Jan. 29, 2004
Poem: "Opinion," by Baron Wormser, from Subject Matter (Sarabande Books).
Halfway to work and Merriman already has told me
What he thinks about the balanced budget, the Mets"
Lack of starting pitching, the dangers of displaced
Soviet nuclear engineers, soy products, and diesel cars.
I look out the window and hope I'll see a swan.
I hear they"re bad-tempered but I love their necks
And how they glide along so sovereignly.
I never take the time to drive to a pond
And spend an hour watching swans. What
Would happen if I heeded the admonitions of beauty?
When I look over at Merriman, he's telling Driscoll
That the President doesn't know what he's doing
With China. "China," I say out loud but softly.
I go back to the window. It's started snowing.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Edward Abbey, born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (1927). He's best known for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), about a gang of four "environmental warriors" who liberate sections of the Utah and New Mexico wilderness through sabotage. When he was seventeen years old, he saw the desert for the first time as he hitchhiked and rode the rails across the country. He returned to the East to work for a short time as a caseworker in a welfare office, but then he went back to the Southwest to work as a fire lookout and ranger in Arches National Park. He worked there for three years, and turned the experience into the book Desert Solitaire (1968).
Desert Solitaire begins: "This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome--there's no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment."
It's the birthday of writer Anton Chekhov, born in Taganrog, Russia (1860). His father came from a long line of serfs, but his grandfather had bought the family's freedom before he was born. When Chekhov was sixteen, his father's grocery store went out of business. The whole family left for Moscow, except Anton, who was left behind to finish school and earn money. He lived in the corner of a house and scraped out a living by tutoring family friends. He later called his adolescence a "never-ending toothache."
After he graduated from high school, he left for Moscow to study medicine. While he was at medical school, he started writing for comic magazines to earn money for his family and himself. He knocked out short, funny stories in his spare time, and later said it was a relief to write in the evenings after spending the day studying chemistry and anatomy. For years, he couldn't decide whether to devote his life to medicine or literature, so he split his time between the two. In 1884, he got his medical degree and began his career as a doctor, which he called "a sporadic second career which was to bring much hard work but little income." He often treated peasants whose poverty reminded him of his childhood, and he wouldn't ask for very much money in return for his care. He set up free clinics in provincial Russia, and he fought the cholera and famine epidemics of 1891 and 1892.
He was always a little embarrassed about his love for writing and used pseudonyms for years. He told a friend, "Medicine takes itself seriously; the game of literature requires nicknames." After graduating from medical school, he continued to write stories for weekly magazines and newspapers. His friends encouraged him to try writing something more ambitious, but he didn't think he was as good a writer as everyone told him he was. The magazines he wrote for gave him strict limits on the number of words per story, and he often started and finished the short pieces in one sitting. He wrote to a friend that he treated writing "frivolously, casually [and] nonchalantly." It wasn't until he received encouraging advice from an editor that he began to write seriously and under his own name.
Chekhov is one of the inventors of the modern short story. His stories were usually short, full of passive characters, and without much of a plot. They didn't have big emotional climaxes, and they usually ended with a moment that revealed something about the main characters" lives.
His first play, The Seagull, opened in 1885. It got horrible reviews, and he walked out on it at intermission and vowed never to write another play. But two years later, it was produced again, this time to rave reviews. The success inspired him to go on to write the plays Three Sisters (1901), The Cherry Orchard (1904), and Uncle Vanya (1897), which are now considered classics.
Chekhov said, "Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out."
It's the birthday of writer and politician Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, England (1737). His writings helped to inspire the American Revolution.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®