WRITING SHORT: 39/50

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

In grade school, we memorized poems. Memorization was hard for me (it still is), but I did my best to remember the assigned passages at least long enough to recite them out loud, palms sweating, if called on. I think this practice was supposed to saturate us with uplifting and ennobling literature that would provide comfort in the tough times ahead when we became adults.

I’ve been an adult for many years now, some of them quite tough. All I could ever recall of those elementary school efforts were two lines: “By the shores of Gitchee-Goomee” (Longfellow) and “Into the valley of death rode the four hundred…” (Tennyson). Neither was particularly sustaining when encountering life’s challenges.

What did stick with me was the idea that memorizing was an approved endeavor for classy young ladies. When at the age of twelve and a half I fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), I therefore had to memorize some of his verse – if only to show his spirit (surely hovering over my bedroom in Queens, New York) that I cared. For some reason I chose “Ozymandias.” Because it was only fourteen lines? I have no idea. But I memorized with such diligence I remembered it long after I’d traded in Shelley for Leonard Bernstein as my love object.

Did “Ozymandias” help in getting through life? Not really. Not until recently, when I took another look with adult eyes:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear —

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Think of the many hot shits in the world you can’t stand. For all their self-importance, nothing of them will remain. They’ll be nada. Buried in bare, boundless sand.

Feel better?

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“ZAFTIG” — A USEFUL WORD FOR JANUARY

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For those of us living in northern climes (and maybe for everyone else, but probably not so much), January is fat month.  There was all that holiday eating, now settled in nicely at hips and waist.  (You too, guys.)  And now it’s cold outside!  Which means thick warming soups and stews and chile and mashed potatoes with gravy and lasagnas and pot roasts, plus brownies right out of the oven and hot cocoa and ______.  [You fill in the blank.]  Why shouldn’t we live in the moment? Shorts and tank tops are at least four or five months away.

Of course, there’s still the mirror every morning, before all those heavy clothes go on. (Unless you force yourself not to look, or never take them off till spring.) For such trying times, there’s the soothing word: zaftig.

Unfortunately for the guys, men are never zaftig themselves.  Under the circumstances discussed in the preceding paragraph, they get big, or large, or (God forbid) extra-large.  But the word zaftig coming out of a man’s mouth to describe a woman is a life-saver. It means she’s not fat at all; she’s luscious.  I refer to grown men, of course — men with enough experience to reject the concept of embracing skin-covered sinews — not those young ones still yearning to make it with a ballet dancer.

Mind you, the word can’t be applied to just anyone.  By way of example (and I refer to ladies long gone who can no longer have feelings in the matter), if Marilyn Monroe had gained ten or fifteen pounds, she’d be zaftig. If beautiful but straight-up-and-down Audrey Hepburn had gained umpteen pounds, enough pounds to burst out of the top of her Givenchys, she’d still never get to zaftig.

Also if used by a woman about another woman, the word is not so good.  “Is she fat?”  “Not quite.  But she’s sure zaftig.”

However, never mind those catty types.  Lets put the emphasis back where it belongs: male appreciation.  In the days when Bill and I used to spend part of the summer on a small Greek island and I would haul myself out of bed early for a brisk constitutional before it got too hot to do anything but lie around and perspire — I once met a Greek man older than me mid-walk.  He was on his way to let his goats out to pasture or something.  But he could speak a little English.  After we’d said Kalimera to each other, he asked what I was doing up and about so early.  I explained I was atoning for all those ouzos and spanikopitas; I had to go on fitting into my bathing suits at least until we got back home.  “Don’t overdo it!” he warned, smiling with approval at my visible flesh. “A man likes some meat on the bones.”  If he’d known Yiddish, he could have told me that a man likes his women zaftig.

But that’s only my own experience with the word.  I concede my etymological knowledge is far from comprehensive and may even be partially incorrect. Fortunately, a short article from Moment Magazine (Jan.-Feb. 2015 issue) has been brought to my attention at this opportune time by a caring friend. It purports to clarify everything you ever wanted to know about the word zaftig while managing  to be confusing at the same time:

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A Full-Bodied History

by Hilary Weissman, with additional reporting by Sala Levin

For a quick overview of the complexities of the word zaftig, take a look at the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s video, circulating online, in which its residents demystify the meaning of the word.

Charlotte Seeman says that zaftig means “a little bit on the heavy side,” to which the moderator, Marty Finkelstein, asks, “But in a good way?”

“They look a little, if you’ll pardon the expression, appetizing to other people,” adds Yetta Dorfman.

Esther Berlin is less effusive. “It’s a shame because they don’t take care of themselves and do something about it,” she says, prompting the chivalrous gentleman of the group, Irving Rubinstein, to defend the zaftig dame’s honor. “It’s kind of a sexy, plump, attractive woman,” he concludes.

That, in a nutshell, is the debate over zaftig. By most contemporary definitions, zaftig means voluptuous or sexily curvaceous à la Marilyn Monroe or the commanding office manager Joan Harris on Mad Men. Unless it is a polite way of saying fat, in an unsexy way. “It holds both [meanings] depending upon who says it,” says Lori Lefkovitz, professor of Jewish studies at Northeastern University.

But in traditional Yiddish, zaftig has nothing to do with women’s bodies. It comes from the German word saftig, meaning “juicy” or “succulent. ” (Saft in German means “juice” or “sap”, and in European Yiddish, in which it is spelled and pronounced zaftik, was used to describe food and taste.) It could also be used for more abstract depictions of ideas, says Eddy Portnoy, who teaches Yiddish language and literature at Rutgers University. “You can have a zaftik story, you can have a zaftik piece of gossip, virtually anything that fits the bill,” he says. “It’s a very commonly used modifier that can refer to anything that is rich or pleasing,” much the same way an American might tell a friend that she heard some juicy news at the water cooler.

So how did zaftig make the transition to women? It is likely another example of the common transition that occurs with the Americanization of Yiddish. “We do that a lot with women’s bodies—we talk about juicy bodies and succulent bodies,” says Lefkovitz. “We describe women as food because they’re edible, they’re delicious.”

Sexual undertones are often implicit in the word’s use. In his classic 1968 book The Joys Of Yiddish, Leo Rosten affectionately exclaimed that the word “describes in one word what takes two hands, outlining an hourglass figure, to do.”  Says Yiddish expert Michael Wex, who defined the word in Just Say Nu: Yiddish For Every Occasion (When English Just Won’t Do): “The best equivalent I ever found for zaftig was an old cigarette commercial for Lucky Strike; the Lucky Strike model is ‘so round, so firm, so fully packed.’ That immediately took on a secondary meaning, a sexual connotation. Zaftig might—I can’t say for sure—in that sense have been influenced by that.”

Others have been even more explicit in the erotic implications of zaftig; Hanne Blank, editor of the 2001 anthology Zaftig: Well-Rounded Erotica, says that she chose the word for the title in part because “zaftig sounds like something that’s enjoyable, like something you can have a good time with, where plus-size sounds like you lost your way in Kmart and ended up in the plus-size section.”

Our changing perceptions of female beauty have influenced the use of the word. “Once upon a time, plumpness or curviness and all of those luscious sexual descriptors were associated with health and wealth, and as health and wealth got increasingly thin, zaftig became a euphemism for overweight,” says Lefkovitz.  Harvard professor Marjorie Garber touched on the word’s ambiguity in her essay “Moniker,” which was compiled in the 2001 book of essays Our Monica, Ourselves, dissecting what she argues some saw as Monica Lewinsky’s inherently Jewish seductive qualities. To Monica’s critics, “she was ‘pushy;’ she was ‘ambitious;’she was ‘zaftig;’ she was ‘typical Beverly Hills.’ She was physically mature for her age. She was sexy and seductive…She led a weak Christian man astray.”

What accounts for the word’s seemingly unflagging presence in American English? For one thing, as with so many Yiddish words, there’s no exact equivalent in English. The closest may be “pleasantly plump” or “Rubenesque,” after the women depicted in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens—but neither has the zing of zaftig. Lefkovitz suggests that another reason is its nostalgic evocation. “It’s a word where we hold both the past and the present, where there was a kind of valorization even for our zaftig grandmothers.”

The word is popular among non-Jews, too. When it came to choosing a name for his brewery, it didn’t matter to Brent Halsey whether his patrons would appreciate the double entendre of Zaftig Brewing Company. “None of us three co-owners are Jewish, but [the word] left a mark on me,” he said, citing as inspiration his high school English teacher’s penchant for quoting The Joys Of Yiddish. For a brewery specializing in full-bodied ales, it seemed the most fitting choice.

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I guess you can take what you like from all that. Personally, I go for the zing of being edible and delicious. Which reminds me, isn’t it time for dinner?

ON CHARON’S WHARF

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[I recently met a woman who recommended I read a book called Broken Vessels, a collection of essays by Andre Dubus.  Dubus  — better known for his short stories — was raised a Catholic and continued in his faith as an adult. As I’m not Catholic, I hesitated. But this is a smart woman.  So I  took her advice.  

Well, there I was, plodding along, beginning to wonder why I’d listened to her — baseball essay, one about trains, another about bullies, a complaint about the justice system (tell me about it) — when suddenly I found myself in territory so gorgeous it took my breath away.  

I had to read it twice, and then some of it once more. It’s a piece called “On Charon’s Wharf”– and if it doesn’t move you, I’d better stop blogging and find something else to do.  I’ve chopped out a couple of pages about an Ingmar Bergman movie which I don’t think you’ll miss, but otherwise was afraid to tamper with it.  It’s about death, and love, and men and women.  Which means it’s about all of us.]

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“On Charon’s Wharf” by Andre Dubus

Since we are all terminally ill, each breath and step and day one closer to the last, I must consider those sacraments which soothe our passage. I write on a Wednesday morning in December when snow covers the earth, the sky is grey, and only the evergreens seem alive. This morning I received the sacrament I still believe in: at seven-fifteen the priest elevated the host, then the chalice, and spoke the words of the ritual, and the bread became flesh, the wine became blood, and minutes later I placed on my tongue the taste of forgiveness and of love that affirmed, perhaps celebrated, my being alive, my being mortal.  This has nothing to do with immortality, with eternity; I love the earth too much to contemplate a life apart from it, although I believe in that life. No, this has to do with mortality and the touch of flesh, and my belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist is simple: without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on flesh, and that touch is the result of the monologues, the idea, the philosophies which led to faith; but in the instant of the touch there is no place for thinking, for talking; the silent touch affirms all that and goes deeper: it affirms the mysteries of love and mortality….

So many of us fail: we divorce wives and husbands, we leave the roofs of our lovers, go once again into the lonely march, mustering our courage with work, friends, half-pleasures which are not whole because they are not shared.  Yet still I believe in love’s possibility, in its presence on the earth; as I believe I can approach the altar on any morning of any day which may be the last and receive the touch that does not, for me, say: There is no death; but does say: In this instant I recognize, with you, that you must die. And I believe I can do this in an ordinary kitchen with an ordinary woman and five eggs. I scramble them in a saucepan, as my now-dead friend taught me; they stand deeper and cook softer, he said. I take our plates, spoon eggs on them, we sit and eat. She and I in the kitchen have become extraordinary: we are not simply eating; we are pausing in the march to perform an act together; we are in love; and the meal offered and received is a sacrament which says: I know you will die; I am sharing food with you; it is all I can do, and it is everything.

As lovers we must have these sacraments, these actions which restore our focus, and therefore ourselves. For our lives are hurried and much too distracted, and one of the strangest and most dangerous of all distractions is this lethargy of self we suffer from, this part of ourselves that does not want to get out of bed and once out of bed does not want to dress and once dressed does not want to prepare breakfast and once fed does not want to work. And what does it want? Perhaps it wants nothing at all. It is a mystery, a lovely one because it is human, but it is also dangerous. Some days it does not want to love, and we yield to it, we drop into an abyss whose walls echo with strange dialogues. These dialogues are with the beloved, and at their center is a repetition of the word I and sometimes you, but neither word now is uttered with a nimbus of blessing. These are the nights when we sit in that kitchen and talk too long and too much, so that the words multiply each other, and what they express — pain, doubt, anxiousness, dread — become emotions which are not rooted in our true (or better) selves, which exist apart from those two gentle people who shared eggs at this same table which now is soiled with ashes and glass-rings.

These nights can destroy us. With words we create genies which rise on the table between us, and fearfully we watch them hurt each other; they look like us, they sound like us, but they are not us, and we want to call them back, see them disappear like shriveling clouds back into our throats, down into our hearts where they can join our other selves and be forced again into their true size: a small I among many other I‘s. We try this with more words and too often the words are the wrong ones, the genies grow, and we are approaching those hours after midnight when lovers should never quarrel, for the night has its mystery too and will not be denied, it loves to distort the way we feel and if we let it, it will.  We say: But wait a minute … But you said … But I always thought that …Well how do you think I feel, who do you think you are anyway? Just who in the hell do you think you are?

There are no answers, at least not at that table. Each day she is several women, and I am several men. We must try to know each other, understand each other, and love each other as best we can. But we cannot know and understand all of each other. This is a time in our land when lovers talk to each other, and talk to counselors about each other, and talk to counselors in front of each other. We have to do this. Many of us grew up in homes whose table and living room conversations could have been recorded in the daily newspaper without embarrassing anyone, and now we want very much to explore each other, and to be explored. We are like children in peril, though, when we believe this exploring can be done with words alone, and that the exploring must always give answers, and that the exploring is love itself rather than a way to deepen it. For then we kill our hearts with talk, we place knowing and understanding higher than love, and failing at the first two, as we sometimes must, we believe we have failed at the third. Perhaps we have not. But when you believe you no longer love, you no longer do.

I need and want to give the intimacy we achieve with words. But words are complex: at times too powerful or fragile or simply wrong; and they are affected by a tone of voice, a gesture of a hand, a light in the eyes. And words are sometimes autonomous little demons who like to form their own parade and march away, leaving us behind. Once in a good counselor’s office I realized I was not telling the truth. She was asking me questions and I was trying to answer them, and I was indeed answering them. But I left out maybe, perhaps, I wonder. … Within minutes I was telling her about emotions I had not felt. But by then I was feeling what I was telling her, and that is the explosive nitroglycerin seeping through the hearts of lovers.

So what I want and want to give, more than the intimacy of words, is shared ritual, the sacraments. I believe that, without those, all our talking, no matter how enlightened, will finally drain us, divide us into two confused and frustrated people, then destroy us as lovers. We are of the flesh, and we must turn with faith toward that truth. We need the companion on the march, the arms and lips and body against the dark of the night. It is our flesh which lives in time and will die, and it is our love which comforts the flesh. Beneath all the words we must have this daily acknowledgement from the beloved, and we must give it too or pay the lonely price of not living fully in the world: that as lovers we live on Charon’s wharf, and he’s out there somewhere in that boat of his, and today he may row in to where we sit laughing, and reach out to grasp an ankle, hers or mine.

It would be madness to try to live so intensely as lovers that every word and every gesture between us was a sacrament, a pure sign that our love exists despite and perhaps even because of our mortality. But we can do what the priest does, with his morning consecration before entering the routine of his day; what the communicant does in that instant of touch, that quick song of the flesh, before he goes to work. We can bring our human, distracted love into focus with an act that doesn’t need words, an act which dramatizes for us what we are together. The act itself can be anything: five beaten and scrambled eggs, two glasses of wine, running beside each other in rhythm with the pace and breath of the beloved. They are all parts of that loveliest of all sacraments between man and woman, that passionate harmony of flesh whose breath and dance and murmur says: We are, we are, we are

1977.