Dec. 2, 2004
The Longly-Weds Know
Poem: "The Longly-Weds Know" by Leah Furnas, from To Love One Another © Grayson Books. Reprinted with permission.
The Longly-Weds Know
That it isn't about the Golden Anniversary at all,
But about all the unremarkable years
that Hallmark doesn't even make a card for.
It's about the 2nd anniversary when they were surprised
to find they cared for each other more than last year
And the 4th when both kids had chickenpox
and she threw her shoe at him for no real reason
And the 6th when he accidentally got drunk on the way
home from work because being a husband and father
was so damn hard
It's about the 11th and 12th and 13th years when
they discovered they could survive crisis
And the 22nd anniversary when they looked
at each other across the empty nest, and found it good.
It's about the 37th year when she finally
decided she could never change him
And the 38th when he decided
a little change wasn't that bad
It's about the 46th anniversary when they both
bought cards, and forgot to give them to each other
But most of all it's about the end of the 49th year
when they discovered you don't have to be old
to have your 50th anniversary!!!!
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett, born in Los Angeles (1963). She's best known for her novel Bel Canto (2001), about a hostage crisis in which terrorists take control over an extravagant party, and hold the guests hostage for over four months. Over time, some hostages and terrorists become friends and even lovers.
Her parents divorced when she was six, and her mother took her to live in Nashville, where Patchett rarely went to school and earned mostly D's and F's on her early report cards. She said, "We were scrambling; we had bigger things going on in our lives than whether or not I could read."
But she had decided to become a writer by the time she was in high school. She said, "While my girlfriends danced and dated, I sat and wrote. Every ounce of gangly energy I had went onto paper. I sprawled. I mass-produced." Her first published story came out in the Paris Review on her twenty-first birthday.
That story "All the Little Colored Girls Should Learn to Play Harmonica" would go on to be anthologized dozens of times, and was made into a play, but Patchett had trouble following up on it with anything else. She tried writing a novel based on the story, but that didn't work, and her publisher dropped her. The same year, her marriage broke up, so she moved home to live with her mother and took a job waiting tables at T.G.I. Fridays.
Patchett spent a year just thinking about a novel to write. She said, "The novel in my imagination travels with me like a small lavender moth making loopy circles around my head." At the end of that year, she took a residential fellowship and wrote her novel in six months, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), and it got great reviews.
She got the idea for her most recent novel, Bel Canto, when she read about a hostage crisis in Lima, Peru. She said, "The story in Lima stretched on, one month, two, three...I couldn't stop thinking about these people. There is no such thing as a good kidnapping, but I heard the hostages played chess with their captors. I heard they played soccer. There were rumors of large pizza orders. It had all elements I was interested in: the construction of family, the displacement from home, a life that was at once dangerous and completely benign."
Ann Patchett said, "If I weren't a novelist," she says, "the thing I would most like to do is build dioramas. I was one of those kids who built little worlds in shoeboxes. That's basically what novel writing is. You get to build every tree, every person, put them all in place, and decide when the sun comes up and goes down. That I can make a living at that is astonishing."
It's the birthday of novelist and short story writer T(homas) C(oraghessan) Boyle, born in Peekskill, New York (1948). He was born Thomas John Boyle but he changed his middle name to Coraghessan when he was seventeen. He said, "I suppose it's an affectation, of a sort, but what the hell. There are five billion of us on the planet all screaming for attention."
He never read books when he was growing up, but he loved the stories his mother read to him from newspapers. Both of his parents were alcoholics, and as a young man Boyle was a bad student and a troublemaker. He and his friends once stole a statue of Jesus from a church and put it in the middle of the street so it looked like Jesus was directing traffic.
He lived for several years as a drug addict, but after a friend overdosed, he decided to replace drugs with writing. He said, "Writing is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm."
His first big success came when he published a story in the Paris Review called "Descent of Man," about a woman who falls in love with a chimpanzee. George Plimpton said that when he first read it, he almost fell out of his chair. Since then, Boyle has done his best to try to sell literature to the public. Unlike a lot of writers, he isn't afraid to go on talk shows, make public appearances, and give lots of readings.
Boyle said, "I'm out there trying to get something back for literature...I like to turn [people] on, particularly people who don't read much or their boyfriend or girlfriend dragged them along and they expect to be bored, and then you just blow them away and give them a great show. Because literature is fun. It's entertainment. I think people lose sight of that fact."
Boyle has gone on to write many novels, including The Road to Wellville (1993) about health fads in the late 1800's, and Drop City (2003) about a hippy commune. His most recent book is The Inner Circle, which came out this year.
It's the birthday of short story writer George Saunders, born in Amarillo, Texas (1958). He's the author of two short story collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) and Pastoralia (2000).
He grew up on the south side of Chicago, where his dad sold coal to apartment buildings. Saunders said, "I learned to be a satirist from the prevailing mode of storytelling on the south side of Chicago where, if you want to tell someone you love him, you generally pretend to knee him in the groin, then throw him in the pool while guffawing."
In high school Saunders read Ayn Rand and decided that the only worthy work was technological work, so he went to the Colorado School of Mines and studied geophysical engineering. He got a job for an oil company in Indonesia, and started writing fiction on the side. But he found his own work painfully earnest. He said, "In all my stories, a stoic young man who has just arrived in Asia witnesses something brutal and then recoils in silent horror."
After reading Jack Kerouac, he decided that he needed to become a drifter in order to write, so he quit his job, moved back to the states, and worked as a roofer, a slaughterhouse laborer, and a convenience store clerk. He tried to write about his working class life in the style of Hemingway, but everything came out trite and boring.
He finally decided that it wasn't helping his writing to be poor, so he took a job summarizing animal test reports for the FDA. He said, "This was a sobering time, during which I would write about tortured monkeys for eight hours, walk out to my car past a suite of beagles hanging in slings awaiting the next day's round of tests, then go home and write late into the night."
Then one night, he had a dream that he worked at a giant surreal theme park, and he decided to try to turn that dream into a short story. He suddenly realized that if he wrote about bizarre, exaggerated, cartoonish situations, he had a lot more fun. He said, "Having set a story in a bloated, exaggerated theme park, you've committed yourself to a certain kind of ironic satire that, I've found from experience, is where I do my most intense work."
Over the course of five years, he stole time for his fiction at work, and he wrote on the bus to and from work, and he slowly produced the stories that became his first collection: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) with stories about a haunted historical theme park, a misshapen girl named Boneless, a 400-pound businessman, and a boy with skin so fragile that it tears when touched. His most recent book is a children's book called The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000).
George Saunders's short story "The Falls" begins, "Morse found it nerve-wracking to cross the St. Jude grounds just as school was being dismissed because he felt that if he smiled at the uniformed Catholic children they might think he was a wacko or pervert and if he didn't smile they might think he was an old grouch made bitter by the world, which surely, he felt, by certain yardsticks, he was. Sometimes he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't even a wacko of sorts, although certainly he wasn't a pervert. Of that he was certain. Or relatively certain. Being overly certain, he was relatively sure, was what eventually made one a wacko."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®