Archive for 2019

May 2019

Friday, May 24th, 2019

Wedding Note:
Not-Silver Souvenir
23 May 2019

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

¶ My newly-rigorous policy of leaving no closet unplumbed and no storage box left to moulder has turned up some interesting items. The latest, it is true, surfaced some time ago, and was wedged in a pile of oblongs — books and papers, mostly — in the dining ell. Having straightened up all of that area’s bohemian corners, and covered half the dining table with stuff to deal with once and for all, I found a small (but not very small) box wrapped in a silver-cloth bag. I figured that it was a silver frame or photograph album, but although it said “Cartier” on the box it turned out to be the engraving block from which our wedding invitations (3 October 1981) were printed. The answer to the obvious question — why was this thing floating around, instead of being packed with all the other wedding memorabilia — was that there was unfinished business. 

What you were supposed to do as a young married couple in those days was to buy a handsome silver tray and to have the wedding invitation printed on it. I don’t know what the permissible time frame was, but I suspect that, now approaching our thirty-eighth anniversary, Kathleen and I have let the job go well past the outer limit. When we were a young married couple, however, we could not really afford to buy handsome silver trays, and by the time we could, we were not making much use of the handsome silver trays (none of them blank) that had by then come into our possession.

The solution, now that I was determined to finish the business somehow, was obvious. Whenever I’ve got to figure out what to do with something nice or interesting that is also relatively flat, I have it framed. 

Not out of the woods yet, though. Where on earth — this apartment’s walls — will I hang it? Stay tuned. 

Reading Note:
Furious Hours
22 May 2019

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

¶ In her new book, Furious Hours — about which it will be impermissible to talk generally until everyone has had time to read it (think Psycho) — Casey Cep tells us that what drew Harper Lee to the idea of reporting on the sensational trial, involving a serial murderer, that began in the fall of 1977 at Alexander City, Alabama, was at least in part the chance to write the genuinely fact-based “true-crime” book that, as she knew all too well, Truman Capote hadn’t quite delivered with In Cold Blood

What Capote had done with In Cold Blood gave Lee qualms and compromised their friendship, but it also presented her with a challenge: whether she could write the kind of old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired, and whether it could be as successful as the fact-bending accounts of her contemporaries. (214-5)

As we know, however, Lee never wrote a book about the trial. Cep suggests plausible reasons for this blockage, but what occurred to me, and what I think ought to occur to anyone reading Cep’s captivating book, is to ask why Lee never realized that, if she ditched the “challenge,” and forgot about writing straitlaced journalism as well, the business at Alexander City might provide her with tremendously congenial material. Although it might not have centered on the black murderer and his black victims, the sensational background might have sustained book, perhaps a novel, about the white people in the town whom Lee got to know well in the course of her sojourn there.

The second half of Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is something between a detailed sketch of the writer and a full-dress biography. I came away with the impression that Nelle Harper Lee never really grew up. She remained fifteen or sixteen for life, smart as a tack about things that could be learned, preferably from texts, but obstinately resistant to the lessons of experience. She greatly depended on family and friends to point her in the right direction, and she was not always willing to take their advice. I was horrified to discover something that I had never come across in all the copious annals of the last century’s literary drunks: asked to leave a party because her behavior was out of line, Lee would presently return and beg for another drink.

Everyone who could have told her what to make of the trial — everyone who had guided her to the shaping of To Kill a Mockingbird — was, in 1977, dead. So Casey Cep has walked away with the story, writing a remarkably good book that one nevertheless suspects might have been lifted to the transcendent heights if only Harper Lee… if only what? My short answer: if only Lee had been an adult. 

Plumbing Note:
Don’t Plunge!
21 May 2019

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

¶ My bathtub was draining sluggishly, which made me unhappy. Ray Soleil had told me that his grandmother dealt with this sort of thing by pouring a kettle of boiling water down the drain every week. Missing the point about regularity, I poured several kettles of boiling water down the drain. Satisfied with the result, I proceeded to do nothing further. No weekly routine. Soon the drain was sluggish again.

This time, perhaps because I wasn’t feeling well, I continued to do nothing. The situation went from “sluggish” to “clogged.” Boiling water no longer sufficed, not in any quantity, so I resorted to plunging. This was not difficult: the drain is right there, easily accessible, unlike the ones in other apartments. But plunging seemed to make it worse. Perversely, this inspired me to redouble my efforts.

When “clogged” worsened, to “backed up,” I relented, and asked the building management to send up a handyman with a snake. A few hours later, a handyman appeared and got to work. It took him a while to clear the drain. I was beginning to worry that something more drastic than snaking might be necessary. One time, I remembered, it was decided to replace the pipe altogether, which took the bathtub out of commission for a few days. That was upstairs, though, where all the fittings dated back to 1963 and I’d been calling in handymen for decades. Down here, everything had been renovated before we moved in, and I’d had a handyman in only once, and even then long before reaching the backed-up stage. 

“What was in there?” I asked the handyman when he was done.

“Air.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Excuse me?”

“Air.”

No wonder using the plunger seemed to make things worse! It did make things worse. 

Later, Ray explained how the plumbing involved in an apartment bathtub’s drain might make the building up of an airlock possible. If I had really understood what he said, I might just bore you with it. As it is, I’ve got to figure out how to establish a reliable routine. 

Political Note:
Grand Theft
20 May 2019

Monday, May 20th, 2019

In his review of George Packer’s Our Man in the NYRB, Thomas Powers puts his finger on the tragic element of Richard Holbrooke’s career. It was not, as Packer’s book might suggest, the surging egotism that made so many colleagues dislike Holbrooke, often viscerally; nor was it any of Holbrooke’s numerous other personal failings. Rather, the tragic element in his life was something he shared with almost all the luminaries of the Democratic Party: the belief, “learned” in Vietnam (but also earlier, in reaction to Joseph McCarthy), that to be dovish about war, to be “soft” on the use of military force, all but guaranteed political death in the United States. Powers announces this conclusion near the end of his review, when he cites the passage in Packer’s book in which Holbrooke warns John Kerry that, if he is serious about running for president in 2004, Kerry will have to support what would quickly become the American misadventure in Iraq. “Holbrooke didn’t add that the same was true for himself in his quest to become Kerry’s secretary of state.”

It is easy to say that Democrats were forced to assume the appearance of hawks by their desire to be elected and to stay in office. Considering the weight of Democratic Party baggage about cosmopolitan, humanitarian principles, though, this makes them seem an usually cynical bunch. They had to have a reason for wanting to stay in office beyond just that. And they did. They believed that Democratic Party governance of the United States was necessary in order to insure the ultimate liberation into full social equality of the descendants of slaves. This had originally been the mission of the Republican Party, but the GOP’s enthusiasm for the project waned almost to invisibility when Reconstruction decayed into Redemption, in the late 1870s. When in the last century Lyndon Johnson usurped the political commitment to full civil rights, the Republicans effectively turned their backs on it. Ever since Richard Nixon, the Republican Party has saluted the principle of No Principles. 

It has been my opinion for some time that the Democratic Party did could not flourish after Johnson’s transformation. It lived on, yes, but without conviction. It not only lost its way on the effective handling of civil rights issues, by becoming adroit at providing plenty of opportunities for the newly enfranchised to fail, but it abandoned the pursuit of peace that would have crowned FDR’s victory had he lived to see it. (It was left to his semi-estranged widow to keep the flame.) By 1970, Democrats running for office were more frightened by the risk of appearing to be “liberal” than by that of seeming unwarlike. By the time Bill Clinton denatured federal welfare programs, one might well have asked what on earth the Democratic Party really stood for, cloaked by its fog of verbiage. I believe that Barack Obama thought that he had an answer, but in fact he was nowhere near politically experienced enough to reverse course, and, to make advances even less likely, the color of skin became the leading issue on both sides of the aisle.

In today’s climate, it is much, much easier to yield to the excitement of condemning social injustice than to formulate a truly liberal party that advocates a platform of international and economic comity. (To be sure, the latter task requires the detachment of liberal politics from “liberal economics,” historically a wrinkle in British political history that Americans might have resisted.) Since I don’t forget where the Democrats came from, originally, I hardly look to them to complete the arduous homework of convincing voters that we need to maintain and update progressive institutions (such as all the New Deal agencies) instead of replacing or junking them. Democrats seem to believe that it is enough to pass a law, and that, once passed, a law will refresh its own validity and relevance simply by existing. As a result of such mindlessness, one of the cornerstones of New Deal financial regulation, the hygienic barrier known as Glass-Steagall, was swept away twenty years ago, and the global economy was exposed to the menace realized by the credit collapse of 2008.

It would have been better if the generation that stretched from JFK to Holbrooke had stormed the Republican Party instead of stealing its opposition. 

Tech Note:
The Pleasures of Confident Reliance
17 May 2019

Friday, May 17th, 2019

¶ For more than thirty years, I lived in apartments whose kitchens had no windows — no natural light. Then, four and a half years ago, we moved down here, where there is a window in the kitchen, and it is not a small window like the ones in the bathrooms but full-sized, like the one in the dining ell. It took me most of that time, though, to become aware of one of the great pleasures of living here, which is being able to do simple things in the kitchen when I got up, on all but the most overcast days, without turning on the overhead light. I used to turn on the light without thinking about it, but then, somehow, I stopped, and had the opposite sensation of being surprised by the darkness of the the late afternoons.

Nowadays, I am very aware, mornings in the kitchen, of standing in natural light, making tea or pouring a bowl of cereal. This daylight is also overhead, but it falls from the end of the room where the window is, and of course its spectrum is nothing like that of the fluorescent affixed to the ceiling. While not exactly indirect — the building next door on 87th Street is no taller than our apartment, and there is plenty of sky to see if you stand at the window; sunlight itself makes a brief direct appearance earlier in the morning than I am usually up and about — the light is soft and diffuse, like that of a northern exposure. It reminds me — well, not me so much as my senses — of the light that illuminates most of Vermeer’s rooms.

Unlike Vermeer, and the women he painted, however, I can enjoy this light without being obliged to rely on it. And that, I think, is the wellspring of pleasure here. It does not make the daylight any nicer, but it clears away the crowd of worries that surges back every time there is a power outage (thankfully rare) or (more common in this building) a temporary water shutdown. I find those returns to nature to be horribly unwelcome. 

Culinary Note:
Chicken Maryland
16 May 2019

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

Chicken Maryland appeared on almost every local menu during my childhood, but I was always forbidden to order it. For one thing, there was that “twenty minutes extra” note, common to many chicken dishes. My father, whose taste began and ended with quick-cooked steaks and fish, would not be held up for what my mother objected to as a plate of too much food with rich cream gravy. My parents did not like sauces, and my mother’s Thanksgiving gravy reinforced this, not in the usual lumpy, watery way but by being at the same time rich, brown, smooth, and vaguely sickening.

I was attracted by the name, of course — what else did I have to go on? Through my curious-kid’s cultural osmosis, I had learned that Maryland was a charming place, southern but not too southern, with a big city that gave its name to a cake, a name with a handle, no less: Lady Baltimore cake. (I never got to taste that, either.) The only dish with a proper name, Chicken Maryland sounded like something that Martha Washington served to George when it was just the two of them for dinner. If I had a bite of Chicken Maryland and closed my eyes, maybe I would wake up somewhere else.

I was in a floaty sort of mood yesterday, distracted and exhausted by the many small transformations of the preceding afternoon. I managed to forget the shopping list when I went to Fairway after lunch, so I decided not to do a big weekly shop but to pick up the few things that I knew we needed. I thought that it would be nice to have chicken for dinner. And there, in the poultry display, was a half or split chicken, something you rarely see these days. That’s where I got the idea of trying Chicken Maryland, a dish that I had never even tasted, much less made. 

James Beard’s American Cookery was not much help. Beard summarized Escoffier’s version: cook a chicken in clarified butter, and put horseradish in the béchamel. He mentioned a few other approaches, too, but he gave no details for any of them, more or less dismissing the dish. I sat at the house desk (yes!) and thought long and hard about what to do. The correct answer, which I’ve just learned at Wikipedia, did not occur to me, but I might have hit on it in another try or two, after last night’s not unsuccessful experiment. 

Chicken Maryland is classed as a type of fried chicken, but it is really a chicken sauté. The chicken — breaded for a change — is browned and then steamed (or poached) in a closed pan. Sauce is produced from the relatively small quantity of fat. The sauce, Wikipedia confirms, is indeed the whole point of this dish, which is not supposed to come out, as mine did last night, like a less flavorful fried chicken. Again, however, there is no canonical recipe, although you could probably come close if you got a good one from one of the Eastern Shore restaurants that still serves it. The result, I imagine, is a rather delicate dish

Here’s what I did: I happened to have on hand a mid-sized Hellman’s jar full of clarified butter. Some time ago, I had gone through the refrigerator and the freezer and thrown all the sticks of butter into a pyrex measuring cup, which I placed on a flame-tamer over very low heat. I poured off the clarified butter (or ghee) very carefully, and then I wondered what I would ever do with it. Ordinarily, I freeze clarified butter in a small ice-cube tray; one cube is usually too much. Here was a whole bottle! Well, I softened it in a double boiler and heated it up in a Dutch oven (for spatter control). I had brined the chicken, breaded it in herbed and seasoned flower, dipped it in beaten eggs, and covered it with breadcrumbs. Once the butter was hot enough, I slipped in the split chicken, and it was soon a very presentable brown.

Now what? It certainly hadn’t cooked through. I left it in the butter, bone side down, and kept reducing the heat, but to no apparent avail, as the thermometer wouldn’t budge from 350º. Meanwhile, I made rice, and prepped the sauce. I was disinclined to put a lot of thought into the sauce, because I wanted to concentrate on cooking the chicken. So I planned a mixture of flour and some hot butter from the Dutch oven with some fresh (whole) butter. When this was cooked, I stirred in some boiling water until the sauce was smooth. Then I added some packaged bone broth from the refrigerator that still smelled all right, and plenty of cream. I even threw in a dollop of horseradish. But I forgot salt, if you can believe it. When I finished the prepping, about ten minutes after the rice was done (it takes twenty-five minutes), I took the chicken out of the pot and drained it on paper towels. 

Kathleen, familiar with my experiments, avoided the sauce, but ate her drumstick and all of her rice, and pronounced it very nice, if not as good as fried chicken. I poured sauce all over everything, and was keenly inspired to do better. Disappointment was greatly exceeded by encouragement. 

Here’s what I’ll do next time: I’ll soak the chicken in a blend of buttermilk, eggs, and seasonings. Then I will bread the chicken very lightly, either with flour or the very finest breadcrumbs. I’ll brown the meat in a moderate quantity of clarified butter, and then reduce the heat and cover the pan. Forty minutes of that usually does it. 

Meanwhile, I’m going to take a box of chicken broth and enhance it, by simmering it with sautéed mirepoix, peppercorns and parsley (and salt). I may throw in some mushroom stems. Then I’ll strain the broth and pour it back into the box. When I make the chicken, I’ll bring the broth to a boil and add as much as I need for the sauce, finishing it with chopped parsley and another dollop of horseradish. 

Furniture Note:
Tea Table?
15 May 2019

Wednesday, May 15th, 2019

My grandmother had a drop-leaf table, with two leaves mounted on a frame that might have been taken, in a careless glance, for a rather wide firescreen. The style is fon-fon Midwestern vernacular with a Jacobean accent. It is not my sort of thing at all. I don’t remember seeing it in Bronxville, where it must have loitered somewhere in the living room. Only when my mother set up house in Houston did it register with me. The living room there was — well, much larger than the one in Bronxville, and, beyond that, sort of ooh-la-la. Down a step from the entry hall, the living room featured a curled ceiling that receded from one and a half storeys in height at the interior (tucked right under the roof) down to the top of an enormous plate-glass window overlooking the swimming pool. Frightful, really, until you got used to it, by which time the Fifties was no less a distinct period than Queen Anne.

The first piece of actual furniture that the eye took in after this architectural assault was my grandmother’s drop-leaf table. On top of the one open leaf was a monstrous silver punchbowl holding a vast array of silk flowers. The table was pushed up against the rear of our old sofa, which, through several reupholsteries, dated back to my parents’ marriage. It was long enough for my father to stretch out on. That was when the only living room was the living room. As soon as he was touched by real prosperity, my father took to mapping in the den, as the room with the television set was called.

Although I’m sure there were other occasions — photographs prove as much — the only time that I remember sitting in the living room was after my mother died, when Dennis Stanfill, then the chairman of Twentieth Century Fox, came to present Dad with the elephant prod fabricated as a prop for The King And I, upon his (my father’s) retirement from the board of directors after nine years’ service. (It says all of this on the clip-on label.) The cloth-covered presentation case in which the elephant prod rested completed the event’s air de Rosenkavalier

I’m going on about the elephant prod — which I immediately declared fresh off an assembly line in the Burbank manufactory where such toys for unsuspecting bigwigs were produced — because I sense that making what follows interesting is going to be a challenge. But I’ll risk anything to capture an instance of the intellect at work. Or not.

*

My mother called it her mother’s “tea-table.” Doubtless it had been put to good use when my grandmother had ladies to tea.* But, excuse me: “tea table”? Not bloody likely. A tea table is round, and mounted on a carved tripod, preferably with ball-and-claw feet. The feet on my grandmother’s table are mammalian rather than avian, and otherwise unidentifiable, at least by me. 

I just went for another look. (One of Goethe’s megatheriums, perhaps.) The drop-leaf table is mine, now. So is the awful punchbowl, and so is the elephant prod. So are a few other items from that Houston living room. The elephant prod had just come into my possession, now that I think of it, when we moved into this apartment — having spent decades with my late stepmother. Maybe that’s why, the moment I visualized the layout of our furniture in the new space, I was caught like a bug in a Venus flytrap by the memory of what my mother had done with her mother’s tea table. Until today, that table occupied much the same place in our living room that it had filled in the Tanglewood house.** For a long time, there was even a large (living) orchid atop the table. Recently, I had begun to be aware that this arrangement lacked the éclat of its Houstonian inspiration. Somehow, the table had become small-looking, and very, very rectilinear. As a variation on the classic console-behind-the-sofa, it was failing. But I could live with it. 

What I couldn’t live with was the desk in the dining ell. I don’t want to talk about the desk in the dining ell, which was a much bigger failure than the drop-leaf table. I’ll say just two things about it. First, we bought it because it would fit over the HVAC unit beneath the window in the dining ell — and it was cheap. New to the apartment, I had dreams of a “house desk,” located right outside the kitchen, where I would take care of household business. Second, this never happened, because there wasn’t room. You couldn’t sit at the desk, no matter how small you might be, because no chair would fit with its back to the dining table. So the desk in the dining ell was never more than an inadequate sideboard, with all sorts of tote bags and other detritus lurking in its shadows. Lately, I had become determined to move it somewhere else, perhaps into the boudoir end of the living room, pushing it up against the wall where a metal console with books stacked tidily beneath it still stands. 

My idea, which I ran by Ray Soleil, was to take a saw of some kind to the strut at the base of the console, to cut away enough metal to allow the console to fit round the HVAC unit in the dining ell. Ray did not like this idea at all. It would destabilize the console, he thought, and it would require a lot of elbow grease. Since the elbow grease would be his (even if compensated), I backed away for a rethink. 

And that’s when I stood on the imaginary line between the living room and dining ell and, searching the space in front of me for a piece of furniture that would fit over the HVAC unit, saw that not only would my grandmother’s so-called tea table fit nicely in the space, with both leaves dropped if necessary (which it wasn’t), but the place that it currently held would take the house desk nicely. A desk for Kathleen, even! And right outside the kitchen, too — via the other door. 

This obvious solution to the house desk problem never actually occurred to me, even when I had the idea of swapping my grandmother’s table and the desk in the ell — something that, again, never happened, because once the moving got started I realized that the handsome (and not cheap) writing table in the book room, which Kathleen had bought for our old bedroom upstairs, would look much better. (This writing table did not clear the HVAC unit.) Even then, all I thought was that the desk would now be useful. That a writing table ought always to have been in the otherwise unused space — called the “foyer”on the official plan, but a lot larger than what’s usual for this building — became clear to me only when one was actually there. 

It’s not that I’m stupid, or that my fabled spatial sense has a blind spot. No, the moral of this story is that I’m still, more than forty years after she died, unlearning many of the counterproductive lessons — such as stocking up on food as if for a bomb shelter — that I learned from my mother, who, to my almost certain knowledge, never used her mother’s table for what she called it.  

* And bridge, too, I don’t doubt. My grandmother played bridge as though she’d learned it on a riverboat, or perhaps in the same suite in Morrissey Hall where my father spent his undergraduate career at Notre Dame. (But remember, this grandmother was my mother’s mother. My father’s mother was busy doing his washing, which he sent home by train every week. To Iowa, two states away.)

** Which, by the way, has been demolished, as I was really staggered to discover on a magic-carpet ride provided by Google Maps. 5500 square feet of living space and thirteen tons of air-conditioning — gone with the wind. Even the pool — filled in. 

Medical Note:
Follow-Up Visit
15 May 2019

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

¶ I went out into the awful weather today to pay a visit to the podiatrist, whom I haven’t seen in two months and won’t see again for three. I’m always afraid that he’ll find something wrong — a neurotic anxiety in most cases but quite reasonable here, and the reason why I always show up, even in the pouring rain. I feel fine, but that doesn’t mean much, given the peripheral neuropathy that, by blocking the pain, let my foot infection get so wildly out of hand last winter. I don’t actually feel anything, ever. Not pain, anyway — I can balance, walk, and so on. 

Fun fact: “I estimate,” said the podiatrist, “that eighty percent of the amputations that I do involve neuropathy.”

Ouch, that word! I haven’t forgotten how touch-and-go it was when they took me in at New York Hospital, and I was treated by two distinct teams, Infectious Diseases and Vascular Surgery. For the latter, read “amputation.” It was actually the podiatrist, a member of the vascular team, who declared for the other side, when he called for a PICC line and lots of antiobiotics, which in the event did the trick. He was also the doctor who, for the second time, punctured the unanaesthetized swelling with something like a larding needle, causing sheets of blood to pour out of my foot, only to say, “This is good.” Id est: no pus.

I felt nothing, not even wet. And this time, Kathleen wasn’t looking. 

Reading Note:
Our Man
13 May 2019

Monday, May 13th, 2019

¶ It’s hard now to remember what I thought about Richard Holbrooke at the time, back in the Nineties, when he and his Balkan statesmanship were much in the news. I think that I regarded him generally as a good guy, but I recall being put off by a photograph of him seated in a jeep, wearing a suit and soldier boots. Perhaps that came later, from Afghanistan. This jarring combination of high and low — business suit and tie, jeep and boots — bespoke an intrepid man who would venture anywhere, but not without a conspicuous badge of his authority, a badge polished by its very presence alongside he-man accoutrements. I remember thinking that statesmen ought not to be seen outdoors, not by the general public anyway, but only in the Quai d’Orsay and its equivalents. I gathered that Holbrooke had special mojo of some kind that worked best in direct sunlight.

Would I have bought a biography of Holbrooke by anyone but George Packer? The answer, of course, is that Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is not a biography. The book’s true subject really is the second half of that subtitle. Holbrooke himself was both a representative figure and an active (if problematic) member of the large cast of characters that constituted the governing élite of the United States from the Kennedy to the Obama Administrations, with an accent on Democrats, and Packer tells the epic tale of America’s unsuccessful attempt to reconcile cherished, faintly bogus national ideals with the apparent imperatives of the Cold War. Our Man is also the tale of dozens of young men on the make. I’ve been reminded of the Iliad more than once, because Packer’s story, too, features a splendid backdrop in front of which men brutally pursue sordid vendettas or indulge in meaningless violence while up to their shins in muck. Genuine acts of heroism are so widely spaced that they seem pointless rather than exemplary. And, incidentally, the book portrays an era that fairly whistled for the Furies of #MeToo. 

If George Packer had set out to compose a demonstration of the complete futility of the American Revolution (not to mention the Civil War), he could not have more solidly buttressed a proposition that every day looks more like an article of faith to me. I’ve long understood that, in creating Versailles and its way of life (and government), Louis XIV imposed a burden on the person of the French monarch that, while it may have fit him like a glove, would be unbearable for any successor. George Packer has me wondering if the American Founders may not have done the same thing. 

I cannot put Our Man down. It has a power beyond that of the best history books, a power that it shares, in fact, with the great novels of Saul Bellow that I’ve been reading. The differences between Holbrooke and one of Bellow’s heroes are considerable, but his incalculable egotism makes him one of their cousins. And he remains, somehow, generally a good guy. 

Rep Note:
Fried Chicken
10 May 2019

Friday, May 10th, 2019

¶ After a good deal of disappointment, I have returned to my original method for frying chicken: breading. I’ve given battering a much longer try than it deserved.

Why one is better than the other, I have no idea. But battered chicken is all to often flavorless. Instead of being juicy, the meat is watery. The crusted skin is bland. If I’m making it for company, I’m embarrassed, because fried chicken is one of my specialties. Of course, nothing’s simpler. But I never liked the way the batter tends to roll off the chicken skin. 

This evening, I ran through the steps of breading more quickly than I’ve ever done before, but the result was the same. A very jolly discovery! Here they are: 

  • Brine the chicken, and then drain it. (I do not fry white meat. Three drumsticks and three thighs, all on the large side, are my standard order.)
  • Soak the chicken in buttermilk for half an hour or more, and then drain it. 
  • Combine flour, cornstarch, cayenne pepper and salt in a bag. Drop in the chicken pieces and shake. 
  • Remove chicken to a wire rack over a plate. (I find that a circular cake rack fits perfectly over a medium pizza pan.) 
  • Refrigerate the chicken for at least half an hour. 
  • Cook the chicken in hot (375º) peanut oil, turning often, for twelve to sixteen minutes. Drain on paper towels and allow to cool slightly. 

If I’d thought about it, I should have sprinkled the cayenne into the buttermilk. 

Third Order Note:
On Entertainment
9 May 2019

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

It has become interesting for me to think about entertainment. 

What is entertainment? Well, “entertainment” is one of those words that everybody uses without a hint of definition, as if entertainment were a planet, and all you had to do was point. Among people like me, there is a certain guilty feeling — more vestigial every day, it’s true — that entertainment is a disappointment, a lesser thing, not serious somehow. But these bad feelings are swamped and sunk by the fact that entertainment makes its producers pots of money, and gives everybody else something to talk about. Something like Game of Thrones that is. Not “entertainment.” Nobody talks about “entertainment.” 

I began thinking about the matter just as anybody would. What sorts of products bear the label “entertainment”? A television sit-com is entertainment, certainly, and so is a circus act. But what about the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center? Is the show of Dutch paintings at the Museum entertainment? Cockfighting? Are Hamlet and The Real Housewives of New Jersey simply two instances of the same species? 

I soon saw a jungle of split hairs and a world of disagreement. I had already decided that reassurance and something else were invariable elements of entertainment. I forget what the something else was, but my thinking pivoted on these characteristics to take the opposite point of view. What are the criteria that must be satisfied for people to be entertained? Assuming that almost anything can be entertainment, and that almost nothing entertains everybody, what (if anything) do people always have in mind when they seek it? 

Here is my list of four criteria. I’ll get to reassurance last. 

  • Diversion. The word that most people would use here is “distraction,” which suggests the distemper of the times. Diversion is the better term, because what people in search of entertainment want is something to shift their attention from everyday concerns to lighter, more pleasant matters.
  • Familiarity. Diversion also requires novelty, for the effortless capture of people’s attention. But if the novelty of the presentation is greater than its familiarity, the result is not entertainment, but challenge and anxiety. Consider the musical form of “theme and variations.” If the the theme is pronounced in every variation, as, for example, in Mozart’s take on the nursery song about the alphabet, the result is very entertaining. If, however, the tune is stripped down to its harmonic essence, to its chord sequence, as it is in Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations and in the bulk of classic ensemble jazz, far fewer listeners will find the music “entertaining.” People may agree that it is “interesting” instead. 
  • Straightforwardness. Interest is not a characteristic of entertainment — although, as Mozart proves, it is possible to be very diverting and very interesting at the same time. (What’s difficult is responding to both qualities at the same time. This is why Emperor Joseph complained of “too many notes.”) Interest is meta, a self-conscious reflection on what’s going on. Viewers cannot be teased with the suspicion that Peter Boyle is “up to something” — say, recycling an old Molière performance — in an episode of Everyone Loves Raymond. Boyle must never suggest that Frank Barone is up to anything but raiding the icebox.  
  • Reassurance. Because, after all, who is Molière? The long-dead author of bygone entertainments, that’s who. And entertainments date poorly. The carefully-designed blend of diversion and familiarity inevitably collides with the icebergs of changing fashion and generational evolution. Entertainment must deny that such icebergs exist. Titanic is an entertaining movie because everyone knows from the start that at least one glamorous old broad has survived, and now the audience wants her story, even if a lot of other people die. Nobody, however, wants to hope for the best and book passage. 

You might conclude from this list that entertainment must be cozy and benign, not to say — for hipsters — boring. But one factor crucial to the quality of human life is missing, and that is

  • Humanity. Here is a word that people misuse to connote the sum of human beings, emphasizing what they all have in common. Curiously, we do not have similar words for other species — “doggery,” “elephanthood” — and this suggests to me that people are aware that “humanity” means something else, which it does. Insofar as it refers to the aggregate of human beings, it stresses what makes each human being different from every other — there can be no sum. For practical purposes, “humanity” is the aggregate of two or three hundred other people who appear in anyone’s everyday life. (I’m thinking of city life here, although the total in many villages would be much higher.) “Humanity,” moreover, does not describe these other people — how could it? — but rather it expresses one’s willing ability to grasp, to respect, and to accommodate, as far as healthily possible, their peculiarities. Humanity is in short the opposite of sociology. Sociology searches for timeless laws capable of predicting what people will do. The most lucrative application of sociology today is television production, which is why so much entertainment today is plainly inhumane. What could be more pleasant than the freude in Schadenfreude? Let’s see those housewives throw tantrums with their Birkins! 

“Entertainment” is not enough. It is never “only entertainment.”

Rep Note:
Pork Chops
8 May 2019

Wednesday, May 8th, 2019

¶ For a long time, I followed a pork-chop recipe from Classic Home Cooking, but I gave it up because I got tired of the meat’s toughness, which suggested structural elements. I didn’t look for another recipe because I already eat plenty of pork — cured. Nevertheless, the niche occupied by Pork Chops With Oranges remained naggingly empty. I gave it another try.

Then I decided to have a look at the Internet. Classic Home Cooking calls for sliding the prepared pork chops — spread with grainy mustard, sprinkled with brown sugar, and topped with peeled slices of navel orange and their juice — right into a hot oven, and leaving them there for thirty-five minutes, basting occasionally. No such method was in evidence online. Instead, the pork chops (after brining) were to be seared in a hot skillet and then roasted in the hot oven, but only for ten minutes at the most. If I want to give this method a try, while retaining the mustard and the oranges, do I spread the pork chops with mustard before searing or after? I can think of arguments both ways, so the only thing to do is to trying spreading the mustard on first and seeing how that works. 

The pork chops go well with rice, and the rice goes well with the orange-mustard sauce. 

Civility Note:
Amen!
7 May 2019

Tuesday, May 7th, 2019

¶ From a post by Laura Lippman about becoming a (n adoptive) mother at the age of fifty:

But in the years since my daughter was born, I have discovered that people who ask rude questions feel terribly affronted if you say anything that implies they have just asked a rude question.

If there is a maxim that I would banish from our stock of hare-brained pleasantries, it’s “the thought that counts.” The thought not only doesn’t count but is all too often carelessly insulting: it’s value is actually negative. If you mean to mean well, content yourself with offering to do anything helpful that might be in your powers. Do not offer specific services or recommendations. Unless, of course, you think that the person who might need them is a basket case without the sense to come in out of the rain. In which case, it’s wise to be prepared for a frosty glare.  

Reading Note:
Peccavi
6 May 2019

Monday, May 6th, 2019

¶ On Saturday, I think it was, I was overcome by a desire to be done with Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me without enduring the unpleasant surprises at the end, which I was sure lay ahead. So I peeked. And they did. The new friend took the money that he had earned. The girlfriend got into legal hot water for having perjured herself. And Alan Turing — in this fictional world’s intriguing and often painful alternative history, Turing is still alive in the Eighties — gave the narrator a dismissive talking-to at the end. Will I read the fifty-odd pages in between these disclosures? I’m not sure.

It’s not at all unlike me to have a look at the end of a novel when the suspense becomes uncomfortable. I don’t really care for suspense as such — that sense, usually planted by very careful foreshadowing, that something unpleasant is about to happen. I can bear it in the time-frame of a feature film, but over the days that it can take to read a novel, especially an unappealing novel, the itch is hard not to scratch. 

And Machines Like Me is unappealing, because McEwan tells the story through a first-person narrator who drops quickly from unlikable to detestable. It is not that Charlie Friend does anything detestable in itself, but rather that his clueless narcissism (for which his girlfriend scolds him, that’s how obvious it is) becomes insupportable. He is wholly unsuited to be the owner/comrade of an artificial, persuasively life-like, human being. For one thing, Charlie cannot decide (and doesn’t seem to be aware of his indecision) whether Adam, the new acquisition, qualifies as a human being. The novel is very good about teasing out the philological paradox of “man-made human being,” but Charlie, who gushes at the start about his interest in the possibilities of artificial humanity, tends to treat Adam like yet another home appliance. He sinks to the occasion. 

As if that were not bad enough, Charlie speaks like — well, not like Ian McEwan. Charlie is a guy you meet at a party who, wanting to make himself interesting to a complete stranger, hews to low common denominators. He speaks like an insincerely educated man, capable of big phrases every now and then but incapable of sustaining their implications, and in any case not much interested in doing so. He is the sort of person who regards his lust for a girlfriend as a badge of honor. I couldn’t believe that Adam’s manufacturers allowed Charlie to make the purchase. If nothing else, Machines Like Me is a passionate argument against any free market in robots. 

At first, I thought that McEwan had made a mistake in opting for first-person narration — an unusual choice for him. However, as an omniscient observer, or just as the teller of Charlie’s tale, it would have been impossible for McEwan to avoid “editorializing” on Charlie’s bad choices, which garner what drama they generate from their being uncontested. So I would suggest that the novel would have been far more agreeable to read if it had been told from the point of view of a wise old neighbor, endowed with a voice not unlike McEwan’s and placed to pass along Charlie’s garrulous chitchat while providing a protective barrier from Charlie’s moral halitosis.

I don’t expect artificial human beings to appear within my lifetime, or, to be perfectly honest, within the lifetime of anyone alive today. The intelligence is not the problem, and only geeks would think that it was. The problem is the fabrication of bodies. I predict that the uncanny valley between robots capable of all human actions and robots capable of deceiving intimate companions into thinking that they, too, are human beings will be immensely broad and mortally arid. With this in mind, I did not read Machines Like Me as a cautionary note from which to pluck useful insights for dealing with coming attractions. Nevertheless, I never went for more than two pages without having to put the book down and think. The contemplative richness of Machines Like Me unfortunately made its narrator look all the more rubbishy. 

I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book.

Rep Note:
Shrimp Au Gratin
3 May 2019

Friday, May 3rd, 2019

¶ Coming across a recipe for shrimp au gratin in the old New York Times Cookbook — a mausoleum of delicate flavors and discarded techniques — I decided to give it a try without following it exactly. The recipe called for boiling aromatic vegetables, white peppercorns and a bay leaf in water, for five minutes, and then simmering raw shrimp in the liquid for four minutes, prior to shelling and deveining. The resulting court bouillon, strained, was combined in the usual way with flour and butter, cream and sherry, and even a little parmesan, to make a veloûté. The shrimp were to be covered with the sauce and baked in a 375º oven for an unspecified time, “until brown and bubbly.”

I made the court bouillon with mirepoix — equal portions of carrot, celery, and onion, diced (and sold in tubs that are too large by Fairway) — the shrimp shells, and the seasonings. Then I simmered the shrimp, for three minutes the first time and for two minutes the second. I considered omitting the simmering altogether. In an oven time that ran about half an hour (“until brown and bubbly”), the shrimp had plenty of time to cook — to overcook. But I went ahead anyway, because what I wanted was the sauce. Having added chopped parsley to the veloûté, I produced what I considered the perfect sauce for rice. Kathleen and I couldn’t get enough of it. But the shrimp were pretty rubbery. 

What to do? Next time, I’m going to stir the uncooked shrimp into the sauce and run the dish under the broiler. It ought to become brown and bubbly pretty quickly, perhaps in less time than it takes to cook the shrimp. Stay tuned. 

Working this out, I reflected that au gratin dishes, in which partially- or wholly-cooked ingredients are sauced, topped with cheese, and then finished in the oven, have disappeared from contemporary cuisine. No surprise: the ratio of herbs to spices has been nothing less than barbarically inverted in the search for excitement. I’m enough of a dinosaur to believe (with my tongue) that a nuanced sauce is the whole point of cooking. I’ve thought so ever since the revelation of a chicken sauté (I think it must have been) that I had as a child at a French restaurant that operated briefly in Bronxville. My father did not at all care for French food, so we went just the once. From that moment on, I deplored the plain-meat diet to which he subjected our household. It’s not enough to say that I learned to cook because the food at home was so lackluster. I have to add that, from time to time, and maybe even more often than that, I ate very well in restaurants. So I knew

Hypochondria Note:
Negative Tension in the Eustachian Tubes
2 May 2019

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

¶ After a very nice lunch with a law school friend who is in town for the Ring cycle, I made my way down Park Avenue to the office of the ear, nose, and throat doctor recommended by my internist. 

I mentioned my ear problem last week, I believe. Suffice it to say that I had no idea what to expect from a visit to the specialist. Would this pressure in my Eustachian tubes have a malign cause that required hospitalization, perhaps immediately? Or would I be told, somewhat patronizingly, that I was suffering from a head cold? I never know what to expect anymore. Last fall, I thought that I had a blister on a bunion, but it turned out to be a serious foot infection that didn’t start swelling until I developed a fever. Only last night, in the middle of an after-dinner chat with Kathleen, my right eye, lately cured of corneal ulcers, launched a bit of a light show. It didn’t hurt, and it didn’t really impair my vision, but the dim shooting stars and suddenly fuzzy peripheries were both distracting and worrying. Another trip to the ophthalmologist? After four or five minutes, the activity subsided, and I haven’t been bothered again. More than ever, I take my overall health outlook from Homer Simpson: I have fallapart.

The ear doctor anaesthetized my nostrils and then had a look into the tubes. He found nothing out of the order. He surmised that a “negative tension” was responsible for my discomfort. Ordinarily, he would have prescribed a nasal spray to straighten this out, but I had told him that I was taking a blood thinner, and this, it seems, contraindicated use of the spray, which might give me nosebleeds serious enough to put me in the hospital. So he prescribed a hearing test instead and suggested, as for the feeling that I had swimming-pool water in my ears, and an intermittent but unpleasant sense of muffled hearing, that I “live with it” for a while.

Better than immediate hospitalization, eh?

Reading Note:
Know Your Customer
1 May 2019

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

¶ That I have absolutely nothing to say may be the result of my being engaged with four different books, none passionately. Yet, I feel I must add with regard to Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. I read three pages of the new Ian McEwan, and could tell that it was going to take over, but I wasn’t ready for that, because I was already upset about Tommy Wilhelm, Bellow’s feckless hero. I don’t want to read about this character’s problems, but I can’t look away. Then there’s Antic Hay, which I’m finding considerably less gripping than Huxley’s previous novel, Crome Yellow. In fact, I’m finding it a crashing bore. I’m afraid that nothing less than Casimir Lypiatt’s stepping on a land mine can rescue it now. Finally, there’s David Cannadine’s The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain, which is just right for keeping certain thoughts about an essay that I’m working on at the simmer — but not, after all, a novel.

I’ve already read enough of Seize the Day to know that Tommy Wilhelm has invested in futures contracts for lard, which is really all it takes to spark the memory of still-painful horror stories from my days in the law department at E F Hutton. I was not one of the lawyers tasked with cleaning up messes in the commodities area, but I do recall suggesting to a branch manager in Ohio that perhaps more caution would have been in order when a very recent immigrant from Pinsk — a town still in the Soviet Union at the time — expressed a willingness to trade stock options. “They, uh, don’t have capitalism there,” I remember saying, when, as the mere fact of my being on the phone demonstrated, it was already too late.  

April 2019

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

Scholarly Note:
Cheating
30 April 2019

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

¶ Yesterday, I broke down and ordered a new copy of Cassell’s Latin dictionary. The old copy had fallen from a stack of dictionaries precariously piled on a stool, and the front cover partially tore away from the book. (The spine was already a disgrace.) I’ve had it since college, when the Cassell’s dictionaries came in a uniform black cloth binding with gold lettering and gold doodads — just what a smart reference work ought to look like. The current edition wears a butterscotch color. I have already replaced my Cassell’s Italian dictionary (essential because it identifies the words that are pronounced sdrucciolo, with the accent on the antepenultimate syllable). That one, of course, is covered in green.

Tucked in the Latin dictionary was a slip of legal-pad paper, with a phrase on it that I was trying, more than thirty years ago for sure, to translate. (You must bear in mind that the academic achievement of which I was most fiercely proud in my schooldays was having avoided the macho reek of Caesar by never submitting to Latin classes. Now, of course, it is one of my simplest, deepest regrets.) I remembered exactly where I encountered it: on the inner dome of the old Cunard Building on Lower Broadway, which by my day had become a branch of the Post Office. One afternoon, waiting in line to buy stamps, I looked up and saw

Existimat enim ove mare teneat eum necesse rerum potiri.

I was curious: did ove mean “sheep” or “eggs”? Neither word seemed particularly apt in the setting. My research got no further than indicating the ablative singular of ovis, sheep. Say what? And I couldn’t find potiri in the Cassell’s. Still can’t; it isn’t given, as the present infinitive of potior, “to be master of.” Thwarted by not one word but two, I gave up. Somehow, the slip of paper remained. 

There was no Google then. Now there is. I typed in the entire phrase, and immediately had it traced for me to Cicero, who attributed the thought to Themistocles. 

He holds that the master of the sea must inevitably be master of the empire.

Okay, I can see that. (It certainly suited Cunard.) But where does ove come in? (Google also solved the potiri mystery.) Maybe you know.