of Procter & Gamble that seeks out "natural" persauders) are benign or insidious, but I couldn't help connecting what Mr Walker's eager beavers were doing to what I'm doing. If nobody's sending me products to push or concert tickets to write up, one of the reasons just might be that nobody has to.

December 04, 2004

My Hero


Andy Towle is having an auction at eBay, to unload over thirteen hundred of his CDs - in one lot, and to anybody who, in addition to paying the winning bid, agrees to drop by Andy's house to pick them up. That would be in West Hollywood, I believe. Good luck, Andy! As for the picture, which Andy himself calls "cheesy," I don't know how he pulls it off. What ought to be mortifyingly tween is a chuckle instead. He has the air of a kid who can break up the entire classroom without doing anything exactly wrong.

Towleroad was the first Web log to suggest to me that blogs could be well-designed and fun. I stumbled on it when I tried to find out more about a strangely named publication, Arena Homme Plus, that was reviewed in a roundup of 'lad' magazines in the LRB. Andy wrote that he was going through the latest issue "so that you won't have to." His summary made it clear that I wouldn't want to. Andy often writes about things that don't particularly interest me - more often than not, in fact - but he writes with a clear-eyed verve that holds my attention anyway. Of all the blogs that I've been following since late last spring, his has been the strongest template, and I thank him for the inspiration. 

December 03, 2004

Old Fartosphere

Dear friend Michael, whose status as 'dear friend' is actually on hold until he posts a comment here, has sent me a link that I'm sure he thinks speaks for himself as well. Joseph Epstein complains that he hasn't got enough mental RAM to take on the Blogosphere. In reply, I say simply, Turn off the TV! (And GQ requires no RAM). This link will fail in seven days, so hurry up and sniff the latest Old Fart while it's still fresh.

Who's going to claim that he attended the première of Rodelinda at the Met last night, even though he left at the interval? Names will be named!

December 02, 2004

Myth Hunting


Ever since the election, I have been teasing out aspects of a prevailing social persuasion that is very different from my own. I call it a persuasion because I suspect that its religious claims are spurious, and its hostility to reflection and self-awareness make it utterly unphilosophical. I've decided that it is a mistake to label this persuasion "the patriarchy," but I haven't come up with anything better. Is there a myth about a man who would fall apart if he ever looked at himself in the mirror? In a conflation of the Narcissus and Medusa stories, our unlucky hero, upon seeing his own face, would turn to stone. If there were such a myth, this character's name would make the ideal label for what I've been thinking about.

In an article about John Travolta in today's Times, Caryn James writes of Mr Travolta's "religion," Scientology, that it considers "psychiatry and psychology to be evil." Some would say that this explains that flatness of many of Mr Travolta's performances - and those of his "coreligionist," Tom Cruise, as well. But forget about acting. Psychiatry and psychology have done more to undermine the myth of male supremacy than any other intellectual developments. They have exposed macho behavior as a bluff. I don't mean that tough guys don't really want to fight. The bluff is their pretense that fighting is so meaningful that it overcomes the pain of mayhem and death. But psychiatry and psychology have revealed that it is fear that motivates aggression. Tough guys fight because they're afraid not to.

When I started seeing a psychiatrist, in sixth grade, it was a family secret, a potential disgrace. (My adoptive parents didn't know what to do with me, and I didn't know what to do with life, and my sessions with Dr K-, aside from giving me a chance to talk about myself without being interrupted, accomplished nothing.) To an extent, of course, seeking psychiatric help sounded the alarm of significant emotional instability (the word was "mental" - itself a clue to this country's anti-intellectual posture). This was permissible in women, but in a man, even in a boy, it signaled the worst possible character defect that didn't involve outright criminality: lack of self-confidence. To be unsure of oneself was the cardinal failing. (I was actually all too sure of myself as a child. I was sure that I would never, ever fit in, and I was sure that I didn't want to, either. Only when it became necessary to make a place for myself in the world did I question this, and healthy self-doubt didn't take root until I was well into my thirties.) And then there was sex. Weren't psychiatrists thought to grill their patients endlessly about sex?

Surely one of the most interesting differences between men and women today is that women seem to have no trouble at all discussing their sex lives with other women. I've even overheard such conversations myself, in circumstances suggesting that my eavesdropping was neither unnoticed nor objectionable. Men, on the other hand... Sadly, it is very much the case that the fool who divulges his sex life to another man can be sure of winning that man's instant contempt. In order to talk about your sex life, you have to know something about it; you have to think about sex when you are not actually having sex. You have to look into the mirror.

Religio Fatui

Thinking back on my Working Definitions (26 November, below), I read Burkhard Bilger's article about Ole Anthony, in the current New Yorker (Dec. 6 2004; unhappily, not online), with popping eyes. Mr Bilger writes of a religious service, so-called, at the Copeland complex (I don't know what else to call it), outside Dallas, at which the man on the stage puts his congregation in a trance with a rudimentary but rousing anthem set to the words, "No more thinking, I'm just drinking, drinking of the spirit." Where is the faith or religion here, I asked myself. Silly me, I answered: the ritual described by Mr Bilger is as old as religion. But it is missing some of the more important pieces. There is, for one thing, no sacrifice, no gesture of purification through offering. During the Reformation, the new protestant sects considered such gestures superstitious; they were too cerebral for hocus pocus. But evangelicals do without sacrifice because it's unpleasant and - sad. (Please don't confuse yourself with the idea that dollar-denominated contributions are "sacrifices"!) Another thing that's missing is covenant, no commitment either to Jesus (whose new wine is served up as grace - that is, gratuitously) or to the others in the congregation. Covenant would require thinking. Drinking the spirit, drinking the new wine. How on earth can an intelligent person respond to this without contempt?

For a stronger dose of dyspepsia, here's James Wolcott.

December 01, 2004

Plus ça change?

stoneandwilliamB.JPG      stoneandwilliamA.jpg

A selection of photographs from New York Changing: Revisiting Berenice Abbott's New York (Princeton, 2004) has been mounted on the Web, one that I suspect favors evidence of persistence. The number of scenes that have remained more or less the same since 1935 is remarkable. One of the 'now' photos, taken in 1998 from Henry Street and looking toward the Municipal and Woolworth Buildings, would (sadly) look more like Abbott's if shot today. (Thanks, Gothamist.)

I have a dim recollection of walking across the since-demolished skybridge, which connected what were then offices of the First National City Bank of New York - now Citibank - during my summer as a messenger boy for Empire Trust - long since swallowed up by the Bank of New York. Perhaps it's my imagination, or calcified wishful thinking. The bridge had to come down, I suppose, when the building to the left, 55 Wall, became a hotel under the Cipriani aegis. The building on the right, 35 Exchange Place, is one of New York's most exciting Deco buildings, with super gargoyles way up high.