Wednesday Nov. 18, 2015

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What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

“What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver from All of Us: Collected Poems. © Vintage, 1996. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the 87th birthday of Mickey Mouse, as officially celebrated by Walt Disney. Mickey Mouse had actually been “born” about six months before his official birthday, debuting in a cartoon where he played a version of pilot Charles Lindbergh, but the cartoon failed to pick up a distributor. And so did a second cartoon, “The Gallopin’ Gaucho,” in which Mickey rides a rhea around Argentina and smokes and drinks and challenges other men to duels and acts in many ways like an outlaw.

But in his third reincarnation, which was released on this day in 1928, the creators of Mickey found success. The idea for Mickey Mouse had come from Walt Disney himself, who had once had a pet mouse. At first, his name was “Mortimer Mouse,” but Disney’s wife opined that this was too pompous of a name — so the name changed to Mickey Mouse. Disney said: “We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little. I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”

Mickey’s celebrated debut was on this day in a cartoon titled “Steamboat Willie,” shown at New York’s Colony Theatre. Part of the cartoon’s success was that it featured a soundtrack perfectly synchronized to follow the visual animation of the story — something that was brand-new at the time, when even sound in movies was innovative. When recording the score for “Steamboat Willie,” Disney used a click track to keep the musicians precisely on the beat. The cartoon featured a memorable scene in which Minnie drops her sheet music for the song “Turkey in the Straw.” A goat eats the paper and out of his tail comes the tune — and Mickey then uses the bodies of other farm animals on board the steamboat as instruments, trying to impress Minnie, before he is relegated by the captain to peeling potatoes for the rest of the voyage.

In 1998, "Steamboat Willie" was one of 25 films added by the Library of Congress’ National Film Preservation Board to the National Film Registry.

As Walt Disney recalled of the cartoon’s first showing: "The effect on our little audience was nothing less than electric. They responded almost instinctively to this union of sound and motion. I thought they were kidding me. So they put me in the audience and ran the action again. It was terrible, but it was wonderful! And it was something new!"

Today is the birthday of Sir W.S. [William Schwenk] Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, born in London in 1836. The pair wrote 14 comic operas; Gilbert was the librettist, and Sir Arthur Sullivan composed the music. The operas, which lampooned hot topics of the Victorian era, are still widely popular even though the barbs are dated and modern audiences miss most of the references; Gilbert’s wordplay is so skillful that no greater knowledge of context is necessary.

Gilbert had been interested in the theater from his schoolboy days, and he began writing stories, parodies, and illustrated poems for comic magazines beginning in 1861 — mainly as a way to supplement his limited civil servant’s income. His poems proved popular and were collected in several books as Bab Ballads. He met Sullivan in 1870, and they began collaborating the following year. Their working relationship was often strained because they had very different personalities — and different ambitions. Gilbert, who was often contentious and prickly, poked fun at the upper classes. Sullivan, who avoided conflict whenever possible, longed to be accepted by them. They also argued because they each felt the other’s work was given more prominence. Gilbert favored absurd stories where Sullivan preferred more genuine emotion and realism. They nevertheless managed to produce such enduring favorites as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885).

Underneath his quick-tempered and thin-skinned exterior, Gilbert was a kind and generous man. He often paid the cab fare of his cast when rehearsals ran late so they wouldn’t have to walk home on wet nights, and one actress said of him: “He was just as large-hearted when he was poor as when he was rich and successful. For money as money he cared less than nothing. Gilbert was no plaster saint, but he was an ideal friend.”

Today is the birthday of novelist Margaret Atwood (books by this author), born in Ottawa, Ontario (1939). Her father was a scientist; he ran a station studying insects in the remote north woods of Quebec, and the Atwoods spent half of each year there. She said, “At the age of six months, I was carried into the woods in a packsack, and this landscape became my hometown.” Atwood and her brother had no other kids to play with, no television, and the radio worked only occasionally. Their mother approximated school for them each morning, but they had the rest of the day free, and Atwood spent her time playing games in the woods or reading. She especially loved science fiction, which was in its golden age — she devoured everything from Flash Gordon comics to Ray Bradbury and George Orwell. When she was eight, she went to a full year of school for the first time, and it was a hard adjustment from the freedom of the woods. She said, “I was now faced with real life, in the form of other little girls — their prudery and snobbery, their Byzantine social life based on whispering and vicious gossip, and an inability to pick up earthworms without wriggling all over and making mewing noises like a kitten.”

She decided that she wanted to be a writer on a sunny day while she was walking home from high school across the football field. She said: “I was scuttling along in my usual furtive way, suspecting no ill, when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed. It was quite a gloomy poem: the poems of the young usually are. It was a gift, this poem — a gift from an anonymous donor, and, as such, both exciting and sinister at the same time. […] Until the descent of the giant thumb, I showed no particular promise. I also showed no particular promise for some time afterwards, but I did not know this. A lot of being a poet consists of willed ignorance. If you woke up from your trance and realized the nature of the life-threatening and dignity-destroying precipice you were walking along, you would switch into actuarial sciences immediately.” She immediately told all her friends that she was going to write the Great Canadian Novel some day.

She went to college at the University of Toronto, where one of her professors was the critic Northrop Frye. She wanted to run off to France after she graduated, to smoke and drink absinthe and write, but Frye convinced her to continue on to Harvard to pursue graduate work instead. At the age of 25, she wrote her first novel, and submitted it to M&S, the preeminent Canadian publishing house. It was rejected, but Atwood was undaunted, and submitted her second novel there too. They were interested, but the correspondence fizzled out and she didn’t hear anything for a couple of years. In the meantime, she published a handful of poems, then a poetry collection. With a more solid reputation, she called M&S to ask if she could have her manuscript back, and they realized that they had accepted it for publication, then lost it. The chief editor took her out to lunch and admitted that although he hadn’t read her book, he had liked what Atwood had to say in a recent article he read about her, and he was planning to publish her novel immediately. The Edible Woman was published in 1969. Atwood had her first-ever book signing in the men’s underwear department of the Hudson’s Bay Company store in Edmonton. She sold two copies.

Atwood has written 14 novels since then, including The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), Alias Grace (1996), Oryx and Crake (2003), MaddAddam (2013), and, most recently, The Heart Goes Last (2015), originally written as an online serial.

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