My little husband jumps up in a fury, clutching the Times editorial page. He stamps around the breakfast nook so hard he causes our coffee cups to rattle on their saucers.
“This is a crazy person!” he hollers. He bunches up the page and hurls it into a corner. The fire in his eyes is so hot that for a minute I think maybe the Times will ignite.
“But you know there is many crazy persons,” I say. “What is causing you to be so disrupted now?”
He sits down again and glares at me. He is breathing hard.
“This person, this writer person, he says that in our brains – in everybody’s brains! — is an “End of History” thing. A delusion! He says I got a delusion in my brain!”
“Which delusion….?” I begin, but he interrupts.
“He says we KNOW we changed in the past, but we do not believe we are going to change in the future time!”
“So?” I say. “You got a problem with that?”
“He says we THINK that the way we are now is the way we always will be!” He is turning purple in the face. “I do not think that!!! Why does he say I think that?”
I sigh. Many times in life, my little husband gives me proof that even with the benefit of a highest education, you could be sometimes not so smart.
“He is not talking about you only! He is probably somebody who wants his doctor degree, so he is talking about the sample people. He is not talking about you! Why are you getting so crazy?”
“I do NOT have such a delusion!” he rages. “I know I am going to change! I like to change! I change always! In the now, in the future! I can change whenever I want!”
I am totally flummoxed by this outburst.
I say, as quiet as I can, “I know very well that what you say is true. Always you are saying that to change is good. This I find admirable.”
I feel sorry that he is so beside himself. It makes me want to pet him, but any time if I try to pet him he gets very mad, so I don’t. “What is the matter? Please tell me!”
He looks at me with such a hurt, such a sad expression.
Suddenly he bursts out:
“I WANT TO REMOVE THE TATTOO!”
I cannot believe he has said this.
The silence goes back so many years.
To the Korean War.
And the G.I. Bill, which kindly let him go to college, so he could learn, and so I could meet him.
Our first dates was to go swimming in the lake.
At the time, he went around always with his left arm strapped to his body, even in the water, where he would do the sidestroke.
“It is from being wounded. A little,” he said.
“If it is just a little, will it not be better soon?”
He did not sound convincing, but I married him anyway.
It was only later I discovered that the strapped-down arm was hiding a tattoo of a naked woman in what you would call a compromising position. Some of the coeds he had met were upset by this, and he did not want to alarm any more of them.
I was upset by it, too, but by that time we were already married, and the tattoo was not what you would call a deal-breaker. I was upset because I could not imagine why he would have chosen to get his only tattoo in such a sensitive place as the armpit. He said it was because of his infantry buddies and the beer they all drank that day.
Not only was the naked woman good-looking in her body, but when my little husband’s armpit hair had grown out again, she had developed a lovely head of curly locks.
I didn’t like her.
Sometimes I would say “I wish you would get rid of her.”
He would always refuse. “I invested in this too much money and terrible pain from the needles, so now I have to keep her.”
But as the years went by, her beautiful curly hair got thinner, until she was almost bald. She got more and more flabby, so her whole body, once so fit, became increasingly wrinkled and old-looking, especially her bosoms.
I was glad.
Why should she be the only one still looking spiffy?
Sometimes I would say “Do you think you will ever change your mind about this?”
“NEVER!” he would say.
We go to a place in Brooklyn that says they can make her go away with a laser beam. They cannot predict how many treatments this will need: maybe ten, maybe fifteen. “You had it HOW many years?” They cannot tell us exactly how much will be the cost, but in soft voices they tell us a “range”.
We are in shock.
Outside the laser place, we stand for a while in the nice breeze.
“Sometimes I was jealous of her,” I admit. “She was with you all the time, even when I was not.”
“I never thought of it in that way,” he says. “I am sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry any more. It is enough, that now I know you no longer want to keep her.”
“Maybe,” he says, “she will just fade away.”
He takes my hand in his. I curl my hand around his hand, a little tighter.
We go home.
When I was a girl, at summer camp in Upstate New York, we, one evening, burrowed into our mosquito-netted cots, and wrote earnest letters to our future selves.
Now I am going to write such a letter to myself, to be opened November 8, 2017.
The world has changed. (Or has our ever-changing world just hit me over the head with a ballot box in order to get my attention?)
I am still in the grip of generalized anxiety. I wonder how long my current state of mind will last: What am I thinking, feeling, doing about it now? And how will that change in the coming year?
I WANT TO TRACK THIS, because I am so afraid of a certain human tendency to forget, to rationalize, to justify.
I WANT TO TRACK THIS “…before it all vanishes in our collective memory hole.”
Yesterday I heard — I hear — a murmur from, possibly, somewhere across the street; a vague, soft sound: “Oh, maybe it won’t be so bad.” At the same time, I – as a child in 1939 – hear the same murmured comments from the adults around me, only louder and more insistent: “Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
“Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
So this will be my letter. (I have left most of my own answers blank so that, in case you should feel like writing yourself a similar letter, you could use it to spark your own ideas).
There are now so many and bewildering threats on so many fronts that to consider them all at once begins and ends in chaos. I think I must choose one threat about which to be PROACTIVE.
The list is long, and maybe it should be put in alphabetical order, if only for the temporary comfort that brings:
Environment. Immigration. LGBT’s. Race, Religion, Reproduction. Supreme and less-so courts. And to quote Miss America, World peace.
Of these, I now choose ____________________________________ as my primary focus, because ________________________ and because ____________________________.
I will give _____ % of my time to active efforts in support of my primary focus.
And I will give 10% of my earnings to __________________ which directly supports it.
For the others, I will be REACTIVE. Because only time will tell what will happen in each area, I will respond to each threat according to its apparent imminence. I will spend time reading about this issue and attempting to respond out of a reasonable awareness, and as logical an approach as an INTJ (per Meyers-Briggs) can manage.
I will give LESS time and energy to ___________________________, which, now that I think of it, does not really contribute to the well-being of the world and/or myself.
All these activities-or-not will be in addition to my everyday ongoing concerns, such as (again in alphabetical order) acting jobs, church, music, and offspring.
Now I will type the letter, and seal the envelope.
I will open it (if I’m still around) on November 8, 2017, and I will ask:
Have my ideas changed? In what ways?
Have they changed in response to what’s happened in the intervening year? (And what was that?)
Or have they changed because my priorities have changed? (In what ways?)
Or because I don’t care any more? (About the issues, or about the FACT that I don’t care?)
If my ideas have changed in ways I don’t like, what can/should I do about THAT?
A couple of my friends have said they, too, will write such a letter. “Before it all vanishes in our collective memory hole….”.
– *I borrowed this from Michael Hiltzik. I don’t know if he made it up himself.
Would you like to join us?
Please comment below.
Maybe we can all open our letters together, on November 8, 2017.
(Oops! Eighty-SIX! …This past week I’ve been so engrossed in having a wonderful time getting older, I neglected to write my shlog. But just as I was lamenting this, I came across an old manuscript which I’d written when my eldest children were little kids! About fifty years ago! Yay for recycling!
The Hazards of Living with a Player Piano
The resurgent popularity of the player piano in recent years raises the basic question: why? Why, indeed, should the harried homeowner, besieged by ever-higher school taxes, undertake to purchase an anachronism surpassed in utility and aesthetic unity by the humblest doorknob?
The truth is, people do not buy player pianos, as a result of reasoned planning; they acquire them, as one might acquire a middle-aged, irresistible mutt from the pound. For player pianos, unlike their simpler counterparts, are not objects to be purchased, but living things looking for a home. The techniques by which they get themselves acquired are insidious and subtle, and the extent to which they take over their new homes is frightening indeed.
Our own experience may serve as a rough guide to the emotions which prompt the acquisition of a player, as well as to the far-reaching ramifications of such acquisition.
My husband, wearying of constant demands for a piano in the home (“Only a boor would be content to live in a home that has no piano”) set out one pre-Christmas day to locate a worthy, if reconditioned, instrument. His total experience with instrumental music had involved the usual boyish juxtaposition of waxed paper and comb, yet he felt confident that if he visited a dependable establishment he would know the right piano when he saw it. He was wrong. A player piano saw him, and having seen him, conquered.
It was about fifty years of age, but it had had itself burnished to a soft sheen, in which my husband could see his face. It was an enormous piano. There was something exciting, he says, about the way it towered over all the other pianos in the store. A salesman, perhaps under contract to the pneumatic wonder, lured him to its bench and opened its secret doors to reveal the mysteries within: above, a punched-paper roll of “Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes”; below, the massive foot-pedals, with their “U-drive-it” appeal. From the moment he began to pump the pedals, and the bellows responded with the breath of musical life, and he watched the whole span of keys jump up and down in four-four time, he was lost; a victim of the power drive and a prisoner of nostalgia. Yet he was now a free man, too; free forever from the marital stigma of a non-musical childhood. “I, too, can make music,” he marveled, and bought the piano forthwith.
Three years have now passed, and it is only recently that we have come to realize how much the player piano which dominates our front hall also dominates us. First, it has determined the décor of the home. A modern lamp strikes a mysterious jarring note; only when we have suitably adorned it with ball-fringe, and a bit of dust has settled on its shade, does it seem to belong in company with our aged rinky-tink giant. Danish modern will not do, nor will colonial, nor French provincial. The only furnishings which now seem just right are the hopefully patched and varnished items one finds at the Salvation Army store, the multi-colored, globular lamps from the city mission, and the threadbare and overstuffed chairs brought down from elderly relatives’ attics.
Even housekeeping methods have undergone a subtle change; where a vacuum cleaner and a spray can of Windex used to make brief work of it, the vacuum now seems more often to be relegated to the closet, while reliance is placed on the dust mop and the oiled rag. We long ago used up the Windex, and have come to enjoy the smell of good, pungent ammonia-water in a pail. The piano itself does not seem willing to produce its best tone if its top surface is bare; its vibratory systems appear complete only if the top is completely covered with a comfortable crocheted shawl, topped by dozens of disreputable boxes of second-hand piano rolls and a large gallery of ancestral photographs.
And as to the family schedule! It does not matter whether the evening program calls for meetings of the Pack 94 Awards Committee, or attendance at the PTA, or simply a leisurely evening of reading. Sixty minutes of our attention is required by our piano in order to keep it happy. It knows its function; it wants to perform it. It is there to enable the father of the family, weary from the day’s business exertions, to unwind by pumping out “There Ain’t No Maybe in My Baby’s Eyes”, and to gain a feeling of formidable authority by performing a four-handed arrangement of the entire William Tell Overture without lifting a finger. It is there to inspire the mother to hum along as she carelessly flings the supper dishes through the suds, all sense of drudgery dispelled. It inspires toddlers to remove all their clothes and perform a joyful ritual dance. The ensuing bedlam can, in summer, convince the people next door that the neighborhood is really running down.
But if the presence of a player piano in the home makes both dignity and interior décor lose their urgency, it creates new urgencies of its own: the hunt to find a really old copy of “Boy Scouts on Parade” (the shiny new rolls, though being manufactured in great numbers, just don’t feel the same), and the search for a really competent player-piano technician. It is not that the player piano ever breaks down, but that an enthusiastic small child may remove a crucial wire, or, playing doctor, poke a hole in the bellows. Upstate New York has a wizard named Bee Burger, who must, like an old country physician, travel for weary miles through snow and sleet to care for his far-flung clients. New Jersey has its John Duffy, I hear, but I would be dubious about daring a move to New Mexico or Utah.
Two piano-roll companies are again producing rolls by the hundreds, the newest of which is a play-along roll that enables the non-musician to add to the fun with one finger. Half a dozen piano companies, inspired by spiraling sales, are turning out neat sleek-lined modern players for the affluent and lazy. These new players, lacking some of the hypnotic characteristics of the 1912 vintage, may perhaps be purchased with some impunity. But let no one purchase a real player-piano unless he is prepared to find himself more of a fool than he thought.
NOW THAT I AM 85: I Am Leaving My Little Husband
We stand in the doorway of our bedroom.
“I guess this is goodbye,” my little husband says.
“I guess so.”
“I will miss you,” he says.
I don’t want to look him in the eyes. If he is sad, it always makes me want to cry.
“I will miss you also.” I am looking at his feet. “You should put on your slippers, your feet will get cold.”
“I will do that,” he says. After a while, he also says “I always thought maybe I would like to have pajamas with feet in them. And the feet would have little ears, maybe.”
I agree. “The children always liked their pajamas with feet. Remember?”
We nod at each other. He says “I don’t want you to go.”
“We discussed it,” I remind him. “It is for the best. And it is only for one night.”
“Maybe,” he says mournfully. “But what if it turns out good?”
It is because of the flatulence. His flatulence, my flatulence, it doesn’t matter. It keeps getting worse as we get older.
It isn’t the noise that wakes us up; we could use earplugs. And it isn’t the smell. After you have been married such a long time, this is no longer too bothersome. It is OK. He agrees with me on this point.
The problem is: Every time it happens, it knocks us both right up off the bed. One time I even really fell out of the bed and sprained my wrist. We argued over who was responsible, but could not come to any definitive conclusion.
So we have decided to sleep in separate bedrooms for a night, and see how it goes. We both need to rest.
I have put on my own slippers and I am ready to go across the hall.
“Oops!” I say.
I go to our bed and get the tooth from under my pillow.
Now, if I may use an expression from when we were young, he BLOWS A GASKET.
“You’re not taking that stupid tooth?” he hollers. “How many years have you waited for the tooth fairy to come and get it? How many mornings did you look under your pillow and see she didn’t take it? When will you get a brain? I’m telling you, THERE IS NO TOOTH FAIRY! Only children believe such a foolishness. I tell you again, NO TOOTH FAIRY!”
Sometimes he will get very mad and yell a lot about something (in this case, the tooth fairy) when he is really bothered by something else (our separation). Or it might be that he still feels bad that he was the one who knocked out the tooth when we were playing touch football in Central Park. So I say only: “Well, good night.’
I go to sleep quickly, confident there will be no occurrence to wake me in the night.
I am wrong.
Some time before dawn I hear a wuffy sound at the door. In the darkness, I see a figure approaching my bed. It is a lady, and she has wings. Very quietly, she reaches under my pillow and takes my tooth.
She stands looking at it for a moment. Then she puts a coin under my pillow. As she leaves, she seems to be floating; her bare feet barely touch the floor.
She has left me a shining quarter. I clutch it to my breast and smile. I am tempted to run across the hall right away, but he needs his sleep, so I wait until dawn.
“Only a QUARTER?” he hollers. “What a cheapskate! The children, they get a dollar these days!”
“Maybe she’s a fixed-income fairy?”
He becomes very quiet. He stands there and looks at me, so sadly.
He says nothing more. He goes and sits in the straight-backed chair in the corner.
I go over and put my hands on his shoulders.
He turns the chair around to face away from me, looking at the wall.
“What is the matter?” I ask.
It is hard for him to speak. “What if…..what if all these years she didn’t come and take your tooth because—because of me? Because I said she wasn’t real? Did she want to come here and get your tooth and was it me that stopped her? Did I make some kind of…negative vibratories?”
“I don’t think so,” I say. I give him a Kleenex. “A quarter is nice,” I say. “And we got other money. Should we go take a nice walk, maybe share an egg cream?”
“Okay,” he says.
And we do.
NOW THAT I AM 85: My Little Husband is the Monster-Watcher
Harry slams down the cards on our bridge table.
He shouts at my little husband. “You are a crazy man! A dummy! Rose, get your coat.”
My little husband leans down and snarls in Harry’s ear. “You can account, maybe, for the Metropolitan Opera House? The White Tower with the good hamburgers?”
Harry snorts. “It is a known fact, buildings disappear from natural causes! There is NO MONSTER!”
“If this is what you think,” my little husband says, “then the Mayor has succeeded in his cover-up!”
I ask “What cover-up?” For this is something we had not previously discussed.
“The greatest cover-up in governmental history, that is all! The mayor knows he has got a lot of excitable types in New York City, and so that the people will not panic, he tries to pretend there is no monster! “
Now my little husband whispers to me, as if he does not want the Mayor to hear.
“He has got people on the city payroll whose only job is to go about before dawn and see if there is a fresh hole in the ground! And if there is, out come the walkie-talkies.
“QUICK! ANOTHER CONDOMINIUM!”
“And they rush one over from a secret storage place they got in New Jersey, and they pop it in the hole! And the people going to work in the morning, most of them, you think they even notice? But the few! They say: “Another condominium! Where will it all end?
“It’ll never end, until somebody does something about it! And that someone is me! I am willing to risk my life to get a picture of this monster for the people to see. And you got the nerve to tell me there is no monster!”
Harry and Rose give each other a look, and without another word, they leave.
My little husband pulls on his overshoes. He hands me mine. It is snowing a little bit, outside.
“We got a chain?” he asks. “Also a padlock?”
“Sit down,” I say. Sometimes I got to be very firm with him. “Now tell me first, before I should go with you, why are you so sure about this monster?”
H e sits down, his folded hands on his knees. He looks at the knees. After a while he says, in a low voice, “Because I saw him.”
“You saw a monster? You never told me this!”
He stares at me. “I didn’t want to make you afraid. This monster – this monster is practically one mile tall. And, he has great, gnashing horrible teeth. You can see them when he smiles.”
I shiver, imagining such a thing.
“But his voice!” he marvels. “It is a soft little voice, a little squeaky voice! I was on the way home from temple in the night, and all of a sudden I saw his great shadow falling over Sixth Avenue, and I heard him squeak: ‘Oooooh, Art Deco! My favorite! ‘ I was so scared, I closed my eyes tight. I heard a terrible munching sound. And when I dared to open up my eyes, the whole entire building was gone.”
“What building?” I ask.
“You remember the place you liked to go buy the underwear?”
I am furious. “That was HIM?”
I no longer make an argument. Together, in the dark night, we go to the American Piano Company on 57th Street, where there is also the Rizzoli Bookstore.
My little husband chains himself to the door. He stands erect and brave, gazing up at the sky with great determination. He holds his camera ready to take the picture which will prove him right.
Although I believe he is morally correct to do this, and although also I am mad at the monster on account of the underwear store, the possible martyrdom of my little husband breaks my heart. Where will I ever again find such a husband and friend?
Suddenly, his eyes grow wide.
We hear a terrible stomping of enormous feet. 57th Street shakes.
I can hardly breathe. The monster appears, and opens its horrible mouth, and with sickening sounds it gobbles down the American Piano Company, and the Rizzoli bookstore also. Then the monster is gone.
But to my amazement, my husband has been spared! He explains it this way: “I had to unchain myself, to take the picture. I did not remember this, from before.”
“At least you got it,” I say.
“Yes.” The camera reviews the picture. It is just a blur of nothing. Like smoke.
He protests: “But I pushed the button!”
“Were you at the time looking through the view-finder?”
“Well….” he says.
“Your eyes were open?”
“Next time,” I say.
We walk gingerly around the perimeter of the great yawning hole in the ground. (I like this word “gingerly” because it does not relate to “gingerbread”, as I had thought, but originally referred to “dainty dancing.” This makes a nice picture in the mind.)
We walk familiar blocks.
The dawn is coming up. The sun peeks over the end of 57th Street.
When we are almost to our address, we turn around to look. We can just see the top of the brand-new condominium, about fifty stories high, maybe.
I say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live there?”
He says “We couldn’t afford it.”
Just a few more steps, and we are home.
(My next shlog is entitled: NOW THAT I AM 85, I am Leaving My Little Husband)
Once again my little husband looks at the apostrophe he has found on Page 14 of the New York Post.
Once again he checks it with the magnifying glass.
“That is six times I have found it in today’s issue alone,” he announces. “They got to be hiding something. And one by one they are infiltrating the young generation to hide it also.”
“Hide what?” I say.
“How would I know? They are good hiders; that is all I can tell. Good secret code people.”
He feverishly shapes copper wire into a circle, passes it over the offending apostrophe, and inserts the wire-circle into slot 105-E of his machine.
The machine spits it back out with no comment.
This machine is so big already it no longer fits into the downstairs spare bedroom which is his laboratory and which became a spare when Number One Son went off to M.I.T. Some of it is out in the hall, and is hard to get past when you want to go to the downstairs bathroom.
“I am determined to break the code,” my little husband says. “I will find out what they are hiding. It will take all my great persistence, plus a little bit o’luck.” (He speaks the latter in a fake Cockney accent because he loves that song).
I say, “Why don’t you call our Number One Son, ask him?”
He looks at me like I am some idiot.
“He is working for the government twenty-six years?”
“Twenty-seven,” I say.
“And he is going to give away its secrets?”
I am ashamed.
“He is a good son, and a good citizen!” he scolds. “If he is involved in this, it could be only because he has been threatened.”
I have to admit this is true.
Never to my knowledge has our Number One Son been guilty of putting an apostrophe where it does not belong. Even as a child, he was fiercely meticulous about this, remonstrating with his siblings if he caught them straying.
“Although,” I say, “it is a small mark. It can’t be covering much.”
He poses a philosophical question: “If a great number of angels could dance on the head of a pin, how many secrets can hide under a mark the size of the head of a pin?”
“You got me there,” I say.
My little husband’s experiments continue.
The machine keeps spitting out everything he puts into it. There is no result of any kind. My little husband’s frustration becomes more extreme with each passing day.
I am really alarmed when he, in a sudden burst of desperation, tries to dig with his fingernail to see what is under one of the apostrophes.
“It is a NEWSPAPER!” I cry. “Where you are digging, what is under there is the preceding page! What can be making you so crazy?”
He lets the newspaper drop to the floor. He stares into space with a look of despair.
“It is Mrs. McKee,” he says. He blows his nose on one Kleenex, then another. “She gave me a gold star. It was the first gold star I ever got.”
“She said to me ‘Good work!’ She said ‘Good work!’ and she put a gold star on my ‘It’s and Its’ paper.
“She taught us this song:
‘IT’S GOING TO BE A LOVELY DAY
WHEN THE LOST LITTLE LEMON DROP FINDS ITS WAY.’
“She wrote this song on the board, pointing with the chalk at the ‘It’s’ and the ‘its’.
“Then she sang it to us, in her nice voice, pointing to the words like now you have Karaoke. Then she made us all learn to sing it together.
“Sometimes I still sing it to myself, in my mind.”
After a while I say “Please call our Number One Son. Maybe he can help you to feel better.”
I hear him on the telephone, explaining his suspicions about governmental involvement in the proliferation of incorrectly-used apostrophes. Then he is very quiet. He is listening.
Now he roars in a terrible rage. “What do you mean nobody cares anymore? What do you mean it doesn’t matter anymore? What kind of a son are you to say such a thing?”
Still holding the phone, he sits down, a crushed man. I can tell that our son is still talking. I can only guess what he is saying.
Although I am sorry for my little husband’s disappointment, I am relieved that now he will be able to let go of his obsession.
But suddenly I am seized by a terrible foreboding. Things have changed, our son has said. Is it possible he is no longer my precious child who used to lecture his sister and his brothers when they broke the rules of linguistic decency?
“Before you hang up,” I say, “let me speak to him.”
I approach the landline with a trepidation so great it causes my hand to shake.
“Tell me, dear,” I ask. “Would you ever say…would you ever THINK of saying …’I’m going to lay
down and take a nap?’
My little husband shouts: “WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT?”
I stare at my little husband.
I hang up without even saying goodbye.
Each person, I think, gets to choose his own enemies.
His own enemies.
His or her own enemies.
Their own enemies.
I see that my little husband remains miserable. He whispers: “It is as if everything I learned in such a long life…is nothing. Isn’t true anymore. What is the use of learning anything? It all changes.”
I consider this. “Isn’t there something you have learned that is still the same?”
He brightens a bit. “That Eddie Minchin. In third grade I learned he was a rotten bum, he is still a rotten bum.” He smiles at this.
“The ordinary man is a terrible driver. Always was, is now and always will be.”
“But these are bad things!” I say. “Can’t you think of a good thing that has not changed, that is still good?”
He looks at me, and he keeps on looking.
I look at him.
We look at each other such a long time.
He looks in my eyes, and I look in his eyes, and I feel like my heart will burst.
(My next shlog is entitled: My Little Husband is The Monster-Watcher)