Artists in Later Life, Part 1: Monet Stayed Inspired

French impressionist Claude Monet — who painted well into his 80s, even after his vision was clouded by cataracts — created some of his most well-known works in the last decades of his life. After a long career as a renowned and financially successful artist, Monet retreated to the beloved gardens of his home in Giverny, 20 miles outside of Paris. His gardens became his artistic obsession.

The passion an artist brings to the work of his later years is no different from the fire that drove him at thirty: a compulsion to express — in form, line and color; in the written word, and in melody. In an excerpt from Lastingness: The Creative Art of Growing Older by Nicholas Delbanco, (2010, Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group US) we are offered sharp insight into Claude Monet’s last and perhaps most lasting work, according to some. See what you think. It’s a little long, but hang in. It’s an absolutely fascinating discussion of the dimensions of vision.

In Monet’s last landscapes we see the final outcome of a lifelong development, during which the subject matter was gradually absorbed by an ever more conspicuous texture, fully realized in his water lilies, his footbridge paintings, and other late works. Essential to our appreciation of these works, however, is the fact that, despite the radical transformation of the subject matter, all the fullness and wealth of experienced reality remains present. The greatest possible range of artistic content reaches from the concreteness of the individual things of nature to the uniformity of the artist’s all-encompassing view.

Born in 1840, Monet died in 1926, and only in the final months, when entirely enfeebled, did he cease painting. One of the six founders of Impressionism as an artistic movement, he had a long embattled history (of exclusion from juried exhibitions, then inclusion in the vanguard and acceptance by collectors). The slow shift in status from outsider to elder statesman describes the arc of a career that’s not so much an arc as a straight upward trajectory. Less and less did he care for commercial success, staying home in Giverny, a village on the River Seine, forty miles northwest of Paris. By preference Monet showed pictures only to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, and a trusted circle of friends; at the last, one has the sense he painted for himself, and himself alone.

As early as April 27, 1907, he wrote Durand-Ruel:

I’m very dissatisfied with myself, but that’s better than producing things that are mediocre. I’m not postponing this show because I want to exhibit as many pictures as possible. On the contrary, I feel I have too few works worthy of being shown to the public. I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least thirty. . . . As time goes by I recognize those pictures that are good and those that should not be kept.

The paintings “that merit consideration” remain; they are objects preserved while a morning cadenza or scrap of rhymed verse disappears. Imagine for a moment what would happen to the record of Impressionism if the work of this artist’s old age had been non-selectively destroyed. A canvas is an artifact that can outlive its maker, and the hundreds of thousands of visitors who now stand rapt in front of his water lilies would have astonished Monet; he labored in a privacy that grew near absolute.

Some of this had to do with his horror of the First World War, the catastrophic conditions abroad. Some had to do with deteriorating health, in particular his rheumatism and the cataracts that afflicted his sight. (As with Edgar Degas, whose eyes failed, or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose arthritis required he wedge the paintbrush to his fingers, the physical decline of Claude Monet had pictorial ramifications; his outlines grew less definite, his colors more pronounced.) One of the ways an aging artist comes to terms with physical change — as suggested by Casals — is to shift the locus of endeavor, and the painter narrowed focus to the point of near obsession. When young he had painted in all sorts of weather; now he no longer felt compelled to work outside. Increasingly reluctant to leave the house in Giverny, and solvent enough to maintain the establishment (he employed six gardeners), Monet fashioned a sequence of oils exponentially more numerous than the series of bridges or poplars or grain stacks or cathedrals he had already produced. Before, he had traveled to locate his subjects; now canvas after canvas reported on home ground.

In this regard, his “final” period is a function of geography: the farmhouse and its teeming garden in the town of Giverny. Monet afforded to his flowerbeds the kind of close attention he had earlier paid railway stations or rivers in winter or outcroppings of rock — with the important distinction that all these preexisted his attempt to capture any “impression” they made.

The cities of London and Venice, it goes without saying, did not require his pictorial rendition in order to be viewed. In his farmhouse, however, he was both principal witness and maker; the lily pond was his to shape, the garden and Japanese bridges to build. And if his vision now was less than twenty-twenty, what he trained himself to paint had an inward-facing coherence that outstripped mere accuracy; his final efforts prefigure abstraction, making clinical exactness seem beside the point. The aesthetic of “Impressionism” must have helped him here. The notion, for example, of the shifting play of light (as opposed to unaltered illumination) would have enabled the old artist to rely on what he saw while looking — this even when his eyesight had gone dim. As he told the American painter Lilla Cabot, “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you, a tree, a house, a field.”

The pictures of the Nympheas take advantage of the wavering imprecision an oculist might hope to mend, so that vision — in its secondary meaning — may make luminous a blurry scumbled scene.

The poet Lisel Mueller has captured all this brilliantly, in “Monet Refuses the Operation.” As of 1919, the painter was urged (among others, by his friend Georges Clemenceau) to have the cataracts attended to; in 1923 he had operations on his right eye, and glasses improved his eyesight — but only briefly, fitfully, and he had trouble distinguishing color.

Mueller’s poem begins:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being . . .

The 10 Essential William Holden Performances

I first saw William Holden in Sunset Boulevard when I was twelve years old. One would have thought that, given his golden voice-over throughout the film, he was going to survive the weird noir-ish nightmare he’d stepped into and took advantage of. My first experience with an unreliable narrator.

I encourage you to check out this wonderful retrospective of Holden’s 10 best that was published recently in Vulture.

The 10 Essential William Holden Performances
By Angelica Jade Bastién
April 20, 2018

If he were still alive, April 17 would mark classic Hollywood icon William Holden’s 100th birthday. Holden is one of the best American actors to ever grace the screen, with a long-running career that exists at the axis of several contradictions: golden good looks yet eyes that suggest a cleverly hidden darkness; a body that speaks to both an easy athleticism and a hard-bitten demeanor. The best directors Holden worked with — Billy Wilder, George Cukor, Sam Peckinpah — knew how to tap into his contradictions. It could have gone another way. Holden could have played it simpler, leaning into his matinee-idol good looks. Instead, his best work delves into this undercurrent of darkness and emotional remove. In honor of his 100th birthday, here are Holden’s ten essential performances that showcase the breadth of his work and artistry.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

This venomously seductive noir was my first introduction to William Holden. And what an introduction. Writer-director Billy Wilder collaborated with Holden four times throughout their respective careers. Wilder understood that Holden works best when the contradiction of his sunny good looks and darkly cynical interior life rises to the surface. Sunset Boulevard is a bitter yet keen-eyed interrogation of Hollywood’s vision of itself, making Holden’s fine-tuned darkness and pessimism such a perfect match, it’s hard to see Wilder’s original choice, Montgomery Clift, in the role. As the failing screenwriter turned reluctant kept man of aging star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), Holden is a revelation. Everything he does afterward sits in conversation with this performance. Holden brings poignancy to moments grand (his death scene, as he staggers to the pool that becomes his deathbed with amazing physicality) and subtle (the twinge of disgust and acknowledgment of opportunity when a salesman suggests he use Norma for all she’s worth) with such dimension, I still find something new to admire in this performance.

Sabrina (1954)

Rugged, open-faced, golden. Holden seems, at first glance at least, like the picture of a 1950s romantic lead. But Holden is at his best playing with some sense of duality — holding onto a secret while planning a seduction, lying with a bright smile to distract — which is why he usually fails in the typical romantic roles. It’s also why he works so well as David Larabee — the charming cad of a powerful family who vies for the affections of his chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) — because this isn’t just any romance. It’s one made by writer-director Billy Wilder (with co-writers Ernest Lehman and Samuel A. Taylor), who knew how to coax the prickly dimensions out of Holden, even in a conventional love story.

Ultimately, what makes Holden’s performance so alluring is a trait necessary for any romance, comedic or otherwise: the heated, sensual looks he gives Hepburn that communicate a world of emotional growth and longing. Holden is luminescent and sly as his playboy ways soften in the face of an unexpected love. Holden’s feelings weren’t completely an act either — he and Hepburn had a brief, passionate affair after meeting on set.

Stalag 17 (1953)

Sergeant J.J. Sefton (Holden), a POW at a German camp, is not who you’d expect to lead a World War II film that blends harrowing drama, sharp character studies, and humor. Sefton shirks any heroic categorization. He’s a proud cynic and loner, willing to trade with his captors to make life a bit more comfortable. He shrugs off any chance to connect with fellow prisoners until he’s suspected of being a spy passing off information to Nazis, which forces him to use his cunning to find the real traitor. Holden, who won a Best Actor Academy Award for this role, clearly relishes playing Sefton. He perfects Sefton’s sullen slouch and quietly sizes up every person, every situation that crosses his path, with uncanny precision.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

A few years after Stalag 17 William Holden returned to a similar wheelhouse in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai, this time as a commander trapped in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. As Commander Shearer, Holden once again plays an essentially solitary soul touched by cynicism who retains his own specific moral code. Here, his physicality is even more finely tuned, able to communicate a range of states — begrudging admiration, sweat-drenched exhaustion, supreme focus. As Winona Ryder put it to An Other Magazine in praise of his performance: “He took the riskiest parts … He’s the anti-hero in The Bridge on the River Kwai. There is a great scene at the end of that movie, when Alec Guinness is pulling the cord and you see William Holden’s face. I watched it with [Martin] Scorsese and Jay Cox, and we all agreed it’s one of the best moments in cinema, the close-up of William Holden saying ‘kill him.’ The pleading in his eyes is mesmerizing.”

Golden Boy (1939)

Golden Boy — the romance-drama based on a Clifford Odets play — was Holden’s breakthrough a few years into his career. It’s easy to see why. He plays Joe Bonaparte, a promising violinist who yearns to be a boxer, with Barbara Stanwyck acting as his knowing love interest. Holden isn’t completely formed here as an actor or star. His voice is higher, his hair a moppy set of curls, and his physicality carries a level of uncertainty. But there’s a spark of charisma and earnestness that makes him easy to love. Stanwyck fought for Holden’s casting, leading him to later credit her for his success. In a 1978 interview with Roger Ebert, Holden spoke to their friendship: “She went to bat for me in 1938 or I wouldn’t be here today. So once a year I send her flowers, and a note saying I’ll never forget her generosity.”

Fedora (1978)

Wilder’s penultimate film and final collaboration with Holden is often harshly compared to Sunset Boulevard. Both films deal with the nature of stardom and critique Hollywood mores, albeit from very different perspectives. Holden plays Barry “Dutch” Detweiler, a faded Hollywood producer who gets caught up in bringing a mysteriously still-youthful star out of retirement. Fedora is an imperfect film, but the solidity and weight of Holden’s performance brings an intriguing layer to Wilder’s consideration of Hollywood’s obsession with youth. Fedora brings into focus the scope of Holden’s career and one of its most indelible aspects: how you can track the contradictory way American actors of this caliber wrestle with their beauty and aging.

Born Yesterday (1950)

Judy Holliday, playing the brassy, curious trophy girlfriend who wises up, is the crown jewel of this George Cukor comedy. But her work is undoubtedly bolstered by William Holden as journalist Paul Verrall, who is hired by her loudmouth tycoon fiancé to tutor Billie (Holliday) out of her ignorant ways so she can fit better into Washington, D.C. high society. Most actors with Holden’s star power refuse to let a woman take the lead, even when it is demonstrably her story. But Holden knows this is a vehicle for Holliday. He softens and actively listens. He’s the perfect scene partner for the madcap genius radiating from Holliday. It’s subtle but charming work. As Sheila O’Malley writes, “One of the reasons it works so well is because of Holden’s quiet decency, and simple, rather shy charm. He’s perfect. A perfect Henry Higgins to Holliday’s Eliza Doolittle. He does not condescend. Ever. He looks at her and senses her animal intelligence, her curiosity, her desire to learn more, and so he sets about teaching her.”

Picnic (1955)

Picture it. William Holden and Kim Novak, arguably at the height of their beauty, in an overheated, small-town romance in gorgeous Technicolor shot by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Hal Carter (Holden) is a failure several times over — a former football star turned college dropout and Hollywood star turned drifter. What I especially love about Holden’s performance is how he reacts to the gazes of others — those in lascivious awe of his good looks, others who look at him warily due to his status. Sometimes he matches these gazes with a smirk or glare. The standout scene comes over an hour in, as Holden and Novak dance. The way he pauses and drinks her image in is overwhelmingly sensual and seductive. Holden wears his failure like a scar, making sure people don’t get close enough to notice. He carries himself with a practiced machismo, but his woundedness and shame over his failures often bleed through.

The Wild Bunch (1969)

William Holden was not an actor who aged gracefully, which can be blamed on the years of alcoholism that was a factor in his rather depressing death in 1981. By the time he starred in Sam Peckinpah’s brutal, magnificent Western The Wild Bunch as Pike Bishop — the leader of a gang of aging outlaws aware, to various degrees, that their glory days are behind them — he wears his history in the grooves of his face. The film has many pleasures to admire and consider, but it is Holden’s performance that brings me back to it again and again. The deepened crags in his face and coarse voice seem a lifetime away from his sexy visage about a decade earlier, adding an eerie, existential resonance to the film. Holden, unlike many aging stars (Tom Cruise, I’m looking at you) doesn’t fiercely hold onto being the figure in the spotlight. He isn’t the dashing hero refusing to let go of the past. Instead, he looks at his legacy and aging dead on. In doing so he grants his character the immense weight of history and loss.

Network (1976)

Director Sidney Lumet’s Network, a satire of a fictional television network, is a stunning work in which every facet, from Paddy Chayefsky’s script to the stellar acting, work in concert to create a masterpiece. Holden was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, but his co-star Peter Finch nabbed the award for his much more hysterical, tragic role. Holden gives the more subtle, layered performance as the news division president Max Schumacher, who is cheating on his wife with Faye Dunaway’s craven, emotionally hollow exec. Holden is able to play everything, from uproariously drunk to knowingly pathetic, in ways that speak to his decades in front of the camera. His best scenes are with Dunaway, in which he’s moves with an awareness that he is no longer the man he once was, with a blend of sadness, regret, and understanding. As critic Sheila O’Malley notes about his performance, it takes courage to consider aging this way and Holden proves throughout his career to be an actor of remarkable courage. In his book, Making Movies, Lumet shares an anecdote that captures Holden’s presence wonderfully:

The most moving example of how much of themselves actors must pour into a character happened on Network. William Holden was a wonderful actor. He was also very experienced. He’d done 60 or 70 movies by the time we worked together, maybe more. I noticed that during the rehearsal of one particular scene with Faye Dunaway, he looked everywhere but directly into her eyes. He looked at her eyebrows, her hair, her lips, but not her eyes. I didn’t say anything. The scene was a confession by his character that he was hopelessly in love with her, that they came from very different worlds, that he was achingly vulnerable to her and therefore needed her help and support.

On the day of shooting we did a take. After the take, I said, “Let’s go again, and Bill, on this take, would you try something for me? Look into her eyes and never break away from them.” He did. Emotion came pouring out of him. It’s one of his best scenes in the movie. Whatever he’d been avoiding could no longer be denied. The rehearsal period had helped me recognize this emotional reticence in him.

Of course, I never asked him what he had been avoiding. The actor has a right to his privacy; I never violate his private sources knowingly.

Old Tribesmen

I often wince and look away from a very old face on the street or on a page, look away, get away. Is it fear that makes me avert my eyes? I don’t know.

But when I choose to look back, it’s amazing what I find. All that fear and loathing of old age I’ve carried with me since youth and strikes like lightning at the thought of being so old myself can also be quieted long enough to allow me to take in the eyes and soul that lives in the crags and runnels of aged faces.

A face frightful at first glance slowly loses its terror when I can quiet my fears long enough to simply gaze into the grizzled, worn face, the fire that still burns in his eyes, see the beauty in the patterns of wear, the understated strength, the still endurance of a life long lived. And forgetting the cultural differences among old faces I’ve lost myself in is a study for anthropologists, there is also for me so evidently the kindred human spirit that inhabits us all, wherever we come from.

The Cowboy, photo Phil Morgan
Elder; photo Dorthe Juri Lange
Cowboy; photographer unknown
Elder; photographer unknown
Willie Nelson; photo Pari Dukovic

Rediscovering Songs of our Youth: “Spring is Here”

Mike Schiffer, a fabulous jazz pianist and teacher now in his late 80s, remembers one of his first love affairs with a song, “Spring is Here.”

Spring Is Here was first introduced by Dennis King and Vivienne Segal in the 1938 Broadway Musical, I Married An Angel, and sung by Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the 1942 film version by the same name. Earliest recorded hits by the Leo Reisman Orchestra featuring vocalist Felix Knight and by the popular baritone Buddy Clark (nee Samuel Goldberg) were raves in 1938.

What’s not widely known is that Spring Is Here was one of the first of its kind in a Broadway show. It’s a rather sad song, highly nuanced, a type of song that hadn’t been tried on the stage where the songs were designed for belters like Ethel Merman who could be heard clearly in the last rows.

I personally wasn’t aware of the song until the jazz community discovered it in the fifties. There were versions by Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. And singers such as Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Julie London and Frank Sinatra included it in their albums. There’s no doubt it’s still one of the best known standards.

Here are the lyrics to “Spring is Here,” and links to a few stellar recordings I think you’ll like. 

Spring Is Here
Once there was a thing called spring,
when the world was writing verses
like yours and mine.
All the lads and girls would sing
when we sat at little tables
and drank May wine.
Now April, May and June
are sadly out of tune,
Life has stuck the pin in the balloon.
Spring is here!
Why doesn’t my heart go dancing?
Spring is here!
Why isn’t the waltz entrancing?
No desire, no ambition leads me.
Maybe it’s because nobody needs me.
Spring is here!
Why doesn’t the breeze delight me?
Stars appear.
Why doesn’t the night invite me?
Maybe it’s because nobody loves me.
Spring is here I hear.

MIKE SCHIFFER | Cincinnati-born Mike Schiffer has spent his life playing piano. After14 years of classical lessons, he was eager to get into jazz, and two weeks after arriving at Kenyon College he had a regular gig with a busy off-campus band. Four years of weekends with that quartet taught him how to play the music with musicians who knew all the songs of the day.

Always fascinated with New York, at twenty-five he moved to the big city. It was the mid-fifties, and there was a jazz scene in the Village that took him in. Before long he was playing full time in the bars and restaurants that had a piano.

In the late sixties, Schiffer had enough city life and landed in the Berkshires where he’s continued playing and teaching piano for the past fifty years. He’s especially enjoyed accompanying over sixty different silent films, something he began doing in college. Another of his interests are the visual arts, especially photography. • music • photography

What if the answer to “when” is never?

This thoughtful essay by Howard Englander of “Cheating Death” renown reminds me of a discussion the Five Wise Guys had during our first season. When someone began talking about his “Bucket List”, Matt Tannenbaum famed bookseller, said: “We all know about the Bucket List, but there’s also a “Fuck-it List,” the things we on longer need or want to do. What’s on your to-do or not-to-do agendas? — Sam

What if the Answer to “When” Is Never?
By Howard Englander

I’m not sure about the term, “Bucket List.” It puts the emphasis on traveling to exotic locations before you kick the bucket…doing the things you have talked about endlessly but never got out of your rut to actually do.

For sure there are places I want to visit before I put away the Rick Steves’ Best of Europe in 21 Days guidebook, but my “Must Do” list has more to do with the ferry trip across the River Styx when my name is on the ferry’s manifest.

I want to arrive at the final destination without being remorseful and regretful about what I did or didn’t do in my lifetime. ‘Getting complete’ with troubling issues from the past is the process that is helping me. Each unsettling bygone event I resolve gets me closer to the peaceful place where there is nothing left to lament! Having shed the grip of the past, it won’t be as difficult to bid adieu when Act III arrives and it’s time to shuffle off this mortal coil grateful that I outlived Hamlet by a good fifty years.

Of course, I feel sad knowing I won’t be around for the joyous events I’ll never share with my six-year-old granddaughter. But for the most part, the grief that lingers from the consequence of an irresolute past has been confronted and resolved. I’ve come to regard the wounds as hard lessons learned, recalling the painful events without being triggered to relive them again and again. I don’t want to spend my final days wallowing in regret!

I still have some outstanding cold and sullen relationships that need to dissolve in tears and hugs or be accepted as permanent thorns in an otherwise rosy life. Grudgingly I’m consenting to detente as the best of the lousy options available. After decades of unfulfilled expectations and thwarted intentions, I’ll have to live – and die – with the issues unresolved.

A degree of solace comes from knowing it’s not all about me. There are two sides to relationships and if the peace branch is spurned, there’s consolation in knowing I offered it. I like this quote from Anne Lamott about experiencing loss that you never completely get over but finally get through: “It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly – that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

The way we live writes the history we leave behind for posterity to judge. I’ve been lucky to have an opportunity for a mid-life rewrite, shifting the location of my story from the self to the Self. I’ve moved toward selfless service, assuming responsibility and being trusting and trustworthy (trying hard to do so if not always succeeding).It’s the path I want to be on but it veers away from some of the most important people in my life who are still stuck in vanity and victimhood, the traits I want to discard.

I want our paths to reunite. I keep searching the GPS for a propitious route to make it happen. But it’s not on the screen as yet. And maybe it will never be. And I have to accept that.

Loss and Gain?

There’s a terrible moment in the life of some older folks when wiser minds forbid them from driving anymore. Maybe it’s not so bad for some. But I imagine that for me it’s going to be really hard.

Here, in the remarkable final scene of Nebraska, an aged and somewhat confused Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is given a taste of independence by his devoted son David.
Please tell us what you think of the scene and the implications for old folks. Perhaps even some advice for taking such eventualities in stride.

From Youth to YOU

In my salad days when AARP was a hearty burp rather than an acronym, the sun, moon, stars and wheel of fortune revolved around me. Today, sipping my-end-of-life’s digestif, I see the world from a far different perspective.

I hear a lot of older men complain about no longer “being in the game.” I know what they are saying and feeling: they’ve gone from the corner office to a tiny corner of the den and instead of running things and making big business decisions they’re having trouble walking and deciding on Ginger tea or the decaffeinated Chamomile.

They’re stuck on their perceived loss of influence and affluence. They turn into curmudgeons easily annoyed or angered and complaining about anything and everything. I try mightily not to be that way; how old I am is not as important as how I am old.

I suggest they turn off Lake Shore Drive and take a look at the tent city under the Foster Street viaduct and be grateful they’re not dealing with survival; grateful that they have clean clothes and are sitting down to a warm dinner with convivial companions rather than surfing a dumpster. I try to accept loss rather than endlessly bemoan it. I’m not the man I used to be but I’m adding years of joy and meaning to my life by embracing the man I am now.

How one looks at aging makes an enormous difference. If you think you can stem the creep of time with a Photoshop program you haven’t read the last chapter of Dorian Gray. It’s an ugly demise. On the other hand, if you see your years as an elder as a time to present yourself to the world without artifice, faithful to your authentic identity regardless of the situation, your biography will add many exciting chapters.

I spent more than half my life adapting to societal pressures and changing family boundaries. The responsibilities I took on in response to the realities of life sometimes made it difficult to let my true voice emerge. But now I don’t have to compromise in order to be on the popular side of an issue. If what it takes to belong is not fully in sync with whom I truly am, I listen to my inner voice and skip the meeting. I’m not suggesting ignoring what others are saying; you may learn something by listening. But trust your own opinions.

As I moved farther away from the trees and the forest came into view, this is what I learned. For the blunders of the past – ignoring the consequences of unbridled ambition; negotiating love as quid pro quo transactions – forgive yourself. If forgiveness doesn’t come easy, take the path of redemption and live with unwavering integrity. In time, you’ll leave the past behind.
Accept the impasses that can’t be bridged. If the loggerhead with your wife, husband, son, daughter or friend can’t be resolved, have the Reinhold Niebuhr serenity prayer tattooed on the palms of your hands as a perpetual crib sheet.

Mourn your losses, and move on. It’s appropriate to take time out and heal when the wound is deep, but the flow of life is inexorable and too long as a spectator watching the world go by is missing the fun. Even grief has a time frame.

Move from rationalizing the status quo to committing to a plan for change. Give it a try. If you mess up, so what? Inherent to trying is the possibility of failing and that’s where the learning comes from; next time you’ll do better. And besides, there’s a perk to being retired; you’re not going to get fired.

I’m Not Rappaport

Here’s an excerpt from I’m Not Rappaport by Herb Gardner who was also the author of A Thousand Clowns. The speech is something of a rant by the character of Nat, an old man who is attempting to intimidate the tenant committee chairman Danforth to drop his plans to fire the aged and near-blind building superintendent, his friend Midge Carter.  He makes an eloquent stand for the value of old people. It’s a fantastic piece of writing. Nat begins as Danforth has tried to excuse himself from this inhumane treatment of Midge, claiming it is a Committee decision, not his own. Nat claims to represent HURTSFOE, the Human Rights Task Force of Midge’s union that, of course, doesn’t exist.

(To Danforth) I’m sorry, the  spotlight falls on you because it must.  Because you are so extraordinarily ordinary, because there are so many of you lately. You collect old furniture, old cars, old pictures, everything old but old people. Bad souvenirs, they talk too much. Even quiet, they tell you too much; they look like the future and you don’t want to know. Who are these people, these oldies, this strange race? They’re not my type, put them with their own kind, a building, a town, put them someplace. (Leans toward him) You idiots, don’t you know? One day you too will join this weird tribe. Yes, Mr. Chairman, you too will get old; I hate to break the news. And if you’re frightened now, you’ll be terrified then.

The problem’s not that life is short but that it’s very long; so you better have a policy. Here we are. Look at us. We’re the coming attractions. And as long as you’re afraid of it, you’ll be afraid of us , you will want to hide us or make us hide from you. You’re dangerous. (Grips his arm urgently) You foolish bastards, don’t you understand? The old people, they’re the survivors, they know something, they haven’t just stayed late to ruin your party. The very old, they are miracles like the new-born; close to the end is precious like close to the beginning. What you’d like is for Carter to be nice and cute and quiet and go away. But he won’t. I won’t let him. Tell him he’s slow or stupid –O.K. – but you tell him he is unnecessary, and that is a sin, that is a sin against life, that is abortion at the other end. (Silence. Nat studies him for a moment) HURTSFOE waits. The arena is booked, the lions are hungry …

– Judd Hirsch and Cleavon Little in the 1985 production of I’m Not Rappaport. (Playbill)

You might also enjoy this short clip from the 1996 film version with Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis.

The gusts of sadness that come out of nowhere

It hits me at the most unexpected of times… at the public pool proudly watching my granddaughter mustering up the courage to jump off the high dive… at a sidewalk café when the glow of a fading twilight peeks past a cloud and backlights my wife’s face in a halo of gold… at the wedding of a friend’s daughter as she looks lovingly into the eyes of her betrothed and recites the vows she has written.

I am flushed with sheer joy, when suddenly, without warning, tears steeped in utter sadness wet my cheeks.

I know what is behind this yin and yang. As I open my heart to embracing the rapture of life I can’t close my eyes to its unalterable transience. Accepting this reality is the gift and the millstone of growing older.

When my granddaughter jumps into my arms yelling “Papa, Papa,” my breath is washed with pure oxygen, enhancing my capacity to love tenfold. But there is no escaping what is inexorable: Life and Death oppose each other and contain each other, each complementing the other.

I make a choice. I can be in the present moment, fully appreciative of an instant of time that has touched me deeply; or absorbed in the thrall of melancholy grieving for a future moment that I will never know.

I decide to be cheerful or to be sad. You would think the choice is a no-brainer. Oddly enough, it is not so cut and dried. Although more often than not I opt for the exhilaration of the heartfelt moment, there is something seductive about sinking into the gentle sadness of the ‘pathos of things.’

Because I know the moment is fleeting, my appreciation of its significance is enhanced. But at the same time, I feel sadness at how quickly the actual experience becomes an anecdote of memory. The sadness deepens knowing that the transient moment is a reminder that life itself is impermanent.

The Japanese call this Mono no aware: an awareness that the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing.

I’ve come to accept the gusts of sadness that come out of nowhere. When tears accompany the feelings I try to find the source of the grief they speak to, uncovering the unresolved issues of the past. It’s helpful for me to do that because I know that putting to rest whatever remains unsettled from my past will ease my trepidation about what is to come.

Democracy: Leonard Cohen

We mourn the loss of our great poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, of whose life we will post an appreciation in coming days. For now, given the darkness that has descended on our body politic, it feels most appropriate to remember his words on the source and force and spirit of democracy.

Here is the link to Cohen’s performance of  “Democracy” along with the lyrics. Rest in peace, brother. And thank you forever for this reminder.

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
Oh mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the Squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on
It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on
I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
As time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
To the USA