Apr. 12, 2011

The Best Year of Her Life

by Gerald Locklin

When my two-year-old daughter
sees someone come through the door
whom she loves, and hasn't seen for a while,
and has been anticipating
she literally shrieks with joy.

I have to go into the other room
so that no one will notice the tears in my eyes.

Later, after my daughter has gone to bed,
I say to my wife,

"She will never be this happy again,"
and my wife gets angry and snaps,
"Don't you dare communicate your negativism to her!"
And, of course, I won't, if I can possibly help it,
and of course I fully expect her
to have much joy in her life,
and, of course, I hope to be able
to contribute to that joy —
I hope, in other words, that she'll always
be happy to see me come through the door—

but why kid ourselves — she, like every child,
has a life of great suffering ahead of her,
and while joy will not go out of her life,
she will one of these days cease to actually,
literally, jump and shriek for joy.

"The Best Year of Her Life" by Gerald Locklin, from Men of Our Time. © University of Georgia Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer Jon Krakauer (books by this author), born in Brookline, Massachusetts (1954). He started climbing mountains as a kid with his dad, went to college and majored in environmental studies, and then went back to mountaineering. He loved to read but he had never considered writing. Then he climbed three peaks in Alaska that had never been climbed before, and a magazine called The American Alpine Journal asked Krakauer to write an essay about the experience. It was unpaid, but eventually he got some paid writing jobs, and a friend who was a freelance writer talked him into trying to make a living at it. So he set himself a schedule and sent out exactly 10 query letters every week. It paid off, and he was able to support himself.

In 1992, the body of a young man named Chris McCandless was found in the Alaskan wilderness, and Outside magazine asked Jon Krakauer to write an article about it. So he started researching McCandless, who was bright and full of promise but became so disillusioned with American culture that he headed off to the Alaskan wilderness with nothing more than a 10-pound bag of rice and a desire to cut himself off from society. He lasted almost four months before dying, probably of starvation. Krakauer was still fascinated by McCandless after writing the article, so he turned it into a full book, Into the Wild (1996), which became a best-seller. Krakauer was so appreciative of how cooperative the McCandless family had been that he donated 20 percent of his royalties to them.

Sean Penn saw Krakauer's book in a bookstore, bought it, and was so fascinated that he read it all the way through twice in a row. He immediately decided that he wanted to make it into a movie. The film was all set to go through when Chris McCandless' mother had a nightmare and decided that a movie would dishonor her son, and backed out. Ten years later, she changed her mind, and in 2007 a film version of Into the Wild appeared, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch.

In 1996, the same year that Into the Wild was published, Krakauer was sent on assignment from Outside magazine to report on Mt. Everest. His initial plan was to visit the base camp and write a story about how commercial the mountaineering industry there had become, but he decided that he wanted to attempt and summit Everest himself, so he spent a year training for it. His expedition went terribly wrong, and numerous people died during a blizzard while they were trying to reach the summit, including the head guides of both parties that were scheduled to summit the mountain that day. Krakauer survived, but he was haunted by the experience, and wrote a long article for Outside. Once again, heexpanded his article into a full-length book, Into Thin Air (1997). It was another best-seller. He followed up these books with a book about religious extremism instead of physical extremism: Under the Banner of Heaven (2003), about fundamentalist Mormons. His most recent book is Where Men Win Glory (2009), about Pat Tillman, the NFL star who died in Afghanistan from friendly fire, although the Army initially covered it up and announced that he had been killed by enemy fire.

Krakauer said about climbing: "Unlike most of life, what you do really matters. Your actions have real consequences. You have to pay attention and focus, and that's very satisfying. It forces you to pay great attention and you lose yourself in the task at hand. Without the risk, that wouldn't happen, so the risk is an essential part of climbing, and that's hard for some people to grasp. You can't justify the risk when things go wrong and people die. The greater the risk, the greater the reward in most aspects of life, and in climbing that's certainly true, too. It's very physical, you use your mind and your body. It's like full-body chess, and it gets you to beautiful, beautiful places."

And he said, "Heaven, for me, is one focused project — it's like a weird form of autism. And if it pans out, you get the royalties and you get to write the next one."

It's the birthday of best-selling novelist Tom Clancy (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1947). He was rejected from military service because his eyesight was bad, but he went on to write military techno-thrillers that have earned him status as a military expert, although he has never served. His novels include The Hunt for Red October (1984), The Sum of All Fears (1991), Executive Orders (1996), Battle Ready (2004), and Dead or Alive (2010). He said, "The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense."

It's the 95th birthday of children's writer Beverly Cleary (books by this author), born in McMinnville, Oregon (1916). She is the author of the Ramona Quimby series, which includes Ramona the Pest (1968) and Ramona the Brave (1975), as well as The Mouse and the Motorcycle (1965), Dear Mr. Henshaw (1984), and many more books. She said: "When I am writing a book I also enjoy ironing, an idiosyncrasy that probably makes me sound more domestic than I really am. Working with my hands frees my imagination."

It's the birthday of Chicano writer Gary Soto (books by this author), born in Fresno, California (1952). He said: "In my writing I don't even think about issues. In fact, I think that fiction which sets out purposely to exploit a particular contemporary issue is not a good enough reason to exist. If I read a review that says something like 'a timely issue handled with sensitivity,' I would know to avoid it."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn (books by this author), born in London, England (1939). One of the most performed of contemporary British dramatists, he is known for his plays Absurd Person Singular (1972), The Norman Conquests (1973), and Bedroom Farce (1975). His plays are comedies of manners about middle-class suburbanites. He said of his own middle-class suburban childhood: "I was surrounded by relationships that weren't altogether stable, the air was often blue, and things were sometimes flying across the kitchen."

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