Archive for 2019

Larder Note:
30 July 2019

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

¶ Often, these days, I think that all of my problems in the kitchen go back to my not having had to deal with supply and demand until I was in my twenties. Actually, until my thirties, because I was too poor in my twenties to afford supplies that were not in immediate demand. Only when Kathleen and I settled here in New York, in relative prosperity, did I have to think about the larder, or the pantry, or whatever word you want to use for the stuff that you “have on hand,” “just in case.” Then we had the house by the lake in Connecticut, where, first thing, I rebuilt the kitchen from the floor up, and storage was no longer a problem. Halcyon days came to an end a little over twenty years ago, and by then — I wonder — it was too late to learn. I still don’t know what I’m doing when I buy a can of beans. 

Another thing: I grew up thinking that canned goods are eternal. Maybe they were, back then — maybe, that is, nobody knew any better. We were taught to avoid dented or otherwise misshapen cans — c’était tout. So, when we moved down here from the upstairs apartment (nearly five years ago), I brought along a couple of cans that looked okay, so they must be okay, and you can’t throw away perfectly good food. It might “come in handy” — another fatal phrase. 

This week, I resolved to cull the kitchen (drawers and all), and I began with the deep cabinet that held foodstuffs. Some of the food represented was in heavy rotation: cans of chopped tomatoes, backup mayonnaise and mustard bottles (which I replace as soon as they’re taken out and opened), a bottle or two of clam juice and a box or two of broth. Cans of anchovy-stuffed olives. There was an array of sugars: superfine, confectioner’s, and even a pound of plain sugar that I keep on hand for the same reason that I stock the two condiments I mentioned. Running out is both unthinkable and not at all unlikely, given that the lemonade that I make for Kathleen’s Arnold Palmers goes through sugar at terrifying speed.) These necessities, I could see, would fill about half the space available — perfect!

Also, there was a box of Ronzoni elbow macaroni. I prefer Barilla, and don’t run out of it. There was a box of no-cook lasagna pasta, an aspirational item. There were three boxes of hearty soup, a bottle of vodka sauce, and an unopened cylinder of Morton’s table salt. Plus a few other things that I ended up keeping; it wasn’t much. What I didn’t keep were the cans. I probably wouldn’t have kept them anyway, but as it happened their best-used-by date was in every case long in the past, even on the cans that I’d bought while living here. With what guilt-free relish did I toss them!

Spinal Note:
29 July 2019

Monday, July 29th, 2019

¶ In order to have a fresh look at the work of Ivy Compton-Burnett, which has been haunting me, I decided first to try a new title, and then to re-read one or two of the novels that I already have (A House and Its Head and Two Worlds and Their Ways are likely candidates). So I ordered A Family and a Fortune, published by Bloomsbury Reader, from Amazon. 

The book arrived two days later. Searching for a copyright date — when did Compton-Burnett write it? — I could find only the statement that “This electronic edition” was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. An odd statement to make of a material volume. But then I followed a hunch to the very last page of the book. There it said, 

Made in the USA
Middletown, DE
25 July 2019

In other words, last Thursday. Two days later, I had the book in my hands.

The book is handsome and well-executed, although the ink is a bit pale for my aged eyes. There are no blurbs or other publicity materials, not even a breathtaking pseudo-synopsis on the back cover. In that regard, it is rather like a Bible: just the original text. But there is the most curious flaw. I noticed part of it right away: The author’s name on the spine is given as “Ivy Compton-B” It was only a couple of days later that I looked closely at the title: “A Family and Its Fortunurnette.” 

I’m tempted to order another copy, to see if this interesting error is repeated. 

History Note:
Cheerful When Wet
25 July 2019

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

Picture is reminding me that Hollywood has two film histories, the actual one, which is known to very few, and the sequence of its estimable productions, which every film buff knows. The actual Hollywood history is not particularly interesting to people who like movies (by which I mean people who will see the same movie twice or more, watch a film that wasn’t made during their adolescence, and sit through a black-and-white movie without complaint) because most of the movies that Hollywood turned out are not — well, they’re not Casablanca

But it’s salutary to be reminded that many of the shows that have been consigned to oblivion might very well have outsold Casablanca when they were new. Lillian Ross does so when she quotes, on page 167 (in the NYRB edition), the very same producer, Arthur Freed, whose reference to Thoreau I mentioned yesterday. Let the first sentence reverberate in your mind while you read what follows. 

The biggest money-making star at M-G-M, Freed told me, was Esther Williams, and he told me why. “She’s not only good-looking, she’s cheerful,” he said. “you can sell cheerfulness. You can’t sell futility. Take John Huston. A great talent. I’d like to make a picture with him myself. He makes a picture, Treasure of Sierra Madre, and it’s a success with the critics, but it’ll take years to get its costs back from the public. Why? It’s futile. Even the gold disappears at the end. … Fundamentally, a picture is not complete unless an audience is out there. Without an audience, you don’t know where the laughs are. This is show business. You need laughs. You need cheerfulness. That’s the whole reason for show business in the first place.”

Wisdom Note:
Thoreau in Hollywood
24 July 2019

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

¶ Never having read it before, I’m enjoying Lillian Ross’s Picture, recently reissued by NYRB Books. I’m quietly astonished by the number of books about Hollywood that carry on as though Lillian Ross had never filed her report. Picture purports to be a soup-to-nuts account of the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, which, as I think we all know, was not a hit and has not been rediscovered. 

L B Mayer, the MGM studio boss, foresaw as much. He put up as much resistance as he could to the enthusiasm of his rival at the time, Dore Schary. Then Nick Schenck, who really ran the studio (from New York), came down on Schary’s side. Early on, Lillian Ross visited Mayer in his office, where she found him in converse with Arthur Freed, who produced musicals for MGM. Mayer put on quite a show for Ross. He got down on his knees and imitated Andy Rooney, playing Andy Hardy praying outside the door of the room in which his mother (Hardy’s) was dying. That must have been something to see. To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever asked Mayer to star, or even play, in any movies, not even Irving Thalberg. That’s Hollywood for you. As Mayer says (mocking those who want “art” from the movies): “No heart!” Ross names this particular chapter after Mayer’s idea of how artists would make a movie. They’d drag Mrs Hardy from her sickbed and “throw the little old lady down the stairs!” 

Somewhere in all of this, Freed throws in his two cents. “Thoreau said most of us lead lives of quiet desperation. Pictures should make you feel better, not worse.”

Reading Note:
An Impossible Situation
23 July 2019

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

¶ For I don’t know how long — since early last year — on and off, I’ve been reading the novels of Elizabeth Jane Howard. Now, I’ve only got three left: the first one, the last one (other than the Cazalet novels, which I started out with), and the one that Howard wrote next after the one that I just finished. I just finished Something in Disguise, and it struck me as the best of her books. 

By that, I mean something different from “her best novel” — something closer to “her most successful and characteristic work.” It is funny, but not a romp like Getting It Right. It is more than a little noir, but nowhere near as dark as Falling. (Falling, which plays with the details of something that happened to Howard herself, oddly prefigures the whole genre of recent novels exemplified by Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.) It is neither beautifully sad, like The Long View, nor winsomely bittersweet, like The Sea Change and After Julius. And of course it is not a five-volume saga. If you haven’t discovered Howard for yourself, and are not sure where to begin, this is the novel for anyone who has learned to crave the sheer zest of Muriel Spark.

Before Something in Disguise gets very far, it presents us with two women in impossible situations that, we know, can’t go on. So it’s a great deal of fun to play close attention to what happens until finally, indeed, they don’t. The satisfaction in each case is more than a little naughty (that is, “delicious.”) Meanwhile, there’s a woman who seems to be the surprised beneficiary of a magic wand. In her case, we want to know exactly how much of the loot she’s going to get to keep — which inclined me, I’m afraid, to overlook her feelings somewhat. Mordant counterpoint is provided by a young man who  endearingly fails to distinguish his ass from his elbow whilst undertaking the career of Fortune Hunter. Just to make everything perfect, there are two utterly detestable men. One of them fades away; the other waxes luridly. When I got to the end, I felt what I used to feel at the end of a roller-coaster ride: even though it couldn’t last another minute, I didn’t want it to end. 

Growth & Development Note:
Taking Time
22 July 2019

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

¶ My daughter and grandson are paying a flying visit.

The first thing we did was to establish that Will is indeed taller than Kathleen — by two or three inches. He has broadened in the shoulders since the last time I saw him; he is no longer just tall. But his face and his voice accord perfectly with his age, which is nine-and-a-half. He is still an appropriately little boy, at least when you see him up close, and hear what he has to say. 

When I was his age, I was growing all the time, too, but I don’t know that I went at quite his speed. In those days of faster-the-better, precocity of any kind was applauded (except, of course, the “hormonal”). One of my best friends in college arrived as a freshman at fifteen. He was already as tall as I was, but he never really outgrew his little-boy face; it just got older. Now that Boomers are notorious for living far too long, I understand better than ever how foolish all that excitement about early achievement really was.

Indeed, at seventy-ish, I’m only now beginning to feel mature.

Regretful Note:
Lake Houses
19 July 2019

Friday, July 19th, 2019

¶ Kathleen returned from her annual week in Maine this evening. As usual, she got very relaxed up there — on the last day of her stay.

She was visiting friends who have houses on a lake near the summer camp where she and the friends were counselors, years and years ago. For a while, Kathleen herself owned a cottage on the other side of the same lake. We had it for just a few years; sadly, it wasn’t the first lake house that we owned. That house — the first one — was in Northwest Connecticut, about a ninety-minute drive away. When the angels ask me to recall what I most regret about my life, I will tell that that I wish the second house — the cottage in Maine — had been the first. In that case, there never would have been a second. 

The major difference between the two lake houses was that the one in Maine could not be altered in any significant way; state law had already put the kibosh on expansive renovations. Also, it could not be inhabited in the winter. Also, it was a lot more than ninety minutes away. These conditions would have been big pluses, had they also applied to the first house. But they didn’t. 

No, they didn’t. 

Subscription Note:
Zombie Fair
17 July 2019

Wednesday, July 17th, 2019

¶ It has been almost a year since I complained about the collapse of Vanity Fair as an interesting magazine; it is now no more than a rather pathetic media tool. (If I want a shot of Hollywood, I’ll watch an episode of The Comeback, thank you very much.) I added that 

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

And indeed it was not renewed. I forget when; sometime during the cold months. But it’s still coming. A recent issue, featuring Adam Driver on the cover along with the promise of plenty of Star Wars coverage inside, went straight to the chute. When the current issue arrived the other day, I stooped to read a bit of the piece about Mr Archie, mostly to see how his great-grandmama was doing, but I felt icky afterward. I would rather not tar my brain with images of the Duchess of Sussex reducing the Duchess of Cambridge to tears during fittings for Princess Charlotte’s wedding. I like to think that the Duchess of Cambridge cannot be reduced to tears by anyone but her husband, and even then only on an in-case-of-fire-break-glass situation.

Thanks to Vanity Fair, I’m now worried that I’ll wake up some morning to discover that the other, “nasty” duchess has joined the Squad. 

Diet Note:
Three Chocolate Éclairs
16 July 2019

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

¶ Yesterday, I got on the scale and discovered that my weight has stabilized, for the time being at least. I have lost 90 pounds since my physical exam last August, after which I didn’t weigh myself again until February. There’s no doubt that did all the losing in the five or six months after Christmas, when I stopped swilling watered Chablis on the rocks. (The wine was diluted, in five litre dispensers, with one litre of water for every four of wine.) I always knew that a lot of my calories (half?) were coming from alcohol, but I expected to make up for them in other ways, namely by eating more. But that hasn’t happened. My appetite hasn’t changed much at all, except perhaps to dwindle. If I could live on the science-fiction pills that were imminently expected to change everybody’s life when I was a teenager, I probably would. There are days when I can’t think of anything that I’d like to eat. I’d rather go hungry. I will discuss this with the internist at my physical exam next month. 

I can always make room for fried chicken, though. At Schaller & Weber this afternoon, I was having some cold-cuts sliced when a fellow appeared behind the counter with a roasting pan full of fried chicken, which I assumed, correctly, he must have just brought from the kitchen. At the last minute, I bought two pieces, and when I ate them, about two hours later, they were still quite warm, and very tasty. I certainly hadn’t expected that bonus, and I wished I’d bought more. I will probably inquire as to just when fresh fried chicken makes its appearance — with luck, it will prove to do so regularly. 

Have I mentioned that not one eatery in the neighborhood, aside from the Shake Shack and (presumably) McDonald’s, produces edible French fries? The oil is always off.  It’s a disgrace.

Can’t go on losing weight indefinitely, after all.

Petersbook Note:
That’s a Lie!
15 July 2019

Monday, July 15th, 2019

When we had done eating the artichokes, I noticed that, while my plate was bare, except for the remains of the choke, the three others on the table were carefully littered with the better parts of the leaves that I had eaten whole.

It was now that our host commented on it as well. If he or his wife had observed my way with artichokes before, neither said anything. Nor did my wife.

I think she was my wife. She may still have been my fiancée, but I think we were married by the time that my mother-in-law’s friends, also professors from the Baylor College of Medicine (well, he was, anyway), asked us to dinner.

Our host and hostess were Romanian Jews, refugees from Communism. Another doctor friend of my mother-in-law’s, Hilde Bruch, was a refugee from Hitler. The Holocaust thus manifested itself to me, in Houston and for the first time, in a handful of extremely sophisticated and intelligent people who ought to have been prized by fellow-citizens anywhere they lived. Perhaps it was a peculiarly American experience, one that led people like me — people who met and had lovely dinners with such refugees — to begin to suspect that, no matter who the oppressor was, it wasn’t really being Jewish that had brought on the wrath of bigotry, causing them to flee for their lives. It was their exceptional gifts that were resented, along with, and in part because of, the disproportionate frequency of giftedness that was apparent among them. 

I had never been in a home like theirs. While not uncomfortable, the spare, modern furniture did not encourage loafing. There were few if any “pretty things.” The place seemed designed to suggest an austerity that was not actually imposed. I could imagine my mother shriveling in it, as if standing on the North Pole without a coat. This made me want to feel at home. I couldn’t, not really; even today, leather strikes me as an emotionally impoverished substitute for upholstery. But I was eager to try, so eager that, confronted for the first time by an unfamiliar vegetable, and unaware that the proper way is to scrape the soft tissue from the inside upside of the leaf with the teeth, discarding the tough remainder around the outer ring of the purpose-shaped artichoke plate, I ate it up with indiscriminate gusto. 

“You ate the leaves whole,” said the doctor. 

“That’s how we eat them in New York,” I replied. 

The lie flew out of my mouth without a thought, as though it had been waiting on standby, like an understudy, just in case this very eventually arose. As I say, I had not realized the peculiarity of my artichoke consumption. I had not seen that I was out of step but decided against acknowledging it by changing course. Nevertheless, the lie was right there when I needed it. 

Of course, I didn’t think of it as a lie. I thought of it as a bluff. (I was now living in Texas, after all.) Not as a successful bluff, of course. I did not imagine — not for very long — that these well-traveled people were unaware of how people ate artichokes in New York. I acknowledged my dissembling as soon as my wife and I were in the car driving home. I don’t remember what we said about it. But I put it all down as a joke. 

Whether my marriage did not last long enough, or the doctor and his wife had had enough cold-blooded mendacity in their lives, I was never in their home again. 

June 2019

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

Housekeeping Note:
Summer Break
28 June 2019

Friday, June 28th, 2019

¶ Even though I’ve just heard from an old friend about the other day’s entry, I’m going to assume that everyone is decamping for the coming holiday, and do the same myself.

I ought to be back on the 15th. Any vital updates will be posted here below. 

Friendship Note:
Well Wishing
27 June 2019

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

¶ Fossil Darling took me to lunch today, to celebrate some good news. Well, it was good news for him. The gist of it was, he’s going to live. 

As we were leaving the restaurant, I heard a phone ring. I said to Fossil, “I think you’ve just had a call.” “Yes,” he replied, “It’s from one of my many well-wishers.”

“You mean, the people who wish you’d fall into a well?” I asked. Fossil said nothing, because he hadn’t seen this coming. 

When I handed him into a taxi — for he had been nice enough to come over to my neighborhood for the pleasure of my company — I told him that I wished him well. “Remember,” I added, “you want to see the bottom. If you can’t see the bottom of the well, just keep leaning until you do.” He pulled the door shut. I waved. “Just keep leaning.”

After all, he is my oldest friend in the world, and you know how that is.  

Whaddya Know Note:
Cawn’t Cawn’t Cawn’t
26 June 2019

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

¶ Sigourney Weaver is a great actress and film star, of course, and I am second to none in my admiration for her performance as Gwen DeMarco, but it is other things about her that interest me. I think that I’d really like to hear what she remembers of her father’s dreams for the then-new medium of television, if only to parse what Wikipedia, in its entry on “Sylvester Weaver (executive)” describes as the NBC chief’s belief “that broadcasting should educate as well as entertain.” In the course of his long life, how did he come to feel about how that worked out? (It’s always possible that I might not like having heard what his daughter would have to say, but somehow I doubt it.)

And now, all of a sudden, I wonder if Ms Weaver would find my Randy Paar stories amusing. I call them my “Randy Paar stories,” but they are really about Miss Rogers, the sometime ambulance-driving babysitter whom my family and Jack Paar’s both employed, and who never tired of making invidious comparisons at my expense. 

The thought of sharing my Randy Paar stories with Sigourney Weaver — now I think of it, maybe she has some Randy Paar stories, real ones — was occasioned by reading, on page 126 of Julie Satow’s The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel, that Susan Alexandra (the actress’s given name) was one of three principal sources of inspiration — the others being Liza Minelli and Yasmin Khan — for Kay Thompson’s Eloise, the heroine of four books, indelibly illustrated by Hilary Knight: the iconic EloiseEloise in ParisEloise at Christmastime, and Eloise in Moscow. Not to mention the subject of a portrait that, last time I looked, hangs in the hotel’s lobby. 

I have to say that, as a boy, I was terrified of Eloise. Endlessly naughty, Eloise nonetheless ended each day safely in her room, not, as would have happened to me (I was sure), in a reform-school cell. Not only that, but she lived to repeat her repertoire of nuisances every day! Misbehaved and as constantly “in trouble” as I was, I blanched at the things Eloise got up to. At the end of the first book, she thinks about pouring a pitcher of water down the mail chute; I was sure that she’d have got me to do it, because I was taller and could reach, &c.

The most dangerous thing about Eloise was precisely what she announced at the start: “I am a city child.” My fear of city children was probably the main reason why I could never bring myself to claim that I came “from New York,” even though Bronxville is only three miles or so from the Bronx border. The few city children with whom I came into contact — I have no distinct memories, only blurs — all seemed to be about thirty years old, sophisticated and blasé and completely in charge of themselves. I was a Mexican jumping bean in comparison, unruly and barely literate. I bore no resemblance to the man I am today and really did live in a tree (not very bravely, I might add). Had I met the city child who became my wife in those days, I would have filled her with unalterable disgust. Good thing we didn’t cross paths until we were both marooned in Indiana!   

Even then, though, I had one thing in common with Eloise (and this hasn’t changed): I absolutely love Room Service. 

Feminist Note:
Two Tracks
25 June 2019

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

¶ Although I am usually able to resist buying novels that I’ve never heard of, I succumbed to the previewed charms of Renée Rosen’s Park Avenue Summer when it appeared in an array of things that I “might like” at Amazon. The book arrived almost immediately, and I read it just as quickly, finding it engaging and well-written. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I don’t at all regret having yielded to the impulse to buy it.  

The framework of the story is very simple. Alice Weiss, a twenty-one year-old girl from Youngstown, gets off the bus in Manhattan with a lot of ambition and one valuable contact. This lands her a job as Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary at Cosmopolitan, which Brown has just taken on. It is March 1965, and the first issue to reflect Brown’s plans for the magazine will be July’s. If she makes it. We learn pretty quickly that the executives at Hearst are hoping to be able to cease publication of the venerable magazine, once eminent but now a faded, suburban rag. In other words, they expect Brown to fail, and they saddle her with a backlog of paid-for but lackluster articles and a budget that won’t enable striking out in new directions. Knowing that Brown will triumph despite all attempts to thwart her keeps at least one happy ending simmering in the background.

Meanwhile, Alice — whose career as a resourceful Gal Friday, devoted to keeping her bold boss aloft, is rather more interesting to read about — has her love-life to tend to. Rosen manages to keep the romancing cued to the issues facing any smart Cosmo Girl. For example: what to do with a devilishly handsome, sexually clever big, bad Don Juan? Listen to Helen. 

Without at any time veering more than two or three sentences from the course of true storytelling, Rosen raises, for any interested reader, a host of thoughts about feminism in the Sixties — and today. She is very good about reminding the reader of the era’s sexual and gender-linked strictures, which were only beginning to reflect, and not at all starting to melt in the rising sun of coming changes. I found myself grasping, for the first time, that there were, even then, two tracks for feminist action, parallel and even antagonistic. I stopped thinking of successive waves and took up instead the notion of simultaneous pilgrimages.

The high road, as it were, was pioneered by a small band of intelligent women who hoped for the creation of a new politics that would in turn nourish a new society, one in which, among other things, the corrosive effects of masculine hegemony (ever more awkwardly self-conscious as women emerged from purdah) would be countered by women’s voices. The low road — low in the esteem of the ladies on high, such as Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin — thronged with girls who simply wanted to have as much as fun as men did. It was on the low road that billboards for Cosmopolitan were posted. 

So far, travelers on neither road have encountered a generalized solution to the problem of parenthood, which is that becoming a father need not, and in almost all cases does not, disrupt a man’s life. There is much more to this problem than just the hassles of, for example, caring for an infant and managing carpools, doing the laundry and meeting with teachers. It begins when a boy and a girl start holding hands. As things (still) stand today, the girl who does not know a lot more than the boy about what holding hands leads to may find herself at a loss quite as regrettable as the fate of unlucky Victorian maidens. The Victorian maiden might have faced ostracism, but the modern girl risks a demoralizing exhaustion that is no less likely to take her out of the swim. Somehow, it is still the men who are entitled to feel resentful and put-upon. 

And while girls have indeed, for better or worse, had a lot more fun, the search for a new politics has proved unavailing. The relationship of women to the world of work has quite failed to produce scalable alternatives to male preferences, so that there still exists no social idea of what success for a woman might be counted upon to look like. The idea that the acquisition of expertise as a mother might constitute a kind of graduate-degree program, bestowing powerful credentials, in a reformed world of work, along with their children’s high-school diplomas, doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody. The fact that much of what men both are required to do and do of their own free will during their early working years is simply vile, wrong, and counterhuman has barely dawned on satirists. Are we even lucky — and just whom do I mean by “we” — to know that something so taken for granted is so very wrong? 

Tech Note:
In the Quiet Zone
24 June 2019

Monday, June 24th, 2019

¶ Above the Times headline, ghostly letters say, “To Find Real Solitude, You Have to Go Out of Range.” The story, by Pagan Kennedy, is about — or at least set in — the National Radio Quiet Zone, in and around Green Bank, West Virginia. At the center of this 13,000 square mile preserve stands the Green Bank Observatory, a campus of ultra-sensitive radio telescopes designed to detect the sound of a pin dropping on Alpha Centauri. Because the electro-magnetic waves generated microwave ovens, wifi networks (this means smartphones), and other supposedly indispensable appliances can short-circuit the observatory’s sensitive equipment, their use is not permitted within the Zone, home to about 150 people. Kennedy writes, 

I came in hopes of finding a certain kind of wildness and solitude.

While I must acknowledge that there is no wildness, at least above the occasional mouse, in my Yorkville apartment, I do quite well, I think, for solitude, even with a microwave and a wifi network. And a smartphone. My smartphone spends most of its time in my pocket, or face down on a tabletop (to protect its screen). Since I do not use it to read mail of any kind, but only to receive text messages and actual phone calls — and I don’t get many of either — I do not have occasion to look at the smartphone very often. I long ago (long before cellphones) learned that I don’t care for extended telephone conversations; too much vital human information is missing. And if Skype and FaceTime are the best we can do, there is very extensive room for improvement. At the same time, phones produce too much information, which may be why younger people prefer text messages: Just the texts, ma’am

Mr Holstine said that here in Green Bank, “I use the internet, and then I walk away.” But on the outside, people are “connected all the time,” he added. “They get a text and have to look at it. For a lot of people, the choice seems like it has disappeared. The phone is part and parcel to everything they do, including work. It’s the tail wagging the dog.” 

After a few days here, almost entirely off-line, I felt I knew what he meant: The world outside the mountains now seemed mad to me, too.

I am heartened to report that, when I look down onto 87th Street from my balcony, most of the people on the sidewalk, even those walking alone, appear not to be holding smartphones, much less looking at them. Perhaps this is because they are carrying shopping or pushing strollers. But they don’t appear to be impatient with their full-hands situations. On the contrary, they seem as content as anyone can be with daily life in Manhattan. 

(The hip people are said to live on the other side of 14th Street. They’re welcome to it.)

It’s true that I will drop anything to take a call from my wife, Kathleen — heralded by the Bell Tower ringtone that elates me even before I hear her voice. I would find it difficult to manage in the National Radio Quiet Zone if she were not with me. Happily, I don’t have to go to West Virginia for peace and quiet. Growing up with an ever-louder and more rackety media barrage (starting with car radios and those incredibly annoying telephone rings), I’ve learned to weed my life of unwanted noise and other intrusions. You don’t have to do without the modcons. You simply have to discover how much nicer it is to manage with less from them. 

Travel Note:
21 June 2019

Friday, June 21st, 2019

¶ Airline delays have once again interfered with Kathleen’s travel plans. She was to fly home this afternoon, from Phoenix, to which an earlier plane would have carried her from San Diego. But the earlier plane did not arrive at San Diego until twenty minutes after it was to have taken off, so Kathleen missed her connection. She promptly arranged for standby status on five flights, though, and the one that came through was the red-eye from Phoenix to JFK. So she’ll be taking off for New York shortly before one in the morning tomorrow, New York time.

Also, she’ll be spending the longest day in the year in an airport, one with no bookshop, apparently. The novel that she took with her but hasn’t yet opened is in her checked luggage, unavailable, but she tells me that she has an e-book on her phone. Rapture unforeseen. 

Now: what am going to do? Will I stay up to make sure that her plane takes off on time? What if it doesn’t?

Remember Jack’s beanstalk? My proclivity for imagining disaster when Kathleen travels is even more robust and far-reaching. Not that I have to make things up. It’s like being locked in a theatre and made to watch a collage of all the scariest bits of every movie involving a problem with a plane. 

The next morning. I decided that the best thing to do would be to talk to Kathleen about an hour before take-off, and then to quiet down for bed. I would not sit at the computer until a quarter to one. I would ask Kathleen to call me in the event of any difficulties, otherwise just to come home. If there were difficulties that prevented her from calling me, it would do me no good at all, late at night, to suspect them — for I wouldn’t know anything — from online information. What on earth could I do about it?

And I stuck to that resolution, somewhat amazingly. I woke up about half an hour before Kathleen did get home, and while waiting to drift off again I thought about checking on the flight status. But I resisted. It wasn’t that not knowing made me feel better; it certainly didn’t. But I’m sure that it prevented my feeling worse. I have never subscribed to the maxim that no news is good news. But sometimes, if only for a little while, it is best not to know if there is any news. In this case, it made the happy ending to an anxious week even happier. 

Listening Note:
Thousand Islands
20 June 2019

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

¶ This evening, feeling almost serene — Kathleen didn’t travel today; she was parked at her conference at Dana Point — I finally got round to making some blue cheese dressing, and, while I was at it, I made Thousand Island dressing as well. Why these preparations had to linger on my to-do list for so long is no more clear to me than why I finally got round to them. But I think that Brahms’s Second had something to do with it.

When I went into the kitchen, wondering what I would make for dinner, I turned on the music in there, and was greeted by Brahms’s symphony, not far into the first movement. For a long time, Brahms’s Second was the only one of the four that I knew really well (it was the only one of which I had a recording), so it would be wrong to say that it was my favorite. But it always surprised me. Very mildly, of course; it’s the mildest of symphonies — and that, I think, is why. For a masterpiece by one of the two principal exponents of the German Romantic (both of whom are also exponents of the Viennese Classical tradition), it has always seemed to me to go in for understatement. To an American ear of mine’s vintage, the first notes quote Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” a tune utterly devoid of bangs. The movement’s main theme is nothing if not “melting,” and its sinuous course has the effect of endlessness. (Carlo Maria Giulini’s recording does indeed go on for a very long time, although that’s not the one that I was listening to.) Because the surface meanders so gently, it is easy, after a while, to follow the many undercurrents, to spot little flourishes in the winds that are rather like interesting pebbles at the bottom of a clear stream. With the greatest calm imaginable, it defies our expectation that the genial will be simple and straightforward.

As I fetched ingredients — from the fridge, mostly — and measured them into the Cuisinart, I felt as if I were participating in the performance somehow, or at least that I knew what I was doing as well as the musicians. When it came time to purée the fixings, the racket drowned out everything but the bass line, from which however I could extrapolate what I couldn’t hear. When I shut the machine off, the music was just where I expected it to be.

The most wonderful thing about good music is how often — increasingly often — I feel that I’m hearing what ought to be merely familiar as though I had never heard it before. I have considered this phenomenon to the point of concluding that the impression depends upon familiarity. Knowing what I know of a complex score, I’m ready to hear, consciously, more. 

The other day, listening to Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, I could see, through the once-exotic, folk-accented façade, a carefully constructed contribution to the long tradition of concert pieces. With Brahms’s Second, in contrast, I’m bewitched by the notion that Brahms is making it all up, for the very first time. I might add that he got “tradition” out of the way with his First Symphony, but only now; it didn’t occur, and wouldn’t have occurred to me, while I was in the kitchen.

Travel Note:
Don’t Miss It!
19 June 2019

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

¶ A Certain Party that I know misread her plane ticket this morning, and showed up at the airport at noon. But noon, in a distant time zone, was when the flight was scheduled to land, not take off. The flight had been scheduled to leave her location at ten. It seemed that she had missed it. 

There would be two more flights to CP’s destination later that day. She tried to book a seat on the earlier one — the later flight would be tremendously inconvenient — but could do no better than first position on the standby list.

The Certain Party’s Interested Friend, meanwhile, was following as best he could from home base. Armed with a flight number, he watched, so to speak, the second flight take off — without having heard a word. His anxiety therefore took off as well. Presently, however, the phone rang, and CP had this story to tell: 

She had not, in fact, missed her flight. Due to some mechanical problem, it was delayed. It was four hours delayed — four and a half. An hour later, in other words, than the second flight. She was right on time.

Thus is the study of history mocked. It consistently fails to provide precedents for future mishaps and odd developments. Our Interested Friend is not so hot, either. He seems to think that history will repeat itself. As one might, considering the patina of routine banality that coats air travel today. But if history teaches anything, it is that Certain Party has a gift for eliciting novelty from the unpromising material of airline schedules. 

If only it were conscious. 

Out-of-Town Note:
Water Features
18 June 2019

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

¶ Kathleen attended a cocktail party on the 99th floor of the Sears Tower this afternoon, so I suggested that she take a picture. She took several, although they all look the same: beyond the much lower rooftops between the Tower and Grant Park rises Lake Michigan, with a faint grayish border between sky and water that makes me wonder: can that be Michigan?

There is not a cloud in the sky — in Kathleen’s pictures of Chicago, that is. Here in New York, it is too dark to see the sky, too dark with rain. The air is cool but very damp — curiously bearable, now that it is June; whereas a month or so ago I’d have been wishing for the central heating.

Tomorrow, Kathleen flies to San Diego, for a conference at Dana Point. She has been to the St Regis Monarch there many times, but she has never seen the Pacific Ocean from the hotel. I doubt that this trip will be any different in that regard. I’m not sure that Kathleen is really alive to the fact that the ocean is just over there, on the other side of the golf course. Not that I encourage her to explore. If she stepped foot on the golf course, she’d be lost in five minutes. I’m not even going to qualify that with a “probably.” 

As usual when Kathleen travels, it is I who am lost — or at least adrift.