THE HUNGARIAN’S QUESTION

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My first husband found the Hungarian for me.  That is, he found two therapists, the first with an American name and the second with a foreign, almost unpronounceable one.  To me, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, it was a no-brainer.  I chose the the Hungarian.

My first husband was unhappy that I was taking too many naps on late weekend afternoons. He wanted me to stop it. That’s why he had looked up the names of therapists. He had other concerns as well, such as the fact that he had found empty candy wrappers under the seat of our car. I think the naps trumped the candy, though.  I had only gained about five pounds and could still fit into my clothes so didn’t need to buy anything new, whereas the naps interfered with my listening to him, playing with him, and generally admiring him in any spare time I might have.

I wouldn’t have dared tell my first husband the naps were to avoid being with him so much. But I could have told him, with equal truthfulness, they were because I was really tired — from working five days a week to support us, making dinners and washing dishes afterwards, cleaning the apartment every Saturday morning, pulling a shopping cart to the A&P five blocks away every Saturday afternoon to bring back a week’s worth of groceries and other necessaries, going ice-skating or playing tennis with him (depending on the season) in Central Park on Sunday mornings, and doing the week’s laundry in the basement machines on Sunday afternoons. [There were other tasks, too, but you get the idea.]

However, my first husband wouldn’t have wanted to hear all that.  He felt he was entitled to a wife who could take care of everything without requiring naps because he was a genius who had to spend almost all his time, when he wasn’t ice-skating or playing tennis, writing unpublishable books and therefore needed at least some admiration from someone, especially on late weekend afternoons.  Also, he was certifiably handsome, which in his eyes counted for a very great deal.

The Hungarian was about forty and had an office off the lobby in an apartment house on East 86th Street, between Madison and Park.  He called me “honeybunch.”  I liked that.   I very much needed to be someone’s honeybunch.  Twice a week after work, I would wait on a chair in the lobby until the previous patient had left.  Then I would knock, he would open the door, smile as if he were glad to see me, and say, ” Come in, come in.”  After I had taken off my coat, he would add, “Ma, honeybunch.  So how are you?”  (I think “ma” meant “well” in Hungarian, but I never asked. I was just happy not to have to head home right after work, and to have a place to go that was just for me.)

But honeybunch came later. First, there was the initial visit. The Hungarian asked why I had come. He listened very carefully.  I asked if he thought he could help.  He said he could help if I did my part.

Then he said he was going to ask me a question which I should answer quickly, not thinking about it — with the very first thing that popped into my mind.

This was the question:  “Who are you with when you’re alone?”

[Before I tell you what I answered, ask yourself how you would answer. “Who are you with when you are alone?”]

I said, “What kind of question is that?  When I’m alone, I’m with nobody.”

The Hungarian said, “Really?  When you’re alone, you’re with nobody?”

“Well, what do you expect me to say?” I asked.  “When I’m all alone, of course I’m with nobody. There’s nobody there.”

“But there is somebody there,” he said.  “When you’re alone, you’re with yourself.”

It wasn’t just a word game. I was twenty-eight. And to myself I was nobody.

So that’s where we began.

I owe him a lot.

MARCIA ANGELL ON LIFE IN HER SEVENTIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, I was always a sore loser.

WHEN X LED TO Y LED TO Z

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X.

A long time ago, a girl met a boy a month before they both left home for college.  The girl and boy lived in the same city, but their two colleges were far apart.  So they had to correspond furiously all that year, because they were not able to be together except on school vacations, at which time they made up for lost time with prolonged kissing and strenuous battle over each separate item of the girl’s clothing.

By the end of the following summer, the boy had managed to remove the girl’s upper garments during kissing sessions and was fingering the outer rim of her panties.  By Christmas, the panties were off.  By the end of Easter break of the second year, they had agreed to lie to their respective parents about when break was over and spend the last evening of it together in an inexpensive hotel.  To prepare, the girl bought a twenty-five-cent gold-colored wedding ring at Woolworth’s.  The boy bought a package of Trojans.

Their hotel was in a commercial part of town. The room they were given was on the third floor and looked down on the street.  It had two single beds which could not be pushed together because they were in diagonally opposite corners of the room. However, the boy didn’t ask for another room because they were only going to use one bed.  There was no shade on the window either, but that wasn’t a problem because there was no building across the way. Just a blinking red neon sign advertising a storage facility.  The girl later remembered that it said, “Store your valuables.”

Although they had each read books of advice, neither of them had done anything like this before. They assumed everything would just happen naturally. After they had taken off their clothes in the dark and the girl got into one of the beds,  the boy opened the package of Trojans and tried to put one on in the weak red light of the blinking sign. The girl watched.  She felt tense and overexcited and wished he would start already, so as to get the first part over with, that was supposed to hurt so much.

How funny he looked, hunched over himself trying to see what he was doing without his glasses. The girl giggled.  It was nervousness. Really it was.  Suddenly, the boy straightened, looked at her as if she had stabbed him, and flung the Trojan away. Then he stalked off to the other bed.

“What’s the matter?” the girl ventured. She was so innocent.

“Forget it!” the boy growled, from under the covers. He had never growled at her before.

“Why are you over there?” She still didn’t get it.

“Why did you have to laugh?” he asked.

The girl got out of her bed and into his, to comfort him. The boy sent her back to her own.  He said coldly they’d sleep better apart. She heard him start to snore, or pretend to snore.  Then it was the next morning.

The boy didn’t say much in the morning, except about train schedules.  He took an early train to his college, she took another train to hers, and they never gave themselves a chance to try again. That summer the girl went to Europe on a student bicycling tour and the boy went to Woods Hole on an unpaid marine biology internship.  While there he may have picked up some much needed experience.  Or may not have. The girl didn’t know. While on her bicycle, she thought mainly about him.

In the fall, the boy sulked, and stayed away, and came back, but only to go to the movies. They broke up on New Year’s Eve, after the girl agreed to a tepid date with someone else because she hadn’t heard from the boy in four weeks and then he called at the last minute.

Even when the girl finally understood what had happened, she usually felt it had been her fault.  Why did she have to giggle just then? Why hadn’t she been more sensitive to his state of mind?  But sometimes another part of her would ask why hadn’t he been able to soldier through?  Why hadn’t he known she wasn’t criticizing, she was just nervous, she had been counting on him to know what to do?

Y.

The girl finished college a year and a half later. During that time, she dated a few other boys, but none of them seemed worth seeing more than once or twice.  They were all too boyish.  After graduation, she moved away from the city where she and the boy had lived and settled in another city where reliance on public transportation was a pain and one really needed a car.  Although she had taken driving lessons and had a license, she did not yet have a car.

One might add that she could now be called a young woman instead of a girl.  She was also gainfully employed in a behind-the-scenes job in television and had decided to take a night course in television production at a local university to see if that might speed her way up the career ladder. It was a long ride on two buses to get from the television station to the university.

There were just three women in the course, but she was clearly the youngest.  The instructor came over to give her special help. She was only shaking an open box of Ivory Snow in front of a photograph of the Swiss Alps while another student trained a camera on the soap falling in sprinkles on the Alps. Who could possibly need help with that? But even if the “help” was a ruse, that was all right, because the instructor was quite a nice looking man.  And he wore a tweed jacket similar to the kind of jacket the boy used to wear when the young woman was still a girl and was  laying her cheek against the boy’s lapel after they kissed.

The man asked where the young woman lived, and then whether she had a car.  When she indicated that she did not have a car, he drove her home in his ’37 Plymouth sedan.

Long story short, there were two dates, during which the young woman found out the following about the man.  He was thirty.  He came from New York.  He had a degree from Yale.  He did some acting, but also wrote plays and was working on the first draft of a novel.  Teaching television production was just a way to put extra bread on the table until the writing began to bring in real money.  He was tall, he was slim, he had a very nice smile.  And he had that jacket.

On the first date, the man’s kiss was chaste and respectful. On the second date, the kisses were less chaste.  The young woman enjoyed them thoroughly.  It seemed a long time since kisses like that.  She sat back to catch her breath. “Oh my,” she giggled. (This time the giggle was purposeful.).  “Look what you’re making me do!  And I don’t know the first thing about you.  Why, you might be married! With three children!”

The man also sat back. He regarded her gravely. “As a matter of fact,” he said slowly, “I am married. And I have four children.”

After a pause, he added, “Do you mind?”  Can you guess the first thing the young woman thought when she heard what the man had said?  We should note that this was a young woman who as a girl had been described by some of her college professors as having “a mind like a steel trap.”

The young woman with the mind like a steel trap thought, “Oh, he’s done it at least four times. He will know what to do.”

The man did know what to do.  Unfortunately, there was nowhere to do it because he couldn’t bring her home where his wife and four children were living, and she couldn’t bring him home because she was living with her parents. The man pointed to the rear of the ’37 Plymouth. “Do you mind the back seat?”

The young woman did mind.  “I’m not as experienced as you may think,” she said.

“Do you mean you’re a lesbian?” the man asked.

The young woman was taken aback.  “Why should you think that?”

The man said that she was twenty-one, and how could she be “not experienced” with men at twenty-one unless she’d only been with other women?

So then the young woman had to explain about the boy, the blinking red light, the giggle and the disastrous result.  She felt as if she were being unfaithful to the boy in telling someone else about what had happened.  But she didn’t want to lose the man at this critical juncture.  The man became kind.  He said some unpleasant things about the boy, but didn’t blame the young woman.  He was even soothing.

That weekend, the young woman rented a furnished one-room studio with a pull-out Murphy bed for $50 a month.  She justified this expense to herself as educational.  Once the man had taught her what she needed to know, she could move on with confidence to someone else more suitable.  She didn’t want to go to a cheesy motel room, and she knew the man wouldn’t be able to afford studio rent, since he had five other mouths to feed and instructors don’t make much. But she had savings.  And God helps those who help themselves, doesn’t he?

Z.

In the months that followed, the man showed the young woman everything he knew, which was more than she had ever read about.  The young woman also learned that the man stretched the truth.  He was from New York, but upstate New York.  His degree was from Yale, but it was his graduate degree;  his undergraduate degree was from the University of Rochester.  He had never acted for money (although he had once recorded a public service announcement for a radio station); his plays had been written as an undergraduate and never produced, even at Rochester; and he wasn’t really working on the novel.  In the fullness of time, he got a divorce, but alimony and child support gobbled up almost all the bread he earned as an instructor.  He wasn’t even on the tenure track.

He was nine years older than she was. There were religious differences as well. When she broke a silence of three years to write to the boy about how her life was going, he wrote back at once that it was great to hear from her, that he was pretty sure the man wasn’t the right man for her, and that she should get her ass on a plane and come back to the city where he was still living.  But she didn’t have money for the plane, or a job or place to live when she got there, and by the time she wrote back that she wouldn’t be able to come right away, he had written again — their letters crossing in the mail — that he was getting married, and he’d love it if she came to the wedding.

The young woman broke up with the man for a younger man, but the younger man turned out also to be married and to be expecting a first child in a few months.  The younger man explained that he was married only because he had knocked up a seventeen-year-old girl on the beach the previous spring, and she had been a virgin, and they were both Catholic, and what else could he do but marry her?  Also he was just starting out in life, economically speaking, and had even less money than the man with the four children.  He said he wished it had been the young woman he had met on the beach the previous spring.  But what good did that do her?

The young woman eventually went back to the man with the four children because — in spite of all the problems her mind like a steel trap could foresee  — there was no one else on the horizon, and she did like what went on in the Murphy bed. Then the man’s wife remarried, he didn’t have to pay alimony any more, and he proposed.  The young woman was already twenty-four, in another year she would be an old maid, and the boy was married to someone else. She asked her father what she should do.

Her father thought about her question, inquired if this was the divorced gentile man she was asking about, and then said it was time she got away from her mother.  He later denied he had said this, but the young woman wouldn’t have got married if he had said not to.  She had so many misgivings of her own that all she had needed was a push in the other direction not to go through with it.

She didn’t really love the man with the four children.  He was just okay.  But by now she was used to him.  All the same, she promised herself the night before their city hall wedding, for which she wore a grey linen dress from the year before, that if it didn’t work out in two years she would get divorced.

It should come as no surprise that in the end, the young woman did divorce the man with four children. But it took her six years, not two.  By that time, her twenties were over.

 X leads to Y leads to Z.  One way or another, it seems to happen a lot.  And before you know it, you’re thirty.

“…AND WIFE”

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[Re-blogged from November 30, 2013]

Early this morning, something I haven’t thought about in years floated up out of the vasty deeps within and refused to go away.  Don’t ask me why, or why now, because I haven’t  a clue.

It was the case of “I. de S. and Wife.”

This was the very first tort case ever reported in Anglo-American case law, and the first case I read when I went to law school at the ripe age of 51.  I think “I.” stood for “Isaac.”  I’m not sure where “S.” was. Surrey? Suffolk? Salisbury?  Maybe a friend across the pond can help us out here?

Glossary of terms. Consult as needed.]

  • Anglo-American law.”  American law derives from English law.  No big surprise. We were English colonies before we went off on our own.  English law was all there was. Moreover, the law is thrifty; it keeps everything that gets decided, and builds on it.  Even after a revolution. “Stare decisis” (it stands decided) — if you want to use fancy words.
  • Case law.”  Also known as bench-made law. Or common law. (In contrast to law enacted by legislatures.) What judges decide after all the factual evidence is in, and after they’ve considered all the relevant case law that came before.
  • Tort.”  Not a misspelled Austrian pastry.  A branch of civil law having to do with various kinds of intentional or negligent harm people inflict on each other (excluding breach of contract, which is part of contract law ) — for which there may be financial compensation.
  • Civil law.”  Not criminal law.  No jail time.  No executions.  Can get expensive, though.

Ouch.  Yes, I know it hurts.  But how can I tell you about I. and his wife, who both lived in S. at the very beginning of the 13th century, without the vocabulary?  Anyhow, that ‘s all out of the way now. Onward!

As I  recall — and it’s been a long time, so some of the details may be fuzzy — I. was a tavern keeper.  After he had shut up shop for the night, there was loud and horrid caterwauling in the street below the window.  The wife of I. — nameless for eternity — looked out, and became afeared.  (Tr., She was frightened.)  I.  went to court. He brought suit. He prevailed.

The judges decided there had been an assault.  Even though the guy in the street hadn’t actually touched anyone.  It was the first actionable tort!  Assault:  any intentional act or conduct which  creates in another person a reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm.  Stare decisis.

Significant words that will be on the test:  (1) intentional; (2) reasonable; (3) imminent; (4) bodily.   But never mind that.

What was really significant — to me and all the other women in the class, which was 50% of us — was I.’s wife.  Because she was so in-significant.  She had no name.   She had no right to bring her own complaint. (I. had to do it instead.)  In the eyes of the law she was not a person, and therefore had no injury.  She was his appendage, his property, his chattel.  Frightening her  — by inflicting reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm — was an injury to him.

Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? Thank goodness we’re not living then!

Not so fast.   As recently as the mid-twentieth century (when I was in college), a wife in some states still couldn’t sue her husband — except, under certain limited circumstances, for divorce.  If the brakes on his parked car failed, and the car rolled down the driveway and hit her as she was coming in from the street with the groceries — she couldn’t make a claim against his insurance company.

Why not? Because of the time-honored legal doctrine of marital harmony, with which the courts  – and the insurance company —  chose not to interfere.  Man and wife were one flesh, went the reasoning. So how could a man (through his insurer) pay himself for hurting his own flesh?

Flash forward to a few days ago when, blog-browsing, I came across a really adorable young man.  He’s twenty-five, and still unmarried, but he’s writing posts about what he’ll tell his future daughter(s), and what he’ll tell his future son(s) — most of both of which I really like.  So I clicked “like.”

But he also wrote a sweet and loving post to his future wife, whom he hasn’t met yet, in which he promises to go out in the world to work for her, and take care of her, and always consider her in all his decision-making for the two of them. I know he means well, but I  couldn’t click “like.”  Why can’t she  — the future wife — also go out in the world, and sometimes take care of him, and always consider him in all their decision-making for the two of them?

My ambivalence about traditional “wife”-dom is perhaps surprising in someone for whom being married has been such a central preoccupation over the years.  I used to say I couldn’t leave a husband till I had a shrink, and I couldn’t leave a shrink till I had a husband.  And that was the story of my life, until Bill.  Bill has broken that pattern for me by being both a shrink (now nearly retired) and someone who’s stuck around, unmarried, for almost thirteen years while agreeing that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

I guess he’s my common-law husband. And I’m his common-law wife.  [See glossary, above.]  Not quite a wife, but almost. Works for him, works for us, works for me.

Oh, wait.  Does New Jersey recognize common-law marriage?

I’d better go find out right away.

MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER

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[As you may know from the previous two posts, we had planned to be away from home and computer for a while, visiting Bill’s new baby granddaughter in Los Angeles. I was therefore re-running some earlier pieces that newcomers to the blog might not have seen, and others might not mind seeing again.  

However, the best-laid plans…. You can guess the rest of it, if not the particulars.  At the last minute, we’ve put off the trip. The baby has a highly contagious virus (as identified by laboratory testing), especially to be avoided by the “old” and those with chronic lung conditions, a category which includes Bill.  Moreover, the United Airlines reservation supervisor we spoke to was surprisingly understanding, and gave us until June to re-book without penalty.  

Bottom line for blog purposes:  Here I am back in Princeton without ever having left.  Give me about three more days to re-load the draft post pipeline, and you’ll be reading new stuff again.  In the meanwhile, how about this one?]

[Re-blogged from November 16, 2013]

MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER

One of the pleasures of the ninth decade of my life is Sasha, a nearly five-year old British Blue shorthair cat.  She’s been with us since she was five months old.  Although the breeder was thinking of keeping her — she was a nearly perfect kitten by breeding standards — she let us have her because the sibling kitten we had driven fifty miles to see had already been sold.  So Sasha was a happy accident.  As many happy things are.

She was even more of an accident because I have always favored dogs. Fruitlessly, I yearned for a dog in childhood. At last  I took matters into my own hands by accepting a puppy from a lady down the street whose cocker spaniel had been erotically careless.  I was eleven.  Jimmy was brown and white and warm and cuddly.  And he didn’t cost a cent!  My parents let me keep him.

Jimmy waited by the front door every afternoon when it was time for me to come home from school, barking joyously at my arrival. He was also noticeably fond of my mother, the food source. And especially fond of her hamburgers and peanut butter cookies.  But no one denied he was “my” dog.  Wasn’t I the one who had found him?  Then we moved east from Los Angeles, and Jimmy couldn’t come.  My best friend took him.  I used to think about him sometimes and hope he was having a nice life.  There were no more dogs in mine.

Until I had children of my own. (Second husband, if you’re counting.)  How could we deny them a dog? Despite living in a somewhat cramped fourth-floor apartment on West 86th Street in New York City, I even envisaged giving them a first-hand experience of the magic of birth.  Our dog, when we got her, could have puppies in the second bathroom!

Second husband, who had not been permitted a dog in his own Brooklyn childhood, was willing.

We began with two false starts that cost nothing and produced nothing.  First there was Mick Humble (a name somewhat inspired by Mick Jagger but more suitable to a trembly little dog). Okay, no magic of birth in the bathroom, but free is free.  Poor Mick lay in misery behind the toilet for several days before we realized he wasn’t just frightened but really sick, and needed to be taken back to the ASPCA to be put to sleep.

Next came Bonaparte, a frisky cutie if ever there was one.  He was given to us by a grateful neighbor with an unspayed black Lab who — like Jimmy’s mother many years before — had yielded to an unplanned amorous impulse.  Little Bonaparte had to be returned because he grew too large too fast;  when at fourteen weeks he took to jumping on the children in friendly play, he nearly knocked them down. His father must have been a mastiff.

It finally dawned on us that you get what you pay for.  So one sunny Sunday, we all climbed into our aging Volkswagen and headed a couple of hours north of the city, where according to the classifieds — remember them, anyone? — breeders were less grasping in their pricing practices.  The trip was productive:  we came back with the golden retriever puppy who would grow up with us; see our children through their childhood and my second husband and I through our marriage; and imprint for good on all of us the conviction that a dog is indeed a best friend.

“What shall we call her?” I asked during the car ride home.  The two children sat in the back (no car seats, no booster seats in that faraway time ), a puppy the color of golden sand between them.  With one voice, they cried out, “Sandy!”

Not being Little Orphan Annie, I aimed higher.  ”How about a more interesting name?” I inquired seductively.  ”Think of all the deserts in the world full of sand! Gobi! Mohave! Sahara!”

And now I could tell you about training Sahara to hold it for the street despite the temptations of the elevator floor, and about  generously dispensing dollar bills to the elevator man for “accident” cleanup. About my West 86th Street walks with Sahara early and late, and the people I met at the end of her leash. About mopping up behind Sahara on hands and knees during her first period, an experience definitively ending plans for puppies in the second bathroom. About how Sahara covered clothes, children, rugs, furniture and car with her golden hairs, and how we learned not to mind. About the time my older son (aged twelve) saved Sahara’s virginity from another golden retriever, a large and horny male. About how Sahara comforted my younger son when his brother went away to school. About how walking with Sahara by the ocean kept a fraying marriage together after we left New York for a beach town in Massachusetts because living in New York had became too expensive and too difficult.

However, all that about Sahara is another story.  Or several other stories. (Perhaps I should begin an auxiliary blog called “Other Stories?”)

I could even tell you the sad part, although it would be much harder to write, about when the children grew up and left us.  Soon afterwards I too went away, leaving Sahara to grow old in a cold and empty house alone with the children’s father.  I still feel guilty about her.  We both wanted out.  But she wanted only to be with our family.  And then there was no more family to be with….

A good place to stop.  Wasn’t I supposed to be writing about getting old and Sasha?

Next time.

 

WORDS FROM THE WISE

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Because it’s good blog etiquette to repay visits, I occasionally find myself at the blog of a twenty-something.  That’s a surprise.  When I began, I thought a blog with “Getting Old” in its title would be of interest, if any, only to boomers and beyond.  Apparently not always so.

The other surprise, which comes after I make an encouraging comment during the visit, is that the reply invariably expresses gratitude that someone with so much experience and wisdom has said something favorable.

Oh my!  Living a long time does, I suppose, provide some experience of what worked, and what didn’t, in one’s own life.  Which the person who lived the life can learn from or not, as the case may be.  But “wisdom?”   [The word always makes me think of Confucius.]  It’s what you think other people have when they’re older than you.

As my father used to say, “I have news for you.”  There isn’t any such thing. The only wisdom we oldsters might possibly offer the young (if they asked, which they don’t) is, “Don’t be such a damn fool.”   But who’s to say who’s a fool?

So lacking any wisdom of my own, even after all these years — I have looked elsewhere to find it for these younger visitors who expect it of me.  Looked — to be specific — in The Beacon Book of Quotations by Women, compiled by Rosalie Maggio. (Beacon Press Boston © 1992).  I guess I sort of agree with most of the ones I’ve chosen. Well, sometimes I do.  But not always. That’s just the way it is with wisdom. Sometimes it applies, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, who knows?  Holler when you’ve had enough.

[On Experience]

“Experience is what you get when you’re looking for something else.”  Mary Pettibone Poole, A Glass Eye at a Keyhole (1938)

“Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.” Minna Thomas Antrim, Naked Truth and Veiled Allusions (1902)

“A rattlesnake that doesn’t bite teaches you nothing.” Jessamyn West, The Life I Really Lived (1979)

“Experience isn’t interesting till it begins to repeat itself — in fact, till it does that, it hardly is experience.”  Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart (1938)

“I have come to the conclusion, after many years of sometimes sad experience, that you cannot come to any conclusion at all.” Vita Sackville-West, In Your Garden Again (1953)

[On Complacency]

“Unhurt people are not much good in the world.”  Enid Starkie. In Joanna Richardson, Enid Starkie (1973)

[On Dying]

“She’d been preoccupied with death for several years; but one aspect had never before crossed her mind: dying, you don’t get to see how it all turns out.”  Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)

[On Concealment]

“There is nothing that gives more assurance than a mask.” Colette, My Apprenticeships (1936)

[On Life]

“Life itself is a party; you join after it’s started and you leave before it’s finished.” Elsa Maxwell, How to Do It (1957)

“Life seems to be a choice between two wrong answers.” Sharyn McCrumb, If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (1990)

“It begins in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.” Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (1990)

“You are dipped up from the great river of consciousness, and death only pours you back.” Dorothy Canfield Fisher, The Bent Twig (1915)

“Life offstage has sometimes been a wilderness of unpredictables in an unchoreographed world.” Margot Fonteyn, Margot Fonteyn: Autobiography (1976)

“It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another — it’s one damn thing over and over.” Edna St. Vincent Millay, in Allan Ross Madougall, Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1952)

“Life is something to do when you can’t get to sleep.” Fran Lebowitz, in Observer (1979).

“That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson (c. 1864), published in Bolts of Memory (1945)

“Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.” Alice Walker, “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse,” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983)

[On Lovers]

“The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular one and its indifference to substitutes is one of life’s major mysteries.” Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince (1973)

“In a great romance, each person basically plays a part that the other really likes.”  Elizabeth Ashley, in San Francisco Chronicle (1982)

“Secretly, we wish anyone we love will think exactly the way we do.” Kim Chernin, in My Mother’s House (1983)

This was life, that two people, no matter how carefully chosen, could not be everything to each other.” Doris Lessing, “To Room Nineteen,” A Man and Two Women (1963)

“No partner in a love relationship [whether homo- or heterosexual] should feel that he has to give up an essential part of himself to make it viable.” May Sarton, Journal of Solitude (1973)

[On Lying]

“Never to lie is to have no lock to your door.” Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris (1935)

[On Marriage]

“The deep, deep peace of the double-bed after the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue.” Mrs. Patrick Campbell, on her recent marriage, in Alexander Woollcott, While Rome Burns (1934)

“The very fact that we make such a to-do over golden weddings indicates our amazement at human endurance.  The celebration is more in the nature of a reward for stamina.” Ilka Chase, Free Admission (1948)

“A man in the house is worth two in the street.” Mae West, in Belle of the Nineties (1934)

[On Memory]

“Sometimes what we call ‘memory’ and what we call ‘imagination’ are not so easily distinguished.” Leslie Marmon Silko, Storyteller (1981)

“I think, myself, that one’s memories represent those moments which, insignificant as they may seem, nevertheless represent the inner self and oneself as most really oneself.” Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (1977)

[On Men]

“The only time a woman really succeeds in changing a man is when he’s a baby.” Natalie Wood, in Bob Chieger, Was It Good For You, Too? (1983)

[On Survival]

“Misfortune had made Lily supple instead off hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.” Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth (1905)

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That’s about it for today.  Which one did you like best?  Let us know.

Don’t ask me which I like best, though.  I vote for cats.

“Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you.” Missie Dizick and Mary Bly, Dogs Are Better Than Cats (1985)

 [Ed. Note: Dogs are definitely not better. Just different.]

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HAPPY NEW YEAR 1959

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[A Story]

 On New Year’s Eve, Millie and Richard went to a party at the home of a New Dramatist who lived in the Village.  The New Dramatists were a group of aspiring playwrights who met periodically to read and critique each other’s work.  The meetings were good for Richard because they got him out of the apartment. This party, however, was not one of the regular get-togethers.  Wives and “others” could also come.

“Who’s going to be there?” Millie asked, as they peered through the icy dark at house numbers.

“Playwrights, who else?” said Richard. An elongated drop hung from his nostril; she wondered if it was going to freeze in mid-air before it could fall.

“I think it’s here,” he said, starting down the steps to the basement apartment of a brownstone.

Millie hoped it wasn’t going to be a fancy party.  Her five-year-old navy blue Kimberly knit dress was not very festive, although the best she had.  Also she hadn’t managed to do such a good job with the pin curls after washing her hair in the shower that afternoon.

“Come in, come in,” exclaimed the short dark-haired host, whose name Richard had told Millie was Tom; he tugged them over the threshold into a tiny vestibule and pushed them into the smoky living room so he could shut the outer door.  The other guests, already seated and looking cozy, watched with interest while Millie and Richard divested themselves of knitted hats, gloves, coats and scarves, and bent down to pull off their galoshes.  The hostess emerged from somewhere to gather everything up.  “I’ll just put your things in the back,” she said.  “To get them out of the way.” She disappeared, arms around her load.

Tom rattled off the names of the people on the sofa and in the two easy chairs, for Millie’s benefit. There was also a large very plain woman standing alone underneath the street-level window high on the wall; she had a long square face and a thick rectangular body.  Then Tom brought two kitchen stools into the center of the room for Millie and Richard to sit on.

“I’ll never remember who you all are,” she ventured.

“That’s all right,” said the woman sitting in the middle of the sofa with a man’s arm around her.  “We don’t remember who we all are either.”

Tom had two jelly glasses for Millie and Richard filled with something dark red that didn’t look like wine.  His own jelly glass was on a table.  “To Iris!” he proposed, raising his drink towards the woman on the sofa.

“To Iris!”

Syrupy and caloric, Millie thought, sipping as little as possible.

“Mazel tov!” exclaimed the man with the arm around Iris.

“Mazel tov?” asked Tom.

“It means congratulations,” Millie said. Richard kicked her, but maybe it was an accident.

The man with the arm around Iris winked at Millie. “Iris just had a play optioned for production on Broadway,” he explained.

“That’s wonderful,” she said, politely. Richard said nothing.

“Yes it is,” said the man who had winked.

“What’s it about?” Millie asked.

“Oh, we’ve already been through that,” said the man.  “You two should have come earlier.”

“About a young woman with a dream,” said Iris kindly.

“Is there any other kind of young woman?” Millie asked.

Richard kicked her again.  This time it hurt.  If he didn’t want her to talk, why didn’t he say something himself? He had plenty to say at home.

“Good for you,” said another man, stretched out on his spine in one of the armchairs. He had long thin legs. “Brilliant and beautiful,” he said to Richard.

That’s what Edmund Wilson wrote about Mary McCarthy when they were divorcing, Millie thought. “That beautiful, brilliant girl.” Edmund Wilson had been her thesis subject, and was supposed to be her dissertation subject, too, if she could ever find time.

“Hear hear,” said Tom.

“Excuse me but I didn’t catch your name before,” Millie said to the man with the long legs.

“He’s Tom, too,” said Tom.  “We’re the two Toms of the group. His wife, over there, is Alice.  My wife, in the kitchen where she belongs, is Susan.  You can tell us apart by the wives.”

Was everyone drunk?   “When did this party start?” Millie asked.

“Long long ago,” said the man with the arm around Iris.  After a thoughtful pause, he added, “Now it’s time for a change in the conversation. I am equipped to talk about two subjects.  One, the dry cleaning business.  Two, what’s wrong with the world. Which shall we start with?”  He held out his glass for a refill to the Tom who was host.

Richard smiled — his boyish smile, not the sardonic one.

“What’s so important about dry cleaning?” Millie inquired.

“It kept a roof over Iris during the twenty-six months it took her to write her play,” said the man on the sofa. “The play should be dedicated to Sheldon’s Dry Cleaning.”

“You’re Sheldon?”

“Jewish girls are so smart,” said Sheldon.

Millie slipped off her stool and looked around. When parties are bad, head for the kitchen.  The plain rectangular-shaped woman under the window pointed towards a glass-paned doorway at the side of the sofa.  “Whatever you’re looking for, it’s through there,” she said.

“Who is she?” Millie whispered to host Tom.

“Against the wall?” Tom whispered back.

“Yes.”

“Hulda.  With an umlaut.”

“Pardon?”

“Over the “u.” In her name.”

“Moving on to the Cuba situation, are you going to explain Batista’s options to us?” Sheldon asked Richard.

Millie opened the glass-paned door and went down a dark hall with two more doorways. At the end was a dimly lit galley kitchen, where the hostess  — Susan?  Alice?  no, Susan — was smearing orange cheese spread on Ritz crackers.  “What can I do?” Millie asked, squeezing in sideways next to her.

“Put them on a plate?” said Susan.

Millie began arranging the finished crackers in circles on a melamine platter with a plaid pattern.  “Why did Tom say your place is in the kitchen?”

“Did he say that?” A rubber band kept Susan’s dark blonde hair from falling in her face as she dug into the cheese spread.  She had chewed off most of her lipstick. Better dressed and groomed, she could have been quite good looking. “He doesn’t like it that I go out to work four days a week and leave him with the baby.”

“What kind of work is that?”

“Secretarial.  Temp.  I wish I didn’t have to.  I’d love to be home with the baby. But what choice is there? It keeps us going while he writes the play.”  She sighed.  “And you?”

“Ad agency. But it’s not great. I’m looking around.”

“My temp agency’s pretty good at placements,” Susan offered.  “Do you want the name and address?”

Millie shook her head. “I can’t do secretarial,” she explained.  “No shorthand.”  That was easier than saying what she could do.  Although — come to think of it – what could she do?  The art director where she worked had just complained to their boss that he got nosebleeds when he had to sit down with her to develop an ad.

“Does Alice work too?” she asked.

“Well, sure.  She’s a New Dramatist wife, isn’t she?”  Susan scraped the last of the cheese spread out of the jar.  “Do you want to see the baby?” she asked.  “She’s in our bedroom.”

The bedroom was dark and warm and smelled of baby powder.  A crib stood against the foot of a double bed piled with coats.  “We really need another room,” said Susan softly.  “She’s nearly eight months old.”

Millie could hardly make out the baby’s cheek in the feeble light from the hall. She had no experience with babies. What was she supposed to say?  “She’s a good sleeper,” she finally ventured.

“I love her so much,” said Susan.  “She’s the most important thing in my life.  I carry her picture around with me all the time.”  She pulled a small locket up from inside her blouse and opened it.

Millie nodded without coming too close.   “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Well,” said Susan, putting the locket back inside her blouse. “Maybe ’59 will be better.” She sighed.  “We ought to get back to the others.  It must be close to midnight.”

Millie wanted to look at the sleeping baby some more, but it wasn’t her baby. So how could she?

Almost everyone had switched places in the stuffy living room.  Iris and Sheldon were in the easy chairs.  Short Tom was perched where Millie had been sitting.  Hulda, Alice and long-legged Tom were on the sofa, with Tom’s arm around Alice.  Only Richard was still quiet and smiling boyishly on his uncomfortable stool. What was it with Richard tonight? Millie considered the expression fixed on his face. Actually, it wasn’t just tonight.  In public, Richard was almost always that way — bland and kind of out of it. As if he wanted to join in but couldn’t.  She passed around the platter of Ritz crackers.

Sheldon was still talking about Cuba.  Had anyone read the cover story in Time that week, he wanted to know.   Millie had, at the 53rd Street public library during lunch hour, but couldn’t remember anything she’d read except that there had also been a woman up in the Sierra Maestra — in addition to the younger brother and that other fellow from South America who was the best friend.  Sitting at the library table in her winter coat, she had imagined sharing a sleeping bag in a semi-tropical forest with a hot-blooded revolutionary. Of course she didn’t know Spanish, but that didn’t matter for a fantasy.  The problem was the guns. She would need passion without bloodshed.

“Countdown to midnight, people!”  This from Alice, wife of long-legged Tom.

Six.  Five.  Four.  The two Toms were counting aloud. Millie wondered what she was doing here.  She had nothing in common with these people.  Three. Two.  One. Happy New Year!

“To Castro Fidel!” cried Sheldon, lifting his glass.

That’s wrong, Millie thought.  It’s the other way around.  But Richard hopped down off his stool for the first time all evening and before she could say anything to Sheldon kissed her with proprietary gusto.  So she had to kiss him back.

Then she had to kiss both of the Toms.  Long-legged Tom tried to stick his tongue down her throat, but she clamped her lips and teeth shut.  Sheldon himself didn’t come for a kiss.  She saw him go kiss big ugly Hulda instead.

Richard wanted to leave now that it was 1959.  “It’s because there’s no more punch, isn’t it?” said short Tom.

Coats and galoshes appeared. At the door, one of the Toms suggested a get-together for bridge.  Millie didn’t know how to play bridge.  Richard pronounced bridge a great idea.  “We’ll call, we’ll call,” he promised.

“So I did eventually remember everyone’s names,” Millie said as they climbed up to street level.

Richard wasn’t listening. “Iris’s play is no damn good,” he declared.  “I heard some of it at the workshop meetings.  She must know somebody. Or he does.”  He meant Sheldon.

“Well, it can’t be Sheldon,” Millie said. “He’s a dry cleaner.”

But Richard was already ahead of her.  She had to hurry along the slippery dark street to catch up.

“Why do you think Sheldon kissed Hulda?” she asked when she reached him.  “Was he just sorry for her?”

“Hulda!” Edward said scornfully, hurtling down the subway stairs.  “She can’t write at all!  It’s a miracle she got into the group.”

What a waste of an evening, Millie thought, fumbling in her pocket at the turnstiles for their two tokens.

The only good thing about it was not having had to spend it alone with Richard.  Now there was just one more day to get through, and then she could go back to work.

ENDINGS (2)

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There are certain kinds of last paragraph that give me shivers.  They can occasionally occur at the end of a book.  More often, though, this kind of paragraph ends a much shorter piece — usually not fiction. It goes on delivering its magic no matter how often I read it.  Although I can’t write a last paragraph like that — here, and in yesterday’s post, are two by a great Italian writer that do it for me every time.

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This piece, like the last one, is by Natalia Ginzburg (although it was written later in her life), and also comes from The Little Virtues, translated from the Italian by Dick Davis.  The “He” in its title refers to her second husband, Gabriele Baldini, a scholar of English literature, whom she married in 1950.  It is longer than “Winter in the Abruzzi,” so I can give you only a taste here of how Ginzburg characterizes their unusual but affectionate and apparently entirely satisfying marriage of opposites.  If you like the flavor, do read the whole thing.  [I can’t provide a working link, but if you Google “Natalia Ginzburg” you will find it.]

Again, it’s especially the last paragraph that leaves me filled with wonder, envy and delight.

HE AND I

He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper [sweater] on in the evening.

He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well. He manages — in his own way — to speak even the languages that he doesn’t know.

He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all.  After one day in a foreign city he can move about it as thoughtlessly as a butterfly. I get lost in my own city; I have to ask directions so that I can get back home again.  He hates asking directions; when we go by car to a town we don’t know he doesn’t want to ask directions and tells me to look at the map. I don’t know how to read maps and I get confused by all the little red circles and he loses his temper.

He loves the theatre, painting, music, especially music. I do not understand music at all, painting doesn’t mean much to me and I get bored at the theatre. I love and understand one thing in the world and that is poetry.

He loves museums, and I will go if I am forced to but with an unpleasant sense of effort and duty. He loves libraries and I hate them.

He loves traveling, unfamiliar foreign cities, restaurants. I would like to stay at home all the time and never move.

All the same I follow him on his many journeys. I follow him to museums, to churches, to the opera. I even follow him to concerts, where I fall asleep.

Because he knows the conductors and the singers, after the performance is over he likes to go and congratulate them. I follow him down long corridors lined with the singers’ dressing-rooms and listen to him talking to people dressed as cardinals and kings.

He is not shy; I am shy. Occasionally however I have seen him be shy. With the police when they come over to the car armed with a notebook and pencil. Then he is shy, thinking he is in the wrong….

He likes tagliatelle, lamb, cherries, red wine. I like minestrone, bread soup, omelets, green vegetables….

At the cinema he likes to sit very close to the screen. If we go with friends and they look for seats a long way from the screen, as most people do, he sits by himself in the front row. I can see well whether I am close to the screen or far away from it, but when we are with friends, I stay with them out of politeness; all the same it upsets me because I could be next to him two inches from the screen, and when I don’t sit next to him he gets annoyed with me….

He tells me I have no curiosity, but this is not true. I am curious about a few, a very few, things. And when I have got to know them I retain scattered impressions of them, or the cadence of phrase, or a word. But my world, in which these completely unrelated (unless in some secret fashion unbeknown to me) impressions and cadences rise to the surface, is a sad, barren place.  His world, on the other hand, is green and populous and richly cultivated; it is a fertile, well-watered countryside in which woods, meadows, orchards and villages flourish.

Everything I do is done laboriously, with great difficulty and uncertainty.  I am very lazy, and if I want to finish anything it is absolutely essential that I spend hours stretched out on the sofa.  He is never idle, and is always doing something; when he goes to lie down in the afternoons he takes proofs to correct or a book full of notes; he wants us to go to the cinema, then to a reception, then to the theatre — all on the same day. In one day he succeeds in doing, and in making me do, a mass of different things, and in meeting extremely diverse kinds of people. If I am alone and try to act as he does I get nothing at all done, because I get stuck all afternoon somewhere I had meant to stay for half an hour, or because I get lost and cannot find the right street, or because the most boring person and the one I least wanted to meet drags me off to the place I least wanted to go to.

If I tell him how my afternoon has turned out he says it is a completely wasted afternoon and is amused and makes fun of me and loses his temper; and he says that without him I am good for nothing.

I don’t know how to manage my time; he does….

I don’t know how to dance and he does.

I don’t know how to type and he does.

I don’t know how to drive. If I suggest that I should get a license too he disagrees. He says I would never manage it. I think he likes me to be dependent on him for some things.

I don’t know how to sing and he does. He is a baritone. Perhaps he would have been a famous singer if he had studied singing….

In our house there is music all day long. He keeps the radio on all day. Or plays records. Every now and again I protest a little and ask for a little silence in which to work; but he says that such beautiful music is certainly conducive to any kind of work.

He has bought an incredible number of records. He says that he owns one of the finest collections in the world.

In the morning when he is still in his dressing gown and dripping water from his bath, he turns the radio on, sits down at the typewriter and begins his strenuous, noisy, stormy day. He is superabundant in everything; he fills the bath to overflowing, and the same with the teapot and his cup of tea. He has an enormous number of shirts and ties….

His rages are unpredictable, and bubble over like the head on beer. My rages are unpredictable too, but his quickly disappear whereas mine leave a noisy nagging trail behind them which must be very annoying — like the complaining yowl of a cat.

Sometimes in the midst of his rage I start to cry, and instead of quietening him down and making him feel sorry for me this infuriates him all the more.  He says my tears are just play-acting, and perhaps he is right. Because in the middle of my tears and his rage I am completely calm.

I never cry when I am really unhappy….

When he was a young man he was slim, handsome and finely built; he did not have a beard but long, soft mustaches instead, and he looked like the actor Robert Donat. He was like that about twenty years ago when I first knew him, and I remember that he used to wear an elegant kind of Scottish flannel shirt. I remember that one evening he walked me back to the pensione where I was living; we walked together along the Via Nazionale. I already felt that I was very old and had been through a great deal and had made many mistakes, and he seemed a boy to me, light years away from me. I don’t remember what we talked about on that evening walking along the Via Nazionale; nothing important, I suppose, and the idea that we would become husband and wife was light years away from me. Then we lost sight of each other, and when we met again he no longer looked like Robert Donat, but more like Balzac. When we met again he still wore his Scottish shirts but on him now they looked like garments for a polar expedition; now he had his beard and on his head he wore his ridiculous crumpled woolen hat; everything about him put you in mind of an imminent departure for the North Pole. Because, although he always feels hot, he has the habit of dressing as if he were surrounded by snow, ice and polar bears….

[Last paragraph]  If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale; two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.

— Natalia Ginzburg, 1962.

“…AND WIFE”

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Early this morning, something I haven’t thought about in years floated up out of the vasty deeps within and refused to go away.  Don’t ask me why, or why now, because I haven’t  a clue.

It was the case of “I. de S. and Wife.”

This was the very first tort case ever reported in Anglo-American case law, and the first case I read when I went to law school at the ripe age of 51.  I think “I.” stood for “Isaac.”  I’m not sure where “S.” was. Surrey? Suffolk? Salisbury?  Maybe a friend across the pond can help us out here?

[ Glossary of terms. Consult as needed.]

  • Anglo-American law.”  American law derives from English law.  No big surprise. We were English colonies before we went off on our own.  English law was all there was. Moreover, the law is thrifty; it keeps everything that gets decided, and builds on it.  Even after a revolution. “Stare decisis” (it stands decided) — if you want to use fancy words.
  • Case law.”  Also known as bench-made law. Or common law. (In contrast to law enacted by legislatures.) What judges decide after all the factual evidence is in, and after they’ve considered all the relevant case law that came before.
  • Tort.”  Not a misspelled Austrian pastry.  A branch of civil law having to do with various kinds of intentional or negligent harm people inflict each other (excluding breach of contract, which is part of contract law ) — for which there may be financial compensation.
  • Civil law.”  Not criminal law.  No jail time.  No executions.  Can get expensive, though.

Ouch.  Yes, I know it hurts.  But how can I tell you about I. and his wife, who both lived in S. at the very beginning of the 13th century, without the vocabulary?  Anyhow, that ‘s all out of the way now. Onward!

As I  recall — and it’s been a long time, so some of the details may be fuzzy — I. was a tavern keeper.  After he had shut up shop for the night, there was loud and horrid caterwauling in the street below the window.  The wife of I. — nameless for eternity — looked out, and became afeared.  (Tr., She was frightened.)  I.  went to court. He brought suit. He prevailed.

The judges decided there had been an assault.  Even though the guy in the street hadn’t actually touched anyone.  It was the first actionable tort!  Assault:  any intentional act or conduct which  creates in another person a reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm.  Stare decisis.

Significant words that will be on the test:  (1) intentional; (2) reasonable; (3) imminent; (4) bodily.   But never mind that.

What was really significant — to me and all the other women in the class, which was 50% of us — was I.’s wife.  Because she was so in-significant.  She had no name.   She had no right to bring her own complaint. (I. had to do it instead.)  In the eyes of the law she was not a person, and therefore had no injury.  She was his appendage, his property, his chattel.  Frightening her  — by inflicting reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm — was an injury to him.

Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? Thank goodness we’re not living then!

Not so fast.   As recently as the mid-twentieth century (when I was in college), a wife in some states still couldn’t sue her husband — except, under certain limited circumstances, for divorce.  If the brakes on his parked car failed, and the car rolled down the driveway and hit her as she was coming in from the street with the groceries — she couldn’t make a claim against his insurance company.

Why not? Because of the time-honored legal doctrine of marital harmony, with which the courts  — and the insurance company —  chose not to interfere.  Man and wife were one flesh, went the reasoning. So how could a man (or his insurer) pay himself for hurting his own flesh?

Flash forward to a few days ago when, blog-browsing, I came across a really adorable young man.  He’s twenty-five, and still unmarried, but he’s writing posts about what he’ll tell his future daughter(s), and what he’ll tell his future son(s) — most of both of which I really like.  So I clicked “like.”

But he also wrote a sweet and loving post to his future wife, whom he hasn’t met yet, in which he promises to go out in the world to work for her, and take care of her, and always consider her in all his decision-making for the two of them. I know he means well, but I  couldn’t click “like.”  Why can’t she  — the future wife — also go out in the world, and take care of him, and always consider him in all their decision-making for the two of them?

My ambivalence about traditional “wife”-dom is perhaps surprising in someone for whom being married has been such a central preoccupation over the years.  I used to say I couldn’t leave a husband till I had a shrink, and I couldn’t leave a shrink till I had a husband.  And that was the story of my life, until Bill.  Bill has broken that pattern for me by being both a shrink (now nearly retired) and someone who’s stuck around, unmarried, for almost thirteen years while agreeing that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

I guess he’s my common-law husband. And I’m his common-law wife.  [See glossary, above.]  Not quite a wife, but almost. Works for him, works for us, works for me.

MY LIFE AS A DOG LOVER

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One of the pleasures of the ninth decade of my life is Sasha, a nearly five-year old British Blue shorthair cat.  She’s been with us since she was five months old.  Although the breeder was thinking of keeping her — she was a nearly perfect kitten by breeding standards — she let us have her because the sibling kitten we had driven fifty miles to see had already been sold.  So Sasha was a happy accident.  As many happy things are.

She was even more of an accident because I have always favored dogs. Fruitlessly, I yearned for a dog in childhood. At last  I took matters into my own hands by accepting a puppy from a lady down the street whose cocker spaniel had been erotically careless.  I was eleven.  Jimmy was brown and white and warm and cuddly.  And he didn’t cost a cent!  My parents let me keep him.

Jimmy waited by the front door every afternoon when it was time for me to come home from school, barking joyously at my arrival. He was also noticeably fond of my mother, the food source. And especially fond of her hamburgers and peanut butter cookies.  But no one denied he was “my” dog.  Wasn’t I the one who had found him?  Then we moved east from Los Angeles, and Jimmy couldn’t come.  My best friend took him.  I used to think about him sometimes and hope he was having a nice life.  There were no more dogs in mine.

Until I had children of my own. (Second husband, if you’re counting.)  How could we deny them a dog? Despite living in a somewhat cramped fourth-floor apartment on West 86th Street in New York City, I even envisaged giving them a first-hand experience of the magic of birth.  Our dog, when we got her, could have puppies in the second bathroom!

Second husband, who had not been permitted a dog in his own Brooklyn childhood, was willing.

We began with two false starts that cost nothing and produced nothing.  First there was Mick Humble (a name somewhat inspired by Mick Jagger but more suitable to a trembly little dog). Okay, no magic of birth in the bathroom, but free is free.  Poor Mick lay in misery behind the toilet for several days before we realized he wasn’t just frightened but really sick, and needed to be taken back to the ASPCA to be put to sleep.

Next came Bonaparte, a frisky cutie if ever there was one.  He was given to us by a grateful neighbor with an unspayed black Lab who — like Jimmy’s mother many years before — had yielded to an unplanned amorous impulse.  Little Bonaparte had to be returned because he grew too large too fast;  when at fourteen weeks he took to jumping on the children in friendly play, he nearly knocked them down. His father must have been a mastiff.

It finally dawned on us that you get what you pay for.  So one sunny Sunday, we all climbed into our aging Volkswagen and headed a couple of hours north of the city, where according to the classifieds — remember them, anyone? — breeders were less grasping in their pricing practices.  The trip was productive:  we came back with the golden retriever puppy who would grow up with us; see our children through their childhood and my second husband and I through our marriage; and imprint for good on all of us the conviction that a dog is indeed a best friend.

“What shall we call her?” I asked during the car ride home.  The two children sat in the back (no car seats, no booster seats in that faraway time ), a puppy the color of golden sand between them.  With one voice, they cried out, “Sandy!”

Not being Little Orphan Annie, I aimed higher.  “How about a more interesting name?” I inquired seductively.  “Think of all the deserts in the world full of sand! Gobi! Mohave! Sahara!”

And now I could tell you about training Sahara to hold it for the street despite the temptations of the elevator floor, and about  generously dispensing dollar bills to the elevator man for “accident” cleanup. About my West 86th Street walks with Sahara early and late, and the people I met at the end of her leash. About mopping up behind Sahara on hands and knees during her first period, an experience definitively ending plans for puppies in the second bathroom. About how Sahara covered clothes, children, rugs, furniture and car with her golden hairs, and how we learned not to mind. About the time my older son (aged twelve) saved Sahara’s virginity from another golden retriever, a large and horny male. About how Sahara comforted my younger son when his brother went away to school. About how walking with Sahara by the ocean kept a fraying marriage together after we left New York for a beach town in Massachusetts because living in New York had became too expensive and too difficult.

However, all that about Sahara is another story.  Or several other stories. (Perhaps I should begin an auxiliary blog called “Other Stories?”)

I could even tell you the sad part, although it would be much harder to write, about when the children grew up and left us.  Soon afterwards I too went away, leaving Sahara to grow old in a cold and empty house alone with the children’s father.  I still feel guilty about her.  We both wanted out.  But she wanted only to be with our family.  And then there was no more family to be with….

A good place to stop.  Wasn’t I supposed to be writing about getting old and Sasha?

Next time.