Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

December 2018

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

Social Note:
Insulting Compliments
5 December 2018

Wednesday, December 5th, 2018

¶ Once upon a time, it was considered rude to compliment one’s hostess on the delicious food at her dinner, or the handsomeness of her drawing room. To do so was to imply that things might have been otherwise.

It would also have been insulting to observe that the late president was a gentleman. And, as we now see, confusing, too. 

Gastronomic Note:
Conundrum
4 December 2018

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018

¶ All Kathleen wanted for dinner was a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. So I made spaghetti alla carbonara for myself. And I noticed that it took a while, keeping me busy the whole time the water heated up. For one thing, I have taken to frying two pieces of bacon on the stovetop, instead of zapping them in the microwave (much less poking around the fridge for leftovers). It tastes better. I used make carbonara with pancetta, which I would slice and fry, too, and I turned to bacon because it was more convenient. But now I’m taking the same trouble with bacon — which I’ve learned I really prefer to pancetta. I ask myself: why do I, so lazy these days, so disinclined to cook in general, think nothing of standing up for half an hour to make spaghetti alla carbonara

Why? Because the result is unfailingly delicious. With this one dish, I produce exactly what I want to eat, every time. Sometimes I make too much, but usually there is not quite enough. Why just this one dish? Is it because I don’t really know how to cook anything else? Or is it because, like Kathleen, I want to eat only one thing?

Reading Note:
Stefan Zweig
3 December 2018

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

¶ For years, I resisted reading Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, because reviews of the NYRB republication had led me to expect a sickly, expressionist tale. But I couldn’t find anything in the shelves that was more promising, so I pulled it down. I began reading it late at night, so late that, the next day, I started out at the beginning again. I couldn’t quite finish it before bedtime, but I picked it up right after the Times the next morning, and was soon done. Sickly and expressionist it is not. 

Although the English title is not terrible, a more faithful translation of the original, Ungeduld des Herzens The Heart’s Impatience, perhaps — would be much better. “Beware of pity” is the hero’s warning to the reader, expressive of a regret repeated many times in the novel. But the heroine — think she’s a heroine — is impatient, too. She wants to be cured of the paralysis for which the hero, himself impatient to alleviate misery, pities her. 

I gather from Joan Acocella’s introduction that the heroine is generally regarded as a witch, who fans her would-be lover’s conscience with searing waves of guilt. For my part, I found the hero to be a monster of callow vanity, so preoccupied by tending the flame of his self-regard that he doesn’t see that, like the worst of cads, he is leading a poor girl on. She, not unnaturally, takes his daily attention as a sign of affection, but he, understandably perhaps but somewhat less naturally, has simply become addicted to visiting the sick, or at least a a sick person who happens to be a pretty little girl living at the height of luxury. As one of the first novelists familiar with the teachings of Freud, Zweig presents characters whose motives are complicated in what has become a very familiar way. 

Against this psychological modernity, Zweig deploys well-worn melodramatic plot devices with the deftness of a topnotch prestidigitator. In the most exciting of the many scenes that presage the climax, the urgency of avoiding an impending thunderstorm prevents the hero from explaining to the heroine’s ailing father, who shouldn’t be out in this weather, matters that really require a calmer setting. I found the encounter fresh as rain, and far too satisfying to be hokey, which it might well have been in lesser hands. Beware of Pity is also shot through with the hero’s innocent and unconscious denunciation of the Austrian Army’s unpreparedness for the war that interrupts everything at the end. Zweig’s prose is the literary equivalent of architectural Vienna, grand but rarely grandiose, leavened by a wit that is psychological rather than verbal. Beware of Pity is truly thoughtful box of delightful treats. 

November 2018

Saturday, December 1st, 2018

Big-Time Oops Note:
“Would You Mind Faxing Over That Great Pound Cake Recipe?”
30 November 2018

Friday, November 30th, 2018

¶ I hope that you are not someone who has tried to make Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake according to the version of the recipe printed in the otherwise outstanding Guarnaschelli edition of The Joy of Cooking. If you’re not, you’re probably still trying to get your head around all the nomenclature in the previous sentence. But if you are, I’ll bet you were shuddering with horrible memories before it came to an end. 

I was almost an unlucky one. But a little voice registered complaint: a pound cake is so called because it combines roughly equal weights of its principal ingredients, eggs, flour, sugar, and butter. The recipe in Joy called for three eggs, a cup and a half of cake flour, and three-quarters of a cup of sugar — so far so good. But “25 tablespoons (about three sticks and one tablespoon) unsalted butter”? That couldn’t be right. And it wasn’t. I lugged Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible from a stack of cookbooks. The correct amount is 13 tablespoons of butter.

I hate to think. 

More about this when my silicone kugelhopf mold arrives. 

Retail Note:
Envelope, Please
29 November 2018

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

¶ Our calendars have arrived. Every year, Kathleen composes a spiral-bound calendar, a little more than eight inches by four, and has them printed by an Internet outfit; we send them out as holiday cards. The 2019 calendars arrived today. They look great.

The thing is, the Internet outfit doesn’t sell matching envelopes. Kathleen has searched the site in vain. For years, I went to Staples to buy bubble envelopes — the bubbles aren’t really necessary, but you can’t readily get envelopes in the right size without them — but now I order them from Amazon. I take a few to the Post Office, to find out what the postage is going to be, and then I buy a lot of stamps. That and the purchase of a Christmas tree are my seasonal chores.  

But why oh why aren’t the envelopes more conveniently available? How do the calendar printers think their patrons distribute the things? In person? Tell me I’m missing something, and then tell me what it is. Please.

Movie Note:
Ironing to George Clooney
28 November 2018

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

¶ The overall theme for November was Overwhelmed Paralysis. That’s not the best way of putting it, but there isn’t, and oughtn’t to be, such a word as “overwhelmence.” Having too many items on my to-do list (which existed only in my addled mind), I did almost nothing. I read and I wrote, because those are things that I like to do, but I neglected the writing project, and I took no notes on the barrage of thoughts about liberalism that have sounded in my head more commonly than music. Above all, I let the ironing pile up.

“The ironing” is a stack of pillowslips, napkins, and handkerchiefs that mounts higher every Friday, when I retrieve the wash-and-fold laundry from the conciergerie downstairs. As everything is neatly folded, there is no real need to iron anything, and when, as sometimes happens, I run out of pressed napkins, I filch a few from the stack. But I am not yet prepared to “let go” of this venerable chore, and, by last weekend, it had become a matter of running out of room for “the ironing.” The stack was wobbling, spilling over.

So I put on a movie. Michael Clayton, a random choice. Well, a random choice that I decided to go along with. I pulled out a drawer of DVDs and pulled up a sleeve: Michael Clayton. Sounds good, I thought. And it was good. 

George Clooney has a reputation for being a really cool guy, and he plays that kind of guy in the Ocean movies, but in most of the films that I know, he is either harried or crazy. Crazy: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Men Who Stare at GoatsBurn After Reading. Harried: Up in the Air, SyrianaThe Descendants. For a matinée idol, Clooney has played a lot of unhinged men. And then there are the characters whom it is rather hard to like: The AmericanThe Ides of March. And let’s not forget the scamps: Three KingsGood Night, and Good Luck, roles that play Clooney’s inarguably adult masculine features against immature impulses. 

Before everybody gets too old, I would like to see a heist film in which Crazy George teams up with The over-the-top self-parody presented by Jason Statham in Spy

I got all the ironing done before Michael Clayton was overOr so I thought. Only when I put the ironing board back in its closet did I realize that I’d forgotten to open last week’s wash-and-fold. 

Art Note:
Sargent’s Genius
27 November 2018

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

When Percy Wyndham decided to commission John Singer Sargent to paint a picture of his three daughters, in 1899, it took some time for the sisters to juggle their calendars and settle on a date for getting together with the painter. Eventually, they all had dinner at Wyndham’s home in Belgrave Square. The women had given some thought as to how they should arrange themselves for the portrait, but in the course of that one evening, Sargent formulated the grouping that we see today in his masterpiece, The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs Adeane, and Mrs Tennant. Claudia Renton’s Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power, newly published in the United States by Knopf, demonstrates that Sargent did a great deal more than paint pretty faces. The portrait’s subtitle, which simply lists the sisters in order of seniority, is not much help if you’re trying to figure out which is which, but in the unlikely event that you were to see the picture for the first time after reading Renton’s book, you would have no difficulty identifying each one. 

Unlike the handy little books that have been written about other Sargent paintings, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, Those Wild Wyndhams is about the sisters themselves, in which Sargent figures hardly at all. Renton’s subtitle attempts a justification for what is essentially a family biography: these women occupied significant positions in Edwardian London’s most glamorous social milieu. To be bluntly honest, only two of them did; the middle sister, Madeline Adeane, was a wife and mother who did not pursue what we would call a life of her own. That is why Sargent seats her apart, to the left of Lady Elcho and Mrs Tennant, and also why she seems to be looking inward even though her eyes are directed upward. Mary Elcho, sitting on the back of the sofa, is also looking offstage, as it were, but with the very different air of talking to someone whom we can’t see. Plumped in front of Mary, Pamela gazes at us, superbly pretty and imperturbably self-centered. Mary Wyndham had had reason to hope that Arthur Balfour would marry her, but when he didn’t marry her or anyone else, she settled into life-long companionship with him, meeting as often as possible, generally for two hours, one for spanking (she spanked him), and one for discussing political affairs. Pamela married the heir to a great chemical fortune and then, when he died, she married Lord Grey, formerly Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Minister whose 1914 remark about the lamps going out all over Europe has been famous ever since — so famous that I’ve seen it attributed to Churchill. 

Speaking of that terrible war, Percy Wyndham had five children: the three girls and, in between Mary and Madeline, two boys, George and Guy; between them, the siblings lost five sons. Actually, George Wyndham died before the war broke out, so in that sense he was spared the loss. Madeline was spared because the son for whom she prayed as she gave birth to daughter after daughter did not appear until 1907. 

But Those Wild Wyndhams is anything but dismal. The Wyndhams and the Tennants were core members of the social cluster known as “The Souls,” remarkable at the time for its patina of intellectualism but more interesting now because the men in the group genuinely liked women — even womanizers like Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Harry Cust (“bulging with sex” according to one lady friend, and the alleged progenitor not only of Lady Diana Cooper but of Margaret Lady Thatcher). Even without doing anything famous, these were very interesting people. Renton’s book functions something like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, explaining the mythological background (no matter how actually historical it was) behind a very great work of art.  

Glitch Note:
The New Bed III
26 November 2018

Monday, November 26th, 2018

¶ The new bed seems to be getting lower. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?

The old bed was so high that it required a king-sized bedspread. Now the tassels of the bedspread are draping the floor. (I was going to buy a new one anyway; good thing I waited until the new bed arrived.) It was getting difficult for Kathleen to climb into. Even I had to perch on the edge and give myself a little push. Now I just sit down and swivel. I have to bend a little further each day, it seems, to make the bed. I worry that, one day, the new bed will be as hard for me to get out of as the love seats in the living room.

The real loss is the bedposts on the footboards. The old bedposts were pretty tall. I was always leaning on them with one hand while getting dressed with the other — probably a cause of the old bed’s destruction. I routinely reached out for the bedpost while navigating my way in or out of the bedroom. I still do — only the new bed’s posts aren’t there — they’re not tall enough.

But we do like the new bed very much. It is very quiet. No ominous creaks or cracks.

Reading Note:
Silence and Inference
23 November 2018

Friday, November 23rd, 2018

We were going to do nothing today, but Kathleen changed her mind: she could no longer go on wearing summer clothes. (Indeed!) It was long past time to switch the wardrobes in her two closets, one of which is ordinarily inaccessible, or at least hard to get to, thanks to an armchair laden with stuff. So I set up the coatracks, which we used to need for big winter parties, and Kathleen got to it.

Meanwhile, I finished re-reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. I had only the last part to get through. After two years in the New World, Eilis Lacey has returned to her native Enniscorthy to spend some time with her mother, who has been left alone, suddenly and unexpectedly, by the death of Eilis’ older sister Rose. (All the Lacey sons have had to migrate to England in order to find work; Eilis herself was despatched to New York for the same reason.) Upon arrival, all Eilis can think about is getting back to Brooklyn — and to the husband about whom her family and friends know nothing. But a friend’s wedding induces her to postpone her departure, and then she is offered the job that Rose had. A young man, who already owns his family’s pub, develops rapidly from a friend’s friend into a suitor. Like the brambles in Sleeping Beauty’s forest, ramifying local connections make it impossible for Eilis to disclose her secret marriage, which she begins to wish had not taken place. 

Eilis’s mistake, as she nestles into the familiar home life that she never wanted to leave in the first place, is in thinking that she is the only person who knows, or will ever know, the truth of her Brooklyn past. When this error is brought to her attention, in one of the most plausible coups in literature, Eilis makes several slicing decisions, and within hours is packed and ready to “go home.” Brooklyn‘s extraordinarily hasty ending would be unsatisfying if it did not dump a moraine of food for thought in the reader’s lap. 

Reading the book for the first time, I regarded Eilis as something of an Eve, yielding to the temptation to eat a forbidden apple. Seduced by the comforts of home, she overlooks the fact that she owes her positive reception in Enniscorthy to advantages that have accrued to her in Brooklyn. She cuts a more glamorous figure in her American clothes, and her completion of a bookkeeping course at Brooklyn College has qualified her to take over Rose’s job. Weak, in other words. This time, I sensed something more fundamental at work, very likely because I have read and re-read Tóibín’s fiction so many times — most recently, Mothers and Sons; not long before that, my favorite them all, Nora Webster

Eilis’s mistake actually goes back to her Brooklyn days, where for a long time she says nothing to her family about Tony, the Italian-American plumber whom, even in Brooklyn, she passes off as Irish. (He’s blond and blue-eyed.) Eventually, she writes to Rose about her attachment to Tony, but Rose dies without learning just how serious the attachment is. Eilis has written to Rose at her business address, because it seems to both sisters very important to conceal the matter from their mother. Back in Enniscorthy, Eilis wonders if her mother has gained possession of the letters to Rose. But she says nothing about it, because that is the law of the Laceys of Enniscorthy.  

It isn’t really the net of new connections that traps Eilis in Enniscorthy, but the code of silence observed by a community obsessed with convention and respectability. Discretion would be the word for it, if it were more a matter of guarding family secrets from the outside world and less one of precluding candor within families. Eilis’s disinclination to mention Tony in letters to her mother is rooted in worries about the inferences that Mrs Lacey might draw from anything that Eilis might say. Eilis has a pretty good idea of what those inferences might be, but she cannot control them, and prejudiced, perhaps, by her guilt at concealing Tony’s Italian background from her American friends and neighbors, almost all of whom are Irish, Eilis deals with the problem by not mentioning anything. She is unprepared for Rose’s death, for returning to Enniscorthy married to a man of whose very existence her mother is ignorant. Unless, of course, her mother has read those letters to Rose. But Eilis knows that her mother will never mention seeing those letters unless forced to do so. 

So this time, although I appreciated Tóibín’s artistry in creating (in Enniscorthy, of all places) a sort of jardin féerique to delude Eilis into imagining that she can pack up her life in Brooklyn and store it away out of sight, I could sense Eilis’ strangled awareness of the meretricious nature of this enchantment. Everything looks good precisely because it accords with her reverting to the tribal code and disavowing the relative and certainly more genuine expressivity of life lived outside it. When Eilis learns that the secret of her marriage is not altogether hers to keep, she snaps out of the nightmare of resuming a surreptitious existence. The spiteful gossip who sounds like a wicked fairy is actually a fairy godmother. 

I forget which reviewer it was who attributed the tremendous intimacy of Brooklyn to the sense of watching everything over Eilis’s shoulder. How true: Eilis doesn’t tell us anything, either. 

Department of Unavoidable Menus:
Sapidity Crisis
22 November 2018

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

¶ Oh, how I was looking forward to Thanksgiving at the Knickerbocker!

The gemütlich atmosphere (well, for Greenwich Village) is always agreeable. And I was savoring the meal that I was going to order: oysters, an Iceberg wedge salad with onion rings, and a ginormous chocolate sundae. 

None of these items was on the special Thanksgiving menu!

And nothing that was on it appealed to me at all. At all! Not even the shrimp cocktail, which turned out to be, well, the same appetizer that I outgrew circa 1963. Not the slice of salmon, nicely enough done, but who was in the mood, and certainly not the pumpkin pie. No substitutions! 

I resolved then and there that what we are going to celebrate next year is the anniversary of Fossil Darling’s and Ray Soleil’s wedding. They argue about when this falls, on a date certain in November or, as Ray and I hold, on the day after Thanksgiving. A much more agreeable holiday anyway.

Thank goodness for the delectable treats that Ray served at cocktails at his flat before dinner. He did this one thing with parmesan and proscuitto and fig jam…

Medical Note:
“How About Tomorrow?”
21 November 2018

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

¶ “How about tomorrow?” said E, the veteran infusion-unit scheduler, when she returned my call yesterday. I was in the middle of lunch, with Ray Soleil; we had just set up the new bed. “We’ve had a cancellation.” 

And here I was, wondering how far into December, how overdue and then seriously overdue, my next infusion would be. I ought to have made the call to E’s office two or three weeks ago. But I was pretty sure that I’d have to see the rheumatologist first; he wants to see me every quarter, and I had put off making that appointment, too. I had seen him just a week before. That had led to a talk on the phone with the gastro-enterologist which we won’t go into now, or maybe ever. 

And of course there had been the bed to fret about. Excuses, excuses.

How about tomorrow? A case of vice rewarded. 

Later in the afternoon, a nurse from the infusion unit called to ask if I would come in an hour earlier. Knowing that the nurses would be trying to clear the place out so that they could get home for the holiday, I agreed.

Another first: I was one of five male patients in the unit today. I am usually the only one. 

Not the next infusion, nor the one after that, but the next one after that, in the spring sometime, I shall have been taking Remicade for fifteen years. 

Assembly Note:
The New Bed II
20 November 2018

Tuesday, November 20th, 2018

¶ Setting up the bed today, Ray Soleil and I had two exciting moments, one much more alarming than the other. The less upsetting setback happened first, when we had a problem with the power drill. Neither Ray Soleil nor I could figure out how to reverse the drill, so that it would unscrew  the sixteen screws that bolted the L-plates to the headboard and footboard of the old bed. The L-plates were installed in January 2005, the day before Kathleen and I flew to Istanbul for a fabulous trip. I remember the contretemps because I thought that the guy who came to rescue our bed from its dependence on a flying buttress arrangement would never leave. (I remember calling Demarchelier to ask if it was too late to have a croque monsieur, and being told that it was.) While Ray labored with a screwdriver, I took the drill into the kitchen, where, in despair, I had a look at the back of the handle, which is where the toggle turned out to be. Ray had already done a lot of unscrewing by then, but it had been hard work. The rest was a breeze. 

The second moment came when the hooks on the side rails didn’t fit into the footboard. We knew that the problem was with the footboard and not the side rails, but what to do? Ray unscrewed, ever so slightly, the plate into which the side rail hooks were to rest, and that did the trick. Major phew.

We did a lot of vacuuming and dusting in the space under the old bed. The clumps of dustballs that came off the plastic boxes in which Kathleen stores who knows what were so solid that, poxing the floor, they were easy to vacuum.

The top of new bed is about six inches closer to the ground than the old bed. Kathleen had recently begun having difficulty climbing onto the old bed, so this ought to be an improvement.

I also rediscovered the socket in the middle of the wall behind the old bed, unused all this time because the fellows who moved us downstairs four years ago were in a hurry. I would say that Ray and spent at least half an hour reconfiguring the electrics. You know how that is. 

Ray says that the bedroom looks a lot bigger than it did. It’s true that the old bed was more an architectural element than a piece of furniture. The footboard was almost as high as the headboard, and, as I told Ray, it gave me the sense of a battlement, a little fortress that walled the bed off somewhat from everyday reality. Will I miss that?

Of course it all looks as though it has been this way forever.

Delivery Note:
The New Bed I
19 November 2018

Monday, November 19th, 2018

¶ The new bed was delivered on Saturday morning, shortly before noon. The doorman called to ask if I’d bought something from Bloomingdale’s. Not from Bloomingdale’s, I said, but yes, furniture. Send it up.

The headboard, carried by one man, arrived momentarily. Quite a while passed, it seemed to me, before the rest appeared: the footboard, the siderails, and the slats. Three of the five slats sported centrally-mounted perpendicular members, for increased stability. I was really quite delighted to see this innovation. (A standard on king-sized beds, Ray Soleil would tell me.) I had been worried that the new bed would turn out to be — delicate.

The arrival of these pieces of wood ended a saga that began about a month ago, when the Web page showing the bed and its specifications, which I had kept open in a browser to gratify some devious sense of anticipation or anxiety, did not refresh upon rebooting. Nor did the vendor answer the phone. By this time, the bed, purchased online in June, was more than somewhat overdue, and we had not heard a word. The sense that the business had collapsed and that its managers had absconded was suddenly overwhelming. What would you do? (The bed did, after all, cost about three thousand dollars.) I called the credit card company. The representative said that the company would “look into it.” 

The very next day, we heard from the vendor. Two days after that, I received a letter from the credit card company, informing me that it had credited my account with the price of the bed. It added that, if the vendor’s responses to its investigation warranted a reversal of the credit, I would be notified at once. 

The vendor called again, asking for information pertinent to delivery of the bed by a shipper — and also to be paid for the bed. I was leery; my belief in the vendor’s honesty had been shaken by the small array of unlikely coincidences. Certain nuances in the vendor’s explanations led me to believe that, contrary to advertisement, the bed had been manufactured in China, which didn’t bother me in itself but suggested further nefariousness. So I called the vendor and told the representative there that the matter had been taken out of my hands; the credit card company had decided to credit my account without actually asking for my authorization. But I wound up calling the credit card company again — for the third time, actually; for, in the meantime, my monthly statement had arrived, and it was a mess, apparently because the credit for the bed payment had caused my previous monthly payment to be credited to the wrong part of my account, indicating that I owed lots of money that I didn’t. On the third call, I was assured that the credit would be reversed. I was given a phone number to pass on to the vendor, in case the vendor had any further problems. 

I did not hear from the vendor again. I heard from the shipper. The shipper wanted to know what sort of insurance certificate my building’s management required for deliveries. It also wanted to know if the coming Saturday would be a good date. I was sure that Saturday would be a very bad date, from the building’s point of view. 

Now, here I must elide. I simply cannot go into the long and complicated history of difficult deliveries that made me worry about ever getting the new bed from the minute we bought it. There is too much old achy misery there. But it did inspire me to tell the shipper to talk directly to the building’s management. I crossed my fingers. 

That was on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week. On Thursday, while I was taking a shower, the shipper left a message. I could not understand the message; the woman who left it seemed — heavily medicated. From what I could decipher, my brilliant idea hadn’t worked; a delivery date would have be settled on an in awkward, three-sided arrangement. I stomped off to a doctor’s appointment. On the way, I asked the nice lady in building management if she had heard from the shipper. Oh yes, she replied, the delivery was on schedule for Saturday. 

Saturday? Over the years, I had learned that the building’s basement operations were run on a strictly weekday, nine-to-five basis. Surprises were erupting on every side. 

Much as I wanted to take the nice lady’s word for it. I felt obliged to call the shipper back to clarify the representative’s incoherent message. The representative was out to lunch, so I had to deal with a surly Jersey guy who, it turned out, was wrong about everything, including the assurance that the representative would call me back after her lunch. Wrong, too, to tell me that there would be no delivery on Saturday. In fact, the representative never did call me back. I’ve played her message for Ray Soleil, and he agrees that it disconcertingly suggests, in its incomprehensible way, that no arrangement for delivery has been made. 

Now I have given you the background for my entry on Friday, as well as what ought to be a perfectly clear explanation for why I could not have borne to write any of this before the bed actually arrived, putting an end to anxiety and muddle at last. 

The deliverymen expected to set up the new bed, but I told them that that wouldn’t be necessary. I had already engaged to set up the bed with Ray Soleil’s help. Before the new bed can be put in place, the old bed has to be dismantled. And that will be worthy of an entry all its own. Having been delivered, the bed is on schedule to be set up tomorrow. 

Philosophical Note:
On Staying in Bed
16 November 2018

Friday, November 16th, 2018

¶ Re-reading Alexander Theroux’s The Strange Case of Edward Gorey — itself a rather strange book, a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Friend Manqué — I’ve come across a line that Mark Dery also quotes in the biography that I mentioned the other day. 

I never could understand why people always feel they love to climb up Mount Everest when you know it’s quite dangerous getting out of bed.

It’s a mouthful for a motto, but that’s my philosophy for today. In bed I shall stay.

Reading Note:
Less
15 November 2018

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

In Morocco, Arthur Less, a writer circumnavigating the globe in order to avoid his boyfriend’s wedding to another man, meets a handsome, bold woman named Zohra. She is one of those people who gets to the point without having to wade through questionnaires. Zohra asks Less about his new novel, which it seems his publisher doesn’t like. Less has made it a rule never to discuss his books until they are printed, because “people are so careless with their responses.” But he trusts Zohra.

“It was about a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his … his sorrows…” Her face has begun to fold inward in a dubious expression, and he finds himself trailing off. […]

Zohra asks, “Is this a white middle-aged man?”

“Yes.”

“A white middle-aged American man walking around San Francisco with his his white middle-aged American sorrows?”

“Jesus, I guess so.”

“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”

“Even gay?”

“Even gay.”

As it happens, Less, Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is about a middle-aged gay white American who is going around the world with, you know, his sorrows. The protagonist will learn, a little later in the story, to salvage his latest novel by treating its hero pretty much as Greer has treated him. Nothing redeems self-indulgent sorrow — in a spectator’s eyes — like a banana peel. Less’s humiliations are not quite as obvious and crushing as the ones he proposes for his hero (named Swift), but they keep you smiling from page to page. (I especially like the Berlin scenes in which all the natives speak perfectly-rendered English but everything that Less says betrays the clunkiness of his German.) The mishaps are eventually eclipsed by good things that happen to Less, but that Less is too mired in self-pity to recognize as such, for example when he wins a literary prize in Italy and can only attribute it to misjudgment.

The reason why we can’t feel sorry for American white guys anymore is that we have all sat through so many master classes in focused on the relative lack of privileges and advantages enjoyed by everyone else. We have begun to suspect that white guys suffer existential crises because they don’t have to worry about material ones. Things could always be so, so much worse for the white American male — but they probably won’t be. The white American male will never have to worry about driving while black or having their turbans pulled off by Islamophobes. They will have scores of opportunities — in the unlikely event that they would need them — to avoid the grim calculations of an underpaid mother desperate to feed, clothe, and shelter her children. And so on. It is impossible to feel sorry for guys like them unless you imagine that they are the only people who count, and we can’t do that anymore. 

But you end up feeling sorry for Less anyway. What I mean by this is that, once Less puts his malaise behind him and abandons his surrender to self-doubt, you’re so happy for him that you must have been worried all along.

On a completely unrelated note, Less is a delicious parody of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

Rep Note:
Meat Loaf
14 November 2018

Wednesday, November 14th, 2018

¶ What weeknight dinner repertoire does not include meat loaf? Mine hasn’t, for a long time. For years, I followed my mother-in-law’s recipe, because Kathleen liked it. Then I wandered and experimented. When I would return to my mother-in-law’s recipe, it was always better than the experiments, but somehow always worse than it used to be, or disappointing. I also discovered, over the years, that I’m not crazy about leftover meat loaf. Meatloaf sandwiches? No thanks.

As I say, though, Kathleen likes meat loaf. So I bought one of those meatloaf-mix packages at Fairway the other day (equal parts veal, beef, and pork), with the idea of seeing what The Joy of Cooking has to say.

I knew I’d need an onion, too, so I picked a nice one. I decided not to follow Joy on the onion, though; instead of simply chopping it to bits, I sliced it thin with a mandoline and cooked it slowly with a little butter. Well, maybe too much better, and maybe over too high a flame at the start. The result gave the meat loaf  the flavor of caramelized onion, which was yummy, but not the texture. 

Joy calls for a lot of parsley — 2/3 cup, chopped. I balked at the quantity, and I can’t say that the meat loaf suffered. And I’m not unhappy that I stinted on the chili sauce, either. But I ought to have thrown a fourth slice of brioche into the food processor. 

Joy says to mix by hand but not to overmix. I found this perplexing, probably because I didn’t seem to have a light hand. Every time I scooped my hands into the bowl of ingredients, I felt that I was manhandling it. But it turned out to be adequately blended in the end. 

I shaped a handsome free-form loaf on a baking tin, and, in a further uncalled-for step (familiar from many other recipes, though), I topped the loaf with two slices of bacon. In the event, they added nothing, and made slicing difficult. 

Dinner was served. Very satisfying.

I had taken the two slices from the center of the loaf, leaving a large end, which I wrapped in foil and froze, and a small end, which I wrapped in plastic and tossed into the fridge. I have an idea about what to do with the small end, but I’m going to keep it to myself until I give it a try.

Anxiety Note:
A Simple Request
13 November 2018

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

¶ Kathleen’s therapist told her recently that doctors in the city are reporting a lot of cases that look like a mild sort of PTSD.

I know that I am one of the afflicted. It involves, among other symptoms, a fundamental uneasiness that no amount of walking-around-on-a-sunny-day can assuage. It has little to do with the latest news, although the Times manages to jolt me with some kind of shock every morning. What I can’t tell is whether knowing a lot of history makes it more or less severe. What the man does doesn’t bother me so much as his personal appearance. He is obviously (why hadn’t I seen this before?) the reincarnation of Edward Gorey’s Beastly Baby. Obviously. 

The tumult about Brexit doesn’t help. Now, this is clearly a matter of my knowing too much history. If I were just an ordinary educated American, I would not have the sense that I do of a political class that has completely collapsed. There is simply nobody to take Theresa May’s place! Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is the worst world-historical bad joke that I’ve encountered in my lifetime. Can’t somebody please tie him up with Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, attach a heavy stone, and deposit the bundle in the Mariana Trench? I’ll feel so much better. 

Iconic Note:
Edward Gorey
12 November 2018

Monday, November 12th, 2018

¶ I’ll be the first to admit that what was so cool about Edward Gorey, way back when, was his obscurity. He was probably never nearly as “unknown” as young fans like me thought he was — he was the art director at Anchor Books for years before I came across his work, at the age of fourteen or so — but for a long time, there was no such word as “Goreyesque.” I was in law school when Dracula was a Broadway hit, with Frank Langella, in the title role, ever so slightly upstaged by Gorey’s sets and costumes, but when Mystery! began running on PBS, I knew that the jig was up: Everybody in my neighborhood (viz educated people) knew something about him, and maybe even owned a few of his little books. Everybody

Gorey’s obscurity was important because his books were so palpably obscure. On the surface, they were about nothing — nothing but the overpowering suggestion that they might be about something hidden beneath the surface. The detail of his small drawings was so intense that you could never be sure that you had noticed all of it. Perhaps, somewhere in that detail, was the key to the whole thing — which would be nothing less than the key to existence itself. The existence of Edward Gorey himself seemed contingent on this mystery. As Mark Dery writes at the beginning of his new biography, Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, “most people” assumed that he was British, Victorian, and dead. I never thought he was dead (until he died, that is), but I was very surprised to learn that he was Chicago-born. For a long time, I could have done without that bit of information. 

By now, of course, there wasn’t much about Edward Gorey that I didn’t know, at least in broad outline. Which made Dery’s book by turns engrossing and exasperating. While it was very agreeable to have the biographical material laid out in order, Dery’s harping on Gorey’s sexuality became more than a little annoying. Analyzing the drawings for evidence of repressed desires is, it seems to me, the least interesting way of looking at them. (And, in any case, the desires seem fairly obvious, whatever Gorey made of them in his own life.) Sex is jut one of the perils that menace our existence, and by no means the worst of them. Terrible things are depicted in Gorey’s pictures, but it’s the text that mocks the very idea of safety. Concern about sexual orientation is almost trivial in the larger context of Gorey’s infernal machines. 

On more certain ground, Gorey emerges from Dery’s book as indisputably industrious. I feel that I have done nothing with my life in comparison.