Archive for category Prose
I don’t watch basketball and had no idea who Kobe Bryant was, but when his name popped up on a Ugandan newspaper that I read online, I knew this was a person of some prominence. I do know other people that might not be renowned slam-dunkers, people like Paul Tillich or Pablo Casals, but we all inhabit the worlds we carve out for ourselves. Yet tragedy, as Shakespeare knew, has the ability to bring us together, to unite humanity, as do stories and jokes. A well-tuned witticism is like a glass of cool, clear water, unless you are in the desert in which case water is better, and misplaced witticisms might upset fellow fatamorganists.
I was a middle child and, as any middle child will tell you, it’s a role suited only for individuals of utmost intelligence, grace, and modesty. The first child is arrogant, the last child is spoiled, we all know that, whereas the middle child is the glue that keeps the family, indeed society, together, even when faced with trial & tribulation (who, like Simon & Garfunkel, work best together). I told jokes in class when I was eight or ten, I continued in the Royal Life Guards, at the factory where I worked after school, welding plastic, breathing styrene and benzene vapors, like all healthy boys did, and the jokes continued at the university – Genghis Khan, but Immanuel Kant – and I never knew why or gave it much thought. It was just something that happened, like breathing, like jumping into a British racing green Triumph TR6 that someone had left idling at a gas station by a sign that said, “NO IDLING”. Someone had to do it, right?
The quipster is like a sheep-herding dog, keeping the flock together in times of peril and poor visibility, and when shepherds are mentioned more than 500 times in Scripture, it’s not because we should all invest in the Sheep Index and don sandals, but because they keep the flock together despite being exposed to the extremes of cold and heat, despite attacks of wild beasts, the equivalent of modern-day cable tv.
Tragedy is something we share, and any thirteen-year-old girl perishing is heartbreaking. The loss of a young life is a collective loss, as children are part of the global herd, even if you’ve never met them. One could argue, of course, that aging is a curse, too – unless you don’t experience it, then it’s a blessing. I state this to sum up a minuscule fragment of the complexities of life, and you’re welcome, don’t mention it. Aging happens incrementally, like air seeping out of a tire, like a crack in the windshield of existence that gains one sixteenth of an inch each time you slam the door. If aging happened instantly, it would be called an accident.
I flew from San Francisco to JFK on the morning of the helicopter crash in LA, and the only remotely eventful thing that happened was that I got up twice and each time I came back, someone had put my aisle seat in the upright position. A real whodunnit, the Airbus A321 equivalent of Murder on the Orient Express at 30.000 feet. Well, the guy next to me was sleeping. The person in front of me? Why on earth (so to speak) would he do that? Neither could it be the person on the other side as no one reaches across the aisle anymore. So it had to be the young lady behind me who, for the duration of the flight, did not look up from her smartphone.
As we waited on the tarmac, all 200 of us standing with our necks bent at an angle of approximately 35 degrees, the only non-fracture position worse than staying in the seat, I could have said something – “I know what you did over Utah and Nebraska, young lady,” – but I didn’t. I strive to be graceful and was worried she might say, “Get a life!” with that millennial tone of voice that implies, “As you lay dying, I’ll be ordering oysters and dance all night.” Besides, vengeance belongs to the Lord, though I doubt He preordained that I ended up walking behind her to Baggage Claim, but as she turned and saw me fifteen feet away, the look on her face indicated that her seat-back-adjusting days over fly-over-country are a thing of the past.
As we all too soon will be. For now, I’m back in New York, writing over coffee in the old kitchen, with the lines of an old Leonard Cohen tune humming in my head:
It’s four in the morning, the end of December
I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better
New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening
Well, by now it’s six in the morning, the end of January, Cohen has left the building, and the music on Clinton Street stopped years ago, as the Lower East Side was hijacked by independently wealthy kids in shoes that cost more than my car. But New York is still cold and I am indeed writing you now just to see if you’re better. Aging and accidents teach us to cherish each other more profoundly. And she can have her oysters. I already had mine, and they were delicious.
Dave: No politics over dinner, okay?
John: What do you mean, no politics?
Dave: I mean, don’t mention the election…
John: Well, you just did…
Dave: Let’s have a nice time together, okay?
John: A nice time? With that moron you voted for?
Dave: You don’t know who I voted for?
John: I do too.
Dave: Let’s just have some turkey…
John: And talk about the weather?
Dave: Yes, let’s talk about the weather.
John: And global temperatures and rising sea levels?
Dave: Like I said, no politics?
John: So now we can’t talk about the weather?
Dave: We can, but not like that.
John: You decide how we talk about the weather?
Dave: I really wish I could explain this to you…
John: Why can’t you?
Dave: You wouldn’t get it.
John: Why not?
Dave: People like you never do.
John: What do you mean people like me?
Dave: Let’s just have some turkey…
John: You mean Republicans?
Dave: Ha, so now you’re a Republican?
John: Oh, I thought you said, no politics?
Dave: I can’t believe you voted Republican.
John: Look, it’s snowing. So much for global warming…
Dave: I really thought you were smarter than that, John.
John: Who says I voted Republican?
Dave: You did.
John: Maybe I changed my mind.
Dave: You can’t change your mind after the election.
John: The president-elect can…
Dave: Let’s just forget about it.
John: Say, was that a Hillary sign on your lawn?
Dave: You know that was a joke.
John: You can say that again…
Dave: My neighbors are all pro-Trump.
John: So you put out a Hillary sign but didn’t vote for her?
Dave: I’m not going to talk politics…
John: You’re such a bad loser.
Dave: How is that?
John: People like you always are.
Dave: What do you mean people like me?
John: Let’s just have some turkey.
Dave: Oh, now you want turkey?
John: Sure, I’ll even carve. Where’s the knife?
Dave: Just forget about it…
John: No, I’ll carve.
Dave: Better let me do it.
John: Wait a second, Dave…
John: Did you hide the knife?
Dave: It’s just a precaution.
John: Wow, this is not the America I grew up in.
Dave: Yes, it is, because you must have been born yesterday.
John: That’s rude.
Dave: So is ruining America.
John: Well, let’s be Independent then and eat with our hands…
Dave: It was just to be on the safe side, John.
John: Give me that darn knife.
Dave: You can’t be trusted with a knife.
John: Why not?
Dave: For one, you can’t tick the right box with a pen.
John: I’ll carve the damn turkey with my pocketknife…
Dave: You brought a knife to my house?
John: Second Amendment, Dave.
Dave: You can’t even spell amendment…
John: Forget about it, I’m not having any turkey.
Dave: Why not?
John: Just not having any…
Dave: Why not?
John: Well, it’s cold by now.
Dave: The thermometer says 165F…
John: You can’t trust that.
Dave: Guess you really are a Republican…
John: You know very well that I trust science, Dave.
Dave: Well, have a bite then…
John: But the thermometer, it’s made in China, you can’t trust it.
Dave: So is your iPad.
John: No, it’s not…
Dave: Where then? The coalmines of Appalachia.
John: Just not made in China. Period.
Dave: Come on, let’s have some turkey…
John: Just look at this meat…
Dave: What‘s wrong with it?
John: You had one chance to get it right…
Dave: Better get used to that.
John: Used to what?
Dave: Let’s just say it’s a Trump turkey.
John: What is that supposed to mean?
Dave: You’re stuck with it and you won’t like the taste.
John: I thought you said, no politics.
Dave: I changed my mind.
I don’t use emoticons
Or exclamation marks
And I don’t capitalize words
To make them brawl and bark
I use italics sparingly
Like fish sauce or Danish Blue
Lest my paragraphs become
Potpourris or cheese fondue.
Language is like music
With precision, grace and mojo
Exaggeration makes the world
Pocket-sized and so-so
From Shakespeare to Updike
They never needed an air hammer
The real power-tool for the job
Is a little thing called grammar.
A brief note: I have been invited to make an appearance on “A Prairie Home Companion” on May 10, 2014.
The show is live from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. I won’t even try to explain what the Ryman means to me. Tune in and see what we come up with.
You can listen to the show live (and later) here: