Rendered Fat Content


Yamada Hōgyoku: Dog with Bag Over its Head (1830s)

" … there could be worse fates than smothering on tradition."

Who knows where traditions get started? Who knows where they end? Some arise from innocent mistakes. Others seem more tenacious habit than anything resembling the presence of grace. A few seem genuinely sacred, in that neglecting to observe them seems more sin than oversight. Family traditions might hold no known origin, like the old apocryphal story about the preparation of the Easter ham, which had always included the traditional step of cutting one end off the ham. The youngest great-granddaughter asked her mother why she cut off the end of the ham and was told, "Because that's the way my mother prepared it." So the great-granddaughter asked her grandmother the same question and received the same answer. She finally asker her great-grandmother, who had apparently started the tradition way back during the Great Depression. "Because the only pan I owned was too small to hold the ham, Great-grandmother explained. Some traditions seem like metastasized necessities.

In my family, one tradition began as a small shortcoming.
On my grandson Roman's first birthday, The Muse and I returned from exile to celebrate and, me being the poet laureate sort of grandfather, I commenced to compose another run-of-the-mill birthday poem, as close family members have grown to expect/dread receiving from me every birthday day. We were staying in a hotel which, when I called down to the front desk, did not have paper available for use by guests. So, I'd composed the poem on my laptop, but had nothing upon which to transcribe it for use as a present. (One does not, if present, properly present an electronic birthday poem. That's reserved for times when the poet cannot attend the celebration in person!) Looking around the hotel room, I spotted a grocery bag and experienced an inspiration. I could transcribe the birthday poem onto the bag, scribbling around the Whole Foods logo.. It could prove to be a quirky resolution to my problem, but my family's kinda sorta come to expect some quirkiness from me, anyway.

The poem, dubbed a BagPoem from the outset, proved to be a great hit. It was stored on the kid's bookshelf and frequently dredged back up for bednight story time. Eventually, my grandson even came to request it sometimes, saying, "Dad, let's read the bag." And thus, from a moment of extremis, this tradition was born. Now, of course, more careful preparation goes into creating a fresh one. Bags are collected and considered in anticipation and selected specifically for each creation. BagPoem writing adds another dimension to the familiar chore of writing, for it relies upon my poor but honest handwriting and some ded reconning to accomplish. Each bag allows only so many letters across its front and I've found no reliable way to pre-calculate just how much space will be required to comfortably contain any poem. The actual transcription involves some praying, for it's exacting and might sometimes require simply starting over, disappointed but a little wiser, to produce a legible and complete final copy.

That final work ends up being more of a marvel than it might appear, my handwriting never having improved very much as I age. Years ago, after reading one of my hand-written birthday poems, my mom burst into tears. I asked her why and she replied through her sobs that she couldn't read my handwriting. That spawned another tradition, that of me insisting upon reciting handwritten poems to their recipient so that I could be certain they received what I'd intended and not just what they'd managed to interpret from my hen scratching. BagPoems represent only my very best performances, regardless of the fact that they might still appear barely legible. I try hardest with them. Lines might lean left or right, or even spiral inward toward one side's center to properly fill up the space. I often add navigation arrows, which prove necessary when I miscalculate and need to employ the bag's side to complete the thought. The whole process seems wrought with potential for failure, rendering it a high-wire kind of complexity and importance. I tend to fuss considerably over the creation. They're consequently often a good excuse to practice a little procrastination.

I try to convince myself each fresh time that the lowly BagPoem has not yet become an actual tradition, though I knew it had the moment I delivered that first one. I do not yet know how to go about creating one, so there's always some question about how to start and especially about how to finish. These cannot be properly transcribed with just any pen, mind you, so there's the additional question of which writing instrument to employ. I expect that one day, I'll be reduced to improvising with a goose quill or something, and that would not surprise me, for the very BagPoem DNA seems infused with odd and unsettling supply chain problems which the author must somehow overcome, such that producing each one might result in adequate material for me to produce another epic one. BagPoems have become an exercise in self-regeneration. The more I produce, the more I seem to need to produce. They're almost a commodity now, a class unto themselves, and I would not be surprised to find some enterprising entrepreneur type releasing a whole collection of professionally-produced BagPoems and thereby opening a whole new form of publishing along with producing millions of dollars.

I am not now nor am I ever very likely to become that entrepreneur type. I do not profit from producing these curious gems, other than to fulfill my fitful obligation to a tradition of my own making, a more curious source of any possible tradition. In proud admission, I say that I backed into creating it and never intended to become the author of anything other than that first poem for my then new grandson. Last night, when I'd finally fussed my way through to finishing my latest creation, this one for Tilda, my now seven year-old granddaughter, I read it to her. She responded with a definite twinkle in her eye, asking, "Could you write me another one?" I replied that I would for sure next year, when she turns eight. "No, no," she replied, "I meant right now. Could you write me more right now?" I explained that I could and would if I really wanted to, but her Grumps had more or less burned his pen in creating the one he'd just read. It would take some time for me to rummage around and find another, which would have to happen later. I smell another tradition emerging, the follow-on BagPoem one, which could result in Grumps doing little more with the rest of his life than producing recursive BagPoems. I supposed there could be worse fates than smothering on tradition.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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