Apr. 26, 2004

Middle Age

by Pat Schneider

MONDAY, 26 APRIL, 2004
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Poem: "Middle Age," by Pat Schneider, from The Patience of Ordinary Things. © Amherst Writers and Artists Press. Reprinted with permission.

Middle Age

The child you think you don't want
is the one who will make you laugh.
She will break your heart
when she loses the sight in one eye
and tells the doctor she wants to be
an apple tree when she grows up.

It will be this child who forgives you
again and again
for believing you don't want her to be born,
for resisting the rising tide of your body,
for wishing for the red flow of her dismissal.
She will even forgive you for all the breakfasts
you failed to make exceptional.

Someday this child will sit beside you.
When you are old and too tired of war
to want to watch the evening news,
she will tell you stories
like the one about her teenaged brother,
your son, and his friends
taking her out in a canoe when she was
five years old. How they left her alone
on an island in the river
while they jumped off the railroad bridge.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, born in Rome (AD 121). He rose through the ranks of the Roman Senate, and became emperor when Antoninus died in AD 161. Before Aurelius came to power, the Roman Empire was experiencing incredible prosperity. It was the period known as the Pax Romana, a time of peace that lasted nearly two hundred years. The Roman Empire was the largest it would ever be, stretching from Scotland to the Arabian desert. Many people led very comfortable lives; they had access to products from all across the empire, and most cities had water and sewage systems, roads and public baths. The richest people lived in great villas with central heating systems. For entertainment, there were plays and gladiator contests. The historian Tacitus wrote that it was a time of "rare happiness . . . when we may think what we please, and express what we think."

But almost as soon as Marcus Aurelius became emperor, Rome encountered a series of disasters. During the twenty years he ruled there were plagues, famines and wars. He was almost constantly trying to defend the Roman Empire against invaders; in the north his armies battled the Germans, and in the east they battled the Parthians.

In the midst of all this chaos, Marcus Aurelius consoled himself by keeping a kind of diary filled with philosophic meditations. He studied the Stoic philosophers, who believed in detaching yourself from everything in the universe that's outside of your power to control. He jotted down bits of advice to himself—for example, "Thou wilt find rest from vain fancies if thou doest every act in life as though it were thy last," " Love the little trade which thou hast learned, and be content therewith," and "Very little is needed to make a happy life."

Marcus Aurelius said, "Be not as one that hath ten thousand years to live; death is nigh at hand: while thou livest, while thou hast time, be good."

It's the birthday of humorist Artemus Ward, born Charles Farrar Browne near Waterford, Maine (1834). He got his first printing job when he was fourteen years old, and by the time he was twenty-three he was working as a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was at that paper that he began writing humor columns filled with misspelled words, puns and other jokes, under the name Artemus Ward. They soon became enormously popular, and Ward got a job writing for the new magazine Vanity Fair.

In 1861, Ward started giving lectures across the country. He was a skinny, scholarly-looking man, and he had a deadpan delivery that had a big influence on another famous nineteenth-century humorist—Mark Twain.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Ward supported the North; he said, "Let's have the Union restored as it was, if we can; but if we can't, I'm in favor of the Union as it wasn't." On September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln read aloud an article by Ward to his cabinet just before reading the Emancipation Proclamation. When one of the cabinet members looked angry that he was reading a humor article, Lincoln said, "Gentlemen . . . with the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do."

It's the birthday of novelist Bernard Malamud, born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). He's the author of The Natural (1952), The Assistant (1957), The Fixer (1966), and many other novels. He grew up in Brooklyn in a household where both Yiddish and English were spoken. His mother's family was full of Yiddish actors, and as a child Malamud would go to see their plays on Second Avenue. He also went to Charlie Chaplin movies, and he knew he wanted to be a writer after he discovered how much he loved retelling the plots of these movies to all of his friends at school.

He wrote a few stories in college, but after he graduated he was too preoccupied with finding a job to start writing seriously. It was the middle of the Depression, and he was struggling just to earn enough money to eat and pay the rent. He said, "I would dream of new suits." In 1940, he got a job as a clerk in the U.S. Census Bureau. He spent mornings checking drainage ditch statistics, but as soon as that work was done he would crouch over his desk and write short stories on company time. Eventually, he got a few stories published in magazines, and he got a job as a professor at Oregon State College.

It was while he was working there that he published his first novel, The Natural (1952), about a talented baseball player who is dragged down by his own obsessions. He was inspired to write the novel after reading biographies of Babe Ruth and Bobby Feller. It was a huge success, and he went on to publish many more novels.

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos, born in Mount Shasta, California (1893). Her father managed a theater, and Loos began acting there as a small child. Eventually, she became so popular that she was the family's main source of income. Her first screenplay was produced by D.W. Griffith when she was just nineteen years old—The New York Hat (1912). Between 1913 and 1928, she wrote about 150 screenplays for silent films, and almost two thirds of them were made into movies.

In 1925, Loos published the fictionalized diary of a naive, flighty young woman named Lorelei Lee in the magazine Harper's Bazaar. The next year, the diary was published in book form with the title Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926), and Loos became an instant celebrity. In one diary entry, Lorelei Lee writes, "I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good, but a diamond and a sapphire bracelet lasts forever." Gentlemen Prefer Blondes went on to become a hit Broadway musical starring Carol Channing, and a Hollywood movie starring Marilyn Monroe.

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