GOOD FOR WHATEVER AILS YOU

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I can’t remember who first sent me this.  Just that it came in an email and made me feel good.  So good, in fact, I played it again twice more before saving it for a rainy day.

It’s a flashmob performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, staged and filmed in the main square of Sabadell, Spain, to look as if it were spontaneous. But you don’t really need to know that. Just think of it as a booster shot of happy.

I ran it here nearly a year ago, when this blog was new and had two dozen viewers. (It got three likes!) So a few of you have seen it. But very few. Now that for most of us the leaves are falling, winter’s chill is in the early morning air, and we’re setting our clocks back this Sunday to conserve what little light seems left in the world — it may be time to run it again. After nearly two hundred years, it’s still a heartwarming infusion of pure joy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=GBaHPND2QJg&feature=youtu.be

MONEY IN THE BANK

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LEONARD BERNSTEIN PENCIL AUTOGRAPH, NOVEMBER 1945. AUTHENTICATED.  IN PRIVATE COLLECTION.

How much money in the bank? I couldn’t say. My friend from college, Marcia A. (now Marcia C.), is renting a safe deposit box solely to preserve for her descendants a typed communication she received from one J. Salinger after she wrote him a sort of fan letter in 1950. She’s in Israel now and therefore the safe-deposit-protected Salinger reply is in Israel too.  But I suppose its location doesn’t really matter unless Hamas makes good on its threat to wipe Israel from the map.  In which case I will be more concerned about Marcia C. than her Salinger letter.

However, assuming this doesn’t happen in our lifetimes, you may want to know Salinger typed his letter to Marcia before he became really famous. Does this lessen its value? Also, does it matter whether he signed it J.D. Salinger, Jerome Salinger, or even (gasp!) Jerry? Quien sabe?  She was nineteen at the time, and he was thirty-three, and nothing ever came of it, except the safe deposit box in Israel. A more pertinent question — at least for purposes of this blog post — is whether a Bernstein autograph in pencil (but authenticated) will bring more from a willing buyer  than a Salinger one.  Lenny or Jerry: Which fella will remain a Wikipedia entry longer? Why should I care? Because, dear reader, the private collection in which the Bernstein pencil autograph reposes is mine.

[Just in case anyone out there is wondering just who this Bernstein guy is, I won't tell you asked.  Eyeball the following, and you'll be up to speed. Wikipedia cautions it may have been written from a fan's point of view, but so what?

:Leonard Bernstein (/ˈbɜrnstaɪn/; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was "one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history."

His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his music for West Side Story, Peter PanCandide, Wonderful Town, On the Town and his own Mass.

Bernstein was the first conductor to give numerous television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. He was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard.

As a composer he wrote in many styles encompassing symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano. Many of his works are regularly performed around the world….]

The authentication of the November 1945 Bernstein autograph privately collected by me resides in a contemporaneous diary handwritten by one N. Raginsky.  Not so coincidentally, this diary is also in my private collection. Miss Raginsky bequeathed it to me when she grew up to be me.  (Accordingly, there are no chain of custody questions to impeach the validity of the authentication.)  Several days after obtaining the autograph, she recorded in touching — and possibly excessive — detail the circumstances under which she extracted it from Mr. Bernstein. These may be worth transcribing here, if only as an aid to sleep if they do not sufficiently amuse.

For ten months, Miss Raginsky, who had just turned fourteen, had been deeply in love with dark and handsome Mr. Bernstein, then aged twenty-seven, despite his never having laid eyes on her — ever since finding a long article about him, with accompanying dreamy full page photograph, in the Times Sunday Magazine section.  As she had earlier shamelessly put it on January 27, 1945:

Isn’t it funny that he is twice as old as am. 26:13. When he was my age, I was born. Now he is a man and I am a comparative child and the difference is great. Yet when I am 21, he will be 34 and then the difference [will be] small. I will be a woman, and for a man he will be young still.

This reasoning is getting me nowhere so I will stop it, but I think it is rather obvious what I am driving at so I needn’t put it down in blue and white. [She wrote in blue ink.] This is quite enough on the subject, which even in a diary is a little embarrassing ….

[Miss Raginsky had already several times read with wildly beating heart her mother's copy of Van de Velde's "Ideal Marriage" -- including its instructions for maidenhead penetration.]

We take up the diary again on November 30, 1945.  Miss Raginsky and her friend from high school, Jeannette H., had purchased second-row orchestra tickets to a 6 p.m. concert conducted by Mr. Bernstein in his capacity as director of the New York City Center Symphony.  (This was before his renowned tenure with the New York Philharmonic.) Miss Raginsky candidly admitted she was there not so much for the music, as to worship. She and her friend had an early supper of leathery liver and pickled beets at a convenient Automat and arrived at the City Center half an hour early:

…We found our seats, dived for the ladies’ room to primp some more (why I don’t know, since it was for his edification and he certainly wasn’t going to notice us from the stage). Then, having connived two programs from the ushers (they are conserving paper; you have to share your programs, so we pretended we didn’t know each other), we snooped around the stage doors so that we’d know where to scurry after the performance. We returned to our seats, regarded the audience with interest, and then looked at all the pretty women musicians who were already assembling with considerable jealousy, and finally settled down as the lights went out.

Oh! he was wonderful! I didn’t hear any of the music except at the end, but I was in ecstasy. He hadn’t lost his habit of dancing around [on the podium] unnecessarily (to put it mildly) and I loved him unashamedly. His coat was still too big, though it was another coat.  [Ed. note:  Miss Raginsky had apparently attended a previous concert at which Mr. Bernstein had worn another suit.]   Still no baton, either. So adorable. I just had to draw a picture to remember him by. I groped for a pencil and my small art class sketchbook in my bag. Fortunately, we sat close enough to the stage for there to be enough light to see what I was doing.

We had made up our minds to go backstage after the performance, and we sat through the second half of the program clutching our coats and pencils. Then we ran. They kept us waiting outside his dressing room door for fifteen minutes, and as a large crowd assembled and noise and smoke emitted from the door we began to get cold feet and butterflies in our stomachs. To our dismay, we realized that everyone waiting to get in with us knew him personally.  His sister came out (someone called her Shirley, so I knew), and then (we were the first in line) the dressing room door opened and we were face to face with a smoky room lined with mirrors.

We clutched each other (me and Jeannette I mean; to think of me clutching Lenny!) and our mouths went dry. That slight hesitation was enough! Swarms of people trampled over us and we were shoved into a corner by the hordes, where we stayed for some time, quivering.  We had a good view, though, and it seemed we were in another world. Everyone was waving hands and screaming “Hello-oo there, Lenny! Remember me? We met at so-and-so.”  Then He would say, “Oh yes. How are you?” The friend would then introduce a long line of relatives, from his wife to his cousin Mary’s grandmother ninth removed. They would all shake hands and a new voice would then greet the Great One.  “Hell-oo-o-o-o! Lenny. I say, do you remember me?”

We couldn’t even get near him at first…. Finally, I worked up enough courage to push my way through, Jeannette just following me in a daze.  I edged up to the One and feebly tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and I almost collapsed. I also realized I had dropped my program that I wanted him to sign. It was on the floor somewhere back there in a corner.  My mind kept racing: Say something, this is your chance, say something. But I couldn’t think of anything. Finally, I dragged out a foolish little statement about us being the only ones who didn’t have business in his room. For the first time he really looked at me and said with an affable wave of the hand, “Why not? You belong here as much as anyone.”  Cheeks hot with love, I pushed my pencil and the art notebook sketch at him.  “Is this me?” he asked.  I nodded, speechless.  “Shall I sign it?” I nodded again.

He signed, and reached for Jeannette’s program.  “Is that all?” I asked, looking at his signature.  He took back the sketch and added, “Sincerely.”  Nodding gratitude, I started to take my pencil away (Jeannette had one of her own) only he kept it. We had a momentary tug of war and our fingers touched. But I didn’t realize they had till it was over.  Then he was patting each of us on the shoulder and moving on to the next group. Half in a coma, we stumbled out.

Miss Raginsky’s account of this momentous event continues for several more breathless and closely handwritten pages. But we’ve got the autograph authentication now, so we need not follow her and her friend into the street.  I will append only her description of Mr. Bernstein’s person at twenty-seven:

He had blue-grey eyes (which I had expected to be brown), black hair, a prominent nose, skin very slightly pock-marked, an olive complexion. His voice was slightly nasal, no Boston accent. He was about two inches taller than I. (I had low heeled shoes on.) He had on an odd bow tie, blue merging into yellow….

Miss Raginsky went on loving Mr. Bernstein passionately for about another half a year, after which she finally realized it was hopeless and broke it off. Despite this rupture, she kept the Bernstein autograph on her drawing as a sentimental momento of her first Great Love. When many years later, I found it among her effects, I had it framed.  I might add she was unsuccessful in persuading her mother to cut a square out of the shoulder of the coat he had touched in his dressing room after the concert, even when she finally outgrew it.  But there’s almost certainly no residual market value in a square of wool tweed dating back to the late 1940’s, especially as the maestro’s fingertips left no impression in the wool. Her failure of persuasion is therefore no great loss to my estate.

The authenticated Bernstein autograph is not at present for sale.  Interested persons may apply to my heirs when I am gone.  What they are going to do with it, God knows. If it’s really big-time bankable by then, I hope they don’t fight over it. When they were small, I used to be able to resolve escalating aggression over cookies by dividing each disputed cookie evenly in half.  Authenticated autograph?  Not so easy.  Maybe they should take a tip from Marcia C., lease a safe deposit box, and wait.  Just not in Israel.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAIL

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[A follower of this blog who prefers to remain anonymous and therefore never posts comments online sent me an anecdote by email yesterday that she thought might be right up my alley because it takes place in a courtroom.  I haven't been inside a courtroom (professionally or otherwise) for upwards of nine years.  But she did roll it up the right alley.  Whether it's the old Pavlov's dog reflex, or simply the new blogging me always on the qui vive for fresh material, I asked if I could use it, without attribution of course, and she at once replied, "You betcha."  Rest assured it has no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever.] 

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Anglo-American juries may be comprised of twelve people not smart enough to get out of jury duty.  But you can usually count on them not to be bamboozled in the end.

A defendant was on trial for murder. Overwhelming evidence in the record indicated guilt. But there was no corpse!   Suspecting his client would nevertheless be convicted unless he could raise last-minute doubt in the minds of the jurors, counsel for the defense resorted to a trick in his closing statement.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said, as he openly checked his watch. “I have a surprise for you all.  In exactly one minute, the person my client is charged with having murdered will walk into this courtroom.” He spun on his heels and looked directly at the courtroom door. The jurors, stunned expressions on their faces, all turned expectantly to the courtroom door as well.

A minute elapsed. The door remained closed. Defense counsel then turned back to the jurors. “And now, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said,  “I have a confession to make.  I lied to you just now. I have no idea where the alleged victim in this case may be. But you all looked eagerly to the door when I promised he would walk through it.  Therefore I put it to you that each and every one of you has a reasonable doubt as to whether anyone was killed in this case, and you must return a verdict of not guilty!”

The jury retired to deliberate. It took them very little time to return.  “And what is your verdict?” inquired the judge.  “Guilty!” pronounced the foreman.

“But how?” stammered counsel for the defense. “You must have had some doubt. I saw all of you stare at the door.”

“Yes, we looked,” the foreman replied.  “But your client didn’t.”

A LESSON AT LUNCHTIME FROM JAVIER

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 JAVIER.  PERSONABLE. MODEST. GOOD FOR WHATEVER AILS YOU.

JAVIER. 

After emerging from stressful and expensive taxis  in New York, Bill and I sometimes calm ourselves at the Heartland Brewery, situated on the Eighth Avenue side of the Port Authority.  [This, of course, is only if the taxis have taken us to the Port Authority, terminal for buses bumping southbound into the belly of New Jersey.  Taxi trips to Penn Station, whence New Jersey trains  flow (or lurch), are openers for quite another kind of post. Contain yourself.]

The Heartland Brewery, darkly panelled to produce an interior of almost stygian gloom, is not quite empty at about two-thirty in the afternoon, but nearly.  It’s an eatery right out of what I recall as the Midwest. (“Heartland,” get it?)  I only passed through the Midwest once, in 1952, when my father drove cross-country in his brand new ’52 Pontiac, loaded with my mother, me and quite a lot of luggage that didn’t have wheels because no luggage had wheels yet. The purpose of his trip was to find a lifetime of happiness for us all under the California sun,  and never mind what kind of food they served along the way. But Heartland certainly does bring back memories of those once-in-a-lifetime mid-America meals in all their caloric glory. Whenever we sit down and open the menu, I’m surprised not to find chicken-fried steak still on offer.

The great thing for us about Heartland, though, is its flexibility.  It is willing to depart from its printed offerings if the kitchen’s not too busy — which apparently it rarely is, at least by the time we get there.  So Bill can have a Swiss cheese sandwich on thickly cut rye toast, with mustard and tomato inside, a heap of crisp french fries alongside, and a cup of ketchup all his own, plus a bonus of two excellent dill pickle spears. Not only is this not on the menu. Its constituent parts are almost all things not usually found in our longevity-seeking, gluten-free, lactose-free (except for goat cheese), deep-fat-fried-free home. But after our taxi traumas, treats are in order — on the understanding that  leftovers don’t get on the bus with us. What leftovers? There never are any.

The first time we were there, Bill had to describe this “novelty” lunch in detail to the waiter. Thereafter, the waiter remembered. How could he not?  A Heartland customer who, peculiarly, wanted something not on the menu? Of course, we had to remember the waiter, too.  Otherwise — with another waiter — it might always be the same story: “Why can’t I? Javier always manages to get it!”

[Just so you know -- in case you too want the Swiss on rye -- Javier is on the 11 to 4 "lunchtime" shift.  Although I would recommend leaving the sandwich to Bill and having what I had last time: the one non-mid-America thing on the menu. It's a sashimi-grade tuna burger, done medium rare, served bunless with ginger slaw on top, wasabi sauce in a cup, and a side of spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic instead of the standard fries. Really good.]

The point of all this, however, is not to guide your eating choices but to guide you to Javier.  Just a few questions and a wealth of  information pours out of this man. One wonders how he holds it in when Heartland does get busy. The youngest in a family of Cuban emigres settled in Miami, and the only one of the children born in the United States, he is perfectly bilingual. He speaks his fluent English mainly at work though, since he lives in a mainly Hispanic community in Weehawken.  He also visits Cuba regularly to see relatives left behind, and is entirely comfortable there, too.  Cuban medicine, he declares, is the best in the world, and available without cost to everyone.  Cuba has universal literacy, too.  Javier advises a visit soon (if it can be engineered minus relatives in Cuba) because — he further opines — when Castro goes, American money will move in and ruin it.

But setting aside his travel advice, the really fascinating thing about Javier is his extracurricular life.  He coaches speaking!

“You mean you teach Spanish on the side?  I ask.

No, he doesn’t mean that.  He means “speaking” as in “public speaking.”  Javier is active — a co-chairperson, I think — in his local Toastmasters organization.  The local meets every Thursday, at which time aspiring public speakers stand up and deliver.  Javier coaches the newbies, gets them ready for the mike.

“You must make a pretty good speech yourself,” I say, “if you can coach.”

“Oh, yes,” he exclaims.  “People like me.  I’m personable.”

“And modest,” I add.

“That too,” he agrees.  “You see how easy it is for me to talk to everyone here?”

“We do, we do,” we assure him.

“Of course,” Javier continues, probably missing another bus to Weehawken thanks to our charisma,  “it’s much easier to talk to somebody one on one, the way we’re doing.  Speaking to a group is different.  That’s scary.”

“Even for you?” (I do like to lead people on.)

“Are you kidding?” exclaims Javier.  “I’m petrified every time! You know public speaking is one of the three things people are most afraid of?”

“What are the other two?” asks Bill, who’s pretty much polished off the fries by now and has freed up his mouth for talk.

“Spiders is one of them.”

“And the third?”

“Anything you want to name.”  (Which is a pretty good answer, when you think of it.)

“Like cancer?”  [Trust a medical man, even one retired from practice, to come up with the big C.]

Javier shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “It can’t be a disease or death. Anything else you want to name, though.”

What does he mean, “it can’t be?”  If I want to be afraid of cancer, why can’t cancer be up there with spiders for me?

But I didn’t speak out, so Javier didn’t explain. Instead, he asked:  “Do you want to know what I tell my students when they say they’re too scared to get up there and do it?”

Yes, we both wanted to know.

Javier (with gravity): “Public Speaking doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.”

A light bulb went off in my head.  (Forgive the cartoon visual; it had been a long day and, as you already know, New York taxis are exhausting.)  “That would work for writing, too,” I said.  “Wouldn’t it? I’m always so afraid of the next blank page.”

“She tries to write,” Bill explained.

“It works for everything,” declared Javier.  “Everything in life you’re afraid of doing. Speaking, writing, flying, roller blading.  ‘Whatever It Is doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.'”

Second light bulb:  Blog post!

“Javier, may I take your picture with my i-Phone?”

The next morning there was, understandably, a minor editorial change.  My blog, my prerogative.

 “Writing doesn’t get easier as you write. It just becomes more possible.”

 Gnomic perhaps. But worth the price of two Heartland lunches, don’t you think?  I might even get a tweet out of it.

Thank you so much, Javier.

FORTY-TWO THINGS TO DO IF YOU WANT TO LIVE AS LONG AS POSSIBLE

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There are many joys in living with Bill. However, one of the more dubious ones is having to deal with the ravenous hunger he’s developed since turning 80 for books about the meaning of life and other people’s thoughts on death. As he’ll be 87 at the end of January, by now we’ve got entirely too many books like that around the house, just about everywhere except next to my side of the bed.

As you know, I’m deep into an unpaid career as an ostrich about what lies ahead. So I tend to look the other way when Bill urgently presses some new reading matter of this kind on me with an endearing “You just gotta see this!”  Well, why wouldn’t I? They generally have titles like The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.  In fact, that’s the very book Bill has just thrust into my hands, allegedly for livening up the blog. (He likes to be helpful that way.)

One Day You’ll Be Dead  is by David Shields, who’s a professor in the English Department at the University of Washington and appears in his author photo on the back flap to be relatively young but bald. The front flap explains, “Mesmerized — at times unnerved — by his ninety-seven-year-old father’s nearly superhuman vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an investigation of the human physical condition. The result is this exhilarating book: both a personal meditation on mortality and an exploration of flesh-and-blood existence from crib to oblivion — an exploration that paradoxically prompts a renewed and profound appreciation of life.”

Well, I certainly appreciate life. It’s the oblivion business I have trouble with.  I’m with Woody Allen, who’s quoted in the book as having said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I would rather live on in my apartment.”

Mind you, that’s not the part Bill marked for me to read.  (I found it on my own.)  The section he feels good about is on page 186, in a chapter entitled “How to Live Forever (i)”.  I do understand that most of us, remarkably even including me, would not want to live on in excruciating pain, or as a vegetable without cognition or bodily control, thanks to the devastations of Alzheimer’s.  This is for the other kinds of living as long as possible.

Therefore, just in case any of you, even those youngsters under boomer age, might have some proactive interest in hearing the results of Shields’s research on the goal of living as long as possible, I am typing it out here.  That will make Bill happy and get the book out of my office and back onto one of his many shelves. Which will make me happy. I’ve put in the numbers, to make reading easier. Here goes:

If you want to live longer, you should — in addition to the obvious: (1) eating less and (2) losing weight — (3) move to the country, (4) not take work home, (5) do what you enjoy, (6) feel good about yourself, (7) get a pet, (8) learn to relax, (9) live in the moment, (10) laugh, (11) listen to music, (12) sleep 6 to 7 hours a night [that's all?] (13) be blessed with long-lived parents and (14) grandparents (35% of your longevity is due to genetic factors), (15) be married, (16) hug, (17) hold hands, (18) have sex regularly, (19) have a lot of children, (20) get along with your mother, (21) accept your children, (22) nurture your grandchildren, (23) be well-educated, (24) stimulate your brain [does blogging count?],(25) learn new things, (26) be optimistic, (27) channel your anger in a positive way, (28) not always have to be right, (29) not smoke, (30) use less salt, (31) have chocolate occasionally, (32) eat a Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and poultry, (33) drink green tea and moderate amounts of red wine, (34) exercise, (35) have goals, (36) take risks, (37) confide in a friend, (38) not be afraid to seek psychological counseling, (39) be a volunteer, (40) have a role in the community, (41) attend church, (42) find God.

Father Shields’s scorecard was 38 out of 42. (Son Shields admits his dad has lost his sense of humor as he’s grown older, so I’m not sure how he scores number 10. Maybe that’s one of the four his father didn’t get.)

I don’t do nearly as well as Shields the elder.  I can’t get along with my mother because she’s gone, and was very difficult to be with before that. Church has never been in my life, and I’m not so sure about God, either. It’s hard to nurture my grandchildren, although I’d like to, because they live quite far away and are very busy with their own pursuits. I do like being right, although I no longer fight on the beaches and refuse to surrender. I sleep more than 6 or 7 hours and don’t know whether that’s extra brownie points or points taken away. I used to smoke, but stopped on June 6, 1969, so how do we score that? And the parents/grandparents: how do we define “long-lived?”

But Bill says we’re doing everything right, despite the occasional hamburger, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.  I say it’s not quite a crock of you-know-what because it does point us in the right direction, but take it with a grain of salt.  (Not too many grains, though.)

And now we’re done and can go back to what we were doing before I began.  I hope Bill is pleased.

BLOOM AT STOOL: A SCATALOGICAL INTERLUDE

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[Prefatory note #1:  The word "scatalogical" is from the Greek skat-, meaning excrement; akin to Old English scearn, meaning dung; cf., Latin muscerdae, mouse droppings]

[Prefatory note #2:  Quoted passages, possibly offensive to some, were written by James Joyce, not me.]

[Prefatory note #3:  Driven by scientific curiosity as to what it might do to the stats, I thought of captioning this post "Leopold Bloom Takes A Shit,"  but chickened out at the last minute, just before clicking "Publish."  It might have drawn a bad crowd, with no intellectual interest whatsoever in that towering masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Ulysses.]

Okay, now we can begin.

Extremely diligent readers of this blog may recall my mentioning Bill and I were planning to sign up for an eight-week course on James Joyce’s Ulysses, scheduled to begin in October. In case you don’t recall, I’m telling you now: that’s what we did.  Bill likes the professor, whose lectures we have enjoyed before and who has a jolly laugh, which is why Bill enrolled.

 [Bill also has great skill in making thoughtful comments in class which in no way reveal he hasn't done the assignments.  I, on the other hand, overly anal since day two of toilet training, am compulsive about turning every page and -- in this case -- trying to understand what's on it.]

I had tried to read Ulysses once before, when I was twenty and still a student at an institution of higher learning, where I eventually produced a fifty-page paper about this big and heavy book, relying greatly on the published critical wisdom of Edmund Wilson and others. I have almost no recollection of what I read, or wrote.  In the intervening years, I again tried twice more, on my own, and both times failed, once sinking at section three, the other time a little further along, at section nine. [Both of these sections, I might add, are almost impenetrable to the lay reader.] There are eighteen sections all told, consuming 650 large pages set in very small type, in the latest, approved, Gabler edition.

This time I have armed myself against the reading with James Heffernan’s DVD lectures on Ulysses (previously given to senior honors students at Darmouth), and with a ponderous tome, The Annotated Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford, that purports to explain away every geographic, religious, historic, linguistic and mythological complication and complexity in the text — by means of a nearly line-by-line parallel reading which may make things nearly as confusing as plowing on without the annotations.

Why am I taking these heroic measures to meet such a challenge in my dotage?  Because, like Mount Everest, it is there.  And because I am supposed to be a knowledgeable literary type. (Ha!) And because if I don’t get through it this time, I probably never will. But I will be able to say I gave it everything I had.  And if that’s not good enough, I can always fall back on the losing lawyer’s excuse on my deathbed: “You win some, you lose some.”

Yes, I exaggerate; some parts are less hard than others. Some parts are even pleasurable. Or, as the pretty white-haired lady sitting next to me in class mysteriously remarked last time, “delicious.”

Here (for example) is a hard part.  It comes from the mind of one of the three main characters, young Stephen Dedalus, as he walks along the beach on the way back from a job as part-time instructor in a private boys’ school. [It's from the dreaded section three.] Don’t knock yourself out. And please don’t ask.  I’m putting it in for purely illustrative purposes.

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and sea wrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver. rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them colored. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in.  Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

See what I mean? But after sections one, two and three — which all concern Stephen — we move on to Leopold Bloom, a thirty-eight-year old advertising salesman (married to Molly Bloom, the third major character), whose father was Jewish but converted to Catholicism, yet who is still generally an outsider considered Jewish by the Irishmen he meets at work and throughout the day.  If Stephen is cerebral (an understatement), Bloom, although far from stupid, is definitely a man of the body. We are first introduced to him in section four (after 41 pages of Stephen) with this opening paragraph:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

I like Bloom.  Although I don’t like urine-scented kidneys, I do like  the way his mind works and the language in which Joyce accompanies him throughout his day.  Bloom is keeping me turning the many many pages in each week’s assignment. He is kind, and feeling, and although he has employment and marital difficulties, he enjoys whatever small (usually earthy) pleasures life may bring his way. That includes his time in the outhouse.  (No indoor bathrooms for the lower middle class in Dublin on June 16, 2004.)  I even identify with him there. Although I have baby wipes and real toilet paper and a nicely white-tiled bathroom of my own, I too like to read in the john, like Bloom; and hold back to enhance the eventual release, like Bloom; and don’t at all shy away from subsequent aromas arising from the bowl. (Also like Bloom.) And occasionally think, though not very seriously, about making money from writing, just like Bloom does.

Bloom’s pleasures at stool are the first time in English literature since 1400 — when Chaucer included a tale about how to divide a fart in twelve parts in The Canterbury Tales – that we get plain language about where food goes after we ingest and digest it. And since this is a blog about writing and reading and some of the things I’m doing and thinking about as I get old, here’s a choice (albeit abridged) passage about all that from section four of Ulysses – not only for educational purposes, but also to accompany or perhaps even stimulate the beginning, or end, of your day. Besides, I’m spending so much time with Stephen and Bloom this month and next, I might as well wring a post out of them!

The scene: Bloom, dressed for attendance at a funeral later on, has just finished cooking and eating his breakfast in the kitchen. Pork kidney browned — nearly blackened — in a pan with sizzling butter, bread to dip in the gravy, and tea (with milk). The cat gets the burnt bits.  She’s already had a saucer of milk.

He felt heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels. He stood up, undoing the waistband of his trousers. The cat mewed to him.

– Miaow! he said in answer. Wait till I’m ready.

….A paper. He liked to read at stool. Hope no ape comes knocking just as I’m.

In the tabledrawer he found an old number of Tidbits. He folded it under his armpit, went to the door and opened it….

He went out through the backdoor into the garden: stood to listen towards the next garden. No sound. Perhaps hanging clothes out to dry. The maid was in the garden. Fine morning….

He kicked open the crazy door of the jakes. Better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral. He went in, going his head under the low lintel. Leaving the door ajar, amid the stench of mouldy lime wash and stale cobwebs he undid his braces. Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the next-door windows. The king was in the counting house. Nobody.

Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper, turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit: Matcham’s Masterstroke. Written by Mr. Philip Beaufoy, Playgoers Club, London. Payment at the rate of one guinea a column has been made to the writer. Three and a half. Three pounds three. Three pounds, thirteen and six.

Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too   big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly. Matcham often thinks of the masterstroke by which he won the laughing witch who now. Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart. He glanced back through what he had read and, while feeling his water flow quietly, he envied kindly Mr. Beaufoy who had written it and received payment of three pounds, thirteen and six.

Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L.M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which?…….

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the jerky shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.

In the bright light, lightened and cooled in limb, he eyes carefully his black trousers: the ends, the knees, the boughs of the knees. What time is the funeral? Better find out in the paper.

And then — enough dalliance!  On with the day.  As we we should be doing, too.

FOUND IN A TWEET: “THE ONLY LANGUAGE I SPEAK,” BY VICTORIA CHO

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Nearly one year after beginning to blog, I’ve finally stuck a big toe  — just one — in Twitter. About certain matters, mainly digital, I’m very slow. (I think I’ve mentioned that before, but thought I’d repeat it just in case anyone forgot.) It took half a day for me to master the Twitter button widget. Thank God for Julie Lawford – who knows the ropes, and kindly offered to guide me through the quagmire of hashtags and punctuation when I tweeted helplessly in her direction.

So now, at bottom left, anyone with patience and time to kill can see the most recent sound bites I’ve managed to tweet. But that’s not what this post is about. Besides, there’s not much extra there you won’t find here — certainly not much of substance. 140 characters is practically jail for folks like me who need freedom from word counts.

Will all this toil in Twitter’s vineyards bring more views to TGOB?  Only, I suspect, if I spend far more time than I’m willing to contemplate in building up follows on Twitter.  As the young might tweet: OMG!

However — and this is a big however — on my very first day of following other people’s tweets, I did discover something:  A link to a splendid post that beautifully illustrates the benefits of addressing the blank page or screen bird by bird.  (See Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, four posts back, in “Give Yourself A Short Assignment.”)  Which just goes to show there are rewards in heaven for the various purgatories on earth, such as learning to tweet — in this case, one less post I have to dig out of myself and a lovely read for you.

Although the link was to a piece in Perigee, a WordPress blog maintained by Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, a literary review interested in issues of diversity and ethnicity, I couldn’t find a reblog button. (Shame on you, Perigee or Apogee.)  So I’ve had to recopy it  (which is not exactly a reblog, but the best I could do). It comes from Issue 3 of Apogee, and was posted on September 22, 2014. I’m thumbs up both on what it says and how delicately it’s put together — rather like a collage (which I understand its author also practices). I do hope readers and writers who stop by at TGOB will enjoy it too:

THE ONLY LANGUAGE I SPEAK

By Victoria Cho

My elementary school classmates ask, “Are you from China?” “Are you from Japan?” I say no to both. They ask, “So where?” I say, “My parents are from Korea.” They ask where that is. I say, “Close to China and Japan.” They don’t ask any more questions.

***

My brother and I are sent to a summer camp for Korean Americans in a small Korean town. The other campers are surprised we don’t speak Korean. The teachers give lessons on Korean music and food. My brother and I are bored and play basketball. When we return to Virginia, my parents ask if we picked up any Korean. We shrug and say, “Not really.”

***

I am a college freshman. I join the Korean American Student Association. We’re planning the first outing of the year, and someone recommends a club. Someone else says, “That place is too white.” I realize the only places I go are full of white people. I realize I’d feel uncomfortable at a place full of Koreans. I drop out of the Association. I make new friends. None of them are Korean American, but a few are not white. It is my first time with not white friends.

***

In Thailand, locals greet me with, “Konichiwa.” I assume my colorful outfits and short haircut reflect Japanese trends. I almost don’t get a job teaching English because the school principals don’t believe I speak English. I tell one principal, “English is the only language I speak.”  She asks, “But your face?” I get this question everywhere. Vendors and tuk-tuk drivers ask where I’m from. I say “America,” and they ask, “But your face?” I say my parents are Korean, and they nod with satisfaction.

***

People say “Konichiwa” and “Ni-how” to me on the streets of New York. They are usually non-Asian men and occasionally teenagers or children. My responses range from, “I speak English” to silence to curse words. Sometimes waiters or shop owners in Chinatown or Sunset Park say “Ni-how” when I enter. I speak English, and they switch. The transition is fluid and forgotten.

***

A guy I am dating says I am the third consecutive Asian woman he has dated. I think of the time one man told me Asian women are known for having small, tight vaginas. I think: everyone I have dated has been Caucasian and male.

***

A drunk young man on the subway asks where I’m from. I say, “Virginia.” He asks where my parents are from. This is what people ask when they want to know why you look like you do. I reluctantly say, “Korea.” He asks if I speak Korean. I say no, and he wags his finger at me. I stop speaking to him and look annoyed. He apologizes. I think of my guilt that I do not speak Korean the rest of the ride home.

************

Victoria Cho’s writing has appeared in The Collagist, Quarter After Eight, Word Riot, and Mosaic Art and Literary Journal. She was born in Virginia and now writes, collages, and plays in New York.