WHO WOULD I BE FOOLING?

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For many years, whenever what I saw developing in the bathroom mirror displeased me I would think: “Oh well, I can always make all that disappear with plastic surgery.”

Somehow that didn’t happen.  I hate pain, even if temporary. I also hate the pain of writing any check containing the word “thousand” after a single or double digit number, a pain that isn’t so temporary. The sum of money indicated on the check vanishes from one’s possession forever and then you can never again think about spending it, if you really wanted to, for something you normally would never spend money on.

In my early sixties, when I was once more between husbands, I did consult a plastic surgeon in Boston about something unrelated to my face.  (The consultation was free.)  He seemed not only a well-trained fellow with unusually attractive patients in his waiting room, but also turned out to be sensible and realistic. He was easily able to persuade me of what I had suspected all along — that what I had sought counsel about was neither feasible or necessary.  However, he was so nice I was sorry to part with him.  “So isn’t there anything you could do for me?” I asked.

He regarded me thoughtfully for a moment and suggested perhaps a partial “procedure” to restore my youth from nostril to neck. (That’s not exactly how he put it.)  But he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. After a moment he also added:  “It isn’t necessary either, you know.  A man who really loves you won’t care about the firmness of your chin.”  I did wonder how he kept his waiting room filled if he shared that wisdom with other prospective patients.

Fast forward to my eightieth year, when a brownish three-dimensional  “thing” began to sprout from my upper left cheek.  Wrinkles and sag I had learned to live with. But not this intruder (extruder?), if I could help it.  Again I sought professional help. This time she was a woman here in Princeton, accredited up the wazoo, who assured me she could remove the “thing” and at the same time smooth out the surface of my skin with a “deep peel” as well.  This appeared to be a package deal. It was summer and I was both lazy and innocent in the ways of dermatologists and plastic surgeons.  I said okay.  But then, since it was another of those free consultations, I asked how much a one-time, first and last, face lift might cost. I know, I know: nobody asks such questions without harboring a secret yearning to look young again.

Her face lit up.  (Now for the profitable stuff. ) She whisked me over to a seat in front of a mirrored wall and stood behind the chair. Then she lifted upwards with both her knowing gentle hands. Voila!  The face of my thirties greeted me.  In my real thirties, I had kept finding fault with this face.  Let me tell you, it looked pretty good to me now.

“O, what cheekbones!” she rhapsodized.  (Really?)

I left not only with an appointment scheduled for “thing” removal and a deep peel, but also with pricing for facial surgery alone, facial surgery plus eye lift, cost of hospital stay, cost of anesthetist for four hours general anesthesia, the memory of the face in the mirror and  — pain be damned! — a trembling desire,  as the copywriter in me would put it, “to roll back the years.”

Bill, the man who eventually loved me despite my unfirm chin, sat up with a start at the news and remembered his years in medical school sixty years before.  “Four hours under general anesthesia for elective surgery?  At your age? Absolutely not!”

My internist agreed.  At eighty? Not wise.

Several acquaintances whose opinion I sought had heard there was a slight risk of loss of mental acuity.  Meaning I might lose some smarts.  (Some of what’s left, that is. There’s plenty gone already.)

I lost faith in the doctor over the next few months anyway. She did get the “thing” off. But let me tell you a deep peel h-u-r–t-s, no matter how expensive it is. (She never mentioned that, or that I would have to spend the summer smeared in Eucerin — greasy! — under widely brimmed hats.) I never went back for a yearly re-do, as recommended if you wish to retain your supposedly fresh and dewy look.

So if the subject of facelifts had come up after that in any dialogue, real or virtual, you would have found me almost entirely on the side of being oneself.  In moderation, of course.  What I don’t spend on Manolos or Louboutins (because I’d fall on my face if I tried to walk in them) goes to my hairdresser, who owns his own eponymous shop and therefore costs more. (Although no tip because he’s the owner.) There —  pain free and hence without general anesthetic — I get Keratin straightening twice a year, and coloring away my roots every eight weeks, and partial “highlighting” every sixteen weeks, and the obligatory double cheek-kissing at the end of every visit.  (He’s Moroccan, French-speaking and Paris-trained.)  I also have a bathroom full of Bobbi Brown products, which somewhat mask the absence of continued dewy facial freshness, and I smell (if I may use that word) of Hermes. (On Perfume.com it seems it’s nearly always 15% off.)  Which fragrances? Caleche for day, 24 Faubourg for evening and specials. (Don’t ask what the specials are; I know one when I see it coming.)

But deep deep down, have I still yearned to look young(er)?  Um, yes. It would be great to look the way one sometimes feels.  Then sappy young waiters wouldn’t dare be patronizing, and maybe medical assistants who never saw me before would stop with the kindly, reassuring first name business,  and  — here we’re really getting to the nitty gritty — I could still flirt with strangers, which used to be one of the major fun parts of everyday life.

Don’t be too concerned, though. It’s always stayed deep down.  Until a few weeks ago, when it may finally have gone away for good!  I recently took a commuter bus instead of the train to New York (just to see what it was like) and went to the rear, hoping if it didn’t fill it might be quiet enough back there to read.  It did fill, though, and three ladies who got on north of New Brunswick sat down in the row in front of mine.

The two directly in front of me were likely in their early sixties. I could give you a wicked description of their haircuts and what they had on (I can be truly evil when the spirit so moves), but will leave them in peace for this post because they had smile lines around their mouths and little crinkles around their eyes and the kind of chin lines the men who love them — and I’d be willing to bet they each have such a man — don’t care about.

But the third lady, sitting one row in front of me and across the aisle, immediately attracted my attention for the dewy white unblemished freshness of her complexion.  She couldn’t have been young — she came with the other two and her straight hair was that of an aging woman, the sort of hair a hairdresser can only cut very short and then color a desperate shade of straw, to try to conceal its wispy thinness.

Despite the hair, however, her skin had not a single line at all,  anywhere, and it couldn’t have been just Botox.   Moreover, her blue eyes were open very wide throughout the entire seventy-five minute ride as if she had just seen something that startled her and her eyelids had frozen high in the eye sockets. There was no indentation at all between her nostrils and mouth; that part of her face had been stretched so wide that it was absolutely flat. The stretching had thinned her lips into a long straight line, as if if she were perhaps about to smile but then had thought better of it.  No smile lines framing the mouth, though.  But what was most startling was her chin and jaw — both sharp and clean and raised up as if she couldn’t lower them. And perhaps she couldn’t.  I took my gloves off and pulled my own face and throat back with thumbs and fingers as tightly as I could and then, without letting go, tried to lower my chin.  I couldn’t.

Was it a terribly botched job?  A third or fourth or fifth facelift? Somehow I think it was repeated, and intentional.  Perhaps the unbelievably babylike texture of her skin made her feel young. This lady was at least in her seventies. She wore a black Persian lamb three-quarters coat, and who wears those anymore? Her hands were bony and had some brown spots; there was a slight osteoporotic hump beneath the back of her Chanel-copy jacket; she took a sucking candy out of her handbag and sucked it in the front of her mouth with closed (stretched) lips, the way old ladies often do.  (Except her chin stayed jaunty as she sucked.)  Occasionally she made a comment to her friends across the aisle; she had what my eight-year-old grandson would, with the blunt outspokenness of childhood, call an “old lady” voice.

So who did she think she was fooling? Who would I be fooling if I had insisted on tinkering with the passage of time? I don’t have the hump, or the coat, or the sucking candies, but my hands are a dead giveaway and when I have phlegm my voice cracks.  With her jaunty chin and startled eyes, she slowly made her way down the aisle of the bus in front of me, her feet set wide apart to keep her balance, her pocket book full of those candies dangling from her Persian lamb-covered arm. The driver helped her off the bus. Despite the dewy freshness of her complexion, he knew she’d need his help.

BEL CANTO AT THE MET

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[ Note: Save this post for when you have some time. It’s not only somewhat lengthy but — a first for me —  a time-consuming “viewing” and listening experience.]

Saturday I attended a matinee performance of Giacomo Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  I do these matinee “Opera Outings” at the Met about three or four times a year, not because I can’t live without opera despite its high ticket price, but because it’s good for me to get back to the city in relatively easy fashion and do something that moves me or teaches me or is otherwise different from my everyday life.

It’s true one can hear, and even see, perfectly good opera on CD or DVD.  It’s not the same, though, as walking through that magnificent lobby into an opera house perfectly balanced acoustically, to hear a world-class orchestra and voices as they really sound — before being digitally recorded and/or remastered and/or whatever else is done to a performance to bring it to us in our living-rooms or on our iPhones. That’s one thing about going to the Met that’s different from my everyday life, before we get to the rest of it.

“Opera Outings” was the brainchild of Nancy Froysland Hoerl and her husband Scott, both on the music faculty at Westminster Choir College here in Princeton where I live.  Every year for the past twenty-five years, they have bought a block of tickets  at various price ranges for one of the Met’s standard matinee subscription packages, hired a tour bus, and sold the round-trip-by-bus plus tickets to the general public in the greater Princeton/New Brunswick, NJ area. Usually you buy three to seven of the offered operas together in the preceding spring. Tickets for single operas are rarely available, and only if they are left over afterwards.

The transportation is what makes this idea such a winner.  Just drive to the Westminster Choir College parking lot (five minutes for me), park by 9:30 a.m., get on the bus, and by 10:45 the bus is on West 65th Street right by the steps up into Lincoln Center and the Met.  Since the opera starts at 1:00, you have two hours to go do something else, or else meet a friend for lunch at American Table in Alice Tully Hall across the street. There you can sit and sit and talk and talk; nobody bothers you as long as you’re still nursing a cup of coffee.  Also the bathrooms are very good, and no waiting in lines.

I would not have chosen La Donna del Lago. (My favorite opera, composed later, is still Puccini’s La Boheme — death by consumption in a mid-nineteenth century Parisian attic. That should tell you something about me.) Donna is a bel canto opera inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s 400-page poem, The Lady of the Lake.  And “bel canto” (beautiful singing) is the term applied to a series of Italian operas from the first half of the nineteenth century, more often than not written either by Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti,  in which the plots are for the most part mere trifles, often laughable, designed principally to support dazzling displays of song expressing the emotions of the characters.  And I mean dazzling.  If you can hang on to the end of this post, you’ll hear for yourself.

But Donna was in the Westminster package for 2014-15, and it was a big deal: the first time this opera has ever been mounted at the Met.  New production, great vocal stars (Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Flores) and highly favorable reviews.  Of course the reviews came after I had paid for the ticket, but it’s always nice to know you’re not going to sit through three hours of ho-hum or worse.

I had the American Table lunch with an old friend. Sautéed catfish for me, tomato soup and Parker House roll for her. Then I went across the street, took a shortcut through the Avery Fisher Hall lobby because it was very cold and windy, pushed through the Met’s doors, showed my bag to the inspector with the flashlight to prove I wasn’t a terrorist and handed over my ticket to be scanned.

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You may wonder why I paid so much to have an orchestra seat when there are four significantly cheaper tiers of seats, mounting to the sky-high ceiling, where I could have heard everything just as well.  It began when Bill used to come along too.  He gets dizzy going down steeply raked stairs, so we went for the orchestra seats together. Then he stopped coming.  He doesn’t like novels, plays or opera very much and had been coming just to please me. (Believe it or not, he has trouble following a narrative line. He a psychiatrist listening to people’s troubles for forty years!) Moreover, the bathroom situation at the Met is, candidly, not good.  I might further note, and he did, that the acts can be quite long before the permitted intermission dash to the few available toilet stalls. It was an issue for him. And who was I to argue?

So then I was on my own, and discovered I was spoiled.  Yes, you can hear the music from anywhere in the house. And see tiny dots, representing human beings, way down there on the stage.  But I like to see the faces.  Good singers do act, you know. Besides, it’s much easier to just walk in, find your seat and sit down than to join gazillions of other people fighting to get into an elevator, then creep cautiously down rickety stairs to your designated row, after which there is a lot of “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me” as you slither without handrail to your seat in the rafters, past other annoyed patrons clutching their coats as they stand for you.

That’s why the orchestra seat.  I hardly ever buy new clothes any more, which kind of evens things out, financially speaking. Okay?

Now that we’re in Seat O16 we can open the program. (Its cover is above.)

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And look at photos of the stars inside:

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Joyce diDonato, the lead mezzo-soprano, as Elena, lovely young Highland lass gathering fake flowers near a loch and rhapsodizing about her love for Malcolm. Malcolm is a “trouser” role — in this case a “kilt” role — sung by another mezzo-soprano.

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Juan Diego Flores, as King James V (Giacomo) disguised as Uberto. He is one of the two tenors inflamed with love for Elena. He also looks very good in his leather outfit. He will relinquish her to Malcolm in the end, to make her happy and and give her a reason to sing her stunning concluding aria.

But what’s most fun to do before the performance begins is to stand up and case the house.

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Don’t forget to look up.

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Unfortunately once the dangling light clusters are drawn up and the house lights dim, picture-taking ends.

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I therefore cannot give you any idea of Act I except to say you have to suspend a lot of disbelief before you can enjoy the glorious music.  Example:  When the libretto requires someone to sing to us that the trumpets are calling him to war, all one can hear from the orchestra in the pit is a happy dance tune dominated by flutes!

An hour and fifteen minutes later comes intermission and mass flight, either to (a) the lower-level restrooms or (b) the bar in the lobby.

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However, instead of checking out the restrooms, let’s walk up to the stage and peer into the emptied orchestra pit. (The lobby and bar are coming in just a minute. Have patience.)

Look how many French horns!

Look how many French horns!

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Percussion section!

Now the lobby:

If you're a quick (and rich) eater, and made a reservation ahead of time, you can eat something during intermission on the level just above the lobby, looking through glass at (and also being seen from) the plaza at Lincoln Center.

If you’re a quick (and rich) eater, and made a reservation ahead of time, you can be served something edible during intermission on the level just above the lobby, looking through glass at (and also being seen from) the plaza at Lincoln Center.

The lobby railings always get me.  The railings in the Family Circle and Balcony can't hope to match such splendor!

The gilded lobby railings always get me. Don’t think the railings in the Family Circle and Balcony are equally splendid.

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Intermission is actually quite long enough to get pleasantly soused.

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The companion of the lady below suggested I photograph her beverage.  I suggested she hold her glass in such a way that we could all admire her jewelry and manicurist’s work as well.

I know this appears to have nothing to do with going to opera at the Met, but in a way it does.  People get quite chatty during those long intermissions, especially at the bar.

I know this appears to have nothing to do with going to opera at the Met, but in a way it does. People get quite chatty during those long intermissions, especially at the bar.

I then turned to the companion, but he said he didn’t want to be photographed, although I could photograph his boots if I liked. I asked if he was very proud of his boots, and he said he was. Given permission, I aimed downward. I don’t think he’ll be reading TGOB to see how silly it all looks on the screen.

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Enough nonsense.  Back to our seat, passing the three rows of standing room at the rear of the orchestra seating as we go.  When I was in my teens and the Met was on Broadway and 39th Street in its pre-Lincoln Center days, I used to line up for standing room to get my fix of La Boheme (and also La Traviata and Tristan and Isolde) at the Saturday matinees.  It was $2.00 then, and there was only one row, without translations of the libretto at the push of a red button. You had to know what you were hearing ahead of time.  I’m sure it’s not $2.00 any more.

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And now, dear readers, as the curtain rises on Act Two I must turn off my phone.  I can show you a bit of the high drama involved from the still photograph in the program:

Lovely Elena trying to hold her two warring tenors apart.  On the left, Rodrigo, leader of the rebel Highlanders -- to whom her father has betrothed her against her will. On the right, Juan Diego (still in leather and still in disguise). Is it a political battle, or a battle for lovely Elena?  Maybe a bit of both?

Lovely Elena trying to hold her two warring tenors apart. On the left, Rodrigo, leader of the rebel Highlanders — to whom her father has betrothed her against her will. On the right, Juan Diego (still in leather and still in disguise). Is it a political battle, or a battle for lovely Elena? Maybe a bit of both?

Much better, though, if you have the time, is this YouTube upload of an intermission interview given by diDonato and Flores just after their dress rehearsal of Donna.  Following some pleasant preliminary chitchat, you get a taste of the Act Two battle photographed above.  Remember not to get upset when Elena grasps Rodrigo’s sword by its (supposedly) sharp blade; it shows the intensity of her feelings without really drawing any blood.

The showstopper of Act II, however, is Elena’s final aria, Tanti affetti, after the King has killed Rodrigo in honorable battle offstage, thus mooting her engagement to him, followed by his forgiveness of Elena’s father and beloved Malcolm (the mezzo) for their acts of treason in opposing his rule, followed after that by his joining the hands of Elena and Malcolm in marriage. (What a benevolent and self-sacrificing king.)  It is ten minutes of extraordinary bel canto singing.  Picture simple country girl Elena expressing her great joy in the King’s throne room before dozens of chorus members in creamy white Elizabethan garb. This still photo doesn’t do justice to seeing an entire stageful of the chorus in these costumes, but it will give you some idea.

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Joyce diDonato frequently uses this bel canto aria as her “party piece.”  In the following YouTube upload, she sings Tanti affeti in evening dress, with orchestra and chorus onstage, at a gala performance in honor of Richard Tucker.  If you haven’t got ten minutes to listen to it all, move to the last three or four minutes, but don’t miss it. This kind of singing is at least one of the reasons why I get on the Westminster bus, and why opera survives.

NOW FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT: THE VIEW FROM OUR BED LAST NIGHT

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There is no deep hidden meaning in this post, or even a shallow surface meaning.  Think of it as penance, or atonement, for past failures to provide photos with my posts, which — I realize — a good blogger should always do.

Thing is, I’m no good at hunting up Creative Commons pictures that might be relevant, or even attractively irrelevant, to what I usually write about.  And I don’t generally run around taking pictures of this and that anymore.  (Our breakfasts? The cleaning ladies?  My hairdresser?)

However, I do feel I can always fall back on the four-pawed members of the household when the need arises.  Since I’m pretty sure I haven’t done any such falling back since the end of 2014, perhaps you’ll cut me some slack here and let me show you the five relatively okay shots I got last night of S & S.  That should be sufficient penance for at least four entirely verbal posts already run. Then, starting tomorrow or the next day,  I can babble on shamelessly photo-less for a while.  Thank you.

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Left to right: Sophie, who cannot jump high and therefore needs orange stool to mount her scratching post; orange stool for Sophie’s use; humidifier on top of air purifier (both for us, not the cats, although I suppose they benefit, too); electric heater (only used for daytime naps) on top of second orange stool (which is there for symmetry and because Bill likes lots of orange, not because Sasha needs it); Sasha, trustingly offering us her rear; she can jump, which explains why heater is on “her” stool. Blocking the view: footboard of fake Victorian bed I thought romantic when I bought it twenty years ago in my sixties. What was I thinking of? Hanging on to the headboard bedposts?

Another view.  Despite the bright light, this is really midnight, chez nous.

Another view. Despite the bright light, this is really midnight, chez nous.

SASHA'S CLOSEUP.  She's really the family beauty, but she just wasn't cooperating.  "Let's sleep already," she was saying, in body language.

SASHA’S CLOSEUP. She’s the acknowledged family beauty, but she just wasn’t cooperating last night. “Let’s sleep already,” she was saying, in body language.

SOPHIE's CLOSE-UP.  Sometimes she looks good, sometimes not so good.  This is sort of in the middle, but what can you do at midnight?

SOPHIE’S CLOSEUP. Sometimes she looks good, sometimes not so good. This is sort of in the middle, but what can you do at midnight?

ONE LAST VIEW, because I hated to turn out the light.  You don't think they get up on their posts every night to pose for pictures so nicely.  If you do, you never lived with a cat.  It's their cat-ness that makes them so lovable.

ONE LAST SHOT, because I hated to turn out the light. You don’t think they get up on their matching posts every night to pose for pictures so nicely?

Then Bill called out from the part of the bed I haven’t shown you, “Let’s sleep already.”  (We’ve learned so much from these cats.) So that was that.

Lights out, nighty-night.  Don’t let the bedbugs bite. (As they said in the seventeenth century when mattresses  — you should have been so lucky as to have one then — were stuffed with straw.)

Now one or both cats will jump from their expensive perches — we’ll hear them — and run downstairs to frolic freely in the dark, disarranging the upstairs hall rug as they go. What they do down  there I cannot tell. I don’t go snooping.  Cats deserve some me-time, too.

I SAID I WOULDN’T AND NOW LOOK!

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Those of you who recall “Some Thoughts (If You Can Call Them That) About Sex,” three posts back, may also remember I made reference near the end of that post to an email correspondence I had had with another blogger. The correspondence contemplated the composition of “elderly erotic stories” about persons of at least sixty by a “woman writer” and a “man writer.” It was an idea that soon went nowhere. But when the other blogger got back from a brief vacation in Mexico and learned of the post, he inquired, by email, whether I had identified him as the “man writer.”

I assured him I had not and would not, because his blog is much classier than mine.  (He thinks about ethics and how we should live; you know what I think about.)  I therefore assumed he wouldn’t want any of my readers rushing over from my blog to his for more sex only to get a load of Snowden instead. (Edward Snowden, and courage, was a recent topic of his).

But now he himself has pulled away the “Anon.” with which I had thoughtfully veiled him by acknowledging his part in this email correspondence.  In a post of his own.  With a link to mine.

How can I thank this very ethical man?  Why by linking right back, of course.  Don’t be afraid to click this responsive link.  Although he’s still ethical as all get out — in his blog, anyway — this newest post in which he identifies me is about his vacation in Mexico and meeting a financial adviser named Greg in the pool.  Yes, there’s a lesson at the end  — “Each one teach one” — before he gets to the sex part (where I come in) and then the words of Socrates in Plato’s Republic.  But it’s not hard to read.  And I’d really love for you to see my name, and the name of my post, on Montaigbakhtinian.  It’s sort of like finding your name on the honor roll in grade school.  And to think: I got there with sex!

(Thank you again, William Eaton. You’re a sweetheart, if it’s not too unethical to say so.)

A FEW ODD FACTS ABOUT GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ME

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People who read each other’s blogs sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know each other pretty well.  But blogs are deceiving.  What a blogger omits gets left out of the picture. Here, for instance, are a few oddments you may not have thought of in connection with the author of TGOB.

1.  Geoffrey Chaucer was master of the English language circa 1400. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with me, read on.)

2.  English 715 years ago (aka “Middle” English) wasn’t exactly a foreign language, but some — including me — might call it close to one.

3.  “Middle” English pronunciation was also something else.  It was spoken just before what linguists call “the great vowel shift”  — an oddity occurring with all English speakers in the early 15th century (don’t ask me why) that moved our vowels a notch further forward in our mouths from the point where Europeans sound out the same vowels.  Example:  the color that you get by mixing blue and yellow used to be pronounced “grain” (and spelled “grene”); after the shift, it began being pronounced “green” and still is, except perhaps in Ireland. (In fact, Middle English does have a faint Irish lilt.)

4. Why am I telling you this?

  • First, to take a break from sex, love and death, which I seem to have been writing about quite a bit lately.
  • And second, because starting tomorrow I’m taking a six-week course in Chaucer designed for retired Princetonians.  (Or non-retired ones who have their days free to do as they please.) Just Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  And just the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  It’s being given by a renowned Professor Emeritus from Princeton University named John Fleming who has no idea I’m blogging about him and his short course.

So many people have signed up for Professor Fleming’s course that it’s being held in the former courtroom of Princeton Boro. (That is, it was a courtroom before the Boro merged with Princeton Township to become just plain Princeton. But you don’t need to know all that local political history to understand this Chaucer thing must be a very popular subject here in Princeton to fill a courtroom, however small by courtroom standards.)

5.  The subject seems to have been so popular there had to be a lottery for seats, and I won one of them!

6.  In 1954 I took a course in Chaucer and everything he wrote, including The Canterbury Tales. I was in graduate school  at USC. (Southern California, not South Carolina.)  I still have the textbook and my notes for the exam but can’t read the notes or any of my marginal commentary anymore.  So I bought the currently recommended text and will bring both to class, like the goody-goody I used to be.

7.  My having had a course in Chaucer sixty-one years ago does give me a leg up on the pronunciation, believe it or not.  I checked myself against an online spoken version of the first twenty-six lines of the Prologue, and I wasn’t bad at it.  I missed the beat fairly often but got most of those retrograde vowels right.  Here it is, if you’d like to try yourself:  http://www.nativlang.com/middle-english/middle-english-canterbury-tales.php

8.  Or, if you’d rather not bother with all those vowels, this is what the beginning looks like:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote |
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, |
And bathed every veyne in swich licour |
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; |
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth |
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth |
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne |
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, |
And smale foweles maken melodye, |
That slepen al the nyght with open ye |
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, |
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, |
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; |
And specially from every shires ende |
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, |
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, |
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. |
Bifil that in that seson on a day, |
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay |
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage |
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, |
At nyght was come into that hostelrye |
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, |
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle |
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, |
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde,
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

9.  What saddens me is that I can’t remember the name or face of the Chaucer professor back in 1954.  I liked him quite a bit, perhaps because he admired a proto-feminist paper I wrote about Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, centered on her declaration that she was her own woman. And now he’s gone, gone with the wind — blown clear out of my mind, both the look of him and any way of identifying him.  I didn’t even write his name in the textbook, perhaps because I thought I might sell it again afterwards, although how I could have sold it with all those handwritten illegible notes in it I can’t imagine. I think his last name began with a W, but I’m not sure.

10.  And if all this messing about in the faraway past sounds too odd for you, think of it this way:  Maybe after our seemingly endless freezing winter of Northeastern discontent, I just can’t wait for those soote (sweet) shoures (showers) of Aprille and those smale foweles (birds) to maken melodye.  Reading about it in Chaucer, even in Middle English, speeds it up.  By the time the course is over, the shoures and foweles will really be here.

CAN A REALLY GREAT WRITER MAKE IT ON WORDPRESS?

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[Last fall I registered for an adult education course that failed to attract a sufficient number of registrants and was therefore withdrawn.  It was about “The Long Short Story.”  I had already bought the books containing the six stories to be discussed, and don’t easily give in while there’s still hope. So I put up a post in which I offered to host a reading program with the professor’s curriculum if I had three takers — a foolhardy idea, as hardly anyone in Princeton knows I blog.  But there was one brave soul, in a town just to the north, who raised her virtual hand.  We’ll call her G.  

And so G. and I, in an extremely leisurely way, began.  We decided to meet every other Thursday at 2 p.m. (except for December, because G. has a large extended family for whom holiday preparations are time-consuming).  We eliminated Faulkner and Conrad from the professor’s list and added a few authors of our own. We alternate houses and make tea. (G. is English.)  Occasionally, instead of reading a new story, we watch a DVD movie version of a story we’ve just read, and then talk about what changes were necessary to show the story visually without too many voice-overs and what was lost in translation from print to screen.

But because it’s only two very good long stories a month (one, if it’s a movie month), there’s time to read carefully and read again.  G. is more thorough than I am in the line-by-line stuff. (She comes from a career in science.) I focus on structure, what is suggested by what is said, and what is not said because it’s not necessary to say it. We tell each other we’re learning how to write better memoir, and perhaps we are.  We certainly have a pretty good time, even though we hardly knew each other before this literary adventure.  Because we’re women, sometimes the conversation wanders off point. But we were professional women, so it doesn’t wander too far.  No reminiscences of childbirth yet, or anything like that, although given time we might get there.

So far, we’ve read Chekhov’s “Lady With A Dog,” Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” Mann’s “Tonio Kruger,” Carlos Fuentes’ “The Prisoner of Las Lomas” and Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” (which deserves a post from me all to itself).  Next up are stories by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, and after that we’ll see.  But last Thursday, in addition to a celebrated long short story we added a very short one by the same author. In the end, we spent as much time talking about the very short one as the famous long one and decided it was a perfect  little story. 

“How do you think it would do if I posted it?” I asked.  “There are blog posts just as long.  Blog posts which are short stories by aspiring authors. And it would certainly be a change from what I’ve been blogging about recently.”  (At this G. rolled her eyes roguishly.)  “What if I left off the famous author’s name till the end and sent it out on its own?”

The very short story is about a young protagonist living with his uncle and aunt in a deeply Catholic provincial city around 1900 who meets with defeat and despair so palpable you may feel it too.That’s probably all I should say up front, although feel free to ask questions or comment afterwards.  I cannot advise what clicking “like” might mean in this context.  It could be that you “liked” the story, or that you “liked” the idea of the posting experiment even if you hated the story. If there are no “likes” at all, G. is going to get it next time for not having stopped me. So maybe a “like” could also mean I shouldn’t take it out on her.]

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ARABY

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.

When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ash pits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlor watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of laborers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me. I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring “O love! O love! many times.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.

“And why can’t you?” I asked.

While she spoke she turned a silverl bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

“It’s well for you,” she said.

“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”

What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening!  I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.

On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening He was fussing at the hall stand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:

“Yes, boy, I know.”

As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlor and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.

When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.

When I came downstairs again I found Mrs. Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs. Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:

“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”

At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hall stand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.

“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.

I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:

“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”

My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.

I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.

I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Cafe Chantant were written in colored lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.

Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.

“O, I never said such a thing!”

“O, but you did!”

“O but I didn’t!”

“Didn’t she say that?”

“Yes. I heard her.”

“O, there’s a … fib!”

Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:

“No, thank you.”

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

by James Joyce.

[“Araby” is the third story in Dubliners. The long short story G. and I also read last Thursday, which ends the book, was “The Dead.”]

A TEMPLATE FOR FACING DEATH

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[Oliver Sacks is a noted British neurologist, Professor of Neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of many books, including “Awakenings”  and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”  Today he published a piece in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times about learning he has terminal cancer.  I hope when the time comes I can confront my end with such spirited courage. 

The piece is now available to anyone who reads the Times, either on paper or online. But for the many of you who don’t, I’m typing it out here, in part because that will ensure I myself read it again more carefully — but also, and principally, because there are so few helpful road maps for negotiating our way towards what lies ahead for all of us that this piece, heartrending though it is, deserves to be read widely.]

MY OWN LIFE

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

by OLIVER SACKS  Feb. 19, 2015

A month ago I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular kind of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Hume continued, “I am…a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Here I depart from Hume.  While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

© 2015 The New York Times Company