The mental pictures I have of my parents and grandparents and my
childhood are beginning to break up into small fragments and get
blown away from me into empty space, and the same wind is sucking
me toward it ever so gently, so gently as not even to raise a hair on my
head (though the truth is that there are very few of them to be raised).
I’m starting to take the idea of death as the end of life somewhat harder
than before. I used to wonder why people seemed to think that life is
tragic or sad. Isn’t it also comic and funny? And beyond all that, isn’t
it amazing and marvelous? Yes, but only if you have it. And I am starting
not to have it. The pictures are disintegrating, as if their molecules were
saying, “I’ve had enough,” ready to go somewhere else and form a new
configuration. They betray us, those molecules, we who have loved them.
They treat us like dirt.
“Album” by Ron Padgett from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of American activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta (1930). Huerta was born in the mining town of Dawson, New Mexico, but raised in Stockton, California, deep in the San Joaquin Valley. Her father was a farmer and a state assemblyman; her mother ran a 70-room hotel that welcomed low-wage farm workers and their families, often immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines who spoke little English.
Huerta started out teaching elementary school. Many of her students were the children of farm workers. They lived in poverty and came to school hungry, which affected their ability to learn. Huerta decided something had to be done. She said: “I couldn’t tolerate seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach hungry children.”
Huerta created the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA) in 1960. The organization was effective in lobbying politicians to allow migrant workers without U.S. citizenship to receive public assistance and pensions. The AWA also lobbied for Spanish-language voting ballots and driver’s tests. Huerta met activist César Chávez in 1962, and the two joined forces to create the National Farm Workers Association (later United Farm Workers). The organization presided over the famous Delano grape strike, which began in 1965 and lasted five years. Huerta successfully implemented a national boycott of grapes, taking the plight of farm workers to consumers. The farmers asked to receive the national minimum wage, which they won.
Huerta has been arrested 22 times and jailed. In 1988, while protesting the policies of presidential candidate George H.W. Bush, she was beaten so badly by San Francisco police that she was disabled for months.
In 2012, President Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Four elementary schools in California, one in Texas, and a high school in Pueblo, Colorado, are all named in honor of Huerta. Her advocacy for the low-wage worker has made her the subject of many corridos (ballads) in the Latino community.
Huerta is the mother of 11 children. She says: “What I’d like to share with people is that what we have to give to our children are values, not so much material, [but] a social conscience. You have to involve them at a very young age so they grow up knowing that this is something they can do that they have power to help people.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby was published on this day in 1925. The title was not one Fitzgerald liked; he’d asked his editor, Maxwell Perkins, to change it to either Trimalchio or Gold-Hatted Gatsby just a month prior, but Perkins had advised him against both. Shortly after, Fitzgerald requested a change to Under the Red, White and Blue, but by then it was too late. Fitzgerald remained convinced that the title wasn’t a good one even after it was published; in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the book carrying his previous suggestions — like Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires, On the Road to West Egg, or The High-Bouncing Lover.
It’s the birthday of travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux (books by this author), who was born in Medford, Massachusetts, on this date in 1941. He enrolled in a pre-med degree program in college, thinking he might become a doctor of tropical medicine. He secretly wanted to be a writer, but thought that writing wasn’t manly because most writers weren’t paid well. “Money is masculinity,” he thought. But he took a creative writing course and he was hooked. After he graduated, he joined the Peace Corps and taught English in Malawi and Uganda. And he wrote — mostly articles for American magazines, but also a number of novels. He met his first wife in Africa, and his first son was born there. Political instability prompted him to move his family to Singapore, where he decided he’d had enough of teaching. He moved to England and devoted himself full time to writing.
His first big success came with the publication of his 10th book, The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), which was about a four-month train trip from Britain to Japan. It became a best-seller, and a travel-writing classic. Theroux retraced his steps many years later in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008). In 1981, he published The Mosquito Coast, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford (1986). His latest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, was published last fall (2015).
It’s the birthday of writer Anne Lamott (books by this author), born in San Francisco in 1954. Lamott was an alcoholic and an addict in addition to being a novelist; she went to rehab, became a Christian, started teaching writing, and published a journal of the first year of her son’s life, Operating Instructions (1993), to great acclaim. Within a year she’d published Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994), a book known for giving advice to aspiring writers that’s both practical and wry.
“Mondays are not good writing days,” Lamott offers. “One has had all that freedom over the weekend, all that authenticity, all those dreamy dreams, and then your angry mute Slavic Uncle Monday arrives, and it is time to sit down at your desk.”
And she writes: “Nothing can break the mood of a piece of writing like bad dialogue. My students are miserable when they are reading an otherwise terrific story to the class and then hit a patch of dialogue that is so purple and expositional that it reads like something from a childhood play by the Gabor sisters [...] I can see the surprise on my students’ faces, because the dialogue looked Okay on paper, yet now it sounds as if it were poorly translated from their native Hindi.”
Lamott’s latest book is called Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014).