Dec. 5, 2012

As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs

by Louis Simpson

As birds are fitted to the boughs
That blossom on the tree
And whisper when the south wind blows—
So was my love to me.

And still she blossoms in my mind
And whispers softly, though
The clouds are fitted to the wind,
The wind is to the snow.

"As Birds Are Fitted to the Boughs" by Louis Simpson, from The Owner of the House. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of essayist, novelist, and memoirist Joan Didion (books by this author), born in Sacramento, California (1934). She wrote about the unexpected death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2006). Her latest book, Blue Nights (2011), is also a memoir. In the book, Didion writes about the 2005 death of her daughter, Quintana Roo, just before The Year of Magical Thinking came out. Didion writes about her daughter's struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, and the guilt she feels about the ways she may have let her daughter down. "I don't think anybody feels like they're a good parent," Didion told New York Magazine last year. "Or if people think they're good parents, they ought to think again."

It's the birthday of the humorist Calvin Trillin (books by this author), born in Kansas City, Missouri (1935). He started his career as a religion reporter for TIME magazine, but he hated it. "I finally got out of that by prefixing everything with 'alleged,'" he said. "I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go." He's been a staff writer for many years for The New Yorker and serves as the "deadline poet" for The Nation.

His most recent book is Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin (2011), a retrospective of his 40-year career.

It's the 60th anniversary of The Great Smog, a London air pollution event that was responsible for the deaths of about 12,000 British subjects.

London had been famous for its fog for hundreds of years; it was one of the city's defining characteristics. In his novel Put Out More Flags (1942), Evelyn Waugh wrote: "The decline of England [...] dates from the day we abandoned coal fuel. We used to live in a fog, the splendid, luminous, tawny fogs of our early childhood [...] We designed a city which was meant to be seen in a fog."

The weather had been especially cold that early December in 1952, and Londoners responded as they always had: by burning more coal to keep their houses warm. But late on December 5, one of the city's trademark fogs rolled in, blanketing the capital. The fog mingled with soot, tar particles, and sulfur dioxide, and it was all trapped over London by a weather pattern known as a thermal inversion. A cold, still air mass hovered over the city, and the sun — which normally would warm and disperse the air mass — was unable to break through the clouds of smog. So the cold, dense, yellow-black air lingered. And the moisture in the fog reacted to the chemicals in the pollution, creating droplets of sulfuric acid, or "acid rain."

For five days, visibility was so poor that the city was virtually shut down. At some points, people couldn't even see their own hands and feet, and were getting lost in their own neighborhoods. A hundred thousand people were made ill, and ambulances couldn't drive in the smog, so the sick received no treatment unless they could make their own way to the hospital. People didn't panic, though; they were used to London's thick fogs. It wasn't until the undertakers were running out of coffins, and the florists were running out of flowers, that they realized how deadly the Great Smog had been. When the smog finally lifted, it left 4,000 Londoners dead in its wake, and over the following months, an additional 8,000 — mostly the elderly and those with chronic respiratory conditions — died of complications from exposure to the acid smog.

The Great Smog changed the way people looked at pollution, and, in 1956, Parliament passed the first Clean Air Act, which regulated the burning of coal in urban homes and factories.

It's the birthday of Walt Disney, born in Chicago (1901). After serving in World War I, he took a job as a newspaper artist in Kansas City, and, later, found work at an ad agency, making animated commercials. It wasn't long before he started his own animation studio and sold short cartoons — which he called Laugh-O-Grams — to local movie theaters. While he was working in Kansas City, Disney adopted a pet mouse, and later, after he moved to California with his brother Roy and founded Disney Brothers Studio, that pet provided the inspiration for Disney's most famous character: Mickey Mouse.

Today is the birthday of filmmaker Nunnally Johnson, born in Columbus, Georgia (1897). He began his career as a journalist, and also wrote short stories. When he sold the rights to one of his stories to Hollywood in 1927, he moved to California to work in the film industry. Twentieth Century-Fox hired him as a full-time screenwriter in 1935, and five years later, in 1940, Johnson wrote the screen adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath. The first part of the film follows the book fairly closely, but Johnson diverged sharply in the second half. The movie's executive producer (Darryl Zanuck) and its director, John Ford, were both politically conservative, and they asked Johnson to tone down Steinbeck's leftist overtones. He also gave the Joads a happier ending than they met in the book, ending on a more optimistic note.

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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