All I needed was a sandwich to make me believe in miracles …

“You know about innards? The trick they play on tramps in the country?..."
“You know about innards? The trick they play on tramps in the country? They stuff an old wallet with putrid chicken innards. Well, take it from me, a man is just like that, except that he's fatter and hungrier and can move around, and inside there's a dream.”--Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (1932) Read More...

Reindeer Game

In the harsh arctic region Laplanders inhabit, joy, like summer, is fleeting.
Love Laplander-style requires thawing frosty relations--with lots of brandy and boiled meat. The first days of September summon the Lappish hunter to his yearly ritual. He puts on reindeer-skin coat and cap (camouflage that serves to fool his quarry) and searches out a copse of pine trees to use as a place of ambush. Once situated, he bellows lustily. In sight there eventually wanders a reindeer whose curiosity has gotten the better of it.  Arriving to discover the source of the noise so like the one it itself makes, the creature discovers instead that its fate is sealed. The hunter flings his weapon--an arrow, a spear, sometimes a stone--and it strikes fatally home. A similar knack for deception the Lappish man brings to a hunt of another sort. Should a woman turn his head, he shows no overt signs of… Read More...

Night Moves

There was a time when late-night wakefulness wasn't something to be dreaded but welcomed. Centuries ago, sleepers woke with pleasure, even eagerness. Between "first" and "second" sleep, so called, men, women and children stirred to enjoy activities domestic and romantic, spiritual and intellectual.
"Early bird" or "night owl"--most modern individuals consider themselves one or the other. People who lived before the Industrial Age were both. Enviable is the sleeper who sleeps, who sinks into nothingness and remains there for a good seven to ten hours, rising again only with the sun. Enviable and perhaps contemptible. "I hate a man who goes to sleep at once," complains Mark Twain. Provoking his hatred is nothing specific, rather only "a sort of indefinable something" that comes across as "not exactly an insult," but more of "an insolence" that he nonetheless finds "hard to bear." The object of odium--a traveling companion who goes to bed directly after dinner, leaving a wakeful Twain no one to talk with--stands guilty of that typical lack of consideration the sleepy show the sleepless by indulging their sleepiness. (more…) Read More...

As if she lived a mad, gay life …

“What a typical picture for anyone from out of New York...."
“What a typical picture for anyone from out of New York: career girl’s apartment, stockings drying over the shower rod, clothes flung helter-skelter in the rush to get to the office on time, to a date on time, a scrap of cheese and some canned orange juice in the icebox, perhaps a bottle of wine there too, wads of dust lying under the studio couch because you couldn’t clean except on weekends and sometimes not even then, and all those brightly colored matchbooks with names of well-known eating places, so that even if one managed only two good and sufficient meals a week one could still light one’s cigarettes for the rest of the week with a memory.”--Rona Jaffe, The Best of Everything (1958) Read More...

Boor and Peace: The Russian Occupation of Paris and the Birth of the Bistro

The cosmopolitan leisure that the Parisian café has come to symbolize belies its humbler origin. The story of its emergence is written in blood and fire, namely, that which was spilled and ignited during the Napoleonic Wars.
Snugs nooks outfitted with wall-length mirrors and chairs upholstered in red velvet shelter men and women, who chat as they sip from demitasses. A waitress in a white apron wipes her knife before slicing a cake into squares. Patrons pass in and out, quickly and lightly as moths. Business is in full swing at a café in the City of Lights. The cosmopolitan leisure that the Parisian café has come to symbolize belies its humbler origin. The story of its emergence is written in blood and fire, namely, that which was spillled and ignited during the Napoleonic Wars. With the defeat of the Grand Armée at Waterloo in 1815, the French went from victors to vanquished, from occupiers to occupied. A stay-behind force of Russian soldiers made camp in the Place de la Concorde and under the trees shading the… Read More...

Some Assembly Required: Parlor Games and Their Uses

If all that's solid melted into air under conditions of capitalism, parlor games and similar practices acted as so many bladders to capture this sublimated social stuff that was formerly so reliably substantial.
It often happens that, by accident of consanguinity or some other connection, people who don't get along must spend a few after-dinner hours together. This happens mostly at holidays. Once the jellied cranberry and candied yams have been dispatched, these ill-sorted fellows, having swallowed their antipathies like so many antacids, sit in uneasy silence. Feeling it at once too early and too late to leave, they devise ways to beguile those hours. Most times the choice can be as stark as watching  TV or sitting in silence, nursing drinks. The first option is usually exercised, if only so as to avoid the second. Three hours slathered in surround-sound bombast works its magic; guests and hosts are ready to head home or to bed. The next day, the gathering is judged by all involved to have been a success. Reach far… Read More...

The luncheon was not altogether a success….

"She ate noisily, greedily, a little like a wild beast in a menagerie...."
"She ate noisily, greedily, a little like a wild beast in a menagerie, and after she had finished each course rubbed the plate with pieces of bread till it was white and shining, as if she did not wish to lose a single drop of gravy. They had Camembert cheese, and it disgusted Philip to see that she ate rind and all of the portion that was given her. She could not have eaten more ravenously if she were starving." --W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915) Read More...

PliéRelevé … Heel!

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely critters--at least as far as Mrs. Midnight's Animal Comedians were concerned.
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely critters--at least as far as Mrs. Midnight's Animal Comedians were concerned. The rage during the 1753 London season, this troupe plied its trade in a small, elaborately decorated theater named the Castle Tavern. The show starred poet Christopher Smart, who appeared in drag as Mrs. Midnight and orchestrated the splendid entertainments his trained dogs and monkeys performed in period dress and powdered periwigs.  (more…) Read More...

Starting out in the Evening

A newly revised Starting Out is in order. But what would such a thing look like? Under my editorship it would be present- rather than future-oriented, and it would exult an ethic of making do. Entire chapters would be devoted to advice on living, if not stylishly, then passably while servicing debt. It would be
The Betty Crocker company’s book, Starting Out: How to Get the Most Out of Your Home, Furnishings, Food, Money (1975) begins, as so many books of this sort do, by inviting young couples reading it to daydream about their first home. Will they nab hip urban digs complete with picture windows and ficus-ready terrace? Perhaps there awaits a handsome townhouse with private patio for outdoor entertaining. If they heed Aunt Betty’s advice, which covers everything from “taking care of your refrigerator” to the “vital do’s and don’ts of credit,” these young lovebirds will no doubt put themselves in a position to make their dreams a reality. I picked up a copy of Starting Out at a poky little thrift store eking out its catchpenny existence in some postindustrial armpit I found myself in one weekend. I enjoy such books and have… Read More...