Wednesday

Sep. 18, 2013

Old Age Home

by Burt Kimmelman

The ride from Manhattan — slipping her
into the passenger seat, swinging
in her legs, shutting the door — to the
suburbs of New Jersey, its trees and
freshly-painted houses, was as neat
as her empty apartment. We placed
some photos on her table, hung up
a few paintings on the walls, arranged
some of her sculptures here and there, plugged
in lamps and the television set.

We made our way along the hallway
to a room full of sun, where people
were gathered to talk a little, though
she had nothing to say. There was a
stereo playing music, and once
in a while someone sang the lyrics,
which had returned from some dim region —
a man seated in an easy chair
had wanted, years ago, "a girl just
like the girl who married dear old Dad."

We went to dinner. Someone poured her
a glass of juice. She ate, spilling food,
with a sudden hunger. Afterward
we sat on some couches. Someone asked
her to dance. The music played. She danced
with slight, tentative steps, a tulip
too heavy for its stem. When we had
to go we kissed goodnight, and left her
to lie down in her soft bed, her head
on her pillow, to slip into sleep.

"Old Age Home" by Burt Kimmelman, from Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems. © Blaze Vox Books, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Samuel Johnson (books by this author), born in Litchfield, England (1709). He was a sickly boy, and had been since the day he was born — "almost dead," he said. He contracted the lymphatic form of tuberculosis, called scrofula, when he was two, and because it was popularly believed that the touch of royalty could cure scrofula, he was taken to the queen. She touched him and gave him a gold medallion, which he kept for the rest of his life. Her touch didn't cure him, and neither did various disfiguring treatments that left him scarred. But he grew up strong and tall, and enjoyed walking, swimming, and riding. He was also very intelligent, proud, and somewhat lazy.

In 1735, he married a widow who was 20 years his senior. He set out to find an intelligent wife, since he was convinced that his parents' marriage had been unhappy because of his mother's lack of education. Around this time, he also started writing. He published some essays early in the 1730s, and began a play, the historical tragedy Irene. In 1738, he became associated with the first modern magazine — called The Gentleman's Magazine — and contributed poems and prose.

The 1750s were his most productive period. Not only did he write more than 200 essays for the twice-weekly newspaper The Rambler, but he was also at work on a monumental undertaking: a dictionary of the English language. The dictionary took him nine years to write, and he wrote The Rambler essays because they gave him a steady income; even though money was his chief incentive, he was still quite proud of those essays. He said, "My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine."

The dictionary was finally published in two volumes in 1755. Johnson's patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, had pretty much ignored Johnson and his project for several years; as a result, the dictionary entry for "patron" reads: "one who countenances, supports, and protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery."

In 1763, Johnson met young James Boswell, who was 22. They didn't get along well at first, but they grew to be friends. Boswell kept remarkably detailed diaries, and he later wrote a comprehensive biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). Boswell's scrupulous descriptions of Johnson's mannerisms led to a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome; his transcriptions of Johnson's many aphorisms made Johnson one of the most-quoted authors in the English language. Johnson said, as quoted by Boswell: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." And, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."

It's the birthday of French physicist Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, born in Paris (1819). He invented the gyroscope and took the first clear photograph of the sun, and he introduced and helped develop a technique of measuring the absolute velocity of light with extreme accuracy. He is probably best known for originating the pendulum that demonstrated the earth's rotation.

In his book Foucault's Pendulum (1990), Umberto Eco wrote: "The Pendulum told me that, as everything moved — earth, solar system, nebulae and black holes, all the children of the great cosmic expansion — one single point stood still: a pivot, bolt, or hook around which the universe could move. And I was now taking part in that supreme experience. I, too, moved with the all, but I could see the One, the Rock, the Guarantee, the luminous mist that is not body, that has no shape, weight, quantity, or quality, that does not see or hear, that cannot be sensed, that is in no place, in no time, and is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, number, order, or measure. Neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth."

It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published in a dirty, candlelit office just off Wall Street. It cost one cent. It was founded as The New-York Daily Times by Henry J. Raymond and George Jones. They wanted a serious paper, not another popular sensationalist tabloid.

On the first page, there was an article about mail ships arriving from Europe. There were articles about political affairs being quiet in England, the upcoming presidential election in France, hostility against the government in Austria, and a fugitive slave riot in rural Pennsylvania.

On the second page was printed: "We publish today the first issue of the New-York Daily Times, and we intend to issue it every morning (Sundays excepted) for an indefinite number of years to come ... Upon all topics, — Political, Social, Moral, and Religious, — we intend that the paper shall speak for itself ... We do not believe that everything in society is either exactly right, or exactly wrong; — what is good we desire to preserve and improve; — what is evil, to exterminate, or reform."

It was on this day in 1837 that Charles Lewis Tiffany and Teddy Young opened "a stationery and fancy goods emporium" at 259 Broadway in New York City, the store that became Tiffany & Co.

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 »