WRITING SHORT: 45/50

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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.]

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 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).

[Reblogged from December 11, 2013]

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WRITING SHORT: 23/50

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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.]

E-mail to a pianist, inspired by two young grandchildren learning to play the cello and violin:

Hello, Ms. ____,

I have your name from your husband, who I met about three years ago at a Princeton Democratic Party meeting. (I move slowly on these things.) I don’t know if you’re still teaching and have time, or what you charge, or — if time and money work for us both — whether you might be interested in taking me on as an experiment.

I had piano lessons from the ages of 7 to 17, again in my late forties, yet again between 1998 and 2001. I was badly taught the first time (by friends of my father, doing him a favor), not really better later, and there wasn’t much the most recent teacher could do, although I liked him. I never learned to sight read, and was unable to memorize.

Several weeks ago I opened the piano (still tuned every six months) and discovered everything had gone with the wind. With difficulty I could pick out the first two major scales with both hands, forgetting where to turn the thumbs under. It took about thirty minutes to work out the fingering and hesitantly put together the first eight bars of the first Prelude of the Well Tempered Clavichord, which I hadn’t played before. (I had played the first Fugue, quite well but not by heart; it looks like Greek to me now.)

However, it is said that Socrates spent his last thirty minutes before drinking the hemlock to which he had been condemned learning to play a new song on his flute-like instrument.  When asked why, he replied: “So that I may know it.”

I just turned 84, although I’m told I don’t look it, and don’t (yet) have arthritic fingers.  I am sure if I start again, this time it should be as if I were a beginner, even if there may be somewhat faster progress at the outset than with a real beginner. Is this a challenge you feel you could take up?

Many thanks for your consideration.

Her immediate answer: She would be delighted to meet, after her husband recovers from a recently broken ankle, to see if we can work something out.

You may call me Socrates, at least for now.

MY THREE-MINUTE ENGAGEMENT

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It was October 1994; I was again between husbands. (Between second husband and Bill, to be precise.) In other words, I was at liberty.  And working at a very large law firm, second largest in Boston.

This law firm (I name no names) was so large, for Boston, that it occupied many floors of a building a whole square block around.  There were so many floors it took three or four minutes for the elevator to get from the top one to the lowest.  The firm employed upwards of 300 lawyers on those floors, plus 400 in support staff, not counting the mail room.  Also pertinent to this story is that many of those 700 people sort of knew who I was.  Not because I had done such extraordinary things in court (I hadn’t), but because I was the only woman in the firm with a New York accent. Unlike anyone else who worked there, I sounded as if I’d come right out of a Woody Allen movie.

Levity aside, you didn’t have much spare time for lolly-gagging around if you practiced law at this big firm.  But you had a little bit.  It was still before cell phones and working from home. When you finally did get to leave, you were relatively free of the office and law for a while.  Which is how I was able to take an advertised walk with a Boston Park Ranger through the Emerald Circle of Boston’s municipal parks on the first Saturday in October. I did it to knock myself out so I would be too tired in the evening to indulge in self-pity, all alone by the telephone.

While dutifully admiring nineteenth-century statues of important historical figures on the Boston Common, I fell in with another walker; she was about my age, also divorced with two grown sons, and also living in Cambridge.  (A social worker, but you can’t have everything.) We went home together on the Red Line. Just before I got out at the Harvard Square stop, she asked how I felt about Mort Sahl.  He was coming to Cambridge for a two week run at the Hasty Pudding Theater on Holyoke Street.  Would I like to go with her the following Saturday night?

In all candor, I felt nothing for Mort Sahl.   By then I had seen him in performance three times.  First with a blind date, when I was very young and he was still unknown; next with first husband, when I was not yet thirty and he was very famous;  last with second husband, when I was not quite middle-aged and his career was not quite gone. So I’d had plenty of opportunity to decide he wasn’t my type. In spite of that, I agreed to go. It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do next Saturday night.

Attention, those of you not yet adults in the early 1960s:  Run, don’t walk, to Wikipedia to look up Mort Sahl.  His photo there will show you a tall, dark-haired man with a devilish grin.  You’ll learn he was born in 1927, had been married twice by the time of this story, was the first ever American performer to make it in stand-up comedy discussing current events and politics.  He was especially popular with East and West Coast intelligentsia — who jammed themselves into smart clubs on both coasts whenever and wherever he appeared, if only to say they’d seen him in action.

You’ll also learn how he would stroll to the mike so casually, wearing his signature sweater, with signature rolled-up newspaper in hand — and then let fire into a hot packed room. He was swift, sharp, biting, bitter. And merciless.  In 1960 Time Magazine called him “Will Rogers with fangs.”

My new friend brought another friend to the performance; I never did catch this one’s name.  The nameless friend had long streaming grey hair, flowing garments and practiced some kind of spiritual balance therapy with pyramids, algae and crystals.  Definitely not my type, either.

We accordingly chose a seating arrangement that allowed new friend and nameless friend to coo at each other till showtime, leaving me to case the room. Judging by the scatterings of silver heads and wispy white beards, we were an aging group. No young folks at all.  And plenty of empty seats.

Then the theater dimmed, the stage lights went on, the feature attraction strolled out to the mike.  He was still wearing a sweater, still carrying a rolled-up newspaper, still tall.  But the dark hair was grey, the grin querulous, the quips tired and forced.

And soon a new disquiet emerged from his discourse:  the end of his twenty-four year marriage. How he’d tried, how much it hurt, why it shouldn’t have ended.  Mort Sahl without fangs. The audience stirred restlessly. Two or three got up to go.  Didn’t he realize?  Didn’t he care?  My type or no, I began to feel bad for him. How could he humiliate himself like that?  Shut up  about the lost wife already and start snarling.

But he didn’t.  Or couldn’t.  On and on and on he went, laboring past the absence of response, the awful silences.  Until it was over. A few feeble claps. The doors opened. At last: a breath of fresh air.

I ruminated all weekend. About the fleetingness of fame, aging men and their lack of resilience. About what really matters, and what doesn’t.  By Monday morning, I had come to a decision.  I was going to write him a letter. Monday night I did.

What do you write an aging comedian whose sun seems to have set?

October 10, 1994

Dear Mort Sahl:

I was at the 7 p.m. show last Saturday, very pleased to be seeing you again in your red sweater still doing your thing to a gratified audience.  What was particularly pleasing for me has to do with an evening at the end of summer 1952, when I predicted your future to my date.

In August 1952, I was fresh out of college, an insecure little girl from the East whose parents had just moved to L.A. with daughter in tow. (No, I didn’t resist, which tells you something right there.) On that evening I was brought to a so-called party at someone’s apartment by a physically unprepossessing blind date (short! and with a big nose!) — the son of someone my mother had met at a beauty parlor.  He was in training to do psychotherapy.  Our disenchantment with each other was mutual; I never saw him again after that.

Among the other guests was you, sitting on the floor, looking unkempt, unshaved and somewhat ragged, and holding forth to the assembled with what I took for (and may well have been) venom and rancor about practically everything but especially the under-appreciation which you had been accorded in San Francisco, from whence you had just come in a state of apparent destitution.  During the interstices of your performance from the floor, my date whispered that you were the current boyfriend of still another guest, who was putting you up and feeding you while you purportedly tried to get on your professional feet in L.A.

It was very hot.  I was wearing — with maximum discomfort — that summer’s requisite outfit for the upwardly mobile: a waist cincher, a strapless bra that felt as if it were sliding down, two scratchy crinolines, a heavily quilted off-the-shoulder Anne Fogarty dress with a circle skirt and three-inch wide belt that dug into the ribs and also made gas, because it prevented the proper digestion of dinner.  In addition, I wore several pounds of makeup which were threatening to slide away in a flood of perspiration if we didn’t get out of there soon.  Not surprisingly, I did not feel benign.

“A loser,” I pronounced to the date with finality as we made our getaway.  “Now there’s someone who’ll never amount to anything.”

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

Well.  I first went to see you perform (for money) in New York, in the company of husband number one — about four or five years later, I think.  It may have been at the Blue Angel. Husband number one dragged me. The sweater wasn’t red yet, the crowds were huge, you were too quick for most of the audience and at times, to my chagrin, too quick for me.  Husband number one, who was able to keep up, thought you were great.

The second time I saw you perform was again in New York, during one of your later renascences, but with husband number two.  I dragged husband number two.  The sweater was now red, you were much mellower, and mercifully slower on the draw.  No more semi-automatic attack weapons.  I could keep up.  Husband number two, the unwilling attendee, thought you were great.

This time, newly resident in Cambridge, I and a 1950′s-vintage lady neighbor I had recently met decided to go together. (No dragging.)  But she dragged still another lady I did not know.  Both ladies turned out to be into crystals, green algae, and the like.  I don’t know what the two ladies thought.  I thought you were great.

If it weren’t for the presence of the two ladies, who began clamoring to get to Chef Chow for Chinese food as soon as you walked off, I would have come back stage to tell you so. (I probably would also have talked about survivors, and change, and process, and heavy stuff like that, if you actually have real conversations when you’re off stage.)  But I couldn’t and therefore didn’t. Hence this letter.

I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone before, and probably never will again, but it seems unlikely that either of us will last another forty-two years, so here it is.

[I’m also sorry that you are lonely sometimes and that the end of your marriage hurts you so much — inappropriate as such remarks may be in a letter of this kind.]

If you ever come back to these un-Hollywoodlike parts, and feel like getting in touch, please do.

Take care and be well.

Nina Mishkin

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

 I put my home address on the letter and mailed it.  I had done what I could. A summary judgment motion was waiting in my office. It was Tuesday morning, I was only half done, and the whole thing, with supporting documents, had to be filed by 4 p.m. Friday. Or the client would be in the soup, and I’d be out the door.[Those were the fun days of my life! The pay was pretty good, though, if you could stand the pain.]

I made it.  No soup, no door.   And not a peep out of Mort Sahl, either.  When I had time to think about him again, I wondered if my letter had ever reached him. I’d sent it to the theater, not knowing where else it should go. Was that like the Black Hole of Calcutta?

Oh well.  It was a pretty good weekend, all things considered: Hairdresser, shopping, pistachio ice cream in bed.  But not for the lawyer I shared a secretary with; he was slaving away his Saturday in the office.    [Yes, we did that sometimes.  Correction: more than sometimes.]

Let’s say this lawyer’s name was Jim.  It wasn’t, but let’s say anyway.  If my phone were to ring when I wasn’t there, the call would go to our secretary.  And if she wasn’t there but Jim was, he’d be the one who picked up. (Thinking, no doubt, it was for him.) That Saturday, my phone did ring. Jim answered, and put the message on our secretary’s desk.  Come Monday, she saw it before I did.

Did she ever get busy!  Soon every secretary on our floor knew what was in my message. Then the news flew, like wildfire, to other floors. Don’t legal secretaries have anything to do except gossip (as one of them put it) about “lawyers in love?”

By the time I showed up at 9:33 (after three minutes in the elevator) and saw the yellow sticky now squarely centered on my desk, I must have been the last to know what Jim had written on it:

Nina –

You got a call from Mort Sahl.  He’s at the Charles Hotel, 864-1200.  Call him Monday if you don’t see this before then.

Jim  (Saturday – 2:20 p.m.)

Oh, Mort.  Why the office?  I gave you my home address!  Couldn’t you have asked Information for that number instead?

I closed the door before I dialed.  (Yes, I was nervous.)  The hotel switchboard connected me.

The familiar voice was cautious:  “Hello?”

I explained who I was.

The voice warmed up.  “That was a great letter!”

Me: Glad you liked it. (This was true.)

He: You’re a lawyer?

Me (evasive):  Mmm.

He (skipping over the lawyer part): A really great letter. I’d like to see you.

Me: I’d like that, too.

(Awkward pause.)

Me again: Will you be here long?

He: Flying out this afternoon.

Me (disheartened): “Oh.”

He (encouraged by the disheartened “oh”): “But I’ll be back.  We’re doing another show in the East in December.  Maybe then?”

Me: Absolutely.

He: Okay.

Me: Okay.

He: Bye, then.

Me: Bye.

Well, what did you expect?  Romeo and Juliet?

Important Rule of Life:  It’s not enough for news to travel, it has to change and grow as well.  At one in the afternoon when I got back into the elevator for lunch, the head of my department was in the elevator, too. This dour lady lawyer had always disapproved of me. She didn’t like that I sometimes laughed. She considered my remarks about the environmental problems caused by underground storage tanks insufficiently serious. But today her thin face was wreathed in smiles.

“Nina!” she cried joyously as the elevator doors closed on us. I thought she might  be going to hug me.  “Congratulations! I hear you’re engaged to Mort Sahl!”

That’s probably the high point of this story.  It’s all downhill from here on.  Beginning with the three whole minutes in the elevator it took to get myself un-engaged. Dis-engaged?  You know what I mean.  So maybe I should stop while I’m ahead.  But I’d be lying if I let you think I didn’t watch The Boston Globe and The New York Times like a hawk for the next two months. However, if Mort ever came East again that year, it got by me.

Ah, don’t fret.  There is a happy ending. Three happy endings actually, if you take the long view.

  1.  The dour lady lawyer who headed up our department began to look on me more favorably.
  2.  Two years later, Mort Sahl found a new wife.
  3.  Seven years later, I met Bill, who’s more my type.

Also, Mort was right.  It was a great letter. And we both still have that.

WHAT TO SEND A GIRL WHO’S GIVING YOU A HARD TIME

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While rummaging around the basement a few days ago, I found myself wrist-deep in the contents of a dusty old suitcase that hadn’t been opened for quite some time. It was the smallest and only surviving case in a three-piece set of Amelia Earhart luggage my parents bought for me when I set off to college in September 1948.  You wouldn’t want to use it as a suitcase these days.  It’s heavy (for its size) and has no roller wheels.  But it has remained useful over the years as a sort of storage box.

Indeed, when I managed to pry its two closures open, it was jammed full of yellowing correspondence from the time when people sent each other real letters on real paper — sometimes even handwritten — which were then folded into real envelopes with postage stamps on them.  These were letters that took at least two or three days to reach their destination, and sometimes longer.  You had to be patient.  Or else pace impatiently, until the mailman arrived.

We may revisit the interesting question of why I hang on to all this stuff in another post, after I’ve figured it out myself.  However, this post is not about that.  It’s about the folded piece of paper on top of one of the bundles of letters in the suitcase.  The rubber band holding the bundle together had dried out and it snapped when I picked up the bundle.  The top piece of paper slipped to the floor.  It was just asking to be read!  How could I not unfold it and take it over to a good light?

Long story short, it was a plea/demand straight from the gonads — its author being a young man I had met and in due time kissed, again and again, during the previous summer.  Unfortunately, he was now in a college twenty-five hours away from mine by train, racked by uncertainty as to my feelings.   He wasn’t quite as young as I was, but nearly — and was definitely hotter to trot. (At least when writing about it.)  Apparently, I was taking my time — too much time, as he saw it — in committing the degree of my desire to paper.

Having just reread his typed expression of angst for the first time in nearly sixty-six years, I like it much more than I did when I first received it. I even now like the not-so-surreptitious suggestion that I was being a bitch.  [“Bright EYE WET nose can be taught all manner of tricks”]  I probably was.  I sobbed at parting in Grand Central Station, but otherwise would go just so far, and no farther.

Nonetheless, I must have liked it enough, despite the jab, for him soon to become an important person in my early life, the one referred to elsewhere in this blog as “first serious boyfriend.”  And I like it so much now I thought other people might like to read it too.  I know he wouldn’t mind, if he were still alive.  He’d smile.  Maybe you will, too.

[Note:  I’d re-type it to make it easier for you to read, but I can’t reproduce the e.e. cummings style without a typewriter roller, and I no longer have a typewriter — not even in my rat pack basement.]

[Second note:   although e.e. cummings was cutting-edge stuff to the 1948 college crowd, his poetic style, emulated here, may not have aged well.   On the other hand, the feelings expressed have no pull date.  Some kinds of H-U-R-TZ never go away.]

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“STILL YOUR FRIEND….”

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We met in law school. She was young enough to be my daughter, if I’d had a daughter by my first husband, which — thank God — I didn’t.  She’s still young enough to be my daughter, although now it’s thirty-one years later and she’s fifty-seven.  However, that’s neither here nor there.

She soon also became a friend, probably the best one I ever had,  although we always lived in different cities.  [She used to drive horrendous distances to come to class.] After law school, we stayed connected by long telephone calls every week or so:  two disaffected lawyers at their desks in big law firms, commiserating with each other for part of the afternoon behind closed doors.  You keep a pen in the hand that’s not holding the telephone and a yellow legal pad with some writing on it in front of you. If anyone comes in, you look annoyed and shake your head.  “Not now. I’m on a conference call.”  It always works.

We did have some face time. Occasionally, she came to my place for a weekend, or I made the reverse trip.  We did girly things and giggled.

Then I grew older, and worked less, and retired, and moved to another state.  She grew older, and worked more, and got a more important job in the legal department of a large corporation, and was promoted to Vice President, and then was transferred to the business side, which she found challenging and exciting, and where she began to make Really Big Money.

Not surprisingly, we couldn’t manage visits or calls anymore. She had no time.  But she did used to send an occasional Jacquie Lawson e-card with a tinkly tune and a little message that asked, somewhat plaintively, if I was still her friend.  Whatever that meant, after years of near silence.

Finally, I decided to be the adult in this situation.  I sent an email.

Hi there —

It occurs to me, more and more frequently, that I haven’t heard from you, even via Jacquie Lawson, for a very long time.  Which could mean that you are just an extremely busy and happy businesswoman in your “new” incarnation at work.  (Not so new anymore, I guess.)  Or it could mean that there is something (s. or pl.) less good in your life, which is not hard for even the Pollyanna side of me to imagine these days, as I have now reached the age where friends and acquaintances are falling by the wayside or being totally swept away.

On the other hand, you are a mere youngster — only a year or so older than I was when I sat for the bar!  So those kinds of somethings couldn’t be happening to you.  (I hope.)

Don’t just tap back, “Everything’s fine. More later.”  Later is later and Now is now, and it has begun to seem more prudent, to me at least, to make the most of Now.

That’s why I am sending this e-mail Now — a Before-Breakfast Now.  Surely, with all the state-of-the-art devices at your command, you can manage to get back to me Before-Bed?

xoxox

That very night, there was an answer:

I can and will get back to you before bed.  It is good to hear from you.

The good news is that there is no cataclysmic event in my life that has kept me from getting in touch.  The bad news is that my new job (not so new, as you correctly point out) has me existing at a level of stress I haven’t felt since my last year in private practice.  I can’t say I hate, or even really dislike, any one aspect of my new role. But I feel totally and on-goingly completely and utterly overwhelmed.  To the point — silly, I know — that the thought of getting myself to see you seems like planning a journey to the North Pole.  Even though I would very much like to.

Because I couldn’t see my way to confess this to you, I couldn’t bring myself to write.

There, how’s that for “everything’s fine?”

Actually, I can’t blame it all on work.  Due to my penchant for saying, “Sure, I’d be happy to do that!” when I should be saying, “Absolutely out of the question!” I am currently serving on the Board of Directors for five different non-profits, where I’m President of the Board for two and promised next in line to be President of a third.  And I’m mentoring three women at work.  And serving on about half a dozen business committees, several of which I chair, and….well, you get the idea.  I’m over-extended times 100, and don’t know how to extricate myself.  From almost any of it.

I would like to engage in scream therapy, but am afraid if I start, I won’t be able to stop.

There, I’ve told someone.  Honestly, I feel it most unpleasantly at night; I’m sure I’d sound less dire at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.

It helps that I’ve confessed my despair to [her husband’s name goes here].  He said — and meant — all the right things.  Maybe it is not surprising that his encouragement to retire — or do whatever else would make me happy — has made the whole situation seem more bearable.  So I am going to try to muscle through another two and a half years, until I’m sixty, and then take him up on the offer.  In the interim, the goal is to drop off most of these Boards as my terms expire, turn down the two new Boards I’ve been asked to join, stop agreeing to mentor anyone new at work, and not apply for any of the jobs that have opened up in the business.  In other words, say, “No.” A talent I never mastered.

That’s enough for now, I think.  If a Star Trek device existed to beam me down for a visit, I’d come.  In the absence of that possibility, when I contemplate visiting you — by car or train — it seems more than I can currently pull off.

Maybe after I get through my first 300-person dinner meeting of the [city name] Economic Club.  Did you know how horrified public speaking makes me?  So why did I agree to be Club President, with five speakers and an equal number of sponsors to secure, dinners to plan and preside over.  Ahhh, just shoot me.

Yes, still your friend.

xoxox

She sent that over six months ago.  I answered in timely fashion.  Haven’t heard a word since.  Now I ask you:  Is that any way to live?

Oh, to be back in the nineteenth century, when people had all the time in the world to write letters  — which other people then carefully tied up in ribboned packets, to re-read and re-read till the next letter came! As it surely would.

Or wouldn’t.  Wasn’t there consumption and influenza and puerperal fever and drowning at sea? Which the recipient of the letters wouldn’t know about until a last letter came, from someone else, with the news? All right, the nineteenth century wasn’t so great, either.  A different kind of “not so great.”

Do I miss her?  Of course I do.  And I’m sure she misses me, too  — when she has time to think about missing anyone.   She just doesn’t have time. By the time she plans to have time, I may not have time.  I’ll be 85. (As if I need reminding.)

I’ve said this before about no-win situations, but I’ll say it again:  It is what it is.  

I just wish it weren’t.