Sunday Nov. 13, 2016

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Talking During the Commercials

It seems like the commercials are getting longer,
Father said, & the shows are getting shorter.
This is the fourth one in a row. Don’t they
realize there’s a limit to our patience, & we’re
ready to pull the plug on the TV if they continue
to take advantage of us? I’d pull it out now
if you weren’t watching it. The only reason
I’m watching it is so we can talk. The TV
gives us an excuse to be together. Otherwise,
we a be in separate rooms. I’m sorry for
attacking the very commercials that enable
us to talk, but there’s nothing else to talk about.

“Talking During the Commercials” by Hal Sirowitz from Father Said. © Soft Skull, Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the lawyer and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Louis Brandeis, born in Louisville, Kentucky (1856). He was the man who introduced the concept of a right to privacy to American law.

It was on this day in 1789 that Ben Franklin wrote his famous phrase “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The words were actually just the second half of a sentence he’d written in a letter his friend Jean-Baptiste LeRoy. It was shortly after the United States Constitution had been ratified, and his entire sentence was this: “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency, but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

It’s the birthday of crime writer George V(incent) Higgins (books by this author), born in Brockton, Massachusetts (1939). His parents, both schoolteachers, urged him to study pre-med, but by the end of his undergraduate years he had become an English major. Later he went to Stanford and studied under novelist Wallace Stegner. After driving a soft-drink delivery truck — when he learned, he said later, “to swear between syllables” — he became a newspaper reporter in New England, and became acquainted with the New England underworld later featured in his crime novels. Covering local trials, he felt he could do better than the prosecutors he was observing, and decided to go into law school.

In the late 1960s, during a vicious turf war between Boston’s Irish and Italian mobs, Higgins prosecuted a number of underworld murders. In 1970, he became a prosecutor for the United States Attorney’s office in Boston; two years later, his first crime novel came out, after 10 previous books had been rejected. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) was a huge success, and was quickly followed by best-sellers The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974) — all placed in Boston’s crime world. He went on to write 30-plus titles, including A Change of Gravity (1997) and The Agent (1998), before his death in 1999.

Today is the birthday of St. Augustine, the early Christian theologian, philosopher, and master of rhetoric. He was born in the Roman community of Tagaste, Numidia — which is now Souk Ahras, Algeria (354). His mother, Monica, was a baptized Christian, and his father, Patricius, was a lifelong pagan who converted to Christianity on his deathbed.

Augustine’s memoir, The Confessions (about 397), deals a lot with the nature of sin. He tells a story of stealing fruit from a neighbor’s tree when he was a boy. He didn’t want the fruit because he was hungry, but he wanted to steal it because it was, literally, forbidden fruit. He realized that he got pleasure from sinning. “I became evil for no reason,” he wrote. “I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself.” He concluded that the propensity to sin was part of human nature, and he was the first to come up with the religious concept of “original sin,” which all people inherited as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden. The book was only mildly popular during Augustine’s lifetime, but it has since become a pillar of Christian literature and philosophy.

It’s the birthday of Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson (books by this author), born in Edinburgh (1850), who wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Treasure Island (1883), a romping adventure that introduced the world to a charismatic one-legged pirate named Long John Silver.

The men in Stevenson’s family were mostly lighthouse engineers, but from a young age, he preferred fantasizing and writing. He was chronically sick as a child and didn’t learn to read until he was eight. His beloved nurse, Cummy, often read to him from the Bible. He recalled that time so tenderly that he dedicated his book A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) to Cummy.

When Stevenson came of age, he became a Bohemian, wearing his hair long and favoring velveteen jackets. He was perilously thin from his childhood sickness and referred to himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones.” He told his parents he wanted to be a writer and they disowned him for a time. Stevenson was nonplussed, writing to a friend: “What a damned curse I am to my parents! O Lord, what a pleasant thing it is to have damned the happiness of (probably) the only two people who care a damn about you in the world.”

One day he found himself entertaining his stepson on a rainy afternoon in Scotland, drawing a treasure map. He became consumed with the idea of a story about buccaneers and buried gold and wrote the first draft in mere days. Stevenson said: “It was to be a story for boys, no need for psychology or fine writing; and I had a boy at hand to be a touchstone; Women were to be excluded.” The original title was The Sea Cook: A Story for Boys, and it was serialized in the magazine Young Folks. Stevenson used the pseudonym “Captain George North.”

Treasure Island introduced to the world to Billy Bones, Long John Silver, treasure maps with “x’s,” schooners, and one-legged seamen with parrots on their shoulders. The novel deeply influenced future writers like Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov, though Virginia Woolf despised it. It was even adapted into an Italian/German science fiction film starring Anthony Quinn and titled Il Planeta del Tesoro, or Treasure Island in Outer Space (1987).

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