13 September 2011

My '25 Things': A Document from 2009

If you really want to feel old, consider just for a moment that this post will be seen by some people too young (at least in years online) to remember the '25 Things about Me' fad of over two years ago on Facebook.

I sat down a few minutes ago to write a blogpost about Shakespeare, found myself referring back to my '25 Things...' (dated 4 February 2009, like this New York Times article about the general phenomenon) and quickly decided to post the old 'note', unedited, as what I would now have to call an archival document:
  1. My dream breakfast consists of one fried egg, one slice of dark bread (preferably a thick end-crust) toasted, a slice of Swiss cheese--washed down with a couple of sips of quite strong espresso. I just had precisely that breakfast to give myself the strength to make this list.
  2. The classical musician most abundantly represented in my CD (and now iTunes) collection is the violinist Jascha Heifetz. My nick- and screen name 'Jascha' refers to him, or to this passion of mine, as well as to the fact that 'Jascha' is the closest thing to a Russian diminutive of 'James'.
  3. There have been years in my life in which I 'lived for' opera. My favourite opera composer is Verdi, but my favourite opera is Berg's Lulu (either version). Opera singers of today do not thrill me like those of a generation or two back--but I admit that there may well be great (and thrilling) singers I've never heard.
  4. The popular singers I liked best when I was ten years old were Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Dinah Washington. I've added a few more names to the list since then, but I never outgrew those three.
  5. I didn't start learning German until I was eighteen, but when I was in my twenties I spoke it so convincingly that on two different occasions German women who knew me quite well (but didn't know my nationality--a long story, in each case) lost all patience with me when I finally told them that I was not German but American. (It was as if I were trying to tell them that I was a duck.) I never tell this story, because how it reflects on me depends in part on how you feel about German men. Think about it. Or perhaps it's better if you don't.
  6. Shortly thereafter I had a French period, the limits of which are less easy to define. I spent only one semester at an institution where French was spoken (in Geneva) but for something like ten years French played at least as important a role as English in my reading, writing, speaking, thinking and relationships. (Even when I was reading in other languages, it was authors who had been passionately embraced by the French:  Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud....) Nevertheless I have what you would call an English failing of joking broadly, not always gracefully but usually affectionately, about other nationalities. I always say that every French film, for example, is the French-est film that was ever made, that every French person is quintessentially French, and so forth. It may not be true, but there's something to it. At the same time, that's not much to bring away from a whole decade of your life, is it?
  7. If I let myself go, all twenty-five of these 'things' might be about reading. So I'm trying to keep it to one (more) 'thing', a list of favourite authors, and I'll try to keep it to twenty-five: Austen, Balzac, Büchner, John Dickson Carr, Chekhov, Conrad, Dickens, Diderot, Dostoevsky, Dumas, Marguerite Duras, Euripides, Freud, Henry James, Kafka, Kleist, Marx, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nietzsche, Plato, Ruth Rendell, Sade, Schiller, Shakespeare, Simenon, Wodehouse. (That's one too many, but there's no one here I can part with.)
  8. One more 'thing': a readerly passion I can't remember ever discussing with anyone is for what used to be called the Viking Portables (typically containing at least one novel, a half-dozen short stories, a selection of letters and essays). The series dates back to World War II, and my own addiction, to The Portable Faulkner, which I bought in hardback almost fifty years ago. The Portable D.H. Lawrence got me through many cold nights during one of my Korean winters, and, when I read in James Jones's Some Came Running that the protagonist had made it through WW II with the help of five Portables (Faulkner, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe), that set me on a quest for the last three, which had been out of print for many years. I can't imagine parting with any of them. Now the series is being repackaged as part of Penguin Classics, and of course for Kindle. It's all good.
  9. I'm a curious sort of writer, in that as of age 61 I've published only a few articles and a few translations (although one of the latter was a curious commercial success, Dictionary of Symbolism). I'm now revising a novel originally conceived in the 1990s, and I have some concern that, because my partner is a painter and the novel involves some shenanigans at the edges of 'the art world', that the book could be taken as a reflection on him or on other artists whom we've come to know. In truth, when the book was first drafted, Jimmy had yet to find himself as a painter. The novel even contains a hint that it is in truth 'not about how things happen in the art world' but is instead, 'perhaps, about letting go'--another theme of Jimmy's, but one to which he found his way years after that hint was drafted.
  10. If my mother were still alive, she would be 100 this month. She suffered from Alzheimer's, but in her very last years (she died twelve years ago) she recovered a sweetness that I remembered from my childhood. The most surprising thing about her (the most unusual difference between her and me) was that she had no patience for fiction, whether in print or on the screen.
  11. If my father were still alive, he would be 105 this spring. (He died almost six years ago.) He was an organic chemist (first a petroleum chemist, then a blood chemist; he had an inability to retire that I apparently did not inherit), but he read more widely in more different areas, including all eras of European and U.S. literature, than anyone else I've ever known. Like my mother (who studied and taught mathematics), he was brilliant. He originally wanted to become a doctor but couldn't afford to study medicine. I think of him as a man of enormous generosity.
  12. When I was in my twenties, I felt most (eerily?) at home stepping off a train in any randomly chosen German city and walking from the station into town. By my forties that random German city had been replaced by London: I had always been happy in London, but it's been clear for a long time now that if I had to choose somewhere other than Gainesville to live, and could select anywhere in the world, it would be London. It's clear enough to make you believe in 'past lives'.
  13. The adult outside my family whom I most admired while I was growing up was a physician, Dr Sam Hartman, the father of friends in my year of school. We lived in Beaumont, Texas, and you will not be surprised to read that he was the only person I knew who subscribed to the New York Review of Books, who had read all of Orwell's books from the 1930s, all of Lawrence Durrell, all of Henry Miller--you get the idea. He (and my father) still embody for me 'enlightenment' in every sense of the word. I don't think that he or anyone else is his family knew what a gift they were to the rest of us.
  14. I have a rarely indulged fondness for little things. For example, if Jimmy and I had all the money in the world, I would still do the laundry myself, at home, but I'd use detergent from the little boxes they sell in machines in laundromats, one or two boxes for every load. That's the only thing I can think of that great wealth would definitely change about my life. (Jimmy may have a longer list.)
  15. Jimmy and I are not completely without differences, though. He would be quite happy spending the rest of his life listening to stereophonic sound, whereas I have an admittedly unnatural fondness for mono. (Listening to Toscanini recordings in particular triggers a memory of 'listening to music on the kitchen radio' when I was very young. And the right recordings from the Busch Quartet or early-to-middle Heifetz do things to me I can't explain.) This (stereo v. mono) may seem like a minor difference, but it's the biggest one I can come up with. I'm not sure that there's anyone else who knows us well enough to know how very much we are alike.
  16. One last musical 'thing' and then I'll move on: the kind of music I enjoy most, in performance, is chamber music, hands down. The most powerful such performance I ever heard was of Bartók's String Quartet No. 6 by the Guarneri Quartet in Washington about ten years ago.
  17. Marlowe (the most vocal of our stuffed animals) wants me to make it clear once and for all that he is named for the playwright Christopher Marlowe, not Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, not Conrad's narrator Marlow, not Marlo Thomas. Marlowe should know: his name is 'self-selected'. As the quintessential black sheep, he, through his deportment (riding ceiling fans, reading boys' adventure novels under the covers with a flashlight after lights-out--well, it would take another list of at least 25 'things'), made it clear that he should bear the name of the original 'bad boy'--alleged sexual outlaw, counterfeiter, heretic and spy. It doesn't hurt that the original Marlowe was a rival of Shakespeare's, and our stuffed dog was already named Willy (after the Bard); our Marlowe, on behalf of sheep everywhere, has 'issues' with all dogs (he doesn't like to take orders) and bristles whenever there is a reference on TV to 'Afghan President Hamid Karzai' or Slumdog Millionaire.
  18. When we were planning our move from Maryland to Florida in 2003, Marlowe told Willy (who, being a dog with serious eyebrows, looks quite worried all the time anyway) that he (W.) was to stay behind at the old house and live in what Marlowe described as 'a household of cats'. Not till moving day did Marlowe tell Willy that M. had interceded on W.'s behalf and persuaded us to take him along after all. (This story captures the essence of both animals and their interaction.)
  19. You might say that I have a weakness for dogs. Our habit of naming stuffed animals for authors (Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dickens) goes back to my having had springer spaniels in the 1980s named for Marguerite Duras (Maggie) and Michel Foucault (Fookie). They were not stuffed, except after mealtime. I still miss them. They made it clear to me, if any reminder was necessary, how very dog-like I am.... When I was about five and had been away with my mother visiting my grandparents in Wisconsin, I returned to find that my beloved cocker spaniel puppy Brownie was no longer in residence. My father told me he had traded Brownie for a 45 rpm record player for me. (It was not until I was in the fourth decade of my life that it occurred to me that he had simply found someone who was willing to adopt Brownie, then had gone out and paid cash for the record player.) My first 45 was 'Come on-a My House, My House-a Come On', which may explain a lot, but not to poor Brownie. At least it was Rosemary Clooney, however unhappy she was about singing that particular song. All four of us made some compromises. I hope Brownie had a good life. Obviously, I still miss him.
  20. I do better with cats than, say, Willy does, but I take them on a case-by-case basis.
  21. Not all of our stuffed animals have literary names. Bosco, who hibernates, and his niece and ward Ovaltine, who has no choice but to hibernate alongside him, are named for chocolate beverages. Other animals are named for saints/holidays (Valentine, Patrick), ballet dancers (Rudi), flavours (Cookies, Cream) and dental hygiene products (the fraternal twins Toothpaste and Flosswell).
  22. My least favourite means of communication is the telephone. It can be useful, I admit, but I try to keep it in its place.
  23. I used to run. I ran for almost thirty years, starting in my late twenties, distances up to 20 km (approximately a half-marathon). I thought I would run forever, but my running 'career' was cut short by back problems, which led to physical therapy and a string of referrals (physical therapy, massage therapy, chiropractic, acupuncture, neurology) culminating in a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease last spring. I've told the story elsewhere of how in the course of several months acupuncture, chiropractic, and chi kung and chi kung therapy turned my symptoms around, to the point where my neurologist proposed reducing my medication and even said that if he had been seeing me for the first time that day I would not have qualified for a diagnosis of Parkinson's. Now Jimmy and I take chi kung and related classes six times a week, and I have acupuncture three times a month. We are growing more and more 'Eastern' in our approach to life, and this is helping us to embrace it as never before. Our debt to everyone at the Gainesville Wellness Center, and to Cosmos Chi Kung, is incalculable.
  24. When I first met Jimmy, almost eighteen years ago, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. Today he makes me happier still.
  25. The French expression for 'don't go on and on forever' is, literally translated, 'don't tell your life's story'. Guess I didn't get the memo.

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