Leslie Kennelly
Leslie Farmer


Leslie Farmer

The paragraphs on Czech language and culture and becoming friends with Jarmila:

I started my professional life as a  freelance journalist writing about (and for five years, from) the Arab world.  After leaving journalism for close to a decade,  I went back to school to finish my MSc in Mass Communications at San Jose State University, where a chance visit to the Czech Republic and Hungary made me rethink my specialization.

I was so astounded and ravished by the baroque architecture of Prague that I somehow persuaded my department to let me do a long magazine article on historic restoration in Prague as my thesis.  Trying to pick up some basic Czech before I returned to Prague for research, I began to take lessons at a local language academy which offered Russian (the owner was Russian) and promised to find a Czech teacher.  Jarmila had been a  language teacher in former Czechoslovakia; her methods proved too sophisticated for a beginner with no background in Slavic languages. But by the time we figured this out,  we also found  many interests in common, so we ended up as friends: fellow writers with an interest in the Slavic world.

As I returned almost yearly to the Czech Republic to study the language, moved to New Orleans and found a Czech program of sorts there, we have kept up the connection.


Around 1986, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote some verses about another Pole who had been born two years before her.

Goateed, balding,
gray-haired, in glasses,
with coarsened, weary features,
with a wart on his cheek and a furrowed forehead,
as if clay had covered up the angelic marble--

And when I got to that last line I felt the proverbial cold chill run down my
spine, from the perfection of the image--among other things.

he wouldn't
know himself when it all happened.
The price, after all, for not having died already
goes up not in leaps but step by step, and he would
pay that price too.
About his ear, just grazed by the bullet
when he ducked at the last moment, he would
say: "I was damned lucky."

The other reason I felt that cold chill was because I see myself, day by day,
paying the price for not having died already; I see it every time I get up
and start to brush my teeth, and it can be damned depressing.  Not a poet by
habit, I'm inclined to compare aging to the process by which one is supposed
to cook a lobster: you raise the temperature of the water very slowly so the
creature won't feel alarm, and by the time it starts to worry, if a lobster
can worry, it's half cooked.

Women are supposed to be more victimized by age than men are as
far as issues of personal appearance go. Still, I can't forget an anecdote
Charleton Heston told about realizing that his days as a leading man in the
movies were over. His daughter was watching a re-released showing of Ben-Hur
and after the ending credits, whispered to him, "Daddy, you were gorgeous!"
The past tense must have provoked an inner twinge.

But when men give up being gorgeous, they often get a not-unattractive bundle
in exchange: social power, expertise, wealth, and frequently the ability to
attract the young through these assets. You don't see too many movies,
however, about tough, distinguished-looking female adventurers saving the
United States then walking into the sunset with 30-year-old blonds.

One fanciful solution to the problem was proposed by Isak Dinesen. Her
heroine in one story, by striking an unusual sort of bargain with the Devil
(she kept her soul) was able to bank a year of her youth when she was very
young, and have it back a day at a time later, whenever she wanted it.

 This might be the only way for people to figure out for themselves whether
"I never want to be 20 again" is real wisdom speaking or just sour grapes.

Or, have I got it wrong whichever gender we're considering, mine or yours,
Szymborska's or the old vacationer's?  Perhaps the world really belongs to
the middle-aged and  old, and  youthful attractiveness is what is given to
the young--not many of them unique and gifted--so their elders will tolerate
ignorance, sloppy eating habits, social awkwardness, barbaric yelps at the
movies,  hormonal disturbances and so on, long enough for them to become able
to make their way in the world.

Getting back to the poem. As any literate Pole would know, Krzystof Kamil
Baczynski, whose name appears only in the next-to-last verse, didn't duck at
the last moment. Baczynski, an enormously gifted poet and a platoon commander
in the Underground Army, died at the age of 23 in the Warsaw Uprising.

Ten years after she wrote the poem, Szymborska, in her 70s, won the Nobel
Prize. I hope, as I hope for all of us, that she lives long enough to fully
enjoy it but not too long, to the point when the price for not having died
already becomes too high.



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