on Czech language and culture and becoming friends with Jarmila:
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
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.
MARBLE: WRITING VS. AGING
1986, the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote some verses
about another Pole who had been born two years before her.
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--
I got to that last line I felt the proverbial cold chill run
spine, from the perfection of the image--among other things.
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."
reason I felt that cold chill was because I see myself, 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.
are supposed to be more victimized by age than men are as
far as issues of personal appearance go. Still, I can't forget
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.
men give up being gorgeous, they often get a not-unattractive
in exchange: social power, expertise, wealth, and frequently
the ability to
attract the young through these assets. You don't see too
however, about tough, distinguished-looking female adventurers
United States then walking into the sunset with 30-year-old
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
might be the only way for people to figure out for themselves
"I never want to be 20 again" is real wisdom speaking
or just sour grapes.
I got it wrong whichever gender we're considering, mine or
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
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.
back to the poem. As any literate Pole would know, Krzystof
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
after she wrote the poem, Szymborska, in her 70s, won the
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.