Today I Had An Epiphany!

Since I’d already passed my 86th birthday and no supernatural marvel had ever occurred to me personally, I did not, of course, anticipate or expect one. In fact, I absolutely and resolutely could not believe what happened and I was so shaken up, I accidentally swallowed my fresh piece of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. 

A glass of cold seltzer, a chunk of salami, and a few minutes respite on a hard kitchen chair restored me (salami is a miraculous East European medical restorative), though I still find the whole miracle quite difficult to believe.

Frankly, I had dismissed miraculous possibilities decades earlier when I longed fiercely to be a platinum blonde and nothing happened to my muddy-colored, gray hair. PLATINUM BLONDE ME would have been a noteworthy miracle.  But apparently it is not commonly bestowed on elderly Jewish women.  The beauty parlors, however, do a commendable job if one is willing to spend the time and money – which, of course, I am not.

 I solemnly swear the following happened.  And the supernatural or extra terrestrial – or whatever – is out there and had a hand or two hands or even a foot in it.

Let me tell it exactly as it  happened.

 I was about to check my email.  Alas, Firefox was not to be found on my screen.  This has happened to me often before, and I immediately panic and phone a grandchild for help.  But it was 6:00 AM on Sunday morning!  One has no phonable relatives at that hour.  

Tentatively, I tapped several keys on the computer lightly, pretending I wasn’t touching them.  I prayed.  I shut the machine down and started it up fresh.  No Firefox.

I was close to weeping.  Here was this mechanical behemoth on my desk and out of reach.  I know how bad I am with machines.  (I once tried to learn to drive, but after three lessons the teacher refused to go on.  I was a menace, he said, and should be barred from the roads.)  So I am NOT a machine-friendly person. 

I paced.   I willed the phone to ring.  It didn’t.  My beautiful Sunday morning with its immortal prose possibilities was disappearing.  I made myself sit at the computer and prayerfully tapped some innocuous keys. 

Happily, I came upon a key with the legend RECENTLY USED.  We had not been formally introduced, but I boldly took liberties. I tapped it respectfully and – I GOT FIREFOX!  I immediately rose, bowed my head, and spent minutes in reverent silence.

So here I am now, sitting on my kitchen chair once again, celebrating with another glass of seltzer, which I sinfully diluted with a spoonful of Hershey chocolate syrup. After all, proper ceremonial attention must be devoted to sacred libations.

 “L’chaim!”

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THE STINGY MISER

Sometimes I walk blocks to save pennies and nickels. Walking is healthful, so why is my frugality eccentric? What makes a  scheduled marathon better than a brisk walk that saves a quarter – or even a dime?  Money? One grade school-girl habit I do try to resist is storing chewed gum behind my ear for a second chew later.  It grosses people out. But the tricks of youth stay with me, and they still give me rare pleasure. There is no disputing the fact that I am close, tight-fisted, frugal, exceedingly prudent, indeed, PARSIMONIOUS!.

I am simply, as I have always been; to put it succinctly, a stingy miser, one of the few acknowledged such.  Stingy miser is not a grammatical redundancy, but was the actuaI descriptive epithet in common use when I was a child.

It will be helpful for the reader to know right here that at the beginning of my life nothing I wore ever matched anything else and as a result I have never cared one iota about clothes.

Age cannot wither nor custom stale the collected infinite variety of my wardrobe or its sources.  Biology created me without a GOESS TOGETHER gene.  Style, therefore, has not afflicted me for I do not recognize it.  I wear what is easily accessible and comfortable.  And mostly, if possible, what is washable.  Recently, I made a critical decision.

 I am too old to wring out a waterlogged Loden coat.  Since I abhor dry cleaners, I shall simply throw out the soiled Loden veteran coat and say, “Goodbye, old friend!”

Born in 1927, a child of the Depression, I never got over it.   My family was desperately poor, on Home Relief for years.  I grew up thinking poor and never learned to aspire stylistically – and people have always found this strange, particularly once I began to earn a decent living!  It was as though my unconcern was some rare lingering malady. All my other relatives passed as normal.  Indeed, many became BIG spenders.  SPORTS! How it pleases them to shower money about!

 In early childhood, I had my own small shopping pleasures.  I was joyous when I got my grubby fingers on a penny! Pennies may be the keys to this whole enigma.  Before adolescence when I left home, I dealt almost solely in pennies.  I remember multi-colored gumballs in the candy store machine and penny sheets of orange peel shoe leather, as well as foot- long sticks of licorice, also one penny each!  Pennies bought joy!

Actually, I’m thrifty.  That’s the polite word, but frankly, I’m downright stingy.  Cheap!  I still actively mourn the five cent subway fare every time I swipe my fare card.  I walk miles  to get bargains.  Closefisted, I am always reluctant to shell out cash, and I am exceedingly prudent.

Parsimonious, c’est moi.  I watch my wallet diligently.  I do not enjoy spending large sums of money.  Never did.  I hate to part with hundreds much less thousands and would like to leave my legacy for my heirs, who of course protest that they don’t need my money.  There may be nicer ways to say this. Anyway, parsimonious certainly beats stingy any day.  It has a rather lavish ring to it!

Relatives and brave well-wishers who try shopping with me, invariably end up wondering, “How can she be so cheap?”  They’re full of euphemisms: frugal is what they actually say.  Economical.  Practical.  Whatever.  I learned early to settle for any evasive synonym that came my way.

“But you have plenty of money now to buy good things,” I’m constantly reminded.

“True,” I agree,  “and when there is something I really want or someplace I really want to visit, I’ll spend and I’ll go.”

But I have to really really want it.  The problem is that there is not so much I really really want. 

Still –   I went to the Metropolitan Opera and saw and heard  a glorious “Falstaff”  a couple of weeks ago.  And before that there was  “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” 

I pilgrimaged to China in my shabby Loden coat and walked on The Great Wall!

In India I ate delicious hot curries and roti!   And I saw Sai Baba, who many people believe was the living god.

I prayed at the Wall in Israel and left a message for God.

I visited Stratford on Avon and saw much glorious Shakespeare.

No one ever noticed me or my mismatched clothing in Paris. 

Who knows where I might turn up next?

Shabby little old ladies don’t ever need disguises!  Life has already carefully concealed them.

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“DO YOU LIKE KIPLING?” “I DON’T KNOW. I’VE NEVER KIPLED!”

One of the delights of teaching undergraduate literature in the community college English Department is that the course combines British authors and Americans.  It’s an absolute natural, right?  Same language?  Same origins?  Well, similar – of course,  all that was long ago and the wench is dead! 

Many of my students are, themselves, immigrants, so English is already a second language.  But we persevere.  We read various Brits and some Americans. 

With interesting results.  A young woman recently did a paper on David Copperfield, and she became so contemptuous of Uriah Heep (an unctuous Dickens’ character) that midway through the novel she lost control and actually began to call him Pariah Heep.  I noted the error, but couldn’t bring myself to deduct from her grade.  I figured she lost control and couldn’t help herself. Uriah is a bit much.

The anthologies are excellent; there’s Mark Twain and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, of course, and Jane Austen and James Joyce.  And much more!

Sometimes it doesn’t work as expected.  The students particularly love dramatizing plays aloud.  New York theaters are too costly for their pockets, but they are enthusiasts.  And we have had great successes – and failures. We had an absolute “dream” cast of volunteers several years ago for a reading of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire”.  We were almost ready to go when we lost our female lead.  Stanley Kowalski, the brutal brother-in-law, was too brutal for her.  He really made her cry.  But the play – and the day – were saved in a memorable performance: another female student, whose day job was in the jails at Riker’s Island,  volunteered and did the part beautifully.  Once Stanley Kowalski began his vicious mischief, he had to cope with a pro.  THAT performance would have made it on Broadway!

 I have not forgotten it, and I’ll bet Stanley Kowalski remembers it, too.  I think the entire class had a walloping good time!

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The Roach, A Corollary (I wonder if a roach has ever been a corollary before?)

In my earlier blog entry, “Requiescat in Pace,” (November 18) I remembered some of my own dear dead, including my husband, Professor Morton Klass.  I alluded to a lifelong argument we’d had that started the very first night we met and was never resolved: Why did Franz Kafka choose the roach in “Metamorphosis”?  Mia, a reader, has written to ask about the argument.

There I was, newly out of graduate school, the proud possessor of a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Writing from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop.  In my own eyes I was thus officially licensed!

Mort edited pulp magazines at the time.  He was attending college at night while supporting a widowed mother and a sister.  I ALREADY KNEW EVERYTHING THERE WAS TO KNOW ABOUT LITERATURE!  YOU HAD ONLY TO ASK ME!

I was absolutely convinced that Kafka carefully chose the roach because it was disgusting, symbolic of the lowest form of life. You see a roach; you say, “Uggh!”  It disgusts you.

Mort laughed at me.  “That’s not the way it works.  Kafka was living in a middle European tenement much like this. He needed a symbol.  He looked up at the wall and there it stood poised perfectly – a huge stupid disgusting roach!  ‘Voila!’ he said.”

This argument was NEVER resolved.  Thinking about it all again makes me terribly nostalgic.  But also makes me grateful.  I had Mort.  How lucky I was.  Even if he was wrong!

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Awesome Student Literary Conclusions

In the novel, “The Scarlet Letter” the Reverend Arthur  Dimmesdale exposes himself in public.

Satin was the shining hero of PARADISE LOST. That was certainly why he was called Satin.

Oedipus solved the riddle of the Sphinx and freed the city of Thieves in Greece.

Bartleby the Scrivener was a lonely man, with a pen but no porpoise.

Grendel is famous as the girl in the children’s fairy tale who got lost in the woods with her brother, Handsel.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, “The Raven,” the bird raves a lot.  That is obviously why Poe named the poem “The Raven.”

King Lear fell because of his tragic floor. He had three daughters, one good princess, Cordelia, and two awful ones, Regan and Gonorrhea.

Ernest Hemingway earned the Nobel Peace Prize because he was dynamite as a writer, and the money for the prize comes from Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is by William Butter Teast.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson tells how every year friendly villagers stone a neighbor because they need an escape goat.

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Twelfth Night Or What You Will

“Twelfth Night Or What You Will” – with an all male cast.

“This is how Shakespeare was meant to be seen,” wrote the New York Times critic, Ben Brantley – and he was absolutely right. After more than two centuries of American independence, the Brits have totally captured me once again and made me wholly theirs.   What a production!

You will agree if you are lucky enough to secure a ticket to Shakespeare’s comedy celebrating the end of the Christmas season.  It is at the Belasco Theater on 44th Street (Caution: Walk very carefully. Elizabethan London had better pavement than NYC currently; I, who am legally blind, had to be carefully hand guided along the dangerous route.)

With brilliant courage and dramatic imagination, the all-male Globe Theater troupe effortlessly transports us back to Elizabethan England.  The theater seating had been altered so that our seats were actually stall seats right on stage. Just backless benches with cushions, but perfectly comfortable.  It was the closest I’ve been to a play in many years.  I could see.  I could hear.  I could laugh!

The entire production seemed inspired, starting with the costumes and makeup beforehand. The actors dress onstage, many of them being transformed before our very eyes into credible, sexy, and lovely women.  Not once during the performance did I disbelieve a female character.  Not once.

The Elizabethans did not tolerate females on the stage so this is truly how they saw the play.

The characterizations were great fun and I thought that Mark Rylance, who played Lady Olivia, was particularly brilliant. Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, indeed the whole crew of clowns, outdid themselves in imbecility.  What a wonderful evening we had, laughing at this brilliant rollicking comedy of disguise and confusion.

As we carefully picked our way amid the sidewalk rubble afterwards, there was no question about whether we should come back to see their alternating production, “The Tragedie of King Richard the Third,” with Mark Rylance as the king.  Some risks are worth taking.

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REQUIESCAT IN PACE

When someone I care about dies, when I learn of a death – and since I am now 86 years old, I lose people frequently, particularly contemporaries – here is what happens.  My brain immediately retrieves some eccentric trait or adventure of the departed dear one and in my sadness, I manage to smile, grateful for the shared joy of memory.

This past week, I received an e-mail telling me that an old old, college friend (whose anonymity I’ll respect here) had died.  Old because my years at Brooklyn College were 1945-49, and I’ve always known that it was a lucky break for me.  At that  particular moment, the army still had dibs on the most eligible young men, so  there was room at college – a girl like me who was not particularly brilliant was still college material.  I could never have passed an SAT exam, but I got this rare academic chance.

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The Brooklyn College Country Fair, 1949.

This friend and I met on VANGUARD, the college newspaper.  We both dreamed we might be great writers one day and we both loved corny jokes, and we bonded. And stayed friends for decades.

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I remember how determined she was to stay slender, and I’d admired her strength.  I would have liked to be slim and sexy but I am a compulsive eater, alas.  When we were students, she had the grace not to tease me unduly.  She understood that hungry was hungry.

I had only recently written about her in a blog in which I was reminiscing about DANNON YOGURT coming to the U.S. in the 1940’s.  She figured in that blog because she was food conscious and always dieting.

Not me. I was just incredibly poor.  I had left home and was a live-in babysitter.  I never had lunch money.  So my friend often took me along to the college cafeteria, where she bought herself a salad.  Two free slices of bread came with it.  She would abstemiously eat her greens and I would feast on my free sandwich, seeded rye bread lathered in mayonnaise!   How could I ever forget such largesse?

We both went on after college to become writers. We both married happily and were lucky enough to lead rich and busy lives. And we stayed in touch, so there was certainly a lot for me to think back on – but my solitary, fond, initial thoughts centered on those salads and the sustaining mayonnaise sandwiches.

All this set me thinking about other departed friends, and again, my memories were eccentric.  For each person there seemed to be one single dramatic memory that defined this particular friend. Thus, my dear friend, Norma, grandly stepped out of a gondola and right into the Grand Canal in Venice on our first trip abroad. How the gondoliers laughed and cheered!  And when I think about Norma, yes, I remember her wonderful stories about a life spent in advertising, and I remember grand coups and great flops, but first, I always think about that great splash.

Or my dear friend, Walka, a superb teacher, who spent so much time and care planning every detail of her own funeral. Alas, she died so very young, I’ve wondered if she was prescient.  Despite all her talent and teaching skills, I remember most vividly and sadly the concern about the perfect most elegant funeral music.

Sometimes it bothers me when I try to remember a complicated person I knew well for years, and my mind persistently refuses to cooperate.  And I’ve been so very lucky to have sympathetic friends and loved ones who do not mind an erratic but affectionate companion.  My dear husband, Mort, was an ardent supporter of my eccentricities.  And what do I remember first about our long and happy marriage?  Initially, we got into a terrific row the very first night we met, over why Kafka chose the roach in “Metamorphosis,” and that was one bout we never resolved.  It was great fun, and I’m still positive I’m right!  Somewhere out there right now I know Mort is smiling and shaking his head at my recalcitrance.  I love him dearly, but he’s wrong.

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