IF ONLY….

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Eventually you reach the point where most of your life is behind you. You have to exert considerable imagination to keep the days from being repetitive. What’s coming down the pike is at best not likely to be particularly exciting, at worst not advisable to think about too much.  That’s when some of us who are crossing over into old age may be tempted to amuse ourselves by wondering what sort of life we might have had if we’d played our cards differently.

Bill is a big one for this kind of fantasy. If only he hadn’t done thus and so.  If only he’d listened to M. If only he’d chosen a different career path, a different wife, a different country in which to settle. Right now he’s mourning the fact he never applied for dual citizenship and a Swiss passport at the time he was married to a Swiss national, had just become the father of a Swiss-born son, and was practicing medicine in Geneva. When he becomes especially disgusted with the domestic and international news, he so yearns to live in Geneva again! What he would do about me if he could take off for Geneva we don’t discuss, because it’s a pipe dream.  Not only would he likely find lots to dislike about present-day Geneva. He doesn’t have the passport, or the social benefits Switzerland affords its citizens.  Becoming Swiss was the road not taken.

He’s tried playing this game with my history, too. He thinks younger me, the one he never knew, had an unnecessarily hard time, beginning with college. “You’d have had a much better life if you’d gone to Radcliffe,” he declares.  In this scenario, he gives me a happier, more flirtatious four college years than the ones I lived through.  He also has me engaged to a Harvard man by the time I graduate, preferably someone who will go on to become well-fixed and famous.  I will then have the money, leisure and connections to develop my talents, whatever they might have been, instead of having had to “settle” for less than optimal husband material and then having to slog away at earning a living in various jobs/industries/professions while being married to men less meritorious, in his view, than I deserved.  When he talks like this, he almost sounds like my mother.

Does he really believe I could have attracted the likes of, let’s say, John Updike, who actually was at Harvard during the years I attended college? Maybe he does. (He overestimates my abilities in almost every area.) He’d be wrong. Or if not completely wrong, if John Updike had been fool enough to fall for insecure, emotionally immature me — then we almost certainly would have divorced each other pretty soon, as both of us did, with other people, in our actual real lives. Besides, would twenty-year-old John Updike, fresh from Shillington, Pennsylvania, have been attractive to irrationally picky me? Bill doesn’t factor in questions like that when he’s spinning straw into gold.

Mind you, he’s no dummy. He’s not a believer in the actual possibility of these alternate reality fairy tales.  Maybe it’s a holdover from all those years of doing psychiatric talk therapy with patients.  He just enjoys speculating. But count me out of the “if only” game. I don’t want to waste time on trips to la-la land. (We are ying and yang about that.) In my view, most of us played the cards we were dealt as best we could, often after careful consideration, although sometimes also driven by irrational impulses of which we were at the time unaware. If in retrospect, it seems there might have been preferable alternatives, they weren’t real alternatives.

For the record, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College — the school Bill believes I would have done better not to attend — at a time when the last few World War II vets, beneficiaries of the GI Bill, were graduating. It would be about twenty years before the college again became co-ed. I nonetheless accepted its offer, despite the absence of men, like a wallflower being asked to dance.

Sarah Lawrence in 1948 was a twenty-year-old college, slightly north of New York City, which for its first couple of years seems to have functioned as a two-year holding pen for young ladies waiting to become wives of future lawyers, doctors and financiers. But in the early 1930s it somehow managed to transform itself into an experimental four-year adventure in learning to learn for oneself. Alas, in 1948 I was a highly conventional young person of seventeen who wanted to be like everyone else. I would have felt perfectly comfortable with a conventional college education. Experimental adventures in learning for oneself sounded absolutely terrifying. I knew how to memorize, to do extremely well on examinations, and to compose in fluent, dutiful prose any number of well-organized but boring thoughts on set topics.

This was absolutely not what Sarah Lawrence was about. There were no exams, and no memorizing, except for vocabulary in foreign language courses, of which there were few.  There were no textbooks; one read source material.  Small classes met for an hour and a half around a conference table, but only once a week. In addition, there was an independent term-long project associated with the class subject matter on which each student worked by herself and on which she reported every other week to the course professor in a private conference in his or her office. The project was supposed to culminate at term’s end in a long paper called a “contract.” There were also no grades, and therefore no conventional way of knowing how well you were doing. Every semester, you received a paragraph or so of commentary on your work from the professor of each course, assessed in terms of your ability and potential. (The office kept grade equivalents of these reports, in the event you needed to apply to graduate school afterwards, but you never saw them while you were an undergraduate. You weren’t supposed to be working for grades.)

You’d think someone whose modus operandi had hitherto been to claw her way to the top of her classes might not be ideal raw material for this educational experiment. But based on my academic record and completion of a sixteen-page application consisting of thirty-two questions about myself, each to be answered on half a blank page, I was offered a full scholarship.  It was probably a mistake in judgment on the college’s part. They may have thought they could shake up the way my mind worked. As for me, I didn’t question their motives. Despite some apprehension about the novel educational environment into which I was about to plunge myself — would I be able to keep the scholarship being the principal fear — I had no hesitation in saying yes, yes, yes.  Sauve qui peut.

The situation at home which drove my acceptance was as follows:

(1)  Radcliffe, where I did really want to go (because it was the sister school of Harvard), did not give me a scholarship and didn’t even admit me, probably because there was no point in wasting an admission on someone who needed financial aid and wasn’t going to get it.  I was “wait-listed,” a polite way of saying, “Sorry.” Did being Jewish have something to do with that? Some might have said yes, although you probably couldn’t have gotten anyone in the Admissions Office to admit it. A girl from my high school with the exact same grades as mine, but who wore a cross around her neck and sang in her church choir, was admitted — with financial aid from the Radcliffe Club of New York. I had no cross or church choir membership, although I did then play classical piano fairly well. I also remember sinking fast with the ladies from the Radcliffe Club at their tea for applicants during our high-school senior year. I was entirely inexperienced at gracefully holding a teacup and saucer, plus a cookie, plus my handbag, while trying to balance on rarely worn cuban heels and searching for subjects about which to converse with the several minimally polite Radcliffe Club members in their forties and fifties circulating the room to check me out.  Bill’s reveries about my going to Radcliffe might have made allowances for these circumstances; he himself had to go to medical school abroad — in Geneva, to be specific — because Jewish boys had such a hard time getting into medical schools here at home.

(2)  Vassar, my second choice, did make an offer but provided no aid.  The Admissions Office there informed my parents that if they could swing the first year and I did well, there might be a scholarship for the second year. Tuition and board that year was $1200. My father earned $5000 a year (before taxes) when he was working, thanks to Local 802 of the AFL Musicians’ Union.  But a hotel musician had no guarantee of a steady job, could be let go on two weeks notice, and frequently was. So my parents banked half of every paycheck that came in, and managed on the other half.  $1200 would have just about cleaned out the savings account. My father was reluctantly willing, my mother less so. She believed a woman’s economic security lay in finding a husband with a good job, not in acquiring fancy higher education that might lead to who knew what. As for me, I was afraid of wiping my father out and then finding that Vassar’s conditional second-year scholarship did not come through, leaving me without any alternative after the first year.

(3) There was also a fallback school, where I didn’t even have to apply. It was Hunter College, to which the high school for girls I attended was attached, both administratively and geographically.  A diploma from Hunter College High School automatically entitled you to a place in the freshman class of Hunter College. Moreover, because it was a city school, it was free, or almost free.  I could have gone on living at home, in the tiny room at the end of the short hall behind the kitchen which I had occupied since I was eleven, and taken the subway from Kew Gardens into Manhattan and back every day, just as I had done all through high school. I’m sure I would have received a good, if conventional, college education in some subject of my choice, probably English, and then gone on to teach it, perhaps at Hunter. Maybe I might also have met someone to marry, although I wasn’t sure where. I would also have had to go on spending too much time alone in the small apartment with my by-then depressed and menopausal mother, since my father frequently had to take out-of-town jobs. This future so much didn’t make my heart beat faster I wanted to cry whenever I thought of it.

(4)  Finally, there was Sarah Lawrence. The high-school college guidance counselor had suggested applying to at least three schools if I wanted to try to avoid enrolling at Hunter. It would have been prudent for all three to be in New York State, because there was a good chance I would win a New York State Regents scholarship in the competitive statewide examinations held midway through the last year of high school, and thereby receive $300 a year for each of four years of attendance at a New York institution of higher education.  True, Radcliffe was in Massachusetts.  But even the guidance counselor thought I should give Radcliffe a shot.  However, Vassar was in New York State. Now I needed another.  Skidmore?  Barnard? NYU?  What about this one, with the pretty light blue catalogue cover?  It offered courses described in expansive terms that had nothing to do with specific subjects — “The Individual in History,” “Classical and Christian Civilization,” “Renaissance and Reformation” — and therefore sounded grown-up and sophisticated.   “Why not? What’s the harm?” I thought, with my mind focussed on Radcliffe.  I listed Sarah Lawrence as my third choice on the SATs.  The catalogue cover was really very attractive.

And that, dear friends and dear Bill, is the story of how I became a Sarah Lawrence girl rather than a Radcliffe girl (or, for that matter, a Vassar girl).  There really was no choice; “if only” never entered into it.  What came afterwards may not have been the easier ride Bill might have wanted for me if he could have rearranged things his way, or the opportunity for a rich choice of well-heeled husbands that was undoubtedly my mother’s dashed hope.  But when I look back, it seems to me I wouldn’t have become whoever I am had I been able to follow a hypothetically easier road.  At Sarah Lawrence, I did (with angst) eventually learn to learn for myself, to connect disparate facts in a new way, and thus equipped, was later able to survive and even somewhat prosper in what was then still really a man’s world. Yes, it was sometimes lonely.  Yes, I was sometimes envious. But with time it became evident that no road is really easy. Better to learn to tough it out early, while you’re still resilient and can roll with the punches. There’s also a bonus.  In your later years, you can always blog about it, and it won’t be boring.

 

 

AFTER SUMMER COMES THE FALL

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Attentive readers may recall that on July 10 I took a leave of absence from “Getting Old” to clean up the manuscript of a book I had abandoned unfinished ten years ago. I was returning to the book because a literary agent had asked to see it, and I needed to not embarrass myself by sending it off without fussing over it and thereby blowing what looked like a once-in-a-writer’s-lifetime event: an actual solicitation from an agent.

When I returned, I promised to let you know when I heard from the agent.  Friends, that time has come. You can guess the result from the title of this post.

Here’s his letter:

Dear Nina Mishkin,

I am old enough to remember dropping in on the only White Castle burger place in Greenwich Village for a bag of mini burgers after a late night on the town. They were greasy and unescapable.

I am sorry to have kept you waiting for this response, but I was away on holiday when your manuscript arrived.

I wish I had better news for you, but I do not see a viable market with publishers for “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” You write well and manage to create the times, 50 years ago when eating disorders were mostly unknown except to shrinks or dietitians. This may make an interesting article in one of the national magazines, but it’s more nostalgic than hopeful.

Since this is a subjective reading, another agency may have a different opinion. I’ve been wrong before.

Regretfully,

/s/

P.S. I am returning your manuscript in the hopes that you can reuse it with other agents.

One should never burn one’s bridges.  [And I chose to believe the “regretfully.”]  So I e-mailed him back this morning:

Dear ____________,

You write a gracious rejection letter.

To be candid, I’m not surprised you don’t see a market for this kind of thing. You’re right that the part you read is not “hopeful,” in the sense that it appears to be a “misery” memoir without a clearly happy ending.  And hope or happiness, I suppose, is what the market demands.

On the other hand, I am not now — and have not been for quite some time — fat or even overweight. So I suppose there was, eventually, light at the end of the tunnel. But as you must realize if you’re old enough to remember White Castle burgers, getting to know, like and live with oneself is, for some of us, a long slow process, and another story entirely — one which isn’t really marketable either, even if I were inclined to write it.

I don’t know yet what I’m going to do about finishing “Eating” and pursuing publication with other agents. But I do very much appreciate your interest, the time you took to read however much you read of it, and your kind regrets.

All my best wishes,

/s/

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Truthfully, and despite all your good wishes for a contrary result, I wasn’t surprised at this rejection.  As I reported when I finished my edit, I thought what I had done was uneven, not in its writing but in its interest level, and had mixed feelings about going on with it. So I really don’t need consoling.  What I need now is to sort out my thoughts about what to do next.  And you can all help with that.

If I don’t put it away again — always an option — and do pursue the agent’s implied suggestion that I try with other agents, I will need to finish the manuscript first.  (Only already published authors go to market with unfinished work.)  Although you can send an agent a synopsis and the first fifty pages, if there’s a nibble you’ve got to be able to send the whole thing.  I have the synopsis and 173 relatively polished pages, but not the rest of it. I’m not even entirely sure what “the rest of it” would contain.  [I rarely know what I think till I see what I write.]  However, finishing would mean quite a lot more work, on subject matter no longer dear to my heart, in quest of an uncertain future.

I could also finish it and try to publish it myself, as at least one of you has suggested.  Believe it or not, while I was drafting this post, the agent answered my thank-you email.  [It seems we’re now on a first-name basis.] His timing was impeccable:

Dear Nina,

In this new ebook world, many writers are finding an audience for their work by self-publishing through Amazon. Why don’t you explore this possibility, before abandoning the book. Yours is better written than most.

Good luck,

Nat

So now, dear readers, you can help me decide whether to grit my teeth, finish writing the manuscript and then try to find it an audience, either through an agent or by self-publishing. Is there in fact a paying audience for a book like this?  Here’s the two-page synopsis I sent along with the manuscript.  Would you be interested in buying such a book or ebook to read it in full?

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Unfinished First Draft of “Eating Behind Closed Doors: A Memoir”

This book recounts the development of the author’s nearly life-long binge eating disorder, beginning during her four years as an almost full scholarship student at prestigious, expensive Sarah Lawrence College between 1948 and 1952.The tone is wry, dispassionate and occasionally tender.  Because much of it takes place so long ago, the book necessarily also describes by implication a world thankfully now gone where societal expectations for even educated girls were limited and confining, which should make it interesting to feminists and other young women as well as to readers more narrowly focused on its confessional aspects.

SYNOPSIS

 Author’s Preface: A three-page explanation of what the book is, and is not about, and why the author has written it. (Perhaps dispensable.)

Section I: Six pages graphically plunging the reader into the author’s secret life of night binge eating in 1986, when she was 55 and beginning a mid-life career as a lawyer – taken in part from contemporaneous notes made to record her shame and disgust at what she was still doing to herself after so many years.

Section II : The author prepares for college by rigorous dieting to begin her new life looking like the slender models in Seventeen Magazine. The new life proves stressful. A scholarship student, she’s uncomfortable with wealthy classmates from private day schools, finds the unconventional educational methods at Sarah Lawrence unsettling, and can’t maintain 1000 calories a day on mid-twentieth century institutional meals. A blind date for a football weekend at Princeton proves disastrous, and a first binge ensues, memorable as a template for future escapes from pain. Although she has a boyfriend at the University of Chicago, twenty-five hours away by train, the author gradually slips into wildly aberrational eating habits that pile on the pounds during the long snowy winter. The slippage soon includes intensifying self-contempt as well as lies to mother and boyfriend. During the summer she first tries psychotherapy, unsuccessfully.

In her second year, she meets J.D. Salinger (age 33), Marguerite Yourcenar and, in Paris, a hungry not-yet-known Larry Rivers. The year features in-the-trenches sexual battle a la 1950 with the boyfriend, pouring peroxide over her brown hair to change herself, increasing tension with her mother, growing dependence on secret binging for a “fix,” and a student bicycle tour of Europe (temporarily abandoned for the dubious joys of Paris patisseries) during which she encounters the strong anti-American feeling still obtaining in Bavaria five years after the end of war, and perhaps lingering anti-semitism as well. During her last two college years, she steals (both food and money). She also experiences bitter resentment at the loss of a friend to an in-the-closet lesbian relationship, and the momentary but illusory hope of romance with a faculty member. She graduates in June 1952, having done commendable and serious academic work in which she had almost no interest, without boyfriend or job prospects and realizing that in all aspects important to her, she has failed.

Section III: Expecting unrealistically to leave binging behind, the author moves to Los Angeles with her parents. [To be continued: This section, not yet written, could contain – at a minimum — discussion of the author’s disorder at its later worst; its physical and emotional effect on her over the years; how at the age of 68 she eventually managed to reach a somewhat even keel; her experience with Overeaters Anonymous (and its offshoot, Grey Sheet); her views on psychotherapy (of which she’s had a lot) as both helpful and not helpful in resolution of her disorder; and some concluding thoughts.]

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

Now here I stand at the crossroads. Do I chalk the whole summer up to experience, or go on?  I’m quite serious in asking the level of your interest, and won’t be at all offended — possibly even relieved — if I learn from your comments that I should put what agent Nat called “nostalgic” behind me and forget it.  What do you think? Does “Eating” have any kind of a future? Don’t wait for someone else to say something. And don’t be nice.  Be honest.