Archive for 2018

July 2018

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

Library Note:
Broken Back
11 June 2018

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

As resolved (at the other blog), I took Jane Jacobs’s Cities and the Wealth of Nations down from the shelf and have been re-reading it. It’s better, more inciting, then ever. But perhaps, in being gripped by Jacobs’s “principles of economic life,” I grip the book too hard. More likely, it’s age. Whatever the cause, the book just split in two in my hands. 

I kept on with the reading, but I’m sure that pages are going to start falling out, so I’ve ordered a new copy.

Something similar happened with Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake, when I re-read that a few years ago. The binding held, but the pages slipped away from the spine like so many autumn leaves. The thing is, I couldn’t bring myself to throw the book away, even after I replaced it. There’s something about the intense imperial yellow of the original that I can’t live without. 

But I don’t feel the same attachment to my old copy of Jacobs’s book, which was published in 1984. Why isn’t there a price on the back of the book? Although a Random House ISBN is given on the copyright page, I strongly suspect that the book was printed by QPBC — the late, once-great Quality Paperback Book Club. 

Medical Note:
10 July 2018

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

The umpteenth Remicade infusion yesterday went well, as these infusions almost invariably do. I read a few chapters of Steven Brill’s Tailspin

But I had to see the rheumatologist first, just like the old days. In the old days, his inspections were pro-forma. Those have long since been supplanted by quarterly visits. I had to see him yesterday so that he could see me, or, more particularly, the cuts on my shin. He peeled back the bandages and pronounced them “nothing.” I was good to go.

I could have gotten away without telling him about the cuts, but that would have meant not telling him about the antibiotics that the dermatologist prescribed when I called her office to describe them. Four years ago, a deeper but otherwise similar gouge in exactly the same spot on my other shin abscessed, sending me to the Emergency Room for a few days of intravenous antibiotics.  Cellulitis had bloated the limb, which was hot to the touch. I didn’t’ want to repeat that experience. Nor, with regard to the infusion, did I want to discover that Remicade was contraindicated by the facts — after it was too late. 

I walk into things all the time, because there is never enough room. Four years ago, it was the sharp corner of a wooden bed on Fire Island. This time, it was the stout plastic packaging on a case of box wine that I was too lazy to unpack. It took up half the floor space in the already narrow passage that leads from the kitchen to the dining ell. I cut myself at least three times. Kathleen, cleaning and bandaging the wounds, called them “craters.” 

When the rheumatologist heard about this (because I ‘fessed up when the Infusion Therapy Unit nurse called to confirm the infusion), he asked me to send him a photograph. Kathleen took a few shots, and they all made me look ready to succumb to a virulent tropical disease. Word got back, no surprise, that the doctor wanted to see for himself. Instead of ordering the infusion to be rescheduled, though, he fit me in very nicely, so that I saw him on my way to the Unit. It was very convenient for me, I must say. Virtue was not its own reward. 

Four years ago, the next Remicade infusion had to be put off not for a few days but for weeks.  

Rep Note:
Indian Melon Salad
9 July 2018

Monday, July 9th, 2018

The decision to take last week off was made on Wednesday, Independence Day, right in the middle of taking it off. Hope nobody worried. 

For years, the default chicken salad served in this household was made following a venerable recipe that, to my mind, epitomized Midwestern sophistication. It was given to Kathleen was given by the Irish lady who took care of a very large family in Winnetka; Kathleen’s roommate all through Smith was the second of nine children. The lady’s name, too, was Kathleen, but that’s not what her charges called her, nor what we call the chicken salad in her honor. The children’s nickname for “Kathleen” was utterly innocent and even charming, but out of context it is off-putting. 

A few years ago, I stopped making this salad, and searched out alternatives, especially ones involving avocados. Some were very good, but none displaced the default, which I made for the first time in an age over this past weekend. The following quantities will feed four moderately hungry people. 

1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste — but go easy on the salt, given the soy sauce. 

2 cups cubed cooked chicken
3 ounces sliced water chestnuts
1/2 pound green grapes, halved
1/2 cup minced celery

Butter lettuce leaves
Melon balls

Prepare the dressing about an hour ahead of serving, and toss the chicken, the water chestnuts, and the celery in it. Cover and keep cool. Finish the salad at serving time. 

I am not sure that I would miss the water chestnuts, but Kathleen claims to be fond of them, and they do provide a nice crunch. 

June 2018

Sunday, July 1st, 2018

Rep Note:
Ham Steak
29 June 2018

Friday, June 29th, 2018

For a long time, I’ve turned up my nose at supermarket ham steaks, the thin and somewhat watery slices of ham, many without bone, that have been around for as long as I can remember. For a long time, I had a store of superior ham steaks in the freezer, cut from whole hams at Christmas and Easter by the butcher. But the butcher has closed his shop, and I ought to have noticed much sooner than I did that ham simply doesn’t freeze well — just as it says in The Joy of Cooking

The other day, then, I thought: new times. And when I came to cook it, I brought a bit of water, some honey, and a splash of bourbon to the boil. I ought to have reduced this mixture to a syrup before sliding in the ham steak, in which case the meat would not have been toughened by overcooking. But the ham was tasty, and no mustard was involved. It couldn’t have been simpler, really.

I served it with a riced sweet potato, into which I stirred nothing but salted butter. A very nice little dinner. 

Tech Note:
On Peak Screen
28 June 2018

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Time was, I didn’t know anyone else who owned a personal computer. Now I feel like the only person who doesn’t use a smartphone.

Of course I own a smartphone. I rely on it for phone calls. I do a little texting, mostly with the drugstore. I have found the calendar app to be unreliable. 

I don’t play games, anywhere, and I don’t use the Internet on the smartphone, except maybe to find out where something is.

There is no discipline at work here. What there is, is a strong preference — more than that, really — for conducting my digital life at my desk, with its nice big keyboard and three screens. I was too set in my ways, when the smartphone came along, to change. 

So when I read the following, I feel both lucky and superannuated. 

“What you get sucked into is not the one thing that caught your attention — your text message or tweet or whatever,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at the technology research firm Creative Strategies. Instead, you unlock your phone and instantly, almost unconsciously, descend into the irresistible splendors of the digital world — emerging 30 minutes later, stupefied and dazed. 

I also feel like an immigrant who just got off the boat. The impulse to re-board the boat and sail back to a more familiar clime is strong, but it only reminds me that any sailing in my future is going to be in the other direction. 

Gotham Diary:
At Age Twenty
27 June 2018

Wednesday, June 27th, 2018

John Lanchester has a terrific piece in the current issue of the LRB, “After the Fall,” in which he appraises the aftermath of the Crash of 2008. I read it online (thanks to The Browser), but I still haven’t received the issue in print. Which may be why the thing that really sticks in my mind is this: 

Napoleon said something interesting: that to understand a person, you must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. 

I don’t know which is more interesting, the remark itself or the fact that Napoleon is credited with it. Maybe godfathers and gangsters have a livelier respect for history than the rest of us.

When I was twenty, the world seemed to be dominated by an overconfident economic empire. Since everything was happening much faster than ever before, the obvious analogy to Rome at its height did not mean that we had centuries to play with.

Which I suppose supports (if it can’t prove) Napoleon’s point.

Grocery Note:
26 June 2018

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

I hate Fairway. Especially when I’m not there. Once I’m there, I sink into the madness of trying to avoid collisions with other shopping carts while remembering what’s available on which floor. (The store’s decision to superimpose one section of perishables — produce — directly over the other — meat and fish — is deeply wrong, even if, given the layout of the square footage, it was probably unavoidable.) I follow my route, almost habitual now, and hope that what I’m looking for will be on the shelves. I endure checkout, which is not so bad really — because I’m used to it.

Once I get through the bottleneck between the organic vegetables and the stairwell, I notice how disagreeable everyone is in this unpleasant atmosphere, which is that of a parking garage. I wonder if I’ll get stuck on the elevator, although this has not yet happened. I ask a staffer where they’ve put the fresh herbs this time. I navigate the stocking-cart-clogged aisles, and consider how best to deal with the young men who, quite understandably, pretend that customers aren’t there. I listen to kiddies in meltdown. I push on and, eventually, make my escape. 

It’s when I get home that the irritation burns: I never want to go there again. 

Reading Note:
25 June 2018

Monday, June 25th, 2018

On Thursday, 26 June 1902, the coronation of Edward VII did not take place. The new king (no longer a young man) was recovering from appendectomy surgery conducted two days before. The ceremony was performed six weeks later, on 9 August. By then, César Ritz, proprietor of the Carlton Hotel in St James, with its plenitude of fully-booked rooms overlooking the route of the coronation procession, was in Switzerland, prostrated by the typhoon of cancellations that flattened what ought to have been the summit of his spectacular career. Lingering on until 1918, he never really recovered. Ironically, no one had furthered Ritz’s career more emphatically than the former Prince of Wales.

Luke Barr’s Ritz & Escoffier: The Hotelier, the Chef & the Rise of the Middle Class, which draws toward its close with this catastrophe, is nevertheless a great treat. I gobbled it down in a day. Barr has omitted from his title a third name, that of the D’Oyly Cartes, Richard and Helen, with whom I hope you are familiar thanks to your thorough familiarity with Gilbert & Sullivan. Richard D’Oyly Carte was a showman, and Helen was his manager. He had the big ideas; she tempered them with pragmatism. There’s something brash and American about D’Oyly Carte; his passion for embedding luxury with newfangled technology (elevators, electric lights, en suite bathrooms) was not exactly staid.

Having built the Savoy Theatre for Gilbert and Sullivan, he spent the later Eighties erecting and opening the adjacent Savoy Hotel. Beautifully sited on the bend in the Thames where John of Gaunt built the eponymous palace, the hotel had great views, from St Paul’s to Parliament, and of course the wide river right in front, a more interesting variety of deer park. Among other things, Oscar Wild and Lord Alfred Douglas would do a great deal of carrying-on at the Savoy, running up tremendous bills and making witnesses of the menials whose evidence would be used against the playwright in the criminal prosecution that followed his ill-advised action for libel. Somehow far more gripping are the accounts of grand dinners, for which Barr includes the extravagant menus.

There was the infamous dinner — £15 a head — for a group of City merchants, some of them Jewish furriers, and there was the unprecedented ladies-only dinner, conducted by semi-discreet screens. There were the concurrent feasts for the Prince of Wales (in the grand private dining room) and the Duc d’Orléans (in the fabulously overhauled basement billiard room). At the heart of all this food was Auguste Escoffier. Escoffier and Ritz had known each other for years by the time D’Oyly Carte came begging Ritz to manage his new hotel. Neither Ritz nor Escoffier was drawn to the idea of life in London, although Escoffier would soon become quite attached to the town, where he immediately became a superstar. They turned D’Oyly Carte down, and watched the hotel slip from its very successful opening to red-alert six months later. The three men thereupon came to a deal that promised to give everyone what he wanted. For the two foreigners, this meant the freedom to pursue independent ventures and to spend months at a time back on the Continent. Unfortunately, Helen D’Oyly was not enthusiastic about the arrangement; she correctly foresaw that all that freedom would lead to making free. Ritz hardly endeared himself to her when he began his superintendancy by removing acres of upholstery and tons of mahogany that had been carefully chosen by Helen to decorate the public rooms. She also disapproved, constitutionally, of Ritz’s ethos, shared by Escoffier: to make a lot of money, you have to spend a lot of money. Helen could not overlook the fact that Ritz was spending her money. 

It was great while it lasted; happily for Ritz and Escoffier, when it ended, they could fall back on their new venture, the Hotel Ritz in the Place Vendôme, Paris. In 1899, the duo returned to London to open the Carlton. This time, they did not have to account to a resentful, beady-eyed accountant. They spent money and they made a fortune. In the process, Escoffier reformed grand cuisine, by stabilizing the recipes and lightening the portions, and by overhauling the method in which dishes were prepared.

Ritz & Escoffier tells the story of a transformation. Royal palaces, which had been obliged to become more discreet and less spendthrift throughout the Nineteenth Century, spun off the sybaritic aspect of courtly life to new public palaces, open to any suitably-dressed visitor with a wallet to match. It would be an overstatement to suggest that the great people rubbed shoulders with the commoners in the brightly-lighted, lavish salons and restaurants, but they did at least share the same rooms, if not at the same time. At the dinner for the Duc d’Orléans, honoring the wedding of his sister to a royal Italian prince, the Princess of Wales, who had parted from her husband in the lobby of the Savoy (he had his own do upstairs, remember), signed the menu, “Alix,” for Ritz, and so did everyone else at the head table. It was not the sort of thing that would ever happen at Marlborough House.

The book is all the more fun because nobody wants to eat like that anymore. Let them eat ortolans!


Reading Note:
The Photograph
22 June 2018

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

Penelope Lively’s The Photograph was a widely-read book, as I recall. I held this against it, at the time. I read it only much later, after my taste matured and I no longer read scorn into dry English prose. Now I’ve just read the novel a second time. 

It was like driving along a country road for the second time. Things that I had completely forgotten when I began would come to mind only a few pages before they appeared. There’s going to be a bit about a painter, and then a rich man who owns one of the artist’s works. I was never quite sure of these developments, but then the road would twist and there they were. I knew that the woman at the center of the story, already dead at the beginning, would be shown to have taken her own life, but I didn’t recall how, only that it was in bed. Somewhere in the middle, I remembered that the potter knew everything. 

Kath, the suicide, was a beautiful woman, and that is her doom. Nobody loved her, because nobody thought of her as a human being. The one man who knew that she was human never gave loving her more than a passing thought: he was not in her class. The men who surrounded her regarded her as a divine trophy. She finally married one of them because she thought he loved her, but she discovered that, having captured her, he stopped paying serious attention and went back to work, as a member of that special English class, the telegenic academic.)

Kath was partly to blame, perhaps chiefly to blame. She fell back on her loveliness instead of learning a trade. But she was thwarted by her beautiful body of the one thing that might have saved her. Nobody guessed what it was, so she had to tell her closest friend, the potter. The eponymous photograph, which comes to light after her death, propels her survivors to give her life the consideration that they denied it when she was breathing. As they do so, the goddess becomes a mortal. Lively builds to the metamorphosis with a complete but subtle mastery of suspense. Recollections of Kath looking ethereal imperceptibly yield to recollections of Kath looking lost. Long before the revelatory chapter, we know that Kath is, or rather was, not to be envied. 

There’s no mystery about the novel’s popularity.

Tracking Note:
Getting There is No Fun At All
21 June 2018

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

Kathleen and I exchanged a few texts during her ride out to JFK. Traffic was terrible; she was glad she’d left early; her phone’s power was down to 18%. Then and there I began to worry: my power levels never drop anywhere near 50%. I naturally but stupidly thought that Kathleen would text me from the Admiral’s Club, to let me know that she was recharging. But she didn’t, nor did she look at (or listen to) her phone. I didn’t hear from her until hours later, when she boarded the plane. I wished her a safe flight. 

Flights themselves used to bother me: radio silence. Not any more, of course; now you can track them. Once the plane is said to have landed, though, I want to hear from Kathleen pronto. 

She did not let me down, not then. It was at the next step that she flubbed. “I’ll text from the cab,” she had said when she landed. But she didn’t. She texted when she got to her room, in Carlsbad, not exactly a few blocks from San Diego airport. “Oh,” she said, before we said good night on the phone. By now, it was three in the morning where I was. 

This is how great boulders are worn down to grains of sand. 

Watery Note:
20 June 2018

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

Kathleen is off to Carlsbad, California, this afternoon, and I would say that I’m bracing for excitement, except that would make it sound like fun.

There are all sorts of things that I ought to do while Kathleen is away, but I probably won’t do any of them. Instead, I’ll watch To Rome With Love

I said to Kathleen, I’m thinking of three movies. One of them is Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. The second is about a honeymooning couple who get split up in Rome and have many adventures. The third is about a nobody who becomes the center of media attention for no reason. They can’t all be To Rome With Love

But of course, they are. I checked, on IMDb

The only thing that I remember about To Rome With Love is the tenor in the shower. What makes this ludicrous joke really funny is that it so elaborately recycles a sketch from Your Show of Shows, “Aggravation Boulevard.” Sid Caesar plays a silent-film star whose voice turns out to be unbearably high and squeaky. Wretched, he takes a walk in the rain and returns to the studio a dreamy baritone. When his voice begins to edge up, Carl Reiner and the others throw buckets of water on him, and his voice drops back down. So he’ll be a movie star once more, just one who’s always singin’ in the rain. 

Video Note:
They Really Do Play Russian Roulette?
19 June 2018

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

Having read Final Cut, I thought I would rent The Deer Hunter, the movie that won five Oscars and lured United Artists into producing Michael Cimino’s next feature, Heaven‘s Gate. Nobody ever said that Heaven’s Gate is actually worth watching, but The Deer Hunter was something of a big noise, and I’ve never been able to piece together what it’s about from the things that I’ve read here and there over the years. 

What struck me the most about The Deer Hunter, especially during the first hour, which is mostly taken up with the celebration of a wedding, was how relentlessly the characters are portrayed as sloppy people. Everybody who is not an old lady with her hair in a kerchief is busy making a mess of one kind or another. 

My experience of working-class milieux is very limited, but sloppiness is not part of it. Indeed, such sloppiness as I recall has been almost invariably been my own doing. I would say that less-affluent people are much better at being carefree without spilling anything that more-affluent people are. 

The Deer Hunter is one of the most overtly incoherent movies that I’ve ever seen, which is probably why I had to see it to learn, not what it’s about, but simply what happens. How it won even a single Academy Award is something that I can explain only by saying, “Forget it, Jake; it’s the Seventies.”

Upkeep Note:
As Foreseen
18 June 2018

Monday, June 18th, 2018

Our bed has been falling apart for about fifteen years. Lately, the need to replace it has taken on some urgency, but we have dilly-dallied. Kathleen found the right bed, but it’s pricey, and so we have dilated.

We bought it in 1999, I think, so we’ve certainly gotten our use out of it. It was made by Grange, the French furniture maker; our model is no longer available, even if we wanted to pay scads for it. It’s very handsome, and stained in the most satisfying green — a French, not English, gentleman’s green. When it first gave way, somewhere around 2003 — a story in itself — I shored up the bed rail somehow in a way that depended on the nightstand. Later, on the very eve of our trip to Istanbul in 2005, a fellow came and screwed up the whole frame with massive, nine-screw L brackets. The other fellows who, four years ago, unscrewed the bed so that it could be transported from the old apartment to this one were pretty rough about screwing it back together. All four bedposts — there’s a handsome footboard — would shed the side-rails without these brackets; the wood in all of them has given way.

And the bedpost nearest my head looks ready to lose its L bracket.

I was changing the sheets yesterday. Minding my own business. Having pulled on the fresh fitted sheet, I thought that I would give the box spring a little shove, because it tends to drift toward the side-rail on Kathleen’s side, what with all of me getting in and out on mine. A little shove — and the slats fell out of their sockets. The box spring and mattress didn’t fall all that far; Kathleen has forested the under-bed area with plastic storage boxes. But it was far enough from plane to prevent any kind of sleeping.

Stricken with helplessness, I called Ray Soleil, who, miraculously, was free to SOS. Having done this, I went ahead and fixed the bed myself. This is what always happens. Disaster strikes, my brain freezes. I call for help. While help is on the way, my brain resumes normal functions. In this case, I had no intention of actually fixing the bed; I just knew that Ray and I would have to have a space into which to tip the mattress off the box spring. This meant getting my nightstand out of the way. Once I’d done that, I thought I’d give the mattress a tug, using those handles that they weave into the sides, and it came about a foot off the box spring, perfect for tipping. Having nothing else to do, I went over to Kathleen’s side and gave the box spring a tentative lift. The mattress, now something of a bascule, was my friend. Without much effort, I replaced first one and then the other slat in its socket. Voilà. But I didn’t continue to make the bed. I thought that I’d better have Ray give it a once-over first, as long as he was coming anyway.

Ray said, “You know it’s going to happen again.” But it didn’t happen last night. When I called Ray just now because I couldn’t remember “L brackets,” he even more miraculously — masochistically? — picked up. “Don’t tell me the bed fell again!” Happily, there was no reason to.

Video Note:
Anna’s Choice
15 June 2018

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

After yesterday’s electric surprise, I was good for nothing but watching movies. I was midway into the fourth when Kathleen came home, late, from a day of drafting.

My first choice was The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which I wasn’t even sure I had. I didn’t like it much when it came out, just as I hadn’t quite liked the book. Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep are superb actors, but although they’re always interesting, I don’t always like them. That’s to say that, if I were near one of the characters that they play, I would walk away. I don’t mean this personally. Long ago, at a performance of a play called Amy’s View (which I wanted to see not for Judi Dench but for Samantha Bond), Streep and a friend sat almost directly behind us, and they fairly bubbled with amiability.

Adapting John Fowles’s novel for the screen, Harold Pinter interposes a sequence of scenes purporting to show the actors “offscreen.” Irons and Streep, playing Charles and Sarah in the original story, which is set in the high noon of Victorian propriety, become Mike and Anna, the contemporary movie stars who are not only impersonating them, but tossing in their own semi-surreptitious love affair. And while the period tale is seen and felt from Charles’s point of view, that of an independent gentleman who has never before been disturbed by his emotions, we see the modern-day romance through Anna’s rather more experienced eyes. The question for both sets of lovers is whether to throw over everything for love. 

Anna decides not to, and this is presented in lieu of the novel’s alternate, “unhappy” ending. It is very hard for me to see it that way now. The revealing moment occurs at Mike’s comfortable home in London, where members of the cast have gathered for a luncheon party. At one point, Anna finds herself on the veranda with Sonia, Mike’s wife (played by Penelope Wilton). Sonia obviously suspects that something is going on between her husband and Anna, but she seems resigned to it, at least as long as the suspicion is not confirmed. Anna says, “I envy you this.” When Sonia expresses surprise, Anna falls back on an obvious prevarication: “This garden.” Anna understands that she can never have a comfortable life with Mike; they are, after all, in the middle of demonstrating their shared taste for infidelity. The best way to preserve what she has with Mike, Anna sees, is to break it off. 

I remember thinking at the time, when the movie came out, that it was mean of Anna to run off at the end. I see now that, had Mike been the one to make the same decision, I would have seen him as responsible. (The glimpse that we’re given of Anna’s life is not particularly enviable. The man in her life seems devoted to his calculator.) My change of heart is undoubtedly partly attributable to age: I don’t regard romantic love as love at all, but only as a delighted confusion. But it’s also the case that I put more stock in the wisdom of women. Men may make things happen, but it’s women who keep things going. 

Fright Note:
14 June 2018

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

Early this afternoon, the power went out for a little while. Hours later, I still haven’t recovered.

It ought not to have been a surprise. I was told that Kathleen had been notified, via voicemail, by someone from the building’s management. Perhaps. I wasn’t going to waste any time staring into that particular black hole. Nor did I stick around to find out why the power was out. Renovations in one of the apartments on this line, presumably; although in all my years here a deliberate power outage has never occurred before. It was enough to know that the electricity would be turned on in half and hour to forty-five minutes. As it was. (Forty-five minutes.)

I had just sat down to read the Times. The lamp went out and the HVAC went silent. I saw that my bedside clock was dark. (When the power was restored, it told the correct time right away. It’s a miracle clock, to my ancient mind, capable of registering the two annual time changes automatically.) I called Kathleen. She had power (as did the cellphone network.) I opened the front door. The corridor was lighted as usual. As a neighbor down the hall let herself into her apartment, I asked if she had electricity, and she said yes. Then I went down to the management office — I did think twice about getting on the elevator — where I found out all I wanted to know. 

But I was very upset, viscerally anxious., and I ended up good for nothing for the rest of the day.

There’s a cartoon in this week’s New Yorker. The man at the head of a sort of chain gang turns to the woman bound behind him, as colossal robots wield whips and wreak urban devastation, and says, “Remember the other day, when this was considered unacceptable?” It wasn’t funny at all — not today.

Dream Note:
Cuisine bourgeoise
13 June 2018

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

It turns out that the Video Room doesn’t stock Anthony Bourdain’s documentary, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent. If I want to see it, I’ll have to buy it. 

Who is Jeremiah Tower? I started hearing about him in the late Eighties, when Kathleen joined a law firm the head office of which was in San Francisco at the time. For several years, we went out to the Napa Valley for autumn retreats. Kathleen got to know a San Francisco partner who was Tower’s boyfriend, at least that’s how I remember it. We knew the name of Chez Panisse, but we never attempted to experience it. The restaurants in Napa were more than enough. 

Do admit: “Jeremiah Tower” is a power name. And it has been coming up in book after book. Well, two books. Maybe. Certainly in one: Andrea Barnet’s Visionary Women, where Tower has a big part to play in the Alice Waters story. Curious to hear him tell it, I ordered a copy of Start the Fire: How I Began a Food Revolution in America. Having read it, I find I’ve lost my appetite.

I can’t recall if Richard Olney mentions Tower in his strange memoir, Reflexions; Tower more than mentions Olney in his. (They were companions for a while.) Olney was austere, Tower appears to be gregarious, but both are far too excited by food for my taste. My own sensibility, I see, is retiringly bourgeois. The other day, I came across a very fine description of it in a story by Mavis Gallant. (“In Plain Sight,” collected in Paris Stories.) 

He pictured, with no effort, a plate of fresh mixed seafood with mayonnaise or just a bit of lemon and olive oil, saw an omelette folded on a warm plate, marinated herring and potato salad, a light ragout of lamb kidneys in wine. 

Not that these are favorite dishes of mine; I can’t imagine what the light ragout would taste like. But, like the writer who is imagining what it would be like to effect a rapprochement with his neighbor upstairs, the formidable Mme Parfaire, I am ravished by the prospect of peace and comfort inherent in these meals. The table-hopping, something-for-everybody cuisine of Tower’s San Francisco restaurant, Stars, sounds psychotic by comparison. Not to mention all that wealth and winery. 

I can’t say, either, that I’d object too strenuously if someone else took up the cooking. 

Reading Note:
Final Cut
12 June 2018

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Reading Final Cut, by Steven Bach. It’s the book, first published in 1985, about United Artists and Heaven’s Gate, the Michael Cimino movie that “sank the studio.” What actually happened was that Transamerica sold UA to MGM. Pauline Kael’s blurb on the cover calls it “The best account of American moviemaking in the age of conglomerate control of the studios.” I can neither agree nor disagree. To me, Final Cut is about three executives attempting to prove themselves in the wake of a regime change at the studio. Again and again, Bach, who was one of those executives, forced himself to swallow misgivings about supporting Cimino’s eccentricities — pretty much the same thing as supporting Cimino himself. As a study in sunk-cost pathology, Final Cut can’t be beat. But Bach himself is so appealing, at least as a mind writing a book, that I was distressed to learn that he died some time ago. Not that I’d have ever gotten round to writing an appreciative note, something that I usually do anyway, if obliquely, here. 

Rep Note:
Milk Shake
11 June 2018

Monday, June 11th, 2018

In the middle of a lazy afternoon yesterday, Kathleen said, out of the blue, “What I’d really like for dinner is a chocolate milk shake.”

I often ask Kathleen what she would like for dinner. “Something easy,” she says, trying to be helpful, unaware that this reply is the least helpful of all. For her to volunteer a desire, without having been asked, was almost exciting.

So of course I went over to Fairway and bought the chocolate ice cream and the U-Bet syrup and even a quart of milk. I bought some ground chuck, a package of sliced shiitake mushrooms, two ears of corn, and a bag of Ore-Ida shoestring potatoes. When I got home, I prepped everything, and then sat down for a while.

This was one of those diner dinners, when everything takes about three or four minutes and has to be cooked at the last minute. I did prep the milk shakes, adding more ice cream and more milk just before we sat down. (The Breville immersion blender worked like a charm.) There were no disasters. 

The potatoes, which I deep-fried in peanut oil, were not great, but they were better than most of the French fries on offer in this neighborhood, sad to say. The burgers were a tad overdone, but that never bothers Kathleen. I topped them with the sautéed mushrooms and slices of Cabot cheddar. I realized later that I forgot to put chili sauce on the table, but Kathleen didn’t mention it. 

“I can’t believe you did this,” she gushed instead. And when she got to the bottom of the milkshake, she made as much noise as her grandson. Maybe more.