TALE OF AN UNHATCHED CHICKEN

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Remember when back in April, I was all gung-ho to begin English conversation tutoring with a Chinese physicist who was at Princeton University’s Plasma Lab for a year as a Visiting Scholar?  I even got two posts out of the introductory materials I was given to get started with.  (“Hints on English Pronunciation for Foreigners” on April 18, and “Bonus for Foreigners: Why English Is So Hard” on April 19.)  I should have known better than to count chickens, or even count on one chicken, before the hatching.

Li-li and I met, by email prearrangement, on a Saturday about five weeks ago at the Princeton Student Center.  Li-li is not his real name. Also there are many Chinese Visiting Scholars at the Princeton Plasma Lab (“PPL”). So I’m not compromising him with anything I write here.  I’m also certain he will never read this post.  (He can read English, with some difficulty, but prefers not to, if it can be avoided.  He can also write it, with some errors and much consulting of dictionaries and grammar books in two languages. But I tell you this after five hours of attempted conversation with Li-li. I knew nothing about him when we began.)

Fred, the director of the volunteer tutoring program, had suggested we meet at the Student Center because Li-li has no car.  (Fred is not a real name either, although the person to whom I refer as Fred was entirely supportive and helpful throughout my Li-li experience and probably wouldn’t mind if I accurately identified him. But still.  I used to be a lawyer. I’m careful.)  Meeting at the Student Center was all very well for Li-li, because the university bus from PPL to the main campus runs every half-hour and stops just outside the Student Center.  But for me to reach it, I first have to park in a town garage a block and a half from campus (not free) and then walk up and down campus hills for what feels like about ten minutes although may be somewhat less. (I’m not a mountain goat anymore.)  Once, it rained. Nonetheless. I had no idea how old a Visiting Scholar might be, and perhaps an aging Chinese scholar might have more aerobic or orthopedic difficulty with Princeton’s up-and-down paths than I.

Li-li was able to identify me because there was no one else who looked more than twenty-five anywhere around the Student Center. He himself was slight and I guessed about twenty-two, although he turned out to be actually twenty-eight.  We met once a week for about an hour and a half, for five weeks. I gradually moved the meeting place closer to where I park by explaining (slowly) with the help of a campus map that he was young and I was old and therefore it was only fair that he meet me at least halfway or somewhat more than that.  (Don’t the Chinese have great cultural respect for the old?)

Our last two meetings took place at Panera, across Nassau Street from the university, and therefore actually in town.  With some hesitation, after I had (slowly) read the offerings on the board aloud to him, he chose a lemonade which he did not drink but carried away with him past several garbage bins, presumably to take home on the bus. The next time, after I had again done a (slow) recitation of the board, he chose a mango smoothie.  He knew the word “mango.”  I asked (slowly) if he knew what “yogurt” was (because that was the base liquid for the smoothie) and he said yes.  He even eagerly tasted it. But he definitely didn’t like it,  Was it too sour? He didn’t know what I meant by “sour.”  Too “sweet”?  He wasn’t sure what that word meant either.  Too” thick”? He looked at me in puzzlement.  But he carried the barely tasted and apparently disfavored smoothie away with him too.  Was it that men didn’t eat or drink with women where he came from?  Did he feel it was impolite to partake of anything during a kind of “lesson?”  But by the afternoon of the mango smoothie, I had stopped wondering.  I wanted out.

The thing is, you couldn’t converse with Li-li because he couldn’t really speak.  He had a minimal recognition vocabulary and an even smaller one available for speech.  Moreover, his pronunciation made what he did try to say incomprehensible. I was not supposed to be tutoring him in acquisition of the English language. We were only supposed to be conversing together, during the course of which I expected to have to correct pronunciation or grammar.  And I do understand that English has several consonants difficult for the Chinese tongue to pronounce.   But Li-li mangled or swallowed vowels and diphthongs as well as consonants, and also inserted vowels of his own making between syllables of words and between sentences — which made his speech musically interesting to listen to but virtually impossible to understand. Example:  I asked him where he was living in Princeton.  “Near Macclefield,” he said.  I had never heard of Macclefield.  Eventually, he printed it out for me on a napkin.  He was trying to pronounce the name of a nearby shopping center:  “Market Fair.”

He had arrived in September and would go home the following September. He had entered the free tutoring program at the end of April — after seven months in Princeton.  “Why didn’t you sign up before?” I asked. He was ashamed of his English, he said.  “So why now?”  His supervisors at PPL had sent him; they couldn’t understand what he was saying about the work he was doing.  It turned out, after I asked, that he couldn’t really understand them, either. “So have you learned anything during your time here?”  Not very much, he admitted.  When I asked how that would affect his progress towards his doctorate  — which he expected to earn in China in May or June 2016 — he said it wouldn’t.  His year in Princeton didn’t count; it was just a way of getting a pre-paid year off in another culture.

I don’t think he initially came with such fraudulent intentions. He probably had actually thought he knew enough English to survive a year in an English-speaking university, and probably China did too, because they bankrolled the whole thing.  A Visiting Scholar is not enrolled at any level at Princeton and is not evaluated. He’s not a Princeton graduate student or a post-doc. He is simply an advanced student, working on a foreign doctorate, who is allowed to be at Princeton and to work for a year in his field under supervision, on recommendations from faculty in his own country. Li-li must have been an outstanding Physics doctoral candidate in China to have qualified as someone for whom his government was willing to pay transportation, Princeton tuition, and $1600 a month living expenses. (Princeton provided a room in a student house for $800 a month. Naturally, the other occupants of the house were Chinese.) But you cannot learn if you don’t understand the language.

I tried.  He had an iPad, which he could switch from Chinese to English. When we first met, he said he wanted to learn what he could because he hoped to return, after obtaining his doctorate, as a post doc, and post docs have to teach as well as do research. So I went beyond the parameters of the volunteer “job” description.  I invested hours on the Internet locating and printing out pages of consonant exercises for “r” and “l” and “s” and voiceless “th” and voiced “th” for him to practice between our meetings.  I found a lovely English lady on YouTube who spent fifteen minutes of Internet time on “lalalala” and “l” words.  I told him about wordreference.com. We located a thesaurus on his tablet. (These last two measures were intended to help enlarge his vocabulary.) When he came back the following week, he hadn’t practiced a thing and had even lost the websites I’d found for him.  I suggested viewing reruns of TV programs, listening to radio, speaking out in stores instead of pointing.  But he went on hanging out with Chinese grad students, Chinese post-docs, and other Chinese Visiting Scholars — and never spoke or listened to English at all, except with me.

He went to New York on weekends — with other Chinese.  He accompanied a Chinese friend on a scam of a bus tour run in Chinese for Chinese that used up seven hours on the road getting them to Niagara Falls (apparently a big deal for inland Chinese), where they had a morning on a boat for photo ops. Then more bus-riding to Boston, where they drove quickly past MIT and Harvard before getting on another boat for a half-hour tour of Boston Harbor and the waterfront.  Then back on the bus for seven hours more of looking at interstate highways. On his phone, he showed me small photographs of the Falls taken from a distance, of which he was very proud.

He was currently spending quite a bit of time studying for the knowledge test to get a New Jersey driver’s license. Then he would be able to learn to drive in the car of a Chinese friend and also pass the driving test before going home.  “What do you need a New Jersey driver’s license for in China?” I asked. He very haltingly tried to explain that if he had a New Jersey license to drive he could just exchange it for a Chinese one for a small fee.  But to learn to drive in China was 6000 yen, or about $1000.  And then it cost even more to actually get the license after you passed the Chinese test.

“But Li-li,” I said.  “What good is a Chinese driving license if you don’t have a car?  You’re still a student.”  It wasn’t going to be a problem, he assured me.  After he got his doctorate, he would get a job and in a few months of savings have enough for a car.  “New?  Or used?” I asked. “Oh new,” he assured me.  Everyone he knew bought new.  Poor Li-li.  He didn’t know I remembered everything he’d ever said, or tried to say.

I put early loose talk about heart-felt hopes for a post-doc in America together with later revelations of his clear intention to buy a new car in China — which he would be licensed to drive — as soon after he got a job as he could.  To this I added (1) his disinclination to follow through on any suggestion or any result of internet research I had offered; (2) the cost of parking in the garage every week; (3) the value of my volunteer preparation time and time with him in a mutual agony of incomprehension; (4) and the fact that Princeton in the afternoon was getting very hot and would get hotter as we moved into summer — and suddenly decided I had had enough.

I sort of liked Li-li, despite really not knowing him at all.  But whatever his original intention had been when he applied for a year in America, he had soon seen that not much learning was going to happen, given the state of his English, and (it seemed to me) had begun to use his time at PPL as a sort of cover for just hanging out with his countrymen in a foreign culture, thereby occupying space and consuming teaching time that Princeton could have offered to another — and ripping off the Chinese government as well.

I emailed an SOS to Fred.  He knew exactly what to do.  Here’s the responsive email he sent me:

Hi Nina:
Sometimes it happens and it’s not your fault. I suggest you tell him that unexpected new plans will require you to be away for extended periods of time for the foreseeable future and you can no longer continue tutoring — and perhaps I can find another tutor for him. After you do that, let me
know. If he contacts me again I shall unfortunately not have another tutor available who can tutor during the summer months. Probably this is best: no hard feelings.

Thank you for your gallant efforts!  It wasn’t a failure on your part.  Frankly I don’t care to assist someone trying to rip off the systems on our  dime. Hopefully I can find a much better match for you come September. Have  a great summer.

Best regards,

Disappointed to learn I immediately followed Fred’s suggestion?  (Chicanery at an illustrious American university?) I’m disappointed in me, too.  But Li-li will survive the loss, and hopefully also pass his driving test, so that he goes home with something he didn’t have when he came. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.  Sauve qui peut.  (Save yourself if you can.) Or, less selfishly put, you can’t win ’em all.

Maybe, as Fred suggests, I’ll have better luck next time.

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THE RETURN OF NOW

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[If TGOB was ever read by more than a couple of isolated souls in Finland, it got by WordPress.  Finland is definitely not one of the non-Anglophone countries whose flag I ever expected to see more than once every three or four months, if that, on the stats page. France, Italy, Greece — yes. Even (rarely) Norway, Denmark and Azerbaijan. But Finland?

Until about ten days ago. Suddenly, a flurry of interest from one or more Finns!  Thirty-three Finnish views in an hour!  For me, drifting along in the quiet backwaters of the blogosphere, thirty-three views per hour from non-followers is a lot.  And from just one country? Mind you, this was not simply Finnish attention to the current post. “My” Finns (if I may call them that) were scouring the past, in some instances going back to the blog’s early months.  

Naturally I went back, too — to see what was so interesting back there in TGOB’s babyhood.  It wasn’t “Roger Angell On Life In His Nineties,” the all-time most viewed piece I ever posted.  Or “My First Bra(s),” ever-popular in hot countries where by religious or cultural edict women tend to be all covered up.  No, it was a brief bagatelle from sixteen months ago called “Now Is All There Is.”

I cannot explain the particular appeal of this post to Finnish sensibilities. Nor do I recall that it was such a big hit anywhere when it first appeared. It just came, and then it went. But it’s still all true, or mostly true.  The part about my being unable to meditate has been somewhat addressed this year by forming a meditation group. If you form a group, the group expects you to be there to lead it.  I can therefore truthfully say that as of May 29, 2015, I am sitting down with four other people to meditate for at least thirty minutes once a week. That’s a kind of progress, isn’t it?  Whether or not I’m able to remain in the now for the full thirty minutes before the gong sounds and we all open our eyes I leave to your imagination.  I might also add we’ve temporarily abandoned breakfast oatmeal for a smoothie made in the VitaMix, consisting of baby spinach, blueberries, and Mango-Banana Skyr  — the Skyr a sort of Iceland buttermilk, now replicated in the US. But who knows how long that will last?  Bill is already complaining it seems rather “thick.”

The Finns have now departed from my stats, having apparently read everything of interest to them.  Nonetheless, I still like “Now Is All There Is,” which is probably what matters most.  So with a tip of the hat to the good people of Finland, here it is again.  Better read it now (if you’re going to read it at all) before now becomes then.]

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NOW IS ALL THERE IS

Let’s look at another way of approaching “Now is now.” It’s my first principle for getting better at getting old, or getting better at getting older than you are today. [To see them all, revisit “My Twelve Principles for Getting Better at Getting Older,” posted on January 1, 2014.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO SAID LIFE WAS EASY?

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When Bill moved in with me fourteen years ago, his possessions moved in too. He had less “stuff” than I did (having left much of it behind in the house now belonging to his second former wife). So it was eventually possible, after some “friendly” dispute, to make room somewhere or other for what he had brought with him, even if it didn’t exactly “go” with what was already there.

However, one of his pictures I never had doubts about.  I was given no formal religious education and don’t know exactly who Rabbi Hillel was. Moreover, I have no religious beliefs whatsoever.  But there was no question in my mind that the saying attributed to the Rabbi which Bill had framed would come with us from Cambridge to Princeton. In fact, it currently hangs just outside the room that serves as my office, where it reminds me of life’s imperatives and conundrums whenever I pass it on my way to and from the computer.

In case the words aren’t easy to read in the uploaded photo of the picture, here they are again, writ clear:

“Hillel said, ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me?

“If I am only for myself, what am I?

“If not now, when?”

Forthright, isn’t it?  You can’t really argue with any of it.  If you let yourself be put upon or walked on, you will be. But if you act only for yourself, if you’re a selfish shit — what kind of person are you?

“If not now, when?” may be easier to understand, if not always easy to put into practice, and has occasionally been helpful to a daydreamer like me. But the more you consider that those four words follow the two sentences preceding it, the less forthright and the more cryptic the whole thing becomes.  Do what now?  Take care of numero uno?  Give unto others? Suppose those two directives are in conflict. Then what?

I offer no suggestions as to what the good Rabbi may have meant, other than that what he meant can mean different things to different people at different times.  And probably has. Or different things to the same person at different times. Which is also probably true.

But it’s worth thinking about. Especially in connection with one’s own life.

What do you think?

BLOGGING THROUGH THE MINEFIELDS

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I once mentioned in a reply to someone’s posted comment that cheery though this blog usually appears to be in its attention to “the good things in life,” a dark undercurrent runs below each piece — silently for the most part, but occasionally surfacing.

Thoughts of death and dying.

It’s all very well to try practicing living “in the now” when you’re getting old. I may even be luckier than most in that I have a constitutional inability to multi-task or multi-think.  A former boss charged with giving me the dreaded annual review at the Big Law Firm where in days gone by I used to labor remarked of my work that every single piece of it was excellent, but I seemed unable to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. (A grave flaw in legal practice, where adroitly juggling open cases is a must.)  She used the analogy of beads on a string; I focused only on the bead in front of me and was oblivious to the beads lined up behind it.

However, life makes such oblivion to what’s coming down the pike harder to maintain with any consistency as one ages. The earliest big loss for most of us is the death of our parents. Clementine Churchill said (or wrote) it first:  It’s very hard to realize one is nobody’s child.  When that happens, the loss is not the only pain.  There’s also the frightening recognition no one is still ahead of us.  We’re next.

Then it begins to happen.  Holes appear in our sense of the world.  I still can’t contemplate one of those iPhone-illustrated trips to New York that you periodically read about here without first thinking I must let Cathy know I’m coming.  Maybe we can get together to do something beforehand.  But I can’t let Cathy know. Although she lived in New York all her life (even went to Barnard College), and we never lost touch since meeting in 1960, she doesn’t live there anymore. She doesn’t live anywhere. Cancer took her away two years ago, after a rotten four years of surgery, sickness and pain, despite her being six years younger than I am.  I still have a red linen summer dress in my closet bought on one of our joint shopping expeditions in New York because she urged me to get it. Every time I see the dress on its hanger, I think of her.  And I can’t get rid of the dress, because the dress is the last I have of her.

Another hole in my universe — an even bigger one — also opened the year Cathy died, although I didn’t learn of it until last year.  That one I did write about (in “Why There’s No Post Today,”) because I couldn’t not.  Sometimes I still wonder how he’s doing and what he’s doing — until I remember he’s not doing anything anymore because he’s just ashes scattered somewhere. (And I don’t even know where.)

No one within twenty years of my age whom I’ve met since moving to Princeton is untouched.  One lost a husband (also a lawyer), just turned seventy, to pancreatic cancer.  Another is married to a brilliant man in his seventies severely debilitated by Parkinson’s.  A woman two years older than I (an architectural historian) is legally blind and rapidly losing what vision is left to macular degeneration that no longer responds to treatment; it’s harder and harder for her to read anything, even on Kindle at its most enlarged. A year ago she had a stroke and a heart attack. She survived both, underwent cardiac surgery and prolonged physical therapy, and can now very slowly maneuver her way around the facility to which she and her husband (with pulmonary problems) have moved, but needs an aide or a friend to accompany her.  Since she can still make out enough of movies to enjoy them, I have occasionally been picking her up and taking her out to lunch, then to a movie of her choice, and then back to the facility where she now lives. However, except for her two adult sons (one of whom drives from Boston and back to see her and the other from New York), I don’t think any of her former acquaintances come.  People are embarrassed or scared when the Grim Reaper seems to be hovering near.

Yesterday, Bill ( aged 87 1/2) called his closest friend, who still lives in Cambridge (Massachusetts), to say hello.  Being men, they don’t touch base as often as women might do, but the feeling runs deep. They’ve known each other a long time. The friend — also a retired psychiatrist — will soon be 91.  He is long divorced but has a daughter and two grandchildren a couple of towns away.  A year ago he sounded hale and relatively hearty, although I believe he could no longer drive. In February, when they last spoke, he had had a heart attack, described as “relatively minor.”  However, since then he has become extremely weak.  Two weeks ago he fell and broke an elbow.  He can no longer walk at all.  He uses a commode. He has round-the-clock care, from aides he describes as just so-so. He sounds (Bill says) very frail.  He is waiting to die.  I thought of perhaps trying to drive up there this summer (Bill and I spelling each other at the wheel) so that they could see each other one more time, but his daughter says he’s in hospice care and might not live that long. She hopes the end comes swiftly to save him more pain and unhappiness.  Understandably, Bill is unhappy, too.  He says it’s not only about his friend.  It’s about himself as well.  I never really knew Bill’s friend, except to say hello to, but what makes Bill unhappy comes round full circle to me, as I still share a bed with him, thank God.

We will both get past it.  For now.  But in the interests of fuller disclosure — although, chatty though I may seem, there are still many things I do not “share” — I thought those of you who aren’t really here yet (whatever you may think of those first few wrinkles and sags you spy in the mirror) should probably know that “getting old” isn’t always the picnic reflected in this blog — despite the nature photos, trips to New York, flattering selfies and two cute kitties.

However, there are still distractions. For instance: the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning are tied 2-2 in Round Three of the NHL Eastern Conference, and Game 5’s tonight.  My gut feeling is that the Rangers will win, but I welcome surprises.  Didn’t guess I knew anything about pro hockey, did you?  Well, I don’t really.  But I am interested in the outcome because I’m connected by blood to the guy who screams “S-c-o-r-e!” for Tampa.  So I’m hoping he gets to scream “S-c-o-r-e!” often tonight.

See?  I’m cheering up just thinking that might happen!

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YOU? A HOCKEY FAN? GIMME A BREAK!

TWO PRIVATE GARDENS IN MANHATTAN

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IMG_1594_2 On the corner of 21st Street and Park Avenue, along the side of Calvary Episcopal Church, there runs a small fenced-in oasis of greenery amid the brownstone and concrete of the city. It wasn’t designed for people to walk in. But pigeons and mourning doves take full advantage. Also many little wren-like birds. (Trust me not to know their species.) IMG_1597_2 Passersby are certainly welcome to look at the Calvary garden.  But most just hurry by.  However, I had thirty minutes to spare before a dinner appointment in the neighborhood.  Thank goodness for my trusty camera phone. IMG_1592 IMG_1595 IMG_1596 The second garden was designed for people.  But not just any people. IMG_1603_2 It’s called Gramercy Park, sits at the bottom of Lexington Avenue on East 21st Street, and occupies a whole fenced-in square block of prime Manhattan real estate.  Unfortunately — and unlike Central Park far to the north, which was designed for all New Yorkers and visitors to enjoy — unless you are wealthy enough to inhabit an apartment or a townhouse overlooking Gramercy Park, you don’t get into this garden. Its four gates open only with an electronic passkey. IMG_1611 It’s so inhospitable there’s not even a bench or two on which to sit outside the park.  If you’re tired of walking and want to rest for a few moments somewhat near “nature,” you have to perch ungracefully on the narrow curb below the ornamental black iron gates. The flowers reach out beyond the bars, as if to invite you in. IMG_1610_2 But the only way human beings without the electronic pass can circumvent the gates is by camera. Stick your hands between the bars and you can take pictures from inside, just as if you were really there. IMG_1601_2 IMG_1606_2 Having plenty of time, I walked all around the block-square private garden. I’d always known it belonged only to residents of the square, but had never spent any time nearby. Now as I circled it, I began to feel it wasn’t fair the park should be reserved, as it were, for the very rich. IMG_1614_2 IMG_1616_2 There are a few other encircled garden-like spaces in Manhattan, but they’re within a square of buildings, usually apartment houses.  And those small “private” parks for the sole use of residents and their guests are not visible from the street.  You have to enter one of the apartment houses to access them and don’t even know they exist unless you visit someone who lives there. Here, however, where I couldn’t go was in full view. I began to think of Haves and Have Nots. IMG_1615_2 This little boy, for example, is the child of a Have. (Will he grow up with a strong sense of entitlement?)  I am in no doubt that if I had purchased (had been able to purchase) a home fronting Gramercy Park — the price reflecting the value of access to a private and beautifully landscaped park — I wouldn’t want cyclists, bag ladies and tired tourists resting on “my” benches or anyone dropping cigarette butts and empty cans in “my” bushes. IMG_1618_2 On the other hand, other than the little boy and his nanny, there was no one in the park except two elderly people on a bench and a jogger with white earbuds in a pink track suit going round and round the graveled inner path circling the garden all by herself.  That whole square block of carefully tended plantings and flowerings was for just five people.  It made me consider doing a piece called “Haves and Have Nots.”  But I have no solution for issues as large as that, or even for what to do about the locked gates of the Gramercy Park garden. So I comforted myself with the thought that at least birds can get in. IMG_1619 It looks better without the bars showing. IMG_1620_2 And then it was time for a luxurious early dinner across East 21st Street at Maialino, in the Gramercy Park Hotel, to which I’d been invited as a guest. IMG_1599_2 When you’re a guest, it’s ungrateful to be harboring simmering thoughts of Haves and Have Nots.  Best to leave all that for another day.

ARE YOU EVER TOO OLD TO BE VAIN?

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Southampton, New York: August 2013

Illustrative photo: Southampton, New York, August 2013.

(Now that it’s time in the Northern Hemisphere to pack away the woolens that not only keep us warm in winter but also cover us up, those of us who gave away our bikinis many decades ago must once again confront the pesky question that keeps coming up every year like a perennial:  How much of ourselves should we show?

Since I considered this question last spring in this very blog and have nothing new to add, why try to re-invent the wheel? Those of you who were reading TGOB that long ago may find what follows familiar, although I’ve edited it a bit;  the original version appeared here on April 20, 2014 (minus illustrative photo) under the title “Vanity and the Older Woman.”  Anyone still young and firm of flesh can skip it without great loss.  Go out and frolic in your skimpy next-to-nothings while you can.)

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VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am. Which means she was about seventy-one when she called. It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed. But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked. However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind. Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery. Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.) “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed. “It’s, um, about your arms,” she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more. The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before. Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin. And the last time I had seen her softening upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world.

Wow! Didn’t think I could be so judgmental? You sure thought wrong. I make judgments all the time (including about myself). However, I mostly keep mum about them. As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill. Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh? Awnings of loose skin beginning to hang below when the arms are raised? A wrinkling surface? “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question. ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really? Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go. You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully. “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up. Or if it’s a sleeveless dress — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly. “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to. You can still look good. A different sort of good. And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.” But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could. I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie. Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly. My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up. Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby. But then I never did my post-partum exercises. Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes. You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out. I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness. Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young. Even Diane Keeton, who at 68 still looks great, came out with a new book last year that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.” Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments. If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen, go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons. It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.” It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much. All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his. But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead. If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!

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I’VE JUST BEEN TRANSLATED INTO GERMAN!

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A couple of weeks ago I had an email (in English) from a gentleman named Stefan Braun, who asked very politely if he could republish a post of mine, in translation, in a German blog of his own.   The post which initially caught his attention was “Why Meditate?”   But after an exchange of emails, during which I assured him that being republished in Germany would be a great pleasure to me, I further suggested his women readers, and perhaps some of the men too, might also be interested in the post with which I introduced this blog in November 2013, “Why Blog About Getting Old?” (In addition, this first post is now on the TGOB home page as a Page, altered only to reflect my being a year older.)  He enthusiastically agreed.

And here it is at last!  My debut in German!  This is so exciting! (Even if I can barely make out a word of it, despite having written the original!) What’s more, there’s a comment, and an answer from Stefan.  Of course, now I’m beginning to fantasize about being translated into French and/or Italian and/or Spanish, and/or even Russian (my name would look good in Cyrillic letters) if there are blogs for the elderly in those languages, and if the editor of one of them is looking for an off-the-wall contributor like me.  [Awful lot of “if”s there, Nina.]

But I mustn’t be greedy. Especially since I was recently reminded of Icarus, who trusted his wax wings and flew too close to the sun. Look what happened to him.  (See “A Glorious Day Guess Where,” if you forgot.)

So for now I append below only the published text from Morgenschoen Blog (whatever excitements in other languages may follow in the far future).  I know that Trina, who reads TGOB in North Germany is perfectly bilingual.  Perhaps some others of you are, too.  If so, would you mind casting an eye over “Warum Uber das Altwerden Bloggen?” and let me know if it more or less sounds like me? I suspect I may be hard to translate, but who knows?  Many thanks.  Back to English again next time!

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 Warum über das Altwerden bloggen?

08.05.2015 Stefan Braun 2 Kommentare

von Nina Mishkin

Ich wurde 1931 geboren. Somit bin ich 83 Jahre alt.

Das hört sich schrecklich an, sogar für mich. Wenn ich über 83-jährige Frauen in der Zeitung lese, dann stelle ich mir immer eine klapprige Person mit weißem Haar vor, in gebückter Haltung aufgrund Ihrer Osteoporose, die womöglich einen Rollator braucht, um sich im Haus bewegen zu können. Eine Person, die definitiv längst Haarefärben, Make-Up und Jeans aufgegeben hat.

Ich habe solche Sachen noch nicht aufgegeben. Meinen Haaransatz betrachtend, würde ich zu Salz und Pfeffer tendieren. Aber keiner wird meine Haaransätze zu sehen bekommen, außer mir und Aziz, meinem genialen Frisör.

Die meiste Zeit meines Lebens war ich ein Stubenhocker. Doch im Februar 1999, als ich 67 Jahre alt war und sehr übergewichtig, fing ich an, jeden Morgen vor der Arbeit zum Fitnesscenter zu gehen (Ja, das war schwer), und ich war dann auch irgendwann alles andere als übergewichtig. Dem Fitnesscenter bin ich jetzt nicht mehr so treu, aber ich habe neulich mit Pilates zwei Mal die Woche angefangen. (Nicht gerade brilliant, aber irgendwo muss man ja anfangen).

Es ist wohl wahr – in den letzten 20 Jahren bin ich 5 cm geschrumpft, gemessen an den 1,73 m, die ich einmal gemessen habe. Obwohl, das Schrumpfen hat wohl alle Proportionen eingeschlossen. Denn manchmal, wenn ich eine Sonnenbrille trage, werde ich noch auf der Straße mit Fräulein angesprochen. (Ich finde es gut – was meinen Sie?)

Eigentlich bin ich gar nicht so eine oberflächliche Person.

Ich weiß, dass Aussehen nicht alles ist, aber in den meisten Fällen, ist das eine Lüge. Zeitlich gesehen, befinde ich mich schon im 9. Jahrzehnt und Teile von mir sind wirklich nicht mehr die, die sie einmal waren.

Meine beiden Augen haben schon künstliche Linsen bekommen, denn ansonsten hätte mein grauer Star mir vor neun Jahren meine Fahrerlaubnis gekostet. Auch habe ich eine künstliche rechte Hüfte.

Ich habe Bluthochdruck und nehme dafür schon Tabletten, seit dem ich 40 bin, und ich lebe seit 1969 mit Hepatitis C , die ich durch eine Bluttransfusion bekommen habe. …

Kardiologen haben mir schon vergewissert, dass meine Herzkranzgefäße blockieren können. Ein Spezialist hat auch schon von einem Herzklappenaustausch gesprochen, und auch über weitere Sachen, aber das möchte ich gar nicht weiter ausführen. Auf jeden Fall waren Herzprobleme auch der Grund für den Tod meines Vaters. Er wurde gerade einmal 84. Meine Mutter ist mit 89 an Darmkrebs gestorben. Ich komme eher nach meinem Vater, darf mich aber trotzdem regelmäßiger Darmspiegelungen erfreuen. Also, wenn ich mich nicht gerade wieder wie ein Vogelstrauß benehme, komme ich mir doch schon so vor, als ob ich in einer Blase lebe, die plötzlich platzen kann.

Und wenn ich so auf mein langes Leben blicke, einige meiner Bekannten sind so nett und betiteln es als „buntes Leben“, weiss ich, das ich große Teile einfach vergeudet habe.

Ich war eine Tagträumerin und eine Wegläuferin, fast immer unzufrieden mit meiner Lebenssituation. Eine Perfektionistin, die gar nicht erst anfing, wenn ich weniger als perfekt in der Sache war. Ich bin jemand, der durch das Leben gewandelt ist, nur um mich und später mich und meine Kinder, am Rande eines Schwarzen Loches zu finden – alles nur aus lauter Trägheit.

Natürlich gab es auch Aufregendes, so wie das Kennenlernen eines neuen Mannes, der „der Richtige „ sein könnte. Im Gegensatz zu meinen Kindern enttäuschten mich die Männer fast immer und hinterließen nur ein paar Erinnerungen.

„ Si la jeunesse savait, si l´age pouvait – wenn Jugend wüsste, wenn Alter könnte“

Der Mann, der mein erster Ehemann werden sollte – am Ende war er nicht „der Richtige“, aber da er nicht mehr unter uns ist, kann ich auch über ihn schreiben – hatte einen Aschenbecher in seiner Wohnung stehen. Dieser Aschenbecher hat mich beeindruckt, denn darauf war ein französischer Spruch geschrieben. Dort war zu lesen „ Si la jeunesse savait, si l´age pouvait.“ („wenn Jugend wüsste, wenn Alter könnte“). Ich war 21 und, obwohl ich den Aschenbecher wegen seines alt-europäischen Charmes mochte, wusste ich nicht, was damit gemeint war. Ich dachte, ich wüsste alles.

Mit 83 jedenfalls, und mit den vielen Wissenslücken, die ich mit 21 auch schon hatte, habe ich doch schon begriffen, was der Aschenbecher mir sagen wollte. Man soll das Leben jetzt erobern, jetzt lieben. Man soll das Leben um sich herum erobern, so gut wie man kann und so lange wie man kann, denn früher oder später geht es zu Ende. Und einen zweiten Versuch gibt es nicht.

Somit versuche ich genau das jetzt, bevor die Blase platzt, und ich stelle mich dem unbekannten Bösen und blogge wie die Dinge so passieren. Mit all meinen contra-produktiven Eigenarten. Ja, ich bin immer noch ein Tagträumer, und es kommt mir vor, trotz all meines Wissens über meinem Zustand, dass ich noch alle Zeit der Welt habe. Daran muss ich wohl noch arbeiten.

Aber das ist auch das Gute an der Sache. Ich bin alt genug, um mich daran zu erinnern, dass das Freud’sche Mantra, Liebe und Arbeit die Lösung für alle Probleme war. Altwerden eingeschlossen.

Vielleicht ist es auch so. Schauen wir mal…

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Originaltitel: “Why blog about getting old?” Aus dem Englischen von Stefan Braun

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Über Nina Mishkin:

Nina Mishkin ist eine pensionierte Bostoner Anwältin und lebt im Moment in Prinston, New Jersey. Sie liest, schreibt und manchmal veröffentlicht ihr Sachen. Sie tagträumt, treibt Sport (nicht so oft wie sie sollte), und versucht mit Ihren zwei Söhnen und ihren 4 Enkeln in Kontakt zu bleiben ( klappt auch nicht so gut wie es sein sollte).

Normalerweise sieht sie die meiste Zeit das Glas a halbvoll, trotz der Tatsache, dass es so vorkommt, als ob sie und das 21. Jahrhundert immer weiter auseinanderdriften.

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Besuchen Sie gern Nina auf Ihren Blog: The Getting Old Blog

Nina Mishkin´s Beitrag „Warum meditieren?“ erscheint demnächst auf diesem Blog.
2 Gedanken zu “Warum über das Altwerden bloggen?”

Maria
09.05.2015 um 17:19
Was für eine interessante Frau. Da bin ich gespannt, welche Geschichten noch folgen werden.

Antworten
Stefan Braun
09.05.2015 um 17:30
Liebe Maria,
Erst einmal, freuen wir uns riesig, dass Sie unseren Blog gefunden haben. Wir sind auch sehr froh darüber, dass wir Frau Mishkin gefunden haben. Und es warten wirklich noch ein paar witzige Geschichten auf Übersetzung und Veröffentlichung. Schauen sie doch gern wieder herein, oder, falls Sie Facebook nutzen, befreunden Sie uns auf unser Morgenschoen-Seniorenservice-Facebookseite und wir halten Sie immer auf dem Laufenden.

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