Jul. 26, 2009

Common Ground

by Paul J. Willis

Today I dug an orange tree out of the damp, black earth.
My grandfather bought a grove near Anaheim
at just my age. Like me, he didn't know much.
"How'd you learn to grow oranges, Bill?"
friends said. "Well," he said, "I look at what

my neighbor does, and I just do the opposite."
Up in Oregon, he and his brother discovered
the Willamette River. They were both asleep
on the front of the wagon, the horses stopped,
his brother woke up. "Will," he said, "am it a river?"

My grandfather, he cooked for the army during the war,
the first one. He flipped the pancakes up the chimney,
they came right back through the window onto the griddle.
In the Depression he worked in a laundry during the night,
struck it rich in pocketknives. My grandfather,

he liked to smoke in his orange grove, as far away on the property
as he could get from my grandmother,
who didn't approve of life in general, him in particular.
Smoking gave him something to feel disapproved for,
set the world back to rights. Like everyone else,

my grandfather sold his grove to make room
for Disneyland. He laughed all the way to the bank,
bought in town, lived to see his grandsons born
and died of cancer before anyone wanted him to, absent
now in the rootless presence of damp, black earth.

"Common Ground" by Paul J. Willis, from Visiting Home. © Pecan Grove Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1856). He's the author of dozens of plays, including Man and Superman (1905), Pygmalion (1912), and Saint Joan (1923). Shaw won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925 and an Oscar in 1938 for his film Pygmalion. He's the only person in history to receive both the Nobel and an Oscar.

He had a precise and peculiar morning ritual: According to friend and biographer Stephen Winsten, Shaw would awaken early every day, go to his sink and fill it with cold water, dip his whole face into the sink with his eyes open, splash his eyes with water seven times, and then blot his face dry with a soft bath towel. Shaw said that when he was a boy in Ireland, a peasant instructed him to do this, and he did it ever since. After his ritual washing every day, he opened up the newspaper and read the obituaries first, while eating a breakfast that did not vary from day to day.

He's considered to be the greatest English-language dramatist after Shakespeare. Even before he had written a masterpiece, Shaw was announcing this very comparison to people, and adding that he did some things in playwriting even better than Shakespeare did. Shaw knew all of the plays he had written by memory. He was also a prolific music critic and literary critic, and he's highly quotable. He liked to quote himself. He said, "My specialty is being right when other people are wrong."

He was a great letter-writer and kept up correspondences with many people, including the British actresses Mrs. Patrick Campbell and Ellen Terry, poet Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas and writer H.G. Wells. For 75 years, he averaged nine letters a day, every day. He was lifelong friends with G.K. Chesterton and composer Edgar Elgar.

He lived to be 94 years old, and then died not of natural causes, but from injuries after falling off a ladder while pruning trees.

Shaw wrote and said a great many memorable things, including:
"All great truths begin as blasphemies."

"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: That's the essence of inhumanity."

It's the birthday of writer Aldous Huxley, (books by this author) born in Surrey, England (1894). He's best known to us today as the author of the novel Brave New World (1932), about a future in which genetically engineered people take drugs to keep them happy, have sex all the time, and never fall in love.

It's the birthday of Carl Jung, (books by this author) born in Kesswil, Switzerland (1875). He was the founder of analytic psychology. He noticed that myths and fairytales from all kinds of different cultures have certain similarities. He called these similarities archetypes, and he believed that archetypes come from a collective unconscious that all humans share. He said that if people get in touch with these archetypes in their own lives, they will be happier and healthier.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, born in New York City (1928). He directed movies like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He was a notorious perfectionist. One of his set designers said, "We developed an extremely close relationship and as a result I had to live almost completely on tranquillizers." He died in 1999, just before the release of his last movie, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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