A Way with Words

Karl was a writer who took his craft very seriously. He was good at it.

One day he wrote a perfect sentence and it stopped him cold. This had never happened to him before. He had been writing for a long time but this was really something.

He looked at it and was filled with awe. It was exquisite. It accomplished its purpose… perfectly. It was as long as it needed to be. No clutter. The punctuation was balanced and tasteful. It said everything he meant to say.  Succeeding sentences would add words but not meaning.

Karl felt liberated. He had said it all. On re-reading it he felt he might never need write again. It was that perfect.

Then the thought welled up, he was trapped by this perfection. He felt restricted. The freedom he felt moments ago, now confined him. Nothing looked different but this perfect sentence had changed everything.

Karl always saw writing as a sculptor approaches a block of stone; chiseling each sentence, stroke by stroke, shaping the story. Now the jewel was cut and polished. This perfect sentence stole Karl’s words.

Karl threw his pen across the room. He crumpled the paper holding his perfect sentence and threw it into the waste basket. It was a perfect throw.

He went out for a drink. Karl needed distance from this bizarre phenomenon. This absurdity of perfection. His apartment was stuffy, like fifty people populated it, breathing his air.

He sat at the bar and drank in silence. But words streamed through his mind. They were not perfect words though. And they weren’t perfect sentences. He finished his drink and left, telling himself the noisy bar was distracting. But the words followed.

Karl sat at his typewriter. The words stopped.

He told himself the sentence was not so perfect. He could go on. No words came.

Then Karl thought he had imagined it all. It wasn’t even his sentence. It wasn’t important. Just ink on paper. A meaningless scribble.

He retrieved the paper from the basket and smoothed it on his desk. The sentence was undoubtedly written in his handwriting. They were his words. He could not deny his creation.

He couldn’t explain it either. It truly was perfect in every way. It was unambiguous but evocative, and precisely expressed his meaning. The sentence was suggestive and musical. Witty but not precious. Rhythmic, colorful and terse. Clear.

Karl assured himself his ego was not running away. It was beyond him how he wrote it. He didn’t know he had such a good sentence in him. Two? Impossible.

The more he studied it, the more he felt unworthy of its greatness. How could he write another so well? He felt helpless. All sentences flow from this sentence. Having written it, no more were needed.

He feared his future writing would only be derivative. Empty. Flaccid.

Karl always devoted himself to using words as beautifully and effectively as possible. Having reached this pinnacle, was his life now but a long slog down the nether slope? Would he spend his declining years like some old fool on a bench, mumbling about his past greatness? His damned perfect sentence?

Mediocrity stared at him.

He berated himself for spending his life chasing empty words. Waves on a beach.

After all, words are only vague shadows of fleeting abstractions. Fossilized metaphors binding us to archaic objects and deeds, laden with repetition, a gloss of emotion and memorializing some anonymous utterance. Words. Why grope for meaning sifting through shards of the past?

He sat in silence and watched shadows grow.

Karl lurched to his feet and charged out of his room. The door slammed behind him and he staggered into the street. He didn’t know where to go. He needed to move.

He passed people and yelled greetings. He could only gesture, grunt and shout. No one returned his wild gaze but furtively glanced as he passed. A policeman eyed him.

Karl paid no mind. He walked too quickly to notice. He didn’t know where he was going but couldn’t wait to get there. He raged toward the river.

Then Karl stopped. Passing under a stone bridge he noticed a shoeless man sitting in the gloom. Karl had thought he was walking past discarded rags. The beggar moved his feet when Karl passed. He looked as if he had not moved in days.

The man’s sign caught his eye. Scrawled on tattered cardboard, it read, “Please help.”

Karl emptied his pockets and offered what he had to the man who took it meekly. Karl fell to his knees and weeping, he embraced the poor soul.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you.” Karl said.

Eulogy

My mother passed away just before Christmas. The following is the eulogy I gave at her Memorial Mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Sarasota, Florida on March 24th, 2018. time restrictions forced my brevity. Mom was one of the great ones, with an irrepressible spirit. She touched many lives.

Thank you all for joining my family and me in honoring my mother, Marti Adams. I am John, Marti and Gordon’s third son.

There is an unreal quality in the loss of a loved one. Ninety years of memories, suddenly gone. Especially my mother, who knew me before I knew myself, and who nurtured me to the end.

The last time we spoke, a day before she passed, she assured me she was fine. She didn’t want me to worry. She was strong.

After all, in her nineties, while planning a trip, she had a personal trainer at the gym.

I can’t sum up Mom’s life, but let me give you my sense of her.

An early memory is Mom playing Beethoven’s, Moonlight Sonata on her piano. Her attempts at private time were always interrupted by us kids.

I don’t think I ever heard her complete it, but that pensive, opening movement has always been a favorite. Mom perfected her private time doing her art.

Mom’s signature phrase with us was “Fair is fair.” She used it to settle any dispute. But she also applied it in her spending habits, like when she bought each of us three boys, a giant, stuffed poodle dog for Christmas. Or the annual, festively wrapped socks and underwear under the tree.

We never pinned down exactly what ‘fair is fair’ meant, but it almost always stopped an argument. If things continued out of hand, Mom aimed her famous and dreaded ‘raised eyebrow’ at the perps, and that would be that.

Marti and Gordon met during WWII, at the University of Michigan while Gordon was there for Marine officer training.

I recently found a letter Dad wrote to his Commanding officer, requesting permission to marry ‘Miss Daligga,’ our future Mom.

Dad declared he knew “Miss Daligga and her family for over two years.” I shared it with Mom and laughing, she said “more like two weeks!”

Mom and Dad made marriage look easy. As easy as clearing the floor and dancing the ‘Lindy’ to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” They were a great team. I never saw them argue.

Friday night was date night for Mom and Dad and that meant fish sticks or tuna fish over rice for us four kids.

On our many road trips, Mom always brought hard boiled eggs for snacks, saving Dad from stopping every twenty minutes. Six weeks on the road and she always had hard boiled eggs. How did she do that?

Mom got much of her spirit and spunk from her mother, another strong and beautiful woman.

For a year in the late fifties, Mom basically raised us four kids solo. Dad was starting his business in Wilmar – two hours west of us. Although he came home on weekends, it must have been lonely for them both. But we never knew about that.

Mom kept us busy with projects, like gathering berries from our garden to make jams and jellies.

We moved to a rental house in Wilmar, near Dad’s office. On cold nights, the furnace would go out. It was below zero outside and no heat inside. Mom just got us dressed for school in front of the oven.

One Saturday, we kids discovered Rocky and Bullwinkle on TV. Our laughter drew Mom in, to see what mischief we were up to. She joined us on the couch and ended up laughing harder than the rest of us.

Mom was always practical when faced with a challenge. She told us, ‘Never, ever give up.’ One night we needed to pick up my darling sister Jan, from her piano lessons. Mom had poor night vision. And it was foggy.

While Mom attempted to drive the winding two-lane highway, I was hanging out the rear, driver’s side window while Jeff watched out the passenger side.

I called out “Mom! Mom! Go to the right. You’re gonna hit the curb” – (which would be the curb on the left side of the road).

Mom pulled over to the right and stopped. She decided it was safer for Jeff to drive, even though he was unlicensed. He could see. We all got home safely.

Mom was a fighter. Mom petitioned the court for us to keep our dog, Sam after Sam scared some bicyclists. The judge wouldn’t listen. Mom persisted. He threatened her with contempt of court. Mom wouldn’t give up.

He didn’t reckon on her using ‘fair is fair’ followed by ‘the eyebrow’.

We got to keep Sam.

Maryann and Lori Ann from St. Patrick’s rectory tell me Mom’s parishioner number was #1. They are now retiring her number, so Mom will always be #1.

Though we are all here today to celebrate Mom’s life, I have it on excellent authority that this separation we feel is only temporary. We’ll see you again Mom. Thank you.