Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Ten Best Existential Crises of 2010

Everyone’s a critic. And every critic, at this time of year, has to publish a best-of-the-year list. So here is a list of the ten most profound existential crises I experienced in 2010.

(Check back tomorrow for “The Ten Best Sandwiches I Made in 2010.”)

1. Running through the train station to catch the 4:16 Northwest Line express, I find myself unable to choose between the stairs and the escalator. At midnight, when the building closes, I am removed by Security. Is there no consolation?

2. I wake one morning in August to find only decaffeinated coffee in the house. Why do we go on trying?

3. An email invoice sent to a publisher in Minneapolis is returned as “undeliverable.” Absurdity is an open hand that strikes one repeatedly about the head.

4. Attempting to order a cocktail, I am unable to make the bartender understand what I mean by a “Gibson.” We live alone and die alone and our cries go unheeded.

5. I make a cheese omelet, but forget to include the cheese. Beauty mocks us by offering fleeting glimpses of the joy that we would have last for all eternity.

6. Unable to choose between a purple crewneck sweater and an orange cardigan, I spend the morning in bed watching “The Price is Right.” Nietzche: Our destiny exercises its influence over us even when, as yet, we do not know its nature.

7. Entering K-Mart, I step aside and hold open a door for an elderly couple, but receive no acknowledgment or thanks. Can there be any greater proof that the universe is a cold and pitiless place?

8. When, after months of effort, I at last birdie the fifth hole in Wii Golf, I find the triumph not as satisfying as I had hoped. Ah, life.

9. A Facebook status update about my stamp collection is “liked” by only six people. The world is an enigma made more terrible by our own mad attempt to grasp it.

10. Unable to sleep, I walk outside in the remorseless quiet just before dawn. Gazing at the stars and considering my mortality, I am overcome by what I assume is a sensation of utter dread, but which turns out to be a raccoon urinating on my foot. Ma pensee, c’est moi.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Scanning the Skies

I grew up the youngest of four children, and my role in the family was to be credulous. On Christmas Eve we would pile into my father’s Dodge and drive to an uncle’s house in some distant suburb. In the backseat, my brothers and sisters would scan the sky and try to spot Santa Claus. “Over there,” they’d say, pointing. But by the time I looked he was always gone.

I’ve written before about the so-called War on Christmas, but I don’t entirely get the distinction between the secular and religious versions of the holiday. Both are about scanning the skies, and waiting, and finally the arrival.

My son, who is nine, tracks Santa Claus online now. It is hard to know exactly how credulous he is, or if he is as eager a believer as I was. I think he is shrewd enough to understand that as long as the gifts keep coming, there is no need to ask too many questions. He believes in acquisition and in unwrapping things and in piles of consumer goods reaching to the ceiling. Today, Christmas Eve, he came home from his best friend’s house with a Christmas present. The boys have never exchanged gifts before and AJ didn’t have anything for his friend. He was taken by surprise. So he went up to his room and for the next half-hour or so, I could hear him digging through the mess of his closet, looking for something that could be re-purposed into a last-minute gift. He finally settled on a bit of leftover Halloween party swag. His buddy loved it.

Tonight we’ll be driving to another Christmas Eve party and scanning the skies again. I don't know if my son believes or disbelieves. But on Christmas Eve, you have to look. It is our job, for this night at least, to be credulous.

Friday, November 26, 2010

With or Without a Chute?

My son and I have always taken turns trying to impose our tastes on each other. There was that multi-day car trip with him when he was three years old, for example, during which we listened to nothing but a single Ralph’s World CD. In our family we still call that The Nervous Breakdown Trip.

When he got a little older, and when I’d finally had enough of listening to kiddie tunes, I started making him mix tapes with some of my favorite music—lots of Guided by Voices and Young Fresh Fellows. There’s some kind of cheap thrill in having your kid explore your own musical past. Yesterday I had the Jayhawks’ “Tomorrow the Green Grass” on the turntable during Thanksgiving dinner prep. We got to the end of side two, and AJ had two questions: Who was that? And, can you play it again? I was proud.

Dan Chiasson gets at something similar in a recent New York Review of Books blog post. He says his little kids have been asking to listen to Magnetic Fields in the car. “Until you have heard a four-year old boy sing the lines, ‘Should pretty boys in discos/Distract you from your novel/Remember I’m awful in love with you,’ you haven’t approached the full depths of this band’s appeal.”

A while back, with my wife out of town for the weekend, AJ and I were on our own in the house. He was upstairs for a pre-bedtime bath; I was collapsed on the couch with the remote, and and surprised to find “Bridge on the River Kwai” on TV. I’ve never been able to resist this movie. Please, I thought, let the kid take a nice long bath. Let me have a few minutes alone with the tv. Let me at least see the scene at the commando school when the British officer tells Bill Holden that he might as well parachute without any practice jumps, and Holden asks him, “With or without a chute?”

But something funny happened. AJ came down, freshly bathed, and settled in on the couch next to me and didn’t even ask to put something else on. He wanted to watch the movie! So we did. We stayed up way past his bedtime, we watched the rest of the movie, and he pronounced it excellent. We even had a mini-debate about whether it was right for the British prisoners to build the best bridge possible for the Japanese or whether they should have tried to sabotage it. (AJ argued for sabotage, a position that struck me as consistent with his longstanding refusal to clean up his room or do any other household chore unless threatened with extreme Colonel Saito-esque punishment.)

For the record, I did get to see the scene at the commando school. When Bill Holden asked, “With or without a chute?’ AJ laughed. It made me proud, again.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Legend Lives On, Slightly Revised

This time last year, I was confessing my continued fondness for Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." I didn't get to hear any mini-marathons of "Wreck" cover versions this year, but I did see this: GL has revised the lyrics to his song. The consensus among Edmund Fitzgerald experts (how many can there be?) about the cause of the wreck appears to have changed. Out is the old theory about the ship taking on water through her hatchways. In is the idea that the ship hit bottom, tearing a hole in her hull. So GL has reworked the relevant line of his song. He used to sing: "At 7 pm a main hatchway gave in/he said, 'Fellas, it's been good to know ya.'" Now it's: "At 7 pm it grew dark. It was then/he said 'Fellas, it's been good to know ya.'"

Maybe I just don't understand the rules governing mounrnful maritime folk, but I'm not sure I like the idea of lyrics being revised for accuracy. George Harrison didn't change his lyrics to "Something in the way she moves/continues to really annoy me" just because his relationship hit the rocks.

In any case, as my friend TH observed: Under the circumstances, a comment like "Fellas, it's been good to know ya," was likely appreciated by no one on board.

Monday, October 11, 2010


My piece on the science of happiness (read it here) was selected one of the year's notable essays by the editors of The Best American Essays 2010.

Needs Salt

There’s nothing like seeing a really confident book reviewer bite into a really lousy book. Here’s Dwight Garner, who used to edit my work at the New York Times Book Review, weighing in on Ferran, Colman Andrews’ fawning biography of the avant-garde chef Ferran Adria: “Reading Ferran is like being waterboarded with truffle oil.”

Friday, October 8, 2010

Save It For Later

I have been staring at a half-dollar-sized hole in a screen in one of our side-porch windows. This hole has been there since at least last April, when I first resolved to mend it. I still intend to get to the repair one of these days. I think I can have it done by Thanksgiving.

But I had other things to do today, like reading James Surowiecki’s essay on procrastination in the New Yorker. Surowiecki’s piece is a review of The Thief of Time, a collection of academic essays on procrastination. It turns out that all the while I’ve been trying to ignore my torn window screen, I’ve been doing more than just slacking. I’ve been, Surowiecki writes, “engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time.”

Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about the window screen.

Surowiecki cites some famous procrastinators, including Civil War general George McLellan, of whom one colleague said, “There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.” And he mentions some notable solutions to the problem of procrastination. Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.

He also quotes academics like the social scientist Jon Elster, who explains what he calls “the planning fallacy,” which refers to people underestimating the time “it will take them to complete a given task, partly because they fail to take account of how long it has taken them to complete similar projects in the past and partly because they rely on smooth scenarios in which accidents or unforeseen problems never occur.”

That’s a pretty fair description of me trying to paint my deck.

I especially like the existential take of philosopher Mark Kingwell: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” Think he does screen repairs?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Talking with David Brooks

Last week, I interviewed New York Times columnist David Brooks in advance of a lecture he's giving at leafy Elmhurst College on October 1. The Q and A--which focuses on religion and Brooks' intellectual hero (and Barack Obama's), the mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr--is here .

Here's Brooks on church-shopping:
I remember during one of the Democratic primaries, I think two elections ago, every single candidate had switched denominations at one point. I think Wes Clark did it twice. Howard Dean did it because his church didn’t support a bike trail that he was supporting. Everyone was moving. That’s part of where we are. But I think the downside is consumer religion, where it’s all pretty thin and people are competing to fill the pews with whatever works in the market.

And here he is on religious literacy in the U.S.:
I’d say it’s pretty awful, but I’ve been places where it’s worse. When my oldest son was born in Belgium and we named him Joshua, I remember the doctor at the hospital assumed we were big U2 fans because of the Joshua Tree album. On the other hand, I’d met a business executive who had a son at Williams College. He was taking an art history course and they were studying the Renaissance and he noticed there were a lot of pictures of mothers with male children. He was appalled because they never showed a mother with a girl. It didn’t occur to him that these were all Madonnas and that child was a specific child. So there’s a lot of illiteracy out there.

I didn't get to ask him any questions about Sarah Palin, Rahm Emanuel, Mitch McConnell or Mark Shields. But I was absolutely relentless on the topic of epistemological modesty.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gordon Wood, Office Decorator

This video from Book TV about Brown University historian Gordon Wood’s (three!) work spaces is a little like HGTV for the overeducated. Wood shows us how he organizes his home library (“Helter-skelter” is one category) and demonstrates how to rationalize effectively when your department boots you out of your office because it doesn’t have room for emeriti. (“There are some advantages,” he says of his alternate digs in the bowels of the university library. “There are no phones.”)

My favorite moment comes around 5:39 when Wood shows us the box of 5x8 note cards that became The Radicalism of the American Revolution. You can almost hear the gasps of thousands of junior American Studies faculty.

Next week: Gary Wills hems his drapes.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quick Studies

Quick Studies, my new blog about life at leafy Elmhurst College, is online. Check it out here.

Human Joke Machine

The Chicago Sun-Times leads this morning with a story about a Northwestern AI researcher working on “machine-generated humor” and defending his work from critics like John McCain who don’t like federal funding for “joke machines.” Sadly, no mention is made of the original Human Joke Machine, a programming breakthrough familiar since at least the early 1960s to fans of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Its efforts were often crudely ineffective. Asked to produce a joke about horses, the HJM came up with this: If everyone owned a horse, this country would be a lot more stabilized.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sky, Falling

I’ve never had much use for hobbies, unless you count worrying, which I’ve always considered more of an avocation. Whatever you call it, I’ve been practicing it for as long as I can remember, which give me a kind of precedence over the bandwagon jumpers who waited for the global economic meltdown before they started worrying in earnest. A piece by Michael Moyer in Scientific American takes a stab at explaining our talent for fretting over impending catastrophe: global famine, melting icecaps, economic disaster, Mayan doomsaying. Remember Y2K? Why all the apocalyptic dread? Try this:

The desire to treat terrible events as the harbinger of the end of civilization itself also has roots in another human trait: vanity.

We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet—with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. . . Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.

Fine, but what about more modest anxieties? Any real worrier knows that worrying about the end of the world is for amateurs. The truly accomplished worrier can work himself into a panic over something as simple as the nagging feeling that he may have left the coffee pot on at home. In its own way, that's just as vain (or at least as self-absorbed) as any doomsday premonition. When I was researching this piece, I kept encountering warnings about the health dangers of anxiety, about all the stress hormones settling in our tissues, waiting to do us in. What we should really be worried about, they seemed to be suggesting, was all that worrying.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

St. Germain in Milwaukee

Back from 24 hours in Milwaukee, where, its Brew-town rep notwithstanding, I had not a single beer. I did enjoy a cleverly named cocktail, whose clever name I no longer remember. I can tell you that its ingredients included St. Germain, the elderflower-based liquer. What has happened to our world when a man goes to Milwaukee and ends up enjoying the scent of elderflower? What has happened to Milwaukee? The drink, by the way, would have been a very good one, if it had only been cold enough. Bartenders: Don't scrimp on the ice, and put your martini glasses in the damn freezer for a few minutes. And I won’t complain if you don’t pour my drink into one of those fishbowl-sized glasses. Martinis and the like should be served in glasses small enough that they can be enjoyed while they’re still cold.

Anyway, where was I before I launched into my tirade against tepid cocktails? Oh, I was about to apologize for walking out on Catapult without saying goodbye. It’s not true that I’ve spent the last four months in in the basement listening to old Foghat LPs. But the less said about all that the better. Let’s move on. There is a world full of elderflower out there just waiting for us.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Barry Hannah

Compared to some of Barry Hannah’s other talents, his genius for titles might not seem worth mentioning. But I’ve been reading the tributes and eulogies and remembrances that have followed his death on Monday and I’m a little surprised that no one has even nodded in the direction of his titles. So let me say here and now that the The Tennis Handsome is a wonderful title for a novel and that Captain Maximus--his 1985 story collection-- may the best title of anything, ever.

I went to see Barry Hannah read in, well, 1988, it must have been. I drove out from the city to a massive exurban community college campus with a friend from work--and there he was reading his story “Idaho.” It was already a story I liked and had gotten busy trying to imitate, but hearing him read it that night only made me goonier about it. After the reading, I joined the line of people wanting to get their books signed or talk with the author. I didn’t have anything in particular I wanted to ask Hannah. I just wanted to meet him. When I got to the head of the line, all I could think to say was, “honest sentiment,’ which is a phrase Hannah uses in the story to describe the poetry of Richard Hugo. Hannah, looked at me, blinked and said back, “honest sentiment, yeah.” And that was about it. It occurs to me now that my words might have been interpreted as a challenge or a mockery. I hope it didn’t come across that way. Anyway, Hannah did tell me that I had to read Hugo. Of course, I did as I was told, and, of course, I became a Hugo fan, too.

What I remember is that when I got up close to Hannah, he looked a little tired. Like maybe he had a little eye-strain headache. This was a surprise. So much of my idea of him as a writer was tied up in the wildness of his prose and his boozy, swaggering, motorcyclish motifs that, in my callowness, I was a little surprised to catch that small glimpse of ordinary vulnerability.

I’ll also remember how he said back to me, with a certain patience: “Honest sentiment.”

Here’s the opening of his novel Boomerang:

We were such tiny people in the Quisenberrys’ pecan orchard.

We were so tiny but we were sincere. The Quisenberrys’ house looked like a showboat on the Mississippi River, and when we were tiny we fought and we had secret intrigues. The kids would roam out and find pecans and horse apples and a stick of dynamite.

There were Reds and Nazis out there. . .

In my back yard Tommy Poates was in an Admiral television box moving slowly ahead, attacking the rest of us with an automatic rubber gun. Rod Flagler had brought in the idea of the automatic rubber gun from Culver City, California. The television box was as large as a refrigerator. Every time we ran up close, we got stung. We all dressed in short pants and nothing else. Fairly soon we learned not to get stung. Edward Ratliff set the box on fire with lighter fluid. It was quite amazing to see Tommy get out of the flaming box. Darn it, I'd never thought of that.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Pastor's Remix

My mini-profile of Otis Moss III, the pastor of Chicago’s Trinity UCC—you might remember it as “Obama’s church” from the 2008 campaign—is online here. Moss likes to quote Mos Def and Common, and one of my favorite exchanges came when I asked him about calling the apostle Peter “a thug” in one of his sermons. He said: “He cut off someone’s ear! That’s acting like a thug!”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Ash Wednesday

It has always bothered me a little that The Moviegoer ends on what is not only Ash Wednesday, but Binx’s 30th birthday, too. The day is practically doubled over with the weight of meaning. The timing, I suppose, raises all sorts of questions about Binx and his search and his faith or lack of it, but I’m more interested in a simpler—and yes, dopier—question: What happens to Binx and Kate? They’re supposed to marry, and Binx is supposed to go to medical school and the plan is for them to “walk abroad on a summer night. . . and see a show and eat some oysters down on Magazine.” But, really?

I got a kind of answer when, a few years into my annual Moviegoer routine, I read another very good New Orleans novel, John Gregory Brown’s Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, from 1994. I was almost at the end of that novel when I came to something that just about knocked me out of my chair. A stockbroker-turned-doctor named Jack makes a brief appearance. Some things about Jack seem awfully familiar. Jack drives a tiny red sports car. Jack likes to go to the movies. Jack’s a Korean war veteran who once lived on Gentilly Boulevard. There's not much mystery about it. It’s Binx, of course. But there’s one more thing about Jack, and it’s the detail that made me sure of his identity. Brown says that he “had been married, but his wife had killed herself some years before.” I'm not sure I've ever been quite as stunned by a single sentence in a novel as I was by that one.

Odd as it was to come across Binx rendered older and sadder, and odd as it was to find Kate killed off, I had to give Brown credit. He was a Percyist, it was obvious, and he'd pulled off the best possible Moviegoer homage: to borrow Binx for his own novel. And better still--and sadder still--I think Brown gets him, and Kate, right.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Tuesday

For all the buildup to Mardi Gras that runs through The Moviegoer, it’s almost inevitable that Binx and Kate are nowhere near New Orleans when Fat Tuesday finally comes. I had a crazy writing teacher who liked to refer to this sort of thing as “the swerve.” It reminds me a little of one of my favorite Barry Hannah stories. It’s called “Idaho,” and it’s about a year he spends teaching at the University of Montana, riding his BMW motorcycle up into the Lolo Pass almost—but never quite—to Idaho.

Binx and Kate spend most of Mardi Gras on a Scenicruiser bus “plunging along the Illinois bank of the Mississippi through a region of sooty glens” on their way back to New Orleans from Chicago. It’s an oddly decorous choice for a novelist--to skip the wild color of the carnival and the crewes and the party and to give us instead the gray routine of the Scenicruiser rolling through Evansville. It’s almost like one of those scenes in old movies that primly cut away just as the lovers fall to the couch.

By the time Binx and Kate get back to New Orleans, all we can see is the exhausted mess, the street cleaners pushing “confetti and finery into soggy heaps in the gutters.”

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Monday

After three months sunk in the gray of Chicago winter, it’s almost perversely fun to come to Binx’s take on Chicago. It’s so bleak and despairing—and dead-on--that I have to laugh:

The wind blows in steady from the Lake and claims the space for its own, scouring every inch of the pavements and the cold stony fronts of the building. It presses down between buildings, shouldering them apart in skyey fields of light and air. The air is windpressed into a lens, magnifying and sharpening and silencing—everything is silenced in the uproar of the wind that comes ransacking down out of the North. This is a city where no one dares dispute the claim of the wind and the skyey space to the out-of-doors. This Midwestern sky is the nakedest loneliest sky in America.

This makes me want to stay under covers until maybe June.

When I was going to school at Loyola in the '80s, I found out that Walker Percy had come to campus for a reading a year or two before I started there. I was so mad that I’d missed him that I asked around the English Department to find out if anyone had recorded his appearance. They hadn’t. But one professor told me that Percy had read something about visiting Chicago as a boy to see the World’s Fair. That sounds a lot like Binx’s memory of his first boyhood encounter with the fearful “genie-soul” of the city. I wonder if Percy was about as enthused about traveling to Chicago as Binx is: “Misery misery son of a bitch of all miseries. . .”

I can’t really argue with him.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Sunday

I went to Catholic schools in the '70s, which put me among one of the first waves of Catholic kids who never knew a Latin Mass. Our parish had a guitar Mass and a youth group and a cool, young, sideburned priest. All of it—even the sideburns—seemed part of the new spirit of progressive, post-conciliar reform. We were taught to feel fortunate that the Ancient and Eternal church was now New and Improved. The old ways—Latin, and Communion rails, and priests facing the altar—seemed dark and mysterious and were rarely mentioned.

So I have to sit up and take notice when Binx and Sharon get dragged to Sunday Mass in Biloxi with the Smiths. The whole scene seems like a time capsule from that fabled era just before the Church, finally, entered modernity. The first thing that seems odd is that Binx tell us that the place is packed:

A woman comes up the aisle, leans over and looks down our pew. She gives me an especially hard look. I do not budge. It is like the subway. Roy Smith, who got home just in time to change into a clean perforated shirt, gives up his seat to a little girl and kneels in the aisle with several other men, kneels on one knee like a tackle, elbow propped on his upright knee, hands clasped sideways. His face is dark with blood, his breath whistles in his nose as he studies the chips in the terrazzo floor.

I’ve seen men give up their seats and kneel florid-faced in church aisles, too, but only at midnight on Christmas Eve. Finally, Binx gives us the scene through Sharon’s eyes, with her “sweet catholic wonder peculiar to a certain kind of Protestant girl:”

She thinks: how odd they all are, and him too—all that commotion about getting here and now that they are here, it is as if it were over before it began—each has lapased into his own blank-eyed vacancy and the priest has turned his back.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Saturday

One of the things I’d only noticed after I’d read The Moviegoer a few times is how little sleep Binx gets. He must be one of the great insomniacs in American fiction. He has another restless night at the Smith’s fishing camp on Saturday, after he spirits his secretary Sharon away from the office for a trip to the beach: “Three o’clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke.” That’s a little too elegiac for me, but before long Binx gets back, literally, to earth. “I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards, worse off than the miserablest muskrat in the swamp.” I like that not-quite-eloquent “miserablest.”

In fact, I like all the earthiness of Binx’s Saturday: the way he turns his car accident to good use in his seduction of Sharon; the beer and crabs under a naked light bulb at the Smith’s; their pine-country screening of Fort Dobbs at the Moonlite Drive-In. It’s all a welcome relief from the Garden District lunches and the musing talks about life and the universe, and Aunt Emily's stoicism. As much as I love Binx’s search and his private Kierkegaardian vocabulary (repetitions and rotations and everydayness), his basic greed and concupiscence is crucial, too. One side of his character earns the other. “I think of Sharon and American Motors,” he tells us. “It closed yesterday at 30 1/4.”

Friday, February 12, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Friday

The Moviegoer was for me a slightly dangerous book. Binx, in his own eccentric and acidly funny way, can be awfully charming--so charming that you might forget how messed up he is. He became a hero to me when I read the book in college. I suppose I saw in his ironic withdrawal (or what some would call his smugness) the ideal stance for the smart young man. I know I aspired to be as cool and noncommittal as Binx--as I learned, not necessarily a strategy for great interpersonal success.

Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2005, Joyce Carol Oates identified Binx as one of a string of solitary, cool, self-absorbed males in American fiction—other examples including Saul Bellow’s Joseph from Dangling Man, and the narrator of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision.

I thought she was a little hard on Binx. His detachment is, in part, an effort to find a stance for himself in relationship to all the pompous asses around him. Typically, he recalls pledging a frat in college (“Did you or did you not feel a unique something when you walked into this house?” he is asked) and just as typically, spends his four years there lazing on the porch and “not acquiring a single honor.”

Or consider his favorite radio program: “This I Believe,” in which “the highest-minded people in our country” state “their personal credos.” (“Monks have their compline, I have 'This I Believe.'”) Binx remembers the time he sent in his own entry. “Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer in New Orleans,” it ran. “I believe in a good kick in the ass. This—I believe.”

There’s no denying Binx’s pathology, though. And when he wanders out to the bus shelter outside Mrs. Schexnaydre’s place in the middle of the night only to find a distressed Kate, it’s hard to know which of the pair is in worse shape. First Binx proposes marriage. And when Kate panics, he tells her—because she asks him to—that everything is going to be all right.

Is it me, or is this when we know for sure that nothing is going to be all right?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Thursday

Binx likes to talk about his “exile in Gentilly,” as if his life among the ranch houses and gas stations linked him with the ancient desert monastics. Gentilly may be a kind of desert, but Binx is taken with the everyday wonder of the place. “The concrete is virginal, as grainy as they day it was poured,” he notices. And later, during a middle-of-the-night stroll: “The swimming pools steam like sleeping geysers.” One of the things I’ve always prized about The Moviegoer is the way it undercuts expectations about how a postwar American novel will portray the suburbs. Yates and Updike and Cheever and the rest have told us that suburbs are bleak outposts of stifling conventionality. Percy doesn’t cheerlead for suburbia, but he lets Binx tune into some of its magic:

Evening is the best time in Gentilly. There are not so many trees and the buildings are low and the world is all sky. The sky is a deep bright ocean full of light and life. A mare’s tail of cirrus cloud stands in high from the Gulf. High above the lake a broken vee of ibises points for the marshes; they go suddenly white as they fly into the tilting salient of sunlight. Swifts find a windy middle reach of sky and come twittering down so fast I think at first gnats have crossed my eyelids. In the last sector of apple green a Lockheed Connie lowers from Mobile, her running lights blinking in the dusk. Station wagons and Greyhounds and diesel rigs rumble toward the Gulf Coast, their fabulous taillights glowing like rubies in the darkening east. Most of the commercial buildings are empty except the filling stations where attendants hose down the concrete under the glowing discs and shells and stars.

When Binx gets home from work on Thursday evening, he finds a note from his Aunt Emily waiting for him. It’s one of her bits of unsolicited advice: “Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity. . .”

This is rich, coming as it does after Binx’s day at the office, which he spent swooning over his new secretary, Sharon. (“Her bottom is so beautiful that once as she crossed the room to the cooler I felt my eyes smart with tears of gratitude.”) Later, after a western with Kate, and an insomniac night spent wandering the neighborhood, he falls asleep on the ground in his landlord’s yard.

No one’s going to confuse Binx with Marcus Aurelius.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blogging The Moviegoer: Wednesday

It’s a week before Ash Wednesday, which means it’s time for me to launch into my annual re-reading of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, which is set in New Orleans in the run-up to Mardi Gras. I’ve been re-reading The Moviegoer every year since it was assigned to me for a class in 20th Century American Fiction at Loyola back in the depths of the Reagan era. (Thank you, Professor Hugh Egan.) For the last few years, I’ve been reading the book in real time, which is to say I read the sections of the book that take place on the Wednesday before Mardi Gras on that Wednesday, the Thursday sections on Thursday, etc. There’s no very compelling reason to read like this and some good reasons not to—for one thing, trying to explain this system makes you sound a little unhinged. But I do it mainly because I think Binx Bolling, The Moviegoer’s hero and narrator, would approve.

Binx, the nearly-thirty-year-old stockbroker who is making a project of “living the most ordinary life imaginable,” is on to the peculiar wonder of finding oneself, say, in a moviehouse that one had gone to years earlier, seeing the same sort of movie, during the same season. He calls it a repetition: “A reenactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed, in order that it, the lapsed time, can be savored of itself and without the usual adulteration of events that clog time like peanuts in brittle.”

So my re-reading is supposed to be a kind of nod to Binx, a half-assed repetition.

One of the first things Binx tells us about his life is that it’s an uneventful one. It’s an odd way to start a novel, this grabbing the reader by the lapels and insisting on one’s utter mundaneness. Binx goes on at some length regarding this point: how he abandoned the Garden District for the middle-class suburb of Gentilly; how he rents a basement apartment from the widow Mrs. Schexnaydre (“a vigorous pony-size blond”); how he likes nothing better than his trips to the movies.

Our neighborhood theater in Gentilly has permanent lettering on the front of the marquee reading: Where Happiness Costs So Little. The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie. Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.

Wednesday’s main event is Binx’s trip to his aunt’s house for lunch and “one of her serious talks.” On the way he spots William Holden on Royal Street and trails him and his “heightened reality” for a block or two. (“Holden has turned down Toulouse shedding light as he goes.’) He also runs into a friend on Canal Street and listens to him bullshit about a recently deceased client. (“That man spoke me for two hours about the history of the crystallization of sugar and it was pure romance. I was fascinated.”) Then, at lunch, we meet the family: his deeply depressed cousin Kate, her grasping fiancĂ© Walter, and Binx’s domineering aunt, who wheedles a promise from Binx that in one week—on his thirtieth birthday—he will report back to her on his plans for the rest of his life. (She wants him to go to medical school.)

Much gets made of the “search” that Binx announces in this opening section of the novel. He’s a little vague on the details--it’s “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” Some critics, following Percy’s lead, have latched on to the existential crisis and read The Moviegoer as if it were a novelization of Kierkegaard. But I’d pay less attention to philosopher Binx than to smart-ass Binx, the droll, cool camera-eye. He has a talent for attracting the pompous and ultra-serious, and he does us the service of catching and recording, for example, that business about the crystallization of sugar. That’s worth as much as any search.

Tomorrow: Binx plots the seduction of his new secretary and borrows a Reader's Digest from Mrs. Schexnaydre.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


As part of my ongoing effort to stay on intellectual par with my eight-year-old son, I’ve been reading about chess. AJ is a chess player. For a while now, I’ve been trying to fool him into thinking that I understand the game by nodding sagely and saying things like, “Ah, yes, the Schlieffen Opening.” But I’m pretty sure he’s on to me.

Anyway, I read Garry Kasparov’s recent piece on chess and computers in the New York Review of Books and liked how he complained about one of the questions journalists are always asking chess champions: How many moves ahead do you see? Kasparov calls this kind of question “an attempt by an outsider to ask something insightful and failing to do so. It’s the equivalent of asking Lance Armstrong how many times he shifts gears during the Tour de France.” He even makes a mini-case against “seeing ahead,” recounting how in one tournament game, he was able to visualize the winning position “a full fifteen moves ahead—an unusual feat.” Only after he’d gambled, mounted an attack and won with the moves he’d envisioned early in the game did he realize that he’d overlooked an easier, shorter route to victory.

I tried dropping some of my newfound chess knowledge into conversation today, thinking I might impress my kid. But he wasn't buying it. He wanted to play football in the family room. Nice of the boy to come down to my level.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Golly, Mr. Know-It-All

A few days ago, my son asked me how many strings were on a ukulele. Not long before that, he asked me if I knew Gordie Howe’s birthday. (The answers, for the record, are four and March 31, 1928, respectively.) I don’t know why he thought I would know this stuff, except that he has a pretty remarkable collection of arcane facts in his own head. He has developed a little bit of a mania for reference books. He likes quizzing me on obscure baseball records at the breakfast table, and he seems to have great confidence in my ability to answer. I hate to let him down, but if I ever knew that Mickey Mantle hit the longest home run ever recorded (643 feet at Detroit’s Briggs Stadium in 1960) I surely couldn’t retrieve that information before I’ve finished making coffee.

Maybe I should be flattered that he thinks I’m Mr. Know-It-All. But more likely, he just understands that living in the Age of Google means never having to say “I don’t know.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Walker Percy: The Movie

Just in time for my annual re-reading of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer comes news, from Commonweal Magazine's blog, of a new documentary film about Percy by Win Riley. The trailer includes bits of interviews with Richard Ford, Robert Coles and Jay Tolson.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bear Anniversary

At last, the day we've all had marked on our calendars for so long. Today is the 24th anniversary of the Chicago Bears 46-10 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. If you're still looking for the perfect Bear anniversary gift for that certain someone, may I suggest a link to my groundbreaking GQ oral history of the 1985 Bears. Among the things I learned reporting this story: That Mike Ditka's wife calls him "Coach;" that William "the Refrigerator" Perry likes to conduct phone interviews at 5 a.m.; and that few former professional athletes ever tire of talking about themselves.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shrinking the Martini

Back in the days when I was spending my disposable income on things like vintage barware (and not, as I do today, on instantly obsolete youth sporting goods) I bought a set of four mid-century-or-so Martini glasses. They might be the most gorgeous things I own: Somewhere between a coupe and a straight flared Martini glass, they’re nicely balanced and tiny, with decorative six-pointed stars etched into the glass. They hold about three ounces, with just enough room left over for olives or onions. (We like our Gibsons here at Catapult world headquarters.) As fond as I’ve always been of my glasses, I sometimes worry that pouring such a small drink might mark me as a lightweight--or worse, as less than generous. In a lot of taverns, you’ll get your Martini in a ten- or twenty-ounce glass that could double as a fishbowl. But I’ve always liked the idea of a sharp little cocktail that doesn’t take half the night to drink. And, yes, the Gibson that Cary Grant orders in “North by Northwest” comes in a glass more like mine than the modern Supersize models. So, there.

Now comes yet more vindication, in the form of this piece by Wayne Curtis in The Atlantic about the “small-cocktail revival.” Martinis, he points out, should stay chilled from beginning to end, but that’s a hard trick to pull off if your glass is so deep that it takes forever to touch bottom. So Curtis applauds a few smart cocktail lounges that are pouring smaller, chillier, better drinks.

Curtis: “Cocktails should be like tapas: intense hits of complex, well-balanced flavors in small portions that leave one wanting more.”

For the record, I also own a few king-size Martini glasses—but we mostly serve dessert in them. Godzilla-sized desserts I have no problem with.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Pursuing Happiness

I wrote a piece about, of all things, happiness. It's online now at Notre Dame Magazine.