Wednesday Mar. 2, 2016

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The child you think you don’t want
is the one who will make you laugh.
She will break your heart
when she loses the sight in one eye
and tells the doctor she wants to be
an apple tree when she grows up.

It will be this child who forgives you
again and again
for believing you don’t want her to be born,
for resisting the rising tide of your body,
for wishing for the red flow of her dismissal.
She will even forgive you for all the breakfasts
you failed to make exceptional.

Someday this child will sit beside you.
When you are old and too tired of war
to want to watch the evening news,
she will tell you stories
like the one about her teenaged brother,
your son, and his friends
taking her out in a canoe when she was
five years old. How they left her alone
on an island in the river
while they jumped off the railroad bridge.

“Middle-Age” by Pat Schneider from Another River: New and Selected Poems. © Amherst Writers Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of writer and illustrator Dr. Seuss (books by this author), born Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts (1904). He went to Dartmouth College, where he was editor in chief of his college’s humor magazine. One night, he was caught drinking gin in his room with a group of friends, which was not only against the school rules but also illegal under Prohibition. He wasn’t kicked out, but he had to resign from all his extra-curricular activities, including the humor magazine. Geisel couldn’t quite accept this turn of events, so he continued contributing to the magazine but used a pseudonym: “Seuss.” It was his middle name and his mother’s maiden name.

After Dartmouth, he went to England to attend Oxford University, but he dropped out. For the next decade or so, he published cartoons in magazines and made most of his money creating ads for Standard Oil. His best-known Standard Oil campaign was for Flit, a mosquito insecticide, which he advertised with the slogan “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”

In the fall of 1936, he was coming home from Europe, stuck below deck during a long rainy stretch. He started making up words to fit the rhythm of the ship’s engine, and the poem he composed in his head became his first children’s book: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). His manuscript was rejected more than 20 times; editors disliked the fantasy, the exuberant language, and the lack of clear morals. One day, after receiving yet another rejection, he finally decided to give up and burn his manuscript. He was thinking about this as he walked down Madison Avenue in New York, when he bumped into an old classmate from Dartmouth, who had recently become a children’s book editor for Vanguard Press. After hearing his story, the classmate took Geisel back to his office and introduced him to some executives, and it wasn’t long before he had a book deal. He said later: “If I had been walking down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry-cleaning business today.” For the next 20 years, Geisel continued to publish children’s books and work on cartoons and ad campaigns. And he drew posters for the war effort during World War II.

In 1954, Life magazine published an article about the low rates of literacy among elementary-aged children across the nation. The writer concluded that most primer books, of the Dick and Jane variety, were just too boring to engage and teach kids. The editor at the education division of Houghton Mifflin gave Seuss a list of about 250 words and challenged him to write a book that a first-grader would love, using only those words. Seuss agreed, expecting it would be a quick project, but he found it extremely difficult even to get started. Not only did he have a very small list to work from, but he also was accustomed to making up nonsense words, which he couldn’t do. He kept coming up with ideas but was unable to express them with such a limited vocabulary. Finally, he decided that he would read through the list once again, and if he could find two words that rhymed, that would be the subject of the book. He saw “cat” and “hat,” and he had a title. A year and a half later, he had completed the manuscript using 236 words. When The Cat in the Hat (1957) was published, it was an unprecedented commercial and critical success, and made Seuss a household name.

His other books include Horton Hatches the Egg (1940), How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957), One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960), Green Eggs and Ham (1960), Hop on Pop (1963), and The Lorax (1971).

He said: “I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”

It’s the birthday of American novelist and screenwriter John Irving (books by this author), born John Wallace Blunt Jr. in Exeter, New Hampshire (1942). Irving is best known for his novels The World According to Garp (1978), The Hotel New Hampshire (1981), and The Cider House Rules (1985), sprawling, Dickensian novels that examine questions of sexuality, morality, and death.

Irving’s father disappeared before he was born. When he was six, his mother married Colin Irving, a Russian history teacher at Exeter Academy. Irving also attended Exeter, where he took up wrestling, a sport he would diligently practice for 20 years and incorporate into many of his novels. He began reading voraciously in his teens, discovering the works of Charles Dickens, who deeply influenced Irving’s later narrative style and attention to social issues.

Many of his novels are autobiographical: characters have single mothers and absent fathers. Irving says: “I’ve always written about what I fear. Maybe the most autobiographical element in the novels is that they’re not all about what has happened to me; they’re much more about what I’m afraid of.”

Irving studied with novelist Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His thesis was Setting Free the Bears (1968), which was published when he was 24. The plot concerns a plan to liberate the animals of the Vienna Zoo, and it introduced motifs that appear in nearly every Irving novel: bears, New England, and wrestling.

Irving keeps a practiced routine when he writes. He sits at an L-shaped desk surrounded by notepads and notebooks and writes his books by hand before typing them. “I have lots of notebooks around, because one great advantage of writing by hand — in addition to how much it slows you down — is that it makes me write at the speed that I feel I should be composing, rather than faster than I can think, which is what happens to me on any keyboard.”

Irving’s most recent book is Avenue of Mysteries (2015).

He said, “If you can see things out of whack, then you can see how things can be in whack.”

It’s the birthday of journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe (books by this author), born in Richmond, Virginia (1931), the author of the books The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970), and The Right Stuff (1979). He helped spark the “New Journalism” movement, which began in the 1960s.

He went to graduate school at Yale in the 1950s, and in the midst of the Red Scare wrote a thesis titled “The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929–1942.” He had a Ph.D., but rather than go into academia, he decided to be a newspaper reporter. Then, in the early 1960s, there was a newspaper strike in New York City, and the paper he worked for was affected. He was out of a job for a while, and he decided to pitch an idea to Esquire magazine for a story about the hot-rod car culture around Southern California.

The editor agreed, and Wolfe went out to L.A., hung around car shows, drag races, and demolition derbies, and ran up a $750 bill at a Beverly Hills hotel. He’d taken lots and lots of notes, but he couldn’t figure out what the story should be or how to write it up — not even by the night before his magazine deadline. The editor told him to type up his notes, send them, and he’d go ahead and put together the story. Wolfe sat at his typewriter and banged out a letter to his editor with his ideas and observations. His editor liked it so much that he just removed the salutation (“Dear Byron”) at the top and published Wolfe’s notes as a feature article. The story was a huge hit and became the title piece in Wolfe’s first published book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965).

A few years later, he published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), a nonfiction novel about Ken Kesey and his band of friends called Merry Pranksters, who traveled around the country in a brightly painted school bus. It became a cult classic almost right away.

Wolfe is the author of the novels The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), A Man in Full (1998), I am Charlotte Simmons (2004), and most recently, Back to Blood (2012), a story about Cuban immigrants in Miami. He said, “The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book, and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it.”

It’s the birthday of Sholem Aleichem (books by this author), born in Pereyaslav, Ukraine (1859). He is one of the world’s most prolific and widely read Yiddish-language writers. He was the son of a lumber merchant. His given name was Solomon Rabinowitz, but he adopted a pen name because many of his friends and relatives disapproved of his decision to write in Yiddish, the colloquial language of Eastern European Jews, rather than in Hebrew, the language of intellectuals and liturgy. So he chose the name Sholem Aleichem, which comes from a Hebrew greeting meaning “peace be with you.”

His family members were fairly successful merchants, but their fortunes took a turn for the worse, and his parents opened up an inn to make some money. Young Sholem Aleichem loved hanging around the inn, and he found a great wealth of material in the characters and situations there.

He got married, and he and his wife moved to Kiev. He tried his hand at the stock market and started a Yiddish literary journal. But both ventures failed, and he went bankrupt and fled the country. One of his most famous characters is an itinerant stockbroker. Another is Tevye the milkman. Sholem Aleichem wrote many stories about Tevye, and they were the inspiration for the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof.

He and his wife had six children, and he had to write constantly in order to make ends meet for his family. He toured all over Europe and America giving lectures. He lived in Germany, in Denmark, and finally in the United States. He died at the age of 57, in New York City. One hundred thousand mourners lined the streets on the day of his funeral.

He said, “Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor.”

And, “No matter how bad things get, you got to go on living, even if it kills you.”

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