Caution: Me in a Dark Mood

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about aging and death. Partly because I’ve got a character right now that needs to die and I’m not sure how. I don’t know. If I can’t figure out a decent way to kill him off, maybe he’ll live. The point is such problems set the mind in a certain direction.

The character I’m thinking about is sort of old, but it’s a period piece and he’s not as old as folk get today. That brings to mind another question. How old is old? When does old start? It’s not a state of mind, as people – typically ones getting older but still young – like to say. Once the aches and pains kick in on a daily basis, or a major organ requires meds, it’s dumb to decide you’re as young as you feel.

Age is like beauty – in the eyes of the beholder. I remember when I was in my mid forties, still looking really good, feeling strong. I spent the day with my niece who was then about seven. I was taking her to the ballet for the Nutcracker that night. She asked if she could do my hair for the evening. Alright, says I, game for whatever amused her.

Twenty minutes later I had all my hair pulled up tight to the top of my head and then fashioned into a knot. My niece said: There, Mary! Now you look like a movie star! You’ll look so great tonight!
It was, of course, a disaster. All I needed was a bone stuck through the top of my head to look like Bam-Bam Flintstone. I told Anna: No, no, no, no, no. I look old this way. Anna’s little face went quizzical. But, Mary! You are old!

So let’s take niece seven-year-old Anna’s assessment and make 45 the beginning of old. The next question is: When is old too old? That’s something my pragmatic, 92-year-old mother knows well. Whenever a health or environmental difficulty arrives on her doorstep, she says: Well, that’s what I get for living too long.

Which gives me pause.

When I was a kid, we were taught to pray for what the nuns called “a good death”. Even then, I couldn’t imagine what a good death was. Now, I think I know. It’s a death that comes before you’re too old or in chronic pain or dependent in a way you don’t like or when everyone else important to you has gone on before.

So I’ve decided to avoid the issue.

I have this age in mind, which, if I manage to achieve it, will signal the year I stop taking my meds. Every week, I’m going to buy a few cartons of cigarettes, two bottles of bourbon, a case of wine, and two pounds of butter. Every day, I’ll eat red meat and drink my coffee with heavy cream. My plan is to go the old fashioned way. One great noisy heart attack or swift silent massive stroke.

The age I’ve chosen is the same one Issac Bashevis Singer began to experience the first signs of dementia. He said, famously, that when he got up in the morning and could not remember the names of his characters from a work in progress his heart broke. It was the final blow. I can imagine what he meant.

My husband is a little offended by all this. He thinks I should stay alive as long as he breathes too. But he wants to live to be 110. As his mother is now 98 with a heart as strong as a lion’s, he stands a good chance. I’m reminded of Conrad when I envision 110: The horror, the horror.

I told my husband recently my definition of a good death was to die in one’s sleep. He scoffed at me. Nobody dies in their sleep, says he. It’s too big, too grand an event. Surely the mind comes alert and takes note of the occasion. No, they don’t die in their sleep, they die in the other guy’s sleep. The one that’s snoring next to.

He’s got a point. I guess I’m back to cigarettes, bourbon, and butter. There are worse ways to go. And the best part is, no matter when it is, even if it comes up and takes me by surprise tomorrow, no one will say: Oh, she died so young!

Quo Vadis, Author?

I had a tough week. It was all accounting. All numbers all the time from Tuesday on. My verbal brain went comatose. I’m trying to wake her up now and she’s at least stretching despite the leg cramps for which I think we all should applaud the old girl. But writerly discipline demands that I write. Only what?

I cast my voice upon the waters and my friend the wine critic, Felicity Carter, answered. Why don’t you write about genteel Charleston’s scandalous past, she suggested. Start with that barely plastered over giant phallus on Nina Liu’s Gallery on State Street, the home of a brothel for much of the first half of the 20th century. Then follow up with that story of the brothel owned in the early part of the 19th by the daughter of a cantor of the local synagogue. And I thought, well, geez, those aren’t bad tips.

Nina’s a pillar of Charleston’s art establishment, whose three storey art gallery features an eclectic range of contemporary art works. The way she tells it, it’s always been full of eclectic collections. Like the prostitute who was heard screaming in the middle of the day sometime in the 1940s as a sailor hung her by her hair out the window.

Now admittedly, if you had to be hung by your hair out the window, State Street’s not a bad street to be dangling over. It’s one of Charleston’s most beautiful with courtyard gardens and wrought iron fences galore and two blocks from the ocean to boot. Unfortunately, it’s a tough story to write about, because I never really found out why the sailor was so displeased. And Google as I might, I couldn’t confirm the cantor’s daughter story except in my memory, always a shaky thing.

Despair ensued.

So I decided to do what writers always do –make it up. Ahem. Here goes: The sailor dangled the whore out the window by her hair because he found out she was his long lost mother and was enraged that she’d trashed the family honor.

After I’d finished working out my non-existent history, I felt bad for a minute, thinking I should never fob my readers off with a fake story. Then I opened my PW Daily online and found an article by Laura Miller worth promoting. It’s about authors scamming social media by paying marketers to write false reviews. Apparently, such folk sabotage the honor, the decency of our anti-establishment People’s Internet, rendering the Internet review meaningless. Now, frankly, I thought this had already been accomplished by reviewers who give Jane Eyre one star and Angels and Demons five. My own view on the subject is one I got from bestselling author Lisa Alther, who told me that she never reads reviews because they reflect more about the reviewer than they do the work. But Ms Miller’s final paragraph captivated me. She cites Ewan Morrison in The Guardian:

(His) article is a lengthy and blistering indictment of the idea that authors, whether traditionally or self-published, can use social networking to sell their books. Maybe it worked once, he concedes, when the concept was new — say, two years ago — but by now the Kindle store alone has been flooded with 1.1 million new authors. The chance of making oneself heard over the Web-2.0 din is vanishingly slim, or just vanishing.

Eureka! I thought. If everything goes, including fraud, on the Internet, it doesn’t matter what I write today! I can write made-up history if I have to. What’s important is that I’m writing.

And after the writing comes the second part of my friend’s advice – the glass of wine. Here’s to you.