New York Note:
Helping Hands
24 August 2018

¶ When I did a big shop at Fairway last week, I forgot to buy bread. “I’ll just run in and out,” I thought, imagining a quick trip across the street.

It sounds easy, running in and out of Fairway; people do it all the time. They stand on the express line with two or three items in their handbaskets, or perhaps just a baguette in their hands. The express line usually moves pretty quickly, but there’s no getting around that one is in Fairway, an overcrowded dodgem-car souk out of Dante. Quick trips may actually occur, early in the morning or late at night, but I wouldn’t count on one.

So the bread got company on the list in my head, and the visit was postponed for over a week. I wasn’t planning on a big shop, but somehow my bill came to seven dollars short of the free-delivery cutoff. This was really unexpected. I hadn’t separated the things (such as ice cream) that I would have to carry home if I splurged on delivery. Nor was I up to running back a few steps for a piece of cheese that would pay for the delivery. So I carried the stuff home myself. 

I had bought a lot of liquids (a quart of milk, a dozen lemons, two bottles of Planters peanut oil, and of course that ice cream), so the bags were heavy from the start. Since I no longer have the stamina to carry heavy things for an entire minute without moaning, mere heaviness soon gave way to crucification. It took about four minutes to reach the building’s front door. The nicest of the doormen asked me if I needed help, and for once I said yes. I thought that he would take the bags to the elevator, which would be a nice break, but in fact he took them to my front door. Was I ever grateful!

Inertial Note:
Weekend Alone
23 August 2018

Kathleen is off to see her father, who lives in North Carolina. He is hale and hearty at 94. Owing to one thing and another, it has been a while since her last visit.

As always, I begin by intending to distract myself from her absence by undertaking some overdue project, such as dealing with the piles of books in the bookroom, which are now more striking than the books in the shelves. Why must books all be so thick! There is no room for any of them in the bookcases now. but perhaps I can cull a few sacred cows — books that I have always owned, many of them my first expensive cloth-bound treasures — that ought to be let go. But this will make room for only a dozen books at most. I suspect that it’s the new books that will have to be weeded.

Daydreaming about getting all this good work done has usually faded by the time Kathleen lands at wherever she’s going, drubbed by myriad worries about her arriving in one piece. I’ll doubtless spend the weekend reading and watching movies.

Music Note:
Be True to Your Teletype
22 August 2018

¶ Reading Ben Yagoda’s The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, I’m sort of thrilled to learn that Dennis Wilson (of The Beach Boys) had to pull his car over the first time he heard The Ronettes singing “Be My Baby” on the radio. I remember turning into a pillar of salt. (I was not in a car.)

Perusing my iTunes library (which consists mostly of CD recordings that I’ve uploaded to the computer), I discovered that “Be My Baby” was covered by The Essex, who turned me into an electric eel earlier in 1963 with their hit, “Easier Said Than Done.” Their version of “Be My Baby” adapts the song to their trademark teletype beat, and is leaner and cleaner. But the thrill isn’t there. You might almost say that Essex soloist Anita Humes, who I pictured at the time as a freckled, pigtailed blonde, wearing thick spectacles and possessed by teenaged hormones (she was nothing of the sort, of course), sounds too articulate. There’s something about the original that suggests a foggy coma, and Ronnie Spector sings as though no word in the lyric were any more important than another. That’s as it should be. “Be My Baby” is much closer to vocalese than it is to message songs. 

On the very next page of Yagoda’s top-notch survey, I’m astounded to read the Wilson thinks that he has never written a song as good. I’m not so sure. If you treat the words as vocalese, the madly underrated “Be True To Your School” is the obvious boy-song match.

Library Note:
Gwoyeu Romatzyh
21 August 2018

¶ In working on a new section of the writing project, I am marshalling my Chinese library from various shelves in the bookroom. I don’t know what I’ll need it for, exactly, but that’s really why I’m doing it: I need to have a look at all the books, even if they’re just piled up. 

For some reason lost to history, the book that I’ve had the longest, How to Write and Study Chinese Characters, by W Simon, uses a romanization system, devised in the Twenties, and promptly adopted by the Nationalist Chinese government, that indicated the various tones on which intelligibility depends with Roman letters only. Gwoyeu Romatzyh never caught on anywhere, not even, over the long run, in Taiwan. Because I wasn’t really interested in learning how to speak ChineseI didn’t pay it very much attention. It certainly looks strange now (“charng”?), given the universal adoption of Hanyu pinyin, a system that relies on four accent marks and that I, for one, find much easier to deal with — even though I’m still not speaking Chinese. 

I would have had no practicable way of finding out, back in the early Seventies, that Ernest Julius Walter Simon was a a refugee from the Nazis. 

Cinema Note:
These Gay Surroundings
20 August 2018

When we spoke, a few days after the physical exam, about the results of all the blood tests (no changes), I asked the doctor about a pill that I’d been unwilling to take, because, uh, I already spend enough time in the bathroom. He told me that, after an initial adjustment period, I probably wouldn’t notice any unpleasantness. Then he told me something about a benefit that I hadn’t known about, or hadn’t really listened to. I resolved to overcome my reluctance.

I took the first pill on Saturday. I did not get to sleep until a bit after three, because that’s when the day’s initial adjustment period finally wore off. Wanting to be armed with a good book for Sunday night — the worst thing about the previous evening’s ordeal was not having anything really engaging to read — I combed the shelves and found a book that I’ve never read, although why I don’t know. It’s Peter Conrad’s The Hitchcock Murders, and I’ve had it forever, or at least since it came out nearly twenty years ago. I love Peter Conrad! 

Last night’s side effects were mercifully muted, but I suppose I ought to be grateful for the worry, because it spurred me to read an engrossing book. Conrad is like a magician, pulling insight after insight out of a snappy black hat. He seems to have read all the novels and other material that Hitchcock adapted for his screenplays, so that he can open our eyes to many fascinating tidbits, such as that the observer in the Cornell Woolrich story on which Hitchcock based Rear Window has no profession! That Jeff Jeffries must be a photographer — a professional window-peeper — seems divinely ordained. 

Conrad is at his best when he tells me something that I almost knew, but didn’t quite. I’ve always been aware that, in North By Northwest, Cary Grant is brazenly playing himself when he reproves the woman through whose hospital room Roger Thornhill is escaping, after she begs him, the second time and in a fainting voice, to Stop. But I’d never quite noticed that James Mason, too, plays himself. Mason’s characters are often impatient, but at the Mount Rushmore cafeteria, Mason’s impatience is exactly that of a jaded actor. His little speech at the beginning is really nothing but what a somewhat self-important leading man might say when appearing on the set, ready to go. “Now what little drama are we here for today?”

It seems that the little boy who plugs his ears before Eva Marie Saint fires the pistol was beneath Conrad’s notice. To be sure, it is difficult to tease out the meaning of Hitchcock’s having left that blooper in the final cut.

Grocery Note:
17 August 2018

For the second time in a row, Schaller & Weber hasn’t had any Mozartkugeln for sale. When a man in ordinary clothes whom I’d never seen before asked me what I was looking for, he didn’t know what Mozartkugeln were. It did seem, however, that he actually worked in the shop. 

I never imagined…

And when I say that they didn’t have any, I mean that they didn’t have the Reber brand, either, which I shouldn’t have bought no matter how desperate. I buy only Mirabell. The Mirabell are said to come from Salzburg (although they’re made under the aegis of Mondelez now), while the Reber come from Vienna. Ironic; the ones that I liked should not come from the town that Mozart hated. 

So I went online. The first comment was enough to put me off. (The astronomical shipping fee hadn’t been.) The candies took a month to arrive, were old and pale tasting, with the foil wrappers stuck to the chocolate — I could easily imagine this immense and expensive (considering) disappointment. Another commenter said that he ought to have waited for winter, which is of course quite true where candies are concerned, and probably an explanation of the high freight.

A Mozartkugeln bonbon is not unlike the planet earth, layers of different treats enveloping a center of pistachio marzipan. Well, the marzipan is not molten, and neither is the earth covered in chocolate. When I was a boy, I was always buying Three Musketeers bars and then wondering why. It’s the same with Mozartkugeln — they still taste somewhat weird. But it’s the weirdness that brings me back. 

Until the problem clears up (if it ever does), I shall have to take the few Mozartkugeln that I still have out of the dish on the sideboard. Sometimes, Ray Soleil is bold enough to help himself to two!

Helpful Hints:
16 August 2018

¶ The old man can either stand up or sit down. If he sits down, there probably won’t be a problem.

If he stands up, there might be a mess. In twenty-nine cases out of thirty, however, the mess will be nothing worse than a puddle, or perhaps even just a splash of drops, between his feet.

Placing two small sheets of paper towel in that spot makes it very easy, when the time comes, to flush the stink away. Quite amazing, really.

Lexical Note:
15 August 2018

In the steeply pitched roof there was a single window in each of the two rooms.

Because I was tired, I misread “steeply” for “steeple,” and only then did I realize that steeples are steep. 

The sentence comes from Chapter 6 of “Reading Turgenev,” one of the two novellas that comprise William Trevor’s Two Lives. (The other, My House in Umbria, is the source of a movie that Kathleen and I love to pieces, although neither of us has ever read the story.) 

Because one of my favorite movies — I saw it in the theatre back in 1962, before it won Best Foreign Film — is Les dimanches de Ville d’Avray (Sundays and Cybèle), you’d think I’d have known. But steeples have an underived quality, don’t they? 

Vanity Note:
The Least/Most I Could Do
14 August 2018

¶ At about one-ten, I took the subway to 72nd Street — the next stop — and got to the doctor’s office in plenty of time, for the annual physical checkup.

The doctor asked me how I was doing. I told him that I felt about ten years older than I did at the last checkup. What I didn’t tell him was that, in the middle of not getting much done yesterday afternoon, I had idly checked my log and discovered that it had been three weeks, not two, since my last visit to the barber shop. Creaking at death’s door though I might be, I was not going to show up for a physical looking like a woolly mammoth. I threw on my clothes and jumped in a taxi.

I had my reward after I left the doctor’s office. The weather kindly waited until I was safely inside again before loosing a colossal thunderstorm, bone-rattlingly close and with buckets of rain.

Literary Note:
The Sun Came Out
13 August 2018

The death of VS Naipaul seems to be generating a cascade of reappraisal — favorable on the whole, perhaps for reasons suggested, as we’ll see, by a great but not, astonishingly, late editor of his work. Forget the critics; almost every title except the really famous ones, such as A House for Mr Biswas, are “temporarily” out of stock at Amazon. Maybe they’ve been out of stock for a while — I hadn’t been paying attention. But I suspect that the handfuls of copies that the retailer stocked were snapped up at once by the curious. For my part, I’m going to re-read The Enigma of Arrival, and perhaps have a go at A Bend in the River, which I dropped after a few pages, possibly because it was all too Conrad for that particular moment. 

Via The Browser, I came across an enchanting memoir that appeared in Granta almost ten years ago, written by Diana Athill, now 101. Athill was Naipaul’s editor at André Deutsch, the publisher of his first book and many that followed. The tremendous thing about her is that she is at least as interesting as any of her writers, and her recollections of Naipaul don’t disappoint. It seems that she was unhappy with Guerillas — a book that Dwight Garner singles out for praise in an encomium in today’s Times — because, as it happens, she actually knew the true-crime individuals whom Naipaul, having merely read about a murder in the paper, transformed into fictional characters. When she expressed her reservations to the writer, he “flounced out in a fury,” withdrawing the manuscript and selling it overnight to Secker and Warburg. 

For at least two weeks I seethed . . . [sic] and then, in the third week, it suddenly occurred to me that never again would I have to listen to Vidia telling me how damaged he was, and it was as though the sun came out. I didn’t have to like Vidia any more! I could still like his work, I could still be sorry for his pain; but I no longer faced the task of fashioning affection out of these elements in order to deal as a good editor should with the exhausting, and finally tedious, task of listening to his woe. ‘Do you know what,’ I said to André, ‘I’ve begun to see that it’s a release.’ (Rather to my surprise, he laughed.) 

Writers should be read and not heard. Especially the men ones. 

Shopping Note:
A Nice Gesture
10 August 2018

¶ At Schaller & Weber, the counterman wrapped up the first two items that I ordered as if they were all I wanted. (It was a bit hectic in there.) “No,” I said, “I need some other things.” So, when we were really done, he handed me two bags. I paid and went home. I unpacked the bags promptly. But where was the American cheese?

I peered closely at the receipts. All they showed were dollar amounts, but I could tell that I had been charged for five items when I had ordered six (or six instead of seven), so, having put everything in the refrigerator, I went back to the shop, which is, after all, just across the street. Because I did need the cheese.

The counterman saw me and smiled. “You forgot my cheese,” I said. “But you didn’t charge me.” I felt it necessary to make it clear that I wasn’t accusing him of any impropriety. “You’re right,” he said, “I didn’t. But you were good enough to walk back for it.” He handed me a small bag with the cheese in it. There was no receipt — nothing to pay at checkout. “No,” he said, when I protested. “You came back for it.”

While I think that this was very nice of him, I am slightly puzzled by the logic. Perhaps he felt sorry for inconveniencing an old man. 

Branding Note:
Not Every Hero
9 August 2018

How long has this been going on? Months and months, it seems — but I only just noticed. Needing a new roll of paper towels, I pulled down the package of six that I bought some time ago at Fairway and stored on the shelf over the cabinets. As will be clear, I never really looked at it, beyond noting the brand name and the checked lumberjack shirt. Until today that is. As I was trying poke a hole in the thick plastic wrap, my eyes fell on the words, “Not every hero is a ‘he’.” I’m too old to think WTF?, but my reaction was something like that. Sure enough, when I turned over the package to put it back up on the shelf, there she was, a dark-haired woman. I gather from a YouTube clip that she’s one of three, the other two being blondes. 

My preference for Brawny paper towels is almost as old as the brand. I’ve had to try all the others, because nothing is available all the time in Manhattan, but I’ve always been disappointed by alternatives. (And it has to be Brawny in the pick-a-size option.) Which is a pity, because I’ve always been mortified by Brawny’s branding, even the name. It’s as though I’m choosing the manly paper towel, if anything could be so ridiculous. Non-committal Bravo would suit me far better, except the towels don’t. 

I wonder if the Brawny marketers ever knew about Pine Clones.

Interior Note:
Words in Common
8 August 2018

Words have very little in common with what goes on inside of you.
— Mother of a terrorist victim, quoted in Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, an oral history compiled by Svetlana Alexievich. (Bela Shayevich, trans.) (p 362)

Is this true? I think it is. The remark seems to be made a propos of nothing, like much in Alexievich’s interviews, merely a flash of the never disstant despair that menaces most of the people who speak in this very sad book.

To say that words have little to do with what goes on inside of us seems itself a judgment of despair.

Many of us grow up believing that there is something inside us that demands expression. Words are the most convenient medium, but they usually fail us. We believe that if we knew how better to choose words, or if we knew better words, or if there were better words, then we could really say what we mean. But we don’t really know what we mean. Paradoxically, it is speech that deludes us into assuming that our interior experience might be fully intelligible. We expect words that we have learned from others to articulate our strongly-felt uniqueness. Yet it is given to very few of us to express something that has never been expressed before. 

Words have little in common with our interior experience because we use them in common in our social lives. 

Yet we keep speaking — so long as we also believe that expression is not useless. What we say may never be adequate, but that we say something indicates that speaking itself is meaningful. Until, as happens to depressed people and to victims of trauma — it isn’t, and we fall silent.   

Periodical Note:
Vanity Fizzle
7 August 2018

¶ There’s Michelle Williams on the cover of the new issue of Vanity Fair, looking like a Soviet disciplinarian. Nearby floats the caption, “I never gave up on love.” Yikes! Can we have the old Premiere back?

I don’t know when our subscription runs out, but it is not going to be renewed, not while Radhika Jones is the editor, anyway.

Sure, I miss Graydon Carter’s weakness for Eurobling. But I can live without it. What I don’t want to live without is Tina Brown’s faith in “the mix.” There is no mix at Vanity Fair anymore. It is all media. I suppose it makes sense, in the Age of Trump, that the magazine features one entertainer after another. But it’s certainly not very entertaining. Most of the faces leave me feeling old and bored. Who needs that in the house?

Kathleen never reads it anyway. 

Al Fresco Note:
Flying Home
6 August 2018

¶ Somehow, Kathleen got through the entire afternoon on two crumb donuts. I had a bowl of cereal also. I was starving before Kathleen even left for Mass.

While she was gone, I worked up some pizza dough. But we never got to pizza. We consumed instead a tub of Fairway guacamole and about half a bag of Xochitl Totopos de Maiz. Kathleen drank two tall Arnold Palmers. We were stuffed. 

We enjoyed this extended appetizer on the balcony. It was very warm when we stepped out — shockingly so, coming from the cold air inside — but it got pleasant very quickly, whether because it actually cooled off or we acclimated. It was probably the breeze. The balcony is almost always caressed by a breeze. I think I know why, but it would be tedious to explain — something to do with the fact that the garage downstairs extends about twenty feet beyond the building’s upper floors, on both 86th and 87th Street, creating a mid-block canyon.

While we munched on the chips, we stared at the patch of blue sky to the north and watched an unaccountable number of smallish jets fly up toward the Bronx. Where were they going to land? Westchester Airport? Unless something has changed, Westchester doesn’t handle that much traffic — the posh neighbors won’t allow it. Stewart Airport, up in Rockland County, seems far away — unless passengers debouch onto helicopters. We live directly beneath a helicopter flight path, crossing from east to west. We can’t see them, because they’re directly overhead. We can certainly hear them. 

Where is everybody coming from? 

It’s a Sunday-night thing. 

Ransom Note:
3 August 2018

Kathleen has been bothered, off and on, by a sore throat. It was very sore this morning — well, not alarmingly so, but enough to keep her in bed. (She blames the flare-up on Artic conditions aboard the Acela on Wednesday afternoon. It was so cold that she daydreamed about wrapping herself up in the window-curtains.) The other thing that happened this morning was that the Times was not delivered. There was no reason for me to get up, either. 

Eventually, I put on my reading glasses and tackled The New Yorker, and now feel sick. What a depressing issue! Ronan Farrow’s piece on Leslie Moonves, which appears not to have dislodged the allegedly disinhibited executive from the command of CBS, is pretty sick-making, not so much because of the amorous antics, revolting as they are, as because of the destructive campaigns to destroy the victim that follow. And it’s all so sordid. There should never be only two people in the room. A year or so ago, at the doctor’s office, I wailed to the nurse, when she belatedly entered the examining room, that her boss, a dermatologist who happens to be a woman, had been molesting me. (I am about forty times her size.) We all had a good laugh. Now I wouldn’t dream of cracking such a joke. 

Then I read Richard Ford’s story, “Displaced,” which, like so many Ford stories, ought to have been nothing worse than tenderly melancholic. Given my pre-existing mood, though, it was also rather sordid, involving an unwanted kiss and a boarding house full of low-lifes. (Loud-lifes, really.) What could be worse than losing the parent to whom you were drawn, and left in the custody of the parent from whom you’d like to escape? Well, Astrid Holleeder’s family story is worse, much worse. Astrid’s brother, Wim, is a murderous, narcissistic criminal, and her decision to record their conversations and then betray him to the authorities has exposed her to a potential hit. And her daughter and grandchildren, her sister and her children. Wim is one of those monsters, capable of wreaking havoc from prison through proxies, who make opposition to the death penalty problematic. 

I dozed off, and dreamed that all the young men who will download blueprints for 3D printed pistols might gang up and kidnap Manhattan. 

Quartermaster Note:
Tally Whoa!
2 August 2018

¶ The hot humidity was so oppressive that I almost turned around at the front door and went back upstairs to the apartment. Ageing has altered the unpleasantness of such weather. It used to make me sweat. Now it gives me a hard time breathing. 

I managed to get to Fairway for a somewhat overdue comprehensive shop. Was it that — the overdue part — or the weather that made me spend 75% more than I usually do? Unloading the shopping basket at check-out, I set out all the produce first. I was alarmed when the tally jumped over $50, before I’d set down the meat or the peanut oil. Among the produce, I saw, I’d placed a wedge of Parmesan, a slice of Roquefort, and a rather pricey dried salami. Organic pears and table grapes were pretty expensive, too, relative to lettuce, and I also bought a lot of lemons, for Kathleen’s Arnold Palmers. By the way, I didn’t clarify the other day that I now stock orange pekoe tea — Lipton’s would be fine, but I don’t do teabags — because Earl Grey is too insistently flavored to blend with lemonade. I ought to have known better, but Kathleen made the discovery herself on one of her travels.

Consulting the receipt, I see that the high total owes mostly to the replacement of a lot of items that were neither expensive nor inexpensive. Nickel and dime stuff. Ain’t it always.

¶ When the shopping was delivered, I was able to put everything where it belonged. Everything! No cramming things into dark or unreachable corners. 

Vapors Note:
1 August 2018

¶ Katleen left at the crack of dawn (so to speak) for a day trip to Washington. Hours later, I awoke from a not-unpleasant dream — but in a state of unaccountable anxiety.

In the afternoon, plowing through Tailspin, I was reminded by Steven Brill that the ancient Hudson River tunnel through which all trains heading in both directions must pass, and which was set to be supplemented by a new, second tunnel until a certain governor of New Jersey had an attack of provincialism, might collapse any day now. Any day now being a day on which Kathleen will be returning from Washington on the train. The ensuing anxiety attack may have been unreasonable, but it was not unaccountable. 

July 2018

Lit Note:
Please Give
31 July 2018

How did my reading get so grim? Here’s how: I zip through all the fun stuff, while the spines of the gloomy books glower at me. They’re very much still there when the breeze dies down. Over the weekend, I swallowed James Chambers’ biography of Lord Palmerston, about whom I knew really quite little, except that he contrived to be in office, either as Foreign Secretary or as Prime Minister, for both Opium Wars, which were roughly twenty years apart. I discovered that he started out as Secretary at War in 1809, died as Prime Minister in 1865, and spent only about eight years of the almost inconceivably long intervening stretch in opposition. I also came to like him. At a distance, he has a Churchillian bold charm, or nonchalant recklessness if you prefer. And yet he was never associated with a disaster on the scale of Gallipoli. In fact, he was successful in nearly every undertaking, from billiards to staring down the Queen. Metternich hated him, which is certainly to his credit. 

I had gotten Globalists out of the way, but I’d ordered Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands along with Palmerston: The People’s Darling, and it was sitting on top of Steven Brill’s Tailspin. Oy. Doing the ironing promised to be more fun, especially if I put on a good movie. My choice of DVD was guided by a mini-profile, her-career-so-far piece about Nicole Holofcener. I settled on Please Give, one of two Holofcener movies in my library (the other being Friends With Money) because I couldn’t remember why Catherine Keener’s character was out on a fire escape. But that’s in another movie, A Late Quartet, which was made only a couple of years later and which is set in exactly the same neighborhood. Although Keener is versatile and not particularly metropolitan, there is a little something about her that embodies Upper West Side Woman — at least the women who migrate to the Upper West Side. Or who used to do. She can smile the most dispiriting smile in the world — something to be distinguished from Kristin Scott Thomas’s patented discouraging smile. Thomas would jump off a cliff if she felt the measureless despair that Keener seems to be at home with. But I’m thinking of Kristin Scott Thomas in English. In French, Thomas is pretty dispiriting, too. 

I’m almost done with Tailspin, which I bought because Brill covers many of the American problems that I’ve been complaining about at the other blog, and I was curious about his insights. Without being officially pessimistic, Brill is deeply troubled by the general lack of common cause that has allowed opportunists to unravel our political fabric. Indeed, he convinced me (without trying) that nothing short of a genuinely universal national service will pull the country together. The United States has problems enough with exceptionalism; the last thing it needs is exceptional Americans.