Reading Note:
An Impossible Situation
23 July 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

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

Housekeeping Note:
Summer Break
28 June 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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

¶ 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. 

Civil Note:
17 June 2019

As I took my accustomed seat at the barbershop recently, a young man in the next chair was telling one of the other barbers about his recent trip to “Perris.” Unfortunately, I could hear every other word that he spoke, too. I learned how he proposed to his fiancée there, and just why she was surprised (clever, actually — and therefore, necessarily, redacted). I learned that, notwithstanding every effort, he cannot bring himself to respond to a particular foodstuff without gagging. A change in jobs was indicated, along with the prospect of a dwelling of some kind in a rather attractive part of another city. I can only hope that he will soon find himself sitting in a barbershop there

The French complain that Americans are bruyant, which simply means “noisy,” but my incorrigible inner etymologist cannot resist linking this word to our “braying.” I have no real idea what human braying would sound like, to tell you the truth; I probably haven’t spent more than ten hours, life-time total, in proximity to any animals other than cats, dogs, and other household pets, none of which can be said to bray. I must be thinking of Mr Ed, the television horse who talked in a distinctly outside voice. And as a terrible East-Coast snob — oh, am I ever! — “braying” seems unmistakably to be the mot juste for the manner of speech that spouts “Perris.” 

I had been reading when the young man came into the shop, but I had to put down my book when he opened his mouth. I am not blessed with the ability to block out auditory distractions, which is possibly why my hatred of television, developed in waiting rooms and other people’s houses, is so visceral. The young fellow filled the entire space with his words, leaving no room for any others. It was partly raw loudness, but partly, too, a pervading tenor pitch. And he was no conversationalist, either; he was still too much the enthusiastic puppy to wait for the barber’s replies. It was upsetting to find that such good-natured excitement about the wonders of being alive could be so obnoxious. 

Political Note:
Promise and Forgive
14 June 2019

Most discussion of the nature of political action concerns itself with the preliminaries only: what it takes to create a launch-pad, as it were, for decisions about new programs. The principal question is usually this: who gets to sit down at the bargaining table?  Who gets to decide? But what happens after the launch is generally elided. The consequences of political failure are deemed to be confined to the voting booth, involving nothing more onerous than loss of office. In this view, political action is itself not thought to be very important, or no more important than the whimsicality of “you win some, you lose some.” Indeed, it is presumed that successful political preparation will ferret out and exclude the probable causes of actual disaster. By this reading, an effective political system — something blatantly lacking in France’s Second Empire — would have precluded Napoleon III’s effectively suicidal declaration of war against Prussia in 1870. The American political system, with its checks and balances, notoriously constrains the freedom of its political actors — to a degree, perhaps, that simply stunts political imagination. 

For a sense of truly grown-up, dangerous political activity, Hannah Arendt is, predictably, a reliable source. In The Human Condition, she boils political action down to two deadly-serious kinds of action. The first is the ability to set off something altogether new, with unpredictable consequences. (Her emphasis is not on the novelty but on the unpredictability.) Implicit in this beginning is a promise of success. The second kind of action is forgiveness for any failure, owing to unforeseen consequences, to keep that promise. (In pre-political environments, failure brings attainder and execution.)

Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell. Without being bound to the fulfilment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities through the presence of others, who confirm the identity between the one who promises and the one who fulfils, can dispel. Both faculties, therefore, depend on plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no one can forgive himself and no one can feel bound by a promise made only to himself; forgiving and promising enacted in solitude or isolation remain without reality and can signify no more than a role played before one’s self. (237)

To unpack this concise paragraph, I turn to the political tragedy of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Brought to the pinnacle of executive authority by what was widely (but not universally) considered a national catastrophe, Johnson embarked on his sponsorship of a domestic reform program, the Great Society. Tripped up, however, by a settler’s sense of masculinity, Johnson allowed himself to be misled into commitment to the Vietnam misadventure, which not only distracted him from his civil-rights projects but exhausted the funds needed to realise them. By 1968, he knew that he had failed on two fronts. He could not bring himself to ask forgiveness — and perhaps Americans at the time were not equal to the challenge of responding to such a request more substantively than by jeering at the man who made it; in which case Johnson’s tragedy is the nation’s. Johnson did the only honorable thing prescribed by his Texan ethos: he resigned. In essence, unfortunately, this was a private act, “no more than a role played before one’s self,” and the jeering, far from being prevented, grew all the louder and longer. Johnson’s causes were discredited, and the nation fell into the tender mercies, still more terrible than anything else that has ever happened in the White House, of Richard Nixon.

What makes political action so difficult — too difficult, I believe, for people who have not at some level actually exercised the skill — is being courageous enough both to hold leaders to account and to forgive them (not without penance!) on that account.  

Rep Note:
Needs Work!
13 June 2019

¶ When  I was a boy, my mother used to make open-faced sandwiches that she called “cheese dreams.”

As always with my mother’s gift for nomenclature, I’m tempted to leave it right there and take the rest of the day off. What can you say, after “cheese dreams”?

I can’t remember how these sandwiches were assembled, but the ingredients were sliced tomato, bacon, and cheese. In the broiler, the bacon never really cooked and the cheese always burned. There was still enough bacon taste, though, to make the things much more interesting that peanut-butter-and-jelly. If my mother had made them more often, perhaps she would have learned to make better ones — but probably not, given that, when cooking, my mother’s eyes were always on the exits.

Consider the alternatives. My father once got up early on a Saturday morning and decided to fry some bacon. Then he fell asleep in front of the TV, and the smoke woke the rest of us up. As for me, it was a truth of which my mother was certain that learning how to cook would turn me into a pansy. And as for my sister, she somehow managed not to be an alternative at all. So we were grateful for whatever Mother served, on the tacit understanding that she did very well for someone who was not a cook. Not.

Not that I have anything to crow about. My own attempt to recreate cheese dreams, after years of thinking how, possibly, to do it right — I kid you not — just met with odd but unmistakable failure.

First, I toasted a split mini-baguette. Then I spooned a hash of chopped cherry tomatoes, spring onion, and tarragon onto each half. This I topped with three thin slices of just-cooked Schaller & Weber breakfast bacon.

It’s what I did next that bombed. I opened a package of Cabot’s Vermont cheddar that, perhaps for too long, had been languishing in the fridge. (The wrapper is, after all, treated paper.) Or it may have been that I used too much cheese; cheese is definitely near the top of the “too much of a good thing” list. The result was an evacuation of flavor. Not only did the cheese taste like nothing, but the bacon disappeared, too, at least from the palate. The tomato mixture and the baguette were perceptible and pleasant, but theirs were supporting roles.

Next time, I shall probably construct the sandwiches in the same way, but using good old reliable Gruyère instead of Cheddar. Then we’ll see. The bacon-and-tomato tartines are a bit more complicated to put together than the ham tartines that I’ve been turning out on most Mondays ever since I made the first one, but they’re still quite simple, quickly finished, and (let’s hope) really tasty. 

To-Do Note:
A New List
12 June 2019

¶ A curious, disturbing feeling. A letdown?

The place looks great. There is nothing to be done. That keen little whisper no longer assures me that if I simply move this here or clear out that there, I will hear the music of the spheres in my own living room. Everything has been moved and cleared, but I don’t hear any music unless I start it myself.

It seems that I have come to the end of a protracted list of domestic improvements, some of them longstanding grievances, and some spontaneous improvisations. I ought to feel as great as the place looks.

Then — what relief! — I take note of the pyramid. What we have always called the pyramid is an exotic chest of drawers, faced in “fossil stone,” that tapers at it climbs to the height of my shoulders, where it is sectioned before it can come to a point. (Pyramidal enough.) The drawers are of many different sizes. Some are as wide as the cabinet, while others, much smaller, are ranged in rows of two or three. What you are supposed to use the chest for is the kind of question that never comes up when faced with such an obvious piece of decarola. As a result, the drawers are full of every kind of thing.

All right, junk. The two large drawers near the bottom constitute my tool chest. I don’t know what’s in them anymore, but Ray Soleil seems to, which is all that matters. Near the top, a squarish drawer holds nothing but packs of cards — cards that haven’t been used, some of them, ever. Do you remember those metal rings, like miniature savarin molds, that were to be filled with potpourri scents and then balanced on light bulbs, the heat of which would fill the room with fragrance? I am sure that a quarter-century has passed since the last time I made use of one of these things, but at the top of the chest there’s a lifetime supply — of rings and scent both. We’ve always kept batteries in the chest, but they’re no longer in just one drawer, so we have to hunt, and then of course we run out. The nicest word for the state of the cabinet’s drawers is “neglected.” 

And there are many other drawers in the apartment, too. A few of them have been straightened up recently, in connection with moving desks around. But it’s still anyone’s guess if you’re going to find a pair of scissors where you expect to find one.

Start a new list.