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!

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….

LESSON FROM LAW SCHOOL

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In England I believe it’s called “reading law.” Here in the United States, it’s just “going to law school.” But you need four years of college and an undergraduate degree in order to apply.

However, unlike most other graduate programs, and contrary to what you may have thought, law school is much more a glorified trade school than an immersion in complex higher thought.  It’s true that the J.D. (juris doctor),  when finally acquired after three years of supposedly learning how to practice law, does not yet entitle you actually to practice it.  (Except in one state — Wyoming or Montana, I forget which.)  There’s another hurdle ahead: you must take and pass one last big test in a state or states of your choosing.  And that’s what you really need the J.D. for.  It’s your entry ticket for “sitting for the bar.”

“Sitting for the bar” means you register to take, and then actually take, a two-day examination (three-day if you’re doing two states at the same time) — each day’s part being six hours in length, with an hour’s break for lunch and for standing in long bathroom lines. It’s administered in a huge aerodrome or covered stadium designated by the state in question as the place where its bloodless torture takes place twice a year.  [The size of the venue is driven by the fact that as many as 1500 newly minted J.D.s may be taking the exam at the same time. Plus the ones who failed their first or second try and have to try again.]

Only when you’ve at last “passed the bar” may you finally proceed to practice law (and find out how little you really learned about it in school) either by (1) becoming an associate at a private law firm; (2) finding a municipal, state or federal government job as a lawyer; (3) going “in-house” as a member of the legal staff of a corporation; or  (4) “hanging up your own shingle” (quaint phrase), usually because the other three possibilities didn’t pan out.

But let’s back up. I don’t know what’s involved in learning how to be a plumber or electrician, but I imagine the subject matter to be mastered for those trades must be broken down into manageable bits. So it is in law school.  Allegedly learning how to be a lawyer is broken down into various subject matters to be mastered, most of them in year-long courses.  Although the specific choice of first-year course work may vary from law school to law school, during my first year we took four courses that ran from September through May — Property Law, Contract Law, Tort Law, Civil Procedure — plus a fifth, Criminal Law, that was tested at the end of the first semester and replaced in the spring by Constitutional Law, which was tested at the end of May together with the four that had run for the whole academic year.

That’s right, five examinations at the end of the first year — and  the first and only examinations we would have on those five subjects. Each exam lasted three hours, and consisted of three complicated hypothetical situations which between them raised every possible issue that had arisen in any case discussed or even mentioned in that course since September.  We were advised to write for an hour on each hypothetical, but for no more than an hour, quickly identifying and explaining every issue we had spotted. [Bathroom break? Take it at your peril!  Leaving the room meant less time to write, fewer issues spotted.]  Brilliance on one hypothetical did not compensate for ignorance on another. Failing an exam meant having to repeat the course.  Doing poorly in any exam adversely affected one’s class rank — an extremely important consideration in securing a first job.

Understandably, there was much growing tension in the classroom as the weeks of May rolled by.  Many of us were there on federally funded student loans, which would need to be repaid irrespective of the outcome on these exams.  Others were the first in their families to go to graduate school.  Not making it would mean not making a family’s dream come true. The school had thoughtfully provided a ten-day study period following the end of classes before the first exams were scheduled to take place.  But how do you study when you’re too nervous to focus on anything except the possibility of impending doom?

The youngest of our professors was an attractive woman who was a bit past thirty but certainly no more than thirty-five.  This was only her second year as a member of the law faculty.  She had taught fourth grade for a few years before going to law school, and brought a touch of the kindly and patient manner with which one instructs young children to teaching us, which was perhaps an error of style when addressing a roomful of twenty-somethings, plus me.  What’s more, although she taught Civil Procedure, she had never actually practiced law.  She may not have even sat for a bar. She was slender, shapely, had great legs, and wore high heels to show them off — which was much appreciated by the young men in the class but did nothing to enhance her reputation as a professor to be respected for her knowledge.

On the final day she met with us, she did a quick review of what we might anticipate could be on the Civil Prodedure exam.  At last she put down her pointer and her chalk, turned to us and said she knew we were all very nervous.  She had been through it herself not so long before, so she understood completely.

And then this pretty woman with the gorgeous gams said something so important, and so applicable to every other aspect of life that I’ve never forgotten it, although by now I’ve forgotten almost everything else I memorized that year.  “You may be so nervous,” she said, “that you’re too nervous to study.  So this is what to do.”

Now no one was looking at her legs.  We were all listening very carefully.

What you should do when you’re too nervous to study,” she said, “is study. And then the nervousness will go away.”

I was nearly fifty-two, hadn’t taken an exam (except the one in Criminal Law) for twenty-seven years, and “nervous” doesn’t begin to describe my state of mind.  My husband was out of work, I had two adolescent children, I had done this all on loans.  But I took her advice.  And studied. And studied. And studied some more.  And the nervousness did go away.

When the class rankings were posted that summer after the grades were in on all five exams, I found myself tied for first in a class of 345.  That rank opened doors for interviews in major Boston law firms, despite my age. One of those interviews led to a job that brought money into our family again, paid for braces, good private schools, music lessons.

That’s why what I heard on the last day of the Civil Procedure class in May 1983 was the most useful lesson I learned in law school.  Try it yourself.

When you’re too nervous to do something, do it.  And the nervousness will go away.

And then who knows what good things will happen next?

THIRTEEN BULLETS TO ZAP WHAT AILS YOU

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I no longer remember where I found these. Attribution is therefore lost in the mists of time. When I found them, I do remember.  It was about fifteen or twenty years ago. I may have been younger than I am now, but life seemed bleaker.  I cut them out and pasted them in a notebook, and somehow got through whatever it was.

Because of what I had pasted in the notebook? Maybe.  Maybe not. (See fourth bullet up from bottom.)

Should you print them out and paste them in a notebook?  No down side that I can see.  (See fifth bullet up from bottom.)

And if they don’t work for you, recite bottom bullet aloud.  At least you’ll have the last word.

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  • Don’t spend your time worrying about the future. Live in the now.
  • Life is choices.
  • Life is a zoo.
  • I don’t care how other people do things.
  • It’s okay to screw up.
  • Some things you really need to cry about.  Some things just  aren’t worth it.
  • If it’s not fun, don’t do it. (Unless you really can’t get out of it.)
  • The best is yet to come.
  • Try everything.
  • Question everything.
  • Never settle.
  • Life is short.
  • Whoever said life is fair?

FOUR MEN I NEVER WENT OUT WITH

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It has been pointed out (by a male reader who lives with me) that yesterday’s piece on playing the personals contained nary a word of advice for men.

Although it often seems to women getting a bit long in the tooth that there are absolutely no available aging men, that appears to be wrong. It seems there are lonely and mostly unattached men in an appropriate age bracket who sometimes wonder if answering an ad might be the way to go.

I say “mostly” unattached, because avowed cheaters also play.  (And the unavowed?  Well, as Fats Waller used to say — one never knows, do one?)  As to what is an “appropriate” age bracket, I leave that to the ladies.  Do you really want a toy boy? How much are you willing to pay?  I also hope I have already made it perfectly clear in my last post on this subject that I have absolutely no advice for the young.  As if they’d take it if I had it.

With those caveats out of the way, let us try to level the playing field by proceeding as far as we can.  Which is not very far.  However, I do know some things:

  •   Men don’t really know what they want.  Besides hot sex.  Which they can’t ask for in a respectable publication, the only kind we will be considering today.  And which they might not be able to maintain in a long-term relationship. (Hereinafter “LTR.” If there is a “‘hereinafter” to the first date. Often there isn’t.)  Come on, guys.  Get real.  How much Viagra can you afford?
  •  Men of any age get many more responses to their ads than women do.  It therefore makes more sense, for both LTR-seekers and the other kind, that a man place an ad than answer one.  On the other hand, placement has its costs, how large depending on how many words you need to make yourself appealing.  Whereas answering is free!  No matter how many you answer! So you decide.
  • Men may not care about spelling, but most women do.  They also care about punctuation, and paragraphing, and vocabulary.  Answering an ad by e-mail is like sending in your CV for a job.  Women may be eager to give you a chance, but usually not if what you write looks as if you need to repeat third grade.  Unless you’re the reincarnation of Marlon Brando in Streetcar, and still have the torn white T-shirt, take care what you write.  Or use spell-check. Or only answer ads where you can telephone.
  • Men should not ever send out an e-mail like one of the following.  These were among the responses to an ad much like the one which ended my “Playing the Personals” post, but in which I described myself as possessing, among other desirable qualities, “warmth” and “a kind heart.”  Big mistake. (As you will see).  But did I really deserve what came back to me?  I have changed all the names, e-addresses and geographical locations, so that no public embarrassment or shame should ensue. Private embarrassment is between the authors and their maker.  I have not changed anything else.  I kid you not.

1.  From:  “devbanerjee” <booridev@frontier.net>

Dear Kind.

Although your message was for a 60+ man, I thought I might be apologized if I tried to reach you out with something that has to do with the basics of the values you carry, especially warmth and kindness.  Based on my own progression through life, I do hope that the experiences you have had in line with maturity and love will make you accept my offer of friendship based on understanding , honesty, integrity, understanding and mutuality.

I am a male, 26, currently a MBA student here in Washington, from Pakistan.  I value a friendship with someone on a higher scale of maturity and wisdom and am envisioning of our friendship building up to a height exceeding that of Mt. Everest and of our breathing in the beauty and spirituality around the unsurpassed grandeur of the natural beauty in the “hanging” valleys, “flowing” meadows, and “static” rivers and waterfalls there.

I recognize your hectic professional life; yet, something in the depth of my mind and values guide me to the waiting point until you show up at least briefly with your message.  I will more than appreciate that and will tell a lot more of myself soon afterward.

Sincerely, Dev Banerjee

At first I thought all that about Mt. Everest and the natural beauty of valleys and rivers and waterfalls — “hanging” and “flowing” and “static” — was code.  (I know, I have a dirty mind.)  But then I decided he was just lonely and got carried away.  After all, he was only 26, younger than my younger child.  Or maybe that’s the way they begin courtships in Pakistan.

2. From:  amvetserv@mindspring.com

Hi Boston.  A strange thing happened to me today I was reading The NY Review I saw your note and thought how perfect, is it possible what are the odds no way? maybe so. I had to respond so hear I am what next?  I must be the person you are looking for because you are exactly the type person I am looking for.  It is like I wrote the same add for someone like you.  It is crazy does any one really find someone like this.  I am an eternal opponents, so hear goes. I am a 48 yr. Old Ret. Major from the US Army.  I am working for a PUBLICATION as investigate reporter and travel all over.  But here is my secrete my true passion is writing, I think I may have a book or two in me. When I am not on the rode, my base is in Houston. I also like the good life and I am looking for A kind WARM leading Lady in my life to share it with.  If there is a interest drop me a note. I am looking forward to hearing from you.  Best Regards, George

You may be surprised to learn I told myself not to be a snob and answered George.  (It’s true about the kind heart.  Not a good thing to mention in an ad, though.)  George never wrote back.  Maybe his work as investigate reporter for a PUBLICATION kept him too busy. But I think it was my spelling and punctuation and paragraphing that put him off.

3.  From:  <Migueldr00@hotmail.com

A long “HELLO!”  Great-looking, kind-hearted Bostonian, Is your meaning of a “long hurrah” an exclamation of deep joy or a hint at commotion?  Is it the second tender movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth or the turbulent first of Mahler’s Sixth?  What a pleasant exciting surprise to find you!  I have to close my eyes…and believe…from what you write…that you are not only charming but smart, clever, playful and…passionate (in a controlled, witty way).  The good, passionate kind, the one with the smooth layer of chocolate mousse covering the volcanic rush of fantasy.  I want to steal your attention with inquiring looks and searching words.  Knowing a woman, for the first time, is to pin the eyes on her face and savor the honey of her smile, as she averts her face in a feminine gesture of divine shyness.  Hurrah to you, my kind-hearted darling…a long Hurrah that is a cry of joy, longer than a sigh, deeper than a tear, prettier than a kiss, as when a man meets a woman and feels the flesh quiver with the anticipated thrill of dreaming he is touching her tenderly…on her lips.

With friendly tenderness…and all the comparable qualities…and more.  Miguel in Delaware

See?  Hot sex.

 4. From: Calvin P. Kimberly <CPK4445556@isd.net

Dear Nina, my name is Cal Kimberly, I live on Gardiner’s Island and have a son in Boston named Dirk who has a son of his own.  I’m 82, though friends tell me I can pass for someone of 60.  I am married to Dirk’s mother, Penny.  She is totally quadriplegic after surviving a car crash eight years ago.  An excellent practical nurse and i provide care for her. Her condition can only be described as “complete invalidism.”  To be honest, I have written to several females who placed “personals” in TNYROB and sounded kind-hearted enough to listen to my angst.  Most were in New York, but if you know Long Island you will realize that I could easily take the ferry to Greenport on the North Fork, and then another ferry to Connecticut and come to Boston to see you.  I might also put my wife in a constant care facility and then locate in Providence which is cheaper than where you live but still only a quick journey to the larger city to the north.  I will see if I can arrange a visit to my son for some time later this month, which will give us a chance to meet and see how our chemistries mix at that point.  Cheers, Cal

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

Men, think twice before clicking “send.”

Ladies, remember it’s a long long road.  Yes, there might be a Bill at the other end of it.

But I do have something to confess. He didn’t write.  He telephoned.  And he had such a nice voice.  I only found out later he can’t spell for beans.

PLAYING THE PERSONALS

Standard

[Caution: The advice dispensed below is not meant for persons in the full bloom of youth.  If you’re part of the hook-up generation, other rules will apply, of which I am entirely ignorant.  Persons of an age between hooking up and giving up should proceed only when no better option presents itself.  Persons who’ve already given up should change their minds.  Where there’s life, there’s hope.  Also a few laughs.]

I once had a plumpish friend who wanted to meet another Bill.  Whether another Bill would have wanted to meet another her is another question entirely. One I cannot answer.

She meant, of course, that I should give her some tips on the use of personals ads to produce a dear companion of her very own.  [It is true that Bill and I found each other in the back pages of Boston Magazine.]

This was four years ago, when she was sixty-nine — my very age when I ran that fateful Boston Magazine ad.  She may have felt I would have some expertise in this area because she knew I had been advertising, and answering personal ads, on and off, for nearly thirteen years before the lightning bolt from the heavens that put an end to all that.  (Although I do admit to sometimes still taking a peek at the back of The New York Review of Books — the gold standard for this kind of thing — where you can find ads from some really weird guys over which to chortle in the bathroom.)

I promised to consult my files in the basement and get back to her with sample ads, and the responses.  In the meanwhile, I urged warming up copywriting skills and adopting a proper frame of mind. I even wrote it all out for her, at considerable length:

“You must be clear about the demographic to which you are marketing yourself.  It is exactly like advertising.  Forget  truth as you know it.   The ad can’t lie, but it doesn’t have to lay everything out, either.  And it must seem to offer what the customer may be hoping for, without use of words like “luscious” and “lovely,” which nobody believes anyway.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure by now that men who do personals have no idea of what they’re looking for.  The ones under seventy usually say they want “thin” or “fit” — and “sweet” or “understanding.” But what they’re really hoping for is someone they can talk to (meaning someone who will listen, not argue), who is presentable and  — please God! — exciting.

“Maybe the ones over seventy are hoping for the same thing, and keeping their fingers crossed that everything will work the way it used to if “exciting” does come along.  But I have less experience with this age group, other than Bill.

“Be that as it may, I will in due time send what I can find.  In the meanwhile, you might study the personals run by women in The New York Review of Books.  Not the long, fulsome ones that sound as if they’ve been drafted by professional matchmakers, but the three-liners from older women who don’t sound needy.  I don’t know how successful these ads are, but some of them strike me as the right approach.

“Be warned that once you embark on this project, it will be hard work, and often discouraging  You have to keep up appearances.  Which means staying away from strudel and chocolate and investing in a full-length mirror and hand mirror, so you can see what your butt looks like and do something about it if necessary. You might even consider  acquiring a few new outfits somewhat less reminiscent of Woodstock than what you wear whenever I see you.  (Think Mrs. Exeter, if you ever looked at Vogue in the old days.)

“You also have to be tough, while staying not tough — meaning you have to not care too much or get too discouraged or hurt too soon.  Remember:  it’s a numbers game, you never can tell, and even if it comes to nothing for a long time it can be more interesting than staying home and waiting for Mr. Wonderful to wander in off the street, get past your doorman, and make his way up to your apartment to discover you hanging out in front of the screen in a scruffy bathrobe — clutching a fork and a whole Sara Lee cheesecake.

“You will not get many answers.  Not if you are specifying a man aged 65-75.  (Some who reply may even be older.)  Don’t be too quick to send them packing, even if they sound grumpy or whiny or full of braggadocio.  Let each one have a chance — at least a little chance.  You will learn something from each one, about yourself as well as about the man.

“Don’t give your last name or address when you answer.  Pesterers can be persistent.  Meet for the first time at a cafe or other public place, carrying a red rose between your teeth for identification purposes if you must.

“You invite e-mails from me at your peril.

“P.S.  I used to be very shy.  But one does what one must.  First baby steps.  Then cautious jogging.  Then tall mountains in a single leap!  Pace.”

As for the rest of you, that should be enough for starters.  However —  not to leave you cliff-hanging — I just happen to have with me right here the last ad I ever ran.  I was 69 3/4 years old.  It appeared in the special “Valentines” section of (you guessed it) The New York Review of Books.  I also ran it in Boston Magazine, where twenty-four words or less were free:

“BOSTON/CAMBRIDGE.  Great-looking professional woman with intelligence, class, culture, charm, pizazz seeks 60+ man of comparable qualities as partner in long hurrah!”

I must have finally figured it out.  I never had to run another.