MONDAY, 30 JANUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Up in the Morning Early" by Robert Burns. Public Domain.

Up in the Morning Early

Up in the morning's no' for me,
  Up in the morning early;
When a' the hills are coverd wi' snaw,
  I'm sure it's winter fairly.

Cauld blaws the wind frae east to wast,
      The drift is driving sairly;
Sae loud and shrill's I hear the blast,
      I'm sure it's winter fairly.

The birds sit chittering in the thorn,
      A' day they fare but sparely;
And lang's the night frae e'en to morn,
      I'm sure it's winter fairly.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of historian and author Barbara Tuchman, born Barbara Wertheim in New York City (1912). She's best known for her book The Guns of August (1962), a history of the outbreak of World War I. When she was just two years old, she took a trip with her parents on a boat on the Mediterranean and she and her parents watched from their boat as a British warship and two German ships exchanged fire. It was one of the earliest naval battles of World War I.

Out of college her father got her an office job at The Nation magazine, clipping articles, but she eventually worked her way up to writing articles for the magazine and became a foreign correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War and the events in Europe leading up to World War II. And then she got married and had kids, and since she no longer had time to travel the world as a journalist she began to write history.

The first few works of history she wrote were about somewhat obscure topics and they didn't receive much attention. But then she decided to write about a much larger topic: the events leading up to the start of World War I. She said the book would be about "the chasm between our world and a world that died forever."

She said her number one rule as a writer of history was, "Above all, discard the irrelevant."


It's the birthday of the 32nd president of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, born in Hyde Park, New York (1882). He was the only president to be elected to four terms. He was also the first president to regularly address the nation over the radio through weekly speeches he called "fireside chats."

And he was the first president to set up a Presidential Library. Other presidents, including George Washington, had considered setting up libraries of their personal papers but none ever got around to actually doing it until Roosevelt did. Roosevelt's decision to create a library of his personal papers was based in part on the fact that he made the presidency more powerful than any president before him. He also had a closer relationship with the American people than most presidents before him. Herbert Hoover had received about 400 letters a day from ordinary Americans. Franklin Roosevelt received about 4000 a day.

Another reason Roosevelt chose to create his own Presidential Library was that he was a lifelong collector and he didn't want to break his collection up. He had a collection of more than a million stamps in 150 matching albums; he collected coins; medals; 1,200 naval prints and paintings, and more than 200 model ships; armies of miniature donkeys, elephants, pigs; and political cartoons. He kept numerous stuffed birds and birding guides, walking sticks, Christmas cards and 37 leather-bound volumes filled with photographs of naval vessels. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Library would eventually contain more than 16 million pages of personal and official papers.


It's the birthday of humorist and novelist (Frank) Gelett Burgess, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1866). He wrote more than thirty-five books of fiction and nonfiction, but he's best known for his poem, "I never Saw a Purple Cow; / I never Hope to See One; / But I can Tell you, Anyhow, / I'd rather See than Be One."

Burgess had a habit of making up new words to make fun of people's quirks. His best-known term is the much-used word "blurb," which he defined as "self-praise; to make a noise like a publisher." Burgess said, "If in the last few years you haven't discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead."


It is the birthday of poet and novelist Richard Gary Brautigan, born in Tacoma, Washington (1935). He moved south to San Francisco where he became involved with the Beat Movement. In the summer of 1961 he camped with his wife and young daughter in Idaho's Stanley Basin. He spent his days hiking and wrote Trout Fishing in America (1967), his best-known work, on a portable typewriter while sitting alongside the many trout streams.


It's the birthday of Australian-born novelist and short-story writer Shirley Hazzard, born in Sydney, Australia (1931). She's best known for her novel The Transit of Venus (1980).


It is the birthday of theatrical producer and director, Harold 'Hal' Prince, born in New York City (1928). His first big hit was a musical version of Richard Bissell's novel, 7 1/2 Cents renamed The Pajama Game (1954).




TUESDAY, 31 JANUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Giving Up Smoking" by Wendy Cope from Making Cocoa for Kingsly Amis. © Faber and Faber. Reprinted with permission.

Giving Up Smoking

There's not a Shakespeare sonnet
Or a Beethoven quartet
That's easier to like than you
Or harder to forget.

You think that sounds extravagant?
I haven't finished yet—
I like you more than I would like
To have a cigarette.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1865 that the House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery by just two votes. Representative Cornelius Cole from California wrote to his wife, "We can now look other nations in the face without shame. ... The one question of the age is settled. Glory enough for one session, yes, even for a life."


It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist John O'Hara, born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania (1905). He got a job as a newspaper reporter and started writing fiction on the side. His upbringing had made him very sensitive to social distinctions and he began to write fiction that examined in precise detail the way people dressed, the way they talked, what kinds of cars they drove and what schools they went to.

He went on to become one of the most popular serious writers of his lifetime writing many best-selling novels including Appointment in Samarra (1934) and A Rage to Live (1949). Most critics consider his best work to be his short stories, which were published as The Collected Stories of John O'Hara (1984). He holds the record for the greatest number of short stories published by a single author in New Yorker magazine, more than three hundred.


It's the birthday of Norman Mailer, born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He was an engineering student at Harvard when he was drafted into the army in 1944 and he served in the Philippines and Japan until 1946. After his discharge he moved to New York City and spent fifteen months writing a novel about the war called The Naked and the Dead (1948).

That book became the definitive literary novel about World War II and it made Norman Mailer famous at the age of 25. It begins, "Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach. ... All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead."

Mailer also helped invent a new style of journalism in which the journalist himself was a character in his own stories. He wrote about political conventions, boxing matches, protest rallies and the space program. He would include himself in the story and write about himself in the third person, often exposing his own faults in the process.

In his book The Armies of the Night (1968), he describes his experience of getting up at a protest rally and giving a drunken speech about his trip to the bathroom, and how the audience booed him and shouted that he get off the stage. He wrote, "[Mailer] did not have a notion of what he would say next, but it never occurred to him that something would not come. His impatience, his sorrow, his jealousy were gone, he just wanted to live on the edge of that rhetorical sword he would soon try to run through the heart of the audience." The Armies of the Night won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.

He went on to win a second Pulitzer Prize for his nonfiction novel The Executioner's Song (1979). His most recent book is The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing (2003).

Norman Mailer once wrote of himself, "[The] warrior ... embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hardworking author, champion of obscenity ... amiable bar drinker, and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter ... had ... a fatal taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable—the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn."


It's the birthday of Thomas Merton, born in Prades, France (1915). Merton was a Trappist monk, but he was also the author of more than fifty books, two thousand poems and his autobiography The Seven Story Mountain (1948).


It's the birthday of novelist Kenzaburo Oe, born on the island of Shikoku, Japan (1935). He fell in love with Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn (1885). He's best known for his novel A Personal Matter (1964), about a father struggling to love his deformed son. He went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.




WEDNESDAY, 1 FEBRUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Three Houses, Three Dogs" by Daniel Donaghy from Street Fighting. © BKMK Press. Reprinted with permission.

Three Houses,
            Three Dogs


My father came each night
to tuck me in, creaking down
our hall in work boots
he always wore, laces undone,
the stale mix of Schaefer's
and Pall Malls waking me
into the darkness he lived in,
my mother in bed,
my sister out, him whistling
for hours to Jim Reeves
or listening to news radio.
Years passed like that,
grammar and middle school,
three houses, three dogs
him rising each five A.M.
to wire boats at the Navy Yard,
never telling me what
he thought about those nights
before he tousled my hair
with root-thick fingers
and leaned down to kiss my cheek.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Galway Kinnell, born in Providence, Rhode Island (1927).


It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Reynolds Price, born in Macon, North Carolina (1933).


It's the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). He went to Columbia University for a year but then he decided that he wanted to learn from the world rather than books. He quit college, hopped a boat to Africa and as soon as the boat left New York Harbor he threw all his college books overboard. He took odd jobs on ships and made his way from Africa to France, Holland, Italy and finally back to the United States.

He got a job working as a busboy in a Washington, D.C. hotel and one day he left three poems he had written next to the plate of the poet Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey loved them and read them to an audience the very next day. Within a few years, Hughes had published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).

He got involved in the Harlem Renaissance and he was one of the first African-American poets to embrace the language of lower-class black Americans. In his poem "Laughers" he made a list of what he called "my people": "Dish-washers, / Elevator boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of Babies, / Loaders of Ships, /Rounders,/ Number writers, / Comedians in Vaudeville / And band-men in circuses—/ Dream-singers all."


It's the birthday of humorist S. J. (Sidney Joseph) Perelman, born in Brooklyn, New York (1904). He started working as a cartoonist when he was in college but he eventually switched to writing humorous essays for various magazines including the New Yorker. When his first collection of essays, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, came out in 1929, Groucho Marx wrote him a letter saying, "From the moment I picked up your book until I put it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."

Groucho persuaded him to come to Hollywood to write screenplays. He worked on Marx Brothers movies such as Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but he hated Hollywood. He called it, "a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and a taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched."

He eventually went back to writing essays for the New Yorker and published many collections, including The Ill-Tempered Clavichord (1952) and Chicken Inspector No. 23 (1966).

One of his essays begins, "I guess I'm just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation's laws."

He said, "For me [humor's] chief merit is the use of the unexpected, the glancing allusion, the deflation of pomposity, the constant repetition of one's helplessness in a majority of situations."




THURSDAY, 2 FEBRUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Change" by Louis Jenkins from The Winter Road. © Holy Cow! Press. Reprinted with permission.

Change

All those things that have gone from your life, moon boots, TV
trays, and the Soviet Union, that seem to have vanished, are
really only changed, dinosaurs did not disappear from the earth
but evolved into birds and crock pots became bread makers.
Everything around you changes. It seems at times (only for a
moment) that your wife, the woman you love, might actually be
your first wife in another form. It's a thought not to be pursued.
... Nothing is the same as it used to be. Except you, of course,
You haven't changed ... well, slowed down a bit, perhaps. It's
more difficult nowadays to deal with the speed of change, dis-
turbing to suddenly find yourself brushing your teeth with what
appears to be a flashlight. But essentially you are the same as
ever, constant in your instability.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Groundhog Day, the day on which the groundhog comes out of his hole. According to tradition, if the sun is shining and he sees his shadow, he returns to his hole and there will be six more weeks of winter. But if the sky is cloudy and he sees no shadow he will stick around and spring will soon arrive.


It is the birthday of novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, born Alissa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia (1905). In 1917, she witnessed the first shots of the Russian Revolution from her balcony. She came to this country where she became a writer. Her first important novel was The Fountainhead (1943), about a brilliant architect named Howard Roark who blows up a housing project he built because his design was corrupted by the influence others. She went on to write Atlas Shrugged (1957).


It's the birthday of James Joyce, born in Rathgar, Ireland, just outside Dublin (1882). He made up his mind to leave Ireland in the summer of 1904 after he fell in love with a beautiful redheaded chambermaid named Nora Barnacle. He'd only known her for a few months when he asked her to leave the country with him and she agreed. In a letter to her the next day he wrote, "Last night ... it seemed to me that I was fighting a battle with every religious and social force in Ireland for you and that I had nothing to rely on but myself. ... The fact that you can choose to stand beside me in this way in my hazardous life fills me with great pride and joy."

He wrote to an English school in Zurich, secured a job, and they set off. Joyce expected that his job teaching English would be boring but easy, and that it would leave him a lot of time for writing, but when he showed up at the school to announce his arrival, they'd never heard of him. The job he thought he had secured by mail did not exist.

They'd used up all their money traveling, so Joyce had to scramble to find some work. He had a genius for talking people into giving him money, and he got a few students to hire him as a private language tutor, but he could still barely pay the rent. He wrote to his brother, "My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions."

He found himself thinking about his homeland more and more every day and he began to ask his Aunt Josephine to send him copies of anything to do with Ireland: newspapers, magazines, history books, guidebooks, maps, and photographs. He eventually got an idea, an epic novel about a single day in the city of Dublin. He chose for that day the date of June 16, 1904, the date on which he had fallen in love with Nora. He called that date "Bloomsday" after the main character of the book: Leopold Bloom.

Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, and it took him more than seven years to finish. The first printing of Ulysses of one thousand copies came out on this day, Joyce's birthday, in 1922. It was hailed as a masterpiece by writers in Europe and America, and Joyce was finally able to support his family comfortably for the rest of his life.

On June 16, 1924, the 20th anniversary of Bloomsday, Joyce wrote in his notebook, "Twenty years after. Will anyone remember this date?" Today, June 16th is a holiday in Ireland that rivals St. Patrick's Day. It's one of the only national holidays in the world that's based not on anyone's birthday or on a religious or a historical event, but merely upon a date in a work of fiction.

A year before his death, Nora told him, "Well, Jim, I haven't read any of your books but I'll have to someday because they must be good considering how well they sell."




FRIDAY, 3 FEBRUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Explaining Relativity to the Cat" by Jennifer Gresham from Diary of a Cell. © Steel Toe Books. Reprinted with permission.n.

Explaining Relativity to the Cat

Imagine, if you will, three mice.
Contrary to what you have
heard, they are not blind
but are in a spaceship
traveling near the speed of light.    
This makes them unavailable
for your supper, yes.

So these mice, traveling near
the speed of light, appear
quite fat, though there is
no cheese aboard. This is
simply a distortion of mass,
because the mass of a mouse
is nothing more than a bundle
of light, and vice versa. I see
how this might imply mice
are in the light fixtures,
undoubtedly a problem, so
let me try again.
If two people attempted
to feed you simultaneously,
no doubt a good situation,
but you were on a train
traveling near the speed
of light, the food would
appear unappetizing, falling
to the plate in slow motion,
an extended glob of protein
that never smelled good,
if you ask me, train or no.
The affinity of the food
for the plate, what we call
gravity, is really just
a stretch in the fabric
of a space-time continuum,
what happens when you
have sat in a seat too long,
perhaps on this very train.

Oh kitty, I know how you hate
to travel and the journey must
have made you tired. Come now,
lick your coat one more time
 and let us make haste
 from this strange city
 of light and fantastic dream.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell, born in New York City (1894). He loved drawing from an early age and studied at the National Academy of Design. He had a hard time getting into the advertising business because he had a hard time drawing beautiful women. He said, "No matter how much I tried to make them look sexy, they always ended up looking ... like somebody's mother." So he focused on the Boy Scout magazine, Boy's Life, as well as the children's magazine St. Nicholas.

He stuck with childhood themes for a while, barely scraping by, until one of his friends suggested that he send one of his paintings to The Saturday Evening Post. He did, and they bought it. The first Norman Rockwell cover of the magazine appeared in May, 1916. He eventually became the most popular artist in America.

Unlike most modern artists, he never painted from real life straight to canvas. Instead, like the old masters, he hired models to pose for his scenes and spent weeks making sketches of his compositions before he finally started to paint.

Norman Rockwell said, "The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Boys battling flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight."


It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Richard Yates, born in Yonkers, New York (1926). He spent his life struggling to pay the bills with teaching jobs, trying to find time to write. When he died in 1992 few of his books were still in print. But a group of writers, including Richard Ford, Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut, began to champion his work and they brought many of his novels back into print including Revolutionary Road (1961) and The Easter Parade (1976).


It's the birthday of the novelist James A. Michener, born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907). Michener's plan was to get a Ph.D. in history and become a professor. But before he could finish that Ph.D. World War II broke out and he joined the Navy. It was in a Quonset hut that he began writing fiction for the first time, about his experiences as a military man. His first book, Tales of the South Pacific, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. It wouldn't have made him much money, but it was turned into the Broadway musical South Pacific and the proceeds from the musical let him devote his life to writing.

He went on to write a series of big historical novels, most of them about places, including Hawaii (1959), Chesapeake (1978), Alaska, and Texas (1985). He filled his books with historical and geographical details. Most of Michener's novels were best-sellers. They sold more than 75 million copies, but even though he made a great deal of money he lived an extremely frugal life. He was able to give most of his money away. Over his lifetime he donated $117 million to various institutions including the University of Texas.


It's the birthday of the avant-garde novelist and poet Gertrude Stein, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). She went to Paris to live with her brother Leo and he introduced Stein to a promising new artist named Pablo Picasso. At the time, Picasso was in the process of inventing a style of art called cubism, depicting objects from multiple angles at the same time. Stein decided she wanted to do the same thing with fiction.




SATURDAY, 4 FEBRUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Airport Security" by David Ray from The Death of Sardanapalus: and Other Poems of the Iraq Wars. © Howling Dog Press. Reprinted with permission.

Airport Security

In the airport I got wanded,
though not by a fairy princess.

I had to remove my shoes,
prove they were not twin bombs.

But the strangest scene I saw
that day was where random checks

delayed the suspicious—
the grey lady in her wheelchair

and the toddler boy tugged
from his mother's hand, pulled

through the metal detector's arch.
She tried to follow but was

restrained by two guards who grasped
her arms as she yelled, "But I told

him not to talk to strangers!"
The child wailed bloody murder.

A female guard patted the boy
all over, although he did not giggle.

I myself went on profiling terrorists.
                        They were so obvious.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the experimental novelist and short-story writer Robert Coover, born in Charles City, Iowa (1932). He's the author of The Universal Baseball Association (1968), The Public Burning (1977), and Spanking the Maid (1981). His most recent book is Stepmother which came out in 2004.

Robert Coover said, "The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn't imagine ourselves through a day without it."


It was on this day in 1945 that the Yalta Conference began, during which President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union met to plan the final defeat and occupation of Nazi Germany. It took eight days and nights hashing out the future of the world. The meeting was totally secret with no news reporters allowed and there were no leaks to the press of anything that went on there.

At the time, Roosevelt and Churchill believed that they had to persuade Stalin to help fight against the Japanese and they also wanted him to help establish the United Nations. So they were willing to make the concession that he could continue to occupy Eastern Europe as long as he allowed free elections there.

Roosevelt's health was failing at the time. He died of a stroke a little more than two months after the Yalta Conference. Some historians have suggested that Roosevelt's health ruined his ability to negotiate effectively but others have argued that Stalin just had the better hand. He had effectively won the war on the Eastern Front with Germany and Roosevelt and Churchill desperately needed his help.

After the conference Stalin completely ignored his commitment to democracy and installed Communist Party dictatorships in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania, and the Cold War began.


It's the birthday of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in Breslau, Prussia (1906). He came from a family of Lutheran theologians. In 1930 he hopped a ship for New York City to study at the Union Theological Seminary. And when Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin he suddenly saw the anti-Semitism that had been brewing in his country with a new clarity. When Hitler took power in 1933 Bonhoeffer made a speech on the radio denouncing the Nazis. He became the head of an underground seminary and published his book The Cost of Discipleship (1937), which became one of the most influential works on the theology of social justice.

Though he'd previously been a pacifist, Bonhoeffer decided to join a plot to assassinate Hitler. The plot was a failure and Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943.

Just before he was arrested he got engaged to a young woman named Maria von Wedemeyer. They began a correspondence while he was in prison and it was to her that he wrote many of his final thoughts about theology and life. The correspondence between him and Maria was collected in the book Love Letters From Cell 92 (1994).

In his final letter to her, Bonhoeffer wrote, "I have often found that the quieter my surroundings, the more vividly I sense my connection with you." He was executed a few months later.




SUNDAY, 5 FEBRUARY, 2006
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Poem: "Life of Sundays" by Rodney Jones from Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005. © Houghton Mifflin Company. Reprinted with permission.

Life of Sundays

Down the street, someone must be praying, and though I don't
Go there anymore, I want to at times, to hear the diction
And the tone, through the English pronoun for God is obsolete—

What goes on is devotion, which wouldn't change if I heard:
The polished sermon, the upright's arpeggios of vacant notes.
What else would unite widows, bankers, children, and ghosts?

And those faces are so good as theY tilt their smiles upward
To the rostrum that represents law, and the minister who
Represents God beams like the white palm of the good hand

Of Christ raised behind the baptistery to signal the multitude,
Which I am not among, though I feel the abundance of calm
And know the beatitude so well I do not have to imagine it,

Or the polite old ones who gather after the service to chat,
Or the ritual linen of Sunday tables that are already set.
More than any other days, Sundays stand in unvarying rows.

That beg attention: there is that studied verisimilitude
Of sanctuary, so even mud and bitten weeds look dressed up
For some eye in the distant past, some remote kingdom

Where the pastures are crossed by thoroughly symbolic rivers.
That is why the syntax of prayers is so often reversed,
Aimed toward the dead who clearly have not gone ahead

But returned to prior things, a vista of angels and sheep,
A desert where men in robes and sandals gather by a tree.
Hushed stores, All day that sense a bell is about to ring—

I recognized it, waking up, before I weighed the bulk of news
Or saw Saturday night's cars parked randomly along the curb,
And though I had no prayer, I wanted to offer something

Or ask for something, perhaps out of habit, but as the past
Must always be honored unconsciously, formally, and persists
On this first and singular day, though I think of it as last.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright John Guare, born in New York City (1938). His first job after college was with MGM in Hollywood but he hated it and joined the Air Force so he could travel around Europe. After a couple of years he hitchhiked from Paris to the Sudan, filling dozens of pocket-sized notebooks with drafts of plays. It wasn't long after he got back that he had his first big hit, with House of Blue Leaves (1970).

Guare's biggest success in recent years has been Six Degrees of Separation which opened in 1990. The title of Six Degrees of Separation refers to the claim that it takes only six steps to link any two people on earth.


It's the birthday of the man who wrote Naked Lunch (1959), William S(eward) Burroughs, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1914). One day in 1946 Joan Vollmer introduced him to two young Columbia University students, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was the beginning of the Beat movement in literature.


It's the birthday of writer, director, and comedian Christopher Guest, born in New York City (1948). He's best known for his mock documentaries such as This is Spinal Tap (1984), which follows the tour of a fake heavy metal band, and Best In Show (2000), in which he makes fun of the world of competitive dog shows.




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