Wednesday Jan. 14, 2015

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The Age of Reason

“When can we have cake?” she wants to know.
And patiently we explain: when dinner’s finished.
Someone wants seconds; and wouldn’t she like to try,
while she’s waiting, a healthful lettuce leaf?
The birthday girl can’t hide her grief—

worse, everybody laughs. That makes her sink
two rabbity, gapped teeth, acquired this year,
into a quivering lip, which puts an end
to tears but not the tedium she’ll take
in life before she’s given cake:

“When I turned seven, now,” her grandpa says,
“the priest told me I’d reached the age of reason.
That means you’re old enough to tell what’s right
from wrong. Make decisions on your own.”
Her big eyes brighten. “So you mean

I can decide to open presents first?”
Laughter again (she joins it) as the reward
of devil’s food is brought in on a tray.
“You know why we were taught that?” asks my father.
“No.” I light a candle, then another

in a chain. “—So we wouldn’t burn in Hell.”
A balloon pops in the other room; distracted,
she innocently misses talk of nuns’
severities I never knew at seven.
By then, we were Unitarian

and marched off weekly, dutifully, to hear
nothing in particular. “Ready!”
I call, and we huddle close to sing
something akin, you’d have to say, to prayer.
Good God, her hair—

one beribboned pigtail has swung low
as she leans to trade the year in for a wish;
before she blows it out, the camera’s flash
captures a mother’s hand, all hope, no blame,
saving her from the flame.

"The Age of Reason" by Mary Jo Salter, from Sunday Skaters. © Knopf. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

On this date in 1943, Franklin Roosevelt completed the first airplane journey by a sitting president. He needed to get to the Casablanca Conference in Morocco to discuss strategy with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. German U-boats were making sea travel too perilous, so his advisors agreed — somewhat reluctantly — that air travel was the best option. Roosevelt left Florida in a Boeing 314 Flying Boat. Nicknamed the Dixie Clipper, the 314 was a commercial, rather than a military, seaplane, and it was fitted out comfortably with beds and a lounge area.

They departed from Florida, and the journey took four days, due to frequent refueling stops. They flew from Trinidad to Brazil, then across the Atlantic to Gambia, and then on to Morocco. Roosevelt, 60 years old and somewhat frail, suffered some from the high altitude, and had to be given oxygen, but he was in good spirits. He celebrated his 61st birthday on the return journey, enjoying a birthday luncheon over Haiti.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Mary Robison (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1949).

She grew up in Ohio with five brothers and two sisters. She ran away from home twice when she was young, one of those times going to Florida to look for Jack Kerouac. She always wanted to be a writer, and she kept journals and diaries and wrote poetry as a teenager. She started writing seriously when she enrolled at Johns Hopkins University, where she worked with the novelist John Barth. She said of Barth, "The man was magic. I'd be helping in some beauty shop if it wasn't for him."

She published a short story called "Sisters" in The New Yorker magazine in 1977, and within a few years she began to be lumped in with writers like Raymond Carver and Amy Hempl, who wrote about ordinary people in a stripped-down prose style. These writers were called minimalists, but Robison said: "I detested the term. I thought it reductive, misleading, inconclusive and insulting. It was the school that no one ever wanted to be in. They'd bring your name up just to kick you."

She published a few collections in the 1980s, including An Amateur's Guide to the Night (1983) and Believe Them (1988). In the 1990s, she was struck with a terrible case of writer's block. She said: "For about 10 years I didn't publish much of anything, and I didn't have anything. I had nothing, and I really didn't know if I ever would again. ... It's about pride, really; feeling the words on the page can never represent you. It's the worst thing you can learn about yourself. You could go mad."

After a while of being unable to write anything, Robison began taking drastic measures. She started driving around in her car with a tape recorder, and whenever anything came into her head, she would just scream it into the tape recorder. Then she'd go home and write these things down on note cards. Eventually she had about a thousand note cards, and she realized that with a little work she could arrange them into a novel.

The result was her book Why Did I Ever (2001), a very short novel told in 536 very short chapters about a woman named Money Breton, divorced three times, who's addicted to Ritalin and trying to support herself as a screenwriter.

Her most recent book is a novel called One D.O.A., One on the Way (2009).

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