Oct. 23, 2011

In the Olden Days

by Richard Newman

The world held no color but sepia.
Our bedside tables creaked beneath the weight
of daily hardships, buffered only by doilies.
We did without, did things by hand. We got more
snow. Our Mickey Mouse was far from cute.
We specialized in quaint and quirky phrases
like "23 Skidoo." Our songs rang dark
with forced joy and naiveté: "Aint We Got Fun?"
Staring from family photographs, we look
older than we are. Even as children, our faces
are shadowed with doubt and parental disappointment,
as if to say to those looking years from now:
We persist. We persevere. We do this for you.

"In the Olden Days" by Richard Newman, from Borrowed Towns. © Word Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The first national Women's Rights Convention opened in Worcester, Massachusetts, on this date in 1850. Two years earlier, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott had launched the woman suffrage movement with their hastily organized Seneca Falls Convention in New York. They published the Declaration of Sentiments, using language modeled after the Declaration of Independence, to call for voting rights for women. They also expressed a hope that conventions for women's rights would continue to be held at regular intervals.

The first morning session of the national convention drew 900 delegates, mostly men. By that afternoon, the ranks had swelled to more than a thousand. The hall was packed and many more waited outside. People came from 11 states, including California, which had only been a state for a few weeks. The president and keynote speaker, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, called for "the emancipation of a class, the redemption of half the world, and a conforming reorganization of all social, political, and industrial interests and institutions." Other speakers followed, included Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth. The convention closed with a speech by Lucy Stone that moved Horace Greeley to take up the cause in the New York Tribune, which in turn inspired Susan B. Anthony to join the women's movement. Stone said: "We want to be something more than the appendages of Society; we want that Woman should be the coequal and help-meet of Man in all the interest and perils and enjoyments of human life. We want that she should attain to the development of her nature and womanhood; we want that when she dies, it may not be written on her gravestone that she was the 'relict' of somebody."

The Tribune was a rare exception, however; most newspapers were scornful at best and openly hostile at worst. The New York Herald published what it called "the actual designs of that piebald assemblage called the Women's Rights Convention," a list that included abolishing the Bible, the Constitution, the laws of the land, and the gallows; encouraging the "free and miscellaneous amalgamation of sexes and colors"; and "cut[ting] throats ad libitum."

Today is the 10th birthday of the iPod. Apple unveiled it on this date in 2001, and released it a couple of weeks later, on November 10. It was created under the code name "Dulcimer," and was presented a few months after Apple released iTunes, its program to convert audio CDs into digital files. The original iPod had a five-gigabyte hard drive, and Apple founder Steve Jobs declared it would put "1,000 songs in your pocket." The name was inspired by a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which included the line, "Open the pod bay door, Hal!"

It's the birthday of best-selling novelist Michael Crichton (books by this author), born in Chicago in 1942. He liked to write, and when he was 13, he was on a family vacation to Sunset Crater National Monument in Arizona. He loved it, and he told his parents he was surprised that there weren't more visitors, and they encouraged him to write about it. His mom said he should send an article to The New York Times, and his dad told him to go interview the ranger. So his family waited outside while Michael went in to do his interview. He recalled later: "Back in the car, driving to the next place, my father said, 'How many visitors do they have every year?' 'I didn't ask that,' I said. 'Is it open all year round?' 'I didn't ask that, either.' 'What was the ranger's name?' 'I didn't ask.' 'Jesus,' my father said. 'What published information did you get?' I showed him the pamphlets and brochures. 'Well, that'll be enough. You can write the story from that.'" And sure enough, The New York Times published his piece, and he was paid $60.

Crichton went to Harvard to be an English major, but one of his professors didn't like Crichton's writing style and kept giving him C's. So for an assignment on Gulliver's Travels, he turned in an essay written not by him but by George Orwell, and the professor gave him a B- on that. He figured that if Orwell only got a B- at Harvard, the English department was too difficult for him, so he went ahead and switched his major from English to anthropology, and he graduated summa cum laude.

He went on to medical school, but tuition was so expensive that he decided to keep writing to make some extra money, and he tried his hand at novels. He wrote his first several thrillers under pseudonyms. The Andromeda Strain (1969), published under his own name, was a best-seller; the book came out the same year that he graduated from medical school, and though he did a year's fellowship at the Jonas Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, he decided to scrap medicine for a writing career.

He went on to write a series of thrillers, many of them exploring the unintended consequences of science or technology gone too far. His books include Jurassic Park (1990), Rising Sun (1992), and State of Fear (2004). Michael Crichton managed to be a huge success not only in the literary world, but also in film and television. He was a Hollywood director, and he wrote the screenplay for some of the film adaptations of his books, including Jurassic Park. He also created the hit TV series ER. In 1994, he had a film, a television series, and a novel all sitting atop their respective charts at the same time. In 2002, a newly discovered species of dinosaur was named after him: Crichtonsaurus bohlini. He died of cancer in 2008, leaving behind one complete manuscript and about one-third of a second. The complete manuscript, Pirate Latitudes, was published the following year. HarperCollins and Crichton's estate tapped Richard Preston (The Hot Zone [1994]) to complete the unfinished work; Micro, a thriller about graduate students working for a mysterious biotech company in Hawaii, will be released this November.

It's the birthday of the man The New York Times called a "gothic serial memoirist": Augusten Burroughs (books by this author) born Christopher Robison in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1965). He changed his name when he was 18, selecting "Burroughs" because it's the name of a company that used to make mainframe computers; "Xon," his middle name, because it means "in a state of accepting input" in computer jargon; and "Augusten" because he thought it sounded cool. He's the author of the best-selling memoir Running with Scissors, based on his teenage years. He said, "I thought my childhood was a disgusting mess so I never thought anyone would be interested in reading about it, even with a gallows humor." But Running with Scissors became a big publishing phenomenon, staying on the New York Times Bestseller List for four consecutive years. It was made into a feature film in 2006. He's also the author of several other autobiographical works, including Dry (2003), Magical Thinking (2004), Possible Side Effects (2006), and most recently, A Wolf at the Table (2008).

He said: "The secret to being a writer is that you have to write. It's not enough to think about writing or to study literature or plan a future life as an author. You really have to lock yourself away, alone, and get to work."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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