Thursday Mar. 12, 2015

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A Person of Limited Palette

I would love to have lived out my years
in a cottage a few blocks from the sea,
and to have spent my mornings painting
out in the cold, wet rocks, to be known
as “a local artist,” a pleasant old man
who “paints passably well, in a traditional
manner,” though a person of limited
talent, of limited palette: earth tones
and predictable blues, snap-brim cloth cap
and cardigan, baggy old trousers
and comfortable shoes, but none of this
shall come to pass, for every day
the possibilities grow fewer, like swallows
in autumn. If you should come looking
for me, you’ll find me here, in Nebraska,
thirty miles south of the broad Platte River,
right under the flyway of dreams.

“A Person of Limited Palette” by Ted Kooser from Splitting an Order. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the anniversary of the Great Blizzard of 1888, a storm that dumped up to 50 inches of snow along the East Coast from Montreal to Washington, D.C. Four hundred people died in the storm, more than 200 of them from New York City, which was hit particularly hard.

Most storms in the Northeast begin with a cold air mass, often centered over New England, but this time that didn’t happen. The days before the storm were mild, with temperatures in the 40s and spring seemingly just around the corner. Two days before the storm was a warm and sunny Saturday, and New Yorkers walked outside, enjoying the greening grass and budding trees. They went shopping or lined up for the opening Barnum & Bailey Circus parade in Manhattan. Sunday March 11th was overcast, with a midday temperature of 42 degrees. The U.S. Army Signal Corps in Washington, D.C., was the go-to weather service, and they were closed on Sundays to observe the Sabbath. However, they had left behind their weather prediction for the coming days: “Fresh to brisk winds, with rain, will prevail, followed by colder brisk westerly winds and fair weather throughout the Atlantic states.”

On Sunday afternoon, the rain came and the temperature slowly began to drop. It reached freezing just after midnight, and the rain turned to snow. The wind speed rose, with gusts of up to 80 mph. By Monday morning, everything in New York City was chaos. Walking in the snow and wind was dangerous, and all trains stopped — one derailed and killed several people. Debris flew through the air. By evening, the temperature was in the single digits. The city’s 6,900 electric lines all stopped working, so no one had telephone or telegraph access. Fancy hotels filled their lobbies with cots for stranded civilians. All stores were closed, mail was stopped, and the city was more or less shut down. The snow drifts were up to 20 feet high, and many of the people who died in the storm were found buried in them. The East River was so blocked with ice that thousands of people treated it like a bridge and walked right across between Brooklyn and Manhattan. After the police realized what was happening they started blocking pedestrians, fearing more deaths.

In its account of the blizzard on March 13th, The New York Times noted that the day before, the usual morning vendors had been missing: milkmen, newspaper boys, and bakers. The reporter wrote: “Thackeray says that it is the small ills of life that worry the most, and probably thousands of New-Yorkers yesterday morning — good, steady churchgoing heads of families when they had to get through their breakfasts without their favorite newspaper, their hot buttered roll, and their fragrant coffee enriched with the boiling milk began to seriously question whether life was worth living after all, with all those trials and tribulations to undergo.”

The Great Blizzard of 1888 caused some huge infrastructure changes in New York City. The above-ground electric lines, gas and water lines, and transit rails not only failed to work during the storm, but they also became a liability, with lines flying through the air, electricity exposed directly to snow and water, and trains derailing. Immediately after the storm, the New-York Tribune wrote an article pressing for a below-ground subway, and the city formulated a plan a few years later.

It’s the birthday of playwright Edward Albee (books by this author), born in 1928. He is the author of many plays, including The Zoo Story (1958), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), and Me, Myself & I (2007).

He said: “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.”

It’s the birthday of Jack Kerouac (books by this author), born Jean-Louis Kerouac, in Lowell, Massachusetts (1922). His parents were from Quebec, and Jack grew up speaking a local French dialect and didn’t start learning English until he was seven years old. He was a track and football star in high school, and he got a football scholarship to Columbia in New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and others who would help found the Beat Movement. It was with Neal Cassady that he would take the momentous cross-country road trip in a Cadillac limousine in 1949, going over 100 miles an hour on two-lane roads until the speedometer broke, the trip that would form the backbone of his book On the Road.

The story about how Kerouac composed On the Road is well-known: He cut up strips of tracing paper so that they’d fit in the typewriter, and he taped them all together so he wouldn’t have to interrupt his flow of writing to adjust or add paper. He wrote the whole thing from start to finish in three weeks, with no paragraph breaks and minimal punctuation; and when he got up from his typewriter, he had in his hands a 119-foot-long scroll of a book that defined his generation. Allen Ginsberg called it ‘‘a magnificent single paragraph several blocks long, rolling, like the road itself.’’ On May 22, 2001, the original draft was sold at an auction for $2.2 million, a record for a literary manuscript at auction.

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