May 29, 2011

Smoke Break Behind the Treatment Center

by Debra Nystrom

End of the third week: family weekend.
The smokers, most of the patients, are more

jittery than usual, more anxious just now
than other days to step out this door behind

the cafeteria, where they can look across
to the stubble field, world of chopped-off stalks

that has ripped them up, that they've needed
too much from. In fifteen minutes they'll see

the ones who've come to find out if
they are changing. Maybe half have family

visiting; fewer than that will leave in another
week without needing to come back, to stand

here in a different season and stare at the silo
you set yourself by, imagine walking through

your own cloud of smoke to clean blank sky.

"Smoke Break Behind the Treatment Center" by Debra Nystrom, from Bad River Road. © Sarabande Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of English author G.K. Chesterton (books by this author), born Gilbert Keith Chesterton in London (1874). He was a large man, well over six feet, and rotund. He disagreed sharply with many people, most notably H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, but he was so agreeable and full of good humor that he kept them as close friends. He was also remarkably prolific, writing fast and scarcely editing what he wrote. He considered himself primarily a journalist, and he wrote 4,000 newspaper essays; he also wrote some 80 books — books of fiction, criticism, literary biography, and theology — as well as several hundred poems, about 200 short stories, and several plays. His best-known character is Father Brown, a detective-slash-priest, who features in several short stories. He dabbled in the occult as a young man, and he and his brother tried out the Ouija board, but eventually he returned to the Church of England, and converted to Catholicism later in life; his thoughts on religion influenced much of his writing. His book The Everlasting Man (1925) contributed to C.S. Lewis's conversion from atheism to Christianity.

George Bernard Shaw was his good friend and verbal sparring partner. They rarely agreed on anything, but disagreed amicably. Chesterton wrote of Shaw, a modernist, in Heretics (1905): "If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby."

He made his points with wit and paradox, and in such a large body of work, there is no shortage of quotable material:

"The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist's world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane." (Orthodoxy, 1908)

"Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon." (Tremendous Trifles, 1909)

"Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property, that they may more perfectly respect it." (The Man Who Was Thursday, 1908)

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad."
(The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911)

It's the birthday of German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880) (books by this author), born in Blankenburg, Germany. He studied the history of civilizations; his theory was they all undergo an organic blossoming and withering over the course of 1,000 to 1,200 years, and that, by studying the past, it was possible to predict the future of all civilizations. "Each culture," he wrote, "has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return."

He put his theory forward in his book The Decline of the West (1918), in which he asked, "Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of the separate elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms — social, spiritual, and political — which we see so clearly? ... Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions?" He examined six cultures — Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu, Greco-Roman, Magian (mostly Arabic), and Western — and he believed that Western civilization had already experienced its creative flowering; it was in a period of reflection and material comfort, and that it had, at most, 200 more years. He believed that you could no more revive a dying civilization than you could bring a dead flower back to life.

The book received a lot of attention, and mixed reviews; it formed the basis for social cycle theory. Spengler's work influenced a diverse assortment of later writers and scholars, including the Beat poets, Fitzgerald (who called himself an "American Spenglerian"), Joseph Campbell, Henry Kissinger, and Malcolm X.

In The Decline of the West, he wrote: "The press to-day is an army with carefully organized arms and branches, with journalists as officers, and readers as soldiers. But here, as in every army, the soldier obeys blindly, and war-aims and operation-plans change without his knowledge. The reader neither knows, nor is allowed to know, the purposes for which he is used, nor even the role that he is to play. A more appalling caricature of freedom of thought cannot be imagined. Formerly a man did not dare to think freely. Now he dares, but cannot; his will to think is only a willingness to think to order, and this is what he feels as his liberty."

It's the birthday of comedian Bob Hope (1903) (books by this author), born Leslie Townes Hope in Eltham, near London. His family moved to the United States when he was four years old, and he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. His first successful show-biz venture came at the age of 10, when he won a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. By 1940, after working in vaudeville, Broadway, and radio, he was one of America's most popular comedians. His comedy was verbal, not physical, and he usually played unsympathetic characters that the audience could feel superior to.

He never won an Oscar for his acting — "Oscar Night at my house is called Passover," he once quipped — but the Academy nevertheless honored him five times, with two honorary Oscars, two special awards, and a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The Guinness Book of World Records named him the most honored entertainer in the world, with 2,000 awards and citations, including 54 honorary doctorates and a knighthood from his native England.

In 1941, he performed his first show for soldiers, a group of airmen stationed in March Field, California. It was the beginning of nearly 60 years of shows at military bases at home and abroad. Congress unanimously passed Resolution 75 in 1997 to make him the nation's first Honorary Veteran, and he considered this his highest achievement.

He wasn't universally adored, however. A few days after Hope's death, author and journalist Christopher Hitchens called him "paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny" in Slate. He skewered the comedian and his fans, saying, "This is comedy for people who have no sense of humor and who come determined to be entertained and laugh to show that they 'get it.'" Hitchens closed his article by saying, "Hope was a fool, and nearly a clown, but he was never even remotely a comedian."

Bob Hope died in 2003, two months after his 100th birthday.

Today is the birthday of economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt (books by this author), born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1967. He studies the economic factors involved in crime, and published a controversial paper, "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime," in 2001. The paper concluded there was a correlation between the legalization of abortion and a reduction in the crime rate 18 years later; not only did it cause a furor in the abortion debate, it also came under criticism from the economic community for using flawed research methods. Weekly newspaper The Economist chided, "For someone of Mr. Levitt's iconoclasm and ingenuity, technical ineptitude is a much graver charge than moral turpitude. To be politically incorrect is one thing; to be simply incorrect quite another." Levitt and his colleague apologized for the error, and corrected it, but said their conclusion was nevertheless sound; although the link between the two variables was weaker, the results were still statistically significant.

In 2005, he published Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything with New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics was followed in 2009 by SuperFreakonomics.

Time named him to their list of "100 People Who Shape Our World" in 2006, citing his ability to think outside the box — "way, way outside," said Time.

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
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show