He Lies Like An Eye Witness



I fell for this line the first time I heard it (supposedly an old Russian saying,) and adopted it with a few others that I keep on hand to ward off false thinking and unhealthy beliefs. It’s a comment on reportage which is the job of a journalist or a novelist, both of which I’ve worked at in my lifetime, probably perpetrating many lies, though not intentionally and perhaps not even harmfully.  Since all writing based on memory is subjective, and all stories about one’s past have been altered by the future of that past, all we writers can do is tell a story and hope it is recognizable enough to create an echo in the reader’s mind.

In this age of sumptuous lying, false facts, moveable truths, lack of conviction and inability to get a narrative straight, my old Russian saying is a quaint relic from days when the greatest lyric poet in English was able to come out with lines like: ‘Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Even I feel Keats went a bit potty there (the madness of the Greek dancers?), though we were raised in a world where the existence of god was certainly debatable but the fact of truth was unquestioned.   The New York Times was our Newspaper of Record, Science reigned, and police lineups relied on eye witnesses to point out the perp.

Our new dominion of boutique thinking, each person entitled to a private version of just about everything, from the origin of the earth to its imminent demise, has nothing whatever to do with the mutability of memory or the private truths of each individual that form a pattern that characterizes a particular life.

But back to the Eye Witness: someone who was present at the event, who can testify; who saw the rolled-away stone and met Christ walking in the garden. The person or persons who were watching what happened, like the silent observers behind their 1960’s draperies in Kew Gardens, Queens, as Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death repeatedly (35 times, it would be ascertained – by the coroner, not by the reports.)  Great emotions can surely color the event or even drown it into non-reality, as Freud showed us with “trauma,” the word taken from “dream” (Traum.)  An eye witness knows what he or she saw, but doesn’t thereby know what happened.

The key is in the word eye/I, the center of it all, the one who tells the story, narrates the novel, creates the history. The one to whom it happened, as The Great Gatsby happened to  Nick Carraway, as Moby Dick happened to Ishmael, as my life happened to me and yours to you.

Except, says the wise old saying, it didn’t. Not that way, not really.  Ask someone else.  Your mother if you can, your brother, your best friend from first grade.  It never happened at all, or if it did, if some vestige of your witnessing falls on receptive ears, then maybe it did happen, but not in the way you remember.  It was winter, not summer, the ground was covered with frost, not the petals of pear blossoms, and no one ever said what you thought they said, or what you reconstructed them as saying out of your wish to make a story where there is none, to wrest meaning from the cold dry ground because such memories convince you of your own importance or relevance. You were there, you SAW it.

But maybe it was only that someone described it for you and you appropriated it, and later told someone you’d been there, at that play, at the time. And then you told other people the same thing, and you could see yourself there, wearing that green silk (your favorite at the time), and now you begin to have a clearer view, you can remember what you thought of the play, where you went afterwards. . .  and soon the incident has become fact, something no one could have told you about because the details you remember are so clear that you had to have been there, you had to have experienced the play, the silk against your skin, the first shocking sip of an old malt whiskey, the bartender’s bald head and your companion’s knowing smile when you asked for another.  No one could make that up.

But they did. It’s all made up.  The truths about me are little stories, anecdotes, incidents, verses, memorized lines I’ve collected over a lifetime to describe myself to others and myself.  These are the memories, the scraps, the bits of clothing for the emperor who is trying to convince the people that he is fully dressed.  We start the process as children, when we really don’t know who we are (and don’t bother to think about it), but are improvising all the while, trying out this and that, putting ourselves in fairy stories, in the pictures we attempt to draw, in everything we encounter because becoming human is the process of acquiring an identity. “Once upon a time. . . ” there lived a little girl with my name and my thick braids who did all sorts of things, who became transformed into different people or animals, a fluid entity who could walk into paintings or sail like Thumbelina across the air on the back of a bird.  So it began.

I became my version of myself, and since then have been adding new versions, altering, refining, elaborating, editing version after version throughout my life and still now, still changing daily in some regard, making full use of language to clothe me in costumes to give me courage or make me beautiful or invisible.

But I could never – and neither can you – control the other versions, the tens of hundreds of versions created by others, versions of myself in relation to them or to someone else or simply their impressions, hastily drawn but fervently believed until I cease being what or who they believed I was at the time when they believed it.

Pirandello played with some of these concepts, Six Characters in Search of an Author; Virginia Wolf’s characters lived on the current of their consciousness, drifting off the page or into each other; the flowing river of time is ancient, repeated in every generation, the river of Heraclitus in which we cannot step a second time, the inevitability of change, mutability, transformation, desiccation, time and the bell, time and the river, time itself, so fragile a concept that a moment’s reflection changes it, and we can’t tell the passing minute from the passing hour, nor separate the living from the dead when they crowd our dreams.

I lie with passion and confidence, in the belief that my memory holds, that the people I cared about and loved existed in the way that I remember, down to the Yardley’s lavender sprinkled on my father’s white handkerchief that rose up like a small Alpine peak from his left breast pocket. I will forever remember my friend Connie, in Austin, sitting at her short wave radio early in the morning, listening to the BBC news with a can of beer in her hand – and then later, in Graceland with my son and two close friends, discovering with joy the t-shirt that said: Beer – It’s not just for Breakfast Anymore.

These incidents multiply, join, reflect from one to the other. Many people appear and for the moment I see them they are alive and we are the people we were then, or at least as seen by me, as seen by the I who was carried along the river of her life, noticing some things and oblivious to others, elaborating or simplifying, mixing up when what happened, but holding the memory (my own!) tight and complete, memories that expand into slides or action, others like snow domes, holding forever a scene that may have been influenced by what I read as much as by what I saw, but so real to me that I can smell the flowers of the Alpine meadow, the little brown chocolate flowers growing above the town of Lech in the Vorarlberg; or the vertigo that seized me at dinner in Mexico when I was 18 and I felt it was the Aztec gods, not the thin air of the high altitude, that played with my mind and brought me strange ancient shapes.

So much has happened, so much remembered and far more forgotten.  But what we hold on to, however we shape it, is the person we are, or at least the person we think we are and in either case, a quite different person from any other who ever lived.


Through a Glass Darkly


When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child . . . . .                                                     I Corinthians, 13:11

“It’s D again,” I whispered to my mother when she came up to my bedroom. Just “D” because I couldn’t say the word, it scared me too much.  Witches’ heads were pouring out from the bottom of my bed and death was near.  Like the young Tahitian girl lying on her stomach in Gauguin’s beautiful and terrifying painting, “Spirit of the Dead Watching,” I was rigid with fear.  An only child, and often alone, I probably feared death as not-being, and not-being meant I wasn’t part of my mother, who was my shelter.  I was young enough to have recently emerged from the glue of symbiosis, still clinging to the host (her body) where I had incubated for 9 months to emerge as a creature unable to do anything but suck and cry, with a head still not completely formed.

A charming 5-year old of my acquaintance, also an only child, is very aware of death. His mother tells me he regularly checks up on her: “When are you going to die?” he asks, and says that when she does, he will too.  I’m not sure he’s made the kind of deal I tried to foist on the Almighty, but he might still do so.  I put it to god that, if I refrained from saying “Jesus Christ” forever, he would let my mother and me (my father would automatically come along, I suppose: it was not specified) live for another 500 years.  That would have made me 506.

But there was a problem (which had nothing to do with the fact that I was Jewish, something I hadn’t yet learned, and which would mean little to me then beyond the ability to stay home on certain days in early autumn). It was that, since god knows everything, he would know if I ever thought the words “Jesus Christ,” or just “Jesus” or “Christ” on their own.  And that would invalidate the whole agreement.  But how to stop thinking?  The more I thought about it, the more those two words beat a tattoo in my mind, a constant presence. And so it turned out that my mother died at 70, my father at 88, and I am now close to it, and a long way from being 506 years old.

Death, to the very young, is something that happens inexplicably. It happens to people because they’re old or because they live down the street or because they’re on television. It means you’re not there anymore, and not to be there is as terrifying a thing as can be imagined, as readers of A.A. Milne well know:

James James/MorrisonMorrison/Weatherby George Dupree/

 Took great/Care of his mother/ Though he was only three.

James James said to his Mother: “Mother,” he said, said he.

“Don’t ever go down to the end of the town if you don’t go down with me.”

But of course she did. She went down to the end of the town all by herself.  And she hasn’t been heard of since.

Death is absence. Solitude, abandonment (our latest psychological jargon), the fears of being alone or left alone, unable to cope.


After puberty, death becomes something palpable and near.  Certain actions and situations, you learn, can lead to death.  Daredevil stunts, poisonous mushrooms, snakes, tarantulas, mass murderers, aliens, war, bad grownups, gangs, or your own feelings that you are worth nothing and can do nothing. Death becomes a choice, or at least a possibility.

When I was fifteen, we moved from Kew Gardens, Queens – where I was the oldest on the block and still friends with Dukey (a.k.a.The Duke), across the street, whom I’d met when she was 18 months and I two years older, at a time when she was curly haired and cherubic and had not yet decided to be a lady wrestler when she grew up – to a beautiful old house in Kings Point, New York (a part of Great Neck), built in 1638 by British pirates, its entrance facing the sea above our private beach.  A more beautiful house I have not seen in this country, with its wine cellar below the trap door of the dining room, its artificial mound (to protect the house from other pirates) in which we found arrowheads; the old locust trees where a family of raccoons made their home, the unfaced wooden beams of the living room and the tilt of all the rooms; the fireplaces, the historic items scattered through the attic of a house that once served as the school for the surrounding area; the simplicity and authority of the oldest inhabited house on Long Island, with us being only the 4th owners in all that time. It was here that I felt more alone and forsaken than I could handle, knowing no one my age, hating the new, upscale school where all the girls, it seemed, wore cashmere sweater sets and pearls. I developed a fever every day when the school bus unloaded me at the high school, and my mother was called to the nurse’s office to take me home.  It was not far from that to wanting to be dead, and since the wish is father to the act, I was scary enough to myself as well as to my mother that I told her, “If you don’t get me to analysis tomorrow, I don’t know what I’ll do.”  At which point, I put my hand through the glass window of the kitchen door and cut my wrist.

Fifteen and precocious, I’d read my Freud, I knew about libido and thanatos, and every day, after a session at home with a white-haired and kind-hearted retired teacher sent by the Board of Education because I was adjudged emotionally incapable of attending school, I made my way into Manhattan to the office of Larry Kaufman on Lexington Avenue, on whose couch I spoke aloud my dreams and whom I considered beneath contempt because he had a very bad reproduction of an awful Rouault print on his wall, hung askance.

Suicide is the main cause of death among teenagers. It is almost always an apology, an admission of failure – “I was not what you (my parents) thought I was;” or some variation of A.E. Housman’s echoing lines: I, a stranger and afraid/In a world I never made.  A few years later I read in Albert Camus’ long essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”: In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.  

At seventeen I became a freshman in college, and my close friend in the room directly opposite mine killed herself. I found her, lying blue on her pillow, an overdose of sleeping pills.  Her mother, a stage-mother type, had been taking her to auditions for Broadway plays and musicals over our Thanksgiving break; she was also a debutante, and much was expected of her.  She was very pretty, wide-set blue eyes, a love of Botticelli and escargots.


Death changes as we near it.  My mother died, and my world ended in many ways. My father died.  My aunts and uncles, and then my friends. Michael, my husband of 50 years, died this year.  My metastatic cancer continues its determined hold; I am now in the 24th year of its habitation.  What I fear now is not death so much as disfiguration, and by that I don’t just mean physically.  I mean the suffering that flesh is heir to, the bones of the spine crumbling onto the nerves, as happened last year; the cancer in pancreas or liver making itself felt   Suffering is of no possible use, in my opinion.  It makes no one better or wiser or nobler; quite the contrary.  The suffering of Jesus is a source of fascination to many, not only Christians. But it’s not for me.  I have decided that instead of letting “nature” (in this instance “cruel nature” might be allowable) take its course and transform me from who I am into a thing of pain, I want to be able to die as myself.  This means suicide, of course.  A chosen death instead of one imposed, which would inevitably include torture; just as, in the early war years, people killed themselves to avoid the boxcars taking them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  In the state of New York, doctor-assisted suicide is not legal.  Other states offer it, but to residents only.  I have little time.  I am making plans to go to central Europe to a place that offers what I seek.  It’s tricky: I have to be well enough to get there – transatlantic flight and all – and to be fully conscious when I arrive.  It’s hard to choose the right moment.  When I’m with friends, or even now, at my desk, writing, I feel the whole scheme is absurd.  I love life, I want to go on living.

Razors pain you;/Rivers are damp;/Acids stain you;/And drugs case cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful;/Nooses give;/Gas smells awful;/You might as well live.

– Dorothy Parker, “Resumé”

And then I remember some of the deaths of friends, and I do not want to descend into that chaos, the loss of clarity and humor and self that has been all I know of the world. I realize that each of us knows the universe only through his or her consciousness, and that each of us inhabits (creates?) a slightly different universe from anyone else’s.  It is a great pity that these universes must die.  But to paraphrase Pascal, Man is nothing but a reed, the weakest thing in nature.  But it is a thinking reed. . . and the advantage that man has over the entire universe is that he knows he will die, while the universe knows nothing.  Or, in Saul Bellow’s words: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything.

Death gives us life. Mortality is the source of time, and only in time do we live, love, create – or take our fate into our own hands.

American Girl


Riding on my father’s shoulders, a fat little curlytop of three, I waved at the man in the convertible moving towards us on Queens Boulevard as the crowd roared and the President waved back at me.  FDR, I could tell, liked me very much.

I don’t remember his death or his succession by Harry Truman, only that shining moment in a past so ancient to me now it might have happened in the days of heraldry or in a  poem of Jacques Villon, emerging from the Middle Ages: Où sont les Neiges d’antan? where are the snows of yesteryear?

That’s the way with memories, I find: fat beads like pills in capsule form to be swallowed whole, without reference to anything else.  Memory, to me, never has a narrative, not an ongoing story but simply a clip taken from context, or a slide projected on the mind’s screen, to fade and return, but not in any clear sequence, not like a film.  Which is why I can’t write a true memoir, and don’t believe anyone can.

Franklin Roosevelt was my first president.  My parents had emigrated from Central Europe in 1938 after the Nazis entered Austria.  At first they lived in a rooming house in Manhattan – that is, mainly my mother did, with her friend Kitty, an actress from Vienna, a comedienne whose specialty was simply laughter, unending, until everyone in the club was laughing with her as young girls laugh, infectious, contagious, about nothing at all.  And after all, what was there to laugh about?

The two young women shared the apartment, my father then back in Prague (where my parents had lived) trying to get relatives out at the last minute.  When I was born, we moved to a semi-detached house in Forest Hills, Queens, with a German-speaking grandfather belonging to the other half.  That, and the rocking chair on their porch, is all I remember of the house, though later I learned that we lived very close to the famous tennis courts, and sometimes went to the Forest Hills Inn for orange juice.

When I was about three (that’s the age I see myself astride my tall father’s not very broad shoulders), we moved to nearby Kew Gardens, to a semi or mock Tudor (it was in fact both semi and mock in the way a turtleneck sweater that’s not really a turtleneck is called mock or partial or some other qualifying adjective that tells you it’s not the real stuff), a white house with dark red shutters, a Victory garden on the side where the lilac trees grew and beyond them, further back, bushes of mountain laurel with their blossoms like stars. In the backyard itself, I had a small log cabin just like Abe Lincoln’s (or so I believed), where I used to serve my dolls tea, and a large sandbox which was later removed, but the earth beneath it had been made sterile, and in the end the sand was replaced by pebbles, pretty little stones through which small steams formed whenever it rained, and sometimes I floated chocolate candy on the waters, calling to the younger kids to come see the miracle.

They believed me.  I was the oldest kid on the block and so I ran it, my sense of leadership coming to me naturally (though otherwise I was quite shy) partly because I was an only child, but mainly I think because my mother’s English was often tentative and she relied on me, the native American, to interpret for her.  When I started going to school, she was never to set foot in the building or to speak to any of my teachers because she was afraid of being mocked for her accent.  Besides, she didn’t understand about “those things,” which included anything to do with officialdom,  So it was (and I report from what I heard later, not what I remembered), that she went to get ration cards for us during the war years.  When asked how tall my father was she, who thought in meters and grams for all her life, replied, “5 feet.”  Herself she put at “4 feet,” and I, she estimated, was “2 feet.”  The woman at the desk looked up then, to see a large hefty child who was probably (as all photographs show) holding tight to the hand of her mother.  “That child is not two feet,” the woman pronounced.  But she must have taken pity on us, because eventually we did get the cards.

By the time my first Presidential election came round, in 1948, I was ready for it.  Thomas E. Dewey, Republican and former Governor of New York, was the clear favorite over the incumbent, Harry S. Truman, the haberdasher from Missouri.  The other candidates with following included Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrat ticket (Southern Democrats, all of them crackers), and Harry Wallace of the Progressive Party.  My mother voted for Norman Thomas, the Socialist, as she did in every election (he ran for President six times.)

The rest of us were for Truman.  By “us” I mean the block, known as Newbold Place when we moved there and afterwards for some obscure reason, as 82nd Road, although there was already an 82nd Street and an 82nd Avenue.  I was old enough by then to know how to influence people, especially The Duke (originally Dorelle), who lived opposite, was 2 years younger than me and wanted to be a lady wrestler when she grew up. We’d first met up on Kew Gardens Road, when she was about 18 months, my father and I coming back from the florist, where we went every Sunday, and she peering up from her stroller with a chubby angelic face and a head of blond ringlets.  I was smitten, and although she soon cast off her doll-like cuteness, we became a team, me tall, she squat, me the ringleader, Dukey the tough guy.  Her sister Holly, two years younger than herself, was my new animated doll, and I loved to take her into the house and put her on the toilet for a pee.  (That was about the extent of my ability at child-rearing, but I did it with such devotion that I think Holly rarely peed at home, but came running over whenever she felt the urge, to have me ceremonially seat her.)  Both of them were staunchly behind me, backing Truman with all their might, and telling their parents (as I advised them) to be sure to vote for Truman.  The Wolf boys, down the block, also agreed.  And what Billy Blake did was of course of no concern.  She lived next door to me on the left and went to Catholic school.  She was a year younger than The Duke and her name was Mary.  We called her Billy and we couldn’t stand her.  Every now and then we’d make half-hearted attempts to kill her (by making her eat the red berries on the bushes lining the entrance walk to my house, for instance), but she never cooperated and so confirmed our belief that she was stupid.

The main reason for us all to be voting for Truman was not politics or principles. It was that my father said we would move to South America if Dewey won.

I wasn’t allowed to stay up election night, and when I went to bed the outcome wasn’t known. I asked my father to wake me as soon as the results were in.

As it happened, he didn’t have to. That election became the biggest upset in U.S. history. DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN appeared in bold headlines in an early edition of the Chicago Tribune, and a famous photograph shows Truman holding it up with a grin on his face.  He had won.  By 11:15 in the morning after the election, Dewey conceded.  We were safe.  We could stay home.


I didn’t meet another president until I was in my late teens, and he was only a vice-president then, Richard Milhous Nixon, in Moscow at the time of the Kitchen Debate with Nikita Sergeyevitch Khrushchev.  After that, not again until Bill Clinton, walking out of a meeting at a Chase building on Park Avenue.  A small crowd had gathered and he came up and shook my hand.  He saw through me, those blue eyes of his, and for a moment we were joined.  Then he reached behind me to shake hands with a young man as I very lightly stroked his sleeve and whispered, “Take me with you.”  Then he was gone, and I floated home on clouds to meet the laughter of my husband, who knew my propensity for theatrics.

He is dead now, and my parents long before him. If the man who won the presidency wins the presidency, I might have said to my son and grandchild last year, we’re moving – anyplace but here.  But it was already too late.  America fell to the barbarians, just as my parents’ home had fallen.  From Hitler to Trump: as first-generation American, I loved my country and criticized it fiercely, as we do with our parents.  But now I am orphaned, and my country, the country that was backward in many ways but always striving, and was also magnanimous, kind, humorous – has been hijacked by the very worst kind of hooligans, who bring not only despair but possible annihilation.

The Mind


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.




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



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.



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. . .