DA CAPO:go back

The other night my friend, A, and I were watching the movie remake of the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “South Pacific.”   As young music students, we had the entire score memorized: lyrics, syncopated beats, all the little vocal quirks and flourishes of the original stars, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.  And here we were, some sixty years later, singing it again, beaming at each other, delighted at the triumph of recall and the sweet memories it brought back; we sang the whole score to each other, making our own flourishes, laughing and crying at the feat and the time gone by.

And I got to thinking, if it were for entertainment alone, it would be easy to live in the past. And not so bad.  There are revivals of the great Broadway musicals everywhere, live and on tv.  You can Google anything.  And Youtube?  Youtube is the absolute motherlode.   You can kill days, nights, weeks on Youtube if you’re not careful.

Case in point: The day after “South Pacific” I Googled the musical genre “salsa” because my friend and I were talking about Larry Harlowe, (el Judio Marvellioso – the marvelous Jew famous for his salsa sound) with whom we went to high school.  Google sent me to Youtube and I found and listened to some cuts from the Latin Legends/ Fania All-Stars album and while I was listening, I was reading the strip of attractions down the right side of my screen.  It included Dick Cavett’s interview with Groucho Marx, which reminded me of the famous Cavett interview with Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer so I watched both of those and on the strip of attractions on another page I saw Miles Davis, so I listened to some Miles, which reminded me of  Chet Baker so I listened to him, and on the side of his page was Peggy Lee so I looked up some Peggy Lee and after listening to her sing “Black Coffee,” I got to missing Sarah Vaughan, so I listened to some Sarah Vaughan.

“How fabulous,” I thought, “You can find anything on Youtube!”  Which made me wonder if you could really find anything, so — not to watch, mind, because I had already spent too many hours watching too much—but just to prove that I could indeed find anything, I went looking for the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First” bit, which just popped into my head, and sure enough I found it, and as long as it was right there, I figured I might as well watch it, and I did.  And watching that made me think how much I preferred old comedy to new comedy and that brought me to Richard Pryor, so I looked up Richard Pryor, and George Carlin and Buddy Hackett and…well you get it.  A day gone.   But it was pleasurable without much fuss, like bathing in  re-runs of Seinfeld instead of pulling against the tide of Meet The Press.

Watching stuff we’ve seen before is soothing.  The music plays as we heard it play before; the talk is talk that mattered urgently once but maybe not so much right now; the comedy is still funny but not so cutting edge anymore.

The present comes at us with surprise and relevance, and though that can be exciting and stimulating, it also unsettles. So bring on the re-runs.  And old musicals.  And Youtube.   Sometimes living in the past is a temporary cure for the present and the anodyne to thoughts of the future.

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BLABBERMOUTH

I have been thinking about secrets lately.  How many I have kept and how many I have confided in my life, and why they were secrets in the first place.

When the good news is not a sure thing yet (“Guess who’s pregnant?” ) we don’t want to jinx it, or so terrible (“I’m not supposed to tell you, but…”) that telling it will confirm its reality, but we just can’t contain the news, we tell just one person and make it a secret.   Or when something is unbelievable, like the secret my friend, writer Marion Renning wrote about in her poem, “Blabbermouth”:

Swearing me to secrecy

My mother told me

Where babies came from.

I got up on an orange crate

And told all the kids.

Imagine the faces on “all the kids” that day.  What confusion she erased!  How many pregnancies she helped avert among those eight-year olds!  How the reputation of storks was righted in that neighborhood of Chicago the day she spilled the beans!

Secrets can be bonding or bondage.

Telling someone a secret is like a pledge, like saying, “I give you this nugget of information that no one else knows because I like you best, or trust you most.”  But sometimes that can be a challenge.  (Or something worse.  What if someone lets you in on something illegal or immoral or evil? )

Keeping the secret can be a pledge, too, of honor and faithfulness. Remember Jerry Seinfeld’s “it’s in the vault”?  Though if it’s something illegal or immoral or evil it pits your sense of honor against your disapproval, or your concern for some hurt that can come out of your keeping that secret. (“Promise you won’t say anything, but I murdered Fred who isn’t really little Jimmy’s father…remember Larry, best man at my wedding?  Well, right after the rehearsal dinner…”)

Some secrets have expiration dates, like that pregnancy only you knew about, or the friend who finally comes out to his parents so you’re not the only one who knows, or the job offer no one knew had been offered gets turned down or accepted.  Some secrets are so deep in the past that they live longer than the people who told them and kept them, and are discovered so long after the fact that they can be like those buried land mines from World War II which may detonate unexpectedly.  (In the Depression people sometimes sold their jewels and replaced them with paste and never told a soul. Imagine inheriting those family jewels.)

I am the repository of secrets that have expired, and secrets that stay buried in me after the person who told them to me are gone (which is a lonely feeling).

In my parents’ generation, health was a secretive issue. You couldn’t even say the word cancer, you spelled the first two letters, CA…and the rest was implied.  In my own family, we couldn’t speak of having even a cold outside the walls of our apartment.  Now, the family rule is no secrets when it comes the health.

With the perspective of age, I understand secrets differently from the way I used to understand them.  I think they should be used exclusively to prevent pain and hurt, and never to delay pleasure. Even if it’s not a sure thing, sharing the anticipation of something wonderful puts a little more joy into life.  So if you cheated on your taxes and you’re feeling guilty I’m your girl, I won’t tell a soul; but if you think you might win the lottery and want to keep it under wraps, don’t confide it to me.  I’ll probably blab it to the world.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A lot of older people took their time deciding whether or not they were going to opt into The Computer.  At first, many of us refused to buy one, as if computer technology was the invasion of the body snatchers.  Happily, those days are over.  Now everyone has a computer (even if only because everyone’s children have insisted).  And most of us have given in, one way or another, making the not-so-easy transitions to notebooks without pages, tablets that you don’t take with water, and phones that are truly smarter than they need to be. But don’t you notice, we are always somehow a beat behind?  By the time we got accustomed to e-mail, everyone else had moved on to text messaging; just when we were forming our Facebook nostalgia groups (there is one for every neighborhood and every high school in America, I suspect) it seemed like everyone but we were becoming Instagrammers.

Once I was a typewriter person.  I loved my IBM Selectric, the click and clatter of the keys, the distinctive ball that rode across my paper and inked it with words right off the bat, without so much as a PRINT keystroke to worry about.

But I was in the vanguard; early on I bought a computer, solely for its word processing technology.  I thought it would make writing easier, and it did: correction was instantaneous (with no WiteOut or smudges): errors and changes were gone in a keystroke.  (Of course, that meant all evidence of the thought process was also gone, so I had to be confident in the rightness of my  changes.)  I saved a lot of trees by not printing out anything but the final draft on paper, and a few years later, it became unnecessary to print anything at all, I just typed the final draft onto the screen, e-mailed it to an editor and it appeared on her computer.  Invasion of the body snatchers, indeed.

Using this technology (which I still did not quite understand, I admit) was so easy that it was seductive.  There was no hard (paper) evidence of the work itself.  It was all there but with a flick of the switch not there. It was a matter of trust – “fall back and I’ll catch you” – that if you pressed a “save” key it would come back intact when you flicked the switch again. From time to time, I would hear about someone “losing everything” because of a computer virus, so I would use an external drive (at first that little platter, called a “diskette” and later a flash drive smaller than a Zippo lighter) and magically it would copy all my copy. I admit I did not do this a lot, even though people were always saying I should. Then, one weekend, during storms that turned the power on and off and on and off, my computer had a breakdown. “Crashed” is the word they use –fitting because it felt like a train wreck in the midst of my life.  All at once, all my business correspondence, my files, lists, poetry, book ideas — everything — was gone.  The computer tech had little hope.  Work that had taken years to accomplish was gone.  Everything that had not been on paper, or on a flash drive, gone.  It felt like someone had died.  I was in shock.  Twenty-four hours later, when I began to calm down, I told myself that of course no one died, and no one was injured in this crash, and as long as I still had a mind, I could generate new documents, so I had better just snap out of it. It was not easy. And believe me,  even if it isn’t a death, it is a loss, of intellectual property and also of control, because this machine (whose technology I still still don’t understand) had snatched my entire body of work, thereby cutting me off from a good part of my life.

Since I had no choice, I decided to see it as a sign to start fresh, with new words and new ideas.

The next night the tech called with guarded good news: there might be a way to retrieve all my lost material.  I was guardedly glad, and a bit disappointed.  I had begun to look forward to my fresh start.  And I resolved that if I should retrieve my lost stuff, I would give it a long, hard look, and what I could live without I would live without.  And as for the rest of it:  Regrettably, my old Selectric is no more, but I will back up more often, and buy a ream of paper, and print, too. And because in some small way I think it will save me from the aliens in our midst, I will put important things down with a fine point rollerball, into an old notebook with marbled cardboard cover, and blue lined pages.

 

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I FORGOT TO REMEMBER

I missed a meeting.  There, I said it.  And not only did I miss the meeting by putting it on my calendar on the wrong day, but several weeks earlier, I had gotten an e-mail about that same meeting and misread the date then. Makes you wonder.  Wonder what? Ten years ago I would have wondered why I subconsciously didn’t want to attend the meeting; nowadays, I wonder if I am losing it. 

No, that is not quite it.  What I wonder is if other people wonder if I am losing it. (The people whose meeting I missed, for example, or my friend whom I mention it to, who goes, “Hmmmmm” and raises her eyebrows). I know I’m okay.  I know that I still carry things — appointments, future plans, whole pages I will one day write — in my head all the time.

But the occurrence brings to mind the common worry most of us who are in our third third of life have: are we getting forgetful?  Is a missed appointment just a missed appointment, or is it the beginning of the end?  A sign?

Someone goes to a party on the wrong day.  Uh oh.

Someone goes to the doctor’s appointment on the right day but the wrong time.

Someone forgets she promised to call before three.

Someone has gotten into the habit of saying, “Did I know this?  Did you tell me this?” after every tidbit of gossip.

Someone leaves the keys in the ignition and locks herself out of the car.

Someone leaves the oven on.

Someone leaves the oven on?  Isn’t this an official “warning sign”?

If it happens once, and you are young  you don’t immediately suspect a failing memory.  You figure It is a bad day, and you move on.  But when you are older, you can’t quite let it go.  Are people looking askance?  Or is it you, looking askance at yourself?

And by the way, if you remember that I wrote about forgetfulness in this blog before,    don’t judge me.  I didn’t forget;  I’m thinking about it in another way.  I think this kind of second guessing takes a toll on your confidence. Being afraid you are going to forget can make you forget.  Being afraid you are going crazy can make you crazy.  You lose sleep worrying that you won’t wake up in time, or you’ll sail right past the right day, as I did, at the beginning of this blog.

So you double up on the calendars.  You put a small one in your purse, and  hang big ones all over the house.  Maybe you try winding ribbons around your wrist to help you remember things, or make big signs, or program your computer to remind you when bills are due or someone’s birthday is coming up, or your plane leaves for France.  (I have a friend who once missed a transatlantic flight.)

But because you forget to duplicate the same date on all the calendars, you invariably check the wrong one to determine what you’ve got on for that day, and end up starting a good book and missing your doctor’s appointment after all.  Or, you remember the ribbon on your wrist but not why you put it there, and the big sign which you had put up on the door of the office with scotch tape had lost its adhesive and slipped down and slid under the door until months after the event you were reminding yourself about was over, and now you cannot remember whether you remembered to go or not.  You think you did.

And if you are young, none of this means you are losing it, it simply means you are forgetful.  When you can’t retain a name, it is because you are “bad at names.”  If you are a woman, people may call you “ditsy.”  If you are a man, they say you are too busy, or “in another world.”

But when you are an older person, you and the rest of us worry about you losing it.

Most of the time, that’s not the case.  When you do things you have been doing all your life, there is no cause for alarm.  When you do something once or twice, it is not a pattern and it is not a sign.  It just is.

And when you become really forgetful, well, maybe you won’t remember that you are.  Won’t that be nice?

 

 

 

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STORY OF A STONE

If you live by stories, then everything is something and nothing can ever be nothing.  Even a simple stone will have a story.  And if the story is sturdy and alive, it can have several meanings, as it goes along.

Start with a stone, one of six or seven, carried in a chamois bag by a jeweler, second cousin of my soon- to-be mother-in-law.  The cousin came one Wednesday night and shook the stones gently out of their bag onto a little velvet pad he had brought. They all sparkled.  He turned them this way and that with the end of a pen, as I recall, and pointed out the merits of each, their flaws and their relative values and sizes.  I couldn’t tell one from the other, but we all selected the one he said was the best, biggest, most perfect diamond.  When it appeared, four weeks later, in a Tiffany wishbone setting, guarded on each side by a tapered baguette, it seemed to me that we had chosen the best stone.  It was expensive (though a bargain, we were assured, because of the family connection) and I flashed it appropriately, as engaged girls did in those days.

It meant everything to me then:  it was a way to tell the world that I was “spoken for” by a husband- to- be who was traditional enough to know the importance of an engagement ring and substantial enough to provide one (even though he went into hock, which I didn’t know but if I had probably would not have cared at that point, it being still his money, not ours).

For years, the ring hardly ever left my hand.  I washed my hands with it.  I slept with it.  I cooked with it and washed dishes afterward without even thinking about it.  Once in a while, when I mixed up a meatloaf with my hands, say, I would slip it off my finger for that brief time, into a pocket, but then put it back on again. Occasionally I moved it from my right ring finger to my left to sit up against my wedding band, stacking chronologically, engagement ring first, then band.  I never thought about it; it was just there, on my finger, all the time. Hardly important. Just there.

Then it disappeared and it was everything again (though mostly because of the lost monetary value it represented.)  I searched every pocket.   For a long time I felt sure it would turn up, and once in a while, say at the end of one season or another, as I was putting away winter clothes and bringing out spring ones, I would feel sudden and momentary hope as I plunged my hand into a promising pocket.   I think it was this repeated hope and its withering that turned my feeling for the lost ring into love.  Like an -ex suddenly appreciating the marriage once the divorce begins.  I constantly rubbed my ring finger, feeling for the ring that wasn’t there.

Then I forgot about it.

Four years later, as I was coming out of a reading from my new book (wearing a silk jacket I hardly ever wore), I put my hand into the pocket and there it was.   Imagine the joy!   Maybe the book gods had rewarded me for finishing the book?  I definitely felt a little kismet involvement there, and to show my ring some appreciation, I took it to a jeweler for a good cleaning.   It sparkled in its wishbone setting.  Two weeks later, digging my hand into a freezer case at Cosco, I somehow shook the stone loose — had all the gunk the cleaning took away acted as glue? –and did not discover it until I got home.  I went back, searched the freezer case, retraced my steps, but the stone was gone.  The ring was still there, but toothless.

In the intervening years, I replaced the diamond with a pale green gemstone which I hated so much I never wore the ring.  I considered having the platinum ring and baguettes re-modeled into something I could wear around my neck but M argued me out of it so it sat in my jewel box like a recrimination.

M wanted to replace the diamond.  Of course, we didn’t: buying diamonds when there are mortgages and weddings to finance seemed foolish.

Eventually, I replaced the stone with a CZ (they used to call it a zircon), a fake. I didn’t care.  I just wanted to wear my beloved ring  again.  And sometimes when I put it on, I forget it’s a fake at all.

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WHAT’S THAT SAYING ABOUT ABOUT OLD SOLDIERS?

“Learning new things keeps you young,” may be an older person’s insight, but it is a young feeling.  New shoes, a fresh haircut, reading about job opportunities I’ll never take are things that keep me young.  But more than all of those is going to school, whether I am teaching or attending.

The last time I taught undergraduates was a great workout for both body and mind.  The campus, full of hills and steps to climb, worked the legs.  The rest of me was engaged by my students in so many ways.

They came into my 2:40 class all stocked up with sweet and salty snacks and containers of coffee, and Snapple and soda and water, as if class were a double feature. They sometimes had startling appearances, with tattoos and green hair and creatively odd get-ups. I loved the way they defied the weather.  As soon as the temperature snuck up past, say, 30 degrees, campus would be dotted with kids dressed for spring.  I’d be there, shivering, bundled up to my ears in down coat and boots, and someone would come bouncing into class in shorts, and just a sweatshirt for outerwear.  Cool. Young.  Impatient.  Hopeful.

While they learned, I learned. Finding ways to get their attention and break into their cultural context was a bitch, because what they knew was so different from what I knew;  at times we could have been speaking two different languages. They thought James Baldwin, the great writer of the fifties was actor Alec Baldwin’s younger brother. Many of them had never heard of Kafka, or Chekhov. (oh, my god, not even my beloved CHEKHOV??) Of course, to be fair, I had never heard Justin Bieber sing and I didn’t even know who Flo Rida or Macklemore were, or  why so many of their generation were interested in vampire love. Undead?  Partially dead? If I get the definition of metaphor nailed down, then I can ask if this is a metaphor for life as we know it.

Despite this cultural gap, the students were fun to be with, agreeable and sharp, and we had some satisfying (and  leveling) meetings of the mind. (For all their resistance to library research, there was my suspicion of Google and Wiki.)When I gave up teaching undergrads, it was not because of the students, it was because I didn’t want to grade papers or people anymore.

Now I teach older students in non-credit courses, like Lifelong Learning and Life Spring, and my older students present different challenges and pleasures.  First of all, I get to hang out with a group of bright and interesting folks from my generation, so we share a general fund of knowledge. (This also means I have to be on my toes because my students are already well-educated, many of them former teachers themselves.)  It also means I can dig deeper when I prepare a subject, which gives me the chance to learn something, too.

Last year I sat on the other side of the desk for the first time in more than fifty years, when I took a poetry class taught by a former colleague, now somewhere in her nineties and still at it. What a pro. The depth and breadth of her knowledge were part of it, but more than that, she had a seemingly endless sense of wonder and pleasure at a line or a word or a certain poem, and it was infectious.  And she seemed eager to hear what we, her students, thought, and appreciative of what we had to say.

That kind of generosity can only come with confidence and experience,  and it brought back memories of my early days , because as every new teacher knows, at the beginning we are often holding tight to the knowledge we are being paid to impart, and letting the class in can be a scary thing.  What if they ask me  something I don’t have an answer to?  What if someone says the one big thingI am basing my lesson on before I get a chance to land it?  What if someone challenges me?

I guess the biggest challenge was to wait out silence in the classroom, because there is nothing more frightening than an unresponsive class of students. It can feel hostile.  (Sometimes it is; mostly it isn’t.)  But once I learned to admit I didn’t know the answer to everything, and to love the disrupters because they always brought the classroom alive, and to lean into silence as if it were a big fluffy pillow rather than an abyss, it was fun fun fun.

And then it was time to retire. But I didn’t, quite. And I’m finishing out another short semester (like a short stack at iHop – tasty and just enough at my age) and looking forward to next year.  Old soldiers and old teachers – not done yet.

 

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BREAKING NEWS

What is “breaking news” and why do we need it?

First of all to the “breaking” part: the old definition of it no longer applies. Once upon a time a deep-voiced announcer would cut into whatever we were listening to on the radio or watching on tv and, serious and concise, say his piece and then return us to our “regularly scheduled programming.”  Now, information is immediately available on so many media that it breaks like the tide – rhythmic and regular and constant.

Then I wonder about the nature of the news.  What do we need to know and what simply scratches an itch for dish?  And does the regularization of gossip in our lives somehow curdle the milk of human kindness in us?  Do we have to know about a famous singer’s drug overdose?  Or the other one’s nervous breakdown? Or the private struggle of a family on opposite sides of an end-of-life decision, as their loved one lies in a coma?

After a gunman in a campus shooting uses up his ammunition and kills himself, and is identified as the lone gunman, and the dead and wounded are counted, the story is pretty much told.  But that doesn’t stop it from folding and unfolding in the media depending on how slow the news days are.  In one of those cases it went on for a whole week, obsessively, repetitively, continually, until there was nothing left to say, except to ask one of those questions we have all gasped at at one time or another, of a recently bereaved family member:  “How did you feel when you realized your son/daughter/mother/father/wife/husband was dead?” At which point I decided that unless someone came back from the dead, the breaking news had broken, and I was moving on.

One week it is a shock jock with a nasty mouth.  And then it is the breakup of a Hollywood couple (pick a pair, there’s a whole deck of them) and the oh-so-holy tsk-tsking about how hard it must be on their kids to have it played out in the public (said by the reporters who are making it public).  How is this news? And what ever happened to mind your own business?

Sometimes the pretext for reporting this “news” is that it will open a useful debate about whatever subject that “news” item addresses regarding our human needs, or foibles, or errors, but in truth, it is too often an excuse for smug moralizing at the expense of whomever is in the spotlight at the moment. (I remember once when a public figure fought for his life due to a traffic accident, the media went on about whether or not he should pay a fine for not wearing a seat belt.)

More and more, what is reported in media seems to have less and less relevance to my life – to our lives?  Can I include you? – and I have decided to follow a friend’s example and go on a “diet” from the news.  The only thing she tunes into now is the House & Garden channel.  She won’t even watch Project Runway!for fear the suspense will disturb her new calm.

I am tapering off. I read very little about politics, these days.  I don’t really have to know the details of every insult politician A trades with politician B.  I skip  “news” features that are not new at all, but re-cycled advice of some kind, from celebrities who are usually half my age.  Next, I have eliminated all “news” about someone else’s health.  If it doesn’t concern my own private, personal sinuses (or the sinuses of my loved ones) I shall consider it a “don’t need to know” item, so when I see a reporter standing outside a hospital building to report the sickness of someone famous, I’ll bypass it.  I am ready to move into phase two: No personal improvement “news” — the secrets of good and bad foods lie at the end of my tongue and the taste centers of my brain, and there they will stay, no matter what the latest government study reveals about carbs or wine or coffee.  Ditto “news” on how to flex my muscle groups.

Moving into high gear, I will cold turkey all celebrity traffic stops, arrests, slip of the tongue mistakes and even humanitarian junkets.

If I do that without getting sucked back in by the red BREAKING NEWS banner,  I estimate that I will have retrieved enough time in six months to write a book and sail around the world, and if I did the former while doing the latter…would it be newsworthy?  Only to me.

 

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