Tuesday Apr. 26, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

Certain People

My father lives by the ocean
and drinks his morning coffee
in the full sun on his deck,
talking to anyone
who walks by on the beach.
And in the afternoons he works
part-time at the golf course—
sailing the fairways like sea captain
in a white golf cart.
My father must talk
to a hundred people a day,
yet we haven’t spoken in weeks.
As I get older, we hardly speak at all.
It’s as if he were a stranger
and we had never met.
I wonder, if I
were a tourist on the beach
or a golfer lost in woods
and met him now for the very first time,
what we’d say to each other,
how his hand would feel in mine
as we introduced ourselves,
and if, as is the case
with certain people, I’d feel,
when I looked him in the eye,
I’d known him all my life.

“Certain People” by Richard Jones from Country of Air. © Copper Canyon Press, 1986. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos (books by this author), born in Mount Shasta, California (1889). Her father managed a theater, and Loos began acting there as a small child. Eventually, she became so popular that she was the family’s main source of income. Her first screenplay was produced by D.W. Griffith when she was just 23 years old — The New York Hat (1912). Between 1913 and 1928, she wrote about 150 screenplays for silent films, and almost two-thirds of them were made into movies, many of them starring the biggest stars of the day.

In 1925, Loos published the fictionalized diary of a naive, flighty young woman named Lorelei Lee in the magazine Harper’s Bazaar. The next year, the diary was published in book form with the title Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926), and Loos became an instant celebrity. In one diary entry, Lorelei Lee writes, “I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good, but a diamond and a sapphire bracelet lasts forever.” Gentlemen Prefer Blondes went on to become a hit Broadway musical starring Carol Channing, and a Hollywood movie starring Marilyn Monroe.

Late in her life, Loos wrote three volumes of her memoirs: A Girl Like I (1966), Kiss Hollywood Good-by (1974), and Cast of Thousands (1977).

Anita Loos said: “The people I’m furious with are the Women’s Liberationists. They keep getting up on soapboxes and proclaiming women are brighter than men. That’s true, but it should be kept quiet or it ruins the whole racket.”

It’s the birthday of John James Audubon (books by this author), born Jean Rabin in Les Cayes in what is now Haiti (1785). He was the son of a French naval officer and a chambermaid. His mother died when he was an infant, and he was raised with his mixed-race siblings on the island — Audubon himself may have been biracial. A few years later, his father sent for him to move to France, and changed his son’s name to Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon to make him legitimate.

As a boy in Nantes, Audubon lived through the Reign of Terror. He became fascinated by nature, especially birds. He said: “I was fervently desirous of becoming acquainted with nature. [...] The moment a bird was dead, however beautiful it had been in life, the pleasure arising from the possession of it became blunted [...] I wished to possess all the productions of nature, but I wished life with them. This was impossible. Then what was to be done?” One day his father gave him a book of ornithological illustrations, and although the illustrations were boring — stiff, unconvincing birds perched on branches, for identification purposes only — Audubon saw in those illustrations a possibility of preserving the beauty of the birds he loved. He began practicing his drawing skills obsessively, even though he considered most of his drawings to be failures. He wrote: “The worse my drawings were, the more beautiful did I see the originals. To have been torn from the study would have been as death to me.” Each year on his birthday, he lit a bonfire of most of the illustrations he had completed that year, but he didn’t give up.

His father owned a farm in Pennsylvania — he had bought the property on a business trip — and when Audubon was 18 years old, his father sent him to the farm so that he could avoid being drafted into Napoleon’s army. He was fascinated by the new land. He wrote: “Its fine woodlands, its extensive acres, its fields crowned with evergreen offered many subjects to my pencil. It was there that I commenced my simple and agreeable studies with as little concern about the future as if the world had been made for me.” He was also fascinated by the neighbors’ beautiful daughter, Lucy Bakewell, and the two married a few years later.

Months after he arrived on the farm, Audubon conducted the first bird-banding experiment in America by tying silver thread to the legs of Eastern Phoebes. He and Lucy conducted their courtship while they watched the phoebes build nests. And they discussed birds. Audubon wrote: “Connected with the biography of this bird are so many incidents relative to my own.” He also began experimenting with new ways to draw dead birds by wiring them to soft boards in postures that mimicked lifelike states. He said that the idea came to him in a dream.

Audubon and his wife moved to the frontier town of Henderson, Kentucky, but his business ventures failed miserably, and the family ended up bankrupt. He was even briefly thrown into jail. Desperate, in 1820 Audubon took off for a journey through the South to illustrate birds. Lucy stayed behind with the children, working as a tutor to support the family, while Audubon scraped together portrait jobs here and there but mostly worked on his portfolio.

In 1826, 41-year-old Audubon set sail for England with his life-size portraits of birds, hoping for funding and engravings to produce a book of his illustrations. He dressed for the Kentucky frontier, and he was heralded as “the American woodsman” and became an overnight celebrity. Over the course of a decade, he published his monumental Birds of America (1827–1838), whose illustrations were more than three feet high and two feet wide.

He said, “I would strongly advise you to make up your mind, shoulder your gun, muster all your spirits, and start in search of the interesting unknown.”

Today is the birthday of the man who said, “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open”: Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as “the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” He was the youngest of nine children; three of his brothers committed suicide.

Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austro-Hungary, but he later gave away his inheritance to his siblings, and also to an assortment of Austrian writers and artists, including Rainer Maria Rilke. He once said that the study of philosophy rescued him from nine years of loneliness and wanting to die, yet he tried to leave philosophy several times and pursue another line of work, including serving in the army during World War I, working as a porter at a London hospital, and teaching elementary school. He also considered careers in psychiatry and architecture — going so far as to design and build a house for his sister, which she never liked very much.

Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”

And, “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.”

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