Dec. 28, 2004

Goodbye to the Old Life

by Wesley McNair

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Poem: "Goodbye to the Old Life" by Wesley McNair, from Fire. © David R. Godine. Reprinted with permission.

Goodbye to the Old Life

Goodbye to the old life,
to the sadness of rooms
where my family slept as I sat

late at night on my island
of light among papers.
Goodbye to the papers

and to the school for the rich
where I drove them, dressed up
in a tie to declare who I was.

Goodbye to all the ties
and to the life I lost
by declaring, and a fond goodbye

to the two junk cars that lurched
and banged through the campus
making sure I would never fit in.

Goodbye to the finest campus
money could buy, and one
final goodbye to the paycheck

that was always gone
before it got home.
Farewell to the home,

and a heartfelt goodbye
to all the tenants who rented
the upstairs apartment,

particularly Mrs. Doucette,
whose washer overflowed
down the walls of our bathroom

every other week, and Mr. Green,
determined in spite of the evidence
to learn the electric guitar.

And to you there, the young man
on the roof turning the antenna
and trying not to look down

on how far love has taken you,
and to the faithful wife
in the downstairs window

shouting, "That's as good
as we're going to get it,"
and to the four hopeful children

staying with the whole program
despite the rolling picture
and the snow - goodbye,

wealth and joy to us all
in the new life, goodbye!

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Sam Levenson, born in New York City (1911). He started out as a Spanish teacher in the New York public schools. In 1940, a group of teachers who had formed an orchestra asked him to be the master of ceremonies for their performance at a Catskills hotel. He found the experience addictive, and began going to comedy clubs after school and on weekends.

Instead of telling jokes, he told humorous stories about his childhood in New York City. He said that there was a lot of folk humor about growing up in the country, and he wanted to be the folk humorist of the city. Within a few years he was appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show, and by 1951, he had a show of his own. But he eventually gave up on television and wrote several books of humorous essays, including In One Era and Out the Other (1973) and You Don't Have to Be in Who's Who to Know What's What (1979).

Sam Levenson said, "Lead us not into temptation. Just tell us where it is; we'll find it."

It's the birthday of the novelist Simon Raven, born in London (1927). He was a free thinker and a libertine who had planned to become a literature professor, but he said, "I very soon concluded that nothing would induce me to read, let alone make notes on, hundreds and hundreds of very, very, very boring books." He enlisted in the army, since he refused to go into business, but he had to resign because of his terrible debts.

Finally, Raven turned to writing fiction. He said, "For in a literary career there was one unfailing advantage: no degree whatever of moral or social disgrace could disqualify one from practice—and indeed a bad character, if suitably tricked out for presentation, might win one helpful publicity."

Simon Raven quickly became one of the most notorious members of the London literary scene, and would probably have died young and unaccomplished, but then his publisher offered him a steady salary if he would move at least 50 miles away from London in order to write. So that's what he did, and he became a different man, spending his days writing and his evenings reading, and publishing dozens of books. He's best known for his 10 volume series of novels about the British upper class called Alms for Oblivion, the first volume of which was published in 1964.

He said, "I've always written for a small audience consisting of people like myself, who are well-educated, worldly, skeptical and snobbish (meaning that they rank good taste over bad). And who believe that nothing and nobody is special."

It's the birthday of the novelist Manuel Puig, born in the small town of General Villegas, Argentina (1932). He's best known for his novel Kiss of the Spider Woman (1979), about a homosexual who befriends a guerilla fighter in prison by telling him the plotlines of all the movies he ever saw when he was growing up.

Puig grew up in the area of Argentina known as the pampas: a desert region that is considered romantic and enchanted by most Argentines, but which Puig himself hated. He said, "There's nothing less romantic than...the total absence of landscape—no trees, no rain, only this grass that grows by itself, which is excellent for cattle, but not for people."

The only thing he loved about his hometown was the tiny movie theater, which showed a different movie every day. The first movie he saw there was The Bride of Frankenstein, and after that he went there every night at 6:00, sitting in the same seat. He watched every movie that played the theater for years, including movies made by Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Frank Capra. The movies saved him from the bleakness and tedium of the world around him. He said, "The movies helped [me] not to go crazy. You see another way of life. It doesn't matter that the way of life shown by Hollywood was phony. It helped [me] hope."

In 1946, he managed to flee his hometown and travel to Buenos Aires, where he tried to become a filmmaker. He eventually made his way to New York City, supporting himself as a ticket clerk for an airline. But his only memorable experience was selling a plane ticket to Greta Garbo.

Puig tried to write a series of screenplays, but they were all just imitations of movies he'd loved as a child. Then he started a screenplay which began with a narrator speaking in voice over. He thought the voice-over would only last for a few lines, but he kept writing and writing, never getting to the action of the movie, until finally he realized he was writing a novel.

And that was the first novel Puig published, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) about a boy growing up in a boring small town who constantly fantasizes that his life is a Hollywood movie.

He went on to write many more novels, many of them written almost entirely in dialogue. He said that he preferred to write dialogue, because he was always uncertain of his grammar, and he'd rather let his characters be responsible for any grammatical mistakes.

It's the birthday of comic book writer Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City (1922). He spent most of his childhood watching Errol Flynn movies and reading boys' adventure stories. He decided to be a writer at an early age, and won a writing contest sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune three weeks in a row.

He got a job just out of high school as a gopher for a publishing company called Timley Publications, which published comic books. At first he got people coffee, swept floors, and ran errands, but eventually he began to proofread, and then write the occasional script, because he said, "I knew the difference between a declarative sentence and a baseball bat."

When he began to write scripts regularly, he chose to write under a pseudonym. He said, "I felt that those simple little comic books weren't important enough to deserve my real name. I was saving that for the Great American novel that I hoped to write one day. So I just cut my first name [Stanley] in half and called myself 'Stan Lee'."

Lee was just eighteen years old when the editor of the publishing house quit, and he got the job as head editor and writer. It was supposed to be temporary, but he wound up staying for more than thirty years.

At first, Lee wrote comic books without taking them very seriously. He said, "I was the ultimate hack. I was probably the hackiest hack that ever lived. I wrote whatever they told me to write the way they told me to write it. It didn't matter: War stories, crime, Westerns, horror, humor; I wrote everything."

But in the 1960's, Stan Lee began to regret all the time he'd spent writing mindless entertainment, stories with hackneyed plots and bad dialogue. At parties, he was embarrassed to admit that he wrote for comic books. He told his wife that he was fed up and he was going to quit. She suggested that if he had nothing to lose, he should try creating a comic book he could be proud of, since it wouldn't matter if he got fired anyway.

He agreed, and decided that the most important thing lacking from comic books was complex characters. All the good guys were entirely good, and the bad guys entirely evil. Stan Lee said, "[I decided to create] the kind of characters I could personally relate to. They'd be flesh and blood...they'd be fallible and feisty, and—most important of all—inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay."

Instead of creating just one new comic book series, Lee created more than half a dozen, including The Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, Daredevil, and Dr. Strange. But his most successful character of all was The Amazing Spiderman, about an awkward teenager named Peter Parker who develops superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. He was the first superhero to be filled with self-doubt, the first superhero to struggle with whether he wanted to be a superhero. Stan Lee's boss hated the idea, but the first issue featuring Spiderman sold every copy that was printed, and Spiderman went on to become one of the most popular superheroes ever invented.

Stan Lee said, "You ask the audience to suspend disbelief and accept that some idiot can climb on walls, but [then] you ask: What would life be like in the real world if there were such a character? Would he still have to worry about dandruff, about acne, about getting girlfriends, about keeping a job?"

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