August 31, 2007

The Last Entry

Why do I feel that I'm leaving something, when nothing is going anywhere? The only change, for me, will be no longer having to deal with MovableType, a blogging platform that I chose in 2004 precisely because it was said to be the most daunting. (And it was daunting. I discovered that I am a closet masochist.) Exchanging MovableType for WordPress is like taking off a very heavy backpack. Life is suddenly, startlingly easy. I have no regrets.

But it's true that I am leaving school. I started the Daily Blague at a strange time, right after George Bush's second victory. The Blogosphere had been hopping during the campaign and was still very lively, as the writers at political sites that I visited, such as Crooked Timber and Obsidian Wings, tried to make sense of the disaster. Eventually, I lost interest in political blogs. I lost interest in all single-issue blogs. And I really didn't know what to do with my own. For far too long, I filled it with reams of material that belonged in a different setting. I was like the bore who shows up at a cocktail party and wants to talk about the death sentence.

At some point or other, the old Daily Blague developed a serious comment-spam problem, and my Web host actually considered shutting it down, along with at least one other MoveableType site. That's when I decided to move, both to another host and to another platform. By now, I had a very clear idea of what The Daily Blague ought to look and feel like. Thanks to the heavy lifting of Searchlight Consulting, the look and feel has been realized. But as Steve Laico can tell you, I knew what I wanted.

What distinguishes a blog structurally from other Web site is, of course, its interactivity: the solicitation of comments. Most blogs don't get nearly as many comments as their creators would like, and The Daily Blague is one of them. But every comment is a lively acknowledgment that someone has been reading what I've written. I don't know why any writer doesn't keep a blog for that reason alone. (Writers who aren't celebrities, that is.) The comments that the Daily Blague has accumulated have given me a better idea of where I stand in the world than I had before blogging.

To all readers, but especially to those who were "in at the birth," I say Thank You!

August 11, 2007

Folle (mais contente) journée

Yesterday, I had a big day. I went to the movies in the morning and to a baseball game at night. It was a very lucky day for anyone to have. Most readers will probably be surprised about the baseball part. So am I.

2 Days in Paris.

The Cyclones at Keyspan Park.

August 08, 2007

Rethinking Parties

Today's page isn't really old enough for pointing, but I'm full of the spirit of it. I have met so many amazing people in the past few years, all through the Internet, that I wonder if we are not on the brink of an age in which you forget about the high school classmates that you're stuck with and check in with the Trollope reading group first.

It took me a long time to grasp the central truth about parties, which is that the guest list is everything. When my parents gave parties, which was fairly often, their guest lists were virtually predetermined. In Bronxville, there were the country club friends and, less often, a circle of business people. In Houston, it was either business or St Michael's Parish. What distinguished one party from another was the occasion. In other words, the parties were virtually indistinguishable.

I live a completely different life. I belong to no groups. I know a number of interesting people who might not be expected to get along with each other. Inviting everyone I know to one big party is not a good idea, but, as I say, it took a while to figure this out.

Yorkville High Street>Curriculum Vitae>Rethinking Parties.


August 07, 2007


Like the fool that I am, I Googled myself.

Very nice that the sites show up. That was really all I wanted to know. But how peculiar that the third item on the list was our engagement announcement. Not the wedding announcement, but the engagement - Kathleen got in twice. Of course it doesn't make sense now; the Times doesn't even think of publishing engagement notices. We wouldn't make it by today's criteria.

What I "love" about the story is the absence of "previous." The way the article is written, it sounds as though my marriage to Kathleen was annulled before I left the church. The Times used to write, "Mr X's prior marriage ended in divorce," or somesuch. "Annulled" is very Catholic. I am one one of the very few men with a child from the first marriage who got to marry in the Church a second time. The marriage to C may have been canceled, but Ms G wasn't.

I don't think that my gay friends truly appreciate my hardships! They never take me to lunch.

Billy Hurt

It's past midnight, but I've just watched a film that turned out to be extraordinarily interesting. It's not the best-made movie ever, even though it stars two pluperfect luminaries, Susan Sarandon and Sam Neill, and has even more firepower thanks to Emily Blunt, whom we finally get to see without the ridiculous eye shadow that was forced upon her face in The Devil Wears Prada. My lord, she's lovely! And equal to sicko roles, too. I think she learned the local posh dialect for this movie. Born in London and raised in Roehampton (which is still London), Ms Blunt softens certain syllables in a way that made me wonder. Mind you, when Nicole and I run off together we are going to talk totally Yankee prep.

You laugh. Kathleen just discovered that William Hurt, a/k/ka Billy Hurt, was a camper at Timanous, the brother camp of Kathleen's Wohelo. I always feel sorry for those guys, because they were stuck on Panther Pond, while the girls had Lake Sebago. On second thought, it was probably best that the boys had Panther Pond - a manageable lake - to themselves. Sebago is big. Lots of camps on Sebago, if you get my drift.

Truly fascinating. Billy Hurt, so to speak, is two years younger than I am and three years older than Kathleen. And what does Kathleen say? She tells me that I'm lucky she didn't meet him back in the day. Her fervor for the star of Broadcast News is such that I once protested that when I came back again in another life, I'll be William Hurt. Good! she pronounced.

I suppose that that means that she still wants me. Even if I look better.

August 05, 2007

Lazy Sunday

There's little or no incentive to post an entry today, because a sizable contingent of readers isn't going to check in. They're the people who like to know what Kathleen's up to, and today they can do that without my help, because she's right there with them, in Raymond, Maine, where her old summer camp sits on Lake Sebago, and where a couple of fellow counselors have weekend houses. Kathleen flew up this morning, on an eight-o'clock plane. I made the mistake of getting up with her. Twilight is far off, but I can hardly keep my eyes open.


How about all those crazy people, sitting out in the sun! Sheer madness.

In the distance is the Manhattan Psychiatric Center. It looks deserted when we drive by on the Triboro Bridge, but apparently it's still in operation. Ha! It's address is a very misleading "600 East 125th Street." What kind of a joke is that? Although within the Borough of Manhattan, the center is not on Manhattan Island, but on Ward Island, across the Harlem River. You can tell that I was visiting in the middle of the day, because the shadows projected by the wings are so thin. About now, the shadows will make the building look like the enormous sundial that, come to think of it, it is.

The weather is so beautiful that I supplemented a trip to the grocery store with a walk to Carl Schurz Park. I looked across the East River at the Astoria Houses, with, just beyond them, the much swankier Pot Cove Tower. I'm pretty sure that that's not what the luxury building, visible from our balcony, is called, but Pot Cove is what it stands over. I took pictures, but my hand wasn't steady enough. When are they going to make cameras without push buttons?

August 03, 2007


When I was a boy, there was something amazingly rectifying about Good Queen Bess - Elizabeth I. She was a Marie-Antoinette who knew how to rule. Both women understood the power of attire, but of course only one of them was the sovereign. I was terribly sad about MA when I was young, but I was correspondingly keen about Elizabeth. She invented Shakespeare!

As one grows up, the story becomes complicated. Elizabeth was a terrible procrastinator who hated making decisions, not because she was lazy but because she doubted her own abilities. She was, after all, a woman, in her own mind, a weak vessel. But she always rallied, and her people loved her. She was the first female sovereign to claim widespread appeal. I liked the idea of a woman in charge, even before I knew that Elizabeth was madly seeking the best advice of her male advisors.

It's utterly impudent of me to say so, but I wonder what the Virgin Queen and I would talk about were we to have a lunch date. Elizabeth is second only to Mme de Pompadour as my Fly on the Wall candidate, but when it comes to guts of actually meeting somebody, I think I'd be more comfortable with Elizabeth than with La Pomp. Elizabeth would size me up in a minute and declare me ignorant of Latin (she'd get to Greek later), and then say something perfectly anodyne: "I hope that you have been made comfortable." Ach, what have I said. That's Elizabeth Two. The first queen would have said, "I'm glad you can dance, Mr Keefe."

Dates>History Books>Elizabeth: the Young Gloriana.

July 31, 2007



Photo by Max Newell

Last Tuesday, I got to meet some old friends. I don't know just how long I've been corresponding with Bostonians Amy and Max Newell, but it's pushing three years. Nor do I recall how I came upon Amy's Web log, The Biscuit Report, a site focusing on the Bush Administration's sick venture into torture. We've been writing, chatting, and even telephoning ever since, but on Tuesday we finally got to shake hands.

The Newells were paying a visit to an old friend in Park Slope, and when I heard that they were coming, I naturally thought about hopping on a southbound train. It would be much easier to move me from one borough to another than for them to bring their two children - Ari, four, and Aya, seven months - into Manhattan. So I thought. But Ari's parents wanted him to experience the Guggenheim Museum, so we agreed to meet at the Barnes & Noble just above the 86th Street subway station. (Max, who shares my interest in transit, asked if anyone still refers to the once-distinct subway lines as the IRT, the BMT, and the IND, and I had to admit that only fossils like me do so.)

We had a grand summer afternoon. At the Guggenheim, we took the elevator to the top of the ramp and then moseyed on down, urged on by Ari's sweet impatience to see the "pond" at the bottom (which he hadn't noticed when we were standing right next to it upon arrival). Then we walked the few blocks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where our sole objective was to have lunch in the child-friendly cafeteria. Then we had a walk in Central Park. On two occasions, Amy and I sat on benches, with Aya in her stroller: first, at Conservatory Water, when Ari led his father on an expedition around the perimeter of the boating pond, and, second, just to the west of the Bethesda Fountain, while Ari commanded the sort of big rock that draws little boys like a magnet and that, from time to time, sends them to the hospital. Max was the obliging vizier to Ari's sultan. "You're getting to see a lot of Max," Amy sighed, "from a distance."

Bow Bridge, one of the Park's beauties, was just a few steps from our second perch, but it was ill-advised of me to lead the Newells across it, because what's on the other side is the Ramble. The Ramble is no longer dangerous, at least by daylight, but its paths are evidently not a Central Park Conservancy priority, and navigating its hills and dales with a stroller was not amusing. Nor was walking along one of the drives in blazing sun. Eventually, though, we found ourselves at 85th and Fifth. Soon after that, we found ourselves in my flat, with a nice cup of tea.

Perhaps because we were at My House, it was here that Ari decided that I was not just a transient adult. Could he jump up and down on the sofa? No. Okay; could he slither across it like a worm? Fine, but not if his "slithering" was more like the hopping of a toad. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed these negotiations. For me, there is nothing so exhilarating as engaging with a bright child of Ari's age, because under no other circumstances do I get to see human intelligence openly arranging itself. Amy and I agreed that people who complain about children who "test limits" are missing the point; the child who is capable of a maddening barrage of finely-tailored requests for permission - if I can't do that, can I do this? - is simply ingenious. Ari Newell is very ingenious. He's a good fellow, too; his lovely sister already adores him.

Confucius says (on page one!) "To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?"

July 30, 2007

Bush Can Read!


Like you, I am distressed to learn that The Weekly World News is folding. Now George will have nothing to read every week. Seriously, I loved the paper. Who else could deliver headlines such as "DINOSAURS - HONKED JUST LIKE BUICKS"? Do you remember the story about the overweight lady who was compelled to purchase two airplaine seats, because of her "titanic tush?" Oh, the laughs.

August begins early at the Daily Blague - it begins today! I spent so much energy on podcasting last week that I never got round to writing up a book. I never got round to reading one. Not until yesterday, anyway. So I offer no link, this morning, to Portico. You wouldn't follow it if I did. It's summertime!

Come September, there will be a new Daily Blague, complete (one hopes), with podcasts that you can actually hear without maxing the volume. "Sing out, Louise," as one friend wrote. Yesterday, Miss G gave me some thoughts about how to make podcasts downloadable (she also asked if I'd come along to a ball game in Coney Island! Bien sur!). The new site is already up. All I have to do is massage the style sheet - doesn't that sound like fun?

July 29, 2007

Wet Weekend

For the second weekend in a row, Kathleen decided not to go in to the office. She has plenty to do, but she finds that she’s more productive after she has taken a few days off. For the first time in almost two years, she can actually fit everything into a lengthy five-day week.

We celebrated in various ways. On Friday night, we went to the last showing of No Reservations. Imagine, two movies (for me) in one day, and both of them excellent. Then, last night, we had dinner at Orsay. Orsay is a Franco-Upper East Side establishment that’s rather posher than a bistro but much more relaxed than one of the old temples of gastronomy. I repeated the dinner that I had when we went there a few weeks ago: gazpacho followed by a terrine of duck pâté. Accompanying the pâté was a small container of seasoned fleur du sel – and never have I found salt so delicious. Kathleen sprinkled some on her salmon and was also transported.

If Kathleen can stay away from the office on Sunday, so can I. Aside from writing this entry, I’ve nothing to do with my day job. Well, not directly. I’ve read the Book Review, of course, and most of the Times. I’ve finished one novel, Min Jin Lee’s Free Food For Millionaires, and begun another, Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me. Next up: Christian Jurgensen’s The Exception.

Here’s hoping that you had a good weekend as well.

July 28, 2007


The sound of music creeped in my ears this morning, as I was sorting through the Times. I whistled for a bit before recognizing what I was whistling as Brahms's Violin Concerto. Suddenly mad to hear it (this is why I have a lot of CDs - I never know what I'm going to be mad to hear), I put on Itzhak Perlman's recording for EMI. And although I knew every note, the concerto was entirely new. I had never heard this before. How voluptuous, how art nouveau the music sounded! Could this really be Mr Last Classicist? Was it possible that Brahms was all about nothing but pleasure?

Moments like this, when a familiar thing re-presents itself in an almost shatteringly new light, don't happen often anymore, and I'm treasuring it.

July 24, 2007

A New Look at The Cloisters


Last Friday, Eric and I went up to he Cloisters. Visiting this offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has become an annual event. Given good weather - and Friday's weather was perfect - the visit is so completely agreeable that it's impossible to tell whether The Cloisters itself or the park surrounding it was the destination.

The Cloisters is one of New York's most notable institutions. It is the most comprehensive assemblage of medieval European architecture outside of Europe. The ancient bits have been built into a sympathetic structure, with medieval-looking limestone interiors, that is laid out to facilitate a walking tour through successive centuries. "Written in stone," it is both old and new at the same time; from the moment you enter the Froville Arcade, time doesn't so much stop as gel. If you have known the museum for as long as I have - at least forty years - it is beguilingly easy to tick off the rooms in order. Every once in a while, something is moved, but The Cloisters goes on, as if it really were an opulent monastery in medieval France.

But then the jaded eye blinks and begins to see again. There are changes everywhere. They're small, for the most part, but they add up to the conclusion that a new abbot is in charge, so to speak. James J Rorimer is no longer directing the museum. (Nor is Thomas Hoving still an Assistant Curator!) Comparing the guidebook that I've very luckily held on to from the Sixties with the one that was published two years ago reveals some interesting shifts.

The Cloisters, in short, has a history of its own.

A New Look at the Cloisters.

Photo by Eric Patton.

July 22, 2007

Out and About

This morning, I surprised Kathleen with breakfast in bed. The usual things on the big plate: soft-boiled egg, sausages, and a yummy fresh croissant. But instead of cranberry juice and grapefruit, we had orangeade and watermelon.

A few hours later, I had breakfast all over again, in the form of brunch. Eggs Benedict at Nice-Matin, the snappy eatery at Amsterdam and 79th. Kathleen lured me to the West Side with the prospect of an afternoon meal in a different part of town. Also, there were shops to visit. In the Endicott, behind the Natural History Museum, there's a shop called Pondicherri. They sell Indian fabrics and knick-knacks. They've lost their lease, and everything must go. I picked up fourteen fabric swatches that are just big enough to use as napkins. Even if they don't go together in the strictest sense, they get along nicely. A dollar apiece! Badly needed. It has been a long time since I bought everyday cotton napkins, and it shows.

At another shop that we visited, I forgot about and didn't see the step up to the pavement as I was leaving. My left hand jerked downward into my pocket with such force that it ripped apart about five inches of seam. It was not a pleasant form of ventilation, and now I must perform the ritual casting-off of torn trousers.

You should have heard Kathleen sputtering this morning, reading this story about virtual pets called Webkinz, and how Mom has to take care of them when the kids go off to summer camp...

July 17, 2007


This afternoon, an idea that was born in pique took root in deeper soil. I thought of those Vietnamese monks who burned themselves. Immolation.

I'm a gifted writer, I think, but what difference does that make in this Bush-addled world? Why say anything at all when the Stupids are in charge? (My contempt, really a kind of fear, for people of average or lower intelligence cannot be concealed.)

What if I were to plant myself in the lobby of this very busy building and drink a tumbler of bleach? It would be an awful death, hideously painful, but I would have announced my protest in advance. I would, as a child of Catholic teaching, "offer it up." To you. Stop watching television.

I'd want to be very sure that there was nothing that anyone could do to save me.

July 16, 2007

Temper, temper

For years, the washers and driers in the laundry room on each floor of our building took quarters - more and more of them as time went by. That was a nuisance, but in the end I'd rather go back than use the cash cards now required. The cash cards can be loaded only via machines that ingest $20 bills. They are very picky about the bills.

Instead of taking my wallet downstairs when I went to collect the mail, I slipped a twenty into my pocket. The elevator ride was long, with so many stops that I had to close my book to make room. The part of the lobby where the money machine is located was a nest of yakking moms and querulous kids.

The money machine wouldn't take my twenty. I kept trying. Then the bill fluttered to the floor - followed quickly by the (empty) cash card. I was so overtaken by disgust with my housing situation  (I am SO TIRED of strollers, their occupants, and their operators) that I slammed the book onto the floor, making quite a pop. The lobby went completely silent. I scurried away intemperately.

The Vitamin B-12 injections have been working wonders, but I see that there are limits.

July 11, 2007



A few months ago, I had an idea. If I were younger, and in possession of a proper basement, I'd have probably made the thing myself, but my DIY days are over. I mentioned my idea to someone who was doing some work here, and he said that he knew a carpenter. We took the relevant measurements and he drew a simple picture, just to be sure that he knew what I wanted. A couple of weeks later, I got a call from the carpenter. Last week, I trekked over to Midtown West and picked it my latest piece of furniture, pictured above.

The idea is to stow the computer keyboard neatly when I want to use the desk in some old-fashioned way that involves perusing large reference volumes or signing checks. As realized in choice Japanese honiki wood, it does exactly what I want it to do and it looks like a shrine.

July 10, 2007


A message from our law school class secretary urged me to sign up at the alumni website. As a Double Domer, I thought I might as well. But the password requirement was, I thought, kinky. Passwords were to be at least eight characters long, with one number, one upper-case letter, and one lower-case letter. My mind stalled; I couldn't think of anything that I'd be remotely likely to remember. I considered just chucking it.

Although I have a few good friends from law school, I have none whatever from my undergraduate days. There's a brilliant guy at, last time I looked, Catholic University in Washington, with whom I've exchanged a few brief notes over the years - and I do mean "a few." Three or four. I have not been back to Notre Dame since Kathleen and I drove off in 1980. The two of us were sobbing about what we knew was the end of a great circle of friends - you had to be there - and, although we had both given up smoking for some time, we must have gone through six packs of cigarettes on the drive to New York.

I was not a practicing Catholic at any time during my two terms at Notre Dame, and since my time there I've grown to be somewhat anti-Catholic, or anti-Church, so I find the university's self-promotion as a Catholic institution seriously off-putting. And I'm offended, although I don't quite know why, by the alumni website's name, Irish Online.

In case you didn't know it, the Golden Dome atop the university's administration building is a gonflement of the spires that grace the church of Sta Trinità dei Monti in Rome, the church at the top of the Spanish Steps. There is an occult connection, I suspect (the French order of Minims?), between the two buildings. Ironically, the Spanish Steps were paid for by an Eighteenth-Century French ambassador. There's a ha-ha for you.

In Summer

The highlight of our pleasant summer weekend was a brief stroll in Central Park on Saturday evening. There was plenty of light in the sky, but the lamps were lighted. Providing additional illumination, swarms of lightning bugs glistened in the shrubbery, which, for its part, looked extremely kempt. The walks were tidy; the lawns were uninterrruptedly green. There were impressive perennial plantings here and there. We did not penetrate far, but loosely paralleled Fifth Avenue, from 79th Street to 72nd. We were coming from the Metropolitan Museum, where Kathleen caught the Venice and the Islamic World show on the eve of its closing, and where we had another look at the amazing (and amazingly fresh) clothes of Paul Poiret. We were on our way to dinner somewhere. Kathleen thought that there might be something casual at the Kerbs Boathouse, beside Conservatory Water (better known as the Sailboat Pond), but the place was locked up tight. We thought of heading to the other boathouse, on the Lake, where the restaurant is said to be overpriced but the setting unbeatable. It was easier to imagine the pleasures of a table near an open porte-fenêtre at Orsay, on Lexington Avenue at 75th, however, and that is just where we found ourselves a few minutes after leaving the park.

Never has Central Park looked more beautiful to me than it did the other night. Decades of attention from the Central Park Conservancy have refreshed the dreams of Olmstead and Vaux. No longer sullied by neglect and low expectations, the park was all the readier to be burnished by twilight. Close as we were to Fifth Avenue, all we could hear was the song of the birds. If the birds were jays, and not nightingales, we could at least imagine gentler calls.

I ought to spend more time in Central Park. For years, I've confined my limited Parking to Carl Schurz Park, because it's closer to home, and visited largely by the locals. (Don't forget the East River!) But Central Park has become too beautiful to miss.

I found myself wondering why no enterprising painter has taken on Central Park's charm in the way that Harold Altman has made a career in Paris's Parc Monceau.

The weekend had another highlight on Sunday, but that was family.

July 09, 2007

An Old Joke, Surely

Fossil Darling writes,

A thief in Paris planned to steal some paintings from the Louvre. After careful planning, he got past security, stole the paintings and made it safely to his van. However, he was captured only two blocks away when his van ran out of gas.

When asked how he could mastermind such a crime and then make such an obvious error, he replied, "Monsieur, that is the reason I stole the paintings. I had no Monet to buy Degas to make the Van Gogh."

(And you thought I didn't have De Gaulle to send this on to someone else. Well, I figure I have nothing Toulouse.)

Musée d'Orsay sounds more like it, don't you think?

July 05, 2007

Feu d'artifice

Our Fourth of July party is probably a thing of the past, given the much, much better views that we enjoyed from Chelsea last night. The downpour rather miraculously stopped just in time.




The tower at the left is the old Metropolitan Life Insturance building. I believe that it's about to be converted into a condominium. Met Life is now headquartered, of course, at what we still call the Pan Am Building, after Pan American World Airways, a now trenchant symbol of the "American Century."

July 03, 2007


For the first time in years, we won't be hosting a Fourth of July party on our balcony this year. Neither one of us is up to it. I was willing to give it a shot, but Kathleen decided that we'd sit this year out. Or, rather, we'd visit the new apartment of one of our regular guests. He's got a great rooftop view of the fireworks, far better than ours - probably because he lives only a few blocks across town. Then we'll go out.

I went out for lunch yesterday, and quite to my surprise I ran into the parents of one of Kathleen's bridesmaids. They were dressed quite correctly for midtown - I felt like a slob even though I was wearing one of my pricier shirts - but were staying closer to home because, in view of the holiday (they said), their regular midtown restaurants were closed for lunch. Or maybe just closed. They asked after Kathleen, whom they've known since she was in the second grade.

Coming home with the best of intentions, I nevertheless frittered the afternoon away (I had been quite industrious in the morning). I chatted online; I caught up on a number of blogs; and, every five minutes or so, I went to look at the first of the four dining chairs to come back reupholstered. A Mr Solo on 85th Street rebuilt the chair before reupholstering it, so now it's both handsome and sturdy. Kathleen and I had picked out the material at Gracious Home three weeks ago, but having only seen a small swatch we had no idea how the fabric would "make up." It made up very nice, thank you. When Kathleen came home for dinner, she was as pleased as I.

Such household improvements used to delight me as only Christmas does children. Since discovering my calling, I'm rather less feverish about  householding.

July 02, 2007

In the Sandbox

That's where you'll find me this week, in the "sandbox" of the impending Daily Blague. There will be a new URL, a new Web host, and a look and feel that may or may not be different. The platform will be WordPress, not Moveable Type, and comments will , I hope, be less of a pain. The old Daily Blague will stay where it is, as I slowly shift its less ephemeral contents to Portico. (Very slowly.) The old DB taught me a lot. The new TDB will reflect what I've learned. Portico remains, as it was always supposed to be, the heart of the operation.

This calls for business cards. People ask, what do I do. That's what business cards are for - to spare the awkward writing-down of URLs in the middle of cocktails. I'm going to have cards for both sites. The Portico cards will look just like that site's front page, with a multicolored logo over a washed out, somewhat blurred scan of a print that we actually own, Joseph Pennell's Cumberland Gate

As for a Daily Blague card, though, I have no ideas at all. I want it to make people smile. I'm thinking of incorporating the "About me" line under the old photo at the top of the index page: "Who is this joker?" I ask the question often enough in the blog, if not in so many words. But is it a tag I'll be still be happy with when I'm handing out the five-hundredth card?

"Eheu Fugaces" has its charms - its dangerous charms. (Speaking of Latin, don't miss this review of Diabolum Pradae vestibus indui. [Thanks, Édouard.]) Input from the Peanut Gallery would not be unwelcome.

July 01, 2007


Not much to report... A quiet Sunday spent reading. Reading the Times. Today's Times. Yesterday's Times. The Times from Friday and Saturday of the first weekend in June. The Saturday Times for the weekend before that. It took a few hours. I also read the Book Review. When I was done with the orgy of journalism, I finished The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture. Andrew Keen's book is the sort of thing that I usually avoid, but as an Internaut with some pretensions to substance, I thought I'd better have a look.

I'll write more about this book later, but right now I'd like to say a word about the reading experience. On Friday, when I read about half of it, it seemed a prolonged rant with one or two ideas. I was satisfied that I could answer Mr Keen's objections to the Blogosphere, for example. But the second half of the book, which I read this afternoon, while somewhat overwrought, pointed to a lot of Internet issues that really need to be addressed. Such as piracy and illegal online gambling. The Cult of the Amateur is best regarded as an early warning, a canary in the mineshaft, a word to the wise. In order to make a splash, I suppose it has to be a bit overdone.

(I could tell that Mr Keen is British almost without opening the book. I was sure of it long before he revealed his interest in the football team Tottenham Hotspurs.)

Then back to one of the big thick books that have haunted the base of my bedside-books pile, Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World. Remember when I was reading this in April? I've reached the beginning of the sixth and final part of the book, with about a hundred pages to go. This book is full of dash and brio, and not unacquainted with snark. I may have to re-read Marguerite Yourcenar's The Memoirs of Hadrian when I'm through. And watch Gladiator again. Here I'd thought that when Comodus popped up on the arena of the Colosseum, the filmmakers had plunged into anachronism, not to mention lèse majesté. But what do you know? They hadn't. Mr Lane Fox reports a ghastly event in which the Emperor beheaded two ostriches and then brandished the one of the heads alongside his sword - a hint to the Senate, it's suggested. Writing on the transformation of the Repuglic into the Empire that Augustus pulled off, Mr Lane Fox confirms A N Wilson's immortal judgment, that Augustus was the Widmerpool of Ancient Rome.

(Oh, pooh. I just got round to checking prices on the DVD of the British TV adaptation of Powell's magnum opus. It's out of print! "Used and new" copies start at seventy-five pounds! So much for that. I have the tape of a tape of the original VHS. It's sort of watchable.)

Having delighted in Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods, I want to read Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra. It's another fat book at the base of a pile.

On Friday, Kathleen brought home a treat. I had to close my eyes &c. A book was placed in my hands - a book with a note. I knew what the note said as soon as I saw the dust jacket. It apologized for having taken so long to get an inscribed copy of Jane Smiley's Ten Days in Hills to Kathleen, who has worked with a woman who turns out to an old pal of novelist's in California. I already have an autographed copy, one that I got when I showed up for a reading in Chelsea. The thing is, I never ask for personal inscriptions. I've been told by people who know that inscribed books are less valuable than autographed ones except in the rare case where the inscribee (that would be me) is more or less as well known as the inscriber. And while I don't collect books with a view to financial gain, I expect that someone down the road will be happier to have a signed book than one that addresses an unknown blogger. However, Jane Smiley is one of the handful of writers whom I revere as people, and "To R J - All the best," with a date about a week later than my (undated) autographed copy, has taken its place on the shelf.

Now all I have to do is get famous.

June 28, 2007


We had a power blackout here on the Upper East Side yesterday afternoon. It didn't last very long, but as luck would have it I was on the ground when it happened. I have long wondered if I'd be capable of climbing the seventeen flights to our apartment. It would appear that I am.

I had been at the doctor's, for the second of four Vitamin B-12 injections. (I think they're making a difference, but it's too early to be sure.) I walked up to JG Melon for a late lunch afterward. Then I stepped into a taxi, noticing that it seemed about to start raining. We drove up Third Avenue and turned onto 86th Street. I leaned forward, as I always do at this point, and told the driver that I wanted to go to a driveway on the far left of the intersection with Second Avenue. But the driver stayed in the right lane. I was beginning to be annoyed when the combination of his deceleration and a screaming siren made me realize that something was up. Almost instantly, I noticed the chaos at the intersection. And the blank traffic signals. Oh, no, I thought.

The problem with power failures is that nobody has any idea when they're going to be fixed. Had someone told me that power would be restored within forty minutes - well, I'm not sure that I'd have believed it. I am haunted by end-of-civilization nightmares, where things just break down permanently. Cities like New York no longer bustle with new growth so much as they totter on ageing infrastructure, which, as everyone knows, is boring to maintain. (It doesn't help that the city wasn't built with easy repairs in mind.)

Unaccountably, I'd left my cell phone charging by my bedside. I begged the doorman on duty to let me use his, and he somewhat reluctantly agreed. We had no idea how extensive the blackout was, and I wanted to connect with Kathleen as soon as possible. In the event, I was shaking too badly to press the numbers, so the doorman did that for me, too. The call failed.

Two things propelled me upstairs. I will leave one of them to your imagination. The other was the land line, which was probably not affected. Peering down the corridor to the fire stairs, I saw light. So did an older woman from the fourteenth floor who seems to know everyone in the building but has only just decided to acknowledge my existence. (How do I know she's older? Her "Vassar '48 reunion" sweatshirt. I was born in 1948.) She was intrigued by the backup lights, which are new, installed since the last blackout, in 2003. Like most residents, she couldn't believe that the management had actually done something useful, and in fact the note of scolding persisted, as if the management were still guilty of the reprehensible offense of having failed to do install the backup lights sooner.

I decided to follow her up the stairs as long as I could. What she could climb, I ought to be able to climb, even though she bears many signs of the former athlete. We went up seven flights before she paused. I paused. We stood for about a minute, I'd say. The stairwell was a site of some chaos. All the way up to the sixteenth floor, I'd witness ongoing episodes in the drama of a mother whose two year-old boy was trapped in one of the elevators, with his baby sitter. The last I saw, a handyman and the mother were trying to pry open the elevator door at the sixteenth floor. You may be sure that I counted my blessings. Coming home ten minutes sooner, I'd have been in there with the kid, but I don't want to go there.

My near neighbor and I climbed another two flights, and then paused again. That was our pace.  As we approached the fourteenth floor, she graciously  asked if I wanted some water. If I'd felt the least bit unsteady, I'd have accepted, but I declined with thanks. My heart was pounding, but not scarily, and I didn't feel any particular discomfort. I soldiered on up the four remaining flights in a single go.

The first thing I did after I'd let myself in was to strip down and jump in the shower. There was still plenty of it; we weren't fifteen minutes into the blackout. The water in tall buildings is supplied by wooden water tanks situated on the roof. The tanks in turn are supplied by pumps in the basement. The pumps go out in a blackout, of course, but it takes a while for the tank to empty. In addition to the shower, I filled the pasta pentola, just to have water for cleaning my hands. By the time I gathered up all the stuff that I thought I'd need and taken a seat on the balcony - I didn't want to heat up the cool rooms with my presence, and, besides, I can't stand still air - I was soaking again.

I was still shaking too badly to dial the one phone that still worked. With the cell phone, dialing wasn't the problem; the overloaded circuits were. At 4:30, I heard a news report on WINS about the blackout. I was delighted to learn that only a small part of the city was affected. By now, I could see that the traffic signal at 87th and First was working, but I assumed that that was backup power. I finally made contact with Kathleen, who was of course unaffected, although she told me that she'd noticed a surge in the power a while back. We agreed to talk in an hour. I went back inside for something, and saw immediately that the power had come back on.

I took another shower. 

June 26, 2007

I Square the Circle


I present to you the world's first Bear Angertwink. Father Tony - call home!

Up on the Roof


A week ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art held a "members' preview" at the Roof Garden. I asked (among others) LXIV, who said that he couldn't go that night but we happy to go on a Friday evening, when the Museum is normally open late. That sounded good, and we agreed to meet on Friday, at six. Before heading up to the roof, we took in a couple of special exhibitions, including the strange Clark Brothers show, about which more in a moment.

We stepped out onto the terrace atop the Museum at just the right time: the line for the bar was only a few people long. By the time we were served, the line stretched back for quite a long distance. We would discover a similar line at the other bar. What slowed things down, certainly, was the martinis, even though they'd been pre-mixed. But by the time we left, near eight o'clock, I wondered if the official occupancy capacity had been reached. That we were standing about eight floors up, overlooking one of the finest views that New York has to offer, beneath a suggestive evening sky - none of that meant anything to the people at the cocktail party on the roof, all standing in little knots talking to one another just as they would in some dark club. It would appear that the Roof Garden is the happy hour destination for every Upper East Sider without a weekend place. That was LXIV's opinion, anyway.

Stephen (1882-1960) and (Robert) Sterling Clark (1877-1956) were two of four brothers who inherited an immense Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Stephen was active at the MoMA, while Sterling, fearful of nuclear attack, situated his collection out of harm's way in Williamstown, Massachusetts. They seem to have thought little of each other's collection of Impressionist and Early Modern painting, although they both liked Renoir. An exhibit of pictures and other works from their collections is on view in the André Meyer Galleries at the Met. It's very odd. The regular André Meyer Collection has been shipped off somewhere else. The special exhibition space at the southwest corner of the building has been closed off. I wish they'd tell us about these things ahead of time. It's very upsetting to have the André Meyer Galleries in disorder, even if they're far from my favorite part of the Museum.

June 22, 2007


Courage has never been a virtue that I thought I possessed, much to my chagrin. But maybe I'm a little more courageous than I thought. Earl Shorris is certainly right in this: being courageous improves all the other virtues that you might have.

Sometimes, yes, I've learned, it's important just to soldier on even through the worst anxieties. "Anxieties." Did anyone with real courage ever use that word?

Earl Shorris on The National Character, in Harper's.

June 21, 2007

Big Night


As everyone knows, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index - known familiarly as the S&P 500 - celebrated its fiftieth anniversary recently. The birthday fell in March, and the celebration fell last night, at the Metropolitan Club. About three hundred financial types gathered to hear what a panel of index experts had to say, mostly about the past and present and, wisely, very little about the future. Ringers included at least two parents, which just goes to show that you're never too old for a school play, especially when the other kids on stage include John C Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, Yale economist Robert J Shiller, Times financial columnist Floyd Norris, and S&P indexer-in-chief David Blitzer.

And at least one spouse. That would be me.

Where to go for dinner after the reception? I suggested La Goulue, which was more or less around the corner, even though we didn't have a reservation. Amazingly, they seated us after the briefest of waits, during which we loitered by moviemaking trailers parked in the street. After dinner, I made bold to ask a passing professional about the project. All I can tell you is that Sigourney Weaver is in it.

There was a question about noise. Kathleen thought that La Goulue might be too loud for her parents. So we ran a sound check before we were seated. It was much too noisy from any objective standpoint, but it was not too noisy for my mother-in-law, nor for my father-in-law. Both were fascinated, in the original sense of the word, by the restaurant's Paris-in-New York rumble. Think Le Grand Colbert (Something's Gotta Give), but with more din. Great food, though.

Since Kathleen is essentially remarkable, I can't say that she said anything unusual in the panel discussion. She doesn't dazzle, but she does something much nicer. I would tell you what that is but she has trademarked the name and she doesn't license it. Her parents, who heard nothing but warm and glowing appraisals of their daughter from everyone they talked to at the reception, could not have been prouder.

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 14, 2007



Sad to say, this is my favorite picture of me. I am so blasted. About a drink away from blacking out. But I am happy and easy. I am in my off-campus apartment at some point during the third year of law school. There is a party underway, although nothing big. Why I am wearing a windbreaker in my own house is something that only alcohol might explain. If you didn't know better, you'd take me for a shallow frat boy. (Sigh.) How nice it would have been to be the surprising frat boy who turns out not to be shallow. Alas, I overshot.

Can someone tell me: is that a "popped collar" that I'm wearing? Or just a mess? I went to school too early for jargon and theory. I do know that the windbreaker was commissioned by a coal company that my father's operation bought sometime in the Seventies. The seal is obscured by the turned-back front. It was called the Youghiogheny and Ohio coal company. Pronounced (according to Dad) Yahkah-gayny. "Youghio" is obviously the aboriginal form of "Ohio." Have you ever heard "Ohio" spoken by a Frenchman? It's "O-yo." How cool is that?

I thought it was very cool because having lived in Texas was a blight that it would take years to overcome or outlive, whichever came first. For just seven years I'd lived in Houston, but you'd think! "So you're from Texas?" people would say. It was wrong on so many levels, even though it was right, technically.

About the fingernail: the previous summer, when I was in New Hampshire clerking for my uncle (great forbearance on his part!), I slammed a car door on my finger. That took a long time to outlive, too. I'd have completely forgotten the colossal suffering that I felt for a few hours in the summer of 1979 if it were not for this souvenir.

June 08, 2007

Gone Fishing

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

June 07, 2007



At the moment, I can't do the experience justice. Spending the midnight hour, two nights in a row, in a midtown conference room with Kathleen, while she participated in the morning sessions of an ETF conference held at the Marriott in Kuala Lumpur, wasn't rest-oriented. It was cool, though.

There were a few technical problems the first night, which was a last-minute affair. I had dinner with her beforehand and then walked her back to the office, where neither of us knew what to expect. Kathleen was assured that the head of IT would be there with her for the forty-five minute speech that she had been asked to deliver on the second night, which was set up the moment the KL people heard that Kathleen wouldn't be able to come in person. I was planning to stay home - until I heard from Kathleen that the head of IT had had a personal emergency and wouldn't be able to be on hand. I hopped in a taxi and was at her office within twelve minutes.

Eleven o'clock - the scheduled time - came and went without the teleconference call's coming through. Not to worry; they were running late in Malaysia. In fact, they had just broken up for a tea break. A lawyer who chatted with Kathleen while we waited told us that, at tea breaks in KL, "copious amounts of food" are de rigueur.

A bit before 12:30 AM our time, Kathleen was re-introduced to the conference (about three hundred people). We got home a little over an hour later. I did not go right to bed.

June 06, 2007

Special Election

As it happens, Joe and I live in the same New York State Assembly district (the 65th). Yesterday, I asked Joe whom he'd be voting for in the special election triggered by the elevation, if that's what it is, of the longtime incumbent, Pete Grannis, to the Department of Environmental Conservation. Joe thanked me for reminding him of the election, and said that he'd be voting for the gay candidate. I voted for the Democratic candidate. And our man won, Micah Z Kellner.

Mr Kellner is 28. It was perhaps premature, and definitely fatuous, of him to crow, "I think it's clear people understood that I've been fighting hard for this community for a long time." I wish him well, though, as I'm sure does Joe.

I got to the polls at about three in the afternoon. "What's the turnout been like?" I asked. I was told that I was the forty-sixth voter to use the voting machine. There are several polling places within the district, each of which has a number of machines. But I would venture that hundreds if not thousands of people would be using that machine if everybody turned out to vote.

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.

June 04, 2007

Not that tired.

Had I not fallen apart last week, there would be nothing to read here today. I'd have posted an entry over the weekend announcing a few days' hiatus, while I visited a friend in the country and took a break from blogging. Kathleen, meanwhile, would have arrived at Kuala Lumpur by now. But on Friday morning, the alarmed internist advised against any travel for either of us.

Yesterday morning, I woke as bright as a morning glory. Paging through the Times, I was almost alarmed by the number of interesting stories that I might comment on. This morning, considerably wearier, I looked through the same section in vain. Most of the exciting pieces had so completely lost their lustre that I passed over them all unawares. The few that I recognized no longer promised to yield interesting commentary.

Such swings sound a lot like the shift from mania to depression. But in my case they happen very quickly and, in retrospect, are fully explicable in terms of fatigue. The sad fact is that, instead of taking it easy over the weekend, I not only tidied up the household but dealt, as I wrote yesterday, with numerous "messes" - piles of books, piles of mail, tote bags full of who-knows-what, and other litter. These messes accumulate because - that's right! - I'm usually too tired to deal with them. Keeping up with what I want to do each day is hard enough.

If only someone would customize David Allen's Getting Things Done for me. The hardest thing about all of this is wrestling with the moral question. To what extent am I responsible for being a better manager of my own resources? How expert am I supposed to be about pacing myself when all the evidence suggests that I can't trust my own feelings. My warning systems, if you will, don't work, if they're in place at all. Is that my fault, or just the way I'm made?

Although not at my best this morning, I'm far from last week's worst. I've got enough spunk to be angry about the Supreme Court's Ledbetter decision last week, which, as dissenter Ruth Bader Ginsburg complained, overlooked the fact that most employees are in no position to know whether they're being discriminated against when it comes to paychecks. The majority is re-imposing the pro-business formalism that emasculated so much progressive legislation at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It's appalling! But I've got enough spunk, too, not to mistake the decision for the end of the world. I'm tired, but I'm not that tired.

June 03, 2007



The building's air conditioning came back on last night, but until then the blue room*, with its new window unit, was the place to be. So I tackled a lot of messes, mostly by exporting them to other parts of the apartment. Among the things I had to deal with was a colorful South American tote bag that held a miscellany of photograph albums. One of the handles had finally unraveled completely, so the bag had to go. In the process of clearing it out, the snapshot above fluttered to the ground.

Lord! I thought. All that hair is so hot! And not in the good sense of "hot." And so red! I've grown very fond of my silvery grey hair. I'm in every way more comfortable with myself today than I was when the picture was taken (believe me!). Youth is so totally wasted on the young.

The lady in the picture is, of course, Miss G. Isn't she cute? She's even cuter now.

* The blue room is our apartment's second bedroom, which I use as a library/writing room. It has been painted some shade of blue for the entirety of our twenty-four year occupancy.

June 02, 2007


Many thanks to everyone who has worried about me. I'm immensely moved - and that's why the concern can stop. If I were really disturbed, I wouldn't care. And for a few hours yesterday morning, I didn't care. But I see now that not caring was a sound response to a bad circumstance. The hurling myself in front of a train part wasn't sound, I admit. But the shut-down was very wise. It was, after all, a shut-down that concentrated not on local subway stops but on getting to the therapist's at 12:30.

The fractious computer didn't bother me for the usual reasons - I want my MTV! - but for my own. Introducing long and, occasionally, thoughtful essays with short and punchy lead-ins on the blog has become What I Do. And let me tell you: spending most of your free time on a learning curve in your late fifties is not something that I recommend to anybody. It's Arctic. Almost everybody you talk to is half your age. Or - and this is a compliment to you, bub (meaning me) - gay* Or gay and half your age.

Anyway, I got caught. The a/c was out and my computer wasn't working, and now I'm not going to Connecticut for a week of R and R and Kathleen's not going to Kuala Lumpur for some important career development. There was a time when I'd have wondered if I'd stage-managed things to keep Kathleen from traveling, but I know that we're not there anymore. I just broke down: heat and Microsoft are the culprits. Or rather, my fatigue after whistling in the dark for over a year.

The phone rings. It's nearly one in the morning. It's Kuala Lumpur. What if they teleconference Kathleen?

That is so wow.

*And wonders about you. As if you hadn't.

June 01, 2007


The complex personality that is me seems to be falling apart.

Yesterday morning, I was happy enough when I awoke. But the computer had shut down again during the night sua sponte. And there was the threat of unpleasantly warm weather. Something snapped. I wasn't just put out. In fact, I never even raised my voice in protest. I just dreamed of throwing myself in front of a subway train. It was the opposite of anger. I wasn't bustling with outraged emotion. I didn't feel anything. The meanings in my life had all been effaced.

Not erased, as I first thought. Meaning revived as the day went on (thanks hugely to Jane Gardam, by the way), and I began to care again. But now, about to go to bed, I feel the emptiness of the recovery more than the recovery itself. If "life had no meaning," I wouldn't, obviously, be writing here, and I'm writing here with a passion. But the rest of life, the life that I live among other corporeal beings - all right, bodies - that's hard to take. Why do I take up so much space, and why, despite so much evidence to the contrary, do I feel that nobody wants to be anywhere near me? 

We all know that I'm massively overtired, trying to do at fifty-nine what I barely carried off at thirty-five, and failing. But I'm going to the doctor this morning anyway, just in case there's something organically wrong. (My therapist wondered if I mightn't have had a small stroke.) It throws everything up in the air - Kathleen's trip to Kuala Lumpur, my time-out in Connecticut. I'm on something like a suicide watch.

Thanks for reading. I mean it.

May 31, 2007

Mr Chatterbox - en français!

I spent last evening in a warm, Francophone hum. First, I watched Arsène Lupin. Then I read Le Prix de l'Argent, the latest installation - and a half-installation at that, to be continued, if you please! - of Largo Winch's adventures. (Well, it's not the latest, I see. It was,  though, when I put it in my shopping basket!) The two pastimes went together very well.

Jean-Paul Salomé's 2004 adaptation of the Arsène Lupin stories was never released in the United States, and therefore no DVD was produced for the North American Region. Having finally purchased a DVD player that reads discs from all regions, however, I can now order DVDs directly from France - or from anywhere! - as long as I want to watch them in the bedroom, which is where the special player is installed. Even before I hooked up the new machine, I had a few DVDs that wouldn't play on a regular American player. Le chat, for instance. I have no idea why this classic study of marital discord, starring Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret, has not been reissued by the Criterion Collection, much less overlooked entirely. I bought a copy of Keeping Mum while it was still in the American theatres - what a moron. Had I but waited... And there's a Spanish film in the new-disc basket that I don't even remember ordering. You know how that is.

But Arsène Lupin justifies the new DVD machine as no other movie could. I can understand why it was not released here, even though it stars Romain Duris, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Eva Green. It is a very good film, of its type, but that's the problem. The type that it belongs to could best/most misleadingly be described as "Gallic Indiana Jones." You're right: at the end of the day, "Gallic Indiana Jones" just does not compute. It will take me weeks to be more articulate, but for the moment I'll just say that Arsène Lupin is, from an American marketing perspective, toxically melodramatic. (You'll find something about Arsène Lupin here.)

And then there are the subtitles.

There are subtitles.

But they are in French. In French only. Thank heaven! Because I would never have been able to follow the story without French subtitles. I'm not entirely sure that, even with their help, I did follow the story. But I think I did. Let me tell you: it was GREAT FUN to watch Kristen Scott Thomas underplay a semi-supernatural villainess out of Edward Gorey. If nothing else, Arsène Lupin taught me that Ms Scott Thomas was put on this earth to enact all the great Gorey roles, even if, being for women, they are rather brief. But La chauve-souris dorée - how magnificent she'd be! And the original Gorey title is already in French! (It means - and, really, the humor of the thing totally hangs from the difference between the music of the French title and the brutal English - "The Gilded Bat." There's something about that "Bat" that's like an insect smashed on a windshield.)

And yes, I did say "underplay." The lady is exquisite.

Monsieur Duris, on the other hand, rivals Johnny Depp for swashbuckling, although he is not the least little bit camp. This movie was made before his "breakthrough" (I'm not sure that it was), De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, but it's an enormous vote of confidence, and he tackles the part with the self-assurance of Cary Grant. Eva Green, who stole my eyes, if not my heart, in Casino Royale, gets to play the innocent girl, and, being Eva Green, that means that she makes innocence interesting.

A costume historian would have a field day attacking the outfits. The gowns are almost willfully anachronistic. Ms Scott Thomas's character appears to favor 1910 for daytime wear and 1885 for the evenings. Major hoot. You think the French don't know what they're doing? About couture?

As for Largo Winch - the wonderful thing is that I can really read Largo Winch now. Only rarely do I have to look anything up, and even then I don't, really; I've caught the sense. This evening, I had to look up "comparaître" and "surenchérir," among a very few other words. For those of you who've never heard of this series of bandes dessinées - comic books for grownups - Largo Winch is a hunky blond who inherits a vast conglomerate, which he thereupon tries to run on idealistic lines, while treating décolletée ladies with the most thoroughgoing chivalry. On one level, it's Playboy fantasy. That is, not only are the babes stacked, but the "article" is worth reading! On another level, the series idealizes a certain fantasy of American life. Creators Jean van Hamme (writer) and Philippe Francg (drawings)* have clearly expensed a lot of quality time on this side of the pond, looking and listening, and the Largo Winch series almost reads like an American cartoon that has been translated into French. In that sense, the series is the complete opposite of Arsène Lupin. In the end, though, only a French (all right, Belgian) writer would come up with the hero's totally super name. Largo Winch! Is that studly or what? The one invention that I can find in these books is the headquarters of Group W, a tower on Central Park West, next to the Dakota. Everything else is scrupulous. Le Prix de l'Argent, for example, will tell you what the Waldorf-Astoria looks like, and how far it is from the Helmsley Building at the bottom of Park Avenue. Better than a photograph, I assure you!

In Le Prix de l'Argent - the story is completed in La Loi du Dollar - Largo is upset to find out that a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary in his vast holdings has fired all its employees and moved its operations to the Czech Republic. How could this happen? Cooked books and stock options, of course! I expect that many Continental readers will pick up the ABCs of executive enrichment from this book's very plausible plot. There's lots of action along the way, because - did I forget to say this? - Largo Winch went to the James Bond School of Management. He is forever being shot at and handcuffed. I know; I said "Playboy fantasy." I meant - and what's probably the selfsame thing - "B School fantasy." If only quarterly meetings were like this!

* I probably have these accreditations completely backward. Pardon!


May 27, 2007

On Blogger Hill

UPDATE: I am immesely proud to be part of this picture. It's the first collective photograph that I've ever belonged to with my heart and soul.

For some time, I've had plans to get together with the Ganome when he came to New York for the GB:NYC4 meetup on Bear/Blogger Hill in Central Park. In other words, today. The Ganome called just before noon, from the Port Authority. We agreed to meet at the Met, which is, among other things, not too far from Central Park, being in it. He arrived with his boss, the Butter Monkey. The Monkey is a few years younger than the Ganome (ie our children's age), but smart as a whip and extremely pleasant to talk to.

When we'd finished our lunch, I asked my friends if there was anything that they wanted to see in the museum before heading out, because I could probably take them straight to it. I am so abominably conceited about my familiarity with the museum's layout. But I didn't get to show off today, because what they really wanted was directions to the Sheep's Meadow. I was only too happy to walk them there. I didn't yet know where Bear/Blogger Hill is, because I hadn't planned to attend one of Joe's weekly retreats. But I know how to get to the Sheep's Meadow, and we walked all the way round it - a complete circuit! - before finding that the Hill is very near the Naumberg Bandshell, which we'd passed earlier. But we did find it. I was privileged to introduce the Ganome and the Monkey to Joe. I met a few people and nodded to a few others whom I'd seen at other gatherings, but, having just met the Ganome and the Monkey and gotten to know something about them in person, I wasn't taking in much new information. One of the farmboyz took a picture of the group while I was there, and I'm in it, I suppose.

For the most part, I watched the rollerbladers at the base of the hill. There were very gifted dancers, such as Disco Grandma, who performed as if they were Olympians on the ice. There were character dancers, like Bladey, wearing loud costumes (I got to see Bladey's arrival on his clownish bicycle, announced by its throaty klaxon). There was a wonderfully chunky middle-aged woman who had no moves at all. She just huffed her way up the gentle slope and stood still on her skates coming down the other side. My favorite act was Bottle. Bottle is a very graceful and well-built black man who, in addition to his skates, wears only a pair of very exotic harem pants and two wristbands. He's called Bottle because he likes to glide along with a liter of bottled water standing on his head, but unattached to it in any way. If he could find a more artistic vessel, he would look like something out of the old Ballets-Russes. He and Bladey danced together a few times, side by side. I applauded a few times, although that generally wasn't done.

So there I was in Central Park on a Saturday afternoon, surrounded by interesting guys and overlooking an appealing spectacle. The weather was perhaps a trifle warm, but there was a lovely breeze, and I was comfortable enough.

At about four-thirty, I said goodbye to all and went to catch the Third Avenue bus. As packed as the Park was, the Upper East Side was empty. Neutroned! We've entered the Hamptons season. 

May 24, 2007


Things aren't going well up here in Yorkville. A phone message that I never heard was thrust in my face. People who probably don't mean it hurt me big time. I'm angry and lost, and, if it weren't for Kathleen, I'd also be stupid. But Kathleen is in my life because I knew that she would understand everything that I'm up against, and I was right. Kathleen rocks/rules.  

Which is another way of saying that, even though I'm a man who has loved his wife without incident for over twenty-five years, I do not have the gift of friendship. I don't, actually, have any friends at all.

Well, I have Fossil Darling, with whom I was thrown into a room by a prep school in 1963. But FD is famous for forgiving everybody. One of these days, he is simply not going to forgive me for the terrible things that I say to him, and then I'll be Tilt.

But here I am, about to be sixty, with no friends. Which is to say that there are two. Everybody else is a friend of Kathleen's. (And I love Kathleen's friends.) There's George and there's Susan. Well, of course there's Fossil Darling, but he's the guy I got stuck with in boarding school, n'est-ce pas, as am I for him.

Enough about my arid landscape. You have more friends than I do and I advise you to treasure them. Make sure you understand why you like them. And don't get mixed up with couples - never, ever, short-circuit your relationships. You can't like two different people in a way that each would like, so give up in advance.

Find your friends, and, if necessary, ditch your responsibilities. God knows I'd have liked to.

May 20, 2007

Movie Star

This evening, battling flattening fatigue (I had to pry Kathleen from her fleece nap blanket at five-thirty in the afternoon), we very irresponsibly took a taxi all the way down to Chelsea for a housewarming. Our friend, Rob, moved into his studio in January, but almost immediately went on one of his South American junkets, including a quick trip to Antarctica, and didn't even start to unpack until about a month ago. The apartment has great views of the towers of Wall Street. Five floors higher, the building's roof offered even better views, and in three hundred sixty degrees. The weather was perfect, and we wished that we'd brought our cameras. The Razr, trust me, didn't do the views justice.


That was cool. But what was really cool was meeting a movie star. Okay, maybe not a star star. But a very nice guy, the Uruguayan actor Marcos Cohen, who landed an interesting small part in Robert De Niro's The Good Shepherd, the Guatemalan planter, Dr Ibanez. You will recall that Dr Ibanez's plantation is devastated by CIA-launched beetles in order to punish the man for his independent stance. Marcos was still buzzing from having landed the part, which made him big news in his native country. Kathleen asked him about working with Mr De Niro, and Marcos's answer was very positive, although he did say that the famous actor is "shy."

Kathleen also wanted me to tell you how great Rob's studio is. And it is great, so far. He has painted the main room almost exactly the same deep blue shade that gave our blue room its name in 1983, and his foyer, in a tribute to our apartment, is painted teal (although we're closer to evergreen). The only thing that remains is to furnish the place. We advised Rob to start off with the purchase of a good comfortable upholstered armchair.

After the party, we even more irresponsibly took a taxi to the Brasserie. We will never get over the original Brasserie, but it must be acknowledged that the current incarnation offers truly excellent frites. Kathleen discovered this at a recent birthday lunch. I only wish that I could have eaten them all. But the accompanying burger was enormous.

Here's hoping that you had a nice weekend, too.

May 10, 2007

Prince Street

Last night, I took the 6 Train down to Bleecker Street. It was a beautiful evening, clear and just cool enough for a windbreaker. I love coming out of the subway at the corner of Houston and Lafayette Streets - it's so far from the Upper East Side where I live. Why, there's even a gas station! Walking down Lafayette Street, I can see the old police headquarters and the federal courthouse. At Prince Street, I turn left, and it's just a few steps to McNally Robinson, the lovely independent bookseller. I feel miles from home, but I've only walked, in total, three blocks.

Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan has just come out in paper, and he and his Random House editor, Daniel Menaker, had an open conversation about their working relationship in McR Café, at the east end of the bookshop. We learned Mr Shteyngart's daily routine. He is served breakfast in bed at about eleven. Then he boots up his laptop and - still in bed - writes until four, when he heads uptown for an hour of shrinkage. Then he gets together with friends and drinks to excess. One day a week, he substitutes teaching a creative writing class at Columbia for the shrinkage. (At least one of his students had come downtown for the event.) We learned that the writer went to college at what he called the Oberlin Institute for Special People. We learned that New York is really the only place where Mr Shteyngart does not feel that people are trying to kill him. At a recent reading in Houston, for example, the audience was very frosty about his take, in Absurdistan, on Halliburton, which is called "Golly Burton" by the novel's more ambitious prostitutes. Might Mr Shteyngart have chosen to provoke the irritation of Houston? Mr Menaker surmised as much.

Gary Shteyngart is a very funny guy - funnier in person, if you ask me, than he is on the page - and I advise you to seek him out if he comes to your town. Do not try to kill him.

Oh, almost forgot: the next book. We learned that Mr Shteyngart's next novel will be set in New York City. That's the good news. The bad news is that almost everyone will be illiterate, confined to grunts and gestures. And some people will be immortal. Sounds like great satire.


Come to think of it, I went to an event at McNally Robinson last week, too. Then it was to see Alain de Botton, whose The Architecture of Happiness has recently appeared. Instead of reading from his book, Mr de Botton gave a PowerPoint presentation of most of the illustrations in his book. Speaking with easy wit, he summarized the major points of the book so well that, when I looked at it later, I found much of the material to be familiar. The author was a delight to listen to. Relaxed, unflappable, he shared his interest in and thoughts about architecture with such a casual air that no points were driven home. Like all of Mr de Botton's book, The Architecture of Happiness has one main purpose: to coax you into paying attention to the world around you. While he spoke, I couldn't help looking past him, out the bookshop's windows, at Old St Patrick's, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in New York. Unlike most cathedrals, it is tucked away on side streets, and it is certainly smaller than most cathedrals. But it's a vital monument to the determination of a widely-despised faith to build a diocese in hostile territory. One has only to compare it to the cathedral in Baltimore (Maryland was initially a Catholic colony) to grasp the relative poverty of diocesan coffers in the early Nineteenth Century. I wondered what Mr de Botton would have made of it; I'm not sure that he even knew that it was there, standing behind him.

May 08, 2007

Le Parking


This afternoon, I had occasion to try out the new parking thingies. Once upon a time, there were meters. You put in quarters and turned a dial to the desired amount of time, and it was that simple. Now it's even simpler. You stick your card in a slot, press a button to reach the desired amount of time, and voilà, your card is ejected and a slip of paper pops out of the machine. You place this scrap on your dashboard. The maximum extent is an hour - two dollars.

Then we went to lunch at Jacques. I spilled an almost untouched martini. Lunch went uphill from there, and we were back at the car in plenty of time.

Now I know how New York works! Another anxiety overcome.

May 03, 2007

Taking Stock: Checking the Date

At about six o'clock yesterday evening, I received an email from a friend who is closing off one Web log and setting up another. He had a few things on his mind, but even before I got past his second sentence, I decided to write back to say that I would have to wait to answer his letter until tomorrow - today - because I was "off to the theatre." The moment I wrote that, I felt a little chill. So often, it seems, I have only to announce plans in a letter or an entry for the plans to fall apart.

It was only after I'd gotten dressed for the evening that I rooted out the tickets in the ticket drawer. The ticket drawer is a bordel at the moment, but I found what I was looking for: two seats at MTC for Blackbird. Because of that chill that I'd felt before dressing, I forced myself to search out the date. And the date was not yesterday's date. It was next Wednesday's date.

Kathleen, who had taken an unscheduled day off - she had finished one of many projects and decided to celebrate by doing something about her exhaustion (ie, sleeping), was delighted. She had not started to get dressed. I got back into regular clothes as quickly as I could and was soon back in my chair, reading Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors. I suppose I ought to have gone to my desk and read my friend's email, but I somehow shared Kathleen's sense of reprieve. A night off!

I don't feel as foolish as I might. Assiduous readers will recall the night last August when I thought we had tickets for The Drowsy Chaperone. It was only when I got to the seats and found them occupied that I checked my dates. I was a week early then, too - so much better than a week late. That was the night that I surprised Kathleen by a) not having a fit and b) insisting that we check out nearby theatres. We ended up laughing the evening away at Avenue Q.

May 02, 2007

My own private idiocy suffering

Les cérises sont très beau, non?

Les cérises sont très beaux, oui?

Les cérises sont très belles, oui?

Je ne suis pas Énarque, non?

May 01, 2007

Les cérises


Les cérises sont très belles, oui?

After lunch, I went for a walk in Carl Schurz Park. Every year, I hope to get at least one really good photograph of the cherry blossoms, and I must say that I'm content with the photograph above, at least at full size.


I entered the Park at Gracie Mansion. Here we see a corner of the reception hall, which was built not too long ago, and the more recent brick wall, a sterling improvement over the cheap wooden palings that used to assure mayoral privacy. (Mayor Bloomberg, of course, has a much nicer townhouse in a ZIP Code to the south, and does not live here. Neither did Rudy Giuliani, after he screwed up his marriage to Donna Hanover.)


Here is a very poor photograph of one of the Park's most curious features, the circular cul de sac with a statue of Peter Pan in the center. I'm not even sure that it's Peter Pan, but I do know that some local kids uprooted it ten odd years ago and managed to haul it up to the John Finley Walk, from which they tossed it into the East River. Divers (FDNY? NYPD?) retrieved the statue; don't ask me how they saw what they were doing. I read not long ago that the East River is so long and capacious that it is not flushed clean by the tides. Instead, it just gets dirtier. A cheering thought.


On the John Finley Walk, some gentlemen were having a conversation at the top of their voices. That didn't bother the occupants of the squad car nearby though. Squad car? WTF! I made bold to ask the officer in the passenger seat what he was doing there. My I'm-not-really-as-big-as-I-look act must have worked, because he answered very cordially that "We're here!" Then he admitted that he's not with the local precinct. Heaven knows what they're looking for. Terrorists mining the FDR Drive? Phantom fellucas?


At the big-dog run, I followed the antics of this tongue-lolling pup, who loped around the enclosure like the adolescent goofball that he obviously was.


Finally the cherries. I know of nothing more opulent in nature than these feathery pink clouds.


Under the allée.

April 21, 2007

The "I'm in New York" Moment

I have lived in Manhattan for the past twenty-seven years. I was born on the West Side and I grew up in Westchester. Aside from a Texas exile between two stints at Notre Dame, and a misguided - in retrospect - experiment in Litchfield County living - I have spent my life here. But every so often, New York feels like a place I've just arrived in. Early this afternoon, I had one of those "I'm in New York" moments.

Then again, it may just have been spring fever.

April 12, 2007

Five Fruit Cakes

On Tuesday afternoon, I got up from the computer, left the blue room where I spend my days, and turned on Radio RJ. It was time to do something about the kitchen closet.

The kitchen closet is not in the kitchen, largely because the kitchen is a closet, almost (I've certainly been in larger closets). The kitchen closet is on the other side of the entrance hall, or "foyer" as entrance halls are called for some very strange reason. It is actually half of a clothes closet. We keep winter coats and light bulbs in the other half.

I wouldn't dream of publishing a photograph, even if I could take an intelligible one. But this story isn't about the kitchen closet. It's about how I felt the energy to clean it out. After a year or more of staying out of the kitchen as much as possible, I've let most of what's stocked in the kitchen closet get too old to use. I may continue to stay out of the kitchen as much as possible, but at least I'm storing much less garbage. I threw away old nuts, pasta, grains, crackers, and - five fruit cakes. I was able to distinguish the most recent fruit cake, received this past holiday season. I opened it up and enjoyed a slice. It tasted very good. I will enjoy the rest of it in coming weeks. Next year, I might even put the fruit cake in the kitchen when (and if) it arrives - and not in the kitchen closet.

A few exotic bottled sauces got the heave-ho, too. I have become a very unadventurous eater.

The music was glorious. Among the bigger pieces were the "Rach III," Schubert's Ninth, and Vivaldi's Nisi Dominus, furiously sung by Nathalie Stutzmann. Also lovely to hear was Fauré's Masques et bergamasques. It was warm enough to crack the balcony door.

Cleaning the kitchen closet was something of a holiday. How weird is that?

I know that kitchen closets are a dreary topic. But I'm sure you'd much rather read about that than hear about my exciting time at the dentist's yesterday afternoon.

April 05, 2007


Having survived my bout with dentistry yesterday, I was consumed by a need - to go to the movies! Specifically, to go to see Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, which is playing at Lincoln Square. The film got an exceedingly snarky review in yesterday's Times. But I still wanted to see it, partly because Sebastian Koch, one of the stars of Das Leben des Anderen, is in it. I noted that, in a trilingual movie, Mr Koch spoke only German. (He spoke a little English, but no Nederlands.)

Going to the movies early on a weekday night was interesting - there was an audience! I came close to being unable to join it. I blithely took a taxi over to the West Side. It was only as I approached the box office that I examined the contents of my wallet: $22. How did that happen? It was enough to buy a ticket, and, more importantly, a tub of popcorn and a soda. But it meant that I'd be going home on mass transit.

Mass transit - hmmm. A taxi is so much nicer when you're going home! After the movie (which is, indeed, a tiny bit cartoonish, but very taut and exciting; plus, Carice van Houten, the star of the show, channels the platinum blonde of the Thirties with astonishing acuity) I called Kathleen, but she was already in her pyjamas. She said to ask the doorman to pay the taxi fare, on the understanding that I'd repay him in the morning. In my view, that's something that ladies can get away with far more easily then galoots the likes of me. Then I called Fossil Darling, because I was right outside his building. But he didn't answer. I figured that he'd already gone to bed (he was visiting neighbors, he tells me this morning).

So I took the 1 train and the M86 bus home. Ho. Hum.  

Don't miss Ralph Blumenthal's story, "Unusual Allies in a Legal Battle Over Texas Drivers' Gun Rights." The liberal/conservative polarity doesn't work in the context of this issue. The fight is, rather, lawful vs free (a/k/a "lawless").

April 04, 2007

Rainy Spring

In an hour, I'll be at the dentist's. A tooth at the back of my mouth has crumbled. Fortunately, I've felt no real pain, although my tongue is unhappy - the tooth has become rough rubble. It's a new experience, this falling apart of a tooth. The novelties of growing old are not amusing.

I had lunch with my friend Nom de Plume. We hadn't seen each other in a few weeks and we had much to catch up on, despite email and IM. We could have talked for another hour, easily. But we'll talk again; nobody's going anywhere.

The skies are grey and wet today. It rains in every season of New York's year, but spring rain is different (perhaps we New Yorkers are different). There's a gentle quality to spring rain that makes it welcome even when a gust of wind blows raindrops on your neck.

If I were to bottle my idea of New York City, it would be called "Rainy Spring." There's something about standing at a corner, waiting for the light to change, and watching a little Mississippi course by below the kerb on its way to the nearest drain that always makes me feel that the city is all mine. That this is where I'm from in every sense of the word. Even though, to my undying disgrace, I grew up in the suburbs (albeit the closest one in), and then had to live in Houston for a spell.

Well, of course I didn't have to live in Houston. I just lacked the gumption to make my own way in the world.

Rain is very forgiving, did you notice? And I forgot to tell you: I am going somewhere: Kuala Lumpur at the end of May!

April 03, 2007

Montaigne in the Park


Yesterday was pretty raw at first, dark and grey, but in the late afternoon the sun came out and I went for a walk. The forsythia was in bloom. Forsythia always looks best from a distance, as a vague yellow cloud. Up close, it becomes very unruly. I don't think that there's a flowering plant that looks more normal to me. When I was growing up in Westchester, it was everywhere.


I sat on the Finley Walk by the River and read two essays of Montaigne, "On liars" and "That no man should be called happy until after his death." Ovid, Lucretius, Macrobius, and Seneca are quoted in the latter. It was the quotations that wowed me when I was a boy. Imagine having all of that Latin verse on the tip of your tongue! The beauty of Montaigne's essays is that the quotations don't seem pedantic at all. They are pearls of granite wisdom, authoritative in their antique concision. In Montaigne's day, it was by no means taken for granted that contemporaries would ever write literature to rival that of the ancients. French, Italian, Spanish, English, German and the other languages of Europe were "vulgar tongues," unsuitable for serious thoughts. (Montaigne plays with this idea in every essay: writing in French, he rarely fails to announce the casual nature of what he's doing.) It was possible to be a learned man in the Sixteenth Century. There weren't that many ancient books to get through. There were very few unimportant books.


I wonder what Montaigne would have made of the East River, which, being a strait, flows sometimes north and sometimes south. When I got up to leave, the river and sky shared a rose complexion.

April 01, 2007

I'm ready, Lord!

I'm probably crazy, but I feel a change in my bones: I am ready to keep a neat and tidy freezer. A freezer with plenty of empty space. A freezer so orderly that I don't even half to open the door to see what's inside.

But I'm not there yet.

My Freezer: the Dream.

March 30, 2007


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

Taking Stock: Reading Turgenev and Stone

What I'm reading these days is Virgin Soil, Ivan Turgenev's last novel, and A Hall of Mirrors, Robert Stone's first. They are very unalike. Turgenev's social comedy - which, I expect, is not going to be so funny by the end - is dry and understated, prone to refrain from judgment while making it impossible for the reader to do the same. His characters are offspring, legitimate or otherwise, of the upper classes; some are richer than others but all would pass, in the England of the time, as gentlefolk.

A Hall of Miirrors takes place in a New Orleans that is unlikely to inspire nostalgia. For the down-and-out characters whose alternate stories twine through the opening of the book, New Orleans is anything but the Big Easy. It's a gritty, unwelcoming burg at the end of the Illinois Central tracks. Rheinhardt, now a drunk, was at one time a promising clarinetist at Juilliard. Geraldine's face is nastily scarred - car accident, she says. She'd like to get a job as a waitress, but prospective employers have another line of work in mind.

Somewhere in Virgin Soil - I haven't come upon it yet - a character gives the aristocracy another thirty years. In the event, they had forty, which is close enough. Everybody in the book seems to believe that some sort of fundamental change is inevitable; something like a revolution lies ahead. In A Hall of Mirrors, the revolution has already taken place. The air giddy expectation that colors Virgin Soil are replaced by the shut-down self-protectiveness of A Hall of Mirrors.

Continue reading "Taking Stock: Reading Turgenev and Stone" »

March 22, 2007

The sere before the spring


A gloomy day was yesterday, but I had a nice walk just the same, and, what's more, I needed it. More at Taking Stock.

March 17, 2007

I Think I Love My Wife

It's nearly two, and I've just come back from breakfast across the street, where we watched stragglers from the St Patrick's Day parade drift down 86th Street. The parade terminates at Lexington Avenue these days, not Second, so we're spared most of the drunks and detritus, not to mention the motor coaches and traffic barriers. Kathleen will give me an eyewitness account of the moraine when she gets to the office. When we parted after breakfast, she headed for the bank and the subway, right in the thick of things.

Ordinarily, I'd be dusting and vacuuming and listening to one of Bach's Passions, but I'm feeling sheepish about not having seen the Eric Rohmer film, L'amour l'après-midi, known here as Chloe in the Afternoon. The movie that I saw yesterday, Chris Rock's I Think I Love My Wife, is said to be a remake. I don't know why I've seen none of Mr Rohmer's films aside from L'anglaise et le duc, but I've not always been as enthusiastic about French movies as I am now. In any case, that's what I'm about to do - see L'amour l'après-midi.


Watching L'amour l'après-midi, a grave, talky, but extremely interior film, I wondered how it had ever held the interest of a brash American comedian, much less inspired him to remake it as a comedy. And what a fascinating remake I Love My Wife is! If you set aside the interpolations that make it funny, the newer picture is remarkably faithful to the original in terms of scenes, sequence, visual details, and, not least of all, dénouement. But the result of this fidelity is to emphasize the vast difference between the respective protagonists' romantic adventures, as well as the gulf between French cinematic sensibility thirty-five years ago and its American counterpart today.

Another puzzle: what would I have thought of L'amour l'après-midi if I hadn't seen I Think I Love My Wife?

March 04, 2007

March Forth!

Today, we celebrate International Progress Day, although not very internationally, because the pun doesn't work in other languages. Happy International Progress Day!

In the event, I did not ask Colm Tóibín to say his name. While he signed the book, I suggested that The Master could be seen as a short-story collection, and I told him that the James work that it most reminded me of was The Awkward Age. Mr Tóibín graciously assented to both remarks. I looked at his signature. It was almost perfectly legible.

The reading at 192 Books was my sole Saturday-evening entertainment. Kathleen could not rouse herself to leave the apartment, so we missed the Scissors Sisters concert. I wasn't about to go to that by myself! Readings given by writers I admire are much more my thing, even if the event requires a fifty-minute commute each way. (Tenth and 21st is a long way from 86th and Second, with at least one train change.)

I'm especially glad that I didn't miss Mr Tóibín. Something about his writing - or perhaps it was his soulful author photographs on dust jackets - led me to expect a dour, shy Irishman. Wrong! He was so charming and conversational that it actually hurt to turn away from him after the signing. I'd have given anything for an hour's conversation - a feeling I've never had before. He recommended that we all read Hemingway's "The Killers," in case we hadn't. He talked about how his new collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons, came to be, and revealed fascinating details of the backgrounds of a couple of the tales. More about that tomorrow.

Like a dodo, I left this week's Book Review at the bookshop. I was so involved with tying my scarf and turning the mobile back on that I abandoned it atop a stack of books, where, to be sure, it fit right in. The thought of having to buy another newspaper just to replace it was almost as irritating as not having anything to read on the voyage home. (I did have Mr Tóibín's book, but I'd read it, and it's really not suited to the MTA's clatter.)  I resolved to be resourceful. I'd haunt little room where the service elevator stops. That's where we do our recycling and leave our newspapers. Sure enough, I had a replacement by noon. 

Yesterday's burst of spring has drifted off, leaving wintry conditions in possession.

March 03, 2007


Gawd! It's spring! No scarf, no gloves - even my jacket seems a little heavy. On the whole, I'm sanguine about ageing. I know that I'm much happier and more centered now than I was whenever those waning faculties and interests were pulsing. Maybe because they're not. But one thing hasn't changed. I still contract rabid spring fever at the first meteorological enticement. My first thought: I want to take the day off! Just goof around. There are plenty of second and third thoughts, and presently order is restored. (Just what would "taking the day off" mean? Insofar as martinis were not involved, that is.) I will do the usual Saturday cleanup, changing the sheets and - by the way, there are no more handkerchiefs in the drawer, so would you please wake up and wash them? Tonight is beyond crazy. Seven o'clock: Colm Tóibín at 192 Books. Then the Scissors Sisters at Madison Square Garden, a venue of which I am innocent. Long story there. I asked the man at 192 when I was at the shop the other day for Jane Smiley if he knew how the Irish author pronounces his name. I plan to ask the man himself tonight. I'm finding it awkward to say "Col'm ToyBEAN."

Kathleen was too tired to go to the museum last night to hear the MMArtists play Brahms (it was wondrous; report on Tuesday). We did have dinner afterward around the corner, but what she did during the concert was watch The Last Waltz. This morning, she insisted that I see Joni Mitchell sing "Coyote." I love the song - I love Hejira, the album that it opens. But I was amazed by the singer's resemblance to, of all people, Katharine Hepburn. They're peas out of a pod! And when you think about it...

My heart broke a few minutes ago, because "Blarg Noir" left me on the cutting-room floor.

Don't mind me - it's spring fever.

March 02, 2007

Taking Stock: The Blarg Hop

It seems that I haven't said much about last Saturday's Blarg Hop. That's because I was too busy incapacitating myself on Sunday (ably guarded by Fossil Darling and LXIV), and too incapacitated on Monday, to write more than a couple of sentences. I was so pleased with myself for my good behavior on Saturday night that I could do nothing all day Sunday - and I do mean all day - but drink martinis. Shaken, stirred, whatever.

Continue reading "Taking Stock: The Blarg Hop" »

March 01, 2007

Very Big Deal


The Daily Blague is hardly the most confessional of Web logs, but I've always wanted to let readers have some sense of what my life is like. At the same time, I don't ordinarily find it difficult to be discreet. I've little inclination to write about things that can't be written about.

Kathleen's job change has been an exception. For quite some time, the two of us have wondered if and where Kathleen might find a partnership at a law firm capable of sustaining her growing practice. Moving from one law firm to another is an incredibly delicate process, but I have to say that Kathleen had an easy time of it. It could have been vastly disagreeable.

But from the inside, it has been wearying. There is the secrecy, which isn't really in our natures. (For a long time, we told no one.) There is the prospect, followed by the reality, of leaving a partnership of which Kathleen is very fond, and at which she has spent many happy (if overtired) years. Finally, there is the recognition that, after a certain age, change is almost as taxing as it might be beneficial, at least while it's ongoing.

I don't know how I should have endured the suspense and the anxiety - anxiety about Kathleen's getting enough sleep - if I hadn't had this blog to keep me busy. At the same time, I'm amazed that I was able to focus on it, and with an increasingly stable lens. I won't say that I've written bright and cheerful pieces while in the grip of black doubt - contrary to the expectations of friends and relations, it was never a foregone conclusion that Kathleen would find what she needed - but I have learned to work as hard as I can whenever it is possible to imagine being bright and cheerful. I have developed an almost grim attachment to the weekly Book Review review, even though it always feels like a new kind of hangover on Monday mornings.

I can take it.

Well, I wouldn't go that far. I've been very cranky, which wasn't exactly helpful to Kathleen, because I'm too profoundly bourgeois to adapt to uncertainty. As if she had nothing else to do, Kathleen has had to buoy up my spirits from time to time, and she has always done so with the bold assertion that, as SPDR Woman of Wall Street (which she really is), she would make something happen. At a minimum, this has reminded me that I have a page to write - I have to make something happen.

PS: Almost everyone, including lawyers familiar with Kathleen's practice who ought to have known better, has expressed the hope that Kathleen would be able to take some time off between jobs. If only. In fact, nothing could be harder to swing right now than a vacation, even a short one. This happens to be the busiest time of the year for Kathleen.

February 25, 2007


Last night, at the Blarg Hop, I was a complete gent, and home in bed long before midnight (actually, I watched Rififfi for the first time - fantastic - that long, quiet heist scene is amazing!). Today, however, I went fishing with Fossil Darling and LXIV. I was in bed even earlier. Much earlier.

February 22, 2007


When Kathleen told Dr A (her fantastic therapist) that Miss G would be bringing home a boyfriend, for the very first time, for dinner on Sunday, Dr A had Dr A-worthy advice.

She said: "The whole point of the first meeting is to have a second meeting."

That is so effing true. Just staying friendly enough to see one another again really is the outcome every sane potential father-in-law ought to have in mind. And thanks to a message on the machine that talks about getting together soon, I think we achieved the objective. 

There are drawbacks. My mother-in-law, who takes her inspiration from Lady Bracknell, was quite upset that Kathleen couldn't tell her either The Beau's age or the name of his alma mater. "What do you mean, you didn't ask?" she railed. Kathleen, armed with Dr A's fortitude, bore the contumely in patience. I was spared. Sort of. Ms NOLA and M le Neveu were delighted to learn that we plan to have them on hand when next we next meet Ms G and The Beau. "You're going about this all wrong," said M le Neveu. How, I asked. "Because they'll tell us." he larked.

You have options in this life. You can feel empty about the meaningless of existence. Or you can have babies whose diapers need to be changed. One of the great things that happened during my lifetime, unquestionably, was that men took up changing the diapers. That's why I'm still here.

February 21, 2007

Almost Spring

New York, New York: what a contradictory town. Elsewhere, the driven snow stays pure until it melts. Here, it takes on a color not found in nature: the color of carbon emissions.


How nice, during a storm, to have street sheds to walk under. They're protection against debris that might fall during the repointing of the city's apartment buildings' trillions of bricks. Melting snow, however, turns them into erratic showerheads. Having taken the picture of the filthy snow, I had to dodge the droplets.


Walking out of Barnes & Noble, which I visited for another pair of reading glasses but where I ended up buying three terrific but quite unnecessary books, I decided to take a walk down to the river, to see which way it was flowing. It felt miraculous to be alive in New York City, just a few blocks from the East River (which is not a river but a strait - hence the change in the direction of the flow). The end of February is hardly spring, but there was a caressing mildness in the air that made staying outdoors seem like a good idea - not a statement that could have been made during the past weeks.


It was great fun to watch the dogs in the big-dog run. Antics galore. I also enjoyed the grandparent's pleasure of not having to take care of any of them. I moved on to what in a few months will be a hypnotic view. Stay tuned.


Better yet, visit Carl Schurz Park. Just take the Lex to 86th Street and head downhill. Don't hesitate to ask directions; you may very well find that you're asking me, as I'm on my way, in the other direction, to the Museum.

February 16, 2007


It's so bitterly cold outside that I "forgot" about going to the movies this morning until I'd missed all the first showings. I almost went to see Breach, at 1:50, but at the last minute I did not feel like dragging myself to 72nd and Third. Too far! Then I asked Fossil Darling if he'd see Avenue Montaigne with me at 5:50, but he has out-of-town guests. So I have resolved to stay home and master, for once and for all, the dispute between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.

February 15, 2007

This Entry Was Authorized By All Concerned


In a phone conversation last Sunday, Miss G all but blurted out that when she came to dinner the following weekend, she would be bringing "someone." I was told the young man's name, and then, almost as an afterthought, his dietary preferences (happily identical to M le Neveu's). That was it. A name and a steak.

Today, I received a note from Miss G, retailing a few welcome basics, facts that will make it unnecessary to appear to grill our guest on Sunday. Questions such as "Where are you from?" "What do you do?" will not have to be asked. Everyone assures me that these things just come up on their own, but I don't have to count on that unlikelihood anymore. There was also a snapshot. I'd love to post it, but I'll have to ask permission for that, and permission will have to be asked in person. Let's just say that I've got two great smiles beaming out at me from a silver frame on my desk.

Man, am I happy!

February 14, 2007

Let It Snow

Finally, it's snowing. Since I don't have to leave the house, shovel a sidewalk, or drive a car, I'm quite content. I can enjoy snow the way children do. What I love most about snowfall is the deep quiet. Even in Manhattan, noises are hushed. Only the occasional gust of wind makes a sound.

Continue reading "Let It Snow" »

February 08, 2007

A Tale of Two Bistros

My friend, Diana Bradshaw, and I usually give each other lunch at home, on a rotating basis. It was my turn today, but there was no way that I could whip up anything smart at home, so I took us to the Café d'Alsace, where we both had croque monsieur. It was Diana's first. When we ordered, the waiter rather witlessly asked if we wanted to share one croque, and Diana was immediately concerned that there would be too much food on her plate. In the event, there was, but she took home the half sandwich that she couldn't eat, having delighted in the other. A gentle warm-up in the oven will bring what she took home right back to its creamy crunchiness.

And that would have been it for my day out. I came home and sat down to write. For one reason or another, writing did not go well. I wrote up a book so peremptorily that I was done in fewer than three paragraphs. I turned to another book, with better results. But when a friend reported a crisis, I insisted that she come for tea. I made a new batch of my ragù while we talked it over. By the time she left, I was in a thoroughly gregarious frame of mind.

So, even though I was "too sick" last night to go to Carnegie Hall to hear glorious Orpheus - featured tenor Ian Bostridge canceled due to illness, so I thought I might as well do the same - I dashed down to NoLITa for another reading at McNally Robinson Booksellers. Ms NOLA had dropped word of the event while I was struggling with one of my books, and almost anything, even braving the arctic cold, seemed preferable to struggling in front of the machine. It turned worth the trip to hear Olaf Olafsson talk about his new collection of stories, Valentines. I wished I'd looked as good as he does when I was his age - forty four.

Ordinarily, I'd have come straight home. Ms NOLA told me that she was going to "dash home" the minute the reading was over. But Kathleen complicated things a bit by insisting that I call her when the reading was over; perhaps we could get together for dinner. Okay - but where? Neither one of us knows NoLITa. In fact, we're aware of exactly three restaurants south of Fourteenth Street. I knew that Balthazar was not far from the bookshop, but there's always a crowd, and it's fairly grand for a routine weeknight dinner. Ms NOLA agreed to walk me there while she brainstormed about alternatives. Unfortunately, I obstinately walked us in the wrong direction, east instead of west, so that by the time we actually got to Balthazar I was perfectly happy with a forty-five minute wait, as long as I could stay warm.

I was exploiting Ms NOLA shamelessly. She was going to be the other half of my party of two until Kathleen arrived. But by the time Kathleen arrived - long after Ms NOLA and I had been seated; long before the duration of forty-five minutes - Ms NOLA had gently put the question of what I wanted her to do when Kathleen arrived. Exploitation was neither thinkable nor desirable. I asked the waiter to ask the maître d' if the table next to us, which was being cleared, could be held for a "friend" who would be joining us. When someone from the front of the house came to deal with my request, I updated my "friend" to my "wife." We were moved a few tables toward the center of the room, to a genuine table for four. Staff couldn't have been nicer.

I love Balthazar. The food is fine - the best steak-frites in New York -  but I could care less about that. I love the big, bustling room, because it's also the warmest busy restaurant that I've ever been to, warmer even than the Grand Colbert in Paris. French or not - and the waiters are wonderfully sérieux - it's Manhattan in its wildest dreams. Everyone, even the toughened regulars clustered at the bar, is faintly surprised that the scene is really happening.

The funniest thing was the view in the mirror. I was a pink and white head in a sea of tan and dark. There was no one in the room with remotely the same complexion. I still felt right at home.

February 01, 2007

Taking Stock: Maladies Virtual and Otherwise

For over a week, I've been beset by two illnesses. A nasty cold morphed into something more gastro-enterological. Much discomfort, but nothing next to the plague of unknown spam that has created an uproar at my Web host. Don't ask me to explain, because it has something to do with MovableType and it can't just be MovableType because in that case I'd be reading about the scourge on blog after blog. Fortunately, I've found someone to give me a hand, but as I still don't really understand what the problem is, or how it happens, I'm far from content.

What I'm taking stock of this week, then, is my own vulnerability to maladies, corporeal and virtual. I don't really know which is worse. The physical illness is obviously more unpleasant, but the digital problems interfere with what I now regard as my professional life. Frankly, I'd rather have the intestinal cramps.

Light posting, at any rate, must be understood in these terms. I'm reluctant to write my customary swathes of prose if I can't promptly upload them. Lucky you.

January 28, 2007

At My Kitchen Table: Washing Up

Every now and then, the dishwasher is empty when one of my dinner parties begins.* We're talking blue moons here. My Miele dishwasher, which I love, is set to run a perhaps needlessly thorough cycle that takes nearly two hours to complete. I cannot operate it at the same time as any other high-amp appliance, such as the water kettle or the microwave. This means that, in order to use them, I have to pull the dishwasher open. Quite often, I forget to close it again, and the dishes drip midcycle for a while. As a rule, when one of my dinner parties begins, the dishwasher is stuffed with bowls and utensils that I've used to make dinner, and I've just turned it on. And just because the dishwasher is full of pots and pans doesn't mean that the stove and kitchen counter aren't as well.

That's why, when I clear the table between courses (often just an entree and dessert), I take the plates out onto the balcony, where they usually sit until the next day. Here's how I clean up after a dinner party.

When everyone has gone, if I still have the energy, I empty the dishwasher (which would be easy enough if it didn't involve putting everything away), and fill it up with whatever's dirty in the kitchen. If there is any extra room, I clear as glasses and the dessert plates as the kitchen stuff leaves room for. I turn the dishwasher on and tidy up the kitchen. Then I go to bed.

The next morning, I empty the dishwasher and clear whatever's left on the table. Only when the dining area has been completely straightened up do I bring in whatever's out on the balcony. If I've had a big dinner, with more courses or more guests, the dishes from the balcony will fill the third load to run after the dinner.**

In a nutshell, my cleanup begins near the dishwasher and works outward. I must confess that the process can take several days. I've got a blog to write!

* For quite some time now, my only dinner guests have been Ms NOLA and M le Neveu, but I hope to broaden my reach in 2007. We did have Fossil Darling and LXIV last Sunday.

** Silver is washed by hand, as are certain fancy plates that I don't use too often. I also hand-wash what's left of my mother's wedding crystal. I think we've broken two stems over the years, which is amazing.

January 18, 2007

Taking Stock: Never a Believer

This idea of taking stock on Thursdays is all very well, but it's the entry that drives me crazy week after week. Reviewing the Book Review can be like pulling teeth, but at least I know what I'm supposed to be doing. I had absolutely nothing even to work with - no, that's not true, but you don't want to know how desperately unattractive my fallback was - until I passed a few minutes at Sale Bête, where Édouard had just posted a nice new piece and, helpfully for me, some photographs. Dont celle-ci:

 If this is not a Roman Catholic church, I'll be very surprised. It bears the unmistakable stamp of a Catholic church in New England, striving with its pointed Gothic windows and doorways to remind the working-class parishioners of the glories of the True Faith - and to substitute a little pizzaz for the rectangular formality of the Meeting House. The façade is Orvieto in yellow-painted pine. and the squat tower a campanile, not a spire. There is also the fact - fact! and known to Édouard I'm sure - that no pristine Congregational church would be interfered with by so many power lines. There is, finally, the stunning lack of verdure. Well, at this time of year, of sere branches.

Besides, Édouard goes on to tell us that he attended a celebration of the Epiphany here. With clowns. Case closed.

Connecticut and Rhode Island (the church is in Westerly, Rhode Island) are home to arguably the largest population descended from immigrants from Portugal, Italy, and Quebec in the United States. I used to wonder how people from sunny Mediterreanea could survive in dour New England, but then I remembered Homer, and the fact that "sunny" is a recent innovation in those old countries. Life is hard everywhere, and, on balance, not quite so hard here, where there's no class structure.

Or where the class structure is elastic. Because there certainly is a class structure. Looking at this church, I feel once again the terrible shame that I would feel at prep school when I went down to Blairstown for Mass at the pathetic little church at the wrong end end of town and sat through imprecations hurled out by the wild Irish priest who'd have been happier as a Baptist, had he but known that. Or the church that I'd attend (rarely) with my aunt and uncle, in New Hampshire - the church from which my uncle was buried two years ago. What were they thinking, trying to do Gothic with planks of wood? Trying to imitate the glories of the Quattrocento in chromolithograph terms? These churches are temples of hideosity.

I suspect that everybody knows this, and that it doesn't matter.

It didn't, ultimately, matter to me. I never believed. I comb through my earliest memories, and I can remember not a single second in which, say, I hoped that my prayer would reach the Blessed Virgin Mary, or understood that Jesus was the Son of God. I think that, when I was a small child, I expected that I would eventually understand virgin birth and redemption; I'm quite sure that I wasn't a little critical thinker. But I was a born materialist, and revelation never came. There are so many things about life that I don't understand. Religion and sports would be at the top of the list, if I cared very much about either.

January 17, 2007



If I'm not mistaken, this item is called a "canterbury." The prototype was designed to make it easier to transport large music scores from the episcopal library to the cathedral. Now canterburies are mostly used to hold magazines. That's certainly what this one is going to be doing. It's a lot bigger than I expected it to be. The side panel comes up to my knee, and the handle reaches about six inches higher than that.

If could sit still in a quiet room - indefinitely, which Pascal assures me I cannot - I could read all the magazines in the canterbury. My brain might liquefy and drip through my nose, but I'd stop feeling guilty about not getting to The Nation every week.

I bought the canterbury from a Levenger sale catalogue, if you're interested.

January 12, 2007

A Sea of Wine

Last night, I went out for drinks and dinner with friends. It was altogether impromptu. We met at the bar at The Modern, the restaurant attached to the Museum of Modern Art. It is a small, loud, and somewhat amorphous space. I resolved to stick to wine. Unfortunately, I stuck to a lot of wine. The evening was delightful, and I remember every minute of it, but this morning what ailed me felt like nothing less than pancreatitis. (I know about pancreatitis because it is induced by my allergy to a drug that, owing to my not having bothered to request the transfer of medical records, I tried not once but twice.) I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so awful.

I spent the day in bed, reading Patricia Marx's Him Her Him Again The End of Him. I couldn't read two pages without dropping the book on my chest and falling asleep for a moment. Shortly after five, I picked up the massive collection of Joan Didion's nonfiction that Everyman Library recently published. I read "Goodbye To All That," the valedictory essay with which she bid adieu to her youth and also, as she thought, to the New York in which she had passed it.

There were certain parts of the city which I had to avoid. I could not bear upper Madison Avenue on weekday mornings (this was a particularly inconvenient aversion, since I then lived just fifty or sixty feet east of Madison), because I would see women walking Yorkshire terriers and shopping at Gristede's , and some Veblenesque gorge would rise in my throat. I could not go to Times Square in the afternoon, or to the New York Public Library for any reason whatsoever. One day I could not go into a Schrafft's; the next day it would be Bonwit Teller.

I know what she means. And then, as I'm sure Ms Didion found out, living in the City again, you get over the disappointment of realizing that even Shangri-La can be repetitious and predictable. You forgive that. It's not hard, because you are no longer young, and no longer teasing dreams out of stone.

January 11, 2007

Taking Stock: No Stick

No more walking sticks!

How'd I forget to mention that last week? I've stopped carrying a walking stick. I don't remember when I began taking a walking stick with me whenever I left the building, but it was more than five years ago. The stick was very reassuring, because I was afraid of tripping on uneven pavement. I felt very weak and vulnerable for a few years; in fact, I was sick with osteoarthritis. I didn't know that until the symptoms were relieved by Remicade, beginning in the spring of 2004. It didn't take long to realize that I no longer had to worry about tripping and didn't need the cane, but by now I had acquired a very beautiful stick from Paris.

When the beautiful stick from Paris snapped in December - a freak accident - I tried using other, shorter sticks that I'd collected, but they seemed more bother than comfort. The last time I used one was on Christmas night.

I will replace the beautiful stick from Paris the next time I'm in beautiful Paris, which doesn't look to be anytime soon. (I don't foresee any travel until Thanksgiving.) But I won't, at least not immediately, go back to carrying a stick whenever I leave the building. It's very inconvenient, you know, to carry a stick. It ties up one hand completely. When it rained, I had no free hands.

At the same time, I still can't quite believe that I'm stickless when I cross Second Avenue. And nobody offers me a seat on the bus or the subway any more (not that I ever accepted). And one of these days I'm going to curse under my breath when I miss an elevator because I didn't have a stick to wave in front of me - sticks are very good for that, now that most elevators are equipped with motion detectors that keep doors open. The trick is to thrust the stick only so far, so that it doesn't batter an unsuspecting passenger.

And here's a Homeland Security question: why would anybody permit a big guy to get on a plane with a long stick of ebony? I'm sure that I could knock somebody out from behind. Maybe even kill! Doesn't get much blunter and simpler. But no - they're worried about gels...

January 09, 2007

Birthday Loot


The exchange of gifts at holidays and birthdays has become a thing of the past in my circle. We are all getting older, and realizing that the future presents problems of deaccessioning. We all buy what we want when we want it, and confine gift-giving to those rare occasions when we're dead certain that the recipient is going to be either very interested or very amused by something.

But with PPOQ there are no rules. I make them up as we go along; then I shred them. You have to understand that my old friend has spent most of his life in a state of low-grade exasperation, brought on by the capricious demands of near and dear ones. At present, sadly, I am the only one en vie. I have to work overtime.

When the four of us - PPOQ, LXIV, Kathleen, and I went to the Metropolitan Museum on Boxing Day, we had lunch, toured a few shows, and then bid farewell at the Gift Shop, which I didn't even think of dragging Kathleen into. I did remember, however, that I'd meant to buy a sale book, an enormous and heavy collection of aerial photographs of Italy. Then I had a brainwave! I'd impudently demand that PPOQ buy it for me, as a birthday present, and - I didn't work this part out right away - do the heavy lifting and bring it to our place.

Well, I never did work out the delivery scheme, and on Saturday night I had to schlep the book from LXIV's to Jules and back home, but as both of those relays were taxi-borne, I cannot really complain about the dislocated shoulder that voyage by subway would have guaranteed.

I've cropped a small part of the photograph on page 259, showing Trinità dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps. It all looks rather small, doesn't it? Delicate and small. The drama of the scene is completely effaced by the aerial angle. At least, I take it to be. I myself have never set foot in Italy. The possibilities of a trip there are so boggling that I can't even think about it. Rome is not even on the list of my top-ten Italian destinations, and neither is Florence. It's the North that I want to see: the Po Valley, the lakes, and the Veneto. (If I were a Northern Italian, I'd be rallying for the Lega Nord and "Padania.")*

For the time being, though, I'm happy to feast on the extravagantly beautiful pictures in Italy From Above (White Star, 2005). Antonio Attini and Marco Bertinetti are the photographers; Alberto Bertolazzi provides the (pretty minimal) text. There's a forward by Giuliano Urbani, and a preface by none other than Franco Zeffirelli. I don't recall how steeply the price of the book had been reduced, but on sale it was no longer an expensive item. Get one while you can! 

And thanks always to Fossil Darling - as I've decided to rechristen PPOQ. Uni - got it? - laterally.

* Regular readers know that, as a New Yorker, I already advocate separate-state status for the Metropolitan Area and its watershed. At a minimum!

January 07, 2007

Birthday Party


If I've had a better birthday, I'll shave off my beard and repent. What a night!

The usual suspects gathered at LXIV's Union Square apartment, where I had to tear myself away, repeatedly, from the window. It was such fun to watch all the passers-by, so different from and more interesting than the folks in Yorkville High Street. PPOQ was already there when we arrived, a tad early - oops. Chivalry forbids me to state just why I thought we were going to be seriously late, but, chronically punctual, I assumed that we wouldn't get to the party in good time, and completely overlooked the dispatch with which the 5 train whisked us to Union Square. "Don't worry," pooh-poohed PPOQ at the door. "He's been ready for hours."

It has been a long time since I've been in a flat as stylish as LXIV's, if, indeed, I've ever been in one. The edible treats were just as sophisticated. I worried at first about saving room for dinner, but then it occurred to me that, as it was my birthday, I could do as I pleased and damn the consequences. As it happened, I wanted very much to keep my head, so although it meant disappointing LXIV, who had looked forward to shaking up a few martinis (which he, however, wouldn't dream of drinking), I stuck to a very nice graves. Ms NOLA and M le Neveu arrived before too long, quickly followed by Miss G, who had been out on the town the night before. She had evidently recovered nicely. Owing to the bizarrely temperate weather, Ms NOLA was able to look fetching in one of those little black dresses that you can't ordinarily wear in January without making everyone around you shiver.

When it came time to head to Jules, the bistro in St Mark's Place, Kathleen and I decided to take a cab while the others chose to walk. Poor PPOQ went home, prudently enough. He wasn't feeling very well, thanks to an office cold that had finally nabbed him, and we all agreed that he'd been very gallant to come downtown at all. I don't know what kind of a time he'd have had at the restaurant. It was very noisy as usual, but he would have found the young men at the table next to ours most interesting. (Trust me; I've been out with him many times, and discretion, at least insofar as sharing his designs with me is concerned, is not his middle name.) They looked too young to have real jobs, but they were all wearing jackets. Miss G found the wearing of jackets on a Saturday night in St Mark's Place highly suspicious, and both she and Ms NOLA, who sat to my right, regarded the "pack" as an all-too-familiar bore. PPOQ, in contrast, might have found an extra seat amongst them, and ventured to offer career counseling.

The traffic on 14th Street was terrible, and the traffic on Second Avenue was unimaginable. Both were clogged by taxis. I realized that I had never been downtown on a Saturday night before. When we finally arrived at the restaurant, I got out my cell phone and started to dial Ms NOLA's number, but she and the others walked in before I could press the Call button.

My dinner was a classic: half a dozen oysters, steak-frites, and crème brulée. I damned the consequences when it came to the wine, and we went through three bottles of Domaine Chèze St Joseph. The waiter actually shook my hand when I signed the receipt.


Miss G took the photos, using my phone. I asked her to take one of the people sitting at the table outside, looking for all the world as if it were May. Because New York comes in two temperatures, cold and please turn on the air-conditioning, I had never noticed that the doorway area at Jules can be cleared out nearly to the dimensions of a garage door.

After dinner, LXIV walked Ms NOLA and M le Neveu back to Union Square, where they all had a drink before the latter two headed back to Park Slope. We walked Miss G around the corner to her apartment and then hopped in a taxi, which sped right up First Avenue to 86th Street and home - where I permitted myself a martini. And so to bed!

January 04, 2007

Getting Out


On Tuesday, the last day of Kathleen's winter break, I went over to the West Side to have lunch with her at Café Lalo. Kathleen has spent some pleasant half-hours at this palace of sweets, and she wanted to introduce me to it. When she told me that the tables were "very small," I ought to have known better. Well, I did know better. But I wanted to indulge her, frankly. So even when the tables turned out to be smaller than small, and the menu turned out to be so not a me kind of menu (at least for lunch), I was a good sport and didn't complain. Now I can say that I have done Café Lalo, and henceforth leave it to the high school students who keep it busy in the middle of the day.

This afternoon, I treated myself to a croque monsieur at Restaurant Demarchelier, one of three neighborhood croqueries. I'm fondest of the ones that they serve at Jacques, on 85th Street, but when I was there last week they weren't making croques, for a reason that remained veiled to me despite persistent questions to the waiter. I like Demarchelier very much, but does sit athwart Park and Fifth Avenues, and I'm happier with a slightly scruffier clientele.

Sometimes I'm restless, and I simply have to go out, but it doesn't happen often. Neither today nor two days ago was it the case. What drove me outdoors was a sad truth that has percolated through my dura mater in the two and a half years that I've been reading Édouard's Web log, Sale Bête: I need to get out more. From his lair in the Village, Édouard ranges far and wide, frequently engaging in interstate travel, and he always has his camera handy. I have observed, although not to Édouard himself, yet, that while I always photograph New York scenes from the sidewalk, Édouard shoots from the middle of intersections. I pray that this will not lead to an untimely demise, but it does make for better pictures. Inspired by his example, I took this picture of Demarchelier while standing on the double yellow line in the middle of 86th Street.


Taking Stock on Thursday: New Packaging

For reasons that I still can't go into (stay tuned!), 2006 was not what I would call a fun year. But progress was made on several fronts, not the least of them my personal appearance. Without trying, I lost fifteen pounds. (There were times when I just went hungry instead of snacking, but even that didn't rise to the level of "trying.") I stopped wearing shorts all the time. (They were nice shorts, and I had them dry-cleaned and pressed, but still...) I discovered that Polo/Ralph Lauren was making the kind of clothes that I wore when I was a teenager, before Houstonian impecuniousness. So I resumed trying to look sharp, in a preppy sort of way. I've never been a slob, but I'd gotten a bit too casual.

And I fell in love with a watch, which I never take off except to shower. And I really don't have to take it off then, either, because it's a Hamilton Khaki Navy Automatic, waterproof to depths of two hundred feet. (Or is it meters? I don't need to know!) When I bought it, I didn't know what "automatic" means, and I was dismayed when the watch stopped working a few days after our return from Puerto Rico, where I bought it. Then I figured it out: there has been a name change. When I was growing up, I was given a "self-winding" watch that had been my grandfather's. (I have it still, but the case is broken in such a way that a band can't be attached. I haven't found a jeweler who can be bothered, in other words.) If I thought that "self-winding" was neat, I regard "automatic" as positively virtuous. In our far more fuel-conscious times, an automatic watch seems absolutely green. Even if it didn't, I'd get a kick out of realizing that the watch is being powered by me. Initially, I wore it just to keep it going. Never in my life have I been a man who wears a watch as a matter of course. My watch was always the first thing to come off, even before a necktie, when I came home from work. No longer. That's why I was so tickled, at Thanksgiving in St Croix, to discover, when I was about to take a shower after a walk along the beach, that I'd acquired a most unexpected tan line.

2006 was also the year of reading glasses. The ophthalmologist wrote a prescription, but told me that 1.75 magnification glasses would work just as well, and Barnes & Noble sells Foster Grants for $15. 

By the end of the year, you see, the Daily Me came in a somewhat different package.

In other developments, I learned that my birth parents were roughly ten years older when I was born than I'd been told they were, decades ago, by my adoptive father. I'd always known that my birth father would be unlikely to be alive, but that small uncertainty was crushed by the news that he'd actually be about 110. Not impossible, but so improbable as not to be worth thinking about. More problematically, my birth mother went from being 77 to being 86. Where to go from here is a question rendered all the more tantalizing by the discovery that my birth father was the divorced father of three children when I was conceived. Did he even know about me? If he didn't, my half-siblings wouldn't - would they? But I'll have more to say about all of this in coming weeks.

January 01, 2007

You Speak the Truth, My Faithful Indian Companion

Happy New Year! Another decade begins to close.

We had a very tranquil New Year's Eve. The treats came first: icy Moët & Chandon White Star and an ounce of sevruga caviar. We listened to Blossom Dearie's first recording, made fifty-one years ago, when Kathleen was three years old and I was eight. I've known about Blossom Dearie for years, but I haven't really listened to her until recently. One of the songs on the first album that I'd never heard before is called "Comment-allez vous?" Kathleen misheard this as "Come on, tally-hoo!" Ms Dearie seems to go out of her way to sing with an American accent, but the song has a period charm. Once upon a time, it was very sophisticated.

It may have been the last of the sevruga for a while. This Saturday, which will be my fifty-ninth birthday, we're going to see how the American product is doing. It's a lot cheaper, and it's not bad. You may think that caviar is exotic and expensive, and perhaps even repellent (fish eggs!), but I read in the Times yesterday that sixty percent of the world's caviar is consumed in the United States.

For dinner, we had Veal Scallops in Apple Sauce - which has nothing to do with applesauce - and for dessert we had lemons stuffed with sorbet. There is really nothing quite so lemony as this Italian production. We had a very nice wine from Chile that a friend hard brought us, Piedra Feliz I believe it's called. Soft and velvety.

Because it was getting late, I started Radio Days before tackling the dishes. I don't know when we began the tradition of watching this 1987 Woody Allen film on New Year's Eve, but it may have been as long as fifteen years ago. The movie ends on New Year's Eve, 1943 or 1944 (I used to know), shot in what is actually the King Cole Bar in the St Regis Hotel. The St Regis is currently being reconfigured as a condominium, and I wonder what will happen to the bar, with its Maxfield Parrish murals. At dinner, Kathleen and I had tried to figure out the difference between a night club and a cabaret. Without success.

In the morning, I had a nightmare. Kathleen was very angry with me for having had way too much to drink and misbehaved. It was very convincing, and I was horrified. No more of that! Waking up, I woke her up, and begged her to assure me that I'd been dreaming. She was happy to do so. Perhaps she was anticipating breakfast in bed. In any case, you'll be happy to know that the $25 stollen from Eli's was pretty good. 

December 31, 2006

At My Kitchen Table: What did we eat?

The other night, after dinner, Kathleen and I were recalling the foodstuffs of childhood. Kathleen could remember hers a lot better than I could mine. I remember Chung King chicken chow mein, Chef Boy-ar-di Spanish Rice, and TV dinners (the last superseded, eventually, by varieties of Stauffer's). I remember learning that I preferred spaghetti al burro - spaghetti with butter and parmesan - to anything with tomato sauce. I remember fish sticks on Friday. But I have no idea how often we had any of these "dishes," and I'm sure that there must have been others. Meat loaf? Macaroni and cheese? (Before Stauffer's, that is.) Surely - but I don't remember them. Salisbury steaks - I think I remember Salisbury steaks.

What I remember more surely is wishing that I could cook. This was not permitted, because cooking was something that girls and women did. My mother was of the opinion that I might as well be allowed to wear ball gowns as permitted to cook. And she can't have been crazy about my objectives, which were to conduct chemistry-set experiments in the kitchen and to have good-tasting dinners. My mother was devoted to taking good care of us, but that was not enough to make her like cooking - and you have to like cooking to turn out good food. I'm convinced of it. It is simply too much work, otherwise.

In time, we all grew up and became more sensible. A few weeks before she died, of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, my mother asked me to do the cooking for what we all knew, but didn't say, would be her last dinner party. I don't remember the menu, but I do remember that it came off nicely. When I wasn't serving, I stayed in the kitchen. My mother was very, very grateful afterward - almost effusive.

Her last words, hoarsely whispered on the night she died, were directed at me. "Did you freeze the leftover ravioli?"

The things I remember.

December 30, 2006

Eve of the Eve

How typical: Dubya slept through Saddam's hanging. The want of respect is staggering, but we've had plenty of opportunity to get used to staggering arrogance in the White House. It's not that the Iraqi tyrant himself deserved respect so much as the moment of his execution that did. It was incumbent upon the President to witness and event of such symbolic importance (not so symbolic for the hanged man). But this president sleeps on autopilot.

Once I got past that headline this morning, I jumped to the Book Review and clapped my hands with delight: a collection of short stories by Colm Tóibín. I snatched a Crawford Doyle Booksellers bookmark from the jug and carried it with me to breakfast across the street. At the stroke of ten, I called the bookshop and secured a copy of Mothers and Sons, as the collection is titled.

Walking over to Madison Avenue, I was oppressed by the utterly leaden sky. The side streets were deserted. Ordinarily, it's a pleasure to be in the emptied city, but this morning it felt sinister. Shadows were nowhere; shadow was everywhere. (In the afternoon, the sun eventually peeped out.)

Then I went to Eli's, where I bought a few provisions for the coming days. I could have kicked myself when the cashier rang up the loaf of stollen that I most imprudently tossed into my basket even though it didn't carry a price tag. Twenty-five dollars! Half that would have been ample. I can't say I didn't see it coming. Well, call it a Christmas treat.

Kathleen is at the office, cleaning up. Not just organizing piles of paper, but dusting. With Pledge. The state of Kathleen's office is a scandal at the best of times, but "she knows where everything is." Except that, lately, she doesn't.

While Kathleen was out, and I, too, was dusting (as is my Saturday wont), I listened to Mozart's Messiah, K 572, and then to Bach's Christmas Oratorio. Do I have any energy left for writing a few Christmas cards?

December 28, 2006


Kathleen and I had lunch a neighborhood bistro yesterday, and I learned something about eavesdropping: I'm not tempted by people who are having what you would call a private conversation. If I can't hear without straining, I won't listen. Two women sat at a table right next to ours, and because the banquette turned a corner, they were very much in my view. But they spoke in low voices and I paid them no attention. Several tables away, however, there was a rather garrulous quartet of people just a bit older than I am. Even so, they seemed to belong to my parents' generation, because they weren't baby boomers. Born before the end of World War II, they started out in a decidedly less rapacious atmosphere than the one that PPOQ (born 1946) and I knew. We were consumers from the start. Anyway, it was fun to figure out who went with whom. The out-of-town couple planned to see A Chorus Line later on, in the evening; the husband had "never seen a Broadway show." On the evidence of what we overheard, there was no reason to believe that he had ever done anything but play golf.

Eavesdropping while dining alone is risky. You can lose yourself in somebody's story, only to react inappropriately - by reacting at all. Once upon a time, I overheard a fellow regale his companions with a tale about a night at a Club Med in the Caribbean during which there was a lot of drinking. At one point, the guy left the bar to get some cigarettes. When he came back, everybody was dancing. That was cool, so he got right into it. It took a round of applause for him to realize that he had entered by bar by the wrong door, and wandered into the floor show.

I burst out laughing. (He told the story very well.) I killed the laugh immediately, but of course it was too late. Hot blood flooded my cheeks, and I searched the tablecloth in vain for the "Evaporate" button. 

After lunch, Kathleen and I went to Gracious Empire, the constellation of three Gracious Home stores within spitting distance of the corner of Third Avenue and 70th Street. We hit all three. Trying to choose a picture frame, I called out to Kathleen, who was standing some distance away. I asked her if she could give me some advice. Two women standing in between us turned to me eagerly, ready to help a guy out.  

December 26, 2006

The Distracted Gastronome

It's the day after Christmas, which for almost everybody means "back to work," but not for us: Kathleen will be taking the whole week off. Hurrah! Not having had quite enough of PPOQ and LXIV at dinner last night, we are going to meet them this afternoon in the Petrie Court Café, at the museum, for a spot of lunch, after which we'll descend into the bowels of the Costume Institute to have a look at the clothes that kept Nan Kempner on the best-dressed list. (Ms NOLA and I have already been. It's quite a show.)

At about four-thirty yesterday, I summoned Kathleen from her bead-work to a small table in the living room, where I had set out champagne, crackers, and an ounce of sevruga caviar. I had bought the caviar on an impulse at Agata & Valentina on Sunday. It was scandalously expensive - $90! Of course, it's a miracle that there's caviar at all. Beluga isn't available anymore, having been outlawed in order to stop the overfishing, but sevruga, which is our favorite anyway, and ossetra are still on offer. But the prices have jumped. It seemed very much worth it, though, as we relaxed for little while in the late afternoon, before getting ready for dinner. The caviar tasted better than ever, and icy champagne was the perfect accompaniment.

When we arrived at Brasserie LCB - the former Côte Basque - the room wasn't half full, but when we left, the joint was packed. Everyone I bumped into seemed to be French, or at least francophone. It was as though chef Jean-Jacques Rachou had planned a home-away-from-home event for the expats. The warmth of the room was positively Dickensian. Kathleen and I have been to the bistro before, but this time I really missed the soft loveliness of the old place. I even missed the rustic harbor murals, which I was never keen on when they were hanging. Now it is all very Toulouse-Lautrec. And that's great; but I did feel a pang for le temps perdu.

Perhaps because I was having such a good time talking with our friends - and ribbing PPOQ mercilessly for wearing this homeless-person sort of garment over an elegant gold shirt, just as he did at our party last week - I didn't really attend to dinner with true gastronomic fervor. There was a lovely winter-vegetable soup to start. It had the slightly chalky texture of vichyssoise, but it tasted, deliciously, of parsnips, and I'd like to try to approximate it. I remember that the galantine of duck was very good, but nothing more specific; I must have been talking too much. The filet de boeuf Périgourdine was just as delicious as it was the last time I had it, but I just gobbled it up instead of doing it justice. Thin slices of bûche de Noël, however, made an impression. One slice was filled with chocolate buttercream, while the other was pale and liqueur-soaked. Miam!

Having assigned myself the job of selecting the wine, I chose what turned out to be a fine Brane-Cantenac. But I did have a couple of martinis at the beginning at the end of the meal. I had unaccountably run out of gin at home! When we got back to the apartment - PPOQ had a cab ready for us the minute we stepped outside, which was amazing, given the schmutzy weather - I had a finger of Laphroaig while I got into my sleepies. I remembered what the baby-sitters used to say - "He's a very good boy - when he's asleep" - and I wanted to be a very good boy. I was out by ten-thirty. Merry Christmas!

December 25, 2006


This is to wish you a happy holiday, and to thank you for visiting the Daily Blague. It's also to remind you that my birthday falls on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and that what I really want this year is to hear from you about how you think the DB, Portico, and Good For You are - well, good for you, or not. You may comment on the DB or write to me privately, whichever suits you better.

There are days when I think that I know what I'm doing here (beyond simply writing a lot of stuff), and then there are days when I feel quite fatuous and dim for even imagining that I know what I'm doing. What I do know is that nobody has done this before. I also know that I've made, particularly in the past nine months, a lot of choices that have narrowed the scope of the project. Or you might say that it's more focused. Either way, I wonder if I have made good choices. Only you can tell me.

Thanks again for fitting me in to your busy life!

December 22, 2006

After the Holidays

After dinner (a pizza), I decided to call our great law school friend who lives in Western Connecticut. She was home, and Kathleen was home, and we all had a great chat. Our friend adopted a Chinese baby girl a few years ago, as a single mom, something that, according to the latest news, is no longer going to be doable.

Our friend is our age, or at least Kathleen's, and having a small child in the house can be really, really tiring once you've passed fifty. What she's really tired of, as it happens, is being asked if her daughter is her granddaughter. But there's no doubting that age brings a certain distancing wisdom. Children are preposterously astute in the know-your-audience department, and I doubt that the adopted child of thirtysomethings would have dared announce, as our friend's daughter did recently, that she was so dissatisfied with the current arrangement that she planned to return to China - "after the holidays." We're talking about a four year-old. She isn't leaving before Santa Cauls.

And then I ruined our lovely evening. I overstate. I wanted to write a few Christmas cards, but couldn't for the life of me remember where I'd put them. A senior moment. Now that everything has worked out well, I see that I must learn to stop being angry with myself for these lapses, simply because, once they've flared, I'm all too willing to pour them on to Kathleen, and make her, if not the responsible party, then the person who ought to have been responsible. As conflicts go, tonight's was a mere burst of flame followed by the darkness of all's-well. I ran around for under ten minutes exclaiming that I couldn't be expected to remember everything and that I could use a little help &c,  even if it did mean following me around the apartment and taking note of where I put every little thing. (Shades of Bringing Up Baby?) While I was declaiming operatically, though, my memory was working: I remembered one thing, and that led to remembering where the cards were. I apologized profusely. I sat down at the desk and wrote the cards while Kathleen, exhausted by the ordeal, went to sleep.

She forgave me, but I am going back to China after the holidays. I'm too ashamed of myself not to.

December 21, 2006

Rethinking Parties

Last Sunday, there was a gathering at my house. I hesitate to call it a "party" because it was so sober. Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God was there, as were the Farmboyz. Édouard, of Sale Bête, arrived with his copain, as did PPOQ - who as of this writing remains blogless. M le Neveu and Ms NOLA were on hand, too. Kathleen talked with everybody while I basically watched what happened happen. Never have I - all right - given a party that required so little fuss - no fuss, in fact. Never has giving a party been so satisfying or so agreeable. So sane! It left me in a trance. While entranced, I tried to take note of the epiphany. The results as published, I hope, have been optimally de-gassed.

By yesterday, I had recovered my composure, only to find myself restless. I had an appointment at three-thirty, so I headed off to the Met for lunch, in the cafeteria. I have been to the museum so often this season that I couldn't think of anything that I wanted to see, so I headed over to the American Wing with a view to tracking its mazes. The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art would make a very fine museum on its own. In addition to the conventional picture galleries and the period rooms, there is the Henry Luce Center for the Study of American Art, a kind of glazed attic, with racks and shelves of old chairs and china, and a few curios, such as the ivory pagoda, with its own pyramidal carrying case. There's a Childe Hassam, not behind glass I'm happy to say, that deserves a more prestigious mounting. There are even a few Sargents! But most of the paintings are portraits of venerable ancestors, many of them, unlike the sitters on the rack of Gilbert Stuarts, unidentified. The Luce Center is the Met at its barniest. I wouldn't want to fail to mention John Vanderlyn's panorama, The Palace and Gardens of Versailles. It's very woo-hoo.

Leaving the museum, I walked down Fifth Avenue in the watery, late-afternoon sunlight. It was rather gloomy, really, and very black-and-white. I felt old. How I wish that I could turn forty on my birthday, in two weeks, instead of fifty-nine. That's the bittersweet of discovering, in early antiquity, that my life makes complete sense. I'd have done so much more with my Forties if I'd known that! And I'd have known, it too. I think that I should have learned it from blogging just as quickly at a tenderer age as I have in fact.

What are you reading these days? I'm reading two books by authors appearing in From Boys to Men - a book that was much discussed and passed around on Sunday afternoon - Through It Came Bright Colors, by Trebor Healey (a novel), and You Are Not The One, by Vestal McIntyre. They are both absorbing books, but the latter is somewhat better-written than the former. More on that later. I'm also stalled at the beginning of Ward Just's new book, Forgetfulness.

December 19, 2006


My Pittsburgh correspondent (She Who Never Comments) whiled away a long afternoon today by playing on the Internet. The appropriation of my image was involved. Kathleen finds the results "a bit scary," but I think it's jolly. It's rather sweet to be normal-sized for a moment. 

December 14, 2006

No Comment

Temporarily, comments have been disabled - by my Web host, not by me. It seems that I've got to take some anti-spam action in order to reactivate comments. Let's hope it doesn't take forever!

Trying to comply with the host's requirements has landed me in the soup. I thought that I might backtrack, but I can't, it seems, and now I'm dependent on the folks in Support at MovableType - very capable (and intelligible) people. That I haven't heard back right away doesn't surprise me; the host appears to have taken pre-emptive action and disabled the comments file on every MT site that it serves. It's annoying to have to think about this stuff, but I'm happy to find that I'm in no hurry to have comments reinstated. Oh, the site ought to work properly! But, to tell you the truth, I prefer private email to public comments. After two years of blogging, and finding out what sort of site I've got, I see that long comment threads are not only unlikely but unwanted. I don't write the kind of entries that stir up a chorus of responses. There are days when I wish that I did. Not days, just moments, when someone else's busy blog has made me a bit envious. The moments pass.

In any case, please feel free to write to me: pourover at You probably have no idea how welcome your letter will be.

December 10, 2006

I am too sophisticated


The other day, I went to Laytner's, to buy a shower caddy. You know, one of those doodads that hangs from the shower head and holds the shampoo. Right, as if I needed shampoo.

Anyhoo, at the checkout, I saw this refrigerator magnet and misread it. Wow, I thought, they've put Arianna Stassinipoulos on the icebox!

No, RJ; it says "guy." Not "gay." Down, boy.

So now what do I do with the stupid magnet?

December 07, 2006

Early Evening?

Yippee! It's a quarter past eight, and Kathleen's on her way home!

Returning last night from a weekend conference in Phoenix, Kathleen was on Mountain Time this morning. I couldn't rouse her. Eventually, she came to at eleven, claiming that she hadn't heard my play Ella Fitzgerald's recording of "Guys and Dolls" at a healthy volume. I suspect that she will not be able to stay up for a video, which is a shame, because Scoop just arrived, and if you think that Scarlett Johannson was good in Match Point, wait till you see her second Woody.

I've grown up a lot this year. I bought a reasonably serious (mid-three-figures) self-winding automatic watch that I never take off except to bathe. I sent most of my Bermuda shorts to Goodwill and never wear the ones that I kept outside of the building except in extremely warm weather. (I don't even wear them at home unless I'm doing something manual, such as wielding a feather-duster.) I don't roll my shirtsleeves up anymore. But I cannot make use of my Filofax. To be sure, I only got it out of envy. I didn't even get it myself, actually; I got Kathleen to give it to me for my birthday two years ago. She has one. PPOQ has one (and is so ostentatious about it!) For a while, I tried printing up things on special Filofax paper, but it's a headache. So the thing just sat there, indignantly indigo. Finally, my shame generated an idea. I would use the Filofax as a "project organizer" for my Web sites. Instead of keeping all that information - books to write up, long-term projects (the Ishiguro re-read, for example) - on clever computer pages, something I'm equally bad at, I would write it all down with a pencil in the Filofax. The calendar would be a log of upcoming posts. I would even simulate "creative meetings" by doodling on blank pages. It all sounded terribly thrilling.

Of course, I did nothing right away. That would have been rash. Stuff piled up around the writing table: I'm working on this, I'm working on that, what the hell are these papers? THROW THE DAMNED BOOK REVIEW AWAY! It was last Sunday's mammoth Book Review that finally prompted action. To work with it, I had to clear the table, littering the rest of the room with inscrutable piles. These will now be organized and deposited - somewhere, but not at my desk. I will count on the Filofax to remind me of matters outstanding!

Do you smell electrical fire? Cerebral RAM getting toasted?

What to do, for example, with the Playbill for History Boys? We saw the show in August. I was taking the month off, so I didn't write anything about it soon enough to be fresh. Then I told myself that I'd see the movie, which, most remarkably, stars the very same people! I'm going to keep the Playbill, of course; I keep 'em all. But does it have to be out? Is it a work-in-progress thingy? No it is not, I decide. I'll write about it when the DVD comes out, unless the film, which I plan to see tomorrow (join me at Lincoln Square at 11:05 if you're interested), turns out to be awful, which I certainly don't expect it to be.

So, pardon me now while I do inventory.


If you have read The Eustace Diamonds, the second of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels, then you'll have waded through Mr Dove's opinion on paraphernalia. You'll have learned that "paraphernalia," far from meaning "stuff," describes the property that a widow can hold on to as her own after her husband's death. The central plot point of the novel is whether, indeed, the eponymous diamonds are paraphernalia, and therefore no-better-than-she-should-be Lizzie Eustace's property to dispose of as she will, or whether they're heirlooms, personal property that must be returned to the family of her late husband, Sir Florian. Mr Dove is of the opinion that the diamonds are heirlooms, and it is well-known that Trollope secured a genuine opinion on the matter from a genuine barrister, his friend Charles Merewether. The first time I read The Eustace Diamonds, I was thrilled by the absolute pedantry of Mr Dove's opinion. Many of my classmates went to law school because they wanted to be Perry Mason. I wanted to be Thomas Dove.

Mr Thomas Dove, familiarly known among club-men, attorney's clerks, and, perhaps even among judges when very far from their seats of judgment, as Turtle Dove, was a counsel learned in the law. He was a counsel so learned in the law, that there was no question within the limits of an attorney's capability of putting to him, that he could not answer with the aid of his books. And when he had once give an opinion, all Westminster could not move him from it, - nor could Chancery Lane and Lincoln's Inn and the Temple added to Westminster. When Mr Dove had once been positive, no man on earth was more positive,. It behoved him, therefore, to be right when he was positive; and though, whether wrong or right, he was equally stubborn, it must be acknowledged that he was seldom proved to be wrong. Consequently the attorney's believed in him, and he prospered. He was a thin man, over fifty years of age, very full of scorn and wrath, impatient of a fool, and thinking most men to be fools; afraid of nothing on earth - and, so his enemies said, of nothing elsewhere; eaten up by conceit; fond of law, but fonder, perhaps, of dominion; soft as milk to those who acknowledged his power, but a tyrant to all who contested it; conscientious, thoughtful, sarcastic, bright-witted, and laborious. He was a man who never spared himself. If he had a case in hand, though the interest to himself in it was almost nothing, he would rob himself of rest for a week should a point arise which required such labour. It was the theory of Mr Dove's life that he would never be beaten. Perhaps it was some fear in this respect that had kept him from Parliament and confined him to the courts and the company of attorneys. He was, in truth, a married man with a family; but they who knew him as the terror of opponents and as the divulger of legal opinion, heard nothing of his wife and children. He kept all such matters quite to himself, and was not given to much social intercourse with those among whom his work lay. Out at Streatham, where he lived, Mrs Dove probably had her circle of acquaintance; - but Mr Dove's domestic life and his forensic life were kept quite separate.*

When I got out of law school, my record was so mediocre that, far from being put on the Dove-track at, say, Sullivan & Cromwell, the best job that I could find was that of a paralegal clerk in the Enforcement Division of the New York Stock Exchange. (I would get a decent job out of it eventually.) When I look at the picture below, taken while I served in that position, from the very partition of my non-cubicle, I suppose that I can see that those whose day jobs involved sizing up legal talent could tell that, while I might possess a few of Mr Dove's talents, I altogether lacked the crucial ones.  

Continue reading "Paraphernalia" »

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 30, 2006


If I hate to wait, it's not mere impatience to have what I want when I want it. It's a long experience of things going awry during the waiting period, or turning out to be all wrong when the waiting is over. The longer the wait, the greater the chance someone will change his mind, or run out of funding, or move to California. The refrigerator will fit in the kitchen, but you won't be able to get it in there without taking the door down. Or somebody may simply find out that what you're up to is adverse to his interest, or at least come to think so. Your supporters may have a change of heart. The plane might crash. All you can do is sit there and wait

I spent hours of my childhood standing on sidewalks in front of schools, libraries, drugstores and other rendezvous, waiting for my mother to pick me up. She tended toward unapologetic lateness. As I got older, I would walk home myself from wherever it was, but I wasn't the least lazy child in history, and it took me a long time to expect that my mother would be late. That's because I erase the particulars of such passively dull unpleasantness the minute it's over. I'll be frantic, for example, while I wait to hear that Kathleen's plane has landed, but as soon as I hear her voice announcing the fact, the misery evaporates without a trace. Instead of expecting my mother to be late, I expected to find out that she had abandoned me. I don't want turn up the pathos or sound like Jane Eyre, but I knew that my mother was unhappy with the person I was turning out to be. (She told me so, without realizing it. She insisted that I could be "good" - someone else, really - if I only tried.) As the quarter hours ticked by, I would grapple with the fact that my mother had Had It. I could go back where I came from. Where I came from was very dim in my mind, a vaguely forbidding institution along the lines of the orphanage in Mighty Joe Young. But I knew that I did not come from her.  

Unhappily, I think, I grew up to be a thin-skinned man who tries to pretend otherwise but whose thought patterns, when kept waiting by someone, have the look of It's-All-About-Me grandiosity. It's never that someone is running late, but rather that someone is not coming at all. A tumbler has fallen in that someone's mind, and now he or she sees me as the domineering, asphyxiating, high-strung and entitled chatterbox that accords with my own private picture of Dorian Gray. Of course I'm going to be stood up! I'd stand me up!

And then, amazingly, the friendly face approaches, the kind email appears in my inbox, and I forget concocting an imaginary aversion so fierce that it put me at the dead center of someone else's life.  

November 27, 2006

Not Up to Speed

Crawling out from under a heap of Timeses, I rub my eyes and vacantly survey the scene. That's what I do every Monday, but not in public; as a rule, I'll have written up a book for Monday publication. The cupboard is bare today, however. There are several books in my to-write-up pile, but they all seem to be somewhat challenging. Take Measuring the World, for example - the book by Daniel Kehlmann that I read in St Croix. Perhaps because I haven't read much Pynchon, I haven't read anything quite like Measuring the World. When it wasn't making me laugh, it was at least making me smile. But a good deal of sleight-of-hand is involved, and I haven't figured how its tricks work. How does a brisk narrative whose surface is characterized by a childlike intensity of gaze upon the manifest present, as well as by a brusque, deadpan humor that I take to be peculiarly German - how does such a narrative convey the illusion of cosmic scope? When I can answer that question, I'll write up Mr Kehlmann's novel.  

In today's Times, there's an Op-Ed piece by Richard A Shweder that I found provocative. Entitled "Atheists Agonistes," the piece considers the recent spate of aggressively atheistical books, by such writers as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. Mr Shweder notes that the famously tolerant John Locke warned against tolerating atheists. Here's Locke, as quoted in the essay:

Promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.

Locke's interest in "promises, covenants and oaths" marks him as a man who has not entirely moved out of the feudal atmosphere that, while thin, had not altogether evaporated by the end of the seventeenth century. He doesn't believe that an individual can make a calculated, self-interested decision to honor his commitments, reasoning that this is not only the most prudent but the simplest policy to adopt. I am always surprised to find that there are very bright people who behave well because they fancy that God is looking over their shoulder, because I would loathe such a God with Satan's rage, and probably take up a life of evil. This is not to say that I am an atheist. I don't happen to believe in a God, but I also don't profess to know the first thing about the possibility that God exists. The matter is actually of no earthly interest to me - and I have no unearthly interests. This makes it easier to agree with Mr Shweder's conclusion:

Instead of waging intellectual battles over the existence of god(s), those of us who live in secular society might profit by being slower to judge others and by trying very hard to understand how it is possible for John Locke and our many atheist friends to continue to gaze at each other in such a state of mutual misunderstanding.


November 25, 2006

No Surprise

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: The Northeast

Judging by how you talk you are probably from north Jersey, New York City, Connecticut or Rhode Island. Chances are, if you are from New York City (and not those other places) people would probably be able to tell if they actually heard you speak.

The Inland North
The Midland
The South
The West
North Central
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

But I am puzzled by the last sentence. What does it mean? Is it trying to be funny?



And now we are home, safe, sound, and not too cold. For the first time ever, we passed through Customs with nothing to declare. A couple of CDs, a T-shirt for M le Neveu, two brass bangles for Kathleen. The fifth of Cutty Sark and the tin of Planters Cocktail Nuts never left the room. Neither was empty when abandoned, either.

If there's something wrong with the laptop, I don't know what it is. I plugged it in and got a dial-up connection straight away. But I won't be taking that machine anywhere again.

November 23, 2006



As it turns out, we did not escape Thanksgiving. It's a holiday in the US Virgin Islands as well. At the Mermaid, there was a "football menu" of finger food, and chairs were arranged in front of a big screen over in a corner. There was turkey at dinner, and Kathleen actually ordered it, even though she always says that she hates turkey, and especially on Thanksgiving.

After lunch, which we had on the early side in order to avoid the football, Kathleen melted into sleep. She had entered what we call Stage II of fatigue relief. In Stage I, which occurs every weekend, Kathleen naps but is otherwise alert as usual. Stage II is reached only after several days away from home, and it never lasts long enough to wind up naturally because Kathleen can't away from the office for more than a week. While Stage II lasts, though, Kathleen is so tired that she hasn't got the energy to be anxious about how tired she is. This is very different from, and infinitely preferable to, the dark exhaustion that can overwhelm her when everyday stress becomes chronically acute. It's too bad that our time in St Croix ends tomorrow.

I'm ready to go home, though; I've had my little reboot. At dinner (at which I was one of the few gents in jacket and tie), I tried to take the measure of how much I had changed in the past two years, not because I'd set out to change but because keeping the Daily Blague (and adding to Portico) has proven to be - what? The image that comes to me now, heaven knows why, is that of the pump and filter system in a fishtank. For the first time in my life, I can get up in the morning and expect that my mind will be aerated and fresh. I will work harder than I have ever worked in my life, day after day after day, but the effect will be the opposite of draining or exhausting. While I'm mostly grateful for having stumbled upon the knack of life at last, it is more than a little sobering to look back on decades of occupational confusion. So! No more looking back.

November 22, 2006

On Vacation


It didn't occur to me until lunch today that Meredith Willson set forth my ideal vacation regime in The Music Man. Of course, I had to change a few words.

Eat a little,

Read a little,

Eat a little,

Read a little,

Eat, Eat, Eat!

Read a lot.

Eat a little more...

It's really that simple. We did take a walk along the beach that's long enough to take a walk on. It was a slog, because the beach is not only narrow but raked. The strip of packed-down sand that accommodates normal walking is exiguous at best, and because there is no discernible tide, it is always in the last wash of the surf. While not exactly penitential, it is a far cry from the sandy highway of Coronado Beach, the best that I've ever walked. In any case, we took our exercise, and Kathleen took lots of great photos.

After lunch, there was Measuring the World to finish, and the Review review to complete. While the rest of the world frolicked, I hunched virtuously over my laptop. Well, for a little while, anyway.

November 21, 2006

Kehlmann and Cabaret

My reading vacation continues apace. Having done with Nature Girl yesterday - if you can imagine a Feydeau farce set on a hummock called Dismal Key, then you must already have read this hilarious book - I was not quite ready to start in on Thomas Kehlmann's much more serious Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway; Pantheon, 2006). Little did I know that Mr Kehlmann's book is not a very great deal more serious than Mr Hiaasen's; its drollery is just very dry. I would find this out in the afternoon, when I read nearly all of the novel, which is about two contemporaries, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss, who devoted their careers to the eponymous project but who otherwise had nothing in common. When we got back to the room after breakfast, I picked up the irresistibly packaged Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, by James Gavin (2nd edition; Back Stage, 2006). Opening the book way past the halfway point, I read about the birth of Reno Sweeney (the cabaret, not the Cole Porter character) and the death of the piano bar Backstage. Mr Gavin seems generously disposed toward most of his numerous subjects, but the atmosphere of dish is Venusian.

Today's lunch at the Mermaid (the Buccaneer's beachfront terrace) was not quite as amusing as yesterday's. There was an unbelievable "bar backup" that obliged me to eat my lunch without a glass of wine (the outrage!), and the background music was looped on the same inane steel-band piece for nearly an hour. More significantly, there were fewer guests to watch, as families headed home for Turkey Day. We saw this happen at Dorado Beach two years ago. Shades of "Death in Venice." Very sunny shades, bien sûr.

On Tuesdays, there is a Manager's Reception in the ruin of a sugar mill that stands next to the main building. I wanted to go, but after a long walk down Grotto Beach and back, Kathleen was pooped. She stretched out on the wide window seat and napped instead. That's why I almost finished Measuring the World.

Kathleen's decision not to go into Christiansted occasioned much inner and some outward rejoicing. Not only would I not have to worry about her when, inevitably, she checked in with a phone call ninety minutes after the appointed time, but she'd really keep things restful and simple. While I was measuring the world, she was laughing over a piece about a "swag party" in Vogue. That's the ticket.

November 20, 2006

High and Dry


Not having Internet access is a bummer, and knowing that it might be just my fault - that it might be the old laptop, something I ought to have tested for before we left New York, and not some local problem (although the dial tone does sound odd) - hardly makes it easier for me to quash the desire to get back home right away in order to get to the bottom of the problem. Perhaps it will prove easier than I think to get beyond my childish disappointment. I'll be home in a few days, and I can live without my email just as well as the world can live without my entries. Actually, I can check my mail on the public computer in the lobby, and even write posts. What I can't do is upload Kathleen's photographs. And of course I can't write at length, because one is asked to keep one's computer time to fifteen minutes. If I'd brought my Iomegamini stick, I just might try to take advantage of a USB port, but I didn't, so it seems best to adopt the course that I've arrived at, which is to write as if I could post, and then backdate everything. As long as the backdating is discreetly noted, I can't see that it makes much difference in the long run.

The Prof warned me that St Croix was no Bermuda. I knew that as well as one can know something in advance of experience, but what I've found out is that I have desire to leave "the property," as the staff refer to the Buccaneer campus. Kathleen plans to go into Christiansted to do a little shopping (there's apparently an important bead shop), but she won't mind, she says, if I stay here. What we saw on the drive from the airport was almost depressing. This island needs a Board of Trade! There is the additional discomfort of getting into a van and bouncing around on roads through neighborhoods that I can hardly see because I can no longer crane my neck to raise the window line. My lack of curiosity about the island is almost surprising, but clearly I've bracketed St Croix with Yonkers and White Plains, the nightmare towns of my childhood, places to which I thought I might be deported for bad behavior. It is all - the Buccaneer aside - extremely drab. You have to be in love with the climate to bear it, and I am not in love with the climate.

Which is not to say that it's unpleasant to sit on the beachside terrace, enjoying a martini - but only one, and Chardonnay after that (my new regime) - and a club sandwich as only places like this know how to make. The people-watching is engaging, because there are lots of families and one can play the Darwinian game of seeing who takes after whom and wondering if the relation between the man and the boy at the next table doesn't have "step" in it somewhere. I devoted a lot of attention to  a family consisting (as I saw it) of a forty-something couple with four children, three girls (one of whom may grow up to be a supermodel) and then a boy, by the name of Cooper, and the mother's parents. The dad, I surmised, was a guy from an ordinary middle-class background who'd done well both at sports and academically and gone on to succeed at a serious corporation, managing a division perhaps, and taking his family out of its background forever. The father-in-law, I guessed, might own a car dealership or a major insurance agency, but his son-in-law was working on a larger scale. When I was hrough, Kathleen asked what other people must conjecture about us. Something as wildly wrong as what I'd just outlined, I replied.

November 19, 2006

At the Buccaneer


We're here in Christiansted, St Croix - and it looks as though I'm just going to have to take a break from blogging. For some reason, my laptop doesn't recognize the local dial tone, which could really be just another failure of the ageing machine. I wish that I could share the lovely pictures that Kathleen has been taking, but they'll have to wait until the weekend. Not that you don't have plenty to keep you busy until then.

Because I'd been assured that I'd have dial-up access in the room (which is lovely, with a beautiful view - and I was wrong about the surf), I was a bitter as well as frustrated at first. Kathleen's response was to go into town and buy a proper wireless machine. I wouldn't have it. Configuring a new machine far from home? Now there's something that I wouldn't want to do on vacation.

Be like me, and get yourself a copy of Nature Girl Carl Hiaasen's latest frolic. It's terrific fun so far.

Marital Bliss

So, how were we going to get up in the middle of the night to get off on our Thanksgiving vacation? We would have to leave the apartment at four in the morning in order to make the flight at six, Kathleen reasoned. I thought that I would take my new sleeping pill and sleep for a few hours. That didn't happen. We had a big fight instead. The usual one about holiday destinations. Kathleen went so far as to ask why I don't think that Bermuda is a "rock in the middle of the sea." Of course it is - but then it's also Bermuda, and not in the Caribbean. Amazingly, this discussion went on until shortly before three in the morning, and I was perfectly awake through all of it, which is even more amazing. So now I'm the one who's dressed, while Kathleen is snoozing. I'm wondering when I ought to tell her that it's time to get up. I think I'll wait until the car is buzzed up.

November 16, 2006

At First Sight

The other day, I came across the lyrics to a Cole Porter song that I'd never heard of, and still haven't heard.* The song is called "The Physician," and it was written for Nymph Errant, a show of 1933. Here's the final refrain.

He said my vertebrae were "sehr schöne,"

And called my coccyx "plus que gentil,"

He murmured "molto bella"

When I sat on his patella,

But he never said he loved me.

He took a fleeting look at my thorax,

And started singing slightly off key.

He cried "May Heaven strike us,"

When I played my umbilicus,

But he never said he loved me.


As it was dark,

I suggested we walk about

Before he returned to his post.

Once in the park,

I induced him to talk about

The thing I wanted the most.

He lingered with me until morning,

Yet when I tried to pay him his fee,

He said, "Why, don't be funny,

It is I who owe you money,"

But he never said he loved me.

I've been stewing over this cleverness for a couple of days, and I've concluded that, once again, Cole Porter has nailed a truth about romantic love. It is always sparked by aspects of the beloved - usually aspects a lot more superficial than patellae and umbilici. A physician, of course, is trained to size up all the evident aspects of a patient without allowing them to form the image of a desirable person, but the rest of us, when we encounter an attractive detail, are more likely than not to see what other attractive details might be on offer. Given enough attractive details - unlike Porter's doctor - we eventually fall in love

Even love at first sight is not as immediate as it seems. I like to say that I fell in love with Kathleen before the first sight. The sound of her laughter, coming from the row of desks behind me, made me turn around pronto. "Wow," I felt when I saw her. "I've got to get to know her better!"

Does anyone know the song? Can anyone hum a few bars?

*In Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics, edited by Robert Kimball (Library of America, 2006).

November 11, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

Well, I did go to the movies yesterday. I saw fifteen minutes' worth of ads and trailers. Then, just as Stranger Than Fiction was about to start, the projector jammed, and the film melted in that horrible way, and nasty sounds filled the auditorium. After another fifteen minutes, we were all given passes. We could come back some other time.

Had the projector done its job without incident, I'd have booked the most active day of my New York life. At half-past twelve, or just before, I presented myself at Crawford Doyle books, where I had no trouble meeting up with Mr Waterhot, a fellow-blogger from Geneva, in town to see some operas. After a nice lunch at Demarchelier, we spent the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taking in the special exhibitions ("Ambroise Vollard," "Americans in Paris," "New Orleans After the Flood") before sipping Chardonnay in the American Court. Shortly before six, I bundled us into a taxi, ran to the apartment for a pit stop, found another taxi, and got my delightful friend to his hotel in time - just, I should think; I am in some anxiety about possibly having held him up - to dress for an evening at the other Metropolitan, where he was to see Il barbiere di Siviglia. I myself raced over to Le Rivage, the French restaurant in Restaurant Row, to swallow a sole meunière and have some pork pâté wrapped up for Kathleen to gobble after Losing Louie, the comedy at MTC's Biltmore Theatre. This she did at the Starbucks next door to the theatre after the show. We had plenty of time to mosey down to 44th Street, where we turned right and found ourselves at Birdland, for the Nth Annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival's 11 PM set.

It was a great day. I had that "I'm alive!" feeling every minute.

November 09, 2006

Hot Pink

One thing that Kathleen and I independently remembered on Tuesday was our first Election Day in New York, on 4 November 1980. I still didn't have a job, and Kathleen decided to take the day off. (Surely it was not deemed a holiday at her firm?) We were going to paint the foyer of Kathleen's studio apartment, and we were going to paint it a hot pink, a color that Pratt & Lambert labeled "Parisienne." When we were through, we were exhilarated by the intensity of the small room's pinkness. It might have been blinding, but, not surprisingly given the manufacturer, it came off as a hot pink with subtlety. We would use the same color a year later to paint the foyer of our first apartment as a married couple, in the same building as the studio and in the same building that we still inhabit. Two years after that, we found that we were more or less done with hot pink. The foyer of our current apartment is painted a very dark green.

I remember reading, in an old House & Garden decorating book, that "color is a magic wand of excitement." Perhaps for that reason, it is a magic wand that most people seem reluctant to pick up. Colors are awfully easy to get wrong. I remember trying to give our bedroom walls the freshness of limeade, only to wind up with a room that was haunted by hospital green. Beyond the mundane risk of choosing unwisely, though, lies a deep-rooted prejudice against color in Western culture, absorbingly traced by David Batchelor in Chromophobia (Reaktion, 2000).

Since Aristotle's time, the discrimination against colour has taken a number of forms, some technical, some moral, some racial, some sexual, some social. As John Gage notes in his vast historical survey of colour theory, colour has regularly been linked with other better-documented sexual and racial phobias. As far back as Pliny, it was placed on the "wrong" end of the opposition between the occidental and the oriental, the Attic and the Asian, in a belief that "the rational traditions of western culture were under threat from insidious non-western sensuality." In later times, the Academies of the West continued and consolidated this opposition. For Kant, colour could never participate in the grand schemes of the Beautiful or the Sublime. It was at best "agreeable" and could add "charm" to a work of art, but it could not have any real bearing on aesthetic judgment.

The association of color with femininity and its bastard sibling, effeminacy, remains widespread, and I am sure that by talking up a hot pink foyer I raised a few eyebrows. I'll be the first to admit that my response to color is deeply sensual: the right color can startle both mind and body into a harmony that fairly throbs. Whether most men are actually incapable of such a reaction or are, rather, brought up to resist it I cannot say, but I suspect, perhaps optimistically, that it is a rare case of nurture trumping nature. Growing males are so eager to shun anything associated with girls that a non-essential regard for color will be suppressed without a moment's thought. Mr Batchelor finds the same anxiety at the heart of the Western disdain for color. I find it underlying the privileging of rationality, a distinctly Western choice that was first proposed by philosophers at a time when the Parthenon was blazingly polychromed. The men of the West appear to have talked themselves into a collective dread of the untidy and the complicated. It's the kind of dread that motivates people to ignore what they're afraid of, not to deal with it.

Hot pink did a lot to cheer us up after the shock of that long-ago Election Day.

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 05, 2006

At the Kitchen Table

So, there's a new edition of The Joy of Cooking. I gather, from Kim Severson's piece/s in Thursday's Times, that the analytical rigor of former Simon & Schuster editor Maria Guarnaschelli, who oversaw the 1997 overhaul, has been roughed up with Rombauer-Beckerisms. In my opinion, Ms Guarnaschelli created reference work for the modern weekday cook of such excellence that it ought to have been given a name of its own, instead of trading on the Joy brand. I say, now, that I'm not going to buy the new book, but of course I'm going to look at it in the shops. With any luck, I won't be impressed - because I can't have two editions.

I never buy cookbooks anymore, because to make room for a new one means getting rid of an old one. I have more books about food and cooks than I have recipe collections. I have always shared Julia Child's belief that cooking is a matter of mastering certain basic techniques and classic combinations. Like most men, I don't seek novelty on my dinner plate as a matter of course. And I seem to be going through a change of life: food just isn't that interesting anymore. There are a few things that I'm crazy about (my fried chicken, for example), but I am very much someone who eats to live, not the other way round. So I probably all ready have too many cookbooks.


There was also, in the Times, an amusing piece, by Julia Moskin, about the craving for long out-of-print cookbooks. Nach Waxman, proprietor of Kitchen Arts and Letters, reports having over a hundred unfilled requests for Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie. I myself filled out a request, once, in search of a copy of The Eating-In-Bed Cookbook, by Barbara Ninde Byfield (Macmillan, 1962). Someone gave it to my mother as a joke - I don't think it was I who did - and I dreamed of growing up and feasting on Caesar's Goat and Swordfish Agamemnon. I did bake the Elizabeth Barrett's Brownies for many years. And on one strangely memorable occasion I cooked up an orgy of food to be consumed in bed. Six or seven dishes - just for me! But I'm not nearly decadent enough to lounge for hours over tepidating food. It was fun to prepare and boring to endure. Mr Waxman never came through on the cookbook, but I found it through Alibris.

I know that I promised to tell you what I prepared for last Monday's dinner, but in fact there was no Monday dinner. M le Neveu had to grade mid-terms, and Ms NOLA needed an early night. Stay tuned.

November 02, 2006

Let's Put On A Show!

I was lunching at Café d'Alsace. It came time to pay the bill. I motioned to the waiter, with that little handwriting-in-the-air thing that I learned about twenty years ago. And I wondered, as I did so, how dumb did I look? Here I am waving my arm in a gesture that perhaps I don't have down very well. Just this once, anyway, it seemed awkward, awkward enough to make me feel self-conscious.

The idea for the show burst open like a broken piñata.

Two shows, actually. In the first, a group of waiters, nominally getting together after their shifts, lampoon the great and the good of Manhattan upon whom they've been waiting all day. In terms that would be hilarious (comprehensible) to out-of-towners. This show, like A Chorus Line, would have its moving moments, and it would run for fifteen years.

The other show would the same, except that it would be written for the delectation of the great and the good themselves. A show that it would require some working knowledge of Manhattan to enjoy. (There really are two audiences in New York. Just wait for the tourist joke in the "Schadenfreude" number in Avenue Q.) This show would be presented at an annual festival, with fifteen or twenty performances, and it would change every year, like Forbidden Broadway. It would run in September, after the rentrée.

I'm putting this out in the teeth of a reasonable expectation that twenty people will tell me that Oh, Waiter! (a working title) has been attempted a million times and never even reached the Long Wharf. The only credit that I can take for the idea is in identifying myself as a potential member of the audience. Again like Chorus Line, the show would be "written" by real waiters. There would be auditions - oh, the irony of that. Auditioning actors who are waiting tables for the time being - qua waiters!

Well, waiters off duty. In other words: actors.

Up and Over


The building that I live in has a footprint shaped like the letter "H," but with a sizeable extra wing that juts out to the right of the top right-hand end of the letter. This means that there are twenty-percent more residents on the east side of the building than there are on the west. And yet both sides are served by the same complement of elevators: two for passengers and one for service. This works just fine on the west side. On the east side, the elevators are forever breaking down, or out of service for repair.

Every once in a while, my response to getting caught in a crowd of irritated neighbors blocking the corridor before the passenger elevators is to walk over to the west side of the building, take the elevator to the "penthouse" floor, and climb the flight of stairs to the roof, which I then traverse to get to the staircase on my side of the building. It's five flights down and my knees don't like it, but it's always better to be moving than to be waiting.

The other day, I paused for a moment, setting the mail on one of the mushroom-cap ventilators, to take this souvenir. This is the view that getting home occasionally involves.

It's rather like being on the crew that polishes the jewels in Topkapi or the Tower: the things that you get to see in an everyday way. I don't claim that there's anything terribly interesting about the particular scene on view in the snap. But I do know that there are residents of the building itself who would be brought up short by finding themselves so high up in the air in the middle of finding their way home.

October 29, 2006

At the Kitchen Table

Here's hoping that you've been having a good weekend, and that you've been able to stand back a bit from everyday affairs. Kathleen and I have been reconstituting ourselves. We were going to watch The Morning After last night, after reading a bit after an ordered-in Chinese dinner, but Kathleen drifted off during the reading part, which I extended for several hours, eventually falling asleep in my chair over Running With Scissors, which is a grand read. I finished the book this afternoon, right before tackling The Economist. Every week, I try to extract one hard nugget of interest from The formidable Economist, and here is this week's: a French university known as Toulouse I offers the fifth-ranked business program in the world, after Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago and Stanford. Who'd 'a' thunk it.

During the week, the lineup just fell into place, and I now know what sort of piece I'll present on any given day of the week. Sunday's feature (which is what you're reading) has a rather weasely title, one that permits me to talk about what I've been doing in the kitchen lately, or to pretend that I'm sharing a cup of tea with you at the kitchen table, shooting the breeze. The table is very virtual. My kitchen is not big enough to hold a table. It doesn't really hold two people, not if they're trying to get anything done.

Portico - the Web site that I've been running since 2000 - has had a cooking branch, Culinarion, for most of that time, but for a spell I took it down. Cooking just wasn't a specialty of mine, and my interest in food has taken a nosedive since the turn of the century. Still, one has to eat, and, having been ambitious in the kitchen from my twenties to my late forties, I can make a variety of dishes without looking at a recipe or, for the matter of that, thinking. And the mail that I get from readers of Portico - as distinct from comments at the Daily Blague - exceeds all other mail in quantity, if not in length. The purpose of "Kitchen Table" is to get me to contribute to Culinarion more regularly.

We are sometimes four for dinner on Monday, when M le Neveu and Mlle NOLA join us. (Often, thanks to her hours, Kathleen can't make it.) M le Neveu is always happy to see steak of some kind or another, and when my mind has been elsewhere, that's a blessing, because steak requires minimal preparation. But for tomorrow night's dinner, I think that I am going to try a boeuf bourgignon. Or perhaps a coq au vin. Either dish is best when made a day ahead of time, but I don't have a proper wine in the house at the moment, so whichever it is that I make, it will have to wait for tomorrow. I may try something different, from Classic Home Cooking, of which I've just obtained the new edition. Whatever I do, you'll read about it here next Sunday.

October 26, 2006


It suddenly occurred to me this morning that if a disaster of some kind were to destroy Bronxville, the Westchester suburb in which I grew up, I'd feel not a shred of extra regret beyond what such an event would trigger elsewhere. I'd be more interested, perhaps, but I wouldn't take it personally at all.

That's partly because Bronxville is so far in my past. I left it for school in 1963, when I was fifteen, thereafter coming home only for vacations. When I got out of college, "home" was in Tanglewood, a subdivision on the West Side of Houston. In 1977, I left Houston for good, and met Kathleen; ever since, memories life prior to '77 have paled, having no connection to the central fact of my daily life, my dear wife.

But Bronxville probably wouldn't feel like home even if I were younger. About ten years ago, Kathleen and I had dinner at the Field Club with several of her partners and their wives. Everyone was perfectly nice, but it was clear that they were up to their eyeballs in active sports, their own or their kids'. Given the venue, this was no surprise, but the talk was extremely wearying for Kathleen and me, and I made a note not to come back soon. (We haven't, in fact, been asked - not that I know of.) I remembered what an intellectual wasteland the place had been, and how lucky I'd been to go to Blair Academy, where the thinking was, for the first time in my life, generally rigorous. I wished I'd started sooner. 

In the end, I grew up missing, along with any interest in sports, any sense of home. This isn't to say that I didn't long for a home; I know that I taught myself how to cook just so that, wherever I lived, there would be a simulacrum of home. There would the fragrant warmth that was part of my idea of what home must be like. Lacking a nuclear family, I would fill my house with guests. I wasted years in attempts to create this home, and I'm afraid that I only abandoned them definitively two or three years ago. You can play house all you like, but somebody else has to create your home.

Which I have discovered, not by the negative implication of my life until 2000, but positively, right here, at this Web log. This is where, surprise-surprise, I not only live but feel the smell of home. Although I write what you read here, I did not create the Internet. Mina and Ben Trot, although much younger than I am, are my distant but endowing aunt and uncle.

Watch for a budding interest in Major League Baseball? Let's not ask for the stars when we have the moon. 

October 24, 2006

Brain Gym


Did anyone get one of these? Titled: Joy of Giving Something, Inc - Brain Gym #1 - the small booklet has the air of a small-museum exhibition program with a nice budget. Inside are (a) many photographs, almost all of them illustrating the carnage of war and (b) two very brief essays, one urging Americans to seek the advice of Europe when intervening in the Middle East (written by an American), the other denouncing Europe as appeasement-prone (written by a German). Both the American piece and the translation of the German piece date from last November. The German text itself dates from 2004. Along the bottom of the booklet's pages runs a list of history's major wars, from the Algerian War to the War of the Spanish Succession. Aside from a brief mission statement and a quote from Senator Clinton about Iran, that's it.

The mission statement invites one to visit the Brain Gym, a branch of the Joy of Giving Something.Inc Web site. I'm not going to characterize the Brain Gym, not, at least, until more people have had a chance to look it over. The site has a rudimentary feel, which only means that its creators are making things up as they go along. (I'm familiar with that!) The "Monthly Views" appear to be written by the pen of Bill Jay, a professor of photography. 

Joy of Giving Something.Inc is a charitable foundation that supports photography exhibits around the country. It operates out of an Upper East Side brownstone. Thanks to a link from an entry at Wikipedia, I gather that the foundation was endowed by Howard Stein, the financier who made $1.8 billion when he sold the Dreyfus Corporations (mutual funds) to Mellon Bank in 1994.

I have no idea how I wound up on the mailing list.

Did anybody else get one?

October 19, 2006


Kathleen left for the office a few minutes ago, and silence descended upon the apartment. We had listened to the Scissors Sisters sing "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" at least seven times. Kathleen certainly felt like dancing. She could hardly get dressed, she was so busy shooting her arms into the air.

The CD, Ta-Dah, has arrived, so now we can sing along, because we know what the words are. But what do they mean? Who is "old Joanna"? After living with me for far too long for her own good, Kathleen actually proposed Johann Sebastian Bach. What I want to know - salacious beast that I am - is whether, rather than dancin', the singer would prefer to engage in a three-way:

I'd rather be home with the one in the bed till dawn with you.

(Not the most tripping of lines, except when sung.) But, as Kathleen said, this is a dancin' song, not a thinking song.

Old Broadway


A few weeks ago, I bought some cheap tickets online, to see Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House at the Roundabout Theatre. Great cast. Philip Bosco, Swoozie Kurtz, Byron Jennings, et alia. Not the best reviews, but, hey, it's Shaw; it's good for you - and the tickets are discounted. We get such offers in the mail all the time, and I've recently decided that we need to take advantage of them. Unfortunately, I am really not on as a theatre ticket buyer. For one reason or another, I'm just not as careful buying theatre tickets as I am with serious music. They're not really the same sort of event: plays run for weeks, while concerts just may occur twice or three times. The bottom line is that I have a pair of tickets to Your Dreams Here that I can't use because we'll be seeing Così fan tutte at City Opera that night.

As for tonight's debacle, I neglected to note that Heartbreak House, being a long-ish show, begins at seven, not eight. I'd have caught this if I'd had the tickets in hand, but the tickets were will-call, and I didn't read the offer very carefully. So I didn't know until....

Minutes before Kathleen showed up at the AA Roundabout Theatre, I took a critical approach to the lack of people going into the theatre. It was then that I looked at the tickets - which I had just picked up.

Long story short: we walked up into the real theatre district and got two very good seats to Butley, the Simon Gray play, premiered thirty-four years ago and written for the late Alan Bates. The new production stars Nathan Lane and Julian Ovenden. It ought to be the hit that I remember Butley having been back then. But it's still in previews, so I shan't say more.

Except that, when I count my blessings, I'll count tonight.

October 13, 2006

I Musici

Afterward, I couldn't believe that I'd done it. We were at Carnegie Hall last night, at the first concert of the new Orpheus season. 

At intermission, two thirtysomethings who had been sitting four rows ahead of us were joined by a friend. He stood leaning on the back of the seat behind him, facing the rear of the hall, as he chatted. I was standing in the aisle, beside my seat, waiting for the other people in the row take their seats before sitting down myself. From snippets overheard, I hypothesized that the visitor might be pianist Jeremy Denk, who will be performing at Orpheus's next concert, and who also keeps a very intriguing Web log, Think Denk. Mr Denk has posted a snapshot of himself at the blog, something that hastened the identification process.

Qua pianist, he was safe from my attentions. Qua blogger, however - quite another matter. Still, I had to work up the nerve. When he left his friends, appearing to my mistaken ears to decline their offer to join them in an adjacent, empty seat, I let him pass right by. When I turned to see where he'd gone, I'd lost him. But, lo, suddenly there he was again, returning to his friends. I caught his eye, tried to look as harmless as possible, and asked him if he might be who I thought he was. He very affably said that he was, and he shook my outstretched hand as I told him that I was "R J Keefe, Daily Blague," effectively taking it for granted that he would know what that meant. He registered recognition, although it may have been simple politeness. I made a remark to show that I'd read his latest entry (indeed, I'd been thinking about it while hypothesizing), said that I was looking forward to hearing him in December, and then let him go. He couldn't have been nicer.

The encounter firmed up my resolve to make some additions to the main-page list of links to other sites. A recent exchange with Steve Smith, author of Night After Night, inspired me to make an exception to my general rule, which is that I don't link to monothematic blogs. Blogs exclusively devoted to music and concertgoing would seem to fall under the ban, but in fact it's impossible to write at any length about music without being very person, however inadvertently. If you're at all interested in serious music, I'm sure that you'll find the sites that I've listed under the rubric "I Musici" interesting.

As for the concert....

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. 

On the phone

I was just talking to my old friend George, whose vehicle broke down in Gulfport, Mississippi. While we talked, he hopped on a bus and went to the waterfront, where he regaled me with descriptions of the persisting ruination. (Even the Coast Guard station has not been rebuilt.) It was like having my own private Ira Glass/NPR. George got quite into it: I was worried that he might be apprehended by the authorities. But whenever he bumped into anyone, his voice shifted over into Good Ole Boy. At one point, he said to someone, "It don't matter tuh me" with an authenticity that completely veiled the fact that he'd just been talking, in model English, about C S Lewis's Screwtape Letters.

At one point, George muttered something about my having other things to do, and I replied that, no, I didn't. That's right, he said, I don't pick up the phone if I have something better to do. In fact, I called him, in response to a text message that he sent to my Gmail address. That's right, George said again: you don't have to worry if my mind is elsewhere when you're talking to me, because I don't stay on the phone just to be nice.

And I thought, is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'd stay on the phone to be nice to someone in a crisis, or suffering a loss. But otherwise, I stay off the phone unless I really want to hear someone's voice.

October 09, 2006

And then what have I?

A few years ago, I couldn't stand being the only kid in the crowd who didn't have a Filofax. Kathleen and my old roommate carried the leather-bound calendars, stuffed to bursting with all sorts of ad hoc addenda, the very height of organizational efficiency, c 1850. So I begged and whined, and eventually got one for my birthday. It wasn't long, though, before my Filofax was buried in a drawer. Filofaxes don't ding you with an alarm the day before you have to do something. No, you have to look at them first. If it were up to my Filofax, I'd miss half the plays and concerts that I had tickets for. Don't laugh - there was a bad season in which we missed far more than half! Outlook keeps me straight these days.

But a Filofax is still an objet de luxe - if you have one, you ought to use it. In a recent burst of fevered optimism, I made up a to-do list that included the following: "Filofax - other uses?" The answer to that question came to me this evening, and I'm still choking. Because what I propose to do with my Filofax is to run the Daily Blague with it. I am going to schedule entries and pages, instead of waiting until the spirit has moved me to write them. Every day, there will be certain things to do. The era of "What do I feel like doing now?" is over. It's killing me, frankly, because what I "feel like" is not having to make such decisions all the time.

So the management part of the blog will henceforth be conducted in pencil. That's the other crazy thing: I'm incapable of using the computer to "automate" my editorial duties. Outlook has a more or less useful task manager feature, but I've never been able to bring myself to look at it. The computer is for writing and looking things up, not for brainstorming. Planning is something that I do on paper. Typically, I then ignore the paper. But if it's folded into a Filofax, along with all my Daily Blague deadlines and Internet contacts, then maybe the small leather-bound bundle will insist upon being the start of my day.

You think that working for yourself is easy, until you have to do it.

October 08, 2006


The seventh New Yorker Festival has come and gone, and I'm pooped! Ms NOLA and I attended five events this year - none of them the ones that she really wanted to see, but all available several minutes after the tickets went on sale on 7 September. I lost precious minutes to updating my credit card information at Ticketmaster. We live and learn.

To get an idea of the fun we didn't have, check out Emily Gordon's delirium at Emdashes. We were much more sober - there was no dry ice, and all the drinking was done in advance. Malcolm Gladwell gave an electric presentation about computerized assessment of movie plots capable of suggesting changes that will add millions to the box office. I didn't bother to remember the details, because the story is going to appear in The New Yorker tomorrow - or it would if tomorrow weren't a federal holiday (= no mail). It was good to hear John Ashbery read some of his poems, and Ann Lauterbach joined him for the reading of a portion of Litany. In that work, two readers speak at the same time, and the result probably sounds strange to people who don't try to eavesdrop at cocktail parties.

Otherwise, it was stand-up comedy all the way. Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders, Calvin Trillin, Anthony Lane, Mark Singer even - all of these men can take to the stage whenever they please. Mr Shteyngart won't even have to work out a routine. The chunk of Absurdistan that he read was a great deal funnier than it had been on the page. Mr Lane could not have talked faster, but his paean to Ava Gardner forced him speak overtime. (It was almost embarrassing: we were confronted with a man who seemed prepared to throw his life away for an actress's smile.) Mr Saunders read some forthcoming stuff that I can't wait to have entire.

The demographic shifts were interesting: heavily under-thirty five for the novelists, Mr Gladwell, and Mr Ashbery; heavily retired for Mr Trillin (in conversation with Mr Singer). Without making a point of doing so, Mr Trillin's conversation ranged over the history of The New Yorker, the staff of which he joined the year after I started reading it. He had keen things to say about journalism, and how very protected from its rush New Yorker writers used to be. Afterward, at lunch, I chewed over what he'd said, and came to see that this relatively new feature, the New Yorker Festival, has taken the venerable magazine one step closer to an institute of higher learning. Students of The New Yorker University scuttled across the campus of Manhattan in pursuit not so much of edification as of the kind of solidarity that the best universities' students feel.

Last year's Festival was something of a bouleversement for me, mostly because of Malcolm Gladwell's talk about preciousness and late blooming. This year's Festival bore traces of sophomore slump: nobody said anything that got to me where I live. That's not a complaint by any means! I hope that I get to go to at least six events next October! Three cheers for TNYU!

October 06, 2006

The Soft Gleam of the Comical

In the current issue of The New Yorker, Milan Kundera has compiled some notes in answer to the question, which is also the title of his piece, "What Is A Novelist?" He begins by determining what the novelist is not, id est a lyric poet. The following passage rings true as a bell (never mind what it is that we can make deductions from - Hegel, actually):

From this we can deduce that the notion of lyricism is not limited to a branch of literature (lyric poetry) but, rather, designates a certain way of being, and that, from this standpoint, a lyric poet is only the most exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard.

I have long seen youth as the lyrical age - that is, the age when the individual, focused almost exclusively on himself, is unable to see, to comprehend, to judge clearly the world around him. If we start with that hypothesis (necessarily schematic, but which, as a schema, I find accurate), then to pass from immaturity to maturity is to move beyond the lyrical attitude.

If I imagine the genesis of a novelist in the form of an exemplary tale, a "myth," that genesis looks to me like a conversion story: Saul becoming Paul; the novelist being born from the ruins of his lyrical world.*

It must be observed, first of all, that the world is awash in lyrical novels. I dislike them as a rule; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is one of the few exceptions that I can think of, and even then the extent to which that book is a novel is uncertain. Young writers, like young people, are self-absorbed because they're busy absorbing the world, or enough of it to convey a sense of their own place, their own limits, their own follies. The world is new, fresh, and exciting. And it's a struggle. Lyrical people usually have a somewhat difficult time building a career. (Better to outgrow lyricism in the natural way. Mid-life crisis, which is nothing but the eruption of stifled lyrical impulses in creaky middle age, can cause real damage, and it is usually fairly ridiculous.) Only irresponsible types find the conditions of youth amusing. But, as Mr Kundera goes on to say, it is only when we can make out the "soft gleam of the comical" on the surface of every human ego (especially our own) that we can call ourselves mature. 

Sadly, the piece is not available online, so hunt down the October 9, 2006 issue in any way you can.

* Translated from the French by Linda Asher.

October 01, 2006

Jumping the gun a bit

In half an hour, I'll be at an agreeable brasserie two blocks from home, and so will Kathleen and a dozen of our near and dear. Kathleen and I can't really celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary until Tuesday, but next weekend was impossible for a few key guests, so we're jumping the gun.

I may even make a speech. I know that certain others will!

September 29, 2006

Sick Day

It took a while. I woke at five-thirty, my throat a torrent of gunk. It wasn't until eleven that, wondering why I was feeling so poorly, I remembered Monday's flu shot. They don't ordinarily affect me, but this one seems to have kicked up some reactions.

On the bright side, it was a sick day! I could stay in bed and read. I felt well enough for that. What I read was Tom Perrrotta's Little Children. I missed the recent film*, somehow, which is just as well, because I enjoyed Mr Perrotta's deft narrative. The only problem was that I instinctively cast the movie quite differently. I saw Cynthia Nixon and Aaron Eckhart as the guilty lovers. Mr Eckhart is perhaps a bit too old for the role of Todd/Brad, but I'll be surprised if Patrick Wilson, who actually plays the role in Todd Field's movie, clouds his face with the character's confusion as well as Aaron Eckhart would.

Then I watched a movie - it was by now after dark. I watched La femme de Gilles, by Frédéric Fonteyne. It stars Emmanuelle Devos, an actor whom I've been following ever since seeing her in De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté. She plays Elisa, the wife of a factory worker in the north of France in the Thirties. Her husband (Clovis Corvillac) conceives a passion for her sister, Victorine (Laura Smet), and when he confirms his wife's suspicions, she resolves to wait out the passion. She assures him that it will end, and it does. But whether she foresees what will follow - what Gilles will feel after he loses interest in Victorine - is the question that haunts the movie. All I'll say is that if the movie ended a minute or two earlier, I could show it to Kathleen. But I recommend it highly to anyone who can take a strong French film, beautifully made.

I'm feeling better this morning, which is good, because I'm going to conduct Ms NOLA's parents on a Met tour at noon. 

PS: I've been listening to old music interesting enough to get me to refresh the "Tune de la semaine" feature. Don't forget to click on the "(about)" link if you want to know what the new tdj.ra is.

* The 'recent film' opens this weekend. Good timing!

September 27, 2006


Changing my mind on the adoption issue has unleashed a lot of strong sentiment. Giving up one one lie - refusing to regard the American way of adoption, between World War II and Roe v Wade, as anything but monstrous - seems to have set off at least one other sudden switch. It's about the acceptability of American football.

I can understand wanting to play a game, dimly. Whether my poor hand/eye coordination is innate or inane doesn't much matter. I used to like to play Monopoly, but now I'm afraid that it would bore me to death, and the "original edition" set that I bought a few years ago remains shrink-wrapped. I don't relate well to games. And exertion for its own sake puzzles me. My fondness for conversational ballroom dancing might be a pointer to the kind of physical activity that appeals to me. I like to dance, but not with someone I'm not talking to.

I can't understand sitting and watching other people play a game. I can fake it. I can talk about crowds projecting themselves upon the teams that they're rooting for. But what's the point? I still don't get it.

So: I don't have a favorite sport. I'm absolutely indifferent to sports. I'm neutral.

Except, I'm not. I'm not indifferent to football. All the grace of a completed forward pass cannot redeem what is essentially a brutal game that domesticates violence. It doesn't transcend violence, as, say, basketball does. Football simply harnesses it to the line of scrimmage, and sauve qui peut.

Having received two degrees from the University of Notre Dame, I know a thing or two about the sociology of football. In my undergraduate career, I went to no games after my freshman year. As a law student, however, I went to most of the home games, because it was a hoot to sit with classmates and carry on. I'd have been perfectly happy if the teams had been playing soccer.

Why weren't they? What does that say? How can we be complacent about what's going on in the field?

Discretion forbids my discussing the background of this unforeseen enlightenment, but I can say that it has upset the foundations of an important friendship. That's why I am writing this. This entry is not an argument against football. It is simply a form of notice. Your elation about a football victory is only going to excite my disgust.  


September 26, 2006

Reorientation II

Little did I know that yesterday's Times would prolong the quandary that I spoke of in the previous entry. The front-page story was entitled "In Tiny Courts of New York, Abuses of Law and Power: Judges Without Legal Degrees or Oversight Rule in Arcane System Across State."

Does that sound, maybe, a little Iraqi to you? Let's not go into why it does. (If it doesn't, you're reading the wrong blog.) Let's just take a breath and sing "O Canada." Things are so much simpler there. There are so many fewer people, for one thing!

Why has no one written of the melodrama that yokes New York City, an international entrepôt that draws thousands of disaffected Americans-from-elsewhere to its bosom every year, to New York State, a red-meat outfit that, except for all of Ithaca and just the University of Syracuse, ought to be offloaded to Tasmania? Where are the witnesses to this atrocity? The non-New-York-City parts of New York State are just big enough to arm-wrestle the city to the ground. There ought to have been a "civil war" in New York, just to free the enslaved intellectuals.

The whole story about the baboon judges is great, but here is my favorite excerpt:

In an interview, Justice Pennington said the commission had treated him unfairly. But he may not have helped his case when he told the commission that "colored" was an acceptable description.

"I mean, to me," he testified, "colored doesn't preferably mean black. It could be an Indian, who's red. It could be Chinese, who's considered yellow."

There are probably lots of provincial Americans who think that "colored" is still a useful term. That's how we are. But we don't have to make them justices of the peace, capable of incarcerating strangers who don't gratify their expectations. And here is my question: if this is the state of things in New York State, why would we expect anything better in Guantánamo or Iraq? When on earth, people, are we going to clean up our own little mess? We're certainly not going to do any good abroad while "simple men, and their simple wisdom" are running the show in American localities.

September 24, 2006


It's late Sunday afternoon, and I'm about to sit down with an oppressive stack of magazines. I won't be looking at The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books, nor probably the London Review of Books, either. Or Harper's. Those are the periodicals that I look forward to reading. It's the homework mags that I've got to look at: The Nation, The Economist, the Wilson Quarterly, and Foreign Affairs. France-Amérique doesn't get the attention that it deserves, and I can't make up my mind about The Atlantic. Bookforum shows up from time to time, its continued existence always a faint surprise.

In a fantasy that I find increasingly beguiling, an efficient intellectual expert shows up one fine day and tells me how to do my job. Sometimes, the expert even tells me what my job is. I know what some of my duties are. I have to publish a fresh entry every day. I'm expected (by whom?) to review The New York Times Book Review - a weekly task. Ditto my trip to the movies every Friday. I used to read the blogs on my list every weekday, but I've lost that habit and must fight to regain it: this is a two-way street, buster. But a list of duties doesn't add up to a job. The one thing that the expert does every time that I indulge my fantasy is to persuade me that I don't really need to read The Nation, The Economist, or even The New York Times. Yippity yay!

Yes, that's the problem with fantasies.

It does occur to me quite regularly, however, that although I may want to run a daily Web log, writing about books, ideas, and the bits of New York's cultural life that I make time for - although this may be my desire, and although I may actually get it done, somehow, it does not follow that I know how to do it. But perhaps the very idea that I'm not doing the job very well is the first step to enlightenment. 

September 23, 2006

Friday Ramble: Keeping Mum and the Met

Arriving at the Beekman with time to spare, I discovered that I didn't have my wallet. I was fairly certain that I'd left it at home. I'd been very upset about something on my way out, and I'd evaded the usual protocols that assure that I go out into the big city well equipped. If I didn't carry my Metrocard separately, I lamented, then this wouldn't have happened. As usual, I had no small change or money of any kind in my pockets. So I walked across 67th Street to First Avenue, caught a bus, got off at 86th Street, returned to the apartment, found my wallet right where it ought to be (when I'm at home, that is), went back downstairs and caught a taxi at the bottom of the driveway. There were a few bottlenecks on Second Avenue, but I got into the Beekman thirty-five minutes after I'd made my unpleasant discovery. I did not disabuse the guy in the booth who sold me a seniors ticket.

So it will be a little while before I find out how much of Niall Johnson's Keeping Mum I missed.

Continue reading about my Friday ramble at Portico.

September 19, 2006

Or, Why I Will Never Give Up My Land Line

Où est le portable? Où? Où? Où? Où? Où!

Why don't we dial the number and see what rings.

Je ne marche pas


A photo from Le Monde, 8 September. Our supine media gods would never let it run here. This man is a jerk.

At Sale Bête, I read that there's a march against Bush this morning, outside the UN. Édouard's going to be one of the marchers. "You can't just do nothing" is how I would translate his French - idiosyncratically, to be sure, because I can't imagine doing anything except sitting right here and writing. I'm still working out the personal consequences of Bush's second presidential victory. It forced me to recognize that there simply is no question about it: I'm living in a closet. I'm pretending to be as patriotic an American as anybody else. Well, I may like the idea of the United States, and think highly of the Constitution and so forth. But as for Americans - Gawd. Too many of them voted for the man.

September 12, 2006

What I'm Reading/Listening To

The main book at the moment is Blood and Roses, by Helen Castor. It's an incredible account of the Paston family's determination to hold on to its properties. Ms Castor has done an amazing job of fleshing out real people from the formulaic letters that this family exchanged during the heat of the Wars of the Roses, which I used to think of as rather grand when I was a kid but which I now see as the worst sort of civil breakdown into thuggery. Ms Castor is so dogged about properties that I want to ask if she herself is the child of traumatically dispossessed parents.

And then there's Murder in Amsterdam, Ian Buruma's book about "the limits of tolerance" after the assassination of Theo van Gogh. The book is yet a mystery; I have no idea how I'm going to regard it. Part of me wonders if I'm still going to admire the author when I'm through. These are difficult times.

As for listening, it's two CDs 24/7. Either the original cast album of The Drowsy Chaperone or the collaboration of the groups Sarband and Concerto Köln that Archiv produced as "The Waltz." The first CD is a surprise, because one had given up on the possibility of good Broadway tunes. The Chaperone's tunes are good, not great, but - my Lord - they're GOOD, and you can listen to them over and over. I'm an accident waiting to plumble! (That's a quote?) .

You may think that Blood and Roses is some pretty history book about an old family, but it's as engaging as a novel can be about Topic A: holding on to property. Unsettling as hell.

September 08, 2006

You Can Have Your New York, With Its Rush-Rush-Rush

It was a day unlike any other. First, there was the business of buying tickets for the New Yorker Festival. In the age of the Internet, a hot event of the Festival's size can sell out in thirty seconds. Forget the toll-free number! I had the presence of mind to log on to ahead of time, but in the event I lost crucial moments to updating my credit card information. As it was, I emerged with tickets to five events - up from last year's three, and the previous year's one - but I failed to snag seats for two cool gigs that Ms NOLA had her eye on, as well as for the Roz Chast/Steve Martin event that Kathleen would have liked to attend.

While that was going on, a friend who's in town on potentially exciting business was coming to meet me for an impromptu lunch. Meanwhile, Kathleen, who was off to Maine this weekend for a much-needed reunion, found herself in a sudden pickle. The car service that she uses suffered a computer breakdown, putting it temporarily out of business and forcing Kathleen to take a taxi to LaGuardia. The pickle was that she wasn't carrying enough cash to pay a taxi to take her to LaGuardia. She'd planned to take care of cash at the airport. So I power-walked the two blocks up 86th Street to Citibank, staged a minor (legal) holdup, and power-walked back. The power walking was in vain, because Kathleen couldn't get a taxi in midtown.

Now my friend arrived from a long drive, wanting to go upstairs to freshen up. While I was unlocking the door to the apartment, Kathleen finally called from a taxi. Great! Now, like everyone in New York, I imagine that other people's taxis are magic carpets: they have only to step into them to arrive at your door while you're still setting the table or filling the ice chest. Kathleen's taxi turned out to be sorely lacking in magic-carpet qualities. For twenty minutes or more, I stood among the parked cars across the street from the building (to save time; Kathleen would be heading east). I was beyond wanting to give up when the cab finally pulled up and the rear window went down. For the second time I wished Kathleen a safe trip and managed, somewhat awkwardly given my neck, to kiss her goodbye.

Then there was lunch, which was necessarily brief: my friend had to be in the World Financial Center by three o'clock. I came back to the apartment, to find that the phones were dead. Razr to the rescue! The conversation that I had with Verizon's robot lady went smoothly enough; "she" told me that the problem was the phone company's and that it would be fixed by two in the afternoon today. Who needs landlines, anyway, thought I, as I called Crawford Doyle, the bookseller on Madison, to see if they had either Jonathan Franzen's new book or Deborah Eisenberg's recent one. They had both. This time, I didn't power-walk.

When I got back, it occurred to me that I'd better let Kathleen's parents and Miss G know that our land lines weren't working. Twenty minutes later, of course, they were.

It's hard to believe that the magazine that was so placid when I started reading it at the age of fourteen has become quite so edgy. The New Yorker Festival schedule was not announced until Monday - and only online. Although the schedule was also published in the 11 September issue of the magazine, which would ordinarily have come on Monday, the magazine couldn't be delivered until Tuesday, because of Labor Day - something that the planners must have foreseen. In effect, one had three days to make up one's mind. It was like some mad college course registration.

September 07, 2006

At the Morgan Library and Museum

On Friday, Ms NOLA and I visited the Morgan Library and Museum. As at the Metropolitan Museum, there's an important show of Rembrandt's etchings on display, but what I wanted to see was the architecture, which got rave reviews when Renzo Piano's envelope opened, a year ago last April. I had not been very impressed by what I saw in the Times, but I was curious enough to accede to Ms NOLA's suggestion that we make a visit on the last of her Summer Hours afternoons. (We'd had a scheme of going to Coney Island, but the approach of Ernesto scotched that idea.) I hadn't been to the Morgan in years, and not since reading Jean Strouse's superb life of the financier. 

The Morgan Library is an assemblage of three older buildings. The oldest, 239 Madison Avenue, was built in 1852 for the Stokes family; it was one of three, and Morgan eventually owned them all, tearing down the other two. (On the linked floor plan, this is the building that contains the Morgan Dining Room and the gift shot. The building was not hitherto part of the public Library.) The newest is the 1928 annex, built by Morgan's son, Jack, four years after he opened the Library to the public. The most arresting structure - at least until now - is what was called "Mr Morgan's Library." Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, it is a redoubtable pavilion of four very ornate rooms. These buildings have now been united by what feels like a vast glass sheath, although it's rather more substantial than that. One thus enters each of the older structures from the rear. The Library itself is entered from a new flight of steps on Madison Avenue. There are a few new galleries, but the principal additions are a new Reading Room and a sunken auditorium. And let's not overlook the glass-box elevators. These seemed designed to boast of the Library's spruce tidyness, and, at least for now, they do.

The original Morgan Library, completed in 1906, was something of a treasury, and more closely resembles a beaux-arts bank than a place in which to read. Here Morgan amassed his collections of the small and the rare. While accredited scholars, I presume, can gain access to the thousands of books in the old library, the Library's holdings are largely off-limits to the casual visitor. Only a few items are on display at any one time. This makes visiting the Library a somewhat precious experience, in both senses of the word. I find that other people's collections of things are almost always somewhat precious, but then I lack the collector's bug.

The combination of vaulting space and innumerable, unseen doodads is jarring. I could not suppress the sense of all hat and no cattle, where "cattle" stands not for objects but for impact. The "hat" - all that new Renzo Piano cubic footage - seems really to be the point of the newly-constituted Library, and I am sure that many, many parties will be given in it.

What did I like? I liked Sargent's portrait of Morgan's daughter-in-law. It graces a flight of stairs, so don't get stuck on the elevator. In a new exhibition space on the second floor, cases in which musical scores were displayed stood to the east of cases holding books and related materials. In one, devoted to Jean de Brunhoff's Babar, there was a sheet on which de Brunhoff brushed wonderful blobs of watercolor in grey, pale green and brown - as if showing his merry king through a fogged and rainstreaked window. I craved it instantly. As for the scores, they're of no small psychological interest. Bach seems to write with a burning impatience; there are no mistakes or erasures, but the swooping lines that bind his runs together suggest a mild panic that something might be forgotten before the composer wrote it down. Beethoven, in contrast, writes like a kid who's having problems with his sums and not having a very good time. I don't think that I've ever seen Schubert before: rather messy. Mozart's scoring looks great, until you try to read it.

And I spent a lot of time trying to read it. No matter where I looked in the manuscript, I could not make out the beginning of the Haffner Symphony. Perhaps the pages have been shuffled. The unbound sheets of Mozart's autograph score sit in an enamel presentation box in the fine, Louie-the-Phooey style so beloved by Ludwig II of Bavaria. A printed fabric lining on the open lid identifies the contents with heavy, Second Empire veneration. We're talking serious kitsch.

September 06, 2006

Cingular Story

Last Thursday night, I lost my Razr phone. It slipped out of a pocket at some point when I was carrying rather than wearing my jacket. I learned the hard way that Razr phones belong in pants pockets. I had to pay full price for the replacement, on Saturday. Let that be a lesson! I also signed up for insurance.

The moment the phone's disappearance was noted, everybody I ran into had a story about what a nightmare the Cingular store is, at least in terms of waiting to be served. You write your name on a sheet of paper, and when all the names above yours have been crossed off, it's your turn. Arriving right after the store opened on Saturday morning, I was, unfortunately, the third customer in a shop with two assistants. I had to listen to a New Yorker of a certain type, about my age, as he prolonged his sojourn at the counter with questions that almost seemed idle (such as "How does that call-waiting thing work? What button do I push?" I wish I'd overheard the answer, but still, there's a manual). The curious thing was that the guy didn't really listen to the polite-given answers; he was too obviously busy framing his next question. When the transactions was done and the receipt had been signed - and did I say that the transaction was over - he loudly observed that many of his friends swear by Verizon and insist that it's the better service/network: what did the clerk have to say to that? I almost threw up my hands.

Irritating as this was, it wasn't as bad as the monstrous tyke who on Friday afternoon had been doing a very good imitation of the kid in the Chas Addams cartoon who's alone with his chemistry set for a dozen panels. I'd dropped in on my way home, thinking that maybe I could take care of my phone problem quickly. There were only two people ahead of me on the list, but nothing happened at all for about fifteen minutes. Then I decided to be an early bird the next day. It wasn't so much the kid who got on my nerves; I was afraid that I might assault his mother, who seemed very proud of her little darling, only cooing ineffectual admonitions whenever he went into barking mode. She was the sort of dame who specifies that she dropped her phone "in France."

On Saturday, I was out of the store forty-five minutes after the clerk murmured an answer to the Cingular vs Verizon challenge. Everything was fine until this morning, when I noticed a message about an "invalid battery." I didn't like that at all. Walking down 86th Street just as it was beginning to sprinkle - never has the day after Labor Day made it quite so clear that summer has come to an end - I peered into the Cingular store, and there didn't seem to be any customers at all. I was taken care of immediately. The clerk took out the battery, put it back in, and restarted the phone. That did the trick. If I was in the shop for two minutes, I'd be surprised to know it.

September 05, 2006


Kathleen's office is at Two Wall Street. In other words, it's on the corner of Broadway. Not the Broadway of Times Square and musicals, but the same street, just a lot father south. The Original Broadway, you might say.

She was walking out of the building the other night when two dogs yelped and yapped at her. Now, dogs are plentiful on Wall Street, but they're bipedal and primate. Spaniels are an aberration. Or at least they were until Wall Street became a residential boulevard. Nowadays, you can live (in the linen closet sense) in the former offices of US Trust or the Bank of New York.

The Bank of New York - I toiled there for quite a few summers in the late Sixties. Some other time, I'll tell you how. Tonight, all I can think of is two things. One's an acronym: BONY ("Bank of New York"). It is, apparently, a bad idea to say 'bony' these days. The bank, which has married up and taken over the stylish Irving Trust building at One Wall Street (right across the street from Kathleen's office!), clearly no longer knows how to be disliked.

(I certainly never heard 'bony' in my days. But then, nobody said "MoMA," either. "UNESCO" was our outer limit.)

All  this reminded me of an even better BONY story, one that you can count on, apparently, to drain all liveliness out of any BNY  bankers (the new acronym) whom you might be dealing with. All you have to say is this:

On his way to the duel with Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton told his team at the Bank of New York, "Don't do anything until I get back." And they haven't.

It still rankles, and with reason.

September 03, 2006

In the Infusion Therapy Unit

For me, the Infusion Therapy Unit at the Hospital for Special Surgery has always been rather like the nurse's office in grade school. You show up in a brightly-lighted room, take a seat, submit yourself to ministrations, and leave when you're told that you can go. And you show up for "shots," not because you feel bad. There's a good boy - this is only going to hurt for a second - now you'll be fine.

Even though I am now much older than the nurses than I was younger when I was in the fourth grade, my visits to the IFU have a Dick and Jane quality that on Friday, for the first time, struck me as truly bizarre. I was chatting with one of the nurses about the pregnancy of another (who is due on the seventh - when I started out, she hadn't even gotten married); then I was laughing at Francine Prose's dry wit in Reading Like A Writer. I was definitely not a sick person. Except, of course, that I am a sick person, and very dependent upon medication for my well-being. Since the medication is effective, however, it renders my auto-immune system's crazy zeal ineffective, and I look healthy enough. You can tell that there's something wrong with my neck (it never moves), but you can't tell how very differently I would carry myself (or not) without Remicade.

Many of the other patients in the Infusion Therapy Unit, however, are obviously seriously ill, and in considerable pain, even with their meds. I never ask the nurses to tell me what's wrong with anybody, so I can't offer any medical reporting, but victims of lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are among those present at any given time. I did overhear a nurse discussing an infusion for osteoporosis with an elderly lady; I didn't know that there was such a treatment for that disease. The lady did not appear to be in any pain, but then she also struck me as a real stoic.

What has only dawned in me in the last couple of visits is that ours is just one kind of infusion therapy unit. Another is the kind that administers chemotherapy to cancer victims. The chairs that we sit in, and the pumps that propel the infusions into our bloodstreams, were developed for patients who are actually brushing up against death. Many of our infusions were in fact also developed as chemotherapies, and only then found to have other, better uses.

As recently as ten years ago, my complex of diseases would have gone untreated by anything less drastic than steroids, but now I'm an accidental beneficiary of the fight against cancer. Just as the Internet so recently transformed my life, so Remicade has just as recently kicked in to keep it going. How lucky I am not to have been ten years older!

August 30, 2006



Guess who forgot all about his must-have but seldom used swinging kitchen door (just like home!) when replacing a dodgy refrigerator? I'm in luck: the man who built the door can come tomorrow to take it down. For the time being, however, I have a new refrigerator in the foyer and a (still) working refrigerator in the kitchen. I'm covered.

You know what? I don't care. The refrigerator in the foyer will eventually drive me crazy, but it's not driving me crazy yet. I get a little more time to think about how it's going to be stocked once it's plugged in in the kitchen. I envision something very bachelor: Champagne and Corona, some condiments, eggs and cheeses. Yoghurt for Kathleen. A chunk of salami for sandwiches, and don't forget the wieners. Maybe that's not sounding "bachelor" anymore, but the point is that the refrigerator in a Yorkville kitchen should not be stocked for remote contingencies. If something comes up - an out-of-town friend pops up at the last minute - then either I throw together something entirely fresh or we go out.

Got it?

August 23, 2006

New chapeau


In case you can't read it - and of course you can't - the hat says, "FASOLT & FAFNER: general contractors: fees negotiable." You can get this hat by purchasing it at Seattle Opera's Ring Cycle performances, and I expect that they'll give you one if you make a hefty contribution. But the hat is not available on-line. Therefore I had to have one, even though I don't wear baseball caps.

Thank you, DEAREST! (Who is not to be confused with my dear Kathleen.)

August 11, 2006

Mental Health Day

This morning, I decided against going to the movies. Nothing called to me. Nothing that was in the neighborhood, that is, and showing early. I might have hopped down to the Angelika for a 12:30 show of Vers le sud, but, no, I didn't want to cut that far into the afternoon. The Night Listener and Zoom were neighborhood possibilities, as was Half Nelson at Lincoln Center. But I was in no mood to budge. It was easier just to do the next thing on my housekeeping list - change the sheets - and to see what happened next.

What happened next was a little writing, followed by a treat, lunch at a local café where the croques are superb and the martinis just the way I like them. I used to do that sort of thing all the time, but now I never do - largely because it takes too much time, and time is finally something that is precious to me. Today, though, I needed the break. A handful of positive trends and projects have left me, momentarily, mentally exhausted - which is no doubt why I couldn't get to the movies. And I was quite shocked to realize, late last night, that I hadn't even noticed that I hadn't written a Book Review review for Wednesday. (And yet the world did not come to an end.) I must be in second-week-of-vacation mode (even though I'm hardly relaxing) - basket-case time.

At lunch, I read about a book that I must obtain, the only question's being how. Michel Warschawski's On the Border (translated by Levi Laub; orginally Sur la frontière) can be had from Amazon - for forty dollars! It can be had, in the original French, for about nine euros, but the shipping tacks on a further eleven. The calculus of evaluating the gap of fifteen dollars (or so - I haven't paid attention to exchange rates lately) couldn't be more delicate. I save money and get the original text if I order from; I get a book I'll more quickly finish from Meanwhile, I'm asking myself why a book that was published in France and the United States at the end of 2004, and in Britain a year ago May, is being reviewed in the 3 August 2006 issue of the London Review of Books. I don't think that it's simple dilatoriness. Michel Warschawski is a lonely thinker; most of his fellow Israelis hate and condemn him. A true cosmopolitan, M Warschawski envisions an Israel of citizens, not Jews, while, at the same time, he is no secularist. He has demonstrated on behalf of ultrareligious neighborhoods for the banning of automobiles on the Sabbath, even though he himself is an atheist. I think that M Warschawski understands something about human nature that political leaders especially have been determined not to learn: extreme differences of opinion can coexist where there is true respect. Instead, the leadership on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict have turned their followers into identical groups whose only difference is over the symbol that will signify complete triumph: the Star of David or the Crescent.

I got so involved with Adam Shatz's review that I completely forget to feel European and sophisticated, sipping martinis in a café while reading about important books in an international publication. I know what it is: I gave up smoking.

July 28, 2006

At the Post Office


It's Friday morning, and I'm elated. Why? Because I went to the Post Office. I lugged three boxes to the Post Office and got rid of them. That's perhaps not the nicest way to speak of books and tapes that I hope that the recipients will be glad to have. But it certainly describes my relief. For weeks - months - I've been haunted by a self-imposed project that at times seemed quite daft.

At the beginning of May, a young man from Manila posted a comment at the DB. I replied by email, and we struck up a very agreeable correspondence. Early on, it occurred to me that the most satisfying way of downsizing my library would be to send things that I probably wouldn't be re-reading to Migs. Books in English are very expensive in his part of the world, as I learned when I visited Swindon's, the bookstore in Kowloon that sells them. There isn't much of a market for English literature in English, obviously, and books are heavy. Ergo: Migs scouts the used-book stores.

Easier was definitely said than done. I hate the Post Office. The only way to describe our branch is "Stalinesque." So I won't describe it. A bigger snag was my neurotic conviction that I must coordinate the shipment of books with the cataloguing of my library. My procrastinations will be much too familiar, and far too boring, to write about. Suffice it to say that last night, in a sort of positive hissy fit, I assembled seventeen books - they just fit in the box that I'd commandeered - swiped their barcodes so as to enter them into my library, shelf location "Manila," at the very moment of their departure from it, and sealed the box with stout tape. It was only then that I realized that I didn't have Migs's address. A note dashed off to him brought a swift reply.

I had two other boxes to send. One was the return of a cookbook; I'd been sent a form to paste onto the box for hassle-free mailing. The other was the boxed set of Mapp and Lucia II, on VHS. I'd replaced this with DVDs, for storage purposes - the DVDs will go straight into an album, alongside the two discs of the first series. I'd have put the tapes out on the windowsill by the elevators - a custom I began years ago for recycling books that has taken on a life of its own - if a reader of this blog hadn't written to me privately to say that, unaware of a second series, she would have to search for it at her public library. Heavens, I wrote back, let me send them to you instead! I suppose it's narcissistic, but I am always much happier to give things away when I know where they're going. (Or at least, where they're going next.)

The Manila box (shades of the Manila galleon) weighed sixteen pounds and five ounces - a big baby indeed! - and it cost seventeen something to ship, a little over a dollar a pound. I was amazed. Another test of my eager generosity was finding out just how expensive it was going to be to play Lord Bountiful. To send a very heavy box of books around the world - what would we be talking? Forty dollars? Sixty? More??? I resolved to see this first shipment through at any cost, and then to tell my new friend that further shipments would be just too expensive. But $17.85 was an outrageous bargain. I had to fill out a customs slip (hadn't thought of that), and I was careful to bring a few more of the forms home with me. There will be further shipments.

I must have mailed something abroad in the past, but I don't recall ever filling out a customs slip. It's a simple matter where books are concerned, because books, Lord love 'em, are duty-free, as well they should be. But what caught my attention was the gigantic rough but clear plastic bag that the box was dumped into. The postage was attached to a large address label, which I also had to fill out, that was tied around the neck of the bag. I don't understand the bag at all. Surely the box will go to the Philippines on a container ship; all that plastic will bunch up inefficiently and be difficult to pack. But without the bag, where will the label (and the postage) go? We can only wait six weeks (months) for Migs's report.

Pound for pound, I paid less on shipping to Manila than on the postage to Pittsburgh!

And then I bought a lot of stamps - more, perhaps, than I'll be able to use before the next hike. The Super Heroes above, however, may get framed.

July 26, 2006

Visiting Firemen


Last night, having had a lot of fun (and a lot to drink), but finding myself home alone at a reasonable hour, I quite predictably went into cutup mode - and put my foot in it. I wrote the following entry.

I don't get many nights out on the town, due to my police record, but imagine my thrill at being asked to spend a night on the town with the fire chief of Itchboro, New Jersey. I was so happy to be photographed with someone important that I actually showed my teeth - something I never do - while the fire chief, notwithstanding mufti, managed to looked very official.

If only more denizens of the suburbs knew how we Gothamites longed to be photographed with them - I'd smile so much more often.

("Itchboro" came to me much later. I initially wrote "Bogota," which is a real town that, it dawned on me eventually, might have a real fire chief. It never occurred to me that Joe would mind being likened to a fire chief. But I can see why he might mind the "Itchboro" part. Hence this late-in-the-day repair.)

Anyway, here's what happened. Aaron, Joe and I had just walked out of Grand Central, where we'd had drinks. Aaron, claiming that it was a school night (which it was), was going to head home. Joe and I were going to cross 42nd Street, to have dinner at Pershing Square. Who should be standing right in our path but Sean Maloney, a candidate for New York State Attorney General. Joe ran up to introduce himself. Reading his mind, I pulled my camera out of the bag I was carrying it and, because of my slight palsy, which makes flash photography very difficult, handed it to Aaron. "Take a picture!"

But Joe had his back to us, and Aaron seemed unsure about the propriety of taking an unposed shot. Within several blinks of an eye, Joe and I were lined up for the photo above, which Aaron was happy to take. I can't say why Joe looks so serious, but I suspect that it's because he was wishing that I - or at any rate the other person in the picture - were Sean Maloney.

Then Joe went back to Mr Maloney, who was happy to have his picture taken with the man behind Joe.My.God. As well he should be!

July 25, 2006

Down by the Brooklyn Bridge

An interesting evening had I, one that unfolded on several dimensions. First, there was the simplicity of meeting up with Ms NOLA at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square and heading down to Pace University, by the Brooklyn Bridge, in search of the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. It wasn't too hard to find, although the gent who was sitting on a planter out in front of Pace whom we asked could only tell us that we were the second people to ask him. We were on our way to Tom Meglioranza's River to River Festival recital. Tickets were free, and I'd reserved a pair as soon as I'd found out about the event.

I will save my remarks about the recital for tomorrow; they're not quite ripe. I do want to say, though, how astonished I was by Tom's encore, that old sappy standard, never sung by a pop singer ever, "I Love You Truly." Alfalfa sang it in Our Gang. My mother took it to be a token of everything Victorian that she rejected in her personal life. (This would have been in the Fifties. Ten years later, and the Victorians didn't look so bad to her.) If there is a song that stands for the America that the postwar United States threw out with the bathwater, it is the one Tom sang. And not only did he sing it, but he sang it for his mother. There were gasps here and there in the audience when the piano preliminaries began, but most of the audience had never heard the song before. Needless to say, Tom made "I Love You Truly" sound like an art song. By which I mean only that he made it sound worth listening to.

Tom's recitals usually last about ninety minutes, and at nine o'clock we were out on the street, thinking about dinner. There had been discussions about this beforehand, involving Les Halles, the downtown branch, in John Street, of Anthony Bourdain's flagship. It seemed too good to be true, but Kathleen tore herself away from her indentures and joined us. M le Neveu had already had dinner by the time he was invited, and a good thing, too, because he would have eaten the paper tabletop in the time that it took for dinner to be served. Let's just say that, while the food at Les Halles gets an A-plus for great bistro cuisine, our service was just about the worst that I have ever had in any New York restaurant. Eventually, someone senior intervened - someone to whom I had asserted that if our entrees weren't on the table within five minutes we'd be paying for our drinks and leaving. This is the sort of ultimatimation that I really don't go in for. I am usually all too content to go on drinking cocktails while dinner takes forever. But the cocktails had taken forever, and, when they came, they were naked.

That's right: a martini with no olive and a gin-and-tonic without a lime. We were truly, deeply shocked. The fruit was readily supplied, but zut alors! (As an American francophile/phone, I feel that it is my duty to preserve certain beloved expressions that have passed entirely out of use in France. I don't think that I have ever heard a native speaker use the phrase "zut alors," and in fact I have no idea how it really sounds - or sounded. But really, if you had had to endure the service at Les Halles, there's no telling what you wouldn't have said!) Dinner took well over an hour to arrive, although it certainly came less than five minutes after my threat. Kathleen was sure that it was all her fault: she'd told us what to order over the phone, from the Internet, while she was still at the office, a few blocks away. If we'd all been there from the start, she thought, our food would have arrived much sooner. This argument, of course, makes no sense, which is why it's probably correct.

Oh, and, by the way, this is the thousandth entry at the Daily Blague. Not even two years old - nowhere close.

July 23, 2006

At Eli's

"Will you kill me, if I go to 5:30 Mass instead of 12:30?"

I put down Three Junes with a sigh. I ought not to be reading Three Junes; I ought to be reading The Economist and the Times. But I'm totally absorbed by the story of Fenno McLeod, and transported back to the days when nobody remained merely HIV-positive indefinitely. "Yes, I will kill you," I say. "At 5:30, you'll postpone to 7:15, and at 7:15 you won't go at all, and I'll be a wreck from wondering when to get dinner on."

"All right," Kathleen retorts, with mock petulance, as she gets up from the dining table, which is completely covered with trays, bottles, and boxes of beads. In a benign sort of way, Kathleen is addicted to beading: once she begins, she can't stop. She'll stay up until all hours to finish a piece, only to be thwarted by some concluding knot that she's much too tired to be attempting.

Wondering where we will eat dinner, given the occupation of the table by semiprecious materials, I accompany Kathleen downstairs and as far as Third Avenue. I know what we are going to have for dinner, and I am on my way to Eli's to pick up a few ingredients: I can't always find gingerroot up here. (That will probably change when Whole Foods opens up a local branch, in a building yet to be erected, on a site yet to be cleared, at the very corner at which Kathleen and I have just parted company.)

Eli's is a sprawling market - in a basement. The building used to be a storage warehouse. (A big art heist took place there some time ago.) The building, on the northeast corner of Third Avenue and 80th Street, was stripped to the beams and refitted as a luxury condo. Eli's occupation of the ground floor is challenging: three spaces that do not communicate. You enter what seems to be a modest flower shop by a door near the corner, cross a tiled floor and board a downward escalator. It is a two-storey drop, or feels like one, anyway. Keep yours eyes left if this is your first visit; the aerial view of the premises will come in handy. At the bottom of the escalator, you grab a caddy or a shopping cart, and make your way through produce. The produce at Eli's is always gorgeous, and so artfully arranged that it seems to have come from very special, possibly metaphysical acreage. It takes at least five trips to develop any restraint in the produce department.

Then you wend your way past the tomatoes, along the wall of refrigerated items - such as the gazpacho that I picked up for Kathleen's lunch (I was in the mood for hot dogs). Confronted by a cornucopia of cheeses, you are now in the pinball area of the store, where you must navigate between round tables and shelves through spaces not quite large enough for two carts. Meat and fish are the the right, while the eternity of cheese continues along the left. A display case of salamis, bacons, and other cured products neatly hides the escalator that will take you back upstairs when you have done all your downstairs shopping. I was accosted, near the tomatoes, by a somewhat befuddled elderly lady who wanted to know where the exit was. I would point toward the escalator, but without the benefit of my height she could see nothing but round tables and shelves. I would help her toward the escalator two more times before she finally escaped.

Eli's is so not a supermarket. There are no aisles. There is no cookie section (the bakery is upstairs), no cereal section, no cat food or personal hygiene department. Packaged goods are likely to be Eli's own, and very fresh. The dairy department (also upstairs) offers a galaxy of butters but assumes that you will probably buy your milk at lower prices elsewhere. Like coffee, rice is sold by weight: you scoop it into plastic bags, at one of those round tables. The butcher's counter is about the only part of the store that resembles what you might find in a typical suburban supermarket. Except that, as in the produce section, everything is very beautiful. Where are the Cézannes and Caillebottes of today, come to paint these opulent heaps?

No wonder the lady was disoriented. Overwhelmed by the massively unusual stocks and their massively unusual arrangement, she had forgotten what she'd come for. She stood at the foot of the escalator, uncertain about getting on. (Why did she ask me and not a white-uniformed employee? Probably because she thought that they wouldn't speak English.)

By the time I went upstairs, the loudspeaker was playing what I'm almost certain was Karajan's recording of The Blue Danube waltz (more correctly: On the Beautiful Blue Danube) - the one that Stanley Kubrick used in 2001. I could not keep myself from whistling along, taking all the repeats. I don't care who minded.

As we are finishing lunch, a little while ago - the gazpacho was "TRAY good" - I realize that I'd forgotten to buy coconut milk. Happily, there is a can in the larder.

July 20, 2006

Notes from a Summer Afternoon

It's no longer as beastly outside as it was a few days ago, but it's still pretty canicular. I let little household tasks pile up, unwilling to spend even a minute doing something sweat-making instead of sitting beside a fan. The apartment feels a bit airless, so I for one am hoping for a downpour tonight or tomorrow: I'll open the windows and let in some fresh nitrogen.

It was bearable enough to walk to McDonald's for a weekly fix, the real objective being to visit the Video Room a few doors further down Third Avenue and pick something to watch while doing the ironing. Much as I love being thought of as a perfectly idle, meditative sort, I have to tell you that the pillowcase stuffed with damp napkins and handkerchiefs has been bothering me since Saturday, when I got Kathleen to run them through the wash. So to bribe myself into making it go away, I rented A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom's fantasia on themes from Tristram Shandy. This was my introduction to the amazing talent of Steve Coogan - shame on you for not telling me about him. Certainly no more apt novel could be chosen as the base for a movie about making movies; as it's fashionable to say these days, Tristram Shandy is the first post-modern novel. Making a movie is just about as non-linear as Sterne's digressive novel, and no one knows what the finished product will look like. (Not that I know what I'm talking about here.) Gillian Anderson is particularly fetching, both in costume and in mufti - I'd have been happy to see more of her.

I saved the ironing for the next feature, A Good Woman, a used copy of which I bought, sight unseen. How bad could a snazzy adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan, with Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, and Tom Wilkinson be? I can imagine that not everyone is going to love the American actresses playing mother and daughter, but I'm a big fan of Helen Hunt's sharpness, and Scarlett Johansson is a guilty pleasure. A Good Woman is studded, of course, with plenty of Oscar Wilde's best aphorisms, such as Mrs Erlynne's observation that when most people speak of "an experience," they're really talking about "a mistake." (The line is actually Cecil Graham's in the play: "Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes.")

There was still plenty of ironing when A Good Woman ended, so I cracked open the DVD, newly received, of Series II of Mapp and Lucia. This is weaker than the first series, but still great fun, and of course it's almost unbearable to watch Mapp and Major Benjy enjoy married bliss.

July 14, 2006

Prospect Park


There will be no summer hours for me today, as Ms NOLA and M le Neveu are on their way to New Hampshire, to visit my aunt and my cousin - M le Neveu's grandmother and mother, respectively. I'll go to the movies - A Scanner Darkly looks like a good choice, although there's also the guilty pleasure of You, Me and Dupree at ten - then have lunch at the Metropolitan Museum, and then come home to do the weekly housework. Winter hours for me! But Ms NOLA and I did put her summer hours to edifying use last week, with a more penetrating exploration of Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Continue reading about Prospect Park at Portico.

July 13, 2006

Diamond Legs


After a lovely lunch, an innocent cup of tea. Oh, I forgot. This was before the cup of tea. Without fail, the legs moved while the picture processed. It was all I could do to keep up.







A friend who checks in at the Daily Blague from time to time came uptown for a late lunch. She was on her way to a Rat Dog concert at Radio City, hence the attire. (For those of you who, like me, have no idea what Rat Dog is, I'll just say that The Grateful Dead lives on.) Coming back to the apartment after lunch, we repaired to separate nose-powdering facilities, after which I checked up on things at the desk and my friend made calls from the balcony, which is the best place to be on a cell phone here. Looking out my window... this entire entry is proof that I have not grown up one iota since kindergarten, when I was the terror of the schoolyard, peeking up girls' skirts. I am a Troublemaker!

July 09, 2006

Lousy - Not

With me, it is not just a lack of interest in sports. It's games of any kind. I can't even look at the Times crossword puzzle anymore, and the idea of committing several hours to deciphering the Acrostic - do they still run Acrostics? - now strikes me as obscene, although it was once a favored pastime. Nowadays, I have too much to read, but even if I didn't, the fun of games has evaporated. I've lost the sense of play as a "healthy outlet." I'm not producing anything that needs outlets.

The other day, during a Remicade infusion, I asked one of the nurses just what was wrong with me. What's the Remicade actually treating? And the answer seems to be - arthritis. Now, when I think of arthritis, I think of swollen, pained joints. I don't suffer from that. Without the Remicade (as I learned last year, when I had to go without it for an extra month), I feel just plain lousy all the time. I have barely enough energy to get through a very minimal schedule. Dressing and rudimentary housekeeping are the limit of my capacity. I can read and write, but everything else is a burden, and eventually that burden seeps into the reading and writing. Whatever's wrong with me, though, I'd never think to call it "arthritis."

I started taking Remicade because I'm afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative joint disease that has ossified all the discs in my spine, and inflammatory bowel disease. These autoimmune disorders travel together in a nameless syndrome that every now and then I hear called "male lupus." The spondylitis seems to have done its damage, however, and the bowel problems did not recur in the absence of Remicade. Perhaps they would have done, if I'd stayed off it longer, but I felt lousy right away, and that's what I was wondering about: what's the medical term for "lousy"? Evidently, I ought to understand arthritis better than I do.

I no longer remember just when Celebrex stopped working for me, but it was at least two years before I began receiving the Remicade infusions. During that time, I curled up inside myself and did very little outside the apartment. The way I spent last Friday would have been inconceivable as well as impossible. Out of the house at 8:15 and on my feet for over four hours in the afternoon - with a two hour hike in Prospect Park at the end - I didn't get home until 8:45. I'm still feeling a slightly glowing buzz from the exertion.

July 06, 2006


Whether anybody minds or not, I'm going to be talking about adoption fairly often in the coming weeks. My life has hit a pothole, in the form of Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away. I'll be writing about that book sometime next week, when the dust has settled and I've decided whether or not I'm out of my mind to call the postwar adoption racket an "American Holocaust." For the moment, I want to talk about my reasons for not searching out my "birth mother" - reasons that I decided to override just the other day.

There were three reasons.

First, I didn't want to have the experience that La petite anglaise has had. The initial euphoria of reuniting with her mother did not last, and now petite is left feeling somewhat embarrassed by the whole relationship - or lack thereof. I know how easy it is to take people up without giving a thought to whether you'll ever want to put them down (see below), and I usually have to see a lot of someone's writing before I start thinking of friendship. (A rule that works very well in the blogosphere!) Curiosity alone is not a good enough reason to plow into decades of history.

My second reason is far more peculiar to me. If my "birth mother" wasn't my mother, nobody was. As it happened, I never bonded with my adoptive mother. I never felt that she was my mother, and then I found out (at the age of seven) that indeed she wasn't my mother. I now know that my adoptive mother was untroubled by the caution at the heart of my first reason. She took me up and then she put me down. It turned out that she was interested only in infants - in children who could not speak for themselves. I would learn this much later, when her attention passed from my daughter to my niece, at about the time when Miss G was developing a real personality. Little S could play the role of the new baby doll. I don't mean to say that my adoptive mother was a bad person. But she was not cut out for motherhood. On the contrary, she was a very frustrated career woman who couldn't see her way to flouting bourgeois conventions. She was not heroic. But you don't understand heroism until you realize that nobody can be faulted for not being heroic. My sister and I were problems on her daily to-do list. We made her sigh, heavily and often. I did not love her - a fact that she detected early, and about which I still feel dreadfully guilty, even though I never felt loved by her. We wanted to love each other - we knew that it was the thing to do. But we got off on the wrong foot somehow, and at least for me the love never bloomed.

Having been in a chronically hostile relationship with my adoptive mother from the age of about five, therefore, I was hardly eager to expose myself to another opportunity for maternal rejection. I don't know what it's like to have a mother (although I have learned from my dear Kathleen what it is like to cherished and cared for), and experience has inclined me to be afraid to find out. I believe that I have really come to terms with the issues that made my childhood so unpleasant (without being in the least Dickensian). My primary feeling about my adoptive parents is very deep sympathy.

The third reason is the one that collapsed massively as I read The Girls Who Went Away. The third reason is that I bought the Story. Here's the story: a poor young unmarried woman finds that she's pregnant. Abortion is not available. Happily, there are maternity homes in which she can hide her shame, and, even more happily, there are eager, childless couples who want nothing more passionately than to give a healthy baby a home. Relieved of the unwanted burden, the young woman can get on with her life, and have children of her own, in marriage.

That's my version of the story. "Relieved of the burden" is how I put the part about "abandoning her child." I was always very sympathetic to my mother's plight. I knew that she must have gone through a terrible ordeal. But I thought that she'd have gotten over it, and I didn't want to remind her of it.

Well, the Story was a crock, the precipitate of an unholy admixture of bad science (in the form of social workers trying to apply Freudian ideas to the general public) and anti-Bolshevik xenophobia (which made all forms of sexual "deviance," from unmarried pregnancy to childless marriage, disapprobable). It was a convenient fiction that relieved adoptive parents of any guilt for kidnapping other people's children - interposing agencies worked the transfers, and told reams of lies and white lies in the doing. (Ann Fessler's mother was told that her baby's adoptive father owned a factory. He worked in one.) Adoptive parents - the paying customers - were the beneficiaries of the Story. But the other two parties to the adoptive triad were not so well served. Children (not me, but many adoptees) felt that because they'd been abandoned, they weren't any good, and, as Ann Fessler's oral history makes abundantly clear, their mothers had their noses ground in unworthiness. There is not one single report in The Girls Who Went Away of a mother who "moved on" and "got over it." There may have been mothers who did, but I think I'd classify them as seriously disturbed women.

Hello, people: you do not sign away your child at birth and get over it! You don't! You don't! You don't! You have to be virtually coerced (as woman after woman attests) by aggressive authority figures and extortionate claims and parents who have been turned, by a craven fear of non-conformity, into the sort of people who gave up Anne Frank. You have to be bullied by a judge into signing on the dotted line. And then you get to hate yourself for the rest of your life.

Think about it. Think about how self-serving the Story is. Then think about any new mother you've ever known. Do I have to ask you? I don't think so.

My reason for overriding the three reasons is my belief that Ann Fessler's interviewees have something to tell me: only when they reunited with their adopted children did the women begin to heal. It wasn't always, or even usually, easy. But it was the indispensable event. It may turn out that my mother, should she still be alive and available for contact, will not be best pleased to meet me. She may "abandon" me a second time. That's fine. But I don't feel that the choice is mine to make. I feel, rather, that I have a moral obligation to put myself forward. To let her know, as I said the other day, that I'm okay. To put an end to her grieving, if there has been any grieving. If she wants to, she can even count my toes.

July 05, 2006

After the Holiday


I don't believe it! In the middle of a thunderstorm, the knuckleheads down the street are operating a crane? Has the existence of the Internet somehow made this an okay thing to be doing?

It's a lot cooler outside than it has been. Kathleen is taking the day off, and all I can think of is (besides electrocuted crane operators and pulped passers-by) is the deep pleasure of the old song about the rain pouring and the old man snoring. "Won't come back till the morning."

We had a lovely gathering, last night, of old friends and new. We watched the fireworks from the roof - still possible although somewhat thwarted by the construction of a tall building somewhere in the vicinity of New York Hospital. There were lots of smiley faces at the start, but quite a number of innovative pyrotechnics at the finish, including some strange green and red formations that lingered in the sky for twenty or thirty seconds (forever in fireworks). They began to look like chromosomes. How do they do that?

I have an infusion today - the perfect opportunity to finish The Girls Who Went Away. But perhaps the Infusion Unit is not the ideal venue. The overwhelming majority of infusees are women - I can count on one hand the number of times another man has been getting treatment. Some of them may well be (a) birth mothers or (b) adoptive mothers. I wouldn't want to upset anybody.

July 04, 2006

Independence Day

It is Independence Day in America, and I am declaring my independence from a school of thought to which I have loosely subscribed ever since I was told, at the age of seven, that the well-intentioned people whom I was brought up to regard as my parents had adopted me. I was - am - somebody else's baby. I'm reading Ann Fessler's amazing book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade. It astonishes me that it has taken thirty years since the first rollers of second-wave feminism crashed on the patriarchy's shore for this book to appear. It's the story of the worst outrage perpetrated against American women in modern times. Period. Something around a million mothers were forced to be complicit in their babies' kidnapping, between World War II and 1973. The elegant system that Ms Fessler anatomizes assured that the young mothers were both the victims and the scapegoats - it's as if Eichmann were a Jew! Without exception, the women whose stories are highlighted in the book suffered a numbness after the "abandonment" of their babies, usually under duress, that would be relieved only by reunion, if and when it occurred. It occurs to me that trying to reconnect with my birth mother is simply not an option - it's the only thing to do. If what I was told is correct, she's 77 now - not unimaginably old. (Being good at math, I hit on the figure of 87 in the moment of impassioned decision.) It couldn't matter less whether I want to know her. There's an overwhelming likelihood that she wants to know me. She wants to know that I'm okay.

I didn't know. But I do now, and that changes everything.

July 03, 2006

South of Houston

When Strangers With Candy was over, on Friday afternoon, I called Ms NOLA at work, and we agreed to meet at the regular place, the Starbucks on the third floor of the Union Square branch of Barnes & Noble, in about an hour. This gave me plenty of time for a leisurely saunter up the Bowery and Fourth Avenue, with a visit to the St Mark's Book Shop at Cooper Square. The timing was perfect, because before I even made it to the escalator at Barnes & Noble, Ms NOLA appeared out of nowhere. She must have walked in just behind me. We decided to go to Republic for lunch. I had the tasty Sauteed Beef Noodle Salad, and it looked just like the photograph that you'll find, it you're interested, at the restaurant's frame set site.


The Empire State Building, seen from the Bowery.


Grace Church, seen from the rear, beyond its parish house.

Now the walking part of the afternoon began - with a subway ride. For the second time that day, I found myself climbing the station stairs at Bleecker Street.

Continue reading "South of Houston" at Portico.

June 25, 2006


"Learn something new every day," says Kathleen, speaking of life with me. If she were only a bit younger, she could learn five things a day at least, if she hooked up with Nate Mattison, a recent graduate of Byram Hills High School in Westchester. According to Peter Applebome's story, "A Teenager Who Actually Does Know It All," Mr Mattison (headed for Yale) has won a place in the Hall of Fame of the Academic Quiz Bowl, and he generates a "brainiac vibe." At his age, I knew nothing more than the succession of the kings and queens of England (with dates). I still don't know the American Presidents.*

What is it with competitive quizzes and spelling bees? They seem to have come out of nowhere. When I was a boy, such contests were dying institutions, or seemed to be - a mistaken impression, evidently. I was pretty good at spelling bees - I remember the words that I flubbed, such as "committee" and "buffalo" - but I don't remember anyone conducting after seventh grade, and even then they weren't the big deal that they had been. Unlike today's bees, the competition was confined to words that an educated person might use, not the rarities, such as "oppidan,"** that would litter the film, The Bee Season, if it were really about spelling bees.

But The Bee Season is about the Kabbalah. I think. Kathleen rented it last night. I can't recall seeing a more pointlessly mystifying movie in my life. Eventually, I realized that it is just the Jewish Da Vinci Code. The performances were all superb, but trying to figure out what was bothering Juliette Binoche's character - well, I'm not sure that I ever did. And the hole Hare Krishna tangent reminded me of The Serial, a far more genial film.

*I'm okay from Washington to van Buren and from Cleveland's second term. I'm sound on Buchanan through Hayes. How about you? (Assuming, of course, that the matter has any relevance.)

**Unrecognized by my spell-checker, this term can mean "urban" or "townsman." You'd think it would come in handy, just for variety's sake, in my neck of the woods. It doesn't.

June 24, 2006


New York City will be laboring beneath a weather front for a few days, according to forecasts. It was supposed to rain yesterday, and it did, a little, in the evening. I wore my rainy-day shoes to the Metropolitan Museum, but I didn't need them. Walking home, I got soaked from within. It wasn't very hot, nor was it very humid, and there was an intermittent breeze, but it was hot and humid and still enough to generate a good sweat.

At the museum, Ms NOLA and I saw a lot of things in passing, as one necessarily does if one begins with lunch in the basement cafeteria, but we made it a point to see the tribute to Susan Sontag's critical work, On Photography, and we also went up onto the Roof Garden. Ms NOLA hadn't seen the very various installations of Cai Guo-Qiang that decorate the garden this summer; if she had, I'd have cautioned us away from what turned out to be an elevator bottleneck with lots of cross passengers. (Only one of the elevators was working.) The photographs in the Sontag show were among the most celebrated images in the history of the medium, which makes it a real shame that the museum didn't work up a small catalogue. Like the catalogue that the museum didn't prepare to accompany the Kara Walker show (still on exhibit), this needn't have been an expensive production, but something more like a book.

At the Sontag, it occurred to me that the boy in the famous Diane Arbus image - you know, the kid in the plastic boater and the bow tie, wearing "Bomb Hanoi" and "Support Our Troops" buttons, the guy who is still my image of Crazy Conservatism - must have been about my age, or even younger. (The fact took so long to register, because, without those buttons, you'd take picture to be much older than 1967.) I wondered what might have become of him, and what he's up to these days, if he's still alive. 


Summer Hours - running around town (but often no further than the Met - with Ms NOLA on Friday afternoons - will require some changes in the schedule around here, for those of you who are aware of a schedule. Most notably, I will see my Friday Movies on Monday (unless Ms NOLA is busy). Secondly, and more permanently, my review of The New York Times Book Review will appear on Wednesdays. Working on the review on Monday and Tuesday will give some structure to the beginning of the week, always a tricky time for me (I have a tendency toward inertia on Monday; does anybody else?), and of course I'll get my weekends back.


Édouard, at Sale Bête, has the patience to scroll through all the comments to an entry by Kevin Drum at Political Animal, among which he finds one that truly gives me pause. The entry, and most of the commenters, are firmly opposed to the torture of prisoners. In comes someone who styles himself "Freedom Phukher," who makes the following terse comment:

This is why you losers lose! You want to be right, while a near majority (+Diebold) just want to feel macho and potent!

"Near majority" aside, I believe that this is true of a great many Americans. I suspect that it is an unconscious wish for many, or at any rate one that's sufficiently surreptitious to square with "Christianity." But I pause to consider the delusion of "macho and potent" in the context of torture. What's macho and potent about fighting someone who can't fight back? True potency stops the moment someone is constrained, and this is something that all good men understand. "Macho and potent" means "evil" here - but then FP implies exactly that.

June 23, 2006

Sergeant York Update

Follow-up to yesterday's Mysteries of Yorkville entry: I ought to have enlisted Kathleen before announcing defeat. Known as the Spider Woman of Wall Street, Kathleen also ought to be recognized as the Ferret of the Internet. (We've actually talked about her going into business as a sort of Ask Jeeves.) Not only did she find support for my conviction that York Avenue, formerly Avenue A, was renamed after Sergeant Alvin Cullum York, World War I hero, but she uncovered the date: 1928. Who knew that 1928 was also the birthday of "Sutton Place"?

From the Times (scroll down a bit).

From NYC Streets (scroll down almost to the bottom).

And, feeling zesty myself, I went on to ask the Internet how to pronounce "Coenties," as in "Coenties Slip," the name of a street that runs from the East River (more or less) to Pearl Street, in way-downtown Manhattan. Rebecca Mead, of The New Yorker, reports the answer (I must have missed the "Talk" that week), but not at the magazine's site. Any Nederlanders out there want to pitch in?

Continue reading "Sergeant York Update" »


Thomas Meglioranza has been writing for a while about his arduous preparation for the role of Prior Walter, in Peter Eötvös's operatic adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The work, mounted by the Boston Modern Orchestra and Opera Boston, received its American premiere last Friday. The critics came on Saturday night (I'm told), and they seem to have liked the work. They are quite unanimous about Tom: everybody liked his performance very much. It was from the reviews, and not from the baritone, that I gathered that his role was something like the lead. Congratulations, Mr Meglioranza!

I had not thought of writing about the event, however, because I didn't see it myself. I have never seen the play, and I have no idea what Mr Eötvös's music sounds like. But as a fan of Tom's I was eager to read the reviews, and one of them, which appears on the writer's Web log in advance of publication in MusicalAmerica, set me on a line of thought that at first seems quite depressing. The blog in question is Steve Smith's Night After Night.

Scrolling down through Mr Smith's recent entries, I was of course aware that I was visiting a journalist's site. It is in the nature of journalism to track the new, and I'm not surprised that, when Mr Smith lists the classical music that he's listening to, the recordings are all new, or, at least, out-of-the-way. Music critics don't have to go back; fresh performances are always welling up about them. What did strike me as incongruous, however, was the jumble of genres. For someone of my age, there is something decidedly transgressive about talking about both Jordi Savall and Ornette Coleman with much the same kind of admiration. What I realized, finally, was that the transgressiveness has entirely disappeared.

Steve Smith's wide-ranging taste is beginning to look like a certain kind of norm for listeners half my age. It's a much bolder taste, but it's also, I think, somewhat less reflective. It mirrors the voracious appetite for any food but mom's that seems to be required of today's hip New Yorkers. Sometimes I don't quite believe that the enthusiasm is real - it can't be! - but then I recollect what a very different musical world today's thirtysomethings grew up in. First, music became less political after 1970 - does anyone remember Ellen Willis proclaiming the "death of rock"? - and correspondingly less grimly embraced. Second, recordings poured in from everywhere to the racks of Tower Records. (I suspect that computerized inventories made the swelling possible.) When I was young, there was always a handful of guys who admired Beethoven's Late Quartets and Miles Davis equally, but, for the most part, they were showoffs of understatement. Genres were ghettos; they had a lot to do with what sort of friends one made.

Of course, I've also become an old person who finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with lots of new names. And knowing that I will never have an iPod is sobering. I can't imagine listening to music anywhere but in my rooms. Yet no one was a more passionate user of the Walkman when it first appeared. In other words, I haven't got anything against iPods. I just wouldn't use one now. I hate to say it, but it's something that I've outgrown, like the taste for swimming.

I prefer, that is, to think of it as a matter of outgrowing - as opposed to senescing. I'm no longer driven to listen to recordings all day long, partly because all this Daily Blague-related reading and writing requires my undivided attention, but partly too because my head is already stuffed with wisps of lovely music. They're muffled and unobtrusive, but very pleasant nevertheless. Sometimes, I have to play recordings just to impose some law and order.

I ought to get out more. Last spring, Ms NOLA made a compilation for me that, when I got round to listening to it, I was tempted to turn off in the middle of every cut. But I hung on, and was wowed at the end, by what turned out to be the first two cuts of Rufus Wainwright's Want One. I got the album pronto, but not before being lured into buying Want Two by the promise of an enclosed DVD - in which Mr Wainwright sings most of Want One's songs at the Fillmore. The first song on the DVD, however, is not one of Rufus's. He never says whose it is, and I always wonder what different things the members of the audience made of it. I knew just what to make of it: the marvel of Rufus Wainwright's turning Absence, by Hector Berlioz (from Les nuits d'été) into a contemporary torch song.

Welcome to the present.

June 22, 2006

Mysteries of Yorkville


The culprit, if culprit he be, appears to have been George Patullo, a Saturday Evening Post writer who heard a great story that two corporals told him at a first aid station. Shortly before, on 8 October 1918, they and another corporal, Alvin Cullum York, of Tennessee, had taken out a band of German gunners who stood in the way of the Allied advance, in a French valley near Châtel-Chéhéry. By the time Patullo filed his story, York had achieved victory single-handedly. 

Mr. Patullo chose to focus on Sergeant York, presumably because of the tighter, richer narrative his story allowed. The article, titled "The Second Elder Gives Battle" in a reference to his position in his Tennessee church, tells the story of an uneducated backwoods Christian who reluctantly goes to war and reconciles his religious beliefs with his sense of duty to his country.

York became a celebrity overnight and was promptly promoted to the rank of sergeant. In 1941, Warner Bros released Sergeant York, for which Gary Cooper received an Oscar. There were always murmurings, however, that York wasn't the only hero of Châtel-Chéhéry, and now as Craig S Smith reports ("Revisiting Sgt. York and a Time When Heroes Stood Tall") in the Times, two forensic teams are trying to establish the facts, with metal detectors and GPS. There is no doubt of York's valor - just of the extent of it.

And my point was? For I don't know how long, I've understood that Sergeant York gave his name to my neighborhood, and I was just investigating the matter when I found that the evidence has disappeared. I didn't make it up, but neither the Internet nor the (far from exhaustive or comprehensive) Encyclopedia of New York, Kenneth T Jackson, editor, explains how an area that used to be known as "Germantown" - settled by Central Europeans long before the land to the south was developed - came to be called "Yorkville." I can't even find out when the nomenclature was changed.

I do know that York Avenue started out as Avenue A. It is a geometric continuation of the street with the same name in Alphabet City, and this is chiseled into the cornerstone of PS 158, on York between 77th and 78th Streets. At some point, the name was changed, and the high noon of Sergeant York's celebrity, at the end of World War I, would have been around the right time. Heavily German, the neighborhood had spent the war under a cloud, and it would have made a lot of sense for local worthies, wishing to dissociate themselves from the Kaiser, would have seized upon the vanquisher of a unit of German snipers as a rousing sign of their loyalty to Uncle Sam. There would have been the coincidental advantage that "York" was already a familiar word to non-Anglophones. I am fairly sure that this is what happened, and I'm also sure that I learned it from a Web site some years ago. But now there is only silence.

Alvin York declined to take advantage of his fame, and retired to the obscurity whence he came, in Pall Mall, Tennessee, and where he remains something of a local hero. One of the several Web sites devoted to him shows the picture atop this entry and labels it 'With the Tennessee Society of New York in 1919 at the welcoming home ceremonies."

An information brownout - ahimè.

June 19, 2006

Park Slope



For ages, Ms NOLA has been telling me that I have to come to Brooklyn to see her apartment and visit her neighborhood. In a broad sense, it used to be my neighborhood, but only briefly: the summer of 1980. I rented an apartment in Park Slope and studied for the bar. When Kathleen got her own place in the fall (a studio two floors down from where we live now), I very unofficially moved in with her, and went to Brooklyn only rarely, but I kept the apartment until shortly before our wedding in October, 1981. If I liked Park Slope, I loved Prospect Park. Connoisseurs say that Prospect Park, the project that Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux worked on after Central Park, is the better creation, and connoisseurs are right. One has only to gaze at the Long Meadow to sink into a state of peace and serenity. On a sunny afternoon in June, that is.

A stroll through the western edge of Prospect Park was the last leg of a walk that Ms NOLA and I took ...

Continue reading about Park Slope at Portico.

June 18, 2006



At the Tennis House in Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Kathleen and I attended a memorial service for the mother of a dear friend yesterday, and because getting up early, getting dressed up, and going to church were involved, I find it hard to believe that today is not Monday. Because I spent Friday in Brooklyn with Ms NOLA, walking until my quads were screaming with pain (I desperately needed a wheelchair - and got one, in the form of the Q train), I'm a little bit behind, and have only just begin to read the Book Review. Fear not; I'll have something here by the end of the day. (This week's issue reeks of "important!")

I hadn't set foot in Prospect Park in twenty-six years. What was my problem?

June 16, 2006


During the winter, I saw something in a Levenger catalogue - home of writing porn - that looked too good to be true. It was a library management tool that combined software with a barcode scanner to enable one to compile a library database by doing little more that a bit of barcode scanning. Once possessed of a UPC (universal product code), the software would browse various Internet databases in search of a match, and then download all the information into a table. I held off, dubious. By the time I gave in - there's no way I'm going to catalogue my library without some form of automation - the item had disappeared. Levenger no longer sold a product that had been designed for its label. Too good to be true, indeed.

Whatever Levenger's problems might have been, however, I found that several firms have developed this kind of package. Rather, Kathleen found them. (Kathleen loves to search the Internet.) She sent me half a dozen links and, after nowhere near the appropriate amount of deliberation, I settled on Readerware (despite the look and feel the Web site). It seemed to be the only product that came with a scanner.

The package arrived early this week. I didn't have time to get started with it until Wednesday. I can't say that setup was easy or that getting to know the product was a breeze, but I can't blame Readerware, either; confronted with unfamiliar materials, my brain loses half its IQ in a low-grade panic, and never fails to leap before it looks. It took forever to master the art of swiping the scanner, but eventually I learned that a light touch is the right touch.

Here's how it works: Having created a database file, you click on "Auto Catalog" and choose from a list of sites to search, such as Amazon and Tower Records. Then you proceed to swipe. When the computer recognizes a valid UPC, the software makes a satisfying little pop, and you move on the next entry. I found that working in batches of about thirty DVDs at a time was optimal. When you're through scanning for the time being, you click on a few "Next" buttons and let the browsing begin.

The browsing takes a while, anywhere from fifteen seconds to just over a minute per title. When all the information has been captured, a few more "Nexts" take you to a table of the new entries. This is the time to specify a location. The location field default's position is far to the right of the table, but I had no trouble re-positioning it directly beside the Title field. After all, reason number one for consulting the database is to find out where the hell things are.

The Sorice shelving in the hallway can accommodate about 120 standard DVD cases. I have about five times that many DVDs. When a new DVD enters the collection, either it goes straight into an album from Staples (each album holds 96 discs; the paper jackets and any internal stuff go into a box; the jewel cases get the heave-ho) or it takes the place of a shelved DVD that has just lost a popularity contest. The albums, of which there are four so far, divide the film universe as follows:

I Default: videos that don't belong in one of the other albums.

II Films by Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, James Ivory, and Woody Allen.

III Series (The Pallisers, Inspector Morse).

IV Black-and-white movies made before 1960.

Readerware makes it a snap for me to locate Murder My Sweet (for example) at [Album] IV [Page] 7 [Pocket] A. (It also makes reorganizing the albums from time to time unnecessary.)

I began with DVDs partly because they make up the smallest of my three libraries and partly because they're all the same size. It took less than twenty-four hours to commit every DVD in the house to the computer's memory.

Next up: non-classical CDs.

I am in a daze. Building the database felt like major-league fooling around.

June 14, 2006


What a shock it was to see this picture!

Photo by Édouard at Sale Bête.

I was minding my own business, reading everybody's blog, when I came across this photo at Sale Bête. The building in the background is New Rochelle High School. It was on these very fields - covered with oiled dirt at the time - that I learned, at a day camp in the Fifties, that I was missing the sports gene.

Assigned to the outfield, I had my back to the action most of the time, which I spent drawing pictures with my right sneaker. I hated being out in the sun. The curious thing is that I never hated myself. I did not long to be like the other boys. All I longed for was release from the torment of baseball.

This is not to say that my aversion to sports didn't burden me with heavy baggage. I might as well have had to wear a tiny colored star - you pick the color - to indicate that I was not a Team Player. The lasting result has been that I still don't like men in groups. On a much more positive note, I have never had the slightest difficulty "getting" the complaints of people who, for one reason or another, don't quite match the profiles that men in groups have drawn up for them.

Now that I'm too old for it to matter, I can imagine that it must be wonderful to be able to pitch a ball well, and that it must be great to hit that ball "right out of the park." Athletic achievement must be a joy for those who are at least halfway gifted. But I'm sure that a plea still needs to be made on behalf of kids who just aren't cut out for it: obligatory sports do not build character.

June 12, 2006

Sunday in the Kitchen

Last night, M le Neveu came for dinner by himself. (Ms NOLA is still in Paris, making eggplant soup for her hostess.) I was going to fry some chicken and roast sweet potatoes in the way that he's very fond of, and of course I baked him a chocolate cake. But I poured the batter into pans that were too wide from the extremely light sour-cream layers. Too broad and insufficiently thick, one of the layers simply disintegrated when I tried to get it from the cooling rack onto the other layer. The thick ganache frosting widened the cracks instead of sealing them, pushing the layer apart. My desire to continue cooking evaporated, and we decided to go across the street for Mexican.

It seems that I have arrived at a point in my culinary career in which failure is truly unacceptable. How could I have failed to produce a good-looking cake? (It tastes great, but who cares about that. Cakes are about presentation. I don't know why I used to the wrong pans. It may have had something to do with cooking on Sunday, something I'm just not in the mood to do anymore. I cook on Monday. Did I mention that the cake and the frosting consume one entire bar of Scharfenburger chocolate? That's $10.49 right there.

Perhaps I ought to have stayed in the kitchen. I went out onto the balcony - it was a glorious day here in New York, if cool enough to warrant Kathleen's bundling her legs in a fleece blanket - and finished Martha McPhee's L'America. It left me fairly depressed, if in the exalted way that art has of being depressing. The heroine dies in the North Tower on 9/11, but her daughter marries the son of her great love, an Italian banker. That marriage happens weirdly in the future, 2017 or something. Beth (the heroine) and Cesare (the banker from Lombardy) meet on a Greek island when they are very young, and they fall terribly in love. It is the kind of love that causes the rest of the world to cease to exist. But of course the world does continue to exist, and, problematically, there are two worlds to contend with. Cesare and Beth are rooted to their native soil. Cesare cannot deviate from the course that has been plotted for him, and because that course doesn't include an American wife, he never seriously asks her to marry him. So she stays in New York and has a career in food. Beth's dying, although it has nothing to do with Cesare, seems tragic nonetheless, perhaps because it releases Beth from her undying, impossible love.

There are times when L'America seems headed for preciousness, and there are times when one wearies of Beth and Cesare simply because, like all great lovers, they have no sense of humor. But Ms McPhee's highly recursive prose evokes enough intimations of grand passion to assure that we'll forgive her and, what's far more important, believe in her characters. There are times when L'America is thrilling. Sometimes the lovers seem like champions of their very different cultures, meeting on the field of honor to wage a duel. The stylish propriety of Cesare's world, which fascinates Beth at first, when she's a high school exchange student, rebuts everything candid and casual about the unstructured lives of American teenagers.

As for the food writing, of which there's a great deal toward the end, I couldn't help feeling relieved that I've never had to work in a restaurant, either in the kitchen or in the front of house. I don't know how people do it, really; the idea of all that physical work terrifies me. I wouldn't make it through a day. If something didn't come out just right, I'd quit. I'd want to, anyway.

At the same time, I was reminded of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Ms McPhee's restaurant writing did not quite rise to the level of "The Generator," the chapter in Mr Franzen's novel in which Denise Lambert - also bankrolled by a wealthy retriever type - sets up and then loses a top-tier restaurant in Philaldelphia, briefly bumping her head against the clouds of celebrity. Denise is also the one Lambert family member who suffers a maddening love, another link to Beth. I would have to say that Denise is the more fully realized character. But Ms McPhee's tale of Beth and Cesare reads like the rich restatement of an ancient myth.

June 09, 2006

Knocking 'em off

About Mr Emerson's little list...

I posted the list as-is. I will post my version of the list, with five substitutions, presently, at Portico. For the time being, I'm knocking off the films that I've never seen. I believe that there are thirteen; you can easily find out by opening the permalink for the list and asking your browser to find "(N)" until you've counted through all of them. Not surprisingly, the ones that I've never seen are among the most aggressively macho.

Yesterday afternoon, for example, I watched Dirty Harry, and I can tell you right now that I am going to knock it off the list, possibly for Unforgiven, which would preserve a slot for Clint Eastwood, and possibly for The Conversation, for San Francisco and shady dealings. The Conversation was made three years after Dirty Harry, and they share a similar look and feel. What they don't share, happily, is Dirty Harry's cast, which, aside from Mr Eastwood himself, is pretty uninspiring. Andrew Robinson's Scorpio - the bad guy - is totally over the top, and not in a good way, but at least he's acting, which nobody else seems to be inspired to do. John Vernon's mayor is almost embarrassing; perhaps it's his representation of an elected official that has pushed so many voters toward the red. The movie needs whatever it was that Criterion did to The Third Man, in order to make the many night-time scenes legible on TV.

The worst thing about Dirty Harry is that it's so politically tendentious. Its crux is the exclusionary rule, which bans evidence obtained without a warrant from use in court, and which is also a useful shibboleth for distinguishing people who understand rule of law from those who don't. Its zero-tolerance approach to police error (cutting corners or acting hastily) makes moralizers very unhappy, but it serves as a vital curb to the tolerance of armed expediency. Yeah, we all want to see the bad guy suffer. But we have to check that impulse when we join civil society.

The only thing that could make Dirty Harry worse would be to replace Clint Eastwood with Charles Bronson.

Also, I have no active plans to collect these lists. Make your own and tag some friends with the meme. As long as the keyword is somewhere on the page, someone will eventually have a field day compiling them. That someone won't be me.

June 08, 2006


Have you ever seen anyone dance the mazurka? I wonder what it's like. Although mazurkas are set in three-quarter time, they are neither stately compositions, like minuets, nor perpetual-motion machines, like waltzes. There's something tripping about them, as if a step were being missed here and there. I'm speaking, particularly, of Chopin's mazurkas, of which there are more than fifty. When I was young, I had an LP of mazurkas, played by one of those keyboard Titans who went only by his last, Slavic, name, which I can no longer recall. (I have to keep saying "no" to "Alexander Brailowsky," which comes up every time I try to remember.) Now, I have Vladimir Ashkenazy's two-CD set. That's what I listened to this morning as I read the paper and then some other things.

I'm in the mood for mazurkas today. A few of Chopin's mazurkas are cheerful, and none of them is bleak, but most carry a melancholy strain that suits our depressive weather. I'd probably feel depressed anyway, because I'm deep into Martha McPhee's seriously intoxicating novel, L'America. At times more myth than fiction, L'America is most engaging when it plumbs the inability of Cesare, the scion of an old Lombard banking family, to pull himself free of his roots and settle with Beth, the love of his life, in America. Cesare is crazy about all things American, but the entitlement and privilege with which he has been brought up have made not only made him lazy - something that he knows - but clouded his ability to imagine - which is obviously not something that he cannot know. By telling the story of Cesare and Beth in a highly recursive manner, Ms McPhee gradually drains the reader's desire to make their minds up for them. Italy or America - my place or yours? In the end (which we know from the start), neither lover is willing to make the sacrifice of emigration, and we can certainly see why. It is not tragic, but it is very sorrowful, and only mazurkas will do.

Then a chance encounter - also somewhat imaginary - perked me up. Waiting for the delivery man to bring up the movies that I've ordered from the Video Room, in order to reduce the number of films on Mr Emerson's list that I haven't seen - I opened John Ashbery's collection, Your Name Here, to a poem called "Full Tilt." It was quite at random, just to have something brief to read. And the oddest thing happened - it has never, in any case, happened to me before. I was in the middle of the second stanza, "Let's leave things as they are," when I heard (in my mind) my friend Tony reading the poem. Tony has a way with clichés, an impatient irony, that dusts them off without any pretense of making them look new.

Now, why not investigate the way
all this can end up being pretty? Not just the whore
who waits on the corner till the last sliver of taxi is gone,
to be repackaged next night in a department store window
so you can pretend you bought it? I'm up here, Louise,
we're all up here, waiting for you to step up to home plate
and bat us a cool one. Oh, but
I was supposed to be in the station an hour ago
That's the way it gets illustrated:
the four of you in Cincinnati, waving across the plain
to us, the lemon in hot pursuit, leading to student unrest.

No, it still doesn't mean anything, even if you, too, can imagine Tony reading it. But in Tony's voice it is very entertaining, funny, even. I can't imagine that Tony would have any patience for Ashbery's dry nonsense, but he ought to be made to read it anyway, because he would light up all the banalities from which the poet composes his verse. "...the lemon in hot pursuit..." - I tell you, it cracks me up. But maybe this had better stay imaginary. 

June 07, 2006


Via Gothamist, a cool aerial shot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taken from the rear. (At To decode what's under all that roofing, visit the Museum's site for floor plans. What a grand old barn!

June 06, 2006

Doing My Job

It's another mostly-grey day, unseasonably cool. I have two flats of impatiens that must be potted this afternoon, or I shall stop talking to myself. One of the "Stella de Oro" (daylily) buds is fit to bloom, which reminds me to toss some Miracle-Gro into the watering can.

Ms NOLA takes off this evening for Paris. Much as I'd like to be in Paris myself, I don't envy her the trip. Too many things are up in the air at the moment for me to be traveling. Actually, it's more like one big thing. There's not a thing I can do about it, so I put one foot in front of the other and do my job. Doing my job means updating the Affinities List on what's called the Individual Entry Archive template. That's the armature for permalinks and such. It had never occurred to me that this needed to be done, this updating, and I thank Ms NOLA for taking the time to nudge me about it this morning.

This morning, I was "doing my job" by watching Dirty Pretty Things, Stephen Frears's 2002 film, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou, with Sophie Okonedo, Sergi López, and Benedict Wong in important supporting roles. The movie had seemed to be coming up in all sorts of contexts and I found myself confusing it with another picture that I've never seen, Pretty in Pink. I found DPT quite harrowing. There was the static uncertainty of eking out an existence as an illegal alien, and then, on top of that, the horrors of clandestine organ sales. The contrast between the pristine hotel rooms and the gruesome goings-on reminded me of another movie, but I can't place it, and maybe I'm making it up. The film has a great score, by Nathan Larson.

Has anybody else made it all the way through "Up, Simba," a lengthy essay about going along on the Straight Talk Express during John McCain's 2000 bid for the Republication nomination, reprinted in David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster. It struck me the other day that I hadn't finished this book. I certainly hadn't wanted to read about the McCain campaign. But I'm glad that I did, because the piece is astute about campaigning in general - Mr Wallace learned that the best interpreters are the "techs" (cameramen and so forth) - and about John McCain's appeal in particular - the man is so straightforward that the sheer delight of listening to an honest candidate makes us forget Mr McCain's often troglodytic opinions.

June 03, 2006

Photo Phinish

O ciel! (That would be Italian, not French. It's not that anybody in Italy still utters such an imprecation. But Italian is the language in which countless members of the nobility, beset by unimaginable woe, have asked for an operatic hot line.)

O ciel! The closing moments of 3 June 2006 approach, and yet I have published no entry today! Not to do so would be to to break a record that goes back - well, to tell you the truth, I don't know how long, but almost certainly less than a year, so what's the big deal, and who's out there, anyway, on a Saturday night. Nevertheless! Records are not going to be broken tonight.

It is a rule of some reliability that whenever I write about what I am about to do, I do, in fact, something else. Or don't do anything. Ms NOLA and I did not venture uptown yesterday to the Cloisters. And a good thing, too, since all it did in the afternoon was rain, rain, rain. Often torrentially. We felt aggrieved enough that we had to sit in the Petrie Court Café at the Met (mother of the Cloisters) and watch the downpour. As it happened, we walked from the museum to the apartment during a dry spell, but when M le Neveu, who arrived an hour or so later to accompany Ms NOLA to a birthday party downtown, heard me tell Kathleen (on the phone) that the rain had let up, was very incensed by my stupidity. True, it was no longer pouring, but only drizzling. Yesterday's miserable weather continued today, making me wonder if we are in for another one of those Unspeakable Summers. I have been through at least two in New York since 1987, when I stopped working. During Unspeakable Summers, the weekdays are fine and the weekends are wet. By July - well, you don't want to know.

The reason for our change in plans was Ms NOLA's desire to see The Break-Up, the movie that I'd have gone to if it hadn't been for Summer Hours. She decided that we would go notwithstanding Summer Hours. Having read A O Scott's review in the Times, I must call for his immediate retirement as a film critic. His dislike of the film obviously came from an unlocated personal animus to some element of the movie - Vince Vaughn, perhaps. "Attacks on" (observations of) the dimness of men in domestic situations - maybe that. The Break-Up is a grown-up movie about personal redemption: there are no rewards aside from the redemption itself.

O cieling! How clever I thought I was. Ninth grade, I think; tenth possibly. I was asked to spell "ceiling," and it came down to this: "'I' before 'E,' except after 'C'" and French. Why wouldn't you name the ceiling after the sky? In the dictionary, under "too clever by half"....


June 02, 2006

Summer Hours

Last Friday, summer hours took effect in New York offices with a creative bent. The owners have given up resisting the irresistible pull of summer weekends, and many offices close at lunch. So, this afternoon, Ms NOLA and I are going to pick up where we left off last summer, with a visit to the Cloisters.

I hadn't been to the Cloisters in years before last August's junket. I noticed a few changes, but it was still what was my favorite place to be when I was eighteen or so. Now that I've explored authentically medieval sites in London and Paris, I remain rooted in Manhattan when I visit the museum, even when I'm crossing the reconstitution of stones that is the Chapter House. I am very much aware that the structure is about ten years older than I am, a gift of the John D Rockefeller, Jr. The ancient, but very familiar objects - familiar because I stared at them so hard when I was young - remind me of me, as I was long ago; like hit songs from the past, they conjure up expectations and misconceptions alike.

No, the draw to the Cloisters is Fort Tryon Park, in which the museum is situated. Blanketing some of the highest elevations on the island, with trim perennial gardens and dense woodlands, the park will serve as a satisfactory substitute for the hardly less faux countryside in which I grew up in Westchester. You can hear the city bustle if you try, but the summer insects make more agreeable music. The panorama of the Hudson is majestic, almost primeval, thanks again to the Rockefellers, who bought up the New Jersey bank north of the George Washington Bridge (before there was a bridge, I think) and then presented Palisades Park to the State of New Jersey. The only structure clearly visible from Fort Tryon Park is a rather routine religious looking building, an Episcopal monastery I am told, endowed by the grandees to provide an visual echo from across the river.

If I'm lucky, it will have rained (and stopped raining) before we arrive, and the air will be heavy with earth. That is the smell I miss most in Yorkville. Even in Central Park, there are two many internal combustion engines in the neighborhood for the smell of earth to come through.

Continue reading about Summer Hours at Portico.

May 30, 2006

In the sickroom

At four in the morning on Monday, I awoke from an awful nightmare with a fever and the dry heaves. I don't remember it very well, thanks to the fever, which reached 104.5. Our internist happened to be on call for the holiday weekend, and he counseled Tylenol and hydration. And patience, of course. After three uneventful retchings in the bathroom, my system quieted down, and I got back to sleep. Poor Kathleen. Working round the clock since November, she had just enjoyed the first two consecutive days off in over six months. A good night's sleep was just what she needed but didn't get.

When I woke up at about nine-thirty, I felt all right, sort of. That's to say that I didn't feel seasick. I did feel as though I'd been in some sort of train wreck. And the queasiness did not take long to return. It was mild and intermittent, but it boded ill for the coming night. I spent most of the day in bed, but I got up for won ton soup at lunchtime. I kept it down, but thereafter I could only manage dry rye toast. A big, rich-tasting banana sent me back to the bathroom, but, again, nothing came up. At about ten, I realized that continuing to drink ice-water would just try my bladder, so I switched to Scotch.  A bit later, I took a shower; not succumbing to chills while I dried off was very reassuring. Shortly after midnight, I ate one scrambled egg. Just one. I felt good. Two hours later, still reading, I toasted an English muffin and slavered it with butter. It felt heavy, like too big a meal, but, aside from that ghostly discomfort, my stomach was sound. Some time before three, I stretched out, leaving my bedside lamp on but without a book in my hands. I fell asleep almost at once.

Meanwhile, I finished two books that coincidentally fell into my pile at the same time. I say, "coincidentally," because the differences between them underline the fact that they both exemplify Domestic Adventure. This genre - adventure, but with indoor plumbing - is not my cup of tea, really. I picked up one of them after a long resistance, and I am quite sure that I should never have bought the other, which was a gift. They were very welcome yesterday, however.

And that is where the burgeoning literary discussion will have to stop for today. I'm convalescing.

May 26, 2006



Well, I give up. How tall is the Carlyle Hotel? How many floors? You'd think that the usually informative Web site NYC-Architecture would answer my questions, but it doesn't. No matter. I'm not planning to write about the Carlyle. I was just looking at my luncheon companion's site and noting that we took several of the same photographs. I then remembered cropping my shot of the gleaming Carlyle tower - it gleamed a good deal more fiercely in person - and, completely out of ideas for something to say today, thought that I might conjure something out of thin air and the inspiration of this picture. Which I tried to adjust for perfect perpendicularity. I gave up on that, too.

I'm reminded of my favorite metaphor in The Leopard. I'll give it first in Italian and then in Archibald Colquhoun's English.

La pioggia era venuta, la pioggia era andata via; ed il sole era risalito sul trono come un re assoluto che, allontanato per una settimana dalle barricate dei sudditi, ritorna a regnare iracondo ma raffrenato da carte costituzionali.

The rains had come, the rains had gone, and the sun was back on its throne like an absolute monarch kept off it for a week by his subjects' barricades, and now reigning once again, choleric but under constitutional restraint.

I daresay that a translator today would substitute "irascible" or "testy" for "choleric."

May 25, 2006

Mr Moonlight

There's a song called "Mr Moonlight"? A Beatles song?

It's more of a wail, really. From the deepest depths of the Beatles' R & B period. And it's not actually a Beatles song, either, but the cover of a composition by one "Johnson."

Mr. Moonlight, come again please,
here I am on my knees,

The song reminds me of something from the other end of the career: "I've Got A Feeling," from Let It Be. One of the biggest differences between Kathleen and me is that Kathleen loves the early Beatles, while I prefer the late, but we manage.

When "Mr Moonlight" ended, Kathleen played "Anna," which I can never recall because I think of it as "Go To Him." I looked out the window at the greenery on the balcony: the daylilies, the pot of herbs, the spider plant whose "babies" I am rooting, and I thought how grand it is to be alive, and to have been alive. "Mr Moonlight," which never had much American airplay, was recorded about a year after the Punic Wars, it seems now. I was alive then? When many of the people near and dear to me now had not been conceived? Can it be true that I was once fourteen years old? Did they have computers? (Not really.)

Only two of the Beatles are still alive, the two that weren't fragile. John and George were the edgy ones, Paul and Ringo the stabilizers. This is not to deny Sir Paul's colossal melodic gift, but perhaps to suggest why he has not produced much of interest since battling with John Lennon on an everyday basis. But look at it this way: two of the Beatles are still alive!

Listening to "Mr Moonlight" this morning didn't make me feel old. I don't feel old, ever, even when my knees are killing me. I am old, or oldish, but I feel keener and frankly younger than I did when "She Loves You" was blasting from every radio. What I do feel is a mystery: is it possible to be someone who, a few years after "Mr Moonlight" was recorded (five at the most), would pompously argue that Rubber Soul marked the Beatles' transition from an archaic to a Hellenic period? (No, I can't believe it, either.) To have been that person and to be me right now, listening to Beethoven's last sonata? (It came up in a conversation.)

Apparently, it is.

May 24, 2006

At the Museum/In the NYRB


At the Metropolitan Museum yesterday, I had lunch with, to quote him, "un autre carnetier new-yorkais." That shouldn't be too hard to figure out, but it's all that you'll get out of me on the identification front. We caught up over salads in the Petrie Court Café, and then we went up to the roof for the glorious views.

I took the photo above a few weeks ago to note a design change at the Museum: big, billowing banners announcing the special exhibitions have been replaced by neat canvases that nicely fit the architectural frames built into Richard Holman Hunt's façade. I also call your attention to the rude blocks of stone atop the cornice. They were supposed to be carved down into statuary, but the Met has no current plans to realize this design. The important thing, I suppose, is that it has spruced up the entire Fifth Avenue front by giving it a good wash.

Having had a martini and a glass of chardonnay at lunch, I was pretty useless for the rest of the day, and spent it reading The New York Review of Books. Michael Massing takes up the "Israel Lobby" furore, faults scholars John J Mearsheimer and Stephen M Walt for making a few mistakes and misleading statements in their tumult-causing paper, and then sets out to make their case even more strongly than they do. His most important finding is that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) does not represent any widely held views of American Jews; it is, rather, the captive of some rich tradesmen who lean to the right. Garry Wills appears to be too dumbfounded by the witless ludicrosity of Harvey Mansfield's anti-feminist sentimentality in Manliness to produce the clean and crisp dismissal that one expects from him. Jeff Madrick thinks that Kevin Phillips's focus in American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century is too limited and pessimistic: we're facing a lot of dangers, but Americans have righted their boat before and may do so again.

The test of an industrialized nation is whether it can maintain a balance between community and private interests. To what extent is America doomed to decline as a result of the policies imposed by the Bush administration and its allies that favor the rich and powerful? This is the unspoken issue that hovers over Phillips's book. For all its dramatic and useful emphasis on oil, evangelism, and debt, it remains too narrow in its approach to fully engage the large threats we face.

Because I was too busy chatting and snapping pictures, I didn't bother to learn the name of the artist, as it were, responsible for the two reptiles - alligators, I suppose, but I'm no authority - stuck with dozens of cheap household knives, one of which can be seen below.


May 22, 2006

Kathleen in the news

My dear Kathleen is the subject of an article at MarketWatch. She's going to appear on CNBC, too, for a five-minute segment that will tape on Thursday and air on Sunday. Why the flurry of publicity? She's been too busy to tell me.

John Spence's story gives a good account of the past, present, and future of Exchange Traded Funds, Kathleen's specialty. ETFs are rather like computers: if you don't have one, you can't see how you would use one.


What's the difference between trying to impress and trying to seduce? The first is Anglophone, the second French, but what, really, is the difference? The result is the same: success means that you have made yourself attractive, appealing, and interesting to the object of your behavior.

I am still trying to convince Kathleen that I am a very bright man with lots of interesting things to say, even if they're about frankly stodgy topics. Why? Do I want to impress her with my brilliance? Or do I want to seduce her into paying attention? Am I getting warmer?

At lunch the other day, I held forth about the Council of Nicaea and the heterodoxiy of the early Church, as reflected in the Nag Hammadi library, a trove of alternative gospels that the Vatinicanists thought they'd got rid of - until 1945. The effects of the gospels' rediscovery, only hinted at in The Da Vinci Code, will take a few generations to percolate. This is what I was talking about after lunch, as my old friend perched his head on one arm and gave me a big, open, Labrador grin. I couldn't believe that he was remotely interested in my hobbyhorse. But I'd seduced him. I know that because he long ago discarded the idea that I would ever impress him.

May 19, 2006


Clyde Haberman's column this morning, about road rage in New York (we're Number Three nationally for the worst!), inspires a modest suggestion. Why don't we just shoot everyone driving a private automobile in Manhattan? Everyone. And then we'll get rid of the parking meters and restore the sidewalks to their intended width. No Parking! Bridges and tunnels will be so heavily tolled that hardly anybody will drive onto the island (except for trucks delivering our necessities), while cabs and dial cars will have the narrowed avenues to themselves.

But why resort to firearms? We could just haul drivers from their cars and tear them limb from limb! Did I say how much I hate the automobile in New York?

The Hanging Gardens


We had a beautiful day yesterday in New York. There was a thunderstorm between five and six, but a beautiful evening followed. My calendar clear, I had no excuse not to get this season's geraniums into pots. I bought them nearly two weeks ago, and they've been running dry in their small pots. They needed to be taken care of.

I changed my shoes, put on an apron, and got to work. An inadequate gardener, I don't clean up in the fall, but just let the annuals die of natural causes. This means that the pots are stiff with root balls and littered with dead vegetation. I spread newspapers over the wood-slat table. I worked the soil in the first part with a dibble and then scooped out soil with a fancy stainless steel cup measure. What happened to my Smith & Hawken trowel? Lord knows; the cup measure works fine. In no time at all, the four pots dedicated to geraniums were full of blooming plants. That's how they always are when you buy them; they'll never look that good this summer unless I deadhead like a fanatic.

I found that I had bought exactly twice as many geraniums as I needed. What to do? I had four more pots on the step above the geraniums, but those are meant for impatiens. I'm a bit tired of impatiens, but they do last the summer and they crown nicely. So I decided to let Kathleen find some pretty ones along Lexington or Madison on her weekend walk. And I attacked the stump of a boxwood that never took to balcony life. I had meant to plant some nice big hostas in the planter, but on the spot I resolved to buy the hostas from White Flower Farm in the fall. That way, I'll be obliged to do garden cleanup for a change.

With a manly tug, I pulled the boxwood stump from the planter. Heavy! The dense root ball held a lot of soil, and it took a while to pry this loose. Once I had retrieved enough earth to satisfy my far from zealous frugality, the remaining gardenias were soon soaking in their summer home. Once they get comfortable, they'll be a nice shot of color for anyone walking into the apartment, at least when the balcony door is open.

So! Even with the impatiens question provisionally decided, I still had plenty of decorative pots looking very undecorative with their blasted husks of last summer's greenery. But before heading to the corner florist for more plants, I wanted to sit down and finish The Leopard, by Giuseppi di Lampedusa. And when I did finish it, about an hour later, I realized that it was just the book for a friend who is in mourning. It will resonate with him for many reasons, and as by chance I'm having lunch with him this afternoon, I thought I'd get him a copy. Having washed my hands, taken off the apron, and changed my shoes, I went to the Barnes & Noble across the street to look for a copy. I wasn't surprised that they didn't have one; once you take away the Starbucks and the big cookbook section and the usual piles of new books, it's more of a magazine shop. I headed up 86th Street to the other Yorkville branch, on Lexington between 86th and 87th. The literature section there is much larger, or so it seems anyway. But there were no Leopards on offer there. I was only slightly disappointed: I was having a wonderful walk up and down Yorkville High Street.

At the florist, I picked up a few pots of ivy, two pots of basil, three pots of portulaca, a spider plant and a bag of potting soil. Also two spath lilies, for the dining area. The ones that have been there for five or six years have needed to replaced for some time. The point of the things is to look nice, not to prove that I'm good at life support. The other plants were potted up within half an hour. Cleanup wasn't arduous.

Within just a few hours, the balcony went from looking sad and neglected to colorful and inviting. There is still a great deal of mess here and there, but it's not what strikes the eye at the balcony door. My reward for the few hours of agreeable work was spotting the very first Stella de oro daylily scape, just emerging from the foliage.

May 13, 2006

No Talking

Kathleen attended a breakfast at the Brearley School the other day for a symposium of alumnae on Wall Street. They discussed ways of introducing high school girls to high finance. It was decided to set up a listserv on which to continue the discussion. Then something funny happened.

The Brearley School is a twelve-storey building that looks like a cross between the best office building in a small town and a women's prison overseen by Ida Lupino. There is one elevator, built for freight. There is an elevator operator. Doubtless out of consideration for this person, the school imposes a stiff ban - one of a relatively small number of rules - on talking in the elevator. You don't even think of opening your mouth.

Kathleen's breakfast took place at the top of the building. The ladies were still chatting when the elevator door opened; they fell silent immediately and boarded. A few floors below, they took on a group of students. A few floors below that, a teacher got on. The teacher recognized one of the alumnae and greeted her. "How are you?"

"Shshsh!" intoned the elevator operator. The teacher "came to her senses" at once, stage-whispering "I'm sorry!" Kathleen was amused by the students' palpable shock at seeing a teacher rebuked by the elevator operator. Just how long do you think it took this little anecdote to spread throughout the school?

May 12, 2006


It was an awfully pleasant surprise to read through MS Smith's response to the following meme, which I would call Sum, because it's a lovely pun in this context, and find my own name at the bottom!

  • I am writing every day. When I am not writing, I am thinking how whatever it is that I am doing would look in prose. Curiously, this doesn't make me self-conscious: the focus is on what I'm doing or what it's doing to me. I, as such, hardly exist.
  • I want a couple of weeks in Saltaire.  
  • I wish that you would think twice before turning on the TV. 
  • I hate multitasking. It's a mirage, snake-oil, nonsense. 
  • I love Paris. Also a few people whom I won't embarrass. 
  • I miss going to debutante parties. Mine was a shallow, carefree youth. Actually, it was as wretched as anybody's, but at deb parties, I perked up. I only went to two.
  • I fear the malignities of the Internet and other networks. I live in dread of viruses, glitches, outages, blackouts.
  • I hear Keith Jarrett at the Cellar Door Sessions, which I know about thanks to the gent who tagged me.
  • I wonder where we come from, but it stops at wonder. If you think you know, don't tell me.
  • I regret not taking better care of myself when I was young.
  • I am not good with numbers. If you remember BASIC, then my saying that I read figures as strings rather than as numbers may shed some light on the problem.
  • I dance in the foyer with Kathleen whenever Dave Brubeck's cover of "Stardust" starts to play.
  • I sing much less than I whistle. Strangely, my whistling does not drive Kathleen crazy; she rather likes it.
  • I cry all the time, particularly at happy endings.
  • I am not always as civil as I ought to be.
  • I make with my hands breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I also do a hell of a lot of typing.
  • I write exclusively at my desktop, at my desk. I have a laptop, but I find the larger keyboard far more convenient, and, perhaps because I'm getting older, writing is something that I do in one place. On a very nice day, it's nice to write at the table on the balcony, but it's even nicer to read, or just to sit and listen to the city.
  • I confuse "right" and "left" all the time. See? I just put "left" to the right of "right."
  • I need a part-time librarian to help me with my books. I can't find anything.
  • I should keep it down to two martinis at bedtime and work harder on my French. 
  • I start conversations whenever possible.
  • I finish every book that I read, eventually. 
  • I tag Ms NOLA, Tom, Max (on his own or for Amy), and George. But feel free to steal the list.

May 11, 2006

Day Shot


At least it all happened in one day.

About a month ago, I got a notice warning me that my subscription to Norton AntiVirus was going to expire in thirty days. I renewed right away, and bought and downloaded Norton AntiVirus 2006. But I couldn't install it. Nor could I really think about it. Mañana thinking took over until the expiration dropped into the single digits. Over the weekend, I promised myself that I would take care of it on Tuesday, but Kathleen stayed home on Tuesday, and I knew that she'd need the fast connection at some point. She also needed to be protected from the installation procedure, which something told me was not going to be fun. So I wrote a few things instead, to relieve myself of publishing pressure yesterday. I would dedicate the afternoon to wretchedness.

I couldn't even tell the first young Indian gent what the problem was.

Continue reading about my day out at Portico.

May 10, 2006

Day Out

My daily life is so quiet and local that it doesn't take much to give me an out-on-the-town feeling. I was definitely out-on-the-town all day Saturday. Saturday is ordinarily the day on which I hunker down with the Book Review, reading it and then reviewing it, a job that takes me about five hours of unsteady application. But last Saturday was different, because...

Continue reading about my day out at Portico.

May 07, 2006

Sunday Joke

Where's the Book Review review? Yes, well, I've been having a great weekend out in the Manhattan springtime, overstimulating myself by chatting with friends, shopping for duds, listening to improbably fantastic music, and putting out fires. So: thanks to PPOQ for sending along a little something to post today. Something already written, that is. And so right for Sunday!

A mother superior calls all the nuns together and says to them, "I must tell you all something. We have a case of gonorrhea in the convent."

"Thank God," says an elderly nun at the back, "I'm so tired of chardonnay."

How interesting it must be to drink a wine older than this joke.

May 05, 2006


My bad. I lost my temper in public the other day. It wasn't a big outburst, but it was a slip, and I was very disappointed in myself.

Here's what happened: I was in the elevator, going downstairs, with an elderly lady. When the door opened at the ground floor, we were confronted by a phalanx of baby strollers. If this didn't make me angry, it prepared me to be angry, because I would like all the baby strollers and their occupants and nannies to move to another building. Like so many ageing people, I find that I'm coming to dislike children per se, at least the ones that I don't know. The children who live here are generally smart but unruly, with little no sense of how to conduct themselves in public. Yes, I know that it's their parents' fault, but the way it works is that their parents by themselves don't irritate me - not per se.

Anyway, there was this clot of strollers, and the elderly lady seemed a bit flustered. I stepped out of the way and backwards behind her, standing aside for the moment to let somebody move somewhere. I don't know what happened next. I know that the cookie man was taking up space near the elevator, oblivious, as usual, to the fact that the corridor is a thoroughfare. This was really neither the time nor the place to be handing out cookies. The whole scene - the cookie man, the strollers, the addled lady - was perfectly exasperating. Then for some reason I felt obliged to take a step backward, and in this I collided with an elderly gentleman. I did not knock him over, but recoiled from him as if I'd been given an electric shock. To his whispered "Oh" I replied by barking "Jesus Christ!" It was a helpless-sounding bark; I was panicking in the confusion. Suddenly finding my way clear, I strode down the hallway without another word. Angry as I was, I could not blame anybody else for my interjection. I'm ordinarily on top of these situations, which occur as a matter of course. I'll have to be on my guard in future for "too many strollers."

May 04, 2006

Why I Am Not An Intellectual

Just when I ought to be succumbing to senior moments, I'm feeling smarter than ever. That may be proof of stupidity, but I think the feeling reflects my growing interest in things. When I was young, I was not interested in very much. I wanted not to be young, and that was about it. Everything was boring. I was not moved to excel. The world that I grew up in had absolutely nothing to offer me except security - and I'm very lucky to have survived the contempt for security that it instilled. Just thinking about Westchester County in the 1950s is enervating.

In all probability, I'm no smarter than I used to be; I've just discovered interests, and connections between those interests. If you are interested, you pay attention, and you're more likely to describe what you're attending to correctly. A very considerable part of my new "smarts" is nothing more than an eagerness to discard the things that don't interest me. I'm somewhat surprised to find that one of these is philosophy.

Notwithstanding my love of wisdom, I have no use for philosophy. For the most part, philosophy seems to be an attempt to systematize the metaphysical, and I'm too much a materialist to care about unseen realities. Beyond that, philosophy looks like just another game that men like to play. Concerned with the meaning of life and the origins of existence, it is a very respectable game - but it is only a game. Shuffling concepts in search of an agreeable arrangement is what philosophers do. As in any game, there are rules that make philosophy difficult to play, but these rules, first sketched by the ancient Greeks, are entirely man-made. For a thousand years, Plato's demand that his students describe the movement of the planets in terms of uniform circular motion impeded the study of astronomy. Plato believed that planets, being "perfect" bodies, must move in a perfect way. It was a silly idea, really, and eventually science and philosophy parted company. I expect that neurobiology will vaporize what's left of "theory."

As for the moral dimension of philosophy, I don't need a system to support my conviction that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, each human life is sacred. I don't need a theory to explain that "sacred" here means that I don't have the right to do harm to anyone, except in my own defense. (My life is sacred, too.) Almost everything in my morality follows from this very simple precept. Either you know it in the bones of your character or you don't, and if you don't, no amount of argument will change that.

May 03, 2006

The future revealed

I beg to call your attention to a bit of reorganization. At long last, I got round to transforming the Daily Blague entries that I posted from Istanbul in January 2005 into a single page at Portico. It has long been my plan to shift material that is not entirely ephemeral to a more permanent home. Regular readers will have noted that, aside from the weekly Book Review reviews, "continue reading" links take them straight to Portico, where complete pages are in place. In the case of a week of travel, the transfer has the additional virtue - really rather important - of placing the most recent events at the end, where they belong.

The original entries have all been re-edited down to one-sentence links. Transferring comments was a drag, I must say, because most comments don't make use of HTML. (I expect I'll get smoother at this over time.) Not every comment got transferred; I particularly left my own where they were. All comments still appear at the newly-vacated blog entries, which is sort of dumb. But I'm wary of throwing anything away.

The next project will be to do the same with the two breaks at Dorado Beach that Kathleen and I have enjoyed since the Daily Blague's inauguration. They will be ideal for printing out and reading in bed: they'll put you right to sleep. Then, with my limited travels out of the way, I'll attack the blog entries archived as "Reading Matter." Ideally, the DB itself won't contain any entries over a year old, but accomplishing the ideal is probably not going to happen anytime soon.

Until fairly recently, I've felt like a one-man newsroom, swinging from manic to meta-bored in seconds and spending very little time doing anything that might be called "work." Now that I've found a pace that agrees with me, however, I can step back and think about what I'm doing. And what I'm doing is building up Portico. That is the job at the top of my description. Portico is hypertext collection of prose works (and one piece of fiction) by one Robert John Keefe, self-publisher.

This is the place for modest disavowals, but I'm not making any. I do assure you, however, that the DB will offer at least one fresh entry every day. I thank you for reading.

May 02, 2006

Baby cyclones

Yesterday morning, I had to run across the street to Gristede's (a local grocery chain; accent on the second of three syllables) to make major paper purchases: Charmin, Brawny, and Kleenex in quantity. It was very bulky, so I had it delivered, and left the store with the three food items that I'd picked up. This relatively unburdened condition allowed me to linger in the driveway on my return to the apartment.

Our building, which is a large one by New York standards (although not particularly tall), has a driveway - a true blessing. It is, as you might expect, "U" shaped. For some aerodynamic reason, The space over the driveway, though perfectly open to the rest of the sky, has its own little weather system, one that is partial to cyclones. Baby cyclones, that is. I stood for a few minutes and watched a little ring of cherry petals whirl across the driveway, occasionally touching down but instantly picking up again. What made this delicacy so catching was the participation of a very long grocery-store receipt, which, cut up in small disks, would have quintupled the volume of the petals. It waved like the tail of a kite, snapping quite audibly, as if asking to be put down.

Later in the day, I made another return trip to the apartment, this time from the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. That's what the Hospital for Special Surgery was called when it opened during the Civil War, as I discovered when I read the small print on one of the nurses' lab coats. I've never been able to remember this bizarre moniker (nor have I bothered to write it down), so, yesterday, while Sarah was prepping my hand for the needle, I asked her to remind me. "Ruptured and Crippled," she said with a laugh. "Isn't that awful? 'You there - you're ruptured and crippled!'" I repeated the phrase to myself several times during the next two-and-a-half hours.

When the infusion was over, I felt up to walking home along the river. It was like sailing on a fine day; the breeze was stiff and fresh, and the air, even alongside the flowing FDR Drive, couldn't have felt cleaner. I paused several times to look at the new buildings on Roosevelt Island. I went to a party over there once, and, let me tell you, they have the best views - in apartments facing west, anyway. Did you know that the principal thoroughfare on Roosevelt Island is Main Street? Yes, Virginia, there really is a Main Street, New York, New York  10044, even if, by any reasonable New Yorker's standard, it's in the middle of nowhere. It's an ideal neighborhood for people who would like to live in the bustle of downtown Juneau.

When I reached the driveway, this time encumbered by a fairly heavy bag from Agata & Valentina (an out-of-town friend is coming for dinner tonight), the petals were still whirling, but the receipt had disappeared. I didn't even slow down.

Two Magazines (to which I don't subscribe)

The other day, I received an email from Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. It was nothing personal, just a suggestion that I subscribe to the magazine. I let my subscription go when I reached the conclusion that supporting the Iraqi misadventure, as TNR does, is simply not an arguably responsible position. But I was curious to see what (as the email announced) James Wood has to say about Harold Bloom's religious writing, so I walked across the street and bought the current issue.

"The Misreader," Mr Wood's review of Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, is great fun to read. It accuses Mr Bloom of repeating himself and refusing to admit that he regards the New Testament as inferior to the Hebrew Bible because he's, after all, Jewish. "A gnostic Jew" is what Mr Bloom calls himself, and Mr Wood has a lot of fun with that, too.

In general, Bloom has never shown much awareness that, philosophically speaking, Gnosticism solves nothing - that the positing of a false God or Demiurge is quite obviously not a "solution" to the problem of evil, but merely a dualism that does no more than move the problem, so to speak, somewhere else on the board.

Mr Wood suspects that Mr Bloom is really pissed that Yahweh has withdrawn from intervening in the lives of Jews, but can only confront this dissatisfaction as an aesthetic, literary problem. Mr Wood, who is probably our best thinker on the osmosis between theology and literature, could be said to dismantle Mr Bloom's arguments were it not manifestly the case that for "argument" Mr Bloom has substituted "vatic, repetitious, imprecisely reverential...campiness." (NB: I've bent Mr Wood's syntax quite a bit with that elision, but I don't think I've lost his meaning.) Mr Bloom's The American Religion (1992) was a great bore to read, but it taught me the lay of the land, as has only become clearer in these darkening times. Americans believe in a personal, stand-alone Jesus who will forgive them anything because, hey, they're Americans and, as such, lovable. Theology has almost no place in this cult of Jesus, whose principal scriptural texts are Daniel and Revelation. Which reminds me! Ian Dunlop, writing of the Camisard uprising that disturbed Languedoc in the first decade of the eighteenth century, in his Louis XIV,  remarks,

The 'scripture prophecies' gave ample space to the Book of Daniel. Daniel and Revelation are, to the ordinary mortal, the most obscure and difficult pieces of writing in the whole Bible, which can be a mystification if not a stumbling block. It is significant that the more extreme and emotional religious positions always seem to concentrate on these passages - the interpretation of which can be more than somewhat arbitrary. Notorious examples of this are the identification of the 'Scarlet Woman" with the Pope and of Babylon with the Church of Rome. It requires the resort to cryptograms which are at best unconvincing and at worst dishonest.

Harold Bloom is attracted to fundamentalism because of its "strength," although, as Mr Wood points out, this term of art is never defined. It usually has no more support than "I like this better than that."

At dinner last week, Miss G presented us with some holiday and birthday gifts that she had squirreled away and forgotten, and to these she added the current issue of Real Simple. I believe that this gift is motivated by First Aid, because my life, especially in Miss G's eyes, is real complicated. Actually, it used to be real complicated; now that I'm either reading or writing blog entries all day, it's just hectic. Real Simple does have a nice feel to it, although I was almost embarrassed to be holding it in public - it is a housewife's magazine at least to the extent that Woman's Day is a housewife's magazine. I'm pretty solid about gender identity, but even I would find it odd to see a big guy paging through ads for Lancôme and Eileen Fisher. (What would a househusband's magazine look like? Metrosexual Monthly?) The paper, anyway, seems environmentally-minded, although what would I know. Specifically, Miss G directed my attention to the cover story: "One room, one weekend: makeover ideas from $5." She wanted me to look at a way of concealing bookshelf clutter with a doodad from Ikea and some fabric panels. I confess that this idea is something that I would have found tempting a while back, when I seemed to know a lot of people who were intimidated and made genuinely uncomfortable by the presence of books. But that was in Houston. Even though I'm on the Upper East Side, books are no longer a problem.

Actually, the bookshelf treatment in Real Simple is not real simple. There are seven steps, and a second coat of paint is applied after the shelves have been wrapped in fabric. Elsewhere in the issue, however, there is a good article about packing emergency bags, which I promise to read and take seriously.

April 27, 2006


Yesterday, I had a lovely walk, tracing a fattened square down to 67th Street, across the Park to Broadway, and home from Broadway and 86th. It was a lovely spring day, the air on the crisp side but not too chilly, the verdure in full first flush of green, and everyone more or less elated by the end of the nameless fifth season that stretches between genuine winter and now. You could call it "Lent," I suppose. In any case, it's over. Color has returned to life.

I had two errands, the first a long-standing but twice-postponed appointment at the allergist's. I don't have any allergies, it seems, but we're trying to figure out what I do have. I came away with some prescriptions, walked half a block south on Second Avenue, and turned around: the bus stop is right at the doctor's door. But I've never taken the M66 crosstown bus before. I will say that the ride through the Park is much nicer than it is on the the M86. The southern transverse road is much higher relative to the park, and there is no stoplight for the Park Precinct station house.

When we reached Columbus Avenue, I got off, as did almost everybody. I crossed over to the other side of Broadway with mounting enthusiasm. I had forgotten about Tower Records until just then. I rarely go to bookshops and record stores for a very good reason, and yesterday's haul was proof of why. I had to see what was out there. And what was out there? Two new-to-me CDs of Rossini songs (the funniest music ever written, and also some of the prettiest). Right next to the Rossini, the Rorem section. I ought to know the music of Ned Rorem better, and there was an ancient (1973-4) recording of chamber music for violin and piano. Buying a CD that I may not like was exactly the sort of thing I oughtn't to do. What I ought to have done long ago and finally did was fill the hole in my collection where Schumann lieder ought to be. Two disks of major stuff, interpreted by Anne Sofie von Otter and Matthias Goerne, went into my basket.

The second floor at Tower used to be given over to the classical section, boxed into one corner for quiet, and then, occupying the rest of the space, everything that isn't rock, from From Barbra Streisand to Broadway to Thelonious Monk. This space is now occupied by DVDs. I swear, I'd never have sought the DVDs out; they were just there, a Forest Perilous through which I had to pass in order to escape (not strictly true). Somehow Brokeback Mountain, Match Point, and Vargtimmen wound up in my sac.

I was on the West Side to drop off a CD that I'd burned for a friend. Hating the Post Office and packaging in equal measure, I found it much easier simply to slip the CD into a small Met gift bag and pay the four dollars for crosstown transport. That's the beauty of doormen! It never even occurred to me to take the subway from Lincoln Center to 86th Street, not on a day like this. I looked longingly up the graceful boulevard, which is always a little spiffier than it was the last time I walked it. From across the street, I took in the building that houses the Beacon Theatre, and realized that it wasn't just the theatre that has been spruced up. New windows, snappy blue awnings at the mezzanine, and a cleaned-up façade all made the old dump look better than new.

My friend's building is new. It's twenty years old, actually; I remember when it was put up, in the mid-Eighties. But it still looks new. (Richard Meier has yet to design anything quite so large as a full-block frontage uptown.) Unloading the small Met bag containing a sole CD did not significantly lighten my sac, but I noted that this is one of the cardinal conveniences of New York life: without getting into a car, you can drop off a bag across town at somebody's place whether he's home or not. Bus drivers and doorman are there for you.

I used to avoid the bus, but with age has come a certain patience. It is better, I find, to sit on a crosstown bus than never to cross town at all. But I'm still amazed by folks who get onto the eastbound bus at Lexington Avenue. Even more amazed by the folks who get on at Third. Seeing a clump preparing to board, I remembered another errand and jumped off a block ahead of time.

I don't know that I'd have taken pictures if I'd remembered to bring my camera. They'd have been of the people on the sidewalks and the songbirds in the trees. They'd have been unsatisfactorily still. My trip around (a small part of) town had a lilt to it that no camera could capture.

April 23, 2006

Sunday Morning

Wah! I'm crying in my coffee this morning, undone by the inevitable regrets that come with age. Knowing, that is, that I'm too old to be either a "raconteur" or an "evader."

Ahimè! For consolation, there's Tatiana Nikolayeva, playing the Goldberg Variations.

April 22, 2006

Moment of Calm

After a patch of radiant weather, things have turned cold and wet. I talk to Kathleen, who is visiting her parents in Durham, North Carolina, and she tells me of a thunderstorm. Then my voice lulls her back to sleep; I worry that she's going to drop the phone without hanging up. It feels like Sunday, but, no, we're not halfway through the weekend. There's some ironing to do, a movie to finish (I fell asleep before it ended), and of course the Book Review to review. There is James Wood's The Broken Estate to find; I know it's in here somewhere.

Yesterday, while vacuuming the living room, I accidentally turned on the carousel that holds copies of jazz CDs (very loosely defined) and was surprised to hear Abbie Lincoln singing "Stampede of Love." I turned the sound down a bit, but just a bit, to slightly above "live" level, and continued cleaning. Later, I let the music continue, very much not in the background, as I dined on a dish of pasta. I sat at the table for a while when I was through, listening to the songs in random order. I was not reading. Must do this more often: it was almost meditative. The secret seems to lie in playing the music loud enough to hold my attention.

American Dreamz

Never having seen American Idol, I can't judge the parody value of Paul Weitz's American Dreamz, the show within the movie of the same name. ("That's 'dreams' with a 'z'.") The idea behind the show, however, brings out my inner elitist. To the extent that American Idol represents this country, I am not at all patriotic.

So I loved American Dreamz, for its tart and edgy contempt. Mandy Moore has too-pretty looks that make one wish for Reese Witherspoon - but she can do Reese Witherspoon while reminding you of Lana Turner. Her Sally Kendoo is sincere about only one thing, her ambition. You expect her to be vapid, but she's dynamite. It's no wonder that she and Hugh Grant's Martin Tweed, the show's host, come to a deep understanding, even if no one would characterize it as love. Martin is detestable without ever actually doing anything bad - and you wouldn't want him any different. Chris Klein takes the role that he had in Election and jerks it up a bit to give us a very sappy William Williams, Sally's boyfriend. And what could be more fun than Jennifer Coolidge in the role of Mom?

Dennis Quaid's send-up of President Bush is actually rather kind, because you would never call his President Staton, as David Remnick called Mr Bush, "a schoolyard bully."* Staton may be clueless, but he's a nice guy who genuinely means well. Willem Defoe plays his chief of staff as a sort of Cheney-Rumsfeld meld; don't be surprised if it takes a while to recognize the actor. Marcia Gay Harden seems to have been hand-picked to pass for Laura Bush; in the film, at any rate, the First Lady gets some real responsibility. 

It was hard to see from the trailers how a movie with an explosive devicer could be funny. Omer (winningly played by Sam Golzari) is a confused young man who only becomes interesting to his terrorist trainers by a set of curious chances, by which time Omer has had serious second thoughts. I wondered just who would perish if and when the bomb went off. the writers didn't go for my first choice, but there was a good deal of justice in their picks. Tony Yalda, as Omer's diva-queen cousin, gets high marks for audacity.

Everybody's great in this very funny slap in the face. When we run out of oil and air, those who come after us can see from American Dreamz just how wrong everything got to be.

*"Ozone Man"; The New Yorker, 24 April, p 47

April 21, 2006


It's a beautiful Friday morning, and there's nothing - nothing - in the Times about the doormen's strike. The strike has evidently been averted: the Times itself lay at our door this morning, and Kathleen called from her car to tell me that, on her way out of the building - she's spending the weekend with her parents, in North Carolina - she said good morning to Dominic and Eddie (or maybe it was Eddie and José), doormen very much on duty. The embedded journalists at the Grey Lady must have decided that the doorman story was too parochial for coverage. (I suppose I'm going to have to take the Observer again.) In any case, apologies to those of you who felt called upon to comfort me in my impending inconvenience. Meanwhile, in Big Love Country....

At noon, I'll be across the street in a dark theatre waiting to see American Dreamz. Although I didn't read her review in today's paper, I did see that Manohla Dargis calls the movie "unfunny." I always picture Ms Dargis as a downtown hipster, a little scruffy but wearing great shoes. I myself am an Upper East Side bourgeois, forever in loafers. There you have it.

April 20, 2006


This is just to announce that I am trying, in my apprehension about the impending doormen's strike, to achieve a sense of proportion by remembering the pluck of Ms NOLA's homeless parents. Sometimes it works.

I don't expect any sympathy. Most people have no idea what it's like to ride an elevator home, much less of what it's like to rely on doormen. I expect that most Americans hardly ever hear the word spoken live, and that some might wonder just what a "doorman" is. If the guys go on strike this time, then I'll try to use the massive inconvenience as a occasion for explaining the dependency that I've built up over twenty-six years as someone who is "getting older."

I was pretty ticked at the Times for not covering the negotiations better; the paper is following its detestable party line: New Yorkers take inconvenience in stride, even creatively. Anybody not smiling for the camera, proposing ingenious solutions, or telling heart-warming stories about new friendships made in crisis is ignored by the press as a spoilsport.

In mitigation, I noted the ample coverage today of the tram breakdown. How was the bathroom problem handled in the eleven-hour wait for rescue? Well, it was dealt with more or less effectively. Creatively, even.

April 18, 2006


Last night, Ms NOLA and M le Neveu brought over a few of their Dartmouth pals to celebrate the return of one of their number from two years' service with the Peace Corps in Georgia. I cooked, but Ms NOLA hosted (an arrangement that suited me down to the ground). My fried chicken came through once again, with the spring and summer standard accompaniments of coleslaw and roast sweet potatoes. For dessert, I baked a very straightforward fudge cake from The Joy of Cooking, which also supplied me with an extremely easy "satin" frosting. As is always the case when I'm cooking, fundamentally, for a picnic, I made far more food than was needed. But I did not have the energy to make dinner rolls. They'd have been excessive, but I regretted the chance to spread first quality butter on fresh-baked bread.

So much for the food. For five hours, I bobbed in the company of really, really bright late twentysomethings. All of them are doing well in one line or another, and I expect that they'll continue to prosper. If Ms NOLA has her way, they will remain friends forever, always in touch. As a group, they're the result of coincidentally being in New York now, not of having been fast friends in Hanover. I experienced something of the same thing myself in Houston, after graduating from college lo these many decades ago. But I didn't want to be in Houston. Everyone here tonight wants to be in New York, even the Peace Corps veteran, although she - I boggle a bit at the choice she's got to make - hasn't yet decided between Columbia's and Harvard's law schools. When she gets out of whichever one she chooses, she intends to work here.

Having told it yesterday to a different crowd, Ms NOLA and I got to tell our "How were the Altenbergs?" story again. I'm not going to repeat it here, but if I get to know you at all you'll hear it eventually, because it always tickles me to death. (M le Neveu was not enthusiastic about the retelling.) For the most part, however, I listened and laughed along. When the conversation focused very sharply on Dartmouth personalities that I'd never heard of - a student body president who inappropriately professed a personal relationship with Jesus - I slipped away to do a few dishes. I was very tired from the labor of executing a hassle-free Easter dinner while following regular routines, such as tidying the apartment and reviewing the Book Review. I'm very glad that I don't have to do anything before curtain time tonight. (We're seeing Faith Healer, with Cherry Jones and Ralph Fiennes.)

The company of intelligent younger people can be oppressive, reminding one of one's age and lost desires (I will never crave an iPod). Or, as it was for me tonight, it can be a great tonic, reassuring me that there will be bright lights and strong hands after I'm gone.

April 16, 2006



Kathleen won't let me have a cat (and her opinion of dogs is close to that of the Vatican's position on female ordination), so I can't post any cute cat pictures. But Miss G just sent me a shot of her big boy, Astor. Astor is one of those troublemaking cats who win continuous forgiveness by striking adorable poses and wallowing, as shown, in bliss.

April 15, 2006

Compass Rose

Miss NOLA and I engaged to meet up for our trip to Queens at the Grand Central IRT station. That's the subway station, not the famous railroad terminal, alongside which it runs. Actually, the subway runs up under Park Avenue until it hits the south edge of the Terminal, where it turns towards the east for a few blocks before resuming its northeasterly course under Lexington Avenue. Because of this deviation from its normal path, the IRT station is one of the most disorienting in the world. You mount the stairs from the platform and have absolutely no idea where you're going.

Unless, of course, you do this every day, as most of the people who pass through the station seem to do. I drew this conclusion after standing by a pillar for twenty minutes waiting for my friend, who was not late. I wasn't standing by any old pillar, but by the one at the center of the gigantic compass rose laid into the center of the concourse level. I has been a while since I've stopped at Grand Central, but I was pretty sure of this feature's existence. It took some back-and-forth to persuade Ms NOLA that she would be able to find it; quite naturally, she thought I was talking about meeting near the big clock in the Terminal. Which would mean leaving the subway and possibly paying another fare just to get back in to catch the Nº 7 train. Waiting at the center of the compass rose in the concourse was therefore something of an act of faith.

It was like standing in the middle of the Bay of Fundy in a storm. The concourse was never remotely empty, but there were strong tides in which huge throngs of people made their way through the turnstiles and across the concourse. Very few people seemed to have any doubt about where to go, or even seemed conscious of where they were. They were, for the most part, on their way home, so, for them, the concourse was a halfway-unreal zone of oblivion through which they passed from one stairway to another (or, in the case of the shuttle to Times Square, a long passageway). Although reasonably clean, the concourse does not invite lingering, or even attention. It is so not an in-the-moment sort of place.

The good thing about the compass rose was that it didn't appear to be in anybody's flight path. The only person who came near me wanted to know if he was, in effect, in the Terminal. "Big clock," he said. I directed him toward a flight of stairs on the other side of the turnstiles, and I hope that he found his way. The crowds themselves are very disorienting. People swell along like schools of fish, parting to get round an obstacle and then rejoining.

The phenomenon is even more intriguing because, this being New York, these schools are certainly not homogenous. Every sort of ambulatory human being passed before me, from every part of the earth and from every socio-economic zone. The division between people dressed for the office and those who weren't was fairly even. But almost everyone belonged, temporarily, to the species commutator urbis.

Then Ms NOLA appeared, and we made up our own little school. After all, we had to think where we were going.

April 14, 2006



Photo by Ms NOLA

Last night, Ms NOLA and I had an adventure: we became tourists. We went to Woodside, in Queens, on the No 7 train. Our voyage passed without event, but we were complete tourists, looking out the train windows at the Manhattan skyline (yes, it is always about us) and wondering whether the train that we were on would stop where we wanted it to (it didn't, but no biggie). Not to mention pulling Hopstop routers out of our bags.

Our destination was SriPraPhai. Behind this neat unprepossessing storefront lies some of the best Thai food in the Metropolitan Area. We got there at about 6:30, when there were still many families at the tables. Seventy-five minutes later, the Manhattanites were arriving and there was a wait for tables.

My experience was mixed. I loved the mee krob that I went out there to enjoy; it wasn't as ketchupy as the local restaurant's. I could have eaten both little cakes myself. The sautéed catfish with eggplant in a chili curry sauce, however, was not my kind of dish. That it was too hot wasn't really the problem; the catfish bones were. What a nuisance. I hate working at food.

On the theory that I might get hungry later, I ordered, for take-out, the dish that had first caught my eye, sautéed pork in a curry sauce.

It's my goal to get large groups of friends to go out to SriPraThai, so that everybody can have a little bit of everything. And of course there's plenty of Singha beer - really the best in the world, to my mind - to wash everything down with.

The main thing was: we actually went. We did not talk inconclusively and end up doing nothing. No, we decided to do this yesterday, and stuck with our plan even though everyone who was asked to come along backed out. Having braved the borough border (Park Slope doesn't count any more than going out to Fire Island does), we were blessed with what I hope was not beginner's luck.

I know I sound like a fatuous Gothamite. But this fun trip was so beyond what I was capable of thinking about, much less doing, before Remicade.

April 10, 2006


For some crazy reason, it's Monday and yet I'm feeling pretty good! We watched a hugely funny movie last night, one that seems to have been lost in the post 9/11 commotion, Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble. Is Zooey Deschanel the Eve Arden of our times or what?

The Metropolitan Diary is very good today. I especially liked the story about little Ella and the lady in the "garbage room." Kids say the darnedest things. And it was about two sentences before the actual announcement that I realized that columnist Joyce Purnick was bidding adieu to Metro Matters, her somewhat jaundiced but appealingly blog-like review of matters great and small.

But what is with the coverage of Renzo Piano's utterly banal addition to the Morgan Library? I can't believe my eyes! It looks like a bank in Podunk - a discount bank, too cheap to buy a sign. The interior shots suggest something with promise, but the exterior, at least in the Times photograph, is totally not "dazzling." And what's with the street furniture in front, while we're talking?

If I hear any more about the invasion of Iran, I'm coming out for impeachment. These people in the White House are crazy, and I for one don't want to be blown up because of their lunacy. I completely agree with Paul Krugman: don't expect W to act rationally. (I never have, not for a minute.)

And thanks to Ms NOLA for directing my attention to Ben and Alice, which in turn alerted me to the dustup about last Monday's Times crossword puzzle. Writing out "scumbag," it seems, in answer to a clue, bothered a lot of readers who remember what the word was supposed to mean when it entered the language in the Sixties. Younger readers, however - and I hope that would be you - just think it means "despicable person." Jesse Sheidlower's story is at Slate.

Have I outlined my own policy about vulgarity? Unlike the Times, I will quote anything. But I try to avoid the musky words myself. In my speech, they are signs of impatience or contempt (same difference?), and I often wish I didn't know them.

April 08, 2006


It's raining. The weather is cold and grey. It's not really that cold, but we're all ready for spring and sunshine, so the gloom is more oppressive than an outright blizzard would be. I ought to have worn other shoes to breakfast at the coffee shop across the street. Having worn my nice loafers, I ought to do something about the wet, but I don't think there's any neat's foot oil in the house. What on earth is "neat's foot oil"?

The sidewalk in front of our building, between the driveway and the corner, is covered by a sidewalk shed. (Who knows why.) What slays me is the people who hold up their umbrellas beneath it, their attention so elsewhere that they don't register the superfluity.

The reason I wear my nice loafers is to hear them click in a grown-up way on the lobby's terrazzo floor. In this age of soft sneakers, my loafers are almost as percussive as the shoes of teenaged coolios who, forty years ago, nailed taps onto their soles. Crossing the hardwood floors of the Met's Old Master galleries the other day, my shoes gave a voluble account of the pictures that interested me, and for how long.

April 07, 2006

Movies Out and About

Three movies in two days: no wonder I'm behind. Oh, I have movies going all the time. But I'm talking about sit-down-and-pay-attention movies - if only to read the subtitles.

First there was Ugetsu, one of two great Kenji Mizoguchi pictures from 1953. I had rented it after reading M S Smith's writeup, and then I forgot about it. I had to watch it yesterday afternoon or incur penalties. Ugetsu is a very famous picture, but it's one of those Japanese films that slip by me because I cannot really believe that anybody would make a movie about "greed" or "lust." Mizoguchi did make a movie about peasants, though - about the limited knowledge and imagination that accompany a life of subsisting on hard labor. I ended up finding Michael's write-up somewhat more interesting than the film itself.

Continue reading "Movies Out and About" »

April 04, 2006

Political Discussion

[On the elevator]

Well Dressed Gent Who Lives on the Top Floor: You're always carrying a book.

Me: I never go anywhere without something to read.

WDG: Maybe you could give one of your books to our president...

Me: I'm afraid he might try to read it upside-down.

WDG [laughs, bitterly]: You know, he calls the soldiers "kids." He says that they've lost their lives. They haven't lost their lives, their lives have been taken from them.

Me: It's terrible.

[My floor]

Saturday Night Out

We talk about it all the time, but we rarely actually go out on a Saturday night to the movies. One of us is too tired, or too mired in a project. But by the time I wrapped up the day's "Book Review" entry (no need for a link), I was ready to get out of the apartment. It was so mild that I didn't wear a jacket. We walked up 86th Street to Third Avenue, to where the AMC Orpheum is, in the middle of the block between 86th and 87th. There has been an Orpheum theatre in Yorkville since its deeply German days; when we got here in 1980, it had been divided into two theatres, one of them encompassing the former balcony. When did they tear it down? I can't remember. A new apartment building went up on the site, with seven theatres at or below ground level. Inside Man was showing in the big theatre, two flights down. We bought our tickets for the ten thirty show at a quarter past nine and then went next door to Burger Heaven for dinner. I remember thinking that the couple sitting by the window looked seriously mismatched, in posture as well as looks, but I didn't point them out to Kathleen (who had her back to them) because she would probably have pointed out that our difference in height might strike some people as odd.

We'd been told that the theatre would open at ten, and that's when we were ready to go. Kathleen got a good seat while I loaded up on junk. Yes, I'd just had dinner; yes, I knew I'd never finish the popcorn. But I can't sit in the movies without popcorn. Even though it's rarely very good anymore. We wondered if some cheap hybrid has taken over the popcorn market. Even the Orville Redenbacher that I make at home every once in a while doesn't taste the way it used to. Does anybody snack on popcorn outside the USA (and Canada, I suppose)? I did take a bottle of water instead of a diet soda, in case Kathleen got thirsty. (She didn't.)

As I noted a few entries ago, the trailers were hard to sit through, and I wondered if I was in the right frame of mind for a big-time heist movie with armies of police. But presently it became clear that this Spike Lee film was going to let the genre out at the seams to make room for plenty of New Yawk color. I don't know how Inside Man will play the rest of the country, but it was a comedy at the Orpheum. Not the lightest comedy ever, but - what if I were to say that nobody dies? Was that too much? The four stars - Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, and Christopher Plummer - are all in top form, Ms Foster especially. Did you know that Mr Washington grew up in Mount Vernon? That makes him a city kid. There's a fifth star: 20 Exchange Place. It's one of my favorite downtown buildings. It can't have been easy to shoot a film there: the streets are narrow and very much not at right angles.

The score is credited to trumpeter Terence Blanchard, but I think that A R Rahman wrote the more dramatic passages that even a genre-bending bank heist movie needs. The costumes, by Donna Berwick, caught my eye, especially her light-colored suits for Mr Washington (and those bow ties). Unlike 16 Blocks, Inside Man has the feel of the city.

I left the theatre elated - not a great state for one in the morning.


March 31, 2006

On Seeing Capote on DVD


Last night, I watched Capote for the second time. I had thought a lot about the picture since first seeing it at the beginning of October. I went along with what seems to be the conventional view: Truman Capote kept killer Perry Smith alive only long enough to get his story about murdering the Clutter family, and then couldn't wait for Smith to be hanged so that he could finish In Cold Blood. Awareness of this exploitation undermined Capote afterward, and wrecked the rest of his life.

What I saw last night doesn't really alter that summary, but it adds an explanation of Capote's motivation: Why was he so taken by Perry Smith? At first uninterested in the killers - or even in their apprehension - Capote did a volte-face when he recognized a kindred spirit in Smith. This is easily confused with an erotic attachment, but I think that, in Smith, Capote encountered a sort of brother. Whatever fraternal feelings this recognition may have aroused would have been distinctly secondary, however, to the fascinating possibility that Smith might show him something about himself. That's why he had to get Smith's story. That's what led to his exploitation of the condemned man.

It's this same fascination that leads some adopted people to unearth their birth families. I am not in principle opposed to finding out, and although I have elected against it myself I have left open room for my daughter to do whatever can be done to supply her with medical information that might be useful (her health is perfect at the moment). What I've noticed, however, is that when the excitement of discovering blood relatives fades, genuine affection doesn't necessarily follow.

Capote puts it beautifully. As she's leaving his place in Spain, Capote tells Harper Lee that it's as though he and Perry Smith grew up in the same house. Then one day Perry went out by the back door, while he, Truman, went out by the front door. Such "brothers" would share a dark bond - why the different doors - but could one count on love?

Something else occurred to me. If the movie is to be believed, In Cold Blood is grotesquely mistitled. Finally giving Truman what he wants, Perry claims to have slashed Herbert Clutter's throat almost unconsciously, overwhelmed by the difference between himself and this "nice gentle man." That crime committed, he yielded to a second violent urge to finish off the rest of the family. There wasn't anything cold-blooded about the killings.

But then, by the time he heard Smith's story, Capote was already married to his title.

March 30, 2006

Coming Down


It seemed about time to take this picture. The apartments on the upper floors have been empty for years; now, all the commercial tenants have departed. Although the squat turret at the corner suggests a bygone charm, the complex has become an eyesore, and nobody will miss it. It's to be replaced by something sleek, with, according to deafening gossip, a Whole Foods in the basement. The scaffolding and sidewalk shed will be going up any day now.

The Yorkville branch of Papaya King remains the Miracle of 86th Street in its one-storey corner building. (I'm standing in front of it.) In over 25 years in the neighborhood, I have never set foot inside the place. It's almost always very crowded, there's no place to sit, and I want my hot dogs to be fried.

In other real estate developments, Joe and I were talking a while back about having a drink at the Hi-Life some day; neither one of us had ever been there, and I'm a sucker for anyplace with a big neon martini glass on the marquee. But we dilly-dallied, and now the whole block of First Avenue, from 71st to 72nd (the Hi-Life was at the 72nd Street corner), will be coming down, to make room for a New York Hospital administration building. 

March 25, 2006


On my way to pay for a painting, driving an armored minivan with a few million dollars in the back seat, I encountered a Brinks (armored) truck. I drove straight into it, to see what would happen. There you have my entire childhood! What happened was this amazing ka-chunk as the armor was activated (whatever that means). Nobody was traveling fast, and I emerged unscathed. I knew I'd done something wrong, but it amounted, in the dream, to no more than an inconvenience. The dream changed the subject: in the next scene, I was being presented to the seriously leftist aunt of an old friend. She was impatient with me - doubtless because of my "troublemaking" entry.

March 20, 2006

Metropolitan Diary

When I finally woke up this morning, the black dog was panting at my side. I'd had a bad dream, which was bad enough, but the taste of Diet Coke - my soda of choice, but not first thing in the morning, thank you - was in my mouth. I felt existentially null.

So I skipped the first section of the Times for the nonce and went straight to the Metropolitan Diary. Here I found six short stories drawn from True Life. In the fifth one, a woman got lost in Queens while trying to change Interstates. (She made the Sherman McCoy mistake - which I don't believe any genuine New Yorker would dream of doing, Mr Wolfe - of getting off at the next exit and looping back.) When she asked a policeman in a squad car for directions, he did the right thing, the only thing, the thing that I hope I'd do in his place: he told her to follow him.

I have no idea how drivers who grew up somewhere else ever learn their way around New York's tangle of roadways. Simply aiming a car in the right direction is enough of a challenge for those of us who know all too well that we're going to have to move through four lanes of Triborough Bridge in order to get to "Downtown NY," as the pathetic little sign puts it. When Kathleen and I had a house in Connecticut, I would begin my instructions with the assumption that visitors could get themselves to the south end of IH 684 in one way or another. That's almost ten miles beyond the city limits.

Two of the Metropolitan Diary stories involve small children and the darnedest things that they say. In one, a little boy asks the denizens of a senior center, "How do you get to be old?" It sounds almost like a wish. My answer would have been, "Continue breathing and wait," I don't know how old I was when I finally understood that I would really grow up some day. It would just - happen! I couldn't wait, and now look what happened. I've got as many years as Heinz used to have varieties.

(That's the first time that I've made that quip, but I've got an awful feeling that it's not going to be the last.)

In other story, a little girl, recently transplanted from the city to New Jersey, asks her mother, "Do I have a New York accident?" This reminds me of my childhood dream of owning a set of "Resonance" chessmen. (I never got them, but that was okay, because my obsession eventually taught me that they were pretty cheesy.) It also reminds me of how often I was told, when I went to school in Indiana, that I had an English accent. O were it so! I'd think to myself.

Then there's the correspondent who betrays his alien status by thinking that he's overheard someone order "a Kofi Annan bagel." Proximity to the United Nations is no excuse.

As for the story about the hero on the subway, it speaks loudly for itself. If only God would advise his churchgoing adherents that their selfishness gives him a bad name!

March 17, 2006


There was music when I woke up. Mendelssohn's first string quintet. I love the work, and it sounded fine for a while. Then I began to wonder. Wasn't it a little loud? And when did I slip it into the tray to play? Who, for the matter of that, turned on the music at dawn? And how could I do this to Kathleen, who'd worked so late into the night?

Kathleen had worked so late into the night that she still hadn't come home. It was when I came back from the bathroom that I realized this. Somewhat unmoored, I picked up the phone. She answered, at the office. It was not quite seven in the morning. Go back to bed, she said.

I went to the front door to pick up the Times. By extraordinary chance the deliveryman was walking by, and he handed me the paper. Yay for my knees.

It would appear that I fell asleep to music, and that the machine just worked its way through the discs.

March 10, 2006

About "rjk"

If you are a correspondent or a friend of mine ("same difference"), you have become accustomed to the fact that I think of myself in initials. Always in the small case: rjk. It looks so nederlander, really; just add a letter and you have rijk - "country." Well, I never denied that I'm grandiose.

"RJK" looks noisy to me. I'm a writer, not a president.

My name, which I rarely spell out, is Robert John Keefe. (Just to be completely informative: I am male.) Trust me when I say that "Keefe" is a very difficult name to communicate via telephone. I was brought up to rattle off "K double-E F-as-in-'Frank' e," but, really, it's easier to say "Keefe as in 'O'Keefe'." That's what the name was, after all ("O'Keeffe," actually), and everybody gets it.

As for 'Robert John'!

If I am not a famous person today, it is because entirely too much of my youth was spent squashing the attempt to call me "Bob." There are, presumably, good people named "Bob," but I utterly and completely do not wish to be one of them. Problematically, I am also not a "Robert." There have been crazed moments when adopting the original, Teutonic version of this name - Rodibert - seemed attractive, but you'll agree that I was wise to resist.

"RobertJohn," though, has a certain alliterative charm. I discovered it as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, where, thanks to a widespread lack of imagination, there were lots of Roberts and Michaels. Now that I think of it, though, "Robert John" and "Michael Patrick" were the only brands - first names that needed no surname for identification. We were both tall, formidable, sports-hating men. I discovered all the attractions of Unhappiness at Notre Dame, but I also left with a double name - a double name that, in the Houston years that followed, quickly became double initials.

I ask you to remember 1979. Dallas. Nobody ever, ever asked, "Who shot RJ?"

The "JR" thing went on for about as long as recollection of my having lived in Texas went on. They were forgotten, eventually, together. I was simply "Arjay" to everybody. To everybody except a secretary at EF Hutton, where my career as a working person came to an end (shortly before EF Hutton's). According to the secretary, I was, delightedly, "Archie." She could have no idea how blessed I felt to share the real name of Cary Grant.

Now, a story from les temps bygones. We were on our way to Mass. It might have been 1960, but it was probably earlier. I announced that I was going to change my name when I grew up. Remember, I was an adopted child who felt a certain rootlessness. Doubtless I was "testing." If I didn't say what I was going to change my name to, that's only because my mother immediately turned toward the back seat and hissed that if I ever did such a thing I'd be completely disowned, and, believe me, she could make "disowning" sound like "disemboweling."

Is that why I haven't changed my name? No. Having lived with my name for nearly sixty years, I've gotten used to it. It's not the name I was born with - I may never know that - but it's who I've been for a very long time. The simple truth is that all the alternatives sound like other people - people I'll never be. I'm just rjk. Even though nobody ever says "arjaykay." To me, I'm not so much the sound as the look of those three lower-case letters. That's me - c'est moi.

When my first wife was pregnant, we in our ultrasound-deprived thinking picked two names. Miss G eventually got the one earmarked for a girl. Quentin Alexander Lindley Keefe never came into being, but the name is taken, don't you agree?

March 08, 2006

Tunes Update

My apologies about the Tune de la semaine. Rather neglected since January. The last upload was the first of three projected Bobby Short songs from Moments Like This. The second of the series, the unbelievably lost "Say It Isn't So" has finally replaced it. Just to be nice, I've made it extra easy to hear.

Baked Napkins

Hmm! What's that in the oven?

Table napkins. Freshly washed and ironed but still somewhat damp table napkins.

Don't you find it easier to iron damp napkins and handkerchiefs? Or - doesn't the problem come up in your household? It does in ours, anyway, and there's nothing that's unpleasant in quite the same way as a damp napkin. You'd think that the ironing would dry them out, but it doesn't, and despite what everyone says about the Saharan lack of humidity in New York apartments, I find that napkins don't dry out for four or five days if left to their own devices.

I had the idea of drying them out in the oven during the worst of the winter, when I keep the kitchen warm with a slow oven. I put the napkins on cake racks, one of which is just the right size to slide in between the oven's own racks. Then I forget about them until I need the oven for the baking of food.

Nobody asked, but I think that this is the nuttiest thing that I do.

February 27, 2006

Le sérieux

When we were in Paris last, at Thanksgiving time in 2003, Kathleen picked up a book at the Brentano's on the Avenue de l'Opéra. It was Sarah Turnbull's Almost French: A New Life in Paris (Nicholas Brealey, 2003) Ms Turnbull is an Australian journalist who surrendered to a whirlwind romance with a French lawyer, whom she married along with the project of making her own home in a distinctly un-Antipodean society. Almost French is a delightful read. The author presents herself as somewhat more naive and incredulous than I can quite believe; she certainly knows what stories will get a rise out of Anglophone readers. The toughest nut that she has to crack is the reserve with which her future husband's friends close themselves off from her. She winds up, I think, believing that if the nut could be cracked, it wouldn't be French. Revelation comes in the form of a film, Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (1996). After recounting the movie's tale of a rustic aristocrat's unsuccessful attempt to get state aid for a marsh-draining project on the eve of the Revolution - he fails because he is not witty enough - Ms Turnbull applies the lesson to her own life.

These days in France no-one gets expelled from the dinner table for being dim-witted. But in educated circles conversation can still be played like a game, dominated by those possessing an elegant command of the language and an awesome general knowledge, or grande culture. The French all adore wordplay. People still fear being made to look stupid ('appearing ridiculous kills you,' goes the French saying) which is why the less confident say nothing at all.

To me Ridicule was a revelation. I finally understood French dinner party conversation. It isn't about getting to know anyone better or trying to include everyone in the discussion. No-one really cares about guests establishing a rapport with each other, not even the host. Quite simply, it's about being brilliant. Everyone wants to shine, to impress. The film forced me to face facts - my style of communicating doesn't work in France. It had to change.

If there's a French equivalent of "It's the thought that counts," I have yet to hear it. The inadequately-executed thought not only doesn't count, it counts less than a thought never acted upon. If you are going to do something in France, you had better do it well.

And, really, why not? What is so precious about our amateurism? What is useful about our dishonest self-deprecation? What makes the mediocre good enough?

I realized that it was time to stop wearing shorts in the winter, even in the apartment, unless some sort of exertion was involved. I also completely clammed up in the speaking-French department. My first lesson in two months went nicely enough as lessons have gone, but my clunky hesitations, my susceptibility to dead-end constructions drove me wild. I must practice, and practice seriously. Reading French is fine, but it is not a substitute for self-expression. At the moment, however, I'm stuck at the stage of scolding myself in public, and apologizing to Francophone readers (over three percent of my visitors are in France) for not having filled out the L'Hexagoniste corner of the Daily Blague.

I have learned one thing about French that I didn't get before: it is not common practice in French to preface thoughts with "I think" or "I wonder" or "It seems to me" as a matter of course. Such phrases are a touchstone of American modesty, and I would feel very brassy without them, but I see that in French they merely convey weakness of intellect. If you think something, it's enough to say it outright. Weaseling with qualifiers isn't going to make a bad idea any more palatable. Allez, courage!

February 24, 2006


As I often feel creepily ancient here in the Blogosphere, I was heartened to discover the Elder Wisdom Circle, a collective of Bay Area seniors aged from sixty to ninety-seven that answers requests for advice. I wish that it had been around when a distant cousin, long since passed away, began to have serious incontinence problems. The elders whom I consulted all took a rather unhelpful approach, best summarized by a disclaimer: "If I ever do that, just shoot me."

How nice to have questions that older people can help out with. That has never been my good fortune. I've almost always been convinced that nobody older than I was had a clue about anything, and that's a conviction that has ebbed only as I've moved into old age myself. It still seems clear to me that we baby boomers grew up in a world that the parents didn't understand, a world, in fact, that was in many ways their rejection of what they had grown up understanding. They were very slow to realize, for example, that television was going to work very differently from radio.

In some wacky way, I knew that computers were going to change everything in general and my life in particular. I certainly knew this as a freshman in college, when I spent hours in the basement of the Computer Building typing punch cards for the student radio station. (Don't ask.) The computer of the day - there was just one in the building, an array of refrigerator-sized boxes with tape reels that hummed beyond a plate-glass wall - was obviously not up to "programming" the radio station's playlist, but I was fascinated by the possibility, and, had I been a generation younger, I might have tackled the problem seriously. Now I learn from younger people. I have a few things to teach, I suppose, and I'm very fond of quite a few really old people, but I don't ask them for advice, and they don't offer it.

In two years, I'll be old enough to apply for membership in the Circle. I doubt that I'd be accepted; my preference for the interesting, unusual solution to everyday problems marks me as the likely source of dodgy advice. But it's always nice to be asked.

February 23, 2006


A few weeks ago, I read somewhere that Jason Kottke was written up in The New Yorker in 2000. Wow, I thought, how'd I miss that? Then I realized that I hadn't missed it. Finding Rebecca Mead's "You've Got Blog," in the issue for November 13, 2000, was no trouble at all, thanks to The Complete New Yorker. Reading the article a second time was an experience loaded with dramatic irony.

Although I no longer have any proof with which to support the claim, I date my Web site, Portico, to the beginning of 2000. (I'm still using some of the code that Miss G wrote for me.) No sooner was the site up than I was oppressed by my ignorance of the care and feeding of a Web site. I knew that I had to keep it "fresh," but what did that mean? Years later, I would conclude that "fresh" means "daily additions," but in the beginning I spent a lot of time assuring myself that writing every day would not be necessary. Who could expect such a thing? What on earth would there be to write about? And then, before the year was out, I read "You've Got Blog." (I think I still had an AOL account.)

As I recalled, the article made blogging sound adolescent and ephemeral, an amusement, barely superior to video games, for geeky singles. And that was pretty much the last bit of thought that I gave to it until October 2003, when my nephew told me that I ought to have a blog. He couldn't say why; he couldn't really explain to me how a Web log differs from a Web site. So it took a while for me to see his point. If I fought doing so every step of the way, however, it was thanks largely to Rebecca Mead. Reading her piece again, I'm amazed by its infantilizing tone.

Most of the new blogs are, like Megnut, intimate narratives rather than digests of links and commentary; to read them is to enter a world in which the personal lives of participants have become part of the public domain. Because the main audience for blogs is other bloggers - blogging etiquette requires that, if someone blogs your blog, you blog his blog back - reading blogs can feel a lot like listening in an a conversation among a group of friends who all know each other really well. Blogging, it turns out, is the CB radio of the Dave Eggers generation. And that is how, when Meg Hourihan followed up her French-boyfriend-depression posting with a stream-of-consciousness blog entry a few weeks later saying that she had developed a crush on someone but was afraid to act on it - "Maybe I've become very good at eluding love but that's not a complaint I just want to get it all out of my head and put it somewhere else," she wrote - her love life became not just her business but the business of bloggers everywhere.

If I've learned anything in the last two years, it's that Jason Kottke and Meg Hourihan are truly serious people who have devoted their adult lives to developing the World Wide Web as a social space. Their intelligence and maturity, however, are glossed over in The New Yorker. Although Ms Mead does note that Mr Kottke "is widely admired admired among bloggers as a thoughtful critic of Web culture," this is the only statement in the entire essay that does not contribute to the suffocating atmosphere of cute solipsism that is conjured by the author's fixation with romance. In fact, the narrative arc of the piece is, rather vulgarly now that I think about it, the approaching consummation of of a budding relationship.

Sentences such as the one invoking Dave Eggers, moreover, create the impression that blogging is for kids. Interestingly, Ms Mead does not include the detail that no such article today would omit: the address of a site for finding out more about blogs, and perhaps for setting one up. It is clear that she thinks that blogging will remain cool and viable as a subject for New Yorker articles only so long as they're the property of the cool kids (to whom she tacitly compares her subjects at every turn). Fifty-two when I read the piece for the first time, I was leery of taking up youth-stamped pursuits and looking ridiculous. Kathleen and I had just celebrated our nineteenth wedding anniversary, and the part of our lives that wasn't too boring to write about was, given Kathleen's profession, too confidential. It's no surprise then, that I came away from "You've Got Blog" both anxious about a mystifying challenge - would anybody read my site if it weren't a blog? - and resentful about having been dismissed from the lunch room.

Yesterday, Mr Kottke announced that he is not going to continue to regard as his principal project. A year ago, he raised nearly $40,000 in a fund drive pitched to visitors to the site. As long as six months ago, he began to doubt the viability of the project. In part, he wasn't giving it the attention that he thought that it needed, largely because of undisclosed but positive changes in his life (so much for indiscretion). Also, however,

I haven't grown traffic enough or developed a sufficient cult of personality to make the subscription model a sustainable one for things just aren't interesting to me.

It seems that I'm to be a mystified by this as I was by "You've Got Blog." If traffic or personal branding weren't objectives, what was Mr Kottke out to accomplish? That's what I started wondering about when Mr Kottke began to have his doubts, and it explains my moving the link to from the personal "affinities" roster to the list of useful sites. A year after becoming one of Mr Kottke's micropatrons, I haven't learned much about his life, beyond a knack for packing light and a taste for travel to exotic places. I certainly have never learned anything at all about his relationship with Ms Hourihan, which is funny in light of "You've Got Blog."

I'm not complaining. My purpose here is to note how wildly unpredictive the New Yorker article has turned out to be. Ms Mead all but promised us children; in the alternative universe that she foresaw, the happy couple would have documented pregnancy and delivered a bouncing media product. (Think of the naming rights!) It is evident that Mr Kottke would regard such publicity as a nightmare. Only deeply uninteresting people can afford to be Internet ingenues; anyone with a profession or a spouse will have to develop a robust persona and inhabit it as intimately as an actor inhabits a role. Blogging turns out to be a lot more serious than CB radio.

February 22, 2006

In the Mail

Yesterday's mail brought treats from Amazon here and abroad. I've got The Blind Boys of Alabama's Higher Ground in the tray, and I've got my dico at the ready, the better to read Philippe Garnier's Caractères: Moindres Lumières à Hollywood. No way I can wait for it to be translated; I'll just have brave M Garnier's robust vocabulary and make the most of things when the dictionary is silent (sans-grade, greluche). The opening chapter, "La Confrérie de la Redingote" ("The Brotherhood of the Tailcoats" - as in butlers and majordomos) is devoted to such greats as Eric Blore (who to my mind must be spending his afterlife in the Susquehanna Street Jail) and Franklin Pangborn. I have already learned that Blore was a songwriter who enjoyed West End successes before heading to New York - after a stint in a military balloon toward the end of World War I. I've long regarded myself as a connoisseur of character acting, but M Garnier's Introduction promptly disabused me of my right to such grandiose claims. He has seen everything. Caractères is going to be one of those books that really expand my grasp of the movies. James Harvey's 1987 treatise on screwball, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, was such a book.


The mail also brought the new issue of The New Yorker, with Mark Ulriksen's parody of the Brokeback Mountain poster. The Vice President has figured in a few of these already; who knew he'd shoot his way into earning one? It still surprises me to see such topical covers on The New Yorker. Topicality was just what the magazine shunned when I was young. I don't mind the change, but I do miss the beautiful drawings of Arthur Getz and Abe Birnbaum.

And the mail finally brought my Times-Picayunes - a week's worth. Nothing could be more quixotic than this subscription, because I haven't got the time to read news that's days old and focused on New Orleans, but I took it anyway as a way of supporting one of the city's premier institutions. There - aren't I good. And what d'you know but that the brown wrappers in which the newspapers are rolled up remind me quite a lot of how The New Yorker used to arrive, a very long time ago. It's funny to think: there was no Internet then. It's funny to think because it's simply unimaginable.

You may recall that I was invited to join the hosts of Joe.My.God and Perge Modo on a "blarg hop" a few weeks ago - the night of the blizzard in fact. Accounts of the evening's antics have been piling up at participants' blogs. Aaron, at Meanwhile, got round to writing about it the other day, far more guardedly than most, and even then as a tangent to the larger context of the anonymous, often meth-fueled sex that the Internet has made so accessible. Ease of access has a price: it makes it less necessary to get to know people. On the whole, Aaron does not regret blogging.

What's the connection between blogging and the way I live? And the way you live? Does this experiment make our lives better or worse? I think my life is better for it.

I know that mine is, and that not least of the wonderful things that keeping a Web log has made possible is the chance to meet people whose writing I've come to like. I foresee a time when I will no longer feel the slightest bit nervous about such encounters. That's not to predict that there won't be disappointments. But I'm as ready to meet fellow writers as any business person is to make new contacts. Please remember me when you come to New York.

And, as long as you're at the keyboard: Those who appreciate moral conundrums will relish the unpleasant situation detailed at Lost Camera, a site that I came upon via Breed 'em and Weep.

February 20, 2006


The latest silliness to appear in the pages of the The New York Times is covered in a story by David Kocieniewski, "After $12,000, There's Even Room to Park the Car." It's about cluttered garages and the professionals who tidy them up. Peter Walsh, a cable TV celebrity organizer, talks of "an orgy of consumption" and "acknowledges that he is a lonely voice calling for a new era of American asceticism."

More and more, I regard Pascal's attribution of human misery to the inability to sit quietly in a room* as the most ruefully useful bit of wisdom that has come down to me. Everyone I know is running in some sort of rat race, deluged by unwanted mail, distracted by the glamour of celebrity, and overbooked by too many phone calls. Sitting quietly in a room, engaged, presumably, in prayer - now, that's asceticism.

I sit in a room most of the time, but I am not quiet. I fidget horribly. When the phone rings; I bring up FreeCell at once. I follow tangents on Google. For example, I finally got round to finding out about donating books to the Housing Works Used Books Café. (They don't make it terribly easy.) That's what I would have in my garage if I had a garage: books. In fact, if I had a garage, I would turn it into a regular library, with aisles of stacks. That would be the end of my book problem. Or the end of one book problem. My library catalogue is in sorry shape at the moment. I wonder if part-time librarians pay house calls.**

There is an image of the act of writing in my mind that, sadly, fails completely to correspond to the reality of writing. In my dreams, I write with a quill pen at a very steady pace, the words flowing out of me onto the page in a river of calligraphy. In reality, my hand screams with fatigue if I have to do more than sign my name. And I am always "trying things out" - sketching sentences that I wouldn't bother with if there'd be any trouble to getting rid of them. For some reason or other, I don't read at my desk (it's a matter of chairs, I think), and that slows me down.

I'm as guilty as anybody of having 'way too much stuff. Getting rid of bits of it gives me enormous pleasure. Christmas, I feel, ought to become a celebration of subtraction: become more Christ-like by unloading things. I've been getting rid of a lot of CDs. Sort of. I make copies on a high-speed copier, and put them in a wallet from Staples, together with a two-sided photocopy of pertinent liner material. Then I give the originals to Ms NOLA. This opens up shelf space for more CDs.

Yesterday was to have been spent in the kitchen - where even celebrity organizer Peter Walsh would be stumped - preparing a Monday-night dinner, but neither Miss G nor Ms NOLA could make it, and I quickly settled on the steak-frites menu that was a regular in the days before Ms NOLA. I came back from Agata & Valentina with not only tonight's fixings but also the ingredients of a ragù that I've developed over the years and which came to mind the other day when George at Quality of the Light described a dish that came to him, he claims, in a dream.

When I got home, I thought, "I'll just dash out something about those crazy neat garages and then I'll unpack the groceries. It's a good thing that I put the bag out on the balcony, though, because it was several hours before I did the unpacking.

Where was I?

* If only I could find this in my Modern Library dual-language edition!

** It's amazing that I even found my copy of Pascal.

February 18, 2006


Permit me to recommend Firewall, the new Harrison Ford film. I did not expect to like it very much; I was drawn primarily by the interest of seeing what Virginia Madsen would do (more on that in a moment). But director Richard Loncraine surprised me. Working with a Joe Forte story that shuns plot-padding red herrings as nimbly as it does the predictable setback of action-stopping police custody, Mr Loncraine quickly aroused my concern for Jack and Beth Stanfield. I was sitting on the edge of my seat more or less throughout the film. Although there is nothing surprising about Mr Forte's brew of heist and hostages, Firewall treats the Stanfields and their two children as real people.

Jack Banfield is the security chief of a large bank that has just been swallowed by an even bigger outlet. Unhappy with the new team, he is ready to consider an offer presented by Bill Cox - and terrified to discover that the offer has been timed to coincide with the capture of his family by Cox's team of hackers and tough guys. The deal that Cox really wants Jack to work on is the robbery of Jack's bank. Except that it is not really a deal; Jack realizes early on that Cox intends to leave a lot of dead bodies behind when he gets his money. Firewall does not reverse the tradition of Harrison Ford's film endings, but it keeps you wondering.

Amazingly, Mr Ford is a believable Jack. There are critics who feel that the actor never does his best work in a suit, but Firewall may be an exception. (To tell the truth, I think he's pretty great in Working Girl.) During the first half of the film, when is Jack is tethered by microphones and cameras to Cox's surveillance system, Mr Ford looks uncomfortable, not to say constipated, and every hour of his sixty-four years. Once Cox has his money, however, the years fall away, and Mr Ford is rejuvenated by the challenge of foiling his adversary. He faked his way around the hard- and software with totally convincing aplomb.

As I say, I went to see Virginia Madsen. Until Sideways, Ms Madsen seemed to have had a career that went nowhere from her somewhat brainless turn as Princess Irulan in David Lynch's Dune, swishing about in bogus ball-gowns and delivering sententious voice-overs. (A look at IMDb demonstrates, however, that the actress has been very busy.) In Alexander Payne's movie, she displayed a quick-witted earthiness that I found really endearing, and the same quality is on display in Firewall. There's no question that her Beth is Jack's equal; she carries off the additional role of being an architect capable of designing the showplace in which much of Firewall takes place. And she has chemistry with Harrison Ford. "I don't deserve you," says Jack at the beginning. "No, you don't," Beth with a loving smile, and you sense both that this is true and that Beth is perfectly happy about it.

That Paul Bettany makes a dashing villain ought to surprise nobody. Looking more like Tab Hunter than ever, he is a joy to detest, and when he gets his comeuppance the blow is highly satisfying. My only complaint is that the film ended too soon thereafter. There ought to have been a nice, rehabilitative scene with his trusty secretary, Janet (played by 24's Mary Lynn Rajskub).

For what it purports to deliver, Firewall is super-duper entertainment. Don't let the critics misguide you.

February 16, 2006

Desultory Day

I've had a very desultory day. That's what comes of watching a DVD right after lunch. I was mad to see Donnie Darko. I'd intended to watch it last night, but by the time I was ready to sit down with it, Kathleen came home from her evening at the financial printer. I don't know why I had to see the movie right now. The reason may have been that I made the connection, finally, between the movie and Jake Gyllenhaal. Someone described it as a "cult favorite." Well!

I didn't get it. I was entertained by the many star turns - where has Katharine Ross been all this time? - but I couldn't begin to get involved with the advanced physics in the old-timey textbook. (It was all sort of Ninth Gate goes to the Manhattan Project.) I think I grasped a measure of suburban satire, but while the perfections of Middlesex were definitely over the top, they didn't clear it by much. If you'd like to explain Donnie Darko to me, I'll be content to hear you out. Until then, what I'll most recall about this film is not about the film at all. It's the incredible likeness of Beth Grant and Rutanya Alda (Mommie Dearest, Black Widow).

After the movie, I wasn't good for much of anything. I visited a bunch of sites and read The New Yorker. At seven, I was starving, but determined not to snack. So I made myself a nice dinner out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Chicken breast with mushrooms and cream. It was very easy to make, at least for me. Not only that, but the touch of green onion in the sauce filled the apartment with the fragrance of mushrooms and cream - onions carry other scents, I find. It was superb, and I will never look at another recipe for chicken breasts. It's great to have the cooking thing going again.

Briefly - I'll put the recipe up at Portifex when I've made it a few times - in a small casserole, you cook ("sauté" would be overstating the matter) one or two chopped green onions in a lot of foaming butter for a minute, and then toss in a few sliced mushroom caps. When the mushrooms have drunk up the fat and showered their moisture, you take a chicken breast that you have doused with lemon juice, salt and pepper and toss it in the casserole. Then you stick a buttered scrap of waxed paper onto the top of the chicken, cover the casserole, and pop it into a 400º oven for six or seven minutes. The breast is cooked if it springs to the touch. Removing the meat to a warm place, you put the casserole back onto high heat, and pour in a quarter cup of broth, a quarter cup of vermouth, and a half a cup of cream. This you boil down until it's nice and thick. Voilà. Sprinkle it with parsley for a dash of color. I'm thinking of committing a venal sin by introducing tarragon; I love tarragon, cream, mushrooms and chicken. Don't tell Julia.

Now all I have to decide is what movie to go to tomorrow. The choices are limited: Something New, which I know Kathleen wants to see, and Firewall, which nobody wants to see except fans of Harrison Ford's bizarrely extended career as an action hero. Manohla Dargis at the Times was not nice: "Mr. Ford does not look remotely comfortable in the role of the creaking action figure." My first reaction to Mr Ford's mature movies is invariably to dislike them. But I always end up buying the DVDs. I tell myself, for instance, that I bought Random Hearts because of Kristin Scott-Thomas, and that's true, but Harrison Ford is really the secret of the movie. Finding out that his wife was having an affair outrages his character after her death, but not in quite the usual way; what gets him is the fact that he missed it. He's really furious with himself, and that's something that Harrison Ford does better than anybody else.

Is Casanova already out of the theatres? It never penetrated Yorkville.

February 13, 2006

Weather Conditions

As for the little blizzard we had in New York this weekend, Kathleen and I stayed indoors. When I went out this morning, I found that most of the sidewalks up here are clear, and that the corners are no worse than they would be after a less bountiful snowfall. Corners are a problem because building owners are required to clear the sidewalks only to the kerb. (You can tell that a building's vacant, or at any rate that it doesn't have a retail tenant on the ground floor, by the presence of compacted snow in front of it; and Yorkvillians are advised to avoid the southeast corner of 86th and Third for the time being, because a group of buildings stretching away from the corner in both directions has been bought up for demolition and development, and the walking there is a little rough right now.) Many owners shovel through the pileup of snow in the parking lane, but even when they do, two-way pedestrian traffic is impossible. The lakes of slush that collect at the base of these canyons present additional hurdles. But as I say it wasn't remarkably bad. The sun felt very warm on my back as I lugged a ton of stuff back from Eli's.

Thanks to a tip from Ms NOLA, I picked up the current issue of New York, a magazine that I normally do not permit in the house. This week's cover story is "The Blog Establishment: The Emerging Hierarchy of the New New Media." It promises to be slick, superficial, and, ultimately, pretty stupid, but in fact it's full of familiar stuff, including a nice power-law curve. New York being New York, Clive Thompson, the writer, is very interested in advertising rates.

How much would you pay to read the Daily Blague? Let's say that you had only to click a button (not that it's much harder than that as it is). Would you pay a quarter a year? A dollar? I'm not asking what you think it's worth, but how much you would pay. Because in fact you have never paid anything. This is not a guilt trip. I'm simply asking you to think about it for a moment. Here's a second question: would you rather I supported the site with ads? Is that how you think things ought to work? Just curious.

February 12, 2006

Blog Brunch

Yesterday afternoon, I had brunch today with the Farmboyz - T and C of Perge Modo - and Joe Jervis of Joe.My.God. I think that we all had a good time; I know that I did. I look forward to getting together again soon, for the conversation was good, and there are lots of things that I forgot to ask about. I did let Joe know that I'm green with envy about his million hits; to which Joe replied that he keeps links to Wikipedia and the dictionary at the ready when he reads the Daily Blague. I found out what everybody does for a day job, but like most of what we talked about, it stayed, so to speak, at the table.

This was not my first encounter with fellow Internauts, but as happens I never did mention the first instance, which was a very friendly lunch at the Metropolitan Museum. Such discretion is undoubtedly perverse in a blogger, but there it is. Is it my legal training? My bourgeois upbringing? Perhaps it's a conditioned response to the consequences of having been unduly garrulous in the past. In any case, both Joe and T have blogs on which they can tell general readers what they'd like general readers to know.

I was asked to come along on last night's Blarg Hop down Christopher Street, but the prevision of myself lying in the gutter, trying to stare the stars into stillness, was all it took to prompt my regrets. The party animal in me is quiescent and ought not to be roused. But I can't wait to hear all about it - on the blogs.

February 11, 2006


Being out and about yesterday was deeply satisfying. It was the sort of day that, before Remicade, I'd grown afraid to try on. What with uncertain bowels, creaky joints, and abysmal energy levels, I rarely left the neighborhood, and the homebody habit persisted even after the infusions banished my ailments. It's still something of a surprise to find that I've gone out not once but twice. The first trip took me to the podiatrist's, where six of the seven pieces in which I'd returned from Puerto Rico - little bits of reef - were removed from my heel. I felt better at once. Then I crossed town a bit to Sixth and 52nd, where Rochester Big & Tall has its Midtown Manhattan branch. I needed handkerchiefs desperately, but I could have gotten those anywhere. I was looking for comfortable everyday trousers, and I found them bearing a Polo label. On sale, happily. There was also an irresistible lime-green sports shirt with a salmon and yellow plaid that was obviously made with me in mind.

If I'd had the clothes delivered to the apartment, I'd have proceeded uptown to the Tower Records branch at Lincoln Center, but my big and tall clothes filled such a large bag that I occupied the space of two pedestrians. So I took the clothes home, sat down for about ten minutes, and then headed downtown to the main Tower branch, at Broadway and East Fourth. I hardly ever go to Tower anymore; I find that a policy of online purchases, as needed, conduces to greater restraint in the acquisitions department. But I had to buy a few jazz CDs as a gift, and while I was at it... I bought the great 1978 Carlos Kleiber Der Rosenkavalier on DVD, a high-water moment in the career of Gwyneth Jones.

At the check-out counter, two dudes were talking about a colleague. They looked exactly like the scruffy young men of my youth, except that the clerk who was totting up my purchases sported a nose ring. The colleague under discussion was apparently a heavy marijuana smoker who, more remarkably, has been working at Tower since the store opened, twenty-four years ago. The nose-ring guy turned to me and said, "So, what do you think." Did I think that he and his neighbor ought to do the same - work at Tower for a quarter century? I answered in the negative. I hadn't been to the store in over fifteen years, and everything was just where it was the last time I visited.

In another passing exchange, I pointed out to a very little girl in the elevator who told her mommy that I had "a lot of beard" that that's better than not having enough. But I wasn't fast enough; she had turned her attention to a boarding passenger, about whose gender she wondered even less discreetly. 

February 08, 2006

Ass over Teakettle

In truth, I knew better. I knew that the tide would be coming in when I went out for my afternoon wade on the table-top reef. A table-top covered with tiny razor-sharp growths that resemble inverted clamshells, and a table-top pitted with cistern-like holes with sandy bottoms. While I was lazily watching the surf inundate the miniature cliffs of seaweed at the head of the reef, and then pull away with an even greater force, a large wave took me by surprise. I lost my footing and tumbled into one of the holes. I kept my head above water and my wits about me: I knew better than to seek purchase in the reef before I could be sure that I wouldn't be reaching into any of the plenteous urchin burrows. My flip-flops were instant history. Pretty soon, I was crawling over mossy rocks to the shore. When I stood up, I saw that I was pretty cut up in several places, but the wounds were nothing that a long shower couldn't close. No biggie - but I'd been very foolish. The couple in the cottage next to ours were sitting at a far end of the beach, absorbed in sun and conversation. They never noticed my fall. Nor did anyone else.

It was a turning-point in the vacation; ever since, I've been ready to get on a plane for New York. As it is, our flight leaves San Juan at nine-thirty tonight, but Kathleen's looking for an earlier booking. If she can't make a change, we won't get to bed until two in the morning. But at least we'll be home.


We did go back, for our last supper, to Su Casa, the hotel's restaurant in this charming old building, erected in the late Twenties by an American woman. I was very tempted by a shrimp dish with Thai rice, but in the end I had precisely what I had last Saturday night: filet of beef and Isla flotante. The beef came with a scrumptious compote of sweet smothered red onions - so sweet, in fact, that I'd be tempted to serve it as a dessert (without telling anybody what it was). I actually asked for the recipe (something I never do), and was surprised to get it from the waiter. He claimed that soy sauce was a key ingredient, but that seemed utterly wrong, as there was nothing salty about the dish.

All day long, it seemed, we talked about favorite movies, and we've have been glad to watch one if we'd only had it with us, among the nearly ninety titles that we did bring. Ninety movies is a ridiculous number to take on a week's vacation, I know, but in fact all I did was shove into my satchel an album of DVDs that I've removed from their cases in the interest of taking up less space. These are for the most part movies that you have to be in the mood to see. Seconds, Primer, Zardoz, Kiss Me Deadly. Very little in the way of lighthearted fare, and of course no Jane Austen adaptations.

Now to pack, and while away the day until it's wonderfully tomorrow.

February 07, 2006



Among the senile amusements of my vacation, none exceeded that of teasing the mourning doves (id est pigeons) who roam the vicinity with bits of thin pretzel knots. Choosing broken but not crumbling pretzels, I break them up into a few pieces and scatter them on the patio. Eventually, the doves screw up their courage and peck at what must seem to them to be a kind of worm. Dove beaks are not suited to hard pretzel, however, and almost invariable the fragment gets tossed spastically to one side. At first, the doves will walk away from this frustrating encounter, but eventually they are certain to give way to avian rage, flaying the pretzel to bits. In one horrifying instance, a particularly thwarted dove swallowed much too big a piece. It stood there for a minute, incapable of forward motion so long as its esophagus was occupied, and gulped blinkingly if uncomplainingly. This went on for - too long. I was sure that I'd done a very bad thing, that the poor thing was going to suffocate to death before my eyes. This didn't happen, however. Within moments, the dove was feuding with an interloping colleague. I did take to breaking the pretzel into smaller, less challenging pieces.

After three days of this, the doves have built up a certain resistance to pretzels, and are no longer so entertaining. Tant pis pour eux - I've eaten all the pretzels.

Even more entertaining than the mourning doves on the patio are the blackbirds on the breakfast terrace. The terrace is netted, but there are at least half a dozen blackbirds darting among the tables at any given time, and they are better than a show. This morning, we watched an enterprising fellow tackle a bit of English muffin, which he promptly swallowed down with a gulp of cream. His beak emerging from the pitcher in "Got Milk?" form, he proceeded to wipe it on the tablecloth! At lunchtime, the thing to watch for is the stray French fry. We've seen birds lift off with fries half their body length. For while they might nibble on breads à table, fries can only be enjoyed aloft, in the relative privacy of umbrella struts.

Just beyond the netting, there is a quaint, hip-roofed bird feeder. It's popular with the blackbirds, but if it's meant to distract them from the table scraps, it's a bust.

February 06, 2006

What a concept


For most of my life - nearly all of it, really - I've been a great fan of room service, or, as it's called today (but not here in Puerto Rico, not yet), "In Room Dining." When I was a boy, room service was a big deal, by which I mean that waiters would roll in tables laden with cloches and warming ovens, push them to the center of the room, lock the casters, and set the table. When they were through, a little bit of restaurant had moved into the suite (my father always took suites). I loved the fuss, which was a kind of circus. And then there was the food. Everything tasted better from room service.

Lots of people hate room service, but I'm so addicted to it that whenever I used to travel by myself I would take dinner as well as breakfast in my room. Like all good travelers, I'm conscientious about filling out the long cards that major hotels supply for breakfast: you tick off the things you want, specify the desired delivery time, and hang the card on the outer doorknob. But it never occurred to me before the other night that you can do the same thing with dinner. There's no card to fill out, of course, but, thinking ahead, you can ask the room service operator to schedule your dinner for a certain time. Far from minding this request, the operator will be downright pleased by the move, for the same reason that prompts hotels to organize breakfasts the night before.

Last night, Kathleen and I were going to talk about what's on her mind, and I thought it would suit us to have dinner on our patio. So, at 6:30, I called in the order. Kathleen was very pleased that the kitchen would prepare the smoked salmon hors d'oeuvre platter for just one person, while I was in the mood for chicken. We split a deadly-looking chocolate something for dessert, and enjoyed a bottle of Merlot. I set the table, but there was a nice tablecloth, and the waiter uncorked the wine. The surf crashed in the distance while the coqui chirped nearby. Fragments of Schubert drifted from indoors. It was better than any imaginable restaurant.

Kathleen said that ordering ahead had never occurred to her, either; nor had she ever heard of anyone doing it. I'm sure I'm hardly the first genius to think of it, but I recommend it anyway. If you specify a time, you won't be bothered by wondering when dinner will arrive. On vacation, you shouldn't have to wonder about a thing.

February 05, 2006



I awoke this morning with a deep feeling of dolce far niente. It's hard to say what it is about an empty schedule that induces pleasure rather than boredom. Thinking about boredom for a minute - it was the bane of my youth - I wonder if it doesn't stem from the belief, almost always without foundation, that there is some unknown or unattainable thing that it would be interesting thing to do - if only it would present itself. Boredom is passive; dolce far niente is active: you're doing - nothing, and it's sweet.

Of course I am not doing nothing at the moment; I am scribbling here and feeling a bit guilty about not having snagged a Times but really rather relieved that, because I don't have it, I can't review the Book Review. I asked Ms NOLA to pick up the paper for me, and I'm sure that she will if she can. In any case, no Book Review today. I do have an interesting book to write up, Melanie Rehak's Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her. A former colleague gave it to Kathleen a few weeks ago, and I found that once I'd picked it up I couldn't put it down. More anon. Meanwhile, Kathleen took a book from my pile, Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder, which I've been having trouble re-reading. She zipped right through it, and rattled off differences between the novel and Otto Preminger's great film adaptation. Her resume piqued my interest, so I'll try to pick up where I left off. This afternoon, however, I am going to spend with Emma.

The weather continues to be highly variable, with the only constant a dandy wind. Neither a breeze nor a gale, it's just right for me, keeping me cool and dry in the otherwise warm and somewhat humid air. I'm looking forward to wading in the later afternoon. Yesterday, I went down shortly after sunset and wandered out onto the flat reefs - if that's what they are - to look for urchins. It took me a while to find them, because instead of being bright red, as they were the last time I was here, at a different time of year, they were a much less conspicuous black. It would probably be incorrect to speak of tidal pools, but water does collect behind rock outcrops during the lowest reaches of the tide, and sometimes there are little creatures in them. No naturalist, I couldn't tell you what they are, and in any case I'm more interested in watching the overflow of an occasional wave drain out over the smooth mossy rocks or through the little gullies between them. I thought about the motions of the sea, about waves that pass through water molecules without moving them until cresting at the shore and pushing sheets of foam in all directions.

We saw a couple of honeymooners at breakfast. They had to be; they looked barely of age. I couldn't see her face, but he had a big, open smile that I thought boded well for that marriage.

February 04, 2006



This entry won't be posted until Monday morning, when the business center re-opens. I could dial up from the room, as I did in November 2004, but it's awfully expensive and even more tedious: wonderful as the room is, it doesn't have a desk, and in order to hook up to power and phone (I no longer bother with the battery), I have to work at one end of the high bed, cords stretched to the max while I crouch over the sluggish page loads. Hey, I'm on vacation! And it's the weekend! (I haven't decided what to do about tomorrow's book review Book Review.) Message to RJK: loosen up!

The trip to Dorado was insufficiently uneventful. Not long after we left the suburbs of San Juan behind us, I began to feel the effects of having guzzled too much ice-water in the morning. There was a smash-up on the local road leading from Highway 22 to Dorado, but traffic wasn't too backed-up, and I thought I'd be able to manage until we got to Dorado Beach, but then the driver took a shortcut that turned out not to be a shortcut. The moment we U-turned, on the unpaved, potholed road, bladder pressure just about doubled. The driver thought that it was all very funny, for some reason. Once we regained the paved road, I noticed, in my agony, a thick hedge with regular gaps for power poles. "Momentito!" I gasped. Getting the picture, the driver stopped, and presently I was equally relieved by the discretion of the my situation and by what it made possible.

Once again, we have a lovely room on the ground floor, so that a walk of thirty feet takes us to some steps to the beach. Although there is a strip of sand, the beach is suitable for wading, not swimming, which suits us just fine. How I used to love to swim! I could hardly see a body of water without throwing myself into it. (I swam across St Mary's Lake, at Notre Dame, one night in the very early spring. It was one of those stunts that, as a parent, you don't want to know about.) I still love the water and need to live near it. But I've lost the urge to plunge. I'd much rather sit here on the shaded patio, looking out over the surf when I'm not looking at the screen, writing about whatnot.

Two days ago at this time, I had just won permission from Kathleen to stay home, and to avoid the disruption of travel (not to mention the horror of flying). But then Kathleen said something about what was on her mind (unrelated to my going or not) that within an hour made me change mine. I wanted to stay home so badly that my self-respect still prevents me from acknowledging, or even admitting to myself, that I'm glad for my own sake (as distinct from Kathleen's) that I came. I can go no further just yet than saying that it's very nice to be here. Very nice indeed.  

February 03, 2006

Sur le balcon


Yesterday's clouds and rain took all afternoon and much of the evening to clear. After leaving the business center, I came upstairs, swiveled the armchair around to face the ocean, and read for hours. Reading for hours doesn't mean that I read a lot, though; I must have spent an hour watching the low and wispy charcoal-colored rain clouds swim toward the west while, from time to time, a patch of blue would pierce the dour carpet higher up. Not long after sunset, the sky was a harmony of grey, blue and pale pink.

Kathleen came upstairs and took a nap. At a little past eight, we walked to the beach, where the hotel offers, according to its Directory of Services, an "oceanfront dining experience." That ought to have tipped me off. My visions of Shake Shop fare met with complete disappointment. I asked for a medium-rare cheeseburger and was told that all burgers are cooked well-done, as a matter of policy. Kathleen whispered that she's run into this a lot, as health concerns send managerial wimps scurrying to their lawyers. And the martinis! The martinis were all hat and no gallons. Three of them came to less than eight ounces.

Walking back, we chuckled at the Splash Bar, which I had observed from the balcony. Swimmers (not that anyone actually swims in the sinuous canal that runs from the hotel to the beach) can avail themselves of submerged barstools, happily protected from the elements by a canvas awning (wouldn't want to get wet), and enjoy tropical drinks. The management is obviously too concerned about stray E coli in the ground beef to worry about lowering the bar on getting tanked in more ways than one.

The weather this Friday morning is glorious. It will get hot later, but at the moment the air is still fresh and only just beginning to be warm. By rights, Kathleen ought to be at the conference, but we have had a bit of excitement, involving a visit from the hotel doctor and a trip down Isla Verde Avenue to Walgreen's. Kathleen's left ear was already a little reddish when we left New York. "This happens from time to time," was her diagnosis. But as of last night, the pinna had swollen to Mr Potato Head dimensions, and was taking on a nasty color, as was the skin just below her ear lobe. The affable doctor arrived pronto, and prescribed the latest anti-biotic, something frightfully expensive (more than ten dollars a pill). We hopped in a taxi for the two-minute ride to the pharmacy, where Kathleen was told to come back after 12:30 to pick up the medicine. That will fit nicely, as we're checking out of this hotel at one and heading for Dorado, but I'd have preferred to get my hands on the fix once and for all.


There's still time for Kathleen to attend the remaining two sessions, after which she'll have a luncheon. Then we're off. I'm looking forward to the change in venue.

February 02, 2006

In San Juan

Writing from Kathleen's tiny VAIO, without the help of my text editor, I have managed to connect - and to report that I am alive and reasonably well. We're at the InterContinental San Juan, on Isla Verde - Puerto Rico's Miami Beach. It is pouring rain - which is not a problem, since Kathleen's at the convention, while I've got lots to read.

Kathleen had the bright idea of slipping me an Atavan on the flight, and I think that it had a healthy effect. The ride was really rather smooth, with only a few isolated moments of turbulence, never so rough as to prompt the captain to turn on the seat-belt sign. Even so, I detected a difference, a lack of apprehension. I wasn't waiting for the plane to rumble.

As a result, I was able to read the first dozen chapters of Emma, absorbed enough to pay attention to Jane Austen's unusual opening strategy. I'll write about this more when writing is a bit more convenient, but what distinguishes the opening of Emma from the conventional opening of a nineteenth-century novel is that, instead of beginning with a crisis that will set the action in motion while allowing the characters to present themselves, it dilates on the heroine's environment, widening the circle of her world a little bit in every chapter. Chapter 2, for example, expands upon the Weston connection, introducing the as-yet unmet Frank Churchill. In the following chapter, Harriet Smith steps forward - or, rather, is gently prodded into prominence by Emma's not entirely disinterested attentions. The opening action - disengaging Harriet from Robert Martin and preparing the field for -

But what's this? The good ladies at the Business Center have hooked my own machine up. Boy, am I dumb.

February 01, 2006


Sunday was a big day for "culture." There was  MET Orchestra concert in the afternoon, and in the evening a discussion, at the 92nd Street Y, of Bernard-Henri Lévy's American Vertigo, conducted by the author and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik.

The place was packed - not a seat to be had (although the one to my left remained vacant). Mr Gopnik announced at the beginning that the discussion would also touch on M Lévy's thoughts about the implications of the Hamas victory in Palestine. At this moment, I sensed a presumption that everyone in the hall was Jewish. M Lévy (hereinafter "BHL") would shortly pronounce the 92nd Street Y "the beating heart of liberal Judaism in New York," or words to that effect. This was not your ordinary book talk.

In France, they still have overt intellectuals, and BHL is certainly one of them. Mr Gopnik would probably not put himself forward as an intellectual, but that's clearly what he is. What is an intellectual? Like a prophet, the intellectual critiques the morality of the moment, both as a standard and in its breach. But the intellectual eschews the prophet's stripped-down message; he would not agree that complication is necessarily bad.

It is a habit of American intellectuals to hedge their judgments with enough qualification to convince the ordinary man that they are incapable of making decisions. This is not a failing of postwar French intellectuals, most of whom have always been ready to interrupt their mandarin analyses unequivocal denunciations. BHL has concluded that the way to deal with a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority is to refuse to deal with it, because while it is democratically empowered, it espouses an unacceptable program of anti-Zionism. Working up to this conclusion, he enumerated historical stages of ant-Semitism, noting a consistent displacement in their rationales. The latest brand of anti-Semitism, in BHL's view, is anti-Zionism. A century ago, Jews were hated ostensibly because they were an international group incapable of local allegiance. They didn't have a country. Now, according to BHL, Jews are hated ostensibly because they do have a country. What never changes is hatred of the Jews. Which is pre-eminently hatred of The Other, a premise that led to a neat discussion of the philosophy of Emanuel Lévinas.

But American Vertigo was not slighted. The discussion explored the difference between French and American conceptions of nationality, with America's seen as flexible and pluralistic; our country is currently inhabited by a hyphenated population. BHL was delighted to discover that the model for assimilation professed by the Arab-Americans of Dearborn, Michigan, is none other than the Jewish American. He also dismissed the idea of an "imperial United States." No - as he sees it, we're more like Carthage than Rome. A sobering comparison! 

Mr Gopnik and M Lévy spoke very highly of one another; sincerely, I thought. Mr Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, a collection of "Letters from Paris" to The New Yorker, is to some extent a counterpoint to American Vertigo - although, unlike Vertigo, it appeared in book form in its writer's native language first. It will be interesting to compare the two volumes. Friendly and like-minded as they appeared to be, however, I saw not two Jews but a New Yorker and a Parisian on the stage of the Kaufmann Concert Hall. Two ways of being intellectual; two different cosmopolitan accents.


This afternoon, Kathleen and I will be flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Kathleen will attend a conference, after which we'll retire to a seaside resort for a few days; we're to return on the eighth. I'll be taking the laptop that I haven't used in six months, but attaining connectivity may prove to be too much of a hassle for my somewhat low spirits. Having worked at my French for two years, I'm not a little miffed about traveling to a Spanish-speaking destination, but then I think I may have lost the taste for travel altogether. I have not set foot off the Island of Manhattan in over a year - since returning from Istanbul. (That can't be right, but neither can I remember anything to the contrary.) You'll probably attribute the touch of depression to that fact alone! But my Manhattan-bound year has also witnessed the greatest transformation in my life: discovering a vocation. Compared with writing here among my books, CDs, DVDs, and other scraps of information (beautiful and otherwise), anything that takes me away from it for more than a few hours feels worse than trivial.

January 28, 2006

The Matador

Is it me, or is it the neighborhood? Possibly it's Hollywood's aversion to the Bush Administration, which as several critics have noted has begun to show up in movies that were greenlighted after the 2004 election. In any case, there always seems to be a movie in the neighborhood that's worth seeing. This was not always the case. In fact, it was almost always not the case. The screens were reserved for films directed at teens and children. Dumb cop sequels. High concept trash. Now, even a movie as formulaic as The Last Holiday is a delight.

The Matador, which I saw yesterday, spends its entire run playing with formulas and derailing expectations. I'm not sure that I can say more about it than that, because this is definitely one film not to "spoil." It is a fun movie that likes to fool around with gasoline; the urge to urge businessman Danny Wright (Greg Kinnear) to steer clear of assassin Julian Noble (Pierce Brosnan) is constant, and never more pressing than when Julian dances with Bean, Danny's wife (Hope Davis), in the Wrights' living room. In this parody of a thriller, Mr Brosnan, always sleek and debonair in said thrillers, leaves his customary mien farther behind than George Clooney, in O Brother, Where Art Thou? got from his. In fact, the man is repellent - but amusingly so. Mr Kinnear takes "sidekick" to new levels, so that it does not seem quite fair to think of him as a supporting actor. Ms Davis is a bit loopier than usual - just a bit, but the only thing straight about her is her blond hair. Philip Baker Hall and Dylan Baker do their usual good work in smaller roles.

Director Richard Shepard has injected a juicy tic into The Matador: every time the action changes location (something that happens fairly often), the name of the city in question is spelled out in huge blue letters that cover the entire screen, a truly preposterous (and hilarious) send-up of the thriller genre's penchant for datelines.

Don't see The Matador if you're in a meat-and-potatoes mood. Mission Impossible III is coming up.

January 27, 2006

Catching Up Not Required

With well over a year of solid blogging behind me, I'm finding that the experience has taken a few unexpected turns. For one thing, I'm no longer so interested in the links to impish or naughty pages; in fact, I'm not really interested in links per se. I've discovered that, with a moment's thought, I can get to whatever's being talked about via Google. For another, I've all but eliminated single-purpose blogs from my rosters. Blogs that are always and only satirical, political, self-absorbed or preoccupied with any one thing might be useful from time to time, but I can't bring myself to check them out every day. The time that I would devote to Go Fug Yourself - a very funny blog that invariably reduces me to tears by the fourth entry - goes instead to exploring the Blogosphere in search of sites that resemble my own. And there isn't much of such time. Trying to keep up with my the many blogs that I've "bookmarked" since June 2004 would be a full-time job if I were diligent about it.

Which I'm not. I've only just taken a first look at Jasper Emmering's eminently sensible and progressive blog, Hollandaise since September, when Mr Emmering posted some amazingly insightful entries comparing New Orleans to the Netherlands as to flood-prevention and preparation. The author is a physician whose English is just about native, and I don't know where he finds the time to read as widely as he does. (I'm not doing anything besides this, much less tending to the sick.) Nor have I noticed that Ronnie Cordova is writing a lot less these days at Sublethal, where, to be sure, the prose style often suggests slo-mo self-flagellation. Just as self-punishing, bar bouncer Rob, of Club Life, is somehow getting his book written for - Harper, was it? And I'd forgotten the existence of Mr Sun altogether!    

The other day, JR, at L'homme qui marche, proffered a bunch of cool photographic links. JR has been experimenting with "faux lo-mo," Photoshopping his digital images to give them the undernourished look of pictures taken with old Soviet cameras. Turns out that a lot of Flickr patrons are doing the same. Hours fly by! Then Amy, at The Biscuit Report, announces that she's being plugged by a site called King of Zembla. So I visit King of Zembla and have a look at the other plugged sites. One of these, Daai Tou Laam Diary - kept by an American expat in Hong Kong - links in turn to a site that I haven't visited in a very long time, Jesus' General. Scrolling down at JG, I find the General having some fun with a Mr Andrew Longman, born-again contributor to Renew America who is very unhappy about Brokeback Mountain. Mr Longman is, indeed, fun - if unintentionally.

Has it occurred to the great bulk of our people that we need to quit tolerating the forces of internal destruction which work night and day to deconstruct our manliness at a time when our nation faces an absolute need for valor, ferocity, the force of arms, and the defense of the innocent pregnant woman and her children at home? Has it occurred to anyone, anyone at all, that it is immoral to assault masculinity? In a time of war?

The writer wins this week's Mr Patriarch award.

It goes on and on. There's one thing I've learned. It came to me when I was talking about this to Kathleen and she told me about a former colleague who likes the site but who, like Kathleen herself, doesn't always have the time to check in. "I'm a bit behind with The Daily Blague," she said. I told Kathleen to tell her, "Don't worry about catching up!" I used to say - at Portico, and with profound wrongheadedness - "this is not a blog." Now, I say, "this is not a book." You don't have to catch up.

January 25, 2006

Reissued Reissues

A small box arrived from The Musical Heritage Society, containing two CD albums of Bach, and I'm finding this extremely quaint. Extremely. My membership in the MHS can be divided between three distinct periods: three years of high school, about four years ca 1988, and since 2000. At all times, of course the MHS has been a redistributor of other labels' recordings; the difference between now and the 1960s is that now it reissues recordings that have already been released here on major labels. In the 1960s, it was the American (North American?) licensee for minor European labels.

Yesterday's arrivals add another layer. Both albums were recorded in Vienna by an undisclosed label and released in the United States on the Bach Guild label, which, while not quite premium in those days, was certainly not a budget line, either. The Bach Guild was targeted to the growing body of listeners, largely professional people I expect, who found in Bach an intellectual tonic and who preferred a lean, "original instruments" sound, preferably performed by a small chamber orchestra, to the lush arrangements by Leopold Stokowski and others that one encountered in the concert hall. There weren't many professional chamber orchestras in the United States in those days; there were plenty of academic and amateur groups, but they didn't travel. I remember the New York Pro Musica coming to Notre Dame - and I remember how exceptional that sort of thing was. Chamber orchestras would begin to appear in the Seventies. By then, the repertoire - Vivaldi through, say, KPhE Bach - had been made more or less familiar by imported recordings. The notable performances appeared on labels such as The Bach Guild, while people you never heard of played on LPs released to MHS subscribers. Now, today, 24 January 2006, I have on my desk two albums that, having been redistributed decades ago by the Bach Guild, have been reissued by the MHS.

Bach is the only composer to whose music I can listen when I work - if I can listen to anything at all. I can guess why this is so, but my surmises probably wouldn't make much sense to anyone who hadn't experienced the same thing. Almost everything that I can think of makes Bach sound trivial and very limited. In fact, Bach limits himself. Every piece - and it's worth noting that very few approach ten minutes in length, much less surpass it - sets a very specific goal, such as working out the possibilities of casting a given musical fragment in a certain canonical structure. (If you don't know what that means, just think "puzzle.") And that's that. There are no distractions and few surprises. Bach writes with a beautiful craftsmanship that accords with and soothes the working brain.

If Mozart makes you smarter (temporarily, by making paying attention more interesting than it usually is), Bach actually makes you think. 

The reissues in question are: Gustav Leonhardt's 1953 recording of the Goldberg Variations and a complete set of the keyboard concerti (single and multiple), played by I Solisti di Zagreb under (who else?) Antonio Janigro. Anton and Erna Heiller, Kurt Rapf and Christa Landon are the soloists. I haven't listened to the Leonhardt yet, but the concerti are clear and lively. 

January 24, 2006

Telling you so

Good Morning again! It's a bright, cold Tuesday - perfect weather for "I told you so." Today's headline:



Understaffing, Infighting and Lack of Expertise Are Cited in Draft


The first official history of the $25 billion American reconstruction effort in Iraq depicts a program hobbled from the outset by gross understaffing, a lack of technical expertise, bureaucratic infighting, secrecy and constantly increasing security costs, according to a preliminary draft.

Except, I didn't tell you so.

2 May 2003: Hurrah! The war in Iraq is over! Saddam Hussein hasn't been accounted for, and neither have his weapons of mass destruction, but military opposition to American troops has ceased. As our intervention in Afghanistan ought to have taught all thinking people, the American mission would come down to this: the war would be over when resistance to our invasion melted away. Installing a US-friendly person as the nominal head of local affairs (in the case of Afghanistan, 'local' means 'Kabul and environs,' no more), we would hale our troops home to a hero's welcome. The Administration could rest assured that no one except nigglers like me would fault it for having altogether failed to accomplish its trumpeted prewar objectives. Is it so hard to remember six-week-old headlines? (Link)

I truly had no idea what a disaster our Iraqi misadventure would be. I knew that it wouldn't succeed, but my conception of its failure was pretty limited.

Of course, it's not over yet.

"Problems from the start" will keep me chuckling all day. Oh! Almost forgot. The headline is from The New York Times.

January 23, 2006

Monday Note

Good Morning! It's a cold, wet Monday, and the Times is correspondingly cheering.

¶ As Profits Soar, Companies Pay US Less for Gas Rights

¶ Seeking Edge in Spy Debate

¶ In a Stronghold, Fatah Fights To Beat Back a Rising Hamas

¶ Potent Mexican Meth Floods In As States Curb Domestic Variety

¶ Held in 9/11 Net, Muslims Return To Accuse US

¶ Answering the Fire Bell in the Company of Women [an upbeat story, but not exactly front-page news]

And "Inside":

¶ New Orleans Hospital System Overwhelmed

¶ Another Warning From Iran

¶ Deal for ABC Radio Is Near

¶ A Big Story With Big Risks [Jill Carroll's captivity]

¶ Prime-Time Moves at NBC

And what do I do when I finish reading the paper? I pick up The Stories of John Cheever and read "The Country Husband," a masterpiece that returned me to the suburban emptiness of my childhood. Francis Weed, Cheever's protagonist, is roused from his utterly unreflective commuting life by touches of violence - the emergency landing of an airliner in a Pennsylvania cornfield (nobody's hurt), and an encounter of sorts with a woman whom he recognizes as a collaborator who was shaved and stripped while he and a few other GIs stood by - and primed, as it were, to fall in love with the first beautiful girl he sees. Besotted, Francis embarks on a half-willed course of destroying his life, but is saved before any permanent damage has been done by a psychiatrist who recommends woodwork. Woodwork works. Francis calms down and rediscovers domestic happiness.

Looking around, I see a nation that is manifestly not in great shape. Our res publica, as the first Times story indicates, is steadily passing into the hands of private interests; I sense that many Americans, dimly aware of this, would rather liquidate public holdings than share them with their fellow-citizens, rather as if we were all contentious siblings squabbling over an estate. Cheever's story, however, reminds me of a more somnolent era. The country was apparently healthier, but its managerial class was living in whited sepulchres. In many ways, life back then was worse.

Until very recently, I've always felt that things were getting better, more or less, overall. Serious problems lay ahead, but we would figure out how to deal with them. Five years of Dubya and his minions, however, have shown me how naive I was, how untested my optimism. I'm still hopeful; the United States may be the mega whatever but once you factor out its energy consumption and its production of pap, it's not such a big deal. But we have a lot of fixing to do here. More than just woodwork, I'm afraid.

January 21, 2006

The Last Holiday

It's still something of a surprise to me that I went to see The Last Holiday this afternoon. Qua hip-hop diva, Queen Latifah is not a draw, and while she has always seemed accomplished in the few movies that I've seen her in, I shouldn't have thought that I'd go to see something that for all intents and purposes is a vehicle for her good spirits. But I did go, and those spirits are very good indeed.

Every movie leaves its own aftertaste. Leaving the dark theatre for the humdrum banality of a movie lobby and a too-bright street (or sometimes one that's incredibly gloomy), I am usually overwhelmed by a particular emotional reaction. (Sometimes, as after The Family Stone, this feeling took a while to condense.) Last week, after Match Point, I felt very dark and fearful; I felt as if I'd done something awful and was about to get caught. Walking out of The Last Holiday, the emotion was quite simple. I felt the remorse of the chastened, and I wanted to be a better person.

The Last Holiday remakes a 1950 J B Priestley screenplay of the same name that starred Alec Guinness in the Queen Latifah role (I've put this on my to-rent list). Georgia is a young and reserved New Orleans woman who sells cookware in a department store while pursuing culinary ambitions at home. When she slips and falls at work, a CAT scan is prescribed. The scan reveals that Georgia is suffering the final stages of an obscure disease -although she feels just fine. Assured that she has mere weeks to live, she decides to try to realize a few of the dreams in her scrap book of "possibilities." Cashing in her IRA and some bonds that her mother left her, Georgia flies off to Carlsbad - Karlovy Vary in Czechoslovakia - a wedding cake of a spa in the mountains. Here she bumps into some people from home - she knows them, but they don't know her. The outcome is perfectly obvious within ten or fifteen minutes of the opening credits. While the plot unfolds on cue, Georgia opens up and lives for the first time in her life. She treats herself liberally, and is only just beginning to tire of luxury when the plot conveniently takes her to the next level. This opening-up to life is the whole point of the movie, and it would be insufferable if Queen Latifah, lit from within, didn't so powerfully demonstrate her character's consciousness of a conversation with God. Beginning with "why me?", this conversation ends with what can only be called the most pious of winks. It's as though Georgia decided to spend her last days on earth on a fabulous package weekend with the Almighty as her escort. When she accumulates a fortune by placing the same bet betting three times in a row at roulette, Georgia does indeed appear to have some extraordinary assistance.

Director Wayne Wang shows his trust in his star by keeping the other actors out of the her way until it's time for Georgia to change their lives with a smile and a few wise words. Hotel chef Didier (Gérard Depardieu) is won over immediately; Matthew Kragen (Timothy Hutton), the heroine's erstwhile boss and a corrupt, overcompetitive businessman, is her last beneficiary. Queen Latifah's Georgia confronts the high life with precisely the correct balance of abashed surprise and shrewd assessment; she's not a slow learner. She is always a lady; for a good while at the hotel, she's the only lady. The screenplay gives her two episodes of wild physical abandon, once on a snowboard (hilarious) and once beneath a parachute (terrifying), but her exuberance is never crass. Meanwhile, she is never the cocky, full-of-herself person that the plot might easily have elicited. Even when eating cucumber slices that she has just peeled from her eyes, Georgia seems to be in some sort of prayerful converse.

After talking Matthew off the ledge of the Hotel Pupp, it's time to go home in earnest, with Mr Right on one arm and the news of her misdiagnosis on the other. Mr Right is played by LL Cool J. If this gentleman was ever (or is still) an habitué of the bling monde, no trace of it shows in his collected, grown-up Sean. Who knew that little Alia, of Dune, would grow up to be Alicia Witt, the new Julianne Moore? Ms Witt handles her character's transformation from scheming bitch to grateful friend with intelligent tact, never asking the audience to like her too much too soon. Giancarlo Esposito, who just turned in a powerful performance in Derailed, plays a US Senator here with dash and soul. There are lots of fine things in the small touches - Jane Adams, Jascha Washington, Julia LaShae, Ranjit Chowdhry and Susan Kellerman are just a few of the fine supporting actors. Ellen Savaria was arresting in a very small, one-line part; I liked the look of her. M Depardieu is such a pro that he repeatedly gave the impression of having worked with Queen Latifah in many previous films.

The Last Holiday is a Class A treat. Despite its picture-perfect ending (which Mr Wang has the wit to muss with a funny touch), it's not a "feel good" movie - it's not easy. Google's Movie Showtimes bills it as a "Drama/Comedy/Action/Adventure" feature, but, if you ask me, it's a movie of faith.

January 20, 2006

Just a thought

Late the other night, I was reading a John Cheever story, "The Wrysons," in which a suburban woman is afflicted with a recurring dream of nuclear holocaust. The dream winds up with a sort of yacht-club immolation scene in which boaters are drowned as they over-crowd the waters of refuge. In the dream, she weeps "to see this inhumanity as the world was ending."

Well, it isn't the world that is ending. The post-holocaust planet will go on spinning somehow, and opportunistic life-forms that have been waiting for the opportunity will flourish. (For example, a virus that replicates through the digitized memory of chatted vacuities such as "I'm standing outside your building, where are you?") Life will begin the long trek back to Descartes. This much we know. But I found myself wondering this evening about cultural extinctions in our own long past. One hundred fifty thousand years is no time at all on the geological scale, but it's plenty of time, I imagine, to scrub the traces of human artifact from the face of the earth. We think of the time between the moment of homo sapiens's unmistakable arrival (whenever that was) and the composition of the first granary account as a long, boring and unrecorded progression toward us. But what if we've done this already a few times? What if there were was a New Yorker seventy thousand years ago - and all record of it has been obliterated by natural processes, just as natural processes would clear Earth of our record in, say, fifty thousand years? What if, far from living in savannahs and bumbling our way toward speech, we've done this sophisticated cultural thing a few times already, but with such catastrophic results that We Don't Remember?

As you know, my mind doesn't drift toward science fiction. But I found myself plausibly wondering...

(But it's another Cheever story altogether that I urge you to read, a lovely tale called "The Duchess.")

January 19, 2006

Modes of Transport

Until a few years ago, I never took MTA buses. The only exception was to take the crosstown bus (M86) through the Park to Broadway, where I'd change to the downtown IRT (the 1 train). The crosstown bus crawls through Yorkville; I outwalk it routinely, without even trying. But it does pick up beyond Lexington Avenue, and pretty soon you're crossing Central Park West.

Eventually, I discovered that the buses that run up and down the avenues move a lot more quickly than the crosstown bus, and I started taking the M15 down Second Avenue to 70th Street, which is by curious chance the address of most of my doctors. Coming back, though, is a different story. I'll take the bus sometimes, but I'm just as likely to grab a taxi, and, in fine weather, I'll walk along the river. Today, I actually walked several blocks out of my way, to the 68th Street IRT station (to catch the 6 train). Why? Even though I was a commuter for a brief seven years, a long time ago, I still feel fine waiting on a subway platform, and I still feel faintly ridiculous standing out in the street (even in the shelter) for a bus. There's another thing. The train you want is usually the only thing that's going to pass by; on the avenues, the urge to stare into the oncoming traffic for the sign of a bus is irresistible but also annoying. In the subway, I can read until I hear the approaching roar. In the bus shelter, I can't pay attention to anything but the monotonous and disappointing traffic.


I walked by Shakespeare & Co, which has a branch on Lexington between 68th and 69th. Last week, I stopped in and bought a couple of things, Consider the Lobster (David Foster Wallace) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (David Leavitt, on Alan Turing). I bought my own copy of Tauranac Maps's Manhattan: Block by Block A Street Atlas. This is an indispensable book for all persons who find themselves, for whatever reason and whatever length of time, on Manhattan Island. (It seems to be hard to get at the moment. The latest edition came out in 2004, but someone told Kathleen that a new edition was in the works and would be coming out soon - and that sounds about right.) Today, however, I walked right on by. Consider the Lobster is indeed very funny.

January 16, 2006

Comments Redux

Comments have been enabled, but commenters must be authenticated. This means that, in order to post a comment, you must have a TypeKey identity. If you don't have a TypeKey identity, you can create one very handily by clicking on the "Sign In" link (I agree that it's fairly pale) at the bottom of the comments page. Please feel free to drop me a line if you have any difficulty with the new régime. Your comments are extremely important to me, and I've resisted the hurdle of TypeKey authentication for over a year just to keep the posting of comments simple. Until the wizards of comment spam have been banished from the Blogosphere, however, authentication will be my best defense against a very demoralizing intrusion.

Marvelous Party

We went to a marvelous party on Saturday night. It was given by a banker who wanted to celebrate a birthday in high style. Just under three hundred people made their way to a Park Avenue town house that currently houses a prestigious organization that, like most clubs and institutes and such, rents its facilities for parties. The facilities in question were pretty grand: five large rooms on two floors. In the ballroom, upstairs, a very accomplished big band provided the music for some very accomplished dancing; the host has taken up ballroom dancing with a vengeance, and old relics such as Kathleen and I quickly learned that our comfortable shuffling just got in the way. On top of which the rhythm wasn't right for comfortable shuffling. The finger food was very tasty - and filling, too - as were the pastries. The bartenders were kept busy mixing Cosmopolitans. We left just before the cake - a bust of Albert Einstein - was cut. The rain had stopped, and we leapt into a taxi. It was ten-twenty.

The party animal in me, once rather formidable, has certainly passed on. Seeing avid faces all around me, I could recall the yearning for surprise and the craving for new and interesting people that propelled me through countless overstimulated hours. But I was so relieved not to be similarly afflicted that I didn't try.

January 15, 2006

No Comment

We're midway through the long Martin Luther King weekend. Sleeping in seems to have been the order of the day this winter, especially on weekends. I can't decide whether the comfort is outweighed by the loss of daylight. It will be dark in a couple of hours, and I've only just finished reading about half of the weekend's Timeses. It was heartening to see that two of the newspaper's three film critics "nominated" Romain Duris, of De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, for the Best Actor Oscar. I doubt that M Duris has a chance, though, given the fact that his film is in French.

Owing to a storm of comment spam that began shortly before Christmas, I have temporarily disabled the comments feature on this site. As of yesterday, I was receiving over three hundred pieces of crap a day. They're easy to delete, thanks to a handy plug-in, but the rising tide was demoralizing. I am considering the option that Six Apart, the makers of MovableType, recommend: limiting comment access to TypeKey identities. This oughtn't to pose a real problem, because the identities are free and easily acquired. But in practice, I know that it will chill many commenters. It's possible that simply turning comments off for a while will send some kind of message to the bastards behind the bombardment - I'm not on top of the technology. (I'd be supremely grateful, and even willing to make a small cash prize, for any effective help in dealing with this intrusion.) I do beg you to write to me directly for the duration, about anything that strikes your fancy, making clear whether or not your remarks are intended for publication.

And now for my wonted Sunday pastime, reviewing the Book Review.

January 12, 2006


A recent encounter has set me to thinking about ambition again, about the kind of ambition that I've never had - the ambition to shine.

We all want to shine in some way or another. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than the kind of letter that I received from a new Australian reader the other day. There's no need to quote it, because all you need to know about it is the deep pleasure that it gave me to read that what I'm doing here is appreciated. I will never receive an excess of such letters, I assure you! So I can't say that I don't want to shine. I do, I do.

But the ambition to shine entails a certain something else: a willingness to do things that have nothing to do with, in my case, writing. At the head of the list of such things, in my case, would be the pursuit of official recognition and credentials. Don't misunderstand me; I don't mean to be sniffy about marketing, as if it were ignoble. Marketing isn't ignoble - if you're any good at it and it pays off. But I'm no good at it at all, and the failure has been almost deforming at times. It's as if trying to position myself makes me uncertain and awkward, and I don't even do what I'm supposed to do well well.   

The minus side is that I'm toiling in obscurity, which is no fun if you like to shine, and everybody likes to shine. The plus side is that my growth has been entirely natural. I haven't concerned myself with things that were fashionable, or cranked out sawdust to meet deadlines. For years - from college through my twenties - I filled notebooks with self-centered who-am-I ramblings that I just may burn unopened one of these days. The sheer solipsism might give me a tumor! It was writing about music for the radio station's program guide that sounded my first good writing, but that was gratuitous as well, in every sense. Eventually, the Internet reinvented correspondence, and my letters to friends kept tending toward the fully-shaped critique of something or other. Me voilà.

What's new and different now is that I am finally, at fifty-eight, doing something worth being ambitious about. You may not agree, but that's not the point. The point is that I've never done anything that I took seriously in the way that I take writing for my sites seriously. In whatever else I've done, I've been guided by a sense of duty to others; now I'm goaded by a responsibility to myself.

My failures at marketing in the past, therefore, may have simply reflected a lack of conviction. Could I learn some new tricks now? We'll see!

January 01, 2006

Happy 2006


Wishing you all the best for the New Year.

Please take a few minutes to read Kwame Anthony Appiah's essay, appearing in today's Times Magazine, "The Case For Contamination: Toward a New Cosmopolitanism."

To say what, in principle, distinguishes the cosmopolitan from competing universalisms, we plainly need to go beyond talk of truth and tolerance. Cosmopolitans think that there are many values worth living by and that you cannot live by all of them. [Italics added] So we hope and expect that different people and different societies will embody different values. Another aspect of cosmopolitanism is what philosophers call fallibilism - the sense that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence.

Aside from a very small number of precepts concerning what one human being can and cannot do to another, I recognize no absolute truths. We so obviously have neither the information nor the understanding that absolute truths presuppose. A taste for certain knowledge is the hallmark of anxiety in the face of life's barrage of experience; it is a sign of immaturity. I remember so well the flush of pleasure that I felt as a student in the pursuit of metaphysical certainties; I should be degraded by such a feeling now.

December 30, 2005

Recapturing the Past


The photograph above, André Kertész's New York, 1954, may be the only photograph reprinted in Geoff Dyer's The Ongoing Moment that I recognized, immediately, as a scene, and not as a photograph that I had seen before. The figure at the right, casting a long, wintry shadow, is standing on the John Finley Walk, by the East River. The massive building in the distance is New York Hospital, still standing but obscured from this vantage by many intervening taller buildings. The building beyond the nearer figure's head is 1 East End Avenue, a grand old co-op. I was puzzled by the picture, because 1 East End seemed to be standing where the highway ought to be. I was forgetting the curvature of the island at this point.

An attentive viewer of New York, 1954 who hadn't stood on this spot might have been greatly puzzled by the span stretching over the walk, parallel to the Queensborough Bridge in the distance. What is it part of? Another bridge, perhaps? An elevated subway line? And while it is easy to tell that the East River runs far below the walkway, it is not at all clear why that should be so. Kertész must have been tickled by the mildly inexplicable elements of his image. He could have cleared things up a bit by entitling the picture, Beneath the Brearley School Playground, 1954. For that's what the span is: one of four roughly equal sides of a rectangular level, reachable from the second floor of the Brearley School (girls K-12; Kathleen went to high school here), and still in use, I suppose, even though Brearley shares a nearby field house.

In 1954, the Walk was rather new. Now it's over fifty years old, and you can tell that from my photograph, taken yesterday in very different weather.


Those delicate "x"s have been obscured by some sort of bunting, and the view is further spoiled by a works site farther along the walk, where an adjacent building is having its balconies coped with metal, to prevent chips of cement from falling upon innocent heads.

It was my job yesterday to buy caviar for New Year's Eve at Agata & Valentina, where the quality is good and the prices are low - well, low enough for this neighborhood. I had already lugged a big shopping bag of stuff home from Eli's. The sensible thing would have been to walk along 79th Street from Third Avenue to First, where Agata is, but I didn't like the thought of lugging a big Eli's shopping bag through Agata & Valentina where all I would be buying would be tiny tins of caviar. I prefer to deceive each store's personnel into thinking that I'm loyal to its establishment. Don't I wish I could be, too. But there are lots of things that one store sells that the other doesn't. For example, frozen croissants and hors d'oeuvres. Like everything at Eli's, they're a bit overpriced, but they're also fantastic. Although I can't get M le Neveu to get beyond the pigs-in-blankets. Ms NOLA always takes pity on him and lets him have hers; it's a free country. With luck, or at least scheduled flights flying on schedule, the four of us will be together to ring in the New Year.

So I brought home the big bag of Eli's stuff - cheeses, crackers, San Francisco salamis, and a chicken pot pie for dinner tonight - and put everything away. Setting out again, I was still in the driveway when I remembered that I wanted to see what goes into Lobster Newburg, which I'm thinking of fixing for New Year's Eve. On my way back upstairs, I remembered, too, that I wanted to see Kertész's view for myself. I grabbed the camera for good measure.


Here is the Brearley School, sort of. It's obviously a reflection of the building in a puddle, flipped both ways. I hope it doesn't make you seasick. Perhaps Kathleen will post a comment, sharing her first-day feeling of going to a women's prison; my photograph captures something of that, I think.

You can see the playground's upper fencing at the lower left. I apologise for all the brown dog-bones of cheap repaving fixes. Like most park walks in New York, this one is "tiled" with asphalt hexagons. They wear out pretty quickly. If I were Geoff Dyer, I might call attention to the brown spot that appears to be an illuminated lamppost. Sitting down to write about The Ongoing Moment, I saw right away that I must first re-read Susan Sontag's On Photography, paying closer attention this time. One of Sontag's six chapters is devoted to the impact of Surrealism upon photography, which, I now see, was enormous. Sadly, Surrealism has always been, for me, a matter of paintings by de Chirico and Magritte, and the sliced eye in Un chien andalou. I have never taken it very seriously. I thought that it intended not to be taken seriously, but in that I was incorrect.

Click here to see the original image, full-size.

December 28, 2005

Meme of Four

Having followed the recent rash of "Meme of Four" postings with avid interest, and finding myself in the middle of several pages with nothing quite ready for publication, I have decided to jump on for a free ride - with commentary. The number four poses interesting problems of scarcity and superfluity.

¶ Four jobs that I have had: I have not had four jobs. I was a summer clerk at the Bank of New York in the Sixties, a radio announcer and music programmer in the Seventies, and a paralegal and a lawyer in the Eighties. None of them meant nearly as much to me as the current uncompensated position whose job description I'm making up as I go along.

¶ Four movies that I could watch over and over: This is a tough one. There are dozens of movies that I do watch over and over. Every once in a while, in the kitchen, I watch a movie again right away. I'm going to give two sets, funny and not funny. Funny: Something's Gotta Give, Le Divorce, What's Up, Doc? and The Awful Truth. Not funny: Dolores Claiborne, The Gift, Runaway Jury, and The Road to Perdition.

¶ Four places I have lived: Once again, I don't quite meet the mark. I grew up in Bronxville, New York, which is a suburb sixteen miles from Times Square. Is that so different from living in Manhattan? Yes and no. Whenever I traveled as a youth, I would say that I was from New York, and my interlocutor would say, "But you don't sound like you come from Noo Yawk." In between Bronxville and Yorkville, I've lived in Notre Dame, Indiana (it has its own Zip code) and Houston, Texas.

¶ Four TV Shows that I love to watch. Not applicable.

¶ Four places that I've visited on vacation: The most recent hits, all of which I'd like to revisit, are London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Istanbul, but now that I think of it, Kathleen wasn't on vacation in three of them. I'm looking forward to Dorado Beach in a couple of months. That's in Puerto Rico. But the important thing to know, since it's not where you travel but how you travel, is that staying home is my idea of roughing it. What I really want from travel is a little bit of the ancien régime.

¶ Four Web sites that I visit daily. Now that would be a great way to get into trouble. See the list of eighteen blogs to the left. I visit all of them every weekday.

¶ Four places I'd rather be. See above.

¶ Four of my favorite foods: Fried chicken, spaghetti alla carbonara, spring rolls, and just about any cheese.

¶ Four places I would rather be. I am too old for this question; I am simply glad to be alive.

December 27, 2005

Our Christmas

Here's hoping that everybody's Christmas was warm and tonic, free of all the arguments that ought to be off-limits for this one day at least. For those who didn't celebrate Christmas, I'm hoping for a warm and tonic day just the same, to be enjoyed somewhere about now. Whatever else the week between Christmas and New Year's may be, it's a grand caesura in the winter doldrums. In a few weeks from the First, it will be March, and buds will be popping. The older I get, the more alarmingly quickly winter ends - as does everything else.

There were three of us here. Miss G was in Houston, with her uncle and his little twins, Ms NOLA was in New Orleans, and Kathleen's brother couldn't get away from his neck of the woods. M le Neveu arrived at about four, and we sat down about two hours later. I'd have gotten an earlier start in the kitchen, but having been so enthralled by the fun of reorganizing the linen closet on Christmas Eve, Kathleen and I could not deny ourselves the pleasure of culling our vast collection of shopping bags, which I had ripped from various closets on Friday, in a vain search for a Christmas-tree stand. When we were through, we had five bags of bags, four - S, M, L, XL - to keep in the coat closet, and another bag of souvenirs from far-flung shops, and from a few boutiques that are no longer in business. That bag we'll keep somewhere else entirely.

When the bags were behind us, I set the table, using our best porcelain, which was nice to see for a change. I dug out a linen tablecloth that required only minimal pressing. I must say that the napkins felt soft and lovely, almost like diapers but richer somehow.

Among other things, we discussed Rousseau's concept of the foreign lawgiver, as it applies to Westerns such as Shane. We are very high-end here.

After dinner, I threw the odd pots and implements into the dishwasher, clearing out the kitchen so that Kathleen could wash the dishes. When she was through, she came into the living room and sat with us. It was warm enough outdoors to crack the balcony door and get some fresh air. Christmas carols continued their shuffle play. We were almost too relaxed.

It was decided that we should watch a movie. But which one. Running through my collection, which is not small, I discerned an allergy to Christmas themes. True, I've got Christmas in Connecticut and Holiday Inn, but neither of those is a first-rate Christmas offering. As for Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life, I can't handle such overt manipulation. So what did we settle on but Quiz Show! This excellent 1994 film by Robert Redford is even more studded with talent than it seemed to be when it was new. I won't go so far as to call it a Christmas movie, but in its sensitive grasp of of the very different home lives of contestants Herbert Stempel and Charles van Doren, it is certainly a family movie. Quiz Show also shatters the notion that there was ever a "Golden Age" of broadcast television.

As promised, here is the recipe for our main course, Beef Stroganoff.

December 24, 2005

In the spirit


Here's hoping that, if you're living in the Western world, in what used to be called "Christendom," you're having a warm and loving Christmas Eve. If this is just another Saturday night, then for heaven's sake, turn off the computer and get out for some fresh air. If you're in New Zealand or Australia, you may be just getting up on Christmas morning - time to head for the beach.

Kathleen and I have had a festive afternoon, reorganizing the linen closet mostly. That's how it ended up. Ironing was involved, as was the 1754 version of Handel's Messiah. In a little while, I'm going to make hamburgers. M le Neveu was to come for Christmas Eve, but he asked if he could come on Christmas instead, and that worked very well for us - allowing us extra time for organizing the linen closet as it did. I made a velouté de champignons for tomorrow's dinner; the main course will be Beef Strogranoff, using a wonderful recipe from Saveur that tops the dish with, of all things, frites! I've made it before, and if it comes out as well tomorrow, I'll publish the recipe. Dessert will be a bûche de Noël from Agata & Valentina; we will shed tears for Madame Dumas, who was last heard of in Queens.

In addition to fending off a cold that can't make up its mind what to do next, I've suffered a pre-holiday depression, wishing that I would magically wake up a few days before New Year's Eve - an uncomplicated holiday involving champagne, caviar, and shouting from the balcony at midnight. And Radio Days; we always watch Woody Allen's Radio Days on New Year's Eve. Christmas I was not enthusiastic about. Would I do the tree thing or not? That's really what Christmas is about, logistically. Either you buy a tree and move the furniture around, or you don't buy a tree and feel embarrassed in the privacy of your own home. Here's how I came to buy a tree.

On Monday, I think it was, I was changing lightbulbs in a ceiling fixture. This is not something that I ought to be doing, because I can't really see what I'm doing, and I took note too late that a small brass collar had unscrewed itself along with one of the lightbulbs. Don't ask me why, but this led to the dreadful pop of a short circuit. Kathleen and I were both traumatized; I'm sure she thought that I was going to drop from the stepstool. On Wednesday, I bought a replacement dimmer switch. By Friday, I'd convinced myself that the whole thing was going to be more complicated than just replacing the switch, but I hung around waiting for a handyman to come and repair a fixture and a dimmer switch that are definitely not building-issued. I should note that the fixture in question illuminates the corridor in which a lot of CDs and DVDs are shelved. Trying to read the spines of CDs and DVDs by flashlight is not recommended: all you get is reflected glare.


The handyman came, and he was one of the methodical Africans, francophone I think, who have joined the building staff in recent years and who prove over and over that plumbing and electricity are universal languages. Which is not the feeling that you get from the very cross and impatient Croatian guy with the shaved head who reminds me of Prime Suspect 6. I was fiddling with something in the bedroom - I never try to read when a handyman is on the premises, but I tie up lots of little loose ends; I must have made seven trips to the garbage chute - when I was summoned. Did I have some glue? The handyman was about to screw on the switchplate, but a painted chip of plaster had come off during the repair process, and if we glued it back on everything would look better. It was as a sidelight that he told me that the fixture was working.

That's when I decided to spend the rest of the day on a tree.

Living where I do, I didn't have to go far to buy one; 86th Street and Second Avenue is an arboreal node at this time of year. I had my fir in minutes. All I had to do - beside moving furniture and so on - was to change the group listing on the auxiliary CD carousel beneath the sofa. I've only programmed two groups: one of jazz copies and one that slots every Christmas CD that we own. Shuffle Play - it's the only way! I was in the Christmas spirit in no time.

But that was yesterday, when I wasn't thinking about the linen closet.


December 22, 2005

Back from the framer


Although I didn't expect to see them before Christmas, the two photographs by JR of L'homme qui marche that I'd bought prints of through Flickr were ready to be picked up on Tuesday. As you can see, I chose to frame them together, side by side; for I don't believe that I could ever choose just one of them without eternally regretting the loss of the other. Of all the snaps that I took, the one that I've chosen best captures the warmth of the corner of our bedroom. To see the images themselves properly, look for the thumbnails here and enlarge them. Despite being crazy-cheap, the prints are excellent, capturing all the detail that you can see on screen.

The framer beamed as she brought the frame out. "Everybody likes how it came out," she said. She has said this once or twice before in the course of framing two dozen pictures.

Now begins the scramble. JR's photos take the place of a larger but similarly shaped print that never belonged in the bedroom. It's an extremely austere, fastidiously black-and-white drawing of a railroad bridge somewhere, I should say, not far from Philadelphia. The angle between the humdrum intersection in the left foreground and the rail line, which is indicated by a parade of the pylons from which power lines are suspended. There is neither a vehicle nor a human figure in sight; the more I look at it, the more it seems to capture an industrial ideal that we have abandoned, even though we're still surrounded, here in the Northeast, by its remains. This picture will go into the blue room, where I spend my day, and displace, ultimately, a shadow-boxed platter. The platter, nineteenth-century English pseudo-export, broke cleanly in two one day when something so surprising happened that I no longer recall what it was. It is now one of three or four porcelain survivors of my maladroit manner that hang on our walls.


December 21, 2005

Urban Legend

So, the other night, M le Neveu and I were wondering if Anderson Cooper would ever amount to anything in the news; he was so good in New Orleans but he's so vacant behind a desk, or at least that's what I hear; I've never seen him. It occurred to me that perhaps Mr Cooper ought to take on causes, the way Geraldo Rivera used to do, and M le Neveu said that Anderson Cooper was at least better looking, and I disagreed, adding, impudently, "You know, his name is really Jerry Rivers."

Incredulous, my nephew turned to Google for verification. The short answer is that the urban legend according to which Geraldo Rivera's real name is Jerry Rivers is false. I promise never to mention it again - except in connection with the true story, which is even stranger.

"Gerald Riviera."

You decide.

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 14, 2005


Will the cold that has me in its sights kindly attack forthwith or withdraw? Feeling mildly lousy has lost its charm. I shall keep to my bed today; that's as good a place as any to make a dent on the periodicals.

In the evenings, waiting for Kathleen to come home, I usually perk up. Last night, I copied a bunch of LPs onto CDs. The idea is to get rid of the vinyl, but in a few cases I think I'm just going to hold on to the originals. The artwork is too good - Hipgnosis's jacket for Synergy's Cords - or the album is just too dear. At the top of the "dear" list is Ray Parker, Jr's debut album, Raydio, released by Arista in 1978.

By the fall of 1979, "Jack and Jill" had penetrated my general inattentiveness to pop, and I got to think so highly of the song that I would pull over, if possible, and just hear it out. I wouldn't have said this at the time, but now I take "Jack and Jill" to be a parody (possibly unconscious) of an enthusiastic church meeting, with Mr Parker substituting a justification of Jack's errancy for a sermon, with affirmation from the choir. The swelling chords the open the song are particularly churchly.

"Jack and Jill" seems to appear on every "best of" CD that Mr Parker has reissued, but the other songs on Raydio have fallen by the wayside. That's why I'm offering, for your amusement and edification, "Betcha Can't Love Me Just Once." Mr Parker's running trope is that he's the one with the commitment; most of his lyrics would sound just right coming from Aretha Franklin. But his inflection is totally lascivious. Kathleen cites Rick James as an influence. So is Barry White, in whose band Mr Parker was once a sideman. Mr Parker's combination of silk and sin, unusual in a male singer, sounds both serious and gently self-spoofing: he's making fun of himself while he's unbuckling his belt. Betcha can't listen just once. (But you can try.)

Back to bed.

December 10, 2005

Radio RJ

As long-time readers know, I spent most of my twenties working in classical FM radio, principally as a music director. I selected the music that was played from late morning until midnight. I did so, ideally, sufficiently in advance to allow offset-printed program guides to be produced and mailed to subscribers. But that is another story.

My database was a set of long trays of 3 x 5 inch cards. Each card listed a composition. The cards were arranged by composer, and the composers were arranged by birth date, so that early music was on my left, modern music on my right, and the music that most people want to hear was in the middle. I would pull the cards one by one to build up hours. In those days, federal regulation required station identification on the hour, so the hour was the basic programming unit. Because KLEF was a commercial station, I aimed to program hours of four or five pieces (to allow for breaks) with a play-length of fifty minutes. Staff announcers filled in any remaining air space ad libitum.

Programming music - laying out a sequence of compositions - is an art form in the sense that the Japanese tea ceremony is an art form. It is not so much creative as responsive. To follow a Rossini overture with a Schubert impromptu is to remind the alert listener that the relatively unknown Schubert imitated the wildly popular Rossini on several occasions, and might even be said to have shared something of the Italian composer's sense of humor. Or it might mean nothing; it might simply be pleasant. As a rule, clashes are to be avoided. One doesn't progress from early Mozart to later Ives, because the juxtaposition would be unflattering to both. Schumann followed by Brahms is always satisfying - and there's a danger of overdoing it. Scarlatti followed by Chopin can be clarifying, if you've chosen the right Scarlatti; Chopin assigned Scarlatti to his piano students. The more you listen, the more the connections proliferate.

After six years of programming music for a living, law school looked like a good thing. But I did not put programming behind me. Now I do it just for myself, on a facility that I call "Radio RJ." No broadcasting is involved, but I can be certain that, when I tune in, I won't hear anything that I don't like. Drawing on my sizeable CD library, I have filled over a hundred blank CDs with an ongoing sequence of symphonies, quartets, masses, nocturnes, concertos and even some overtures. I have almost three hundred more to burn, before filling my Sony carrousel to capacity.

Why go to all this trouble? Because it deals with the problem of choice so well. Without having anything particular in mind, I want to hear music. But what? There's so much to choose from! And if I want to hear one Mozart piano concerto, that doesn't mean that I want to hear the other one that's on the same CD. Radio RJ is, for me, a glorious filter. I would say that I've played through the existing circuit twenty-five times in the two years since I last worked on it. (Radio RJ is on only when RJ is actually listening to it.) It will also be, when it's complete, a pretty good record of my musical taste, something that I think would be very hard to infer from my collection itself.

Why did I stop two years ago? It's a long story, one that involves an incompletely backed-up database - an electronic one, this time; an Access file. As my last desktop computer lay dying of spy ware and other intrusions, I madly copied files onto discs. But something miscarried when it came to the Access databases, and in my confusion I didn't realize this until the hard drive had been wiped clean. (Even that didn't save the machine.) The result was that I lost the listings for CDs 70 through 101. Providentially, I had printed complete reports, not only of the sequence itself but of the works listed by composer - an important resource that provides a quick overview for planning new discs. (It tells me - to give a simple example - that Schumann's Piano Concerto appeared five discs ago, so don't burn it onto this one.) So all was not lost.

But, still. The idea of typing in thirty CD's worth of selections killed my appetite. There was also my own little Y2K problem. Unintelligently, I had started the database by listing tracks in four digits: cd/ Brahms's Piano Quartet No. 2, for example, starts at 77.02, while the next work, Telemann's Concerto for Trumpet and Oboes (also a chamber work, despite its title) begins at 77.06. (The Brahms is four movements - four tracks - in length.) The number is obviously vital to the undertaking; it's what tells the computer (and me) that the Telemann follows the Brahms instead of preceding it. Just as obviously, when I reached the centennial disc and ran into three digits, I had a problem. Very laboriously, I fixed the problem, prefixing each track listening with a "0." That labor was lost along with the listing of thirty CDs. This will give a better idea of why I just made do with what I'd already recorded by the fall of 2003. Did I mention that I was also chronically ill at the time?

It's only very lately, with my enormously amplified commitment to this site, that I've found the time and energy to forge onward. Because I'm out of practice, I resorted to the expedient of starting out from CD 201, instead of trying to follow the sequence at CD 101. (I'll worry about that later.) So far, I've completed five discs, and the database itself has been completely updated as to track listings, while one third of the missing CDs have been typed from the printouts into the computer. Pretty soon, it'll be good as new.

December 08, 2005

Comfy, "voluptuous," even


A few minutes ago, I finished P D James's latest Adam Dalgliesh Mystery, The Lighthouse (Faber and Faber, 2005), and a very satisfying read it was. Incriminating evidence was not discovered until forty-two pages before the end, and the suspect, while unexpected, made a great deal of sense. More than that, I can't tell you.

About the mystery, that is. I'd like to share two or three amusing passages, however. First I have to tell you something about the setting, a redoubtable island off the Cornish coast. (It doesn't exist, we're told, and neither does the mainland jumping off point, a town called Pentworthy; but helicopters come and go from Newquay.) The site of Combe House, the former summer h