Tuesday Jan. 13, 2015

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A gaggle of geese return to our street each winter
while migrating from one place to another.
They arrive in January, around my husband’s birthday,

and I am surprised to find them behind our house,
honking like cab drivers in traffic. Most leave with
babies but one pair can’t manage to have any;

I’ve watched them sit for years on a wet nest of death,
warming unhappiness. It is only when the other
geese swim past them, proudly displaying

a line of live chicks, that they realize they have
failed again, their eggs silent beneath the love
of their feathers. My neighbors and I don’t agree

on much but we all watch these geese from our
windows, with binoculars sometimes, our breakfast
growing cold on the table. We wish the unsuccessful

ones would have a season of luck, their eggs healthy
and well placed, for each of us has known the pleasure
of spring, the way it feels for something closed

to open: the soft, heavenly weather of arrival.

“Geese” by Faith Shearin from Moving the Piano. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Lorrie Moore (books by this author), born in Glens Falls, New York (1957). She said of her childhood: "There was acting, and dressing up. We'd play music, and write crappy songs. We'd draw and paint, and fancy ourselves as artistic. It was part of being a girl in the '60s that you were creative."

She won a short-story prize from Seventeen magazine when she was 19 years old. She was hoping to win the art competition, but since she won the writing one instead, she decided that being a writer was easy and that it would be a good way to make a living. It ended up taking her 10 years to get anything more published, but she stuck with it anyway.

She went to college, then graduate school, and she wrote the stories that became her first book, Self-Help (1985). Looking back, she says that the book had "too many birds and moons, and space aliens, and struggling artists of every stripe, as well as much illness and divorce and other sad facts of family and romantic life." But Self-Help got great reviews, and she has written several more books of short stories and novels, including Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994) and Birds of America (1998), a New York Times best-seller. Her most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (2009), is also a best-seller.

A Gate at the Stairs begins: "The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people's yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job. I was a student and needed babysitting work, and so I would walk from interview to interview in these attractive but wintry neighborhoods, the eerie multitudes of robins pecking at the frozen ground, dun-gray and stricken — though what bird in the best of circumstances does not look a little stricken — until at last, late in my search, at the end of a week, startlingly, the birds had disappeared. I did not want to think about what had happened to them. Or rather, that is an expression — of politeness, a false promise of delicacy — for in fact I wondered about them all the time: imagining them dead, in stunning heaps, in some killing cornfield outside of town, or dropped from the sky in twos and threes, for miles down along the Illinois state line."

It's the birthday of dime novelist Horatio Alger Jr. (books by this author), born in Chelsea, Massachusetts (1832). His father was an extremely strict Unitarian minister. He wouldn't let Horatio do anything other than study and pray, and always under his supervision. His father pressured his son to follow in his footsteps as a minister, so the boy went to Harvard Divinity. He wasn't passionate about it and after graduation he left for Paris, where he got to spend a year living in relative freedom, without his father's watchful presence. When he came home, the Civil War had broken out. He tried to join the Union Army but he had terrible eyesight and he was only 5 feet 2 inches, so he was rejected.

He went ahead and became a minister after all, but his career didn't last long. He was forced to resign after he was accused of having sexual relationships with several boys in his congregation. His influential father managed to cover things up just fine, but that was the end of his career in the ministry. So he turned to writing dime novels for boys, and hit on a huge success with his Ragged Dick series. Over the course of his life, Alger wrote more than 500 novels and short stories, most of them virtually interchangeable. They all featured young, virtuous street urchin boys who saved up their money while other boys gambled it away, and then did something impressive that attracted the attention of rich older men, who became their benefactors and taught them how to prosper in the world of business and the upper middle class. Horatio Alger is credited with popularizing the "rags-to-riches" theme of American literature. And even though he didn't get much literary respect for his books, and he himself couldn't even remember all the titles, he wrote so many books and they were all so successful that he is considered one of the best-selling writers of all time.

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