Saturday Aug. 12, 2017

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Black Bears

I like black bears. They are relatively common around
here, and they are usually not aggressive. Actually,
they are generally affable, loners mostly, but not
opposed to hanging out with humans now and then.
In fact, I’ve found that in many ways they are a lot
like us.

My friend, Richard, an older male, drops by now and
then and we hang out down on the shore, have a
couple of beers, but mostly we just sit and look out
at the water. We don’t have a lot to say. We aren’t
friends exactly, but we enjoy the company. Richard
says, at our age we don’t have friends. We have

“Black Bears” by Louis Jenkins from In the Sun Out of the Wind. © Will o’ the Wisp Books, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote the lines: "O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!" That's Katharine Lee Bates, born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod (1859).

Bates graduated from Wellesley College, then became an English professor there. She spent the summer of 1893 teaching at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, and it was there in Colorado that inspiration struck for her most famous poem. She said: "One day some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there, with the sea-like expanse." When she got back to her hotel room, she wrote down the famous opening lines to "America the Beautiful." It was published two weeks later, and it was first sung to the tune of all sorts of songs, usually to "Auld Lang Syne." It wasn't until 1910 that the lyrics were paired with the music we know today, an instrumental piece named "Materna" that had been composed in 1882.

Today is the birthday of investigative journalist Katherine Boo (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1964). Throughout her career, she has been interested in writing about one subject alone: the plight of the poor and the disadvantaged. She wrote for the Washington Post for 10 years, from 1993 to 2003; while she was there, she wrote a series exposing neglect and abuse in Washington's group homes for the intellectually disabled. Her articles prompted a set of reforms and led to her being awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (2000). "Very little journalism is world changing," Boo says. "But if change is to happen, it will be because people with power have a better sense of what's happening to people who have none."

She published her first book in 2012. That book is Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and it follows the lives of several residents of the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. Boo lived in Mumbai for several years while her husband worked there, and her book is the result of nearly four years of research. At first, the slum's residents viewed the petite blonde American as a "circus act," Boo says, but eventually they came to trust her. "I wasn't trying to gather people around a table and talk to them," she says. "I was just going where they went. I was doing what they did, whether it was teaching kindergarten or stealing scrap metal at the airport or sorting garbage. And I would sit and listen and talk to them intermittently as they did their work." The book's title comes from one of the slum's landmarks: a wall covered in ads for Italian tiles that are said to be "beautiful forever."

In addition to her Pulitzer and a number of other awards, Boo was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" grant (2002), and won the National Book Award in nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012).

It's the birthday of American film director Cecil B. DeMille, whose epic Hollywood films, like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Samson and Delilah (1949), have grossed over $30 billion worldwide.

DeMille as born in Massachusetts (1881), but grew up in Washington, North Carolina. His father was a playwright and also a lay reader in the Episcopal church. He read to his children every night from the Bible and classic literature. Though he eventually stopped going to church, DeMille continued to believe in prayer and the power of biblical stories. He once said, "My ministry has been to make religious movies and to get more people to read the Bible than anyone else ever has."

In 1913, DeMille was in debt and working as an actor on Broadway when he met a glove salesman named Samuel Goldfish who convinced him that the real money was in making movies out west, in California. They bought the rights to a stage play called The Squaw Man and DeMille boarded a train for Flagstaff, Arizona, to scout locations. When the train stopped in Flagstaff, it was raining, and DeMille didn't like the light, so he kept on going to California. In those days, movies were called "flickers" and they weren't longer than 20 minutes. DeMille thought audiences could handle longer, more complicated stories, and he set up camp in a barn on Selma and Vine that he rented for $75 a month. The Squaw Man (1914) was a silent film with an interracial love story and took three weeks to film. It was a huge hit. Samuel Goldfish changed his name to Samuel Goldwyn and he and DeMille set about inventing Hollywood.

Cecil B. DeMille made 70 films and all but six were profitable. He was the first director to give actors screen credit, and he created the positions of story editor and art director. He used theatrical techniques for lighting, which enhanced the scene's mood, and liberated the camera from a stationary booth, which allowed the actors more room to move. He was also the first director to use large crowds in scenes, which excited audiences and became one of his trademarks, especially in later films like The Ten Commandments (1956), which he shot in Egypt using 14,000 extras and 15,000 animals in the Beni Suef desert. DeMille had made an earlier version of that film (1923), in which the parting of the Red Sea was filmed using a giant slab of red Jell-O sliced in two and filmed up close as it jiggled.

Cecil B. DeMille's films include Cleopatra (1934), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and The King of Kings (1927), about the Passion of Christ. Because it was a silent film, Protestant and Catholic missionaries were able to use the movie for decades as a way to share the Gospel with non-English-speaking peoples. It's estimated that by 1959, more than 800 million people had viewed DeMille's The King of Kings.

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