Jul. 18, 2011
Look at you, sitting there being good.
After two years you're still dying for a cigarette.
And not drinking on weekdays, who thought that one up?
Don't you want to run to the corner right now
for a fifth of vodka and have it with cranberry juice
and a nice lemon slice, wouldn't the backyard
that you're so sick of staring out into
look better then, the tidy yard your landlord tends
day and night — the fence with its fresh coat of paint,
the ash-free barbeque, the patio swept clean of small twigs—
don't you want to mess it all up, to roll around
like a dog in his flowerbeds? Aren't you a dog anyway,
always groveling for love and begging to be petted?
You ought to get into the garbage and lick the insides
of the can, the greasy wrappers, the picked-over bones,
you ought to drive your snout into the coffee grounds.
Ah, coffee! Why not gulp some down with four cigarettes
and then blast naked into the streets, and leap on the first
beautiful man you find? The words ruin me, haven't they
been jailed in your throat for forty years, isn't it time
you set them loose in slutty dresses and torn fishnets
to totter around in five-inch heels and slutty mascara?
Sure it's time. You've rolled over long enough.
Forty, forty-one. At the end of all this
there's one lousy biscuit, and it tastes like dirt.
So get going. Listen: they're howling for you now:
up and down the block your neighbors' dogs
burst into frenzied barking and won't shut up.
It's the birthday of William Makepeace Thackeray (1811) (books by this author). He was born in Calcutta, India, where his father was an administrator in the East India Company. His father died when Thackeray was four, and the next year, the boy was sent home to England, where he unhappily attended a series of boarding schools. Things looked up when he was at Cambridge, though; he was there from 1828 to 1830, and left without a degree. He studied law in London, and thought he might become a painter. He received his inheritance — £20,000 — when he came of age, but he lost it through gambling and bad investments. His stepfather set him up with a newspaper job as a foreign correspondent in Paris, but when the paper folded, Thackeray returned to London with his bride, a penniless Irish girl, and became a journalist. The Thackerays had three daughters; one died in infancy, and after the birth of the third in 1840, his wife went mad. He sent her to live with friends in the country, and she outlived him by many years.
His first full-length book was The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844 and later revised and reissued as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon in 1856). He published it in serial form under the pen name George Savage Fitzboodle; the plot was inspired by a real rake and fortune hunter, but Thackeray lost his inspiration somewhere along the line. "Got through the fag-end of chapter four of Barry Lyndon with a great deal of dullness and unwillingness and labour," he wrote in his diary.
The first book he published in his own name is also the one he's best known for: Vanity Fair: a Novel without a Hero. He published it serially, in monthly installments, in 1847 and 1848, and it's about two women: the well-born but passive Amelia Sedley and the ambitious adventuress Becky Sharp. In the end, everyone appears to get what he or she wants, but as Thackeray reminds the reader in the closing lines: "Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out."
Today is the birthday of Russian poet, playwright, and novelist Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933) (books by this author), born in Zima, Siberia. Descended from four generations of Ukrainians who had been exiled to Siberia, he would sometimes accompany his father, who was a geologist, on expeditions to Kazakhstan and Altai. He wrote his first poem at 10 and published his first poem at 16. At 19, he published his first book of poems, called The Prospects of the Future (1952). After World War II, he moved to Moscow, where he studied at the Gorky Institute of World Literature, although he dropped out after three years.
In the 1950s and '60s, he became one of the best-known post-Stalinist poets. He walked a fine line between criticism of Soviet policies, which made him popular in the West, and a pro-Leninist stance, which kept him out of too much trouble at home. Some fellow artists didn't approve of what they viewed as his conformity, including Joseph Brodsky, who accused him of being a harmless dissenter and a party "yes man." When Yevtushenko was appointed to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987, Brodsky resigned in protest, saying, "He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved."
He gained international recognition in 1961 with his poem Babi Yar, about the massacre of Jews outside Kiev in 1941; the poem was set to music by composer Dmitri Shostakovich as part of his Thirteenth Symphony. He was allowed quite a bit of freedom to travel, even to the West, until 1963, when he published A Precocious Autobiography in English. His privileges were revoked, but only for two years.
Last year he gave his house and his art collection to the state, which will open it as a museum.
On this day in 1955, the first Disney theme park opened to the public in Anaheim, California. It was called "Disneyland," and Walt Disney funded it in large part with the help of the American Broadcasting Company; in return, he gave them a share of the profits and the rights to produce a weekly Disney-themed television program.
The park was divided up into themed areas: Main Street, U.S.A., which evoked the American Midwest of the early 20th century; Fantasyland, which was based on some of Disney's animated features like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White; Adventureland, which had a jungle theme; Frontierland, celebrating life on America's frontier; and Tomorrowland, which contained all of the 1950s optimism, and none of the fears, about the future.
Walt Disney dedicated the park at the invitation-only international press preview on July 17, saying, "To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world." Unfortunately, the preview was a disaster: it was over 100 degrees that day, the drinking fountains didn't work, the asphalt melted, there was a gas leak, and the vendors ran out of food. There were 11,000 invitees, but more than 17,000 additional visitors showed up bearing counterfeit tickets. It was so bad that Disney later claimed that the next day, July 18, was the real "Opening Day."
It's the birthday of photographer and writer M.J. (Mary Jane) Alexander (books by this author), born in 1961 in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She went to a two-room schoolhouse on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and went on to Vassar College, and from there to Columbia University's graduate journalism program. She moved to Oklahoma City in 1998, and her work focuses largely on the people of the American West.
Her photographs "pay heed to the overlooked, the underestimated, the very old, and the very young." She traveled all over Oklahoma — 5,000 miles of highways, main streets, and dirt roads — to photograph and interview 100 people who were 100 years old or older. "I met them where they lived, traveling through tornado sirens in Blackwell, forest fire haze north of Ardmore, and ice storms in Yukon, through temperatures ranging from 5 to 105 degrees. The trek demonstrated the conditions Oklahoma's elders weathered without the luxury of running water, much less central heat or air-conditioning. [...] They are America's last pioneers." She collected the photographs in her book Salt of the Red Earth: A Century of Wit and Wisdom from Oklahoma's Elders (2007) and later completed a similar project with children as her subjects, Portrait of a Generation — Children of Oklahoma: Sons and Daughters of the Red Earth (2010).
The writer Alice Walker called her a "brilliant photographer." "M.J. Alexander has a way of seeing the world that shows it to you," she said. "The layers of it that are sometimes ignored or overlooked, especially in our country."
It's the birthday of Elizabeth Gilbert (1969) (books by this author). She was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, and her family had a Christmas tree farm in Litchfield. They didn't have a TV, so she and her sister read, and wrote stories and plays, to pass the time. Gilbert studied political science at New York University, but what she really wanted to do was write. So after graduation, she took up an itinerant lifestyle, traveling the country, taking odd jobs on ranches and diners and bars, and listening to the way people talk. She turned all this raw material into a short-story collection, called Pilgrims (1997). She also worked as a journalist, and her 1997 GQ article about her experience bartending on the Lower East Side of Manhattan inspired the film Coyote Ugly (2000).
In 2000, she published a novel (Stern Men) and in 2002, a biography of a modern-day woodsman (The Last American Man), but she shot into the publishing stratosphere with her wildly successful 2006 memoir, Eat Pray Love. It's the story of her post-divorce travels through Italy, India, and Indonesia, and last year it was made into a film starring Julia Roberts.
She has encouraging words for people who come to writing later in life: "Writing is not like dancing or modeling; it's not something where — if you missed it by age 19 — you're finished. It's never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world — at any age. At least try."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®