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!

 

 

Happy New Year?

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

The new year is nearly upon us, sure as the towering wave at Jones Beach that caught me in its undertow when I was a child and kept me there for what seemed a lifetime until it spat me out, mewling and terrified, no more a Jonah than my cat Jumpy would have been.

Last year was certainly bad, even awful in spots, a year that will be known – as long as there is anyone alive to know anything – as one of homelessness and terror, millions of refugees fleeing certain death to be met with ejection and deportation by the democratic nations of the western world, and terrorists of every stripe blowing up people more or less for the fun of it.  That’s the old year.  And the new one?  It has me more terrified than any year I’ve encountered or even thought about in more than seven decades of conscious living.  It is the annus horribilis of Queen Elizabeth II (when every one of her children was divorcing and the tapes of Prince Charles on the phone with Camilla Parker-Bowles, revealing that he would like to be a tampon in her you-know-what were made public) and then some.  The world has moved so far to the right that most citizens of the west – and many outside it – are certain to be deprived of rights and services, of essential needs and of liberties they had taken for granted, much as the air they breathed or (certainly here in the Land of the Free) as the gum they chewed and toilets that flushed.  I have spent the time since November 9 in hiding, trying to bury my head like an ostrich.  I don’t read newspapers, watch t.v. or listen to my habitual morning NPR.  I can’t stand even to hear the name, that thumping, humping sound, the morning’s plop in the potty.

“Happy New Year” has become an oxymoron.  In case some readers are unsure of the term, and unlike what popular derivation might come up with, an oxymoron is not an eight-armed or 8-headed idiot (though the idiot part is right.)  An oxymoron is a figure of speech meaning sharp (“oxy”) dull (“moron”) with both “sharp” and “dull” having their other meanings of “clever” and “stupid.”  It is a contrast in opposites, like “a wise old Texas saying” or “British cuisine.”  A happy new year with the orange Dump as Leader of the Free World is another example, and the one that is worrying me now.

I can explain it to my friends – many of whom, thank god or their own generosity, are readers of my blog.  But when someone in the elevator wishes me a happy new year as I step out on my floor, what kind of grouch or pedant would I have to be to go into the intricacies of the oxymoron, a term in itself questionable since it is not found anywhere in ancient Greek texts, but came into being much later, via 5th century Latin?  And so I answer automatically, “Happy New Year” and I smile, but as well Hamlet knew (“one may smile and smile, and be a villain”), behind that smile I am sneering like a long-mustachio’d scoundrel about to steal either the house or the girl.  I talk the talk, I mouth the words and in my heart of hearts (which heart is that?) I am half-convinced these people are all insane, the great wave is rising up in front of them and they cannot see it, the revolution (not the revelation), is at hand; we have come full circle back to where we started from, or at least where I started from, my parents getting out while they still could, leaving behind others who couldn’t and who burned or were gassed or both or jumped rather than ride the boxcars to hell.  I see dictatorship in the USA, as Philip Roth did when he postulated the election of Lindbergh over Roosevelt and the resulting fascism in The Plot Against America.  Or as H.L. Mencken wrote in an article for The Baltimore Sun in 1920 (!),  As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

And here he is.  A President-elect who is supported by the Ku Klux Klan, for Christ’s sake!  By all the white supremacist groups.  By that British monster Farage who, along with a number of politicians, master-minded Brexit.  Because people voted for what they did not understand (Brexit should never have been offered as a referendum, since it was voted against by those who supported British exceptionalism, in the sense of Britain First – just like the America First crapola we’ve been given – but had no idea of the economic and political fallout that would follow), the British electorate voted for what they thought it was about and not for what was in front of them.  In the same way American workers, hoping for better jobs and easier lives, felt relieved that someone was crashing through the barrier of privilege that stood between them and the political establishment (represented by Hillary Clinton), and voted for a man who had and has absolutely no values at all, no consistency, no logic except for his need to be worshipped, his need to be the center of attention at all times, his three-year-old’s greed and iconoclasm, his inability to tell reality from illusion, his continual mirror-gazing even though we know mirrors reflect things backwards,  his alliance with foreign dictators, his total corruptibility and history of past corruption, his stiffing of workers, rape of children (13 is still a child), his refusal to pay debts (he owes Deutsche Bank half a billion dollars for starters), and so much more that I have almost forgotten it by now, after having been driven to near-madness by all of it during the unbearably long and inescapable live feeding-to-the sharks known as the Campaign.  So America went the way of old Germany, and Germany went the way of goodness, taking in far more refugees than it could absorb, imperiling Angela Merkel’s position as Chancellor.  She spoke with her heart, the only world leader to do so.  Pope Francis too has been a champion of the poor and oppressed and the expanding waves of refugees.  If he were our president now, with Angela at his side (The Pope being the heart and the Chancellor the brains), it would be a Happy New Year indeed.  Or if Obama just hangs out, refuses to leave, doesn’t recognize the Orange dishrag as commander-in-chief.  Or if Joe Biden steps in, as he should have, could have from the start – my choice for Democratic candidate.  Good, solid, squeaky clean Joe, a man of the working class who might have won his fellow workers away from the loudmouth billionaire or perhaps no billionaire at all, just a windbag in the Billionaire’s New Clothes, a man with no credentials whatever for the job he won in that crazy lottery we called our Presidential election.

The New Year begins. . . Will we become satellites of the great Russian Empire? Will we blow up the world? Whatever happens, all we can do is tend to our own lives – those who can are already out there, collecting alms, making progress, devising a new future, uniting in protest, joining in solidarity to save the earth, save Roe v. Wade and Brown v. the Board of Education, prevent slavery, protect plants and animals, save souls, plant seeds, re-commit to old commitments – and keep our love alive by whichever means we can. Love for our friends and all growing things, for kittens and elephants, for Alpine glaciers and hidden streams and for one another; love of our bodies, love of peace, of humor, absurdity, books,  songs, pictures, words, music, wine and fresh baked bread.

And so, I must weasel my way out of this blog, no Happy New Year or Bonne Année, just  c новым годом  and let it go at that, at least until the Big Bang, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Washington to be borne.

Fidel and Me

BY KATHY PERUTZ

1959.  Spring in New York.  Still early, not yet the blooming gardens of English squares and perfumes of French parks, but the bird was on the wing from Brooklyn to the Bronx and in upper Manhattan on April 22, the students were waiting.  We from Barnard had crossed the mighty river of Broadway onto the campus proper of Columbia (of which we were the female part) and were standing on the steps outside Low Library waiting.  We’d heard a lot, read a lot about the guerilla fighters with bushy beards who’d toppled the dragon Batista and were taking control of their own island in the name of the people. A rousing call to revolution for 19-year olds like me, hoping to be part of something that would sweep away inequality and bring liberty and justice for all.

A great cheer went up. He was here, entering the campus from the Broadway gate, walking east across 116th Street towards Amsterdam.  In rugged gear, cap on head, booted and bearded he came striding past us, waving.  Fidel!  Stirring our hopes and libidos, swelling our chests.  The man of the hour (with Ché Guevara, even more handsome according to the pictures, more rugged, and a quasi-intellectual besides, a wide and deep reader who was familiar with Faulkner and Kipling, Marx and Gide, Neruda and Sartre.)  What more could a college girl dipped in ivy want?  We were in love, we fell for them in every way.

So did the New York Times. So did most everyone I knew, though Ike was not impressed.  But then again, we were the girls who as freshmen had canvassed for Stevenson against Ike in the 1956 election even though we were too young to vote (21 was then the legal voting age, and we were not yet 18), and in Nancy Sternheimer’s room she’d put up a banner saying: I’d lay for Adlai.

***

April, 1961 was warm and lush in southern Spain in the village of Torremolinos near Malaga where drunken second sons of England’s finest families stayed up all night gambling and making intermittent passes at the young women who came by, among them Iris Owens, an American writer who published under the name of Harriet Daimler with Olympia Press in Paris, an English-language publisher of non-traditional books (William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) and novels heavily invested in sex.  Iris was the first female pornographer I’d ever met, and certainly the only one who made her living (or some part of it) by her pen.  The pale Brits and their Yank companions, along with a few scattered self-exiles from other lands usually rose at dusk and headed for the bars, where the latest drink was a Fidelista, formerly known as a Cuba Libre, or rum coke.

I was there with my mother, who had picked me up in London, where I was then living, to take me off to a warmer and more congenial spot for conversation. Her mission was to convince me to return home to New York in light of the Bay of Pigs invasion (the CIA had attempted a military invasion of Cuba, which was put down in 3 days by Fidel Castro’s troops) and, since the Soviets had Cuba’s back, the threat of war, possibly nuclear war which hung across America like disused curtains, constantly rustling.  She came as an emissary from my father, who wanted the family united at such a time.  I could understand; he and my mother had fled Austria as Hitler’s troops entered the Alps during the Anschluss of 1938, annexing Austria into the German Reich.  The unthinkable had happened then, and it could be happening now.

But I was adamant. I was firmly set on the path of my own life, I’d had a novel accepted for publication by one of Britain’s most prestigious publishers (and by an new American publishing house as well) and I needed the break from the person I’d been up to graduation.  It was only a few months since I’d left home and fewer than that since my Christmas visit, and to return now would be to lead an interrupted life, possibly forever.  Besides, I reasoned, if it was going to be a nuclear war, we’d all be incinerated within minutes and what would be the use of a family reunion then?   My mother naturally didn’t think much of the argument, but I had a Welsh film director in London who was driving me crazy by refusing to go to bed with me.  He wanted us to wait (he knew me well without knowing me) though when I returned from Spain, he’d promised, I could have my way with him.

So in the end I stayed in Europe, flying from Madrid back to London and into the arms of my brilliant strategist. We made love, not war, and the sixties unfolded, England swings and the Beatles ruled, and I flew back home for the March on Washington, 1963, where Martin Luther King spoke about his dream.

Fidel Castro, too, had a dream, and it caught fire all over the world. How could it not?  It’s always the same dream: “. . .that all men are created equal;” “liberté, égalité, fraternité;”  “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” or the Marxist dream of fairness, “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”  “Venceremos!”

What happened afterwards in Cuba is not one story but many, an accordion of stories, glorious and calamitous, leading to the major paradox of most revolutions: that they become established, and the leader becomes a cult. It happens on the right and on the left. Stalin, Lenin, Hitler.  I had been in Franco’s Spain when I was 18 and at a gathering with my parents a young officer invited me to have dinner with him the following night.  He was one of Franco’s men, a Falangist, (I didn’t know) and though I had not rejected his offer, my father did with great vigor.  My closest brush with dictatorship, though when I was much younger we’d been in Buenos Aires, in Juan Perón’s Argentina, from which I remember very little: that they had a Pink House instead of the White House and he had a wife, Eva, called Evita by the people, who adored her.  I also remember hearing that whenever the workers were dissatisfied, Perón declared another national holiday, on which they wouldn’t have to go to work.  He remained quite popular.

***

November in New York, 2016.  The darkest November I’ve known.  The will of the people has been recognized and the leader chosen.  A less committed one, a less informed one, a less admirable man could not be imagined.  The other dictators rode in on dreams – often vicious, mad dreams – and plans.  What we have now is Mr. Tabula Rasa, President-elect, a figure on whom anyone can project whatever they imagine him to be.  He has no policies, no agenda, no logic, no heart and no convictions beyond his absolute confidence that he is the Sun God, anointed by himself to be forever the love-object of his people.  He is us, our chosen one, the image of ourselves.  Narcissus looked upon the surface of a lake and fell in love with the image he saw.  Our Narcissist-in-Chief is our mirror and what we see is darkness, rage, a sense of entitlement and of  injustice (the motivator of so many revolutions)  but this time we’ve chosen a blind man who sees nothing beyond himself.   A man who when he looks at a map of the world sees only his own face.  The world is himself, as it was for Lucifer, flung down from heaven to reign far below as Satan: Whither I fly is Hell; Myself am Hell. (John Milton, Paradise Lost.)  If only our president-elect had as much self-awareness!

The winter of our discontent is now fairly established. Personality has won out over issues, values, morals, honesty, history and people.  I do not know how to deal with this, but intend to keep my head firmly ensconced in bubble wrap, avoid newspapers and TV and try to think of other things.  Spring, for instance, when the earth will inexorably bring forth new blossoms, new births, and when young girls will again think of nothing but how handsome a man can be, or how to change the world.  Farewell, Fidel, and hiya Donald.

On the Eve: A Plea

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

It’s fast upon us now, the Vote that will lead us to chaos or keep us (though with dependably violent after-shocks) on the side of civilization.  A friend from England emailed me that the rest of the world really should be entitled to vote in the American election, since it affects the entire world.  And so it does.

The orange blob is the greatest menace of my lifetime.  Or, to be low-keyed about it, just think of what 4 Supreme Court appointees by Trump would do.  Revoke Roe v. Wade to start, then maybe Brown v. the Board of education. . .  who knows? Declaring certain kinds of people (gays, blacks, Jews, Muslims, migrants, Hispanics) non-people, which is the greatest argument since slavery.  In fact, it WAS the argument for slavery, as it was for the Holocaust.  If you declare some citizens to be monkeys, they will not have human rights.  Logic is clear, though I am not sure the word logic or any other derivation of Logos, the word (as in: In the beginning was the Word) should even be brought up when mentioning the orange blob, since logic, facts, history and even what he said a minute ago hold no validity to an ever-changing, vacuous, self-regarding brain no larger than the smallest of his famously small fingers.

In short, we must slay the monster.

VOTE!!!! And whether you like Hillary, can’t stand her, were/are a Bernie person or favored her over Obama, doesn’t matter anymore.  Third party candidates mean a throwaway vote. So do write-ins.  Those kind of votes are only of interest to very young people determined above all else to show they have a mind of their own.  Minds don’t matter right now; in fact, not even politics matter right now.  And if you’re in a “safe” state, vote anyway.  The popular vote is extremely important, since we know that if Blob don’t make it, he’ll be contesting everything.  Yesterday the chant in New Hampshire went from Lock her Up!  to Execute her! – a wonderful throwback to the days of Stalin, via Putin, via Blob.   And my last-minute hope was dashed two days ago, when the woman raped by Blob at the age of 13 refused to testify because of all the death threats.  Surely, I thought, remembering my years working in prisons, a child rapist is the lowest of the low, and even the prison population attacks such a criminal.  Maybe, I thought, all those crackers would finally turn away in disgust.

My husband Michael and I voted already, absentee ballots since we can’t get to the polls, he needing oxygen and my cancer becoming more demanding.  We’re on our way out, but please, everybody who can do anything about it, keep this country, this world and this planet alive.  Vote!!!

 

Sex and Sensibility

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

“Qu’il est beau!” exclaimed the chambermaid at the small hotel on the left bank of Paris.   How handsome he is!

“N’est-ce pas?” I said.  It was early summer, 2004. We were looking at the photograph on the dust jacket of My Life, Bill Clinton’s autobiography just out in the U.S. and already for sale at The Village Voice, a small Anglo-American bookstore on the rue Princesse, where I’d bought the last copy.

A beautiful man, we agreed.  She and I were generations apart, cultures apart (she, French North-African, in her 20’s; me, New Yorker by way of Central Europe, already past 60) but we each felt the attraction, saw the humor playing on his features, responded to the startle of intimacy that made it seem we knew each other in a way having nothing at all to do with his wild celebrity.

A few months later back home, walking east along 53rd Street after my hairdresser appointment, I noticed a small crowd outside Chase Manhattan on Park Avenue and asked the closest bystander what was happening.  “Bill Clinton’s in there,” he said.  “A meeting.  They say he’s coming out soon.”

I had the time, nothing much on for that balmy Fall afternoon and even as I moved to join the throng, people started drifting away, their lunch hour over, the siren call of work thrumming in their ears.  Within a few minutes I was in the front row behind a white barrier and a moment later, he came out. smiling, striding towards me.   We shook hands.  In his astonishingly blue eyes the heavens opened.  I blushed, he held my gaze for another beat and then he was reaching past me to the right, toward the outstretched arm of the man behind me. My abandoned hand brushed against the sleeve of his jacket, a soft wool sleeve that I found myself stroking as I whispered to him, “Take me with you. . . take me with you,.”

Of course he didn’t, and of course I wouldn’t have. . . .(?)   In any case, it was over in seconds, he somehow dematerialized and I tripped home, still on air when I came into the lobby of our building and told everyone there that I had met, and actually touched the hand of Bill.

A slide captured in memory, a bit of fluff, a few seconds of flirting.  Of course his fame added to it, but the nut of the encounter was that split second of recognition, true or imagined, when my heart went out to him taking the rest of me with it.  The spice of life, the playfulness of desire, the lightness of being (thank you, Milan Kundera) that provide pleasure, optimism, energy.  In other words, sex.  Not mating, not dating, certainly not procreating.  Flirting is the added accessory, a gift of the gods to make us forget we are mortals and will die, forget how old we are or sick or lonely or how many bills we have to pay.  Simply a frivolous bit of excitement or arousal, with no past and no future, just a crowing NOW of pleasure.

I bring this up because in the spate of stories about sexual assault, campus rape, date rape, rape by politicians, child molestation and the terrifying rest of it (mostly brought on by a torrent of violence from the man in the orange dishrag who seems to equate sex with the violent appropriation of anything he wants, with “thing” expanded to mean humans, especially female), and since he is followed by hordes of angry citizens who also feel dispossessed and entitled to pillage anything they see, sex has become, in this election campaign and particularly in the last weeks, something that I fear young people may never again know as the loveliest thing on earth, along with babies, sunsets and chocolate soufflé.

Friends much younger than I tell me about their co-workers, employees and children who complain if they get whistled at (“It scared me”) or if road workers throw compliments at their feet as they pass.  This is without any contact at all, the kind of bouquet I used to relish as a young woman (and even more as I grew older), or a kind of dance, a form of play in a world too regulated and predictable, the sudden compliment that tells you someone thinks you’re pretty, or cute, or simply nice, and that there’s laughter on the breeze, sex is in the air and in the mind, and you move on to your meeting or your difficult times with a family member with a sense of leavening, legerity, lightness.

Flirting was, and still is part of the grand scheme of sex, which includes but is not limited to, love and friendship and desire.  Sex that has nothing whatever to do with issues of feminism or “women’s rights” (which is and should be recognized as a redundancy since women are humans and more humans are women than anything else) or with all the just causes (that should have been resolved a long time ago) like equal pay for equal work, which is so obvious I can’t understand how anyone could argue it.  You pay for the product or service and not according to the type of genitalia the producer or service person may or may not possess.

And of course I am not talking about criminal sexual behavior.  The violation of one person by another is against every moral precept in the world. And the orange dishrag and his mob of thugs should never be mentioned again in print, ether, air, or any other element; and trauma specialists around the world should be working day and night on a way to erase him & his violators from the minds and memories of anyone who has ever had to think about him and them for even a minute.

***

            Years ago I spent a summer month writing a novel in an Austrian farmhouse near a glacial lake where I took breaks on a small deck owned by a family I knew. There was always a medley of generations on those gray wooden planks, lowering themselves into the icy waters and then scrambling back for more sunning, more tanning lotion and the small barbequed fish on skewers brought around by local fishermen. A boy of maybe twelve or thirteen bantered with a woman who could have been his grandmother.  They laughed and teased each other, obviously enjoying themselves, the boy perhaps feeling what it was like to be a man, the woman happy to be regarded not only as a person, a grown up, but also as the woman she was.  I was about 23 then, raised in America, and it took me several minutes to puzzle out what was going on.  Finally I realized that what they were doing was flirting: amusing themselves a while along the journey through the human comedy of life. Everyone did it here, age no factor in that little country of snow-capped mountains and pastries heaped with whipped cream.

The French did it too, always have.  The Parisian or Lyonnais bus conductor reaches out his arm to give a pretty women a lift up onto the bus and is not thinking of grabbing her purse (double-entendre intended).  The woman smiles. She likes knowing that people find her pretty.  It’s all part of the culture, of enjoying each moment.  And it is no more related to sexual assault than a glass of Burgundy at dinner is to the sort of binges that regularly kill high school and college kids, or to the all-day drinking nurtured in gormless suburbs by desperate housewives hoping to kill the hours before night comes to blanket memory.

Sex is within us and part of us and makes up a strong portion of our interconnectedness.   We notice if our friends are good-looking and respond to that, and just as we depend on the exchange of ideas with others in order to more clearly define our own and be stimulated to new thoughts, so too we need the interchange (or call it intercourse) of appreciation, of being seen anew, becoming (if only for a moment) the object of someone else’s interest and desire, all of which is part of flirting and can lift us out of despair or impatience or the rut we’re stuck in.  A light touch, compliments, the evocation of laughter – all these are a part of it too, of feeling that you are a surprising and delightful person after all.  When men whistle at women, it doesn’t mean they want to hurt them or take them by force (except when those men are pathologically unable to think of anything in the world except as an object to be possessed), and I hope that for this new generation of women, if whistles or compliments are thrown in their direction, that what they hear in those sounds are angelic trumpets announcing that Beauty is passing by.

The orange menace threatens, and has already wrought, hatred, fear, suspiciousness, violence and every form of racist and misogynistic bigotry ever known.  He has taken away our innocence and beliefs and joy, as well as our personhood, whoever we are, of whatever sex or inclination.  Whatever happens in the election and its aftermath, we must apply ourselves to regaining our health individually and as a nation.  And before we can return to respect, morality, sexuality, kindness,  humor and appreciation of each other, we must rid ourselves of the man and the movement that have made destruction prevail, turned spontaneity into violence and twisted self-love into shame.

Terrible Men

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

In this time of Terrible Men, terrible in a way we’ve always known but never seen in such abundance, such confluence, every day more and still more until it has become a typhoon, maelstrom, churning and dragging us down to the baseness of all things; in this time of terror and men who are mad with fury at everything they don’t have and don’t deserve and who possess a blindness towards fellow creatures that is almost impossible to achieve in the natural course of things, humans having evolved the ability to see another as themselves to be able to work together in such essential tasks as getting food and protecting the young; in this terrible time I’m not sure how any of us can stay afloat, never mind sane, but last night, waking from a trumphitlerian nightmare, I was rescued by images that came unbidden, like good angels – images and wisps of remembrance from other times, of gentle men and gentlemen, of my father with his big hands and his love and generosity and magic.

He was a charmer, Tino (diminutive of Constantine), Viennese, handsome, tall and dark with a flair for languages who told jokes that were not jokes so much as encapsulated stories, miniature plays, often with a philosophical tail and they were always funny.  He adored women of any persuasion, childhood, adulthood and age.  My little girlfriends adored him back and when they grew older they had crushes on him.  He loved having fun  (his childhood in Vienna not having supplied a hell of a lot of that, especially when other boys would gang up on him and pull down his pants to see if he was circumcised) and was constantly inventive.  The summer we rented a house in Weston, Connecticut he and my mother and two friends set up a orange traffic sign on which my mother Dolly, an artist, had painted SLOW.  Beneath that she painted a black snail and below that the word CROSSING.   A few hundred yards beyond, on the opposite side of the road they put up a restaurant sign: Á l’Escargot Bienvenu.  (At the Welcome Snail.)

That was the summer of his chamber music festival, with young musicians from all around the area and a fat magician named Dr. Stanley Jaks, whom we had met on a ship sailing from New York to Buenos Aires in the winter of 1948-49 and he remained a friend, a refugee himself, like my parents. His pinky nail extended for several inches and he treated it with great respect.  He was a member of the Society of 13, the world’s greatest magicians.  He had performed in the White House for President Truman and General MacArthur, setting it up and finally laying out cards for the finale.  He offered the General a choice of bibelots from his collection, a metsuke perhaps, a tiny jade Buddha or a turquoise elephant and asked him to place the trinket on the card he’d first selected.  When MacArthur had done so Jaks asked him,  “Are you sure?  You wouldn’t prefer a different card?”

To which Douglas MacArthur, from the battlefields of Korea, replied, “A general never changes his mind!”

Harry Truman reached out for the trinket and moved it to another card. “But a president does,” he said.

At the music festival Stanley Jaks presided as King in a rented monarchial outfit, ermine tails and all and I, twelve or thirteen at the time, was outfitted as the court jester, bells on cap (“I AM the royal jester/ My name is Peter Chester./This glorious person THAT you see/ Is his Royal Majesty.”)  I led the way, the King behind me, followed by the rest of the procession which included my mother as a lion, a very perfect lion with a large mane (she was a Leo and prided herself on that), into the house where the music would be played, different groups in different rooms and on the porch and grounds of the rambling farmhouse.  That was the summer of the snails, and their friend Tom Hollyman, a well-known photographer who played the bagpipe with a vacuum cleaner and had a dog named Flugelhorn.

By then I was on the cusp of some form of incipient maturity that has never found a correct appellation because how this maturity happens and when depend on the society and circumstances a child grows up in, and I had developed a new self-consciousness with accompanying irony.  In other words, though magic was all around me I did not believe in magic.

But when I was younger, how could I help it?  Those very early memories came to me last night as my mind skittered away from the Terrible Men that are beyond the thinking of.  It was summer, we were at a place with a hill,  a tent, a car. .  .  I had trouble sifting through indistinct images and then realized that very early memories are not actually of place in the sense of rooms or settings or landscapes; they are much smaller than that, outlines or suggestions of something – a barn door, the edge of a table, the rumble seat in the old car where we kids (what kids?) sat squashed together.  It was probably New England – where else would we have gone?  Rumble seat!  Holding on and screaming in fear we’d fall out (though I don’t believe the car, rumbling on the dirt road, ever went faster than 5 miles an hour.)  One day my father put on a magic show for us, but the rain came splashing down, a storm was gathering and we all went into the tent. Though maybe not a tent.  Now I am writing this down new images are popping up, or most likely ancient nearly-obliterated images at last resurfacing in the developing fluid of my brain’s darkroom.  It was something more like a garage, roomy. My daddy performing hocus-pocus.  All of us enthralled.  And then came a flash of lightning and we screamed, huddling together as the thunder came crashing after, the garage no longer safe. And my father raised his hand (or wand or finger) and we all fell silent.  He called out to the rain and told it STOP! which it did instantly.  We all filed out, the sun was shining, the grass smelled fresh and green and on the hill there were horsies – I mean, horses – and maybe other animals too.

He was a magician who could make things turn out the way I wanted, my Zauber-König in a Mozartian vein (which was very much my father’s vein, Viennese vein, little Wolfgang Amadeus having come to the palace of Schönbrunn when he was 6, in the little gala outfit given him by the Empress and Emperor, still sitting there now among the royalty at the banquet table in the painting that hangs in a Rococo room where little cherubs climb out from the ceiling feet first.)

At night, on the rare nights when he was home and could put me to bed, he didn’t read to me. Instead he told me wonderful stories that he probably made up as he went along.  Lovely little animals, each of whom was a character, a personality (sometimes with an accent) – the oyster (called Oystraka) defending his pearl; the two sheep, Wooly, who was white, and Tar who was black, best friends.  But Wooly was a good student and Tar could never learn to count beyond 3.  This was because he was lame in one foot and when he walked he went thump-thump-hoppeta-thump, counting only the thumps. And so Tar couldn’t get promoted to the next grade.  But one day when Wooly was missing and no one could find him, Tar went looking everywhere, high and low, calling his name.  At last he came to a little patch of clover, and there was Wooly, and Tar bounded over so fast he didn’t even limp.  “I came for you!” he cried. “Wooly, I came for you!”

“Four!” said Wooly. “You just said four!”  The friends embraced, and soon they went back together and Tar made his way in school alongside Wooly and they were inseparable for the rest of their lives.

I loved all the stories, though admittedly my favorite was about a little girl called Kathy who had braids, just as I did, and who climbed up over the back of the armchair into a painting that hung on the wall above it. She took the little path through the high meadow and walked towards the house far in back.  Everything was beautiful.  She looked out the window at flowers blooming and birds flitting in the trees, and in the kitchen where there were wonderful things to eat.  When she had her fill Kathy walked out the door, back along the path, through the meadow and out by the frame, my daddy sitting on my bed, my head on my pillow, traveling thorough paintings..

But the most forceful magic happened during a hike. My parents were very fond of mountains, and though my mother didn’t share my father’s love of or ability in skiing, she did like to hike (“marschieren,” she called it). On Sundays they often went to Bear Mountain and I had to come along, though I hated exercise in any form at all, and especially having to climb up stupid, fall-down paths with grownups (their friends Pepik and Olga often came along) all talking in grown-up, sometimes even in Czech, and me feeling so sorry for myself that it became difficult to propel my body forward even a few inches.

My father would drop back every few minutes to encourage me, and though I complained and maybe even cried, I did finally make it to the very top. And when I got there I saw a perfect little conifer tree no bigger than I was and its branches were hung with chocolate.

I am now a long way from cynical youth and deep into furious age. But now I do believe in magic.  There are moments that simply arrive or descend, engulfing you with pleasure for no reason, making you see how good people can be and how beautiful, or catching up your breath when you notice the sun’s rays falling on the trees just before sundown on 17th Street, turning their green to gold; or the rush of gratitude when a doctor finally diagnoses what is ailing you, speaking to you with compassion and intelligence. Words of all shapes. The magic of friends – Eli, already near 80, flying in from Finland to visit me for a couple of days in my illness or the unexpected delivery of luxuriant food ordered by another darling; the flowers from David, reuniting with two Lindas; the kindness of Michaels.

*

I think of my father often these days. I have a loving husband and loving son and loving male friends but they are here with me now, in this toxic swill that seeps into every conversation.  I can’t understand anyone who can’t understand what is happening.  So I turn to the past (civilization) instead of the future (chaos) and try to believe there is something beyond the present madness where:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats went on, in probably his most-quoted poem, “The Second Coming,” to ask:

What rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

“Rough beast” is good.  I take refuge in lost worlds and gardens of the mind where things can still grow. I hope every woman on earth can summon up in memory or at least imagination some gentle men she has known or loved, great good men like Pope Francis or an uncle, a neighbor, the mailman, someone with whom she felt happy and safe and who brought magic with him.  Of course it’s not only women who are suffering in all this, but we are the majority of people in the world and have been treated abominably by terrible men for a long time all over the globe. What we must do now is to recognize the clear and present danger of the most terrible man of all, heir to Hitler and Stalin, ally of Putin, racist, hater of women and everyone who doesn’t worship him; a man who steals from the poor, an ugly old fat man who attempts to shame others for one goal only: to crown himself god.  We must defeat him as surely as if the Black Death had returned that decimated most of Europe’s population before there was an America to which survivors (immigrants) came. Defeat him in the polls of course, but also by returning to our true concerns and values, to lightness, logic and imagination, reclaiming our country and our lives, ourselves.