Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike & Me

I had joked about it, had joked with colleagues that I would see him on the elevator. And what would I say? What would I do? Judy K., my manager, had seen John Updike, with a briefcase, one morning on the subway as she, and presumably he, traveled to Random House (Alfred A. Knopf, for him) from uptown Manhattan. She related to the rest of us that she said nothing to him. Joseph Heller was on the elevator one day. I said nothing. But on a hot sunny day, circa 1987, I spotted John Updike as I was leaving the building at lunchtime. Something about his gangly stride confirmed my suspicion. (Did he wear a jacket and tie? Seersucker?) I changed course and returned to the building, awaiting his entrance. What would I say, if anything? (Everything I relate now is washed over by waves and waves of memory and bleached by the selective sanitizing of lapsed years.) "Mr. Updike?" "Yes?" He (as with other authors I have encountered in public, such as Mona Simpson, at Scribner's on Fifth Avenue in the same era) seemed pleasantly surprised that anyone would recognize him. After all, he may have felt, I'm an author, not a rock star or an athlete; this is America, where authors garner a degree of anonymity. Or perhaps his reaction merely exhibited his courtly kindness. "I really love so much of what you've written," I stammered. (I hope my words were at least that positive. I did not want to be a phony liar, but I also did not want to be a rude idiot.) "Well, thank you. Thank you very much." I sheepishly said, "Do you mind if I ask you for an autograph?" as I fumbled for a piece of paper and writing instrument. I found a piece of Random House notepaper with my name imprinted on it (a cool thing to have while working there; made one look and feel important, even if you were a factotum). I must have mumbled to him that I worked at Random House (in the now-defunct School Division, where Toni Morrison once worked, I'm told, and a division that elicited a "Huh?" while I once fielded softballs in the outfield at Central Park with the likes of Ashbel Green and other Knopf editors). He asked me my name so that on the back of this memo notepaper he could address his autograph personally "here in the lobby of 201 E. 50th John Updike." In black ink. And thank you for that and for all the delicious volumes of your words and works. And for your twinkling delight in this life. May you rest and peace and may light perpetual shine upon you.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

It Once Was Lost But Now Is Found

"It once was lost but now is found," to mimic the words of "Amazing Grace," first encountered by me via Judy Collins. I thought it was a folk song, not a hymn. What did I know? The "it" here refers to my Obama '08 campaign button, whose loss was lamented in the preceding post.

I found "it" today by reaching into the right pocket of my black dress pants.


I thought I had already looked there.

"It" appears when one is ready, or not at all.

Can't create coincidence.

Or was "it" here all along?


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Letting Go of Letting Go

I've posted before of losing things. Things like what? Objects, objets d'art, detritus, money, talismans, omens, flotsam, jetsam, effluvia, phylacteries, memorabilia, memory, vice, virtue, navel lint, connection, magnetism, mass, thinness, agility, and gravity; not to mention love and loved ones.

I can't find my Obama campaign button.

Bothers the hell out of me.

For weeks and weeks, I know precisely where I had kept it: on my bureau (actually my wife's but I've been using part of the top of it since I've lived here), right next to my deodorant. That is a rock-solid certainty.

Then several days ago, I retrieved the button. Why? I guess to wear it for the inaugural events. A badge of pride.

But I didn't wear it. I kept it in my coat pocket, the pocket of my winter coat, fingering it like a novitiate telling his beads, keeping track of the button's whereabouts so I would not misplace it.

Then I extracted it at some point out of my coat pocket for, um, safekeeping.




God knows (presumably) (is it not presumptuous of us to assign the metaphysical boundaries of omnipotent knowledge? Maybe I've placed this mere object beyond the verge?).

It's not just the fetshistic and ritualistic attachments I am prone to, not just the neurotic-obsessive -compulsive mania; it's also the abject despair of: This Is It. This Is What the Sunset Years Will Consist Of. This And So Much Painfully More.

Plus, the shame of knowing that no one believes me when I say I know exactly where it was (past tense being operative here).

Spare us, O Lord.

Isn't that the refrain of many a litany?

The Litany of the Lost?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sparkling Words of Wintry Inaugural

I was a bit harsh on myself yesterday. I can see now the ambivalence in the phrase "winter of our discontent." It can conceivably mean not only the ebb, the terminus of a time of discontent, but also a winter consisting of discontent. The latter meaning was ignored when Mr. Kokonuts called himself a "simple mind" or some such yesterday.

It turns out that Pawlie Kokonuts was a bit of a prescient pundit in using this wintry metaphor. Barack Obama closed his inauguration speech with rich winter symbolism, drawing on words of George Washington.

Here's the excerpt:

In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Winter of Our Discontent?

Being an English major (LeMoyne College, 1970), I know that "Now is the winter of our discontent" are the opening words to William Shakespeare's play Richard III, a tragedy whose eponymous cinematic portrayal by Sir Laurence Olivier I still remember.

I confess my simple mind has sometimes been confused by those lines. Um, let me see: if it's the winter of the discontent, then it must equal the season of content, right? Huh? Yeah, Pawlie.

I am taking these lines terribly out of context -- and Richard III is a villain -- but my prayer is that it may indeed be the winter of our discontent and that it may indeed be true that "grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front."

God bless Barack Obama on his journey, on our journey.

And here's some majestic footage to enjoy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Ice, Man, Cometh -- and Goeth

The houses on Tipperary Hill are snuggled very close together. (Question to Mark Murphy and other editors: "very closely together"?) I was going to say: "which has its advantages," but then I could not think of any such advantages. There are drawbacks, though, to the proximity of domicile structures each to each (notice I did not use the loathsome redundancy "close proximity"?). In the winter, the icicles hanging from roofs of adjacent buildings pose a threat. Well, they don't pose a threat per se, but the potential of falling icicles poses a threat. A grave threat. I casually observed today that the downhill sides of houses seem to have the larger icicles. (Makes sense. Gravity and all that.) Yes, yes, I know that formations of icicles are indications of improperly heated houses, or so I am told. You do what you can, just to pay the monthly National Grid bill. About 30 years ago in downtown Syracuse someone died from a falling icicle. Ironically enough, it was a huge icicle that fell from a cathedral during the installation of a new bishop. A neighbor of mine at the time, a recently deceased former arson investigator, used to say an icicle is the perfect weapon: no fingerprints, no weapon, once it melts. Which brings me to my point: it is possible, hypothetically speaking, that one year a huge icicle just may have plunged from one house and crashed into the house of a nearby neighbor, cascading right through the tenant's dining room window, through the blinds and all. Theoretically speaking, that is. I mean, how is one supposed to control one's icicles, anyway, metaphorically speaking? No injuries reported or alleged.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

cold enough for ya?

oh were not the coldest in syracuse its colder in places like thief river falls minnesota but its so cold the keyboard crinkles and sticks and freezes and punctuates poorly missing a beat on commas semicolons apostrophes colons and gets caught on enter
enter sometimes called return
return return even cold enough to have cities villages towns hamlets mandate coats and hats and gloves for public statues cold enough to make one wonder hey do we need all those commas serial commas or otherwise or question marks or exclamation marks hyphens all that redaction kind of thing question mark and as for its with the apostrophe versus its without it no one except an elite few seems to care anyway giving a cold shoulder to redaction rules and regulations regs some call em cold enough to cause people cold to sleep closer snuggling even when smoldering mad at each other cold nough to reconsider hot heat of temper and intemperate tantrums tending to tantric tangos now were really frozen all the rulesslippingintoonelandlockedwordlockedfrozenriverofletters
that cold

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Litany of Wintry Gamboling

A crevice of light in the sky.

The Slavic man shouting into his cell, outside his car, in the night, echoing.


Our dog gamboling in drifts spindrift snow dolphin leaping.

Wet pavement black.

Leaps of faith that say, "This is this; exalt!"

The pebble in my hiking boot that turns out to be a grain of (rock) salt.

Biblical pillars of shoveled detritus.

Naked branches.

The missing chickadee.

Muzzle in the shards of crystalline alabaster.


Lex Mix Pix

I recently received, from my brother, for my birthday, or possibly Christmas (they're only a week apart), The Lexicon: a cornucopia of wonderful words for the inquisitive word lover by William F. Buckley Jr.

Here's a random sampling, followed by the results of a self-imposed challenge beforehand: a spontaneous, rapid-fire attempt to use all the words in one sentence (more or less correctly).

eleemosynary (adjective) -- Of or relating to charity.

nescient (adjective) -- From nescience, the doctrine that nothing is truly knowable.

periphrastic (adjective) -- Ornately long-winded; given to profuse formulations.

congeries (noun) -- A collection; accumulation; aggregation.

bumptiousness (noun) -- The quality of one who is presumptuously, obtusely, and often nosily self-assertive.

breviary (noun) -- An ecclesiastical book containing the daily prayers or canonical prayers for the canonical hours.

indite (verb) -- To write, compose; to set down in writing.

raillery (noun) -- good-natured ridicule; pleasantry touched with satire; banter, chaffing, mockery.

traduce (verb) -- To lower or disgrace the reputation of; expose to shame or blame by utterance of falsehood or misrepresentation.

I may have indicted myself by attempting to indite a grammatically correct sentence in one periphrastic sitting using this entire congeries of words, an effort that in retrospect may have been enhanced by praying from a breviary and calling upon the eleemosynary qualities of a divine power so as not to invite rampant raillery by having traduced the rules of syntax and etiquette elicited by my bumptiousness and nescient arrogance.

(That took about four minutes, such as it was.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Evanescent Epiphany

Burnet Park. Three vehicles roll down the hill. They stop, lined up as in a parade. Amber lights flashing atop the vehicles. Hard-hatted people emerge. Three Kings? Three Queens? Two Jacks and an Ace? They walk up to lightpoles. A polar eclipse? An elliptical polarity? They are fussing with extension cords. They are here to de-light the park of holyday hollyday holiday illuminations. I head home. I stop. I turn back, facing lightward, waiting for proof of my ruminative illuminative de-lighting delightful theory without recrimination. An epiphany in reverse, as it were, as it was, as it ever shall be. The dog tugs. The lights are still on. Homeward. Eponymous day night eve ever everyes.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Wordy Wordilicious Word of the Year

My award for 2008 Wordy Wordilicious Word of the Year is:


It describes an arcane financial instrument that symbolizes the economic collapse visited upon us by people using obscure words for even more obscure products. To round out the chimera obscura, news stories about the handout of up to $700 billion (to the guilty parties no less!) refer to the "first tranche" of the bailout, as if a French word prettifies the robbery.

One might say, "We are in the tranches encountering a tranche da vie avec la tranche l'oeil." Somesing like zat.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The PANTheon of Bargains

This recession has its benefits. A few days ago, way back in 2008, I learned this first-hand. I am not extravagant. Correction: I am not extravagant when it comes to purchasing, especially clothes, an area where I am puritanically frugal, seeking to ferret out sensational bargains (though prone to wild-abandon impulse buying at inexplicable times), a mercantile abstemiousness exercised not just by me but also imposed on those around me, but I can be recklessly extravagant in the swirl and sprawl of a single sentence, sodden with solipsistic reverie and rollicking verbosity, yet obedient to the rules of grammar, syntax, and style, as with this very example, complete with its own serial comma. Back to the benefits of an economy quieted by its earlier excesses: Ralph Lauren Polo jeans. Black. Originally marked $125. Normally, I would not look at them. In fact, I'd likely rail against their very existence in this space. Marked down to $99.99, now hanging on a 50% off rack. Lord & Taylor's. Then a 20% off coupon. $39.99. $41.59 with tax. Still exorbitant for me, and admittedly I was lured by the dramatic differential from the so-called original price and what I ultimately paid, and aware of the hollowness and trickery of all that. But still. Better than the $12 jeans from Old Navy given me at Christmas, pants that won't be worn by me because, because, there are buttons, buttons! instead of a zipper, on the fly. No way that flies for me, no way. (But on the Polo pants some colorful stitching on the coin pocket: three polo-playing jockeys on well-nigh-flying horses; must be why the pants were so chic. Pedigree. All that.) Bye.

9 Things I Learned in 2008

2008. Already it is so yesterday. Before I close the portals of the last year, I offer you an inevitable year-end tally (though you will see no inevitable resolutions for the new year in this space), an accounting rooted in things personal, more or less, less or more.

1. Yes, we can; yes, we did.

2. One can reinvent one's work life, given the grace of talent, opportunity, and others' graciousness and generosity -- all critically important givens.

3. Loss happens. Sometimes it's surprising, sometimes it's unfathomable, sometimes it rewarding. It is always inevitable.

4. The 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. scenario, give or take a few hours, is something I may never return to.

5. I like my MacBook; had hated laptops; never owned a laptop until my newly formed business called for one.

6. My office can extend to anywhere I am. This is not news, but it is something I understood empirically in 2008.

7. Follow-up, even of the most mundane prior minutiae, is one of my most daunting challenges each day.

8. It's all on paper, but is it real?

9. Words like "socialism" and "capitalism" either mean nothing or mean things we never were taught.