Tuesday

Dec. 14, 2010

Substantial

by Robert Cooperman

Men of substance,
who'd made money
from hardware stores
or in the Garment District,
or as doctors or lawyers
in our neighborhood of escapees
from Hitler's death works:

men who were listened to,
their wisdom nodded at
during breaks from shul
on the High Holy Days
or at Chanukah feasts
or Passover seders.

Substantial, also a hearty meal
in America the Bountiful,
America the Delicious:
gefilte fish for the adults,
for us silky chopped liver;
then matzo ball soup
oozing with fat noodles;
chicken or flanken swimming
in broths of vegetables and potatoes.

Dessert: for our parents,
honey cake, sponge cake;
for us, huge black-and-white cookies,
cakey, soft, nibbling-sweet.

Last, a bowl of cut-up fruit
was set out, while we children
waddled escape, before men
of substance, important men,
substantial men began
to talk and talk and talk.

"Substantial" by Robert Cooperman, from My Shtetl. © Logan House, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the mystic Nostradamus, (books by this author) born Michel de Nostredame in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France (1503). His father was an attorney, and the family was comfortably middle-class. Michel went off to the University of Avignon when he was 15, where he was nicknamed "little astronomer." But when the plague erupted again, the university closed and he was sent home.

At some point he taught himself enough about plants and medicine to work as an apothecary. He tried to study to become a doctor, but was kicked out after the school realized that he was an apothecary, a trade that was banned by the university. Much of his medical work revolved around the plague, which was a huge problem still in Europe, even though the main epidemic had been during the 14th century. He had some modern ideas about healing — he believed that good hygiene went a long way and he was ahead of his time in his disapproval of bloodletting.

At some point, his wife and children died, probably victims of the plague. But he got married again, to a rich widow this time, and had six more children. No one is sure what prompted him to write his first almanac in 1550, full of prophecies and annual predictions, dabbling in astrology. He published his book under the name Nostradamus, the first time he had Latinized his last name. And it was a big success, so he kept publishing a new book each year, each with 100 verse predictions. He had a ready audience — people considered astrology a legitimate source of information, and some members of the royal court in particular were fans of Nostradamus, even though he was not a very good astrologer, and had to ask people to supply their own birth charts for him to interpret. He made more than 6,300 predictions, including predictions about the world well into the future, until the year 3797. By the time he died — after predicting his own death the night before — he was rich and famous.

Plenty of people continue to read his predictions. Among other things, Nostradamus has been credited with predicting the Great Fire of London, the rise of Adolph Hitler, both world wars, the creation of the United Nations, the assassination of JFK, the atomic bomb, the Apollo moon landings, the McCarthy trials, the death of Princess Diana, and 9/11. But his predictions have only seemed true when people have looked back at his writings after a major event and found a verse that might fit; no one has ever been able to read one of his predictions and say, This huge natural disaster will happen in this place at this time. As many people have pointed out, the language of his prophecies is so vague and there are so many of them that it is easy to find a prophecy to fit any situation. And people have often fudged the translations to make them even less specific. After World War II, MGM made a short film called "Nostradamus Says So," which gave a little background on Nostradamus and suggested that he had predicted the Allied victory during the war. They quoted this verse, which they said was about the Statue of Liberty:

"The chosen protector of the great country
For endless years will hold the famed torch
It will serve to guide this great people
And in its name they will struggle and triumph."

But a more accurate translation reads:
"The newly elected patron of the great vessel
Will see the clear flame shine for a long time
Which will serve as a lamp to this great territory
At which time the armies under his name
Will join with those happily of Bourbon
From east to west resting his memory."

It's the birthday of short-story writer Amy Hempel, (books by this author) born in Chicago (1951). She graduated from high school when she was 15 and drove out to San Francisco. She said, "Such terrible things were happening in this beautiful place" — she was in San Francisco during the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, a bomb in the Iranian consulate, Jim Jones' cult, and serial murders. And then her mother committed suicide, she got in two bad accidents (one on a motorcycle and one in a car), and her best friend died of leukemia. She decided to get hold of her life and settle down somewhere. She was a good writer, and she had studied journalism, so she went to New York. She took a fiction-writing course with Gordon Lish, and on the first day of class he made them all write down their very worst secret, the secret they would never get over. Hempel wrote about failing her best friend while she was dying. And that exercise turned into her first short story, "In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried."

Gordon Lish thought Hempel was a great writer, and he helped her publish her first collection, Reasons to Live (1985). She has published three more books of stories since then, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997), and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). She starts each story with the last line, and writes until she gets there.

She said: "It turned out that one of the most helpful things I did without knowing it would be helpful later was hang out with stand-up comics in San Francisco. I went to their shows night after night after night. I watched them performing, working through the same material. I saw some nights it killed and other nights it bombed. All that time I was observing nuance, inflection, timing, how the slightest difference mattered. How the littlest leaning on a word — or leaning away from it — would get the laugh, and this lesson was so valuable. And the improv work — they called it 'being human on purpose,' this falling back on the language in your mouth — was hugely important. Just listening to what you're saying. I learned this when my late friend Morgan Upton, an actor and member of the Committee, took me to a Steve Martin show at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Back in the green room, Steve Martin was sick, but preparing to do his show anyway. I told him I admired that, I said I couldn't go out there and make people laugh if I were sick. And he said, Don't be silly — you couldn't do it if you were well. A brilliant reply on any number of levels."

And she said: "It comes back to the question, whom are you writing for? Who are the readers you want? Who are the people you want to engage with the things that matter most to you? And for me, it's people who don't need it all spelled out because they know it, they understand it. That's why there's so much I can't read because I get so exasperated. Someone starts describing the character boarding the plane and pulling the seat back. And I just want to say, Babe, I have been downtown. I have been up in a plane. Give me some credit."

It's the birthday of writer Shirley Jackson, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1916). She lived in rural Vermont with her husband and four children, and she said, "Fifty percent of my life was spent washing and dressing the children, cooking, washing dishes and clothes, and mending." She wrote some novels, books of short stories, and two funny memoirs about life with children in a small town, Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). She wrote: "There was a door to an attic that preferred to stay latched, and would latch itself no matter who was inside; another door hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close good-humoredly for a time when some special reason required it. We had five attics, we discovered, built into one another; one of them kept bats, and we shut that one up; another one, light and cheerful in spite of a small window, liked to be a place of traffic and became a place to store things temporarily. An old clothesline hung across the basement, and after the line I put in the back yard had fallen down for the third time, I resigned myself and hung a new line in the basement, and clothes dried there quickly and freshly. ... One bedroom chose the children. It was large and light and showed height marks on one wall, and seemed to mind not at all when crayon marks appeared on the wallpaper and paint got spilled on the floor."

But she is most famous for a dark and violent story she wrote about a small town whose citizens held a drawing every year at a festival, and then they stoned and killed the person whose name they drew. The story was called "The Lottery," and it was published in The New Yorker, and the magazine got more letters than they had ever received for any piece of writing. They forwarded them all to Shirley Jackson and overwhelmed her small-town post office.

She said, "I have always loved to use fear, to take it and comprehend it and make it work and consolidate a situation where I was afraid and take it whole and work from there."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1911 that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team became the first people ever to reach the South Pole on the continent of Antarctica, the last continent on earth to be explored by people. People weren't even sure that there was land under the ice in Antarctica until the 19th century.

Amundsen was in a race with the British explorer Robert F. Scott, and he won the race largely because he was willing to use sled dogs as his primary mode of transportation, whereas Scott believed that traveling by dog sled was undignified. To reach the pole, Amundsen's team had to travel about 800 miles into Antarctica's interior in weather that occasionally reached 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, cold enough to freeze the liquid in their compasses. They had to eat some of their dogs as food, got caught in a blizzard, and they all suffered from frostbite. But on this day in 1911, their calculations and their compasses told them that they had reached the geographical South Pole, and they planted their Norwegian flag. Scott's party reached the South Pole a little more than a month later, traveling by foot, and they froze to death before they ever made it home.

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 »