Friday

Oct. 22, 2010

You Just Think the Last Time

by Greg Kosmicki

for Tim O'Connor

you saw your uncle down
at the alleys, his hair
still all there, big silver
pompadour style slicked straight
back, nice leather jacket,
new brown shoes—you just think
doggone 'ol Uncle Bill
looks good for eighty-four!
He turns and says something,
you can't even think what.
You wish you could, you wish
you had gotten his joke.
He was an uncle like
all your others: always
joking. He said something,
everybody there laughed,
you laughed too—hell, you love
your uncle! He's one of
the last of the brothers—
you've got your Dad, Paul, known
as Sandy, Uncle John,
known as Jeep, and Uncle
Bill (real name is L.P.
for Leonard Paul), and he's
here at the bar at the
bowling alley, your friend
Tim is talking to him,
there's a joke made, you laugh
he laughs, Tim laughs, but you
can't remember the joke,
you didn't quite hear it.
The last thing your Uncle
said to you last time
you saw him, and if you
had known you could have said
Hey Uncle Bill say that
joke again I might not
ever see your ugly
mug again
and he would,
he would have repeated
the joke, he would have said
it over and over
for you as long as you
stood there listening, he
would still be there today
amidst the mild cursing
of the billiard players,
rancid tobacco smoke,
whir of English on cloth,
the soft clink of the balls.

"You Just Think the Last Time" by Greg Kosmicki from New Route in the Dream. © Pudding House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the humorist and columnist John Gould, (books by this author born in Boston, Massachusetts (1908), who spent 60 years writing a weekly dispatch from his farm in Maine for the Christian Science Monitor. He wrote about his neighbors and family, the three-tined fork, the origin of the molasses cookie, his father's bees, telephone solicitors, and the battle of Gettysburg. He wrote more than 30 books, including Farmer Takes a Wife (1945), a best-seller about his marriage to a city girl from Arlington, Massachusetts, and The Fastest Hound Dog in the State of Maine (1953), about his dog.

It was on this day in 1883 that the Metropolitan Opera House opened with a performance of Faust. The opera was based on Goethe's German poem, and it was composed in French, but it was sung in Italian. The New Yorkers who designed the opera house wanted it to have an Italian feel, so they had it built with a palazzo on Broadway, and Italian was the language of choice.

There was already an opera house in New York, the Academy of Music, near Union Square. It was one of the main gathering places of the city's high society, who watched each other from the opera boxes as eagerly as they watched the opera itself. But there were only 18 opera boxes at the Academy of Music, and in the 1870s a whole generation of industrial millionaires were emerging in New York. These nouveau riche were not so welcome at the Academy of Music, or in any of the social circles of old money. But they wanted a place to display themselves, so they decided to build their own opera house. Seventy people got together and pooled $1.7 million to buy land and build a concert hall. They put in three levels with 36 box seats in each, more than enough for everyone.

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton wrote:
"On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

"Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances 'above the Forties,' of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendor with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the 'new people' whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music."

It was on this day in 1964 that Jean-Paul Sartre (books by this author was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, which he turned down. A week earlier, Sartre had written a letter to the Nobel Committee asking to be removed from the list of nominees, and politely explaining that he would not accept the prize if it was offered to him. But no one managed to read his letter in time, and the Swedish Academy officially announced their choice, much to the embarrassment of everyone.

Sartre wrote a public letter explaining his decision, pointing out that if anyone had noticed, he had turned down every official honor offered to him during the course of his career. And he said: "This attitude is based on my conception of the writer's enterprise. A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable. If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner. The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him. My sympathies for the Venezuelan revolutionists commit only myself, while if Jean-Paul Sartre the Nobel laureate champions the Venezuelan resistance, he also commits the entire Nobel Prize as an institution. The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case."

It's the 91st birthday of another unenthusiastic Nobel winner, the novelist Doris Lessing, (books by this author born Doris May Tayler in 1919, Kermansha, Persia, which is now Bakhtaran, Iran. Her father had lost a leg during World War I, and throughout her childhood he talked incessantly about the war. She said, "I was a terribly damaged child, terribly neurotic, over-sensitive, over-suffering." Her family lived in Tehran for a couple of years, then traveled through the new Soviet Union, then back to England briefly. There, her father attended the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 and went to the Rhodesian booth, and he was enchanted with the promises that you could get quick rich off farming there. So even though he knew nothing about farming, he took his whole family off to Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe, to farm. She went to school for awhile, but when she was 14 she was sitting in the classroom and she realized how terrible her school was, so she stood up and left, and never went back. She worked on the farm and taught herself. She said, "I read, and when I was interested in something, I followed it up. Whenever I met anyone who knew anything, I would bore them stiff until they told me what they knew. I still have these terrible gaps; things that every child learned at age 14 I have to look up in an encyclopedia. I would really like to have learned languages and mathematics—that would be useful now. But I'm glad that I was not educated in literature and history and philosophy, which means that I did not have this Eurocentered thing driven into me, which I think is the single biggest hang-up Europe has got. It's almost impossible for anyone in the West not to see the West as the God-given gift to the world."

She moved back to England eventually, and her first novel was The Grass is Singing (1950), about the terrible dynamics of racism in Rhodesia, and the erosion of the British Empire there. She has published many novels and collections of short stories, including The Golden Notebook (1962), The Four Gated City (1969), Shikasta (1979), The Good Terrorist (1985), and The Cleft (2007), and she has been equally comfortable writing realism, science or speculative fiction, as well as plays, poetry, memoirs, and even a couple of operas.

In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was out grocery shopping when the announcement came, and she came home to find her house swamped with reporters. She was nonplussed about the prize, saying, "Oh Christ! I couldn't care less. This has been going on for 30 years. I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush." And she said, "I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise. I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off."

By the time she accepted the prize, she was considerably more gracious, saying, "Thank you does not seem enough when you've won the best of them all. It is astonishing and amazing." But later that year she was feeling bitter again, saying that winning the Nobel meant that she no longer had enough time to write. She said, "All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed."

She said, "Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself."

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

 









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