CATS: AN INTERMEZZO

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SOPHIE, ON EXPENSIVE KNOLL CHAIR SHE SHOULDN'T BE ON

SOPHIE, ON EXPENSIVE KNOLL CHAIR SHE SHOULDN’T BE ON

[From “Stand Up for Your Cats,” by Julia Baird, New York Times, March 29, 2015]

Cat men and women, we have the numbers. There are now roughly 95.6 million cats in America [compared to 83.3 million dogs].

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Part of the appeal of cats is that they are independent and discerning. They have few needs. They come to you when they want; you can’t force them, or cajole them. They can be fiercely affectionate. They are gloriously indifferent. Cats don’t pretend to like you, and don’t care if you like them.

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[From Honorable Cat, by Paul Gallico (Crown Publishers), pages 8-9]

Everything a cat is and does physically is … beautiful, lovely, stimulating, soothing, attractive and an enchantment.

It begins … with the compactness of construction, composition, size, proportion and general overall form. The domesticated cat is the tidiest of all animals. There is an almost divine neatness and economy about the animal. Completely packaged in fur with not a bald spot showing, rarely two specimens wholly alike, it often comes decorated with designs that Picasso might envy and always functionally streamlined for every activity; just another case of the practical made glamorous.

SASHA AT HER MORNING POST IN THE KITCHEN

SASHA, AT HER MORNING POST IN THE KITCHEN

ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE AFTER NINETY

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Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014.  Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.

Roger Angell and his dog Andy, January 2014. [Photo courtesy of The New Yorker.]

[The most viewed piece I ever posted was a summary of “This Old Man,” an essay written by Roger Angell. It had just been published in The New Yorker.  My post ran sixteen months ago, on February 14, 2014, But it still shows up in the stats as being read almost every day by one or more people somewhere in the world.

Initially, I credited its popularity to the fact that the TGOB post offered readers almost half of the Angell essay for free, whereas The New Yorker archives were not free then, except to subscribers. But now I think there’s something more to it than that.  As far as I know,” This Old Man” is almost unique in being written by someone with a clear and literate voice who was in the tenth decade of his life — 94 when the essay was published, 95 this year.

That may seem a long way off to most of you.  Not to me. In less than a month, I will be 84. So once in a while I go back and reread the post, to remind myself of what it may be like for me in just ten years, if I’m lucky enough still to be here then.  Of course, Angell has far more money than I do, and more connections, and more this, that and the other thing to perhaps ease his journey towards the end.  But I do believe most of the essentials about which he writes remain the same for everyone.

Of the sixteen people who clicked “like” on the post when it first appeared, I recognize the avatars of seven or eight.  But many newer readers and followers of TGOB may not have gone rummaging in the blog’s archives to find it.  Therefore, I hope those of you to whom it’s already familiar will humor me for running it once more.  It does make those of us who are only a bit younger, or even very much younger, stop and think.]

ROGER ANGELL ON LIFE IN HIS NINETIES

[A reblog]

Roger Angell was born in 1920. He is the son of Katherine White, an early and renowned fiction editor at The New Yorker, and step-son of E.B. White, author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web. Angell himself has been associated with and written for The New Yorker nearly all of his professional life, more recently always about baseball, and still does a baseball blog for the magazine. I can take baseball or leave it (which is more than I can say for football, basketball or hockey), but mostly I leave it now that my two sons are long out of the house. So when I see something by Angell in the magazine, I’m inclined to skip it.

However, this week’s The New Yorker contains a long piece he has just written which is not about baseball. It’s called “This Old Man” (subtitled “Life in the Nineties”), and I could not put it down until I had read every word. Finding something good about getting old written by someone a bit older than me doesn’t happen every day! So I wish I could just copy out the whole thing here to show everybody. But it’s too long. (Pages 60-65 in the February 17 & 24, 2014 issue, the one with the annual Cholly Knickerbocker cover.)

Nonetheless, without pushing the outer limits of bloggery too far, I can probably offer a taste from the middle (about how the rest of the world treats you when you’re old) and then the last page and a half, about which I thought, oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, all the way to the tiny diamond which marks the end.

If you’re twenty-five and feel you don’t need to think about things like this right now, you probably don’t. Unless you’ve got a great-aunt or great-uncle still hanging in there, and want to know what it feels like. But your generation probably doesn’t read TGOB much, if at all. So this post is mainly for everyone else.

Because I’ve had to cut somewhere, I’m skipping the beginning and some of the middle, in which Angell describes his present pretty-far-gone physical condition (eyes, limbs, spine, heart), his personal losses (wife Carol, daughter Callie, dog Harry, many many friends), his remaining joys, his thoughts on death and dying. You can find the magazine online (Google it if you don’t subscribe), should you want to read it all. This part is from page 63:

We elders — what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel? — we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends — old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties — and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming…or Virginia Woolf…. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA — a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two or response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours…..

And here are the last two columns of page 64 and all of page 65:

I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems — by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more — which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now — late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier-op-cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.

I count on jokes, even jokes about death.

Small Boy: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.
Teacher: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
Small Girl: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.
Teacher: How nice for you, Emma. Next?
Second Small Boy: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.
Teacher: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
Luke (seizes his throat): He went “N’gungghhh!”
Not bad — I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.

A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.

“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”

“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”

“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”

“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”

“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, “How many insertions?” I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”

I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”

“Oh, come on, dear — they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.

That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still — you know, still doing it?”

“Yes, I did– yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”

This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”

More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number or remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”

This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse — we always thought it would be me — wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart — don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”

Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming at home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers — but not just for this surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden –/ Ah — the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor — you’ve had your turn — is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.

Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.

But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick” — a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”

This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone.

You may not like the jokes. But oh, is he ever right! Here’s one more little bit to leave off with:

In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”

Another message — also brief, also breathtaking — came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.

A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”

FACT OR FICTION?

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Readers often wonder how much of a novel, novella or short story comes from the writer’s own life and how much is made up. Some literary critics (and some biographers) have built an entire career on teasing from literary texts published as fiction what may have really happened and what likely didn’t. Other critics — and probably all writers — maintain the fact-or-fiction question doesn’t matter because after the writing leaves the writer, it must stand on its own.

As a would-be writer, and certainly as a nearly life-long reader, I don’t think the question is worth pursuing.  What did or did not happen in “real life” is irrelevant to the merit,  or lack of it, of the completed literary work. Anyone whose reading of what a writer publishes is driven by prurient interest in the details of the writer’s life is not far removed from the reader of fanzines and other sources of celebrity gossip.  Which is not to say that a taste for gossip isn’t a  widespread human failing, shared by me, but should not be confused with the experience of reading literature.

What’s more, even where the published work bears no apparent surface resemblance to what is known of a writer’s life, you can rest assured that every writer who ever lived has in one way or another cannibalized his (or her) own experience of living for material.  Nothing is safe from the writer, not even the writer!  Sometimes, it’s emotional experience — translated, for example, into science-fiction, or fantasy, or “post-modernism” of some kind, or innovative structure.  Sometimes, apparently more realistically, it’s a character or characters modeled either on the writer, or someone the writer knows or has heard of.  But — and this is the important part — something always happens to that lived experience in the process of putting it on the printed or digital fictional page, and what that something is makes all the difference.

(Parenthetically, I would go further yet and assert that even when writers compose allegedly factual memoir or autobiography, or when non-writers explain to themselves in private the important events in their lives, the accounts can never be fully factual accounts of “real life.”  They are how we see things, how we justify to ourselves what happened. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves so that we can keep on living. But did they really happen that way?  Who’s to say?)

Now back to writers. When in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” teen-age Alexander Portnoy comes home from school and twice that day has the liver he finds in the refrigerator:  once,  raw, behind a closed door in the bathroom and again, cooked, on his plate for dinner — does it matter to the gestalt of the book whether Philip Roth ever himself jerked off with raw liver when he was a teen-age boy in Newark, New Jersey?

Roth, of course, is our century’s champion creator of what appear to be fictional alter egos.  “Portnoy” was his fourth book, relatively early in his career.  “Deception,” his eighteenth book, is a series of pre- and post-coital conversations over several years between two adulterous lovers (with a few other conversations interspersed). The man is “Philip,” a writer of novels who spends half the year in London (as did Roth for many years while living with Claire Bloom). The woman in “Deception” is English, and  nameless. The conversations, and the coitus, take place in “Philip’s” London writing studio, on a mat where at other times he does back exercises.

At some point between the earlier conversations and the last one in the book, “Philip” has written and published a novel in which the lover, and then wife, of a man named Zuckerman is an Englishwoman. Non-Roth readers should know that Nathan Zuckerman, who has many of Roth’s characteristics, had already appeared in several Roth novels prior to “The CounterLife,” a novel with many of the characteristics of the novel that “Philip” has just published in “Deception.” “The CounterLife” was Roth’s second book before “Deception.”  If it isn’t already too confusing, I might point out that Peter Tarnopol, another Roth fictional alter ego, wrote two stories about Zuckerman in Roth’s “My Life As A Man” before Zuckerman got to be the central figure in novels apparently written by Roth. (With Tarnopol’s help?)

The Englishwoman in “Deception” is upset that “Philip,” she thinks, has written about her in his recently published novel. I will leave you with their conversation, which is obviously much better than anything I could add at this time to the topic under discussion.  (It’s on the second to last page of “Deception.”)  I love the last line.

“….I object greatly to this taking people’s lives and putting them into fiction.  And then being a famous author who resents critics for saying he doesn’t make things up.”

“Because you had a baby doesn’t mean I didn’t make up a baby; because you’re you doesn’t mean I didn’t make you up.”

“I also exist.”

“Also. You also exist and also I made you up.  ‘Also’ is a good word to remember. You also don’t exist as only you.”

“I certainly don’t anymore.”

“You never did. As I made you up, you never existed.”

“Then who was that in your studio with my legs over your shoulders?”

Res ipsa loquitur.  (The thing speaks for itself.)  Which has nothing — and of course everything — to do with the matter.

ANOTHER STORY, VERY SHORT

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

It’s only October. Such 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 around. The mother begins really thinking about summer, even though it’s still a few months off. She hardly ever sees these three grandchildren now they’re all in school and then rushing to after-school sports, music lessons and playdates. Not to mention the daughter, rapidly advancing in her architectural firm.  At least those are the excuses, when she brings it up.

“Which weekend should I plan on coming out?” she asks the daughter carefully at a dinner given by her son-in-law’s mother.

The daughter’s face assumes a familiar unpleasant expression, as if the mother’s question were entirely out of line. “No weekend, actually. There are none left. We owe such a lot of people. We’ve invited too many as it is.”

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

The daughter shakes her head decisively. “Not such a big house. No, it would just be too awkward. And we need the weekdays to recover from the guests.”  She offers a tight smile, suggesting that what she’d just said should be thought amusing.

The mother perseveres. “So does that mean I won’t be seeing you at all this summer?”  It sounds better for “you” to be taken as plural but right now she really means “you” singular — the “you” who used to be her difficult, brilliant much-loved baby girl.

“Looks like it,” says the daughter.  “There’s a lot going on. Maybe we can find a time in the fall. I’ll have to check with Bob.”

Why should she be surprised? For a long time, she’s been on tenterhooks with this daughter anyway. Should she have nailed down an August weekend for herself last October? Sent a confirming email ten months ahead? Who does such things with family? It’s been explained to her by others (counselor, family doctor, close woman friend) that the daughter may not be able to help it;  with this kind of disorder, she probably doesn’t even understand how it makes the mother feel. It’s not intentional. She shouldn’t take it personally.

The mother always nods. Easy for them to say.

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

GOOFING OFF

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Back in the days when I was going to school, it never crossed my mind to not go to school.  I might miss something that could be on a test.  Besides, I liked school, more than being at home.

And when I reached college, the classes were the best part. As it was a college just for women, sex — or what passed for sex in those days — didn’t have to compete. I might slide by on some of the reading, but never on showing up for those weekly round-table seminars where I could shoot off my mouth as much as I liked to male professorial approval. (The only class I can recall taking from a woman was Modern Dance with supportive Bessie Schoenberg, because she was the entire Modern Dance faculty except for Jose Limon, who appeared only for an hour and a half on Fridays, expected you to glide across the studio floor on the diagonal using one foot and the big toenail of the other, and was therefore clearly not for me.)

The work world, however, was another story. At first, when I was typing stencils to be run with purple-stained fingers through a mimeograph machine (don’t ask what that was), I resented every moment I had to waste of my glorious, well-educated youth earning a meager excuse for a living. Once, arriving at the gates of the enterprise that employed me, I simply turned around, went back home again and called in sick. Nothing bad happened.  I wasn’t fired for lying because no one knew I had lied.

It was, as they say, a learning experience. Later, paid work became somewhat more interesting, and certainly better rewarded.  But I never did get over the injustice of having to hand over at least five-sevenths (and later, when I became a lawyer, an even larger percentage) of what was left of my life just in order to survive.

This was, of course, the wrong attitude.  A better one, philosophically speaking, would have been — in the words used by Joe Campbell back in those halcyon college days — to “follow my bliss.” But as I never figured out what my bliss was, other than to lose myself in an unendingly passionate love affair (which it goes without saying never materializes, at least not unendingly), I had to settle for less than blissful modes of employment and, when I couldn’t stand another day of it, play hooky, as I had learned to do when typing stencils.  Take the day off.  Tell a lie.  Keep track of the lies, so as not to repeat one too often, if at all.

Fortunately, I enjoyed excellent health, so fraudulently using up a sick day now and then never rose up to bite me in the ass as it might have done had I ever really been sick.  Oh, those bouts of twenty-four intestinal flu that never were!  The brakes that had imaginary failures on Storrow Drive!  The pipes that supposedly burst in the bathroom of the people upstairs, flooding mine. The non-existent elderly widower next door I once had to take to the hospital!   Not all in one year, you understand.  I dropped out very infrequently, and only when I wasn’t due to file something or appear in court. But I must admit that if, as was sometimes said of me in the office, “Her briefs sing!” — my excuses for a no-show could have earned me an audition at the Met.

So why am I telling you this now, when I am nearly ten years “retired” and every day is hooky day? Well, ahem, hadn’t you noticed I’ve been gone for a while?  About eight days, to be exact.  (The stats going down the toilet are certainly a tipoff, except you don’t get to see them, do you?)  And just when I’d promised to write a second post about my two great triumphs in Hingham District Court in the fall of 1984. How I made mincemeat of a nice lady who looked rather like me but had had the misfortune of driving into a tree on her own property after shopping for Christmas presents all day and then stopping for a glass of wine before coming home. Unfortunately, she’d been nailed by an off-duty cop who’d been shopping in the same mall and followed her because her driving was erratic.  No breathalyzer on him. It was his day off.  His word against hers.  And how, on another occasion, I played David to the Goliath of a Boston defense lawyer hired by the employer of a young man stopped on a state highway for wobbling in and out of his lane.

Certainly when I mentioned it, I must have thought it was a good idea to tell you these two war stories about how, as a middle-aged student, I confronted “crime” and won!  Until I realized I couldn’t now remember the regulations governing blood alcohol levels in Massachusetts, or what happened if a driver refused a breathalyzer test or for some other reason didn’t take one, or whether you could be charged with operating a vehicle under the influence if your blood alcohol concentration didn’t reach the per se level. And suddenly I was doing bloody research again instead of banging out a fun post.

Old habits die hard.  I just didn’t want to.  Maybe some other time I might want to. But not right then, anyway. Forgive me, Victo. Forgive me, Takami.  (If either of you even remember you said you could hardly wait.) In fact, I didn’t want to do anything I was supposed to do.

 What did I do instead?

(1)  I emailed a couple of graceful lies (“Something’s come up”) to the leaders of two groups I belong to, thereby bagging my attendance at this month’s meetings.

(2) I rescheduled teeth cleaning for a couple of weeks down the road.

(3) I “slept in” — way past what you’d believe, not really asleep but daydreaming with the blinds still drawn about matters that have no business being described in a squeaky clean blog like this one and that many might not think still arise in a nearly eighty-four-year-old mind, but they do, and how!  So there.

(4) I wasted the better part of two afternoons on the computer enraptured by what my parents’ generation would have dismissed as “dreck” — namely, worthless garbage.  It was indeed that:  all thirteen episodes of “Grace and Frankie,” a sort of vanity project on Netflix for Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, playing wives of 70 (ha ha, both actresses are past midway to 80) whose husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) — law partners for forty years, secret lovers for twenty — want divorces to marry before it’s too late. I didn’t believe any of it for a minute but was held spellbound by exacting scrutiny of Fonda’s facial bones, over which nearly unlined skin has been pulled so tight as to be skull-like, except there were also masses of gorgeously coiffed hair and meticulous makeup to distract from all that, unless you are watching with the eagle eye of a contemporary-plus-some. (As I was.)  Her clothes were very good, though. Bill came to take a look.  “Too thin,” he pronounced, adding, “Enjoy yourself, sweetheart.” (God only knows what he was watching on his i-Pad; I wouldn’t stoop so low as to check.)

(5)  We ate strange (for us) fattening things that I didn’t have to cook:  pizza one night, lasagna another, leftover cold Chinese food with potato chips (God forgive us) still another.  One night it was just big soup bowls full of goat’s milk ice-cream — chocolate and vanilla — that happened to be in the freezer from a while ago when we had company over and the company didn’t want dessert.

(6)  We also watched “Fifty Shades of Grey” — Bill to “please” me, he said.  What a cop-out.  Not even exciting.  Bill looked up Jamie Dornan and discovered he and Keira Knighley were an item for three years. I’m not sure why he thought I’d care.  I was never one for gym-built muscle.

(7.)  But in recovery we drank copious amounts of fresh organic vegetable juice, and ate green salads, and also watched “Marius,” and “Fanny” — the first two of Daniel Auteil’s remakes of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy — both of which I recommend, even though some may find them too sentimental.

(8) And then I read Barbara Pym’s “Quartet in Autumn.” (200 pages or so; if you’re over 50, by all means check it out; it seems modest but is beautifully written.)  And now I’ve launched myself into what may turn out to be a summer (Philip) Roth orgy: rereading, for the first time since their publication, and probably with much more care:  “The CounterLife,” “Deception,” and “The Facts.”  Possibly more about these four books later, although maybe not.  Apparently making promises is not good for this blog.

Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, I’m back.

CRIMINAL LAW AND ME

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I’ve enjoyed movies involving criminal trials as much — well nearly as much — as the next person, especially before I became a lawyer. (Afterwards, my interest devolved into seeing how many mistakes about courtroom procedure, the practice of law and the office life of lawyers I could find in what I was seeing, which was fatal to that temporary but willing suspension of disbelief essential to viewer appreciation.)

It’s true I entered law school at the age of 51 principally to be able to earn enough money to finish raising my two trusting children as I thought they should be raised. But I did feel I might be a good trial lawyer because I’d always been a big talker.   As a seasoned movie-goer, I visualized myself mesmerizing juries with my words. Then I discovered mesmerizing juries came last.  There was a lot, a lot, a lot of other stuff that preceded it, especially in civil litigation, where 90% of cases settle on the courthouse steps, if not before. As for crime in its less than murderous aspects, much of it is plea-bargained before it reaches fact-finding in court, which is what jury trials are all about, at least until the penalty phase.

[Before moving on, are we clear about the difference between civil and criminal litigation?  Civil cases are claims of harm brought by one party against another that don’t involve alleged violation of a federal or state statute, or of a municipal regulation.  The plaintiff (complaining party) seeks either injunctive relief — “Court, make him/her/them stop it!” or “Court, make him/her/them do it!” — or else money damages, as compensation for the alleged harm done.  No one goes to jail or prison or is condemned to death.  Criminal complaints, on the other hand, always allege statutory or regulatory violations, are brought against the defendant(s) by state district attorneys or federal assistant attorney generals acting on behalf of  governmental entities and, if proven beyond a reasonable doubt, do result in jail or prison time, or — as in the recent Boston Marathon bomber trial, brought under federal law — a death sentence.] 

Okay, back to me. What kind of future did I have in mind  when I applied to five law schools in the greater Boston area and entangled myself in considerable federally-backed loan debt?  Candidly, I was hoping for any kind of job I could get at what everyone thought of as “my age.”  Lawyer husbands of neighbors counseled that after I had passed the bar, I should set up shop at any small local law firm that would give me a desk, and then represent anyone who came in: this potential client population, they anticipated, would consist of friends, or friends of friends, seeking divorces or separation agreements or modification of custody agreements, or perhaps a new will.  No salary, of course. Just a percentage of whatever I brought in.

Theoretically speaking, there would have been an alternative to this unappealing prospect right at the outset, although no lawyer husband of a neighbor mentioned it. Any member of the bar can sign up at any Massachusetts trial court to represent indigent defendants and be paid by the Commonwealth. It’s not much per case, but probably more than a percentage of any domestic dispute fees I might have been able to generate. I could also have applied for a job as a county Public Defender and, if hired (despite my “age”), become a “regular” employee of the Commonwealth. These two avenues would have been open to me because criminal defendants are legally entitled to representation by counsel and few, other than members of the Mafia or those accused of white collar crime (that is, of playing footsie with the federal and state securities laws) can afford to retain private defense lawyers. Therefore the government which has indicted them must also provide a defense.

Perhaps not surprisingly, public defense work never crossed my mind. Defend criminals in order to send my darling children to good colleges?

I know, I know.  Under the Anglo-American system of law, you’re not a criminal until it’s proven.  Accusations can be wrong. You’re entitled to a defense. Even if there’s seemingly compelling “proof” that you’ve done what the criminal complaint asserts you’ve done, there may have been legal flaws in the way such evidence was obtained which should preclude any verdict based on it.  I do believe all this.  However, I’ve never believed it enough to step into a jail cell, even with a prison guard right outside, in order to confer with a sullen client, perhaps not guilty of the particular offense with which he was now charged, but only perhaps.  (Although a defense attorney wouldn’t really want to go into that, because unlike in movies, the job after indictment is not to find truth, whatever it might be, but to identify flaws in the prosecution’s case.) I would have been especially reluctant to step into that cell if the sullen client were known to be generally comfortable with wielding knives and punching people even if he may not have done it this time.

That’s not to say I don’t admire lawyers who do step up to bat in order to preserve what they can of how our legal system is supposed to function.  I know a wonderful woman, married to a man with whom I shared a secretary when I practiced law, who emerged from Harvard Law School with a stellar record, held a prestigious federal clerkship, and then turned down a great offer from a major law firm paying major money to go defend criminals in Suffolk County, which includes downtown Boston and its slummier corners. At the start, she earned barely a living wage walking into those prison cells alone. But her defense work, which is now in the federal system and supervisory, has since that humble beginning been praised and commended by the entire Massachusetts judiciary and bar.  I might add she continues to correct you if you happen to use the word “criminal” in connection with anyone in her client base.  “Alleged criminal,” she says quickly, with a smile.

So how about the other side?  Nina Mishkin, tough on crime?  Criminal Law was one of the five mandatory courses of the first-year curriculum at Suffolk Law School when I enrolled in 1982.  I found it confusing.  But then I found the other four courses confusing, too. (Constitutional Law most of all.)  I suspect everyone did, but being twenty-two and twenty-three, they all played it cool and pretended it was a breeze.  At 51, I sweated bullets. Going to law school “at my age?” What had I been thinking?

I did like the Criminal Law professor, though.  She was about as old as I was but had gone to law school at 39, after an early marriage splintered into divorce.  Then she practiced in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office for eight years, building up trial experience. (I found out all this later, of course, not while her student.)  She was also attractive, wore great suits which I much admired, and had good legs. She must have had the legs before she became a lawyer but they did add to her appeal as a role model. When the results of the Criminal Law exam, given in December, were posted in January, it appeared that sweating bullets had been of some merit as a methodology for learning law. I finished first in the class:  1/345.

Encouraged by early success, I made a mental note to take, in due time, the other course she taught, a third-year elective called Criminal Practice.  Which, in my third year, I did. This was not, as you might imagine, simulated courtroom practice in a classroom, although there was some of that — to somewhat prepare us for what awaited in a real court.  (“Objection!”  “Objection!” “Objection!”)  No, no.  We would actually be thrown to the lions.  Had I considered carefully, I might have had second thoughts. I have never done well with on-the-spot stress and angst.  (Stress and angst that I can take my time with, although not good, is part of life. By contrast, thinking fast on your feet doesn’t come up very often.) But I already had a job offer for when I would pass the bar. (God willing!) And so, with carefree abandon, I registered. What the hell. That was exactly the right word.  For me, hell is what it turned out to be.

It was then possible to offer live courtroom practice to students under a statute I can no longer cite permitting them to represent the Commonwealth in Massachusetts District Court (not to be confused with the federal District Court) under the supervision of an Assistant District Attorney.  This court had jurisdiction over only a few relatively minor criminal offenses. (Complaints involving weightier matters were brought in Superior Court.) The two I now remember were “‘Larceny Under” (thefts of under $100 in value) and “OUI”s (“Operating Under the Influence” — that is, drunk driving).  Over the semester, two OUI’s came my way.  I knew nothing of adroit cross-examination, how not to lead the witness, how to rephrase, or when to make my own objections.  Truth to tell, despite the 1/345 I knew nothing, and neither did any other law school student or graduate, about how to practice law, or how to try cases.

I nevertheless prevailed.  Bottom line: Nice-looking middle-aged lady in navy blue nunlike skirt suit actually won.  Both times.  In front of two separate six-person juries.  The second time, even the hitherto dour judge smiled approvingly. But the stress and angst to reach that result, the splitting headache that left the premises with me, were too high a price for prosecutorial triumph. At the end of the semester, I accepted the job offer from a (big) civil litigation firm, which provided plenty of stress and angst of its own, but spaced out over the next twelve years. Those two little OUI trials therefore became the only true war stories of my legal career — good examples of what thinking outside the box and life experience can do for you when opposing counsel and a not particularly friendly judge seem about to shut you down.

You want to hear?  My pleasure.  Another time.

BECOMING NOBODY’S CHILD

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[One by one, your parents die. Then there’s no more mother or dad standing between you and whatever it is that lies ahead for us all. You’re next.

Unless you’re a person of great and abiding faith in a hereafter (which I am not), the feeling of loss following the death of the second parent is therefore accompanied by another realization: there’s no more buffer zone.

Of course, that’s irrational.  There’s never a buffer zone.  Some people die while their own parents are still alive, ripped away forever in the vibrancy of their youth.  And in other cases, there remains for a while the possibly false comfort of surviving aunts or uncles, keeping you from immediately confronting the harshness of acknowledging it’s your turn now.

But your parents are where you come from. They’re your first knowledge of and connection with the world. Once they’re both gone, it’s never the same again.

I was an only child. I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother after I reached adolescence.  (A euphemism.) But I was necessarily the one they called in Massachusetts when she died in California towards the end of November 1993.  She had colon cancer. However, her doctors had thought she might have another three years or so — even without surgery, which she had firmly refused. The call was therefore unexpected. I confirmed by telephone that she was to be cremated, as my father had decided for both of them. Then I took a five day leave of absence to fly three thousand miles, settle her affairs and bring back the ashes.

I could have left them. The state of California would have disposed of them, either over the ocean, as she had decided my father’s ashes should be dispersed, or over a deserted piece of land in the middle of nowhere between Sacramento and Nevada which had been designated for such purposes.  But whatever she was thinking when she authorized the scattering of the remains of my father, I wouldn’t do that to her.

As it turned out, it took about eighteen months before I was able to sort out my own affairs, which were then in flux, and also come to terms with the realization that my mother and I would now never make peace with each other, and that it was time to say a final goodbye, even though that meant I’d be next in line. 

Perhaps I was lucky never to have had to attend a funeral, other than my mother-in-law’s (which I had had no hand in planning).  So here I had to invent my way. However, we all do what we have to do — as I did, in the spring twenty years ago.

Now we’re in the spring again.  If I were still living in Massachusetts, I would be visiting the cemetery instead of sending commemorative flowers. However, I can also re-run the piece about burying her that I posted on November 20, 2013, very early in the life of this blog. Truth to tell, it’s starting to feel rather like ancient history to me.  But I suppose that happens to us all: eventually we do get used to being nobody’s child. Sort of.]

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BURYING MY MOTHER

My mother died, after seven years of widowhood, of colon cancer. I’m not sure she knew what she had. She was 89 and living in an assisted living community in Palm Springs, California to which I had moved her. She refused to be moved to a similar facility in Boston, where she would be near me and I could see her more often. “What would I do there?” she said.

I was her only child.

My phone rang at 2 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1993. I had been to Palm Springs for three days only a few weeks before, and had made arrangements to visit with her again for Christmas. But she couldn’t wait. She refused to eat. I think she wanted to die.

The large corporate firm where I was then practicing law permitted five days of leave “for the death of a parent, spouse or child.” I flew out the next day to settle accounts, dispose of her furniture, and collect the ashes. Many years before, my father had directed that they both be cremated. The crematorium gave me her wedding ring and a small, clear plastic bag of ashes in a plastic box — all that remained of her. I brought the box home and put it in a bureau drawer for the time being, while I sorted out my life (then somewhat in flux) and tried to sort out my feelings.

When I was a child, she was the center of the universe.

Then I grew up. She didn’t like my posture, my glasses, my clothes. I chose bad earners for husbands, lived in “ugly” houses, had disappointing children. I didn’t call often enough. I didn’t write often enough. And what did I want to be a lawyer for? Although she never actually said it, she didn’t like me.

She was the great failed love affair of my life. What was I going to do with her now she was gone? Keep her forever in my drawer so she would always, at last, be mine?

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A year later I had moved across the river to Cambridge. As a resident, I could have bought a plot in the crowded Cambridge municipal cemetery for $50. Except I couldn’t. Not with Mount Auburn Cemetery (much more expensive) across the street from my bedroom window — historic, beautiful, landscaped: a place to walk, reflect, and bury your dead in style.

My friend Gayle drove in from Worcester to help me choose. It was January 1995, and bitter cold. We clomped up and down the icy paths, looking at the available spaces for ashes marked on a map from the Director of Sales. Several of them were near Azalea Pond, lovely even in winter — bordered by weeping willows and encircled by a low stone wall.

I could hear my mother’s voice in my head. “You’re putting me here, where cars can park on me?”

We walked closer to the pond, inside the stone enclosure. “Next to a woman with a husband? When I have no husband?”

We were freezing. Enough with the looking. I bought a place for her inscription on a pedestal facing the pond, with its own willow nearby. No cars. Higher than all the other inscriptions facing the pond. And a double (at double the price), with room for my father’s name above hers. No one would ever pity my mother as a woman without a husband!

The carpenter who was altering the closets in my new apartment made two small mitered pine boxes, without nails. He refused to take money. It was an honor, he said. My father’s ashes had been scattered over the Pacific, so I had nothing of him to put in his box. Instead, four photographs: as a boy, a young groom, the father of my girlhood, a retiree under the California sun.

I ordered flowers. I flew both sons to Boston for the ceremony. They were young, and without plane fare. Without strong ties to my mother, either. But they were all the extended family she had. And I wanted them to see how it was done. So they would be ready for the next time.

Gayle insisted on coming too. There would be four of us.

One problem, though. What should I say? What good things could I say?

It took until the night before. And then I had it. At midnight, I wrote it out to read at the grave site, so I should get it right.

The day was clear and sunny. One son carried the box with my father’s pictures. The other son carried the other one, my mother’s box. Before we closed it, I wet a finger and smoothed the ashes inside. I couldn’t help it. One last caress. Then I licked my finger clean.

Each son placed a box in the opening in the earth which had been dug for us. The grounds-keeper threw fresh earth into the hole.

This is what I said at the grave of my mother on May 20, 1995. Maybe it made her happy at last.

We have come here today, to this beautiful place, to honor Michael Raginsky, who was my father, and Myra Raginsky, who was my mother. “Honor” was not a word in their vocabulary. “Respect for parents” would have been more like it. But meaning no disrespect, “honor” is the right word.

Remembering my parents as they were in their later years, and certainly as my two children may remember them, they seemed to live timid, critical, constricted lives — without even the modicum of daily happiness to which everyone is entitled. And yet, once — before any of us knew them — these two people whom we recall as so modest and somewhat fearful, did something so absolutely extraordinary that it still amazes me every time I think of it.

At the ages of seventeen and nineteen — when they were still by our standards barely out of adolescence, Mirra Weinstein and Mendel Raginsky, as they were then known — not yet married to each other, or even thinking of it — said goodbye forever to parents, her brother, his sisters, friends, the world as they knew it, and voyaged to a place literally halfway around the globe where they did not know anyone at all, did not know the way things worked, did not even know how to speak — to anyone except each other and other Russians.

I don’t know if they ever realized afterwards what a remarkable feat of courage that was. I don’t know if they ever were sorry, wished they could go back. They didn’t talk about things like that. I do know they Americanized their names, learned English, married, became citizens, made a life, and raised a child. Their ways were not always the ways I might have wished they had. But I would not be here if it were not for that remarkable voyage into the unknown on which they embarked in 1922, and neither would my children. And that is why “honor” is the right word.

If there is a somewhere after here, Mother and Dad, I hope you are pleased that your journey has ended at this tranquil and lovely place of trees and pond. Despite all my carryings on, I always loved you, and I always will.”

Then we arranged our flowers on the fresh raw earth, placed four small stones on top of the pedestal, and went away to the Charles Hotel to have a champagne lunch.