Concert Note:
Brisk Furies
6 August 2019

The first of the two works on Friday’s concert’s program was Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the one in G. This and the preceding one in in C Minor are my favorites of Beethoven’s five. The first two concerti are amusing, but it hard for me not to hear them as attempts to imitate, not Mozart’s piano concertos directly, but hypothetical attempts to imitate them by, say, Haydn: Mozart at two removes. With the Third Concerto, Beethoven created his own mold, and used it two more times with great success. Actually, I myself don’t see the Fifth Concerto, the “Emperor,” as a great success. Its air is polluted by that masculine self-importance that distinguishes Beethoven from Brahms, the other German who settled in Vienna — not to mention the three great Austrians themselves, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert. And it concludes with a frankly vulgar waltz that’s far more Hollywood than Hofburg. The Fourth is, as we might say on the Upper East Side, much nicer. 

But the Fourth Concerto lacks a proper slow movement, a lyrical interlude between displays of virtuosity. I don’t think that Beethoven is sufficiently renowned for his lyrical interludes; there are days when I think that he invented them. They were his way of making up to the ladies in the audiences — ladies with whom his birth and gruff bearing made closer intimacy unthinkable. While we’re all too aware of the Faustian agonies of the noisier symphonies, we tend to forget that Beethoven composed his slow movements, especially in sonatas but elsewhere, too, with the canniness of a Brill Building balladeer. But perhaps he felt that the outer movements of the Fourth Concerto were already too genial to mask any surreptitious romancing. Instead, he gave us a bit of recitative that is said to put learned Germans in mind of Orpheus pleading with the Furies for admittance to Hades, from which he wishes to liberate his wife. I haven’t got the score handy, but I would bet that the movement is written for strings and piano only. The strings play what they have to say in unison, with a shapely tunelessness that convention makes musical by interpreting it as a series of moans and groans. Happily for a change, we were presented on Friday night with brisk, decisive strokes, and the movement seemed to last about half as long. 

The pianist was Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He was very good, possibly perfect, even; the thing is, I wasn’t there for the Beethoven. I sat back and enjoyed it. I will say that Airmard’s runs up and down the keyboard, although perfectly regular, sounded like a force of nature, rather than a mechanical one; and they did not always end quite in synch with the orchestra, but just independently enough to be “artistic” rather than “defective.” The orchestra, under Gianandrea Noseda — the man I was there to hear — directed a lively reading that had something of the restraint of an overture: slightly more promise than performance. This suited me, too. It warmed me up for what was to come. 

I got to know the Fourth Concerto at a time when I was trying to assemble a Heathkit stereo receiver. I was not put on this earth to solder connections, or even to be sure which side of a circuit board is up, and I’m not sure that the receiver ever worked. (It may have been rescued by more capable hands.) But during the weeks that I spent fiddling with it, I got to know the first work by Beethoven that touched my heart. I was an undergraduate, and someone living down the dormitory hall had a recording of the Fourth that I fell in love with and borrowed an unconscionable number of times. Another fellow down the hall — someone who would become a very close friend — had a boxed set of the Budapest Quartet playing the late Beethovens, but they were beyond me, brusque and not at all pretty (a word that I already knew better than to use). But if I couldn’t sit through the late quartets without getting antsy, I did see quite clearly that every serious person must come to terms with this music. So, if not yet, I would make myself familiar with it. Which I did, eventually. But the quartets never remind me of the Heathkit project. The Fourth Concerto never fails to. 

Concert Note:
Tonight’s the Night
5 August 2019

There I was, chatting with Ray Soleil on the phone, talking about everything and nothing. Here’s a good example: concerts. I was talking, hardly for the first time, about how the desire to attend concerts has waned in recent years, almost to the vanishing point. Perhaps it would be better to say that my interest in concerts is no longer strong enough to overcome the gravitational appeal of staying home, no matter what, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I told Ray that I had, in fact, ordered a few sets of tickets to upcoming events. Among them, a Mostly Mozart concert with no Mozart on the bill. I had told Ray about this concert when I bought the tickets, several months ago, and suggested that he and Fossil Darling might like to go, for I expected an evening of first-rate music-making. The orchestra would play Beethoven and Schubert, with an eminent pianist, and a remarkable conductor whom I hadn’t seen, but whose recordings I found tremendously impressive. I rattled on about all of this once again as we were chatting on the phone on Friday — long enough, apparently, for it to click in my mind that the concert would take place later the same day: that night

Let’s not go into why I have fallen out of daily contact with my calendar. Nor let us recall how many tickets have gone to waste because, by the time I remembered them, I was not feeling very well, or the weather was bad, or the pleasure of a quiet evening at home was especially alluring. I quickly called Kathleen to advise her that we had a date at Lincoln Center, and was almost disappointed to hear that she, although also surprised, was up for it. Almost disappointed.

We agreed to meet at the fountain on the plaza. Kathleen walked from her office, and texted me, while I was still in a taxi coming down Broadway, when she arrived. At first, I didn’t see her, and she didn’t see me, even though the plaza was not crowded, and several further texts were exchanged. Then all of a sudden there she was, walking up to me. Her idea of standing by the fountain had been to loiter in the arcade of the State Theatre, while I was where we belonged, in the arcade of Philharmonic Hall — neither of us, I suppose, where we said we’d be. As we went through the doors, a woman told me that I was the best-dressed man on the scene.

It is true that I was a vision in pale pink. I was wearing new trousers, trousers that were already a size too large. They were pink. (Ralph Lauren.) My jacket, too, was pink. (Tallia.) Unlike the trousers, though, it was much too large. “It’s a house,” I complained to Kathleen. “I feel like David Byrne in Stop Making Sense.” My shirt was a Gant plaid in pinks and pale greens, with one very hot-pink stripe — enough to convey a hint of what this getup might have been like. I was not wearing a tie. The jacket’s excess baggage aside, I felt very comfortable. I also felt somewhat shocked to find myself the only gentleman wearing a jacket at all. As usual, most of the men in the orchestra seats were my age or older, and had grown up with the same dress code. While I considered an open neck the furthest tribute to August’s relaxation, everyone else seemed to have forgotten that he was in Manhattan, not at a backyard barbecue. One particularly lame old gent was dressed like a sophomore, in T shirt, shorts, flip flops, and a cheap short-sleeved shirt worn open down the front. Thus did Rome fall. But all this déshabille only made me feel more comfortable. 

Anyway, there I was in Philharmonic Hall, just as I had been fifty-two years ago, for the first season of Mostly Mozart. I know that you’re supposed to call it Geffen Hall, but when that happened, and “Avery Fisher” was dropped, I decided to hell with the whole thing. To put it more politely, I adopted the position that it’s improper to name  important buildings after a living persons. If they had changed the name to Bernstein Hall, I’d have been the first to cheer, even though I was never a big fan of the conductor. (I haven’t forgotten that Zankel Hall, in the basement of Carnegie Hall, was to have been named in memory of the hall’s virtual curator, Judith Arron, until some moneybags interfered.)

Indoors, of course, all resemblance to the original Philharmonic Hall — or to any earthly concert hall outside of Japan — has been effaced. Nothing in the view from my seat in Row Q revived a vision of Boris Goldovsky leading a group of singers in performances of the great comic ensembles from the Mozart-Da Ponte operas. The only thing that gave that long-ago concert any palpable reality was my body’s quietly throbbing insistence that it had lived every minute of the intervening aeon. A somatic counterpart to Leporello’s mille torbidi pensieri. 

Reading Note:
Bembo’s Moustache
2 August 2019

Every time I edit a serious piece of writing, I go through it once just for the semicolons. I tend, as you may noticed, to use them too often; I seem naturally inclined to write in pairs of sentences. The first one rises to make a point; the second descends toward a conclusion. I do not believe that I ever misuse the punctuation mark, but I’m aware that forestalling periods just for the sake of rhythm asks a lot of the reader’s short-term memory. So, on the semicolon edit, I often take out five or six, replacing them with full stops.

Even so, it seems nothing less than barbaric to be asking, Who needs semicolons? As, apparently, some do. 

Cecilia Watson has just published a dandy book that has both a semicolon and a colon in its title, even if neither of them is visible as punctuation. Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark is one of those wee books that used to be stacked at bookstore counters, when there were bookstores, and I hope that it will be the object of many impulse purchases. Although the history, use, and abuse of semicolons is more than adequately addressed in its pages, Watson’s book has the more general aim of explaining why rules, though a good thing, are not the thing. “To write well,” she observes, “you have to read a lot, and you have to read with attention…” (103), a nice way of saying that anyone who does read a lot, and with attention, has little or no need for rules. Anyone willing to take the trouble to write more than a couple of tweets will be too eager to establish communication not to be a born imitator. If you have any ideas at all, you don’t have to worry about sounding just like everybody else; on the contrary, you ought to be taking pains to be sure that you do, more or less, sound like everybody else. And I find — with all due respect for humility — that if you read well, you will not have to carefully avoid split infinitives or worry that everyone has their own way of understanding language. Such problems don’t come up, because the good writers who murmur in one’s ear have made a practice of avoiding occasions of error. 

A good writer cannot be thinking about rules. A good writer has to dwell upon saying interesting things, while listening, with a sleeping mother’s alertness to the cry of her child, to the cadence of sentences as they pass from mind to pen. Uncertainty about whether to use a colon or a semicolon means nothing, really — except that it’s possibly time to go back to fourth grade. This is not to say that a good writer will in an almost unconscious manner produce syntax that everyone will approve as absolutely correct, but it can be said, I think, that good readers will allow and perhaps even approve the occasional irregularity. 

Rules, as Watson might have made just a tiny bit clearer, are a byproduct of that widespread nineteenth-century malady, by which all intelligent minds appear to have been infected (with the exception of those belonging to poets), physics envy. The magical allure of modern science was predictability: IF, THEN

God said, let NEWTON be, and all was light. (Pope)

It was an intoxication from which we are still recovering, miserable and disoriented from the poison of treating human affairs as a branch of mechanical engineering. Earlier guides to the rules of grammar had a less noxious purpose: like all the manuals of manners that proliferated in early modern times, they promised to help turn the bumpkin into a beau. The steam engine, however, with its tiny, unforgiving tolerances, inspired a more fervent, not to say religious, obedience to the regulations that industrial publishers could discern. As Watson writes, 

Fear, worry, confusion — even if we did manage to agree on one set of rules to follow, we wouldn’t be relieved of our anxieties about punctuation. (174) 

But I think that we have been, relieved. Those who must write correctly or else have taken up the profession of writing code.

The upshot is that, while I objected to a lot of what Watson had to say about things other than punctuation — Melville and James, David Foster Wallace and SNOOTs, the plural of gin-and-tonic (note the hyphen) — Semicolon excited a response that I can only call affectionate.  

PS The asides that Watson plants in her many footnotes read like the interruptions of a mind even brainier than her own. On page 38, the reader is presented with an extract from the book in which “diagramming” sentences was introduced, with nothing less than The Beatitudes presented as a puzzle to solve. 

Gorgeousness Note:
Age Beauty
1 August 2019

¶ Today, in mid-80º heat, I walked to the barber shop for a haircut, thence to Shake Shack for a burger, and finally back home, without even feeling hot, much less perspiring. It wasn’t particularly humid, but still. And this can’t be a side-effect of losing 90 pounds. I sweated like a pipe when I was a kid, which I actually was, once. It has to be … old age.

Definitely a side-effect of the weight loss, though, is my slipping nicely into a new pair of shorts with a waist eight sizes smaller than what I was wearing a year ago. They’re the first pair to fit properly in calendar 2019. Everywhere but beneath the belt, they feel a bit snug, because there’s no yardage of flapping extra.

(Yes, dear reader, that’s what comes of buying clothes online. I had been wearing 50s. I knew, from an old pair of trousers that came out of storage, that 46 was still too big, but I didn’t dare go below 44. Until finally now. I ought to have gone to a store.)

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still an old man. This weight loss may be healthy, and I know that I look better for not looking worse, but the glamour of youthful fitness is no longer on the menu. 

July 2017

Leadership Note:
As Long As You’re Up… (?)
31 July 2019

¶ The fact that a genuine presidential candidate said this makes it less a rhetorical question and more a performative utterance.

“I don’t understand why anyone goes to all the trouble of running for President of the United States to tell us what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”

As I savor this challenge, it strikes me, sadly, as increasingly unlikely that a man — an American man, anyway — would have made it. Whatever becomes of Elizabeth Warren’s bid for the Oval Office, I shall try to honor her call for good old-fashioned backbone. 

Larder Note:
30 July 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

¶ 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

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

¶ 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

¶ 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.