Oct. 15, 2003

My Father Gets Up in the Middle of the Night to Watch an Old Movie

by Dennis Trudell

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Poem: "My Father Gets Up in the Middle of the Night to Watch an Old Movie," by Dennis Trudell.

My Father Gets Up in the Middle of the Night to Watch an Old Movie

On cable television. Because he can't sleep.
My father gets up in the middle of the night
to watch an old movie on cable television—
because he can't sleep. He has done this before.
He will do it again, and sometimes he eats
cookies. My father eating cookies and watching
an old movie again because he can't sleep.
He is eighty-seven years old. He lives alone.
Because my mother died . . . and sometimes he looks
at her absence on the black sofa. My father
turning back to the movie on cable television,
eating another cookie. The movie has a name,
but he doesn't know it. My mother died—
because this is not a movie with a happy
ending. Or any ending. My father returns
to bed and goes to sleep. Or does not,
and then later sleeps. The television reflects
the lamp he leaves on . . . . the black sofa.
Reflects an old mirror behind the sofa—

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, born in the Prussian village of Röcken (1844). He was a philosopher who loved literature, and he experimented with different literary styles to express his philosophy. Some of his books are long lists of aphorisms, while others are written almost like novels or poetry. His most famous book, Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883), describes a prophet who comes down from the mountains to teach people about the coming of a new kind of super-man, but the people he speaks to only ridicule and laugh at him. Nietzsche spent most of his life suffering from debilitating headaches and deteriorating eyesight, and he eventually went crazy and spent his last years in an asylum. He's perhaps best known for claiming that "God is dead," but most people forget that he actually said, "God is dead . . . and we have killed him!" He thought that the absence of God from the world was a tragedy, but he felt that people had to accept that tragedy and move on. He wrote that God was like a star whose light we can see, even though the star died long ago. Much of his philosophy is about how people might live in a world without God and without absolute morality. At the time of his death on August 25, 1900, almost no one had heard of him, but after his work was republished, it had a huge impact on the philosophers of the twentieth century. He said, "I know my fate. One day my name will be tied to the memory of something monstrous—a crisis without equal on earth . . . I am no man, I am dynamite!"

It's the birthday of Mario Puzo, born in New York City (1920). He's best known as the author of the novel The Godfather (1969), which was made into a movie in 1972. People had written novels and made movies about the mafia before, but the mafia characters had always been the villains. Puzo was the first person to write about members of the mafia as the sympathetic main characters of a story. The son of Italian immigrants, he started out trying to write serious literary fiction. He published two novels that barely sold any copies. He fell into debt, trying to support his family as a freelance writer. One Christmas Eve, he had a severe gall bladder attack and took a cab to the hospital. When he got out of the cab, he was in so much pain that he fell into the gutter. Lying there, he said to himself, "Here I am, a published writer, and I am dying like a dog." He vowed that he would devote the rest of his writing life to becoming rich and famous. The Godfather became the best-selling novel of the 1970s, and many critics credit Puzo with inventing the mafia as a serious literary and cinematic subject. He went on to publish many other books, including The Sicilian (1984) and The Last Don (1996), but he always felt that his best book was the last book he wrote before he became a success - The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), about an ordinary Italian immigrant family.

It's the birthday of English novelist Sir P(elham) G(renville) Wodehouse, born in Guildford, England (1881). He was one of the most popular writers of the first half of the twentieth century. His father worked as a magistrate in Hong Kong, and because his mother traveled back and forth between England and Hong Kong, he was raised mostly by a series of aunts. His books are filled with evil and terrifying aunts, and he once wrote, "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core they are all alike. Sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof." While he was in high school, he found out that his father had gone bankrupt and wouldn't be able to pay for college. He got a job as a bank clerk and started publishing humorous stories and poetry on the side. He said, "[My] total inability to grasp what was going on [at the bank] made me something of a legend." He eventually switched to journalism, and it was as a journalist that he first traveled to the United States to cover a boxing match. He fell in love with America. He said, "Being there was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying." He moved to Greenwich Village in 1909, and began to publish the stories that made him famous in the Saturday Evening Post. From America, he wrote about an imaginary, cartoonish England, full of extremely polite but brain-dead aristocrats, and his work was wildly popular in the years leading up to the decline of the British Empire. He is best known for books such as My Man Jeeves (1919); Carry On, Jeeves (1927); Thank You, Jeeves (1934) and Right Ho, Jeeves (1934) - books about a servant named Jeeves who is constantly saving his employer, Bertie Wooster, from all kinds of absurd situations.

Wodehouse was an extremely shy man. When his wife rented them an apartment in New York, he made her promise to get one on the first floor, because he never knew what to say to the man who ran the elevator. People who knew him said that he was incredibly dull, that he was never funny in person, and that he didn't seem to have any emotions. He said, "I haven't got any violent feelings about anything. I just love writing." Over the course of his life he wrote almost a hundred books of fiction, wrote for sixteen plays, and composed lyrics for twenty-eight musicals. When asked about his technique for writing, he said, "I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit." He is known for his metaphors and similes. He described one character as "A tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say 'when!'" He wrote of another, "He felt like a man who, chasing rainbows, has had one of them suddenly turn and bite him in the leg." In his lifetime, he was generally considered a writer of light entertainment, but he's since been recognized as a master prose stylist.

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