EASIER SAID THAN DONE

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One of the “attractions” we visited last weekend during a short trip to the Berkshires was The Mount.  (I say “we” because I went with a relatively new acquaintance from Windrows who had proposed the trip and volunteered to do all the driving, which was about 3 1/2 hours each way from Princeton.)

The Mount is the house the novelist Edith Wharton designed and built in Lenox, Massachusetts, and occupied most of the time from 1902 until 1911, when she separated from her husband and moved to Paris.  It is white and cool — important in the sweltering pre-air-conditioned New York and New England summers — and sits on raised ground.  In the rear is a magnificent landscape of Italianate gardens, formal on one side, “natural” on the other. Although I’d been to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, several times in my several past lives, I was never before able to visit The Mount because it was under reconstruction each time.   However, for several years now it’s at last been open to the public.

I’m a sucker for gift shops at such places. I always want some little reasonably priced something to remind me I was there.  At The Mount’s gift shop you can buy heavy and expensive illustrated books of Italianate gardens and others about The Mount itself, which I didn’t.  You can also buy copies of most of the over forty books of fiction and non-fiction Wharton wrote and published during her lifetime, which I also didn’t.

According to the guide who led us through the house, she did the writing in bed from 8:30 to 11:30 every morning of her life, before arising to don the corseted, restrictive day clothes of her era. She tossed each handwritten sheet on the floor, later to be gathered and typed up by a secretary.  In her bedroom on the top floor you can see scattered on the bed photocopies of some of those pages — of The House of Mirth, written at The Mount.  The writing enabled her to enhance her inheritance so as to support expensive living in Paris and the Riviera. She was a great success in her lifetime.  (The three novels still generally recognized and admired today, whose titles you may recognize and movie adaptations of which you may have seen, are The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome).

Not surprisingly, several pithy sayings suitable for printing on cards may be found in the collected works of a woman who wrote so much. Again no surprise — such cards were indeed in the shop, and then they were in my purse, and now they are going to be in the blog.  ($4.00 each: How’s that for a reminder I was there? Ah well, the Mount’s reconstruction is still paying for itself.). Although faithful blog readers may be able to surmise why these two particular cards spoke to me,  I suspect they may have general relevance to most everyone past the first flush of youth. (Or else why would they have been in the shop?)

But first some Wharton back story.  She was born into New York high society in 1862, when women were discouraged from achieving anything but a proper marriage. Unfortunately, she was a bookish girl who read widely (in French, German and Italian as well as English), and early on yearned for a wider intellectual life than was thought seemly for those in her social circle. Her marriage to Ted Wharton was not good.  He was social, outgoing and apparently not much of a thinker; she relished solitude, books, and good conversation. There were no children. Eventually he became mentally unbalanced, they separated, and she achieved a divorce.  She is known to have had only one lover, after separating from her husband; the lover turned out to be a cad with a divorced wife, a mistress, a fiancee, and a propensity for sticking his pen in many inkwells. Nonetheless, she hung on for three years before giving up.  (Her private papers reveal that it was with him, at the age of 47, she had her first orgasm.) Afterwards, she continued her ongoing and copious written correspondence with male friends such as Henry James and Walter Berry, but seemed to have had no later intimates.

As she advises (on the card above), “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we’d have a pretty good time.”  And perhaps she did have a pretty good time.  (Not to be cynical, but I can’t help thinking the money helped.  However, she earned it herself. And I do believe she enjoyed the writing as well as the spending.) Moreover, I once had a psychotherapist who said just about the same thing.  He asked me what I wanted.  I was fifty-seven.  I said I wanted to be happy. He said happiness was not the goal of therapy.

Another card (which I also bought) quotes Wharton’s thoughts on how to have a pretty good time without trying to be happy.  Actually, the thoughts are not specifically about not trying to be happy, but about how to stay alive — which I take to mean alive in all senses of the word — well after the age at which most (all right, many) people start to fall apart.

But it seems to me it comes to the same thing in the end:

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Be unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things?That’s a tall order, about which we could talk for days. For one thing,  life is change.  Often we forget it.  Our lives continue day to day, seemingly the same.  Boring even.  And then, suddenly, boom! — it’s not the same at all.  And yes, it is scary.  Especially the older you get.  But what are you going to do?  Give up?  Or go on?  I’m not going to wax philosophical about intellectual curiosity or interest in big things, either. You’ve got it.  Or you don’t.  (Although I suppose you could force yourself because you know it’s good for you; better to be insatiable about learning something new than be insatiable about chocolate cake.)

But happy in small ways?  Well, sure. Small ways to be happy turn up all the time, usually when we least expect.  In fact, six of them turned up right in The Mount’s gift shop, next to the Wharton lessons in life. However, I’m also discovering that part of becoming old old (“long past the usual date of disintegration”) is pacing yourself.  So I’ll just save them for the next post!

RIGHT UP MY ALLEY: DONALD HALL AT 86

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AFTER SUMMER COMES THE FALL

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Attentive readers may recall that on July 10 I took a leave of absence from “Getting Old” to clean up the manuscript of a book I had abandoned unfinished ten years ago. I was returning to the book because a literary agent had asked to see it, and I needed to not embarrass myself by sending it off without fussing over it and thereby blowing what looked like a once-in-a-writer’s-lifetime event: an actual solicitation from an agent.

When I returned, I promised to let you know when I heard from the agent.  Friends, that time has come. You can guess the result from the title of this post.

Here’s his letter:

Dear Nina Mishkin,

I am old enough to remember dropping in on the only White Castle burger place in Greenwich Village for a bag of mini burgers after a late night on the town. They were greasy and unescapable.

I am sorry to have kept you waiting for this response, but I was away on holiday when your manuscript arrived.

I wish I had better news for you, but I do not see a viable market with publishers for “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” You write well and manage to create the times, 50 years ago when eating disorders were mostly unknown except to shrinks or dietitians. This may make an interesting article in one of the national magazines, but it’s more nostalgic than hopeful.

Since this is a subjective reading, another agency may have a different opinion. I’ve been wrong before.

Regretfully,

/s/

P.S. I am returning your manuscript in the hopes that you can reuse it with other agents.

One should never burn one’s bridges.  [And I chose to believe the “regretfully.”]  So I e-mailed him back this morning:

Dear ____________,

You write a gracious rejection letter.

To be candid, I’m not surprised you don’t see a market for this kind of thing. You’re right that the part you read is not “hopeful,” in the sense that it appears to be a “misery” memoir without a clearly happy ending.  And hope or happiness, I suppose, is what the market demands.

On the other hand, I am not now — and have not been for quite some time — fat or even overweight. So I suppose there was, eventually, light at the end of the tunnel. But as you must realize if you’re old enough to remember White Castle burgers, getting to know, like and live with oneself is, for some of us, a long slow process, and another story entirely — one which isn’t really marketable either, even if I were inclined to write it.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about finishing “Eating” and pursuing publication with other agents. But I do very much appreciate your interest, the time you took to read however much you read of it, and your kind regrets.

All my best wishes,

/s/

*******************

Truthfully, and despite all your good wishes for a contrary result, I wasn’t surprised at this rejection.  As I reported when I finished my edit, I thought what I had done was uneven, not in its writing but in its interest level, and had mixed feelings about going on with it. So I really don’t need consoling.  What I need now is to sort out my thoughts about what to do next.  And you can all help with that.

If I don’t put it away again — always an option — and do pursue the agent’s implied suggestion that I try with other agents, I will need to finish the manuscript first.  (Only already published authors go to market with unfinished work.)  Although you can send an agent a synopsis and the first fifty pages, if there’s a nibble you’ve got to be able to send the whole thing.  I have the synopsis and 173 relatively polished pages, but not the rest of it. I’m not even entirely sure what “the rest of it” would contain.  [I rarely know what I think till I see what I write.]  However, finishing would mean quite a lot more work, on subject matter no longer dear to my heart, in quest of an uncertain future.

I could also finish it and try to publish it myself, as at least one of you has suggested.  Believe it or not, while I was drafting this post, the agent answered my thank-you email.  [It seems we’re now on a first-name basis.] His timing was impeccable:

Dear Nina,

In this new ebook world, many writers are finding an audience for their work by self-publishing through Amazon. Why don’t you explore this possibility, before abandoning the book. Yours is better written than most.

Good luck,

Nat

So now, dear readers, you can help me decide whether to grit my teeth, finish writing the manuscript and then try to find it an audience, either through an agent or by self-publishing. Is there in fact a paying audience for a book like this?  Here’s the two-page synopsis I sent along with the manuscript.  Would you be interested in buying such a book or ebook to read it in full?

********************

Unfinished First Draft of “Eating Behind Closed Doors: A Memoir”

This book recounts the development of the author’s nearly life-long binge eating disorder, beginning during her four years as an almost full scholarship student at prestigious, expensive Sarah Lawrence College between 1948 and 1952.The tone is wry, dispassionate and occasionally tender.  Because much of it takes place so long ago, the book necessarily also describes by implication a world thankfully now gone where societal expectations for even educated girls were limited and confining, which should make it interesting to feminists and other young women as well as to readers more narrowly focused on its confessional aspects.

SYNOPSIS

 Author’s Preface: A three-page explanation of what the book is, and is not about, and why the author has written it. (Perhaps dispensable.)

Section I: Six pages graphically plunging the reader into the author’s secret life of night binge eating in 1986, when she was 55 and beginning a mid-life career as a lawyer – taken in part from contemporaneous notes made to record her shame and disgust at what she was still doing to herself after so many years.

Section II : The author prepares for college by rigorous dieting to begin her new life looking like the slender models in Seventeen Magazine. The new life proves stressful. A scholarship student, she’s uncomfortable with wealthy classmates from private day schools, finds the unconventional educational methods at Sarah Lawrence unsettling, and can’t maintain 1000 calories a day on mid-twentieth century institutional meals. A blind date for a football weekend at Princeton proves disastrous, and a first binge ensues, memorable as a template for future escapes from pain. Although she has a boyfriend at the University of Chicago, twenty-five hours away by train, the author gradually slips into wildly aberrational eating habits that pile on the pounds during the long snowy winter. The slippage soon includes intensifying self-contempt as well as lies to mother and boyfriend. During the summer she first tries psychotherapy, unsuccessfully.

In her second year, she meets J.D. Salinger (age 33), Marguerite Yourcenar and, in Paris, a hungry not-yet-known Larry Rivers. The year features in-the-trenches sexual battle a la 1950 with the boyfriend, pouring peroxide over her brown hair to change herself, increasing tension with her mother, growing dependence on secret binging for a “fix,” and a student bicycle tour of Europe (temporarily abandoned for the dubious joys of Paris patisseries) during which she encounters the strong anti-American feeling still obtaining in Bavaria five years after the end of war, and perhaps lingering anti-semitism as well. During her last two college years, she steals (both food and money). She also experiences bitter resentment at the loss of a friend to an in-the-closet lesbian relationship, and the momentary but illusory hope of romance with a faculty member. She graduates in June 1952, having done commendable and serious academic work in which she had almost no interest, without boyfriend or job prospects and realizing that in all aspects important to her, she has failed.

Section III: Expecting unrealistically to leave binging behind, the author moves to Los Angeles with her parents. [To be continued: This section, not yet written, could contain – at a minimum — discussion of the author’s disorder at its later worst; its physical and emotional effect on her over the years; how at the age of 68 she eventually managed to reach a somewhat even keel; her experience with Overeaters Anonymous (and its offshoot, Grey Sheet); her views on psychotherapy (of which she’s had a lot) as both helpful and not helpful in resolution of her disorder; and some concluding thoughts.]

*****************

Now here I stand at the crossroads. Do I chalk the whole summer up to experience, or go on?  I’m quite serious in asking the level of your interest, and won’t be at all offended — possibly even relieved — if I learn from your comments that I should put what agent Nat called “nostalgic” behind me and forget it.  What do you think? Does “Eating” have any kind of a future? Don’t wait for someone else to say something. And don’t be nice.  Be honest.

TIME OUT

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I’m bad at multi-tasking. I can really think about only one thing at a time.

For the last eight months or so, that has been blogging.  It was good for me, in what is called “retirement” (meaning you don’t get paid for what you do), to have to sit down every day and come up with a relatively polished post that anyone might see.  Blogging gave life structure, purpose, a sense of keeping core skills in use.  In time, it also brought virtual friends — in some cases from parts of the world I would not have thought my words would reach — and invitations to come visit.  (I wish, I wish.)

But now I confront a dilemma.  Several weeks ago, I heard from a New York literary agent. He wrote he had very much enjoyed reading my piece in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review, called himself a “fan” of my writing and thought I might be publishable.  He meant publishable in book form.  Open offer: What did I have to send him?  He didn’t want collections of short pieces, not at first anyway.  He said book publishers would not be interested in collections unless there were a novel or book-length memoir behind it.

I did some research.  He’s been around for quite a while.  Represents some published names I recognize. Seems to know what he’s talking about.

It just so happens there is “a book” on the hard drive.  Half of a first draft of one, anyway.  I wrote it on Fridays while still practicing law four days a week, and also during multi-week summer vacations on a small Greek island during the very hot afternoons when it was best to stay in the shade.  And then I couldn’t decide how to do the second half, if it in fact needed a second half.  Or even if I wanted other people to see it.  So I put it away without deciding.

I described it to the agent. He thought we should start there. I asked for six to eight weeks to look it over and clean it up.  (My style has changed somewhat since the Greek island, for the better, I think — thanks to blogging.)  So that’s where I am.

I have no idea if anything will come of this.  But it deserves my best shot.  Hence the dilemma.  I can’t do blog and book simultaneously.  I know there are some WordPress writer/bloggers who can, and do.  Alas, we all have our limitations, and this one is mine.

Bottom line: The Getting Old Blog is taking a summer break while I sharpen my metaphorical pencil and get into serious editing.  I’ll still be keeping an eye on my Reader.  Newer followers have eight months of my archived stuff to explore.  And if anyone is really dying to hear from me, there’s always e-mail.

I’ll let you all in on how it turns out when I get back. [I’m not holding my breath.  But who knows?]  In the meantime, my best wishes for a wonderful summer!

 

HILARY MANTEL: BRINGING HISTORY ALIVE

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I’m not a great fan of historical fiction, if by that we mean novels about fictional characters placed in a historical period for background color and to add pages of authorial research to the plot.  Long, long ago, when I was still consuming books from the children’s section of the public library, I very much liked “The Little Maid” series — A Little Maid of Bunker Hill, A Little Maid of Ticonderoga, and so forth — which gave its young readers digestible snippets of American history served up in stories about  patriotic little maids saving the day for the adults.

But once I had persuaded everyone who mattered (the librarian and my mother) that I was old enough to go upstairs to the grown-up section, the allure of historical fiction began to fade. As my taste gradually matured, most of this sort of reading matter became less believable.  Forever Amber was exciting in my adolescence because the fictional Amber slept around so much, not for its unpersuasive description of the court of King Charles II and seventeenth-century London.  Gone with the Wind was slightly better, but  probably only because many of my generation saw the movie before reading the book. And now that I’m really grown up (so they say), A Georgette Heyer Regency novel, for instance,  featuring a proud but financially challenged fictional heroine in a high-waisted column of white dress and carrying a reticule just doesn’t do it for me, even if her similarly fictional counterpart is a strong-jawed disdainful hero with a title, horses, property beyond belief and secret longings in his heart for the heroine.  I suppose Baroness Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1901) or Rafael Sabatini’s wildly romantic Scaramouche (1921) and its many sequels were acceptable page-turners for the times in which they first appeared. And A Tale of Two Cities, a standard in the American public high school curriculum when I was young, is simply Dickens, irrespective of its historical context, stirring words  (“It was the best of times, It was the worst of times….”) and Sydney Carton redeeming himself by being guillotined in the end.  (“It is a far far better thing than I have ever done….”) That said, I have by and large closed the door on bodice-rippers and tales of derring-do.

But when we turn to fiction about identifiable historical persons, who actually did live and love and suffer and die in centuries gone by, we must discriminate between bad, okay and very good — the distinction based largely on the quality of the writing and one’s ability to suspend disbelief.  For a short while in college I was indeed in thrall to Mary Renault’s three novels about Alexander the Great, despite the fact that his bisexuality tilted strongly in favor of his own sex. Her work made his conquest of the known world seem (to me, then) somewhat real.  But it was also frustrating, because Alexander was dead at 33, and all cut up with battle scars by then, and wouldn’t have given me the time of day anyway. Girlish reasons, I admit, but what can you expect from a college girl? (Renault also wrote one about Theseus, but that was less gripping because Theseus was mythological and not a real man.)

There are other such books, of perhaps higher literary merit. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Burr are probably the best of the five or six he wrote in this genre.  I do intend to tackle Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian’s Memoirs (in translation) at some indefinite time in the future.  But the absolutely most enjoyable and entirely convincing literary fictions about a historical figure I have read are Hilary Mantel’s relatively recent Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies.  She’s not only an accurate historian and an imaginative novelist but a superb writer.

As you may know, these are novels about Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII’s defection from the Catholic Church and his divorce from his first queen, the man who sent supposedly saintly Thomas More to be burned at the stake, divested the church of its property in England for the benefit of the crown and shortly thereafter contrived to have Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, convicted for adultery (and incest with her own brother) so that she could “legally” be sent to the executioner when she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne.

Sound like a bad guy? Don’t rush to judgment.  Mantel shows you early sixteenth-century England exclusively through Cromwell’s eyes.  You are there.  You live his life. She omits no known historical fact in the public record, but benefits enormously from the almost complete absence of any record of Cromwell’s private life by creating one for him.  You not only see with him, but also think with him, feel with him, maneuver with him, sympathize with him.  In a way, you become him — whether you approve of yourself as Cromwell or not. Give Mantel fifty pages, more or less:  if you can get through that much, you will be hers, and perhaps Cromwell’s too, until he dies.

Unfortunately, neither she nor he are there yet. She is still writing the third book of the trilogy.  So until she finishes and this ultimate treat reaches publication — what might there be of equal allure to get me through hot damp July in Princeton?  What a question!  More Hilary Mantel of course.  Before she tackled Cromwell, she labored intermittently over the French Revolution for almost twenty years.  The book, finally published in 1992, is A Place Of Greater Safety, and it tells its panoramic story through the lives of three of the most important figures of the revolutionary period :  Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. It runs 749 pages in the paperback edition and I’m only at page 220.  But that’s far enough to report that I am half in love with Camille, of whom I had not known before.  (He’s the one who jumped up onto a table in front of a crowd gathered before the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (le quatorze juillet) and delivered a speech so incendiary the population erupted and the monarchy soon toppled.

A Place of Greater Safety, written earlier than the Cromwell books,  is not as smooth a read.  It has a much larger number of significant players to keep straight in your head and a more intricate and shifting scheme of political events to follow, so that if you begin it, I cannot promise easy sailing all the way through. But if your idea of what the French Revolution may have been like while it was happening is based on Hollywood screen sets populated with heavily made-up movie extras in picturesque rags who are going to go home at the end of the working day to a gin and tonic and a nice dinner — then look at how Hilary Mantel sets the scene.

We learn early on (page 26) about bread:

When the Lieutenant of Police goes to his desk — today, last year — the first piece of information he requires concerns the price of a loaf in the bakers’ shops of Paris. If Les Halles is well supplied with flour, then the bakers of the city and the faubourgs will satisfy their customers, and the thousand itinerant bakers will bring their bread in to the markets in the Marais, in Saint Paul, in the Palais-Royal; and in Les Halles itself.

In easy times, a loaf of brown bread costs eight or nine sous. A general laborer, who is paid by the day, can expect to earn twenty sous; a mason might get forty sous, a skilled locksmith or a joiner might get fifty. Items for the budget: rent money, candles, cooking fat, vegetables, wine. Meat is for special occasions. Bread is the main concern.

The supply lines are tight, precise, monitored. What the bakers have left over at the end of the day must be sold off cheap; the destitute do not eat till night falls on the markets.

All goes well; but then when the harvest fails — in 1770, say, or in 1772 or 1774 — an inexorable price rise begins; in the autumn of 1774 a four pound loaf in Paris costs eleven sous, but by the following spring the price is up to fourteen. Wages do not rise. The building workers are always turbulent, so are the weavers, so are the bookbinders and (poor souls) the hatters, but strikes are seldom to procure a wage rise, usually to resist a cut. Not the strike but the bread riot is the most familiar resort of the urban working man, and thus the temperature and rainfall over some distant cornfield connects directly with the tension headaches of the Lieutenant of Police.

Nearly one hundred pages later (on page 122), we see five lines inserted between two paragraphs of the story:

Price inflation 1785-1789:

  • Wheat     66%
  • Rye          71%
  • Meat         67%
  • Firewood 91%

And then (on page 136), we get to January 1789 in Paris. This is no Hollywood movie set.  This is why I like Hilary Mantel so much:

New year. You go out in the streets and you think it’s here: the crash at last, the collapse, the end of the world. It is colder now than any living person can remember. The river is a solid sheet of ice. The first morning, it was a novelty. Children ran and shouted, and dragged their complaining mothers out to see it. “One could skate,” people said. After a week, they began to turn their heads from the sight, keep their children indoors. Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year.

These people have left their insufficient shelters, their shacks, their caves, abandoned the rock-hard, snow glazed fields where they cannot believe anything will ever grow again. Tying up in a square of sacking a few pieces of bread, perhaps chestnuts: cording a small bundle of firewood: saying no good-byes, taking to the road. They move in droves for safety, sometimes men alone, sometimes families, always keeping with the people from their own district, whose language they speak. At first they sing and tell stories. After two days or so, they walk in silence. The procession that marched now straggles. With luck, one may find a shed or byre for the night. Old women are wakened with difficulty in the morning and are found to have lost their wits. Small children are abandoned in village doorways. Some die; some are found by the charitable, and grow up under other names.

Those who reach Paris with their strength intact begin to look for work. Men are being laid off, they’re told, our own people; there’s nothing doing for outsiders. Because the river is frozen up, goods do not come into the city: no cloth to be dyed, no skins to be tanned, no corn. Ships are impaled on the ice, with grain rotting in their holds.

The vagrants congregate in sheltered spots, not discussing the situation because there is nothing to discuss. At first they hang around the markets in the late afternoons, because at the close of the day’s trading any bread that remains is sold off cheaply or given away; the rough, fierce Paris wives get there first. Later, there is no bread after midday. They are told that the good Duke of Orleans gives away a thousand loaves of bread to people who are penniless like them. But the Paris beggars leave them standing again, sharp-elbowed and callous, willing to give them malicious information and to walk on people who are knocked to the ground. They gather in back courts, in church porches, anywhere that is out of the knife of the wind. The very young and the very old are taken in by the hospitals. Harassed monks and nuns try to bespeak extra linen and a supply of fresh bread, only to find that they must make do with soiled linen and bread that is days old. They say that the Lord’s designs are wonderful, because if the weather warmed up there would be an epidemic. Women weep with dread when they give birth.

Even the rich experience a sense of dislocation. Alms-giving seems not enough; there are frozen corpses on fashionable streets. When people step down from their carriages, they pull their cloaks about their faces, to keep the stinging cold from their cheeks and the miserable sights from their eyes.

Six months later Camille Desmoulins climbed up on that table in the midst of a roiling crowd of such desperate people and precipitated the fall of the Bastille.

I proceed towards page 300.  Anyone care to join me?

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WORDS FROM MARLENE

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My copy of Marlene Dietrich’s ABC book is faded and grubby-looking, and its newsprint paper has turned brownish with age.  The pages are also falling out of the binding into which they were glued fifty-two years ago.  Well, what do you expect?  This was the “Mass Market” paperback edition, and I bought it new in 1962 for only 50 cents.  But don’t belittle it because of how little it cost me. Used copies, in “good” or “acceptable” condition, are today priced from $5.00 to $39.95.

I’m not sure why I bought it.  In 1962, when the book came out, Marlene Dietrich was sixty and past even her late performances in movies, which I had never much liked anyway. She always played glamorous husky-voiced European women who destroyed men.  Not a good role model for a young woman who was becoming aware that her biological clock was ticking. Dietrich on the screen was definitely not a baby maker.

But by 1962, she was pretty much out of movies and performing almost exclusively in a one-woman cabaret act in large theaters throughout the world.  She apparently relied on body-sculpting undergarments, nonsurgical temporary facelifts, expert makeup, wigs, and strategic stage lighting to help preserve her glamorous image as she grew older.  I never saw her in this second incarnation, nor wanted to.  However, she did once say in an interview that she continued with this career even when her health was failing because she needed the money.

Need is relative, I suppose; she supported her husband and his mistress until he died of cancer in 1976. They had been separated for decades, but he was the father of her only child, and she had her loyalties. She herself had by then survived cervical cancer in 1965, fallen off the stage, injuring herself badly in 1973, and broken her right leg in 1974.  Her performances effectively ended in 1975 when she fell off the stage once again during an appearance in Australia and broke her thigh.  By then she had become increasingly dependent on painkillers and alcohol.

After that she withdrew to her Paris apartment and refused to allow herself to be photographed, even when Maximillian Schell made a film about her (Marlene, 1984); he was permitted to record only her voice as he interviewed her, and had to rely on a collage of her old film clips for the visuals of his movie.  In her early eighties by then, she sounds old, disillusioned and bitter, although still sharp. She died of renal failure in Paris at 90.

But at sixty she was not yet bitter. And her ABC is clearly hers — not the creation of some ghostwriter.  The opinions in it are too  idiosyncratic to have emerged from someone hired to write them for her. I may therefore have bought the book after coming upon it in a bookstore because I was then thirty years old, one year divorced after a disastrous marriage, and possibly hoping for some tips on how to manage life more productively going forward. I hope I wasn’t expecting Marlene to steer me towards the sort of second husband who would be a good father for my as yet unborn children. She would have been the wrong person for that.  She was herself bisexual, wore both male and female ensembles with equal panache, and maintained short and long-term liaisons with partners of both sexes although she and her husband never divorced.

I’ve kept her ABCs though, not for the same reasons as the three Nazi membership books described in my last post.  I like to sit down with Marlene every ten years or so when I come across her while looking for something else. Some of what she thinks is dated, or too sentimental for my taste. But much of it is not.  So before her book completely crumbles between my hands, here are some of the “not”s.  You might enjoy them, too.  It’s rather like meeting a charismatic woman at a party and listening for a while to what she’s got to say.

ART.  A much abused word.

BACH, JOHANN SEBASTIAN. I used to love him. I practiced his solo sonatas eight hours a day. I strained the ligament of my fourth left finger. My hand was put in a cast. The hand came out weak. I was told that, with exercise, I might regain full strength of the finger but that I might not be able ever to last through a concert. I gave up the violin. I never liked Bach after that.

BACKSEAT DRIVING. Grounds for divorce.

BELLE-MERE.  The French chose this word to give to the mother-in-law. It means: beautiful mother.

BODY.  A heavy body weighs down the spirit.

BOOKS. You do not love a book necessarily because it teaches you something. You love it because you find affirmation of your thoughts or sanctions of your deeds.

CAUSE AND EFFECT. A logical event that no wishful thinking can erase.

CHEAP. Nothing that is cheap looks expensive.

CHEWING GUM. A pacifier for adults.

COMPASSION. Without it you mean little.

CORNED BEEF. A most persistent childhood memory is that of feasting on corned beef sent to us by our fathers serving at the front. American soldiers would throw the cans over to the enemy when the war of trenches quieted down by nightfall and the crickets made peaceful sounds — which is how my father described it in his letter.

CREDIT SYSTEM. The American Tragedy.

DAUGHTER. Your daughter is your child for life.

DEMAND AND SUPPLY. Give what is needed. “Let them eat cake” is too easy. By the same token: If nothing is needed, give nothing.

DISREGARD. With a good deal of disregard for oneself, life is a good deal easier borne.

EATING.  All real men love to eat. Any man who picks at his food, breaking off little pieces with his fork, pushing one aside, picking up another, pushing bits around the plate, etc., usually has something wrong with him. And I don’t mean with his stomach.

EGGS. Scrambled: To each batch of three room-temperature eggs, add one extra yolk, salt; beat with a fork, not with an egg beater. Heat butter to golden yellow, not brown. Pour the beaten eggs into it, flame low, turn slowly with the fork. Turn out flame. Keep turning with the fork to desired consistency. Serve immediately.

EINSTEIN, ALBERT. His theory of relativity, as worded by him for laymen: “When does Zurich stop at this train?”

EMBARRASS. To embarrass anyone falls into the category of bad manners. In America, it is practiced almost like a sport.

EMERSON, RALPH W.  “Do not say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”  I have gooseflesh when I read this, think of this, or write this down.

FAIRY TALE.  The certainty of the happy end is the magic of the tale.

FASTING. You must have an important reason to be able to fast. If you don’t, you must make an oath to yourself, an oath important enough to take the place of the important reason. Vanity is not enough of a reason. Health isn’t either, as long as you feel well. Make a time limit for the fasting. A day, for instance. It is easier to fast one day entirely than to eat a little for a week. It is very healthy to do that. Don’t think you are going to collapse on the street. Drink water and go to bed early.

FLEXIBILITY. A great asset for body and mind.   In advanced age both tend to rigidity. One of the reasons why young people find it difficult to live in close contact with the old is the loss of the mind’s flexibility. Rigidity of thought, decision, opinion is by no means reserved for the old, but the danger of becoming rigid of mind increases with the years. Old people are most conscious of their stiffening bodies; they are completely unconscious of their stiffening minds.

FORGIVENESS. Once a woman has forgiven her man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.

GENDER. At the best of times, gender is difficult to determine. In language, gender is particularly confusing. Why, please, should a table be male in German, female in French, and castrated in English? French children, for instance, are male even if they are girls, in English there seems to be considerable doubt, in German they are definitely neuter. Even more startling is the fact that the French give the feminine gender to the components of the male anatomy that make him male, and the male gender to the components of the female anatomy that make her a female. In view of all this, let’s keep a stiff upper lip.

GENERAL DE GAULLE. The personification of my beliefs and code of conduct. When he made the unique speech in June 1940, he put me in his pocket for life. Whatever he did or said since I do not try to evaluate. He can do no wrong.

GERMANY. The tears I have cried over Germany have dried. I have washed my face.  (See Israel.)

GLAMOUR. The which I would like to know the meaning of.

GOSSIP. Nobody will tell you gossip if you don’t listen.

GRANDMOTHER. Judging by the world press, I am the only grandmother alive in the world. Should there be any other grandmothers around, I salute them all. Ours is a great joy and a great task. Here are the rules:  (1) We must tiptoe at all times. (2) Never tiptoe on anybody’s toes. (3) Be there when needed. (4) Never be more than ‘Mother’s helper.’ (5) disappear when not needed. (6) Bear without self-pity the silence in our own house. (7) Keep both ears cocked at all times for that call to action. (8) Be ready when it comes. (See Mother-in-law.)

GRIEF.  Grief is a private affair.

HABIT. Often mistaken for love.

HANDS. I like intelligent hands and working hands, regardless of their shape in relation to beauty. Idle hands, stupid hands can be pretty, but there is not beauty in them. Of course, children’s hands are miracles from every point of view.

HAPPINESS. I do not think that we have a “right” to happiness. If happiness happens, say thanks.

HATE. I have known hate from 1933 till 1945. I still have traces of it and I do not waste much energy to erase them. It is hard to live with hate. But if the occasion demands it, one has to harden oneself deliberately.  I do not think I could hate anyone who does harm to me personally. Something greater than myself has to be involved to cause me to hate.

HEAVEN AND EARTH. A great meal for summer evenings, a peasant favorite because it is good and cheap: apples (for heaven) and potatoes (for earth). Cook tart, sliced apples with sugar or, better, honey, or make applesauce. Boil potatoes, peeled or with the skin.  Put two bowls on the table. Everyone has his own way of mixing the fruits of heaven and earth.

HOLLAND. Everything cozy.

HOUSEWORK. The best occupational therapy there is. It is also the most useful occupational therapy. It is one of the rare occupations that show immediate results, which is very satisfying, to say the least.

IDLENESS. It is a sin to do nothing. There is always something useful to be done. I have no respect for the idle rich who discharge their duty to be useful by staging charity balls.

ISRAEL. There I washed my face in the cool waters of compassion.

JEWS. I will not try to explain the mystic tie, stronger than blood, that binds me to them.

JOIE DE VIVRE. How few of us have it; and what a great gift for the person who has it and the people who witness it.

KETCHUP. If you have to kill the taste of what you are eating, pour it on there.

KINDNESS. Practice it; it’s easy. Just put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you talk, act, or judge.

KING-SIZE.  I’m agin it.

KISSES. Don’t waste them. But don’t count them.

LETTERS. There is no excuse for not writing letters. My mother used to say: “Don’t tell me you have no time to write to someone who is waiting. There is a quiet place where no one disturbs you. You visit it every day — there you can write. You want to know what the place is? The emperor goes there on foot.”

LETTERS (of Love). Write them. Otherwise no one will know what wonderful feelings fill you. Even if the king or queen of your heart is unworthy (as you might have been told), write them — it will do you good.  Keep copies.

LIAISON. A charming word signifying a union, not cemented and unromanticized by documents.

LIBRARY. The most precious of possessions.

LIFE. Life is not a holiday. Should you approach it thus, you will find holidays aplenty.

LIMITATIONS. Know your limitations.

LOYALTY. Should be one of the Commandments.

LUKEWARM. When this adjective applies to feelings, stop feeling whatever you are feeling.

MAILMAN.  Let’s all walk. They say mailmen have no heart attacks.

MOP. An implement falsely credited with cleaning floors. (Except in the hands of a sailor.)

MOROCCO. Looks better in films.

MOTHER’S DAY.  Although it might have been invented by the United Florists as a business venture, let’s be grateful to them in any case. It does remind neglectful sons and daughters to give a sign of life once a year.

MOTHER-IN-LAW. When you feel your wings grow, you’re good at it.

OPTIMISM. Have it. There’s always time to cry later.

ORDER. I need it. Emotionally and physically.

PARLEZ-MOI D’AMOUR. Yes, please do. The loving heart is a bad mind reader.

PHYSICAL LOVE. Any society that allows conditions to exist in which the adolescent begins to connect guilt with physical love raises a generation of defectives.

POLITENESS.  Easy to learn, easy to practice.

POTATOES.  I love them. I eat them.

POWER POLITICS. Boys playing: You-show-me-yours, I-show-you-mine.

QUESTIONS. If they are personal, don’t ask them.

QUIT. Don’t, if the goal is at all attainable. You won’t like yourself in the morning if you do.

QUOTATIONS. I love them because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognizedly wiser than oneself.

RICH. Most rich people are pretty dull.

RUSSIAN SALAD. (One of them.)  Sliced apples, sliced tomatoes, sliced onions. Salt. Children like it without dressing. You can add oil and lemon. But no other kind of salad dressing. Serve it in large bowls. Makes a very good dinner with nothing else but cheese, bread and butter.

UGLY DUCKLING. Lucky is the ugly duckling. Keep that in mind and don’t envy the pretty duckling. The dizzy pursuit of pleasure the pretty duckling easily succumbs to, does not tempt you constantly. You have time to think, to be alone, to be lonely, to read, to make friends, to help other people. You’ll be a happy swan. Just wait and see.

UP.  Look there.

UTMOST. When people say, “I’m doing my utmost,” they are underestimating themselves greatly.

VACILLATION.  A woman’s beauty of heart and mind renders man’s vacillating emotions constant. Her looks attract him, they do not keep him.

WAR. If you haven’t been in it, don’t talk about it.

WASTE. I hate it with a passion.

WILL. It is almost impossible to put on paper what one would want done after one is dead.

WISDOM.  “For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18.

ZABAGLIONE. Mix three yolks of eggs with three tablespoons of sugar until the mixture is creamy and whitish. Then add a bit more than half a cup of Marsala wine. Mix. In a double boiler beat the mixture with an eggbeater till it rises. Do not boil the mixture. Use a large enough pot so that it can rise almost to double the amount. If you are courageous you can forget about the double boiler and do it on a direct low flame. Serve it in wide-top glasses when it is warm.

She stained and waxed her own parquet floors.  She called it one of those household occupations providing immediate results.  She became an American citizen in 1939, and during the war repeatedly risked her life entertaining American troops as close to the front lines as the Army would let her go.  But when the Berlin Wall came down, she left instructions in her will that she be buried in Berlin, city of her birth, near her family.  After she died, her body was therefore flown there to fulfill her wish. She was interred in Friedenau Cemetery, next to the grave of her mother, and near the house where she was born.

If you want to read more ABC than I’ve served up here, you can get the whole thing on Kindle for $7.69.  More recipes for peasant cooking!  Several longish (and old-fashioned) essays on Beauty and on Marriage!  However, I’m sticking with my crumbling old fifty cent copy.  If I put a rubber band around it to keep the pages together, it’ll be good for at least another ten years.  Let’s hope I will be, too….

DREAMING TRUE

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I’m not talking daydreaming here. By its very nature, a daydream isn’t true. Or isn’t true yet. It’s what you wish would happen. Or think you wish would happen. (Have you ever thought of what it would really be like to live twenty-four seven with the man of your dreams – buff and studly and always with only you you you on his mind. Spare me!) All right, two weeks in Paris, five-star hotel, three-star eating, all expenses paid, with a somewhat less buff and studly guy, maybe even your own husband – yes, that would be lovely. But is that what you really daydream about?

Dreams when asleep are another matter. You might think they aren’t true either. But you could be wrong. I once had a colleague whose husband had awful nightmares about his second wife at least twice a week and sometimes more often. My colleague’s view was that her husband’s unconscious apparently went on hating this wife even twenty years after their acrimonious divorce, although he never saw her again after the court hearing. On the other hand, maybe dreaming about wife two was a metaphorical way of letting himself know how he really felt about wife three, who was my colleague. So perhaps the husband had been dreaming true, in a poetic manner of speaking.

Now if I had been the colleague, I don’t think I would have told me. A husband’s repeated nightmares about one’s predecessor could certainly suggest to others that one wasn’t really on top of things, wife-wise. She tried to make a joke of it: “When I married him, I didn’t think she’d be in the bed, too!” I laughed, to be polite. All the same, I would have kept it to myself.

I only dreamed about a spouse once. It wasn’t really a nightmare, although it was unexpected and therefore somewhat scary suddenly to see through the windshield of a car I was driving in the dream that the nose of the car had my second husband’s head on it in profile – rather like the three ships that used to adorn the nose of Plymouth automobiles when I was a little girl. We’d been divorced for at least seven years by the time his profile, featuring a large nose of his own, showed up on the car. So I don’t understand this dream at all. It couldn’t have meant I thought he was still trying to lead me around, because I was the one doing the driving in the dream, not him. By then I was entirely independent of him in real life anyway. And it couldn’t have meant I thought he was an ornament. He was all right in the looks department, but not particularly ornamental. Whatever my unconscious was trying to tell me, it failed.

I also once had a scary dream which might have qualified as a nightmare: an unknown masked man rang the doorbell where I was living with my mother, pointed a gun at me when I opened the door, and pulled the trigger three times. I heard the pop, pop, pop – but nothing happened. The man had shot blanks. I didn’t fall down dead or dying. (And no, it wasn’t about unsatisfactory sex – even though that could have been truthfully said about real life with my first husband, with whom I was still living at the time.) But I was in therapy when I had this dream. The therapist thought the unknown man was my father, and that my unconscious was telling me not to be afraid of him anymore because he was harmless. The therapist was probably right, as I had already figured out that my father was mostly bark and no bite. So that was another instance of perhaps dreaming true. But if I already knew what the dream was telling me, what did I need the dream for? I decided I had dreamed it to be able to tell the therapist about it. Then we could stop talking about my father and move on to my mother – a conundrum of a woman if ever there was one.

But mostly I don’t dream much when I sleep, or don’t remember the dreams, even in fleeting fragments. Although not so long ago I did have one amazingly real-seeming dream I remember very clearly. It was about another stranger, younger than me and definitely not my father, a strong and sensitive man who was making wonderful love to me. He knew exactly what to do and where and how to do it. Unfortunately, just after the preliminaries and his entry (if I may put it that way), Sophie – our younger cat – decided to pay my stomach one of her nocturnal visits with her paws and woke me up. Pouf! The delicious stranger was gone! It may not have been an instance of dreaming true, but I wanted him back so badly.

Which illustrates the most important difference between daydreams and dreams when you’re sleeping. (Unless you’re a shrink treating a patient, in which case content is always important, day or night.) The ones when you sleep seem so real. Really real. As if they’re happening.

That’s why for several months when I was fourteen, I was entranced by a late nineteenth-century novel in which the heroine taught the hero, whose life was not happy, a thing or two about dreaming. They had loved each other as children, and met again as adults after she had been married off to another, thereby becoming the beauteous Duchess of Towers, and had also had a son. Alas, they were parted for life when he accidentally killed his guardian in self-defense and was condemned to life imprisonment. The book is Peter Ibbetson, the first of three novels by George du Maurier, who was the grandfather of Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, which was made into a Hollywood movie for Joan Fontaine to star in when I was a girl.

George du Maurier’s most famous novel was Trilby, but Trilby didn’t do it for me. It was Peter Ibbetson — sentimental, anti-Semitic, and turgidly written that grabbed me. (You can safely deduce from the three adjectives that you shouldn’t go running off to read it. Or if you do, don’t say you weren’t warned.) One night  before he gets to prison, Peter has a dream more real than reality in which he meets and speaks with the Duchess of Towers and in which she teaches him how to “dream true.” (Yes, the expression is du Maurier’s, not mine.) From then on, he is able to return to his happier childhood past in dreams.

At a subsequent meeting in real life, the Duchess reveals she has had the same childhood dream as he — and at the same time! They had been in the same dream together! However, she forbids their meeting in further dreams because she feels bound to her husband. Stern mistress!  But after he is condemned to prison for life, he dreams the Duchess appears to tell him her husband and child are now dead, so that although separated by prison walls, they can be together by “dreaming true” again. Thus, for twenty-five years Peter lives willingly in his prison, each night rejoining the Duchess, whose given name is Mary, in their beautiful childhood home. The years of their joy pass swiftly by. The lovers get so good at dreaming true they can travel into past centuries together, visiting the forebears from whom they descended.

You’d think so much nightly happiness might be enough. But wait, there’s more! Mary dies. Unable to reach her in his dreams anymore, Peter goes mad with grief and is confined to an asylum. While he’s there, she finds a way to come back to his dreams to give him hope that one day they may be together again. Naturally, he gets well immediately and is released from the asylum to live out his days in prison. There he continues to dream true, returning in sleep to the childhood scenes he still loves, where sometimes Mary manages to come back from death to join him.

In 1935, Gary Cooper made a movie version of Peter Ibbetson. (Ann Harding played Mary.)  I was four at the time and therefore didn’t see it. But ten years later I discovered the book. What a wonderful concept! There were so many people – not surprisingly, all male – with whom I wanted to dream true:

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, for starters. If he could come back from the dead in a dream, why not?  I was afraid of meeting Byron, and Keats was too tubercular, but I did think Shelley might like me. (Older and wiser now, I’m sure I was wrong.)
  • Thomas Wolfe. I would take a class with him in our dream, come up to his desk when the hour was over, standing very close in a snug cashmere sweater, and then the ball would be in his court. I knew he wouldn’t fumble.
  •  Leonard Bernstein (when in his twenties). He would discover me, a sudden orphan, selling records after school in a music store; enchanted, he would adopt me and wait willingly until I grew up, when we could enjoy even greater bliss together.
  • Gerard Philippe. My high school French was getting better every day.  Even if he didn’t know English, we could therefore redo “Diable Au Corps” (“Devil In the Flesh”) together every night by dreaming it true without that milksop of a French actress who had also been in the movie.

Reader, I tried so hard. How I concentrated after I had turned out the lights! What bargains I made with whatever entity out there might be running things! I even ventured into formal prayer. Nothing doing. “Dreaming true” was just not for me.

So what brings it to mind again after almost a lifetime? In a word, death. So many people I used to know are gone. Often it’s hard to grasp they’re not still here – at the other end of a telephone line or a quick email. It’s easier to believe in “dreaming true” than that I won’t ever see them again.

Which suggests that perhaps I’m not wholly a skeptic, even now. “Dreaming true” may not have worked for me. But if you decide to give it a whirl, do let me know how you do.

STUPID ME

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I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.

Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer.  He is, he is!  But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at.  What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow.  On the first go-round anyway.

Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are.  And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.

Examples:

19.  In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I.  We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well.  Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.

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27.  At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.

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39.  If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family.  In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.

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40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.

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45.  Rules are ways of imagining what to do.  Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’  Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.

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Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t.  Monogamy is not prescriptive.  It’s not expository.  As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject.  What the French call apercus.  There are only 121 of them.  Lots of white space on each page.  Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next.  (Except perhaps out of curiosity.)  You can open the book anywhere.  Put it down anywhere.  Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.

But let’s back up.  Who is Adam Phillips?  If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him.  Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review.  (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.

Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst.  He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.)  After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill.  He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.

As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.”  He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.”  He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”

As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s  been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”

[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]

It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy.  I picked it because it was short and sounded easy.  (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list.  There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month.  His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]

  • On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:  Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
  • On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
  • Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
  • The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • On Kindness
  • On Balance
  • Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake.  Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper.  Here’s some more.  Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.

28.  There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk.  The language won’t let us mix them up.  We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  We are not mixed up enough.  In other words, we still have bodies and souls.

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58.   The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish.  It is a risk masquerading as a promise.  The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?

Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.

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60.     Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame.  I am always true to myself, that is the problem.  Who else could I be true to?

When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting.  I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.

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64.     It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.

To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.

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65.  No one gets the relationship they deserve.  For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.

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69.   There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.  This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.

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121.   Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.

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51.   Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.

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53.   The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.

So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?

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And how do I stop quoting?  [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.]  By reminding myself you can always get your own copy.  Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above).  That one is essays.  Essays I can do.  Apercus?   I’m still working on my French.

 

VOCABULARY ENHANCEMENT WITH YINGLISH

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IMG_0743I grew up without Yiddish.  The parental language in our house, reserved for matters I was not supposed to understand, was Russian.  But you couldn’t not hear Yiddish, at least little bit, if the place where you grew up, as I did, was New York.

It initially came from my first serious boyfriend — in other respects a highly literate and scholarly looking youth reading Great Books at the University of Chicago.  There was a hiatus during my years in California, where I was married to a man who was not Jewish. But eventually that husband and I returned to the Big Apple, where I earned our daily bread writing copy in advertising agencies with Seventh Avenue clients and therefore at the time heavily Jewish. Then — after a divorce — came movies from Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, and a second husband steeped in what Bill says were badly pronounced Yiddish words. (When  really angry, this second husband would stomp up the stairs shouting what sounded like:  “Quit ‘hocking me to China!’ ”  Bill says what he should have been shouting was “hok a chainik,” which means, colloquially, “talk someone’s ear off, yammer, yak” — although you don’t need to know that, even if I now do.)   Finally came Bill, whose grandmother — with whom he lived for several years — spoke nothing but. Which means he understands it.  Not as a language imbibed with mother’s milk, but close.

Understandably, over the course of all those years of intimacy with Yiddish users a few colorful Yiddish expressions have crept into my day-to-day discourse.  How could they not?  There’s nothing like them in English!  You can go round and round the bush with your proper Anglo-Saxon circumlocutions till you’re blue in the face, or get right to the point with a choice bit of Yinglish!  In fact, lots of people in and around New York and Los Angeles already have.  It wasn’t me who made up that word, “Yinglish.”   It’s right there in black and white in Leo Rosten’s “The New Joys of Yiddish” (completely updated), as published by Three Rivers Press.  Yinglish is particularly rich in deprecation and insult, which is always useful.  In addition, it’s handy for philosophic one- or two-word summaries of life.  The Rosten book is also fun because it not only shows you how to pronounce whatever it is, but also gives illustrations of its usage, often in humorous anecdotal form.

Feel like dipping a toe in the water?  I’m glad.  Because here come a dozen vocabulary enhancements right out of “The New Joys of Yiddish.”  What follows is not in quotation format only because I’ve selectively abridged each entry, and have also paraphrased in places.  However,the content is all Rosten’s.  Enjoy.

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1.     klutz.  Rhymes with “butts.” A clod; a clumsy, slow-witted, graceless person; an inept blockhead.

Anecdote:  To Mr. Meyers, in the hospital, came Mr. Glotz, secretary of the synagogue, who said:  “I bring you the good wishes of our board of trustees, that you should get well and live to be a hundred and ten years old!  That’s an official resolution, passed by a vote of fourteen to seven!”  Glotz was a klutz.

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2.     kvell.  Pronounced exactly as it’s spelled.  (1)  To beam with immense pride and pleasure, most commonly over an achievement of a child or grandchild.  “Watch her kvell when she reads his report card.”  (2)  To enjoy, gloat, or crow over someone’s defeat or humiliation.  “All right, be charitable, don’t kvell over his mistake.”

Anecdote:  (Mrs. Kovarsky is kvelling.)  Two ladies met on the Grand Concourse, Mrs. Blumenfeld carrying her groceries, Mrs. Kovarsky pushing a pram with two little boys in it.

“Good morning, Mrs. Kovarsky.  Such darling boys!  So how old are they?”

“The doctor,” said Mrs. Kovarsky, “is three, and the lawyer is two.”

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3.     kvetch.  Pronounced to rhyme with “fetch.”  As a verb:  To fret, complain, gripe, grunt, sigh.  “What’s she kvetching about now?”  As a noun:  Anyone, male or female, who complains, frets, gripes, or magnifies minor aches and pains.  “What a congenital kvetch!”  “Don’t invite him to the party; he’s a kvetch.”

Anecdote:  There’s a prized lapel button that reads:

FRANZ KAFKA

IS A

KVETCH.

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4.     mitzva.  Pronounced to rhyme with “fits a.”  (1) Commandment; divine commandment; (2) A meritorious act, one that expresses God’s will;  a “good work,” a truly virtuous, kind, considerate, ethical deed.  Mitzvas are regarded as profound obligations….yet they must be performed with a “joyous heart.”   If you do something especially honorable, kind or considerate, a Jew may say, beaming, “Oh, that was a mitzva!” or “You performed a real mitzva!”

Anecdote: At the end of a pier in Tel Aviv, a man was about to jump into the sea when a policeman came running up to him.  “No, no,” he cried. “How can a man like you, in the prime of life, think of jumping into that water?”

“Because I can’t stand it anymore!  I don’t want to live!”

“But listen, mister, please.  If you jump in the water, I’ll have to jump in after you, to save you.  Right?  Well, it so happens I can’t swim.  Do you know what that means?  I have a wife and four children, and in the line of duty I would drown! Would you want to have such a terrible thing on your conscience?  No, I’m sure.  So be a good Jew, and do a real mitzva. Go home.  And in the privacy and comfort of your own home, hang yourself.”

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5.     naches.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Loch Ness” — with the kh sound a Scot would use in pronouncing “loch.”  (This is a noun somewhat related to the verb, kvell.)  It means proud pleasure or special joy — particularly from the achievements of a child.  Jews use the word naches to describe the glow of pleasure plus pride that only a child can give to its parents.  “I have such naches: my son was voted president of his play group.”  Alternatively, a self-pitying sort with under-achieving grown offspring might complain: “I get no naches from my children.”

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6.     gonif.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Don if.”

  • Thief, crook.
  • A clever person.
  • An ingenious child.
  • A dishonest businessman.
  • A shady, tricky character it would be wise (a) not to trust, and (b) to watch every minute he’s in the store.
  • A mischievous, fun-loving prankster.

The particular meaning depends on context, tone of voice, inflection, and accompanying gestures.  If uttered with a beam, a grin or an admiring raising of the hands, gonif is clearly laudatory. Thus, a proud grandparent will say of a child, metaphorically, “Oh, is that a gonif!”  If uttered with pulled-down mouth, in a lugubrious tone, or with heartfelt dismay, the meaning is clearly derogatory:  “A gonif like that shouldn’t be allowed among respectable citizens.” Uttered in steely detachment (“That one is, plain and simple, a gonif“), the word describes a crook, thief, trickster. Said in admiration, with a wink, cluck, or shake of the head (” I tell you, there’s a gonif!”), the phrasing is equivalent to “There’s a clever cookie.”

Anecdote:  The first day home from school, little Milton was met by his mother who ran out eagerly to greet him.   “So what did you learn?”

“I learned to write,” said Milton.

“On the first day already you learned to write?  Gonif!  So what do you write?

“How should I know?” said Milton.  “I can’t read.”

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7.     nudnik.  Rhymes with “could pick.”  A pest, an annoyer, a monumental bore.  A nudnik is not just a nuisance; to merit use of the term nudnik, a nuisance must be a most persistent, talkative, obnoxious, indomitable, and indefatigable nag.  A mother often says to a child:  “Stop bothering me.  Don’t be a nudnik.”

Anecdote:  Mr. Polanski complained to his doctor:  “Something terrible has happened to me.  I try to stop it, but I can’t…. Morning, noon and night — I keep talking to myself.”

“Now, now,” the doctor crooned. “That isn’t such a bad habit. Why, thousands of people do it.”

“But doctor,” protested Polanski, you don’t know what a nudnik I am!”

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8.     nu.  (Or nu?)  Pronounced “noo,” to rhyme with “coo,” but with various intonations and meanings.  Nu is the word most frequently used (aside from oy and the articles) in speaking Yiddish, and with good reason.  It is the verbal equivalent of a sigh, a frown, a grin, a grunt, a sneer.  It is an expression of amusement or recognition or uncertainty or disapproval.  It can be used fondly, acidly, belligerently.  It is a qualification, an emphasizer, an interrogation, a caster of doubt, an arrow of ire.  It can convey pride, deliver scorn, demand response.  As in the following:

  • Nu?”  (Well?)
  • “I saw you come out of her apartment.  Nu?” (So-o?)
  • Nu?” (How are things with you?)
  • Nu?” (What’s new?)
  • Nu, after such a request, what could I do?”  (Well, then.)
  • “I need the money…. Nu?”  (How about it?)
  • “….and he walked right out.  Nu?!”  (How do you like that?  Imagine!)
  • Nu, I guess that’s all.” (I’ll be finishing, or going along now.)
  • “….and you’re supposed to be there by noon.  Nu?” (What are you waiting for?)
  • Nu-nu?”  (Come on, open up, tell me.)
  • “My wife was wondering what happened to the coffeepot she lent you….Nu?” (I hate to mention it, but — –)
  • “Did you or didn’t you tell him?  Nu?” (I challenge you.)
  • “They waited and waited.  Nu, he finally showed up.” (And so, in the course of time.)
  • “She accused him, he blamed her.  Nu, it ended in court.” (One thing led to another, and …)

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9.     ongepotchket.  Pronounced to rhyme with “Fonda Lodge kit.”  (a)  Slapped together or assembled without form or sense; (b) messed up, excessively and anesthetically decorated; overly baroque.  “She wore her new diamond earrings, a necklace, bracelet, two rings, and a brooch.  Oy, was she ongepotchket!

Anecdote:  Mr. Fleishman, a new art collector, bought a painting that was much admired by his friend Meyerson, a self-proclaimed expert.  The painting was one large square of black, with a dot of white in the center.  A year later, Mr. Fleishman bought another painting by the same modernist genius:  a large black square with two white dots.  Proudly, Fleishman hung the picture over his fireplace and telephoned his friend Meyerson to come right over.  Meyerson took one look at the picture and wrinkled his nose:  “I don’t like it.  Too ongepotchket.

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10.     shmatte. Pronounced to rhyme with “pot a.”

  • A rag.  “You call that a dress?  It’s a shmatte.”
  • A person unworthy of respect; someone you can wipe your feet on.  “They treated her like a shmatte.”  “What am I, a shmatte?” “Stand up for your rights; don’t be a shmatte!”

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11.    pisher.  Rhymes with “fisher.”  A vulgarism, meaning ( a) a bed-wetter; (b) a young, inexperienced person; or (c) an inconsequential or insignificant person, a nobody.  Literally, a pisher is one who urinates; but in present and popular usage “He’s a mere pisher” means “He’s very young.  He’s still wet behind the ears.”  Similarly, “He’s just a pisher,” means “He’s a nobody and has no influence.”

Anecdote:  In France, an elderly Jew, tired of hearing a young man boast of his ancestry, finally said, “Listen, La Fontaine: I knew your grandfather, who changed his name to La Fontaine from Schpritzwasser [Squirtwater]. And he told me that his father changed his name to Schpritzwasser from what everyone called him, which was Moishe the Pisher!  So please don’t put on airs, La Fontaine!

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12.    Oy.  Oy isn’t a word; it’s a vocabulary.  It’s uttered in as many ways as the utterer’s histrionic ability permits.  It’s a lament, a protest, a cry of dismay, a reflex of delight — the most expressive and ubiquitous exclamation in Yiddish.  Oy is often used as lead-off for oy-vey!” — which means, literally, “oh, pain!” but is used as an all-purpose ejaculation to express anything from trivial delight to abysmal woe.  Oy vey! is the short form of “oy vey iz mir!“, an omnibus phrase for everything from personal pain to emphatic condolences.  (Vey comes from the German weh, meaning “woe.”) As for the difference between oy! and ah!, there is of course a saying to illustrate the distinction:  “When you jump into cold water you cry, “Oy!” and then, enjoying it, say, “A-aah.”  When you commit a sin, you revel in the pleasure, “A-aah”; then, realizing what you’ve done, you cry, “Oy!”

Oy, accordingly, can be used, for example, to express

  • Apprehension.  “Maybe he’s sick?  Oy!”
  • Uncertainty. “What should I do? Oy, I wish I knew!”
  • Euphoria. “Was I happy? Oy! I was dancing on air!”
  • Joy. “Oy, what a party!”
  • Contentment. “Oy, was that a delicious dinner!”
  • Surprise. “She heard a noise and exclaimed, ‘Oy! Who’s there?””
  • Dismay. “Oy! I gained ten pounds!”
  • Regret.  “Him we have to invite? Oy!”
  • Astonishment.  “Oy, how he’s changed!”
  • Revulsion.Feh.  Who could eat that?  O-oy!
  • Pain.  “Oy, it hurts!”

And so forth.  Anecdote:  Mrs. Fishbein’s phone rang.  “Hul-lo,” a cultivated voice intoned. “I’m telephoning to ask whether you and your husband can come to a tea for Lady Windermere—-”

Oy,” cut in Mrs. Fishbein.  “Have you got the wrong number!”

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Nu?  Enough already?  We haven’t even begun on the fine differences in meaning between calling a male someone a shmuck, shnook, shlump, shmo, shlemiel, shlimazel, shlepper, shmegegge, shmendrick or shnorrer — all very useful insults in a well developed vocabulary.  (Not to mention momzer and nebbish.) However, anyone who wants a second post delving into these matters has only to ask.  “The New Joys of Yiddish” is a very thick book.  Oy, is it ever!

DIANE KEATON SPEAKS IN PRINCETON ABOUT GETTING OLD!

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[A little something light after all that heavy reading about war, revolution and loss….]

IMG_0564 I wasn’t there.  I wouldn’t dream of driving across dreaded Route 1 to the Hyatt Regency to squeeze myself into a sold-out event sponsored by Princeton Healthcare System and attended by more than 1,000 people.  But I did avidly consume a report of the occasion by one Jennifer Kohlhepp (who I do not know) for the May 9, 2014 issue of “The Princeton Packet,” a throw-away town paper that usually goes straight from our front lawn into the recyclable garbage.  I suspect the report was written as local “news.”  I devoured it as celebrity gossip, to which I’m never averse as long as (a) I know the name of the celebrity it’s about; and (b) it’s free reading.

Knowing who celebrity gossip is about isn’t as easy as it used to be at the time I was a more au courant viewer of movies and television.  These days, when I no longer have exhausting ten-hour work days to recover from, I almost never watch the junk that passes for television entertainment.  As a result, I couldn’t tell you anything about those vapid-looking youngsters on the pages of “People Magazine” — which I idly peruse (for free) while waiting in line at the local supermarket to check out with my month’s supply of paper towels, toilet paper and like that.

But Diane Keaton?  She’s 68.  I knew her (in a manner of speaking) when.  What’s more, the reason for her appearance in these parts is that she’s written a book, recently published, called “Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty” — which Jennifer Kohlhepp has given me to understand is right up the alley of this blog:  a memoir of thirteen stories that explore life, beauty and aging in a world obsessed with appearances, “according to Ms. Keaton.”

I will make the not particularly rash assumption that you too did not attend the event, and that you might even be mildly interested in learning what this usually pleasant and unpretentious movie star had to offer from the podium at the Hyatt Regency on the subject of getting old. (Especially if you have nothing better to do with three minutes or so.) So without more ado, I offer you snippets from Ms. Kohlhepp’s account of the proceedings. [With a few asides from me within brackets.]

Ms. Keaton said she would like to ask her contemporaries if they look in the mirror, sigh and ask themselves what old age is for — why the liver spots, wrinkles, hair turning color, vocal cords changing, diminished eyesight, and reduced mental and cognitive thinking.  [Me butting in about this last bit:  “Oh yeah?  Who sez?”]

“On the bonus side, I’ve become friends with some of my business contemporaries,” Ms. Keaton said.  “One is Jack Nicholson.  When I first met Jack Nicholson it was not possible to be his friend … I didn’t want to be his friend.”

After they filmed “Something’s Gotta Give,” the two became good pals, with Ms. Keaton going to his ranch once a month for lunch, she said.  She then read a letter she wrote to him about “looking out for him” and “having his back.”  [Me again:  Is he infirm?  Has something happened to him that I’ve missed?]

Later she focused on her relationship with Woody Allen.  The duo still walks through New York City like they used to when they were young, “but not holding hands,” Ms. Keaton said.

One of the last times they met in the city, she said, “He looked at me with a really long gaze and mentioned I had a kind of beauty that required a beekeeper’s hat.”  [Me:  Is that a friend?]

In grappling with getting old, the self-proclaimed baby boomer said she has learned that 42 percent of her generation are extending retirement and 25% are not retiring.  Her research has also determined that she has a life expectancy of 86.

“I’m going to try my best to make the most of these 18 years,” she said.  “Being old is a gut leveling experience.  I’m in preparation for the incomprehensible … end zone of life.  I’m going to deepen my laugh lines and enjoy the underrated beauty of humanity….”

Ms. Keaton ended her talk saying, “One thing resonates … old is gold.”

Participants had the opportunity to ask Ms. Keaton questions through a moderator.  In answering, she said she would never return to Broadway because she doesn’t like performing in front of real people.  She also said she was the only person in the original cast of “Hair” who wouldn’t take her clothes off.

“Now that I’m older, I would love to take my clothes off, if you only ask me,” Ms. Keaton said.  [Me:  She’s got to be kidding!  Or else she’s in unbelievable shape! An aging female friend and I once agreed that if we were ever to start in again with a new man (and without clothes), it would have to be in the semi-dark and missionary position.  That way all the loose bits would hang down and out of sight of the one on top.]

Her greatest challenge as a woman has been raising two children at “a late age in life” and her greatest enjoyment in being an actress was “kissing all those men.”

On dating Warren Beatty, she said, “It was good.”

When asked what destination she has on her bucket list, she said “Heaven.”  [She’s evidently a double optimist.] 

In answering the final question, Ms. Keaton said, “Laughter is just everything.”

Well, there you have it.  Now you don’t have to read the book.  And aren’t you glad you missed going?  I bet she wishes she could have missed going, too.  If only churning out a book didn’t mean you also had to promote it…..

AMOS TO PHILINDA (A RE-BLOG)

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[It’s been a very busy week.  So rather than just slap something up to provide “new” reading, I’m re-blogging a very short piece, but a favorite, from last year that those of you who signed on more recently may not have seen.]

[Re-blogged from December 11, 2013]

AMOS TO PHILINDA

I love bits of good writing.

I hoard them like treasure.  (Whenever there’s a piece of paper or a keyboard handy.)

Even a few of the right words can brighten a dark day.  Ease a burden.  Outlast everything.

Amos Humiston was a soldier who fought in the Civil War.  He died at Gettysburg in July 1863, clutching an ambrotype of his three children, through which he was later identified.

An ambrotype is an early type of photograph, made by placing a glass negative against a dark background.  It was only in use for about five years.  Its name comes from the Greek ambro(tos), which means “immortal.”

We don’t have Amos’s ambrotype anymore.  It wasn’t really immortal.

But we do still have his letters from the war. This is what Amos wrote to his wife Philinda on January 2, 1863, six months before he died:

“If I ever live to get home you will not complain of being lonesome again or of sleeping cold, for I will lay as close to you as the bark to a tree.”

Ambro(tos).

HOTEL DU LAC: SHOULD EDITH HAVE MARRIED PHILIP?

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Edith Hope is the main character (I hesitate to call her the heroine) of Anita Brookner’s “Hotel du Lac,” a book which one of my book groups decided to read during the time I was sick last month.  I was unable to attend the discussion, so don’t know what the other group members thought of it.  I will therefore put it to you!

But let’s start with Brookner.  Now in her mid-eighties, she was an international authority on eighteenth and nineteenth century painting, in 1968 became the first female Slade Professor at Cambridge University, and then for twenty-five years taught at the Courtauld Institute of Arts in London.  She is reported by her students as having been a superlative and dedicated teacher.  In one of her rare interviews, she herself declared that she loved art and loved teaching students how to look at it.

However, at some point in her early fifties, she began to write a short novel during each of her summer breaks from teaching, and after retirement continued with the novel writing.  She has now written, I believe, close to thirty of these shortish novels, although none for the past couple of years.  “Hotel du Lac” was the third, and probably the most successful in sales; there was also a movie, starring Anna Massey, based on the book.

For quite a few years, I used to read Brookner’s books as they came out, but eventually stopped because after “Hotel du Lac,”  they began with very few exceptions to seem essentially more or less the same, except that the protagonists grew older as the years went by. They were almost always about a lonely woman (although sometimes a man), living in London on somewhat limited but not uncomfortably limited means, often with ties to an elderly and dreary European relative (or relatives) still alive or recently dead. This protagonist took long solitary walks in all weathers in London’s parks while considering her (or his) situation, which never seemed to resolve in any way that seemed to me satisfactory, much less happy. The books were certainly instructive about how to pass time if you were lonely, which I often was when I first began to read them. But after a while, enough was enough for me.  I also used to wonder what Brookner’s own life must have been like for her to focus so exclusively on short fiction about lonely single people growing older from book to book.

However, since I had to read “Hotel du Lac” again last month at the behest of the reading group, afterwards I went online — a resource not available to me back in the days when it won the 1984 Booker Prize and I first read it. That is how I found the most recent of her rare interviews, given when she was eighty — in which, among other topics, she considers the ending of “Hotel du Lac,” written so many years before, when she was considerably younger.

Here is the book’s plot, in brief.  Edith Hope, a thirty-nine year old unmarried writer of very romantic novels with names like “Beneath the Visiting Moon” and “The Sun at Midnight,”  has come to spend two weeks out of season at an out-of-the-way old-fashioned hotel in Switzerland, just before it closes for winter, because she is in disgrace for having decided not to show up at the church for her wedding to Geoffrey, a dullish sort of bachelor recently bereft of his mother. She had been “fixed up” with Geoffrey by her one female friend, Penelope — a flirtatious sort who doesn’t marry but has plenty of fun.  Edith has not had plenty of fun.  Instead, she has a secret:  David, a married lover who has been the delight of her life during twice-a-month visits for the past five years.  David has children and will not divorce.  For all Edith knows, he may be unfaithful to his wife elsewhere than with her.  But it is apparently glorious to be in bed with him when he is there, and he adores her cooking of fattening comfort foods denied to him by his wife.  She gives him up for social standing as the wife of Geoffrey — “Are you sure?” David sobs into her neck during his final visit — but then cannot go through with the wedding.  She is sent off to exile in Switzerland while the oprobrium dies down.  (Even her cleaning lady leaves her because of the scandal!)

At the Hotel du Lac, there are very few other guests:  an old French lady parked there by her son and daughter-in-law to get her out of the way; a very slender and beautiful Englishwoman with a little dog and an eating problem who has been sent there by her husband to get in shape to have children (or he will divorce her); a lovely older woman (who turns out to be 79) and plump pretty daughter (who turns out to be 39) with plenty of money; they apparently come to Switzerland once a year to shop extravagantly and eat pastries.  There is also an immaculately dressed and somewhat mysterious Englishman in his fifties named Philip Neville who arrives for a few days.  Edith spends her time observing the others, trying to engage them in polite conversation, going for long walks around the lake and to the village, trying to finish writing “Beneath the Visiting Moon” for her publisher, and composing long, coyly amusing letters to “darling David,” who never once during the time she is there writes back.

About halfway through her intended stay, Edith accepts an invitation to lunch across the lake from Mr. Neville (Philip), during which he proposes to her. He has been watching her during his time at the hotel, and it is an extraordinary and (I think) intriguing proposal.  [I’ve shortened it somewhat, in the interests of blog-post length.]  He makes it on the boat that takes them back from the lunch:

Tilted back in his chair, Mr Neville watched her face. ‘Let me see,’ he said mildly. ‘Let me see if I can imagine what your life is like.  You live in London.  You have a comfortable income. You go to drinks parties and dinner parties and publishers’ parties. You do not really enjoy any of this. Although people are glad to see you, you lack companions of first resort. You come home alone.  You are fussy about your house.You have had lovers, but not half as many as your friends have had; they, of course, credit you with none at all and worry about you rather ostentatiously. You are aware of this.  And yet you have a secret life, Edith.  Although only too obviously incorruptible, you are not what you seem.’

Edith sat very still.

…’Of course you would say that this is none of my business. I would say, simply, that it does not concern me. Any more than my diversions need concern you. Whatever arrangements we may come to must leave these considerations scrupulously unexamined.’

‘Arrangements?’ echoed Edith.

…’I think you should marry me, Edith,’ he said….’I am not a romantic youth.  I am in fact extremely discriminating.  I have a small estate and a very fine house, Regency Gothic, a really beautiful example….I have a lot of business overseas,’ he went on…’And I like to entertain.  I am away a certain amount of the time.  But I dislike having to come back to a house only occupied by the couple who live in it when I am not there.  You would fit perfectly into that setting.’

A terrible silence installed itself between them. ‘You make it sound like a job specification,’ she said. ‘And I have not applied for the job.’

‘Edith, what else will you do?  Will you too go back to an empty house?…You see,’ he went on, ‘I cannot afford another scandal.  My wife’s adventure made me look a laughing stock.  I thought I could sit it out with dignity, but dignity doesn’t help. Rather the opposite.  People seem to want you to break down.  However, that’s all in the past.  I need a wife, and I need a wife whom I can trust. It has not been easy for me.’

‘And you are not making it easy for me,’ she said.

‘I am making it easier for you.  I have watched you, trying to talk to those women.  You are desolate.  And without the sort of self-love which I have been urging on you, you are never going to learn the rules, or you are going to learn them too late and become bitter.  And when you think you are alone, your expression is full of sorrow.  You face a life of exile of one sort or another.’

‘But why should you think me such a hopeless case?’

‘You are a lady, Edith.  They are rather out of fashion these days, as you may have noticed.  As my wife, you will do very well.  Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.’

‘And what will I do in your fine house, when you are away?’ she asked.  And when you are not away, she thought, but kept the thought to herself.

‘Whatever you do now, only better. You may write, if you want to.  In fact, you may begin to write rather better than you ever thought you could.  Edith Neville is a fine name for an author.  You will have a social position, which you need. You will gain confidence, sophistication. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing me credit….’

‘Again you are paying me the tremendous compliment of assuming that no one else will want me, ever.’

‘I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you know the difference between flirtation and fidelity.  I am paying you the compliment of assuming that you will never indulge in the sort of gossipy indiscretions that so discredit a man.  I am paying you the compliment of believing that you will not shame me, will not ridicule me, will not hurt my feelings.  Do you realize how hard it is for a man to own up to being hurt in that way?…. I am not asking you to lose all for love.  I am asking you to recognize your own true self-interest.  I am simply telling you what you may already have begun to suspect: that modesty and merit are very poor cards to hold.  I am proposing a partnership of the most enlightened kind.  A partnership based on esteem, if you like.  Also out of fashion, by the way.  If you wish to take a lover, that is your concern, so long as you arrange it in a civilized manner.’

‘And if you…’

‘The same applies, of course. For me, now, that would always be a trivial matter. You would not hear of it nor need you care about it. The union between us would be one of shared interests, of truthful discourse.  Of companionship. To me, now, those are the important things. And for you they should be important. Think, Edith.  Have you not, at some time in your well-behaved life, desired vindication?  Are you not tired of being polite to rude people?’

Edith bowed her head.

‘You will be able to entertain your friends, of course.  And you will find that they treat you quite differently.  This comes back to what I was saying before.  You will find that you can behave as badly as you like.  As badly as everybody else likes, too.  That is the way of the world.  And you will be respected for it. People will at last feel comfortable with you. You are lonely, Edith.’…..

‘I don’t love you.  Does that bother you?’

‘No, it reassures me. I do not want the burden of your feelings.  All this can be managed without romantic expectations.”….

‘And you don’t love me?’

He smiled, this time sadly and without ambiguity. ‘No, I don’t love you.  But you have got under my guard.  You have moved and touched me, in a way in which I no longer care to be moved and touched.  You are like a nerve that I had managed to deaden, and I am annoyed to find it coming to life….

‘I may have to think about this,’ she said eventually.

‘Not too long, I hope.  I do not intend to make a habit of proposing to you.  You will have to get your skates on, if we are to leave by the weekend.’..

‘May I ask one more question?’ she said.

‘Of course.’

‘Why me?’

This time his smile was ambiguous again, ironic, courteous.

‘Perhaps because you are harder to catch than the others,’ he replied.

Edith gets back to her room, has her bath, thinks, sits, thinks some more, then writes a letter to “dearest David,” telling him she is going to marry Philip Neville, a man she met at the hotel, and does not think she will ever see him (David) again.  She tells him (David) he is the breath of life to her, that she doesn’t love Mr. Neville nor he her, but that he has made her see what she will become if she persists in loving him (David) as she does. She says there is no point in giving him her new address.  She recognizes she was always more willing than he was, and sends him her love, always.

She awakens in the middle of the night after a bad dream and decides to go down to the desk to get a stamp for her letter.  As she opens her door, she sees Philip Neville making a discreet exit, in his dressing gown, from the room of the plump rich thirty-nine year old daughter of the rich seventy-nine year old lovely mother.  She then retreats to her room again, tears her letter in half, drops it in the wastebasket, goes downstairs, tells the night porter to get her a ticket on the next plane to London and sends a telegram to London.  First, she writes, “Coming home.”  Then she realizes that is not entirely accurate.  She crosses out “Coming home” and writes simply, “Returning.”

When I first read this book, I thought the ending felt warm and brave.  Now I think Edith was a damn fool.  Perhaps she need not have married Neville — although the older I get, the less objectionable his proposition begins to appear — but she certainly should not have “returned” to the life she had had.

This is what Anita Brookner had to say at eighty when asked by an interviewer about marriage and the ending of “Hotel du Lac.”  First she observed that she herself had never married not because there had been no opportunity, but because she had always been interested in the wrong sort of man and the wrong sort of man had been interested in her. She then remarked that her books had always seemed to write themselves, and that this book had been no different:  at the time she wrote it, the ending simply came out of her.  But after it had been published (when she was well into her fifties, and not thirty-nine as Edith Hope had been), she began to think she had been wrong.  And now, living alone at eighty, she was certain that if she were to do it again, Edith would have married Neville.

It isn’t good to be alone, she said, when you grow old.

So I ask you, friends:  What do you think?  If you were in my book group, what would you have said?

NO PAINKILLER AVAILABLE

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Not every ache or pain is age related. And not every pain can be numbed, even by prescription. Here are three paragraphs about pain not numbed in someone not yet old. I call the three paragraphs a story, although the beginning of the story precedes the three paragraphs and the story has no end. Which I suppose is the point.  There is no end.

I didn’t write it.  I wish I had.  To me it says everything there is to say about what it’s about. Which (I think) makes it impressive, if unconventional, writing.  Yes, it’s by Lydia Davis again. [From The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Picador paperback edition, pp. 170-171.]  I know some of you found her hard to take when I posted about her before. But this piece really got to me, so I thought I’d try again.  It’s not very long. See how you feel about it.

Wife One in Country 

Wife one calls to speak to son.  Wife two answers with impatience, gives phone to son of wife one. Son has heard impatience in voice of wife two and tells mother he thought caller was father’s sister: raging aunt, constant caller, troublesome woman.  Wife one wonders: is she herself perhaps another raging woman, constant caller?  No, raging woman but not constant caller.  Though, for wife two, also troublesome woman.

After speaking to son, much disturbance in wife one.  Wife one misses son, thinks how some years ago she, too, answered phone and talked to husband’s raging sister, constant caller, protecting husband from troublesome woman.  Now wife two protects husband from troublesome sister, constant caller, and also from wife one, raging woman.  Wife one sees this and imagines future wife three protecting husband not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two, as well as constantly calling sister.

After speaking to son, wife one, often raging though now quiet woman, eats dinner alone though in company of large television.  Wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again.  Watches intently ad about easy to clean stove: mother who is not real mother flips fried egg onto hot burner, then fries second egg and gives cheerful young son who is not real son loving kiss as spaniel who is not real family dog steals second fried egg off plate of son who is not real son.  Pain increases in wife one, wife one swallows food, swallows pain, swallows food again, swallows pain again, swallows food again.

P.S.  If “Wife One” is at all to your taste, you may enjoy some of the quiet musings of one of the WordPress bloggers I follow.  She identifies herself as JMPod, and her blog is Original Pea.  I don’t know if she’s read Lydia Davis, but some of her short pieces remind me of Davis. What she writes is often not upbeat. Although she does say she writes mainly for her own pleasure, it would be great if more people found her.  Some things can’t be fixed. But it helps when you can write about them and other people read what you write.

MARCIA ANGELL ON LIFE IN HER SEVENTIES

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As far as I know, Marcia Angell is no relation of Roger Angell, who recently wrote of life in his nineties for The New Yorker (as I noted last week in this blog).  The identity of last name is simply a happy coincidence — happy for me and maybe you, because both of these people have had something of interest to say to those of us who are getting older.  Marcia Angell is a Senior Lecturer in Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine. She is also both a physician and an author, whose principal areas of investigative interest are the pharmaceutical industry and end-of-life issues. Last year, she was seventy-four.

In the May 9, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, she reviewed Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, a book by George E. Vaillant (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press), which summarizes a study of 268 Harvard sophomores  — at that point in time all male — who had been selected from the top of their classes in 1939 through 1944.  Although the original aim of the study was to determine what constitutes the best possible health (which it was assumed that these highly privileged youths would possess), it was later broadened to identify which early characteristics predict a successful life.  Most of the survivors are now in their nineties, which makes the Harvard Grant Study one of the longest and exhaustively documented studies of adult development in existence.

In the course of her review, Angell raised several interesting points, one of which is that the study showed that the marriages of the participants were happier after seventy.  She further agreed with Vailliant (the author) in his belief that “the empty nest is often more of a blessing than a burden.” Then she added an additional speculation of her own, which my own observations support.  (I do believe that, with exceptions, men are less resilient than women, especially as they age.)

A more speculative possibility: it seems to me that old age takes many men almost by surprise: it sneaks up on them, and is all the more disturbing for that.  In contrast, women are all too aware of aging, starting with their first gray hair or wrinkle.  By the time they’re in their fifties, they’re well accustomed to the losses that come with age.  That may make them better able to help and support their husbands as the men find that having been a master of the universe is no protection against old age.

However, it’s her last four paragraphs which led me to save a clipping of her review for almost a year.  Except for her interest in now learning Italian and taking a course in astronomy, I ‘m almost completely on the same page with her. (Our paths diverge only at her last thirteen words.)

Like Vaillant, I am in my seventies, so a book about aging holds special interest for me.  Ultimately, old age is bad news, of course, and I would rather be young.  But like many of the Grant Study men, I find offsetting advantages, one of which is a sharper sense of what is important in life.  Perhaps it is analogous to Samuel Johnson’s observation that ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ Anyway, I believe I have a clearer sense of what matters and what doesn’t.

My sources of pleasure are different, too, and more varied.  For example, I take great pleasure in beautiful vistas, something I did not when I was young.  Ordinary daily activities, like reading the paper and discussing the news with my husband over breakfast, have taken on an added pleasure beyond the activities themselves, just because of the ritual.  Although I continue to be active professionally, I am less concerned with maintaining a professional presence, and I look forward to learning Italian, taking a course in astronomy, and finally reading War and Peace (I have no interest in cultivating an actual garden).

But even though my microcosm is in pretty good shape, I have become much more pessimistic about the macrocosm — the state of the world.  We face unsustainable population growth, potentially disastrous climate change, depletion of natural resources, pollution of the oceans, increasing inequality, both within and across countries, and violent tribalism of all forms, national and religious.  Dealing with these problems will take a lot more than marginal reforms, and I don’t see that coming.  Particularly in the United States, but also in the rest of the world, big money calls the shots, and it is most concerned with the next quarter’s profits.  Although I’ve spent much of my life writing and speaking in opposition to the corrupting influence of money on medicine, I find doing so increasingly pointless because it seems futile.  Worrying about the world my daughters and grandsons will inhabit is what I like least about aging.

Nearly everyone over a certain age observes that time seems to pass much more quickly, and I am no exception. So extreme is the acceleration that I wonder whether it isn’t a result of some physical law, not just a perception.  Maybe it’s akin to Einstein’s discovery that as speed increases, time slows.  Perhaps this is the reverse — as our bodies slow, time speeds up.  In any case, the rush of my days is in stark contrast to the magically endless days of my girlhood.  I also find it hard to remember that I’m no longer young, despite the physical signs, since I’m the same person and in many ways have the same feelings.  It’s particularly disquieting to recall that many people and places I knew no longer exist, except in my memories.  Still, although I dislike the fact that my days are going so quickly, that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run.  Like the men in the Grant Study.

It’s the “that’s the way it is, and I’ve had a good run” part I can’t agree with.  I don’t find that consoling at all.  It’s rather like telling a hungry person that he’s had plenty of good juicy steaks in his time, and now it’s someone else’s turn.

But then, I was always a sore loser.

EXPERIMENT IN THE THIRD PERSON

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(after reading too much Lydia Davis)

 When the doctor confirmed the woman was pregnant, the man decided they would name the baby Victor.  Labor took thirty-six hours. The baby was lazy and refused to come out. The doctor had to use forceps.

It was a girl.  The man let the woman choose the name.  He said he didn’t care.  The woman named the baby after the female patron saint of Georgia. (Even though the man and woman were Jewish.)

In the hospital, the woman worried about the indented forceps marks on the baby’s face.  The doctor said they would go away, but she worried anyway.  She did not want a baby that was scarred.

The indentations did go away, but the baby continued to cause the woman to worry. Once she left the baby in the middle of the double bed for just a minute while she went away to get a cigarette from her pocketbook in the kitchen.  Suddenly she heard a thud that made her heart stop.  The baby had rolled off the edge of the bed and was lying on the floor. Had the baby damaged itself permanently?  The doctor came to the house, examined the baby, and said no.  But for a long time, the woman worried anyway.

The baby was also troublesome. She peed through her diaper on the woman’s velvet sofa.  Then the woman had to keep that sofa cushion turned over because the spot wouldn’t come out.  Every time she vacuumed the sofa, she wondered what would have happened if the baby had been a boy.  Maybe his pee would have stayed in the front part of the diaper and not wet the sofa.

When the baby became a child and went to school, she wrote a story for her third-grade teacher about the lazy scarred baby who was supposed to be a boy but wasn’t and caused her mother so much worry and trouble. She wrote it as if it were funny, hahaha, and her teacher gave her an A.

She was able to write these things because her mother had told her about them.  (It was her mother’s way of reminiscing.) That’s how she knew about Victor, and the thirty-six hours of labor because she was lazy, and the forceps, and the ugly blue indentations, and the father wanting her to be a boy, and rolling off the bed to worry her mother, and ruining the velvet sofa.

Much later, when she had become a woman and mother herself, she would ask herself what kind of unthinking mother would tell a little girl that her father wanted a boy, or that she was lazy and wouldn’t “come out,” or that she had been born scarred and worrisome and troublesome.

She herself never said anything like that to her own two children.

As an adult, she has occasionally tried to write again about her childhood, this time without the hahaha.  Usually she tears it up or deletes it, because now it sounds too self-pitying.  But what if she were to abandon the first-person voice of memoir?  What if she made it sound as if she were writing about someone else?

How would that be?