You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Once or twice a month for the past year or so I have found myself in the men's room of the La Madeleine in Preston Center. A picture over the toilet there has begun to fascinate me probably more than it should.

You can't help but notice it. There is no urinal and so men pee into the toilet. The picture hangs there at eye level, a framed print produced by whatever process is used to make the type of picture sold to restaurants and hotels. It's a cafe scene, chosen, I always assumed, to create a generic French ambiance. For atmosphere they also play French language tapes in the restrooms, although I have never heard the lesson get beyond counting to five.

The scene is the interior of an elegant cafe with upholstered chairs and white tablecloths. An attractive young couple, dressed for the evening, sits at a window table, looking out onto a street that seems to be glowing in sunshine after a rain. I'm not good with cars, but parked on the street is an very grand Mercedes or something of that ilk. Although the car is an older model, there is nothing to suggest the couple is not more or less contemporary with our own time. She wears a evening dress with deep decolletage, and he is in a black suit and a white shirt, possibly a tux. The white shirt may have a foofy collar.

Certainment, we are a Paris. The couple is enjoying a glass of wine before they continue their evening. Or thinking again about the light, it could be dawn. Parisians probably drink red wine at dawn if the occasion calls for it.

It took several months of periodic visits to this picture to realize things are not as they seem here. The couple looks onto a deserted city street, but two shadowy figures stand under a street light at the end of the block. It is this pair that holds the couple's attention. And then --this is really weird -- in the lower left corner is the edge of another round table. We see a coffee cup with steam rising from it and what may be a small stack of menus. The cup is turned so that a left-handed person could be drinking it, but there is no chair on that side of the other table, The only free chair in the picture is a third chair from the couple's table that has been pushed slightly away toward the viewer. Or maybe it does face the other table. This is not a finely done work of realist art.

So what is going on here. Is this couple having an affair? Are the men on the corner detectives sent by one or the other's spouse. Or perhaps both spouses have hired detectives and the two man have become friends and look forward to their little chats on street corners and behind hedges. Or perhaps this man and woman are glamorous international spies. Or jewel thieves. But none of this gets us any closer to understanding that steaming cup of coffee.


1) What picture hangs in the women's room? The restrooms are discouragingly close to the kitchen entrance. I have not doubt that some one would walk out just as I was walking in. I have no doubt. So I have to weigh the possible embarrassment of being discovered entering or exiting the women's restroom by a dishwasher in a beret with the awkwardness of explaining to the manager why I would like to take a look in there in the first place.

2) What pictures hang in the men's rooms of other La Madeleines? This is more easily found out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010


Something I read the other day made me think about those books I have on my shelves that I know I will never read and yet have no inclination to get rid of.

Several varieties of unread books crowd my shelves. The majority are those that I can still imagine myself reading someday. These range from The Tale of the Genji to Norman Sherry's three volume biography of Graham Greene. Those examples imply that length plays a role in this category, so I will add Tin Tin and the Secret Life of Literature by Tom McCarthy. Then there are books that I never intend to read cover to cover, but that I have or will "read at," as in "No, I have not read all seven volumes of the Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, but I have read at them."

I have, in fact, read quite a few of the books I own, and I no longer own many books that I have read. What put me in mind of that other category -- the books I have no intention of reading but still keep in the house -- was Thornton Wilder's lifelong commitment to Finnegan's Wake. Wilder had two academic avocations. One involved establishing the chronology of the plays Lope de Vega wrote between 1590 and 1610. I may be a little off on those dates, but since Lope de Vega wrote over two hundred plays, Wilder had his work cut out for him. He knew that it was a project of interest to at most a handful of academics, but he enjoyed doing the research. He also spent years with Joyce's final work, maintaining notebooks and a heavily annotated copy of the novel where he delighted in puzzling out the word play, the arcane references, and the multi-lingual puns.

Better he than I.

I've read just about everything else by Joyce, I think I even read his play once, but one thumb through of Finnegan's Wake assured me that the pleasure/frustration ratio there was not such that I would ever seriously consider reading it. But I would keep it around because I own all the others. I even have a copy of Sribbledehobble, the transcription of the notebooks he kept while planning Finnegan's Wake.

What it turns out I don't have is a copy of Finnegan's Wake. Reading about Wilder's fascination made me want to glance at it again, but there is not a copy on the shelf. My immediate reaction to this discovery was to think, I should pick up the next good secondhand copy I see. Then I thought, What am I thinking?

I take comfort, and some degree of snobbish pride, in this thought from the Mexican poet and critic Gabriel Zaid. In So Many Books he defines the truly cultured as those who "are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more." By that standard, I am Andre Malraux.

I found the Zaid quote in one of Nick Hornby's Stuff I'v Been Reading essays for The Believer. I did get Zaid's book from the library, and it is a very quotable book and very short. Did you know that a book is published every thirty seconds?

And nearby where I thought I would find Finnegan's Wake I found another book that illustrates my original category equally well: Lewis Carroll's Symbolic Logic. Complete. 496 pages.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


The other morning the phone rang, and it was my friend Doug. He lives in Corsicana and we talk once or twice a week. I picked up the phone and said, "Hi, Doug," the way we do now that we are usually looking at a picture of the person by the time we've answered.

Doug said hi and asked me what I was up to. I said not anything, really, and right off there was something a little odd. Doug asked if it was cold in Dallas and I said it was. He said it was freezing in Corsicana, which was no real surprise since Corsicana is only about fifty miles south of Dallas. We talked for only a minute or so longer and Doug said, well, so long.

Has it come to this? I wondered. Are we now men who call one another to talk about the weather? Is this the latest insult of middle age?

There had been other recent signs. My shoes still come untied with the frequency they did when I was in third grade. When I notice an untied shoe, I no longer kneel where I am and take care of it. I look for a step or a bench to bring the shoe closer to my hands rather than my going to it.

And there's a sound I've heard my father make for years. It's as much a gurgle as a burp, and certainly no proper belch. I am sorry to say that I have heard the sound come from myself. Thank God it is not as liquid as the sound my father makes, and it continues to be related directly to eating rather than putting in random, uncalled-for appearances, but I can see what direction this is heading.

I was mentally thanking Doug for this current onslaught of shades of the prison house, when the phone rang. Doug's picture was again on the display.

I answered, "Hi Doug."

Doug said, "Hi. Hey, I just remembered why I called the first time."

Saturday, February 6, 2010


Towards the end of Act One of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Mrs. Webb. Mrs. Gibbs, and town gossip Mrs. Soames are returning home from choir practice. Simon Stimson, the choir director, had been drunk that night, and rehearsal ran longer than usual. Early in the scene, Mrs Gibbs has the line

MRS. GIBBS -- Look at that moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather for sure.

I have no idea what the line means, but I have always thought it the finest line from what is, if not the perfect, certainly the most American of American plays. The first act takes place on May 7, 1901. I know nothing about growing potatoes, but I assume that Mrs. Gibbs is thinking it is a good time to plant potatoes, because it would seem to early to be harvesting anything. But what any of that would have to do with the moon remains a mystery to me. Perhaps The Farmer's Almanac of 1901 recommended a full moon in May for potato planting. My grandmother had moon-related notions, but they had mostly to do with medical procedures.

I love the line but I am not comfortable with that "Tsk-tsk-tsk." I assume that a performer will either ignore it, or swallow it, or turn it into a slight shake of the head. No actor is going to carefully enunciate Tsk-tsk-tsk. No one except possibly the sixteen-year-old girl who is playing this fifty-year-old woman in her high school production. This is her first major role and she is nervous as hell. She has determined that her performance will be word perfect, and from the first rehearsal, with book in hand, she has faithfully rendered the line in its entirety. "Look at the moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather for sure." Like myself she has no idea what the line means, but she is too uncomfortable to ask.

Sitting in the empty school auditorium during rehearsals, her director, the school's speech and drama teacher, has heard the Tsk tsk tsk and assumed from early rehearsals that the girl will get past her awkward reading. But even when the cast goes off book, she still hears it and writes in her notes, "MG no tsk." But it's a note she always skips since there are larger issues to be addressed.

At final dress rehearsal she realizes it is still there, and she makes the note again, "MG NO TSKTSKTSK." But dress rehearsal runs long and several of the kids have curfews. She rushes through notes, skipping it again, then telling everyone they are going to do a great job and that she will see them tomorrow. Break a leg.

On opening night the director sits on the back row of the packed auditorium. Things are going well. George doesn't have trouble with his ladder, the audience is laughing in the right spots, and she knows they will be in tears for Act 3. Then, while appreciating the surprisingly evocative night-time lighting effect and thinking how really good the guys are that do the tech work, she hears it.

"Look at that moon, will you! Tsk-tsk-tsk. Potato weather for sure."

But there is only the one more performance the following night, and she is through giving notes.