Jan. 19, 2011
The Plymouth on Ice
On frigid January nights we'd
take my 'forty-eight Plymouth onto
the local reservoir, lights off
to dodge the cops, take turns
holding long manila lines in pairs
behind the car, cutting colossal
loops and swoons across
the crackly range of ice. Oh
god did we have fun! At ridges
and fissures we careened,
tumbled onto each other, the girls
yelping, splayed out on all fours,
and sometimes we heard groans
deep along the fracture lines as
we spun off in twos, to paw, clumsy,
under parkas, never thinking of
love's falls nor how thin ice
would ease us into certain death.
No, death was never on our minds,
we were eighteen, caterwauling
under our own moon that
warded off the cops and
front-page stories of six kids
slipping under the fickle surface.
It's the birthday of novelist Julian Barnes, (books by this author) born in Leicester, England (1946). He's been nominated for the Booker Prize three times, for his novels Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005). He's also the author of a memoir, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which was published in 2008.
He said about literature: "It's the best way of telling the truth; it's a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that … [it's] delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet."
And he said that a great book "is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths — about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both."
His latest book, a collection of short stories entitled Pulse, is due out this year.
Twain's 24-year-old daughter, Susy, had died from meningitis the previous summer. He would forever consider it the most devastating loss of his life. He'd been traveling overseas and missed her last days. The following winter, on this day in 1897, he wrote about the ways in which his daughter's death affected him, and about the gratitude he felt for his pastor friend's uniquely perfect sense of sympathy. His letter is a lament of great grief intertwined with an ode to his friend's great compassion. Twain wrote to his best friend of 40 years:
"I do not want most people to write [to me], but I do want you to do it. The others break my heart, but you will not. You have a something divine in you that is not in other men. You have the touch that heals, not lacerates. And you know the secret places of our hearts. You know our life — the outside of it — as the others do — and the inside of it — which they do not. You have seen our whole voyage. You have seen us go to sea, a cloud of sail — and the flag at the peak; and you see us now, chartless, adrift — derelicts; battered, water-logged, our sails a ruck of rags, our pride gone. For it is gone. And there is nothing in its place. The vanity of life was all we had, and there is no more vanity left in us. We are even ashamed of that we had; ashamed that we trusted the promises of life and builded high — to come to this!
"I did know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not know that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind. And I did not know what she was. To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to comprehend this? How am I to have it? Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?"
And Mark Twain wrote to him in that same letter:
"I am working, but it is for the sake of the work — the 'surcease of sorrow' that is found there. I work all the days, and trouble vanishes away when I use that magic. ... I have many unwritten books to fly to for my preservation."
It was on this day 40 years ago that Henry Kissinger (books by this author) said, "Power is the great aphrodisiac." The quote was printed in The New York Times. Kissinger liked his aphorism so well that he said it to a New York Times interviewer again a couple of years later, but this time "great" became "ultimate"; "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," he announced. And it is this second version that really stuck around and generated a great many spin-offs. A quick Google search for "the ultimate aphrodisiac" yields a list of search results that, after Kissinger's "power," includes "intelligence," "oysters," "selectivity," "reading," and "free cable."
Henry Kissinger was well-known for his colorful sound bites and elaborate metaphors and similes. In his memoir, The White House Years (1979), he wrote:
"The superpowers often behave like two heavily armed blind men feeling their way around a room, each believing himself in mortal peril from the other, whom he assumes to have perfect vision. Each side should know that frequently uncertainty, compromise, and incoherence are the essence of policymaking. Yet each tends to ascribe to the other a consistency, foresight, and coherence that its own experience belies. Of course, over time, even two armed blind men can do enormous damage to each other, not to speak of the room."
From the archives:
It's the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, (books by this author) born in Boston in 1809. When he was two, both his parents died from tuberculosis, and Edgar was taken in by a wealthy tobacco merchant named John Allan, and Edgar Poe became Edgar Allan Poe. He went to the University of Virginia, and for years he was in and out of the Army and West Point, publishing several books of poems, including Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems (1829). He started writing short stories as well, and we remember him for many of those gothic horror stories, like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall of the House of Usher."
But Poe lived most of his life in poverty and sometimes in misery. He would work and work on a poem only to sell it to a newspaper for a few dollars. In 1836, Poe married his 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. She was sick with tuberculosis, and they had no money to pay for heat so Poe trained their cat to sit on her lap to keep her warm. Virginia's mother lived with the couple as well, and Poe was trying to care for them both with almost no money. When he did get money, he often spent it on alcohol. His biggest problem was that he wasn't paid enough money for what he wrote; in 1845, he sold the poem "The Raven" to a newspaper for $15.
It's the birthday of Alexander Woollcott, (books by this author) born in Phalanx, New Jersey (1887). He reviewed plays for The New York Times until the First World War. He was too nearsighted and overweight for military service — Harpo Marx said he looked like something that got loose from the Macy's Day Parade — but he covered the front lines for the military newspaper The Stars and Stripes and played poker with its editor, Harold Ross. When the war was over, Ross offered Woollcott a job at his new magazine, The New Yorker. They joined Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley for lunch at Algonquin Hotel every day; Woollcott called the group "The Thanatopsis Pleasure and Inside Straight Club," or sometimes just The Vicious Circle. As a theatre critic, Woollcott lambasted plays he didn't like and gushed about the ones he did. James Thurber called him "Old Vitriol and Violets." The tyrannical Sheridan Whiteside in Kaufman and Hart's play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) was modeled on Woollcott. He wasn't offended, though, and he occasionally appeared in the role himself. He never married and had no children of his own, but his friends often asked him to be godfather to theirs. "Always a godfather, never a god," he would sigh. One night he was scheduled to appear on a radio talk show. Shortly after the broadcast started, he scribbled a note that said, "I AM SICK," and held it up so the other participants could see it. He died that night in the hospital. When the Algonquin group assembled at their old table, a couple of days after his funeral, no one could think of anything to say.
He once said, "All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®