Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What We Wear In Winter: A Guide

grey worsteds
The Sales have begun. Actually, many of them began before Christmas this year. We can pick up a few essentials at excellent prices. Here's a simple guide, especially for young men starting a wardrobe.

Our advice is to get in the habit of buying fewer things and paying a little more for quality and classic style. That said, especially for the young, don't be afraid of great stylish values, like a coat from Uniglo, once in a while. Finally, you will need some "annuals:" even good socks wear out at the heels, and you will lose that glove.

Wear wool trousers, not cotton in winter. Wearing cotton khakis in winter (or any other time at the office) is a sure sign of someone who is not paying attention. Ditto corduroy at more formal offices. We should wear worsted wool, preferably grey in a comfortable weave. Flannel trousers may work for you in January & February (see note below on suits).

Get and wear merino wool knee-length socks; Brooks Brothers is expert at this (and, sadly, not much else these days, except boxers). Remember to get the ones with the elastic at the top, unless you expect Jeeves to lay-out your braces in the dressing room each morning.

merino knee-length
We can still wear mid-to-heavy weave dark blue-wash denim to an office in winter , when appropriate, and for social engagements. Just be sure to wear those merino knee-lengths to keep your legs warm and a mid-length coat.

Flannel suits? Maybe you saw them on Mad Men but,  remember, you saw a lot of stuff there that either never happened in real, real life or shouldn't have. Contemporary homes, stores and offices are too warm for flannel suits. If you must do it, make sure that you've been exercising. Flannel favors those who are trim.

Barbour in winter? We think Barbour coats were and are a brilliant idea, but we also think their liners make for a bulky fit over suit-coats or blazers. Try a Lands End Commuter Coat, which keeps you very warm and, at $179, is a great value: also the Squall Parka.

Uniglo thermal coat 
Overcoats: That longish herringbone overcoat or, even worse, that velvet-collared chesterfield that Santa (mom) brought you one Christmas? No, not if you're wearing proper clothing underneath (you can actually wear this with dark denim) . Who wants to do business or fall in love with Holden Caufield IV? Nobody, that's who. Uniglo makes a remarkably affordable mid-length overcoat in navy.

Gloves, hat, scarf? Yes, yes, and yes. But, why pay $125 for a pair of black leather gloves, when you know you'll lose a left or right again*? Orvis makes a very good pair in black and brown (about $60). Hat? The new-style fedoras are nice in late fall and early spring, but, unless yours has ear-flaps, forget them. As you may know, we are true believers in Saint James Watch Caps from France. Scarf? You only need one: Patagonia fleece in black ($30), an indispensable great value.

Thinking about leaving the house without a hat in real winter, or worse, wearing that ball-cap? Do yourself a favor: don't.

SJ Cap/Fleece Scarf
Long-johns? Okay, if you're skiing or skating outdoors, or chasing that caribou through the north woods for that very special stew recipe from gramps before he went away to the home. Basically, if you really had to wear longs to work or a party, you should grab Tolstoy from the shelf, light the fire, settle in with your loved one, and don't even think about going out.

You're welcome.

One last note: Twice each year, we recommend that you look in the closet and drawers with an honest eye to those items you simply do not wear and probably never will. Give them away. Pruning after winter and summer will train you to have less, but to invest in things you will wear proudly for a long time. Tomas Maier, the German designer, says that we can be very well dressed having only two suits, or even one which we replace now and then. True.

* If you can afford it, buy two pair of the same gloves once you know they are good ones. Or, buy one dark brown and one black, since you can easily mix and match. You know you will lose one glove each winter, and so you will still of have a left and a right. If you lose two lefts or rights, please return your RareBurghers membership card and put your hands in your pockets.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Books II: Get Shorty-vich

Yuri's Sigh-beria

Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky may not be household names, yet, but they are the Nureyev & Fonteyn of Russian literature translation. Poor Constance Garnett!

The pair have made a new translation of the Pasternak modern classic, Dr. Zhivago. Some bookshops may need to re-inforce the shelves  to hold this tome,  and tree-planters better get busy in the forest. This text is not to be confused with the sentimental lightness of the unfortunate David Lean film. Oooh, Yuri....Ouch!

Santa is likely to bring a copy of the book to some unsuspecting Gen XorY-ovich in our house, but I wish that publishers would get back to giving Twitter-crazed readers a break by releasing long (450+ page works) in installments.

Konemann W&P, left
"Get back," you ask? Tolstoy's War & Peace was originally published in six separate parts. Dickens famously wrote in installments and received payment by the word. Dostoevsky? Same-ski. Yet, we send Beauregard and Elsie off to camp armed with thick David Copperfields for something we idiotically call "Summer Reading."

Newsflash: "Some Are Reading," but millions more are not, since they are overwhelmed by size and heft.

The new e-readers are clever contraptions, but those e-ditions require the same massive psychological leap for Texter-Tweeter readers, especially the young ones, that the hulking hardcopies do.

Literature profs will be offended by a suggestion that we "spoon-feed" great works, but the alternative is that people will only see literature as something they HAVE TO DO at school, in order to become a bond trader or founder of the next

What we now call trade "paperbacks" cost about 3,000% more than volumes which  began life as "pocketbooks." Let's get back to that pocket-sized concept.

Mr. Penguin and Bill Murray (What about Bob?) had it right. Baby Steps.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

No Jazz, No Diploma!

Several events recently conspired to remind me of the richness of classic Jazz and the woeful state of musical education and appreciation in the US.

First: one evening last week I was a little early for a holiday party, so I decided to play tourist, wandering past the tree at Rock Center, crossing Fifth Avenue to light a candle at St. Patrick's (at $2, the undisputed best value in NYC), and continuing north, a rare native among the mostly European pre-holiday swarm.

Passing Cartier I was suddenly struck by the familiar sound of John Coltrane's alto-sax on his seminal rendition of My Favorite Things (link below) pouring out of the speakers and into the chilly late fall air. Thousands of people were passing-by, some recognizing the famous show-tune above the chatter on their cell phones. Few, I'm sure, recognized the legendary 1961 solos by Coltrane and McCoy Tyner on piano.

I stood still on the corner and listened.

Next: very early Saturday morning, "round midnight" in fact, my wife ( the Darling Girl ) and a daughter (a DD) and I were listening to our nephew/cousin play a set with his band Oh Whitney at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. I was reminded of the days when Adrien was about 13 year old and playing in a jazz combo in a little place near his home in St-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris. He had been a baby-faced drummer in the midst of adults, barely visible behind the smoke and his drum set. In Brooklyn, he managed to hold a good but still developing band together.

Finally, I read in yesterday's Times that James Moody, one of jazz's great sax players had died (link below). I began the day in his honor listening to his record Young At Heart and continued humming/singing his Love and Marriage throughout the day. I usually save jazz for the late afternoon or evening, but his deceivingly simple note-playing and relatively soft tone was a perfect way to begin the day.

James Moody
Here's an amazing fact: it is actually possible to obtain both a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree without having to demonstrate an understanding and/or an appreciation of classic Jazz. This is a monumental  mistake.

But, the good news is that it is never too late to make up for this lapse in what one hesitates to call our "education." We are better off approaching jazz from the heart and soul, rather than simply from the head. This is, of course, precisely our problem: we think that we can think our way into and out of any problem at all. After all, we are in control, aren't we?

As if.

Jazz explodes that thought and in doing so provides a rich gift: the ability to overcome our fear of not being in control by turning it into joyous and mysterious sound. Jazz, at its best, gets very close to being sacred music. Coltrane, Davis, Ella and Sonny Rollins never said, "Hey, let's go think some jazz." They wanted to let their souls roam and play.

Even with that caution about an intellectual approach, I still highly recommend Ben Ratliff's book The Jazz Ear as a primer. Ratliff, the Times' jazz critic, held a series of conversations with noted jazz musicians, while listening to those musicians' favorite recordings. These conversations provide a guide to the history of Jazz's musical and human story, a great deal of which, but not all, is also the story of African American music, history, and culture.

But, mainly it's fun, sexy, sad, joyous, bruising, exultant, fearful, triumphant. It is The Iliad and The Odyssey with no requirement to know ancient Greek. You only have to sit still, or, if you're lucky, stand on a city street corner in the evening, and listen.

My advice is to begin with two well-known tunes, re-interpreted by Coltrane and Miles Davis: My Favorite Things and Bye Bye Blackbird (links below). Then, just go from there. Not only will you complete your education, but you will have a richer life for it. And, don't forget James Moody.

Moody obit:
The Jazz Ear:

Friday, December 3, 2010

Are Books Obsolete?


1) Are books obsolete? They are if you do not have any, or don't bother to read. And, if the latter is the case, you may soon become obsolete.

But, what if you do read and own some books; will they soon be obsolete anyway, as new digital readers emerge?

I recently pruned our own shelves, attic, and cellar in anticipation of a move, getting us down to about 1500 books. I do not worry that these might become obsolete for me; they will not. I read often and often read several books at a time. I prune the ones not truly worth keeping and buy annuals to fill in the gaps.

What about Kindle or the ipad? I admire the ipad's overall design and the way that the engineers and designers treated printed text as they digitized it for the screen. It is a beautiful machine. Some books with pictures and many magazines may actually look better on an ipad than on paper.

The Kindle, on the other hand, holds little interest for me. It is physically unappealing, a typically mediocre corporate-design product, focused more on the corporation's needs than the needs of readers and viewers. This machine does not attract the eyes or hands the way that the ipad does so successfully. Kindle, I think, is a one-dimensional fad that will soon pass.

One thing that I can say with some certainty is that our current gadgets, be they ipads, cellphones, laptops, will be obsolete within ten years: maybe five.

How can this be? Think about the gadgets, if any, we were using in 2000 vs. what we use today for communication, music, work, entertainment. Toast. It will be the same with our current machines soon enough.

My books will not be obsolete in ten years, but my phone and computer will be.

Are your books obsolete? Up to you.

2) I've just seen Martin Scorsese's documentary starring Fran Lebowitz called Public Speaking on PBS. I had forgotten what a brilliant and whacky wit she is, possibly because she hasn't written much lately, due to a massive writer's block. Try to see the film if you still can.

She believes that there are too many books being published instead of too few. Agreed. Everyone wants to have their say in print and trade publishers are accommodating every Mo, Larry, and Curly-Sue who has an opinion.

Lebowitz's theory is that this is about self-esteem and that we are a culture obsessed with self esteem, which takes the place of real learning in and out of schools. She feels that there is too much democracy in the culture, where we do not need it, and too little of it in politics and government, where money prevails.

Instead of the old meritocracy for writers, we've dumbed it all down into Reality Publishing with too many books written by people who think we really want to know the texture and color of their undergarments. This is not to say that we do not have many very good writers today (or that we don't appreciate undergarments); we have many, but we could easily survive without half of this stuff making its way onto shelves in a dwindling number of indie bookshops and in Amazon warehouses.

3) Our obsession with self esteem has a cousin, I think: our obsession with being entertained every moment of our day. We find it hard to drive across town without listening to our favorite music, or stand in the checkout line without thumbing-up Beyonce's latest Tweet.

We like what comforts us, which explains the success of genre writing like mysteries and thrillers, from A.C. Doyle to John Le Carre'. What really attracts us is not newness, but sameness. We rely on characters to act in the same ways each time out. Nothing terribly wrong with that.

But, this craving for instant entertainment and sameness makes it harder than ever to to read great long works.

The best books often make us feel discomfort and impatience. They are great precisely because they give us the unexpected and they invoke  mystery. They are not in a hurry to do either.

The Magic Mountain may indeed be magic, but it is also a very, very long trick. Lydia Davis's new Proust translation certainly holds mystery (when is something going to happen!), but it is in the minute details of everyday living (well, okay, Proust's everyday living).

The great books make us wonder in both an imaginative and a mysterious sense . A great book will entertain those who have patience, while challenging the very way we had been seeing the world before we read it. The work's rewards are directly related to our own commitment to its difficult charms. It is very much like falling in love, a wonderful yet perplexing experience for anyone who tries it.

When that kind of wonder-full experience becomes obsolete, just turn out the lights.

Ed Note: US students tied for 16th place for Reading in recent international testing, a bit above the average score. We tied with Poland. Shanghai was first, while 2nd place Korea was not even close.
Have you sent your children a book today?