Jul. 9, 2011

The Polishings

by Charles Douthat

In the warm painted porch
of our old stucco house
at the legged laundry sink
covered with a plywood board
my father taught me as a boy
as he'd been taught, how a salesman
ought to polish his good shoes.

"Make them shine enough to speak,"
he insisted. "They're your first step
through the door." He'd spread out
newspaper, rags and brushes
and metal tins that twisted open
with a pop, revealing creams—
deep brown, black, cordovan.

He taught me by doing: the rag
doubled to keep the gob of polish
from bleeding though;
the non-master hand like a foot
inside the worked-on shoe
to hold it steady; the thorough
coating and spreading over leather

of waxy color, starting from scuffed toe
then down the instep side to heel
and back to toe. Once both shoes
were creamed over, he lit a cigarette
to let the glazed pair dry. Hurried
brushing, he'd say, made a short-lived
shine that wouldn't last half a day

of cold calls on the road. My father
knew so much in his handsome hands—
gilded with a rectangled wristwatch
a wedding band, and between knuckles,
wiry sprays of golden hair.
I can still see one good hand hidden
inside a brougue, the other gripping

the wooden brush as it bristled out
a leathered glow. How long did they last
those lessons on the porch? One year?
Two? How long the morning polishings
with the jobless day before him
and a son watching, a wife waiting
and no door but ours to walk through.

"The Polishings" by Charles Douthat, from Blue for Oceans. © NHR Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of English Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe (books by this author), born Ann Ward in London in 1764. She married a journalist, William Radcliffe, when she was 23, and he encouraged her to write. Write she did: Her first two books were published anonymously, but her third, The Romance of the Forest (1791), made her famous; her fourth, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), made her the most popular writer in England and set the standard for the Gothic romance. She published one more novel in her lifetime, The Italian (1797). Her last two books made a good deal of money, and she may have quit writing novels because there was no financial need to do so. She did keep writing poetry, though, and published a volume in 1816. Neither the poems nor her posthumous novel, Gaston de Blondville (1826), approached the success of her earlier works. She was a favorite of Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Coleridge, Poe, and Christina Rossetti, to say nothing of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, who fancies herself in the middle of a Gothic romance herself. Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft praised her for having "a genuine sense of the unearthly in scene and incident which closely approached genius; eery [sic] touch of setting and action contributing artistically to the impression of illimitable frightfulness which she wished to convey." Radcliffe kept out of the public eye when possible, so she was frequently rumored to be dead, or mad; in reality, she was happily married and shy.

"Though the vicious can sometimes pour affliction upon the good, their power is transient and their punishment certain; and that innocence, though oppressed by injustice, shall, supported by patience, finally triumph over misfortune!" (From The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794)

It's the birthday of another English Gothic novelist, Matthew Lewis (1775) (books by this author), born in London. Inspired by the work of Ann Radcliffe, he wrote his first book, The Monk (1796), when he was just 19 years old, and it was an overnight sensation. "I was induced to go on with it by reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is in my opinion one of the most interesting books that ever have been published," he wrote to his mother. The Monk was violent and erotic and full of horrors, and no one wanted to admit to reading it, but of course they all did, and it made him so famous that he was called "Monk" Lewis from then on. He followed The Monk with The Castle Spectre (1797), a musical drama with many of the same Gothic elements. His last book was published posthumously; it was Journal of a West India Proprietor (1834). In 1812, Lewis inherited a Jamaica plantation, and on a trip to the West Indies to check on the welfare of his slaves, he contracted yellow fever and died at sea in 1818.

"To a heart unacquainted with her, Vice is ever more dangerous when lurking behind the Mask of Virtue." (From The Monk, 1796)

On this day in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting full citizenship to African-Americans and due process to all citizens. It's one of the Reconstruction Amendments, along with the Thirteenth and the Fifteenth, and Section I reads: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Of course, states still found ways around the Fourteenth Amendment for nearly a hundred years, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Jim Crow laws, Southern black codes, and the "separate but equal" ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson. One of the early and unforeseen complications of the amendment, which we are still grappling with today, is the extent to which corporations may be viewed as "persons" in the eyes of the law.

Today is the birthday of Dame Barbara Cartland (books by this author), the author of 723 books, most of them romance novels. She was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England, in 1901, and her family moved to London after her father died in World War I. Lord Beaverbrook, the founder of the Daily Express, gave her some writing tips, and she began contributing to the newspaper. She published her first novel, Jigsaw, in 1925, and her last, called The Way to Heaven, in 1998 at the age of 97. She wrote at an alarming rate: From the 1970s onward, she produced an average of 23 books a year. She left behind 160 manuscripts when she died in 2000.

In addition to her writing, she was active in many causes. She collected as many wedding dresses as she could during World War II, so that women in the armed forces would have white gowns to wear for their weddings. She was a staunch advocate for midwives and nurses, and a proponent of good nutrition and natural medicine. She campaigned for permanent housing for gypsies in the early 1960s. She was also the step-grandmother of Diana Spencer, the future Princess of Wales. "She was very fond of my mother, and she used to read her books," Cartland's son Ian recalls. "She was always sent away from here with a book and a packet of biscuits."

It's the birthday of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London in 1933. He's been called the poet laureate of medicine because he turns case studies of patients with neurological conditions into eloquent narratives. He was even mentored, as a young writer, by poets W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn. "They taught me to look at disease, disorder, and suffering in broader human terms, and not just in narrow clinical or physiological terms. To look at predicaments, plights, and situations — not just diseases," he said in a 2010 interview with science journalist Steve Silberman.

He's best known for Awakenings (1973), about a group of people stricken with "sleeping sickness," whom he revives with a drug intended for Parkinson's disease; and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), a collection of essays about people with bizarre brain disorders. He published his 10th book last year, called The Mind's Eye (2010), about vision and the brain. This, of all his books, is the most autobiographical. He wrote it after developing ocular cancer, which left him blind in one eye, and he devoted one chapter to his experience. He says that his brain "fills in" the blind spot with images and patterns, and sometimes even a realistic image of what's really there. "I was washing my hands, and then for some reason I closed my left eye, and I continued to see the wash basin, the commode next to it, and the mirror very, very clearly — so clearly, in fact, that my first thought was that the dressing over the right eye must be transparent. But it was a huge, thick, opaque dressing." He also writes about his "face blindness": the inability to recognize faces, including, sometimes, his own. "My attention goes to the rest of you — your voice, shirts, your pants," he told The New Yorker. "I am not very good at describing faces. You have the usual number of features."

It's the birthday of poet, playwright, and essayist June Jordan (books by this author), born in Harlem, New York City, in 1936. Her parents were Jamaican immigrants. She began writing at the age of seven, and always wanted to be a poet; though her parents didn't see that as a suitable life choice, they paid for her to attend prep schools and Barnard College. She published her first book of poems in 1966. It was called Who Look at Me, and it was aimed at young African-American readers. She used black English in a series of poems describing paintings by black artists, and she believed that celebrating the language would keep the culture alive. She carried this philosophy to her writing workshops for black and Puerto Rican kids, encouraging them to write in their cultural idiom. Twenty-seven books followed Who Look at Me, including her memoir Soldier: A Poet's Childhood (2000).

Shortly before she died of breast cancer in 2002, she told Alternative Radio: "The task of a poet of color, a black poet, as a people hated and despised, is to rally the spirit of your folks. ... I have to get myself together and figure out an angle, a perspective, that is an offering, that other folks can use to pick themselves up, to rally and to continue or, even better, to jump higher, to reach more extensively in solidarity with even more varieties of people to accomplish something. I feel that it's a spirit task."

Today is the birthday of Dean Koontz (1945) (books by this author), born in Everett, Pennsylvania. His family was poor; they didn't have an indoor toilet until he was 11. His father was an abusive alcoholic that couldn't keep a job. Koontz went to stay with neighbors for six months when he was four years old, because his mother was in the hospital. The neighbor read him stories every night and he says he came to associate storytelling with a peaceful feeling.

He won a fiction contest sponsored by Atlantic Monthly when he was in college, which made him think writing was a pretty good gig. After he left college, he kept writing, whenever he could find time after his day job as a counselor for underprivileged kids and, later, as a high school English teacher. Finally his wife, Gerda, told him she'd support him for five years so he could really give this writing thing his best shot. By the end of the five years, she had quit her job to run his business affairs. His books have now sold more than 400 million copies, in 38 languages.

He's most often associated with horror and suspense novels, but he's also written a memoir about his golden retriever, Trixie, called A Big Little Life (2009). It spawned a couple of children's books and is now being turned into a feature film. "One of the greatest gifts we receive from dogs is the tenderness they invoke in us," Koontz wrote.

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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