Wednesday Jul. 20, 2016

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Here In The Psalm

I am a sheep
and I like it
because the grass
I lie down in
feels good and the still
waters are restful and right
there if I’m thirsty
and though some valleys
are very chilly there is a long
rod that prods me so I
direct my hooves
the right way
though today
I’m trying hard
to sit at a table
because it’s expected
required really
and my enemies—
it turns out I have enemies—
are watching me eat and
spill my drink
but I don’t worry because
all my enemies do
is watch and I know
I’m safe if I will
just do my best
as I sit on this chair
that wobbles a bit
in the grass
on the side of a hill.

“Here In The Psalm” by Sally Fisher from Good Question. © Bright Hills Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first men to set foot on the moon on this day in 1969. Neil Armstrong was the first to walk on the moon, because he was closest to the door of the tiny lunar module, which had landed in an area known as the Sea of Tranquility. When his feet touched the ground Neil Armstrong spoke the famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” He claims that he said, “That’s one small step for a man” but the transmission cut out during the “a.”

Buzz Aldrin called for a moment of silence shortly after the landing to give thanks for their survival. He took communion with a wafer and a tiny chalice of wine. He described the moon: “Beautiful! Beautiful! Magnificent desolation.”

When the crew took off their helmets after climbing back into the Eagle spaceship, they told the NASA people back in Houston that something smelled like “wet ashes in a fireplace” or “spent gunpowder.” It was the smell of moondust.

When Neil Armstrong got back he talked about looking at Earth from space: he said: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Buzz Aldrin filled out a trip expense report in Houston after their return. He was reimbursed $33.31.

Neil Armstrong died four years ago, Buzz Aldrin is now 86 and lives in Montclair, NJ.

Mark Twain’s book Innocents Abroad was published on this day in 1869 (books by this author). It was his second book and within a year sold over 70,000 copies, and it remained his best-selling book during his life. It’s a travel book that began as a series of letters written for a San Francisco paper, which Twain had convinced to send him to Europe and the Holy Land in 1867. The boat was stuck in the New York harbor its first day while a storm blew over, and Twain wrote: “One could not promenade without risking his neck; at one moment the bowsprit was taking a deadly aim at the sun in midheaven, and at the next it was trying to harpoon a shark in the bottom of the ocean. By some happy fortune I was not seasick. If there is one thing in the world that will make a man peculiarly and insufferably self-conceited, it is to have his stomach behave itself, the first day at sea, when nearly all his comrades are seasick.”

It’s the birthday of American writer Cormac McCarthy (books by this author), best known for his violent novels that portray the American West in an apocalyptic light, like Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West (1985) and No Country for Old Men (2005), which was also made into a film by the Coen Brothers (2007).

McCarthy was born in Rhode Island (1933) but raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. His father was a prominent lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority. McCarthy was born Charles but renamed himself Cormac after the Irish King. He was raised Roman Catholic and went to the University of Tennessee in the early 1950s, but left to join the Air Force for four years. He spent two of those years in Alaska, where he hosted a radio show and started reading a lot of books. He fell in love with the writing of William Faulkner and Herman Melville, and when he went back to college, he started writing stories in that vein: lyrical, somewhat violent fables of rough lives and lost people. He didn’t apologize for styling himself after writers he loved. He said: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”

He began writing a novel called The Orchard Keeper at the University of Tennessee. He sent it to Random House because he claimed that was the only publishing house he knew. William Faulkner’s longtime editor, Albert Erskine, found the manuscript and signed McCarthy. The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965 to good reviews, but not much financial success.

McCarthy kept writing, supporting himself mainly through arts fellowships. He used one fellowship to travel to Ireland and ended up meeting a dancer on the ocean liner and married her in England in 1966. They lived for a time on the island of Ibiza, where he wrote another novel, Outer Dark (1968). They returned to Tennessee and lived in a rented house on a pig farm, using the lake for baths. Later, McCarthy bought an old barn and renovated it himself. He used bricks from James Agee’s old house for the fireplace.

After a divorce, he found himself in El Paso, living in a motel and living hand to mouth, writing furiously and drinking a lot. He didn’t mind the vagabond life and even traveled with a high-watt light bulb in a lens case so he could replace the weak light bulbs in motel rooms and work on his books.

He stopped drinking and finished a novel called Suttree (1979) after working on it for 20 years. It received critical acclaim, but made no money. McCarthy won a MacArthur “Genius” grant, which he lived on while he wrote Blood Meridian (1985), an apocalyptic Western set in 1840s Texas. He even learned Spanish to write parts of the novel. It wasn’t until he published All the Pretty Horses (1992) that he had a best-seller. It was an instant sensation, selling 160,000 copies in six months. Suddenly, he was famous, and he didn’t much like it, refusing most interviews, telling one interviewer he liked rattlesnakes, molecular computers, country music, and the philosophy of Wittgenstein, but not talking about writing. He said: “Of all the subjects I’m interested in, it would be extremely difficult to find one I wasn’t. Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.”

McCarthy wrote for years on an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter, which he purchased in a pawnshop in Knoxville for $50. He says he typed more than 5 million words on that machine. He let the typewriter go to auction at Christie’s in 2009, where it was purchased for almost $250,000. The proceeds benefited the Santa Fe Institute, a scientific interdisciplinary think tank where he is writer in residence. A friend bought him another Olivetti for $11.

Cormac McCarthy’s other novels include The Crossing (1994), Cities of the Plain (1998), and The Road (2006), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. When asked about his propensity for violent storytelling and bleak characters, he said: “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

It’s the birthday of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca (books by this author), better known as Petrarch, born in 1304 in Arezzo, Tuscany. As a teenager, he developed what he later called “an unquenchable thirst for literature,” in spite of his father’s insistence that he study law. He loved Classical literature above all, and he was also a devout Catholic; he saw continuity in the ideals of the classics and the Bible, and managed to combine the best of both into one worldview. That’s why he’s considered the father of European humanism. When his father died in 1326, Petrarch left his law studies and went to Avignon, where he worked in clerical positions that allowed him time to work on his own writing. In 1341, Rome and Paris both wanted to crown him their poet laureate; with his love of the classics, Rome was really his only choice. He was crowned on April 8, on Capitoline Hill, the first poet laureate in a thousand years, and when the ceremony was finished, he place his laurel wreath in St. Peter’s Basilica, on the apostle’s tomb.

On April 6, 1327, in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon, he first saw a woman we know only as “Laura.” We don’t know why she rejected him, or if they even spoke at all, and we don’t know anything about who she was. He revealed nothing about her, but wrote a series of poems about her over the course of 40 years, not in Latin but in everyday Italian. His unrequited love for her is central to the collection, but he was also pondering religion, poetry, and politics. Out of the 366 poems in the collection, 316 of them were in sonnet form, and he gave his name to that particular style of sonnet, which we now know as “Italian” or “Petrarchan.” As a body of work, Il Canzoniere, or “The Songbook,” as the collection is called, traces not only his feelings for her, but also the evolution of his own spiritual life, and his renunciation of the world in favor of trust in God.

The plague, known as the Black Death, claimed many of his friends in 1348. Laura was one of its victims. She died on April 6, 21 years to the day after he first saw her. Petrarch himself died in 1374, with his head resting on a manuscript by Virgil.

Petrarch wrote:
“She ruled in beauty o’er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
’Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.”

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