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August 31, 2005

Bilingual Ranting

It's hard to feel purposeful just now. The sudden disaster in New Orleans has knocked the wind out of me, strewing awful repercussions from right in front of me to the horizon. When I think about what the people of New Orleans will face when they return - but I can't think about that. The floodwaters appear to be in no hurry to go anywhere, except atop the city itself. I'm very worried about getting clean water to the folks who are safe but stuck in their refuges. What no one seems to have thought about is how long the aftermath would be. There's no end in sight right now.

This is the kinder, gentler part of this morning's entry. I've saved my sharper words for la version française (not a translation). Ranting is so much more satisfying in French! It actually feels virtuous, somehow. The grander emotions are all so much more accessible. Of course, one has to give a little more thought to what one says. But soon it's over and one feels pretty much all better. Ranting in English just makes me feel sore.

But even if it weren't for Katrina, I wonder if my spirits would be much higher. In a disturbing article in today's Times, Dr Jon Miller, of Northwestern University Medical School, tells reporter Cornelia Dean about his highly respected assessments of the state of scientific savvy prevailing in American society.

Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

You'd think I'd be used to this kind of disturbance by now. It used to be funny. I used to feel so superior. Now I feel locked in a zoo. Dr Miller quite soundly attributes the situation to the American folly of financing public schools with locally-assessed property taxes. Freedom, rah!

In a not-unrelated article appearing in the current Foreign Affairs, Daniel Yankelovich proposes to identify the tipping point at which public opinion begins to have an effect upon policymaking.

The combination of three factors, all measurable through surveys such as [his], can help determined whether matters are likely to come to a head: the size of the public majority in favor of or opposed to a particular policy, the intensity and urgency of its opinions, and whether it believes that the government is responsible for addressing them. Public opinion reaches the tipping point when a significant majority of the population feels strongly that the government can and should do something about a given issue.


Consider issues that greatly concern experts and elites but still leave the public unfazed. Americans do not seem to worry much, for example, about the United States' extravagant foreign debt (32 percent of those surveyed said they do), even though it may prove hazardous to the nation's future.

("Poll Positions: What Americans Really Think About U.S. Foreign Policy.") Boy, does this ever make me feel like a kid in a car on an endless journey. Are we there yet? No, the public still isn't paying enough attention. And why am I bothering to write this? If you're reading it, you're probably already of the same opinion. You probably know what Foreign Affairs is. I'm in another Blogospherical echo chamber.

We'll see what the already mounting, now set-for-rocketing, price in gasoline does to the national inattentiveness. But first,

Exercice de style

Je m’excuse ; mon “cerveau français” ne fonctionne pas très bien aujourd’hui. Je suis affligé par le sort de la ville de La Nouvelle Orléans. Fouettée par les vents de l’ouragan Katrina et inondée par ses pluies, la ville est presque engloutie, une quasi Atlantide. Personne ne sait quand sera restauré ou l’électricité ou l’eau potable ; on doute que cela soit une question de mois.

On a tort de parler d’une catastrophe tout court. Oui, le cyclone est une manifestation de la nature. Mais on pouvait prendre des précautions. Les levées auraient dû être renforcées, et les pompes, qui datent des années Trente, remplacées par des autres plus robustes et indépendantes du réseau de pouvoir – dont les câbles auraient dû être enterrés. On aurait dû se souvenir de l’utilité des volets.

C’est un désastre de la volonté publique, cette immersion d’une ville de quatre cent mille et demi habitants. C’est une honte nationale pire que les attentats de 9/11.

August 30, 2005

The World's First Blogger - c'est moi!


Among the piles of unearthed paper that passed before my eyes late last month during Team Vacation was a stack of KLEF Program Guides. I don't have very many, certainly nothing like the sixty that I produced while I was Music Director at what was then Houston's commercial classical station. (It is no longer broadcasting as such, thanks to deregulation.) About a week after I glanced through the old issues, it hit me:

I am the world's first blogger. I began blogging without MovableType, without browsers, without the Internet even. It did involve typing, though.

A lot of typing. Anybody old enough to have used a proportionally-spaced IBM typewriter can imagine the curses that working with such a machine elicited from me. Proportionally-spaced typefaces consist of letters of unequal width: "m" is five times as wide as "l." The typewriter that you had in college (ahem) would have been a evenly-spaced machine, with each letter of the alphabet occupying an imaginary box of the same size, like the characters in Chinese calligraphy. Proportional spacing produces copy that looks more like typeset printing.

Eventually, I got a Selectric typewriter, with its even spaces and itschangeable daisy-wheels (Italics!), and life became simpler. I had taken on the job of typing the Program Guide in order to increase my paltry take-home. The work had been done by a professional typist who typed directly onto huge sheets of paper that were subsequently photographed and offset. I had the bright idea of typing on rolls of adding-machine paper, and then pasting these onto the unwieldy sheets. The flexibility of cutting and pasting was familiar to me long before I got my Peanut in 1985. But so it was to anyone working with offset printing. What's uniquely mine, in the example to the left, are the two extemporaneous comments appending to listings of music by Saint-Saëns and Chopin for the early afternoon of 8 October 1974. Yes, the image is a little small - although it can be read with a magnifying glass - but it's not important that you read it. What's important is this proof that I was consigning my impromptu thoughts to publicity as I went along, and at whatever length felt right, over thirty years ago.

Some of the comments weren't so impromptu. I have been encouraged by a few kind people who have read the long ones to republish them at Portico. Easier done than considered. My thinking about the subjects of these essays has shifted in countless ways, and of course there are mistakes to clean up. If I could just upload the material, I would, but I have to retype it first, and, trust me, I'm not a passive typist. (The inability to leave things alone is a failing, I've learned, common to lawyers who take pleasure in writing.)

Almost every day, I feel a little more completely that I was born to keep a Web log, that it is the literary form for me. Lucky for me, then, that it came into existence at some point during my time here below! Looking back at the Program Guides, I can see how I was longing for it!

August 29, 2005


There's nothing to do today but follow accounts of Hurricane Katrina. I don't know how involved I'd be if it weren't for Ms NOLA, whose parents have safely evacuated themselves all the way to Shreveport. A moot question, certainly. The storm came out of nowhere. Having deluged Florida without inflicting much wind damage, Katrina drifted into the Gulf of Mexico and promptly picked up steam, becoming stronger than ever.

For years, observers have remarked that New Orleans is in no shape to resist, or possibly even to survive, the blows of a Category 5 storm. (Katrina was a Category 5 storm yesterday, but weakened a bit - to Category 4 - as it hit the coast.) What has been done? Exactly nothing, it would appear. Pumps and levees were put in place after the last really big storm, in the Thirties. But New Orleans is as much as twenty feet below sea level, and surrounded by water. We're not talking about flooding by the rain or by the Mississippi. Lake Ponchartrain, to the north, is simply a vast tank waiting to dump its contents on the town, and if the levee is breached, that's that. The city's many old wooden buildings are at risk not only from winds but from falling trees.

Who knows how long it will take to restore the power needed to operate the pumps? Who knows how long it will take to restore the oil supply that has been upset by the storm?

How long before people start thinking about these things a little bit in advance?

Hello, socialism!

Nothing Special


On Friday afternoon, Ms NOLA and I went to the Frick Collection. It was fairly crowded, with lots of visitors listening to those handheld lecture thingies. I'm sure that you can learn a lot from such devices, but I don't think that you can really see anything while you're soaking up the textual details. Looking at pictures is not easy, and I can't do two things at once.

Not that I refrain from pointing out things to my companions. In front of Bellini's Saint Francis in the Desert, I remarked to Ms NOLA that this magnificent picture is caught in the tension between the Netherlandish love of schematic detail, so characteristic of fifteenth-century paintings and illuminations, and the new realism of the High Renaissance. It's an image that refuses to settle down. The chapel in the alcove to the right and the hill town in the distance are buzzing with points of visual interest that have nothing to do with the saint's stigmatization; that they are also symbols simply adds to the potential racket. What keeps the painting from dissolving into an unruly mess is Francis's rapt head and the strangely blue-green rocks behind him.

All I actually said was, "This picture is so caught between the medieval and the Renaissance."

Then we went to drink from the fountain that is Vermeer's Mistress and Maid. Oh, that yellow, ermine-trimmed jacket, a magic cape that transports us beyond fashion. I didn't say anything.

I studied The Countess d'Haussonville, as I usually do, wondering about her strange right arm. Sloping shoulders were all the rage when the picture was painted, but that arm appears to project from the countess's ribs.

We missed the collection of French prints from Weimar that was exhibited over the summer. I had wanted to go, but other things got in the way. I'd really like to have seen Boucher's Triton, above. It is so much more powerful than his paintings. I can feel the thrust, the force of the Triton's outstretched left arm.

So we saw nothing special, nothing that isn't on view every day at the Frick. It was perhaps for that reason that Ms NOLA remarked, as we left, that she had forgotten, now that she lived in a city with no shortage of them, how vitally calm museums are.

August 28, 2005

Les enquêtes d'Eloïse Rome


Even though I am wont to carry on about never having allowed television schedules to dictate mine, I found myself very much on hand yesterday afternoon at five o'clock, when Les enquêtes d'Eloïse Rome came on TV5. So, okay, I'm going to trade one kind obnoxiousness for another. I made sure that I was free to watch a scheduled program, just like everybody else in the world, but it was a program in French.

Don't get me wrong. I'd be lost without the subtitles. They flash on sufficiently in advance for me to to expect something like what actually gets said, which is helpful, I suppose. But language is not the draw. Christine Citti is the draw. A young but decidedly ampler Cathérine Deneuve is at once a modern woman and the embodiment of something ancient about the authority of French women. She plays a detective, a captain in the French police, which means that she heads a team. It is a much smaller team than Jane Tennyson's, but she calls the shots. That's the modern-woman part. But she is usually smiling, at least in the shows that I've seen, even when she's nailing a bastard. That's the immemorial part.

The conceit of the show is that the murderers are always "nice" people, never "criminals." For that reason, they are always insisting that they be given special treatment. Captain Rome's way of dealing with this standing on non-existent privilege is perhaps the secret of the show's interest. She is polite but firm, never rude but never deferential. Every now and then she whips out a neat comeback that silences complaint. She also loves difficulty. Her cases seem open-and-shut at first, amenable to the kind of common-sense solution that Inspector Morse's Chief Superintendent Strange always wants Morse to settle for. Captain Rose never settles for it, either. Once her thoroughness and her instinct have identified the killer, there's little that she won't do to trick a confession out of him.

Aside from being deeply charming, Mlle Citti's face is a deftly-wielded tennis racket. She will squint with one eye - I don't think so. She will purse her lips - I'm waiting, and I've got all day. She will smile a little too sweetly - I can do this myself, and I'm going to! While they're nothing silencieuse about her, there is something feline about her inclination to let people reveal themselves. She seems to stay out of the way of her own investigations and watch them work themselves out.

Sadly, I haven't progressed to knowing the names of the other regulars on this show, but they're all very good, and they play off each other well. There is a very salty pathologist, also a woman, who is almost never gentille, but you like her anyway. There's a lieutenant whose looks would seem to have steered him toward romantic leads; he's one of those Adam's-apple acrobats. Come to think of it, Captain Rome's boss is a French translation of Chief Inspector Strange.

What marks the show for me is its equanimity. The suspense is very low, and never anything but cerebral. Such was its allégresse yesterday that, when it was over, I was thirsty for Mozart's genial Clarinet Concerto. Hardly the sort of mood that Law & Order ever put me in.

August 27, 2005

Vanity Googling

In Something's Gotta Give, Harry surprises Erica with the information that there are a few thousand Web sites that mention her. When you do this using your own name, it's called "vanity Googling." But trying it out the other night did little to boost my ego. Almost without exception, the returned links ran to comments that I have posted on other sites. Oh well.

I hadn't been to some of the sites in a very, very long time. I had completely forgotten a few. Revisiting them this time, I was clever enough to list them in my ever-expanding index of Favorites - in two different categories, if possible. I'm relying on this index more and more to keep up with the Blogosphere. I try to run through at least one category a day. In any case, my idle bit of Googling turned out to be constructive.

There was one link that mentioned me. "I love you, R J Keefe," wrote one Katie. That's always nice to hear, but I wondered why Katie had been moved to say so. It turned out to have to do with a favorite line from Radio Days: "Hark, the cannons roar! Is it the king approaching?" (If you know this Woody Allen classic, you will now find yourself helplessly practicing "roah, roah, roah.")

There were nine hundred hits in all, of which about a hundred and fifty were actually different. For some reason or other, when Kathleen tried it at the office, she got - a few thousand. 

August 26, 2005


Have you come across the following in your in-box?

Subject: gas tooo high










(Pardon the caps, but I couldn't bring myself to retype this thing.)

This document interests me more every time I look at it. I suspect that the increased interest may be a sublimation of the fear that I ought to be feeling instead.

What we have here is a testament to American free-market democracy, where, because everyone can speak up, all opinions are equal. Where authority of any kind is resented and, if possible, ignored, often because of the underqualified people who are poorly paid to exercise it. Where leaders have long since ceased to lead - to identify the problems of the future and to propose plans for meeting them. Where politics is a beauty contest that masks the wholesale appropriation of the res publica by private interests. This is home of the free-market; this is where free markets are widely misunderstood.

So it's "the oil companies" that are raising prices? Pity the fools who believe that! And watch out for them, too, because when they decide to "take action" - because it feels better than doing nothing - there's no knowing what foolishness they may get up to. A half-century of prosperity has lulled many people, including most of my own generation, into regarding comfort and convenience as a birthright. For millions dependent upon oil heating, the coming winter is going to be neither comfortable nor convenient.

And as the tone of the manifesto makes clear, far more time is likely to be spent assigning blame and pointing fingers than in accepting situation and dealing with it.

(An outfit called Gasoline Boycott Day has called for a boycott on Labor Day, 5 September. It appears to have a more sophisticated objective and to be capable of more lucid thinking. Keep Googling, and you'll come across Alabama Gas Prices, from I was led to this pretty tune. The president is not popular with this contingent!) 

August 25, 2005

Got 'em!

Tickets to The New Yorker Festival events toward the end of next month. They went on sale at noon, and it took four minutes of back-and-forth redialing to get through to TicketMaster. Each order had to be processed separately, so after we were done with Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith for Friday night, 23 September, I skipped over Malcolm Gladwell at ten the next morning and asked for Rufus Wainwright - an interview, not a concert - on Saturday night. Then we did Malcolm Gladwell, who will speak about precociousness. With all the extra fees, it cost a bundle, but I'm psyched. The New Yorker Festival is as close as the United States gets to la rentrée littéraire. 

Fine Writing

A tag that I would never ever live down if it were pasted onto something that I'd written:

Boots enough for all seasons and all moods clamor for more space in the closet

Clamoring, closeted boots! This may get me through the day.

Illegal Since 1976

A quick look at the Times Web site suggests that Laurie Goodstein's print report has not been updated to state that the White House has or has not commented on Pat Robertson's outrageous call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Reuters story that appeared on the newspaper's site last night pointed out that the White House had not yet commented. I'm sure that that's how folks at the White House want to keep it. To criticize Pat Robertson is to irritate the base. In time, people will forget, move on, whatever, and the Prince Esquivaliant team will have scored yet another esquivalience. (Note to spell check: these are real words now. I say so.)

Or do you believe that the President's official duties do not include vigorously denouncing demagoguery? When an extremely influential and widely broadcast figure takes to the cablewaves to solicit murder, is it not incumbent upon the President to make it clear, as Donald Rumseld sort of did, that - as Reuters cheerfully put it - "Political assassination as U.S. policy has been prohibited since 1976"?

Media Matters for America has collected two recent outbursts of pundit bloodlust, adding as a lagniappe a 1998 Ann Coulter call for President Clinton's assassination. I am no stranger to such impulses, but that is all that you are ever going to read about them here. If I thought I actually wielded influence over a substantial number of people, as Mr Robertson, Bill O'Reilly, and others do, I would go out of my way to purge my orations of all such suggestions. That is what good leaders do. They argue for better behavior than they or anyone else is capable of maintaining, and in the process inspire others to lead decent, productive, and hopeful lives. They do not appeal to the broken or bitter reflexes of their listeners. That is what demagogues do.

We know from numerous twentieth-century examples that demagoguery sometimes succeeds - for a short while, before everything blows up. It is the official duty of every democratically-elected leader - particularly those who claim to be democratically elected - to denounce demagoguery, insidious root and bruising branch.

August 24, 2005


The word "esquivalience" was invented in 2000 by Christine Lindberg, an editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary. I've long known that cartographers include made-up streets and other features in their maps, and apparently dictionaries and other reference works do the same. The appearance of such inventions in anybody else's material would be slam-dunk proof of piracy.

The definition of "esquivalience" was said to be "the willful avoidance of one's official responsibilities." If you think I'm letting go of this word, you're wrong.

Ms Lindberg took a French verb, esquiver, meaning "to dodge or evade something," and tacked on an ending that, according to the dictionary's editor-in-chief, "could not arise in nature." Maybe so. But I believe that Ms Lindberg's etymological brain was chugging away nicely when she settled on "alience," because it put "val" into play, and "val" spells "value," which neatly ties the French root to the phoney definition. The esquivalier - rhymes with "cavalier" - isn't just shirking any old thing. He's shirking his official responsibilities.

Now, kiddoes, can you think of anybody who might be deep into esquivalience? Somebody in Crawford, Texas, maybe?

Prince Esquivaliant, we salute thee!

(Read more about "esquivalience" at The New Yorker.)

Nobody's Chump

John Tierney had an Op-Ed piece in yesterday's Times that I found unusually irritating. I am almost always irritated by John Tierney. Our ways of looking at the world are, frankly, hostile. His way strkes me as short-term, bottom line, sauve qui peut. A cold draft of social Darwinism courses through his opinions. I see him as an intelligent man who's determined to be nobody's chump. Light on his feet, an agile debater, Mr Tierney is too competitive by half. He may, in fact, be none of these things; I have never met him. But that is the vision of him that I have built up over the years, and now it inclines me to skip his columns.

I read yesterday's offering because I'm curious to see just how the "Peak Oil" issue makes its way onto center stage - as it appears, finally, to be doing. I don't expect the transfer to be handled very intelligently. The other day, I quoted David Owen on the upsetting books about the "end of oil" that he is not going to read while he still has hopes of being alive for the next six months. If you have been pushing energy worries toward the edges of your thought, indulging in magically thinking that "they'll think of something; they always do," then the sudden loss of faith in this approach can induce a rush of sheer despair - and an attendant loss of judgment. Hands thrown up in the air are not particularly useful hands.

Mr Tierney actually believes that they'll think of something, because they always do. This is not magical thinking for him but demonstrable fact. And it is fact - if your time frame stretches from the end of World War II to fifteen years from now. To be more specific, the time frame that Mr Tierney sets in "The 10,000 Question" runs from 1980 to January 1, 2011, when a $5000 bet will be decided. If the price of a barrel of oil is "in the triple digits" as of that date, then Matthew Simmons, a Houston investment banker and the author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, will collect the $10,000 that he, Mr Tierney, and Mr Tierney's partner, Rita Simon have deposited in an escrow account. (Mr Tierney and Ms Simon, partners, put in $2500 each; Rita Simon is the widow of Julian Simon, an economist who won a bet, made in 1980, with ecologist Paul Ehrlich, concerning the price of metals.)

In some ways, I hope that Mr Tierney and Ms Simon win their bet. It's not even unlikely that they'll win it; the flow of fuels is full of surprises. But I'm inclined to agree with petroleum engineers who believe that we may have already burnt up half of the earth's oil supply. I like that figure, because it gives us some time - time to find other energy sources, time to realize that a free market approach, while successful in the short term, will doom humanity in the long. That's why I also hope that Mr Simmons will win - not because oil has become scarce but because leaders may have persuaded voters to reverse course and resume the program of delayed gratification that built the powerful middle class in the first place. Don't worry; I'm not making any bets that this will happen. But against the long view that I'm taking - and it's not really a long view to think a century or two ahead - Mr Tierney's thinking looks just plain infantile. He's betting on what's worst about us. He's nobody's chump. It must feel great to be so cool.

August 23, 2005

Au Bon Beurre, roman par Jean Dutourd, académicien (I)

Nota Bene: Voici mon exercice de style hébdomadaire. (I have decided to write up this great novel in French. The English translation is out of print and copies are very expensive. Ergo: pourquoi pas? If you think I'm showing off, you're crazy. I'm simply offering up my feeble efforts in the hope of receiving helpful criticism. I'm so anxious to have it, in fact, that I'm asking for it in English.)

Roman de Jean Dutourd, Au Bon Beurre raconte l’histoire de la famille Poissonard, crémiers crapuleux au XVIIe arrondissement de Paris, pendant l’Occupation de Paris par les allemands. Au début de cet époque si triste pour la France, Julie Poissonard (qui « fleurait toujours le Brie-Coulommiers ») prévoit qu’on va voir des disettes et des rationnements, donc elle commence à ramasser des stocks immenses. Un peu plus tard, Charles-Hubert Poissonard, qui ne se trouvait pas d’accord au début, recourt à l’adultération du beurre, du lait, et même des fromages. Les Poissonard deviennent de plus en plus riche. Sous l’Occupation, ils n’en ont rien à se plaindre.

Mari et femme, les deux crémiers sont d’origine un peu près paysanne, et ils en manifestent la mentalité. Sans éducation mais astucieux comme le diable, les Poissonard ont perfectionné une façon de se parler tout à fait hypocrite. On ment comme on respire, tout en se traîtant de saint et de patriote. En plus, leurs intelligences harmonisent à merveille.

Trois salamandres, farcies d’un superbe anthracite, dû à la complaisance du bougnat, que l’on couvrait de beurre et de laitage en échange, produisaient une chaleur tropicale. Il est intéressant de noter au passage que le bougnat, célibataire de cinquante ans, consommait, grâce à cet arrangement, de lait de trois enfants et les « matières grasses » de six adultes.

M et Mme Poissonard, comme les âmes d’élite, ou plus simplement peut-être comme des gens qui, ayant vécu longtemps ensemble, on fini par accorder le rythme de leurs pensées et de leur préoccupations, se comprenaient à demi-mot et même sans parler du tout. Pendant les cinq minutes de silence qui suivirent le dernier propos de Julie, leurs deux esprits avaient si bien marché au même pas que lorsque le crémier dit :

- Faudra voir à lui trouver du Saint-Nectaire…

La crémière, sans qu’il fût besoin d’éclaircissements, répliqua :

- Surtout qu’il va avoir du boulet.

(On voit dans le passage le style un peu baroque mais espiègle de Jean Dutourd.)

En parallèle, nous suivons l’histoire de Léon Lécuyer, fils d’une cliente de la crémerie. Echappé d’un prison poméranien, Léon se dirige vers Paris, via un détour très picaresque à Amsterdam. Réunie avec son fils, Mme Lécuyer manifeste tant de joie dans le quartier que Julie Poissonard devine la vérité. Mue par une haine provisoire, elle dénonce, en gardant l’anonymat, Léon à la Gestapo. Une fois encore, toutefois, le jeune homme s’échappe, par les toits. Après un nuit d’amour avec une jolie bonne dans sa chambre au grenier, Léon prends la direction de Lyon.

L’empire Poissonard s’accroît. On embauche une jeune fille plutôt pauvre, Josette, qu’on condamne à la vie de Cendrillon. D’une mine défaite, Josette souffre en silence. Affamée, elle vole un morceau de fromage, mais la fille Poissonard la regarde. Punie mais pas donnée congédiée, Josette grandit un peu et quitter les Poissonard de son plein gré. L’employée suivante, cependant, c’est une véritable traînée, Léonie, et c’est qu’elle qui impose les conditions au crémier. Léonie maîtrise la résistance Poissonard ; malheureusement pour eux, on a permis Léonie prendre part aux pratiques adultérines. Armée du pouvoir terrible du chantage, Léonie ne travaille que lorsque cela lui plaît. Un beau jour, un inspecteur venu de la Répression des Fraudes s’impose à la crémerie. C’est le cauchemar attendu. Mais les peurs de Poissonard ne sont pas totalement réalisé. Et en tout cas on vire Léonie.

Entre les époques des deux vendeuses, les Poissonard voyagent à Vichy pour le mois d’août. Ils se présentent au Maréchal Pétain dans une scène très amusante. L’humour du moment est amplifié par le rapport d’un article, écrit par René Benjamin (homme réel du régime de Vichy), dans lequel les petits incidents de la rencontre avec le Maréchal sont mythologisés à l’inénarrable. Mais devant tout cela, l’auteur nous donne un portrait très beau de Paris à l’aube d’été :

Passé le Rond-Point, les Champs-Élysées, envahis par la verdure, couverts d’arbres frissonnant sou la caresse de la brise estivale, étaient rendus à la nature. Paris était mort depuis plusieurs siècles et la végétation s’était emparée de lui. Le vieux Clemenceaux de bronze cheminait sur son rocher, semblait un monarque ancien condamné à errer parmi les décombres de son empire. On n’était plus en 1942, mais en 3000. Les Poissonard, innocents crémiers parisiens, figuraient les audacieux explorateurs de civilisations disparues, traînés par des coolies dan une jungle parsemée de vestiges antiques.

à suivre…

Library of Congress

Yesterday afternoon, I listened to tapes that I made over twenty years ago. Some of them may even date back to law school. If the sound hasn't deteriorated too much, I'm going to send them to a friend who can use them in her car, which only has a tape player. If you're driving a car that's so old that it has a tape player, it probably wouldn't make sense to install a CD player even if money were no object. At the same time, nobody sells audiocassettes anymore, not, at least, of classical music.

The first tape that I draw from the vinyl suitcase in which the tapes have lodged, largely untouched, since the late Eighties is a bit dreary. It might be just right for a thoughtful hour by the fire late at night. The sound quality is excellent, considering, but, oh, dear, I don't think I could pull out of the driveway if the first thing I heard was one of Bach's cello suites. Ingmar Bergman used to use this music to highlight extreme despair, and not without success. Ah, but we're not to have the whole suite, for after the opening prelude I've switched to Brahms's second clarinet sonata. This is sweet, but definitely not drive-time music.

Somewhere around here there's a notebook with each tape's playlist. I may know what's playing, but my friend may not, and I'll have no use for the lists anyway.


In the back of cabinet, I found a stack of opera recordings. I've simply run out of room for operas, and will have to start practicing triage in order to fit these into my collection. Only one of them is a favorite work: a Così fan tutte recorded live in the Nineties, under Sir George Solti. (That makes nine recordings of the opera on my shelves.) The others are all operas that I feel I ought to know because doesn't everybody. Fidelio, which I try hard to like at least once every ten years; Samson et Dalila, which is not worth my time but which has its moments; The Turn of the Screw, Les Troyens, and Carmen, all of which I wished I liked better. Cyrano de Bergerac, which is really a much lovelier opera than the only available CD recording would suggest (I haven't gotten round to the DVD that stars Roberto Alagna, but of course I've got it). A really disappointing recording of Lucie de Lammermoor - that's right; as Emma Bovary would have heard it - an opera that, aside from its great Sextet, drives me mad with impatience. Something by Paisiello, even.

These discs all say the same thing: You've changed. Time was when my curiosity was imperially expansive and my ambitions as the amasser of a comprehensive library were unbounded. Somewhere along the way, during the past five years, I've set those efforts aside in favor of getting to know what I already know much better. I want to study the connections between the things that I know. This does not mean buying no new books or listening to no new music. What it does mean is dropping the compulsion about inventory-enhancement. Surely a collection that includes nine Cosìs ought to have two Carmens? At least - if the Library of Congress is doing the collecting. My Library of Congress days are over.

August 22, 2005

Uptown at the Cloisters

The problem was my water bottle. From now on, I'm going to carry chilled bottles of Poland Spring. No more Rubbermaid quart bottle with retractable drinking straw, wrapped in a ragg sock from Bean's. That works fine at home, but there's no need to screw the top on real tight when I'm going from one table to another. Tilted in my Tumi shoulder bag, however...

I noticed the leak on the crosstown bus. All of sudden, my right thigh was cold and damp. When I looked, the puddle in the bottom of the main compartment was disturbingly reminiscent of A Night to Remember. I quickly checked the small front pouch where the phone and the camera were stowed. They were fine. I fretted my way across Central Park and the Upper West Side. In the IRT station, I decided that I had to dump the water out. I emptied the main compartment - and thank heavens I didn't lose the camera, too. I didn't realize that the phone had tipped out, thanks to my failing to re-zip the pouch, into the rubbish, until I was on the train.

So I arrived at Deluxe without a phone. Deluxe is a great old-fashioned hamburger place (I'm sure they'd prefer me to mention their more sophisticated dishes) on Broadway between 113th and 114th. To the hostess, I explained that I was the first of a party of two to arrive. She nicely told me to come back when the other party arrived. So I stood outside and read Sonata for Jukebox, standing amid the deserted café tables under the awnings. "Wet" was clearly a theme for the day; it had rained very heavily and the tables were dripping. I stood and I stood, feeling more and more like a Wooden Indian, wondering how the hell I would ever know if something happened to interfere with Ms NOLA's plans to meet me at 1:15. I did think about jumping ship. There was nothing else to do. Nobody has phones for under-accessorized idiots to use in case of emergency. If I say that I felt stupid and impossible, that might risk overstatement, because when I used to feel stupid and impossible I acted out. Perhaps I have outgrown acting out.

At 1:35, the hostess, who may have come to the same conclusion about my ornamental allure, came out to offer me a seat, which she carefully wiped dry. When I told her that I had lost my cell phone, she blinked, but did not offer the use of hers - meaning the one at her little desk. Smiling nicely, she murmured me into the little plastic chair and went back inside. 

Ms NOLA arrived minutes later - in fewer than five. She had been trying to reach me, of course, to say that she'd be a little late. She also had M le Neveu with her. That was a pleasant surprise; Ms NOLA had come from dropping off her weekend things at his place on Claremont Avenue. Well, it was pleasant for me. And for Ms NOLA, evidently. But M le Neveu was dissatisfied about something - about being awake, I think. He looked the way I used to look, until very recently, when I did something totally dumb, like dump my cell phone in the IRT's garbage.

Presently it was time to head north. M le Neveu walked us down Broadway to the 110th Street station and bid adieux. It had occurred to me, late the night before, to do a little research about subways, because, to tell the truth, I had never before gone to the Cloisters from my apartment by public transportation. All I knew was that the right stop was on the IND line, meaning that a transfer would be necessary at some point. The map told me that this transfer would take place at 166th Street, which is the station that serves Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital (as it used to be known). But I ought to have done a little more research. At what station, exactly, should I get off the C train? For I was sure that it was the C that I would need to catch - error numero uno.

I realized, as Ms NOLA and I headed uptown, that I had resisted visiting the Cloisters since giving up the car seven years ago because of the subways. The voyage seemed Odyssean in complexity. Which is total, Upper East Side piffle. The actual ease of the connections doesn't mean, however, that I didn't get off at the wrong station. Consulting a map on the train that I really couldn't read, because someone large and projecting was sitting underneath it, I was concerned so determined to avoid getting off at Dyckman Street that I hustled us off the train at 181st Street, nine blocks south of the 190th Street Station, which is conveniently situated opposite the entrance to Fort Tryon Park, dans lequel se trouve le Musée des cloîtres.

So, we walked.

The second time I went to the Cloisters, I was taking a somewhat older girlfriend whom I wanted to wow. She suggested taking the train. But my parents, both born in Iowa, told me never ever to set foot in a subway. By the time the bus pulled up to the museum, it was closed.

I worried a little about this on Friday. It was past three...

And the entrance to Fort Tryon Park is at no mean distance from the Cloisters. But first, let me tell you why I didn't want to end up in Dyckman Street.


Here is a photograph, taken by Ms NOLA, of a pirate boat on the Hudson. It actually looks like something Henry Hudson might have captained. See how small it is in the wide river? See how high up we are, as if looking down from a great height? That is northern Manhattan. It gets higher and higher as you approach the tip - but not everywhere. Some parts of it are at "ground level." Dyckman Street is such a place. To climb from Dyckman Street to the Cloisters would probably have invoked EMS assistance.

So, we walked, from 181st Street. A very nice lady, sensing my confusion, asked us if we needed help. She pointed us on our way, a way I hadn't been on since I was eighteen. All the way, I was thinking about how Ms NOLA must be laughing inside, remember the tales that her mother, Mme NOLA, had told her about my reliability as a guide to the Metropolitan Museum. Never has my performance been so disgraceful as it was on the day that I escorted Mme NOLA through the Chanel show. The only salve to my ego was to show her the Sargents, which are genuinely unfindable if you're looking for them but haven't seen them.

We got to the Cloisters in plenty of time. Having walked by the subway station that I remembered from greener years, we knew that we would not have such a long walk back. But the air of flusteration persisted. I nearly got off the IRT at 96th Street.


The Cloisters was, above everything else, supremely familiar. As a teenager, I had simply memorized it, as teenagers do, and there were moments when it felt odd to be in such a well-known place - given that I had visited it only three times at most in the past thirty years. Almost everything was where it had always been. Little changes were much appreciated: the Treasury was closed for renovations, but the museum's three most important illuminated manuscripts had been moved upstairs, to what is now called "the Campin Room." (In my day, it was "the Spanish room, but it's still where the great devotional altarpiece hangs.) This was the only really cool, not to say cold, room in the museum, many of whose chambers and corridors sported standing electric fans - always the sign, nowadays, of breakdown.

But I was a little bit too awed by simply being in the Cloisters to appreciate it, if that makes any sense. Playing cicerone to Ms NOLA is my favorite indoor sport, but I was completely thrown off by the closure of the Early Gothic Hall, which meant that I could not conduct a kosher tour, proceeding from one medieval epoch to the next. The world, at the Cloisters, was out of whack. But then, it was August.

So what I'm going to remember from this particular trip - not that I'll know that I'm not remembering the museum itself - is the afternoon in the country afforded by a walk through Fort Tryon Park. The only sound to reach us from beyond the park's precincts was the wail of MetroNorth trains heading through Riverdale, and that was pretty distant. What we heard up close was a chorus of crickets that I'd almost given up on. The park thrummed with country sounds and smells that I'd too long been without, and knowing that they were right here on my little island made me very happy.

I missed the old people, though. When I was a kid, the park was filled with well-dressed men and women in their eighties, sitting on benches that surveyed the Hudson far below. It was a little slice of mitteleuropa. But the gardens weren't so bountiful in those days; now they're prize-winning perennial borders (or ought to be). And Ms NOLA mentioned that on her last trip through the park, last fall, she had seen a lot of elderly people with their caregivers. A completely different picture. In the old days, there were no caregivers, only upright men and women who could still take care of themselves. It was a less merciful world than ours. Sharp-looking, but I wouldn't go back.

August 21, 2005

An Unusual Adolescence

Yesterday, as I tidied the apartment and whistled my way through Aida, I looked forward to today as a a series of interesting little projects, such as learning more about the new digital camera that neither one of us knows how to operate, not really. But I have spent the entire day reading Sonata for Jukebox: The Autobiography of My Ears, by Geoffrey O'Brien. (The paperback addition has a new subtitle, it seems.) Damn, I'm sure that I bought a Beach Boys compilation, but I can't find it.

I picked up Sonata at the Union Square branch of Barnes & Noble on Wednesday night, after dinner at the Shake Shack with Miss G. Seeing that the book was divided into three sections, "Exposition," "Development," and "Recapitulation" - the structural elements of sonata form - I nodded in approval, and when I discovered that Mr O'Brien was born in the same year as I, I thought to myself, at least I'll know how old he was when he first listened to something. Mr O'Brien is a poet, and the editor of the Library of America. Sonata is not a bit of pop-praising fluff, but a serious, lyrical memoir.

But despite the fact that the author and I are contemporaries, and even though I remembered lots of the songs that he writes about - and got Kathleen to sing the ones that I didn't - my exposure to rock was always highly buffered by my preference for classical music. While everyone else was comparing the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I was getting to know Mozart and Wagner. There's more to the difference than taste or style. As Mr O'Brien choruses, pop songs are storage devices for poignant memories. Classical music is really too complex to take on much baggage, and in my experience it is thoroughly a-nostalgic, because each time I hear something I hear it better, and enter into it more fully. It is not an escape from myself, exactly, but I do forget about me. I was as solipsistic as the next teenager, and I didn't know squat about the music that I professed to love (well, I knew squat), but listening to classical music made for a very unusual adolescence. I certainly never for a minute felt that it was cool to be young. Mr O'Brien's book has made me feel the sadness of that.

August 20, 2005



1. The Fuentidueña Apse is on Exchange, not Permanent, Loan from Spain. Maybe its presence in New York is not to be taken for granted. (The rest of the Fuentidueña church still lay in ruins in 1963, according to the wonderful guide book, no longer available, written by the museum's designer and first director, James J Rorimer.) Above, the exterior of the Apse. 

2. The figure on the Apse's half-dome is not "a glorious painted Christ." It is actually many figures, centered on a Madonna and Child.

3. Wherefore "five cloisters"? From the guide book. "The original plan of the museum was developed around elements of the cloisters of five French monasteries..." That may well be, but there are only four cloisters at The Cloisters. In order of age, St Guilhem, Cuxa, Bonnefont, and Trie. There's a small food concession in the Trie Cloister now, and nice little tables and chairs for comesting. Ms NOLA, who had had  a tough week, was so hypnotized by the gurgling of the fountain that she fell asleep and had a little nap.

More on Monday. I've got the ironing to do.

August 19, 2005

True Romance

A modern love story that I'm sure will tickle you may be found at Lost In Transit.

Vapors (De fil en aiguille)

What a glorious day yesterday was! Clear and bright and comfortable, it was perfect weather for a long walk. Unfortunately, I had the vapors. I simply couldn't wake up. In the morning, I sat at the computer for a while in a stupor. There were a few letters to answer, but I wasn't quite up to them, and since there was nothing easy to do I went back to bed, intending to finish Jean Dutourd's Au Bon Beurre. I did finish it, too, in the late afternoon and after much dozing. I have no idea why I was sleepy in the middle of the day. 'Twas even worse than Monday.

There's a 1969 translation, apparently, of M Dutourd's 1952 novel, The Best Butter. That's not a very good handle, if I may say so. At the Poissonards' Shop would be better. During the Occupation, Julie and Charles-Hubert Poissonard run a food shop in the Ternes district of Paris (XVIIe). They specialize in dairy products, preserved meats, and canned goods. M Dutourd tells the story of their frauds, adulterations, gougings and betrayals in a voice that recalls Evelyn Waugh: the narration is quite deadpan, even (faux) ingenuous, and only the innocent suffer. When I wasn't laughing, I was gasping. I highly recommend this novel to anyone who can read it. Prepare to consult the dictionary frequently. M Dutourd writes in a clear, almost classical style, but his vocabulary is immense - and that's part of the fun.

I was only slightly troubled by the sober reflection that, no matter how assiduously I work to improve my French, I am never, ever going to have a vocabulary to match my English. They say that French doesn't have nearly as many different words as English does, and this makes perfect sense, given English's double past, with words of both Germanic and Latinate derivation for almost everything. But each time I open Larousse, the words that I don't know seem to have multiplied like toadstools.

By seven o'clock, I had gotten out of bed, showered, dressed, and made the bed. I settled down for a couple of hours of paperasse - dealing with paper-stuffed desk drawers. I want you to know that I've kept David Owen's almost-famous article from last fall, "Green Manhattan" (The New Yorker, 18 October 2004), among my working papers, and, to be honest, it's only now becoming really current. If you read the comments posted to yesterday's entry, you will have caught Amy's remark about her husband's "peak oil prognostications"; if I'd been in finer fettle today, I'd have written a long letter attempting to console Max about the shock of looking at the peak oil problem too closely. Here's what David Owen has to say about it:

On a shelf in my office is a small pile of recent books about the environment which I plan to read obsessively if I'm found to have a terminal illness, because they're so unsettling that they may make me less upset about being snatched from life in my prime. At the top of the pile is "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil," by David Goodstein, a professor at the California Institute of Technology...

I will spare you Professor Goodstein's prognostications. The other day, I got into trouble with a reader for appearing to condescend, by saying that I'd known something or other for years. Let's see if I can avoid doing that again. I took geology in college - rocks for jocks. (It was slightly more demanding than the nickname suggests, and I, of course, was no jock.) And my father was in the pipeline business. It didn't take a slide rule to see that the time required to create the earth's oil deposits was on a very different scale from the rate at which whizbang humanity was burning it up - and this at a time when China was communist and carless. I was arguing with Dad about reserves in the late Sixties. "I'll be dead by then," he finally conceded - before going on to win a "Gloomy Gus" reputation among his colleagues. I don't expect that the people who died in time to avoid the coming shock are going to be remembered fondly. That would be us, maybe.

Today, unless the vapors strike with redoubled force, I am going to visit the Cloisters, for the first time in an age. Ms NOLA's enjoyment of free Friday afternoons is about to come to an end, so we're going to beat our way to the northern tip of Manhattan if it kills me.

There are many beautiful things at the Cloisters, and I don't think that anybody can complain about their overall arrangement. But I'm feeling naughty. Let me say in advance that I love the synthetic nature of this branch of the Metropolitan Museum. For all the pillars and posts that are authentically antediluvian, the museum's fabric belongs magnificently to the Thirties, to an era of very sound institutional construction. Someday, mark my words, the Rockefeller bits (almost everything) will be as noted as the medieval fragments. I'm exaggerating, of course; there is, after all, the Fuentidueña Apse, a genuine structure (think bandshell) with a glorious painted Christ, that's - I can never get over this one - on "permanent loan" from Spain. (It's impossible to read this information without hearing "We want it back! It's a loan.") I've been to a few genuinely medieval sites, and they're cold and black and almost menacing. And they never have all the painted and sculptural goodies that are on view in Fort Tryon Park. I know I'm being crassly American, and I know that we have no right to have the Merode Altarpiece. But there it is, a manifestly improved version of the originals. Five cloisters, too. Now, who had that in Europe? And nobody French can complain about what I'm writing here, after all the defacements of the Revolution. No having cake and eating it too on this score.

The very best "you must know this" detail about the Cloisters is the protestant monastery (what can that mean?), quite similar to the Cloisters in silhouette, that the Rockefellers built right across the river, on what was then their personal property, now Palisades Park, to "harmonize" with the Cloisters. Now, that's opulence!

August 18, 2005

Wide of the Mark

My attention was caught by a pair of Op-Ed pieces in yesterday' Times. The first, "Conservative Compassion," by Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, is a fundamentally fatuous bit of self-promotion, in which the writer uses his own experience to justify the actions, or inactions, of President Bush. Having spent two days alongside Ronald Reagan at the White House, Mr Morris was overwhelmed by crush of new faces - faces that were new to the President as well. Mr Morris, accordingly, can well understand why Mr Bush is unwilling to meet again with Cindy Sheehan, whom he has already consoled, however unconsolingly, for the loss of her son in Iraq. The man needs his vacation.

As a comment on Mrs Sheehan's protest, Mr Morris's essay ought to be deleted. It completely fails to address the essence of Mrs Sheehan's challenge, which is almost transparently designed to show how deeply cocooned Dubya is. I suspect she knows that the meeting she demands will almost certainly never take place, and that, if it did, it would be meaningless. Our current president is like the Japanese emperors during the shogunate: a puppet maintained for ceremonial purposes only. He is the attractor of millions of voters to officials and policies that they would never choose directly. Information is systematically withheld from him - presumably at his own instruction - so that he can present himself with confidence and self-assurance. It is a mystery to me that the man appeals to anybody outside of his immediate family, but I have accepted the fact that he does appeal, and widely. He represents a further step in the structural shift undertaken by Reagan, and now the core Republican Party approach to politics: Nominate a charmer, and while he's in office get away with murder. Just don't tell him what you're doing.

Below the Morris piece appears Thomas Lynch's "Left Behind." Mr Lynch, the literary funeral director from Michigan, writes from his own vacation in Ireland, at the house his great-grandfather left "for a better life in America." Mr Lynch exhorts to the President to show at least a modicum of remorse for the harm that he has inflicted upon the nation, by firing up fanatical feelings and ugly hatreds,

for all of the intemperate speech, for the weapons of mass destruction that were not there, the "Mission Accomplished" that really wasn't, for the funerals he will not attend, the mothers of the dead he will not speak to, the bodies of the dead we are not allowed to see and all of the soldiers and civilians whose lives have been changed by his (and our) "Bring it On" bravado in a world made more perilous by such pronouncements.

While I agree with Mr Lynch's sentiments, I must say that I would regard any show of remorse by Mr Bush as a shocking obscenity. It would be impossible to convince me that the display was anything other than an opportune gesture, adopted for purposes of political salvage. Whatever the man is like in private life, Mr Bush has, as a public figure responsible for all that Mr Lynch charges him with and more, put himself beyond the pale of any possible public forgiveness. His callous disregard of Cindy Sheehan, his honest determination that it is "important for me to go on with my life," may be the only decent thing about the man.

August 17, 2005



Apparently, it has happened before: single advertisers have taken entire issues of national magazines, pre-empting all other advertisers. But The New Yorker? Oh, well, another notch on the list of changes that one has witnessed at this publication, which has long managed to seem august without even having passed its centenary.

When I started reading The New Yorker regularly - as distinct from poring over the 25th Anniversary cartoon album at my friend Johnny's house - writers' names appeared at the end of their pieces; that was how you knew you'd read the whole thing. There was no table of contents. There were never, ever any photographs, and color was confined to the cover and to the ads. Now that I think of it, though, that's a list of changes that would be impressive only to someone paying too much attention. The drawings, given changes in fashion, have remained remarkably true since before 1930 (The New Yorker was launched in February 1925), and the writing has always been of the best. Topicality had little place at the magazine until William Shawn, who had been editor since before I was born, retired in 1986; the covers never used to reflect anything actually going on in the world, except for the passage of the seasons. Needless to say, the covers never had titles, either. But in the end I think the magazine has changed very little over time. By that I mean that it has always struck the same note of sophistication: worldly but never cynical, ironic but never sarcastic, learned but never pedantic. That sophistication should have several different looks over an eighty-year period shouldn't mislead one into thinking that The New Yorker has changed in any important way.

Now, Target takes the issue of August 22, 2005. Even the cover, in a sneaky way. The cover, by Ian Falconer, is a series of frames showing two boys playing with a gigantic beach ball. Entitled "Please Hold," the drawing's humor lies in one boy's having to hold on to the ball while the other takes a cell phone call. But you can't help keeping your eye on the ball, which is segmented in bright red and white, Target's colors. I take the cover to be a meta-joke on the Target plunge.

According to Gothamist, Target paid $1.1 million for its occupation of the territory. Ms NOLA had mentioned this figure at dinner, but Kathleen and I, who admittedly don't know anything about ad prices, thought a digit must have been dropped somewhere. Was this a premium for the New Yorker, or a discount? We will probably never know; Advance Publications does not release that kind of information. (Another thing: I remember when The New Yorker was funded by a Fleischmann's Yeast heir.) As Gothamist points out, it would have been nicer if Target, which really does disprove the maxim that cheap things have to be senselessly ugly, had opened a branch in Manhattan. That would get me up to 125th Street, say.

My favorite ads are on or near the covers. The inside cover, by Stina Persson, and the facing page, by Lisa Zacks, work together very well, forming a virtual diptych. And, on the outside back cover, with its collection of New York's vertical "street furniture," Ruben Toledo conjures the wit of Saul Steinberg without actually ripping anything off. But the bright red in all of these drawings has a way of making the accompanying black, white and grey look very deprived and anemic, like the sort of intriguing but deadly diseases that carried off Victorian heroines. I will welcome, next week or soon thereafter, the return of the Poke Boat, the Fearrington Estate, and Upton Tea Imports to the magazine's back pages.

Actually, Target was probably the ideal outfit to break the ice; like the magazine, it's cool and affordable. But perhaps you can think of an appealing alternative. I know that I can: an issue whose full-page ads showed beautiful stones from Tiffany & Co would be quite alluring. Prices upon request.

August 16, 2005

Video Day

It's true that I didn't try very hard to do anything about it, but I couldn't get into a purposeful mode yesterday morning, and there wasn't anything sufficiently jolting going on in the Blogosphere to rouse me. In fact, I was having trouble reading. So: movie day.

I began with a video that was due back the day before, part of a three-film, three-night package that I busted by not getting all three back on time. Well, it happens. I had rented Facing Windows, Vera Drake, and The Mother, and I saw them in that order. The first is a terrific film, starring Giovanna Mezzogiorno, and I will come back to it later, when I've seen it again. And again. Vera Drake was excellent but depressing; I don't really enjoy movies about good people who go to jail for the sake of a hypocritical public's conscience. Kathleen really liked it, though, and we agreed that Imelda Staunton, who has played some very silly women in her career, was magnificently sound.

That left The Mother, a 2003 release directed by Roger Michell, to a script by Hanif Kureishi. There is a lot of unhappiness in this movie, and a lot of neediness, too. I still don't know what to make of the title character's finding sexual rejuvenation with her daughter's boyfriend even as she continues to persuade the girl to find someone "better." All four principals - Anne Reid, as May, the mother, Daniel Craig, as the boyfriend, and Steven Mackintosh and Cathryn Bradshaw as the children - were astonishingly good, but I got tired of the daughter's self-pity, and impatient with May's belief that she and the boyfriend can have a future together. The moral world portrayed in this beautifully-made picture is as opaque as the East River.

I was so shaken by The Mother that there was nothing for it but to watch another movie, and I chose something that I bought about a month ago, at a friend's recommendation (thank you, George), but had not got round to seeing: Un monde presque paisible (Almost Peaceful), Michel Deville's 2002 adaptation of Robert Bober's novel, Quoi de neuf sur la querre. A sweet and tender film, Peaceful looks at the garment workers in a small Parisian atelier after the war. All but one of them are Jews; two have survived the camps while the rest managed to hide. Despite this awful past, the people in the film are almost all cheerful and ready to laugh at a joke. I was a little confused about the proprietor's wife's fancy for the exception, a dour former prisoner who still hasn't given up hope that his wife and children will return. The film ends on an enchanted note in the summer countryside.

One of the stars of Almost Peaceful is Stanislas Merhar. Idle googling revealed that Mr Merhar, born in Paris in 1971, made four films in 2002, one of which was something that I saw and would have rented the other day had it not been a one-night rental - in other words, a new release. Why a film released in 2002 should have taken so long to appear here, especially as it is a Merchant-Ivory production written and directed by MI protégé Andrew Litvak, is a mystery to me. I had it sent over with the delivery man who picked up the late rentals.

I will need to see Merci, Docteur Rey several times before judging it. To call it a quirky comedy seems damning, and I'm sure that many people will find it emotionally confusing, because it begins with a murder but spends most of its time being hilarious. And it is definitely bilingual. The nominal star is Dianne Wiest, who plays Elizabeth Beaumont, a diva in town to sing Turandot at the Bastille. And I do mean diva. But not a jot less important to the film's success is Jane Birkin, who finally has a great big juicy part. She plays Penelope, an actress who dubs foreign movies. She has dubbed all of Vanessa Redgrave's films and has come to think of herself as Vanessa Redgrave. Not since Paula Prentiss has comic madness made such a splash on screen. One soon abandons trying to guess where the film is going, but because this is not a film that takes its plot entirely seriously, all is neatly wrapped up at the end. I think that the word for this sort of picture used to be "sophisticated." It is certainly knowing and clever.

So that is how I spent my day. I feel quite guilty about it, really, even though I learned a great deal. One always does from good movies.

August 15, 2005

The Rains

The rains! The rains that we had this evening! They were extraordinary. The only time that I have found myself beneath a louder thunderstorm was on a late night in Bermuda, where one really had the sense of being out in the middle of nowhere, storm-tossed. Because earlier rainfalls had brought the temperature down a bit, I sat through the big evening shows out on the balcony. But I crept away before I had to, having seen two fingers of God drive nightmares into Queens. I knew that I was unlikely to be struck by lightning if my feet rested on plastic bricks and my back leaned against teak. But those lurid arcs of death displaced my rational capabilities. Time to put the hors d'oeuvres in the oven!

Kathleen, meanwhile, was stranded across the street. She'd gone to six-o'clock Mass at St Joseph's. I'd given her a thee-item list of things to pick up at Gristedes on the way back: Kleenex (facial and regular), Land o'Lakes American cheese slices, and Coke. That's where she got caught by the rain. She stood in the store for ten minutes of violent downpour, and left at the first sign of letup. I know, because I saw her from the balcony. Good job, I thought, until I met her at the elevator - an odd move on my part, we don't usually do that sort of thing, but I felt that I had to, after her ordeal - and found out that she was much more soaked than even she thought she was.

The rain here, when it's thick, is very Japanese. That is, it hides what's on the other side of the East River to varying degrees. Sometimes, on a very clear day, you can see the horizon, a sight that includes the North Point Towers, which stand on the border between the City and Nassau County. Sometimes, as tonight, you can't even see the building in Steinway upon which, on a clear day, the North Point Towers look like a pimple on the shoulder. The rain falls in curtains, little pillars of thickness that always seem to move from north to south.

May I simply report that every New Yorker said at some point tonight that "We needed the rain." But what about Europe? In Spain, Portugal, and southern France, they're trying to combat the spontaneous combustion of very dry ground. I have an idea. Let's deprive the piggier CEO's of access to their comforts and see how they fare. Let's have a real "Outward Bound." Or let's tie them up in tinderbox forests. You know, mes amis, that these brutes have power only because we let them have it.

Yes, it's true: the August heat has made even of me a pocket Jacobin.

Update: Andy Towle, looking out of a Manhattan window in midtown, snags the money shot. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

August 14, 2005

Somewhere at Sea, Sometime in the Seventies


My mother always wanted to go on a cruise, but she was realistic enough to see that this wasn't going to happen until cruise ships boasted golf courses.

Or until, as she did not foresee, my father's golf game went to hell, which it did sometime in his fifties. It may have been the change in courses, from Bronxville's Siwanoy to Houston's Houston (or the change in climate), but Dad never blamed anything but himself. He just stopped playing well enough to stay interested and to make the effort.

I can't recall how many cruises my parents embarked on when at last my father consented to take one, but it couldn't have been many. Whether my mother was aware that she was ill when this picture was taken is another thing that I don't remember, but if she wasn't, she would be soon. There is something slightly pinched about her face that suggests to me that the non-Hodgkins lymphoma was already at work.

I'm pretty sure that my parents took this cruise with a party of friends, made up of other St Michael's parishioners. Landing in Houston well into middle age, they had two sets of friends, one based on the pipeline business and one that my mother called, without fear or trembling, "The Catholic Mafia." The latter were, quietly, very rich. Some of them didn't even work - my parents had never known people like that. But they seemed to have a very good time together. The men were always saying things that the women found very funny. That hadn't been the rule in Bronxville. But my recollections are fragmentary. In my mid-twenties, and already a divorced father, I wasn't paying much attention to my parents. I knew that I was never going to take a place in the corporate aristocracy in which they had both shined (my mother was a born "company wife"), but I had no idea of where I was going to fit in. When this picture was taken, I had probably not quite decided to take the LSAT again, and this time to complete it.

I went to law school because it was a way out of Houston. But my father was all for it. "You'll make a great lawyer," he said. "You can write." It's almost funny.

August 13, 2005


I paid a visit to the Infusion Unit at the Hospital for Special Surgery yesterday. Last Friday, my shoulders started to ache very badly, even when I was in bed, and I had a time of it reaching for kitchen things on high shelves that ordinarily pose no problem. I felt depleted, too. Not tired, but out of juice. I knew the signs, and concluded that I have yet to catch up with the missed month in March. Trying to make it until my scheduled infusion on the 30th would be stupid as well as miserable - a waste of the better part of a month. So I called the rheumatologist on Monday and of course he was on vacation and of course I didn't find out for sure until yesterday, but I did score an appointment for 11:30 this morning.

It went very smoothly. I took a Xanax before I left the apartment, and whether it was that that kept my blood pressure nice and low (for me) throughout the drip, I don't know, but I plan to stick with it. By the end of the infusion, my shoulders were already feeling better than they'd done yesterday morning. Something interesting did, or did almost, happen. Now, as a rule, doctors do not make frequent appearances in the Infusion Unit. There's not supposed to be a need. But yesterday there was, or were. Four doctors paid visits to their patients - one of whom had an EKG behind hastily-drawn curtains (but there turned out to be nothing wrong with the lady's heart) - and one of the other visiting physicians, the one who attended the lady sitting closest to me (and, yes, I was the only man, as usual), one of them was the doctor whom I left when he got rigid about (then more experimental) Remicade. Actually, that was on the phone; it was his staff's telling me that a face-to-face discussion couldn't be scheduled for less then six weeks that sent me packing to good Dr Magid.

Dr X must have seen me the moment he strode into the room, because there I was, right in front of him, a readily recognizable hulk. That would have explained his peculiarly pained expression as he came into my view. Keeping his back to me, he said a few nothings to his patient and then told her that he would be back "later." Which certainly made me feel better. She didn't seem to mind.

I took along Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul, but I ended up sticking with the current New Yorker, fascinated (at least by the non-birding parts) by Jonathan Franzen's essay about - many things. I also read Ken Auletta's piece about the three network morning shows. To anyone who's addicted to these productions, let me just promise that if you can stay away from them for two months - watch Laurel and Hardy! Listen to NPR! - you will see how empty and deleterious they are. It's when television cuddles up to "the news" that it becomes most perfidiously false.

August 12, 2005

Manhattan's Hills and Dales

Ordinarily, I would not have gone out yesterday. At all. But friends who live in Westchester were stopping by at seven or so for a drink and a nibble, after which we'd head across the street to Maz Mezcal for dinner.

It behooved me to buy the nibbles, to wit, the wonderful frozen pastry treats at Eli's. This meant walking up and down an avenue (Second or Third) for six blocks of sun - unless I was willing to wait until the later afternoon. But I wanted a chef's salad at Burger Heaven, so I had to prepare to melt. I should note that I crossed 86th Street outside the building, so that I could get to Third Avenue in the shade, even though it meant crossing 86th again to go the restaurant. After lunch, I made my way down Third.

I was determined to notice something, so that I could write it up here. How fake is that?

I need to write a brief page in which I explain the malady that makes it difficult to look around while I'm walking, because I'm tired of complaining that all I see when I go for a walk is footwear and cement. With effort, however, I can push my shoulders back and see if anything startling is going on. The scene declined, however, to startle. It was really too hot and almost too humid for startling. So I fell back on the timeless, or, at any rate, the pavement.

I noticed that I was walking downhill. From memory, I knew that the incline would continue until 73rd Street, to the foot of Lenox Hill.

If you haven't spent much time in Manhattan, or outside of Midtown Manhattan, you may be forgiven for supposing that our third dimension is variable only with the help of stairs and elevators - that is, within buildings. New York is obviously not San Francisco, and not Pittsburgh. But it is not flat. Flattened, yes, but still inclined to slope. The most common natural feature of the landscape is the granite outcrop that may be no taller than I am, or it may be several storeys tall. Most of these have been blown up or otherwise cleared away, but, from Chelsea to Harlem, the central ridge of Manhattan rises tens of feet above the water line.

("Tens of feet" is pretty wet, I agree, but I couldn't find a usable figure on the Internet. I did come upon this USGS cross section, however.)

The terrain of the Upper East Side is Manhattan's most varied, south of Morningside Heights. Just try walking across 96th Street from First Avenue to Madison Avenue, and you'll see that "Carnegie Hill" is more than a realtor's pretension.

If I'm going to walk from 86th and Second to 87th and Third (to replace the cushions on the balcony furniture, say, at Pier 1 - something that cannot be put off for a fourth season next April), I will invariably head for Third and then turn right. To walk up Second Avenue to 87th and then across to Third would be foolish, because that would mean walking downhill a ways and then up the much steeper grade of 87th. The preferred route offers the relatively gentle slope of 86th Street between Second and Third; Third Avenue between 84th and 90th Streets is that roadway's highpoint, its part of the shoulder of Carnegie Hill, and between 86th and 87th it's just about flat.

Observe: I wrote "up Second Avenue" and "across 87th Street." Those are the conventional terms used everywhere in town. "Up" means north(east), "down" means south(west), and "across" means either west-northwest or east-southeast. In terms of elevation, however, I should have written "down Second Avenue" and "up 87th Street."

I have always heard that, in the old days, when the neighborhood was known as "Germantown" and had the breweries to match, barrels of beer would be rolled along Third Avenue from the Ruppert Brewery at 90th Street and then down the slope of 86th Street, right to the barges in the East River. Carl Schurz Park and the FDR Drive would make that stunt rather impossible nowadays, and, who knows, it could easily be an urban legend. I would really like to see a photograph. Rolling beer down a cobblestoned hillside: wouldn't that cause explosions?

August 11, 2005


Insomnia has always been a problem for me. When I was a boy, I went through a phase of telling myself stories, not in a whisper but very softly, aloud. These stories were all about how great my life would be when, for no particular reason, I became very rich and had a lot of friends. At the very end of this period - the only part I remember - the fantasy came to involve a very large house, something between a "mansion" and a "palace." My friends came to live with me and we basically hung out in various rooms, talking mostly. We would take day trips to interesting destinations. It was all rather Genji, although of course I didn't know anything about Prince Genji at the time. (And there were no boring ceremonials or bans or "unlucky directions." We did as we pleased.)

I can't remember these stories very well now, because I never shook the feeling that what I was doing was very embarrassing, and that I would wear a permanent brand of ridicule on my forehead if anybody ever found out about my secret stories. And forgetting them kept them fresh. I remembered only enough to improve the next night's embroidery. Toward the end, I was old enough to sense that it was dissatisfaction with my actual life that was fueling this wish-fulfillment, and that dawning recognition took the charm out of the enterprise. When I look back on it, what comes back strongest is the embarrassment that I felt, even alone in the dark.

Whether these tales prefigured the effort that I would make, as an adult, to be a genial host and a good cook is open to question; they very well may have determined it. But real life lacks the frictionless ease of fantasy: in my tales, there may have been many quiet servants, or food and drink may have appeared on their own - I simply don't remember which. Grown up, I found the tension between hosting a party and serving it, too, increasingly unbearable. This was a problem even before health issues dictated our current retrenchment.

But I may have found my palace after all. I can't say that every day of blogging is better than the one before; that's anything but true. There's nothing worse than the silence that follows a few busy days - an inevitability that I hope to get used to. Nevertheless, this blog is my palace, and all my friends have palaces of their own as well, and - what fulfills my boyhood dreams beyond imagining - I have met friends whom I never could have invented. Discretion precludes my appending a list of names, but I can assure you that if you and I have had a halfway-sustained email exchange since we virtually met, then I'm including you in the picture.

Now go to sleep.

August 10, 2005

American Christianity: An Oxymoron?


It is very difficult for me to write about something that hasn't taught me something. To learn something new is to reconfigure the brain, if only slightly, and for me there is something about the process that creates a compulsion to write. No such compulsion was born of reading Bill McKibben's piece, in Harper's, "The Christian Paradox." Sure, there were a few little things that I learned from it, such as the dandy finding that

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. [!!!!!]

That's how the essay begins. What immediately follows was not new.

This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage doesn't matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin's wisdom not biblical; it's counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans - most American Christians - are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

What has happened in this country of ours, with its resistance to authority of any kind, is that most Americans have infected true Christianity with a metastasizing agent that produces a religion of accommodation. It is a Wicked Queen's mirror of a religion, assuring its followers that they're doing fine, and that Jesus loves them, no matter what.

Well, not quite "no matter what."

Continue reading about "The Christian Paradox" at Portico.

August 09, 2005

Maintenance and Repair

Amazingly, the bedroom's VCR's replacement is in place and properly connected. Our dressers are a pair of Korean chests, something over five feet square and a couple of feet deep, and they stand opposite our bed, flanking a large painting that I acquired by barter in the mid Seventies. Studded with drawers of various sizes, each chest has a capacious center cabinet that is opened by double doors. These cabinets lend themselves to housing entertainment equipment. Kathleen's, to the right, holds the monitor and the VCR. Mine holds the mini stereo, the DVD player, and the Laser Disc player. Have you already figured out that a serpent of cords runs between the chests? The audio from the VCR goes to the other cabinet for amplification. The video from the DVD and Laser Disc players goes to the other cabinet for viewing. I have just enough intelligence to lay down the connections between all the components, but not enough to remember the configuration. I was terrified of having to fiddle with all the leads, and, indeed, it took a while to get them right.

The last holdout was the video link from the players on the left to the VCR on the right. I simply could not get a picture from the DVD player in my cabinet. Sound, yes, but no picture. I examined the manual, but soon saw that nothing would save me from heavy lifting. In my zeal to pull the old machine from the cabinet - a zeal that sublimated a desire to continue my swing, right through the window - I yanked the video cord, which, I suppose I should add, is really a series of RCA-plugged cords. Nobody makes a cable long enough to run the distance, so there are little female-female pods to establish connections along the way. One of these pulled away from its companion. Much debris had to be moved to effect a reconnection.

The VCR was replaced with a VCR/DVD combo, so there's a bit of redundancy. The DVD player is a Toshiba dual deck that's already five or six years old. Or maybe older. I'm thinking of replacing it with the international (no-zone) model that can be had from an outfit in Miami that advertises, sporadically, in France-Amérique. Then I can get a DVD of Le Chat, and one of Subway without the ghastly dubbing.

August 08, 2005

Falling Behind

It has been a while since I woke up on a Monday morning without already having planted the day's entry here the night before. But my lead was eroded, over the last two weeks, by a confluence of interruptions both pleasant and not. There was the paperasse of Team Vacation. There was a charming reunion with an old friend from Houston, whom I hadn't seen since before his youngest daughter, the composed and rather lovely young eighth-grader who accompanied him, was born. There were two video rentals to watch, both pendants to entries from last week - Ken Russell's The Devils, and James Toback's Fingers - and then the VCR to unplug from the rest of the system when The Devils wouldn't eject. Howard, at the Video Room, told me to bring in the machine on a weekday, so that the staffer who knows how to deal with these problems could extract the tape, but by the time I'd cleared the tangle of leads and closed the cabinet door, my mind was made up to replace the VCR, so Kathleen and I dropped off the machine and the two tapes, both of which were due back yesterday, on our way to dinner at Burger Heaven last night. The staff did not seem at all nonplussed by my donation of a bulky dual-deck tape player to anybody who wanted it. But when I said that it had The Devils in it, someone asked me if the machine had eaten tapes before, and I said that it hadn't. She looked confused and then asked what was wrong with the VCR (perhaps she was interested). I said that it was just an old machine. "But you said it has the devils..." We all got a nice laugh out of that.

I had never seen either of the rented movies. You'd think that I'd have seen The Devils (1971), but I remember staying away. I'd have hated it. Claustrophobic, grotesquely stylized, and unpleasant wherever possible, Ken Russell's adaptation turns the story of faked possession and political persecution into grand guignol. But there is a truth about Oliver Reed's impersonation of Urbain Grandier that was hard to miss. He certainly looks like the engraving of Grandier that Huxley publishes. It's an Englished Grandier, to be sure, long on the boldness and not so witty. Vanessa Redgrave clearly relishes playing a humpbacked beauty doomed never to know carnal release. Fingers (1978) was a quieter movie than I expected it to be, but otherwise it did not surprise. It is also fairly claustrophobic. Many of its details - such as the name of the impresario (Mr Fox), the Bach (Toccata in e, BWV 914), and the confrontations with the contemptuous gangster (but not in the end) - are the same. But De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté is less a remake than an overhaul. The sordid love story at the center of Fingers is dropped altogether, its space taken up by Tom's music lessons. And while the later movie makes a tremendous surprise out of the hero's musicality, Fingers opens with Harvey Keitel at the piano; it's his violence that we discover slowly, and without surprise. Mr Keitel did not, all too apparently, have a professional-pianist sister to advise him on how to look like a pianist: Where Romain Duris glares over the keyboard, as if determined to root out mistakes lingering between the keys with some sort of optical laser, Mr Keitel "sings along" with facial expressions, something that music lovers do but not music producers. The appeal of Fingers is principally that of seeing a lot of now famous actors, among them Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior), Danny Aiello (Moonstruck), Jim Brown (Mars Attacks), and of course Harvey Keitel, at a much earlier stage in their careers.

There are critics who believe that the artistic movies of the 1970s mark the zenith of American filmmaking. That would be a very dark zenith indeed, and I don't share their enthusiasm.

August 07, 2005



Boy, does this look good. With another sultry week forecast, I try to estivate, which means feeling as little as possible while the days go by. It is extremely demoralizing, and no amount of air-conditioning completely clears up the fug of stationary air. On TV5 yesterday, I heard about drought-related fires in Provence and in Portugal.

After the news, a show came on called "Les Enquêtes d'Eloïse Rome," about a woman police investigator. It was surprisingly engaging, and I was eager for the dénouement. But I missed it, thanks to a phone call that I had to take. Now I will never know whether the doctor's wife was really about to die from pancreatic cancer. That's what I get for watching television.

Oh, let it snow!

August 06, 2005

A Helpful Pamphlet

JR, at L'homme qui marche, made a fantastic discovery last week. It's a link to a magnificent Fifties-style parody of the Helpful Hints booklets that were ubiquitous before television. "What Everyone Should Know About Blog Depression." It spoofs the self-importance that it's hard for any blogger to avoid entirely. After all, blogging is in part a performance, especially for those of us who post at least one substantial entry a day. Nobody but Jason Kottke is getting paid to blog, and that only makes warm appreciation more important. I deserve warm appreciation, don't I?

The pamphlet reminds one over and over again that blogging is "an undertaking which was totally voluntary and which does not directly contribute to his or her continued survival on this, our plant earth." This is true only in the narrowest, most technical sense. Most bloggers really need to blog, or they give it up. Some bloggers really need to a good job, because readers are important to their continued survival on this, our planet earth. Believe me!

But of course this neediness is never supposed to show; it queers the pleasure on both sides.....

Continue reading about "Blog Depression" at Miss Gostrey's Guide.

¶ The Loose Links feature has migrated permanently to Miss Gostrey's Guide. Checkez-y.

August 05, 2005

What if Jane Smiley is right about ambition?

Here in New York we are waiting for the weather to break. With a little luck, it will do so in a few hours. My shoulders are terribly sore, and I attribute this to the ongoing humidity; we shall see. I'm really fit for nothing but reading, which is okay, because I've been doing almost everything but in the past two weeks. I'm here, actually, because of a thought that this afternoon's reading has planted.

The source book is Jane Smiley's A Year at the Races: Reflections on Horses, Humans, Love, Money, and Luck. It's great, and I recommend it, but I'm not going to talk about the book itself now, not least because I haven't read all of it. I simply want to try out an idea. Ms Smiley has convinced me that horses - which, as she points out, have actually worked with human beings since prehistoric times - are capable of ambition. She has observed horses who perform above and beyond what they're asked to do, and I'm persuaded by her findings. It's a colossally interesting idea, because we're so mired in the association of ambition and payoff. There is no payoff for ambitious horses. There's simply the opportunity to do something that they're good at and that they like to do.

This amounts to a redefinition of "ambition."

There are plenty of people who think that they're ambitious for payoff, but by Ms Smiley's definition, this is not possible. You can plod and save, and you can finagle and gamble. Ambition has nothing to do with these approaches. Ambition means loving something that you do well and, as the book title has it, waiting for the money to follow. Or the fame.

This kind of ambition is not something that you can pursue or develop. It requires natural gifts. It requires a kind of undistracted energy that achieves results with grace. Once the gift is recognized, then it can be honed and disciplined, but the mere will to do something is not enough. This is why so many people who would like to be writers will never be read; writing begins with inborn abilities. Such abilities may have little or nothing to do with intelligence; I'm not sure, for example, that I attribute good writing exclusively to intelligence. And think of all those actors downtown who, for all their classes and try-outs, can't be ambitious because they haven't got the goods.

What is the special skill that mediocre but successful performers and politicans have? It's the ability to be at ease in public, among strangers. It's the desire to be onstage. Yes, you've probably got to be good looking, but being good looking isn't something that you do. Therein lies one of the mysteries of great beauty, and the emptiness that so often attends it.

There are undoubtedly people who are ambitious about sex. They may, but are unlikely to, be monogamous.

Something creative people hear all the time: "But you're doing something that you love. That makes up for the lousy pay." Well, it makes up for not being filthy rich. But poverty is not productive after a certain age. Nevertheless, there is a paradox of sorts here. In What's New, Pussycat?, Woody Allen's character tells Peter O'Toole's that he's got a job as a chorine dresser and, when he's asked what the job's worth, he names a low figure - adding, "It's all I could afford." He likes the job so much that he pays for the chance to do it. In our exchange-driven world, where money does not grow on trees, however, this is not a sustainable approach to life. People who do something really well will always be better-paid than people who don't, even though they do enjoy what they're doing and the others would rather be doing something else. Where ambition is lucrative (and it often isn't; consider mothering and the other domestic arts), the reward is double.

And ambition is thus doubly unfair. Anyhow, I hope I've just blown the possibility of excellence out of the "personal responsibility" rot.

The Devils of Loudun

Not if my life depended on it could I tell you how I found out about Aldous Huxley's 1953 classic, The Devils of Loudun. And I should say at once that, fifteen years after publication, it did seem to wear the appellation "classic" very well. Maybe it was an "underground classic." It was certainly not studied; it appeared on no curricula. (This was before the appearance of Women's Studies, which I gather has blown fresh wind into the story, if not into Huxley's reputation.) I read the book twice, once in college and once shortly afterward.

And now I've read it three times. Something pricked me during the spring. It was the story of the Rumanian nun who was crucified by her abbey's priest. Truly horrific! But what happened at Loudun, France, in Richelieu's palmiest days, was also truly horrific. I couldn't quite remember just what it was that did happen. Somebody got burned at the stake, I was pretty sure. I decided that I'd better look into Huxley's book once again. But where was it?

Soon I was ordering a copy from Alibris, and when the book arrived, I thought I had better read the whole thing. Books are never the same twice, but they can change a very great deal in thirty years. The book itself doesn't change at all, of course, but your recollection of it changes, and so does whatever use you have made of it. You're certainly different. It is to be hoped that you know rather more than you did thirty years ago, that you have become better at weighing, sifting, and measuring your thought. The ways in which The Devils of Loudun have and haven't changed strike me as providing a useful measure of what's valuable about the book, and what's not.

Undoubtedly, The Devils of Loudun owed something of its réclame to its "interdisciplinary" construction. It is a history book that can't be bothered with dates. It is a work of completely undocumented sociology, backed up by Huxley's credit alone. It is a non-fiction novel that also expounds metaphysical philosophies. If I neglect to mention demonic possession, that's only because the author doesn't believe that it actually occurred. He doesn't to believe that there was ever any good reason to believe that it occurred. It's the fact that the case for possession was able to proceed without solid evidence that interests him. I believe that the book is going to be reissued this fall, but only in England. I wonder what sort of an impression it will make, if any.

In the summer of 1634, Urbain Grandier, a Jesuit-trained parish priest, was burned in the town of Loudun for having arranged the demonic possession of a convent of Ursuline nuns.

Continue reading about The Devils of Loudun at Portico.

August 04, 2005

Golfing For Cats

Patricia Storms has raised a very interesting question at Booklust. Can readers be divided into "men" and "women" simply by what they read?

Behind the obvious thrust of the question - are there subjects that interest men but not women, and vice versa, and how important are these subjects to readers overall - lies the issue of authority. Do people read what they're supposed to read? I have only to frame the question to generate the answer, but it should be borne in mind that, until some strange moment in the past seventy to a hundred years, nobody read anything unless it was authorized or - small difference - forbidden. And authority is still with us. Only now it flows from cool people who have excited our envy, not from greybeards in ivory towers.

Patricia happened upon an egregious lapse at her local Chapters. The books for men were serious, and the books for women weren't. That's wrong not only because women read serious books but because nobody would think of piling the sort of literature that men read for escapist pleasure in a family bookstore - if literature is the word. I myself, however, haven't figured out how guilty to feel about dismissing books because they're escapist literature for women. And there is some truth - as my sister just reminded me - to Voltaire's acid comment, made in a very different society and can somebody please supply me with a cite, that women love wit but hate analysis. The "some truth" is that women hate to be bored too much to put up with the boring (in their free time, that is), while men are usually too shamelessly ambitious to admit that they're bored. We must remember that analysis, in the eighteenth century, could be grueling.

Books used to be good for you. Now they're supposed to be "great!" which is certainly something different. You're supposed to feel enthusiastic about what you're reading, or at least therapeutic. Reading a book that you find tedious and unsympathetic - well, who does that? No matter what hard lesson you might learn.

I proposed to Patricia an inversed signage: "Books no Man will Touch!" "Books Women will Throw Away!" But I did this just to be silly. I was reminded of the great dust jacket for Golfing for Cats, a collection of British humorist Alan Coren's writing. Between the title and the author's name, the cover was dominated by a huge swastika. Mr Coren explained with entertaining disingenuousness that he had researched popular book titles and discovered that golf, cats, and Nazis were sure winners - so why not collect 'em all? I have it here somewhere, but it's really so visually shocking that I refuse to scan it onto the site without months of trumpeted warnings.

Come to think of it, no woman whom I have ever serenaded with Golfing For Cats has ever found it remotely as funny as I do.

A Second Viewing of De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté

On a whim, I went to see De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté this afternoon. It's showing twenty blocks down Second Avenue, so I hopped on a bus. What is all this movie-going about? And when was the last time I saw a film more than once in the theatre? But I wasn't going to the movies; I was going to see this really remarkable film again. I couldn't wait for DVD release.

I could not remember, actually, why I had found De battre so great. I knew that I'd come away thinking that Romain Duris deserves to win a Best Actor Oscar, but that no longer told me much. I headed down Second Avenue on the understanding that I would either see through the movie, and realize that it wasn't so great after all, or know, within minutes, why it was great. And indeed, within minutes, I knew that Romain Duris is why it's great, which doesn't tell you much. Let me see what I can explain, without giving things away. First, however, I ought to say that Jacques Audiard is an extraordinarily gifted director who has, with screenwriter Tonino Benacquisto created one of the most special films of all time. Whether he could have done it without M Duris is altogether moot.

M Duris plays Thomas Seyr, the son of a deceased concert pianist and a shady real-estate finagler. He thinks he's a pretty smart guy, leading a lucratively thuggish life clearing out developable properties by making life unpleasant for their occupants. Unlike Sami (Gilles Cohen) and Fabrice (Jonathan Zaccaï) his more-or-less partners, Tom is not married, and the film suggests that he has a very active carnal life. He often wears a tie, but his jacket is always leather, which in the occasional business settings gives him the air of someone who just arrived on a scooter. At first, his face is impassive, breaking into occasional scowls and smirks that convey a refusal to take anything or anyone very seriously. Every once in a while, however, the mask slips, and a look of genuine concern or curiosity glimmers briefly. Tom's hands are always busy, always tapping something out. The jagged camerawork of the early nighttime scenes underscores Tom's emergent edginess. We are soon aware that Tom is not content with his life at all. Waiting at a café to meet his father, Robert (Niels Arestrup), Tom taps out such a manic rhythm on the table that he seems set to explode, an impression that's deepened by the fact that we can't hear the music that he's listening to on headsets.

For the first ten or fifteen minutes, Tom is a gamin, a edgy street creature whose appeal depends entirely on the face of Romain Duris, which keeps Tom interesting while we decide whether we like him. Then something happens...

Continue reading about De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté at Portico.

August 03, 2005

Excuse Me

Just tell me this. How does "intelligent design" theory explain the White House residency of a burnt-out bully screw-up? How does it account for the existence of all the middle-income voters who put him there? Just tell me. Go ahead, make an idiot of yourself.

The nub of the President's error is his belief that there is a diversity of scientific methods. Talk about "moral relativism"!

Colin Jones's Paris

Paris, The Biography of a City, by University of Warwick professor Colin Jones (Viking 2005), is a must for anyone who shortlists Paris among the world's very best cities. Such lists are necessarily kept primarily by travelers and historians, and not by natives. It is not the lot of most people to know many cities well, and those whose it is are never native to all the ones they know. In essence, cities are unfathomably vast accumulations of people. We cannot really grasp that about them, though, any more than we (or most of us) can conceive of distance in light-years. But just because cities are made up of people, ticking off a list of famous sites is not thinking about cities. To think about a city is to consider the areas in between the monuments, where people are primarily found. We imagine street scenes, working with postcards and personal experience. We conjure neighborhoods as best we can. We recall historical events and important recent developments. We draw from the literature that any great city is bound to generate. We try to answer the question: What is it like to be there?

Paris may be a widely favorite city because it presents itself to the imagination with a thoroughly Gallic order. A river snakes through the middle and around two islands. A spiral of  twenty delineated districts, the arrondissements, coils out from the city center. The ordinary buildings are similar, and typical of Paris, while the taller buildings that you can find anywhere stand on the outskirts. A ring road marks the edge of town: Paris itself is no longer growing. And it is "Parisian." Actually, my little summary is studded with misunderstandings, but it would be pedantic to point them out. Like Manhattan and unlike London, Paris is fairly easy to get a handle on.

While the history of Paris precedes Caesar's account, today's Paris is not even two hundred years old. There are older, much older buildings...

Read more about Paris at Portico.

August 02, 2005

A quiet night - how to waste it?

A quiet night for me. Kathleen is finishing up a big project and won't be home until very late. Then she'll fly to Washington first thing tomorrow, returning to New York for a meeting at four. Then more finishing up tomorrow night. And maybe Thursday night, too. Next week, after the matter is taken care of, I'm going to see that she gets plenty of rest. To the extent that I'm allowed to.

Don't miss the comment posted by my sister, Carol, this afternoon, to my note about March of the Penguins. She might as well be quoting my mother, who liked to accuse me to tearing the wings off of flies for fun. I prefer "analyze" to "dissect," but they both mean pretty much the same thing etymologically: "break down." As a rule, however, I don't analyze things that I don't like. (Except, occasionally these days, for the Bush Administration.) No sooner had I written to Carol to this effect than I chanced upon kottke.org and found a piece about the Chanel/Lagerfeld show at the Met. Jason Kottke wrote pretty much what I'd have written, if I'd thought that the show was worth writing about. The shopwindow presentation struck me as either cruel or misconceived; either way, viewers were forced to jockey for a close look in order to read the labels and know what they were looking at. And that's all I'm going to say, because I don't want to appear to be having my cake and eating it, too.

Another nice lady wrote to me privately yesterday to complain about the Penguins piece. A flurry of email ensued and we were soon laughing; plus, I got to see a picture of a truly beautiful white Norwegian Forest cat. If you disagree with me, please say so. And if you want to write to me privately, that's fine, too, although I'll invariably suggest that you post your letter as a comment.

Team Vacation follow up: I thought that I had found a place for all forty of the reserved small document boxes in the hall closet. Good thing, because there was no room for more. Then I discovered that one of the two larger boxes that we'd held onto for moving china to the apartment was not empty. I was so tired when I made this discovery on Sunday that I felt as though someone had clubbed me with a baseball bat. For a few minutes, I simply could not go on. To make it worse, I blamed Kathleen for depositing the small boxes in the large one and thus taking them out of view, when in fact this was something that I had done. Kathleen's take on Team Vacation, by the way, is that it proves that we're really committed to each other. I agree, but I've been feeling too often lately that I ought to be committed.

In addition to my French lesson this afternoon, I went to have my teeth cleaned. They'd been giving me some mild discomfort, and this was disconcerting. My last appointment had been scheduled for some time very close to 9/11, and I forgot all about it, and just forgot about dentistry, too, until these waves of remote ache. I was in terror throughout the entire cleaning, wondering what gruesome announcements would follow. But the blow never came. I was told that the X-rays didn't show any problems, and that the pain that I'd felt was consistent with delayed cleaning. What a hypochondriac I am! Here I had dirty teeth, and I was afraid of root canal!

The Wedding Crashers

The Wedding Crashers is a hoot. If you can bear the combined cute smart-aleckiness of Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and - oh, no! - Will Ferrell, you will not be disappointed by this comedy, which takes many slightly unexpected turns before reaching its romantic finale. And you will probably find that Rachel McAdams has never looked lovelier.

John (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy (Vince Vaughn) crash weddings for fun and sex. That is, they crash weddings to pick up girls, but they enjoy themselves hugely at the receptions. The basic idea is to postpone maturity indefinitely, and Jeremy possesses the self-discipline required to make this possible. He gathers up enough information about all the brides and grooms and their families to present himself and John as plausible invitees, no matter what the couple's background might be. The sequence of revels, shouts and seductions that shows John and Jeremy at play is one of the best put-together bits of film that I've ever seen.

John, however, is beginning to feel "not that young." Complaining of sore feet and other ailments, he unsuccessfully tries to beg off accompanying Jeremy to the biggest wedding of the season, that of the Treasury Secretary's daughter. The Treasury Secretary (Christopher Walken, more stunned-seeming than usual) has an unfaithful wife (Jane Seymour), a very strange son (Keir O'Donnell), and three daughters, two of whom, of course, are not getting married just now. These are Claire (Rachel McAdams) and Gloria (Isla Fisher), and they will be united with John and Jeremy. That much is clear before the reception is anywhere near over. But the screenplay (credited to Steve Faber and Bob Fisher) sprinkles plenty of funny complications in our heroes' path. It also confronts them with Claire's ever-nastier boyfriend, Sack (Bradley Cooper), catering to the guilty pleasure of giving us a character to hate. Needless to say, when Claire discovers that John is not who he says he is, she refuses to give him a chance to explain that she has changed him into a man yearning for love.

The Wedding Crashers, directed by David Dobkins, is light on grounding. John and Jeremy are partners who seem to be lawyers and who seem to specialize in mediating marital disputes, but this is never clarified and after the first scene we never see them at work again. In the third act, the heartbroken John appears to take an extended leave of absence, but this is never clarified, either. Pinning down the characters' connection to the real world might have made for a better picture, but it also might have bogged down the romance and taken the sparkle off the many funny details. It is difficult to quibble with such a frankly elating film. Although there are a few moments when the story threatens to take a brooding turn that would kill it comic momentum, Mr Dobkin keeps the proceedings on track, and ends his film on the same gleefully surprising note with which it began - no small trick.

For all the escapism of this movie, there may be a militant honesty about it. Vince Vaughn is a head taller than Owen Wilson, and no attempt is made to disguise it. I was impressed. Guys don't have to be equally tall to be buddies! What a liberation!

¶ Walla-walla bing-bang: What do I discover upon rising from the couch of slumber? What online novelty does Aurora have in her backpack this morning? Well, nothing less than an Iron Blogger review-off! A complete co-inkydink! You will find a few remarks on The Wedding Crashers at kottke.org. I'm pretty sure that I posted first.

August 01, 2005

As If

Last night at dinner, Ms NOLA asked me how Team Vacation went, quite, I thought, as if she hadn't read enough about it here. But what she meant was, had we gotten rid of enough stuff to be able to move into a smaller storage unit.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Maybe I didn't try hard enough. Kathleen was actually sorry to go back to work this morning, after her week "off." That was not the case when we moved into this apartment twenty-two years ago. While I was maniacally nailing pictures to the wall and taking books out of the box and shelving them just so - as if to be in the middle of a move were somehow disgraceful - Kathleen fled to the office for relief.

She did suggest, however, that I go to the movies this afternoon. And perhaps I shall. That will give me something to do while I wait to hear from MovableType why it is that all comments to my three blogs - not just the ones posted, spam-like, to older entries - are currently being held for my approval.

Perhaps I ought to repeat that in tones more clarion:

¶ At present it appears that your comments (for which I am hugely grateful) will not appear until I approve them. I don't know how long it will take to get to the bottom of this irregularity, but don't let that stop you from posting your comments multiple times in frustration. Pended comments are very easy to get rid of, and eventually your contribution will appear, unless, of course, you are a nasty comment-spammer, in which case you are certainly not reading this.

Update update: Disregard the preceding paragraph. Who knows what it was, but it spontaneously fixed itself. I blame PPOQ.