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Panegyrics

This is my intent in writing panegyrics.
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Come in under the shadow of this red rock.

T.S. Eliot didn’t write that about Joshua Atkins, of course. But it reminds me of him. In my mind’s eye, Josh is a red man, red hair, red beard, a great red rock.

Josh is a large man, quiet, but with marvelously expressive sinuses. He snorts much, and as you spend time with him, you soon learn to distinguish between an amused snort and an aggravated snort. It’s a valuable indicator to his mood.

Josh is the single most sarcastic person I know. This is up against some serious competition, but Josh takes the title. Josh can roll his eyes in the dark. If Josh had given the Gettysburg Address, the war would have ended that day, because both sides would have felt too silly to go on. Even as I write this, I can hear in my mind’s ear the cadences of his sarcasm, his slipping from one particular mode of sarcasm to another as his rhetoric demands, forming an awe-inspiring mosaic of snarkiness. It’s a beautiful thing.

Josh is one of the few people with whom I have lived for any length of time. There were two occasions I shared a home with Josh: in college, my senior year, at the Writers’ House, and the summer of 1998, when Josh lived with my wife & I while getting established in Boston.

The year in the Writers House was my senior year and Josh’s junior, and it was the best year for either of us at Allegheny. The house was a warm place—not physically, let me tell you, but personally. The four of us enjoyed being together. It had the feel of a group home. The last day, after we had graduated, we returned to the house to find Josh gone. He hadn’t been able to bear the thought of saying goodbye, and had left a heartfelt note taped to the TV. I understood why he did that, because it was months before I could look at that note without crying.

The second time was right at the end of my stint in library school. On the night of my very last class, that night of glorious freedom, he was there to welcome me home. We watched France win the ’98 World Cup together. It was a marvelous summer, having him sleep on the couch, like we were back in college again.

By August, he’d found a job and a place of his own, but we still saw him frequently. For years he was in our gaming group. He was in my wedding party; I was in his.

Josh is a man of taste and astute critical eye. He has a deep love of comics books, able to peer through the great mounds of detritus produced by the industry and come up with those titles worth the reading. He is a devout hockey fan, once an expert to be consulted on minor-league Pittsburgh teams.

If I were ever in a real struggle, with enemies arrayed against me, I would want Josh by my side, and I know he would be. I can hear him even now: “We’ll get those assholes.” He would be sarcastic, smirking, unimpressed by any enemy. I can rely on the shelter of his red rock. Josh is ballast to right the world.

Quite some time ago, I stated on this blog my intention to write panegryics. But I didn’t. Until now.

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When I first met Paul Starr, by the Island Inn steps at the Viable Paradise writers workshop, he intimidated me. Here was a polymath: translator, author, musician, editor, programmer. A snappy dresser and a master of sarcasm. For sure, I thought, he’s going to consider me a schmuck. Now, looking back, I realize I never had anything to fear. For above all these things, Paul Starr is a man of great & humane heart.

Paul and I have in common a deep love of Japan. Mine is merely amateur, whereas his is professional. He lives a profession that didn’t really exist thirty years ago: translator of manga and light novels. He is a bridge, transporting the pop culture of one cultural sphere to our own, connecting creators and readers across oceans of incomprehension.

But he doesn’t stop there. Paul is nothing if not audacious. From the ground up, he conceived and founded two SF&F anthologies that then turned into a periodical: The Sockdolager!. He did so because he continually saw people whose writing he respected producing stories that were too idiosyncratic to sell, stories that deserved a platform. It was a noble aim. Out of his own pocket, he kept it going for nine issues, a respectable figure by the standards of the SF&F small press.

In addition to supporting the creativity of others, his own is relentless: music, fiction, postmodern web sites. But my favorite among Paul’s works are the nonfiction essays at We Had To Cross.  The pieces consist of moments, both internal and social. They are confessional, detailed, unsparing, introspective, and compassionate. They appeal to the common trapped nature of humanity, asking the reader to recognize that we’re in the basement together. There’s not a lot of room for free will in Paul’s writing, which I like. The undertow of existence makes frequent appearances. Two essays in particular, “Jack in Texas” and “On Target,” stand out. Each is a photograph from America in our time, a detailed portrait of people and places that typically don’t get much attention.

To read Paul’s work is to hear his laugh, his sardonic lilt, and the joy of his voice when he’s talking about something for which he has sincere enthusiasm (and there’s a lot of those). It’s the voice of someone whose willing to talk about difficult things, because he must, they bubble out. Guilt and anger are no strangers to him. He’s a man with a lot of scars, a man who can’t appreciate himself, which makes folks want to appreciate him all the more, to make up for it. Because there’s so much to appreciate.

Looking back at our first meeting on the steps, it’s funny how wrong I was. It has been a joy realizing just how wrong, and how great a soul is Paul Starr.

“Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can’t come.”
-Jeff Goldblum in The Big Chill

I have a morbid streak. A big one. It’s a running joke in my family. And I’m getting to the stage of life where, when peers die, they seem less aberrations than pioneers. Thus in recent years, I’ve found myself asking frequently “How would I eulogize (insert name here) at their funeral? How could I sum up how marvelous a person this is, everything they meant to me, everything I loved about them?”

It occurs to me: maybe it would better to say these things now, while (insert name here) is a position to appreciate them. I could post them here on this blog, in the face of God and all the world.

There’s a problem in that. If you tell someone, “Hey! I wrote a eulogy for you!”, no matter how grateful the person might be to hear the sentiments conveyed, there’s going to be an undercurrent of I ATEN’T DEAD. Instead I’m dredging up a very old Greek word: panegyric. My panegyrics will not follow the ancient and strict rules for the form. I’ll just be saying what I want to say. But the intent will be the same: to sing praises, and to convey the great worth of the subject.

This is not entirely risk free. Eulogists don’t have to worry about their subjects objecting. If you set out to praise a person and ascribe to them elements they don’t feel are accurate, it could hurt. Should I say the wrong thing, I hope the object of my praise will take it in the spirit in which it is intended. I do intend to run these past the person before I post them.

These will not be exhaustive of all the people I know. I will be writing them at random, as the Spirit leads me. If I don’t write one for you, then I assure you, I love you and admire you. Please don’t assume otherwise. It may very well be I can’t find the words to convey what you mean to me. I might in time.

I don’t even know when I’ll write the first one. Watch this space.