Thursday Dec. 8, 2016

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When I wake up earlier than you and you
are turned to face me, face
on the pillow and hair spread around,
I take a chance and stare at you,
amazed in love and afraid
that you might open your eyes and have
the daylights scared out of you.
But maybe with the daylights gone
you’d see how much my chest and head
implode for you, their voices trapped
inside like unborn children fearing
they will never see the light of day.
The opening in the wall now dimly glows
its rainy blue and gray. I tie my shoes
and go downstairs to put the coffee on.

“Glow” by Ron Padgett from Collected Poems. © Coffee House Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, born in Guanajuato (1886). He traveled to Italy and studied Renaissance frescoes — murals painted on plaster — he vowed to bring that technique back to life in the 20th century. Frescoes could be displayed right in the middle of people’s daily lives rather than behind a museum’s doors, and he began painting large murals about the history and progress of humanity.

It's the birthday of novelist Mary Gordon (books by this author), born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). She went to college at Barnard, got a master's in writing and then went to work on a Ph.D. on Virginia Woolf. She was almost finished with it but she felt like it was compromising her fiction writing. And eventually it was actually Virginia Woolf who inspired Gordon to quit her dissertation. She said she would take notes on Woolf's writing and "the rhythms of those incredible sentences — the repetitions, the caesuras, the potent colons, semicolons. I knew it was what I wanted to do."

Since then she has published many novels as well as short stories, memoirs, and essays, including Final Payments (1978), The Company of Women (1980), Temporary Shelter (1987), Pearl (2005), and most recently, The Liar's Wife (2014).

Today is the 65th birthday of Bill Bryson (books by this author), born in Des Moines, Iowa, on this date in 1951. He’s written books about travel, language, Shakespeare, history, and science; he travels so much that his wife made him promise to write at least one book from home. That book came out in 2010; it was At Home: A Short History of Private Life. The book’s topics are divided up by room, just like a house.

His most recent book is The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (2016). It’s a companion to Notes from a Small Island (2015), which Bryson wrote after living as an ex-pat in Britain. As with the first book, Bryson travels around the United Kingdom and muses on various topics. Times have changed in the past 20 years, and while in the first book, Bryson was impressed by the Britons’ “deference and a quiet consideration for others,” he now complains that “lots of people are governed not so much by whether something is right or wrong as by whether they think anyone’s watching.” He is still a fan of his adopted homeland, though; he writes: “It is a permanent astonishment to me how casually strewn with glory Britain is.”

Bryson recently admitted: “Nearly every summer when we go away on vacation I pack an old copy of Anna Karenina, and every year I manage to move the bookmark about 20 pages along before it is time to go home. I have long since lost track of who most of the characters are or what their relationships are with one another. I can’t pretend that any of them have ever interested me. At the rate I am going, I estimate that I will need approximately 74 more vacations to finish the book.”

Today is the birthday of the lyric poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known to English speakers as Horace (books by this author), born in Apulia, Italy (65 B.C.E.). He was the son of a former slave, and he was working as a clerk of the treasury under the emperor Octavian when he met a man of letters named Gaius Maecenas. Maecenas in turn introduced Horace to a group of writers. Horace wrote a collection of satires that mostly supported Octavian’s views, and Octavian — later known as Augustus Caesar — offered him a position as his private secretary. Horace turned him down. He is most famous for his odes, which take up a diverse set of topics, including springtime, Virgil, a friend’s farm, Cleopatra’s defeat, old age, and the Roman Empire. Some of Horace’s odes have been translated by Ben Jonson, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Lowell, and even John Quincy Adams. Tennyson called the odes “Jewels five-words-long / That on the stretch’d forefinger of all Time / Sparkle for ever.” And it’s in the odes that Horace gave us carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero: “Seize the day, believing as little as possible in the morrow.”

It’s the birthday of James Thurber (1894) (books by this author), the American cartoonist and author best known for writing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939), a six-page-long story about a henpecked husband whose heroic daydreams include becoming a magnificent surgeon and a deadly assassin. In the story, Thurber delighted in making up words, like “streptothricosa” and “obstreosis of the ductal tract.” The story is considered an American classic; the term “Mitty-esque” is used to describe an ineffectual person with big, empty dreams.

Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio. His father was a clerk who had dreams of being a lawyer or an actor. Thurber used him as the basis for the character of Walter Mitty. Thurber’s mother was something of a ham. She once attended a faith healer’s revival in a wheelchair, pretending to be paralyzed. Then she jumped up and howled that she’d been cured. Thurber called her “one of the finest comic talents I think I have ever known.”

When he was a boy, one of his brothers shot him in the eye with a bow and arrow during a game of William Tell. Thurber lost the eye and during the course of his lifetime, his remaining eye gradually weakened, eventually leaving him completely blind. He commuted by trolley to his classes at The Ohio State University, but his grades suffered because of his eyesight and he left without a degree. For the next several years, he was a code clerk for the Department of State, worked as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, writing a column called “Credos and Curios,” and moved to Paris to write as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

He met the writer E.B. White at a party in New York City and White thought he was funny, so he introduced him to Harold Ross, editor for The New Yorker. Ross gave him a job on the spot, though it wasn’t as a writer; it was as managing editor. White shared an office with Thurber, though, and they became close friends, even co-writing a book, Is Sex Necessary? (1929), a spoof on sexual manuals, which were very popular at the time. Thurber loved dogs so much he dedicated the book to two of his favorite terriers.

Thurber did the illustrations for the book, and White pressed Ross to use some of his drawings in The New Yorker, which is how Thurber ended up being a cartoonist. His cartoons were sparely drawn, and often odd, and Ross mostly didn’t understand them at all, but they proved very popular. In one cartoon, a giant rabbit wearing a bow tie sits behind a desk in a doctor’s office, taking notes. A stunned woman sits across from him. The rabbit says, “You said a moment ago that everybody you look at seems to be a rabbit. Now, just what do you mean by that, Mrs. Sprague?” When he met Winston Churchill in the South of France in the 1930s, Churchill referred to Thurber as “that insane and depraved artist.” Thurber stayed at The New Yorker for more than 30 years.

Thurber wrote more than 40 books during his lifetime, many of them after he’d become almost completely blind. He used a special type of magnifying glass called a Zeiss loupe to do his cartoons. He had an astounding memory and would often spend up to three hours in the morning writing his books in his head, turning the words over and over until he felt they were polished. Then he would call his secretary and dictate his stories to her.

About his drawings, Thurber once said, “I’m not an artist. I’m a painstaking writer who doodles for relaxation.” By 1950, he’d stopped drawing; he could only see light and shadow. He’d suffered from anxiety and depression his entire life, but in his final years, his bitterness and alcoholism increased. He said: “The notion that writers of humor are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. … To call such persons ‘humorists,’ a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.”

James Thurber’s books include The Thurber Carnival (1945), Thurber Country (1953), and The Years With Ross (1959).

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