Wednesday Nov. 1, 2017

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Feeling East

I used to think East
was wherever I pointed my right
hand. I was six, my body
the center of space, the axis
on which directions turned.
When I learned directions
are fixed, that our bodies
move through space
like fish, East became
the sunrise, but, even more so,
the lake. Around Chicago, Lake
Michigan is what is East,
and my body could always feel
its presence. Riding home
from the city, dozing
in the back seat, I always knew
where we were.

Living out West now, I find
directions hazy as smog. My right
hand points to mountains, to palms,
but their presence looms light
in my body. When I get lost,
and I do, I close my eyes
and try to feel East,
tracing sharp shores of memory,
the pull of the lake in my blood,
following the three right turns home.

“Feeling East” by Gayle Brandeis from The Selfless Bliss of the Body. © Finishing Line Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1993, the European Union was formally established. The EU was a product of The Maastricht Treaty, which had been drafted in 1991 by delegates from the European Community Meeting at Maastricht in the Netherlands. They proposed strengthening the European parliament, creating a central European bank, and sharing common citizen rights, security, and foreign policies. The treaty also called for a single European currency, which would come to be known as the “euro.” The idea of Europe forming a kind of super-bloc wasn’t new; the idea had been bandied about by Winston Churchill back in 1946, when he called for a “kind of United States of Europe” in a speech at Zurich University.

By 1993, 12 nations had ratified the Maastricht Treaty, including Great Britain, France, Denmark, the Irish Republic, and Greece. In all, 28 countries decided to join the EU and open their borders to trade and travel.

On Thursday, June 23, 2016, a referendum commonly known as “Brexit” took place in the United Kingdom. “Brexit” was shorthand for whether or not Great Britain should “exit” the EU. Anyone of voting age could take part and nearly 30 million people did. In the end, 51.9 percent of voters voted to leave the European Union.

After the results of the referendum, Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, said: “The victors have the responsibility to act magnanimously. The losers have the responsibility to respect the legitimacy of the result. And the country comes together. Now we need to put an end to the division and the language associated with it — leaver and remainer and all the accompanying insults — and unite to make a success of Brexit and build a truly global Britain.”

It’s the birthday of novelist, journalist, and poet Stephen Crane (books by this author), born in New Jersey in 1871, the youngest of 14 children. He lost his father at the age of nine and his mother at 20. He flunked out of college and was penniless while working on his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893). The novel told the story of a young girl abused by an alcoholic parent, forced into prostitution, and driven to suicide. Crane wrote: “The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle.” When the novel was rejected, and the publisher explained why, Crane responded: “You mean that the story’s too honest?”

No one would publish it because it was too realistic, too depressing. So he borrowed $700 from his brother to have it printed with paper covers, and he only sold 100 copies.

While Crane’s detailed portrayal of suffering made publishers uncomfortable at first, his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage (1895), was wildly successful. His depictions of Civil War battlefields were so accurate that some veterans were convinced they had fought alongside the author, even though Crane was born six years after the war’s end. Beyond his experience playing baseball, he had never seen a battlefield of any kind.

Crane wrote first drafts of both Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and The Red Badge of Courage without naming his protagonists. He considered them “every woman” and “every man,” and through their lives he conveyed larger truths about shared experience. The result was a powerful universal intimacy.

Crane’s interest in presenting the unglamorous details of the real may be traced to his origins as a journalist. Before Crane was a published author, his brother got him a job at a New Jersey newspaper. Crane’s accurate depiction of a labor parade reflected poorly on the paper’s publisher, who was running in an upcoming election. As a result, Crane was fired from the paper — along with his brother.

Undeterred, Crane proved himself a free thinker, unwilling to parrot the party line. He wrote: “‘Think as I think,’ said a man, ‘or you are abominably wicked; you are a toad.’ And after I thought of it, I said, ‘I will, then, be a toad.’”

After the smash success of The Red Badge of Courage, he got himself informally exiled from New York City by writing newspaper articles about the corruption of the city police. A steamer sank while carrying Crane to Cuba, where he had planned to cover the anti-Spanish insurrection. The ordeal inspired his famous short story “The Open Boat” and exacerbated the tuberculosis that killed him four years later, at the age of 28.

“The Open Boat” begins: “None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks. […] A singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.”

It’s the birthday of the sports writer Grantland Rice (books by this author), born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee (1880). The most popular sports writer of his day, he wrote an estimated 67 million words in his 53-year career. In 1925, when other newspapermen were happy with a weekly salary of $50, Grantland Rice was making $1,000 a week, about the same as Babe Ruth.

He was known for the extravagant style he used to describe sporting events; he once compared four Notre Dame football players to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And in addition to his newspaper articles, he also wrote many poems about sports. The well-known saying “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” originated with his poem “Alumnus Football,” which ends with the lines: “For when the One Great Scorer comes / To write against your name, / He marks — not that you won or lost — / But how you played the game.”

Grantland Rice’s own favorite sport was golf. He wrote: “Golf is 20 percent mechanics and technique. The other 80 percent is philosophy, humor, tragedy, romance, melodrama, companionship, camaraderie, cussedness, and conversation.”

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