August 20, 2007

Before setting off for St Trinian's....

From the current London Review of Books, the following hilarious paragraph from John Lanchester's review of The Blair Years: Extracts From the Alistair Campbell Diaries:

One of Campbell’s foci is ‘TB’s terrible sense of style, e.g. the awful pullover he wore on his walk with Bush and the dreadful creation he wore on the plane’. This becomes a running gag. ‘TB was wearing Nicole Farhi shoes, ludicrous-looking lilac-coloured pyjama-style trousers and a blue smock. After GB left, I said he looked like Austin Powers. He said you are the second person today who’s said that.’ The next day: ‘Up to see TB in the flat. Another Austin Powers moment. Yellow/green underpants and that was it. I said what a prat he looked. He said I was just jealous – how many prime ministers have got a body like this?’ There is a flirtatious edge to this. Martin Amis, in a piece reporting on Blair’s last weeks in office, also described himself flirting with Blair. So men have that effect on other men; it’s not a gay thing exactly, but it’s not the opposite of a gay thing, and there is something faintly homoerotic about the governmental milieu described here, full of dark-haired men shouting at each other, TB and AC and PM and GB all coming to blows (Mandelson v. Campbell in the course of an argument about whether Blair should wear a tie), bursting into tears, having make-up heart-to-hearts, saying bitchy things about each other behind each others’ backs, and ruthlessly doing each other down while secretly knowing that they are mutually dependent. Anyone being sent to a girls’ boarding school would do well to prepare by reading The Blair Years. The cover photo is part of this, Blair looking up at Campbell with an expression of submissive yearning that verges on the pornographic.

The idea of a parent giving a thirteen year-old girl a copy of The Blair Years is asphyxiatingly funny.


August 13, 2007

Morning News

What is it about the American psyche that hates maintenance? Is it the reminder that we're still where we were? We haven't moved on to some fresh paradise, haven't built sparkling new cities in the middle of nowhere? Samuel L Schwartz, New York's chief engineer for four years twenty years ago writes an understandably impatient Op-Ed piece today. "Catch Me, I'm Falling," about how much money we would save if we took care of our bridges instead of waiting for them to crack. Not to mention lives.

Rather than lubricating the bearing plates that allow the Williamsburg Bridge to slide back and forth with changes in temperature and loads, we let the bearing plates jam, which cracked the concrete pedestal the span sat on. Twice a year we needed to stop traffic, jack the bridge up and slide the pedestal back in place. Instead of coating the bridge’s steel, we allowed it to become nearly paper-thin. This required the replacement of beams, which made the repairs eligible for federal funds, instead of merely a paint job with city money.

And what is a story about the whiff of corruption, coming from programs for studying abroad, doing on the front page?

August 06, 2007

Morning News

Reading The New York Times this morning was very strange. The paper is now a column narrower than it was yesterday (and forever before). The Times says that it's a purely pragmatic move that will have no effect upon content, but that's manifestly impossible. The paper certainly isn't going to reduce its ad space. I'm not really complaining, though. The Times has lost so much of my respect in the past seven years that I consider dropping it at least once a week. "The paper of record" - hah!

There's an interesting editorial about language: is it a uniquely human thing, or can animals talk, too? All right, what's interesting is that the Times is editorializing about it. It seems to me to be a totally religious issue, where "religious" means "believing that human beings are not animals."

In a new book called “The First Word,” Christine Kenneally catalogs the complex debate over language and includes one particularly revealing experiment in which scientists put two male apes who knew sign language together. One might have expected these guys to start grousing about their keepers, to wonder at beings that are all thumbs and actually seem to enjoy giving away bananas. But, no, they started madly signing at each other, a manual shouting match, and in the end, neither appeared to actually listen to the other.

So, are two creatures actually conversing if they’re both talking and nobody is listening? Where does talking-without-listening put one in the animal brain chain?

Let’s see, talking without listening. Many wives can think of someone who might qualify. Teenagers do, easily. And parents of teenagers. Also, a lot of successful politicians and talk show hosts.

Whoever wrote the editorial left out Woody Allen's movies. Have you ever noticed how rarely his characters listen to one another?

The narrower broadsheets are really unsettling.

July 23, 2007

Morning News

¶ My problem with freedom, in a nutshell: "Fatalities are, above all, a reflection of the type of dog that is popular at a given time among people who want to own an aggressive status symbol." (From Ian Urbina's "States Try to Weigh Safety With Dog Owners's Rights."

¶ Stanley Milgram's notorious psychology experiments in the early Sixties teach us that most people will do terrible things if they believe that they're acting under legitimate orders. George W Bush has been running a similar experiment at Guantánamo. Reading the story of one reservist's protest ("Military Insider Becomes Critic of Hearings at Guantánamo")  is sickening not because of the terrible abuses of justice that are clearly routine at the off-campus site, but because of the readiness of so many military jerks to pop up and defend the program. There seems to be nothing that the Go Along To Get Along brass won't say, as long as that's what the professor in the White House

July 19, 2007

Morning News

Thank heavens, Fossil Darling survived yesterday's steam pipe explosion. He wasn't anywhere near Grand Central Terminal yesterday, but hope does spring eternal. I spoke to him an hour ago, and he's just fine - isn't that nice.

If I don't worry much about terrorist attacks on New York, it's not because of optimism. It's because I live in a badly ageing city. The place is falling apart without any help from Osama. The one thing that we Gothamites share with the rest of the United States is a restless discomfort with the concept of maintenance. Upkeep. Do we have to?

It's  great to have Gail Collins back as an Op-Ed columnist. She gives great smackdown.

McCain campaigns have a history of misjudging the public. His advisers firmly believed his heroism as a prisoner of war would win him piles of votes. While that sounds perfectly rational, the fact is that with the exception of a few generals who actually ran a war, voters haven’t awarded points for military valor since we stopped having Whigs.

Here's a sentence for the ages: A O Scott on the new film, Hairspray.

The songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, are usually adequate, occasionally inspired, and rarely inane.

Faint praise on steroids!

I saw an old movie last night. Random Harvest. One of those titles that I've always heard but never seen. Greer Garson, Ronald Colman. World War I. Amnesia, shell-shock. MGM house style almost suffocates the story before it can get going, but the atmosphere of cliché is agreeably perfumed by the two really magnificent performances.

The death of opera tenor Jerry Hadley (who sang Flamand at the first performance of Richard Strauss's Capriccio that I got to see) is strangely upsetting.

July 17, 2007

Morning News

Somewhere during my teens, I had an epiphany: I realized that the Soviet Union was really just Russia, under all that ideology. A harsh country hospitable to thieves and thugs. Reading Sarah Lyall's story about "deteriorating" relations between Russia and the United Kingdom brought a smile to my lips, despite all the polonium. Just as George Bush is a spoiled and sour frat boy - nice try, David, but no cigar for you - so Vladimir Putin is a gang leader in a tie. Democracy has advanced from childhood (patriarchal leaders who know best) to adolescence (popular zits with car keys). Will the planet survive?

You have to love the picture of Louisiana Senator David Vitter (O Editors: Rep or Dem?). Wendy Vitter's discomfort is very Walker Evans.


My favorite story is the clip about a whispered but overheard conversation that Hillary had with John. A totally mean-girls sort of pow-wow. "We should have a smaller group." I loved it. There really is no getting out of the high school cafeteria.

July 13, 2007

The Times and the Green Zone

The other day, Édouard, at Sale Bête, noted that the Times wasn't reporting the recent mortar attacks on the Green Zone.

Bien que le Times n’en parle pas sur la une, il est intéressant de noter que la Zone Verte a été atteinte d’une trentaine de tirs de mortier hier, et que trois personnes ont été tuées.

I wondered about this, too, having read of the strikes in Maureen Dowd's column. What gives?

Complicity at the New York Times.

July 08, 2007


At long last, the New York Times advocates US withdrawal from Iraq. In as orderly a fashion as possible of course, but starting now. "It is time for the United States to leave Iraq, without any more delay than the Pentagon needs to organize an orderly exit."

While Mr. Bush scorns deadlines, he kept promising breakthroughs — after elections, after a constitution, after sending in thousands more troops. But those milestones came and went without any progress toward a stable, democratic Iraq or a path for withdrawal. It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bush’s plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor. Whatever his cause was, it is lost.

No cheering, please. This editorial is monstrously overdue, following years of journalistic go-along-to-get-along behavior. "A majority of Americans reached these conclusions months ago." This is true. It has not been that long since the majority of Americans gave up on our Iraqi misadventure. But you have to wonder: how capsized does the Poseidon have to be before people stop

July 06, 2007


There's an Op-Ed piece in today's Times by a couple of editors at Le Monde, "There's a Word For People Like You." The word, apparently about sixty years old and of Quebecois origin, is "Etats-Unisien," meaning not just américain but someone who comes from the home of the brave.

I first encountered this term a few years ago and fell in love with it. I may be an American, but I am very much not an étatsunisien. Greater New York is about the largest political entity that I'm willing to sign on to.

You have to love the echo of "Tunisian."

July 04, 2007

Happy Fourth

As a contribution to the national holiday, I'd like to offer my Fourth of July Game, which you can play only twice - now and next year. But who knows? The game is very simple: make a list of unconstitutional horrors that you are sure lie beyond even the reach of the Bush-Cheney axis of inc"evil"ity. Then sit back and wait to be unpleasantly surprised!

Happy Fourth - if you can swing it.

June 29, 2007


Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind came out with a truly vulgar remark during the debate about AB 8590, the same-sex marriage bill that passed in the Assembly (it will not be considered anytime soon in the upstate, Republican controlled, Know-Nothing Senate).

If we authorize gay marriage in the state of New York, those who want to live and love incestuously will be five steps closer to achieving their goals as well.

Hasn't Assemblyman Hikind learned anything from the Nazi art of tribal slurs? The "five steps closer" is a truly gratuitous - meaningless - whack. The connection of homosexuality and incest is ludicrous.

David Pasteelnick, who writes Someone in a Tree, talked to the Assemblyman before the debate, and was all the more shocked by the remarks in the debate because Mr Hikind had been quite decent on the telephone. David wrote this linked letter, which ought to be read by everyone with a sound mind. Having noted that the Assemblyman claims that he would vote against the bill even if his constituents were for it, David muses on his hypocritical sense of representative democracy.

Putting that argument temporarily to the side, if you would govern as your faith dictates, why have you not put forward legislation that outlaws the sale of non-kosher products in the State of New York? I am sure a majority of your constituency would strongly support such a measure. Is it because while your district would be in favor, the majority of the citizens of this State would be against it? If you respect the majority in that regard, even though it flies in the face of a core belief of your faith, why is same-sex marriage any different? Recent polls show that a majority of the citizens of New York support, if not marriage, some type of formal recognition of same-sex relationships that offers them benefits on par with traditional marriage. Is your opposition to this equal treatment because, when it comes down to it, you just don’t like gay people? Or worse, you might even be afraid of them? Do you consider them, or rather us, a threat? Less than human?

My adoptive mother was quite vocal about the "fact" that blacks were "less than human." She felt that homosexuals were "sick." She didn't talk much about these views, however, because she was too preoccupied by her florid anti-Semitism. Sometimes you just have to wait for toxic generations to die out. Although that does seem a lot to ask of good people.

June 22, 2007

Nix to the Niqab

Jane Perlez's front-page story about British Muslim women who have taken to wearing the niqab, in today's Times, got my blood-pressure going. I can't decide whether arrest and deportation would be my response to this hateful affectation, which is a frightful insult to all grown males, or whether I would just urge people to ignore, utterly and totally, the wearers of such garments, even if they were writhing on the pavement. A woman who ventures forth hidden behind baleful robes has elected to take advantage of the community while refusing to join it. It's not on.

June 20, 2007

Vitamin Deficiency

Doubtless I ought to be happier about New York Mayor Michael R Bloomberg's departure from the Republican fold in what many observers regard as the run-up to a presidential candidacy. I do believe that Mr Bloomberg would make a Great American President. He's very good at getting a grip on problems and convincing everyone that they must be dealt with. On the constructive side, his record is less impressive, but he seems to know when to give up on unpopular (bad) ideas. And there is a strange modesty to the man, an instinctive dislike of hot air. Which is all that his attention-hogging predecessor has to offer, in my humble opinion.

But the doctor tells me that I've got a serious Vitamin B-12 deficiency, even though I swallow an enormous B-complex horsepill every day. I'm scheduled for an injection at one-thirty.

June 12, 2007

Equal Protection

In his column today, "The Young and Exploited Ask for Help," Clyde Haberman writes about what looks to me like an equal-protection problem. Or, rather, a problem that ought to be an equal-protection problem, but isn't, because laws protecting immigrant children from sex traffickers don't, ipso facto, apply to American children. Underage prostitutes, if they were born here, are not victims but criminals.

The thing is that if Ms. Waters and Ms. Smith were Thai or Russian and were turned into teenage prostitutes after arriving on these shores, they would be legally judged the victims of sex traffickers. But they are in effect penalized by being home grown, deemed to have committed criminal acts under New York law and subject to arrest and prosecution.

Before I cry "Injustice!", however, I reflect on another column in today's Times, David Brooks's. In "The Next Culture War," Mr Brooks distinguishes between educated individualists, who may be liberal or conservative, and "neighborhood" Americans, who tend to support nationalist and community values. Mr Brooks is also writing within the context of immigration, as it happens, and his discussion helps me to understand how it came to be that where you were born will determine how our legal system will treat you if it catches you selling your body. Thai and Russian girls are of no interest to neighborhood Americans, who will probably never encounter any. Therefore it's easy for cosmopolitan elitists to stand up for them without facing any opposition. American girls are quite something else, at least in the eyes of neighborhood Americans.

It's funny that Mr Brooks thinks that he's writing about the next culture war.

June 08, 2007

Gone Fishing

In celebration of the good news this morning, I'm going fishing. Catch you later.

June 05, 2007


The other day, Jason Kottke posted an entry about the word "embiggen," calling it a "cromulent" word.

I had to look up "cromulent." I don't remember what it means, but I know that it comes from The Simpsons, a show that, like almost all televised entertainment, I have never seen.

The Simpsons challenges my sense of humor. I know that it's supposed to be funny, but I disapprove, massively. I am a complete prune on the subject of The Simpsons. Never having seen the show, I don't know what it is that I disapprove of, but that's not important. As my mother once said, when all my sister and I were doing was burning incense, "I'd know the smell of marijuana anywhere!"

As far as I'm concerned, the only constructive thing that the Federal Communications Commission could conceivably do would be to stop television altogether. That's right - no more TV for anybody! Given my draconian perspective, I didn't really give a damn about the Second Circuit's rejection of an FCC ban on "vulgar" language. The deck on the Times story, though, was amusing. "If Bush Can Blurt Curse, So Can Network TV."

When I got up this morning, the cable service was out. When I tried to place a call on the cell phone, the screen told me that I had an "unregistered SIM card." Both problems have been cleared up. The cable service came back on after a while, and rebooting the phone (if that's the way to put it) cleared up the registration problem. But I'm feeling a bit fragile.

To put it another way, I'm in no mood for cromulence.

May 29, 2007


There are two stories in today's Times that got me thinking about nationalism, which is nothing but tribalism on a large scale, and the wicked fairy that curses democracy. Estonians are having problems with the ethnic Russians that Stalin planted in their country. Isn't it funny that these "Russians" don't want to go "home"? And we, of course, are having trouble with illegal immigrants, or at least with figuring out how to deal with the "problem." Isn't it funny that the nation that won't shut up about the glories of free markets lurches with cartoonish ineptitude in vain attempts to seal its borders to would-be workers? Yes, it's very funny. Ha ha.

But I'll let you think about it instead. I've been distracted by a fragment from a story in the Metro Section, "Car Crashed Into a Restaurant, Injuring Six." There's no byline, so I can't toast the writer/reporter who surveyed the damage at a Hamilton Heights branch of Popeye's, and noted,

An unfinished meal of fried chicken sat amid the wreckage, and tire tracks showed the path the car took from the street into the restaurant.

"An unfinished meal of fried chicken sat amid the wreckage" - it's pure poetry.

May 24, 2007


The original Oxford English Dictionary goes straight from "socialistic" to "sociality." No "socialite." The Random House Unabridged Dictionary dates "socialite" to 1925-1930. (Where is Lighter when we need him?) It's a dreadful word, and I can't imagine that anyone relishes its application to herself.

(Most "socialites" are women, or, more specifically, wives or widows of rich men. Martha Stewart started out as a junior socialite, but nowadays she could go to every benefit in creation and still not qualify.)

"Real People Meet Real Design," is the unfortunate title of Penelope Green's story, in the Times, about rounding up four individuals from different walks of life for a tour of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Javits last weekend. The idea behind the story:four totally ordinary people, surrogates for you and me, cast their gimlet eyes on furniture with an attitude. But where do reporters find ordinary people? Mark Crispin Miller, NYU media scourge, was one of the quartet. I'm looking forward to meeting him at a book event at McNally Robinson in June, but I doubt that I will ask him about this faintly embarrassing exposure. Tony Shellman, an entrepreneur, and Leah Levy, a ninth-grader, were also part of the team. But what caught my eye was the billing that Frances Hayward got. "The Socialite." Ms Hayward is presumably the person most likely to buy, or to decide not to buy, the goods on offer at the Fair.

Would the fact that Ms Bayard is the tenant of Grey Gardens have anything to do with her Q? Perish the thought. 

In 1906, just over a century ago, Edith Wharton wrote, "The American landscape has no foreground, & the American mind no background." This is still,

May 23, 2007

The Truth About Parthenogenesis

Science tells us that the Y chromosome, carried by most men, is shedding jeans. Typical! Researchers are looking into how long it will take for the chromosome to become totally clueless. In the event of which, need I say, the patriarchy will come to and end.

Along with the rest of humanity, you say; but not so fast! Five dollar word to the rescue: parthenogenesis! "Female Shark Reproduced Without Male DNA, Scientists Say."

Parthenogenisis has nothing to do with the Parthenon, but it is a reminder of how the goddess honored by that temple was born: without mating. As everybody knows, Athena was born from the head of Zeus, but not without mating. Zeus screwed the Titaness Metis, only then to learn from an oracle that, if Metis had a second child, it would be a boy who would displace his father.

Therefore, having coaxed Metis to a couch with honeyed words, Zeus suddenly opened his mouth and swallowed her, and that was the end of Metis, though he claimed afterwards that she gave him counsel from inside his belly. In due process of time, he was seized by a raging headache as he walked by the shores of Lake Triton, so that his skull seemed about to burst, and he howled for rage until the whole firmament echoed. Up ran Hermes, who at once divined the cause of Zeus's discomfort. He persuaded Hephaestus, or some say Prometheus, to fetch his wedge and beetle and make a breach in Zeus's skull, from which Athene sprang, fully armed, with a mighty shout.

There is nothing like Robert Graves's The Greek Myths before you've had your first cup of coffee in the morning.

Men in a nutshell: the species that won't be relieved to hear that it's unnecessary for reproduction even though it's vaguely annoyed every time it makes some woman pregnant.

The "without male DNA" construction is pretty cute, too.

May 22, 2007

He blogs every day

When you figure out Benedict Carey's story, "This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)", in today's Science Times, let me know.

Have you ever heard someone tell his life story in the third person? This is supposedly the healthy approach. Similarly, you're a more outgoing and generous person if you alienate your struggles, converting internal problems into "black dogs" and then vanquishing them.

All of this sounds like those studies showing that intelligence and self-estimation are inversely related. The smarter you are, the more likely you are to think that you're not smart (enough). Dumb people think they're geniuses.

Is health good for you?

May 21, 2007

Not an Issue

From Sarah Lyall's story in today's Times, "Gay Britons Serve in Military With Little Fuss, as Predicted Discord Does Not Occur":

Some Britons said they could not understand why the United States had not changed its policy.

“I find it strange, coming from the land of the free and freedom of speech and democracy, given the changes in the world attitude,” said the gay squadron leader, who recently returned from Afghanistan. “It’s just not the issue it used to be.”

Ms Lyall notes that Britain was forced to adopt tolerance of gays in the military by the EU. Similarly, American courts have led the way toward implementing civil unions and gay marriage. What this suggests to me is that while voters may reject a progressive legislator, they don't get worked up about progressive developments.

What's that about? It's a matter - or mystery - of perception. Our judgments are heavily dependent on context. Voting for a pro-gay representative implies that the voter is also pro-gay (although Republicans are famous for their "hold my nose" discipline). Living next door to a gay couple doesn't imply anything.

Another story in today's paper, Adam Liptak's column, "Positive He's a Killer; Less Sure He Should Die," highlights the huge difference between the general and the particular. Americans are broadly (if lamentably) in favor of the death penalty - as a principal. But juries have been sentencing convicted criminals to death in greatly dwindling numbers. When it's up to you to decide whether somebody will live or die, your mind works differently. You might say that it works.

Thus the inherent worthlessness of polling. Calling up people at home is itself a problem. At home, people are "themselves," "relaxed," more likely to say the first thing that comes to mind. In other words, polling occurs in a context that incompatible with the deliberation required by participatory democracy.

More to the point, asking general questions about matters of no immediate concern might yield interesting, "disinterested" responses, but the answers are unlikely to to indicate what the responders would actually do if doing something were necessary. I'm reminded of the old joke about how the man in the family makes all the important decisions - who's president, how to fight a war, and whether taxes are too high - while his wife takes care of the little stuff - where the family lives, what it eats, and how it's clothed.

"It's just not the issue it used to be."

May 18, 2007

Idiocracy Update

This just in.

NEW YORK - a public school teacher was arrested today at JFK International Airport as he attempted to board a flight while in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a set square, a slide rule and a calculator.

At a morning press conference, the Attorney General said he believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-Gebra movement. He did not identify the man, who has been charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of math instruction.

"Al-Gebra is a problem for us", the Attorney General said. "They desire solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in search of absolute values. They use secret codes names like 'x' and 'y' and refer to themselves as 'unknowns', but we have determined they belong to a common denominator of the Axis of Medians with coordinates in every country

As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, "There are 3 sides to every triangle."

When asked to comment on the arrest, President Bush said, "if God had wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, He would have given us more fingers and toes." White House Aides told reporters they could not recall a more intelligent or profound statement by the President.

(Thanks, Fossil Darling.)

May 17, 2007

Best of Luck to Richard Snow

I always knew that Richard Snow would do something interesting. He was by far the cleverest kid in the class during my three years at Bronxville School. He wasn't a friend, exactly, but the friend of a friend, and I saw a fair amount of him. He was the first genuinely witty person that I ever knew, and I learned early to keep my own mouth shut when Richard was around. It was difficult to avoid his intentions entirely, however, as I was already one of the tallest guys in the class and he among the shortest.

Of course, I wish I'd found out what Richard has been up to all these years in happier circumstances. It appears that American Heritage, the Forbes publication that took on Richard in 1965, in the mail room, and of which he is currently the editor, is about to suspend publication. That's sad news, especially as the magazine has as many subscribers these days as it has ever had, if not more.

He said he was still unsure of his own fate, but if need be he could go back to writing historical novels. "I've written four," he said. "Two were loathed by everyone who read them, but two actually got published." And no matter what happens, he has worked out a crucial point in his severance. He gets to keep his Royal manual typewriter.

"That was the typewriter that I was assigned to in 1970, and it will follow me to the gave," he said, and he added, "I wish this were more a sign of granitic stability, but in fact it's a sign of my computer incompetence. I use it just to type labels, but it works beautifully. Every year somebody comes in and cleans in. I don't think he's paid by Forbes. He's some spectral presence who just turns up."

Good luck, Richard!

May 15, 2007

Or More

Today's Idiocracy Prize for Journalistic Ineptitude goes to a story in the Times's Metro Section, "Where Beachcombers Should Proceed With Caution," by Jill A Capuzzo, who must share the award with her editors. This is a story about Jersey beaches that will be opening over the Memorial Day weekend, thank God, because the Army Corps of Engineers has dug up all the explosives. Hopefully.

"We've always discouraged deep holes; nothing will change," Mayor Huelsenback said. "Kids can use their shovels and pails. As for metal detectors, we would discourage people from trying to look for these things."

Explosives, you ask? Why are Jersey beaches littered with explosives? Here's the one-sentence explanation, which I think merits a pie in somebody's face.

Believed to have been dumped off the sides of ships sometime during World War I, the discarded military munitions lay on the ocean floor for 90 years or more, according to Mr Follett.

It's the "or more" that had me calling for the nurse. This sentence is the story. Who the hell was dumping "military munitions" off "the sides of ships" off the coast of New Jersey "during World War I"?

In the meantime, I encourage everyone with a metal detector to head for Surf City ("there's a person named Eunice?") and try out for a much more prestigious award than I can bestow: the Darwin.

May 14, 2007


Take a look at this, from the front page of today's The New York Times. Kathleen was so upset by the ghoulish ring of photographers that she didn't even notice the hot-pink sheets. The hot-pink sheets excited my conspiracy-theory gland. What kind of hospital/morgue pays for hot-pink sheets? 

Below the fold is the story that made my Monday. It's about Alexandra Hai, a woman of Algerian/German background who has won the right to dance the forlana, or at any rate to pilot a Venetian gondola. The first gondoliera ever! In actual Venice! Reading the story, I savored a missed literary delight: the "Letters From Venice" that The New Yorker ought to be commissioning, at this cardinal time in the history of the Serenissima, from Donna Leon.

May 11, 2007


When I studied the history of science in college, we were taught that Ancient Greek and Roman technology was long on theory (and concrete) and short on machinery. This turns out to have been a provincial misconstruction of an admittedly spotty archeological haul. In 1900, fisherman recovered the remains of an elegant little planetarium, a construct of fine-toothed gears that, almost seventy years later, I would learn couldn't have existed.

John Seabrook on the Antikithera Mechanism, in The New Yorker.

May 10, 2007


Today's weather: A grey day full of grey news from the Grey Lady. The Pope, Gonzalez, Cuba, the Cold War, even - sheesh! Doesn't anybody ever clean this place up?


May 09, 2007



Sigh... If I were a cool New Yorker, I'd get this racy postcard in the mail. Jean-Claude Baker, the proprietor of the restaurant Chez Josephine, will be sending it to thousands of people next week. It's not inconceivable that I'm on the list. I have been to the restaurant several times, and I know from experience that Jim Dwyer is quite right to say that Mr Baker is "unburdened by excess modesty." There is no one to whom Mr Baker will not shill his boîte.

USPS objected to the - well, you know. Mr Baker proposed a compromise: a banner reading "Censored" in the place of a soutien-gorge. When that didn't fly, he called in the press.

The post office has a long and not terribly successful history as a guardian of shifting notions of morality and decency. In Mr Baker, it faced an adversary with a long and very successful history of self-promotion.

"In the end," writes Mr Dwyer, "all parties agreed: Under part 601-12.11, 'Unauthorized Decisions by Postmasters,' the breasts could show."

How many recordings of "J'ai deux amours" have you got?

May 08, 2007

"Liberal"'s Just Another Word For "Gay"


(Straight from Joe.My.God.)

May 04, 2007

Is that all?

In an editorial, "Dirty Tricks by Phone," there appears the following,

Congress has been considering legislation that could ban such calls by limiting voter intimidation by any means, including the phone.

"Limiting"? Just "limiting"?


One of the very few antiquities that our legal system has abolished is something known as the "form of action." This was a requirement that a legal complaint set forth the specified elements of an offense. That may sound reasonable, but we're talking about an era that knew nothing of "emotional distress" or even much of "negligence." In order to be actionable - sue-able - a case had to follow the playbook. If something was missing from a complaint, the defendant could ask the court to find a judgment of "nonsuit." Nonsuit meant not only that the complaint had left something out, but barred all future litigation on the matter. The case was out and beyond appeal. You got it right the first time or else.

Nonsuiting was obviously an injustice to the poor and the progressive. We were right to get rid of it. But Roy Pearson makes me think that we ought to bring it back. Even though his $65 million case against some nice Korean dry cleaners in Northwest Washington, DC, claims to be based on a literal interpretation of the District's consumer anti-fraud protections, it is OBVIOUSLY de minimus - beneath the attention of the law. Forget about disbarring Roy Pearson. We need to get rid of the judge who failed to quash these proceedings at the start.

After all, without those pants, Mr Pearson as much as admitted that he was nonsuited!

May 02, 2007


Much as I'd love to write about Maureen Dowd's report that six former CIA officials have written in protest to George Tenet, asking that he give at least half of the profits from his new book, At the Center of the Storm, to "wounded soldiers and the families of dead soldiers," or Rupert Murdoch's bid for The Wall Street Journal, or David Leonhardt's piece about Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating, I simply don't have the time. I'm totally taken up with making the arrangements for my twenty-martini lunch.

Have a gray date!

May 01, 2007


Patricia Cohen's very confusing story in today's Arts section, "Interpreting Some Overlooked Stories From the South," mistakes the more complete stories that young historians such as Jonathan Sokol (author of There Goes My Everything) are beginning to tell for a new and different story. There is no new and different story. There is simply the new testimony of moderate whites who, in Mr Sokol's telling, felt that the enfranchisement of blacks would be their jobs, and in the due course of time. These whites were shocked when blacks "acted up." No, that is not a new story at all.

A more interesting thesis posited in the article is this "The idea that the South is exceptional, a region apart from the rest of the country, is no longer true." I recoiled when I read this - but then I remembered how the sweet-natured carpenter who rebuilt our country house, a New Englander with a clear Down East accent, never listened to anything but country music on his portable radio. Nothing if not the Manhattan elitist, I found this regrettable, and although I never said a word, I'm sure that my distaste was communicated.

To me, country music is not music. It is political statement. It's hymning that I have to listen to. Its ethos is very definitely not my ethos.

So I understand the fervor of secularist Turks who have rioted in Istanbul largely because the wife of the proposed presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, covers her head. What's the problem, you ask. The problem is that the covered head bristles with a significance that, as with me and country music, is passionately rejected by people who refuse to wear their faith on their sleeve, or anywhere else. Your religion is not my business, and let's keep it that way.

Even though I lived in Houston to seven years, I can't really say whether "the South is exceptional." To me, it always seemed to be. But exceptional to what? The child of an affluent suburb almost as close to New York City as it is possible to be without getting to vote for the mayor, I'm inclined to believe that I'm the exception.


April 30, 2007


The end of April - already?

In local news, the Claremont Riding Academy has closed "for good." I am not an equestrian, and I don't remember even passing by the Claremont, but it reassured me to know that the stables were there, proof that anachronism is viable. Well, apparently not. It seems that it's not much fun to ride horses in Central Park anymore, what with all the dogs and baby carriages.

A nutcase who suited up as a fireman and tied a coworker up in her Chelsea flat for thirteen hours is pushing the envelope of "neurolaw" in his defense. He doesn't deny doing what he did. He just claims that, because of bad brain chemistry, he never intended to do it. In the unlikely event that this argument persuades the jury, I will not join the chorus of commentators who will undoubtedly bemoan the end of personal responsibility. Our legal system, advanced as it is, rests on a folk wisdom about human nature that is increasingly out of touch with what we are beginning to know about ourselves.

I was thinking about this over the weekend, thanks to Robert Wright's Op-Ed piece, "Planet of the Apes."

We may more often have to resist the retributive impulse that worked fine in the environment where it evolved but now often misfires. We may have to appreciate how our moral condemnations - which can help start wars - are subtly biased in self-serving ways that, in some contexts, no longer serve our selves.

We may have to cultivate our moral imagination, putting ourselves in the shoes of people who hate us. The point wouldn't be to validate the hate, but to understand it and so undermine it. Still, this understanding involves seeing how, from a certain point of view, hating us "makes sense" - and our evolved brains tend to resist that particular epiphany.

I am going to work on my moral imagination to see why it "makes sense" for moms pushing gigantic strollers to hate me because I radiate the longing to banish them to the suburbs. The occasional kid is cute. The current plague of infants threatens to take the "Man" out of "Manhattan": Kinderhattan.

April 27, 2007

Rudy the Red

Fossil Darling and I agree: a Giuliani Administration is about the only thing imaginable that would be worse than the Bush Administration. We don't worry about it too much, because true-red conservatives don't like Rudy Giuliani any better than we do. The man is a thug who has, over the years, become seriously addicted to adulation. There isn't anything he won't do to get it, wherever he can get it. Now he's back-tracking on all of his formerly moderate-Republican views, which he more or less had to espouse when he wanted to be mayor of New York City.

On 10 September 2001, he was a widely detested public figure here in Gotham. His my-way-or-the-highway manner had become grating. The city employed more, not fewer, workers, contrary to his campaign promises. There was a very embarrassing divorce. Then came 9/11. Despite all of the incompetence - not least of which was the uselessness of that second-story "bunker" at 7 World Trade Center - the day was glory time for Mr Giuliani. If I had suspected him of more foresighted cunning, I'd have demanded an investigation into his terrorist ties.

We pray that, in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr Giuliani will be found to be "too New York." This is one time when I'm actually hoping that the country will reject the City.

Wall Street Joke

What with the Dow passing 13,000, Wall Street jokes are blooming like crocuses. They're not as wicked as they used to be, back in the bad old Eighties, but they're still fun. Here's the latest from Fossil Darling.

A lesson to be learned from typing the wrong email address!

A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. So, the husband left Minnesota and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day.

The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realizing his error, sent the email.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband's funeral. He was a minister who was called home to glory following heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted.

The widow's son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My Loving Wife
Subject:  I've Arrived
Date: January 13, 2007

I know you're surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I've just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.

Your loving husband.

P.S. Sure is freaking hot down here!

Friday Fronts: Prison Rape

We grow up thinking that prisons are where the others are, the others. The criminals, the crazies. The bad people who deserve it. We grow up thinking, in short, that the American prison system is more or less okay.

In fact, it's proof that we're not okay.

David Kaiser on Rape in Prisons, in The New York Review of Books.

April 26, 2007

Deke by Daylight

Guantánamo Blues

Guantánamo - if I have written very little about the detention of alleged terrorists there, that's because I don't understand the Bush Administration's vindictiveness. It's like waking up in a foreign country, only a foreign country more alien than I've ever visited. What is wrong with these people? Why do they behave the way they do?

On the surface, it seems easily enough explained. The Bushies opted for a "get tough" stance on "terrorists," and screwed it up, comme d'habitude. Then, being the bullies that they are, they couldn't relent, couldn't "lose face."

Now, in a move that seems a lot weirder than anything on Star Trek, they want to reduce attorney access to the detainees. The arguments, at least as retailed in the Times, make no sense whatever. And they are utterly what I would call un-American.

Who are these people? And I don't mean "the detainees."

April 24, 2007

As Wrong As Murder

It seems that we are all in agreement about murder: it's wrong. How to punish it may be unclear, but murder has no defenders.

Why then, are we in such disagreement about handguns, which have only one purpose: murder. ("Self-defense" is a delusion. As Adam Gopnik observes in The New Yorker this week, "If having a loaded semi-automatic on hand kept you safe, cops would not be shot as often as they are.) And yet, according a poll reported in today's Times*, 64% of Americans are opposed to a ban on handguns.

Surely there is no stronger evidence of the failure of American, and Democratic Party, leadership. If Americans cannot be persuaded that the civilian possession of handguns is as wrong as murder, then I don't much see the point of democracy in America.

*Not as of this writing online, but appearing on page A22 of the Late Edition.

April 23, 2007

Here and There

As predicted, the second round of the French presidential election will be a Ségo-Sarko contest. Because I nursed apparently quixotic hopes for François Bayrou, I'm disappointed. The good news is 84% of France's electorate showed up to vote. When was the last time anything like that figure was realized here?

Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg has issued a blueprint for making New York City greener. The proposal that has gotten the most attention would charge "congestion pricing" for weekday automobile commuting. If New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer supports the Mayor on this, it has an actual chance of getting through the Legislature. It's not what I have in mind, though. What I have in mind is putting tolls on all Manhattan bridges, not just some of them (all tunnels are tolled), and banning overnight street parking in Manhattan. In this city of sky-high real-estate, it's amazing to me that thousands of car owners are given fifty square feet of what ought to be sidewalk for free.

April 18, 2007

Honor vs Decency

According to a story by Martin Fackler and Choe Sang-Hun in the Times, "Japanese researchers" - name, please - have finally challenged the conservative government's denial that military officers, during World War II, had played any role in the "comfort women" system, in which the residents of occupied territory were forced into prostitution.

However, Japanese political analysts said the documents would not sway conservatives, who had stepped up efforts to deny the war tribunal's conclusions, calling them victors' justice.

This, to my mind, is one of the biggest problems that democracy faces. It happens everywhere. Elected officials take on a personal responsibility for the sovereignty that inhibits reform, because to press for reform is to acknowledge the unworthiness of the nation one heads. Or so it must seem to leaders who can't, for the life of them, apologize for wrongdoings that date back decades, that, in the case of Turkey's denial of Armenian genocide, occurred long before today's leaders were born. Canada has not apologized for shanghaiing an Inuit tribe on Ellesmere Island. Israel pretends that the very concept of apology does not exist, or, that if it does, it, Israel, is by definition on the receiving end. The Vatican has the chutzpah to protest the claim that Pius XII accommodated the Nazis.

It's tempting to say that "nations" don't say that they're sorry. But in each case, even that of the Vatican, it is an elected human being who is doing the denying. Clearly, democracy lacks a mechanism for protecting itself from a nasty human weakness.

April 17, 2007

Bad News

Reading about the shootings at Virginia Tech this morning generated two distinct waves of misery. The first, of course, was about the event itself. I'll have to own up to a certain Schadenfreude, though, given that Virginia's gun laws are a total disgrace. I was not as unhappy about the shootings as I might have been.

The second wave of misery was much worse, because I was the wounded party. Wounded by whom? How was it possible that I sat at my computer for a few hours yesterday and yet didn't see anything about the shootings? I received an RSS feed from Joe.My.God at 4:57, but I wasn't paying attention to feeds. I was having a "reading day" and staying away from the machine as much as possible. Fossil Darling knew all about the massacre, of course - traders always have the latest news. I was curt with him this morning because he hadn't called to tell me. But I don't really believe that I ought to be depending on him.

Is it ironic that I was telling M le Neveu, yesterday, that my plans for a new blog have been inspired not inconsiderably by the recognition that I am not cut out for journalism?

April 13, 2007


Ah, "Kurdistan." American interests in Iraq are about to run into what was always the most foreseeable obstacle to the realization of their Iraqi dreams, Turkey. Putting an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein may have been noble, but it unavoidably battered a hornets' nest. Boosted by their alliance with the Americans, Iraqi Kurds are flexing their muscles and inspiring their Turkish compatriots. Roughly half of all Kurds live within Turkish borders, comprising 20% of the Turkish population. The Kurdish quarter of Turkey, moreover, lies on the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, where the Turks have built important hydroelectric dams. An integral Kurdistan, formed by subtractions of territory and sovereignty from Iran, Iraq, and - massively - Turkey is not going to happen without strenuous opposition from one of the world's most cold-blooded military organizations.

Yesterday, Yasar Buyukanit, the Turkish chief of staff, announced "that he was prepared to conduct operations in northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels hiding there, according Sabrina Tavernise's story, "Leader of the Turkish Military Says He Is Prepared to Attack Kurdish Rebels Hiding in Iraq." Because Iraqi Kurds are the only people in Iraq who don't object to our presence there, Washington is not happy. European elites, which have been straining to encourage Turkey to assimilate more fully to Western ways, are not happy - neither with Turkey nor with the United States. It's a pickle.

The topic of this week's Friday Front is beaucoup plus mundane.

Nick Paumgartner on Commuting, in The New Yorker.


Ah, "Kurdistan." American interests in Iraq are about to run into what was always the most foreseeable obstacle to the realization of their Iraqi dreams, Turkey. Putting an end to the regime of Saddam Hussein may have been noble, but it unavoidably battered a hornets' nest. Boosted by their alliance with the Americans, Iraqi Kurds are flexing their muscles and inspiring their Turkish compatriots. Roughly half of all Kurds live within Turkish borders, comprising 20% of the Turkish population. The Kurdish quarter of Turkey, moreover, lies on the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, where the Turks have built important hydroelectric dams. An integral Kurdistan, formed by subtractions of territory and sovereignty from Iran, Iraq, and - massively - Turkey is not going to happen without strenuous opposition from one of the world's most cold-blooded military organizations.

Yesterday, Yasar Buyukanit, the Turkish chief of staff, announced "that he was prepared to conduct operations in northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels hiding there, according Sabrina Tavernise's story, "Leader of the Turkish Military Says He Is Prepared to Attack Kurdish Rebels Hiding in Iraq." Because Iraqi Kurds are the only people in Iraq who don't object to our presence there, Washington is not happy. European elites, which have been straining to encourage Turkey to assimilate more fully to Western ways, are not happy - neither with Turkey nor with the United States. It's a pickle.

The topic of this week's Friday Front is beaucoup plus mundane.

Nick Paumgartner on Commuting, in The New Yorker.

April 12, 2007


Although I've never listened to Don Imus on the radio, and have no intention tuning in, I believe that NBC's bow to the forces of political correctness is a terrible mistake. Mr Imus may make racist remarks, but the simple fact is that those remarks have an audience. So long as the entertainer's remarks steer clear of the imperative mood, openly urging listeners to act on their prejudices, market forces ought to be allowed to determine whether his show is viable. By acceding to the likes of Al Sharpton, NBC executives are showing that they don't know their own job, which is to keep the airwaves open to a diversity of voices.

This isn't to say that Don Imus oughtn't to be sanctioned. Banishing him from the airwaves for a couple of weeks - I've no problem with that. His fans need a time-out, too. Mr Imus said a bad thing, and he deserves to sit in the nuisance corner for a while. And then he deserves to be forgiven. To drop his show is to brand him with a permanent (or semi-permanent) stigma; it is to withhold forgiveness. And for what? For being rude and insulting. To say what he said about the Rutgers basketball players was uncivil and nasty. But it was not "racist." Quite the opposite! Can't anybody see that the remark was a lame attempt to sound like a bro'? If there's an issue here, it's low-grade Afro-American misogyny.

Don Imus is, on the evidence, a jackass. And so are his listeners. So are all the middle-aged white men who misguidedly cling to their youth by affecting the styles of the young, which they will never really understand. Hurt feelings aside - and I must say that I am very tired of living in the era of Hurt Feelings - Mr Imus's comment was what in the law is called a "harmless error." There was no real damage. To banish the talk-show host from MSNBC - to refuse forgiveness - is both childish and infantilizing. Taking Don Imus off the air is not going to raise anybody's consciousness. He ought to be on the air until, like me, no one listens.

April 11, 2007


Politics isn't everything. At Brigham Young University, many students feel that Vice President Dick Cheney's character is defective, and they want the school's invitation to speak at Commencement to be withdrawn.

Some of the students and the 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, who are overwhelmingly Republican, have expressed concern about the Bush administration's support for the war in Iraq and other policies, but most of the current protest has focused on Mr Cheney's integrity, character and behavior. Several students said, for example, that they were appalled at Mr Cheney's use of an expletive on the Senate floor in a June 2004 exchange with Senator Patrick J Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

That's from Martin Stolz's story in the Times.

I find myself experiencing grim satisfaction these days. The Bush Administration is sinking into a disrepute that has little to do with political affiliation. As its ruthless opportunism is exposed by its bizarre incompetence, Americans of all stripes are learning to scrutinize the accountability of politicians. We've had it with the Bushies' "Trust Us" exhortation. Never has an administration been less trustworthy. And that, in a way, is a part of the Bush team's incompetence. There's something genuinely stupid, in the end, about Dick Cheney's massive contempt for opposing voices.

April 10, 2007

Sex Before Breakfast

You have to love social science. From the Tierney Lab at the Times:

Similarly, according to the study, a 5-foot-0 guy would need to make $325,000 more than a 6-foot-0 man to be as successful in the online dating market. A 5-foot-4 man would need $229,000; a 5-foot-6 man would need $183,000; a 5-foot-10 man would need $32,000. And if that 6-foot-0 man wanted to do as well as a 6-foot-4 man, he’d need to make $43,000 more.

Is it Valentine's Day? Or is there some other item in the calendar that I'm unaware of and that prompted the editors of the Science Times sections to barrage readers with several feature articles about Topic A?

Continue reading "Sex Before Breakfast" »

April 06, 2007

Off the Rails

Yesterday, I had lunch with my francophone friend and fellow carnetier, Édouard, at the Cornelia Street Café. I asked Édouard how he sustained his interest in politics, and he very lucidly explained that he's not so much interested in the wrongdoing of the Bush Administration as he is in the impact that a waspish Blogosphere is having on both Congress and the media ("the media" meaning, very largely, The New York Times). It is certainly true that Joshua Micah Marshall of Talking Points Memo is a national hero, slugging away at such malefactors as Randy Cunningham and, now, Alberto Gonzales. But the feeling that American politics has altogether gone off the rails dispirits me greatly. If we have a system, it's broken. (My choice-du-jour of culprit is Buckley v Valeo). When I read this morning that the President has just resorted to three recess appointments of conservative clowns who would never be confirmed by today's Senate, I feel more than ever that I'm living in something that ought to be called post-America.

A big donor to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth will be our ambassador to Belgium. A vocal critic of government regulation will head the Office of Management and Budget. Andrew Biggs will be deputy commissioner of the Social Security Agency, whose services he would like to privatize. "All three are extraordinarily bad appointments," opines the Times, "- and all three more reminders of how Mr Bush's claims of wanting to work with Congress's Democratric leadership are just empty words."

Presidential shenanigans, however, are really nothing to worry about, compared with the resistance to doing anything about global warming.

Behind Global Warming: John Lanchester in the London Review of Books.

April 04, 2007

Raw Power

It's odd, but the phrase nouveau riche hasn't been bandied about much in recent years. And yet the phenomenon is as common as carrots these days, what with income inequality exploding into editorial proportions. Richard Conniff, author of The Natural History of the Rich - a book that I haven't seen, much less read - writes about the nouveaux riches in an Op-Ed piece this morning: "The Rich Are More Oblivious Than You and Me." Although he doesn't distinguish between new-rich and old-rich, his remarks brilliantly lampoon the former while saying nothing about the latter.

The researchers went on to theorize that getting power causes people to focus so keenly on the potential rewards, like money, sex, public acclaim or an extra chocolate-chip cookie - not necessarily in that order, or frankly, any order at all at once - that they become oblivious to the people around them.

Indeed the people around them may abet this process, since they are often subordinates intent on keeping the boss happy. So for the boss, it starts to look like a world in which the traffic lights are always green.

The key words in this extract are "getting" and "starts."

Being born to wealth and privilege presents a different set of problems, among which obliviousness of other people figures only very rarely.

April 02, 2007

Do I Know You?

Once upon a time, everyone was born, lived and died in the same village, and everyone knew exactly to whom one was related and to what exact degree.

Then someone invented the wheel.

Now, there's DNA testing to help us get back that old-time familiarity.

March 30, 2007

Gotham Wishes

The Daily Blague extends the heartiest happy birthday wishes to Brooke Astor, who turns 105 today, although who's counting? (She almost certainly, sadly, isn't.) We also do our best to conceal our ghoulish anticipation of the lowdown, written, if we're lucky, by Dominick Dunne, about her son's financial stewardship, which was stripped from him in December.

And while we're wishing, let's hope that the front-page story, "Testimony by Giuliani Indicates He Was Briefed on Kerik in '00," together with an oddball but completely that's-our-guy accompaniment, "In His White House, Giuliani Says, His Wife Might Have a Very Visible Role as Adviser," put a big hole in the hull of the former mayor's presidential candidacy.

His third wife, let's not forget. Not that I'm scolding. Mrs Astor had three husbands, too.


Louis XVI, Benedict XVI... can we arrange a switch? Louis was actually a good old boy who was true, in his way, to his school. Benedict is not so worthy.

March 29, 2007

Clean Sheets

Kathleen and I have dried our tears; we are ready to get on with the day. We cried ourselves silly over Joyce Wadler's piece in today's House & Home section, "It's Not You, It's Your Apartment." New York is a tough town. You're good-looking, you're successful, you don't ask your date to help pay the bill - what could go wrong? Well, you could stop by your house to pick up an umbrella and, getting a little distracted, lead her up to your bedroom in the attic. Innocently, of course!

"We walked up three flights of stair to the attic," she says. "It looked like a teenager's room. The computer was up there and the twin bed, his clothes were all over the floor. I was like, uuuuuh-huuuuh. He didn't even seem sorry that he lived in a 12-year-old boy's room, this was like normal behavior. It said to me, this person is not grown up yet. It was frightening. He's lived his whole life in the attic."

But it wasn't the stories of home-decor disaster that reduced us to tears; it was Ms Wadler's excellent writing. The extract just quoted comes from a section headed, "There Is a Reason Nice Buildings Are Not Named for Norman Bates." Even better:

Spring is here and the restaurants will soon be filled with anxious and hopeful couples, ordering wine, dusting off their most luminous lies, thinking they might finally have found love. Then they will see their dates' homes for the first time. And suddenly some of them will realize that they cannot be with this person a moment longer..."

There are some real characters, as we say in Gotham, in Ms Wadler's menagerie of I'll-do-it-my-way Martha Stewarts - most of whom, by the way, are men. There's Albert Podell, the well-to-do septuagenarian lawyer who has somehow managed to preserve cartoon-themed bedding for nearly forty years. (I know the secret, but it's too disgusting to repeat.) There's Bob Strauss, happily smiling as he holds up the stuffed baby seal (not a toy) that he inherited from relatives in Miami. Most touchingly, there's Evan Lobel, the modern-furniture merchant who thought that what his boyfriend would really like when he got back from a Peace Corps stint was a $2.4 million loft with a $25,000 chandelier.


"He said, 'What is this? I can't live in a place like this. I was just around people who were hungry and dying'," Mr Lobel says. "In the end we were breaking up. For a while I regretted even buying that apartment."

Thank goodness he got over the regret!

March 27, 2007

A Dipolmat teaches Humility

Rory Stewart is a young British diplomat who is redefining what it means to be a "British diplomat." A former soldier, he is now very much a man of peace, overseeing the reconstruction of civil society in the Kabul region. He was reluctant, he writes in an Op-Ed column today entitled "What We Can Do," "to help re-establish ceramics, woodwork and calligraphy and restore part of the old city of Kabul." But he found that these were objectives in which Afghans were keenly interested, and thriving markets emerged, at least according to him. He modestly asserts that there are many more successful projects running throughout Afghanistan.

My experience suggests that we can continue to protect our soil from terrorist attack, we can undertake projects that prevent more people from becoming disaffected, and we can even do some good. In short, we will be able to do more, not less, than we are now. But working with what is possible requires humility and the courage to compromise.

We will have to focus on projects that Iraqis and Afghans demand, prioritize and set aside moral perfectionism; work with people of whom we don't approve; and choose among lesser evils. We will have to be patient. We should aim to stop illegal opium growth and change the way that Iraqis or Afghans treat their women. But we will not achieve this is the next three years. We may never be able to build a democratic state in Iraq or southern Afghanistan. Trying to do so through a presence based on foreign troops creates insurgency and resentment and can only end in failure.

"You are saying," the politician replies, "that we ought to sit back and do nothing." On the contrary I believe we can do a great deal. But ought implies can. We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do. 

In other words, as has been clear to me since before the Iraqi misadventure was even undertaken, the problem lies not in the Middle East but in arrogant, apparently faith-based ideologues in Washington: the people who agree about "ought" implying "can" but who believe in the moral obligation to undertake the impossible. Especially the impossible. "Bring it on!"

March 26, 2007

Fake Story

What planet are these people from? I'm talking about the people who have a problem with John Edwards's continued candidacy.

Mrs Edwards's health has been a prime topic of discussion for the past few days among American debating whether Mr Edwards, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, should continue to pursue his political ambitions. Some critics have suggested that he might try to exploit her condition to win votes.

That's Patrick McGeehan, a Times reporter whose byline I don't recall seeing before. I don't know whether I'm angrier with him or with his editors. This "debate," these suggestions about exploitation - who is having this conversation? Nobody I know, that's for sure.

What we have here is yet another instance of No Right Answer. Faced with a partner's catastrophic illness, some people throw themselves into their professional lives with redoubled vigor. Others retire. Neither course is inherently praiseworthy, and neither can be called "selfish." Different people create different relationships between home and work. This isn't to say that some people put work ahead of relationships. Rather, some people bring work home, while others don't. For some couples, particularly high-achieving ones, careers are part of the marriage itself, not distractions from it. The Edwardses would appear to have such a marriage.

If there's No Right Answer, there's No Wrong answer, either.

The Edwards story reeks of media manipulation, and if the Times is going to take it up at all, that is what it ought to be covering.

March 22, 2007

My Inner Stalin

The disgust roused in me by this morning's House & Home story, "The Year Without Toilet Paper," is as visceral as the most rabid homophobe's response to the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Act (a bill that I support). I have an overpowering desire to exterminate (why beat around the bush?) preening and precocious urban environmentalists like Michelle Conlin and Colin Beavan, who ought to be thrown out of their Lower Fifth Avenue building for keeping a composter in their apartment.

Someday, I'm sure, the post-consumer life that the Conlin-Beavans are trying to lead will be forced upon all of us, but I expect an industrial, not a Thoreauvian, solution. That is, we will finally apply our enormously sophisticated technology to the task of minimizing its own impact. What the Conlin-Beavans are doing is a retrograde, autarkic form of playing house.

Those who did not experience the folly of the Sixties seemed doomed to repeat them. "If I was a student," Ms Conlin tells Penelope Green, "I would march against myself." The more telling quote is Mr Beavans.

Like all writers, I'm a megalomaniac," Mr Beavan said cheerfully the other day. "I'm just trying to put that energy to good use."

The far more urgent task is ridding Manhattan, and perhaps the entire Metropolitan Area, of diesel trucks.

March 21, 2007

Gnashing of Teeth

The news that Upper East Side ZIP Code 10021 will be broken up did not reach me in time to invest in Dempsey & Carroll, or any of the other stationers who will make a bundle between now and July, when the change goes into effect. Joe mentioned it yesterday - he'll still be "in the two-one" after the switch - but, according to this morning's Times, the story broke in Monday's Sun. Do you know anybody who reads the New York Sun?

The new ZIP Codes will be 10065 (60th-69th Streets) and 10075 (76th-80th Streets). The sloppy fingerprints of underpaid, inexpert bureaucrats are all over the move. The tripartition ought to have been vertical, with 10021 running its current length while stretching from Fifth Avenue only as far as Lexington. Few millionaires would be complaining in that case. The third ZIP Code ought to have been reserved for the New York Hospital/Rockefeller University complex along the river.

But that's not how it's going to work. Thousands of upstanding New Yorkers are going to be de-cacheted.

"The truth is, there are some people whose whole identity is their ZIP code," said Michele Kleier, the president of the real estate brokerage Gumley Haft Kleier.

"I don't think that everybody is going to move out of 80th Stree, but obviously this is the most famous and most desired ZIP code in the city and in America," she said.

[Gay] Talese said, "The first thing you think of is your stationery. "

Well, he is a writer.

Those who worry that their property values may plummet when they're exiled to 10065 and 10075 may just have to think outside the box. Outside the house, anyway.

March 20, 2007

Letters to the Editor

It's not something that I'm proud of, but I rarely read the Letters to the Editor in the Times. (Lately, I haven't been looking much at the editorial page itself. I'm in agreement with most of the positions taken by the Times editorial staff, but that's just it: what's new?) Today, however, a passage from a letter from Daniel J Callaghan, of Manchester, New Hampshire, caught my eye. 

The administration began this war four years ago with inadequate planning in Iraq and disregard for those who would serve. As a result, the war has become a quagmire in Iraq and more than a million veterans have returned home to face insufficient care and services.

I looked up and saw that Mr Callaghan's was one of six letters gathered under the rubric "On the 4th Anniversary of the War." I read them all and agreed with them all. Ita Hardesty Mason, of Kingston Spring, Tennessee, writes, "We have more enemies now, not friends." Meg Hillert, of Dallas, reminds us that "If America were in Iraq's shoes, we would fight to the death to protect our country, families, and way of life." Cy Shain, of San Francisco, regrets that "We are paying a heavy price for our haste to invade Iraq without having a full appreciation of the fatal consequences and painful complications or our actions." Judy Brewton, of Stamford, Connecticut, lashes out at the President. "From the outset of this falsified war, George W Bush has used America's soldiers cheaply - almost as if they were poker chips."

But if I had to choose only one of these letters to endorse as my own, it would be the one written by Rick Armstrong, of Brooklyn.

Frank Rich reveals that 71 percent of sampled Americans supported the war on March 19, 2003. He also mentions that on March 17, 2003, NBC cut short its news coverage to show "Fear Factor" because it knew that was where the ratings were.

Both of these examples show that in the end, American citizens deserve the blame for this war because politicians respond to perceive voter approval.

The buck stops here.

March 19, 2007

Citations and Dismissals

Interesting legal developments reported in today's Times:

¶ Citations from law reviews are down. Law Reviews, as you may know, are the scholarly apparatus of the legal academy. Professors write learnedly on fine points of law, while diligent students compile useful overviews of such things as the laws of inheritance in all fifty states. Traditionally, law reviews have provided the American legal system with its intellectual ventilation.

Lately, however, it seems that critical theory has infected the law-school professoriat. Reviews have multiplied, and the Internet has put an end to their indispensability. "Law reviews, by contrast, feel as ancient as telegrams, but slower," writes Adam Liptak.

¶ It is a commonplace to say that US District Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, who can dismiss them at will. What the president cannot do, however, is obstruct justice. Adam Cohen, on the editorial page, outlines four possible violations of 18 USC 1505 and 1512. Noting that the Attorney General's chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, is in the hot seat, Mr Cohen writes,

Let's take the case of Carol Lam, United States attorney in San Diego. The day the news broke that Ms Lam, who had already put one Republican congressman in jail, was investigating a second one, Mr Sampson wrote an e-mail message referring to the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam." He said it made him think that it was time to start looking for a replacement.

As they say in human resources, you can fire somebody for no reason, but you can't fire somebody for the wrong reason. I thought everyone knew that.

March 06, 2007


For a slide show that only the Internet could have made it so easy for you to see, click here. I'll shut up; you look.

The Chabad center on Pico could be a building at my alma mater, Notre Dame. (Thanks,


Nobody said the fight against AIDS couldn't be fun.

You may well ask why nobody dreamed up a condom applicator before, what with the Industrial Revolution and all.

March 01, 2007

Drawing from Memory

Drawing from memory: have you ever tried to draw a map of the United States's frontiers from memory? Few things are more familiar to Americans than the outline of the nation, but reproducing it from memory gives an idea of how different reading and writing are. Forming letters is easier to learn than sketching maps, but to someone who has never tried it before, it's just as staggering to write "cat" as it is to draw the lower forty-eight.

¶ Now consider drawing a portrait of a city that you've seen only once. Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic man from England, is amazingly capable. (Thanks,

February 23, 2007

Alternative Delusions

Jenny Diski, one of the great voices of the London Review of Books, reports on Second Life. If you are a regular reader of this site and the host of an avatar at Second Life, the time to speak up is now.

Ms Diski runs a moderately agreeable blog. She doesn't post very often, but when she does, the news is news. How about a red-brick university's taking To The Lighthouse off the syllabus because it's "too difficult"?

You're right. It's my generation that's supposed to be shot. Don't shoot me!

February 20, 2007


Catching up with blogs today, I was very moved by a long entry by Jenn Mattern at Breed 'em and Weep, about sadness. So were most of the commenters, nearly a hundred as of this writing.

Jenn does not attempt to explain her sadness, but seems more concerned about how to live with it a way that does not burden her daughters, Sophie and Hannah (aka Hattie Belle). Some of the comments, inevitably, counsel medication. Some commenters feel isolated in their sadness, and thank Jenn for assuring them that they're not alone. But almost all of the comments treat sadness as an inescapable in the lives of young mothers.

I resist theorizing, but I'm certainly taking note.

January 22, 2007

I ♥ New York

Kathleen, whose office is at Wall Street and Broadway in Lower Manhattan, received the following "Media Advisory" in intra-office email:


Can't wait to see the movie.

January 16, 2007

Don't Wait Until Christmas to Give a Water Buffalo

If only life could always be this simple.

Please watch this video. It packs the wallop of a feature film in an eggtimer of minutes.

And, by the way, if violinist Robert Thompson comes to New York to give a recital or a concert, I am there!

Thanks to Jason Kottke, who got it from Tom and Eric.

January 10, 2007

Just Saying

Remember when homosexuals in government were regarded as a threat to national security, because they could be blackmailed by secret agents into sharing classified documents?

Well, now we know how it really works. Homosexuals can blackmail the government into keeping their activities a secret. And they don't even have to ask. A report on the Foley scandal by Gail Sheehy and Judy Bachrach, in last month's Vanity Fair, shows a Congressional leadership determined not to take action against the creepy page predator - whom everybody on the Hill, it appears, knew was gay. There were complaints and fulminations behind closed doors. but Speaker Dennis Hastert appears to have kept a lid on it.

The sordid episode reminded me, as it must have reminded you, of all those American Roman Catholic bishops who made a habit of treating priestly pederasty as an "internal matter," in the name of protecting the apparent integrity of the Church. In Poland, the same mind-set has inspired a rather extensive cover-up of clergymen who collaborated with the secret police during the Communist regime. Many of the alleged collaborators have risen in the ranks; one of them, Stanislaw Wielgus, went all the way to the top of the Polish Church. Not for long, though. He announced his resignation at what to have been his consecration.*

Polish Catholics are divided. Conservatives rationalize the collaborative acts and complain that liberals are making a fuss about nothing. Liberals, of course, are sticklers for truth and transparency. Many Catholics feel doubly betrayed by the Church, just as they did in the United States. First, you go and do something wicked, then you cover it up. Or, rather: first, an individual does something wicked, and then the institution covers it up. But the "institution" is of course a fiction; in actuality, it is other individuals - bishops - who compound the problem by taking action to protect the reputation of the organization that they lead.

Did you know that the Roman Catholic Church is the world's oldest corporation? 

* Click here for a list of stories, many filed by Craig S Smith, in The New York Times.

December 14, 2006

10:08? Nah, it's 10:10

Have you ever noticed that the vast majority of watches displayed in advertisements are set to 10:10? Being "a noticing sort of person," I did, about a million years ago, and, ever since, I've had great fun spotting the dissidents. Yesterday, came across a Wikipedia entry on the subject (thanks, Jason), and I share with you even at the risk of robbing you of your innocence in case you weren't aware of this undoubtedly Kabbalistic protocol.

What we need to find out next is the name of the genius who hit on 10:10 as, manifestly, the most attractive time of day on an analogue watch face. And how long has this been going on?

December 06, 2006


Gwyneth 001.jpg

Instead of writing the Book Review review, I'm staring at the Estée Lauder ad on the back cover of last week's Sunday Times Magazine. "Home For the Holidays," it says, over the brand name, right across the red-and-black (-green?) hostess skirt that Gwyneth Paltrow is wearing. She has also got on a somewhat elaborate but basically mannish white blouse, and she's carrying an impossible bundle of holly - her hand would be cut to ribbons if it weren't for serious floristic intervention. Mostly, however (reading, contrary to what Lisa Carol Fremont has to say in Rear Window, from bottom to top), Gwyneth Paltrow is wearing her dazzling smile, open face, and cascading blonde hair. The photograph would be terminally WASP if one didn't recall her assertion that, through her father, the late television producer, Bruce Paltrow, she comes from a long line of Lithuanian rabbis. It is a pity that Saul Bellow did not live to deal with this phenomenon, this Lithuanian/shiksa Gwyneth.

My Gwyneth Paltrow problem is totally geeky. I've dreamed that I could somehow, notwithstanding my - well, why don't we just stop at "age" - notwithstanding my age, that I could really interest the lady and get her to want to know me better. I buried this longing during the Brad Pitt period - Gwyneth was not worthy. Now that she's the mother of two, you'd think she be even less, er, interesting, but she's not. I have a hot desire to find out what her repartee is like, and to see where repartee might lead. One of the nice things, though, about being as old as her late father (if not older) is that my fear that I would fail to hold her attention is almost overwhelmed by the fear that she would fail to hold mine.

And where would all of this go, in an "ideal world"? Let's say that Gwyneth and I "made a connection" over cocktails at - well, not the Royalton, but somewhere like that. What then? I happen to adore my wife. I adore Gwyneth Paltrow, too, but, gee, not quite so much. It would seem that my interest is basically - and basely - conquistadorial. I want to be able to say, at least to myself, that - &c.

In the end, I'm shot by a twisty stroke of vanity. I reflect that my daughter is as good looking as Gwyneth Paltrow, if not in quite the same photogenic way. But then, all too evidently, neither was Ms Paltrow's mother, the beautiful Blythe Danner, who was never exploited by a major perfumer. No matter how you cut it, life just isn't fair.

November 17, 2006

In The New York Review of Books

In his whimsical U and I, Nicholson Baker rejoiced in sharing the same "carnal circuitry" with his hero, John Updike. Mr Updike's commentary on "After the Flood," the exhibition of Robert Polidori's chromogenic prints ("photographs" doesn't do these three-by-five knockouts justice) that is currently on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, makes it clear to me that I do not share the celebrated author's moral circuitry. Writing of the ruined interior, 1401 Pressburg Street, Mr Updike laments,

... it is the wrecked, mildewed interiors that take our eye and quicken our anxiety. Would our own dwelling quarters look so pathetic, so obscenely reflective of intimate needs inadequately met, if they were similarly violated and exposed?

This is very offensive. Who is Mr Updike to say that the needs of this room's occupants were inadequately met? The unspoken but palpable allusion to the Last Judgment only makes the implication of guilt-by-inadequacy (and poor taste) all the more shocking. How does Mr Updike know what this room looked like before the flood? And where does he get the idea that the house is in one of New Orleans's "humble neighborhoods accustomed to being ignored"? A glance at Google Maps locates the house in Gentilly, a solidly middle class part of town. I don't know what's worse, Mr Updike's condescension or the laziness with which he extrapolates poverty from desolation.

A few lines later, Mr Updike writes of "our fascinated, sociologically prurient gaze." This is followed by references to Susan Sontag's On Photography. I believe in the possibility that reading On Photography might help thoughtful people recognize that gaze and replace it with an empathic regard. The power of Mr Polidori's photographs is their firm and still grasp of fact, whether the view be of the Queen's Bedroom at Versailles or the living room at 1401 Pressburg. Both photographs are of rooms first and only implicitly of lifestyles. The latter also captures the fact of devastation, a state that, in me at least, arouses sorrow and pity, not prurient fascination. There is nothing prurient in recognizing that this could happen to me.

Mr Updike's mistitled piece ("After Katrina") also seems insufficiently aware of the cause of the damage on exhibit. Katrina the storm is held responsible. But of course New Orleans was not destroyed by a storm. It was, as the title of the Met's show has it, flooded. And it flooded because the responsible authorities - principal among them the Army Corps of Engineers - had neglected the proper maintenance of the levees. It's a pity that, for all the images that we have of the disaster, we don't have a stationary video of the water's steady but probably not turbulent rise. It's an image that would bring home to more people the avoidability of it all.

November 15, 2006

Kids Today

Surely the most impossible story in the SundayStyles section of The New York Times the other day was Ralph Gardner Jr's report about the letter that the heads of seven of Manhattan's finest private schools recently sent to parents. The letter urged parents to veto their children's plans for an unsupervised spring break in the Bahamas or Mexico. Euh, how long has this been going on? For about ten years, it seems, well-heeled parents have been booking their children into balmy resorts, perhaps unaware of the false IDs with which the darlings have furnished themselves.


The tradition of high schoolers congregating en masse without teacher or parent supervision at Caribbean resorts is hardly universal. “It is not a phenomenon in other parts of the country,” said Dorothy A. Hutcheson, the head of Nightingale-Bamford. She added that when she asks other educators about it, “they look at me as if I’m crazy that this is a regular occurrence in New York City.”

For Kathleen and me, this was yet another occasion to gape at the very idea of asking our parents not only to approve but also to pay for such a junket. Who knows. Here's how they do things in the place where I grew up:

At Bronxville High School in Bronxville, N.Y., traveling with your child to spring break in the Bahamas has actually become something of a tradition, with the parents staying at a nearby resort. Marty Murrer, who took the trip two years ago with his son, said that supervised spring break started several years ago after the youngsters proved inadequate at supervising themselves.

“They had had experiences where the kids went down and things got out of hand,” he said. “Excessive drinking and behavior that was way beyond what was acceptable.”

He and his wife socialized with about 20 of their own friends who traveled to the Caribbean with them. “In a community like Bronxville there’s a lot of close relations among the parents,” he said. “There’s a lot of common values. It was a great time.”

I still can't imagine it. Apparently, the ritual has a Darwinian function, weeding out the weaklings who haven't, as one young woman put it, "learned early on how to carry themselves."

The whole incredible story can be found here.

November 08, 2006

For the Record

Just for the record: this is a happy moment. A sort of negative-happy moment. It has been announced that Donald Rumsfeld intends to resign as Secretary of Defense. It's possible that the President won't accept the resignation right away. But there's a good chance that ideology is out at the Pentagon.

November 07, 2006


It was the simplest election ever. I just ran right down the Working Families Party slate, and everyone whom I wanted to vote for was there. What's more, these were all people whom I've supported in the past and have actually thought about.

I'm very, very excited about our next governor (knock wood).

Say, don't miss this extraordinary little Op-Ed from the Times.

November 06, 2006

Betty on Teddy

It's been a while since my last visit, but Betty Bowers is still going strong as "America's Best Christian" at What Would Betty Do? Her take on the Haggard scandal is priceless.

(Thanks, Joe.)

October 17, 2006

At the Dining Table

Under the weather today. La grippe, peut-être. Yesterday, I got my copy of Les Bienveillantes - the text runs to 894 pages; there are also appendices - and I will try to spend as much time with it today as I can. Laid out like a baroque dance suite, the novel begins with Toccata that, while arresting, doesn't seem very zippy. That's just an observation, not a complaint. I haven't had to use the dictionary very much, but I'll need to have one nearby. This may be a book to read at the dining table. The author, Jonathan Littell, is an American who spent time in France as a child. I wonder if that will make him slightly easier to understand. Reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint's La Télévision, I'm sometimes unsure of the ironies.

Reporter Jeff Stein has been peppering his subjects - Congressmen and their aides, CIA muckety-mucks - with a simple question: "Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite?" Some people know and can answer the question intelligently, but most can't and don't. A few appear to regard such information as beneath contempt. Read Mr Stein's appalling report and weep.

October 12, 2006


In case you were wondering, yesterday, why a plane flying north collided with the north façade of a tall building, this Times report, by Patrick McGeehan and Matthew L Wald, has an answer. It seems that you can fly your little plane all the way up to 86th Street without bothering to let anybody know what you're up to. Above 86th Street, however, you enter La Guardia's air space (why is this less than reassuring?), and must obtain permission from the airport to continue. Pilots reckless enough to fly the somewhat congested East River flight lane in the first place often make a U-turn instead. Yesterday's winds required a wider turn than whoever was flying the plane (it's not clear) knew to make.

It was a joyride, in other words. Nobody was actually going anywhere. I can't tell you how unconscionable I find this. Using fuel for no reason - hey, the age of consumption-because-it-feels-good is over! That probably goes for foie gras as well, even though I'm resisting. "Out for a spin," one of the reports said. Tragedy/farce, anyone?

Thanks to the accident, this site had a lot of visitors yesterday, relatively speaking. (There's nothing like a link from Joe.My.God!). I am still taking stock of the journalistic impulse that made me stop off at our floor to pick up my camera. I was in the elevator with the doorman who was headed up to the roof, but I didn't think that a picture taken by my cell phone would be usable, because of the fourteen-block distance. It's a puzzlement - as the King of Siam says in that movie. Was I "lucky"? How could I say such a thing? 

Frances Bergen, 1922-2006

Catching up with the weekend's newspapers, I discover that Frances Bergen died. The first time that I saw Bergen was in The Morning After, the low-key thriller starring Jane Fonda and Jeff Bridges, but I didn't know it at the time. No, that's wrong! It was in American Gigolo. However, in neither of these films was I paying serious attention to her character. What lit Bergen up for me was her performance in Henry Jaglom's Eating: A Very Serious Comedy About Women And Food. Near the end of the picture, Bergen's character sits down at the piano and accompanies herself singing "Just The Way You Look Tonight." It's one of the most enchanting moments in film, even if you do have to wade through a sea of neurotic women to get to it.

Frances Bergen was a great beauty, more handsome even than her daughter Candice. But her most riveting feature was her gloriously clear and deep voice. It's a pity that she wasn't more interested in films. I see that she was in a Douglas Sirk film with June Allyson, Interlude (1957), that's not even out on tape. Her role in Eating may be her biggest part.

October 11, 2006



Not the best photo - sorry! For much more dramatic shots, visit Cynically Optimistic.

Returning from an errand, I overheard a doorman say that he was going to go up to the roof to see what could be seen of an accident that had just happened. A small plane, it seems, crashed into an apartment building near the East River. By the time I got up to the roof with my camera, the fires were still raging, although they died down quickly.

I had been reading David Denby's review of Little Children.

After a while, one realizes that Perrotta and Field may be creating a metaphor of life under terrorism. It's not that Ronnie isn't a genuine threat, but he causes people to lose all sense.

It seemed, walking along 86th Street, that every fire truck and ambulance was roaring its alarm. Later, I would hear the beating helicopters.

A very unsettling experience. 

October 10, 2006

The End of Civilization As We Know It, Part CXVIII


From today's Times, alas.

October 05, 2006

Mode sombre

It's clear to me, novice though I may be, that the time constraints imposed by Project Runway are truly deforming. They're getting in the way of the information that the show's creative designers have to tell us.

I say this because it was very very clear to me, novice though I may be, that Michael Knight would have recut his dress several times, if need be, to get the open part of his bodice just right. The judges were correct when they said that it was too much - and they were correct not to kick anybody off the show this week. What was wrong with Michael Knight's dress was time. He hadn't had the time to do the sort of fitting and recutting that his concept really required, and that is part of most bold designing. Michael was concentrating, as one might expect, on the weaving at the waist of his dress. He didn't realize that his dress had a hole instead of a cutout until it was too late.

So I hope that Project Runway will become more intelligent about stopwatches. In the real world. couture is very much not about deadlines, much as the show might wish to convey that idea. There are deadlines, to be sure, but they're not the deadlines that Project Runway imposes.

A real designer is not somebody who has to use a certain amount of cloth in twelve hours of cutting and sewing. I understand the commercial/marketing underpinnings of the show, but Project Runway will lose its audience the moment that it's perceived to be a marketing how-to. Sure, the big buyers want clothes fast and cheap. But audiences don't.

As Tim Gunn said this evening, fashion is essentially subjective. Of course it is - and that's one of the hurdles that Project Runway manages to jump from week to week. So let me just say that I really liked Jeffrey Sebelia's dress this week. I didn't understand why the judges disliked it, not at all. I thought he'd done a magnificent little Marie-Antoinette gown (the judges said "milkmaid," not realizing - why? - what a striking move this dress was for Jeffrey), and then photographed his model as Kirsten Dunst. What were the judges thinking? Or not.

And what am I thinking, writing about this show. 

Two Different Criminals

Did anyone else come away from Mark Singer's article about Richard McNair, in the current New Yorker, less than convinced that Mr McNair, an escaped prisoner, will elude capture indefinitely? There's no question that Mr McNair is a clever fellow. But his cleverness, like that of so many criminals, seems to be toggled by the situation in which he finds himself. Being at liberty toggles his cleverness to "Off." What was he doing in a car dealership on the Fourth of July? Nobody was supposed to be in the dealership. It's not very clever to count on not being noticed. It was when he was sure that he would be noticed that Mr McNair executed his successful evasions.

The New Yorker doesn't run Mr Singer's piece at its Web site, but it does provide a link to the YouTube clip of Mr McNair talking his way out of capture shortly after his last escape, from a prison in Pollock, Louisiana. Here's a link to

What is your thinking about the Mark Foley scandal? I've long since come to expect this sort of thing from people on the right, whether here or in Britain (or even in France - remember Alain Juppé's subsidized apartments? I don't mean sex things; I mean inappropriate things. You'd think that people on the right would be hyperconscious of their actions, but that's only what they expect of everybody else. Consider the ancien régime. Reactionary avant la lettre and similarly morally clueless.

In democratic terms, the conservative obsession with appearances goes back to Disraeli's "villa Toryism." Recognizing that the values of England's landed elites were never going to make a prima facie appeal to commoners, Disraeli invented a political style that made freeholders in the Vale of Health dream that they had something in common with the Duke of Devonshire. The Duke(s) of Devonshire obliged by behaving more or less civilly. The problem with concentrating upon appearances, however, is that it's distracting from thinking about substance. Worrying too much about getting caught makes one good at not getting caught, and not getting caught is an addictive game that ceaselessly ups the ante. 

So I regard Mark Foley's sins as occupational hazards of thinking conservatively. I don't expect conservatives to behave well; I really admire them when, like John McCain, they do.

September 29, 2006

Idomeneo Fallout

The news from the Deutsche Oper Berlin will make everybody crazy for a while, but I hope that something can be learned from the episode. Two things, actually.

First: it's time for opera directors to stop fooling around with operas, to refrain from changing the period of their settings and adding gratuitous (silent) bits just to make some sort of "point." The only point that opera has is beautiful singing that is also psychologically true, and the visual aspects of the experience are distinctly subordinate to the auditory. Every now and then, there's a true spectacle, but for the most part operas speak vividly to the blind - as thousands of opera lovers who have never actually seen an opera can attest. Larding a production of Mozart's Idomeneo - which tells a story related to the Homeric epics - with the severed heads of major religious figures (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, and the opera's own deus, Poseidon) is simply flabbifying.

Second, and much more important: it's time for a time-out on Western-Muslim critiques. Notice that I do not say "Christian-Muslim," for this is very definitely a post-religious argument on one side. Or, better, an argument about whether there can be a post-religious discussion at all. There is indeed a clash of cultures going on, even if it's not quite the one that Samuel Huntington writes about.

What's at issue is the right of an individual to determine his or her own sexual life. The sooner we all come to see this, the quicker we'll get to where we need to be next. Muslims deny the right, as human beings have done for most of their existence. The Western recognition of the right remains provisional: many in the West - many in the United States - do not recognize it. We need to consolidate our side of the argument, coming to terms with Westerners who persist in patriarchy. Until the West works out a deal with patriarchalists, whether by granting them a geographical territory in which to practice their beliefs, or, as sometimes seems likely, by simply reverting to patriarchy itself, we have no business spreading "democracy," which, currently in the West, necessarily means equal rights in most secular matters for women.

A good place to start would be convincing Europe's Muslim leaders that members of their flocks have the right to reject Islam, while at the same time allowing behaviors, such as the wearing of head scarves, that are obviously more cultural than religious in nature. The hard but more essential place to start is finding jobs for all those North African kids.

September 15, 2006

Esthète naturiste

Sale Bête's Édouard has a friend who runs an art gallery in Chelsea. A "nudist aethete" paid a visit the other day, disrobing in the hallway before spending ten minutes examining the artwork. Then he thanked everyone, put his clothes back on, and left. I love Édouard's opening crack, that a gallerist's life is nothing but "luxe, calme, et volupté." What would Baudelaire have done?

September 13, 2006

"May This Country Forgive You"

What a fine way in which to discover Keith Olbermann! Thanks to Édouard at Sale Bête for the link to some fine oratory - it has been a long time since I heard any. (Via Crooks and Liars.)

September 11, 2006


Whatever I might have written about the fifth anniversary of 9/11, what I'm going to write recognizes another anniversary, the first, of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. A year after the flooding, New Orleans remains a provisional town, and critics who attribute foot-dragging at all levels of government to a surreptitious program of ethnic cleansing seem to have the only explanation for the Unites States Government's shocking inaction. This inaction is also reflected, in ways that may be more symbolic, if less important, in the sequel to 9/11. Almost everything that has been done (foreign wars) and not done (Ground Zero remains a hole in the ground) reflects a both a pervasive ineptitude and a glossy indifference characteristic of the bullying frat boy that our president has never outgrown.

Perhaps at some not-too-distant date, the two weeks between the anniversaries will be recognized as a Time of Atonement, when Americans reflect on the delinquencies of their TV- and celebrity-addled ancestors who voted for a patently unqualified candidate in 2000 and again in 2004. Although Mr Bush has many sincere supporters, it is my perhaps optimistic belief that relatively few Americans would vote for the record that he will have left behind when at last he quits the scene.

The actual agenda of the Bush Administrations appears to be the transfer of public assets to the private sector. But even I am surprised by Mr Bush's failure to extend a helping hand to his fellow Americans during some very dark hours.

July 30, 2006

Being a little behind the Times, I didn't come across Stephanie Rosenbloom's story, "Spouse Courtesy of Mom the Matchmaker," until this morning. I still can't believe that Ms Rosenbloom wrote this story for The Onion but then decided to try it on a Times editor.

Where parents were once feared and distant figures, today they are more like friends to their children, some people who work with families said, and that has led to more open relationships.

I can't tell you how unhealthy this sounds to me. How long-term dangerous.

It reminds me of my mother's hope that I would marry a tall woman, because, at five-eight herself, she believed that it was the obligation of tall men to take care of tall women. (And when my parents-in-law met me, they said to Kathleen, "But he's so tall." Kathleen is a hair, and no more than a hair, over five-one.) My mother used to say, in all innocence, "You ought to go out and find yourself a nice tall queen."

Oh, it was wrong in so many ways.

Now, if it were grandparents who were doing the matchmaking, that I could see.

July 28, 2006

Plagiarism in the Age of Google

An especially bad idea.

Of course, I won't regard myself as a success as a writer until I've been notified that a student, half-witted by laziness or ambition, has lifted one of my pages.  

Mrs Astor - in the news, alas.

Oh, families! What trouble they can raise. But it's nothing next to the trouble that can brew in families with servants. Lots of servants.

Brooke Astor, at 104, appears to have slipped into a "vegetative state." She has not been out of her Park Avenue apartment (except to go to the hospital) for some time. (Sunny von Bulow hasn't been outdoors in a while, either, but then she's only 73.) When Mrs Astor stopped showing up in the Times's Sunday benefit-party review - the closest thing that we have to "society pages" these days - I was sure that the next thing I would read about her would be her obituary. But I was wrong. I am certain that the lady herself would be deeply upset about my being wrong.

In her heyday, Mrs Astor was the grandest of dames, giving away millions, notably to the New York Public Library, and really checking up on the organizations she benefited. She seemed to be an indefatigable party-goer. She had great taste and she even wrote a little. I don't know anything about her but what I read in the paper, and she may be a dreadful person in fact, but I rather doubt that. Nor do I mean to make her out to be a saint. But there is always a need for true grandes dames. The example that Mrs Astor set was just about impeccable.

Having her name in the papers because - horrors! - her grandson filed papers to have her son removed as her guardian, on the grounds that he's neglecting her... Well, I hope that she really is in a vegetative state, because reading about it (or hearing about it from friends) would be a lousy way to die.

For the life of me, I can't see how any judge or panel or even God Almighty could get to the bottom of Philip Marshall's suit. When old people lose their capacities, those who love them are pulled into a vacuum, as each tries to do the victim's thinking. Not surprisingly, inquiring minds differ. Servants as well as family members have their opinions form their allegiances, usually against whoever has assumed their employer's authority, and - there goes the evidence! Who can be "objective" in such circumstances? (And yet who can resist the assurance of being exactly that?) It must be awfully sad to witness Mrs Astor's decline, and unless human nature has changed since I got back from the movies we can be sure that some of her friends are in denial. She'd be better, they think, if she were being better-treated. When a lady of great taste and independence stumbles - but doesn't die - there's bound to be something of a situation. Especially, as in this case, where the guardian is 82!

Now, I guess we just wait for Dominick Dunne to show up.

July 18, 2006

"Russia is big..."

Well! At least on-line, the Times has forsaken its "family newspaper" primness, and quoted the Leader of the Free World as saying "shit." I haven't examined the print eidtion of the paper yet; Kathleen says that she can't find a quotation. Still.

Cenk Uygur, at the Huffington Post, calls the president a "third grader," because of his "Russia's big and so is China" line. The sad truth is that Mr Bush is an oil-patch Texan. You cannot imagine the insular arrogance of oil-patch Texans. You have to hear them talk. Mr Bush has done us the favor of opening a window on his world. Listening to the MP3 clip gave me a jolt - I thought I was eavesdropping at the River Oaks Country Club.


The Times reported yesterday that radio station WNYC is about to vacate the premises in the Municipal Building that it has occupied since 1924, thus finalizing its separation from city government. In his story about the move, Glenn Collins quotes our own local Rambo, Curtis Sliwa, the populist host of a program at WABC.

"If you have a blue collar or no collar, and you listen to WNYC, you're going to turn the dial because you know they aren't talking to you; they speak the language of the suites, not the language of the streets."

Mr Sliwa's wordplay may be clever, but it's deeply wrong. The idea that all educated people share a certain political outlook is sheer nonsense, and I would venture that most of WNYC's listeners regard "the suites" with hostility even greater than Mr Sliwa's contempt. I don't know where else one might find local discussions in support of raising the minimum wage and in general improving the lot of Mr Sliwa's colored collars.

There ought to be a name for this maneuver - this dismissal of all educated conversation as "elitist," in the sense of being unconcerned about "the real world." It's the worst sort of demagoguery, not so much because it misidentifies college grads as the enemy of "ordinary" people but because it suggests that education itself is a sort of toxic transformative process. Get an education, it implies, and you'll be ruined for regular life. In fact, it is the lack of education that is toxic. To be an adult in our society without the resources that a college education opens up is to be hobbled by mental malnutrition. Trying to navigate the modern world without the intellectual training provided by higher education, intelligent people nonetheless fall for this or that conspiracy theory, this or that simplisticism. Such as Curtis Sliwa's notion that WNYC speaks "the language of the suites." What rubbish. WNYC speaks the language of "get an education!" Which, failing all else, the station's listeners can work on just by paying attention.

According to Glenn Collins' report, WNYC has not only the largest public-radio audience in the nation but also the largest share of Manhattan's radio listeners.

July 17, 2006

Don't shoot me yet!

We watched House of Cards for the first time this weekend, and I'm alarmed to note that, when I'm feeling responsible and productive nowadays, I sound to myself like Francis Urquhart.

Support groups?

July 16, 2006

Harper's, bizarre

Sunday is my day for reading the Times and The Economist, and when I was done with them this afternoon, I picked up the current issue of Harper's, which arrived yesterday. The image on the cover, "Inferno," by Sandow Birk, gives some idea of what the top story is about. "Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse," by Brian Urstadt, is the author's account of his meetings with various Peak Oil groups. I was unaware of the apocalyptic cast of mind that, according to Mr Urstadt's story, is characteristic of Peak Oilers, most of whom doubt that anything but social collapse will follow the exhaustion of petroleum. This apocalyptic cast of mind is pre-eminently American, marking all sorts of end-of-times groups at least since Ann Lee arrived from England in 1774 and founded the first Shaker community. "Americans seem born to love the apocalypse, even though it jilts us every time," writes Mr Urstadt. "Both Peak Oil and Left Behind are mere froth on a deep historical sea of doomsaying that stretches back to the Puritans, and possibly before, if one includes the apocalyptic predilections of Christopher Columbus." This bit of contextualizing did little to lighten my spirits.

And as for the other Harper's, I checked Wikipedia, but I learned nothing there. So I am going to ask you. Can anyone direct me to an Internet page that explains the celebrity of Britney Jean Spears, currently gracing the cover of Harper's Bazaar, wearing nothing but a jinormous necklace? And of course a baby belly.

July 10, 2006


Having just learned a new word, "squicked," from Joe My God, I am happier than I can say to be able to use it, pronto, with reference to a detail in Janet Maslin's review of Michael Bamberger's The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Story.

I am so totally squicked by the 80 ***** ****!

June 27, 2006

The Concord of Sweet Sounds

A classical-music radio station in Kilgore, Texas, will be converted to a Christian Lite format when Kilgore College, a community college, sells the station to a California-based chain, according to a Times story by Daniel J Wakin, "In Texas, Fighting to Keep Brahms on Air." This is terrible news for the 15,000 or so local people who listen to KTPB, but as business-as-usual in radioland it is bad for all of us. The concentration of media outlets ought to be illegal. It ought to be against the law to have access to more than one frequency on each band. (The New York Times has always seemed to be happy with its single AM and FM stations.) Absolutely no one benefits from media concentration.

What's that? You say that "stockholders" benefit? Not to be Marxian, but your contention is highly alienated. Where do these stockholders live? Insofar as they, too, reside in the United States, they live in a degraded environment. They are hooked, perhaps, on the delusion of the gated community, which holds that wealthy people can create walled-off Utopias, and that it therefore that doesn't matter what kind of a world their less affluent countrymen have to be content with.

As for the loss of a classical music outlet in particular, I'm reminded of one of the few passages in Plato's dialogues that has struck me as appealing.

And harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure, which is deemed to be the purpose of it in our day, but as meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself, and rhythm too was given by them for the same reason, on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them.

That's from the Timaeus, 47d (translated by Benjamin Jowett).

June 07, 2006

Old School

An unusual amount of interesting reading redeemed the dreary weather this morning. James Surowiecki explains the gasoline refinery business in the latest of his lucid, one-page primers. Elizabeth Drew makes some noise about President Bush's sneaky "signing statements" - gestures of autocracy that frighten even Grover Norquist, and David Leonhardt reveals the long-tail nature of rental distribution at Netflix. Mr Leonhardt's piece ends with a quote from Reed Hastings, chief of Netflix:

"At the heart of any good investment, I tell investors, is a contrarian thesis that they and the company believe very deeply," Mr. Hastings said, "and that the rest of the world thinks is crazy."

But what tickled me the most was a curious, one might almost say, delicious, juxtaposition on page A3. This is where the Times publishes international stories that (a) don't involve gunfire and (b) reach back into cultural history of one kind or another. (Tomorrow's story will undoubtedly refute this off-the-cuff generalization.) Today, Scott Shane picks up a briefing by Elizabeth Holtzman, currently a member of the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, at the National Archive. The Group, which is tasked with declassifying government documents, has learned that the CIA knew that Adolf Eichmann, head of the Gestapo's Jewish affairs office, was hiding in Argentina as early as 1958, but said nothing to the Israelis, who were on the point of abandoning their search for him. (They would find him two years later, abduct him, and try him and execute him in Jerusalem in 1962.) There is nothing surprising about this news. The West German government was afraid that Eichmann might throw some mud at one of Chancellor Adenauer's top aides and make it stick. But the CIA's callous protection of Eichmann - its inaction constitutes no less - reminds us yet again that the elitissimo Agency has always been far more concerned about accommodation than about justice.

That's Old School Part I. For Part II -

Continue reading "Old School" »

June 01, 2006

Applied Inequality


This is a picture of Matt Lauer's mitt on Katie Couric's knee. He is bidding adieu, and she is smiling sweetly - sheepishly, even. I have scanned it from the print edition because the full image was cropped for the Times's online story, whether meaningfully or not.

Kathleen and I weren't offended, exactly. This is showbiz, after all, and most male viewers probably thought that Mr Lauer's gesture was paternal, not "inappropriate." Kathleen and I, however, live in a world where paternal behavior that doesn't involve very small children is inappropriate, particularly in public. Mr Lauer's gesture is truly objectionable because it was televised. Ms Couric may not have minded, and in fact I would assume that over the years she and her partner have worked out every element in the vocabulary of their body language. And the offense would have been similar, if not identical, had Mr Lauer been patting the trousered knee of a male colleague. Hands on knees, pats on backs: these are gestures of subjugation, as anyone on the receiving end will tell you. (Among men pats on backs are often signals of admittance to the club - and subservience to the pack-leading patter.)

Mr Lauer ought to have held her hand. That might have looked a lot more romantic, perhaps even sexy. But it wouldn't have sent the message that, in our culture, very few people are equal.

May 31, 2006


As a born worrier, I work hard not to get carried away by problems that lie in wait around the corner, and reading about the recent rally in gold prices this morning triggered a Chicken-Little alert. It seems that there is something called the "Grimdex" that tracks divergences between the movement in gold prices and those of other "raw industrial materials." When the divergence is small, that's good. When gold shoots ahead - something that seems about to happen - it means that investors are backing out of currency-denominated securities, which in today's worlds means, simply, dollars.

Hurricane season begins tomorrow, and the experts predict a rough season. Am I worried? Well, I'm stocking up on water and batteries and canned goods. (It's no fun to stock up on things in a Manhattan apartment, believe me.) But what does worry me is the same thing that bothers me about the dollar crisis: a sort of national inattentiveness, scarily reflected in this front page story from the Times: "As Hurricane Season Looms, States Aim To Scare." I wonder how helpful it will be to confuse wits already dimmed by television with disaster-film trailer lookalikes.

Unfortunately, we're up to our necks in the problem that worries me now.

May 25, 2006

Good News

Way past opposing the death penalty, I'm not too keen on prisons, either. Surely there's a more constructive alternative.

But given the world we live in, the incarceration of two delusional executives has got to be a good thing.

May 19, 2006

By the rich, for the rich

Chris Rose is fast becoming my favorite American columnist. What he has to say about the blessings of "government by the rich for the rich" affects you, too, wherever you live. Unless you're lucky enough not to live in the United States, the world's greatest attention-deficit democracy.



Yes, it's a tiny picture, and yes, I stole it from Joe. But I just have to have this picture on my Web log! The do-or-die competitiveness of it! Don't let the other guy through the toll booth even if you have to wreck your car to stop him! That's the spirit.

My country, t'is of thee...

May 18, 2006


Since I'm an old fart who lives in Manhattan and knows no teenagers at present - not a single one - I want to ask for a little help on this "Christian rock" thing. How big is it? How serious is it? My question is occasioned by a story on today's front page: the 70th most popular name for girls last year was "Neveah," or "heaven" spelled backwards. This particular vogue seems to have been inspired by Sonny Sandoval, a "Christian rock star."

I can't tell you how creepy the very idea of "Christian rock" is. Nothing more likely to herald a new dark age could be imagined.

Insouciant Depravity Update: Black toilet paper, trunk-length anxiety (hmm), and David Pogue on Treos ("Cool.").

May 17, 2006



Isn't this a hoot? There's something so 1950's about it, not least because of the model's pose. You can read James Barron's story, "Holy Carmen Miranda! Finding Fashion Among the Radishes," but I think time is better spent meditating upon the sublime nonsense of this photograph. Suffice it to say that designer Chris March is not entirely demented: the frock was commissioned by the makers of Wishbone. (Note the tossing fork and spoon.)

A necklace of cherry tomatoes - now that's something to wear to a fraternity beer bust.

Droll Mixup

My correspondent in Pittsburgh sent me the link to a BBC story that her husband stumbled upon. In a case of mistaken identity at Reception, an African bloke with the first name of Guy was mixed up with an English expert on music downloads, also with the first name of Guy. The African Guy was led to a studio, where a television correspondent introduced him as English Guy and then asked him how he felt about a High Court decision in favor of Apple (iPod) against Apple (Beatles).

"Were you surprised by this verdict today?" Bowerman asked.

"I'm very surprised to see the verdict come on me because I was not expecting that," he said in a heavy French accent, blinking in the studio lights. "When I came, they told me something else."

Nonplussed, he pressed on, growing more confident in his punditry as the interview progressed. He gamely delivered his opinion on the future of music downloads and cyber cafes following the landmark verdict.

Meanwhile, the real [Guy] Kewney, who was waiting to be taken to the studio, looked up on a monitor and found another man in the interviewee's chair.

Ha-ha. This is a little story, to be sure. It suggests a certain disregard for the wonderful world of music downloads on the part of television journalists. It depends upon a farcical coincidence at Reception. (Guy Coma was there to try to get a job. He must have thought he was auditioning.) But here's the most delicious line in the story.

Producers apparently realized by the end of the interview that something had gone wrong - and, after they had gone off the air, asked their "expert" if there was a problem.

Watch the video, and see how long it takes you to see that "something had gone wrong." Things like this don't happen very often, it's true, and I don't mean to suggest that the Coma/Kewney mixup is a good reason to distrust all television news (although you shouldn't be watching it anyway). It does illustrate, however, how plausible a medium television is. Everything is flattened to look normal. The wild improbability of the BBC's fielding an expert whose English is sometimes unintelligible, which is making me laugh as I write about it, evaporates under the diminishing glare of studio lights. Mr Coma's double-take - which unfortunately looks like a face that Buckwheat might have made in a Spanky and Our Gang short - is the biggest "Ooops!" that I've ever seen on television, but when it's over, it never happened. Amnesiac and banal, television naturally short-circuits judgment and common-sense. It always does. This little episode simply provides the opportunity to watch it happen.

May 15, 2006

Waking Up

So the Religious Right (formerly confused with "Christian") is beginning to get the picture. Just beginning. Team Dubya has exploited them as stooges for votes, promising to roll back social change while delivering only to the corporate interests that are the administration's actual masters. Businessmen have a good sense of how unwilling most Americans are to pretend that we're living in 1950, and they know that any real attempt to promote a reactionary social program will inevitably put a spotlight on what's really going on: the transfer of public wealth to private interests. The ruse - mobilizing the Religious Right's support without satisfying their demands - couldn't work indefinitely, but I'm very sorry that it's still working, however badly.

Let's hope that the disappointed Religious Right does what it usually does after defeat: retire to its tents in the desert.

For a different, if not contradictory, take on this story, visit Joe.My.God.

May 14, 2006

"The Best American Novel..."

So, on the strength of fifteen votes, from a pool of 124, Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved, is "officially" the best American novel of the past quarter century.

If the voters had been choosing the best writer of the past quarter century, Philip Roth would have won easily.

Boy, do I live in another country. The Corrections got one vote. Jane Smiley, so far as I know, didn't get any votes. Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping got a vote - is Gilead, a better book, too new to be chosen? It would seem so. Most of the books that led the runners-up list have been around for a while, gathering the dust of immortality. Quite a few were actually published over a quarter century ago, but thanks to repackaging were eligible.

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, sent a simple request to "a couple of hundred prominent writers," of whom 124 replied. Take my word for it: the class windbags. And don't miss A O Scott's pious explication of the poll and its results. I frankly don't know how they had the cheek to crown a fifteen-vote favorite "the best."

I myself have not read Beloved. Kathleen has, however - and she says she can't remember a thing about it except that "somebody's dead."

Did I mention that Underworld, Don de Lillo's opus pompossimus, was the first runner-up, followed by Cormac McCarthy's grisly (must-read) Blood Meridian and the four Rabbit Angstrom novels by John Updike. Gawd, Underworld was a bore.

I'm not complaining. To ask for "the best American novel" is to invoke a fog of aspirational sentimentality. The results would probably be just as bogus in any culture. Asking for a desert island favorite (the standard British approach) would undoubtedly have yielded a more illustrative list. Who'd want to spend time in solitary with Blood Meridian? I, of course, would spend it committing The Corrections to memory. Or maybe Horse Heaven.

May 12, 2006

On Optimistic Rugs

Here's the transcript of an interview with the President, at the White House Web site. Apparently. At first, it seems too ridiculous to be genuine: Dubya conducts a German correspondent on a rather ludicrous tour of the Oval Office. Some people will think that he comes across as a nice guy. Others will ask, as did the party who sent the link to Ms NOLA's boss, "where were his handlers?" To me, it's evidence that he has just enough intelligence to recognize the need for plausible excuses. I wouldn't say that he seems determined to go down with the ship, but I expect that he'll stand by while the ship goes down if that's the price of executing his policies.  

May 11, 2006

Beyond Schadenfreude

Am I the only one tingling with Schadenfreude at the unhappy lot of John W Worley? Are mine the only eyes that gleam at the punishment meted out to a "Christian psychotherapist" who capped a fifteen-year stint in the Army by driving the getaway car when some pals held up a liquor store (he was honorably discharged, however), and who declared bankruptcy in the Nineties? Do I feel that the government has overreached by seeking to imprison him for fiscal felonies, or that the jury was wrong to convict him? Well, actually, yes, I do.

What I learned from Matthew Zuckoff's article about Mr Worley in the current New Yorker, "The Perfect Mark," is that the particular long con that involves email - I receive two or three every week - from ostensible officials in Africa who need help moving money from corrupt government coffers to their own accounts is called a "419," after the section of Nigerian law that criminalizes such frauds. What I didn't learn is quite how it works. On several occasions, Mr Worley deposited checks payable by American businesses to other American businesses. The checks were forgeries or fakes, but how they or their originals were extracted from the American banking system for modification was not made clear. Mr Zuckoff does say that no Nigerian has ever been prosecuted under Section 419.

When I worked at E F Hutton, we in the Law Department used to have a high old time dealing with what we called "Arab Money Letters." The manager of a remote branch would come all the way to New York to try to persuade us in person to authorize the sending of a letter that would welcome a new client and assure him that Hutton would be a safe place for his deposit of X hundred thousand dollars. The managers could never see the harm in such statements, which was no surprise given their provincial background. It would never occur to them that the recipient, from whom they'd probably never hear again, would use the letters, written on Hutton letterhead, to swindle other investors by persuading them that there was a genuine deal afoot. One of the wire houses had had to pay fairly massive damages because of such a letter, a settlement that translated quickly into strongly-worded edicts.

But the managers were innocent souls, I am sure. Mr Worley clearly isn't. His email trail suggests that his sniff tester was working perfectly well but that his yen for easy money trumped it. Now he sits disgraced at Allenwood - for five years.

I am persuaded that prison is overdoing it as regards Mr Worley. He did wrong, but he was amply chastised by the complete failure of the scheme to put any money in his pocket. On the contrary, he was obliged to restore the funds that he helped to shuffle. The personal financial disaster and the shame, even if only his family knew, are punishment enough. The masters of this particular long con have made a lot of money and they remain at large. They tempted Mr Worley with great sophistication, deluding him at one point into believing that he was rescuing a lady in distress. They made him, in short, the perfect mark.

But appetite for risk is only part of it. A mark must be willing to pursue a fortune of questionable origin. The mind-set was best explained by the linguist David W. Maurer in his classic 1940 book, “The Big Con”: “As the lust for large and easy profits is fanned into a hot flame, the mark puts all his scruples behind him. He closes out his bank account, liquidates his property, borrows from his friends, embezzles from his employer or his clients. In the mad frenzy of cheating someone else, he is unaware of the fact that he is the real victim, carefully selected and fatted for the kill. Thus arises the trite but none the less sage maxim: ‘You can’t cheat an honest man’.”

The harsh punishment of weakness strikes me as deeply inhumane. But there will always be a majority of Americans who believe that it was right to throw Adam and Eve out of Paradise and let Satan run Hell.

May 10, 2006

Insouciant Depravity

Shame on everyone who paid any mind to David Blaine. I wouldn't mention the stuntmeister myself but for Dan Barry's eloquent lamentation in the Times.

May 03, 2006

Unsurveilled Drafts

You probably already knew this, but officials in Madrid have discovered that terrorists there hit upon the ingenious scheme of sharing one email account and storing their communications as unsent drafts. Until now, nobody looked at those. (Thanks, Dr Emmerding.)

If Only

Making the rounds:

Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and George W. Bush face a firing squad in a small Central American country. Bill Clinton is first placed against the wall, and just before the order to shoot him is given, he yells, Earthquake!" The firing squad falls into a panic and Bill jumps over the wall and escapes in the confusion.

John Kerry is the second one placed against the wall. The squad is reassembled and John ponders what his old pal Bill has done. Before the order to shoot is given, John yells, "Tornado!" Again, the squad falls apart and Kerry slips over the wall.

The last person, George W. Bush, is placed against the wall. He is thinking, "I see the pattern here, just scream out a disaster and hop over the wall." As the firing squad is reassembled and the rifles raised in his direction, he grins his famous smirk and yells, "Fire!"

Speaking of rifles, did anybody see this?

Thank You Stephen Colbert

At the recent White House Correspondents Association Dinner, the inimitable (o were it so) Stephen Colbert roasted President Bush, who was sitting at the dais, in his trademark fashion. "Every night, on my show, The Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut. I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument." With "friends" like Steve Colbert, the president doesn't need enemies.

Édouard, at Sale Bête, has posted a link to Thank You Stephen Colbert, a shrine to Mr Colbert's heroism. The site also offers links to video clips of the performance. It hasn't been much discussed in the MSM for obvious reasons: the target of Mr Colbert's sarcasm isn't the Bush Administration but the supine, compliant press.

Thanks to Turtletek, at Embracing Chaos, for being the first to tell me about the event.

May 01, 2006

No Comment


People for whom New York City represents nothing but crowding, subways, and all-round deprivation ask, "How do you live without a car?" To my customary litany of happinesses, I can now add, "economically."

April 28, 2006

He's a fairy

Paul Krugman's column in today's Times calls George W Bush "The Crony Fairy." The Crony Fairy does strips federal agencies of qualified personnel and replace them with idiots who belong in country clubs. It's a good piece,  and Times Select readers will find it without help from me.

I continued reading the newspaper, but, for some reason, the moniker lingered and intensified. "The Crony Fairy" - hmm. How about, just, "The Fairy"? You don't hear that much anymore, at least, not here in New York. "Fairy" used to be a standard insult meaning "homosexual." What it brought to the table was the idea that a man who was a fairy wasn't really a man but an incorporeal being lacking you-know-what. The accent wasn't on sexual preferences, but rather on the lack of sexuality. Perhaps what "fairy" really expressed was wishful thinking on the part of straight men.

Transpose all this to "leadership." Replace testicles with integrity. It becomes obvious in an instant: George W Bush is a fairy. The beauty part is that for once we have a nickname that would really piss him off!

What We Really Need Is A Gas Bag Holiday

As Ridley asks in Aliens, "Did IQs suddenly drop while I was lost in space?" A propos of a "gas tax holiday" proposed in the Senate yesterday, David Stout reports,

The $100 rebate seemed to be the centerpiece of the plan laid out today. "It will show people that Washington gets it," said Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, "and that it's time to provide some relief to Americans, to Missourians who are trying to support their families and are paying these very high gasoline prices."

Wow, a hundred dollars. I'm impressed. I'm sure that low-income drivers will be thrilled. That's - what? - two tanksfull at best for the average small car. What a real fix!

The current regime (all three branches) is so utterly incapable of thinking about our fuel problem that I can only count on their making it so much worse that Americans begin thinking about it for themselves. Personally, I vote for a windfall profits tax.

April 26, 2006

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs died yesterday, aged eighty-nine. The first of her titles that I read was Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), when it came out. I've just pulled it down from the shelf for another look. Jacobs was famous, of course, for her perceptions of urban fabric; in Cities, she shows herself to be a city-stater. Were it not for problems of defense, I'd be one, too; the city-state seems to me to be the natural polity. Hinterlands exist to serve the cities they surround; it is foolish to accede to local interests that are contrary to the city's.

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's new book, it appears (from David Kamp's review) that the author stumbled upon a wonderfully autarchic alternative farmer in Virginia, Joel Salatin. Something of a crank, Mr Salatin asks Mr Pollan, "Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?" Well, Mr Salatin, New York City, like all the great cities, is a chaotic laboratory in which millions of experiments in humanity are conducted every day. Most of these are ephemeral, and many of them fail. But out of the dense exchange come our higher ideas about what we're up to. Without us, Mr Salatin, and without the cities that have flourished before ours, you, Mr Salatin, you would be living in a cave, living on nuts. It is in cities that human beings learn about themselves, and it is from human beings that misanthropes such as yourself flee. Godspeed, Mr Salatin. Keep up your admirable work. Happily, since you sell your produce to local customers only, we can manage without you. But give some thought to how much of the money that your customers pay you has recently been in a city. Has been generated there, just as you produce manure to put to good use.  

April 25, 2006



Alida Valli died the other day, in Rome, at the age of eighty-four. She was one of the most spectacularly beautiful women of the last century. She was also a gifted actress. Hitchcock fans know her as the haunting siren who almost stole Gregory Peck away from his pretty blonde wife, in The Paradine Case. The sometime baroness is probably best known for her role in The Third Man. Her greatest picture, however, may be Luchino Visconti's Senso, in which she plays a aristocratic Venetian in the 1860s who falls in love with a worthless Austrian soldier. Rarely has female desire been so painfully realised in film.

April 19, 2006

Next Question?

You had to admit that Secretary Rumsfeld can take the heat.*

Asked whether he saw any validity in the criticisms of his critics, who have said he has been dismissive and contemptuous of advice, and said that he committed strategic failures in connection with the Iraq war, Mr. Rumsfeld said he would prefer to "let a little time walk over it."

"I would like to reflect on them a bit," he said.

In other words, "Next question?" This isn't a story of how blindly incompetent Mr Rumsfeld is. It's a story about how conditioned the press corps has become to the Bush Administration's bland stonewalling. It's as though Karl Rove had advised senior personnel that American brains now rely exclusively on Google searches, so that their attention can be diverted by bold evasion and non-sequitur.

* Christine Hauser in The New York Times, 18 April 2006.

April 17, 2006

Metropolitan Boldface

Six year-old on a bus complains, in today's Metropolitan Diary, that he'd rather be in a taxi. His aunt consoles him thus:

"Henry, there's someone on this bus listening carefully to what you're saying and on one of these coming Monday mornings, we will be reading about this scene in the Metropolitan Diary."

The story continues: "Smiles crept across both boys' faces."

So many Metropolitan Diary stories recount bad behavior on buses that I'm wondering if the contributor of this anecdote, knowing that it would fit right in, didn't simply make it up.

And what about the "slim" seventy year-old who was jogging alongside the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir while toting Mad Ave shopping bags at shoulder height, "to avoid dirtying them as she ran"?

Has Campbell Robertson simply found a new column?

April 11, 2006


If I'm not doing quite as well as yesterday, it's because I gave up waiting for my New Yorker to arrive and read Seymour Hersh's article, "The Iran Plans," on line. Mr Hersh, you will recall, was dead-on right about the consequences of Secretary Rumsfeld's dismissal of the Pentagon's carefully constructed invasion plans, the TPFDL. Once again, Mr Hersh has made me feel like a doomed member of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, impotently commenting on the hubris enacted by deluded and incompetent leaders. And, as always, the problem of Israel, which may indeed be the "tragic flaw" that brings down Western civilization. In any case, impeaching George W Bush is suddenly something that I am no longer undecided about.

Thanks to a link at Joe.My.God, I've heard what the Dixie Chicks sound like. Their new song, "Not Ready to Make Nice," may prove to be something of a rallying call.

14 July will fall on a Friday this year. Anne Lamott has called for a peaceful manifestation on that day, and it occurred to me the other day that a great Manhattan site for the show-up would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I can't help chuckling at the idea of masses of anti-Bush souls thronging the usually deserted Old Master galleries simply because there's nowhere else to stand, while museum officials rake in the admission fees and wonder what the hell is going on. I am going to make a point of being there, and I urge you to do the same. In the alternative, choose something closer to home. Just be sure to wear green and bring some bananas! 

April 07, 2006

Home Computer, 1954 Preview


Kathleen just sent me this. Here's the caption:

Scientists from the RAND Corporation have created this model to illustrate how a "home computer" could look like in the year 2004. However the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. Also the scientists readily admit that the computer will require not yet invented technology to actually work, but 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve those problems. With teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use.

From Popular Mechanics in 1954. Love the steering wheel!

Update: Well, no wonder! This is a hoax! Thanks a lot, dearest. (And thanks to V X Sterne.)

April 02, 2006

Spring Forward

It is time to change the clocks. I could write about insomnia, or I could write about The Inside Man. That is, I could write about how going to the 10:30 showing of a movie kept me up all night. It is, after all, just past four in the morning (EDT), and here I am, typing away - the very last thing that someone mindful of sleep ought to be doing. Thank heaven for martinis.

My idea for sleep was to read Elizabeth Bishop, a poet with whom I'm really rather unacquainted. Or was until this evening. I kept reading poem after poem, tucking in bookmarks, feeling dumb. No! Not dumb! I got the poems! All the while musing on Bishop's face: so "classic" in three-quarter, but so almost idiotic, imbecilic, touched, face on. Such a round face, with such small eyes. Face on, she convinces me that she was right to ask Robert Lowell to make sure that her headstone pronounced her to be the loneliest person in the world.

Does anybody remember how Ned Rorem's setting of "Visit to St Elizabeth's" goes? (It's about Ezra Pound.) Let's sing it!

The previews before The Inside Man were terrifying. First, Poseidon. I know the original as well as I know my own face, which is why I don't think I can cope with the remake, in which lappers get tossed into the sea (and don't they deserve it, the yuppies!) . And then the trailer for United 93. I had to make a trip to the men's room for that one - my heart was killing me. At least the last preview was a trailer for The Break Up, a comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn that just may turn them into our template for modern lovers. There's a wicked scene about bowling shirts that got cut from the first trailer that I saw. Gimme!

March 31, 2006

Guilty Pleasures

If you're a fan of really bad reviews, then today is turkey day at The New York Times. Section E is stuffed with laughs - provided you're not a participant in the endeavors under review. Basic Instinct 2, Adam and Steve, Brick, and A Safe Harbor for Elizabeth Bishop all fare badly at the hands of Times critics Manohla Dargis, Stephen Holden, and Charles Isherwood. But the palm goes to Alessandra Stanley's response to "Liza With A 'Z'," the rebroadcast of Liza Minnelli's 1972 spectacular. It's weirdly worse than a bad review.  

As the orchestra plays the opening bars of Cabaret, the star strides onstage in a white Halston pantsuit and white feather boa and belts "Yes," and Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," her eyes shuttered by spiky false eyelashes and her long, painted fingers stretched out like Struwwelpeter's. She was only 26 and flush with the box-office success of Cabaret and she was already beginning to look like a Liza Minnelli impersonator.

But that's not the best. Here's the best:

Of late, she has become a Michael Jackson-ish figure, too preposterous to function even as a nostalgia act.

There's something about "function" in that sentence that I'm just not going to go into. Enjoy!

March 26, 2006

Old Joke, Well Told

From my sister, an old joke, well told.

A couple had only been married for two weeks when the husband, although very much in love, couldn't wait to go out on the town and party with his old buddies.

 So, he said to his new wife, "Honey, I'll be right back."

"Where are you going, Coochy Coo?" asked the wife.

"I'm going to the bar, Pretty Face. I'm going to have a beer."

The wife said, "You want a beer, my love?" She opened the door to the refrigerator and showed him 25 different kinds of beer, brands from 12 Different countries: Germany, Holland, Japan, India, etc.;

The husband didn't know what to do, and the only thing that he could think of saying was, "Yes, Lollipop... But at the bar...You know...they have frozen Glasses... "

He didn't get to finish t he sentence, because the wife interrupted him by saying, "You want a frozen glass, Puppy Face?" She took a huge beer mug out of the freezer, so frozen that she was getting chills just holding it.

The husband, looking a bit pale, said, "Yes, Tootsie Roll, but at the bar they have those hors d'oeuvres that are really delicious... I won't be long. I'll be right back. I promise. OK?"

"You want hors d'oeuvres, Poochie Pooh?" She opened the oven and took out 5 dishes of different hors d'oeuvres: chicken wings, pigs in blankets, mushroom caps, and pork strips plus smoked oysters.

"But my sweet honey... At the bar.... You know there's swearing, dirty words and all that..."

Continue reading "Old Joke, Well Told" »

March 23, 2006

Cars in California

Sensible people around the world ought not to miss V X Sterne's spot-on confession about high-end California car culture. You are what you drive! Just as my part of the world, Manhattan, is an antidote to American follies, Southern California is their vector. If you're out there wondering how George W Bush got to be president, perhaps this essay will give you a clue. (But thanks to V X for being so amusing about it all!)

March 22, 2006


I share Maureen Dowd's indignation: if Harry Samit can provide evidence of the seventy memos that he sent to FBI superiors on the subject of Zacarias Moussaoui, then David Frasca and Michael Maltbie should be terminated at once. These gentlemen were the recipients of the memos, but declined to take action because to do so would be "troublesome" for the Bureau. Makes me feel safe and protected.

It's heartwarming, but not satisfying, to read further that, according to an "administration official," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld "does not hold the same sway in meetings anymore," but is regarded "as an eccentric old uncle who is ignored." One imagines an entire cabinet of eccentric old uncles, all being ignored. What a can-do country we live in.

In the Business Section, there's a dark little story about the so-called Wright Amendment, enacted some thirty years ago to stunt the growth of Southwest Airlines. Moral: democracy works, eventually. But O that Lone Star State. The Texans are different.

March 14, 2006

In The News

There's so much in the Times today that it's given me a headache. Plans for the Greenwich house that I mentioned yesterday have been withdrawn - just like that! Bush aide Claude Allan appears to have screwed up in a weird way. Kalefa Sanneh has fun at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductions ceremony at the Waldorf:

Still, there is something amusing about watching rock 'n' roll being celebrated during dinner at a fancy hotel. With all those tables and all that catered food and all those tuxedos, the ceremony almost seemed like a wedding. But there was one small but telling difference. A wedding has a dance floor.

Carl Zimmer tells us something that we already knew, but in a different way: pregnancy, as a tug of war between mother and fetus, hasn't adapted to the benefit of either. Maureen Stapleton, dead at 80, wasn't related to Jean Stapleton!

But the catchiest story is not in the Times. It's in The Guardian: Annie Proulx's Campari-flavored write-up of the Academy Awards pomposities that climaxed in Brokeback Mountain's not winning Best Picture. "For those who call this little piece a Sour Grapes Rant, play it as it lays," writes Ms Proulx, raising unfortunate comparisons with Joan Didion, who would have been much, much deadlier.

Update: And to think that I forgot to mention Francis Fukuyama's strong renunciation of the Iraqi misadventure!

March 13, 2006

No Hedge High Enough


What do you put in nearly 39,000 square feet of home, with five more bathrooms than bedrooms? My favorite: the "Staff Lounge." "Servants' Hall," the traditional designation for such chambers, doesn't sound quite so relaxed, does it? Rightly not. What a ghastly euphemism "Staff Lounge" is!

Hedge fund manager Joseph M Jacobs is running into opposition to his plans to erect Greenwich's largest abode. The façade is curious: "stately French," but with the "stately" part vaporized. It completely lacks the air of having been built for the ages. Read all about it.

March 10, 2006


Because I'm not clever enough to work for Jon Stewart, I can't say why the Brooklyn House of Detention story in today's Times is so delectable. Humor is a lot like sex, and this story is just today's perfect pinup. I don't recall having seen Paul von Zielbauer's byline before, but I think that he should be working for Campbell Robertson, the "Boldface" genius. Consider:

Other neighbors said they worried about shopping under a jail tower packed with criminal suspects. Correction officials, however, said the retail area would be securely separated from the inmate section of the jail. Inmates are not evident to the public; they arrive at the jail in buses that enter the bowels of the complex through a gate.

Bowels! This story has everything. And, you have to admit, "criminal suspects" creaks with suppressed laughter.

March 09, 2006

Kimono Environments

From today's Times, a bit of Andrew Fastow's colorful testimony against his former bosses at Enron.

Mr Fastow suggested to Mr Lay that "we have to open up the kimono, show them the skeletons in the closet, what our assets are really worth."

How absolutely arresting: open up the kimono and show the skeletons in the closet! Andy Fastow must be as creative a speaker as he is a financier! Not so, however. Kathleen says, "I hate that phrase, 'open the kimono'. I've never told you about that one?"

Another gem, from a story by Julie Bosman about marketing campaigns at spring break destinations.

"When you're in vacation environments, you tend to be a little more receptive to marketing messages because everything is slowed down," Mr. Martin said.

What's wrong, may I ask, with "on vacation"? "Vacation environments" has all the appeal of a bad rash.

March 08, 2006

I Don't Know If It's Art, But I Know What I'd Like To Do To It

DETROIT - A 12-year-old visitor to the Detroit Institute of Arts stuck a wad of gum to a $1.5 million painting, leaving a stain the size of a quarter, officials say.

Read on...

Home of the Brave


This picture of extreme, collective stupidity deserves a pause. Drivers on a foggy highway in Florida complained that they could not see what was in front of them but they did not pull over. Pulling over would be unAmerican. Wait for the elements to clear up? Never!

I understand the economic pressures that drove the truckers to persist. But for the drivers of sedans, driving into the unknown was simply default mode.

The AP copy reads:

A fuel tanker was engulfed in flame early yesterday when a truck slammed into it on a foggy highway south of Belle Glade, Fla, the authorities reported. Six people were injured, two critically, in a pileup of cars and 13 tractor-trailers on US 27 near the Palm Beach-Broward County line. Drivers reported that they could not see in front of them.

Not that I wouldn't have been just as dumb.

March 06, 2006

Oscar Note

It was a good show. Brokeback Mountain won the almost-most-important award along with a few others, but even more important, Reese Witherspoon finally won an Oscar and so did Philip Seymour Hoffman. You might say that the character actors triumphed. George Clooney's win at the beginning was elegantly hailed by Jon Stewart with a reference to the title of his film, Good Night and Good Luck - as the gossips have already made perfectly clear to anyone not living under a rock, this just might be what Mr Clooney says at the end of each date. (He has come out for the sexual preference of Not Marrying Again.) There was a lot of studio-era discipline in evidence.

My interest in the Academy Awards would have been much greater if either Romain Duris or De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté had been nominated - that, for me, was the Best Picture of 2005. Aside from Crash, which I still haven't seen, I loved the movies that did win, but the thorn stung anyway: no French film was going to walk away with an award. Unless of course it starred penguins, who have been stand-ins for proper French diplomats in generations of cartoons.

Larry McMurtry, I'm happy to discover, is a real writer. He's almost unpresentable, jeans notwithstanding, and he has no knack for public appearance. What I'm waiting for, of course, is the day that Jane Smiley accepts an Academy Award, preferably for Horse Heaven, a movie that ought to have been greenlighted the moment that Seabiscuits's opening receipts were tallied.

Today's conversations, I suppose will be dominated by none of the above but by the simple question: How bad was Lauren Bacall? To which I say: How ridiculous was Dolly Parton?

March 03, 2006

In the Matter of the Cartoons

In the current New York Review of Books (LIII, 5), constitutional scholar Richard Dworkin delivers a brief and wise judgment on the Danish Cartoons, while cautioning against the spread of laws that prohibit insult and ridicule. It was wise of British and American editors to refrain from republishing the cartoons, because of the peculiar history of the conflict (which was beautifully laid out in The New Yorker last week). Noting that the European Convention on Human Rights is moving toward a ban on the criminalization of Holocaust-denying and religious insult, Mr Dworkin writes,

If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to accept.

And, by the same token,

No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one's religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

(NYRB LIII, 5 appears not yet to have been made available at the Review's site.Sorry!)

March 02, 2006

In the News

Janet Maslin, former film critic at The New York Times and now a book reviewer who specializes in popular numbers that I probably wouldn't be able to get through (why is bad fiction so hard to read?), writes a saucy piece about Sarah Dunant's new tale of the Venetian Renaissance, In the Company of the Courtesan, in today's paper.

We know from many examples, among them Memoirs of a Geisha, that readers can be entranced by the erotica of female subjugation if it appears to be culturally uplifting. Ms Dunant knows how to play this idea like a lute.

In other news of female subjugation, Eduardo Porter's front-page headline tosses a spanner in the works: "Stretched to Limit, Women Stall March to Work." Cathie Watson-Short, photographed not once but twice for this article, is a former technology executive who has put aside her career to raise her three daughters, tells Mr Porter,

Most of us thought we would work and have kids, at least that was what we were brought up thinking we would do - no problem. But really we were kind of duped. None of us realized how hard it is.

So much for the land of ambition, hard work, and the rolling-up of sleeves. As for subjugation in the past, don't miss Bob Herbert's excoriation of Senator Conrad Burns (R, MT).

It has always been this way with Conrad Burns. Back in 1991, immediately after a civil rights bill had been passed, he invited a group of lobbyists, some of them white and some of them black, to accompany him to an auction.

When asked what was being auctioned, he replied, "Slaves."

The Washington Post quoted one of the lobbyists as saying: "We were floored. We couldn't believe it." Senator Burns later said he was talking about a charitable auction in which the services of individuals are sold.

Where are my Virginia Slims?

February 15, 2006


What are we calling it? The Whittington Affair? Shotgungate? (Drop a 't' and a 'g' there, and you have the kind of regime Dick Cheney wishes he were running.) Whatever we call it, I hope that we all learn its lesson, which is that the Bush Administration regards public opinion with an indifference that masks fear and contempt. There was no good reason for Mr Cheney not to step forward with a prompt, sportsmanlike statement. Instead of which he's huddling in an eye of Utter Irresponsibility. Poor old Whittington stepped into the line of fire; the Armstrong lobby decided how and when to break the news. God only knows what Mr Cheney meant when he told Mr Whittington that he "stood ready to assist." "Don't let that asshole near me" would have been an apt reply. But the Vice President, however characteristically clumsy and maladroit, did nothing wrong. Accidents happen.

So, what held the Vice President back? I would say that it was an adherence to the CEO playbook that, so far as I can tell, is the only explanation of the Administration's behavior overall. CEOs fear public opinion because it can be surprisingly powerful. They have contempt for it because it is so often unintelligent and misinformed - no thanks to CEOs and their flaks. These uncomfortable responses are powdered by an indifference that almost but not quite sincerely wonders why a "personal" matter is of any interest to strangers. I am convinced that the Vice President believes that what happened at the Armstrong Ranch on Saturday concerns no one but the people who were present and (possibly) their families. The accidental shooting - O! how I'd like to believe that the trigger was pulled nefariously! (but I can't) - in no way amounts to an affair of state. The normal thing to do, if you're following the CEO playbook, is to wait to see how bad the damage is before going public. If the damage is slight, then there's no story and no problem.

Who knew how serious Mr Whittington's injuries were? The important thing, from the playbook point of view, was not to fly off the handle with lamentations and regrets. I can almost hear Mr Cheney patting himself on the back for "holding it in" while waiting for the doctors' report. Right. Sadly, Mr Cheney is not a CEO. He is employed by the most public company of them all, the government of the United States of America, and he was elected to that position by voters who are not to be confused with shareholders. Shareholders might be as interested in keeping mum about the shooting as Mr Cheney; who knows what such news might to do the share price. But American electors are not investors. They see themselves as the investment.

At last we have a scandal that parallels the Clinton debacle. The original sin was not so bad, and it would have been forgiven if the sinner had 'fessed up. But the sinner in question didn't and doesn't want to do that. Mr Clinton denied that he'd had sex with Monica Lewinsky because he was misguided by pollsters. That was not an impeachable offense, but it was a serious presidential failing (lying about the relationship was more serious still). Mr Cheney didn't lie about anything, but there seems to be a strong feeling that his letting a day go by before confronting the story in public was inappropriate at best.

I'm not calling for impeachment - please! I'm simply pointing out that Mr Cheney's behavior after the accident is identical in spirit to that of corporate desperadoes from Ken Lay to Martha Stewart. Treat the public like the fool that it usually is, and hope for the best!

January 12, 2006

James Who?

As the scandal soaks up ever more attention, I feel that I must disclose the fact that, until Monday night, I had never heard of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Those of you who regard me as omniscient deserve the caution.

This latest literary crisis has inspired at least one patch of genuinely silver lining, however: a new strip from Patricia Storms.

January 11, 2006


What a grey day! The cupola of St Joseph's Church is damp-dark down to its waist, but no further, so the wet can't be very heavy. But the white glare of the fogged light is almost deathly. It looks as though the idea of a future, any future, has been retired. This is it.

News has reached us of Birgit Nilsson's death. Born in 1918, the singer had long since retired, but she remains a dear presence on recordings, and an even more lively one in the memory of our correspondent PPOQ, to whom she was and perhaps now more than ever is "The Goddess." By a curious circumstance, I was just listening to the sleepwalking scene from Verdi's Macbeth the other night. I wish that Nilsson had sung more Verdi. She sang German music with transcendental aplomb, but I never felt that she believed in it. Here she is as the guilt-haunted Lady, singing "Una macchia è qui tuttora."

January 09, 2006

It's The Bunk

Thanks to a touch of food poisoning that kept me up for a while last night, I'm under the weather today, and I won't get to the already-late Book Review review until tomorrow. But here is something entertaining from today's Times: an article by Stuart Elliott about the fake products that were featured in movies of the studio period.

Before product placement became a lucrative business, movie studios mostly kept well-known brands off the screen. They generally considered the appearance of real products to be too great a distraction from the escapist worlds they conjured up for moviegoers at neighborhood cinemas.

This intrigues me, because I always found the fake products distracting. Being a noticing sort of person (as Miss Marple puts it), I identified the labels on cans and cereal boxes as fake simply because I didn't recognize them. Fictional brand-names and obviously phony dollar bills infected the world of screen entertainment with an ersatz atmosphere that was anything but alluring. Today's escapism, soundly rooted in product-placement, is much more convincing.

I didn't see Easy Living (1937) - directed by Mitchell Leisen but written by Preston Sturges - until I was all grown up, and could quickly spot the "Hotel Louis," pronounced à la française but sounding very à la Bronxaise, as a take on the very plush Pierre. Mr Elliott doesn't mention this one, but he does spot two other well-known Sturges inventions, Maxford House Coffee (Christmas in July, 1940) and Pike's Pale Ale (that won for Yale - The Lady Eve, 1941).

January 06, 2006

And 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW will be Washington's latest golfing condo!

Why Dubya ought to esteem the Constitution with a bit more vigor.

Congress today announced that the office of President of the United States of America will be outsourced to India as of December 1, 2005.

The move is being made to save the President's $400,000 yearly salary, and also a record $521 billion in deficit expenditures and related overhead the office has incurred during the last 5 years.

"We believe this is a wise move financially. The cost savings should be significant," stated Congressman Thomas Reynolds (R-W A). Reynolds, with the aid of the Government A accounting Office, has studied outsourcing of American jobs extensively. "We cannot expect to remain competitive on the world stage with the current level of cash outlay," Reynolds noted.

Mr. Bush was informed by email this morning of his termination. Preparations for the job move have been underway for sometime. Gurvinder Singh of Indus Teleservices, Mumbai, India will be assuming the office of President as of December 1st.

Mr. Singh was born in the United States while his Indian parents were vacationing at Niagara Falls, thus making him eligible for the position. He will receive a salary of $320 (USD) a month but with no health coverage or other benefits.

It is believed that Mr. Singh will be able to handle his job responsibilities without a support staff. Due to the time difference between the US and India, he will be working primarily at night, when few offices of the US Government will be open. "Working nights will allow me to keep my day job at the American Express call center," stated Mr. Singh in an exclusive interview. "I am excited about this position. I always hoped I would be President someday."

A Congressional Spokesperson noted that while Mr. Singh may not be fully aware of all the issues involved in the office of President, this should not be a problem because Bush was not familiar with the issues either.

Mr.Singh will rely upon a script tree that will enable him to respond effectively to most topics of concern. Using these canned responses, he can address common concerns without having to understand the underlying issues at all.

"We know these scripting tools work," stated the spokesperson. "President Bush has used them successfully for years." Mr. Singh may have problems with the Texas drawl, but lately Bush has abandoned the "down home" persona in his effort to appear intelligent and on top of the Katrina situation.

Bush will receive health coverage, expenses, and salary until his final day of employment. Following a two week waiting period, he will be eligible for $240 a week unemployment for 13 weeks. Unfortunately he will not be eligible for Medicaid, as his unemployment benefits will exceed the allowed limit.

Mr. Bush has been provided the outplacement services of Manpower, Inc. to help him write a resume and prepare for his upcoming job transition. According to Manpower, Mr. Bush may have difficulties in securing a new position due to limited practical work experience. A Greeter position at Wal-Mart was suggested due to Bush's extensive experience shaking hands.

Another possibility is Bush's re-enlistment in the Texas Air National Guard. His prior records are conspicuously vague but should he choose this option, he would likely be stationed in Waco, TX for a month, before being sent to Iraq, a country he has visited. "I've been there, I know all about Iraq ," stated Mr. Bush, who gained invaluable knowledge of the country in a visit to Baghdad Airport.

Sources in Baghdad and Falluja say Mr. Bush would receive a warm reception from local Iraqis. They have asked to be provided with details of his arrival so that they might arrange an appropriate welcome.

Would that be "warm" as in "boiling oil"?

December 21, 2005

Home Early

The Transit Strike has had an unintended benefit for yours truly that I intend to enjoy loudly and unashamedly. Because Kathleen depends upon her law firm's vans to get to work - and to get home - she had to leave the office at 5:30 yesterday afternoon. Why, when she goes in to the office on weekends she doesn't leave that early! I shall pretend that we're simply having a long weekend until the strike ends. I know that a lot of people are in terrible jams because of the strike, and that this is probably not going to be the most happily-remember Christmas season ever, but I refuse to regret the opportunity to pass normal evenings with my dear wife.

Who, the night before last, forgot that M le Neveu was coming for dinner. "Start without me," she said at twenty past nine. Well, I really didn't want to do that. I don't think that anyone ever wants to do that. So I temporized and she hustled and we sat down at ten, by which time my appetite was a shambles.

I'm inclined to sympathize with the strikers. Working conditions on New York's subways are not very pleasant, and the entire system ought to be rebuilt from scratch. The MTA - a board of flunkies who do the bidding of the elected officials who appoint them, thus deflecting all accountability to the Crab Nebula - has been squeezing workers harder while failing to take infrastructural problems seriously. I mentioned revenge fantasies yesterday in another connection, but declined to reveal them. Here I will say that I think a sort of Place de la Révolution event, with a few guillotines in the public squares, and tumbrils full of the MTA board, the TLC commissioners, and all the taxi-medallion owners who do not drive their own cabs. Oh, and the people who're supposed to bring this dump into the twenty-first century with public toilets! An end to governmental fecklessness, say I!

December 20, 2005

Lines on a Headache brought on by the "I" word.

President Bush has admitted that he systematically instructed subordinates to violate the law, to wit, 50 USC 1802. He feels that this violation was justifiable, but that's an argument that he would have to make in court - in Congress, at impeachment proceedings. Mr Bush would, of course, prefer to be tried in the court of public opinion, and we'll soon see if that's going to happen. Right now, those of us who dislike and mistrust Mr Bush and his administration are asking ourselves whether trying to stir up a racket would be a good thing.

That's what it feels like to me, anyway. If I can't work up much enthusiasm, it's because the violations - pointless, it seems; the wiretaps could have been imposed lawfully - seem so slight and technical when placed alongside the administration's War on Truth. For the sake of my sense and sanity, I pay the White House as little attention as possible, because it is nothing but a compost heap of disinformation and pep talk. When the president's voice comes over the radio, I rush to mute the sound: his is a voice that makes me want to stand on the rooftop and bellow.

Already I have thought about this matter for longer than is good for me. I begin to see that the fabric of American government has been rent to tatters, and that the executives of large corporations, in the blind pursuit of self-enrichment, will eventually push our economy into the abyss. Language has been so adulterated by fools and scoundrels on the right that the discourse without which a democracy cannot sustain itself will never be resumed.

And I begin to have dark, adolescent revenge fantasies. No, it's not good at all. I must not think about impeaching the president.

I do harbor hope of seeing the man in the dock at the Hague some day. That would be suitable.

December 05, 2005

Still More Political Humour

Suddenly, it just doesn't stop.

The Democratic Party is becoming the tool of an extreme domestic leftist insurgency led by the Michael Moores and the Cindy Sheehans and other neoreactionary, neoisolationist Americans.

(Actor Ron Silver, in the Times.)


December 02, 2005

More Political Humour

Keep 'em coming. This one's from PPOQ.

One day a fourth-grade teacher asked the children what their fathers did for a living. All the typical answers came up - fireman, mechanic, businessman, salesman, doctor, lawyer, and so forth.

But little Justin was being uncharacteristically quiet, so when the teacher prodded him about his father, he replied, "My father's an exotic dancer in a gay cabaret and takes off all his clothes in front of other men and they put money in his underwear. Sometimes, if the offer is really good, he will go home with some guy and make love with him for money."

The teacher, obviously shaken by this statement, hurriedly set the other children to work on some exercises and then took little Justin aside to ask him, "Is that really true about your father?"

"No," the boy said, "He works for the Republican National Committee and helped re-elect George Bush, but I was too embarrassed to say that in front of the other kids."

December 01, 2005

Official Announcement

This just in.

Official Announcement:

The government today announced that it is changing its emblem from an Eagle to a CONDOM because it more accurately reflects the government's political stance. A condom allows for inflation, halts production, destroys the next generation, protects a bunch of pricks, and gives you a sense of security while you're actually being screwed.


I don't make this up, you know.

October 31, 2005


While everybody else was laughing or jeering, I was fretting. I had an awful feeling that we'd miss Harriet Miers. She seemed so preposterous as a nominee; now, with "Scalito" up for the seat, who - aside from the crabby quarter of the nation that wants to erase civil rights - who does not wish that we could bring the toady back?

October 27, 2005

Fun's Over

Happiness is... never having taken Harriet Miers to be a serious nominee for the Supreme Court. Never having gotten worked up about her inadequacies. Never having quite tuned in.

Happiness is not... wondering who the serious contender, whether in the running all along or settled on during the Miers silliness, might be. There are plenty of badass women on the District Court bench, and whichever one Team Dubya chooses, she'll be ridiculously more qualified than the president's toady.

October 23, 2005


Don't miss Ben Stein's chin-stroking questions about the meaning of his alumni gifts to Yale. The size of Yale's endowment - and that of several other famous universities - allows it to participate in hugely profitable deals that most of Yale's wealthiest graduates can't buy into, and this occasions some interesting resentment on the part of the writer.

I love Yale, and I am deeply grateful to Yale. It is a star in my sky every day and night. But at this point, is it an investment bank or a school? I am really not sure, and this troubles me. I would love to be shown that I am wrong, but I am not certain that I am.

Well, duh. It's an investment bank with a little University of Phoenix thingy running on the side. At schools like Carleton, Grinnell, Coe and Bowdoin, in contrast, undergraduates are taught by real professors, not exploited graduate students. How much longer is this Harvard madness going to continue? 

October 21, 2005


It turns out that Harriet Miers is not entirely the woman of no accomplishment that she is made out to be. Even allowing for slant, Molly McDonough's piece for the American Bar Association's Web site, "Harriet Miers' 'Unknown' Story," ticks off a list of achievements - all related to the Bar.

Miers focused most of her career in behind-the-scenes trial practice. Colleagues say her penchant for being discreet won her the trust of her clients, including Microsoft, Walt Disney & Co. and, eventually, then-Gov. George W. Bush.

When she did take center stage, it was through bar activities. At the ABA, Miers served for nine years on the ABA Journal Board of Editors, and from 1995 to 1998 she served as chair. She also served in the ABA as chair of the Commission on Multijurisdictional Practice, chair of the House of Delegates’ Rules and Calendar Committee, and co-chair of the Section of Litigation’s Business Torts Litigation Committee. She also was a longtime member of the ABA Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, and is a fellow of the American Bar Foundation.

Ms McDonough writes that Ms Miers is "well-known" for not making an issue of her string of "gender-barrier breakthroughs." That may be genuine modesty, or it may be the character trait that made her attractive to Texan patriarchs, Uncle-Tom style. After all, the law firm that hired her as its first female associate did so in 1972.

In the end, this article confirms, once and for all, my sense that Harriet Miers is a first-class crony. The Delegates' Rules and Calendar Committee? Bingo.

October 18, 2005


Ever since Vermont instituted civil unions in 2000, granting gay couples (among others) the same civil rights as married folks, I've been waiting for another state to refuse to recognize such a union. To my great shame, my own state is the first that I know of to take this terrible step. The Appellate Division Second Department, which has jurisdiction over Long Island, rejected a Supreme Court ruling that permitted John Langan to sue St Vincent's Hospital for the wrongful death of his partner, Neil Spicehandler. The opinion is marred by red-state ugliness.

"The thought that the surviving spouse would be of the same sex as the decedent was simply inconceivable," the appellate court said of the law's original intent.

(Click here for Newsday's full account.) But the original intent of our wrongful-death statutes is not the issue. It is wholly irrelevant to the case. According to Article IV of the United States Constitution,

Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.

If Vermont says that Mr Langan and Mr Spicehandler were partners, then they are partners everywhere in the United States, and invoking the term "spouse" to conclude otherwise is the meanest sort of legalism. The Appellate Division's opinion is plainly unconstitutional. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is in on the case. Let's hope that the Court of Appeals reinstates the trial-court judgment.

Another, much sillier but somehow more informative spoor of the wingnut male mind crossed my desk later in the day. It starts out on a jocular note but gets nastier and nastier, attacking liberals as being, among other things, like women. I put it after the jump, so you don't have to look at it unless you want to. But I do wonder that its manly author remained so obviously unaware of his resentful self-pity. I don't believe that anyone who felt good about his own life would have forwarded this to a friend, much less written it.

Continue reading "Unconstitutional" »

October 16, 2005

Gossip and Rumor

When I first heard what I'm going to report, I thought, that's not for the DB. Even though I'm not shy about my political opinions, this is not a political site. And it is certainly not a news source.

But I'm impatient with my news source of choice, The New York Times. So, here goes.

The other day, a good friend had lunch with a former Cabinet member. I'm not making this up, nor do I have any doubt that the former secretary did indeed make the attributed remarks.

First, my friend was told that certain parties have been asked to write their letters of resignation. Nous verrons.

Second, he was told about a recurrent drinking problem. 

This second rumor is very serious. If I've heard it more than once (and read it at Web sites that don't go in for casual mud-slinging), where is The New York Times? The rumor ought to be stilled, replaced by reportage one way or the other. Once upon a time, the private life of public officials was pretty much their own affair. Those days, for better or worse, are over. What's the story, Grey Lady?

October 05, 2005

Yeeeears Ago

I have better things to do than reading gossip columns, but unfortunately Campbell Robertson, who's running the feature now, is too funny to miss. Half the time, I don't know who the boldface names are, but Mr Robertson's sneakiness always makes me smile. Today it made me burst out laughing.

The event was the reopening of Walt Disney's Cinderella, which has just been issued on DVD. Then there was a bal at the Waldorf, in the middle of the day. "Dancers waltzed," writes Mr Robertson, making it perfectly clear in two words that the dancers were hired entertainment, not guests. This was, after all, a mother-daughter event. That's daughters as in "little girls."

Upon that, [Cynthia Rowley's] daughter dropped to the floor like a professional soldier and began demanding to leave.

"She is having a total sugar meltdown," Ms Rowley said.

You have to love it. Soon-Yi Previn was one of the - mothers.

Did you know the [Cinderella] story as a child?

"Yes, and actually my husband got me a Cinderella watch," she said, lifting up her petite wrist to show us the watch. "He gave it to me because he knew it was my favorite."

When did he give this to you?

"Yeeeears ago."

How many years ago?

She suddenly appeared uncomfortable. "I don't remember," she said. Then, taking her children by the hand, she scurried off.

Way to go, Campbell! Now, if you do not know who Soon-Yi Previn is - and there's no good reason why you should - and are correspondingly unaware of her husband's identity, then please write to me and I will tell you.

Forgive me for taking up your valuable time.

September 30, 2005

Joke Going Round

Donald Rumsfeld is giving the president his daily briefing. He concludes by saying: "Yesterday, 3 Brazilian soldiers were killed."  "OH NO!" the president exclaims.  "That's terrible!"

His staff sits stunned at this display of emotion, nervously watching as the President sits, head in hands.  Finally, the President looks up and asks, "How many is a brazillion?"

September 28, 2005

Trains and Gains

Otis White writes in today's Times about something that occurred to me in the early days of the Katrina disaster: why did nobody think to evacuate people by train? If anybody did have that idea, it was shot down and not widely discussed. Earth to United States: railroads are the future, not the past.

If the federal government needed another reason to support the development of modern, high-speed passenger rail, then here it is. Not only can it reduce congestion, save energy and strengthen regional economies, in times of emergency it could be a critical third way out.

Mr White's piece is available to all; that is, it isn't Times Select.

In other news: Citigroup analyst George Friedlander puts it very well:

A clear case of justice DeLayed.

September 23, 2005

Waiting, Again

Another storm - it's hard to believe. I don't know what to expect. A lot of flattened buildings along the Texas Gulf Coast, and a lot of flooding. As in New Orleans, parts of Houston sit below sea level, owing to subsidence of the water table. Flooding is normal in Houston. I asked Miss G last night if she remembered the time I brought her home from day care on my shoulders, like St Christopher. She did indeed. Neither the day school nor her mother's apartment was flooded, but the streets were, and I seem to recall the water on Montrose Boulevard reaching my thighs. It was fun, sort of. Miss G also remembered the time on Nantucket - my only visit there, in 1983 - when I had to stride through the surf to pull her in through an extraordinary undertow that even gave me some trouble. These were my only waterborne heroics, and both involved my daughter.

Ms NOLA and Miss G are both firmly of the opinion that there is nothing that the President can do in dealing with Hurricane Rita that will rehabilitate him. I'm not so sure - but that's only because I won't let myself get set up for another disappointment. How the man has made it this far is beyond me. Now come revelations that top everything. I am not going to link to the National Enquirer's Web site, because it's easy enough for you to find if you're interested, but what do you think the most embarrassing (and not fantastically unlikely) allegation about the President would be?

Meanwhile, the weather here is all but glorious. How can there be meteorological terror in another corner of the country? The combination of fatigue - September 2005 ought to be remembered as "Katrina Month" - and cognitive dissonance - I'm sitting quietly in my room, sipping tea, thinking of reading On Beauty and having spaghetti alla carbonara for dinner at a time when two family members will be hit hard by Rita - makes it difficult to know what to take seriously. I wish Kathleen were home.

When Kathleen travels, she is under strict orders to contact someone in New York - preferably me, but I won't feel slighted if she checks in with the office - before noon. At 12:25 today, Kathleen's secretary noted that Kathleen hadn't opened any of her emails this morning. I took a Xanax. I spoke to Miss G, who still hadn't reached her mother. Finally, at 12:48, Kathleen called. The story is always a good one. Having rushed to the conference from another hotel, she moderated a panel and then left her backpack on the podium when it was over. So she couldn't call me during the following panel. She was just about to borrow someone else's phone (does she think I was born yesterday?) when the morning meeting finally broke up. I know perfectly well that what happened was that Kathleen just got lost in the bustle of the conference. Exactly the opposite, really: everything that wasn't the conference was lost to her. I can hear her looking down at her watch and, seeing that noon was history, muttering merde. So to speak.

September 22, 2005


My dear daughter, Miss G, arrived for dinner at 7:30 and said, "Can we watch CNN?"

Miss G doesn't watch CNN as a matter of course, but she's understandably agitated about Hurricane Rita, which is going to make a landfall, so the experts say, somewhere between Corpus Christi and Galveston, and there's no way that the storm isn't going to wreak a lot of horrendous havoc. Ms G's mother lives in Galveston, and was to have evacuated herself during the evening. Problem was, she left no messages for Miss G during the evening. Nor could Ms G reach her uncle in Houston, who might have had some good information. It's terrible to be without information about the near and dear. Since I go bananas when I can't get through to Kathleen on the simplest of business trips, I never, ever tut tut somebody else's concern, no matter how likely it is that the worried-about person is safe and sound and busy doing other things.

So we watched CNN. And what we watched was the Jet Blue emergency landing. I hope that you missed this remarkable nonevent. Nobody was killed, and in fact nothing but a landing gear was damaged. Even the plane will be fine. But for two hours, instead of eating dinner, Miss G and I watched the plane land. That's a long time, no? Listen, I'm not complaining. Clearly, everybody waited until everything was just right for a plane to land without its forward landing gear. You'll probably have seen a tape of that by now. The plane coming down, nose up, slowing down, gradually putting its weight on the defective gear, and then the flames that turned out to be inconsequential. (Best line ever: Larry King asking, "Is that fire?") Finally, the plane came to rest, somewhere in the desert of LAX's airstrips. God knows what the passengers who had boarded a JFK-bound flight at Burbank made of it. Well, they were lucky of course. They will have a good story for life. Except that every expert who spoke about the situation insisted that it was not a story.

All right, the landing gear failed to retract after takeoff. A serious problem, if only from the standpoint of fuel consumption. Instead of heading to New York, the plane circled over Los Angeles - and the ocean into which it dumped a lot of its fuel - for almost three hours. Toward the end, the continued looping was attributed to the need to "burn off fuel" - what little remained. Fine and dandy. But about an hour before the story came to an end, it was clear that the only way that this Jet Blue Airbus was going to blow up was in a Jerry Brookheimer movie. So why the story?

I've never said that, if I did watch television, I couldn't be hooked. On the contrary!

September 21, 2005

Hee Hee

It's rude to gloat, but I can't help it. Read "Katrina's Cost May Test GOP Harmony," a Washington Post story by Shailagh Murray and Jim VandeHei. Republican Senator Lincoln D Chafee

predicted Republicans will increasingly be faced with the choice of propping up Bush or protecting their own. "I think they're going to collide," Chafee said of the two options.

Of course, Rita may make a hero out of the President.

September 19, 2005

Where There's A Will, There's A Way

Three Duke students were determined to help out in New Orleans. And, despite everything, they did. They drove some ailing people from the Convention Center to a hospital in Baton Rouge.

"We felt pretty satisfied that we got involved," Mr. Hankla said. "But we all kept talking about how it was possible that three kids in a two-wheel-drive Hyundai were able to move people out of the city and the National Guard wasn't."

The story's by Ian Urbina.

September 13, 2005

Looking Homeward

¶ An expat from New York looks back at her damaged, self-destructive homeland.

¶ But here's a fun graphic from the Washington Post. I find sustenance even in that silly green line. It's so low.

Ghastly But Perfect Joke

Here's one for the ages.

"So, Mr. President, what do you think about Roe vs. Wade?"

"Well, those poor people in New Orleans had to get out of there somehow."

(Thanks, PPOQ)

September 12, 2005


Ms NOLA observes that a couple of Southern women novelists - Donna Tartt, Valerie Martin - have published agonized commentary Katrina's aftermath in the British press. Why should that be? They may be having a harder time finding a pulpit here, where the press is still loath to abrade the Administration and eager to appear to the public as helpful and cooperative. Ms Martin's essay concludes very bleakly:

Only the mad libertines who cling to power as if for dear life can fail to see, in the belching fire and smoke that blacken the skies over the Dantesque scenes of suffering in New Orleans, that our nation is not more secure, but over-extended, desperate, and more vulnerable every day to the fury of the coming storm.

Michael D Brown surprised me by resigning his post at FEMA three days after being relieved of his "Gulf Coast duties." I thought it would take a little longer, to distance the two moves and thus dampen their impact.

And now, in Los Angeles, a major power failure. Let's cross our fingers and hope it's short.

No Comment


These two dodos make Louis XVI look good. Marie-Antoinette, even.

In other news, I'm exhausted. Seriously out of gas.

There have been four incarnations of Madison Square Garden, the arena that long ago drifted away from Madison Square. Perhaps because of all the fun I didn't have going to the circus at the third Garden, in the Fifties, I have never been in the current manifestation. I wouldn't go even to see myself win an award. In my opinion, the Metropolitan Opera House, which seats nearly four thousand people, is far too large. The Garden holds up to twenty. I don't want to be indoors with twenty thousand other people. Not for anything.

The Times this morning tells me that there's going to be a fifth Garden. That's good news. Another ugly building gotten rid of. Another souvenir of an unfortunate time in New York history - a time when New York tried to be just like everywhere else, only bigger. There has been a lot of talk lately about New Orleans as this country's most unusual city, but I'm sorry, that has got to stop. With its huge immigrant populations, half from foreign countries, half from within the United States, New York constitutes this country's Loyal Opposition. 

Why not build the next Garden in Long Island City, and make Manhattan a blessedly grown-up, sports-free borough?

September 09, 2005

Ohh Nooo!

Kathleen woke me up this morning with laughter. She was reading about Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who gave a speech in the Senate yesterday with a dash of Cajun spice.

The senator went on to describe how the creator of Mr. Bill, the clay figurine whose cry of "Ohh noooo!" was long a staple of "Saturday Night Live," had used the character in public service announcements to warn southern Louisianians of the dangers they would face in an extraordinary storm.

"How can it be," she asked, "that Mr. Bill was better informed than Mr. Bush?"

Good old Mr Bill. How we laughed, those first few seasons of Saturday Night Live. Some of us had been laughing already, at the National Lampoon Radio Hour, which as I recall was broadcast on Sunday nights. There have been NLRH anthologies, but none of them has included John Belushi's beer-chugging "Perfect Master," or the "Mr Chatterbox" bulletins, or the surprise Nichols-May "my son the nurse" routine, or "The Censorless Woman." Not that I'm discontent. As long as I can have "The Indianapolis Academy of the French Accent," I'm cool.

The weather here has been unbelievably pleasant. The skies are cloudy at the moment, but the windows are open. Linda, the head nurse at the Infusion Unit, called the other day. I feared a glitch in my insurance, but she was only asking me if I could come a little earlier this afternoon for my Remicade. No problem! I saw my internist yesterday. What I feared might be a tumor at the base of my spine turned out to be a little skin problem, treatable by Gold Bond Powder and Spectazole. Remember, I couldn't see it myself. But really. What a hypochondriac.

I do have the perfect reading material for the infusion: Thirteen Steps Down, Ruth Rendell's latest. It beats all records for getting deeply creepy in no time. I'm about halfway through, and wondering if the story will end in conflagration.

The management of Ruth's Chris Steak House Inc has relocated permanently from New Orleans to Orlando. The question of just how the business of New Orleans is to continue will soon begin to swell over news of the disaster relief.

Poor Mr Bush is indeed as stuck as Mr Bill ever was. He's paralyzed by the evaporation of political options. If he fires Michael Brown at FEMA, he'll send the wrong message to his conservative base, which would like to see FEMA abolished. Likewise if he takes any responsibility for failing to come to New Orleans's aid in a timely manner. Or if he even admits that there was a federal problem. The option that he's counting on - launching a whitewashing "investigation" that will suppress any evidence against his team - is an illusion, because it will persuade no one who currently believes that there ought to be an investigation.

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!

August 25, 2005

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.

July 22, 2005

New Yorker Roundup (July 25 Issue)

Since it's the end of the week, and if you haven't read the current issue of The New Yorker, you're probably never going to, let me propose a brief roundup of its interesting collection of nonfiction features. Perhaps you'll change you rmind. (Only one is available online, but there is also an online interview with author William Finnegan.)

First, Anthony Grafton, author of a delightful book on footnotes, assesses, in "Reading Ratzinger," the thinking of the former cardinal, by going through the catalogue of one hundred thirty items written by the Pope held by Princeton's Theological Seminary. As a graduate student, Ratzinger learned how Augustine and Bonaventure both learned important points of orthodoxy in confrontations with heretics. I must say that Mr Grafton seems a bit dazzled. One paragraphs ends with the theologian's conclusion that "The true Church could not be founded on the exclusion of others"; the next reports that Ratzinger has "recently approved the exclusion from the Eucharist of Catholic politicians who defend abortion rights." It may be that the first is an instance of exclusion from the Church, not the Eucharist, but that is a distinction without much of a difference. I came across nothing, in any case, that excited my respect for the Pope's critical thinking. Mr Grafton leaves us with the implicit conclusion that, however brilliant, Benedict XVI is not a genuine intellectual at all. 

As the organ and liturgy drown out the weaker voices of liberal critics, as the searchlight of orthodoxy retrospectively reveals the errors of [liberation theologian] Leonardo Boff and other dissidents, the Pope and the magisterium - the centralized authority of Roman Catholic wisdom - have no need to look outside for enlightenment.

That was my understanding to begin with.

Everyone seems to be thinking that nomination of John G Roberts to take Sandra Day O'Connors seat on the Supreme Court was timed to distract attention from the Rove-Plame simmer. But how about Seymour M Hersh's piece, "Getting Out the Vote," on how we may have poured millions into influencing the Iraqi elections in January? To be sure, this is not one of Mr Hersh's strongest stories, and because it can be argued that "everybody else was doing the same thing" (bringing contra-democratic forces to bear on the voting), any outrage is bound to be anemic. But I think there's enough substance to the report to add one more log to the "we don't practice what we preach" pyre for the eventual immolation of the Bush Administration. Whatever else Mr Hersh's piece leaves you with, you will groan with the fear that our intelligence services have not really curbed their taste for proaction.

As if to compensate for the discouragement of the preceding, be sure to read William Finnegan's review of the New York Police Department's anti-terrorism forces, "The Terrorism Beat." Sounds like the last thing you'd like to read? Well it's not. Even if that honor didn't belong to the next piece, Mr Finnegan's account of the serious and effective-sounding overhaul that the city's approach to terrorism has undergone since Mayor Bloomberg appointed Raymond W Kelly to serve a second term as Police Commissioner. (Mr Kelly served for a year under David Dinkins.) From two dozen officers prior to 9/11, the force has grown to about a thousand, in a Police Force ten times that size. Operating in the vacuum created on the one hand by a CIA and an FBI disgraced by intelligence lapses, and on the other by the disgraceful failure of the federal government to take any meaningful action to protect New York City, the Mayor and his Commissioner took their own initiative. From drawing on the city's large population of immigrants who can speak the languages of the Middle East - or, as it is referred to here, "Western Asia" - to establishing humming control centers that coordinate tireless detective work, to posting officers in key foreign cities - not to help with investigations but to learn from them - to the deployment of Hercules squads at the hint of danger, the city's response to terrorist threat bristles with zeal and, so far, manifest competence.

Endless vigilance, no victory; success means nothing happens.

Every day without an event is its own success. I could not resist gloating at the implications of the following:

Hardening the target: that's the term of art for the overarching goal of local counterterror work. It can help to know what's happening thousands of miles away, but a densely layered system of municipal defense is a terrorism deterrent of a special type. It says, basically, Try another town.

The next, and final article is all about the comeback, in modern medicine, of leeches. Anybody with even a smattering of historical study under her belt knows that leeches were the bane of pre-modern medicine, often making patients worse rather than better. But according to John Colapinto, writing in "Bloodsuckers," ever since the discovery, in 1884, of the first natural anti-coagulant substance ever discovered, in the saliva of Hirudo medicinalis, the leech has enjoyed scientific, if not medical, interest. The medical interest kicked in in 1985, when a Boston surgeon had to cope somehow with a child's outer ear that he had successfully reattached, only to watch it darken with congested blood. A mad and surreptitious scramble for leeches saved the day, and, ever since, leeches have been the handmaidens (and the handymen - they're hermaphroditic) of microsurgery. They bring an incomparable array of complex wonder drugs to the healing of re-connected veins and healing joints. (They may even be approved for the treatment of osteoarthritic knees - just in time for me!)

If there's a word for the little sketches that adorn the texts of articles in The New Yorkers - and I'm not talking about the "drawings" that have only recently been recognized by the magazine as "cartoons," a word shunned under previous régimes - I don't know what it is, but in this week's issue, they're all by the same hand, and they all depict whimsical engines of self-propelled aviation.