31 December 2013

Good bye 2013. And good riddance.

Men Fighting, 1950, photo by Elliot Erwitt

Maybe it was because we forgot to eat black-eyed peas last New Year's Day. It's a Southern tradition: Eat black-eye peas -- a kind of bean, really -- and you'll have good luck all year. 

Or maybe it was because we slacked on the other custom. In the Celtic countries of my ancestors, you're supposed to kick out the eldest male child before midnight. Then, he's to be the first one to enter the home in the new year, and he should be crossing the threshold with a full bottle of whiskey.

Good luck charms. I wonder if they would have helped during what followed.

First my aunt died. Then my father in law. Then my own father. My identity was stolen. When someone else uses your credit cards and checking accounts, it's disturbing, like being groped by a cold hand. 

A close friend confided the worst kind of secret to me. The kind of secret owning a stench that sours even the best days. Our town was flooded, and mud-stinking water seeped in our basement. My son had a medical crisis, but it turned out well in the end. 

Some other, major disappointments kicked the bottom out of the year. Mostly, as I looked over my calendars and journals, I got the sense of a long grind, of grief and stagnation that didn't lift much until the autumn.

It's all relative. I'm not, for example, scrambling for shelter in Aleppo. I got a new and hugely better day job. In each of the deaths I mentioned, the passing was a kind of mercy. Each of them had suffered with disease for long enough. 

So: good in the bad, even this year. Still. Even though I'm another circle of the sun closer to my death, even though I lost time this year, time that won't ever come back, even with that, I'm glad to see this year go.

Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out, 2013.

25 December 2013

photo by August Sander

Leroy en anglais and in English

(Here's an English version of the poem I posted a few days ago. Francophones are invited to note any mistakes. Like most things, it sounds better in French.)

The dead are not dead.
They rent hotel rooms by the week
In small towns, in winter.

The dead are not dead
They look out the window
On Main Street, covered with snow

The dead are not dead
They’ll live in the middling hotel
Room number 15

The dead are not dead.
They’re charmed by the wardrobe, the mirror
And the slightly dated bathroom

The dead are not dead
They’re surprised to catch a glimpse of themselves as they were,
when they were young

The dead are not dead
They calmly unpack their bags —
Light — just the necessities

The dead are not dead
They are finally
Without trinkets and red tape

The dead are not dead
Without newspapers piling up around them
Without the just-opened letters

The dead are not dead
They like the crispness
Of room number 15.

The dead are not dead
Soon, they’ll probably go down,
Take a walk in town

The dead are not dead
No one will recognize them
As their steps crunch in the snow

The dead are not dead
Like the rasp of catarrh
Maybe a drink in this bar

The dead are not dead
They note the difference
Between this and Dante’s Purgatory

The dead are not dead
The receptionist with the coal dark eyes
Reminds them of worn out loves

The dead are not dead
They like the soothing purity
Of a room arranged just so.

The dead are not dead
Unknown, and yet so friendly
They stretch out on the double bed

The dead are not dead
They read the single book
Chosen especially for the trip

The dead are not dead
They know every page
But finally they understand it

The dead are not dead
The snow still falls the snow falls again
They fall silent, smiling, say to themselves

The dead are not dead
They rent hotel rooms by the week
In small towns, in winter.

--Jérôme Leroy

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas -- and I hope you found what you wanted under the tree.

22 December 2013

I was at the Japanese Garden in Portland. The place is so beautifully composed that it is difficult to take a bad picture.

20 December 2013

Poem by Jerome Leroy

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils louent des chambres d'hôtel à la semaine
Dans des sous-préfectures hivernales

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils regardent par la fenêtre de la chambre
La Grand Rue sous la neige

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils vont vivre dans ce deux étoiles
Chambre numéro quinze

Les morts ne sont pas morts 
Ils s'amusent de l'armoire à glace
Et de la salle de bain un peu désuète

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils s'étonnent un instant de leur visage
Du temps qu'ils étaient jeunes

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils défont tranquillement leurs bagages
Légers juste l'indispensable

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils sont enfin tels qu'en eux-mêmes
Sans bibelots et sans paperasse

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Sans journaux qui s'entassent
Sans lettres à peine ouvertes

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils aiment la fraicheur nette
De la chambre numéro quinze

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils vont sans doute tout à l'heure
Se promener dans la sous préfecture

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils ne sont reconnus de personne
Leurs pas font craquer la neige 

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Comme le bruit d’une pleurésie
Un verre peut être dans cette brasserie

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils remarquent la différence
Avec le Purgatoire de Dante

Les morts ne sont pas morts
La réceptionniste aux yeux bistres
Leur rappelle des amours fatiguées

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils aiment la pureté reposante
De la chambre bien rangée

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Anonyme et pourtant si aimable
Ils s'allongent sur le lit double

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils lisent un livre unique
Celui choisi pour le voyage

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils en connaissent chaque page
Mais enfin ils le comprennent

Les morts ne sont pas morts
La neige tombe toujours la neige tombe encore
Ils s'étirent sourient et se disent

Les morts ne sont pas morts
Ils louent des chambres d'hôtel à la semaine
Dans des sous-préfectures hivernales.

                                    --Jerome Leroy

19 December 2013

Buying my father's coffin

I was confused. I thought were were going to the funeral home for some oven-side ceremony before my father's cremation. So I wore a suit, and I was filled with a certain amount of dread. But I was wrong. It was to be more of a sales session to determine the cost of the disposition of his corpse.

It was a sunny autumn day. In Colorado, you often have clear, hard sunshine when you'd prefer gloomy, low clouds.

The funeral home was a not unattractive beige stucco building. A stained glass window of a swirling tree was the centerpiece of a lobby. To the right, some memorial service or celebration of life was underway. You could tell, because some men wore suits and the little girls were dressed. It felt like a church function, but not an actual service. Overall, the home took its cues from suburban church architecture. Stained glass and couches. Thick comfy carpets and domed ceilings. 

Not Mr. Moon. But pretty close.

An attractive young woman greeted my wife, my new stepmother and me. She managed to project cheeriness with a readiness to offer sympathy. She asked our business and relayed our information. 

The place smelled of woodsmoke. Which made me think of fires, ovens and ashes.

Then, the nice young woman ushered in a tall, moon-faced fellow whom she introduced as, of course, Mr. Moon. We went to a side room farther in the depths of the building. We took our seats at a large table. A computer monitor was on my left, another stained glass tree faced me, and a subdued landscape featuring a country road hung on my right.

Mr. Moon spoke in a hollow, breathy bass voice. He apologized in advance because he'd have to excuse himself during our meetings to leave. He'd had something at lunch that was causing him distress. A whiff of diarrhea entered the experience.

Styles to match every taste.

Mr. Moon managed to blend the worst elements of a Presbyterian deacon and used car salesman in his manner.  It made me wonder how he managed to do business of any kind at all. Maybe the grief of his prospects made them ignore his combination of sepulchral solemnity and pseudo-sympathetic sleaze.

To my relief, it turned out we'd be making arrangements and payments and not participating in a cremation ceremony at all. My shrewd stepmother held him to the firefighter's discount which made him wince.He laid out the options for services and cremations like a car salesman would, working hard for the upsell. We declined them all because we'd already planned other services of our own.

He excused himself. We tried not to think about Mr. Moon, his intestinal distress and its probable results, and failed. When he came back, I signed the paper work allowing them to transport his body to a central crematorium and specifying the treatment of his ashes.

Then Mr. Moon led us to a side room where the caskets and urns were on display. Urns come in a lot of styles, with crosses, stars of David, American eagles and other gewgaws plastered on them. Mournful imagery, of the kind favored in 19th century graveyards and the album covers of Goth bands, is not available. No weeping nymphs or mothers here. The cost of them was breathtaking. The functional and embarrassingly plain urns started around $200. This is for a box you could buy at Home Depot for $10, maybe $15.

But of course you feel like a penny-pinching peasant when you think thoughts like this in these circumstances. It's . . . Dad, after all. But, he's dead. And they're ashes.

We bought a low-end urn. My stepmother is not sentimental. I'm not either, at least, not when it comes to the storage of ashes.

Yes. that's the Last Supper on a casket handle. photo via the Denver Post.
Then Mr. Moon drew our attention to the caskets. You have to have a casket, even if the body is to be cremated. A law, apparently. he showed us a nice mahogany number for $7,000. Then, and the symptoms must have hit him really goddam hard because otherwise he never would have left at this critical point in the spiel, he excused himself again.

We looked good in the pink light of the room. We considered the esthetics of coffins. They all seemed overdone to me, fat boxes inspired by some mid-70s Detroit esthetic of pomp and crap. The extortionary pricing took away any shame any of us might have had in looking cheap. 

But even knowing the sales machinery in operation, I paused. Would it mean anything? A fancy coffin? Would that make up for the times I'd politely begged off from seeing him? Would it smooth over the hatred I'd felt for him in the past? Could a coffin salve the past?

DId the Egyptians have a point? What if I sent him to an afterworld lacking some critical thing -- what would it be? Would cremation mean his soul would wander the earth, homeless? What if I was wrong about my beliefs? They didn't seem particularly well founded, or based on anything much at all.

I remembered my aunt in her coffin last January. The dead are so utterly dead. The soul, or whatever you want to name it, the personality, the animating snap of neurons, whatever it is that makes a person a person on this earth, in this frame, was gone. 

Did it matter? I wanted it to matter. But I didn't see the means or the tools in the showroom, in that funeral home, to make it different.

Mr. Moon came back.

My stepmother asked for the least expensive option.

It was on a bottom shelf, barely visible under the gleaming silver and shiny blonde wood models.

A cardboard box. Really. Just picture the box a refrigerator comes in, turn it gray and add some paper sheets and a white pillow on the inside. It cost $75. We ordered it.

I signed the paperwork and a check for $4,500.

With the odor of woodsmoke still in our nostrils, we decided not to have a bite to eat. 

Instead, we walked across the parking lot in the sunshine to our cars.