Sunday Aug. 14, 2016

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The bee is not afraid of me

The bee is not afraid of me,
I know the butterfly;
The pretty people in the woods
Receive me cordially.

The brooks laugh louder when I come,
The breezes madder play.
Wherefore, mine eyes, thy silver mists?
Wherefore, O summer’s day?

“The bee is not afraid of me” by Emily Dickinson. Public Domain.  (buy now)

The original Social Security Act was signed into law on this date in 1935. It was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it was first intended to help keep senior citizens out of poverty. The country had had a national economic security program in place since the Civil War Pension Program began in 1862. But this program was only available to war veterans and their families; what’s more, Confederate veterans were barred from the pension. After the onset of the Great Depression, poverty rates — especially among the elderly — skyrocketed. Some state pension plans were introduced, but they were inadequate and only served about 3 percent of the nation’s elderly. FDR based his plan on “social insurance” policies operating in Europe, and envisioned a program funded by employment taxes collected from the workers themselves.

When he signed the act into law, Roosevelt said: “We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”

Today is the birthday of American cartoonist Gary Larson (1950) (books by this author), the creator of the popular single-panel comic strip The Far Side, which ran for 15 years and featured a range of animals like cows and exotic vipers in cat’s-eye glasses and enthusiastic dogs who played a game called “Tethercat.”

Larson was born in Tacoma, Washington. He and his brother spent long hours in Puget Sound catching grunt fish, octopus, and sea anemones. They set up terrariums in the basement and even created a small desert ecosystem. After graduating from Washington State University, he worked at a music store, but hated it, so he decided to take some time off and draw some cartoons. Larson found a home for his quirky, scientific, single-panel drawings at the Pacific Search, where they were published weekly, right next to the Junior Jumble, under the title Nature’s Way. There were complaints, though, about the strip’s “morbid humor,” and the strip was dropped. Larson says, “Morbid humor is very valid, even healthy, as long as you don’t do it gratuitously.”

Larson was working as a cruelty investigator for the local humane society when the San Francisco Chronicle picked up the strip and renamed it The Far Side. Larson’s quirky sense of humor quickly became popular with scientists, who loved strips like “The Real Reason Dinosaurs Became Extinct,” which featured three T. rexes covertly smoking cigarettes. Natural History Magazine dubbed him “the unofficial cartoonist laureate of the scientific community” and there is even a chewing louse named after him, the Strigiphilus garylarsoni. Accepting the honor, Larson said: “I knew no one was going to write and name a swan after me. You have to grab these opportunities when they come along.”

Gary Larson drew The Far Side for 15 years before retiring (1995). He has published more than 23 books of collected cartoons that have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. His Far Side calendars are so popular they are called “the Harry Potter of calendars.”

When asked why he drew cows so frequently, Larson answered: “I’ve always thought the word cow was funny. And cows are sort of tragic figures. Cows blur the lines between tragedy and humor.”

Today is the birthday of poet Ernest Thayer (books by this author), born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1863). He was a bright and witty boy, born to a wealthy family that owned several prosperous woolen mills, and he never had to work much to support himself. He went to Harvard, where he studied philosophy with William James. He also served as editor of the Harvard Lampoon, where he made friends with future newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. After they graduated, Hearst convinced Thayer to come to San Francisco to work on Hearst’s first newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. Thayer had never really been keen to take over the family woolen business, so he took off for California with Hearst.

Thayer wrote a recurring humor column for the Examiner, and would occasionally crank out some light verse for his column. In 1888, he published “Casey at the Bat” under the pen name “Phin.” The poem was picked up by the New York Sun, but his name was left off. A few weeks later, the comedian William DeWolf Hopper was putting on a huge post-game performance for the Chicago White Stockings, the New York Giants, and all their fans. He wasn’t sure what to perform, until his friend Archibald Gunter remembered a baseball poem he had clipped out of the newspaper. Gunter suggested that Hopper read it to the audience, and it was a huge success.

Hopper performed the poem almost 40,000 times over the course of his five-decade career. He didn’t know who’d written it until Thayer happened to come to one of his shows. Thayer never received any royalties, nor did he ask for any. As he got older, he returned to the study of philosophy, and published some articles on the subject, but found to his dismay that he was only known for this comic baseball poem he’d dashed off when he was just 24 years old.

The last stanza of “Casey at the Bat”:

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

It’s the birthday of romance novelist Danielle Steel (books by this author), born in New York City (1947). She’s sold almost 600 million books, and produces a book a year, every year. In order to keep up her prolific rate, Steel works on three to five books at once. She writes a long outline, about 50 pages, and goes through it several times herself and with her editor. And then she writes an entire draft in one long push, only pausing to sleep for three or four hours at night before getting up and doing it all over again. She won’t stop until the book is finished.

She told the Wall Street Journal that her favorite movies are romantic comedies. “People might say I have the worst taste in movies, but I want a happy ending. If I wanted to stay home and cry, I could just look at the world around me.”

It’s the birthday of American journalist and humorist Russell Baker (1925) (books by this author), best known for his satirical essays on politics and daily life in his “Observer” column for the New York Times.

Baker was born Russell Wayne Baker in Morrisonville, Virginia. His father was a diabetic who drank moonshine at a hog-butchering festival, slipped into a coma, and died when Baker was five, plunging the family into poverty. His mother moved the family to New Jersey, where she found work as a laundress, and then Baltimore, where Baker lived across the street from satirist H.L. Mencken. In elementary school, Baker wrote an essay on wheat, a teacher praised him, and he decided to become a writer because, he said, “What writers did couldn’t even be classified as work.”

After serving in the Navy and graduating from Johns Hopkins, Baker spent two years as a night reporter at the Baltimore Sun, thinking it would be good training for a novelist, but he ended up writing a lively column called “A Window on Fleet Street” and soon found himself with the Washington Bureau of the New York Times, covering national politics. He began writing his “Observer” column, for which he wrote about quitting smoking, tax reform, trimming a Christmas tree, and the common cold, in 1962 and didn’t stop for almost 40 years. When he retired, he said: “Writing a column was like swimming underwater. When you swim underwater and you want to swim across the pool, you do it in one breath, right? You take a breath and you dive in and swim [...] It’s one smooth motion and it’s over.”

Baker began hosting Masterpiece Theatre on PBS in 1992, replacing longtime host Alistair Cooke. He said: “Television is harder than I thought. I can’t bear to look at myself. I fancied that I was an exceedingly charming, witty, and handsome young man, and here’s this fidgeting old fellow whose hair is parted on the wrong side.”

Russell Baker has twice won the Pulitzer Prize: the first time for commentary for his “Observer” columns (1979) and the second time for his best-selling memoir, Growing Up (1982). Baker’s other books include No Cause for Panic (1964), Poor Russell’s Almanac (1972), The Good Times (1989), and Looking Back: Heroes, Rascals, and Other Icons of the American Imagination (2002).

Today is the birthday of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, born in Griffin, Georgia (1851). He studied dentistry in Philadelphia, and that’s how he got his nickname, but he was only in private practice for a few months when he contracted tuberculosis. He moved west from Georgia, hoping the desert air would prolong his life, and it was in Dallas, Texas, that he decided gambling was a more lucrative career than dentistry, especially since his chronic tubercular cough drove his patients away. He drifted throughout the West, developing a reputation as a gunfighter and heavy drinker, and wound up in Tombstone, in the Arizona Territory, in 1880. There he took up with his friends Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, whom he’d met in Dodge City, Kansas. The Earp brothers were involved in a feud with a gang called the Cowboys, made up of the Clantons and the McLaurys. The feud led to one of the most famous shoot-outs in the history of the American West: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which happened in October 1881. Thirty shots were fired in as many seconds, leaving three dead and many wounded. Holliday survived the shoot-out, but died of tuberculosis six years later, at a sanatorium in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

After his death, the Denver Republican wrote: “He represented a class of men who are disappearing in the new West. He had the reputation of being a bunco man, desperado, and bad-man generally, yet he was a very mild-mannered man, was genial and companionable, and had many excellent qualities.”

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