Oct. 18, 2014

Commuter Buddhist

by Jeffrey Harrison

I'm learning to be a Buddhist in my car,
listening to a book on tape. One problem
is that, before I've gotten very far,

my mind gradually becomes aware
that it has stopped listening, straying from
the task of becoming a Buddhist in my car.

I'm also worried that listening will impair
my driving, as the package label cautions,
but I haven't noticed that, at least so far.

In fact, I may be driving with more care.
There's a sensation of attentive calm
that's part of becoming a Buddhist in your car.

A soothing voice drones on until the car
is transformed into a capsule of wisdom
traveling at high speed, and you feel far

from anywhere but where you really are ...
which is nowhere, really. The biggest problem
is getting the Buddhism out of your car
and into your life. I've failed at that so far.

"Commuter Buddhist" by Jeffrey Harrison, from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The United States took possession of Alaska on this date in 1867. William H. Seward, President Andrew Johnson's Secretary of State, was looking for a cheap way to expand the United States' landholdings. It just so happened that Russia was looking to unload a big chunk of land just across the Bering Strait from its far eastern border. Russia had explored it, sent missionaries to it, and established the Russian-American Company to trade for furs with the indigenous people who lived there. But the trading company wasn't doing well, and the czar decided the state needed to fold the business and divest itself of the real estate.

Seward wasn't the first American whose eye was caught by the colony known as "Russian America." In 1843, Secretary of State William Mercy and Senator William Gwin had made enquiries, but at that time, Russia wasn't selling. After Russia lost the Crimean War to France and Great Britain in 1859, the czar and his ministers began to reconsider their position. Better to sell the land than to risk having it taken outright by Britain, who had already established the crown colony of British Columbia in western Canada and was in a prime position to seize Russian America. Britain expressed no interest in buying the territory, so Russia approached the United States.

The territory covered about 590,000 square miles: twice the size of Texas and nearly one-fifth the size of the entire continental United States. Eager to sell, the Russian government let the land go for a little over $7 million — less than two cents an acre. The deal was closed on March 30, and Congress ratified it two months later, after Seward wined and dined the undecided congressmen, regaling them with tales of the land's reputed beauty. Johnson's many opponents wasted no time in criticizing the deal, calling it "Seward's Folly," "Seward's Icebox," and "Andrew Johnson's Polar Bear Garden." Derogatory nicknames notwithstanding, the government decided on the Aleut word, "Alaska," as the territory's name. The hand-off was commemorated by a formal ceremony in Sitka. Russian and American soldiers marched to and fro in front of the governor's house, and the Russian flag was replaced by the Stars and Stripes.

Although industry was established the following year in the form of the first Alaskan salmon cannery, Congress dragged its feet when it came to establishing a civil government or infrastructure in Alaska. The House of Representatives put the territory under the control of the U.S. Army at first, and then later put it under the Treasury Department. Finally, in 1884, the First Organic Act made it a civil and judicial district, and an organized government — modeled after Oregon's — was put into place. The Act tried to protect Native Americans from the encroaching mining, fishing, and timber industries. But in 1897, a ship docked in Seattle, laden with a million dollars' worth of gold from the Klondike River. Word spread like wildfire and white settlers poured into the Yukon Territory, all hoping to make their fortunes. White settlements and towns sprang up all over the Yukon.

October 18 is still celebrated in the state as "Alaska Day." Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959.

On this day in 1896, Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull had its premiere in St. Petersburg (books by this author). It was scheduled the same day as a benefit for a well-known comic actress, and most of the fans mistakenly thought she was part of the cast and came to see her, so when there was no actress and not much humor the audience rioted. And the actors had only rehearsed a few times and they kept forgetting their lines. The performance was a failure.

It's the birthday of the journalist A.J. Liebling (books by this author), born Abbott Joseph Liebling in New York City, 1904. He got kicked out of Dartmouth for missing too many chapel services, so he became a reporter. He was a WWII correspondent for The New Yorker, and he ignored politics and combat strategy and just wrote about day-to-day life among the soldiers and the civilians. He also wrote about gourmet food, and one of his most famous books is Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1959). He said, "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." And he said, "An Englishman teaching an American about food is like the blind leading the one-eyed."

It's the birthday of singer-songwriter Chuck Berry, born Charles Edward Anderson Berry in St. Louis, Missouri (1926). He broke into the charts in 1955 with "Maybellene," then followed it with "Roll Over, Beethoven," and "Johnny B. Goode."

He said: "The Big Band Era is my era. People say, 'Where did you get your style from?' I did the Big Band Era on guitar. That's the best way I could explain it."

It's the birthday of the playwright Wendy Wasserstein (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1950. While she was growing up, she went to see Broadway plays every Saturday afternoon, and in high school, she got out of gym class by volunteering to write the musical revue for the annual mother-daughter luncheon. She went on to write many plays of her own, including The Heidi Chronicles (1988) and An American Daughter (1997.) She said, "You're the unfortunate contradiction in terms — a serious good person." And she said, "Because of Mozart, it's all over after the age of seven."

It's the birthday of Ntozake Shange (books by this author), born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1948. She's most famous for her 1975 play, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Her latest novel is Some Sing, Some Cry (2010).

She said, "I'm a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act, and how we act then determines our lives and other people's lives."

It's the birthday of Rick Moody (books by this author), born in New York City (1961). He had a mental breakdown when he was 25 years old, and he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. After he left, it took him six months before he could write again because he was so used to drinking while he wrote. It took him a while to figure out how to write sober, but once he did, he said that his writing got better.

When he was 31, Moody published Garden State, a novel about lost 20-somethings in suburban New Jersey. He said that his breakdown is visible in the novel: "You can see that like a big fault line running through the book — the before and the after. I think it's a truly dreadful book but it's emotionally accessible and vulnerable and I admire that."

He has written a number of novels and short-story collections since then, including The Ice Storm (1995) and The Diviners (2005), and a memoir, The Black Veil (2002).

He said, "I think literature is best when it's voicing what we would prefer not to talk about."

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




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