Jul. 7, 2007

How to Be Old

by May Swenson

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Poem: "How to Be Old" by May Swenson, from Nature: Poems Old and New. © Mariner Books, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

How to Be Old

It is easy to be young, (Everybody is,
at first.) It is not easy
to be old. It takes time.
Youth is given; age is achieved.
One must work a magic to mix with time
in order to become old.

Youth is given. One must put it away
like a doll in a closet,
take it out and play with it only
on holidays. One must have many dresses
and dress the doll impeccably
(but not to show the doll, to keep it hidden.)

It is necessary to adore the doll,
to remember it in the dark on the ordinary
days, and every day congratulate
one's aging face in the mirror.

In time one will be very old.
In time, one's life will be accomplished.
And in time, in time, the doll––
like new, though ancient––will be found.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the 100th birthday of one of the writers who helped invent modern science fiction: Robert Heinlein (books by this author), born in Butler, Missouri (1907). He wrote more than 50 novels and collections of short stories over a span of four decades.

He said of his childhood, "Once I found out about reading I was all in favor of it." He especially loved dime novels and the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne. But he didn't plan to become a writer. What he wanted was to be an officer in the Navy. But after serving for five years, he got discharged because he'd caught tuberculosis. The disease left him weak enough that he had a hard time working a job.

He wasn't sure what to do to make ends meet, and then he saw an ad in a pulp fiction magazine offering $50 for the best story by an unpublished author. So he sat down and in four days he had written a story called "Life-Line," about a machine that can predict a person's death. He decided it was too good for an amateur contest, so he sent it to Astounding Science Fiction magazine, and they accepted it. It came out in 1939, and Heinlein would publish 28 more stories in then next three years.

At the time, most science fiction stories were full of gimmicks and imaginary machines that had no relationship to actual science. Heinlein was one of the first science fiction authors to look at the world the way it was and try to imagine how it might actually look in the future. And he tried to make sure that all the imaginary technology in his stories could really work. He wrote about things like atomic bombs, cloning, and gay marriage years before they became realities. And he was one of the first writers to imagine how space travel could actually be accomplished.

He's best known for his novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), about a boy who is born during the first manned mission to Mars, who is raised by Martians, and who then returns to Earth to become a preacher. Stranger in a Strange Land was also the first book to describe a waterbed.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Jill McCorkle (books by this author), born in Lumberton, North Carolina (1958). She's the author of the novels Tending to Virginia (1987) and Ferris Beach (1990), and the short-story collections Crash Diet (1992) and Final Vinyl Days (1999).

She wrote her first novel, The Cheer Leader (1984), while she was studying for a master's degree, but she couldn't find a publisher for it. Her next novel was July 7th (1984), about the events on a single day in a small town in North Carolina. The publisher Louis Rubin liked it so much that he published both that novel and The Cheer Leader at the same time, and they both got great reviews. In the space of a few months, McCorkle had published two books and had already established a reputation as a writer.

Her short-story collection Creatures of Habit came out in 2003. It begins: "We used to all come outside when the streetlights came on and prowl the neighborhood in a pack, a herd of kids on banana-seat bikes and minibikes. The grown-ups looked so silly framed in their living-room and kitchen windows. They complained about their days and sighed deep sighs of depression and loss. They talked about how spoiled and lucky children were these days. We will never be that way, we said, we will never say those things."

It's the birthday of the popular historian and biographer David McCullough (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). He started out as a reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine. His first book was The Johnstown Flood (1968), and he wrote another book about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge called The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972). But his big breakthrough was a biography of Harry Truman called Truman (1992), one of the best-selling biographies ever published at the time.

David McCullough said, "History is about life. It's awful when the life is squeezed out of it and there's no flavor left, no uncertainties, no horsing around. It always disturbed me how many biographers never gave their subjects a chance to eat. You can tell a lot about people by how they eat, what they eat, and what kind of table manners they have."

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