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May 31, 2005


About twenty-five years ago, I encountered the thought of Norbert Elias, a German sociologist (1897-1990). Elias was interested in, among other things, the process of socialization by which we internalize social norms and so regulate our behavior so as to avoid both coming into conflict with civil authority and giving offense. This massive internalization is one of the sources of our immensely expanded individuality, which grows, so to speak, on suffering in silence. Because others wish to avoid giving offense as well, they are not likely to tell us where we're failing until we have gotten so far out of line that we have figured it out for ourselves.

Consider farting. Once upon a time, farting was a natural phenomenon, no more objectionable than coughing. Then society "evolved," and those who farted in public were ridiculed. After another evolution, it became impolite to notice others' farting. In this final stage, there are two instruments of self-control at work, and people consider themselves lucky to master them both and move on to what's truly interesting in life.

But with the spread of respectable society, as more and more people attempted to pass as "normal" in large cities, the proliferation of self-control mandates left few aspect of life untouched. Consider the classical music concert. The expression of enthusiastic response to great performance is rigorously confined to a certain moment: the moment that follows the conclusion of the performance. Not until then is a member of the audience allowed to demonstrate any mark of appreciation whatsoever. (Snoring is also discouraged.) In fact, behaving oneself at a concert requires the ability to enter a zone of suspended animation.

And I'm all for that, in the case of concerts. But it has occurred to me lately that one of the reasons for the increase in happiness that I'm feeling is that I'm pinching off unneeded habits of self-control. Some of these relate to a former rigidity about housekeeping. I'm learning, for example, to cook only when I want to, and to make use of other resources - such as Eli's really great chicken pot pie, which can be put in the oven at two hundred or less for an indefinite period. (I've gone to at least one concert while it warmed up.) But most of the habits have been intellectual.

Since religious faith has never tugged at my attention, you might wonder at my claiming to be hugely relieved to admit to myself, as I did some time last year, that I know nothing about the existence of divinity. It may exist, and it may not, but I am deeply agnostic. I don't think that was ever a genuine atheist, but I felt so certain that the Judeo-Christian ideas upon the subject are utterly and completely wrong, and quite often wicked, that agnosticism seemed rather limp: I was certain that that deity didn't exist. Well, I'm certain no longer. There may indeed be a just and loving God behind all the poison of the Torah and the Epistles. I don't believe that there is, but that's something else altogether. I have cast off the burden of an unnecessary habit of mind.

Because modern education, of which formal schooling is only a small part, is a very complex affair, it's no wonder to me that I'm doing this pruning in my late fifties. We spend decades learning what's there to be learned, without much time for the luxury of estimating the value of things that in fact we don't yet know. And there is so much to be learned, so much that has been useful to other people. It takes rather a long time to discover that what helped someone else in a similar situation might not in fact help me. This or that little trick for making life agreeable may turn out to be rather more trouble than it's worth. You don't know going in, and, if you're curious about knowing more, you don't resist learning.

And there may be a moment in life when it seems that all that one has done is to have acquired such habits. Things are done automatically, not to satisfy desire. Because it is so universally thought that a vacation in the sun is a good thing, you may wake up one day wondering why you're in Florida - you'd rather be at home. Or touring a foreign city. Your passions may seem clear to you (don't take them for granted!), but between your passions and genuine stillness there are sure to be legions of whirring automata, urging you - unconsciously for the most part - to do things that perhaps don't need doing, not even for the sake of virtue.

The other day, I was reading a blogger's lament about unhappiness, and it sparked what I've been writing here. Because I don't mean to appear to be handing out advice, I'll keep his URL to myself. Given its subject matter, his entry could easily have been tedious or whining or even repellent. But I sensed that he was beginning to get his hands around what the trouble was, even if he didn't know that. He was asking, "What do I want to do in this life?" It's a question that's not asked often enough. We don't most of us want to confront the question, for on the one hand it suggests a dizzying scope of possibility while on the other it reminds us of how unfree we usually feel, constrained by the circumstances at hand. A real answer to the question, moreover, will almost certainly put us down for a lot of work. The pursuit of happiness is hard. And clearing out the debris of useless self-controls is only a part of it.

The pruning requires a lot of care. Don't listen to anyone who urges you to relax into the moment and appreciate the totality of the environment, as if relaxation were somehow the key. I don't ever want to have to give my table manners a second thought, or to learn again how to shake hands. Speaking and writing correctly are monstrously large and manifold engines of self-control, and I'd never read or write anything if I had to give them the attention that, even after a year of lengthy lessons, speaking and writing French still require. (I can make myself understood, but that's not where the bar is.) I close closet doors and I always put the lid down on top of the seat. But I'm beginning to want to have the smallest possible library - quite a different objective from the wanting, as I used to do, the largest. I think that I already know what I want to do with this life - I'm doing it right now. But I'm also learning where happiness lies inside me, and I'm clearing the paths.

May 30, 2005

Musical Meme

Another "meme." I'm wondering why these chain questionnaires are named after the interesting word (invented by Richard Dawkins) that denotes the essence of an idea. But we'll let that pass. I just did one of these last week, thanks to Booklust. This time, it's Mezzogregory of Counter.Point 2.0. It's about music.

Total volume of music on your computer? So far as I know, zero. Nada. I will doubtless come to mark my transition from middle-aged boomer to genuinely old man as the moment that I realized that I had no desire to own an iPod. None whatever. As it happens, today's personal music devices are so constructed that you cannot hear the quiet passages of classical music while walking on Manhattan's sidewalks. My taste is not limited to classical music, but it's centered on it, so that's a problem. Suddenly I realized that my passion for carrying a Walkman had vanished. I made a lot of MiniDiscs, and I still think that they're the way to go, but I no longer play them much. I listen to a great deal less music than I used to, largely because I'm writing so much more, and when I'm writing, I'm straining to hear a different kind of music.

There is no reason on earth for me to listen to music via my computer. If I hear something really catchy, such as the "Numa Numa" song, I order a copy from Amazon. 

The Last CD you bought? According to Tower Records, I have three CDs on order. Two are rather aged recordings of operas. I used to have the Konwitschny recording of Tannhäuser on LP; it was the first Wagner opera that I got to know. I never owned the Schippers recording of Ernani, and would be much happier with the Muti recording, but that's no longer available. I'm also expected a recent album by Christine McVie, always my favorite Fleetwood Mac.
The last CDs that I bought in the store were by the Amadeus Quartet (Mozart's quintets), The Lindsays (Beethoven's Op. 18 No. 6 and the very underplayed Quintet, Op. 29), and Music from Marlboro (the Schubert quintet, which unlike all the other calls for two cellos, and only one viola).

Song Currently Playing? See above: nothing is playing. But there's a Jean Sablon disc in the Sony Dream Machine next to the printer. The Dream Machine is one of the dumbest things I ever bought, but I fell in love with it in a Chicago hotel room and had to have my very own. I play things on it to feel young; compared with all the sophisticated speakers in this apartment (not that sophisticated, really), it sounds like a transistor radio. 

Now for the hard part: Five songs that I listen to a lot or that mean a lot to me. It is almost impossible not to throw up my hands. I shall take the question very literally and answer in terms of the American Song Book.

1. Stardust. The recording of choice is an instrumental by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, recorded at the very first college jazz concert at Oberlin in 1953. Kathleen and I quite often dance to this number in the foyer. Mr Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond are unbelievably lyrical here, and the andante tempo is perfect.

2. Say It Isn't So. Sung by Bobby Short on Moments Like This. The title song is also very dear to me. The album stands apart from Short's other recordings because he has a lush orchestra behind him, playing arrangements by Dick Hazard. But "Say It Isn't So" captures the singer's unsurpassable command of utter heartbreak.

3. Find Me A Primitive Man. Sung by Lee Wiley. There is a lot of mystery about how I came to know Lee Wiley's voice. I thought that my late uncle gave me the record, Lee Wiley Sings George Gershwin and Cole Porter, but he would never admit to knowing who the singer was. I suspect that the recycling of gifts is at the heart of the matter. The song that I've chosen shows off Wiley's voice to perfection. It is of course a very naughty number, written by a gay composer. "I don't mean a man who belongs to a club but a man who has a club that belongs to him." But Wiley makes it a very creditable woman's plaint.

4. Dancing in the Dark. Sung by (a) Diana Krall, over Claus Ogerman's fabulous chart, on The Look of Love, and (b), as "Le Bal des adieux," by Julien Clerc, in a suspiciously similar and only slightly less fabulous arrangement by Benjamin Biday, on Studio. On our first day in Paris, whenever, Kathleen and I always assuage the jet lag with a trip to the Galeries Lafayette. Last time, in 1993, we went down to the basement and looked at CDs. Studio had just come out, and I couldn't believe it: a lineup of some of the best songs in the ASB performed by my favorite French pop star. It immediately became our "We'll always have Paris" CD.

5. April in Paris, sung by (a) Sarah Vaughan on her first LP, Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, and (b) by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong on their incomparable collaboration. Ella & Louis. And played by Count Basie on the album of the same name. Ideally, to hear all three in a row.

Five people to whom I'm passing the baton? Lordy, does it have to be five? Nobody picked up my "Black Star" batons - probably because I didn't write to notify them of their good luck. This time, I'll just hand them out to the first five people who ask.

May 29, 2005

L'addition, s'il vous plaît.


When our law school chum, Michelle Gianni, became a partner at Suisman Shapiro, the large law firm in New London, Connecticut, she paid us a visit and we treated her to dinner at La Côte Basque, which was still on the East Side in those days. Kathleen was still an associate at Hawkins, Delafield and Wood, but she was already spending a lot of time at Pandick Press, then a large financial printer. To make sure that we got a good table, Kathleen asked one of the salesman to make the reservation, but she made a point of asking him not to pay for it. Our table was indeed a good one; seated in the corner of the front room, we could see everyone. I was very careful about the wine - alas. Because when I asked for the check, I was told that it had been taken care of. "Thank you very much," I replied quietly, while Kathleen bellowed "WHAT?"

May 28, 2005

Loose Links

Tom Tomorrow knows how to use silence to devastating comic effect.

¶ Spice up your holiday weekend with the Crazy Green Frog. This fragment of an episode becomes more hypnotic if you return to it every fifteen minutes or so. Perhaps you'll figure it out.

¶ Beans on toast for breakfast? I like to be smart, but if that's the ideal way to start my brain's day, I'm in trouble. (kottke.org)

Paris Inconnu. Semi-secrets are always fun, and Paris is always irresistible. Look for the lite version of Benjamin's Arcades Project. (L'homme qui marche)

¶ You call this progress? Bicyclist beats driver and straphanger in race from Junior's to Columbus Circle. (Gothamist)

May 27, 2005


Ms NOLA just called to announce the best news so far this year: after umpteen interviews, mostly for jobs for which she was seriously overqualified, and (I'm flattered to say) a few tears, she has got the dream job. Brava! Ms NOLA knows what she wants to do, and she was not deflected into "law school" - faute de mieux mode. Congratulations!

Icing on the cake: between now and her first day at the new job, Ms NOLA has her fifth college reunion and a big wedding (as an attendant) in New Orleans. Those events will be a LOT more fun with the good news in her pocket.

On Discovering Hannah Arendt

Having glared at it in my "to read" pile for several months, I finally shamed myself into opening Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; Schocken, 2004). The shame continues: it is twofold. Intellectually, I am ashamed of how much I am learning from the book. Not that I have read very much of it yet; I'm still on Book I, Chapter 3, "The Jews and Society." But what I have read has been bouleversant. Ordinarily, the history books that I read cover familiar territory, and fill in more details. I am not, as a rule, surprised by anything that I read. That I should be surprised by Hannah Arendt's analysis of the European emancipation of Jews, finding out how it led to their destruction by the Nazis, in a book written a couple of years after I was born (id est, many years ago), is embarrassing. I ought to have known this. I ought to have read this book a long time ago.

So much for the intellect. I'll get used to that part. A year from now, I may not even remember how ignorant I used to be. That's how we are. But the other part of my shame is not likely to disappear so quickly, or, for that matter, ever. It's the shame of having grown up in an insistently antisemitic household.

My spell checker just informed me that I ought to have written "anti-Semitic," but I'm going to stick with Arendt's usage. Actually, given the complications of Arendt's definition of the vice (and it is a vice), I wonder if it's not too fancy for my mother's outlook, which was quite simple: she hated Jews. And so, it seems, did a lot of the neighbors. The Bronxville, New York, that I grew up in was proudly, if quietly, judenrein. (It isn't any more, but I've been told by reliable sources that the prejudice continues.) God knows we all knew about it, as kids, in the half-uncomprehending way that the kids in Never Let Me Go know that they're doomed.

It's a shame that I can never quite move beyond. I am far too conscious of who is and who isn't Jewish. I can interpret names, read physiognomies, see through assimilations. I was taught this by a zealous parent and couldn't help absorbing the information even thought I knew that the animus was wrong. (Not, I rather chickenshittily want to confess, that this parent was my "birth mother.") I was brought up on ideas about blacks that were so ridiculous that they don't trouble me. The antisemitism, however, was plausible. That's to say that it represented Jews as people who desperately wanted to enter mainstream society but were subtly, bacterially unqualified to do so. I feel like a broken thing just thinking about what was poured in my ear. 

I don't think that I've ever been guilty of an act that could remotely be described as antisemitic. If anything, I've condescended overboard in the other direction. I remember a conversation with one of Kathleen's paralegals and her husband, a long time ago (firms and personnel have changed), in which I was almost hectored by the question: why would anyone want to exclude Jews from a nice suburb? I was powerless to explain. It seemed as wrong to me as it did to them. But that wasn't good enough for them. They demanded a justification that I couldn't produce. It was harrowing. And enlightening.

I hasten to add that my adoptive father was most certainly not antisemitic. He may have had a couple of prejudices as a young man from Iowa, but all his business experience taught him something that he was willing to learn. His dealings with the eminent energy lawyer, Ray Shibley, were off-limits to my mother's virulence. But he was home rather rarely. 

It was a form of abuse to have been told such nonsense, and, like every victim of abuse, apparently, I will always, always feel guilty, and to no real purpose.

May 26, 2005


This will be one of my anonymous entries, in that others will go nameless.

The first thing to say is that my life is so completely uneventful that there's nothing for anonymity to hide. I also write long paragraphs with big words - there's a sort of barrier in that alone. I'm far to old to be thinking about myself anymore: if there's anything that I've learned in the Blogosphere, it's that whether we ever do figure ourselves out or not, a comfortable accommodation is eventually reached. Furthermore, the older you get, the more interesting things you discover, and there comes a day when you yourself are not one of them. You might be interesting to other people, you might even be really unusual. But you're more interested in other stuff. We're all born with immense egos that, with luck, evaporate over time. A cynic might well say that our egotism simply becomes unconscious. In either case, it's nothing to write about.

But what's this? I am always writing about my ideas. To me, these ideas are not about me. To you, that might not be the case. "Oh, there he goes again; it's so totally RJ. If he says one word about television, I'm outta here." But I doubt that there's anything embarrassingly personal about what I have to say about what I'm thinking. (Perhaps I'm obtuse.) I'm still prone to hog the conversation, but not to talk about myself.

It occurs to me that my candor may be the product of having grown up in privilege. It didn't particularly feel like privilege at the time, but it undoubtedly was. But it was a precarious privilege. I recall with no small horror the time my father came home in the middle of the afternoon and, weeping, told us that he'd been fired. He went back to work the next day, but as he happened to be employed by a monster of caprice (whom he in due course of time replaced) there was always a feeling that the bottom could drop out. And my mother and I did not get along. She wanted me to be someone else, someone a lot more athletic and a lot less intellectual. I think of childhood as the worst part of my life. And maybe that's why I'm forward now: I've been through the worst. (Touch wood.)

I can think of a not-anonymous blog whose author is so discreet that it is impossible to draw inferences about his romantic life. That's fine, and if I'm curious I'm not distracted by curiosity. I know his name and something about his circumstances - which is more or less how I know anybody. But if his blog were anonymous, it would be different. This is the curious thing about anonymous blogs: they magnify their secrets. They drape them in neon colors. Anonymity itself suggests that there is a reason, above and beyond ordinary discretion, for anonymity. So! What's the secret? One blogger has told me that he regards details about his background as distractions. I beg to differ. The act of withholding them is arresting, a parallel to sensory deprivation. Tell me your age and where you live, and I've got enough to go on. Conceal these details, and for me at least your blog will be about anonymity - probably not your intention.

In an exchange about a well-known anonymous blogger who has recently written about transferring her affections, a friend told me that she is reluctant to post very much about her boyfriend for exactly this reason. Exactly what reason? My friend's blog is also anonymous. (Not to me, of course.) The well-known blogger is an exception to my rule: she writes lucidly about very personal matters, and in such a way that satisfies instead of arousing noseyness. In her case, there really is a reason for anonymity. (And even then, anonymity is qualified by her participation in blogmeets.) 

There is always, certainly, the delicacy of writing about one's job to consider, but hardly anybody does this well. The one exception that I can think of, wouldn't you know, is the man who wants to avoid "distractions." It is hard to imagine that the very exciting things that he says about life at his office could be published under his actual name. That's part of what makes them breathtaking. So he, too, has a reason to be anonymous. I just think he carries discretion a little too far - to where it becomes just what he was trying to avoid: distracting.

May 25, 2005

Why, a bot from Verizon was kind enough to call just now and tell me.

Phone service was restored at about 1:30, invisibly. Well, not quite. Nobody actually came to the apartment; for once, for once, it was a problem out there. I was sitting here fetisseling on the Web when I noticed the "free" and "in use" lights of the two-line phone were flashing oddly. Voilà. To have the problem cleared up so unfussily was almost disappointing.

Not much later, Ms NOLA sent a link to the notice of Ismail Merchant's death. What a loss! For I think that he was the brains of the gang. He ran a very tight ship, and for all the opulence of the films themselves - never garish or fetishistic, as critics mindlessly fell into the habit of suggesting - the budgets were very low. Hollywood, of course, is one of those garden hoses with holes punctured throughout their length. I remember glancing at a report that 20th Century Fox board members received, criticizing the costs of making The Great White Hope. (My father was a director of, not for, the company for some time.) The most memorable item was the suggestion that James Earl Jones's Everlast shorts ought to have been purchased outright, not rented at the rate of fifty dollars a day. This was in 1971 or so. There was plenty of room for the late Mr Merchant to work in. I look forward to a forthcoming book about the team, which of course included writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. The other day, I was watching The Bostonians (1984), perhaps Christopher Reeve's best picture. What a picture of health he is, playing Basil Ransome!

Having written off the day from the moment of getting out of bed (see previous entry), I wasn't about to buckle down and get to work. Actually, there was a lot to keep me at the computer in the way of interesting correspondence. I spent twenty minutes or so trying to reconstruct a comment that had been lost when la petite anglaise crashed last night. (And did I ever overreact to that. To my undying shame, I wrote a frantic but pointless letter to la coquette, as if there were anything to be done but wait. Then again, petite has been through some heavy seas lately. I am truly taking those crazy pills from Zoolander.) Wandering about unsupervised, I came across the winner of the 2004 Best Dad Blog award. (Is there any central organization to this awards racket? And what category should I am to fit?), Laid-Off Dad. The author was laid-off when he began the blog but has since, mercifully, found work. He writes well about the joy of finding himself alone in his downtown apartment.

But you're looking for a way of wasting an hour or two, right? Well, here's just the thing, and it comes via kottke.org. Abusing Amazon Images. More testimony to the vast underoccupation of brilliant minds. 

I'm posting this on Wednesday evening, and you may chance to read it then. Depending on the weather tomorrow, I may slyly change the date and erase this paragraph. Don't tell on me.

No Phones

We woke up to an absence of dial tones. The cable is fine (evidently) and the cell phones work. What, exactly, is my problem?

At first, the situation hurled me into suicide mode. The telephones in this apartment - quite numerous, because I hate to have to get up to answer them - are a symbol of everything that I want to leave behind in life. Their wires run everywhere, their jacks are in awkward places, and I won't be surprised to find out that I'm somehow responsible for this service interruption. I also happen to hate the telephone. There are only two people in the world whom I want to hear at the other end of the line, and, when I do, I hate the distance between us. Friends don't understand my antipathy to telephone conversations, and my efforts to suggest other means of contacting me (guess) fall on deaf ears, for, unaccountably, most people like to talk on the phone. And for the most part the calls are from telemarketers; thank heavens for Caller ID. But there you have it: arrangements are too complicated. It's time for a great big heave-ho. We've got a storage room the size of our foyer, bigger even, full of stuff we don't miss. But you can't throw things away at the storage facility. You have to bring them home first. Why are we paying a handsome rental to store our refuse?

In the past two years somewhere, I've crossed the frontier between planning for the future and getting rid of the past, but I don't yet know how to live in this new country.

A technician will appear sometime between now and five this evening. I hate the nuisance of sitting around waiting, especially as I had to do the same thing on Sunday, when the drains backed up. What else do I hate? Hmm. I certainly don't hate the fact that the phone isn't ringing for no good reason. What if I relied entirely on email?

What a concept.

May 24, 2005

Beautiful Bots

Good Morning. While you're enjoying your coffee or tea, why not see something you've never imagined? Real earthly creatures with fabulous Latin names, patrolling Nederlander beaches. I wish I could give you a straighter link to Animaris Currens Ventosa Walking. Oh boy, the things I don't know about.


Sometimes Kathleen is so dear!

We are some sort metallic members of the Video Room. Gold, platinum, I don't know. We're not at the top, but we have plenty of perqs. Delivery, mostly. The Video Room happens to be in the neighborhood, but its client base is all over the part of Manhattan that happens to have Central Park in the middle. It says that it has been in business since 1974, which to me is rather like a Christian bookshop that claims to have been a going concern in BC 250. I mean, how many VCRs did you even get to gawk at in 1974? I do wonder. The point is that, although at our level of membership the Audio Room picks up and delivers (big deal, and can you really feel sorry for us when they're three blocks away? No.), Kathleen loves to visit in person and make selections on the basis of DVD jewel boxes. Which she usually peruses. But not the other night. The other night, all it took was "Nicole Kidman" to get Kathleen to rent the picture. She knew that I'm a big fan of Ms K.

So I slid the disc into the machine and waited for the menu, but when I saw that it was Dogville I announced that we'd be going back to the cable movie we'd been giggling over, as a preliminary matter (you put on your pyjamas while I make my martini): April in Paris, with Ray Bolger and Doris Day. Dogville for Kathleen? Are you kidding? I got a wonderfully empty sort of pleasure out of saying "I forbid this!" When I described the picture to Kathleen, she was very grateful. I said that I'd have to watch it first, and then we'd see.

Now, ladies, don't beat me up; I know that I'm sounding paternalistic, but friends will know that I'm not; Kathleen can't watch Mommie Dearest. Not to mention Sophie's Choice. At the eponymous moment of that movie, which we saw across the street at the old Musikverein, Kathleen burst into sobs that continued unabated for the rest of the film and for the entire walk home, which, thankfully, was only a matter of catercorners. And then some. There are movies that make me weep simply because I can imagine how Kathleen would respond to them.

So a movie in which a nice young girl with a "past" is abused by a small town in which she seeks refuge sounded like a bad call for Kathleen. It didn't sound like much fun to watch, either. Little did I know.

Lars von Trier, who made Dogville, and who was very arrogant about not ever having visited the United States before making a movie about it (so what; how many Hollywood "Gay Paree" movies are in pari delicto?) loves to deconstruct movies. There are no sets in Dogville, just a few props, and a chalked-out town plan. Some considerable sophistication has gone into the margins of the set, because they really don't exist: light and action just stop at the edge of the rectangle that serves as the town of Dogville. But I don't want to talk about the ingenuity of the film's production values. I want to talk about two performances and a story. What follows is a serious spoiler.

The beautiful character is Nicole Kidman, of course. She plays the role of Grace. We are set up to think that she's a gun moll trying to escape, somebody as dispensable as the Jennifer Tilley character in Bullets Over Broadway. And she's happy to yield to this identity. And yield and yield and yield. It's the idealistic character, her opposite number, who's the real fulcrum. His name is Thomas Edison, Jr, and the name couldn't be more ironic, because neither he nor his father has invented a thing (including thoughts). Tom, Jr (played horribly well by Paul Bettany), thanks to his father's having been a doctor, doesn't need to work, and is planning to be a great writer, although he has written nothing. Once you've been through the film you'll choke with affirmation at the things that narrator John Hurt has to say about Tom's writing career, which, so far, has involved, precisely, setting two words to paper.

When Grace tries to escape from her past - from whatever - it's Tom who decides to protect her. It's Tom who holds meetings to win the town over to shielding Grace from her would-be captors. But it is also Tom who goes along with the idea that, in exchange for the town's protection, Grace ought to do "physical labor" - something of which she has evidently had no experience - as a kind of repayment. Tom is soft tooth: your acuity as a dentist is measured by the speed with which you realize that his idealism is narcissistic buncome. For a long time, you think that Tom is clueless. Then you want him killed.

I'll say no more than that this is a film designed to oblige. Just when you're thinking that you can't stand any more of Nicole Kidman's dragging around a hugely heavy flywheel with a doorbell attached to her head, just when you've decided that her hopes that she'll be shot and killed while she's making love to the man of her dreams are perhaps optimistic, the production takes a turn for the nasty, and by "nasty" I have to include the character played by the former Mrs Cruise.

Is this an anti-American film? I'll have to take that up elsewhere. I was depressed by Dogville until the last chapter, when, with an insight only baby steps ahead of the movie itself, I suddenly grasped the ending. And the ending is played out with a luxurious ritard. It is anything but depressing. Vengeance is mine, saith Lars von Trier. Sorry, but wow.

May 23, 2005

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Until Friday, I had never seen Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (Or rather, as the playbill has it, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Oh that "Who's Afraid...") I've seen the film adaptation, of course; I even own a DVD of it - as of yet unwatched - so I was familiar with the unpleasant story, and that was not a draw. Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin were the draw. There are three great big revivals on Broadway right now - this one and two plays by Tennessee Williams - and when it came time some months ago to decide which one to see I picked this one. Kathleen Turner has made some great movies, but she is a force of nature on stage. Bill Irwin, of course, is our most celebrated mime. Getting older, perhaps, and wishing to stay on stage without attempting increasingly painful acrobatics, Mr Irwin has taken up acting with his voice, and this is his second Albee production on Broadway. (In the first, he succeeded Bill Pullman in The Goat: or Who Is Sylvia.) A lithe man and not a large one, the actor can easily trick you into thinking that his George really is what Martha calls him at the very start - a "cluck." Anyway, that's why we went to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Now, sometimes when you go to the theatre on the strength of such calculations - "X is a great stage actor" in this case; but it could just as easily be any other aspect of a production that drew you, and doubtless there are those who simply don't miss shows with sets by John Lee Beatty, or costumes by Jane Greenwood, or lighting by Peter Kaczorowski (all doing excellent work at the Longacre) - you can be disappointed, but more often, I find, you get exactly what you pay for - in this case, the satisfaction of watching Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin take possession of the stage. And that's all you get. But in this case, there was a lot more on offer. There was, to begin with....

Continue reading about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Portico.

Saved by the Snake

While I was washing up after breakfast yesterday, I noticed that the kitchen sink wasn't draining. Then I saw that it was draining - into my bathroom sink, which filled up with gross black sludge. I couldn't do anything about it with a plunger, the handyman couldn't do anything with a plunger and a short snake, and by the time the plumber arrived, shortly before eight (on a Sunday night!), I was set for really bad news, or in any case for no quick fixes. And in fact the plumber had to snake both sinks. But, pretty soon, he was done, and all I had was a lot of mess. Kathleen heroically sponged and toweled the pool of Tartarean dreck from the warped floor of the cabinet under the kitchen sink (for there was a little leak, too!). We let it dry, and went out for dinner. I was a wreck while all this was hanging overhead, but Kathleen quite blithely strung her beads, creating one summer necklace and restringing another, made of Venetian glass. Then, and for about five hours, she embarked on a pair of matching earrings. She quoted the Glen Baxter cartoon, "There was still much to learn about Szechuan cuisine."

The top stories in the current issue of The New York Review of Books are by Mark Danner, on the Downing Street Memorandum, and Joan Didion, on the Schiavo case. I recommend both - in fact, I recommend the issue itself with unusual enthusiasm, having gone from one piece to the next with unflagging interest. But "The Case of Theresa Schiavo" is a must, and, as you can see, it's online. As one would expect from Ms Didion, her essay is about the way the case was handled, or mishandled, in public discourse, and the compression of extremely fragmentary facts and hearsay into red hot factoids. Just to give an example, it is not known what caused Schiavo to suffer cardiac arrest on 25 February 1990. It was not a heart attack. It may have been a potassium deficiency - we know that the woman was severely short of potassium. But potassium deficiencies have several causes, and there was no good reason to fix one of them, bulimia, as the culprit. Bulimia corrupts the teeth in visible ways, no such confirmation was ever made. (I hereby acknowledge that I rely entirely on Ms Didion's account.)

Nor was there any reason to believe that Schiavo had in any meaningful way attested to a wish not to be kept alive with feeding tubes, should the need ever arise. Various members of the widower's family remembered her having made offhand remarks to that effect, but Ms Didion deals with these quite coolly.

(Imagine it. You are in your early twenties. You are watching a movie, say on Lifetime, in which somebody has a feeding tube. You pick up the empty chip bowl. "No tubes for me," you say as you get up to fill it. What are the chances you have given this even a passing thought?)

Indeed, the burden of Ms Didion's report is that so many of us went straight for passing thought to vehement conviction in no time at all. We were forced, by the sheer force of the current, to take positions. I recall being outraged about the political exploitation of the case, but there was nothing in the immediate family tragedy to make me comfortable enough to have an opinion. Michael Schiavo did not strike me as behaving appropriately; he seemed pretty clearly to want to "move on" from his wife's state of mind, and to marry the mother of his two children. I thought that, other things being equal, he ought to have ceded guardianship to his in-laws. But other things weren't equal. Other things were screamingly antagonistic. I didn't have the energy to insulate what I thought about Mr Schiavo as a guardian from suggesting an alliance with the in-laws' legionary supporters. And I wasn't interested enough in the Terri Schiavo's health to bone up on what few facts there were. Where would I have been sure of finding them? If I trust Joan Didion now, it's because it no longer matters whether anyone has accounted for everything; it is clear that the "issues" over which so many strangers fought were unsupported by medical reality.

And why did no one point out, when the feeding tubes were removed shortly before Easter, that the actual removal of feeding tubes until a patient completely recovers or dies is unusual? There is no need to remove tubes. You just stop filling them. In retrospect, pulling the tubes out seems barbarically pointless. It had to be painful on some level for the victim. But it seems that Terri Schiavo died a living symbol and nothing more, at least to her husband and his entourage.

There is more to Joan Didion's piece than a critique of what she refers to only in brackets as the "circus" that set up shop at Schiavo's bedside. Ms Didion also identifies the issue that nobody talked about, that, to some extent, the political frenzy was a means of avoiding. 

The question began with the different ways in which we define a life worth living, but it did not stop there. The question had ultimately to do with whether or not there could be occasions when the broad economic and ethical interests of the society at large should outweigh any individual claim to either the most advanced medical attention (which Theresa Schiavo, outside the one procedure at UCSF in 1990, did not have) or indefinite care. This was the question no one on any side of the debate wanted to hear. This was the question conveniently muffled by talk about "right-to-die" and "murderers" and "mullahs," about the "freak show," the "circus."

On the day Theresa Schiavo finally died it seemed clear that the unthinkable question could for the time being remain unthought. Freed of the need to avoid confronting the presence of an actual moral dilemma, all sides could reassume their usual fencing positions. All sides could imagine that by exposing the errors of the opposition, they had advanced the public dialogue. "This is going to be an all-out culture war," someone said enthusiastically on MSNBC that evening.

"Enthusiastically" - in the days of the Enlightenment, "enthusiasm" was a failing, a surrender to irrationality. Enthusiastic talk of war - of any kind of war - is certainly that.

If I was a wreck about yesterday's plumbing problem, that was because I was wracked with guilt. I've been very cavalier, lately, about what goes down the drain - and let's leave the confession there. I will try to mend my ways.

May 20, 2005



Since when do daisies grow on trees? These aren't actually daisies, of course - but what are they? I took the photograph for its composition, not really looking at its elements. The wall, with its brick, its terracotta medallion, and its almost voluptuous rusticated stone, is typical of what's left of Henderson Place.

I've been mulling over an entry at Joe.My.God about blogging as therapy. Although I've been following Joe Jervis's site for only a short while, I'm not surprised to learn that Joe has never consulted a psychotherapist. He seems to be a very centered gentleman, and perhaps there's a biologically-based inverse proportion between neurosis and a taste for Budweiser beer. But Mr Jervis has also been lucky. It may well be that lots of New Yorkers go to therapists for handholding, but there are also many who go because of disorder in their lives. Some are unwell - clinically depressed (or trying not to be). Some are enduring the aftermath of catastrophe - the sudden loss of health, wealth, or loved ones. Some are damaged - crippled by bad parents. Because of simplistic ideas about "character," people who aren't in any of these groups are tempted to imagine that, if they were, they could tough it out on their own. Perhaps they could. But I don't think that they'd find blogging very helpful.

Americans like to think that good health is the result of virtue. The New York Times's weekly Science section is so drunk on the idea that a proper diet and regular exercise will keep you out of the hospital that it has become about as creditable as Pravda. Good habits will almost certainly keep healthy people healthier longer. But they will not prevent cancer or arthritis. They won't help the victims of hit-and-run drivers. And they will be powerless to protect anyone who has inherited a predisposition to depression. Healthy people ought to consider themselves very, very lucky - and leave it at that.

It's undoubtedly for the best that we find it difficult to imagine someone else's illness. For the matter of that, try to remember one of your own: it's not easy. But we have arrived at a level of civilization that honors the illnesses of others. We do not expect sick people to jump out of bed to check their Filofaxes. It's time for us to strive for the next peak in our social advance, and to extend this honor to the victims of mental illness. A little understanding is all that's required to distinguish malingerers and whiners from the truly ill, so there's no need to fear being taken in.


The atmosphere in Carl Schurz Park yesterday, when I came across some irises, was strongly reminiscent of Blow-Up. Momentary gusts tugged the foliage, and the foliage protested with roiling susurration. It was not warm. In the playground, the little kids were shrieking with glee while doing the only thing (I swear) that I miss about childhood: swinging.

May 19, 2005


You won't have read much about Iraq in these pages lately, and I am not going to write at length about it now. This is only a link to The Light of Reason, where Arthur Silber responds to today's news about the warcast. I am in complete agreement with Mr Silber's opinion that no progress toward peace will be made in Iraq until American troops are vacated.

What to do? Somewhat counterintuitively, I think that the only useful tactic now is to press legislators to restore the draft, in the name of national security. Progressive voters ought to do what can be done to expose the Administration's incompetence in national security affairs. Our armed services increasingly overstretched, we may, it has been predicted, have to reinstate the draft if we are still in Iraq next year. There's a message there. Press it.

May 18, 2005

Might Jason Kottke be the New (Hints by) Heloise?

It doesn't seem to me that I've ever had the problem discussed in Jason Kottke's humorous roundup of pop-science approaches to coping with unfamiliar menus. But I will say that the Blink method works for me when it comes to choosing a DVD to watch. I have found this out the hard way, totting up the minutes wasted looking for "something else, maybe" but always coming back to the spine that first caught my eye.

Upside Down

Musing on the Times's announcement the other day, that it is going to charge $49.95 a year to non-subscribers for access to opinion pieces, and chewing on the complaints of Kevin Drum (via The Biscuit Report), I suffered a moment of vertigo. What does it say about Our Modern World that the nation's most arduous newspaper plans to give away its principal product - the news - while charging for access to an accessory - the bloviation? It is hard to resist the implication that news reports aren't worth very much without interpretation by the punditry. Can we rotate 180º?

As a subscriber, I'm happy that I'll be getting access to the newspaper's archives. What a wonderful world life would be without clippings.

Trionfo al Met


Sondra Radvanovsky has had a triumph at the Met. There will be bigger ones, but tonight's was decisive. And it was a warm triumph, because it was also Placido Domingo's umpteenth. It was his idea, after all, to mount a production of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac (1936) at the Met. Mr Domingo was a great Cyrano, and he made the most of the role's lyric possibilities. But Cyrano's centerpiece is a plum soprano role, which sounded as if written for Ms Radvanovsky's voice.

There are longueurs in Cyrano, just as there are in, say Die Frau ohne Schatten. But Alfano more egregiously fails to give any very interesting music to anyone but Cyrano and Roxane. That was my impression, anyway; I really doubt that greater voices could have made more of Le Bret, de Guiche, Christian, or any of the others. Buckles are continually getting swashed in this tale of uncommon wit and valor, and there are military rataplans in the second and third acts that contribute little to the opera's interest. But whenever the play's romantic triangle heats up, Roxane usually does a lot of the singing, and hearing Sondra Radvanovksy remains the happiest experience that I have ever had in an opera house. Period.

I've decided to write this entry without consulting the rave that I wrote last November, after discovering Ms Radvanovsky in I Vespri siciliani. I daresay that I shall repeat myself in characterizing Ms Radvanovsky's voice. It is rich and supple but not overripe. There is no stridency; although I suppose one might detect a very faint spinto quality in her production, it is a smartly tailored spinto, with an unscratched surface. There is complete control and a sense of complete relaxation. Ms Radvanovsky is a svelte woman and very agile on the stage; perhaps this shouldn't count, but it certainly doesn't hurt. I would love her just for her voice. But I would love her more on recordings than in the house. As it is, Ms Radvanovsky has finally given this poor soul a reason to go to the opera. Since it is impossible for me not to find similarities among voices that I like, I must declare a resemblance that I detect between my new favorite and a great mid-century dame whom of course I never heard live: Anita Cerquetti. The difference is that Ms Radvanovsky's voice sounds utterly untroubled. At the bottom, she can sound like Maria Callas, but, again, without the problems. People who don't make fine distinctions will find her (at least) as satisfying as Renata Scotto. I predict a great career for Sondra Radvanovsky at the Metropolitan Opera, even though I know that it's the stupidest thing in the world to make such predictions. Only horses are more unpredictable than opera types. (And by "types" I mean not so much the singers as the impresarios who decide what to perform and when to perform it.) 

Next year, I will see the opera again, from a seat in the stalls. I must say that our seats in Row D of the Family Circle were perfectly unobjectionable. Music has never sounded better in seats anywhere else in the house. You can't make out the singers' faces, of course - even the famous nose was not always detectable - and I have certain infra dig issues about sitting in the poulaillier. But the arrangement was perfect for trying out an opera that hasn't gotten very good press this time around. (It was also the perfect introduction to the Met for Ms NOLA. Start at the top, is my advice to opera newcomers. It only gets better.) Now I can splurge on a big seat with complete confidence. By next season, I'll have acquired Roberto Alagna's DVD of the opera, and I'll have more to say about the whole production. Tonight, I just want to hold on to the memory of Sondra Radvanovsky's Roxane.

It was a toss-up, between my companion and me, as to who ran the greater risk of dehydration through tear production. During the third act scene in which Roxane tells Christian that she would love him (on the strength of the letters that, unbeknownst to her, Cyrano has been sending her in his name) even if he lost his good looks - even if he were grotesque. Whether it was the composer or the soprano, I felt so sorry for the wit-challenged Christian that I was shaking with sobs. And the entire final act, from the moment Cyrano worked his rickety way beneath the convent arches, was unbearably moving. And yet I never for a moment felt manipulated. Here's to panache!

There is a certain old friend of mine with whom I shall continue to maintain amicable relations, but with this proviso: we shall never again, not under any circumstances, so much as allude to the existence of opera. His opinion of Cyrano de Bergerac, shared with timely dispatch, was that - is that - the opera is "mierda." This is the final nail, proving that one of us is hearing, if not spelling, "opera" backwards.  

May 17, 2005

Meanwhile, on distant Palpatine...

Writing in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane makes it clear that he doesn't think much of Star Wars generally. In particular:

The general opinion of "Revenge of the Sith" seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones." True, but only in the same way that dying of natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.

O Lane there is thy sting! I had to call up Kathleen at work right away and share the laugh. More seriously, Mr Lane concludes,

What Lucas has devised, over six movies, is a terrible puritan dream: a morality tale in which both sides are bent on moral cleansing, and where their differences can be assuaged only by a triumphant circus of violence. Judging the whoops and crowings that greeted the opening credits, this is the only dream we are good for. We get the films we deserve.

The May 23, 2005 issue of The New Yorker also contains a story by Jonathan Franzen that briskly covers a writer's blooming disaffection with his hitherto happy life, told with the same surreptitious humor that characterizes Chip Lambert's chute in The Corrections.

Yes, I know that Palpatine is a character, not a planet. It's even dumber that way.

Dinner for Four

B and I had penciled in a date six weeks ago, running through the weekends until we found one that was clear for all of us. We would "get together," leaving the details to be worked out later, or perhaps not wanting to waste time making plans that would probably be canceled. I think that we were all amazed that the date was still free when we got to it. If it had fallen a week earlier, I don't know what we'd have done, but it certainly wouldn't have been dinner here, with me cooking.

Already on Thursday, however, I felt up to it, and a workable menu presented itself. I shopped on Friday, before I'd even had confirmation that B and R (B's wife and Kathleen's schoolmate) would be able to come. I took it easy on Saturday until around five o'clock. At six, I called B and asked for an extra half-hour - seven-thirty instead of seven. That was no problem, and it gave me a luxurious cushion of time that I didn't really need. The dinner came off without a hitch. No, there was one hitch. While preparing the main course, I moved the bakery box containing a lemon tart off the stove, and it took a while to find out where I'd put it. I'd put it in a perfectly reasonable place, or in other words the last place I looked.

Well, now you know about dessert: I bought it. I didn't want to press my resources too far. On a perfect evening, I'd have served a chocolate soufflé with a raspberry coulis. Next time.

It was the main dish that persuaded me that I could pull off a dinner party. It could not be prepared in advance, so I would need two courses beforehand, so that the fifteen-minute wait wouldn't be annoying. (It was probably a longer wait than that, but by then B, R, and Kathleen were all laughing over stories.) The two starters, moreover, could be prepared in advance. The first was what I call "Bistro Borscht," because it's very fast and very lively. You take anywhere from three to five roast beets, depending on their size, and blend them with a can of chicken broth, a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, and a teaspoon of sugar. Pour the soup into an old mayonnaise bottle and refrigerate it. Not for cold nights! The second course was something that I'd just discovered in The Joy of Cooking. What to do with a very mixed bunch of asparagus - some fat, some thin? They were either too thick to steam or too little to peel. So I roasted them. Lay out the asparagus in a large roasting pan, drizzle and coat them with olive oil, and pop them in a five-hundred degree oven for seven to ten minutes. Make sure that they're cooked! Then let them come to room temperature. At serving time, squirt the juice of a lemon over them and dust them with Parmesan.

Now for the main course: Tournedos au Roquefort. My recipe comes from Michael Roberts's Parisian Home Cooking (Morrow, 1999). This may very well be the one cookbook that I would keep if I could have only one, and for a very simple reason: my circumstances are rather Parisian. I have a tiny kitchen, I live in a city full of great restaurants, I entertain good friends only, and I can get my hands on really good ingredients. Lavish, impressive dishes are not for me, or at any rate not as much as they used to be.

Get your sauté pan good and hot. Brush the steaks with olive oil and sear them in the pan, seasoning them with salt and pepper. After three minutes, turn the steaks over for another four, seasoning some more. Transfer the steaks to a plate and slip them into a warm oven.

Reduce the heat to medium and add a quarter cup of wine, to deglaze the pan - scraping up all the brown bits. Add chicken stock and heavy cream, a quarter cup of each, to the pan and cook the sauce down until the bubbles grow and thicken. Stir in a quarter cup of crumbled cheese. For a wonderfully silky sauce, purée it with an immersion blender right in the pan. Plate the steaks, pouring any remaining juices into the sauce, and ladle the sauce around or atop them as you prefer, and sprinkle them with parsley.

Serve with frites, as I did. Or with a good bread.

This sounds like a production, but it was all very relaxed. I've made the tournedos twenty times at least, and that's of course a key. Dinner parties, perversely, are no time for trying out new recipes, not if you plan on enjoying yourself with your guests. This is why I am always on the point of canceling my subscription to Gourmet. I could never whip up one of those elaborate menus for six or eight without focusing entirely upon the kitchen, and I've never been to a dinner at which such a stunt was attempted with complete success. You must cook what you know and leave the creativity to the restaurateurs. I love Paris.

My reward was most unexpected. As she was leaving, R offered me a pair of tickets to tonight's performance of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met!

May 16, 2005

On Humbug

In form, if not substance, Harry G Frankfurt's On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005), is a tract. There used to be many such small books of essay length, on subjects religious, political, and satirical. On Bullshit is philosophical, but even for a tract it is short. It is, however, serious and useful.

The title makes the best of a bad mess. On Bullshit is tractlike in its plain descriptiveness, and similarly old-fashioned. (Candid titles used to be the rule in the West, as they still are in China.) But the tonic is not strong enough to calm my discomfort at typing out a vulgar word. I am not squeamish, but because I associate four-letter words with anger and frustration (the conditions that provoke me to shout them), Dr Frankfurt's title triggers cognitive dissonance. Attentive readers will have noticed my home-grown euphemism, torosplat, which "means" the same thing but doesn't sound anything like bullshit. I shall not avail myself of it here. Dr Frankfurt has his reasons.

As Dr Frankfurt points out, bullshit can be true. But it is never precise, and therefore the task of fixing the concept with precision is also a matter of cognitive dissonance. What exactly are we doing here? Thankfully, Dr Frankfurt is a lucid, sensible writer, and he explains his purpose succinctly:

Continue reading "On Humbug" at Portico.


Last week's infusion of Remicade worked so well that when, on Saturday, dinner guests asked me about my aches and pains, I'd forgotten all about them. (Dinner guests! Aside from family, the first dinner guests of 2005!) The only ongoing botheration was rhinorrhea. Or was it? Evidence in the handkerchief suggested that something else might also be the matter. No, not tuberculosis. Just a cold. My head feels as though it's marinating in a nage of oatmeal and fermented glue. There are boxes of Kleenex all over the apartment, and I drag a Hefty bag for the used ones wherever I go.

Right on schedule, the Daily Blague sustained a comment-spam attack on Sunday afternoon. The fourth weekly barrage in a row. That seemed to be the only thing that happened on the Web all weekend. There were no new posts to read. Did everybody go out to play in the warm May weather? Surely it can't be a warm May everywhere. Perhaps it's becoming official: Web loggers take the weekend off.

In between hacking and blowing my nose, I pondered the remarks of David Greenberg, who wrote in the Times about guest-blogging for Daniel Drezner - an experience that he found less than pleasant.

As I checked other sites for ideas, I now realized that I didn't need only new information. I needed a gimmick - a motif or a running joke that would keep the blog rolling all week. All of a sudden, I was reading other blogs, not for what they had to say, but for how they said it.

The best bloggers develop hobbyhorses, shticks and catchphrases that they put into wider circulation. Creating your own idiosyncratic set of villains to skewer and theories to promote - while keeping readers interested - requires as much talent as sculpting a magazine feature or a taut op-ed piece.

If this blog stands for anything, it's for steering clear of hobbyhorses, shticks and catchphrases. I was chided not long ago by a friend for not exploiting the Daily Blague as a platform for my philosophy. My philosophy? I didn't know that I had one. Aside from understanding that murder, theft, and lying are wrong, my philosophy is an unsystematic accumulation of reactions to current events - and that's what I think it ought to be. (There, that's my philosophy.) It's the military that requires a TPFDL, not I. Working out my philosophy would take up hours that are better spent suffering from the most prosaic of maladies, the common code.

May 13, 2005

Weekend Special


¶ Last week, Jason Kottke reported that a bottle of maple syrup had tipped off its shelf in the refrigerator and broken on the floor. Yeesh, what a mess. But it was all for the betterment of mankind. Mr Kottke received a bouquet of Heloise-like tips from friends - well, some (the liquid nitrogen) not so Heloise. (By the way, Heloise is still going strong, at least as a brand.) And being the nice man that he is, the domestically-challenged computer whiz has shared them all with us: How to Clean Up Maple Syrup.

¶ Here's something else that I stole from kottke.org. What goes around comes around, and sometimes revenge is so sweet that a spoon stands up in it. Testicular Karma.

For a fine photoblog of New York (mostly) that grows by one shot every day (more or less; I haven't tested this), visit Joe's NYC. Not surprisingly, I discovered it at L'homme qui marche.

¶ Finally, for those of you in search of the answer to everything in the way of human difficulties, help is at hand, if you can hold a few books. Perhaps you've already heard of Alpha Theory.

Bon weekend à toutes et à tous!

¶ Update: horses gallop free in Manhattan! Read all about it!

¶ George has a blog. You can still become one of the first hundred visitors.

May 12, 2005

The Black Spot

Patricia Storms at BookLust reminds me that she has passed The Black Spot on to me. This is an engaging and amusing challenge, and now that I'm feeling better, I think that I can do it justice. But my response belongs at Good For You - which needs a new entry anyway.

The New Leviathan

The horns have been blaring for ten minutes. Although I can't see 87th Street, I know that that's where the trouble is. Right at the corner of Second Avenue, a Food Emporium truck is making deliveries to the supermarket, while, across the street, a truck is doing the same at The Corniche, an apartment building. Because traffic on 87th Street is westbound, drivers don't know that they've pulled into a temporary cul de sac until it's too late. If the last driver in is daring, he'll back out (very cautiously!) into First Avenue and make his escape, but this alternative is obviously not for everybody. If there were no side-street parking, this bottleneck, almost always a morning affair, wouldn't occur. The solution to the problem is very clear, but inertia and entitlement stand in the way. (Let me repeat for the umpteenth time - people can never believe this - that until 1950 it was illegal to park in the street overnight.)

The collapse of United Air's pensions is also the consequence of inertia and entitlement: inertia as regards the idea of the corporation and entitlement on behalf of shareholders, whose rights have trumped those of retired workers in a case that ought to make a communist, at least for a day, out of any right-thinking human being. Well, I must admit that this debacle doesn't make a communist out of me for an instant. I do believe in private property. What I don't believe in is the way that private property is recognized. To be very brief, the workers' benefits were a kind of property that ought to have taken precedence over any shareholder's. If necessary, the airline ought to have been liquidated in order to guarantee those benefits. There is no earthly reason for United Air to continue to exist if it cannot honor its obligations to workers whose claims have accrued over time. Even if those workers are six-figured pilots.

How long, in my Jeremiah mode, how long, I wonder, will it take Americans in particular and people in general to realize that the modern corporation is a metastasized monstrosity? That it concentrates ever-increasing wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer self-selecting autocrats? That it bribes legislators to support its license to strip-mine the nations resources - human and otherwise? That, finally, it has become unaccountable? What does the Enron story tell us, if not that the modern corporation cannot be checked by any force other than its own doom?

Most people don't have a very good idea of what a modern corporation is. If you were to tell the man in the street that IBM and General Motors are "Delaware corporations," he would be puzzled and perhaps even doubtful. But in fact it is in the Chancery Court of the State of Delaware that the fine points of corporate law have been worked out for decades, and for the most part those adjustments have favored "management" against "shareholders" on matters of corporate governance. This means that the modern CEO resembles Louis XIV more than he does your Congressman, whatever the "rules" say about elections. And thanks to a steady stream of mergers and acquisitions that have benefited few besides victorious executives and their merchant bankers, there are many corporations with assets of a behavior-warping immensity.

There is a good idea at the heart of the modern corporation: limited liability. Here is what limited liability means: if you invest in a corporation (usually by buying shares), and the corporation incurs debts that it cannot meet, you, the investor, will lose nothing more than your investment. You will not lose, for example, your home, your car, and your bank account. That's what distinguishes the limited liability corporation from the general partnership. The obligations of general partners are unlimited. That's why general partnerships are uncommon these days, too. Obviously, few people will invest in anything that exposes them to unlimited liability. The industrial revolution would have been severely checked without a mid-nineteenth-century change in business laws.

But that's the only good idea in the corporate makeup. There's an insane lack of others. The business corporation is pathetically undifferentiated from its parent, the undying body of overseers charged with maintaining churches, hospitals, and universities in pre-industrial society. This is what allows for the confusion at the heart of every corporation today: the equation of improvement with growth, of quality with quantity. Improvement is no longer an independent corporate goal. It has never been protected by an intelligent idea of the corporation.

That's what we've got to come up with. Regulating existing corporations by law will never work, and it would be undesirable if it could be. Corporations must be reinvented so that, like all healthy entities, they regulate themselves.

Do I have some ideas? Yes. But I haven't been given this job and you haven't been spared it. If you're looking for a place to start, why not consider the reasonableness of allowing executives to run their companies according to the laws of a state in which they do no business whatsoever but that happen to favor executives. That state would be Delaware. Its formulas for corporate operation have done nothing to prevent the slide of once-mighty General Motors's bonds into "junk" rating.

May 11, 2005

From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler

Mme NOLA and I were standing in the Sagredo Bedroom at the Metropolitan Museum, and in my role as cicerone I was passing on more information than I actually possessed. I mentioned a book that I'd heard about in which two children run away from home and hide out in the Met for a few days. And here, I said, indicating the grand brocaded double, was the bed that they slept on. Mme NOLA was very kind. She said that she knew the book well, and we went on to the next thing. Two days later, she and Ms NOLA presented me with a copy of the book itself, E J Koningsburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler (1967; Simon Pulse, 2002). This young-reader's classic, illustrated by an unidentified hand, absolutely rules out the Sagredo Bedroom as the site of fictional slumber. I hasten to say that this was not pointed out to me by my benefactresses, who were simply delighted to spread awareness of a beloved book.

So I had just the thing to read at the Infusion Unit of the Hospital for Special Surgery yesterday. There are five reclining seats in the unit; each comes with its own landline telephone, its own small bracket-mounted television with headsets, and the attentions of six of the nicest medical technicians I've ever known. Sadly, one's visit to the Unit will almost certainly include a woman who has left her "inside" voice at home. Whether she's on the phone, calling out for adjustments of one kind or another, or chatting with a friend, her voice floods the ordinary-sized room. (Men are probably no better, but they happen to be far less frequent visitors.) For a person like me, with no ability whatever to shut out the outside world, this rules out most serious reading. I knew the minute that I was given it that I'd be taking Mixed-up Files with me on my next visit to East 70th and the river.

There is a lot of shrewd character analysis in The Mixed-up Files, and the heroine's moment of recognition at the end will prepare attentive readers for the significant displacements of grown-up literature; this is a book that belongs on the short shelf of children's classics that every literate adult ought to read (or reread, as the case may be). I think that I have already said enough about the plot, although perhaps I ought to add that the story itself has less to do with running away from home and hiding out in the Met than it does with identifying a small Renaissance sculpture that might or might not be by Michelangelo. The children spend as much time out in the city as they do within the museum, and for all their frugal long marches, there's a magic-carpet feeling that gives the proceedings great brio. Difficulties and obstacles are agreeably minor as the sense of unimpeded inner adventure preempts the outward escapades. Mine is too heavy a hand, however, to sum up characters drawn to appeal to readers caught in the last long fires of prepubescence. 

What held my attention, naturally, was the portrayal of the museum itself, which I can dimly remember. I say that because it was a very different place in 1967. Helpfully, a plan of the two principal floors makes clear just how different today's museum is, how hugely expanded in every direction. In 1967, such fixtures as the Temple of Dendur, the André Meyer Galleries, and the Lehman Wing were all in the future. The façade of the old US Assay Office, now the face of the American Wing, was unwarmed by the great glassed courtyard that is now one of the city's finest interior parks. The great slabs of steps at the Museum's entrance did not exist. Altogether, the Met was a dinkier affair in 1967, dustier certainly (remember the old Costume Institute?), a magnificent Fifth Avenue front with a few old treasures inside. Every museum was like that in 1967. Parts of the Louvre still are. Museums were more about the earnest than the beautiful.

She had never even considered the possibility that he wanted her to be bored. She had given him first choice, and she was stuck with it. So she marched with him toward the long wide stairway straight in from the main entrance, which leads directly to the Hall of the Italian Renaissance.

If you think of doing something in New York, you can be certain that at least two thousand other people will have that same though. And of the two thousand who do, about one thousand will be standing in line waiting to do it. That day was no exception. There were at least a thousand people waiting in line to see things in the Hall of the Italian Renaissance.

How things have changed! The galleries at the top of the stairs are given over to large-format paintings by Tiepolo and David, and special exhibitions (of which there are always several) appear off to the side, or in another wing altogether. Lines are rare; the last one that I can remember was for a show of the late Mrs Onassis's clothes. (I stayed away.) Today's old masters galleries are almost as quiet as churches, and you can soak up favorite pictures undisturbed. Sargent's famous Madame X is buried so remotely in the American Wing that it is unlikely to be encountered by chance. (So are the three or four other very great Sargents in the collection.)

In an Afterword appended to the 2002 edition, the author notes that the Elizabethan bed on which the Kincaid children took their repose has been packed up and crated away. Big as it is, the Met still isn't big enough to show all that it has.

May 10, 2005


Barely recovered from bronchitis, Kathleen is on a plane to Chicago, flying out to attend a wake and the funeral of a very dear friend. The death had been anticipated for some time, but the victim made many brilliant rallies. Finally, after a short spell on palliative care, she succumbed.

Friends of ours will know whom I'm talking about, but Kathleen has asked me not to identify her late friend - and certainly not to upload a lovely picture of the two of them sitting on a lawn in the season of their graduation from college - because she would not have wanted her health or her death discussed in public, before strangers. That she had less to hide than almost anyone I've ever met had nothing to do with this reserve, which was deeply constitutional. It was often mistaken for shyness, or for mere shyness. Most of the world was kept, discreetly and not unsmilingly, at arm's length. No Web log appearances for Kathleen's friend.

This has set me to musing on anonymous blogging. When I began Portico at the beginning of the century (what pretentious fun to say!), the site was not about me at all, but about books and music and New York and all that sort of thing. "My philosophy," as somebody put it. I was committed to identifying myself from the start, and it was only with the addition of this blog that questions of privacy and discretion became routine. In my posts from Istanbul in January, for example, I did not say what it was that had brought us there until the product that Kathleen was working on (the DJIST) was launched, halfway through the sojourn. One fairly recent entry was rewritten, at the prudent suggestion of Ms NOLA (who wasn't personally involved in the subject), and a misleading clutter of details was withdrawn. But the fact is that lots of interesting things happen that I can't write about very directly. Could I do so anonymously?

I'm rather inclined to think that I could not. My hunch is that every anonymous blogger, or at least every interesting anonymous blogger, will inevitably be identified. But that's a minor issue next to the question of bad taste, of invading privacy, of speculative tittle-tattle. This has nothing to do with anonymity. Spilling the beans is spilling the beans, and blacking out the names doesn't make it less unattractive. And when I look round at the good anonymous blogs that I like to follow, I find very little - nothing, in most cases - that would have to be changed if the author identified himself and provided a photograph.

I daresay that anonymous bloggers have other reasons for keeping their identities to themselves. It is perhaps not the safest course in the world to reveal your particulars on the Internet. But I am always heartened to see people sharing some of them. I am also refreshed, because, frankly, it is not always easy to read anonymous blogs. Maybe you're different, but I'm consumed by elemental curiosities. Because I believe that history shapes us more than any other influence, I want above all to know how old a writer is. It's almost impossible for to weigh and consider what anyone says if I don't know the age of the speaking mind. This is obviously a matter that becomes more salient with age.

Nonetheless, I tip my hat to the author of Outer Life. That's some damned great entry today.

May 09, 2005


Well, and hooray again. There's been a cancellation, and I'm scheduled for a Remicade infusion tomorrow at two. Thank you all for your prayers. We will pause for a moment of green. 


In anticipation of better health, I am inclined to try to behave as if I already had it. There's a small mountain of backlog on a bookshelf next to my desk, and I'm going to work through as much as I can in one big swallow.

¶ The current Granta is entitled "The Factory," but there are a few off-topic items between the covers, and no one is to miss Thomas Healy's "Martin and Me." Mr Healy may be a sociable man today, but he spent the first twenty years of his adulthood in a brawling stupor. In 1983, nearly forty, he sold the film rights to a story that he'd written and used part of the proceeds to buy a Doberman pup. This dog, if it did not save Mr Healy's life (as he suspects it did), certainly turned it around. Without overdoing things, Mr Healy presents himself as a man too bent and savage to cope with the complexities of interpersonal stability; hell was other people. Martin the Doberman, however, tugged him gently toward accepting responsibility - for Martin at first, but ultimately, in order to guarantee that he could take care of Martin, for himself as well. By the end of the piece, Mr Healy is sober and healthy, robustly walking twelve or fifteen miles a day in the Scottish open air.

It is surprising how far you can walk when you are walking with a dog. I didn't think of miles or time, but the time flew in and the miles flew by. A man and his dog. It was a simple life, but it suited me, and Martin had to think that it would go on for ever.

And don't miss the picture of the lamp in our foyer, on page 136. Gave me quite a start, it did. The story that goes with it is ultimately a sad one, because it suggests the death of many interconnecting skill sets.

¶ My eye was caught by a cunningly sized simulacrum of and old-time schoolbook or primer, entitled The Modern Gentleman: A Guide To Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice, by Phineas Mollod & Jason Tesauro (Ten Speed Press, 2002). It seemed full of handy tips and pointers, so I bought it with the idea of passing it on to a certain country-bred young relation. I had to read it, first, though, or most of it, to see what kind of advice it was peddling. I don't think that it will do my cousin any harm, because he already has the instincts of a gentleman and won't miss the fact that they're largely absent from the pages of this guide. But as he will probably never be the dandy that the authors are, he may find a lot of the book pretty useless.

The book is billed as "slightly decadent," but that's sheer understatement. Consider the following lagniappe, appended to guidelines for hosting a "bacchanal":

Nice touch: For outdoor bashes, an ice-block booze delivery system is a chilly novelty for encouraging even the timid to do shots. Buy a body-sized block from an ice dealer listed in the yellow pages. Use hot water and a chisel to carve a Y-shaped channel; two tributaries (one delivering alcohol and the other a mixer) feed from the top into a well-excavated central waterway. Finish by chipping out a chin rest at the bottom . Elevate the top end of the ice block to facilitate speedy flow. Invite guests to lay an open mouth at one end as the tender pours a clear spirit down one channel, a juice chaser down the other, meeting at the maw.

Nice touch if you're Nero, perhaps. The thrust of The Modern Gentleman is an exhortation to abandon the grubby, ad hoc indulgences of adolescence in favor of more considered and debonair transgressions, a kind of growing up that brings Hugh Hefner and the old Esquire to mind. There is an unpleasant whiff of Eddie Haskell lurking among the carefully chosen and properly folded garments in the weekend valise.

The polestar of a true gentleman's life is to make the lives of people with whom he deals, on all levels, as comfortable and as pleasant as possible. He does this with assurance and forethought; he does it without obsequiousness and dishonesty. Along the way, he tries to inspire others to be the best that they can be. The gentleman is neither self-assertive nor self-effacing, and the pleasure of his company is apparent, for the most part, in retrospect.

Little of this high-minded guff is of interest to authors Mollod and Tesauro, but if you are a young man, new to city life, looking for handy tips and pointers that will, after all, keep you from looking too big a fool (and out of jail), then you will find their book a helpful guide. By all means follow their meatily masculine reading list, their Mozart-omitting classical music selections, and their Ella-less jazz musts. Follow The Modern Gentleman without fear of feminization. But to make sure of not losing sight of the moral imperatives of gentlemanliness, without which this book's little rituals will take on an arch, perhaps even camp, discoloration, keep something by Anthony Trollope on your nightstand. Even better, read An Autobiography, in which Trollope recounts how, although born to gentry, he actually became a gentleman - the real McCoy.

¶ Ron Hutchinson's Moonlight and Magnolias, which we saw last month at MTC's Stage I, is an amusing, often very funny farce about making movies. The absurdities and improbabilities of a hopelessly collaborative art become the bedroom doors and draped balconies of old Feydeau, and the characters slipping through them are the inconvenient truths that Hollywood's pretences have always found it vital to keep off our minds. It is important to note that the actual doors on the set open and close very infrequently, and the only person to pass through them, in all three of the play's acts, is a beleaguered secretary. The movie in the making is none other than Gone With The Wind, but the play does not take place on a sound stage. We're a few days into production, and already the producer, David O. Selznick, realizes that he needs a new script. He needs a new director, too. Because Gone With The Wind is already the most talked-about movie project in the land, Selznick takes the desperate measure of locking himself up in his office for a week with Victor Fleming (who replaced initial director George Cukor) and Ben Hecht. Hecht, a celebrated script doctor or rewrite man, balks at the assignment and would seem the last man to take it on, because he hasn't even read the book.

Continue reading about Moonlight and Magnolias at Portico.

Last Night at the Plaza


If you know the whereabouts of this exiled Central American caudillo, please buy him a new necktie, but don't tell his sainted mother about the one that he's wearing; the lapse would kill her.


Just kidding, dearest. It took forever, but I finally got Ms NOLA's roll of film to the developer, and finally picked up the prints. (You may recall that I was very careful to take my digital camera's case to Kathleen's birthday party, but that I was also idiotic enough to neglect to put the digital camera into it.)

More shots of the usual suspects follow.



What a lovely night it was.

Fresh Air

A great day already, if only because I can open the windows and let in some fresh air. For days now, Kathleen and I have been teetering about in our chilly apartment, hacking and drooping. Kathleen's bronchitis appears to have abated, however, or at least to have left her with nothing worse than a stuffy nose. And while I still feel tired and broken most of the time, I'm buoyed by knowing that this state of affairs has a term: by the end of the month, I expect to be feeling a lot better, thanks to Remicade. Meanwhile, I have a lot to do here, and with luck and patience I'll get through some of it.

Always on Sundays: I was hit by another spam attack yesterday. Thanks to a plugin developed by Chad Everett, the junk was quickly gotten rid of, but I wanted to take some defensive action, so I disabled comments for a short while by removing the relevant cgi file from the server's folders. Restoring comments ought to have been easy; I'd done it only two or three weeks ago. But I'd forgotten the step involving permissions. If you don't know what that means, you don't want to. Thanks to Sarah at Movable Type for reminding me.  

Not that I want to seem cool about it: spam attacks are sickening. At whom is this very offensive stuff aimed? For whom is making the effort to transmit it worth while? Is there more to it than blind spite?

When not battling spam, I was ordering Chinese dishes from Wu Liang Ye, down the street, for a Mother's Day menu party. Our mother was Mme NOLA, currently on a visit to her daughter in Brooklyn. It was very kind of her to come all the way from Park Slope just for take-out, and I felt awful about not cooking. But it was all I could do to transfer the food to serving bowls and line up napkins and chopsticks.

May 06, 2005


If there's a cancellation before 23 May, I'll have my next Remicade infusion then, but even if I have to wait two weeks the good news will get me through. Dr Magid took one look at me and made the decision to put me back on what has been for me a real wonder drug. Here I'd thought I'd have to beg, threaten suicide. Thanks to everyone for bearing with me during this awful down time.

By the end of May, of course, it will probably be too hot for promenades, just as now, unbelievably, it's a bit too cold. Not that I didn't do a fair amount of walking today. Ms NOLA's mother is in town, and I took her to the Met and to the Frick. I had walked to the Met and I walked from the Frick right down to the water's edge for my appointment.

We took in the Chanel show at the Met. Have I ever seen a bigger, bolder marketing ploy in a venerable museum? No. In a word, no. No: the word is "Karl Lagerfeld." How the hell he had the nerve to mount his creations alongside Coco's in a museum I'll never know. Even if the gowns of his that are on exhibit do suggest a clear respect for her lines. But. Still. Shows of famous dead artists should not be used to advance the work of shameless living ones.

Loose Links (Friday)

Friday at last; attentive readers will know why my being glad has nothing to do with ending the week.

¶ Don't miss Joe.My.God, where Joe Jervis is telling yet another riveting story. Climax today! All I can say is that North Carolina, Joe's home state, seems to produce a lot of good storytellers, and that one of its sons should wind up nestled in New York's beau monde gai is simply great for all of us. The link will take you to the first installment of "Chances."

¶  The other day, I did a bit of De fil en aiguille. The phrase means passing gently from one thing to another, as a threaded needle might stitch by stitch go almost anywhere. It does a far better job than "surfing" does of describing the experience of trying out the links on a newly-discovered Web log. (Even if it didn't, I'm tired of insidious sports metaphors, and feel a purge coming on.) My wandering, in any case, began at Metamorphosism, which I'd rather neglected lately, and then followed an entry link to Sublethal, which I'd never been to before. Sublethal seems on first glance to be a sequence of highly-wrought prose poems, and it reminds me of writing that I attempted, without Sublethal's success, in my last year of college. But it was the blog roster that held me rapt for about an hour. Not a single site was disappointing, and one, Outer Life, caught me the way Tomness did almost two months ago. Here was a voice that I wanted to hear more of. Note: don't be deceived by "My Photo."

¶ This morning's email brought an item from my sister that had been around so much that its links were all broken. Is there a term for a jokey link that's forwarded and forwarded and forwarded until you have to open fifteen windows to see what it is? (I would write to Carol a lot more often if she would stop sending me these things.) And then, in this case, not to see anything? Happily, there was a bit of text, and using that, I found what she was talking about: the Lego Church. Unfortunately, I am no longer capable of looking at vast, glassy churches, even in miniature, without feeling queasy, and when I look at the photos of this model evangelical cathedral (so to speak; no bishop involved), I see the daydreams of Albert Speer.

May 05, 2005

Gruesome Implications


Yesterday was a gloomy day, inside and out. The building's heat has been turned off for weeks - perfectly legal - but temperatures in the high fifties and low sixties keep the apartment unpleasantly chilly. My ambition, this week, has been simply to live until tomorrow's appointment with the rheumatologist, which will entail, I hope, a reconsideration of Remicade. The chronic pain and debilitation of unmedicated arthritis get worse every week, and not surprisingly a low-grade depression has taken hold. Everything seems impossible, too much. It hurts to walk from one room to another. These symptoms are horribly familiar. I could bear with them before Remicade drove them off, but their return makes me feel that I'm being buried alive.

I wasn't the only one ailing yesterday. Kathleen didn't feel well when she woke up, and she decided to take a sick day, just to catch up on her sleep. But she did get sick. Her temperature rose throughout the day, and when it reached 102.5, at about nine o'clock, we called Dr Scofield, and Dr Scofield called back within the hour to recommend Tylenol. A few hours later, the temperature was dropping (although Kathleen was rather more palpably feverish and hot), and this morning it's below normal. I don't know why I was so freaked out by 102.5, but I was; perhaps it was refreshing to take a break from worrying about myself.

Worry was definitely called for. In the morning, I read most of the current issue of Harper's, which this month is devoted to "Soldiers of Christ." Taken together, Jeff Sharlet's "Inside America's Most Powerful Megachurch," Chris Hedges's "Feeling the Hate with the National Religious Broadcasters," and Gordon Bigelow's "Let There Be Markets" will shake up anyone who doubts that today's virulent evangelicals pose the same threat to our democracy that Hitler & Co posed to Weimar Germany.

After lunch, I started off on The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow's 1953 breakthrough. I haven't read it before, and I don't think that I should have been ready for it before now. It's rocky elegance makes for slowed reading, and, as in Henry James (of all writers to compare to Bellow!), there are numerous instances of highly prepositional bits of slang that refuse to disclose what they mean. I have reached the point where Augie backs off from a creepy adoption scheme by the Renlings. The gallery of characters in Augie's life - no matter how respectable, they all seem picaresque - draws attention from the not-so-ingenuous hero, but the very sophisticated handling of these mortal creatures draws attention back to him, in his capacity as first-person narrator. 

Kathleen thanked me for taking "such good care" of her. But I hadn't done very much, and if very much had been required, I don't know how I'd have managed. It's a little gruesome, when the two middle-aged members of a two-person household are both under the weather. I'm glad to see this morning's sunny skies, and I'm hoping that it will be warm enough to allow me to open a window or two later.

May 04, 2005

The Dodo Party

Two articles in the current issue of the The New York Review of Books underscore my sense that the Democratic Party is a dangerous obstacle to the progress of liberalism. There was really not even one solid, likeable candidate in last year's roundup of primary contenders, except perhaps Howard Dean, and he turned out to be terribly unprepared for a national campaign.

First, Thomas Frank asks "What's the Matter with Liberals?" I agree with everything about this article except its title, which stands for an equation of "Liberal" and "Democratic Party." Liberals were not responsible for this:

The illusion that George W. Bush "understands" the struggles of working-class people was only made possible by the unintentional assistance of the Democratic campaign. Once again, the "party of the people" chose to sacrifice the liberal economic policies that used to connect them to such voters on the altar of centrism. Advised by a legion of tired consultants, many of whom work as corporate lobbyists in off years, Kerry chose not to make much noise about corruption on Wall Street, or to expose the business practices of Wal-Mart, or to spend a lot of time talking about raising the minimum wage.

This strategy had a definite upside: Kerry's fund-raising almost matched that of the Republican candidate...

There you have the picture of a party that might as well call itself "The Also-Rans." And there, too, one finds the hint of a suggestion about what the Democratic Party's successor must be very clear and firm about: business. It is not enough to be "anti-business" anymore, or, rather, it is too much, counterproductive. We are all of us in business these days, buying if not selling in the national marketplace. But business today is extremely noisy: it causes too much damage, material and personal, and it hijacks too much attention. Someone out there, I hope, serious reformers are taking a good long look at the anatomy of the limited liability corporation, and finding that it is no longer a suitable template for today's highly interconnected life. Amazingly, the modern corporation isn't anywhere near two centuries old, but it has acquired an almost Mosaic venerability. I say, throw the baggage out. And so would everyone else if it were more widely understood that so many of today's executive suites are colorless but vicious replicas of the princely courts of old, with intrigue leading responsibility every time. (Here's a thought: let's let the workers elect the bosses.) Laissez-faire capitalism may have been what it took to jolt the West from an agrarian to an industrial age, but, hey, we're no longer living in a "industrial" age.

Second, Ian Buruma writes about "The Indiscreet Charm of Tyranny." (This piece is not online.) He notes that there are few big-time dictators these days, and all of them have wrecked their countries. Tongue in cheek, Mr Buruma asks what it is that makes tyrants so appealing - for to be sure they cannot rule without massive popular consent. He finds the answer in human nature:

What has not changed is human nature, the human desires that have allowed dictators to emerge in the past. The wish to worship, to be sheltered by a great father, to bask in the reflected glory of war, to be mesmerized by the spectacle of power, or swept up in collective emotion, these are still with us. And then there is the dictator's most potent weapon, our fears: of unseen enemies, threatening us abroad and at home; of individual meaninglessness and impotence; and indeed of freedom itself.

In a well-functioning democracy these emotions are defused....

If the United States is truly a functioning democracy these days, it is no thanks to the Democratic Party, which for forty-odd years has been exhorting Americans to set the unpleasant aspects of human nature aside. Leadership has been in scant supply since the departure of Lyndon B Johnson, who himself was a leader only in retrospect. Only Bill Clinton has made a plausible claim for the mantle of "great father" - and then he dropped the thing. Nor has the Democratic Party a coherent idea of religion. Beyond mumbling words of pabulum about "separation of church and state," it has nothing to offer as a vision of the church in public life. This is part of its pretense that we have outgrown religion, and the principal justification for conservative attacks against liberals. The leadership of a liberal party ought to be encouraging its supports to seize - literally! - their houses of worship as temples of respect for the integrity of diverse individuals.

How do we get rid of this wrinkled old carcass?

May 03, 2005

Ian McEwan's Saturday


The task of writing up Ian McEwan's Saturday (Jonathan Cape, 2005) has loomed forbiddingly over a difficult weekend, and before tackling it I have had to banish any idea of doing the novel justice. Although not without incident, Saturday is less a conventional novel than a heroic sculpture, a David for our times, a portrait of a man in full. Beyond that, however, I have no comprehensive insights, so I shall fall back on that old (but readable) crutch, "random notes."

¶ According to a piece in the Times by Charles McGrath just over a month ago (Archive), Saturday is stocked with autobiographical references - not a hallmark of Mr McEwan's earlier fiction (rather the reverse). Henry Perowne, a forty-eight year-old neurosurgeon, actually lives in Mr McEwan's house in Fitzrovia. There is something about the prose that from the start invites an identity of author and character; perhaps this something is the way in which Mr McEwan substitutes details for summaries; the quiddity of a life is palpable beneath the page, such that one can almost smell Henry. But there is a bigger difference between the two than their respective professions. Henry Perowne is not a reader. Although he has fine taste in art and music, an innate grasp of the graceful that makes him a success in the operating room, he cannot attend to imaginative fiction. Novels, to Henry Perowne, are long and opaque. The text is dotted with periodic references to this trait, which I hesitate to call a defect even though I certainly feel that it is one.

Henry's mother, Lily, lives in a home for Alzheimer's victims, and in the middle of his Saturday Henry pays her a visit. It is excruciating for him to follow the chain of her shardlike memories; we are not brought up to respond to nonsense with cheerful politeness. Lily is stuck in a jam of moments that are neither of the past nor of the present but that confuse the two with a stubbornness that dismays her son. And yet by the time I reached this passage - which I had read, excerpted, in Granta some time ago (just as I had read the Dunkerque section of Atonement in advance) - I was struck that Henry, too, is stuck in a moment that shifts between memory and present perception. There is little imagination in Henry's mind. Perhaps that is for the best in a neurosurgeon. Perhaps imagination is distracting. But it is also, indisputably, enlarging, the means by which the minds appropriates the world around it, instead of simply reacting to it.

Continue reading about Saturday at Portico.

May 02, 2005

Change/No Change

Here's a passage from Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety:

Our baby boomer elders often call us selfish, but in doing so they miss a larger point: that what our obsessive looking-inward hides is at base a kind of despair. A lack of faith that change can come to the outside world... The desperate, grasping, and controlling way so many women go about the job of motherhood, turning energy that used to demand social change inward into control freakishness is our hallmark as a generation. We have taken it upon ourselves as super mothers to be everything to our children that society refuses to be: not just loving nurturers but educators, entertainers, guardians of environmental purity, protectors of a stable and prosperous future.

On one hand, this explains a lot. It explains the depressing lineup of stories about the nation's troubled state that Amy has gathered up at The Bisuit Report. (The quote comes from an article in the current Atlantic by Sandra Tsing Loh, "Kiddie Class Struggle.") For example: why nobody cares if George W Bush lied or is still lying about Iraq. Or if Pat Robertson compares judges adversely to terrorists. If the public sphere can't be fixed, why complain about what goes on it in? Better to stay home and optimize the kids.

But on the other hand, Ms Warner's passage makes no sense at all, at least from my perspective. Looking back on five decades of reasonably attentive life, I'm astonished by all the changes that this country has witnessed. It will suffice to name but two: the radically altered positions of blacks and women in the United States. No matter how far short of improvement these changes fall, they remain unmistakably epochal. And it is no surprise that they have not been fully or evenly digested. Nor have many of the other changes - the absence of a military draft, for one; the Internet, for another. Perhaps the most pernicious, because the most wrongheadedly pursued, has been the privileging of "self-realization."

Our society is one that's plainly in shock from too much change, which is why those who aren't standing around with their tongues lolling are combining beneath the aegis of reaction. The Democratic Party, our leading agent for change, has exhausted its energies in the good fight but is too punch-drunk to realize that it itself stands in the way, not of progress - that would entail yet more change - but consolidation, in sedulously rooting the new arrangement against all weathers. This rooting work, moreover is difficult, dull, and solitary. It is much easier to drift off to the local megachurch and chant in herds.

The only thing a super mother can produce, so far as I can see, is a cynical and anxious child. Hey Moms: Demand less of the kids and more of the world.

Everybody Up For Volleyball!

¶ Religion in New Jersey: Rev. Mark Giordani blesses the motorcycles (including his own Harley) after Mass; A megachurch in Montclair that seeks a move to an office campus 21 miles away runs into local opposition grounded partly in traffic concerns and partly in racism.

Glitch or Dress-Rehearsal? The yuan, China's currency, floated for twenty minutes on Friday, 29 April. Also, if you can get your hands on it, The Economist's leader this week is about oil, and the importance to turning to alternative sources of energy right now. Interestingly, the piece sees bad times ahead for everybody in the energy game: not just consumers, but producers and refiners as well.

¶ The vintage ads, mostly from the Fifties, collected at Ephemera Now, reflect a society that was at the same time less sophisticated and more artificial than our own. It was forthright, and even somewhat ingenuous, about expressing its desires, but these desires were not quite genuine. They were confounded by the longing for an innocence that would guarantee conformity. "If I did not know what I know," you can almost overhear the bygone magazine readers whispering to themselves, "I would be just like everybody else, and that would be great." There seems also to be the notion that innocence breeds success. To look at these drawings is to begin to understand why the Fifties spawned so many remarkable zombie films. 

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1. Has a book, a film, or any work of art at all ever made you feel that experiencing it changed your life? Expatiate.

2. If you were obliged, for professional or security reasons, to choose a new name, what would it be? First names only, please.

3. (With thanks to JR at L'homme qui marche): Which three (3) of your favorite authors would you follow if they started keeping Web logs?