August 1

Every day is full of birthdays, but today has five famous folk’s birthdays that I mark. Since they are all dead, is today more of an anniversary?

On top of my list is Herman Melville who was born on this day in 1819 in New York City in a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants. In Herman’s time, the family was in decline and in financial instability. His own literary career also began with success and attention but despite writing masterpieces such as Moby-Dick, the end of his career was in almost total obscurity.

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Paterson. He was the second son of Louis Ginsberg, a schoolteacher and sometime poet, and the former Naomi Levy, a Russian emigree and fervent Marxist.

Though they both wrote poetry and it was very different, Ginsberg admired Melville’s poetry. “I think he’s one of the four great poets of the nineteenth-century – Dickinson, Melville, Poe and Whitman. His work in poetry isn’t as well known, but it’s great.”  

There are some songwriters born on this day who might be considered, if not poets then poetic.  Ramblin’ Jack Elliott  (born Elliot Charles Adnopoz) was born in Brooklyn in 1931.

Poet and rocker  Jim Carroll was born in New York on August 1, 1949.

The third musician and songwriter was Grateful Dead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, born in 1942 on this day in San Francisco.

At the Philosophers’ Birthday Parties

philosophy cake

I saw on The Writer’s Almanac that Francis Bacon and August Comte had birthdays this past week. I wonder what philosophers’ birthday parties were like back then – or today. Liquor, for sure. Lots of conversations and lofty ideas, I assume. Lousy food and no cake or ice cream.

Bacon
Fran in his party clothes

One birthday is philosopher, essayist, and statesman Francis Bacon. He was born in London in 1561. His main contribution to philosophy was his application of the inductive method of modern science. How would his idea that full investigation and rejecting any theories based upon incomplete or insufficient data go over these days?

At his birthday party, Francis might have said to me that, “Prosperity is not without many fears and distaste. And adversity is not without comforts and hopes.” To which I would reply, “Yes, but I still wish there was cake and ice cream, ” at which point Francis would move away from me.

Comte

It was also the birthday of the man who coined the term “altruism” and who helped found the field of sociology. Not as well-known to the public as Bacon, philosopher Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier, France in 1798.

He made friends with a social philosopher who insisted that the goal of philosophy should be improved social welfare, and Comte used this as a guiding principle for the rest of his life’s work. His most famous work was Système de Politique Positive. Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for the happiness of other human beings or other animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual.

Augie said at the party, “Everything is relative, and only that is absolute.” I told him that in about 100 years a guy named Albert Einstein was going to have his own theory about relativity and become very famous. “Good for him, ” he replied positively, “But if Francis was just more altruistic there would be ice cream and cake at this party.” Augie and I had to settle for a few brandy Alexanders.

drinks

Number the Stars

One of the birthday cards I received this week contained this list of firsts from my birth year of 1953. None of them connect in any way with me. Elsewhere I read that 1953 was the year that rapid eye movement (REM) was connected to dreaming. I feel connected to that. Looking at words that were added to the dictionary that year (including UFO, videotape, Medicare, road trip) gives you a sense of what was happening when I was born.  As looking at words that will be added this year will remind us (though most of us don’t need reminders) of what was new in 2020.

numbers

The card also had a string of stats that I assume are numbers based on averages. But I don’t think I am average. My heart beats a bit slower than average at 58 beats per minute. But even at that rate, I must be near 2 billion beats which is an impressive run for that organ.

I’m also not a great sleeper (night owl, insomniac, sleep apnea) so I don’t think I’ve hit 188,000 hours yet. But I guess I have been alive for about 35,000,000 minutes (though these numbers for 1953 must cover birthdays from January to December so…) and I still put milk in my coffee and on my occasional bowl of cereal, so that might be close.

My birthday is close to the days when the Orionid meteor shower peaks. On my birthday morning, I took a look but it was too cloudy. The next morning it was foggy. There is a waxing crescent Moon during the shower’s peak which would help darken the sky.

You should be able to see the meteors across the sky but they do appear to originate in the constellation Orion. You can find Orion with his well-known three-star belt if you look in the southwest sky (northern hemisphere) or the northwestern sky (southern hemisphere) or the western sky if you live on or near the equator. This Orionid shower’s radiant rises in the east in late evening and meteors appear but increase after midnight and peak in the hours before dawn.

These meteors are vaporizing bits of comet debris from Halley’s Comet. Because they look to us like streaks of light in the night sky, they are popularly called “shooting stars.”

Orion

We can’t number the stars. I’m sure some people have tried to at least estimate the number of stars, as someone has tried to number my breaths and heartbeats. Maybe it’s not the numbering or the naming that matters. Maybe it’s the attention we pay to the moments and the stars that really make a difference.

Number the Stars was a young adult novel by Lois Lowry that students of mine used to read. It’s told by a ten-year-old girl who chronicles German Nazi troops “relocating” Jews in her Denmark and the Danish Resistance smuggling almost all of that Jewish population to Sweden.

The novel’s title is taken from a line in Psalm 147:4 – “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.” Maybe God has numbered and named all the stars.

stars
Starfield via spacetelescope.org

Just a Few Coincidences

I have been fascinated for a long time by coincidences and the meaning sometimes attached to them. Some people see coincidences as simply what the dictionary says: a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. But some people do see a causal connection. On the more extreme end of that are those who believe there are no coincidences, and perhaps related are those who believe in synchronicity. On the very far end of all this is a belief in fate or destiny, which is a predetermined course of events.

You break up with a longtime mate and the next day while visiting a city you have never been to you run into someone you were briefly in love with ten years ago who has also never been to that city. Coincidence? Fate? Kismet? Destiny?

A few coincidences popped up in my reading of an almanac post for December 11. That is the birthday of novelists Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. That’s not much of a coincidence, but there are more.

McGuane went to the University of Michigan and his birthday brother Jim Harrison was a classmate. they were both aspiring writers and they became lifelong friends.

Eventually, both writers moved to Montana.

An event in Harrison’s life when he was 25 years old might be described as a coincidence or fate. He was supposed to go on a hunting trip with his father and sister, but for whatever reason, he decided not to go with them. A few hours later, his father and sister were killed when they were hit by a drunk driver.

He originally wanted to be a poet and his first publications were three collections of poetry. But then Fate stepped in. Maybe.

While he was out hunting, he fell off a cliff and hurt his back badly enough that he was bedridden for months. Thomas McGuane told him to try writing a novel while he was lying in bed. Harrison wrote Wolf: A False Memoir and next published the novella he is probably best known for, Legends of the Fall. The book got more attention because of the film version of this story about three brothers and their father living in Montana (played by Brad Pitt, Henry Thomas, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn) who struggle to stay together when a woman comes between them.

Harrison published a dozen novels and two dozen novellas before his death in 2016.

McGuane moved to Montana in 1969. His first novel, The Sporting Club, was published that year and from the sale of the film rights, he bought a Montana ranch. The novel also was adapted into a 1971 movie.

McGuane’s first three novels—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973) are all stories of men living in a kind of isolation. Many of his ten novels are set in Montana.

In 2019, he published Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories.

Both men were very much outdoorsmen. When McGuane wasn’t writing, he was probably fly fishing or riding horses.

Thomas McGuane Remembers His Friend, Jim Harrison