SPY: A DAY IN THE COUNTRY

Sonda Andersson, an art director at SPY, posted on Facebook these photos taken sometime in the summer of 1989 at Kurt Anderson and Anne Kreamer‘s second home up near Carmel in Putnam County. Good to see all these shiny happy faces.

Kurt Andersen
Kurt Andersen
Sonda Andersson, with one of Tom Phillips' interns
Sonda Andersson, with one of Tom Phillips' interns

Susan Morrison, escaping the sun
Susan Morrison, escaping the sun
Tom Phillips, Boy Publisher
Tom Phillips, Boy Publisher

The peerless Alexander Isley, flanked by Marissa Rothkopf and Eric Kaplan
The peerless Alexander Isley, flanked by Marissa Rothkopf and Eric Kaplan
Future rock and arugula snob David Kamp
Future rock and arugula snob David Kamp
Myself, in my Liberty University T-shirt, and George Kalogerakis
Myself, in my Liberty University T-shirt, and George Kalogerakis

A CLASSY BUNCH

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With the final class of my course in Magazine Writing at Marymount Manhattan College last night, I concluded my debut effort as a teacher. It was an enjoyable experience–certainly enjoyable enough that I’ll do it again next year. Thanks to the students who showed up and participated most enthusiastically for the last two months, including Joyce Kaffel and David Linton (above left), Karen Arfi and Mitzi Witkin (above right), and Millie Burns, Joe Lisanti (I would have had a new photo of Millie and Joe but the battery died; however, they can be seen giving A.J. Jacobs the hairy eyeball here.) , Sean Forsythe and Lauren Paup. Also thanks once again to my buddies A.J. Jacobs, Ken Smith and John Connolly for guest-starring, and to Lewis Burke Frumkes for offering me the opportunity.

LITTLE MISTER SUNSHINE!

dscn0709Yesterday I ran into my friend Larry Doyle on the corner of 42nd and Sixth. Larry said he had came to New York because he “just had to get out of Baltimore for a day.” Of course, I did that 36 years ago and never really returned, so perhaps someone should check to see if Larry is still wandering around midtown. Larry, once my colleague at Spy and formerly a writer for The Simpsons, recently won the Thurber Book for writing the funniest novel of the year, the pretty damn funny I Love You Beth Cooper, which has been made into a movie that will be released later this summer. We had one of those great Manhattan conversations, in which I, having not much of anything lately, assured him that everything was all right, while he felt obliged to note that the movie was flat and that he was having trouble finishing his next novel and that the financial crisis had cost him so much of his Simpsons savings and that he was going out to Los Angeles next week but wasn’t looking forward to it because they would be certain to lowball him. As the immortal Cindy Adams would put it, “Only in New York, kiddies, only in New York.”

IS CHRIS BUCKLEY CALLOUS?

losing-mum-and-pupWhat should we make of Losing Mum and Pup, Christopher Buckley’s memoir of the that brief, less than a year-long period when both of his brilliant, charismatic parents fell ill and died? It is warm, affectionate, respectful, appropriately laudatory, and often quite moving. But it is also frank to point of indiscretion (some say past the point of indiscretion) in discussing the indignities inflicted (mostly on his parents, some on him) by their encroaching infirmities. And sometimes the memoir is shocking. Here Buckley talks about his mother’s last moments:

Soon after, a doctor came in to remove the respirator. It was quiet and peaceful in the room, just pings and blips from the monitor. I stroked her hair and said, the words coming out of nowhere, surprising me, “I forgive you.”

It sounded, even at the time, like a terribly presumptuous statement. But it needed to be said. She would never have asked for forgiveness herself, even in extremis. She was far too proud. Only once or twice, when she had been truly awful, did she apologize. Generally, she was defiant — almost magnificently so — when her demons slipped their leash. My wise wife, Lucy, has a rule: don’t go to bed angry. Now, watching Mum go to bed for the last time, I didn’t want any anger left between us, so out came the unrehearsed words. For my sake, more than hers.

Reading that passage, one feels as though Buckley has pulled aside a curtain to reveal –well, you don’t know exactly what he’s showing us, but it looks like there be dragons there.

“The recounting of such tales tells us more about the son than the parents,’’ wrote my friend James Rosen in a review for The Washington Post. “It is as if Christopher, having said all the right things at the memorials he dutifully organized, now wants to show the world his parents at their very worst. He acknowledges having “spent a good deal of my life . . . trying to measure up to my father”; that he felt wounded by his father’s inability in recent years “to compliment something I’d written, unless it was about him”; and that Buckley’s extraordinary speed in writing, in contrast with the son’s hard labor, once led Christopher to gaze upon “the .22-caliber rifle mounted on the wall, wondering if I could get the barrel in my mouth and pull the trigger with my big toe.” Father, a devout Catholic, and son, a defiant agnostic, waged their “own Hundred Years’ War over the matter of faith” and exchanged, by Christopher’s count, over 3,000 contentious letters and e-mails. And when the aged Buckley abruptly announced he had something important to disclose, the son’s anxious first thought, he confides, was: “You’re leaving all your money to National Review?” Avid followers of the Buckleys will recall even more points of contention than Christopher enumerates. Christopher Buckley admits that his own sins “are manifold and blushful, but callousness [is] not among them.” Readers may beg to differ. ‘’

Like James, I think there’s some sort of emotional unburdening going on here, something that stops short of conscious score-settling but that kind of tailgates it (remember: For my sake, more than hers.) It doesn’t help that the author is frequently cute and coy about revealing sad and painful details; twice he talks about his father’s bladder control problems by saying “He is a river to his people.’’ Twice! A humorist has to be awfully proud of his cleverness to repeat a line. Still, here’s the thing: Chris Buckley is a writer, and what writers do is write, and usually the less conscience and decorum and discretion has to do with it, the better. Being surprised at what he’s done is like being surprised your dog has bitten a beloved dinner guest. And as sad as it is to bear witness to the decay of witty, glamorous, brilliant people we have admired, it is a painfully efficient way to remind those of us still living to seize the day.

END-TO-END ACTION

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As Clive Owen put it in the brilliant last line of Children of Men, “What a day!” It started (late) with a very fine lunch at Bar American (the old Judson Grill at Seventh and 52nd) with my old and dear friend from Spy days, John Connolly, now a contributor to Vanity Fair, and his old friend and my new fellow True/Slant blogger, the acclaimed TV newswoman Diane Dimond. We had a lot of fun, talking about the corrupt private investigator Anthony Pellicano, a man who once threatened my life without ever having had the benefit on laying eyes on me (John’s writing a book), the water boarding of Christopher Hitchens (the undisclosed but most relevant figures: 13, 16), the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Witness Protection Program, the secrets of Morning Joe, the peculiar mysteries of Eliot Spitzer‘s downfall, why Diane likes courtrooms (“this cauldron of human soup!”), why Gucci shoe repairmen are a vanishing breed, and lawn and gardening tips from the heart of New Mexico. Oh, I do miss the occasional lunch!

dscn06431Afterwards, I headed up to the Museum of the City of New York on 103rd and Fifth to catch their new exhibition on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Dutch in New York. The exhibit does a nice job of reminding everyone that while the period of Dutch control was relatively brief–by the 1680s, possession had passed to the British–their influence was enduring. There’s the obvious heritage–names of locations like Bleecker, Bowery, Yonkers, Spyten Dyvel, Brooklyn, Bushwick, Harlem, venerable Dutch families like the Roosevelts–but there’s the more subtle legacy of tolerance. The outpost of New Amsterdam was a commercial trading center, and a person’s ability to produce something useful and profitable dscn0644counted a lot more than his/her religion, race, national origin, and so on (not that these factors were irrelevant–this was the 17th century!) But this attitude of tolerance for diversity and free-thinking was unique in the colonies (so unlike those stiff-necked Puritans!), and that led directly to an appetite for democracy, as Russell Shorto showed in his brilliant Island at the Center of the World. It’s not at all a stretch to say that as New Yorkers, we are all Dutch. avalentinaPictured, a model of Henry Hudson‘s vessel, The Half Moon. (Also on view: an illuminating exhibit on the life and creations of legendary clothing designer Valentina, whose creations for Garbo, Dietrich, Hepburn, Oberon and others defined elegance and grace in the thirties and forties.)

Finally, my pal Ken Smith came to my magazine writing class at Marymount Manhattan and talked about magazine design and the sometimes close, sometimes haphazard collaboration between designers and editors that goes into magazine creation. The members of the class posed a lot of interesting questions that certainly never would have dscn0645 dscn0646occurred to me to ask, and it was kind of refreshing to talk about the mistakes magazines have made that are the result almost never of bad intentions, but of good intentions poorly executed, poorly perceived, and ultimately incapable of being taken back. Everybody really seemed into the conversation. (Pictured left: Ken in repose; right, Action Art Director Ken.)

A couple of days later, Ken put his thoughts about the class, and about design, on his blog.

REACHING NEW LEVELS

I met my pal Duane Swierczynski at a pub on East 36th Street yesterdaydscn0639 (he picked the place, called The Ginger Man, because it was a.) good and b.) the unofficial hangout of his pals at Marvel Comics, which are two fine reasons, although it meant passing up the chance to visit the bar’s compellingly named neighbor, The Galway Hooker.) Before Duane helped me kick around some ideas, we toasted the excellent news that he has been collaborating with Anthony Zuiker, creator of the hit TV series CSI, on a new multimedia “digi-novel.” The novel is called Level 26: Dark Origins, and it’s about a serial killer. To be published by Dutton on Sept. 8, it will be the first in a series in which each book will be supplemented with 20 videos, or “cyber-bridges,” featuring actors playing characters from the novel. After every 20 pages or so, readers will be able to go online to watch a three-minute video. The videos are designed, Zuiker says, “to embellish the novel and drive readers to the next book.” The salvation of the novel? A step goowards? Who knows? I’m just happy for Duane.

SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE

dscn0638There was a time when a literary-minded soul could go into a Barnes & Noble anywhere in this great nation and buy him/herself a canvas tote bag that had been emblazoned with the likeness of Charles Dickens or George Eliot or Virginia Woolf or some other giant of letters. Now there is a new face on the tote bag, and it belongs to Stephen Colbert. Now, I know Stephen Colbert is a satirist of the first order and is technically a book writer as well (I really didn’t care for I Am America, and So Can You), and also happens to be wildly popular. But geez Louise, who’s next? Suzanne Sommers? All around me, I see smart men and women, really intelligent people, slowly letting their brains turn to goo, and while Stephen Colbert is hardly the prime malefactor of this offense, when you move from Dickens and Woolf to Colbert, I’d say yes, it’s a step goowards. Look, here’s a challenge. For the next week, keep track of what the people around you talk about. Your friends, your family, your co-workers. You’re going to get a lot of sports, a lot of American Idol, a lot of Dancing with the Stars, a lot of Star Trek and Angels and Demons. There is nothing wrong with any of these amusements, not at all. But see how many newspaper or magazine articles get mentioned. See how many books. Intellectual life is dying in this country, and it’s dying because educated people are choosing not to live it.

A VISIT FROM THE KNOW-IT-ALL

Many, many thanks to A.J. Jacobs, my friend and former colleague dscn0637at Entertainment Weekly, now a mainstay at Esquire and famous Oprah-appearing author of The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically, who last Thursday visited the class in magazine writing that I teach at Marymount Manhattan College. A.J. talked about how he got his start in writing (he worked at a paper outside of San Francisco, and rode the sewage beat to the big time), where his ideas come from, the challenges he faces in executing his particular, Plimpton-like particapatory stories, and the role his wife plays in his work (germane). He said that he hadn’t been particularly religious before undertaking his Year of Living Biblically, in which he scrupulously followed Old Testament teachings, but that he definitely feels more spiritual now. I also liked his reply to one question about whether he meant to be serious or satirical when he wrote about these subjects. “Both,’ he answered, sensibly. As Willie Shakes observed, “Many a truth is told in jest.” It was awfully good of A.J. to come by. The class certainly learned a lot from him.

THE BEAUTY OF THE “NO COMMENT” COMMENT

get-attachment-11Hey, Richard Holbrooke! You’ve been a diplomat since 1962, you’ve been Ambassador to the UN, you negotiated the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, you’ve been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize seven—count ‘em, seven—times—and right now you’re President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose Bureau of Tourism is, as I understand it, about to copyright the slogan “Birthplace of the End of the World.’’ How will you spend a rare Sunday night off? Why, by talking foreign policy to journalist James Traub (pictured, left) and a couple hundred policy wonks at one of The New York Times ‘ “Sunday with the Magazine’’ events, of course. (And really, the crowd wasn’t completely wonkish. The terrific Cherry Jones cherry-jones-on-24and her amazing cheekbones was in the crowd, although if you were playing the president of the United States on the Fox series 24, wouldn’t you have insisted on a private briefing about the Pakistan crisis?)

To his credit, Traub tried to get Holbrooke to commit some news, but the wily ambassador avoided it, although anybody with any aptitude in reading between the lines came away with a bit of insight into what the administration is thinking. Or what Holbrooke wants us to think the administration is thinking. Holbrooke pooh-poohed the significance of an article in Saturday’s Times that reported that in the face of a weak performance by Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari, US officials were courting the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. No no no no, said Holbrooke. We’re talking to him, not courting or wooing, and in fact. Zardari knows all about it and not only doesn’t he object, but his party and Sharif’s party just formed a coalition in the Punjab.

Well, says Traub, you couldn’t blame people for thinking that wooing was going on, because there has been all this talk that Zardari is weak and unprepared and less upset about the Taliban’s invasion of his country than, say, we are. “I’m not going to join choruses that get into internal politics,’’ replied Holbrooke. “Internal politics is important, but I won’t comment. Let me just say that strengthening Pakistan is in the interests our national security.’’ As it turns out, the real problem is that Pakistan has deployed only 120,000 troops in the western part of the country, hardly enough for such an enormous area. Somebody has to convince the army to change its 60-odd year doctrine of massing troops in the east to face India over Kashmir, and send more of those fellows to the west , where the active invaders actually are. Zardari has little influence over that issue.

Having cleared that up, Traub asked Holbrooke about the long-term efficacy of the US firing missiles form Predator drones into Pakistan, which efficiently obliterate Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives, but sure do seem to piss off Pakistanis. “No comment,’’ replied Holbrooke, who then commented that “There are people in West Pakistan who are regularly broadcasting that their goal is to be martyrs in the effort to kill Americans. In those circumstances, we’ll do whatever we can to pressure those people.’’ Gotcha–nudge nudge, wink wink.

OBAMA’S FIRST 103 DAYS

2009_05_nyt_swtm_pulsetakers_037At “Sunday with the Magazine,’’ a program of interviews and panel discussions presented by The New York Times, five journalists who cover the Obama administration for the paper offered some reasonably sharp observations on the president’s first 103 days.

HOW’S IT GOING? “This has been a pretty tremendous period,’’ said Matt Bai, who regularly writes about politics for the magazine. He was impressed at how successful the administration has been in putting policy first, though perhaps to a fault. Pointing to the gap in the polls between those who like the president and those who support his policies, Bai suggested this may signal problems for the administration six months out, if they haven’t devoted more time and attention converting that popularity into a political mandate.

THE PEOPLE’S PRESIDENT, OR THE PEOPLE PRESIDENT? “This is a celebrity presidency,’’ said White House Correspondent Peter Baker. “Obama is covered unlike any president has been since JFK. Glamour, Essence, Vogue, People, Us Weekly—they are all interested in this president. And the administration is using it.’’ Popularity is hard to maintain in this media-saturated culture, but so far Obama has been brilliant; the question is whether he’ll be able to keep it up.

COMPARED TO HIS PREDECESSORS. . . “Like Clinton,’’ said Baker, “he has an intellectual appetite. Like Bush, he is disciplined, and has an appetite to make bold decisions.’’ National Political Reporter Mark Leibovich, the author of a cover story on Chris Matthews that I admired quite a bit, pointed out that Obama modeled his press strategy after Bush’s, with a small circle of insiders who exercise tight control of information, and who regard the news media as an adversary. Agreeing, White House Correspondent Helene Cooper said that she found the administration “controlling, particularly on national security stories. I get phone calls from them saying `Why are you writing this story? This is no story.’’’

THE CAPTAIN HAS THE CON
Asked which of the powerful personalities on the National Security team was actually running foreign policy, Cooper did not hesitiate: Obama. “He’s prepared. He makes decisions. When you interview officials of other countries, they are impressed with his preparation.’’

THE FDR STANDARD “Compared to FDR, he’s underachieving,’’ said Adam Cohen, my former colleague from Time, and a member of the editorial board, and an author of Nothing to Fear, an excellent book on FDR’s first 100 days. “What Obama has done is important, but the products of FDRs first hundred days—Social Security, FDIC and so on—have really endured.’’

WHO IS THIS GUY? Is Obama progressive or centrist? “He is absolutely progressive,’’ said Bai, but due perhaps to a generational shift, “he is not dogmatic’’ about certain long-held policy positions which “ may have the effect of making him seem more centrist.’’ It’s not appearances, said Cooper–he is centrist, especially on foreign policy matters. “When he goes abroad, he is still the American President, ’’ she said. “ Look at his appointments. The more progressive people from the campaign did not get jobs on the national security team.’’ Baker agreed. “After all the fights, his policy on Iraq is nearly the same as Bush’s.’’

FINAL ANALYSIS The journalists agreed that the administration ain’t seen nothing yet–its biggest challenges lie ahead. “All they’ve really done to this point is spend money, which is pretty easy,’’ said Bai. “It’s harder to create programmatic solutions and ask people to make sacrifices.’’ The fight to reform health care will be major, Bai asserted; a setback in that effort would constitute major failure for the president, given his promises, his party’s control of Congress, and growing widespread support for reform. “And the clock is ticking,’’ Cohen warned. “By the time the midterm elections roll around, he will be less popular.’’

(Pictured: Baker, Bai, Cooper, Cohen and Leibovich. The panel was moderated by Megan Lieberman, the Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times Magazine, my onetime occasional colleague at Swing magazine.)