SMOKING

Standard

As I was driving into town yesterday, I had to stop for a red light behind a dark BMW.  Although the temperature was below freezing, the window on the driver’s side was open. I knew this because from out the window snaked a woman’s gloveless left hand with a cigarette gracefully lodged between the second and third fingers. She then raised her left thumb to replace the the second finger while she tapped ash with the second finger into the road.  The light changed, she drove on, I turned left and realized it was a long time since I had seen anything like that, and even longer since I had done it myself.

Nobody I know smokes anymore.  Nobody I know knows anyone who smokes anymore, if they ever did.  My children, who are in their mid-forties, don’t smoke, and neither do any of their friends.  My grandchildren are all under eight but almost certainly never will.  [That is, they won’t smoke a cigarette with tobacco in it. Other exotic substances I can’t speak to.  And won’t be around to find out about.]

The last time Bill and I were in Europe, five years ago, there was still plenty of smoking going on.  So I don’t know what the situation is over there by now, or in South America, or in Africa, or the Far East.  I understand that the American tobacco giants, like Philip Morris, are still doing very well — but they must be doing it by selling overseas, because there sure isn’t much puffing going on around here.  It’s not allowed in public buildings, most office buildings, most offices, theaters, movie theaters, restaurants, bars — nor in many homes.  You can’t even do it in the office bathroom. When all this prohibition first went into effect, there used to be huddles of cold, wet unhappy smokers hunched together near the doorways of buildings, snatching their nicotine fix in the rain, sleet or snow.  I don’t work in a big city anymore, but I bet those huddles are much smaller than they were ten years ago, if they still exist at all.  According to the latest estimate from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention), in 2012 just 18% of adult Americans smoked.

This is truly remarkable, because I grew up in a world where almost all adults smoked.  I mean, that’s what they did.  As far as I could tell, if you were an adult, you smoked.  [And if you smoked, maybe that was enough to make you an adult.  A lot of kids thought so.]  Although I have read some statistics that in 1964, the percentage of Americans smoking was 42%, that couldn’t have been true in the urban Northeast.  Just about anyone you asked on the street could give you a light, if you needed one.  Learning to smoke was a rite of passage; twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys shared a ciggie after school, trying hard not to cough so as not to look like a novice.  All right, nuns didn’t smoke, and very prissy ladies apparently didn’t (except maybe once in a rare while), and people with lung diseases weren’t supposed to, but sometimes did anyway. In any large business organization, you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people in your department or group who didn’t smoke.

Indeed, years before I was born Lucky Strike was advertising, “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet,” and women who were trying to keep their figures did just that — as did the fat ones, to get their figures back.  There was “Marlboro Country,” with a manly cowboy smoking a Marlboro cigarette on the billboard or the ad page.  Word even had it that the light brown illustration of a camel in profile on the package of equally manly Camel cigarettes was intended to suggest a male scrotum and always erect appendage — yours, I suppose, if you inhaled a sufficient number of Camels.

In the space of less than one long life, all that has changed.  It’s partly the effect of tobacco taxes, which in my time have driven the price of smoking through the roof.  In 1952, the year I emerged from college, a pack of Chesterfields cost 20 cents — less, of course, when bought by the carton of ten. Now?  It depends where you live (and therefore what the combined federal and state taxes amount to).  The cheapest state in which to smoke is Kentucky, which in 2013 dropped its state tax on tobacco by 26%, making a pack of cigarettes $4.96.  The most expensive is New York.  As of July 1, 2010, New Yorkers began paying the highest cigarette tax in the country when the state tax increased from $2.75 per pack to $4.35 per pack. In New York City, which levies its own municipal taxes, the total combined state and local tax on cigarettes increased to $5.85 per pack.  According to the New York Post, this pushed the price for one pack of cigarettes up to $14.50 at some New York City stores.  Sneaking ciggies is certainly no longer an affordable after-school act of daring for little boys anymore.

There are also the warnings that Congress eventually required on each cigarette package and cigarette ad.  [Although I must ask.  “Smoking may be hazardous to your health?”  Is that really going to stop a teen-ager who believes he or she will live forever?]  In addition, tobacco companies can no longer recruit smokers on campus by hiring young folks to distribute free three- and five-cigarette welcome packs to incoming freshmen, as they were doing when I went to school.  There’s also the hassle of having to ask for cigarettes to be brought up from behind the counter if you want to buy them.  Time was that you could just take what you wanted off any grocery shelf, drugstore shelf, or supermarket shelf in the country and bring them to the counter yourself.  And not have to worry about any minimum age requirement, either. Cigarettes also used to be in vending machines everywhere — in the subway, lobbies of movie theaters, restaurants, coffee houses.  Also at newsstands, in tobacco shops.  (Tobacco shops?  Are there such things anymore — except as expensively exotic places to shop where the very rich congregate?)  I haven’t seen a cigarette vending machine in years.  All this is the result of the right of citizens to breathe clean air finally trumping the right of individuals to smoke wherever and whenever they want.

But probably the main reason that cigarette smoking is dying out in the United States is not that it’s become so societally difficult and economically very expensive to smoke.  I think it’s because it’s no longer so smart/’cool/whatever to start.  And if you don’t start, you don’t have to stop.  The fact is:  once you’re really a regular smoker — and by that I mean not just one or two, once in a while  — stopping is extraordinarily hard.

I used to work for a law firm that represented Philip Morris in the Northeast.  We had all the “scientific” jargon down pat.  So I could tell you that nicotine isn’t really “addictive.”  Why not? Because it doesn’t require you to ingest more and more and more of it to reach the same level of satiety, as is the case with “addictive” substances.  (Think heroin, for instance. As time goes on and your body becomes used to it, you need more and more to “feel” it.)  In legal parlance, nicotine is just “habit forming.”  That means once you reach a level of satiety — by smoking ten, twenty, thirty, forty cigarettes a day, whatever your individual requirement may be — then that’s all you ever need to feel satisfied. More and you begin to feel sick.  (But woe is you if you don’t get your daily fix.)

For a smoker, that’s a distinction without a difference.  Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.  Even after you’ve become sick, and have been warned, and are being treated, you’re still hooked — physically and psychologically, and may go on sneaking cigarettes until you die.  So it could be that we have much less smoking in the United States than we used to, not just because of the factors I’ve identified above, which discourage the young from starting  — especially now that there are newer excitements, like “body art” and piercing and doing drugs, as well as that old and reliable standby, getting drunk.   But also because the confirmed smokers of my generation and just afterwards have now got old and/or sick, and are dying out — either from age alone, or lung cancer, or emphysema, or heart disease, or some other smoking-related ultimately fatal condition.  And anyone younger who’s seen a friend or family member slowly and painfully dying from inability to pull enough air into the lungs, or from chemotherapy and radiation that fails, is not going to say yes to smoking. Or if already smoking, is going to make renewed and determined efforts to stop, however hard that may be.

But I digress.  In 1931 when I was born, my mother and father both smoked.  (I was a nicotine baby!)  My mother brought the habit with her from Russia; at eighteen, when she arrived on Ellis Island, she was already smoking papyrossi, with long white cardboard mouthpieces built into each cigarette that doubled its length between the fingers.  By the time I came along, however, her brand of choice was Chesterfields — then short, and without filters.  I remember her tapping each one on the table, to pack the tobacco more firmly in its paper tube, before putting it in her lipsticked mouth to light it. (And then daintily removing a tobacco crumb from her tongue.) Once a pack was opened, it always left more crumbs at the bottom of her pocketbooks.  She would shake them out periodically over the kitchen sink.  Her possessions were always as clean as her home, inside as well as out.

I also remember that ashtrays and ceramic cigarette boxes were an important decorative element at our house.  For show, she had several very beautiful hand-painted but rather small ashtrays from France and Italy — and for everyday use, other larger industrial glass ones with indentations in them, where she could leave her cigarette burning while she went to do something else that required two hands. She carried these bigger ones around with her from room to room;  they were less aesthetically pleasing but more serviceable than those kept in the living room for company to use.

My father smoked Lucky Strikes. They came in a dark green package with a red circle outlined in gold and white in the center.  I don’t know when he began.  I do know he stopped when Lucky Strike Green went to war.  (That was the advertising jingle you heard on the radio:  “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone to War!”)  The green coloring for the packages was advertised as having been requisitioned for military use late in 1941 or early in 1942.  Lucky Strikes, when you could get them, then began to be sold in a white package.  They still had their red circle, now rimmed in green, black and white.  But they became very scarce, even in their new package, and my father took their near disappearance as an opportunity to stop smoking.  He never talked about whether he found stopping difficult or not.  Based on my own experience twenty-eight years later, I think he must have been a very light smoker.  He was also a man who did what he decided he had to do.

My mother survived the war with whatever unknown brands the local drugstore at the corner was able to procure.  She pronounced them terrible, but continued her smoking.  She never went beyond twenty a day; usually it was fifteen or sixteen.  When the war was over, she abandoned Chesterfields for Parliaments.  They were long, had tips which allegedly “filtered” the smoke, and came in an elegant white package.  She continued to smoke for almost all of her life.  Eventually, in their sixties and seventies, my father complained;  as a result, she had to smoke in the bathroom with the window open so he didn’t know (although of course he did; he could smell it) — but she went on smoking until she was 79.  At that point she managed to quit all by herself because, she said, she didn’t want to die.  Luckily, she escaped every disease then known to be directly related to smoking, and passed away ten years later of colon cancer, probably induced by extremely poor and roughage-free diet choices but now also alleged to be smoking-related.  She might as well have gone on smoking until the end; after my father’s death when she was 81, she wouldn’t have had to hide in the bathroom and exhale out the window.

Well!  When I went off to college in 1948, all of that was still ahead.  Our recently deceased president had smoked — with a long jaunty cigarette holder from Alfred Dunhill clamped between his teeth.  Everyone in the movies was smoking.  Catch the black-and-white film classics from the forties and fifties on television and you’ll see it:  Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford — all  romantically wreathed in smoke, all dramatically drawing poisonous tar into their lungs.  Was there a movie hero in that period who didn’t place two cigarettes between his own lips by moonlight (preferably on an ocean liner), light both between cupped palms, and then tenderly insert one between the moist parted lips of the heroine?

Clearly, one of the first things I was going to have to learn when I got to campus was how to light up myself.

[More tomorrow.]

Advertisements

THE HUNGARIAN’S QUESTION

Standard

My first husband found the Hungarian for me.  That is, he found two therapists, the first with an American name and the second with a foreign, almost unpronounceable one.  To me, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, it was a no-brainer.  I chose the the Hungarian.

My first husband was unhappy that I was taking too many naps on late weekend afternoons. He wanted me to stop it. That’s why he had looked up the names of therapists. He had other concerns as well, such as the fact that he had found empty candy wrappers under the seat of our car. I think the naps trumped the candy, though.  I had only gained about five pounds and could still fit into my clothes so didn’t need to buy anything new, whereas the naps interfered with my listening to him, playing with him, and generally admiring him in any spare time I might have.

I wouldn’t have dared tell my first husband the naps were to avoid being with him so much. But I could have told him, with equal truthfulness, they were because I was really tired — from working five days a week to support us, making dinners and washing dishes afterwards, cleaning the apartment every Saturday morning, pulling a shopping cart to the A&P five blocks away every Saturday afternoon to bring back a week’s worth of groceries and other necessaries, going ice-skating or playing tennis with him (depending on the season) in Central Park on Sunday mornings, and doing the week’s laundry in the basement machines on Sunday afternoons. [There were other tasks, too, but you get the idea.]

However, my first husband wouldn’t have wanted to hear all that.  He felt he was entitled to a wife who could take care of everything without requiring naps because he was a genius who had to spend almost all his time, when he wasn’t ice-skating or playing tennis, writing unpublishable books and therefore needed at least some admiration from someone, especially on late weekend afternoons.  Also, he was certifiably handsome, which in his eyes counted for a very great deal.

The Hungarian was about forty and had an office off the lobby in an apartment house on East 86th Street, between Madison and Park.  He called me “honeybunch.”  I liked that.   I very much needed to be someone’s honeybunch.  Twice a week after work, I would wait on a chair in the lobby until the previous patient had left.  Then I would knock, he would open the door, smile as if he were glad to see me, and say, ” Come in, come in.”  After I had taken off my coat, he would add, “Ma, honeybunch.  So how are you?”  (I think “ma” meant “well” in Hungarian, but I never asked. I was just happy not to have to head home right after work, and to have a place to go that was just for me.)

But honeybunch came later. First, there was the initial visit. The Hungarian asked why I had come. He listened very carefully.  I asked if he thought he could help.  He said he could help if I did my part.

Then he said he was going to ask me a question which I should answer quickly, not thinking about it — with the very first thing that popped into my mind.

This was the question:  “Who are you with when you’re alone?”

[Before I tell you what I answered, ask yourself how you would answer. “Who are you with when you are alone?”]

I said, “What kind of question is that?  When I’m alone, I’m with nobody.”

The Hungarian said, “Really?  When you’re alone, you’re with nobody?”

“Well, what do you expect me to say?” I asked.  “When I’m all alone, of course I’m with nobody. There’s nobody there.”

“But there is somebody there,” he said.  “When you’re alone, you’re with yourself.”

It wasn’t just a word game. I was twenty-eight. And to myself I was nobody.

So that’s where we began.

I owe him a lot.

“TOO GOOD FOR EVERY DAY”

Standard

Hanging in my closet as I write this, carefully protected from dust and moth by plastic bags, are:

1.  One pair of navy blue silk Armani palazzo pants, never worn since I bought them on sale at Neiman Marcus in 2000 even though I have several long-sleeved white silk blouses, also unworn and in plastic bags, purchased especially to wear with the pants if I were ever to wear the pants;

2. One pale greige Armani summer suit with elegant but difficult front closure, bought on sale at the Newbury Street Armani store in Boston in 2001 and worn twice to client Board of Directors meetings while I still practiced law.  One daughter-in-law now suggests jacket could still be worn over sleeveless black dress in late spring and early fall, but perhaps doesn’t realize that sleeveless dresses are not  (or should not be) for eighty-two year-old mothers-in-law, who in any event no longer attend events where Armani jackets wouldn’t look out of place;

3.  A St. John sequined knit jacket (color: peach), with matching knit short skirt, long skirt, and  floor-length pants (skirts and pants without sequins), purchased reluctantly at Neiman Marcus to wear as mother of groom on two separate occasions in the  summer of 2003 — short skirt in June for younger son’s wedding, long skirt early in September for older son’s wedding.  Pants never worn.  Skirts worn only once each.  Price:  $2500 (plus tax) in 2003 dollars for whole kit and caboodle. Too expensive to give away/donate/throw away.  Too good for every day.

There’s more, of course.  And I haven’t even begun with the unworn shoes,  unused handbags, leather gloves, three large silk scarves still in their lovely Hermes orange boxes, and even never-worn hats in my possession.  But here’s a good place to stop and consider “too good for every day.”

This expression, and the conduct it purports to justify, came from my parents in my youth. They had both gone a long time with hardly any possessions at all.  In their youth, they had with great difficulty escaped war, revolution, inflation and penury only to arrive in a new land where at first they had to scramble to earn even enough to eat and rent a room.  It took quite a while before sales at the seductive department stores in New York that lined Fifth Avenue from 34th Street to 59th Street were within their reach.

Accordingly, they always said of their own new clothes and shoes, especially if “expensive,” that they were too good to wear every day. Such purchases were taken out of their boxes, tried on once more at home to make sure there had been no mistake, and then carefully put away, with their tags still hanging, in protective plastic bags. The tags and bags made the “good” clothes hard just to slip off their hangers and put on, even if it was a special occasion. “Good” shoes also had to be extracted from their bags, and the shoe trees removed, before wearing. Better, and easier, to wear the same old comfortable things all the time. That way you wouldn’t spoil the “good” ones.

Their philosophy could not be applied so rigorously to purchases for me while I was a child because I was always outgrowing my clothes; if everything new had been saved for “good,” I would have had nothing to wear.  That said, one dress and one pair of shoes were always designated as not for every day.

It did apply, however, to dishes and flatware and tableware.  After I grew up and my mother took a job at an upscale department store in Los Angeles where she enjoyed an employee discount, she acquired a whole set of fragile Noritake china for twelve.  It had a dainty silver-edged rim of delicate pale blue flowers and was nearly translucent when held up to the light.  But it was perhaps only once or twice used on an actual table, when a guest my parents considered sufficiently important came to dinner. Moreover, the Noritake took up too much room, and might be exposed to too much knocking about, on the kitchen shelves. It therefore needed a fine china cabinet of its own, which was duly purchased for a very good price at an estate sale in a wealthy suburb and placed against the wall in the dining alcove.  Once in the cabinet, God forbid the Noritake be actually taken out, eaten on and have to be washed. A piece might break in the sink — and then it wouldn’t be a complete set, to be admired through the glass doors of the china cabinet.

Need I add there was eventually a silver-plated Revere flatware service for twelve in its own velvet-lined mahogany box, to be used with the Noritake if the Noritake were ever used?  (Sterling was forever beyond my mother’s reach.  Not that she wouldn’t have reached if she could.)  And there were odd bits of crystal glassware, from which my parents seldom drank. (Never a whole matching set, alas!)  There was also a shelf in the linen cabinet for fine linen tablecloths, with matching linen napkins. And napkin rings.  The tablecloths came in various sizes, for variously sized tables, all but one of which my parents never owned.  Thank goodness my mother did not go in for cut glass, a mania in which my second mother-in-law overindulged.

[I once also had a sister-in-law, acquired through  late marriage to a former brother-in-law, who not only put plastic covers on her “good” upholstered furniture, but also plastic covers on the allegedly “antique” wood tables and cabinets in the living room. I know she was saving everything from cigarette burns and circles made by wet whiskey glasses.  But saving it all for what? For whom?]

I understand now that all this saving was like saving money in the bank.  It was to have for a rainy day.  It was because “we may never again be able to afford another like it.”  Some of that is likely what keeps the Armanis and St. Johns and Ferragamo shoes, and virgin Hermes scarves and Longchamps handbags safely in my possession — although I almost certainly will never again have any occasion or opportunity to flash such finery.  For a very long time in my life I had absolutely no discretionary money at all, and then during a relatively brief period of lawyering (after paying off all debt) I did have the money to buy these very nice things, and now I don’t and never will again.

“Wear them, use them!” says Bill. I know he’s right — at least about the shoes and scarves and handbags.  (Armani at Whole Foods or walking along the Delaware-Raritan canal might be a bit much.)  So what if I can’t replace them when they wear out?  I’m wearing out too, although I hate to admit it.  I might wear out before the shoes and bags.

That’s what happened to my parents. When my mother died, I found two double-wide closets full of nearly unworn clothing that was too good for every day.  Hanger after hanger of immaculately preserved black and navy and grey coats and dresses the Duchess of Windsor would not have turned up her nose at. Half a dozen pair of Italian pumps made of beautiful glove leather, much too small for me and ten years out of style.  Bags, scarves, kid leather gloves in eight neutral colors, fine hemstitched batiste handkerchiefs, some embroidered by hand with her monogram: “M.”

I kept three of the handbags (one was a Mark Cross), some of the scarves, the gloves (although I never wear gloves until it’s too cold to wear my mother’s unlined ones), her few pieces of real jewelry (one of which I had given her) — and also one red sweater that must have been much too big for her but did fit me, because it had kept a faint trace of the fragrance she favored. All the rest I had to give away to the nursing aides who worked at the assisted-living facility where she spent her last weeks.  What else could I do with it?

A daughter-in-law accepted the box of Revere silverplate.  I don’t think she’s ever used it though.  Maybe it’s too good for every day? The linen and napkin rings I donated to the Vietnam Vets. Neither daughter-in-law wanted the Noritake.  I don’t either; it’s not what I would have chosen if I had to choose a china pattern.  But there it is, taking up space in my kitchen cabinet.  Sometimes I even use it, usually when we have more than two or three other people for dinner — because I myself have no “good” dishes. It’s so clearly not my style that when I do set it on the table, I have to keep myself from explaining that it’s my mother’s. Unfortunately, so far there’s been no breakage; it’s still a complete set.

I’m also working on wearing the Hermes scarves and carrying the Longchamps handbags more often.  Really I am. The Armanis and St. Johns?  Habits of mind are hard to break.  Like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about them tomorrow.

A PLAYFUL POST

Standard

IMG_0417

A propos the speed with which time passes as one gets older (discussed in yesterday’s blog post about Marcia Angell), it seems only yesterday I bought some little-kiddy toys to have in the house for when my children might come visiting from out of town with their brand-new little boys.  Bill also contributed:

IMG_0415

[You can tell we both like red.  You should see our living room!]

Yes, we also had ring stacks, and shape-sorter boxes, and baby books. But the cars are more photogenic, so let them suffice by way of illustration.  We did enjoy a couple of visits.  But mostly the parents (my children) brought their own toys. And then suddenly, the two little toddler boys weren’t toddlers. They wore bigger size clothes, and played with other kinds of toys.

Yes, it was suddenly.  Okay, on the calendar five or six years. But I had barely gotten used to the idea of grandchildren when — before we knew it — they weren’t interested in pushing stylized cars around on the floor anymore.  (Although they did like matchbox cars for a while.)  We gave away the ring stacks and shape-sorter boxes and baby books to neighbors who were expecting.

But I couldn’t give away the two red cars. I mean, it was only yesterday.  So now they sit on my bookcase, waiting. (Not, apparently, for another little toddler.  Both of my children have assured me they are not going to provide anything like that.) One car is next to an ashtray which somehow or other made its way from a hotel in Firenze onto the plane with us.  (Don’t tell, please.)

IMG_0418

The other keeps company with a small leather cup and even smaller leather box from Italy (both also from Firenze, judging by the gold imprint inside the little cup), that my mother acquired with her employee discount at J.W. Robinson’s in the 1960s.

IMG_0420

Is a retired lady lawyer’s bookcase any place for small red toy cars?

Actually, I do know a little boy who likes toy cars. He lives with me.   However, he said I should keep the two red ones in my office, because he already has two of his own.  They’re Deux Chevaux — modeled on a real Deux Chevaux (two-horsepower car) he used to drive when he was a very young man in Switzerland, long before he became a little boy in Princeton. We walked all over Montpellier (France) finding them for him.  Now he has them in his own office at home.

IMG_0421

He also has other wheeled objects to play with in his office.  This one turned up at a street fair in Lisbon:

IMG_0422

And if we cast an eye around, we find other kinds of toys as well:  Kyoshi dolls from Japan, pre-Columbian figures from Guatemala.  [And Freud and Einstein to figure it all out.] The Modigliani you’ll just have to overlook.  I should have removed it before taking the picture, but I suppose you could consider it another sort of toy for boys.

IMG_0423

In fact, when my grandchildren come to visit these days, they make a beeline for the stairs.  “Let’s go play in Bill’s office!” they cry.

IMG_0424No wonder Bill never gets any work done in there!

MARCIA ANGELL ON LIFE IN HER SEVENTIES

Standard

As far as I know, Marcia Angell is no relation of Roger Angell, who recently wrote of life in his nineties for The New Yorker (as I noted last week in this blog).  The identity of last name is simply a happy coincidence — happy for me and maybe you, because both of these people have had something of interest to say to those of us who are getting older.  Marcia Angell is a Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. She is also both a physician and an author, whose principal areas of investigative interest are the pharmaceutical industry and end-of-life issues. Last year, she was seventy-four.

In the May 9, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, she reviewed Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, a book by George E. Vaillant (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press), which summarizes a study of 268 Harvard sophomores  — at that point in time all male — who had been selected from the top of their classes in 1939 through 1944.  Although the original aim of the study was to determine what constitutes the best possible health (which it was assumed that these highly privileged youths would possess), it was later broadened to identify which early characteristics predict a successful life.  Most of the survivors are now in their nineties, which makes the Harvard Grant Study one of the longest and exhaustively documented studies of adult development in existence.

In the course of her review, Angell raised several interesting points, one of which is that the study showed that the marriages of the participants were happier after seventy.  She further agreed with Vailliant (the author) in his belief that “the empty nest is often more of a blessing than a burden.” Then she added an additional speculation of her own, which my own observations support.  (I do believe that, with exceptions, men are less resilient than women, especially as they age.)

A more speculative possibility: it seems to me that old age takes many men almost by surprise: it sneaks up on them, and is all the more disturbing for that.  In contrast, women are all too aware of aging, starting with their first gray hair or wrinkle.  By the time they’re in their fifties, they’re well accustomed to the losses that come with age.  That may make them better able to help and support their husbands as the men find that having been a master of the universe is no protection against old age.

However, it’s her last four paragraphs which led me to save a clipping of her review for almost a year.  Except for her interest in now learning Italian and taking a course in astronomy, I ‘m almost completely on the same page with her. (Our paths diverge only at her last thirteen words.)

Like Vaillant, I am in my seventies, so a book about aging holds special interest for me.  Ultimately, old age is bad news, of course, and I would rather be young.  But like many of the Grant Study men, I find offsetting advantages, one of which is a sharper sense of what is important in life.  Perhaps it is analogous to Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Anyway, I believe I have a clearer sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

My sources of pleasure are different, too, and more varied.  For example, I take great pleasure in beautiful vistas, something I did not when I was young.  Ordinary daily activities, like reading the paper and discussing the news with my husband over breakfast, have taken on an added pleasure beyond the activities themselves, just because of the ritual.  Although I continue to be active professionally, I am less concerned with maintaining a professional presence, and I look forward to learning Italian, taking a course in astronomy, and finally reading War and Peace (I have no interest in cultivating an actual garden).

But even though my microcosm is in pretty good shape, I have become much more pessimistic about the macrocosm — the state of the world.  We face unsustainable population growth, potentially disastrous climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution of the oceans, increasing inequality, both within and across countries, and violent tribalism of all forms, national and religious.  Dealing with these problems will take a lot more than marginal reforms, and I don’t see that coming.  Particularly in the United States, but also in the rest of the world, big money calls the shots, and it is most concerned with the next quarter’s profits.  Although I’ve spent much of my life writing and speaking in opposition to the corrupting influence of money on medicine, I find doing so increasingly pointless because it seems futile.  Worrying about the world my daughters and grandsons will inhabit is what I like least about aging.

Nearly everyone over a certain age observes that time seems to pass much more quickly, and I am no exception. So extreme is the acceleration that I wonder whether it isn’t a result of some physical law, not just a perception.  Maybe it’s akin to Einstein’s discovery that as speed increases, time slows.  Perhaps this is the reverse — as our bodies slow, time speeds up.  In any case, the rush of my days is in stark contrast to the magically endless days of my girlhood.  I also find it hard to remember that I’m no longer young, despite the physical signs, since I’m the same person and in many ways have the same feelings.  It’s particularly disquieting to recall that many people and places I knew no longer exist, except in my memories.  Still, although I dislike the fact that my days are going so quickly, that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run.  Like the men in the Grant Study.

It’s the “that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run” part I can’t agree with.  I don’t find that consoling at all.  It’s rather like telling a hungry person that he’s had plenty of good juicy steaks in his time, and now it’s someone else’s turn.

But then, I was always a sore loser.

NOT JUST A NAME ON A CARD

Standard

When in a feeble effort to throw things out, I go through souvenirs of trips Bill and I have made together since our first one to Lipsi and Turkey in the summer of 2002, I frequently find business cards given to us by people of whom I have only a scrap of recollection and whom we will certainly never meet again. Out they go:  the card of a businessman with whom we chatted for twenty minutes in the Istanbul airport almost twelve years ago.  (He thought digital technology was going to be big.)  The card of a couple met on a train from Lugano to Geneva, who were going on to Paris. (The husband, significantly older than the wife, was the youngest of seven Jewish siblings, the other six of whom had all been exterminated by the Nazis during their occupation of France.)  The card of a youngish man who taught English at the University of Vermont and was staying overnight at a bed and breakfast in Antigua, Guatemala in 2005. (He was moving on the next day to a speck of village on the shores of Lake Atitlan, where he had a cottage and his neighbor in an adjoining cottage for part of the year was Joyce Maynard, who in her youth had had an affair with Salinger.)

But there is a man whose card I would keep, if he had given us one.  We spoke with him over a bottle of Makedonia white wine — he did most of the talking — for only two hours or so one evening in the late summer of 2002. He did offer his email address, and later (by email) his street address and phone numbers. However, we never saw him again, although we subsequently exchanged a couple of emails and he also sent us two books, one by someone else for which he had made several drawings, and the other a book of cartoons he himself had done ten or twelve years before we’d met, because we’d asked to see it.

That man’s name, and the Italian e-mail address he gave us, which may or may not still be his, remain on my computer contact list.  His name, the e-mail address, a street address in Milan, one cellphone and two landline numbers also remain in a leather-bound address book I’ve had since 2002.  Would any of this data lead us to him if we tried to get in touch?  I have no idea.  We don’t try.  (What would we say?) But I don’t throw any of it out either.  We might not recognize him if we were to meet him again, but we feel — I feel — we know him.  He’s a friend.  Because of the two hours, and the book.  Sometimes life is funny like that.  And who knows?

Actually, he was the one who first spoke to us. It was during our initial visit to Lipsi, a very small Greek island in the Dodecanese — a one week exploratory stay that led to four more summers there.  On the fifth day of the week we took a boat tour of five speck-sized surrounding islands. Ten euros per person: what could be bad?  The boat was the Margarita, the islands were Makronissi, Aspronissi, Tiganaki, Marathi and Arki. You could only get out at Marathi and Arki (and we did, but more of that another time); the other three were rocky promontories good for photography and for swimming near (but not too near).  Swimming off the side of small boats was not for us.  We did do a bit of photographing, though.  Bill took one of me (and the arms and legs and back of some of the many Italian tourists crowding the Margarita):

IMG_0407

Me, and parts of Italian tourists. On the Margarita, August 2002.

I took one of a lonely-looking little boy sitting by himself:

IMG_0411

And we both photographed the rocks and the water:

IMG_0412

IMG_0408

But mostly we did what both of us do best:  We talked with any people who spoke a language in which we could function.  On the way back after lunch and siesta on the sand at Marathi, our talk was mainly with one French couple, because neither of us speak Italian or Greek (the languages of perhaps 90% of the other tourists on the Margarita that day), but I can get by in French and Bill speaks it fairly fluently (although, say the French, with a Geneva accent).  And what people who meet far from home tend to talk about, in an effort to make some connection with each other, is where else they or their families have lived or traveled. So it was with the French husband and me.  We cobbled together a conversation about what had brought his parents to France from their native Latvia and what had brought my parents to New York from their native Russia. (The connection was that both his parents and my mother had come from Vilna, now Vilnius — once Russian, then Polish, then Latvian, but the same city through all the changes of nationality.) Then the Margarita reached land, we all disembarked, and we made an appointment to meet the French couple for supper at a waterside taverna the following evening, which would be our last on Lipsi.

The harbor at Lipsi, August 2002.

The harbor at Lipsi, August 2002.

As we stood uncertainly on the dock, not sure whether or not to head back to our not entirely satisfactory room to clean up right away, a man spoke to us, somewhat apologetically, in fluent German-accented English. He had been on the Margarita, he said, and had overheard my conversation with the French husband.  He asked if I still lived in New York.  I explained that I didn’t (those were my Boston years), but had grown up there and knew it very well.  It seemed he had traveled extensively in the Western Hemisphere, had lived in the United States for a while, enjoyed his time there, and liked Americans very much.  He wondered if we could have a drink together after supper.  His wife and son were somewhat tired from the five-island excursion. They had actually done all the swimming offered at all three rocky promontories. (Quite coincidentally, the boy I had inadvertently photographed was his son, who resembled his Italian mother.) So they wouldn’t be joining us, but if we didn’t mind….

Of course we didn’t mind.  And that’s how, later that evening, we got to know at least a little something about a tall, good-looking man from Switzerland who was then about fifty, and who had fallen in love with a woman from Milan, married her, and now lived there himself.

IMG_0367

Caspar,  c.1990 — about twelve years before we met him. [Photo credit: Caspar Frei.]

Caspar was primarily a cartoonist — a political one, for the most part.  He sold his work throughout Europe. (He also knew five languages.)  I can’t recall everything we talked about that evening, although I do know that conversations with Bill and me tend to be one-sided, since we are both professionally very good at asking questions.  So what I mainly remember is that we soon got down to Caspar’s thoughts about the meaning of life, whether it had any purpose, and if so what purpose. And after that, we reached his feelings — of being split between longing for life in Switzerland, where he had been born and spent his childhood and where his mother and family still lived, and his connection to Milan, where his wife — who was a psychotherapist — had family, including a problematic mother for whom she felt responsible, as well as a referral network and clients who depended on her, and where his child was in school and growing up Italian.  When they married, they had initially settled in Milan, he said, because he could work anywhere and she could not. But now he felt torn by competing ties, and saw no resolution….

If Caspar ever sees this account of my memory of that night, I hope he forgives me the details. They may be wrong. It was one evening twelve years ago. But I’m pretty sure I’ve got the thrust of it right.  Life is hard.  Life is painful. Whatever we do, we hurt someone we love.  Whatever we do, we hurt ourselves. And sometimes we can say to strangers what must not be said to those who are not strangers.

He and his wife and son were leaving the next day.  We never saw him again.  (We never saw the French couple again, either.  They stood us up.) He sent his two books though, and for a while we discussed by email our coming to Florence and Milan for a visit the following winter.  But Bill and I were still working — at jobs that didn’t permit spontaneous flights to Italy to check in with new friends. So nothing came of it.  Several years after that, he was in Florida on business and had a day free before his return flight.  Knowing it would likely be impossible, he asked anyway if we could meet him there.  Of course, we couldn’t.  (I also suspect he had far more discretionary money than we did, the kind of money that can make things happen right away, if they must.  But we never discussed anything like that.)

However, I would be leaving you with a very lopsided view of him if I didn’t also disclose some of the contents of the second book he sent us.  I’ve omitted that part of his work which is most bitter and mordant, and also whatever requires knowing German, a knowledge I lack.  (Although I did manage to translate, roughly, what the man on the book cover is writing to his beloved.)  

[As the cover notes  — and you should too — all cartoons that follow are by Caspar Frei.]

IMG_0368

My love, believe me! These words, from deep in my heart…..

Some are cute, or sweet:

IMG_0376

IMG_0378

IMG_0382

IMG_0392

IMG_0391

Some have more bite:

IMG_0370IMG_0371IMG_0380

IMG_0373

IMG_0390

IMG_0379

IMG_0385

And some make a trenchant point:

IMG_0386

IMG_0388

IMG_0384

IMG_0389

IMG_0393

IMG_0394

This is Bill’s favorite:

(Bill's favorite.)

And these are what?  Swiss whimsy?

IMG_0396

IMG_0398

After I thought of doing this piece, I went right to Google — mainly to make sure nothing bad had happened since 2002.  Unfortunately everything I found is in German, including a You Tube five-minute segment of Caspar explaining something or other about illustrating a children’s book.  It was made in 2009, and he looks considerably older than in the 1990 photograph above, or even than I remember him looking in 2002. On the other hand, I did decipher another link that describes him as “Swiss-Italian” and says he now lives both in Switzerland and Milan, so perhaps he has found some closure for at least one aspect of his difficulties now that twelve years have gone by.

But Bill and I don’t really know the man in the You Tube segment.  The one whose name and addresses and telephone numbers I keep is the one who wrote us a note soon after our meeting:

IMG_0399

IMG_0401

I wish we had had more time to talk too, Caspar.  Maybe someday there’ll be a time when we have more time…..

AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN, PART 3

Standard

[…continued from previous two posts…]

Suddenly Sarah had less than a month to get ready.  A tiny island.  That meant beaches.  And a bathing suit.  She had not bought, or worn, a bathing suit since her sons were still coming home for the summer.  She could not face her aging white thighs in a Saks or Neiman mirror and ordered one black “tankini,” whatever that was, from the Lands End catalog.  One, she calculated, should be enough.  She still owned an ancient polka-dot cotton suit she could bring in case the “tankini” didn’t dry overnight.

Jake caught her trying on the tankini in the seclusion of the bedroom. “Whatcha doing, sweetie pie?”  he asked.

“Shoo!” She pushed him gently back out the bedroom door with one hand while clutching a pillow against her lower half with the other.  “Don’t look! It’s supposed to be a surprise!” One of the good things about living alone, she thought as she leaned against the closed door, was that you could do body and wardrobe maintenance in privacy.  Why did Jake always need so much togetherness?  The following week, she hurried to Saks on a lunch hour for tanning spray.  Old thighs looked better brown than white.

Jake inspected Sarah’s suitcases in the basement and pronounced them too big.

“You don’t want to bring too much stuff,” Jake said.

“Nobody’s going to help you get your luggage on and off those Greek boats,” Jake said.

“You need a new bag,” Jake said.

“I’ll come with you,” Jake said.

They went to Luggage World, where she bought a red Victorinex roll-on not much smaller than the ones she already had and not cheap either.  She was pretty sure she could have managed without this purchase.  But Jake, as she was beginning to be aware, enjoyed shopping.  While they were there, he bought two small black leather bags for himself. They were the size of toiletry kits.

“What do you need those for?” asked Sarah.

“Nothing at the moment,” he said.  “I just like bags.  And you never can tell when an extra one will come in handy.”

Odd.  But then Sarah’s mother had been a collector of boxes.  After they got Sarah’s new red Victorinex home, Jake decided he liked it so much he went back to the store by himself the next day and bought a slightly smaller grey one exactly like it.  He also bought two black leather luggage tags.

The two Victorinexes — bigger red and smaller grey — stood against the bedroom wall with their tags on, waiting to be packed.

“They look good side by side together, ” Jake said.

“Just like us,” Jake said.

He hugged her.  Maybe it really would be a honeymoon.

Sarah made packing lists and folded her clothing into neat piles.  She spread towels on the duvet to protect it and opened the two Victorinexes  on the bed — grey on Jake’s side, red on hers.  Jake laid two changes of underwear and socks, two clean shirts, a pair of sandals, three black swim briefs, and an extra pair of jeans on the towel next to the grey Victorinex.

“That’s all you’re taking?  For three weeks?”

“It’s very casual on those islands,” he said. “Besides, we can wash things out.  Or buy stuff.” He added two t-shirts to the clothes on the bed and began zipping smallish hard objects into little black bags, which he zipped into slightly bigger black bags.

I’m not doing laundry on vacation.”  Sarah counted out eleven pairs of panties.  (Who would know if she wore underwear for two days?  Plus she would have a pair on for traveling.)  The panties were full-size cotton briefs. (Sarah didn’t buy bikini panties any more; they cut a line you could see through her clothes in the rear view mirror.) Together with four bras (two black, two white), all those panties made quite a bundle.  And the pear shape of the Victorinex was not as accommodating as a rectangular bag.  Why had they left the packing till the final evening?  Why was he distracting her by rushing back and forth between the second bedroom, which she had given over to him as a study, and the master bedroom?   She needed to concentrate, or she would leave something out.  Correction.  She would have to leave something out.  The red Victorinex wouldn’t close.  Even when she sat on it.

“How many dresses for dinner?” she asked.

“None. You don’t have to dress.”

“And what about a sweater?”

“In Greece?  In August?”

“Just asking.”

“You gotta be kidding.”

“Don’t get nasty.”  She stared at his side of the bed.  He had built a heap of bulging zipped-up black bags and books next to the grey Victorinex.  “What is all that stuff?”

“Things I’ll need.”

“Like what?”

“Like a short-wave.  My camera.  Extra pairs of glasses.  First-aid kit.  Notebooks. Clothesline. Reading material. Other things.”

“What other things?”

“Never mind.  You’ll find out when we get there.  Maybe.”

“You won’t fit it all in.”

“So I’ll bring a second bag.”

At midnight, they brought up some of Sarah’s old luggage from the basement.  At one o’clock, four bags stood fully packed by the front door.  At two, Sarah got out of bed to check that their passports and tickets and insurance papers were all in her handbag.  “Did you bring enough money?” she whispered into his good ear after she had slid back under the duvet. “Mmmmmm,” he said.  She wasn’t sure he’d heard. Hopefully, there would be ATMs on this tiny island they had found.

[End of chapter one.]

**************************

[The island was real.  Its name was Lipsi — Lipsoi or Lipsos, if you want to be Greek about it.  Sometimes I miss it, although it was never really our island.  We were just renters.  Even in the novella, where I was going to call it Mythos, it would turn out not to be Jake and Sarah’s island. They would learn by the end of the novella that the island of their own they had set out to find was the island of two they were making together. And that at their age, they were stuck there — whether they liked it or not — for richer or poorer, till death did them part, and had better make the best of it.  But that’s too dark for a chick lit novella.  And also not so fun to write.

So you’ve reached the end of Jake and Sarah.  However, we may take some day tours of Lipsi, you and I together.  Maybe this spring.  Or summer.  If spring and summer ever come.]