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Sunday, June 30, 2013


Yesterday, at about three-thirty in the afternoon, as Susie and I were fussing over the last decisions about which bits of clothing to leave in our locked cabinets here and which to pack for home, we heard in the distance the unmistakable sounds of a manifestation – the French word for a street demonstration.  One of the unexpected delights of the quartier in which our apartment is located is that every street demonstration in Paris sooner or later makes its way through Place Maubert, half a block away.  Naturally, we hurried outside to see what was up.  As we got to the Place, we saw and heard an enormous mass of people dancing and strutting their way down Boulevard St. Germain, accompanied by sound trucks, balloons, placards, fliers, and masses of stolid police in full riot gear.  It was the annual Gay Pride celebration, on its way from Montparnasse to Place de la Bastille. 

Gay Pride this year is a mixture of celebration and defiance – celebration because France has just legalized same-sex marriage, the very first having been performed in Marseilles last month;  defiance because the legalization has provoked an angry and on occasion violent backlash, with a number of small town mayors refusing to perform the ceremony.  Three weeks ago, during Fête des Mères [Mother’s Day], the religious right took to the streets for a manifestation which, like all the others, marched through Place Maubert.  Susie and I stood by the side of the road, stolid and disapproving, as they passed by.

We were here for last year’s Gay Pride march, and this one seemed even bigger.  It had all the usual eye-catchers – tall gay men in wedding gowns and impossibly high heels, posing for every camera they could spot, thousands of young people dancing and chanting, sound trucks with their amps turned up so loud that the buildings shook as they passed, even a group of deaf gay and lesbian folks excitedly signing to one another.  At one point, just after a big float went by with people dancing on its roof, one of the men at the back of the float blew a shrill whistle and put his fingers to his lips.  The entire crowd, up and down the boulevard, fell silent for three minutes to honor those who have died of AIDS [or SIDA in the French version of the acronym.]

Susie and I joined the march and paraded for four or five blocks before stepping back onto the sidewalk to return to Place Maubert, where we watched from the comfort of our café.  We walked by St. Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, an enormous, squat, ugly Catholic Church whose forbidding and uninviting back faces Boulevard St. Germain.  I was puzzled by the especially heavy presence of riot police around the church until I remembered that the church is the home base of the most extreme right-wing traditionalist branch of French Catholicism, rejecting the Mass in French and all the other hated innovations of John XXIII.  The police were obviously concerned about a possible confrontation between the marchers and the parishioners, but the crowd in the parade was having too much fun to be bothered by some grumpy religious fanatics, and the parade flowed past the church without incident. 

When Susie and I walked back to our apartment a little after six, the parade was still going strong.  I allowed myself the brief fantasy that they were there to say goodbye as we head for America.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Susie and I are now packing up for the trip home.  Last night I made turbot and created a vegetable dish out of every last thing lurking in the fridge, save for the prune yoghurt that Susie favors.  Today I washed and ironed the duvet cover, Susie bought one last French shirt at the market, and we are loading up the two locked cabinets with the clothing we leave here between visits.  We shall return in late October for five weeks or so, but then not until next June, because we shall be taking one last African safari -- to the Okavango Delta in Botswana -- next April.  I hope to be able to post pictures.

Several folks have remarked on the difference in tone between my Paris and Chapel Hill blog posts.  It would not occur to me in Chapel Hill to go on about what I was cooking, for example.  I am happier, more relaxed, more at peace with myself in Paris, which of course means that I am a worse commentator on the passing political scene. 

A good deal has happened, both good and bad, during the past six weeks and I shall get back to offering my unsolicited opinions on politics and society as soon as I have caught up on lost sleep and thrown out six weeks of unwanted junk snail mail.  In particular, things have turned ugly in North Carolina, provoking a series of public protests which I think I ought to join as soon as I get home.

The one hundredth Tour de France has started, accompanied by Lance Armstrong's statement that it is impossible to win the Tour without taking banned drugs.  He should know.  I finally get home late on Monday, so Tuesday will be my first chance to blog.  Somehow, I suspect the world will scarcely notice the hiatus.

À bientôt.

Monday, June 24, 2013


Dear Friends and Colleagues, 
I am not an admirer of Bill Keller's writings, but perhaps without meaning to do so he draws a lesson from the past:  a variation of what used to be called in my time in government "mission creep."  
I have several times written about it.  It  comes down to a simple progression.  Once step A is taken, step B becomes more likely.  Then step C almost automatically follows and subsequent steps come to be seen as the only logical thing to do.
The process is actually somewhat more messy in real life.  Because other actors are inevitably involved, even while one party is doing, say, step B, others may be doing step C or beyond.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK was determined not to let this happen.  He had recently read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August and was impressed by the fact that at the beginning of World War I  the process itself had come to set the policy rather than the other way around.
You will probably recall that none of the major powers really wanted to go to war but each  of them convinced itself, or was convinced by the "hawks" who are always circling overhead in issues of national security that it would be short and relatively inexpensive.  Moreover, those who wanted to increase pressure on their foreign (and domestic) adversaries argued that taking step A really didn't amount to much.  One could stop there.
Of course, as we now know, that is often not true.  Kennedy had a sharp lesson in the Bay of Pigs.  Several steps had already been taken before he took office.  He really didn't want to escalate, but he knew that if he did not, he would be attacked for being "soft" on Communism -- still in 1961 a very serious charge.  He convened his senior advisers and asked for their opinions.  Of course, he really didn't want their opinions but their support.  All of them gave it with one exception:  Chester Bowles.  It happened that Dean Rusk was away and Bowles was acting secretary of state.  Previously, he had been "cut out" of information on the CIA plan and was horrified when he learned of it.  He spoke up at the meeting and Kennedy, who had his own plan -- the cynical one of letting the CIA trained and paid for Cuban team pay the price --  never forgave him.  
Kennedy did not, I think, learn from that botched job.  Vietnam moved in regular and predictable steps from Eisenhower-Dulles step A (helping the French with limited logistical support and money), to B (a sort of training mission) to C (special forces) etc.  Never was there a time when stopping was a serious option.  So we had years of war and thousands of casualties to no planned result. 
Then there came Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now comes Syria.  Mission creep redux.  And with the usual complications.  It turns out that while we are still discussing what I guess is step B, the CIA has for months been at work on steps much further down the line, training, equipping and arranging the funding for some of the myriad insurgent groups.  
What we see happening raises another, less visible, question: does anyone in the government know what all the "players" are doing?  
In my time in government, we tried, not very successfully, to handle this issue with interdepartmental task forces.  The reason they did not always work well was that each government agency -- even the Department of the Interior -- had its own foreign policy with its own objectives.  It was very hard to force them into an overall single or national  policy. I was head of the task force on Algeria and learned how hard it was to get the members to reverse course:  I wanted them not to come together to speak for their own agencies but to go back to their agencies to speak for the whole.  It was not easy but the Algerian group became a sort of model in its time.  That model would be very hard to apply now,  .   Now it is even more complicated because of the use of outside contractors and because of the push of special interest groups.  As far as I can see no one is trying.  So, regardless of legal, moral, and other issues, our policy is formless and often self-defeating. 
So, Syria:  what is or what should be a single US policy?  Is anyone thinking about that?  I can see at least half a dozen separate and partially conflicting policies in play. 
Even worse, suppose any one of those policies predominates and  is successful, what is the likely outcome? 
That is the sort of question, General George Marshall created the policy planning staff to address.  
We did not address it in Vietnam (and there got lucky because the Vietnamese did the job we thought we knew how to do); we did not address it in Iraq (and there created a bigger problem than ever.  Indeed, incredibly, we facilitated the growth of the protégé of our declared enemy, Iran, which, whatever else can be said about it was not smart); and to judge by the incredibly inept handling of the Afghan challenge, no one has a hand on the tiller there either. (the avoidance of negotiation for years on which I sent you a short piece a few days ago and now the bungling of the first step in negotiation smacks of gross incompetence).
So what would "winning" be like in Syria?  I predict it won't be what we think and say we want and is likely to be the very opposite: a shattered "failed" state or statelets, most or all of which will hate us and at least some of which are apt to host those who will seek revenge against us.  If we try to buy our way out, we will have to pour in billions of dollars we should be spending to teachers, students, schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, affordable energy,  etc.  at home.  And there will come a limit to how willing the Chinese are to pay for our senseless foreign ventures. 
In conclusion, I emphasize the old fashioned idea that we should look before we leap.  And we should recognize that in international affairs the first step is already part of the leap.
William R. Polk
669 Chemin de la Sine
F-06140 Vence France
tel: +33 (0)493 581 627
Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism
Understanding Iraq
Understanding Iran
Personal History
Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times
      and other books available on Amazon

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Last night was fête de la musique in Paris.  This is one of the most delightful and imaginative of the many ways in which Paris celebrates itself and uses its public spaces.  Started in 1982 by Minister of Culture Jack Lang, and now imitated in hundreds of cities around the world, fête de la musique is a people’s music festival that brings hundreds of thousands of Parisians into the streets on June 21st, the first night of summer.  Everyone is invited to perform.  Grunge bands set up on street corners and in squares, hook to a power source, and blast their music for milling crowds.  String quartets play Beethoven in the toney Place des Vosges.  Solitary violinists or oboists gather tiny bands of admiring listeners on side streets.  World famous orchestras and vocal ensembles perform in Paris’ premier concert spaces.  And everything is free. 

In past years, Susie and I have simply wandered down to the river and joined the strolling families and couples moving from group to group, spending as much time watching the other strollers as listening to the music, but this year we decided to try to get into one of the premier events, a concert by the world-famous early music group The Tallis Singers.  The concert was listed in the indispensable PariScope as taking place at 2030 hrs [i.e., 8:30 p.m.] in the Musée d’Orsay.

The Musée d’Orsay began life in 1900 as the Gare d’Orsay, one of Paris’ huge, ornate train stations.  In 1986, after a complete make-over, it reopened with the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artworks in the world.  Train stations tend to be vast, cavernous spaces, and the Gare d’Orsay was no exception.  Located on the Left Bank quais just opposite the point on the Right Bank at which the Louvre ends and the Jardin des Tuileries begins, the station stretches for a long block east to west.  The renovated museum preserves the enormous open interior space as a “nave” [as though it were a cathedral], surrounded by galleries on four levels.  The museum contains an auditorium where Susie and I recently attended a [paying] concert, and the inevitable restaurant.

Despite arriving almost an hour early, we found ourselves pretty far back on the line waiting outside the museum.  When the doors were opened, even though the concert was free, a select group of special guests was let in first.  Not even Paris’ socialist mayor can overcome the French obsession with social class.  The concert was held in the nave, and les invités[O1] [O2]  immediately occupied the chairs that had been set up close to the impromptu stage, leaving the rest of us to grab spots on the marble benches lining the nave or simply to sit on the floor.  Susie and I bagged two of the last free spots on the benches, and watched as hundreds upon hundreds of people poured in, creating a pretty tight jam.  Considering that the concert featured Palestrina and Allegri, it is astonishing that many of the people in the audience were young.  When Susie and I used to attend the wonderful early music concerts of Aston Magna in Great Barrington each summer, we would joke that our presence was lowering the average age of the audience.

Shortly before 2030, when people were still milling about, Susie caught sight of Pierre Bourhis, a tall, striking baritone whom we have heard and enjoyed countless times in concerts of medieval music at the Cluny, le Musée du Moyen Âge, several blocks from our apartment.  It turned out he was looking for the two ladies sitting next to us on the stone bench, and when he approached, I called his name and thanked him for the lovely concerts we had heard [in French, I might add.]  He seemed pleased.

The concert, which lasted for about seventy-five minutes without intermission, was of course simply splendid, and despite the discomfort of the unyielding marble benches, I spent a rapturous hour and fifteen minutes.  The high point, and one of the truly magical moments in my concert-going experience, came not in one of the Palestrina offerings, but in the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri, a composer of whom I had never heard.  Four times during the brief twelve minute piece, a lone soprano voice soared higher and higher above the rich tapestry of sound created by the other nine singers until it seemed to detach itself from any actual person and swell, pure, full, completely without vibrato, filling the vast space of the Musée d’Orsay.  I am familiar with the arguments for the existence of God and their refutations, and I can say definitively that none of them, even tweaked by Alvin Plantenga, can hold a candle to that divine sound.

Afterward, we went back to our Place Maubert café and ate Berthillon cassis sorbet while two rock bands competed in different corners of the Place.  Republican proponents of “freedom fries” to the contrary notwithstanding, the French have some things they can teach us about what it is to be a society.


Friday, June 21, 2013


Two tiny events this morning to illustrate the power and indispensability of Google.

1.   When you get to be the age that Susie and I have reached, you find yourself taking lots of pills -- I take seven each morning, to lower my cholesterol, lower my blood pressure, and protect against heart attacks and strokes.  Susie, who suffers from MS, takes many more.  When we travel, assembling our pills and labeling them to keep them straight is a big part of our preparation.  In addition, Susie broke her shoulder in January, and still suffers a good deal of pain from it, so we brought along lots of Tylenol.  This morning, as she was sorting out her pills, she came upon two little glassine bags of white oblong pills that were unlabeled.  Each set had letters and numbers imprinted on them.  What were they?  In fifteen seconds on Google, I ascertained that both were batches of Tylenol [acetaminophen]. 

2.  I have two [darling] grandchildren, Samuel and Athena, as I have often remarked.  My sister has four grandchildren, one of whom, a brilliant young woman named Emily who has just graduated from college, is spending the summer with my son, Patrick, and his family in San Francisco as a sort of volunteer au pair.   Emily has a blog --  -- on which she has, among other things, been reporting her interactions with Samuel and Athena.  This morning I was wondering what the genealogical relationship is between Emily and Samuel and Athena -- second cousins?  first cousins once removed?  Something else?  Ten seconds on Google settled it.  They share common great grandparents [my mother and father] and hence are second cousins.

I realize that my younger readers will greet this information with the same level of excitement that is aroused in them by indoor toilets rather than outhouses and electric refrigerators rather than iceboxes.  But I am old enough still to stand in awe of the power and speed with which information of virtually any nature can be retrieved from the Internet.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I have written a good deal about cooking here in Paris, and it occurs to me that someone might be interested in the space in which I do my cooking.  [All blogging is a cross between faith and narcissism.  But then, faith is a cross between faith and narcissism.  I mean, why should I imagine that God is waiting to hear from ME?]  So I measured my kitchen.  It is 160 by 170 centimeters, which is to say about 29 square feet -- a bit more than five by five.  In that space are a refrigerator, a two-burner plaque induction cooktop, a [brand new] dishwasher, a sink, a combination microwave and convection oven, a Paris stone work surface, and storage space above and below for dishes, glassware, pots and pans, food supplies, herbs and spices.

In that tiny space, large enough for only one person at a time, I have prepared duck, rabbit, quail, coquelet, steak, pork chops, boeuf bourguignon, paupiette, dorade royale, turbot, tuna, rouget barbet, swordfish, skate, coquilles St. Jacques, trout, gambas,  meat sauce for pasta, French beans, pea pods, white and green asparagus, braised endives, zucchini, mushrooms, steamed baby spinach, fingerling potatoes, linguini, and heaven knows what else.

I am in Paris,  one of the magical cities of the world, and yet I can honestly say that some of the happiest hours I have spent here have been in that tiny space a tad larger than five feet square.


There are three pending matters that concerned citizens are anxiously keeping track of both in the United States and among the ex-pat community here in Paris:  Will the Heat win Game Seven?  Can the Red Sox hang onto their one and a half game lead and consign the hated Yankees to baseball hell?  And will the Supreme Court today rule on four vitally important cases:  Prop 8, DOMA, the Voting Rights Act, and Affirmative Action?

I leave it to those with deeper minds than mine to decide which of these is the most important.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


The Boeuf Bourguignon was a great success, although the preparation filled our tiny apartment with smoke [from the braising of the beef], forcing Susie to get our big standing fan out of the closet and ramp it up.  It ought to make two more meals, but first tonight I shall make some turbot the fishmonger at the market filleted for me.  That and steamed white asparagus with a mustard, olive oil, and Balsamic vinegar sauce should do nicely for a simple meal after the excesses of the boeuf bourguignon.  A chap at the Italian restaurant across the street looked rather alarmed as smoke poured out of our open window, but when he learned that it was just the birth pangs of a boeuf bourguignon he gave me a thumbs up and went back to consuming most of a bottle of white wine for the opening of which he had borrowed my corkscrew.


Yesterday I reported that, guilt stricken, I had contacted the mairie of the 5th arrondissement to arrange for the pickup of my deceased dishwasher.  This morning, at ten of six, as I set out on my morning walk, I saw that it had indeed been taken away.  "Well," I said to myself, "there you have it.  Do the right thing and the world cooperates.  Very nice."  Later on, as Susie and I set out for the market, we stopped in to tell the nice lady in the hotel next door about my success in arranging this bit of civic proper behavior.  She laughed and told us that yesterday in late afternoon a little man came by, eyeballed the dishwasher, went away, returned with a dolly, and carted the dishwasher away.

As I learned many years ago during my undergraduate days,  post hoc, ergo propter hoc is not a reliable rule of inference.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Ah, you ask.  Am I really so amoral [perhaps as a result of being atheistic] that I can just dump a non-functional dishwasher on the street and forget about it?  Sigh.  Would that I were.

So I asked Google for "5th arrondissement mairie" and up popped the website of the town hall of the 5th.  Right there was a list of services, the second of which was "enlevement d'objets encombrant," which, sure enough, means pick-up of bulky objects.  An array of pictures, and as you roll your cursor over each one a balloon pops up with a list of likely objects.  There in the balloon over what looks like a refrigerator was "lave-vaissel," which is to say dishwasher.  I clicked on that, entered my address, chose tomorrow morning between six and eight as the time when I would put it out [all right, all right, so it has been there for two days disgracing the street.  Nobody's perfect.]  My name, my telephone number, my email address, and I got an eleven digit confirmation number and the message that they will be by to pick it up.

Oh yes, I was instructed to write the number on a piece of paper and "scotchez" it [no kidding] to the dishwasher.

So there, I am not really a bad person.


One of the more interesting out-of-the way corners of the field of Economics is what might be called the pure theory of location.   If we assume that consumers are completely rational and have perfect knowledge, that all the retail outlets selling a particular commodity offer identical instances of the commodity at the same price, and that consumers make their buying decisions solely on the basis of how close a retail outlet is to where they are [and of course that all consumers prefer the closer outlet], once one retailer has entered the field, where is the rational place for a second retailer to locate?
You might think the answer would be something like: Not too close to the first retailer, but maybe half way between that retailer and the edge of the space in which the consumers are located.  You might think that, but you would be wrong.  The correct answer is, right next door to the first retailer.

To see why this is so, consider a one-dimensional world in which everyone – retailers and consumers alike – is located somewhere along a line of finite length.  [This is of course unlikely, although not more unlikely than most of the other assumptions modern economists make, but my basic point is the same even if folks are spread out in two dimensions, such as in a city.]  The first retailer to open a shop commands the entire market.  Since there may be some distance beyond which some consumers are unwilling to travel, and assuming that consumers are distributed evenly along the line, the best place for this first retailer to locate is right in the middle of the line, the minimum average distance from a randomly chosen consumer.
A second retailer, who decides to enter into competition with the first, must locate either to the right or the left of the center of the line.  If she chooses left, she concedes all sales to consumers lying to the right of center, because she must be farther from any of them than is her competitor.  She maximizes her sales by nestling right up against the left flank of the first retailer’s shop, thereby snagging all of the business to her left.  She and her competitor then can wrangle over who gets the business of any consumers who happen to be located on the dividing line between their two shops.

I reflected on this truth this morning.  It rained cats and dogs for several hours, and when it finally let up, we went out for a walk.  We strolled up rue de la Montagne Ste. Geneviève as far as rue des Écoles, and decided to have a coffee in a café we had never before frequented.  We sat by the window, and I idly looked out the window on the street we had just walked up.  There, right next door to one another, were the only two Tibetan restaurants in the 5th arrondissement.  “Boy,” I thought, “what on earth can they be thinking, locating right next to one another.  Why doesn’t one of them move to rue St. Jacques or Place St. Michel?”  And then I remembered my elementary Economics.

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Two days ago we blew a fuse.  I don't mean we got very angry.  I mean we blew a fuse.  I got up and tried to make a pot of coffee and the plaque induction cooktop would not go on.  Then I discovered that the light was out in the refrigerator, and the clock display on the front of the microwave/oven combination was off.  A little testing [it is a very small apartment] revealed that everything else was operative.  All of the kitchen appliances were out.  Well, I spent some quality time with the tiny circuit breaker panel between my desk and the door to the apartment and ascertained that there is indeed a 40 amp breaker labeled "kitchen appliances," and after waiting twenty minutes [these things, for some reason, have to think about the meaning of life for a while before they will snap back on], I managed to get the stove, the fridge, and the microwave going [in the interim, we went to the café and had coffee and croissants -- there are some compensations to being in Paris.]

Some more testing revealed that there was a short in the dishwasher.  I am well aware that fixing things like dishwashers is more expensive than replacing them, so I went on line and started looking for a new appliance.  The problem, as I very quickly became aware, was that the dishwasher, installed under our sink is tiny -- if we were ever to try to live large and invite a third person to dinner we would need two runs of the dishwasher to handle all the dirty dishes.  Myriam Willis, the indispensable lady who arranges for the apartment to be cleaned and has repairs made when they are needed, suggested a store called Darty -- a chain of appliance stores one of which is pretty close to us on Boulevard St. Germain, just west of Boulevard St. Michel.

I slept on it, and yesterday morning girded up my loins.  The first problem was to get the old dishwasher out of its nest and unhooked.  This required taking off their hinges the doors that conceal the space in which the dishwasher has lived for nine years.  Fortunately, I have learned how to snap these fancy hinges off,  but the space is so constrained that I could not get both hinges off the left hand door, so I had to unscrew the hinge from the door.  I pulled out the little dishwasher, unplugged it, unscrewed the water hose connection [very hard, as it was stuck after nine years], pulled the drain hose out of the drain pipe, and she was free.  Sliding the box along the stone floor of the apartment, I got it to the door.  Getting it into the courtyard posed a new problem, because the stalled construction that has partially blocked our entry for six months [that is another story] left too little room between the raised cement planter in the center of the courtyard and the fence round the construction site.  But by tilting it up and pulling it along the lip of the cement planter, I was able to get it past the obstruction.

I then did something that shows a shocking lack of civic spirit.  I pushed the box all the way to the street and just left it sitting on the sidewalk next to the entrance to our copropriete.    In Paris, one is supposed to call the city and make an appointment for the pickup of old appliances and such, but that must be done in French, and I find that intimidating, so I just left it sitting there.  If I were Maureen Dowd, I would expect an extra several centuries in Purgatory.

Off to Darty.  We found an appropriate model on the floor, and when the salesman told me it would be available on June 26th, I panicked and bought the floor model on the spot.  An extra ten Euros for a little collapsible dolly, and the salesman smothered the box in bubble wrap, taped it endlessly, then taped the whole objet to the dolly, and Susie and I set out for home, with me pulling the new dishwasher behind me through crowded Paris streets.

At home, I wrestled it into the apartment, we cut away the tape and bubble wrap, and I set about installing it.  There were some complications that would only captivate aficionados of appliance installation, and we were done.  I had done it, all within forty-eight hours of the initial electrical short.

The instructions, in French of course, are hopelessly complicated.  The bloody thing takes your ecological temperature, ascertains just how much energy and water usage you can tolerate, and then adjusts itself to your preferences.  As I write this, I am running it on an initial launch, empty of dishes [per the instructions for the first go round.]  The machine is quietly counting down from 168 minutes, which is the duration of the standard wash.

I am irrationally proud of having diagnosed the problem, removed the old machine and installed the new one, but I really think that when I hit eighty-five I am going to let someone else do it.


Yesterday, I went to the market and bought three pounds of beef, two carrots, two stalks of celery, two carrots, a leek, a can of tomato paste, three onions, some little potatoes, five thick slices of lardon, and a bottle of Burgundy.  Yes, Virginia, I am going to make boeuf bourguignon.  Today I chopped and sliced the beef, onions, carrots, celery, and leek, added peppercorns and the bottle of wine, and put it all in the fridge to marinate for twenty-four hours.  Tomorrow I shall complete the dish and serve it up.  Wish me luck.  This is a very simple recipe from Ma Bourgogne, a lovely restaurant in Place des Vosges in the 4th arrondissement.  I got it out of a book.  Oddly, the restaurant itself no longer has boeuf bourguignon on the menu.  I have made it once before, and it was spectacular.  I figure if I can make a traditional boeuf bourguignon, I can do anything.


Susie and I have now sufficiently penetrated the arcana of our FranceTelecom cable package here in Paris that we can locate movies on television and then, with a series of secret remote control maneuvres, get them to switch from the French dubbing back into the original English.  Last night, we stumbled upon that great old Cary Grant Katherine Hepburn comedy, Bringing Up Baby.  After we stopped laughing, I went on line to check on the identities of some of the supporting cast, and stumbled upon this philosophical gem.  I mean, I like Stanley, always have, but there are limits:

“Bringing Up Baby was the second of four films starring Grant and Hepburn; the others were Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). Their last three belong to a sub-genre of screwball comedy known as the comedy of remarriage, described by philosopher Stanley Cavell as Hollywood's crowning achievement. Cavell noted that Bringing Up Baby was made in a tradition of romantic comedy with roots from ancient Rome to Shakespeare.”

Friday, June 14, 2013


I would like to say something about how I write.  Since what I have to say will be, among other things, embarrassingly self-congratulatory, I am going to invoke the fiction that I am responding to several email messages from admiring readers who have asked me about the subject.  The NSA, no doubt, will know that this is false, but even someone as self-absorbed as I must acknowledge that the NSA has better things to occupy itself with, so I am pretty sure they will not out me.

Reviewing the books I have written, and the essays, reviews, speeches, and drafts that I have chosen to include in my Collected Papers, I am struck by how often I employ humor of one sort or another in writings with a deadly serious purpose.  It is worth asking [at least it is worth it to me -- here is where the element of self-congratulation enters] why I have chosen to do that.

Let me give just a few examples.  In the third chapter of Moneybags Must Be So Lucky, I undertake to explain the precise meaning of the famously mysterious section of Chapter One of Das Kapital in which Marx goes on at great length about the Relative and Equivalent forms of value.  Heaven knows, I am not a scholar of the vast international secondary literature on Capital, but I am unaware of any other student of Marx who has ever succeeded in explaining that puzzling passage in precise, clear, non-technical language.  Louis Althusser considers the first chapter so formidable that he actually recommends that readers skip it until they have mastered the rest of Volume One.  So why on earth do I introduce my explication by telling an old Jewish joke about Mrs. Feinschmeck’s Blintzes, the structure of which, I claim, is exactly the same as Marx’s account of the relative and equivalent forms of value?

My review of Allan Bloom’s awful book, The Closing of the American Mind, the preface of which is by Bloom’s colleague in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, novelist Saul Bellow, is written entirely on the absurd premise that the book is actually a novel by Bellow in which Bloom is a brilliantly realized character.

My “unpublishable” account of a conference on Kant’s Philosophy of Law is presented, à la Kierkegaard, as having been written by “Johannes Climacus” [the pseudonym that Kierkegaard uses for both The Philosophical Fragments and for The Concluding Unscientific Postscript.]  the account is full of satirical sketches of the participants and, at one point, argues that legal scholars view Kant’s arguments in the way that players of Dungeons and Dragons view weapons they acquire along the way as conferring on them large numbers of “hit points.”

What is going on?  Can’t I just be serious?

There are three reasons why I choose to write in this fashion, aside from the simple fact that it amuses me to do so.  The first is that I have spent my entire professional career trying as hard as I can to make really difficult ideas simple and clear, so that I can show them in all their beauty to a class of students or a group of readers.  Most philosophers [but not the greatest of them, of course] seem to spend their time trying to make simple ideas appear suitably complicated and obscure.  These authors strike me as being fearful that if they say what they have to say simply and clearly, no one will realize how smart they are.    Analogizing Marx’s obscure argument to a joke is my way of saying, “Look!  I have now made this so clear, so simple, so immediately comprehensible, that it is no harder to understand than a joke.  Now you can enjoy the beauty of Marx’s argument, as I do, immediately and spontaneously, in the way that one laughs at a joke.”

The second reason is more complicated.  As I explained in my tutorial, “Ideological Critique,” Karl Mannheim shows us that the aim of the speaker in an ideological exchange is not merely to refute one’s opponents but to defeat them, destroy them, shame them, ridicule them, drive them from the field of battle.  Ideological polemic, unlike scholarly discourse, is a form of warfare.  Some of my writings have this character.  I am angry, offended, repelled by my opponents, not simply convinced that they are mistaken about some point of logic or philosophical explication.  But righteous anger has the often unintended effect of acknowledging one’s opponent as an equal.  If I were to review Bloom’s book straightforwardly, advancing arguments against his central theses, I would be accepting him as an equal, according him a place in the arena of debate equivalent to my own.  The deliberate purpose of satirical humor is precisely to reject that equivalence.  I laugh at those beneath me, not at my equals.  In the case of the Bloom review, I hit upon the ultimate rebuke.  After all, what is the absolute worst one can say about an author for whom one has contempt?  Not that he is incorrect.  Not that his views are without foundation.  Not even that his stance is immoral.  The worse one can say about him is:  that he does not exist!

The account of the conference on Kant’s legal theories is a gentler example of the same impulse.  I was not offended by the participants in the conference [save for one of them, a really despicable homophobe], but I was amused by their pretension.  The frame I chose allowed me to make gentle fun of them, while also taking seriously the handful who had contributed genuinely interesting and scholarly contributions to the discussions.

The third reason is entirely self-aggrandizing.  I am blessed with an unshakeable confidence in my own superior intelligence [whether deserved or not!], with the result that I feel no need to demonstrate it by writing obscurely.  It is not for nothing that I chose as the epigraph for my Autobiography Emily Dickinson’s great short poem, “I am nobody, who are you/Are you nobody too?”, which is, among other things, Dickinson’s declaration of her superiority to every other poet of her time.  By writing in a humorous vein about genuinely difficult and obscure matters, I conceive myself as dancing gracefully through the realm of ideas, in much the same way [although I really do not in any way compare myself to him!] that Bach plays with the rigorous and difficult form of the fugue by writing crab fugues and inverted fugues with effortless ease.

Let me conclude this little ode to myself with one more appallingly inappropriate analogy.  Far and away the greatest contemporary cellist is Yo Yo Ma.  He has so completely mastered the ferociously difficult technique of the cello that when he plays, he looks as though he is not so much producing the music as listening to it.  There is something about the way he holds the cello, leaning back away from it as though it were playing itself, that communicates that he need no longer even think about the fingerings and bowings that absorb the attention of lesser cellists.  The great Russian cellist Rostropovich used to play in much the same manner.  God knows, I do not think of myself as a satirist in the same world as Jonathan Swift, say, but there are times when I feel like Fast Eddy Felsen, moving around the pool table with an animal grace, secure in the knowledge that he cannot miss. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Susie is a dedicated meat eater, and I am therefore under constant pressure to buy more beef and less fish for our dinner.  We have now been in Paris long enough so that I have pretty well exhausted my culinary repertoire.  I have cooked quail [twice], duck, rabbit, mackerel, dorade royale, rouget barbet, tuna, a gambas stew, andouillettes de canard, pork cutlets,  paupiettes provencal [prepared by the butcher], coquelet [what we call in the States a Cornish Game Hen -- actually just a young chicken], even a meat sauce for spaghetti.  So today, when I went to the market, I decided to buy a T-bone steak -- Susie's favorite because she loves the bone.  I looked up the word for T-bone steak in my huge Larousse French-English dictionary, and found a very odd French word, "aloyau."   Susie and I then spent a hilarious ten minutes at the butcher shop trying to explain what we wanted, with absolutely no success.

From this experience, I concluded that one of two things must be true.  Either cows in France lack certain bones that American cows have or French butchers cut up the cow in such a way that they do not produce T-bones, carving the meat away from the bone and throwing the bone away.

The first hypothesis, although rather engaging, struck me as unlikely.  But could the second possibly be true?  Google to the rescue.  On a site devoted to a loving and detailed description of every conceivable cut of beef, I came upon the following claim:  "T-Bone steaks cannot be sold in France (Europe?) because of the whole mad cow thing a few years ago - because they may supposedly contain tissue from the spinal column of the animal. For some bizarre reason, you can buy them in Germany, though."

Do you suppose this can possibly be true?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013


I have now completed all of my editorial work on the four volumes of my collected published and unpublished papers.  It will still be a while before everything is done -- permissions obtained, covers designed, etc. -- but before too long they will go up on as e-books.  There must be a hundred essays, reviews, and the like in the four volumes.  On the one hand, that seems like a big pile of chopped liver, as they say where I come from.  On the other hand, over sixty-two years, that is not even two a year.  Tucked away in all that verbiage are some little pieces that I think are worth a look -- a critique of the work of Hannah Arendt, for example, and my unpublished [indeed, until now unpublishable] report on a conference at Columbia Law School on Immanuel Kant's legal philosophy.  And of course my satirical review of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind.  The lovely comment just posted on this blog by Lucille encourages me to hope that a few people will find their way to one or another of the volumes. 

Seventy years ago, I would sit on the steps to the second floor in my parents' little row house and listen to the grownups talking, longing for the day when I would be able to join the conversation.  Writing has always been, for me, a way to join the great conversation of Western Civilization, as a kibitzer, if nothing more exalted.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I leave it to you to figure out which one is famous International Grandmaster Patrick Wolff, and which one is my seven year old grandson, Samuel Emerson Wolff.  Hint:  The one who seems to be deep in thought, having trouble deciding what to play, is not my grandson.

Monday, June 10, 2013


I am one of the world's worst typists.  I type everything with my two forefingers, a method known as "hunt and peck," which clearly implies that I have the facility of a chicken, except that trained chickens are faster and more accurate than I.  I can actually on occasion achieve an impressive rate of speed at the typewriter, but only at the cost of hitting so many wrong keys that the line lights up with red marks indicating that my automatic spell checker cannot identify what I have typed.  I can think much faster than I can type, but that is not saying much.  Jeff Sessions, arguably the dumbest person in the United States Senate, can think faster than I can type.

It is a mystery to me how I can have written as many books as I have, typing this badly.  During my recent visit to the French doctor, reported on this blog, I had at one point to type something into her computer.  She stared incredulously as I pecked away with my two fingers.

It is much too late to learn to type the way normal people do, so I am condemned to hunt and peck until I die.  Maybe as I dwindle away in a hospice, someone will bring me a voice recognition package so that I can dictate my last will and testament.  That would be a nice way to go.

Sunday, June 9, 2013


I am constantly looking for relatively painless ways to improve my feeble French, so yesterday I bought a copy of Sciences et Avenir, which appears to be a magazine devoted to popularized science writing -- lots of color, big print, and flashy illustrations.  What attracted me was the cover story, "Decouverte Neanderthal -- Pourquoi il a disparu et nous Sapiens avons vaincu" -- which means just what you would imagine it means.  I have been a sucker for stories about Neanderthal Man ever since I was a kid.  When I got to page 40 [lots of illustrations and big print teasers, not so much real text], I found photos of a man and a woman.  The photo on the right hand page is supposed to represent homo sapiens -- a very attractive young woman identified as "Venus d'Afrique."  The photo on the left is intended to represent the Neanderthal -- homo neanderthalensis:  A picture of a man with lots of facial hair, appropriately sauvage.  What really grabbed me was the look on his face.  One eyebrow is raised quizzically, and he has an ironic smile on his thickened lips.  He might be an extinct hominid, the picture was saying, but that doesn't mean that he can't have a sufficiency of French savoir-faire

The French.  You gotta love 'em.

Saturday, June 8, 2013


Paris is divided into twenty arrondissements, each of which has a mairie, or town hall.  Our mairie here in the 5th is in Place du Pantheon, and at least once during each trip to Paris we walk up rue des Carmes to the Place and visit the mairie for the free pamphlets they give out listing events in our arrondissement.  The corresponding building for all of Paris is a wonderful large wedding cake of a building called l’Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall, located on the Right Bank just north of Nôtre Dame.  Susie and I pass it quite often on our way to le Bazaar de l’Hôtel de Ville, or BHV, a big upscale department store where we have bought many of the items with which we decorated and stocked our apartment, including our elegant Philippe de Grenne dishware.

Parisians have a conception of public space entirely different from that of Americans, for whom the streets are simply an inconvenience connecting their private spaces.  The socialist mayor of Paris has done a great deal to make public spaces available and attractive to ordinary Parisians.  Perhaps his boldest move has been to create “beaches” along the Seine each summer, even trucking in sand, so that the folks who cannot afford to leave their Paris apartments for the côte d’azur can nevertheless recline under beach umbrellas and “get away for the month of August.”

The space in front of l’Hôtel de Ville is a large Place that is converted in the winter into an ice-skating rink and at other times of year into fairs, expositions, even a garden with all manner of plants and flowers.  At the moment, it is home to an enormous outdoor television set on which the French Open tennis championship is being shown.  Yesterday was a warm, sunny, beautiful early summer day, and when Susie and I walked through the Place on our way to BHV, we saw hundreds upon hundreds of Parisians reclining on attractive plastic “sofas” and sitting at little tables, or even just sitting on the flagstones, watching the extremely exciting match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.  The Nadal/Djokovic match, although a semi, has widely been viewed as the real final, since everyone thinks that whichever one won the match would surely go on to win the title. Today, at three p.m., Serena Williams will play for the title against Maria Sharapova.

It is typical of Paris that behind the space where the tennis fans sit an actual tennis court has been set up so that people can play tennis, not just watch it being played.

Perhaps I am simply an unreflective enthusiast for all things Parisian, but this conception of public space seems to me infinitely preferable to the corresponding American conception.  It is, by the way, the reason why Parisians are content to live in apartments so tiny that well-to-do Americans would consider them little more than walk-in closets.

Friday, June 7, 2013


As a follow-up to my previous post, follow this link to a story on TPM.

I will be totally honest.  My first response to the story was, "Wow!  How cool is that!"  If anyone thinks that the government is going to deny itself this sort of integrated information simply because it require the continual invasion of everyone's privacy, that person is deluded.

Welcome to the global village, where your neighbors know everything there is to know about you.


When I come to Paris, I try to put the United States and even world politics behind me.  I relax, cook, walk, hang out in the local café, and contemplate my mortality with as much aplomb as I can muster.  The world, of course, takes no notice that I am on vacation, and goes on outraging me comme ordinaire.  So I think I have to say something about the recent revelations of Obama’s invasive spying on Americans [or at least on those of us who happen to have chosen Verizon as our cellphone service provider, which includes me.]

First of all, the spying is unconscionable, unconstitutional, inexcusable, and the direct responsibility of Obama.  He is the former Con Law professor, after all.  He chose to do it, he approved it [I am sure], he received reports of the results of it, and so far as anyone knows, he never raised the slightest question about it.

So I am appalled.  I am also not in the slightest surprised.  It seems to me to be a well-established truth that in the area of electronic data management, storage, and retrieval, if it can be done, it will be done.  This is a time in which Google routinely keeps track of books I have electronically expressed an interest in, so that it can direct me to other titles it thinks I might be inclined to buy.  My electronic shopping leaves tracks that permit all manner of retailers to deduce my buying habits, in hopes of getting some of my dollars.  Expedia remembers where I usually fly from, and WORD obsessively corrects my spelling, whether I want it to or not.  I have left so many cookies in cyberspace that I could open a bakery.

The White House says it only checked the numbers I called, not what I said after someone answered.  Sure.  If that is true, it is only for lack of enough storage and a workable voice recognition package.  Give them a year or so.

Obama is the best we are ever going to get in the way of a President, so far as this sort of thing is concerned.  So if he turns out to be no better than George W. Bush, I think we can stop imagining that Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton or even, lord help us, Elizabeth Warren would be any better.  If ever the notion of structural oppression has a usage, this is it.  This use of technology to invade the privacy of ordinary citizens is baked into the structure of the imperial state.  Anything any of us launches into cyberspace can be, and therefore will be, appropriated without our consent by all manner of people and governments with the technology to latch onto it. 

All of this being so, should we protest?  Of course.  Will our protests stop the invasions from occurring?  Not a chance.  Who in government is ever going to want to have to say, “I could have stopped it [insert your tragedy of choice], but I would have had to listen in on a lot of phone conversations, and that would have been wrong”?

Should we demand that nosy bureaucrats get a court order first?  Sure.  Is there a federal judge in America who would deny such a request?  Be serious.

It is possible, although inconvenient, to keep oneself separate from the Cloud [pay cash, don’t send emails, don’t tweet, stay away from Facebook and UTube, don’t text, don’t use a cellphone or even a landline], but although that will protect you from electronic surveillance, it will have no effect whatsoever on the general practice. 

If it can be done, it will be done.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Yesterday, Susie and I set out to see our Paris doctor, Dr. Agnes Bryn.  Rue du Pot de Fer [Iron Pot Street, presumably] is off rue Mouffetard, almost at the top of a steep hill capped by Place de Contrescarpe.  Since it would have been a difficult walk for Susie, we took the Metro to Jussieu, changed, went one stop to Place Monge, and walked over to Mouffetard.  I had left plenty of time in case I got lost, and we arrived at our street maybe forty minutes early.

As we turned into rue du Pot de Fer, my heart soared.  It turns out to be a narrow little seventeenth century street lined with cafes and restaurants.  Since yesterday was the first certifiably Spring day Paris has enjoyed, everyone was out in the streets, and at ten of three, there were plenty of people finishing a late lunch or having a glass of wine en plein air.  Number 11, Dr. Bryn's address, is flanked by Restaurant Basque and the Hideout Bar, which announces itself as an Irish Pub, with non-stop NHL, NFL, MLB, and Rugby on the telly.  Tourist central.  Far and away the best doctor's waiting room I have ever seen!

We took a seat at an outside table across the street at the Rotisserie Chiken Pub [which my automatic spellcheck keeps trying to change to Chicken, but it really is Chiken.]  We ordered two kirs and relaxed to watch the world go by for half an hour.  The sign over the door of the seventeenth century building housing Dr. Bryn's clinic reads "11 gaz a tous les etages," a relic I assume of the day when gas on all floors was a selling point, like "hot and cold running water."

As we sat, a slender middle aged woman with a look of amused intelligence on her face came out of number 11 on an errand.  Her eye caught mine and she smiled.  I smiled back.  "I think that is our doctor," I said to Susie.  At twenty-five after, we rang her bell, were buzzed in, and walked up one flight of stairs to "le premier etage," as the French say.  We entered the door with Dr. Bryn's name on it [there were several doctors' offices], and after a few minutes she came out.  Her face burst into a big smile and she said, "I thought it was you!"  As Renee Zellweger says in Jerry Maguire, she had me with hello.

Dr. Bryn took first Susie's medical history and then mine.  I had arranged for UNC Health to email our records to her, but the records have some sort of security control that makes them self-destruct if they are not opened in a certain amount of time [sort of like Mission Impossible], so I called the USA later and they will re-send them.  Susie likes me to come to doctor's appointments with her because the cognitive difficulties that are an effect of her MS make it difficult for to remember later what a doctor has told her, so when Dr. Bryn started asking questions, I undertook to answer them.  But she shushed me and said she wanted to hear from Susie so that she could form an impression of her.  I liked that.

Dr. Bryn was bright, knowledgeable, clued in about medications and such like, and withal charming.  Since I actually like our primary care physician in Chapel Hill a lot, I cannot say it was a marked change from a visit to the doctor at home [except for the waiting room  ;) ],  but I came away quite reassured that if either of us had a medical emergency while in Paris, we could reach out to Dr. Bryn with confidence.

After an hour, we had covered everything important.  Dr. Bryn charged me 120 Euros for the two of us, and gave me some forms with which I shall file for reimbursement from our supplementary health care insurance when we return home.  Then, since it was still lovely outside and downhill to our apartment, we walked home, giving Susie an opportunity to window shop at the seemingly endless series of little boutiques offering shoes, jewelry, scarves, and purses.

Monday, June 3, 2013


After two months of perfectly awful weather – rainy, cold, and dismal – Paris has finally coughed up two days in a row of sunshine, and everyone is beginning to smile again.  It is still a good deal cooler than it ought to be for June, but it is possible to believe that summer will arrive on schedule.  This morning, I successfully conducted a scientific experiment, although my readers will probably be less impressed with it than I was.  A word of explanation is required.
The Seine, as you might expect, flows west to the Atlantic Ocean, a fact that totally disorients an East Coast type like me, just as I am disoriented whenever I visit my grandchildren in San Francisco.  If you are sitting on a boat floating down the Seine, our neighborhood will pass to your left, which is why our part of Paris is referred to as The Left Bank.  Thus, when I crossed over in front of Nôtre Dame this morning at six-thirty for my daily walk and turned left along the Right Bank, heading for the Louvre and the Jardins des Tuilleries, the Seine and I were moving in the same direction.

I noticed a fairly large piece of wood floating downstream up ahead of me, and by the time I had passed the Louvre and was striding [hem, hem] alongside the Jardins, I was a bit ahead of the piece of wood.  I thus was able to deduce that I was walking slightly faster than the Seine was flowing, which allowed me to conclude that the Seine flows at roughly 3 ½ miles per hour.  That is enough science for today.
I have just finished my lunch, a two egg omelet with a mushroom and some cheese cut up in it, all cooked with butter and flavored with salt.  Eggs, butter, and salt – three things I simply never eat in America, thanks to the necessity of keeping my cholesterol and my blood pressure down.  However, I permit myself this indulgence occasionally in Paris because I have read that for some mysterious reason, eggs, butter, and salt are actually good for you in Paris, even though they can kill you in the United States.  Apparently it has something to do with the Gulf Stream. 

Tomorrow Susie and go to rue de Pot de Fer for our appointment with the English speaking French doctor.  I shall report.


Sunday, June 2, 2013


This morning I tried a new walk – circumnavigating the sixth arrondissement.  It actually only took me fifty-five minutes to go south on Boulevard Saint Michel, west along Boulevard Montparnasse, then north on rue de Sevres and rue des Saint Pères, but it seemed to go on forever.  I passed the Vaneau Metro station, which no one ever seems to get off at.  I can see why.  It is a dumpy little station.  But next to it is an enormous construction project with signs [in English] warning “Last apartment for sale,” so maybe Vaneau will perk up as a Metro station.  These walks are showing me parts of Paris that I would otherwise never see.  Yesterday I did my walk to Place d’Italie and actually made it home without getting lost.

Yesterday at the market I bought four enormous gambas [shrimp], and this evening I am making a stew with them to serve on rice.  Our little apartment is tiny – a rectangle plus bathroom 31 square meters, which is about 330 square feet – one fifth the size of our small condo in Chapel Hill.  But it has a full scale kitchen, in which I will cook dinner.  I love that little space.  When I stand in the “kitchen,” mincing garlic and onions and mushrooms, drinking wine, chopping up some fresh basil and oregano, “adjusting the seasonings,” I feel completely at peace.  When dinner is ready, I will turn down the lights, put some baroque music on the CD player, cut the baguette into pieces, pour wine for Susie and me, and sit down for a simple meal.

I have now pretty well finished preparing the table of contents for Volume III of my collected papers.  Once all the permissions are in and the covers designed, all four volumes will be available on  Will anyone ever read the volumes?  Who knows?  But they will be there, eternally in the cloud.  This editing work I am doing has an oddly valedictorian character to it.  Somehow, it seems as though I ought to die when it is done.  But I am not ready for that, so I need to find something else to do with what remains of my life.  Perhaps someone reading this blog will come up with a good idea.