Glitch Note:
The New Bed III
26 November 2018

¶ The new bed seems to be getting lower. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?

The old bed was so high that it required a king-sized bedspread. Now the tassels of the bedspread are draping the floor. (I was going to buy a new one anyway; good thing I waited until the new bed arrived.) It was getting difficult for Kathleen to climb into. Even I had to perch on the edge and give myself a little push. Now I just sit down and swivel. I have to bend a little further each day, it seems, to make the bed. I worry that, one day, the new bed will be as hard for me to get out of as the love seats in the living room.

The real loss is the bedposts on the footboards. The old bedposts were pretty tall. I was always leaning on them with one hand while getting dressed with the other — probably a cause of the old bed’s destruction. I routinely reached out for the bedpost while navigating my way in or out of the bedroom. I still do — only the new bed’s posts aren’t there — they’re not tall enough.

But we do like the new bed very much. It is very quiet. No ominous creaks or cracks.

Reading Note:
Silence and Inference
23 November 2018

We were going to do nothing today, but Kathleen changed her mind: she could no longer go on wearing summer clothes. (Indeed!) It was long past time to switch the wardrobes in her two closets, one of which is ordinarily inaccessible, or at least hard to get to, thanks to an armchair laden with stuff. So I set up the coatracks, which we used to need for big winter parties, and Kathleen got to it.

Meanwhile, I finished re-reading Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. I had only the last part to get through. After two years in the New World, Eilis Lacey has returned to her native Enniscorthy to spend some time with her mother, who has been left alone, suddenly and unexpectedly, by the death of Eilis’ older sister Rose. (All the Lacey sons have had to migrate to England in order to find work; Eilis herself was despatched to New York for the same reason.) Upon arrival, all Eilis can think about is getting back to Brooklyn — and to the husband about whom her family and friends know nothing. But a friend’s wedding induces her to postpone her departure, and then she is offered the job that Rose had. A young man, who already owns his family’s pub, develops rapidly from a friend’s friend into a suitor. Like the brambles in Sleeping Beauty’s forest, ramifying local connections make it impossible for Eilis to disclose her secret marriage, which she begins to wish had not taken place. 

Eilis’s mistake, as she nestles into the familiar home life that she never wanted to leave in the first place, is in thinking that she is the only person who knows, or will ever know, the truth of her Brooklyn past. When this error is brought to her attention, in one of the most plausible coups in literature, Eilis makes several slicing decisions, and within hours is packed and ready to “go home.” Brooklyn‘s extraordinarily hasty ending would be unsatisfying if it did not dump a moraine of food for thought in the reader’s lap. 

Reading the book for the first time, I regarded Eilis as something of an Eve, yielding to the temptation to eat a forbidden apple. Seduced by the comforts of home, she overlooks the fact that she owes her positive reception in Enniscorthy to advantages that have accrued to her in Brooklyn. She cuts a more glamorous figure in her American clothes, and her completion of a bookkeeping course at Brooklyn College has qualified her to take over Rose’s job. Weak, in other words. This time, I sensed something more fundamental at work, very likely because I have read and re-read Tóibín’s fiction so many times — most recently, Mothers and Sons; not long before that, my favorite them all, Nora Webster

Eilis’s mistake actually goes back to her Brooklyn days, where for a long time she says nothing to her family about Tony, the Italian-American plumber whom, even in Brooklyn, she passes off as Irish. (He’s blond and blue-eyed.) Eventually, she writes to Rose about her attachment to Tony, but Rose dies without learning just how serious the attachment is. Eilis has written to Rose at her business address, because it seems to both sisters very important to conceal the matter from their mother. Back in Enniscorthy, Eilis wonders if her mother has gained possession of the letters to Rose. But she says nothing about it, because that is the law of the Laceys of Enniscorthy.  

It isn’t really the net of new connections that traps Eilis in Enniscorthy, but the code of silence observed by a community obsessed with convention and respectability. Discretion would be the word for it, if it were more a matter of guarding family secrets from the outside world and less one of precluding candor within families. Eilis’s disinclination to mention Tony in letters to her mother is rooted in worries about the inferences that Mrs Lacey might draw from anything that Eilis might say. Eilis has a pretty good idea of what those inferences might be, but she cannot control them, and prejudiced, perhaps, by her guilt at concealing Tony’s Italian background from her American friends and neighbors, almost all of whom are Irish, Eilis deals with the problem by not mentioning anything. She is unprepared for Rose’s death, for returning to Enniscorthy married to a man of whose very existence her mother is ignorant. Unless, of course, her mother has read those letters to Rose. But Eilis knows that her mother will never mention seeing those letters unless forced to do so. 

So this time, although I appreciated Tóibín’s artistry in creating (in Enniscorthy, of all places) a sort of jardin féerique to delude Eilis into imagining that she can pack up her life in Brooklyn and store it away out of sight, I could sense Eilis’ strangled awareness of the meretricious nature of this enchantment. Everything looks good precisely because it accords with her reverting to the tribal code and disavowing the relative and certainly more genuine expressivity of life lived outside it. When Eilis learns that the secret of her marriage is not altogether hers to keep, she snaps out of the nightmare of resuming a surreptitious existence. The spiteful gossip who sounds like a wicked fairy is actually a fairy godmother. 

I forget which reviewer it was who attributed the tremendous intimacy of Brooklyn to the sense of watching everything over Eilis’s shoulder. How true: Eilis doesn’t tell us anything, either. 

Department of Unavoidable Menus:
Sapidity Crisis
22 November 2018

¶ Oh, how I was looking forward to Thanksgiving at the Knickerbocker!

The gemütlich atmosphere (well, for Greenwich Village) is always agreeable. And I was savoring the meal that I was going to order: oysters, an Iceberg wedge salad with onion rings, and a ginormous chocolate sundae. 

None of these items was on the special Thanksgiving menu!

And nothing that was on it appealed to me at all. At all! Not even the shrimp cocktail, which turned out to be, well, the same appetizer that I outgrew circa 1963. Not the slice of salmon, nicely enough done, but who was in the mood, and certainly not the pumpkin pie. No substitutions! 

I resolved then and there that what we are going to celebrate next year is the anniversary of Fossil Darling’s and Ray Soleil’s wedding. They argue about when this falls, on a date certain in November or, as Ray and I hold, on the day after Thanksgiving. A much more agreeable holiday anyway.

Thank goodness for the delectable treats that Ray served at cocktails at his flat before dinner. He did this one thing with parmesan and proscuitto and fig jam…

Medical Note:
“How About Tomorrow?”
21 November 2018

¶ “How about tomorrow?” said E, the veteran infusion-unit scheduler, when she returned my call yesterday. I was in the middle of lunch, with Ray Soleil; we had just set up the new bed. “We’ve had a cancellation.” 

And here I was, wondering how far into December, how overdue and then seriously overdue, my next infusion would be. I ought to have made the call to E’s office two or three weeks ago. But I was pretty sure that I’d have to see the rheumatologist first; he wants to see me every quarter, and I had put off making that appointment, too. I had seen him just a week before. That had led to a talk on the phone with the gastro-enterologist which we won’t go into now, or maybe ever. 

And of course there had been the bed to fret about. Excuses, excuses.

How about tomorrow? A case of vice rewarded. 

Later in the afternoon, a nurse from the infusion unit called to ask if I would come in an hour earlier. Knowing that the nurses would be trying to clear the place out so that they could get home for the holiday, I agreed.

Another first: I was one of five male patients in the unit today. I am usually the only one. 

Not the next infusion, nor the one after that, but the next one after that, in the spring sometime, I shall have been taking Remicade for fifteen years. 

Assembly Note:
The New Bed II
20 November 2018

¶ Setting up the bed today, Ray Soleil and I had two exciting moments, one much more alarming than the other. The less upsetting setback happened first, when we had a problem with the power drill. Neither Ray Soleil nor I could figure out how to reverse the drill, so that it would unscrew  the sixteen screws that bolted the L-plates to the headboard and footboard of the old bed. The L-plates were installed in January 2005, the day before Kathleen and I flew to Istanbul for a fabulous trip. I remember the contretemps because I thought that the guy who came to rescue our bed from its dependence on a flying buttress arrangement would never leave. (I remember calling Demarchelier to ask if it was too late to have a croque monsieur, and being told that it was.) While Ray labored with a screwdriver, I took the drill into the kitchen, where, in despair, I had a look at the back of the handle, which is where the toggle turned out to be. Ray had already done a lot of unscrewing by then, but it had been hard work. The rest was a breeze. 

The second moment came when the hooks on the side rails didn’t fit into the footboard. We knew that the problem was with the footboard and not the side rails, but what to do? Ray unscrewed, ever so slightly, the plate into which the side rail hooks were to rest, and that did the trick. Major phew.

We did a lot of vacuuming and dusting in the space under the old bed. The clumps of dustballs that came off the plastic boxes in which Kathleen stores who knows what were so solid that, poxing the floor, they were easy to vacuum.

The top of new bed is about six inches closer to the ground than the old bed. Kathleen had recently begun having difficulty climbing onto the old bed, so this ought to be an improvement.

I also rediscovered the socket in the middle of the wall behind the old bed, unused all this time because the fellows who moved us downstairs four years ago were in a hurry. I would say that Ray and spent at least half an hour reconfiguring the electrics. You know how that is. 

Ray says that the bedroom looks a lot bigger than it did. It’s true that the old bed was more an architectural element than a piece of furniture. The footboard was almost as high as the headboard, and, as I told Ray, it gave me the sense of a battlement, a little fortress that walled the bed off somewhat from everyday reality. Will I miss that?

Of course it all looks as though it has been this way forever.

Delivery Note:
The New Bed I
19 November 2018

¶ The new bed was delivered on Saturday morning, shortly before noon. The doorman called to ask if I’d bought something from Bloomingdale’s. Not from Bloomingdale’s, I said, but yes, furniture. Send it up.

The headboard, carried by one man, arrived momentarily. Quite a while passed, it seemed to me, before the rest appeared: the footboard, the siderails, and the slats. Three of the five slats sported centrally-mounted perpendicular members, for increased stability. I was really quite delighted to see this innovation. (A standard on king-sized beds, Ray Soleil would tell me.) I had been worried that the new bed would turn out to be — delicate.

The arrival of these pieces of wood ended a saga that began about a month ago, when the Web page showing the bed and its specifications, which I had kept open in a browser to gratify some devious sense of anticipation or anxiety, did not refresh upon rebooting. Nor did the vendor answer the phone. By this time, the bed, purchased online in June, was more than somewhat overdue, and we had not heard a word. The sense that the business had collapsed and that its managers had absconded was suddenly overwhelming. What would you do? (The bed did, after all, cost about three thousand dollars.) I called the credit card company. The representative said that the company would “look into it.” 

The very next day, we heard from the vendor. Two days after that, I received a letter from the credit card company, informing me that it had credited my account with the price of the bed. It added that, if the vendor’s responses to its investigation warranted a reversal of the credit, I would be notified at once. 

The vendor called again, asking for information pertinent to delivery of the bed by a shipper — and also to be paid for the bed. I was leery; my belief in the vendor’s honesty had been shaken by the small array of unlikely coincidences. Certain nuances in the vendor’s explanations led me to believe that, contrary to advertisement, the bed had been manufactured in China, which didn’t bother me in itself but suggested further nefariousness. So I called the vendor and told the representative there that the matter had been taken out of my hands; the credit card company had decided to credit my account without actually asking for my authorization. But I wound up calling the credit card company again — for the third time, actually; for, in the meantime, my monthly statement had arrived, and it was a mess, apparently because the credit for the bed payment had caused my previous monthly payment to be credited to the wrong part of my account, indicating that I owed lots of money that I didn’t. On the third call, I was assured that the credit would be reversed. I was given a phone number to pass on to the vendor, in case the vendor had any further problems. 

I did not hear from the vendor again. I heard from the shipper. The shipper wanted to know what sort of insurance certificate my building’s management required for deliveries. It also wanted to know if the coming Saturday would be a good date. I was sure that Saturday would be a very bad date, from the building’s point of view. 

Now, here I must elide. I simply cannot go into the long and complicated history of difficult deliveries that made me worry about ever getting the new bed from the minute we bought it. There is too much old achy misery there. But it did inspire me to tell the shipper to talk directly to the building’s management. I crossed my fingers. 

That was on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week. On Thursday, while I was taking a shower, the shipper left a message. I could not understand the message; the woman who left it seemed — heavily medicated. From what I could decipher, my brilliant idea hadn’t worked; a delivery date would have be settled on an in awkward, three-sided arrangement. I stomped off to a doctor’s appointment. On the way, I asked the nice lady in building management if she had heard from the shipper. Oh yes, she replied, the delivery was on schedule for Saturday. 

Saturday? Over the years, I had learned that the building’s basement operations were run on a strictly weekday, nine-to-five basis. Surprises were erupting on every side. 

Much as I wanted to take the nice lady’s word for it. I felt obliged to call the shipper back to clarify the representative’s incoherent message. The representative was out to lunch, so I had to deal with a surly Jersey guy who, it turned out, was wrong about everything, including the assurance that the representative would call me back after her lunch. Wrong, too, to tell me that there would be no delivery on Saturday. In fact, the representative never did call me back. I’ve played her message for Ray Soleil, and he agrees that it disconcertingly suggests, in its incomprehensible way, that no arrangement for delivery has been made. 

Now I have given you the background for my entry on Friday, as well as what ought to be a perfectly clear explanation for why I could not have borne to write any of this before the bed actually arrived, putting an end to anxiety and muddle at last. 

The deliverymen expected to set up the new bed, but I told them that that wouldn’t be necessary. I had already engaged to set up the bed with Ray Soleil’s help. Before the new bed can be put in place, the old bed has to be dismantled. And that will be worthy of an entry all its own. Having been delivered, the bed is on schedule to be set up tomorrow. 

Philosophical Note:
On Staying in Bed
16 November 2018

¶ Re-reading Alexander Theroux’s The Strange Case of Edward Gorey — itself a rather strange book, a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Friend Manqué — I’ve come across a line that Mark Dery also quotes in the biography that I mentioned the other day. 

I never could understand why people always feel they love to climb up Mount Everest when you know it’s quite dangerous getting out of bed.

It’s a mouthful for a motto, but that’s my philosophy for today. In bed I shall stay.

Reading Note:
Less
15 November 2018

In Morocco, Arthur Less, a writer circumnavigating the globe in order to avoid his boyfriend’s wedding to another man, meets a handsome, bold woman named Zohra. She is one of those people who gets to the point without having to wade through questionnaires. Zohra asks Less about his new novel, which it seems his publisher doesn’t like. Less has made it a rule never to discuss his books until they are printed, because “people are so careless with their responses.” But he trusts Zohra.

“It was about a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco. And, you know, his … his sorrows…” Her face has begun to fold inward in a dubious expression, and he finds himself trailing off. […]

Zohra asks, “Is this a white middle-aged man?”

“Yes.”

“A white middle-aged American man walking around San Francisco with his his white middle-aged American sorrows?”

“Jesus, I guess so.”

“Arthur. Sorry to tell you this. It’s a little hard to feel sorry for a guy like that.”

“Even gay?”

“Even gay.”

As it happens, Less, Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is about a middle-aged gay white American who is going around the world with, you know, his sorrows. The protagonist will learn, a little later in the story, to salvage his latest novel by treating its hero pretty much as Greer has treated him. Nothing redeems self-indulgent sorrow — in a spectator’s eyes — like a banana peel. Less’s humiliations are not quite as obvious and crushing as the ones he proposes for his hero (named Swift), but they keep you smiling from page to page. (I especially like the Berlin scenes in which all the natives speak perfectly-rendered English but everything that Less says betrays the clunkiness of his German.) The mishaps are eventually eclipsed by good things that happen to Less, but that Less is too mired in self-pity to recognize as such, for example when he wins a literary prize in Italy and can only attribute it to misjudgment.

The reason why we can’t feel sorry for American white guys anymore is that we have all sat through so many master classes in focused on the relative lack of privileges and advantages enjoyed by everyone else. We have begun to suspect that white guys suffer existential crises because they don’t have to worry about material ones. Things could always be so, so much worse for the white American male — but they probably won’t be. The white American male will never have to worry about driving while black or having their turbans pulled off by Islamophobes. They will have scores of opportunities — in the unlikely event that they would need them — to avoid the grim calculations of an underpaid mother desperate to feed, clothe, and shelter her children. And so on. It is impossible to feel sorry for guys like them unless you imagine that they are the only people who count, and we can’t do that anymore. 

But you end up feeling sorry for Less anyway. What I mean by this is that, once Less puts his malaise behind him and abandons his surrender to self-doubt, you’re so happy for him that you must have been worried all along.

On a completely unrelated note, Less is a delicious parody of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love

Rep Note:
Meat Loaf
14 November 2018

¶ What weeknight dinner repertoire does not include meat loaf? Mine hasn’t, for a long time. For years, I followed my mother-in-law’s recipe, because Kathleen liked it. Then I wandered and experimented. When I would return to my mother-in-law’s recipe, it was always better than the experiments, but somehow always worse than it used to be, or disappointing. I also discovered, over the years, that I’m not crazy about leftover meat loaf. Meatloaf sandwiches? No thanks.

As I say, though, Kathleen likes meat loaf. So I bought one of those meatloaf-mix packages at Fairway the other day (equal parts veal, beef, and pork), with the idea of seeing what The Joy of Cooking has to say.

I knew I’d need an onion, too, so I picked a nice one. I decided not to follow Joy on the onion, though; instead of simply chopping it to bits, I sliced it thin with a mandoline and cooked it slowly with a little butter. Well, maybe too much better, and maybe over too high a flame at the start. The result gave the meat loaf  the flavor of caramelized onion, which was yummy, but not the texture. 

Joy calls for a lot of parsley — 2/3 cup, chopped. I balked at the quantity, and I can’t say that the meat loaf suffered. And I’m not unhappy that I stinted on the chili sauce, either. But I ought to have thrown a fourth slice of brioche into the food processor. 

Joy says to mix by hand but not to overmix. I found this perplexing, probably because I didn’t seem to have a light hand. Every time I scooped my hands into the bowl of ingredients, I felt that I was manhandling it. But it turned out to be adequately blended in the end. 

I shaped a handsome free-form loaf on a baking tin, and, in a further uncalled-for step (familiar from many other recipes, though), I topped the loaf with two slices of bacon. In the event, they added nothing, and made slicing difficult. 

Dinner was served. Very satisfying.

I had taken the two slices from the center of the loaf, leaving a large end, which I wrapped in foil and froze, and a small end, which I wrapped in plastic and tossed into the fridge. I have an idea about what to do with the small end, but I’m going to keep it to myself until I give it a try.

Anxiety Note:
A Simple Request
13 November 2018

¶ Kathleen’s therapist told her recently that doctors in the city are reporting a lot of cases that look like a mild sort of PTSD.

I know that I am one of the afflicted. It involves, among other symptoms, a fundamental uneasiness that no amount of walking-around-on-a-sunny-day can assuage. It has little to do with the latest news, although the Times manages to jolt me with some kind of shock every morning. What I can’t tell is whether knowing a lot of history makes it more or less severe. What the man does doesn’t bother me so much as his personal appearance. He is obviously (why hadn’t I seen this before?) the reincarnation of Edward Gorey’s Beastly Baby. Obviously. 

The tumult about Brexit doesn’t help. Now, this is clearly a matter of my knowing too much history. If I were just an ordinary educated American, I would not have the sense that I do of a political class that has completely collapsed. There is simply nobody to take Theresa May’s place! Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is the worst world-historical bad joke that I’ve encountered in my lifetime. Can’t somebody please tie him up with Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, attach a heavy stone, and deposit the bundle in the Mariana Trench? I’ll feel so much better. 

Iconic Note:
Edward Gorey
12 November 2018

¶ I’ll be the first to admit that what was so cool about Edward Gorey, way back when, was his obscurity. He was probably never nearly as “unknown” as young fans like me thought he was — he was the art director at Anchor Books for years before I came across his work, at the age of fourteen or so — but for a long time, there was no such word as “Goreyesque.” I was in law school when Dracula was a Broadway hit, with Frank Langella, in the title role, ever so slightly upstaged by Gorey’s sets and costumes, but when Mystery! began running on PBS, I knew that the jig was up: Everybody in my neighborhood (viz educated people) knew something about him, and maybe even owned a few of his little books. Everybody

Gorey’s obscurity was important because his books were so palpably obscure. On the surface, they were about nothing — nothing but the overpowering suggestion that they might be about something hidden beneath the surface. The detail of his small drawings was so intense that you could never be sure that you had noticed all of it. Perhaps, somewhere in that detail, was the key to the whole thing — which would be nothing less than the key to existence itself. The existence of Edward Gorey himself seemed contingent on this mystery. As Mark Dery writes at the beginning of his new biography, Born To Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, “most people” assumed that he was British, Victorian, and dead. I never thought he was dead (until he died, that is), but I was very surprised to learn that he was Chicago-born. For a long time, I could have done without that bit of information. 

By now, of course, there wasn’t much about Edward Gorey that I didn’t know, at least in broad outline. Which made Dery’s book by turns engrossing and exasperating. While it was very agreeable to have the biographical material laid out in order, Dery’s harping on Gorey’s sexuality became more than a little annoying. Analyzing the drawings for evidence of repressed desires is, it seems to me, the least interesting way of looking at them. (And, in any case, the desires seem fairly obvious, whatever Gorey made of them in his own life.) Sex is jut one of the perils that menace our existence, and by no means the worst of them. Terrible things are depicted in Gorey’s pictures, but it’s the text that mocks the very idea of safety. Concern about sexual orientation is almost trivial in the larger context of Gorey’s infernal machines. 

On more certain ground, Gorey emerges from Dery’s book as indisputably industrious. I feel that I have done nothing with my life in comparison.

Anxiety Note:
Panne d’Eau
9 November 2018

¶ It’s unreasonable, I know, but I can’t seem to help it: every time the building announces a partial or complete water shutdown, I go into Chicken Little mode, overwhelmed by the fear that, once they turn the water off, they won’t be able to turn it back on. They’ll break something important in the course of maintenance, or the pipes will be discovered to be radioactive — something catastrophic. Usually, the shutdowns are partial, involving the hot water only, and most are scheduled to coincide with the working day. But the latest was a complete shutdown, beginning, ominously early, at nine in the evening, and running until six. This kind of thing ruins my whole day, and often the day before.

Oh, I prepare well enough. I make sure that drinking water and ice cubes are in topped-off supply, and I fill a ginormous watering can and a large mop bucket with tap water, in order to flush toilets, although that is rarely necessary. I set out a bowl of water in the sink for dipping my fingers in case they need a spot of cleaning. (A trick I learned from Babette’s Feast.) 

And the part of me that isn’t Chicken Little is pretty sure that the water is not going to be cut off at nine, that, in fact, it might still be flowing just past eleven, although at a low pressure. Service will certainly be restored (although with probably rather brown water) by six in the morning. To this worldly wisdom, accrued over decades of living in this building, Chicken Little replies, “There’s always a first time.”

So, last night, Kathleen came home somewhat early, and we ate Chinese, right out of the containers. I had already run the dishwasher, so I washed the chopsticks myself. Then I took my evening shower, and tried to relax.

Chicken Little’s warning turned out not to apply. The watering can and the mop bucket are still brimming, untouched. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that a building repairman snipped Verizon’s master cable a few years ago, and Verizon refused to repair it, putting an end to genuine landline service to all 690 apartments. And let’s not forget the idiot who cut into a gas pipe. Chicken Little is not entirely unreasonable.

Political Note:
Fake News
8 November 2018

¶ Truly the best thing about having the midterm elections behind us — all right, almost as good as the House victory of the only remaining political party on the American scene — is the abeyance, however temporary, of headlines announcing poll results.

Polls are important to political operatives, who know how to compose them and how to decode the answers. For the rest of us, though, they are Fake News.

Book Note:
Philip the Disappointing
7 November 2018

¶ Among the books that I planned to give away, when I culled the history bookcase, were Richard Vaughan’s books about the four Dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Rash. I had found them disappointing, with too much scholarship and not enough narrative drive. That was ten or more years ago. One recent evening, desperate for something to read (why is this happening so often?), I picked up Philip the Good from the giveaway pile, and read the chapter,”The Duke and His Court.” 

I soon realized that what disappointed me about Philip, anyway, was Philip himself, and not Vaughan’s history of his nearly fifty-year rule over the complicated assortment of Low Country territories (together with the Duchy and the County of Burgundy, the former part of France and the latter part of the Empire) that might have become a sovereign nation if Charles the Rash hadn’t deserved his sobriquet. Charles’s father, Philip, presided over the Golden Age of Netherlandish art, as well as the earliest period of music that I can listen to with real pleasure, and I have always tried to think of well of him for that reason. Unlike his skinflint cousins, Charles VII and Louis XI of France, Philip conducted an extravagant court. His entertainments were preposterously lavish, and it is not hard to find jawdropping accounts of his Feast of the Pheasant, a banquet held at Lille in February 1454.

But Philip clearly was, as Vaughan maintains, an inadequate statesman. He never grasped that France’s Nº 1 foreign policy was the extermination of the “Burgundian” régime. Richer than many kings, he and son were unable to garner a crown from the Holy Roman Emperor. How naïve of them to imagine that they ever would.

Well, I’ve been re-reading the book from the start, and it has made me itch to have my copy of Aline Taylor’s book about Philip’s wife, and Charles’s mother, Isabel of Portugal. I seem to have let it go. Vaughan writes, “It would be nice to know more about this interesting woman.” Isabel represented her husband at many conferences, and frequently oversaw the payment of troops. It is difficult to get a handle on her, because, well-bred woman that she was, she left little in the way of personal remarks. And her exercises of power irritated male commentators precisely because they were so competent. Philip’s third wife, she married him in 1430 — Jan van Eyck was sent on the marriage embassy to Lisbon to paint her picture for the Duke’s approval — and she bore him his only legitimate child (Charles; there were scads of bastards). Then she left him! In 1457, she retired to her own court, frequently attended by her son. We don’t know why, really; it’s unlikely that an explanation couched in the language of the Fifteenth Century would tell us what we want to know. But I suspect that she lost her respect for the duke.

I guess there’s nothing for it but to buy the used but unread copy that someone’s selling through Amazon for five bucks. This is how I get rid of books!

Citizenship Note:
I’ll be Damned
6 November 2018

¶ We went to vote today. Kathleen came home from an early-morning doctor’s appointment and picked me up — a euphemism for making sure that I got up, got dressed, and went to vote. Here’s why it was an issue.

Six months or so ago, I received a letter from the Board of Elections. It all but accused me of trying to retain my voter’s registration despite having moved to Timbuktu. In fact, of course, I had moved, but only from one apartment to another in the same building, without, presumably, leaving my voting district, which I can never remember. 68 76? Is that it? Or 68 75. It makes no sense, and it never has, but I’ve lived here for nearly forty years. I responded to the Board’s letter in the appropriate manner, and hoped that that would be an end to it. 

Then I had to renew my driver’s license — which I decided not to do. That is, I transformed my driver’s license into an ID without driving priviliges. I haven’t driven in over fifteen years, and even then I felt unfit, what with my completely calcified backbone. In the process (a minor nightmare), I managed somehow to resubmit the old apartment number to the Board of Elections in an update. I begged the DMV people to do something about this, but they said that apartment numbers didn’t matter to them. So my official ID still lists me as living in the apartment that we left four years ago. 

I repeat: we have been living at the same street address for nearly forty years. 

How many hours of tossing and turning about just this single thing have I endured since May? Many many many. Should I call the Board of Elections to make sure that my status was in order? I didn’t have the energy for that kind of speculation. So I decided that I just wouldn’t vote. I would retire as a voter, just as I have retired from concert audiences and other former pleasures. I knew that my votes wouldn’t make a difference, except to the extent that I voted for the Working Party Family slate instead of for the Democrats, even though the candidates were all the same. I will do anything in my power, short of voting for Mitch McConnell and his Satanic ilk, to destroy the Democratic Party, which to my mind has outlived its usefulness and needs to die, like an obliging mama octopus, so that new life can grow in its place. Was this burning passion of mine sufficient to break through all my morning problems, of which getting out of bed is the least? No. But when I remarked to Kathleen that I was thinking of just not voting — or rather, of avoiding the humiliation of showing up to vote only to find that I couldn’t, because the Board of Elections had removed me from the rolls — I received dim but unmistakable seismic signals warning me that this course of inaction would be a mistake. I would feel ashamed in Kathleen’s eyes, and, over time, even more ashamed in my own.

So, by the time Kathleen came back from the doctor’s to pick me up, I was putting on my socks. Step two, after showering and donning fresh Jockeys. Pretty soon, I was dressed. I felt terrible, but I had taken an anti-diarrheal pill (essential for deviation from regular plumbing processes). We left the apartment.

Just outside the front door, Kathleen said, “You stay here while I hail a cab.” Talk about role reversal — but I was much too deeply relieved to protest. I forgot to mention that it was raining, somewhere between drizzling and pouring — annoying. The rain was annoying. Kathleen nabbed a taxi right away, and in minutes we were at the latest voting place, further up Second between 91st and 92nd. Where our votes for Hillary didn’t work.

We went to the table associated with our voting district. I went first, and, to my amazement, the volunteer found my entry and the place for me to sign before I’d even had a chance to scan the page in despair. There it was. My name, anyway. The signature wasn’t mine, was it? Kathleen didn’t think so. But my writing has deteriorated greatly in the past five years, and I was in pretty bad shape, apparently, last election round. Eventually, I made out the “K” of “Keefe” and even the initial “R” of “Robert.” In any case, I signed again and was handed my ballot. Wow! No problem!

Now the whammy came: Kathleen wasn’t in the book! 

I felt so hideously guilty that I wanted to vanish in a cloud of ash. All my pointless anxiety of the past six months had had the vile side effect of erasing Kathleen from the rolls. Notwithstanding my tedious agonizing, got to vote. Blameless Kathleen was disenfranchised. 

What neither of us knew — and why should we have known — was that there is a procedure for these situations, involving an affidavit that the unlisted voter seals with his or her ballot. The packet is is carried to headquarters and dealt with. I’ll bet that Kathleen’s vote will count, but of course she’ll have to contact the Board of Elections — the very thing that I wouldn’t wouldn’t and wouldn’t do — in order to fix her status for 2020. I know it’s all my fault.

But I voted, and it feels good. Maybe not so much the voting, but rather the loving my wife.  

Rep Note:
Macaroni and Cheese
5 November 2018

¶ It has certainly been six months since the last time I made macaroni and cheese — I think it must be more like a year. I made it for dinner this evening and found out why.

The recipe that I use is celebrated everywhere, and I loved the results for years. I got it from John Thorne’s Simple Cooking, in which Thorne attributes it to Eartha Kitt, I think. From the start, I made a significant deviation: I didn’t put the finished dish in the oven. And now I’m thinking that, possibly, that’s an important, if not necessary, step in its cooking. I was afraid that the oven would dry the dish out, as most baked macaroni and cheese is. Of course, most macaroni and cheese is really Macaroni Mornay — macaroni in a béchamel to which cheddar or gruyère cheese has been added. The Kitt/Thorne recipe is rather a custard, the sauce thickened with egg rather than flour. How to put it? Less heavy but richer? It tastes great, but you can’t eat a lot of it. Nothing like the yield, even the yield of half the recipe, which is what I’ve always used. 

Maybe the oven would do something about this richness. It’s hard to think what. But I ought to give it a try. If I can find the Kitt/Thorne recipe. I’ve been making macaroni and cheese off the top of my head for twenty-five years.

My cousin, in his Columbia grad student days, used to say — dropping his voice to his low, dramatic voice of doom — “RJ, this is not macaroni and cheese.” He would eat every scrap. 

Music Note:
Beautiful Brahms
2 November 2018

¶ Now that I have the Liebeslieder scores, all I want to do is to listen to the music with the book in hand. Published by Peters, it’s a beautiful book — big, clearly printed, and so handsome that it’s almost musical itself. The rather heavy, old-fashioned type on the cover is offset by background of mint greens that couldn’t be nicer to look at. 

Although I know the music by heart, I know it as a flat panel of sound. Although I hear inner voices, I don’t always know where they’re coming from (or where they’re going), and I don’t recognize patterns as quickly with my ear as I do with my eye. (Which may be why audiobooks are not for me.) For example, take the first two lines of Nº 4 of the first set — the song I was craziest about when first heard this music, fifty years ago.

Wie des Abends schöne röte
Möcht ich, arme Dirne, glühn.

There is a pattern here that I didn’t grasp until had the score in front of me. There are five words of two syllables in these lines, and the first syllable of  each of these words is slurred over two notes, the second a tone below the first. The second syllables of the three words in the first line are also set to that second note — a perfect lilting waltz, (Abends and schöne are set to the same three notes, A’s followed by two G’s.) The two two-syllable words in the second line are treated in the same general way as to the first syllable, but the drops are half-tones. The third notes do not repeat the second, but link the words in a minor-mode melodic chain that not only continues the lilt but expresses the sadness of the “poor girl” who, as the third and fourth lines tell us, only wants to find a man to please. The variation on the pattern subtly but unmistakably marks the difference between the serenely setting sun and the unfulfilled damsel. I was aware of all this musically, but it was locked into my musical awareness; I couldn’t have spoken of it. But I saw it right away. 

That’s why I read scores.

Muddle Note:
Where’s the Package?
1 November 2018

¶ The score of Brahms’s Liebeslieder and Neue Liebeslieder Walzer arrived today, or at least it was put into my hands. There had been a muddle. When I read online that it had been delivered by the Post Office the previous Saturday, I made the wrong decision. I called the vendor, who obliged me by offering to send another copy. I ought to have gone to the package room to ask about it there. I never received a notification from them, which is why I didn’t ask. Their system of notifications works pretty well, and if you don’t get one, the people in the package room aren’t going to know anything about it. But there was a slip this time: they did know, but they forgot to tell me. The envelope turned up along with some other packages about which I’d been duly notified. Now I shall have to contact the vendor when the replacement arrives, to see what to do. 

The score may have been delivered by the Post Office, but it wouldn’t have fit in my mailbox.

October 2018

Reading Note:
Even the Trains
31 October 2018

Finally, finally, I have come to the end of RJB Bosworth’s Mussolini’s Italy: Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship 1915-1945. If it hadn’t been so well-written, I’d have hated it. There was too much information for a first-time reader, too many new names, even for someone who had just read Jasper Ridley’s brisk but by no means summary biography of Il Duce himself. The subtitle ought to have been Life Around the Fascist Dictator, for the topic under discussion almost always concerned jockeying for favor. And a great deal of dispersed information could have been boiled down a bit and collected in a single chapter, “No, He Didn’t Make the Trains Run on Time. Even.” 

It’s a disaster story in slow motion. Mussolini, a man of the people whose father was a blacksmith (and an insurrectionist; he named his son after Juarez), did well in school and became, by all accounts, a first-class newspaperman. There you go. He certainly knew how to talk — his speeches, far from run-on rants, were usually concise, at least until the last, desperate years. But politics? Nobody in Italy really understood politics, at least the kind of politics that you can discuss with your mother. Italy itself was too new, unified only in theory. As usual in a nineteenth-century polity that didn’t speak English, Italian leaders made a complete hash of liberalism, and were hardly more democratic than their Fascist successors. Nor did anyone grasp the rudiments of relations between modern government and modern industry. (I’m sometimes afraid that, in this country, they have been forgotten.)

For me, the killer tragic fact was that, on the eve of the War, the Italians were producing about 1600 planes per year, substantially fewer than the United States produced in a week. Such radical inadequacy in matériel across the board rendered Italy totally unfit for any European war.

In short, the temptation to feel sorry for Mussolini and his gang is at times very strong, especially when comparisons are made to their Axis pals to the north. But if, to be bad, you have to be Hitler or Himmler, then we’re all in a lot of trouble. The Fascists were thugs, or, to be nicer, they were confused and displaced veterans of Italy’s shambolic campaign in the First World War, who knew how to have fun with a gun. They used the Party to feather their nests, and of course became semi-respectable in the process, careful to ensure that their sons didn’t take after them. They grew pathetically middle-aged, but although they gave up shooting in the streets, they never really grew up.

Indeed, it’s a picture of jowly squadristi, on their way to some PNF festa in Rome, that opens Iris Origo’s A Chill in the Air, which together with her War in Val d’Orcia sparked my desire to know more, much more, about Italy between the wars. I’m glancing through these incredibly apt diaries a second time. Nothing puts me on the ground faster, or at least creates the illusion of doing so. My next biography is going to be about her.