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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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.


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.


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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This is a sincere and ashamed apology.  I have been so busy with my own preoccupations: complaining, teaching, writing fiction, and now, blogging – that I have done the unpardonable.  I forgot that Monday, November 11th was Veterans Day. Armistice Day. Poppy Day.  The day that all civilized people should remember.  The day we devote to the memory of those who fought and died in our wars.

When I was a child there seemed something holy about the day: my own father in an overseas cap, a poppy in his lapel, the absolute silence at eleven o’clock, even the traffic stopping on Bedford Avenue! There was the occasional person weeping openly on the street and being comforted.

I had a brave father and a brave brother; my father, a gentle Hungarian immigrant, who was a naturalized citizen, enlisted in the American army and fought in the Argonne Forest and the trenches in France during World War I.  Papa didn’t talk about the war a lot, but he belonged to a Jewish War Veterans Post.  It was his single social “club.”  He wore his precious overseas cap and marched in parades on patriotic holidays.  When Mama quarreled with him, which she frequently did, and he lost his temper and shouted at her, she would roll her eyes and mumble  “shell-shocked” and shake her head.  Mama notwithstanding, Papa was a gentle man and I loved him very much and knew he was not shell shocked.  But I could never truly imagine Papa as a soldier.

My kid brother, Arnold, an unhappy teenager in a poverty stricken home in the 1950s, ran away at sixteen and enlisted – lying about his age.  Sent to Tokyo, he was trained as a military policeman and served honorably.  When war broke out in Korea, American troops from Japan were immediately deployed there and he was declared missing the second week of the war.   Arnold, who shared terrible knock-knock jokes with me.  Arnold, whom I loved.  Missing!

This tragedy essentially destroyed our family; my gentle beloved brother who loved to clown – and even in a grim household could make us laugh – was no more.  My novel, IN A COLD OPEN FIELD (Black Heron Press 1991) tells his tragic story, and the even more incredible story of how my distraught orthodox Jewish mother tried to arrange supernatural “deals” to “save” him, through the Gypsy fortuneteller she met in a Coney Island storefront on Mother’s Day, 1951.

Next to that book on my bookshelf sits the handsome blue velvet case the U.S. Army sent with the Purple Heart Medal for Bravery that Arnold was awarded posthumously. To keep his medal company, I have tucked in Papa’s silver medal for service in the American Expeditionary Force in the Argonne Forest and elsewhere in France.

But so preoccupied was I with self this year, with the minutiae of my own small life, I did not mark or remember Veterans Day appropriately.  I have been thinking about Papa and Arnold all day today, and now, of course, writing this.  I resolve that today shall be my own personal Veterans Day, on which I take note of the great great loss of loved ones, not only my kin.  Next year, if I am around to mark the occasion I shall do it properly and on time.

I have not forgotten those I loved who fought in the wars. I love them still and they mean much to me.  They are with me tonight as I write.  I feel their blessed presence forgiving me my lapse. They were always kind.

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I know it’s rushing the season, but I would like to give thanks today on this blog.  I need to thank the incredibly large number of thoughtful New York Times readers who took the trouble to respond to my earlier essay printed in “THE NEW OLD AGE.”  In this essay, I ranted about being old, almost blind, sick, and NOT wanting to be a burden to my dear, caring family.  These are truths. Boy, did I get advice!

Hundreds of readers responded – from all over the world. Some scolded me (not harshly, but scolded, nonetheless.  I mean, I am 86 years old!) for ingratitude, or for still being trapped in the problems of an impoverished childhood, or for being selfish.  Psychoanalysis was recommended, and antidepressant medication, and religion, and other folks just suggested I had to acquire more generosity of spirit.  Passivity and acceptance were advised, and greater parental thoughtfulness. I needed to be aware that there were worse fates than mine. My children could be alcoholics or drug addicts or just inattentive, I was cautioned.

So I was reprimanded because I admitted that I minded being a burden.  On the other hand, people did not agree about my frankness; some commended it and admired my honesty and thought they would one day feel the same way.  Others disagreed  strongly. Many NY Times readers spent a lot of time recounting their own unhappy histories and struggles. A lot felt that their parents had not appreciated them!  Handicapped folks wrote to me generously offering their own useful survival tactics. Some of the comments were a little harsh and some were bitterly humorous, but overall I would have to say–ungrateful old lady that I am–that there was a huge generosity of spirit in these comments. After all, who am I?  A name in a newspaper–and they took the time and the trouble to try to help me. To correct me. To guide me.  And to point out all the errors of my ways.

I am overwhelmed by all of this and by the single truly remarkable serendipitous benefit: An old friend, with whom I started my teaching career more than sixty years ago – in a Harlem junior high school – wrote to the editor who put her in touch with me.  In the 1950’s, we were each putting a husband through college.  I was writing my first published novel – about the lousy racist school we worked in: COME BACK ON MONDAY (Abelard Schuman 1960) . What a joy to find this dear friend again.  We have already e-mailed, and talked by phone.  She sounds so very much the same. Finding her is the capstone of this incredible adventure, which I have enjoyed enormously.  

Being a writer, for me, means engagement, complications, misunderstandings, problems, and criticism, as well as being ready to reveal my eccentricities. The point, after all, is the prose.  Words. My words, carefully considered and selected and arranged, the precious treasure offered by the writer.  

So I conclude with gratitude here, not unmindful that I have been blessed in many ways, one of which is that I am getting to tell the world about all the ways in which I am ungrateful. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all! 

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On November 6, 1927 a little girl was born – me – to impoverished Orthodox Jewish parents who needed a boy.  They already had a girl.  One girl is enough, but you take what you get.  They got me.

I grew up to be a bigger, noisier me–opinionated and truculent. They wanted me to marry early. Instead, I insisted on going to college, Brooklyn College, because it was free.

My parents never understood me nor I them, but we loved each other in our chaotic way.  We differed on almost everything.  We fought about almost everything.  In the end, I like to think they were moderately proud of me.

I celebrated the exact anniversary of 86 with my eldest child.  The Indian dinner was her idea – we had lived in India long ago and loved the cuisine.  She was getting out of work in a neighborhood with many good Indian restaurants.

“Come meet me,” she said.

“But it’s dark and I’m blind,” I protested.

“Take a taxi,” she said.  She’s a wiseguy.

I am a Depression child, congenitally unable to take taxis.  Stingy.  What the uncharitable call “cheap.”

“Come,” she said. “Meet me on 28th Street.  Take the #6 train at Union Square. Ask people for help.”

Off I went. Blind and careful.  New Yorkers are kind to white-haired, distressed ladies wandering in the dark.  I made it, to Union Square, to the #6 train, to 28th Street – and there was my daughter.  Triumphant.  “See!” she said.

“No,” I said, “but I came anyway.”  We went through the unfamiliar streets – I do not know the east side of my city at all – to a Chettinaad restaurant, Anjappar, which has an unfamiliar cuisine –  and how we overate, treating ourselves to southern Indian delicacies.  We had mutton sukka vartival  and and dosa stuffed with potato curry and wonderfully spicy chicken and eggplant.  Lassi washed it down.

Then, we went to Spice Corner to buy Indian sweets, and then we strolled along from 29th and Lexington Avenue to 23rd  Street and Sixth Avenue.  Only then did I succumb to the corruption of a cab – I wasn’t up to subway wandering by then. But in spite of the extravagant taxi ride, it was an absolutely grand NEW YORK BIRTHDAY.  I wonder where I’ll celebrate 87?

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In the 1930’s when I was a child, my father could not find a job, so we went on Home Relief.  We moved into a cold-water ground floor apartment in Williamsburg, a crowded, Brooklyn slum. There was a two-burner heater in our living room for which my mother refused to buy kerosene.  “Cold,” she insisted, “is better for your health. Did you ever hear of an Eskimo who sneezed?”  I knew of no such Eskimo. So I shivered but kept my mouth shut for I was aware that the world was a dangerous place.

Our lives literally touched bottom in that basement.  My mother’s parents lived nearby with their unmarried children. Often, I would return home from school just in time to catch the last few words of an agitated conversation, followed by abrupt silence at my appearance.  Sometimes, their talk ended in weeping.  Red eyed, uncles and aunts stood around awkwardly wiping away tears or dabbing at their noses.

Not my grandmother. My grandmother wept openly without embarrassment. Born in a Hungarian shtetl, she cried freely for the victims of the world while her American children tried to conceal their grief.  Sometimes the crisis was so urgent, that the agitated discussion I’d interrupted continued in Yiddish, which we youngsters did not understand.  Or the grown-ups sent us out into the street where we could hear nothing. Though exiled, we knew the evil they were talking about.  How could we not know?  It was in the air, on the the very breath of the world: ADOLPH HITLER AND THE NAZIS. They were the bad Germans.  Those bad Germans were unimaginable monsters.

We didn’t know any bad Germans personally.  The only real Germans we knew personally were the single immigrant family upstairs, the Kalbs, a truck driver and his wife and their three small sons.  To me they were an endless source of fascination: their strange speech, their blondness. Because they did not keep kosher, I could not eat anything they offered me; nor even take a drink of water from a trefe glass.  All this made them more attractive, made them more wonderful. They lived in the midst of a Jewish enclave, and no one ever explained why or how, but they were our neighbors. And they were good Germans, my parents said. My one big mouth uncle disagreed strongly, insisting that there were NO good Germans and loudly spelling out the word N-O!  I never liked him anyway.

When the Kalbs spoke English, I could barely figure out what they said.   Mama and Papa talked to them in their own language.  Papa called them refugees,  a sad word, because it meant they could never go back to their country where everyone spoke their language. Never. How scary that was!  What would I do if I lived in a country of strangers who didn’t speak English?   I couldn’t imagine.  I watched the Kalbs with awe and admiration. When Mrs. Kalb became pregnant, we were all excited. “What they would like is a  baby girl,” Mama said.  “But they will be glad to have a healthy boy.  You must wish for a girl for them.”

Oh, how I wished.  I wished and I wished. And  then — my wish was granted.  The whole block was delighted when the beautiful, blonde baby girl was born.

I felt a special connection because I knew it was my wish that was granted. I had wished so hard. Then to my great dismay and bewilderment, they named the baby “Enemy.”

I was very upset.  It was a stupid name. It didn’t seem right to me at all. How could they give this cute little baby with golden curls, who everyone in the neighborhood loved so much, such a hateful name?  And why? Did they want her to grow up to be a bad German?  A Nazi? I was nearly frantic with worry, but I didn’t dare ask about it.  It was not the kind of question I could ask my parents.  It was too embarrassing, too personal.  I’d get a clop in punim for such a question.

I made up my mind to never never call the baby by that terrible name.  Never!

Secretly, I resolved to carefully watch these complicated and puzzling people.  I would see what they did, and somehow, if I could I would protect the baby. If necessary, I would report them to a policeman even though I had never talked to one and was really afraid of policemen.  I began to spy on the Kalbs. I was constantly alert.  I had eyes everywhere.  But I never caught them doing anything suspicious to the baby. They seemed to love her. It was totally bewildering. Yet every time I heard someone call her name, “Enemy,” I was reminded of my mission.

I kept my vigil for many weeks till my first school field trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.  There, we were instructed  to line up double-file beside a beautiful display of purple flowers. The large sign said they were related to buttercups, but they didn’t look anything like buttercups.

“These are windflowers,” the guide began to explain. “Windflowers are very famous and lovely flowers known since ancient times.  People called them windflowers because it was believed that the blossoms were opened by the wind.  The flower’s name is Latin from the original Greek. Different varieties and colors and sizes of this very same plant are found in many parts of the world.  The ancient Romans knew the windflower, and the Chinese and the Japanese, too.  Medicines were made from this plant.  It was supposed to heal bruises miraculously.  Its true name is – the ANEMONE!  Watch my lips and listen carefully to the way I pronounce it.  ANEMONE! A-NEM–O-NE! A-NEM-O-NE! 

“A-NEM-O-NE!  A-NEM-O-NE!  We obediently chorused, I loudest of all, my heart gloriously lightened.  No policeman would be necessary. My Germans , the Kalbs, were truly good Germans.  Anemone – how very beautiful the baby’s name had become!

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I am, I’m pleased to say, a contemporary grandmother.  I married, had children who married, and they had children.  In that singular way, I accomplished this incredible feat. I’m pleased to say it because it confirms that I am still very much alive!  Some days I’m not quite so sure.  For a woman of indeterminate age, I am fairly ordinary and undaunted, which means I am loud and somehow holding on. 

 I spend my days doing the things I love – in between massive searching for objects I have temporarily misplaced like my eyeglasses or my pills.  My memory is a sieve through which each day is finely strained: Like Pablum.

My extensive leisure time is often passed walking in New York City, the adventure capital of the world – which I enjoy immensely.  I wander slowly.  And eavesdrop avidly.

 I listen often to my collection of vintage music.  I have Sinatra’s best recordings and Pete Seeger’s, too.  Not a day goes by without some of each.  Sometimes my grandchildren “listen to the funny music” to humor me.  They will perhaps learn some day; the current “pop” music they listen to – AND WATCH – is execrable, but I love them and they will learn.  I shut out current music in my mind. It’s not music.  It’s noise.

I am moderately tall, and erect, but alas, not statuesque, the result no doubt of my Hungarian peasant background.  I have long wished I was aristocratically tall, but what can one do about unselective forebears except perhaps forbear (I am much given to bad puns and worse jokes.) People often say I am a funny person. I do not choose to pursue that line of thought.  I am merely me.

 Still, I have noticed people turning to look at and admire my posture.  My skin is smooth except for many tiny lines about the eyes, lines mind you, not heavy ropy wrinkles.  My teeth, of course, are all my own, impeccably dentally assisted, and I have a warm, understanding smile not the phony just-the-lips stretch.  I smile readily; I am basically a happy person.

My brown eyes – yes, I would have adored blue or green, but those damn genes did untold mischief – are bright with bad jokes, which I have always  joyously mistaken for wit.  I am in good health, and when some mishap occurs so that disgusting bodily functions need adjusting, I take care of the problems without public acknowledgement.  It’s nobody’s business!  I even prefer not revealing much to the doctor, but  alas, often he guesses.

I neither cook nor bake.  I prefer not to.  The handsome cross-stitched sampler on my refrigerator – not embroidered by me – reads GOD BLESS BIRD’S EYE!  I like the motto: Just like fresh only faster! My household chores are done by a cleaning service, while I’m away.

I have enough money, which I NEVER discuss. An impoverished childhood left me basically stingy!  How much things cost always seems too much.  But I have learned to keep silent about my stinginess. It embarrasses other people.   All except when it comes to taking taxis!  I am congenitally unable to use anything but PUBLIC transportation.   My gifts for my grandchildren are rarely sensible. Why would they be? Their parents should provide those.  I love being a babysitter for my grandchildren.  They are truly beautiful and remarkable and I’m ready even at this late age to take on any stupid challenger who doesn’t agree!

I am something of a jokester, too, but that should be evident  by now.  I am a proud and happy though stingy GRANDMOTHER! 

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It’s been 50 years since the young anthropologist, Owen Lynch, first came to dinner in our small, dark Columbia University apartment and played with our young children. He‘d returned many times since – often fresh from a trip to India – and the children loved him; most adult visitors, particularly “serious” scholars paid scant attention to them.  Children were interruptions.  Not to Owen.  No person was an interruption to him. 

In time he became a prominent and distinguished South Asian scholar, professor, and activist.  He was the authority on the Dalits of India, formerly known as “The Untouchables”- the poorest and most downtrodden of India’s vast population.  This, for Owen, meant doing his fieldwork living and working with them – and writing about them.  And eventually becoming their advocate. He did this with power and eloquence.  He published THE POLITICS OF UNTOUCHABILITY in 1974 and for the rest of his life he championed their cause.  In him, they had a dauntless defender.

In recent years, Owen had been seriously ill and his family had cared for him.  He died in April of this year. The intervening months since his death have allowed healing time for family and friends thus enabling this happy celebration of his life!

 And it was, indeed, happy!  Beginning with charming sibling reminiscences and family anecdotes, old friends’ memories, interspersed with poetry and music that he loved, all followed by a wonderful luncheon of Indian delicacies!  And camaraderie!

 Owen was a presence there among us at Faculty House as he had been all along, a quiet, forceful presence in our lives.  How lucky we were to have known him!

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