Apr. 22, 2002


by William Stafford

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Poem: "Birthdays," by William Stafford from Passwords (Harper Perennial).


A birthday is when you might not have been born
and you remember the sister you didn't have
because there was a war on. That could have been
you, so it is a happy day and your parents
tell you they are glad. You feel the air
go past. From across the river the sound
of a train comes through the window, and it's
your sister saying good-by to all the years.
Her ghost will be upstairs at bedtime
but you won't tell anybody but will send
your birthday on your breath out into the dark.

Today is Earth Day. The idea for Earth Day began in 1962, when Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin approached President Kennedy about conducting a nationwide tour to bring attention to environmental issues. In the late Sixties, Senator Nelson and others had come up with the idea of conducting a nationwide "teach-in" on environmental issues, an idea that evolved into the first Earth Day celebration on April 22, 1970.

It's the birthday of poet Louise Gluck, born in New York City (1943). She's the author of ten books of poetry, including Firstborn (1968), The Triumph of Achilles (1985), and The Wild Iris (1992), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.

It's the birthday of playwright and actor Jason Miller, born in Long Island City, New York (1939). After college, he worked at various jobs in New York City while honing his craft as a playwright. He was on unemployment in 1972 just before his play That Championship Season opened on Broadway. The play, about the reunion of the members of a winning high school basketball team, went on to win a Tony Award and the 1973 Pulitzer Prize.

It's the birthday of bass player and bandleader Charles Mingus, born in Nogales, Arizona (1922). He began playing in big bands in California in the 1940s, then in 1951 moved to New York. It was during the Fifties and Sixties that he made his mark as a composer and performer, with frequent appearances in New York and in Europe. More than anyone else, he helped move the bass out of the rhythm section and into the spotlight as a solo instrument. His best-known albums include Tijuana Moods (1962) and Wonderland (1959), which includes his well-known composition "Goodbye, Porkpie Hat."

It's the birthday of the Norwegian-American novelist Ole Edvart Rölvaag, born on Dönna Island, Helgeland, Norway (1876). He left school in Norway when he was fourteen and became an expert fisherman. His parents offered him a fishing boat of his own if he would give up his plan of leaving for America. But in 1896, he immigrated to South Dakota. From there, he went on to attend St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, and stayed on at St. Olaf as a teacher of Norwegian literature. His masterpiece is the epic novel, Giants in the Earth (1927), about Norwegian immigrants pioneering on the Dakota prairies.

It's the birthday of American novelist Ellen Glasgow, born in Richmond, Virginia (1873). She grew up in an aristocratic Virginia family and was groomed to be a typical Southern belle. At seventeen, she refused her formal society debut, and instead wrote her first full-length novel. It was turned down by an agent, and she destroyed the manuscript, but she didn't give up on being a novelist. Seven years later, she published her first novel, The Descendant (1897). Her best-known novels are Barren Ground (1925), The Sheltered Life (1932) and Vein of Iron (1935). She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for In This Our Life (1941).

It's the birthday of English novelist Henry Fielding, born near Glastonbury, Somerset in England (1707). He was born to a family with aristocratic connections, educated at Eton, and started his literary career writing plays. His most famous play is Tom Thumb (1730). He became well-known as a dramatist, and had written about sixteen plays, when a 1737 act of parliament banned political satire from the dramatic stage. He abandoned the theater, and was studying law when Samuel Richardson published a novel called Pamela in 1740. Fielding found the novel shocking, and was moved to counter it with a novel of his own, Joseph Andrews (1742). He followed it seven years later with his masterpiece, the comic novel Tom Jones (1749).

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