Sunday Mar. 20, 2016

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I Ride Greyhound

because it’s like being
in a John Steinbeck novel.
Next best thing is the laundromat.
That’s where all people
who would be on the bus if they had the money
hang out. This is my crowd.
Tonight there are cleaning people appalled
at the stupidity of anyone
who would put powder detergent
into the clearly marked LIQUID ONLY slot.
The couple by the vending machine
are fondling each other.
You’d think the orange walls
and fluorescent lights
would dampen that energy
but it doesn’t seem to.
It’s a singles scene here on Saturday nights.
I confide to the fellow next to me
that I suspect I am being taken
in by the triple loader,
maybe it doesn’t hold any more
than the regular machines
but I’m paying an extra fifty cents.
I tell him this meaningfully
holding handfuls of underwear.
He claims the triple loader
gives a better wash.
I don’t ask why,
just cruise over to the pop machine,
aware that my selection
may provide a subtle clue.
I choose Wild Berry,
head back to my clothes.

“I Ride Greyhound” by Ellie Schoenfeld from The Dark Honey. © Clover Valley Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the first day of spring. The vernal equinox occurs today, the time when the Earth’s axis is not turned toward the sun (summer, for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere), or away from it (winter), but is aligned with the center of the sun. The word equinox comes from Latin: aequus means equal, level, or calm; nox means night, or darkness. The equinox, in spring or fall, is a time when the day and night are as close to equal as they ever are, and when the hours of night are exactly equal for people living equidistant from the equator either north or south.

It was on this day in 1852 that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published (books by this author). She lived with her husband in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slave state. She was upset by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forced both authorities and private individuals in the Northern free states to cooperate with the slave states to track down and return slaves. So she decided to write a book about slavery. She couldn’t figure out a plot, until one day, while she was in church, she had a vision of an old slave. He became Uncle Tom, and she started writing. In 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, selling 10,000 copies in its first week, and about 2 million copies by 1857.

It’s the birthday of playwright Henrik Ibsen (books by this author), born in Skien, Norway (1828). His father was a merchant, but when the boy was seven, his father’s business failed and the affluent family lost all their money. Their friends abandoned them, they moved to a dilapidated country house, and his parents couldn’t afford to continue their son’s schooling beyond the age of 15. Ibsen was apprenticed to an apothecary in a very small town. He didn’t make friends easily; instead, he used what little spare time he had in the evenings to write and paint. He studied Latin to prepare for university entrance exams, and he became so interested in Cicero’s speeches that he wrote his first play, Catilina, about a rebellious Roman senator who featured heavily in Cicero’s work. One of Ibsen’s friends, who had inherited some money, published the play at his own expense under the pseudonym Brynjolf Bjarme, but no one wanted to produce the play and it didn’t sell many copies.

In 1850, after six years with the apothecary, Ibsen moved to Norway’s capital city of Christiania (now Oslo). He intended to study medicine at the university, but he failed his entrance exams. That same year, his second play, The Burial Mound, was staged, but it was a flop. Soon after, he met Ole Bull, a famous violinist and a passionate champion of restoring Norwegian culture — Norway was recently independent of Denmark, who had occupied it for more than 400 years. Bull was in the process of co-founding a theater in Bergen — it would be the first theater in which actors spoke in Norwegian instead of Danish. Despite Ibsen’s recent failures, Bull recognized the young man’s talent, and offered him a position as a writer and manager at the new theater. There, Ibsen staged more than 140 plays, including five original works, and received a crash course in all aspects of theater work. From there, he went on to manage a new theater in Christiania, but it was a disaster — he was constantly attacked in the press, and the theater eventually went bankrupt. Ibsen was living in poverty, drinking constantly, and his writing suffered. He was turned down for government grants. Finally, some of his worried friends raised private funds to supplement a small government grant and send him to Rome to work.

Ibsen fell in love with Rome. He enjoyed the warmth and sunshine, the art and relics, the people, and the landscape. He found no shortage of inspiration. In January of 1865, he wrote to a friend: “How glorious nature is down here! Both in form and color there is an indescribable harmony. I often lie for half a day among the tombs on the Via Latina, or on the old Appian Way; and I do not think this idling can be called waste of time.” He then asked his friend for more money, and added: “You may be quite certain that I shall join forces with you cordially in everything when I get home; for home I shall go, although I believe I said the contrary in the letter which I now wish and hope you may not have read.”

That year he finished his play Brand (1866), a tragedy about a priest so committed to his rigid moral code that he loses his family. A year later, he published Peer Gynt (1867), a satire of Norwegian culture based loosely on a fairy tale. These two plays made Ibsen famous and brought him critical and commercial success. Despite his promise to his friend, he didn’t return home for 27 years.

Ibsen’s other plays include Pillars of Society (1877), A Doll’s House (1879), Ghosts (1881), An Enemy of the People (1882), and Hedda Gabler (1890).

He said, “You should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth.”

Today we celebrate the birthday of dime novelist Ned Buntline (books by this author), born Edward Zane Carroll Judson in Harpersfield, New York (1823) — probably, but not certainly, on this day.

As a boy, he got in a fight with his father and ran away to sea. He started out as a cabin boy, but as a teenager he rescued the drowning crew of a boat, and President Van Buren was so impressed that he appointed the young man a midshipman, a low rank of officer. Some of the other officers refused to eat or socialize with him because he had been a regular sailor. In response, he challenged 13 officers to a duel in one day, and seven of them accepted. He wounded four of them and was completely unhurt himself, and after that, everyone accepted him.

After a few years at sea, he decided to take up writing sensational adventure stories. He took his pseudonym, Ned Buntline, from the “buntline” knot that went at the foot of a square sail. He started out writing about gangs and violence in New York — he had firsthand knowledge of that world, being involved in gang wars himself.

After years of setting his popular dime novels in the seedy underbelly of New York, he took a trip out West, and he realized that it was the ideal setting for the type of stories he wanted to tell. He met Buffalo Bill Cody, and adapted his adventures into wildly popular and exaggerated stories, a series called Buffalo Bill Cody — King of the Border Men. It was so successful that he made the stories into a play, Scouts of the Prairie, and he managed to convince the reluctant Buffalo Bill to come play himself in the production. Buffalo Bill and Ned himself were terrible actors, and the critics weren’t impressed — the drama critic for the Chicago Times wrote: “On the whole, it is not probable that Chicago will ever look upon the like again. Such a combination of incongruous drama, execrable acting, renowned performers, mixed audience, intolerable stench, scalping, blood and thunder, is not likely to be vouchsafed to a city for a second time — even Chicago.” A critic for the New York Herald wrote that Buntline played his part “as badly as is possible for any human being to represent it.” But despite the opinions of the critics, Scouts of the Prairie was a commercial and financial hit, and it toured all over the country. Ned Buntline and Buffalo Bill parted ways after that, but Buntline had made the Western hero so famous that he was able to open his own show, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” and Bill’s story had set Buntline on his path to earn more money from his writing than any other author in the country.

Buntline’s life was one big adventure, and he didn’t slow down even after he became wealthy and famous. He fought in the Everglades in the Second Seminole War, and was an officer in the Civil War until he was given a dishonorable discharge for drunkenness. He went around preaching temperance despite his own outrageous drinking habits — he interrupted every show of Scouts of the Prairie for a temperance lecture, and he was frequently drunk during those lectures. He was thrashed in public in the streets of New York City by a woman who was the target of gossip in his magazine. He incited several riots. He got in plenty of trouble with women, too — he was married seven times, and was jailed for bigamy. At one point he was flirting with a married teenager named Mary Porterfield. Her husband, Robert, challenged Buntline to a duel, which of course he accepted, and he killed Robert Porterfield. The angry townspeople attempted to lynch Buntline, and in fact they strung him up and hanged him from an awning post. At the last minute, his friends cut the rope and he managed to survive.

In 1886, as Ned Buntline lay dying, he wrote a poem, which ends:

Counting time by ticking clock,
Waiting for the final shock —
Waiting for the dark forever —
Oh, how slow the moments go,
None but I, me seems, can know
How close the tideless river.

He died in 1886, by which time he had already sent out several false obituaries, further exaggerating his life and claiming that he had been a colonel in the Civil War. At least three of his wives or ex-wives attempted to claim that they were his official widow.

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