Archive for December, 2014

A feral kitten taken in by Humane Society; let us hope it has been adopted

The very air I breathe and see around me is filled with his absence … [my own play upon, rewrite of a line in Toibin’s Nora Webster]

…. hope is a tease, designed to prevent us from accepting reality …. [one of Violet, Lady Grantham’s tougher quips, Downton Abbey, Season 5]

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight over our supper Yvette and I were listening to a beautiful piano channel on Spotify or Pandora (on her ipad), and Vitamin String quartet played a tune I recognized. I went over to look and it was “Wake me Up,” one of the dances this past summer at Dance Fusion Workshop, only we danced to the rock group Avicii whose lyrics don’t do justice to the music’s depth of pulsing relentlessness and wild abandonment. Here it is made light:

I’ve been reading, writing, watching moves, writing, listening to music, writing — what else shall I do in this great blankness? on this road stretching out ahead of me. Alone with pussycats. This enforced ritual time an intensification of the experience of loss. (Curious that it includes expensive deluding of small children.)


One of my books is a novel by Colm Toibin, Nora Webster, which offers an extraordinarily truthful imagining of what it’s like to be just widowed after a beloved husband has been horribly sick in a hospital.


Nora Webster has made me remember how before the cancer metastasized into Jim’s liver, he smiled at me when I had come to the hospital and was just sitting there, feeling useless and perhaps showing it, and he said “I like to have you near me, it makes me feel better.” For that alone I value it immensely.

When I bought it I had no idea this was its topic; no wonder, the couple of the reviews I read managed to avoid focusing on what the book is focused on, or denied it’s what matters in the book; one jackass from the New York Times says it’s about “the stern heroine’s” “gradual re-wakening; how she gains the power to face” what? He doesn’t say. Another fool talks of how with her friends she finds employment. She gets but $6 a week for a pension and is forced to work for a mean bitch but after a while proves she can do valuable things in the office and so gets to stay half-a-day. What astonishes me is I can find nowhere in Toibin’s life an analogous experience. The thing is the other novels and poems I’ve tried show the experience is just this side of an hysteria, but that’s not the way it feels day-by-day. That’s what Toibin nails down. A great silence in which you carry on.

From Nora Webster:

“he would long for the comfort of this house and for her, as much as she longed for the past year of her life to be wiped away and for him to return to them” (62) “People would not think well of her … if they knew she thought such things were funny” (75). “Conversation was a way of managing things” (86). “But there were no other things. There was only what had happened” (86). “The problem for her was that she was on her own now and that she had no idea how to live” (86– a very rich page, 86). “Maurice had wanted her with him when he was in hospital in Dublin after his first heart attack … She remembered his eyes watching out for her … (128) “It was the world filled with absences. There was merely the hushed sound of water and stray cries of seabirds flying close to the surface of the calm sea” (150). “But he was already far away from them, so far that they might have been like shadows, people already lost to him. Maybe he could only imagine them all as vague presences, he ones he had loved, but love hardly mattered then, just as the haze here now meant that the line between lines hardly mattered” (151). “… watching every scene, every moment, for signs of what was missing or what might have been” … (141). Nora can’t tell her children what she’s feeling; she scarcely knows herself: “so this was what being alone was like, she thought” (204).

Others want to shut out the reality of her. Toibin’s lines are so perfect when I can’t find them and try to repeat them I know I have lost the equipoise. There are lines about the “long great sleeplessness” as he lays dying but I can’t find the exact words. So too on her rage against the the doctors who run away, the one who will not give him some drug for pain because his heart is weak. What? is the doctor afraid the patient will die? She watches Ingrid Bergman and realizes Bergman can never have done comedy well and says how glad she is of it and will watch Gaslight. Lost Horizon catches her — Ronald Colman’s presence.

Like all great fiction it teaches deeply moral ones, good moral lessons, usually unexpected and different from conventional thinking. Don’t tell your children about your deeper feelings and don’t expect anything from them. Live in and on yourself. Its flaw is the fantasy that she’s integrated again, but then she has 4 children, her husband had 2 siblings who were close to him; she has 3 sisters and they have children; she lives in a real community so she is in a crowd at any rate. I have 1 daughter who cares for me and I see; no hope of integration as there is no community in this continually moving and competitively aggressive N.Va area (NYC is as a place better that way, you can connect through public social events). I have this: the courtesy and kindness of strangers, or friends and a couple of far away relatives (on the phone every few months). I do have enough to live on and be free; she no longer is. She has lost most of all her freedom because he left her without enough money to survive without a job. She had 21 years of freedom she says (her life with her husband who earned their money) and now she must cope with meanness, grind, manipulation, lies of the sort people practice daily in the workplace. I don’t keep silent the way she does but I learn from her who not to talk to. And how much falseness there is in the depiction of widowhood. I didn’t put into the blog (but now have added) that like his other books and all good books I detail these in the blog (live in and on yourself, don’t expect anything from children or tell anything … ); its fantasy is a slight integration of the woman into the community but it may be Ireland in Enniscorthy has a community; there is none in the N.Va area where I live .. But you walk away having learned things … at minimum you see how common what you are experiencing is among those who have lost a beloved partners I’m not yet finished and can see there is a kind of final turn.
It’s astonishing how he knows.

Yes Nora Webster fits into the terrain of the novels I’ve read thus far, even has characters who are shared memories from The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. With Jim, an enjoyable evening listening to Toibin; on Toibin’s other books.

I finished it 12/30/14.


Then read an intelligent review about a fashion book where the people recorded expose themselves– so there was the experience in reverse.

Heti, Julavits, Shapton posing …

The glamored-up fat volume, Women in Clothes by Sheilda Heti, Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton et al. The reviewer Nicola Schulman (a scholar feminist I’ve read before). I can’t just link it in because TLS has worked out an effective way to stop subscribers downloading. I have an online subscription but they provide no help to learn how to use it.

The compilers got together a group of upper middle class women, often in careers, but if not, educated types, and asked them to answer a series of questions about their attitudes towards their clothes, towards clothing themselves, towards make-up, shoes, &c&c. what are you trying to achieve when you dress? with whom do you talk about what you wear? how has your cultural background influenced how you dress? Is this for real? Shulman exposes how utterly unexamined most fashion talk is, how unaware. What if you had to throw out all clothes but one garment? I’d answer I need at least 4 to cover myself: bra, panties, top, pants. Then I could pick out 4, only I’d be missing shoes and that’s not acceptable. I need to cover my feet. Schulman quotes to great effect to show how embarrassed most of the women are to tell their real motives for the clothes they buy (they’d like to look good); a couple may mock lunatic obsessions (as when one loses a pair of gloves one liked), none will admit to vanities or the real mortifications of having to have a real woman’s body in a culture relentlessly imposing on you false ones: frail, thin, but full breasts in low-cut blouses; actresses in their 20s made to play women of 30 against actors of 50 who are made to give the impression of being under 40. Most of the women do talk about what they try to avoid, stains, spills, looking too awful. One lawyer said she is still using the same lipstick from 7 years ago — that resonated, me too I’m still using a lipstick from 10 years ago. Most reviews on line give no idea of the content. Just reprint glamor photos. Trying to achieve? not to be dressed wrong, not to be seen not fitting in, or too conspicuous for something.


I should not omit I went to an appalling movie, The Imitation Game. BBC stars play musical chairs dressed in outfits from the 1940s and 50s? I admit fully the brilliance of Cumberbatch’s performance at the close (where he easily drove me to similar neurotic crying) and his overvoice throughout. How brilliantly the three levels of time were interwoven to make for quick pace (lest anyone be bored): Turing as a boy in public school, 1930s; Turing in war, 1941, and then Turing arrested for homosexual behavior and visited by Keira Knightley just before he kills himself in 1951.

Just awful — by which I mean the melodramatic overproduction, the values it endorsed and its faux camaraderie and patriotism.

The Imitation Game Movie New Picgoup
The heroic team finding the code out

First an ignorant and semi-hostile depiction of autism. False; that is not how autism presents itself in public except among very low functioning people. Most of the time autism is not quite visible. From what I have seen and experienced of autism, the person might well be all alone much of the time but it does not result from behaving the way the movie presented it. It will only create more discomfort for these “abnormal” people; worse more attempts to make them “normal,’ just like the movie showed was being done over homosexuality (Turing is taking hormones to rid himself of homosexuality in 1951). Funding is non-existent to help adult people who are autistic; most are un- or underemployed, never promoted — basically they are not liked because they are too sensitive and don’t work well in groups. It is though a disability not a personality trait, and one of its facets is this ease in getting lost — not being able to cope with space coordinates (some people not all — Turing as a math man would be good at space). Such presentations just encourage dopes today who dislike anyone who is not social to enforce normalizing techniques as cruel as those enforced on gay men.

I see that what I perceived as wholly horrible treatment of Turing openly in 1951, and by intuitive stealth in social bars in 1940s (these wonderful “normal” men like to tell stories of how women suck their penises), with little shown on how one should treat all others could be seen as critiquing. That expects a supersubtlety the rest of the movie doesn’t expect. Far from it. Homosexuality in the film is treated as pitiable, a sort of sickness.

Then the justified secrecy and surveillance. What is shown is nonsense claptrap about soviet-spies, with one boss played by Mark Strong, something out of James Bond. In fact the real Turing never met the Scotsman who was a communist (Allen Leech was playing the same type he does in Downton Abbey) so there was no mutual threatening (I’ll tell them you’re homosexual if you tell I’m a communist). The movie seemed to forget Russia, the UK and US were fighting together against the Nazis and Germany, that Russia won the war largely in Stalingrad. At great price. But here it’s heroic for these few men to decide this group will die and not that to protect their knowledge of this enigma code. Then they all hug one another like some simplistic pro-war propaganda film.If this did happen that way (I doubt it felt like that), rather they were instead mirroring the US/UK use of drones, of bombs today, and justifying today’s secrecy and surveillance. The paranoid atmosphere of the movie’s 1941 is a mirror of what is used to justify secrecy and surveillance today.

Suicide a complex act arising out of a life’s experience. Turing lived alone in 1951. What was it like for him in that university? the movie showed a close male friend died when he was in public school so he lost someone precious to him who he probably never replaced. The presentation here too quick, too exploitative of Cumberbatch’s, so a travesty.

Keira Knightley has gone thinner again — her role was that of Dale in Roy Rogers or Belle in Gunsmoke; she doesn’t want to give up her parents she cries out as Turing tries to persuade her to stay with them thought she’s the only woman there and 25 and not yet married. Her wig for 1951 was atrocious.

As to the history, a friend wrote concisely: “the Enigma program took 2 years off the war, when of course the atom bomb would have ended it quickly in August of 45 had it dragged on–so–maybe they saved 4 months on the outside? The hyperbole was ridiculous. They would have done much better not to try to overstate the role of this computing machine.”

I thought to myself what would Trollope have thought of this political and social culture, but then remembered the horrors of Victorian melodrama on the stage and penny dreadfuls. This is a Christmas movie, people, designed for uplift, for us to congratulate ourselves we have gone beyond 1951? to feel sorry for Turing?

I don’t know why the review are so tactful. The various fine actors thrown away (Charles Dance among them). Dan Rockmore basically says everything you would have wanted in such a film is not there. Read the biography by Andrew Hodges (1983) that does justice to the real man.

Paul Sandby’s The Magic Lantern (1760) – where movies came from

I finished my edition of Ethelinde for Valancourt, 5 volumes, 119 annotations, introduction, bibliography, sent it off — and of course got no response from the editor. Had Jim been alive he’d have congratulated me and felt good for me; now I just worry lest the guy now not want the book after all. Jim used to call this sort of thing “waiting for the splash.” He made it sound part of the universe.


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Ian yesterday all warm in the new pod now placed by one of my workroom windows

Dear friends and readers,

The last couple of days I’ve come really to acknowledge, to see and to feel the presence of the urn in which Jim’s ashes are now on the mantelpiece.

For over a year I had not gotten myself to pay attention to it. Not that I tried. I just knew I was not. It was not my choice to burn up his corpse; asked and given time, I probably would have buried his corpse to hold onto to as much of him, whatever there was left, as I could. But he was so determined on this, had picked out the sort of urn he wanted if we could find a version (of the urn one of the characters carries around in Handel’s Julio Caesare), wrote a set of verses for it, and said “put it on the mantelpiece.” Both daughters wanted to do what he wanted, and Caroline kept pointing out how much more money land, coffin, and burial would have been, and then we decided well before he died so I would have to return to the funeral home and upset the arrangements.

So I went with it. Did what the others wanted as the easiest thing to do in the hard circumstances. What did it matter once he was dead? I didn’t want him to die, and if I couldn’t stop him being dead, then all was that junkyard in comparison that didn’t matter.

I did whisper to Yvette I feared I’d find it creepy. I feared it would upset me, be a haunted thing there. But in the event, not so. I’m too thoroughly an atheist to see the urn as anything other than expensive pottery carved and beautifully dyed, with the left over dust of a corpse burnt through the cremation process. I set beside it a photo of him in fall 2012 when probably he had begun to be more ill than we realized (he had various conditions of old age from his mid-50s on), and a stuffed sheep we four had bought from a happy time all four together had gone to Stonehenge in the summer of 2004. It looked like a shrine, sort of. But it was not, or not in my mind. (It still isn’t. I’m not the type to perceive benign magic.)

photo (Small)
A photo I took about half an hour ago using my cell phone

You see about two days ago when this incessant cold rain began, dank and chilling, and the sky look so grey it came to me, I was glad that his corpse, his body, what was left of it when it seemed to my eyes to turn ston-y, was not out there in the raw cold ground. I felt I would not like to think of him cold in the ground even if his consciousness was gone. Rotting from time. I didn’t want to see his corpse just before the cremation; I could have but feared such a memory would destroy me. Now the last I saw of his remains (another word for this condition of deadness) was dressed in his jeans, a t-shirt, socks, moccasins, his hair even brushed slightly as the hospice people dressed him (with my help) before winding the corpse in two large sheet and hefting and carrying his remains out.

They did that dressing for my sake. Oh what a moment there was. My life went out with him. The agony of that I feel every time I re-imagine the scene. The last time to be with him. And then the house without him.

Well not quite. Now what is left is there, I am aware of it in the house; I can’t let myself sit and cry in front of it but my awareness makes me cry. I can cry in my room. I had planned to scatter the ashes, as I read his inscription as suggesting he wanted the ashes to be scattered eventually.

Alluding to Rupert Brooke

But there is a problem. There are only two appropriate places: somewhere off the coast of England, to which I’d have to carry said urn; Yvette said she would come, and I have a good friend in England who lives in Torquay, and she said she’d accompany us to a good place for us to do this act there, but now Caroline wants to with us, and that means a long journey together (plane, train) back and forth, beyond staying in England together.

Equally good is by the Hudson River where for so many years past 200th Street he and I (for 8 years with a dog, Llyr) would walk together. He loved New York City and regarded it almost as much his home or place as England. That February before the diagnosis (2013) he was still trying for an apartment in Manhattan: he found a 2 bedroom one not far from the Spanish museum on upper Broadway, nice block, gentrified as they say, and we said maybe. Maybe as soon as Yvette got a permanent job we would do this — sell the house, and the money we got for it would probably be enough for an apartment. But we were not sure as our home here is so large and comfortable, and we did have a rich cultural life here too — not NYC’s one, and so we did not reject the plan, the dream of return.

Even so it’s a train ride, then a hotel, then walk there and do it, the three of us together. Read aloud one of the poems or passages he liked to recite and then go for a meal.

Now I’m understanding why Yvette does not want to scatter them at all. She finds comfort in their presence. I can’t go that far but I am glad he’s not out in that bleak winter world — like some homeless person. He has a home so deep in my heart while I live I keep alive parts of him.

Clary cat just up from curled sleep in the other new pod I’ve bought for my room: it’s on a chair near mine so when she turns round she sees me and I see her

I was going to end this with a poem for Christmas, or the Solstice or whatever you want to call this season. As is common with me though I find I don’t like most of them: many are religious; others are too built up (as if compensating for not being invested with some special set of images numinous with history and memory); others too personal and then again why be bitter? But as my companions are now my beloved cat-friends, I am cheered to say my friend whose cat is aging (19 years old now), has finally completed his poem on his cat, Tazzy, and I’ll end with this as a mark of our friendship of a number of years now, first formed reading together and discussing on one of the three listservs I still maintain, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

The Cat Words

Our cat is old, she feels the cold
She sleeps beside a heater
Her world is shrunk to just one room
A basket on the kitchen floor
A food bowl, water, litter tray
No need for cat flap any more
She does not pass the kitchen door

A scarecrow, gaunt and deaf, she croaks,
A silent purr between your palms,
Her skin is thin, her backbone
Pricks beneath the fur you stroke
She cannot jump onto a chair,
Enfeebled legs will not permit her,
Who was so graceful, strong and fast.
The table cloth stays clean at last.

Her pleasure used to be to sit
in the front window
and watch the passing street.
But you cannot leave a cat alone
However still she looks
Who cannot get outside in time,
And wees on books.

She came to us some six years old
A rescue cat, now is perhaps nineteen.
She put her paws up on my chest,
And she decided it was us.
Dismissing all the rest.

The former cat, blocked by a door
Would quietly dig the carpet up.
But she will stand at the door and squawk
Requiring service now now now
Unusual cat, to almost talk.

There has been a time when she would wait
While I made breakfast and sat down
To sit upon my lap
A few minutes before wandering off.

Allowing of affection
You could not pet a person so
Unharmed by petting, unseduced
Indifferent going on her way
The action left the better.

Despite it all, the spark of life
Is still alight, you have a healthy
Appetite for what you like,
An unexpected turn of speed
When chicken scraps appear.
O sweety puss, O kitty cat,
A dragging leg today,
Is not a good sign I fear …

— Martin Notcutt

Tazzy, December 2014

The admiral’s legs (upper thighs during the day, and calves at night with shooting pains suddenly) had been bothering him so much that fall that he stopped going to the gym. He had rotator cuff on one of his shoulders. No not a good sign. But we did have a good New year’s Eve that year, went to an Elvis show, and then danced to band, and drank until 1 at the Kennedy Center great hall (“Elvis has left the building”). Comfort and fun we didn’t know was not to be had again. There was life left yet and the pussycat above is right near a warm comforting fire, there are rugs.

We no longer have fires here. No one to make them.


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From Frederick Wiseman’s Near Death

Dear friends and readers,

In a NYRB review (Jan 8, 2015, 72:1), A Better Way Out, Marcia Angell with a few important qualifications heaps praise on Atul Gawande’s latest book on how medicine treats aging and dying, how people sickness, aging, death because of modern medicine’ goals, training, politics: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters. I’ve discussed Gawande before (see Realities of Medicine: how misunderstood), and Marcia Angell’s writing several times (see her on privatizing all aspects of medicine) and this review seems to be publicly on-line, available to the public. So let me just call attention just to a central section of the book and one of its silences.

In the book’s “most powerful chapter,” “Letting Go,” Angell reviews the book so as to bring out Gawande’s theme about the deeply inhumane and dishonest way cancer is treated by modern physicians and hospital staffs (and I’d add hospices too). Knowing how bleak an outlook, doctors lie and offer painful maiming operations and immiserating chemotherapies and radiations whose outcome they cannot predict. They make the last months or year of a person’s life an experience of toxic suffering, giving them (as I know too well) no opportunity to decide to enjoy what they can of their last months. She does not mention that if you refuse the doctor’s treatments, they tell you to go away; they will not provide half-way or palliative care to enable you to carry on in your own way. It’s all or nothing. It’s also highly exploitative. A multi-million edifice for its practitioners and drug companies. A friend told me recently about The Confessions of a Surgeon by Paul Ruggieri where he exposes the pressure put on doctors to recommend operations in order to make huge sums for hospitals (a brief inadequate review). Statistics quoted include physicians on average telling terminally ill patients they will live 5 times longer than they do; those who can find a palliative specialist and stop chemotherapy very early, having no operation, live about 25 per cent longer than those who submit to these treatments.

Do read Angell’s essay. Everything she writes is worth reading and thinking about.

She faults him in two areas: the first is money. He hardly ever discusses money in his writing: yes there are a couple of essays where he discusses money and the way medicine is delivered generally, and advocates moving gradually to a single-payer system, but since what drives each and every encounter between patient and medical person is a fee (and often hefty) this kind of general discussion doesn’t begin to get near the problems (see Money-Driven Medicine). Worse he gives a superficial and prejudiced account of physician-assisted dying: he is against it — he is strongly for high-tech solutions when he thinks they provide a “good outcome;” she points out there is no evidence in any of the US or European states where such practices have begun that assisted dying is resorted to unless the patient decides for it. That Gawande calls this resort a measure of failure shows how somewhere deep in himself he has not accepted the inferences of his own arguments; he may know enough not to use the metaphors of bravery and courage, and heroism (which should have no place in discussions of killing and therefore painful diseases) but he thinks of the decision to die rather than live through a hideous self-destruction unacceptable. Why? when he himself has said it’s not a question of life once it’s most cancers: life’s not on offer, occasionally it is a question of prolonging life (and this is where patients get sucked in, especially when young); for most it quickly enough becomes how and when and where the person dies.

That latter was Jim’s phrase when at first he wanted to do nothing. I couldn’t face his death, and I should have and proposed we go on a trip, and he try to have the best last few months he could. And then he couldn’t face it either.

Endings matter, for animals too.

A sick kitten being cared for


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Downton Abbey, Season 5, Episode 7: to Bates to talk with Anna is like talking with his second self, she sits listening to him intently (Brendon Coyle, Joanne Froggart)

The cup that cheers but does not inebriate (Jim quoted Cowper’s lines countless countless times when we drank tea and coffee together)

Friends and readers,

Another of the songs we dance to at the Dance Fusion workshop, this one the antepenultimate, three from the last, when we are “slowing down:”

Jim and I had known each other about 3 weeks (this would be later October/early November 1968), and had been in one another’s company constantly except when we fell asleep or had to be parted for the night during the 2nd two weeks. (This went on until I took to sleeping in his flat nightly around April 1969, because next to him in that unheated room I would sleep through the night.) At the end of the three weeks, he said to me he would have to be away for a day or so. We were on a landing in a stairway in the house of Colesbrooke View (student housing):

“How,” he half-teased me, “would I get along without him?” There was a serious tone too, as if he felt sure how much I valued him.
To this I reacted with a comic defiance, tartly, “I’ve gotten along without you for nearly 23 years thank you very much, and I probably can manage another night.”

47 years later, really going on 48 (he’s been dead a year, 2 months, and 11 days) I remembered that conversation as the dance teacher let this one play and we began to imitate her modified Broadway routine for this number. He was right. He had “gotten under my skin” and by the time we married was “deep in the heart of me.” I understood the danger, the risk of the way we lived but for me

I’d sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of having you near
In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats, repeats in my ear
Don’t you know you fool
You never can win
Use your mentality, wake up to reality
But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin …

Don’t you know you fool, you never can win. How could I wake up to reality?

I was awake to it, terribly so, the terrible nature of nature all 46 years.

My father used to wonder at how the men he was friendly with in Bronx Crotona Park liked Frank Sinatra so much. He’d hear their admiration when he’d go to its decrepit handball courts of a Sunday and watch young Spanish men playing handball with his aging white working class male friends (once they brought a cement mixer and attempted, with the help of the younger men, to mend the courts).

“He can’t sing.” “He’s not a dullard, you can see that in the movies he’s been in, but his stuff is so cliched and delivered with the wrong emphases.”

This song is typical Sinatra. This one like Bobby Darin’s intensely sad song about the little girl who froze to death making artificial flowers, at its close turns into this big band extravaganza of high spirited loud beating expansive rhythms. Nonetheless, or because of this sudden turn into exhilaration, one experiences what Austen caustically referred to (with considerable knowledge of this state of mind) “moments of precious, invaluable misery” (S&S, Chapter 44, of Marianne Dashwood),and both songs function deeply in the heart of me.

I apologize for the stills from Casablanca; it’s the least objectionable YouTube of this song I could find. I’d have preferred the more genuine feeling of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson Brief Encounter (but have no DVD); so, as you see, I offer the 2014 alternative, the inimitable Brendan Coyle and tremblingly proud Joanne Froggart of Downton Abbey as Mr (John) and Mrs (Anna Smith) Bates’s relationship from Downton Abbey. They’re our real surrogate hero and heroine.

Establishment shot of conferring scene: far shot of their cottage from the outside

She pours the comforting tea

They begin to talk and at the close are back to dreaming of the house they will have together in their later years … don’t you know poor fools …

Well, we couldn’t win. He wasn’t physiologically strong enough — poor diet when young (very poor parents, working class English diet, lived in freezing dank cold) and was one of those who succumbed so helplessly against illnesses. He writhed with his diverticulitsis; the nightmare of medicine kept him away from it and until the fear of death tricked him into agreeing to a massive destructive operation, he refused major surgeries: “I’ll just kick this can down the road a little more; take pills again …”

I would sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of having you near
In spite of the warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats how it yells in my ear
Don’t you know you fool
Ain’t no chance to win
Why not use your mentality
Get up, wake up to reality
And each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
Because I’ve got you under my skin
And I like you under my skin

“I will go to sleep now. I wish I could sleep never to wake up again.” “I have the same prayer for myself. This is a very terrible world. To live without love in such a terrible world is really hard and sometimes impossible.”

Sylvia remembering her admiral, with Clarycat sat clingingly into my lap, her paws clutching at my robe

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People in a gallery

One must live with great seriousness like a cat — a play upon an utterance by Nazim Hekmat

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been meaning to tell of one last adventure Yvette and I had while in NYC: Friday morning until lunchtime we wandered all about the Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhausted ourselves there too, for me seeing paintings and art work I regard as old friends and with her looking at new art.

Well, we happened on an exhibition of photographs by Thomas Struth. The ones used to advertise his work are like the one above: people looking at vast art, people making things, not just beautiful art, but everything one might think of in an industrial building, wandering in and out of cities, esplanades, woods filled with twisted branches: ephemeral beings given some kind of larger meaning against the shape of seemingly permanent or continuing structures. I’m told that Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary where he filmed the worlds of people doing things, talking in the institution in the UK called the National Gallery is rapturous. By contrast, Struth shows a family of artists whose living is made by restoring pictures working in the basement of an old church thus:


So (or but) if you go to one of Struth’s actual exhibits (not spread across the globe on the Net), you find there is another sort of photograph among them:


People submitting to technology: the above is a surgery for hymenoplasty. I melted into quiet crying upon seeing one of a woman on a table covered by surgical lines, with IVs all over her, bags of liquids, long sharp instruments all around, of course sheeted: she was having an operation for some dire cancer. I cried because I wished I had seen that image before I agreed to agree with Jim he would have that esophagectomy that made his last 8 weeks of life a living hell of nausea, starvation, pain. On the wall was a little plaque assuring you the woman as still living as of some date. Right. I can’t find a replica on the Net of that photo or a couple others in the Met that day. I knew that the photo was invasive and voyeuristic, but I wish everyone could see that or the other photos before they agree to a surgery. Since the advent of anesthesia people submit to operations with their eyes closed — metaphorically as well as through drugs. We ought to imagine these; maybe we will agree less often.

This is prompted by my having overheard a man at the Toyota Dealer this morning on the phone for over half an hour scheduling a series of appointments for what was clearly a major surgery, which was to be proceeded by a visit to the famed Mayo clinic (for cancer), and a number of other visits to this or that doctor. The man was all eager docility, cooperation itself. He looked about 70, white, had a briefcase thick with papers (perhaps a college professor). I was there waiting for my PriusC to be inspected so I could get my yearly sticker attesting to the safety of my car: it’s put on one’s window shield in Virginia. I wished I had the nerve to ask him what kind of cancer it was.

Don’t misunderstand me. I felt jealous. I sat there remembering how I could not persuade Jim to try to go to Boston, Massachusetts, where we were told we might be able to see a super-famous, (probably) super-expensive oncologist who never did esophagectomies (as he thought them horribly maiming) but poured intense chemotherapies into people to try to subdue, diminish, put the cancer into remission.

I realized that I never saw Jim being active on behalf of his health that way. In life for other things he was often a person who made many phone calls, set up all sorts of schedules for us to travel, engineered itineraries. But when it came to his health he often just submitted to doctors, didn’t question them. He did read about his cancer when we were told, and early on told me what the Kaiser people were doing was common protocol. Was what doctors did when the case was esophageal cancer.

At Kaiser there was no need beyond minimum appointment making. They found for him a man trained at the Mayo clinic (a surgeon outside Kaiser), a radiation doctor, another to do chemotherapy (in the event we never had them because the cancer metastasized into his liver before the series could start). Jim was I know not just thinking of the price, but thinking it would take time to go to Boston, precious time to try to reach this doctor, have his advice, and then maybe go for Kaiser anyway. He didn’t want to stop what was set up already.

I wasn’t sure of myself so I was afraid to say no, let’s not do this operation, let’s go to Boston, let’s insist on chemotherapy first, lest I was wrong — and he suffer from it, he die.

I worried about the worried looks in the eyes of the non-surgical doctors: did they think this guy a jock eager to cut Jim up and that he’d be better off doing chemotherapy first? Maybe he would have lived had he had chemotherapy first and the cancer would not have metastasized? It was a judgement whether to do the operation first because chemotherapy could burn the tissues and then the operation afterwards might result in dangerous complications as parts of the organs would not heal readily at all. So he said.

I found myself wishing I had persisted and made some kind of intense effort to for once listen to me — would he be alive today?

I was like am now a person walking down a stairway where the handrails have been taken away

I asked myself, Is this man I am watching and listening to, going to be alive 10 years from now because he’s doing this? I envied him. I should not have. Sitting there doing that so politely was an ordeal he was controlling. We do not see the terror inside other people. He will be like the people in Stuth’s photographs. I do not know; maybe he’s having his pancreas removed. He was determined the operation should not be put off and all his appointments fit in. I will remember his aging face, short hair, thin body and briefcase.

My car passed inspection and the honest people at Toyota (I’ve been there before and the people there have been all courtesy to me too) charged me $16. I drove home listening to Simon Vance reading aloud Trollope’s Dr Thorne and all day and until now (many hours later) had this man’s image in my mind and knew I would write this blog about Struth’s photograph of a woman having a cancer operation at last.

Struth, Milan Cathedral, 1998


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From Sandy Welch’s film adaptation of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: the disabled Jenny Wren

Dear friends and readers,

Very Dickens, I said aloud. Appropriate for this season and time I felt:

Alone in the world was poor little Anne
As sweet a young child as you’d find.
Her parents had gone to their final reward
Leavin’ their baby behind.

(Did you hear?)
This poor little child was only nine years of age
when mother and dad went away;
Still she brav-el-y worked
At the one thing she knew
to earn her few pennies a day.
She made artificial flowers, artificial flowers,
Flowers for ladies of fashion to wear;
She made artificial flowers, you know those artificial flowers,
Fashioned from Annie’s despair.

With paper and shears, with some wire and wax
She made up each tulip and ‘mum.
As snowflakes drifted into her tenement room
Her baby little fingers grew numb.

From makin’ artificial flowers, those artificial flowers
Flowers for ladies of high fashion to wear.
She made artificial flowers, artificial flowers
Made from Annie’s despair.

They found little Annie all covered with ice
Still clutchin’ her poor frozen shears
Amidst all the blossoms she had fashioned by hand
And watered with all her young tears

There must be a heaven where little Annie can play
In heavenly gardens and bowers.
And instea-a-ad of a halo she’ll wear ’round her head
A garland of genuine flowers.

No more artificial flowers;
Throw away those artificial flowers,
Flowers for ladies of society to wear.
Throw away those artificial flowers,
Those dumb-dumb flowers,
Fashioned from Annie’s,
Fashioned from A-a-a-annie’s

From Clare, Summer 2014


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A long-time friend’s 19 year old cat, Tazzy

Dear friends and readers,

The Fall term for the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at American University has more or less come to an end, most classes are over, and the Holiday party happened at River Road Unitarian Church this afternoon. The spring term does not start until March 2nd and I thought I’d make my course last 10 weeks; I have committed to teach at the OLLI at Mason too where the spring term starts at a similar point in the winter/spring calendar, here it’ll last 8 weeks. I’m going to do a lot less than I did this term (less than half) so if I could get myself to use time efficiently I could probably do what projects I want, and if I could order them sensibly, get each done in due time and plan for returning to my book on Jane Austen films or write a proposal on The Anomaly.

Sounds all right? I’ve promised Charlie, my counselor (her new function, no longer “grief support person”) and friend, I’ll talk more positively about what I do, give myself credit where I should, not say “I can’t” but “I don’t want to.” So I shouldn’t say this is a mode of desperation, but rather that I don’t know what I want to do with my life so do these things as what could give me some satisfaction. Not that they do altogether or at times very much. I had some very good times towards the end with the people at OLLI at AU reading Trollope together; there was one woman at OLLI at Mason who wanted to read Gothic books & stories and watch the films and was interested in their significance.

I’ve discovered teaching retired older people subjects because they say they want to learn about them, enjoy them, quite different from teaching young people seeking accreditation and skills beyond a given subject matter. Jim once told me he never ever read a student evaluation (the anonymity was an invite he said) and that I should not even if I often got touching and positive ones; at the university itself I saw evaluations used only against people who wanted promotions or tenure. This situation is not the same here at all (there is no career at stake) but I’ve decided not to read any more anonymous evaluations because only a small percentage of the adult learners (the phrase for students used at Future Learn) respond and the way they function in this environment is for me counterproductive (one petty, one jealous, resentful of my learning; one wanted no context or background; a book in a vacuum, a library book club); I don’t want my memories of successful satisfying teaching for over 30 years to be hurt; it’s better for me to listen to what the staff or long time members have to say was said generally about my courses. One long time person said you have to make many people understand first what literary study is.

Jim was also against all volunteering — he said the person would not be valued; and that to work for no pay was to ultimately to deprive those who need paid jobs of work. It’s too sweeping a condemnation: by finding Yvette a volunteer job at a library (a student offered me the one she had had for my daughter) she learned for the first time that she loved library work; she got a splendid letter of recommendation which helped her get to her present real paid job as a librarian. Everyone at the Haven where I have had such support (e.g., my counselor) is a volunteer (staff, counselors, people in need of help). Yes the gov’t should have a decent tax system, provide humane social services and pay people. Of course the job market in the US is engineered to be desperate for many people and young adults take internships (euphemisms) to try to make contacts, get experience, come near a real job. The Haven (I understand) has minimal funding (local gov’t, some start-up big donators including the donated house); where no one is paid there are no chiefs, all Indians. Well I’ve found there is something problematic about volunteering at these OLLIs: partly it’s that some people are paid (the administrative staff) and some are paying (the learners), so volunteers can be vulnerable. I now understand better the grounds and terms of these places and people’s level and kind of engagement and tell myself I have to be what I am as long as I’m well-meaning and act with good will (which I have). I’ve met some intelligent and pleasant people at the AU OLLI. They represent (dare I say this) a segment of the best of the older generally educated population in DC.

I find I need to get out and be among people, feel useful and active, occasionally appreciated and that is the main reason I’ll carry on, not regardless but for a little while yet if I fit. Still seeing if. Charlie says cut down to one.

This summer and fall I found I again enjoy reading and talking by writing with others on listservs. Letter writing and receiving on the Net. Blogs became a form of release from last fall on, as well as a place to think out topics, work out the meaning of texts and films or plays, write reverie-style essays I enjoy writing. I like the sense of being read — and response. It may sound astounding to some but when the discussions on listservs about books go well, this cheers me more than anything else.

The problems with my projects is they are (as all writing must be) long-term, mostly solitary whose end result is uncertain, especially now that he’s not here to help me negotiate when the need comes up (and it sometimes does!). Now nothing I do has the meaning it did for me when Jim was alive. What I did was somehow with him, he validated whatever it was, I shared what I was doing with him. I find I miss him most intensely when I am driving home and know he’s not here any more. The house is during the day most of the time empty but for my loving cats — they are glad to see me, and Clarycat, very like a dog, comes to greet me. So I have presences, physical affection and comfort, play too, but no deep companionship, no sense of purpose or respect beyond what I can get up for myself within.

I find that whatever it is I’ve done that day, I tell myself, I did what I could. I make schedules still (routs I call them, from Daphne DuMaurier’s term for how she got through her work and play, her days) so as to try to do these projects in due time or finish and send to people things I’ve promised to do, but the schedules do not imply that I know what to do with my life now that he’s gone.

For me now it’s day after day. We all have just our little bit of time. An interlude of life between two long darknesses. I met a woman friend at the OLLI today at this party who told me for the first time she’s a widow of 2 years: her husband died after they were married for 57 years, of a terrible cancer (2 dreadful years); she showed me a bracelet she was wearing, something he bought her after years of marriage, to commemorate their first conversation. She was startled to discover that he had remembered it. She was smiling at me as she told this story.

It’s a holding on action for us all. The hard task not to belie or misrepresent, for that makes it harder for the vulnerable and for cooperation for what good people want; also to maintain courtesy, self- and mutual respect, kindness, act with compassion or shared empathy in mind, at a minimum self-control. Think of poor Sisyphus and his huge stone.

Constable, Barges on the Stour (1811)

Miss Drake

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Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Mr Molseley (Bernard Gallagher) walking in the snow

Dear friends and readers,

I hope I will not appear ridiculous by yoking together Bach’s extraordinary suite, which Yvette and I heard so harmoniously perfectly done at the Kennedy Center by the National Symphony Orchestra (as well as much more Bach music), with the Downton Abbey Christmas album, which I splurged on and discover features Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Lady Grantham) and Julian Overden (Charles Blake, one of Lady Mary’s suitors), as well many choral renditions of traditional carols. I’m listening to the 2 CDs just now, having first found and listened to the central Bach air of the Suite on the Internet.

As I listened at the Kennedy Center and just before typing this, the music entered the rhythms of my pulse through my body. I used to say Jim was the blood that flowed through my heart. He’s gone now and I’ve nothing to flow through, so desperately seek what’s not there. I find some prose rhythms help (Austen I can hold onto), but it’s more music that is deeply harmonious, orderly so that the beat of my body can find something calming so I can remain sane as I go about my days without him there.

(Thoughts: It’s a kind of madness living without him. I don’t know what to do with my life now that he’s not here. Do I really want to write for traditional publication? Do I want to teach? (Not to those who don’t want to learn the chosen texts about which I can impart some insight and information.) If I don’t aim at those things (and I am very bad at the kinds of negotiations that go into publishing I’ve re-discovered), what then? I use routines under the pretense I want to do these things since I can think of no other I can do and need some order in the sense of when I get up, what shall I do now, and what next, and what after that?)

Music helps. Dancing at the Dance Fusion Workshop. The teacher this week encouraged us to get on the stage with her as it was the last week of the routine (3 weeks per routine). I came on to the stage for the last, the slow expressive number, and saw that she is chary around me. No high five hitting of palms. Intuitively she understood I would not react in the way desired to that. The number was Adele, Someone like you:

Now take your body and dance to this in a controlled way.

For me it isn’t over, it will never be over, never mind I might find someone like you — a dream, a dream. Sometimes it lasts love, but sometime it hurts instead. And it’s now hurting bad, real bad. Our glory days. The night we married, we went to a pub and got so drunk and just danced that night away. Broke, we had but ten shillings between us and had to part, get on buses to our jobs that first day of our marriage.

(Thoughts: I blame myself for his death: I was so angry at Skylar in Breaking Bad because she got her husband to go outside the HMO and try the outrageously expensive treatments, and I couldn’t make a dent in Jim to do this. If I had been able to get him to try, maybe he would be alive today. Was it that lethal? that hopeless?)

Yvette and I had quite a time getting to and from the Kennedy Center. It was dark out, cold, raining, and we decided that we should drive there: a ten minute drive if we could find the right roads instead of an hour and a half back and forth by public transportation with walking. In the event we managed it in 20 minutes with our google maps, Garmin (Ariadne came though for one of the turns), and remembering how Jim did it.

Coming back was not as easy as we did not go out of the garage using the exit Jim used to. It took time for the Garmin to react as in that garage under that massive building, it had lost contact with the satellite. I had to do a couple of wild turns (half-mad U-turns swinging round to another loop) but finally we were on the highway road home. 30 minutes to get home. As Yvette found herself falling asleep again while at the concert, we decided going out at night is not for us, and I hope that next week when we try the Nutcracker this year at the Kennedy Center in the afternoon, in the light I’ll find the right exit out and be able to take the route I remember Jim doing. Very easy, ten minutes, straightforward back.

So now I’m listening to my new Downton Abbey Christmas Album. I am hearing Julian Ovenden sing just now — he was a choir boy when young. McGovern has a group of women singers and does her “It came upon a midnight clear” playfully, half tongue-in-cheek . I like it. Both singing an arrangement for two together “12 Days of Christmas.”

I have nothing snobbish in my tastes for food or music. I have seen on the Downton Abbey Face-book page the usual sneers (so paradoxical — but so many people love to sneer) at this Christmas Album, but probably because somewhere in my heart there is still that young child’s longing for Christmas to be like what was promised in Dickens’s Dingley Dell, which, together with my deep engagement with these characters, is enough to make this music touch me.

Here is a good example of what Overden can do — I’m a lover of Carousel’s music (of musicals as well as country music) — with Sierra Borgess who seems to be his singing partner:

I’ve also splurged on purchasing the scripts for the third season (released on December 4th) and the British DVD version of this coming 5th season and await them.


Yvette and I talked about whether to try a tree, but agreed it’d be more depressing than cheering because we were not sure the Ian and Clarycat would not attack the tree. She said putting in the porch where they can’t get it at is silly, as we can’t see it either. Several years ago when they were kittens, the appearance of the tree by the end of the 1st week was dismaying. We have no electrical outlets outside the house so no lights out there.

So this Downton Abbey grand tree photo is all I’ve have — note the touch of the upright piano nearby.


I don’t know that the woman seen from the back is “poor-Edith” (as my other daughter remarked, the full name for the second daughter of the house) with her daughter, but very much like the pose and that of the weary sagging woman next to her (probably not Miss Baxter). I remember among Yvette’s first phrases when she began to speak again (she had a hiatus of over a year and a half from age 2 1/2 when she would no speak after an operation on her hand), “pitty tree” as she looked up at a tree.

I’m told that Maggie Smith was in this fifth season allowed to bring to the surface her gifts for poignant held-onto dignity:


I look forward to whatever it is that evoked this moment in her.


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Dear friends and readers,

I heard this music played the other night by a student pianist at the JCC, and was much moved:

Came home, had some wine, and remembered Jim, how we would wander on autumn nights by the Hudson when we lived in NYC, under bridges, and here in Alexandria, by the Potmomac, looking out at bridges.

Whistler, River by Night, 1872.


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Dear friends and readers,

I ask your patience on this one: I’m going to make this a handy site in this blog for Future Learn courses. Thus far I’ve followed, Literature of the Country House and Shakespeare and His World (click here for summaries, scroll down for links); I’m in the middle of following World War 1: Trauma and Memory) and I’ve signed up for Explore Film-making; Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Much Ado about Nothing in Performance. I doubt I’ll follow all 3, but I’ll begin them all and this post makes it easy for me to reach them.

Recreated Globe Theater in London

Brief explanation: while the Literature of the Country House was a disappointment, there were a couple of marvelous weeks and I did learn enough that was new to make the experience worthwhile, Jonathan Bate’s Shakespeare and His World has been remarkable as an experience; and I’ve learnt and been salutarily reminded and what I knew enrichened by WW1: Trauma and Memory. So I am going to try for three more. I don’t read the comments by others much (these exist in the hundreds) and have now only twice read the new texts, though I’ve re-skimmed many of the others (which I’ve read), but on my listserv about WomenWritersthroughtheAges @ Yahoo we had a reading and discussion of 3 18th century novels by women as a result of our shared experience. All that I can garner about film adaptation is central to my studies of all sorts, and I’ve long loved Shakespeare. What do I have to do with my late nights?

Big Sue and Now Voyager

Her face is a perfect miniature on wide, smooth flesh,
a tiny fossil in a slab of stone. Most evenings
Big Sue is Bette Davis. Alone. The curtains drawn.
The TV set an empty head which has the same
recurring dream. Mushrooms taste of kisses. Sherry trifle
is a honeymoon. Be honest. Who’d love me?
Paul Henreid. He lights two cigarettes and, gently,
puts one in her mouth. The little flat in Tooting
is a floating ship. Violins. Big Sue drawing deeply
on a chocolate stick. Now Voyager depart. Much,
much for thee is yet in store. Her eyes are wider,
bright. The previous video unspools the sea.

This is where she lives, the wrong side of the glass
in black-and-white. To press the rewind,
replay, is to know perfection. Certainty. The soundtrack
drowns out daytime echoes. Size of her. Great cow.
Love is never distanced into memory, persists
Unchanged. Oscar-winners looking at the sky.
Why wish for the moon? Outside the window night falls,
slender women rush to meet their dates. Men whistle
on the dark blue streets at shapes they want
or, in the pubs, light cigarettes for two. Big Sue
unwraps a Mars Bar, crying at her favourite scene.
The bit where Bette Davis says “We have the stars.”

— Carol Ann Duffy

A park in winter in Russia (sent by an Internet friend)

Miss Drake — aging scholarly woman, lives alone, ever wanting to improve herself (as you’ll instantly recall from Gaudy Night)

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