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April 29, 2005

Loose Links (Friday)

Kathleen is on her way to North Carolina this morning, to spend the weekend were her parents in Durham. Late last night, she conceived the idea of making turquoise-and-gold bead necklace for her mother, with, as its centerpiece, a drop of Venetian glass containing a bit of gold foil. Kathleen has gotten to be proficient at this art, which is more about hunting down the beads than stringing them, in the end. While she hummed along, I crawled into bed with the last pages of Saturday, Ian McEwan's new book. More a magnificent verbal sculpture, a David for our times, than a novel. Because I have never closed one of Mr McEwan's books without being blown away, I can't help wondering how Saturday will hold up among the others. Reviewers have been calling it a "response to 9/11," but that's awfully reductive. While I'm thinking of better things to say about Saturday, however, I find that I'm incapable of writing about anything else. So I shall have to fall back upon a

History of Post-It Notes, from The Rake, a Twin Cities publication. Greg Beato's account of 3M engineer Art Fry's persistence about putting a failed adhesive to practical use makes for irresistible reading. It is also a story about healthy corporate inertia, which puts up a resistance that forces inventors to improve everything about their work, from the thing itself to the marketing campaign. And it is a story about consumers that will remind you of the ten people you know (at least) who used to say, until they got one, "What would I ever do with a computer?"

Calling Harvard, Yale & Princeton for Class of 2024 Early Decision. You kind of want to meet a three year-old who can get himself, on a Queens bus, to the movies, to see Robot, don't you? I can only hope that Clarence Ricky Davis will have his own Web log by the end of the year.

¶ What a dummy I am! I didn't know that the CSX Corporation (formerly the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad) owns the High Line - not the City. Why hasn't the city condemned the property and taken possession? My feeling about private property of any kind: use it or lose it (and selling is a kind of losing). While I like the idea of a promenade along the elevated roadway, I think that there ought to be more than just shrubs and bike lanes. How about a surrealist street fair? Where nothing is for sale (and the "vendors" are subsidized by admission fees). Or perhaps a marché aux puces for individuals trying to empty their storage units. (That would be me.)

April 28, 2005


Housework - it never ends. For years - decades - I've been trying to ignore three vinyl cases of cassettes. I always managed to find out-of-the-way corners to ditch them in, and that worked just fine, until a recent conversion experience that inspired a ban on the contents of out-of-the-way corners. Use it or lose it. To get things going, I stacked an ostentatious pile of a dozen-odd cassettes atop the tower of components here in the blue room. Listen and learn. The first tape, which I finally got round to hearing this afternoon, was an agreeable mix of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It was dated "1980."

The next four tapes got pitched - they were silent. Magnetized? Unmarked, they failed to rouse conspiracy theories. But then - oh, dear. I slipped the tape into the machine and heard "Ooi Ooi Let's All Chant," from the soundtrack of The Eyes of Laura Mars, a song that I fell in love on contact; more than anything else in that creepy score, it embodies the ghastly glamour of the fashion photographer's life. Pausing to realize that I no longer possess the soundtrack - I have the DVD of course, but the song's fragmented in the film - I rewound and started from the top.

The top was Rupert Holmes's "Who What When Where Why." This was covered by Manhattan Transfer at some point, but I prefer the original, which appeared on Mr Holmes's first LP, a treasure from my radio days. (We routinely received the odd pop album, which every now and then wasn't so odd.) This was followed by Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park" Suite - twenty minutes or so of pound. "YMCA." "Jack and Jill." "Don't Leave Me This Way." "Boogie Oogie Oogie." Linda Clifford's fantastic "Runaway Love," no longer available since a conversion experience of the singer's. Not one but two beltings by Olivia Newton-John. Does anybody remember Olivia Newton-John?

For the most part, the tracks sounded as good as they had on LP, and almost as good as CDs. There were exceptions. "Night Fever" by The Bee-Gees" sounded muffled and muddy, as indeed I expected the entire tape to sound. The crystal clarity of the whole, though, will have me trying to make a mini-disc of each side soon, and perhaps even a pair of CDs. (The tape is a 120.) I can't believe that this time capsule has been resting in the bosom of my tape collection for twenty-five years at least.

The conjunction of a spring day - after an afternoon thunderstorm, the air reeked of rebirth - and a long-lost disco tape was irresistible. Parked at the desk, I tried half-heartedly to find an excuse for sitting there without doing any work. I didn't feel irresponsible; I felt as though the idea of responsibility hadn't been invented. Why disco, I thought. Well, there's the steady, non-percussive beat. That's very "classical." It's heartbeat, not hormones. There's the extravagance of the charts, the soaring violins and cheeky electronic bites of ear candy. Fleetwood Mac fans would probably be outraged by my having included Christine McVie's "You Make Loving Fun," but this song embodies everything that's delicious about disco. And there's the retro angle, so brilliantly executed by August Darnell in the immortal "Cherchez la femme," a big-band Latin number that's built on Paul Whiteman's mega-hit of 1918, "Whispering." Music doesn't get more learned than this. A lot of disco was brainless, but the stuff on my tape has advanced degrees out the whazoo. "Cherchez la femme" would have driven sophisticated fifteenth-century Burgundian courtiers mad with pleasure. Fatally.

Spring break? I can think of worse respites for my beleaguered body. Listening to this stuff, I am once again about thirty, too old to be paying attention but old enough to know how to have a good time. Now, of course, I am grateful that I can listen to it without any obligation to have a "good time." I can just enjoy the hell out of it.

April 27, 2005

Loose Links (!)

And you thought I wasn't doing these any more. Nonsense! I was just in for a rethink. Whether Loose Links ever returns as a daily feature is uncertain, perhaps even unlikely. However! Thanks again to Max for inserting a small hatpin in the appropriate spot.

¶ In other words for sending me a link to what may be the world's first bilingual Flash curriculum vitae. Set to "Turkey in the Straw," Alexandre Gueniot's animated resume appears to have landed him a job at Microsoft. By all means, select the CV en français, even if your French is rusty to nonexistent. It's just funnier.

And to go with that, here's something that's been lying  around for a while (as it were): Orgasmic Simulation.

On a Sodden Day in Spring

All that talk about TypeKey Identity yesterday? Well, as Max brought to my attention, it didn't work. I hadn't connected all the necessary dots. It took quite a while to figure out where some of the necessary dots were. Now I think I've got it straightened out.

Technical stuff does not really interest me, especially when it gets in the way of what I want to do, which is, of course, to take it for granted while writing page after page. This morning, thanks to my news aggregator (want to know what a news aggregator is?), I heard for the first time of something called Ajax. It's enough for the time being to say that Ajax is a hulking monster advancing inexorably toward my horizon. It is going to force me to learn all sorts of new technical stuff - maybe. It is going to do away with the concept of the Web page, I think. As I am very comfortable with the concept of the Web page, this is not good news. Someday I may drink to the health of Ajax, and bless its creators. But not today.

It would be nice to know how many bloggers are technical people with some professional investment in knowing their bits from their bytes. Fifty percent? More, I should think. Nine-eight percent? Sometimes it feels that way, just as I sometimes feel like a demented quinquegenarian who keeps showing up at sock hops. It's not that I've ever been made to feel unwelcome - not at all. It's the response of my face-to-face acquaintance. Most smile blandly when I tell them what I'm doing, almost visibly lumping blogging together with, say, model railroading. A hobby. They do not read blogs (yet), and tend to think that blogging is for self-absorbed twentysomethings. Such thinking persists even after the last presidential campaign.

Here's a thought: I might be overlooking someone, but while I know (face to face) a few contemporaries who have Web sites, I don't know a single blogger over thirty. In fact, I know (face to face) only one blogger in the entire world, and months of coaxing from me is a small part of why her blog exists. There's a disconnect, in short, between life at the computer and life away from it. There are two sets of priorities to consider. They overlap, but they're not identical. Several local communities of bloggers have arranged meetings, such as La petite anglaise did earlier this year in Paris, for anglophone Parisian bloggers. But much as I'd like to meet (face to face) some of the people I've gotten to know in the Blogosphere, that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about knowing a lot of people (face to face) who have little or no interest in what I'm spending my days on.

Not the technical stuff, but what I do while I'm taking it for granted.

April 26, 2005

Murder in the quartier


My eye was caught by a headline on page B4 of today's Times: "Amid Luxury, Domestic Strife Apparently Took Deadly Turn." Alan Feuer's story reported that seventy-one year-old Ben Odierno, of 422 East 84th Street (that would be on the south side of the block, between First and York Avenues), killed his wife, Christine, with one kitchen knife and then tried to, what, disembowel himself with another? The suicide attempt failed. There had been several altercations in the recent past to which police had been summoned, but no charges had been issued. According to the story, Mr Odierno is in real estate, and by that I do not mean realty. He owns buildings here and there. Perhaps because I was on my way to the barber shop, this reminded me immediately of the barber shop's owner, George, who cuts hair if absolutely necessary but largely uses the shop as a rental office for his scattered walkups in the neighborhood. And hey, look: there's George himself!

Neighbors said they did not know why the relationship went sour, although Mr. Odierno's barber, George Ventura, who has cut his hair for eight years, said he was no longer "happy at home."

"He's depressed all the time," Mr. Ventura said, sitting on a chair in the Clermont Barber Shop on First Avenue at 83rd Street. "Ben tells me: 'I can't continue like this. She comes home, she don't even talk to me.' " Several neighbors said Mrs. Odierno had recently told them that she had filed for divorce, although no record of a court filing could be found. The couple had two sons, Stephano, 26, and Marcus, 23. They have an address listed in Ulster County, but a telephone call to the home went unanswered

Why, old George is so cagey that the story doesn't even identify him as the barber shop's owner, much less a local landlord. Because I feel safe that George will never see this page, and that his tenants already know what's what, I do not fear that my revelations will have any consequences.

Tweaks and Baskets

As a result of recent comment-spam attacks, I have made a few slight changes. Expect no real inconvenience. Even if you have posted here before, your next comment will bring up a little message about comment moderation, begging your patience pending approval. Thereafter, you won't see the message again, but will be able to comment as in the past.*

Yesterday's attack - there was one on Sunday, too (just what I needed) - led my Web host, Hosting Matters, to disable the posting of further comments to the Daily Blague, Miss Gostrey's Guide, and Good For You. This was brought to my attention by a would-be commenter. I was nonplussed at the unilateral, no-notice action, and I think it would have been nice to receive a little message from whatever bot it was that fiddled with my site, but I quickly saw the wisdom of the operation. If you ever find that trying to post a comment brings up a 404 message - "Page Cannot Be Found" - you'll know that I'm being attacked and am closing down for the moment. (I will try to post a temporary message to this effect.) Open up Notebook - it comes on all PCs (is there a Mac counterpart?) - write your comment, and when comments open up again, you can simply cut and paste what you wanted to say. This is as good a time as any to remind you that comments involving thought and numerous sentences ought always to be written out and saved not in the Comment box but somewhere else on your machine.

The spam attacks consist of hailstorms of various spam messages, all peddling the usual things: painkillers, erectile dysfunction remedies, porn sites of every hue, and better mortgage deals. I have been attacked on a very small scale by an online casino spammer, but this party does not participate in the bulk mailings. Who, I wonder, who responds to this junk? It reminds me of a paleoconservative joke. Ten years after public education was made universal in Britain - for some reason, the year 1880 comes to mind  for the anniversary - a prominent Tory lord was asked if he had discerned any effects of the new institution. Indeed he had, he said: dirty words were now appearing a foot lower on public walls. I resist it stoutly, but I am often besieged by the idea that universal literacy is a mistake.

Jason Kottke linked the other day to a photograph on Flickr that, aside from being evidence of Life Before Elevators, brought back a refrigerator-sized memory. Until I was seven, we lived in an apartment building on Palmer Road just over the Bronx River from Bronxville proper. Upstairs, there lived the very Irish and very stout widow of a policeman; I daresay he must have been an officer. Aunt Peg, as we called her, took a tremendous shine to me, and I think might literally have smothered me with affection if I hadn't been a restless kid. Whether it happened once only or several times, I don't recall; what does come back to me sharply is the thrilled of watching the little green basket make its somewhat jerky way down from Aunt Peg's window to the back yard. I don't remember what was in the basket - disappointment, probably - but the pleasure of wondering what it might be was immense.

Of course, our building had elevators. This was a stunt, I should think, perhaps conceived by Aunt Peg as a wee bit of transgression against the building's respectable, mod-con proprieties. I do know that my mother did not at all approve of Aunt Peg, both on grounds and because she was jealous of alternative fountains of love (even, to some extent, her own mother, who adored me rather wildly, and who inadvertently tipped me off about adoption before I knew anything about it with perpectual "reminders" that I got my red hair from her). My grandmother was also stout. Perhaps it was the affection of these two ladies that has made me stout.

*In response to the first spam attack, I also opened comments to TypeKey Identities. I urge you to secure one of these. There's nothing to it, and you'll find that a TypeKey ID is a quick open-sesame to many sites. (TypeKey is a service of Six Apart, the company that produces the Movable Type software that powers this and thousands of other Web logs.)

April 25, 2005

A Major Connection

We are back, safe and sound, from the somber journey to Peterborough and Wilton, two New Hampshire towns connected by the stretch of Route 101 that traverses a shoulder of Pack Monadnock. The weather was suitably awful, drizzling or pouring rain. After one of the worst nights of my life so far as getting some sleep goes, I had an even worse one through the wee hours of Sunday morning, and I had no idea, when it was time to get up (and for some time after), how I was ever going to make the trip back to New York. In the event, I'm thankful to say, the return was uneventful, and I find myself back at the project of renovating my life. The handwriting is on the wall: it's either that or a stroke. 

So here's what I've been thinking most about, when I haven't been worrying about myself and my aunt and my cousins.

From the very start, this Web log was intended, among other things, to help me to clarify big ideas by serving as a kind of sketchbook. In response to this or that newspaper story, chance event, or just plain sudden insight, I could doodle a few paragraphs and, later, see what worked and what the implications were, and then write something more comprehensive and coherent for a page in my Web site, Portico. For convenience's sake, I would archive sketches under the same rubric, such as "Against Television" or "The Augustinian Settlement." The latter group of entries concerns the sexual orthodoxy that was established in Western Christianity by about 450CE, and which, according to me, anyway, went unquestioned for centuries until breaking down under scientific and social onslaughts after World War II. Somehow, I never set up an archive for entries on the subject of Respectability, which, again according to me, was the code of public modesty and propriety that women in Western Europe utilized, inch by inch, to advance themselves toward equality with men. It was only last week that I saw how vitally connected the two issues are, and, in the process, saw how wrong I was to say that the Augustinian Settlement had gone unchallenged for fifteen hundred years. My very idea of Respectability began with the marriage of Martin Luther and Katerina von Bora in the white-hot 1520's. If that wasn't a challenge to Augustine's rules, I don't know what it was. It was also, I maintain, the beginning of the end of the old sexual orthodoxy that conservative evangelicals are now so frantically trying to preserve and to which they are determined to restore the force of law.

As I'm still a little tired and stiff, and also in the middle of putting together a bit of breakfast for the two of us, I will post this now and add to it later. I would just urge you to try to connect the authoritative writings of a Doctor of the Church, one and a half millennia ago, the rejection of clerical celibacy by a righteous Christian reformer, very nearly six centuries ago, and the mounting furor over homosexual equality, right now.


April 22, 2005

Devoted and Beloved


A death in the family has called us out of town for the weekend. My beloved uncle, John Miles Keefe, died the other day at 83. He was such a kind gentleman that he waited until everybody who had enjoyed Kathleen's birthday dinner at the Plaza Tuesday night had gotten home. Four of the six people at that dinner will be in New Hampshire tomorrow.

The awful thing for all of us is that until just about yesterday nobody thought that he was going to die anytime soon - or perhaps ever. Last winter at this time, we were sure that he was on his deathbed, but he joked with the nurses and ran off to the West End for a week of theatre. This year may have been different because of a serious illness in the family that required a lot of toing-and-froing along wintry New Hampshire roads.

My uncle John had, I'm as sure as one can be about such things, a very good life. Bright and handsome, he was far too engaged with and interested in the world to let his zest and vigor be sapped by the blasé detachment that was his generation's style of ultra-cool and that he could put on and take off like a glove. If he did not have the blandly easy career that was expected for him - he started out at Sullivan & Cromwell, and by "easy" I don't mean "idle" - he had a far more interesting one, and fifteen or so years ago, doggedly pursuing a wrongful-discharge case, he won for his client one of the largest judgments ever awarded in New Hampshire. While he was alive, he was too vivid for me ever to see the resemblance to characters played by some of Hollywood's great leading men. John, of course, wasn't acting.

John Keefe was an anchor of my life long before the death of my own father (his older brother) twenty years ago. He will not be replaced.

The photograph is a souvenir of his naval service in World War II. Although born on the banks of the Mississippi River, John was a lifelong sailor. And, as the picture suggests, a devoted and beloved son. I say nothing of those of us who are left behind. The loss, for the moment, is unspeakable.

April 21, 2005

Promenade & Read


This is my Eustace Tilley shot. I take it every year, and every year it's the same, just like the cover of the last February issue of The New Yorker. Except this year, it isn't, and that's nothing to do with me. By a quirk of the weather or whatnot, the trees have begun to leaf before the cherries have quite flowered. I hope that the fruit trees aren't in trouble.

Today's promenade was minimal. I've only just begun to get my strength back, have overdone it like a madman last Sunday, when the removal of our sofabed was finally coordinated and effected. On Jason Kottke's recommendation (quite a while back), I contacted Call Paul to Haul, and Paul couldn't have been nicer. It was he who got the blue room door off its hinges. It was M le Neveu who saw that the couch had to be lifted above the baseboards. It was Ms NOLA who welcomed the piece at Crazy Eights. The calls were close all the way, and if I hadn't done anything else for the rest of the day, I'd have still been a wreck.

But I did plenty. In addition to wanting to get out of the stay-with-us business, which I will resume only if we find ourselves living in a place with either a separate dining room or a third bedroom (and then quite happily enough), I had to open up the living room, which is half dining room and half sitting room. The sitting-room half had three sofas in it. Two loveseats and a four-seater. Too much sofa! With the Louis XVI canapé that Kathleen's mother had built many years ago taking the place of the sofabed in the blue room, I could move one of two matching wing chairs, built to my scale, into the living room. Thus each room would have less furniture in it. There's more. Without the clutter of the second wing chair, the elements of the blue room's configuration could be restored to an earlier, more successful arrangement. This meant that dresser that I use to store DVDs, already emptied and hulking in a corner to make room for the sofabed's eviction, could cross the room, but for that to happen... It was one of those keychain puzzles with the sliding squares. Having tidied up the living room, which had been only minimally distrubed, I attacked the blue room, and emerged, four hours later, victorious, more or less. (There are still a few items in search of a final resting place.)

And that should have been that, but no: M le Neveux and Ms NOLA were coming for dinner, and I fried some chicken. An attempt at mashed potatoes failed completely, because instead of following my usual method (never mind), I thought I'd do what I thought everybody does, and, guess what, I don't know what everybody does because I'm sure that everybody doesn't turn out a bowl of glue. Cook what you know - at least when you're fading.

Monday, I had enough adrenalin in my blood to write a few posts, but I felt pretty shaky, and when, early in the evening, I tried to use the new juicer for the second time and it broke almost at once, the setback pricked my balloon, and the energy rushed out of me with a whoosh. Tuesday, I stayed in bed until the early midafternoon, and it turned out to be a great boon to have arranged for a shortened French lesson; I could hardly get through the hour and a quarter that my prof spent together. After an hour of quiet reading - refusing to think about anything except A Time To Be Born, and this means that I didn't even think about writing it up; I got to that yesterday - I started to get dressed for dinner, and at 8:20 I walked into the Plaza as dapper, or at least as relaxed, as Cary Grant. A sign that I wasn't operating on full batteries, however, was that when I opened my camera case toward the end of the festive dinner, the camera wasn't in it. Fortunately, Ms NOLA had brought hers, and as soon as the film has been developed, I'll share anything that's not indiscreet.

Yesterday was even worse, for reasons that I will discuss in a subsequent post, but over Chinese take-out, Kathleen convinced me that I was probably not going to have a stroke at any minute but that I was suffering from severe physical exhaustion. So, after dinner, I just sat and read some more. I opened Barbara Vine's latest novel, The Minotaur. Within two pages I forgot myself completely.


This morning, I felt something like my regular self. My wrists and shoulders weren't sore, and it wasn't so painful to get up or sit down. I thought I might be up to lunch at Burger Heaven, after which I would walk down to Carl Schurz Park to see the cherries. So the extent of my walk, effectively, was the length of 86th Street between Third Avenue and the East River, or a little over half a mile (maybe more - those are long blocks). Not much of an adventure, and so familiar that I had to vary things a little by coming home along 87th Street, passing Harriet the Spy's home in Henderson Place. You can't see it in the photo above because I cropped it out; in any case, it would lost in the cloud of Bradford pear blossoms. But I believe that it's the house on the near corner.

I had carried along The Minotaur, to read both at the restaurant and, irresistibly, on a bench overlooking the river. I began to note some distinctive qualities. First of all, the writing is more punctiliously correct than Ms Vine's books usually are; is that because her narrator is a Swedish woman who has not learned the language in the schoolyard? Second of all, I feel something that I've missed terribly in the recent BVs, that sense of a family of women decaying from within that was so beautifully set out in A Dark-Adapted Eye.

April 20, 2005

The Object of Criticism

Somewhere in his book, The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton, 2004), Richard Wolin observes that criticism is intended to strengthen and improve its object; it is the opposite of hostility. Setting aside the many hatchet jobs that have passed for "criticism" over the years, I quite eagerly agreed with this distinction, and then watched the implications build up. The real object of criticism, dear reader, is you. It is to suggest good ideas and helpful ways of looking at the world that I write. It is to bolster important distinctions that are often overlooked in the everyday rush. My opinion of a given work, as such, is of little importance to me. Sometimes it is the frank attempt to persuade others that motivates me. At others, I want to call attention to recalcitrant uncertainties, bounding them with cordons if necessary but not pretending to clear them up. In the intellectual life, nothing is quite as important as the ability to suspend the rush to judgment, to hold contrarieties in the mind.

Another implication is that it's going to take me a while to build a readership. Although I haven't been blogging for a year yet, even in simulation mode, I've discovered that the Blogosphere is a contentious place. I'm not speaking of flame wars or insults. The contention is milder than that. But it is contention: argument that's more competitive than persuasive. There is also a great deal of outrage, or at least the verbal expression of it. We are perhaps living in an age of outrage, but that only makes it more vital to avoid gratuitous manifestations. The real object of my outrage, if I were to indulge it, would not be the Bush Administration or the Congress or the Media, all of whom, in my view, are derelict at their very best and usually much worse, but the voters and television viewers without whose support these institutions would be very, very different. I don't believe in blocs; I believe in individuals. We must change the fabric of the nation one person at a time. Such a project is bound to be hindered by tones of outrage.

And perhaps few readers will be comfortable with the idea that I'm talking about them. Not personally or individually, to be sure. But when I remark that, for example, Americans are going to have to reduce their consumption of petroleum in all its forms, what I'm not doing is suggesting that you wait anxiously for the government to take charge of the problem. Without a catastrophe, no "leader" is going to touch this matter unless and until voters begin to pull their heads out of the sand and demand policies - with luck, on the most local of levels possible.

And if I suggest that you read Bob Herbert's column in last Monday's Times, it's because I'd like you consider his last sentence as carefully as you can.

April 19, 2005

Happy Birthday, My Dear!

KHMschool.jpg KHMWedding.jpg KHME06.JPG

Happy Birthday, Kathleen!

Happy Birthday to the woman who bewitched me with her voice - all unknowing - on the first day of orientation in 1977, when we were all starting law school. I saw her, yes, and she was very appealing, but I fell in love with her voice, and although that voice is very familiar now, it is still my standard for estimating heart, soul and spirit in the human character.

Kathleen is the rare woman who got to sow her wild oats before the onset of puberty - and, it must be averred, afterward. "Got to" is wrong, really. Nobody gave permission; Kathleen seized it. If you've seen Please Don't Eat The Daisies, then imagine what a huge Hefty bag full of water - how they got it out of the kitchen I'll never know - would do when dropped from the eighth floor of a building onto 96th Street. Atomic noise! Imagine being condemned to polish the floors of a cloistral corridor - and having the bright idea of inspiring your accomplice to emulate you in strapping the brushes to your feet and getting your booty down, to music on a small cassette recorder.  (I'm probably wrong about the cassette recorder; Kathleen provided her own radio station. You ought to hear her sing songs she hates - you want to go out and buy them!) Having done truly unspeakable things as a good little girl, Kathleen has been freed to be a Perfectly Decent Old Lady. One with a still fabulous smile.

Kathleen is 52 today. It seems hardly possible. I always thought that I alone would be the one to grow old. When I say that it wasn't supposed to happen to Kathleen, I don't mean that ageing has made her a different person. She remains, at heart and to me, a bold but feeling girl. But I see that I entertained a fantasy that I could do the ageing for the two of us.

Given my spotty recent health record, it would seem that I'll die before Kathleen. Death has certainly been much on my mind this year; if you've had my blood-pressure readings, you've been writing your will, too. Kathleen is terrified of life without me, because I do the dishes. But who knows? Maybe she'll find somebody marvelous, and in a postkitchen age. Maybe, on the other hand, she'll make me keep myself going.

And she kept her own name. Brava.

April 18, 2005

Vivaldi at St Vincent Ferrer

When we hear Vivaldi's church music, we're inclined to visualize San Marco, having been directed to do so by countless record jackets and jewel box brochures. But Vivaldi was far from a fixture at the Basilica. His principal professional attachment was to the Ospedale della Pietà, one of four Venetian foundling homes. The Pietà was a home for girls, and although all four institutions raised money through concerts performed by the inmates, the Pietà was the jewel of this crown, a must-see on every grand tour. The instrumentalists, who performed behind a grille, were virtuosos, and there were many fine singers, too. But there were no men in the chorus at the Pietà, and Robert Mealy, violinist and commentator of the New York Collegium, advances the opinion of some scholars that

the women simply sang the bass and perhaps tenor parts transposed up an octave. The occasional difficulties of part-writing would be concealed by the instrumental bass-line, which plays the written pitch. If this was so, Vivaldi may have used conventional four-part notation for his choral writing in hopes that these pieces would eventually be performed outside the Pietà.

Accordingly, a concert billed as "Vivaldi at the Pietà was a concert at which the composer's celebrated Gloria, RV 589, was sung exclusively by women. It was ravishing. The Gloria was one of the first things I sang in glee club, and I found the tenor part very taxing. On recordings, it seems strangely pronounced, and not just because I know how it goes. Sung by the second sopranos, however, it melted right into the fabric.

Continue reading about the New York Collegium at Portico.


Last Thursday, I unpacked the new Breville juicer and put it to work. Following a recipe in the accompanying manual, I juiced one apple, a bunch of carrots, and most of a head of celery. This produced twelve ounces of an interesting and not at all unpleasant potation. But I was curious about wheatgrass, called for the the Ultimate Juicing that I'd also bought at Amazon. Having heard from Ms NOLA that wheatgrass would be available at Friday's Greenmarket in Union Square, I proposed that we meet at the Shake Shack for lunch and then pick up the grass. Ms NOLA had told me about the Shake Shack, too, and somehow I'd gotten the idea that it, too, was in Union Square. In the event, Because I was running errands, after all, not promenading, it never occurred to me to bring the camera. Now I must flog myself never to leave Yorkville without it.

The Shake Shack, which is actually in Madison Square (at the intersection of Fifth Avenue, Broadway, and 23rd Street, formerly a hub of the insurance biz), is the most improbable thing in the world, because it’s almost exactly what its name suggests: a smallish pavilion that turns out dreamy American treats, from cheeseburgers and fries to ice cream sundaes. It has been a very long time since such an operation could be found in a city park. It’s open from spring to fall only, and all seating is outdoors. There are no rest rooms, and credit cards are not accepted. The place is run by restaurateur Danny Meyer, whose famous eateries, Eleven Madison Park and Tabla, sit side by site right across Madison Avenue. As I munched on a double cheeseburger, I tried to recall what it was that the meal reminded me of, but I only thought of it today, three days later. On our drives to and from Candlewood Lake in the Pourover days, we'd often stop at the Red Rooster in Sodom, New York. (I kid you not; Sodom is actually a part of the town of Southeast, which includes the village of Brewster.) The Red Rooster (scroll down) may well have been what Danny Meyer had in mind, so reminiscent is the Shake Shack's nourriture.

After lunch – Ms NOLA regaled me with entertaining tales of her alma mater - we took the train to Union Square, stopping first at the big Barnes & Noble (for the restroom, ahem) and noting that Kazuo Ishiguro is going to do a signing there on Wednesday. (Ms NOLA got a copy of his book just the same.) Then we plunged into the Greenmarket, which is actually a sort of fertile crescent across the top and sides of the Square. We found wheatgrass almost immediately, and I decided on the $7 flat, which ought to make a few drinks. (I know; I ought to have tried it already, but one thing and another - most recently, a plate of leftover fried chicken - got in the way.) I bought some parsley (both kinds) at another stall. Then we got back on the Broadway local and headed uptown to the Greater New York Orchid Show at Rockefeller Center.


After buying a windbreaker and picking up the scores, we headed for the Carnegie Hall station, as it would be called in a sensible world, I to take the N or the R to 59th Street and the uptown Lex, Ms NOLA to catch the Q, which originates there, home to Brooklyn. I was so tired that I wondered how on earth I would ever make it to the New York Collegium concert at St Vincent Ferrer.



Apologies to the friends whose comments to Friday's entry were accidentally deleted yesterday. I was fighting off a storm of comment spam, and in the course of deleting comments twenty at a time, I inadvertently knocked off a few that were the very opposite of spam. Désolé! Three of them were birthday wishes to Kathleen. Kathleen thanks everyone for the good wishes and hopes to comment to that effect herself.

Happily, I did nothing Saturday but read The Nine Tailors, my favorite Dorothy Sayers mystery. Friday and Sunday, however, were unusually busy. Friday was full of interest; yesterday was full of something else; when I wasn't clearing out the comment spam, I was restoring order to the apartment after the long-awaited departure of a convertible sofa. A little bit emptier, the place seems much more spacious.

More about Friday anon (above).

April 17, 2005



This is the one postcard that's always on view - protected by one of those plastic box frames, in the kitchen. I happen to sympathize with the lady, but then look at how thin the guy is.

April 15, 2005

They Can't Take That Away From Me


The mayor may have my vote back after all. Thanks, at least in part, to his efforts, the Plaza hotel has been "saved." I wish I could say that it was concern for the employees that prompted outrage about the shuttering of this landmark's great public rooms, but in fact it was nothing but moi-ism: they can't take that away from me!

Even though the place is supposed to stay open, I'm glad that I booked a table at the Palm Court for Kathleen's birthday on Tuesday.

April 14, 2005


For most of the morning, I felt so sluggish, and so comfortable reading Dawn Powell and taking tea in bed (which sounds better than it was, because I'm leaving out various organic irritations, but still), that I actually considered canceling my appointment with the allergist. Happily, I made the decision not to get back into bed at just the right moment, and I managed to leave the apartment without forgetting anything. Second Avenue seemed to be clogged, but the bus made its way to 70th Street in fine time. When the appointment was over, I walked out onto 67th Street and headed east.


I considered dropping in at the dermatologist's, between Park and Madison, to see if he could take a quick look at my fading rashes and decide whether I ought to make an appointment. But dropping in isn't something that you do in New York, for business or pleasure, or - outside of an emergency room - for health care, either. And could I really imagine his saying, "No, I don't need to see you right now. Let's wait and see." He probably wouldn't see me at all. And I was enjoying the walk too much.

Sadly, it wasn't one of my hands' steadier days, but the bright sunlight worked in my favor, at least with respect to architectural elements. These pillars to the left were gleaming in the sun on 67th Street at Madison Avenue. The Bradford pears were blooming. It was just too cold to go without a coat. I was thinking about an entry that I want to write for the Daily Blague, about geeks. Now, when I was in school, there were no handsome geeks, or even ordinary-looking ones. Geeks were like that annoying kid in War Games (played by Eddie Deezen, I believe). You got the idea that they'd taken up science faute de mieux. Personal computers changed all that.

I was also thinking about a pseudonym that came in on a piece of spam. I have a trash bin filled with messages from the likes of Altimeters H. Quest and Pistils E. Vibration; there's something vaguely naughty about these names that you can't always put your finger on, and the juxtapositions are usually funny, although I suspect they're computer-generated. The name that tickled me was different. It lacked the preposterous middle initial, and the first name didn't begin with a capital letter. But it still makes me laugh, and I can't bring myself to delete the spam. It's "pelvis Romano."


Walking up Fifth Avenue, I had the sense of being in the country. The sidewalk is wildly uneven. It's actually made up of hexagons of macadam, or some other relatively primitive paving material, and the profusion of major tree roots snaking out from Central Park has wreaked havoc with much of it. But the arch of trees rising overhead - I must look into what kind of trees they are - are vastly taller than ordinary city trees (which have, I understand, an average life-span of forty years), and I always feel that I'm on a straight stretch of a country road. (Much as I love Central Park itself, the walkways always seem far more contrived, as indeed they are.) 

As I was carrying a smallish Tumi bag today, I was scooted past the Met's security, but I would have checked everything if I'd had to, because I was there for lunch. Starving. When I got to the basement cafeteria, the chef was washing down one of the griddles, but it wasn't too late for a cheeseburger. I don't know why I'm crazy about this place, because I don't like cafeterias as a rule. During the consumption of my cheeseburger, I read a bit of an article in The New York Review about fighting AIDS in Africa with at least one hand tied behind the back by Evangelicals. To my mind, there is very little difference between denying some people sex information and protection because it's "sinful," on the one hand, and condemning others to gas chambers because they "pollute" society; I just wonder how long it's going to take society at large to figure this out and marginalize crazy religionistas.

Just beyond the cafeteria, in the basement of the Lehman wing, there's a show of quattrocentro pictures arranged around the career of Fra Carnevale, who painted a few good panels and a lot of indifferent ones. I walked right up to Fra Lippo's St Lawrence, one of the few paintings on exhibit that's really worth looking at. It happens to belong to the Metropolitan, but I didn't know it before this show. As I was approaching it, I noticed that a woman was approaching me tentatively. Peripherally, I didn't recognize her, and I certainly wasn't expecting to run into a friend at the Met on a weekday afternoon. But it was a friend indeed; years ago, our spouses were associates at the same firm, and we have kept up ever since. For the next hour - or just under - we stood here and there and talked. I must remember to look up flash memory cards for her, and to send her the URL of the page on Miss Gostrey's Guide that explains the difference between Web logs and Web sites. And of course we have to make plans to get together. My friend has a ten year-old daughter who has figured out how to access the Web, unsupervised, coasting on someone else's WiFi signal. I warned her about littleboy.

I had really dropped into the museum with no higher view than lunch and a few pictures, so after my friend tore herself off to the gym, I took the escalator up to the second floor and went to see a few friends in the old masters galleries. Georges de la Tours's La Sorcière, Breughel's The Harvesters, and even the odd picture that hangs right across the gallery from The Harvesters, Moses and Aaron Before Pharaoh: An Allegrory of the Dinteville Family. One of the gentlemen in this latter picture is more famous as half of Holbein's Ambassadors (the beau mec on the left, I should think), but there is a homoerotic spiciness to the Pharaoh picture (its background and its composition) that sets it apart from almost everything else in its enfilade. Finally, my doomed scientiest, Lavoisier. This man of science, whose inheritance included the tax farm that funded his research, was guillotined in 1794, notwithstanding the fact that he had discovered, ahem, oxygen. I don't know what happened to his widow, and I don't know what David felt about this portrait at the time (1788, the year before). But even as a painting it is one of the Met's masterpieces. We are so unbelievably lucky here. Thanks to plutocrats like Morgan and lonely old retailers like Benjamin Altman and impresarios like Duveen and a host of Met promoters of whom Philippe de Montebello is simply the apogee, New York has a triumphant, feloniously gorgeous collection of great European pictures. More about the Met vis-à-vis the great European museums some other time - as if anybody who hasn't been to Italy could write about such a thing.

Walking home was not pleasant. I had been up on my legs for weeks, it seemed. I plodded on, but I wondered how on earth I would find the fortitude to get up and go out again in the evening. We had tickets to see Moonlight & Magnolia, a truly hilarious show about the making of Gone With The Wind. And I did go. Kathleen's laughter was joy itself. David Rasche ought to have mentioned The Big Tease in his credits, because we always think of him as "Stig."


If my hand were steadier, you could count the budding blooms in the Frick's garden.

April 13, 2005

Shocked, shocked - No, really shocked

Jim Wiandt writes from Spain,

I thought of you and your site when I saw this the other day.  I'm aghast that such a thing can even be legal.  And by one of the largest U.S. companies.

I know you're very technically focused and international, so thought you'd appreciate it.  I've run into this firsthand, as one of my coworkers just mysteriously stopped receiving email from me in December...costing us a month of missed billing/invoicing.

It's just really beyond belief.  And the fact that they have remained glib even about this speaks to 1) their enormous stupidity and 2) the weight of their confidence in the legal draw fund.

I'm completely flabbergasted by this. I got not even a rejection message to all the emails I'd sent. No warning no nothing...just cut off from the U.S. And the ban is STILL on. From December through yesterday, I've been unable to get anything to Verizon customers in the U.S. from Europe. In addition to being highly annoying and wrong, it has the vague ring of something more insidious to it...were I a conspiracist.

Why am I hearing about this outrage first from Jim?

Bernard-Henri Lévy follows Alexis de Tocqueville

In one of the most interesting cross-cultural projects of recent times, The Atlantic has commissioned French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, to take a trip through the United States, following Alexis de Tocqueville's 1831 footsteps. The first instalment of M Lévy's findings appear in the current (May) issue, which I encourage you to pick up even though the text is, astonishingly, available online. Where Tocqueville drew a series of broad generalizations about America and about democracy in action from his encounters, M Lévy piles up the anecdotes and lets inferences and conclusions precipitate. The installment ends with the declaration that we have become a nation of ideologues, a proposition that I'm very unhappy about having to agree with. And we have refashioned religion into something that no pious person of a century ago (much less a millennium or two) would recognize as religion. Our deity appears, in practice, to be part animist presence, part Clark Kent - a regular guy with super powers. He demands no sacrifices and will forgive all members of the club.

I don't know quite how I got this, but it's the English translation of M Lévy's interview with France-Amérique, and quite interesting in its own right. Edward Rothstein, in the Times yesterday, gave the project high marks. Be sure not to miss the anticipation, in each of these linked articles, of the installment in which, flying the author over the Grand Canyon, a helicopter pilot notes that it may have been carved by Noah's Flood.

And in Cooperstown, M Lévy finds a curious mixture of willful self-deception - nobody really believes the Genesis of baseball promulgated by the Hall of Fame - and secular religion - an awed man refers in hushed tones to imagined on-site sepulchres of great ball players.

As readers of this site will understand from my constant hectoring, religious and moral values in Cooperstown America have little to do with the either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament beyond the wallpaper effects of Tim LaHay's exciting Tribulation novels. Christianity has been boiled down to an accessible Costco of the soul. You need only sign up and affirm your membership. You can go on with your regularly scheduled activities with a clear conscience, and, as for the unscheduled activities that you wouldn't want anybody to know about, they'll be forgiven upon request.

There has always been much about institutional Christianity that was wrongheaded and oppressive. But even in the throes of its lowest-common-denominator excesses, it was usually right for most people, and liberals today are paying through the wazoo for having overlooked that FACT. Nevertheless, Christianity was, until recently, a serious, demanding faith. It was inconvenient (a point that Orthodox Jews have turned into a plus). It was hard. The religions that Bernard-Henri Lévy encounters in his travels across America - even among the Amish of Iowa - are not only easy; they're mindless. 

April 12, 2005

Reading Dawn Powell

Feeling very frazzled and tender when I awoke at five this morning and couldn't get back to sleep and got through with the Times: what to read? Nothing in my current pile appealed. I needed something that I'd read before, something relatively calm and stable. The Library of America to the rescue! I had been talking about A Time To Be Born, Dawn Powell's great novel, published in 1942, with Ms NOLA, and I was thirsty for a refresher. I'm writing about Powell as I go along at Good For You.

Barbara Bonney at Orpheus

If I say that Saturday night's was not one of the great evenings at Orpheus, that's only to show that I have a sense of degrees. By any standard, it was a very fine concert, worthy and interesting, and, at the end, huge fun. The dampers are two: first, the ensemble failed to ignite during Mozart's Symphony No. 29 in A, K. 201. It may be that the symphony lacks combustible material, and it may be that I was inattentive, but moments of ignition with Orpheus are invariable signaled by a strange effect among the violins: their bows all appear to be pointing to the same pole. The symphony's charms, however, were all well polished and on view. The symphony dates from the period of the violin concertos, and has the same warm blush, but here, without a soloist to stand behind, Mozart pushes the four non-stringed instruments - two oboes and two horns - occasionally to the front. I used to sniff at these, at the time to me, non symphonies because they lacked all the color of Mozart's mature orchestra, and only the oboes distinguished them from the horn-backed serenades and divertimenti. I've outgrown such thinking. The symphony was most welcome.

Continue reading about Orpheus and Barbara Bonney at Portico.

Never Let Me Go: Spoilers Edition

This morning - a Monday, a week from the Monday on which I read Never Let Me Go in one long agonized swallow - I woke up without thinking right away of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, the three central characters of Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel. I don't know how long it took for recollections of the book to seep into the day, but it can't have been longer that ten minutes. The novel is like the Marburg virus: an intoxicatingly new way to experience the same old destiny.

JKM has posted the following comment:

RJ: I have finished Never Let Me Go; I don't want to ruin the book for anyone who hasn't read it, but would you start a dialogue on Good For You? There are so many things in the book that should be discussed.

If you want to talk about this book without worrying about spoiling its little surprises for anyone else, this is where you want to be. Comment away! If you haven't read the book and don't want its little surprises spoiled, go read the sodding book and then come back to post a comment or two.

One thing is already certain: the look of perplexed pity which those of us who have read the book are going to cast upon those who haven't - especially when those who haven't conclude that we're upset by a science fiction nightmare. If only!

April 11, 2005


The cover story in the Times' Sunday Styles section, by Jennifer 8. Lee ("8," not "B"), was entitled "The Man Date." The meatier features in Sunday Styles appear to be designed to make interesting and off-center social developments look as silly as possible, and, at first, I thought that a story about the tactics of getting together with another straight man for dinner and conversation without provoking homoerotic innuendo would be a prime example of this undertaking. Most of the story is indeed embarrassing to read, for the simple reason that reading about anybody's insecurities is embarrassing. But Ms Lee salvages her story from utter inconsequence by proposing a bit of history.

Dinner with a friend has not always been so fraught. Before women were considered men's equals, some gender historians say, men routinely confided in and sought advice from one another in ways they did not do with women, even their wives. Then, these scholars say, two things changed during the last century: an increased public awareness of homosexuality created a stigma around male intimacy, and at the same time women began encroaching on traditionally male spheres, causing men to become more defensive about notions of masculinity.

Exactly, more or less. In Istanbul in January, we noticed that unquestionably heterosexual men were far more boyish and physical with one another than their American counterparts would dream of being. And isn't "defensive" the definitive adjective for Ernest Hemingway's manliness? Maybe what sexual conservatives fear most about gender equality is the tedium of thinking about their relationships with other men. What a shame that would be.

April 09, 2005

Saturday Night Fever


This is the once-fabled Cocoanut Grove, a huge nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel somewhere out on Wilshire Boulevard - currently, I believe, an administration building of the Los Angeles public schools.  I was never in the Grove, but I did stay at the hotel for few days in 1962. It is the black hole of my memories of a trip from Kansas City to Liberal, Kansas, thence to Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Franciso, and, finally, to Davenport, Iowa and Chicago. The only thing that comes back about Los Angeles is that the daughter of my mother's oldest uncle, named "Tiger Lilly," drove us along Sunset Strip. I did not believe then and I don't believe now that nice people live in Los Angeles. There is something terribly wrong with the place.

Everybody knows by now that when Hattie McDaniel showed up here to accept her Gone With The Wind Oscar, she was ushered in through the kitchen. Let's hope that some parallel dishonor does not doom attempts to save the Plaza Hotel here in New York. The exterior, thankfully, can't be touched, and there's some hope that the new owners will be shamed into living up to their new acquisition. We'll let you know more after Kathleen's birthday party in ten days - we're booked for the Palm Court.

April 08, 2005

Guarneri at the Met II

Rather a lot of time has elapsed since the second Guarneri Quartet concert at the Metropolitan Museum, on 19 March, and, ordinarily, I'd be inclined to let it go. As I noted somewhere in passing, it was a good concert, with unvarying true tones from first violinist Arnold Steinhardt even in the Mozart. And guest pianist Anton Kuerti was unbelievably dazzling: no spring chicken, he ought to have been heard of before by me. I'd let all this pass unrepeated, however, but for the second work on the program, Dohnányi's String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15. Thinking ahead for once, I ordered recordings of the works that I didn't have - in short, all three offerings. I never got around to listening to Dvořák's Piano Quartet, Op. 87, and I haven't heard it since the concert, so the only thing that I can say about it is that it palpably dates from before the composer's American sojourn. Mozart's Quartet in F, K. 168, struck me as rather more grown-up than expected, and I look forward to getting to know it better. My excuse for slighting these works is that I was utterly smitten by the Dohnányi.

Ernst von Dohnányi was born in Pressburg, now Bratislava, of Hungarian parents, in 1877, and between the wars, according to Bartok, he directed his new nation's musical life from Budapest. He is best known today for his glorious Variations on a Nursery Tune (eg, our "alphabet" song, which is also the theme of a magnificent set of variations by Mozart). Written for piano and orchestra, the Variations conjure up a happily grand world in which the Titanic didn't sink. I didn't know what to expect of the Quartet. I still haven't forgiving myself for missing Gidon Kremer's performance, with the Kremerata Baltica, of Georges Enescu's Octet a few years ago. That's where the Dohnányi belongs. Its opening notes seem to veer sharply from Borodin to Dvořák, but the work's presiding genius is Schubert. The finale is like the slow movement of one of Schubert's late quartets, with a craggily troubled trio; the final coda, before repeating the opening theme, brings Bruckner to mind. There is a very agreeable scherzo in between this movement and the opening Andante - Allegro. This first movement is what captured me. Its second subject - I'm not sure that that's the correct terminology - is one of the most meltingly gorgeous tunes that I've ever heard, warm and quiet and irresistible, a little homesick but not unhappy. It's the kind of beauty that made me crazy when I was a teenager; in those days, my musical passions were all concentrated upon brief, often structurally insignificant passages in works that were rarely well-known. Some friends thought that I was too clever by half, but in fact I was utterly unsophisticated, rube enough to root for music that wasn't thought to be important. Now that I'm a decaying codger, it took two or three hearings to fall in love, and I might, had I not had the recordings in advance, have missed my latest love altogether at the concert.

That's why I had to write it up. Ascoltami.

Angela Hewitt at Zankel Hall

Kathleen left the office at seven sharp yesterday, and I quitted the apartment shortly thereafter, so we both got to Carnegie Hall in plenty of time for an eight-o'clock curtain. Never mind that there are no curtains at Zankel Hall, which is tucked into Carnegie's basement. We had time to spare for a trip to the 55th Street Deli. Kathleen was feeling peckish and headachy and wanted to get some Raisinets. (Did you know about CandyDirect?). We sauntered back to the entrance to Zankel Hall, cluelessly imagining that we were there before everybody else. Not until the massive but vacant elevator doors opened on the Parterre level to resounding applause did I think to look at the tickets: make that a seven-thirty curtain. We had just missed the first work on the program, Bach's Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and we would have missed the second work, the much longer French Overture in b, as well, if an usher hadn't taken pity on us and shepherded us to the invalids' seating section to one side.

Ask me how I discovered Angela Hewitt, and I can't tell you, but I began accumulating her Bach recordings on Hyperion some time ago. I won't say that they're my favorites, because I could never derogate András Schiff or Keith Jarrett, but they're up there, and when I worked through the schedule last fall in search of a good concert to introduce us to Zankel Hall - I deliberately....

....didn't try to get in during the hall's first season - Ms Hewitt's recital made the first cut. (Another event, which I wish I'd chosen also - not instead - was an evening of dervishes. If I'd known that we'd be going to Istanbul...) And then, on the basis of repertoire and week-day, it emerged as the winner. I knew that there would be Bach on the program, but I forgot the rest, and by last night was actually feeling a little guilty about dragging Kathleen along. It was only when I managed to open the program that I saw the work that had undoubtedly clinched the selection months ago: Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin.

The French Overture was new to me. Unlike the French Suites, it has a full-blown overture, in the manner of the Orchestral Suites, in the French manner. A halting, grandiose proclamation soon gives we to a the rapid workout of a theme that is half-playful, half-urgent, and invested with the feeling of perpetual-motion. The proclamation makes two reappearances, and the number lasts about eight minutes. It is followed by six dance movements and an "Echo." More than in any other music that I'm aware, Bach seizes French severity and make it his own.

After the interval, we had Couperin's Treizième Ordre, a suite rather unlike Bach's. Before performing it, Ms Hewitt - who turns out to be Canadian, not English, as I had unreasoningly assumed - explained that the meanings of the characteristic titles that the composer attached to his movements have only recently been unearthed, and that the thirteenth of Couperin's suites refers to events at the court of the Regent, Philippe d'Orléans. I'll take Ms Hewitt's word for it. To hear Couperin after Bach is to grasp the difference between the French and Saxon baroques only to find that it is nothing more than the perennial difference between France and northern Germany. Where Bach is rigorous and even relentless in unfolding the implications of his subject-matter, Couperin is sprighty and agile. I would turn conventional epithetry on its head and say that Couperin is the more muscular. The fourth movement of the Ordre is a theme and variations entitled "Les Folies Françaises," its theme derived from the celebrated if fatherless tune, "La Folia." The final movement, "L'âme en peine," was performed with a dry anguish that brought out a relation to the theme of the Goldberg Variations, which always seems so innocent at the start and so suffused when it is repeated at and as the finish.

When we got home, I fished out a recording by Monique Haas of Le tombeau de Couperin. Ravel originally wrote this work for solo piano, and only later orchestrated four of its six movements, shifting their order slightly. Because each number memorializes a friend whom Ravel lost to the Great War, the antiquarian title has a punning quality that resonates poignantly with the brisk and clear music. Because the orchestral version has always been popular, the original work has been someone overlooked, and this couldn't have happened to a better guy, because it was Ravel's orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition that performed the same inhumation of Mussorgsky's original. More about that in a moment. Monique Haas's performance sounds like nothing but the piano version of a well-known score.

Ms Hewitt, in contrast, made the work sound like Gaspard de la nuit, Ravel's triptych of scary virtuosity. She brought out inner voices that the orchestration obscures while letting inner voices that the orchestration promotes to recede somewhat. And yet the world of Couperin was very much with us; Ravel's strict observation of ancient dance forms was clear to see. What Ms Hewitt surprised us with the paradox of a elegantly classical package capable of containing a maelstrom. Her interpretation as well as her performance was bold and unforgettable. That's not to say that I don't long to possess the recording. One passage stands out. During the mounting intensity that seems to precede the climax of the trio of the minuet, but that in fact is the climax, Ms Hewitt, who is a lithe woman, rose on her haunches like a horseman to toll out the slablike chords, doubtless setting many minds along with mine thinking of the climax of Pictures.

As an encore, Ms Hewitt played Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte. It was very fine, but I'm afraid that my memory-forming circuits were still swamped with recollection of the Tombeau, so I don't remember why it was fine. I will say that Ms Hewitt is my kind of pianist. There are pianists who rumble with the piano, and pianists who cajole. Ms Hewitt seems to transfuse every atom of the grand piano in an extension of her nervous system. I had the suspicion that no pianist could find a mistuned instrument more intolerable; perhaps I got this idea from the intermission tune-up.

Zankel Hall is a great addition to New York's concert life. Except for its ceiling, which is black and covered in a brambles of tubes, lamps, and catwalks - do designers think that black makes things invisible? It really just makes them look scary - the hall is bright and not at all subterranean, although the subway's adjacency is quite a bit more noticeable. Our proper seats were way up front, but we never went to them, finding the freestanding handicapped-section seats quite agreeable, and the sound great.

April 07, 2005


Yesterday afternoon, I went out for another long walk. The sun was out - and so was tout le monde. The air was mild, and it would have been a crime to stay home. I had no plan, but once again, I headed west. This week, I turned left when I reached it.


At the Metropolitan Museum, I was confronted by a guard who insisted that my tote was too big for carrying around the museum. When I played the invalid card, lying that the bag contained "mediations" that I must carry with me at all times, he suggested, heh heh, that I put them in my pockets after checking the bag the bag. I hated his Mitteleuropäischen guts and left the building. To be sure, there was nothing in the Museum that I had set out to see. But I am afflicted with an inconvenient stubborn streak, particularly when being told what to do by our brave new world's security personnel.


So I felt out of synch with the rest of the world. For one thing, my shoes were killing me. It had been a mistake to buy them, and a bigger mistake to wear them. (Finding non-clunky shoes in my size is not easy.) The pain kept me reminded of my swollen ankles, mortal evidence of hypertension. Here I was, taking exercise in order to attack a problem that it only seemed to make worse. These dolors undoubtedly primed me to sense that almost everything around me seemed to refer to the world of Never Let Me Go? To see anything the slightest bit sham is to think that Kazuo Ishiguro's novel is about everything, not just a bunch of clones.

The most chilling thought of all is that art has become merely decorative and amusing. This is a very old complaint, often made by civilization's discontents. Kazuo Ishiguro never comes close to any such statement, but by seducing us into identifying with his flesh-and-blood characters, he prompts some very uncomfortable questions. I felt the currents of a quiet but deadly nihilism in the wonderful spring air.

Set into the park's wall at 71st Street there's a monument to Richard Morris Hunt (1828-1895), the Beaux-Arts architect who designed the central façade of the Metropolitan Museum and Biltmore, the Vanderbilt retreat in western North Carolina. I don't know who designed the monument, which was erected by the many arts institutions that were housed in buildings designed by Hunt, but it was probably not John Russell Pope, the elegantly restrained "last of the Romans" and architect of the National Gallery in Washington and, interestingly, of portions of the Frick Collection, right across the street. While pulling out my camera, I looked over the park wall and realized, even in the shadow-making sunlight, that the towers in the distance were part of the Time Warner Center. Most interesting of all, however, was the brass plaque sent into the floor of the Hunt monument, or at least as the strong light fell across it.


By this time, I was more pliable, and prepared to submit to a not unreasonable protocol; besides, checking anything at the Frick is a breeze.

Believe it or not, I walked all the way home after my brisk tour of the Frick. I even made a detour to Shakespeare & Co, on Third Avenue between 68th and 69th Streets. I went to look for a healthy-heart cookbook (in vain - I'm not ready to eat that stuff, much less make it) and ended up buying The Adventures of Augie March, which I've never read, in cloth.

April 06, 2005


Karol Wojtyła was a holy man, but John Paul II was, while still a holy man, a terrible pope. If your idea of the pope is an ambassador to the world at large, you've got a strange idea about the papacy. If you look at the properly papal things that the pope did, you'll see a record that's quite remarkably Stalinist. Wonder where he got his ideas about running things?

The trouble with the Roman Catholic Church as an institution is that it has no place for a Karol Wojtyła except the papacy. The popes have been arrogating the Church's authority unto themselves ever since Pio Nono, and now they suck up all the oxygen in the organization. The pope is no longer primo inter pares. He's solus.

An authoritarian papacy will work in the growing Asian and African dioceses only if its positions are as conservative as the local bishops themselves. Rome ought to look to Canterbury if it seeks to hold onto Western European and North American believers. It has done itself great harm in South America by suppressing liberation theology.

Memo to cardinals: "one size fits all" won't work in a truly global church. It's time for popes to stick to the small core of Catholic dogma and leave interpretation to others.


What sorrow. For me, not for him. Saul Bellow is dead at 89. Time to read Herzog again. Has anybody ever pointed out that herzog  means duke? If so, I missed it; sorry. How did Bellow pronounce the title? I've no idea. "Her-zog"? Air-tz-ohg?" I sit here fiddling with transliterations, wishing really that I were on the verge of an English garden.

April 05, 2005

Poetry Month I

The Whole Duty of Children

A child should always say what's true

And speak when he is spoken to,

And behave mannerly at table;

At least as far as he is able.

Looking Forward

When I am grown to man's estate

I shall be very proud and great,

And tell the other girls and boys

Not to meddle with my toys.

The Lamplighter

My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.

It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by;

For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,

With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.


Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,

And my papa's a banker and as rich as he can be;

But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do,

O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you!


For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,

And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;

And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,

O Leerie, see a little child and not to him tonight!

- Robert Louis Stevenson

Doubtless Bigots

Doubt has won the Pulitzer Prize. The playwright, John Patrick Shanley, says

People who have great certainty can be a force of good, but can also be incredibly destructive.

He is speaking, presumably, of Sister Aloysius, the grade-school principal who engineers the removal from her parish of a popular priest because she is convinced that he is molesting a shy, intelligent boy. Kathleen and I were absolutely captivated by Doubt, and absolutely devoid of the eponymous feeling. We were as sure as Sister Aloysius. Everything about the play, from Father Flynn's dodginess to the boy's mother's pleas to the younger nun's misgivings, convinced us that Sister Aloysius was right. If necessary, she was prepared to be "incredibly destructive."

In light of Mr Shanley's remarks, it's clear that either I'm a bigot or he hasn't written the play that he thought he has. Probably the former, because many people have seen the play and come out wondering. Kathleen and I have wondered if their heads were screwed on properly. We've wondered if only kids who went to Catholic grade schools can really understand nuns like Sister Aloysius, or priests like Father Flynn.

The way other people wondered how anybody, anybody, could admire, or even support, Bill Clinton. The way we wonder how anybody could dream of voting for George W Bush.

Yeah, we're bigots.

April 04, 2005

Never Let Me Go

It is much too soon to write intelligently about Kazuo Ishiguro's overwhelming new book, Never Let Me Go (Knopf, 2005). When I opened the novel this morning, I knew what narrator's classmates were in for, but if ever there was a novel that is not about what it is "about," this is the one, and to discuss the book's real significance, the wellsprings of its greatness, requires completely spoiling the suspense - which for me was enormous, even if I "knew." I didn't know. You can't know until you've read the book. Then you can talk about it. Then I can talk about it. Fine as The Remains of the Day is, Never Let Me Go is a masterpiece.

Mr Ishiguro is a writer of immense precision, but this is the first time, to my mind, that he has completely synchronized his precision with his objectives in such a way that the latter are always made clear. As the tone deepens and the "horror movie stuff" looms menacingly, it becomes apparent - palpable, actually - that this is a mightily redemptive book about the mortality that faces us all, not the freak show that it might have been. The publishers (if not the author himself) must have followed the agony of Terri Schiavo with nervous incredulity. No sooner do we shake off the aftermath of that creepy affair than we're deluged by an even more powerful wave from the same salt sea.

It should be noted that, if Never Let Me Go might be considered a work of science fiction, that fiction has been set to tell not of something that might happen in the future, but of omething that might have happened in the past; Mr Ishiguro has dyed his novel in colors that are complete familiar and even somewhat passé.

The title is taken from an old pop song. It might just as well have been taken from Brahms's Song of Destiny.

Putting off writing completely and candidly about this book would drive me mad. Consider this a "spoiler alert" - don't follow this link to Portico if you don't want to know the true dimensions of Never Let Me Go.

Record Craze

Ry Cooder's terrific 1978 album, Jazz, included three compositions by cornettist Bix Beiderbecke, the short-lived white jazz legend (from my Keefe grandmother's home town, Davenport, Iowa) who worked extensively with Paul Whiteman in the Twenties. Of the three, I fell in love with "In A Mist" right away. When I read in the Times a while back that Geoff Muldaur, of Jug Band fame, had released Private Astronomy: A Vision of the Music of Bix Beiderbecke, I ordered it right away. I wasn't ready for it, though. The songs were great, if largely unknown, but they seemed to choke off the far more "artistic" compositions that had inspired the disc. One wanted more of them, and one perhaps wanted a few old favorites. One song that crazed me was "Bless You! Sister," a song with words by Al Dubin and music by J. Russel Robinson. (Dubin's relatively famous, but Robinson is new to me.) A cheeky parody of revival music, "Bless You! Sister" has lines such as

Just like old Adam, I was eating an apple a day.

I'm through with apples, since the peaches came my way.

and it is very saucily sung by....

Read all about Private Astronomy at Portico.

April 03, 2005

Time Nebula

We're in the Time Nebula, the period between midnight and two in the morning that, once each twice a year, expands or contracts, depending on the season. Tonight, it will contract: 2:00 AM will instantly become 3:00 AM. You could call this "expansion," but the fact is that an entire hour will be erased from the records. I had so much trouble with the time change until I memorized "Spring Forward, Fall Back." The phone rang a little while ago; it was Kathleen, saying that she was going to bed. She'll fly home tomorrow. The phone also rang a little before that; Caller ID told me that it was M le Neveu, but when I picked up, all I heard were the party sounds at the other end. I happened to know that the young 'uns would be at a party this evening, so that didn't surprise me, but presently I realized that M le Neveu had sat on his phone in a funny way, or reached into his pocket for something else, and was in any case utterly unaware of calling me. I did the only thing I could think of: I called Ms NOLA's cell phone to advise her of the situation. I had to leave a message, because Ms NOLA either rightly decided that she could talk to me some other time or had her phone off. Having just finished Fleshmarket Close, Ian Rankin's latest, I'm inclined to doubt my own understanding of what happened. Maybe the call wasn't really an unintended error.

What to say about Ian Rankin? In a word, "wrong question." What to say about John Rebus and Siobhan Clarke? Here's what: will they ever get married? They've been edging toward for books and books, and  Fleshmarket Close ends with the door more ajar than ever. Here's my call: John Rebus is about to retire. So he can marry Siobhan without the major competitive issues that would transform their current cooperation into a rivalry. Siobhan can have the career that John never had, because she's far better behaved, and also, being a woman, a better listener. Undeterred by legal restraints, Rebus could take even crazier risks than he already does. One thing is sure, I expect: there will be no Rebus kiddies. No more Rebus kiddies, that is. Siobhan Clarke would marry John Rebus because he would be the only man who wouldn't expect her to bear his children.

Looking over the preceding, I see that it assumes a familiarity with Mr Rankin's series of Edinburgh polars. I could make the tenor of these novels instantly evident by taking the easy route of naming the actors who have impersonated Rebus and Clarke in my mind from the get-go. But that would plant a virile seed in the minds of new readers, while exciting all sorts of outrage from fans. If you really want to know whom I see as "playing" these detectives, you'll have to write to me and ask. Even if you ask me, though, I'm not going to mention the "issue" that distinguishes Fleshmarket Close, because even though Mr Rankin handles it with cunning adroitness, it's hardly a come-on.

Which reminds me: it's high time I re-read Nine Tailors.

April 02, 2005

Drop Everything

¶ Message to the New York Times Book Review: hire Patricia Storms to pick up where Mark Alan Stamaty left off. ("Dude, you're touching me.") The rest of youse can get your yoickilators revved up for the weekend.

¶ When you're through laughing at the above, wade through this magnificently pointed sign-of-the-times piece by Joe Jervis. 

April 01, 2005


It's six o'clock on a Friday night, and in an hour or less I shall set forth for Lincoln Center, where I'm to see Handel's Orlando at City Opera. This will be the first time that I have seen any Handel opera twice. I vaguely recall the mid-Seventies production, with Marilyn Horne and Samuel Ramey, that came to Houston for a spell; I was underwhelmed. Much as I love the contralto/mezzo soprano voice, I don't think that women ought to take the older trouser roles in an age of blossoming countertenors. I know that I'm ready to hear Orfeo sung by David Daniels or Andreas Stoll (although I prefer the French version of Gluck's opera, for tenor). I might be ready to hear a man as Cherubino. Octavian? That would be a stretch, but I'm game.

Winthrop Sargent, who wrote about music in The New Yorker when I was young, made two observations that I recall with complete approbation. First, that Chabrier's Souvenir de Munich is the funniest piece minutes of music ever. That's a pretty rarefied remark, though, since few people have heard the piece, and most of those who know Tristan und Isolde don't like to hear it made fun of. On a more general plane, Sargent opined that the music of J S Bach was about the oldest that modern concertgoers could hear with complete comfort. (Although Telemann and Vivaldi were born slightly earlier, and their music remains equally accessible, Sargent's rule is well-stated.) You can test this for yourself by listening to a few of the Concerti Grossi, Op. 6, that Arcangelo Corelli polished to a high lustre that they were published posthumously. It is clear at once that Corelli influenced Handel even more massively than Vivaldi influenced Bach, but Corelli's brief movements, while frequenly lovely, seem undernourished, especially the quick ones. There is something unsatisfying about his penchant for brevity; it may be that he simply didn't know how to stretch his ideas over a five-minute frame, as the masters of the following generation did with such ease. I haven't done any scholarly analysis of Corelli's music; I'm just passing on the persistent finding of my ears.

A similar chasm lies between the operas of Mozart and earlier ones. Handel's opera breathe an atmosphere that is no longer piped into public halls. Here I think the difference is sociological, not musicological. What happened between the half-century between the composers' primes was the emergence of an affluent bourgeoisie. Although Mozart's greatest operas were written in Italian for courtly audiences, he knew how to appeal to the middle class as well - Die Zauberflöte proves that clearly enough - and it may even be said that much of what he learned from writing Die Entführung aus dem Serail, like The Magic Flue a singspiel written as popular theatre, found its way into the sophisticated fabrics of the Da Ponte operas, Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. Handel's intended audience was absolutely aristocratic. It had no real sense of humor, because humor involves ridicule and disrespect; aristocracies prefer the burlesque. The operas of Handel's day were sugar-coated morality tales designed to show the nobles in the audience - who might, collectively, be the producers - how they ought to carry themselves; at the same time, they flattered their audience. That audience has passed from the earth forever. We are left with chains of beautiful and even affecting arias that, as operas, are missing something. The attempt to render Handel's operas appealing with sight gags and extraneous effects and rude gestures is misguided, because while it may entertain today's audiences it will never build a public for these works.

I have the odd feeling that I've written up Orlando before even seeing it. 

And how was it?

Orlando turned out to be something entirely different, and, by the way, not the opera that I saw in Houston in the Seventies, which was Rinaldo. Orlando is silly to the point of senselessness, and I would not say that it presents aristocracy in a flattering light. There are some beautiful things in the opera, although I can't tell you what they are because I don't have a CD booklet to refer to - a state of affairs that the performance did nothing to make me wish to change. One of the loveliest numbers featured a viola da gamba that I could hear but not see in the pit, so I may be mistaken about that. The production failed to clarify the narrative incoherence, but it did provide plenty of distraction. Two supers spent the entire first act tucked into military-hospital beds, placed to one side of the sylvan set; that they were victims of love's madness was evidenced by the shafts of red arrows that a deft little boy playing Cupid (Christopher Gomez) couldn't manage to extract from one of them.  Fidelity to the three-act structure - getting rarer these days - was most welcome.

The five singers were all very fine, and one of them was truly superlative. This was Jennifer Aylmer, who sang the role of Dorinda, a shepherdess-soubrette. Ms Aylmer was so good at rendering comic recitative that she sounded like Despina while looking like Susanna; I never would have guessed that Handel could write Mozartian recitative. Her third act aria suggested that Ms Aylmer may be a budding Zerbinetta. Bejun Mehta, the more celebrated of the two countertenors on the bill, sang the title role very well, but his mad scene was underwhelming, and his timbre was not as pleasant as that of Matthew White, whose performance as Medoro was afflicted by the silly conceit of nearsightedness. Mr White is the first countertenor to strike me as altogether natural. His second-act aria, lying in Amy Burton's lap beneath the imaginary laurels, was as beautiful as the viola da gamba number that I think was one of Ms Burton's. Amy Burton has a lovely voice, but I fear she's in danger of becoming a living Beverly Sills museum. There's something slightly off-putting about her vocal reminiscence of the first diva to emerge from City Opera. David Pittsinger displayed a fine bass as Zoroastro. It was fun to watch conductor Antony Walker's hands during the overture. It was the most choreographic conducting that I've ever seen, and quite effective, too.