The Breakfast Table

Palindromic Bliss

Dear Katie,

I woke up this morning feeling oddly healthy, balanced, and sane, and it took a tiny item buried in the Times’ “world briefing” section to tell me why—at 8:02 tonight, for 60 seconds, we’ll live in a perfect palindromic moment. Military time will read 20:02, 02/20, 2002. If the millennium bug didn’t eighty-six our computers, do you think this will?

Alas, my Zen calm was shattered by another Times story—the Page One piece about the future of retail transactions: In the future, all we’ll need to buy our super-sized fries and Pepsi is our thumbprint. Does this strike you as happy news, Katie? The piece raises all kinds of what I’m sure are legitimate concerns—privacy, the likely intimidation of low-income consumers—but it didn’t address my nightmare scenario: That the next time I’m mugged, the guy will want to walk off with more than my wallet. Should we all start carrying duplicate, prosthetic thumbs to hand out at knifepoint?

Another calm-shattering moment: Did you catch New York magazine media critic Michael Wolff’s drive-by attack on James Wolcott in today’s New York Press? Wolcott definitely doesn’t need me to defend him; he’s got more arrows in his side than St. Sebastian, and he’s doing just fine. But still. Say what you want about Wolcott’s take-no-prisoners approach, his stuff is alive—he’s a jittery, acid stylist, he makes fine distinctions, and his punches actually land. Wolff, on the other hand, sleepwalks through his pieces—they’re sloppy, prosaic, borderline incoherent. Wolff isn’t even breathing the same air. About all I can read in New York these days, Katie, is John Leonard on television and Daniel Mendelsohn on books. How about you?

I’ve been trying to keep up with USA Today’s series of (groan) “special reports” this week—they’re titled “One Nation, Divided”—but I fear I may have to await one of Mickey Kaus’ Series Skipper abridgements. This is another of those post-election investigations—the 117th, by my reckoning—into “Red vs. Blue” America. In this case, USA Today sent intrepid reporters to Franklin, Tenn. (a Red state), and Montclair, N.J. (a Blue one), and what we get is an examination of the very predictable differences. The problem isn’t just that USA Today’s pieces read like David Brooks’ recent Atlantic Monthly cover story, but without Brooks’ wit and good cheer. The problem is that every one of these kind of stories seems the same—the writer sets out knowing what he’s going to find, and, surprise, he finds it. (I did love one bit in yesterday’s “ special report,” though: the pastor in Tennessee who keys his sermons to episodes of Survivor and has used Don Henley’s song “New York Minute” to “unmask” the emptiness of material success. Don Henley as moral beacon? Yikes. There’s more weirdness out in Red American than we thought.)

Speaking of series-skipping, do you ever look at the Guardian’s Web page? They’re running my favorite book review feature anywhere— 500-word condensations of new novels written in the style of the original! They’re terrific. (Here’s a sample of their abridgement of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which isn’t out over here yet: “Robbie saw a child’s limb dangle from a tree as he headed towards Dunkirk. The shrapnel wound in his side jagged on his belt, leaking blood and pus. Three and a half years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit compounded his bitterness. He had to make it home, back to Celia.”)

Two final questions Katie, if you feel like picking up on them: Do you care where Mike Bloomberg was last weekend? (The Daily News sure does. Mike’s on the cover. And Michael Daly sure lowers the boom in a somewhat bombastic column.) And: Can Rosie, the magazine, survive Rosie’s coming-out party?