Tuesday

Sep. 8, 2009

Splitting an Order

by Ted Kooser

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky hands steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he had asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife and her fork in their proper places,
then smoothes the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

"Splitting an Order" by Ted Kooser, from Valentines. © University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1952 that Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) came out with his last novel, The Old Man and the Sea. He'd had a hard time getting back to writing since covering World War II as a journalist. He finally published his first novel in 10 years in 1950, Across the River and Into the Trees, about World War II. It got terrible reviews.

Hemingway was working on a long novel that he called The Sea Book, about different aspects of the sea. He got the idea for it while looking for submarines in his fishing boat. The book had three sections, which he called "The Sea When Young," "The Sea When Absent," and "The Sea in Being," and it had an epilogue about an old fisherman. He wrote more than 800 pages of "The Sea Book" and rewrote them more than a hundred times, but the book still didn't seem finished. Finally, he decided to publish just the epilogue about the old fisherman, which he called The Old Man and the Sea.

The novel begins, "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." It tells the story of an old man who catches the biggest fish of his life, only to have it eaten by sharks before he can get back to shore.

The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize, and two years later, Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in literature. He didn't publish another novel in his lifetime.

It's the birthday of novelist Grace Metalious, (books by this author) born in Manchester, New Hampshire (1924). She wrote the scandalous novel Peyton Place (1956), about a small New England town that is filled with sex, rape, murder, and suicide.

Metalious was a stay-at-home mother of three children, and she wrote the novel to help her husband pay the bills.

It's the birthday of science writer Michael Shermer (books by this author) born in Glendale, California (1954). He's the founder of the Skeptics Society, an organization devoted to debunking superstitious beliefs and pseudoscience. Among the 55,000 members of the nonprofit are biologist Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye the Science Guy. The society puts out a quarterly journal, Skeptic, which Shermer edits and publishes.

He was raised in a fundamentalist Christian family and started majoring in theology at Pepperdine before switching to psychology and biology. He was really into riding his bike and began cycling competitively in 1979, racing throughout the 1980s. To help himself be a top competitor, he followed the elaborate instructions of a nutritionist and also used acupuncture, negative ions, Rolfing (a "holistic system of soft tissue manipulation"), pyramid power, and the power of Christian prayer. But he said, "I became a skeptic on Saturday, August 6, 1983, on the long climbing road to Loveland Pass, Colorado," when none of that seemed to be working, and he decided to stop rationalizing the failure of all those allegedly performance-enhancing things.

He's written more than 100 columns for the popular science magazine Scientific American. In successive months beginning in September 2002, he wrote "The Physicist and the Abalone Dive," "Mesmerized by Magnetism," "The Captain Kirk Principle," "Digits and Fidgets," and "Psychic Drift." In 2008, he wrote the columns "Wheat Grass Juice and Folk Medicine" and "Stage Fright."

He was a college professor in southern California for 20 years, teaching the history of science. He's the author of many books, including Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (1997) and The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule (2004). His most recent book is The Mind of the Market: Compassionate Apes, Competitive Humans, and Other Tales from Evolutionary Economics (2007).

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

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Sharon Olds at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »