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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85 thoughts on “Cold Comfort

        1. Jon, please don’t apologize to us FOR ANYTHING! You are our gift. And you know what is said about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

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  1. Nailed it, John. Love your sharing, your looking into the mirror, being! Loved how you spent your time, at least part of it, reading, going in or accompanying yourself to another existence other than the family, a story for another time, I remember a winter week in Montreal, nineteen seventies. At that time some of the parks were deliberately frozen – they iced the park for iceskating, paths thru and around. Lovely Tom Biss

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  2. Very worrying, as I also love doing the relaxed nothing – staring at the birds in the oak tree, petting the cat in my lap, going down internet rabbit holes, reading, cooking — the fun stuff. I was sure you were about to hang it up. But no, the twist at the end! Yeah! Thank you for continuing to write and share. Always good stuff.

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  3. I’m very glad to hear you’ll keep on keepin’ on in this space. Writing may well be a form of escape, a refuge from whatever storms are whirling about at the time, but so is reading — and as you take shelter by writing, we find it in reading your words.

    As you know so much better than most of us, writing also involves the exercise of certain mental muscles, and although that does indeed qualify as “work,” it also feels good to stretch out those tendons and sinews, and put them through their paces. Although I’m not sure if the relationship between we in the audience and you at the keyboard is parasitic or symbiotic, I do hope it’s the latter. All I can say for sure is that my little heart lept like a happy puppy when I spotted the e-mail notification that you’d posted a new column here.

    And as always, I was not disappointed, so thanks again.

    Wishing you and Tracy all the best in the year to come. May we all survive to see another…

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  4. It is sooooo good to hear your voice again. After your trip to the hospital, and then the silence, I was beginning to worry about you. Very happy to hear your holidays were joyful and relaxing. Keep smelling the flowers. And, if you’re inclined, I’d love to hear your voice once in awhile.

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  5. I’m so happy about your new year resolution for 2018. I do hope you’re better at keeping yours than most of us. I’m always happy to see a new blog entry from you.

    Best to you and Tracy!

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  6. So glad to see your musings about Montreal- please keep writing- I still miss your newspaper columns. It’s just not the same. Happy Blue Year!

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  7. Happy New Year to you and Tracy, Jon. I wonder – for you, what’s the most significant difference between work and retirement? Not necessarily the loudest, most dramatic or intense, but what you note, on reflection, as different and significant. I ask because in my retirement there was a big change in how I allocate my hours and whether I wear a bathrobe to work; in your case, it seems, not so much. . .eh?

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  8. Count me as another worrier. I enjoyed your column for so many years — after all, I arrived in Berkeley in 1963 and am an avid newspaper reader, so have probably been around since not long after you started. Glad to hear your voice again.

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  9. Good to hear from you. Whenever you feel like it. Pithy and irreverent, with great photos – I love it. Stay warm and be well.

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  10. Yeah…of course you’ll keep writing. That’s what you are, Jon: a writer…and a darned good one! And I know you love giving your readers and friends occasional tidbits of joy, and you know that we love receiving them…what could be better than that?

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  11. Yes, fine piece, Jon. I know the feeling, being on the shady side of 70 myself, although I started writing for pleasure after a long career writing stuff that didn’t interest me. But that’s another story.

    What I really want to know is: what did Gary Snyder say about your writing?

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  12. Jon, as a former San Franciscan and ongoing Canadian, thanks for thinking what you think and spreading it on the page – like that maple syrup they sell in Quebec by the tonne. It is sweet yes, a little sticky-dangerous, but it holds us to the page and through the page to your way of looking at the world. Stop when you must but not just yet, sir!

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  13. This comes with perfect timing. It was just this morning, or yesterday at the earliest, that I thought to myself, “I wonder what’s going on with Jon Carroll. It’s been awhile since he’s posted. Maybe he’s really retired for good.” True story. The fact that this has arrived means that on some cosmic level you and I are connected. That makes me happy. Basically that makes today’s blog about me, not your winter in Toronto or whatever. Cool.

    Just kidding, of course. It’s great that you’re still writing. This was a good read, as always. Yes you are a good writer just like your mother said. Happy 2018 🙂

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  14. You write “I’m so very not.” I have difficulty in accepting this honest statement. If it is indeed true, then you must be so very be. So, how do you feel being very be? Perhaps your next column will let all of us know.

    Thank you,

    P. Michael Barrington
    Monte Sereno, CA

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  15. Oh thank goodness! I was beginning to think that it would be my first 2018 tragedy, but huzzah. Loved hearing from you. Love hearing the observations and bon mots from the word book. And about Tracy. And, yes, there had to be a cat in a basket. Looking forward to more – all of it! XO

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  16. Thanks for still being here. From your greatest fan in San Jose. I still have no desire to go where it is colder than Mars or even colder than San Jose. Keep warm and drop your adoring fans a small pithy turd once in a while to let us know that there is still hope for all of us in these dismal Trumpian times.

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  17. I probably read something you wrote in a magazine – maybe – if I did I never noticed you or your name …until you started blogging. You can be quite entertaining.

    In many ways, you and your current blog readers are in a time warp of days of yore, so I ask you to consider this – how about challenging yourself to connect with Generation Z? That’s a massively huge group of youngsters with almost no connection to ancient history (the 50s through the 1970s) … find a way to pass some stories and thoughts and values to them. Studies are starting to indicate they prefer a trump instead of liberals/progressives and they seem more 80s greed than 60s hip.

    Forget the comfy zone with the old farts, find a way to connect to the Next Big Group of citizens.

    Civilization needs you.

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    1. You missed out, Will — the rest of us were lucky enough to read Jon several times a week in the pages of the Chron for thirty years. Your urging him to address the younger generation is well-intentioned, but no writer wants (or needs) to be told what to write or who to write to — it just doesn’t work that way. Besides, Gen Z will learn soon enough where Trumpism leads, and I doubt the kids are dumb enough to follow. But if they are… well, this is their world now, and it’s they who will pay the price.

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  18. Thanks for continuing to write, Jon.  Count me as a fan/friend/reader of your words as long as you keep sending them. I miss snow, having lived in Michigan up to age 26.  My birthday late in February was sometimes accompanied by a deep blizzard with wind, drifts, glorious sparkling arrays of beauty.     I appreciate being reminded by your words & by Traci’s photos. Maureen Grabowski

    Sent on my Samsung Galaxy S® 5

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  19. So good to hear you are having a cozy winter time with Family (thanks for the snow pictures). Quite a cliffhanger, that visit to the hospital. We are glad you are safe and warm.

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  20. Thank you so much for this. As a former editor and sometime writer, now living a life of aimless, pleasurable retirement, so much of it landed just right on my psyche. This comfort is not cold at all. (Though I *was* hoping for a woodshed reference.)

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  21. Jon: Nice to see you’re still alive and well and back online. I was concerned there for a while that you might have shuffled off your mortal coil, but pleased to know now that I was over reacting.

    Welcome back, ol’ Dude! 😊

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  22. I feel like I have connected with a very dear and precious friend since I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago. Thank you for your most appreciated writings.

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  23. Makes sense to me. But what do I know?

    Actually I did just find Bill Wong again. Thanks to a gentleman who went to Oakland High with Bill. And now sits a few seats away from me at Cal Women’s Basketball games. So everything leads back to Cal.

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  24. Not TMI. Not when the arrow of information points from you outward, to all of us. From all of us to you – that’s another ton of — stories. I’ve been writing to you in my head all morning, realizing that like coincidences, lives are so much more interesting to the ones having them than to the ones listening to them. Unless they are told by a master, who is also someone who has been a virtual friend to us all for so many years. Yes, don’t be coy. That’s you. Thanks, and please do keep writing!

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