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. 

Household Note:
11 June 2019

¶ Wastebaskets ought to be empty. That was my rule. It was a simplification of “wastebaskets ought to be (kept) emptied.” No need to empty them, though, if they’ve never got anything in them. One fewer little job. 

Why, then, have wastebaskets at all? Well, in case. In case of an emergency that can be met only by wastebaskets — empty wastebaskets. 

How long had this been going on? 

Never mind: put down another big change for 2019. During my convalescence from the foot infection, I had no choice. Tissues, banana peels, Q-tips and the Business Reply cards that drop, unwelcome, from the latest magazines, not only went into the wastebasket by my reading chair but kept filling it up. By the time I got better, I had the new habit of emptying the wastebasket into Fairway shopping bags.

This softened the ground for the wastebasket by the house desk. The new wastebasket, by the newly-positioned house desk. Now, the house desk is the smallest of the three writing tables in the apartment. There is no room on it, when sorting through the mail, for discardable mailings or for empty envelopes. Life is too short to put such rubbish on top of other things and risk throwing good stuff away. There must be a receptacle (handsome but not cute) into which one’s left hand can immediately dump unwanted items. Dump, dump, dump. By the end of an hour or so (the usual tour of duty at the house desk), the wastebasket is full, but emptying it is easy, because the kitchen, with its supply of shopping bags, is right there.

I’ve even begun to use the wastebasket in the bookroom. This rectangular bucket belonged to my parents. It has a tin liner that’s not so easy to slide out from the wooden case, especially when it’s full, and its long and narrow dimensions don’t readily fit into the shapeless and somewhat too-small mouth of a plastic bag. So I don’t wait for it to fill up. I empty it along with the other two, and take all three bags down to the garbage chute together.

Taking out the garbage yesterday, I walked just a little too far and nearly tried to open the door to the apartment that opens just beyond the garbage-chute door. How awful it would have been to rattle the knob unthinkingly, and then to wonder if anybody was inside! I could see myself being sent off for dementia counseling.

My reward for using the blasted wastebaskets. 

Reading Note:
10 June 2019

¶ My pile of books-to-be-reading got so high that I focused for a week on finishing the ones that I was halfway through or more. Unfortunately, this left a residue of books that I didn’t much want to read at all.

Kathleen says, “If you’re not liking it, then just put it down.” Partly because I see myself as a Serious Reader — somebody who can be counted upon to have read certain kinds of books all the way through — and partly because of that fundamentally adolescent dread that the book, like a party that you’ve decided not to go to or haven’t even been invited to, will turn out to have been wildly exciting, abandoning books midstream is not an option for me except in emergency cases. 

So I have had to strategise. You may recall that I didn’t finish Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us. I stopped, about fifty pages from the end, and peeked through the remaining text to confirm my hunches about how the story was going to work out. Then I set the book aside. But at some point, I had to read those pages. This was, after all, Ian McEwan, no matter how disappointing the book. So I knocked it off yesterday afternoon, sitting out on the balcony. Now I am free to think about the book’s many interesting themes (no longer lumbered with the book’s unattractive protagonist) without being pestered by the reminder that you didn’t really read it

When that was done, I read a chapter, and just one chapter, of a novel that I have not been enjoying. I don’t care for the prose, which strikes me as self-conscious to the point of dutiful translation, and I don’t like the tone of the story. The only word that I can think of to describe the latter is the utterly forbidden “primitive.” I was deceived by the praise of a very favorable reference (not a review) made in passing by a writer whom I admire, and by a title that I rather lazily misunderstood. On the jacket, there is a raving blurb by a British master that I can only regard as political. If and when I get through the novel, I will tell you the name; otherwise, I’ll have no right to cloud it with my unhappiness. 

For this book, I decided to limit myself to a chapter a day, which I would read during daylight hours. (Nighttime is for adventure.)

Over the weekend, I picked up a book with the firm intention of browsing, and not re-reading it through. The book is Them: A Memoir of Parents, by Francine du Plessix Gray. I was reminded of this book last year — by what, I can’t remember. Immediately, I wondered where I had shelved it and if I had even held onto it. Before I ransacked the library, it turned up in one of the boxes of books that came down when we closed the second storage place, a few months ago. Phew. 

Them is a nonpareil book that manages to suggest an entire genre. (One is very sorry that Dawn Powell didn’t live to read it.) How should we describe this genre? How about “Cinderella at Spence, as Illustrated by Cecil Beaton Irving Penn”? In a world of white enamel walls and white vinyl upholstery, circa 1942, we find lonely Francine, a poor half-Russian, half-French immigrant who seems nonetheless to lead the life of Eloïse, bearing up under her parents’ stylish neglect and struggling, through the Café Society hours that they keep, to do well enough on her college-entrance exams to get into Bryn Mawr.  (Since Francine will grow up to be a famous writer, we don’t doubt that she’ll succeed.) Anyone who has read the book can tell from this facetiousness that I opened the book, by design, in the middle; I didn’t want to read about the milliner mother’s youthful service as muse to the poet Mayakovsky. I don’t really know what I did want, but I did relish the espresso-cup doses of Tatiana Liberman’s coronal narcissism. Mama may have been a monster (albeit the kind that isn’t cruel), and stepfather may have been a scheming careerist who never made any true friends, but daughter is not ashamed of that Penn portrait of the three of them, dressed to go out on the town, but leaning their chins on their elbows with amusing ennui.  

I could take only so much of this, and as it happens there was only so much of it to be taken. What I needed was something exciting. Happily, I remembered Henry James’s The Awkward Age

Mr Mitchett had so little instrinsic appearance that an observer would have felt indebted, as an aid to memory, to the rare prominence of his colourless eyes and the positive attention drawn to his chin by the precipitation of its retreat from detection. (II, vii)

Now, that’s thrilling. 

Bedtime Note:
After Dinner
7 June 2019

¶ I am giving some thought to enjoying the hours after dinner a little better than I do.

In the old days — until very late last year — I gave no thought to the matter at all. As soon as I had cleaned up after dinner, I simply refilled my wine glass for the umpteenth time and went back to whatever I was reading. Going to bed was would take care of itself.

Now that there is no after-dinner wine glass, I am balancing the desire to collapse into a chair against the prudence of getting ready for bed ahead of time: brushing the teeth, hanging up the clothes, taking the shower, putting on the nightclothes. There is one more thing that I must do before going to bed: I must fill the water bottle with ice. In the old days, I filled the water bottle with ice right before I turned out the lights, or, in other words, right after I stopped drinking for the night. It has taken me four or five months fully and completely to recognize that this signal moment no longer occurs. Now I want to go to bed with the water-bottle business behind me, not a lingering condition-precedent.

Eleven o’clock is a good time for some, or perhaps all, of these things to happen. But it’s likely that I will quickly tire of the “obligation” to do the water-bottle thing the moment I’m in my sleepies. The only thing that’s clear is that the water bottle comes second, after the shower &c.

This is only Part I of the Bedtime Reform Act. Part II will concern the drinking of tea — just how late in the afternoon, that is, to permit it. I find that the diuretic effect of tea takes about five hours to kick in. And then, if I have drunk a lot of tea, I’m in the bathroom every fifteen minutes in a maddening round that I can only hope will be over by midnight. This is only partly an effect of ageing. I have always suffered, so to speak, for drinking too much tea.

Not to mention water bottles. 

Cerebral Note:
Inquiring Minds
6 June 2019

It has always seemed clear to me that inquiring minds are rare. Most people — particularly very intelligent people — are simply too impatient to wait for answers that take a long time to settle. Not to mention the long wait for the right questions to emerge. It’s for this reason that, while curiosity is certainly a feature of the inquiring mind, it is usually unaccompanied by the stamina required to see genuine inquiry through — through, that is, not to the end, but just to the next step. Curiosity can be satisfied. The inquiring mind cannot. 

I’ve been thinking of this as a way of trying to hold on to something while being tossed on the roaring seas of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, a book from 1987 that I have not read since then. The difference between then and now is that, in 1987, I could understand about half of what Bloom was talking about. In 2019, I wonder how much Bloom understood. The advantage is somewhat unfair; I have survived middle age, which Bloom, cut down by AIDS, did not. 

Bloom himself does not appear to have had an inquiring mind. He was a pedagogue — an excellent one, by all accounts, and certainly on the evidence of his having conducted an honorable career as a gay man surrounded daily by bright young men (at the University of Chicago, which isn’t as hard to get into as it ought to be, because it is thought to be too hard to attend). Bloom was devoted to introducing fresh minds to what he regarded as the great question — How To Live — in terms that had been set by Socrates and Plato a long time ago. I myself do not think much of Socrates or Plato, although I give them a lot of credit for getting the ball rolling. (As for the third member of the trinity, I really do admire Aristotle, but I wish that he had been less eager to shine in public, a failing that led him to waste a lot of time on the Macedonians and to spread himself too thin to sit down and actually write his books — aside from the Poetics, he left us with his students’ rather boring notes.) Bloom seems to have been content to accept Greek priorities and analyses as dispositive. His belief in Reason makes me feel like a visiting time traveler, or maybe a Martian. 

And as for How To Live, I’m afraid that the young person who doesn’t have a strong, almost unteachable grasp of this question long before he arrives in the groves of Academe is probably never going to be more than an apparatchik. 

If inquiring minds are as rare as I think they are, then nurturing them cannot be a principal objective of the university as we know it, unless we adopt the position that two or three schools (Oxford, Cambridge, and maybe UCL) are enough. (This position was not held by anybody in the days when Oxford and Cambridge were all there was.) The inquiring mind in its academic phase is scholarly, and not at all pedagogic; I have always doubted that there is a real place for most undergraduates at a genuine university. It makes sense, at least to me, to concentrate scholarly activity (and the resources that it requires) in a few places. And there are never so many inquiring minds — assuming, optimistically, that these can be spotted in secondary school and shunted to the right place — as to require anything like the thirty leading universities in America, much less the plethora of outfits with such aspirations that dot the countryside. 

Once upon a time, there were Schools. As in Chartres and Reims; as in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries. Before the secular and ecclesiastical powers decided that it was best to confine inquiring minds to “a few places,” although certainly not for my reasons. Reims was particularly famous for its newly robust program in logic. Research had nothing to do with it; young men went to Reims because the discussions were, for a time, both livelier and more rigorous than they were anywhere else. (Dare we say that it was “hot.”) Most successful graduates went on to careers in the growing fields of church and royal administration — the Énarques of the day. Schools, headed by teachers like Fulbert of Chartres and Allan Bloom, are where undergraduates belong. And as I have argued elsewhere, real schools ought to be inexpensive to operate and to attend, with the lion’s share of revenues going to teachers. 

School and scholarship alike are wasted on many bright minds. What Bloom would call natural scientists are professionally obliged to subject their curiosity to a broad prohibition on many types of questions, most notably, What Does It Mean? Their inquiries are strangely (but very fruitfully) monophonic. They speak mathematics, not the humane languages, and if this is as it should be (and I think it is), there is little reason to clutter their lives with literature surveys. (Certainly we can agree that well-roundedness is an aptitude, not an acquired skill.) So I take science out of education altogether, just as we take doctors and lawyers out of “grad school.” Only by keeping science and humane letters apart can we stifle the latter’s occasional bouts of what has been aptly termed “physics envy,” the source of all the misbegotten “social sciences.” Scholarship — particularly historical scholarship — is not at all scientific in its rigors but rather a learned profession, like the law, a specialty whose rules appear woolly and capricious to non-initiates. 

Bloom’s physics envy is almost rank in his assessment of university disciplines. It leads him to the following rather tragic conclusion: 

The problem of the humanities, and therefore of the unity of knowledge, is perhaps best represented by the fact that if Galileo, Kepler and Newton exist anywhere in the university now it is in the humanities, as part of one kind of history or another — history of science, history of ideas, history of culture. In order to have a place, they have to be understood as something other than what they were — great contemplators of the whole of nature who understood themselves to be of interest only to the extent that they told the truth about it. If they were wrong or have been completely surpassed, then they themselves would say that they are of no interest. To put them in the humanities is the equivalent of naming a street after them or setting up a statue in a corner of a park. They are effectively dead. … On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, “There is no truth — at least here.” (371-2)

This is what spending too much time trying to be Rational will do to a man. 

Housekeeping Note:
5 June 2019

¶ I’m afraid that I don’t change the sheets as often as I used to do. It has become too laborious. First, there is the removal of all the toppings — the quilt, the bedspread — and the pillows. Worse, though, is the fitted sheet. Our mattress is slightly oversized, and pulling at the corners of the fitted sheet is quite arduous. I am not as strong as I used to be, especially since the winter’s weight loss — still ongoing, by the way, although not at its original clip.

I changed the bedding yesterday and am still feeling quite sore today — sore and, also, tired. Not too tired, however, to catch up with the ironing. Am I the last man on earth who irons his own pillowcases? It’s possible. (I’m not talking about paying somebody else to do it.) Not to mention the dinner napkins. I had let the ironing — clean but unpressed “linens” — pile up for three weeks. I had quite run out of napkins for the table; I’m not sure that buying a bunch of new ones is the answer.

I was a little less conscientious about the ironing this time. I folded the napkins carefully into their finished shape, sprayed them with water, and let the iron sit on them for a bit. That seemed to do the job.

I put “linens” in quote because I remember being quite shocked to learn as a boy that our sheets and pillowcases were in fact made out of something unappealingly called “percale.” I felt distinctly gypped. Do people still speak of linen closets? 

Reading Note:
4 June 2019

¶ Leo Damrosch’s The Club continues to beguile me, because its tale of a group of well-intentioned but foible-riddled great men is deeply encouraging. But I do wince with impatience when the author makes such mistakes as claiming that George I was George III’s grandfather, when it is far from occult knowledge that America’s Favorite King was George I’s great-grandson. It is also not true that George I couldn’t speak English. Why not just say that he didn’t speak it very well? Are these points too minor to matter? As far as I’m concerned, such absolute errors, in a printed text, are never minor. What’s really objectionable, though, is the insidious implication that the first Hanoverian kings were unworthy of close attention, because they were, well, German. In reality, of course, George I and George II (George III’s actual grandfather) were sophisticated and cosmopolitan magnates of the Holy Roman Empire, inclined to regard Britain as semi-barbarous and mercenary outlier on the European scene. It was their luck — good or bad, I leave it to you to decide — that this general assessment was about to be displaced, even among the English. 

I feel better now.

I do thank Damrosch, though, for including a remark of Johnson’s that I had never heard. It is so brief and annihilating that it sounds more like Oscar Wilde, who is really Johnson’s only rival at this sort of pyrotechnics. Bored by a violin recital, Johnson, who was “not musical,” was urged by a companion to attend to the difficulty of the piece, as if that were somehow interesting in itself. “Difficult do you call it, Sir”? retorted Johnson. “I wish it were impossible.” (214)

PS: More mistakes! On page 344: 

Something that reformers deplored was the way clergymen were appointed to parishes, known as “livings.” Those were in the gift of individual country gentlemen, who were free to make appointments entirely on their own with no outside consultation.

This is doubly wrong. The owner of the right to present a living, which was known to the law as an advowson, was (and is) limited to nominating an ordained clergyman of good character for the bishop’s approval. The line between the rights of realty owners and the proper conduct of ecclesiastical affairs was ingeniously clear. 

Social Note:
Sacking Sacklers
3 June 2019

¶ I am quite sure that this must have happened at least five years ago: I was walking through the Museum with my grandson when I noticed the sign posted over the entrance to the Sackler Wing. (Which houses, among other things, the Temple of Dristan.) How long can that last, I wondered; for I had already heard of the connection between the Sackler family and the OxyContin/opioid crisis. (I read Beth Macy’s Dopesick last summer.)  It seems to me to have taken the general public a long time to catch up with the embarrassment of the situation. Only this weekend, the Times ran a clutch of Letters to the Editor on the subject.

Should the Museum give the money back? Amazingly, the answers split right down gender lines, with the male writers responding pragmatically while the female writers fulminated radically. (The ladies’ letters were, at least as printed, much shorter. Bam!) 

I tend to side with women on most issues, but here I have to side with the men, almost all of whom pointed out that all the famous museums (and arts organizations) have been enriched by philanthropic fortunes derived in nefarious ways. Would the women really rather go without? Or, as I suspect, are women just a little bit impatient with history? With men’s ability to use it to justify anything?

My solution is very simple: we’ll take your money, but we won’t acknowledge you as the donor until you’ve been dead for twenty years, and then we’ll see how your reputation smells. There used to be a consensus that it was unseemly to erect statues in honor of living persons. We need to rekindle that one. 

May 2019

Reading Note:
Monumental Johnson
31 May 2019

Leo Damrosch’s new book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, is published by Yale. Its orthography is American, and at one point Damrosch sees fit to explain that a guinea is a pound plus a shilling. And yet, when I ordered the book (from Amazon.com, mind), it was shipped to me from Blackwell’s in Oxford. Does Yale expect sales of The Club to be negligible in the United States? Yale’s robust institutional commitments to British art and history suggest that it would publish The Club anyway, but still… It’s a heavy book, but I was charged only three dollars for the shipping and handling. A little mystery.  

The big mystery is why we still read about Dr Johnson and his friends, or at least those of his friends who aren’t famous in their own right. We certainly don’t read Dr Johnson directly. At best, we read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a literary monument that transcends mere biography — not least because Boswell, whether considered as a man or evaluated as an author, simply doesn’t fit the role of biographer. Every facet of Boswell’s character but one suggests that Boswell was too flighty and self-indulgent a pipsqueak to begin to do his subject justice. Johnson’s other friends certainly sniffed in disdain. But what emerges from the pages of the Life is nothing less (and perhaps something more) than Michelangelo’s Moses. His Johnson is an incarnate allegory of Alphabetic Virtue, and Boswell is his disciple and evangelist. The gospel of Johnson has displaced his own testimony. 

Boswell’s singular exceptional characteristic was his obsession with telling the truth. There were things that he left out of the Life, and names that that he elided, but he does not appear to have materially misrepresented a single detail of Johnson’s expressiveness. In his journals, Boswell was unprecedentedly candid. Damrosch quotes a mordantly funny exchange with Rousseau, whom Boswell pestered with his fandom while in Switzerland. We have the following account, of course, from Boswell himself:

Rousseau: You are irksome to me. It’s my nature. I cannot help it.
Boswell: Do not stand on ceremony with me.
Rousseau: Go away. (112)

What saved Johnson’s fame and Boswell’s book alike from oblivion was the great sympathy felt by the bearded men of the Nineteenth Century for Johnson’s figure, which belonged more to their own time than to what they regarded as an effeminate age. The tall and strong, mighty and masculine Johnson was not so much slovenly as he was too large and craggy to be dapper. How right it was that he toured the wild and remote Scottish isles, rather than the fleshpots of the Continent! That Johnson was afflicted by the dark spells that we recognize as clinical depression only heightened the contrast with his age’s ethos of elegant but brittle self-control. Johnson was also a great Tory, a natural conservative. So natural, in fact, that he was quite comfortable with women and untroubled by anxieties about their subjugation. He may have regarded the differences between men and women as socially functional rather than essential — in our word, “constructed.” Unlike today’s critics, Johnson would not have seen the human construction of gender roles as a reason for abolishing them; quite the contrary. In some ways, Johnson was the first high Victorian.

When I think of Samuel Johnson, it is usually because Jane Austen has just reminded me of him, with one of her quiet burlesques of his periodic style. Austen was the kind of fan whose admiration took the form of elated fun, which is certainly not mockery or satire but rather the mischievous prodding of almost surreptitious exaggeration. Her famous aphorism about the needs of men in possession of great fortunes is apotheothetical tribute to Johnson that has gradually become better-known than anything uttered by Johnson himself. Johnson’s syntax is the ribbing in Austen’s graceful vaults; I think that she would agree that it is what keeps them standing.

All this might account for Johnson’s fame to the present date, but whither forward? I am reading Damrosch for clues. Johnson’s profound comfort with The Way Things Have Always Been, inflected as it is by an even less fashionable sense of Original Sin, makes him an uncongenial subject for an age in search of revolution. Will Johnson become another Falstaff, a shadowy cluster of anecdotes enlivening the pages of British history? 

Scarily, it seems up to Boswell. 

Rear Window Note:
30 May 2019

¶ From the bedroom window, you can see a storefront on the other side of 86th Street — one storefront. For years, the space was occupied by a mattress store.

About two months ago, perhaps longer than that, I noticed that the lights in the mattress store burned very, very bright at night. I could also see that couples lingered by the window, making romantic silhouettes. Odd and odder still. Who looks at mattresses longingly, late at night, through a window? Not these healthy and slender young people. 

Well, it’s not a mattress store anymore. The mattress store has moved several shops to the east. The other day, I had occasion, very unusual, to walk down the other side of 86th Street. Mind you, I can’t even take note of the stores that I pass right in front of, much less the ones across the street, unless I stop and survey. I am obliged by fortune to make the most of a neck with no moving parts. Passing what I would soon discover was the former mattress store, I became aware of those very bright lights, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. I stopped and surveyed. The window was hung with a dozen or more views of available apartments, each one framed in a fluorescent, rectangular halo. I didn’t have to turn around to check out my own bedroom window. I knew it was there. 

It’s more pleasant than I should have thought to have that little bedtime mystery cleared up.