Monday Dec. 5, 2016

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Think and Do

I always have to be doing something, accomplishing some-
thing, fixing something, going somewhere, feeling purposeful,
useful, competent—even coughing, as I just did, gives me the
satisfaction of having “just cleared something up.” The phone
bill arrives and minutes later I’ve written the check. The world
starts to go to war and I shout, “Hey, wait a second, let’s think
about this!” and they lay down their arms and ruminate. Now
they are frozen in postures of thought, like Rodin’s statue, the
one outside Philosophy Hall at Columbia. His accomplish-
ments are muscular. How could a guy with such big muscles be
thinking so much? It gives you the idea that he’s worked all his
life to get those muscles, and now he has no use for them. It
makes him pensive, sober, even depressed sometimes, and
because his range of motion is nil, he cannot leap down from
the pedestal and attend classes in Philosophy Hall. I am so
lucky to be elastic! I am so happy to be able to think of the
word elastic, and have it snap me back to underwear, which
reminds me: I have to do the laundry soon.

“Think and Do” by Ron Padgett from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died in Vienna on this date in 1791. His cause of death was recorded as “severe miliary fever,” which is really a collection of symptoms like fever and rash, and is not a diagnosis. The composer had been ill for a couple of weeks, complaining of a high fever, headaches, and swelling in his extremities. The swelling got worse and was accompanied by back pain. Witnesses, including Mozart’s son Karl, described a horrible stench. It’s reported that Mozart told his sister-in-law: “Stay with me tonight; you must see me die. I have long had the taste of death on my tongue, I smell death, and who will stand by my Constanze, if you do not stay?” Eventually he went into convulsions, lapsed into a coma, and died. He was 35 years old.

In the two centuries since his death, no fewer than 118 causes of death have been put forward. Some recent theories include rheumatic fever, mercury poisoning, syphilis, a strep infection, kidney disease, and trichinosis from undercooked pork. In the early 19th century, there was a persistent rumor that Mozart was deliberately poisoned — by the Freemasons, or the jealous husband of a lover, or by his creative rival, Antonio Salieri. Mozart himself started the rumor, commenting to his wife Constanze: “I am only too conscious [that] my end will not be long in coming, for sure, someone has poisoned me!”

Even with all our modern scientific advances, we will probably never know for sure what killed the composer, because no one knows for sure where his remains are. He was buried in a common grave along with at least four or five other people — not because he was poor, but because that was the practice in Vienna at that time for anyone who wasn’t royalty. The dead were stripped and sewn into linen shrouds, and then lowered into a communal grave, where they were covered in quicklime to speed up decomposition. After seven years, the remains were dug up and dispersed, and the grave was reused. There is a skull that is purported to be Mozart’s, but DNA tests didn’t match samples taken from the thighbone of his maternal grandmother, and the composer has no living descendants, so results are inconclusive.

It’s the birthday of Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti (books by this author), born in London in 1830.

She published her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), when she was 31 years old. And most people today would probably recognize one of her poems as a well-known Christmas carol.

It begins:

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter
Long ago.

Today is the birthday of Calvin Trillin (1935) (books by this author), the American journalist and humorist who writes about food, sexy carwashes, how to find a parking spot in Manhattan, and seat belts for dogs. When asked about being funny, he replied, “I always thought of writing humor as some sort of little, weird thing that I could do in the way some people could play the piano.”

Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri. His father was a grocer who wanted Trillin to be president someday, but Trillin preferred to daydream about being a disc jockey. He admits he didn’t read much as kid, but at Yale University he became the chairman of the Yale Daily News and later covered civil rights for Time Magazine before becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker (1963), where he stayed for more than 40 years. Trillin writes most often about American politics, culture, and food. One critic said, “Trillin is to food writing what Chaplin was to film acting.”

Trillin writes a short column for The Nation called “Deadline Poet,” in which he pokes fun at politics and politicians. He once wrote a ditty called “If You Knew What Sununu” about New Hampshire Governor John Sununu and a short poem about Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign: “So if playing the “woman card” really / Is entrenched now in Hillary’s plans, / She’s a bargain: Her president’s paycheck / Will be 10 percent less than a man’s.”

Calvin Trillin once wrote about a chicken in Chinatown that could beat humans at games of tic-tac-toe. His latest book is Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America (2016).

It’s the birthday of American essayist, novelist, and memoirist Joan Didion (1934) (books by this author). Much of Didion’s work is centered on Californian culture and examines the disintegration of American morals. She’s best known for penetrating, acerbic novels like Play It As It Lays (1970) and her collection of essays, The White Album (1979). The title essay of that book became famous for its first line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

It’s the birthday of nonfiction writer John Berendt (books by this author), born in Syracuse, New York (1939). He went to Harvard, wrote for the Harvard Lampoon, and after college he got a job at Esquire. He worked on and off at the magazine for more than 30 years. One day in 1982, he was feeling overwhelmed by life in the big city and he found a cheap weekend flight to Savannah, Georgia, so he went on a vacation. And he loved it. He especially liked the people who lived there and the stories they told. So he started listening to stories, taking notes, and he finally decided to just go ahead and move to Savannah. He lived there for five years, and then he went back to New York and he wrote a book. That book was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), and it was a huge best-seller, on the New York Times best-seller list for more than four years, something that Berendt was not expecting. He said: “First, I wanted people to say — or critics to say, ‘Yeah, it’s a book. This man, who writes columns and magazine articles, has written a book.’ Then I hoped they would say, ‘It’s a good book,’ and possibly, ‘It’s a very good book.’ But I wasn’t really thinking of sales. … It didn’t occur to me to even hope for that.”

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