Sunday Oct. 23, 2016

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Walking around the Block with a Three-Year Old

She sees a starling legs-up in the gutter.
She finds an earthworm limp and pale in a puddle.
What’s wrong with them? she says. I tell her they’re dead.

She scowls at me. She stares at her short shadow
And makes it dance in the road. She shakes its head.
Daddy, you don’t look pretty, she says. I agree.

She stomps on a sewer grid where the slow rain
Is vanishing. Do you want to go down there?
I tell her no. Neither do I she says.

She picks up a stone. This is an elephant.
Because it’s heavy, smooth, slate gray, and hers,
I tell her it’s very like an elephant.

We’re back. The starling is gone. Where did it go?
She says. I tell her I don’t know, maybe
A cat took it away. I think it’s lost.

I tell her I think so too. But can’t you find it?
I tell her I don’t think so. Let’s go look.
I show her my empty hands, and she takes one.

“Walking around the Block with a Three-Year Old” by David Wagoner from Traveling Light. © University of Illinois Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of American journalist, novelist and biographer Nick Tosches (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1949), the son of a barkeep. He said, “The things I wanted to be when I was a kid were an archeologist, because of dinosaur bones; a garbage man, because they got to ride on the side of the trucks; and a writer.” His biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire (1982), was called by Rolling Stone “the best rock ’n’ roll biography ever written.”

His latest novel, Under Tiberius (2015), came out last year.

Today is the birthday of Laurie Halse Anderson (books by this author), born in Potsdam, New York (1961). When she first started writing, she received, by her own account, “hundreds” of rejection letters. She joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, where she found a supportive group that gave her constructive criticism, which helped her improve her writing. And though she started off writing picture books — and continues to do so — she is best known now for her young adult novels that deal with difficult subjects.

Her best-known young adult novel is Speak (2009), about a high school freshman named Melinda who is raped at a party and is unable to talk about it. Anderson wrote the book when her oldest daughter entered middle school. She began thinking about how vulnerable adolescent girls are — and she remembered her own sexual assault when she was just about to enter high school. She didn’t tell anyone about the assault for 25 years. “I came to it as both a young woman in my heart, and as a mom, and the story took off from there,” she said. She’s also written novels about other tough subjects that young people face: eating disorders, drug abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. “I really remember what it feels like to be 15, 16, 17, to be confused, and hurt, and angry. My parents weren’t explaining things to me, so I would turn to the library and turn to books to try and figure out the world. So that’s what I try to do.”

Her latest book, just out, is the third in a trilogy set during the Revolutionary War. Ashes (2016) follows Chains (2008) and Forge (2010) to round out the “Seeds of America” trilogy.

It’s the birthday of poet Robert Bridges (books by this author), born in Walmer, England (1844). He wanted to be a poet from the time he was young, but he decided that the sensible thing to do was to become a doctor and work at that until he was 40, and then spend his retirement writing. He wrote detailed reports of his daily life as a doctor, including an account of trying to listen to internal organs despite the noise of the street outside. He wrote: “No description could do justice to the strange hubbub in which auscultation had to be carried on. The rattle of carts in the street, the hum of voices inside, the slamming of doors, the noise of people walking about, the coughings of all kinds, the crying of babies, the scraping of impatient feet, the stamping of cold ones, the chinking of the bottles and zinc tickets, and, after eleven o’clock, the hammering, sawing, and tinkering of the carpenters and blacksmiths who came not unfrequently at that hour to set things generally to rights.”

Bridges kept up a lifelong correspondence with a friend from college, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins’s poetry might never have been remembered, since he published very little of it, except that Hopkins had sent Bridges many of his poems. It was after Hopkins’s death that Bridges began to publish Hopkins’s poetry. In 1918, Bridges edited the first Collected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It wasn’t until 1930, when a second edition of Hopkins’s poems was published, that people began to recognize that he was one of the greatest poets of his generation.

It’s the birthday of the most popular talk show host in American history, Johnny Carson, born in Corning, Iowa (1925). He was the son of a utility company lineman, and he grew up an extremely shy boy. But when he was 12 years old, he happened to read a how-to book about magic tricks and he became obsessed. He later said that it was the discovery of magic that helped him relate to people. He sent away for a mail-order magic kit and began following his family members around the house, asking them to pick a card. He performed publicly for the first time when he was 14, at the local rotary club. His mother sewed him a cape embroidered with his name, “The Great Carsoni.”

He went on performing magic at local parties and clubs, and when he was in the Navy during World War II, he was chosen to assist Orson Welles in a magic performance for the troops. Welles sawed his wife, Rita Hayworth, in half onstage, and Carson later said it was one of the high points of his life.

He studied speech and drama at the University of Nebraska and it was there that he got interested in comedy. His senior thesis was titled, “How to Write Comedy Jokes.” He worked for years in radio and on small-time TV shows, including a game show called Who Do You Trust? But his big break came when he took over hosting The Tonight Show from Jack Paar in 1962. At the time, nighttime talk shows were a mixture of intellectual discussion, controversy, and comedy. What made Johnny Carson unique was that he retained the talk show format of interviewing guests, including scientists and writers, but he turned everything into a joke.

Carson’s show also became the premier venue for new stand-up comedians. Getting booked on The Tonight Show was considered the biggest break a comedian could get, and if Carson invited a comedian to sit down after the routine, it was a sign that the comedian had made it.

By the mid-1970s, more than 15 million people were watching The Tonight Show every night before they went to bed. Carson hosted the show for 30 years, which was two-thirds of the time that national TV has existed. He retired from the show after having taped 4,531 shows, and almost never appeared in public again. One of his few TV appearances after his retirement was a one-minute spot on David Letterman’s show, during which Carson remained completely silent. He died in 2005.

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