Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

April 2019

Friday, April 19th, 2019

Seasonal Note:
Spring Fever, Reflected in Tranquillity
18 April 2019

Thursday, April 18th, 2019

¶ Spring, although keeping on the cold side, seems to have arrived. And with it, memories of old excitements. Spring! The very air was dance music. At the barber shop yesterday, Cookie, the junior barber, who can’t be as young as I think he is because he has been young like this for many years now — Cookie was dancing, slightly but perceptibly, whilst cutting a customer’s hair. Rock ‘n roll pulsed from the speakers. Spring used to be the one time of year when I could bear rock ‘n’ roll. Now, though, I asked Tito, who was cutting my hair, if he couldn’t turn down the sound a little. He went over to the receiver and turned it down a lot. “Thanks,” I said, “but you didn’t need to turn it down that much.” “It was getting on my nerves,” he remarked. Even though Tito is only slightly older than Cookie, he prefers Aïda. “Why didn’t you complain before?”  

It used to be great fun to be foolish in the indulgence of spring fever. Now it is fun to remember foolishness without repeating it.  

Afterward, I walked to the Shake Shack. I had already walked to the barber shop but was feeling fine. At the Shake Shack counter, my order was taken, somewhat unusually, by a guy who appeared to be in a managerial position. Instead of giving me one of those blinking-light alarm doodads that go off when your order is ready, he told me that if I had a seat outside he would bring my tray to me. It was just nice enough to sit outside in comfort — I was wearing a heavy cardigan — and very nice to be waited on, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about being treated as an old man. Maybe the manager-trainee was treating me as a big old man, someone best got out of the way in the crowded area where people wait for their burgers. In any case, I felt like a first-class rube when I took a seat outside without a buzzer. Had I just bought a piece of the Brooklyn Bridge? I did have my receipt…

When the guy brought me the tray, he asked me to make sure that the fries were still warm. “I’ve been running around,” he said. 

I forgot to tell Kathleen about my odd experience at Shake Shack, but when she heard about Tito turning the sound down she asked, “Didn’t Cookie object?” “Of course not, I replied. “I am the Capitán.” Ludicrous but true. 

And from the Shake Shack I walked home. Then I got tired. 

 

Rep Note:
Chicken Livers and Wild Rice
17 April 2019

Wednesday, April 17th, 2019

Here’s the crazy thing: I know I didn’t make this up. I got it from somewhere. I could have sworn that the idea came from either Judith Jones’s little book about cooking for one or the Guarnaschelli Joy of Cooking, but there’s not a hint of it in either, not under “chicken livers” and not under “wild rice.” What made me think that the two belong together — which they certainly do? 

In addition to being tasty, it’s a Chinese prep dinner dish, ideal for weeknights. Aside from one long-simmering ingredient (rice), everything is sliced, minced, soaked or otherwise dealt with in the ten minutes before heating the skillet, and set aside in its own small bowl. The counter has a tidied-up air before cooking even begins! (And of course the bowls go straight into the dishwasher.) Cooking itself is boom-boom-boom. Done. 

When it’s time to eat, heat up a regular skillet (not non-stick) and melt some butter. Toss in four quartered mushroom caps and sauté them until — is there a word for what happens to mushrooms when they have absorbed all the fat they can take and begun to exude water? — then. Turn up the heat a bit and add three or four halved livers, from which the white cords have been removed, and cook them, turning often, until they have browned nicely. (I added some more butter.) Stir in a  mixture of minced shallot and parsley — you decide how much; I use a small shallot and the leaves from two parsley sprigs — and cook for a minute or less. Then pour in a measure of dry white wine, to deglaze the pan. (Scrape up all the brown bits until the bottom of the pan is clean and “slidey” again. ) Correct the seasoning. Finally, toss in four or five sliced grape tomatoes. When the wine has reduced to the thickness of a sauce, spoon the livers onto piles of hot wild rice and serve.

I think you’ll find that in order to follow this recipe you’ll have to make it your own first, either by printing it and marking it up or recreating it with a standard ingredients list (“four quartered mushroom caps”). It’s very simple, but you’ll have to figure out for yourself why it’s simple. (Perhaps you don’t find mincing shallots and parsley “simple.” I use a mezzaluna.) How much is “a measure of wine”? In this case, it was all that was left at the bottom of a bottle of Sancerre. (There was just enough, but if there had been less, I could have added some water.) I myself can hardly explain how I stood over the stove working with all the assurance that comes from having made a dish countless times — when in fact I had just “made it up.” (I do have a lingering question: should the livers have been cooked before the mushrooms, or perhaps together with them?)

Since it’s standard to cook a cup of wild rice at a time, I have lots left over. It’s all going to go into a salad for Easter luncheon — rice, plumped currants, grapes, and I don’t know what else.  

Reading Note:
Butcher’s Crossing
16 April 2019

Tuesday, April 16th, 2019

Over the weekend, I read John Williams’s 1960 novel, Butcher’s Crossing

I hadn’t heard of this book until a few weeks ago, when Leo Robson mentioned it in an essay on Williams in The New Yorker, occasioned by NYRB’s republication of Williams’s 1975 National Book Award co-winner, Augustus. I already knew something about Williams, having vaguely followed the low-key brouhaha about the rediscovery of his academic novel, Stoner, which I read in 2015. I wasn’t greatly impressed by Stoner, because it was set at the University of Missouri, and I’m an awful East Coast Snob. (In truth, I’m an Easterner whose academic sojourns in the Midwest taught me that life there would be a living death.) I was also depressed by the novel’s complaisance about the mortality of a humanist professor’s career. (Professors of literature deal in immortal subject matter.) But Robson’s comments about an “alternative canon,” in which the emotions excited by a work of fiction are brought about indirectly, without explicit mention, struck a nerve; I saw at once that the novels that I liked could be distinguished from the novels that I didn’t by just this rule alone. (It also explained why I’m bored by most of the mid-century American greats.) My first move was to re-read Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which Robson seemed to consider a reconciliation of the conflict. Perhaps that misrepresents Robson. In any case, I found that Herzog‘s device of offloading its hero’s exuberant romanticism onto imaginary, unsent epistles, while telling his story straight, was a successful balancing act. (Herzog was already my favorite Bellow.) 

Then I picked up Butcher’s Crossing. By this time, I had come across other reviews of the republished Augustus that also mentioned Butcher’s Crossing, so without much effort I was in the familiar position of knowing a fair amount about a book that I hadn’t opened. But of course that impression is always false. Reviews and passing summaries usually convey no more than the writer’s favorite plot bits. So while I knew that the hunting party in Butcher’s Crossing would be caught in the mountains by an early blizzard, forced to weather the winter with nothing to do (one reviewer mentioned cabin fever — no, it’s the blurb on the back cover!), I had no idea how important this ordeal would be for the protagonists — or for their story.

The novel is divided into three parts. The outer two take place in the meager settlement of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, a jumping-off place for buffalo hunters in the later years of Reconstruction. The central section follows the eccentric and daring hunt in which four men engage. The instigator, Miller, claims to have discovered a hidden valley in the Colorado mountains in which thousands of buffalo spend the summer. It has been eleven years since he made this discovery, and he has never succeeded in finding someone to bankroll his return. Insofar as Butcher’s Crossing has a hero, it is Will Andrews, the young Harvard greenhorn who rolls into town in search of Emersonian transcendence. It takes Andrews no time at all to decide to pay for and take part in Miller’s proposal. Miller takes Andrews’s money (not all of it) and repairs to a nearby town to buy provisions. While there, he also engages a seasoned buffalo skinner, Schneider. The fourth member of the party is Miller’s handicapped Number Two, the man who will drive the wagon driven by oxen and then do the cooking in camp. 

The narrative is of two types, which differ in relation to the passage of time. Numerous quite-long passages chronicle the events of a day, usually one dominated by a learning experience for Andrews, such as the first day of shooting buffalo (rather disturbing), which included Will’s introduction to skinning (much moreso). In others, the story fastens on actions and impressions that recur with a regularity that is monotonous for the characters but not to the reader. Most notably, Chapter VII of Part II covers the snowbound seven-month stay in the hidden valley — in a mere twenty pages. The following chapter, of about the same length, begins at an only slightly quicker level of detail as the men emerge from the melted snowdrifts to reorganize their animals and their equipment for the return to Butcher’s Crossing. The second half of this chapter describes the two-day descent from the mountain and the climax of the attempt to bring the wagon of buffalo hides across a river engorged with snowmelt. Although, throughout Part II, I learned more about the gruesomeness of buffalo hunting than I wanted to, I was never for an instant bored. Harrowed and upset, often; but never impatient. Considering the scope of its event, Butcher’s Crossing is a remarkably quick book. 

This is one of the secrets of its power. Early on in Part Two, there is a two-paragraph description of the benumbing of Will Andrews as the party traverses the Kansas plain. It is not very long, and I read it to Kathleen to suggest the impossibility of adapting the reality of Williams’s novel for film. “Day by day the numbness crept upon him until at last the numbness seemed to be himself.” (Real hardship, we ought to note, lies entirely in the future at this point.) Williams does not explore Andrews’s thoughts, but rather suggests that the young man has stopped thinking; instead of the emotions that Andrews might have felt in Boston, where he could afford to be heedless of his body, we are presented with the ever more limited responses of his body to the discomfort of riding a horse through endless terrain. We respond with plenty of emotions of our, but the prose is clear and dry, and as unlikely as possibly to strike different readers in different ways. 

Almost as astonishing as Williams’s ability to conjure the horror of The Heart of Darkness in language as level-headed as a newspaper account (but don’t try this at home, young ‘uns!) is the complete absence from Butcher’s Crossing  of the classic emotional engine of action fiction, especially of Westerns: betrayal. There is no deceit, no personal falsity, no misconduct either venial or criminal. Nobody takes unfair advantage of anybody (although Schneider constantly accuses Miller of doing so). There is hubris, to be sure, but without genuinely shameful behavior to darken it, such high-octane foolishness seems almost as innocent as virtue. If you give somebody you’ve never met before the money to make some purchases at the dry-goods store across the road, he’ll return with whatever it was that you wanted and some change. At no point is Butcher’s Crossing the tale of a dude being taken for a rube. Andrews’s contact in Butcher’s Crossing, a dealer in hides who doesn’t want him to join Miller’s party, nevertheless warns him to do everything that Miller tells him to do, and this turns out to be very sound advice. The purity of heart common to the men (and one woman) of Butcher’s Crossing creates a sort of negative frustration, an imaginative freedom that takes its deepest breath when the novel is finished. 

One caution about finishing Butcher’s Crossing: try to avoid letting it happen at bedtime, when everyone else is asleep. The immediate aftertaste is one of vast desolation. This is not really Williams’s doing. It is simply the slag of dreadful emotions that he has conjured and dismissed. Midnight is not the best time for saying goodbye to Will Andrews. 

Except for the general direction he took, he did not know where is was going: but he knew that it would come to him later in the day. He rode forward without hurry, and felt behind him the sun slowly rise and harden the air.

Note the position of the sun: a real Western. 

Spills Note:
Two in Two
15 April 2019

Monday, April 15th, 2019

Tomorrow, if I make it that far, I’ll be hoping that things don’t always come in threes.

Last night, reaching for a cutting board in the kitchen, I knocked a bottle of peanut oil off the counter. Because it was plastic, the bottle didn’t break, but the screw-top popped off, and about half the half-full bottle’s contents poured oozily onto the floor. The floor had just been professionally cleaned on Saturday.

Most of the oil came up after paper towels took an hour to absorb it. Hands and knees will be involved in scrubbing up the remainder.

Then, this morning — just now — I reached for the German dictionary to look up a word, and the Spanish dictionary next to it tipped over. It fell gently, and although it did not disturb the bowl of cereal at my left, it did hit it. That ought to have been a warning. Impatiently, I pushed the dictionary back up. It came right back down — with the full weight of my ancient Cassell’s Latin dictionary behind it. This time, the bowl tipped, too, and milk spilled onto and over the desk — puddling on a manuscript from which it dribbled into my small collection of LPs. Milk everywhere, in short.

I bellowed, indicating low levels of serenity. Then I cleaned up the mess.

The cause of both spills was my lazy accommodation of a perpetually stiff neck. In neither case was I looking at what I was doing. That isn’t going to change. What I’m learning is how to arrange things so that accidents … are less likely. 

WP Update:
Ripping Out
12 April 2019

Friday, April 12th, 2019

¶ At the beginning of the month, I printed out the section of the writing project that I am working on, and for a day or two I actually thought that it was ready to show to Kathleen. Thank goodness I didn’t. The growing sense that something was missing — an important element of my main idea — was resolved only by adding a few short passages, and a rather meager paragraph, to the once-apparent perfection of the printed draft. This threw everything out of proportion.

Working on the problem this afternoon, a matter of reading and thinking rather than writing or editing, I realized that I had never properly stated my main idea at all. The two pages in which I talked around it instead of explaining it would have to go, even if that meant losing some nice sentences and some interesting, lesser thoughts. That’s as far as I got today. Sometimes, a day of wretchedness and frustration end up with nothing but the certainty that pages of material can’t be fixed. Only amputation will do.

The writing project is teaching me, among many other painful lessons, that talking around things is a tendency of mine, not just an occasional misjudgment. It begins with nothing less innocent than the desire to soften the bluntness of crude assertions by making an oblique approach. As I proceed, this tactic degenerates into a game of twenty questions. At some point, I decide that only a dunce would not have figured out what I’m talking about, so I never do state what I came to say.

Or so it seems. I suspect that what’s really going on is that I don’t fully understand my big idea. (The giveaway is that fear of “crude assertions.”) The indirect approach is a well-worn way of concealing, or attempting to conceal, the fact that I don’t know what I’m talking about, as I saw with painful clarity this afternoon. And the only way to find out what my big idea really is is to attack the difficulty of expressing it head-on.

I’m reminded of the first paper that I wrote in prep school. Accustomed to easy A’s in the past, I did not put too much effort into a short essay about a play, required summer reading, that I hadn’t actually read, O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The paper came back marked “E” — Blair’s grading system being rigorously logical at the the time, proceeding directly from “D” to the next letter of the alphabet, instead of skipping over to “F.” For a moment I drew wild, ignorant relief from the supposition (which however I couldn’t take very seriously) that “E” stood for “Excellent.” Another straw to clutch was my not knowing the meaning of the big word in the teacher’s comment. I could guess, but I didn’t know. Mr Dorn had written, “This paper is a tissue of circumlocutions.” In this salutary way, my real education began. 

Rep Note:
Ragù Boscaiola
11 April 2019

Thursday, April 11th, 2019

I can tell you how I made the sauce, but not what it tastes like, because while I was in the middle of making it, Kathleen told me on the phone that she didn’t feel up to sausage. So I also made some butter sauce, as we call that very simple Marcella Hazan concoction of canned tomatoes, split onion (removed after cooking, like a bouquet garni), and lots of butter. Butter sauce on thin spaghetti, with just a little parmesan, hit the spot. 

For the ragù, I sautéed a handful of minced mushrooms with a spoonful of mirepoix, and then added the meat from an Italian sausage that I had skinned and then defrosted. I tossed in about a cup of quartered mushroom caps. When all of this was cooked, I stirred in some beef broth and let it simmer down. I did the same with a splash of white wine. Finally, I tipped in the contents of a regular can of pulped tomatoes, and let this cook down for a while.

I say, “finally,” but I’m going to pour in a little bit of heavy cream when I reheat the sauce for dinner — one of these days. As I used to do forty years ago, I shall serve the ragù on cavatappi noodles. Forty years ago, I made up a sauce with most of these ingredients but without knowing what I was doing. I called it Pasta Morales, in honor of Kathleen, whom I had just fallen in love with. The ragù was always hearty, but otherwise uneven. Sometimes there were too many mushrooms; sometimes there wasn’t enough actual sauce. A few years out of law school, I decided that the dish was too rustic for Manhattan. (Oy.) I know that I wrote down the gist of a recipe, but I’m not sure that I still have it.

What does “Morales” have to do with Kathleen? Clues: A Chorus Line, 96th Street, and the problem of spelling “Moriarty.” There are still classmates who call her “Morales.” They might even have trouble remembering her actual name. 

Tricky Note:
Vase
10 April 2019

Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

¶ Early on in Huxley’s Crome Yellow, which I’m re-reading, a poet muses on the French sentence, “Le galbe évasé de ses hanches.” I had to look up the words! Until I did, it sounded gnomic, rather like “Le Prince d’Aquitaine à sa tour abolie.” (I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. Is the tower there or not?) It turns out to be rather more prosaic. As the poet wonders, is there a French novel that doesn’t contain the statement? The flared curve of her hips.

How I got this far without having so much as seen the word “galbe” — which I’d have taken for the name of some priestly vestment (how lazy!) — I have no idea. I knew that hanches meant “haunches” — but I don’t really know what haunches are, or didn’t until now. As for évasé, I ought to have known that one. I suppose it’s related to le vase, “vase.” I specify the article because la vase is “muck.” I wonder how many French hostesses have been asked to put fresh-cut flowers in some filth. 

Spark Note:
Pod Person
9 April 2019

Tuesday, April 9th, 2019

¶ For two weeks now, if not longer, the dining table has been graced by a couple of piles that any smart person would sweep right into a garbage bag and be done with. I am hoping to sweep them into something else: right now, my thinking is settling on a cubic Amaretto di Saronno tin. (Yes, we’ve still got two of these, ubiquitous in the late Seventies and early Eighties, although one is missing its lid.) But I have to know, before I commit, where the tin is going to be put.

One is a pile of virgin postcards, purchased by our parents in later life. The ones that Kathleen’s father gave her when her mother died (and he was “cleaning out” by giving everything to his daughter to deal with, and guess who got stuck with that job) feature sights of Bavaria and Virginia. There’s one of the Hall of Mirrors at Ludwig II’s replica of Versailles, which it does resemble, but with an added element of horror that brings The Shining to mind. In the current American climate, the photographs of Old Dominion patrician homes seem obscurely but palpably racist, as if carrying a scent. 

The ones that my stepmother gave me after my father died were purchased in Britain and Ireland, on one of their coach trips there. (I think that there were two.) Even more than the other set, these views of Edinburgh and Dublin seem to come from an earlier time. The color of the postcard of the garden front of Blenheim is strangely washed out, enough to suggest hand-tinting.

The other is a pile of old Polaroids. Not so old that they’re black-and-white, but dating from the late Seventies. Most of them show the gang of graduate students with whom a few law students like myself shared a dormitory on what used to be the “religious” side of a lake at Notre Dame. (I stayed for two of the three years.) One of the grads was from the start a very close friend; he would be my best man when I married Kathleen. He died several years ago of early-onset Alzheimer’s, after a few years of silence that I mistakenly attributed to our disagreements about the second President Bush.

There’s one photo of me that I can barely talk about — so I’ve propped it up against the cache-pot in which I deposit new mail every day. What it says to me has changed completely in the past couple of months. It used to be a picture of me when I was young and trim and, arguably, cool. I’m wearing a brand-new jacket, purchased in the men’s shop at the Greenbrier Hotel, that I would wear if I could still fit into it, and a pair of dark aviator sunglasses that complements my broad grin. Looking at it used to make me feel wistful. Now it fills me with relief and a sense of close escape, because that person is gone. The Polaroid captures the pod person that for so many decades I drank in order to be, in order to muzzle the growls of my impatient mind that made other people so uncomfortable. I didn’t want them to like me; I just wanted them not to bite first. Now that I am too old to be bitten without giving gross provocation, I don’t need to be that fellow anymore, which is how I lost fifty pounds, and just might fit into that jacket again, if I still had it. Which is not to say that I would wear it. 

Reading Note:
After Herzog
8 April 2019

Monday, April 8th, 2019

¶ When you’ve just finished Saul Bellow’s Herzog, what do you read next? The book now atop my reading pile was John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, but I certainly wasn’t in the mood for a Western. I wanted to remain in the company of cosmopolitan, well-read characters, men and women who, like me, were likely to be bored rather than stimulated by the Great Outdoors. But I wanted a little more focus, a little more discipline; Moses Herzog has a lot to say, but he has a hard time finishing a thought. Whether Bellow himself could compete with own his novel’s pyrotechnics is arguable, but in any case Herzog gave me my fill of funny fireworks. Without too much fuss, I chose Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening. It proved to be just right. It both kept the vibe of Herzog going and made me forget that I had just read it. 

The embarrassing thing was my growing doubt that I had ever re-read Starting Out in the Evening. I have re-read the novels that followed it, each several times, but in the case of this notable book of 1998, I had returned not to the original but to the excellent film adaptation, starring Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose, which came out about ten years later. I’ve seen the movie so many times that the pungent comment of ageing writer Leonard Schiller about the undertaking of young graduate student Heather Wolfe — So, you’ve embarked on a project of questionable merit — put Langella in the room, right there next to me. 

This time, of course, I’d chosen to read Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening because I had just read Bellow’s Herzog. Mixing media would have defeated the purpose, which was, as I say, to prolong the atmosphere of mid-century intellectual life as sustained by incidentally academic American Jews.  Why Jews? Jews were still asking genuine questions and trying to frame workable answers; while WASPs had adopted the French vice of declaring what they wanted to hear — sadly for them (the WASPs) in rather inferior language. And by “intellectual life,” I mean real life, with families and apartments, sibling rivalries and unreliable friends — not to mention (the word comes up in Morton, too) “cocksmanship” — as lived by very smart, bookish people.

You may be asking, how did the second novel stand up to the first? Herzog has been a classic since it appeared. One feels obliged to add the modifier “coruscating” somewhere. The title character never steps out of the spotlight and never runs out of entertaining shtick — quite a performance! Starting Out in the Evening is in every way more modest — Leonard Schiller’s is only one of four points of view — but it is also immensely lovable, even if people who aren’t in the habit of reading good books might have a hard time seeing what’s so lovable about it. It’s true that, toward the end, the hard lines  that serve as so many trenches throughout most of the narrative — Schiller’s obscurity, Heather’s ambition, the impasse between Ariel and Casey about having children — are softened enough to suggest happy endings all round — not that the actual beginnings of such endings are evidenced by the novel. But what I mean by “lovable” is the moment in which Heather, having indulged in pouring forth some extravagant, insincere hopes for Schiller’s much-deserved celebrity, and basking in the pleasure of have “obviously” moved the old writer, is painfully surprised when he reached across the table not to caress but to smack her. What’s lovable is the exchange that follows this take-down. Schiller returns to his cup of coffee without saying anything, while Heather, much against her will, helplessly weeps. Eventually, she pulls herself together enough to say, “I’m sorry everything got so fucked up.”

To which he says — try to imagine Moses saying this to Madeleine — “You gave an old man some excitement.” That’s lovable. There is nothing remotely so appealing in all of Herzog

Reform Note:
Défense de Fumer
5 April 2019

Friday, April 5th, 2019

As I was heading out this afternoon, I saw that a notice had been posted on the lobby floor by the elevators. I could tell, from the thick blocks of verbiage, that it was a new notice, not the one advising tenants about HVAC filter changes from two weeks ago.

Now what.

Now hear this: no more smoking anywhere in this building. Not in tenants’ apartments, not on tenants’ balconies — nowhere. Public or private, no smoking. As of 1 June. (Which is not a lot of notice, when you consider the matter.) Needless to say, no smoking in the driveway. Nowhere “on the property.” 

I don’t smoke; I gave it up in 1983. Kathleen doesn’t smoke, not even once in a while, as she used to do. But we have a friend, a man who comes to dinner now and then, who will have to be told that slipping out onto the balcony for a Chesterfield is no longer permitted. 

The prohibition is being touted as a health measure, but it will presently appear as a term, presumably non-negotiable, in the leases, putting it on the level of “no pets.” No need, that is, for the building to defend the ruling. 

Ray Soleil, who was with me, shrugged and said, “That’s the way to take care of legalized pot.” I suppose he has a point — a slightly cynical, baby-with-the-bathwater point. But it would never occur to me to smoke marijuana. So wasteful! I always bake it into something. Or I used to do. I haven’t even seen the stuff in years. 

Pantry Note:
Not Eternal
4 April 2019

Thursday, April 4th, 2019

¶ For dinner this evening, we had steak and potatoes. We might as well have dined on cardboard.

The steak had been in the freezer for a while. Possibly since November or December. It was a rib steak from Fairway, the one cut that I expect to age well. A few hours of marination in olive oil, salt and cayenne, however,  did nothing for this one. Although the interior of the steak was still a nice pink, the meat tasted well-done, overcooked. Which is to say that it had lost all flavor.

As for the potatoes, they weren’t the russets that I’d had in mind. Those had sprouted, in the depths of a vegetable crisper. They hadn’t been around nearly as long as the steak in the freezer, I thought. But the sprouts were robust, more than a quarter-inch long. Time was when I’d have plucked them off and baked the potatoes anyway. I’ve since read that this is not a healthy thing to do, and, without further investigation, changed my ways. 

I had some small, “heirloom” potatoes that I’d bought at Schaller & Weber. Ordinarily, I would steam them, and then toss them in butter and parsley. But I decided to roast a few of them, tossing them in oil and butter and seasonings (but not parsley) before rather than after cooking. The result was a loss of flavor that matched that of the steak. Blindfolded, I could not have told you what they were; I might have settled on pasta so overcooked that it was disintegrating. I sprinkled them with salt. This made them taste like salt.

Kathleen insisted that it wasn’t as bad as all that. But I moved several squares closer to a decision against freezing meat other than chicken and seafood other than shrimp. Oh, and Agata & Valentina’s fennel sausages, which I wrap individually before cryolation. The ban will (eventually) encompass ground meat for burgers: if it’s not going to be used within its safe span of refrigerator time, don’t buy it. 

A few nights ago, I learned that even anchovy filets, sold “fresh” in oil by A & V for millions of simoleons per pound, are not eternal. Neither are the capers that the store sells from an adjacent tub. I found this out the other night with a puttanesca sauce that was anything but racy. 

Perhaps by the end of the year, I’ll be capable of shopping on Monday for a week’s worth of dinners, using up everything that I’ve bought before Monday comes round again. The difference between mere cooking and actually keeping house!

Eyebrow Note:
Bougie
3 April 2019

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019

¶ The other day, in a brief book review in The New Yorker, I read the following: “Ethan ponders Greek ethics in his bougie apartment.” This time, the second sighting, I remembered the source. When I encountered the term for the first time, last week, I must have been preoccupied, because I let the sighting go with a brief mental nod. 

I have no idea how long this usage has been going on, but I don’t need to be told that “bougie” is short/familiar for “bourgeois.” That’s clear from the contexts. It was also my nickname at boarding school.

All I remember is that I was wearing a vest — a plaid vest, if I’m not mistaken, something red and Scottish, not the vest from a suit. We were in the middle of choir practice, and I must have said something foolish, because Jack Kennard, a senior, turned pointedly at me, looked me up and down (doubtless noticing that the vest’s bottom button was undone), and intoned, “You, Keefe, are a bourgeois buffoon.”

Which is to say that, if I was any kind of buffoon — an arguable point — it was incontrovertibly the bourgeois kind. The name stuck instantly, although almost as quickly it decayed into the handier “Bougie.” Fossil Darling continued to call me “Bouge” (one syllable) for years. I think he gave it up only because it meant nothing to Kathleen — or to anyone else in New York — and because it always had to be explained. By 1985, it was altogether out of use.

Now I feel something like a godfather. “Bougie” means exactly what it meant back then: being bourgeois may be somehow regrettable, but there’s no denying that lots of people simply are, without giving it much thought, and in a way that has nothing to do with Marxist theory. In fact, it signifies the comfortable but ordered domestic style to which Marx himself aspired all his life, and could afford thanks only to handouts from Engels.

The important thing about being bourgeois is not to be hypocritical: don’t deny it. I’m grateful  to Jack Kennard for making it impossible for me to do so, at least during those last years of high school when hypocrisy is so very tempting. 

Writing Note:
Romance
2 April 2019

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019

¶ In March, I was so busy recovering, both from the foot infection and from the household neglect that it had induced, that I left the writing project untouched. But I thought about it a great deal, and even worked out my thoughts in a couple of letters to friends, so that when I finally took up the material this afternoon, first re-reading the current draft and then glancing through the notebook in which I’ve attacked questions that I couldn’t immediately answer, I knew where to resume. There was a long paragraph that had to be tucked into the third page, and then a longer discussion to launch at the point where I had left off in February. At the end of the day, I found myself charged with the sense that the essay — originally an introductory chapter encompassing all the principal points of the project, but now a sustained inquiry into just one issue, my long and self-conscious relationship with books — was complete. An hour later, I changed my mind; once again, there was something left out, this time to be tucked into the later pages. But the piece remains done, at least for the moment. 

I had come to regard the subject of this essay as “the romance of books,” but I realized that I had better qualify it as “my romance with books.” I’ve read a number of other people’s romances, such as Alberto Manguel’s, and I think that mine is comparably darker, haunted by dragons of pretension and wishful thinking, among others. Far from corrupting my reading, however, these dragons protected me, for a very long time, from any need to account for what I was doing, and by the time their power waned I had read a very great deal. I had re-read a great deal. The dreamy expectation that I would one day know a lot of things that I’d learned from books gave way to the conviction that I don’t begin to know enough about anything, which is the proper outlook for any serious reader. 

I retitled the essay, simply, “Romance.” 

Reading Note:
Rape Exchange
1 April 2019

Monday, April 1st, 2019

He sat up, gazed at her intently for a second, and said, 

“How many times have you let yourself be raped in return for a little affection?”

She stared at him: his face was in shadow and he could not see his expression. He repeated: “How many times?” and she realized that she had whispered: “I don’t know.”

I’m tempted to say no more than that the novel from which this brief (if climactic) passage is extracted was published in 1965, when the shock wouldn’t have been the mention of rape but rather the admission that an educated woman could allow it to occur even though she very plainly didn’t want it. As I savored the interrogation for a few hours, I reconsidered the old story about how Victorian women were taught that they wouldn’t enjoy sex and so had just better lie back and think of England. If that story didn’t exactly curdle in the heat of what I had just read, it certainly underwent some sort of state change, and wasn’t, anymore, a joke about nineteenth-century benightedness. 

The novel is so apposite to the eye of our #MeToo climate that I’m going to have to identify the title and author — in a day or so. For now, I’ll let you try to guess.

March 2019

Saturday, March 30th, 2019

Medical Note:
Remicade No More*
29 March 2019

Friday, March 29th, 2019

I went to see the rheumatologist today, and, as I expected, he declined to prescribe Remicade or anything else for what ails me, which he believes may well be “mechanical” — not attributable to any immune-system disorder. My alimentary canal appears to be working as well as ever without any outside help, and although my shoulders and upper back are painfully stiff, I’m fine everywhere else. It occurred to me after the appointment — too late to mention to the doctor — that the loss of fifty pounds in less than three months’ time might have had an adverse effect on sporadically stretched and strained upper-body muscles (unlike those in my legs, which, when not at rest, are simply carrying the same old me around). But this is armchair medicine, and I need a confab with the internist.

I ought to have gone down to the third floor, for the blood tests and the xrays that the doctor ordered. But I’ve had enough of hospitals and waiting rooms at the moment, so I’ll go back at some point during the next six weeks (at the end of which the rheumatologist wants to see me again).

Instead, I stopped off at the Infusion Therapy Unit, to say hello/goodbye to Sara, the only nurse who was already posted there fifteen years ago, when my infusion began. I shall think of her often. 

*For the time being.

Ordering Note:
Spring Song
28 March 2019

Thursday, March 28th, 2019

¶ Late afternoon in the bedroom, sorting tote bags. When it came up — when I decided that the bag of crushed totes could no longer be allowed to take up space in the storage closet, where they were of no use — I assigned this job to Kathleen, not because I wanted her to take care of it but because, in the middle of so much remuddling, I wanted to pretend that I’d offloaded something. When she made a move to go through them, I said, “You don’t have to do that now,” which we both took to mean, “You don’t have to do that at all.” I was only saving up the strength to do something brilliant — which now I was doing, in the bedroom, by dividing the totes into three groups. (A) historical: mostly rather dirty, much-used bags imprinted with the names of beloved but bygone emporia (Patisserie Dumas, for example), (B) monogrammed: all from LL Bean, in all sizes, and most bearing my initials, and (C) giveaways: cheap, unreliable totes, handed out at financial conferences, bearing dreary designs and even drearier proper nouns. We will treat the giveaways like the paper shopping bags of old, which we’ve stopped accumulating since we stopped accumulating what comes in them, and at some point they’ll all be gone. Each class of tote went into its own large tote bag, and I stowed all three beneath my grandmother’s tea table, where bits of them can be seen, but only if you’re looking.

On the little Klipsch iPod dock, Bach’s B-Minor Mass came to an end, sooner, as usual, than I expected it to do (the Agnus Dei is disproportionally short). And then, a bit of a programming masterstroke, Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air. Many listeners might find the juxtaposition jarring, but to me Riley’s piece is a primitive-sounding forebear of Bach’s toccatas, despite its having been composed centuries later. Although the music doesn’t seem to cohere in the same way as Bach’s, it is no less rich and intense, and over the years it has lost its originally pungent association with the Countercultural Sixties. But Rainbow did enhance the feeling that I already had, not only of dealing with the tote bags competently, but of being as young as this spring, which is about to whiz through. 

Reading Note:
Court Reporter
27 March 2019

Wednesday, March 27th, 2019

Sybille Bedford’s wonderful writing falls into two categories. The more familiar is probably most simply labeled “autobiographical,” but only on the understanding that in Bedford’s hands the subject may range from an instant friendship with Martha Gellhorn to the harrowing descent of the author’s mother into morphine addiction. In this group, too, we ought to include the three novels and the “semiautobiographical memoir,” Jigsaw, the book that I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with this extraordinarily humane woman’s compelling style. 

In the other group fall the reports of trials, most notably that of John Bodkin Adams, that were Bedford’s bread and butter. Adams was a doctor from Eastbourne who was charged, ludicrously as it turned out, with murder, in 1957. Bedford entitled her account of the doctor’s eventual acquittal, with justifiable civic pride, The Best We Can Do. The comprehensive reader of Bedford will learn that she developed a passion for attending trials as a teenager in London. Although formally untrained (so far as I know), she learned not only the nuts and bolts but also the underlying philosophy — not that anything so English could possibly be rational enough to warrant that term — of criminal procedure. She also became a connoisseur of the professional performances of judges and barristers. I wonder if The Best We Can Do has ever been adapted for the stage? 

I have just got my hands on the recent republication of an article that first appeared in Esquire in 1959-60, The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: Regina v. Penguin Books Ltd. Daunt Books, the publisher, has plastered a telling quote from the trial, made by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, counsel for the prosecution, on the book’s cover, as if it were the title: “Would YOU let your WIFE read this BOOK?” The misguided tone of the prosecution is even more glaringly revealed by what counsel said next: “Or your servant?”

I have never read D H Lawrence’s notoriously explicit love story, although I recall giving it a try once. I haven’t read any Lawrence, really, probably because, as one of the many expert witnesses at the trial pointed out, Lawrence has absolutely no sense of humor. I seem to have picked that up from the novella that we had to read in school, “The Fox.” I’m not complaining that Lawrence doesn’t crack jokes. But his prose never twinkles with the irony that makes me smile, and thereby keeps me going. Had I sat on the jury, nothing in the experts’ testimony would have inspired me to give Lady Chatterley another chance — although I too would have voted for acquittal. 

Experts take up most of Bedford’s report, just as they did the trial itself. Penguin had printed 200,000 copies of the unexpurgated text but not offered them for sale; instead, a few copies were given to a policeman who called at the office. Thus carefully, Penguin violated the letter but not the spirit of the law. Only the firm was charged; no individual stood in the dock. The prosecution declined to call any witnesses, relying instead on counsel’s determination to keep his own feet firmly “planted on the ground,” and to call spades spades. His prurient, unimaginative reductionism — shared by the judge — was rejected by the jury, which apparently found a way to be adult about adult literature. The principle interest of Bedford’s book, in my view, is the picture of Griffith-Jones’s failure to see that his conception of decency is nothing more than an undigested and already outdated regard for the hypocrisies of respectability — not a lifesaver but a lump of lead. Bedford also makes the important point that an obscenity trial, insofar as it calls for mature judgment, is incompatible with the machinery of Anglophone criminal justice.

Now, if Lady Chatterley had been a Netflix series

Scullery Note:
Permission
26 March 2019

Tuesday, March 26th, 2019

¶ When dinner is over, I say “Let’s go back to the bedroom.” Mutiny. Let the dishes take care of themselves for once. 

We took up living in the bedroom when my foot was on the fritz, and the comfy habit is hard to break. We were also watching Inspector MorseLewis, and finally Endeavour; although there’s a video setup in the living room, we don’t use it very often, preferring to watch things in bed or (for me) the comfort of my reading chair.

Kathleen returns to reading the Times, taking along the remains, if any, of her Arnold Palmer. 

I always plan to join her as soon as I’ve taken my apron off, and I do, except that my apron stays on for a while. There is almost always something, such as a bowl of grated Parmesan cheese, that needs to stored in the refrigerator right away. Usually, the next thing I know, I’ve rinsed everything and loaded the dishwasher, and, at that point, why not do the handwashing? (Steaknives, for example.) Presently, it’s all done, and when I take off the apron there is nothing left but to take the garbage down the hall to the chute. Then I join Kathleen, who is still working through the newspaper. 

It’s curiously relieving to give myself permission to let the dishes sit until later, even if I know that I’m probably not going to avail myself of it.