Dec. 1, 2004
In the Middle
Poem: "In the Middle" by Barbara Crooker, from Yarrow © 1998 and printed by permission from the author.
In the Middle
of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1860 that the first installment of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations was published. Dickens was under financial strain at the time. He had recently purchased a giant mansion called Gad's Hill Place, which he had first admired when he was five years old. His father had pointed it out to him on a walk and told him that if he worked very hard he might some day come to live in it, and he fulfilled his life's dream by purchasing it almost forty years later.
Unfortunately, the cost of the house and its upkeep was quite a burden on his bank account. He had also recently separated from his wife, and was forced to support her separate living expenses. Several of his sons were starting out on their own, and he had given them generous allowances. On top of it all, he had recently founded his own magazine, called All the Year Round, and in the fall of 1860, he was serializing a novel called A Day's Ride, by Charles Lever, and sales of the magazine were dropping.
So in order to improve his financial outlook, he decided to start publishing a new novel. Critics consider it one of his most autobiographical books because it tells the story of a boy who is destined to become a blacksmith, but because of a chance meeting with a fugitive prisoner, he winds up becoming an aristocratic gentleman. Dickens himself had been on the verge of desperate poverty as a child, and worked briefly in a warehouse, but by the time he wrote Great Expectations, he had become one of the most famous men in England, and one of the most successful writers ever.
Each installment of Great Expectations sold more than a hundred thousand copies, more copies than each issue of the London Times newspaper at the time. Today it is among the most popular of Dickens's novels.
In Great Expectations, Dickens wrote, "That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."
It was on this day in 1862 that Abraham Lincoln gave the state of the union address at one of the lowest points of his presidency. An end to the Civil War was nowhere in sight. Just ten weeks before, Lincoln had issued his emancipation proclamation, turning the war into a war about slavery rather than just states rights. But in the recent election, anti-Lincoln Democrats had made big gains in the Congress. Many people saw that as a sign that the North didn't want to fight to free the slaves. People wondered if the war could ever be won, if the Union had been lost forever. And if the Union had been lost, perhaps the democratic experiment of the United States had actually been a failure.
Instead of expressing doubts in his speech, Lincoln argued that freeing the slaves was necessary to ensure that America live up to its own ideals. In his speech, on this day in 1862, Lincoln said, "The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union...In giving freedom to the slave, we ensure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth."
It's the birthday of American detective novelist Rex Stout, born in Noblesville, Indiana (1886). He often said he had left Indiana when he was one year old because he was already fed up with Indiana politics. As a young man, he intended to become a lawyer, because he said, "I wanted to be in a good strategic position for abolishing all injustice everywhere." But he was distracted from that goal when he published a poem in a magazine and got $25 for it. So instead of going to law school, he got a job in a cigar store and kept writing.
He was a hack magazine journalist for a while and then developed a popular savings-account scheme for schools. He made a great deal of money and then retired to Paris. He was forty-six years old when he wrote his first novel featuring Nero Wolfe, a detective who weighs more than 300 pounds, collects orchids, and never leaves his house. The first Nero Wolfe novel was called Fer-de-Lance, and it was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1934. It was a huge success, and Stout went on to write another Wolfe novel almost every year for the rest of his life. He ultimately published 46 novels in the Nero Wolfe series.
Rex Stout said, "I love books, food, music, sleep, people who work, heated arguments, the United States of America, and my wife and children. I dislike politicians, preachers, genteel persons, people who do not work or are on vacation, closed minds, movies, loud noises, and oiliness."
It's the birthday of director and screenwriter Woody Allen, born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in Brooklyn (1935). His father supported the family with various jobs and his mother worked at a flower shop. His parents wanted him to become a doctor or a dentist, but Allen hated studying more than anything in the world. He said, "I loathed every day and regret every day I spent in school."
Every day, when Allen got home from school, he immediately went into his bedroom and shut the door, refusing to do any extracurricular activities or even to eat dinner with his family. He spent all his time reading, learning to play the saxophone, and teaching himself magic tricks.
He also became obsessed with New York City, and especially movies about New York. He said, "I loved every single movie that was set in New York, every movie that began high above the New York skyline and moved in. Every detective story, every romantic comedy, every movie about nightclubs in New York or penthouses. To this day, I rarely latch on to...movies that are not about the city."
Allen didn't start reading great literature until he started taking girls out on dates. They would ask them if he'd read some Faulkner novel and he'd never heard of Faulkner and it was embarrassing. So in order to keep pace he had to read. He said, "The things those women read and liked led them inevitably to Nietzsche and Trotsky and Beethoven, and I had to struggle to stay alive in that kind of company."
He first began submitting jokes to gossip columnists when he was fifteen, and he became a stand-up comedian at seventeen. He tried to take classes at film school but he was expelled for poor attendance. So he supported himself writing jokes for the Tonight Show and other TV programs.
Allen wanted to make movies, so in order to teach himself about filmmaking, he bought the rights to a Japanese spy movie, and inserted all new dialogue, turning it into a movie about one man's attempt to acquire the recipe for the world's greatest egg salad. He went on to create a new kind of movie comedy that incorporated big ideas about love and death and psychoanalysis in between the jokes. But when he turned forty, Allen began to feel like a failure. He worried that all his movies had just been goofy, nothing serious, nothing about real life. So he started working on an autobiographical movie, full of scenes from various aspects of his life.
When Allen turned the rough cut of the movie into the studio, it was several hours long, with almost no plot, and he wanted to call it Anhedonia, which is the name of a psychological disorder in which a person is unable to experience pleasure. The studio helped him cut the movie down to a more reasonable length, and they found themselves cutting almost everything except for the scenes with Diane Keaton, who played Woody Allen's love interest. So they named the move after her character, and it became Annie Hall (1977). It went on to win the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best actress, and many people consider it his masterpiece.
Woody Allen said, "Life [is] full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."
Woody Allen said, "My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."
And, "How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?"
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®