MYSTERY TREE

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We’ve lived at our present address since 2006 and have generally appreciated the grounds that “come” with our condo, but after eighty-plus years in cities, our horticultural know-how is pretty much nil.  I can identify daffodils and tulips outside, roses, orchids, sunflowers and lilies inside — but that’s about it. And during the time he still maintained a part-time practice in Princeton, Bill didn’t seem particularly curious about nature, either.

Until with time on his finally retired hands, he developed a new thirst for learning what was what. Now he’s always exclaiming about the beauty of this or that, and asking the names of growing things.  Looking out our bedroom window when we wake up, I scan the sky for the weather, he scans the trees.

So it is that whereas I consider the tree directly in front of the building just a tree and don’t ponder further, he has begun gazing lovingly at it first thing every day, especially since its branches developed white flowers a week ago. “Look, look!” he urged this morning.

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The tree we’re talking about is the one on the right. (Not the one with creamy parasol-shaped “flowers” at the lower left.)

“Mmm, lovely,” I agreed, heading for the bathroom.

“Take a picture,” he demanded.

“Now, in my nightgown?  It’s cloudy out today.  It wouldn’t be a good picture, anyway.”

“Well not now this minute,” he said. “After breakfast.  Before the flowers are gone.  The petals are already beginning to fall.”

And that was true.  When I looked down at the walkway, it was already covered with a blanket of fallen white petals.  So I took pictures.  Even though it was cloudy.  Enough pictures to satisfy the most demanding of men.

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The most demanding of men was happy for about two minutes.  “Great pictures,” he said. “I wonder what kind of tree it is.”

He was asking me?

We referred the question to Google. Could Google identify a briefly white-flowering tree native to New Jersey? Google knew too much.  It told us (with pictures) that “our” tree might be a Cleveland Pear  (because the leaves of that tree, like ours, turn red in the fall) or a Natchez Crepe (because the blossoms look like our blossoms). But the Natchez is described as blooming for 110 days a year, which is definitely not the case chez nous.  And the Cleveland Pear is not described as having a very short blooming season. Moreover, our tree does not  produce pears, not even small misshapen ones. And that was just the first page.

“Why don’t we ask my blog readers?” I suggested.  “Many seem to have comprehensive knowledge of plant life.  Someone is sure to know.”

Bill thought that might be a good idea. Hence this post.

Then the sun came out.  Which may make determining what kind of tree we have an easier question to answer.  Or perhaps not.  It does make the flowers prettier to look at.

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You may have already noticed: when I begin doing something, I find it hard to stop. If it’s not too many words, it’s too many pictures. (But how do I choose which to keep and which to toss?)

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Look all you like.  And if you know what you’re looking at — meaning what in the world is the name of this tree — please tell. Bill would love to know too.

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A GLORIOUS DAY GUESS WHERE

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Yes, it was another trip to New York by bus last Saturday  — to see Un Ballo in Maschera (by Verdi), the last of the three opera matinees  at the Met to which I proactively subscribed last spring.  The caption of this post is not in any way sarcastic. The weather was spectacular.

Ballo in Maschera (Verdi). That's Dimitri ______ threatening to kill his wife for a presumed adultery with the king and Sondra_______ (the blameless wife) pleading in her long slip for her life. If you try very hard, you can also see me reflected in the glass, trying to photograph them for you.

 That’s Dimitri Hvorostovsky, as Count Anckarstrom, threatening to kill his wife Amelia for a presumed adultery with King Gustav III of Sweden (not seen in the poster).  Sondra Radvanovsky, as his blameless wife, is pleading in her ankle-length slip for her life. (He’s already ripped off her dress in a rage.)  If you squint, you can also see part of me unavoidably reflected in the glass, photographing this highly charged situation for your viewing pleasure. 

In contrast to the delights of the weather, I did not at all appreciate the “modernized” production we saw. What is the merit of dressing singers in an opera set in the late eighteenth century, and involving swords, prophecy and witchcraft, in mid-twentieth century dress, and against starkly minimalist abstract sets?  Why was almost every scene “enhanced” by a painted Icarus falling from the sky?  For me, such questions distracted from the richness of the beautiful singing to the point that the part of the day not involving the opera was more interesting than what was on the stage. Therefore once I show you the two glassed-in posters in front of the opera house advertising Ballo (above and below), we’re just going to enjoy being outside today. (With exceptions, of course, for bathroom and lunch and looking around at the opera audience.)

The masked ball itself. (Act III.)  What's all this with black wings sprouting everywhere?

The masked ball itself. (Act III.) See the black wings? (Only one set of wings in the poster, but many more, plus one white set, on stage.) What was that all about? Also don’t miss Icarus dangling above the singers.  In one large pictorial form or another, this inapt metaphoric reference dominated every scene. How was King Gustav’s love for the wife of his best friend without letting her know (adultery in the heart, as it were) — because of which the best friend stabbed him on entirely circumstantial evidence — in any way comparable to flying with wax wings too close to the sun?  Note too, near the bottom, my hands and iPhone, ever at work for you.

There were two free hours before curtain time.  Rather than run to the Time-Warner building on Columbus Circle for quick but high-priced new-clothes shopping, I decided to hang out in the sun instead. After so long and difficult a winter, certain parts of New York, such as Lincoln Center, can be quite lovely when the heavens (rarely) consent to smile.

Map. So -- if interested -- you can get your bearings as we stroll around.

Map of the area, to get your bearings if so inclined.

Here’s the Met itself (middle left on the map above), seen from Broadway at 11 a.m., several hours before the performance began:

Metropolitan Opera House, at the center of Lincoln Plaza.

Metropolitan Opera House, in the center of Lincoln Center.

As you walk closer, you get a better view of the fountain:

If I were still agile enough, I might have hopped up and perched myself!

If I were still agile enough, I might have hopped up myself!

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Hearst Plaza, featuring nicely designed black wrought iron chairs to sit in under the trees. This is looking north with the Met to my back, Avery Fisher Hall (soon to be renamed David Geffen Hall in return for a ten million dollar “gift” from David Geffen) to my right, and a very expensive Italian restaurant called (what else?) “Ristorante” directly in front. For $39 you can have a two-course lunch there, plus additional charges for dessert, beverages of any kind, tax and tip. I know this because I read the menu outside, not because I’ve ever crossed “Ristorante’s” threshold.

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Looking west at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, with the Met on the left, Hearst Plaza on the right, and a very blue sky above.

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Turning north again.

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The Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

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Reversing direction to look south from Hearst Plaza past the Met on the right, David Koch Theater (formerly New York Ballet Theater) on the left, and between them (across the street), Fordham School of Law.

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Preview of new opera productions to debut in the 2015-16 season. I was wearing a dress (as you can see in the reflection) because I was going out to dinner with New York friends after the opera and I have very few opportunities to wear dresses any more, so this was going to be one of them.  (In case you were wondering.)

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The American Ballet Theater (“ABT”) also has a spring season at Lincoln Center, and therefore gets its own poster behind glass.

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Skyline of costly apartments (in center of the shot). Met on the left, Avery Fisher Hall on the right.

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Looking towards Broadway with the Met at my back.

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Vanity, thy name is woman.  Unfortunately, glass doors are not really mirrors. Still it’s an interesting failure of a shot, don’t you think?

If at first you don’t succeed, try again.  I had to go to the bathroom anyway, where there are real mirrors.  The three photos below were taken in the Avery Fisher Hall ladies room, much more accessible than the Met’s (which in any event wasn’t open yet). After tending to business, I did first look around to be sure I was alone before engaging in this continued vanity project. Just as I was memorializing the shot, someone emerged from the last stall.  However, she doesn’t seem to have noticed me. I therefore left her in the picture, to preserve the verisimilitude of the occasion.

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I always look absolutely terrible in selfies. Taking one’s picture in a mirror seems to produce somewhat kinder results, perhaps because of the dim lighting. I do look rather pleased with what I see in the viewfinder, don’t I? When you’re nearly 84, it’s quite rare to find an image of yourself that doesn’t make you cringe. This one probably passes the blush test.

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Closeup. Still okay.

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Even closer. Now the wrinkles show. Smiling helps, though.

Men: please do feel free to skip the next few paragraphs, which consist entirely of fashion notes inspired by a comment to a previous post suggesting I do a piece on what I buy when I next go shopping for new clothes. I haven’t actually bought anything new yet, but as none of you has ever seen anything not new from my closet, we could start with what I had on in these pictures last Saturday.

The tote sitting on the sink in bone and black leather was from Eileen Fisher last summer. (Bought full price online and by now worth every one of the many many pennies I paid. I liked it so much I didn’t put it away when winter came, and now here it’s in season again, never having spent a single day off my shoulder.)  The watch with the red leather strap is from Alessi (Italian) but bought years ago at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) shop. The sunglass frames on my head and the frames of the prescription glasses to see with on my nose (which sometimes hang from the ring on the cord around my neck) were both hand-made in France but have no manufacturer name on them.  I bought them, seriatim, from an optometrist in Princeton at least five years ago.

Moving right along, the red cardigan sweater-jacket was acquired on sale and online, also from Eileen Fisher; I rarely wear it because it doesn’t look right by itself with pants or jeans and it doesn’t look right over skirts or dresses under winter coats. But the weather Saturday was too warm for a coat, and I couldn’t stay out through the evening in just a dress, so the red number got an outing. Bill is the only person who really likes it, but I guess it was all right for a wandering photographer to wear while taking pictures of herself.

The dress underneath the sweater (barely glimpsed in the photos) is black viscose jersey with long narrow sleeves; it spoke to me online at midnight four years ago from (you guessed it!) the Eileen Fisher web page. “Buy me!” it cried. (You can tell from the confessed provenance of most of my more presentable clothes that I consider this label a best friend to older women who still care how they look and are willing to spend some money to look that way.) The dress has no waistline or belt, but follows the body (not immodestly) all the way down to the hips, where it flares slightly. Too bad you can’t see the neckline, which is a loose infinity loop that looks as if it might be a scarf but isn’t; it’s part of the dress.

I will skip the source of the black tights. as I can’t remember where I got them.  The black leather loafers are Italian; their purchase took place in Boston, which I left nine years ago, from a shoe store on Boylston Street, opposite the Boston Garden. But that sort of vague and dated information is useless, so let’s forget it.  All this does go to show, however, that I keep things I like for a very long time — if that in any way justifies what I spend for them in the first place.

Okay, men.  You can come back now.  It’s chow time.  Aka lunch.

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American Table is on the ground floor of Alice Tully Hall, just across 65th Street and facing Broadway. I favor it when I’m in the neighborhood because it opens early, serves all day, and closes late. Moreover, as long as you order something, even if just coffee, you can sit and sit, without being hovered over by a waitperson wanting to clear the table.

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I also very much like the fact that the wall facing Broadway is all glass, which permits you to people watch while you’re inside.

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You can see small children (guarded by their careful parents) playing on the tower of steps outside .

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Or you can simply snoop at the passing scene without being noticed yourself.

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It’s also a very pleasant place to meet a friend for lunch or a drink.

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Here’s the menu.

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You place your order with the man at the right, and pay. Then you go sit down. A waiter will bring your order to your table.

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I had the market salad with smoked salmon. When you unroll the pink rosette sitting on the sliced radishes and greens, it becomes four long strips of salmon.

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By the time I got back to Lincoln Center, the crowds in front of the Met were beginning to gather.

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But there were still about twenty minutes till curtain time, and it was too nice to go in just yet.

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I sat and looked up at the spring sky for a while longer.

Once in my seat at the Met, I did observe that some of the younger patrons may have over-welcomed the arrival of spring. There was a noticeably reckless casting aside of garments to display as much flesh as could be considered minimally decent in such a cultured venue.

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This young person, for instance, appears to be cold. She may have overdone it.

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Oh, those very short summer sundresses! Oh, such expanse of youthful thigh! Bill loved this picture when I showed it to him Saturday night.

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By contrast, other young women, less favorably endowed, were not so eager to put aside their coverings. My mother, were she still alive, would have strongly disapproved of the horizontal stripes on so broad a backside as this. But she’s not, so I’ll leave it alone.

After King Gustav had been stabbed, had pardoned everyone, had assured Amelia’s husband (in fine voice) that she was innocent of wrongdoing, and then had collapsed stage front, quite dead, as the curtain fell — I hurried out and managed to flag down a cab to take me north and east to the Upper East Side, where the 1% live. New York is beautiful there.

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A view of Central Park from across Fifth Avenue at East 95th Street. You may not be able to quite make it out, but just above the white SUV is a charming playground for little ones where my New York grandchildren used to dig, climb and swing before they were old enough to go to school.

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Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 95th Street. This part of the city is called Carnegie Hill.

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East 95th Street, seen from Fifth Avenue.

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Flower gardens, New York City style. Here I put away my camera, walked down the street, and met my friends at Tre Otto (Three Eight), a relatively new neighborhood Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue between 97th and 98th, where the waitress explained (when asked) that it’s called “Three Eight(s)” because the owner’s grandmother was born on the 8th of August in 1908 — eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the century — and many of the recipes used in the restaurant came from her.  I took the train home at 9 p.m. — after a long but delicious day.  I hope you enjoyed it, too.

THINGS I WANT OR NEED TO DO INSTEAD OF BLOGGING

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You may have noticed.  I’ve been slowing down. Skipping days, even on my self-imposed every-other-day schedule.  Or else quoting a lot, so that I need to write less of the piece I post.  And now that spring has sprung, any thoughts I may be having about TGOB are definitely guilty ones. Poor blog. It’s fighting for my time and interest with so many competitors:

1.   What I really want to do right now is try on all my summer clothes from last year, decide most of them are out of date or no longer fit properly — and go shopping for new ones! For several weeks, since the sun first showed itself, I’ve been wasting at least an hour a day poring over the spring/summer collections on view in the emails Eileen Fisher (upscale clothing line) has been sending me almost daily — not to mention paying considerable attention to the weekly invasions of my email box by Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter about, among other things, the carefully “curated” items she is wearing this spring. Of course, almost all of this viewing matter is priced in the stratosphere but gives clever old ladies (like me) plenty of ideas as to what to look for elsewhere.

2.  I want (and now need) to install the AT&T microcell I purchased three weeks ago for over $200 to enhance cell phone (mobile) reception at our house. (Princeton has not permitted AT&T to put up a sufficient number of towers within its domain, so that indoors we get no more than two bars out of five on any cell phone, and a concomitant inability to hear anyone properly, if at all, even in the more receptive parts of the house.)

Moreover, if my installation achieves its goal, one of us can save fifty or sixty dollars a month by also transferring his (or her) landline from Verizon (our phone company) to AT&T, which will provide landline service through the microcell for twenty dollars a month. (The AT&T acronym stands for American Telephone and Telegraph, an out-of-date moniker, but long ago incorporated and now too well known in the US to change.) Strong as is my desire to keep at least one of our two monthly $70 to $80 payments to Verizon in the bank and pay AT&T only $20 a month for that landline, this reputedly easy installation has been awaiting my undivided attention since purchase.  Anything involving technology, registering long strings of numbers, and crawling under desks to plug colored wires into the correct apertures produces so much nervous apprehension  that I’m always telling myself I’ll do it tomorrow. (And no, Bill can’t do it because he says he doesn’t understand any of that.  He got through medical school and a five-year residency at Harvard, so go figure. But based on extensive prior experience with teaching him how to use his iPad, from which he is now inseparable, I believe him.)

3.  It is the first of the month and my desk (from which blog posts also issue, when they do) is covered with bills to pay, both electronically (mine) and with checks, envelopes and stamps (his).  This is something I need to attend to, sooner rather than later, but can also put it into the “I want to” category because if I don’t, the fact that my desk is a mess of financial obligations will keep me from doing anything else on said desk.

4. We have had a really bad stay-at-home-because-of-various-quite-serious-ailments-I-didn’t-blog-about-winter and I have been going stir-crazy. (This was the “dealing with the rest of it” in the blog’s subtitle.) Now that the ailments (which were not mine, at least not the major ones) have subsided and/or gone away for the present, I have expressed a desire to go somewhere for a while next winter and Bill has eagerly responded with a desire for the south of France!  Aix-en-Provence, to be specific. (Near the world’s largest plasma physics lab: Be still, my beating heart.  But also near Marseilles and bouillabaisse, and Avignon, past summer home of popes, and the general Frenchness that is everywhere in France — food, language, ambiance!)

Unfortunately, for travel to Aix (if we can even afford it) we will first need to train. Neither of us is the walker I used to be (and he never was), so we both now have prescriptions for physical therapy — mine for a bad knee, his for balance and general weakness through disuse — and are committed for the next twelve weeks or so to going here and there in Princeton to various physical therapists three times a week…and recovering afterwards.

5.  Should France remain the preferred destination (if otherwise feasible), I will need to do a major brush-up on my French, which at its best sixty years ago was a bookish sort of French (un francais scolaire). What especially needs work is my ability to understand the French when they speak without making special kind allowances for me. (“Tu comprends, Nina? Tu comprends?)  Without subtitles, for example, I am lost in French movies, except sometimes for the love scenes.  And I don’t expect to be involved in any love scenes with a Frenchman this time round. More probably, when I speak or ask questions (which I can manage, albeit like a foreigner), I will need to comprehend the answers.  (“Plus lentement, madame, s’il vous plait.”)  

6.  Also, my passport needs renewal.  It expired at the end of 2009.

7.  Now that I am facilitating a small meditation group that arrives in my driveway every Tuesday at 3, I feel obligated to set a good example: twenty minutes every day even when the group isn’t there.  Well, nearly every day.

8.  There is also my international student. (Every Wednesday afternoon at 3, for an hour — but on campus because he has no car, which means it’s at least an hour and a half for me. (Parking downtown is a bitch.)  He is a young, very sweet Chinese Visiting Scholar with whom I volunteered to converse (and correct his conversation) until he goes home in September.  Unfortunately, we cannot converse, because I cannot understand him.  (Nor can anyone else, which is why his teachers sent him for conversation tutoring.) So every Tuesday after meditation, I am doing conversation homework: seeking out things we can try to talk about (his work in advanced physics is impossible) and online aids to pronunciation — this week “r”, “l,” “th” and “s.”

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There’s lots more, but you probably get the idea.  Since I’ve never been able to multi-task or compartmentalize — you will perhaps now kindly forgive some blogging sloth until I find time to think of something interesting to post.  You can certainly speed things up by providing ideas. All suggestions welcome!  Don’t be shy. What would you like me to write about next?

WHY WE MOVED FROM ONE UNIVERSITY TOWN TO ANOTHER IN 1,000 WORDS OR LESS

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1.  We met in Cambridge (Massachusetts).  He was a 73 year old psychiatrist with a private practice. He also taught one class a semester at the Harvard Medical School.  I was a 69 3/4 year old civil litigation lawyer by then practicing at a small firm in Boston that permitted a four-day work week.  The other day a week I would trundle my laptop to the Boston Writers Room (where there was no laundry or internet to distract me) and try to write something that wasn’t a brief or a memorandum in support of a motion.

2. He hated Cambridge because it reminded him of his marriage to his second wife, who still lived in their Cambridge house,  which she had obtained during an acrimonious divorce.  Everywhere we went reminded him of something that had occurred during the marriage, or someone they had met when they were still, as it were, “together.”  So from the day I first knew him, he wanted to leave.  A psychiatrist can practice anywhere, once he obtains a license from the state he has moved to.

3. I didn’t hate Cambridge at all, but would have been willing to leave except I was chained to Massachusetts as long as I needed an income stream.  It’s not that I loved my law practice  so much. (I didn’t, really.) But I still needed money, having begun life as a single woman after a second divorce with a net worth of zero at the age of sixty. Moreover, my right to practice law wasn’t portable without sitting for two days of bar exams all over again, except to a few states that had reciprocity arrangements with Massachusetts. And even then, who would want to hire a 70-year-old lawyer without a book of business or knowledge of state law? So we stayed put where I was licensed.  In my condo on Brattle Street.

4. There are lots of interesting foreign movies, concerts, exhibits and lectures open to the public when you live where Harvard is. (Moreover it sounds very classy to have a Cambridge address, especially on Brattle Street, if you care about that sort of thing. And yes, I confess, I did care, at least a little bit.) Right across the river in Boston — take the Red Line to be there in no time — is also Symphony and the Boston Ballet and three theaters showing road company versions of New York plays and musicals. Not to mention outposts of Saks, Lord & Taylor, Neiman’s and Barney’s, where it’s much easier to shop than in the mother stores in New York and Dallas.  So it was really great to be in Cambridge, if it weren’t for the black ice in winter, and the miserably hot and humid summers, and Bill complaining loudly about how the grass would be greener somewhere else.

5.  Then three of our combined five adult children wound up living in New York. Also both my financial advisor and accountant opined that I had frugally put by enough so that if I remained frugal I could retire and live till 102.  (After that, if I were lucky enough to have an “after that,” I would need to get by on Social Security.)  We could leave! But where should we go?

6. Clearly, New York itself — secretly in my heart for all those many years since I’d left it — was out of the question.  We could probably afford no more than a studio in a good Manhattan neighborhood or a small one-bedroom in a not-good one.  And we needed more space than that, so that we could get away from each other for a while.  Where then? For reasons best known to himself, Bill suggested New Mexico or North Carolina, arguing that if we lived near a university in either of those states it wouldn’t be so bad to be so far from the Northeast where we both had grown up.  For reasons I made perfectly understandable — the three children in New York, one of his in Switzerland, and one of mine in Florida — New Mexico was a geographically bad idea and North Carolina had nothing going for it as far as I was concerned except girlhood memories of having read Thomas Wolfe, who had left the state himself as soon as he could and was now, in any event, dead.

7.  Then one sunny afternoon during our 2004 summer vacation on a tiny Greek island in the Dodecanese, Bill mentioned Princeton, New Jersey. Eureka!  An hour and a half from New York and 3/5 of our children (not to mention my soon-to-be first grandchild).  Home to a major university (think Princeton),  the Institute of Advanced Studies (think Einstein), Westminster Choir College (think free concerts). Home to McCarter Theater, which brings in five plays a year, plus ballet, concerts by world-class instrumental soloists, jazz, and three operas. The university has its own art museum, theater, and Richardson Auditorium, a perfect acoustic venue for Princeton’s resident string quartet, for free concerts by the University Orchestra and for not very expensive subscriptions to the Princeton Symphony Orchestra). And New Jersey is historically a blue state.  (We didn’t know Chris Christie was coming down the pike.)  It even had a Whole Foods!  How could we go wrong?

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Princeton University in the spring.

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This is the historic (and picturesque) part of campus. There is strikingly modern architecture elsewhere.

8. It took us over a year. (Selling Cambridge real estate, buying Princeton real estate, and like that.) When we finally moved, he was 78 and I was 74 1/2, which people sometimes say was brave, given that we knew no one here. But would it have been less brave to go on slipping on black ice at the risk of breaking elderly bones, and (in his case) go on being reminded of an unhappy past lived in Cambridge neighborhoods?

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University Chapel. Convocation and Commencement ceremonies are held here. There are half-hour organ concerts open to the public at noon throughout the academic year.

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A late April flowering. Outside a reading room of the library. (I think.)

9. Anyway, what’s done is done and here we still are, nine years older.   When people ask why Princeton, I sometimes say — because it’s easier — we just threw a dart at a map.  If we really had, it would have been even braver of us.  But I guess it’s too late to try that one.

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Between Firestone Library (left) and the University Chapel (right).

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McCosh, where English and American literature classes meet.

A FEW ODD FACTS ABOUT GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ME

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People who read each other’s blogs sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know each other pretty well.  But blogs are deceiving.  What a blogger omits gets left out of the picture. Here, for instance, are a few oddments you may not have thought of in connection with the author of TGOB.

1.  Geoffrey Chaucer was master of the English language circa 1400. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with me, read on.)

2.  English 715 years ago (aka “Middle” English) wasn’t exactly a foreign language, but some — including me — might call it close to one.

3.  “Middle” English pronunciation was also something else.  It was spoken just before what linguists call “the great vowel shift”  — an oddity occurring with all English speakers in the early 15th century (don’t ask me why) that moved our vowels a notch further forward in our mouths from the point where Europeans sound out the same vowels.  Example:  the color that you get by mixing blue and yellow used to be pronounced “grain” (and spelled “grene”); after the shift, it began being pronounced “green” and still is, except perhaps in Ireland. (In fact, Middle English does have a faint Irish lilt.)

4. Why am I telling you this?

  • First, to take a break from sex, love and death, which I seem to have been writing about quite a bit lately.
  • And second, because starting tomorrow I’m taking a six-week course in Chaucer designed for retired Princetonians.  (Or non-retired ones who have their days free to do as they please.) Just Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  And just the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  It’s being given by a renowned Professor Emeritus from Princeton University named John Fleming who has no idea I’m blogging about him and his short course.

So many people have signed up for Professor Fleming’s course that it’s being held in the former courtroom of Princeton Boro. (That is, it was a courtroom before the Boro merged with Princeton Township to become just plain Princeton. But you don’t need to know all that local political history to understand this Chaucer thing must be a very popular subject here in Princeton to fill a courtroom, however small by courtroom standards.)

5.  The subject seems to have been so popular there had to be a lottery for seats, and I won one of them!

6.  In 1954 I took a course in Chaucer and everything he wrote, including The Canterbury Tales. I was in graduate school  at USC. (Southern California, not South Carolina.)  I still have the textbook and my notes for the exam but can’t read the notes or any of my marginal commentary anymore.  So I bought the currently recommended text and will bring both to class, like the goody-goody I used to be.

7.  My having had a course in Chaucer sixty-one years ago does give me a leg up on the pronunciation, believe it or not.  I checked myself against an online spoken version of the first twenty-six lines of the Prologue, and I wasn’t bad at it.  I missed the beat fairly often but got most of those retrograde vowels right.  Here it is, if you’d like to try yourself:  http://www.nativlang.com/middle-english/middle-english-canterbury-tales.php

8.  Or, if you’d rather not bother with all those vowels, this is what the beginning looks like:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote |
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, |
And bathed every veyne in swich licour |
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; |
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth |
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth |
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne |
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, |
And smale foweles maken melodye, |
That slepen al the nyght with open ye |
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, |
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, |
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; |
And specially from every shires ende |
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, |
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, |
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. |
Bifil that in that seson on a day, |
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay |
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage |
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, |
At nyght was come into that hostelrye |
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, |
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle |
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, |
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde,
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

9.  What saddens me is that I can’t remember the name or face of the Chaucer professor back in 1954.  I liked him quite a bit, perhaps because he admired a proto-feminist paper I wrote about Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, centered on her declaration that she was her own woman. And now he’s gone, gone with the wind — blown clear out of my mind, both the look of him and any way of identifying him.  I didn’t even write his name in the textbook, perhaps because I thought I might sell it again afterwards, although how I could have sold it with all those handwritten illegible notes in it I can’t imagine. I think his last name began with a W, but I’m not sure.

10.  And if all this messing about in the faraway past sounds too odd for you, think of it this way:  Maybe after our seemingly endless freezing winter of Northeastern discontent, I just can’t wait for those soote (sweet) shoures (showers) of Aprille and those smale foweles (birds) to maken melodye.  Reading about it in Chaucer, even in Middle English, speeds it up.  By the time the course is over, the shoures and foweles will really be here.