An obit for an obit writer

If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, you know I’m a fan of a good obituary. Last month, Washington Post obituary writer Adam Bernstein wrote an obituary for Jim Nicholson, the heralded obituary writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Nicholson’s speciality was obituaries for the common citizen.

A sister-in-law of one Lou ­Koreck, a writ server, conjured a most unusual memory to convey his personality.

“I had unfortu­nately burned up my cat Smokey in the dryer,” she told Mr. Nicholson. “Lou gave me a book, ‘101 Uses for a Dead Cat.’ You loved him and, at the same time, you wanted to strangle him.”

One of Mr. Nicholson’s finest obits was a 1993 ode to a man named Christopher Kelly. “Society today,” he wrote, “does not assign extraordinary attributes to a 35-year-old heavy-equipment mechanic who is living with his parents and whose possessions do not appear to much exceed a Miller Light and a pack of Marlboros on the bar before him, a union card in his pocket and a friend on either side.”

Another, in 1988, was for a 64-year-old construction worker named Thomas Robinson but universally known as Moose Neck. His brother was quoted as saying, “He was interested in going around asking people, ‘Have you got a dollar?’ I’m not going to tell you a lie. Moose was a drinker. He’d go around and ask people for money, and they’d give him anything he wanted. Everybody fell in love with him.”

Poems for right now, with its rain and previews of warmth

A favorite gift from Lori this Christmas was Tracy K. Smith’s American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, a vibrant collection of work from living American poets. Smith, the U.S. poet laureate, succeeds at making the book difficult to stop reading. I devoured the pages in two sittings, with a day’s interruption for sleep, work and baby. Each poem makes you wonder what the next poem is going to bring.

Here are five I couldn’t get off my mind.

Second Estrangement” by Aracelis Girmay. “Please raise your hand, / whomever else of you / has been a child, / lost, in a market / or a mall, without / knowing it at first, following / a stranger, accidentally / thinking he is yours….”

Charlottesville Nocturne” by Charles Wright. “The late September night is a train of thought, a wound / That doesn’t bleed, dead grass that’s still green, / No off-shoots, no elegance, / the late September night….”

Heart/mind” by Laura Kasischke. “A bear batting at a beehive, how / clumsy the mind / always was with the heart. Wanting / what it wanted.”

Object Permanence” by Nicole Sealey. “We wake as if surprised the other is still there, / each petting the sheet to be sure. / How have we managed our way / to this bed—beholden to heat like dawn / indebted to light.”

For the Last American Buffalo” by Steve Scafidi. “Because words dazzle in the dizzy light of things / and the soul is like an animal–hunted and slow– / this buffalo walks through me every night as if I was / some kind of prairie….”

Check out the book!

And speaking of poetry books, thanks to friend Becky (L) for giving me Grady Chambers’ North American Stadiums poems. The collection was the first book I finished (four months) after the baby’s arrival. Contrary to my initial belief (and hope), all the poems aren’t about literal stadiums (and I love literal stadiums). The range is better than that, and baseball still gets a starring role from time to time.

Two of my favorites from the book are thankfully online:

“The Life.” “And we bowled in a basement alley; and we got loaded / and sober and saw the wind carry a leaf / like a hand, stem down, brown palm open / and twirling like a waiter carrying a tray / brimming with champagne flutes….”

“Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966.” “Anyone can tell it’s hopeless: early July, jackhammer heat, / Pittsburgh down two in the tenth—even the diehards / in the bleachers are heading for the exits….”

So, the rally begins. Check out that book as well! Meanwhile, here are more favorites from my feeds this fall-into-winter-into-spring period.

Annunciation” by Marie Howe, via friend Becky (H). “Even if I don’t see it again—nor ever feel it / I know it is—and that if once it hailed me / it ever does—”

August Morning” by Albert Garcia. “I wander from room to room / like a man in a museum: / wife, children, books, flowers, / melon. Such still air.”

First Thanksgiving” by Sharon Olds. “Those nights, I fed her to sleep, / week after week, the moon rising, / and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months, / in a slow blur, around our planet.”

Duty” by Natasha Trethewey. “When he tells the story now / he’s at the center of it, / everyone else in the house / falling into the backdrop—”

Stay away from the bike lane” by Ronald Dudley. “I see so many people mad in the bike lane. / So many people think they bad in the bike lane.”

Encounter” by Czeslaw Milosz. “That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, / Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.”

A Letter in October” by Ted Kooser. “I woke, / and at the waiting window found / the curtains open to my open face; / beyond me, darkness.”

If Feeling Isn’t In It” by John Brehm. “They don’t try to impress you with how serious / or sensitive they are. They just feel everything / full blast. Everything is off the charts / with them.”

My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work” by Tiana Clark. “So many journals, unbroken white spines, / waiting. Did you hear that new new? / I start to text back. Ellipsis, then I forget. / I balk. I lazy the bed. I wallow when I write.”

The Loneliness of the Military Historian” by Margaret Atwood. “Confess: it’s my profession / that alarms you. / This is why few people ask me to dinner, / though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.”

Rhymes for a Watertower” by Christian Wiman. “A town so flat a grave’s a hill, / A dusk the color of beer. / A row of schooldesks shadows fill, / A row of houses near.”

Grieving” by David Dragone. “Sometimes, the grieving heart / Turns away from what could heal it. / You wait out the long winter / Opposing spring’s green faith / The way every sun-starved vine in the world / Turns beclouded by shadows / Bittering wine.”

Late February” by Ted Kooser. “Through the heaviest drifts / rise autumn’s fallen / bicycles, small carnivals / of paint and chrome, / the Octopus / and Tilt-A-Whirl / beginning to turn / in the sun. Now children, / stiffened by winter / and dressed, somehow, / like old men, mutter / and bend to the work / of building dams.”

Why I Can’t Cook for Your Self-Centered Architect Cousin” by Beth Ann Fennelly. “Because to me a dinner table’s like a bed— / without love it’s all appetite and stains. Let’s buy / take-out for your cousin, or other pizza—his toppings— / but I can’t lift a spatula to serve him what I am.”

Sinkholes” by Joyce Carol Oates.

Last, cheers for the neighbors who’ve recently put a poetry box in their front yard, which I passed on a rainy day. The first poem is “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. “When despair for the world grows in me / and I wake in the night at the least sound / in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, / I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water….”

Regarding the Kansas-Colorado border

The writer Caity Weaver has given us many wonderful experiences about the years. The first two that come to mind are “My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers” and “What Is Glitter?” A new experience arrives today in the New York Times Magazine Voyages issue. The Times sends Weaver on Amtrak across the country.

I’ve always thought I’d like to take trains across the country. Every time Amtrak emails about a sale on the Auto Train, I briefly consider travel to the one spot in Florida where the Auto Train goes. Car-less, of course. The car part is expensive. The seat, cheap. Which explains why I haven’t taken that train. One seat for so long? I’d need to spend every moment of a 12-hour or 72-hour ride in an observation car, I think. And no matter how good the view is, who wants to be the man hoarding the seat?

Anyway, Weaver. My favorite moment is when the Plains meet the West.

Kansas shares a border with Colorado. I never could have imagined that I would one day say this, and I know many people will be disconcerted by the statement. They will wonder if, this whole time, they have been reading an avant-garde work of science fiction, or perhaps a Mad Lib. “Is magical realism always this scary?” they will ask themselves. Some will claim I am lying. Many will assume I am wrong, demented or a clumsy typist.

To all of whom I respond: The truth of our nation’s internal demarcations is stranger than fiction — stranger than even the kind of brilliant avant-garde science fiction I am most likely capable of producing yet choose not to. But the unvarnished fact is Colorado has to start somewhere, and for whatever reason, that’s inside Kansas.

‘Mercy, then, was everywhere around me’

For Valentine’s Day, Lori gave me a copy of naturalist Sy Montgomery’s How to Be a Good Creature, a memoir of what animals have taught her about being. The book is relatively short and quite beautiful, even regarding her close encounters with large spiders, but the chapters about her own dogs get to me the most.

Of course they do, Lori would tell you. The arrival of the dog a year and a half ago and the baby almost a year ago have turned on my emotional spigots like a child loose among functional spigot displays in a spigot store. I find this new style of life strange and repeatedly unexpected. One moment I’m reading a bedtime story about Arfy the dog (who writes letters in hopes of adoption) or Corduroy the bear (searching for his missing button in hopes of a family taking him home). The next moment I am president and client of the spigot factory.

So, in Montgomery’s book, along with a chapter about her time with an octopus, the chapter about dealing with the loss of her dog has special power over me. On a trip to Papua New Guinea, she finds herself on the edge of a cloud forest.

At our campsite, ancient tall trees stood guard over our tents like benign wizards bearded in moss. The moss was studded with ferns. The ferns were dotted with lichens and liverworts, fungi and orchids. But it was the moss that most enchanted me. The world seemed cloaked in its velvet, as if the clouds in these tall mountains had congealed into green and come alive. John Ruskin, a nineteenth-century British art critic, called moss — humble, soft, and ancient — “the first mercy of the Earth.” Mercy, then, was everywhere around me: it covered tree trunks, vines, the ground, forgiving every clumsy step and cushioning every fall.

‘They know—and can show—love’

I didn’t see Springsteen on Broadway — not the right year or two for dropping that kind of money on a show (after all the money I’ve spent on Bruce shows in the past) — but I’m looking forward to watching it on Netflix this month. I’m also hoping to finish his autobiography sometime in the months ahead, or at least the audiobook. A couple years overdue on that one. But they’ve been busy years!

With the Netflix taping for a hook, Esquire‘s new conversation with Springsteen is a good one, particularly in his thoughts on raising his two sons. How to raise a son in the current world is a discussion Lori and I have around the house pretty often these days. In the interview, Bruce gives a nice answer and hits on qualities we were both pretty fortunate to have our parents encourage. Keeping on…

“… I would say their qualities are, they’re sensitive. They’re respectful of others. They are not locked into a 1950s sensibility of manhood, which I had to contend with. Consequently, their attitudes toward women and the world are free of those archetypes, and that frees them to be who they are and have deeper and more meaningful relationships. They know themselves pretty well, which is something I can’t say for myself when I was that age. They know—and can show—love. And they know how to receive love. They know what to do with their problems. I think they have a sense of process as to how to work on themselves, which is something that I certainly didn’t have at twenty-five. These are the things that I’m proud of my boys for.”