MONDAY, 18 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "At 65" by Richard Howard, from Inner Voices: Selected Poems 1963-2003. © Wesleyan University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

At 65

The tragedy, Colette said, is that one
does not age. Everyone else does, of course
(as Marcel was so shocked to discover),
and upon one's mask odd disfigurements
are imposed; but that garrulous presence
we sometimes call the self, sometimes deny

it exists at all despite its carping
monologue, is the same as when we stole
the pears, spied on mother in the bath, ran
away from home. What has altered is what
Kant called Categories: the shape of time
changes altogether! Days, weeks, months,

and especially years are reassigned.
Famous for her timing, a Broadway wit
told me her "method": asked to do something,
anything, she would acquiesce next year
"I'll commit suicide, provided it's
next year." But after sixty-five, next year

is now. Hours? there are none, only a few
reckless postponements before it is time ...
When was it you "last" saw Jimmy — last spring?
last winter? That scribbled arbiter
your calendar reveals — betrays — the date:
over a year ago. Come again? No

time like the present, endlessly deferred.
Which makes a difference: once upon a time
there was only time (... as the day is long)
between the wanting self and what it wants.
Wanting still, you have no dimension where
fulfillment or frustration can occur.

Of course you have, but you must cease waiting
upon it: simply turn around and look
back. Like Orpheus, like Mrs. Lot, you
will be petrified — astonished — to learn
memory is endless, life very long,
and you — you are immortal after all.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the filmmaker Steven Spielberg, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1946). When he was a kid, Spielberg started making amateur movies with his father's Super-8 camera. He made two movies about World War II, and a movie about a UFO invasion, starring his sisters as victims. His mother helped with special effects by providing smashed cherry tomatoes for blood. He got a local movie house to show one of his films when he was 18, and he made $500 in one night.

Though he applied twice to the film program at the University of Southern California, he didn't get in, and he ended up going for a degree in English from California State University at Long Beach. One day, he was taking a tour of Universal Studios when he slipped by security, found an abandoned janitor's closet, cleaned it up, and turned it into an office. He discovered that if he wore a suit and tie he could walk right past the security guards at the front gate, and he began coming in to his makeshift office every day. He made a short silent movie that caught the attention of some executives, and that got him a contract to make TV movies. He was only 21 years old.

Spielberg's first feature-length movie, The Sugarland Express (1974), got good reviews, but it was a box-office disappointment. For his next project, he started working on a movie about a seaside town being terrorized by a man-eating shark. It was an incredibly difficult movie to make. The robot shark they used kept breaking down. They had to shoot almost half the movie on a boat. They went over schedule and over budget. The producers of the film had worried about hiring such a young director, and their fears seemed to be coming true. As the work on the film dragged on and on, Spielberg began to worry that his career as a filmmaker might be over.

But when it finally came out in 1975, Jaws made more money than any other movie had ever made up to that point in history. It's often been called the first blockbuster, because it was the first summer movie that teenagers went back to see again and again throughout the whole summer that it was released.


It's the birthday of playwright Abe Burrows, born in New York City (1910). Burrows is most famous for his contributions to Broadway, including Can-Can (1953) and Silk Stockings (1955). In 1961, he and Frank Loesser teamed up to write How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.


It's the birthday of hymn writer Charles Wesley, born in Epworth, England (1708). He wrote the hymn that begins:

"Where shall my wondering soul begin?
How shall I all to heaven aspire?
A slave redeemed from death and sin,
A brand plucked from eternal fire!




TUESDAY, 19 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Praising Manners" by Robert Bly, from The Winged Energy of Delight. © Harper Collins Publishers. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Praising Manners

We should ask God
To help us toward manners. Inner gifts
Do not find their way
To creatures without just respect.

If a man or woman flails about, he not only
Smashes his house,
He burns the whole world down.

Your depression is connected to your insolence
And your refusal to praise. If a man or woman is
On the path, and refuses to praise — that man or woman
Steals from others every day — in fact is a shoplifter!

The sun became full of light when it got hold of itself.
Angels began shining when they achieved discipline.
The sun goes out whenever the cloud of not-praising comes near.
The moment that foolish angel felt insolent, he heard the door close.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1777 that George Washington led his army of about 11,000 men to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, to camp for the winter. For the Americans, it was one of the lowest points of the War for Independence, and it was also one of the lowest points of George Washington's career.

He had been 43 years old when he was unanimously chosen to command the continental forces in 1775, and he had scored his first victory when he forced the British army to evacuate Boston in March of 1776. But after that first success, he'd been in an almost constant retreat. He'd failed to stop the British from invading Philadelphia in September of 1777, and members of the new American Congress had been forced to flee the city. Then, in a battle in Germantown, Pennsylvania, his men had gotten confused in the fog and wound up shooting each other.

By the time they reached Valley Forge on this day in 1777, Washington's men had been marching for days, many of them without jackets, shirts, or even shoes. They left a trail of bloody footprints in the snow. Valley Forge itself was really just a defensible plateau, and at first all they had were tents to shelter against the cold. Even though he could have gone to stay in a nearby house, Washington slept in a tent with his men until they were able to build enough huts to house everyone. They were short on food and many of the men were ill, and some of the soldiers began to desert. Several members of Congress were actually considering replacing Washington as the commander in chief of the Army with a man named Horatio Gates.

Meanwhile, Washington had to concentrate on figuring out how to feed and shelter his troops. He sent his men to seize food from nearby farmers, but there was little food to seize. His men subsisted on flour and water for days at a time. About 12 soldiers deserted every day, and by the end of the winter one in four of them had died from disease or the cold.

As the weather got warmer, Washington trained his men more rigorously, and they became better and better equipped for battle. Then, that spring, word came that the United States had signed a new military alliance with France, which became one of the turning points of the war.


It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) published A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote the novel after his first commercial failure. His previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1842), had flopped, and he was suddenly strapped for cash. Martin Chuzzlewit had been satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme.

He got the idea for the book in late October of 1843, and he struggled to finish the book in time for Christmas. He no longer had a publisher so he published the book himself, ordering illustrations, gilt-edged pages and a lavish red bound cover. He priced the book at a mere 5 shillings, in hopes of making it affordable to everyone. It was released within a week of Christmas and was a huge success, selling 6,000 copies the first few days, and the demand was so great that it quickly went to second and third editions.

At the time, Christmas was on the decline and not celebrated much. England was in the midst of an Industrial Revolution and most people were incredibly poor, having to work as much as 16-hour days six days a week. Most people couldn't afford to celebrate Christmas, and Puritans believed it was a sin to do so. They felt that celebrating Christmas too extravagantly would be an insult to Christ. The famous American preacher Henry Ward Beecher said that Christmas was a "foreign day" and he wouldn't even recognize it.

When Dickens's novel became a huge best-seller in both the United States and England, A Christmas Carol reminded many people of the old Christmas traditions that had been dying out since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution — of cooking a feast, spending time with family, and spreading warmth and cheer. Dickens helped people return to the old ways of Christmas. He went on to write a Christmas story every year, but none endured as well as A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens wrote, "I have always thought of Christmas time, as ... the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore ... though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"




WEDNESDAY, 20 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Advent 1955" by John Betjeman, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Advent 1955

The Advent wind begins to stir
With sea-like sounds in our Scotch fir,
It's dark at breakfast, dark at tea,
And in between we only see
Clouds hurrying across the sky
And rain-wet roads the wind blows dry
And branches bending to the gale
Against great skies all silver-pale.
The world seems traveling into space,
And traveling at a faster pace
Than in the leisured summer weather
When we and it sit out together,
For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound —
Journey to what? to whom? to where?
The Advent bells call out 'Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.'
    And how, in fact, do we prepare
For the great day that waits us there —
The twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards. And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end, of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know —
They'd sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising?
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell'd go extremely well.
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defense is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax.
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
"The time draws near the birth of Christ',
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago.
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Hortense Calisher, (books by this author) born in Manhattan (1911). Though she has written several novels, she's best known for the many short stories she published in The New Yorker magazine, most of which are compiled in The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher (1975).

Her father was a wealthy manufacturer of fine soaps and perfumes who didn't get married and have children until he was in his fifties. Calisher said, "[My father] made it plain ... that we children, as latecomers and intensely craved ones, [were] glamorously special." She had a luxurious childhood, surrounded by a huge extended family as well as art and books and music.

Many of her most anthologized stories are based on her childhood. She once said, "A happy childhood can't be cured. Mine'll hang around my neck like a rainbow, that's all, instead of a noose."

Her most recent book is Tattoo for a Slave, which came out in 2004.


It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros, (books by this author) born in Chicago in 1954. When she was growing up, her Mexican-born father would often have bouts of nostalgia for the home country, and he would force the whole family to go back there for a few months.

She went on to college, and she later said she was lucky to be a girl, because her father didn't care what she studied. He just expected her to meet her husband. So she was free to study an impractical subject like English. She kept writing, and one of her professors encouraged her to apply to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

But once Cisneros got there, she felt totally out of place. She said, "My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks." One day, her class was given an exercise to think about the houses they'd grown up in. Cisneros's family had only owned one house, an ugly red bungalow. Listening to her classmates describe their childhood homes, she realized that she had grown up in a completely different world. She said, " It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice. ... That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about."

Cisneros immediately began writing short pieces in the voice of a girl named Esperanza Cordero growing up in the barrio, who wants more than anything to live in a real house. And that became Cisneros's first novel, The House on Mango Street, which didn't receive much attention when it came out in 1983. But when it was republished in 1991, it made Sandra Cisneros one of the most popular Latina authors in America. Her most recent novel, Carmelo, came out in 2003.




THURSDAY, 21 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Some People" written by Rolf Jacobsen and translated by Robert Bly, from The Winged Energy of Delight. © Harper Collins Publishers. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Some People

Some people
ascend out of our life, some people
enter our life,
uninvited and sit down,
some people
calmly walk by, some people
give you a rose,
or buy you a new car,
some people
stand so close to you, some people,
you've entirely forgotten
some people, some people
are actually you,
some people
you've never seen at all, some people
eat asparagus, some people
are children,
some people climb up on the roof,
sit down at table,
lie around in hammocks, take walks with their red
umbrella,
some people look at you,
some people have never noticed you at all, some people
want to take your hand, some people
die during the night,
some people are other people, some people are you, some people
don't exist,
some people do.


Literary and Historical Notes:

In the northern hemisphere, today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night. It's officially the first day of winter and one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years, before humans even began farming on a large scale. Many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The stone circles of Stonehenge were arranged to receive the first rays of midwinter sun.

Ancient peoples believed that because daylight was waning, it might go away forever, so they lit huge bonfires to tempt the sun to come back. The tradition of decorating our houses and our trees with lights at this time of year is passed down from those ancient bonfires.


It's the birthday of the singer, songwriter, and composer Frank Zappa, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1940). When he was 15, he read a magazine article that described the work of the avant-garde classical composer Edgar Varese as "the ugliest music in the world," and he decided he had to hear it. That turned him into a huge fan of 20th-century classical music. He later said, " I didn't have any kind of musical training, so it didn't make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin' Slim ... or Stravinsky. To me, it was all good music."

Out of high school, Zappa supported himself as a greeting-card designer, window dresser, and encyclopedia salesman. At night, he played with various bar bands, and he began experimenting with playing atonal classical music on an electric guitar, backed by a rock-and-roll rhythm. He said his goal at the time was to make music that would cause people to run from the room the moment they heard it. Eventually, he formed the band that became known as the Mothers of Invention.

Their first album, Freak Out (1966), is generally regarded as the first concept album released by a rock group, and it was also the first rock album to satirize rock and roll music itself. It included songs such as "Go Cry on Somebody Else's Shoulder," and "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here." Other hits of his include "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," and "Valley Girls," and he is also known for composing wildly avant-garde music, mixing jazz and blues with sound collages and tape manipulations.

Zappa once said that he first fell in love with music as a kid after he had a kind of religious experience at his grandmother's funeral. He said, "The choir was singing, and I could see from the way that the candle flames were wavering that they were responding to the sound waves coming from the choir. That was when I realized that sound, music, had a physical presence and that it could move the air around. ... [I realized that] music is, literally, a recipe for sculpted air."


It's the birthday of the essayist Edward Hoagland, (books by this author) born in New York City (1932). His many essay collections include The Courage of Turtles (1970), Red Wolves and Black Bears (1976), and Balancing Acts (1992).


It's the birthday of the novelist Anthony Powell, (books by this author) born in London (1905). He wrote the longest novel in the English language, A Dance to the Music of Time, which he published in 12 volumes, starting in 1951. It follows a group of English men from their time together in public school just before World War II through the next 50 years of their lives. He wrote the whole thing, more than a million words, on an ancient typewriter at a card table squeezed into his bedroom.


It was on this day in 1913 that the very first crossword puzzle appeared in a newspaper. It was the invention of a journalist named Arthur Wynne, who worked for the New York World. In 1924, two men named Richard Simon and Lincoln Schuster decided to set up a publishing house, and as they were casting about for ideas of what to publish, they decided to try a book of crossword puzzles. That book sold half a million copies in less than a year. The book's success launched a worldwide crossword puzzle craze and helped put Simon and Schuster on the publishing map.




FRIDAY, 22 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Snow" by Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Snow

Low clouds hang on the mountain.
The forest is filled with fog.
A short distance away the
Giant trees recede and grow
Dim. Two hundred paces and
They are invisible. All
Day the fog curdles and drifts.
The cries of the birds are loud.
They sound frightened and cold. Hour
By hour it grows colder.
Just before sunset the clouds
Drop down the mountainside. Long
Shreds and tatters of fog flow
Swiftly away between the
Trees. Now the valley below
Is filled with clouds like clotted
Cream and over them the sun
Sets, yellow in a sky full
Of purple feathers. After dark
A wind rises and breaks branches
From the trees and howls in the
Treetops and then suddenly
Is still. Late at night I wake
And look out of the tent. The
Clouds are rushing across the
Sky and through them is tumbling
The thin waning moon. Later
All is quiet except for
A faint whispering. I look
Out. Great flakes of wet snow are
Falling. Snowflakes are falling
Into the dark flames of the
Dying fire. In the morning the
Pine boughs are sagging with snow,
And the dogwood blossoms are
Frozen, and the tender young
Purple and citron oak leaves.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of two famous trials: the obscenity trial of the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, and the treason trial of a French military officer that became known as the Dreyfus Affair.


It was on this day in 1964 that comedian Lenny Bruce was sentenced to four months in jail after the longest and costliest obscenity trial in history. It went on for six months, and it ended Bruce's career. He became obsessed with it, and he began to read court transcripts to his audiences. He died in 1966 of a heroin overdose, still waiting to hear an appeal of his case. It wasn't until 2003 that Governor George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon.


It was on this day in 1894 that a Jewish officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason in a trial that became one of the most divisive events in European history. Everybody involved in the case knew that Dreyfus had been convicted without any evidence, but nobody spoke out until Émile Zola, the most famous writer in France, published an open letter to the president on the front page of one of the major newspapers in France, detailing all the evidence upon which Dreyfus had been unjustly convicted. The headline for the article was "J'accuse," which means "I accuse." It's been called the most famous front page in the history of newspapers. A total of 300,000 copies were sold in one day. The article was reprinted in newspapers throughout France and around the world.


It's the birthday of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, (books by this author) born in Head Tide, Maine (1869). Before he made a name for himself as a poet, he was known in his hometown as an idler and a failure, writing poetry that attracted little attention. But somehow, his poetry made it into the hands of Theodore Roosevelt, who became a big fan. He got Robinson a job at a customs house to help him earn a living while he wrote. Roosevelt told him, "I expect you to think poetry first and customs second." All he had to do was show up at his desk, read the morning newspaper, and leave it on his chair to prove he had been in. This sustained him until he started to write poetry that won some praise; finally, in his fifties, he won the Pulitzer Prize the first year it was awarded.

Even after he began to support himself with his poetry, he didn't get married, he didn't travel, he didn't teach or give public readings. He was one of the most popular poets of his lifetime, but he is remembered for a few short poems, which he said were "pickled in anthological brine," including "Richard Cory," "Miniver Cheevy," and "Mr. Flood's Party."


It's the birthday of the bohemian poet Kenneth Rexroth, (books by this author) born in South Bend, Indiana (1905). His father was a wholesale drug salesman, and Rexroth was offered a position in the business and that would have eventually made him one of the top executives. He spent a couple days thinking about that job offer and finally decided that he'd rather try to go off and become some kind of artist.

He wasn't sure what kind of artist he wanted to be, but in the 1920s he was drawn to the artistic community in Chicago's West Side, where speakeasies with names like the Dill Pickle Club and the Wind Blew Inn were full of politics, theater, jazz, and poetry. It was there that Kenneth Rexroth became one of the first poets to try reading his poetry to the accompaniment of jazz music.

He eventually settled in San Francisco, and California changed the way he wrote poetry. His early poems had been full of references to Greek mythology and philosophy, but after his arrival in California, he began to write poems about camping trips and fly fishing and love affairs, in addition to politics.

Kenneth Rexroth said, "I've never understood why I'm [considered] a member of the avant-garde. ... I [just] try to say, as simply as I can, the simplest and most profound experiences of my life."

The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth came out in 2002.




SATURDAY, 23 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Mysterious Island" by George Bilgere, from The Good Kiss. © The University of Akron Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Mysterious Island

My nephew slides
His skinny body into bed
Shivering a little because it's chilly
And because it just feels so good
To get into bed when you're nine
And your mother's going to read to you
From The Mysterious Island
And your big yellow cat leaps up
To his place at the foot of the bed,
Purring with the sheer pleasure
Of the day's lamp-lit ending.

This was my bed, forty years ago,
The little boat I navigated
Through childhood, when the world
Was still perfectly coherent
And nightmares were something
I woke from, and the small universe
Of my room, the house, the yard,
Was so tidy and well-mannered
That being asleep and being awake
Were not so very different — just two
Pleasant, adjoining neighborhoods

I drifted through on my bike
Or my bed until I grew tired
And woke one summer
To that dull sound rising
Beyond the farthest trees,
A muted roar at the edges
Of the neighborhood.
Something about twilight
Was just beginning
To turn me inside out — but
The feeling passed quickly;
My mother cleared her throat,
I closed my eyes. Now the men

Are loading their ship
With backpacks and rifles and telescopes.
They are setting out on the dark ocean.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet Robert Bly, (books by this author) born in Madison, Minnesota (1926). He served in the Navy during WWII, and then entered Harvard University, where, he was surrounded by aspiring writers, including John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Frank O'Hara. He said, "One day while studying a [William Butler] Yeats poem I decided to write poetry the rest of my life. I recognized that a single short poem has room for history, music, psychology, religious thought, mood, occult speculation, character, and events of one's own life."

Bly lived for a while in New York City, where he set out to write 12 hours a day at least six days a week. He supported himself by working one day a week as a file clerk, or a painter, or a typist. Even though he lived in a big city, he was terribly lonely. He went for weeks at a time without talking to anybody. Occasionally, he had to spend the night in Grand Central Station.

Bly eventually moved back to his hometown of Madison, Minnesota, with the woman he married, and they moved into an old barn half a mile from the house he'd grown up in. He said, " I still hadn't shed my isolation; the nearness to my parents was difficult, as was the lack of work. I spent whole days sitting out in the fields. But there was peace. I had still had a great love of silence." And it was there that Bly wrote the poems that became his first collection, Silence in the Snowy Fields, which came out in 1962.


It's the birthday of author Norman Maclean, (books by this author) born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902), but he grew up in Missoula, Montana. He taught English at the University of Chicago, and after his retirement from teaching, at the age of 70, he began to write. He published two autobiographical essays, and then he wrote his famous autobiographical novella, A River Runs Through It.

It begins, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."


It's the birthday of novelist Donna Tartt, (books by this author) born in Greenwood, Mississippi (1963). Her first novel, The Secret History, is about a group of college students who form a secret cult and wind up murdering one of their own members. It sold more than 5 million copies when it came out in 1992. Tartt was just 28 years old.

Her second novel, The Little Friend (2002), is about a girl named Harriet who is trying to solve the mystery of her older brother's death.




SUNDAY, 24 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "An Old Man Performs Alchemy on His Doorstep at Christmastime" by Anna George Meek, from Acts of Contortion. © The University of Wisconsin Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

An Old Man Performs Alchemy on His Doorstep at Christmastime

Cream of Tartar, commonly used to lift meringue and
angel food cake, is actually made from crystallized fine wine.



After they stopped singing for him,
the carolers became transparent in the dark,
and he stepped into their emptiness to say
he lost his wife last week, please
sing again. Their voices filled with gold.
Last week, his fedora nodded hello to me
on the sidewalk, and the fragile breath
of kindness that passed between us
made something sweet of a morning
that had frightened me for no earthly reason.
Surely, you know this by another name:
the mysteries we intake, exhale, could be
sitting on our shelves, left on the bus seat
beside us. Don't wash your hands.
You fingered them at the supermarket,
gave them to the cashier; intoxicated tonight,
she'll sing in the streets. Think of the old man.
Who knew he kept the secret of levitation,
transference, and lightness filling a winter night?
— an effortless, crystalline powder
That could almost seem transfigured from loss.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Christmas Eve, the subject of the beloved holiday poem that begins:

"'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugarplums danced in their heads."

The poem, now known as "The Night Before Christmas," was first published anonymously in a small newspaper in upstate New York in 1823, and its original title was "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas." It was thought for many years to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore. But today some scholars believe that a Revolutionary War major named Henry Livingston Jr. may have been the actual author of "The Night Before Christmas." His family has letters describing his recitation of the poem before it was originally published, and literary scholars have found many similarities between his work and "The Night Before Christmas." He was also three-quarters Dutch, and many of the details in the poem, including names of the reindeer, have Dutch origins.

But whoever wrote the poem, "The Night Before Christmas" changed the way Americans celebrate the holiday of Christmas by reinventing the character of Santa Claus, and by combining St. Nicholas Day with Christmas.

The image of Santa went through many variations, until the political cartoonist Thomas H. Nast drew a picture of the fat, jolly man with a white beard that became the standard version. Santa started wearing red and white clothing after an ad campaign for Coca Cola in the 1930s.

In Holland, children are now visited by St. Nicholas on December 5th, and on Christmas Eve they are visited by Santa Claus, whom they call, "American Christmas Man."


It was on this day in 1914 that the last known Christmas truce occurred, during World War I. German troops fighting in Belgium began decorating their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Their enemy, the British, soon joined in the caroling. The war was put on hold, and these soldiers greeted each other in "No Man's Land," exchanging gifts of whiskey and cigars.


It's the birthday of journalist I.F. (Isidor Feinstein) Stone, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1907). In 1952, Stone was working for the New York Daily Compass when that paper folded. It was the height of the Red Scare, and suddenly Stone was too left-wing to get a job. Desperate to find some sort of journalistic income, Stone decided to go into business for himself. With his wife's help, an investment of $6500, and the mailing list from two defunct liberal newspapers, he launched I.F. Stone's Weekly, which he called, "My very own little flea-bit publication."


It's the birthday of poet and essayist Dana Gioia, (books by this author) born in Hawthorne, California (1950). He studied literature at Harvard, and then went to business school at Stanford. He went on to get a job at General Foods, where he became a Vice President. He was largely responsible for the invention of the Kool-Aid Man marketing campaign, which was a huge success.

He wrote poetry in his spare time, and since he had a well-paying job that he enjoyed, he didn't have to worry about whether he could get anything published. He kept his poetry secret from his co-workers because, he said, "I did not want to be perceived at General Foods as a fuzzy-headed creative person. I wanted to be judged as a businessman and succeed under the company's criteria, rather than asking for some implied special treatment." But eventually, magazine articles began to appear, profiling him as the poet from corporate America. He has said that he might have stayed in business until retirement, even after being exposed as a poet, but a year after he published his first book of poems, Daily Horoscope (1986), he lost his four-month-old son to sudden infant death syndrome. It took him and his wife a year to return to some semblance of normalcy, and at the end of that year he decided to devote himself to writing.




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  • “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
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  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
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  • “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
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  • “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
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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