Saturday Dec. 26, 2015

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Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day

Only a little light remains.
The new football feels heavy
and our throws are awkward
like the conversation of brothers
who see each other occasionally.
After a few exchanges,
confidence grows,
the passing and catching
feels natural and good.
Gradually, we move farther apart,
out in the field,
the space between us
filling with darkness.

He leads me,
lofting perfect spirals
into the night. My eyes
find the clean white laces of the ball.
I let fly a deep pass
to his silhouette.
The return throw
cannot be seen,
yet the ball
falls into my hands, as if
we have established a code
that only brothers know.

"Brothers Playing Catch on Christmas Day” by Gary Short from 10 Moons and 13 Horses. © University of Nevada Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 2004, a tsunami devastated coastlines along the Indian Ocean. It was triggered by an earthquake in the middle of the ocean, 160 miles west of Sumatra. With a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3, the quake was the third strongest ever recorded on a seismograph, and it lasted for up to 10 minutes. It occurred when pressure built up along a 600-mile fault line between two tectonic plates to such a degree that one plate slipped underneath the other. The quake occurred in relatively shallow water, which meant that the energy was not dispersed as much as it would have been in deeper seas. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the quake released energy equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. The quake was so powerful that it vibrated the whole planet and actually changed the Earth’s rotation very slightly.

The shifting of the plates raised the sea floor by about 10 yards, and this displaced massive amounts of water. The tsunami chain that this generated reached the Sumatra coast within 15 minutes. The waves — which started small but grew as high as 50 feet — wiped out whole villages in seconds. The tsunami even claimed lives in South Africa, up to 3,000 miles away from the epicenter of the quake. An estimated 230,000 people from 14 different countries died; half a million more were injured. Five million people required humanitarian aid. A ship weighing almost 3,000 tons was thrown almost a mile inland, where it remains a tourist attraction in Indonesia. But there were very few animal casualties; many people reported seeing animals fleeing for higher ground just minutes before the tsunami struck.

Two years after the quake and tsunami, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System went into operation, and it was successfully put to the test in 2012, when more quakes hit the Indian Ocean.

It was on this day in 1944 that Tennessee Williams’s (books by this author) play The Glass Menagerie premiered in Chicago. It was his first major play. Williams called The Glass Menagerie his “memory play,” and he based the characters loosely on himself, his sister Rose who struggled with mental illness, and their mother. In the play, the siblings’ mother Amanda is desperately trying to find a beau, a “gentleman caller,” for her fragile daughter, Laura.

Williams was an obscure playwright, but his agent managed to convince a man named Eddie Dowling to take on the play as its director, producer, fundraiser, and star. She also convinced the once-famous Laurette Taylor to come out of retirement and accept the role of Amanda. The entire cast drove Williams crazy, especially Taylor, who kept making up lines. A week before opening night, they had a screaming match in which Taylor told Williams that he was a fool and that playwrights made her sick.

Opening night was a failure — people didn’t want to go out the day after Christmas, and there was a terrible blizzard. By the following afternoon, the box office had made just $400 and the company was writing up its closing notice. Luckily for Williams, famed theater critic Claudia Cassidy had been in the audience and published a glowing review in the Chicago Tribune. She and a coworker championed the play, the mayor of Chicago offered half-price tickets to city employees, and by mid-January it was a hit and went on to a successful Broadway run at the end of March. On March 8th, Williams wrote to a friend: “‘The menagerie’ is no lie about this company — and neither is glass! I sometimes wonder if we’ll all really get to New York in one piece. The play backstage is far more exciting than the one on!”

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “One can live in Paris — I discovered that! — on grief and anguish.” American novelist and raconteur Henry Valentine Miller (books by this author) was born in Manhattan (1891). His father was a Bavarian tailor and the family was poor. Miller spent most of his childhood on the streets of Brooklyn. He was a voracious reader, mostly the classics, but lasted only two months at City College before he dropped out. He joined the Socialist Party, worked for a few years at Western Union, and then had an epiphany while working for the Park Department in Queens.

It was 1927 and his wife had left him to travel Europe by herself. He said, “One day, at the end of the day, instead of going home I was seized with this idea of planning the book of my life, and I stayed up all night doing it.” He wrote about all of his experiences up to that point, but changed certain details. This style came to be known as “fictionalized autobiography,” and would heavily influence future Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac. Miller moved to Paris and began writing a book called Tropic of Cancer (1934) with a main character named Henry Miller, whose sexual escapades and philosophical leanings consume him. Miller began an affair with French writer Anaïs Nin, who supported him for 10 years in Paris and helped get his book published.

When Tropic of Cancer was published by Grove Press in America in 1961, it was almost immediately banned on the grounds of obscenity. One Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice said of the book, “It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” There were more than 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states in the U.S. against booksellers that sold it. Tropic of Cancer sold briskly in Europe, though, and Miller became a kind of cult sensation. Writers and artists smuggled his book into the U.S.

It was finally declared a work of literature in 1964 and became an instant best-seller. By that time, Miller was living in Big Sur with his fifth wife, writing, and raising children. He said, “Obscenity is a cleansing process, whereas pornography only adds to the murk.”

Miller’s other books include Tropic of Capricorn (1939) and The Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy (1965).

It’s the birthday of American humorist David Sedaris (books by this author), born near Binghamton, New York (1956) and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. Sedaris is best-known for his comedic memoirs, like Barrel Fever (1999), in which he writes a somewhat embellished version of his life’s experiences. His sister is actress and comedian Amy Sedaris; they’ve collaborated under the name “The Talent Family” and have written half a dozen plays, which have been produced at Lincoln Center and The Drama Department in New York City.

At 20, Sedaris was hitchhiking and picking apples, sometimes renting a room in a boardinghouse. He began keeping a diary because he had no fixed address for people to write to him, so he simply began writing to, and for, himself. He finished his studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he’d begun making his classmates laugh with funny stories during painfully silent critiques. He thought, “I could make this work.”

He mucked about, painting apartments, squirrel-proofing homes, and working as house cleaner while he read his bits at night in Chicago clubs. Ira Glass, the host of public radio’s This American Life, discovered him (1992) and was so charmed by Sedaris that he invited him to read an essay called “The SantaLand Diaries” on Glass’s show. Sedaris read the piece, which concerned his time working as Crumpet the Elf at Macy’s in New York during Christmas season, in his trademark deadpan voice. His appearance was so popular that Glass made him a regular, and Sedaris was offered a publishing contract soon after.

Sedaris’s books include Naked (1997), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013). Sedaris writes often about his family, his obsession with taxidermy, his gayness, and his neuroses. He says: “I just give the illusion of exposing myself, but really, I’m not exposed at all. There’s a real me that’s inside my diary, and then there’s a character of me. Whenever you write about yourself, real people live in the world, and characters live on the page, and you become a character.”

There are over 10 million copies of Sedaris’s books in print. On writing, he says: “Write everyday and read everything you can get your hands on. Write every day with a pen that’s shaped like a candy cane.”

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