Cold Comfort

I was in Montreal for Christmas, and oh boy was it white. I’m a California lad, born and raised, so I have limited experience with snow, and even less with the Polar Vortex, which, well, I have trouble converting Centigrade to Farenheit, but I do know (from reading it somewhere) that Mars was warmer than Montreal on December 27. Really.

Snow has significant beautifying properties.  Even the streets of Montreal, a little tawdry during the summer months, are rendered lovely and calm and even cheerful by a nice thick blanket of white. The ice crystals do wonders for the streetlights, and even the occasional sidewalk turds look like small fairy purses. Snow! It’s gorgeous!

That concludes my discussion of the virtues of snow. (Snow is better than ice, however. Ice — except in cube form — is mean-spirited and cruel. The above paragraphs, however, justify my use of never-before-seen photographs of winter north of the border.

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I spent my time in between boisterous (indoor) family gatherings snuggled in my big bed reading. I am never happier when I am under four blankets with a book in my hands. Today’s selection is “The Word Detective,” a chatty and fascinating memoir by John Simpson, former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s filled with useful and amazing facts about the usage and origins of English words, including such unlikely candidates for fascinating back stories as “launch,” “bug-bear” and (weighing in at 11 meaty pages), “fuck.”  (Maybe from the 16th century Dutch “fokken”, “to strike” or, a century later, “to have sexual intercourse with.” But also, maybe not,)

I could regale you with anecdotes and tidbits, but if this is your sort of thing, well, go buy the book. But we’re not going there.

Here’s a paragraph from the book. Simpson is talking about the process of “reading,” when a dictionary maker goes through a work of fiction or non-fiction hunting for new words and new definitions for old words: “‘Reading’ for the dictionary was all very well, and it helped to gather together a mass of material that might be useful in future years to the dictionary’s editors, but it didn’t do any good at all for my own ability to read. The process of reading text word by word, and then weighing up whether each word is worth carding for future reference, played havoc with my appreciation of literature. My estimate is that it would take the average person about five years of working on the dictionary and ‘reading’ texts of all sorts before he or she came through the barrier and was able to read properly again.”

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I’m not sure that’s true; I spent my entire adult life writing various sorts of non-fiction prose, and I still can’t read a newspaper without muttering “that anecdote was stale when Liebling was a lad” or “beware of attributions to Winston Churchill; they’re mostly wrong, ” or “finally, the point of the story; I’m just glad it had one.” And I know copy editors who cannot pass up a bad word choice in light fiction  without silently bemoaning the the state of literacy in America today.

And that sent me to wondering about whether my own editing instincts would ever leave me in retirement — except I’m not in retirement, I’m doing this. Or am I? I certainly have been doing this less frequently in the past year. And why is that? I still have ideas;  loaded with damn ideas. The column I was going to write before I decided to write this one: Dynamite. A game changer. Huge.

But then, in my quiet Canadian apartment, with the snow falling outside my window and and the thermostat cranked up to 24, I asked myself an interesting new question: Why do I write?

Hmmm…

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I’ve been writing since I was 9 years old. I suspect I started because my mother admired writers and I wanted to be one. And I discovered almost immediately that I was pretty good at it, certainly better than the other nine-year-olds of my acquaintance. And then, like a skateboard prodigy, I discovered what wonderful tricks I  could do with language. I started by stealing, of course. I still steal, it’s just that hardly anyone remembers that S.J. Perelman joke (“I guess I’m just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation’s laws.”) that I massaged for my own purposes.

I wish I could say that I started writing because of a burning desire to promote social justice, but that would not be true. I wish I could say I started writing poetry because the concise beauty of a single couplet resonated deep within my soul, but actually I started to impress girls. I wish I could say I stopped writing poetry because of something brief and devastating that Gary Snyder said about my work, and I can say that because it’s true. (I didn’t hold it against him; he is, after all, Gary Snyder, and I’m so very not.)

I did like making people laugh, and that it turned out I could do. And I did like being set loose to wander around some interesting area of American life. And, it turned out, the same muscle I used to write jokes could be used to make more serious aphorisms. And by that time, writing was how I put bread on the table, the start of a lifelong flirtation with carbohydrates.

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And, naturally, I became aware of my limitations. I tried to do things that I could not do, and I failed. “Better to do it and fail than to not to do it at all” I said to myself, which is true. Still, failure weighs on a fellow. So I kept doing the things I could do and, over the years, spent less and less time trying to do stuff I was afraid of doing.

And after I retired, I kept writing. By that time, it felt as though I was writing merely to keep the darkness away. But still, I enjoyed it. I even kept making mistakes, which I took to be a good sign. But then…and if I could finish that sentence in any coherent way, I would.

I’m happy, happier than perhaps I have ever been. This Christmas in Montreal has been joyful in so many ways. Old age is a time when your body starts to do interesting things you’d rather it wouldn’t do, but it’s also a time of simplification, and of glorying in simple things. Maybe I should just be an appreciator; rather than putting my feelings into words, I should just leave them as feelings. Right now I can see a cat asleep in the wire basket on my deck; and a bare persimmon tree waiting for that mysterious signal that says, “OK, it’s time, Spring is here; get busy”; and a clearing sky with cloud fragments dissolving into mist. Not great writing, but oh what fun to just look at for a few minutes. There’s no money in appreciating, but then, there’s no money in blogging either.

As I’ve gotten happier over the last few years, the urge to write has lessened. Can I only write when I’m unhappy? Is writing the world I run to when the other world is failing? Dunno. Maybe. The older I get, the less I know, which is beginning of wisdom. Which is exactly the kind of vague aphoristic sentence I’ve made a comfortable living on.

And then — final bead on the string — there’s my relationship with my readers. I know it’s real, but I can’t begin to define it. My readers have encouraged me to go on, and have mentioned it when I seemed to be going wrong. They — you — have been part of my life since 1961; I’d hate to get a divorce at this late date. But gosh it’s tempting to not write, to fuck off, to watch my wife when she doesn’t know I’m watching her, and to think sappy sentimental thoughts too cliched ever to commit to paper.

So that’s what’s going on with me. Is it TMI? Too bad; it’s my damn blog and I’ll keep writing what I want. But that’s my 2018 resolution; I will keep writing. I’ll even flirt with failure; perhaps even go to bed with failure and spend the weekend in Mendocino. Onward, and stay safe and sane, please. A guy can’t have too many friends.

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Photography by Tracy Johnston

Spiritual and technical help by Michelle Mizera

And many, many thanks to Gypsy Snider, who once again let us stay in her fabulous apartment. Smooch.

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