Tuesday, December 31, 2019

On the Radio

At the very flattering invitation of Mr. John O'Brien of KUOW, I've recreated my latest Holiday reading for listeners of his excellent broadcast, Speaker's Forum. Here then that version.

Daily Dose

From  The British Essayists; with Prefaces Biographical, Historical, and Critical, Volume 24, by Robert Lynam


"In the ornamental department of science, has there been any thing, since the days of Medea, that could so effectually give beauty to homeliness, or restore youth to age as the Circassian Wash, or the Venetian Flower-water? or has the cunning of art ever rivalled the productions of nature more successfully than in the Elastic Cushion and Spring Curls, 'which,' says the advertisement, 'are as natural and becoming, nay, by many thought more so, than the natural hair itself?'"

From The Mirror, #80. Saturday, February 12, 1780, by Henry Mackenzie.

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From  The British Essayists; with Prefaces Biographical, Historical, and Critical, Volume 1, by Robert Lynman


"... certain persons may turn what we mean for panegyric into scandal, let it be answered once for all, that if our praises are really designed as raillery, such malevolent persons owe their safety from it, only to their being too inconsiderable for history."

From The Tatler, #50. Thursday, August 4, 1709, by Richard Steele

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The War: A Memoir, by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray


"The grimace may be a laugh."

From page 20 this edition

Saturday, December 28, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Farm, by Hector Abad, translated by Anne McLean


"He was also a womanizer, more than by vocation, by a strange magnetism he held over women. He didn't have to ask them, they asked him, and maybe this got him accustomed to intimacy and to an almost unconscious flirtation with them all, young and old, ugly and pretty. He was flirting until the day of his death, in the last week, with the nurses who took care of him in the clinic, and who liked to go into his room and look after him and laugh with him, a dying man."

Friday, December 27, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Make It Scream, Make It Burn, by Leslie Jamison


"We claim something not by making it, but by making it useful."

From Layover Story

Thursday, December 26, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Voices from the Street, by Philip K. Dick


"The world spread out below him on all sides made him feel immense: practically a giant. Miles high, he gazed up at the sun and sheer blue sky and sucked in vast lungfuls of air."

From Part Three, Evening

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From  The British Essayists; with Prefaces Biographical, Historical, and Critical, Volume 12, by Robert Lynman


"Many impose upon the world, and many upon themselves, by an appearance of severe and exemplary diligence, when they, in reality, give themselves up to the luxury of fancy, please their minds with regulating the past, or planning out the future; place themselves at the will in varied situations of happiness, and slumber away their days in voluntary visions."

From The Rambler, #89. Tuesday, January 22, 1751., by Samuel Johnson

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


Daily Dose

From Impossible Owls: Essays, by Brian Phillips


"Once upon a time there was a writer whose fear of God was so great he died of it."

From The Little Grey Wolf Will Come

Monday, December 23, 2019

A Very Carny Christmas

Old Man Beale didn't give a good goddamn if me and Cloda was "an item." "Just keep it off the midway," he told us. Come Christmas, in winter quarters, we was still together, despite her old man trying to kill me with tent-hook back in Ohio. Old Beale wanted us to sit on his lap for the Santa picture, like he always done, but Cloda wouldn't and I don't blame her. "Just take the picture," I told the guy and he did. Even if she goes back to her old man by New Years I'm keeping the picture. We look good together.

A Very Short Tempered Christmas

It wasn't five minutes before Pert had to sit on that damned scooter.  Dress riding up, no shoes on her feet, making a damned fool of herself, like she did. "Take my picture!" Of course they did and everybody laughing. I knew it was a bad idea to let the old girl near the thing. I'd tried to tell them, you get a thing like that, and Pert will be on it and riding down your children before you can say, "Merry Christmas." Hushed me right up, like they always do. What do I know? I've only been married to the woman for 28 years. Tried to show her how to regulate the speed, but would anybody listen to me? Hell no. Tried to pull her off it. Next thing you know the cat's deader than possum on the road and everybody's crying and carrying on like somebody died. Woman spoils every damned thing.

Daily Dose

From Talk Like a Man Plus..., by Nisi Shawl


"'Can I ask you something?'
The lady stopped, keeping the tip of her pastel against the page, unmoving. 'There's no time.'"

From Something More

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Very Short Christmas in the New World

Misty was house proud. Who could blame her? That chamber-pot was better than two hundred years old. Hers was an old and respected family. The move to Alaska had been hard. No one in Juno seemed to give a tinker's damn about the Daughters of the American Revolution, hand-blown Swiss ornaments, the Paul Revere spoons. With Tom out on the rigs all winter and no one to really fix the heater until Monday, she settled in for the Christmas siege determined to show herself a good time. The boy from the beer-distributor  made it up the drive, bless him. Only right to ask him in for a drink. He seemed interested in everything, bless him. When he left the next morning with the spoons she wasn't in a mood to argue.

Daily Dose

From The British Essayists, Volume 19, with Prefaces, Biographical, Historical, and Critical, by Robert Lynam


"'For my own part, I cannot see the difference between having a house that is always dirty, and a house that is always to be cleaned.'"

From the Connoisseur, #103. Thursday, January 15, 1756.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Library Pass

Daily Dose

From Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934 - 1995, edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowe


"PS: don't misunderstand me about Christianity etc. I'm not being an opium-of-the-people merchant. It just offended me to see journalists who wouldn't dare be frank about homosexuality and who until lately treated the Church as if it were the Royal Family suddenly kicking their heels and making idiotic remarks such as 'this is not really a Christian country' etc. It's like a fish saying it doesn't believe in the sea. We are sunk in Christianity whether we like it or not, not only culturally but morally. Paganism is a privilege of a few."

From a letter to Brigid Brophy, dated Steeple Aston, 14 April 1963.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Angelic Host

Daily Dose

From Lampedusa, by Steven Price


"The heart was a locked room."

From Love Returns to Sicily, October 1956

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Plowman's Lunch

Daily Dose

From The British Essayists; with Prefaces Biographical, Historical, and Critical, Volume 28, by the Rev. Robert Lynam


"But you must know, Sir, that the chief delight of my life is -- good eating; nor am I ashamed to own myself a GLUTTON; since I can at the same time boast that I am a moralizing one."

From Microcosm, #36. Monday, July 16, 1787.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Th Right Shoes

Daily Dose

From The British Essayists; with Prefaces Biographical, Historical, and Critical, Volume 17, by the Rev. Robert Lynam


"Love and friendship necessarily produce, and justly authorize, familiarity: but then good-breeding must mark out its bounds and say, 'Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther; for I have known many a passion and many a friendship degraded, weakened, and at last (if I may use the expression) wholly slatterned away, by an unguarded and illiberal familiarity."

From #148. Thursday, October 30, 1755, byPhilip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Finding and Losing

The poet Basho tells us, "the past isn't as far away as we think."

Well now, isn't it? It can certainly feel far off when one tries to get at it again, to lay hands on it, hold it, keep the warmth of it alive. Perhaps the poet was young when he wrote that, or very old. That would seem to me to be the conditions required, one or the other, for the past to be near enough for such easy retrieval. And really, how much of a past can one have at ten, or sixteen, or twenty? At that age our past -- most of it -- isn't even put away yet; it's still on the shelf in our parents' house, next to the toys we've made into totems, the books we won't open again but won't let anyone give away. It's just behind those graduation photographs, still as bright as the day they were taken. Most of us at twenty-five or thirty-two haven't the time to look back, so busy are we stumbling into adulthood, education, work, romance. (I realize this timeline requires a kind of personal security all but unknown to most of humanity for most of our history and to people in this building even now. I mean no disrespect to anyone for whom my little premise is untrue. Being grown up, as I feel safer now in saying I am, might well mean the admission that my life isn't much on which to premise anything. What I actually know fits, I should think, in my pocket, with plenty of room for my house-keys, loose change, and maybe an antihistamine or two.) From what I've read of it, and from the conversations I've had with those lucky and or unlucky enough to live into it, old age, and very old age in particular, is a space that narrows painfully but is eased a little by looking back; the past, while increasingly fragmentary can look quite bright -- from further on.

What is it anyway we are after, looking back? Is it the past after all we want? As desire goes, that seems to me a distinctly unhealthy, and unhelpful, pursuit. No good can come of nostalgia, at least nothing good ever has. That way madness lies: AM radio, "collectibles", tax-resisters and American exceptionalism, urban chicken coops and fancy mustache-wax, gerrymandering, and pining for the good old days of Soviet Union, the Caliphate, or the Citizens' Councils of Alabama, etc.

The past is a place we are well out of, mostly.

What I think we mean, what I think we want, most of us, is a story. What we long for -- specially this time of year -- is a familiar narrative, no?

"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed."

"Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring..."

"Marley was dead: to begin with."

"Ah, there it is,  my house. And good old Cleveland Street. How could I ever forget it?"

(Why we're here, really.)

Though to be honest, these stories are more corollary than foundation, don't you think? The stories we want most to retrieve are our own, or some better version thereof.

Family stories, after an age, don't get told straight very often, do they? We grow up, forget the name of the place, other people. Details decay for want of recall.

"'Member that time Dad bought the thing?!"

Everybody nods. Everybody smiles.

That's how we tell it now, among ourselves, not for convenience or really because of over-familiarity so much as because -- by a certain time -- we may not entirely remember why that story is funny, only that it was, and that we miss him.

Spare as a late Beckett play. Terse as a Dickinson poem -- with dashes to cradle all that now goes unspoken, misremembered, felt rather than articulated.

My Grandma kept a pot of coffee on the stove all damned day. She made it in the morning and they drank it with their breakfast. When Grandpa came home for lunch from "the Westinghouse", he turned the heat on under and added water to the grounds and egg-shells. That was a magical pot. Horrifying to think of drinking that coffee now but in its time and in its way, eternal and abundant, constantly renewed and deep as well. And they drank it black. Black, hot, and bitter. Whatever else that kitchen smelled of; good things like sharp cheese and pie, suppers and scrubbed surfaces, and bad as boiled ham and cabbage, wet boots on the back porch, that coffee cut through it all, summer, winter, spring, and fall, window open or closed.

Family stories work like that pot. What do we add in the telling that doesn't ultimately thin the thing to a shadow? Untended, how cold and bitter might the reduction of those days taste? We remember, most of us, just the warmth, with a hint of chicory, the sugar crusted on the rim of a cut-glass bowl, how big a teaspoon can feel in a five-year-old's hand.

And that, I would argue, is just fine. We need family, memory, familiarity, but we aren't any of us necessarily responsible for the details. We need stories, it's true, but that's what art does for us. The dead don't really ask anything of us anymore. We remember them or we don't, for ourselves, for our own sake. What we owed them we either gave or we didn't, while they were alive. The remembered cup may be bitter or sweet or both.

But great artists tell us stories large enough to keep some sense of our own stories in them. The art is perhaps in exactly that accommodation of memory, that capacity to take us in, and back to the warm kitchen we may or may not remember otherwise. It is, is it not? love that we look back at? Look for?

My stories I tell as well as I can with what I think I remember. The past, it seems, is not so far away as I thought, now I'm old enough to want it again. I'm sad to think what I've lost for want of the sense to ask before it was gone. But our stories, our story together, we find in art if nowhere else now, and that is a comfort, isn't it? That has been and continues to be a joy, and one all too easy to share.

Daily Dose

From The British Essayists; with Prefaces Biographical, Historical, and Critical, Volume 17, by the Rev. Robert Lynam


"It is a vulgar notion, and worthy of the vulgar, for it is both false and absurd, that passionate people are the best-natured people in the world."

From The World, #196. Thursday, September 30, 1756, by Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Monday, December 16, 2019


When I was a boy, Christmas was uglier. I don't mean to say some of it isn't ugly now. Lord knows ugly never goes entirely out of style. But it's an option now; just one way to go among many: a majestic scotch pine with tastefully arranged, unpainted wooden toy miniatures from Norway and twinkling white lights, or a vintage steel tree with Hello Kitty bulbs and a slow strobing color-wheel. 'Cause ugly can be ironic now, right? Well, back in the day, ugly just happened, all over the place, and we liked it.

Remember plastic yard-Santas lit spookily from within by a single, naked lightbulb? Pressed plastic Christmas door decorations made from colored chips that up-close made Frosty look poxy? Primitive felt hangings, long as a hand-knit scarf, that wished us all a "Merr_ Christmas" with a missing "y"? Wax reindeer with repaired necks, and slightly melted sleighs? Cotton-batting snow-scenes gray with coal-smoke, and creepy eyeless angels with open screaming mouths, and the disembodied heads of Mr. and Mrs. Claus, with burnt-out red lightbulb noses, and everywhere tat and and faded tinsel, threadbare stockings and inedible, garishly striped candy, and Nativity scenes with a one-armed baby Jesus and or a one-horned cow with wide, staring eyes...

It all smelled of mothballs and attic-damp, sizzling wires, recurrent penury, and making do.

It wasn't, among other things, nice, because it wasn't any of it new. It was all of it ugly and wonderfully, magically reiterative, and now I must say, much missed.

When and where I was a child, there was a way to such things. Nothing then ever seemed to go entirely away. Boxes rose out of the basement way once a year and what was in them what what there was to be had. Grandmothers folded wrapping-paper like it was printed money and kept closets full of the stuff, plus unknotted ribbons, and crushed bows. They'd have saved the scotch-tape for reuse, if there'd been a way to unstick it and roll it back up. That was what you did, then, or so it seemed at least to me, as I knew no better.

There was a way to things, all things and no one seemed to question any of it, for good or bad, which would prove, later on, a problem.

For instance, there were rules then about to whom one might or ought to give what come Christmas. Not family, you understand. Family saw to themselves. You got what you wanted or didn't, what you needed or wished for, asked for, or begged. But, no. This was to do with the rest: neighbors and acquaintance, coworkers, school teachers and mailmen, the paperboy, your mother's beautician or your father's barber, the pastor's wife, receptionists, bank-clerks, the building "super", the ladies at the dry-cleaners. I suspect some of this survives somewhere still, though I don't know that to be the case. Times change. The old way of things dies. Customs cease to be. We're not talking ancient traditions here, or the faith of our fathers. No one's the wiser for not I suspect, and we move on.

School teachers, it goes almost without saying, were all ladies then. They might get an apple -- yes, that actually happened -- or fudge, but they were just as likely to receive face-powder from the Five and Dime, or a clam-shell compact, or jewelry so dazzlingly hideous that only a child could think it beautiful. Invariably a brooch -- pronounced "brewch"-- often of a seasonal theme, and worn proudly, at least once on sweater or dress, for all the world to see.

Cash was only appropriate, in a sealed envelope, for the mail carrier or the newspaper boy, or as a seasonably generous tip when one paid the bill at the barbers or a favorite diner. (Beauticians gave out rain-hats, folded like origami into impossibly small purses. Banks gave out rubber change-purses with an invisible slit that opened when squeezed, and a bath-tub chain on one end, or calendars, as did mechanics, insurance companies, and weirdly, funeral homes. And gas-stations and car-dealerships were the primary source of Christmas records. I don't know why, they just were.)

I could go on and I will, but not with this.

Mostly I remember plates, containers and plates.

We ate early, Christmas day. People did. Depending on the day when Christmas fell, people probably had to get up for work the day after. That was always the plan, anyway. There might be snow on the road though, people traveling from as far away as Ohio (!) though for the most part no further than the next county if that. Some people went to church all morning. Some people stayed out too late the night before. In the end, we ate when whatever the mystic and changeable quorum was formed, just before the bird went dry or the kids became completely ungovernable and had to be released out of doors. Whenever the magic hour, it was after of which I am thinking.

I would imagine people who host a dinner still send people home with food. We don't do parties much anymore, throwing or going, but I should think that that is still true. You make a plate or have a plate made for you. Dishes are washed and returned when practical, but a plate is a different business.  A plate is the proof of having been. A plate is abundance, satiety refuted, a promise for the New Year.

And a plate, a container, a tin, these were the last duty of the old year, every year.

My mother drove whatever my father had yet to sell on; cars from the auction or obscure private lots, anything with wheels that could be made to go, fixed up, repaired and polished and sold on. So riding in her car, weather permitting, or in my Dad's truck if not, every Christmas Eve and or Christmas Day, 'round we went with the plates, containers, and tins.

The world then was full of widowers who lived on isolated farms, single, retired school teachers, relatives of the most remote connection, people in need of a call, which did not involve the telephone in this sense.

Up and down country roads, in and out of town, the plates went out into the world like a humble hosanna: if not dinner, then fudge -- three kinds -- and divinity, Rice-Krispies treats, and cookies baked, and "no-bake", and yes, there might well be pie.

And the job of the passenger, my part of the mission would be to balance these plates on my knees, or keep the pie straight on a sloping car-seat. No easy thing, I might add, on a ten-year-old's knee, or in a temperamental Chrysler without power-steering.

Always late. Always hurried, exhaustion thick as the ice on the road and sometimes on the inside of the windows.

And yet, every plate might require a visit. That was the reason to bring a kid, you see. Keep the car running, send the boy in proper boots but only a sweater up to the door. Clever that, strategic. Ring the bell or knock, give over the plate or the tin, effusive thanks or a grim nod, and then a wave from the driver and off again to the next.

In a perfect world.

The reality usually meant standing in cold hallways, or worse, sitting on scratchy horsehair-furniture,  little houses full medicinal smells and old dark rooms, drafty kitchens devoid of sound, or radios so old they still glowed, or televisions that were never shut off. I remember rented rooms where a meal was served on a TV-tray, old-folks' homes twilit even in broad day, the friend who lived in a camper, another in a house with tar-paper walls. I am just old enough to have wished a Merry Christmas to someone lit by a single kerosene lamp.

In all that was ugly then, garish and battered and broken-down, was there not something fine as well? Something not to do with good taste so much as utility and good intentions? A lesson in want, yes, worthy of Dickens, but also in a righteous disregard of new and useless things, in kindness extended without thought to even the unhappy, the garrulous, the grim, the isolated and the ugly, "to the least of these", if I remember my Matthew's Gospel.

My mother now is herself too old to stir fudge, or drive a Chrysler through the snow. Her Christmas dinner comes now across the yard from my brother's house. All those she might have visited, visit her now only in dreams.

When and where I was a child, there was a way to such things.  There may be yet.

Make a plate if you can. Doesn't matter if it's paper, or the container used to be full of Cool Whip, or the tin has a hideous, one-eyed reindeer from being washed too many times. Doesn't matter even what's on the plate, though be honest, we all hope it tastes good. That's the only taste that matters, frankly. So make a plate or take one, but remember --

Somebody's going to need to have that back.

Daily Dose

From White Teeth, by Zadie Smith


"And so for the first time in her life Neena had to admit that her auntie was absolutely right. 'You wanted a report, so here's the full report: crazy, nutso, raisins short of a fruitcake, rubber walls, screaming mad basket-cases, Every bloody one of them.'"

from page 291

Sunday, December 15, 2019

A Very Short Christmas Eve

It was hard to avoid Albert on Christmas Eve. Try as she might, Sally could not move him out of the way once she'd put the kids to bed. By then he'd have worked his way through just enough cheer to be feeling friendly, which was the last thing on that woman's mind when she still had so much to do before she could go to bed herself. Still hadn't taken tomorrow's ham out of the oven. There was still the damned dollhouse to wrap, and she never had found the brush set she just knew she'd put in the hall closet and now it wasn't there.

If she got too close, Bert would grab at her, but she wanted to check behind the sofa again. Damn him.

""You look hot as hell in that apron, baby," he said, "like the day I met you in the dinner."

Never did find the brush set.

Daily Dose

From There There, by Tommy Orange


"The quote is important to Dene. This there there. He hadn't read Gertrude Stein beyond the quote. But for Native people in this country, all over the Americas, its been developed over, buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there."

From Dene Oxendene

Friday, December 13, 2019

Clerihew for the Humble Explorer


Not unwisely
Loren Eiseley
Suggests we study with intensity
The whole, humbling immensity.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Spy of the First Person, by Sam Shepard


"She looked up -- Are you interested in all this? About your ancestors? Your grandma and grandpa? About love?"

From Chapter 15

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Very Short Dog Story for Christmas

Penny decided to put all four blond falls on before she took her Christmas photo this year. Took some doing since that pixie-cut she gave herself when Georgie left had gone so wrong. Still, "'nothing ventured', as the naked lady said to the mailman," she said to Mr. Sniffles. The little dog was of a nervous disposition to begin with. When confronted by the suddenly blond and curly Penny snatching at him behind the sofa, Mr. Sniffles piddled a little on more than one bit of wrapping. "Come on, you little shit," Penny shouted, clutching him to her chest, "the timer's about to go!" She turned into the flash, doing her best imitation of Gloria Grahame. Perfect. Later Penny felt bad for squeezing the dog so hard and poured a spoonful of the good gin over his dinner. "I miss him too, Mr. Sniffle-whiffles," she pouted, "go ahead and piss on that sweater I made him, the bastard. He'll never wear it anyway."

Daily Dose

From The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford


"'Oh, my poor dear, oh, my poor dear.' And they sat, crouching together in each other's arms, and crying and crying; and they lay down in the same bed, talking and talking, all through the night. And all through the night Edward could hear their voices through the wall. That was how it went..."

From Chapter IV

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker


"Even now he was not asking my advice. He was informing me of his decision."

From Chapter 34

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Very Short Christmas Visit

"The bourbon was a gift," she said, "and I made the cookies myself." Everybody in the room knew that neither statement was true, but nobody said a word. Visiting Aunt Claire on Christmas Eve was something of a trial at the best of times. At least since they'd bought her the television, they could watch the Danny Thomas Show and not have to talk much. After an hour or so, they'd open their gifts: elaborately wrapped cartons of Chesterfields for the men, new nylons or old gloves for the women, and for the children, always more of that weird, tweed outerwear she ordered from the back pages of Yankee Magazine. "That should keep everybody warm!" she'd say, and everyone would try to laugh.
"When that old lady dies," Uncle Teddy always said after, "she better have Grand-dad's war-bonds under her mattress." But she didn't.

Daily Dose

From Trajectory: Stories, by Richard Russo


"A hush fell over the room, and Nate allowed this uncomfortable silence to abide before announcing that if no one was prepared to discuss Northanger Abbey, then they would proceed to the only other item on the day's agenda before adjourning."

From Voice

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Short, Orderly Christmas Story

Of course, there wasn't really a clinical term for it in those days. "Order," that was Mrs. Beck's word for it. She like things in threes. Girls, dolls, kitchen canisters, the tines on a fork, Christmas ornaments, strands of tinsel. When the doctors told Mr. Beck that his wife would not be able to have another child after Agatha and Aurore, the woman just refused to believe it. When little Annita came home with his wife after her long trip to the rest home in Colorado, Mr. Beck thought it best not to ask too many questions. It was some time after the New Year before the authorities back in Indiana finally caught up with Mrs. Beck and returned the baby to her parents. Turns out, the girl's name was Ramona, which everyone agreed was something of a coincidence numerically, even if it hadn't entirely suited Mrs. Beck, poor soul.

Daily Dose

From Letters from an Astrophysicist, by Neil deGrasse Tyson


"It's a system of knowing the natural world that is immune to opinion, but not to experiment."

From Seeing Eye to Eye

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Clerihew for Classic Crime


Wish Trillin
Was still in-
To villains,
As per his Killin's.

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Pastoralia: Stories, by George Saunders


"Miss Hacienda passed through a gap in the hedge and disappeared into the Episcopal church."

From The Barber's Unhappiness