Thursday Feb. 5, 2015

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When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.

No, it’s more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

“Adage” by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of writer and comedian Frank Muir (books by this author), born in Ramsgate, England (1920). He didn’t go to college, but he joined the Royal Air Force and wrote some radio comedy shows to entertain soldiers. He got a job writing for the comic actor Jimmy Edwards. Edwards teamed up with the actor Dick Bentley for the BBC radio show Take It from Here Muir hit it off with Bentley’s writer, a man named Denis Norden, and Muir and Norden went on to write and perform together for more than 50 years. After years of writing for radio and television, they started appearing on the radio literary game show My Word! and its spinoff, My Music.

Frank Muir was 6 feet 6 inches, spoke with a lisp, and always wore a pink bow tie. He published a memoir, A Kentish Lad (1997), as well as humorous books like An Irreverent and Almost Complete Social History of the Bathroom (1984), and a novel, The Walpole Orange (1993).

He said: “Strategy is buying a bottle of fine wine when you take a lady out for dinner. Tactics is getting her to drink it.”

And: “Wit is a weapon. Jokes are a masculine way of inflicting superiority. But humor is the pursuit of a gentle grin, usually in solitude.”

Today is the birthday of Christopher Guest, born in New York City in 1948. He’s best known for writing and starring in “mockumentaries” like This is Spinal Tap (1984), Waiting for Guffman (1996), and A Mighty Wind (2004). His father, Peter Haden-Guest, was a British diplomat to the United Nations and a member of the House of Lords, and young Christopher divided his childhood between London and New York. He soon discovered he had a knack for mimicry, and would practice various accents in his family’s tiled New York bathroom because the acoustics were good. He still starts work on a new character by pinning down his voice first.

He gets many of the ideas for his movies by eavesdropping on people around him. Once, he overheard a drawn-out and somewhat absurd conversation between the bass player of a well-known rock band and the band’s manager. The conversation inspired Guest’s most famous film, This is Spinal Tap.

Once Guest has a project underway, he gives each actor a biographical sketch of his or her character and a rough outline of what should happen in any given scene, but leaves the actors to improvise their dialogue. “In real life, people fumble their words,” he says. “They repeat themselves and stare blankly off into space and don’t listen properly to what other people are saying. I find that kind of speech fascinating, but screenwriters never write dialogue like that because it doesn’t look good on the page.”

It’s the birthday of the novelist William S. Burroughs (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914. He didn’t like his wealthy St. Louis community, and he didn’t like Harvard. He kept a ferret and a .32-caliber revolver in his dorm room. He signed up to join the Army, but he got a psychiatric discharge. He worked odd jobs and then moved to New York City, where he met the Beat writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg before they were known. They experimented constantly with drugs, and Burroughs became addicted to morphine and sold heroin in Greenwich Village to support himself.

He moved to Mexico City, and he started writing a memoir of his experience as a drug addict. One night at a party, he and his wife, Joan, agreed to demonstrate how he could shoot a glass off the top of her head. He missed the glass and killed his wife. He said: “I am faced with the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death. It brought me in contact with the invader, the ugly spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I have had no choice but to write my way out.”

His first work, the memoir Junky, was published in 1953, and he wrote many more novels, including Naked Lunch (1959).

It is the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Hofstadter, born 1915 in New York City and best known for his research on the nucleus of the atom. He was the son of a salesman and attended the City College of New York. Hofstadter wanted to major in literature and philosophy until a physics professor told him, “the laws of physics could be tested and those of philosophy could not.” He won the Kenyon Prize for outstanding work in physics and mathematics in 1935.

Hofstadter went on to measure the precise size and shape of the proton and neutron, the particles of the nucleus, winning the Nobel Prize on December 10, 1961, for presenting the first reasonably accurate picture of the structure and composition of atomic neutrons and protons. Hofstadter’s discoveries played an important role in medicine, astronomy, military defense, and many other fields.

It’s the birthday of the playwright John Guare (books by this author), born in New York City in 1938. His family had always had connections to the entertainment world: he had two great-uncles who had been in vaudeville; an uncle who was the head of casting for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; and his father had been an assistant to the playwright George M. Cohan, before winding up with a career on Wall Street, which disappointed him. John Guare said that his parents were unhappy people and lived in their own worlds, so he started living in his own world as well, reading everything he could, from Madame Bovary to Playboy.

One summer, he was on a family vacation in Atlantic Beach with his best friend, Bobby. The boys read an article in Life about a group of 10-year-olds who made a movie out of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer during their summer break. John and Bobby were 11 years old, and they didn’t want to be outdone by some 10-year-olds in a magazine, so John wrote three plays that summer, a trilogy he called Universe. He called up Life to inform them that an 11-year-old had written three plays, but they weren’t interested. So he called Newsday and told them that not only had an 11-year-old written three plays, but also that all the proceeds from the performances were going to be donated to the orphans of Atlantic Beach. But he didn’t get a response. John and Bobby performed the plays in Bobby’s garage for a week, and on the last day, a fancy black car pulled into the driveway, and in it were reporters from Newsday. They wrote up a review and even published photos. Seeing the review in the paper was so exciting for John that he decided to become a playwright.

He went to see a play each week. And once he went to college, he started writing a play each year. He’s written many plays since then, including Muzeeka (1967), The House of Blue Leaves (1971), Landscape of the Body (1977), and his best-known work, Six Degrees of Separation (1991). Six Degrees of Separation is based on a news story that Guare read about a teenage hustler who pretended to be Sidney Poitier’s son and conned his way into the homes of wealthy New Yorkers. In one monologue, a main character, Ouisa, says: “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that a) extremely comforting that we’re so close and b) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close.”

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