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tribute: Philip’s “assholeisms” – Roberta Bienvenu

I said a day doesn’t pass when I don’t think of one of what Philip called his “assholeisms.”   Sadly, the one I’ve been thinking of lately is “You never miss the water till the well runs dry.”

Philip actually said that to me when the pipe in my Missouri deep well broke.  It was during the same phone conversation that he said something was “slicker ‘n hog’s guts on a doorknob.” I don’t remember what he was talking about, but I’ve never looked at doorknobs in quite the same way.


Philip loved words and cadences.   He loved stories and stories of places, the great plains, the shortgrass prairie. Stories were serious.  Philip said, “We tell each other stories.  We make each other up.”  But stories were also full of energy, exuberant language. There wasn’t much of a gap between Philip’s enthusiasm and the language he used to express it.   I remember driving up to Vermont with him one winter when there was a brilliant display of northern lights.   Philip had his head out the car window, yelling, “Aurory Borealis! Aurory Borealis!”


Philip loved language and stories, and it did sometimes seem as if he just took a breath and started to sing, but he knew better than to depend entirely on enthusiasm and inspiration to make something out of words.  He worked hard.   He said, “We learn how to do what we do so that when we don’t know what we’re doing, we know how to do it.”


Philip was a writer, but to say that doesn’t come close to saying who he was.  He said he was a family man first,  and I know that’s true because family was what he talked about and wrote to me about, and he sent me photos, so I feel as if I know some people I’ve never met. But Philip’s devotion to his family was simply a part of his sense of what was important, part of his generosity of spirit and his genius for living simply.   When I met him, he was writing his first novel and working at the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, guarding the glass flowers. He was also gleaning Haymarket.  “Treat every piece as if it had been pissed on,” was his gleaner’s motto. When I think of that, I think Philip was the sanest man I ever met.


To live simply, though, meant more than to live cheaply.  Partly, it was to love the essentials.  And partly it was not to engage pettiness.  I remember him talking about someone—I don’t remember who it was—“She’s just looking for trouble,” he said, “any old trouble.”  Philip wasn’t looking for trouble.  He decided at one point to believe what people said.  That is.  if someone said she didn’t want the last piece of cake, he believed it.   He had decided not to over-interpret, not to look for trouble.  And he himself didn’t want to be misinterpreted, so he laid down a simple ground rule.   “Take me for granted,” he said.

Roberta Bienvenu

October 18, 2014

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