I can’t remember who first sent me this.  Just that it came in an email and made me feel good.  So good, in fact, I played it again twice more before saving it for a rainy day.

It’s a flashmob performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, staged and filmed in the main square of Sabadell, Spain, to look as if it were spontaneous. But you don’t really need to know that. Just think of it as a booster shot of happy.

I ran it here nearly a year ago, when this blog was new and had two dozen viewers. (It got three likes!) So a few of you have seen it. But very few. Now that for most of us the leaves are falling, winter’s chill is in the early morning air, and we’re setting our clocks back this Sunday to conserve what little light seems left in the world — it may be time to run it again. After nearly two hundred years, it’s still a heartwarming infusion of pure joy.





How much money in the bank? I couldn’t say. My friend from college, Marcia A. (now Marcia C.), is renting a safe deposit box solely to preserve for her descendants a typed communication she received from one J. Salinger after she wrote him a sort of fan letter in 1950. She’s in Israel now and therefore the safe-deposit-protected Salinger reply is in Israel too.  But I suppose its location doesn’t really matter unless Hamas makes good on its threat to wipe Israel from the map.  In which case I will be more concerned about Marcia C. than her Salinger letter.

However, assuming this doesn’t happen in our lifetimes, you may want to know Salinger typed his letter to Marcia before he became really famous. Does this lessen its value? Also, does it matter whether he signed it J.D. Salinger, Jerome Salinger, or even (gasp!) Jerry? Quien sabe?  She was nineteen at the time, and he was thirty-three, and nothing ever came of it, except the safe deposit box in Israel. A more pertinent question — at least for purposes of this blog post — is whether a Bernstein autograph in pencil (but authenticated) will bring more from a willing buyer  than a Salinger one.  Lenny or Jerry: Which fella will remain a Wikipedia entry longer? Why should I care? Because, dear reader, the private collection in which the Bernstein pencil autograph reposes is mine.

[Just in case anyone out there is wondering just who this Bernstein guy is, I won’t tell you asked.  Eyeball the following, and you’ll be up to speed. Wikipedia cautions it may have been written from a fan’s point of view, but so what?

:Leonard Bernstein (/ˈbɜrnstaɪn/; August 25, 1918 – October 14, 1990) was an American composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States of America to receive worldwide acclaim. According to music critic Donal Henahan, he was “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.”

His fame derived from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, from his conducting of concerts with most of the world’s leading orchestras, and from his music for West Side Story, Peter PanCandide, Wonderful Town, On the Town and his own Mass.

Bernstein was the first conductor to give numerous television lectures on classical music, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. He was a skilled pianist, often conducting piano concertos from the keyboard.

As a composer he wrote in many styles encompassing symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film and theatre music, choral works, opera, chamber music and pieces for the piano. Many of his works are regularly performed around the world….]

The authentication of the November 1945 Bernstein autograph privately collected by me resides in a contemporaneous diary handwritten by one N. Raginsky.  Not so coincidentally, this diary is also in my private collection. Miss Raginsky bequeathed it to me when she grew up to be me.  (Accordingly, there are no chain of custody questions to impeach the validity of the authentication.)  Several days after obtaining the autograph, she recorded in touching — and possibly excessive — detail the circumstances under which she extracted it from Mr. Bernstein. These may be worth transcribing here, if only as an aid to sleep if they do not sufficiently amuse.

For ten months, Miss Raginsky, who had just turned fourteen, had been deeply in love with dark and handsome Mr. Bernstein, then aged twenty-seven, despite his never having laid eyes on her — ever since finding a long article about him, with accompanying dreamy full page photograph, in the Times Sunday Magazine section.  As she had earlier shamelessly put it on January 27, 1945:

Isn’t it funny that he is twice as old as am. 26:13. When he was my age, I was born. Now he is a man and I am a comparative child and the difference is great. Yet when I am 21, he will be 34 and then the difference [will be] small. I will be a woman, and for a man he will be young still.

This reasoning is getting me nowhere so I will stop it, but I think it is rather obvious what I am driving at so I needn’t put it down in blue and white. [She wrote in blue ink.] This is quite enough on the subject, which even in a diary is a little embarrassing ….

[Miss Raginsky had already several times read with wildly beating heart her mother’s copy of Van de Velde’s “Ideal Marriage” — including its instructions for maidenhead penetration.]

We take up the diary again on November 30, 1945.  Miss Raginsky and her friend from high school, Jeannette H., had purchased second-row orchestra tickets to a 6 p.m. concert conducted by Mr. Bernstein in his capacity as director of the New York City Center Symphony.  (This was before his renowned tenure with the New York Philharmonic.) Miss Raginsky candidly admitted she was there not so much for the music, as to worship. She and her friend had an early supper of leathery liver and pickled beets at a convenient Automat and arrived at the City Center half an hour early:

…We found our seats, dived for the ladies’ room to primp some more (why I don’t know, since it was for his edification and he certainly wasn’t going to notice us from the stage). Then, having connived two programs from the ushers (they are conserving paper; you have to share your programs, so we pretended we didn’t know each other), we snooped around the stage doors so that we’d know where to scurry after the performance. We returned to our seats, regarded the audience with interest, and then looked at all the pretty women musicians who were already assembling with considerable jealousy, and finally settled down as the lights went out.

Oh! he was wonderful! I didn’t hear any of the music except at the end, but I was in ecstasy. He hadn’t lost his habit of dancing around [on the podium] unnecessarily (to put it mildly) and I loved him unashamedly. His coat was still too big, though it was another coat.  [Ed. note:  Miss Raginsky had apparently attended a previous concert at which Mr. Bernstein had worn another suit.]   Still no baton, either. So adorable. I just had to draw a picture to remember him by. I groped for a pencil and my small art class sketchbook in my bag. Fortunately, we sat close enough to the stage for there to be enough light to see what I was doing.

We had made up our minds to go backstage after the performance, and we sat through the second half of the program clutching our coats and pencils. Then we ran. They kept us waiting outside his dressing room door for fifteen minutes, and as a large crowd assembled and noise and smoke emitted from the door we began to get cold feet and butterflies in our stomachs. To our dismay, we realized that everyone waiting to get in with us knew him personally.  His sister came out (someone called her Shirley, so I knew), and then (we were the first in line) the dressing room door opened and we were face to face with a smoky room lined with mirrors.

We clutched each other (me and Jeannette I mean; to think of me clutching Lenny!) and our mouths went dry. That slight hesitation was enough! Swarms of people trampled over us and we were shoved into a corner by the hordes, where we stayed for some time, quivering.  We had a good view, though, and it seemed we were in another world. Everyone was waving hands and screaming “Hello-oo there, Lenny! Remember me? We met at so-and-so.”  Then He would say, “Oh yes. How are you?” The friend would then introduce a long line of relatives, from his wife to his cousin Mary’s grandmother ninth removed. They would all shake hands and a new voice would then greet the Great One.  “Hell-oo-o-o-o! Lenny. I say, do you remember me?”

We couldn’t even get near him at first…. Finally, I worked up enough courage to push my way through, Jeannette just following me in a daze.  I edged up to the One and feebly tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and I almost collapsed. I also realized I had dropped my program that I wanted him to sign. It was on the floor somewhere back there in a corner.  My mind kept racing: Say something, this is your chance, say something. But I couldn’t think of anything. Finally, I dragged out a foolish little statement about us being the only ones who didn’t have business in his room. For the first time he really looked at me and said with an affable wave of the hand, “Why not? You belong here as much as anyone.”  Cheeks hot with love, I pushed my pencil and the art notebook sketch at him.  “Is this me?” he asked.  I nodded, speechless.  “Shall I sign it?” I nodded again.

He signed, and reached for Jeannette’s program.  “Is that all?” I asked, looking at his signature.  He took back the sketch and added, “Sincerely.”  Nodding gratitude, I started to take my pencil away (Jeannette had one of her own) only he kept it. We had a momentary tug of war and our fingers touched. But I didn’t realize they had till it was over.  Then he was patting each of us on the shoulder and moving on to the next group. Half in a coma, we stumbled out.

Miss Raginsky’s account of this momentous event continues for several more breathless and closely handwritten pages. But we’ve got the autograph authentication now, so we need not follow her and her friend into the street.  I will append only her description of Mr. Bernstein’s person at twenty-seven:

He had blue-grey eyes (which I had expected to be brown), black hair, a prominent nose, skin very slightly pock-marked, an olive complexion. His voice was slightly nasal, no Boston accent. He was about two inches taller than I. (I had low heeled shoes on.) He had on an odd bow tie, blue merging into yellow….

Miss Raginsky went on loving Mr. Bernstein passionately for about another half a year, after which she finally realized it was hopeless and broke it off. Despite this rupture, she kept the Bernstein autograph on her drawing as a sentimental momento of her first Great Love. When many years later, I found it among her effects, I had it framed.  I might add she was unsuccessful in persuading her mother to cut a square out of the shoulder of the coat he had touched in his dressing room after the concert, even when she finally outgrew it.  But there’s almost certainly no residual market value in a square of wool tweed dating back to the late 1940’s, especially as the maestro’s fingertips left no impression in the wool. Her failure of persuasion is therefore no great loss to my estate.

The authenticated Bernstein autograph is not at present for sale.  Interested persons may apply to my heirs when I am gone.  What they are going to do with it, God knows. If it’s really big-time bankable by then, I hope they don’t fight over it. When they were small, I used to be able to resolve escalating aggression over cookies by dividing each disputed cookie evenly in half.  Authenticated autograph?  Not so easy.  Maybe they should take a tip from Marcia C., lease a safe deposit box, and wait.  Just not in Israel.



[A follower of this blog who prefers to remain anonymous and therefore never posts comments online sent me an anecdote by email yesterday that she thought might be right up my alley because it takes place in a courtroom.  I haven’t been inside a courtroom (professionally or otherwise) for upwards of nine years.  But she did roll it up the right alley.  Whether it’s the old Pavlov’s dog reflex, or simply the new blogging me always on the qui vive for fresh material, I asked if I could use it, without attribution of course, and she at once replied, “You betcha.”  Rest assured it has no redeeming intellectual value whatsoever.] 


Anglo-American juries may be comprised of twelve people not smart enough to get out of jury duty.  But you can usually count on them not to be bamboozled in the end.

A defendant was on trial for murder. Overwhelming evidence in the record indicated guilt. But there was no corpse!   Suspecting his client would nevertheless be convicted unless he could raise last-minute doubt in the minds of the jurors, counsel for the defense resorted to a trick in his closing statement.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said, as he openly checked his watch. “I have a surprise for you all.  In exactly one minute, the person my client is charged with having murdered will walk into this courtroom.” He spun on his heels and looked directly at the courtroom door. The jurors, stunned expressions on their faces, all turned expectantly to the courtroom door as well.

A minute elapsed. The door remained closed. Defense counsel then turned back to the jurors. “And now, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” he said,  “I have a confession to make.  I lied to you just now. I have no idea where the alleged victim in this case may be. But you all looked eagerly to the door when I promised he would walk through it.  Therefore I put it to you that each and every one of you has a reasonable doubt as to whether anyone was killed in this case, and you must return a verdict of not guilty!”

The jury retired to deliberate. It took them very little time to return.  “And what is your verdict?” inquired the judge.  “Guilty!” pronounced the foreman.

“But how?” stammered counsel for the defense. “You must have had some doubt. I saw all of you stare at the door.”

“Yes, we looked,” the foreman replied.  “But your client didn’t.”




After emerging from stressful and expensive taxis  in New York, Bill and I sometimes calm ourselves at the Heartland Brewery, situated on the Eighth Avenue side of the Port Authority.  [This, of course, is only if the taxis have taken us to the Port Authority, terminal for buses bumping southbound into the belly of New Jersey.  Taxi trips to Penn Station, whence New Jersey trains  flow (or lurch), are openers for quite another kind of post. Contain yourself.]

The Heartland Brewery, darkly panelled to produce an interior of almost stygian gloom, is not quite empty at about two-thirty in the afternoon, but nearly.  It’s an eatery right out of what I recall as the Midwest. (“Heartland,” get it?)  I only passed through the Midwest once, in 1952, when my father drove cross-country in his brand new ’52 Pontiac, loaded with my mother, me and quite a lot of luggage that didn’t have wheels because no luggage had wheels yet. The purpose of his trip was to find a lifetime of happiness for us all under the California sun,  and never mind what kind of food they served along the way. But Heartland certainly does bring back memories of those once-in-a-lifetime mid-America meals in all their caloric glory. Whenever we sit down and open the menu, I’m surprised not to find chicken-fried steak still on offer.

The great thing for us about Heartland, though, is its flexibility.  It is willing to depart from its printed offerings if the kitchen’s not too busy — which apparently it rarely is, at least by the time we get there.  So Bill can have a Swiss cheese sandwich on thickly cut rye toast, with mustard and tomato inside, a heap of crisp french fries alongside, and a cup of ketchup all his own, plus a bonus of two excellent dill pickle spears. Not only is this not on the menu. Its constituent parts are almost all things not usually found in our longevity-seeking, gluten-free, lactose-free (except for goat cheese), deep-fat-fried-free home. But after our taxi traumas, treats are in order — on the understanding that  leftovers don’t get on the bus with us. What leftovers? There never are any.

The first time we were there, Bill had to describe this “novelty” lunch in detail to the waiter. Thereafter, the waiter remembered. How could he not?  A Heartland customer who, peculiarly, wanted something not on the menu? Of course, we had to remember the waiter, too.  Otherwise — with another waiter — it might always be the same story: “Why can’t I? Javier always manages to get it!”

[Just so you know — in case you too want the Swiss on rye — Javier is on the 11 to 4 “lunchtime” shift.  Although I would recommend leaving the sandwich to Bill and having what I had last time: the one non-mid-America thing on the menu. It’s a sashimi-grade tuna burger, done medium rare, served bunless with ginger slaw on top, wasabi sauce in a cup, and a side of spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic instead of the standard fries. Really good.]

The point of all this, however, is not to guide your eating choices but to guide you to Javier.  Just a few questions and a wealth of  information pours out of this man. One wonders how he holds it in when Heartland does get busy. The youngest in a family of Cuban emigres settled in Miami, and the only one of the children born in the United States, he is perfectly bilingual. He speaks his fluent English mainly at work though, since he lives in a mainly Hispanic community in Weehawken.  He also visits Cuba regularly to see relatives left behind, and is entirely comfortable there, too.  Cuban medicine, he declares, is the best in the world, and available without cost to everyone.  Cuba has universal literacy, too.  Javier advises a visit soon (if it can be engineered minus relatives in Cuba) because — he further opines — when Castro goes, American money will move in and ruin it.

But setting aside his travel advice, the really fascinating thing about Javier is his extracurricular life.  He coaches speaking!

“You mean you teach Spanish on the side?  I ask.

No, he doesn’t mean that.  He means “speaking” as in “public speaking.”  Javier is active — a co-chairperson, I think — in his local Toastmasters organization.  The local meets every Thursday, at which time aspiring public speakers stand up and deliver.  Javier coaches the newbies, gets them ready for the mike.

“You must make a pretty good speech yourself,” I say, “if you can coach.”

“Oh, yes,” he exclaims.  “People like me.  I’m personable.”

“And modest,” I add.

“That too,” he agrees.  “You see how easy it is for me to talk to everyone here?”

“We do, we do,” we assure him.

“Of course,” Javier continues, probably missing another bus to Weehawken thanks to our charisma,  “it’s much easier to talk to somebody one on one, the way we’re doing.  Speaking to a group is different.  That’s scary.”

“Even for you?” (I do like to lead people on.)

“Are you kidding?” exclaims Javier.  “I’m petrified every time! You know public speaking is one of the three things people are most afraid of?”

“What are the other two?” asks Bill, who’s pretty much polished off the fries by now and has freed up his mouth for talk.

“Spiders is one of them.”

“And the third?”

“Anything you want to name.”  (Which is a pretty good answer, when you think of it.)

“Like cancer?”  [Trust a medical man, even one retired from practice, to come up with the big C.]

Javier shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “It can’t be a disease or death. Anything else you want to name, though.”

What does he mean, “it can’t be?”  If I want to be afraid of cancer, why can’t cancer be up there with spiders for me?

But I didn’t speak out, so Javier didn’t explain. Instead, he asked:  “Do you want to know what I tell my students when they say they’re too scared to get up there and do it?”

Yes, we both wanted to know.

Javier (with gravity): “Public Speaking doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.”

A light bulb went off in my head.  (Forgive the cartoon visual; it had been a long day and, as you already know, New York taxis are exhausting.)  “That would work for writing, too,” I said.  “Wouldn’t it? I’m always so afraid of the next blank page.”

“She tries to write,” Bill explained.

“It works for everything,” declared Javier.  “Everything in life you’re afraid of doing. Speaking, writing, flying, roller blading.  ‘Whatever It Is doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.'”

Second light bulb:  Blog post!

“Javier, may I take your picture with my i-Phone?”

The next morning there was, understandably, a minor editorial change.  My blog, my prerogative.

 “Writing doesn’t get easier as you write. It just becomes more possible.”

 Gnomic perhaps. But worth the price of two Heartland lunches, don’t you think?  I might even get a tweet out of it.

Thank you so much, Javier.



There are many joys in living with Bill. However, one of the more dubious ones is having to deal with the ravenous hunger he’s developed since turning 80 for books about the meaning of life and other people’s thoughts on death. As he’ll be 87 at the end of January, by now we’ve got entirely too many books like that around the house, just about everywhere except next to my side of the bed.

As you know, I’m deep into an unpaid career as an ostrich about what lies ahead. So I tend to look the other way when Bill urgently presses some new reading matter of this kind on me with an endearing “You just gotta see this!”  Well, why wouldn’t I? They generally have titles like The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead.  In fact, that’s the very book Bill has just thrust into my hands, allegedly for livening up the blog. (He likes to be helpful that way.)

One Day You’ll Be Dead  is by David Shields, who’s a professor in the English Department at the University of Washington and appears in his author photo on the back flap to be relatively young but bald. The front flap explains, “Mesmerized — at times unnerved — by his ninety-seven-year-old father’s nearly superhuman vitality and optimism, David Shields undertakes an investigation of the human physical condition. The result is this exhilarating book: both a personal meditation on mortality and an exploration of flesh-and-blood existence from crib to oblivion — an exploration that paradoxically prompts a renewed and profound appreciation of life.”

Well, I certainly appreciate life. It’s the oblivion business I have trouble with.  I’m with Woody Allen, who’s quoted in the book as having said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I would rather live on in my apartment.”

Mind you, that’s not the part Bill marked for me to read.  (I found it on my own.)  The section he feels good about is on page 186, in a chapter entitled “How to Live Forever (i)”.  I do understand that most of us, remarkably even including me, would not want to live on in excruciating pain, or as a vegetable without cognition or bodily control, thanks to the devastations of Alzheimer’s.  This is for the other kinds of living as long as possible.

Therefore, just in case any of you, even those youngsters under boomer age, might have some proactive interest in hearing the results of Shields’s research on the goal of living as long as possible, I am typing it out here.  That will make Bill happy and get the book out of my office and back onto one of his many shelves. Which will make me happy. I’ve put in the numbers, to make reading easier. Here goes:

If you want to live longer, you should — in addition to the obvious: (1) eating less and (2) losing weight — (3) move to the country, (4) not take work home, (5) do what you enjoy, (6) feel good about yourself, (7) get a pet, (8) learn to relax, (9) live in the moment, (10) laugh, (11) listen to music, (12) sleep 6 to 7 hours a night [that’s all?] (13) be blessed with long-lived parents and (14) grandparents (35% of your longevity is due to genetic factors), (15) be married, (16) hug, (17) hold hands, (18) have sex regularly, (19) have a lot of children, (20) get along with your mother, (21) accept your children, (22) nurture your grandchildren, (23) be well-educated, (24) stimulate your brain [does blogging count?],(25) learn new things, (26) be optimistic, (27) channel your anger in a positive way, (28) not always have to be right, (29) not smoke, (30) use less salt, (31) have chocolate occasionally, (32) eat a Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and poultry, (33) drink green tea and moderate amounts of red wine, (34) exercise, (35) have goals, (36) take risks, (37) confide in a friend, (38) not be afraid to seek psychological counseling, (39) be a volunteer, (40) have a role in the community, (41) attend church, (42) find God.

Father Shields’s scorecard was 38 out of 42. (Son Shields admits his dad has lost his sense of humor as he’s grown older, so I’m not sure how he scores number 10. Maybe that’s one of the four his father didn’t get.)

I don’t do nearly as well as Shields the elder.  I can’t get along with my mother because she’s gone, and was very difficult to be with before that. Church has never been in my life, and I’m not so sure about God, either. It’s hard to nurture my grandchildren, although I’d like to, because they live quite far away and are very busy with their own pursuits. I do like being right, although I no longer fight on the beaches and refuse to surrender. I sleep more than 6 or 7 hours and don’t know whether that’s extra brownie points or points taken away. I used to smoke, but stopped on June 6, 1969, so how do we score that? And the parents/grandparents: how do we define “long-lived?”

But Bill says we’re doing everything right, despite the occasional hamburger, and it doesn’t have to be perfect.  I say it’s not quite a crock of you-know-what because it does point us in the right direction, but take it with a grain of salt.  (Not too many grains, though.)

And now we’re done and can go back to what we were doing before I began.  I hope Bill is pleased.



[Prefatory note #1:  The word “scatalogical” is from the Greek skat-, meaning excrement; akin to Old English scearn, meaning dung; cf., Latin muscerdae, mouse droppings]

[Prefatory note #2:  Quoted passages, possibly offensive to some, were written by James Joyce, not me.]

[Prefatory note #3:  Driven by scientific curiosity as to what it might do to the stats, I thought of captioning this post “Leopold Bloom Takes A Shit,”  but chickened out at the last minute, just before clicking “Publish.”  It might have drawn a bad crowd, with no intellectual interest whatsoever in that towering masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Ulysses.]

Okay, now we can begin.

Extremely diligent readers of this blog may recall my mentioning Bill and I were planning to sign up for an eight-week course on James Joyce’s Ulysses, scheduled to begin in October. In case you don’t recall, I’m telling you now: that’s what we did.  Bill likes the professor, whose lectures we have enjoyed before and who has a jolly laugh, which is why Bill enrolled.

 [Bill also has great skill in making thoughtful comments in class which in no way reveal he hasn’t done the assignments.  I, on the other hand, overly anal since day two of toilet training, am compulsive about turning every page and — in this case — trying to understand what’s on it.]

I had tried to read Ulysses once before, when I was twenty and still a student at an institution of higher learning, where I eventually produced a fifty-page paper about this big and heavy book, relying greatly on the published critical wisdom of Edmund Wilson and others. I have almost no recollection of what I read, or wrote.  In the intervening years, I again tried twice more, on my own, and both times failed, once sinking at section three, the other time a little further along, at section nine. [Both of these sections, I might add, are almost impenetrable to the lay reader.] There are eighteen sections all told, consuming 650 large pages set in very small type, in the latest, approved, Gabler edition.

This time I have armed myself against the reading with James Heffernan’s DVD lectures on Ulysses (previously given to senior honors students at Darmouth), and with a ponderous tome, The Annotated Guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses by Don Gifford, that purports to explain away every geographic, religious, historic, linguistic and mythological complication and complexity in the text — by means of a nearly line-by-line parallel reading which may make things nearly as confusing as plowing on without the annotations.

Why am I taking these heroic measures to meet such a challenge in my dotage?  Because, like Mount Everest, it is there.  And because I am supposed to be a knowledgeable literary type. (Ha!) And because if I don’t get through it this time, I probably never will. But I will be able to say I gave it everything I had.  And if that’s not good enough, I can always fall back on the losing lawyer’s excuse on my deathbed: “You win some, you lose some.”

Yes, I exaggerate; some parts are less hard than others. Some parts are even pleasurable. Or, as the pretty white-haired lady sitting next to me in class mysteriously remarked last time, “delicious.”

Here (for example) is a hard part.  It comes from the mind of one of the three main characters, young Stephen Dedalus, as he walks along the beach on the way back from a job as part-time instructor in a private boys’ school. [It’s from the dreaded section three.] Don’t knock yourself out. And please don’t ask.  I’m putting it in for purely illustrative purposes.

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and sea wrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver. rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane. But he adds: in bodies. Then he was aware of them bodies before of them colored. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure. Go easy. Bald he was and a millionaire, maestro di color che sanno. Limit of the diaphane in.  Why in? Diaphane, adiaphane. If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see.

See what I mean? But after sections one, two and three — which all concern Stephen — we move on to Leopold Bloom, a thirty-eight-year old advertising salesman (married to Molly Bloom, the third major character), whose father was Jewish but converted to Catholicism, yet who is still generally an outsider considered Jewish by the Irishmen he meets at work and throughout the day.  If Stephen is cerebral (an understatement), Bloom, although far from stupid, is definitely a man of the body. We are first introduced to him in section four (after 41 pages of Stephen) with this opening paragraph:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

I like Bloom.  Although I don’t like urine-scented kidneys, I do like  the way his mind works and the language in which Joyce accompanies him throughout his day.  Bloom is keeping me turning the many many pages in each week’s assignment. He is kind, and feeling, and although he has employment and marital difficulties, he enjoys whatever small (usually earthy) pleasures life may bring his way. That includes his time in the outhouse.  (No indoor bathrooms for the lower middle class in Dublin on June 16, 2004.)  I even identify with him there. Although I have baby wipes and real toilet paper and a nicely white-tiled bathroom of my own, I too like to read in the john, like Bloom; and hold back to enhance the eventual release, like Bloom; and don’t at all shy away from subsequent aromas arising from the bowl. (Also like Bloom.) And occasionally think, though not very seriously, about making money from writing, just like Bloom does.

Bloom’s pleasures at stool are the first time in English literature since 1400 — when Chaucer included a tale about how to divide a fart in twelve parts in The Canterbury Tales — that we get plain language about where food goes after we ingest and digest it. And since this is a blog about writing and reading and some of the things I’m doing and thinking about as I get old, here’s a choice (albeit abridged) passage about all that from section four of Ulysses — not only for educational purposes, but also to accompany or perhaps even stimulate the beginning, or end, of your day. Besides, I’m spending so much time with Stephen and Bloom this month and next, I might as well wring a post out of them!

The scene: Bloom, dressed for attendance at a funeral later on, has just finished cooking and eating his breakfast in the kitchen. Pork kidney browned — nearly blackened — in a pan with sizzling butter, bread to dip in the gravy, and tea (with milk). The cat gets the burnt bits.  She’s already had a saucer of milk.

He felt heavy, full: then a gentle loosening of his bowels. He stood up, undoing the waistband of his trousers. The cat mewed to him.

— Miaow! he said in answer. Wait till I’m ready.

….A paper. He liked to read at stool. Hope no ape comes knocking just as I’m.

In the tabledrawer he found an old number of Tidbits. He folded it under his armpit, went to the door and opened it….

He went out through the backdoor into the garden: stood to listen towards the next garden. No sound. Perhaps hanging clothes out to dry. The maid was in the garden. Fine morning….

He kicked open the crazy door of the jakes. Better be careful not to get these trousers dirty for the funeral. He went in, going his head under the low lintel. Leaving the door ajar, amid the stench of mouldy lime wash and stale cobwebs he undid his braces. Before sitting down he peered through a chink up at the next-door windows. The king was in the counting house. Nobody.

Asquat on the cuckstool he folded out his paper, turning its pages over on his bared knees. Something new and easy. No great hurry. Keep it a bit. Our prize titbit: Matcham’s Masterstroke. Written by Mr. Philip Beaufoy, Playgoers Club, London. Payment at the rate of one guinea a column has been made to the writer. Three and a half. Three pounds three. Three pounds, thirteen and six.

Quietly he read, restraining himself, the first column and, yielding but resisting, began the second. Midway, his last resistance yielding, he allowed his bowels to ease themselves quietly as he read, reading still patiently that slight constipation of yesterday quite gone. Hope it’s not too   big bring on piles again. No, just right. So. Ah! Costive. One tabloid of cascara sagrada. Life might be so. It did not move or touch him but it was something quick and neat. Print anything now. Silly season. He read on, seated calm above his own rising smell. Neat certainly. Matcham often thinks of the masterstroke by which he won the laughing witch who now. Begins and ends morally. Hand in hand. Smart. He glanced back through what he had read and, while feeling his water flow quietly, he envied kindly Mr. Beaufoy who had written it and received payment of three pounds, thirteen and six.

Might manage a sketch. By Mr and Mrs L.M. Bloom. Invent a story for some proverb. Which?…….

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the jerky shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.

In the bright light, lightened and cooled in limb, he eyes carefully his black trousers: the ends, the knees, the boughs of the knees. What time is the funeral? Better find out in the paper.

And then — enough dalliance!  On with the day.  As we we should be doing, too.



Nearly one year after beginning to blog, I’ve finally stuck a big toe  — just one — in Twitter. About certain matters, mainly digital, I’m very slow. (I think I’ve mentioned that before, but thought I’d repeat it just in case anyone forgot.) It took half a day for me to master the Twitter button widget. Thank God for Julie Lawford — who knows the ropes, and kindly offered to guide me through the quagmire of hashtags and punctuation when I tweeted helplessly in her direction.

So now, at bottom left, anyone with patience and time to kill can see the most recent sound bites I’ve managed to tweet. But that’s not what this post is about. Besides, there’s not much extra there you won’t find here — certainly not much of substance. 140 characters is practically jail for folks like me who need freedom from word counts.

Will all this toil in Twitter’s vineyards bring more views to TGOB?  Only, I suspect, if I spend far more time than I’m willing to contemplate in building up follows on Twitter.  As the young might tweet: OMG!

However — and this is a big however — on my very first day of following other people’s tweets, I did discover something:  A link to a splendid post that beautifully illustrates the benefits of addressing the blank page or screen bird by bird.  (See Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, four posts back, in “Give Yourself A Short Assignment.”)  Which just goes to show there are rewards in heaven for the various purgatories on earth, such as learning to tweet — in this case, one less post I have to dig out of myself and a lovely read for you.

Although the link was to a piece in Perigee, a WordPress blog maintained by Apogee: Reclaiming the Margins, a literary review interested in issues of diversity and ethnicity, I couldn’t find a reblog button. (Shame on you, Perigee or Apogee.)  So I’ve had to recopy it  (which is not exactly a reblog, but the best I could do). It comes from Issue 3 of Apogee, and was posted on September 22, 2014. I’m thumbs up both on what it says and how delicately it’s put together — rather like a collage (which I understand its author also practices). I do hope readers and writers who stop by at TGOB will enjoy it too:


By Victoria Cho

My elementary school classmates ask, “Are you from China?” “Are you from Japan?” I say no to both. They ask, “So where?” I say, “My parents are from Korea.” They ask where that is. I say, “Close to China and Japan.” They don’t ask any more questions.


My brother and I are sent to a summer camp for Korean Americans in a small Korean town. The other campers are surprised we don’t speak Korean. The teachers give lessons on Korean music and food. My brother and I are bored and play basketball. When we return to Virginia, my parents ask if we picked up any Korean. We shrug and say, “Not really.”


I am a college freshman. I join the Korean American Student Association. We’re planning the first outing of the year, and someone recommends a club. Someone else says, “That place is too white.” I realize the only places I go are full of white people. I realize I’d feel uncomfortable at a place full of Koreans. I drop out of the Association. I make new friends. None of them are Korean American, but a few are not white. It is my first time with not white friends.


In Thailand, locals greet me with, “Konichiwa.” I assume my colorful outfits and short haircut reflect Japanese trends. I almost don’t get a job teaching English because the school principals don’t believe I speak English. I tell one principal, “English is the only language I speak.”  She asks, “But your face?” I get this question everywhere. Vendors and tuk-tuk drivers ask where I’m from. I say “America,” and they ask, “But your face?” I say my parents are Korean, and they nod with satisfaction.


People say “Konichiwa” and “Ni-how” to me on the streets of New York. They are usually non-Asian men and occasionally teenagers or children. My responses range from, “I speak English” to silence to curse words. Sometimes waiters or shop owners in Chinatown or Sunset Park say “Ni-how” when I enter. I speak English, and they switch. The transition is fluid and forgotten.


A guy I am dating says I am the third consecutive Asian woman he has dated. I think of the time one man told me Asian women are known for having small, tight vaginas. I think: everyone I have dated has been Caucasian and male.


A drunk young man on the subway asks where I’m from. I say, “Virginia.” He asks where my parents are from. This is what people ask when they want to know why you look like you do. I reluctantly say, “Korea.” He asks if I speak Korean. I say no, and he wags his finger at me. I stop speaking to him and look annoyed. He apologizes. I think of my guilt that I do not speak Korean the rest of the ride home.


Victoria Cho’s writing has appeared in The Collagist, Quarter After Eight, Word Riot, and Mosaic Art and Literary Journal. She was born in Virginia and now writes, collages, and plays in New York.



Once upon a time, say in September 1978, a little boy moved with his mother, father and older brother from New York City to a small and pretty town on the south shore of Massachusetts called Duxbury.  It was the first place the Pilgrims had come after spending the winter of their arrival in the New World on the Mayflower, the ship with which they had made the voyage.  As soon as the weather warmed up, they sailed across Massachusetts Bay and called the place they landed “Duke’s Borough.”  [I forget which Duke, but you can be sure he was English and Protestant.] John and Priscilla Alden built a house there, now a tourist attraction. The town also has a monument erected to the memory of Miles Standish.

An executive search lady had steered the little boy’s parents to Duxbury because it was equidistant between Boston and Hyannis, on Cape Cod, where she was hoping the little boy’s father would accept a position as CFO for a privately held corporation. According to the little boy’s mother, who tended to be hoity-toity about such things, public schools in Hyannis were unacceptable, and there were no private ones anywhere near, except Catholic parochial schools, which were also unacceptable because the little boy’s parents, and therefore their children, were nominally Jewish.  Also she felt she might die if she couldn’t get to a big city once in a while, preferably one with a reputation for culture and learning, like Boston.

Thus Duxbury it was.  When the little boy’s older brother first heard where they were moving, he asked, “Is there also a Chickenbury and a Turkeybury?”  But he was already beginning to make sardonic comments about many things, even though he was only eleven, so never mind that.  Duxbury was certainly lovely when the family came up one weekend to look at it before making a commitment — all  green trees, and winding roads, and historic New England houses with plaques bearing dates of construction going back as far as, and occasionally even farther than, the late eighteenth century, and steepled white churches of nearly every Protestant denomination dotted here and there on well kept lawns.  There was also one red brick Catholic church, and a yacht club with its own tennis courts and golf course, and a beautiful expanse of golden beach on the Atlantic Ocean reserved for town residents.

They moved in on the first Saturday in September. School began the following Monday. The little boy’s brother was in a higher grade, in a different building, served by a different school bus. So he would be going alone to his new school. In New York, they had walked with friends from their apartment house to their respective schools. The yellow school buses here were new to them. On the first day, the little boy’s mother therefore walked him the half-block down their street to the corner where the lower school bus would pick him up, and waited until he was safely inside.

She was back on the corner at 3:00, when school let out. The  little boy descended the bus steps, happy to see her, and took her hand as they ambled back to the house. “You don’t have to come anymore,” he declared proudly.  “I can do it myself.”  In the kitchen, she poured him a glass of milk to go with the plate of chocolate chip cookies on the table, and sat down opposite to ask how his first day had gone.  Everything was good, he assured her.  Teacher nice, other kids fine. Except for one thing on the bus in the morning. “What thing?” asked his mother. So he told her, which is what he’d been wanting to do all along.


A big kid had got on at the next stop after his and sat down in the empty seat next to him. A very big kid. [As the lower school to which the bus was going only went through fifth grade, the size of this “big kid” must be considered in relation to the size of the little boy, who was about to enter fourth grade. We’re not talking teenagers here.]

The big kid looked the little boy over. “Never saw you before,” he said. “New?” The little boy nodded.  The big kid asked his name and where he lived.  “What kind of name is that?” he wanted to know. “My name,” said the little boy, bravely.

Then the big kid asked which church the little boy went to. The little boy was next to the window or he would have got up and changed his seat, but he couldn’t do that. So he said he didn’t go to any church.  Not even the Catholic one? The little boy shook his head. No.

Right away the big kid demanded, in a not friendly way, “Are you a jew?”

The little boy had already sensed that “jew” might not be a very good thing to be in this new town. Or at least, not on this bus. On the other hand, he also knew one shouldn’t lie.

So after a moment, he said to the big kid, “Which would you rather be?  A jew… or Hitler?

The big kid had to think about that one.  “A jew, I guess,” he said finally.

“Well then,” said the little boy. “You see?”


“Was that a good answer?” he asked his mother that afternoon.

“It was a very good answer,” said his mother, getting up and kissing the top of his curly head as she went to pour more milk.

The big kid never bothered the little boy again. The following weekend, his mother and father took him (and his brother) to Fenway Park in Boston to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox as a present for his ninth birthday.  It was harder for him to decide which team to root for than it had been to decide what to say on the bus.

His mother is still very proud of him.




“Aren’t they beautiful!” says Bill.  “They’re just beginning to turn color.”

The autumn leaves of New England are indeed celebrated for their glorious yellows, oranges and reds during the week or two in early October when they flame into brilliant color before falling to the ground to be swept up, bagged and disappear. (Or else to disintegrate into mulch in heavily forested preserves.) I hear enterprising touring companies in England even organize one-week trips abroad to come look.  (Although in my view that’s a waste of a cross-Atlantic journey.  How long can you look?)

We live three states south of Vermont and New Hampshire, where most of the publicized beauty takes place. So what happens here happens several weeks later.  But Bill’s right. (Even though his enthusiasm for the beauty of it is perhaps a trifle premature.)  It’s beginning.  Now that he’s brought my attention to it, I notice it whenever I step out the door:


It’s also across the way, where our neighbors live, and where it’s even more pronounced:


Should I be glad we”re soon to have a feast for the eyes whenever we raise them upward?  Or is there something melancholy in this last gorgeously defiant display before the fading of the year?

I suppose it depends on where you stand on life’s arc and how steady your footing.  Now that I’m 83 and — yes, let’s be candid — on life’s downward chronological slope, I can’t help feeling somewhat sad when I see all this dying beauty. And also can’t help hoping I’ll still be around to see it (however sad my feelings) when it returns again and again.

So here’s to years and years more autumn leaves!  Bring them on in all their splendor!  I’m ready.

Autumn on McComb Road



IMG_1088I’m not a great fan of “learning to write” stuff for would-be writers.  As fellow blogger Julie Lawford has recently been discussing in her excellent and beautifully written blog “From A Writer’s Notepad,” there’s a huge figurative shopping mall out there, replete with books, courses, workshops, retreats and other sorts of “writerly learning” that can drain your energy and empty your wallet while keeping you from your writing table (or electronic device), if you’re not extremely selective in your choices.

I’ve already expressed myself at length in Julie’s comment section  — possibly at too great length — on the dubious value to the quality of one’s writing in excess consumption of these products. Yes, there is merit in meeting fellow practitioners of what is essentially a solitary endeavor and in getting a feel for the hurdles confronting you in the world of publishing and/or self-publishing. But I stand my ground that the best way to learn how to write is to write…and to read, read, read all your life, both extensively and intensively.

However, there is one book I often turn to when discouraged.  It’s very well known, and I haven’t unearthed anything new in bringing it to your attention.  Its author relies somewhat more on God in her life than I do, but her practical advice is so sound it’s worth looking at again and again when you feel stuck.  She talks about shitty first drafts, about perfectionism, about false starts — and yes, also about character, plot, dialogue, set design. But the chapter I like best of all, the one that really speaks to me, is the one called “Short Assignments.”

Not surprisingly, it’s a short chapter.  However, it would make a very long blog post, so I’m only going to quote some of it.  But it’s such a good tonic for budding novelists, memoirists, belle lettrists and also bloggers who’ve run out of steam that I thought I’d offer up the choicest parts, including the bit for which the book is named, before turning TGOB in a different direction for a while.  Here it is, abridged. From Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird:

The first useful concept is the idea of short assignments. Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of — oh, say — say women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It’s hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up. Then your mental illnesses arrive at the desk like your sickest, most secretive relatives. And they pull up chairs in a semicircle around the computer, and they try to be quiet but you know they are there with their weird coppery breath, leering at you behind your back.

What I do at this point, as the panic mounts and the jungle drums begin beating and I realize that the well has run dry and that my future is behind me and I’m going to have to get a job only I’m completely unemployable, is to stop….[until] I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car — just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard. [Bold italics added.]

So….I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange. I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day…..[H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

….Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.  It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously…. Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.



Those of you who’ve been coming around here for a while will have realized by now there’s a lot of looking back in this blog. It’s certainly not all backward glances yet, thank you. But when one reaches these golden/twilight/over-the-hill [choose one] years I seem to have arrived at despite best efforts to stall, delay, color my hair, and otherwise try to put off the “getting old” for which the blog is named — there seems to be less blogworthy stuff in the day-to-day compared to that rich lode of times gone by with which to fertilize posts and memoirs, and perhaps even interesting pieces of stand-alone writing.

But (you may ask) why do I sometimes write about what I remember in the first person, as if we were having a conversation, only in slightly more “proper” language than I’d probably use if we were just hanging out — and sometimes write about a girl or young woman called Anna or Molly or Sophie?  Some newcomers who have stumbled on the recent set of eight Anna posts and then looked me up have conflated my age with the dates of these stories and quite sensibly concluded in their comments that what I write about Anna is “sharing” or memoir or personal history.

Well, yes and no.  Clearly, Anna (and Molly and Sophie) lived when and where I lived, and had similar parents and similar experiences and feelings.  But when I put all that in the third person I am trying to do something other than tell you what I remember.  Disassociating myself from what I may recall happened to “me” and considering the girl and young woman I was as someone other than me — in other words, putting her in the third person — permits me to write something that’s not really just my personal history, as told to you and you and you, but to paint on a larger canvas and hopefully to suggest something about the times this female person was born into and lived in, the societal expectations for girls and women then in place, the people in her life that she herself would have been unable to understand at the time but who may have had their own problems and concerns and blind spots that would necessarily influence and shape the young woman she would grow up to be.

For example, each of the eight Anna pieces posted just before this one (and the four about Anna posted previously as “from a novella in progress” — as well as the ones not yet written) are intended to comprise part of a narrative of sequentially arranged snapshots of the life of a particular family in mid-twentieth century New York as seen by the only child.  Its tentative title, if it ever gets finished, is “Anna’s Version” — meaning there might have been other ways of telling this story.

The father, for instance, would likely have had an entirely different version of the same events, if he had ever had time to sit down at his Royal typewriter to tell it, including an account of matters about which Anna at the time knew nothing.  The mother’s story would have been a third version (although since she was afraid to learn to type and apparently had no close friends, I’m not sure who she could have told it to). A family therapist — if consulting one was an idea that could ever have crossed the minds of these parents — would undoubtedly have given us a fourth, far more objective, version.

But I hope I have been writing from Anna’s viewpoint with enough implied clues as to what may have made these naturalized parents from another culture the way Anna perceives them, so that it eventually will become a view of what we all do to each other without meaning to — as well as Anna’s story.

Well, enough of that. These possibly overly clinical distinctions may derive from too many years of shrinkage. (Or perhaps too many years of trial lawyering: “Is it your testimony, Ms. ___, that so and so really did this that or the other thing on such and such a date?”)  Now that we’ve cleared up once and for all what I was aiming at (hah!), go ahead and read whatever you find here any way you like.  There’s also plenty of just self-referential me me me rummaging through a basement of memories in these posts to satisfy the most insatiable appetites for “sharing.”

Be my guest.  Enjoy.



Under the Clock, 1946

About six months after the end of the war, the Philadelphia hotel where Anna’s father was working decided to replace him and his ensemble with a pianist, bass player and drummer who played popular music and jazz. This time, however, he’d sensed management might be up to something and was able to jump before he was pushed. When “they” came to give him his pink slip, he informed them he would be leaving in any case.

Anna tried to visualize this scene as her father, the wonderful raconteur, waved his fork in triumph over his plate of Sunday roast beef and mashed potato. Who was the “they” who had come to him with the dreaded piece of pink paper? Surely it had to have been a single person. She imagined a balding bulky man in a dark business suit, with a white handkerchief folded just so in his breast pocket and gleaming gold cuff links at his wrists. Dressed exactly like her father when he went to work, as a matter of fact. Well, her father wasn’t bulky. Although he was getting there. He must have been eating very well in Philadelphia.

“Where are you jumping to?” she asked.

Her mother’s eyes shone with happiness. “He’ll be playing at the Biltmore!” she announced. “Under the clock. Isn’t that wonderful? They’ve put his picture up all over the hotel already.”


“The clock in the cocktail lounge off the lobby,” said her mother, as if she were explaining something to an idiot. “It’s a well-known meeting place. Haven’t you ever heard the expression, ‘Meet you under the clock at the Biltmore’?”

She’s just showing off, thought Anna.   As if she ever met a friend for cocktails in the city!

All the same, the next day she dragged a friend from her Latin class to the Biltmore after school let out. The friend was for moral support. Clutching their strapped books and notebooks against their winter coats, the two tiptoed through the hushed resplendent hotel lobby towards the cocktail lounge. No one stopped them. Anna looked up. Her mother had been right: there was a large clock face suspended from the ceiling.

“We’re not old enough to go in,” whispered her friend.

They didn’t have to. You couldn’t miss the important-looking photograph of her father holding his cello — wearing his best dark suit and gold cufflinks, with a white handkerchief folded just so in his breast pocket. It was to the side of the lounge entrance on a tall stand, above an announcement in beautiful lettering:

Beginning March 1

 the music of

 Michael Shaskolsky

 and his ensemble

 For cocktails and dinner

  “I didn’t know your father was famous.” Her friend was still whispering.

“He’s not so famous,” said Anna as they backed away on the plush carpeting. Her father’s photograph and the announcement were also on the mirrored wall by the elevators in two places. She felt proud, and at the same time ashamed of being proud. After all, it was just an advertisement, wasn’t it? And she herself had had nothing to do with its being there.

My father doesn’t have his picture up all over the place in fancy hotels,” said her friend.

“Your father probably comes home for dinner every night.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

It was too complicated to explain. “Never mind,” said Anna.

They walked out of the hotel and as far as the subway at the corner. “Are you sure you know how to get home to Brooklyn from here?” Anna asked. This friend wasn’t the sharpest tool in the box. But Anna was glad she had asked her to come along. It was very pleasant to be envied, if only for having a father with his picture in a hotel lobby.

[To be continued at a later date….]




Danilov’s Advice, 1945

Her mother’s despondency didn’t lift. Anna dealt with it by spending as little time with her as possible. Every school night she worked in her room for three or four hours on her Latin, English, Algebra and Biology assignments, including the ones for extra credit. On Saturdays she always tried to arrange a visit to one of her new high-school friends from another borough. On Sundays she took long walks all around Kew Gardens and Forest Hills no matter the weather, peering into the windows of other people’s houses and daydreaming of life in another family. Behind the closed door of her room she also made frequent and lengthy entries in her diary, including every detail of her mother’s complaints about her, so there should be some record of them.

Since this will not be read by anyone till I am gone, I can confide from the inner recesses of my soul and hold back nothing. Someday I will be famous, and after I am dead people will want to know all about me. That is my motive for writing in this secret book. It is an account for posterity of what is going on in my life, so that future generations will not have to speculate about missing facts.

It did occur to Anna that those future generations might think her conceited for being so sure they would be interested in her, but she was certain that someone out there in the centuries to come would want to know what she had really been like, and then admire her fortitude and other good qualities. Besides, it made her feel much better when she unburdened herself in pen and ink, and right now that was the most important thing.

One November weekend when her father was home she went with him to buy the Sunday paper. Being unable to keep up with him when she was little, and even the business later with the belt, seemed so long ago and insignificant compared to her present circumstances. Besides, it was no problem at all to keep up with him without getting out of breath now she was fourteen; they could even have a conversation while they were walking. She told him she was having a lot of trouble with her mother. Nothing she did was ever right. She didn’t know any more what would please her.

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she wished them back again. Suppose her father didn’t believe her? After all, her mother always cheered up when he was there. Surprisingly, he nodded thoughtfully.

“Did you ever hear of the Danilovs?” he asked.

“Only the name,” said Anna. “Mother used to mention the wife sometimes. Wasn’t she a famous opera singer in Russia?”

“Yes, she was. And he was a famous orchestra conductor. They were here in New York for a series of concerts in 1914 when war broke out so they couldn’t get home again. And after the revolution, naturally they didn’t want to.   He — Danilov — was about my father’s age. A fine musician and a real man of the world. Very helpful to me when I was young and just off the boat.”

“I never met them,” said Anna, wondering what these Danilovs had to do with her mother troubles.

“Of course not,” said her father. “They moved to L.A. just after you were born. But before that, I always felt I could go to him when I needed advice.”


“And,” said Anna’s father, “after I had been married to your mother for about six months, I realized I was tired of her. I was only twenty-four and she was already very boring. I wanted a divorce. So I went to Danilov to ask what to do. You know what he said?”

Anna shook her head, even though she had already learned in English class that the type of question her father had just asked was rhetorical and therefore required no answer.

“He said, ‘So what if you’re bored? You get divorced, you’ll find another woman, and in six months you’ll be bored with that one too. This one is young and pretty. Why go through the trouble to change? They’re all the same. Manage with what you’ve got.'”

They had reached the front door of their apartment house. For a moment Anna was flooded with pleasure to learn that her father found her mother boring. Then she wondered what lesson she was supposed to draw from this confidence. Manage with the mother she had? That’s what she was already doing!

“Don’t tell your mother,” said her father as he felt for the keys in his coat pocket. “It’ll be our secret.”

It wasn’t until years later, when she was seeing her first shrink, that Anna began to wonder why her father had been so ready to share advice from a so-called man of the world with his fourteen-year old daughter about wanting to leave her mother. Did he think he was comforting her? He had even seemed in a particularly good mood for the rest of that day.

Then, having leveled the playing field as best he could, he went back to Philadelphia and Anna went back to managing.



Managing, 1945

When Anna’s father had to take a job in Philadelphia, Anna’s mother said they would just have to manage. But she didn’t manage. Especially not after Anna began attending a selective high school for girls in Manhattan. Anna now had to leave the apartment at 7:30 in the morning to get to school by roll call at 8:30, and was almost never back before 5:30. She was in the Latin Club, the Drama Club and the Debating Club, all of which met once a week after school. Her class had elected her Class Representative to the Student Council, and she had also become a reporter for the school newspaper. She felt busy and important and excited about being in this interesting new school.

Her mother was not equally excited for her. Anna would often open the front door when she finally got home only to find her mother sunk in an upholstered armchair in the very clean living room still in her housecoat, apron and slippers, no lipstick on and hair not yet combed although it was almost dark out. Without Anna having noticed how or when it had happened, her mother had gradually slipped into a state of sour unhappiness.

What had become of the mother Anna loved so much? This one complained Anna didn’t keep her room neat, her bureau drawers were sloppy, all she did was read, read, read. This one scolded that Anna didn’t stand straight: Didn’t she realize what she looked like when she slumped? This one found everything wrong. Anna didn’t even try not to wear her glasses all the time. (Her eyes were her best feature — why was she hiding them?) Anna had no nice friends. (Peggy downstairs was a “shtunk.”) Anna should have gone to Forest Hills High like the other girls in her eighth-grade class, where she wouldn’t be wandering around downtown until suppertime. And where there were boys.

It was so unfair. She wasn’t fourteen yet. Did getting her period make everything different? Was she suddenly supposed to become another sort of girl? Or was it because of what her father, on one of his alternate weekends at home, had called “the change?”  Apparently “the change” had come early to her mother. Also her father’s absence in Philadelphia was in its second year, which meant that her mother had been having much less to do around the house for a long time. All his laundry was done at the hotel; the bathroom was much less untidy; her mother didn’t have to prepare meat and potatoes every night. She should get a job, thought Anna. Quite a few mothers had jobs. If she had a job, she wouldn’t always be picking on every single thing Anna did.

“Who would hire me?” said her mother.

“You could be a secretary.”

Her mother shook her head bitterly. “I can’t type.”

“You could take a course. You could learn.”

“I can’t spell right in English.”

Anna sighed. “You told me once you were good at mathematics in school. You don’t need spelling for that. You could be a bookkeeper.”

“I was working in bookkeeping in a big department store when Daddy married me,” said her mother. “But he made me stop. He said it wasn’t right for a man’s wife to work.”

“That was a long time ago. Maybe he’s changed.”

“Bookkeeping is what’s changed. I wouldn’t know how to do it any more.”

Anna didn’t know how to answer that one. She wasn’t sure if bookkeeping had changed or not.

“I’m useless now,” her mother said flatly. “And worn out. Just worn out.” She bent over in the chair; Anna could hardly make out what she was saying. She thought she heard, “What’s going to happen to you when I’m dead?”

“What do you mean?” she cried, frightened.

Her mother rocked back and forth, still bent over. “I sacrificed my life for you when you were a baby.” Her voice was shaking. “And now look at you.” She began to cry. “I wish I’d never been born.” After a moment, she added, “I wish you’d never been born!”

Anna turned away, so her mother shouldn’t see her face if she sat up. The parquet pattern of the wood floor blurred, but she managed to get to her own little room and sit down at her maple desk. A few tears escaped the back of her hand and fell on her desk blotter. She looked at the small wet spots with satisfaction, wishing someone could have seen how brave she had been when her mother said that horrible thing to her.

Then she promised herself that when she had children, she was absolutely never going to blurt out something on the spur of the moment that maybe she didn’t really mean without thinking first about how the children would feel.



Belt, 1943

Once school began again in the fall Anna didn’t see her father much except on Sundays, when he didn’t go to work. She would be on her way to P.S. 99 before he was up in the morning. By the time she came home in the late afternoon he had usually already left with his cello for the subway trip to whichever downtown hotel he was playing at. And because he had to be there from the beginning of the cocktail hour until they stopped serving dinner, he wouldn’t get back again until eleven or so, by which time Anna was in bed if there was school the next day.

Sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights she did still happen to be up that late, listening to records in the living room or talking with her mother about the movie they had just come back from seeing. But once they heard the sound of his key in the lock, her mother would jump up and say, “There’s your father. He’ll be very tired. You better go to your room.”   Anna always went. If her time alone with her mother was over, why stick around? From behind her closed door at the end of the corridor she could hear their two voices at the other end, speaking a mixture of Russian and English. Although she had come to understand a few household Russian expressions, she could never quite make out what they were saying. After a while she stopped trying.

Then one afternoon during her last semester of grade school, she dropped her schoolbooks on the hall table, hung her coat up in the hall closet, and found her father home, apparently not in a good mood. He was standing with her mother in their bedroom and he wasn’t wearing one of the dark suits he reserved for going to work. Her mother gestured and put her finger to her lips — meaning, Anna supposed, that she should go quietly away and leave them alone. But Anna was not in such a good mood herself. She had got B+ on her most recent composition for English, unfairly she thought, and wanted to complain about Mrs. Seabury, her eighth grade teacher, who had refused to raise it despite Anna’s best efforts at persuasion. She planted herself in the doorway.  “What’s going on?” she asked. “Why is Daddy home?”

She spoke to her mother, but it was her father who answered. “Anna, I want to talk to your mother alone.”

“Why?” asked Anna. “What’s so secret?”

“Anna, do as I say.”

“I want to hear.”

“This doesn’t concern you.” He sounded very stern.

“Why not? I live here too.”

Anna had never confronted her father before. Was she moving into a danger zone? She could feel her heart beating faster.

“Anna!” Her mother had her hand on her chest. She looked alarmed.

“When your father tells you to go, you go,” said her father.

“And if I don’t?”

Her father looked as if he didn’t know what to say next. “I’m your father!” he sputtered.


“Anna,” her mother pleaded. But Anna didn’t care about pleasing her mother just then.

“Who says you’re the boss?” she demanded.

Her father was breathing hard. Suddenly he unbuckled his belt and wrapped one end around one hand. “Lay down on the bed and pull up your dress,” he commanded.

Anna stared. Was this really happening? Neither of her parents had ever even spanked her before. Beating with belts was from stories about poor unloved little children growing up on farms in Europe in the last century. Besides, she wasn’t a little child anymore. She was twelve! She was nearly as tall as he was!

She tore the belt from her father’s hand and threw it on the double bed. Then she turned and ran to her own room, slamming the door behind her. No steps came after her in the hall. The apartment was very quiet. It was probably safe to hurl herself on her own bed and stare, enraged, at the ceiling. How dare he? Pull up her dress? Whip her? With a belt? She was never going to forgive him!

After a while her mother tiptoed into her room and sat next to her on the bedspread. “Anna,” she said. “He didn’t mean it. He really didn’t. He’s so sorry.”

“Then why didn’t he come tell me himself?”

“It’s hard for him to apologize. Men aren’t like us. They have pride.”

“I have pride, too.”

Her mother sighed.

“Did he at least say he was sorry to you?” asked Anna.

“No, but I can tell. He’s upset.”

He’s upset? You think I’m not upset?”

“You have to understand, Anna,” said her mother. “You’re a big girl now. He just lost his job. The hotel is economizing. Live cocktail and dinner music can be cut. So they cut it. And now we won’t have money coming in any more.”

Anna sat up. Her mother had a serious expression on her face. So it was true. Anna tried to imagine what life would be like if her parents couldn’t pay the rent or buy food. “Where will we live?” she asked. “Will the landlord put us out on the street?” Why did this have to happen to her now?

“Well, he will try to find something else,” said Anna’s mother. “They did give him two weeks salary when they let him go.”

“Can he find something in two weeks?”

“We hope so. He’s certainly going to try.” Anna’s mother stroked her hair. She hadn’t done that for a while. “But he’s very worried. So it wasn’t a good time to make him angry.”

“How was I supposed to know he was worried if no one ever tells me anything?”

“We don’t want you to have to think about our problems,” said Anna’s mother. “You’re still a child.”

“You just said I was a big girl.”

Her mother ignored this remark. “But even if he was angry,” she said, “he would never actually hurt you. You’re his daughter, a member of his family. Believe me, that man couldn’t hurt a fly.”

“I still think he should have come to tell me he was sorry,” said Anna.

Anna’s father did find another job during the next two weeks, although not in New York. What he was offered was in Philadelphia. But it paid extremely well, said Anna’s mother, and might also lead to profitable side engagements playing at society parties and weddings, so they would be able to save money for the next rainy day. Unfortunately, he would be living at the Philadelphia hotel and coming home only every other weekend.   Well, they would just have to manage, said her mother.

It was a big load off Anna’s mind to learn they would not be put out on the street. She also hoped that once her father had nothing more to worry about, he would tell her he was sorry about the belt. But he didn’t. He went off to Philadelphia without a word about it. He must have forgot.