The Mind

BY KATHY PERUTZ

as Satan observed, “is its own place and of it self/ can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.   Here is where madness resides, where Blake and Bosch hung out and confusion reigns, sometimes interrupted by sudden illuminations of joy.

It’s partly due to medications. The chemo that’s infused into me, which my blue-eyed Michael friend (part Pan, part Hermes) calls “pouring a bottle of Clorox into your system,” and the pills against pain which must compete with the ones meant to bring on sleep.  Hell is a cocktail of pain and panic, terrible twins like Scylla and Charybdis, disease and cure.

Cure.  The word takes me past curare, the ancient poison of the Amazon, used to coat the tips of arrows for killing large mammals and introduced  to civilization (England) in the late 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh: and then on to fish, fresh salmon from the North Sea cured with brandy or Armagnac, a light vegetable oil, salt, pepper, a touch of sugar and bunches of fresh dill, laid down for a week or more, turned twice a day until the back complains or a day slips past.  I made my gravlax at Christmas time for the party we’d have on Boxing Day or sometimes closer to the new year, when the oddest people showed up, the tree was shimmering and the cats sat under it, purring loudly, blinking into the fire, proud of the warmth and what their home had to offer.  They didn’t touch the gravlax but everyone else did and no matter how much I had made and  sliced paper-thin on small triangles of hard brown bread with the mustard dill sauce, (a bottle of Aquavit standing nearby), it was all consumed.

Cured fish is cooked by marination just as we burn out the cancer by radiation, not fire. Clorox in your veins, Joan of Arc in the brain cells. ( Rouen, Rouen, Est-ce qu’ici que je doive mourir? were her last words.)

And following gravlax my mind takes another turn, to my friend Eli from Finland and the summer I met her in Grenoble, when we both going to summer school at the university to improve our French and lived as paying guests with a family named Perret whose daughters had beautiful names, Monique and Genevieve. The six of us regularly ate together, a meal that inevitably included a jug of really abominable wine, a jug of water and a bowl of sugar, these three ingredients to be combined in our separate glasses according to taste.

Eli had a broad, pretty face, hair the color of wheat and eyes of blue. We became instant friends; she told me many stories about her country, about the crayfish festival at midsummer and the white nights, and the following year I visited her out in the country beyond Helsinki in Kallvik, in her dacha with sauna in the woods.  She was nine months pregnant then and walked barefoot amidst the trees to the lake, where she hauled out a rowboat and rowed us both across, pulling the oars and quoting passages from Joyce as she did.  When we came back to the house she showed me her jars of fil, the yoghurt she made and lined up on the inner windowsill of the kitchen.  When a thunderstorm threatens, she said, all the fil of Finland turns.   She had married a wealthy Swedish-Finn like herself, a man I have never met who seemed wildly eccentric.  Among his habits were traveling to little known places in order to learn their languages.  In winter, in their dacha, he would chop down a tree and drag it into the living room to feed the fire, letting it consume itself at considerable risk to the entire building, not to mention the surrounding forest.

I remember Eli from that time, a young wife, freckled in the sunlight – and then after a hiatus of many decades, when we found each other again through an extraordinary coincidence.   The terrible French teacher at the Alliance Française where I was taking a course didn’t show up one day and we students introduced ourselves to each other.  One of them was Finnish and I asked the question that idiots have asked forever, expecting the only person they know in all of America (or even limiting it to the West Coast, say) to be known to the American they happen to be speaking to.  But this time, of course, it did work.  My classmate turned out to be the best friend of Eli’s sister, and so we took up again, Eli and I, and flew across the ocean several times over the years to renew and maintain our friendship.

The mind skips and jumps. Cure, fish, Eli, France.  Back to the high meadows of Grenoble where I, then 18, liked to wander alone, with my Camus or Baudelaire or Corneille (not in any way a linked trinity, but all decidedly French), feeling very free, liberée and existentialiste.  I took the bus up to the woods and meadows of Prémol and there wandered, and read and stumbled upon a farm where I stopped for fresh cheese and coffee.   Back in Grenoble, France’s glove-making capital,  I looked out from my balcony at the people moving below and saw them as targets, moving pieces of a pattern, any of which could be eliminated.  It was not a very thorough understanding of freedom or philosophy, but it did make me feel sophisticated and alive.

And back again it goes, tense and spiraling, ribboning out to this moment here, in New York, where I am unslept and thinking that maybe it should all stop, not the people walking on the streets of Grenoble in the late 1950’s, but me, the seeing eye, this place from which it all proceeds. The medications, the chemo, the radiation to follow, resistance against the inevitable.  Mainly I am feeling that my mind is a strange thing, that it exists apart from me just as much as it is nearly all of me. It does what it does, goes where it goes – in a flash.  The great hurricane bearing down on Florida where an old school friend lives alone swept me up and I transferred my fear to her because I am vain and it suits me to think that I am not simply concerned for myself.  I am afraid of tomorrow, of the radiation oncologist, and then on to another test of my brain, making this the 7th or 8th of these procedures (MRI’s, CT scans, Pet scan) I have undergone over the last weeks.

            The mind is its own place. . .

But perhaps the strangest aspect of the mind, as it appears to me now, is its quicksilver tossing, rearing from sudden exhilaration to terror, as if someone turned a switch. Last Thursday, accompanied by a good friend, I saw the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, remarkable women both, who decided to “manage” my care, and set up something like a swat team – the two of them, the Greek spinal surgeon who had operated on me some months back, my oncologist, the radiation oncologist, an internist (at last!), a neuropsychiatrist (to deal with medications) and a social worker.  I left there slightly delirious with joy, as if, instead of having just discussed whether the first priority was the cancer in my spine or the lesions in my brain, we had come to a joyful resolution.  The euphoria remained for a long time, and even though I felt it was unseemly, I couldn’t get rid of it.  Floating on air until the crash came and took with it not only the joy but all calm, all control.  From order to chaos, heaven to hell.

I exchanged emails with the neurosurgeon and her nurse practitioner, who wrote, in response to my enthusiasm: Great things happen when strong women come together in one small exam room!  I was feeling it, disembodied joy, like Blake’s.  Like the joy of Keats’, bursting against his palate fine.  Joy like laughter, because life was funny and meeting someone you liked and admired, someone who clicked, was about the best that could happen.  Or for no reason at all.

Keats wrote his “Ode on Melancholy” shortly before his death at 25.   What we are made of is illusion; the world is a reflection of the mind, and the mind is a giddy thing.

 

Ripe

BY KATHY PERUTZ

The summer of 2003 produced a heat wave like none the Parisians had ever known. Though as it happens (as it did every year) few of them were around when the heat rolled in.  It was August, the dead month of the year, Fermeture Annuelle posted on the shuttered shops and the only people left in the quartiers were a scruffy sort , tourists mainly, Americans who didn’t give a second thought to the prevalence of English everywhere, on the streets and in the restaurants in this month when they were given reprieve from having to say so much as “Bonjour” or “Merci.”  They were handling the heat pretty well, despite the lack of air conditioning, the New Yorkers who, according to one of their mayors were “practical people, they only believe in air they can see,” and those from the hot spots of Florida or Texas, where summer flings her wildflowers across the state in April and doesn’t decamp for the next several months as the earth grows bare, thirsty and piercingly hot.

On the streets a few clochards, perhaps, were bedding down by the Seine in hopes of catching a breeze, a spray or even a shower of mist as the bateaux mouches sailed around the islands in the river, past Notre Dame and the Île St. Louis (“where you can find Bertillon,” the tour guide informs the passengers, ” the famous ice cream”).  As night falls, the spotlights of the cruise ships light up the apartments along the banks, but no one rails against this imposition; the drapes are secured, no light enters.  No one is home in such a tony part of Paris in the month of August.  An impossibility, a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron like a wise old Texas saying or British cuisine.   The residents of the city once known as Lutetia take refuge in their summer homes or travel to exotic places in the South Pacific, to trendy “finds” of the tourist industry, previously unknown island paradises or decaying huts pitched along the steeps of the Himalayas, with all necessary luxuries assured and of course, an excellent chef.  The French have always been adventurous in their hedonism, though they are not a people who admire excess, as in August heat or winter blizzards, unless it is happening somewhere else and leads to an international emergency.

In the summer of 2003 the heat was on all over Europe, though France had the worst of it. 15,000 dead.  The temperature reached the heat of blood and went higher.  100 degrees, 103.5 for the record.  On upper floors all over France, in the garrets and attics even up in the north the heat continued to rise and the old people, condemned to stay home because of their fragility or stubbornness or because the young folks wanted time out, found they couldn’t survive this blast from hell.  Air conditioning was not a French sort of solution, not traditional – who had even heard of it a few generations past? – and since France rarely became uncomfortably hot (records kept since 1540 showed nothing to compare to the inferno of 2003) the old folks persisted as they always had, the morning’s dunked croissant or petit pain, the lunchtime meal with wine and a nap, and no one told them to drink water (water?!) or to remain still, lie in cool baths, and so this extraordinary death march continued unimpeded, neither the city nor the towns taking action, the middle-agers with their young off to their accustomed pleasures while the old people burned.

That is no country for old men. The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees/–Those dying generations! — at their song. . .                                                                – “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats

Maman is dead. The wine is good.

In the vineyards, the grapes ripened so quickly that the annual récolte, the harvest, began weeks earlier than usual; so early that most of it was in before the advent of the traditional return to Paris, known as the Rentrée, a word used for theatergoers returning to their seats after intermission.

***

Paris is living theater, the cafés and boulevards, the young girls and young men wearing the look of those who know they are being looked at; the peanut vendor shouting his wares, the intellectual who happens to look up from his tome at the instant when a babe walks past his table, the book dropping to the ground with just a split second for his hand to reach down and graze her naked legs (pardon, Mademoiselle!) as she passes, giving him a haughty look but not an unfriendly one.

Paris is and was the city of now, the heat of the moment, youth and impetuosity, a meeting of eyes across the sidewalk tables, followed by a stroll, a kiss, the parting of ways, the moment seized and released, life is a river and that river is the Seine, caressing the City of light, love, of bookstores and oculists, perfumers, hairdressers, wines.

The wine was good. Corpses aside, the vintners gathered their grapes, got rid of the raisins (so soon ripe, these grapes, but not with the sweetness of those gathered after first frost, the grapes of ice wine); and by the time we were back in Burgundy two years later, along the route between Macon and Dijon, where we poured new love into an old marriage, the wines of 2003 were ready for drinking.  Not one of the great years of course, not one of those vintages that get memorized by generations to come, but in a small restaurant in Savigny-lès-Beaune the wine was delicious, the young pinot noir having no aspirations to royalty, but so pleasing, so happy that we held hands across the table as we had on our honeymoon (in the photograph that remained on my mother’s desk until she died) and looked deeply into each other’s faces we felt the heat.

* * *

When Germans want to describe how happy they are, how sublimely happy, they say they are “Glücklich wie der Herrgott in Frankreich” – happy as the good Lord in France.

I picture this god as a giant walking astride the vineyards, so tall and so wide that he is everywhere you look, but he is translucent, you see the vineyard through him, a kind of Johnny Appleseed, not sowing seeds but blessing the vines by his presence, blessing them because it is here that he feels at home.

And so do I. And so did Michael.  (So did my mother for that matter, not among the vines so much as in Paris, where she exhibited her graphics – she was a good artist – and at the age of 42 took a lover of 21.)   We traveled through every part of France, Provence to Picardie, Alsace and Lorraine to the breakers of Brittany, and down among the Pyrenees.

* * *

I’ve often said that the first 40 years of marriage are the toughest; after that, it’s all gravy. It’s only a small exaggeration.  Once we had Paris together the “managing” part of marriage gave way to a new sensuous way of being.  It wasn’t so much that sex had changed (though of course it had, ça va sans dire, that goes without saying), but that our lives expanded to a broader sensuousness, especially of food and wine, in a country seeped in the traditions of what makes life pleasurable – the senses of touch and smell, beauty in moments captured by the click! of instant memory like a photograph taken but not developed, as I would often do, saying to Michael: look, that old man, the window sill, the cat: a picture! and he nodded and there it was between us, our invisible photo; and also with the persisting assurance that something happy awaited us, a freshly baked baguette, still warm; the sun hitting his glass of Kir on the marble table top and casting an orange shadow beyond it; baby clothes in a shop window, foie gras at Monoprix, le menu (the prix fixe) at one of the great old brasseries along the Boulevard Montparnasse.

We had that together, and then we entered the late summer of our lives, the late summer that is worse than winter because it brings awareness within a happy time of death just outside.  It’s the summer that Rilke wrote about in one of his sonnets, saying that when summer ends whoever is alone will always remain so, wandering fitfully through the paths as the leaves churn.

We both became very ill. He died.  I continue.  It is nearing the end of summer, the world is a hotter place now than it was in 2003, than it was at any time in recorded history.  I can no longer bear to see or read the news (the Times gets delivered, but if The Blob is on the front page I turn the paper inside out or just throw away the first section), and the murderous lunacy that brought my parents to America in 1938 has returned, and that “rough beast” of Yeats is slouching towards the unthinkable.

Getting Old is Like Feeling Fat

 

BY KATHY PERUTZ

It turns you into something that isn’t you, never was, couldn’t possibly be you, though some people out there and a chorus of inner voices continue to insist this IS you, all right, you (fat) (old) (thing).

Feeling fat doesn’t have to mean you actually are fat, of course – just as not feeling fat doesn’t guarantee that you’re not.  But the feeling, as of dirty laundry being mulched in your mouth, is unmistakable.  It’s a mood or emotion and also a new viewpoint, a rearrangement of your vision, the crunching of your posture, of the way you move, the inability of your feet to stop shuffling.  In the dressing room, you turn slowly – this beautiful outfit, so absolutely YOU a few minutes ago when it was hanging on the store mannequin, has turned into a torture device.  You must weigh at least 350 pounds, an unkind voice barks at you, and even though you know it’s one of your own voices, kept in that box where you have a teacher voice, mother voice, bitsy girl and tough businesswoman voices, along with the alluring, the suspecting and the altogether too glamorous for-you voices, still this unkind voice of your own is now barking like a rabid hound saying Take it Off, take it OFF because there in front of you, plain as the nose on the face in the mirror, you have added 200 pounds in one slow revolution of your extraordinarily elephantine body tightly wrapped in cruel gingham.

You run out of the store, you have a coffee to calm your nerves, you tell yourself that you are suffering from delusion, from heat, from anything you can think of, and you reason with yourself that it is impossible for anyone to gain that much weight that quickly. You have always been a touch on the not-altogether slender side, but then, you never expected to make your living as a fashion model.  Your bones alone would be too heavy.  And people haven’t complained, have they? they seemed to like the breasts and hips and all the contouring that makes the silhouette of a woman different from that of a man.  People have even loved you, you think miserably, knowing that they were all tricked, it was a bad show, and now it was over and time for them to claim their money back.

But a day later, a week later, one afternoon after a lunch you failed to eat in order to tame the calories already raging in your system, someone tries to pick you up (at your age!) and your indignation is as nothing compared to your pleasure, to the relief of having landed back, safely, on the island of the well-shaped, the young, healthy, the sexually desirable.

You will feel too fat again, and then you will have days of feeling slim and fashionable, and so you see-saw through life, never quite at ease with what you have, your senses at the ready to change your perception of yourself in an instant.

 

Getting old is like that. Comes and goes in spells and aches.  It may be that you’re past 80 and still see yourself, as my husband Michael did, as the same lad who could easily carry a clutch of suitcases down the stairs or run for the bus just taking off across the street.  And one day, boom! “I feel today I have gotten old,” he announces, as he has on other days, and will on many more.  Because on this day the joints ache or the eyes strain while reading.  Because he can’t be bothered by the folderol of news that is churned out every day, every minute, disturbing our universe. Or it will be before a surgery that he, that I, may not survive.  Or looking at the photos on a grandchild’s smartphone showing the passing of years, the hollowed cheeks, the skin that once was rose now closer to pea green.

 

Most of the time what we’re feeling when we feel old is a sense of dislocation: we are not who we were and the world has shifted, along with word usage, grammar and of course to us now, the preposterous invention of the internet that simply begs people to become illiterates so they will never be alone. But then, the old ways are not worth keeping up.  It’s become too tiresome to again have a dinner party and have to plan it, shop for it, prepare it, cook it, serve it, clean up after it. . . . Just too much effort.  A wild expense of energy that will not benefit us or our offspring one bit in the grand scheme of survival.  And we know it’s ebbing away, that life has not a long way to run; and as we become aware of that, everything seems to fall inward like Alice’s playing cards: we are not physically strong enough to do this or that, our body has betrayed us once more; our thoughts are fleeting, they start as strong distinct streams and not long after peter out in a dry ditch.  Our friends are dying.  Simple colds turn into pneumonia.  Childhood moves closer, dead friends reappear and yes, even heaven awaits the atheist because of a small cat who might, just might, be dwelling there.

And then you become afraid – of the next diagnosis, of the “cure,” with all its side effects and consequences; of the need to cancel plans, of your inability creeping up on you – do you dare to drive? can you drink the way you did? Why is his touch so boney, her lips so cold?

Because you are old, says the voice, because you are old.

And the night comes and in it you fear desiccation and negation, life is not tolerable, and you drift off and re-enter in the morning to soft light spilling out from the sides of the blinds, and something stirs in your chest, a small flutter or a gentle breeze and you realize you are alive, you will get well, you are not lost, not over, you will rise again, your phoenix self, as bouncy and funny as ever you were.

And you realize it wasn’t age at all that had you in its maw, but illness, something very different, though as much a concomitant of age as slenderness of youth. But we can be young and plump and middle-aged and slim, and we can be old with no plaints or aches, and in that way we can be free of age because we have conquered it through spirit.  Just as John Donne tells the specter: “Death, thou shalt die,” so we now, getting older, are just a little smarter than others, know just a bit more, have been round the block (and peered in all the windows) and know what we know.  Let the world see us how it will, and let the dumb mimicking voices repeat what the chattering world is saying, but I am not feeling fat, I am feeling fine.  And I am not getting old, just biding my time.

 

Philip Roth, The New Yorker and Me

 

A few weeks ago The New Yorker published an essay by Philip Roth in which the last paragraph, a long one, begins: “A Newark Jew – why not?  But an American Jew?  A Jewish American. . .”  He ends the paragraph and the piece by saying, “As a novelist, I think of myself. . . as a free American . . .writing in the rich native tongue by which I am possessed.”

I was thrilled to read this, to have the imprimatur of as great a writer as Roth on what I myself believe, and in gratitude wrote a Letter to the Editor, presenting myself as an unmodified American writer.

My letter, when it appeared in the June 26th issue, was considerably shortened and though it contained the nut of what I was saying, there wasn’t space enough to amplify my point, or points.

Here is the original:

Philip Roth’s essay on “American Names” ends on a small note, how you call yourself, and by this reminds us how far afield we are from the time when we were all unhyphenated Americans. My parents came from Central Europe in 1938, but I was simply American.  In the early ‘sixties I went to England, a young writer, and met other writers who, to my amazement, defined themselves as Jews.  Brian Glanville, writer of tough football novels.  Harold Pinter.  I went to a party and a woman named Miranda Rothschild ran over to embrace me and call me “sister.”   I thought they were all nuts.  A close friend, Errol John, a Trinidadian actor (Othello at the Old Vic) and playwright, winner of the Observer Prize for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, walked off a BBC panel that demanded to know his views on racism in the U.S. “I am a writer, not a politician,” he said. Brigid Brophy, a well-regarded critic, reviewed a book of mine for The New Statesman, (later reprinted in a book collection of what were considered seminal essays), saying that if my photo hadn’t been on the jacket and my first name only an initial, no one could have told my age or sex. That’s what we were aiming for, we writers, and it was the highest praise: to be indistinguishable from the worlds we made and lived in.  The current practice of qualifying “American” by race, background, sex or anything else, growing ever more divisive under our present government, takes away our wholeness and leaves us (almost) as empty as our leaders.

You can google the shorter version published in the magazine. Basically, I was trying to make two points, about the unhyphenated American and the unhyphenated writer.  Writers of Roth’s generation, those born in and just after the Second World War, took two things for granted: 1) the American dream (we are all Americans, no matter what we look like, where we came from and all that rot) and 2) the belief that a work of art is a thing in itself, not to be explained or approached as an artifact produced by such and such a member of such and such a sub group at a particular time or location.  A novel, if it succeeds, reminds us of no one so much as ourselves: we learn from it, and sometimes understand ourselves better.  Reading is a way of traveling though both inner and outer space.  It doesn’t matter a damn if we share the same sexual orientation or racial characteristics, hair color or nose shape; whether we do or don’t believe in anything beyond or within ourselves; what matters is that the work of art leads us somewhere new, gives a fresh perspective, entertains, enlightens or perhaps transforms us.

I was having this conversation last week at Pete’s Tavern over a couple of great and greasy burgers with a brilliant literary agent. “Most authors now want that,” she said, “they want to be identified as women or Jews or addicts or whatever the main selling point is.”

I was aghast. “You’re kidding.”

She shook her head. “No. Yes.  It’s what the writers want, and the publishers want, and the sales reps want.  It’s what people buy.”

Everything is about sales. It’s always been about sales to those in the business of publishing and selling books.  And even writers want to make money.  But to many authors the act of writing – which is discovery as well as invention – often serves as its own reward.  I have writer friends who say (as I do), I can’t believe anyone would actually PAY me for doing this, because writing is living and we can’t think of anything we’d rather do.

Gathering information is one thing, but it isn’t literature and it doesn’t provide you with a new frame of reference or reality. Read everything you can find about whales, but you won’t find Ahab or Starbuck or Moby Dick; you won’t have the adventure of a lifetime in the contest between good and evil.  Study intellectual trends of the early 20th century, illness, the Alpine air of Switzerland, but you will not be transformed by Hans Castorp as you ascend The Magic Mountain.  Yet readers and (if my agent friend is right, even writers) now regard a book, any book, as simply a form of processing information, and the industry responds to the book buyer’s supposed pursuit: because I am a lesbian, I want or read about lesbians by a lesbian, or: because I am fat, I want to read about fat people by a fat person.

When Philip Roth says I am an American, or I am a writer, the nearly boundless category gives him all the freedom in the world. He defines himself as American writer because the language he uses to write is American – not French or Chinese or even British – just as a painter in oils will define herself as that, and not a watercolorist.  It’s a description of the medium or the materials used in composing the piece.  A Jewish writer, a Jewish-American writer (or a woman writer) –  these are caricatures, stereotypes.  They claim to define but instead mislead, because though a writer’s life may provide material for the work, it isn’t the particulars of that life that matters, it’s the work.  And the work succeeds through its universality.  Ever since Cervantes blended into Don Quixote, writers have created worlds shaped out of their own experience, other people’s stories and thin air, their selfhood on hold as they become the conduit that brings the book into being.

TRANS : On Pride Day, 2017

 

They met through a friend, a goodly grizzled large man who owned a small press and a literary “little” mag that published whatever he found interesting, intellectually or artistically, including work by his friends.  Giselle, who despite her name was not French, wrote poetry.  They’d  been talking about the sexes, a common topic in the early 80’s, and in particular about those people who didn’t fit the Procrustean bed of real male or real female.  “You’ll like Jock,” said the editor, “he’s transitioning.”

“Jock? Really?”

The editor gave her one of his great wide grins, famous on the streets of lower Manhattan. “His woman’s name is Fawn.  He’s a professor out at Indiana.  Wrote a few dozen books.  Funny guy.  My best friend.”

Jock Drake was younger than their mutual friend but not by much. Certainly beyond Dante’s midway point on the road of life when he finds himself in a deep forest where the way (out) has been lost.  Jock had been married twice, had several daughters, lived with both of his former wives and their children, supporting this emphatically feminine household through his job at the university and the parade  of books he produced on topics from archeological excavations in Macchu Pichu to eschatology and the new politically-charged Sociobiology of E.O. Wilson.  Jock’s first wife, a Peruvian, had earned a Ph.D. (Indigenous Music) during her marriage to him and the second wife, too, was just completing her dissertation for a doctorate in Physics.  When Giselle and Jock met (at the Figaro Café on MacDougall and Bleecker, where Who Knows Lorca? was scribbled on the wall of the Ladies Room) he poured out his life story as easily as he lifted the pitcher to fill her glass with more Sangria.  He was now undergoing hormone treatment, he said, devised by his Brazilian mistress, a plastic surgeon.  She, like his wives, wanted him to keep his penis.

“For some reason,” he told Gisele, “they like my penis. Or simply a penis. Frankly, I don’t see it.”

It was then the mid eighties, the closing years of the century and millennium in the slim apron of time before the new era opened up on the wide world of the internet, cell phones, social media and Political Correctness. The current forms of stereotype and anti-stereotype had not yet been cast, and though of course there was black/white, man/woman, hetero/homo, rich/poor, youth/age and all the other divisions and categorizations so dear to analyzers of voting patterns, we were still by and large Americans, all of us, unhyphenated, bare of modifiers and not preceded with adjectival introductory matter alluding to family origin, ethnicity, race, age, religion or sexual preference.  That last above all.   In the 80’s we still cavorted in the Eden of our naiveté.  Though sex was in the air and most of us were giddy with doing it or just talking about it, the “culture” in general, meaning what the big white whale of America had swallowed whole before being forced to spit it out a quarter century or more later, was white, male and heterosexual, despite the Aids crisis (1985, Band Aid: We are the World, We are the children), when even the people we knew were dying, many of them disowned by parents so god-fearing they could condemn their first-borns or their one and onlies to the eternal fires of hell if they so much as put their penis in the wrong hands, or worse. (Mothers of gay sons were usually more savage than parents of gay daughters.)  Of course Hollywood was gay and so were a lot of other professions (not every gay man a hairdresser), but the sham covered the rock of fact, and homosexuality was relegated to artists, bohemians, and people in the fashion trade, as well as “sissies” and such.  Anything beyond that, including the observations and evidence that have become part of our current mantra of Political Correctness, was disregarded,, even though hermaphroditic children – babies with superfluity of sexual characteristics – were a medical fact (and problem), and the concept of sexual reassignment had been introduced to readers of  the Daily News thirty years earlier in the 1950’s when Christine Jorgensen went from guy (a soldier!) to gal.  But we were still in our American-manufactured fog up to the 1980’s, trying to eke sustenance out of Wonder bread and accepting the standards of the Wundermenschen – white, male and straight – with Berlin Cabaret (1972 for the movie), John Waters (Polyester! with Divine, 1981)  and the limp pansy with a penciled mustache in pink or lilac shirts who sold shoes at Tall Gals on Fifth Avenue for those of us whose feet (mine) were larger than the largest size carried in the stores, typified what a  New Yorker might recognize as gay, though gay wasn’t yet the term, with “fairy” being preferred and the butt [sic] of jokes, except for English fairies who sang: We’re queer because/We’re queer because/We’re queer because/We’re queer.

Evenings, Jock told Gisele, he sometimes went out in the university town in drag with his daughters, calling himself Fawn. They’d go to a club, usually, music and drinking.  Always had a great time.  The girls loved it.

Giselle surveyed his broad chest, listened to his deep voice and had an idea. It was not an unusual one; in fact it was the idea she’d had from the moment she heard about Jock.  Jock paid (he insisted) and they strolled up towards her apartment on west 13th Street. All her life she had been aware of the twin forces in herself, the male and female.  She often worried about not being “feminine” enough, not able to follow the practice of trying to appear less intelligent than the man so he would not be intimidated.  Not always able to wait for him to make the first move when her lust was kindled.  She was now extremely curious to know what making love with someone who had breasts and a penis would be like.  More hetero or more homo?  As soon as they walked into her apartment she poured each of them a gin with a dash of tonic, ice, and a sliver of lemon.  She wrapped napkins around the glasses so their hands wouldn’t be too cold and they took the drinks to the bedroom.

His breasts were small on the large chest, but the nipples were erect and to feel, taste the nipples while he spoke to her in his deep voice was very exciting. He wanted her to put on something kinky if possible, but all she could find was her Fredericks of Hollywood black lace jumpsuit.  She got into it, no underwear, and spread her legs, but he couldn’t tear the material (elastic) with his penis.  He found a scissor and carefully cut a hole in it.  Then he could do it. She watched, the black lace spreading, tearing as he thrust and it was wonderful.

Afterwards they drank the remains of their gin and tonics. He told her of the place in Paris, outside the Pompidou in the Beaubourg, where cross-dressers and trans congregated.  He would like to take her there, he said.  And then bring her home to Indiana, where she could live with his wives and daughters, and his Brazilian mistress.  He loved her, he said.

She was touched. Really, she would love to go to Paris with him and join the festival of people, faces, bodies from all over the globe assembling in that great medieval square of jugglers and magicians, children squealing with joy and people eating swords and fire.  She’d been to Paris, she knew the spot, and the Café Coste in the corner of the square where the Ladies Room was in the catacombs.  It would be  heavenly, she thought, but she said she’d think about it, knowing that her husband and kids would be returning from their trip to New Hampshire on Friday.  There might be a few awkward hours at first, but by next day they’d be the same old family again.  Except, she thought, they never were and never had been the same old family.

She kissed Jock good night and promised to see him next day, his last in the city. She thought she might write a book about him, The Man Who Was Everyone, or something like that. We can be everything we want to be, she said to herself.  We just have to do it, he answered.

Tiresias, the blind prophet who was born a man and turned into a woman for seven years was asked who has the greater pleasure in sex, man or woman? It is rumored he chose woman, but then again it may have been for the novelty.  Or because as a man he made love to women and probably hoped he was giving them the highest form of satisfaction.  At any rate, it’s an unquenchable question, and in a life we only get to live once, those who are able to expand it in any way, reach for the extremities of what being human is, those people, it seems to me, are the ones who bring us a new understanding of limits and possibilities; they redefine us.  From Plato through Hedwig, hermaphroditic snails to the man-woman in each of us, we are everybody; We are the World.

 

 

 

Autres Temps, Autres Moeurs: From my Grandmother to my Granddaughter

My grandmother Helene was always old.  In the photos I have of her she’s peering cautiously into my baby carriage as if unsure whether a python or small tiger might not be wrapped inside.  Her hair is white or gray hair (the photos are tiny, shiny, black and white), and she’s wearing a dark dress with sleeves going down well past her wrists, her collar rising halfway up her neck to end, reluctantly, in a rim of lace or chiffon from the dickey inside her dress.  In memory I see her pale blue eyes, long nose, her unyielding expression of – what? something between disapproval and indifference.  But on her wedding picture she’s something else, blonde and wasp-waisted, as was the fashion in Austria, the legacy of Empress Elisabeth, known as Sissi, whose waist measured 16 inches and who was the best horsewoman in Europe, not to mention a Shakespeare scholar.

Oma, as I called her, was no Sissi. But she could speak French and play the piano, two requisites for a marriageable young lady in late nineteenth-century Vienna.  Her marriage was arranged, she the daughter of a wealthy bourgeois family, Jewish but non-observant; her husband, considerably older, an industrialist who had attained the point in life when a man seeks a wife.  Leopold was Herr Direktor of the Austro-Americana steamship line, which sounds like an oxymoron since Austria is a landlocked country, except that it was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a port in Trieste, where his ships regularly plied freight and passengers to and from New York.

“Love?” Oma said to me on a weekend in the late 1950’s when I was home from college, “What is all this ‘love?’ I never was in love in my life.”

I looked at her in amazement. Incredulity actually.  I was 18 and this was simply not possible: to say you had never loved was an admission that you’d failed Life.  No one confessed to such a thing.

And yet I admired her hard honesty. She was without guile, like a child to whom no one has yet explained how things work.  Not to have loved!  That was something to be hidden away and never revealed to anyone. Certainly not to your granddaughter.  And despite my fondness for nihilism at the time, despite the Existentialists I loved as a French major, despite everything, I was shocked.  The ultimate meaning of life had to be love, didn’t it?

She did not love, though she depended on my father and preferred him to anyone, much to the annoyance (a mild word for it) of her daughter. And she didn’t feel slighted by the gods.  Life was like that.  She had her piano, she loved Chopin, she wasn’t very bright, but she dunked her lady fingers in her coffee like everyone else, and she brought out little curios from her vitrine, souvenirs her husband had brought back from his trips – a row of tiny ivory elephants holding one another trunk to tail; the three monkeys, See No, Hear No and Speak No Evil – and we played with them when I came to visit, or we turned apples into “cakes”by cutting horizontal slices and ornamenting them with little bits of fruit, raisons, chocolate, nuts, which we then ate at the marble side table with its bowed legs, holding up our pinkies like elegant ladies.

“Why are they smiling?” Oma asked, frowning at the TV in the guest room. “What is so funny?”

The American part of me wanted to say, because it’s more pleasant, but the other me, who’d grown up speaking German along with English, suddenly agreed with her. They did look ridiculous.  They were smiling in the ads, I told her, only for the money.

Helene was born in 1874. Her eldest son was killed in the first World War at the age of 18.  After her husband died, after Hitler came to Europe, her life was without expectations. A walk-up apartment in Washington Heights, the figures in her vitrine, her music, a sense of propriety and her refusal to kiss or be kissed, based on her always-repeated assertion that she’d had tuberculosis when she was young and didn’t want anyone to catch it.  She lived to the age of 93.  I would take an oath that she never enjoyed sex, no matter how accidental, in her life.

*

Dolly, my mother, was born into a wealthy family in Beroun, a suburb of Prague where her father Otto had a textile factory. She had the sort of growing up I recognized from Russian novels: the Kindermädchen (nanny) gave way to the governess, the French tutor, the tennis coach (the Hellmanns had their own court); food was elegant (game in season; marmalade on toast for my Anglophile grandfather’s breakfast) and at the same time rustic, gathered locally (wild mushrooms) or grown on their own land, the prized white asparagus carefully nurtured under its cover so no trace of sunlight could enable the formation of chlorophyll to turn the spears green.

Though her brothers and sister went to university and received doctorates, Dolly (the “pretty one”) never went to school at all, but was tutored at home through high school. This became her Achilles heel.  Though she was certainly intelligent, intuitive and a gifted artist, she struggled with words, sentences, the patterns of thought that formal education maps in the brains of students whether or not they notice.

Dolly was relegated to her prettiness, thick auburn hair piled on her head, an elegant profile and the high cheekbones of Queen Nefertiti. She stole the boyfriends of her sister Eva, a year and a half older, intense, an intellectual.  Dolly married my father Tino in 1933 when she was 24 and not a virgin, although he was.

Six years into their marriage, at last in America, they had me. We lived in Queens in a semi-detached house in Forest Hills for the first two years of my life and then Kew Gardens, in a house of our own with white mountain laurel and purple lilacs in the backyard.

We each had a bedroom on the second floor opposite the bathroom.  I thought nothing of my parents’ sleeping arrangements of course, children never think other lives are different from their own, just as it didn’t occur to me that not every kid in Queens had old ladies in her attic (after the war, refugees stayed with us; I remember none of them individually but they all wore black and I was told to address them as “Tante,” Auntie.)

Dolly had the big room facing the street with a tiny dressing room attached; then came Tino’s room, then mine. We were three people after all, of course we would have three rooms.  Just look at the Three Bears, or the Three Little Pigs, or – anybody.  (In this same spirit, a generation later, our son ran home one day with the astonishing news that the parents of his best friend down the street had the same name, both of them!  Mr. T met Mrs. T and they got married!  Wasn’t that amazing?   Since my husband and I were different people with different last names, our son naturally assumed the world was like that.)

I must have been a very slow learner.  It wasn’t until Junior High that a friend of mine commented on the separate bedrooms.  Instantly, I was on the defensive.  But in the next few weeks I paid attention when I was over at a friend’s house and realized that all of their parents shared a room, if not actually a bed.  I didn’t know what to make of this but felt an indefinable shame.  My parents were not like other parents.  At that age I needed them to be, but there was no way I could tell them (something vast and mysterious was behind all of this, I felt) and there wasn’t a chance in the world they would have listened.  That their choice of sleeping quarters was common among the bourgeoisie of Central Europe, as of France, I had no idea.

Later, my parents’ infidelities (especially my father’s) were to cause me a lot of grief. Enough to act as catalyst for what would become a year-long “nervous breakdown,” a popular concept in the 1950’s and something many people had, or at least alluded to.  But I was fifteen, and it incapacitated me.  I adored my father and somehow felt the indiscretion that I had uncovered (through letters) was directed at me.  It involved a much younger woman.

Perhaps they were never sexually compatible, my parents.  I think that for my father the bond that made them (and us) a family created something of an incest taboo; he was unmanned by family.  Many years later, after Dolly had died and I became friends with Tino’s girlfriend, he found it difficult to continue his affair.  But he was not looking for permanence in any case.  For him it was the game and not the candle.  He was Viennese; he waltzed, skied, told wonderful stories and adored women.  They responded in measure.  For him an affair was more opera than Hollywood.  Love was something rare and fleeting, woven together by charm.  Once consummated, an affair would begin to fade, the passions of courtship evaporating into the atmosphere of everyday living like letters written on the sky, though many of the women remained lifetime friends.

My mother, too, had lovers – including a young man in Paris when she had an exhibition in the Galerie du Dragon on the left bank, she in her early forties, he in his mid-twenties. Dolly was more discrete than Tino (or maybe women simply know how to hide things better), but in the end neither of them would have considered these affairs as anything other than the lagniappe life has to offer, caviar by the spoonful. Together they were a wonderful pair, their looks, their taste, their marvelous dinners, beautiful clothes; they performed together as a couple, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of their circle, “perfect for each other,” as I would be told again and again, the most charming duo to set foot in the New World.

My parents told me not to marry the first man I went to bed with and as corollary, either do or don’t, but don’t play around.  This was unnecessary advice during my high school years since I didn’t know any boys.  (My psychoanalyst told me when I was 15 that at my age I should be necking at the back of movie theaters.  I told him he was trying to make me a well-adjusted member of a crazy society.)

In college, a virgin among virgins, I didn’t have much conflict with the differing values of my parents and my peers at Connecticut College for Women (formerly “for Females” and later to turn coed.)  It was on my final night there, end of sophomore year when I knew I’d be transferring to Barnard that I asked a handsome young layabout who spent his time trolling the colleges of the daisy chain and crooning songs from Pal Joey, to please help me get rid of my virginity.  I was eighteen, and it was simply an embarrassment.

He said ok, we went back to his place, the deed was done (we’d both had a lot to drink) and when I asked him if that was all, he replied, “Some people seem to like it.”

I was skeptical. “Not what it’s cracked up to be, is it?” I said and put my clothes back on.

He drove me back to the dorm. Next day my father picked me up and we went to visit to a factory, where I was beside myself with joy, all those people and I was just like them: a grown up, no longer a virgin!

*

In May of 2003, nearly 130 years after my grandmother Helena was born, my son’s daughter was placed in my arms.   She’s fourteen now, lithe and perky, a virgin like me at that age, like her great-grandmother and her great-great grandmother.  But around her the internet beckons, offering the greatest freedom (if that’s really the word for it) that mass society has ever known.  Social media can apparently undo centuries of moralizing; and modern birth control, coupled with anti-AIDS pills give dispensation to everyone of any gender to do anything at all with no consequences.

But there are always consequences. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell offered two views of the future: in Orwell’s, a totalitarian government represses the people, giving them no access to pleasure.  In Huxley’s Brave New World everything goes, and because nothing is proscribed or even limited, value ekes out. My grandmother lived in the former: duty was the supreme virtue of the Empire.  My granddaughter in modern America faces a world of surplus, with no limitations, and nothing (theoretically) beyond her reach.

My grandmother wasn’t conscious of loving anyone; my granddaughter, like most of the people around her, says “I love you” all the day long.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;/ Present mirth hath present laughter;/ What’s to come is still unsure:/In delay there lies no plenty;/Then come kiss me, sweet-and-twenty;/Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Selfie

BY KATHY PERUTZ

Here I am, an old man in a dry month/being read to by a boy, waiting for rain. . . 

-T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion”

Not an old man but an old woman. Not a dry month but the wettest of the year: April, that fool of a month, April, whose showers come your way/[and] bring the flowers/that bloom in May, though when the showers come and you are waiting for spring, they bring nothing but the blues.  Old blues, Chicago blues, blues in the night – regretting instead of forgetting/ with somebody new. . .

It’s Saturday night after my cataract surgery, the left eye now able to see what the right eye can’t, its lens dulled and yellowed by the mists of time, my own. Through my right eye my face is blurred and therefore young.  But my left eye, newly peeled and lens replaced, looks into the mirror and sees that I am old as the hills, wrinkles spreading like cracks over parched earth, webbing my face in a net, a widow’s veil now Michael is dead, my mate of 50 years.  I’m sitting at the dining table with my radio and  vodka.  Not a pretty picture.  I hold it at arm’s length, the way the kids do when photographing themselves over and over, smiling into their own lens like lunatics, “Hey me, It’s ME!”

The radio sits next to my vodka on the table, WNYC on the FM dial while I eat my spinach with a poached egg on top. The music is mellow, Saturday night, and Jonathan Schwartz is the DJ.  He must be a million years old by now.  Not so much, not a million.  He  plays the music his generation loves, the slow languorous melodies that bring instant nostalgia  even if you didn’t listen to them when you were young.  Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Ella, Nat King Cole – of course the names are familiar.  “April in Paris,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “These Foolish Things,” all that lovely stuff, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter blending with the vodka, so mellow. . .

And I’m back in London, early 1960’s, in the flat on Tottenham Street, which runs off Tottenham Court Road and into Charlotte Street with all its international eating places, Schmidt’s delicatessen for sausages and the White Tower restaurant at the end, very fancy, rows of wineglasses at each setting (all “clarets,” as they called Bordeaux) at a dinner party given by an American with too much money, puffing out his chest like a pigeon.

I was living there for the nonce, the way I lived in many parts of London then, not squatting because I did pay rent, but moving from one place to another as their owners or tenants left town for a while.  The tenant of the Tottenham Street flat was off to India for a year I believe, to do good works.  Certainly the place was good for me, good in memory.  For a while I shared it with my friend Mike, an American painter, whose studio was nearby but it was a simple loft, no furnishings and the room he rented was so far north that he’d inevitably have to take a taxi home after our evenings together, dinner and long talks afterwards,  by which time the underground had stopped running.  We talked and talked, about art, life, about how our parents fucked us up or didn’t, the dreams we had and how the symbols in them worked, the unconscious puns revealing/concealing our Freudian underpinnings. One day we calculated that Mike was spending more on cab fare than I would on rent if we pooled it, and so he moved in.

It was fun for both of us. Sharing my flat with a man, whose shaving stuff cluttered the bathroom sink pleased me, while he probably felt some satisfaction at seeing my nylons hanging on the clothesline stretched over the tub.  We were friends, not lovers, and our living arrangement gave us stability (and me protection), which meant I could cavort wherever and with whomever I pleased in the afternoon and then come home, free to have dinner with Mike at the local Indian or the Transylvania Grill in Soho, all-you-can-eat for 7/6 (7 shillings sixpence – roughly a dollar), or on Mondays  in the Grill Room at the Regent Palace Hotel rounding the corner of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, great silver trolleys holding large joints, with your choice of lamb, beef or pork carved in front of you for not much more than that.  No pressure, we went Dutch, we had fun.

During the day Mike was off in his studio painting and I in the flat typing a novel on my Olivetti. Sometimes one or the other of us was traveling somewhere.  We never seemed to get in each other’s way.  Early morning, the bakery below our tiny kitchen would start baking its boring white bread, though the smells that filtered up were as magnificent as if we’d been in Paris, sniffing the boulangerie’s baguettes and croissants.  Breakfast was fresh-brewed coffee and the aroma from downstairs.

One evening, after dinner but not too late, the doorbell rang downstairs and I peered out to see a young man waving up at me from the pavement.  I didn’t catch the name but he said he was a friend of Bob M., who’d given him my address.  So of course I let him in.

He came up the stairs and when I opened the door there he was: Jonathan Schwartz.  The very same.  In another country a long long time ago.  I can’t remember what he looked like, what he was wearing, nothing at all except his name and that I told him he could stay a night or two. The Bob who’d sent him was a lovely boy, very pale with long tapering fingers and a thin nose forming a triangle at the tip.  I’d met him through a  new magazine in New York called Show, for which I’d done an interview with Joseph Heller in England when his Catch-22 came out there  (“Me and Dostoyevsky. . .” he began.)  We’d both been invited to the literary festival  in Cheltenham, he as the current star of  English-language literature and I because I was young, published (novel) and living in England.  We did the interview in his limo returning to London, the car seat so low, my legs so long and skirt so tight that it kept falling down my thighs and Joe said I was the first woman he’d met who wore her skirt like a bikini. Show published my piece, and when I went back to New York for a visit I met Bob.  I remember his apartment on the west side where he served me canapés he had prepared on a tray. Later in the evening he read me Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Eros Turranos,” which took my breath away.  Still does.  (“The falling leaf inaugurates/The reign of her confusion. . . .” )

The other memory of Bob comes from a later date, though not much later because I was still unmarried at the time, though now living in New York permanently. He phoned out of the blue and invited me to lunch.  He had just become engaged, he said, and wanted me to meet his fiancée.  I was touched by this, though when the time came I didn’t show up and didn’t call to explain.

A long time ago. I couldn’t tell him the reason.  Couldn’t tell anyone.   In those days abortion was illegal except when the life of the mother was threatened.  But many psychiatrists in the city were sympathetic to those of us who couldn’t or didn’t want to go through with the pregnancy.  It was all rushed and hushed up and there was no way to tell him and afterwards I found I had no number for him, no address, and I never spoke to Bob again.   But here is old Jonathan Schwartz on the radio, his voice susurrating into the mike before he puts on another song, and it all comes back in an instant, the flat on Tottenham Street, and Mike and Bob and everything that is past  –  and the music goes round and round and it comes out here, on a Saturday night, the loneliest night of the week, (cause that’s when my baby and I used to dance cheek to cheek) and the music is languorous and wafts around me like cigarette smoke and comforts me in a way because everything is past, my husband is dead, England has voted itself out of Europe and America has entered upon an unchartered course on a pirate ship whose captain is a madman.  But the old music plays, Jonathan Schwartz is still very much alive and kicking, A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces. . .

Oh! how the ghost of you clings, these foolish things. . .

Mad Kings and Fairy Tales

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

Once upon a time (in the latter part of the 19th century), there lived a king who rode out in the night, his horses cantering by the light of the moon until the first hint of dawn, when his coachman turned the horses’ heads towards home. He was a fairy king living in a fairy palace and also a very real king who ruled over the land known as Bavaria.  This was Ludwig the Second, otherwise known as Mad King Ludwig or the Moon King, Swan King, Märchenkönig (Fairy Tale King) and other names earned through his pursuit of beauty, as he saw it, and his neglect of public affairs and duties, as court intrigue and some of his citizens claimed. His life style was certainly extraordinary.  He ate so many cream pastries that his teeth rotted away.  Often, his sole dinner companion was his mare, Miss Grey who joined him at a table lavishly set with fine china, silver and crystal, the table and its provisions having been sent up via a pulley system from the kitchen below. They ate companionably as a rule, but from time to time Miss Grey (an English name with English spelling), who, despite being an equine was not always of an equable disposition, would kick her legs and send the table with its contents flying.  Then His Majesty would pull on a golden rope, the ruined table and smashed dishes would descend to the kitchen and a new, freshly-laid table would rise up in its place.

One of the Grimm’s fairy tales of a father with three sons, is called “Tischlein Deck Dich” in German (“Little table, deck thyself”) and might have entered Ludwig’s imagination as a child.  A great Romanticist in the German tradition (which included the brothers Grimm and their massive project of collecting the folk and fairy tales of the country). Ludwig became an intense admirer of Richard Wagner, the man and his work. Wagner’s operas, comprising the Ring of the Niebelungen and others, were based on Norse epics and Germanic sagas, the source of Wagnerian mythology.  At Ludwig’s main castle of Neuschwanstein, where still now thousands of tourists flock daily and which Disney took as his model for the palace of Sleeping Beauty, Ludwig built a grotto of Venus (nearly half a century before the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams), a cave containing a lake where swans glide across the surface and the painted scenery makes a perfect backdrop for a young Lohengrin or Siegfried to step forth before a small audience of royal visitors as colored lights play over the water and the grotto fills with music.

Neuschwanstein was only one of his castles. The others were also massive building projects, constructed with rich materials (thousands of tons of marble) and in styles that never ventured far from “Castle Romanticism,” an obvious precursor of Hollywood Extravaganza, fabulous and fantastic, built to accommodate the longings of a lonely monarch who had never committed himself to adulthood and chose instead to live in fairyland.

Perhaps some readers are now thinking of our current pre-adolescent Ruler and his many “palaces,” but this would be unjust to Ludwig, whose passion was for art, for a higher calling, a yearning for the glory of former times, but hardly what Trump envisions with his lost America. Ludwig’s had nothing to do with jobs or deregulation. His world was peopled by Rhine maidens and speaking swords, and “greatness” did not lie in amassing huge amounts of money, avoiding taxes, stiffing employees, selling one’s country’s birthright for a mess of rubles and considering the arts, sciences, rights of man and the continued existence of the planet as basically a waste of time. As for pussy-grabbing, Ludwig decidedly had no interest.  A homosexual at a time when this inclination simply did not exist or at best was considered depraved, he had no intimates except for his cousin Elisabeth, known as Sissi.  The Empress of Austria-Hungary, she was a great beauty with a 16-inch waist, one of Europe’s top horsewomen and something of an intellectual as well.  She spoke and read many languages, built herself a small pink palace on the island of Corfu in Greece and secluded herself there, away from Emperor Franz-Josef and his stodginess, devotion to duty, mistresses and lack of fantasy.  In Greece, she translated Shakespeare, wrote her own poetry, and insisted on conversing with the Queen of Greece in Greek, a language the imported majesty could speak not a word of, being of an aristocratic German family and lacking the wit or will to learn even so much as the language of her subjects.

Elisabeth and Ludwig were childhood playmates, companions on their flights of imagination. “My Eagle!” she called him; and she was his Swan. They were Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, a family that married into the royalty of almost all European powers, though these two did not have the temperament for governance.  Both of them tried (Ludwig II ascended the throne at the age of 18, the same age as Sissi’s Franz Josef when he became emperor), and were successful to some degree, but they lived for art and beauty, they courted speed and needed solitude, monarchs larger than life but at the same time skittish and shy, like wild creatures caught in their respective cages.  Both of them ended badly, Sissi shot to death by an anarchist just outside Geneva; Ludwig mysteriously drowned in a few inches of water in Lake Starnberg.

They were mad perhaps; certainly they were passionate; Sissi helped cement the twin nations of Hungary and Austria into one empire, but then she absconded. The terrible death of her son Crown Prince Rudolph at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in a double suicide pact with his young mistress Mary Vetsera was more than she could bear.  Like her, Rudolph was a liberal, a multi-nationalist, a writer.  He was continually hounded and spied upon by both the German Kaiser and his own father’s ministers.  His death changed the possible future of Europe and drove his mother into her self-enforced exile in her pink Greek villa.

Ludwig’s death had come earlier. In June of 1886 Ludwig was deposed and taken prisoner at Berg, a gloomy castle by the shores of Lake Starnberg. His grandfather Ludwig I had also been deposed.  The first Ludwig was a worshipper of the arts too, and architecture, particularly of the Middle Ages.  Both grandfather and grandson lived as if in an opera, their castles the stages on which they strutted their hours of greatness, though for Ludwig I the greatest passion of all was women, and in particular Lola Montez.  An Irish singer and actress who had tried unsuccessfully to make a career as a Spanish dancer in Paris and London, Lola came to Munich in 1846 and very soon thereafter met the king, who asked (in public) if her admirable bosom was real.  She replied by throwing off her blouse and showing him.  He was hooked.  She became his mistress and obsession, given full rein (or reign) to do as she liked.  Lola, with her sharp tongue and short fuse, had so much power over palace officials (and such fondness for money) that Ludwig’s government became known as the Lolaministerium.

The first Ludwig was not popular among his people and was deposed after many protest demonstrations by students and workers. It was not that way with  Ludwig II, who was benevolent and generally tolerated by his people, though they did not rally to his support when he was accused of mismanagement of funds and madness.

Ludwig knew of the forthcoming arrest before it happened. Though his household urged him to escape, he insisted that a king does not flee, and remained in Neuschwanstein when shortly after midnight guards rushed in to take him prisoner.  Doctor von Gudden, the psychiatrist, read the charges.  As his valet wept, Ludwig turned to the doctor. “How did you manage to declare me insane?  You haven’t even examined me.”

At four in the morning King Ludwig, accompanied by a few members of his personal staff, made his last journey through the night.  Next day, on June 13, (Whitsunday) at 6 in the evening, the King suggested a stroll.  Von Gudden, pleased by His Majesty’s reasonableness, agreed.  They walked together towards the lake, wearing overcoats against the unseasonable cold and carrying umbrellas against oncoming rain.

By seven they had not returned. At eight there was still no sight of them, but because of the heavy downpour it was assumed that they had  taken shelter somewhere. At nine every man at Berg was scouring the area.  On the water, not far from shore, floated a black object.  It was the King’s overcoat.

Both bodies were recovered near the bank, in shallow water. The King’s watch had stopped at 6:54; von Gudden’s neck and shoulders revealed bruises, though the King’s body was unmarked.

“All men,” said Mrs. Malaprop, “are Bavarians.”

Eccentricity in kings is not unusual, though it may be dangerous, as we know from Hamlet (“Madness in great ones must not watched go” – Claudius.)  Madness, eccentrics, fairy tales: it’s a question of degree.  High office can lead to high offense.  The eccentricity of  aristocrats has often amused us: Wittelbachs or Habsburgs, British lords in their wigs or Duchesses in their salons confirmed that the privileged classes were able to use their rank and fortune to do whatever they damn pleased (“so long as it doesn’t upset the horses,” as Lady Wortley Montagu observed in the 18th century.)

Mad King Trump is of the family Drumpf (his grandfather, Friedrich, came to the U.S. in 1885 to avoid military service) of Kallstadt, a small town in what was then Bavaria (now Rhineland-Palatinate.) If Mrs. Malaprop spoke the unwitting truth, then indeed he is Bavarian, though whether or not, Barbarian will serve.  It was first used referring to the foreigners trying to get into Rome at the time of the Roman Empire – people we today call immigrants.  Barbarian also means savage or uncouth – you might go so far as “feral.”  He is everything that civilization is not, that civility is not, that citizens are not.  And even looking back at the famous Mad Kings of his own ancestral country, Trump is not only mad, he is filled to the gills with anger in a world that consists only of himself.  Small wonder he rages.  But his world is no more real than his words are true. If this is an opera we’re in, it’s the very worst ever written, full of histrionic babbling, rants instead of arias, devoid of music and beauty and sense. He is an emperor with no clothes, “a tattered coat upon a stick” (Yeats.)   The greatest danger lies in our compliance.

Hair and Fake Hair

BY KATHY PERUTZ

“Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow” was an article I wrote many decades ago for Seventeen, a magazine for teenagers whose mothers subscribed to Vogue and whose older sisters read Glamour.  I was in my twenties then, awash with hair, most of it piled on my head in a kind of jungle, thick and kinky and requiring my constant attention, much as if I owned a particularly neurotic dog.  It had to be made straight and smooth despite its nature; it had to be cut, bleached and colored (but I’ve written so much about blond, blondes and becoming one that I’m satiated with the topic & won’t go into it here) and it cost me a fortune, at least $1500 a year, which in the 1960’s still counted as money and not just a tip at Mar-A-Lago.

I also paid much attention to the removal of hair, plucking my eyebrows or the area around and between them every day, after having watched my aunt Lisa, who was living in sin with my uncle Max, do exactly that on a beach in Truro on Cape Cod.  It was called sin in those days simply to share a lodging with someone to whom one was not legally tied; those innocent ice cream soda days when Coke meant a drink in a green bottle and when it was not necessary to bribe, steal or murder to be labeled a sinner.  Mere sex could do it, which added to the flavor, naughtiness being the spice or shot that transformed something simple into something transgressive.  Lisa, who studied dance with Martha Graham, plucked her lovely eyebrows in the sunshine on the sand peering into the mirror of her compact.  She had to do it every day, she explained, because every day new hairs appeared.  It may have been her imagination; she was militant about cleanliness and possibly saw hairs where none had yet grown.  But perhaps that was a by-product of  having spent four years in Auschwitz.  My mother, on the other hand, whose hair was as bushy as mine and a flaming auburn, never tweezed – or at least I never saw her do such a thing.  But she was a more private person than Lisa, more aware of what can and can’t be done in front of the servants and children.

Then there was the hair that grew under arms, hair on legs, hair in the crotch. My mother never shaved her underarms, as most European women did not in those days.  I, being first-generation American, needed to be as smooth as my classmates.  I shaved, though rarely, and because my body hair was blond (there it is again!) I didn’t really need to shave my legs, though I did it for form’s sake and often enough that eventually I actually had a stubble to get rid of.  My mother used Sleek on her legs, plastering them from knee to foot and then, after the white cream had set, scraping it off with a wooden spatula included in the package for this purpose.  Bikini line had not been invented yet (neither had bikinis), at least not among ordinary people, though I am sure those women whose profession included exhibiting the genital area might have trimmed here and there.  Dyeing of pubic hair was also not heard of yet, at least not by the average typist in Utah, and not even by Francesca, my up-to-date  hairdresser in Great Neck near the railroad station.

But hair was definitely a problem, whether absent or present. Bald men tried to cover up their patches however they could, at least until Yul Brynner came along in The King and I (1956), swashbuckling his way into virgin American hearts and convincing the millions who saw the film that bald was as sexy as you could get this side of the Devil’s abode.  Around this time it was proclaimed a Scientific Fact that bald men had more testosterone than others and when I had a prematurely balding Welsh boyfriend in the early 60’s, I was quite the object of envy at the parties we went to.  (Deservedly so, I could add.)

By the seventies, grooming had changed, hair weaving was in for those men who could afford it. Bald was out because it signified the advance of age and people were becoming more interested in money than in sex.  Men also began dyeing their hair (though keeping it secret) and plastic surgery helped both sexes remain in the “game,” as the making of money was referred to (perhaps on the model of Monopoly) until they were past retirement age.

Hair, which had always been a symbol of strength for men (see Samson & Delilah with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the title roles – 1949, Cecil B. DeMille – or read the Book), also served a double purpose for women, beguiling and concealing.  This makes sense when we think of how women were/are forever depicted in stories, books, movies, art: the Virgin/Temptress, Eve/Mary, Mother/Bitch whose hair, falling below her shoulders, modestly conceals the beauty of her upper parts, in particular those breasts that give suck, and not only to infants.  Lady Godiva was a heroine, riding naked on her horse through the streets of Coventry to protest unfair taxation – but (as the paintings reveal) she rode out clothed in her modesty, her purity and her long hair.  It doesn’t take Freudian training to understand that Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, is a cry for the charmer to abandon herself to her would-be lover.

Paintings of Mother Eve usually show her naked, smooth-skinned and with long flowing hair. She is the temptress, born of Adam’s rib to tickle him with her locks and curls and entrap him in her (usually) blond tresses.  John Milton, who wrote all about Eve in his epic poem, Paradise Lost, was a trichomaniac; that is, a person manic about hair.  (He was manic about other things too, and had his wife sleep in a drawer that pulled out from the bottom of his bed when she was having her period – or so it is written by Robert Graves in Wife to Mr. Milton.)  Eve’s hair is man’s downfall, never mind the apple and the serpent.  If Eve had been bald we wouldn’t have sinned, and therefore would not have had to be redeemed, which would have made the writing of Paradise Lost and its sequel Paradise Regained unnecessary, since the epic is an elucidation of the Doctrine of the Fortunate Fall, which says that man sinned so Christ could rise and save us.  It was those damn locks and tendrils of hair, the ones Milton couldn’t get enough of, sinuous tresses like the long hair that proclaimed a new generation in the late 1960’s when the musical Hair was first produced, the Age of Aquarius was upon us and young men started wearing their hair long and singing about peace and love and understanding.  We still see these men from time to time: white-haired hippies with flowing manes or tiny ponytails, holding fast to their dream.  It is by hair that we are known: hair tells others if we’re young or old, sexy or not, employable or ready for the trash.   Hair, real or fake, has been the world’s obsession since the world (as we know it) began.

And never more than now. I would wager that in the last year and a half more words have been spoken, spewed and written about a certain head topped with an orangey hair-like covering than have been employed in the cause of human suffering during that same time.  I, who once was plagued by a barely governable mass of hair, now wear a wig.  Chemotherapy keeps me bald.  I don’t disapprove of wigs.  On the contrary; I depend on them – and love them too, for the way they can transform a young actor into a character stepping out of history, or make a judge out of a lawyer.  But I do know the difference.  There is hair and there is fake hair.  There is truth and fake truth, which we call lies.  There are men and fake men, those we call imposters if not something far, far worse:  men who ally themselves with something – a country say – and hide their allegiance to another.

“Comparisons are Odorous,”

BY KATHY PERUTZ

declares Dogberry in the third act of Much Ado About Nothing. He’s a Shakespearean fool of the first order, an  insufferable windbag whose words are empty of meaning, though he believes that the bluster he speaks is language and that he is communicating.

It’s been a long time since my last blog. The results of the election came a few days before Michael and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary, at home with close friends, good food, pink bubbly and a large cake inscribed with M and K in gold letters. Despite what had just happened to our country, we were happy. In the last months of illness and confinement we had grown together, two trees entwined; a single entity forged from two separate beings. Then came Christmas, when Michael’s ability to breathe grew even weaker, though his mind was lucid and he continued to work on an important paper with his collaborator, Herb Terrace, attacking Chomsky’s notion that language is ultimately based on a “mutation,” which in this sense would make it a miracle, a deus ex machina suddenly landing in the field of evolution – a quasi-religious sort of belief that Michael and Herb opposed, and with excellent reason.  In January Michael died.  A few days later Trump was inaugurated and since then I have found myself at a loss for words.

*

Last year, over many of my blogs, I warned against Trump. My parents had come to America in the late 1930’s from Central Europe (he born in Vienna, she in Prague), skiing across the Alps when the Nazis invaded Austria, led by their guide into Switzerland from where they made their slow way to New York, where I was eventually born.  Others in the family were put to death in the camps or, perhaps worse, survived 4 years of Auschwitz.  I was aware that the sophisticates in the cafés of Vienna in the ‘thirties had reassured each other over their kaffee mit schlag that Hitler was a buffoon and clown and would never affect their lives.

Until he did.

In writing about Trump I was aware of Stalin too, the millions of deaths he perpetrated on his own people, murdered outright or left to die of planned starvation. I knew that Stalin was able to re-write history, to claim that something which had clearly happened hadn’t happened.  He and his experts were capable, even then, of erasing an image, a person, from photographs and of rewriting history, removing textbooks from the schools and replacing them with his newer versions.  Fake facts were his meat, as they are of any dictator, always have been and will be.

I made comparisons, odious and odorous. Trump was also the great showman, like P.T. Barnum, who showed the world the truth of the sentiment, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Berlusconi too. That 70-something mad clown with lipstick on his face and pancake makeup who liked screwing children, at least those old enough to have breasts and curves.  He gave me the heebie-jeebies just to look at him, and he owned the media in Italy.  How could the Italians be so dumb?  How could they not see?

And then the Orange Dishrag appeared and the same nausea overtook me. A visceral reaction, going hand in hand with the mental revulsion that awful creature caused and keeps causing, because nothing in the world exists except himself, because he doesn’t care for anybody, doesn’t see that he is made in the image and mold of man, a person like others; that we are all the bloody same in our needs and desires and claim to respect.  So he spouts rubbish, any rubbish, just to be heard, to be the center of all eyes all the time.  No matter that he is crude, that he was kicked out of his elementary private school (Kew-Forest) for being a bully even though his father was on the board.  Quite an accomplishment, that.

I saw it coming and told myself I was wrong (as almost everyone around me did, saying how wonderful that this buffoon was running against Hillary; it guaranteed a landslide.) I tried to tell myself that I always go straight to the worst case scenario, that this was my form of optimism (since if it happens the way you’ve predicted, you’re not shocked, and if it doesn’t happen, well then, marvelous.)

Then came Brexit. I had lived in England for a few years after college. My first novel and the next two were first published there.  Michael was a Brit who had gone through the education system famous for producing leaders of the world, stiff upper lips honed on “the playing fields of Eton,” where men learned the onus and responsibility of privilege (colonialism) known as “the white man’s burden” to Kipling when Britannia ruled the waves and much of the world.  Michael did not go to Eton, but to another “public” school built on the same foundations of belief and empire, and then went on to Cambridge.  He left England after that because the system he’d been raised in oppressed him.

Brexit appalled us both, and my friends in England took to their beds. It was then that I realized democracy has a basic flaw: it does not require that the person who casts a vote know anything at all about the issue or person that he or she is voting for.  Brexit should never have been put to public referendum; the public simply didn’t understand the ramifications of what it would mean to leave Europe.

When Brexit was voted in, I was sure Trump would win. The know-nothings would invent their own scenario and project it onto the man who was nobody, nowhere, who had no objectives, no vision, no knowledge.

And so it happened, and now we are fed daily, hourly dispatches of such appalling behavior that any three-year old doing it would rightly be confined behind the bars of the playpen. Whatever Trump does brings pain or anger or grief or all of it.  “Whither I fly is Hell; myself am Hell,” is how Milton’s Satan put it, but Satan was an introspective sort compared with the dishrag now in charge of the planet.  And to be rid of him, with all those awful appointees in place is no longer the solution.

Now I find a new comparison, odorous indeed. I realize Trump is very like a hippopotamus, an animal that marks its territory by spinning its tail like a fan when it excretes, scattering the excrement over as large an area as possible.

A hippo is described by Wikipedia as: An extremely large animal with a round, barrel-shaped body, short legs and a large, broad head. . . . The virtually hairless skin is moistened by a secreted pink, oily substance that protects [it] from sunburn and drying, and perhaps infection. . . The hippopotamus is a highly aggressive and unpredictable animal and is ranked among the most dangerous animals in Africa.

The difference between the two is that the hippo is limited to one continent and even there has become a threatened and endangered species. Our excrement-flinger is leader of the world.  The hippo does not rape females, nor force other hippos of perhaps a slightly different shade to leave the river.  The hippo is an animal.  What we have in the White House is a “beast that wants discourse of reason,” as Hamlet characterized him some 414 years ago – an empty, cruel, self-seeking demagogue.

“Demagogue.” It’s a word we don’t often use of our own leaders, though we have used it of leaders in other country, particularly those known as “undeveloped.”  The word ricochets in my ears and returns as “demi-god,” which is what the followers of the Orange Dishrag must believe he is.  Some form of deliverer, certainly, though one who is without values, standards, or any concept of social behavior, empathy or responsibility.  There is no inner man there, only the hippo with its shit-flinging tail, and a very bad sort of hippo at that.

And yet, because I am an optimist in pessimist’s clothing, the sequence “demagogue. . . demi-god” puts me in mind of a beautiful Emerson poem that begins, “Give all to love,” and concludes:

Heartily know/When half-gods go/ The gods arrive.

Or perhaps we could convince Pope FrancIs and Angela Merkel to set up a joint rule in America, he being the visionary and she the enforcer. We don’t deserve them of course, but what a dream team they would make!