May 22, 2013

What Followed Your Birth

by Hal Sirowitz

You might not like being reminded
of your birthday, Father said,
but your mother & I do. Your
birth was a happy occasion.
What followed was both good
& bad. That was to be expected,
but what we didn't expect was
that you'd be the last of your friends
to get a job, which you still haven't
gotten yet. It just took you longer
to get started. You had to go back
to school. That wouldn't have been so bad
if you were learning something, but
after all these years to still not know
what you want for a present doesn't
speak well for education.

"What Followed Your Birth" by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Arthur Conan Doyle (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1859). He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and there he met Joseph Bell, his favorite professor. Bell taught his students how to make a successful diagnosis through observation and deduction.

After graduating, Doyle opened his own practice and wrote fiction in his spare time. In 1887, he published A Study in Scarlet, a mystery featuring a character based on his old professor: the detective Sherlock Holmes. He ended up writing 56 short stories and four novels with the famous detective, including The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

Doyle said, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

And Sherlock Holmes said to his sidekick, Dr. Watson, "You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion."

It's the birthday of writer Peter Matthiessen (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). He grew up in a wealthy family in Connecticut, where he went to boarding school before joining the Navy during WWII. He went on to Yale and later studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Matthiessen published his first short stories in The Atlantic Monthly, but he was barely scraping by teaching creative writing courses, when one of his Yale professors, Norman Holmes Pearson, asked if he would work for the newly formed CIA. Matthiessen didn't have much interest in politics, but he asked if he could be sent to Paris, and Pearson agreed. "So," he said, "out of sheer greed and opportunism, off I went."

The CIA thought that Matthiessen needed a better cover than struggling novelist, so they helped support his founding of The Paris Review. Most of his work for the CIA involved infiltrating the lives of French communists, but as the McCarthy trials gained attention in America, Matthiessen resigned, and he later called his work as a spy "the only adventure I've ever regretted."

He then spent three years working unsuccessfully as a commercial fisherman on Long Island. He said, "I had picked up a very wide, if not very deep, knowledge of the natural world, when I then failed as a fisherman I realized that I could write about nature." In 1956, 29-year-old Matthiessen took off across the country in his Ford with a sleeping bag, some books, and a shotgun. He wanted to visit every wildlife refuge in the country. The result was Wildlife in America (1959). It caught the eye of William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker. Shawn funded Matthiessen's trip to the Amazon, where he wrote The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961), which was serialized in The New Yorker.

Matthiessen continued to write novels, such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), as well as books about nature, such as The Snow Leopard (1978).

He said, "I've never been bored one day in my life. I could fill 500 years with no problem."

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




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