Saturday Jan. 30, 2016

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At Least

I want to get up early one more morning,
before sunrise. Before the birds, even.
I want to throw cold water on my face
and be at my work table
when the sky lightens and smoke
begins to rise from the chimneys
of the other houses.
I want to see the waves break
on this rocky beach, not just hear them
break as I did all night in my sleep.
I want to see again the ships
that pass through the Strait from every
seafaring country in the world—
old, dirty freighters just barely moving along,
and the swift new cargo vessels
painted every color under the sun
that cut the water as they pass.
I want to keep an eye out for them.
And for the little boat that plies
the water between the ships
and the pilot station near the lighthouse.
I want to see them take a man off the ship
and put another up on board.
I want to spend the day watching this happen
and reach my own conclusions.
I hate to seem greedy—I have so much
to be thankful for already.
But I want to get up early one more morning, at least.
And go to my place with some coffee and wait.
Just wait, to see what’s going to happen.

“At Least” by Raymond Carver from Where Water Comes Together With Other Water. © Vintage Books, 1986. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the 32nd president of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born in Hyde Park, New York (1882). He said: “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

He also said, “I think we consider too much the good luck of the early bird and not enough the bad luck of the early worm.”

And he said, “Remember you are just an extra in everyone else’s play.”

It was on this day in 1972 that British army parachutists shot 27 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland — an event known as “Bloody Sunday.” The protestors had been marching to oppose the new British policy of imprisoning people without a hearing.

The Northern Irish conflict stemmed from a peace treaty signed in 1923, after Ireland’s successful war for independence from Britain. The treaty partitioned Ireland, designating the largely Catholic south as an independent nation, while leaving six counties of Northern Ireland, which had a Protestant majority, as part of the United Kingdom.

On this day, civil rights protestors had planned a march through the city of Derry. The British army set up barricades to reroute the march to a different part of the city, but a group of teenagers broke off from the main marchers. They got to an army barricade, yelled insults at the soldiers, and threw stones. The soldiers shot tear gas and rubber bullets and a water hose at them. Then gunshots were fired, and people starting running away. The British command center sent a cease-fire order, but the soldiers continued to shoot. Twenty-seven people were shot, and 13 died; many were shot in the back while fleeing, and some while they were helping injured people on the ground. All of the protesters were unarmed.

There was a quick investigation, and the tribunal absolved the soldiers of wrongdoing. But not many people agreed, and in 1998 Tony Blair opened a second investigation. That investigation, called the Saville Inquiry, became the biggest and most expensive legal investigation in the history of Britain, costing more than 200 million pounds. The second tribunal published their findings in June of 2010. Their report said that the soldiers lost control, that they fired on unarmed civilians, that they shot people in the back who were fleeing to get away, and that none of the people who died had been posing a threat of death or serious injury. That afternoon on which it was published — June 15, 2010 — British Prime Minister David Cameron got up in front of the House of Commons and apologized on behalf of the British government, and his apology made front-page news around the world.

It’s the birthday of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman (1912) (books by this author), born in New York City. Tuchman won her first Pulitzer Prize for The Guns of August (1963), a best-selling history of the political machinations that led to the eruption of World War I in the summer of 1914. Tuchman preferred a literary approach to writing history, favoring narratives that proved readable and informative. She said: “The writer’s object is — or should be — to hold the reader’s attention. I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning until the end.”

Tuchman studied art history and literature at Radcliffe College before working for the Office of War Information during World War II. She married and had children while doing basic research for her first book, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour (1956).

Before writing The Guns of August, Tuchman rented a Renault and set off on a self-guided tour of the battlefields, taking meticulous notes on 4 x 6 index cards — a convenient size for carrying in her purse.

The Guns of August was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year. President John F. Kennedy received an early copy and became so obsessed with the book that he required his aides to read it, distributed it to U.S. military bases throughout the world, and gave it as gifts to visiting dignitaries. The book was largely responsible for how he handled the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He told his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, “I am not going to follow a course which will allow anyone to write a comparable book about this time, ‘The Missiles of October.’”

Tuchman said: “If a man is a writer, everybody tiptoes around past the locked door of the breadwinner. But if you’re an ordinary female housewife, people say, ‘This is just something Barbara wanted to do; it’s not professional.’”

Tuchman won her second Pulitzer Prize for Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1972), a biography of hard-driving General Joseph Stilwell, an American officer who played a major role in China during World War II. Tuchman’s other books include The Zimmerman Telegram (1958), and A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978).

It’s the birthday of Richard Brautigan (books by this author), born in Tacoma, Washington (1935), best known for his 1967 book Trout Fishing in America, which has sold millions of copies around the world. It’s only 112 pages long, it’s abstract, it doesn’t have much of a plot, and characters in the story reappear in seemingly unrelated incidents. The title “Trout Fishing in America” is also the name of a hotel in the book, and a character in the book, and a sort of adjectival phrase to modify other nouns in the book.

He wrote the book in the summer of 1961, when he was camping with his wife and daughter in the Stanley Basin of Idaho. He’d go for hikes, then plop down alongside some trout stream and write stream-of-consciousness thoughts about the search for the perfect trout stream. The book became a cult hit when it was published later in the ’60s, with the search for the perfect trout stream a metaphor for youthful quests for freedom, idealism, and idyllic lands.

In Trout Fishing in America, Brautigan wrote:

“Everything smelled of sheep. The dandelions were suddenly more sheep than flower, each petal reflecting wool and the sound of a bell ringing off the yellow. But the thing that smelled the most like sheep, was the sun itself. When the sun went behind a cloud, the smell of sheep decreased, like standing on some old guy’s hearing aid, and when the sun came back again, the smell of the sheep was loud, like a clap of thunder inside a cup of coffee.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Shirley Hazzard (books by this author), born in Sydney, Australia (1931). Hazzard is best known for her National Book Award-winning novel, The Great Fire (2003), set in the aftermath of World War II.

Hazzard’s father was an alcoholic and her mother a manic-depressive; they had a terrible marriage. Hazzard’s childhood was difficult and transitory: she lived in six countries before her parents finally settled in New York City. She said, “My parent’s story is a sad one, very much of its era — people who had undeveloped better natures going under to mediocrity.”

She devoured poetry growing up, particularly Wordsworth, Browning, and Auden. She said, “I can only say that I ate and drank them up as nourishment, knowing they could only do me good.” Hazzard has an extraordinary skill for the memorization of poetry and once, at a dinner party, when her friend was asked what book he’d take to a desert island, he answered, “I’ll just take Shirley.”

In the early 1960s, she sent a story to William Maxwell, then the fiction editor for The New Yorker. She hadn’t ever written a story before and didn’t bother to keep a copy. Maxwell sent a check and a note, which said, “Of course I will publish your story.” The story, “Harold,” appeared in her first collection of short stories, Cliffs of Fall and Other Stories (1963). Hazzard’s first novel was The Evening of the Holiday (1967).

Hazzard published a well-received novel, The Transit of Venus (1980), and then waited 23 years before publishing The Great Fire, of which she said: “I wanted to write, perhaps, a story of falling in love. I wanted to be as true as possible to a phenomenon now passing away from our society: the accidental meeting of a man and a woman and a sense of destined engagement that would possibly last out their lives. This, to serve as counterweight to the huge disillusion of a ravaged world.”

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