Thursday Jan. 29, 2015

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Long Paces

We’d not have guessed that we’d be heartened so
To see this snowshoe rabbit, months from snow,

Come from the woods with that shy tread of his,
Drawn by our bushy rows of lettuces,

His summer coat all rich soft grays and browns,
His feet as overstated as a clown’s.

How delicate he is: he holds no brief
For this or that variety of leaf,

But tries each, crouching as a cat will do
Before a dinner bowl and, when he’s through,

Slips back across the grasses gingerly
(Binoculars enable us to see

The crickets that his cautious lopings flush)
And vanishes into the underbrush.

“Long Paces” by Timothy Steele from The Color Wheel. © The John Hopkins University Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Comedy is a serious business," actor W.C. Fields (books by this author), born William Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania (1880). He also wrote screenplays, including for the films The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

He ran away from home as a child, stole to survive, got in a lot of fistfights, and was arrested often. He was a fabulously skilled juggler, and at 14 he honed his juggling act and joined the carnival. He went from juggling to doing a witty comedic routine, and then to acting in films. He toured a lot, and the more famous he became, the more he drank. When he was filming movies, he kept a flask of mixed martinis near at hand, referring to it as his "pineapple juice." He quipped about his drinking a lot, saying things like, "Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water." And, "Everyone must believe in something. I believe I'll have another drink." And, "If I had to live life over, I'd live over a saloon."

Toward the end of his life, his career fizzled out some — he gained a reputation for being extremely hard to work with, was passed over for some coveted movie roles, and his alcoholism was taking its toll. He died Christmas Day 1946. And then his persona made a sort of comeback in the late 1960s. The Beatles even included his face in the collage on the cover of their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

W.C. Fields said, "There comes a time in the affairs of man when he must take the bull by the tail and face the situation."

It's the birthday of the man considered "the master of the modern short story" and a brilliant playwright, a man who said: "Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other. Though it is irregular, it is less boring this way, and besides, neither of them loses anything through my infidelity." Anton Chekhov (books by this author) was born today in Taganrog, a seaside city in southern Russia (1860).

His father borrowed too much money trying to build a big new house, and his grocery store went out of business, and he went bankrupt. In order not to be thrown in debtor's prison, the family fled to Moscow — everyone in the family, that is, except Anton Chekhov, who was left behind to finish his last three years of high school and to pawn whatever family possessions remained. He worked as a private tutor; he caught little singing birds and sold them as pets, and he wrote stories for newspapers. He sent all the money he made on to his family in Moscow. He described his teenage years as a "never-ending toothache."

He finished up high school, got into Moscow University's medical school and paid his own way, and at the same time continued to support his family by writing funny stories for Russian newspapers and magazines. He wrote under pseudonyms like "Antosha Chekhonte" and "Man without a Spleen." He once told a friend that "medicine takes itself seriously; the game of literature requires nicknames." He finished medical school, passed all of his doctor exams, and started to treat patients, mostly for free. The same year that he had officially become a doctor, he started coughing up blood. He'd contracted tuberculosis, and it would eventually kill him when he was in his 40s.

His stories, as well as the popular productions of his plays Uncle Vanya (1899), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1904), made Chekhov famous throughout Russia. He acquired a reputation as "Russia's most elusive literary bachelor," preferring lovers and prostitutes to a committed monogamous relationship. He once wrote to one of his supporters: "By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: Everything must be as it has been hitherto — that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her. ... Give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day."

By some accounts, Chekhov considered himself a doctor foremost and a writer by hobby. There are a great number of medical doctors who also wrote fiction and poetry, among them 19th-century American poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Seymour Bridges, who is the only physician to have been Poet Laureate of England. American writer Walker Percy was a medical doctor, and Michael Crichton completed medical school before he became a full-time writer. Doctor Arturo Vivante wrote more than 70 stories for The New Yorker magazine. Mystery writer Robin Cook is a physician and author of the best-selling thrillers Coma (1977) and Mutation (1989). Dr. Abraham Verghese took a break from hospitals to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1990s; he returned to medicine and now teaches and practices at Stanford, where he has a secret unmarked writing office on campus.

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