Jul. 29, 2010
Today the cloud shapes are terrifying,
and I keep expecting some enormous
black-and-white B-movie Cyclops
to appear at the edge of the horizon,
to come striding over the ocean
and drag me from my kitchen
to the deep cave that flickered
into my young brain one Saturday
at the Baronet Theater where I sat helpless
between my older brothers, pumped up
on candy and horror—that cave,
the litter of human bones
gnawed on and flung toward the entrance,
I can smell their stench as clearly
as the bacon fat from breakfast. This
is how it feels to lose it—
not sanity, I mean, but whatever it is
that helps you get up in the morning
and actually leave the house
on those days when it seems like death
in his brown uniform
is cruising his panel truck
of packages through your neighborhood.
I think of a friend's voice
on her answering machine—
Hi, I'm not here—
the morning of her funeral,
the calls filling up the tape
and the mail still arriving,
and I feel as afraid as I was
after all those vampire movies
when I'd come home and lie awake
all night, rigid in my bed,
unable to get up
even to pee because the undead
were waiting underneath it;
if I so much as struck a bare
foot out there in the unprotected air
they'd grab me by the ankle and pull me
under. And my parents said there was
nothing there, when I was older
I would know better, and now
they're dead, and I'm older,
and I know better.
It's the birthday of filmmaker Ken Burns, born in Brooklyn, New York (1953), who has made documentaries about the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, baseball, jazz, women suffragists, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Frank Lloyd Wright, among other subjects. His nine-episode series on the Civil War, which came out in 1990, is considered his masterpiece. It won more than 40 major awards and more than 40 million people have seen it.
It's the birthday of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, (books by this author) born in Paris (1805). He's the author of Democracy in America (1835), in which he wrote about the court system, the role of religion, education, business, race relations, associations, and every other detail that went into American democracy and the character of Americans.
It's the birthday of the writer who won both the 2009 National Book Award and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his book The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (2009). That's biographer and historian T.J. Stiles, (books by this author) born near dairy and hog farms in rural Benton County, Minnesota, on this day in 1964.
He figured that his book about railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt would take two years to complete, from the start of research through the end of writing. Instead, it took seven years. One of the issues was that documents about Vanderbilt were simply hard to find. There had not been a biography of Vanderbilt written in a very long time — and there was so little to go by because Vanderbilt left no collection of papers. Complicating things further, much of Vanderbilt's career was during a period of American history that has not been written about very much — the 1830s and 1840s, long past the Revolutionary War, still many years before the Civil War.
Stiles spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library, digging through obscure archived collections like the New York Central Railroad papers. He would learn bits and pieces about Vanderbilt from unexpected places, things like lawsuits where plaintiffs would describe their meetings with Vanderbilt. They'd tell what his office looked like, where his desk was positioned, even the way that he put on his reading glasses. T.J. Stiles nearly despaired and quit the book, for which he'd been given an advance. He told his friends that if he were ever to win an award for the biography, at the ceremony he would ask for "a moment of silence for the 401(k) that gave its life so that this book could live."
It turns out that Stiles' book did, in fact, win major prizes. For The First Tycoon, Stiles won the National Book Award for nonfiction, and the Pulitzer Prize for biography.
T.J. Stiles once said, "When I write, I try to tell a good (and accurate) story, both for its own sake and as a means of drawing out the underlying meaning, the themes that explain to us how we became what we now are."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®