Aug. 26, 2011


by Sam Hamill

McNeil Island Correctional Center, I:86

Hunched over hard white bread
and plastic soup bowl filled with gruel,
he looked like a stork, a silly angel,
all neck and bony shoulder-wings
and awkward beak.

His head lifted, then fell
in a slow deliberate dance,
three, four times, doughy-skinned
in a gray room sickened by yellow light.
He kept his eyes shut tight.

Outside the prison dining hall,
a turnkey slammed and locked
the heavy iron gate. The old man placed
his palms together softly, raised
them to his stubbled chin

crossed himself, and ate.

"Lifer" by Sam Hamill, from Almost Paradise. © 2005 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of French-Italian-Polish poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880) (books by this author). He was born Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris Kostrowitsky in Rome. He was most likely the illegitimate child of a Polish woman who was living in the Vatican, although he kept his parentage a secret. He was raised in a succession of gambling dens in Italy, Monaco, Paris, and on the French Riviera. At one point in his early life, he assumed the identity of a Russian prince. Though he was a poet by vocation, he had a strong interest in modern painting, and was a friend of many artists, especially Picasso. Apollinaire is credited with coining the word "Surrealism." He wrote prose in addition to poetry, including some satirical and semi-pornographic texts.

As a foreigner, he was viewed in Paris with suspicion, especially after he was detained for a week on charges of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. He became a French citizen and joined the infantry during World War I; he wrote poetry in the trenches and suffered a head wound in 1916. He died of influenza during the epidemic of 1918.

He wrote: "Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony. The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed."

It's the birthday of Albert Sabin (1906), the developer of the oral polio vaccine. He was born in Bialystok, Poland, to Jewish parents; his last name was Saperstein. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1921; he changed his name to Sabin when he became a naturalized citizen in 1930. He began his research on poliomyelitis while he was still a medical student at New York University. Later, at the University of Cincinnati, he proved that the poliovirus entered the body not through the respiratory tract, as was commonly believed, but through the digestive tract. This breakthrough started him on a new line of thought: if a weakened form of the poliomyelitis virus was given orally, it might be more effective than its dead counterpart, which was given via injection. The Sabin oral polio vaccine was approved for use in the United States in 1960, and soon became the vaccine of choice around the world.

Today is the birthday of Stephen J. Dubner (books by this author), journalist and co-author of Freakonomics, born in Duanesberg, New York, in 1963. The youngest of eight kids, his family had a birthday tradition: The celebrant had to finish his or her entire birthday cake in silence, regardless of any baiting that might occur. Should the silence be broken, there was a penalty: "Molasses would be poured over your bare feet, then chicken feed sprinkled on, and you'd have to walk through the chicken coop and let the hens peck away."

He started writing as a child; his first publication was in the kids' magazine Highlights. He also formed a rock band when he was in college. They were good enough to get a recording deal in New York City, but he dropped music to return to writing, first in a graduate program at Columbia, and then as a writer and editor for New York Magazine and The New York Times. His parents were both raised Jewish, but converted to Catholicism. Dubner, raised Catholic, converted to Judaism as an adult. "We have chosen our religion," he wrote in The New York Times in 1996, "rejecting what we inherited for what we felt we needed. This is a particularly American opportunity."

Today is the birthday of British novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood (books by this author), born in Cheshire (1904). He's the author of many books, including The Berlin Stories (1939), stories about life in pre-Hitler Berlin that were eventually adapted for the musical Cabaret. Most of his novels were based on his own life and included characters based on several of his literary friends, like Virginia Woolf, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender.

He immigrated to the United States along with his friend Auden in 1939, and became an American citizen in 1946. He settled in Southern California, where he lived until his death in 1986.

It's the birthday of novelist Julio Cortázar (books by this author), born in Brussels, Belgium, to Argentine parents in 1914. The family returned to Argentina when Julio was four, and he grew up in a suburb of Buenos Aires. He wrote dreamlike, fantastic stories, collected in books such as the English translations Blow-Up and Other Stories (1956). In one story, a man reading a mystery novel becomes the murder victim in very novel he is reading. In another, a man staring at an animal in a zoo suddenly realizes that he has become the zoo animal. And in another, a man in a hospital dreams that he is about to be sacrificed by Aztecs, only to realize that he actually is about to be sacrificed by Aztecs, and has only been dreaming that he was in a hospital. The story "The Droolings of the Devil" (1959) was made into the 1967 film Blow-Up by Michelangelo Antonioni.

Today is the birthday of puzzle master Will Shortz (books by this author), born on an Arabian horse farm in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1952. He's the world's only academically accredited enigmatologist; he designed his own course of study at Indiana University. Shortz sold his first puzzle to a magazine when he was just 14 years old, and within a couple years he was a regular contributor to puzzle publications. He's the current crossword editor of The New York Times, the puzzle master of NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, and the author or editor of dozens of books. His latest obsession is KenKen, a numerical logic puzzle originally designed by a Japanese teacher to help kids learn math.

He told Time, "Puzzles really help newspapers. They help the print edition because most people agree it's more satisfying to solve a puzzle on paper than on a screen."

His all-time favorite crossword clue is "it might turn into a different story," with the answer "SPIRALSTAIRCASE." His favorite crossword puzzle is the one that was printed on Election Day 1996, designed by Jeremiah Farrell. The puzzle had two different correct solutions with the same set of clues. The clue whose answer formed one of the middle rows across read, "Lead story in tomorrow's newspaper." The answer seemed to be CLINTON ELECTED, but Jeremiah Farrell had carefully constructed ambiguity in all of the crossing clues, so that the answer to that middle-across clue could also be "BOB DOLE ELECTED." Either answer worked perfectly in the puzzle. The first downward crossing clue, for instance, was "Black Halloween animal." Either "bat" or "cat" would be correct, with the C for the start of CLINTON or the B for the start of BOB DOLE. Will Shortz later said, "It was the most amazing crossword I've ever seen. As soon as it appeared, my telephone started ringing. Most people said, "How dare you presume that Clinton will win!" And the people who filled in BOB DOLE thought we'd made a whopper of a mistake!"

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
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