The perils of pencils

It’s been impossible not to follow and mourn the crisis in Paris. The attacks have compelled as much attention as the events of 9/11, when we were glued, worldwide, to television and Internet reports.

The crisis also brought to mind the violence in Paris emerging from the Algerian struggle for independence in the early sixties: on the one hand, the right-wing O.A.S. bombings of Sartre’s apartment; on the other, the massacre that took place October 17, 1961, of a large―and still debated number–of pro-Algeria demonstrators among the French, some of whom died being thrown into the Seine, after having been beaten by police.

I was living in Paris then, a politically unconscious twenty-year old, dimly aware of what was happening around me, but too self-absorbed to draw meaning from the history I was living, the bodies in the river.

by Ruben L. Oppenheimer, Image from twitter, @RLOppenheimer

by Ruben L. Oppenheimer, Image from twitter, @RLOppenheimer

Among the cartoons that have flourished since the attack on the artists of Charlie Hebdo, one stands out for me as linking the contemporary Paris horror to 9/11 in mute perfection: the drawing by Dutch cartoonist Ruben L. Oppenheimer. The image has also been circulated on Twitter. I want to share it here in solidarity with and admiration for all who cherish their pencils―at any cost.

By the numbers…

I’ll be staying with a friend for a few days in Paris later this summer. To thank her for her hospitality I decided to treat her to dinner at a Michelin rated three-star restaurant (where three is the maximum accolade). My first choice for over-the-top insanely wonderful (and expensive) food in a luxurious (but understated) atmosphere was Taillevent, a restaurant I’ve eaten at a few times over the years, always with great pleasure. I was shocked to learn that the restaurant had lost one of its precious stars in 2007. I was not only disappointed but also embarrassed to be so out of date. My second shock was to discover (how could I have forgotten) that the annual August closing of restaurants often begins in July. So, no Taillevent. On to the next. My next choice was Arpège, where I’ve never been, but has had dithyrambic reviews (and 3 stars) for as long as I can remember reading restaurant reviews. I was shocked (I’m easily shocked) that diners―on a separate ranking system–had given the three-star restaurant only 4 stars out of 5. And some positively hated the place. I’m waiting to hear back from them, though I suspect that they too will begin August on July 28―the last day I will be in Paris.

What does it mean that enough diners felt they did not have a 5-star experience in a 3-star restaurant? Or that they had a bad enough experience to bring the rating down to 4? Is it the restaurant or the eaters? Or the unpredictable encounter of an eater and her food? (Décor and service are part of the 3 stars, and how can one rank those except by “liking?” Pace de gustibus.)

Law-of-Large-Numbers-1024x640Anyway, I immediately and myopically analogized these restaurant rankings to Amazon rankings. My recent memoir has just lost ½ a star, down from 4 and ½ to 4. The readers who hate the book (or me) have dragged down the  readers who are fans from 5-4. I don’t know how the folk at Taillevent feel about their demotion, but I am vexed. I survived the review process at Kirkus and Publishers Weekly only to be demoted by a bored or irritated reader. And yet the readers who were not amused end up in a position to influence negatively any future reader. It makes no difference what the grouchy reader’s/eater’s palette is, the numbers―the stars―occupy the high ground.

Why does this bother me so much, beyond any author’s narcissistic pride?

The numbers and the stars always bring me back to a childhood memory. It’s specific but also unverifiable as so many childhood memories are. I must have been seven or eight―at whatever age girls (in that era) began to compare ourselves to other girls and figure out who is pretty and who is not. Mirror mirror on the wall.

One day, feeling that I was not as pretty as the popular girls in my class, I asked my father (the family consoler) whether I was pretty. My father hesitated and then answered with lawyerly precision: “Well, you are prettier than six out of nine girls.” I can still remember trying to figure out what those numbers meant. I could tell, but I already knew, that he meant that I was not the prettiest. He was trying to say, I thought then and still do now that he wanted to say that I was OK―neither the best nor the worst, somewhere in the middle. Six out of nine?

More and more our lives are ruled by numbers and not just metrics of appearance.
How many Facebook friends? How many Twitter followers?

I’m beyond old enough to know how dumb it is to count happiness by numbers. But I still do it.

Where were you when you learned that President Kennedy was shot?

What does a memoirist really remember? Mortifying to confess, I remember where I was when I heard the news of the event in relation to my love life. That was the main event when I was twenty-two.

In November 1963 I was living in Paris, and teaching American English in a ée for girls. The night I heard the news on the radio, I was waiting in my maid’s room for a man I had just started dating to arrive. When he did, we went out to an Irish bar to watch the news on television. I reported the French coverage in a letter to my parents the next day.

handwriting     I hadn’t had time to send my letter when the news of Kennedy’s assassination came over the radio. I was able to follow the reports from the first “flash” to the confirmation of his death. Today the radio has not ceased to talk, speculate, and lament. Even the vegetable sellers are upset and talking about it.
     I myself was completely overwhelmed and I shudder to think of what will happen in the next elections. Please keep all documentation that appears on the subject.

 

I continued a few days later in my girl-reporter mode.

     There was complete (radio, tv, newspaper) coverage here. People were stunned and heartbroken. Everyone seemed to have admired, and more, liked Kennedy, finding him “jeune et sympathique.” We talked about it in my lycée classes, and my kids seemed quite impressed. Different people came and expressed their sympathy and shock to me. Over here the main questions were: how could the protection of a president be so inefficient? And, what was going on in the Dallas police force (i.e. police and Ruby? police and FBI?) I and everyone here were especially disgusted by the violence of the whole thing, and could not understand how such important things could get so out of hand. There still is no explanation and I wonder if there ever will be.

KennedyI had been living in Paris for three years without going home, and working very hard on becoming an expatriate. The fact that I was on the verge of falling in love with an American expatriate made that dream even more irresistible. The man, whom I was to marry two years later, was Irish American. As a nice Jewish girl from Manhattan I knew that an Irish American Catholic from Boston was not what my parents would consider husband material. Even I had my doubts at the beginning. Looking back it now seems to me that the prestige and glamour of Kennedy in France―with his Irish and Boston Irish origins―insidiously made my choice more acceptable, less foreign, in my eyes, at least, if not theirs. Still, in the second letter about the assassination, I introduced them on paper to the person I now call Jim Donovan.

It’s hard, if not impossible for me to separate in memory what I felt about the event from the French fascination with Kennedy (and Jackie) in which I experienced it; it’s even harder for me to sever the connection between my incipient love story, the failure of the marriage to which it led, and the shock of what seemed unthinkable. In my mind, the two tracks of memory are intimately linked.

The replays of the moment on television bring everyone back there, even those by definition too young to remember. The spectacle of the shooting and other now iconic images of the scene, not least Jackie Kennedy’s bloodied pink suit, John John’s salute, and Caroline’s little blue-coated, blonde girl adorableness become instantly familiar, instantly part of collective memory. All of us will connect learning of the event with some aspect of their personal life―hence the “where were you when?” In that sense, my memories are no more significant than belated ones, despite the fact that this happened in my lifetime. That’s how, I think, we remember, where we were when. In more than one way, political memory is always also personal.

COUNTDOWN TO PUBLICATION: Breathless Is Out! Read Chapter One Today. (Please?)

This my fourth and final Countdown to Publication. Wish me luck.

It’s even in two bookstores in Brooklyn. For the first time in my life (as a Manhattanite), I wish I lived in Brooklyn. I’d love to walk by a bookstore window and see my book lined up in the company of other books. A paper object to hold and touch that someone might choose to pick off the shelf and read. This is not the first time for me—the first was Getting Personal way back in the twentieth century—but it’s the first time in the twenty-first, and the thrill is the same.

booksnbooks

After weeks (or is it months?) of platforming–let’s call it what it feels like, masochistic groveling—the book is launched into the great marketplace. Was all the efforting (this is actually a term from yoga!) worth it?  I don’t know, maybe I’ll never know. But I do know I am thrilled that the book can speak for itself at last. I hope you will like what it has to say — and consider buying it, sharing it, and helping me tell the world. And don’t worry, it doesn’t start out slow. Chapter One is short, but there’s sex, there’s Schubert, and of course, there is Paris.

 

COUNTDOWN: “Is it you?”

This is the third installment of my “countdown to publication” for the members of shewrites.com

A few months ago, I showed the book jacket of my forthcoming memoir to a friend. This was a woman about my age, maybe a bit younger, a person and writer I admire but only know slightly. “You were pretty,” she said, with an air of perplexity. What did this mean, exactly, I wondered? That she found it hard to believe that the woman sitting across from her at a café table had ever looked good? If that was really me, my face had undergone a long decline. She must think I look awful, I decided. “Oh well,” I said, “it was a long time ago,” joining her disbelief in a gesture of wounded politesse.
Maybe putting one’s ingénue face on a memoir cover is a dangerous activity, dangerous to one’s vanity, it seems. But who would want to look at my face now, as I look back over my twenty-something life? Certainly not me. Better to run the risk of retrospective narcissism.
There are three photographs of me from my early days in Paris in the book: the cover, that was a street photo of me walking along the quais of the Seine; my passport picture; and another street photo, of me walking on the Boulevard St-Michel with my roommate. To me the pictures are there in order to document my narrative: yes, I lived there, and to me the girl I looked like then is important to the story. I was an American girl—in some ways generic—but I was also that American girl. A French major, a nice Jewish girl from New York, a girl who wanted above all to be happy, although she did not seem to have much of a talent for happiness, but was ready for any adventure.

envelopeThe photographs document a moment, a moment past that certainly was, but if I only had had my snapshot album, I would not have been able to write the memoir. True, the images dated the change of boyfriend, the change of hairdo and hemline, but something crucial was lacking—but, as it turned out, miraculously available to me, something written: a cache of letters that I had sent home from my first day in Paris to my last. In the beginning, the weekly report was my parents’ particular pound of flesh—write a letter or we won’t send you any money (I was always broke). But after a while, the letter production became a habit. It was easier for me to write than to have them send me telegrams asking what was wrong. It was another era, when parents were unwilling to let girls be free and on their own.
Many, many years later, after my parents died, when I emptied the apartment I found the letters in my mother’s underwear drawer. They were bundled in chronological order, and occasionally, my father had included drafts of his letters (mainly of threats and condemnation). The letters were a gold mine of information—and misinformation. I could still remember what I had lied about. But even the letters were not enough. Yes, they gave me names and dates, but was I really in love with my husband to be, little dreaming I was about to marry a con man? “I’m really, really in love,” I wrote.
It’s hard to measure feelings fifty years later, not to mention recapture them.
And yet that is truly the challenge of memoir: to sort and sift through photographs and whatever documents remain, and try somehow to get back there in memory. It’s not only memory, of course. There’s the task of finding the story line that makes sense of each point of remembrance and holds them together in a coherent pattern, a narrative that feels like the truth. Have I found that?
I’m not sure, but I know that I never stopped asking: Was that me?

What’s in a name?

A few days ago I received an email from a high school friend I haven’t seen for many years. She said that on a recent trip to Paris she saw someone who looked like me and almost called out the name I was known by in high school: Kip. Kip was the first half of my father’s name (Kipnis) and I thought it far preferable to my boring first name, even when shared by the popular girl detective Nancy Drew, whose adventures I had adored.

nancybirthcertif

What’s in a name? I gave up “Kip” when I became enamored of France and all things French. The name in French sounded like “keep” in English, and since Nancy was the name of a French city, I thought that would keep things simple. Besides, French men seemed to find the name masculine, the last thing I wanted to seem at the time.

It was strange to think that the person called “Kip” still existed in the memory of my friend, whose name happened to be Nancy. I found myself wondering whether that person still existed in me, and whether I knew her.

What happens to all the people we’ve been under our various names?

If as the theory goes, autobiography is the story of one’s proper name, the sequence of my names do offer a kind of narrative: my childhood name, Nancy Louise (after my father Louis), my horrible summer camp nickname, Curly (I shudder to recall, but I guess I accepted the moniker that emphasized the negative―my hair–the better to fit in with all the straight-haired girls); my so-called maiden name, my hyphenated first married name, and now my chosen (other side of the family) name, which, as it turns out, has its own miserable legacy. So now I have a name so common that last weekend I had to sign three documents stating that I wasn’t the Nancy Miller whose name figured on three “judgments,” when we sold our house. My names as infant, camper, high school girl, college student, married woman, divorced woman, graduate student, professor, writer, map the lineaments of a feminist autobiography. In my new memoir, though, Kip does not appear―or reappear―and I think I know why. The stories that attach to Kip are mainly stories I would be too embarrassed to tell. I’ve chosen to exclude them from the memoir along with the humiliations of my teenaged self, a self I would rather forget.

My friend’s email, however, made me think that Kip Miller would be a great name to have today, that its gender ambiguity felt freeing and pleasing. But I fear that it is too late to change my name again―first or last–especially now that my signature exists in print.

So maybe I’ll adopt Kip Miller as a pseudonym and start over in late life. Who knows what new person might emerge?

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.

 

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.

January in Paris, Scene 2: Revisiting the Sorbonne

Like most foreigners, I was required to take classes at the Sorbonne, a short walk from the Foyer. I was incredibly excited, as I took my seat in the huge amphitheatre for my assigned course on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the celebrated 18th –century novel in letters about seduction and betrayal.

sorbonneGiven the pedigree of the Sorbonne (founded in the 13th century), I expected to be instantly transported to sublime spheres of erudition.

That part was true, but sadly, the famous professor stood at the podium and read his lectures, never looking up to notice that most of the students were nodding off. Despite the boredom, I didn’t give up on the novel itself, which I took to heart, occasionally imagining myself as an 18th-century marquise. That never quite worked out.

Returning on this trip to take a snapshot of the famous courtyard, the scene of the student riots in May ’68, I was disappointed to find it closed to the public because of travaux. But standing on La Place de la Sorbonne, the thrill of crossing the threshold came back unbidden.

In Search of Lost Time: Checking A Memoirist’s Memory

Paris in January is not anyone’s dream vacation: skies are permanently gray and you have to carry an umbrella. It seems particularly ill timed unless you are there for les soldes, the fabulous sales (which I managed to miss). So why did I go to Paris right after New Year’s? As I embarked on the penultimate revision of the memoir, I wanted to see whether I could still feel what it was about the city that made me live there for six years when I was young—and then, with the passage of time, write about it. Did the place still resonate with me? Or had I made it all up?

I decided to make a pilgrimage to Le Foyer International des Etudiantes at 93 Boulevard St-Michel, where I lived during my first year in Paris. The Foyer was my belated introduction to dormitory life since I had lived (miserably) at home during my college years. Despite the fact that we had a 1 a.m. curfew, which meant you’d be locked out for the night if you missed it, the Foyer turned out to be a scene of freedom.

DORM-db

I was assigned a roommate, whom I call Monique in the memoir, and with whom I maintained a transatlantic friendship over the years. I often stayed in her apartment when I traveled back and forth to Paris after I had become a mere tourist and not a dug-in expat.

This January, I also stayed in the apartment, on a bed made up in the studio where she had written several books of art history. But it was not a reunion. My friend died of pancreatic cancer last year, and I slept in the room surrounded by her library, whose shelves were dotted with family photographs. The two rooms—our dorm room and her study—fused in my mind, as past filtered the present. Oddly, despite the decades that had passed, I felt reconnected to what we always called “l’année du foyer,” the year we lived together on Boulevard St-Michel, room 203, and never imagined being old.