Nov. 17, 2012
It was nice being a genius
worth nearly half-a-million dollars
for the two or three minutes it took me
to walk back to my house from the mailbox
with the letter from the Foundation
trembling in my hand. Frankly,
for the first minute
I was somewhat surprised at being a genius.
I'd only published a few small things at that point.
I didn't even have a book.
I was just a part-time lecturer
at a small mid-western college.
But early into the second minute
I had fully embraced the fact of my genius.
I mean, these people know what they're doing, right?
Who am I to tell the Foundation its business?
And I was already practicing the kind of modest,
Hey, it's no big deal tone of voice I'd be using
on the phone for the rest of the day
as I called all my friends, and especially
my enemies, to treat them to the good news.
But when I opened the letter
and saw it was merely a request
for me to recommend someone else to be a genius,
I lost interest and made myself a ham sandwich.
It's the birthday of the man who created Saturday Night Live — Lorne Michaels, born in Toronto, Canada (1944). He formed a comedy duo with Hart Pomerantz. In the early '70s, they had their own television variety show, The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour, on Canadian television. They also contracted their talents to comedic acts in the United States, writing for Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, and Woody Allen. They wrote for the NBC show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then NBC asked Michaels to come up with a comedy show to replace the Johnny Carson reruns that aired Saturday nights at 11:30 p.m.
Michaels recruited talent from all sorts of places. Dan Aykroyd was a fellow Canadian, and Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner had worked on the National Lampoon show. Muppet creator Jim Henson created sketches for the show, and recent Harvard grad Al Franken was signed on as a writer. Michaels put together the first season, 1975-1976, and won an Emmy for it.
He said: "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30."
It's the birthday of American novelist and historian Shelby Foote (books by this author), born in Greenville, Mississippi (1916). Foote grew up on the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, once a great swamp filled with alligators and water moccasin snakes. About his childhood, Foote said: "My father died just before I turned six years old, so I've been to a considerable degree on my own. I was a latchkey kid before there were any latchkey kids, and I liked it. Cast on my own resources, I began to read very early and with great pleasure. [...] Getting close to books, and spending time by myself, I was obliged to think about things I would never have thought about if I was busy romping around with a brother and sister."
He had already published several novels, including Tournament (1949), Follow Me Down (1950), and Love in a Dry Season (1951), when in 1952 an editor asked him if he would try writing a narrative history of the Civil War. Foote said he thought it would take about four years, but it wound up taking two decades, and the result was almost 3,000 pages long when published.
He spent the last 25 years of his life working on an epic novel about Mississippi called Two Gates to the City. It remained unfinished when he died in 2006.
It was on this day in 1558 that Queen Elizabeth I acceded to the English throne. Her father, King Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn, in hopes of producing a male heir. But when Elizabeth was born, he had Anne Boleyn beheaded and declared Elizabeth an illegitimate child. She grew up in a world of conspiracies and assassinations. Because she was a potential heir to the throne, her life was constantly in danger.
England almost broke out in civil war when Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary Tudor, came to power and tried to turn England back into a Catholic nation. But Mary died just five years after becoming queen, leaving behind a debt-ridden, divided country. Elizabeth took the throne on this day in 1558. She was 25 years old. One of her first acts as queen was to restore England to Protestantism. Militant Protestants wanted her to seek out secret Catholics and prosecute them, but Elizabeth decided that she wasn't going to police anyone's private beliefs. She required everyone to go to the Church of England on Sunday and that they all use the same prayer book, but aside from that they could believe whatever they wanted.
She also eased the restrictions on the legal operation of theaters, and the result was a new career for writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson, and William Shakespeare. Part of the reason so many great writers came out of the Elizabethan era was simply that it was a time of relative peace and prosperity, in which people had the luxury to read books and go to the theater. But Elizabeth also helped encourage the English to have pride in themselves, in their history, and especially their language.
She reigned for 45 years, one of the great eras in English history. Near the end of her reign, she said to her subjects: "Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown: that I have reigned with your loves. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat; yet you never had, nor shall have any that will love you better."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®