Saturday Oct. 7, 2017

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Our final dogwood leans
over the forest floor

offering berries
to the birds, the squirrels.

It’s a relic
of the days when dogwoods

flourished—creamy lace in April,
spilled milk in May—

their beauty delicate
but commonplace.

When I took for granted
that the world would remain

as it was, and I
would remain with it.

“Elegy” by Linda Pastan from Insomnia. © Norton, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Scottish-American suspense novelist Helen Clark MacInnes (books by this author), born in Glasgow (1907). She was married to an Oxford classicist, Gilbert Highet, whose wartime work for British intelligence inspired her first novel, Above Suspicion (1941), about a husband and wife who are recruited to locate a missing British agent. It was the first of more than 20 novels of espionage and suspense that she wrote over the next 40 years, including Decision at Delphi (1960) and The Salzburg Connection (1968). She wrote: “In my stories, suspense is not achieved by hiding things from the reader. The question is, when is the event going to take place and how can you stop it? A reader may know everything, but still be scared stiff by the situation.”

It’s the birthday of the religious leader Desmond Tutu, born in Klerksdorp, South Africa, (1931). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his role in the opposition to apartheid in South Africa. In 1986, he was elected the first black archbishop of Cape Town, the head of South Africa’s 1,600,000-member Anglican Church. And in 1995, South African President Nelson Mandela appointed him head of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which investigated apartheid-era human rights abuses.

Tutu said: “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

He also said: “How does peace come? Peace doesn’t come because allies agree. Allies are allies — they already agree! Peace comes when you talk to the guy you most hate. And that’s where the courage of a leader comes.”

Today is the birthday of Sherman Alexie (1966) (books by this author), a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American novelist, short-story writer, poet, and filmmaker. He’s best-known for his short-story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), about two friends named Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and his young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), which is loosely based on his childhood growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and which was an international best-seller. The book is frequently banned for its depiction of poverty, alcoholism, and child abuse. When asked about controversy surrounding the book, Alexie said: “I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as 10 have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.”

Today is the 66th birthday of American rock songwriter John Mellencamp, born in Seymour, Indiana (1951). He started playing in bands when he was 13 and began recording under the stage name Johnny Cougar, which he thought was “pretty silly,” under pressure from his record label. He later changed it to John Cougar Mellencamp, and finally dropped the “Cougar” altogether in 1991.

His career skyrocketed in the ’80s with hits including “Jack and Diane,” “Hurts So Good,” and “Small Town.” Billboard magazine wrote: “John Mellencamp is arguably the most important roots rocker of his generation. John has made fiddles, hammer dulcimers, Autoharps and accordions lead rock instruments on a par with electric guitar, bass and drums, and he also brought what he calls ‘a raw Appalachian’ lyrical outlook to his songs.”

He had a brief career as an actor and was originally offered Brad Pitt’s role in Thelma and Louise, but he refused because he didn’t want to take off his shirt. Mellencamp said: “So Brad Pitt took his shirt off and look what happened to Brad Pitt. I was that close.”

Mellencamp is also a talented artist and paints dark, unsettling portraits in the style of German Expressionism. He often starts working on his music in response to something he’s painting, and he can go weeks without leaving his house, switching back and forth between the two. Mellencamp said: “Every day that I walk up in my art studio and I complete a painting, I have something to show for my time. I have millions of them in me.”

He started smoking when he was 10 years old and still smokes today. When asked if he’s worried about his health, he said he has a “wacky idea” that he’ll be OK because he doesn’t both drink and smoke, and he thinks he’s “offsetting [his] cigarette consumption by exercising.”

His latest album, Sad Clowns & Hillbillies, came out last April to great reviews. He lives in Indiana.

It’s the birthday of the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley (books by this author), born in Greenfield, Indiana (1849). As a young man, he had a passion for acting. He first acted in shows staged in a barn loft, and then went on the road with a traveling medicine show. He recited poetry, told stories, and played the banjo and fiddle. He began to write poems in the Hoosier dialect, about ordinary people, about the Indiana countryside. Soon he was publishing as many as a hundred poems a year, most of them in dialect. He wrote “When the Frost is on the Punkin,” “Little Orphant Annie,” and “The Raggedy Man.” His first book of poems, The Old Swimmin’ Hole and ‘Leven More Poems, came out in 1883. At the turn of the century, he was the most popular poet in the United States.

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