Dec. 29, 2011

The Second Life of Christmas Trees

by Mark Perlberg

In frozen January, my friends and I
would drag discarded Christmas trees
from the sidewalks of our shivering town
to an empty lot. One match and fire
raced down a dry sprig like a spurt of life.
A puff of wind and the pile ignited,
flamed above our heads. Silk waves.
Spice of pitch and balsam in our nostrils.

We stood in a ring around the body of the fire—
drawn close as each boy dared,
our faces stinging from the heat and cold,
lash of that wild star burst on a winter night.

"The Second Life of Christmas Trees" by Mark Perlberg, from The Impossible Toystore. © Louisiana State University Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The first American Young Men's Christian Association opened in Boston, Massachusetts, on this date in 1851. The YMCA originally began in England some seven years earlier. The Industrial Revolution led to the migration of many young rural Englishmen into the cities to look for work. Once there, the young men found a world quite different from what they'd known at home, a world of street crime and tenements and dangerous influences. Their social outlets were often limited to taverns and brothels. This bothered George Williams, a 22-year-old department store draper and former farmer who had moved to London to find work. In 1844, he and 11 friends formed the Young Men's Christian Association, where men of all social classes could meet, study the Bible, and obtain some much-needed positive social support. It also provided safe, low-cost housing to new arrivals.

It was Thomas Valentine Sullivan, a retired sea captain and lay preacher, who brought the YMCA to American shores. He noticed that sailors and merchant seamen on shore leave in port cities far from home were falling prey to bad influences. He'd heard about George Williams' work in London, so, with the aim of providing a "home away from home," he led the drive to form a YMCA in Boston.

The YMCA remains one of Boston's leading nonprofit organizations. It's the largest provider of childcare in Massachusetts, the largest summer employer of young people, and provides more than $10 million worth of services to people with low income.

James Joyce's (books by this author) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published on this date in 1916. It tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's alter ego, as he grows up and eventually rejects his religion and his culture.

Early in the book, Dedalus is a young schoolboy, and by the novel's end, Stephen Dedalus has grown up, and grown cynical, and is about to leave his Dublin home for Paris. He tells a friend: "I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning."

Finally, Dedalus writes in his journal: "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

It's the birthday of novelist William Gaddis (books by this author), born in New York City (1922). He published his first book, The Recognitions, in 1955. It was a long and complex book, following more than 50 characters over a 30-year period. Gaddis said: "When I finished it, I thought well, I guess this will change the world. It didn't ... I thought I would win the Nobel Prize ... Nothing happened." He went to work as a freelance writer after that, working in public relations and writing speeches for corporate executives. It was 25 years before he published his second novel, JR (1975), about an 11-year-old boy who becomes a wizard of Wall Street.

He wrote, "What's any artist but the dregs of his work?"

Today is the birthday of playwright, novelist, and screenwriter Paul Rudnick (books by this author), born in Piscataway Township, New Jersey (1957). He finds that being from New Jersey is a useful excuse for a host of social missteps: "Whenever I stumble over my own feet, or blurt out a thought that makes no sense at all, or leave the house wearing one pattern too many, I always think, It's okay, I'm from New Jersey. I love New Jersey, because it's not just an all-purpose punch line, but probably a handy legal defense, as in, 'Yes, I shot my wife because I thought she was Bigfoot, but I'm from New Jersey.'"

His plays include I Hate Hamlet (1991), Jeffrey (1995), and The New Century (2008).

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
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  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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