May 2018

Fauna Note:
Magpies
18 May 2018

¶ It seems to me that there are more songbirds in Yorkville than there used to be.

They’re very nice to hear, but I try not to think about the birds themselves. When I was little, I thought that birds were something like angels — except for blue jays, which not only made an ugly cawing noise but which, according to my mother, were mean and nasty. I’m afraid that I’ve grown up to believe that all birds are mean and nasty, little dinosaurs, really, insatiable predators.

Birds’ stock would go way up with me if one of them would tug away the ten-foot roll of bubble wrap that’s still dangling, caught in three places, from the branches of the honey locust tree across the street. We don’t have magpies, do we.

Gotham Note:
Gone!
17 May 2018

¶ Burger King is gone! I don’t know when the 86th Street branch was closed, but I was shocked to make the discovery. I hadn’t been in a while. You may think me depraved for going at all, but sometimes a cheese Whopper with fries was just the right lunch. It was rarely the right dinner, because the old lady who ran the operation during the day usually left at the end of the afternoon, and the staff members who took her place were usually amateurs. After dark, Whoppers tended to fall apart before reaching their destination.

There’s a McDonald’s, but it’s three times farther away, all the way up to Third and then down a block and a half. Might as well go to Shake Shack and do it right. 

***

¶ The lotus lamp is gone! The lotus lamp is a floor lamp that my grandparents acquired perhaps a century ago, when electric lighting was still experimental. It’s a floor lamp with three gently bending stems, two of them as tall as I am. The tall stems are topped with Edison sockets concealed by lotus-blossom shades that are made out of wire mounted panels of capiz. (Two of the panels have been lost.) The short stem is about four feet long, and it terminates in a chandelier-bulb socket for which there is no shade. There are also three long spear-like leaves.

The lamp was originally painted black and green; I no longer remember which parts were which. My mother, when she got hold of the piece, painted it all in white. I have done nothing with it during my thirty years’ possession — nothing until now. After much discussion over the years, Ray Soleil arranged for a craftsman with whom he has worked professional to take the lamp to his shop for an overhaul. New wiring, new paint, and renovated shades. I’m told that this will take a month, but I’m prepared to wait longer. Right now, I have a dark corner to light. 

Book Note:
New Titles
16 May 2018

¶ My cart at Amazon had three books in it at the time, and I was patiently putting off buying them, because, you know, self-restraint &c; but then my toothbrush broke — the mounting behind the brush cracked and everything fell away, leaving only a vibrating metal rod. I had to order a replacement right away. That was Monday morning. The order arrived on Wednesday, in two packages. The toothbrush came in a large envelope, along with Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind. In the box were a much shorter fiction by Nunez, Mitz, the Marmoset of Bloomsbury, and Andrea Barnet’s Visionary Women, which tells parallel lives of Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters. 

No books by or about men. Nothing I wasn’t already puzzling over. 

Gotham Note:
Deep Dislike
15 May 2018

¶ One of the great pleasures of city living is taking a deep dislike to a stranger whom you will never see again.

Now, visitors from the provinces are probably no less liable to sudden, unaccountable dislikes, but their mistake is to regard the offenders as an annoyance. In fact, somebody like the large, insouciantly self-important customer at Schaller & Weber this afternoon, who seemed to know everything about what the shop had to sell while giving the impression of never having visited it before — somebody like this is free entertainment. If you’re really lucky, he or she may provoke you to say something witty and slightly rude. But you must never be angry or impatient. You must be studious, you must savor the disagreeable tics, especially the ones that have a cultivated air. 

While this woman plied the butcher with questions that betrayed a fascination with her own drawling voice. I noticed an elderly gent — older than I — in an old summer suit. Nobody had made a suit like that in twenty or thirty years. It was clean and in good shape, really very respectable. But it was very, very soft, full-cut, and, all things considered, somewhat zoot-suity in the length of the jacket. The man was wearing a tie and a straw hat and neat black shoes. I remembered when his get-up was the normal, respectable thing. I remembered when so many people in Yorkville were obvious transplants from Central Europe. This fellow looked as though, when he went to bed last night, it was still 1970. In fact, I was reminded of Marathon Man, which begins, for very good reasons, right in this neighborhood. 

I felt a twinge of regret, in my short-sleeved Madras shirt and pleated shorts. (It was hot today, heavy with impending electrical storms, since come but not quite gone.) I admired my neighbor’s solid habits. And he was my neighbor, too. Although he was behind me at the store, he passed me as we crossed 86th Street, and I followed him right into the building. I’d never seen him before, but he lives, it seems, on the other side. 

When he got a few steps ahead of me, I noticed that he was wearing white socks. White socks with a suit. That said it all! But I completely approved.

Larder Note:
Oh, Mr Manager!
14 May 2018

¶ No Lays Classic chips. No Lurpak salted butter. No Entenman’s Crumb Donuts. Not even any half gallons of Fairway-brand whole milk! An outrage! And I was in no mood for a Monday shop anyway. 

I completely forgot to buy a gallon of plain vinegar, for mopping the kitchen and bathroom floors. Well, I won’t forget next week.

List, you say? I’m too organic for shopping lists. I proceed through the store along a set route, moving from aisle to aisle quickly but along the shelves quite slowly. That’s how I remembered to buy peanut butter.

When I got home, I discovered why the dregs of the last bottle of peanut butter were so dry: I’d bought the reduced-fat version. Just as, a couple of weeks ago, I bought Fritos Scoops, which are not the same thing at all and have to be thrown away.

As soon as I remember to buy the regular kind. 

Labor Note:
Spring Cleaning
11 May 2018

In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the protagonist recalls that his mother used to spring-clean the house every day while he was at school. I sit at the opposite end of that spectrum, possibly because the cleaning ladies whom my mother put to work were as busy as Mrs Perowne. I grew up thinking that “spring cleaning” was somehow Victorian, rendered obsolete by the elimination of coal from the domestic scene. But Fossil Darling has always done it, usually in the early summer. All the furniture gets moved away from the walls, &c &c. It makes me feel completely derelict to hear about it. 

Preserving me from the nethermost sinks of barbarism, however, the building management sends handymen around every April — and again in May, to deal with the delinquents — to change the HVAC filters. This means that the chairs and the Pembroke table in the bedroom have to be moved away from the windows, revealing sordid clouds of dust, as well as one or two items that have “gone missing.”

At about noon today, my favorite handyman rang the doorbell. He’s a gift, there’s no other word; he moves all the furniture himself and puts it all back. Or would put it back if I didn’t ask him not to. It was high time, I thought, to find out what’s in the stack of four pandan boxes beneath the Pembroke table, and to run the vacuum cleaner over that end of the room while the chairs were elsewhere. (The handyman goes after the HVAC unit and the surrounding flooring with an industrial vacuum.)

After I put things back where they belonged, I went on to tidy the bedroom as usual, without any extraordinary flourishes of diligence. Except for one: I dusted, or rather wiped with a damp cloth, the twelve-paned opaque cloth shade on the monkey lamp, a bijou item that is the first thing you see when you walk into the bedroom (if it isn’t the large watercolor hanging over the bed). The dust came off the lampshade in mortifying clots — but it did come off, and the shade, which is dull green in color (almost as grey as dust, in other words), looked somehow smarter. 

How do bedding, clothing, and little bits of people become dust? Could anyone explain it without being a bore? Because, really, you would want to learn only a little bit at a time. 

Shuddering, I remembered the HVAC filter that the handyman replaced. He laughed when he showed it to me. A carpet of grey mass approaching the condition of felt, it was a grim reminder that nothing lasts forever, except maybe dust. 

Med Note:
Against Innovation
10 May 2018

¶ This afternoon, I went to the Hospital for Special Surgery for a Remicade infusion, having had the first infusion a little over fourteen years ago, in April 2004. For some reason, the fact that that year ended in “4” has made the fourteenth anniversary unusually notable. 

Over the years, the basics have remained the same — the two-hour duration, the blood-pressure monitoring, the chemotherapy easy chairs, the attentiveness of the staff — but superficial details have changed many times. The infusion therapy unit has been expanded and remodeled, and only one nurse from that first visit remains on staff. But for bewildering alteration, change for its own sake, nothing can compare with the scheduling protocols and admission processes.

While scheduling has become a lot easier lately than it was for a long time — or perhaps as if to compensate for that improvement — the hospital has introduced a new check-in wrinkle. I learned of this with trepidation, because it seemed to provide an opportunity for last-minute bureaucratic interference: your papers are not in order. From now on (until the next new wrinkle), infusion patients are to present themselves at the Admitting office, off the ground-floor lobby. I can’t say that this makes no sense. But I also can’t see how it changed anything from the hospital’s point of view. 

Hitherto, I would go straight to the elevator and proceed to the seventh floor. That’s where my rheumatologist’s office is, as well as the infusion therapy unit. I would check in, whether for a doctor’s appointment or an infusion, with the clerks at the waiting room desk, and then take a seat until called. Anxiously, I wondered how the Admitting office would enhance or otherwise complicate the business of showing up on time. 

I was directed to Desk 5, where a woman smiled (somewhat goofily, I thought), and asked me to spell my name. Then she wanted to know when I was last at the hospital. The answer was out of my mouth before I could think — for you must know that my rheumatologist was on the advisory staff that oversaw the hospital’s recent massive IT overhaul, a distraction that took up much of his time for several years; we discussed it from time to time in a joking manner, but not entirely without my learning a thing or two: “You can see for yourself on the computer,” I said, pointing to the back of her monitor. 

Then I apologized, saying that, if I seemed short, I’d been coming to the hospital for fourteen years, and discovered that new procedures were not my cup of tea. 

The next thing I new, the woman was printing a bracelet. Standing up and leaning forward, she asked me if the names and birthdate were correct. When I said that they were, she fastened the bracelet around my right wrist and said “Seventh floor.” 

I had to ask. “Do I go straight to the infusion therapy unit or to the waiting room first?”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Do they have a waiting room up there? I’ve never been.” 

My advice to the young: forget about the AARP. Read Kafka. 

Rep Note:
Fried Chicken
9 May 2018

¶ Fried chicken continues to be worryingly unpredictable. No matter how it comes out, everybody says it’s great, but in my humble opinion it is sometimes, and for reasons I can’t settle on, dry and somewhat heavy-tasting. What little I understand of the science of deep frying would attribute this dryness to imperfect coating. Whether the chicken is marinated in a batter, or dredged in buttermilk and flour, the coating is supposed to form an instant, impermeable seal the moment the piece of chicken hits the hot fat. This seals in all the juices. But if that’s my problem, then I’ve perfected the art of imperfectly coating four or five pieces of chicken — sometimes I fry six — to exactly the same degree. If you ask me, it’s the variability of the chicken itself — which, by the way, I always brine. When some chicken is done, it’s overcooked. (If cooking time is shortened, it is not done, but unpleasantly pink.) 

The chicken that I made on Sunday night, though, was terrific, and I was presented with a different problem. I couldn’t eat as much as I wanted. I could barely get two pieces down. Admittedly, they were not on the small side. But they were perfect. I think that I am going to have to abandon the menu, so hearty on paper, so oppressive at the table, combining fried chicken with celery soup. Kathleen didn’t even take her usual drumstick, so there were two lovely pieces for me to drool over hopelessly. 

For nearly two years, I’ve been battering chicken in a mixture of flour, cornstarch, baking powder and spices. I tried mixing these together with buttermilk once, but the results were no better than if I’d used plain water, and I reflected that the purpose of buttermilk in dredged chicken is to brine the meat — which is then coated in flour, so that the buttermilk itself does not come in direct contact with the peanut oil. Buttermilk batter may be worse than a gilt lily.

What goes best with fried chicken? More fried chicken! 

Dirty Laundry Note:
Does Vodka Go On Fermenting?
8 May 2018

¶ Here’s how demoralized I was last week: I never took the wash-and-fold laundry downstairs. I squeaked by, washing a few extra things on Saturday night in the laundry room down the hall, but yesterday, I had to drag an impossibly heavy bag down to the combination dry cleaner’s/package room off the lobby. When I picked it up, this afternoon, it wasn’t any lighter, but I could actually carry it. Why is that? 

¶ Don’t tell anybody, but I drink a couple of shots of vodka at bedtime. Well, I sip, as slowly as possibly, for an hour or so before turning in. I stow the vodka in the freezer. 

When the bottle is empty, I set it next to/behind the little lidded garbage pail that I use for soiled cloth towels and napkins. (That’s another story.) Sometimes — hardly ever — there are two bottles standing there, which means that one of them has been standing there for a while. 

This afternoon, no longer quite so demoralized, I thought I’d better throw them away. Somehow I knocked one over, the one that had been standing there for a while.

It fell, and hit the ceramic floor tiles. Then, in a discrete event, it exploded. Trust me, I’ve broken enough glass in this kitchen to know what it sounds like, and it never sounds like a cannon. The base blew away, shattered. The base was the one part of the bottle that had been in contact with the floor, but that no longer was. 

How did that happen? 

Candy Note:
Swedish Fish
7 May 2018

¶ It was late evening. We were reading in the bedroom, Kathleen in bed and I in my chair. Suddenly Kathleen got out of bed and left the room. I hard the ruffling of papers, as if she were looking for something in her backpack. But it went on and on.

Then it hit me. “Are you into the fish?”

“I’m trying to open them.”

But you can’t open a package of Swedish fish from Agata & Valentina without a pair of scissors. So I opened it. “How many do you want?”

“Four.”

I laid them out on a small plate, one of each color.

The stocking of Swedish fish in a jelly dish on the dresser in the foyer is an innovation. I don’t know how I came to like them. I might enjoy one a day, but rarely more, and often none. So Kathleen’s “four” — four! — delivered a jolt. 

The whole business reminded me of my grandson, whom I was already thinking about because I’d talked to his mother earlier. But he knows where to find the scissors, and he wouldn’t have made any noise. 

Mood Register:
On Having Been Demoralized All Week
4 May 2018

¶ The worst thing about being old is the prolonged time it takes to recover from slings and arrows &c, especially given one’s propensity to see the world as going to the dogs despite all of one’s youthful resolutions never to become a tedious old man.

The worst thing about being old at this particular moment in time is that the world is going to the dogs. Actually, I expect that even dogs would turn up their noses. 

Rep Note:
Deviled Chicken
3 May 2018

¶ One of my principal objectives in reanimating this blog was to create a hat pin, so to speak, that would encourage me to dust off my culinary repertoire by trying new things. I’ve already written about Welsh rarebit; grilled chicken provides another example.

For years, I marinated the smallest drumsticks and thighs that I could find in a mixture of oil, soy sauce, sesame sauce, and lime juice — a sort of teriyaki. Years and years and years

Then one day I had a look at The Joy of Cooking (the Guarnaschelli edition, of course), and came across “Chicken Dijon.” Over time, I simplified the recipe, and now it has stabilized at five ingredients (plus the chicken). A tablespoon each of Dijon mustard and peanut oil, a few drops of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of cayenne and a pinch of salt. The resulting blend looks insufficient to coat four or five pieces of chicken, but looks are deceiving. Using tongs, I shift the pieces around for the hour or so in which they soak. 

Something else that I didn’t used to do: preheat the oven and the grill pan. The point, of course, is to cook the chicken through to the bone, without reducing the skin to black ash. 

Ten minutes on one side followed by five or six (depending on size) on the other seems to do the job. 

Video Note:
Hannah Arendt
2 May 2018

¶ Kathleen was in Chicago last night, so I yielded to a strong desire to watch Margarethe von Trotta’s excellent biopic, Hannah Arendt

My only real complaint about this excellent movie concerns Janet McTeer’s impersonation of Mary McCarthy, which to my mind brings the word “galumphing.” Barbara Sukowa, it’s true, is far too beautiful to be mistaken for the heroine, but I don’t mind that a bit.

Everybody knows that, under the Production Code that kept the Hollywood’s output decent for well over thirty years, smoking became a kind of sex act. Where there was smoke, there was fire. Von Trotta puts this cliché to new use. They weren’t allowed to show love-making in the old days, but even with all the permission in the world, thinking remains invisible. Except when Sukowa smokes.

Any day now, I’m going to re-read Eichmann in Jerusalem

Med Note:
Lo-Tech
1 May 2018

For years, I’ve met my gastro-enterologist at the clinic where he performs colonoscopies. Every eighteen months or so, I have called his secretary to set up the exam, and to get a prescription for that stuff that you have to drink on the day before. (It used to be disgusting, but isn’t anymore, and I’m not saying that because I got used to it.) I had been to the doctor’s office  — his current office, to which he moved quite a long time ago — only once before today’s meeting, which I scheduled because I wanted to talk to him about my condition in street clothes.

He had been very happy with the results of my last exam, which was why I’d let three and a half years pass before contacting him — an unprecedented gap. He was still so happy today that he encouraged me to wait until next year for another poke. In the meantime, I was to start off every morning with a big bowl of fiber-rich cereal, and I was to keep a diary. A diary of what I leave it to you to figure out.

Not even a prescription! Instead, a free lesson — scandalous that I needed it, at my age and with my history — about the performance of certain strategic muscles. 

Enhancing the quaintness, I couldn’t help noticing that his examining room — he did palpate my belly, with nothing but his hands and a stethoscope — affords an excellent sniper’s-eye view of the front steps of the Plaza Hotel. 

April 2018

View Note:
Bags in the Trees
30 April 2018

¶ This winter, a light-brown shopping bag blowing through the air was snagged by an upper branch of the honey locust tree across 87th from our living room window. It’s not very picturesque, but it will be hidden, one hopes, by  leaves that have yet to bud. 

Far less likely to disappear is the roll of bubble wrap, ten inches wide perhaps but at least ten feet long, that has coiled itself like a denatured dragon further down. It is caught on several branches. Although it is much closer to the street, I daresay only a worker on a cherry-picker could remove it. 

Depravity: thinking that it doesn’t matter what you do with your garbage. Inhumanity: the effect of depravity on the rest of us. 

Book Note:
Flâneuse, cont’d
27 April 2018

But in the end, I really liked Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse! I liked it a lot! Once past those initial quibbles, I settled into a very engaged read. The book is a model of personalized literary criticism — a genre that I expect will not just grow but mushroom. Elkin braids her accounts of living in various cities — in the case of Venice, this amounts to a short research trip, but she is not a tourist — with descriptions of books, films, and their creators. One could do far worse than approach the novels of Virginia Woolf via Elkin’s chapter about London. And she is very sensible about George Sand, presenting a sympathetic woman and downplaying the male masquerade. The effect is one of oblique Bildungsroman, in which the central character is nurtured by woman who have gone before, and shown how to live in cities. 

This is a book to come back to. 

Rialto Note:
Travesties
26 April 2018

It was something of a surprise, yesterday, to come across Ben Brantley’s warm review of the revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, a production that has crossed the Atlantic and only just “opened.” It appears that Kathleen and I saw it in previews, which means that we bought tickets without regard for local opinion. Kathleen is a keen admirer of Stoppard, something that always surprises me a little, because she detests showing off. (Sometimes I think that Arcadia is all of Shakespeare to her.) She didn’t expect to like this earlier play; she thought that it would be a riot of people talking over one another, unintelligibly, as Jumpers can be. But she did like it, although I’m not sure that she liked it as much as I did, once I realized the brilliance of exploiting The Importance of Being Earnest as the foundation of an absurdist exhibition of early modern intellectuals. Of whom Wilde was, on balance, I think, decidedly not one. 

I kept thinking of Gilbert, as in Gilbert and Sullivan, and of how sweetly Wilde presses Gilbert’s topsy-turvy world toward indecorous entendres that Gilbert, whose humor, at heart, was that of an attorney — and what a rich source of fun the law can be I am here to insist — was too proper, too earnestly Victorian, to entertain. The indecorousness pertains not so much to sexual impropriety as to the rejection of gender stereotypes, something that would later degenerate into “camp.” To see what I mean, compare Princess Ida and her colleagues to Lady Bracknell and her girls; the later ladies have altogether thrown over the idea that, beneath the decoration, there is anything particularly attractive in being a woman. Did Gilbert ever see the show? (He died nearly two decades after it opened.) I imagine that it would have annoyed him. Plus, of course, what one knew about Wilde: that can’t have gone over well with the Grand Inquisitor of Savoy. 

It’s a fantastic production, literally, a ballet-circus of beautifully-declaimed English. Tom Hollander was even better than I thought he would be, and that’s saying something, although I can’t point to the particular movie role that he excelled in person. (The one in Hanna comes close.) He seemed born to play Henry Carr, the antique ingénu whose memory is a bombsite of misplaced shards. Seth Numrich was equally virtuoso as Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dada. And the girls — Sara Topham (Cecily) and Scarlett Strallen (Gwendolen) — were scrumptious, there’s no other word. What a rollick they made of their Gallagher/Sheen travesty! Everyone was great, from the director down to the usher, but these four were the people I wanted to run away with, at least while the lights were on. 

For when the show was over, Kathleen and I walked a few blocks — it was miserably cold; Stoppard would have found the Siberian climate redemptive — to Joe Allen, where, when you call to make an after-theatre reservation, you tell them what show you’re seeing, and they know when to expect you. It was Kathleen’s birthday, but we kept that to ourselves; no candles on cheesecake. 

I had thought to order a copy of Travesties and read it beforehand, but I didn’t; still, forty years later, I’m put off that kind of exercise by the awful experience of sitting through a performance, at Jones Hall in Houston, of the “Don Juan in Hell” scene of Man and Superman, with Myrna Loy, no less, as Ann, only two days after reading it. Wearisome does not begin to describe it. Had I read Travesties ahead of time — it turned out that I already had a copy, but of the original play, which Stoppard has subsequently revised a bit — I’d have been unpleasantly braced for the great chunks of Lenin speeches that, in the event, were cut from the show. The play to read before seeing Travesties is, of course, Wilde’s great comedy. 

Which I really wanted to read afterwards. I knew that, at one point, I had a book with all five of Wilde’s plays in it. Did I have it still? According to Evernote, yes, I did, in the middle rank of the books on the third shelf of the breakfront bookcase here in the book room. And there it was. The thing is, right underneath it (the books are stacked horizontally) was Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness. I had been thinking of looking for that, too, wondering if I still had it; I bought it several years ago, but didn’t read it. Now I wanted to, because it is mentioned in Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (one of this year’s must-reads) as one of the indispensable books about the Holocaust. And here it was! So I read it. Good old Evernote. 

It seems evident rather than accidental that, when I was arranging the books on that shelf of the bookcase, Oscar Wilde’s theatre and the horrors of Treblinka stood at something like the same distance from my interest at the time. How interesting that they should advance to its center at the same time.   

Larder Note:
Spoiled
25 April 2018

¶ In my experience, a chicken is either spoiled or it isn’t, and a spoiled chicken stinks.

Well, that was my experience, until last night. 

I bought the chicken last Wednesday, and meant to cook it over the weekend at the latest. But, one thing and another. I did brine it on Sunday — no smell then. No smell last night, either, when I pulled it out for grilling; except, maybe, just a little whiff. But certainly not a stink. 

My first bite was a bit of thigh. I thought it was musty; I thought of cheese. Kathleen found it sweet. She had the one bite, I had two more. There was no gastroenterological sequel, I’m happy to report. But I’m sorry to have lost my hard and fast rule.