Here in the Northland, we understand duty – often regardless of whether we want to do it. Remember that late-winter snow that ended February? Whether it was “lake effect” or not, removing it from our walkway and front steps needed doing. So what do we do when it snows? We shovel.
And what do we do when we need to get a blog out – as I promised good people at Lake Superior Magazine that I would do – we blog.
Taking care of obligations reminds me of a lesson from the late Sydney J. Harris, a syndicated columnist based first at the Chicago Daily News and later at the Chicago Sun-Times. He’s always been one of my favorite essayists and published many collections of his columns.
Harris had a simple discipline and philosophy for meeting commitments.
Back in the ’70s I had the privilege of introducing him as a banquet speaker at the Hotel Duluth ballroom (now Greysolon Plaza). He made a fine talk and then accepted questions from the dinner guests. One lady asked, “Mr. Harris, what do you do when you wake up in the morning and can’t think of a subject or don’t feel like writing a column?”
Harris replied, “Madam, I write a column.”
Picking up a pen or picking up a shovel, obligations just don’t go away.
Harris gave me one of his books Winners and Losers, a collection of pithy observations like “A winner listens, a loser just waits until it’s his turn to talk.”
Among his many collections was Pieces of Eight, so named because his essays normally consisted of eight tight paragraphs. His friend, writer Saul Bellow, called him “the perfect master of the short essay form.” Clifton Fadiman once cited him as “America’s finest living aphorist.”
Harris’ essays were usually on a distinct subject, but some columns were an assembly of thoughts at large and contained some gems such as: “The promiscuous labeling of transient celebrities as ‘legends in their own time’ has about as much meaning as being elected to the Shoe Salesman’s Hall of Fame.”
The Duluth News Tribune carried Harris' column until his death in 1986. If you like reading good essays, get a list of his books on Wikipedia, then look for them in your local used bookstore (if you have one) or by title at a used book site like AbeBooks. Don’t search by author or you’ll get all mixed up with other people with the same name. That’s more shoveling than you need to do.
Donn Larson is one of Lake Superior Magazine's editorial advisors.