[This one’s for you, Liz.]

An acquaintance who’s a fly on the wall of this blog  — she’s posted only one comment since she began following it and has no gravatar — recently let it be known over lunch that what she likes best are the pieces about literature and food.

The literature I understand. She teaches literature courses.   I met her in a writing group.  She writes.  She’s invited to read aloud what she writes in public places where people buy drinks in order to listen.

But food pieces?  In my blog? There have been just three in the nearly eighty posts I’ve done so far.  One —  about big pot minestrone — was because I really do often make minestrone in a big pot when it’s cold out, since it’s good, good for you, and lasts at least three days.  The second food piece came about because, as a promise to Bill, I was making something for the first time and thought, “Why not two birds with one stone?”  That one,  Brisket for Thanksgiving, I can’t even take credit for.  The recipe came from The Jewish Festival Cookbook. However, it did turn out to be quite tasty, if you’re as fond of onions and garlic as we are. The third was the upside-down roast chicken piece, which even I thought unmemorable when it came out of the oven onto our plates and then online. But I’d been stuck for something to write about, went to the kitchen to console myself, and found in the fridge both leftover roast chicken and a blog idea.

In short, a blogosphere cook I’m not.  So when I asked myself what I could do for my food-loving follower, I knew I needed help from a friend. In this case, the friend was old, and spotted with grease.


Here’s the first page, just so you understand we’re talking about a very old friend indeed.


In 1975, I was a P.S. 166 mother twice over.  [“P.S.” is the acronym for “Public School” in the New York City school system.] I had an eight-year old in Mrs. Koch’s third grade class and a six-year old in Miss Wishny’s first grade class. (Don’t ask who Tanya Kaufman was. If I ever knew, I’ve forgotten.)  It behooved me to contribute at least one recipe to this fund-raiser of a PTA cookbook.


My kitchen repertoire wasn’t much to talk about even in those days.  To make my contribution  — and not shame my children by absence from this important Parent-Teacher effort — I had to look still deeper into the past, to that halcyon period between husbands one and two when I worked as an advertising copywriter in New York. (Although only once at an agency actually on Madison Avenue.) In that capacity I wrote snappy headlines and body copy for products to be advertised in glossy women’s magazines: clothing, shoes, lingerie, perfume, shampoo, furs.  [Never cars, refrigerators, butter, bread: back then you needed a Y chromosome to write about those things.]

One year I shared an office with a person even younger than myself.  Her name was Gina.  What I chiefly remembered about her by the time of the P.S. 166 cookbook, other than her quick-and-easy college girl’s recipe for spaghetti sauce, was that the summer we sat together in our two-desk office under our one giant ceiling fan, she wore a lightweight summer suit in dark blue without a blouse. That’s right:  just bra, panties and Gina underneath. No panty hose either; bare feet in high heels — a very European look in those days. It was probably a money thing; she had only the one suit to wear to work all summer because she was saving furiously to get herself to Europe, which she did the following year.  But it seemed sexy and daring at the time, even if she could never unbutton her jacket when the fan stopped working.

Although it was not until 1975 that Gina’s Spaghetti Sauce made its appearance in EAT! — Section VII, Dishes From Around the World —  the recipe for it was therefore really from the Mad Men era, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.  I can’t guarantee that those folks from the television series ate this in between their cigarettes, triple martinis and double scotches. But it was exactly the kind of food all the rest of us were then chowing down:  heavy, caloric, not at all healthy, and delicious.  However, I can guarantee that Gina’s recipe did not come from Italy, despite the “From Around the World” come-on.  She was pure WASP on both sides at least four generations back, with a last name to go with her genealogy.  [Perhaps the casting aside of blouse, slip and stockings and the subsequent flight to Europe was an act of rebellion?]

You will need a couple of proactive atonement days of salad and broiled salmon before you do this thing. So you can dig into it without guilt when it’s done.  But it really is very easy.  You could make it with just one onion, three cans of tomato paste, and a pound of ground beef, plus water and seasonings.  But to gussy it up a bit, I’ve added garlic, parsley and wine.



1 lb. extra lean ground round.  (You could also use ground sirloin, or even buffalo, which is leaner.)

1 large onion, roughly chopped.

Lots of chopped garlic.

Three cans of tomato paste.

Chopped parsley, as much as you want.

At least 1 heaping tsp.each of dried basil, oregano, cumin.

Salt, pepper, pinch of dried fennel, pinch of sugar and red wine. (None of these are in the photo.) The wine and fennel are optional. The salt and pepper are not.


1.  Brown meat on one side in large frying pan (cast iron, if you have one), together with the chopped onion and chopped garlic.

2.  When one side is done, turn and crumble meat with wooden spoon. Continue until thoroughly cooked.


3.  Empty the three cans of tomato paste on top of the meat, add an equal amount of water (three cans full) and mix. You could substitute red wine for half the water.

4.  Add some of the chopped parsley, all the seasonings, and salt and pepper to taste.

5.  Throw in a pinch of sugar.

6.  Stir thoroughly.


6.  Adjust heat to a simmer and go away.

7.  Return to kitchen every twenty minutes or so to stir, so that meat doesn’t stick to the bottom of pan.  Add more water and/or wine as needed.

8.  After an hour, it should be thick and savory.  Stir in more chopped parsley.

9.  Turn off heat and leave in pan for at least two more hours.


10.  Reheat (with addition of water or wine if necessary) before serving on spaghetti, linguine or fettucine. A generous sprinkling of grated or shaved parmigiano cheese on top is a good idea, unless you’re dairy intolerant.

Note: Some people have also used this sauce for lasagna.  That’s more work though.  And more fattening.

Second Note:  When after thirty-nine years I made it again yesterday so as to have some photos to show you, I used gluten-free pasta. That’s not part of the recipe (and wasn’t even around when Gina was wearing her suit), but does help assuage subsequent remorse.

Third Note:  In EAT!, I estimated this much sauce would serve two people “opulently,” three “adequately.”  Those two or three people would have had to eat like pigs.  This much sauce is more than sufficient to serve two people generously for two days, with enough left over for them to have a modest portion one more time on a third day. Alternatively, you could go on stretching it ad infinitum, as long as there’s wine left in the bottle.

Fourth Note:  If you double the recipe (using a bigger pot) because you’re going to serve it to guests, call it Sauce Bolognese, or Beef Ragout.  It’s the same thing, but sounds fancier.





Miss Priss lives with me, in my metaphorical basement.  She’s exactly my age, and sort of looks like me. But instead of greeting the world with a friendly smile that might distract the eyes of others from the physical imperfections of age, she pulls down the corners of her mouth, thereby deepening the parenthetical lines around it and turning her face into a flesh-colored prune.

Fortunately, you almost never get to see Miss Priss. She keeps a very low profile.  But she is all ears.  She hears everything anyone ever says to me.  And although she contains herself in public, she suffers deeply from the increasingly severe linguistic assaults on her sensibilities we two encounter as we advance towards our one hundred years together.

It’s true that during the course of her education, Miss Priss was required to study etymology and the development of Modern English.  At that time, she even acquired some minimal knowledge of Anglo-Saxon. [She still knows, for instance, that “Hee, hee” was spelled “Hig, hig” in the eighth century.]  She could once also haltingly read Chaucer.  She is therefore well aware language evolves, despite the efforts of lexicologists to stop it dead in its tracks. Thus she further knows, and theoretically accepts, that if it didn’t evolve we would still be speaking Beowulf’s mother tongue.

But what kind of evolution?  The English Miss Priss and I learned in the middle of the twentieth century was a perfectly serviceable and universally acceptable instrument of communication as far as we’re both concerned.  [I hesitate to call it the King’s English because we were, and remain, American.  But some differences of spelling and usage aside, it came pretty close.]  What Miss Priss can’t understand is why the language she knows and loves so well can’t meander along until she’s gone before transforming itself into something else? Why does it have to evolve in such appalling ways in her lifetime?

[You see how I am cleverly putting these questions in Miss Priss’s mouth?  Not all the readers of this blog are quite as antiquated as Miss Priss, and I certainly would not wish to offend or alienate a single one of them.  She, on the other hand, does not “blog.”  Indeed, she finds the very word offensive.  “What’s wrong with ‘write an online column’?” she asks.]

Miss Priss does not entirely object to the entry into her beloved language of new words or expressions that fill some hitherto unmet need.  I have actually heard her answer a question about what she thought of a movie with the monosyllabic “Meh.”  This word is clearly an improvement on the prior alternative, “It was so-so.”  After all, the French can say, “Comme ci, comme ca.”  The Greeks can say, “Etsy ketsy.”  High time we had something comparable. Especially when it’s essentially the same unspellable grunt many of us were already emitting when asked our opinion of something bland and unmemorable, with just an “m” appended up front.

Miss Priss has also been known to say about one of her little excitements that it “blows her mind.” What’s more, I have heard her characterize someone for whom she has nothing but scorn as a “shithead.”  Actually, the first time she heard the word “shithead,” she had to ask if it meant the same thing as “asshole,” a word relatively new to her that she had already embraced. But on being assured that it did, she took to it with alacrity as being a more accurate and pictorial description of that part of the other person’s anatomy she held in such contempt.

About alterations of commonly used expressions that destroy their meaning, Miss Priss is less welcoming.  For instance, on those very occasional evenings when we sit down together to watch television commentators chew up the news, she can demand angrily of the screen, “What the hell does ‘I could care less’ mean?’  You mean you couldn’t care less, you shithead!”  Although I deplore her use of a street epithet in the home, Miss Priss is perfectly right, of course.  From the context of his previous remarks, it is clear the commentator in question was now trying to tell us he cares so little about whatever it is, that it is not possible to care less than he does because he is already at the very bottom of any ability to care. In other words, he absolutely could not, even if he tried very hard, care less than he already does.  Whereas what he has told us is that he does care some, and could care less (if he put his mind to it).

When I admonish Miss Priss for not picking her battles, she retorts that I should mind my own business.  That she will fight on till she dies. Then she tells me that as she has no “blog” of her own, if I still want to be her friend I should put in mine a list of the linguistic horrors and abominations that really make her squirm and curl up inside.  Then other people besides me will know what they are. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of them will agree with her.  Perhaps they’ll even add a few horrors and abominations of their own.  Wasn’t that how “Occupy Wall Street” began?

I know it’s wrong to give Miss Priss a platform for her nutsiness when she adamantly refuses to sit down at a computer herself, much less sign up for a WordPress account. But that “if I still want to be her friend” business got to me.  How can I kick her out of my (metaphorical) basement at this point in our joint life?


I.  The use of “so” as an adjective or an adverb, usually meaning “very” or “very much,” in conjunction with an entirely unexpected word or locution.  As in, “That is so now. That is so Gwendolyn.  That is so what we don’t  want. That is so too much!”  [You can say that one again, mutters Miss Priss.]

II. The “adjective-ing” of other parts of speech.  Usually preceded by the aforementioned “so.”  As in, “That is so New York.  That is so now. That is so you.”  [I myself used this youth-speak as a kind of joke to end a post recently; someone who I know for a fact is old enough to collect Social Security took the bait and replied, in correlative language, that the Beatles were not  “yesterday” but “NOW.”  Which only goes to show “yesterday” and “now” are both firmly ensconced in their new usage and Miss Priss is wasting her time if she hopes my blogging can help dislodge them.]

III.  The liberal sprinkling of “like” in the interstices of every sentence.  As in, “He was, like, talking to me, like, very fast, and I was, like, not hearing him because I was, like, nervous about my history exam?”  Persons who speak this way often end every sentence with a question mark even when it’s not a question. Don’t tell Miss Priss they’re just young and will outgrow it.  That’s the baby fat excuse.  The young who spoke this way a while ago have now grown up, taking their speech habits into adulthood and graduate school. Miss Priss and I hear them on the train platform at Princeton every time we go to New York. Miss Priss shudders. I try not to listen. What can you do?  That last is a real question.

IV.  The use of “go” and “goes” as a synonym for any other verb, in either present or past tense, indicating speech.  As in, “I go, ‘Are you asking me out, or what?’ And he goes, ‘Do you want me to?’ Then my friend goes, ‘Are you two ever getting it on, or what?” So then we both go, “Butt out, will you?'”  Yes, Miss Priss knows this is out-of-the-mouth-of-babes “speech,” undoubtedly reflecting faulty education in the school and in the home.  Except you’d be surprised where else it crops up. As noted above, the speech-disadvantaged grow up, taking their disadvantages proudly into the adult world.

V.  The use of “no problem” as a synonym for “You’re welcome.”  As in (a): You give the waiter money to pay for your meal.  He brings back the change.  You say, “Thank you.” He assures you, “No problem.”  Well of course it was no problem.  It was his job.  It would have been a big problem if he hadn’t brought back the change.  Or (b): You ask the guy blocking your driveway with his delivery van to please move it. You even say “Thank you” as he stubs out his cigarette on your lawn to climb into the driver’s seat.  You hear, “No problem.”  It better not be a problem, buddy, because the motor vehicle regulations say no trucks can park across the ends of driveways. And what ever did happen to, “You’re welcome?”

VI.  Routine use of meaningless memorized phrases in commercial contexts.  Miss Priss especially loves it when we check out of the supermarket just before it closes, tired and cross because we’ve had a long busy day and couldn’t get there until late — only to hear the clerk wave us out the door into the black night with “Have A Good Day!”  Miss Priss once broke her vow of silence in such situations to inquire acidly (through me), “When?”  But the clerk didn’t get it.  She had already turned to the next tired and cross shopper with her second piece of programmed speech, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” What would she have done if the customer had said no? Abandoned her register to search the aisles?

VII.  The use of the word “share” as a synonym for “tell.”  When Miss Priss and I were young, the word “share” had two meanings.  The first meaning was when you gave a piece of something you had, like cake or ownership of a house, to someone else.  You shared your cake, or house ownership, with that other person. As a result, you had less of it, but the other person also had some of it.  The second meaning involved a secret, or something very confidential.  If you confided your secret, or confidential information, to another person, you had shared it with him.  But only the two of you knew it, and both understood that it remained secret, or confidential. Now, however, everyone shares all of everything with everyone.  NOBODY HAS LESS. AND NOTHING IS SECRET.  (Unless you take the precaution of marking it “private.”) WordPress urges us to “share” every blog post we like.  What WordPress means is for us to tell everyone how good it is, if that’s what we think, by sending it to them.  Was anything wrong with just “telling?”  Miss P. and I were getting along fine with it before “share” came along with its bullhorn.

Miss Priss wants me to continue with her stations of the cross by listing some cliches worn so thin by overuse that whatever their merit in the first place they have now become a yawn.  “24/7” (meaning “all the time”) and “At the end of the day” (meaning “as a result” or “finally”) come immediately to mind, but believe me, she can think of many more to “share” if I let her.

However, I am sure you must have had quite enough of Miss Priss by now. So I’m sending her back to her basement.  But not before you promise her you will try very hard never again to use an expression carried over from texting, like a flea in your luggage, when writing anything she may see.  No more LOLs, ROFLs, OMGs if you can possibly help it.  Otherwise she might die of a broken heart.  And I would miss her.

Every one who’s getting old needs a Miss Priss of their own, and she is mine. I try to run a blog she would approve of.  So please do promise.  Cross your heart and hope to you-know-what.  If you’re as old as we are, you’ll know what that means.



Having recently expressed my affection for Louis Begley’s books online, I looked up again a clipping of an Opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times Sunday Review two years ago. I had saved it initially because I thought it beautifully and truthfully written. Coming across it again last fall, I transferred it to a folder of ideas for this blog.

However, I haven’t used it until now because it is extremely sad.  But it is about the “dealing with the rest of it” which is the second half of the subtitle to this blog. So perhaps, in the interests of balance, it’s time.  I’ve shortened what follows a bit, but not by much.

Age and Its Awful Discontents
by Louis Begley
Published March 17, 2012

My mother died in 2004, two days short of her 94th birthday, and 40 years and two months to the day after the death of my father. He died at 65; for the preceding four or five years he had been in poor health.

My mother and I lived through the German occupation in Poland; my physician father, having been evacuated with the staff of the local hospital by the retreating Soviet army, spent the remaining war years in Samarkand. Left to fend for ourselves, my mother and I became unimaginably close; our survival depended on that symbiotic relationship. All three of us — I had no brothers or sisters — arrived in the United States in March 1947, and once here I began to keep her at arm’s length. Especially during her long widowhood, I feared that unimpeded she would invade my life, the life she had saved.  I remained a dutiful son, watching over her needs, but was at first unwilling and later unable to be tender.

My abhorrence of the ravages and suffering inflicted on the body by age and illness, which predates my mother’s decline in her last years, is no doubt linked to there being no examples of a happy old age in my family.  The grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins who might have furnished them all met violent deaths in World War II.

Unsurprisingly, dread of the games time plays with us has been a drumbeat in my novels.  Thus, arms akimbo, majestic and naked, standing before a glass, Charlie Swan the gay demiurge of “As Max Saw It” [one of Begley’s books], illustrates for the younger narrator on his body the physiology of aging: misrule of hair, puckered brown bags under the eyes, warts like weeds on his chest, belly, back and legs, dry skin that peels leaving a fine white snow of dandruff.  Listening to him, the younger man is reminded of his own father in a hospital, permanently catheterized, other tubes conducting liquids to his body hooked up to machines that surround his bed like unknown relatives.  He prefers his mother’s “triumphant” exit. A headlong fall down the cellar stairs kills her instantly.

…. And yet my body…. continues to be a good sport.  Provided my marvelous doctor pumps steroids into my hip or spine when needed, it runs along on the leash like a nondescript mutt and wags its tail.  My heart still stirs when I see a pretty girl in the street or in a subway car, but not much else happens.  Except that, since by preference I stand leaning against the closed doors, she may offer me her seat. When last heard from, Schmidtie [the protagonist of a series of other Begley novels] figured he had another 10 years to live.  I have a similar estimate of my longevity.  Such actions as buying a new suit have become dilemmas. The clothes I have may be fatigued and frayed, but won’t they see me through the remaining seasons?  Can the expense of money and waste of time required to make the purchase be justified?

My mother did not remarry after my father died.  She lived very comfortably, but alone, in an apartment 15 blocks away from my wife’s and mine.  If we were in the city. we went to see her often, then daily as her condition deteriorated in the last two years of her life.  Our children and grandchildren tried to see her often, too — and those visits brought her great joy — but they live far away and the happiness was fleeting.  During her last decade, she was very lonely. Most of the friends she had had in Poland had been killed.  Those who had escaped and settled in New York one by one became homebound or bedridden, lost their minds or died. Or she found they bored her. Hearing poorly, tormented by arthritis in hip and knee joints, too proud to accept a wheelchair, she stopped going to museums, concerts and even the movies. She had loved sitting on a Central Park bench and putting her face in the sun. That humble pleasure was also abandoned; she couldn’t get the hang of using a walker.

Having rehearsed the bitter gifts reserved for age, T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding” that “the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” The closer that place — the human condition — is to home, the harder it is to take in. I could speak movingly of Schmidt’s loneliness after the loss of his daughter, calling his existence an arid plane of granite on which she alone had flowered.  But it has taken me until now, at age 78, to feel in full measure the bitterness and anguish of my mother’s solitude — and that of other old people who end their lives without a companion.

Two years older than Begley, I find this very moving. But having read it again, I must turn my head away. Thoughts like his take me down to that Little Gidding place, where I’m not yet ready to go.



Let’s look at another way of approaching “Now is now.” It’s my first principle for getting better at getting old, or getting better at getting older than you are today.  [To see them all, revisit  My Twelve Principles for Getting Better at Getting Older, posted on January 1 of this year.]

In reframing this concept less philosophically, I’ve somewhat paraphrased the Beatles, or at least their rhythm, in hopes that swiping the beat of their song about a four-letter word starting with “L” may help you remember what’s important here. Just hear them in your head when you say “now is all there is” aloud.  Listen to the slowly fading sound of their blended voices singing together, and then dying away at the end: Now is all there is, now is all there is, nowisallthereis….

Now is all there is is worth remembering — whether or not you do  think love is all you need  — because now is all there is.  All you and I ever have is now.  By the time tomorrow gets here, it’s now.  Now also becomes yesterday before you can say “Jack Robinson” if you’re not keeping a close eye on it.

Minimizing the amount of time I spend not keeping a close eye on now has always been a big problem for me. I don’t mean just that I fail to admire the sunset when it appears, or that I don’t pause long enough to enjoy the sight of little birds coming to the feeders filled with black-oil sunflower seed that hang off our kitchen porch.  I mean I have a really hard time staying firmly in my own life — right now, this very day, this very minute.  I am almost always off in a daydream, a reminiscence, a strategy, someone else’s story, fictional or not.  Sometimes, I’m even away from now when driving, which is a very big no-no.  I also occasionally waste now by wondering how it will be when I’m dead and there’s no more now for me (even though I know perfectly well that when I’m dead there won’t be anything at all for me, much less a now) — because being truly dead is something I cannot conceive of!  How can I possibly not be? How can there be a time when I won’t know how it will be to not be?

When you don’t stay in the now, you can get really far out of it.

And don’t tell me about meditation.  I have tried it in groups, and at Kripalu with a friend, and on my own with Bill and a timer to tell us when it’s time to stop.  The meditating mind — at least mine, the only mind of which I can knowledgeably speak — is, as they say, an unruly horse.  I don’t do well with a verbal mantra, but closing my eyes and following my breath as it moves in and out of the nostrils feels good and is calming, so I do that.  Until I discover I’m not doing that anymore but thinking about something else entirely.  Which is probably after about two minutes, but I can’t tell for sure because I’m not supposed to open my eyes to look at the timer.  Then I try to rein in my unruly horse and start again.

I was never on a real horse but once in my life. [You see how my mind is wandering away from meditation towards mares and stallions here?]  It was a small horse, a very brief experience, and on all counts — except falling off, which I did not do because the trail guide was holding me — a failure.  Maybe that partially explains my poor results with meditation. But I don’t think so.  It’s just me.  Also my choice of partner.  Bill is usually willing to meditate, but also usually falls asleep before the timer rings.

Now perhaps you understand why I say “now is now” is not a resolution, even though it’s a principle.  For me to resolve compliance would be to fail.  On the other hand, to keep it in mind (as best I can, haha) does move me along in the right direction.

But now I have to go make oatmeal.  It’s almost noon and we haven’t had breakfast yet.  I used up breakfast time writing this for tomorrow (which is now today) and now it’s time for (yesterday’s) lunch.  Oatmeal for lunch?  Why not?

I hope all this about now has been helpful.  If not, don’t sweat it.  Now it’s history. Go appreciate now somewhere else.  And try to get that Beatles beat out of your mind.  It’s so yesterday.




 It’s not going to happen until April.

But it IS going to happen!

After 65 years of talking about it

(“I’m going to be a writer when I grow up!”);

After 20 years of doing something about it

(actually writing);

After 8 years of

receiving form rejection slips;

receiving form rejection slips with “Sorry” handwritten on them;

receiving nicer form rejection slips with “We liked this quite a bit” handwritten on them;

receiving still nicer form rejection slips with “Almost, Nina!  Keep trying!” handwritten on them;

receiving the occasional form rejection letter expressing pleasure at reading and chagrin at being unable to publish for lack of (a) space or (b) resources;

And after three years of having just about given up trying…



AND BE PAID (a little) FOR IT!

Yes!  “Falling Off the Roof” — a twenty-three page memoir about the summer I turned thirteen — will appear in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review.  The page proofs arrived today, so I know it’s finally true.

Apart from the age at which it is happening to me, there are several interesting aspects to this extremely belated triumph.  I wrote a long-form version of the piece nineteen years ago, in 1995. It was then called “Atlantic City 1944.” Retired from the law, I cut it way down to what I hoped was publishable length and began sending it out as fiction eight years ago, in 2006.  But it wasn’t until five years later in 2011, when I cut it down even further, gave it a more interesting title, and changed the narrator’s name from Anna to Nina, thereby transforming her first-person story into memoir for a whole new set of editors to consider — that I finally passed Go.

Even then, it was a pretty slow Go.  Two years for the magazine to make up its mind;  we didn’t sign a contract until March 2013.  And one more year after that to move through Iowa’s pipeline to the printed page.  It’s a wonder I’m still alive to see the day!

Some people might look for lessons here.  Such as:

Never give up.  

Editors come, editors go.

Some like what others don’t.

Memoir is still hot.

Titles matter.

If it seems broke, fix it.

But I think the main lesson is just what it is in life generally:

You never can tell.

Single issues of The Iowa Review are $9.95 plus $2 shipping if you buy from the website.  In addition, the Spring 2014 issue will be available on Kindle in April. You may also be able to find TIR for free at large public libraries and at university libraries, if you have access to one.  I’d love to retype all of “Falling Off the Roof” for you right here and save you the hassle, but that would breach the contract, which guarantees TIR first publication rights.  Unfortunately, blogging is considered “publication.”

You’ll probably hear more about this from me as April approaches.  Right now, please forgive the blog seeming a bit bleary during the next few days.  I shall be page-proofing with eagle eyes and a ruler beneath each line of text so as not to miss a single misplaced jot or tittle, and may therefore miss a whole lot of them online.




“If people don’t want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?”  Fran Lebowitz, Metropolitan Life (1978)

I hate it when people wear clothing that talks to you.  Little children may get away with it because they have no say in the matter. Still, do I really have to learn the tiny tot whining for ChocoPops in her mother’s supermarket shopping cart is “Daddy’s Princess?” Just because Mommy — or whoever thought that toddler-size pink t-shirt with the sparkly crown on it was so darling — wants us to know Daddy adores his noisy three-year-old so much? The kid herself couldn’t care less what her t-shirt’s saying. What she’s thinking about is the chocolate cereal.

[Mandatory disclosure:  When I first became a grandmother, I once purchased from a local coffee shop a very tiny orange t-shirt sized for a six-month-old that proclaimed, “Sleep Is for the Weak!” When his parents opened the package, they did laugh.  However, I don’t know if they ever put it on the baby. In any event, it was soon outgrown.]

But what about the well developed adult woman in a t-shirt that proclaims across her developed parts: “Don’t even think of it!”  What was she thinking of?  Or the ones who want everyone standing behind them to know they get their car serviced at Gus’s Garage or buy their books at BookSmart or shop at Shop-Rite?  Why have they turned themselves into unpaid walking billboards for the commercial enterprises of others?  Do they really need a free t-shirt so badly?

Then there are the fans wearing an oversized replica of a favorite sports star’s shirt and number.  They’re usually male, but not always. Who are they kidding?  Am I really going to think they’re whoever it is, just because of the shirt? Or is the shirt an expression of solidarity with the star?  Does Vinnie LeCavalier need to know they’re rooting for him — if they were ever so lucky as to pass him in the street while wearing his name and number 4? Does anyone else need that important information? (Not me, that’s for sure.)  Perhaps it’s comforting to push into the stadium, beer can in hand, labeled as a member of the right flock of sheep: one of the LeCavalier or Cabral or Pineda fans, or the fans of the next great guy to save a game for the team.

There are very occasional and judicious exceptions to my ranting. During a trip to Greece shortly after I met Bill, I spotted a grey t-shirt hanging from a pushcart near a tourist spot in Athens with some unreadable Greek on its front and an English translation on its back.  The English side declared,  “All I know is that I know nothing. Socrates.”  At that point in our relationship, I hadn’t yet ascertained Bill’s feelings about clothing that spoke, but wanted to bring him back a present and rather thought he might like this one.  He did like it, although he mainly wore it around the house.  As he sits in chairs a lot, or else lies down, and I still don’t know how to read Greek, that seemed a happy compromise.

However, my usually negative personal feelings about ready-to-wear with a message don’t matter.   Other people’s clothing can talk till doomsday, at least in America — because the First Amendment says it can.  Every kind of speech is protected. Even if deemed hateful. Or tasteless. Or distracting. Or isn’t spoken, but worn.  I cannot impulsively tear from your body your offensive white short shorts with “No!” and “No!” imprinted on each cheek.  Never mind the assault-and-battery part of it. Your two “No!”s have constitutional protection.

Of course we tend to forget what we’re saying when we don’t ourselves see what we say.  Packing for the trip to Greece from which I brought back the Socrates t-shirt, I realized I needed something to protect my face from the sun. Having no bendable summer hats of my own, I looked for what my sons might have left behind when they grew up and moved away.  And found — Red Sox caps and Red Sox caps and Red Sox caps! With perhaps just one thing in their favor: They were monosyllabic. All they said was “B.”  (An unmistakeable capital “B,” bright red and edged in white.) I had no time for scruples, chose one and zipped up the suitcase.

Cut to the Acropolis in summer —  crowded with bodies nearly immobilized in the overpowering heat, and with snatches of all the world’s languages in one’s ears. Suddenly I heard — slicing through the confusion with welcome clarity:  “Hey! Boston!  How ya doin’?”  He was tall and sweating and grinning and young, and I was very glad to see him.  We gave each other a high five, and parted forever.  It was great. Thank you, son’s cap that exclaimed (in red) from the top of my head:  “B!”

But suppose clothing speaks a foreign language?  How do I feel about that?  Assuming the clothing looks good to start with, the statement imprinted on it becomes a kind of design.  Except to people who can understand what it says. Or who ask what it means.  But you’d be surprised at how many people can’t, and don’t.

You know those “additional features” that are frequently appended to DVDs of classic movies, where surviving cast members recollect what it was like to be in the movie?  A couple of summers ago, Bill and I watched the Criterion Collection DVD of “La Ronde,” made in black and white just before World War II.  A French movie.  In which everyone spoke French.  (Criterion provides the subtitles.)  One of the survivors, a very young man in the movie, was rather long in the tooth by the time of the additional feature, which had been shot in color. He sat in his garden wearing a faded yellow t-shirt that said, “Homme Inoubliable.”  (Unforgettable Man.)  He had a twinkle in his eye, and spoke entertainingly about making movie love to Danielle Darrieux, and I wanted his t-shirt.  Yes, I did.  Not exactly his, but something like it.  Maybe black (black is always good), with long sleeves.  And with two classy words in white italics across the front that almost no one would be able to read.  I immediately ordered a long-sleeved black t-shirt online from Lands End.  Bill did the rest.

If you don’t read French, you’ll just have to figure it out.  And remember, Bill ordered the lettering.  So it’s his statement, not mine.


In English, I remain the modest and unassuming person you’ve come to know. And sometimes like.



Until about fifteen years ago, I had a core self-image at odds with contemporaneous photographs of me. It’s true I tried to be photographed only when I was looking as good as I thought I could look.  The better explanation, however, is that my sense of self really was out of whack with what other people saw — perhaps because it had developed so young that it shaped much of what I thought and did when I grew up, which in turn only reinforced that initial perception of my central identity.

I certainly remember clearly the day I became aware of how I looked. It’s among my first recollections — right after sitting comfortably on a big rock in the sun, helping my mother feed ducks on a pond, commanding a ball that had rolled across the room, “Ball, come here!” — an important lesson in discovering limits to my powers — and toiling slowly up a steep hill behind my nursery school teacher.  Unlike the ball that refused to be summoned, my memory of that day still comes to me whenever I call it up.


I have just turned five.  My mother has bought me a red plaid skirt with pleats to wear for the first day of kindergarten.  A white cotton puffed-sleeve blouse goes with it, and a red wool cardigan sweater.  I have never had a three-piece outfit before.  She says I look very nice in it.

Dressed in my new blouse and skirt, I wait in her bedroom near the full-length mirror on her closet door while she gets her sewing box from another room. The puffed sleeves of the blouse, edged with piping, are too tight. She is going to let out and hem the seams underneath, so the piping shouldn’t dig into my arms.

To my surprise, I see another girl has entered my mother’s bedroom. She is wearing a red plaid pleated skirt like mine.  She has a round face and double chin, and a belly that sticks out so the pleats of her skirt don’t hang straight. Although the puffed sleeves of her blouse dig into her arms uncomfortably, the way mine do, she is beaming at me, as if she wants us to be friends. Who is she, anyway? What is she doing in my mother’s room? How can she look so happy when she’s such a fatty?  

Then I understand.  My sense of self starts here: with the recognition that the foolishly smiling little butterball in the mirror is me.


 Awareness that I was what was then known as “chubby” didn’t bother me too much as a child.  Shopping for clothes could be an ordeal, as my mother stubbornly insisted on looking in the regular Girls’ Department even when the salesladies suggested that “Chubbette” sizes would be a better fit.  But that only happened once or twice a year. Also, I didn’t like the summer I spent at sleep-away camp, because I was always chosen last for team sports since I was not good at anything but swimming.  It was only the one summer, though; I refused to go back ever again.  And it did hurt when a snotty boy I barely knew asked in seventh grade assembly whether I would burst like a balloon if he stuck a pin in me.

But in high school, by which time it had become clear the pediatrician — my mother’s revered Dr. Elitzak — was wrong in saying it was baby fat and would go away all by itself, she began to help me (a charter member of the local Clean Plate Club) by curtailing some of what, obedient to his recommendations, she had been setting before me at meals.  No more quart of whole milk a day.  No more nutritious milk puddings for dessert.  No more two slices of bread in my lunch bag; instead of sandwiches and cookies, I carried strips of cold meat and raw veggies and fruit. A thin slice of cake only on Sundays. Slowly, I dropped from an embarrassing size 16, to a 14, to a 12.  Which was pretty good for someone who was by then 5’7″.

[Note to the young, or relatively young: Those were the days when “Miss” dress sizes ran from 12 to 20 or from 10 to 18.  No such thing as size 4 or 2 or 0 or 00!  It doesn’t mean the clothes were larger. Only that the numbers have shrunk, to make fashionistas feel thinner.]

Size 12 or no, I still thought of myself as a person who might at the moment look thin but really was fat, since her apparent thinness was not natural but entirely dependent on will power which might give way at any moment.  From the time I went to college a sylph, until my late sixties, when I was finally able to come to terms with how I really looked and pretty much stopped obsessing about it — I waged a fierce and unending battle with weight.  Most of that time, especially when younger, it was with the same ten or fifteen pounds, which I gained and lost over and over again. (Always with at least two sizes of clothing in my closet, for the next swing of the yo-yo.) I used sometimes to joke that I had lost thousands of pounds in my life. It wasn’t entirely a joke.  Only an exaggeration.

My ten or fifteen (or later twenty) pounds, when they were with me, never stopped some men from finding me attractive, or kept me from getting jobs, or interfered with my health. But I always wanted them not to be there. I was always happier when they were gone. I had a central belief that informed every part of me and distracted me from concentrating on other things:  Thin is good, not so thin is not good. 

This is no tale of anorexia.  Coupled with my overwhelming desire for slenderness has always been a great love of eating just about anything you can name, except okra, and a total inability to throw up at will.  [I know because I tried once or twice after I had read about it. No dice.]  But what a waste of energy and purpose!  I mean, it’s not as if I had unsuccessfully devoted my life to social change and the greater good, or science, or the arts, or even something as crass as making money!

There were also several extended occasions in my fifties and early sixties, as real life became extremely difficult, when the urge to eat — more or less kept down so long — rebelled.  It scored triumph after triumph, and I ballooned beyond “overweight.”  [If I showed you a picture, you wouldn’t believe it.]  But I never ever could persuade myself, defiantly, that Big Was Beautiful.  So each time, I managed — with great difficulty — to deflate.

There are many other undesirable results of a life driven by the scale and by thoughts of what may be eaten, what was eaten, how to atone for what was eaten, what-the-hell-stuff-yourself-with-as-many-calorically-bad-but delicious-things-as-you-can-because-today-is-shot-anyway-and-you’ll-begin-again-tomorrow.  But we all have our “what if”s.” Which we are entitled to keep to ourselves.

Although I do sometimes wonder whether the chubby little girl I was might have grown up to wage more meaningful battles if there hadn’t been a mirror on my mother’s closet door.



Self image starts early.  Our cat Sophie, now eighteen months old, was the runt of the litter in which she was born.  Her bigger, stronger siblings pushed her away from from her mother’s nipples, and then from the food dishes on which they were being weaned. Although the breeder took to feeding her by hand,  Sophie remained underweight and small for her age. When she came to us at twelve weeks she still looked, if we were honest with ourselves, like a little grey rat with a round head.



That was in September 2012.  Now she’s not rat-like at all.  In fact, she’s slightly bigger than Sasha, our other resident cat, who’s more than three years older.  But Sophie still thinks of herself as the runt.  The one who can’t eat till the others are done. We have only the one other cat, who’s remarkably benign, and not at all possessive about food because there’s always lots of it. But whenever Sophie sees me coming with her dish of defrosted raw meat in the evening, she licks her mouth (yes, she’s hungry)…and then scampers away, as if some other bigger brute of a cat will suddenly appear to take possession of the dish!

If I don’t manage to catch her to begin the feeding process by hand, she will wait around a corner of the wall until Sasha — a light eater — walks away from her own dish, and only then cautiously approach to finish what Sasha left behind.  She will also steal what she considers edible scraps from our plates if I don’t scrape them into the garbage immediately after we finish a meal.


As a result, we’ve had to leave bowls of dry cat food around the house, one in the kitchen, another in our bedroom  — for her to visit surreptitiously, like a food thief, while Sasha’s doing something else.  (Sasha likes the dry food, too.  But there’s plenty, and it doesn’t go bad if left out, so that’s not a problem.)

If Sophie’s self-image ever changes, it will be a very slow process.  She just doesn’t realize what a big beautiful cat she’s become.  And perhaps she never will.


But Sophie’s story isn’t just about a cat.  Watching her reminds me how early we’re all imprinted, while we’re defenseless, with the sense of self we carry into adulthood. Those of us who learn we’re welcome and loved, and thereby grow up strong and healthy in every sense of the word, are fortunate. Others discover, and internalize too early, we’re not desirable as we are.

Bill and I accommodate Sophie in her peculiar eating habits because we love her.  The world usually is not so kind or accommodating to those of us who are not beloved housecats. We have to make it with the sense of self we’ve been given, or it will break us — sometimes slowly, but always surely, unless we can change.

 My own life has been mostly about that kind of change.  More of that later.  Maybe. In the meanwhile, you might ask yourself what kind of self-image you were given to carry you through your grown-up life. You’re not a cat.  If you’ve been in difficulties, discovering the answer to your question could be the first step towards changing it.





The story thus far:  In her last post, Bad Girl was confessing to having been greedy and self-indulgent about books, to having bought books more quickly than she can read them.  Bad Girl of course is me, the one with the punitive super-ego and a determination to finish whatever I start, however long it takes. That goes for both (a) reading the books on the windowsill and (b) telling you about them.  Telling is easier and faster than reading.  Are you up for it?

1. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Three-volume boxed set. I did manage to make my way through half a one-volume edition in my twenties, but never finished. Why begin again? Because two Septembers ago, I re-read Anna Karenina,  after more than half a century. This time I loved it so much.  The half-century had changed me as a reader.  Anna was no longer just the story of an adulterous love affair gone bad, as I once thought, which had made much of the rest of the book uninteresting. It was a whole vanished world brought back to life, a world in which Anna played only a not-so-admirable, although tragic, part, and one I hated to leave when I reached the last page. War and Peace is longer than Anna, so I thought having it in three volumes rather than a single heavy and bulky one would make it physically easier to hold and read.  It’s also a beautiful edition, bound in wine-colored cloth.  In fact, just telling you about it makes me want to drop everything and begin. Ah, well.

2. Beethoven, by Lewis Lockwood. A year ago Bill and I took a terrific night course at Princeton Adult School on listening to Beethoven’s  piano sonatas, taught by Scott Burnham, the Schiede Professor of Music at Princeton University.  He was witty, lyrical, enthusiastic, gymnastic, and wore jeans:  everything one wants, and rarely gets, all rolled up in a single professor. He recommended Lockwood as the one book to read on Beethoven if we were going to read only one.  (In number two place was  Maynard Solomon’s Beethoven  — the psychological approach to biography. But I had already bought and read that one.) We’ve signed up for a second course with Burnham this spring.  He will almost certainly recommend another book.  Fortunately, there’s still room on the metaphorical windowsill.

3.  A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. I loved, loved, loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — the first two remarkable books in her three-volume fictional account of the life of Thomas Cromwell. It was so hard to emerge from the sixteenth century when I had finished that I had to go back to read many parts again. Hurry up with the third volume, Hilary!  In the meanwhile, there’s this book, also fictional, which she wrote earlier about three men who counted for a lot in the French Revolution: Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins. 748 pages in paperback, though. Which explains why it’s still on the windowsill.

4.  The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis.  Davis is the skilled and sensitive translator of the most recent edition in English of Proust’s Swann’s Way.  Her ability to tame his labyrinthian, sometimes page-long sentences into beautiful and accurate readability was extraordinary.  She also writes short — often very very short — stories, which have been collected and can currently be purchased all together in one book. This one is her only “novel,” and is much slimmer, so I thought I would start with that.  Except I haven’t. Yet.

5.  This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. A novelist whose work I have read only sporadically, and chiefly when her short stories appear in The New Yorker  (to which I’ve subscribed faithfully, with very few breaks, since I was twenty and a youthful admirer of J.D. Salinger, whose stories were then appearing in its pages). Patchett recently became the co-proprietor of a bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, where she now lives — so that Nashville should have a place where one can buy the kinds of books she likes to read.  I visited Nashville several times during the year one of my sons was working there and concluded that Nashville did indeed need an independent bookstore.  Which predisposed me to like Patchett and therefore to acquire this, her latest book — a collection of essays and other short pieces.  I am particularly inclined to short pieces, not only because they are short, but because they are what I have been trying to write, both before the blog and also now that I’m blogging. I’ve always maintained that you learn to write by reading. Even at eighty-two. Just give me time.

6.  Little Failure, A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. His fourth and newest book. I’m beginning to like memoirs, if well written, much better than most fiction.  Moreover, Shteyngart is a funny, sad, bitter and skillful writer, who is also a Russian Jew brought to Brooklyn by his parents when he was seven.  That makes us landsmen, although he’s about half my age. Also, I read his first two and enjoyed them.  How could I not buy this one? (P.S.  “Little Failure” is what his parents used to call him.  In Russian, of course.)

7. Coin Street Chronicles, by Gwen Southgate.  Last fall, Bill and I participated in a seminar course on “Five Angry Young Men and One Woman” at the Evergreen Forum, a lifelong learning program in Princeton designed principally for “seniors.” It was taught by Lee Harrod, an emeritus professor of The College of New Jersey. We read and discussed novels and plays written in England during the two decades after World War II. Gwen Southgate, who I did not know before, was also in the class.  As a child, she had lived through that war in England, and had much of great interest to tell us.  (Had there been a class vote, we two would have been tied for Most Talkative.) One of the others in the class let it be known that Gwen had written a memoir about her childhood. She is my contemporary.  Despite the dissimilarities between us  — as you may note from her occasional comments on this blog, which she is kind enough to follow — how could I not buy her book?  Now I just have to find time to read it.

8. Lit, A Memoir, by Mary Karr.  A mistaken purchase.  Last spring, I took a short Princeton University course for auditors  about Literary Memoir.  A reading list was posted online, but later revised.  This book was on the original list and then removed, but I had already bought a used copy of it.    Although it was no longer part of the curriculum, I kept it for future reading because it’s a confessional. (“Lit” being a colloquial synonym for “drunk.”)  I too once wrote 187 pages of a confessional, which is still on my computer.  (Original title: “My Secret Life.” Now retitled. Not about alcoholism.) My 187 pages were intended to be Part I of a two-part book.  However, I never could work out how to do the second part and thought I might get some ideas from Karr. Since I haven’t had the time or urge to read her book yet, I still draw a blank on finishing my own.  Sorry, no more questions.

9. The AfterLife, Essays and Criticism, by Penelope Fitzgerald.  She was a wonderful novelist who began to write relatively late in life.  The Blue Flower is unforgettable, but I have also found pleasure in all her other novels, and have re-read many of them. This book, published posthumously, contains her non-fiction. I have no idea what I will find when I sit down with it.  I bought the book because what’s in it was from her. When I find an author this good, I’m intensely loyal.

10. Memories of a Marriage, by Louis Begley.  Another loyalty choice. It may be good, it may be less good: I don’t care. Begley was an international corporate lawyer at a major New York law firm (he’s now retired) who took a three month sabbatical to write his first book, Wartime Lies, at the age of 63. I give paperback copies of it to everyone I care about.  It attached me to him for life, although I am less fond of some of his subsequent fiction, which is concerned with the problems of aging men.  (Caveat: Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters, not fiction, is a must-read.)  When I see Begley has put out a new book, I buy it.  Simple as that.  This is the latest.

11. The Conquest of Happiness, by Bertrand Russell. A very used and yellowed copy, purchased last summer after a brief fling with Gretchen Rubin’s blog, The Happiness Project.  Gretchen recommended it.  She went to Yale Law School and clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court before she became a blogger. So maybe she knows something I don’t.  Besides, who doesn’t want to be happy?  Then I got happier.  Not necessarily thanks to her. So I haven’t read the book yet.

12. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Another Gretchen recommendation.  She loves children’s books.  (She has two little girls, according to her blog.)  This book, I know, is a classic.  However, I never read or gave it to my own children when they were young. So I was curious. Curiosity may not kill (if you’re not a cat), but it does result in less space on your shelf.

13. Frenchwomen Don’t Get Facelifts, by Mireille Guilano.  Don’t laugh.  I have a certain interest in both France and facelifts. [Two summers ago I ventured to explore this facelift business with an actual cosmetic surgeon, but decided no. Didn’t know that about me, did you?]  Also, my younger son once made me a present of Guilano’s earlier book, Frenchwomen Don’t Get Fat, when he saw me eyeing it in a bookstore.  It was a fun read, and I kept it — possibly because of who had bought it for me. Obviously I needed its sequel.  Well, I did.  Didn’t I?  Didn’t I?

14. Diving for Pearls, A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, by Kathleen B. Jones.  I met Kathy last October at a very crowded fund-raiser tea given in New York by Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  I was there with a friend who had contributed a piece to the magazine, as I had done.  Kathy was the guest of another contributor.  We found ourselves face to face in the crush — many contributors, small private house — and got to talking.  She is a retired American academic now living in Bristol, England and writing up a storm.  Blog, book, articles.  We liked each other, and promised to stay in touch.  Then she went back to England. This book on her intellectual/philosophical journey with Hannah Arendt, which she mentioned during the tea, was published last November, after a sizable excerpt had appeared in the Los Angeles Times. I read the excerpt and bought the book.  Well, wouldn’t you? Although I’m not much of a philosopher, the reason the book’s still on the windowsill is a time thing. Really and truly. If we do get together again in the spring, which we discussed but now seems to me doubtful considering how busy she is with Arendt conferences, of course I will read it first.  (And hope I understand it.)  I never show up without having done my homework!

15. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan.  Another quasi-loyalty selection. Enjoyed Atonement and Saturday.  Thought On Chesil Beach was well done, although I found it hard to believe.  (But then I’m not English.)  So why not his next one?  Sweet Tooth has only been in the house for about two weeks, and I might actually be able to get to it in the foreseeable future, as it doesn’t seem too taxing. It may therefore be only a temporary windowsill resident.

16. 2666, by Roberto Bolano.  I forgot why I had bought this and had to look at the cover and frontispiece to refresh my memory. There I learned that Bolano lived in Mexico and Spain, where he died prematurely at the age of 50. 2066 was published posthumously and won major awards in Spain and Latin America. When translated into English by Natasha Wimmer, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But in paperback it has 898 pages, which partially explains why I have been slow to begin.  But only partially explains.  The description of it in The Washington Post is also off-putting:  “With 2066, Bolano joins the ambitious overachievers of the twentieth-century novel, those like Proust, Musil, Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Fuentes and Vollmann, who push the novel far past the conventional size and scope to encompass an entire era, deploying encyclopedic knowledge and stylistic verve to offer a grand, if sometimes idiosyncratic, summation of their culture and the novelist’s place in it.  Bolano has joined the immortals.”  And here is Francine Prose, in Harper’s Magazine: “The opening of 2066 had me in thrall from those first few pages….For all the precision and poetry of its language, for all the complexity of its structure, for all the range of styles and genres it acknowledges and encompasses, for all its wicked humor, its inventiveness and sophistication, 2666 seems like the work of a literary genius.”  Will I be smart enough for this book?  Or will I go down in defeat? I hesitate to find out.

17. My Early Life, by Winston Churchill.  A third Gretchen Rubin recommendation. I read this long ago just after Churchill died, but somehow became separated from my original copy.  Since Gretchen recommended it, I bought it again, to see what she thought was so special about it.  Haven’t yet re-read it.

18. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  A purchase driven by having seen and enjoyed the movie made of the book on Netflix. Wanted more. After a few pages, the book itself proved too much more.  Maybe I’ll do better with it another time.

19. Elizabeth Gaskell, by Jenny Uglow.  Biography of the author. Don’t say I’m not thorough when I decide to look into something.

20. Works on Paper, The Craft of Biography and Autobiography, by Michael Holroyd.  I liked both parts of his own autobiography.  This one is a collection of short pieces on a subject in which I am interested.  Perhaps it will teach me something more about how to write about myself? (Which, as you can’t help but notice, I do quite a bit of.)  We’ll find out if I ever get around to reading it.

21. Less Than One, Selected Essays, by Joseph Brodsky. From Bill.  Too important to give back.  Too gloomy to take to the bathroom.  Dilemma.  Windowsill.

22. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs.  Also from Bill.  I do like the title.  And it’s a very slender book.  So it’s a keeper. For now.

23. Gulag, A History, by Anne Applebaum.  The Gulag was, of course, the vast array of Soviet concentration camps that held millions of political and criminal prisoners, and part of the system of repression and punishment that terrorized an entire society. This book about it, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was so highly praised we bought it twice.  I bought it for Bill as a surprise, and Bill bought it for Bill before my surprise arrived.  So then he had two copies, and guess who got the other one. I do not dispute its merit.  “The most authoritative — and comprehensive — account of this Soviet blight ever published by a Western writer.” (Newsweek)  “A titanic achievement: learned and moving and profound….No reader will easily forget Applebaum’s vivid accounts of the horrible human suffering of the Gulag.”  (National Review) “Lucid, painstakingly detailed, never sensational, it should have a place on every educated reader’s shelves.” (Los Angeles Times)  I modestly admit I am an educated reader, and now the book does have a place on my shelves.  But the thing is, I don’t want to read vivid accounts of horrible human suffering.  It’s bad enough to know such suffering existed.  Must I?  I suppose I must.  Just not yet, please….

24. Hermit in Paris, by Italo Calvino.  A third from Bill. Probably not long for the windowsill.  Flipping through it one day, I discovered a snippy bit about my alma mater.  This classy author was arch and snide about Sarah Lawrence College?  No, Italo, no!  I can be arch and snide if I want, but you can’t. I’m a graduate, you were a guest. If you keep this up the next time I flip your pages, back to Bill you go!

25. Unknown Masterpieces: Writers Rediscover Literature’s Hidden Classics.  Bill can’t stop.  Why does he keep doing this to me?  Doesn’t he think I have enough to read?  On the other hand, this one is easy to tuck into a large handbag for reading away from home.  Interesting short pieces by writers I have heard of (like John Updike, Susan Sontag, Francine Prose, Toni Morrison, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Hardwick) about writers I’ve never heard of that the known-to-me writers consider “hidden classics.”  Why not?  Let it stay.  It might come in handy sometime.

26-28.  Portrait of A Lady;The Wings of the Dove;The Golden Bowl, all by Henry James.  I once audited a course at Princeton on the novels of Henry James and William Faulkner because these two authors, who are each in his own way difficult, represented yawning gaps in my reading experience. In the course, we had time only to read James’s Daisy Miller, The American, The Ambassadors, The Turn of the Screw and four or five of the short stories.  Unfortunately, I tend to become overenthusiastic about whatever I do while I’m doing it, although the glow often fades fast afterwards.  So it was with James.  Wings and Bowl are two of the late difficult novels we didn’t cover in class that I just had to have, and Portrait is too well known not to have read.  I was certainly going to attend to all three of them when the semester was over. That was nearly three years ago.

29-32. Go Down Moses; Light in August; Absalom, Absalom; Selected Short Stories, all by William Faulkner. For an explanation of why these are in my home, see 26-28 above.  Different author, but same Princeton course, same initial enthusiasm, same result.  Shelved, until further notice.


In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that I’m omitting discussion of the titles on my iPad, whether from Kindle or iBook, because this post is now far too long as it is, and I can’t believe anyone could possibly still be sufficiently interested in it to scroll down any further.

I am also not mentioning James Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (other than Swann’s Way), Dante’s Inferno and the Shakespeare plays I haven’t yet read, all of which I hope I will read before I die — because I’ve owned copies of them for far longer than three years and if we begin examining my entire library, we will not be done for a very long time.  Enough is enough.  Even for me.

Out of the confessional and on to something else.  Any suggestions?



IMG_0174Bad Girl buys too many books. She doesn’t go to the library, as a frugal older person on a limited income should do, because she doesn’t want to wait for the book she wants. With books, she’s the instant gratification type.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t wait once she owns it. Her wants are sometimes fleeting. Or they require serious undivided attention for at least a week or more and therefore cannot be attended to right now. Or they may be such frivolous impulse purchases that she feels she’d be wasting time with them best spent elsewhere, and needs a long beach vacation or a broken bone that requires much rest while it heals in order to justify indulging herself in these frothy trifles.

As a result, she is behind, far far behind, on her reading.

Last night — driven by guilt — she lined up on the windowsill all the books she’s acquired in the last three years or so that she still hasn’t read, the ones that came so easily with a click of the mouse from Amazon. [Without shipping charges, of course — because Bad Girl is a Prime Member.] Or came from Bill, a Bad Boy himself in this regard, because he thought she might be interested, so how can she give them back?  [Actually, she gave many back, or else the windowsill wouldn’t have been long enough.]

Amazon isn’t Bad Girl’s only accomplice here. There’s also Kindle, for when she really and truly can’t wait even the two days it takes from Amazon.  Except she clearly can wait, because she hasn’t read any of these yet either, except some of the Janet Malcolm on the train going in to New York.


And let’s not forget iBooks, where three of the five titles on her iPad were free, which is why she acquired them in the first place.  Acquired for when?  When is she going to sit down for a romp through The Brothers Karamazov, or Shakespeare’s Sonnets? If she ever finds herself on a desert island, will there be a charger station for the iPad?


Bad Girl is well aware that the eleventh of her twelve principles for getting better at getting older, as set forth in this very blog at the beginning of the year, is “Invest in Me.  (Spend on doing, not acquiring.)”  She feels, however, that books are a special case.  They may be tangible objects to be acquired. [If in digital form, the tablet on which to read them is the tangible acquisition.]  But unless you’re buying books with no intention of actually opening them, solely because you are decorating the walls of a library to be photographed in Dwell Magazine, you’re acquiring them to do something more with them. Sooner or later, you’re going to read them.  And reading is doing.

So why isn’t Bad Girl getting on with it?  Apart from the somewhat superficial excuses offered above?  Because she’s already reading her head off in the time remaining after laboring over blog posts, making the bed, getting in the groceries, wondering whether to resume piano lessons.  She belongs to two book groups, each of which tackles a non-frivolous book a month.  The first is a History Reading Group;  she joined it after some procedural difficulties (another story, another post) because she thought reading history would be good for her.  Now she knows she was wise not to major in History when in college, but she can’t skip a month’s reading with this group, because after some attrition among the other members, she found herself unanimously selected as Chairperson before she had a chance to say no.  It’s hard to show up and admit you haven’t read the book when you’re Chairperson.  So right now, she’s reading this:


As a non-historian, Bad Girl rarely vetoes the choice of those members of the group who are, or were, historians, unless the book looks very long and very dry.  The Stewart book was written by a former lawyer, which for her was a plus in its favor;  believe it or not, lawyers tend to write clearly, which cannot be said of all historians.  It was selected by the others, without demurrer from Bad Girl, because the last book the group read was Gore Vidal’s Burr, a fictionalized version of Aaron Burr’s life and of the political history of the time as Vidal imagined Burr would see it.

One of the members of the group who admits he is uncomfortable with fiction therefore wanted to read, as a check on any possible flights of fancy in which Vidal might have indulged, a book about Burr which purports to be all historical fact.  This despite Robespierre’s famous declamation that “Fact is fiction!” — which Bad Girl mentioned during the meeting. The proponent of the Stewart book thought Bad Girl was teasing him and brushed past this interesting idea.  [As a result, it may become a future post.]  Bad Girl is therefore reading the Stewart book. She has until February 28 to finish it.

[Who was Aaron Burr?  A colonel in the American Revolution and George Washington’s aide, he later became Thomas Jefferson’s first Vice-President. But he was most famous for being the Founding Father who in 1804 killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel over some “despicable” animadversion on his — Burr’s — name. Vidal hypothesized in his fictionalized account that Hamilton’s “despicable” remark was that Burr had slept with his own daughter.  However, there is no documentation to support the hypothesis, and Vidal doesn’t claim there is.  Burr was later tried for treasonable conduct in the Western part of the new United States, the part that’s now the Mid-West, and was acquitted.  But you don’t need to know all that.  Or if you do, read the book.]

The second book group to which Bad Girl belongs meets monthly from September to May — each time in the home of a different member.  [There are just enough members to make it through the nine months.]  All the members are women “of a certain age.”  Each gets to pick a book. Since the hostess-members come from a variety of educational backgrounds and countries of origin, it’s hard to generalize about what is chosen.  So far this year, the group has worked its way through

(1) Proust’s Swann’s Way (in Lydia Davis’s excellent new translation) for the two meetings in September and October:  one section of the book per month, leaving the third section, “Place Names,” for optional reading on one’s own;

(2) Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a doorstopper of a book, for the meeting in November;

(3) Leslie Maitland’s Crossing the Borders of Time,  a book Bad Girl could hardly bring herself to finish and does not recommend, for the meeting in December; and


(4) Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad  for January.  This fourth book was Bad Girl’s own choice.  She bought it when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and inserted it into the group’s reading for the year because it has been described as “post-post-modern” and would therefore prove controversial with the other ladies. Also because it had been sitting among the unread purchases on her metaphorical windowsill for over a year, and she really wanted a mandatory reason to read it.

Now she has read it, and will be glad to offer her thoughts about this intellectually stimulating, highly participatory and beautifully constructed novel if anyone leaves a reply expressing desire for them.

Bad Girl also wants you to know that up ahead for the group is Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac in February (fortunately Bad Girl has already read it several times); Madame de Stael’s Delphine and Corinne in March; Christa Wolf’s Medea in April; and Henry James’s Portrait of A Lady — already on the windowsill in May.

Moreover, she has an additional excuse for the book-laden windowsill. Besides the Egan and Stewart books, she has currently been reading the first volume of Parade’s End.  This she purchased so as to better understand the plot of the movie made from the book — a movie she saw only for more Benedict Cumberbatch viewing pleasure than was available until last Sunday, when the third series of Sherlock began.


Nonetheless she probably won’t finish the Ford book right now.  She’s read enough to understand how Tom Stoppard cut and pasted its separate parts to make the shooting script she couldn’t follow (not having previously read the book).  She must hurry on to other things.  Sadly, in the near future Parade’s End may well join her many other unread books on the windowsill.

Bad Girl did intend to make a full confession here by listing the titles of all the books on the windowsill (for the most part not visible in the photograph) and on her iPad  — which holds both her Kindle and iBook purchases — and then explaining why she wanted them, or agreed to accept them, in the first place.  But that, as you can imagine, would take many more paragraphs and therefore be too much for one post.  Not everyone who visits her blog is as book-mad as she is.

However, it is possible she will return tomorrow, in the first person, to finish the job.  And perhaps even the day after that — if there are enough pleas for her views on A Visit from the Goon Squad.  

Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.



Law school did more than stuff my head with the arcane language of the law and credential me to sit for the bar.  Even now, eight years officially retired from practice, I still occasionally resort to a method I learned there for addressing knotty problems.

It is the procedure known as “briefing the case.”  Nobody forces any law school student to do it.  But it’s one of the first things you’re taught before you’re taught anything else, and once you’ve mastered it, it continues to help whenever you find yourself in a situation or face a dilemma you feel you can’t untangle or think about clearly.

New students are urged to brief cases — at least during the first year — because American law schools rely on the casebook method of instruction.  There is no “textbook” per se. There are “hornbooks,” which are rather like textbooks, but you’re not required to buy them;  at best, they provide auxiliary help in understanding what you’re supposed to be learning about. Instead, for each course you purchase a book of opinions  — usually from appeals courts, sometimes from federal trial courts — known as the “casebook.”

A “case” (the reported opinion) is not so easy to read.  The plot part — namely the facts of what happened to bring the matter to court — is usually succinctly summarized near the beginning, without characterization, dialogue, suspense, or anything else that might make the story pleasurable reading. Then the court goes off into lengthy discussion of precedents, legal argument from both sides, its own reasoning on the matter, and at long last the result — in all of which it is very easy for the novice to get lost.

What was the case about?  Why was it assigned?  How does the willing but bewildered student deal with assignments of two or three cases for each class in each subject, when there are three subjects that meet for class three times a week and two that meet  twice a week?  Six to nine cases to prepare for Monday, for Wednesday and again for Friday, and four to six for Tuesday and for Thursday.   (Not to mention assignments for your Legal Writing classes.)   “Prepare” means “get yourself ready to answer aloud questions about any aspect of the case that may, arbitrarily, be directed at you in class.”

Aha!  That’s where the “briefing” comes in.  With this handy helper, you will have every case down pat in no time.  Or your notebook will.  (Well, not exactly “no time.”  But more quickly than if you tried to struggle on without briefing.)  It’s an armature on which to build your notes of the case, and this is how it goes:

Question Presented:
Short Answer:

The “Question Presented” is of course the legal question that has been brought before the court.  You may have to read the whole case before identifying what you should put down here, but you will eventually find it somewhere in the forest of text.

“Short Answer” usually has to wait until you’ve filled in everything else.  [The very new student may get it wrong and have to correct the briefing after class, but that’s okay.  You learn by doing.]

The “Facts” section is relatively easy to do, once you remember to keep it terse and leave out absolutely everything extraneous to the Question Presented.

The “Analysis” section will contain the detailed pros and cons of answering the Question Presented one way or the other, with citation to legal authority — namely, other past decisions that seem to be on point with the Facts of the case, or can be distinguished from them.

The “Conclusion” should provide the outcome of the court’s analysis, with explanation.  The student can then boil down the Conclusion into a sentence or two for the Short Answer.  [When studying for the examination at the end of the year, Short Answers will be more helpful in making an outline than having to re-read the entire Conclusion of every case covered in the nine months of the course.]

Briefing cases is laborious at first.  After a few months, it gets easier and goes more quickly.  After the first year, you don’t really need to do it anymore.  You will have learned how to read cases like a lawyer — which will be important when you begin to practice law, because you will have to read many cases to find the ones supporting your client’s position and also the ones that don’t (so you can argue away their relevance in court).

How is all this of use to you, the non lawyer?  Or to me, now that I’m a retired one?  Well, this is how.  When you’re really stuck, it works to unstick you.  Take the hypothetical of an unhappily married person who feels he or she cannot go and cannot stay.  Not our problem, I know — but as good an illustration as any.

Question Presented: This is not the place for “either…or.”  Put down,”Go?” Or put down,”Stay?” You’ll come out at the same point in the end however you phrase it, but it’s simpler to ask just one question.

Short Answer:  Wait on this one until you’ve written out the “Conclusion.”

Facts: All the pro facts, all the con facts.  But facts, not feelings.  If a feeling is a fact, then it needs a “because.”  As in, “I hate her because….”

Analysis: Do the good things about the marriage (as identified in “Facts”) outweigh the bad?  By how much?  Or is it vice versa? Here’s also the place for your knowledge, if any, of how divorce affects the various members of families who have experienced it. What benefits are likely to ensue from a decision to go? A decision to stay?  How well are you able to address the sorts of difficulties that will almost certainly arise if you leave? Be honest: Consider financial, emotional, parental, social results, as well as everything else you can think of that seems relevant to reaching a conclusion.  In addition, consider what might/ would make the present, seemingly untenable, situation better?

Conclusion:  This may, in the end, be to not  come to a conclusion just yet, but first try another less drastic solution to the problem. If so, let your “court” make some suggestions as to possible directions in this part of the briefing, such as counseling,  or spiritual guidance (if that’s important to you).  Alternatively, by the time you’ve written everything out, the conclusion may unquestionably be a “Stay!” or a “Go!”  Now you can fill in the Short Answer you were unable to reach before.

See how it clears the air to be so methodically rational? But of course that’s just a hypothetical, to show you how it works.  Since we’ve already agreed that nobody here is thinking of fleeing the nest, let’s try something more likely to occur in day-to-day life.  How about: whether you should subscribe to an expensive concert series you’d love to attend but would have to charge because you haven’t got ready cash right now?  Or whether you should accept a nomination to chair something, be president of something, supervise something — when you’ve got enough on your plate already but don’t want to offend, disappoint, be ill-thought of? And like that.

If in the end you conclude you don’t want to be rational about it, that’s fine.  That’s a Short Answer, too.  See how considering what would be involved in a rational decision has helped you come to an irrational one? Now you know exactly what you’re doing, and will be able to answer any questions about it directed to you in class!



In England I believe it’s called “reading law.” Here in the United States, it’s just “going to law school.” But you need four years of college and an undergraduate degree in order to apply.

However, unlike most other graduate programs, and contrary to what you may have thought, law school is much more a glorified trade school than an immersion in complex higher thought.  It’s true that the J.D. (juris doctor),  when finally acquired after three years of supposedly learning how to practice law, does not yet entitle you actually to practice it.  (Except in one state — Wyoming or Montana, I forget which.)  There’s another hurdle ahead: you must take and pass one last big test in a state or states of your choosing.  And that’s what you really need the J.D. for.  It’s your entry ticket for “sitting for the bar.”

“Sitting for the bar” means you register to take, and then actually take, a two-day examination (three-day if you’re doing two states at the same time) — each day’s part being six hours in length, with an hour’s break for lunch and for standing in long bathroom lines. It’s administered in a huge aerodrome or covered stadium designated by the state in question as the place where its bloodless torture takes place twice a year.  [The size of the venue is driven by the fact that as many as 1500 newly minted J.D.s may be taking the exam at the same time. Plus the ones who failed their first or second try and have to try again.]

Only when you’ve at last “passed the bar” may you finally proceed to practice law (and find out how little you really learned about it in school) either by (1) becoming an associate at a private law firm; (2) finding a municipal, state or federal government job as a lawyer; (3) going “in-house” as a member of the legal staff of a corporation; or  (4) “hanging up your own shingle” (quaint phrase), usually because the other three possibilities didn’t pan out.

But let’s back up. I don’t know what’s involved in learning how to be a plumber or electrician, but I imagine the subject matter to be mastered for those trades must be broken down into manageable bits. So it is in law school.  Allegedly learning how to be a lawyer is broken down into various subject matters to be mastered, most of them in year-long courses.  Although the specific choice of first-year course work may vary from law school to law school, during my first year we took four courses that ran from September through May — Property Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, Civil Procedure — plus a fifth, Criminal Law, that was tested at the end of the first semester and replaced in the spring by Constitutional Law, which was tested at the end of May together with the four that had run for the whole academic year.

That’s right, five examinations at the end of the first year — and  the first and only examinations we would have on those five subjects. Each exam lasted three hours, and consisted of three complicated hypothetical situations which between them raised every possible issue that had arisen in any case discussed or even mentioned in that course since September.  We were advised to write for an hour on each hypothetical, but for no more than an hour, quickly identifying and explaining every issue we had spotted. [Bathroom break? Take it at your peril!  Leaving the room meant less time to write, fewer issues spotted.]  Brilliance on one hypothetical did not compensate for ignorance on another. Failing an exam meant having to repeat the course.  Doing poorly in any exam adversely affected one’s class rank — an extremely important consideration in securing a first job.

Understandably, there was much growing tension in the classroom as the weeks of May rolled by.  Many of us were there on federally funded student loans, which would need to be repaid irrespective of the outcome on these exams.  Others were the first in their families to go to graduate school.  Not making it would mean not making a family’s dream come true. The school had thoughtfully provided a ten-day study period following the end of classes before the first exams were scheduled to take place.  But how do you study when you’re too nervous to focus on anything except the possibility of impending doom?

The youngest of our professors was an attractive woman who was a bit past thirty but certainly no more than thirty-five.  This was only her second year as a member of the law faculty.  She had taught fourth grade for a few years before going to law school, and brought a touch of the kindly and patient manner with which one instructs young children to teaching us, which was perhaps an error of style when addressing a roomful of twenty-somethings, plus me.  What’s more, although she taught Civil Procedure, she had never actually practiced law.  She may not have even sat for a bar. She was slender, shapely, had great legs, and wore high heels to show them off — which was much appreciated by the young men in the class but did nothing to enhance her reputation as a professor to be respected for her knowledge.

On the final day she met with us, she did a quick review of what we might anticipate could be on the Civil Prodedure exam.  At last she put down her pointer and her chalk, turned to us and said she knew we were all very nervous.  She had been through it herself not so long before, so she understood completely.

And then this pretty woman with the gorgeous gams said something so important, and so applicable to every other aspect of life that I’ve never forgotten it, although by now I’ve forgotten almost everything else I memorized that year.  “You may be so nervous,” she said, “that you’re too nervous to study.  So this is what to do.”

Now no one was looking at her legs.  We were all listening very carefully.

What you should do when you’re too nervous to study,” she said, “is study. And then the nervousness will go away.”

I was nearly fifty-two, hadn’t taken an exam (except the one in Criminal Law) for twenty-seven years, and “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind.  My husband was out of work, I had two adolescent children, I had done this all on loans.  But I took her advice.  And studied. And studied. And studied some more.  And the nervousness did go away.

When the class rankings were posted that summer after the grades were in on all five exams, I found myself tied for first in a class of 345.  That rank opened doors for interviews in major Boston law firms, despite my age. One of those interviews led to a job that brought money into our family again, paid for braces, good private schools, music lessons.

That’s why what I heard on the last day of the Civil Procedure class in May 1983 was the most useful lesson I learned in law school.  Try it yourself.

When you’re too nervous to do something, do it.  And the nervousness will go away.

And then who knows what good things will happen next?



[This may not be fair.  But just once, humor me. Back to regular stuff tomorrow.]

Here are some photos of art work taken from exhibit catalogues for two recent shows in a city that is a major international center for the arts.  Can you guess where these works were exhibited?

(1) London
(2) Paris
(3) New York
(4) Rome
(5) Berlin

And can you also guess the artist(s)?

Answer(s) at the bottom of the post. I wish I knew how to turn the answers upside down to make them harder to read, but I don’t.  So no cheating until you’ve at least tried to guess.








Ah yes, the answers.  All these were shown in (3) New York.

 And the artists?  This you probably guessed.  It is art only a mommy (or daddy, or grandma, or grandpa) could love. The first seven were done in kindergarten last year by my grandson, when he was six.  The bottom two were done in her third and final year of nursery school by his sister, my granddaughter, when she  was five.  They were all exhibited, at the children’s respective schools.  [Not because they were so unusual but because the schools are so expensive, and the parents who pay must see what they’re getting for their money.]  There were also two exhibit catalogues, beautifully bound in robin’s egg blue as hard-cover books — one showing what he had done, the other what she had done.  I suspect, however, that these were bought and paid for by the doting parents and were not freebies from the schools.

But why this post?  Because the “art” looked so very impressive in these two beautifully bound books — one piece displayed per expensive glossy white page. It made me wonder, “If these were properly framed and presented in an upscale gallery with elegant white walls, would they pass for “real” cutting-edge art?”  “Presented” being the key word.   These days, I often think presentation is becoming all.  Or nearly all.

But I probably missed the mark here.  My presentation just wasn’t good enough to fool you. [You may recall that “Insert media” was always my blogger Achilles heel.]  I did ask you to humor me. Remember?  Up there at the top, where you came in?

Alternatively, I might now be able to salvage this guessing game by entering into a discussion of the spontaneity and consequent aesthetic value of children’s art.  (Big words always come in handy when you find yourself in trouble.)

That’s probably a subject for another post, though.  I’m sure I’ll be getting a lot more art work from these two “artists” before they grow up.



One of the non-WordPress blogs I follow through email is The 70-Something Blog, by Judy F. Kugel.  A recently retired assistant dean at The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Judy has been posting twice a week for six years, since she turned seventy.  I only discovered her, though, when I began blogging last November.  Her posts are an astringent antidote to mine.  She is neat, organized, efficient.  Or presents that way online.  Reading her is good for me.

Several days ago, Judy asked her husband Peter to do a guest post.  Peter, a professor of cognitive science at Boston College (who I believe has now also retired), is in his eighties. His post therefore had a great deal of resonance for me. [“Resonance” is his word, and also Martin Amis’s, as you will see below.] The post isn’t just for old folks, though.  Which is why I’ve re-blogged it here. I do wish he hadn’t referred to his seventies as a “catastrophe,” but maybe he was just playing funny guy.

Tasting the Marmalade

Hi.  I’m Judy’s husband, Peter, and she has invited me to be a guest blogger again.  Perhaps she thought that I might have some more wisdom to share about life in one’s seventies, since I’m in my eighties and I’ve been through the full catastrophe. But I’d rather talk about life in my decade.  Judy’s next one.

This morning, at breakfast, I stopped reading the newspaper and paid attention to what I was eating – a good piece of bread, toasted, spread with unsalted butter and topped with orange marmalade.  I’ve been ignoring my breakfast while reading the paper for years.

But when you’re in your eighties, you realize that the number of breakfasts you’re going to eat is finite. Oh sure, they’ve been finite all along, but small numbers are more finite  than big ones.  As there are fewer of them left, they are getting more precious.

It’s not just the days that are getting fewer.  So are the things I can do and enjoy.  I can no longer ride my bicycle to Harvard Square, let alone down the “D” roads of France.  I can no longer see well enough to drive at night and one of these days I won’t be able to drive at all. I’m losing my sense of smell.  My memory isn’t what it used to be.

However, having less left is making what I still have seem more valuable.  I think Martin Amis got it right when he said  “I find that in your 60s everything begins to look sort of slightly magical again. And it’s imbued with a kind of leave-taking resonance.”

I’m finding that leave-taking resonance in my 80s.  I suspect that it’s findable at any age.

Isn’t it nice to hear from a man for a change?  If you have time, check out the link to the Martin Amis interview, too.  Lots of good stuff there to mull over, even if — for you — “getting old” is still pretty far away.



Of the many people I’ve met over the years but didn’t really get to know, I remember very few.  I recall, for instance, that when I was a teaching assistant in the English Department at the University of Southern California from 1953 until 1956, there were two other women and five men with teaching assistantships.  There may have been other men than the five, but I draw a blank.  In my memory, it’s as if they’ve never been.

The women were Katherine and Nancy.  I knew them best of the group, although not well, because we used to have coffee together in the Commons.  Despite my pursuit of higher learning, I retained a shallow interest in clothes [still with me] and in money [no comment] — and therefore favored Katherine, because her father was the Spyros Skouras of Mexico.  That is, he was Greek and controlled most of the movie theaters in that country. He was therefore was by any standards a Very Rich Man.  As a result, Katherine — who spoke Greek, Spanish and English fluently — had money to burn and a wardrobe from I. Magnin I envied.  She was also pleasant and shy and led a protected life in an expensive apartment with her older sister that I was unable to penetrate, despite many hints that it would be great to get together outside of school.

Nancy lived at home with her parents in Pasadena, and dressed modestly and inexpensively in skirts and sweaters she had probably worn in high school and college.  On non-teaching days, she even wore white socks.  (A sartorial no-no unless you were very young or very old.)  However, she was the one of us who nailed a Fulbright — by asserting a simulated scholarly interest in Middle English sermons.  She thereby got to spend a year at the University of London for free, although she paid the price of having to compare five differing versions of one twelfth-century sermon surviving in five separate church libraries scattered around the country, and then writing up her conclusions.  Perhaps to comfort herself during this painful undertaking, she also became engaged to Rudy, another teaching assistant from USC who had obtained another prestigious award to do something similarly medieval at Oxford or Cambridge.

I later heard Katherine broke her back while skiing, was in hospital for a long time and was unable to walk afterwards, and Nancy broke her engagement to Rudy after returning to the States but found someone else to marry; in addition, she became — willy nilly, I suppose — a specialist in medieval studies once she had obtained her doctorate.  But that’s all I know of these two women.  For me, they remain immobilized in time — forever graduate students on a sunny campus in the spring of their lives.

The five men I can manage to remember I knew even less well than the women.  I was attached at the time to a divorced instructor in another department, about whom I have written elsewhere, and who I was later to marry — which served as something of a curb on inclinations to explore other possibilities.  In any event, two of the five I dismissed out of hand as alternative potential husband material. Ben was far too short. At that period of my life, feeling small and protected was a major prerequisite to my feeling quivery — which,  since I myself was five foot seven, required at least five feet and ten inches of man to produce the desired result.  Russ — tall enough, not bad looking, and extremely particular about what he wore — evinced no interest whatsoever in me at any time I was there. Since he always behaved as if I didn’t exist, I behaved as if he didn’t exist. If he was homosexual, he wasn’t for me anyway.  And if he wasn’t, he didn’t deserve a smile if he wasn’t going to smile first!

The third man, Lee, was both married and badly pockmarked.  I might have forgiven the pocks because he had lovely dark Irish eyes, but married was an insuperable obstacle.  As was a tendency to drink too much.  He seemed always to be slightly tipsy during our few one-on-one encounters in the Commons.

The fourth man was Rudy, later to become engaged to Nancy.  He was also too short, but charming.  He even had me to tea once, in what he called his “digs.”  I felt a bit guilty, but went.  He talked an awful lot about Chaucer, though.  I mean I did like the Wyf of Bathe with her five housbondes.  But I didn’t like her so much that she should dominate the conversation when I was having tea with a real live man.  So Rudy’s shortages in the height department triumphed over the charm factor,  and the divorced instructor remained safely in my life.

Then there was Jack, who I thought probably too old for me. In 1953 I was twenty-two and he was thirty-seven.  The divorced instructor was thirty-one, which was bad enough.  But fifteen years older is six years more than nine years older.

However, age has its benefits. Unlike the other teaching assistants, Jack was already what I considered an experienced man.  He had served in the war. [World War II.]  He had been — perhaps still was — a newspaperman.  Moreover, he was tall enough. And not yet married.  And had a nice face and a few friendly words for me whenever we passed in the halls.  I was — how shall I put it? — tempted. But he was always rushing here and there.  However, he did once mention he wrote poetry.

An opening.  “Oh,” I said, looking up at him wide-eyed. “Is there somewhere I can read something you’ve written?”

A yellow manila envelope soon appeared in my campus mailbox.  Inside was a slim black-bound book:  I Sleep with Strangers, by Jack Fulbeck. (Savage and Savage, Publishers. Los Angeles. © 1951) Facing the frontispiece, I read: “This edition is limited to nine hundred and ninety-nine copies, of which this is Number”  Jack had written in the number in blue ink: “804.” And then he had signed it. For me.

Wyf of Bathe aside, I’d never been comfortable with poetry, and still am not. I don’t understand it. I’m too prosaic.  But now I had to try.  That evening, I opened I Sleep With Strangers.   What had he been thinking in giving it to me? The poems were all about war — and other women!

Here’s one:

Bloomfield, New Jersey

Because it was a season known as war
reluctantly we went afield to reap
the harvest of a cultivated hate;
the grain had ripened and it would not wait.
All that was proffered, the soul eschewed:
hatred is no palatable food.

Because the taloned hawk struck down the dove
we who shouldered heavy arms became
hungrier than ever to taste love.

And when I think of love, I hear your name.


Winnepeg, Canada

I thought I loved you for your body only,
That night your flesh was sweet as always before
but something was withheld, a something-more
ever nameless.

Love the body only?
I questioned whether such a love was true —

lying with your flesh but not with you,

I didn’t know what I could say to him about his gift without sounding dumb when I next saw him.  I needn’t have worried.  That very night, I dreamed about him.  Although I couldn’t recall the details when I awoke, I knew — I could still feel in my body — that it had been a dream colored with sexual promise.

I sought him out in Commons to thank him for the book and tell him about the dream.  “But I can’t remember what we were doing,” I confessed, falsely shy and not mentioning sexual promise but perhaps suggesting something of the sort by the look on my face.

He looked pleased.  “Not correcting papers, I hope.”

The very next day a second smaller envelope was in my mailbox.  Inside were some lines typed on half a sheet of lined notebook paper:

Footnote to a Dream

Life sold us short. The pulsing feather bed
Was less real than insubstantial air
That bore the dream. Now beware
A realist’s revenge on all the host
That people Nothing. Calendar the night
When I shall come again, not wholly ghost,
And make my entry like a man, upright.

This I understood.

This excited me.

This was out of my depth.

Of course, I blushed with pleasure about the poem when we met again. And lamely mentioned the divorced instructor. Not an engagement.  Not an entirely firm commitment.  But there it was.  He nodded. He was understanding. He hoped he would hear from me if it was ever over.

Should I — always a fool for words — have flung caution to the winds? Might my life have taken a completely different direction, and for the better?   Or would only a few more poems, captioned Los Angeles, California,  have come of it?  I’ll never know.  I opted for safety. Which turned out to be not so safe at all.  I kept the book, though.  For sixty years. And also the poem he wrote for me.

I just looked him up.  These days we can do that. I see he earned his doctorate in Comparative Literature from USC in 1960 and then became a professor at the California State Polytechnic University, in Pomona.  He also married in 1960, adopted his wife’s two children from a previous marriage, and fathered a son of his own in 1965, when he was nearly fifty, two years before my older son was born.  He served two terms as president of the California State Poetry Society, his poems won numerous awards, and his poem “Challengers” was read from the orbiting Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985 and is on record at the National Archives Building.  He also published two more books of poetry after I Sleep With Strangers.  They were Gilgamesh and Sifted Ashes. He died on Christmas Day 2011, aged 95.

We never spoke in any meaningful way after the conversation that followed the poem he wrote for me.  And I never saw him again after I left USC in 1957.  So there’s really nothing more to say. Although I used to sometimes wonder what might have happened if….

But now I know it wasn’t that he was too old for me.  He could have brought me up to speed in no time.  I was just too young for him.