Inhuman Swill : Death

The trade-off

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Maggie Thatcher's dead,
but so is Roger Ebert.
Always a trade-off.

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Iain Banks
Amid the staggering news of other losses this week, I want to remember to say a few words about Iain Banks, one my literary idols. (Two of my literary idols, really, if you care to think of his Iain M. Banks byline separately.)

I, like many of you, I'm sure, was stunned to tears on Wednesday morning by the news that Mr. Banks is suffering from late-stage cancer and probably doesn't have long to live. He broke the news in typically straightforward and mordant fashion, but that didn't make it any easier to take.

Iain Banks is an important writer. I can't think of another writer who so consciously, so prolifically, and so successfully divided his output between serious mainstream fiction and rigorous hard science fiction. He proved, at least in the U.K., that one need not confine oneself to a single genre or style of fiction in order to maintain a brilliant career. It would have been impossible to guess from his twisted 1984 debut, The Wasp Factory, that just three years later he would affix a giant M to his chest like some superhero of letters, fly into space, and bring Consider Phlebas back to Earth, introducing us to what may at the time have been the most mind-expanding and humane future society ever invented, The Culture.

And Iain Banks is an important writer to me. His books can be found all over our house—on the science fiction shelves, on the mainstream shelves, almost always in the to-be-read pile on my nightstand, and even, in the case of his whisky travelogue Raw Spirit, on the alcohol shelf. He's a model of professional productivity, putting out a book nearly every year, and he's as fearless in his contemporary novels as he is visionary in his science fiction. (In 2002's Dead Air, he was already riffing on the meaning of 9/11 before other writers dared even think about it.) And his work is a constant inspiration to those of us who find ourselves attracted writing in more than one world.

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elsie_rigby_partridge.jpg
My grandmother, Elsie Marie Rigby Partridge, passed away early Sunday morning. She was 95 years old, going on 96. She was raised in the farmlands of Idaho, where she had seven brothers and one sister, not to mention five stepbrothers and a stepsister. She had five children, three of whom lived to adulthood, including my mother. She had 18 grandchildren and 47 great-grandchildren.

She suffered a stroke about ten years ago and had been in a wheelchair ever since. Her mind was still mostly sharp, but she had gradually lost the ability to much for herself. Between that and my grandfather's passing five years ago, she had been praying for the end to come—mostly with good humor, at least on the occasions when I was able to visit her.

Grandma Partridge was a strong, funny, acerbic presence, one of the few people who could go toe to toe with my dad in the sarcasm sweepstakes and put him in his place. (She was his mother-in-law, after all.) She trained as a nurse before getting married and having kids, but I'd never call what she did settling down. As a child when we would visit, I remember all us kids looking forward to when Grandma would get home from work in her nurse's uniform. We were also always delighted to hear her talk about how she'd trained herself to say "shhh-ugar!" when she was mad, instead of the farm word she'd picked up from her many brothers.

One of my clearest memories of her comes from when Laura and I last visited her together, in early 2011. She would usually tire after a brief visit, but that day she was on, and she told us stories for a couple of hours. My favorite was about when she was a young mother living in Queens, where Grandpa's job had taken the family. This had to be sometime in the mid-1950s. She was driving with her three kids in the car on one of those outer-borough parkways that are still confusing to this day if you don't know your way around. She missed her exit and rather than risk getting lost put the car in reverse and tried to back up to where she had needed to get off. When another driver stopped and chewed her out, she played the just-a-lost-farmgirl-from-Idaho card and managed to escape the parkway unharmed.

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Biking on Bryn Mawr

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Biking on Bryn Mawr Avenue,
clear sky, afternoon sun,
I pull over to the curb
for the ambulance
hurtling my way.

But it turns on Clark,
and as I pass through
the intersection I see
the gapers gathered,
the body in the street,
face down, lying twisted
like a crash-test dummy.

I have to look.
But I can't look.
I make myself not look,
face forward into traffic,
lest I become the thing
I gaze upon.

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Ella-gy

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Dog at my knee
Ella has now possibly ruptured her other CCL (cranial cruciate ligament, analogous to the ACL in humans). She's on tramadol for the pain (an anti-inflammatory would be better but they're really tough on her digestive system) and on limited activity for a week or more. This is actually good news, though, because when I described Ella's symptoms the vet's gut hypothesis was arthritis. Fortunately, the physical exam and X-rays did not support that diagnosis.

But those few moments of facing the prospect of arthritis only reinforce the sad knowledge that Ella is getting older. She's eight years old, well into middle age for a dog, and though we joke (somewhat desperately) that she has another thirty or forty years left in her, we know that's not the case. (It's more like fifty.)

News organizations keep obituaries of public figures ready to go, just in case. I keep thinking that I should start working on Ella's obituary now because I'll be in no shape to do it when it's needed. We are no respecters of species here—Ella is the third person in our family, and I know that when I have to write that blog entry I'm going to leave out some of the important details of her life and personality that I want so much to preserve.

There's the slight crookedness of her spine, which means that when you're walking behind her in a straight line you can see how her hindquarters are angled a couple inches to the right. There's the way she decides some mornings that she wants to walk all the way to the lakeshore and resists all attempts to turn her from that eastward path with a withering staredown. There's the way she often misses the first step when she goes charging up the back stairs. There's the way, when she has a toy in her mouth, that she likes to bash you in the backs of the legs so you'll keep playing tug with her—even if that toy happens to be a stick three feet long and perfectly positioned to take you out at the knees. There's the way that she'll try to pick up even a huge fallen willow bough to drag around with her at the park. There's the way she can't control herself when you reach for the plastic bag with her basketball inside and starts hurling herself into the air to bite at it. There's the way that she invented her own game to play with that basketball, chasing it so she can push it around with her face. There's the way she kicks back dirt in every direction but the direction where she left her droppings. There's the way she loves to tease other dogs when they're leashed and she's not. There's the way she sometimes goes on a tear at the park and runs in huge figure-eights for the sheer joy of it. There's the way, when it snows, that she can't seem to walk four feet without throwing herself down on her back and wriggling around in the powder. There the way, when she hasn't eaten her breakfast, that the urgent devouring of it suddenly sidetracks her when we're trying to usher her out the back door. There's the way that, if we give her a treat before leaving her alone at home, she won't eat it until one or the other of us has returned. There's the way she scratches at the hardwood floor like making a nest before she collapses onto her side and curls up. There's the way she sighs and rests her chin on your knee while you're reading on the couch.

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Deception

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Ladybug
This morning in the back window of the car
I found a ladybug
bleached bone-white and fragile under the glass,
like a tiny skull.

With eyespots faded almost to nothing,
blinded by the sun,
it was as if the creature had only slowly,
and jealously,

let go of the urge to outwit its predators.


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A trumpet demon

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RIP Freddie Hubbard, 1938-2008. He was probably the best trumpeter from the hard-bop era next to Miles Davis, though some poor choices starting in the '70s derailed a career that could have made him as much of a household name today.

But whatever. I'm going to put on Open Sesame and then Red Clay to work to this morning—not to mention that track "Zanzibar" from Billy Joel's 52nd Street where Hubbard lays down an amazing solo on the outro—and wish there were a heaven (or hell) where I could look forward to hearing him play like in his prime.

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Remembering Algis Budrys

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Algis J. Budrys
It was a simple drive twelve miles north this morning to get to Skokie for Algis Budrys's memorial service. Laura was unable to join me so I went alone, and I found when I arrived at the funeral home that there was no one there I knew. Actually, I did meet Ajay's dear wife Edna back in 1985, but I wouldn't have expected her to remember that brief occasion all these years later.

I don't do very well in crowds where I don't know anyone—heck, I can get intimidated in crowds where I do know people—so I sort of slinked around at the back of the room, feeling somewhat like an intruder. Two display tables helped me occupy myself. One was covered with an arrangement of various editions of Ajay's books. The other displayed a selection of interviews with and articles about him, both from print sources and online. On a widescreen television ran a slideshow of photos of Ajay and his family.

The service began not long after I arrived, and I found a seat toward the back. There were fifty or sixty people in attendance, I would estimate, and the number of chairs for everyone was almost exactly right. A pastor spoke for a few minutes about Ajay's greatness as a husband and a father and a writer, and offered a prayer. Then she turned the time over to Ajay's sons.

Jeff shared remembrances and appreciations of Ajay he had gathered from people online over the preceding few days. Among the poignant, funny, and just simply factual snippets he read, I was startled to hear a line I had written in a brief post on Monday. Tim expressed his good fortune at being able to spend many of his adult summers with his parents' house as a home base, and shared an observation an associate at a Renaissance fair had made—that no wonder he seemed so even-keeled, with parents who had always stayed together. Dave recounted the last years and final days of Ajay's life, when despite setback after setback, Ajay had remained cheerful and become even more of a sweet man. All three sons credited their parents with giving them the space to do their own thing—as long as they did something. There was also much talk of Ajay's prowess as a bicycle builder and mechanic—the boys grew up having by far the best bikes around, at a time when 10-speeds were still exotic—and stories like the time he singed his eyebrows off cleaning bike parts with gasoline.

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Tapped human side

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Here's an article about Algis Budrys that ran in yesterday's Chicago Tribune:

Tapped human side of science fiction

I'm going to head out to Skokie for the service Saturday morning.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

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William Shunn

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