Friday Aug. 14, 2015

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Driving West

Though the landscape subtly changes,
the mountains are marching in place.

The grasses take on the fading
yellows of the sun,

and cows with their sumptuous eyes
litter the fields as if they had grown there.

We have driven for hours
through bluing shadows,

as if the continent itself leaned west
and we had no choice but to follow the old ruts—

the wagons and horses, the iron snort
of a locomotive. We are the pioneers

of our own histories, drawn
to the horizon as if it waited just for us

the way the young are drawn
to the future, the old to the past.

“Driving West” by Linda Pastan from Traveling Light. © Norton, 2011. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Russell Baker (books by this author), born in Loudoun County, Virginia (1925). He is the author of many books of essays, including Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972), So This Is Depravity (1980), and the memoir Growing Up (1982).

It’s the 70th birthday of humorist Steve Martin (books by this author), born in Waco, Texas (1945). He’s known as a comedian and actor, but he has also written several plays and novels, including WASP (1995), Shopgirl (2000), and An Object of Beauty (2010). Earlier this year, Martin was honored with the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

He said: “The real joy is in constructing a sentence. But I see myself as an actor first because writing is what you do when you are ready and acting is what you do when someone else is ready.”

It’s the birthday of American cartoonist Gary Larson (1950) (books by this author), the creator of The Far Side, a single-panel comic that ran from 1980 to 1995 and became beloved for its anthropomorphic deer, birds, cats, dogs, dinosaurs, snakes, vipers, and cows, often drawn with cat-eye glasses and beehive hairdos. He grew up in Tacoma, Washington.

After college, he began drawing a comic called Nature’s Way for The Seattle Times. It displayed much of what The Far Side would perfect: a combination of attitude and irony tethered to the craft of comic art. And it had cows. Lots of cows. But it was placed next to a children’s crossword called “Junior Jumbo” and people complained, calling it “incomprehensible.” On vacation from his job as a cruelty investigator for the Humane Society, he drove to San Francisco and dropped his portfolio at the San Francisco Chronicle. They offered him a job, but wanted to change the title. “They could have called it Revenge of the Zucchini People for all I cared,” Larson said. A week later, he was dropped from The Seattle Times and The Far Side was born. Collections of Far Side cartoons have sold more than 45 million copies worldwide.

In Larson’s world, a man sits on a bed in a disheveled room, staring at a chicken perched on his windowsill. The caption reads, “The Bluebird of Happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression.” And another one in which a kid pushes at a door beneath a sign that says PULL. The sign next to him says, “Midvale School for the Gifted.”

It’s the birthday of one of the best-selling authors of all time: novelist Danielle Steel (books by this author), born in New York City (1947). Growing up, she divided her time between New York and Paris, and she was raised by relatives and family employees when her parents divorced. She married young, and had her first of nine children, daughter Beatrix, when she was 19. That’s also when she wrote her first book, Going Home (1972). She worked at a New York public relations firm during the day and wrote at night. It was her fourth book, The Promise (1978), that was her first big success.

Since then, she’s published well over a hundred books, most of them novels, but she’s also published poetry, nonfiction, and children’s books. She wrote a memoir, His Bright Light (1998), about her son Nicholas Traina. He suffered from bipolar disorder, and committed suicide when he was 19. She’s sold more than 800 million books, and she’s been a fixture on the New York Times best-seller list for decades. She puts out at least one book every year, and has many projects going at once, in various stages of completion.

One of Steel’s biggest pet peeves is when people ask her if she’s still writing. “What this does is that it immediately puts my writing into the category as a hobby,” she wrote on her website. “As in, are you still taking piano lessons, doing macramé, have a parrot? I don’t have a huge ego about my work, but let’s face it, for me it is a job. A job I love, and I have been doing it since I was 19 years old. ... I never say to guys, ‘So are you still a lawyer? ... A doctor? ... A brain surgeon?’”

She doesn’t consider herself a romance novelist. “They’re not really about romance. It’s an element in life. ... I write about the situations we all deal with. Loss and war and illness and jobs and careers, and good things, bad things, crimes, whatever. And I really write more about the human condition.”

And it’s the birthday of a famous dentist, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, born in Griffin, Georgia (1851). He studied dentistry in Philadelphia, and that’s how he got his nickname, but he was only in private practice for a few months when he contracted tuberculosis. He moved west from Georgia, hoping the desert air would prolong his life, and it was in Dallas, Texas, that he decided gambling was a more lucrative career than dentistry, especially since his chronic tubercular cough drove his patients away. He drifted throughout the West, developing a reputation as a gunfighter and heavy drinker, and wound up in Tombstone, in the Arizona Territory, in 1880. There he took up with his friends Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, whom he’d met in Dodge City, Kansas. The Earp brothers were involved in a feud with a gang called the Cowboys, made up of the Clantons and the McLaurys. The feud led to one of the most famous shoot-outs in the history of the American West: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which happened in October 1881. Thirty shots were fired in as many seconds, leaving three dead and many wounded. Holliday survived the shoot-out, but died of tuberculosis six years later, at a sanatorium in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

After his death, The Denver Republican wrote: “He represented a class of men who are disappearing in the new West. He had the reputation of being a bunco man, desperado, and bad-man generally, yet he was a very mild-mannered man, was genial and companionable, and had many excellent qualities.”

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