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Off By One Error

Carol and I got up at 3:30 AM last night and found the skies crystal clear, so we hauled out onto the back deck in our fuzzy robes (along with a couple of doubtless-puzzled bichons) sat down in two of the patio chairs, and leaned back, facing generally east. The Perseids did not disappoint; in forty minutes we saw twenty or so, and most of them were quite bright. We didn't have access to the whole sky with the house behind us, so I'm sure we missed quite a few. Still, the count is about in line with what we've seen in past years, and for Carol and me (and the Perseids) there have been a lot of past years.

In fact, I'm pretty sure we watched them from her back yard two weeks after we met in 1969, though not at three in the morning. No matter. I see meteors almost any time I spend more than a minute or two scanning the skies, even from as light-befouled a place as the close-in Chicago suburbs. One reason Carol came to love as scruffy and odd a specimen as me was that I was willing to talk science with her. I pointed out the constellations to her, and dragged my junkbox telescope out into her driveway to show her the moons of Jupiter. Over the years, the Perseids have become something of a tradition for us.

I have a talent for pastiche, and when I was young it was almost a compulsion: If I read enough of something I almost always tried to imitate it, with greater or lesser success. During my sophomore year in the English Literature program at De Paul I was taking one damned poetry course after another, so it was inevitable that I would try my hand at poetry. During my Robert Frost period (which was roughly the last three weeks of April, 1972) I penned a lot of metered drivel in down-home country dialect. One effort was a sonnet, just so I could say I had written a sonnet. Even though I was a New Formalist long before there was a New Formalism, I knew the Prime Directive of modern poetry (Thou Shalt Not Rhyme) and withheld any rhyme until the final couplet. I gave the poem to Carol the night we watched the Perseids from my parents' summer home at Third Lake, Illinois:


I saw a shooting star last night, you see.
It bothered me to think that golden streak
That split the sky half-raw and hung awhile
As though to rub the wound with pale white salt
Was washed clean-gone by night's soft-rushing flood
In just the time you'd take to poke the coals.
You know, they say it's just a grain of sand
So small you'd never see it in your cup
Once all the tea was gone. I wonder now
What made God give a speck like that such spunk
While here I balk and eye our road so roundly…

You know, I think I'd not so fear the night
If, going out, I knew I'd make such light.

Carol read it appreciatively (as she always did, irrespective of what it was I had handed her) and then, giving me a peck on the check, asked, “Don't sonnets have 14 lines?”

“Well, sure!” I said, taking the sheet back from her hands. A quick count reassured me that it had…13 lines. Damn.

Ever since then, I've been famous around the house as The Guy Who Writes 13-Line Sonnets. Clearly, rhyme was good for something—like helping numerically illiterate poets keep track of the number of lines they were producing. After that, I returned to my more freeform e. e. cummings period (which had been the first three weeks of May, 1972) until I found the wisdom to understand that I was a better astronomer than I was a poet. I've stopped writing poems, but the Perseids—heh, like Carol and me, that's forever.

One Comment

  1. […] about shot for tonight, but I will draw your attention to a previous entry I did on the Perseids, which are something of a tradition for Carol and me. (It also contains my now-legendary 13-line […]

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