Is Twenty-Seven Old?

At some point in the interesting new movie Frances Ha someone declares: “Twenty-seven is old.” In his enthusiastic review film critic A.O. Scott observes: “while that may in some sense be true, it is also true that 27 is not as old as it used to be. A few short generations ago members of the American middle class could be expected to reach that age in possession of a career, a spouse and at least one child, unless they were rock stars, in which case they would be dead.”

I don’t know whether Scott was referring to his generation or his mother’s (his mother’s, since I know his mother, the amazing Joan Scott, would be mine), or further back in time. But it got me thinking. Did I consider myself old at twenty-seven?

nancy27I turned twenty-seven in 1968, when this photograph was taken. I had been back living in New York after spending a good chunk of my twenties in Paris. That’s the story of my new memoir. The haircut, which didn’t last long, was the sign of my continued fascination with Jean Seberg and the movie Breathless, the cultural artifact that presides over my memoir. My curly hair even straightened and cut to an inch of its life refused to cooperate.

In 1968 I had neither a career, a spouse, nor a child; I considered myself lucky to have a new cool boyfriend (who took this picture), a goddaughter―the daughter of my Paris roommate―and, not least, to be starting graduate school at Columbia.

Annabel057My lovely goddaughter Annabel in Nice. My hair back to normal.

Above all, it was 1968, and even if I had managed to miss the student revolts both in Paris and New York, it was clear that something new was happening for young people. But I would also have to say that I did feel old, in part because I was older than my graduate school cohort; in part because I felt that I had drifted through the first half of my twenties and had little to show for it. (OK, I had survived a bad marriage, but still.) I was kind of embarrassed to be twenty-seven and still in school, still getting bailed out financially by my parents from time to time—what Scott refers to as the “quarter-life crisis.”

Despite his references to generations, Scott does not see this movie as primarily about a generation, but rather, and I agree, the story of Frances’s journey to the shot in the final scene that gives the movie its title (to explain that, the sweetest image of the film would definitely be a spoiler), and makes twenty-seven seem more exciting about what is to come than weary from the mishaps leading up to that moment.

Another reviewer calls Frances Ha “the best film that will be made about this generation,” by which he means “people in their late twenties right about now,” but I’m not at all sure that this is a generational movie, even if there are plenty of cultural markers pointing in that direction—Brooklyn, for one, the Brooklyn already memorialized by Girls.  

Maybe the better question would be: what does it feel like to be twenty-seven when you are a girl—a young woman with ambitions not yet fulfilled—in 2013 or 1968? I’m not sure it’s all that different. Moreover, it’s a story we’ve not seen, read, or heard enough about despite the fact that this is 2013 and not 1968.

Now that I have not been twenty-seven for a very long time, I’m absolutely sure that twenty-seven is young.

 

Transitions

“It’s not the moves, it’s between the moves.” This was one of those offhand remarks that has stuck in my mind for at least twenty years. I remember the person who said it―an old friend (actually one of the oldest since we met in junior high) the artist Mimi Gross–but I can’t remember the context. Mimi always had a way with those deceptively simple life maxims and this one has proven true on many occasions. I’m between moves―literally―returning from Bogliasco, getting ready to leave for London―and with my writing. But more than the task of repacking what I just unpacked, I have to push myself to get myself going on the work front: to finish proofreading the first pages of my memoir and to begin work on my friendship project (aka my feminist friendship archive). I know I will enjoy the next installment of writing, just as I know I will love being in London again. And yet I’m not moving. I’m on the verge, peering over the edge.

sparrowYesterday morning I woke to hear the frantic cheeping of what turned out to be a tiny sparrow apparently glued to the windowsill outside my bedroom window. For the better part of an hour, I watched the tiny bird look down, hop around itself, ruffle its feathers, receive the visit of a fearless fellow sparrow who would pop in now and then―possibly to share a bit of food, and take off again, doing what comes naturally. But why did my bird stay put? (As always, in these musings, I do not hope for hope for any kind of expertise when it comes to flowers, animals, birds, or indeed anything in nature. I’m just interested in the metaphorical potential of what the outside world provides.) Why would this bird not take the plunge? Fear of heights? A bird? Nothing made sense. And yet ultimately, the sparrow vanished.

So why am I stalled here neither completing the task at hand, nor proceeding to the next? Why am I stuck between the moves at the windowsill of my desk? After all, like the sparrow, I got myself where I am, it’s time to get myself going, get a move on, do what I know what to do. But I don’t seem to be moving.

My friend Carolyn Heilbrun, who like Mimi Gross, loved maxims as explanations for life’s difficult passages, would say on occasions like this, you have to wait for the well to fill up. So maybe, I’m not just stuck, I’m simply waiting.

One more Mimi-ism. This one I can date because the sentence is inscribed at the bottom of a woodcut she made in 1956. “Friends can last forever even if they don’t see each other―if they are friends.” That would be our case. We rarely see each other, but when we do, there is exactly that sense of something still in place―an affinity we call friendship. And if I were smart, I’d put that in my book.

Am I still that person?

A few weeks ago, my friend and former jogging partner Ellen Sweet sent me this snapshot that she had just discovered while scanning old photographs into her computer. I remembered the picture, and I may even have a copy of it somewhere, but it was something of a shock to see it illuminated on my computer screen. The shot probably dates from the early 1980s when I had first started running along with half of Manhattan. From the beginning Ellen and I challenged ourselves by entering races in Central Park– races for women only, which this image seems to memorialize. (I should say for the record that Ellen, thinner and lighter, always ran faster than I did.)  I think my personal best  was a 10 and one half minute mile. A person could well walk faster than that! Still, we were quite faithful about our practice, running almost every morning, usually around the reservoir in Central Park (before it was cleaned up and named after Jackie Kennedy). I never imagined stopping. Ellen still hasn’t.

Ellen and Nancy race

 

Somewhere around the time of the new millennium, knee problems forced me first to have an arthroscopy and then, since the surgery didn’t accomplish much, to stop running altogether. I joined a gym and switched to machines. More recently, bored with the gym, its tv screens and spandex bodies, I’ve mainly been walking. But now my same knee is back causing problems, and I’ve been making the rounds of doctors, x rays, mris, and relearning words like meniscus and patella. Tears, not the kind you shed. When I called the first orthopedist recommended to me, the secretary, after asking for my date of birth, told me that I was too old to see this particular doctor, who specialized in sports medicine. So in case I hadn’t noticed, I have officially entered the stage of geriatric medicine. The senior card for the subway is one thing; being rejected by a doctor for being too old is another.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering, not least as a memoirist. Am I still the person in the picture who jogged around the Central Park reservoir, exchanging profundities with Ellen? Also kvetching. The problem goes well beyond this particular picture―from only, let’s say, 30 years ago. The ache in my left knee suggests a connection, but what about the girl in my new memoir? The girl I supposedly was 50 years ago? I’m committed to recreating the past as faithfully as possible, and I do remember 98% of what I’ve written, especially because I have the letters I wrote home to my parents then. Setting aside whatever I might have lied about in those letters, or, more likely, omitted, do I remember “me”? Oddly, my friend seems “the same.”

GirlParisPaula

It’s easy enough to see the differences―I had dark hair, wore contact lenses not glasses, and was at least ten pounds thinner. For me, though, the challenge as a writer is to find a way back into the feelings of that person: the jogging woman who had just lost her mother, a “never-smoker,” as they say now, to lung cancer, and stopped smoking; and the girl who dreamed of being an ex-pat so that she could smoke her way into Left Bank sophistication, stroll down the streets of the Latin Quarter, and try to look like an existentialist? Do I want to remember that girl, that woman, to reexperience those past emotions, many of which were a lot more painful than my injured knee?

That’s what I’ll be asking myself when I sit down with my “first pages” of my Paris memoir, pages to which I’m not supposed to be making mere “cosmetic changes,” when I’ll choose the version I am strong enough to remember.

Brooding

duck

One morning last week when I was walking around the reservoir in Central Park with a friend we came upon these two ducks. The sight stopped us in our tracks. It was slightly odd to see a duck on the jogging track, but this tableau was indeed quite strange since there were two ducks and a single, solitary egg looking abandoned on the other side of the fence quite unattended. What were the ducks doing there? Were they incubating, or, great word, brooding? Why was the egg being neglected?

Based on my cursory reaserch in Wikipedia it might be that the green-headed, yellow-beaked duck was a male–males being more colorful–and the speckled duck, the female. Was the putative mother duck sitting on other eggs? Were these two even a pair? Ducks, according to the same source, are “generally monogamous, though these bonds generally last a single year only.” If my friend and I were to return next week, would the duo still be sitting there?

Walking home I realized that when I heard or used the expression “sitting duck” I never actually pictured a duck. Now, there’s no way I will ever use the expression again without seeing that particular duck sitting on the jogging path.

So much for ducks.

Ever since I’ve returned from Italy, I’ve been brooding, incubating an idea, a useful idea, I hope, about what I’ve been calling my friendship project. Sitting in my my aerie (aka my study) at the Bogliasco Foundation, I suddenly saw that I had entangled two strands of thought that should have been kept separate, or at least distinguished from each other. One line of thought has to do with the elegiac friendship memoir, understanding how it works as a subgenre: a narrative that tells the story of the dead friend. This would complete the collection of my essays on autobiography that I hope to bring out in the near future. The other has to do with elaborating a memoir of my own that will entail revisiting, as it were, my particular dead friends. Naturally, there is overlap in theme but the two projects will be quite different. The academic essays will present an argument about “horizontal” relations between people of the same generation, as distinct from the “vertical” relations with parents. The dead friends book will be a mixed form in which I won’t argue, but rather try to recreate a person, a historical moment, and, above all, a complex set of confusing emotions.

But am I working on either of these projected books, writing any part of them, even though I’m still (for a few more weeks) on sabbatical? No, I’m still incubating my ideas, a euphemistic way of saying that I’m procrastinating.

I’m not ready to write because I’m brooding. I’ve come to recognize that my “dead friends” are not completely dead to me. They live in my dreams, where they talk to me, sometimes in disturbing ways, and the dreams change, even challenge my memory–but not only in dreams. In my waking life conversations, events, books, also change my memory, shift my vision of the friend, or bring back forgotten episodes from the past with their baggage of feeling.

For example. Monday I went to a beautiful memorial service for the feminist editor Mary Thom, who died tragically in a motorcycle accident.

I did not know Mary very well, but I did know her, certainly enough to know how much her motorcycle meant to her, to the shape of her life. When I learned of her death, I immediately recalled that Mary had served as the inspiration for a character that my friend the writer Carolyn Heilbrun had created as Amanda Cross, in one of her detective novels, Honest Doubt.

567029What I remembered was an argument Carolyn and I had had over dinner (sushi, to be precise), soon after the book came out, about the number of times the word “fat” emerged in relation to the first-person narrator of Honest Doubt known as “Woody,” a newly created fictional private investigator. At one point Woody talks to Kate Fansler–Amanda Cross’s gorgeous, pencil thin detective in the other novels–about what being fat means to her, especially as a P.I. “I guess I really wanted her to understand how I felt about this fat stuff,” Woody says. And she goes on to explain her attitude: “Being fat’s been a lot of use to me. You can believe that. It’s gotten me confidences I’d never have had otherwise. But I don’t see why thin has to be a qualification for looking down on others, the way white used to be. I’ve made it a kind of crusade.”

When I read this passage I couldn’t help thinking that Woody sounded almost exactly like Carolyn, who often talked and wrote what it meant to be a fat woman. It was one of her topics. When we discussed the book over dinner, I asked Carolyn why, if she didn’t mind being fat (which she always said she didn’t), did she bring it into the novel so repeatedly? Mildly irritated by my literary faux pas (confusing author with narrator), Carolyn answered that Woody was not a self-portrayal (duh, though Carolyn, of course, would not have said duh) but a fictional character, and if I really had to know, modeled on Mary Thom because she wanted her new detective to get around on a motorcycle, and Mary happened to be fat. The conversation came back to me very clearly when I read the news in the Times.

Toward the end of the memorial, when many friends of Mary had shared their memories, a journalist, Betsy Wade, described having made a trip with Mary Thom, Carolyn, and another woman, to a rugged setting somewhere on the West coast. She said that Mary Thom and Heilbrun, as Wade referred to her, chose not to climb the mountain they had come to climb, but rather to stay put at the bottom, walking and talking for hours (probably about Gloria Steinem whose biography Carolyn was writing at the time). When the novel came out, Wade said, she asked Carolyn whether Mary Thom was the model for Woody. Heilbrun waved her off, saying she couldn’t explain the creative process. That sounded very Carolyn.

I had not expected to hear the anecdote and it brought back vividly the conversations Carolyn and I had every week, almost until her death. We sometimes quarreled, but we both always came back for more.

The story sent me back to the novel, which was published in fall 2000. Carolyn killed herself almost exactly three years later in fall 2003. The book is inscribed to me and signed: Amanda. The inscription evokes our friendship in ways that I confess I took somewhat for granted then. The anecdote told at the memorial had to do with Mary, but what I heard was all about Carolyn. It was amusing and rang true: I could see Carolyn preferring to talk intimately rather than indulge in needless exertion as part of a group effort. But the effect of the story on me was not that: it was to return me to the painful conundrum of those last years, and what, as a friend then I missed, even as I miss her now.

Reading the signs of spring in Manhattan

I’ve been trying to decide whether my negative feelings about being back in New York after a month at sea, well, by the sea, should be described as churlish, curmudgeonly, or cantankerous―there’s a lot of overlap, of course. I’m thinking that cantankerous comes closest. There’s also carping―why so many c’s, I wonder. Anyway, this will be my last post for now in the series of (well, OK, there are some good–interesting, beautiful, weird) things about New York, especially now that the weather is beautiful and spring is literally bursting out all over, that remind me why, all these years later, I still live here.

I’ll start with beautiful:

flowers2
On the sidewalks of the Upper West Side, I stop to contemplate the less dazzling but quite charming multi-colored petunias–oops, I think they may be pansies–that the residents fond of trees plant and then try to protect from dogs (usually unsuccessfully). I’m touched by the botanical effort to cheer us up. (What I know about flowers could be put in a flower pot. A small one.) Anyway, if you want to know why “the recession can’t stop the flowers from blooming,” check out the report on the phenonemon.

flowersb

I’m trying a new yoga class at a different gym. This particular class is the kind of yoga called “Anusara” that I have done in the past―elsewhere. One of the things that drives me crazy about anusara is that the teacher begins each class not only with a chant in Sanskrit (I will not chant in Sanskrit, even though I know that what is being said is not offensive―something about our inner light), and I hum “om” since it embarrasses me to sing “om” in a group―but with a theme. So today the theme had to do with spring, and how when we look at the flowers blooming around us and realize that soon they won’t be blooming, and then feel sad, we are making a philosophical error. That is: when we perceive beauty―flowers, for instance―we think the beauty is in the flowers but in fact (fact?) the beauty is just a reflection of the joy in ourselves, in our capacity to perceive beauty. Hmm…I thought about myself looking at the tulips and the pansies and I was sorry to say that I did not think that the beauty was in me, certainly not joy. And yet I had to say there was something sweet, vaguely Platonic, about this idea. Definitely an optimistic view, if not, for me believable. Fortunately, the actual practice of anusara is quite wonderful, and I like this teacher. I am even grateful to her because I am returning to yoga after  a long hiatus because of my illness. And, and I would have to admit that when I struggle with the poses―my joints complain loudly―I can tell that the practice exists somewhere in me.

What about New York is unusual? One of the things is the amount of time we spend standing on line (I know most people say standing in line, but New Yorkers don’t). I caught two surprising lines this week. I could not figure out why the people (mainly young men) with backpacks and computers were lined up near Fifth Avenue and 40th Street in the morning. What were they waiting for? When I reached the corner I saw that they were waiting to enter the Mid-Manhattan library that opens at 10 a.m. There have been lots of debates about the future of this popular branch of the NYPL system, and the line seemed to me proof that the library was needed, and should not be dismantled in the name of some hollow sounding progress. Maybe this article about help for veterans explains the unusual mission fulfilled by the branch, across the street from the flagship, as it is called.

And then, the first mystery solved, this line of young women, studying their cell phones, lined up on a side street in the garment district:

linesyes

They are waiting, the sign says, to take a class of Bikram or “hot” yoga…(I did try that once or twice–definitely not for me, even though it promises weight loss).

What always makes me pause when I’m walking in the city is the the cliché, but nevertheless poignant in its effects, the proliferation of contrasts–in scale and style–which to me is at the heart of why New York remains an always surprising place:

For instance, last weekend, my friend Victoria’s son Judah, playing the cello in a group recital at his Upper East Side music school. The beautifully dressed and absolutely adorable children―some of whom looked like toddlers with miniature violins―all performed with concentration and seriousness (hard to evaluate talent at this point…) Note Judah’s signature bow tie.

music

And then, across the park, on my way home, I came upon (their sounds preceded them) this youthful orchestra, composed of middle school students from Manhattan, playing on 94th street between Broadway and West End Avenue. The members of the Roy H Mann band sounded great, loud, brassy, and full of life, and I hoped that their capacity to make music would bring them into bright futures. Why this group was performing for a Russian cultural festival is not entirely clear to me.

The performance did not benefit from a glamorous or elegant setting―around the corner from where I live, a neighborhood that’s a study in contrasts itself―but it was beautifully alive with the sounds of music.

Perhaps the music was also alive in me.