The Writer’s Almanac for September 18, 2018

Fifties Music by Leslie Monsour, from The Alarming Beauty of the Sky. © Red Hen Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

While women sip their daiquiries by the pool,
and men blow smoke into the jacarandas,
the radio plays “Fly Me to the Moon.”

A child nearby, on finding a dead bee,
conducts its funeral in petunia beds,
as ants are trying to amputate a wing.

But even thought the bee is dead, it stings
her fiercely on the palm, and dies again.
She studies her small hand in disbelief.

Some fathers offer ice cubes from their highballs,
the station plays “Volare,” and the bee
swings up to heaven on its single wing.


It was on this date in 1793 that George Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol Building. The original building was much smaller than the one we know today, because members of Congress didn’t have offices; they worked at desks in the main chamber. The cornerstone was crafted by a silversmith named Caleb Bentley. Washington, who was a Freemason, was dressed in his ceremonial Masonic sash and apron as he laid the stone.


The jewelry store Tiffany & Co. was founded in New York City on this date in 1837. It was billed as a “stationery and fancy goods emporium” at the time. Charles Lewis Tiffany and his business partner, John B. Young, opened the store with $1,000 that had been loaned to them by Tiffany’s father. The company was soon popular with the New York elite, and Abraham Lincoln bought jewelry for Mary Todd at the store, but it first achieved international fame in 1867, when it became the first American company to win the grand prize for silver craftsmanship at the Paris World’s Fair. In addition to high-end jewelry, Tiffany & Co. also produces custom designs for various professional organizations; they’ve created the Super Bowl trophy since the very first Super Bowl in 1967.

Truman Capote made it famous with his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958. The heroine, Holly Golightly, takes a cab down to Tiffany’s whenever she’s feeling low. She says: “It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.” It was made into a movie in 1961 starring Audrey Hepburn.


Today is the birthday of Swedish actress Greta Garbo, born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm (1905). She grew up in a poor neighborhood, a shy child who preferred daydreaming and play-acting to school. When her father died of Spanish flu in 1920, she had to leave school and go to work to help support the family. Her first job was in a barbershop, as a “lather girl,” and she also found work as a department store model. Her modeling jobs led to some small roles in advertising films for the store and for a local bakery.

While studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, she caught the eye of silent-film director Mauritz Stiller. He took her under his wing, changed her last name to “Garbo” and cast her in his film The Saga of Gösta Berling (1923). When Stiller signed a deal with MGM in Hollywood, he insisted on bringing his star with him. The studio set about to craft a persona for the aloof Swedish actress, portraying her as a woman of mystery, and though they had only agreed to put her under contract to get Stiller on board, they soon discovered that she had star potential.

Flesh and the Devil (1926) made Garbo an international celebrity, and it was during the filming that she met and fell for her co-star, John Gilbert. Garbo and Gilbert went on to star in a silent film adaptation of Anna Karenina, called Love (1927), as well as two more features, and got engaged. But Garbo called off the wedding at the last minute, and though she had a few high-profile relationships over the years, she never married.

Garbo traveled, and had many close friends, and she was fond of walking around New York City — but she did guard her privacy fiercely. Parodies of Garbo always include the line “I want to be alone,” delivered in a heavy Swedish accent. It comes from the movie Grand Hotel (1932), and it’s always been strongly associated with Garbo since she appeared so melancholy and solitary. But she once pointed out, “I never said ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.”


It was on this day in 1851 that the first edition of The New York Times was published. Its original name was The New-York Daily Times, and each copy cost one cent. The founder and editor was Henry Jarvis Raymond.


It’s the birthday of Samuel Johnson, (books by this author) born in Lichfield, England (1709). When he was 54 years old, he was in the back parlor of his friend Tom Davies’ bookshop in London, and he was introduced to a 23-year-old Scotsman named James Boswell, who had been trying to meet Johnson for quite a while. Johnson was intensely suspicious of Scottish people, and found Boswell annoying. But eventually they became good friends.

For years, Boswell kept notes on Johnson’s mannerisms, habits, decisions, thoughts, appearance, and everything about his life. In the meantime, Samuel Johnson had a great career. He wrote essays and sketches for magazines, poems, and biographies. And then a group of publishers asked him to create a definitive dictionary of the English language, and he accepted the challenge. The French equivalent, compiled by the Académie Françaisewas slated to take 40 years and was being created by 40 scholars. The French took six years just to work on the letter “G.” In contrast, Johnson announced that he could single-handedly do the entire project in three years.

He didn’t manage it quite that fast — it took him seven years — and he did have six mechanical assistants. But it was still a huge undertaking. Published in 1755, it had more than 42,000 entries.

Johnson’s dictionary made him famous, and it is his most long-lasting achievement. But he is best remembered not for anything he wrote, but for the biography that Boswell wrote about him. Published after its subject’s death, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is considered the precursor to modern biographies because it was the first to truly describe its subject as a whole person, not just a catalog of achievements and events.


It’s the birthday of poet Paul Zimmer, (books by this author) born in Canton, Ohio (1934). Growing up, he wanted to be a catcher for the Cleveland Indians. After high school, he was drafted into the Army, where he was sent to the Nevada desert to witness atomic bomb tests. He said: “Frightened, lonely, and bored by mindlessness, I discovered that I like to read. At first it was fiction and popular history, but then I found poetry. I was fascinated by how poets use words. Sometimes the words were obscure, but always sensitive, intelligent, and challenging, far more impressive than the words of journalists, politicians, or glib popular writers. Eventually I began scribbling my own verse and kept it on soiled papers in my shirt pocket, slipping off to the edge of the platoon during smoke breaks to write on my little sheets. If anyone asked what I was doing, I said I was writing a letter to my girlfriend. In fact, if I showed my poems to anyone, it was to girls. Usually they thought I was strange, but sometimes they were impressed.”

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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Writing

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It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

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