Oct. 20, 2014

My Life Before I Knew It

by Lawrence Raab

I liked rainy days
when you didn't have to go outside and play.
At night I'd tell my sister
there were snakes under her bed.
When I mowed the lawn I imagined being famous.
Cautious and stubborn, unwilling to fail,
I knew for certain what I didn't want to know.

I hated to dance. I hated baseball,
and collected airplane cards instead.
I learned to laugh at jokes I didn't get.
The death of Christ moved me,
but only at the end of Ben Hur.
I thought Henry Mancini was a great composer.

My secret desire was to own a collie
who would walk with me in the woods
when the leaves were falling
and I was thinking about writing the stories
that would make me famous.

Sullen, overweight, melancholy,
writers didn't have to be good at sports.
They stayed inside for long periods of time.
They often wore glasses. But strangers
were moved by what they accomplished
and wrote them letters. One day

one of those strangers would introduce
herself to me, and then
the life I'd never been able to foresee
would begin, and everything
before I became myself would appear
necessary to the rest of the story.

"My Life Before I Knew It" by Lawrence Raab from The Probable World. © Penguin, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of musician Jelly Roll Morton, born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in New Orleans (1890). He grew up listening to French and Italian opera, hymns, ragtime, and minstrel songs. He was a great piano player, and he apprenticed in the seedy bars and brothels of New Orleans. In addition to being a talented performer, he was a pool shark, a gambler, and a pimp. He wore a turquoise coat, a Stetson hat, and tight striped pants. He said: "I was Sweet Papa Jelly Roll with the stovepipes in my hips, and all the women in town was dying to turn my damper down."

He traveled around the Gulf Coast, and from there moved on to the West Coast and Chicago. In the 1920s, he was one of the biggest names in jazz. He recorded major hits like "King Porter Stomp," "Black Bottom Stomp," "New Orleans Blues," and the "Original Jelly Roll Blues." He was fierce in his claim that he was the founder of jazz, and he is considered the first true jazz composer because he was the first to go beyond improvisation to write down jazz tunes. He engaged in highly publicized feuds with other musicians who claimed to be the King of Jazz, the founder of jazz or the blues, or any other title he wanted for himself. When the great jazz trumpeter Lee Collins went to record with Jelly Roll, Morton informed him: "You know you will be working for the world's best jazz piano player ... not one of the greatest — I am the Greatest."

By the 1930s, Morton had fallen into obscurity. In 1938, someone suggested to folk music archivist Alan Lomax that he interview Morton. Lomax was skeptical, but decided to give it a try, and he was so delighted by Morton's music and his rambling tales of life in New Orleans that he ended up fueling Morton with endless bottles of whiskey and recording 52 records of the musician's songs and stories.

Morton said, "It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, that New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I, myself, happened to be creator in the year 1902."

On this day in 1811, the first steamboat to journey along the Mississippi River set sail from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and headed toward New Orleans, Louisiana. Christened the New Orleans, the boat carried 15 people aboard, including the captain's pregnant wife and a Newfoundland dog named Tiger.

During the 82-day, 981-mile journey, the passengers encountered cheering crowds along the Ohio River and endured the birth of the captain's son near Louisville. In mid-December, a series of powerful earthquakes along the Mississippi town of New Madrid realigned the river and its landmarks, rendering the crew's map moot. The boat's successful journey proved the viability of steam travel and opened the way for commercial trade along the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys, creating a national economy for farm goods. Not long after her arrival in New Orleans, the boat's designer, American engineer Robert Fulton, wrote to a friend, "The Mississippi, as I before wrote you, is conquered."

It's the birthday of the architect Sir Christopher Wren, born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England (1632). He designed many buildings, including the Windsor Town Hall, which building inspectors said was supported by an inadequate number of pillars, and so Wren added four more pillars, none of which touched the ceiling.

He's best known for his 35-year restoration of St. Paul's Cathedral after the Great Fire of London (1666). He's buried in St. Paul's under the epitaph "Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice — Reader, if you seek his monument, look around."

It's the 160th birthday of the poet who said: "But, truly, I have wept too much! The Dawns are heartbreaking. Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter. "That's Arthur Rimbaud (books by this author), born in Charleville, France (1854). He published his first poem when he was 15, and ran off to Paris, where he spent two weeks living homeless and hungry, roaming the streets.

It's the birthday of John Dewey (books by this author), born in Burlington, Vermont (1859). He wrote Democracy and Education (1916), and he founded the New School for Social Research.

He said, "Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results."

It's the birthday of political humorist Art Buchwald (books by this author), born in Mount Vernon, New York (1925). In 1982, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his syndicated column "Art Buchwald," which appeared twice a week in more than 550 newspapers. His columns have been published as collections in books such as I Think I Don't Remember (1987) and Whose Rose Garden Is It Anyway? (1989).

Buchwald said, "If you attack the establishment long enough and hard enough, they will make you a member of it."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Pinsky (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). Long Branch was a town of Italian immigrant families, and he came from a well-known family in the town — one of his grandfathers owned a bar and was a popular bootlegger; the other grandfather washed the windows of downtown stores. He said, "I grew up in a disorderly, unpredictable household, jangling alternations of comedy and history, insanity and idealism, doubt and head injury, music and anger, loss and wit."

He's been asked many times how he got started as a poet, and has variously answered: "Imitating Yeats, Allen Ginsberg, Frost, Eliot"; "Reading the dictionary and daydreaming about the sounds of words when I was a kid"; "Liking entertaining people when playing the saxophone as a teenager." And another time: "Whatever makes a child want to glue macaroni on a paper plate and paint the assemblage and see it on the refrigerator — that has always been strong in me."

His books of poetry include The Want Bone (1990), Jersey Rain (2000), and Selected Poems (2011). He is also known for his translation of Dante's Inferno (1994), which won was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and became a best-seller. He said: "I literally could not stop working on it. We have pillowcases stained with ink where my wife took the pen out of my hand at night."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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