Nov. 23, 2009

Where They Were and What They Were Doing

by Matt Cook

I was looking through Milwaukee newspapers
From the day after John F. Kennedy was shot—

There was this auto body worker
Who brought his BB gun to work that day;
He was arrested for shooting his BB gun
Out the windows of the body plant
At passing automobiles—

That's where he was and what he was doing
On the day President Kennedy was assassinated.

There was this biochemist.
He was giving this speech at some university in town—
He was inviting the audience to imagine
A strain of pneumonia bacteria
That was wearing a heavy armor suit that was actually made of protein
That was his public speaking metaphor.
His point was that the protein would act like
A shield against white blood cells.
That's what that guy was up to that day.

And just outside of town somewhere,
A car slammed into a truck on a rainy highway.
The car guy died of head injuries;
The truck guy was in satisfactory condition with neck pain.

In satisfactory condition with neck pain—
That's where that guy was, and what he was doing.

The day President Kennedy was shot,
These kids broke into a junior high school.
They stole twenty dollars worth of stamps,
And smashed up an aquarium.

That was their story;
That's where they were and what they were doing.

"Where They Were and What They Were Doing" by Matt Cook, from In the Small of My Backyard. © Manic D Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today, the winner of the 2005 National Spelling Bee turns 18. Anurag Kashyap, who was born in India and grew up in San Diego County, California, was in eighth grade when he correctly spelled "appoggiatura" (a musical term that means, according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, "an embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone and usually written as a note of smaller size") to clinch the national title. Winning words since then include ursprache (2006), serrefine (2007), and guerdon (2008). This year's winning word was Laodicean, a synonym for "lukewarm," especially applicable to religious matters.

Today is the 29th birthday of Ishmael Beah, (books by this author) born in the fishing town of Mattru Jong, Sierra Leone (1980). He's the author of the book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007), published when he was 26 years old and chosen as No. 3 on Time magazine's list of 10 best nonfiction books of 2007. That year, Starbucks chose Beah's memoir as its Featured Book and displayed it at thousands of coffeehouses around the country.

When Beah was 12, Sierra Leone was in the midst of a brutal civil war, but his town seemed far removed from it, and he was busy memorizing Shakespeare and performing in a dance and rap ensemble. Then the rebel army came into his town and started shooting. His parents and brothers were killed. He recounted: "I ran away, along paths and roads that were littered with dead bodies, some mutilated in ways so horrible that looking at them left a permanent scar on my memory. I ran for days, weeks and months, and I couldn't believe that the simple and precious world I had known, where nights were celebrated with storytelling and dancing and mornings greeted with the singing of birds and cock crows, was now a place where only guns spoke and sometimes it seemed even the sun hesitated to shine."

The Sierra Leone government army conscripted him; by the time he was 13 he was carrying an AK-47 and constantly high on drugs — speed pills and also "brown-brown," a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder that the child soldiers were given to sniff. For two years, he fought constantly in bloody battles.

Then, there came a directive to disarm child soldiers, and he was chosen by the army to go to a UNICEF-sponsored rehabilitation center, where he spent eight months.

He got in touch with a woman in New York who worked for an NGO, whom he'd met when he'd been invited to speak at a UN conference earlier. He asked her if he could live with her. She agreed and sent him some money and clothes. He narrowly escaped from Sierra Leone into Guinea, and then went on to New York, where the Brooklyn Jewish woman officially adopted him. He finished high school in New York, graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio with a political science degree in 2004, and wrote his memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

Ishmael Beah, who said, "I believe children have the resilience to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance."

It's the birthday of poet, philosopher, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht (books by this author) born in Glen Cove, New York (1965). Hecht's first poetry book, The Next Ancient World, came out in 2001 and won a "First Book Award" from the Poetry Society of America. Her second poetry book, Funny, came out in 2005 and also won poetry prizes.

She's also a scholar of intellectual history — she has a Ph.D. from Columbia in the History of Science — and in 2003, she published two different books: Doubt: A History — about questions of faith and religion — and The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology. Her book The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think Is Right Is Wrong came out in 2007.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »