Monthly Archives: June 2011

Marginalia, no.211

Animals, birds or fish… hovercraft and parts… grave markers…

~ From a list of insurance exclusions

On a Scale of Value plotted as a circle, items located between one o’clock and eleven may be considered insurable: houses, automobiles, eyes, teeth, health, life, etc. These are easily enough converted to dollars. Not insurable are those articles straddling the uncertain noon where Priceless fades into Valueless: the pet dog that ate your fifth birthday cake but which you loved anyway, your mechanically troubled ambition to defeat gravity, and your favorite deceased friends and relatives.

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Marginalia, no.210

Waltz, nymph, for quick jigs vex Bud.

~ Stephen J. Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus

A pangram is a full tour of the alphabet in a single sentence – a comprehensive play of the keyboard. One year, when I was a boy, we inherited my great-grandmother’s upright piano. It had been painted a creamy color to match its own yellowed ivory key tops (two of which were missing), and my mother spent weeks in the garage with a can of paint stripper uncovering the mahogany beneath. I would sneak out after dinner to admire it: a tall magical box with gummy, peeling flesh, sweating fumes. I was obsessed with the idea of trying to press every key at once. Bizarre contortions of arms, legs, hands, feet and neck, were necessary to bring it off. The summoned thunder – the total tonal expression of the instrument – was never music, but it strangely satisfied.

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Marginalia, no.209

She was a lifelong conservative and member of the Republican Party.

~ Wikipedia entry for Ginger Rogers

Certain people seem always to have known who they are and what they’re about. It’s tempting for persons like me – persons who feel like we’re being constantly reintroduced to ourselves – to write them off as creatures of frigid imagination, unseduceable to the vital possibilities. I’m sure that’s wrong. But descriptions like the above (even sans the absurdity of a ‘Party Affiliation’ line on Baby Ginger’s birth certificate) never convince. Human is the only thing we can spend our whole life being – and that only by luck and hard work.

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Patrick Leigh Fermor, 1915-2011

Friends and neighbors, he explained, sit up all night round the coffin, telling funny and often improper stories, dancing, and drinking rum, and even, after concealing small objects in the mouth or other natural hiding-places of the corpse, playing games of hunt-the-thimble. If the corpse has been a heavy drinker during his lifetime, bottles of rum are poured down his throat; if a dancer, his body may be removed from the coffin and whirled round the room…

~ Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree

Something similar happens when a figure in world affairs or the arts passes over River Styx. By means of print and commentary, the corpse is explored, predilections and achievements are rehearsed for memory’s sake, and the floor is cleared for a posthumous last dance. I was sick over the weekend and only learned today of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s death. His feats of wartime daring are literally the stuff of celluloid legend, but (like others of my generation) I only came to know him through the first two volumes of the unfinished trilogy that he began with A Time of Gifts. Here’s to hoping that the time of gifts isn’t ended just yet and that among the abandoned articles of his long and magnificent life there’s a manuscript copy of that dearly missed third installment.

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Marginalia, no.208

I brooded like the dickens.

~ P.G. Wodehouse, ‘Scoring off Jeeves’

One day in sixth grade I was summoned to the locker where B (dictatrix of schoolyard popularity) stood surrounded by her coterie of toadies. She ran her fingers through my hair, which there and then convinced me of the truth of every miracle ever committed. “I always wondered,” she lingered over each word, “what a monkey’s ass felt like.” Which convinced me of the devil’s wiles too. I mulled my revenge for months afterward, but never attempted it. Instead, to this day, when I catch myself in the midst of some folly, I do B the honor of putting hand to head and replying, “Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like.”

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Marginalia, no.207

Why do I think reading is important? …We think largely in words. A medium made only of words doesn’t impose the barrier of any other medium. It is naked and unprotected communication. That’s how you get pregnant.

~ Roger Ebert

An echo, perhaps, of Hoffer’s ‘copulating minds,’ which also accounts for the fact of textually transmitted disease (Randian Objectivism, for example). But on reading Ebert’s quote I first thought of Pope Paul VI. Perhaps it was the advent of the birth control pill that inspired him to do away with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. It’s unseemly to be in the business of promoting prophylaxis in one form while condemning it in another.

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Marginalia, no.206

Guilt is never to be doubted.

~ Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony

A bag of human body parts was found on a sidewalk not far from here. Yesterday at lunch, while chewing a bite of taco, I was asked if I’d heard anything more about the case. At just that moment I choked and had to find a cup of water and a chair to recover my equilibrium. The timing was uncanny: I could almost suspect myself of being the killer. As a child I used to imagine that I was the secret committer of all crimes. News of any infraction made me feel guilty: it was too easy to pretend that I had done it. But life teaches us not to overrate our abilities.

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