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11 February 2010


Matins: Where have all the busybodies gone? Whitney Carpenter, writing at The Bygone Bureau, suggests that you answer this question with a glance in the mirror.

The purpose of a stock character is to act as shorthand for a common personality type; stripped of her identifying features — her age, her curtains, and her bingo halls — the busybody no longer serves that function. Gossip is the province of everyone now and until it reverts to being a negative character trait our blue-haired pal won’t be returning to pop culture. As far as we are concerned, there is nothing hilarious about a middle-aged lady crouching over her computer giggling at her own status update — at least not yet.

Consider: the news about Niall; Pete Warden's geographical analysis of Facebook networks; and the fact that the Paterson story has been denied by the Times, which was expected to drop a bombshell. Who would notice busybodies in this environment?

Lauds: Dan Callahan writes about one of our favorite actresses, Mary Astor, at Bright Lights.

Even as a girl in her teens, Astor had the intelligent, sorrowful eyes of a mature woman, and in talkies, her throaty voice made everything she said sound worldly and a touch cynical. In her best work, she hints at the sort of knowledge that can only be acquired through constant exposure to the seamier side of life. 

Mr Callahan's analysis of Astor's performance in The Maltese Falcon — looking for the "real" Brigid O'Shaughnessy — is not to be missed.

Prime: The idea of the celebrity director, invited to join a corporate board in order to confer cultural tone or, worse actually, diversity, gets sent to the cleaners by Felix Salmon.

It seems to me that the days when Goldman Sachs could fill its board with these standard corporate board types — the college president, the management consultant, the business-school professor, even the long-time chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae — have surely come to an end. It’s made a stab at beginning to reform its compensation practices, and I’m quite sure that’s entirely a decision of management rather than of the compensation committee. Next up, it should get to work on the board, appointing people who will look hard at managerial business decisions, and won’t allow themselves to be snowed by Lloyd. Indeed, he should welcome the extra set of eyes and a few tough questions: it’s good, in his position, to be forced to know what you’re doing and be on your toes.

Tierce: Sharon Begley explains why so many affluent women of a certain age look like dolls: "Hello Botox, Bye-Bye Sadness — But Not for the Reasons You Think." (Newsweek; via Arts Journal)

This is the first study suggesting that Botox affects the ability to understand the emotional content of language. "Normally, the brain would be sending signals to the periphery to frown, and the extent of the frown would be sent back to the brain," UW-Madison professor emeritus of psychology Arthur Glenberg (and Havas's adviser) said in a statement. "But here, that loop is disrupted, and the intensity of the emotion and of our ability to understand it when embodied in language is disrupted." Even though the temporal delay is less than a second, says Glenberg, who is now at Arizona State University, "in conversation, people respond to fast, subtle cues about each other's understanding, intention, and empathy. If you are slightly slower reacting as I tell you about something that made me really angry, that could signal to me that you did not pick up my message."

Sext: We always knew that Joe Jervis was a prince; now he turns out to be a prince from Wales. A good friend is an avid genealogist.

Homer discovered that my great-great grandfather (also Joseph Jervis) emigrated from Wales at the age of 21 in 1871 aboard the Cunard steamship Calabria (above). The ship left out of Liverpool and arrived in NYC twelve days later, where the entire family was processed at Castle Clinton, Manhattan's pre-Ellis Island immigration station and the present location of the ticket booth for excursions to the Statue of Liberty. And here I am 139 years later living just a few miles away on the same little island.

Nones: Greece has been hobbled by massive strikes and rallies, protesting austerity measures that the government must undertake in order to restore the nation's credit-worthiness. Guess who helped Greece get into this pickle? Our friends at Goldman Sachs, of course! Beat Balzli reports in Spiegel Online. (via Felix Salmon)

Now, though, it looks like the Greek figure jugglers have been even more brazen than was previously thought. "Around 2002 in particular, various investment banks offered complex financial products with which governments could push part of their liabilities into the future," one insider recalled, adding that Mediterranean countries had snapped up such products.

Greece's debt managers agreed a huge deal with the savvy bankers of US investment bank Goldman Sachs at the start of 2002. The deal involved so-called cross-currency swaps in which government debt issued in dollars and yen was swapped for euro debt for a certain period -- to be exchanged back into the original currencies at a later date.

Vespers: Eric Puchner's buzzed-up novel, Model Home, appears today. A brief but riveting bit of memoir at Speakeasy is said to overlap some of the novel's material.

My dad must have known something we didn’t, because soon enough he lost all our money in the savings and loan scandal that rocked California. The cars began to disappear — sometimes while we slept. The Lotus, in Bond-like fashion, screeched away one night without a trace. One of my father’s employees stole the Ferrari on a coke binge and shot up the neighborhood with a shotgun.  The car never returned.  As my mom and I moved from gated community to townhouse to apartment, my father having emptied our bank account and run off with another woman, my mother lived in constant fear that she wouldn’t be able to get to work: loan collectors were threatening to repossess the Mercedes he’d bought her.

Compline: Lisa Levy isn't crazy about Brian Dillon's The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives, but her discussion of hypochondria is engaging, and, like Whitney Carpenter's discussion of busybodies, it suggests why a certain stock figure is on the wane. (The Second Pass)

About the literature of illness, Woolf was right and wrong: No literature of illness has come along to compare to the literature of love, or even of work. The condition of the body is too complex for fiction. Death is always welcome as a plot point; it makes a tidy metaphor about loss, and forces pathos if not real grief and melancholy.  But illness drags a story down: no great novels will be written about cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or, heaven forbid, diseases less grandiose but recurring, like arthritis or asthma. There is a sentimental literature about dying—Love Story, Tuesdays With Morrie, anything by Nicholas Sparks—but not a serious one.

Yet there is a secret literature of illness contained beneath the umbrella of one of the most popular genres around, the memoir. From Prozac Nation (depression) to Hurry Down Sunshine (bipolar illness) to The Year of the Gun (drug addiction), to name a precious few, mental illness is the solid frontrunner in the race for most popular complaint amongst the memoirists. Sure, there are books about concrete maladies: surviving cancer (Elizabeth Edwards), living with (or dying from) AIDS (Paul Monette), overcoming the hardships of abuse and poverty (Bastard out of Carolina, The Liar’s Club, Running with Scissors). Even in these books, mental illness plays a starring role, and it should, as we have enlarged the category to include behaviors that had long been either not talked about or not acknowledged as damaging. Yet has this equating of insanity and creativity made everything and everybody crazy, hypochondriacs in some self-conscious sense?

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