How my lonely heart aches

We were going through a bunch of boxes, mostly throwing stuff away, and I came upon a trove of love letters. It wasn’t exactly a surprise — I had been lugging it around, house to house, town to town, marriage to marriage, for over 50 years — but this was the first time I actually sat down and read them all again. They were written to me over the course of four years by three different girls who were, serially, my girlfriends.

I got letters

I shall withhold their names. They are all 70+ now; one or more could be dead.  I do not wish to cause them embarrassment. I’ll call them Lew (as she sometimes signed her letters), Me (as she often signed her letters), and Flo (as she never signed her letters). Last I heard, Flo was in Hawaii (she sent me as nice shirt), Lew was in Seattle and Me was in Walnut Creek. But that was a while ago.

The letters gave off a deep erotic charge. That’s a little creepy — these are letters written from 1957 to  1961 by teenage girls — but the heart knows what the heart knows. The handwriting made me grow lightheaded. On one occasion, Me put a spot of perfume on one page; I imagined I could still smell it.

For age-appropriate music, listen to this.

Their personalities came through in the letters; all of them were heartbreakingly unguarded as they wrote.  Me was bubbly and gossipy; Flo was straightforward and sunny; Lew was reserved, intense and smart. I’m giving Lew three adjectives, because she wrote the best and longest letters. I fell in love with all three of them again, but mostly I fell in love with Lew.

The letters brought back many poignant and hilarious moments, none of which I will share with you.

The letters were written on many kinds of paper, from personalized stationery (Flo) to plain white bond (Lew) to weird translucent onionskin (all three). The latter was a fad of the time; its illegibility was perhaps part of its allure.

The content was standard issue genteel teenager: gossip (including inevitable discussions of who liked whom), music, irritating parents, exaggerated boredom, plus delicate excursions into flattery, self-presentation, and various shades of affection (“I’m in love with you, but I don’t love you”) .  Several were even SWAK (ask your parents).

For most of the period these letters were written, I was at a private boarding school; telephone calls were limited, and f2f contact was forbidden. Therefore, I needed words to retain the relationship, furious letters designed to amuse, seduce, flatter and show my whole heart to the person at the other mailbox. I have some notion of what my letters were like from the reactions to them: I believe I was needy and hyperbolic. But also, apparently, appealing: Two of the love affairs ended because of geographical considerations, the other because I ended it.

I dumped Me. I feel bad about it now.

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This is just a mood photo; no actual human beings are involved

I say “love affairs,” but the carnal part of things were limited to prolonged kissing and outside-the-clothes rubbing, usually in parked cars in exurban cul-de-sacs. No orgasms were attempted in the making of this movie. None of it felt chaste — it was just four hours of kissing, but oh, what kissing. The culture was restricted, but the human beings in it were still curious about what human beings are curious about. Puritanism is such a crock.

There were some surprises. This paragraph, from a Lew letter dated October 23, 1960: “As for the car, it is taken care of. Dad was out of town all last week, so it was in the shop then and is now fixed. It seems. however, that it will be quite expensive, since it had to have body work done. A new side and front fender had to be put on, and I don’t know what else. Dad will probably write to you and/or your mother about it.”

I have no memory of this. I wrecked a car, really? Did I hit something? Did Dad ever write me? Second: Ain’t it nice to be rich? I went on scholarship to private schools; the kids were rich except for me. Basically, I dated rich girls because that’s the pond I was fishing in. Not mansions-and-servants rich, but rich enough. Let’s-sneak-the-wrecked-car-by-Dad rich, anyway.

I could tell you more about Lew’s father (burdened by a secret sorrow), just from the letters. Also about Me’s father (strict) and Flo’s sister (athletic). None of these people left any other dent on history; this may be one of the last records of their existence.  And, for that matter, one of the earliest records of mine.

Memory is ephemeral. Things that seemed so solid at the time fade into impermanence and invisibility. I have photographs of places I have visited, certificates of ceremonies I have attended, but without the augmentation of memory, they are only of interest to clothing historians of the mid-20th century, or writers of scholarly slang etymologies. Only I am interested in these letters; if I keep them until I die, my daughters will agree without comment to deep-six them. I know they will, because I did the same thing with a lot of mother’s stuff.

And why not? As has been frequently said: 100 years, all new people. Each generation has its own history, its own heroes, its own love affairs. So much joy, so much suffering, only to be supplanted by  other triumphs, other tragedies.  Bathing in nostalgia is fun, particularly when you realize that you’re in a tub reserved exclusively for your use. The thrill of these artifacts is not transferable; use them or lose them, or they will lose you.

But new memories can be added.  Some decades after these letters were written, Lew and I met again. She was in town, and I took her to the Hayes Street Grill, my own little memory palace. It’s a meeting that neither of us were sure we wanted, but we seized the moment. We were uncomfortable at first, sipping water and studying the menu.

But then we started to talk. We discovered that we had thought a lot of the same thoughts over the past 30 years. We discovered ways to make each other laugh, and those ways seemed familiar. We discovered that we liked each other, and that we approved of the people each other had become. It was just, you know, really great. Maybe we weren’t so dopey back then after all.

OK, I know what you want. You’ve been wanting it for some time now. You want to know what they looked like, the long ago gallery of America’s sweethearts. Very well:

Me and Lew


Flo’s the wandering minstrel, I’m the exiled prince

 Now go take your own bath. You’re never too old for heartbreak.


 Photography by Tracy Johnston

General competence by Michelle “She hasn’t heard my latest idea yet” Mizera




Being idealistic about idealism

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Racism is the opiate of the masses. Keeping the blacks in their place had the desirable consequence of keeping the whites in their place.  The oppression of racism hid the basic fact that black people and white people had a common predicament and a common enemy.

If it were not for racism, black people and white people might band together and vote against the corrupt oligarchs who have turned this country into a haven for the huge faceless entities that contrive a million different ways to relieve citizens of their livelihood, property, dignity, worldly possessions.

Mentioning class warfare is considered de trop. It’s so, well, 19th century. But look around: Class war is already happening; it’s just that our side is essentially unarmed. Our only strength is our overwhelming numbers.

Racism is the drug that makes people not notice that. Racism is the drug that sets people against people and leave the super-rich alone to do business. Racism has allowed our country to arrive at its current state of apocalypse-level corruption.

Everybody wants social justice. Everyone wants policies that restore human dignity. Hardly anyone believes that American democracy, as it is currently constituted, will do anything to fulfill those goals. There is too much fluidity between government and business; too many think tanks, lobbyists and bundlers. The ruling class does what always does; it perpetuates itself. Also, it rules.

We wanted to get away from a king, but we’re still all subjects of an arbitrary system, cogs in an economic machine. We’re getting into 30s-eras Commie-pinko territory now, but why not? Let’s form cells and talk about the masses . The masses are still screwed. Russia is now another capitalist greed carnival. Making money is our religion, and we have proselytized the entire world with our message of hope: Someday you could be really rich, but probably not. But see, here’s the gleaming bauble. Worship it!

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Is overweening greed essential to human nature? Pragmatists say yes, and they’re probably right. But what if?

All this is idealist talk, I know. I’m old, and I have been seduced by idealism before. I idolized Jack Kennedy for what I thought he was. I idolized Barack Obama for what I thought he was. But, one way or another, they served the masters of the universe. They had no choice; the game is set up that way. The only solution is to change the game — and that hardly ever works.

Revolutions have a tendency to end badly.

Have I been thinking about Bernie Sanders? Well, yes I have. You want an example of racial harmony? Watch Killer Mike talk with Bernie.  You don’t need to know who Killer Mike is; context will explain it all. Watch and, as we used to say in the old country, dig that.

I do understand the immense downside of a potential Sanders presidency. His foreign policy pronouncements are only a shade more nuanced than those of Donald Trump. His executive skills are unproven, and probably not very good. His fabulous persona, the cranky Jewish grandpa who gives impassioned mini-lectures about income inequality, touches some clear need for authenticity in the electorate. He’s entirely charming, but is it a political trick? As the president reminded a questioner, somewhat impatiently, Bernie Sanders is a politician. He knows his schtick is working. Today’s media culture makes all candidates hyper-aware of the metaphorical nature of their ambitions.

Other candidates have wanted to seem plugged in and hip. Bernie went the other way; he cultivated the image of a guy who might very well complain about his new-fangled smartphone. Maybe that’s the real Bernie; I dunno. But it’s also a very shrewd choice; when Hillary goes after him, she’s like a brusque night nurse at the assisted living facility.

Sanders is peddling an attractive line of goods. Hillary is enmeshed in the liberal way of doing things, a philosophy that started in the FDR administration and has remained essentially unchanged since then. Her beloved Clinton Foundation is a beacon of compassionate capitalism, in which all the corporations that have pillaged the world for a century are encouraged to give gigantic (although not painful) donations to fight poverty and hunger in the developing world.

The poverty and hunger in the USA: Not so much.

Hillary’s ideas are bold, and her mastery of dirty details of policy implementation is unrivaled, but she is a gradualist, manipulating the system cleverly to achieve her laudable goals. But Bernie presents a more compelling argument: Gradualism has not worked; things have gotten worse for wage earners and the poor no matter which president sat in office.

And Bernie tells the truth. Over and over again, he tells the truth. He’s finding an audience. Listening to him, people might find a new way to think about the world. People might band together, not because they love each other, but because they need each other.

I gave $100 to Bernie, but I don’t know whether I’ll vote for him. Clinton knows where the levers of power are; in the end, that might be more useful than ideology. But I like that Bernie is part of the conversation.  I like him touring the country, presenting visions of struggle and unification. I came of age in the Sixties; of course I believe in struggle. I believe in marching in the streets; I believe in the peaceful redress of grievances.

Maybe it could happen. What have we got to lose?

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Photography by Tracy Johnston

Spam folder expertise by Michelle Mizera