Wednesday Mar. 30, 2016

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notes upon a hot streak

I have been driving to the racetrack
for thirty years now
in some of the worst junk cars
I have outlived most of the parking lot
but now as I drive up in a new BMW
some of them remember me from the
old days
“hey, champ,” they say, “how’s it
“it’s going good,” I tell them.
“got a good one for me, champ?”
they ask
I wink and drive on in.

they think I am making it at the
races, they think I have solved the

“hey, champ, who was that young girl
you were with the other day?”

I drive on in.

I play the horses like other men
play chess:
make the proper moves and make
them well.
and lately, after all these years,
I have begun to win and I leave
with little bundles of money each

it’s a very odd feeling
but I accept it,
use valet parking
to the clubhouse.

it is a lovable comedy:
both the writing and the
they are letting me win
for this moment.

but the attendants seem to think
that I know some secret:
“you’re looking good, champ,
just give me one good one and
I won’t bother you anymore!”

I smile and drive on in.

“notes upon a hot streak” by Charles Bukowski from Dangling in the Tournefortia. © Black Sparrow Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1867, the United States agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for the sum of $7.2 million. It had belonged to Russia for about 125 years, since Russians had been the first European explorers to get to the place and had proclaimed it their territory in 1741.

On this day in 1858, Hymen Lipman of Philadelphia patented the first pencil to have an attached eraser. The eraser-tipped pencil is still something of an American phenomenon; most European pencils are still eraserless. The humble pencil has a long and storied history, going back to the Roman stylus, which was sometimes made of lead, and why we still call the business end of the pencil the “lead,” even though it’s been made of nontoxic graphite since 1564.

Pencils were first mass-produced in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1662, and the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century really allowed the manufacture to flourish. Before he became known for Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau and his father were famous for manufacturing the hardest, blackest pencils in the United States. Edison was fond of short pencils that fit neatly into a vest pocket, readily accessible for the jotting down of ideas. John Steinbeck loved the pencil and started every day with 24 freshly sharpened ones; it’s said that he went through 300 pencils in writing East of Eden (1952), and used 60 a day on The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Cannery Row (1945).

Our common pencils are hexagonal to keep them from rolling off the table, and they’re yellow because the best graphite came from China, and yellow is traditionally associated with Chinese royalty. A single pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, or write around 45,000 words. And if you make a mistake, thanks to Hymen Lipman, you’ve probably got an eraser handy.

It’s the birthday of playwright Seán O’Casey (books by this author), born in Dublin, Ireland (1880). His father died when he was a boy, leaving behind a family of 13, and O’Casey struggled with poor eyesight. He left school at the age of 14, not long after he had finally taught himself to read and write. He went to work in the stockroom of a hardware store, then as a clerk, then a manual laborer; and during these years he fell in love with reading. He would buy or steal books every chance he could, and he had an amazing memory, so he could recite long passages from Shakespeare or Whitman to whoever would listen.

Over the years, O’Casey became interested in the Irish nationalist cause, and in the struggles of working-class Dubliners. He taught himself the Irish language, and he learned to play a traditional Irish instrument called the uilleann pipes. He joined a pipe band that traveled around the countryside, and in a small town called Lusk he met Thomas Ashe, a school principal who had founded a pipe band there. Ashe was a nationalist revolutionary, and he went on to fight in the 1916 Easter Rising, an uprising intended to end British rule of Ireland. Ashe was imprisoned and died in a hunger strike.

O’Casey was already dabbling in writing plays when Ashe died in 1917, and his anger at his friend’s death inspired an outpouring of writing, and his first published work. He wrote two poems, “Lament for Thomas Ashe” and “Thomas Ashe,” as well as two prose pamphlets. He wrote: “As you fought the good fight so we’ll fight to be free, / ’Gainst all the vain pomp of their princes and powers, / Made strong by the thought of dear vengeance for thee!”

He continued to write, focusing on drama. The drama club arm of O’Casey’s pipe band commissioned a play from him, but once he had finished The Frost in the Flower, they refused to stage it, fearing that it too obviously satirized some of their own leaders. O’Casey submitted it to the famous Abbey Theatre, and they also turned it down, but encouraged him to keep writing. O’Casey wrote another play, The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), the story of a poor poet who is mistaken for an Irish Republican Army fighter, and decides to go along with the confusion since it is getting him attention from a pretty woman. This was the first of three plays known as O’Casey’s “Dublin Trilogy,” and all three were performed at the Abbey. The second was Juno and the Paycock (1924), and the third was The Plough and the Stars (1926).

The Plough and the Stars was set during the Easter Rising, and some felt that O’Casey was too negative toward the nationalist heroes of the struggle — he mocked their leader as bloodthirsty, and showed the terrible effects that the violence had on working-class Dubliners. Others disliked his frank attitude toward sex and religion. For the first performance, a huge crowd lined up outside the theater to get in, and afterward the audience shouted for the playwright to come on stage and gave him a standing ovation. But a few nights later, when the character of a prostitute showed up in Act II, the audience actually rioted. W.B. Yeats, who was attending the play, stood up and reprimanded his fellow audience members, telling them that they had disgraced themselves.

O’Casey went to London to help with a production of Juno and the Paycock, and he fell in love there and got married. Soon after, the Abbey Theatre rejected O’Casey’s next play, The Silver Tassie. Furious, O’Casey decided to remain in England, and he never returned.

His other works include The End of the Beginning (1937), Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949), and Niall: A Lament (1991).

It’s the birthday of the artist who wrote, “To do good work, one must eat well, be well housed, have one’s fling from time to time, smoke one’s pipe, and drink one’s coffee in peace”: Vincent van Gogh, born in Groot-Zundert, Holland, in 1853. Not much is known about his childhood, except that he was one of six children, a quiet boy, not especially drawn to artistic pursuits. He worked for a time in an art gallery in The Hague as a young man, then left to follow in his clergyman father’s footsteps as a sort of missionary to the poor. His behavior was erratic, but his family supported him as best they could. And while he didn’t last too long as an evangelist, he felt a kinship with the working classes — an affinity demonstrated again and again in his painting.

It was his brother Theo who urged Vincent to become an artist. Vincent had never had any formal training, nor displayed any overt talent, and he was doubtful about his chances for success, as were his parents. But Theo was persistent, and he would prove to be Vincent’s unfailing source of financial, emotional, and artistic support. Vincent taught himself to draw, and later took lessons. By 1886, he moved to Paris to live with Theo, and discovered that the muted palette he had used in his early work was woefully out of date. He adapted without too much trouble to the more vibrant hues of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, and it wasn’t long before he began to view color as the chief conveyer of emotion, even using it to illustrate abstract themes.

In 1888, he moved to the south of France, to Arles, in search of light and sun, hoping to form an artists’ colony with his friend Paul Gauguin. He began painting sunflowers to decorate Gauguin’s bedroom, and later, Gauguin would write of their time together: “In my yellow room, sunflowers with purple eyes stand out against a yellow background; the ends of their stalks bathe in a yellow pot on a yellow table. In one corner of the painting, the painter’s signature: Vincent. And the yellow sun, coming through the yellow curtains of my room, floods all this flowering with gold, and in the morning, when I wake up in my bed, I have the impression that it all smells very good. Oh yes! he loved yellow, did good Vincent, the painter from Holland, gleams of sunlight warming his soul, which detested fog. A craving for warmth. When the two of us were together in Arles, both of us insane, and constantly at war over beautiful colors, I adored red; where could I find a perfect vermilion? He, taking his yellowest brush, wrote on the suddenly purple wall: I am whole in spirit. I am the Holy Spirit.”

He wrote to Theo constantly from Arles, describing the landscape and his work in vivid terms. In 1888, he described his work on his painting “Night Café”: “I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can destroy oneself, go mad, or commit a crime. In short, I have tried, by contrasting soft pink with blood-red and wine-red, soft Louis XV-green and Veronese green with yellow-greens and harsh blue-greens, all this in an atmosphere of an infernal furnace in pale sulphur, to express the powers of darkness in a common tavern.”

Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum in 1888. His behavior is consistent with what we now call manic depression or bipolar disorder, and he also suffered seizures due to temporal lobe epilepsy. He worked at an incredible pace during this time, although painting for long stretches was difficult for him, and he produced “Starry Night,” one of his most famous works. Two years later, he left the asylum but his frenetic pace continued, and he produced a painting almost daily. He believed himself a failure, although he never gave up hope of success; he wrote to Theo: “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.” He walked out one July afternoon in 1890 and shot himself, dying of the wound two days later. Theo died six months later, and the two are buried side by side in Auvers-sur-Oise.

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