## Irrational Numbers: A Fable

by Lorne Taichman

One day in the Land of Numbers, Zero and Infinity were having an argument. Each one thought he was more vital to the world of mathematics.  Infinity boasted that he was the largest number in the universe and that none could compare to that.  Zero took a more modest approach.  Zero said that, although he was nothing to speak of, he held a lot of power.  Any number multiplied by zero would be zero and any number divided by zero would be infinity.  The argument went on for what seemed like an eternity till all the other numbers, One, Two, Three, Four and so on had had enough and decided to put an end to this bickering once and for all.  The entire series of numbers met, chose One to be the spokesperson and called Zero and Infinity to a large community meeting.  When everyone had settled down, One spoke: “I may be only a one but I am the basis of all numbers.  I am not the only one who is special.  Two can divide into any even number.  Three makes a beautiful triangle.  Four is a perfect square.  There are five fingers on a hand.  Every snowflake has six sides.  There are seven days in a week …” One continued on and on explaining the importance and beauty of every number until Zero and Infinity grew weary and called a halt to the proceedings.  “Enough!” they cried and stopped their arguing.  Peace reigned in the Land of Numbers ever after.

Moral:   Every number counts

The. assignment for this week’s IRP Writing Workshop was to write a fable.  The thought of combative numbers for a fable came to me out of the blue on a numbing subway ride home.

## Two Tales from the Barnyard

by Charles Troob

Thin Pig

Algernon was the pick of the litter, frisky and lithe, but even as an infant piglet he spent little time at his mother’s teat.   Later, as his siblings gathered around the swill buckets, he went hunting for heirloom grains–teff, quinoa, farro–and leafy greens. When Anastasia the sow fretted, Algy said to her, “Mom, I’m not scrawny, I’m svelte.”  He grew pink and lean.

A Department of Agriculture rep came to inspect the farm.  “Is that really a pig?” he asked.  “He looks like a seal with a snout and four trotters.”  When the farmer told him about Algernon’s finicky eating habits, the rep roared with laughter and sent a text to the White House nutrition initiative.

Algernon was sent on a series of inspirational visits to junior high schools.  A camera team gave him a screen test, and within a week Algy made a video with Miss Piggy, “Kisses sweeter than swine,” which went viral.  Simon Cowell assembled a new group, Portion Control:  Algernon was the lead, backed by a whippet and a ferret.  They were booked for Royal Albert Hall in Summer 2017.

Meanwhile, in between public appearances, Algernon went from farm to farm to tell other pigs that they would live longer if they kept the pounds off.  Anastasia warned him not to be reckless, but he was on a crusade.  One day an angry meatpacker fired an AK-47 at him and it was all over.   His soul ascended to hog heaven.  His carcass was donated to the Harvard School of Public Health.  His hide was tanned and made into a replica of the Deflategate football, and is now in the Smithsonian.

MORAL:  IF YOU MARCH TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER, EXPECT TO GO OUT IN A FLOURISH OF TRUMPETS

Why the Chicken Crossed the Road—Twice

At the age of six months, a plump little pullet, I proudly extruded my first eggs.  Hours later they were gone from my nest.  I asked old Henny Penny what had happened.  She snickered, “Hey, birdbrain, didn’t you know?  We’re industrial producers, not moms.”

I was devastated to learn the facts of chicken life. Still, I wanted to save my gene pool from the frying pan.  For that, there was no time like the present.  I ran to the far corner of the barnyard and squeezed through the fence.

With the farm behind my tail, I was facing a dusty road.  On its other side I saw tall grass and arching purple flowers.  Butterflies danced over the waving stalks.  A bright future beckoned.  I strutted across the ruts and gravel, and slithered into the meadow.  The air was suffused with heavenly scents, not chicken shit.

I was in paradise–until snack time.  It took forever to dig up a worm.  There was nothing to drink.  And soon I would have to build my own nest.  It dawned on me that this escape business needed a bit of planning.  I crossed the road a second time and headed for home.

Before I could say ”E-I-E-I-O” a cock with gorgeous amber feathers was on top of me.  We fluffed around for a while.  “Who are you,” I said, “and why haven’t I seen you before?”

“I just got here,” he replied.  “Farmer Francine brought me in as a change agent.  My name is Pecker.”

I couldn’t get enough of that big guy.  He sure changed me.  Dreams of a different life flew right out of my head.  As for motherhood–I’m having too much fun to sit and brood.

MORAL:  A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES STARTS WITH A SINGLE STEP, AND ENDS AT LUNCHTIME.

These were written for the IRP Writing Workshop study group.  One week’s assignment was to write a fable:  “Thin Pig” was the result.  Another week posed the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

## The Queen’s Boobs

by Lorne Taichman

On June 2, 1953, about a year and a half following the death of her father, King George VI, Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth II in an elaborate coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey.  For an 11year old, the coronation provided an opportunity to glimpse at something forbidden and unbelievably exciting – the Queen’s breasts, or as we neighborhood kids called them, the Queen’s boobs.

We were living in Toronto, proud members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.  In elementary school we studied British history in lieu of Canadian history, read British authors rather than Canadian authors, and at the beginning of every movie, every play, even before the start of wrestling matches at Maple Leaf Gardens, we stood and sang God Save the King.  In the front of every classroom hung a map of the world with the British Isles in the center colored pink.  Canada was situated to the left of Britain and, like all Commonwealth countries, Canada was shaded pink.  When Princess Elizabeth visited Canada in 1951 we stood for hours on Bloor Street waiting to get a glimpse of her as she rode by in an open car.  She was young, beautiful and royal.

Shortly after that Canadian visit, King George died in his sleep.

The King is dead. God save the Queen!

For days, funereal music was broadcast nonstop on the radio with occasional breaks for a story or two of his last days.  I recall one report of his having gone hunting in cold weather a few weeks earlier wearing battery-heated stockings.  Everything the royal family did was of interest to us.  We were loyal subjects.

If you have been watching the Netflix series The Crown you will know the importance given to the coronation of a new monarch and you will also know that at one point in the proceedings the Queen’s hand, forehead and breast are anointed with holy oil.  It did not take long for a tiny band of 11 year old boys to realize just what this part of the ceremony meant for them – the Queen’s boobs were to be exposed for all to see.  Just thinking about the Queen baring her breasts in the middle of Westminster Abbey sent us into fits of uncontrollable nervous giggling.  However, when we learned that the coronation was to be televised, yes televised, we were beyond reach.  We would be able to see the forbidden fruit.  For kids who seriously debated whether the Queen shat like other people or wiped her own behind, the opportunity to see her bare chest was something of epic proportions.  What would they look like?  Do you think she shows them to Phillip her husband?  Our knowledge of a woman’s breasts was limited to stolen glances at bare-breasted African tribal women in National Geographic.

We were the first family in our neighborhood to own a TV.  So, on the day of the coronation, Motty, Hart, Bobby, Bernie and I assembled in my living room.  Fearful of missing that once-in-a-lifetime moment we remained glued to the TV and endured endless slow marches, solemn prayers and mind numbing speeches.  I recall my mother commenting on how surprised she was to see us boys so enthusiastic about the coronation.  Finally, the moment arrived.  The Archbishop, holding a vessel of holy oil, slowly approached the seated monarch.  Suddenly, without any warning, a grey placard was lowered in front of the camera blocking the entire scene.  There, instead of her majesty’s boobs, was the royal coat of arms adorned with its silly lion and stupid unicorn holding up a shield and jeweled crown.  We started hopping all about the room. “Get it away!” “Move!”  We were frantic.  As much as we willed it away that intruding piece of cardboard remained in place.  You cannot imagine our disappointment.  In a moment the ceremony was over.  The lion and unicorn were lifted away and there upon her throne sat the Queen, fully clothed and well anointed.

We did not stay to see the remainder of the ceremony.  We headed outside to play a game of war.  How fresh, innocent and unspoiled we were.  While the beauty and mystery of a woman’s body would always stay with us, our loyalty to the monarch, to the British Empire, to all that was British would never be quite the same.  Life moved on and so did we.

It seems so long ago that we were caught up in the excitement of the coronation as well as our plan to glimpse at the forbidden fruit.

## The Family Trees

by Elaine Greene Weisburg

In elementary school my class was told that a troop of Campfire Girls would be formed if enough of us were interested. The idea of woodcraft and especially of learning to identify trees and birds was thrilling to me. But I was the one girl in the fourth grade who raised her hand and so the only trees I would know remained those stunted volunteers in the empty lots dotted around our neighborhood near the ocean in Queens. Although our treeless property was edged by waist-high privet, and rambling roses grew thickly around our front porch, I felt deprived of more ambitious landscaping.

The trees in the empty lots, which put forth dubious little fruits, rose out of a thick undergrowth of poison ivy, goldenrod, and ragweed. They were afflicted every summer with tent caterpillars which spread their filthy black-spotted gauzy-white tents wherever the branches formed a crotch. I tried not to look at them.

Some twenty-five years later when my husband and I acquired an old waterside cottage at the other end of Long Island, I finally had some lovable trees of my own. The best was a large weeping willow on the southwest side of our half-acre, high on a bank facing a saltwater cove. The sturdy branches started low and formed a sort of spiral staircase, a perfect climbing tree for our two young sons and their friends. One summer August had been particularly hot and muggy but on Labor Day, suddenly–as though a switch had been flipped–the air cleared and a fresh breeze blew. I walked outside to find the willow tree filled with gleeful little boys, five or six of them. A wave of euphoria swept over me that I can still recapture.

The weeping willow is a fast-growing tree with a relatively short life span and our specimen is long gone, but an even older tree, a white mulberry, still survives down on our beach. A friend who collects vintage local postcards gave us one with a 1906 postmark that shows our shoreline with the Long Island Railroad tracks still in use–a spur from Bridgehampton shut down in the 1930s. On the postcard the mulberry with its three equal-size trunks is already mature. In 1985 Hurricane Gloria blew down one of the trunks and in 1991 Hurricane Bob did the same thing.

Another of Bob’s victims was an old wild cherry street tree outside our picket fence and we went to some trouble and expense to turn it into lumber. We wired an old license plate to the fallen tree and on it I painted a note to the village cleanup crew to leave it for us to haul it away. Then I called in a favor from a superstar local contractor about whom I had written an appreciative passage in a House Beautiful architecture story. For a fair fee he removed the tree to a sawmill, returned the rough planks to us, and showed us how to prevent warping during their storage in an outbuilding behind our house. A few years later he fetched the seasoned wood to be planed and then it sat in the shed for another twenty years, awaiting a suitable project. At last, two years ago, a cabinetmaker turned our cherry wood into a beautiful new dining table that easily seats ten in the nearby summerhouse of my elder son. We all treasure our unique family connection with this piece of furniture.

The shapely buckeye inside the fence near the front porch came to us in the mid-1970s as a stick in a clay pot. It was a gift from William Flemmer III, head of the Princeton Nurseries renowned for developing a disease-free elm tree. I was in Princeton to interview him for a story. At work William Flemmer dressed like an outdoorsman–Robert Redford in the Africa movie–with a grafting knife in his belt. When we drove around his planting fields he hopped out of his Jeep to demonstrate the art of the graft. When I asked him whether I could plant a horse chestnut seedpod from a near neighbor’s property and achieve germination, Mr. Flemmer offered to give me a healthy buckeye sapling from the same arboreal family. That became the tree that keeps me company on summer mornings while I sip my caffe-latte on the front porch.

When I brought the sapling home and dug it in, the tip reached my knee. A year later, under my motherly care, it was hip high, then it reached my waist, my shoulder, and now stands at about 25 feet. I thanked Mr. Flemmer for the baby tree with a recording of north-eastern birdcalls—his wife’s suggestion when I phoned for advice. Trees and birds go together: I felt the buckeye was validated only after I saw a bird perched on a branch.

Our latest new tree is a red maple planted a few years ago. It replaces an unlovely Norway maple that shaded our car every summer and was a place to lean bikes, but several limbs began to look ready to hit the house in a storm and no one ever loved it anyway. Members of the family voted variously for the successor and I finally settled on a maple that turns red in autumn after neighbor Jon said the fall color would make the whole street happy.

I always look forward to watching the maple turn red in our yard. When I looked at it the other day I wondered how many more times I would see it transform itself… but why dwell on that.

Elaine Greene Weisburg for some fifty years was a writer and editor at Seventeen, Esquire, House & Garden and House Beautiful and free-lanced widely for the New York Times and other magazines.

## The Daily Memo

by Lisa Cristal

After 30 years on the job, Roger’s heart still thumped as he typed the Daily Placement Instructions. Even if his memo dictated “No Change Today” his opinion still resonated throughout the museum. He tried not to let his personal feelings interfere with societal opinions, but it was not always easy.

Some days were more stressful than others. Roger attributed his successful career to his objectivity and ability to read the public. Yesterday had been hard: he demoted James Cagney, shipping him from the second floor of Madame Tussauds to the warehouse.  Cagney had been one of his favorites, but Roger knew that he had a higher duty to a public that essentially erased this talented actor from its memory.

Today, however, he gloated to himself as his eyes hovered on the front cover of People Magazine. He recalled one of his saddest days occurred when he had to relocate Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt to separate areas of the Museum. Friends had been a life affirming television show to him, and how dare anyone reject Jennifer? Now that Brangelina transformed back to Brad and Angelina he could toss that home wrecker where she belonged. He chuckled to himself as his mind scouted out a few possible dark corners for her new location.

Then Roger sighed.  He hadn’t lasted 30 years by letting emotions get the better of him. Maybe he would achieve some small personal satisfaction by allowing Brad and Angelina to glare at each other across the room. And, to finalize his fantasy, perhaps he could reposition Jennifer a bit closer to Brad. It was still early in the day; such big decisions could not be made on the fly.  He needed to give this further consideration before typing that memo.

Lisa Cristal, an author of factual legal treatises, decided to try her hand at fiction though IRP’s Writers Workshop class. Thanks to the members of the class for their unflagging support.

## The Block

by Harriet Sohmers Zwerling

We moved into our apartment on Second Avenue between 1st and 2nd streets in 1970: my seven-year-old son, merchant-marine husband and I.  It was a walkup with five rooms and a terrace, large enough for planting flowers and even vegetables. We installed a picnic table and deck chairs.  The view was a parking lot, not very pastoral but teeming with sunshine.

Next door was a tombstone showroom filled with handsome marble monuments, inscribed in English and Hebrew, awaiting their eventual owners. Past that on the First Street corner, was a ramshackle old house inhabited by Gypsies, whose modus vivendi involved selling stolen car batteries at bargain prices, often to their original owners. A busy Puerto Rican funeral parlor stood on the Second Street corner.

And a block away on Third Street was the Men’s Shelter where many of our nearest neighbors lived. They were young and old: junkies and alcoholics and sad homeless madmen. When we walked our dog, he lunged at those who came too close, barking fiercely. It didn’t seem to bother them; they were probably used to it or too high to notice.

The Seventies saw the beginning of surprising changes in the neighborhood, occurring gradually over what we used to call the Lower East Side. Now they named it the East Village, giving it a sexy, bohemian aura associated with Greenwich Village. Young white strangers from elsewhere started moving in, drawn by the promise of glamorous danger.  We called them, scornfully, Yuppies!

And then, the residents became aware of the changing scene.  They sold their businesses for high prices, raised the rents on their apartments and joined the growing real estate cabal that forced many of them to move away.

Living alone in the apartment, having broken with my husband; my grown son gone, I started getting hints from my landlords that they would be selling our building and could not predict the new owners’ plans.  They clearly wanted me out and showed it by cutting off the heat, hot water and gas, refusing my rent checks and other nasty strategies.

Finally I stopped resisting and relocated but convinced my son, now married and a father, to move back into his childhood home.  He is there now, still paying our modest rent and fighting legally to remain while the war of money roars ever more lavishly on.  Bars, restaurants, chic boutiques, antique shops flourish on what used to be, charming, shabby old Second Avenue, a place preserved only in our memories.

I began writing in high school and can’t seem to stop.

## The Best Year of My Life

by Claude Samton

I was twenty- five years old and had just spent six months looking at the great architecture of France and Italy. Now I planned to go to Barcelona for three days to see the work of Antonio Gaudi, one of my favorite architects.

My plane landed late at night and I found a pensione in the middle of the old city near the Ramblas. I woke early the next morning, had a café con leche and a wonderful crusty roll in the pensione dining room. I made my way to the American Express office on the Paseo de Gracia to pick up my mail. It had been twenty years since the Spanish Civil War but there were still paraplegic veterans begging in the streets. The aroma of olive oil was pervasive and Franco’s Guardia Civil soldiers were stationed at every corner carrying machine guns. The American Express office was small but had a bench where I could open my mail. As I was reading the mail, I was aware of an attractive black haired smartly dressed young woman standing nearby. She came over holding a cigarette and asked me for a light. My Spanish was mediocre but she had worked in London so we spoke English. Her name was Rose, a Catalan native. After fifteen minutes of conversation, she invited me home for lunch. We entered one of the beautiful old apartment buildings in the neighborhood. As she opened the apartment door, I noticed a large carved wood table covered with food and approximately twenty or so people seated around it. They were her relatives. In a loud commanding voice, Rose introduced me as her American boyfriend. We had a sumptuous meal of tapas, fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, and great quantities of wine. After several hours of eating and lively conversation in Catalan which I didn’t understand, I excused myself. I had an appointment with a cousin of my father’s who lived in town. I took Rose’s information and promised to call her.

Jaime, my father’s cousin, introduced me to a local architect who mentioned that he was looking for help in designing an apartment building. I said I would think about it and call him later. During the afternoon, I visited several of Gaudi’s buildings. As I walked through the outskirts of Barcelona, I noticed a relatively modern small apartment building with a for rent sign at the entrance. ‘What the hell,’ I thought, I’ll take a look. The elderly concierge walked upstairs with me. On the second floor, I saw a large photo of an interesting looking man with a beard tacked to the door. I knocked and Thad, an American architect came out to greet me. He invited me inside to meet his wife, an American painter. We immediately hit it off. They said a two-bedroom apartment was available upstairs for thirty dollars a month. Was this real life or some fantasy I had been dreaming?

In one day I had a job, an apartment, a girlfriend, new friends, and after having planned to visit for three days, ended up staying in Barcelona for a year.

It turned out to be the best year of my life.

Claude Samton is an architect and visual artist who has taken several years of writing classes at the IRP and produced seven illustrated books published through Amazon. He is currently finishing his Illustrated Life Stories, a memoir.

## My Pilgrimage to Brother André’s Heart

by Carol Grant

Try to imagine yourself as a young child of 7 or 8 attempting to interpret the rites, rituals and iconography of the Catholic Church in the late 1940’s. I attended an English Catholic Primary school in Montreal staffed by lay teachers whose responsibilities included teaching us our daily Catechism lessons and preparing us for our First Confession and Communion Rituals. Every Sunday and Holy Day, I would attend Mass with my family and sit through the seemingly endless ceremony which was celebrated in Latin except for the priest’s Homily which might as well have been in Latin since the content was never relevant to young children. We were surrounded by Catholic icons which included images of the Crucifix portraying Jesus almost naked with a crown of thorns in his scalp, a stab-wound in his side and hanging by nails driven into his hands and feet onto a wooden cross. Statues of various male saints wore pained expressions as arrows pierced their bodies and others representing women with rapturous poses gazing upward to the heavens were mounted on pedestals around the church. Several paintings of the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” exhibited Christ with a bare torso in which there was a bright red idealized heart encircled by a ring of thorns usually lit by a red votive candle. Often the ceremonies included priests proceeding solemnly down the central aisle swinging silver containers of burning incense, which smoked as it rose and had a very distinct unpleasant odor.

I recall vividly the terror I felt when at age seven—-the so-called age of reason—- I had to “make” my first Confession. We students knelt side-by-side in the pews waiting until it was our turn to enter alone into the closet-like enclosure where we had been instructed to kneel and wait in the dark until the priest slid open a small wooden window. When it opened, I could barely see the priest and trembled as I began the prayer we had memorized: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” We had been told to relate our transgressions, which could include being disobedient to our parents or teachers, lying, stealing, using bad words or having “impure” thoughts. The latter was the sin that our teacher never explained to us. At seven?

Our First Communion Ceremony was supposed to be a Happy Celebration and we looked forward to wearing our special white Communion dresses, stockings, shoes and veils. Our teachers told us that we were going to be “Little Brides of Christ”, a very perplexing concept. The Church rules required us to fast from Saturday at bedtime until almost the end of the 11am Mass when we would have the Communion wafer put onto our very dry tongues and hear the words “Body of Christ” from the priest… again quite an incomprehensible image. Some of the children felt faint or nauseous because of hunger or dehydration mixed with the pungent odor of the incense and had to be removed by their parents. Fortunately, I didn’t disgrace my family and there are photos in our albums showing me as a smiling miniature “bride.” Older students told us we would receive special gifts from our relatives and friends but we were somewhat disappointed when these turned out to be Rosary beads, small prayer books with the Latin and English translations or bookmarks with pictures of the Virgin Mary or female saints.

Despite our personal difficulties with these ceremonies, the following week our teacher told us that as a reward for behaving well at these Catholic rites of passage we were going to go on a day-trip or a “pilgrimage.” Unlike today’s schoolchildren, we had never been on a field trip so this was a very exciting adventure. In Montreal’s center there is a small mountain called Mount Royal, a large urban park overlooking the city. On its northern slope, an immense Catholic Basilica built in the Beaux Arts style of Paris’ Sacré Coeur, and named St. Joseph’s Oratory, rises above the surrounding neighborhoods. Visitors and parishioners must climb hundreds of stairs to reach the church entrance. In Quebec and beyond, this church or shrine has the reputation as a site where many miraculous cures have occurred and it is a tradition for many of the worshippers or supplicants to go up these stairs on their knees. Many of these people are disabled and drag crutches and canes along with them. I had often observed this spectacle when we had passed the church on a streetcar because the location was close to our neighborhood. Our teacher explained to us that many of these people had been cured of their illnesses because they prayed specifically to a deceased man known as Brother André. She told us that he had originally lived on the mountain as a hermit alone in a cave and later in a small wooden hut that he had built. Stories of his ability to cure the sick and heal the disabled were the catalyst for the construction of the Basilica, which was dedicated to St. Joseph, Brother André’s favorite saint. All of these accounts seemed like fairy tales to me but we were supposed to believe everything our teachers told us so I was both suspicious and intrigued by her stories of miracles occurring less than a mile from my home.

On the appointed day of our adventure, our teachers shepherded about 20 first graders onto a streetcar and upon our arrival in front of the church we too had to climb the many stairs where we could observe closely the people of different ages and abilities praying on each step. Many were clasping rosaries and prayer books as they labored upward. We entered the interior of the massive shrine and were amazed by its opulence and grandeur but especially moved by seeing hundreds of canes, crutches and wheelchairs displayed in a large corner of the church or hanging on the walls…proof to our young impressionable minds that this was truly a miraculous place!

When I did some research for this essay, I learned that the famous heart relic had been stolen a few years ago and was missing for several months. The police discovered it in a nearby Montreal neighborhood and returned it to the Basilica where it is now displayed in a secure and elaborate gold and jewel filled miniature shrine…a far cry from a humble pickle jar!

This essay was inspired by my participation in the IRP study group “Guided Autobiography” superbly coordinated by David Grogan. The assigned topic was entitled “My Quest for Meaning” and it stimulated these childhood memories of my early religious education. I am still on that quest but am no longer haunted by theories of sin, penance, retribution or damnation which weighed so heavily on that innocent child of long ago.

## Love/Love

by Eileen Brener

A long time ago—way before the flood in New Orleans, I took private tennis lessons from a devilishly good-looking coach named Luis.  I loved him as only a middle-aged woman can love a tall, tan, thirty-year-old man who watches her for an hour and talks—even if it is about a wimpy backhand.  All the women in my set vied to get on his schedule.  He smiled at us with a studied nonchalance as though he didn’t know that we each found him more attractive than Tyrone Power.

I always tried to get the last lesson of the day so that I could buy Luis a drink at the clubhouse bar.  He had a net full of stories about his Mexican parents’ great expectations for him and he enjoyed telling them.  Luis was a suave fellow with a devil-may-care way about him.   He was in the U.S. to perfect his English, to make business and social contacts, and to have a good time.  He was slated to return to Mexico City to take over the family business.  He was confident—even arrogant—about his future success.

Over drinks I often asked him personal questions.  He didn’t seem to mind.   One day he told me that he was in love with the most beautiful girl in the world.  “Really?” I said.  “Yes,” he answered, starry-eyed.  Elsa was Swedish and in New Orleans for a six month training program.  She was due to return to Sweden in a week or two and had invited him to accompany her and meet her family.  Luis told me that she laughed when he praised her beauty, saying that in her family she was average.  He couldn’t believe that she’d ever be considered “ordinary looking,” as she described herself.

Luis returned from Sweden with his tan faded, his dark eyes clouded, his broad shoulders drooping.  He told me with a solemn face he had to agree that his formerly “most beautiful girl in the world” was  “ordinary looking” in the company of her two sisters who were taller, blonder, and more athletic than Elsa.  Luis was brokenhearted.  “I really thought I’d found the most beautiful girl in the world,” he said.

A bum knee kept me off the courts for several months, and during that time I wondered and worried about Luis and his prospects for romance.  When I returned to play, I learned that he had been called back to Mexico City.  Disgruntled, I decided to quit taking tennis lessons.  The new coach seemed so ordinary.

As a New Orleans attorney in my pre-IRP days, I occasionally—lord help me—taught legal writing.  Now thanks to the writing workshop, I’ve left lawyerly letters for the fun of writing memoir and fiction.

## Leonard Cohen and the Year I Became an Old Man

by Marshall Marcovitz

Leonard Cohen is staring at me from an old black and white photograph.  There have been rumors that he’s dying. In the photograph, he’s wearing a dark suit perfectly pressed, and a starched white shirt with carefully knotted tie. His thin, bandy legs are crossed exposing the knee-high compression socks he’s wearing to keep his feet from swelling. Just like I do. A plump, furry tabby cat sits at Leonard’s elbow. As always, he’s wearing a hat—a black Borsalino classic with a narrow brim. I imagine Leonard admiring himself in the mirror, lovingly combing his hair, and then stepping into his trousers with a funny little wiggle as he slides the zipper up.

Even when he was younger, Leonard Cohen often sang about the end of life.  “Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is grey/I ache in the places that I used to play,” from The Tower of Song is one of my favorite lyrics at this time in my life.  Just before Cohen died, he wrote, “You have a chance to put your house in order.”  That thought makes me think of my own mortality.  Now that I’ve reached eighty and my old friends are around that same age, I’m flooded with a Tsunami of illness– mine and my friends: In the year before her death a friend struggled with an untreatable illness. She spent an inordinate amount of time every day managing her symptoms. Struggling with illness is about vulnerability and courage, about anger and strength.

My friend Ben who lives in Northern California, in a melancholy mood, wrote to me about a poem he read: Elk at Tomales Bay by Tess Taylor.  He reminded me of the hike we took together there.  I thought about that hike standing in the cold sea wind in our short shirt sleeves. Later that night at dinner, sitting at our table at Hog Island Oyster Co. we were shucking and slurping cold, firm, plump Pacifics harvested a few hundred feet away.  Someone from a table close to us had spotted us at the end of the day and remarked on our toughness.

“Do you still have your toughness?” I wrote Ben.  “I feel that I am rapidly losing mine. If I live many more years, I think that I will look upon my 80th year as the year I became an old man. The year of falls and the carrying of canes instead of hiking sticks, the year of ingrown toenails and infections—the year when every task is a mental and physical challenge taking much longer than it should and much longer than it took a couple of years ago. And it feels like procrastination is the order of the day.”

More friends send me birthday greetings and the wishes they express fall into a pattern: “Wishing you tremendous joy, health and love on this special birthday. You are living a meaningful life. May it continue to bring you beauty in every breath.”

Cohen is resting his left hand on the handle of a cane. A rather regal pose, not a feeble picture at all. He’s not smiling. He looks seriously straight ahead. Eyes narrowed, eyebrows arched. I suspect he asked his barber to shape his eyebrows. “Make them look curved,” I imagine him saying.  Just like I do. I’d rather get a good haircut than obsessively recount my life now that I’m eighty. I could dream about sex, my fantasies, jealousies, and failures. Looking into the beginning of the end is beginning to feel like a Stephen King novel.

I think of the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson’s eight stages of development: The final stage: Ego Integrity versus Despair. His idea is that when we’re older, we face an existential reckoning: We can either make peace with our choices, as unwise as some might have been, or we can spend our final years in a stew of our own regrets. Leonard seems to have made “peace” his choice.  Which will I choose?

Marshall Marcovitz has been telling stories through words and photographs for many moons. He was inspired to write this piece by the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen—especially Cohen’s humor and humanity when approaching his own death.