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© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas. 





Birthday Shopping


Just think – three quarters of a century!

Born under Hoover, the year my father

lost his job and Grandpa took us in;

and then a stripling, willingly to school

with Roosevelt at the helm, term after term;

and next, in Truman’s time, a college boy,

in loden coat, rep tie, and tennis shoes,

my lean head stuffed with memorized word-gems.


4-F and married and a father, I

cast a Manhattan vote for Stevenson

but prospered under Ike, and left New York,

the seat of all my editorial hopes,

for Massachusetts where John Kennedy

was senator, and bourgeois life obtained.




Today, in Tucson, Mrs. U. and I

drove through the downtown grid, where cowboys in

white pickup trucks turn left against the light,

to Best Buy’s big box, to buy a backup laptop.

Strange world!  The geeks in matching shirts

talked gigabytes to girls with blue tattoos

and nostril-studs, and guys with ropey arms

packed pixel-rich-home-entertainment screens.


Hi-def is here.  Attempting to prepare

our obsolescing heads for crashing waves

of new technology, we cruised an aisle

of duplicated, twitching imagery

and came upon, as if upon an elf

asleep on forest moss, a Chinese child.



It was a girl, aged two or three, in bangs

and plastic bow and tiny shiny dress

and round-toed Velcroed shoes, supine

upon a cardboard carton, inches from

a coruscating hi-def plasma screen,

her face as close and rapt as at an udder,

motionlessly drinking something in,

an underwater scene of garish fish.


An older sister gazed her fill nearby.

At last we spotted their adoptive ma

haggling fine points several clerks away.

Exquisite in her peace, the alien child

had found a parent, bright and slightly warm,

while I, a birthday boy, was feeling lost.




In Pomeroy’s Department store, I lost

my mother’s hand three score and more than ten

long years ago.  So panicky I wet

my pants a drop or two, I felt space widen;

when someone not my mother, took my hand,

I burbled, unable to cough up who

I was unforeseeably alone

amid these aisles of goods, so unlike home.


Not so this transfixed little pixie here

among the pixels, stiller than if asleep.

Electromagnetism held her fast,

secure within the infotainment web,

that sticky and spontaneous conflux

of self-advertisement and spam and porn.




Well. even Roosevelt’s sunk Depression world -

Atlantis at the bottom of a life,

descried through sliding thicknesses of time -

had radio and cinema to love,

and love we did, on fire to make the new

our own, to wield against our elders, dull

with all the useless stuff they’d had to learn

when they had been susceptible and young.


Signals beyond their ken conveyed our sparks -

Jack Benny’s stately pauses, Errol Flynn’s

half-smile, the songs we learned to smoke to, ads

in magazines called slicks, the comic strips,

realer than real, a Paradise that if

we held our breaths, we could ascend to, free.




Culture beguiles us in the beginning,

but Nature gets us in the end.  My skin,

I notice now that I am seventy-five,

hangs loose in ripples like those dunes on Mars

that tell us life may have existed there -

monocelluar slime in stagnant pools.

After a Tucson movie, some man in

the men’s room mirror lunged towards me


with wild small eyes, white hair - and wattled neck -

who could he be, so hostile and so weird,

so due  for disposal, like a popcorn bag

vile with its inner film  of stale used grease?

Where was the freckled boy who use to peek

into the front-hall mirror, off to school?




Its cracked brown frame and coat of mercury

going thin behind the glass embodied time,

as did the fraying rugs, the kitchen chairs,

the four adults that shared the house with me.

In Pennsylvania, then, the past settled in

to be the present.  Nothing greatly changed:

milk came to the door, and mail through the slot,

coal down the loud chute, and ice in crazed cakes


on the iceman’s leathern back.  My grandparents

moved through the rooms in a fog of dailiness,

younger then than I am now, and my parents,

not forty – can it be? --  expressed their youth

by quarrelling.  Our old clock ticked, and dust,

God’s pixels, danced in the windowlight forever.









Birthday Shopping by John Updike





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