[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

As long as I’ve known him, Bill has enjoyed televised nature programs. Me not so much. They’re almost always about strange birds in equatorial countries, animals struggling to reproduce and survive among predators, inhospitable areas of earth where indigenous men take prodigious risks to feed their families. So we used to trade off: a program for him, a program with more narrative thrust for me. This worked well because we both enjoy holding hands while watching, which usually trumped choice of what to watch.

Now as I grow older, Bill’s programs have become more difficult for me. I’m aware of what’s almost certainly coming. If it’s about northern wolves, a large starving bear will seize a wolf cub when its mother leaves to seek food. The cub is just a fluffy puppy really, tumbling about happily in his snowy new world. Why must he be mortally pierced  by those fierce fangs? Sometimes they also show you the blood on the snow, a shot of the bereft mother. “How can you stand it?” I demand. “I don’t look,” says Bill. “But that’s  life.  And the photography’s wonderful.”

Last night a sea lion on an iceberg in Antartica was hunted by a school of killer whales. The whales used teamwork to break up the iceberg till the sea lion was clinging to a scrap of ice. Then one whale caught his tail in its jaws. The camera focused directly on the face of the doomed sea lion being pulled backwards into the icy waters to what it must have known was its own sure death. From now on, Bill will have to admire his wonderful nature photography alone.

I know that’s life. I also know whose death it really is the thought of which I cannot bear.


[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

Just before bedtime Monday evening, I tripped while hurrying to turn out a forgotten spotlight in the living room. The fall was hard, on my face. It felt as if I had smashed my nose. My glasses lay ahead of me, unharmed, where they had flown off.  When I lifted my head, blood fell in large drops on the wood floor; I thought it was a heavy nosebleed, one that hurt.

 Bill cleaned me up, stanched copious bleeding with Band-Aids, reported on the visible damage: substantial horizontal cut to bridge of nose, second cut at inner left eyebrow, smaller cut at side of left eye. And yes, a left nostril nosebleed.  But nothing broken. In the bathroom mirror: blood covering my top teeth from damaged mucosa and rapidly swelling upper lip. Yesterday both eyes had turned partially black. I looked as if I’d been mugged.

 Now Bill speculates on how it could have happened. Scatter rug? Flimsy Indian footwear? Fatigue? I speculate it might have been my unconscious, searching for something to blog about next. I wouldn’t put it past me.


[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.] 

We moved to Princeton in February 2006, more than nine years ago. Yet walking and driving its streets bring back no particular memories. I know only that these streets aren’t new to me; I’ve walked or driven them before. That wouldn’t be true in New York or Boston, if I’d stayed put in either of those two cities where I lived most of my adult life, and where many neighborhoods and streets would bring important past events to mind.

I therefore sometimes wonder: Is it better to have been a rolling stone as I was, cutting geographic connections to my history as I go? Or would I have been happier, now I’m in my eighties, if circumstances hadn’t continually uprooted me?

Not that I really had a choice.



Come summer heat, much of my momentum melts away. I thought of re-blogging till Labor Day. However, that’s too lazy for my punitive superego. Therefore the next fifty days will be an experiment: minimalist posts about whatever. This is the first one.

Brevity is hard for me. Short often takes longer than long. So perhaps I won’t be easing up all that much. Especially as I had thought I might use some of the extra summer time to work on a longish story now languishing unfinished on my desktop while I blog. A paradox: write less to spend more time writing.

Promising ideas like this one can also boomerang. But I won’t know until I try.




I didn’t watch daytime soap operas during the very few years I was a stay-at-home housewife with two small babies.  After I went back to paid work, I did sometimes collapse exhausted at night  to watch with comatose brain some mindless episode of a (non-violent) television series. Retired, I confess to also having been for a short time beguiled by The Good Wife (another woman done wrong but fighting back), but only until what’s-his-name, her office love interest, left the show. However, those were all discontinuous in plot — episodes featuring the same characters but with stories that began and ended in a single sitting.

Then came Downton Abbey, five years running, with a sixth and last season yet to come. This somewhat turgid and often long-drawn-out drama [forgive me, fans], beginning before World War I and now somewhere in the mid 1920’s, has always been at least minimally watchable (if you have nothing else to do on a Sunday night) because of the sumptuous settings, gorgeous and always historically accurate costumes and accoutrements, elaborate meals, Maggie Smith as a tart-tongued dowager and my ongoing curiosity as to whether reed-slim Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) will ever bring herself to eat something. [There was also the mystery of upright, stalwart and fiftyish Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), hitherto devoted to his wife, Lady Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), suddenly opening his bedroom door one night, pulling in a passing maid, and kissing her passionately. That was about three seasons ago and we haven’t heard anything more about it since. Perhaps the writers decided to abandon this particular plot line as unpromising, but they should know I’m still waiting.] However, Downton Abbey runs only on six or seven Sundays every mid-winter here in the States and is therefore hardly all-consuming.

But now there’s Netflix, an evil blessing.  No more waiting from week to week. Netflix makes it possible to stream every episode of multiple seasons of TV shows one after the other (plus hundreds of crappy new movies and many oldies but goodies) — all for $7.99 a month. You can sit pigging out on whatever it is till your eyes burn and it’s the wee hours of the morning.  Not that you have to, of course.  It depends on your self-control. And what you’re watching.

Unfortunately for culturally snooty me, a well-educated friend emailed a few weeks ago that she and her husband, a retired psychiatrist, were now “in thrall” to an “Iberian Downton Abbey” on Netflix called Gran Hotel. With such a recommendation, how bad could it be?  The weather outside was killer damp and hot. The sun was burning the impatiens. The sticky moisture in the air threatened aging lungs and newly straightened hair. The streets were empty of people.  I turned up the air-conditioner, drew the blinds and clicked on the set.

Gran Hotel (which Netflix has helpfully translated as Grand Hotel) was a television series that originally ran for three years in Spain, from 2011 through 2013. It reached 18.5% of the viewing audience during its first season; by the third season, between two and three million people were watching each episode. Since then, almost every European country, including Russia and the UK, and several in the far East, have acquired the rights to run it.  In America, Netflix has chopped it into 68 continuous episodes (with great cliff-hangers after each), running 45 minutes apiece.  That’s 51 hours of viewing pleasure.  Give it three or four episodes and, ladies (I’m not sure about the men), you’ll be hooked!  After a while, you may forget meal preparation, eating (unless before the TV set), perhaps basic hygiene, certainly bedtime.  By season three, it was Bill, clutching my hand, who was saying at 12:45 in the morning, “Let’s just see one more….”

It has nearly everything, including a multitude of mysteries and sub-mysteries involving characters, both upstairs and downstairs, who speak beautiful Castilian Spanish, of which I know nothing. (Although I did learn a few useful expressions during my 51 hours glued to the set. People said “I’m sorry,” “excuse me” and “I don’t know” a lot.)  The subtitles are reasonably clear and comprehensive (until the third season when the excitement mounted to a point where the translator began to misspell and leave out a few words.) It’s true that the costuming isn’t quite as elaborate as in Downton Abbey, but the whole thing runs only a year and a half in story time (with a few flashbacks), so styles and hairdos don’t really need to change. But I am getting ahead of myself.

CONOCER LA VERDAD CAMBIARA SUS VIDAS: Knowing the truth will change their lives!

Gran Hotel takes place in 1906 and 1907 in northern Spain near the fictional town of Cantaloa, at the eponymous and equally fictitious Gran Hotel.  All the outdoor shots were filmed on the grounds of the Palacio de la Magdalena (representing the hotel) and at several points nearby in Santander. The indoor sets — sweeping entrance hall, dining room, ballroom, yards and yards of red-plush wallpapered corridors where guest rooms are located, and more yards of grey-painted corridors of doors to small plain rooms where the staff reside, as well as the rooms themselves — were probably constructed in a Madrid studio.

The hotel is owned by the Alarcon family, now headed by Dona Teresa, a recent widow, and managed by the suave and suspicious-looking Diego Murquia, who was her deceased husband’s right-hand man. Dona Teresa (Adriana Ozores), will do almost anything to keep control of the hotel. She has three grown children: Sofia, pregnant with her first child and married to Alfredo, a future Marquis, who she hopes her mother will appoint as manager now that her father is dead; Javier, the only son — cute, but a womanizer and an alcoholic; and lovely Alicia, our heroine (Amaia Salamanca), who Diego (Pedro Alonso) wants and will do anything to marry and who our modestly born but literate hero, courageous and handsome Julio Olmeda (Yon Gonzales), loves at first sight.  Julio has come to the hotel in Episode One to find out what happened to his sister Cristina, who was working there as a maid and has stopped writing letters home.  When he learns Cristina disappeared on the night the hotel went from candlelight to electricity, he lies his way in as a waiter to discover what happened to her.

The hired help consists of a staff of  waiters and maids, presided over by stern Angela the housekeeper (Concha Velasco), who is the mother of Andres (Llorenz Gonzales), one of the waiters. Andres becomes Julio’s roommate and buddy. (At every parting, of which there are several farther along in the script, they clasp each other fervently to show the strength of their feeling.) A maitre d’ (different each season, for reasons made clearer as the plot thickens) supervises the waiters. One of the maids is Belen, who sleeps with Diego, as Cristina apparently did too, before she disappeared. Andres loves Belen. Angela, his mother, has no apparent husband. There is also a letter — in a large red envelope so viewers can’t miss it while it “secretly” travels from hand to hand during the first season — that apparently would wrest control of the hotel from the Alarcons (and Diego). That’s enough to get you started.

Be advised my friend was wrong in comparing Gran Hotel to Downton Abbey in at least one respect. Downton Abbey is polite. Gran Hotel flames with heightened Spanish drama and emotion. (And is also, perhaps unintentionally, much funnier.) You will find not only the star-crossed lovers Julio and Alicia, but a serial murderer who kills poor young women when the moon is full with a gold carving knife; an unhappy arranged marriage; a troubling mystery concerning when and how Don Carlos (Dona Teresa’s dead husband) died; the what-happened-to-Cristina subplot; the real skinny on Diego, who isn’t Diego at all; a detective Ayala suspiciously like Agatha Christie’s Inspector Poirot; Agatha Christie herself as a young English hotel guest trying to help Ayala and inhaling ideas for future mystery novels; Houdini performing a water trick at the hotel; a good-looking priest who fornicates with at least two of his parishioners in the confession box, impregnating one of them; an explosion which leaves the main floor of the hotel looking like a war zone; even cholera.  There is jealousy, attempted murder, suicide, seeming suicide, good adultery, bad adultery, revenge!

Expect duplicity nearly everywhere. You will see much listening at doors, hiding behind corners, a hidden room; a fall down the stairs; a miscarriage; bloody childbirth with appropriate groans in the kitchen; kidnapping; an underground dungeon; a duel with pistols at dawn; people who come back from the dead; the slim yet physically tough — but sensitive, quick-witted and always handsome — hero fighting like nobody’s business with his bare hands (“Where I’m from, you fight or starve!”); same handsome hero stripped to the waist a satisfying number of times; the lovely heroine’s beautiful blue eyes welling up with tears just as frequently whenever confronted with her no-win emotional situation; many people slapping someone else’s face on the slightest provocation;  many a stolen kiss (to swelling orchestral music cueing you in that it’s coming), one in the first season winning Spain’s award for Best Television Kiss and one or more nominated (but not winning) in Season Two. [There’s hotter stuff in Season Two.)

Also overlook a lack of realism. Blood never oxidizes but remains bright red on a knife even days after leaving a body. Shirts drenched red with blood can be rinsed clean white in a basin by a good housekeeper. A baby is born looking three months old.  Same baby lies peacefully in his bassinet, never growing as the plot unspools over many months, and can be carried in the arms without movement whenever required by the storyline. A corpse is successfully disposed of in a rolled-up carpet. Another corpse, exhumed long after death, doesn’t smell. Bullets always miss vital organs in good people, and extremely bad wounds that would leave the likes of us lying in bed for at least a month or two heal sufficiently within a day for the victim to be up and about, intent on wrongdoing (if he’s bad) or on saving the heroine (if he’s Julio).  Important documents are burned incompletely so that a  person may find a scrap that leads to clues or permits attempted blackmail.  Other important documents pop up just when needed. Poison and opium lie around where anyone can get at it.  I’m sure I’ve left a lot out, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

And whenever it all becomes too hair-raising, you can rest assured that after 51 hours of watching, the more-or-less good guys, plus Julio and Alicia,  will reach a happy ending, and the others not.

I’d watch it again myself, but I already know the plot.




The man to whom I was married for twenty-six years telephoned the other day. This is not a common occurrence; I hear from him only rarely. He told me his older brother, aged 93, had just died. He wanted me to hear first, he said, because I had known the brother longer than anyone still alive.

The brother’s wife, 87 or 88 herself, had called to tell him. The brother and his wife were childless, but she was Dutch and had a daughter by a previous marriage living in Holland; they had moved there two or three years ago to be near this daughter in their extreme old age.

My former husband said he knew it might be coming. His brother had been failing since early June and his sister-in-law had been keeping him posted. It was an infection of the kidneys that didn’t respond to antibiotics and couldn’t be scanned because of a prior hip replacement. The brother died at home, “full of tubes,” after several days of extreme stress. Per their prior agreement in America, his wife finally authorized termination of life support.

The brothers had shared a bedroom all the time they were growing up. Even as adults, the younger looked up to and admired the older one. But after the older brother married forty-six years ago, there was some alienation I won’t go into that didn’t resolve until relatively late in life. Only more recently, as they became the remaining two of their generation of a large family left alive, did they seem to have overlooked their differences, and began to stay in touch regularly.

The voice on the telephone was audibly shaky. “It’s so final,” I heard. I had come to dislike the older brother; he had treated us shabbily and then completely turned his back on us when we were going through hard times. But I was sorry all the same, and said so. Certainly sorry for my former husband’s loss, and also sorry to hear of anyone’s death.

Later, however, what struck me most about this relatively short telephone conversation was something else. Apparently when she called with the final news, the sister-in-law was so overcome she could hardly speak. “I hadn’t realized they were so close,” said the man I lived with so long about two very old people who had been together forty-six years. He said it three times before we hung up.

I’m not sure whether he may have not been somewhat envious of their feelings for one another. I am sure his inability to realize people married nearly half a century would feel so close to one another explains yet again, more than anything else that happened to us while we were a couple — why we no longer are.




I may have mentioned her before.  She is Diana Athill, an Englishwoman who spent her working life editing books by well-known authors, wrote four extremely well-received memoirs in her eighties, and is now 96 1/2.  The last of these memoirs, Somewhere Towards the End, written in her 89th year, is frank and wise about what it’s like to enter one’s nineties.

Unlike Roger Angell (two posts back), who is still roaring at the injustice of being sidelined by age and the callous disregard of IMG_1639younger generations, Athill — who had a private life probably more uninhibited than Angell’s — calmly describes and accepts what is, and what is soon to come, with considerable remaining joie de vivre.

There are lots of good bits in Somewhere Towards the End, not just for those not too far behind her (like me) but also for those in the middle of life who may be dawdling along and need a gentle kick in the pants to get going with whatever it is.   For instance, Chapter 14 is entitled “Regrets” and begins like this:

It seems to me that anyone looking back over eighty-nine years ought to see a landscape pockmarked with regrets. One knows so well, after all, one’s own lacks and lazinesses, omissions, oversights, the innumerable ways in which one falls short of one’s own ideals, to say nothing of standards set by other and better people. All this must have thrown up — indeed it certainly did throw up — a large number of regrettable events, yet they have vanished from my sight. Regrets? I say to myself. What regrets? This invisibility may be partly the result of a preponderance of common sense over imagination: regrets are useless, so forget them. But it does suggest that if a person is consistently lucky beyond her expectations she ends by becoming smug. A disagreeable thought, which I suppose I ought to investigate.

After a passage about her feelings concerning never having had children, she goes on to the two that give her pause: a certain coldness, or selfishness in her own core, “which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one’s whole self, as a mother has to give herself to an infant and a toddler” and not being industrious or brave enough to enlarge the confines of her life.

In almost all ways except age, I am not much like Diana Athill, but I do sit up at how this chapter ends and reflect, “I still have five years before I myself am 89; there’s still some time.”  As for the rest of you, who probably have much more time than that, perhaps it will make you sit up and do a bit of thinking, too:

So I do have at least one major regret after all: not my childlessness, but that central selfishness in me, so clearly betrayed by the fact childlessness is not what I regret. And now I remember how my inadequacy regarding small children….caused me to let down my cousin Barbara, whose house I live in, in spite of thinking her then as I think of her now as my best friend, when some forty-odd years ago she started a family. No sooner had she got three children than she and her husband separated, so that she had to raise them single-handed, working at a very demanding full-time job in order to keep them. How she struggled through those years I don’t know, and I think she herself marvels at it in retrospect. But at the time what did I do to help her? Nothing. I shut my eyes to her problems, even saw very little of her, feeling sadly that she had disappeared into this tiresome world of small children — or world of tiresome small children — and she has said since then that she never dreamt of asking me for help, so aware was she of my coldness towards her brood. About that it is not just regret that I feel.  It is shame.

One regret brings up another, though it is, thank goodness, less shameful. It’s at never having had the guts to escape the narrowness of my life. I have a niece, a beautiful woman who I shall not name because she wouldn’t like it, who is the mother of three sons, the youngest of whom will soon be following his brothers to university, and who has continued throughout her marriage to work as a restorer of paintings. Not long ago she sat at dinner beside a surgeon, and happened to say to him that if she had her time over again she would choose to train in some branch of medicine. He asked her how old she was. Forty-nine, she told him. Well, he said, she still had time to train as a midwife if she wanted to, they accepted trainees up to the age of fifty; whereupon she went home and signed up. The last time I saw her she could proudly report that she had now been in charge of six births all on her own. There had been moments, she said, when she felt “What on earth am I doing here?, but she still couldn’t imagine anything more thrilling that being present at — helping at — the beginning of new life. The most moving thing of all, she said, was when the father cried (there had been fathers present at all six births). When that happened she had to go out of the room to hide the fact that she was crying too.  She is a person of the most delicate reserve, so watching her face light up when she spoke about being present at a birth filled me with envy. Having had the courage and initiative suddenly to step out of a familiar and exceptionally agreeable life into something quite different, she has clearly gained something of inestimable value. And I have never done anything similar.

It is not as though I was never impatient at having only one life at my disposal. A great deal of my reading has been done for the pleasure of feeling my way into other lives, and quite a number of my love affairs were undertaken for the same reason (I remember once comparing a sexual relationship with going out in a glass-bottomed boat). But to turn such idle fancies into action demands courage and energy, and those I lacked. Even if I had been able to summon up such qualities, I am sure I would never have moved over into anything as useful as midwifery, but think of the places to which I might have travelled, the languages I might have learnt! Greek, for example: I have quite often thought of how much I would like to speak modern Greek so that I could spend time earning a living there and getting to know the country in a serious way, but I never so much as took an evening class in it. And when I went to Oxford, I indolently chose to read English literature, which I know I was going to read anyway, for pleasure, instead of widening my range by embarking on a scientific subject, such as biology. And never at any time did I seriously try to use my hands (except at embroidery, which I am good at). Think how useful and probably enjoyable it would be to build a bookcase. I really am sorry about that.

So there are two major regrets, after all: that nub of coldness at the centre, and laziness (I think laziness played a greater part than cowardice in my lack of initiative, though some cowardice there was). They are real, but I can’t claim they torment me, or even that I shall often think about them. And at those two I shall stop…. I am not sure that digging out past guilts is a useful occupation for the very old, given that one can do so little about them. I have reached a stage at which one hopes to be forgiven for concentrating on how to get through the present.




[From “Stand Up for Your Cats,” by Julia Baird, New York Times, March 29, 2015]

Cat men and women, we have the numbers. There are now roughly 95.6 million cats in America [compared to 83.3 million dogs].


Part of the appeal of cats is that they are independent and discerning. They have few needs. They come to you when they want; you can’t force them, or cajole them. They can be fiercely affectionate. They are gloriously indifferent. Cats don’t pretend to like you, and don’t care if you like them.


[From Honorable Cat, by Paul Gallico (Crown Publishers), pages 8-9]

Everything a cat is and does physically is … beautiful, lovely, stimulating, soothing, attractive and an enchantment.

It begins … with the compactness of construction, composition, size, proportion and general overall form. The domesticated cat is the tidiest of all animals. There is an almost divine neatness and economy about the animal. Completely packaged in fur with not a bald spot showing, rarely two specimens wholly alike, it often comes decorated with designs that Picasso might envy and always functionally streamlined for every activity; just another case of the practical made glamorous.