I am definitely aged. Getting and taking the plane from Bangkok to Chiangmai knocked me out. I got my reservation online, but the site was so difficult that I did not print out a ticket nor did I get a seat. When I arrived at the airport, I had to do that at the Nok Air counter. It was not a problem.

I talked to two young people before and on the flight, a contrast in cultures. The first was an unusually tall, good looking, young American woman. We sat next to each other while waiting to board the plane, conversing a bit, but she was uncomfortable, as though unsure what you said to an older woman from your own culture in a foreign setting.

In contrast, on the flight I sat next to a 20 something Thai man, tall, handsome. We talked with ease. He was curious about me but not embarrassed by it. He paid me the complement of asking if I lived in Thailand.

A taxi got me to the Rich Lana House by a series of short cuts that wriggled through the back streets of greater Chiangmai outside the moated old city. At the Rich Lana, they put me on the top, the fourth, floor, no elevator. I had in one direction an exceptional view of the hills, their great, green humps barricading the horizon, a little misty, portending the Himalayas hundreds of miles away. In the other direction was the gold spire of a chedi.

The Rich Lana has a two-floor, tiny coffee house that looks across the road to the moat. The second floor has both an inside room and a balcony that I prefer. It is shaded by a tree whose trunk bursts with fountains of ferns. It has good coffee and huge flaky, crispy croissants.

M and his masseuse/taxi driver, Lak, picked me up for lunch which we had in an outdoor local restaurant. I ordered snail curry. It was like eating pencil top erasers —if you remember those. I used to eat them as a kid, so I liked the curry which came with black rice.

While we had lunch, I heard the bird one always hears here. It’s very loud with a distinctive cry. I asked Lak what bird it was. I was impressed that she knew. Often Thais know nothing about birds or animals in their vicinity except whether they are good to eat or not. It is called nok gawow and is a small bird with a big voice. Nok means bird which explains Nok Air.

I have the incredible luck to have had a student who is French and Thai. We became friends many years ago. She comes from Chiangmai and has a half-sister there whom she offered to introduce me to. So, B introduced me to V electronically.

V picked me up at the Rich Lana. I should note that the Rich Lana has beautiful rooms constructed entirely of teak—walls, ceilings, floor– with big four poster beds, comfortable chairs to sit in and good tables to write at.  After we introduced ourselves—V is different both in looks and in personality from B—I could feel V pulling taut on some invisible leash, ready to take off. She asked what I was interested in. I said that I no longer had any clothes of Northern Thai fabric or with the embroidery and applique that is typical of that area. It was like slipping a grey hound’s leash after saying rabbit.

She drove to a market area of small shops. We got out and spent the next few hours dashing and darting from store to store. I now own two dress lengths of silk one printed with what I think of as the typical Thai medley of colors pink, blue and purple. The other is more unusual, a rich, brown silk hand embroidered with an abstract pattern of curving stitches in shades of cream to dark brown.

After lunch, I was dying for a nap, but I was also dying to see V’s house. I got the second. It is an exceptional, modern adaptation of the Lana house, rooms around courtyards with ferns spouting and arching in gardens embracing waterfalls and streams. It is a superbly peaceful environment. There is also a small dog who is fluffy as a little bear and sure he is the center of the universe.

The next day M picked me up in a scarlet, silk shirt perfect for Christmas, Chinese New Year and the Fourth of July. We had a Chinese lunch and talked, as happens too often at this age, of people we had both known in New York all of whom are long dead. They were odd people, neurotics, but not in any spectacular way, just peculiar enough to mess up their children’s lives.

M is less physically balanced than the last time I saw him because his trembling from Parkinson´s destroys his stability, therefore, he’s more likely to fall. He almost did one day when we were together and a half dozen pairs of hands reached out to catch him, but he recovered.

One morning I wandered in and out of wats. In one, years ago, I talked to an elderly Englishman who was feeding stray cats. As he cleaned their bowls, he said to me, “I think this is my karma, to in old age feed stray cats in a wat in Thailand.” I did not see him, nor did I see any evidence of anyone feeding strays.

The flight from Chiangmai is a chaotic procedure. You check your ticket in one place and your bags in another. The gates are jammed with people because flights leave, one immediately after another with little announcing. I sat next to an elderly German in denim cut offs, the epitome of what we all fear becoming—he forgot half his clothes at one hotel and lost his phone somewhere else along the way. He was all good cheer, but I suppose that’s part of the problem in a way. If he were upset about the losses, he might be more likely not to have them.

I did some shopping for friends at Jim Thompson in Bangkok. It is more expensive, but one goes there because the quality is absolutely reliable. The designs they come up with are mildly imaginative, which is just fine since their customer base is cautious American and European, the sort of people who would consider a pair of red silk pajamas with little rabbits hopping all over—it’s the year of the rabbit—cutely outrageous.

My friend and former dentist, N picked me up at the Anantara where I go to the gym for lunch at a restaurant near St. Louis Hospital which has tables outside under big spreading trees and tables inside in air-conditioning. We were seated inside by a window that looks onto the street. There was a man on the sidewalk with a cart selling dried squid which were hanging up in plastic bags in a row. If you bought one, he would roll it back and forth through the rollers of his mangle to soften it before giving it to you in a plastic bag accompanied by a smaller plastic bag with hot sauce in it.

We had minced pork with green beans, glass vermicelli with big garlic, also known as Chinese garlic and chicken, and round, inch long glass noodles in an unknown sauce. Absolute heaven. The deserts at this restaurant are superb but I rarely am able to leave enough space to have one.

All three of us were noddy with sleep after. It was a relief to know that N got home safely.

I am staying at an Ibis Hotel where they have a large breakfast buffet and a terrace to eat it on. The array of foods is the usual assortment of breads, cakes, cereal plus Chinese dishes, Indian dishes and rice both black and white. Your eggs are cooked to order. The coffee is good. But I love eating on the terrace, which is covered, because there is always a breeze, and you are surrounded by green bushes.

The gym I use is in the Anantara Hotel on Ratchadamri. This was once a Four Seasons Hotel and more elegant in those days but it is still a good gym with clean locker rooms. The machines work, although the TV on the elliptical will only give you CNN and even that may not have any sound. However, it is easy to get to, being right at the Ratchadamri stop on the Skytrain. Anything more elegant would be a long way away. Also, the Anantara has a small restaurant, Mocha and Muffins, which serves a crisp, finely seasoned shrimp salad I am partial to.

Today I took the Skytrain down to the river, the Taksin stop, to wait for an Express River Bus. It’s a peaceful but interesting journey upriver, both banks are spiked with tall buildings, more and more each year, the most fashionable hotels—the Mandarin Oriental, the Peninsula—the slender pyramidal tower of Wat Arun gaily adorned with designs made from broken crockery, the red roofs with up turned eaves of various monasteries, the gold spires of wats. Many new apartment buildings and old ones, including the Baan Chao Phraya where I almost bought an apartment when I thought I might live here. There is very little now that is derelict or disreputable, even in the Chinatown area. You pass under bridge after bridge, pulling in to pick up passengers at the designated piers along the way.

My old travel agent, Mr. Thai with a hand mangled by a shark, was on holiday. I will try to get back to see him.

I stopped for something to drink at an Amazon Café where I fell into travelers’ conversation with two young men, one American living in Bangkok, the other German living in Dublin. The American was trying to talk his friend into moving to Bangkok. The advantages would be many—good food, warm climate and you would be able to afford a much higher standard of living for the same salary.

I left them and walked over to my old Soi noting on the way that the old Vieng Thai Hotel is about to reopen as an Ibis Hotel. The alley to the Suneeporn is lined with food carts and the open space before it looks clean and neat but the building itself, now an Indian run guesthouse, looks shabby, deteriorating and seems to cry out “bedbugs.”

Forty years ago my friend and landlady, Sunee, ran a primitive, Spartan but hospital clean guesthouse in that space. She was a single woman who had cut herself off from her family whom she considered lazy and unreliable. She borrowed the money to buy a  four story Chinese shop house which she converted into rooms with ceiling fans for backpackers. I stayed with her, and we became friends over the years. It was a Spartan place, but she ran it well and the neighborhood catered to the needs of backpackers.

She had started her commercial life by selling fruit from baskets suspended from a yoke she carried across her shoulders. She told me once, ”I save, save, save. I eat meat once a week. I get enough money to buy building.” What she really wanted besides financial independence was to travel and she did get to do a little. She never came to New York to see me, but she did get to London, Paris and Rome. She didn’t like Rome because of the way the men behaved.

But then age began to arrive, and her mind began to deteriorate. Her family stepped in. I don’t think they treated her badly. They sent her south to some relative who took care of her. For a while they kept the guesthouse. But she was right. They were not people who knew how to do things independently. They sold it. Sunee died down south somewhere. But I still go back to the neighborhood to see what has changed and to remember. Because it was here in the late 1980´s that I took my first shaky and fearful steps in learning to travel solo. Sunee was my home base.


And then it happened again. I went to the desk at the Holiday Inn to extend my check out date and they said they had no room. I called C. She, within minutes, arranged for me to move to the Ibis down the street. It is not the Holiday Inn as far as room size and luxury go—the closet is smaller, there’s no rug, the bathroom is smaller, the window is smaller– but it is just fine and oddly the breakfast is much better. But here is an interesting thing. If I put my hand on the outside wall of the room at the Ibis at mid-day the wall is hot. This was not true of the wall at the Holiday Inn; therefore, the air-conditioning is more efficient and colder. The Holiday Inn must be insulated against heat in its construction.

But I am feeling guilty. The receptionist at the Holiday Inn told their porter to wheel my bag down the street to the Ibis for me. I apparently didn’t tip him enough and he was cross.

I buy, and have for years, my postcards from an Indian tailor’s shop on Rama I near the Ibis. Postcards are not readily available in Bangkok.  When I buy, they always offer me stamps which I don’t buy since I go to the post office. This time when one of the men offered me stamps, he told me I would save money if I bought stamps from him because I could put 18 baht stamps on the cards whereas in the post office, they would make me buy 45 baht stamps. He’s a slithery sort of man who gives me the creepy crawlies, so I made note of the price. It is 40 baht for a postcard stamp at the post office. But after dealing with the creepy, the other man, a Sikh appeared. He is so warm and delightful that I forgot about the slug trail of slime who’s sold me cards.

I have learned that an old, but distant acquaintance here has terminal lung cancer. I wished him a painless exit when he told me, and he agreed. But he seems to be taking it well. He doesn’t want treatment. I admire his attitude and fortitude.

I made the usual commiserating noises and he said, “It’s all right. I’m 84. I never wanted to be 90.”

He has a point. 90 has a reputation for being a difficult, physically and mentally deconstructing decade.

Since I know few people in my age group, I asked him if he found, as I do, that there is a lot of negative attitude at this age, particularly in the morning. To my great interest he replied, “I find as long as I am upright, I am fine but lying down causes instant schizophrenia.”

Yesterday I ran into an old friend I had yet to contact, U, who did not look good. She told me she had been meditating. In her practice she holds her breath at a point in her meditation; she held it too long, passed out, fell and broke her arm. She has osteoporosis. She had never had a bone density test or taken calcium supplements.

She is a retired professor of Chulalongkorn University with two different but equally interesting children. The girl, now a woman, lives outside of Paris, has started a successful business manufacturing her own line of perfumes, married a Frenchman and has six Yorkshire terriers. Her son, the younger of the two, is teaching at Chulalongkorn while working on a Ph.D. in history. He applied for the job without telling her what he was doing and was employed without any reference to her. I am convinced that he will one day be the chairman of the History Department.

This morning I got on the Skytrain, sat in one of the seats reserved for monks, the aged, the pregnant, and the physically impaired. Since I am 86 I feel entitled. But on this mornin, I suddenly heard a male voice speaking English telling me to get up because I was in his seat. It was an orange wrapped monk and I rose immediately, giving him the seat, although I had as much right to it as he.

I have been eating experimentally, but not with good results—a not very good pork and greens dish with one, huge, outsized noodle, a Chinese meal of much too much soup and noodles which I couldn’t finish—so I have stopped experimenting. But one day I had a superb chicken cashew fried rice with a roasted river prawn, cucumbers on the side and on another a sator bean, shrimp and minced pork stir fry which left me with scorched lips. Either you like having scorched lips or you stop eating. I ate down to the last crumbs of pork. Sator beans look much like our lima beans but have a different flavor and texture, less mealy, more crisp.

My new room at the Ibis, although on a lower floor, has the same view over Bangkok with, in the foreground, the National Stadium’s playing fields.

When I asked for a room on the front the young, woman receptionist objected saying that it would be noisy. I pointed out to her that I was deaf and that I preferred the view in the front. So here I am on the 16th rather than the 23rd floor. Oddly, why this should be I don’t know, but the breakfast is much better here, more diverse, and the croissants are almost croissants. The Holiday Inn’s croissants were rolled bits of dough on which one gnaws.

While all the paragraphs above were going on I had to first go online and make an appointment for a Visa Extension and then gird my loins to go out to the Government Complex to get it. Proffer me no sympathy. This was entirely my own fault. I got off the plane at Suvarnabhumi Airport walked, perhaps dragged is a better verb, my exhausted, jet lagging body by the office that said, “Visa Extension”, partly out of cranky, weary belligerence, partly out of faith that the old rules still held and that I would be able, for 100US, to get a lawyer to acquire the extension for me. The rules have changed.

Just getting out to the Government Complex was daunting to say nothing of the unknown “complex” of bureaucracy awaiting me there. Asking among friends I was advised to find, through the reception desk at the hotel, now the Ibis, a taxi driver who knew the territory.

I did and at 8:30 am she and I set out through interminable highways with Easy-pass gates to what was indeed a complex clutch of buildings. Each, no more than two stories high, sat above its own water filled moat.

We parked before Building B in the accepted Thai manner. This means that we saw a vacant space which was blocked by a couple of cars. My driver stopped. We got out and began pushing cars about so that we would be able to get into the slot. Thais never put on their hand brakes so that people can do this. We moved a car and a Toyota van, parked and then moved the van and car back to their places. I haven’t engaged in this activity in years and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

We went into Building B, went up one flight on an escalator in a building vast as an airplane hangar where I filled out one set of forms under instructions from my driver since the forms were in Thai. I then sat and waited for a very short time, barely time enough to note that those of us waiting were of all nationalities, before I was called into the office and given my visa extension for 1,900 baht.

We went out into the heat and pushed the car and the Toyota van out of the way, moved the cab out of its slot, and then pushed them back into positions. My driver delivered me back to the Ibis.

After the gym the other day I had a lunch of pomelo salad with tiny, dried shrimp and on the side soft spring rolls. Heavenly. At the next table was a Western man who was disabled in some way and in a wheelchair. A middle-aged, Thai women, probably his wife, was lunching with him. I was impressed with how little she helped him but let him struggle with his difficulties. It was obviously what he wanted.

The next day after the gym on my way down to the Mandarin Oriental I came across an American woman with two small, calm boys. She had become turned around and had traveled several stops in the wrong direction. I helped her redirect herself.  I was impressed that the two boys took being lost in a foreign country with such equanimity.

It is a not very long, but it was a very hot, 35C, walk from the Taksin Skytrain stop to the Mandarin Oriental but it is a walk on a narrow sidewalk with people going in both directions made narrower by lines of vendors of everything from locks to grilled squid on either side. Your eyes, ears and nose are busy all the time.

At the Terrace Restaurant at the Mandarin, I was offered a seat outside but having just made that walk I wanted air conditioning inside. On the terrace there were two Western women lunching alone. I found it interesting that I could tell they had partners who were probably off doing business and they were both just a little uncomfortable at being on their own. The absence next to them had a solidity.

The green chicken curry at the Mandarin is good, although not quite as good as it used to be, but the other excuse for spending all that money on a dish one can have anywhere at least as well cooked is the view of the river traffic. There is the hustle and bustle of cross river ferries dodging each other, the long trains of rice barges loaded within a foot of their narrow decks breasting the river like deep bosomed matrons, as they are hauled down river by tough little orange and white tugs, who if they were to talk would do it out of the side of their mouths.

Coming back, I had the luck to catch the river bus from the Oriental stop to Taksin, a short but lovely ride on the Chaophraya.

I was on the walkway today above the Indra Shrine and stopped to watch the lion dancers at the shrine. There were two yellow lions but when they were finished a dragon unfurled his gold coils and swaggered about the back of the shrine to the music of drums and symbols.


He did. But first we went to a party. CW’s partner was for many years the official florist of Her Majesty the Queen. A show of his art, paintings and sculpture, was opening at a gallery. At the entrance were two out sized bowls over- flowing with orchids, one white, one purple. Inside were S’s paintings, sometimes the shape of a jasmine bud painted flatly in a golden or other vivid shade over which he had traced in oil paint a tracery pattern like a net. One sculpture was a jasmine bud in wood, another a rectangle composed of hanging silver needles about 8 inches long. I kept wondering what sound they would make in a gentle breeze.

I circulated until my feet hurt and then found a chair near a desk with two other chairs to collapse in. A Thai woman in a bouffant dress of lavender with dark purple figures on it also needed to collapse. She came and sat next to me, and we chatted inconsequential things. We were joined a bit later by a woman, also of a certain age, as delicately constructed as a moth wing. Her hair was somewhere on a pale spectrum between grey and blond, cut in small seraph wings around her dainty face. She wore a cheongsam of hand painted silk in a spring selection of greens, a parrot on her left shoulder firmly present at its head and shoulders became more spectral as your glance moved to his tail. This is the sort of Thai woman who causes despairing envy in me. They make me feel as though I am constructed of angular lumps of pig iron.

The fourth woman at the party, there were only four of us at that point, was a tall handsome woman, well made up with her hair dyed black, who CW told me later had been Miss Thailand some years back. We seated three, however, kept ourselves busy chatting as more people came in and the population changed as did the atmosphere with the arrival of couples with small children.

CW drove me back to my neighborhood where I transferred to the Holiday Inn’s 23rd floor with a sumptuous view of Bangkok’s skyscrapers. However, the shock of being told to leave resonated for a few days making me unhappy. There was also the fact that even at the age of 86 it is a bit of a come down for a former rather intrepid traveler—after all I once spent a night in the storeroom of a Tibetan monastery sharing my accommodation with the rats who were exclusively interested in the grain sacks—to find herself in a stolidly American, middleclass hotel like the Holiday Inn.  Not good for my snobbery. But after my rejection, it was nice to be in such a vigorously respectable, unimaginative place that for breakfast serves croissants made of baked library paste but good coffee and good scrambled eggs as well as chicken fried rice, pad Thai and a variety of Chinese dishes.

I look out to the skyscrapers of Bangkok of which there are a plenty—one curved like a wave, another with a gold dome, one that looks as though someone punched it leaving it not with broken teeth but broken apartment floors. Far to the right rises the shimmer of the Golden Mount. Straight down are the playing fields of Bangkok—the stadium with its red track and green central rectangle, a grassy soccer field, a green oval with rectangles and circles on it, and a many laned outdoor pool far to the left.  Directly down is the terminus of the Skytrain.

I have been checking out my old mall haunts, the Paragon and Central World, to see what has changed.  Not much. Central World, which one reaches by walking on a street above the street, does not have as good an ambience as the Paragon. It’s more mall-like with shops in open spaces next to each other rather than contained within walls. I looked as I always do for the good Chinese restaurant C and W took me to, but no luck. I ended up at a mediocre Japanese place for chicken laid out on rice in a bucket with vegetables.

The sea of wall-less shops disorients me, so I find my way by walking until I hit a wall or see a sign that says BTS meaning the Skytrain is out there. I continued down the walkway to the big crossing of Rama I and Ratchadamri until I looked down on the Indra Shrine.

There is always something on at the Indra Shrine, which this day had four Lion Dancers—two red, two yellow—leaping about in a jubilant cavort. They were being fed money by the man who had hired them.

The next day I went to the gym before meeting my friend Kai, for years the most famous dress designer in SE Asia, for a much better Japanese lunch of scallops simmered on a tiny stove before us and a whole fish baked in soy with mushrooms and vegetables.

On my second trip to Thailand, I saw in a shop window at the Oriental Plaza an exquisite white mist of blouse. The designer was someone named Kai. On my next trip I stumbled across his shop on Ratchadamri and hesitantly walked in, knowing I was out of my price range.

As I wandered among drifts of iridescent Thai silk, and beaded, bangled satin elegantly draped, I told the young shop assistant that I thought these were works of art. She smiled and asked, “Would you like to meet the designer?” I said I would. Kai and I immediately became friends. That was 35 years ago.

Kai is now in semi-retirement and has his factory—a four-person factory—shop and apartment out in Sukumvit. We took the Skytrain and when we got off were met by motorcycles which whisked us to his shop. My driver thought carrying me was the most hilarious incident of at least his day if not his week since I refused to ride side saddle. Getting a leg over a motorcycle at 86 is an accomplishment equal to an Olympic high hurdle.

The factory-store is comfortable with a cozy, noncommercial ambience. There is a nice room in the back where you can sit, have tea, or try on a dress. I had brought fabric, so Kai sketched as we discussed.

But what was best was a baby in the middle of the factory in its lounge chair. The mother is a young woman whom I remember Kai taking in when Burma exploded in, I am not sure of my dates, maybe 2012.  She escaped from Burma with her mother. When they crossed the river into Thailand Burmese soldiers on one bank and Thai soldiers on the other pulled them across on ropes.

When he took her in in her teens, she was skinny and small. She is both taller and plumper. She started as domestic help and then when she saw what was going on in the factory asked to be trained. She is now a skilled needle woman.

She has a smile that spreads a glow around her.

She is about to take the baby and go back to Burma because her other child, a son, is now 10 and, therefore, ready to spend the next few years as a monk being educated.

On the Skytrain going home there was a tall, at least 6 feet, young man in wonderful black and white cartoon printed trousers and a black and white stripped top. I told him in front of his girlfriend that his outfit was superb. He acknowledged the compliment as completely deserved.

And so back to the 23rd floor and my view across Bangkok and down to little figures kicking a soccer ball. No, I don’t miss the Reno Hotel.


I took Qatar Air rather than my usual Finn Air out of curiosity, I’d heard such good things about them, also just to do something different. I had a six-hour layover in Dubai but was sure I would be able to get one of those clean, claustrophobic rooms where you can crash. I had always been able to do this in Helsinki.

There had been a yowling baby on the flight attended by frantic parents, particularly the tall, slender mother who felt that having a wailing child was a social solecism proving her an inadequate person and mother. When not at full bore yowl, the baby was a perfectly cheerful soul.

In Dubai I was met, to my surprise by a uniformed young woman holding a card with my name on it. I have a friend who works on occasion in the Dubai airport, and I thought he might have arranged this but he has not claimed responsibility so the airline must have arranged it on their own reconnaissance, because of my age I would guess.  I asked for a room for my six hours, but the young uniform just smiled the mysterious smile of the person who doesn’t really understand English.

The airport is so clean you are consciously aware you are walking through a CLEAN airport. It is equipped with all the appropriate shops that I cannot imagine shopping in any more, although when younger I used to want to buy in those shops.  Should I be ashamed of that?

She led me to the lounge, and I realized this was it, no little claustrophobic room but a huge lounge divided according to various uses, sitting, eating, computering, and lounges for sleeping if you can. It had an uncontained ambience with a ceiling that was out of sight with brilliant lighting pouring down. I was given a plastic wrapped purple blanket, Qatar’s color, and a black leather, or some-such, lounge. Over the next five hours in a state that should have a name in the contemporary world but doesn’t—perhaps dozen’tstress–I had various companions on the lounge across from me—a young Chinese man with a wide, gold wedding band, a succession of indistinguishable Western businessmen, an African woman with many braids.

At seven am, my flight was at eight, no uniformed young woman picked me up. I stopped on my walk out of the lounge to tell the young man on duty that I had not been picked up. He dashed off and returned with the young woman, the same smile perhaps surgically attached to her face, who had brought me to the lounge, and she led me to my gate. This was good because I was in that state

where the brain has pulled the plug out of the socket of comprehension.

The flight to Bangkok had its own baby who, probably because she was Thai, cried less and communicated with waves using both hands.

I was so tired, cranky, idiotically belligerent and unfit for communication when I arrived that I decided, sheer perversity, to skip the visa application, although I knew full well that I would then have to get it through C’s lawyer, and it would cost me $100.

I felt exhilarated to be in Bangkok, to be on Thai concrete. I wound my way through the airport down the moving path, not an escalator, on which you have to hold on firmly to your luggage or it will become a juggernaut and knock down all the people in front of you. My taxi driver was everything I could have wanted. He took the old route without my asking. We talked a little.  He asked how many years I had been coming to Thailand. I said, “Twenty,” instead of the truthful “Forty” out of shame  that in all that time all the Thai I have acquired is “Sawadeeka” and “Kapkhunka.”

He delivered me to the Reno where I remembered the young man behind the desk, and he remembered me. My room was on the back with an unattractive view of the now defunct White Lodge Hostel. I was too exhausted to ask to change.

I went back down and had my first Thai food—spicy pork—excellent—and greasy deep fried rice balls—not so good. There is no good Thai food in Barcelona, I miss it, and gorge when in Bangkok.

I slept well and after breakfast got  unpacked in my fashion before heading to the Paragon’s Gourmet Market more to look at the Thai fruits that are not available in Europe—great mishappen jack fruit, durian like swollen maces in their spikes, golden heaps of mangoes–than to buy, although I did get a salad at the extraordinary salad bar where gem red and green sliced peppers lie next to softly brown cooked or white raw mushrooms , broccoli, lima beans, Japanese crab, chicken chunks in their bowls below an array of lettuces, bibb, butter head, arugula to frisée.

Coming back, I walked down the soi. It’s not a particularly special soi but it is my soi. Wendy´s Hostel is still shut as is its laundry and the other laundry doesn’t seem to be operating where it was last year. A black male cat, with battle scars on his ears, accompanied me talking in a quiet conversational way.

W and C picked me up and gave me a choice of restaurants, either the one near St. Louis Hospital or the one run by W’s high school friend by the canal. I chose the one by the canal because I could never find it on my own. We had beef with the little bitter peas I love, crab in a creamy sauce, chicken and a spicy pork followed by excellent durian ice cream. The restaurant is in a sort of open shed beside the canal. There is air conditioning in the closed off part, but the open part was cool enough at this time of year with an occasional breeze.

The combination of jet lag and old age gives me sudden spirals of excessive exhaustion and defective memory. The next day, I did get to the gym at the Anantara where the same old acquaintances were having coffee, cake and not exercising much. It’s their club.

C and W picked me up to have lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Then C and I went to the Jim Thompson outlet on Sukumvit. It’s always a bit of a thrill to go to the Outlet, as though one were doing something special and local. This is not particularly true. There was gorgeous six ply orange silk but that was not the color I wanted, also a green of exactly the shade already covering the sofa. I found a warm, turquoise linen, six ply, so I bought half a dozen kilos of that, actually seven meters, which certainly feels like six kilos.

Then C and I were at leisure. We drove back to their house in the center of town which I haven’t seen in years. It is a little thing tucked into the busiest part of Bangkok but you would never know it looking at the short rows of neat, white houses that chummily cuddle together under the unseen skyscrapers. Warapot’s palm tree, it is still alive, if leaning a bit, is directly in front, tethered to the wall in case it feels the need of support. It seems to be fine. Because Chinese New Year is this weekend the house was in turmoil. C was using the holiday as an opportunity to sort and discard. That holiday was about to upset my life.

The next morning, Saturday, the young man on the front desk told me I would have to move out. Because of the holiday they had over booked, and I had no room. I was open mouthed with astonishment and a number of decidedly hostile emotions. Luckily my extraordinary friend CW was picking me up for lunch and later a party. I told him my just delivered news and he said firmly, “Don’t worry. I will have a room for you tomorrow.” He instantly transformed into a shining knight on a white horse. I knew he would find one. 


I am not doing this gracefully. According to geriatric experts, most of whom I presume are between 35 and 40, I am in “old old age,” no comma. This is, of course, a terminal condition. I am intensely aware that I am living inside a dying animal.

At 86, steeped in years, I hate it, resent it, am in a daily emotional, mental, spiritual, metaphysical rage. I’m like an aging dragon sullenly burping flame gouts from the dark mouth of its cave. Years ago, I saw this in older friends and thought, “I will remember and won’t be like that.” I remember, all right, but I am like that.

There is an American scientist who said that as far as he could tell we are living and dying in a situation where there is no meaning, cause, trajectory or explanation and he was fine with that. Theoretically I am fine with that, but the emotional truth is, I don’t like it.

Rage may be a cover for fear.  A lot of people claim they are not afraid of death. I’m often unconvinced, partly because they flaunt their lack of fear as if it is a virtue. Rage can distract you from fear, because it deludes you into thinking you are powerful. But it seems to me one has a perfect right to fear death. The unknown is unexplained, unexplored, unfamiliar and, just plain un. Humans don’t like un. Therefore, for most of us, it’s frightening. We want to know what’s going on. Not knowing raises fears of loss of control. Not that there is any logic to this. In reality we have never been in control. But a sense of control may be why, once people are at the point of death, can count the days, they are usually calm. As in so many situations it’s suspense that causes us trouble.

Part of the control problem is that in old age one clings to independence with terror inspired by imaginings of what will happen if one passes into the control of others. This has unfortunate results.

I remember my Aunt Liz, my primary exemplar of how to age, now dead 36 years, who lived to be 99 and ten months. She didn’t want to be 100; she thought it made you a freak. I agree. Liz considered age to be an encumbrance, but I don’t remember her being angry about it, which chastens me. She was a more accepting person than I.

But about control. In her 90’s Liz, who was in an assisted living home, had an eye operation. She hired a woman to sleep on a cot in her room for a few days to look after her. She could not manage the complexities of the eye drop and pill schedule the doctor had prescribed.

While I was visiting, I saw Liz turn and snap at the woman when she did something for her rather than letting Liz do it herself. Mid snap Liz stopped herself and said, “You did that out of kindness, to help me; didn’t you?”

I was impressed. I have some fears of loss of control but what I resent most about the aging process, at this point in time, is loss of energy, although I also take umbrage at the little pot belly that arrived as a gift of one of my 80 to 85th birthdays. I managed to retain a fair amount of energy in my 70’s continuing to do a lot of trekking in the Himalayas. But when I hit 80 I went back to Tibet to walk the pilgrimage path around Mount Kailash, a four day, 33 mile trek, going from 16,000 to 18,600 feet, and knew, as I stood looking at the snowy dome of Kailash, striated with black ridges, that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. I turned, walked away from her, knowing I would never see her again.

Since 80, year by year there has been a blatant decline in my energy and that annual decline has accelerated since 85. It is like driving a car whose accelerator no longer works and every ten miles loses a little more speed. I fight it, although I am not at all sure that is the appropriate reaction.

One problem of old age is that there aren’t enough of us aged about, which means there are insufficient examples available of how to behave in the given circumstances of aging. Inadequate information makes elding as difficult as trying as a Westerner to understand what politeness is in Japan.

One reaction I have witnessed is to retire to your apartment never to appear outside again. All groceries are ordered by phone and if your friends want to see you they have to come to you. At the other end of that spectrum are the people who are always, “Fine,” projecting an image of themselves slipcovered in shimmering plastic.

There are those who complain about their physical difficulties. Actually, those interest me because often they are suffering from ailments or conditions I have never heard of but may be in my future such as restless leg syndrome, a uterus and bladder collapsing into each other, recurrent dizzy spells, night leg cramps.  I need information and these people supply it.

I have a number of complex eye problems, own and use hearing aids, and once in a while painful arthritis—awful and debilitating.

All of this would be much more manageable if I knew 10 people between 80 and 100, preferably evenly distributed along that timeline whom I could consult.  But I don’t. No one does unless, possibly, they are in assisted living and then there is no guarantee those people would supply you with information. They might all be “Fine.”

Back to lack of energy. I exercise with a trainer twice a week and should do at least one more day at the gym on my own. For years I was assiduous about this doing 4 to 6 days a week of exercise. Not since Covid. Exercise gives one a little more energy and does help with muscle tone and such basics as standing up straight. Stretching means one is less likely to wrench an underused muscle. I grumble, I grudge, but all of this makes life a bit better.

I consume sufficient supplements to create a supplementary persona. These help in the everyday as well as protecting me, when I travel, against the recirculated germs of airplane air.

But still, I sag shortly after lunch. Yes, I can fight it through and keep on going but I don’t want to fight through. After a nap I have little urge to do anything although I do push myself out to shop, or have a coffee with a friend and, with less effort, to go to a concert or the opera. An opera night will get me to take a longer nap and get up full of lively interest.

I do realize that where I am in life is a given and whether I grumble, whine or take what action I can, my reality will only be altered slightly, a caterpillar working its way along a railing has much the same view no matter where she is on the rail.  What needs alteration, is my attitude because it is my attitude that is the problem not my age.

My attitude metamorphoses when I shift from considering time in human terms, 60 years, 86, 92 and instead think in geologic time, rock time. Suddenly, my vision is expanded as by a panoramic lens as I climb down the stony, fossilized ladder–Jurassic, Triassic, Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, Cambrian—approaching myself through millions of years accompanied by rockbound crustaceans—trilobites, brachiopods, fusulinids, ammonoids. Then my lack of energy seems less personal.

The human sense of time is a small, constricted circle of us. It is humanly self-centered. Contemplating geologic time expands it to a different reality one that includes the world. I suppose if you do star time—using the Horse Head Nebula perhaps—you can expand time to universe time. That’s too big for me, my brain can’t manage it.

To change my attitude, I need to accept where I am physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t want to. It feels like capitulating. This is nonsense, of course, and childish but at the moment I seem to be trapped in my childish resistance.

Also, acceptance is not an attitude that is easily achieved. If you don’t have acceptance you have to change your mental attitude. Not easy.

A lack of acceptance means I am, without realizing it, struggling for control over forces that are uncontrollable by the human will. All other animals and most humans when they realize they are dying just uncurl their fingers or paws, let go of their grasp and go sensibly passive. My last cat did this. She had fought a while against feeling ill and then one day she must have understood where she was on the spectrum of life. She went into a sort of disgruntled calm. This was not what she wanted but she recognized that it was what is.

Some humans fight with shrill intensity hardening their will with terrific power against what is. Some people admire this “cry, cry against the dying of the light” attitude. I think I prefer my cat’s attitude and, therefore, I had best work on accepting the step in that direction which is being offered to  me in my loss of energy.


This blog sprouted from a memory stirred up by a Skype conversation I had this weekend with my grandson and his girlfriend whose family came to New York City from Yemen. I asked her how Yemenis came into the U.S. She responded either through Malaysia or Djibouti adding that Malaysia was faster and more efficient. She didn’t say that Djibouti was not only slower but more corrupt, although I felt that was understood.

Djibouti is a country, a member of the United Nations, of 900,000 people in an area of 9,000 square miles positioned between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden on the horn of Africa. It’s capital is also named Djibouti. It is perfectly located for trading and smuggling. In 1977 it voted itself independent from France. The average temperature is between 32 and 41 Celsius, 89 to 104 Fahrenheit. There are 18 doctors for every 100,000 people. Many countries have a small military presence there—France, the U.S.—and according to a friend of mine who knows about such things, a CIA encampment.

I knew Djibouti existed but knew nothing about it when I went to Ethiopia.  I have often gone to places on a whim—to Thailand because my mother said that women sold vegetables in the canals from peapod boats, to Inle Lake in Burma because I saw a picture of the spires of temples rising from its waters, to Guangxi, China because all my life I have seen scroll paintings of various centuries with craggy, camel hump mountains in the background. I had no visual stimulus for Djibouti but its location on a map is intriguing. And then there was the name, which is such fun to roll around one’s mouth.

I had at first planned to take the train from Addis to Djibouti but then I went south to Harar because I wanted to see the remains of its walls and gates, its 10th century mosques, its old houses including the one Rimbaud purportedly lived in–not that I am much of a fan of this slave and drug dealing poet– and decided I would go to Djibouti from there. Having seen the tourist sights and one night attempted to feed a hyena, at first a length of somebody’s intestine on a stick, then a bloody bone and finally a bucket of butcher remnants.  This time I was successful with several terrified hyenas—it is up for grabs as to which was more terrified the hyenas or me—I went down to the railway station to buy a ticket to Djibouti.

I smiled at the man at the ticket window, a handsome, polite man—two qualities common in Ethiopia– and said, “One second class ticket to Djibouti, please.” I knew there was no first class.

“There is no longer second class to Djibouti,” he said.

“All right, then I will take third class,” I declared slightly reluctantly.

“I will not sell it to you,” he stated firmly.

Completely taken aback I asked, “Why is that?”

“Because you will have to sleep on top of the cargo, there are no seats in third class, and your fellow passengers will rob you while you sleep.”

In hindsight I think he was right about the sleeping conditions but not about the robbing, necessarily. My experience with my fellow passengers on Ethiopian trains, which I didn’t yet have, now suggests to me that I might have come out of the experience monetarily intact with a number of new friends.

But since he was adamant I gave in.

“Then I would like a second class ticket to Addis Ababa, please, if there is no first class.”

“There is not,” he stated and handed me a ticket for Addis, which I duly paid for.

The train was leaving in the early evening; therefore, I went back to my hotel that I suspected of being more brothel than hotel. I rarely seemed to be able to successfully discern the difference in Ethiopia between a brothel and a hotel.  I packed up and around 4:30 wandered down to the station with my bag.

There was an annoyed scrum of men and women all with an assortment of bags, suitcases, tied up bundles, gathered on a platform next to another platform where a tired, shabby train stood with all its windows and doors open. They were irritated because that was our train and we weren’t being allowed yet to board it.

Looking over my fellow passengers I noticed that a large number of the women seemed to be stout, except one young woman with lustrous café au lait skin and sharp black eyes who was joking with and teasing everyone from guards to fellow passengers. She wore a long black skirt and a Fila jacket that was about three sizes too large for her.

We were, after perhaps fifteen minutes during which my fellow passengers became more and more vocal, allowed to cross the intervening tracks to the next platform and our train.

I found a seat near a window, forced my bag under my seat, arranged my purse between me and the car’s wall with another small bag with food and water next to my feet. This done, I looked around me. Opposite I was delighted to see the young woman in the Fila jacket, next to me one of the stout ladies and across from her a man with odd, staring eyes whose lap was filled by a bag full of khat. He spent the entire trip breaking off leaves and chewing them. He never spoke to any of us.

My two female companions were extremely busy settling themselves, their bags. Everyone in the car was engrossed in opening and closing bags, taking out piles of fabric, cheap, very brightly figured, possibly Indian, material in sarong lengths. Some were in plastic bags, which were discarded on the floor or in the aisle. My Fila companion, without asking, tucked a bottle of perfume into my food bag. I returned it to her but as I realized what was going on I motioned her to put it back in.  I was in the midst of smugglers.

In hopes of encouraging the purchase of local fabric the Ethiopian government had put a high tariff on cheap imported fabric. The result was a boom in fabric traffic between Djibouti and Addis Ababa. The Fila girl and the other woman stacked fabric under them, tucked it in behind them, rammed it down between the seats. I offered to sit on some of Fila’s, tucked in some behind me and yet more between my side and my purse against the wall. They might, I thought, confiscate the material, but I doubted they would arrest a pale, more than middle-aged American female for smuggling fabric.

Slowly we quieted down. Fila went off to the bathroom, which announced its presence loudly to our olfactory nerves when a breeze came down the car. She returned in black slacks. We ate but to my surprise there was no food sharing and arranged ourselves in a faint odor of new fabric to sleep. The lights in the car were turned off. Scrunched against the side of the train I found, to my surprise, that I did sleep.

At about two am the train stopped, the lights went on, and a group of inspectors, none as I remember in complete official uniforms, came on board. They tramped about loudly shoved bundles and suitcases around, were cheerfully bossy and found nothing. The passengers did not seem much alarmed by their presence. They descended from the train and we started off again jerkily as though the train had been traveling in its sleep and was now trying to run while half awake. We went back to sleep.

At five am we stopped again. More inspectors came on board with a man with a gun. These men were different, harsh voiced, rude, preemptory. They ordered people about, tore open bundles. One man pulled down a suitcase from the overhead rack with on-purpose-carelessness so that it fell on its owner below in a painful manner. They confiscated fabric.

When they came to us one noticed the perfume bottle in my bag. I said, although I knew he didn’t understand English, “That’s mine.” He gave me a nasty look but moved on to the next row of passengers.

They left. The train started again and we tried to return to sleep not very successfully. By six we were all awake. We must have passed some landmark that I would not have recognized about 6:30 or so because suddenly everyone cheered. People rose, chattering; there was much activity. Fabric came out of its hiding places and was carefully smoothed to lie in suitcases or other bags. The women rose, lifted up their long outer blouses. They all had twine tied under their bras and around their waists over which were draped sarong lengths of fabric. They pulled these pieces of material up from the lines under bust and around waist folding them into big plastic bags. There were no longer many stout women but many with big grins on their faces.

Fila and I talked. She wanted me to know that her jacket was a real Fila, not a knock off. This was important to her. She let me take a picture of her, which I can’t show you because it’s not on my computer. Unfortunate. She was headed to the market as soon as we pulled into the station, as was everyone else.

I got off the train with them and watched them bustle away to the bazar. Wandering toward my hotel, near the station, dragging the tail of my suitcase behind me, I thought what a clever young woman Fila Jacket was. There are not a large number of ways to make a living in Ethiopia with a grade school education for either men or women but, of course, it’s worse for women whose main employment is prostitution. I think it was clever of her to become a smuggler. It’s an adaptable trade. I am sure there is always something to be smuggled into or out of Ethiopia. It is not dangerous, as I witnessed. It is not much effected by age, certainly not as prostitution is. A wise and canny young woman Miss Fila Jacket. I think of her fondly.

The Quarantine Blog: Chapter XV, August 30, 2021

I have lived in Spain a dozen years without going to either the Dali Museum in Figueres or Dali’s home in Portlligat. At a lunch event the man opposite me talked about a town near Portlligat, Cadaqués, where he and his wife owned a house, making it sound enchanting.

I have a conflicted relationship with Dali. I think he is a brilliant painter, absolutely extraordinary, but am bored by all the cute, cunning, clever, clever things he did. I wish he had needed less public attention and had focused more on his painting. I turn my eyes away from his politics.

So in April of this year, our first year of living with Covid, when we were allowed out on a leash reaching only as far as the end of the province we lived in, I decided to go. A friend called a taxi company in Figueres to drive me to Cadaqués. Another friend, a hotel expert, suggested the Playasol hotel and I made my train reservation.

Before I got on the train in Barcelona I received a call from a strongly accented—not Spanish—male voice asking if I had ordered a taxi. I said, “Yes,“ and got on the train.

It passed through fields of yellow and occasionally blue flowers.  Scarlet poppies left spatterings of blood on either side of narrow roads brilliant against the grass. When I detrained in Figueres a young man outside the station was holding up a sign with my name on it.

He was from east of Suez and most impressed by my age. He treated me like the Queen Mother—if there had been a carriage robe to tuck around my legs he would have tucked–worrying that I might feel sick on the twisting mountain roads that take one up over a ridge down to the sea and Cadaques. I didn’t think there was much point in lecturing him about driving in the Rockies so I assured him that I have a good head.

There is a lot of American style suburban sprawl outside Figueres and the towns near it but there are also fields blanketed with bloody poppies. Once in the mountains there were, beside the road, tufts of what looked to me like Scotch broom. The mountainsides had been terraced with unmortared rock walls to grow more olive trees. What labor those terraces must have been. The steep mountainsides were silver green with olives and yellow with broom.

I had a large, adequate if not very interesting fish lunch at a restaurant facing the sea and then tried to get up to the church, which may not have been open, but I was defeated by the intricacy of the winding lanes. The church is imposing as it towers over the town.

I had a Japanese sized room with a balcony looking up to the town and over the water. Cadaqués is essentially a one street town, the one that runs along the edge of the sea, all others being lanes that twist up hill inland. But it was a comfortable room arranged so that one woke up to look out at the Mediterranean.

They do a nice breakfast at the Playasol although the buffet is a bit ordinary. However, they cook eggs to your specifications. Again you view the Mediterranean as well as the cars and people populating the main street, which winds its way from hovering along a small patch of shingle beach to cresting up into a wall above the lapping waves, down again to another beach. The street is a promenade. At the breakfast hour there were dogs pulling their masters and mistresses, looking a bit bleary eyed, briskly along in the morning sun. Dogs, unlike humans, never seem to have a period of “waking up” but come to, stretch and are ready for whatever the day presents.

I asked the wife of the owner of the hotel for directions to the Dali House. She produced a map. I always feel more secure with a map but it really was a superfluity in this case.

I walked down the main road, turned right and started to climb. There was practically no traffic but lots of houses and gardens to admire on either side. The yellow, bushy blooms, which I was now sure was Scotch broom, were everywhere. I sent a picture to a Scot friend and he too thought it was Scotch broom.

At the top of the hill, just as you turn right again, is Saint Baldiri’s hermitage with his image and little else except white walls rising around solitude. He is a border crossing saint honored in both France, particularly Nimes, and Spain. He was martyred when he crashed a pagan festival and, in righteous indignation, pushed over the statue of the god being feted. The offended pagans cut off his head, which bounced three times, a spring bursting out at the place of each bounce. There is a peaceful graveyard with cypress, olives and bougainvillea.

This road is mildly busy but you quickly come to a sign directing you to turn down to the sea for the Dali house. The house, or houses, brilliant white, is stunningly located among rocks at the edge of the sea, a composite of fishermen’s houses, as in Bangkok Jim Thompson’s house is a composite of old teak houses. Across from it is a cluster of small two story houses, flowers everywhere and in front rocks and sea. There was an interesting small surreal painting on the wall of one of these houses of a man standing by a boat, behind him the patterned whorl of a shell spreading out to become sea. I was early for my scheduled tour so I had plenty of time to look about me and fanaticize about buying one little house with a big balcony that was for sale.

The Dali house is pleasant and livable for two people, no guest rooms. When you enter you are greeted by a grinning polar bear bedecked with costume jewelry—chains and medallions. He is not the only stuffed animal you will see; there are birds on top of cabinets. Stuffed animals used to be acceptable and even a signal that you were in vogue. Now we look askance at them. They aren’t just in bad taste, they signal not voguishness, but a lack of environmental and interspecies awareness, an acceptance of derogation and cruelty to animals. I found it macabre to have dusty dead animals about.

There was a handsome library but it seemed to me to belong to a not serious reader—large orderly volumes, shelves and shelves of an encyclopedia but none of that disheveled quality that voracious readers attain with broken bindings and torn covers. There were no musical instruments in the house. All the rooms have superb views of the rocks and the sea.

The two beds in the bedroom had red and blue draperies above and on them, quite regal. The living room, with a sea view, was centered by a table with a big, beautifully made ceramic snail. The studio looked functional.

We were walked through by a woman who spoke well in Spanish and English. She dropped us at the swimming pool, which is the most entertaining of all the spaces. It is fed water by small, paired ceramic swans of the giftee shoppee variety that spout water into its channel. To one side is a sitting area with a slightly fade lipstick red, Mae West lip couch and about it Pirelli signs in yellow and black and a number of Michelin men.

The inclusion of the commercial is interesting and irritating in this setting but also amusing and dislocating. The lip couch is for me one of those clevernesses of Dali’s that do not engage me.  So you are sitting on the ledge of Mae West’s lower lip, so what? Maybe I am one of those dummies who just don’t get it.

I walked back to Cadaqués, which was just as pretty as coming, better because it was down hill. I went to tourist information but they didn’t know if the church was open. This time, however, I found my way up, asking as I went and discovering along the lanes a nice looking hostel.

The church is well worth a visit. The main altar is an extraordinary piece of Baroque carving, a dark mass of figures, niches, symbols, cherubs. There aren’t two centimeters of uncarved space on its surface. It is not lit up so it is difficult to make things out but it´s a sort of attic of religious images. Doves, lambs, saints and angels are perched among its rich, dark, carved wooden caves.

Toward the front of the church on the left are two pictures. One depicting Saint Baldoris’ martyrdom is crammed with writhing figures depicted with lots of gold. A much earlier wall painting is full of people with large Byzantine eyes.

I walked down and had lunch at a little bar—good gazpacho, grilled shrimp and bacalao with ratatouille. I ordered a bit too much and the waiter was definitely censorious about that left piece of bacalao.

The next morning I took a taxi into Figueres. My driver was not as solicitous but certainly as efficient. He dropped me with my bag, I left it in the cloakroom, at the Dali Museum, which is large and airy and was crammed with Spanish tourists. That was nice to see.

The courtyard of the museum features a sculpture of a buxom nude on a round plinth, an upside down boat dangling in the air and a car up on a platform. We all shaded our eyes to look into the car but there was nothing there. It is, however, a great old car. Around the walls tucked into the ivy are heads and sculptures of various sorts, some a bit nightmarish.

I liked the court better than most of the museum, although there are some beautiful early paintings, one of Cadaques, among the exhibits. But most of what was on display didn’t grab me until almost the last room, or maybe it was the last room, where there are a small group of paintings one of which devastated me. Some paintings, Rembrandt’s self-portrait, slowly enclose you as you gaze at them; others are a sort of psychological detonation.

The painting, very small, is monochromatic; sky and earth are nearly the same sandy tone. The strip in the middle of the painting has darker and lighter shades. The town is lighter—you know that when you get to it, it will be white—the mountain slopes are darker. At either side the world gets hazy and on the right land and sky blend together into that yellowish, sandy tone. Directly ahead is a small wooden cart, the simplest of carts, with a canvas cover that creates a gently curved ceiling and sides but you are looking straight through it at the driver’s slender back and the ears and legs of the horse or donkey. The great wooden wheels are canted slightly and one, the right one is tipped with fiery orange. Between you and the cart is yellow tan earth, a few stones, not even tracks. The cart’s wheels have left no impression. It’s called Carreta fantasma and it is. The feeling of emptiness is immense. In that emptiness is a meaning I cannot pin down, I cannot express, but it is vibrant.

Down stairs, through a separate entrance near the gift shop is another museum. This is of jewelry that Dali designed. Everything is stunning. There is an eye clock with a diamond tear drop, telephone earrings, a honeycomb heart of rubies with diamonds lodged amongst the comb’s openings, a golden pomegranate broken open to show its inner depths of diamonds studded with ruby pomegranate seeds. There are crucifixes, Madonnas, a Daphne, Tristan and Isolde, an Ophelia, and on a rough fluorite crystal a construction called “Explosion” which it is of diamonds, lapis lazuli, rubies and platinum.

Thoroughly delighted by this ending, a friend had told me to look for the little museum, which one might miss, I collected my suitcase, rolled it to a café where I had a bocadillo freshly made. Wandering about after lunch to waste a little time before I went to the train I came across a Rambla where I could have had a more elaborate lunch. I found a taxi to the station and so home again.

The Quarantine Blog: Chapter XXIV, Aug 5, 2021

Re Previous blog: A friend has criticized me for not making a sufficiently sharp demarcation between the early and late 1960’s. She is quite right. There was a big change with the first part of the decade being tentative and the last part much more strident.

The most touching response I received about the blog was from a friend in Nepal who explained how important the music of Dylan and others had been to his generation in that still largely isolated country.

And now a trip to Girona

In 1286 the French struck down through the Pyrenees to attack Girona on their way south. The city was a regular battle site for any army headed south. In this case it was King Peter the Great of Catalonia and Aragon against King Philip of France backed by Pope Martin IV, who had excommunicated King Peter. The Sicilian Vespers are part of this story, the Sicilians having massacred their French conquerors and elected Peter as their King. Entering the fortifications of Girona unopposed the soldiers were plundering, raping, and looting when they went into the church of Sant Felix, which contained the shrine of Sant Narcis, opened his tomb and were about to sacrilegiously hack his body to pieces when out of his belly erupted a snarling cyclone of flies.

“As big as acorns” they crawled up the nostrils of horses stinging them to death, 4,000 of them, and stung to death the soldiers as well. Partly black, partly green with traces of red, they were so poisonous they killed instantly.

This is why one can buy fly earrings in Girona, which I did on my first visit. I have a frog ring and when I saw the flies I thought it would be a display of good guardianship to buy him a pair of flies. They were delicately wrought of gilded silver filigree. But I lost one. In the female emotional structure the loss of an earring creates a vacuum with the insistent gravitational pull of a Black Hole.

However my present trip was in March, a year after I had written my first Quarantine Blog; we were still Covid bound but allowed to travel around Catalonia or whatever province in Spain we belonged to. I decided to go back to Girona because, a town on a mountain, it has just the right number of things to investigate. Another motivation was to replace the fly earrings.

I had not been on much public transport in that year of Covid quarantine—the metro three or four times, buses which I found easier to accept than the metro, once on an airplane to San Sebastian. I took a taxi to Sants and after a café con leche boarded the Renfe but could not find my seat. It turned out to be upstairs. I was adamantly unwilling to haul my bag up that twisty stair and then, in an hour or so, down again with the train moving. I went out to the platform leaving my bag with a young man who was standing in the entry to the car who wanted to know if I spoke French. He too was going to Girona.

I explained to the woman conductor on the platform that I was 84 and not about to drag maletas up and down narrow stairs. At this point the young man offered his seat to me. I thanked him fervently and the conductress seated me.

It is only about an hour to Girona. The train had no distancing whatsoever and I was sure the return trip would be the same. On arrival, I found a taxi and we drove up the mountain to the Hotel Historic in its lane to the right hand side of the cathedral. I like this hotel because it is next door to the cathedral but also because it is an old stone house with thick walls and tall windows that look out to the stone paved lane below them. It combines a medieval air with very hot water in superb bathrooms and a breakfast under stone arches with endless coffee.

I was too early to be checked in so I left my bag and walked to the church that was closed up tight as a can of peas. I went next door to the cathedral museum, which is entirely religious art. I knew I had been there before, yet I remembered nothing I was looking at until I came to a stone sarcophagus with a knight carved into it. Him I recalled and with him that I had been in gritty mood when I had been to the museum before. Apparently gritty moods destroy memory.

The knight’s name was Cruiiles, a very standard looking fellow in grey stone. In Barcelona my upstairs neighbor’s last name is Cruelles. I wondered if the later was a modern version of the former. Since returning I have asked her but she has never enquired into her family history.

This time I enjoyed the museum. There are column capitals from the 12th, 13th and 14th century with palm fronds and other vegetal decorations but also the occasional human, or almost, human face. The imagination of carvers of those centuries can be a little macabre presenting visages which wander between animal, human and sinister combinations but there was nothing as interesting as the face on a capital in the MNAC 8museo National de Arte Cataluña) in Barcelona which is either eating or vomiting a ram, a whole ram with horns. There is no Christian symbolism apparent here. No one knows who this ram-eater-vomiter is or what his meaning is.

There were endless paintings of very graphic sadomasochistic martyrdoms in which the martyr’s face is always in Swedish deadpan. He or she might be staring into a bowl of porridge while being flayed alive, dismembered or gouged with various instruments for for all the emotional content on his features. The Madonnas and their bizarrely limbed infants often have faces pulled about by unknown forces, but they were better than the carved wooden Madonnas who are early Catholic Cigar Store Indians.

I felt the painters and carvers had never really looked at women or children. Their men, however, are clearly individual with specific faces. One altarpiece had some real men who you would recognize in the street while the Madonna looked as though she had suffered a mild stroke.

Upstairs in an exhibit of old stained glass they show how the glass was cut and the variations of hues among the span of colors.

Their shop, tiny, had no fly earrings. I asked about the museum shop—closed for renovation. They suggested I ask about earrings at the tourist office down on Rambla Libertad.

I ambled down, now hungry, asking my way when I got lost, and found a café on La Rambla by the river with its low bridges where I had an excellent melon with ham followed by a fideu, also exceptionally good with shrimp, mussels and something unidentifiable which may have been pretending to be scallops.

I found the tourist office where a young woman in oversized glasses told me, as soon as I asked about fly earrings, the name and location of a shop I would pass on my way home.

I walked up hill, passed it, retraced my steps. It’s in the Call, the Jewish Quarter, and indeed, the dark burly man had fly earrings but not the same as those in the museum. These were larger, clunkier and in silver but I could have them gilded. The Cathedral shop won’t open until next June. As a friend of mine says, “We will go to any length to replace an earring.”

The next morning, Saturday, I did not make it to mass at the cathedral, which was at 8 because breakfast was not served until 8:30. As I exited the hotel I looked up and saw between the buildings dark smoke billowing up to close the sky channel of the street. There was a fire in a building across and down the lane. Standing near me was the owner of the hotel, also looking up. He introduced me to a grandmotherly woman standing on the other side of me. It was her house that was burning. She didn’t seem that distressed but within seconds her two grand daughters arrived, barefooted, in furry acid green and screeching pink zip up sleeping suits their faces swollen and wet with tears of fright. There were firemen. Since there was nothing I could do but commiserate, I did and then walked over to the cathedral now closed after mass.

It is always pleasant hanging out around it when the sun is out, looking down the steps or inspecting the carvings over the side entrance which, despite their often being inexplicable as the ram vomiting man—two serpent monsters, one with a rather malevolent woman’s head—I prefer to the rococo baroque front façade which I find Hallmark in its sentiments. There are serpent monsters with human heads that to my bemused amazement convey clearly that they have a low IQ. How do you manage to carve dim wittedness into stone?

The cathedral and the steps were part of the scenery of THE GAME OF THRONES, which I have not seen. The steps are of the variety that one has no difficulty imagining a body or bodies rolling down.

I was meeting two friends who have a masia not far outside of Girona. They arrived with their dog, Kramer, who is the calmest and possibly the most emotionally stable of the three. We had a coffee at a cafe with tables in front of the steps. This is, for me, what friends are for. I had intended last time to have a coffee here but had not done it. Being alone, there are things one doesn’t do which come quite without hesitation in company. J and I went into the baths together.

I have now seen a lot of Roman and Arab baths, these are 12th century Arab, in various parts of Spain but this is one of the nicest because it isn’t your usual—cold, tepid, hot carved in good strong well squared stones. There is as you enter a “reception area” of graceful elegance with a small pool at its center covered by a cupola on tall, slender columns. There are seats around the edge of the barrel-vaulted space: a serenity gently enfolds you. After this the rooms are much as usual but it is a ruin and you climb up stairs out of ceilingless rooms to look out over the ruin of the baths to the valley and up the green hill to where there are more ruins secreted in the whisper of trees. It is beautiful.

We walked down to toward the river, which I had not done before, stopping at a Romanesque church. Cataluña is rich in Romanesque ruins. The collection of frescoes rescued from abandoned country churches at the MNAC (Museo National de Arte Cataluña) in Barcelona is world famous. The church has been turned into a museum for temporary exhibits and had one on food on its walls. It is intimate with charming proportions; a chubby stone edifice wearing tiles roofs like Chinese farmers’ straw hats.

We walked along the river and came to the restaurant J and R had chosen among an animated row of eateries now full of people. I had delicious goat chops and Kramer was delighted to finish them off for me. We talked about everything from architecture, to real estate, to Russia and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. R, it was the first time I had met him although I have known J for many years, has perfectly greying hair, piercing dark eyes and an intellect to match.

We walked beside the river past the bright red hierro bridge, coming to a quarter of town I had not seen before with the usual international cloned shops. Here I left them, crossed a low stone bridge and started up hill to the hotel.

The next day, Palm Sunday, I went over to the cathedral for mass. There was a well-dressed, small crowd, given the size of the cathedral, with lots of children grasping the complicatedly braided and twined palm leaves that are de rigueur on this day in Spain. The priests looked elegant in elaborate vestments. Women wore hats and shushed children. Men, I was pleased to see, attended with their families. In Italy you can barely squirm your way through the crowd of men blocking the exit of any church.

There was a small but enthusiastic chorus accompanied by the organ which when musically on its own swelled its sound into the available space like a frog expanding its throat.

I had wanted to return to the church because of the memory I had from my first visit.  Entering its dim expanse—the nave is the second widest after St. Peters at 75 feet—I had seen floating before me an ethereal cloud of light which, after deciding that it was not a spiritual apparition, I identified as a silver baldacchino. It´s shape is not unlike the large white sheets or canvases that are strung up on roofs in the hottest months of summer in Spain. It shimmered, a spirit from the 13th century. It’s underside and outer curve dance with a multitude of figures, 137 saints and angels in rows, which you cannot make out without binoculars but the angles and curves of elbows, noses, knees and fingers refract frolicking light. It was created between 1292 and 1326.

On the high altar is another piece of what I think of as religious jewelry, a retable. It is silver, embossed plates, sometimes gilded, over a wooden core studded with cabochons, filigree and superb enamel of local manufacture. It crests into three towers that enclose figures in high relief of Saint Felix, Saint Narcis and the Virgin. It was begun in 1320 by the goldsmith Bartomeu and completed in 1358 by Ramón Andreu and Pedro Berneç. Again, to see the figures with any clarity you need binoculars. These colors, gold, silver and enamel with a rainbow of hues make me think of the Pala d’Oro in Saint Marks, Venice, which it postdates by 200 years. The altar is alabaster and was consecrated in 1038.

Having had time with the silver cloud while enveloped in the organ’s sound I crept out as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the celebrants. I asked the hotel owner about the people who had the fire. He rents apartments as well as hotel rooms and had given them one of his apartments for a few days. I gave him a contribution for the family remembering the sorrowing green and pink furries, ordered a cab and found the right station.  There are two. The train back to Barcelona was full, with no distancing just as I had thought. My not-quite-satisfactory silver fly earrings were in my purse.

The Quarantine Blog XVII: July 10, 2021

Re: the previous blog.

A dancer friend contacted me to say that in the original Paul Taylor production of the Andrew Sisters’ dances there were silhouettes of armed, marching solders behind the swing dancing, happy jiviness of the teenagers. That must have created a very different impact from what is now on YouTube.

On to the 1960’s.

This recollection of the 1960’s, primarily through music, is written by someone who was always, even before age set in, a little behind the times, a foot dragger, never in the vanguard.

Something happened as we neared the end of the fifties. It was subtle at first, scarcely more than an odor in the air. In music and in life there was a shift. Looking back at the list of Billboard hit records there is little sign of what’s coming. “Mack the Knife” made it onto the annual Billboard 100 hits in 1959 and that, even with Bobby Darin singing, was an odd item just vaguely suggesting change. But in 1960 “Teen Angel,” “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”, and, one of my all time favorites, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bed Post Over Night”, were high flyers on the Billboard charts. These have the same relationship to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights as the teenagers jiving to the Andrew Sisters have to the marching soldiers of World War II in silhouette.

The U.S. entered the conflict in Vietnam in 1955 with less than 1,000 military advisors in the country. But our involvement was a bit like a leaking pipe in a dark, ignored basement of a suburban ranch house. The residents, now under Kennedy, didn’t really know it was there. By 1964 the water had deepened to 28,000 men and the Viet Cong had built the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In 1967 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam.

The Civil Rights Movement started in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery Alabama. In 1960 four black students were refused service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro North Carolina; in 1963 Martin Luther King led the March on Washington DC giving his “I have a dream” speech; President Johnson created the Civil Rights act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (for which we are still fighting) and in 1967 Martin Luther King joined the Vietnam war protest movement.

The first ripple of movement on the face of mass culture started in the late 1950’s and was not rock, but a revival of folk music, which in the US covers a large, diverse territory – roots music, cowboy songs, spirituals, Cajun, gospel, Appalachian, blue grass—and is both black and white. What occurred was a revival of white folk music borrowing frequently from black music. But as the war protests and Civil Rights protests melded together the music was both black and white.

For years there had been folk music about but it was a niche event. I was almost totally unaware of it. I doubt I ever listened more than casually to The Weavers. I knew about Burl Ives, but more as a personality than as a singer. I don’t think I knew the names Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

If you go to YouTube and listen to The Weavers recording of “If I Had a Hammer” and then the recording by Peter, Paul and Mary you will instantly see what happened. Part of the change is, of course, this being America, the commercial element. The Weavers are relaxed, friendly, informal, and warm in their rendition of the song. Peter, Paul and Mary are slick. They are giving a performance. Their beat is strong, fast with an urgent drive lacking from The Weavers, the beginning of rock.

Ronnie Gilbert, the female singer of The Weavers, a group of 3 men and one woman, including Pete Seeger, is chubby faced, with a warm contralto voice and is clothed–these days that’s noteworthy. Her dress, however, is unnoteworthy; she does not seem animated by what she is singing. But she had an exemplary track record in protest having almost been expelled from high school for her resistance to being part of a minstrel show.

Mary Travers, singing with Peter and Paul, wears an interesting dress, with style, her long blond hair swings before and behind her as she sings, the music appears to work its way through her body and out of her mouth; it is a visceral part of her.

That energy has transformed over the years into hype rather than genuine feeling I fear.

In 1962 Peter, Paul and Mary’s album entitled “If I Had a Hammer” was in the top 10 on the Billboard chart for 10 months.

My theory is that this cultural shift started in the world of folk music because folk had a history of protest but I don’t think, uneasy as many of us were, we knew if or what exactly we wanted to protest—inequality, the war. We were unfocused. “If I Had a Hammer” is not in its lyrics at all a specific cry for change or a particular protest against any situation political or social. It calls out that there is “a danger”. It calls out “a warning.”  It is quite appropriate as an alert and did, I think, really embody our feelings at that time. I would bet few of us, certainly this is true for me, thought we would end up in the streets of New York and other cities marching and chanting, “Peace Now,” or, a chant that was hushed by the mothers accompanying their children on a march I was on in New York, “One, two three four, we don’t want your fucking war.” There was also the enlivening feminist chant invented by the women of Barnard College, “Put down the bassinet./ Pick up the bayonet;/ Give up detergent,/ Become an insurgent.” Few of us envisioned ourselves being on the Mall in DC in 1963 listening to Martin Luther King.

But musically the nexus of change was that young man, mentioned at the end of the previous blog, with the ugly, nasal voice and the harmonica on a frame around his neck. I disliked the voice. Joyce Carol Oates said that if sandpaper could sing that is what it would sound like. I don’t think so. Sandpaper isn’t nasal. To me it’s the voice of an adenoidal adolescent. Mick Jagger said, with English understatement, “He’s never been one of the great tenors of our time.” I think the harmonica is a horrible instrument, wheezily shrill, but it did not matter; Bob Dylan focused our and my attention as no one had in decades. Our unease was reflected in  “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “The Times They Are a ‘Changing”. He took from his idol, Woodie Guthrie and forged a new sense of what music could be, what song could do.  He became the American voice of protest. Listening to the songs as they progressed and became more focused—”Masters of War,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game”—I am struck by how brilliant and clear the lyrics are, how they unwrap the connection between people in power, the powerless who kill for them, and the murdered.

Here are the last two verses of “Only a Pawn” about the assassination of Medger Evers.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoofbeats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game

Today, Medgar Evers was buried from the bullet he caught
They lowered him down as a king
But when the shadowy sun sets on the one
That fired the gun
He’ll see by his grave
On the stone that remains
Carved next to his name
His epitaph plain
Only a pawn in their game.

I think he deserves that Nobel Prize but I also think he is an egomaniacal ossified idiot who meanders from drug to drug—marijuana to born again Christianity. Fame is a disease for many people. Some die of it—Amy Winehouse most recently. Only a few survive its ravages. Far fewer manage to live with it with grace knowing who they are. Certainly Bob Dylan is not one of those. Joan Baez, however, somehow never seems to have taken on the goddess role her fans and publicity agents claimed for her. She sang other people’s protest songs but the most famous one she wrote was the poignant  “Saigon Bride.”

There were others singing both Civil Rights and Vietnam protest songs: Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” with the memorable lines “You don’t have to live next to me, /Just give me equality”: San Cooke’s beautiful “A Change is Gonna Come”: Phil Ochs’s “I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” whose lines “It’s always the old who lead us to war,/ Always the young who fall” encapsulates one of the realizations of the time: Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” holds the other realization of the era, “You’re old enough for killin’,/ But too young for votin’”.

The British, meaning The Beatles, made no contribution at all to these protest songs until Lennon brought out “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969.

My own life was being restructured at this time in ways that were typical of the times. I started working at The City College of the City of New York in a program, set up by Mina Shaughnessey, whose purpose was to take high school graduates suffering from inadequacies in written English and bring them up to standard. It was called Basic English and had three levels. At the lowest level one taught grammar, meaning subject-verb agreement. The second level concentrated on the idea of the sentence and the third worked on getting students to be able to write a cogent essay. The students who took these courses were by no means all black. However, Harlem had realized that there was a college in its midst that fairly regularly produced Nobel Prize Winners in Physics, but none of their population attended it.

I was almost as late as Lennon in contributing my mite to change by teaching in this program, which I joined in 1966 or 67. It totally changed me over the years, about 15 I think, that I worked in the program. I was a nicely brought up, protected, white woman, middle class, with no knowledge of black life. We all grow up in ghettos not knowing how other people, economically above us, below us, live. There had been only one black student in my high school; he become an alcoholic and worked on the town garbage truck. Given my background I had never really expected to have to work but once I became a divorcee it was necessary.

In my first class I had a heroin addict, Teddy, who nodded out in class. I realized he was a problem for me because the other students might well think me unknowledgeable about him and this would impair our relationship. I would not be a knowing person just another clueless whitey. I thought and thought for a subtle way to signal my awareness.

At the next class when Teddy started to nod, I turned to the board to write something down and sang in my beastly soprano, “Beautiful Dreamer, wake unto me;” the entire class cracked up loudly enough to jolt Teddy out of his nod.

The first essay I always asked students to write was 500 words, large groans at the number, about themselves, who they were, what they thought, what they hoped for. A number of times I received from this an essay that stated, “If I can graduate from college I will be the first person in my family to not be on welfare.” Such a statement created a burning impetus to help that student find his or her bootstraps and pull with all our combined strength.  

A few years after Teddy, I had another rude awakening. I received an essay, which was not on subject but milled around unable to find any beginning, middle or even an end. I couldn’t figure out, reading it, what was going on. It was early in the term so I did not yet have a clear sense of my students as individuals, but I did know this student was from Jamaica. Going into class I went up to him and said, “During the break, I would like to speak to you about your essay.” I often did quick counseling sessions in the corridor outside the classroom.

I was startled, as was the rest of the class, when he opened a newspaper to its full width and rattled it periodically during the first hour of class. This was a warning. When I called the break he bolted for the door. I followed him out to where he wheeled on me, pounded his chest with his fist and announced, “I am the Lion of Judah!”

I knew just enough about Jamaica and Rastafarians to realize what I was facing but I had no idea how to respond. I managed to say that his actual writing was grammatical and smooth; that was not the problem. This calmed him enough so that he went on to say something to the effect that I was like the Queen of Sheba. This really alarmed me, as I know what went on between Solomon and Sheba. At this point I was a bit desperate and suggested perhaps we should go upstairs to talk to his advisor. This was a piece of luck. It was immediately apparent that he was afraid of his advisor, a broad shouldered black man who had obviously played football in college. We were able to talk about the essay but I knew it was no use, that I was dealing with someone who had severe mental difficulties. Indeed, he disappeared from the class a few weeks later.

But it was when I spoke to his advisor that the full despair of the situation was brought home to me. I asked him if he had contacted the family. He gave me a look saying, “They know and they will just lock him up in his room until they feel he’s making sense again.  My calling will only make it worse.”

When I left City College I taught as Poet-in-Residence all over the U.S. for six years, driving back and forth across the country ten times in those six years.

One December when I came home for Christmas I was on the subway, damp with snow, crammed in with my fellow strap- hangers, looking down at a large, young black man sitting before me. Suddenly he looked up and queried, “Is your name Swenson?”

I answered, “Yes. What did I give you?”

He broke into a huge grin, saying, “An A.”

“You must have been good.”

Getting up to give me his seat he responded, “You were the last person who made me think.”

You can keep the Academy Award, the Pulitzer; I will take that sentence over them every time.

What happened at the beginning of the 1970’s musically can be understood by listening to Jimmy Cliff’s “Vietnam”, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”, commemorating the four shot dead at Kent State in a peaceful protest, Edwin Starr’s “War.” You can’t understand the words because the music, the beat, has blotted most of them out. When words are subsumed into horns, guitars and drums the message is gone, no one hears it. The band has decided the words are not important. This signaled the beginning of the end of the era. Its last cry was probably Lennon’s “Imagine” in 1971.

I don’t read books about the 1960’s but I read every review about books on the 1960’s most of which decry the time as a period of chaos, of defeat for order, and most recently as a time when individualism killed off our sense of community. I am pro the 1960’s but let me tell you, particularly any of my readers who only mistily know these times, a telling detail about the 1950’s.

Every year of my youth a designer in Paris with whom we in Chappaqua, NY or Fargo, ND had no contact what so ever, decided that our skirt hems would go up an inch or down two. Once the news was out we in absolute unison raised or lowered our hems in strict obedience to our unknown leader. When I went to college I was one of the first to wear trousers to class. I wasn’t questioned but I was looked at. However, it got me out of the hem game. That kind of rigid, utterly taken for granted, conformity was the emblem of 1950’s non-think.

In the 1960’s that not only stopped, but women wore their hems at all levels—down to the floor, above the knee, mid calf. And, thank god, we have never gone back to that kind of conformity.

I remember the ’60’s as a time of intense community, a community, which stretched across color lines for the first time.  When the riots happened in Harlem black people took in white people to keep them safe. I was escorted to the subway by students.

Like most Americans I was naive about the world, politics, government. There were for me two enormously important things I comprehended through my ‘60’s experience. One was that black people in America had to fight at least ten times harder to just live than I did. The other was the mean, hard lesson that the government I elected was not going to listen to my voice, or my voice combined with 50% of America. It was going to pursue a war started by misinformation and continued by lies despite a growing awareness of the realities of Vietnam. My government was wedded, perhaps welded is a better word, to its lies and was run by men I now know were child like in their capacity to understand.

Reading David Halberstam’s THE BEST AND BRIGHTEST not only were the lies revealed by the childish thinking of these men, but Halberstam thought, in his simple mindedness, his colleagues must know what they were doing because they had all gone to Princeton. My mind is boggled by such a thought process sending me back to listen to the most apposite of anti-Vietnam War songs, Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy.” If you don’t know or remember it you can access it on YouTube.

Naivite is the primary American national characteristic, which leads us into a great variety of stupidities, particularly in foreign affairs, but still, I prefer it to, for instance, French cynicism, because it means we are always optimistic and I think optimism is preferable to cynicism.

One of the lessons that societies, certainly American society, don’t seem to be able to cope with is the fact that whatever is going wrong at the lowest economic level of your culture is going to work its way up to the higher levels. Just give it time. In my young life drug addiction was thought of as a problem peculiar to black, and white, jazz musicians, then a problem of the black community. Then my mother, by no means an acute observer, saw the son of prominent, respected, parents in Chappaqua shooting up in the railway station in town between trains.

I am not sure why we went from protests to drugs, perhaps disillusionment with our country and its inability to adhere to its ideals, but we certainly took a swan dive, to mix my metaphors outrageously, from Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” down the hole of The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”



The Quarantine Blog XXVI: April 5, 2021

And now, at last, the Andrew Sisters.

I desperately wanted to fit in with my classmates in middle and high school. Realizing my musical preferences, opera and classical, were making me “different”, causing me to be mocked, I suppressed any reference to the music I loved and listened, studiously, as though I were conjugating French verbs, to pop music, which was largely, but not exclusively, the Andrews Sisters. Every Saturday, or was it Sunday, evening I would tune my radio to the program many of my schoolmates were listening to, the Billboard count down of the most popular songs in the country. This was not particularly painful but it was boring.

In the 1940’s and the 50’s the Andrew Sisters were the prime pop group with hit after hit. To quote a friend, admittedly a New Yorker, “They were awful–mushy, cheap, and certainly not eye candy.” Until he mentioned it I hadn’t thought about the “eye candy” angle. It’s quite true. They were a curly coiffed, rigidly hair-sprayed, homely group. What they sang while “mushy and cheap” was also bland, banal and vapid. But their primary interesting characteristic was intense cheeriness. All their songs are happy sort of jump about ditties, full of bounce. That cheeriness is, for me, one of the salient traits of the 1950’s and I suspect what causes people to have such nostalgia for that period. We had come out of the Second World War triumphant and all was right with the world. The music insists, all is well; everything is fine, fine, fine. We are all happy, happy, happy.

The truth of the 1950’s was quite different from that—desperate single mothers unable to find work, lynchings in the south, acute poverty both urban and rural all over the country. The personal truth of the lives of the Andrew Sisters also contradicted this artificial happiness.

From Minneapolis, Minnesota they started singing very young for fun becoming commercial singers after their father’s restaurant business collapsed. They supported their parents for the rest of their lives. They were famous for their close harmony singing and performed all varieties of music from boogie-woogie to Country to Calypso. (You can find everything I mention on YouTube.) However, if you listen to the music they, and, their arranger, Vic Schoen, had an odd leveling effect on these styles making them sound similar.

If you listen to “Rum and Coca Cola” and then Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song”, it becomes clear that although the beat has been retained it has been iron out so that it is not as pronounced. And, remember Belafonte was himself a popularizer. The “real” calypso was even more unique in style.

Of course, popular music, is just that, popular; to achieve mass appeal it can’t be heavily individual. What the Sisters did to “Rum and Coca Cola” was also done to classical music when it was adapted to popular song. I will only give two examples, “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a Frank Sinatra hit, takes its melody from the third movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto; “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” sung by Eric Carmen, comes from Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, the third movement.

But the lyrics of “Rum and Coca Cola” are another problem. Here are some, not all, of the words the Sisters sang:

Rum and Coca-Cola

If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar
Oh, beat it man, beat it

Since Yankee come to Trinidad
They got the young girls all goin’ mad
Young girls say they treat ’em nice
Make Trinidad like paradise

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar
Oh, you vex me, you vex me

From Chicachicaree to Mona’s Isle
Native girls all dance and smile
Help soldier celebrate his leave
Make every day like New Year’s Eve

Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar.

The fact that this song was about women prostituting themselves to American soldiers went right by the 1950’s listeners as well as the Sisters. “We neverthought of the lyrics. The lyric was there; it was cute, but we didn’t think of what it meant….” Maxene said in an interview. She points out that content went right over people’s heads, both singers and listeners. They paid no attention.

That perhaps sums up the 1950’s for me. It was an era when people didn’t think. They were oblivious particularly to the effect they were having on other people, and their lives

The Sisters’ first hit is an even odder instance of not thinking. In 1937, a year after I was born, they recorded “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” a Yiddish song from a Yiddish musical comedy titled I WOULD IF I COULD. However, Jack Kapp of Decca Records didn’t want them to sing it in Yiddish but in American vernacular English. Somewhere along the way the title was translated into German, becoming “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.” Not only did a Jewish song have its title translated into German but a Nazi pop band a few years later recorded it with “state-approved anti-Semitic and anti-Bolshevik” lyrics. It doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone in the American recording industry that taking a Yiddish song and translating its title into German was a bad idea. Of course it was just the beginning of the war.

The song sold seven million records and was on the Billboard Charts in first place for seven weeks. The title was incomprehensible to most Americans and according to LIFE MAGAZINE people went into stores asking for “Buy a Beer Mr. Shane” or  “My Mere Bits of Shame. ¨ I have had experience with this problem of consumer approximation of a title, having worked in a Doubleday Bookstore when BONJOUR TRISTESSE hit the bestseller list. My favorite interpretation of the title was “Bangor Treaties.

Other hits of theirs which may be familiar are “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”, and “Beer Barrel Polka.” A thought in passing. It is an oddity of popular music, for which I have no explanation, that it is always played at the same volume. It never gets louder or softer. It is always at a constant volume.

Another characteristic of popular music is sentimentality. Out of this period I remember “The Tennessee Waltz” as a prime example of saccharine drench. But if you have never heard Spike Jones’ satire of it, you have missed a good thing, again YouTube. At the time I didn’t know about Spike.

However the monsters of celebrity and money slowly gobbled up the Sisters. When their parents died, one after the other in 1948 and’49, they started arguing over money, solos and billing. Finally they split up and became estranged from each other, there were suicide attempts, and they never really reunited, although each had a separately successful career. It is an American story of ego arrogance and greed destroying relationships.

Now I have to add a caveat emptor here. Paul Taylor made a thoroughly delightful series of ballets out of these songs, performed to a recording of the Andrew Sisters singing. It captures the naiveté of that time period with its utter lack of sensitivity to anyone outside of the mainstream. You can see these on YouTube.

There was other music around, folk, jazz, but I grew up in the narrow channel of classical and knew nothing of these other forms until I was in college. When I brought home a record of Ertha Kitt my family greeted it with firm disapproval. I didn’t get to Dexter Gordon until much later. But they were just as opposed to Dave Brubeck. I knew of Burl Ives but had not heard him and even The Weavers were totally unknown to me.

Obviously, in my family there was a hieratic snob value attached to music, which I had not been aware of and the same was true, in a different way, of my classmates’ musical choices. If you liked a certain kind of music you belonged. Surely, using music in this way, or any other art form, to place people up or down in the hierarchy or to decide they are “acceptable” is a sad and grievous twisting of what art is.