" /> Daily Blague: June 2005 Archives

« May 2005 | Main | July 2005 »

June 30, 2005

Whither Europe

William Pfaff has published a characteristically wise post-mortem of the European Constitution. Mr Pfaff, neither idealistic nor pessimist, has a nose for the unrealistic, which is a great help in trying to distinguish the workable aspects of a remarkable treaty organization from the wishful ones. He can also spot a rush to premature conclusions.

I will be very interested to know what my French visitors make of Mr Pfaff's analysis of their compatriots' rejection of the constitution.

In 1991 the French public, urged to do so by President François Mitterrand, approved the Maastricht Treaty confirming the expansion of the EU to twelve nations and proposing steps toward a common currency. Comparison of the May 29 exit polls in France with those of the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty shows no strengthening of extremist parties. Nor do the polls show new class, ideological, or regional divisions, or a rural–urban divide, or even one between the employed and unemployed. Retired people mostly voted yes both times, as did the professional and upper middle classes.

The decisive difference was a big shift in the vote of the "intermediate" trades and professions that make up the lower middle class. These include schoolteachers, nurses and hospital technicians, accountants, department heads in shops, and salesmen, among many others. The "no" vote of this group increased by seventeen points between the Maastricht referendum and 2005, producing a 53 percent majority.

In 1992 this group was the great beneficiary of the prosperity of France's so-called glorious thirty postwar years. Its members were making more money than ever before, buying new houses in better suburbs, and had high expectations about their own future and particularly that of their children. That optimism now has disappeared, and people fear falling back. They have lost buying power and are afraid for their children. They are working harder (the thirty-five-hour work-week notwithstanding) but losing ground. These above all are the people who see "France in decline," while their own situation seems ignored by management and unions alike; they are overlooked by the press, and treated with indifference by governing elites in Paris and Brussels.

It sounds plausible to me, but what do I know?

In the News

Spain legalised same-sex marriages on Thursday, becoming only the fourth country to do so after Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands and dealing a blow to the Catholic Church in a traditional stronghold.

That's from a Reuters story in the New York Times. Online, that is. The news is too fresh for the presses. There will be something in the paper tomorrow, I suppose. Bummer, waking up in Europe's afternoon. In any case, there are two things about the sentence that I've quoted that catch my attention. The first: "only the fourth." As Ms NOLA would say, "What is that?" The other thing, more profound, not in the text, is the reminiscence of the last time Spain tried to leap into the present. Not everybody was ready for the move, and the ensuing civil war is fondly regarded by many casual historians as a dress rehearsal for World War II's atrocities. (Funny thought that just went off with a boy-am-I-stupid pop: the heart of the European war wasn't against Russia or the Allies, but against the Jews. Just because the Jews had no military and were more or less defenseless doesn't mean that they weren't fighting. And Hitler was insane enough to put the war against the Jews ahead of the other wars when it came to, say, dispatching trains.) Perhaps we can draw hope from the fact that, this time, Spain isn't trying to catch up with the present. It's jumping into the future.

Diane Johnson's Neighborhood


At the museum on Friday, I picked up a copy of Diane Johnson's Into a Paris Quartier (National Geographic, 2005). Ms Johnson and her husband spend half of every year in France; currently, she's living on Rue Bonaparte in the Sixième, just up the street from St-Germain-des-Prés and around the corner from the Institut de France. Rashly or not, she provides her street address, and I have to wonder if this will lead to inconvenience, as there are doubtless many Le Divorce-clutching Americans who would love to attend an impromptu book signing at the author's front door.

Much of the pleasure of this book comes from its narrative voice, which is quite unlike that of Ms Johnson's fictional omniscient observers. In her novels, Ms Johnson underlines her American protagonists' blunders with a voice that sounds almost incapable of error. You will learn things about French life from Ms Johnson's novels, useful things. Ms Johnson herself has already learned them. In a Paris Quartier is stuffed to the twelve-foot ceilings with things that Ms Johnson doesn't know. I wasn't surprised to learn that she had never heard of the académicien into whose apartment she stumbled on a househunting expedition, but I was very surprised indeed to learn that, having discovered that she really loved reading the man's novels, that, indeed, he has become her favorite French novelist, she reads him in English, not French, because reading in French slows her down. Hearing this, I felt something like Dorothy upon meeting the Wonderful Wizard. Reading in foreign languages is bound to be slower for all but the truly bilingual, but I soldier on because I don't really believe in translation. Ms Johnson does, however, and more power to her. I found the admission mightily endearing.

Continue reading about Into a Paris Quartier at Portico.

June 29, 2005

Vlad the Impaler/Oh, I Get It: Marquise-cut stones look just like footballs.

¶ Here's a link that simply won't hold until the weekend (you've noticed my new rubric?): Max forwarded this news item showing Vladimir Putin getting away with something that might well lead to murder where he comes from; a bit of Googling brought forth an image of the ghastly loot. Max writes, "Occasionally you'll see articles in the Globe about the thuggish hypertrophied Partriots players flashing [rings such as this] around town."

¶ And while I'm linking and you're laughing, Joe Jervis has just promulgated a Decalogue for the Blogosphere. Go thou and do likewise. (I think that the preceding paragraph violates Rule No. 2.)

Call me Prince Henry

At some point yesterday, my NewsGator feeds stopped coming in - and I was too preoccupied with my own stuff to notice. I rely on NewsGator to tell me when certain favorite sites have been updated (when new entries have been posted, that is), and I ought to have been suspicious about everybody's being so quiet, but, hey, it's summer. In fact, almost everybody had posted something "while I was out." Speedy commenter that I try to be, I felt that I'd been very rude.

And what was I doing? Exploring the Blogosphere. It's certainly not Web surfing, and it's not fun, although it can be very interesting. I am working on a taxonomy of the kinds of blogs that interest me. Parenting blogs, expat blogs, satirical blogs. Political blogs of course, even though I don't spend much time visiting them these days. Taxonomy is always somewhat arbitrary, I know. Are blogs written by openly gay people, for example, "gay blogs"? I'm not even sure that there is such a thing as a gay community, anymore than there is a straight community. But I want to get a grip on the virtual geography; all too human, I can't allow the chaos to swirl untended. My method is to run through all of the links on an interesting blog's roster of presumably interesting links. Some sites don't hold my attention for very long, but a surprising (and taxing) number do. I don't believe that it has ever before been possible to witness the variety of human existence that a voyage among blogs makes manifest. If you don't look closely, everybody looks more or less the same - everybody is, after all, writing. But get closer and the uniqueness becomes palpable. Everywhere and all the time, there are people living, feeling, and expressing themselves. Of course we know this, but to see it is fearful, just as having a momentary sense of the size of the universe can be overwhelming.

What's this? NewsGator just popped: something new at Sale Bête.

Notre immeuble, notre appartement

Notre appartement se trouve dans un immeuble qui fut construit en 1963 – pas une bonne année ni pour l’esthétique architecturale ni pour la construction fiable. On y méprise le style de l’immeuble ; c’est d’un revêtement de la « white brick » (brique blanche). Il y a beaucoup d’appartements à l’intérieure – presque huit cent. L’immeuble s’appelle quelque chose de prétentieux, mais nous l’appelons « L’arche de Noé », car parmi les habitants il y a au moins deux exemplaires de tout genre humain.

L’appartement consiste en quatre pièces, avec une entrée et deux salles de bain. Le salon est un peu plus grand que les deux chambres, dont une nous servons comme chambre à coucher, et l’autre comme bibliothèque. On dîne au salon. J’ai environ deux à trois mille livres, dont j’ai bien lu la plupart. Nous n’avons pas de rayons suffisants pour les livres, parce que malheureusement nous avons aussi une petite collection d’art, composée de tableaux et d’estampes. On ne peut que consacrer chaque millimètre carré de mur à l’une collection ou à l’autre. La chambre à coucher a tout le temps l’air ensoleillé, grâce à la couleur jaune foncée des murs. Nos fenêtres donnent sur l’est.  

La cuisine, c’est un trou. Je ne peux pas en parler. Mais c’est moi qui fait la cuisine. En revanche, nous jouissons du large balcon, ou on peut s’asseoir des heures, en regardant les avions en train d’atterrir à l’aéroport La Guardia.

June 28, 2005

No Politics, Please; We're Americans

With every White House press conference transcript that I read, Scott McClellan sounds more like a Stalinist goon. Yesterday, the Times ran a story about three liberal activists (let's call them) who claim to have been thrown out of a "taxpayer-financed Bush Social Security event" in Denver by a man who presented himself as Secret Security. Why? One them drove a van with a "No Blood for Oil" sticker on its tail. The Secret Service denies having had any dealings with the Denver Three, who in turn are persisting in their search for the "mystery man" who manhandled them, and they're getting some support, even from Republicans. The president is so notorious for preaching to the choir and only to the choir that even Republicans are getting a little nervous.

Not Scott McClellan, of course. He doesn't want to talk about the incident, pointing out that occurred on 21 March - old hat! Thank you, Scott, for the new statute of limitations on political news! But notice Mr McClellan's fascist phrasing:

It's clear that these three protesters are trying to advance their own political agenda.

Wow! How low can you go! What could be more despicable than attracting the attention of journalists in order to advance your own political agenda! Such, at least, is the response that Mr McClellan is clearly hoping to arouse. The first rule of fascism is that politics are bad. And observe that Mr McClellan says "trying," not "lying."

Not since Charlie Ravioli

Real tears am I weeping, having just learned that Adam Gopnik's piece about a dead pet fish, in the 4 July 2005 issue of the magazine that he writes for, is not on line! So you must buy the magazine yourself, if you don't already get it, and make sure to be the first person in the house who reads it.

Humanity being what it is, there are intelligent people who will argue that their loathing of Adam Gopnik's writing can be supported by cogent argument. I know what's driving them nuts: this is work that stands the idea of "substance" on its head. Beethoven famously denounced Mozart's Così fan tutte as a waste of ravishing music upon an unworthy plot. But Beethoven was wrong, awfully - as he usually was in matters relating to wit. We are learning that the things that our grandfathers regarded as "important" are really cardboard constructs unworthy of the time of day. I myself am completely prostrated by the virtuosity of "Death of a Fish," which relates events occurring not six months ago, in convenient journalistic style, but at the beginning of June 2005, which as of this writing is still the present month. The crazing of allusion and significance that distinguishes Mr Gopnik's essays in general, and this one - which really is about how his family handled the strange death of a pet betta - in particular, from the efforts of rude and unfinished littérateurs is manifest in the uncannily nimble invocation of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo as a catechism for dealing with suddenly bereft children. Who'd a thunk it?

The fish dies because it finds an unintended channel in the Disneyland castle that Mr Gopnik has bought for it as compensation for his daughter's being littler than his son. The fish gets stuck in a window of its castle - a misadventure that summons hilariious changes on the bells of Manhattan real estate - and dies. How to tell little Olivia? I suspect that Mr Gopnick has devoted a leetle more attention to figuring out how to tell us about the death of Bluie over the past twenty days. The breathtaking aspect of the essay, though, is the sudden maturity of Luke, the son who is now ten, but who used to have an imaginary friend, invented to compensate for his parents' addiction to telephonic filofaxing, named Charlie Ravioli. Charlie Ravioli was never available for meetings; your girl called his girl. This was a child's imaginary friend. Albeit a New Yorker child. Moi, I would not not have reported, in "Death of a Fish," that my precocious son called his fish "Django," a name that Luke could not possibly have discovered on his own (let us hope; it would almost certainly involve the smoking of cigarettes). Was it really so long ago, the Charlie Ravioli piece? Undoubtedly; children are fast.

Update! Ahem. As my dear Kathleen has pointed out in the comments, Charlie Ravioli was Olivia Gopnik's invention, not her brother's. That's what I get for writing late and not checking things out. Olivia is some little girl!

What I am up to.

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

At Silt 3.0, a Web log written by an American in Amsterdam, I encountered a variant of the button above, which I encourage all bloggers to press. The link is to an interestingly complex survey about the relation between blogging and more venerable forms of human interaction.

Eight months into proper blogging, I feel more committed to writing for this site than I have ever felt about anything, even paying jobs. I know that blogging has been around for a while, but from the perspective of someone close to sixty, it doesn't make much difference whether I discovered blogging in 2004 or 2002. Almost immediately, I saw that it was the answer to a question that I hadn't known how to ask. I've only just begun to feel that my little vessel is sailing a smooth course; I no longer begin the day wondering what I'm going to do next.

And I've gotten used to the quiet atmosphere, which is sometimes, dishearteningly, quite SETI-like. I'd prefer to have a bit more traffic, and I don't think that I'll ever garner too many comments, but I'm learning not to count. I'm discovering that quality and quantity are on many levels inversely related. Sunday's entry alone elicited three well thought-out comments, one of them an entry manqué for his own blog by Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God. Très cool, in my not-very-humble opinion. Mine is not a blog for jumping in and out of, and I assume that there are few ADD-sufferers among my readers. Nor does this blog have what you might call an area of concentration. I am always reminded of my friend Rob, who said one night at dinner that the Daily Blague is a forum for my "philosophy," a remark that stunned me at the time but that may really be quite accurate. The site is that general.

I have yet to encounter a blog that reminds me of mine. That's disappointing, because I don't have anyone to measure up against. This isn't to say that there aren't a lot thoughtful, well-written blogs out there. But the primacy of blogging in the hierarchy of things that I do makes for a difference. The only other blogger who doesn't have a day job (that I'm aware of) is Jason Kottke, and I write a great deal more about a broader range of things than Mr Kottke does. (This is not to say that I keep a better blog.) I am also not a computer engineer, and have nothing to say about the technology of blogging. My command of that technology is very limited, and it was painfully acquired. The last thing I want to write about is how I'm dealing with, say, comment spam. This - what you're reading - is how I talk about blogging.  

One of the MIT survey questions asked how long I'm planning to maintain and update my blog. The response options ranged from "I have already stopped it." to "5 years or more." I chose the latter and moved on, wondering however if it isn't a bit lazy to assume that blogging will still be what I want to do in 2010. I don't assume that I'll still be around in five years (I do hope to be), but I'm pretty certain that blogging, or its assigns and successors, will be occupying the foreground of my life if I am. 

(What a crushing thought: five years of this torrential verbiage!)

June 27, 2005


Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything.

Malcolm Gladwell's latest book has been in the house for so long that it was in danger of no longer being his latest book. I exaggerate, perhaps, but I had a real reluctance to open Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown; 2005), and the subtitle may tell you why. A book celebrating the power of snap judgments had almost no appeal to me, partly because I think that I'm very bad at making snap decisions. In any case, it was only after reading a book that has traveled in its wake - Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side of Everything (William Morrow, 2005), by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner - that I felt inclined to pick it up. The two books make for an interesting contrast.

Both are brainy but not obscure, and both are great reads. Both are studded with interesting, unexpected, and sometimes quite surprising information. Both clarify great swathes of our world (although I suspect that for their readers these areas were fairly clear already; the people who might benefit most from Freakanomics are unlikely to read books at all). But for Freakanomics to be as useful a book as Blink is, it would have to come in several volumes, and be very comprehensive indeed. Maybe it will.

Continue reading about these crazy books at Portico.

June 26, 2005

Spring, 1980, South Bend, Indiana


The parents meet. From left to right, my father, Kathleen's brother, Kathleen's mother, my step-mother, Kathleen, and Kathleen's father. Presumably we went out for dinner somewhere after drinks. It went very nicely; everyone got on. Aside from my father, everyone is in the picture is still with us and thriving.

It's my belief that in-law problems are the result, not the cause, of a shaky marriage. If both parties are really in love, and each puts the other first, then in-laws, no matter how obnoxious, interfering, or even hateful, remain pains in the neck, bores to be borne. And you bear them because you're in love. Your spouse doesn't let them interfere with his or her decisions about the two of you. It's only when one of these statements is not true that the in-law nastiness can poison a relationship. In case this sounds too easy, there's a catch. There's no way to be sure that you're going to put your spouse ahead of your parents until they've all spent some time together. One of the worst assumptions that you can make is that, having passed the first rencontre with flying colors, your spouse is going to continue to delight your parents. You have to make sure that the mutual exposure is wide-ranging, with perhaps a helpful argument or a neatly-defused squabble providing enlightenment. This is a hard program for lovers who feel sure about marriage. But then, I wasn't really talking about how not to enter a marriage that will become shaky.

June 25, 2005

Jazz at Carnegie

JVCJazz 001.jpg

The JVC Jazz Festival Concert at Carnegie Hall last night was a terrific blast. In the first half, Dave Brubeck led his quartet of snowy-haired musicians through a playlist that showed off a very broad repertoire of styles and moods. In the second half, the John Pizzarelli Quartet was assisted by a number of Mr P's friends, including his wife, the singer Jessica Molaskey. (Mr and Mrs P sang a very funny duet about a professional couple too busy with their resume building to have much quality time together. What I call the "default ringtone" figured in a piano riff in the middle of the number.) I am not going to write about the concert, however, until the CDs arrive, because there wasn't much information in the program.

I couldn't believe our good luck. It turned out that Mr Nerb knows someone at JVC - someone well-fixed enough to hand out four tickets in the fifth row, and on the aisle at that. That was just for starters. The evening was a flying carpet of exactly the kind of jazz that I like, built on standards or, in Mr Brubeck's case, on tunes that sound like standards but aren't. Entertaining as he is - and that would be very entertaining; Mr Pizzarelli carries around an inner stand-up comic that isn't entirely repressed - Mr Pizzarelli is running a preservation outfit to which the entire history of jazz is accessible.

All the musicians (with the exception of one guest) wore jackets and ties - suits, as a rule. This did not seem to keep them from physically losing themselves in their performances. Pizzarelli guest Grover Kemble, a genuine card, accompanied his scat singing with a two-step that suggested both of the great interwar dances, the Charleston and the Lindy.

Loose Links

¶ It has been a long week, and  I've but one link to pass on to you. Toxic Studios is a Norwegian digital animation outfit that Andy Towle at Towleroad discovered, in connection with June Pride events. You must by all means watch the Oslo Europride promo, entitled "A Sad Story" (it's anything but), but don't miss Toxic's video resume. Click the "Showreel" tab on the page d'acc and sit back. What you'll see has the air of a commercial made five years from now. The only mistake that these gifted designers have made is in choosing their moniker; there is nothing toxic about Toxic.

June 24, 2005

Friday at the Museum


There are so many great things about Ms NOLA's new job that it would take all day to go through them, but for our purposes, suffice it to say that getting off at lunchtime on Fridays in summer is pretty neat. We had another afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum to kick things off.

There are two shows at the museum that, while not unforgettable, are well worth seeing. The first is a major retrospective of Max Ernst's artwork; it's going to close in a couple of weeks. The other is a minor show that examines the inspiration that Henri Matisse drew from bold and exotic textiles. At the start of the show, there's a fragment of fabric that belonged to the painter, and it is surrounded by pictures in which Matisse improved upon it as a backdrop for still lives. The pattern, a late-eighteenth century print in blue on white of flowers in garlands and nosegays, is of a fussiness that Matisse completely eliminates each time he exploits it. Throughout the show are many other panels, articles of clothing, and even some quilted, cut-out North African wall hangings that simulate tracery grillwork. It was not clear to me if any of these items belonged to Matisse, but that's not to say that they have no bearing on the show. The paintings, of course, are genuine, and they all show that Matisse could transform color and a sense of play into joy of a high order.

Max Ernst, a member of the surrealist circle that formed in Paris after World War I, was a craftsman as well as a dreamer, and what surprised me most about his paintings was the feeling of quality about them. They're quite painstakingly done. My favorite was Snow Flowers (1929), above. No reproduction can do justice to the illusion of fabric texture that Ernst coaxed from his brush to make the round blob in the lower center of the picture, and no reproduction would be likely to get the colors just right. It is a haunting picture, and I can well imagine falling in love with it. The images that are famous because they're creepy - The Robing of the Bride, and The Angel of the Hearth - left me unmoved at best; Robing is every bit as shocking as it was undoubtedly meant to be, and I can't imagine spending more than ten minutes in its general vicinity. But the abstractions are most absorbing. They are also, of course, not surrealist.

Now we're off to Carnegie Hall. Ms NOLA's housemate, Mr Nerb, has scored some seats for a JVC Jazz Festival New York concert featuring Dave Brubeck. Jessica Molaskey will be among the guests. I've no idea where the seats are, but we ought to have a good time. I'll let you know.

Broadway Danny Rose

This morning's croissant is at Good For You.

June 23, 2005

That's all very well, but does Paris love me?

Reading about Americans buying pieds-à-terre in Paris prompted this declaration to Ms NOLA: "The whole purpose of my blog is to make me so famous that the French welcome me as an honorary Parisian, tax-free." I'm working on it! Two paragraphs a week en bon français may max me out, but I'm working on it!

JR, at L'homme qui marche, feeds these longings with the news that Google Maps now covers Paris. He, however, is not having a great time in the heat, especially given la fête de la musique, an annual nocturnal carnival that, like everything, used to be better. One commenter dismissed it as little more than the occasion for badauderie saoulographique (drunken passers-by making a racket).

Speaking of famous, Jason Kottke was on TV last night. I didn't just happen on it, believe me. Mr Kottke announced it in advance. He was a guest on something called "Attack of the Show" on G4 TV. I had no idea if I even got G4 TV, but it turns out that I do. It will be a long time, however, before I tune in again to a channel devoted to video games. (They're unbelievably grim, as an hour of G4 reminded me.) Mr Kottke was mellow and self-possessed, far less amped by the studio environment than the earlier guests. He even made his host look frantic. I am watching the development of kottke.org with the greatest interest. As it shifts from a technoblog to something broader and more humanistic, as Mr Kottke enters middle age and reflects more frankly and more pertinently than a young person can, the challenge of creating a reader-supported blog deepens richly. And the author happens to be one of the more gifted Web log photographers.

There But For

The other day, Joe Jervis posted a very moving entry at Joe.My.God. Entitled "Mrs Witten," it was about a middle-aged businesswoman coping with the huge expense, uncovered by Medicare, of her father's cancer medication. Perhaps because I'm a writer, I found myself re-reading the entry to imagine Joe's thinking as the quiet drama unfolded. When did he know that it was something that he would write up? Did he make a point of remembering particular details, or does he just soak them up? Like everybody else, I love a good story, but I have never been able to get myself to try writing one. So it is with genuine admiration that I hail Joe Jervis as a truly gifted story-teller. And I'll probably say so again, the next time he wows me.

One of Mrs Witten's drugs was Thalomid. Wondering why Medicare wouldn't cover an analgesic (and somewhat surprised to learn that the drug has ever been approved in the United States), I did a quick bit of research and discovered that "Many consider thalidomide to be the first new agent with major antimyeloma activity in more than 30 years." The page is somewhat conflicted - perhaps only to a layman - about the status of FDA approval for thalidomide therapy, but I gather that it is pending. That might be why Medicare doesn't (have to) pay. When I told Kathleen this, she shuddered a "there but for the grace of God" shudder. Of course, we were both thinking about my Remicade infusions.

Kathleen assures me that Remicade was approved for my syndrome (which ought to have a name - and a snazzy name at that) at about the time that I had my first infusion. At the time, she adds, each infusion had a price of six thousand dollars. That would have translated into $48,000 in the past year - an expense that we could hardly afford. Any doubts about the efficacy of the drug were dispelled this past April. The scheduled infusion was canceled because there was a possibility that I had developed an allergy to Remicade; the doctors eventually decided that the allergen was something else. But for two and a half weeks, I felt at the start of each day that I had fallen down a flight of stairs from the previous day's level of malaise. When the rheumatologist saw me at the beginning of May, I didn't even have to say how I felt or how desperate I was to resume the infusions. He simply told me that I had to get back on schedule quickly. There were no openings at the Infusion Unit until late May, but I jumped to fill a cancellation on the tenth. I was glowing within three days. The ups and downs with this drug are extremely sharp.

For reasons too arcane (for this entry, anyway), I probably ought to have started Remicade properly again, with three infusions within six weeks. I know that I could have used a second, about a week ago. My next infusion is scheduled for 5 July, and I think I'll just make it. I'm having a lot of difficulty lifting anything over my head, and getting into bed has begun to be painful again. I can live with it, knowing as I do that it will come to an end as of a date certain, but I want you to know that without Remicade my life would be a lesser thing. I would be a semi-invalid, capable of cleaning myself but not much more. Walking more than a block would be a trial. And a grey haze of depression would settle over everything. I don't know that I would ever stop feeling guilty for being so helpless and unproductive.

Fifteen years ago, when my degenerative illness was moving toward center stage, Remicade did not exist. So I have just told you what the rest of my life might have been like. If I'd been born a hundred years ago, I don't know what they would have called what's wrong with me. We know that Ramses II had it, but it lacked a name (ankylosing spondylitis) until quite recently, some time after I began to express symptoms. So I am very glad to be living right now. But stories such as Mrs Witten's can bring on moments of vertigo. And I have to ask: am I worth $48,000 a year, just to keep functioning? As I've phrased it, that seems like a terrible question, but consider what it really asks: is there any justification for my benefiting from a treatment that many people cannot afford? (And I expect that there are many patients who don't even know it exists.) I salve my conscience a little by imagining that, if more people received the drug, its cost would come down. This is not necessarily true. It is fabricated on the spot, not in a factory, which means that a technician composes every dose. Then it is administered over a two-hour period via a regulated (pumped) intravenous drip. Recipients' vitals are measured throughout the infusion. At the Hospital for Special Surgery, there are ordinarily four nurses on duty, in a room that seats no more than five patients at a time. (And even then not everybody in the unit is getting Remicade - far from it.) All this to treat an ailment that is not life-threatening. Just life-diminishing. I don't get anywhere with the question, of course, because to thank heavens for my good luck is not an answer, even if it is the answer that our leaders have been trying to get away with for decades.

Please blame Joe Jervis if you've found this bleak reading. I don't mean the man himself, I mean "Joe Jervis," the story-teller. It occurred to me as I was coming home from yet another appointment (gastroenterology) this afternoon that Joe's stories are so well crafted, and so complete in themselves, that it is probably prudent to make a certain distinction. Just as we speak of "the Marcel of the novel," so we should speak of "the Joe of the blog."

June 22, 2005

Move Over, Vlad

Here's something ghoulish to read as you sip your latte. One really hopes that a film will be made - something experimental, like Joan of the Angels (1961), which I haven't seen since college. But in color, definitely. Remote Romanian settings would demand color.

The incident has a striking medieval flavor. No power, no running water, just a priest and a remote convent. But there is a modern touch, too. The novice (Sister Irina had only been at the monastery for three months before her crucifixion) had been treated for schizophrenia. But the priest, if he knew that, didn't put much stock in science. The seriously absent detail, of course, is the subject of the argument that the nun and the priest were having during Mass - "according to locals." (Are these "locals" Central-Casting peasants from Hammer Studios, or what?) I would venture that it was Sister Irina's challenge to Fr Daniel's authority that served as proof of her Satanic possession.

Have you read The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley's spellbinding account of events occurring in a provincial French town in 1634? It may be that Vintage is about to reprint it; if you see the new title, snap it up and settle down for a good read. Well, I remember it as being a very good read. When I first read the book (again in college), 1953 seemed a long time ago, but it was only fifteen years. Huxley, who most certainly did not believe in Satanic possession, saw in the persecution of Urbain Grandier, a priest who may have been fooling around with the prettier nuns in his cure, a fantastically displaced intrigue involving Cardinal Richelieu (then at the height of his power, and in the middle of his famous castle-demolition project) and the local sire (who wanted to keep his castle). Père Grandier lined up with the losing side (guess which one), but roasting alive still seems excessive.

There is, of course, the opera by the same name of Krzysztof Penderecki. I bought the first (and probably only) recording, and listened to it once. I may still have it. If so, I'm getting rid of it. The atonal music completely prevents goosebumps.

And then there's something new to me, Michel de Certeau's The Possession at Loudun (Chicago (translation), 2000). Perhaps I ought to have looked into this before buying a used copy. The word "discourse" may appear in it rather more frequently than I can bear. In all these versions of the historical anecdote, it's the priest who gets killed, not the nun. I'm not up on the Romanian death penalty, but if there is one Fr Daniel may be up for it.

Even though the crucifixion occurred just the other day, it took place in a world almost as distant as seventeenth-century France, and even farther from the kind of objective record-keeping that would give us a reliable account of what the hell was going on.

June 21, 2005

Mon Quartier (II)


En règle générale, les rues de Manhattan ne sont pas très commerçantes. Même les grandes rues à deux sens sont pour la plupart données aux grands immeubles de bureaux ou d’appartements. Parmi les exceptions figure la Quatre-vingt-sixième rue. Il y a pas mal de petits magasins tout le long de la rue, entre (comme j’ai dit au poste précédente) l’Avenue Lexington et la Première avenue. On y vend des vêtements, des mobiles, des chaussures, du linge de maison. Il y a une grande succursale de la libraire Barnes & Noble en face de la rue. (Il y en a une autre à deux blocs !)

Mais tout cela n’est pas pour moi très convenable. Sauf la librairie, je ne fréquente pas ces magasins. Jusqu’à la réhabilitation récente de la Cent vingt-cinquième rue, rue principale d’Harlem, le commerce de notre rue était orienté vers les gens de moyens faibles. Les marchands d’Harlem étaient arnaqueurs, et pour faire les courses on descendait jusqu’à mon quartier. Bien qu’il y ait aujourd’hui du bon marché sur la Cent vingt-cinquième rue, la qualité de la marchandise ici n’est pas du haut de gamme.  

What's Love Got to Do With It

It's hard to say how big - and how firm - the iceberg is, but the tip of zealous anti-gay-marriage campaigners that we got to see in Sunday's Times Magazine augurs ill for liberal society. Russell Shorto's report from Maryland was too upsetting to read all at once; I had to put it down and glance through the Book Review. There was nothing really surprising in "What's the Movement to Outlaw Gay Marriage Really About?", at least not or me; I've been convinced that the defense of traditional sexuality has come to determine almost every Republican Party policy, from stem-cell research bans to environmental laissez-faire. I am also fairly sure that religion is a tool, not an inspiration. It is unlikely that anybody currently alive is following every command of the Bible; in many cases, doing so would be illegal. The Bible contains some of the oldest text in the world, and any attempt to follow it literally requires serious interpretive somersaulting. Anti-gay-marriage (AGM) activists cherry pick as well as any group. But the wellspring of their thinking is hardly unique to Christians.

The homosexual community would have us believe that marriage is simply about loving one another," said Rick Bowers of Defend Maryland Marriage. "I say it's about two human beings who are wired completely differently, one with estrogen and one with testosterone, living together in love but with the purpose of procreation. It's a lot deeper than love."

How could anything be a lot deeper than love? Doubtless Mr Bowers really means to say "more primitive." It's as though - and this is an amazing twist, considering the source - we're being reminded not to forget that, beneath our human superstructures, we're animals subject to the "purposes" of animal life. In any case, love is clearly secondary in Mr Bowers's quite secular restatement of marriage.

Continue reading about anti-gay-marriage activism at Portico.

June 20, 2005

Ambling among the Physicians


On Friday, I had two doctors' appointments. The first one was in Midtown, and when I climbed out of the subway at 59th Street, this is what I saw. I think it's rather poky, don't you? The girdered bridge and the smokestack and the trees. I could be in a small city on the Mississippi - thanks to cropping.

I thought I'd find something to do between the appointments, but I was in and out of the first one so fast that I couldn't think. I was hungry for lunch - a bad thing. I cannot go into an unfamiliar restaurant if I am hungry, and all the ordinary coffee shops in Midtown are unfamiliar to me. So I got back on the train and went back up to 86th Street. What a failure of imagination! But Burger was Heaven. As it was still too soon to head to the Hospital for Special Surgery, where my rheumatologist would prescribe my next infusion (yay!), I headed home and picked up a package in the lobby. It contained an orchid that I'd bought from Orchids.com. It's like the one that Kathleen bought at the Orchid Show in April: red spots on a white background. Buying orchids online assures that most of the buds will open at your house, not at the florist's.

Then I sat down to play Freecell. Last week witnessed a breakthrough in my approach to this game, which you can count on my playing if you're talking to me on the phone. I've been addicted to it for well over ten years. I win most games handily but I will replay a losing hand until I beat it. As I said to Kathleen, I don't think much about playing a hand the first time, but it gets a lot more attention the second time. By the fourth or fifth play, I'm Mr One-Track Mind - an unusual state for me. Anyway, I realized last week that I had a tendency to prioritize the getting of kings to the tops of columns. This is a hangover from the Klondike of childhood, in which new row stacks can be started with kings alone. I saw, too, that this predilection is a mistake. The first item of business in Freecell is to free up the aces, and then the twos. Having made it this far, the stacks will have probably opened up nicely. There's no reason to worry about court stacks at first. I'm playing a small percentage of hands fewer more than once.


Then it was down to 70th Street and the river, where everything went nicely. The weather was so pleasant that I thought I'd walk home along the promenade between the FDR Drive and the water. Or at least I'd walk up to 77th Street and then head over to Agata & Valentina, and First Avenue and 79th Street. As I reached the far end of the footbridge that crosses the Drive, right outside the hospital door on 71st Street, Roosevelt Island looked very grand in the afternoon sun; I wish I could show all the pictures.

Now, it couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes after I'd crossed the 77th Street footbridge and headed inland that the MBNA helicopter crashed into the East River, about forty blocks to the south. I'm not sure that I'd have seen it even if I'd been looking for it, because the plane never got that far from the shore, which at that point would be hidden from a southward glance by the mild protrusion of Sutton Place, which swells out into the River just above the United Nations. I read about the near-disaster as soon as I got home, at Gothamist, which I just happened to glance at. It took the Times a good fifteen-to-twenty minutes longer to get the story onto its site. Go, Jen Chung!


Here is a closeup of the balconies overlooking Cherokee Place and John Jay Park. These buildings are very atypical of New York; they naturally would seem to be much more at home in New Orleans, or on Shamian Island in Guangzhou. There are four blocks of flats, each with its own interior couryard and open-air stairwells. I'm pretty sure that it's on one of these that Christopher Gill (Rod Steiger) passes Kate Palmer (Lee Remick) on his way to commit a serial murder, at the beginning of No Way To Treat A Lady (1968).

June 19, 2005

Summer, 1980, West 81st Street


Kathleen, in a moment stolen from studying for the Bar exam. In case you're curious, we both passed the first time. It was one of those fat-envelope, thin-envelope things: you definitely wanted to find your mailbox jammed with a fat one, stuffed with further applications - because passing the Bar in New York makes you eligible to apply for membership. Interviews, character references - a real pain in the neck. But if you saw the thick envelope, you were past the worst. You knew before you even opened it.

To tell or not to tell? Kathleen is thinking of joining the Straphangers Campaign, an organization of subway riders who seek to put pressure on the powers that be. When she mentioned this again the other day, I remembered something that I'd seen at Gothamist and asked myself, should I tell her or not tell her? Not a believer in fools' paradises, I told her. She wasn't happy to hear that the Grand Hyatt, a mediocrity from the 1980's, may collapse upon the northbound Lexington Avenue train - which, according to a piece by the Straphangers leader, Gene Russianoff (he may even have founded it), carries forty percent of the entire system's traffic. And you wonder why we're screaming for a Second Avenue Line.

June 18, 2005

Loose Links

¶ Patricia Storms has done it again: be the first on your block to read her new strip, The Guttenberg Code. Chuckles galore! Patricia writes that she was inspired to write the strip by a publishing lament by author M J Rose, a name new to me.

¶ Have you discovered Sublethal? Ronnie Cordova is a published writer who produces malignant but elegant esquisses on his blog. The published pieces, linked from the sidebar, tend to be funnier, but who wants funnier? Tinctured in psychopathy, the posts do not invite comment.

¶ What will Maria do? Porn-star Mary Carey, "fully-converted" Republican, is thinking of running for Lieutenant Governor in Californ-eye-o. She was a featured guest at a Republican fundraiser that raised $23 million. Be sure to listen to Ms Carey's report of how much fun the party was.

June 17, 2005

Because We Could

Thanks to Édouard at Sale Bête, I glanced at Eschaton. Édouard's link was to a cogent entry in which Atrios asked how on earth we're going to get out of Iraq if we don't know why we went in?

I haven't looked at a political blog in ages, and now I see why. I'm impatient with questions to which the answers are clear. It was apparent to me as the march to war was heating up in the first two years of the first Bush Administration that the ongoing regime of Saddam Hussein was simply intolerable to the president (for his own reasons) and to the administration's neoconservative policy wonks (for their own reasons). It's ludicrous to say that the administration led us into war under false pretences, when in fact we allowed ourselves to be led into war on patently flimsy pretexts. No good reason for offing Saddam Hussein was ever put forward. We went to war because we could - something well-known wherever the severely crippled American mainstream media don't control the news.

What kind of car do you drive if your given names are "Cornelius Crane"?

From the obituary of eminent book editor Edward Tinsley Chase, dead at 86,

Mr. Chase is survived by his wife of 56 years, Ethelyn Atha Chase, a past chairwoman of the Academy of American Poets; two sons, Edward Thornton Chase of Mount Vernon, N.Y., and Cornelius Crane Chase of Bedford, N.Y., the comic actor known as Chevy Chase; two daughters, Prof. Cynthia Chase-Culler of Ithaca, N.Y., and Daphne C. Rowe of Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and nine grandchildren.

The Naumburg Competition

The other night, I did something new. I attended a vocal competition. Anywhere else, perhaps, such an event might be more trial than pleasure, but the prestige of the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation International Vocal Competition in Concert Repertoire - not an annual event - draws very capable contestants. Aspirants submit audition CDs, and from these, this year, forty-odd were chosen. In two previous rounds, all but four singers were eliminated. These four were the finalists who sang at Alice Tully Hall on Wednesday night. The singing was excellent throughout, and even the accompanists were remarkable - I thought of them rather as pianists. More on that later. The event itself was curious.

Continue reading about the Naumburg Competition at Portico.

June 16, 2005

Alphonse le grand, roi des gazons

I'm sorry, but there is such a thing as the best photograph of a cat ever. And it is here. Taken by JR of L'homme qui marche  - trouvable à droite.

Up From Welfare


Before writing about Them, I wanted to read a few reviews, so I turned to Metacritic. One of the cited reviews, Kate Bolick's in The Boston Globe, paired Them with a book called Welfare Brat (Bloomsbury 2005), by Mary Childers. I had not heard of this, but I was so intrigued by Ms Bolick's write-up that I ordered it on the spot. Shortly after its arrival, I read it all in one afternoon.

I began, as always, with the author's photo on the dust jacket. Mary Childers looks like an attractive happy, centered, and possibly privileged child of Westchester or Fairfield County. I would soon learn that there is no trace of Webster Avenue or Highbridge in her voice, either. Welfare Brat is all about the pressures behind this almost miraculous transformation.

Continue reading about Welfare Brat at Portico.

June 15, 2005

Do not read this during takeoff, landing, or in between

Yesterday's most shocking story was the news of two young commercial airline pilots who, ferrying an empty plane between depots, decided to "see what it could do." They ran the jet up to 41,000 feet - and the engines died. The pilots, aged 31 and 23, tried to glide to a landing but failed. They were killed in the crash; fortunately, no one else was.

Anyone who says "cool" has to go back to extended homeroom.

Tatiana and Alexander


(Introductory Note: I love the jacket photograph, which is printed on a foily paper that apparently shows up all my grubby fingerprints. Astonishingly, the photo is credited (and dated) nowhere in the book or on the jacket.)

It has taken a few days away from the outsized characters at the center of Them to consider sitting down to write about the book that frames them. Tatiana Yakovleva Du Plessix Liberman and her third husband, Alexander Liberman, never settle down; they never achieve the stability, as characters, that judging them would require. Now gracious, now heartless, now loving, now indifferent, they seem more like weather patterns than people. That this irresolution is never confusing or annoying signifies, to me, that their creator, Francine du Plessix Gray, has managed to bottle her own ambivalence. She loves them, and she forgives them, but she has drawn portraits that the subjects of her book would probably not care to read.

As you may infer from all those names, Francine was Alexander's stepdaughter. Her father, Bertrand du Plessix, was shot down in 1940 on a flight from Africa to join De Gaulle in London. This is almost certainly the death he would have wished for; his life seems to have been an unsatisfying accommodation of the quotidien. A plausible aristocrat - no one else in his family had used the title "vicomte" very recently - he seems to have been rather like one of Alan Furst's French heroes - sad about war but also brought to life by it. But to posterity, the most remarkable thing about Bertrand is likely to be the fact that his widow concealed news of his death from their daughter for over a year.

Continue reading about Them at Portico.

June 14, 2005

Mon Quartier

Je voudrais vous parler un instant au sujet de mon quartier. J’habite le quartier de Manhattan qui s’appelle « Yorkville ». Cet appellation n’a rien à voir avec le nom de la ville. Jusqu’à la Première Guerre Mondiale, le quartier s’appelait « Germantown » (à cause de la population pour la plupart allemande), nom qui devint une source d’embarras. Il fût remplacé par la suite pour rendre honneur à un héros de la Guerre, Sergeant Alvin C York, soldat du Tennessee.

La rue principale de Yorkville c’est la Quatre-vingt sixième rue, ou, pour mieux le dire, les blocs de la rue entre l’Avenue Lexington et le Parc Carl Schurz. Le quartier s’étend jusqu'à la Quatre-vingt seizième rue au nord et à la Soixante-dix-neuvième rue au sud. Moi, j’y habite au beau milieu.

The Blue Brain


Don't expect me to be intelligible about it, but I've just got wind of The Blue Brain Project. And I've learned about an important brain structure of which I hadn't the least notion before opening the current Economist and reading about it. It's called the Neocortical Column (or NCC), and at the very least you have to check out the images at the Project's site. Shown here are "pyramidal neurons," about which the only intelligent thing that I have to say is that the top of the image is the outer edge of the brain. The structures are about 0.5 mm wide and 2 mm long. There are about a million of them in the brain, and each connects to about ten thousand nerve cells. The discovery of the NCC earned two scientists the Nobel Prize in 1981.

The Blue Brain Project is going to put the type of IBM supercomputer that is currently studying brain chemistry to work juggling digital simulations of an NCC. That's step one. It is believed that the rules governing NCC operation have been successfully captured in digital expressions; now these will be organized to simulate an actual NCC. According to The Economist's sources, the entire brain might be modeled in ten to fifteen years. Kathleen is not going to be happy when she reads about this, but, for the moment, I'm simply amazed. I had no idea that research had gotten this far.

June 13, 2005

Eloquent Amy

At Biscuit Report, Amy has posted an eloquent entry that explodes a lot of the nonsense inherent in gabble about "the balance between liberty and safety."

But why should we even have to debate if we are willing to lose our souls for the not-at-all-certain possibility of adding another drop of illusory security into the infinite bucket of impermanence and death? All we have is this moment, our way of life right now. Right now, we are torturers. We have traded our liberty and our honor, in this moment, for the wish that someday, some distant time in the future, we will be safe. It's one thing to sell your soul for some immediate benefit -- we've sold our souls for a hypothetical and utopian future, for the day the War On Terror ends, and Democracy and Freedom are everywhere.

The frontier of torture may be difficult to discern, but there is no doubt that American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, apparently acting under orders or pursuant to guidelines, have sailed across it numerous times and plunged deep into torture's territory. Hoods, electric shocks, sexual humiliations, and peroneal strikes are all unmistakably acts of torture. Living conditions at Guantánamo Bay are inhumane. Even assuming that the mass of detainees have done something to merit incarceration, acts and conditions that impinge upon their physical dignity - "cruel and unusual punishments," in the words of the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution - are completely unjustifiable. To wink at them is to risk, as Amy puts it, one's soul.

But what are you waiting for? Go read Amy!

"Just a Theory"

The third installment of Bernard-Henri Lévy's journey through America, "In the Footsteps of Tocqueville," has appeared in The Atlantic. One passage is particularly arresting. Having been flown over the Grand Canyon by a smart young helicopter pilot who professes to believe that Darwinism is "just a theory," M Lévy writes of the "Intelligent Design" malignancy:

On the contrary, it accepts Darwinism, or in any case pretends to accept it - but only while asserting the right, the mere right, to oppose its "hypotheses" with the contrary hypotheses, placed on the same level and equal in worth, of "scientific creationism." The invention of scientific creationism - the elevation to the rank of "science of what is patently superstition and imposture - can only be called inspired.

There are two theories, and you have a choice: that's the formula of an enlightened obscurantism; that's the principle of revisionism with a liberal and tolerant face; that's the act of faith of a dogmatism reconciled with freedom of speech and thought; that's the subtlest, most underhanded, most cunning, and at bottom most dangerous ideological maneuver of the American Right in years.

How about ever.

Merci, M Lévy: you've caused me to see in a flash that the fundamental proposition of creationism and/or intelligent design theory is that science as we know it - as it has developed as a discipline since the middle of the seventeenth century; the science that put Americans on the moon - is "just a theory." This is also the right's judgment of critical thinking itself - "just a theory." Operatives such as Karl Rove (not that he has any peers) understand that many Americans are too harried by circumstances to bother with abstract truths and falsehoods. They don't want to grapple with documentary evidence of immaterial things like "responsibility" or "history." We all like to hear good news; the suckers on the right have been assured that what they don't want to hear is "just a theory."

June 12, 2005

There is justice in this world.


This is the nose of a small jet taken at some time within five years of 1970. The plane belonged to the company of which my father was then a senior executive, Panhandle Eastern Pipe Line Co., long since folded into other entities (but not Enron). During my years in Houston, I didn't travel very much, but when I did I was hitching a ride on a plane like this. For over seven years, I was innocent of airlines and airports. As you can infer, I am standing on the tarmac right in front of the plane. Somewhere to the right of the shot is an automobile or two, their trunks opened so that luggage can be carried directly onto the plane - by the pilots themselves (they liked to do the stowing). I imagine that private jet travel is still much like this, but perhaps in the wake of 9/11 it's a little less simple. Driving up to a plane and walking a few steps to board it, let me assure you, can spoil you for life.

In 1977, my widowed father and I took a trip to Europe. We crossed the Atlantic on a Pan Am 747 - in coach. Coach was a terrible shock to my system, and I remember feeling a little weird being in this giant metal bucket over the middle of the Atlantic in the pitch dark. But flying had never bothered me much, and I arrived in London without excessive relief at finding myself on the ground. The short trip to Paris, our next leg, was smooth, too. It was the next flight, in a Caravelle, from Paris to Vienna, that my fear of flying took hold. I had the unshakable conviction throughout that we were in a sharp, soon to be screeching, descent, even though the mountains below grew no closer. My fear of flying was the legacy of all those private flights. I never doubted that the company planes were in tiptop shape because I knew how proud the pilots were of their ships. This was a confidence that I have never been able to extend to the fine mechanics at American Airlines - doubtless because I don't know them.

So if you're looking for payback, look no further.

June 11, 2005

Fast Film

¶ Sometime this weekend, find fifteen minutes and a mug of good coffee, and, as quietly as possible, tune into Fast Film, an incredible production that Jason Kottke pointed to a few days ago. Open up your viewer as much as you can and pay attention. Consider watching it twice; it's fairly difficult to follow the first time through.

Virgil Wildrich has taken frames from some three hundred American movies, many of them instantly recognizable, and cut, pasted, and folded them in perfectly spellbinding ways. There is some terrific sly humor, but the feel of Fast Film is dark, with more than a touch of Eraserhead (although none of that classic's glacial pacing - quite the reverse). Hollywood clichés are simultaneously paraded and mocked, and unearthing the significance of many of the movie's collaged scenes will doubtless drive a doctoral thesis or two some day.

Fast Film is more than your ordinary fun Internet video. It's a loving work of art. So: no multitasking while you watch it.

Note: although there are no even remotely indecent scenes, children will probably find Fast Film upsetting.

¶ As you know, Tom Cruise is a man of faith. He believes in - vitamins. Bachem Macuno, the creator of a brand-new blog, serves up a parody interview with the actor, who is made to say

What about vitamin F? Vitamin G? We’ve got the whole rest of the alphabet of undiscovered vitamins that nobody is pursuing. It’s so obvious, it boggles the mind.

Many chuckles.

Note: Bachem Macuno's site is a little off-color. 

June 10, 2005


In an essay, "Metropolitan," in The New Yorker,  on William Dean Howells, the neglected but still vital American man of letters, Adam Gopnik writes (of Howells's move from Boston to New York),

No doubt there was the search, constant to any writer, to make more money in a livelier place.

That lets me off, I guess. The truth is that I have never personally associated having a productive and satisfying life with earning a living. (Rather the reverse.) This state of mind has made the aristocracies of the ancien régime somewhat more intelligible to me than they seem to be to most Americans, who write off leisured viscounts as bored parasites. While I grasp and condemn the evils of enjoying life at the expense of serfs and slaves, I don't see anything wrong with living off of investment income or lottery winnings. The need to make money sharpens some minds, but distracts and even deranges others. I'm squarely in the latter class.

As for livelier places, I live in one of them, but you wouldn't know it from following me around. I've been out of our apartment building only three times in the last seven days, once to run to some errands and twice to go out for dinner dans le quartier. A rash of doctors' appointments will get me out of the house next week, and I will try to take pictures, but the sudden descent of summer has put the kibosh on pleasant strolls. I have yet to sit down on the balcony this season. The weather went from being too hot to too cold in about an hour.

Not that I mind much. I sometimes wonder if I have entered Proust's cork-lined room phase - voluntarily. There is no need to renounce the world, because I'm no longer drawn to it in the first place. Going to plays and concerts is a kind of gym routine for me, something that I never want to do when it's time to do it but that always makes me feel better afterward - when I'm back at home. The same goes for seeing friends. As much as I like a good conversation, I don't miss it, not at least in the way that I miss having a nice long letter to answer.

Howells helped invent a kind of American prose that was not so much plain writing as easy writing - not easy to write (nothing is) but easy to read, and giving an instant note of common sense based on common pleasure.

No doubt there is the search for that.

The Solid Gold Cadillac

New: a write-up of the 1956 Judy Holliday/Paul Douglas comedy, The Solid Gold Cadillac. I post entries about DVDs at Good For You, and ordinarily I wouldn't mention the entry here, but, hey, a plug never hurts. Seriously: The Solid Gold Cadillac, while quite funny (George S Kaufman wrote the play on which it is based), offers an instructive look at corporate structure and abuse. The full post appears at Portico.

Ambling among the Physicians


On Friday, I had two doctors' appointments. The first one was in Midtown, and when I climbed out of the subway at 59th Street, this is what I saw. I think it's rather poky, don't you? The girdered bridge and the smokestack and the trees. I could be in a small city on the Mississippi - thanks to cropping.

I thought I'd find something to do between the appointments, but I was in and out of the first one so fast that I couldn't think. I was hungry for lunch - a bad thing. I cannot go into an unfamiliar restaurant if I am hungry, and all the ordinary coffee shops in Midtown are unfamiliar to me. So I got back on the train and went back up to 86th Street. What a failure of imagination! But Burger was Heaven. As it was still too soon to head to the Hospital for Special Surgery, where my rheumatologist would prescribe my next infusion (yay!), I headed home and picked up a package in the lobby. It contained an orchid that I'd bought from Orchids.com. It's a phalaenopsis not unlike the one that Kathleen bought at the Orchid Show in April, with lots of red clots on a white blooms. Buying orchids online assures that most of the buds will open at your house, not at the florist's.

Then I sat down to play Freecell. Last week witnessed a breakthrough in my approach to this game, which you can count on my playing if you're talking to me on the phone. I've been addicted to it for well over ten years. I win most games handily but I will replay a losing hand until I beat it. As I said to Kathleen, I don't think much about playing a hand the first time, but it gets a lot more attention the second time. By the fourth or fifth play, I'm Mr One-Track Mind - an unusual state for me. Anyway, I realized last week that I had a tendency to prioritize the getting of kings to the tops of columns. This is a hangover from the Klondike of childhood, in which new row stacks can be started with kings alone. I saw, too, that this predilection is a mistake. The first item of business in Freecell is to free up the aces, and then the twos. Having made it this far, the stacks will have probably opened up nicely. There's no reason to worry about court stacks at first. I'm playing a small percentage of hands fewer more than once.


Then it was down to 70th Street and the river, where everything went nicely. The weather was so pleasant that I thought I'd walk home along the promenade between the FDR Drive and the water. Or at least I'd walk up to 77th Street and then head over to Agata & Valentina, and First Avenue and 79th Street. As I reached the far end of the footbridge that crosses the Drive, right outside the hospital door on 71st Street, Roosevelt Island looked very grand in the afternoon sun; I wish I could show all the pictures.

Now, it couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes after I'd crossed the 77th Street footbridge and headed inland that the MBNA helicopter crashed into the East River, about forty blocks to the south. I'm not sure that I'd have seen it even if I'd been looking for it, because the plane never got that far from the shore, which at that point would be hidden from a southward glance by the mild protrusion of Sutton Place, which swells out into the River just above the United Nations. I read about the near-disaster as soon as I got home, at Gothamist, which I just happened to glance at. It took the Times a good fifteen-to-twenty minutes longer to get the story onto its site. Go, Jen Chung!


Here is a closeup of the balconies overlooking Cherokee Place and John Jay Park. These buildings are very atypical of New York; they naturally would seem to be much more at home in New Orleans, or on Shamian Island in Guangzhou. There are four blocks of flats, each with its own interior couryard and open-air stairwells. I'm pretty sure that it's on one of these that Christopher Gill (Rod Steiger) passes Kate Palmer (Lee Remick) on his way to commit a serial murder, at the beginning of No Way To Treat A Lady (1968).

June 09, 2005

Of Weenies and Workouts

Having written about gaydar yesterday, I'm somewhat embarrassed about having to bring up sex again today - but then, it's not sex, it's no sex. It's asexuality! Mary Duenwald has a story in the silly Styles section of today's Times.

But could indifference to sex extend to humans, too? An increasing number of people say yes and offer themselves as proof. They describe themselves as asexual, and they call their condition normal, not the result of confused sexual orientation, a fear of intimacy or a temporary lapse of desire. They would like the world to understand that they can live their entire lives happily without ever having sex.

You can read more at the Web site run by AVEN, an online advocacy group for asexuals. Needless to say, there are doubters.

"It's a bit like people saying they never have an appetite for food," said Dr. Leonard R. Derogatis, a psychologist and the director of the Center for Sexual Health and Medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Sex is a natural drive, as natural as the drive for sustenance and water to survive. It's a little difficult to judge these folks as normal."

Aside from the error of comparing food, which is essential to life, to sex, which is not - although I have always enjoyed those stories about African alpha males who sicken and die if deprived of sex for just a few days - Dr Derogatis wades right into the deep doo-doo with the "N" word. Since when is anyone's sexuality "normal"? More to the point, why does it matter? Why is anybody interested the sexuality of people who are not prospective partners? 

Happily, I did not have to search for an answer in books of wisdom. The silly Styles section was right there to help me out, with a story on page G8: "For Men at the Gym, It's Step, Step, Step, Panic!", by Taylor Antrim. This is the affecting tale of guys who are afraid to join group classes at New York's gyms, because, you know. "I felt like a weenie," says Martin Vahtra, who melted into a fog of evaporated self-esteem under the glare of weight-lifting Blutos on the other side of the glass wall.

In what may prove to be my favorite sentence of 2005, gym spokeswoman Lisa Hufcut observes, "Men feel more comfortable around equipment." As I savor this gem like a sip of great Bordeaux, it gets richer and riper. I don't think that I have ever read anything more pathetic but at the same time more accurate about guydom.

To speak, if not more seriously, then more earnestly, for a moment, I will venture that we all find sexuality frightening, because it is never something that we can will, and is sometimes something that we can't control. But maturity means learning to live with the various fears attendant upon life, most particularly the fear of dying. It means not running away from them by seeking shelter in nonexistent norms. It means accepting ourselves as we grow up and develop - very difficult, but doable - and not worrying what the weightlifters think. And not worrying that step aerobics, if that's what works for you, is going to make you a weenie. You're not that malleable!

Joan Didion's California

Where I Was From, Joan Didion's meditation on the myths of California (Knopf, 2003), has been in the pile for quite a while, and I don't know why I put off reading it. I do know why I picked it up; Ms Didion's recent piece in the NYRB on Terry Schiavo (which I wrote about last week) left me hungry for more of the writer's peculiarly addictive blend of dry humor, muffled oracle, and utter sérieux (she must translate very well into French - although it appears that anybody là-bas who wants to read her can do so in English). And because I've been reading Them to Kathleen, I needed an alternative memoir to satisfy the craving that Francine du Plessix Gray has excited. Voilà, the perfect moment.

Where I Was From is a book of awakening, a work of grasping her earliest interior furniture, holding it up to the light, and finding it somehow fake or insubstantial. The writer springs from generations of Californians; many of her ancestors crossed the plains and the mountains before 1868, the year of the railroad. We can forget, nowadays, what a desert almost a third of our heartland is, but from the Rockies just beyond Denver to the Sierra Nevada on the California-Nevada border, the terrain is not hospitable to human beings. And it is not easily traversed, either, in wagon trains pulled by oxen. Many people died en route, most notoriously the Donner Party, in which some forty-odd people perished out of a company of ninety when the Party could not clear the snows of the Sierrra Nevada in the fall of 1846. Making the passage was an ordeal that, like warfare, produced legends but also silence. The people who got to California were heroically taciturn. This tough calmness was the ideal breeding ground for mythology, and by Joan Didion's day the mythology was so ingrained that she could give, in eighth grade, a concise account of it.

They who came to California were not the self-satisfied, happy and content people, but the adventurous, the restless, and the daring. They were different even from those who settled in other western states. They didn't come west for homes and security, but for adventure and money. They pushed in over the mountains and founded the biggest cities in the west. Up in the Mother Lode they mined gold by day and danced by night. San Francisco's population multiplied almost twenty times, until 1906, when it burned to the ground, and was built up again nearly as quickly as it had burned. We had an irrigation problem, so we built the greatest dams the world has known. Now both desert and valley are producing food in enormous quantities. California has accomplished much in the past years. It would be easy for us to sit back and enjoy the results of the past. But we can't do this. We can't stop and become satisfied and content. We must live up to the our heritage, go on to better and greater things for California.

Seen along one plane, squinting slightly, this is all fairly true. California attracted adventurers and gamblers. And so on. What happened to Ms Didion in her forties, it seems, is that she suddenly saw California along another plane entirely, and understood that she had never bothered to press the meaning of what now struck her not as history but as mythology. Although the word does not appear in the excerpt from her valediction, the passage is heavy with the implication that what all those heroic pioneers did, from building the biggest cities in the west to building the greatest dams the world has known, was constructive. The world, and California in particular, was a better place for all that building, and the building must continue, so that the California and the world might become even better. It's an admirable call, if indeed surprisingly more boosterish than one can imagine Ms Didion ever being.

Continue reading about Where I Was From at Portico.

June 08, 2005


By now, everybody knows what gaydar is, even if not everybody can use it. My question is, why does it work so well in the United States and so poorly elsewhere? Ms NOLA told me that during her term in Paris her gay colleagues were distraught by their inability to distinguish gay from straight French men. Yesterday, Andy Towle reported on a new Gillette campaign fronted by a soccer star who likes to shave his legs before matches. Meanwhile the San Francisco 49ers are in the soup because of a really stupid (as well as offensive) training video.

Gaydar works because so many straight American men have shut down displays of interest and mimicked homogenized behaviors. They don't inspect other men. They walk a walk and talk a talk. Why is American masculinity so hypertrophic? Who's trying to prove exactly what to exactly whom?


Like many people, I've been mulling over Matt Miller's Saturday Op-Ed piece in the Times, "Is Persuasion Dead?" Well, it can't be, I thought; it must not be. And yet it's pretty clear that nobody wants to be persuaded just about now. We are all bursting with opinions about everything, including exactly what's important enough to warrant having an opinion about. Some time ago, I ran through the blog roster of an collaborative "intellectual" site, and every third blog seemed to have gone dead since the election. I know that I have stopped following such sites.

And yet this blog right in front of you is never, not for one second, not trying to persuade you of something. For starters, obviously, it's trying to interest you, trying to get you to keep reading. And I am usually attempting to persuade you that a book is worth reading, or that an orchestra's concerts are worth showing up for. It hasn't happened lately, but I am known to argue that watching television is bad for you, period. That's a toughie, not because anybody disagrees but because they don't do twelve-step for television yet. (Do they?) Finally, as one friend put it one night, I'm trying to get my philosophy across. This still confounds me, because I don't know what my philosophy is. But prenez garde: these entries of mine are designed to transmute your curiosity into susceptibility.

So I had to keep asking myself Mr Miller's question. If persuasion is dead, we're wasting our time here. Then, while I was out running errands yesterday, it occurred to me that beneath the swarm of recommendations that makes up the surface of these pages there lie one or two behemoths that might eventually swim into your mind. The first - if indeed there are two - is the vital importance of thinking with as much breadth and tranquility as you can command, and of doing this thinking (taking notes!) as often as possible. Someday, someone will decide that thinking in this way is a kind of meditation, but it seems far too busy and capricious for that. Reading, of course, counts. So does good talking to a good listener (someone who combines patience with an insistence upon making sense).

The second thing is probably just what's missing from the first: think about what? I have an agenda: I should like you to think about fixing a few of our largest institutions. The corporation for one. Our educational system, for another. These systems are so embedded in our lives from such an early stage - we are schooled as very small children, at a time when our quality of life is determined by our guardians' adaptability to corporate structures - that we really don't think about them. That they're both pimply with problems nobody doubts, but the pimples are symptoms, not causes. Both institutions need to be re-imagined from the ground up, retro-engineered to suit us. We need to question our belief in growth, or at least to think more about development instead. There is ample evidence that school systems and corporations become more toxic and less efficient as they get bigger, while at the same time concentrating more power in fewer hands. I am confident that we are heading into a long-tail economy in which small enterprises will flourish, relying on a few massive service providers who will handle paperwork and so on the way 1&1 hosts Web sites. Most of us will not come into direct contact with mass marketers. More of us will be CEOs. Wealth will naturally fall into more equitable distribution. Our only problem will be finding occupation for the sociopaths who occupy so many of today's corner offices.

(As for education, I've already sketched my scheme of breathtaking reform elsewhere, but I might as well plug it.)

Until you begin to think about these things, and to persuade your friends to do the same, things will only get worse. We'll go on racking up huge debts and running out of oil. There will be no reason for potential leaders to lead. Is persuasion dead? That's up to you.

June 07, 2005

"Dancing The Night Away"

Joe Jervis has embarked on a series of posting disco numbers he regards as hits of the gay disco scene of the Seventies and Eighties. I listened to his first offering, Vogue's "Dancing The Night Away," which I'd never heard before, and thought that it was kind of sweet. Much, much sunnier and better-natured than most disco, and with a surprisingly relaxed tempo. While the song was playing, I thought I'd see if I could figure out how to download it, and it took nearly six minutes to do this. Then I had to check and see that the MP3 file would really play on my machine. When the song was over the second time, I got back to work. But I left the Music Match window open.

Hours later, I revisited the open window and clicked on the title, which, aside from a ghastly promo from Music Match that I got rid of right away, was the only title there. I must have been taking a little break, because I played FreeCell while the song played. Multitasking heaven: I hear pop music so much more intensely when I'm playing FreeCell. (There's a "Mozart Makes You Smarter" angle here somewhere.) I don't know how many games of FreeCell I played, nor how many times I repeated "Dancing The Night Away," but presently I became aware of a desire not to be doing anything else, ever.

Well, it's no surprise that Joe would start off with music as good-natured and generous as he is. But probably not quite as gay. I think Kathleen will really like it. Although not if this new addiction keeps me from broiling the lamb chops.

Kinky Update: It just occurred to me that these girls sound like Nicole Kidman. Presto: I can see the video, with Nicole singing right to me. I am eighteen. Jeeze.

Why I am giving up on the Times

If you believe that there is any aspect of the Supreme Court's assertion of federal authority in the regulation of medical marijuana - a story reported on the front page of todays Times - I'll start again. If you think that there is anything about this story more important than the names of the six justices who supported the majority opinion, which asserted that the Federal Government has the power to overrule state legislation authorizing medical marijuana, then hie yourself to 43rd Street and get a job: you're just as in-the-know and out-of-touch as the folks who run the paper.

There are nine paragraphs about this decision on today's front page. Justices Scalia and Kennedy are named, as is Justice Stevens, but in order to find out who the other three were, you have to open the paper to page A21. No need to wade through all those paragraphs, though, because there's a handy sidebar with everybody's picture. The three dissenters were Justices O'Connor, Thomas, and Rehnquist. That's why Justices Scalia and Kennedy were identified on the front page: you were supposed to be clever enough to see that in this humanitarianism-vs-federalism fight, these two jurists were more appalled by the tolerance of weed than they were worried about their pet peeve, the encroachment of states' rights. You felt really stupid when you opened the paper to page A21 and figured that out, didn't you.

Shame on the justices for whom I usually root: Ginsburg, Stevens, and Breyer. Shame on Linda Greenhouse, too. The Times is supposed to be a fount of information, not East Lynne.


The other day, I discovered something about this blog that resonates more deeply by the hour. A visitor lodged a complaint in a comment to a totally unrelated entry. There was a reason for this and the commenter and I have since worked things out through a calm exchange of emails. But a handful of the Daily Blague's regular visitors were very put off by the comment, and they told me so - via email. They did not post their objections. One friend went so far as to call the comment a "comment-killer."

Comment killer? There's such a thing as a comment killer? Not on most of the blogs that I read regularly. I'd have thought that the only thing that could kill comments was an inert entry, so boring or inane or arcane or otherwise unappealing that readers wouldn't even reach the "Comments" link. It has always been my understanding that comments generate comments, and I am quite sure that had the complaint been posted at La petite anglaise, say, or kottke.org, other readers would have piled atop it in a chorus of excoriation. Why did my friends take another route altogether? They stepped around the offending comment as if it were too disagreeable to acknowledge publicly.

I had already noticed that comments posted to The Daily Blague are longer, sometimes much longer, than comments elsewhere. You could argue that commenters here are only trying to keep up to the standards of the entries. In fact, I have heard that argument several times. But it creates a distinction between this blog and other equally literate and intelligent blogs, where the writer's proficiency does not discourage the posting of clunky, sometimes not very intelligibe, comments.

Am I doing something wrong, or am I doing something that I don't understand? Something new, in other words - or something that will be new when I figure it out. My dear Kathleen insists that I am doing something new, but we can't seem to say what it is except in terms of comparative adjectives. But the fact that what would easily have been expressed as public comments at another site came out as private messages here suggests one thing very forcibly: this is a quiet blog. This is a well-behaved blog. This is perhaps the blog where you can take a break from taking a break - from rushing, that is, the rapids of clicking from one site to another and then quickly to yet another. This blog is the opposite of a video game.

As M le Neveu says, "You're old and interested in old-people things." Indeed, and no regrets, either. Except, of course, that there aren't many old people in the Blogosphere. Many, I said, not any.

On most days, running this blog is, for me, a matter of composing entries and then uploading them through Movable Type software. I don't really have to think much about operations - and I like it that way. Every now and then, a bit of a design change is nice, but last year saw three global overhauls, with another this spring, and if you pore over a random bunch of pages at Portico, you're sure to come across traces of each one. It will be a while before I'm tempted to rethink. Meanwhile, relations between Web log and Web site have given rise to more organizational projects than I care to think about, much less take on, but these projects are only tangentially "technical." I can live without technical challenges. That's why I've been so maddened by the rash of comment-spam attacks that all three of my blogs have withstood in the past couple of months. My latest response - if an attack begins while I'm at the computer - is to head straight to my Web Host control panel and change permissions on the Comments file. I still don't know how effective that is. But something new did happen this morning: an attack of trackback spam! This required me to change the permissions on a different file, and I don't know what's going to happen when I change them back. I could live without comment spam. It's odious. You never see it, because it's always posted to older entries, and thanks to a plugin by Chad Everett, they're all clumped together pending approval, and they can be deleted in a flash. One would really prefer not to have to bother, one would.

June 06, 2005

French Test

Between the French-English and English-French halves of my Larousse Advanced, there's a Communication Guide/Guide de Communication in which templates for letters, resumes, and other exchanges proper to the customs of each language are set forth. I don't consult it very often, although I ought to, because it has a solid page on telephone etiquette, something that never fails to stymie me when I have to call M le Prof to change or cancel a French lesson. What I won't need anytime, soon, is the pair of pages on SMS messages.

If these weren't spelled out in proper French, they'd remain mostly indecipherable to me. To be sure, I didn't do much better with the ones in English.

¶ ght le p1, rentr asap

¶ slt, rdv o 6ne GspR b1 q t dak sete D6D, a+. (If you can figure out "sete," you're French and under thirty.)

¶ j t'M kestu X G tatan tjs au resto, biz.

¶ ya 1 blem, l'ordi e KC Rstp pcq G c pas keskonfe.

¶ O k1 msg G le sa V, t oqp ta oublié kestufé???

What a luxury that oublié is. A complete word! Don't try to work out a system here; G can mean je or j'ai.

PS: When buying dictionaries, don't screw up as I did. I ordered my first copy of Larousse Advanced from Amazon in France, and, to have a handier copy at the other end of the apartment, a second copy of what I thought would be the same book at Barnes & Noble across the street. In each book, the domestic-to-foreign section is at the rear. In other words, the dico in the bedroom begins with English-French. Oy!

Boy and Girl

A few weeks ago, I read two novels by new authors, both recommended by Patricia Storms at Booklust. I liked one and couldn't make up my mind about the other. But they belong together, I think, in being unconventional, non-novelistic works of fiction that use coming-of-age stories to suggest problems with American society. These problems are not positive social ills (such as racism or commercial fraudulence), but rather lacks, shortfalls. The world hasn't provided either book's principal character with enough of some essential ingredient. They don't complain; these aren't books about resentment and entitlement. That only makes their plights the more affecting.

Home Land, by Sam Lipsyte (Picador, 2004), is ostensibly a series of "updates" submitted to a high school alumni newsletter. The writer, Lewis Miner, has good reason to doubt that his submissions will be published, but he keeps writing them even when that doubt turns into certainty. There is something pathetic about this maneuver. But then Lewis is pathetic. He appears to have no attractions beyond a sarcastic intelligence that while funny to read would be insupportable in person. He is personally unprepossessing. The writing projects an unpleasant physical presence, a scuzziness that comes right through the page - unfortunately. Lewis has embraced loserdom. This is not to be confused with accepting a humble life or a less than stellar career. Embracing loserdom means taking great pains to avoid looking healthy or successful.

Continue reading about Home Land and Stop That Girl at Portico.

June 05, 2005



My late mother and my daughter, Houston, 1974. Ms G came pretty close to being late herself this week. I only found out about it afterward, when she called last night to say that she'd just gotten out of the hospital. I was able to follow what followed, but the shock took a long time to wear off. With a very high fever on Monday night, she decided to take herself to the emergency room. They put her on an antibiotic drip, but they never did identify the pathogen. When her temperature returned to normal, they - no individual doctor was ever named; I expect she was seen to by residents - kept her for another day, for observation. While battling the inexplicable fever, Ms G had to contend with phone calls from Houston: there had been a death in her mother's family. "So I'm afraid you got pushed down to the bottom of the list, Dad." Of course, this is what I worry about every time I have any difficulty making contact. "So we'll talk tomorrow," I said before hanging up. After all, she still felt tired and a little nauseated. I called her place of employment twice and then called again, this time going for a live person. The very nice woman who took the call said that she hadn't seen my daughter but would be happy to check the cubicles. Five minutes later (it seemed), I heard a familiar voice. "Sorry, Dad." It would worse if I weren't use to the same sort of thing from my dear Kathleen.  

June 04, 2005


The Poorman rakes up the follies of The National Review. Andrew isn't the nicest guy in the world, but that's just as well, for he's a born satirist. Ideology is always laughable, but satire's magnifications (in the guise of distortions and exaggerations) are always handy, because they show why ideology is laughable.

¶ Here's a page by P D James on murder by secret poison - a necessarily lost art. What is Baroness James's secret? She writes so knowledgeably about murder and yet is so pitiless about murderers. That is, she seems to know all about murder's motivations, but remains a pillar of rectitude. Perhaps there's a fold of repression that keeps the spring in her writing set to just the right tension.

¶ Be the first on your block... to exploit a novel use of GPS. My, but isn't it curious that men's briefs and boxers are not on offer?

¶ According to Ms NOLA, The Washingtonienne is not a good book, and she hasn't seen it in any of the stores. (One of the things that she brings to her new job is an alertness about book placement.) This excerpt may suggest why. (kottke. org)

¶ My daughter Ms G just got back from Houston, where in between family visits she saw the new (or recent) light rail trains. She had been following them for a while on the Internet, ever since encountering a write-up of the problems that Houston's METRO is having fending off automobile attacks. Are Houston's drivers really that bad? Or are they waging guerilla war on behalf of John Gaver, who upon his subtly subtitled "Keep Right" Web page blames the trains.

June 03, 2005

"Gorge Profonde"

The other day, JR posted, on L'homme qui marche, an entry entitled "Gorge Profonde," and I was all set to see some photos of great Chinese scenery. Hello. My complete lack of feeling about the identify of Deep Throat (W Mark Felt) has taken me rather by surprise. The only interesting thing about it is that Mr Felt appears to have outed himself in order to share some of the limelight that Bob Woodward was about to hog.

To acknowledge that Mr Felt did the nation a great service is not necessarily to deny that the Watergate story that he kept alive was a disaster for the United States. As an elitist, I think that it ought to have been kept from the public, just as were Roosevelt's incapacity to stand unaided and Kennedy's parlous state of health. By all means, let the public know everything that there is to know about objective public affairs. But don't distract it with lurid, easily-digested tangents. The Watergate break-in was certainly that. Yes, it reflected very badly on the moral climate at the White House. But it would have had no real consequences had it gone undetected, because the Democrats were certain to lose the election in any case. As indeed they did. And if they won the next election because of Watergate, they won it for the wrong reasons and with the wrong candidate. We are now living in the sewer of political sordor, where real developments (the discovery of the Downing Street Memo) go relatively unremarked, while the life and death of Theresa Schiavo polarize everybody.

That's my thinking now. But if I'm not feeling any strong feelings one way or another about the identity of Deep Throat - as everybody around me seems to be doing - it's probably because I had no time for politics in the early Seventies. I had just voted in my first presidential election (when the story began to trickle out), and I'd voted for Nixon for one reason only: McGovern wanted to impose a 100% estate tax. Or such was my impression. I knew what was going on in Washington; I had to, reading the AP's lead stories two or three times every evening at KLEF. It was totally a rip-and-read affair, and I never did it very well (that's not why I'd been hired), but inevitably some of it seeped in. It seemed tremendously irrelevant to everything, the Watergate thing.

Watergate was the big story during my central years in Houston. To say that I was dazed and confused down there is to understate matters; I was so dazed and confused that I didn't know it. Until 1976, when I buckled down and studied for the LSAT, and did well enough on the test, I had no exit opportunities from Houston. I was always broke, and I knew that I'd never get my job (programming the music on a classical-music station) in a sophisticated market, because in sophisticated markets the job is done by people with conservatory credentials, and I could barely play "Chopsticks." I made a half-hearted stab at getting into corporate writing, but it never broke the skin. The only sane outlook most days was to Get Used To Houston. The attempt left me dazed and confused, but in a subterranean way.

For fun, I made the maximum use of free passes to Houston Symphony Orchestra concerts and Houston Grand Opera productions. I taught myself how to cook, and how to use a Chinese dictionary. I wrote a lot of little pieces for the Program Guide, which I don't have anymore. I hung out with bohemian friends, but there was always the risk of awkwardness, because I'd grown up in formal surroundings and didn't know far to go, or how far not to go, when "letting go." I saw my little daughter on alternate weekends, or maybe not quite, because I didn't have a car. On the Westheimer bus one day, I suddenly understood what Anthony Trollope meant by the responsibility of being a gentleman, and it may have changed my life. By this time, my mother was dying, and I moved back to my parents' very comfortable place to help maintain the illusion that her standards of housekeeping were being maintained. And then I went back to Notre Dame, falling hard as bricks in love within forty-eight hours with my dear Kathleen.

I can't say that I'd just escaped from the worst time of my life. My childhood, an endless steppe of boredom and punishment, retains that distinction. But my years in Houston don't connect with the others, which were spent either in South Bend or within twenty miles of where I'm sitting now. There are too many discontinuities of memory and association. Houston happened to somebody that I'm quite definitely not anymore. If I'd been comfortable there, I should have become an entirely different person. Such is the illusion. And because what happened in Houston doesn't seem altogether real, neither does Watergate. I was on another planet then.


This reminds me of Them, Francine du Plessix Gray's memoir of her complicated family. Ms Gray is the daugher of a French vicomte who perished early on in World War II, but everyone else in her background is a Russian émigré who spent some time in Paris between the wars. The exception is her strange grandfather, who headed East, through Shanghai and San Francisco, before winding up, dismally, in Rochester, and it was there that Ms Gray's mother, Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix, and the man Tatiana would marry, Alexander Liberman, parked little Francine for a few months after arriving in New York in 1941. Having lived in sophisticated comfort until now, Francine was dismayed by the paltriness of her grandfather's home, but she had plenty of opportunity to weep openly at her fallen state. Her grandfather's second wife, and this wife's mother, were just as dismayed, more than twenty years later, by all that they had lost in Russia.

For the following many weeks, I became Zinochka's and Katia Ivanovna's shadow, following them on their daily routine: doing the breakfast dishes, making the beds, dusting the house, laundering, ironing. The two women were readily given to tears, and their lamentations were particularly abundant on the heaviest workday of the week, Monday, wash day. It was then that every feature of bygone life in Russia - its dachas and green pastures, the glory of its nature, its music and its cuisine - tended to most longingly recalled, most tearfully compared to the drab tedium of their Rochester life. "Servants bringing us tea at every hour, such emerald lawns, such orchards! Zina would sob as she ironed Grandfather's shirts, pointing to the narrow backyard, identical to some three hundred adjoining ones, where the muddy ground lay like mangled flesh under the dirty bandage of the melting snow. A rusty car motor, Eugene's abandoned summer project, lay decaying on the ground. The laundry lines of every family in the neighborhood were going up that afternoon, flapping desolately in the icy wind. My companions would go on to deplore the bleak monotony Alexis Jackson [Grandfather] imposed on his family, his apathy and indifference, his failure even to ask for a promotion or a raise in all the years he had been working for Kodak. I fully sympathized with them, for I'd realized after a few days that the Jacksons never traveled or entertained or dropped in on anyone; that they seldom read anything beyond the local paper and Popular Mechanics; that after dinner Grandfather just listened to his radio and chomped on the toothpick, Zina and her mother sighed and mended garments, and Eugene loped upstairs to do his science experiments. So I joined readily in their tears, concealing as ever my worries about my father but pretending, instead, to mourn all the splendors I, too, had left behind on another continent: the elegance of our Paris flat, the radiance of Alex's villa, the beauty and excitement of the Mediterranean.

Francine, happily, would soon find herself in a lovely house on West Eleventh Street back in Manhattan, but I think of those two women, who had obviously been weeping for years before Francine showed up, and who presumably had some more weeping ahead before the final trip to the graveyard. I suspect that I might have started crying all day, too.

June 02, 2005

Heave Ho!


Does this sentence apply to me? Am I a "neurotic fanatic"?

While innumerable neurotic New Yorker fanatics have saved piles of the magazine in closets or basements, the few easily accessible archives of the magazine's contents have been on microfilm or in bound volumes in public libraries.

I ask because I don't keep entire New Yorkers. I go through them from time to time and cut them up. I never clip cartoons. I always save covers. I will probably go on saving covers. But it looks as though I can retire the scissors. Last month, the Times announced, not altogether clearly, that among other things home-delivery subscribers would soon have unlimited access to the newspaper's archive. And today I see that The New Yorker is going to do even better, by selling a set of CDs with everything on them. Everything since 1925. Even the newsbreaks (which used to be so much more numerous). At last: I can throw away that white-on-black photocopy that I made in college of the "Letter from Britain" announcing the abdication of Edward VIII. Actually, I think I tossed that one long ago.

Do I ever use my clippings? No, because they're too hard to access. Oh, you lucky twenty-somethings. You don't know what you're being spared.



In all probability, I am the only person who didn't know about Primer until yesterday. (Thank you, Jason Kottke.) I don't as a rule write about films that I've only seen a few times and only very recently, but there is so much here to come back to that I want to catch the nimbus of awe that surrounds the experience right now. I watched the film twice yesterday afternoon, the second time listening to the commentary of Shane Carruth, the writer, director, and star, a man whose first film this is. (He edited it, too.) Make that a man with no filmmaking experience of any kind prior to working on this project. It's as though Hitchcock, not Athena, had sprung fully grown from the head of Zeus. Every scene was story-boarded, so that Primer was virtually pre-edited. The almost indigestible aspect of the film is it's cost: $7000. And I do mean film. It was shot in Super16; when it was chosen to show at Sundance, an investor chipped in $25,000 to have it blown up onto thirty-five millimeter film.

Mr Carruth performs all of his jobs capably, sometimes with real inspiration, but as a star he's a star. His face is remarkably interesting: sometimes handsome (once in a while quite handsome), sometimes ordinary, and sometimes a little odd. Its expressions can be heavy and even a little thuggish, or extremely delicate. Mr Carruth is very good at dawning recognition. And he has turned five-o'clock shadow from the look of macho allure so popular lately into a sad intimation of mortality. His co-star, David Sullivan, is a professional actor, and he can do great-actory things; he completely realizes his character's leaden recognition that he has been outfoxed. But Mr Carruth seems lighted from within, not just intellectually, as, say, Jude Law and Ewan McGregor so often do, but anatomically as well.

Primer is "about" time travel, in the way that North By Northwest is about stolen government secrets. It's really about trust, risk, and the pursuit of glory. It is about grown-up kids with no real sense of moral consequences who are bored with their day jobs and itching to make huge fortunes. Of four original partners, two pull apart to develop a smaller, less expensive version of a device that, according to Mr Carruth, actually exists. Don't ask me. Along the way, they discover that their invention has interesting side effects. Great pains are taken to simulate the atmosphere of genuine discovery - the tedium that's occasionally cut by extraordinary elation.

The film needs to be seen twice, partly because it is so complex - trying to find out what the characters are up to distracts somewhat from their project's meaning - and partly because the area of filmmaking for which Mr Carruth was least prepared (by his own admission) was sound. A good deal of the dialogue is looped, and in the interest of verisimilitude the characters often speak over one another. The scientific arcana is not a nuisance, but it's easier to watch the film when you know how relatively unimportant it is. Primer goes right to the brink of mystification, but it doesn't fall in. (Although the details of time-travel are kinky, they're not pressingly important. But there has evidently been a great deal of industrious obsessing about the story "timelines." (I've found one rather elegant-looking solution.)

This has to be the most astonishing debut in the history of cinema. That's what staggers me now. I think that it's a remarkable movie by any standards. We'll see if that impression lasts. 

June 01, 2005

Holiday Hush


The holiday weekend was delightful. Almost everybody left town, and the weather was mostly glorious. That's really all I need for a great break. The city quiets down almost to a hush. There are no bottlenecks at the corner of Second and 87th (I think that I've mentioned the symphony of horns that these produce). There are no guys calling out to one another across 86th Street. There are no trucks barreling up First Avenue or down Second. (How I pray for tolls to be imposed on all the bridges. Then drivers would take the Triboro instead of playing Interstate Highway in Manhattan for the free crossing on the Queensborough Bridge.) And there are no kids shrieking on their rooftop playground next to Holy Trinity. I don't mind the kids at all, really; often I reflect that while the screams are sempeternal, I've been listening for so many years that some of those pre-schoolers are already out of college and perhaps even parents themselves.

We walked to the East River on Sunday afternoon. We meant to take a somewhat longer walk, but Kathleen decided to go to six o'clock Mass, so we turned around and walked back along 87th Street to St Joseph's, one of Kathleen's three churches and the closest one to home. We did spend about ten minutes gazing at the rushing tide (not apparent in this overview) and watching the antics of three jet skiers. They bucked the tide, heading north and into Hell's Gate, then thought better of that and went to play on the other side of Roosevelt Island. Then they reappeared. By now, a luridly orange cigarette boat was inching toward the Sound, giving a very good impression of a vessel in distress. But no. The motor roared - and I do mean "roared" - and the boat was soon out of sight.