WRITING SHORT: 50/50

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[Summer heat is fading away. Although this last of my short summer posts has run before, it seems a good way to end.]

Sometimes our cat Sasha pushes back the slightly open door of our bedroom in the early morning, arrives at my side of the bed, miaows once to announce her presence, and waits for me to peer over the side at her. She is beautiful. She has a large round head, piercing lemon-yellow eyes and a slight silver sheen to her bluish grey fur.

She thinks she needs an invitation.  I inch back towards Bill and pat the mattress.  “Hi Sasha.  Hi sweetheart.  Come on.  Come on up, Sosh.”  I use my talking-to-a-young-child voice, perfectly serviceable in another context forty-odd years later.

She considers.  She might still decide to make for the litter box in the adjoining bathroom; get a drink or a snack from one of the bowls against the wall; head for the set of chairs tied together to make a bench by the double window, where she can look out under the light-proof shade to the leafy street.

But no.  This time it’s me and my obliging right hand she wants.  Up she jumps into the waiting space, turns around once, twice — sometimes three times — and collapses against me, at just the right spot for me to stroke her silky forehead, deeply furred cheeks, velvet ears, and whole delicious length all the way to the thick tail extended against my cheek.

Then she gives a half-turn for my hand to do her belly, a paradise of angora down.  Claws in, her paws manipulate me. She knows exactly where she wants it — up, down, between the spread legs, not quite there, a little higher.  I obey, a lover wishing only to please. All of her vibrates with a low rumbling purr.  She’s happy.

I’m happy, too.  I lie on my back, eyes closed — right hand on her, left hand clasped in Bill’s — enveloped in creaturely security. I feel his even breathing along one side of me, hers along the other—our three hearts beating steadily.

I want it to last forever.  (Don’t say anything.  I know, I know.) And sometimes it does last — if not forever, at least for a couple of hours.  Sasha falls asleep, my hand stills, imperceptibly Bill and I doze off, in the comfort of a time-suspended dream.

(Reblogged from November 18, 2013)

WRITING SHORT: 49/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

This is the forty-ninth piece in the series: My summer of writing short is nearing its close. What did I learn in the seven weeks since the first one? I discovered that I’d been wrong about everything except that I would stick it out. (If there’s one thing I do know about myself, it’s that I don’t give up easy.)

I thought I’d be freeing up time. I found myself bound to an inexorable daily duty of finding something potentially “short” and then cutting it down to size. This double task consumed more of each day than I could have imagined or care to admit even now.

It was clear that “short” needed a word limit, to keep each piece from metastasizing. I settled on 400 words as the maximum that might qualify, but had to subtract 21 words for the repeated introduction that held all the posts together. What can you say in 379 words that’s moderately interesting to at least a few people? And then how do you pare away what you’ve written, word by word, unessential sentence by unessential sentence, till you’re nearly there – and then rephrase, still more tightly, to come in under the wire? I must have revisited each finished piece three or four times before hitting “publish,” and then went on diddling with some after they’d gone into the world.

I did cheat by including four pieces written before this summer. (The last comes tomorrow.) But the other forty-six taught me that in writing, form doesn’t necessarily follow function. Here it was almost always the reverse. There’s so much you can’t do in 379 words — memoir, detailed narrative, a substantive think piece – that the form begins to dictate what you can say and how you say it. It would be hubris to compare it to sonnet writing (eight lines, six lines, and out – all in iambic pentameter) but except for  experiments with dialogue, a letter and quoting a poem, it was something like that.

These days readers seem to like “short.” Easy on the eye, on the mind, on how you spend your time. This summer I’ve persuaded myself there’s also much to be said for “longer.” It may take longer to read; it stays with you longer.  Isn’t that what we’re writing for?

WRITING SHORT: 48/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Here’s an interesting subject: The deep-down feelings we don’t talk about — not ever, not to anyone.

It’s a no-brainer at work. “Keep your mouth shut” should be a mantra for anyone who wants to stay employed and get ahead. That doesn’t mean, of course, that one ought not offer carefully phrased, constructive suggestions for improvement of the workplace when asked, as long as one holds tight to “carefully phrased” and “constructive.” Deep-down feelings are never the first, almost never the second.

Relationships outside the office? Consciously or not, we’re all doing cost/benefit analyses all the time. Is it better to suck it up? Or spit it out? Saying “I’m sorry” afterwards doesn’t cut it. Bitter, hateful words are like winds flying from an opened bag, never again to be recaptured in the interests of negotiated calm.

And the Other? (If there is an Other.) I used to dream of transparent honesty coexisting with a lifetime of unquestioned love. I go on dreaming, but longer believe. There may be couples still so entranced with their idea of one another that they’ll declare I’m wrong. I suspect they permit themselves to see and hear the Other selectively, safely burying disruptive perceptions, then hiding the key to the vault. The rest of us shut up and make do, if it’s at all do-able, and sometimes go take a walk till the feelings pass.

What’s the alternative? Appearances to the contrary, nobody has it all. And after a while life itself begins to wind down. Then we count ourselves lucky someone’s still at our side, so we don’t face the eternal dark silence alone.

WRITING SHORT: 47/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

For some mothers, the hard part is never over.

A high-functioning daughter is on the phone. Such a nice surprise.  “We’ve just rented a beach house for next August,” she says. “You’ll have to come for a weekend. The kids will be back from day camp then. Bob and I will both have off.”

It’s only October. What closely scheduled lives. But the mother knows she can’t say that. “Oh, lovely,” she replies. “Something to look forward to.”

Christmas and New Year’s come and go. Easter rolls round. The mother thinks about summer. She hardly ever sees these young grandchildren now all three are in school and then rushing to after-school sports, music lessons, playdates. At least those are the excuses.

“Which weekend should I plan on?” she asks carefully at a dinner given by her son-in-law’s mother.  The daughter’s face assumes a familiar unpleasant expression. “No weekend, actually. We owe such a lot of people. We’ve invited too many as it is.”

Did the daughter forget the invitation? Or had it become inconvenient?  “I thought it was a big house,” says the mother, not having learned from experience. “I could also come during the week.” She hates herself for having to beg.

The daughter is decisive. “Not such a big house. And we need the weekdays to recover from the guests.”  She offers a tight smile, as if what she’d said was amusing.

The mother perseveres. “So does that mean I won’t be seeing you this summer?”

“You” could be taken as plural. But the mother really means singular “you” — the “you” who used to be her difficult, brilliant, much loved baby girl.  “Looks like it,” says the daughter.  “Maybe we can find  time in the fall. I’ll check with Bob.”

Why be surprised? For a long time, the mother’s been on tenterhooks with this daughter. Should she have nailed down her August weekend with a confirming email last October? Who does such things with family? It’s been explained by others (counselor, doctor, childless friend) that with this disorder, the daughter can’t know how it makes the mother feel. She shouldn’t take it personally.

The mother nods. Easy for them to say.

It’s not their daughter, she thinks. Not their heart that hurts.

[Reblogged from June 23, 2015]

WRITING SHORT: 46/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

A charming Hungarian once told me that men and women grow more alike as they get old. I was in therapy with him at the time and the transference was positive, so I never thought to question him. It didn’t seem relevant anyway, as he was forty-six when he said it and I was thirty-five.

In any event, he was never able personally to verify his observation. He died of a massive stroke at the age of 71 while walking vigorously along the shore at Clearwater Beach, Florida, to which he had retired about eighteen months before. When I met with his small wren of a widow fifteen years later, she declared him a fine figure of a man to the end, still virile and erect as he strode over the sand, nodding at attractive passing ladies.

Bill and I now both qualify as “old.” Have we grown more alike since the salad days before we met? Well, yes. I tell him all the time we would have been entirely incompatible had we come across each other thirty, forty, or fifty years earlier – when he was always thinking nooky, wherever he might find it, whereas I was always thinking nest-building and settling on the nest. I would have called him a swine; he would (eventually) have called me a bore.

On the other hand, the hunky Hungarian was perhaps not quite right. The body’s fires, whether wandering or domestic, may indeed be banking after eighty — bringing both sexes to the living-room couch after dinner, two versions of the same generic old person, slightly different in appearance thanks to bone structure and haircut, but who both hold hands (or not) while surfing channels till it’s okay to go to sleep.

However, our minds remain differently hard-wired. No matter how impossible a favorable outcome, even philosophical old men still covertly eye hot young things who flaunt their this and that, the urge to propagate their genes undying. Even bookish old women still secretly covet well-muscled bodies of shirtless young men seen ripping up streets with the brute physical strength required to protect a nest against marauders.

I bet you think I’m making all this up. Give it some time. Getting old doesn’t happen overnight. Sooner or later, you’ll see.

WRITING SHORT: 45/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Amos Humiston was a soldier who fought in the Civil War.  He died at Gettysburg in July 1863, clutching an ambrotype of his three children, through which he was later identified.

An ambrotype is an early type of photograph, made by placing a glass negative against a dark background.  It was only in use for about five years.  Its name comes from the Greek ambro(tos), which means “immortal.”

We don’t have Amos’s ambrotype anymore.  It wasn’t immortal. But we do still have his letters from the war. This is what Amos wrote to his wife Philinda on January 2, 1863, six months before he died:

“If I ever live to get home you will not complain of being lonesome again or of sleeping cold, for I will lay as close to you as the bark to a tree.”

Ambro(tos).

[Reblogged from December 11, 2013]

WRITING SHORT: 44/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Piano lessons have begun again, after thirteen years of none. “How much time a day were you thinking of giving it?” asks the new teacher.

“An hour?” I venture. “At least for starters? That’s about how long my back will hold out.”

I pause, not mentioning daily blogging. She waits.

“When I’m further along, perhaps more.” That’s apparently acceptable. She nods.

So practicing begins again too. Some of what was lost returns, slowly — including all the bad habits. The dropped wrists, thanks to a series of low piano benches. The downward-from-the-knuckle fingers, thanks to fatherly Mr. Fisherman, who came to the house between 1938 and 1940. (“Shoot, Ninochka, shoot!”) The impatience. (More scales?) The despair. (My Bach doesn’t sound like Andras Schiff’s!) Not to mention inabilities — also rooted in the distant past – to sight-read, to memorize.

I’ve had the current piano bench since 1978.  Yamaha must have thought it the right height for someone. Not for me, it seems. I sit on one cushion, then two, while Bill photographs the relationship between my elbow and the keyboard. (They should be level, or elbow slightly higher, to keep wrists aligned with fingers.) Then I order a 14” x 30” tie-on corded pad built up to a height of three inches — cheaper than buying a new adjustable bench.  (Will this undo a near-lifetime of muscle strain?)

I devote five daily minutes, as instructed, to raising and then dropping my now level forearms from the elbow, one at a time — striking the keys with the pads of my second and third fingers, alternately. (Will this eventually seep into my unconscious and replace the Fisherman tip-of-finger approach to piano playing?)

I sight-read from a children’s book: four-bar simple songs. Only three tries for each – and no stopping to correct wrong notes, no looking at my hands. I’m not good at it. I tense up, like a little girl taking a test.

Then comes the daily Bach – an easy C major one. Hands apart, then together, no pedal, go slow, don’t hold notes over rests, don’t get mad about stupid mistakes.

Why am I doing this to myself? Not really to channel Socrates.* As Browning said: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I read “man” as “person.” A person like me.

*See Writing Short: 23/50.