Jan. 13, 2013
At the corner of our fenced yard
a tom fans his feathers, drops
first one barred wing, then the other,
sashays before our shed, a blue-faced
matador, red wattles swinging
as he taunts imagined rivals.
It is pure theater, and we, his only audience,
peer past the kitchen curtains, whispering,
enchanted by the mysteries of wild courtship.
Two hens, bored or unimpressed,
peck under the bird feeder
before sauntering away.
Engrossed in his performance, the tom
fails to notice their exit at first, then panics,
dashing back and forth along the pickets
unable to find the open gate—
deflated and frantic, a comic Casanova.
Sympathetic to his plight, knowing well
how miscommunication leads to heartache,
I stand on our deck, cheering encouragements
while you go to his aid waving arms
to herd him out, because even turkey love
deserves a second chance.
On this day in 1968, country musician Johnny Cash recorded a live concert at Folsom Prison in California. Back in the early 1950s, while serving in the Air Force and stationed in Germany, Cash had seen a documentary on life inside the prison. This inspired him to write the song "Folsom Prison Blues," with its haunting lines, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." He included it on his debut album, With His Hot and Blue Guitar, in 1957, and began dreaming of some day playing the song live for the inmates there. In 1968, after a personnel shake up at his recording label, Cash pitched the idea to a new producer. He was enthusiastic, so the record label contacted both San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Folsom responded first and the plans for a live concert went into motion. The band set up a two-day rehearsal nearby, along with Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and June Carter.
The day before the concert was to take place, a prison chaplain approached Cash, asking him if he would take the time to listen to a song recorded by a Folsom inmate. The chaplain thought that if he could mention hearing the song while on stage, it would touch the inmate, named Glen Sherley, who was serving a 5-to-life sentence for burglary. Upon hearing "Greystone Chapel," Cash was so enamored with the song that he resolved to perform it live as part of the show.
The set list mixed songs of prison life with humor and despair. While remixed in the studio to sound rowdy and responsive to any lines about prison, the inmates were actually well behaved during the concert, wary of losing the privilege. Two concerts were recorded that day, but the second lacked the same energy, and only two songs from that session made it onto the final record. Released just four months after the concert, Live at Folsom Prison reached No. 1 on the country charts and was a huge pop crossover. It reignited Cash's career after it had stalled due to his own increased drug use. He married Carter later that year, and ABC offered Cash his own television show after the success of the live album. In 2003, the Library of Congress included it in its 50 recordings to be added to the National Registry of Music.
Cash said: "You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space."
It's the birthday of short-story writer Lorrie Moore (books by this author), born in Glens Falls, New York (1957). She's the author of the short-story collections Like Life (1990) and Birds of America (1998). She skipped a grade in school when she was growing up, and the difference in age between her and her classmates made her feel especially small and shy. She said: "I felt so completely thin that I was afraid to walk over grates. I thought I would fall down the slightest crevice and disappear."
She started writing in college and published her first story in Seventeen magazine. She was so happy that she then proceeded to send them everything she'd ever written. She said: "They couldn't get rid of me. I was like a stalker. I sent them everything, and of course they didn't want anything more from me."
It was only after she told her parents about her publication that she found out they had both wanted to be writers themselves. Her father went up into the attic and brought down stories that he'd once submitted to The New Yorker, and her mother admitted that she'd given up journalism for nursing.
In grad school, she realized she had to decide whether she wanted to devote her life to writing or to the piano, which had been her first love. She said: "The typewriter and the piano were actually similar ideas, for my mind and for my hands. I was completely unaccomplished musically [but] I was having ecstatic experiences in the practice room and wasn't getting any writing done. So I had to choose." She chose writing, and published her first book of short stories by the time she was 26 years old.
Lorrie Moore's first book was Self Help (1985), in which the stories were written in the style of how-to manuals, including "How to Be an Other Woman," "How to Talk to Your Mother," and "How to Be a Writer."
When she was once asked in an interview why she writes so often about characters who make lots of jokes, she said: "I feel that when you look out into the world, the world is funny. And people are funny. And that people always try to make each other laugh. I've never been to a dinner party where nobody said anything funny. If you're going to ignore that [as a fiction writer], what are you doing?"
Moore's most recent book is 2009's A Gate at the Stairs.
It's the birthday of dime novelist Horatio Alger Jr. (books by this author), born in Chelsea, Massachusetts (1832). His father was an extremely strict Unitarian minister. He wouldn't let Horatio do anything other than study and pray, and always under his supervision. His father pressured his son to follow in his footsteps as a minister, so the boy went to Harvard Divinity. He wasn't passionate about it and after graduation he left for Paris, where he got to spend a year living in relative freedom, without his father's watchful presence. When he came home, the Civil War had broken out. He tried to join the Union Army, but he had terrible eyesight and he was only 5 feet 2 inches, so he was rejected.
He went ahead and became a minister after all, but his career didn't last long. He was forced to resign after he was accused of having sexual relationships with several boys in his congregation. His influential father managed to cover things up just fine, but that was the end of his career in the ministry. So he turned to writing dime novels for boys, and hit on a huge success with his Ragged Dick series. Over the course of his life, Alger wrote more than 500 novels and short stories, most of them virtually interchangeable. They all featured young, virtuous street urchin boys who saved up their money while other boys gambled it away, and then did something impressive that attracted the attention of rich older men, who became their benefactors and taught them how to prosper in the world of business and the upper middle class. Horatio Alger is credited with popularizing the "rags-to-riches" theme of American literature. And even though he didn't get much literary respect for his books, and he himself couldn't even remember all the titles, he wrote so many books and they were all so successful that he is considered one of the best-selling writers of all time.
It's the birthday of the novelist Jay McInerney (books by this author), born in Hartford, Connecticut (1955). After college, he wound up in New York City, where he worked for Random House and got involved in the glamorous nightlife of fashion parties and dance clubs. Then, one day, one of his co-workers introduced him to the writer Raymond Carver, and Carver told him that if he ever wanted to be a writer he had to get out of the city and away from all the parties so that he would be able to think, and that's what he did. He moved to Syracuse, New York, and in six weeks he wrote his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City (1983), loosely based on the glamorous New York lifestyle he'd just given up, and that book made him famous. It has sold more than a million copies.
He's written several other novels, including Brightness Falls (1992) and Model Behavior (1998). McInerney's most recent book is The Juice: Vinous Veritas (2012), his third collection on wine writing.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®