Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Trumpery: Building Vocabulary with Wilkie Collins

The surest way to permanently limit your vocabulary is to never look up an unfamiliar word. Limiting your reading to contemporary news articles or popular books written at the fifth-grade vocabulary level is another way. Fortunately, I have loved reading Victorian novels since I was in seventh grade. At that tender age I had no patience in pausing to look up a strange word in the dictionary, preferring to glean meaning from the context for the sake of getting on with the story. With a Kindle e-reader all I need do is place the cursor before the unfamiliar word, and presto, the built-in dictionary calls up the definition.

Needless to say, Victorian novels are not written at the fifth grade level. They are a trove of new additions to my vocabulary and some archaisms that could be restored to common usage. I stumbled upon Wilkie Collins after watching a PBS broadcast of the BBC production of The Lady in White, his 1860 novel. Although I had heard of this novelist, contemporaneous with Charles Dickens, I had never read any of his books. I picked up his 1868 novel The Moonstone and could not put it down. It is a delightful whodunit that strikes me as obvious precursor to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Quirky characters like Gabriel Betteredge, who reads Robinson Crusoe as his Bible, and Drusilla Clack whose inveterate Christian proselytization and distribution of religious tracts add a layer of humor to the mystery that unfolds around a stolen diamond bequeathed to the lovely Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. Love interest, opium addiction, suicide, and class distinctions complicate the plot.

But on to my main thesis of vocabulary development through the reading of richly-textured Victorian novels. Numerous times throughout The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins uses the word trumpery. Here is  the definition from the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary:

n., pl. -ries 1. something without use or value. 2. nonsense; twaddle. 3. Archaic. worthless finery, —adj. 4. of little or no value; worthless, rubbishy. [1425-75; late ME trompery deceit < MF tromperie = tromp(er) to deceive (MF: to trifle, play with. orig. to play the trumpet; see TRUMP) + erie -ery)

As can be imagined, my mind quickly leaps to the trumpery on full display on the world stage and written across the headlines of newspapers and magazines at home and abroad. Of course, the infamous Trump family! The German immigrant Friedrich Trumpf (variant Drumpf) who listed his name on the 1910 US census record as Fred Trump had no inkling what future significance that change in the spelling of his surname would have. His grandson is now the quintessential example of trumpery in operation, speaking nonsense and twaddle, a person of little or no value in promotion of the welfare of his countrymen or the international reputation of the United States. He blows his own horn all the time, trumpeting his vainglorious delusions. All wind–just like a blowhard, an incorrigible windbag. Everything that issues from his mouth is useless and valueless. Trump is the trumpeter, trumpeting out trumpery for all to see and hear. He has caused the coinage of a new word–trumpism. This is the practice, the attitude, or the mindset to willingly accept lies as truth and to deny facts and scientific evidence in order to cling to unfounded opinions for emotional rather than rational or logical reasons. It is also the preference for and the tolerance for listening to incoherent babble–the twisted syntax and repetitious, low-level vocabulary of an ignorant man–rather than the desire to be uplifted and inspired by oratorical eloquence.

It is not surprising then that I am not going to listen to the trumpery to be broadcast tonight from the US Congress–the State of the Union Address. My time is more productively spent reading my next Victorian novel.

 

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Literary Ghost at My Table

During interviews prominent authors are often asked what dead writers would they invite to a dinner party at their house. If I were to be the hostess at a gathering of literary greats, the one notable guest I would want at my table is Walt Whitman. I would seat him at the head of the table.

I would interview him. He would do all the talking and I would do most of the listening as he responded to my main question: What do you think of America at the end of the year 2018?

I can only conjecture his responses and that would be an interesting exercise. Based on my re-reading of what is called his 1892 deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, I can speculate on what he would say. His thoughts on the state of the Union are particularly pertinent in the light of current events because he viewed himself as the quintessential unifier, the universal androgynous man, who heralded the promise of greater and greater democratic vistas. He sang the vigor and vibrancy of a nation stretching from sea to shining sea. He sang the virtues and the dignity of the common laborer, the builder and the shaper, of the future. He encompassed the vast panoply of Americans in his song of himself. Unity in diversity was his anthem.

Would his eternal optimism prevail in our tabletop talk? How would he see the current occupant of the White House contrasted with the serious Illinois rail splitter who could also laugh at himself–the man in the stovepipe hat who visited the troops at Antietam and the wounded in war hospitals?

“Mr. Whitman, will democratic institutions survive the assault on the rule of law and the freedom of the press?” I ask.

“Call me, Walt,” he says. His face is somber and sad like Honest Abe’s at Gettysburg. Walt’s old lips begin to move. “The man I loved said once: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time but you cannot fool all the people all the time.'” He pauses and continues, his eyes assuming a hopeful glint. “Some of the people were bamboozled into thinking a fool could rule well.  The attacks on democracy like the secessionists’ attack on the Union cannot last, because the tide of history is not on the side of division. The reserves of sense and sensibility will yet arise from the depth of the American spirit to remove a despot and demand justice for all. It is our history; it is inexorable despite shipwrecks and drownings in our course. The alarums have sounded; there are those hurtling toward the breach to rescue democracy. I cheer them on; I yet sing them on to victory. They are brawny and brave, muscled and sinewed for the task. They have built our bridges, paved our roads, erected a great city on the Hudson, on the Potomac, along the Mississippi from Minnesota to New Orleans. They toiled in the blast furnaces of Pennsylvania; they have mined the coal in West Virginia; they have launched the rockets from Cape Kennedy, which I was not alive to watch but viewed from my perch above it all. Take heart, lift up your spirit, for there remain reserves of energy yet in this America I hear singing.”

“Then this is a temporary setback?” I say.

“Despots are not loved. Despots eventually are brought down by their own fatal flaws. Time and again we have seen this. So shall it be ever. Lies are snares that entrap the tellers. This I believe; this I proclaim, and so should you also. Look to the noiseless patient spider to learn that the web’s gossamer threads of the soul will extend and hold. The interconnections among all species, all climes, all ethnicities, all ranks and files, will be recognized. I found the common ground and so shall this generation. I endured four bloody years, tending the amputees and shell-shocked, wounded myself in soul, but through the turmoil and the sorrow, the nation was renewed and lived to flourish. The tide comes in; the tide goes on; on Paumanok Island I watched it roll. That is the way of the world; that is the assurance of survival, of life everlasting in the cradle of time. As it was then, so shall it be now. The nation will endure.”

“That is a hopeful message amid all the chaos,” I say.

“I saw chaos once too, and it departed, the shattered fragments reconstituting into a more perfect union–not perfect–more perfect, I repeat myself, and if I do, so shall it ever be. Endless cycles moving toward perfectibility. When all around is destruction, hold fast to the floating plank of hope. Thus spoke that lanky, dark-suited figure in his second inaugural address: ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’  As we approach the year 2019, the task facing the nation 126 years after my body gave up my spirit to the ages is still to bind up wounds and unite our diverse population in the chant of freedom. Here again in this prosperous and bountiful land, we must rededicate ourselves, one and all, to the revivification and extension of democracy.”

I pass a serving plate to my guest, “Help yourself to more turkey, Walt.”

He chuckles. “You forget. I need no more food for the body.”

Then I thank my dinner guest for offering me his food for the soul. “Please come again, Walt,” I say.

“I shall. All you have to do is summon me. You will find me under your feet and in the blade of grass. I am here.”

The vision of his bearded face vanishes from the head of the table and I am left in peace, holding his volume of poems between my hands.

Happy Endings

I find myself curiously in need of stories with happy endings. Not the ones that end with “they lived happily ever after” in saccharine fairy tale fashion along the lines of the scullery maid marrying the handsome prince. I’m thinking of the kind that does offer hope, that enlightens, or inspires in a regenerative way.

Typical plot resolutions include:

  • The main character changes for the good through achievement of some self-awareness or improved fortunes.
  • The main character stays the same and the status quo is preserved. (At least he doesn’t kill himself but lives unhappily ever after.
  • The main character dies either of unnatural or natural causes.
  • The author affords an ambiguous or open-ended conclusion, meaning the reader guesses at the character’s fate. I like to call this the stalemate ending.

There may be other types of endings, or variants of these basic models. In any event, no others come to my mind. The benefit of an open-ended conclusion of a story is that it leaves room to write a sequel.  Or another author decades later can seize the opportunity to write a novel-length epilogue for that story. In this day and age, I prefer the happy first alternative. I crave to see the characters experience some light at the end of the tunnel and emerge into the sunshine. Oh, well, Pollyanna me!

My burning need for happy endings perhaps arises from the wish to believe that most people do learn from their mistakes. Mistakes are correctable. The question is how many mistakes does an individual have to make before he corrects course. The story of a bumbling idiot who never learns from his mistakes would veer toward a comedy. However, I am not in the mood for a lot of slapstick laughs nowadays. I am too chapfallen at the reality of a buffoon elected to high office in the United States. Consequently, my optimistic hope persists that a portion of the American electorate will learn from that mistake.

Disregarding the reason on the national scene to wish for a happy ending, there are other reasons to esteem happy endings in fiction. They nourish the soul; they lighten the load; they brighten our path when in our personal life we feel too dismayed and disheartened to cling to the hope that ultimately even evil can work for the greater good of the individual soul and the world soul. In times like this, I cannot feed on distress and disaster. I have to gorge on stories of courage and endurance. I want stories in which truth prevails over lies. I crave to read of spiritual growth and self-awareness triumphing over vice and ignorance.  This is not entirely fantasyland, for in natural disasters people do rise to the occasion to help their neighbors, acting more courageously and unselfishly than they ever had before. In dark times I need to be uplifted and inspired, so I must turn to writers who hold up a beacon, ones that restore my belief that nobility still resides in human nature, that illustrates that a man has a spark of the divine as well as of Mephistopheles.

If it is true people do choose what they want to believe, then concomitantly they choose to read what supports those predispositions to believe this or that. However, with self-reflection they can also achieve some self-awareness to realize that they are catering to their inherent prejudices and then choose to exercise more dispassion. A core disposition I have is that we possess an internal autopilot that signals us to change course when we realize we have made a mistake. Those who choose to ignore the warning and stay on the same course will have an unhappy ending. Those who heed the flashing red light choose to have a happy ending.

 

Whited Selpuchres

Hurling opprobrious epithets dominates the national political scene. Is this practice any more prevalent than in any other period of history? Maybe not, but in my lifetime of following presidents since Dwight D. Eisenhower, a precedent has been set of slinging derogatory names that previous occupants of the Oval Office were not in the habit of doing. What makes name-calling different from prior eras is that the practice emanates from the White House to the citizenship at large. One of the most frequently used epithets nowadays is hypocrite, leading me to wonder if hypocrisy is, in fact, more common today throughout all sectors of our society.

The word hypocrite arises from the Greek word hypokrites meaning actor, from which is derived the meaning to act in contradiction to the moral principles one claims to espouse. Definitely, there is plenty of play-acting visible on the political stage. The players recite their lines, wear their masks, and strut about denouncing their opponents as veritable devils while presenting themselves as pure souls defending freedom, justice, and family values–any virtue in the abstract that they purport to uphold.

American literature abounds in hypocritical characters. Plots thrive on the intricacies of people presenting themselves as more virtuous than they are or hiding dark secrets about their past, starting with Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. Hypocrisy in one form or another seems an inseparable part of human nature. Everyone wants to appear better than they actually are, but everyone knows in his heart that he has fallen short many times from the standards he has set for himself. Without launching into a confession of my personal hypocrisies, in itself proof of my desire not to reveal that I am not a paragon of virtue, I know I can truthfully be called a hypocrite.

I contend that everyone can justifiably be called a hypocrite for either some great duplicity or a minor failure at some time or other. It is not the failing as such to abide by one’s moral beliefs, but the denial of the misdeed that warrants the label of hypocrite.  The hypocrite often does not know he is being hypocritical, so steeped is he in denial. Hypocrisy is part and parcel of the human condition. It is easy to recognize it in others but not so easy to see it in ourselves.

The antithesis of hypocrisy is self-awareness. Honest self-reflection ameliorates the effects of hypocritical behavior. It is the path to spiritual and psychological growth contained in the unrelenting examination of one’s own conscience. It identifies the individual of strong character. It brings humility to the front stage as one of the greatest virtues to possess–the humility to admit we are not the greatest; we are not invincible; we are not the savior come to rescue the universe from alien invaders.

To end this short treatise on hypocrisy, I invite my readers to offer instances of the theme of hypocrisy and/or hypocrites in books or in movies. What characters come to mind as you reflect on how this theme has played out in novels or on the screen?

The Day after Christmas

With each succeeding year, Christmas has become increasingly a pared down affair. Simplicity supplants tinsel, colored light bulbs, decorated trees, Santa Claus cookies, candy canes, and a house adorned with religious and secular gewgaws.  My dispensing altogether even with a table-top artificial Christmas tree stripped the last bit of material observance from this holy day or holiday, as you would have it, in my household, which on the day after, causes me to meditate why, at seventy years old, I have arrived at what could be called a “pretty pass.”

As I meditate upon Christmases past, I see the spirits of friends and family who have passed; among those who hover in the air are my parents, two brothers–one younger, one older–my daughter, an uncle, an aunt, a brother-in-law, and a lifetime friend. What seems to keep my contemporaries celebrating Christmas with the same degree of gusto they did in early adulthood is the presence of beaming grandchildren. My son and his wife have decided to remain childless, so this impetus to maintain family traditions does not motivate me to drag out the box of ornaments and string electric lights around the Douglas fir. Even if they had decided to have children, since they live a thousand miles away, their children could not be an integral part of my daily life.  Therefore, I am a slug, an utter pacifist when it comes to decking the halls with boughs of holly.

Is it because I’m old, jaded, the sway-backed nag tired with running through the same paces again and again? That could be a part of my disinterest. I can rationalize other reasons that contribute to my bare bones Christmas of recent years that consist largely of listening to carols and watching television Christmas programs. This season, I acknowledged the holiday by watching two favorite Christmas films, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story, a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,  and concerts by Belmont College and Concordia College music students. These are my concessions to the season when the rest of the hustle and bustle, shopping, and eating have become meaningless. Even without the excuses of advancing age and loss of family members and friends, the commercialization of Christmas long ago tainted my enthusiasm for the usual customs of the holiday. For years I clung to attendance at midnight Mass to listen to the beautiful music and in the preparing and partaking in the big communal dinner. As my family shrank and I moved to an isolated area, even these observances lessened.  Despite these considerations, I have always preferred Thanksgiving as my favorite holiday.

For those who celebrate Christmas with unabated brio, I congratulate your enthusiasm. The world needs your merriment. Strike up the orchestra and let all the choirs of angels sing to herald in a better year than 2017. Truly, let the light of Christ’s message of love brighten up every facet of personal and national life in 2018.  With every Christmas we look with renewed faith, hope, and charity that the coming year will bring us closer to the peace that passes understanding.

Merry Christmas and a happy new year to all my blog readers!

Knitting in the Reign of Trump

In January 2017, taking a cue from Madame DeFarge in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, I resolved to knit fifty lace love shawls while The Donald occupied the White House. The identification with DeFarge’s incessant knitting and implacable determination to use her knitting to record the names of all the aristocrats she intended to consign to the guillotine may seem incongruous to my purpose to offer love instead of the fear that the real estate magnate sold to his American voters. But in other regards, the connection to Dicken’s novel struck me as highly relevant in several ways. The juxtaposition of the purpose of my relentless knitting with Madame DeFarge’s provides a stark contrast. Like Madame Defarge, my obsessive knitting channels my raw emotions of consternation, shock, and grief; however, unlike Madame Defarge, it transmutes these emotions into acts of love, into gifts for others to wear around their shoulders. Madame Defarge focuses her knitting on vengeance and hatred toward the aristocracy, particularly the Evremonde family, responsible for the deaths of  her sister, her brother-in-law, and her sister’s unborn child. Working with one’s hands is also a vehicle that Doctor Manette uses to deal with his imprisonment for eighteen years under a cruel regime. He hammers single-mindedly at his shoemaker’s bench to assuage his anguish.

Charles Dickens exemplifies a writer with a social conscience who considers it his role to direct the issues of the day in his novels, and so do I. Writers are observers and recorders of the trends and events of history. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens looks backward at the Reign of Terror and reflects on the how the lives of Englishmen and Frenchmen are connected. What happens in France reverberates across the channel just as the events in the American colonies had repercussions in France. Integral to the plot is the redemptive quality of love, best illustrated by Sydney Carton’s sacrificing his life to save Charles Darnay from the guillotine and to ensure the future happiness of the woman he loves, Lucie Manette. Where there is fear, love cannot exist; and Carton rides fearlessly in the tumbril to the guillotine, holding the hand of the seamstress also condemned to die that day with fifty-two other victims of the revolutionary tribunal.

Knitting is a domestic craft, usually associated with women, and an activity that binds them in a communal group. Counting is basic to keeping track of stitches and patterns. The women spectators at the executions count the beheadings as they knit, presumably not dropping a stitch. It is both a mental and a physical exercise in control. Hands and mind work together to maintain focus. Knitting strikes me as particularly appropriate to count the days until The Donald departs the national scene. In the process I am producing an article of clothing that will be both useful and attractive for someone else to wear. Instead of wringing my hands in despair and wallowing in pessimism and doomsday proclaiming, I can use my energy and time to express love instead of to spew hate and disgust.

I am finishing my fourteenth love shawl. I may not reach my goal of fifty lace shawls or I may exceed that number after January 20, 2021. Granted, I am counting on the present occupant of the White House being evicted on that day. Fifty is a good number like Dickens’ fifty-two guillotined prisoners, perhaps representative of the weeks in a year. My number can represent the fifty states in the union subject to the Reign of Trump. It is no coincidence either that the nation-wide march organized on January 21, 2017, to protest his inauguration adopted as their liberty cap the pink pussy hat the marchers hand-knitted to wear for the event. Dickens depicted women intimately involved in the combat for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Miss Pross and Madame Defarge in one of the final scenes of the novel are pitted against each other, one symbolizing the force of love and the other the power of vengeance.  Sydney Carton as he ascends the platform to be guillotined envisions a future where a better world emerges from the blood and turmoil of the Reign of Terror. I, too, choose to envision a better day for the United States when the purge of prejudice, ignorance, greed, and venality is completed, which the current regime inevitably will spawn. Americans will finally be sated and have enough of corruption, braggadocio, and injustice. The country will have learned that ignorance, inexperience, and dishonesty cannot produce good governance and that preservation of democracy depends on an informed electorate. Misinformation cannot be banned from the air waves in a democracy in which snake oil salesmen have the freedom to hawk their goods. Its only antidote is a citizenry that insists upon the facts and solid evidence and will not tolerate being played for fools by con men feeding them what they want to believe rather than the truth that will keep them free.

Return to Vietnam

Ken Burns’ PBS Vietnam documentary featured twelve heart-reaching episodes that must have been excruciatingly painful for veterans of that combat as well as for their civilian contemporaries who watched the war at home on their television sets as those tragic years unfolded while others took to the streets in protest. I was one of those college students who marched on Washington, D.C. of 1967, but returned to campus, disgusted, that those peace demonstrators were exhibiting the same violent behavior they sought to oppose. I was conflicted. I saw many of those demonstrators as children of privilege, of the eastern establishment, who had no experience of poverty or oppression. The country has elected to office the last group of people who lived through that tempestuous period and to have preserved in their memories both the idealism of the period and the subsequent disillusionment with government policy both domestic and foreign. Ironically, the nation has a Commander-in-Chief in 2017  who neither served in Vietnam nor marched against the war. When great issues face a nation in any era, the sideliners and bench-warmers are not the ones I look to for leadership in the future. In that respect, I admire both Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry who has the distinction of both serving and protesting.

Watching the documentary reminded me of the question that I had posed previously to Vietnam veterans I know. I asked them if they would ever return to Vietnam in order to see what the country is like now and to revisit the places they remember. One man answered succinctly “no.” I did not prod him further. The other veteran replied that it was a beautiful country and if given the opportunity he would go, but really had no great urge to do so.  The third veteran unhesitantly affirmed he would go. Burns’ Vietnam documentary interviewed a few veterans who return, meeting with Vietnamese they had fought with. Before I saw this documentary, in a short story I had imagined an aging Vietnam veteran who intended to return to the scene of combat to fulfill an item on his bucket list.

It is well-known that many World War II combat veterans have returned to the Normandy beaches and visited the American graveyards in Belgium and France, a painful pilgrimage, but one that they felt necessary in order to sooth their souls. Their youth perished on those battlefields. They left something of themselves behind on that bloody ground as well as their fallen comrades. Death will get us all in the end. Before that we must make peace with ourselves and everyone who has ever touched our lives. That is what I think a soldier does when he goes back to the killing fields.

Here is the short story I wrote before watching the documentary:

April

It was her husband’s birthday. They were having a small dinner party and the invited couple would be arriving soon. Marian did not feel in a party mood, but she put a good face forward not to dampen the celebration. He was wearing a fresh navy-blue polo shirt with a white stripe across the chest. San Francisco was stitched on the left corner diagonal to where his heart would be.

“Why are you wearing that shirt? You haven’t worn that in a long time,” she said.

“No reason. I can change if you don’t like it.”

“No … don’t. It’s just that Claudia gave you that shirt … remember … when I went with her to California.”

Why of all times did he pick that shirt of all the clean shirts in his closet? She burst into tears. Through her tears, she said, “Nothing happens for nothing. You subconsciously picked it in memory of her.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you.”

“Why do all the people I love die in April when everything comes to life again?” she looked out the dining room window where a few piles of snow lingered along the long driveway to the road. Juncos and red-breasted nuthatches flittered around the bird feeder suspended from a tree limb.

“Who was it,” her husband asked, “said ‘April is the cruelest month of all’?”

She folded like a paper parasol into the easy chair. “I knew her since I was eight-year’s old. She was a second mother to me. She was always there for me—when my parents died, when my daughter took her own life. Why couldn’t I be there with her niece and nephew holding her hand when she closed her eyes for the last time?”

“Because you live in Washington and she lived in Illinois. You have a job you couldn’t leave. Be thankful you made the last trip with her to Germany.”

“Oh, that was prophetic!” Marian daubed her eyes. “When I awoke New Year’s morning and I had the vision that I must visit her native country and celebrate her eightieth birthday with her in Dusseldorf after making one excuse after another for years why I couldn’t travel—the kids, my job, no money—I always had something.”

“Marian, if you’d rather not have this party …”

“Ridiculous. We can’t call it off now. They’ll be here any minute. I just can’t believe she’s no longer on this earth. And to die on Good Friday at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

“She had cancer throughout her bones and lungs. Did you want her to suffer longer?”

“No, it’s not that. She went too fast—diagnosed in October and gone in April—a month to the day after her 81st birthday. It’s like the end of an era.”

“We are at the age when this sort of news will not be unusual until it’s our turn.”

Marian fell silent. Her husband had spoken the unvarnished truth. To be born was to begin to die. Vince, the realist, was trying to console, unaware the balm he thought he was applying to her fresh wound was really salt.

But she was a survivor herself, a realist too after her own fashion, and the show must go on as long as there was a live audience to play to. Life was full of ironies and synchronicities. After the party there would be time to grieve alone. We die alone. No one can do it for us, she thought. We can’t hire someone to do that dirty work. She could not then expect anyone to participate in this grief for a woman who had first treated her as an adult, who had first opened the world up to her, and talked to her about history and politics with the passion of a university professor. Claudia had experienced first-hand the crucible of war in Europe, the bombshells, the sirens, the air raids and the hunger that the drawn-out battles brought. She told stories of how her and her neighbors had hid Jews. Crossing through a forest behind her family’s house, she discovered a downed British pilot and escorted him to her home where her father, a doctor, had treated his broken arm and sheltered him in the cellar until April 1945. Touring Belgium and western Germany some vestiges of war remained—the grass-covered bunkers and the cemeteries of row upon row of white crosses. But by-and-large the countryside had returned to orderly fields bordered by well-pruned trees. The cities, cleared of rumble, had been rebuilt. Pleasure boats plied the Rhine River and the Gothic churches welcomed tourists. Perhaps time heals all wounds, Marian had thought, as she knelt before the ornate altar in the Cologne Cathedral.

Claudia met and married an American serviceman stationed in Paris where she had been studying economics. After his Army discharge, they came to live in the United States. In 1965 they moved next door to Marian, who first met her when she was a freshman in high school. That’s when her education really began about the outside world. Claudia spoke with a heavy foreign accent never mastering the English diphthong th either in its voiced or voiceless variant.

The doorbell rang. The birthday guests, Joe and Sylvia Martin, had arrived. Vince and Marian had known the Martins since they had moved to Seattle twenty years ago, becoming fast friends as soon as they discovered they shared similar ages, political opinions, and interests. Marian put on a cheerful face and welcomed their friends into the living room while Vince poured two glasses of wine.

“Here’s to a happy birthday and many more,” Sylvia toasted, raising her glass. Decked out in jewelry from her ears to her fingers, she sparkled as always with geniality. A bracelet on each wrist, rings on almost every finger, Sylvia valued taste in fashion and hair style, proving that with the correct accessories and cosmetics a short, plain woman can be transformed into a beauty queen. Jim, her consort, reserved flashiness for his wife, preferring a subdued, unostentatious white polo shirt and tan slacks. His face was unassuming—a male face similar to any other in the crowd of business men with short, clipped greying hair boarding a commuter train for a downtown office. In short, he was a tall, lean, washed-out looking man about ready for retirement.

The table was already set. The white layer cake, one fat candle, stuck in the cream cheese frosting, captured Joe’s attention.  Although his slimness belied the fact, Joe possessed a sweet tooth of huge proportions. Regarding the cake, he said, “No room for sixty-two candles.”

Sylvia sidled over to Joe and poked his side. “But you’ll find room for a slice, won’t you?” she said.

“Chicken cacciatore is ready,” Marian announced from behind the kitchen counter. “Everyone take a seat around the table. Help yourself to salad and vegetables,” she said as she placed the serving dish in the middle of the table. Of the foursome, Marian preserved a younger appearance in contrast to Sylvia’s well-made up face, salon-tinted hair, and flattering dress. A slight streak of gray colored her right temple but otherwise her shoulder-length brown hair had not faded. Her complexion had an outdoor glow, which she had no need to embellish with cosmetics. She wore no lipstick. Meeting Marian for the first time, a person would not call her pretty, but rather think she was unremarkable, perhaps lost in a crowd, likely to happen as well to Joe.

But not Vince, who was robust, full jowls, broad-chested, meaty with a full head of salt and pepper hair brushed back from his forehead, making it difficult for Marian to conceive he was sixty-two. Where had the time sped? Surely, it was rushing past them as they, passengers on a train, watched through the window. Fasten your seat belts, Marian thought, the ride was going faster and faster every year. Hadn’t her grandparents and her parents told her it would seem so the older she grew?

“I imagine you’ll be retiring this year?” Joe remarked to Vince.

“No, I don’t think so; I’ll just drop dead at my desk one day.” Vince laughed, and then added, “Hey, I love my work. I’m not ready to throw the towel in yet. We’re still working on a new passenger jet design.”

“Well, I’ve notified management that I’m retiring,” Joe said. “I’ve had it. I’ve hated corporate finance since I started with the company. I’m sick of the office politics and the finagling. I did what I had to do to make a good living. Any time left I have, I want to spend on the golf course.”

“Good for you, Joe. Congratulations. We all have to make choices. If it’s right for you, go for it,” Vince said.

Marian studied Sylvia’s face. From what she observed, Sylvia’s smile testified to her concurrence with her husband’s decision. Vaguely, she wished that Vince would follow suit. He appeared as vigorous and as healthy as ever, but she wished for their lives to slow down. She felt as if life was flowing too fast through her fingers. It seemed as if they had just finished celebrating Vince’s birthday last year and here it had rolled around again. She hesitated upon voicing her opinion. After some reflection, she decided to give it.

“Vince, that’s not a bad idea. I wonder if you shouldn’t start thinking about retiring also.” She brightened and said, “The four of us could travel together. See more of the world before we kick the bucket. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Sylvia gleefully agreed. “That would be a blast. Count me in. I want to take some cruises. Joe can golf his way around the world.” She laughed.

“Sounds like great fun,” Vince said, “but I’m not quite ready to call it quits. I want to work just a few years more.”

Marian stood up. “It’s time to cut the cake and sing Happy Birthday.” The celebration continued with more good conversation and wine. The evening ended with the two couples agreeing to meet for dinner next time at their favorite restaurant.

After Joe and Sylvia left, Vince grew somber. His glum expression perplexed Marian. How in a space of a few minutes had his mood changed from happy to morose? She peered curiously at him and was about to ask him what was bothering him when he took her by the hand and led her to the sofa where they both sat down. He looked seriously at her and began to speak slowly and deliberately.

“I didn’t what to spoil the party with bad news.”

“Bad news?” Marian stared at him perplexed. “What bad news?”

“This could be my last birthday party—”

Marian cut him off. “Don’t be silly. I know we’re all thinking we’ve lived pretty long so far, but—”

“No, I’m not being melodramatic. I’ve been keeping this news from you because I didn’t want to upset you, particularly, with your thinking so much about Claudia lately.”

“What does Claudia have to do with anything?”

“Everything.” He paused, took a deep breath, and continued.

“Marian, I have pancreatic cancer. The doctor couldn’t give me more than a year.”

“Oh, my god, you should have told me.” Consternation then denial rapidly reflected in her eyes. “No, it’s not true. You’ll beat the odds. He’s wrong.”

“Of course, I intend to fight this thing. It will be treated aggressively. But facts are facts. I didn’t want to tell Joe that I have put in for retirement. I had to wear a good face today. Our friends will know soon enough.”

“What’ll we do?”

“All that we can.”  He put his arm around her. “Chin up, girl. There’s nothing we can’t survive together, right?  What does anyone do in a case like this?  Make the best of the time they have left. I intend to do exactly that.”

“What do you mean?” She looked quizzically up at his oddly happy face.

“I’ve had it on my mind for some time. I want to see Vietnam again. I want to see the country I was sent to as a young man to fight something I did not understand. The jungle had its beauty and dangers. The beaches were gorgeous. They say the ravages of war are gone. They say the people hold no animosity toward Americans.”

Marian was plainly shocked. She had thought Vince was one of those Vietnam veterans who were able to put the war behind them and live normal lives without visible signs of post-combat trauma. He had not forgotten his youth. Who could not forget his youth, those formative experiences that shaped and colored his life ever afterwards?

“I’ll visit Vietnam, north and south, before I die,” Vince affirmed, making it indisputable to Marian that he would fulfill this wish. She sat quietly, absorbing the reality of Vince’s terminal illness and full import of what he desired to accomplish in view of his prognosis.

Both of them sat silently, finding speech difficult. What words could express the enormity of what loomed and how drastically the birthday mood had altered? After a while, Marian took her husband’s hand and whispered, “I’m going with you.”