Daniel Menaker

Tick Off

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Maxwell had a tick on his rump which had been there for three or four days and had inflated to the size of an M&M. Really disgusting. This one was salmon-colored, maybe from the blood it was engorged with, turning the tiny brown horror huge and pink. This is a bad tick season. Katherine, my wife, had one on the back of her neck and actually went to two doctors for it. The place where it was still hurts, as if the tick had left some subdermal irritant there. Maybe its name was Kilroy. (I read somewhere once that the name “Kilroy” is a sort of Fawkesian anarchist pun combinng “kill” with “*roi*,” French for “king.” There are competing etymology theories. Freudians consider Kilroy’s drooping nose and two fists a symbolic depiction of the male genitalia, and thus a kind of testimony of sexual mischief.)

Speaking of sexual mischief and rumps, last night at a party I met a very smart young spanking fetishist/author named Jillian Keenan who told me that when a child who will go on to have this fetish, or who nascently has it at a young age, is spanked, it is similar to or actually a version of sexual abuse, despite the fact that the parent doesn’t know it.

What a party that was! Also met a guy who the next night was serving guests chocolate ice cream that required seven separate steps for its creation. No–it was NINE. Nine steps and seven days. And before that there was a book party for Peter Kramer and his new book about anti-depressants. He made an, um, well-developed, thank-you speech–to a room brimming with his fellow-shrinks–which featured a sort of hankering paean to New York and its culture of conversation. (I think Dr. Kramer lives in Boston.) At that party, a therapist told the old joke How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Well, first the light bulb has to WANT to change. Along these same mental-health lines, I told the first and only joke I’ve ever made up:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Dementia who?
I forget.

At that same party, Katherine reunited with David Hellerstein, who, when Katherine was a lowly story editor at theTimes Magazine, wrote a piece that K put on the magazine’s cover. That was a pleasurable re-crossing of paths.

Meanwhile, I am trying and largely failing to figure out how to bring this back around to the tick on Maxwell’s rump. Maybe it’s just all about afflictions. Except for the chocolate ice cream. Or maybe it’s all about love. Of the city, of Katherine, of people and their strangenesses. And of Maxwell. But not of the tick.

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Keyless in the Berkshires

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Originally posted on Facebook:

Maxwell takes two walks a day in the country. One in the morning–“the loop” as my wife, Katherine, and I call it–and often somewhere else in the late afternoon. Back down Peter Menaker Road but this time not the loop but off the loop, to the shore of Lake Buel, where he fetches sticks from the water, jumps over a low wire fence on command, as graceful as a sine curve, and subsequently, dripping wet, goes temporarily nuts, tearing around lakefront properties as if in frantic search of the Golden Bone.
But sometimes for those afternoon walks, in the skiing off- season (there was no real on-season this year) we put him in the car and drive a couple of miles around to the Butternut ski area, park outside the gate, and turn him loose.

First, the geese. A flock of them are (is?) often floating and paddling pointlessly, as far as I can tell on a small and painterly pond near the entrance, and Maxwell dashes down to the pond’s edge, creating havoc among them. They honk and start running on and churning up the water before they achieve their flapping liftoffs. Maxwell pulls up short at the edge of the pond and watches them fly honkingly away, and to my eye he looks mightily pleased with himself.

Then we walk up the slopes and under the chairlifts and down the slopes and in front of the lodge, dreaming of the snows d’antan and in my case, d’when I used to ski. (The first time I tried, I was wearing new bluejeans, and I kept falling, and kept leaving literal blue streaks on the snow. People would point to them from the lifts with some amusement. Jerks. )

Today there was a wrinkle. On our way back to where I had parked, Maxwell went down a little hill to a stream and stepped into it and lapped up some water. I motioned him to go a little farther up the stream, so as to see him wallow a little, and, amazingly, he did, and it was great, because it still wasn’t deep enough for him to go all the way in, but he deliberately listed from one side to the other so as to get as much of himself wet as possible. It’s wonderful to see such pure and simple pleasure so directly conveyed. When he got out, we walked a ways further and I dug into my pockets and gave him a treat. Fifty yards more, and the car. Where are my keys? They’re not in my pockets. They’re not anywhere in sight. S__t. (Mr. F. B. “Al” Gorithm won’t let me boost this post if I spell that word out. Isn’t that kind of f_____g ridiculous, given what we can hear on TV every night and the vitriol spilled out all over this medium every second of the day?) We retrace our steps, which is fine with Maxwell–he would walk or run to the moon if he could. Can’t find them. No extras at the Farmhouse–I have an extra in NYC and my son has one. No immediate help there.
Miraculously, I do have my cell phone and consider calling a cab from Great Barrington to come get me and Max. But there’s a guy in a utilities truck just across from my car and he’s just idling, talking on his phone. I take a deep breath and knock on his window and ask him if he can take us back to the house. Really, unless there’s some urgency he has to attend to, how can he say no? He doesn’t. Maxwell seems to know that as beggars, we cant be choosers, so he sits quietly in the well in front of the front seat instead of trying to share it with me.

A genial, round-faced guy with a short gray beard, our indentured uberized driver tells us his opinions about climate change as he drives us home. He says, “They will say something like, ‘This is the warmest it’s been on this day since 1932’ or something like that and so what I’m thinking is, ‘Well, how does that fit into climate change, exactly?'”

“Well, maybe if you put all the numbers together,” I say.

“Oh, I’m not saying we aren’t having climate change,” he says. “And I’m not saying we are. I’m just saying .” He pulls into our driveway. “Hey–I hope you have an extra set of keys here.”

“Uh, somewhere,” I mutter. In fact, I don’t. I will call my son, Will, and ask him to overnight his keys to me, and I will live on eggs and orange juice and bread and leftover lamb and actually, it’s not so bad, food-wise, now that I think about it. There’s even one of those cellophane envelopes, unopened, of smoked salmon, 120 miles upstream from its original home, Zabar’s. Then, when the keys arrive, I’ll see if I can guilt a neighbor into taking me back around to Butternut. Or maybe someone will drive me and Maxwell back down there tomorrow and I will find the keys.

Since I couldn’t turn on the ignition, I had to leave the windows open. Thunderstorms are coming. Great.

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By Popular Demand

Sunday, June 05, 2016

“By popular demand” indicates that more than one people have demanded whatever it is. Gary Krist asked that I tell about the other person to whom I will not speak. I need one more people to demand it, to make the demand popular. Hmm. Let’s see. OK–*I* demand it.

The other person is Sean Wilsey, whose memoir, “Oh the Glory of It All,” I acquired going on many years ago now. I liked the book a lot–it told a good story about growing up rich and dysfunctional in San Francisco, with one of the best early paeans to skateboarding I know of and what I recall as a hilariously terrifying account of his mother at one point suggesting to him that they both commit suicide. I made an offer for the book, got it. I was Editor in Chief then and was utterly flooded with work, and I didn’t get around to reading and working on the manuscript for four or five weeks, though I think I officially accepted it pretty quickly.

Sean let me know of his impatience. He was going to move the book. I asked him for more time, read it and edited it as quickly as I could–I knew it was going to be successful.

He told me that he had decided to move the book, to Ann Godoff, at Penguin Press, my good former boss at Random House who was fired in a horribly public, shaming way. Just so you know, this means that Sean was breaking a signed contract, presided over by Ann herself, before she was run out of town. But signed contracts in book publishing often hold as much weight as a cotton candy would. (Later on, a writer who had a first-reading agreement with RH sold his book to another publisher without giving us that first or any other look. I called the agent and said, “Hey, we had an option on____’s next book. What’s going on?” She said, “I forgot.”)

I asked Sean to come into my office and he came in bravely, and I will say he took my tirade well. I think it was the only professional tirade I ever delivered. At one point, Sean wiped his brow in an almost cartoon-like way. Four weeks is not a long time to turn a manuscript around. The book whose cover is this blog’s image–“The African Svelte”? Eight weeks. And the editing, by Jenna Johnson, who has since left Houghton Mifflin, was superb. Anyway at one point, I asked Sean if Ann had actively tried to lure him away, and he said, “No–when I talked to her about how long it was taking, she just said, ‘I’m here for you if you need me.'”

It was humiliating for me to have to tell my new boss, Gina Centrello, about this failure on my part and malfeasance on the author’s. She was incredibly nice about it. I was just boiling with anger at Sean, and Gina was pretty philosophical about the whole thing.

By the way, I lied. I didn’t really edit the book after four weeks. I couldn’t. I didn’t really ever edit it thoroughly, even though in an effort to keep it, I gave Sean an edited manuscript. I was too overwhelmed with administrative responsibilities and other proposals and manuscripts. I asked my assistant, Stephanie Higgs, to read and make editorial suggestions about the manuscript, and, reader, I redid some of them in my my own handwriting and added occasional comments and commas of my own. Cringeifying!

To some extent, what Sean did was a fair comeuppance for me. Maybe he intuited that in addition to the four-week delay, I had, largely unconsciously, been taking him and his work a little for granted. He was much younger, callow, spoiled, in my opinion, a kind of literary peon, however accomplished, in comparison to me, master of at least some of what I surveyed. He could wait for my attentions.

That last paragraph: probably the sequellae of too much analysis. However patronizing I may have been–and it wasn’t very–this guy broke an agreement, undertaken by Random House with admiration and enthusiasm, and with a a pretty high $offer. Afterward, I ran into Sean a few times at this or that book party. He came up to me to try to talk. No thanks.

By the way, I once posted about ordering from a Chinese restaurant and hearing the woman on the other end ask, “Do you want utensirs?” Gary Krist, one of the two online begetters of this post, chided me a little for this touch of P.Un-C, suggesting that I had been drinking. There was a little back and forth about “Amos ‘n’ Andy” and so on, an eventually I malbecianly unfriended him. He messaged me, to the effect of what?! Had I really unfriended him? I friended him again and now considel Galy Klist a good fb fliend.

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Noblesse Oblige

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Will Menaker would have been in high school, I think. He had idolized Muhammad Ali ever since we had seen one of the movies about him–was it Will Smith’s biopic, or “The Greatest”? In any case there was an event in New York, in some hotel high-floor event room, to which I had, inexplicably, been invited, and which Mr. Ali was also attending. I knew he would be there and and I think I told Will I would try to get Ali’s autograph for him. More inexplicably still, Lillian Ross, The New Yorker writer and William Shawn’s mistress, also attended this event, whatever it was. Lillian Ross and Muhammad Ali. What function could have put them together in the same room? She was no longer writing for The Talk of the Town very much, as I recall.
Lillian Ross is one of the two people in the world to whom I will not speak, not that she cares, of course. I won’t speak to her because having included me and Chip McGrath, a friend, in an anthology of Talk of the Town pieces at Random House, she dropped us out of the final product. I asked the book’s editor, David Ebershoff, why, and he was politely evasive, saying that Miss Ross thought that McGrath and I hadn’t really been regular Talk writers–which was true. I pressed him, pointing out that there were a few other “irregulars” included in the collection, and he finally told me that at some point as the book progressed, Lillian began to vilify me and McGrath for (I believe) not having supported Shawn during the contentious time when Robert Gottlieb was soon to arrive to take his place as the magazine’s Editor. Something like that. Ebershoff made it clear that Miss Ross had ended up being vituperative about us. Little did she or does she (unless she reads this) know, and, as I’ve said, little would she care, that I thenceforth determined never to speak to her.
Enough about Lillian Ross. Ali. He was there. He was looking good, if a little tremulous. Admirers surrounded him like iron shavings around a big magnet. I couldn’t just bust through and get his autograph. I hung around on the periphery, feeling like a fool and almost hoping that I wouldn’t even get the chance to approach him.
But I did. He was leaving. The crowd around him opened and he started walking in the direction of the elevators, and, miraculously, he was alone, except for a few bodyguards. No one approached him as he made his way. Except me. I figured out how to sort of flank him through this door and then back through that one, and we ended up face-to-face at the elevator bank.
Muhammad? No, Mr. Ali. “Mr. Ali, I’m sorry to bother you on your way out, but I wonder if I could get your autograph. For my son, for my son–you know, for him.”
“Yes, hold on.”
“Thank you.”
“You got paper?”

“Uh, no. Wait.” I somehow foraged some scrap of paper and handed it to Ali.

“You got pen?”

“Uh, no.”

His coterie did not seem to have a pen, either. They did seem impatient.

      “Wait, wait,” I said. I dashed away a few feet and copped a pen from someone else nearby. I went back to Ali. “Here.”
Ali looked at me, sort of scrutinized me. “Hey,” he said. “You know what?”
He said, “You not as dumb as you look. What’s your boy’s name?”

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