NOW FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE DIFFERENT: THE VIEW FROM OUR BED LAST NIGHT

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There is no deep hidden meaning in this post, or even a shallow surface meaning.  Think of it as penance, or atonement, for past failures to provide photos with my posts, which — I realize — a good blogger should always do.

Thing is, I’m no good at hunting up Creative Commons pictures that might be relevant, or even attractively irrelevant, to what I usually write about.  And I don’t generally run around taking pictures of this and that anymore.  (Our breakfasts? The cleaning ladies?  My hairdresser?)

However, I do feel I can always fall back on the four-pawed members of the household when the need arises.  Since I’m pretty sure I haven’t done any such falling back since the end of 2014, perhaps you’ll cut me some slack here and let me show you the five relatively okay shots I got last night of S & S.  That should be sufficient penance for at least four entirely verbal posts already run. Then, starting tomorrow or the next day,  I can babble on shamelessly photo-less for a while.  Thank you.

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Left to right: Sophie, who cannot jump high and therefore needs orange stool to mount her scratching post; orange stool for Sophie’s use; humidifier on top of air purifier (both for us, not the cats, although I suppose they benefit, too); electric heater (only used for daytime naps) on top of second orange stool (which is there for symmetry and because Bill likes lots of orange, not because Sasha needs it); Sasha, trustingly offering us her rear; she can jump, which explains why heater is on “her” stool. Blocking the view: footboard of fake Victorian bed I thought romantic when I bought it twenty years ago in my sixties. What was I thinking of? Hanging on to the headboard bedposts?

Another view.  Despite the bright light, this is really midnight, chez nous.

Another view. Despite the bright light, this is really midnight, chez nous.

SASHA'S CLOSEUP.  She's really the family beauty, but she just wasn't cooperating.  "Let's sleep already," she was saying, in body language.

SASHA’S CLOSEUP. She’s the acknowledged family beauty, but she just wasn’t cooperating last night. “Let’s sleep already,” she was saying, in body language.

SOPHIE's CLOSE-UP.  Sometimes she looks good, sometimes not so good.  This is sort of in the middle, but what can you do at midnight?

SOPHIE’S CLOSEUP. Sometimes she looks good, sometimes not so good. This is sort of in the middle, but what can you do at midnight?

ONE LAST VIEW, because I hated to turn out the light.  You don't think they get up on their posts every night to pose for pictures so nicely.  If you do, you never lived with a cat.  It's their cat-ness that makes them so lovable.

ONE LAST SHOT, because I hated to turn out the light. You don’t think they get up on their matching posts every night to pose for pictures so nicely?

Then Bill called out from the part of the bed I haven’t shown you, “Let’s sleep already.”  (We’ve learned so much from these cats.) So that was that.

Lights out, nighty-night.  Don’t let the bedbugs bite. (As they said in the seventeenth century when mattresses  — you should have been so lucky as to have one then — were stuffed with straw.)

Now one or both cats will jump from their expensive perches — we’ll hear them — and run downstairs to frolic freely in the dark, disarranging the upstairs hall rug as they go. What they do down  there I cannot tell. I don’t go snooping.  Cats deserve some me-time, too.

I SAID I WOULDN’T AND NOW LOOK!

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Those of you who recall “Some Thoughts (If You Can Call Them That) About Sex,” three posts back, may also remember I made reference near the end of that post to an email correspondence I had had with another blogger. The correspondence contemplated the composition of “elderly erotic stories” about persons of at least sixty by a “woman writer” and a “man writer.” It was an idea that soon went nowhere. But when the other blogger got back from a brief vacation in Mexico and learned of the post, he inquired, by email, whether I had identified him as the “man writer.”

I assured him I had not and would not, because his blog is much classier than mine.  (He thinks about ethics and how we should live; you know what I think about.)  I therefore assumed he wouldn’t want any of my readers rushing over from my blog to his for more sex only to get a load of Snowden instead. (Edward Snowden, and courage, was a recent topic of his).

But now he himself has pulled away the “Anon.” with which I had thoughtfully veiled him by acknowledging his part in this email correspondence.  In a post of his own.  With a link to mine.

How can I thank this very ethical man?  Why by linking right back, of course.  Don’t be afraid to click this responsive link.  Although he’s still ethical as all get out — in his blog, anyway — this newest post in which he identifies me is about his vacation in Mexico and meeting a financial adviser named Greg in the pool.  Yes, there’s a lesson at the end  — “Each one teach one” — before he gets to the sex part (where I come in) and then the words of Socrates in Plato’s Republic.  But it’s not hard to read.  And I’d really love for you to see my name, and the name of my post, on Montaigbakhtinian.  It’s sort of like finding your name on the honor roll in grade school.  And to think: I got there with sex!

(Thank you again, William Eaton. You’re a sweetheart, if it’s not too unethical to say so.)

A FEW ODD FACTS ABOUT GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ME

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People who read each other’s blogs sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know each other pretty well.  But blogs are deceiving.  What a blogger omits gets left out of the picture. Here, for instance, are a few oddments you may not have thought of in connection with the author of TGOB.

1.  Geoffrey Chaucer was master of the English language circa 1400. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with me, read on.)

2.  English 715 years ago (aka “Middle” English) wasn’t exactly a foreign language, but some — including me — might call it close to one.

3.  “Middle” English pronunciation was also something else.  It was spoken just before what linguists call “the great vowel shift”  — an oddity occurring with all English speakers in the early 15th century (don’t ask me why) that moved our vowels a notch further forward in our mouths from the point where Europeans sound out the same vowels.  Example:  the color that you get by mixing blue and yellow used to be pronounced “grain” (and spelled “grene”); after the shift, it began being pronounced “green” and still is, except perhaps in Ireland. (In fact, Middle English does have a faint Irish lilt.)

4. Why am I telling you this?

  • First, to take a break from sex, love and death, which I seem to have been writing about quite a bit lately.
  • And second, because starting tomorrow I’m taking a six-week course in Chaucer designed for retired Princetonians.  (Or non-retired ones who have their days free to do as they please.) Just Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  And just the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  It’s being given by a renowned Professor Emeritus from Princeton University named John Fleming who has no idea I’m blogging about him and his short course.

So many people have signed up for Professor Fleming’s course that it’s being held in the former courtroom of Princeton Boro. (That is, it was a courtroom before the Boro merged with Princeton Township to become just plain Princeton. But you don’t need to know all that local political history to understand this Chaucer thing must be a very popular subject here in Princeton to fill a courtroom, however small by courtroom standards.)

5.  The subject seems to have been so popular there had to be a lottery for seats, and I won one of them!

6.  In 1954 I took a course in Chaucer and everything he wrote, including The Canterbury Tales. I was in graduate school  at USC. (Southern California, not South Carolina.)  I still have the textbook and my notes for the exam but can’t read the notes or any of my marginal commentary anymore.  So I bought the currently recommended text and will bring both to class, like the goody-goody I used to be.

7.  My having had a course in Chaucer sixty-one years ago does give me a leg up on the pronunciation, believe it or not.  I checked myself against an online spoken version of the first twenty-six lines of the Prologue, and I wasn’t bad at it.  I missed the beat fairly often but got most of those retrograde vowels right.  Here it is, if you’d like to try yourself:  http://www.nativlang.com/middle-english/middle-english-canterbury-tales.php

8.  Or, if you’d rather not bother with all those vowels, this is what the beginning looks like:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote |
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, |
And bathed every veyne in swich licour |
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; |
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth |
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth |
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne |
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, |
And smale foweles maken melodye, |
That slepen al the nyght with open ye |
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, |
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, |
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; |
And specially from every shires ende |
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, |
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, |
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. |
Bifil that in that seson on a day, |
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay |
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage |
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, |
At nyght was come into that hostelrye |
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, |
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle |
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, |
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde,
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

9.  What saddens me is that I can’t remember the name or face of the Chaucer professor back in 1954.  I liked him quite a bit, perhaps because he admired a proto-feminist paper I wrote about Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, centered on her declaration that she was her own woman. And now he’s gone, gone with the wind — blown clear out of my mind, both the look of him and any way of identifying him.  I didn’t even write his name in the textbook, perhaps because I thought I might sell it again afterwards, although how I could have sold it with all those handwritten illegible notes in it I can’t imagine. I think his last name began with a W, but I’m not sure.

10.  And if all this messing about in the faraway past sounds too odd for you, think of it this way:  Maybe after our seemingly endless freezing winter of Northeastern discontent, I just can’t wait for those soote (sweet) shoures (showers) of Aprille and those smale foweles (birds) to maken melodye.  Reading about it in Chaucer, even in Middle English, speeds it up.  By the time the course is over, the shoures and foweles will really be here.

CAN A REALLY GREAT WRITER MAKE IT ON WORDPRESS?

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[Last fall I registered for an adult education course that failed to attract a sufficient number of registrants and was therefore withdrawn.  It was about “The Long Short Story.”  I had already bought the books containing the six stories to be discussed, and don’t easily give in while there’s still hope. So I put up a post in which I offered to host a reading program with the professor’s curriculum if I had three takers — a foolhardy idea, as hardly anyone in Princeton knows I blog.  But there was one brave soul, in a town just to the north, who raised her virtual hand.  We’ll call her G.  

And so G. and I, in an extremely leisurely way, began.  We decided to meet every other Thursday at 2 p.m. (except for December, because G. has a large extended family for whom holiday preparations are time-consuming).  We eliminated Faulkner and Conrad from the professor’s list and added a few authors of our own. We alternate houses and make tea. (G. is English.)  Occasionally, instead of reading a new story, we watch a DVD movie version of a story we’ve just read, and then talk about what changes were necessary to show the story visually without too many voice-overs and what was lost in translation from print to screen.

But because it’s only two very good long stories a month (one, if it’s a movie month), there’s time to read carefully and read again.  G. is more thorough than I am in the line-by-line stuff. (She comes from a career in science.) I focus on structure, what is suggested by what is said, and what is not said because it’s not necessary to say it. We tell each other we’re learning how to write better memoir, and perhaps we are.  We certainly have a pretty good time, even though we hardly knew each other before this literary adventure.  Because we’re women, sometimes the conversation wanders off point. But we were professional women, so it doesn’t wander too far.  No reminiscences of childbirth yet, or anything like that, although given time we might get there.

So far, we’ve read Chekhov’s “Lady With A Dog,” Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” Mann’s “Tonio Kruger,” Carlos Fuentes’ “The Prisoner of Las Lomas” and Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” (which deserves a post from me all to itself).  Next up are stories by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, and after that we’ll see.  But last Thursday, in addition to a celebrated long short story we added a very short one by the same author. In the end, we spent as much time talking about the very short one as the famous long one and decided it was a perfect  little story. 

“How do you think it would do if I posted it?” I asked.  “There are blog posts just as long.  Blog posts which are short stories by aspiring authors. And it would certainly be a change from what I’ve been blogging about recently.”  (At this G. rolled her eyes roguishly.)  “What if I left off the famous author’s name till the end and sent it out on its own?”

The very short story is about a young protagonist living with his uncle and aunt in a deeply Catholic provincial city around 1900 who meets with defeat and despair so palpable you may feel it too.That’s probably all I should say up front, although feel free to ask questions or comment afterwards.  I cannot advise what clicking “like” might mean in this context.  It could be that you “liked” the story, or that you “liked” the idea of the posting experiment even if you hated the story. If there are no “likes” at all, G. is going to get it next time for not having stopped me. So maybe a “like” could also mean I shouldn’t take it out on her.]

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ARABY

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.

When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ash pits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlor watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of laborers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me. I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring “O love! O love! many times.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.

“And why can’t you?” I asked.

While she spoke she turned a silverl bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

“It’s well for you,” she said.

“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”

What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening!  I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.

On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening He was fussing at the hall stand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:

“Yes, boy, I know.”

As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlor and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.

When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.

When I came downstairs again I found Mrs. Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs. Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:

“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”

At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hall stand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.

“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.

I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:

“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”

My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.

I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.

I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Cafe Chantant were written in colored lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.

Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.

“O, I never said such a thing!”

“O, but you did!”

“O but I didn’t!”

“Didn’t she say that?”

“Yes. I heard her.”

“O, there’s a … fib!”

Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:

“No, thank you.”

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

by James Joyce.

[“Araby” is the third story in Dubliners. The long short story G. and I also read last Thursday, which ends the book, was “The Dead.”]

A TEMPLATE FOR FACING DEATH

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[Oliver Sacks is a noted British neurologist, Professor of Neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of many books, including “Awakenings”  and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”  Today he published a piece in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times about learning he has terminal cancer.  I hope when the time comes I can confront my end with such spirited courage. 

The piece is now available to anyone who reads the Times, either on paper or online. But for the many of you who don’t, I’m typing it out here, in part because that will ensure I myself read it again more carefully — but also, and principally, because there are so few helpful road maps for negotiating our way towards what lies ahead for all of us that this piece, heartrending though it is, deserves to be read widely.]

MY OWN LIFE

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

by OLIVER SACKS  Feb. 19, 2015

A month ago I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular kind of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Hume continued, “I am…a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Here I depart from Hume.  While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

© 2015 The New York Times Company

SOME THOUGHTS (IF YOU CAN CALL THEM THAT) ABOUT SEX

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With all the hard-to-miss whoop-de-do about Christian Grey (“Fifty Shades Of”) and his compliant Ana in the tittering press, in movie box offices (where multi-millions are rolling in) and even in the feminist blogosphere, it perhaps behooves me to deliver a few expurgated observations on the matter from my own demographic. (Female, hetero-, old.) I speak of course only for myself, as I have not yet discovered another woman well over eighty blogging away on WordPress or anywhere else.  (There are two who are seventy-seven and seventy-six respectively, but whatever they’re doing privately, neither “do” sex in print.)

It’s not true that women over seventy have fantasies about sex zero percent of the time. This canard was apparently reported in AARP about four years ago and then picked up to be made sport of by “Life in the Boomer Lane,” written by Renee Fisher, a mere sixty-seven herself.  I can personally vouch for the falsehood of such piggy-back hearsay, and know of at least two other non-blogging women in the demographic who would emphatically agree with me. Since I don’t know many women in the demographic anyway (most of my acquaintances are  younger), two plus me seems sufficient rebuttal on this point.  I draw a veil over why these women plus me are having fantasies instead of, or in addition to, real sex.

There’s a huge disconnect between what’s desirable (or even acceptable) in real life from a real man and what’s desirable in one’s fantasy life from a fantasy man.  I’ve read quite a bit of heated discourse in the past couple of days about how terrible it is to glorify a movie that glorifies female submission and bondage (i.e. “rape”) — this despite the fact that audiences, currently comprised of 68% women in North America, are apparently rushing to see it like lemmings to the sea. The disconnect may not be so true of the young or youngish — although I suspect that even for them if the line between what they see in movies and what they do in bed begins to blur, they can still distinguish between (a) playful bondage by a trusted loved one who lashes them to the bedposts with their own nylons while they both giggle and (b) the really painful stuff with whipcords and duct tape.

But for those of us raised in a faraway time when the proper response to going “too far” was always “No!” even when all your senses were begging “Yes!” — fantasy rape had, and may still have, a certain initial appeal.  When I first came upon Candide in college and read of pure sweet Cunegonde, Candide’s lady love, being raped by Bulgarians, my first thought wasn’t horror but “Hmmmm, what do Bulgarians look like?”  However the problem was that you’d have to decide which Bulgarians, and how many, would be allowed to have their way with you (even in a fantasy), and that didn’t seem likely (even in a fantasy).  In fact, it’s always a given in fantasy rape that you have to secretly want to be raped by that particular man — whose hunger for you (and your unavowed hunger for him) is so overpowering that it cannot be gainsaid, despite your feeble struggles.

[Note to militant feminists:  The preceding paragraph most certainly does not mean I agree with those Yale students who were suspended for marching through campus with a banner proclaiming, “No Means Yes!” Read more carefully. The Bulgarians are fantasy. Yale is real.  As a Yale parent several times over, well aware of the tuition involved in even being on that campus, I can assure you Yale is very real, and no most definitely means no.]

Admittedly, “Fifty Shades” is only “soft” porn. Even so, what’s so exciting about a former Calvin Klein male underwear model pouring wine into the belly-button of the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson while she bites her underlip apprehensively?  That’s right, ladies and gentlemen not yet in my demographic.  If your memory is long enough, you may recall those first ads (in classy magazines no less) for Calvin’s teensy-weensy BVDs with the CK logo-embossed elastic band that barely cleared the groin area.  Well, the guy in those ads was Mr. Christian Grey himself (shorn or retouched of all chest hair) — a scrap of pristine white cotton between us and his, ah, member — posed in a full frontal come-hither slouch that must have turned on at least 95% of the gay community who saw it but didn’t do much for me.  Yes, Jamie Dornan has a four-year-old daughter now and probably hopes that when at some time in the future she sees her daddy’s comely rear cheeks beautifully photographed above a naked lady who’s not mommy, she won’t ask questions.  (I know, I know, it’s my age talking.  Young Miss Dornan probably just won’t care.) But he still doesn’t do much for me, even with wisps of chest hair.

As for young Miss Johnson, I suppose what she does is her own business. But as I remember her mom in “Working Girl” before she did that ill-advised thing to make her lips fuller and they came out much too much fuller, and also recall her dad was the one in “Miami Vice” who made wearing only a white tee shirt under a jacket look really cool — seeing her naked underneath naked young Mr. Dornan would be like watching one of the neighbors’ kids put out for a vacant-faced muscled guy with impossibly huge scads of money and power, plus really gorgeous clothes (before he takes them off).  I mean, come on.   Who’re we kidding here? If we’re talking soft SMBD porn, Mickey Rourke with his ice cube in “Six Weeks” was much more like it; at least he looked the part. (Except look at him now.)

I do admit that typing the word “naked” twice just now was somewhat exciting. But that’s probably a demographic thing too.

Drinking wine out of belly buttons is not new. Trust me on this one.  Back in 1948, Charlotte P. read aloud a story in Creative Writing I  that had seventeen-year-old me writhing with jealousy, envy and lust;  it was about her previous summer on an Israeli kibbutz where it was apparently not unusual to sip wine from the mouth of another and then have the other lap more wine from one’s belly button. (I believe they kept their jeans on, though.)  Oh God! I immediately filed this away as something to try at the first opportunity. (And you see? I still remember, after all these years.) Of course, you would have had to be an innie and not an outie. I’m not sure how outies took to Charlotte P.’s story.  What would Christian G. have done if Miss Steele had turned out to be an outie when her clothes came off?  Torn up the contract?  Or improvised with some other declivity?  (That should keep you thinking for a bit.)

Since we’re talking about porn, in my demographic “hard” porn is for men.  Sometimes we ladies do sit through their kind of thing to be accommodating (or in some cases because it’s easier than working them up ourselves). Yes, we sit patiently all the way to the money shot, with mess sprayed here and there over the other party, which to me has always been the erotic equivalent of a cold shower.  But candidly, I could go on quite happily for two or three more lifetimes without seeing any more.  Men get excited by shapely female breasts (or unshapely ones, swollen monstrously by silicone), lovely rounded buttocks gently parted, spread-eagled vulvas, luscious lips slurping eagerly, close-ups of piston-like activity, the camera eye right in there like a third participant.  Why would a heterosexual woman want to look at any of that?  It’s not part of our sexual experience, even without eyes shut.  As for threesomes — apparently another real stiffener — forget it. I never did like sharing and just can’t multitask.

So what is erotic for women?  I won’t deny my demographic still appreciates a nicely built unclothed male torso (although it’s not essential for powerful attraction).  However, speaking only for me and not for the other two known members of this demographic, I far prefer the sight of work-made muscle to the barbell-crafted kind. Attractive construction workers, not gym rats.  Just to check myself (and also, of course, in the interests of thorough research), I typed “naked straight men” into Bing.  (It seems Apple is at war with Google and switched search engines when I wasn’t looking.)  Did I get brought up to date fast!

Tattoos all over the place!  I mean with no inch of skin except the face untatted!  Yuck! (Demographically speaking, of course.)  And photos of bare men of every ethnicity enjoying each other in every which way you can imagine. (Is this what Bing thinks is “straight?”)  And photos of other bare men smirking or scowling at the camera with a “Look what I have for you!” expression on their faces. (I once had a husband, now dead — although not at my hand — who actually pronounced those very words.  It did him no good whatsoever.)

And I’ve got to tell you what some of those bare men had for us couldn’t possibly have been for us at all.  It’s true my experience has been quite limited, but I know — I just know, and to hell with the demographic  — there isn’t a woman alive, of any age, who wouldn’t flee at the thought. These were appendages of such extraordinary length as must have been attached to the unfortunate straight fellow a therapist once told me about: he had to wear a very thick rubber donut before any woman would even consider — I’m looking for a nice clean word here — congress.  And then the faces of those guys on the Bing-sourced websites!  What could you talk about with them before you began? Can they talk? I know, I shouldn’t be mean. (I do think though that Apple could reconsider its position on Google.)

I might also add before leaving this possibly controversial section (in which I may have recklessly destroyed all the good will I’ve slowly built over the past year) that there’s a color photograph of a nicely built unclothed male torso, with pleasantly smiling face attached, that’s practically perfect. It’s cropped just above the pelvis so it’s also perfectly decent, and it’s right here on WordPress.  It belongs to the nephew of one of the Australian ladies who occasionally drops by this blog. I remember admiring it when she posted it and wishing I were at least sixty years younger.  But I’m not and probably you’re not either, so I’m not looking up the URL and you’ll just have to wonder forever.

Well, if not photos, then what?   I’ve actually considered that question quite a bit before embarking on this post.  What really turns on my demographic? (And maybe other female demographics too?)  I think it’s faces, voices, words. Words above all. A well turned phrase — even on the screen — and you’ve got me interested.   My demographic, and perhaps also  yours, wants a story; we want to hear things and see things that maybe promise and maybe don’t, we want hope and uncertainty, and lots of hide and seek, until it’s just about all we think about.  Imagination is a big part of it, too. (And who needs photos with a good imagination?  After a certain age, eyes shut and imagination trumps photos every time.)

One of the more erotic things I’ve read recently turned up in a first novel published about thirty years ago which I discovered at a used bookseller.  Near the end of the book the protagonist, a thirteen year old boy, and a somewhat flat-chested girl his age, who are both staying in the same house that summer weekend, play a game together that’s rather like strip poker.  Round after round, the garments very slowly come off each of them, one by one.  They look at each other. She offers to do one more thing for him since he won, but he can’t think of anything. So she goes off to bed.  Still naked, and now erect, he thinks about her and thinks about her in his own bed, and then gets up and creeps down the hall to her room. She is sleeping, in a nightdress.  He slides under her sheet from the bottom and lies there naked and erect with his head between her legs.

That made me breathe faster than the dreary plod through the three free chapters of “Fifty Shades” you can get from Amazon Kindle.

Someone I’ve never met in real life who writes extremely well recently suggested via email that there was probably a big commercial market for “elderly erotic stories” and how would it be if a woman writer and a man writer collaborated to write such stories.  That’s pretty much how he put it (very politely), together with a possible opening paragraph and the caveat that the stories be about people of at least sixty. In my view nothing about people sixty or older would be erotic reading to the elderly because the elderly are turned on by the same stimuli as the young.  That is, elderly men probably want to picture young nubile beauties in their dreams and even elderly women fantasize about firm male bodies, not old ones. I didn’t write that though, but merely objected to his opening paragraph for other reasons, and suggested another opening.  He wrote back.  And then I became uncomfortable, because of course I was the “woman writer” and he was the “man writer” we were writing about and I am twenty-three years older than he is and he’s not safely far away in Australia but about fifty-two miles from Princeton, and it was becoming exciting even though I don’t really know what he looks like. It was crossing the line from fantasy to real, at least for me if not for him. And therefore time to stop.

Words, you see.  Words do it every time.  And now that I myself have written 2,314 words on this stimulating topic it’s time to go do something else.  What that might be I leave to your imagination.

VALENTINE’S DAY CONVERSATION

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[The scene: one of three checkout counters at Whole Earth, small organic fruit and vegetable store patronized mainly by Princeton “intelligentsia.” It also stocks some organic processed foods, dairy, and ecologically approved cleaning, toiletry and beauty products. In addition has “deli” section offering organic vegetarian take-out options.  Temperature outside: 5 degrees F.]

She (crowding many items from her cart onto conveyer belt and addressing next person in line without seeing who it is):   I‘m not a good person to get behind.  (She is bundled up in heavy scarf, black down coat, lined gloves and boots, and therefore only visible from the chin up. However, she did have her uncovered hair cut and colored three days previously.)

He (for it is indeed a he):  I see you’re eating healthy.

She (turning to look): Not so healthy.  My husband goes kerflooey now and then. (She is referring to two tubs of Bent Spoon ice cream and several packages of crystallized ginger on conveyer.  Also two 70% chocolate bars near box of Zen greens, organic grape tomatoes, lemons and Braeburn apples. Man behind her is person with completely shaved bald head and wearing only white tee shirt. No jacket, gloves or hat in sight. Slight belly. Wide-open baby blue eyes. White skin so smooth and unlined it might have been entirely Botoxed.)

He: We all have to do that now and then.

She (pushing empty cart forward): I guess.

He: Eating that way you’re going to live a long time.

She: (Why is boy at register so slow at ringing things up?) I’ve already lived a long time.

He: G’wan.

She (unwisely): I’m old enough to be your mother.  I’m probably twice your age.

He (incredulous): You’re a hundred and two?

She (really looking at him now):  Well, no. Not quite.

He (proudly): I’m fifty-one.

She: I’m closer to a hundred and two than to your age.  (She pauses.) I’m eighty-three.

He (also pausing):  I thought you were sixty.  Or sixty-one.  

(He must be pulling her leg. Well, maybe he isn’t.  She is all bundled up. He can’t see what’s really what. She hopes she didn’t smile.)

He (continuing): How old did you think I was?

She (now fishing in wallet for credit card): Oh, somewhere in your late forties.

He (disappointed):  Most people guess thirties.

She: I have sons in their mid-forties.  Sorry, you don’t look younger than they do.

He (desperate?): I have thirty to thirty-five years of experience. How’s that?

She (signing machine and preparing to exit): Don’t brag.

He:  But it’s true. [He pushes his seven cans of overpriced Wolfgang Puck vegetarian soup forward on conveyer.]

She:  Doesn’t matter.  Say nothing. (Good advice to self, she thinks.) Always keep ’em guessing. 

[She exits.  However, in the car she thinks it over. Just a weird crazy guy making small talk.  But sixty?  Sixty-one?  She feels good all the way home.]