Oct. 19, 2014

Grand Avenue

by Ron Koertge

My wife and I were jogging, like we do every morning. Down Mission, left
at Trader Joe's, then up Grand Avenue and past the stately houses we will
never be able to afford. We'd just turned the corner by Senor Fish, scattering
a flock of pigeons strutting their stuff. One of them took off late, veered
right into the path of a silver Lexus, then lay against the curb beating his
one good wing like he was trying to put out a fire. My wife asked me to, for
God's sake, do something, so I turned the delicate head clockwise until I
heard a click. Then darkness poured out of the small safe of his body. That
is when I realized I used to merely love my wife. Now I would kill for her.

"Grand Avenue" by Ron Koertge from Sex World. © Red Hen Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1781 that the British General Charles Cornwallis officially surrendered his troops to General George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the Revolutionary War.

A few months earlier, the situation had looked bleak for the Continental Army. The troops were tired and hungry, and they weren't getting paid. There was mutiny in the ranks after a brutal winter. But when General Cornwallis moved 8,000 troops to occupy the tobacco port of Yorktown, General Washington and his French counterpart — the Comte de Rochambeau — saw an opening. They ordered the Marquis de Lafayette, who was leading American troops in Virginia, to situate himself so that the British could not leave Yorktown by land. French and American troops marched south to Yorktown, to meet up with a large French naval fleet. In early October, the Continental Army dug a siege line and the fighting began. The Americans and French had a combined 17,000 troops fighting against the 8,000 British. The British were surrounded on land and water, and they were running out of ammunition and food. Cornwallis had no idea when, or if, reinforcements were coming from General Clinton in New York. On October 16th, feeling desperate, Cornwallis tried two risky moves. First he attacked the allied center in an attempt to take out the French battery, but failed. Late that night, the British attempted to evacuate in small boats, but a bad storm came up at midnight and turned them back.

The next day, on October 17th, Cornwallis decided to surrender. He sent a drummer beating a parley and an officer waving a white flag onto the army parapet, asking for a ceasefire. The artillery fire stopped. Throughout the day, Cornwallis and Washington wrote back and forth, negotiating the terms of the surrender. On the afternoon of the 18th, four officers — two British, one American, and one French — met at an estate just outside town to write up the surrender terms, called the Articles of Capitulation. They finished a draft just before midnight, Washington made a few minor changes, and Cornwallis signed the document.

The surrender ceremony took place on October 19th. Cornwallis himself did not attend the ceremony, claiming that he was ill. He sent his second-in-command in his place. That general attempted to officially surrender to Rochambeau, who sent him to General Washington, who sent him to his own second-in-command. During the ceremony, the British band played the song "The World Turned Upside Down." American and French troops lined up in two long rows, facing each other, making a line that lasted more than a mile. The defeated British soldiers walked between them, laid down their weapons in a field, and then walked back into Yorktown, where they became official prisoners of war.

A surgeon who served with the Continental Army, James Thacher, published an account of the surrender ceremony. He wrote: "The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers was probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed."

The officer Henry Lee described the march: "On one side, the commander in chief, surrounded by his suite and the American staff, took his station; on the other side, opposite to him, was the Count de Rochambeau in like manner attended. The [British] army approached, moving slowly in column, with grace and precision. Universal silence was observed amidst the vast concourse, and the utmost decency prevailed: exhibiting in demeanor an awful sense of the vicissitudes of human life, mingled with commiseration for the unhappy."

Today is the birthday of Tracy Chevalier (1962) (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. After college, she moved to London to stay for six months, but she fell in love with a British man and she has never left. She was a reference book editor for several years before she started writing historical novels. Her first novel, The Virgin Blue (1997), was a moderate success, and her second book, Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999), was a huge best-seller. For the book, Chevalier was inspired one day when she was staring at a poster she had bought when she was 19, a copy of Johannes Vermeer's painting Girl With a Pearl Earring. She imagined what life might have been for the young woman who ended up the subject of that painting. She started the book right away, but she was pregnant and she didn't want the book to get lost in her life as a new mother, so she researched and wrote the whole novel in just eight months, finishing just two weeks before the birth of her son. In it, she wrote, "He saw things in a way that others did not, so that a city I had lived in all my life seemed a different place, so that a woman became beautiful with the light on her face."

She's written five more novels since then; her latest, The Last Runaway, came out last year.

She said: "Don't write about what you know — write about what you're interested in. Don't write about yourself — you aren't as interesting as you think."

It's the birthday of the spy novelist David Cornwell who writes under the name John le Carré (books by this author), born in Poole, England (1931). In his novels such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), he's known for writing realistically about spies who aren't sexy or daring, like James Bond, but tired, lonely men, who barely trust their own government more than they trust their enemies.

It's the birthday of motion picture pioneer Auguste Lumière (1862). He was born in Besançon, France, and his father was a former painter who had taken up photography. Auguste and his younger brother Louis studied science in Lyon, and opened a successful business producing photographic plates. Their father returned home from a trip to Paris in 1894, full of descriptions of Thomas Edison's new Kinetoscope: a peephole machine that pulled strips of film in front of a light source, creating the illusion of movement. The Lumière brothers began work on a device that would project the images, and in February 1895, they patented their cinématographe, which was an all-in-one camera, developer, and projector. A month later, they shot their first footage of workers leaving their factory in Lyon. They held their first public screening that December, showing 10 short films — each of them about a minute long — depicting scenes from everyday life. One film in particular provoked a strong reaction: the Lumières had filmed a train pulling into a station head-on, and the audience members screamed and scrambled out of their seats, believing the train was about to plow through the screen into the theater.

Auguste Lumière wasn't much interested in pursuing further developments in motion picture technology, being more interested in medical research. He reportedly said, "My invention can be exploited ... as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever."

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 Jeffrey Harrison 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 »