WHERE HAS SHE BEEN? WHAT’S SHE BEEN DOING?

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Reading a Shakespeare play every week in a six-week seminar attended exclusively by “students” well over 55 where everyone but me seems to be an expert. I thought it would end about now, but it’s been such a success the professor agreed to extend it by one more week. So instead of being over last Monday, we’re ending next Monday. With The Tempest.  (There goes much of my weekend.)

Trying to learn the first movement of a Beethoven sonata. A very easy sonata. (No. 20) Not easy for me, though. I can’t play the rest of it as fast as I can do the rolling triplets in the left hand, and when I slow down the triplets to the speed at which I can sort of manage the rest of it, they don’t sound so good.

Adding an “easy” Chopin Prelude (No. 7) to the Beethoven. Chopin’s fingers must have been much longer than mine. I am extremely grateful to YouTube performers of this Prelude, from whom I discovered I could roll the one truly impossible chord and take the top two notes written for the right hand with the left hand by crossing it over. (A maneuver which also looks impressively graceful.) I’m also relearning how to pedal. I never realized one needed to script the pedaling. Well, maybe not everyone does. But I do, marking the score each time the foot comes up and goes down again because teaching an old dog new tricks isn’t easy without visual aids.

Tutoring English conversation again, with a fun post-graduate from Italy. She’s at Princeton collecting a living-expenses stipend to turn her dissertation (written in Milan in Italian) into a book for the general (English-speaking) reader. She’s attached to the Department of Politics; her topic is International Human Rights. At the beginning we talked only about human rights. (And a little fashion.) But then I took her grocery shopping in my car last week and we talked about tomatoes and whether it was better (and cheaper) to buy a package of twelve pieces of frozen Atlantic salmon that were going to be baked piecemeal or twelve pieces of fresh Atlantic salmon, freeze them, and defrost as needed. We also pinched avocados together. She’s a big texter and an old-style shopper – weighing everything and calculating prices minus or plus an apple. So I’m learning almost as much from her as she is from me.

Clothes-shopping for a few nice new things to replace the many not-so-nice, not-so-new things that moths had a picnic with last year when I wasn’t looking and spraying and mothballing because I was thinking about what to write for you. Gone: too-tight narrow skirt, old grey wool out-of-style pants, very old Calvin Klein pant suit that was always too good to wear and thus never got worn much; unloved black sweater set from Brooks Brothers; red cashmere turtleneck sweater. May it all R.I.P. Welcome: terrific “passionflower” merino jersey dress; bluish purple poncho-ish sweater (hides all signs of overeating); new charcoal sweater set with kimono-style long cardigan that looks like an elegant short coat without buttons.

Collecting notes, as class correspondent, for the twice-a-year magazine of the college I attended, and discovering two more classmates, plus a third classmate’s husband, have died since the last issue. This is now getting scary. Of the seven of us who took an off-campus house in our last year (which was 1951-52), leaving three places for foreign students, five are gone, and eight years ago, when last I spoke with her, the sixth was badly crippled with arthritis. I have no way of reconnecting with the foreign students, but as they were our age, it might be just as much a downer if I could.

Also reading two crappy novels for book groups I still belong to because I like the women in them; having personal struggles with the leftover Halloween candy until I bit the bullet and threw it out; making a pot roast that took too many days to finish eating; fearing annual cardiologist and pulmonologist visits because of the increasing risk of bad news each year; watching many economists give talks on YouTube in which they explain what’s wrong with the world and which particular basket it’s going to hell in – because it makes Bill happy to hear these deeply learned experts agree with him.

And wondering what I should do with TGOB going forward (besides getting older while writing it).   I feel it needs a plan, or a mission statement, or something more unifying than just what bubbles out of my head. No answer to that one yet, but at least now you’re all caught up.

And what have you all been doing?

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WRITING SHORT: 24/50

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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.]

When I was younger, I used to think when something didn’t work out with a husband, lover, friend, job, I could move on after a suitable period of regret, and start again.

That seemed to work for a while. Then it began not to. You can’t really clean the slate. We drag our histories with us wherever we go, and not only on our professional CVs. (Those can be doctored, but only so far). We’re just not brand new any more. Our emotional resumes color our responses to what comes next. Unsuccessful past experiences may engender mistrust, disbelief, self-doubt.

Later, when we’re older still, another problem unforeseen by the young arises. New opportunities become rarer. Is there (artfully masked) age discrimination in the workplace? You better believe it. Available new partners/lovers/friends? Fewer and farther between. If you’re still searching out a different resting place for your mind, heart or body, you can find yourself more and more sidelined.

Finally you see there’s some merit in the old saying, “Make it do, use it up, wear it out.” It’s not just about a penny saved is a penny earned. Too bad it takes some of us so long to realize it.

STUPID ME

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

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

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

Examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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