11 October 2009

Two-Headed Monster

Talking to my brother, Roger, on the phone earlier this evening, I had another weirdly humorous reminder of the deep and sometimes strange connection between us.

I say "sometimes," because the two of us have long since come to laughingly take the whole thing for granted, expect it to happen, even, preternatural as its manifestations may be.

You have heard stories about oddly deep connections between twins even when the twins have been physically separated for most of their lives. Well, though we were born 15 months apart, with Roger and I, it's like that, too. Just like that.

To put it scientifically, the power of genetics is manifest in our lives.

First, there are the similarities you expect from brothers. We are both big, fat guys with roundish, chunky, cheerful heads. Our distinctive, buzzing voices sound the same. (This is a quality shared by our third, seemingly mutant, thin and wiry brother, Bill. It has something to do with our northern New Jersey upbringing.) In fact, when Roger and I still lived in the same house, we would occasionally try to fool callers by subtly pitching our very similar voices.

It goes beyond just the sound of our voices, though. It's the way we use those voices, too. We both have a digressive and discursive, detailed way of speaking that can be frustrating to more direct-speaking friends and acquaintances. On any subject that matters, we might start with what we consider important deep background. That is, we take it back to when we were little kids in New Jersey. Or further. Then we illustrate, we progress, we take side trips, backtrack, remember important details we should have put in earlier. We take, in short, the long way around.

That's what I gather, anyway.

So, Roger and I look and sound alike, or very similar. If you swapped my often longish, thick, unruly grey hair and goatee for his self-cut, wispy, one-time blond and pencil-thin Gable mustache, we could take a respectable crack at fooling people.

These kinds of things you might expect from brothers. Even Bill, whom at first glance a stranger might think is from a different family, exhibits some similarities. Some of these grow more and more obvious as the three of us grow older. When I uncovered my now-adult face for the first time in my life by shaving off my beard some years ago, I came to realize that, yes, Bill and I do look alike in some ways.

But then there are the odder manifestations I mentioned earlier.

Roger lives in Germany. He has been there since 1983. We are in almost constant contact by phone and on the internet. We love our instant messenger sessions together.

On the instant messenger it is a common occurrence that we'll both type the same thing at the same time and send it nearly simultaneously. Our wording might be slightly different, but we've both come up with the same comment or question. Often this seems like a new or unique statement to each of us, a new subject or drastic veer away from what we were just talking about. . .until we read that that other brother came up with it, too. Our brains followed very similar paths from whatever we last talked about to arrive at this same place. It has happened like that so many times that we hardly note it anymore.

Then there are the thoughts and even activities that we seem to be doing "independently together."

So, you got your car inspected on the same day I did?
You are also reading about the Civil War?
I had no idea that you, too, were a fan of the Pretenders.

When the weight of these "coincidences" becomes sometimes hilariously annoying, we might seek to assert our own individuality. And of course, Roger and I are different in many ways. Roger is a genius with his hands, with planning projects and following through with them. He is a brilliant maker. I am a ham-fisted dunderhead in this department. Roger is very much more talented musically than I am. He is adept at picking up instruments and noodling around with them, at figuring out songs. I have never been very musical. I try, but it is a struggle for me. Roger might say that I am better with words, but I'm convinced it is just a matter of where we put our attention.

But inevitably, the similarities return:

We are both birders, though Roger, as in most things, is far more diligent and serious about it than I am. We both have favorite birdwatching spots outside of the cities we live in. Both places are lakes. And one of the typical activities for each of us involves making our way to a wooden observation structure to get a better view of waterfowl on the lake. We didn't plan it this way.

To add another layer, in the "tape days"--the years when we frequently exchanged cassette tape letters--we'd sometimes find ourselves listening to a tape of the other brother's birding expedition while we ourselves were driving out to our own lake.

These types of correspondences, though amusing, are understandable considering our shared interests and basic outlooks on life.

The phenomenon is at its most amazing when it has nothing to do with opinions or values, but comes, rather, as a strange echoing of trivial events in our quotidian lives. Some silly thing that happened to me, or that I do in a certain way, I find that Roger experienced also or does the same way. The very unimportance of these events is what makes their
correspondence startling, and, to us, usually hilarious.

Why would it turn out that we shave using not only the same type of razor, but the same shaving pattern? On our tapes some years ago, we kicked around the subject of odd things we do that we have never told anyone. That is how we found out that we are both sometime "step-counters": we habitually count our steps when walking from place to place. We both bought cars with sunroofs. We had never talked about sunroofs.

There is a paradox here, though: the more unimportant the action or event we share, not only the more amazing the coincidence, but the more difficult it is to remember! Who remembers these littlest of activities, sometimes as small as gestures or odd, inconsequential thoughts? So, even when Roger and I do weirdly share one, it tends to slip away quietly and disappear. They are the lint of the mind. They blow away in the merest puff.

I've been struggling with this, in fact, in working on this piece, and I have to apologize. I have been trying for quite some time, with Roger's help, to remember some of the more amazing examples of this correspondence between us. And what I have come up with arrives like lukewarm drizzle or small beer. Not that impressive, somehow.

But that doesn't mean the phenomenon is not real. It is very real. Roger and I feel it deeply and experience these funny echoes often. It feels, sometimes, like we are two parts of the same being, living different aspects of one life. It feels like we are a chunky, pleasant-headed colossus, one foot planted firmly in Berlin, one in Denver, spanning the Atlantic!

So, earlier this evening we were once again on the instant messenger, typing away about this and that and nothing in particular. Near the end of our conversation I was talking about my recent efforts to pick out the guitar introduction to "Stairway to Heaven" on my ukulele. I had only gotten as far as the first line or two (the first line repeats as the second), but was delighted how the iconic, oh-so-familiar opening notes of the song came out so easily on the uke. And I wanted to share it with Roger.

In a typical exchange of this two-headed, intercontinental monster:

Jim: Grab your uke and I'll talk you through it.

Roger: Grabbed already!

So we picked through the first 5 notes of the song, Roger getting it much quicker than I did, of course. Then came time for us to sign off the computer, as Roger needed to go to bed.

But he wanted to phone me first to explain something, which involved a little story of when he first left the country to go vagabonding in Europe. He wanted to actually hear my progress on the "Stairway to Heaven" intro, as well.

Well, this involved balancing my cell phone on a pile of books, papers, and so forth, so that it was close to the sound hole of the uke. I plucked a few strings to see if Roger could hear it.

And here came the occurrence that amazed me.

Roger had his uke in hand as well. He was plucking a few strings. And our instruments were in tune. Perfectly.

This would easily be explained if we both had tuned our ukuleles properly, to a pitch pipe or some other source. But we hadn't.

Or, at least I hadn't. Last time I tuned the instrument, I just tuned the strings to each other, and to a pitch I found pleasing. After failing to find my 40-year-old pitch pipe, I said to myself that the key doesn't matter. I'll just make sure the strings are tuned to each other, and forget about the actual key overall. After all, I was not playing it with anybody.

And it turned out that Roger's uke was tuned haphazardly, as well, a tone or two flat of the proper tuning.

I do not have perfect pitch or absolute pitch, or whatever. I don't even know the difference between the two.

But, like so many small occurrences in our mysteriously shared lives, like our lives themselves, our instruments were in tune.


02 September 2009

Denver's Last Drive-In

One recent Monday night, Jon, Donna, and I went to Denver's last remaining drive-in movie theater.

Since the unstoppable juggernaut of soulless urban real estate deals rolled across the northwest corner of Hampden and Santa Fe and razed our beautiful, always-packed Cinderella Twin Drive-In after the 2007 season, Denver has been left with only one drive-in.

It took a year of mourning before Jon, Donna, and I could bring ourselves to make the pilgrimage to this other, last, unknown location. The only game in town.

Let me report that the 88 Drive-In is alive and sprockets clicking, its projector beam a literal beacon to the faithful in the urban dark of Commerce City, northeast of Denver.

Indeed, the darkness of the location is one of the big pluses of the 88 Drive-In. Unlike the old Cinderella Twin, this drive-in is situated in a little-traveled, dark corner of the metro area. Though 88th Avenue does lie right behind the screen, the lights of cars and trucks on the street do nothing to mar the drive-in experience. The 88's screen is mounted relatively high, and the car lights don't interfere at all. In fact, since the screen is surrounded with a pleasant blackness, the brightly-projected film image looks vibrant and clear, not bathed in murky grey, as was the case at the light-saturated Cinderella's Englewood location.

We found this drive-in relatively well-attended for a Monday night. I mean, who goes to the drive-in on a Monday night? Apparently enough people know about this one to give it that nice, communal drive-in feel.

I bet it is packed on weekends!

Setting foot in the no-frills snackbar part of the building that houses the projector was a kind of delightful nostalgia kick for me. It was just the perfect mixture of painted cinderblock walls, flourescent tube lighting, waist-high barrier walls topped with painted-pipe handrails, and gleaming chrome cafeteria-style serving fixtures. A kind of heaven.

The service at both the snack bar and the ticket booth was cheery and efficient. The projection of the film was crisp, clear, and bright, and even included the obligatory sentimental annoying announcement of the snack bar's closing cutting in over the second feature's soundtrack!

If you go, make sure your vehicle has a good, working FM radio to receive the movie sound. Jon and Donna's car had a radio problem at first and my heart sank, thinking they were going to miss the drive-in experience! But they moved to a different location and all was well. Loud and clear!

For some reason, I never went to the drive-in when I was a kid. My eldest brother, Bill, definitely remembers going, but maybe by the time I came along the thrill (for my parents!) was gone. I don't know. But I always feel this as a painful gap in my childhood experience. Other people talk about being bundled up as kids with blankets and food and heading for the drive-in. I just have to say, hunh, must have been fun.

So, people. I'm telling you. Bundle up those kids and head out there to Commerce City for a wonderful drive-in experience! Or go yourselves! Find some chintzy movie double-feature that might be painful to see in the theater, but which will be perfect to see in the drive-in, and go!

Go! Just go!!

08 August 2009

"His block is knocked off??!"

A real favorite commercial from when I was a kid. Unless there is an alternate version, I had misremembered the line as "He knocked his block off!" which is much better, actually, than the strange passive construction used here. Gotta love these kids, though. Their enthusiasm really sells what looks like a pretty limited toy. How long could you play with this before growing bored??

What My Father Said

In December of 2000, my father was in the hospital. He was there for nearly the entire month, accompanied the whole time by his devoted second wife, Amy. I visited nearly every day after work.

Those were to be some of the last weeks of his life.

One afternoon, during this time, my dad said something I will never forget. It was a broken-brained formulation of a short-circuited head, and it was absolutely brilliant.

My dad was living with a couple of kinds of cancer. He had, in fact, been diagnosed with prostate cancer over ten years earlier, so, according to the statistics, he had beat that disease. But, after the bypass surgery he'd managed to avoid for 30 years, with his immune system compromised, things began to pop up. A small mark on his leg, next to the scar where the cardiac surgeons removed the vein, turned out to be melanoma.

What really sent him to the hospital there near the end, though, was a cerebral hemorrhage. He had been driving with Amy one day, when, suddenly as he turned left at an intersection, he complained of being disoriented.

The disorientation continued at home, and eventually he was taken to the hospital.

It took some time to determine the cause of his problem. There were many things going wrong with him at this time. He was actively taking a regimen of chemotherapy for the cancer. And it was a question, should he continue the chemo, now that he was in the hospital for something quite else?

I remember standing by his bed as his oncologist asked this very question. I remember being amazed when Dad confidently and cheerily insisted that the chemo should continue.

At this time, and for weeks, his affect was disarmingly sunny, enthusiastic, attentive, and quite normal. His blue eyes were bright and sharply focused. If anything, he was happier than normal.

He had the TV on in his room most of the times I visited. He loved watching Jeopardy! and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And we all viewed with disquiet and jokes and growing alarm the election news that grew stranger and more tangled each day.

For this was December of 2000, and the presidential election of over a month before was still up for grabs. The two sides faced off across an unbridgeable constitutional canyon. New nomenclature clogged the airwaves, tutoring us in the differences between hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads.

Dad had been a lifelong Republican, but the events of recent years had sometimes severely tested his political faith. He had a hard, pragmatic side much stronger than any mere political affiliation and, in the right circumstances, he'd look toward Washington and label the entire crew there a pack of scoundrels.

I visited him every day, if I could, at least for a short time. Amy, bless her heart forever, was essentially living at the hospital, so that eventually the staff offered her a bed of her own to sleep in so she would not have to crash out every night on the room's recliner.

And for a while it was hard to tell that there was anything really wrong with my father. As I said, he seemed bright and chipper, following conversation and his TV game shows with alertness and seemingly normal humor. And his eye seemed just as jaundiced and cynical as ever when the interminable election news wrangled on and on.

I first discovered that things were not as they should be on one visit when Dad wanted to talk about some household business. As long as I was talking to him, as I said, he seemed at ease and attentive. It was when he had to speak to me that he had problems. Big problems. The concepts were there, but he could not find the words. He would stop in mid-sentence. He'd twist his hands in the air in a frustrated search. He'd hold his head, as if the effort hurt him. If Amy or I prompted him with words ("Treasury bills", "file folders", "interest,") his eyes would light up and he would leap on it, his whole being saying "yes, that's it!" But when he tried to formulate these concepts into words himself, it was a big struggle. There was something terribly wrong.

And he knew there was something terribly wrong, and would express it by saying something like "Oh, I am in big trouble now!" He knew his brain was having problems when it came to finding words, and he was understandably scared.

That his ability to turn ideas and pictures in his head into words was badly impaired became more and more obvious now with each visit. It was especially true in the case of more abstract notions. But even concrete nouns, like the Treasury Bills he was desperate to tell us about, were elusive. As soon as Amy or I supplied the word for him, he would say "Yeah!" with a rising inflection that carried a heartbreaking combination of embarassment and bemused anger at himself: "well of course! I know that. Isn't that obvious!"

The more I visited, day after day, the more I saw that my father's brain was deeply affected by what the doctors by this time labeled a cerebral hemorrhage. His problem with words began to seem simple and easily definable compared to other, stranger manifestations.

For instance, I began to think that Dad's brain was often carrying two concepts together at once in a way that the rest of us would find either an effort of will or a scary intrusion. I thought about those times that our brains are slipping into sleep or rising from sleep to full daytime consciousness that psychologists call hypnagogia or threshold consciousness.

We all have experienced--and might even experience nightly--these strange states of mind. For me, they often overlay or blend two types of thought: first, a mechanical operation, like enumerating, or sorting by colors, or making a list, or the like. But at the same time, the colored beads I am sliding along wires, say, are also people's feelings, or worries about tasks left undone, or maybe things I have to do in a certain order before getting out of bed. I often feel frustrated, sliding those beads around, knowing I can never really get them in the right order.

It began to seem, or I began to imagine, that my father's head as he lay there in his hospital bed, was locked in such a state of double-mindedness. Things he said sometimes pointed toward this. He would connect an abstract concept with a concrete one in an alarming shift.

It was during this time when he came out with a statement that still amazes me and fills me with a strange joy.

I had arrived for my daily visit just on the tail end of Dad's meal time. He still had dessert to come, and wanted to see if he could share some with me. Both Amy and he had ordered pieces of pie, and they quickly decided to offer me a piece, instead. I would get Amy's slice.

"Have a piece of apple pie!" said Dad. The pie had not arrived yet. Amy said it was cherry, not apple.

Up in the corner of the room, the TV news was a tangle of move and counter-move in the election crisis. Recounts proposed and challenged, chads flying every which way, lawyers and politicos squaring off.

Dad was gazing at it and shaking his head.

"Those so-n-sos!" he exclaimed.

An orderly arrived with two pieces of cherry pie in styrofoam bowls.

"What. . .chicanery!" Dad continued. Such an interesting word came out of his mouth. It wasn't one I would think of. I looked closely at him.

Dad made a fuss of offering me some "apple pie," handing me one of the bowls as he held the other. He kept looking back up at the TV while fussing with the pie.

"Apple pie!. . .apple pie!" he urged, pushing it at me.

"Chicanery?" I asked, still delighted with the word.

"Yeah!" said my father, gesturing up at the TV with his fork, "Apple pie chicanery!" And laughed.

I laughed too.

I looked at him with wonder, and laughed! He had come out with this amazing statement, this piece of crack-brained poetry, and it delighted me. But had he known what he had said, really?

As if reading my mind, he repeated, "Yeah! Apple Pie Chicanery!"

It was the last, best thing I heard my father say.

29 July 2009

5-year-old boy plays "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash

Here is a delightful and hilarious video. I hope it makes your day. While you are at it, see also my entry "O Albele Panchhi. . ."

18 July 2009

Sic Transit Gloria Sticker

Two hundred sixty-two days.

That is 262 days.

Or 8 months and 21 days, depending on how you figure it.

That is how long my "Obama/Biden '08" circular magnetic sticker lasted on the driver's door of my car.

The numbers here are approximate, since I do not remember the exact date I put it on, but it was about a week before election day last November.

Strange thing, this magnetic sign. It looks just like a sticker, but is, in fact, a sign with a magnetic backing. In other words, anyone could have taken it off my car at any time.

It was handsome, mostly blue, with lettering in white. There may have been some tiny details in red, also.

I tried putting it on the back of my Ford Focus. But there was not a single flat space big enough for the circular emblem. So then I decided to put it on the driver's side door.

More than one person remarked that it looked like I was driving the Obama/Biden staff car.

Because it was just a magnetic sign, I thought from the beginning that someone would swipe it. In the few days before the election, I thought it might fall victim to some zealous John McCain supporter.

So, whenever I came back to my car, I wondered if the sign would still be there. It always was.

I remember parking at my polling place on election day. Surely this would be the day when some wise guy would take the sticker. Or maybe it would disappear in the hands of a too-enthusiastic Obama voter? But no! When I returned to my car, there it was, as always.

And so it has been, ever since.

Or had been.

My car lives out on the street in front of my place at night. And I live by a popular corner bar. There is lots of foot traffic all day and all evening, and many happy or disgruntled drunken people issue from the bar every morning just after 2am. And they all walk very close to my car.

Granted, most of these giddy or angry drunks are on the sidewalk, with the Obama/Biden sticker necessarily facing the street, instead.

But in any case, the sticker had lasted all this time. That's something like 8.69 months, depending.

Last week I was sitting in the front window of Whole Foods, with a good view of my car, which was parked right there in the first row of spaces. As I sat there eating my dinner and computing, a car pulled into the space right next to mine. I had backed into my space, so as the blond woman got out of her car, she was facing my driver's side door.

She looked down at the sticker. She reacted with her whole body, even out to her frizzy, pouffy hair, with some kind of shuddery disapproval. She looked around her for a moment, looked down at the sign on my door again.

I was watching her from maybe 30 feet away, and she did not see me. I really wondered if she was going to peel off the sign. For just a moment her whole body seemed to say "I'm gonna peel off this sign! How easy it would be!"

And what would I do? Would I run out and confront her? Follow her around the store and nail her that way? Intercept her as she checked out? Or just let the incident go as a piece of fascinating quotidian drama?

All this ran through my mind in somewhere like 0.476 seconds. And then the lady turned and came into the store.

So once again, the sign was safe.

Over the months of living with my sign I had come to realize that most people are not going to even think of removing such a thing. Many people would not give it a second thought. Many others take it for a sticker, and so the idea of removing it is even further away from their minds. Who is going to remove a sticker? And of the people who actually know it is an easily-removed magnetic slap-on sign, how many would think of taking it off. . .and for what reason?

Imagining who might actually go to the lengths of reaching down and taking a magnetic sign off of another person's property becomes an exercise in one's personal definitions of values. It is an odd thing to think about. Right off hand, I would rule out 99 out of 100 people. Maybe even a higher percentage than that. It just seems so unlikely. Would you do it, reader? Under any circumstances??

You'd think it would be taken, if taken at all, by an Obama hater. Some deeply teeth-grinding individual who cannot stand to even see our president's name displayed in public. Someone who, further, feels they have a mission, and that that mission makes it alright for them to cross the line of another person's property.

But I can see it being taken by an Obama devotee, as well. Just an Obama devotee who is a collector, and one who has a rather cavalier conception of boundaries.

Or maybe just a drunk from the bar across the street who comes out and says "Hey, look! This comes off!!"

Whatever their political affiliation, personal values, and blood alcohol content, this person by chance or design encountered my car sometime Friday.

I had spent a few hours at the Central Library, with my car in the Cultural Facilities Parking Garage. When I got back to my car, I did not notice if the sticker was there or not. The garage is dark, and I possibly could have missed its absence. I had long since given up obsessively checking to see if it was still there.

From there, I drove home for a brief stop. I parked a few spaces down from my place, right across from the bar. I was inside no longer than 15 minutes.

And when I came out, the sign was gone. The silver door showed some dirt circles where it had been for so many months, moved slightly a couple of times.

I did not look for it around the car or in the street, where one hypothetical type of person might have sullenly hurled it. I did not go over to the bar and ask the patio patrons if they saw anything.

I did wonder, of course, what very specific type of person would have done such a thing.

And I did entertain some half-baked wonderings about where the Obama presidency is at this particular point that someone would unceremoniously rip the emblem off my car.

But the world is a big and hugely multifaceted place. Things happen for any number of complex intersecting reasons, or for no reasons at all, or for ones we might not be able to figure out.

I liked my sign, and I'll miss it.

Sic Transit Gloria My Obama/Biden Circular Magnetic Sign!!

10 May 2009


I watched the wonderful bollywood comedy Lage Raho Munna Bhai this past Saturday night. A deliciously funny film with heartfelt deeper meanings--and great production numbers!

The film's overall plot and deep emotional honesty reminded me very much of a Frank Capra comedy.

After finishing the film, past one in the morning, I emailed friends to tell them that they have to see this film. Jon rightly chides me about "overselling" things with too much enthusiasm. So I tried to play this one down with a simple offer of a loan of the DVD.

Somewhere in the short flurry of emails between Jon, Donna, and I, Jon remarked that the film title looked like an anagram of a movie title.

And that started it. There in the middle of the night. The Lage Raho Munna Bhai anagram contest!

Jon's very next email came in two minutes later. It read:

"I Am Rough Banana Hel".

I was juggling letters around. Another message from Jon:

"Aha! Large Numb Hanoi!"

Not bad! A bit more coherent than the first one. At least all the words were actual words, spelled correctly!

Still working on a worthy reply, when this came in:

"Hi On Alabama Hunger".

I liked that one a lot. And it further got my fury of letter-scrambling in gear, at now nearly 2am. Finally, I spluttered out:


I was pretty proud. Thought that was a pretty good one. It hung together as good anagrams can: it made a kind of sense, evoking a mini-story in the reader's mind. I expected some comment on it.

But when I opened Jon's next email, it contained this dreaded confession:

"Bean Hour: I Hang LA Ma"!

A headline ripped directly from the tabloids!

OK, OK, I had to reply. I was using my email's compose space to use and discard letters. Just as I was nearly ready to hit SEND, another came in:

"Aloha in Hamburg Lane".

Whoa. Prodigious. Impressive. Hard to beat.

I fired mine off:


After Jon's previous one, a veritable Mickey Spillane kind of title, this one did look, indeed, lame. But somehow I enjoyed its cockeyed riff on English grammar. Read straight out, the grammar doesn't work. But the phrase "lame ago" acts in a funny way, since it evokes the common "long ago. And once you've thought of "long ago," "lame ago" starts to sound right. So that brings a little more sense back into the whole. The grammar starts to hang together. What could this odd formulation be conveying? It could be describing the state of my own brain here in mid-anagram creation fury at past 2:00 in the morning!

And this is what I love about anagrams. One thing, anyway. They show a picture of our brain working. Specifically, our craving for order and sense in language. Faced with a string of words like "A BRAIN HUNG LAME AGO," we desperately want sense to come out of our encounter. We want it to mean something. And we are willing to suspend the usual rules of grammar and work by association to get there.

Look at the one I sent next, then, fired off to Jon and Donna at 2:11 am:


What do you make of that? Not brilliant. Pretty nonsensical. And yet not entirely without sense, again. Or rather, watch how your brain tries to make a coherent story out of the semi-nonsense string.

First, what is an "UN-HOME"? That's what we need to know before anything else can follow. So we decide that an "UN-HOME" has, maybe, something to do with homelessness. It is where a homeless person spends the night, maybe. An UN-HOME.

And once we've decided on that (or whatever other meaning you've fixed on) then the rest of the main clause rushes in to sense as well, with sudden magnetic force. It is as if any part of the nonsensical string gaining meaning quickly infects and converts the parts around it, too! So, "GRAB AN UN-HOME" evokes images of a homeless person finding, or maybe suddenly allocating or taking, a place to sleep for that night. Or it could.

But, as written, we are left with a dangling "A HAIL!" No problem. That just makes the first part into something that is yelled, maybe from one bum to another, "Hey, Mac, GRAB AN UN-HOME!" That is the hail that's being talked about here.

So, it would have been better stated as:


Still, there in the middle of the night, I definitely felt that most of Jon's anagrams had an edge of sense over mine. I mean, that last one was really stretching it, let's face it. But of course stretching the possibilities of language is one of the joys of this game of anagrams.

As I was thinking about this, and working on perhaps a more coherent, somewhat more grammatical figuration, Donna piped in. She had been following the whole contest, of course. My emails went to both Jon and Donna.

At 2:13, she said:

"I declare "Aloha in Hamburg Lane" the winner."

The winner?! Well. I liked Jon's anagram a lot. Yeah, it was really good. But "the winner"? OK, maybe it was better than any I had yet sent along. . .but I was not done! I couldn't stop anagramming.

Things were trailing off a bit, true. Lots of time between emails now. Probably Donna had had enough and wanted to go to bed.

I was getting a bit drowsy, true. But I couldn't stop. Gotta come up with a really good one.

At 2:25 am, I sent:


Less than two minutes later, Donna again:

"Jon's just been dethroned."

"Dethroned"?? Well, I felt kinda bad about that, to tell the truth. And kinda good, of course. Mostly, I wasn't ready for the game to be over. And, truthfully, I felt that Jon's anagrams were mostly more imaginative than mine.

Drowsy. Half-falling asleep and waking up to face a screen with a half-constructed anagram. Figuring out that we had 17 letters to work with in this particular anagram game.

Tired as I was, I was not coming up with anything brilliant. And Donna's judgment of winners and dethronements niggled me into thinking that I should definitely put honor where honor was due. I should look through the list of anagrams hurled back and forth so far, and see what my favorite was.

Doing so, I had to admit that "Aloha in Hamburg Lane" was really really good.

And I was just composing an email to say so when I chanced to count the letters in Jon's anagram.


Eighteen letters.

I had just started to turn this all into a formula, and had counted the number of letters we had to work with. I had come up with 17.

Better count again.

Yeah, the original title, "LAGE RAHO MUNNA BHAI" had only 17 letters. . .

. . .and "Aloha in Hamburg Lane" had 18!!

Looking quickly, I could see that this formerly brilliant and still quite imaginative anagram had two Ls. The original title had only one.

This woke me up a little bit.

I sent an email pointing out the error, and continued thinking about anagrams!

Working on anagrams!!

3:13 am, I said:

"Ah! Glamour inane? Bah!"

Donna replies, almost instantly:

"Stop while you're ahead, Jim. You can't beat your "on a ramble again, huh?"."

But now the thing had taken on a life of its own. It didn't matter if I could or couldn't beat my own former anagram. It didn't matter who was best. All that mattered was moving little letters around, coming up with new words, new sentences.


Another really good one from Jon. I had to admit, Jon was really good at this!

Just before four in the morning, my brother Roger in Germany came on the Instant Messenger, and I told him about the anagram storm we were in the middle of. And he took the bait. He started anagramming, and injected a new energy into the somewhat flagging phenomenon.

His first one was a good effort, but problematic:

"Hah! A large ambo in UN!"

I had to ask him what an ambo was. I did so, via the IM.

Rog: "One of the two raised stands in early Christian churches from which parts of the service were chanted or read, it stands to reason, of course."

Oh. Natch.

Roger's enthusiam brought new energy to our overnight flurry of letter-juggling and word-flinging. I had been flagging at this point, begging off, saying I was going to "go to bed." Can you imagine?

But Roger was quickly warming up to the challenge.

Shortly after his arrival, I flung out:


explaining, parenthetically, that this depicted a traveling connoisseur finally locating a delicacy he'd been searching tirelessly for.

Roger's next few entries proved imaginative, wacky, fun:

"Re-hang a bum in a halo."

"Hear a bug in loam? Nah!"

"Hug a Herm? Banana oil!"

That last one amazed and delighted me. I quickly pegged that one as the winner of the night, at least in my heart.

Somewhere in there, my next one came as a question of the efficacy of the entire anagram thing. Also, it sprang from the fact that often, especially with this letter set, one ended up throwing in words like "ah" and "uh" and "hah!" and "nah!" to complete the anagram. So, questioning the very form in which we were composing, I offered:

"Uh? 'Hanoi Barn Agleam'?"

And Jon showed us that he was still indeed awake and following, with:



The four o'clock hour was changing to five now. I definitely had one foot on an anagrammatic banana peel ("A PLANE BANE"?) and the other firmly in bed. I had to redeem myself from that last one. Not so great.

I worked on it and came up with a bit of grotesqerie that made me laugh outloud, there at past five in the morning:


Jon was gone. But Roger still had a couple of zingers to present:

"A hun home? Nab a grail!"



I went to bed.

But oh, my friends, a mere stint of repose cannot dampen the anagrammatic nerve!

Indeed, when I woke up, my mind was churning with it.

Here's what the churn of my mind produced:


Roger, too, came up with one, a variation on his last, some hours later:

"Ah! Human Anger Aboil!"

Finally, Roger carried the game on to his class of English learners in Berlin. I was fascinated what a group of English students would come up with.

Their entries end this article.




(Roger explains that these first three originally had an extra, illegal A included. You can see how another A would have made these more grammatical.)

and then:




And Roger ends his email with three words which I think would describe how all of us, Jon, Roger, Donna, and I, felt about this overnight flurry of anagrammatic diversion:

"We had fun."


05 April 2009

The Nature of the Dot

I just came back inside from a satisfying viewing of the International Space Station.

It was a good apparition. Since the trajectory for this night's sighting was basically a line across the northern horizon, all I had to do was step out my front door and look up above the row of shops across the street. There was the initial panic and uncertainty in me, the crowd of questions: did I really get the time right? Is it going to be bright enough to see? Is there some haziness or clouds in the NW, where it is supposed to appear? Where is the damn thing?

Moments pass, and more long moments stretching out, and still nothing.

And then, a minute or maybe more after the predicted time, there it is! THERE IT IS! says my whole being. I might even point up at it, just in case anyone strolling by oblivious to this joyous, amazing sight would like to know. Hey, I'll tell them.

And what does it look like? Essentially a dot. A dot, at first murky and ruddyish, then shedding any color and burning brighter and brighter white as it calmy slides across the uncomplaining sky.

It does not look like any plane up there. No plane could possibly follow the speedy but steady trajectory of this high-flyer. And of course, it is just one bright dot, no blinking sidecar accompaniment. A bright white dot moving in a confident but not smug or strident line across a corner of the sky.

I use the verb "moving" in that previous sentence because other verbs don't seem to fit. I riffled through mental verb cards for quite a while before neutralizing it down to just plain "moving." That's because others seem inappropriate: it is certainly not "flying," as this describes what an airplane does. An airplane's action is energetic and motor-driven. Nothing is driving the International Space Station. And though I used "sliding" in the previous paragraph, it is not "sliding" across the sky, either, because something that slides might be in danger of slipping. The ISS's action is completely steady and continuous. It does not slip nor slide. I thought of "trailing," but that suggests that it is following or being pulled by something. No. "Soaring"? Heavens no. "Sailing"? Maybe. Close. But this also suggests that some cosmic wind is pushing it.

I realized during this mental verb hunt that part of the sighting's interest and fascination and strange joy is in its uniqueness.

Why do I like to go out and view this thing? What makes me cajole my workmates into coming out to the parking lot and seeing it fly over? What makes me call my stepmother and my brother, Bill, to make sure they get out to see it? Why do I share the secret joy of sightings with my brother, Roger, in Germany? What is so special, really, about a dot going across the sky?

Our night skies are full of moving dots. It would be unique and preternatural, as it was in the days following 9/11, if NO dots were to be seen up there at any one moment.

Is it the fact that, as I like to remark to people I share this experience with, "there are people in that dot"? It can't be that, as most of the dots we see whizzing across our day and night skies are full of many more people than this singular white one is.

Well, OK. Then what is it? Why is this, for me at least, a consistently exciting thing to see?

It is because it is, in its very nature and true essence, unique.

It is not a plane. It is not flying. It is not in our atmosphere. It is a spaceship!

It is something new in the world. There is only one of them up there, and you can't see it all the time. Sometimes you can see it twice in one evening, and when you do, you get a sense of how damn fast it is truly traveling: it comes around again a mere hour and a half after its first sighting! Around the entire world in an hour and a half!

And all of this, somehow, is captured in the unique look and feel of its motion. It needs a verb of its own. It somethings across the sky. It whatevers across the sky.

It moves in silent steady line across the accomodating sky.

It ISSes across the sky.

02 March 2009

A Tale of a Tie

I went to the opera a week and a half ago. Saw Opera Colorado's colorful production of Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers."

I wore a relatively boring navy blue pin-striped suit. I originally bought the suit to attend a funeral.

As I was dressing for the opera, some imp or devil crept into my mind. When I went to pick a tie for the evening, a wicked gleam sparked in my eye.

I didn't want to wear just some boring old tie, some sameness of a silk. I suddenly got the urge to wear something catchy and unwearable. Something you would NOT wear to the opera.

I thought of Jon and some of the ties I had seen him wear. Maybe to the opera, maybe just to other events? No, definitely to the opera. He had worn some pretty wild ties. I think.

So suddenly the event became for me more than a mere opera. It was an Ugly Tie Contest.

And, looking through my tie rack I found it: the winner!

No. Now I could not wear THIS tie, could I? To the opera?

What I had found was a joke tie. I had picked it up in a thrift store in the 1980s sometime. It was 4 inches wide at its widest point, and had a busy repeating geometrical pattern of shit brown, French's mustard, and lime Jell-o green. Uhhh-glee!!

This was a tie you just did not wear. It was a gag. Last time I wore it--let's face it, the ONLY time I ever wore it--was as part of a Halloween costume. I was going as one of the undead, a zombie straight out of the ground. I wore really arresting ghastly grey-skin makeup, the worst old hobo torn-up clothes I could find. . .and this tie. I even went outside and smeared dirt on my outfit!

So here was the tie I decided to wear to the opera. It looked like a tight, busy, geometric vomit job.

I put the tie on. I repeated to myself my line about this being not just an opera but an "ugly tie contest."

And I hied myself to meet Jon and Donna at dinner before the opera.

They did not notice my tie. I had to point it out to them.

Jon made a half-hearted show of saying the tie was ugly, but his basic attitude was that I was making something out of nothing. Donna didn't think the tie was so bad, really.

It was dark there in Little India restaurant, and I told them that it must be the lighting. You really had to see this tie in some light. This is what I said.

But in the light of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the distinct lack of buzz about my tie continued. Swells streamed past. No one gave my tie a second glance. Donna still said it really was not that bad. Kind of good, actually.

And that is when it hit me: things change. Fashions change. It hit me like a fist. This tie, which had been nothing but a Halloween joke hanging in my closet for all these years, was now acceptable to wear. In public.

To the opera, for goodness' sake!

I thought of my fashion-conscious friend Jennifer. Thought she would love this story, how the Tie of the Living Dead was now acceptable opera wear.

What a wacky world!

20 January 2009

By Heart

About a month ago, I memorized John Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV," the one that starts, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God. . ." You can find the full poem here. It is a violently dramatic poem that uses sexual imagery to convey the speaker's painful, conflicted relationship with God.

The poem grabbed me when I viewed John Adams' opera "Dr. Atomic," about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. The first act ends with Oppenheimer alone on the night before the world's first atomic bomb test, and he sings this fantastically dramatic aria. The text is "Holy Sonnet XIV."

This is the first poem I have memorized in a while, perhaps a year. The last one I "got by heart" was "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas. That one came as a kind of dare or challenge, since Jon W. had declared at one of our reading parties that he had tried to memorize that poem, and failed, as there is so much repeated imagery and language from stanza to stanza in the poem. The moment the words left his mouth, I knew I had to memorize that poem.

Jon was right about the subtle changes in the repeated language in the poem, though. Its six nine-line stanzas all follow the same pattern of irregularly long or short lines, with the logic of the relation of the lines the same in each, also. Where the second stanza has "In the sun that is young once only," stanza five echoes, "In the sun born over and over" and the last stanza shifts to "In the moon that is always rising." It gets far more subtle and complicated than that when such repetitions and changes come in many lines, and the poem becomes a tapestry of imagery about the change of seasons and of the seasons of a life.

That was a fun one to memorize, I have to say.

I first started memorizing poems in my later days of college. I took a Shakespeare class where the professor, Elihu Pearlman, offered a strange challenge to his students. Instead of taking his rather tough final exam, any student could choose to opt out by performing a particular feat of memorization. If you memorized John Milton's "Lycidas" and presented it one-on-one to the prof. in his office, you did not have to take the final exam.

I started memorizing the poem, but did not really take the intriguing challenge seriously. At 193 lines, "Lycidas" is somewhat daunting. I memorized the first three sections of the poem, about 36 lines, and took the exam.

But after I graduated, I remembered Professor Pearlman's challenge. So I took up "Lycidas" again, working on it day after day, going through the lines in the car, in the bathroom, before I went to sleep, all throughout the day. And I finally got it all down.

"Lycidas" is an intricate and beautiful poem by John Milton, whom Elihu Pearlman puckishly referred to as "the second-best poet in the English language." In it, Milton reinvents a classical form, the Pastoral Elegy. Milton is ostensibly mourning the death by drowning of his Cambridge classmate, Edward King. But he uses the poem as a platform to severely criticize "our corrupted Clergy, then in their height," as the poem's extended headnote has it.

Typical with Milton, the poem is a wild mixture of classical and Christian, with references just exploding out the seams. He throws in Greek gods next to Christian saints, with the center of the piece a funeral procession whose riot of figures reminds me of Fellini's outrageous ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma. Saint Peter shakes "his Miter'd locks" and bellows like a bull while "Camus, reverend Sire," a personification of the river Cam, that runs through Milton's Cambridge, goes "footing slow," an ancient, plodding, seemingly senile figure.

Memorizing this complex poem was a deep experience for me. I found that, in order to properly memorize the poem, I had to understand the subtleties of language and have at least a footnote or annotation's understanding of the dizzying array of references Milton threw in.

Working on "Lycidas" this way, it was astonishing how deeply the process took me into the poem. I learned things about meanings and relationships and sheer grammar in the poem that I could not have done from just deep analysis.

This was the start of a whole new era of memorization for me.

Since then, I have memorized dozens of poems, and I always find the process enlightening and exciting. Most of my memorization projects are much shorter than "Lycidas." They are usually somewhere between sonnet-sized and maybe 60 lines or so. I have tackled a few long ones, though. Once, I memorized Wordsworth's "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey."

Memorizing poems takes me, in a strange way, inside the head of the poet who composed them. I have to understand the poem and its intricacies at a fairly subtle level, and I always feel like I am somehow being possessed by Milton, or Robert Frost, or Wordsworth.

In a future blog entry, I'll talk more about the process itself. Yes, I have a lot to say on this subject!

16 January 2009


The holidays have come and gone in a whirl of turkey and wrapping paper.

And I have been untrue to you, O my blog!

It is nice to see you again, I have to say.

I have thought about you a lot. I have one largish entry in mind. And so I always think I don't have time to tackle that whole big thing right now.

But you know and I know I do. I do have time. I can write just a little bit on it, come back to it later, if it comes to that.

Well. Here we are.

You have been waiting here for me patiently. Nice to know.

Now I hear your gentle voice: "Welcome back."