It was john Updike’s birthday Tuesday, and how could I have missed that fact, he being a fellow Pisces and I owing such a debt to him for teaching me to ‘tell’what I see.
Look at the words of the narrator he gave life to in his story “The Full Glass,” published in The New Yorker in 2008. I loved it so much on first reading it, I scanned the whole thing so I could keep it always.
It begins “Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately” which seems so sad now because the man who created this piece never saw 80. He was dead less than a year after its publication.
Then further down on that first page:
Now that I’m retired…I watch myself with a keener attention, as you’d keep an eye on a stranger who might start to go to pieces any minute. Some of my recently acquired habits strike me as curious. At night, having brushed my teeth and flossed and done the eyedrops and about to take my pills, I like to have the water glass already full. The rational explanation might be that, with a left hand clutching my pills, I don’t want to fumble at the faucet and simultaneously try to hold the glass with the right. Still, it’s more than a matter of convenience. There is a small but distinct pleasure, in a life with most pleasures levelled out of it, in having the full glass there on the white marble sink-top waiting for me, before I sluice down the anti-cholesterol pill, the anti-inflammatory, the sleeping, the calcium supplement (my wife’s idea, now that I get foot cramps in bed, somehow from the pressure of the top sheet), along with the Xalatan drops to stave off glaucoma and the Systane drops to ease dry eye. In the middle of the night, on the way to the bathroom, my eye feels like it has a beam in it, not a mote but literally a beam—I never took that image from the King James Version seriously before….
and then, of that one glass of water…
That healthy sweet swig near the end of the day has gotten to be something important, a tiny piece that fits in: the pills popped into my mouth, the full glass raised to my lips, the swallow that takes the pills down with it, all in less time than it takes to tell it, but tasting of bliss.
From there he goes on to describe the bliss he felt as a young person, who woke up inside his life and like any person does and takes joy in all five of his senses.
I read Rabbit Run when I was 12; it’s how I found out how sex works.
But it wasn’t the sex that kept me reading. It was always the way he made you see what he was describing; the way he made you feel you were right there beside the characters he was moving through their own special world. A letter carrier who passed me crossing the street said it, when he saw me in 1990 toting my brand-new copy of his autobiography Self-Consciousness: Memoirs by John Updike. “Hey I read that!” that man called out to me is we passed each other on the crosswalk. “That John Updike can make even psoriasis sound interesting!”
He sure made the world interesting for me. I told him so in a fan letter I sent along with the story I had written of my mother’s sudden death. I was responding to one of his short stories, again in The New Yorker, that was very obviously about the death of his own, real, mother. He wrote me back four days later , on a postcard, with a remark so kind that more than two years later when I was writing my first book I wrote a second time to ask if I could use his quote on the jacket .
“Ok on the quote. Good luck with the book,” he wrote back, again by postcard, again not four days after I wrote him.
He was like that is all I can say: generous, and decorous and kind. The world of letters is surely the poorer without him.
Take six minutes and read “The Full Glass” now why not, which now, five years after publication, is available for anyone, just by clicking here.