LITTLE IRONIES

Standard

i.

Bill once knew a man married to a woman who believed she loved all mankind.  She always supported far left candidates politically,  voted the Democratic ticket, espoused extremely liberal causes with letters to various editors, and also appeared to be color-blind, gender-blind and blind to ethnic and religious differences. At Christmas time, likely with a warm glow of good feeling in her heart, she wrote out small checks (representing money her husband had earned) to fifty or more charitable organizations of all kinds.

Yet everyone in their social circle disliked her. She was neither kind nor generous in situations where she couldn’t play Lady Bountiful. A colleague with whom she had worked closely and productively asked her to write a letter of recommendation supporting his application for another, better job. She didn’t say she would prefer not to.  She agreed to do it and then proceeded to send a letter trashing his job performance and inter-personal relationships at work. He found out only when he inquired why he had not gotten the job.  Her husband invited to dinner a colleague of his own, of whom he was fond; she instructed him at the end of the evening she did not want this man in her house again because he was a messy eater and left crumbs around his dining-room chair. Although he was a college professor, she didn’t like his Brooklyn diction either. Her brother, and only sibling, broke off relations with her thirty years ago after she hounded him, over and over, about the alleged psychological imperfections of one of his sons. (The boy grew up just fine in the end, without the interventions of his aunt.)  This woman, who her husband has now divorced, apparently continues to love all mankind in general, but ironically has difficulty cutting specific individuals any slack.

ii.

I recently met a journalist with strong views about what is wrong with the bottom-line driven, impersonal and inhuman first-world society we live in. At the time of our meeting, which was by appointment, he was particularly irate about the scripted use of expressions of human warmth in coldly commercial transactions, a context in which they are meaningless.  Examples: “Have a good day” from the checkout clerk when you leave the checkout line in a supermarket, even at nine o’clock at night.  “Welcome to Bank of America,” from a greeter whose job it is to welcome you to an institution interested only in your money and how much they can make from your patronage.  “Are you still working on that?” from the apparently solicitous waiter who really only wants to clear you out of the restaurant so as to turn over the table to another customer.

Wishing these patently insincere remarks removed from the context  of the marketplace, where they are neither expected nor wanted, the journalist had apparently also expunged them, and other gestures of courtesy, from the context of more personal discourse where expressions of human warmth might have been anticipated.  No “Hi, how are you?” No “Nice to meet you.” No offer to clear a chair, covered with his coat and hat, for me to sit down. No offer to shake hands (although he did briefly take mine, as if reminded, when I made the offer), or to  summon a waitress to take my order. (He had already drunk his coffee while waiting for me.) A meeting which might have been a pleasant exchange of ideas became stiff and uncomfortable as it went on in this vein — certainly for me, and I cannot imagine not also for him. Expressions counterproductive of good feeling when present in a commercial context had ironically become counterproductive of good feeling when they were absent from a personal context.

iii.

I’m probably not overstating the case to say many of us were glued to our television screens on November 13 and the days following. We were both stunned by what had happened in Paris and avid for every scrap of information concerning how what seemed unimaginable had come about and — far more difficult to untangle — why. But as the television reporters congregating there over the weekend and into the following week began to run out of fresh data from the police investigation both in France and Belgium, they fell back (as they always do) on the “human” angle, bringing us the testimony of eyewitnesses and survivors to perhaps revive flagging viewer interest with stories of blood and bodies and rounds of shooting helpless people on the floor.

Two of these survivors were a particularly attractive and articulate young couple, separated at the time of the terrorist attack on the Bataclan. He had gone to the bathroom behind the stage, so neither knew what was happening to the other.  They held hands as Anderson Cooper interviewed them on CNN.  She was blonde and spoke English softly but very well.  He was dark-haired and spoke mainly French, but Cooper repeated the gist of his account in English.  He had barricaded himself behind a door. She pretended to be dead, beneath the bloody body of a person who really was dead.  She said each time she heard the gun begin again, she thought the next round would be for her.  She also kept thinking, “I love you,” because she wanted to die with love in her heart. Cooper then asked them what they have taken away from this experience. She said she had learned on that night how important it was to live, to live every day, to appreciate every day, to love every day.

And there were Bill and I, immobilized on our sofa for much of the previous three or four days, watching this lovely young woman telling us to live, when ironically, we were not really living.  We were just gobbling up a news feed about horror as if it were a kind of entertainment. We were not particularly appreciating each of the days we may have left. (He is nearly 88 and I, as you know, am 84.) We were complaining that the news (read “entertainment”) wasn’t coming fast enough. We were also complaining about all the commercials — for each of which I have to press “mute” and then “unmute” — while the sun shone outside and our own lives were slipping away a day at a time.  We normally are not television watchers.  What were we doing on the sofa?

So we took her advice, turned off the set and got up.  We can find out what happens in the world in about ten minutes every morning from the Times. There will be  lessons for the West in what happened in Paris, but one of the lessons it offered us, Bill and me  — not a new lesson, by the way, but one which needs reinforcing every once in a while — is that watching screens on which other people talk about living life is not living life, even though (ironically) more and more of us think it is. That is even truer if we dolly back from the television screen to include other digital screens. The virtual is not the real. But that’s a topic for another day.

******

P.S.  [No irony here.]  Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Advertisements

WHERE HAS SHE BEEN? WHAT’S SHE BEEN DOING?

Standard

Reading a Shakespeare play every week in a six-week seminar attended exclusively by “students” well over 55 where everyone but me seems to be an expert. I thought it would end about now, but it’s been such a success the professor agreed to extend it by one more week. So instead of being over last Monday, we’re ending next Monday. With The Tempest.  (There goes much of my weekend.)

Trying to learn the first movement of a Beethoven sonata. A very easy sonata. (No. 20) Not easy for me, though. I can’t play the rest of it as fast as I can do the rolling triplets in the left hand, and when I slow down the triplets to the speed at which I can sort of manage the rest of it, they don’t sound so good.

Adding an “easy” Chopin Prelude (No. 7) to the Beethoven. Chopin’s fingers must have been much longer than mine. I am extremely grateful to YouTube performers of this Prelude, from whom I discovered I could roll the one truly impossible chord and take the top two notes written for the right hand with the left hand by crossing it over. (A maneuver which also looks impressively graceful.) I’m also relearning how to pedal. I never realized one needed to script the pedaling. Well, maybe not everyone does. But I do, marking the score each time the foot comes up and goes down again because teaching an old dog new tricks isn’t easy without visual aids.

Tutoring English conversation again, with a fun post-graduate from Italy. She’s at Princeton collecting a living-expenses stipend to turn her dissertation (written in Milan in Italian) into a book for the general (English-speaking) reader. She’s attached to the Department of Politics; her topic is International Human Rights. At the beginning we talked only about human rights. (And a little fashion.) But then I took her grocery shopping in my car last week and we talked about tomatoes and whether it was better (and cheaper) to buy a package of twelve pieces of frozen Atlantic salmon that were going to be baked piecemeal or twelve pieces of fresh Atlantic salmon, freeze them, and defrost as needed. We also pinched avocados together. She’s a big texter and an old-style shopper – weighing everything and calculating prices minus or plus an apple. So I’m learning almost as much from her as she is from me.

Clothes-shopping for a few nice new things to replace the many not-so-nice, not-so-new things that moths had a picnic with last year when I wasn’t looking and spraying and mothballing because I was thinking about what to write for you. Gone: too-tight narrow skirt, old grey wool out-of-style pants, very old Calvin Klein pant suit that was always too good to wear and thus never got worn much; unloved black sweater set from Brooks Brothers; red cashmere turtleneck sweater. May it all R.I.P. Welcome: terrific “passionflower” merino jersey dress; bluish purple poncho-ish sweater (hides all signs of overeating); new charcoal sweater set with kimono-style long cardigan that looks like an elegant short coat without buttons.

Collecting notes, as class correspondent, for the twice-a-year magazine of the college I attended, and discovering two more classmates, plus a third classmate’s husband, have died since the last issue. This is now getting scary. Of the seven of us who took an off-campus house in our last year (which was 1951-52), leaving three places for foreign students, five are gone, and eight years ago, when last I spoke with her, the sixth was badly crippled with arthritis. I have no way of reconnecting with the foreign students, but as they were our age, it might be just as much a downer if I could.

Also reading two crappy novels for book groups I still belong to because I like the women in them; having personal struggles with the leftover Halloween candy until I bit the bullet and threw it out; making a pot roast that took too many days to finish eating; fearing annual cardiologist and pulmonologist visits because of the increasing risk of bad news each year; watching many economists give talks on YouTube in which they explain what’s wrong with the world and which particular basket it’s going to hell in – because it makes Bill happy to hear these deeply learned experts agree with him.

And wondering what I should do with TGOB going forward (besides getting older while writing it).   I feel it needs a plan, or a mission statement, or something more unifying than just what bubbles out of my head. No answer to that one yet, but at least now you’re all caught up.

And what have you all been doing?