Jan. 18, 2010

Talking to Ourselves

by Philip Schultz

A woman in my doctor's office last week
couldn't stop talking about Niagara Falls,
the difference between dog and deer ticks,
how her oldest boy, killed in Iraq, would lie
with her at night in the summer grass, singing
Puccini. Her eyes looked at me but saw only
the saffron swirls of the quivering heavens.

Yesterday, Mr. Miller, our tidy neighbor,
stopped under our lopsided maple to explain
how his wife of sixty years died last month
of Alzheimer's. I stood there, listening to
his longing reach across the darkness with
each bruised breath of his eloquent singing.

This morning my five-year-old asked himself
why he'd come into the kitchen. I understood
he was thinking out loud, personifying himself,
but the intimacy of his small voice was surprising.

When my father's vending business was failing,
he'd talk to himself while driving, his lips
silently moving, his black eyes deliquescent.
He didn't care that I was there, listening,
what he was saying was too important.

"Too important," I hear myself saying
in the kitchen, putting the dishes away,
and my wife looks up from her reading
and asks, "What's that you said?"

"Talking to Ourselves" by Philip Schultz, from Failure. © Harcourt, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the third Monday in January, so today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (books by this author) In 1983, after years of petitions, conferences, and advocacy on behalf of the holiday, Ronald Reagan signed a bill into law that made Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.

It's the birthday of author and illustrator Raymond Briggs, (books by this author) born in London (1934). He went to a nice school where science and sports were the only subjects considered worthwhile, and kids who did art were suspect. His father was also unsure about his son pursuing art, but Raymond Briggs loved cartooning, and he went on to art school.

In 1973, he published Father Christmas, which he wrote and illustrated, starring a very grumpy Santa Claus who just wanted a vacation. It was laid out like a comic book instead of a classic children's book, with text drawn into the illustrations. Then he wrote a sequel, Father Christmas Goes On Holiday (1975), and then he spent awhile working on a book called Fungus the Bogeyman (1977).

And then he created his most famous book, The Snowman (1978). It's just pictures, no words, but with those pictures it tells the story of a boy who makes a snowman that comes alive. They go on adventures and even fly through the air. But the next morning, the sun comes out and the snowman melts. The book was a big success, and a few years later it was made into a short animated film of the same name, which is shown on TV every year at the Christmas season.

When someone asked him why The Snowman ended so sadly, he said: "I don't believe in happy endings. Children have got to face death sooner or later. Granny and Grandpa die, dogs die, cats die, gerbils and those frightful things — what are they called? — hamsters: all die like flies. So there's no point avoiding it."

It's the birthday of a man who started a project classifying words while he was still in his 20s, and worked on it for almost 50 years, finally publishing his manuscript as Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged So as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition (1852). That's Peter Mark Roget, (books by this author) born in London in 1779. He had a long and distinguished career as a doctor, he lectured, he invented a slide rule that did complex mathematics, he studied optics and made an important breakthrough about how the retina perceives images. But when he retired, he came back to his pet project, a compilation of 15,000 words arranged in categories. And Roget's Thesaurus has never been out of print and now contains more than a quarter of a million words.

In 2008, Joshua Kendall published a biography of Roget called The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch?'" That's the children's writer A.A. Milne, (books by this author) born in London (1882).

Milne went to school for mathematics, but ended up spending most of his time writing. He wrote a mediocre novel and then started writing plays, and he ended up writing 27 of them. And he published pieces in the humor magazine Punch.

Milne got married and had a son, a boy named Christopher Robin. And one day in 1923, he was feeling bored at a party, and he wrote a poem for kids, which he published in Punch with a few others. The next year, he published a whole book of children's poetry, When We Were Very Young (1924). The book was illustrated by E.H. Shepard, who was a staff cartoonist at Punch.

A couple of years later, Milne wrote a book about Christopher Robin's stuffed animals, and E.H. Shepard did the illustrations again. And that book was Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), which was immediately successful. In the next two years, he published another book of children's poems, Now We Are Six (1927), and then The House at Pooh Corner (1928). And after that, most people didn't take him seriously as a writer for adults anymore.

He said: "Ideas may drift into other minds, but they do not drift my way. I have to go and fetch them. I know no work manual or mental to equal the appalling heart-breaking anguish of fetching an idea from nowhere."

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
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