A good window Aug 27, 2013
A window, it seems to me, has three crucial tasks: to let in light, air, and birdsong. The lack of a sill can be forgiven as long as one can buy a decent table. Fenestration only impresses passersby, who have neither to live with the window or to pay for it. But the first three are unequivocal. Read more
From my Great-Uncle Will’s journal, dated April 25, 1928.
Walked down to Five Points this afternoon for tobacco and a headache powder. The day was warm, bright, and full of promise the way spring afternoons are wont to be: promise that will be dashed on summer’s soggy shores and autumn’s rocky cliffs, to say nothing of winter’s jagged shales, but (the human capacity for self-delusion being as vast as my Uncle Robert’s appetite for pie) I could ignore that eternal truth under the influence of blue sky and budding trees.
I could ignore it, that is to say, until I crossed the threshold of the drug store. Read more
John Henry and the honeysuckle Mar 5, 2012
So when John Henry retired from driving steel he moped around the house and he moped around the yard until Polly Ann shouted, “John Henry, why don’t you quit your moping around like a soggy pie and dig me a garden!” So John Henry picked up his shovel and he picked up his mattock and he started digging. But there was honeysuckle growing all over the fence, all up one side and down the other, and those vines ran underneath the ground from here to there and back again. John Henry dug from one end of the yard to the other, but everywhere he put his shovel, the honeysuckle vine reached up and snagged it. That honeysuckle snagged his shovel, it snagged its mattock, it even snagged John Henry’s foot. Ol’ John Henry put down his shovel and said, “Lord, that honeysuckle’s gonna be the death of me!” Read more
The dreary middle age of the day Feb 28, 2012
From my Great-Uncle Will’s journal, dated October 17, 1928. I’m bowing to the demands of relentless obscurity, as Will himself might say, by footnoting this one.
Olsen wandered into my office this afternoon, during that long lull between the renewal of lunch and the renewal of evening, the dreary middle age of the day, the two and three o’clocks when time grows soggy with use and sags like paunch, or laundry. Olsen, too, appeared a little soggy, and not only from the rain. He hoped tacitly if no less openly for another drink, glancing repeatedly at the drawer where he believes I keep my flask. I pretended not to notice nor to understand, for a ream of essays awaited his departure, and however their grim prospect might tempt even Carrie Nation to the solace of a still, no liquor can dull the pain of their tumid ungrammatical prose. Seventeen vapid analyses of the Aeneid will all too easily elicit tears without the loosening effect of whiskey, and I feel that one of us, at least, ought to approach the project in a mood of sobriety. Read more
The bliss of solitude could use a bit of company Feb 14, 2012
Most of my Great-Uncle William’s diary is filled with references to poetry, classical literature, and his own history, which makes it difficult to post individual entries. I’m fond of this one, though, and it’s timely, and not nearly so obscure as most. Forgive me if I don’t footnote; it would spoil it, I think.
Another mild day, of which to my taste there have been far too many this winter, for they tempt the mind to wander. The sharp cold of a decent winter day hones the mind, but the promise of spring invites imagination, and a surfeit of imagination is not always, even for a poet (especially for a failed poet) a happy thing. If the feet, too, wander, as mine did, not stopping at my office after teaching this afternoon but continuing on northward to the town’s end and beyond, they may kick an unmoored stone into some dark pool of memory better left still but which the undisciplined mind is only too glad to stir. Had only my mind wandered I would have passed a useless but not unpleasant afternoon staring out the window of my office. Only the feet would have led me onward past the tree, which I had countless times passed on similar walks, but whose bare bones silhouetted in winter’s sinking light now became in a careless moment the old oak on my grandfather’s farm: not the stately companion in the yard that welcomed guests and shielded the parlor from the midday sun but the gnarled ancient by the pond in whose shade the cows lounged and my own assigned work languished. There, too, my feet and my mind once wandered. Read more
Spring was not so unseemly in my day Mar 7, 2009
Slept poorly all this week. I have given some consideration to becoming nocturnal. The nights though still cold are merely bracing rather than truly frigid, at least to one whose blood was early thickened by Pennsylvania winters and a father’s parsimony in matters of hearth-fuel, and I find the nocturnal company at least as enjoyable as any available during the day — increasingly so as the weather warms, for each year about this time the tree frogs emerge from hibernation. The first half-teaspoonful of spring awakens their amphibian yearnings, as I suppose it would have mine in earlier decades, and they spend the quickening nights chirping lustily at one another. Read more
A dull universal ache and a clogged head Feb 24, 2009
I was going to write something utterly brilliant this past weekend, but I caught some sort of walking flu and wasn’t up to the task. Great-Uncle William will have to speak for me.
Mrs. Jacobs next door has learned of my illness — how, I cannot imagine, for I told no one except the department secretary whom I instructed to cancel my classes. But my neighbor seems to know all of little consequence that occurs within ten minutes’ brisk walk; were there profit in front-porch chatter and back-fence whispers she would be renting rooms to the Dukes. So prolific is she in the casual exchange of the commonplace that she must take inspiration from one of those lesser muses the Greeks never mentioned but of whose existence I am nonetheless certain: Phluaronia, perhaps, who having arrived late to the table of creativity found the feast already ravished by her more famous sisters and so can spur her victims only to bubble continually with nonsense. Her statues, had any been made, were fountains spewing water from their mouths into a pool which their feet, submerged therein, drank up anew as if from sparkling subterranean springs. A kind woman, Mrs. Jacobs, but — Good God.
At nine-thirty this morning she knocked upon my door and when I answered, unwashed, unshaven and unshod, she said with a mother bird’s sympathy and a schoolmarm’s assessing eye, “Oh Mister Warmkessel, I understand you have taken ill.” Read more
A feast not gravied with conviviality Nov 29, 2008
The Olsens had me to Thanksgiving dinner, an unsurprisingly sorry affair that I preferred only to dining alone or braving the faculty lounge. The talk was all of politics, Olsen expressing poignant regret that with Roosevelt’s election our best hope for socialist ascendency has passed; I, trying to console him (for his grief really was quite touching — and his adherence to principle admirable if faintly ludicrous — to say even now that “things must get worse before they get better”…!) pointed out that there was as yet no firm evidence, indeed no ready and apparent reason to expect, that “things” would improve in the near future, or indeed ever, and Olsen, well as I know him, took some comfort in that knowledge, but another of Olsen’s guests, a sociologist from Chapel Hill who until today I knew only by repute, took my repartee for genuine interest and buttonholed me to ask my opinion of the President-elect’s plans. When, to the contrary, all I wanted was a good fire, a good drink, and a decent meal, of which I had one, and that a somewhat resinous and smokey one, Olsen having given his servant the day off and being himself unschooled in the manly art of firewood selection. Read more
A fable Sep 22, 2008
The king of Ustreasia was a wealthy man, wealthy beyond compare. His kingdom was peaceful and lovely, and his people were hardworking and kind and ethical, for the most part. But for all the riches of his kingdom the king’s true pride was his herd of elephants. And what elephants! Bulls all, with slashing tusks and stamping feet and trumpeting calls that echoed throughout the capital. For generations the royal trainers had taught the elephants to march in procession, to carry the king and queen upon their backs. They passed the knowledge of their profession on to their children and were respected with soldiers and priests. The people watched the royal parades and felt pride, and visiting rulers smiled in appreciation of such well-kept animals. Read more
Dog days Aug 15, 2007
From my great-uncle William Warmkessel’s journal, one very hot day in August 1928.
Olsen accosted me outside my office and informed me with steady voice and calm countenance that so great was the heat this afternoon that a dog had spontaneously burst into flame in the middle of Broad Street. I knew immediately that he had been drinking, because Olsen is capable of maintaining a steady voice and calm countenance only when thoroughly intoxicated. Ignoring his state I inquired what breed of dog, and he replied that it had been a coonhound: whereupon I determined that Olsen was not only a drunk but a liar, because no self-respecting hound dog would emerge on such a day from the shadow of his master’s porch.
But I cannot blame Olsen, for either the drinking or the lies. No self-respecting hound dog would don a suit of any cloth or weight and trudge the mile or more to his office to inspect rolls for the upcoming fall term, either, and those of us doomed to civilzation must comfort ourselves as best we can. Besides, Olsen is my only source of decent whiskey in these foul times. This double drought — no rain and Prohibition — surely is God’s curse upon the land. For what He has cursed us I haven’t yet conclusively determined, although I suspect it to have been the Wilson presidency. At least in His infinite mercy (as the Rev. Fenstermacher back in Oley would say) He has provided us with bathtubs and the homemade stills of mountain men. And Cyrus Olsen’s lower desk drawer. Hope remains.