Tuesday Nov. 24, 2015

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Who knew that the sweetest pleasure of my fifty-eighth year
would turn out to be my friendship with the dog?

That his trembling, bowlegged bliss at seeing me stand there with the leash
would give me a feeling I had sought throughout my life?

Now I understand those old ladies walking
their Chihuahuas in the dusk, plastic bag wrapped around one hand,

content with a companionship that, whatever
else you think of it, is totally reliable.

And in the evening, at cocktail hour,
I think tenderly of them

in all of those apartments on the fourteenth floor
holding out a little hotdog on a toothpick

to bestow a luxury on a friend
who knows more about uncomplicated pleasure

than any famous lobbyist for the mortal condition.
These barricades and bulwarks against human loneliness,

they used to fill me with disdain,
but that was before I found out my metaphysical needs
                                                                      could be so easily met

by the wet gaze of a brown-and-white retriever
with a slight infection of the outer ear
                                           and a tail like a windshield wiper.

I did not guess that love would be returned to me
as simply as a stick returned when it was thrown

again and again and again—
in fact, I still don’t exactly comprehend.

What could that possibly have to teach me
about being human?

“Fetch” by Tony Hoagland from Application for Release from the Dream. © Graywolf Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Laurence Sterne (books by this author), born in Clonmel, Ireland (1713). He became an Anglican priest, and he worked in two parishes to make a living. He tried to supplement his income by farming, but he was sick with tuberculosis, so it was hard to run a farm. He was married, but it was an unhappy marriage, and his wife also had tuberculosis, and suffered nervous breakdowns.

During one of his wife’s breakdowns, he was feeling seriously depressed and he started writing a novel. It became The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760), which was a big success throughout Europe. It was funny, it was bawdy, and it had some serious ideas, too. But it’s most famous for being the first novel about writing a novel. The main character keeps interrupting himself, and having imaginary conversations with readers. Because of this, it was very influential about 200 years later to writers who used a stream-of-consciousness style, writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Laurence Sterne wrote: “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; — they are the life, the soul of reading; — take them out of this book for instance, — you might as well take the book along with them.”

On this day in 1434, the River Thames froze over. The freeze lasted until February of 1435. This was not an uncommon occurrence at the time; in fact, one of the earliest records of the Thames freezing hard enough to cross occurred in 250 A.D., when the freeze lasted for a good nine weeks.

The Thames was wider and shallower then — it had yet to be embanked, and was also impeded by the Old London Bridge, so the water flowed more slowly, leaving it more conducive to freezing, which happened often between 1300 and 1870. This time period was known in Europe as the “Little Ice Age” because of the particularly severe temperatures.

But people back then were made of sterner, hardier stock, and they made the best of it. The ice was thick enough to host what were known as “Frost Fairs,” a sort of carnival on the ice. Vendors sold a drink made of wormwood wine and gin called “purl.” It was drunk hot and packed a powerful punch. People enjoyed bull-baiting, puppet shows, nine-pin bowling, and ox-roasting. Boys played games of football on the ice.

During one of the first Frost Fairs (1309), a hare was hunted with dogs over the ice.

During the Frost Fair of 1564, the ice was thick with sleds and coaches, courtiers from Whitehall Palace mixed with commoners, and even Queen Elizabeth came out to practice her archery on the frozen river.

Frost Fairs were often brief, since people had to be aware of rapid thawing, which could cause loss of life and property. In 1789, the melting ice dragged a ship that was anchored to a pub, pulling the building down and crushing five people to death.

The last Frost Fair was held in 1814. The climate was milder, Old London Bridge had been replaced with a new bridge with wider arches, so the Thames flowed more freely. The ice was so thick that year that an elephant was led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge. A piece of gingerbread from the last Frost Fair is on view at the Museum of London.

The last time the Thames froze over was during the brutal winter of 1962, now known as the “Big Freeze.” A lone man was spotted bicycling on the Thames near Windsor Bridge.

It’s the birthday of architect Cass Gilbert, born in Zanesville, Ohio (1859). His father was a surveyor who got a job in St. Paul, Minnesota, and so when Cass was nine years old, he and his family moved to Minnesota to join him. But his father died shortly after the family arrived, and so the boy had to go to work. But his mother also wanted him to continue his education, so he became an apprentice to a draftsman in an architecture office, and worked as a carpenter’s assistant.

He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study architecture, he traveled through Europe to see the great buildings there, and then he worked at a firm in New York. But he went back to Minnesota to start his own business. At first, business was slow — his first major piece of architecture was his mother’s house in St. Paul, and he sold watercolor paintings to supplement his earnings as an architect. But after he was invited to design the Minnesota State Capitol, he started getting commissions, and he went on to design many prominent buildings like the U.S. Custom House, the St. Louis Art Museum and its Public Library, the United States Supreme Court building, and the Woolworth Building in New York City, which was 792 feet tall, making it, at that time, the tallest building in the world.

He said, “Public buildings best serve the public by being beautiful.”

It’s the birthday of novelist and essayist Arundhati Roy (books by this author), born in Shillong, India (1959). She was raised by a single mother and left home when she was 16. She lived in a squatter’s camp, went to architecture school, wrote for television and film, and worked as an aerobics instructor. One day an image came into her mind: a pair of twins sitting in a sky-blue Plymouth in the middle of a Marxist parade route. She wrote that scene, and she didn’t stop for four and a half years, until she had the manuscript of her first novel. She said: “It was the way an architect designs a building. You know, it wasn’t as if I started at the beginning and ended at the end. I would start somewhere and I’d color in a bit and then I would deeply stretch back and then stretch forward. It was like designing an intricately balanced structure and when it was finished it was finished. There were no drafts.” She gave the manuscript to an acquaintance, the writer Pankaj Mishra, who worked for an Indian publishing house. Mishra was so enthusiastic that he sent it immediately to three British publishers. All of them wanted to publish it; one publisher called Roy after reading 30 pages and offered to sign her immediately. Roy told him that she needed to finish the book first. Two days later, he got on a plane to India, and she sold her book. When The God of Small Things (1997) was published, it sold more than 6 million copies and won the Booker Prize, and Roy became an international literary sensation.

She became a controversial political figure after she wrote an essay criticizing nuclear tests carried out by the Hindu nationalist government. Since then, Roy has written essays, articles, and books of nonfiction. She is slowly writing a second novel — she said: “I have been working on it for quite a few years. If those characters are still hanging around in my house, swinging their legs and smoking their cigarette butts, they’re not going to go away.” Her most recent book is Capitalism, A Ghost Story (2014).

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