Thursday 29 October 2015


More from Kafka's Letter to His Father:
Of course you could say quite a bit about my attempts to marry, and you did. You were unable to show a great deal of respect for my decisions since I broke off my engagement with F[elice Bauer] twice and twice renewed it again, when I dragged you and mother needlessly to my engagement party in Berlin, etc. All that is true, and how did it come about?

The basic idea behind my attempts to marry was sound: to form a household, to become independent, an idea which is agreeable to you but in reality works like the game children play, in which one holds on to the other and even presses his hand, calling out: "Go then, go already, what’s keeping you?" In our case there is a complicating factor: you truly meant the exhortation “Go already!” At the same time and without being aware of it, you held me fast or rather you held me down because of who you are.

Kafka's father wrongly thought he had acted impulsively in taking up with Dora Dymant.You thought I could decide to marry in one fell swoop, just because of a blouse [Dora was wearing] – I who was so anxious, hesitant, and suspicious. If he had married either woman, it would have been the result of a rational decision. 

Neither of the girls disappointed me, although I disappointed both. My judgment concerning them is exactly the same today as it was then when I wanted to marry them. Why, then, did I not marry? There were several roadblocks, as is always the case, but life consists in surmounting those roadblocks.  The main roadblock, however, had nothing to do with the women specifically. Apparently it had to do with my mind, my inability to face marriage, which manifests itself in this form: from the moment I decide to get married, I can’t sleep. My head is glowing hot day and night. I can’t stand to live like that. I am undecided and in despair.  This is not caused by actual worries. Although worries are a constituent part of my melancholy and pedantic mind, they are not the decisive element. Yet, like worms in a corpse, they complete the destructive work. The decisive element is something else: the general pressure caused by anxiety, weakness, and lack of self-respect.

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on; my translation)

Monday 26 October 2015

Teaching in a one-room school

Millie Morton’s biography of her mother is, as the subtitle says, about: A teacher’s life, one-room schools, and a century of change in Ontario.

Here a few features of teaching in the early 20th century:
THE STRAP: a black strip of heavy leather about two inches wide, eighteen inches long, and a quarter of an inch thick. One of Grace’s teachers had a terrible temper and used the strap often, especially on a boy named Roger. Since he wasn’t a willing victim, she had to chase him around the room and catch him before landing sharp whacks on his hands.

KEEPING THE SCHOOL CLEAN: When Grace was interviewed for a job, the trustees explained: We pay one of the pupils to sweep the floor each day and light a fire in the stove. The caretaker cleans the school on a regular basis, but after concerts, we’d like you to be responsible for the cleaning.

A LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION: Miss Grace Dayman has given splendid satisfaction. She takes a great interest in all children and children’s work, gaining the respect and love of them al. The Inspector also reports that “Teacher gets splendid results, has a pleasant classroom manner, and that discipline is excellent.” She also takes a very active part in all church and Sunday school work and is a good example in any community. 

For more info on the book:

Thursday 22 October 2015

Rugelach - the ultimate comfort food for #widows

Here are some things that made me laugh, maybe inappropriately:

The things my book group members in L.A. sent to comfort me:
  • A plant labelled “durable” – it better be, I’ve got a brown thumb!
  • A video of Caroline Rhea— to remind me that men are a pain? So why miss him?
  • A pillow – just one! To remind me why I miss him?
  • Smoked salmon, bagels, bean-and-barley soup, rugelach – to fatten me up? Their concern is totally misplaced, but it was nice to see my kitchen look like a Jewish deli counter.

My four-year-old grandson’s reaction to my explanation of death: “Oh man!” (said in the tone  men use when speaking of a lost Blue Jays game – genuine regret at what was lost and what could have been)

The plaque on the urn of my husband’s ashes with his name misspelled
 – but they can’t fool me, I know who he is.

Monday 19 October 2015


This is an intellectual autobiography by a woman who grew up in East Berlin.
She was born in 1943, a furlough child, that is, conceived when he father was on furlough as a kind of souvenir in case he died in the war.

After graduating from high school, she studied philosophy while working the nightshift at a lightbulb factory: I had found for myself a manageable balance between work on the production line and existential philosophy, and things inside me were pretty much on the right track.

What was her goal in studying philosophy? I was looking for God in the form of an absolute, a pure theory. It would be big enough to be able to withstand the contradictions of the present and those of the past…to pave the path with reason!

Eventually she realized that the department of philosophy was a breeding ground for apparatchiks. Students were interested primarily in learning the political philosophy of the East German regime. They were admitted even if the applicant’s academic qualifications were substandard. They were replaced by the criterion of political reliability…The foremost concern here was the formulation of political argumentation strategies.

Kuczynski was repeatedly rejected for party membership because she was seen as too critical. A well-meaning friend counselled her: One could not say such things in that way. I had to learn to say what I wanted to say in a way that did not leave me open to attack.

I live in a democratic society. In Canada, critiquing the powers that be will not land a person in jail. Our society has subtler ways of punishing people who have not learned to say what they want to say in a politically correct way. 

Thursday 15 October 2015

Bandaid hoarder? Post-its hoarder?

Is there an upside to widowhood? Yes, if you were married to a hoarder, you can now start throwing out food that was best before 2005, moldy clothes stashed in a crate in a dark basement corner, fourteen pairs of men’s shoes acquired in Argentina ca 1985 and suitable for a tango dancer, also 226 ties, one with dancing polar bears.
BTW someone should come up with classes in “tie craft”. Where is Martha Stewart when we need her?

I was about to throw out 8 boxes of photos but was suddenly hit by a wave of nostalgia for my handsome husband, even though I’m not photogenic myself and always look like a hag beside him. But I did throw out my father-in-law’s home movies of Christmas cheer in which we all look like does caught in the headlights of a car.

I hope I can sell all the drill guns, saws, screwdrivers sets, and wrenches I have in quadruplicate, and it looks like I’ll never have to buy another roll of duct tape or another paint tray.

Did I mention the cans of paint on the shelves? There is one with a hardened residue of mauve to match the mauve walls we had in the bathroom ca. 1995. There is also a can of spray paint to repair scratches on the red Jeep we had 1996-1999. Actually there was never an occasion to fix scratches. We totaled the car.

Cleaning the basement can be a history lesson. Playboy magazines anyone? I have two dozen from the 60s, slightly water damaged. Or is that drool?
Then there are the stacks of course notes –  including one in Fortran from the time when computers were the size of a room and had to be fed punched cards. Not to forget the drawer of old cell phones which amounts to a history of hand-held devices.

After you’ve thrown out everything, the house will feel empty.
Not a good punch line? I know. There isn’t a good punchline for death.

Monday 12 October 2015

I feel like bitching

INEVITABLY, things are worse now. 
-If you are an impatient driver, there will be many lane closings in your area and the lights will turn red on you more often than ever.  
-If you were looking forward to the gorgeous fall colours depicted on every Canadian postcard, just to spite you, fall WILL be gorgeous although you no longer care.
-If your husband was the kind of guy who could repair anything, your taps will begin dripping, your furnace will go on the frizz, and your car will develop an unidentifiable noise.

the government will find a reason to tax you. My husband was worth a great deal to me, but I’d be hard pressed to put a Dollar value on him. Not so Customs Canada. They knew his value as I discovered when I picked up his ashes. The duty on the goods came to $ 72.00.

people will ask: How did he die? I suggest preparing a CD outlining the circumstances of his death (hotel room, Madrid), the exact cause (aneurysm of the aorta), his age (76), treatment he received (autopsy), treatment I received (amazing offers of assistance from hotel management, consulate, AND Air Canada, an organization not widely known for its amazing offers of assistance).  When The Question is asked, hit “play” and leave the room unless masochism is one of your dominant character traits.

INEVITABLY, you will want to bitch about life. Now you can do it with impunity! There is a period of grace for widows. No one will dare accuse you of being a bitch, even if you are.

Thursday 8 October 2015


I’ve recently been widowed and am wondering: Should I start an advice column for people in my position? I don’t mean advice about dealing with grief – there’s plenty of that on the web, none of which helps. No, I mean, about the practical stuff that goes with being widowed. Here are some observations.
-       You will be making many phone calls to cancel things the dead man no longer needs and to put into your name things you continue to need, such as electricity, heating, the car, insurance…
-       This name-changing process involves calling numerous companies and government agencies, which in turn involves listening to a great deal of Muzak and being told that your time is greatly valued, but no agent is available at the present time. BTW: No matter when you call, they will experience a higher than usual volume of calls.
-       After pressing 1 for English, you will be listening to a long list of options, none of which fit your case. And even if one of them does, the robot will not understand your answers. When you finally reach a live agent, the conversation will begin with velvety condolences, but end with the usual chirpy signoff: Have a good day! Do NOT make the mistake of asking how you can have a good day when you are devastated. You will be put on hold to speak to a specialist, which involves listening to more Muzak…
-       Death certificate: Scan it into your PC. You’ll need many copies. Absolutely everybody needs to see it. You will be asked a dozen identifying questions to make sure you are not a crank caller.  But even if you know the name of your husband’s first pet and the maiden name of his grandmother, Mother Bell will not cancel the dead man’s cell phone unless you send in that certificate!

To be continued, as I accumulate more experience as a recent widow.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

James Hawes on Kafka

Continuing with Kafa’s Letter to His Father:
Getting married, establishing a family, accepting all children that happen to be conceived, to support them in this uncertain world and give them even a little guidance – I am convinced that is the utmost a human being can achieve. It is no counter argument to say that many people appear to achieve those things with ease, for first of all only few people achieve it in truth, and secondly those few do not actively seek that result. Rather it happens to them. It may not be the ultimate, but it is nevertheless a great and honourable achievement (especially because action and happenstance cannot be strictly separated). And in the end the point is not to reach the ultimate goal, but to approach it, yet go a respectable distance. It is not necessary to soar to the centre of the sun, as long as one manages to crawl to a clean little spot on earth, which is reached by the rays of the sun occasionally and where one can find a little warmth. How was I prepared for that step? As poorly as can be.

I remember an evening walk with you and mother. We were at the Josefsplatz near what is now the Länderbank, and I started to talk of those “interesting things” [i.e. sex] in a foolish, bragging, superior, proud, cool (feigned), cold (in truth) manner. I stuttered the way I often did in your presence, reproached you for leaving me unprepared, so that my classmates had to take care of me. I came close to being in great danger (here I lied shamelessly, as was my habit in order to appear daring). In fact because of my timidity I had no clear idea of the “great dangers”, knew only the usual sins city boys commit in bed, yet I indicated in the end, that luckily I knew everything by then, needed no advice, and everything was alright. But I had started on this topic primarily because it gave me pleasure at least to talk of the subject, also out of curiosity, and finally to avenge somehow whatever you had done to me. You simply accepted my words, as was your way. You said only that you could advise me on how I might engage in these things without risk. Perhaps that was the kind of reply I was fishing for. It suited the lasciviousness of a child fed on meat and all good things, physically inactive, and forever focused on himself. Yet my sense of decency was so hurt, or at least I thought it had to be hurt, that against my own inclination I could no longer speak with you about that topic and arrogantly or insolently broke off the conversation.
(Source: Letter to my Father, text on; my translation)

Monday 5 October 2015

Irene Nemirovsky

The setting: France during WWI.
Soldiers in the trenches. He had been prepared to die a heroic death, but soon the idea of death terrified him…as he looked at the little blackish heaps lying between two trenches, dead bodies as numerous and insignificant as dead flies in the first cold snap of winter.
Returning soldiers: All they wanted to do was eat as much as possible, get drunk, go wild…The beast would be released, the beast you had carried within yourself and kept under control for four long years.
A woman in the post-war years:
Marriage: Mediocre marriages are based on partial confidences, she thinks: one of you lets slip a confession, a sigh; a fragment of some dream or desire is shared, but then fear sets in; it is retracted…but it is too late. The other has seen your tears, a certain smile, an expression that is hard to forget.
The superiority of men. I have to give in, she thought. After all, men are stronger, more intelligent than we are. If he thinks that this is what love is, nothing more than sleeping around, he must be right. I can’t stand up to him, I can’t. I couldn’t prove to him that he’s wrong.
Married love. His boredom, a kind of gloomy inertia of the soul, had set in very soon after they were married…He doesn’t love me any more, she thought, but when reality is too bitter, we reject it; the heart protects itself against the truth and tirelessly invent its own dreams. It will all pass, she told herself.

Despair. We don’t give in easily to despair. We put up barriers of hope, which we have to remove one by one, and only then does despair penetrate to the heart of man who gradually recognizes the enemy, calls it by name, and is horrified.

Thursday 1 October 2015

KAFKA AND MARRIAGE. Frailty, lack of self-confidence, and guilt feelings.

I had almost no sense of the meaning and possibility of marriage for me…As a child I developed very slowly. These things were too external, too far removed from me. Occasionally there was a need to think of marriage but there was no indication that I was up for a continual, decisive, not to say, most bitter test. In reality my attempts to marry became the greatest and most hopeful attempt to escape you, and my failure was correspondingly great.  Since everything in that area is a failure, I fear I will not succeed in making you understand the significance of my attempts at marriage, and yet the success of this whole letter to you depends on it, for on the one hand all positive strength available to me was concentrated in those attempts, on the other hand all negative strengths accumulated in them too, and with a passion – all the results of your education, which I have described, that is: frailty, lack of self-confidence, and guilt feelings. They formed a kind of barrier between myself and marriage.  It is difficult moreover to offer an explanation because I have spent so many days and nights digging through and thinking about this subject that I am momentarily disoriented. The only element that makes my explanation easier is your complete misinterpretation of the matter, at least in my opinion. It does not seem to be difficult to introduce at least a small correction in this complete misinterpretation of yours.

First of all, you place my failure to marry among my other failures. I wouldn’t object to that, as long as you accept the explanation for my failures which I have offered.  My failure to marry is part of that chain, but you underestimate the significance of this matter to such an extent that when we speak of it, we actually speak of different things. I dare say nothing ever happened to you in your whole life which had such significance for you as my attempts to marry had for me…

(Source: Letter to my Father, text on; my translation)