James Garner (1928–2014)

James Garner11

James Garner played cowboys, soldiers, detectives, astronauts, and race car drivers. He was, as Brandon David Wilson said on Twitter, “American manhood personified,” “a kind of ideal midpoint,” as Ned Raggett tweeted, “between laconic cool and comic vulnerability – like Steve McQueen plus Cary Grant.”

In a great piece for the Atlantic on the dearth of charm among American men, Benjamin Schwarz basically designates Garner – with his “casual wit,” “good-natured ease,” “liking for and appreciation of women,” and “quizzical detachment” – America’s last charming man. He writes, “Garner had a magical ability to convey his offscreen persona of red-blooded, hardworking, plain, and thorough decency, even as his charming onscreen persona didn’t fully gibe with it. He thereby made a light touch and an ironic stance qualities that men found not just appealing but worthy.”

Of the three mid-20th century male TV stars who made the jump to movies – Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and James Garner – Clive James likes Garner the best, mainly because, unlike the more taciturn McQueen and Eastwood, Garner had a facility with words, a crucial component of charm. It doesn’t hurt that Garner was also, by all accounts, a pretty nice guy: married to the same woman since 1956, civil rights advocate, lifelong marijuana smoker.

Garner’s oft-remarked-upon charm is present from the beginning of his career in the late 1950s. Unlike Cary Grant, who didn’t hit his stride charm-wise until well into his career, Garner’s charm appeared more or less fully formed. This, I hypothesize, is partly due to the fact that he did stuff before becoming an actor. He lived life. The New York Times explains:

Mr. Garner came to acting late, and by accident. On his own after the age of 14 and a bit of a drifter, he had been working an endless series of jobs: telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant. While pumping gas in Los Angeles, he met a young man named Paul Gregory, who was working nearby as a soda jerk but wanted to be an agent.

Years later, after Mr. Garner had served in the Army during the Korean War – he was wounded in action twice, earning two Purple Hearts – he was working as a carpet layer in Los Angeles for a business run by his father. One afternoon he was driving on La Cienega Boulevard and saw a sign: Paul Gregory & Associates. Just then a car pulled out of a space in front of the building, and Mr. Garner, on a whim, pulled in. He was 25.

The rest, as they say, is history, but Garner never really shed his “regular guy who works odd jobs” persona. I think this accounted for, insofar as it gave him a certain world-weariness, a fair chunk of his charm. World-weariness is, in fact, a key ingredient of charm according to Schwarz, who writes that “Only the self-aware can have charm: It’s bound up with a sensibility that at best approaches wisdom, or at least worldliness, and at worst goes well beyond cynicism.” “I was never enamored of the business, never even wanted to be an actor, really,” Garner told the New York Times in 1984 in a quote reproduced at the end of their obituary for him yesterday. “It’s always been a means to an end, which is to make a living.” Now, some of this may be false modesty on Garner’s part, but at a time when it seems like everyone and their mother wants desperately to be famous, Garner’s “take it or leave it” attitude, and the life experience that led to it, strikes me not just as indicative of charm, but of virtue. It’s usually stupid to try to emulate actors, but James Garner might be the exception to the rule.

Sunday 7.20.2014 New York Times Digest


1. Love People, Not Pleasure

“People who rate materialistic goals like wealth as top personal priorities are significantly likelier to be more anxious, more depressed and more frequent drug users, and even to have more physical ailments than those who set their sights on more intrinsic values.”

2. The Pickpocket’s Tale

“These are lean years for pickpockets. People carry more credit cards and less cash; men wear suits less, and tightfitting pants more.”

3. New Dimension in Scoreboard Watching

“As teams reap billions of dollars from television networks that carry their games in increasingly vivid detail, fans are finding more reasons to stay home, especially as the costs of tickets, parking and food escalate. So in a twist that would make Marshall McLuhan proud, teams are trying to recreate the living room experience in stadiums. In recent years, they have installed televisions in suites, boosted Wi-Fi and cellphone signals, and created lounges where fans can track their fantasy football teams.”

4. Jeter, Like Duncan, Makes the Routine Extraordinary

“His legacy also represents baseball’s most enduring and endearing qualities, an appreciation of nuance that sets it apart from its primary competition.”

5. Sometimes, Early Birds Are Too Early

“People appear wired to incur a significant physical cost to eliminate a mental burden.”

6. Income Inequality Is Not Rising Globally. It’s Falling.

“Income inequality for the world as a whole has been falling for most of the last 20 years.”

7. The Job That Keeps Playing in My Head

“Over the next months, more friends moved away from Iowa City as they found jobs and made plans to start families, or found agents and received grants. My book, though, was a mess. I found myself increasingly alone. With Ned. With the house. The stink of pigs grew rich and complicated as the weather warmed, as the cold prairie came back to life.”

8. The Data-Driven Home Search

“The growing accessibility of highly detailed demographic data plays into the natural tendency of home buyers to look for ‘people like us,’ which is as old as the subdivided hills.”

9. The Future of Robot Caregivers

“Are there ethical issues we will need to address? Of course.”

10. Our Love Affair With the Mug Shot

“From the iconic images of Butch Cassidy and his crew to the gangster mug shots in 1920s and ’30s pulp magazines, from the introduction of the F.B.I.’s most-wanted posters in 1950 to today’s click-bait online mug shot slide shows, we have always sought the chance to gaze at accused criminals.”

11. The End of ‘Genius’

“The lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: the creative network, as with the crowd-sourced Wikipedia or the writer’s room at ‘The Daily Show’ or — the real heart of creativity — the intimate exchange of the creative pair, such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney and myriad other examples with which we’ve yet to fully reckon.”

12. Real Adventurers Read Maps

“There’s admittedly something satisfying about watching the blue-dot version of yourself inch closer to its destination. And sure, for the rush-hour commuter it’s very 21st century for your phone to alert you to an accident snarling traffic up ahead. But I would argue that a road trip, especially one taken with another person, is a lesser experience with GPS or navigation apps.”

13. How Tests Make Us Smarter

“Used properly, testing as part of an educational routine provides an important tool not just to measure learning, but to promote it.”

14. Staring at the Flame

“Philip took vivid stock of everything, all the time. It was painful and exhausting work, and probably in the end his undoing. The world was too bright for him to handle. He had to screw up his eyes or be dazzled to death. Like Chatterton, he went seven times round the moon to your one, and every time he set off, you were never sure he’d come back, which is what I believe somebody said about the German poet Hölderlin: Whenever he left the room, you were afraid you’d seen the last of him. And if that sounds like wisdom after the event, it isn’t. Philip was burning himself out before your eyes.”

15. Eileen Ford’s Legacy

“Eileen was the person who made modeling really respectable. It was something that nice girls could do. Before that, it was a step up from being a hatcheck girl at the Copacabana.”

16. Technology’s Rainbow Connection

“Looking at the elated faces in the crowd, many stamped with that Facebook ‘Like,’ it almost seemed as if the tech industry and the gay communities in San Francisco had merged in a kind of ecstatically branded, hashtag-enabled celebration of shared ascendancy. And yet, for all these public strides, insiders say the culture has yet to fully transcend its frat-boy programmer reputation.”

17. Real Men Don’t Drink Pink

“The idea of assessing sexuality or character through what is in someone’s refrigerator is absurd, although anyone who sees an extra-large Domino’s Pizza box in a man’s refrigerator and sticks around is getting no sympathy from me.”

18. Bill Hader: By the Book

“I don’t believe in the term ‘guilty pleasure,’ because it implies I should feel ashamed for liking something. A real guilty pleasure would be, I don’t know, taking gratification in some stranger’s ghastly death or something — which I guess I do enjoy, because I read a ton of true crime. So, O.K., O.K., I have a guilty pleasure, and it’s true crime.”

19. The Woman

“Luce ‘could enter a room where there were other women, more beautiful, better dressed with better figures, and they faded into the background, foils for her radiance.’”

20. Sing to Me, O Muse (But Keep It Brief)

“Technology has routed the humanities. Everyone wants the latest app, the best device, the slickest new gadget. Put on the defensive, advocates for the humanities have failed to make an effective case for their fields. There have been efforts to promote the digital humanities, it being understood that the adjective ‘digital’ is what rescues ‘humanities’ in the phrase. Has the faculty thrown in the towel too soon? Have literature departments and libraries welcomed the end of the book with unseemly haste? Have the conservators of culture embraced the acceleration of change that may endanger the study of the literary humanities as if — like the clock face, cursive script and the rotary phone — it, too, can be effectively consigned to the ash heap of the analog era?”

21. Content and Its Discontents

“Taylor’s thesis is simply stated. The pre-Internet cultural industry, populated mainly by exploitative conglomerates, was far from perfect, but at least the ancien régime felt some need to cultivate cultural institutions, and to pay for talent at all levels. Along came the web, which swept away hierarchies — as well as paychecks, leaving behind creators of all kinds only the chance to be fleetingly ‘Internet famous.’”

22. What Are the Last Literary Taboos?

“There will always be taboos as long as the powerful are allowed to define what writers are forbidden to write.”

23. Let’s Cool It in the Bedroom

“You can almost effortlessly tweak your metabolic health by turning down the bedroom thermostat a few degrees.”

24. The Weird, Scary and Ingenious Brain of Maria Bamford

“Bamford talks about mental illness the same way Sarah Silverman talks about being Jewish or Louis C.K. talks about being divorced, with the flippant knowingness of an insider.”

25. The Pageant King of Alabama

“Alverson is one of the most successful beauty-pageant coaches in America today.”

26. Is Your Relationship With Fido on the Rocks?

“Today, dogs are one of the primary relationships — if not the primary relationship — in many people’s lives. We think of our dogs as family members, as kids, so it’s no surprise we would have conflicts with them. Our dogs can unintentionally push our buttons.”

Sunday 7.13.2014 New York Times Digest


1. A Rare Bond

“Anyone who thinks the bond between man and dog or cat is the supreme human-house pet attachment will have to reconsider after reading Martin Windrow’s touching account of the bird who changed his life, a possessive and characterful tawny owl named Mumble who was his domestic companion for 15 action-packed years.”

2. Reporting Rape, and Wishing She Hadn’t

“School disciplinary panels are a world unto themselves, operating in secret with scant accountability and limited protections for the accuser or the accused.”

3. Amazon, a Friendly Giant as Long as It’s Fed

“From household names to deeply obscure scribblers, authors are inflamed this summer, perhaps more deeply divided than at any point in nearly a half-century. Back then, it was the question of being a hawk or dove on Vietnam. Now it is not a war but an Internet retailer and its unparalleled grip on the cultural machinery that is provoking fierce controversy.”

4. The Children of the Drug Wars

“What the United States is seeing on its borders now is not an immigration crisis. It is a refugee crisis.”

5. The Data of Hate

“Perhaps it was my own naïveté, but I would have imagined white nationalists’ inhabiting a different universe from that of my friends and me. Instead, they have long threads praising ‘Breaking Bad’ and discussing the comparative merits of online dating sites, like Plenty of Fish and OkCupid.”

6. All Children Should Be Delinquents

“By making things, breaking things and taking real risks, by becoming citizens in our ad hoc community, we used the fallow days of summer to put our Catholic-school education, and our parents’ parenting, to the test. Trial and error often proved that they were right. But in discovering what we enjoyed most — not what we were taught to enjoy — we also discovered new parts of ourselves: artists, engineers, combatants, daredevils, explorers, criminals, comedians and more. Our summer fun was a field study in life, which is the last thing we would have thought at the time.”

7. The Afterlife

“Two and half years ago, he died after mixing heroin and alcohol, at the age of 21. That has not stopped the slow and steady trickle of mail and email, oblivious to our loss.”

8. How to Talk About Pain

“We have made great strides in making patients more comfortable over the last few centuries. We may no longer believe that pain is sent by God to test us; and we may no longer need lengthy descriptions of pain to arrive at diagnoses. But pain will always be with us, and by listening closely to the stories patients tell us about their pain, we can gain hints about the nature of their suffering and the best way we can provide succor. This is why the clinical sciences need disciplines like history and the medical humanities.”

9. Look Homeward, LeBron

“Now he’s making the migration in reverse, returning to the battered Midwestern city he famously betrayed. And strikingly, his statement announcing the move doubled as a kind of communitarian manifesto, implicitly critiquing the values underlying elite self-segregation in America.”

10. Turning ‘Likes’ Into a Career

“People like Mr. Lachtman and his co-founder, Rob Fishman, run what may be seen as a parallel universe to Hollywood, one in which shares and likes matter more than box-office sales and paparazzi shots.”

11. They’re Dropping Like Middle Initials

“John Q. Public has spoken: Time to K.O. the Q.”

12. Into the Deep

“We learn that squid can ejaculate in our mouths after we cook them and eat them, and that because squid ink is ‘invulnerable to decay,’ people in 19th-century England were able to use the ink of a 150-million-year-old squid to make drawings of its carcass.”

13. Unlikely Warriors

“Williams would later fall in love with and marry an attractive and like-minded young woman, Susan Rowland, who once ‘pardoned’ two ducks that were intended for dinner, and kept them as pets. Unlike most company wives, Susan stayed by her husband’s side as he traversed the jungle. At one camp, the newlywed Susan was alarmed by a strange odor rising from their bed. Williams investigated, and discovered that one of the servants had greased the frame with pig fat to reduce the sounds of their enthusiastic lovemaking.”

14. School for a Scoundrel

“Above all, he embodies the central conflict of human life: Can we be good while engaging with the imperfect world around us?”

15. The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball

“A pitcher’s typical menu includes a fastball, a curveball and a changeup as the meat and potatoes, with perhaps a slider, cut fastball or sinker as a side. The screwball is another dish entirely. Those who serve one have typically been looked upon as oddities, custodians of a quirky art beyond the realm of conventional pitching. Over time, the word itself has taken on the characteristics of both the pitch and those who throw it: erratic, irrational or illogical, unexpected. Unlike the knuckleball, which is easy to throw but hard to master, the screwball requires special expertise just to get it to the plate.”

16. The Post-Post-Apocalyptic Detroit

“The belief in Detroit’s imminent revival has spread far beyond Dan Gilbert and the skyscrapers of downtown. Out in the neighborhoods, there is a legion of mini-Gilberts, longtime Detroiters and recent transplants alike, who have united around a conviction that the city has fallen as far as it can go — that the time to buy in is at hand. Just a couple of years after Detroit slid into what the national news media incessantly called a ‘post-apocalyptic’ collapse, the city now teems with a post-post-apocalyptic optimism.”

17. The Future Sure Looks Better From the Past

“In addition to our retreat into wishfulness, something else was brewing: a sense that the past was not only better than the present, but that the past’s predictions for the future were also better than what had actually become the present. No longer content to live in (or through) our memories of the past, we also yearned to live in the past’s vision of the future. We were nostalgic for yesterday’s prognostications: You could say that we succumbed to prognostalgia.”

A Vast Array of Experiences

From the New York Times’s 1988 obituary of Louis L’Amour:

On his way to the best-seller list, Mr. L’Amour worked at almost everything but writing. Before he handed in his first western – “Hondo,” in 1953 – he had been a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and had won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.


Related posts: “Be a Strange Duck” and “Specialization Is for Insects.”

Mise en place


(Via The Cramped.)

Time to Read

Prison is a great place to get reading done:

“I started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me,” Genis recalled, meaning books on imprisonment: he read Papillon, Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, Gulag narratives by Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Albert Speer’s memoir of Spandau, and Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (four pages of which were removed by prison authorities). Then he boned up on authoritarian regimes (“Awful stuff that made me feel better by comparison”): biographies of Pol Pot, Mao, and Pinochet; histories of the Khmer Rouge and the Cultural Revolution; and Goebbels’s diaries. Having entered prison as an atheist with a moral-relativist bent, Genis next took up the problem of good and evil, scouring Pascal, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Crime and Punishment, and Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Lubricated with an ample dose of science fiction by William Gibson, Frederik Pohl, and Philip K. Dick—“for relaxation”—Genis’s journal was just getting going.


Related reading: Corey Robin’s “My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read,” wherein he reveals that contemporary, Internet-everywhere life has become so distracting he rides the subway just so he can read:

After I drop off my daughter at school or summer camp, I jump on the subway. I ride the rails for three to four hours. Maybe the F train: out to Coney Island, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Forest Hills, and then back. Or if I’m pressed for time, just the Q train: again out to Coney, back through Brooklyn, into Manhattan, out to Astoria, and back. Or if I’m in the mood for a change, the B or the D trains: they ultimately take me to the Bronx and back.

I take nothing with me but my book and a pen. I take notes on the front and back pages of the book. If I run out of pages, I carry a little notebook with me. I never get off the train (except, occasionally, to meet my wife for lunch in Manhattan.) I have an ancient phone, so there’s no internet or desire to text, and I’m mostly underground, so there are no phone calls.

See also: Nicholas Carr.

Sunday 7.6.2014 New York Times Digest


1. How to Redraw the World Map

“The mountains of western Colorado are totally alien from the wheat fields of eastern Colorado. And Miami is part not of Florida, but its own watery Caribbean realm. And what a terrible idea is ‘California.’ It behaves as if it covers three warring civilizations.”

2. Shaping a School System, From the Ground Up

“Ideo had been hired by a Peruvian businessman, Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor, to work on a new type of project: designing a network of low-cost private schools from scratch, including the classrooms, the curriculum, the teacher-training strategies and the business model.”

3. Rethinking the Wild

“We need to rethink the Wilderness Act. We need to toss out the ‘hands-off’ philosophy that has guided our stewardship for 50 years. We must replace it with a more nuanced, flexible approach — including a willingness to put our hands on America’s wildest places more, not less, if we’re going to help them to adapt and thrive in the diminished future we’ve thrust upon them.”

4. Less Sexy, Better for Sex

“With Google cars, there is nothing to learn, nothing to master. This car fosters passivity, nurtures infancy. It has no driver, only passengers.”

5. The Emojis We Really Need

“I’m favoriting your tweet only because you’re in a position to help me professionally.”

6. When Beliefs and Facts Collide

“More people know what scientists think about high-profile scientific controversies than polls suggest; they just aren’t willing to endorse the consensus when it contradicts their political or religious views.”

7. North Korea’s Fear of Hollywood

“Never underestimate the power of marijuana in Hollywood, and phallic jokes about rockets and cigars.”

8. Do I Have the Right to Be?

“All of us are alive today thanks at least partly to some mass atrocity that was committed in the past. This is because war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing invariably affect who is born after them.”

9. The Secret of Effective Motivation

“Instrumental motives are not always an asset and can actually be counterproductive to success.”

10. Fine Perfumes of the Animal World

“The duped males respond at first with clumsy groping and then quickly proceed to copulation, sometimes to the point of ejaculation. It gets more interesting: Some male wasps actually seem to prefer the scent of make-believe females. They will break away from a real female to have sex with a flower.”

11. A Company Liberals Could Love

“A retail chain with nearly 600 stores and 13,000 workers, this business sets its lowest full-time wage at $15 an hour, and raised wages steadily through the stagnant postrecession years. (Its do-gooder policies also include donating 10 percent of its profits to charity and giving all employees Sunday off.) And the chain is thriving commercially — offering … a clear example of how ‘doing good for workers can also mean doing good for business.’ Of course I’m talking about Hobby Lobby, the Christian-owned craft store that’s currently playing the role of liberalism’s public enemy No. 1.”

12. Looking at Photos the Master Never Saw

“Is the clicking of the camera shutter only a first step, after which — if an artistic photograph is to be distinguished from the deluge of thoughtless shots — the proofing, editing and printing of the image must follow? Or can a photographer who exposes the film but goes no further nonetheless be an artist?”

13. Casting Time as a Lead Character

“A film so formally bold that it is without an exact precedent.”

14. Social Media’s Vampires: They Text by Night

“Sometimes I look up and it’s 3 a.m. and I’m watching a video of a giraffe eating a steak,” he said. “And I wonder, ‘How did I get here?’”

15. Clicking Their Way to Outrage

“Although we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of strangers.”

16. Empowering Words

“American society frequently sees the claims of liberty and equality as pulling in opposite directions; the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. Furthermore, in the battle between liberty and equality, the claims of individual liberty have generally trumped those of equality. Allen says this is a false dilemma. Liberty and equality are not parts of a zero-sum game, but two mutually supportive aspects of a common democratic culture. It seems hardly fortuitous that a book arguing for the centrality of equality should appear at just the moment when we have discovered the effects of inequality in our public life.”

17. Patriarch and Pariah

“He was tarred and feathered; a furious mob in Ohio once ordered a local doctor to castrate him. Some of the passions he aroused were prompted by financial chicanery.”

18. I Am the Real Nick Cave

“Cave’s public persona has been called ‘theatrical,’ but a more precise term might be cinematic. Like many self-mythologizers, charismatics and plain old eccentrics, he has always appeared to be performing in a movie only he himself could see.”

19. Zoo Animals and Their Discontents

“An animal in the wild can’t afford to be depressed.”