TIM KREIDER AND HIS CAT

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Tim Kreider is a satirical cartoonist based in Baltimore, Maryland who gradually moved into writing essays. By now he may be mainly writing them, but that’s neither here nor there.  In August of this year, The New York Times published a Kreider piece on its Opinion Pages called “A Man and His Cat” that, as the co-owner of two cats, I thought so good I saved it to read again and again. No cat photo. No cat cartoon. Just Kreider words on the page.

Kreider is in his mid-forties and apparently, as he implies in his piece, divorced. Images on the web show him looking like what used to be my type, when I was young enough to have a type. But that’s also neither here nor there, and has not in any way influenced my opinion of “A Man and His Cat.” I had the opinion before I went hunting up the images. I acknowledge I am shirking my duties as a blogger by giving over a whole post to the words of another, words which have already appeared in print for an immeasurably larger audience than I could ever dream of reaching.  Call me lazy, or incredibly generous. I should probably also add that if you hate or even dislike cats, or are allergic to them, maybe you should leave now and come back tomorrow or the next day. The rest of you: here’s almost all of it.  Enjoy.

A Man and His Cat by Tim Kreider. August 1, 2014.

I lived with the same cat for 19 years — by far the longest relationship of my adult life.  Under common law, this cat was my wife. I fell asleep at night with the warm, pleasant weight of the cat on my chest. The first thing I saw on most mornings was the foreshortened paw of the cat retreating slowly from my face and her baleful crescent glare informing me that it was Cat Food Time….

The cat was jealous of my attention; she liked to sit on whatever I was reading, walked back and forth and back and forth in front of my laptop’s screen while I worked, and unsubtly interpolated herself between me and any woman I may have had over. She and my ex Kati Jo, who was temperamentally not dissimilar to the cat, instantly sized each other up as enemies. When I was physically intimate with a woman, the cat did not discreetly absent herself but sat on the edge of the bed with her back to me, facing rather pointedly away from the scene of debauch, quietly exuding disapproval, like your grandmother’s ghost.

I realize that people who talk at length about their pets are tedious at best, and often pitiful or repulsive. They post photos of their pets online, tell little stories about them, speak to them in disturbing falsettos, dress them in elaborate costumes and carry them around in handbags and Baby Bjorns, have professional portraits taken of them and retouched to look like old master oil paintings.  When people over the age of 10 invite you to a cat birthday party or a funeral for a dog, you need to execute a very deft etiquette maneuver, the equivalent of an Immelmann turn or triple axel, in order to decline without acknowledging that they are, in this area, insane.

This is especially true of childless people, like me, who tend to become emotionally overinvested in their animals and to dote on them in a way that gives onlookers the creeps. Often the pet seems to be a surrogate child, a desperate focus or joint project for a relationship that’s lost any other raison d’être…. When such couples finally have a child their cats or dogs are often bewildered to find themselves unceremoniously demoted to the status of pet; instead of licking the dinner plates clean and piling into bed with Mommy and Daddy, they’re given bowls of actual dog food and tied to a metal stake in a circle of dirt.

I looked up how much Americans spend on pets annually and have concluded that you do not want to know. I could tell you what I spent on my own cat’s special kidney health cat food and kidney and thyroid medication, and periodic blood tests that cost $300 and always came back normal, but I never calculated my own annual spending, lest I be forced to confront some uncomfortable facts about me. What our mass spending on products to pamper animals who seem happiest while rolling in feces or eating the guts out of rodents — who don’t, in fact, seem significantly less happy if they lose half their limbs — tells us about ourselves as a nation is probably also something we don’t want to know. But it occurs to me that it may be symptomatic of the same chronic deprivation as are the billion-dollar industries in romance novels and porn.

I’ve speculated that people have a certain reservoir of affection that they need to express, and in the absence of any more appropriate object — a child or a lover, a parent or a friend — they will lavish that same devotion on a pug or a Manx or a cockatiel, even on something neurologically incapable of reciprocating that emotion, like a monitor lizard or a day trader or an aloe plant. Konrad Lorenz confirms this suspicion in his book “On Aggression,” in which he describes how, in the absence of the appropriate triggering stimulus for an instinct, the threshold of stimulus for that instinct is gradually lowered; for instance, a male dove deprived of female doves will attempt to initiate mating with a stuffed pigeon, a rolled-up cloth or any vaguely bird-shaped object, and, eventually, with an empty corner of its cage.

Although I can clearly see this syndrome as pathological in others, I was its medical textbook illustration, the Elephant Man of the condition. I did not post photographs of my cat online or talk about her to people who couldn’t be expected to care, but at home, alone with the cat, I behaved like some sort of deranged arch-fop…..There was a litany I recited aloud to her every morning, a sort of daily exhortation that began, “Who knows, Miss Cat, what fantastical adventures the two of us will have today? I had a song I sang to her when I was about to vacuum, a brassy Vegas showstopper called “That Thing You Hate (Is Happening Again). We collaborated on my foot-pedal pump organ to produce The Hideous Cat Music, in which she walked back and forth at her discretion on the keyboard while I worked the pedals. The Hideous Cat Music resembled the work of the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti, with aleatory passages and unnervingly sustained tone clusters.

I never meant to become this person. My own cat turned up as a stray at my cabin on the Chesapeake Bay when I was sitting out on the deck eating leftover crabs. She was only a couple of months old then….She appeared from underneath the porch, piteously mewling, and I gave her some cold white crab meat. I did not know then that feeding a stray cat is effectively adopting that cat.

For a few weeks I was in denial about having a cat. My life at that time was not structured to accommodate the responsibility of returning home once every 24 hours to feed an animal. I posted fliers in the post office and grocery store with a drawing of the cat, hoping its owner would reclaim it. It seems significant in retrospect that I never entertained the possibility of taking the cat to the pound.

When I left for a long weekend for a wedding in another state, my friend Gabe explained to me that the cat clearly belonged to me now. I protested. This was a strictly temporary situation until I could locate a new home for the cat, I explained. I was not going to turn into some Cat Guy.

“How would you feel,” he asked me, “if you were to get home from this weekend and the cat was gone?”

I moaned and writhed in the passenger seat.

“You’re Cat Guy,” he said in disgust.

It’s amusing now to remember the strict limits I’d originally intended to place on the cat. One of the boundaries I meant to set was that the cat would not be allowed upstairs, where I slept. That edict was short-lived. It was not long before I became wounded when the cat declined to sleep with me.

“You’re in love with that cat!” my then-girlfriend Margot once accused me. To be fair, she was a very attractive cat. People would comment on it. My friend Ken described her as “a supermodel cat,” with green eyes dramatically outlined in what he called “cat mascara” and bright pink “nose leather.” Her fur, even at age 19, was rich and soft and pleasant to touch.

Biologists call cats “exploitative captives,” an evocative phrase that might be used to describe a lot of relationships, not all of them interspecies. I made the mistake, early on, of feeding the cat first thing in the morning, forgetting that the cat could control when I woke up — by meowing politely, sitting on my chest and staring at me, nudging me insistently with her face, or placing a single claw on my lip. She refused to drink water from a bowl, coveting what she believed was the superior-quality water I drank from a glass. I attempted to demonstrate to the cat that the water we drank was the very same water by pouring it from my glass into her bowl right in front of her, but she was utterly unmoved, like a birther being shown Obama’s long-form Hawaiian birth certificate. In the end I gave in and began serving her water in a glass tumbler, which she had to stick her whole face into to drink from.

Sometimes it would strike me that an animal was living in my house, and it seemed as surreal as if I had a raccoon or a kinkajou running loose in my house. Yet that animal and I learned, on some level, to understand each other. Although I loved to bury my nose in her fur when she came in from a winter day and inhale deeply of the Coldcat Smell, the cat did not like this one bit, and fled.  For awhile I would chase her around the house, yelling, “Gimme a little whiff!” and she would hide behind the couch from my hateful touch. Eventually I realized that this was wrong of me. I would instead let her in and pretend to have no interest whatsoever in smelling her, and, after not more than a minute or so the cat would approach me and deign to be smelled. I should really be no less impressed by this accord than if I’d successfully communicated with a Papuan tribesman, or decoded a message from the stars.

Whenever I felt embarrassed about factoring a house pet’s desires into major life decisions, some grown-up-sounding part of me told myself, it’s just a cat. It’s generally believed that animals lack what we call consciousness, although we can’t quite agree on what exactly this is, and how we can pretend to any certainty about what goes on in an animal’s head has never been made clear to me. To anyone who has spent time with an animal, the notion that they have no interior lives seems so counterintuitive, such an obdurate denial of the empathetically self-evident, as to be almost psychotic. I suspect that some of those same psychological mechanisms must have allowed people to rationalize owning other people.

Another part of me, perhaps more sentimental but also more truthful, had to acknowledge that the cat was undeniably another being in the world, experiencing her one chance at being alive, as I was…. [I]t was funny — and funny often means disquieting and true — to remind myself that there really was another ego in the room with me, with her own likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies and exasperatingly wrongheaded notions about whose water is better….

I admit that loving a cat is a lot less complicated than loving a human being. Because animals can’t ruin our fantasies about them by talking, they’re even more helplessly susceptible to our projections than other humans. Though of course there’s a good deal of naked projection and self-delusion involved in loving other human beings, too.

I once read in a book about feng shui that keeping a pet can maintain the chi of your house or apartment when you’re not there; the very presence of an animal enlivens and charges the space. Although I suspect feng shui is high-end hooey, I learned when my cat was temporarily put up elsewhere that a house without a cat in it feels very different from a house with one. It feels truly empty, dead. Those moments gave me some foreboding of how my life would feel after she was gone.

We don’t know what goes on inside an animal’s head; we may doubt whether they have anything we’d call consciousness, and we can’t know how much they understand or what their emotions feel like. I will never know what, if anything, the cat thought of me. But I can tell you this: A man who is in a room with a cat — whatever else we might say about that man — is not alone.

Tim Kreider’s first book of essays is called “We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons.” It went on my new Kindle after I finished my second reading about his cat. If you haven’t got a Kindle, it’s also available in paperback.  Just saying….

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART III

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Spanish saints of long ago.

[In the summer of 1990, I left the United States for the first time in forty years on an inexpensive two-week tour for older travelers sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. "Inexpensive" was key for me -- which explains why the destination was Salamanca, Spain, the hotel had only one star, the food was unhealthy and unexciting, the program had twenty-eight participants (too many) and I agreed to share a room with a stranger. It wasn't all a disappointment though. R., my luck-of-the-draw roommate, turned out to be terrific. And during that first trip I learned what I liked when traveling and what I didn't.]

Among my discoveries was that one of the joys of travel can be eating.  This insight did not come from the breakfasts and dinners at the Gran Via included in the program price, which sustained (perhaps over-sustained) life but could hardly be described as “joys.”  However, in our second week of Salamanca togetherness, R. and I broke step with the others for lunch at a “real” restaurant in a part of the city not considered “Old.” There we found that food as we know it did indeed exist in Spain, together with spotless tablecloths, cloth napkins, crystal wine glasses, leather bound menus and a young waitress clad in sleeveless pastel linen eager to practice her charmingly shy but correct English on us  — the daughter of the proprietor, home for the summer from college in the states.  The bill, by our standards, was high. But worth every penny.

After we had paid it, carefully doling out equal numbers of pesos from each of our wallets, came the interesting question of who was to keep the “factura.”  I want to say that like small schoolgirls playing hooky from the tour, we played one potato, two potato or eeny miney moe for it.  But I seem to recall that in fact R. ceded it to me because of the two of us I was the virgin traveler.  Here it is, all fancy-framed and still hanging in my kitchen:

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Souvenir of my first European restaurant meal in forty years.

I see we had wine, salad, perfectly cooked salmon and black coffee. The bread on the bill came, and was charged for, without our ordering it, but neither of us was then savvy enough to send it back when it appeared, not knowing we would have to pay.  Oh well.

Our second hooky experience was more adventurous.  We cut out for a whole day — missing, I think, an educational visit to a convent or two — not specifically for a restaurant meal, but to see the Prado in Madrid. (How could anyone come to Spain for twelve days and not see the Prado?) But it goes without saying  we weren’t going back to Salamanca after the museum without first experiencing gastronomical Madrid.

It was a round trip by train, tickets acquired at the train station by means of R.’s then relatively primitive Spanish.  (She’s far more fluent today.) A woman who taught first grade in a New York City public school wanted to come with us.  Here we are after two or three hours of wandering from Velasquez rooms to Goya rooms to the museum bathrooms. Some people take photographs in museums despite pictograms everywhere showing cameras with big X’s on them, but I was good and didn’t.  So all you get of this wonderful museum, through the kind ministrations of a passerby, is the three of us outside, beneath Velasquez himself:

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NYC public school teacher (left), R. (center), me (right) and Velasquez (on high).

Afterwards, we had a short stroll through a park nearby:

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Madrid. Near the Prado.

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Madrid park.

And then — a Madrid meal!  Bookish ladies, we took a taxi to what  the Frommer guidebook identified as Hemingway’s favorite restaurant and ordered, with reckless disregard for gastrointestinal consequences, what the elderly waiter, who spoke some English, identified as Hemingway’s favorite dinner.  Was he really old enough to know? Was this kitchen lore? Piggyback hearsay?  It was roast pork, with many trimmings. (We were all three ethnically Jewish, but had left observance far behind long before crossing the entryway.) It was heavy on the plate, heavy on the fork and later heavy on the stomach, especially in the Spanish heat.  Also very very expensive.  Maybe they got away with charging extra because of the Hemingway benediction? But it was a cozy little place, and fun while we chose and chewed, and I’d probably go again if I were still there, If only to try to find my own favorite dinner on the  menu.

As I acknowledged in the first of these three posts, the Hotel Gran Via — despite its single star (not to be confused with a Michelin star) — did try.  One night, they even provided musical entertainment to enhance their tasteless and boring dinner.  I tend to disfavor non-spontaneous simulations of native culture, trimmed and flavored for tourists.  But then I thought: the musicians were at least working, which might not have been the case for them every day.  And many of our program’s twenty-eight participants seemed to enjoy the hokey performance.  So who was I to carp? I took a picture instead:

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After-dinner song at the Gran Via: employed musicians, gratified patrons.

Another afternoon we were taken to a sort of bullfight, with paella afterwards. I say “sort of” bullfight because this bull had had much experience, which is not supposed to happen, and had been trotted out and put through some paces for our benefit.  Neither matador not bull died at the end, and no one was even injured.  (There were no picadors.)

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Showing tourists how the cape stuff is done.

But the paella was pretty good.  Not quite as good as one Bill and I ate in Barcelona twelve or thirteen years later, but maybe third most memorable meal of the trip, so I’m not complaining.

Another discovery was how much I disliked being endlessly bused from place to place to cover all the “must see” historic artifacts and “must see” cathedrals in the area, with too-long stops on dusty highways for impromptu lectures and photo ops. The lectures could have been delivered on the bus, if it had been equipped with sound equipment.  And souvenir books contain better pictures, taken by professional photographers, than you can ever take yourself.

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“Professor Nena” lecturing about aqueduct with great seriousness during bus stop on way to Segovia cathedral. Lecture was followed by photo op.

I also became depressed by all the unrelieved religious suffering depicted in Spanish art.

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Excruciating suffering in Segovia cathedral. Note the skulls below the crucified Christ.

I preferred Segovia’s window boxes:

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Cheering view from the bus.

Sitting in Segovia’s Plaza Major, where we ate lunch-time sandwiches, was also a pleasant experience: we watched whoever walked by while waiting for more busing. We were going on to Alcazar, summer palace for Ferdinand and Isabella.

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Alcazar: the royal summer palace. It’s above the plain, so presumably somewhat cooler than below. But it wasn’t really cool inside, believe me, despite the thick stone walls. And we weren’t wearing layers of fifteenth-century royal trappings!

What I really wanted to see was how life was being lived in 1990 by people still alive. Which is probably why I took this picture on our next day’s busing to the province’s largest city:

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You can see where my mind was at.

But by the time we got through the Sculpture museum in Vallodolid, and hurried past the Palacio de Justicia (which would have been interesting to me, but no dice), it began to rain.  So this is all I can show you of Vallodolid cathedral.  Does it look much different than other cathedrals of the period?  I am not the one to ask.

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Vallodolid cathedral in the rain.

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Vallodolid’s Plaza Major. Same (unanticipated) rain as above. We didn’t have umbrellas.

Here’s a happy picture.  On the next day’s bus trip, to Avila, our pit stop for toilet needs was (oh joy!) an up-to-date modern bathroom.  You can see that R., like me, thought it a welcome event.  At last!

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What a great john!

Our destination that day was the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila:

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Inside the cloisters of the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila.

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Leaving the St. Thomas monastery.

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Edible souvenirs of Avila’s Santa Teresa. I didn’t buy any.

When we reached the Avila cathedral, I was cathedral-ed out.  But I couldn’t resist these three near the door:

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Detail: Avila Cathedral.

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A photo op of something outside Avila. I photographed the photographers. Oh, there is R. in the purple t-shirt, tirelessly taking pictures. I wonder if she still has them, and if so, whether she ever looks at them.

Our last bus trip was to:

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Graffiti even here, in Spain. How did they manage to spray paint so high?

First stop: the Hostal de San Marcos, Leon. This is the most luxurious of all the stops for religious pilgrims. We weren’t supposed to photograph the interior, but this time I was not a well-behaved tourist:

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Illicit shot of interior of Hostal de San Marcos, Leon.

And then it was back to Salamanca for our farewell dinner at the Gran Via.  They tried to make it festive.  We actually had fresh oranges for dessert.  Here is Pedro — yes, I finally found his picture! — peeling an orange decoratively:

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Pedro — waiter, maitre d’, général factotum. He did his best. We tipped him generously. I’m glad I found his picture after all.

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But of all the photographs of this first trip [and I've spared you more than half of them], the ones I still like best — together with the two from behind the village of La Alberca in the last post — are these, taken in front of Avila cathedral.  I couldn’t decide which I preferred, so I enlarged and framed them both. They hang over the upright piano in our small dining room where I can look at them every evening while we have supper.  The children so intent on their game and oblivious to the foreign lady with the little camera are now adults in their thirties.  But in my awkward pictures they remain forever at play with a ball, caught in a moment before they grow up and raise their eyes to the saints above them.

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Avila cathedral, 1990.

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Avila Cathedral, 1990.

Well, what’s past is past. Time to put the album away and get going with making dinner.

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART II

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University of Salamanca. August 1990.

[The story thus far:  In the summer of 1990, I left the United States for the first time in forty years on an inexpensive two-week tour for older travelers sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. "Inexpensive" was key for me -- which explains why the destination was Salamanca, Spain, the hotel had only one star, the food was unhealthy and unexciting, the program had twenty-eight participants (too many) and I agreed to share a room with a stranger. It wasn't all a disappointment though. R., my luck-of-the-draw roommate, turned out to be terrific. And during that first trip I learned what I liked when traveling and what I didn't. The pictures that follow are not good. They were taken by an extremely inexperienced photographer (me) with a small automatic camera on film that passed through customs x-rays twice, albeit in a lead-lined bag, and then was developed without instruction by sending it out through a drug store back home.  I couldn't crop, brighten, or edit. So what you see is what I got.  But for me, anyway, these prints certainly bring the trip back.  Which, aesthetics aside, is what vacation pictures are supposed to do, no?]

Because a university had sponsored the trip, there was necessarily an educational component to this vacation, which I could have done without. After all, I had already had twenty-two years of schooling, not counting nursery school and kindergarten. Nevertheless, for the first three or four days our mornings began after breakfast in a classroom: teacher, blackboard, pointer, the works.  Here is “Professor Nena Lucas, N.A.” telling us what she and the colegio for which she worked thought we ought to know before we actually saw anything.  Her English was reasonably fluent but heavily accented.  She was twenty-six, married with two small children, and earning summer money to finish her doctorate.  She was dedicated to her job with us:

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“Professor Nena Lucas, N.A.”, map of Spain, and back of elderly American  heads.

I liked her.  I really did.  She worked so hard. But you can tell from the picture I took that I sat in the rear of the room.  You also can tell from the blur what an amateur photographer I was. Anyway. Salamanca is the capital of the Province of Salamanca in the Community of Castile and Leon [in northwestern Spain].  Its Old City was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1988. It is the second most populated area in Castile and Leon after Vallodolid, and ahead of Leon and Burgos.  16% of Spain’s market for Spanish language study is here.  It has lots of iglesias (cathedrals and churches), conventos (convents) and a Roman bridge of which fifteen arches date from the first century B.C.  That’s the kind of information Professor Nena was there to provide. She also offered a brief overview of Spanish history  — tactfully omitting Franco, under whose regime she must have grown up —  Spanish economics, art and literature.  I confess I remember none of it and just now paraphrased Wikipedia to give you an idea of what our first few mornings on the tour were like.

Some of us were more interested….

Some of us were more interested….

…than others.

…than others.

I counted four unattached men among the twenty-eight participants. It later turned out one of them had brought his girlfriend along so he was already part of a couple. There were also perhaps five married couples, of assorted ages but all over fifty. That left about eleven unattached women — nine if you subtract R. and me.  Of the three “available” men, the one in the picture on the left worked in a monastery as a lay clerk and was with us for the religious experience, and also to improve his Spanish. Another (face hidden in picture on right) had gone on every tour the University of New Hampshire ever offered and was still unattached, which might tell you something.  Then there was W., also on the right, checking me out instead of paying attention to Professor Nena.  Boy, was he busy during his twelve tour days fending off attention from women, visibly playing them off against each other and loving it. Conclusion: Do not sign up for older-traveler tours to meet men!  Mr. Right — or even Mr. Acceptable — generally doesn’t go for this kind of thing alone.

After the lectures, we were free to roam.  There was the bridge, the two main cathedrals — old and new — and the University to see. [Shot of University at top of post.] That University, which dates from 1136, is the oldest in Spain, the fourth oldest in Europe and remains an important center of learning. A few parting words, though, about the “educational” component of non-specialized tours. (I exempt specialized programs specifically focussed on architecture, or horticulture, or Great Homes of England, or like that.)  Even before the Internet, we could have found everything Professor Nena had to say in a guide to travel in Spain, and I wish the program had provided recommended preliminary reading for those who signed up and cut the “colegio” hours.  It would have left more time for looking, which is what most of us, except perhaps the monastery guy, had come to do. There’s also a lot of dead time on buses — perfect for little refresher courses on whatever we might be going to see that day.

Below is what almost all architecture in the Old City looks like to the uneducated eye.  I’m sure there are important architectural differences between buildings erected in different long-ago centuries, but I couldn’t tell you what they are and I’m sure no one else on the tour could, either.)

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One of the two major cathedrals. The newer one, I think. But don’t bet on it.

Note that one of the real difficulties in capturing an entire significant building on an automatic camera is the inability to adjust for size.  Unless I was very far away, I had to do tops, or bottoms, or a detail. (Details were usually of saints.)  Hence you get only a piece of cathedral here, and only a small piece of the university up at the top of the post.  On the other hand, the university courtyard  — with R., the American tourist in the middle of the picture, rolled-up souvenir between her white-sneakered feet — came out much better.

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Courtyard of University of Salamanca, 1990.

The camera also worked well for city scenes:

Watching the world go by.

Watching the world go by.

Tight squeeze.

Tight squeeze.

Delinquent (?) youth.

Delinquent  youth.

Lacemaker.

Lacemaker.

Self explanatory.

Self explanatory.

Street market.

Street market.

And then we hit the road. August 15 is some sort of local religious holiday in a tiny village called La Alberca. You can reach it from Salamanca in about an hour by bus.

The countryside is not scenic.

The countryside is not scenic.

There’s a pageant, with traditional costumes, and people who’ve come from all around the vicinity to see the show.

August 15 festival procession at La Alberca.

Trying to get a good view at the August 15 festival procession.  La Alberca, Spain.

The children were more interested in playing behind the scenes.

The children were less interested in the procession’s religious significance.

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I can’t explain what all this means. No one explained it to us. It was colorful, though.

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Villagers after participating in the procession.

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Are you taking my picture, lady?

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Woof. It’s hot.

But the part of La Alberca I liked best was in the countryside just behind the village.  Before the bus left to take us on to Miranda del Castenar (another village), I walked back there by myself. After the tumult of the procession and its spectators, it was so peaceful, quiet and green I could have sat down beneath the trees and stayed and stayed….

Instead, I took these two photographs, which are still in my bedroom, twenty-four years later, enlarged and framed:

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Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Miranda del Castenar is a village from another time.  (Although people still live there, and have cars — which spoil the view.) I’m a sucker for places like this.  It has too many steps without railings for me to think of ever, in my real life, living there. Or anywhere like it. But I do love the idea of life in an earlier, simpler time.  I know, I know: a time when life was, as Hobbes famously said, “nasty, brutal and short.” But isn’t travel a form of fantasy?  We can never know what it’s really like to live anywhere, unless we move there ourselves.  And even then, we’re “the others.” So let me have “my” Miranda del Castenar — stage set for a daydream about long ago.

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Stone steps. Miranda del Castenar, Spain.

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Miranda del Castenar, Spain.

But you must be tired by now. That was a lot of sight-seeing for one time. I’m tired too.  (I’m not so deft at uploading photos and inserting them where I want them in a post.) So I think I’ll call it a day and try to finish up next time.  Or the next two times. ( I do tend to run on.)

[To be continued]

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART I

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Evening. Salamanca, Spain, August 1990.

In the days before digital cameras and iPhones, there was the little automatic camera, designed for the “real-camera”- challenged and also for tourists wanting to take hasty snaps of twelve-day trips covering lots of places. When departing by plane with such a camera (or even with a more complicated one), it was wise also to bring enough film to get you through the trip, because it might cost the earth if bought wherever you were when you ran out — or not be available at all, depending on location.  You also needed a lead-lined bag in which to put the film when you went through customs, both before inserting it in the camera and afterwards, when you brought it home undeveloped to be turned into pictures back in the good old USA.  After that, if you were industrious you invested in albums for storage of your photographed memories, carefully labeled.  If not industrious, you showed them to a few people, hating how your hair looked under such hurried and often under-washed conditions, and then left them in the paper envelopes they’d come in, mysterious hints of your past for your descendants to find and puzzle over when you had passed on to a place where no cameras would be needed.

I was one of the “real-camera”-challenged. No time and light determinations for me, much less changing lenses when the tour leader was calling for a return to the bus.  Not that I didn’t own a “real” camera.  My newly adult children had thoughtfully provided one on my 59th birthday, just before I set off on what was to be my first travel experience outside the United States since I was nineteen.  (I omit several day trips to Tijuana with my first [California] husband because he liked bullfights, a five-day honeymoon in Bermuda with my second [New York] husband, and a long family weekend in Montreal just before the oldest child went off to college. None of those required a passport, so they don’t really count.)

However, there was no time before the trip to become deft and knowledgeable with the “real” camera my children had bought, so I acquired one of the small automatic ones — a Canon, I think — as an interim measure.  Also many boxes of film and the lead-lined bag. And when I got home, a large photograph album in which to mount my camera work, carefully dated and labeled, as the still practicing lawyer I then was might be wont to do. 

I bring all this up, after first bringing that heavy album up the stairs to my office, because one of the things that soured my summer — besides having to edit a very long manuscript written ten years ago about a subject unpleasant to recollect — was reading about other people’s travels in their blogs while Bill and I weren’t traveling anywhere. (Yes, I am sometimes mean-spirited.) So I decided to console myself with a trip through that first photograph album. [There were many more to come.]

Many photograph albums of many trips….

Many photograph albums of many trips.

 I hadn’t looked at that first album for a long time. The photos now seem pretty awful technically, and that’s probably not the fault of the camera. (Re-photographing the prints with an iPhone to upload them to WordPress probably didn’t help either.) But I’m glad I took them (bad as they are), saved them in the album and labeled them. They do exactly what they were intended to do: bring back the past now that I’m older (so much older) than before.

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In 1990, I had been separated from my second husband for three years, had briefly recycled two old boyfriends (sequentially) with results no more satisfying than the first time, was living in a studio apartment in Boston by myself, and had just finished paying off all the credit card loans that put braces on my children’s teeth, sneakers on their growing feet, got me through three years of law school and bought me a Subaru. (In Massachusetts, you drive or you’re stuck.) I was nearing sixty and had a net worth of $0.  But I had a good salary, no more college obligations for the children, and had begun to save a little something.  It was time to go somewhere, while I was still young enough to do it. I renewed my passport of forty years before.  Unfortunately, it was nearly summer, and I didn’t want ever-ever-ever to be in debt again.  (Even though those were the days when you could still deduct all interest — not just mortgage interest — from your gross income before calculating what you owed Uncle Sam.)  So whatever trip I took had to be cheap.  And because it was so late, there wasn’t much choice. On someone’s advice, I wrote away to the University of New Hampshire (no email yet), which then ran a program of tours for older travelers.  Their August trip was two weeks in Salamanca and northwestern Spain. By bus. If I were willing to room with a stranger, it would be even cheaper. 

I spoke no Spanish and had minimal interest in Spanish culture. I also suspected that Spain in August would be extremely hot. But I was lonely. I needed company, and I needed to get away from the Uniform System of Citation and the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure for a while, if only a short while.  That meant I was in for Salamanca. On balance, it turned out to be a pretty good trip.  Besides the copious perspiration, there were some things, identified in what follows, I could have done without. But I made a friend who’s still a friend, and laughed a lot (which I needed), and revived my interest in seeing how other people lived.

 Why don’t you come along for a while?

Plaza Major, Salamanca 1990.

Plaza Major.  Salamanca 1990.

The first thing we learned on arrival:  all Spanish towns, Salamanca included, are organized around a central square.  Pronounced (in Spain): Platha Mayor.

The street leading to the Plaza Major from our one-star hotel.

The street leading to the Plaza Major from our one-star hotel.

 The first thing I learned on arrival:  I don’t like traveling in large groups of people who have to stick together for purposes of the tour schedule.  The second thing: I don’t like crowds of tourists either.  I want it to be just me, me, me!!!  (And chosen friends, of course.)

First good thing about the trip:  My luck-of-the-draw roommate.  Not because she had a “real camera.” Because we got on like gangbusters, and she’s still a friend.  Even reads the blog. Sometimes.

Luck of the draw roommate.

R.: My luck of the draw roommate.

One of the fun things R. and I did together in the hot un-airconditioned room we shared for twelve days was pee in our pants and do hand laundry at midnight.  It was always blistering out (unless it was raining), we always drank a lot of water all day long and didn’t perspire it all away — and then we spent many an evening and every night in the room exchanging stories about men and laughing. We laughed so much and so hard people down the hall who heard the laughter, if not the stories, thought we had come on the trip together. If you know what laughing does to the aging sphincter of an overfull bladder, then you know what I’m talking about.  If not, wait.  (How long, I can’t say. But Kegel exercises or no, the day will come…..) It was a small room, with a tiny bathroom and a really minuscule sink. We had been cautioned to travel light and each had a limited supply of underwear. There was accordingly much late night washing (taking turns at the sink) and hanging wet panties on the shower rod.  More difficult was a more occasional need: washing the under sheets of the two twin beds.  Sometimes we didn’t.  They usually dried of their own accord, if the hotel didn’t change them, which wasn’t often.  Sssh…….

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View of shop across the street from our one-star hotel.

Hotels in Spain were then rated from one to five stars.  There were no hotels without stars.  So expectations for ours, Hotel Gran Via with its single star, were low.  But Gran Via was clean (when we weren’t soiling it), and it tried.  Pedro (I found his name in the photo album) — maitre d’, waiter and general factotum for all twenty-eight of us — was very nice. (No picture of Pedro uploaded.  Sorry.)

Being a one-star hotel, Gran Via’s menu was heavy on starch, pork, and sweets.  Within a few days, R. and I — trying to stay healthy — were craving something that had grown in the earth.  All we could find in all of Salamanca, during what was labeled “free time” on the schedule, were”sandwiches vegetales.” White bread, a few wisps of blessedly green lettuce and — yes! –slices of fresh tomato!  Here I am, thirty-five pounds heavier but twenty-four years younger than today, under the sign for the “sandwiches” — looking coy and trying with my fist to hide from the camera what might be called a slight double chin: 

Ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Ou sont les neiges d’antan?

And now, dear readers, I fear this self-indulgent reminiscence has run on too long.  Back next time with the rest of the trip, unless too many of you cry, “Enough!” Which you can do in the comment section below. I won’t be offended. Honest.

Although next time — if there is one — will be much more cultural, I assure you.

CONFESSION

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 I save the fortunes in fortune cookies.  Idiotic, I know. Intelligent woman like me looking for a heads-up on what’s coming next in life  — whatever life is left — on  preprinted slips of paper inside tasteless little baked products loaded with sugar and preservatives.  

For one thing, they’re not even “fortunes,” in the sense of purporting to predict the future. For that, you have to go to a gypsy woman with a crystal ball and allegedly occult powers on the second floor of some decrepit building with dark and creaky stairs, who you pay to search your palm for nonsense about your life line and heart line and the little grooves at the side of your palm that predict the number of husbands (or great loves) you can look forward to.

In my twenties, a Madame Magda identified three such grooves, at a time when I was still on husband number one.  H#1 didn’t like the sound of that but was able to laugh it off as hocus pocus.  Turns out she was right, though, at least about the number of husbands.  Although if we also consider the great loves, that might, or might not, skew the head count somewhat, depending on how we define “great” and “love.” [Subject of another post, perhaps.]  Be that as it may — and hocus pocus or not — after Madame Magda, I did occasionally take comfort in looking at the side of my palm whenever I became too deeply unhappy with the here and now.  Unfortunately, the last time I looked I couldn’t find the little grooves anymore.  They had disappeared in a mass of other probably age-related lines — which must mean I’ve used up my quota of husbands and/or great loves.

However Chinese restaurants never disappear. They are ubiquitous in every English-speaking country I’ve ever visited, and perhaps in some other places as well. They count among my earliest memories of eating out with my parents, in the days when the menus — whether in a borough of New York or a small town in Kansas — consisted exclusively of either chop suey (vegetable, chicken or beef), or chow mein, or egg foo yung, or fried rice, or barbecued spareribs, or one from Column A and one from Column B.  (Sometimes there was also something called sweet and sour shrimp, too — very shiny and sticky.) Oh, and wonton soup.  Somewhat later, as the menus flowered into multi-page reading experiences, the local Chinese restaurant became an always reliable venue for the mother who couldn’t face making another meal; somewhere for Jews to go on Christmas Day when every other restaurant in town is closed; a source of sustenance for the uncoupled, self-pitying and lonely, dipping forks or perhaps chopsticks into cardboard cartons in front of the television screen on Saturday night. And also occasionally a resource for the elderly, like Bill and me, fed up at the last minute with always eating healthy to stay alive longer and thinking, close to dinner time: “Ah, the hell with it; let’s phone Shanghai Park. They deliver.”

But sure as shooting, whatever “Chinese” you choose to eat and in whatever part of the United States you eat it, you can always count on the ending, whether of an in-restaurant meal or take-out: sections of cut-up orange to freshen the palate, to get juice all over your chin, and perhaps to soil your clothing, accompanied by a cellophane-wrapped fortune cookie (with “Fortune Cookie” printed on the wrapper) — one per person, unless the kitchen was very busy and someone made a mistake by giving you two! (Second bite of the apple, in case you don’t like the first “fortune.”)

I wonder who writes them. I’ve almost never had two alike, so they can’t be widely mass produced.  I sometimes visualize some poor sap copywriter down on his or her luck and taking a temporary gig writing the insides of fortune cookies till something better comes along. (Per diem pay, probably.) There must be rules. No bad news, for starters. No one wants to end a meal by finding a prediction of sudden death from overeating delivered with the bill. The writer may comfort (always good), exhort (perhaps encouraging), offer bits of pseudo-wisdom. Or dish out praise. (We’re all fools for praise, even if it comes from a sweatshop for copywriters.) If any of you have the inside scoop on this interesting question, do let us in on it!  I’m sure other fortune cookie eaters would like to know, too.

I also sometimes wonder — although not long or hard — how the “fortune” gets inside the cookie.  It couldn’t be wrapped in wet dough or it wouldn’t pull out so easily after you’ve broken the cookie, or look so clean when you read it.  But how do you insert an oblong slip of paper into a curled up fully baked cookie so that it won’t come out unless the cookie is broken in two?  There must be some kind of patented machinery that someone has burned the midnight oil to develop. Unless it’s still done by hand — another wage slave sweating over a hot oven to stop the baking process when the cookies are half done, manually place the fortune on a cookie no longer wet but still malleable, then twist it into the desired shape and finish the baking.

Why am I wasting everyone’s time, as well as my own, with these ruminations? Ah, I know the answer to that one. It’s to put off the moment — which now has come — when we look at what I’ve been saving. At first, I only saved what I considered good messages that came from a cookie I had chosen from the two or four on the table.  These, for instance:

You are never too old to dream. Dreams bring hopes. 

Isn’t that nice?  If you were in your eighties, wouldn’t you stick a “fortune” like that in your wallet for another day?  Or:

Remember the birthday but never the age.

That one I consider cautionary: Do whatever you feel like doing (“Never remember your age”) but don’t engage in wildly risky behavior, such as skipping your flu shot, running in very hot weather — if you can still run, that is — or making a public fool of yourself by, for instance, getting a face lift when the rest of you is sagging. (“Remember the birthday.”)

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I also like the cheery ones, even if I know they’re hokum.  Since I chose the cookies that encased them without knowing what was inside, maybe they apply after all:

Your flair for the creative takes an important place in your life.

Who wouldn’t appreciate an observation like that, even if written by someone who’s never met you or heard of you?  It really comes from on high, doesn’t it?  Doesn’t it?

Also quite soothing when I can’t think of something truly different to blog about is:

Fresh ideas are not always the best ideas.

That’s right! Nothing like tried-and-true to win hearts. I’m so lucky I have cats to fall back on, blog-wise.

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A whole other category of little papers I see I have saved come under the “Fight On!” umbrella. It is somewhat invigorating to find one of these three pepper-uppers in my makeup box of a morning:

Success will not attack you. You must attack it.

And:

Keep on charging the enemy so long as there is life.

And:

The thought that leads to no action is not thought — it is dreaming.

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But now we come to the questionable ones.  First question being: Why did I save them? Answer: Because each was on the table after its surrounding cookie had been eaten (by another person) and I couldn’t bear to abandon it when it might come in handy some day.  Mind you, these weren’t even my fortunes. But waste not, want not.  (What they teach us when we’re young is hard to shake.) Anyway:

A smile is the most effective medicine.

Now what does that mean?  Smiling at a sick or troubled person is kind and supportive, but it’s not going to cure the disease or chase the trouble.  On the other hand, if this is a message about letting another’s smile medicate what ails you — it’s garbage. “There, there, it’s all going to be all right. (Smile, smile.)”  When you know it very well may not be all right?  And suppose no one smiles at you. Then where are you?

Here’s another that looks wise at first glance, but isn’t:

Ideas are like children: there are none so wonderful as your own.

It’s true we love our children more than anyone else’s. But that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize superior merit in another’s child.  (Little A plays the piano much better than my little B; I might as well admit it, if only to myself.)  As for ideas, I’m envious almost all the time of other people’s wonderful ideas that didn’t come to me first.  On the other hand, if this “fortune” is attempting irony — or worse, sarcasm — that’s not why I paid to eat dinner!   So anyone who wants either of these two spuriously gnomic messages is welcome to them.  Just ask, and we can do a deal.

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The last four I find in my current possession are soon going to fortune-cookie-message heaven, or the other place, unless someone can persuade me they have a place in my life:

(1) Be most affectionate today.

(2) Allow your confidence to carry you through each day.

(3)  When three is a crowd, adding one will often thin it out.

(4) The one waiting for you when you get home will be your friend for life.

What can I say? I am affectionate? When I feel confident I don’t need fortune cookies, and when I don’t, what good is a message inside a cookie? Adding one to a crowd of three sounds to me like a rom-com that never made it?  The one waiting for us at home miaows?

The real message that comes down to me from the heavens now that I have parsed out these remnants of dinners already digested, is that I should have swept them away with the paper plates. Or better yet, never said to Bill, “Ah, the hell with it. Let’s phone Shanghai Park.”  

Green smoothies and chia seeds:  It’s going to be clean mind in clean body from now on!

 

HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

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Misery.

NOT FUN.

For those of you somehow coming upon this post while looking for something else, perhaps I should summarize, if everyone else will just bear with me for a moment.  I took a vacation from blogging, tactfully called “Time Out” in the post just prior to this one, in order to follow through on an invitation from a literary agent, an event so rare and unexpected in the lives of aspiring writers (one of which I guess I must be) that to ignore it would have been gross stupidity.  

He wrote in response to having seen a memoir of my thirteenth summer (“Falling Off the Roof”) which was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review. (Note: That issue is still available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon for $4.99, in case anyone who hasn’t read the piece is interested.)  Here are the relevant parts of our e-mail exchange:

From him:

Dear Nina Mishkin:

I very much admired your story “Falling Off the Roof,” in The Iowa Review and thought that you might enjoy hearing from a fan of your work who is also an established literary agent. I don’t know if you are even at that point in your writing to start exploring representation, but this story made me feel that you have the talent to write a publishable book.

 If you’re at work on a novel, one of my colleagues in the agency or I would be pleased to read the opening chapters. We can tell, with a brief synopsis (1-2 pages) and around fifty pages, if we are engaged by the material. If so, we’ll encourage you to keep going. If not we’ll explain why. These days, many editors never read further than the opening chapter or two of most novels before rejecting them. That’s how overloaded we all are with reading material. You must grab our attention, early on, either with plot or characters.

 If you are assembling a short story collection, or undertaking a non-fiction book, visit our agency website ….for our submission guidelines and suggestions. In the current market, publishers are unlikely to take on a short story collection unless the author can provide a novel to follow. If you do not have at least 50 pages of a novel ready, it’s worth waiting to put both book projects together, believe me. You may find our submission guidelines helpful whether we ultimately represent you or not. Or you may write us an e-mail describing the book you are working on. We can then let you know, quickly, our response. Please indicate that I have read some of your work in that letter.

 If you already have an agent please excuse this approach, as our agency does not take on previously agented writers. If you are unagented and would like to discuss your writing before sending me anything, give us a call. The author/agent “chemistry” is vital in a long-term relationship. If you don’t have anything to send us at this time, hold onto this letter. My invitation to read more of your work is open-ended. Recently we sold a first novel to Knopf by a writer I originally contacted ten years ago after reading his story in The Georgia Review.

 Because we offer editorial work on all the projects we take on, at no additional fee to the writer, we do ask for one month exclusivity of your submission but generally respond sooner. We do not send out  form rejection letters on work submitted, but try to provide a fair evaluation of the work, including any editorial suggestions we may have.

 Looking forward to reading more of your work.

 Best wishes.

I suspected this was a form letter, with the first sentence tweaked to make it personal for me.  [Later, in an online chat room for writers I found corroboration for my hunch:  same letter from same agent sent to another writer, who was wondering how long he needed to wait for a response to his synopsis and fifty pages.]  Nonetheless, that was quite a letter — for which I was entirely unprepared.  So here was my reply [edited for brevity, never my strong point]:

Dear _______:

Your email was most welcome, especially its first paragraph. And no, I don’t already have an agent. On the other hand, I’m not sure how to respond. Am I ready to start exploring representation? Perhaps you can tell me.

 Although at seventeen I declared I was going to be a writer when I grew up, I am now nearly 83 and have spent all of my paid working life in other professions, of which the most recent was practicing law.  It may be that I haven’t grown up yet.  As a result, I have only dabbled.  Banged “things” out over four-day holiday weekends. And then fiddled with them whenever there was time.  It’s true that in the past couple of years, I have become more serious about it. But in any event, I note that your letter references novels, short story collections and the undertaking of a non-fiction book. How do I fit my “things” into those categories?

 I don’t think I could write a novel, or a shorter piece of real fiction, if I tried. The “story” you say you admired was memoir. Most of what I’ve written apart from that — which I am about briefly to describe — is in the first person. And even when it isn’t, it’s really about me and my life, thinly disguised. On the other hand, I have a “voice” that has been generally admired.  (Several “voices,” actually.)  And at my age, I’m very likely in a (marketable?) niche all by myself!

 So. There is an unfinished first draft of a possible book: 183 pages of typescript, in the first person, tentatively titled “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” If rewritten in the third person, which might be a good idea, it could present as a sort of “novel” about the development of a binge eating disorder (“BED”) in the days before there was a name for it. On the other hand, maybe it should remain a confessional reminiscence.  As I have no idea what to do with it other than burn it, a thought plainly indicating ambivalence, it has been sitting around for about ten years.  I have cannibalized bits of it from time to time for short pieces.

I then described three short stories, besides the published one, and the categories of short pieces — all taken from this blog — that together could constitute a collection of work.

…. Well, would it help to talk about all this? Would it help to talk in person? I am not so far away; New Jersey Transit can bring me into Penn Station from Princeton whenever there’s a reason to come in.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Nina Mishkin

His response came back within the hour and was not a form letter, as you can see from the typing:

Dear Ms. Mishkin,

I think y6ou write well. Let’s take a first step by sending me the pages of “Eating Behind Closed Doors”.  It’s never too late to start a new career, if you are talented.

Best,

To which I replied:

Dear Mr. ______,

I appreciate the immediate response. Give me four to six weeks to reread “Eating Behind Closed Doors” and clean it up a bit before sending it on to you. (I don’t want to embarrass myself unduly.) I’ll be getting back to you then.

Many thanks. And be well.

Best,

 What happened next?

1.  I read “Eating Behind Closed Doors” as far as it goes (for the first time in ten years), shuddered a bit, and then spent a few days reading some WordPress blogs from bloggers with eating disorders. (Yes, they’re out there if you look).

2.  I decided whatever I had already done should stay in the first person, for two reasons.  The first is that there’s an audience of people (at least in the United States) enduring much of what I went through and more, who would probably read a short book about a binge eating disorder if true but maybe not if it presents as “fiction.” The second reason is that what I’ve already written takes place so long ago, it has become social history of a world that doesn’t exist anymore — and that makes it interesting apart from its purported “subject matter.”

3. I also decided I shouldn’t try to finish writing it until I hear what the agent thinks about what I’ve already got.  For one thing, it would take too long. For another, his letter suggests it would be unnecessary at this point.  Moreover, whether or not he decides to work with me, his comments could be helpful in determining where and how far to take it. (I would prefer a quick, clean forty- or fifty-page conclusion — and done!  But we’ll see.) That meant my summer job was to focus on tightening where I was prolix, clarifying where I was unclear, eliminating fine thoughts, unnecessary verbiage, duplication of word usage and my own verbal tics.  And also changing the names!  In addition, I would have to write a one-or-two page synopsis — not so easy with a plotless narrative which still has no conclusion. And I also wanted to write a possibly dispensable short “Author’s Preface,” explaining (1) what the book is not about; (2) why it’s not about that; and (3) why I wrote it.  Which I have done.

4.  Then I posted “Time Out” on July 10, and went to work.  

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The fourth go-round of the edited manuscript, plus synopsis, plus cover letter, plus a copy of all the prior e-mails went out by UPS Express on August 21.  I wish the contents of the box were something recently written that I really cared about. I have extremely mixed feelings about what’s actually in it, which is why I abandoned it ten years ago and why the summer spent reading and re-reading it was so not fun.Considered just as a piece of writing, I also feel that although it starts out strong, it does sag, structurally, somewhere around page 70 and despite some funny bits afterwards never quite recovers, even after all my tightening.  On the other hand, I may just be too close to judge objectively. If someone with knowledge of the book market thinks there are enough potential readers for something like this, then perhaps it’s a kite that will fly after all….and pull a collection of Getting Old Blog pieces after it!  I always was a dreamer.  Stay tuned….

I thank all of you who wrote such warm and encouraging comments to the “Time Out” post.  I really appreciated them, even though I took Diana’s advice not to answer while I was working on the book manuscript.  I was a real sourpuss for most of the summer anyway, and didn’t want to spoil the glorious send-off you gave me by bitching and moaning all over the comment section.

I also thank the twelve people who decided to follow this blog while I wasn’t writing it.  I won’t ask what you were thinking. Welcome, welcome anyway.  If you’re still patiently waiting for something to read, here it is:  a bit specialized for non-writers, but maybe a thought-provoking peek at how one part of the commercial world turns.

If you want a short post on how to tighten up your own prose writing, speak up. [Before I forget what I did.]  Otherwise, I guess the next one is up to me.  Cats, anyone?

TIME OUT

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I’m bad at multi-tasking. I can really think about only one thing at a time.

For the last eight months or so, that has been blogging.  It was good for me, in what is called “retirement” (meaning you don’t get paid for what you do), to have to sit down every day and come up with a relatively polished post that anyone might see.  Blogging gave life structure, purpose, a sense of keeping core skills in use.  In time, it also brought virtual friends — in some cases from parts of the world I would not have thought my words would reach — and invitations to come visit.  (I wish, I wish.)

But now I confront a dilemma.  Several weeks ago, I heard from a New York literary agent. He wrote he had very much enjoyed reading my piece in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review, called himself a “fan” of my writing and thought I might be publishable.  He meant publishable in book form.  Open offer: What did I have to send him?  He didn’t want collections of short pieces, not at first anyway.  He said book publishers would not be interested in collections unless there were a novel or book-length memoir behind it.

I did some research.  He’s been around for quite a while.  Represents some published names I recognize. Seems to know what he’s talking about.

It just so happens there is “a book” on the hard drive.  Half of a first draft of one, anyway.  I wrote it on Fridays while still practicing law four days a week, and also during multi-week summer vacations on a small Greek island during the very hot afternoons when it was best to stay in the shade.  And then I couldn’t decide how to do the second half, if it in fact needed a second half.  Or even if I wanted other people to see it.  So I put it away without deciding.

I described it to the agent. He thought we should start there. I asked for six to eight weeks to look it over and clean it up.  (My style has changed somewhat since the Greek island, for the better, I think — thanks to blogging.)  So that’s where I am.

I have no idea if anything will come of this.  But it deserves my best shot.  Hence the dilemma.  I can’t do blog and book simultaneously.  I know there are some WordPress writer/bloggers who can, and do.  Alas, we all have our limitations, and this one is mine.

Bottom line: The Getting Old Blog is taking a summer break while I sharpen my metaphorical pencil and get into serious editing.  I’ll still be keeping an eye on my Reader.  Newer followers have eight months of my archived stuff to explore.  And if anyone is really dying to hear from me, there’s always e-mail.

I’ll let you all in on how it turns out when I get back. [I'm not holding my breath.  But who knows?]  In the meantime, my best wishes for a wonderful summer!