Some words I like …..

Thanks to my father, I collect weird words. He taught me all sorts of obscurities when I was young, drilled me on vocabulary at the dinner table, and made it a point to have me read the vocabulary feature in every Reader’s Digest. I still am in the habit of writing down the ones I don’t know in the flyleaf of whatever book I’m reading, or in a note file on my phone and then look them up later. Not looking up an unknown word seems …. ignorant to me. It’s there. It must be decoded.

Sesquepedalianism is a lost art, especially under the pressure of the “simple-and-direct” school of writing personified by the late Raymond Carver, where less is always more. Only a very brave few souls would ever drop one of these into a conversation, but every so often I find myself slipping a sedulous (showing dedication)  or an eleemosynary (related to charity) into conversation, but it’s truly dickheaded. My old writing teacher, John Hersey, was merciless in hunting down and destroying any lifeless latinate compound words. He’d turn over in his grave if he listened to a modern business consultant sling around bullshit buzzwords like “disintermediate” and “paradigm.”

This list is courtesy of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British author and adventurer whom I’ve grown fond of since learning of him via his obituary earlier in 2011. I culled these from his two-volume memoir of his walk across Europe in the late 1930s from Holland to the Black Sea. A few of these are religious terms, which I became interested in during my 52-churches sojourn.

  • Paschal candle: a large candle blessed and lit on Holy Saturday and placed by the altar until Pentecost.
  • Myrmidons: a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly
  • Serried:  standing close together
  • Lappet:  a fold or hanging piece of flesh in some animals or a loose or overlapping part of a garment.
  • Pallium: a woollen vestment conferred by the Pope on an archbishop, consisting of a narrow circular band placed round the shoulders with a short lappet hanging from front and back or  a man’s large rectangular cloak, especially as worn by Greek philosophical and religious teachers.
  • Monstrance: an open or transparent receptacle in which the consecrated Host is displayed for veneration.
  • Chairoscuro: the treatment of light and shade in drawing and painting.
  • Postillion: a person who rides the leading nearside (left-hand side) horse of a team or pair drawing a coach or carriage, especially when there is no coachman.
  • Equipage: the equipment for a particular purpose.
  • Dolman: a long Turkish robe open in front, a woman’s loose cloak with cape-like sleeves.
  • Moufflon: a small wild sheep with chestnut-brown wool, found in mountainous country from Iran to Asia Minor. It is the ancestor of the domestic sheep.
  • Syncope:  temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure or the omission of sounds or letters from within a word, for example when library is pronounced.
  • Puissant: having great power or influence.
  • Congener: a thing or person of the same kind or category as another.

The downside of learning this uselessness is the immense frustration posed by Words With Friends when you try to play a perfectly valid word like “fisc” and get told by the thumb-sucker’s Zynga dictionary that it isn’t a word.

Burpees @ Dawn

Maintaining any kind of exercise discipline while travelling can be hard, even more so during the holidays, but for the past 12 days I was able to stay on the work-out wagon thanks to San Francisco Crossfit.

One of the first Crossfit affiliates, the “gym” is tucked away behind the Sports Basement across from Crissy Field in the old San Francisco Army base, the Presidio. It consists of three repurposed shipping containers, a tarp stretched into a facsimile of a roof, the biggest, best decorated porta-potty I’ve ever visited, and a lot of pavement lined with outrigger canoes and assorted San Francisco Bay watercraft. The place is owned by Crossfit legend, Kelly Starett, or “K-Star” as fans of his daily Mobility Work Out of the Day (MWOD) refer to him, and he’s assisted by a half-dozen trainers who stand around acting pleasant while shivering in puffy down coats and thinking of more demonic exercises for the class to perform.

I’d been a fan of the MWOD blog and YouTube series for more than a year, so meeting Kelly was a bit of a fan-celebrity shock, especially when his sense of humor was enacted right in front of me as he imitated an old Chinese lady waiting at a bus stop, or people in an aerobics class goosestepping to Jane Fonda. Kelly is fond of words like “grotty,” “capsule,” “leopard” and “activate” and combines them to get you stretching and hurting like you’ve never been stretched or hurt (in a good way) before.

I was there on a ten-day visitor’s pass. Filled out a waiver absolving them of responsibility should I kill myself (which is possible in theory), and was immediately accepted as just another old guy trying to keep the wolf from the door with a daily dose of Xfit. I hit the 7 am class — perfect for witnessing the dawn light hit the Golden Gate bridge and the Marin headlands all pink and orange and …. Kelly forced us to stop and regard the sight at one point, for no where can I think of a more inspiring back drop for weight lifting, rope climbing, burpees, and running.

As for the rope climb. Faithful readers know I am inordinately proud of my hawser ascending powers, so when the workout of the day sent me up three stories on a two-inch manila rope tied to a fire escape hanging off the back of the Sports Basement, right over a dumpster full of what looked like old rusty rebar, I was all gung-ho but illprepared and while successful in ascending, came down precariously enough that Kelly had to intervene and ban me from further feats of strength as I had burned a bloody six-inch groove into my right shin.

“No more rope for you. That’s going to fester.”

And fester it has.

Anyway, it was very cool to stay in shape in such a primal place; to experience a different Crossfit box and get pushed in new directions for a few days. Now I’m back on the Cape, ready for a return to my home box for some post-redeye redemption.

Christopher Hitchens: 1949-2011

I was a big fan and now he is dead all too soon at 62. The ciggies and gin will do that to you I guess, but they did nothing but sharpen his mordant feisty wit.

I wrote over a year ago after finishing his memoir – “Hitch-22”:

“Hitchens intelligence and ambitions are unwavering. His mind is obviously astonishing. But it is is dogged refusal to back down from a life-long hatred of totalitarianism, to proudly wear the jingoistic labels of “Trotskyist,” to reject religion and faith and willingly face his attackers that makes this work a true profile in courage. His early calls for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, his proud embrace of American citizenship despite an upbringing as the consummate Englishman, his love of the language and the fun of word play …. in the end it combines into what I have to declare is my favorite literary autobiography ever.”

Buy and read him. He’s worth it.


If only Stephen Glass had learned how to climb a rope ….

From an excellent article on serial “fabulist” Stephen Glass and his attempts to be admitted to the California Bar after sullying his name in the late 1990s by concocting a ton of stories in The New Republic, George,  and many other fine publications:

“Such was their demand for their child’s success that they even hired a “tutor” to help Glass master rope-climbing. “Applicant noted that, at least in this case, their efforts were unsuccessful. He still could not climb the rope, even after tutoring,” Judge Honn continues.”

The poor guy, the victim of two over-weening helicopter parents who were hell-bent to see their son get a medical degree. So obsessed that they hired a rope climbing tutor to get him up the rope and build his self-esteem.

This is the guy that put on the map after our managing editor Kambiz Faroohar and computer crime reporter Adam Penenberg started checking into Glasses’ story Hack Heaven.  They exposed the fraud, Vanity Fair wrote a feature, Hollywood made a film, and Glass went on to write a novel, The Fabulist, and graduate magna cum laude from Georgetown Law.

Last Friday I climbed a rope for the first time since I ascended one in the wrestling room in high school in 1976. I climbed it ten times in fact, inching my way up the 15′ long, 2″ wide hawser at the urging of my CrossFit trainer. I’ve got no skin on my inner thighs, have a lurid trench burned into my right shin, and no fingerprints on my right hand’s middle and pinkie fingers. But I climbed the frigging rope.

Oh but the feeling of accomplishment to have climbed that terrifying rope not once, not twice, but ten times in a row, slapping the girder on the ceiling every time before descending in a panicked slide of friction and controlled falling. I feel no urge to tell a lie as a result.

So, Mr. and Mrs. Glass, there is still hope for young Stephen. Sign him up for CrossFit and have him watch this how-to video. Then maybe the California Supreme Court will let him be a lawyer where his unique prevaricating skills will be right at home.

via The trial of Stephen Glass.

And So It Goes: the Vonnegut biography

I just finished Charles Shield’s  biography of Kurt Vonnegut: And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut:  A Life  largely on the strength of Christopher Buckley’s  review in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review.

I’ve read most of Vonnegut’s novels, but wouldn’t necessarily put anything other than Slaughterhouse 5 on a list of must-read literature.  Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater: I read them, enjoyed some, didn’t enjoy others, but would not rank Vonnegut among my favorite authors of the late 20th century’s post-modernist school.

I’m not a big fan of literary biographies because they tend to be so predictable  in their accounts of misfit personas, alcohol consumption, failed marriages, alienated children, ambiguous sexual preferences, and the simple bleak fact that most authors go quietly insane over the course of their lifetimes thanks to sitting alone for hours at a time at their typewriters.  Dysfunction sells books. Normalcy does not. Read enough literary biographies and you’ll come to believe that all authors are miserable human beings, and other than some rubbernecking urge to watch them self-destruct, there is little in their lives that is commendable. Any biography of Cheever, Fitzgerald, Hunter S., Jack Kerouac, Hemingway usually is a catalog of misfit urges and terrible behavior.

Vonnegut smoked too much, drank too much, divorced his wife after 30 years of marriage, and was petulant when reviewers trashed his work.  He fooled around, screwed over his agents and publishers, and preened a little in the 1970s as a modern Mark Twain after Slaughterhouse made him rich and famous. He was also fairly prolific, wrote some good novels, was a hero to the counterculture and very much a man of his time. That he died old and unhappy – well, I would argue happy 84-year olds are fewer than ill and unhappy ones.

Although Shields enjoyed “official” status and access to Vonnegut in the writer’s final months, Mark Vonnegut wrote one reviewer to assassinate Shield’s account as a fabrication:

“I’m happy to reassure you that Kurt did not die a bitter man who kept thinking he was a failure.

Charles Shields spent very little time with a much diminished 84 year old who right up to the end showed more flashes of brilliance and warmth than most. There’s a ton of evidence, including his art and writing that he fought hard and largely succeeded to overcome PTSD from WWII and a quirky, but not altogether unloving childhood to have mostly loving and supportive relationships with his siblings and children and even his allegedly distant father. Shields had to ignore most of what I and other people who knew Kurt and most of what he read in the letters to come up with these shocking truths about a beloved writer.
It’s too good a bit to go away, but Kurt had next to no interest in investments or expensive things and never bought Dow stock.

Why don’t people employ a modicum of critical thinking before buying into the truth of a book whose existence is completely and utterly dependent on a picture that Shields would have made up out of whole cloth if he had to. Not a perfect man or father and I’ll grant you two failed marriages.

My best regards to someone whose affection and respect for my father shines on.”

I met Vonnegut in the late 1990s at a big Forbes event. He was quite avuncular and we sp0ke a few minutes about life in Barnstable Village here on Cape Cod in the 50s through the 70s. Vonnegut moved to Osterville in the early 50’s, rented an office over the Osterville Package Store on Wianno Ave., mentions Cotuit Bay as the place where Eliot Rosewater’s mother died in a boating accident (aboard a Cotuit Skiff I like to imagine), and then moved to the northside, to Scudder Lane in Barnstable Village where his wife Jane raised their three children and his late sister’s four.

Vonnegut owned the first Saab dealership in the U.S. — which failed — but when I drove a 900 purchased from Hyannis Saab I always liked to think it had some psychic connection to Kurt.

Vonnegut bailed on Cape Cod in the 70s, shacked up with the photographer Jill Krementz (whom he eventually married), bought a townhouse on West 48th Street, and then a place in the Hamptons — transforming him from a “Cape Cod Writer” (of which there are very few) to a classic New York Literary Luminary. He made some returns to Barnstable, but never called it home again after leaving.

His books were popular with my parents and their friends in the late 60s and 70s, and I recall the excitement whenever a new Vonnegut novel was published. Again, they didn’t do as much for me as Barth, Pynchon, and Heller. All of whom faded when the new realism emerged in the late 70s with Raymond Carver and his ilk.

As for the biography, well, if you want to get a little depressed, then by all means, go right ahead. If you’re a writer looking for some profound life’s lesson, then it comes down to this the guy worked his ass off and found success when he figured out how to tell the story of how he survived the fire bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. Other than that — it’s petty stuff.


On losing a blogging friend

Over the past few years I’ve had a commenter’s relationship with another Cape Cod blogger, a young woman named Rebecca whose last name I never learned. She would cheerfully comment on one or another of my posts from time to time, leaving behind a link to her blog — Girl on the Loose. I found her years ago on a blog-of-blogs that listed other Cape Cod bloggers. I liked her writing and sense of humor.

Like me she liked to ride bicycles. Loved her dog Diesel. And occasionally reviewed local restaurants. She also had breast cancer, and wrote about her battle with that disease and her constant trips to Boston and local doctors.

Today I learned, months after the fact, that she died. Her blog is still online, someone in her family posted the sad news and an invitation to a celebration of her life. I missed both until today and I’m sad and a bit moody about morbid thoughts of words and pictures that outlive us.

I’m glad that Rebecca’s digital life goes on.

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