The Sunday Obituary, No. 3

He was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.

via Charles Durning, Prolific Character Actor, Dies at 89 –



Chapter 17: The Serene Sphere

iss029e043302Bronson looked serenely out his window.

In some ways, the view never changed. All around him, the stars were in the same places, more or less. Far below him, the Earth spun past like it always did.

The ship orbited at better than 17,000 miles an hour, which was faster than Bronson could easily comprehend. But it was at moments like these, a break in his tasks, a quiet gallery, that he tried.

At length, though, Bronson came to be distracted by a distant object. Though it was just a dot to him, its shape seemed to change rhythmically. Like one of the drops of water that were occasionally set wobbling around the day cabin by one of the more careless crew members. He found that he was staring it at it.

The object was light blue and seemed to be in a similar orbit. Though, Bronson quickly realized it was not moving at the same speed — the blue dot was slowly growing in size.

At first, he did nothing. The actual navigation of the craft was none of his affair. And although he did not understand everything that went on on the bridge above him, he had more than a rudimentary knowledge of the physical forces involved.

Anyway, he assumed that things like where the ship was actually going were well planned out.

Still, the blue dot grew larger.

It was now about the size of a pea, and it had lightened in color. He reached into his pocket and produced a small digital computer. He thumbed through the calendar page for the day to see if he had forgotten about a supply delivery.

Or a docking exercise. An astronomical event.


The dot grew larger. It was now about the size of a grape. And it seemed to him that it had short appendages, giving the whole the appearance of something like a crushed insect. It turned over and over in its orbit, and Bronson could see sunlight playing in shadows on its uneven surface.

He clicked on his communicator.

“Command? This is Bronson, over.”

“This is Command.”

“What is that,” he paused, briefly, racking his brain for a suitable, technical-sounding bit of vocabulary, “thing?”

Bronson continued: “About 9 c’clock, right off the,” he paused again, “thing?”

A short scratching noise came back over the radio. There was silence, then more scratching.

Finally, Command said, “Bronson?”


More silence. “Hold on,” Command said.

Bronson raised his eyebrows, and let his communicator drop to his lap. The whitish grape was now a whirling golf ball.

The door to the chamber he was sitting in slid open, and Packwood walked in.
Packwood was a middle man, not quite spaceman and not quite scientist. He was wearing the same orange jumpsuit Bronson was, but Packwood had a way of making it look comfortable.

Bronson looked over and noticed Packwood wasn’t smiling.

“Yeah, listen,” Packwood said. “I don’t know what is going on. And we don’t know what that is and, anyway, you got to stay off the communicator. I can never remember which channels are being streamed over the thing, but the captain is getting all, you know.”

Packwood let that sink in and then added, “And Central is freaking out.”

“Freaking out about what I said?” Bronson said.

“Freaking out about that,” Packwood said, pointing past Bronson and out the window at the object, which was now more of a knuckleballing baseball.

Bronson followed Packwood’s finger back to the window, and noticed two things at once. The first was that Packwood had stopped speaking. And the second was that he could see the object much better.

At first, he did not know which of these caused more alarm, that the normally garrulous Packwood had kept his trap shut for more than a few seconds. Or the slowly rotating mass coming into clear focus outside the window.

Bronson shifted his weight and leaned closer to the glass, straining his eyes at the object. His communicator slid slowly off his slick cabin pants and hit the floor with a crack. Neither man noticed.

“Are those feet?” Packwood said.

They were. It was apparent by now that the object of interest was a collection of about a dozen human forms, bound together in a fairly symmetrical, slowly rotating mass about the size of a beach ball. A frosted, horrible beach ball.

Bronson never admitted it, but his first thought after having realized what it was that they were looking at was that it had been well constructed. The forms were fitted together with geometric care so that the end result, had it not been floating in a low orbit above the Earth, had the appearance of a clever circus trick.

“Those are feet,” Packwood said.

Though the object — by now as big as a clothes dryer — was remarkably round over all, there were several places where a hand or foot or something other object protruded beyond the circumference.

Bronson squinted and pressed his face up against the porthole like a golden retriever. He started to make out facial expressions, which were all eerily similar and in the category of startled fright.

He could see (or thought he could) buds of ice spattered across patches of exposed, bluish-white skin. He could see clothing. He could hair. A hat.

For a while, the two men said nothing. The object grew larger and larger.

“It’s slowing down,” Bronson said.

Packwood shook his head. “We’re backing up,” he said.

As soon as Packwood said this, Bronson knew it was true. Relatively speaking. He could feel the rumble of the front thrusters. The approach of the object outside the window, which by now was just a few yards away, had been slowing.

Just then, from the left of their view out the window came a spacesuited figure on a bright orange tether. It floated into view, facing away from the window. And from behind, Bronson and Packwood immediately recognized their crewmate.

“Lutz,” Packwood said.

“Lutz,” Bronson said.

On an ordinary day, they might have made a joke about having recognized Lutz from his back side. But the ball was growing larger and larger.

Bronson and Packwood watched silently as Lutz guided himself closer to the floating mass. Lutz slid to one side and began fastening a rectangular pack to the front of the object. It registered with Bronson and Packwood that Lutz was holding a portable rocket in the hope that the object could be moved out of the way.

The ball grew larger and larger. Lutz continued to work. Bronson stayed still, his face pressed against the porthole. Packwood stood behind him, his mouth in its usual open position. But both men were quiet.

Outside the ship, Lutz seemed to be having a problem with the pack. And abruptly he pulled it toward himself, and scooted slowly back from the object, which was now so close that it was darkened by the shadow of the ship.

Lutz’s efforts had slowed its rotation. But it still grew larger and larger.
Until finally, it nudged silently against the porthole, with Bronson coming nose to nose with a frozen grimace set in a sickening panoply of faces, arms and feet.

Word of the Week: Puissant

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court) and how about … puissant?

Oh. Yeah.

A correspondent last week scolded me for my word choice: How am I supposed to use assize in a sentence, she said. This stirred me to search for a word with a broad scope of potential application.

I was thinking about it all week. Then I came across puissant.

How could I not get interested in a word like that?

First off, puissant, an adjective, is defined by Webster’s Fourth as “powerful, strong.” It appears between puisne, or “of lower rank,” and puke, which Webster’s does not really bother to define. (I took this to be an omen.) It is a French word, pretty much, but we can go ahead and say that you pronounce it PWE-sent.

Rudyard Kipling in his study, about this year

Rudyard Kipling. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across it in a passage from “Tournament of Shadows,” by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Counterpoint (1999), which was part of my preslumber puttering last night. This is a history of the so-called Great Game, which was the appalling sketch of black comedy engaged in during the 1800s by the British and the Russians for dominance in Asia. (Our literate readers might recall that it serves as the backdrop in Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim”; everyone else can just take our word for it.)

Referring to the East India Company, Mr. Meyer and Ms Brysac write, “Thus, the over the decades, the Company evolved into a baffling hybrid, something less than an independent entity, but far more puissant than any government ministry.” (Let all that cool on the counter awhile, and up pops Gandhi.)

And so I think, with just that, we’ve got a sturdy WOW with a lot of possible uses.

But look more closely at that word.

Doesn’t it remind you of something?

Yes, it does. Drop a letter and you have pissant, which was the pejorative of choice on my elementary school playground. For years I assumed that was just a fleeting child’s mutation, an epithet hacked out of the coarse verb “piss” that no one outside of West Omaha was using. But no. Some wags think pissant has a tradition that dates to the Middle Ages, but we will reserve judgment.

Apparently, a pissant refers to a piss-ant, or wood ant, whose nesting materials are said to give off a urinelike smell. Some sources say that the ant itself smells like urine if you squash it, but we cannot say for sure. (No ants were harmed during the writing of this post.) Webster’s confirms this, sort of. It defines pissant first as “an ant,” and then as the more familiar (to me) “person regarded as insignificant or contemptible.”

And so there you have it.

Webster’s warns that puissant is by now “chiefly literary,” which is another way of saying that only pretentious jerks say it. Still, it seems appropriate for our purposes.

Most examples of puissant on the Web are in French; I’ve included one just so you can giggle a little. Many of the others were, perhaps, marginal uses of the word. For instance, I am not sure how a soccer player can have a powerful contribution, and note that some Harvard puke slathered puissant with the unnecessary “incredibly.”

“Le puissant lobby américain des armes à feu NRA a exclu dimanche tout soutien à une loi de réglementation sur les armes…” via Etats-Unis: le puissant lobby NRA exclut tout soutien à une loi sur les armes – Le Point.

“And that’s often the default interpretation of elves — ethereal and majestic beings wielding an unknowable and puissant magic.” via Galadriel, political animal of Middle-earth | Hobbit Movie News and Rumors |™.

“Berbatov is adept to spearheading the frontline, whilst Kacaniklic’s contributions alongside him are puissant.” via One 2 Watch – Alexander Kacaniklic « Back Page Football.

“It is not difficult to understand why the president wants control over the debt ceiling all to himself. After all, it has been shown to be an incredibly puissant armament.” via An Unfortunate Power Grab | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson.

Devotional No. 6


“Every good writer must discover the yawning crevasse which separates Man’s finite destiny from his infinite potentialities. It is afterward that he will reveal his artistic courage and so register the protest which is a final plea for order…”  Chapter 2, “The Unquiet Grave,” Cyril Connolly, Hamish Hamilton 1957.

“Literature — which is art married to thought, and realization untainted by reality — seems to me the end toward which all human effort would have to strive, if it were truly human and not just a welling up of our animal self.” p. 30, “The Book of Disquiet,” Fernando Pessoa, Penguin Classics 2002.

A Christmas Miracle

8:24 p.m. Samantha
So what are you guys doing for Christmas?

8:24 p.m. John
I am staying here. Can’t bear to think of a holiday passing without my sampling crappy catered food at the office.

8:26 p.m. Samantha
Well, there is that!

8:27 p.m. John
What about you?

8:28 p.m. Samantha
Going back to [deleted]. So, the usual.

8:29 p.m. John
Got all the shopping done?


8:29 p.m. Samantha
And, few odds and ends left to buy still. Although, I did make some cookies last week. So there’s that

8:30 p.m. John

8:31 p.m. Samantha
Let’s understand that these are the easiest of cookies: sugar cutout cookies. Five ingredients, mix, cutout cookies, put in over. Done

8:31 p.m. John
You did it? You baked them? Yourself?

8:31 p.m. Samantha
I did!

8:32 p.m. John
They didn’t pop, spontaneously, into your oven? There wasn’t a houseboy involved? Say, a dusky Spaniard? You didn’t buy them a bodega, did you?

8:40 p.m. Samantha
Nope, all me. No purchased cookies from a dusty Spainiard at a bodega.

8:41 p.m. John
So, you are saying, then, that you actually made the cookies. And no one coached you.

8:41 p.m. Samantha
Yes, that is what I am saying.

8:41 p.m. John
Or made them for you.

8:41 p.m. Samantha
All me.

8:41 p.m. John
Have you eaten one?

8:42 p.m. Samantha
A few actually. Stil here.

8:42 p.m. John
No broken teeth? Or gastro-intestinal distress? Or hallucinations?

8:43 p.m. Samantha
Um, no, no and no. There are a few things I can make.

8:44 p.m. John
Amazing. I would not have bet money on that. C’mon. Tell the truth. They are a little dry, aren’t they? Burnt?

8:45 p.m. Samantha
No, they aren’t They are good.

8:45 p.m. John

8:45 p.m. Samantha
I swear!

8:45 p.m. John
Well. Miracles. You know.

8:46 p.m. Samantha
Tis the season (and I willl try not to take that too personally, dear)

8:47 p.m. John
Oh! You are right! First, virgin birth. Then, Sam makes cookies. It all fits.


Word of the Week: Assize

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly) and how about… assize?

Yeah. Uhm. It is not what you’re thinking. You pronounce it uhh-SIZE.

As in, “You need a size before you can buy underwear in here, Bub.”

So, assize, from the Latin assidere, “to assist in the office of a judge,” smack in Webster’s Fourth between associable, that which can be associated, and Assiut, an alternate spelling for the Egyptian city of Asyut.

What’s it mean?

Well, Webster’s defines assize as “a legislative assembly or any of its decrees” or “court sessions held periodically in each county of England to try civil and criminal cases.” There also is the ancillary “time or place of such sessions” and “an inquest, the writ instituting it, or the verdict.” But what is going to concern us here today is the historical English system of justice, if we can in fact call it systematic or just. (Excuse our republican sensibilities.)

Basically, an assize was a periodic English criminal court that literally had its roots in the time before the Magna Carta and was not really discontinued until just before “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was canceled by the BBC. The idea was to provide a mechanism of justice more stable and reasonable than the so-called trial by ordeal, in which acquittals were granted on the basis of whether defendants had survived a comically dangerous stunt.

Assize cropped up, for me, in a deliciously ghoulish way in “The Glorious Revolution,” by Edward Vallance (Pegasus 2008), which I’ve only just started. Mr. Vallance sets the stage for the succeeding, presumably revolting, glory by, among other things, describing what have become known as the Bloody Assizes.

The Duke of Monmouth was involved in plots aga...

The Duke of Monmouth. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What happened was, the bastard son of Charles II, the English king, was goaded into starting a rebellion after the death of his father and the accession of the Presbyterian-hating, Catholic fop James Stuart, the former Duke of York.

The revolt was a profound failure, something like the New York Jets’ season, with unfortunate blunders (the rebels counted on allies who chickened out) compounding with inane strategies (they struggled against a much-larger army) to create a spellbinding national drama lasting several painful months. Thousands of rebels were slaughtered in a mismatched, climactic battle. And the king’s bastard son, known as the Duke of Monmouth, had his head lopped off — by an executioner who needed several tries and a couple of pep talks before he was able to finish the job.

Which brings us to the Bloody Assizes.

Despite the battlefield carnage, there were still thousands of rebels left. And King James instituted a Stalin-style reactionary purge that employed a five-headed circus of traveling criminal courts, or assizes. The star of the bloodletting was George Jeffreys, a baron and the top judge in merry old England. Not known for his mirth in normal circumstances, Baron Jeffreys gained notoriety after the rebellion for the severity of his sentences. To give you an idea of his courtroom demeanor, it is said that he suffered from enormous kidney stones throughout the proceedings.

Almost no defendants escaped his wrath; out of more than 1,000 to face his gavel, or whatever, more than 300 were executed. The balance were shipped off to virtual slavery in the West Indies. Only a handful were still alive a decade or two later.

Now. In those days, a death sentence for treason meant not only that a person was hanged but that the executioner would cut down the victim (hopefully) before he or she died, gouge out the jubblies (or what have you), carve open the abdomen, and hack off the head. The body was then cut in four pieces, and the whole lot was boiled and covered in tar. The gruesome results were displayed in public places, apparently, as a warning.

English: Portrait of Judge George Jeffreys, Fi...

George Jeffreys. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It might have been overkill. There were so many defendants thusly treated that one wag winked that the countryside had been turned into a “vast anatomical museum.”

But when they weren’t sniggering, most folks were not amused by Baron Jeffreys’s enthusiastic adjudicating, and he came to be known as the Hanging Judge. Perhaps not the first to be given the nickname, and certainly not the last, but one of the earliest, well-publicized examples.

The assizes played an important role in the historiography of the Glorious Revolution, too, with the baron’s excesses being cast as an example of King James’s venality. But that is a topic for another week.

To the Web:

The visit of the Assize judge was one of the social highlights of the year and a spectacle involving great pomp. Punishments were frequently brutal and often far outweighed the seriousness of the offence. via No mercy in grim saga of crime and punishment | This is Nottingham.
The council says the Bodmin Conservation Area has great historic and cultural significance, reflecting the towns many-layered past as medieval religious centre, former county town and home of the Duke of Cornwalls Light Infantry and an assize court. via How can towns heritage be kept safe in future? | This is Cornwall.

And, intriguingly:

You can use this guide to find assize court records from England and Wales, to understand how they are arranged and what information you may find in them. via Criminal trials in the assize courts 1559-1971 | The National Archives.

That One Day Last Week


I sat on a cold block of stone. And could see in front of me the imperfect straightness of the street — but not for far. The avenue ran in legs, crooked like a broken animal. And before me was just one unbent limb.

In the distance, a building sat in the middle of the road. The sun came in low, slanted yellow rays.

Toward me walked a man in a floppy hat and worn, black leather jacket. He carried a cane and a determined look, and somehow was able to walk past with a jaunty strut.

In the opposite direction, a parade of coat-covered butts muffled away in pursuit of long, black shadows.

The soundtrack was a group of cops, arguing about when it was appropriate for an ordinary security guard to chuck someone out.

Devotional No. 5


“The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror an almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the late Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.” Chapter 4, “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton, D. Appleton & Company 1920


Word of the Week: Sacerdotal

Film poster for The Age of Innocence (film) - ...

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (formation of megaliths) and how about… sacerdotal?

Why sacerdotal? Mostly because it gives me a chance to digress into small talk about Edith Wharton’s spectacular “The Age of Innocence.” It is a great example of Ms. Wharton’s nimble and lively style.

First things first, however.

Sacerdotal is defined by Webster’s Fourth as “of priests or the office of priest; priestly” and “characterized by belief in the divine authority of the priesthood.”

Which reminds me of one of my favorite types of jokes: Do you know what the Spanish word for sacerdotal is? Sacerdotal.

Anyway. The word comes up in Wharton in Part VII of Book I, Page 73 in the Scribner paperback edition of 1998, when the book’s protagonist, Newland Archer, is endeavoring to persuade the patriarch of New York society, Henry van der Luyden, to intercede on behalf of a woman who, whether Mr. Archer knows it or not, is (not really a spoiler!) his love interest.

Mr. Archer first consults with the patriarch’s wife, and after hearing him out, she says “I should like Henry to hear what you have told me.” She calls for a footman and says, “If Mr. van der Lyden has finished reading the newspaper, please ask him to be kind enough to come.”

She said “reading the newspaper” in the tone in which a Minister’s wife might have said: “Presiding at a Cabinet meeting” — not from any arrogance of mind, but because the habit of a life-time, and the attitude of her friends and relations, had led her to consider Mr. van der Luyden’s least gesture as having an almost sacerdotal importance.

(Some day, should this tone be adopted on my behalf when I am reading a newspaper, I will consider myself a success.)

Anyway, awesome, right?

Thence to the Web!

But a genius like Shakespeare might still imbue his works with repeated words or situations that would call to mind their sacerdotal origins. via Shakespeare’s Common Prayers – Washington Post.

These are sentiments to nauseate a republican, but I, for one, find them stirring in their almost sacerdotal sense of purpose. via Book Review: Counting Ones Blessings –

For LeMoine to ignore them at the intersection of his sacerdotal and social media practice is profoundly disturbing to the equilibrium for which Pope Benedict argued. via Church Uses Facebook for Sacramental Scrutiny at its Peril | Politics | Religion Dispatches.