Sunday, July 10, 2011, does anybody really know what time it is?

"Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master - and that is what Auguste Rodin was - can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is...and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be...and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired. But it does to them."  Robert A. Heinlein

None were bystanders. The music reached inside each of us. Some jitterbugged their cares away. But she sat very still and watched the dancers. I watched her. High cheekbones, shining silver hair, smart black eyeglasses, good posture. Her smile hinted of memories, her eyes fixed on the couples who spun in front of her. A thousand eyes might have been watching her. Or none. She was unaware. No preening or self-conscious moment. At ease, grace-filled, free.

After each song, the dancers parted. Some left. Others led new partners to the floor. A thoughtful, dark-haired young man, propped against a ledge, waited his turn. His moment came when a tall, lithe brunette walked over and asked him to dance with her.  He took her hand and they moved effortlessly to “In the Mood”. I saw the older lady smile and imagined her twirling in the arms of a handsome man. In front of her, the lucky young fellow remained partner of choice when the strains of "Stardust" filled the air. Ah, magic! My aunt had often played this for me on the upright piano in the living room of my grandparents’ house. The sheet music with its photo of Hoagy Carmichael is one of my treasures yet.

These memories - redolent of a WWII-era USO dance - are recent...yesterday, July 10, 2011. Across from the bookstore at UC, Berkeley. Tunes blared from a single speaker attached to an iPod: sweet and sassy big band songs from the forties sandwiched between rock n’roll songs from the fifties. I swayed to “Rock Around the Clock”. Years after the film of the same name was released, I watched Bill Hailey and the Comets onscreen at the Martin Theatre in Dublin, Georgia. Now I smiled as young people, born decades after this mid-century hit, revelled in its beat.

In the summer of 2006 I listened to a pianist at the Top of the Mark, high above San Francisco Bay. The songs that evening also transported me to another era. I sat where Tony Bennett had crooned, where sailors had danced before shipping out to the Pacific theatre. And glanced at “Weeper’s Corner”, where wives and sweethearts gathered to watch loved ones depart in ships far below. This excerpt from an article by Judy Zimmerman in the Orange County Register recounts a bit of the history:

"My B-24 crew and I were awaiting orders when my wife of eight months boarded a train in Topeka, Kan., to join me for one last good-bye," said retired Air Force Col. Clifford W. Muchow. "I told her to meet me at the Top of the Mark."

Tradition has it that when things got really tough in the Pacific, servicemen would pledge to one another that "We're going to make it through this, and I'll buy you a drink at the Top of the Mark." Those who returned would ask the bartender for their unit's bottle (usually bourbon).

"Once a serviceman signed his name on the label, he could drink from the bottle for free," said Hank Cancel, a former bartender at the lounge. "There was only one catch: The man who took the last drink was required to buy a new bottle."

There was also a notebook registry for each unit's bottle. A serviceman would write his name and the date, one unofficial way of keeping track of who made it back.

"Sometimes it was sad," Cancel said. "One guy told me that when he returned, he was the only one who had signed the registry, so he assumed everyone else in his squadron had died in battle."

Perhaps we are all bound not by victories but by our vulnerabilities, our frailties, even our failures. The lady sitting by the fountain mirrored this truth. Time had left its mark on her face. But I saw incredible beauty. Probably because she was unconcerned with what others saw or thought. Unconcerned, even, that others looked. And I saw strength. Her countenance reminded me of a passage from Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Stargazer by Sena Jeter Naslund: "If you meet a woman of whatever complexion who sails her life with strength and grace and assurance, talk to her! And what you will find is that there has been a suffering, that at some time she has left herself for hanging dead."

Mr. Henlein, you are right in this: I do not feel old inside. But I take exception to your conclusion. We are bound by the need to be admired only if we choose this prison. In my late autumn (I’m also an optimist), I prefer to admire. To celebrate art and music, the beauty of creation, new vistas, fellow sojourners. And, when I fall, to shout loud “thank-you’s” for the grace that sustains.

Wrinkles happen. But the beat of a jitterbug or the shag still stirs the girl who lives within. Like my fellow watcher, I have memories of other dances. Some lovely and innocent, others bittersweet. Like those who sailed to battle and those who remained behind, I have scars of grief. But, like Mr. Garth Brooks, I am thankful for every spin around the floor. 

Yes my life is better left to chance. 
I could have missed the pain but I'd have had to miss the dance.