Dinner Guest Extraordinaire

Whenever I get to play the game of “Name the people you’d like to have over for dinner,” I always enjoy other people’s choices, even though many of them would make me leave the house screaming rather than sit at a table with them. Over the years, of course, my own list has changed as my tastes have changed, or as I’ve encountered or read about people who, in my opinion, would make excellent guests at a dinner table. The people I’d want to have over for dinner, it seems, are always temporary members of my list.

Except for one.

My permanent guest is none other than the late David Niven, the classy actor (Academy Award-winner), legendary seducer of women, (anonymous) war hero and peerless raconteur. 

I’d always enjoyed his acting, even though Niven’s golden years were long before I was born. But what turned me into a fan were his memoirs, The Moon’s A Balloon and his stories of old Hollywood, Bring On The Empty Horses. Both are wonderfully written, both are fine insights to Hollywood’s Golden Age, both are in turn side-splittingly funny and dreadfully poignant, and I have both in hardback. They are among the very few books that I never lend out.

I’m not going to do a potted biography of the man here — there’s a workable bio at Wikipedia, and of course his biography Niv (which I haven’t read because I don’t need to).

Then there are his movies — countless dozens of them — which bear witness to his (self-deprecating) talent. If you want a recommendation, try Separate Tables (for his Oscar-winning performance), or Stairway To Heaven (my favorite of his work, a.k.a. A Matter Of Life And Death). None of his movies are on Netflix, which alone is enough to make me cancel my subscription.

Niven is not a household name anymore, certainly not in America, and that’s a shame, because he embodies just about every quality which goes to make a Real Man (despite being an actor): he was intelligent, witty, charming, well-read, resourceful and brave. (The last comes from knowing that during WWII, he served in the Commandos and the “Phantom” unit — which, typically, Niven never spoke about, and would just change the subject when pressed for details.)

Oh, and here are but two of his many conquests, the exquisite Loretta Young:

…and the kittenish Paulette Goddard:

…neither of which he ever boasted about, of course.

So if you have a rainy afternoon with nothing to do, grab a whisky and copy of The Moon’s A Balloon, and settle in for a wonderful time. There’s no need to thank me; it’s all part of the service.

I just wish I’d known him in person.

International Comparisons

In my post about laws and traffic laws, Erik of No Pasaran! took me to task in Comments. According to him, I’m an Allyagottado — i.e. a slave to the law. (I should mention that Erik and I go back a long, long way; he’s one of the good guys, a rarity in Eurostan, and I don’t take his criticism of me to heart.) Read his comment first, but let me say at the outset that it’s basically a rant against traffic speed limits, with which I don’t disagree that much. (I should also point out that the entire point of my post was that apart from traffic laws, which to me are a minor irritation, I’m anything but an Allyagottado, but whatever.)

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. One of Erik’s points was that speed limits, or rather the lack thereof on Germany’s autobahns makes for efficient driving and few crashes. That’s by and large true, although when you do see a crash on the autobahn, it’s a doozy: seldom fewer than four or five cars totally wrecked, and multiple cases of serious injury and/or deaths. However, there’s a point that is seldom made by people who love the no-speed limit on Germany’s highways: the Germans know how to drive. And that’s a very salient point, because to get a driver’s license in Germany, you don’t just get handed one after a couple weeks of driver’s ed in high school; you have to enroll in a State-authorized Fahrschule and pass both a theory- and practical examination (here’s a decent overview so I don’t have to go into detail). It is not a cheap process, it is extraordinarily difficult, and unlike here in the United States, the Germans treat driving very much as a State-granted privilege and quite definitely not as an individual’s right. It is quite common for licenses to be suspended, sometimes for life, after multiple traffic infractions, and with no appeal. (In Germany, if you get angry at another driver and just make a rude gesture, there’s a good chance that you’ll be photographed by one of the hundreds of thousands of traffic cameras on the autobahns — oh yes, we Americans would just love that degree of privacy invasion — and you’ll lose your German driver’s license, possibly forever if it’s not your first offense.)

To repeat: driving is treated in Germany far more strictly than it is treated Over Here. And thus a comparison of the two countries in this regard is not only difficult, but incongruent. “Why can’t we have highway speed limits like the Germans?” is answered simply by, “We could, if we wanted to live under a Germanic system of licensing and control.”

To get away from the Germans (something we should do as a matter of course anyway*); I’m always amused by people of the gun control persuasion who never tire of comparing the U.S. gunfire homicide rates with those of Japan (a favorite of theirs, by the way). “Why can’t we be more like the Japanese?” they wail as they wave around Japan’s 0.00000001% statistic. Well, we could, if we Americans were prepared to put up with the stifling social conformity and authority-worship of Japanese society, and the complete lack of a Second Amendment in our Constitution. But we wouldn’t, and shouldn’t.

Which brings us, finally, to the point of this particular post. Many foreign countries do certain things better than we do, or at least have it better than we do in certain respects. But as the above examples have shown, that superiority generally comes at a steep price, and is most often a price paid with a profound loss of personal freedom — or else, a profound loss of standard of living and quality of life — all of which are abhorrent to us.

If we are going to make an honest comparison, therefore, I’m not sure we Americans come off that badly, all things considered.

Oh, and Erik, if you read this: I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many instances in my writings where I “reflexively defend the authorities”any authorities. But hey, if it helps you make your argument…


*Of course, I exclude my German Readers from this observation because to a man, they are my kind of people: hard-working, law-abiding, freedom-loving and lovers of firearms, to name but a few common attributes. (And to Reader Sam R. in particular, over in Germanland: Vielen dank  für Ihre Großzügigkeit, if you’ll excuse my schreckliches Deutsch.)

Stepping Off The Carousel

Here’s my admission: I’ve never watched Breaking Bad. I never watched it because the inherent premise of it — a good man forced into crime by circumstance — was abhorrent to me, and because I’ve always been the guy who tried to do what was right regardless of circumstance.

But lately, I’m starting to think I may have been an idiot all these years, because when the system can be so easily gamed by people with fewer scruples and lower morals than mine, what’s the point of being the good guy?

Over at Return of Kings, some guy makes the same point in an article entitled In A Broken America, Only The Dishonorable Are Rewarded. (By the way, I love articles whose titles make reading the thing unnecessary, but you should read it anyway.) In true RoK fashion, he refers to people like me as “dupes”, and in his frame of the situation, he’s probably quite right.

Fortunately, of course, I’m in the majority of the population because up until now, most people can be counted on to do the right thing. I suspect too that this is why Social Security is pretty much untouchable: not because of the greediness of retirees, but because having done the right thing their whole lives and paid into the system (albeit at gunpoint), people are insistent that government also does the right thing and delivers on their promise by supporting retirees.

That government might one day renege on that promise is the stuff of nightmares — and not just for the cheated retirees, either.

What concerns me is that our public morality is becoming frayed by the increasing growth of private immorality. When I stated above that the “majority” of people can be counted on to do the right thing, what happens when that majority becomes a lot less so, and the wrongdoers become ascendant? Which, I think, is Furioso’s underlying point of his article, albeit not enunciated as such. If everybody else is cheating, then why aren’t you? It’s an enticing question, and sadly, a seductive one.

Even worse is that the wrongdoers,  by cheating and abusing the system, make thing intolerable for those who are on the straight and narrow. No better example can be found than in the pain management scenario, where people who are experiencing real and excruciating pain on a daily basis are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the drugs needed to treat their condition because a jillion fuckups are abusing opiates and government, of course, is applying legislation like a hammer when what’s called for is a scalpel. My late wife was actually fired by two pain management medical practices because the doctors were finding the burden of government intervention and intrusiveness too difficult — and career-threatening — for Connie’s care to be in their best interest. Only when she was diagnosed with cancer did her care improve, because (as the new doctor explained), government doesn’t actually care about terminal patients because their condition is finite.

Imagine my reaction to that little nugget of information. And no, I didn’t load up the old AK-47 and pay a visit to the nearest government office. What I wanted to do was load up the AK and start paying visits to the cockroaches who had created this situation by abusing the drugs which my wife desperately needed. Seriously, had I known the Breaking Bad guy in person, I would have been mightily tempted to slaughter him, his dealers and every single “patient” who used his product. But not even I have enough ammo to make that problem go away because cockroaches seem to be in infinite supply these days.

I worry about this situation, about this waning of public morality. In fact, I worry about this more than I worry about any other aspect of modern society — more than un-Constitutional campus speech codes, more than corrupt IRS officials who target conservatives, and far more than the Russians (who are surely the best example of nationally-degraded public morality) attempting to fiddle with our electoral system.

And I know that our beloved government is worried about it too. How else can you explain the recent huge purchases of guns and ammunition by the Fedgov, and the arming of the thousands of federal agents and bureaucrats who are not even close to being in actual law enforcement?

Never before has W.B. Yeats’s Second Coming been more chilling:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

At the risk of sounding apocalyptic: keep your powder dry and your guns at hand, folks. Because when more than a few decent folks start to break bad, it’s SHTF time.

Enough Old Stuff

One of the several “throw or keep?” decisions I had to make when emptying the house was about my CD collection. As I came late to the Digital Revolution (21st Century version) — and some say I still haven’t joined it — I haven’t started downloading music from Amazon Musik or whatever they call it, simply because I have most of my favorite music on CD already, and with a very few exceptions, I find modern music unappealing.

Unfortunately, this also means that I’ve become sick of all the old music, “old” being defined as 60s-70s music of my rock star (uh huh) youth. I mean, if I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” and anything by Led Zeppelin one more time, I’m going to slip the safety off the 1911. Even longtime favorites like Genesis, Steely Dan and Jethro Tull are beginning to pall, and needless to say, I have every album of artists like the aforementioned as well as the Beatles, Joe Walsh and Wishbone Ash on CD, so the collection of my favorite musical genres is extensive. But I never listen to it anymore because I’m bored with it. I ended up keeping almost all my old CDs, but have yet to unpack any of them, let alone listen to them. The problem is that music has always been a major part of my existence, and I have to listen to something.

So what am I listening to, at the moment? Classical, mostly, because it doesn’t seem as though I can ever get sick of it. Lately I’ve rediscovered several old favorites like Saint-Saëns and Dvorak, and of course there’s always the perennials (Chopin, Bach, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven etc.) that can be relied upon for listening pleasure, as always. It also helps that their music is being interpreted differently by the various conductors and musicians (Lisitsa, Grimaud, Mutter and so on) — and just as I’ve veered away from Classic Rock, I’ve also lost interest in classical artists like Gould, Rubinstein, Horowitz and even Barenboim (the “Old Guys”, as I’ve heard them described). I like the freshness and verve that virtuosos like Valentina Lisitsa and Olga Kern bring to the old favorites like Beethoven’s Pathétique and Rachmaninoff’s Piano No.2, and the effect of that is almost, as I said earlier, a rediscovery of classical music.

In similar vein, I listen to the old standards like the songs of Rogers & Hart, Carmichael and Gershwin — they never grow old — but I have to say, I also enjoy the interpretations given their music by “modern” artists as well: people like the incomparable Harry Connick Jr. and equally-brilliant Norah Jones. Even Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton have started to reinterpret the standards and to my mind, are eclipsing the “old guys” like Fred Astaire and Julie London, who actually introduced me to this genre. (It’s not that the latter are bad — of course they aren’t — but I’ve just heard them so often, it’s starting to get stale. Yes, even Astaire.)

There’s a common thread to the above which I’ve just realized at this moment: it’s not the music I’m sick of, it’s the original versions thereof. Nobody is reinterpreting Classic Rock, other than as cover bands like American English (Beatles) and Zepparella (Zep).

So maybe that’s what Classic Rock needs: for new guys to reinterpret their music (as opposed to just reproducing it), much as Dred Zeppelin did to Led Zeppelin (I love the Dred, by the way). Let’s hear Dream Theater do their version of the White Album (minus the excruciating Revolution No.9, please), let’s see what Norah Jones does to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and let’s find out what Samantha Fish does with Blowing In The Wind and Harry Connick Jr. with Only One Woman.

But if I can ask for one, and only one favor from all this reinterpretation activity: we do not repeat not need another version of Free Bird. Don’t make me slip that safety off the 1911…


Update: This wouldn’t be a decent post without an example of the “old” music, and a totally gratuitous pic of what I’m talking about. Here’s Samantha Fish:

…and here’s Only One Woman.

You Asked For It

I hate to harp on the importance of appearance yet again, but this little temper tantrum has caused me to have an even bigger one:

She is a bestselling author with a healthy bank balance, but Chocolat writer Joanne Harris found herself shunned by sales staff at Harvey Nichols in London – because she wasn’t smartly dressed.
The writer, 52, whose novel was turned into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche, took to Twitter this afternoon to blast the retailer, saying she’d encountered ‘intense snoot’ from staff ‘unused to contact with people in hoodies’.

But it gets better.

She added that her ‘elegant Parisian aunt’ had taught her that an establishment with true class never judges its customers on appearance.

Listen, you classless idiot: did you ever stop to wonder why your Parisian aunt is “elegant”?

It’s because appearances matter, you fucking slob. Let me take this woman’s attitude apart, piece by piece.

I’ve been to Harvey Nics many, many times — it was always Connie’s first stop in London because of their amazing cosmetics department — and we never, ever encountered any “snoot” from the polite, helpful and attentive staff. Know why? Because we were always well-dressed and (in the case of The Mrs., anyway) looked as though we were the type of people Harvey Nichols wanted as customers. One older sales assistant even remembered Connie from an earlier trip. “You’re the lady from Beverley Hills with the delightful children, aren’t you? Welcome back to London.” (I guess they just don’t get that many six-foot-tall redheaded American women from Beverley Hills shopping there.)

Here’s a clue for Joanne Harris. The staff at Harvey Nichols are very, very accustomed to customers wearing hoodies in their store; generally, that’s because said hoodie-wearers are career shoplifters. If you go into a store looking like the average criminal then how, exactly, do you expect the staff to react to you? “It shouldn’t matter how you look!” Well, welcome to the real world, sweetheart, and guess what? How you look does matter.

In fact, judging other people by how they look is not “trained behavior” created by Harvey Nichols management; it’s trained behavior as a result of many thousands of years’ genetic conditioning, where judging appearances is not a matter of “snoot”, but quite often is a matter of life and death. The oldest human instinct is probably a subconscious warning of “Predator!” so the instinct, in other words, is already ingrained. Then add experience (hoodie = possible shoplifter) which fills in the rest.

It’s time for my Parisian restaurant story (and to those who’ve heard it before, sorry but it’s relevant). The scene: Paris between Christmas and New Year, i.e. full to the brim with people. It’s also pouring down with rain, and tit-freezing cold. Dramatis personae:  la famille du Toit, having just quit standing in a seemingly-endless line at an art museum because bullshit. We are well-dressed because when we travel, we are always well-dressed: no jeans, sneakers, tee shirts nor (duh) hoodies; rather, it’s dress slacks, decent shirts / blouses, shiny dress shoes and silk scarves under cashmere coats.

We walked into a nearby but packed restaurant, and I fought my way to the maître d’hotel‘s stand. I apologized (in French) for not having a reservation, explained our predicament, and asked if it would be at all possible for the restaurant to seat a party of six (we had an “adopted” child with us), and no, we wouldn’t mind waiting. The headwaiter looked at the rest of us and clearly saw how we were dressed. He sat us at the bar counter, moving people down to give us room, gave us complimentary bottles of sparkling water, and told us please to be patient, and he would seat us shortly. About five minutes passed; then he came back, and apologized profusely that he hadn’t been able to get our table ready, and would Monsieur please excuse him? In vain did I protest, and repeated that we were the ones imposing on him. No matter: he raced off, and in another five minutes showed us to our table, apologizing again, showed us the glasses of complimentary vin blanc on the table, and six waiters pushed our chairs in as we sat down. It is generally regarded by our family as one of the best meals we’d ever eaten, both for the quality of the food and the service.

Now here’s the kicker. While we were waiting for our table, two couples came into the place separately, looking like members of the International Backpack Set — and the headwaiter shooed them out, telling them the place was full, even though there were a few empty tables-for-two right there in the bar area. He did not want their business. Why? Because backpackers are a waste of seats: they order the cheapest stuff on the menu, stay far too long (in a city where dawdling over a cup of coffee is not frowned upon), they generally tip badly, and because they’re scruffy, they bring down the whole tone of the place — and remember this last part, because we’ll be getting back to it. I agree, it’s not fair. But once again, that just happens to be the reality we live in. (By the way, the meal was expensive — as I recall, about $100 per person, excluding the service charge — but we did drink about five bottles of wine and a few liqueurs and cocktails, as well as ordering dishes like patê de foie gras and terrine rustique de Provence. Not, in other words, the kind of fare ordered by yer typical hoodie-wearing backpackers, so the maître d’hotel‘s instinct was correct.)

Which brings me back to my point. It’s not fair — actually, I think it’s perfectly fair, but let’s just grant the point for the sake of argument — that in a classy establishment, someone dressed like Grace Kelly will get better treatment than your average hoodie-chick:


Imagine that. (And lest I be accused of bias, that’s a model in the second picture and not yer typical street skank.)

I also know that in oh-so-egalitarian America, we don’t put up with class and airs, so it really shouldn’t matter. Uh huh. You’re quite welcome to think that, but in return you have to tell me the color of the sun on your imaginary planet.

And in any event, the woefully-dressed Joanne Harris was “snooted” at Harvey Nichols, which is one of the classiest stores in the world, let alone London, and they make no bones about the fact that they cater to people of wealth and class — how the sales staff are dressed should give anyone a clue. Just for being so dense and clueless, Harris should have been tossed out of the store on her ass, let alone snooted.

At the heart of her snit, by the way, is a kind of arrogance: “I’m smart! I’m classy! I’m a writer! I’m famous! I have a healthy bank balance! And you should know all this and should defer to me, even though you have no idea who I am, and despite the fact that I look like a street slapper!”

Bullshit.

And for the staff at Harvey Nichols: you may have lost this classless harpy as a customer, but I for one promise to visit you the next time I’m in London, and buy something from you because — guess what? — I like the idea that the staff discourages hooligans from frequenting their wonderful store. It makes for a better shopping experience, for me. And I too am a customer, and one moreover who won’t look like he just got off the bus from some council block in the East End.

Patsy (from Absolutely Fabulous) would quite possibly stop shopping there too, but because “Harvey Nics lets just anyone shop there these days, sweetie-darling. Even those dreadful hoodie-types.”

At Harvey Nichols, Patsy’s type is in the majority, not Joanne Harris’s, and the store runs their business accordingly. Good for them, say I.

Getting Older, Caring Less

There are three ironclad rules about getting older:

  1. Make no long-term investments.
    This means not making any kind of investment where you’re unlikely to live to see the outcome.
  2. Never trust a fart.
    I don’t think I have to explain this one.
  3. Never waste an erection.
    Ditto. Believe me, when you get up there in age, these physiological miracles are not as common as they were in your twenties.

Let’s go back to #1 for a moment. Perhaps it’s because the past few years have been so difficult for me, nursing an ailing wife and then having to deal with her death, one realizes that most stuff is irrelevant by comparison, on a personal basis of course.

It has worried me that things that would in the past have brought from me a seething rant full of invective, rage and possibly even threats, now occasion from me a wry smile, a scowl or a muttered curse. (This would include almost every idiocy / lunacy perpetrated by Our Beloved Government — may the fleas of a thousand camels infest their nether regions.)

Why is it that I don’t really care much about anything, most especially when it doesn’t affect me personally, or if it does, it’ll likely happen after I’m dead? (There is a tangential discussion to be had on this topic, by the way, which would argue that if  my attitude is common among senior citizens, then old farts like me should never be allowed to formulate any kind of long-term government policy or change any social institutions. But we’ll do that some other time.)

When we lived in the Chicago ‘burbs (Prospect Heights, for those who know the area), our little municipality was one of the very few which did not use “city” water, but relied on wells. (This despite Lake Michigan being but a few miles from our front door — inexplicable.) Property taxes were of course lower, but that was offset by occasional water shortages, which totally sucked. Anyway, a referendum was held on whether the Heights should go to city water — it would require a bond to finance bringing water lines to the streets, but residents could have the choice of paying for the water line from the street to the house, or just sticking with well water. The bond would require a one-time per-household fee of a few hundred dollars — payable by an addition to the property tax bill (which, as  I mentioned earlier, was very low). We were overjoyed, and couldn’t wait for the measure to pass. It failed. It failed because about 50% of the residents were elderly and didn’t care that the future residents would have a better quality of life — because they themselves wouldn’t be around to see it, and thus weren’t interested in spending even the few dollars necessary. So we were stuck with tepid, unreliable well water, which situation we resolved by moving to the City of Chicago when our lease ended, and living not a few miles, but a few yards from Lake Michigan. We never stopped hating those elderly residents of Prospect Heights, though — even though they were obeying Rule #1.

I don’t want to be one of those selfish old bastards; but at the same time, I find myself getting the same kind of perspective. My conscience will generally make me do the right thing, I hope — I would vote in favor for that water bond in a heartbeat, for example — but from what I can tell, that’s not the way to bet when it comes to other people, and most especially older politicians whom one would hope have the same social conscience as I, but who clearly don’t.

Have I gone soft? (This is not a reference to Rule #3, by the way; at least, I hope not.) I’ve noticed that events that would normally make me livid with rage now simply irritate me; and paradoxically, things I would have shrugged off in the past now make me want to reach for the 1911.

Maybe it’s because of the circumstances I find myself in now, maybe it’s an effect of age, or maybe it’s some of both. I need to think about it some more, and figure it out.

Your opinions on this topic will be welcome. This is important stuff to me.