Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Aging, Courage & William Blake

"And we are put on this earth a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love."
William Blake

My puppy Darby has a habit of pausing during fierce and furious play, coming over to me and giving me a cuddle. He then very quickly returns to his high energy and enthusiastic play, usually with a tennis ball. When my niece was a child, she did the same thing, interrupt her playing, run to me for a quick snuggle or two, then abandon me to my gentle joy as she returned to her doll house and other toys. I have a theory about this behavior shared by descendants of wolves and little girls. It has to do with what poet William Blake - who understood more than most of his contemporaries and most of ours - called "the beams of love." Little ones feel those beams and acknowledge them with a quick visit to their sender.

As I've aged, I've turned into a real scaredy-cat. It seems incredible to me that I once acted before an audience of thousands in Shakespeare in the Park in Lexington, Kentucky, rode a horse in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, and preferred the window seat on overseas flights. I don't act, ride, or travel by plane any more. Now, simply thinking these things makes me a tad nervous. Living in a gun-crazy culture where a possible presidential candidate encourages his supporters to "beat the crap" out of his opponents does little to calm me. I'm calm right now, Darby nestled beside me on a comfy sofa, my fingers tapping the laptop. I seem in real danger of becoming one of those daffy little 'ole ladies daffy about their dogs (spotted in posh neighborhoods, the dears and their doggies often wear matching coats, usually soft plaids).

Aging in a country where looking young is a national obsession can be a challenge. Compare the lined, character-laden faces of British actors to the frozen facelifts of American actors. Jonathon Goldsmith is still the perfect "most interesting man in the world" but he has been booted away by the beer company that employed him because he turned seventy-seven. I'm  not about to bounce into the annoying boosterism that touts aging is a bunch of fun. It isn't, unless you find arthritis, back pain, and short-term memory loss a bunch of fun. But the cowardice that keeps me from stages, stables, and airports doesn't apply to my growing older. I know there are more important things to be concerned about - especially in an election year - than crow's feet and gray hairs.

William Blake sang on his deathbed so certain was he of the joy that awaited him. I doubt I'll sing on my deathbed. My off-key lyrics might offend the angels.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Pups & Poems

In the fall of 2014 I participated as a student and a community TA in  an edX massive open online course (MOOC) called The Art of Poetry. The two month course taught by former poet laureate Robert Pinsky was extremely demanding and extremely rewarding. The course is being given again (registration began March 29th) and I considered taking it again. The prospect of immersing myself in poetry for several months seemed enticing. I also imagined studying great poets would, as often happens, spark my own writing. Then I realized taking the course was out of the question. It was out of the question for one reason - I have a new puppy. It seems ungracious of me to blame a cuter-than-cute puppy for not continuing my studies and accomplishing at least a modicum of creative writing but a close look at the facts reveals the awful truth - the only writing I've done in the months since the puppy has been rent checks and bill payments. I wasn't dazzlingly productive before the puppy but I was writing.

I'd simply forgotten how much work training a puppy involves. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I am at that awkward age between older woman and death. Still, I wanted more than watching PBS and sipping cinnamon tea. I wanted a funny, friendly, petite pal.

I have abandoned my higher self - reading, writing, and more reading - to play with squeaky toy ducks, raccoons, squirrels, and foxes.

Puppy or scapegoat?
Years ago, I taught something called "Business English," appropriately enough, in a business college. Marking exam papers was tedious and as I was unsure of exactly what Business English was, I showed videos of Shakespeare's plays to my students. Shakespeare was a good businessman. In theaters, pieces of glow tape are used to mark where actors tiptoe onto dark stages. I know from grade B movies "the mark" is the intended victim of a confidence man. And there was that something on Cain's forehead. Who knew marking is also a four pound Maltese lifting his snow white hind leg to sprinkle yellow on the corner of pieces of furniture in the living room. On the plus side, from the day he arrived, Darby has slept through the night, even when teething. Apparently, like me, he realizes the importance of a good night's sleep for one's looks and disposition. And he has the sweetest disposition of any pet, feline or canine, that I've had the privilege of sharing my days with. Yes, it's okay to end a sentence with a preposition although I'm not sure Shakespeare did.

I read somewhere that we love our dogs because they show us who we really are. I find this warming and true. I'm playing fetch and tug-of-war with my puppy when I'd rather be reading poetry and my husband Victor is wrapping and freezing small amounts of chicken for Darby so his food always smells fresh when Victor would rather be reading the newspapers.

Instead of writing, I'm training my puppy and playing with the little chap. I tell myself my creative impulse is hibernating somewhere in my psyche and, when Darby is older, new poems will spring forward. In the meanwhile, can any of you recommend a pet odor remover that actually works?

Sunday, January 24, 2016

War and Peace and Excellence

Months ago I wrote a blog post titled  Why No Dostoyevsky about how the great classics of countries other than England seem almost ignored by PBS. Most of us are fond of the novels of Jane Austen, and sagas about Henry VIII but the unending incarnations of their stories might weary even the authoress and the king.

The producers of BBC One's six part mini-series War and Peace have recognized there is an audience for Tolstoy and excellence. Judging from the direction, acting, and production values of the first episode broadcast last Monday this six part mini-series will be a splendid one. A reviewer for The New York Times didn't care for it. But then, who reviews The New York Times? I find its in-your-face, only for millionaires advertisements - if you can't afford a $13,000 Ralph Lauren watch you have no business reading the NYT - annoying.

Television broadcast standards are apparently non-existent, even for PBS. There is no legacy of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and Arthur Conan Doyle in the gruesome “mystery” stories now on PBS that include murdered dogs and butchered women.

As a native New Yorker, a non-millionaire (40Nine watch), and someone who read the novel, I recommend BBC One's adaptation of War and Peace and hope brothers named Karamazov are waiting in the wings.

Friday, October 30, 2015

My Halloween Story

Here is a short story I wrote several years ago. I think it has a Halloween feel to it. The story is called "Bette Luckington Eyes" and I hope you enjoy it.

Last Thursday at seven a.m. Bette Luckington woke up with the wrong eyes. She made this startling discovery looking in the bathroom mirror while sleepily flossing her teeth. Ordinarily, her eyes are blue, with powder pale lashes, and uneven margins (this last, the result of excessive use of eyeliner pencils). The eyes reflected in the mirror were brown, with dark lashes, and perfect margins. At first, Bette thought there might be something wrong with the bathroom lighting but as she continued to look into the mirror, she continued to see brown, definitely brown eyes. She grabbed the stand-alone magnifying mirror she used to tweeze her eyebrows and search for chin hairs. What she saw confirmed her earlier reflection. Filled with a true sense of terror, she checked to see if the rest of her was still her. The mole on her left check was there. Her tiny hands (her ex-husband rather unkindly called “mouse hands”) were also the same. The only things that were different were those brown eyes.
Strange things had been happening since Bette turned fifty. Her natural blond hair turned white, almost overnight, the way it often happens to characters in scary movies about ghosts. Her Russian Blue cat disappeared for two weeks then returned home with a flea-infested red tabby. Opening the front door to pick up her morning paper, Bette saw the silvery-coated descendant of the royal cats of the czars with a scruffy little street cat beside him, both standing there in that satisfied and expectant manner so common to felines. She took the striped stranger to the groomer, the vet, and her heart as the little cat was likeable. And there was that terrible business of finding a piece of a tooth in her English muffin. An ongoing mix of the wonderful and the horrid kept happening ever since her birthday. The change of her eyes, however, was the most bizarre and frightening occurrence of all. Bette brushed her teeth vigorously as if having an exceptionally clean mouth might somehow clarify her thoughts. She then brushed her short white hair that she had quite recently begun to like. The soft white accentuated her blue eyes. Well, it had. Bette analyzed her eyes again and tried to find some reasonable explanation. Abandoning logic, her thoughts changed direction. Perhaps there really is a parallel universe and at this very moment one of its inhabitants, a dark-complected brunette, sat before her own magnifying mirror looking into Bette Luckington’s blue eyes.
Still wearing her bathrobe, Bette measured coffee into a filter and remembered the documentary she had watched on public television the night before about the horrific treatment of Latinos by whites in America. Not long ago, she watched a documentary about the horrific treatment of blacks by whites in America. Both of these documentaries had been preceded by other similar ones presenting the horrific treatment of Asians and Native American Indians by whites. There were shining exceptions to racism and bigotry, champions of social justice in the white community, notably Abe Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy. While she herself was not a racist, it was also true that except for Granny Luckington’s Jamaican companion, Bette did not know a single person of color. She did have two Catholic friends but, of course, that is not the same. The accumulated effect of the documentaries made Bette feel deeply ashamed of the way so many people of color in this country have been treated by so many of its white citizens. For a moment, Bette wished she was not a fair-faced, Anglo-American. She wished she was a person of color – any color but white. Could this ephemeral wish have had something to do with the bizarre eye change? Had Bette become a human and modified version of The Velveteen Rabbit? Had wanting something so made it happen? And was it happening by degrees? Would Bette Luckington wake tomorrow morning to find she had become a middle-aged version of one of the Sharks in West Side Story? Perhaps there was nothing supernatural at all going on. Perhaps the change in eye color and lash length had a physiological explanation. Who knows what unspecified chemicals are sprayed on those shiny supermarket fruits and vegetables.
Much of the day was spent staring at her eyes in an antique hand mirror, drinking Chablis, and wondering how she would explain her new eyes to family and friends. She did not have many friends so that did not seem too intimidating a prospect. And, as she did freelance editing at home, there were no officemates to be concerned about. She could say she was wearing colored contact lenses, the way models and actresses do. Or, she could wear her tinted, designer eyeglasses all the time though this might make her appear to have a drug addiction. Bette realized she would have to find a new ophthalmologist and this fact made here a little sad as Dr. Kovic, her present ophthalmologist was a nice man. Every ophthalmologist she had ever gone to seemed caring and nice. If the eyes really are “the mirror of the soul,” it was possible all that intense soul-gazing into the eyes of their patients gentled their spirits. Dr. Kovic was from one of those countries in Eastern Europe that have no vowels in their name. At the end of each office visit, he was in the habit of asking, “Are you pleased?” It seemed an odd query between a doctor and patient but Bette knew English was not his first language and thought he may have confused the wording with “Goodbye” or “Have a nice day.” In any event, she would miss him and his concern. If she stayed Dr. Kovic’s patient it was possible he would write a brilliant article for a prominent medical journal about her new eyes and become world renowned. She imagined him in a large amphitheater filled with his peers. He looked somewhat proud as he introduced her to the gathering. She wondered what she would wear for such an occasion. No, this would not work for her. Best to simply go to a new ophthalmologist.
Before the eye incident, Bette started reading Seneca’s “On Tranquility of Mind.” Earlier that week she reread Plato’s Doctrine of the Two Worlds. This is the kind of reading she enjoyed and may well have contributed to her small number of friends. She considered resuming reading but the combination of wine and anxiety made focusing on stoicism undoable. By evening, nervous, somewhat sozzled, and too exhausted to continue worrying, she fell asleep on her large and comfortable sofa.
In the morning, to Bette’s immense relief, she was still herself except for those dark eyes. She also experienced one of those unexpected epiphanies menopausal women are prone to. A vision of an enormous and beautiful mandala composed of variations of Bette’s three favorite colors – green, yellow, and blue appeared. This circle of vibrant colors was followed by the following maxim in elegant, silver script floating before her. “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”   Arthur Conan Doyle   Bette had no idea what any of this actually meant but she did feel a sudden and genuine sense of well-being.
After breakfast, Bette decided to do a quick review of her life, much like a computer scan for viruses, in order to find something in her past that might connect to her very peculiar present circumstance. There was her happy childhood as a pampered and cherished only child. She had singing lessons, piano lessons, riding lessons – her favorite pony was a Chestnut Welsh pony inexplicably named Scooter. Memories of her college years were rather blurry as they seemed to have been spent studying for exams, smoking marijuana, and having a crush on her philosophy professor. Soon after graduating from college, her unhappy marriage to Frederick Penn began. The longer she was married to Frederick, the less she ate. Her loss of appetite became so extreme that eating a whole slice of toast was out of the question; she could manage half a granola bar but just barely. The day their divorce decree was finalized, Bette celebrated in a nearby restaurant by enjoying a filet mignon, baked potato, and asparagus, accompanied by a lovely cabernet and, for dessert, two slices of lemon meringue pie. Dear Scooter, philosophy class, and Frederick? Finding no clues in her past, she decided to resume reading Seneca. When, out of habit, she put on her reading glasses, she was surprised at the thick blurriness she saw and removed the eyeglasses to find she could read without them. She fell into her usual routine of pleasure reading in the morning and doing several hours of editing after lunch, the reading, eating, and editing interrupted by frequent eye checks in her compact mirror. Saturday passed in much the same partially pleasant and partially concerned way. Late afternoon, looking in the living room wall mirror to adjust a stray strand of hair Bette noticed how the soft white accentuated her brown eyes. It was at that moment the phone rang.
“Elizabeth dear, is that you?”
“Yes mother, who else would it be?”
“Well, you don’t sound like you. Your voice sounds so different. For a second I thought I had the wrong number.”

Image: © Milos Havrda |