‘They got a wall in China/ It’s a thousand miles long/ To keep out the foreigners, they made it strong/ I got a wall around me that you can’t even see/ It took a little time to get next to me.’
- Paul Simon


Valentine’s Day, 2016: Once Again, With Feeling

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Feb 04, 2016
Category: Beyond Classification

SOS Chefs
Filson computer case/briefcase
Waiting for the Barbarians

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When I thought I lived in an orderly world, Valentine’s Day meant nothing to me. I wasn’t completely wrong: The not-so-secret secret of romance isn’t about bearing flowers and bonbons on special occasions, it’s about showing up regularly. And I did that, for all the good decades. Now life feels fraught, and I see the world — well, this country, anyway — differently. Infrastructure, personal safety (all those guns!), the environment, the education of the small person, sanity in politics and media… I’m not exactly squinting from the brightness. More and more it looks like this: we’re on our own. Maybe we always were, maybe we’re just feeling it now. And maybe it’s just me. However it happened, it feels like personal relationships are more important than ever. Which makes Valentine’s Day matter.

But if it’s about people, why obsess about things? Why scurry around looking for something that’s… just right? Because feelings — real feelings — are hard to express. Even the most eloquent of us go dumb in the presence of the beloved. And so.. things.

As a novelist, I’ve said, what interests me most is two people in a room. My interest in things is thus… casual. But the day calls for things, so let’s have them. But things that speak to Extreme Emotion, things from creators who care about beauty and quality and, yes, intense emotion. Things — small things — that echo and inspire feelings: books, music, drama, the occasional product. Music, most especially, because… if a song’s not about love, it’s an outlier, isn’t it? I hope these small offerings can speak for you.


Perfetto Pencils
Louise Fili’s Perfetto pencil case and pencils makes me think of the Italy of the 1930s and 1940s. The design is clean, precise, bold. The case is sturdy, with twelve double-sided, two-color pencils.

Quattro Parole Italian Notecards and Envelopes
Louise Fili’s box of a dozen note cards and envelopes. Why are these cards so striking? It’s not the words, it’s the typography, which is dramatic and different and, at the same time, nostalgic and familiar, taking you back to visits to small towns in Italy.

Astral Weeks
Van Morrison made this breakthrough CD in 1968, when he was 23. It took just four days, cost less than $25,000. It promptly went on best-ever lists. And has never left — this is genius at work, a demonstration of spiritual transcendence. And it’s not just the words that transcend. The band is open, loose, inventive; this music is subtle as jazz and heart-pounding as rock. And Morrison almost seems to be having a good time — in his phrase, “stepping lightly, just like a ballerina.”

Ann Peebles
Imagine if Al Green were female, and you have Ann Peebles. Just about every song on “I Can’t Stand the Rain”is a classic — for other singers. Her career was so under the radio that she barely has cult. Discover her now.

Miles Davis: Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud
The soundtrack to Louis Malle’s first feature film. Miles: “Since it was about a murder and was supposed to be a suspense movie, I used this old, gloomy, dark building where I had the musicians play. I thought it would give the music atmosphere, and it did.”


Mental Clarity
I take it. I feel less of the hysteria and desperation that used to afflict me when I didn’t get my way. And the main thing: The idea factory is working overtime. Does it really work? Even if it’s only a placebo, yes. And when the tablets are gone, the container’s cool.

Kneipp Bath Oils
Kneipp isn’t a product flying off the shelves at the drug store on the next corner or the drug store on the corner after that, but it’s a venerable brand in Europe and a cherished friend in the Smart Set in America. Is it “bath therapy,” as is often claimed? In our home, although none of us is currently involved in actual therapy, three people again raise their hands.


SOS Chefs
SOS stands for “Save Our Spices,” but spices are just the beginning of the shop’s offerings. If you want the exotic, it’s all here: argan oil, almond syrup, white cardamom, dried mushrooms, truffles, heirloom beans, manuka honey, distillations of 50 flowers and spices. But that’s just for a few of you. If you’re like me — a home cook who likes to dazzle friends and family — the basics are more to the point.

Pu-erh Tea
Give a loved one something that looks like a cow pie? Yes. But this is so you. It tastes good. And as Alice Waters says, “My cholesterol went down 100 points since I started drinking this.”

Burr Coffee Grinder
Not romantic? If you’re serious about coffee, this is a Tiffany ring. Because it runs at a slower speed, it generates less heat. The burrs create uniform grounds. You get a better brew. Not a small thing.


Married Sex
Some guy wrote a novel about a couple who had a passionate marriage after two decades and wanted to protect it against cheating so when one of them was finally tempted they had a threesome. And then… There are some bedroom scenes that are incendiary and, for those who like audio books, the writer is one of the readers.

A Sport and a Pastime
“She cannot be satisfied. She will not let him alone. She removes her clothes and calls to him. Once that night and twice the next morning he complies and in the faint darkness between lies awake, the lights of Dijon faint on the ceiling, the boulevards still. It’s a bitter night. Flats of rain are passing. Heavy drops ring in the gutter outside their window, but they are in a dovecote, they are pigeons between the eaves. The rain is falling all around them. Deep in feathers, breathing softly, they lie.”


Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story takes the idea of postponed romance to an astonishing extreme. As the novel begins, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, now 81, has been married to Fermina Daza, 72, for more than half a century. He dies, and in sweeps Florentino Ariza, who has waited half a century to make: “a vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”

The Queen’s Gambit
My favorite love story. An eight-year-old orphan named Beth Harmon is the Mozart of chess. Which brings her joy (she wins! people notice her!) and misery (she’s alone and unloved and incapable of asking for help). She gets addicted to pills. She drinks. She loses. And then, at 17, Beth faces her biggest challenge — a match with the world champion, a Russian of scary brilliance. The love story? She’s alone, but she can’t win alone. Will she let someone in, accept support, risk hurt?

Light Years
James Salter’s masterpiece. We meet Nedra and Viri in the early 1960s, when they are twenty-eight and thirty. They have two young children, both girls. They live in a big house on the Hudson. They have affairs, watch their daughters discover their own sexuality, travel, age. Their marriage strains, threatens to break up, does. The book is an accumulation of brief scenes, moments in time. The plot is merely the plot of existence.


Roxy Music
“Avalon” sounds like sex. Slow, dreamy sex. Deep, underwater sex, sex so powerful it passes for love, sex that might as well be love. From an Amazon review: “Any guy going to college during the early to mid eighties understands the importance of this record/CD in regards to taking care of business with their girlfriends.” A wise man.

Big Mama Thornton
She lived in Houston, performing in clubs, learning to play drums and harmonica, drinking gin and milk, and being open about her sexuality decades before it was cool to be a lesbian. Lost love never sounded so hot.

Otis Redding
Otis Redding was one of those Olympians who are fantastically good at everything. He could shout. He could dance. He had a straightforward, honest, high-testosterone presence — he was, as one of his hits had it, a “love man.” Watching footage of him performing is a revelation. The Rolling Stones drove teenagers into spasms; Otis’s female fans were adult. They’d had sex, known love, experienced heartbreak. Who wrote the book of love? This man.

Etta James
A woman who lived this hard — who loved and lost and paid the price for everything she got and a lot she didn’t — oozes the kind of wisdom you don’t find in books. She lived the blues, and you’d best believe she was going to tell you about them, and in the bluntest (and thus, most poetic) way possible.

Beth Hart
When I say that she is the next Amy Winehouse, I mean it in the best possible way: She gets down in the trenches of love.

R.L. Burnside
Burnside struts and shakes, moans and cries, cares nothing about convention (most of the lyrics on a terrific song are “Burnside…. Burnside”) and, although he married just one woman and had a dozen children, casts himself as present at the creation of sin.


Filson Briefcase/Computer case
In a sea of products that look good but quickly fall apart, the Filson briefcase is so well designed and so well made it could be the last briefcase you’ll ever buy. Expensive, but a bargain. You’ll be thanked every day for decades.

Timex Easy Reader Watch
So you didn’t go to Jared. Esquire Magazine: “The simple retro face looks cooler than some watches that cost six times as much.” Spend what you save on something excessive.


“The West Wing” of Denmark, with a female Prime Minister. Birgitte Nyborg struggles to keep the support of her modest majority and move the country forward. It’s not an easy task, and it’s not her only task. She’s married, with two children, and her husband and her kids also need attention. 30 tense, brilliant hours. You will come to care deeply about all of this.


The Homestead Inn
Dinner in Greenwich, Ct., at The Homestead Inn. recently named by TheDailyMeal.com. as the 10th best French restaurant in the country. OpenTable says it’s one of the country’s 100 most romantic restaurants.

Short takes

The book to read: ‘When Breath Becomes Air’

At 36, Dr. Paul Kalanithi was finishing his residency as a neurosurgeon. At 37, he died of cancer. In the final year of his life, he wrote a book, “When Air Becomes Breath.” It’s dazzling and important, less about death than you’d expect and more about love — love of his work, his wife, their child, of life. As Janet Maslin wrote in the Times: “Finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.” Read Paul Kalanithi on his last day as a surgeon. Read Lucy Kalanithi’s op-ed about a marriage that didn’t end when her husband died. And then… [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. For the Audible audio book, click here.]

Treadmill Trails: the 99-cent solution to your New Year exercise resolution

My friend Richard Sandhaus is endlessly inventive. This time he’s created Treadmill Trails, an app that should have special appeal to those of us who don’t like to watch TV or listen to audio books as we work out. And the coolest thing about these videos – you don’t have to listen to the pump-you-up music that’s standard issue in gyms, you can substitute your own soundtrack. The experts have taken notice: Treadmill Trails is the only indoor running/walking app to be included in Runner’s World’s “27 Apps Every Runner Should Know About.” Why are these videos so good? Because Richard, a veteran hiker and trail runner, hiked the trails start-to-finish, shooting with a Steadicam. Where can you be working out? The Appalachian Trail, Mt. Kilimanjaro, Kauai’s spectacular Na’Pali coast, or 21 other locations, with two new locations added each month. Cost: 99 cents for each 30-minute video. Get Treadmill Trails at Google Play or the App Store.

“45 Years” — the movie for those who have attained a certain age

I saw “45 Years” this week — for the second time. I needed to watch the final few minutes again, I needed to see how Charlotte Rampling feels the full force of what has happened to her and realizes that she needs to do something about it. If you are young and new to love or only in the first few decades of a long-playing romance, this might not be the movie for you. (Go see “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” “Brooklyn.” Avoid “Carol.”) But if you have achieved a certain age, if you have learned that intimacy is everything in a marriage and that there can be a very high cost to keeping your secrets secret, “45 Years” could be the movie of your year. Slow? Yes, like an Ingmar Bergman film is slow. But 95 minutes of Charlotte Rampling, looking every bit her age, fighting for understanding and balance? My God, I could watch that for days.

Married Sex: the audio book

The audio book of Married Sex: A Love Story is finally available. May Wuthrich produced and directed, Tavia Gilbert read the female characters, I read the description and the narrator’s dialogue. I hadn’t opened the book in months, and I’d blocked the simplest fact — it’s drenched with emotion — and I certainly had no idea that Tavia could take the wife’s pain into the Streeposphere and that my response to those scenes would be to read, through tears, in a voice that cracked, but we decided to keep all of that. If you’re looking for a story about a married couple, some harmless sex and an unexpected aftermath, here you go.