Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Amelia, by Henry Fielding


"But as the tea-table conversation, though extremely delightful to those who are engaged in it, may probably appear somewhat dull to the reader, we will here put an end to the chapter."

From Book IX, Chapter 3

Saturday, March 30, 2019


When something breaks we gather the pieces.

We listened to different music usually, and he didn't dance. He said he didn't dance. With me he didn't but once, sort of, that I can remember.  We were both a little drunk after dinner. There was music. "Dance with me!" "No." I was not getting him off that couch. He just wanted to eat his pie in peace. So I danced around him and tugged on his hand. He let me, but that was it. He could be an immovable object when he wanted, a rock. I tugged. He scowled. The song ended. "There," he said, "we danced," and then he laughed, "done."

I opened the cupboard to take out a plate. When I did, an old fashioned glass juicer -- the kind with a bowl with a lip and peaked twist in the middle -- fell out and broke. Had that thing forever. Still used it. I picked up a big piece and held it in my hand.  Not a metaphor yet, just a shock. It was heavy, surprisingly so. I looked at the broken piece and I cried. That was a few days ago, just after my friend died. I cried a long time. And then I picked up all the bigger pieces and swept up the shards from the counter and floor and threw them away.

We'd make breakfast on my days off. He'd make his coffee and we'd kibitz while I cooked bacon and eggs. It was a pleasure to watch the way he read a newspaper; just as they were meant to be read, as people used to read the paper; front to back, section by section, even the funny papers. He loved the funny papers. He loved his LA Times, but he would read any newspaper, subscription or free, and from anywhere. And he knew what he was reading because he read them every day, every day, as long as I'd known him. I'd ask him questions about what he'd read and he would explain it to me. More often than not he knew more about the place I lived than I did. He knew whereof he spoke.

Live long enough, things break. People we love may leave us. Little tragedies and large. They happen again and again, and yet it's a shock every time. Never gets to be easier, never routine, just happens and we go on. We lose a grandparent and that is hard, but no one expects it to be otherwise. We lose a parent and that is harder still. We lose a lover, husband, a wife, a partner, a child. Some loses are too hard to think about until they are our own. Unimaginable. All we can do when they aren't ours, is our part.

We went to bookstores together in at least three states. We took road-trips to go to bookstores. As soon as we got to the bookstore, we would go our separate ways. Each of us had his own list. We would check in with each other when we passed in an aisle. He always had a stack, so did I. "Finding anything?" "Not really. You?' Then we would laugh. Sooner or later we would stop shopping long enough to eat.

We try to say and do the things required of us. We try to do the right thing, as best we can. We know what that is or we ask. Find a way. People do these things differently sometimes; not the way we were raised, or not the way we would do now. Doesn't matter. There is always a way. We do what we can. We extend our sympathies. It's a good verb, expansive. So we reach out to those who's loss may be greater than our own. We comfort who we can. We help as best we can. If we can get there, we go. Family by all definitions gathers in and mourns, they laugh and tell stories, those that do, drink, eat if that's right, prayer if that is the custom.

We ducked out of a memorial service once. The service was held at the bookstore where he sometimes volunteered. I had a cigarette in the alley, he came with. A writer I admired and who he knew slightly had died. He said, "Had to get away from 'posterity' for a minute."

The death of a friend is different in kind. It falls in a place less familiar, not familial, where custom can't help in the usual way. The death of a friend makes a space the size of the friendship we lose, and that isn't always so easy to define. And in the absence of definition, how do we ever see the other side? What do we put where our friend was? What can we do from where we are if where we are is not near?

Once, we got stuck in a construction delay on our way to the theater. A man in one of those huge pick-up trucks just ahead of us lost his mind. We watched him gesticulate wildly, honk, and silently curse. (It was winter, our windows were up.) He was a caveman. We giggled like schoolgirls. We forgot our own frustration in our delight with watching his. "Jomo" was born that night. We met him many times thereafter. We called the frustrated driver in his big truck, "Jomo," as in "Jomo want to go NOW!" and "Jomo need to turn here!" Stupid construction delay. "Jomo mad." "Jomo smash stupid cars." "Jomo need woman."

It takes awhile to even frame such a death as a loss for ourselves in addition to the irreparable loss that has happened to a friend's mother, or partner. What is our loss to theirs? One doesn't want to claim too much, intrude, to talk out of turn.

All we can do is tell our part.

This is mine.

My friend died. His name was Charles Barragan.

We met thirty-three years ago working in a video store in Colma, California. The store was called Captain Video and we did rentals. I believe Chuck did the books. I don't remember when we became friends, but then I can't remember now when we weren't. He was a serious, sardonic little man with a chest like operatic baritone and SO much glorious black mullet then. In those days he wore suspenders with jeans, muscle-shirts, and aviator sunglasses. It was the eighties. He was cool. I never was, but, I amused him. We stayed friends even after he left the video store. He was the one who told me to apply for the bookstore job I would have for a dozen years after.

We went to matinees at the discount movie houses. Saw a lot of animated movies together. Often we were the only adults unaccompanied by a child. We faced it out. When there was more than one animated movie out at a time, we sometimes did marathons, moving from one cartoon to the next. Once we saw three in one day. By the time we came out of our third, we noticed the concessions crew and the ticket-taker were eyeing us more suspiciously than usual. "Pretty sure we just got put on a list." "But we don't even like children." "True."

I met his Tede. He met my Allen. We were two interracial male couples in San Francisco in the eighties. We were all kinds of hot. We all became friends, though I don't think Tede ever entirely approved of us. We were Chuck's friends. Tede was a radical, a drag legend, an activist, a figure of historical significance, and a substantial personality. We were a bit bourgeois. We ate pork and used salted butter and voted a straight Democratic ticket. Chuck loved that about us I think.

Allen made fried pies. Basically these are pie crust with applesauce in the middle, sealed like a calzone and fried in butter. Served them with vanilla ice-cream. Allen made him try one. It was good. He ate half of it. "I can't believe you can make something too heavy for a Mexican to eat," he said.

I loved that Chuck was curious, omnivorous, sexy, sly, engaged. He did things. He met people. He was a traveler, an explorer. He was a huge consumer of news, of books, of information. He followed politics. He studied history, and the law, and spirituality. He knew people. He was engaged with the world. Tede taught him, gave him some of that, I assume, but it had to have been in him. He was, and would always be braver than me. He made me braver -- at least a little bit.

At a party once when Tede was still alive he and I stood and watched while Chuck flirted with an elderly lesbian couple; Birkenstocks, a knee-brace, dress-vests, severe looking women, Tede's friends. "See that?" Tede said, "Works on everybody."

It did.

Thanksgiving started as a pot-lock back then, though Allen did nearly all of the cooking from the beginning. Once, there were a dozen men, orphans from other family, friends. Thirty years? That's probably right. Year before last, our only other regular, Roger, died. This past year it was just Chuck and us. (When it came to turkey, he was a leg man, which was unlike him.) 

When Tede died, Allen and I were out of town. It was before cellphones and Chuck couldn't reach us when he needed us. Took a long time for him to quite forgive our absence. Understandable. Unimaginable. Chuck had a dream after in which Tede came to him and they were reunited. In the dream, I showed up with something like a washing machine in tow. In the dream I told him that this was a reality meter and that Tede was dead. When I said this, Tede disappeared. I wasn't always a good friend.

Once when Tede was in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas, the FBI came to the door of their apartment in San Francisco. The FBI. In Suits. In the Mission. They told Charles he needed to talk to them. "No," he said, "I don't." and he closed the door.

Chuck loved Allen's homemade rolls and made everything into a sandwich. Didn't like gravy. Would eat greens eventually, though grudgingly. Loved the macaroni and cheese. Sweet potato pie -- he was a convert on that as well.

He worked most of his life for non-profits, and for awhile, in the university system. He was good at his work. Human resources. He told me, "A non-profit is where your Christmas bonus is opera tickets someone gave your boss -- for Wagner."

Every year he stayed with us for a couple of weeks at Thanksgiving. Wherever we were, wherever me moved, he came. We went to movies and plays and bookstores. We went to expensive restaurants and to taquerias. He was never tight about food and wine and art. Allen would take him to the least likely action films and he would go. He ate popcorn like a wood-chipper. He bought tickets for early music Christmas concerts and I went and we enjoyed it. He would try anything, except dancing. He didn't dance. Not with me.

We had long conversations about self-sufficiency and survival and how hard he had worked to make his life his own, something he could be proud of, often without support or the approval of family. He didn't expect to find anything like what he'd had with Tede ever again. Wasn't sure he needed that kind of love, that loss, pain.

Then he fell in love again, hard.

He read book reviews and then bought and read the books. Who does that? He read books I never heard of, from authors I never heard of and he read them straight through. I finally read graphic novels because he did. He read novels and philosophy and politics. He was content to sit and read in our living room so long as there was a fire in the fireplace and a glass of wine. He was the perfect houseguest; fun but undemanding. He could feed himself. Go out for the evening on his own when I was tired after work. Allen adored him and he adored Allen. 

He was a good liberal democrat all his life. His childhood hero was Robert Kennedy. He was a feminist and did not like camp. Despite, or perhaps because of his liberality and the catholic nature of his tastes, he hated stereotypes and crude language. We would torture him by talking filth, Allen in particular. Charles would howl and leave the room. I would call him, "the Empress Carlotta " and mock his delicacy and chase him into the guest room, supposedly hot with passion for his exquisite purity. He would smack me away like an insect shouting, "Close the door after you! Out!"

He loved Star Trek. He was kind of a nerd about it. When I asked him why, he told me. Imagine a future where decency and cooperation are the standard for the whole universe. That meant something to him when he was a kid. He still believed in that future when he died. He was a good man.

"She's the most amazing person I've ever met," he told me. 

When he started to describe Maureen to me, he was at a loss for words, for once. He was smitten, though the stubborn ass would not admit this for some time, at least to me. I knew he was in love. He was. They were a couple for twenty two years.

When we finally met the woman, we knew she was a vegetarian. Hard, in our house. When they came to see us, I bought and stuffed huge Portobello mushrooms. "She doesn't like mushrooms," he told me after I'd started preparing them. "Didn't I say?" "No, you did not." Men. Damn.

They traveled together all over the world. They ate amazing meals in amazing places and they drank great wine at great vineyards. She made him a better person; more demonstrative, easier in himself, less angry. He loved her family and they loved him. His mother loved Maureen. 

They were so good together, Charles and Maureen, so good to each other. He was always Charles, she was often Mo. Not sure how many of us still called him "Chuck." She brought him out into the world. She's beautiful, and funny, and a grown woman. I don't know that he ever respected anyone more. I know he never loved anyone so much, or was so loved in return. He was taken care of. Best thing that ever happened to him, our Maureen.

We love her.

Last Thanksgiving, which we could not know would be our last Thanksgiving together, he didn't feel well. We all assumed this was over-indulgence. He was our health-conscious friend. He went to the gym. He didn't normally eat the way we eat at Thanksgiving. Who does? We went to Funko Headquarters. We went to a bookstore we had trouble finding. He was still abashed about trying to kill us all the year before by not opening the flue on the fireplace and then reading on the couch while the whole house filled with smoke. We had a good time.

He was a rock. He was the executor of our wills. When Allen and I could finally get married, he stood up for us. He was our witness.  

Let me be his.

Months after he got home to San Francisco and Maureen he was finally diagnosed with Systematic Light Chain Amyloidosis. We'd never heard of it either. He went into treatment. There was a plan. We were planning a trip down to SF to see him. And then he stopped breathing. Days later, he died. Maureen was there throughout. She was his rock. Twenty-five days from his diagnosis he went.

What is the space left when a friend dies? What was it to have such a friend?

He was my friend for thirty three-years.  He was my friend, our Chuck, Charles. He was our brother.

He was a good man. He was a good friend. 

He hated gush. Didn't much cuddle as a rule. He was good at sitting with us, reading next to me. He was my rock.

Oh, my friend.

Kisses, Carlotta. Don't be mad at me. 

I will always love you.

He was my friend.

Daily Dose

From The Collected Poems, by Stanley Kunitz


"My dear, is it too late for peace, too late
For men to gather at the wells to drink
The sweet water; too late for fellowship
and laughter at the forge; too late for us
To say, 'Let us be good to one another'?"

From the poem,  Night Letter

Friday, March 29, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays, by Robert Frost


When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. Birds, at least must know
It is the change to darkness in the sky.
Murmuring something quiet in her breast,
One bird begins to close a faded eye;
Or overtaken too far from his nest,
Hurrying low above the grove, some waif
Swoops just in time to his remembered tree.
At most he thinks or twitters softly, 'Safe!
Now let the night be dark for all of me.
Let the night bee too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.' 

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Clerihew for an Encumbered Boy


Christopher Robin
Had quite a job in
Escaping the snare
Of that "silly old bear."

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque


"The days go by and the incredible hours follow one another as a matter of course."

From Chapter 6

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley


"With a faint hum and rattle the moving racks crawled imperceptibly through the weeks and the recapitulated aeons to where, in the Decanting Room, the newly unbottled babes uttered their first yell of horror and amazement."

From Chapter 10

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban


"Could I come back with an answer? The unlostness itself would be the answer, I shouldn't need to come back."

From 17. William G.

Monday, March 25, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Cloven Count, by Italo Calvino, translated by Archibald Colquhoun


''There's a lot of other sins I commit too,' he explained to me. 'I bear false witness, I forget to water the beans, I don't respect father and mother., I come home late. Now I want to commit every sin there is, even the ones people say I'm not old enough to understand.'
'Every sin?' I asked him. 'Killing too?'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'Killing's not in my line now, it's no use.'
'My uncle kills and has people killed just for fun, they say,' I exclaimed, just for something with which to counterbalance Essau.
Esau spat. 'A thug's game,' he said."

From Chapter 2

Sunday, March 24, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Where the Stress Falls: Essays, by Susan Sontag


"Who's your favorite writer? an interviewer asked me many years ago. -- Just one? -- Uh huh. -- Then it's easy. Shakespeare, of course. -- Oh, I would never have thought you'd say Shakespeare! -- For heaven's sake, why? -- Well, you've never written anything about Shakespeare.


From Singleness

Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From How Proust Can Change your Life, by Alain de Botton


"A conversation of cul-de-sacs ending in 'Non' is not a surprising eventuality for many, but it is more surprising and far more regrettable when it is all the authors of Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time can find to say to each other when they are seated together under the same Ritz chandelier."

From Chapter 6, How to Be a Good Friend

Friday, March 22, 2019

Clerihew for a German Garden


The worst
She ever cursed
Was likely "darn 'im,"
Elizabeth von Arnim.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From See what Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary, by Lorrie Moore


"Opinions on music can be stubborn and lonely things. I believe, for instance, that the twentieth century's most intoxicating waltz is 'Let's Go Fly a Kite' from Mary Poppins. But don't ask me, with any strenuousness, to justify it, or I will gnaw my fist and stare forlornly out the window."

From Best Love Songs of the Millennium

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Clerihew in Matching Leopard


Quite carefree
Elaine Dundy
Unless she had to dine in
With Tynan.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig, translated by Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt


"I began to have an inkling of the fact (supressed by most writers) that the outcasts, the branded, the ugly, the withered, the deformed, the despised and rejected, desire with a more passionate, far more dangerous avidity than the happy; that they love with a fanatical, a baleful, a black love, and that no passion on earth rears its head so greedily, so desperately, as the forlorn and hopeless passion of these step-children of God, who feel that they can only justify their earthly existence by loving and being loved."

From page 206, this edition

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Clerihew with Cigar Butt


Henry Louis Mencken
When taken in
Doses small
Can be a ball.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Heads of the Colored People: Stories, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires


"But she remembered, in keeping with her new therapist's advice, she was supposed to feel her feelings, not suppress them, and she kept laughing, right in the DMV."

From Not Today, Marjorie

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Clerihew for a Swiss Boarding School


Read Sweet Days of Discipline,
In which the sin is rather thin.
Pretty low-key,
Fleur Jaeggy.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Ordinary Light: A Memoir, by Tracy K. Smith


"I wasn't quite my mother then, either; maybe I was the idea of her younger self, the one I sometimes tried to reach with my thoughts, the one who would surely have wanted to live in that delicate exhalation of jasmine and new grass and, deeper under the surface, a living kind of heat. Like a young woman's wish, if such a thing could be weighted to the skin."

From Kathleen

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie


"Melodrama piling upon melodrama; life acquiring the coloring of a Bombay talkie; snakes following ladders, ladders succeeding snakes; in the midst of too much incident, Baby Saleem fell ill. As if incapable of assimilating so many goings-on, he closed his eyes and became red and flushed."

From Snakes and Ladders

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Note from a white man

We're not that old, "white people." That malignant thought only really enters the world with it's corollary, the racialization of slavery. Oh, there were pale, pink people before then; whole tribes and nations of us as long ago as the Romans. We've been around, but we didn't get around much before, say, the Vikings, and they weren't much for larger commonalities of identity. It wasn't until a justification was required for the ownership and exploitation of whole "new" continents in the 17th century that we cleverly came up with the systemization of pigment.

I say "we," grudgingly. By any estimation, I'm as blue-eyed and pink skinned as they come. I was a strawberry-blond before the hair went and the beard went white. I was born in the United States of American, so I was raised in  racism and hope of a better day, so... I'm a white man.

One wants to say it's nonsense. Having reached middle-age, I can only wish it were. I have lived long enough to see the tatterdemalion standard of "white supremacy" not only raised again from mire, but spread out across the wide world to places undreamed of by the Klan and the White Citizens Counsels of my earliest childhood. That the discredited fantasies of reactionary American racism should now be heard openly again in the uncivil discourse of our politics -- to say nothing of the White House itself -- is horrifying enough. That this poisonous lie should be quoted, and a sitting American President admired for his espousal of it by a small minded mass murderer on the other side of the world, makes me ashamed again of my history and ours.

In the past two years I've read more than one racist rant on the social media pages of people I know just well enough to know they are my people. They are from the places I'm from, from circumstances I recognize as all too familiar; otherwise decent people who work hard, who love their families and care for their neighbors, worship their God on Sundays and pay their taxes on time. Not all of them are even as old as I am. Some are the children of the people I knew growing up.  Some are so young they might be my grandchildren. I've read words I hadn't thought to ever hear again -- in public at least. Poor people, most of 'em, blaming even poorer people for exploiting the system that actually oppresses them all. These are white people who can count on one hand the people of color they know, just as I could in my youth, white people who are comfortable again using epithets I was embarrassed by in my grandparents' generation. These are people who may never have so much as met a Jewish person, or knowingly thanked a Muslim for so much as a menu, and these same white people now blame Jews and Muslims, immigrants and people with longer pedigrees in this country than their own for "ruining" this country. It is as if we had forgotten what it was to be ashamed.

It is as if a monster from the dark under my childhood bed should now walk straight into the light of this day and laugh that I should ever have imagined him gone.

But that's because I am a white man. Being a white man allows that forgetfulness. Others can not afford that inattention. That's what privilege is, for any of us who might wonder at that word and think it inapplicable to the poor, or the otherwise decent, to ourselves, our friends and neighbors. Privilege is the luxury of shock. It costs us nothing but thoughts and prayers.

I was raised with the ideal that I was the equal of any man. Embarrassed now by the unquestioned inequality in that statement. I remember being shocked when I first encountered "white supremacy" as an ideology to think that anyone could be thought to be inferior to a white supremacist. I am abashed to think I ever thought such ideas mere relics of our past.

Violence and hatred are as much my inheritance as white man as the kindness and charity I was actually taught by the good people who raised me. To reject racism is a duty, not a choice. To mourn the innocent is where we start, not all that they are owed. I can only work to not make being a white man any part of the definition of who I yet hope to be.

I will not say the names of these murderers. I will not dignify their brutality and their ignorance by affording them the courtesy. But neither will I allow myself to forget for a moment that they are as much a part of me as the people I love and admire.

In his poem White Houses, the great African American poet Claude McKay says:

But I possess the courage and the grace
To bear my anger proudly and unbent.

I must take his example, and bear my own anger, and my part in his. 

The Muslim prayer for the dead, the Ṣalāt al-Janāzah, as I understand it, is performed to seek pardon for the deceased and all dead Muslims. Last night I watched the faithful, all over the world, offer this prayer. I watched people all over the world, of every faith and without any, mourn for the innocents murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand. I also saw the President of the United States of America, yet again, fail to condemn "white nationalism." This was the same President praised in the killer's manifesto as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.”

As a white man and an American, I seek the pardon of  those present and absent, the young and the old, men and women, who suffer the consequences of such blind arrogance, our hubris, and our hate.
I can only hope, with the poet, to "possess the courage and the grace" to be better than we, than I, have been.

And to never forget again.

Daily Dose

From The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Mirra Ginsburg


"However, what are clever people clever for if not to get confusions straightened out?"

From Chapter 18, The Luckless Visitors

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Clerihew for the Lawn Boy


However fun
J. Evison,
One must remember that
There's an artist 'neath that lil' hat.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo


"We have to remember that racism was designed to support an economic and social system for those at the very top. This was never motivated by hatred of people of color, and the goal was never in and of itself simply the subjugation of people of color. The ultimate goal of racism was the profit and comfort of the white race, specifically rich white men."

From Chapter 2, What is Racism?

Friday, March 15, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad


"The dread of the raving tyrant translated itself into a hasty ferocity of procedure. The Citizen-Savior was not accustomed to wait. A conspiracy had to be discovered."

From Part Three, The Lighthouse, Chapter 4

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez


"When people are very young they see animals as equals, even as kin. That humans are different, unique and superior to all other species -- this they have to be taught."

From Part Ten

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

"Need the warld ken?"

This is a pain au chocolat, or rather it should be. One of my favorite pastries, a good pain au chocolat. This is not a good one. I don't bake, so no, I don't know how to make one, but I understand how they are made. (I know how babies are made, doesn't mean I've ever felt the slightest urge to make one.) In America, we call these "chocolate croissants." We call a number of things that that aren't really a pain au chocolat. Add one more.

This one was made with rye-flour. That was a terrible idea. Unlike refined wheat flour, rye isn't sweet but slightly sour. A great rye bread is delicious; earthier than white bread, denser, more toothsome, slightly acid. None of those things are meant to be in a croissant. By definition the modern croissant is light, flaky, buttery, melting, and rich in the eating. In the right hands, add dark chocolate, change the traditional crescent shape to a square -- the better to contain the chocolate -- and you've got something akin to heaven. This pastry, purchased this morning from a local coffee shop, was not right but wrong. The dough was bitter, the chocolate overwhelmed by the rye, the pastry too dense. It was not good.

Nearly every morning when I go to work, I get my breakfast at the cafe nearest to hand. For a long time now the cafe has not offered a pain au chocolat. They used to. It was delicious. I ate entirely too many. I felt myself quite grown-up and health-conscious when instead I ordered, say, a a little asparagus-quiche or the like. Vegetables. Vegetables are good, and good for us, no? But then my favorite went away. Vendors change, bakeries close, and so for the last couple of years my cafe has sold croissants that aren't really. What they call croissants in the cafe are instead a sort of huge, clumsy loaf of a thing, twice the size of a traditional croissant and nowhere near as good as they should be. (Very American, that. Picture how a eight-year-old child -- in Texas -- might imagine a croissant if all they'd ever seen was a picture. Like that.) What the cafe calls a "chocolate croissant" is actually just that same thick, over-sized object with burnt chocolate buttons on top. Terrible. It's kept me from eating chocolate for breakfast I guess. As I said, the cafe has other, better things to eat. I'm sure I'm all the better for it.

Now and again though, all I really want is a pain au chocolat.

The story is that Marie-Antoinette brought croissant to France when she arrived from Vienna. May not be true, but it's a good story. Nice to think that that wretched, tragic lady contributed something to the French. The pain au chocolat is thought to be an invention of an Austrian baker in the nineteenth century, so a relatively modern innovation. Still, that's long enough ago to allow for the word "traditional" to be applied. That's what I wanted this morning, a traditional pain au chocolat. Not what I got. I went to three other coffee shops in pursuit of same. Evidently the vendor for all three is now whoever the fool is who decided to make these with rye-flour. C'est tragique!

An exaggeration, I know. Laughable. A fat man's lament. Things change. There are always new ideas. New is not always better. New isn't good of itself.

And that is an old man's complaint, isn't it?

I'm not old. Older I am, but what does that mean without context? We're all getting older until we stop, aren't we? Adult then. I'm what my beloved husband A. -- himself even further from young than I -- invariably calls, "a grown-ass man." That's what I am, a grown-ass man. This grown-ass man then doesn't want some hipster putting rye-flour where it doesn't belong just because he or she can. What the Hell is wrong with people, messing with a nearly perfect thing?!

Happens all the time, of course. Pineapple pizza. Avocado ice-cream. Hamlet in prose. Psycho gets remade, shot by shot, in color -- with Vince Vaughn. Someone draws "Happy Faces" on a rare set of Goya etchings.

It's harder now, my job. Being a bookseller is a lot harder now than it used to be when I started, thirty odd years ago. Fewer bookstores, obviously, fewer opportunities. All the obvious things. The part that's always been best about a bookstore job, the part of the work I've always most enjoyed, has been the conversation. Harder to have now. Not because the questions change. They don't. People don't really change all that much in thirty years either.  And there are just as many good, new books as ever, maybe more. More voices. More places and people heard from. More opportunity to make yourself heard. All good.

But I can't get to the things I always could before; there are fewer places to start. Woodworking? Crafts? Transportation? Engineering? All those practical things that made for the easiest conversations, for the base retail interaction: "Do you have --?" "Where are the books about --?" No. That's over. For the most part now, I don't. Those books aren't here. Those books simply may not be, not much, not anymore. Change. Can't be helped. Goodbye to the standard Atlas. Farewell to Uniform Plumbing Code. Worrisome, as a practical matter, supply and demand. Embarrassing, but nothing to be done.

The conversation I'm regretting, deeply, has to do with books that aren't on the shelf, it's true, but not because the information is now elsewhere. The books I'm missing are the books I would recommend. Nothing so simple as information. Art.

What was the last book you enjoyed? What do you read?

If you like X, I'm confident you would enjoy Y. But -- we don't have Y. It may be out of print. It may be the author's only available title is their latest. It may be economically impossible to keep that title, and all the books like it, on the shelf just so I might recommend it to someone who liked another books like it, or only like it so far as one made me think of the other. The one you read might be new, or out just last year. That's likely now. The one of which I was reminded might be ten years old. Gone. It might be 200 years old. Gone. It might be considered a classic in it's author's country of origin, but not here, or that country may not exist anymore. Gone. So many books. So much that is gone. And some of it is no more likely to come back than The Manual of Steel Construction or the full Loeb Library or Macauley's Essays.

That's a problem. The best of what I do, have done, is all to do with the connections I can make between my customers and books, and between books for my customers.  How do I do that when the books I would recommend are gone?

Put rye in your croissants then. If you want, go on. Me? If I'm being honest, I think it's shit, but someone must like it, or at least know no better.  But when I want a nearly perfect thing of it's kind, a pain au chocolat say, or Humphry Clinker, or mid-career novel by Muriel Spark, or a book by Margaret Walker, is it too much to hope that it might still be?

I'm not a fool. I don't look to make a living from just the books I like. I don't expect to always find the food I like. I shouldn't like to think of a world bereft of Tobias Smollett or exclusively populated by inferior pastries. If it's to be such a desert of good things, I might as well have never left the place I came from. What's the point of city without expensive coffee? Without pho and fried plantains and Korean bbq? Without bookshops and booksellers and backlist titles and staff that reads poetry and keeps Auden in stock?

What's the world without an authentic pain au chocolat?


Daily Dose

From The Dunciad, by Alexander Pope


"How little, see! that portion of the ball,
Where faint at best the beams of science fall!"

From Book the Third

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, translated by Michael Henry Heim


"He had not the slightest ambition to be quoted by the historians of centuries to come. He was simply afraid of being quoted by the police."

From Chapter 14

Monday, March 11, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow


"I didn't oppose him, so he spoke with unusual affection."

From Chapter 12

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Sound of the Waves, by Yukio Mishima, translated by Meredith Weatherby


"While he was pondering these matters, time had moved ahead surprisingly fast. This boy who was so inexpert at thinking was surprised to discover that one of the expected properties of thought was its efficacy as a time-killer."

From Chapter 12