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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
In the hospital, many devices make noise. They are, presumably, speaking a language that is meaningful to doctors and nurses, although not so much to patients. I lie in bed wondering how many of them refer to me, the patient in room 1008.
It’s a great room, by the way. It’s a single, so there are no other sick people in the room. That’s good, because I hate being around sick people, even when I am one. Especially when I am one. I also dislike tourists and old people.
Every so often, I hear “crash cart to room 705 immediately” or “Code Blue in room 917.” Every time I hear that it’s not my room number, I relax. Because, you know, I think I’m rational, but I’m also in the hospital. I could be crashing without knowing it. I could also be hallucinating. I’ve been given drugs, but are they the good drugs? I wonder.
Also, the room has a big window with a great view of the Bay Bridge. Unfortunately, I can’t see the view from my bed. I am wired tightly to faintly throbbing machines by my bed. I have a large plastic container for urine, but I’ve been denied water since 4:30 this afternoon, so my need for the container has been overstated.
It is 1:45 in the morning. No one is awake except Rose, the brisk but kindly night nurse who has apparently seen everything, and I’m in there right around nothing. I am sentient, can form complete sentences, and seem unlikely to die. For Rose, that’s a win-win. For me too. I am happy to be a patient of only marginal concern.
The beeps continue. Wires lead from my body back behind the bed. Every so often, the blood pressure cuff squeezes my arm, like a more knowledgeable friend guiding me through a crowd.
I long for sleep.
Yeah, well, not so fast
Tracy and I arrived at the emergency room in late afternoon. We were there because I was feeling like crap. I did not have a theory about what was wrong with me.
Because I was nauseated and in pain, the nurses on duty decided it would be useful to weigh me. Also, they needed answers to many questions read off a list of many questions. One of them wanted to know whether I’d experienced heartburn during my pregnancy.
Then they found me a bed, asked me take of my clothes, and cuffed me. It was only a blood pressure cuff, but still.
Time passed. That’s what mostly happens in an emergency room. “It’s a quiet night,” I said to a nurse. “That’s cursing,” he said. “We don’t allow cursing in the emergency room.” Not that these handmaidens of science are superstitious. It’s just that one careless word about how peaceful it is can cause 14 infarcations, seven gunshot wounds and horrendous accident on 880 to happen simultaneously.
Then the lady from the office came in. She wanted to explain certain things, like how much the hospital would cost each day. (This is Kaiser, so the amount was ridiculously small). Of course, everything else is pricey. The backless gown I’m wearing: $1081. The chips of ice they will finally give me: $878. The Kleenex I will need before the night is out: $403. I made those numbers up, but I think they are indicative of a larger problem. If Trump gets his way, that backless gown will cost $5603 — and there will be no guarantee that it’s backless.
Then there came a confusing conversation about my end-of-life preferences. I have an end-of-life directive, although not with me. I asked if there was any particular reason why I should have it with me. “Oh my no,” she laughed. “Ha ha well, just routine.” I was bored, so I thought I’d be provocative. “I’m not sure,” I said. “I think keeping me alive no matter what would be the best idea. Call me crazy, but I like living.”
“Oh, you don’t want that. They have to crack your ribs and massage your heart, and if your blood flow stops, well, vegetable.”
Her suggestion, as I understand it: Just hang out and wait until death comes along. The old “because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me” theory. Why do emergency rooms make me think of Emily Dickinson? She heard a fly buzz when she died; I imagine I’ll hear many beeps, in many different modes and tones. Sigh.
Thanks, but I’m washing my hair that night
My nurse in the emergency room was Francis. He was cheerful and amusing. “You’re a really good nurse,” I said. “You’re a really good patient,” he said. See: validation.
In the beginning, my tiny emergency roomlet was busier than anything. Then it was just boring. I sent Tracy home at 11; I was in good hands. She was glad to go. Every 20 minutes or so, someone would pop in and say my room was getting cleaned. But then…how long does it take to clean a room? But I’m not seeing the big picture. The big picture: Many people sicker than me. Plus, people are coding. That’s hospital-speak for “dying.”
So I should count my blessings. Plenty of time: 1,2,3,12, 18, 36, 104…or less. I may have repeated “bacon” and “sexual relations.”
This is the part of the column where I should tell you what’s wrong with me. I would go into clinical detail, describing the spleen or the pancreas or the thymus. I would come up with two fun facts about the gastro-intestinal tract. I might even dwell on the fragility of life, and the comfort I take from my family.
But no. It’s my privacy screen, and I can choose what things I put behind it. Let’s say, because I know you worry, that my condition was neither infectious or chronic, which, in the muted language of the cagey journalist, means not a heart attack, not a stroke and not cancer. (Nor am I embarrassed. Penile yeast infections are a hidden killer, or at least wounder. Everyone should be aware of the 3 warning signs.)
I’m not going to die, although of course I am old, so I may die of something entirely unrelated. We all have a fatal disease. Or, we all have an unimaginably wonderful gift with one large string attached.
Life: Whaddya gonna do?
Too many wires and noise-making machines
It’s dark in my room, the only sound the beeping and the occasional murmuring of crepe soles in the hallway. I am thinking about death. This is not unusual; I’ve been thinking about death since I turned 60. I hate the thought that I will miss things in my children’s lives. I had my kids real young, so my oldest is almost 51. I have seen the movies of their lives play out, and I am endlessly fascinated, and I don’t want life to end.
Then there’s Tracy. I mean, well, you know. Forty-one years of working on our marriage; I hate to lose that after I’ve invested all the energy. And money. If I die, I’m out a whole bunch of moolah.
Finally, there’s the absence of me. That’s a bummer. No longer will I get to see the sunrise, any sunrise. I can see where promises of an afterlife would be comforting, but I don’t believe them. So this is my one life. Better get out of the hospital quickly.