I’d like to report that I have been fully present and entirely mindful throughout the course of a lifetime, that my progress is a journey well mapped with boundaries clearly defined and the best route given traffic and construction followed assiduously, turn by turn . At this late stage, however, let’s toss out the map idea and move instead to a kaleidoscope; it’s colorful, slightly jagged at the edges, lacking definition, and, honestly, not that much fun to look at for more than a few moments.

This retro-fragmented vision pulses more quickly this week as we follow through on our decision to pack up and move one more time. Leaving aside the existential paralysis that accompanies any major decision, I’m in the box-by-box stage of assessing what goes and what goes away, a process that calls into question every purchase I’ve made over the last half-century. The pain is not in letting things go; I’m ready to pare down and simplify. The issue is WHERE things go.

I’ve uncovered some junk and broken things. Heave ho and another trip to the landfill. No looking back. On the other hand, I’m also looking at the accumulated detritus of my life, some of which has value, I’m now convinced, only to me. I’ve moved two crates of my kids’ pre-school art work across the country, stored them in three subsequent moves, and now understand that the archives have to be thinned with steely resolve; only the finest work is to be curated and passed on to the adult children. Similarly, of the thousands of action figures only those still retaining heads and most body parts go into the box to be passed to the next generation. Why I find ten headless Barbies is a question I choose to leave unattended. American Girl dolls – saved. Faded Care Bear? The first sweep was brutal but I find myself able to function quite nicely without the tuxedos I never wore. Did I donate the books I did not read in my college career? I did, and Huzinga’s Homo Ludens, a book I’ve intended to finish for a half-century, is no longer sitting in mute accusation on my shelves. My hope, of course, is that it will go to a good home after the library’s used book sale, but I’ve resigned myself to the possibility that it may end up as confetti, and that’s ok. Really.

This cut is more challenging and with each decision I am confronted by information about myself that arrives unbidden and unwelcome. Ann Lamott reminded us that the seemingly impossible task of counting innumerable birds takes place bird by bird. I might be able to manage birds, but there are no decisions to be made as they fly by. 

One level of attachment might appear to be purely sentimental. My kitchen cupboards were filled with bowls, pans, mismatched flatware, tiny silver plated salt shakers, and small ornate spears that are intended to be used in separating the meat of the walnut from its shell. It all came from my childhood home, and for a moment I felt I was recycling both my childhood and memories of my mother as I packed the spears in bags and took them to the Hospice Boutique where I knew all things silver plated are melted down for cash. 

Today’s paralysis includes three objects that combine sentimentality with unresolved emotional puzzles. At first glance (which is where I should have stopped), easy decisions. I’m looking at an unopened gift wrapped box that has been shelved for seven years, an object defying categorization that came from my former mother-in-law’s home in Michigan, and a cardboard box filled to the brim with copies of comic books about Archie Andrews, his pal, Jughead, and the various denizens of Riverdale.

The unopened box is a gift from a student who has now finished her career at Yale and has returned to Seoul where she was active in raising funds for victims of tuberculosis in North Korea. I don’t know what’s in the box. It’s beautifully wrapped. The card thanking me for kindness to her at Cate is still attached. Why have I not opened the package? It’s a tricky question, but I think I still feel attached to the many students I have loved in a long career of teaching. They’ve gone out into the wider world and made their way with varying degrees of success. Some are in touch; some are not. I remember them as they were, of course, chuckling as I read a message from a scamp I particularly admired from my days at Berkshire School. I guess he’s in his late fifties at this point, but to me is still the crafty seventeen year old finding loopholes in every rule and every crack in the school’s facade.  

The package is exceptionally well wrapped; the paper is still vibrant; it reminds me of a William Morris textile. Gorgeous. I don’t fear opening the box and finding a gift I don’t need or appreciate; it’s not that. In addition to the gratitude I feel to her and the others I one knew, there’s something about an unopened gift that carries me back to a time of wonder. As a boy, I was frantic in my anticipation of Christmas. That state of mind in which all things were possible has pretty much escaped me now. As an adolescent, the melancholy that followed Christmas was profound. Looking back at myself, I understand my habit of rewrapping the gifts I had been given so that I could open them again even as I recognize the folly of trying to recapture the delicious mystery they had represented only days earlier.

There’s probably more to be discovered in thinking about this gift, but for now, I’m just going to pad it with packing paper and take it with me to the next chapter.

I did enough research to find a name for the object sitting on the kitchen table. It’s a vintage  200-count suited poker chip set in a wooden carousel, protected by a leather cover. I have no idea how many chips or cards have survived the many moves from a small town in Michigan; it’s looking scruffy at this point, still taped shut from its first move. I’d use the term “shabby”, but that’s the word that describes my behavior in the years when that carousel first came into my possession. I don’t much like the person I was in those years, especially as I think of the generosity with which my former wife’s family welcomed me. My mother-in-law was an imperfect person as are we all, but she was funny, and vulnerable, and loyal, and kind. This poker set was hers; we played cards in her dining room, a safe place for me to be silly and at ease. She was a remarkable grandmother and is an important part of my eldest son’s childhood. 

I walked away from that family, embarrassed and awkward, self-conscious and fearful. I regret much of what I was in those years, and particularly regret not thanking her. I did not step up in her last years, and I did not say goodbye.

So, that poker set reminds me of the good and the bad. I’d like to move out of complication, but the past is complicated and it is my past. I’ll ask my son if he wants the poker set. If he does, I’ll pass it on with gratitude; if he doesn’t, I’ll wrap it up in packing paper and add it to the growing pile of boxes in the garage. Still grateful.

Now, Archie. It’s worth examining why it should be more difficult for me to discard a Betty and Veronica Christmas Digest than an oversized Plastic Man retrospective or one of the many adventures of Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos. I’ve written elsewhere about my distress at the fictive death of Archie Andrews, an example of how quickly the very fabric of the universe can be ripped apart. I get it; time lumbers on. 

What is at stake in pitching a series of comic books that are frivolous at best and idiotic at their worst?

Once again, it is more complicated than I had imagined. I was a lumpy kid with no redeeming qualities that I could identify, stuck in a story that did not seem to have much to do with me. I dove into books, and magazines, and comics. The books fed some part of my imagination and gave me an appreciation of language. The magazines, The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated, and Reader’s Digest, seemed to promise entry into a wider world as an adult, although I understood I was not likely to appear on a jolly Norman Rockwell canvas. Most of the comics took me to alternate universes where cities such as Metropolis and Gotham were protected by superfolk; I thought superpowers were pretty nifty but knew they weren’t coming my way.

Riverdale, like Oz, seemed just around the corner, slightly more likely to have a place for someone like me. Oz could be a pretty terrifying place, with wicked witches and Princess Mombi’s collection of interchangeable heads. Riverdale was a sanctuary. Archie made a mess of things, but it never mattered very much. He had friends who stood by him and rivals who never brought rack and ruin. Betty and Veronica were two sides of the same coin, one salt of the earth, the other pampered debutante, both competing for the affection of freckled, goofy, feckless Archie Andrews. Nobody flunked out of Riverdale High; everybody made the varsity teams. The Malt shop was always open, and parents stayed pretty much out of the way, with the exception of Veronica’s father whose vast wealth allowed some stretch in terms of plot. 

I never saw myself as Archie Andrews, but I was pretty sure I could hang out with his gang. Theirs was a world suffused with acceptance and humor. The holiday editions were particularly restorative as snow fell softly, gifts were tied up in bows, and all misunderstandings resolved themselves before Santa arrived. I continued to buy those digests, assuring myself that they were for my kids who would love Archie as much as I had. Maybe they did, but I was the one who picked them up off the couch and put them in boxes to be savored again and again.

They sit in a cardboard packing box this morning. I’d like to pass them on to kids who would enjoy them, but thrift stores don’t take comics, and I can’t stand thinking of them in a landfill. They don’t take much space; my granddaughter might find them amusing. I seem to have reached the decision I’ve made with every move.

They’re coming with me.

Words, words, words

Words, words, words

I’m stuck. 

I’m not going to wallow in the now ordinary stuckness of life as I stare at the maw of the apocalypse; who doesn’t expect fire, flood, and loss of cable?

No, I sit today with six, count ‘em SIX, unfinished, unwilling, ungrateful projects eating my soul and shaking their figurative accusing fists as I open each in turn and walk away. Words, literally fail me, and with that statement I reel from the messes I’ve already made to an entirely new project, an attempt to find words that roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Some are imported,  some uncovered right here at home, and a few are inventions at the end that have to do with facing the jaws of the voracious beast.

Maybe words can help.

Several years ago I enjoyed writing a piece celebrating words which exist in Japan but have not arrived on our shores. The two that I’ve adopted in my everyday life are “Monoaware”, the pathos of things –  the awareness of the impermanence of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing, and “Wabi-sabi” –  a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay.

Loved the growth, and here comes the decay.

These are not the only linguistic gifts that have reached us from distant shores. A quick jaunt through European lexicons provides a snapshot of attitudes which I believe we share but have thus far not been able to put into our own words. 

“Sang-Froid” comes immediately to mind. Literally translated as cold blood, the expression identifies poise, competence and composure under pressure. Our use of ‘cold blooded ‘as in cold blooded killer, on the other hand, describes someone who may be competent, but is reptilian without compassion; cold blooded is ruthless, heartless, callous. Hot blooded, on the other hand, does not suggest compassion. James Bond has sang-froid, but at least in the Ian Fleming iteration (00 Misogynist) Bond is also hot blooded. Go figure.

An increasingly useful German expression, “Schadenfreude”, allows the guilty pleasure of enjoying someone else’s misfortune. The term literally means harm joy, a pretty nifty clarification but clumsy in the moment as this rough translation will illustrate.

Why are you smiling as the shark attacks your employer?

I am enjoying harm joy as he many times of me fun made.

I guess we should include the various iterations of “it is what it is”, formerly a fairly innocuous truism, now freighted with partisan animosity. More gently reassuring? “Que Sera Sera”? “What will be will be” – Fatalistic but musical. In Polish the analog would be (please excuse absence of proper accent) “Co ma wiseiec nie utonie”, clumsily translated as “What is to hang won’t drown”.  See, if you’re meant to be hanged, you’re not going out by drowning. That’s pretty dark, whereas the Turkish “Kismet” doesn’t necessarily mean doom; Kismet might simply be circumstance, i.e.a more romantic expression of, “it is what it is.

I need to look in my own backyard for the right words or expressions to kick my intentions into action, but, no surprise, it’s time for a digression, in this case very loosely attached to how words move around and one in particular that I used in the last paragraph. I’ve written elsewhere about “swim, swam, I have swum” and “drink, drank, I have drunk”, but ducked out on “hung” and “hanged”. Inquiring minds may not want to know, but in case the grammar police are hounding you, I came up with a little ditty when teaching kids that seemed to have some impact – “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, but Santa was hanged with both feet in the air”. Just as my many witticisms about eating pandas fell flat (Panda Express?), so my hanging Santa kicks vividly but unhappily in the memory of depressed generations of students.

Ah well, off we go.

There are all sorts of regional or contrived locutions that are cute enough to use once or twice, but which cloy when frequently repeated. I’ll put “cattywampus” in that category, and “higgledy-piggledy”, and “osculate”. Why “willy-nilly” should have less cloy than “higgledy-piggledy” I can’t say, but try using each in ordinary conversation and see how you feel.

No comfort or resolution in higgledy-piggedly.

I’m interested in words than have some juice, a lingering kick to them. Contemporary columnists raging against the times for example have identified public figures as mendacious, craven, pusillanimous, recreant poltroons, and I agree, but where’s the impact in calling a cowardly self-serving politician a poltroon? Seems sort of bloodless.

I also need a slightly more elevated term for the state of mind we’ve experienced in the last few years. “Zeitgeist” works as a short form term for the prevailing tone of the times, but it is essentially neutral. The Germans, of course, introspects that they are, also  give us “Weltschmerz”, a word that describes a profound and abiding sadness about the state of the world in the moment, melancholy weariness. The “Schmertz” in the expression conveys a state beyond cerebral ennui; “schmertz” is pain.

Do we not have a folksy analog for weltschmerz? Are we incapable of speaking for ourselves?

Welcome to the maw.

I blush in presenting this term, but it has been used in national broadcast journalism, so I’m taking a chance in describing the zeitgeist in our vernacular as a “shit show”. The ball of terminally tangled yarn that is our public life has so many corrosive threads that we lose track and focus in trying to express exactly what it is that has brought us world pain. Can I point to a strand or two? Sure, but as soon as I describe Covid denial, I am inevitably pulled into strident avowal of a flat earth and condemnation of blood sucking pederasts in Hollywood. 

Tom Hanks? Really?

Day by day I find a new episode of the “shit show” and sink more deeply into schmertz.

There is an expression more graphic and obscene that describes the same condition with considerable force, a phrase I will loosely translate as copulation in a clump, clutch, bundle, or bunch. 

Delicate readers may find my new coinage a more acceptable substitute in times of frustration. 

How ‘bout we call the days of our current lives “Soul Trauma”? We could go with “Soul Rupture” or “Spirit Dismemberment”, but trauma suggests an injury so profound that the victim is beyond pain though not lifeless. Soul or spirit however, can take considerable punishment; after all, we can’t even point to the exact spot where it resides. Whatever it is or isn’t, spirit apparently latches on to other spirits, not simply one, a soulmate, but many, soulmates. In German they would be Seelendeverwandten, in Spanish Alma Gemelas, in French Ames Soeurs. 

I’m perking up a bit as I write thinking about “alma”, a word so rich in meaning that it can denote kindness, nourishment, feeding of the soul, and lifting of spirit. A friend of mine cared for his partner in her last days. He described their life as “walking each other home”. It helps right now to think of myself as just walking home in your company with kindness. 

That’s enough for right now. I’ll get back to work.

Sequestration … Been There

Sequestration … Been There


For a few shining moments the world was bright and new, masks came off, and the cobwebs in the car were swept aside. 

Ah, well. Back to sequestration, a term that can mean voluntary withdrawal from the company of humans or banishment. Our current version is slightly less onerous than the virtual quarantine many of us observed during the first waves of pandemic, back when we were washing cereal boxes and stocking up on rice, beans, and toilet paper. We’ve tasted freedom, we are vaccinated, and there’s plenty of toilet paper.

But this wave is nasty and caution propels, well, the cautious into voluntary separation again. 

We’re not alone, of course. Jurors on high profile trials are told to bring books, games, and a full deck of cards. A sequestered jury is unplugged and held incommunicado for extended periods of time. During the O.J. Simpson trial, presiding judge, Lance Ito, decided things were getting wonky, and hey, presto, the jury was sequestered for 265 days.

That’s sequestration somewhere between exile and banishment but with snacks. 

I first encountered the word as an eleven year old stuck in a boarding school. Those relatively few of us whose behavior was considered beyond the pale earned “sequestration”, a relatively short stay in what passed for the school’s pokey located in the basement of a new dormitory. I suppose the kindest analogy would be “time out”; the most descriptive would be short term incarceration. My transgressions have faded from memory, but I’m sure I earned my spot in the cage, more substantial than a mesh fencing closet, closer to a chain link basement suite.

Those of us who failed to meet the firmly held standards of behavior, in and outside of the classroom, became familiar with terminology such as sequestration probably not found in most 4th or 5th grade classrooms. For example, poor performance in course work was graded in the commonly accepted fashion, but in addition a frustrated  teacher could add a “blackball” to the week’s report. As one whose weekly report was studded with blackballs, there was no figure or ground; I had no idea what I’d done or left undone to earn my blackballs, but I came to expect I would not be getting  through a week blackball free during my career there.

So much for the life academic. Repairing to the dining hall, we sat at assigned seats with faculty at the head of our table. Breakfast was fine, lunch manageable, but the dinner menu featured items this eleven year old could not handle. The meal was supervised by adults as well, adults who splashed the nightly slop on each plate without pausing to make sure the plate would be welcomed. Apparently the school had maintained a crackerjack root cellar throughout the last decade as a primary source of inexpensive fodder for the boarding students. I’m sure quasi-potato dishes were served from time to time, but the primary accompaniments to fish sticks or liver were boiled turnips, rutabaga, and beets. Occasionally, as I remember it, we were presented with a medley of roots including all three of the major boiled substances.

It is only as I sit here in the afterglow of very late middle age (75 is the new 70) that it occurs to me that lunch was palatable because it was served to the day students who might carry the turnip reports back to parents paying through the nose for a tony private school education. They got Latin and French as did we who boarded, but they were educated without the restorative power of rutabaga.

I mention this dining experience because, once again, the desserts that came my way were just but not sweet. A contemporary description of turnips raves,” Turnips can be swapped into nearly any recipe in place of potatoes. Try making turnip fries, coleslaw, stir-fry or salad”. 

Oh, they tried, almost on a daily basis.

And, as the patient reader will have guessed, some of us saw the menu as a perfect gag fest and stonily refused to attack the turnip slaw even when threatened with the last of the unique responses to unacceptable behavior. I did not do more time in the jug in sequestration, but was banished to a table at the far end of the dining hall, where I was to sit in darkness until I had polished off the mashed turnip souffle. The walk of shame from the jolly banter of our assigned table to the bleak isolated table was known as “Sitting with Sir Henfry the Unworthy.”

Did my behavior or attitude change as a result of blackballs, sequestration, and a visit with Sir Henfry? 

Not a whit. 

Have I grown fond of turnips?

Equally whitless.

What I have come to admire, however, are distinctive euphemisms. Compared to the school’s catchy distractors, contemporary euphemisms such as “downsizing”, “passing away”, and “family planning” are downright snoozers. Words, words, words as Hamlet put it, much better food for thought than rutabaga hash.

Overheard … again?

Overheard … again?

So, I’m sitting in a pre-operation cubicle as a designated driver and pre-operation emotional support cheerleader, aware of the bustle outside our curtained cave and mildly distracted by the booming exchange between patient and pal in an adjoining cubicle when a sentence fragment hit me with the same impact as, “Not the last dead thing I kept in my freezer,” or “We all smell the same when we’re dead,” overheard conversations that provided me with a wealth of material and more than enough room for extravagant conjecture.

I’ll type it out in monotonic plain text and then dive into today’s treatise on the subject and on the premise that English differs from the Chinese languages, Thai, Igbo, Yaouba, Punjabu, Zulu, and Navaho in that it is not a tonal language. 


Try to imitate a Valley Girl without using run-on sentences, nasal resonance, breathy vocal fry, and high rising termination, also known as “uptalk”.

Back to that subject as we examine this awkwardly overheard fragment.

“Well, his mother was murdered…”

I’ll begin by guessing that I have had fewer than one conversation about freezing corpses, body farms, or murder in any setting; those sorts of exchanges  just haven’t come up as I stir the sugar into my coffee. There are any number of graphic and unmentionable subjects that I have heard in my daily life, on film, and on social media. I’m not at my conversational best when a friend describes the process by which his septum was repaired, but would not fall into hyper-alert concentration were I to overhear that kind of description. There’s something about conversational comfort with grave subjects that raises questions I am too polite to pursue.

I’ll never know what was kept in the freezer, and imagination runs wild. The sound of a gurney scraping a doorway obliterated the rest of the conversation so that I am left with a world of imagined scenarios, most of which I probably picked up on The Sopranos.

Here’s where tonal emphasis comes in. Let’s begin with “Well…”

I don’t know when “Well” became the common first response to almost any question; I no longer know what the word means when used as the kickoff of an observation.. Listen to any interview. The interrogator lobs a softball question to a guest, knowing that the responder is fully able to handle complexity but hoping to keep it simple for the legion of distracted listeners who haven’t read the book or seen the studies.

I’m prepared to bet that 90% of respondents begin with “Well”. 

It’s a heck of a word, one of the very few that can be an adverb (The interviewer is well known), an adjective (I had been ill, but now I‘m well), a noun (Yet another penny was tossed in the well”, and an interjection (Well, well, well what has the cat dragged in), and a verb (The tears welled from her eyes as she remembered watching The Notebook).

Well and good, as some would say, but what does the word mean in this context?

“Well, his mother was murdered…”?

Does it suggest a need for balance? Yes, the person in question has behaved shamefully, but … his mother was murdered?  Does it convey a patronizing conviction that this guy is a jerk, and we know that because his mother was murdered? Is it a place keeper, allowing the respondent to come up with something, anything, to separate this guy from any number of other guys whose mothers were not murdered?

Dunno.  Let’s move on.

Intonation is hardly in play now as “his” can be a possessive or a defining particular, but “mother” demands some verbal acuity. 

“…his MOTHER was murdered” lets the listener know just how abominable and uncommon this event truly is. Not just the delivery guy or the plumber, but his MOTHER.

 “…his Mother? was murdered” indicates some confusion as to which relative was actually pushed under a bus or whatever. Sorry, Sopranos again. Might have been his dad? Maybe the nanny? Can’t quite remember. 

Finally, “his mother (long pause) was murdered” suggests a personal connection with the victim not simply an accounting of fact. “I need a minute. I’m not over it yet.”

It takes but a moment to realize that “was murdered” might be a matter of fact or an explanation depending upon intonation. In robotic delivery – “hismotherwasmurdered” – gets the info out of the way. No need to linger here. As an explanatory aid it offers an excuse: “Yes, Tom did dance naked on the copying machine, but his mother WAS murdered.”

Rounding third now, “murdered”.

“Hey, Bob. What happened to Tom’s mother? 

“She was MURDERED!!!!!” Sound of the clang, the cash register, the phone alarm, whatever, on any episode of Law and Order – Dun Dun! 

“She was murdered?” Two possible deliveries. “Wait, what?” or “I know she was alive once, but murdered?”

“She was murdered,” delivered with flat affect. “That’s what the world has come to. That’s what to expect if you have expensive shoes.”

Look, I understand that murder is a bad way to go out, and I would be sorry that his mother was murdered had I ANY context in which to place the fragment. Perhaps one ought not toss observations of that gravity in a crowded surgical unit where cloth curtains divide one patient from the next? My work here is with language. 

One of my favorite diversions is the “What I said … What I should have said” constructions that illustrate how far off course any rejoinder can be. Barring any other overheard confessions, that could be the subject of the next rhapsody. Stay tuned.