Mar. 10, 2014

Chinese Restaurant

by David Shumate

After an argument, my family always dined at the Chinese
restaurant. Something about the Orient washed the bitterness
away. Like a riverbank where you rest for awhile. The owner
bowed as we entered. The face of one who had seen too much.
A revolution. The torture of loved ones. Horrors he would never
reveal. His wife ushered us to our table. Her steps smaller than
ours. The younger daughter brought us tea. The older one took
our orders in perfect English. Each year her beauty was more
delicate than before. Sometimes we were the only customers
and they smiled from afar as we ate duck and shrimp with our
chopsticks. After dinner we sat in the comfort of their silence.
My brother told a joke. My mother folded a napkin into the shape
of a bird. My sister broke open our cookies and read our fortunes
aloud. As we left, my father always shook the old man's hand.

"Chinese Restaurant" by David Shumate, from The Floating Bridge. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

One hundred and fifty years ago today, on March 10, 1864, President Lincoln signed an executive order promoting Ulysses S. Grant to the rank of Lieutenant General, making him the commander of all Union troops. The rank hadn't been awarded, except on a temporary basis, since John Adams gave it to George Washington in 1798. Congress agreed to revive the use of the rank on one condition: that it be awarded to Grant and no other. Grant wasn't Lincoln's first choice; he had wanted to nominate Henry Wager Halleck instead. He feared Grant was already too popular, and there were rumors around the capital that the Republican Party was considering nominating Grant for president in the next election. But Congress wouldn't budge, and, after Grant publicly stated that he had no interest in the presidency, Lincoln agreed.

Grant's leadership style marked a significant strategic shift from that of previous commanders. His predecessors had been indecisive, and their dithering had cost the Union several battles. Grant, on the other hand, had scored key victories in western Tennessee and at the Siege of Vicksburg. He took control of the Mississippi River on behalf of the Union, effectively dividing the Confederacy in two. For Lincoln, the last straw came when Major General George Meade failed to mobilize in time to pursue Lee's army after the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederate forces eluded Meade, and lived to fight another day. When Grant was promoted, Meade offered to step down rather than stand in the way of Grant filling his post with the right man for the job. Grant wouldn't accept his resignation, however, and later said Meade's offer garnered him more respect than his victory at Gettysburg.

A few days after Lincoln signed the executive order, The New York Times reported on Grant's promotion, saying, "The country will look anxiously for speedy and happy results as the consequence of these fundamental changes in command." After a series of bloody but successful campaigns, Grant accepted Lee's surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, and the Civil War officially ended two months later.

It's the birthday of lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler (books by this author), born in Tonbridge, Kent, England (1858). He studied at Oxford and taught Latin, Greek, and English at a boys' school in northwest England for 17 years, then resigned and moved to the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, built himself a one-room cottage, and began living like a hermit. Though he spent all his time writing essays and produced enough to fill two book-length manuscripts, he could not succeed in getting them published. He then came up with the idea to write "a sort of English composition manual, from the negative point of view, for journalists & amateur writers." Collaborating with his brother on the work for Oxford University Press, he wrote The King's English (1906), which begins:

"Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid."

The first chapter, titled "Vocabulary," lays out the following principles:

"Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance."

The book was a success and he was commissioned to produce The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, which appeared in 1911. His biggest success, however, was A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), a collection of common mistakes in English that Fowler organized into categories, such as "Battered Ornaments," "Love of the Long Word," "Sturdy Indefensibles," "Swapping Horses," and "Unequal Yokefellows."

T.S. Eliot said, "Every person who wishes to write ought to read A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ... for a quarter of an hour every night before going to bed."

It's the birthday of jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, born in Davenport, Iowa (1903). He was the first white jazz celebrity. He played the piano and cornet at a young age, but he didn't hear any jazz until he was a teenager, when he got his hands on a record by a New Orleans group called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. He learned by copying the leader's cornet lines note for note. He never really learned to read music, and for eight years he played left-handed. After he was expelled from high school for skipping too many classes, he worked gigs around Chicago and on boats on Lake Michigan. He joined up with a band called the Wolverines in 1923. They toured from the Midwest to New York and performed on Beiderbecke's first records. He was an alcoholic and died early, at age 28, during an alcoholic seizure. Eddie Condon once said: "With the aid of booze, he drove away all other things — food, sleep, women, ambition, vanity, desire. He played the piano and the cornet, that was all."

It was on this day in 1965 that Neil Simon's play The Odd Couple (books by this author) opened at the Plymouth Theatre in New York City, starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney as Oscar and Felix, who become roommates after their marriages fall apart. Oscar is a recently divorced sportswriter, a total slob, relishing his new apartment. At one of his Friday-night poker games, Felix shows up, devastated because his wife has just kicked him out. Oscar invites him to share the apartment, but the two men's styles couldn't be more different. Felix wants everything neat and clean, he cries freely in front of women when he thinks about his wife, and despite Oscar's best coaching, he isn't good at throwing things against the wall in anger.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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