HOW TO WIGGLE OUT OF ARGUMENTS YOU’RE LOSING

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Some have a philosophizing bent.  Not me. I’m pragmatic.  I want to get on with whatever it is, not sit around considering it from one aspect and then another, possibly winding up in either a metaphysical tangle from which it’s impossible to extricate yourself or a shouting match with whoever was going to help you address the problem.

Given this mind set, I never took a straight philosophy course in college.  Perhaps I was also scared off by my first serious boyfriend pronouncing me illogical. Of course, the subtext of his pronouncement had to do with sex — he being all for it right away and me putting up multiple objections to such haste. On departing for a semester at his own remote college, he urged me to acquire a copy of Cohen & Nagel’s Introduction to Logic; it would help me think properly when he returned for Christmas break.  I hated Introduction to Logic from its very first page. Besides, it had nothing to do with sex.  I shut the book and never looked at it again.

However, I did take a great senior course called The Individual and History given by a lanky and charismatic professor named Charles Trinkaus who didn’t know how charming he was.  For him I turned the pages of the Bible and assorted works by, inter alia,  Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, Thomas Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Voltaire, Hegel, Engels, Marx and Freud — before forgetting most of what I had read.

With this sketchy training from boyfriend and professor, plus an unforgettably snotty remark from a first and early husband (but no other philosophic weapons at my command), I nevertheless entered adult life equipped with three magic bullets that fully resolved differences with another person, especially whenever I was feeling cornered — and permitted moving forward on whatever really mattered.  If you too are a pragmatist and find yourself not doing so well in a talk-fest, be my guest.

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1.  Snotty putdown.

(So that other guy should not gloat when you’re stuck.)

“Now that you’ve got the last word, what are you going to do with it?”

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2.  Too wise to nit-pick. 

(You said A; he or she said B; you’re not sure what to say next.)

 “What are we arguing for? As Hegel said, It’s all thesis, antithesis, synthesis anyway.”

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3.  Self-referential deconstructionist.

(My favorite. Justifies everything.  Best employed with Gallic shrug of shoulder and twinkling eye. Also from Hegel, via first serious boyfriend trying to impress me on the beach the summer we met. )

“The world is my idea.”   

How can anyone argue with that?

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SEX IN THE OFFICE

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Anyone who works in a professional capacity — that is, without expectations of a nine-to-five day — probably long ago realized the major part of his or her life was now being spent in an office.  [For those who toil equally long hours at home the temptations to be discussed below will necessarily be different.  The refrigerator? The nap? The laundry? Here I have no experience to share, and can only imagine.]

Especially where it is men and women who are collegially spending these major parts of their lives together, having frequent one-on-one conferences and meetings on this and that early and late, passing each other in the sometimes narrow hallways, occasionally needing to order working suppers sent in — what thoughts, and other nouns, do you suppose might occasionally arise?

Of course, we’ve all heard the friendly advice:  “Don’t mess around in the office.”  [A more gender-specific version of this counsel, inapplicable to half of us: “Don’t stick your pen in the company inkwell.”]  And we all know nothing good can come of whatever we’re contemplating, irrespective of the immediate pleasure. Not in the long run. Or even the short run, if one party seriously misreads the signals coming from the other party.  Nonetheless, to err is human, especially under conditions imposed by the American economy on those who want to put their children at least through college, if not graduate school, and have enough left over to retire before being overtaken by death.

That said, I never did find out much about what went on in the two law firm offices in which I sweated out my last nineteen years of paid employment. By then I was rather too long in the tooth to appeal to any but a highly specialized taste, which did not timely present itself; I therefore acquired no first-hand information to impart to you. As for piggyback hearsay, unless inebriated at firm parties lawyers tend to be discreet. However, the woman who ran the night Word Processing Department was another story. “Oh honey,” she would say at 10 p.m., as you gave her a marked-up brief that had to be ready to file the next morning:  “What I could tell you about lawyers in love!”

If no one was behind me waiting for her services, I could then hear of a dainty Chinese-Australian first-year associate found sitting on a large partner’s lap behind his closed office door after hours (both parties married to others), and about a Supreme Court Chief Justice’s son — also married, and breeding legitimate babies like a rabbit — who could not resist openly pinching secretarial bottoms, and perhaps in a few instances reaching under and up the rear hemlines. (Admittedly, this last hardly qualifies as “love,” but does cross some kind of bright line for seemly office deportment.)

There were also two other male partners, both splendid chaps and wonderful conversationists when not discussing the law, who in the past had traded in their wives (with multiple attached children) to marry the younger, more comely secretaries who were their office wives already. One of them — not having learned anything from experience — later repeated the process with a subsequent secretary who had replaced the new Mrs. Partner as soon as new Mrs. P. got the ring on her finger.  He was then burdened with two monthly alimony payments and two packages of child support. [He also paid for one new wife to go to art school.] Fortunately, he was a lucrative rainmaker, so that his domestic expenses remained manageable.

In that very large firm with the voluble night Word Processing manager were two more partners — both married, although not to each other, and both professed Catholics — who comported themselves with utter propriety even when no one seemed to be looking but were given to leaving warm, bordering on openly affectionate, messages on yellow stickies affixed to each other’s desks, easily  legible if somebody else were to walk in while one or the other of them were away in the bathroom, for instance, or doing a deposition in a conference room.  Once when late at night I was leaving the building, which occupied a square block, I saw them halfway down the steps together in the near dark, under the dim light of a faraway street lamp.  They were face to face and no more than an inch apart, bidding each other goodnight in whispers too soft for me to hear.  But no part of either touched any part of the other.  It must have been exquisite agony.  He later died of prostate cancer and she became visibly distraught at the funeral, more so than any of his other partners.  However, she later went on the state bench and managed to insert herself between another state court judge and his wife, who sat on the federal bench. The two married judges were not Catholic, so their marriage unravelled more easily than had that of the recently deceased male partner.  Apparently the lady partner turned judge who had previously communicated her feelings to her male partner via yellow stickies had not been so Catholic after all. Are you still following me in all this?

Moving right along, some people (although not lawyers, as far as I know) have tried to bring the desired one home as a congenial colleague, in the apparent hope of incorporating more time with her or him into married social life. In the one case I personally know of — because it took place two floors below the apartment  second husband and I occupied while our children were small –this strategy boomeranged big time.  The young and good-looking male neighbor, who worked in public television and had two small children himself, introduced his pretty wife to an extremely attractive young woman with whom he worked and who he thought felt about him the way he felt about her. Was he ever wrong!  The pretty wife and the extremely attractive young woman fell in love, and our young and good-looking male neighbor had to move out.  He later found employment at another public television station in San Diego, and another wife as well, so you could say it all worked out okay, but as you may well imagine, there were many hard feelings along the way.

And now we come to the feature attraction of this piece: my very own story of office temptation.  Let us roll back the years to 1962, when I was 31 — just a year older than the Balzac ideal woman, la femme de trente ans, old enough to know what’s what, still young enough to be desirable. We find me recently divorced from first husband (and therefore theoretically and also actually “dying for it”), looking about as good as I ever would, and writing advertising copy for things women wear in a small ad agency run by two aging brothers, one of whom I never saw in the two and a half years I worked there. There was a “creative” staff of five: senior art director (male), junior art director (male), two copywriters (both female), and a Creative Director (male) who had been an art director but had worked his way up.  He was married; however, the wife and three children were tucked away in Long Island somewhere, a one-hour commute from us. There were also several account executives, a bookkeeping department, and an art department of persons perched on art stools who did layouts and paste-ups and technical stuff for print ads you don’t need to know about. Also an unmarried receptionist/switchboard operator of about twenty-four, slender but with badly colored brassy red hair that was really black, as were her eyebrows (she was of Italian descent), skin that showed the ravages of teen-age acne, flashy taste in clothes and poor diction.

Back to the “creative” staff.  Our offices ran along the side of one hall, together with the office of one account executive.  The senior art director, about my age, was reputed to have been “wild” in his youth.  “Wild” as in sometimes ripping off all his clothes except his BVDs and running around the agency barefoot to let off steam. He didn’t do that any more.  He was married, and a father, and grumpy because this was the Doyle, Dane Bernbach era when the visual ruled in print advertising. We, on the other hand, often ran a lot of copy to go with the photo of the product because the manufacturer wanted it that way, which meant our ads had no chance of winning art director awards.

The junior art director was simpatico, competent and gay. (But in the closet.  We were sort of friends, I sort of guessed, he never said.)

The other copywriter was married, a mother, and with a husband who didn’t earn enough.  She worked a three day week, and on those three days worked through lunch so she could leave at four.  She hardly had time to talk, even in the john.  So I carried the copy load for the big accounts.

The account executive whose office came between the senior art director and the Creative Director had been a secretary who found favor with the client that really kept the agency going. Now she was liaison between that client and the agency.  (It was copy for that client’s account I was principally responsible for.) She was also the sort of person who couldn’t bear seeing you idle for a moment if you could be doing something to improve service for “her” client.  One such afternoon she set me the challenging assignment of finding “fresh” ways to say “Prices slightly higher in the West.”  Go ahead: you try it.  “Prices rise with the Rockies”  was about as good as I could do and, as you can see, it wasn’t very.

Under these lonely and unhappy working conditions, you may well understand that a nice-looking Creative Director — tall, dark, and with a warm, friendly smile just for you each time he passed your doorway — could begin to occupy the thoughts of a 31-year-old copywriter who was “dying for it,” even though he was married.  We sat in many meetings together — Creative Director, senior art director, account executive and me. As the senior art director and the account executive droned on, about ruffles on a blouse, tucks that didn’t photograph well, I would examine the Creative Director’s features — his nose, his mouth, his chin. Suddenly, his eyes met mine and saw desire. For one electric moment, our eyes touched. Then, embarrassed, I looked away.

Too late. The fat was in the fire.  Now there were many mutual looks.  Much stopping in doorways. Little chats about the weather that weren’t about the weather. Unnecessary excuses to check out a piece of copy.  One day, he came into my office dangling a sheer flesh-colored something  from a finger.  It was a probable design reject from a brassiere manufacturer we represented:  a bra without an underwire or any built-in support and no extra appliqués of cloth covering the nipple area. The client thought it wouldn’t sell.

“What do you think?” he asked.  “Can we do anything with this?” I took it from his finger, our hands briefly touching. An hour later, I was in his office with the bra and a piece of paper pulled from my typewriter clearly revealing what was on my mind:  “BARELY THERE:  the bra to feel you’re not wearing a bra in.”  Now his smile was huge.  The next morning, he was back with a line drawing of a lovely odalisque: a reclining woman wearing the bra and apparently nothing else. (The drawing stopped at her hip.) My headline was lettered in below.  He had done it himself, at home, imagining me. Well, that’s what he said.

It was seven years before Woodstock, but “Barely There” sold and sold!  We had a hit!  We also had a dilemma.  Where did “we” go from here?  At the next boring meeting with the account executive and the senior art director about ruffles, tucks, pleats and retouching an unattractive pimple on the model, the Creative Director began with a little anecdote he thought was funny.  (Although what it had to do with ruffles, tucks and pleats he never said.) “A lady comes into a psychoanalyst’s office. Before she can say anything, the psychoanalyst directs her to take off all her clothes and lie down on the couch, whereupon he has sexual intercourse with her.  When he’s done and buttoned up again, he says, ‘Well, that’s the solution.  Now, what’s the problem?'”  The Creative Director then turned to me and asked, “Is that the solution?”

Quel drama!  In a public forum! Did the other two suspect what was going on?  The silence was thunderous. Reluctantly, I answered, “It’s a solution that creates more problems.” For a moment he seemed startled. Then he replied, “That’s a very good answer.”

And on that prudent note, dear readers, my story ends.  Soon the Creative Director was taking extremely long lunches out with the red-haired receptionist/switchboard operator, who tried not to talk about what they were doing during those long lunches but occasionally failed.  As the weather got warmer, and the Creative Director began walking up and down the corridor past my door with his jacket off, I also noticed he had a very big ass, quite out of proportion to the rest of him.  It was an ass that might possibly be acceptable in a husband, because whether you were on top or on the bottom you didn’t have to see it, but certainly not what you would want in a married lover in the office, where you saw him walking up and down the corridors before the two of you went out for the quickies which were all you’d ever get because he was homeward bound every night to his wife and three children.

About a year later, I was let go;  the account executive felt she needed someone “fresh.” This was not an unmitigated tragedy.  I did find another job writing copy, and then I met someone who would become my second husband and the father of my children.  Just to wind this up on an even more positive note, I was walking through JFK several years after that with my six-month-old first-born on my shoulder, having returned from showing him off to my parents in California.  The Creative Director, also in the airport but several groups of other people away, nevertheless spotted me, waved and mouthed a question about the baby:  “Yours?”

I nodded.  He gave me a thumbs up, and we smiled at each other one last time.

BOOSTER DAY AT TGOB: THREE NEW DEBUT NOVELS TO CHECK OUT

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I’m doing PR today for three acquaintances.  Two I’ve met in what we call “real” life, one I’ve encountered only on WordPress.  Nobody paid me. Nobody asked me.  Not one of the three is aware of this post.

But when someone you know ( or “know”) works for years and years — in two cases below, eight years — on the typescript of a novel and it finally becomes a published book, I think that book deserves a shout-out when introduced to the reading public.  Nothing below may appeal to you. But perhaps you know someone with different tastes, and could spread the word.  All are available for pre-order on Amazon. In order of publication date, here they are:

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SINGLED OUT, by Julie Lawford.  Available in paperback on January 28: $13.99; Kindle edition on February 1, $3.99.

Julie is a British marketer who decided four years ago she really wanted to be a writer.  She has worked long and hard to become one, and now she is.  You can read about the process, and her angst along the way, in her blog, A Writer’s Notepad. [She’s also become a blogging buddy, but that’s neither here nor there.]  I haven’t had the opportunity to read any of her book, which she calls “a gritty psychological suspense story set on a singles holiday in Turkey,” except the first sentence.  But a novel that begins:  “He stands over her, fastening his jeans” — come on, ladies, how can that not grab you?

This is the Amazon description of Singled Out (which I bet Julie wrote herself):

Brenda Bouverie has come on a singles holiday to Turkey to escape. Intent on indulgence, she’s looking for sun, sea and distraction from a past she would give anything to change.

But on this singles holiday no one is quite what they seem. First impressions are unreliable and when the sun goes down, danger lies in wait. As someone targets the unwary group of strangers, one guest is alone in sensing the threat. But who would get involved, when getting involved only ever leads to trouble?

The tag for Singled Out is: “There’s something delicious about not being known, don’t you think?”  If you want a read that subverts the sunshine holiday romance, “taking you to a darker place where horrific exploits come to light, past mistakes must be accounted for and there are few happily ever afters” — this may be the winter book for you!

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THE BROMLEY GIRLS, by Martha Mendelsohn. (Texas Tech. Univ. Press)  Paperback, $11.43.  Publication date, April 15.

I met Martha at a monthly prose writing group I attended in Manhattan (commuting from Princeton), from about the end of 2006 until 2009.  The meetings took place mostly in Martha’s apartment on Central Park West. [She makes a mean guacamole. Her husband hid out somewhere while we were there.]  It was at those meetings that I read, and then heard read aloud, the chapters of the first and second drafts of The Bromley Girls — a young adult (“YA”) novel that deals with anti-semitism, anorexia, mean girls, sibling problems, and the burgeoning of young love, as experienced by a fourteen-year old transferring to a new school in Manhattan in 1955.  But it was primarily, even in its early drafts, a smooth and suspenseful story, not just for young girls but also for me (in too many ways still a young girl at heart).

I haven’t seen what happened to The Bromley Girls after I left the group, but it can only have gotten better.  Martha’s a terrific writer, and when it at last left her computer, it was selected for publication by a university press with a YA division. This is how it’s described on Amazon:

It’s 1955 and fourteen-year-old Emily Winter’s promising start at Bromley, a posh, academically challenging Manhattan girls’ school, threatens to turn sour when her new friend Phoebe Barrett joins an anti-Semitic club founded by the popular and snobby Cressida Whitcroft.

But how can Emily stay angry with Phoebe, who shares Emily’s fascination with knights and the Middle Ages, when Phoebe has put herself on a dangerously stringent diet and is sinking into an ever-deeper obsession with losing weight?

In a story about the search for identity and the triumph of friendship over bigotry, Emily discovers a knack for leadership as she copes with Phoebe’s snubs, a newborn brother, a know-it-all classmate addicted to true-love magazines, a whiz kid who thinks he’s James Dean, a fifteen-year-old fencer with an intriguing scar, and a surprise assignment that brings everyone together.  Will the Bromley girls rise above their prejudice? Will Emily and Phoebe be best friends again?

If you’ve got a young daughter or niece or granddaughter who loves to read, The Bromley Girls could be the perfect gift. Confession: I even plan to give it to myself, despite already knowing how it comes out.

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SAFEKEEPING, A NOVEL, by Jessamyn Hope. (Fig Tree Books) $12.18.  Publication date, June 9.

Jess was another member of the guacamole-eating group of writers that met at Martha’s house.  All but one of the other members, although not quite as old as me, were at least within hailing distance of my age. Jess was in her early thirties.  She came from Montreal and had spent time in Israel.  Now she was living very frugally for a year, on savings from a former job in advertising, in order to write the first draft of a novel.  (She already had an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.)  She arrived at our meetings on rollerblades, with a small dog named Golda in a baby-carrier.  [Golda was extremely well-behaved, if given a few baby carrots first.]  Under these circumstances, I read and heard read aloud most of the chapters of that first draft of Safekeeping.

Now it’s eight years later, individual chapters of it have appeared in Ploughshares and Colorado Review, among other publications, and it is being published in its entirety by Fig Tree Books.  The description that follows is, again, from Amazon:

It’s 1994 and Adam, a drug addict from New York City, arrives at a kibbutz in Israel with a medieval sapphire brooch. To make up for a past crime, he needs to get the priceless heirloom to a woman his grandfather loved when he was a Holocaust refugee on the kibbutz fifty years earlier.

There Adam joins other troubled people trying to turn their lives around: Ulya, the ambitious and beautiful Soviet emigree; Farid, the lovelorn Palestinian farmhand; Claudette, the French Canadian Catholic with OCD; Ofir, the Israeli teenager wounded in a bus bombing; and Ziva, the old Zionist Socialist firebrand who founded the kibbutz. By the end of that summer, through their charged relationships with one another, they each get their last chance at redemption.

In the middle of this web glows the magnificent sapphire brooch with its perilous history spanning three continents and seven centuries. With insight and beauty, Safekeeping tackles that most human of questions: how can we expect to find meaning and happiness when we know that nothing lasts?

Jess has her own website where you can find out more about her and her 400 page novel. (And see a photo of her at her desk!)

Happy reading!

LUST, REVISITED

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[By the time you read this, I shall have spent the afternoon just past in Manhattan, attending a cello concert in his other grandmother’s apartment by my now-eight-year-old grandson. (She has a piano for the accompanist; that’s why it takes place there.)  Those of you who’ve been hanging around TGOB for a while, say ten months or so, may recall I did the same thing last year, when he was seven. The concert last year was to commemorate his having finished the pieces in Book One of the Suzuki Method and being able to play them all by heart. Now he has mastered the pieces in Book Two.  Given the amount of money his loving parents have poured into this lengthy learning process, I anticipate at least better finger skills and perhaps more interesting “music.”  Anyway, what are grandmas for, if not to fill seats at Sunday afternoon musicales by their progeny?

Not being one who is able to tap out posts on an i-Phone while riding New Jersey Transit into Penn Station, I thought it might therefore not be inappropriate to keep the blog going tonight by re-running the piece that appeared here last March after his first concert, which was not really about the concert at all.  Nothing much has changed.  Same crappy weather; same black down coat; same handbag and water bottle; same glasses on a chain. (Different book and different scarf, but those are mere details.)  Most important: the same feelings. Now if only the rest of the ride home were unchanged!  Well, we can’t have everything, can we?] 

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LUST

Last Sunday, I went in to New York by train to attend a cello concert given by my seven-year old grandson for his parents, grandparents and a few young friends from school who are also studying an instrument. He had finished Book One of the Suzuki method of instruction, and part of the Suzuki method is the requirement that the student play all of the pieces in the book from memory for an informal gathering of family or friends.The concert was a happy event, carried off with aplomb by its sole performer (who loves applause) — with plenty of tasty refreshments afterwards.

The trip in and out of the city, however, was a less happy event, as it always is, something realtors invariably neglect to mention when you are looking to buy in Princeton. Except for the politicos among us, Princetonians generally try to forget that Princeton is in New Jersey. When someone asked me over the post-concert refreshments if I was from New Jersey, I instinctively answered, “Well, yes, but not really. I live in Princeton.” To which he replied, “Ah yes. That is a separate place.”

The train to New York City from Princeton is the New Jersey Transit Northeast Line. It should come as no surprise to anyone who rides it to hear me call it a third-world train. It is slow, with antiquated cars, and passes through some of the most run-down parts of a state generally acknowledged to be blighted (despite the proud claims of its portly and vindictive governor). When it finally arrives, it pulls into the belly of hideously overcrowded Penn Station, itself located beneath Madison Square Garden in an unpleasant, highly commercial part of the city packed with human bodies pushing every which way against you as you try to fight your way out of the exits.

That said, the Northeast Line does boast a few — very few — newer cars, designed to carry more passengers per car length by being double decker (with one station-level section at each end of each car), and colored blue (in contrast to the dingy turd-brown color of the older cars). So it was my good fortune that the 4:34 to Trenton last Sunday afternoon (passing Secaucus, Newark Airport, Newark Penn Station, Metropark, Linden, Edison, New Brunswick and Princeton Junction on its way) was one of the so-called “new” ones. And it wasn’t even crowded.

In fact, by the time I had phoned Bill to alert him to when I’d be home, reviewed the photos and two videos of the concert on my i-Phone, taken a swig of water from the water bottle I carry in my purse on trips, nodded off for three or four stops, and then pulled myself back into consciousness to check where we were on the itinerary, I found I was due to get off at the next stop and there were just two other people left in the lower level of the car I was sitting in. One of them was across the aisle from me and in the row ahead, so I had only a partial view of his profile from the rear, but something about it attracted my attention.

Was it the line of his jaw? The muscle outlining the side of his mouth? The slightly olive complexion? The contrast between his bookish eyeglasses and the knit cap with a hole in the back that nearly covered his dark brown hair? Except for the knit cap, he strongly resembled — in one-third rear profile — my first serious boyfriend as he had been in 1948 and 1949. But he looked taller. And the hands were larger — more like my first husband’s, only with less pronounced knuckles. They were deftly manipulating photos on a smartphone over which he leaned — with what? Interest? Longing?

The leaning posture showed me the shape of his muscular shoulders, tapered back and narrow waist beneath a short jacket of some thinsulate material that clung. Safe from his view, I further examined with growing interest the lean strong thighs pressing against his narrow jeans. I even noted his footwear: tan laced-up ankle boots collared in dark brown leather. He was what? Twenty-eight? Thirty at most?

You could say I gobbled him up with my eyes. Then I was stripping him naked in my mind and sliding my hands against his skin. Yes, I was aware of who I was and what I looked like (had anyone been looking, but no one was): an eighty-two year old grandma in a black down full length coat, with a wavy grey wool scarf around her neck and glasses hanging on a chain over them, with a book by Louis Begley and a water bottle sticking out of her dark red leather handbag. But I was nevertheless flooded with what had rapidly transformed itself into unabashed and ravenous lust — for a man easily young enough to be my grandson (had I begun reproducing somewhat earlier than I did) and with whom I almost certainly had absolutely nothing in common. And yet, in some other fantasy world where he was blind (and therefore willing) — I might have dropped to my knees between his legs and reached for the zipper, right there on the New Jersey Transit between New Brunswick and Princeton Junction. Not that I’ve ever actually done anything like that in my real life. But the older you get, the freer the thoughts.

Just then he leaped to his feet, snatched up his khaki backpack and moved fast to the stairs leading up to the station-level part of the car. This section had a few fold-up seats lining the sides, where passengers are supposed to park their heavy baggage, strollers, carriages and bikes. Without a second thought as to what I was doing, I too stood and followed him down the aisle and up the stairs, where I sat down again on one side. Against the other, he was re-assembling a large green racing bicycle, his back to me. When he was done, he turned to hold the bike steady just as the train pulled in to Princeton Junction, and then rolled it out towards the door. Full face, he looked somewhat different than I would have thought, but not unattractive. The eyes were dark, the nose was strong, the mouth….(Believe it or not, I’ve run out of affirmative adjectives.) As he passed me, the only other passenger in that part of the car, our eyes met. Just for a moment he saw me. But he didn’t see me. What he saw was of no interest to him, and I hadn’t thought it would be, nor would I have wanted it to be. (Whatever I am, I’m no fool.) I had no time to be embarrassed. He looked away, was out of the car, on his bike and into the cold drizzle, pedaling towards his real life, whatever it was, before I stepped onto the platform.

Young people don’t know this stuff about old people. They feel it all belongs to them, because their bodies are gorgeous (even if they think they aren’t), and their skin is taut, and they move so easily, so quickly, so gracefully. But it doesn’t belong just to them, and they’ll find out, if they live long enough. Some older women may claim I’m wrong, and good riddance, but that’s sour grapes, I think. (What do you suppose hormone replacement therapy is for?) And I bet there isn’t an older man alive who believes desire is only for the young.

I could have just written about the cello concert and kept all the rest of it to myself, but the cello concert was only one part of my Sunday. And if I had to choose between the two parts, I ‘m not sure which I’d pick. It doesn’t matter that the object of my desire will never know, or want to reciprocate. It may be sad that I’m old, but it’s great that I feel.

I’m still alive! And who wouldn’t choose that?

RIGHT UP MY ALLEY: DONALD HALL AT 86

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Just when I realized I’m exactly 83 1/2 today  — it sounds awful to me, too — this book fortuitously arrived.  Donald Hall is a former Poet Laureate, his career in letters capped by a National Medal of Arts awarded by the president.  He doesn’t write poetry any more. He says in his new book: “As I grew older — collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of eighties, colliding into eighty-five — poetry abandoned me.”

Now he writes essays, very slowly — because for him:

[t]he greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting….Revision takes time, a pleasing long process.  Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty. Writing prose, I used to be a bit quicker. Maybe I discovered more things to be persnickety about. Most likely age has slowed down my access to the right word….Really, I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

But at last we have fourteen of these slowly simmered pieces gathered together in a slim little book called Essays After Eighty.  I was about to go out for a walk, the weather having magnanimously permitted such an outing, when it showed up in my mailbox. (Not actually a surprise; I did order it.) I turned right around and went back home to look inside.

In just 134 pages — I said it was slim — you can find Hall’s thoughts on looking out the window, on writing essays after eighty, on the three beards he’s had in his life, on death, on physical malfitness (his own), on garlic, on fame (his own and others), and on the human condition. Yet it’s not sad at all. To give you a taste, let me quote from the end of “Three Beards,” not because I admire beards and grubbiness — don’t imagine for a minute that either are “right up my alley” — but because I find invigorating the resurrection of his will to live to the hilt, in his fashion, after the premature death at 47 of his truly beloved wife, Jane Kenyon. On my half-year birthday today, I really need to read stuff like this:

Jane died at forty-seven after fifteen months of leukemia. I mourned her deeply, I wrote nothing but elegy, I wailed her loss, but — as I excused myself in a poem — “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.”  Among spousal survivors, many cannot bear the thought of another lover.  Some cannot do without. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks of a graveyard as a place to pick up a grieving widow. Thus I found myself in the pleasant company of a young woman who worked for a magazine — a slim, pretty blonde who was funny, sharp, and promiscuous. (We never spoke of love.) I will call her Pearl.  After dinner, we sat in my living room drinking Madeira and talking. I pulled out a cigarette and asked her if she would mind….”I was going crazy,” she said, and pulled out her own. She told me about her father’s suicide. I spoke of Jane’s death. When she left the room to pee, I waited by the bathroom door for her to emerge. I led her unprotesting to the bedroom, and a few moments later, gaily engaged, she said, “I want to put my legs around your head.” (It was perfect iambic pentameter.) When we woke in the morning, we became friends. We drank coffee and smoked. When I spoke again of Jane, Pearl said that perhaps I felt a bit happier this morning.

After seven weeks Pearl ended things. Before I received my dismissal, we lay in the backyard sunning, and she suggested I grow a beard. She had seen book jackets. “You’ll look Mephistophelian,” she said. That’s all I needed. It suited me again to change the way I looked because the world had utterly changed. I mourned Jane all day every day, and acknowledged her death by the third beard and the girlfriends. Some entanglements ended because I was needy, others because of adultery or my gradual physical disability. A California friend and I commuted to visit each other for more than a year. She diminished my beard by trimming it into a goatee, getting me to smooth my cheeks from sideburns to mustache and chin. After dozens of assignations amassing airline mileage, we decided we had had enough. I grew the big beard back.

A dozen years ago I found Linda and love again. We live an hour apart but spend two or three nights a week together.  She is an Old Lady of the Mountain in her bone structure, with pretty dimples. She is tender and as sloppy as I am. She abjures earrings, makeup and dresses; she wears blue jeans and yard-sale shirts. Combs and brushes are for sissies. We watch movies, we read Edith Wharton to each other, and we travel. In 2002 we impulsively flew to London, and later we took many trips for poetry readings without ever combing our hair.

When I turned eighty and rubbed testosterone onto my chest, my beard roared like a lion and lengthened four inches. The hair on my head grew longer and more jumbled, and with Linda’s encouragement I never restrained its fury. As Linda wheelchaired me through airports, and my eighties prolonged, more than ever I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable. Declining more swiftly toward the grave, I make certain that everyone knows — my children know, Linda knows, my undertaker knows — that no posthumous razor may scrape my blue face.

DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN, AT NATALIE’S REQUEST

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The Getting Old Blog

This post was one of the three favorites — both with me and the teeny part of the blogosphere aware that I existed — from the blog with which I timorously entered the world of blogging.  (“Learning to Blog” it was called.)  Lucky you!  Another chance to look at it again (or not), thanks to a lovely lady named Natalie. She asked for a photo of my cat Sasha, about whom I’ve written.  I suggested she might want to go back to this post, which features photos of all the cats Bill and I have ever owned together.  “Oh please re-blog it!” she typed.

Normally, I might not, just because someone asked.  I often feel I re-blog too much as it is.  But in about three weeks, Natalie is going to have her knee replaced, and I bet she’s feeling a little scared. Think of a piece of you being removed for good, and maybe you can imagine what I’m talking…

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MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER: A REBLOG

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[Bill keeps saying he’d like a dog.  A small dog, that could relieve itself on a wee-wee pad and didn’t need much exercise.  One that’s no trouble at all for me. (Notice the “me.”  No mention at all of “him.”)  Maybe an elderly Havanese.  Bill’s never before had a dog — or a desire for a dog. Or any desire to walk a dog. This is something that’s come upon him recently when neither cat responds to his calls to cuddle. Duh. Unlike me, he knew about cats; he had them in both prior marriages.  I was the one who’d led a hitherto mostly cat-deprived life. 

A couple of weeks ago he even got into friendly telephone conversation with a not-too-far-away Havanese breeder who had a six-year-old nearing the end of its reproductive life and needing a good home.  I have assured Bill — and hopefully by extension the breeder — that ours is not that home. We already have litter boxes for the two cats in both bathrooms (one upstairs, one down), and there’s no more room in either for “wee-wee pads.”  Besides, who do you think would be the one running out to the store for these pads, finding a place to stash them until needed, and then disposing of them?  Also the vet predicts our otherwise peaceable cats would not be happy at the introduction of a canine interloper and might express their displeasure with, ah, toilet malfunctions.

It’s not that under other circumstances (such as no cats), I might not like a little dog. But not so very little as a Havanese, cute though it might be. The stationer in town has a darling black cocker spaniel named Sasha (like our cat) who’s sort of what I might have in mind if there were to be an “if.” But it’s not going to happen in this lifetime; I’m 83, Bill’s going to be 87 next week, and there’s a limit to how much menagerie our surviving children may be able to tolerate.

In lieu of a dog, I have therefore suggested to Bill that he revisit the TGOB post from November 2013 in which I reviewed my life as a dog lover.  It will pretty much give him the ups and downs of it. As we grow old, we must make do with literature and lesser forms of reading matter, such as blogs.]

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MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER

One of the pleasures of the ninth decade of my life is Sasha, now a nearly six year-old British Blue shorthair cat. She’s been with us since she was five months old. Although her breeder was thinking of keeping her — she was a nearly perfect kitten by breeding standards — she let us have her because the sibling kitten we had driven fifty miles to see had already been sold. So Sasha was a happy accident. As many happy things are.

She was even more of an accident because I’ve always favored dogs. Fruitlessly, I yearned for a dog in childhood. At last I took matters into my own hands by accepting a puppy from a lady down the street whose cocker spaniel had been erotically careless. I was eleven. Jimmy was brown and white and warm and cuddly. And he didn’t cost a cent!  My parents let me keep him.

Jimmy waited by the front door every afternoon when it was time for me to come home from school, barking joyously at my arrival. He was also noticeably fond of my mother, the food source. And especially fond of her hamburgers and peanut butter cookies. But no one denied he was “my” dog. Wasn’t I the one who’d found him? Then we moved east from Los Angeles, and Jimmy couldn’t come. My best friend took him. I used to think about him sometimes and hope he was having a nice life. There were no more dogs in mine.

Until I had children of my own. (Second husband, if you’re counting.) How could we deny them a dog? Despite living in a somewhat cramped fourth-floor apartment on West 86th Street in New York City, I even envisaged giving them a first-hand experience of the magic of birth. Our dog, when we got her, could have puppies in the second bathroom!

Second husband, who had not been permitted a dog in his own Brooklyn childhood, was willing.

We began with two false starts that cost nothing and produced nothing. First there was Mick Humble (a name somewhat inspired by Mick Jagger but more suitable to a trembly little dog). No magic of birth in the bathroom, but free is free. Poor Mick lay in misery behind the toilet for several days before we realized he wasn’t just frightened but really sick, and needed to be taken back to the ASPCA to be put to sleep.

Next came Bonaparte, a frisky cutie if ever there was one. He was given to us by a grateful neighbor with an unspayed black Lab who — like Jimmy’s mother many years before — had yielded to an unplanned amorous impulse. Little Bonaparte had to be returned because he grew too large too fast; when at fourteen weeks he took to jumping on the children in friendly play, he nearly knocked them down. His father must have been a mastiff.

It finally dawned on us that you get what you pay for. So one sunny Sunday, we all climbed into our aging Volkswagen and headed a couple of hours north of the city, where according to the classifieds — remember them, anyone? — breeders were less grasping in their pricing practices. The trip was productive: we came back with the golden retriever puppy who would grow up with us; see our children through their childhood and my second husband and I through our marriage; and imprint for good on all of us the conviction that a dog is indeed a best friend.

“What shall we call her?” I asked during the car ride home. The two children sat in the back (no car seats, no booster seats in that faraway time ), a puppy the color of golden sand between them. With one voice, they cried out, “Sandy!”

Not being Little Orphan Annie, I aimed higher. “How about a more interesting name?” I inquired seductively. “Think of all the deserts in the world full of sand! Gobi! Mohave! Sahara!”

And now I could tell you about training Sahara to hold it for the street despite the temptations of the elevator floor, and about generously dispensing dollar bills to the elevator man for “accident” cleanup. About my West 86th Street walks with Sahara early and late, and the people I met at the end of her leash. About mopping up behind Sahara on hands and knees during her first period, an experience definitively ending plans for puppies in the second bathroom. About how Sahara covered clothes, children, rugs, furniture and car with her golden hairs, and how we learned not to mind. About the time my older son (aged twelve) saved Sahara’s virginity from another golden retriever, a large and horny male. About how Sahara comforted my younger son when his brother went away to school. About how walking with Sahara by the ocean kept a fraying marriage together after we left New York for a beach town in Massachusetts because living in New York had became too expensive and too difficult.

I could even tell you the sad part, although it would be much harder to write, about when the children grew up and left us. Soon afterwards I too went away, leaving Sahara to grow old in a cold and empty house alone with the children’s father. I still feel guilty about her. We both wanted out. But she wanted only to be with our family. And then there was no more family to be with….