HOW I SPENT MY SUMMER VACATION

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Misery.

NOT FUN.

For those of you somehow coming upon this post while looking for something else, perhaps I should summarize, if everyone else will just bear with me for a moment.  I took a vacation from blogging, tactfully called “Time Out” in the post just prior to this one, in order to follow through on an invitation from a literary agent, an event so rare and unexpected in the lives of aspiring writers (one of which I guess I must be) that to ignore it would have been gross stupidity.  

He wrote in response to having seen a memoir of my thirteenth summer (“Falling Off the Roof”) which was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Iowa Review. (Note: That issue is still available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon for $4.99, in case anyone who hasn’t read the piece is interested.)  Here are the relevant parts of our e-mail exchange:

From him:

Dear Nina Mishkin:

I very much admired your story “Falling Off the Roof,” in The Iowa Review and thought that you might enjoy hearing from a fan of your work who is also an established literary agent. I don’t know if you are even at that point in your writing to start exploring representation, but this story made me feel that you have the talent to write a publishable book.

 If you’re at work on a novel, one of my colleagues in the agency or I would be pleased to read the opening chapters. We can tell, with a brief synopsis (1-2 pages) and around fifty pages, if we are engaged by the material. If so, we’ll encourage you to keep going. If not we’ll explain why. These days, many editors never read further than the opening chapter or two of most novels before rejecting them. That’s how overloaded we all are with reading material. You must grab our attention, early on, either with plot or characters.

 If you are assembling a short story collection, or undertaking a non-fiction book, visit our agency website ….for our submission guidelines and suggestions. In the current market, publishers are unlikely to take on a short story collection unless the author can provide a novel to follow. If you do not have at least 50 pages of a novel ready, it’s worth waiting to put both book projects together, believe me. You may find our submission guidelines helpful whether we ultimately represent you or not. Or you may write us an e-mail describing the book you are working on. We can then let you know, quickly, our response. Please indicate that I have read some of your work in that letter.

 If you already have an agent please excuse this approach, as our agency does not take on previously agented writers. If you are unagented and would like to discuss your writing before sending me anything, give us a call. The author/agent “chemistry” is vital in a long-term relationship. If you don’t have anything to send us at this time, hold onto this letter. My invitation to read more of your work is open-ended. Recently we sold a first novel to Knopf by a writer I originally contacted ten years ago after reading his story in The Georgia Review.

 Because we offer editorial work on all the projects we take on, at no additional fee to the writer, we do ask for one month exclusivity of your submission but generally respond sooner. We do not send out  form rejection letters on work submitted, but try to provide a fair evaluation of the work, including any editorial suggestions we may have.

 Looking forward to reading more of your work.

 Best wishes.

I suspected this was a form letter, with the first sentence tweaked to make it personal for me.  [Later, in an online chat room for writers I found corroboration for my hunch:  same letter from same agent sent to another writer, who was wondering how long he needed to wait for a response to his synopsis and fifty pages.]  Nonetheless, that was quite a letter — for which I was entirely unprepared.  So here was my reply [edited for brevity, never my strong point]:

Dear _______:

Your email was most welcome, especially its first paragraph. And no, I don’t already have an agent. On the other hand, I’m not sure how to respond. Am I ready to start exploring representation? Perhaps you can tell me.

 Although at seventeen I declared I was going to be a writer when I grew up, I am now nearly 83 and have spent all of my paid working life in other professions, of which the most recent was practicing law.  It may be that I haven’t grown up yet.  As a result, I have only dabbled.  Banged “things” out over four-day holiday weekends. And then fiddled with them whenever there was time.  It’s true that in the past couple of years, I have become more serious about it. But in any event, I note that your letter references novels, short story collections and the undertaking of a non-fiction book. How do I fit my “things” into those categories?

 I don’t think I could write a novel, or a shorter piece of real fiction, if I tried. The “story” you say you admired was memoir. Most of what I’ve written apart from that — which I am about briefly to describe — is in the first person. And even when it isn’t, it’s really about me and my life, thinly disguised. On the other hand, I have a “voice” that has been generally admired.  (Several “voices,” actually.)  And at my age, I’m very likely in a (marketable?) niche all by myself!

 So. There is an unfinished first draft of a possible book: 183 pages of typescript, in the first person, tentatively titled “Eating Behind Closed Doors.” If rewritten in the third person, which might be a good idea, it could present as a sort of “novel” about the development of a binge eating disorder (“BED”) in the days before there was a name for it. On the other hand, maybe it should remain a confessional reminiscence.  As I have no idea what to do with it other than burn it, a thought plainly indicating ambivalence, it has been sitting around for about ten years.  I have cannibalized bits of it from time to time for short pieces.

I then described three short stories, besides the published one, and the categories of short pieces — all taken from this blog — that together could constitute a collection of work.

…. Well, would it help to talk about all this? Would it help to talk in person? I am not so far away; New Jersey Transit can bring me into Penn Station from Princeton whenever there’s a reason to come in.

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Nina Mishkin

His response came back within the hour and was not a form letter, as you can see from the typing:

Dear Ms. Mishkin,

I think y6ou write well. Let’s take a first step by sending me the pages of “Eating Behind Closed Doors”.  It’s never too late to start a new career, if you are talented.

Best,

To which I replied:

Dear Mr. ______,

I appreciate the immediate response. Give me four to six weeks to reread “Eating Behind Closed Doors” and clean it up a bit before sending it on to you. (I don’t want to embarrass myself unduly.) I’ll be getting back to you then.

Many thanks. And be well.

Best,

 What happened next?

1.  I read “Eating Behind Closed Doors” as far as it goes (for the first time in ten years), shuddered a bit, and then spent a few days reading some WordPress blogs from bloggers with eating disorders. (Yes, they’re out there if you look).

2.  I decided whatever I had already done should stay in the first person, for two reasons.  The first is that there’s an audience of people (at least in the United States) enduring much of what I went through and more, who would probably read a short book about a binge eating disorder if true but maybe not if it presents as “fiction.” The second reason is that what I’ve already written takes place so long ago, it has become social history of a world that doesn’t exist anymore — and that makes it interesting apart from its purported “subject matter.”

3. I also decided I shouldn’t try to finish writing it until I hear what the agent thinks about what I’ve already got.  For one thing, it would take too long. For another, his letter suggests it would be unnecessary at this point.  Moreover, whether or not he decides to work with me, his comments could be helpful in determining where and how far to take it. (I would prefer a quick, clean forty- or fifty-page conclusion — and done!  But we’ll see.) That meant my summer job was to focus on tightening where I was prolix, clarifying where I was unclear, eliminating fine thoughts, unnecessary verbiage, duplication of word usage and my own verbal tics.  And also changing the names!  In addition, I would have to write a one-or-two page synopsis — not so easy with a plotless narrative which still has no conclusion. And I also wanted to write a possibly dispensable short “Author’s Preface,” explaining (1) what the book is not about; (2) why it’s not about that; and (3) why I wrote it.  Which I have done.

4.  Then I posted “Time Out” on July 10, and went to work.  

 ******************

The fourth go-round of the edited manuscript, plus synopsis, plus cover letter, plus a copy of all the prior e-mails went out by UPS Express on August 21.  I wish the contents of the box were something recently written that I really cared about. I have extremely mixed feelings about what’s actually in it, which is why I abandoned it ten years ago and why the summer spent reading and re-reading it was so not fun.Considered just as a piece of writing, I also feel that although it starts out strong, it does sag, structurally, somewhere around page 70 and despite some funny bits afterwards never quite recovers, even after all my tightening.  On the other hand, I may just be too close to judge objectively. If someone with knowledge of the book market thinks there are enough potential readers for something like this, then perhaps it’s a kite that will fly after all….and pull a collection of Getting Old Blog pieces after it!  I always was a dreamer.  Stay tuned….

I thank all of you who wrote such warm and encouraging comments to the “Time Out” post.  I really appreciated them, even though I took Diana’s advice not to answer while I was working on the book manuscript.  I was a real sourpuss for most of the summer anyway, and didn’t want to spoil the glorious send-off you gave me by bitching and moaning all over the comment section.

I also thank the twelve people who decided to follow this blog while I wasn’t writing it.  I won’t ask what you were thinking. Welcome, welcome anyway.  If you’re still patiently waiting for something to read, here it is:  a bit specialized for non-writers, but maybe a thought-provoking peek at how one part of the commercial world turns.

If you want a short post on how to tighten up your own prose writing, speak up. [Before I forget what I did.]  Otherwise, I guess the next one is up to me.  Cats, anyone?

STOPPING SMOKING FOR GOOD

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In 1967, 1968 and 1969, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued Supplements to the initial 1964 Surgeon General’s Report on the health hazards of smoking — each of which was publicized and analyzed in every newspaper, magazine and television news program I saw. The cigarette companies denied everything, but of course they would.

By the last of these CDC Supplements, I was nearly thirty-eight and five months pregnant with a second child. At that point, I had been described by a friend as having an eleventh finger.  It was not quite twenty years since my second-year college suite-mate had taught me to inhale.  Was twenty years some kind of outer limit, beyond which it would be foolhardy to pass? On the morning of June 6, 1969, I woke up very early, thinking I heard a cry from the crib in the adjoining bedroom where our two-year-old boy was sleeping.  I got up to see.  It was nothing.  Then I tiptoed into the kitchen to make a pot of coffee, in order to justify my first cigarette of the day. As I sat there inhaling at the scrubbed oak kitchen table next to the stove, it suddenly occurred to me I was going to die of emphysema.  I still didn’t know what emphysema was.  (Lung cancer I did know about, and couldn’t face.)  But I knew emphysema could kill.  And if I died, who was going to raise my darling little boy in the crib and the new baby inside of me, whatever gender it turned out to be?

My mother hadn’t done such a great job with me, her only child and a girl.  How would she ever be able to handle two, at least one a boy? I hated my mother-in-law. (The feeling was apparently mutual.)  There was no way I was going to let her get her hands on my babies and ruin their lives.  I had a nice sister-in-law — the wife of my husband’s older brother.  But they had very little money and two little girls of their own; I didn’t think she would appreciate two more children to feed and raise properly.  Besides, she was religious and kept kosher — which was definitely not for me!  I stubbed out the cigarette I was holding, emptied and washed the ashtray, and put the pack away in a high kitchen cabinet.

I don’t think I had really decided to quit forever.  I was probably just trying it out, “to see.”  Within an hour, I was uncomfortable.  I had had to leave the Hungarian therapist who guided me through my first attempt at quitting when I stopped working a month before my first child was born and could no longer pay him.  But I remembered everything he had told me during that attempt.  I drank water all morning.  I took deep and presumably healthful inhalations of air to fill myself with oxygen.  Then I bundled my little boy into his stroller and pushed him up and down Broadway for at least two hours in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, clutching the stroller handles as tightly as I could by afternoon because it was getting hard to walk straight without weaving.  I tried to chew gum, although I hate gum.  (I stayed away from Life Savers, though;  this time I was not going to gain weight!)

As I walked, I told myself, “You are not going to die from not smoking.  You may very well die from smoking.”

I told myself, “You can get through twenty-four hours.  Just twenty-four hours.”

I told myself, “I want to see my babies grow up.”

I told myself, “Other people have done it.  So can you.”

Then, when I was too shaky to walk any farther, I went home and drank more water and ground my teeth and drank more water.  I was feeling much worse than the first time, five years before, which had been bad enough.  That evening, we had a sitter because my husband had been given free tickets to the races.  We had never been before, and never again had another opportunity.  But all I remember of this interesting event was noise, confusion, and a horrible headache that sliced clean across my forehead as if my head were in an iron vise that someone was tightening as I sat.  I told my husband I didn’t feel well.  I wanted to throw up, although I couldn’t.  It was just as well:  there was nothing in my stomach because I had been unable to eat dinner.  Even if I had wanted to, I would have had trouble chewing; it was difficult to move my tongue and jaws.  As soon as we got home, I fell into bed and slept for thirty hours straight.  It was the beginning of the weekend.  My husband said later he had tried to wake me but I pushed him away, so he left me alone to sleep off whatever it was. (He thought it was the flu, or a virus.)  I have no memory of that.  I woke up finally, more than a day later, to urinate.  As when I had first learned to smoke nearly twenty years before, my head was spinning; I had to hold on to the walls to get to the bathroom.

I was lucky to have been able to sleep through what was probably the worst of it.  Although what came after I woke was still pretty bad. Perhaps not quite as bad as Frank Sinatra rolling on a cell floor in agony when forced to kick his heroin habit cold turkey in Man With a Golden Arm (my one point of comparison).  But I was as good as useless for the next eight or nine days.  There were no patches, no Nicorette gum, no groups.  I had trouble controlling my hands well enough to dress myself and my little boy.  Thank goodness he was old enough to feed himself, because I probably would not have been able to hold a spoon steady enough to feed him.  I couldn’t type at all.  My hands shook on the keys, the letters transposed themselves, and I couldn’t think clearly enough to correct what I had done.  I couldn’t read; my concentration was shot.  Oddly, I had no appetite at all.  I drank peppermint tea, and water, and chamomile tea, and water, and finally had to explain the oddities in my conduct by telling my husband and a few friends what I was trying to do — which I had wanted not to reveal, in case it turned out I couldn’t do it and had the shame of a public failure.  Anyone who says a cigarette habit is just psychological is wrong.  Nicotine is a drug, and a body accustomed to a drug will protest its sudden removal with physical symptoms.  My symptoms may have been more severe than average.  But then I had been a savagely dedicated smoker for nearly two decades.  None of this selective social smoking for me.  Smoking had been my life, and I had now stripped smoking from my life.  My whole self was protesting.

After ten days, the physical symptoms began to recede.  The nicotine was clearing from my system.  That’s not to say that the yearning departed.  But I decided I was going to hang on until the baby was born.  Just until then.  And if the intense, intolerable yearning persisted……Well, we would see.

Finishing meals was awful, because there was no cigarette afterwards. Speaking on the telephone, writing something on the typewriter, talking to anyone on the street or in the park — anything I had ever done that needed to be preceded by a cigarette still needed to be preceded by a cigarette, and now there were all these gaping holes in the course of every day of my life that I had to learn to circumvent.  For the next three or four months, I really didn’t do very much at all except not smoke. And cough.

During all the time I had smoked, I never had a smoker’s cough.  When I got colds, or bronchitis, I would cough up thick green phlegm, but when I got better, the coughing went away.  Now — beginning about ten days after I had crushed my last cigarette in the ashtray — the morning coughing began.  I ran to the toilet to spit out what had come up.  A large black viscous blob floated on the surface of the water.  I fished it out with a wad of toilet paper to examine it.  It was that oily black stuff that the crystal filters in cigarette holders used to trap.  Tar.  Loosening after ten days of not smoking and and beginning to come up from my lungs.  That was scary.  They said at that time if you managed not to smoke for seven years, your lungs would return to their original pink condition.  But I hadn’t realized they would be encased in this disgusting black gunk before that happened.  If anything kept me on the straight and narrow throughout the remainder of the pregnancy, it was the sight, every morning, of globs of oily black tar on the surface of the toilet bowl water.  Coming out of me!

By the time I went to the hospital for the birth of the baby, the globs were beginning to turn dark grey. There was of course no smoking in the hospital.  I came home with my baby — a second boy — and continued my morning expectorations.  Month by month, they grew paler grey, but still with coal black flecks in them.  I didn’t stop coughing up those black flecks in increasingly pale grey gook until March 1970 — nine months after I had quit.

You might say I was now clean.  I wouldn’t have said that.  Every time we went to a restaurant or a party and someone lit up, I inhaled the second-hand smoke with pleasure, envy and regret — despite what I had learned about oily black tar in the lungs, and agonizing withdrawal symptoms, and the likelihood that all those lucky smokers at some time down the road could get very sick.  It might have been a risk I wasn’t going to take — I still wanted to see my babies grow up — but that didn’t keep the desire at bay. It wasn’t until a full twenty months later that we walked into a room where people were smoking, and I found myself wrinkling  my nose in disgust because suddenly I didn’t want that stinky stuff in my nice clean lungs. How dare those people pollute my air?

Twenty months after June 6, 1969 to make me a non-smoker again.

That’s not to say that if I ever had even one cigarette, for some stupid reason, I wouldn’t be back to thirty in no time.  That’s not to say I didn’t inflict some permanent damage to my lungs.  (They were wrong about the seven years.)  I do have mild traces of emphysema at the bottom of the left lung; it showed up when they were doing a CAT scan for something else.  In the life I presently lead, it doesn’t limit any activity I might choose to undertake.  And hopefully, it won’t spread, or spread far. I also have hypertension, controlled by medication, and a heart that shows some signs of perhaps presenting interesting problems for cardiologists (and me) at some time in the future.  But I consider myself lucky.  It could have been worse.

Every generation has some sort of particular trial by fire, I suppose.  I would hate to be a young person with tattoos everywhere. (Even a non-smoking one.) At some point in the future, that young person will have become an older person, and the tats may have become embarrassing, undesirable, an impediment to obtaining something or other, or just an indelible marker of a fad-crazed youth.  They won’t look so good either — on sagging, wrinkled or fat-stretched skin.  But that’s the next generation’s problem, not mine.

As for the 18% of adult Americans estimated still to be smoking, what can I say? In four posts, I’ve said it all.  Although I might add I realize now there’s almost never such a thing as “I can’t.”  I “couldn’t” for myself, but  “could” for my children — even for the one still unborn.  Their arrival then brought into my life that classic of positive thinking — “The Little Engine That Could.” (After I’d given up cigarettes.)  Remember how the Little Engine managed to bring toys to all the children in the village on Christmas morning, even though there was a big hill in the way?  “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…..”  And by thinking that, the Little Engine could.

STOPPING SMOKING: THE TRIAL RUN

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The Surgeon General’s Report linking smoking with lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease was released in 1964.  But for quite some time before that, I had already realized that smoking was gradually becoming more a burden than a blessing. Even without actually trying to stop, I was aware that I couldn’t not smoke.  If I sat downstairs at the movies, where smoking was not allowed, I could hardly wait for the picture to end so as to rush out and light up. I couldn’t sit for very long in the stacks at the library where I was doing research for my master’s thesis without stopping work to go down and through the library doors for a cigarette.

I couldn’t lock the door when I came home in the evening without making sure there were enough cigarettes in the house to get me through to the next morning.  I didn’t ever wake up at night to smoke, but if I woke up for some other reason — loud noise in the street, for instance — I was unable to get to sleep again without smoking at least part of a cigarette.  And first thing in the morning, even before brushing my teeth, I had to rush to the kitchen, make a cup of coffee and take a sip so I could light a cigarette without feeling guilty about smoking “first thing in the morning.”  I needed to light a cigarette before getting into the shower, before putting a piece of paper into the typewriter, before picking up the telephone, either to make a call or answer one.  If going into some one else’s office for a meeting, I went with pen, pad of paper, and package of cigarettes — glasses on top of my head.

My wooden furniture at home had cigarette burns where cigarettes left in ashtrays had fallen from ashtray to table surface.  A white synthetic leather pullout sofa bed in the studio apartment I rented after the end of my first marriage featured a burn mark on one cushion, where a flying spark had melted the synthetic leather. (And no, I couldn’t turn the cushion over.  There was no synthetic leather on the other side.)

I was also realizing I didn’t really enjoy smoking. I knew people who professed to love it.  What I experienced from the first deeply inhaled draw of a fresh cigarette was not pleasure, but immediate release from extreme discomfort.  I was smoking to relieve feeling not good.  When I smoked I felt normal. Not anything special.  Just normal.  When I didn’t smoke, I felt more and more uncomfortable, edgy, in need of my fix — until I could barely stand it.  I remember asking myself what my life was really about. It seemed I was existing to smoke — all the time I was awake — and was smoking in order to exist without misery.

Now and then I would discuss these feelings with the Hungarian — the entirely supportive shrink who was helping me put my life back together. We talked about the addictive properties of cigarettes (using the word “addictive” in the non-legal sense, of course, as neither of us were then lawyers).  The Hungarian said he stopped for two weeks every year, to prove to himself cigarettes were not his master, and that he was in control. [Today, forty-five years after I was finally able to stop, I would maintain two weeks wasn’t really “stopping.” But at that time two weeks without cigarettes sounded like eternity to me.]  He told me a story about hiding in a bomb shelter in Hungary during the war. Next to him was an older man who had managed to stop smoking twenty years before.  As the Hungarian extracted a cigarette from its package and lit it, the older man asked for one, too.  “If this is the end for us,” he said, “I want one last cigarette before I die.”  We both puffed companionably together during these conversations.

Then came the Report. Well, everyone knew, in a general way, that smoking wasn’t exactly good for you.  But lung cancer, emphysema (whatever that was), heart disease?  How long could you smoke with impunity before those kicked in? The Hungarian kept encouraging me to stop if I was so concerned.  Just to make sure that I could, if I really wanted to.

“I can’t stop,” I said.

“Of course you can stop,” he said.  “We will stop together.  Starting at midnight tonight!”

It was a Thursday in May or June of 1965 that he made this entirely unforeseen offer.   I was paying him for this?  Yes I was.  So how could I say no?  Having taken me by surprise, he outlined the deal:  Beginning at midnight, neither of us would take a single puff until we met again on Tuesday evening.  After that, we could each do what we wanted. But for nearly five days, we would hang in there.  There were also some guidelines, supposedly to make it somewhat less difficult:

  • Avoid coffee and tea — because caffeine would intensify the craving for nicotine.  (It perked you up, whereas nicotine calmed you down — both by shrinking the capillaries and thus reducing blood flow, and also by depriving you of oxygen with every puff.)
  • Drink lots of water, to flush nicotine out of your system.
  • Chew gum, if you have to do something with your mouth.
  • Take walks, inhaling deeply for healthful infusions of oxygen.
  • Distract yourself with activities during which you normally don’t smoke.  (I had no such activities, but didn’t argue the point.)

I was fearful and unwilling, but  the transference was too strong.  I  walked out of his office at eight in the evening, managed to smoke ten more cigarettes (making myself nauseous) before the appointed hour, stumbled to the incinerator in the hall at three minutes before midnight to throw all my remaining packs down the chute so I couldn’t retrieve them from the garbage pail in my apartment — and then gulped down a glass of water and slid between the sheets of the pullout sofa bed with the cigarette burn on one cushion as if I were climbing into my coffin.

I don’t know how I survived Friday at the office; I could not possibly have got anything done. I spent Saturday and Sunday mainly in the sofa bed, reading trashy magazines and sucking Life Savers like crazy in between long headachy naps and frequent trips to the bathroom to evacuate the quarts of water I was drinking. I may have called in sick on Monday in order to put away several pints of ice cream. (Ice cream is supposed to help everything. Wrong.) But Tuesday was coming.  Blessed Tuesday, when at last I would be able to light up!  Mainly what got me through all this were thoughts of the Hungarian’s similar suffering.

Tuesday evening, he congratulated me, declared he felt fine, and lit a meerschaum pipe.  “That’s not fair!” I cried.  I hadn’t even brought a fresh pack of cigarettes with me.  Somehow I thought he would offer me one and we would light up together.

“You can smoke too, if you want.”  He smiled.  “And you can continue to not smoke, if you want.  It will get easier, because you’ve done the hardest part.  It’s up to you.”

When I left him after the session, I paused in front of the drugstore near the subway stop.  Should I?  Shouldn’t I?  I went in, still uncertain — and bought three candy bars to carry me over until I got home to my cigarette-free studio apartment.

We were approaching the summer before my second wedding.  I munched my way through it — wearing one of three drop-waisted Pucci-type-print “sack” dresses that managed to look chic while also disguising the fact that I was rapidly losing my waistline and gaining about two pounds a week.  All foods were wonderful, all the time — and the more fattening the more satisfying.  I also discovered packages of little cigarillos in the drugstore:  they tasted terrible but you didn’t  inhale them, so you got the awful (but now also wonderful) taste of tobacco without injury to the lungs.  Also they looked rather sophisticated, if you were well dressed and coiffed when you put one between your lips.  A trans-gender activity by a feminine-looking woman!  Why hadn’t I thought of it before?

I was virtuous, and plump.  And then plumper.  And then had to buy a wedding dress.  The Big Day was September 12. There was a store on Broadway in the 80’s, the name of which I no longer remember, that would make up your choice of dress style in the fabric of your choice. That seemed the place to go, as I wasn’t sure what size I was anymore, and didn’t want to know.  They could measure me and do what had to be done.  I chose a slenderizing dress and jacket combination, to be made up in ivory colored silk.  (Such a purist! I considered white inappropriate for a non-virginal bride.)  The seamstress who was measuring me said I was a perfect size 14.  What was so perfect about that?  I also needed a dinner dress and a couple of sportive outfits for the Bermuda honeymoon.  In size 14?

No, no, no.  This was my fresh start in life. This time I was going to get it right with a brand-new husband. Fat had no part to play in such a future.  Three weeks before the wedding, I smoked a cigarette.  Before the week was up, I was back to smoking thirty.  After two weeks, when I returned for the final fitting of the ivory silk dress, they had to take it in quite a lot.  The taken-in dress was even somewhat loose on September 12, but I was a happy bride.  Everyone said I looked beautiful.  Stopping smoking would have to wait.

[More tomorrow.]

BECOMING A SMOKER

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After the application interview at the small girls’ college I eventually attended, I was offered a post-interview lunch in the college dining room. It was the spring of 1948. What I noticed at once was that the attractive well-dressed girls who seemed the most sophisticated stayed on after the meal for coffee and a cigarette.  I therefore devoted the whole of July and August to learning how to drink coffee.  My practice sessions took place, with the help of milk and saccharin, at the Horn & Hardart Automat on 57th Street during the lunch hour of my summer job.  I needed the extras because black coffee tasted terrible to my virgin tongue, and I chose milk because it had fewer calories than cream, saccharin because it had no calories at all.  [When I later reached Europe for the first time in the summer of 1950, Europeans I met all asked why saccharin, the wartime sweetener, now that sugar was available again.  Having gone hungry for five years, they just didn’t understand American calorie-counting.]

But what good was coffee for my image without its necessary accompaniment?  Although somewhat timid at seventeen about crossing this bright line into adulthood without a parental imprimatur, before Thanksgiving I had already dared enter the drugstore near campus to buy a pack of Chesterfields, my mother’s brand.  (A cardboard book of matches came free with every pack, paid for by the advertising on its cover.)  Imagine!  No hassle. No questions.  That’s what college girls did. I walked out finally feeling like a “real” college girl myself.

Learning what to do with what I had bought was another matter. It required some help from my new boyfriend. The girl across the hall with whom I shared a bathroom was not a smoker. The new boyfriend was not a regular smoker either, but knew that when you held the struck match to the tip you had to pull in your breath at the same time, possibly two or three times, until the end of the cigarette that was not in your mouth caught fire and glowed. Only when you were sure the cigarette was lit could you then shake out the match and drop it into the ashtray.

So that’s what I did until the end of the academic year — after meals in the dining room and sometimes on the train going home for a visit, because it looked good and train rides were boring. I also lit up on dates when cigarettes were offered. But I couldn’t really understand what the fuss was about, or why it was considered so sophisticated. Pulling unpleasant-tasting smoke into your mouth and then blowing it out again wasn’t anything I would have missed if cigarettes had vanished from my life.  It even burned the tongue a bit. The boyfriend did explain that I would have to inhale to understand what was so good about it.  But I couldn’t make myself open the back of my throat, and he didn’t care what I did about inhaling.  (He was more concerned with another thing I couldn’t make myself do.)

My mother, on the other hand, was absolutely thrilled and bought me several ceramic ashtrays for my room at home and my room at college.  Like mother, like daughter at last!  (Not really, but she was still hoping.)  I have no idea why she didn’t tell me I was doing it wrong, but she didn’t.  She cared much more about appearances than what was really going on.

So the teaching job fell to Ginny, my second-year suite-mate until Christmas.  (The room arrangement I had that year, in a more desirable dorm than my Freshman residence, was called a suite  because each of two girls had her own room with its own door, linked by a shared bathroom in between the two rooms.)  Ginny was asked to leave after our first semester together because she went to no classes, did no schoolwork, skipped most meals, slept for most of every day, and stayed up most of every night smoking, eating cookies, and reading novels not on any course reading list.  Although from an extremely wealthy family, she had a terrible home life, including a father who was liable to descend the curved staircase into the living room drunk and stark naked whenever she was there with a friend — which she told me about, since she had practically no other day-to day life to share. But I guess the college couldn’t concern itself about that, especially as they probably didn’t know about it.  However, when Ginny set out to do something, she did a terrific job.  As in teaching me really to smoke — and thereby hooking me for twenty years.

Armed with several packages of Chesterfields and a glass from the dining room, she sat me down on my bed, filled the glass with water from the bathroom sink, told me to light up a cigarette, pull in a mouthful of smoke, and immediately take a swallow of water before blowing the smoke out again.  Eureka! The water forced the smoke down into my lungs — the thing I had never been able to do before!  When I at last blew out the smoke, it was dilute…and looked like everyone else’s exhalations!  I also felt a trifle dizzy.  Ginny explained that was why I was sitting on the bed.  She urged me to continue. Encouraged, I did.  Puff by puff, swallow by swallow, I sank deep and then deeper into expertise.  After three or four cigarettes, I was also very full of water as well as even more dizzy. But by hanging on to the walls, I was able to make it to the toilet and then back to the bed, where I intended to finish the pack, as if it were a box of chocolates that needed to be gone by tomorrow so I could start dieting again.  By the fifth cigarette, I no longer needed the water.  By the fourteenth or fifteenth cigarette, I lay down on my pillow, triumphant — head spinning from lack of oxygen — and was out like a light.

In the morning, there was a foul taste in my mouth.  Ginny was asleep, exhausted by her labors with me.  I brushed my teeth, “borrowed” a swig of her mouthwash, and made my way down to breakfast in the building at the bottom of the campus hill.  Never mind orange juice, eggs or cereal: I craved coffee and a cigarette!  I was a smoker  — all too soon a confirmed smoker — at last!

And thus began my twenty years of exquisite pleasures and pains. The pleasures at first were multiple.  A whole new world of hitherto unfelt needs!  Shopping expeditions galore!  A lighter — but what kind?  The cheap and reliable Zippo, seen in the hands of movie tough guys, and also movie soldiers and sailors — with its one-thumb flip-up top and dependably sturdy flare of flame, even on a windy day?  It showed you were a no-nonsense sort of girl.  Or a more elegant and expensive number, almost akin to jewelry — such as a small gold-plated lighter with vertical ridging that looked wonderfully feminine when extracted from an envelope purse, but often failed to do its job without strong-thumbed masculine assistance on the striking mechanism?  And for either choice, the essential lighter fluid — right up there at the top of the grocery list!

Alternatively, there was the lowly matchbook or matchbox  — made less lowly by the social distinction of the restaurant, hotel or cafe from which it was pinched.  Some of us, including me, kept collections of such classy matchbooks and matchboxes in open bowls as a final decorative touch to the room.  Although if you did that, you couldn’t actually use the matches (except perhaps once in a while to light a romantic candle) because when they were all gone, you’d have to throw the prestigious cover or box away.

[And while I’m on the subject of lighting up, let me mention the big no-no:   lighting your cigarette from the kitchen stove at home.  Try that — and hair as well as cigarette might catch fire. Sometimes, though, in the absence of a match or lighter fluid for your lighter…. Besides, I could always truthfully say I learned this risky maneuver from my mother.]  

What about cigarette cases — to keep tobacco crumbs out of your pockets and purses?  They ran the gamut from gold-initialed leather ones that held a whole pack, ten cigarettes on each side, to gold or silver monogrammed ones, which held fewer and I thought better suited to men.  Not everyone coveted a cigarette holder, but I did.  They came in black, red or tortoiseshell, with a gold or silver tip opposite the mouthpiece end.  The tip unscrewed so that you could insert or remove the crystal filter that was supposed to keep twenty cigarettes worth of tar from your lungs.  However, possession of a cigarette holder required that you also possess boxes of crystal filters, packages of pipe cleaners, a tin container of cleaning fluid.  The upkeep involved in smoking stylishly could be imposing!

Other pleasures? Becoming an active contributor to the blue smoke in which college seminars were conducted.  My Shakespeare professor, who I adored, went through three Lucky Strikes in a ninety-minute session, and it certainly behooved the eleven of us sitting around the conference table with him to do likewise.  I even switched from Chesterfields to Luckies just for him, although I don’t believe he was actually aware of my conversion. They were supposed to taste “toasted.”  Belief is everything in such matters.  Maybe the tobacco was toasted — to make it more carcinogenic as well as “tastier.”  Who really knew?

After college, smoking was of course an important element in courtship rituals.  The man offering the woman one from his jacket pocket or cigarette case before taking one himself.  Or leaning protectively over her to light her cigarette in a breeze. And by the time matters progressed to the bedroom — lovemaking or sex or whatever you wanted to call it just wasn’t complete without an ashtray on the naked stomach of the man afterwards, and both lovers smoking happily together, united in the afterglow of passion spent and clouds of fragrant nicotine.

If you had no one to smoke with in the bedroom, cigarettes were nevertheless a great assist in acquiring such a someone.  At cocktail parties — the necessary bane of the single girl’s existence — you didn’t have to stand forlorn against a wall, doing nothing and hoping someone would come over to speak to you.  You were doing something.  You were smoking.  Evening bag in one hand, cigarette in another, you could inhale, coolly survey the room, and exhale dramatically, perhaps sardonically.  Even better, evening bag under one arm, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, you were already fully, and attractively, occupied. How could you possibly be expected to work the room?  Alternatively, if you saw someone with potential, you could put out the cigarette somewhere, take a fresh one from your bag, and approach.  Did he by any chance have a match?  Then you lowered your head over the proffered flame, looked up smolderingly from beneath your eyelashes, and hoped the cigarette was not the only thing that ignited.

It worked in reverse too.  The man who, perhaps inadvertently, became my second husband was sitting on East Hampton Main Beach in the summer of 1963 on a towel not too far away from mine when he felt the need to smoke and leaned over to ask if I had a match.  Did I ever have a match!  At the ripe age of thirty-two, what was I on that beach for anyway, if not to offer attractive single men matches?

You could smoke at work, in elevators, in the balconies of movie theaters, in restaurants, in bars, on the street (often leaving accidental cigarette burns in the clothing of people you passed). You could smoke at the zoo, in the playground while watching your tots in the sandbox. I even smoked while nursing my long-awaited first child:  it made the happiness of it complete.  When a bit of ash fell on his downy head, I brushed it off tenderly.  The pediatrician said nothing.

It’s true the fingers between which you held your cigarettes turned yellow (unless you went on using a holder, despite the advent of filter tips).  Your teeth became yellow.  Even if you had teeth without cavities, as I did, you could develop gum disease from heavy smoking. Which I did.  [There were partial gingevectomies and deep scaling. The periodontist used to joke that when my teeth fell out because my gums were shot, they’d be in perfect condition.]  You and your clothing smelled of nicotine, despite heavy applications of Arpege.  Some people developed a smoker’s cough, although I didn’t, except when I had bad colds.  I moved on from Luckies to KIng Size Kents, with the “Micronite” filter tip that allegedly “refined away hot flavor, refined away hot taste.” My consumption mounted as the filters removed some of the poison.  I went from a pack a day, to thirty a day, to finally burning two packs a day, although I probably only really smoked thirty.  I had to put some out halfway through to hurry off somewhere; I left others burning themselves out in ashtrays while I took showers or washed dishes.  When out to dinner, sometimes the waiter came with the entree while you were smoking after the appetizer, and you then either had to extinguish the cigarette you had just begun or leave it in the ashtray while you attacked your lamb chops.  Some people even took puffs between bites, but I never did that.  However, I did hurry through dinner so as to be able to smoke again — and never mind dessert.  It was a great way to stay slender.

[More tomorrow.]

“TOO GOOD FOR EVERY DAY”

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Hanging in my closet as I write this, carefully protected from dust and moth by plastic bags, are:

1.  One pair of navy blue silk Armani palazzo pants, never worn since I bought them on sale at Neiman Marcus in 2000 even though I have several long-sleeved white silk blouses, also unworn and in plastic bags, purchased especially to wear with the pants if I were ever to wear the pants;

2. One pale greige Armani summer suit with elegant but difficult front closure, bought on sale at the Newbury Street Armani store in Boston in 2001 and worn twice to client Board of Directors meetings while I still practiced law.  One daughter-in-law now suggests jacket could still be worn over sleeveless black dress in late spring and early fall, but perhaps doesn’t realize that sleeveless dresses are not  (or should not be) for eighty-two year-old mothers-in-law, who in any event no longer attend events where Armani jackets wouldn’t look out of place;

3.  A St. John sequined knit jacket (color: peach), with matching knit short skirt, long skirt, and  floor-length pants (skirts and pants without sequins), purchased reluctantly at Neiman Marcus to wear as mother of groom on two separate occasions in the  summer of 2003 — short skirt in June for younger son’s wedding, long skirt early in September for older son’s wedding.  Pants never worn.  Skirts worn only once each.  Price:  $2500 (plus tax) in 2003 dollars for whole kit and caboodle. Too expensive to give away/donate/throw away.  Too good for every day.

There’s more, of course.  And I haven’t even begun with the unworn shoes,  unused handbags, leather gloves, three large silk scarves still in their lovely Hermes orange boxes, and even never-worn hats in my possession.  But here’s a good place to stop and consider “too good for every day.”

This expression, and the conduct it purports to justify, came from my parents in my youth. They had both gone a long time with hardly any possessions at all.  In their youth, they had with great difficulty escaped war, revolution, inflation and penury only to arrive in a new land where at first they had to scramble to earn even enough to eat and rent a room.  It took quite a while before sales at the seductive department stores in New York that lined Fifth Avenue from 34th Street to 59th Street were within their reach.

Accordingly, they always said of their own new clothes and shoes, especially if “expensive,” that they were too good to wear every day. Such purchases were taken out of their boxes, tried on once more at home to make sure there had been no mistake, and then carefully put away, with their tags still hanging, in protective plastic bags. The tags and bags made the “good” clothes hard just to slip off their hangers and put on, even if it was a special occasion. “Good” shoes also had to be extracted from their bags, and the shoe trees removed, before wearing. Better, and easier, to wear the same old comfortable things all the time. That way you wouldn’t spoil the “good” ones.

Their philosophy could not be applied so rigorously to purchases for me while I was a child because I was always outgrowing my clothes; if everything new had been saved for “good,” I would have had nothing to wear.  That said, one dress and one pair of shoes were always designated as not for every day.

It did apply, however, to dishes and flatware and tableware.  After I grew up and my mother took a job at an upscale department store in Los Angeles where she enjoyed an employee discount, she acquired a whole set of fragile Noritake china for twelve.  It had a dainty silver-edged rim of delicate pale blue flowers and was nearly translucent when held up to the light.  But it was perhaps only once or twice used on an actual table, when a guest my parents considered sufficiently important came to dinner. Moreover, the Noritake took up too much room, and might be exposed to too much knocking about, on the kitchen shelves. It therefore needed a fine china cabinet of its own, which was duly purchased for a very good price at an estate sale in a wealthy suburb and placed against the wall in the dining alcove.  Once in the cabinet, God forbid the Noritake be actually taken out, eaten on and have to be washed. A piece might break in the sink — and then it wouldn’t be a complete set, to be admired through the glass doors of the china cabinet.

Need I add there was eventually a silver-plated Revere flatware service for twelve in its own velvet-lined mahogany box, to be used with the Noritake if the Noritake were ever used?  (Sterling was forever beyond my mother’s reach.  Not that she wouldn’t have reached if she could.)  And there were odd bits of crystal glassware, from which my parents seldom drank. (Never a whole matching set, alas!)  There was also a shelf in the linen cabinet for fine linen tablecloths, with matching linen napkins. And napkin rings.  The tablecloths came in various sizes, for variously sized tables, all but one of which my parents never owned.  Thank goodness my mother did not go in for cut glass, a mania in which my second mother-in-law overindulged.

[I once also had a sister-in-law, acquired through  late marriage to a former brother-in-law, who not only put plastic covers on her “good” upholstered furniture, but also plastic covers on the allegedly “antique” wood tables and cabinets in the living room. I know she was saving everything from cigarette burns and circles made by wet whiskey glasses.  But saving it all for what? For whom?]

I understand now that all this saving was like saving money in the bank.  It was to have for a rainy day.  It was because “we may never again be able to afford another like it.”  Some of that is likely what keeps the Armanis and St. Johns and Ferragamo shoes, and virgin Hermes scarves and Longchamps handbags safely in my possession — although I almost certainly will never again have any occasion or opportunity to flash such finery.  For a very long time in my life I had absolutely no discretionary money at all, and then during a relatively brief period of lawyering (after paying off all debt) I did have the money to buy these very nice things, and now I don’t and never will again.

“Wear them, use them!” says Bill. I know he’s right — at least about the shoes and scarves and handbags.  (Armani at Whole Foods or walking along the Delaware-Raritan canal might be a bit much.)  So what if I can’t replace them when they wear out?  I’m wearing out too, although I hate to admit it.  I might wear out before the shoes and bags.

That’s what happened to my parents. When my mother died, I found two double-wide closets full of nearly unworn clothing that was too good for every day.  Hanger after hanger of immaculately preserved black and navy and grey coats and dresses the Duchess of Windsor would not have turned up her nose at. Half a dozen pair of Italian pumps made of beautiful glove leather, much too small for me and ten years out of style.  Bags, scarves, kid leather gloves in eight neutral colors, fine hemstitched batiste handkerchiefs, some embroidered by hand with her monogram: “M.”

I kept three of the handbags (one was a Mark Cross), some of the scarves, the gloves (although I never wear gloves until it’s too cold to wear my mother’s unlined ones), her few pieces of real jewelry (one of which I had given her) — and also one red sweater that must have been much too big for her but did fit me, because it had kept a faint trace of the fragrance she favored. All the rest I had to give away to the nursing aides who worked at the assisted-living facility where she spent her last weeks.  What else could I do with it?

A daughter-in-law accepted the box of Revere silverplate.  I don’t think she’s ever used it though.  Maybe it’s too good for every day? The linen and napkin rings I donated to the Vietnam Vets. Neither daughter-in-law wanted the Noritake.  I don’t either; it’s not what I would have chosen if I had to choose a china pattern.  But there it is, taking up space in my kitchen cabinet.  Sometimes I even use it, usually when we have more than two or three other people for dinner — because I myself have no “good” dishes. It’s so clearly not my style that when I do set it on the table, I have to keep myself from explaining that it’s my mother’s. Unfortunately, so far there’s been no breakage; it’s still a complete set.

I’m also working on wearing the Hermes scarves and carrying the Longchamps handbags more often.  Really I am. The Armanis and St. Johns?  Habits of mind are hard to break.  Like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about them tomorrow.

A PLAYFUL POST

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A propos the speed with which time passes as one gets older (discussed in yesterday’s blog post about Marcia Angell), it seems only yesterday I bought some little-kiddy toys to have in the house for when my children might come visiting from out of town with their brand-new little boys.  Bill also contributed:

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[You can tell we both like red.  You should see our living room!]

Yes, we also had ring stacks, and shape-sorter boxes, and baby books. But the cars are more photogenic, so let them suffice by way of illustration.  We did enjoy a couple of visits.  But mostly the parents (my children) brought their own toys. And then suddenly, the two little toddler boys weren’t toddlers. They wore bigger size clothes, and played with other kinds of toys.

Yes, it was suddenly.  Okay, on the calendar five or six years. But I had barely gotten used to the idea of grandchildren when — before we knew it — they weren’t interested in pushing stylized cars around on the floor anymore.  (Although they did like matchbox cars for a while.)  We gave away the ring stacks and shape-sorter boxes and baby books to neighbors who were expecting.

But I couldn’t give away the two red cars. I mean, it was only yesterday.  So now they sit on my bookcase, waiting. (Not, apparently, for another little toddler.  Both of my children have assured me they are not going to provide anything like that.) One car is next to an ashtray which somehow or other made its way from a hotel in Firenze onto the plane with us.  (Don’t tell, please.)

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The other keeps company with a small leather cup and even smaller leather box from Italy (both also from Firenze, judging by the gold imprint inside the little cup), that my mother acquired with her employee discount at J.W. Robinson’s in the 1960s.

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Is a retired lady lawyer’s bookcase any place for small red toy cars?

Actually, I do know a little boy who likes toy cars. He lives with me.   However, he said I should keep the two red ones in my office, because he already has two of his own.  They’re Deux Chevaux — modeled on a real Deux Chevaux (two-horsepower car) he used to drive when he was a very young man in Switzerland, long before he became a little boy in Princeton. We walked all over Montpellier (France) finding them for him.  Now he has them in his own office at home.

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He also has other wheeled objects to play with in his office.  This one turned up at a street fair in Lisbon:

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And if we cast an eye around, we find other kinds of toys as well:  Kyoshi dolls from Japan, pre-Columbian figures from Guatemala.  [And Freud and Einstein to figure it all out.] The Modigliani you’ll just have to overlook.  I should have removed it before taking the picture, but I suppose you could consider it another sort of toy for boys.

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In fact, when my grandchildren come to visit these days, they make a beeline for the stairs.  “Let’s go play in Bill’s office!” they cry.

IMG_0424No wonder Bill never gets any work done in there!