Sunday Feb. 28, 2016

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Being Happy

Of course it was doomed. I know that now,
but it ended so quickly, and I was young.
I hardly remember that summer in Seattle—
except for her. The city seems just a rainy backdrop.
From the moment I first saw her at the office
I was hooked. I started visiting her floor.

I couldn’t work unless I caught a glimpse of her.
Once we exchanged glances, but we never spoke.
Then at a party we found ourselves alone.
We started kissing and ended up in bed.
We talked all night. She claimed she had liked me
secretly for months. I wonder now if that was true.

Two weeks later her father had a heart attack.
While she was in Chicago, they shut down our division.
I was never one for writing letters.
On the phone we had less to say each time.
And that was it—just those two breathless weeks,
then years of mild regret and intermittent speculation.

Being happy is mostly like that. You don’t see it up close.
You recognize it later from the ache of memory.
And you can’t recapture it. You only get to choose
whether to remember or forget, whether to feel remorse
or nothing at all. Maybe it wasn’t really love.
But who can tell when nothing deeper ever came along?

“Being Happy” by Dana Gioia from 99 Poems. © Graywolf Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Ben Hecht (books by this author), born in New York City (1894). He wrote many books, including the novels Erik Dorn (1921) and Fantazius Mallare (1922), but made his fame as a writer for stage and screen. He ran away from home at 16, to Chicago, where he became a reporter. He later recalled his early days in Chicago: “I ran everywhere in the city like a fly buzzing in the works of a clock, tasted more than any fit belly could hold, learned not to sleep, and buried myself in a tick-tock of whirling hours that still echo in me.”

He used his inside knowledge of the newspaper business as fodder for his play The Front Page (1928), which he co-wrote with Charles MacArthur. The play was later made into a movie by the same name (1931), and adapted again for the screen in His Girl Friday (1940). He was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history. He wrote or co-wrote a number of box office hits that went on to become cinema classics, including Nothing Sacred (1931), Wuthering Heights (1939), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946). He earned a reputation as a talented screenwriter who could turn out a script quickly — he claimed in his autobiography, A Child of the Century (1954), that he never spent more than eight weeks on a screenplay. He would divide his time between coasts, working in Hollywood for a month or two and making enough money to live on for a year, then returning to New York to do his “serious” writing. Producers sometimes hired him as a script doctor, which meant he would take a few days or weeks to fix the problems in someone else’s screenplay. Hecht was hired to doctor the script for Gone With the Wind, which was much too long. He rewrote the whole thing in five days, was paid $10,000, and didn’t receive screen credit. The script went on to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, beating out Wuthering Heights — which Hecht also wrote, and received credit for.

It’s the birthday of essayist Michel de Montaigne (books by this author), born in Périgord, in Bordeaux, France (1533). He is considered by many to be the creator of the personal essay, in which he used self-portrayal as a mirror of humanity in general. Writers up to the present time have imitated his informal, conversational style. He said, “The highest of wisdom is continual cheerfulness: such a state, like the region above the moon, is always clear and serene.”

It’s the birthday of Colum McCann (books by this author). He was born in Dublin (1965), into a middle-class home full of books. His father was features editor at The Irish Press. He went to journalism school at 17, then went to work at The Irish Press himself.

When he was 19, he spent a summer in New York City. He loved it and vowed to return to America, which he did when he was 21. He went up to Cape Cod, bought a typewriter, and spent a summer trying to write profound things. But at the end of the summer, he had not written an entire single page, and he couldn’t even comprehend the few sentences that he’d tried to write. He decided he needed to go out and explore America, to add a different set of experiences to his young life.

So he hopped on a bicycle and pedaled across the country for a year and a half, winding through 40 states and traversing 12,000 miles on two wheels. In Texas, he went to college, and he met Allison Hawke, who would become his wife.

In 2009, he published Let the Great World Spin, and it was a huge success. The book is set in the 1970s and weaves together the stories of a dozen New York protagonists, including prostitutes, a young radical Irish monk, and a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her son killed in Vietnam. It also won the National Book Award for fiction in 2009.

“I believe in the democracy of storytelling,” said McCann in an interview. “I love the fact that our stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I feel humbled by the notion that I’m even a small part of the literary experience. I grew up in a house, in a city, in a country shaped by books. I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story, or to listen to a story. They’re the only thing we have that can trump life itself.”

McCann’s latest work is a novella titled Thirteen Ways of Looking (2015).

On this date in 1953, Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA. They were working in a lab at Cambridge University, but they didn’t even have the right equipment to examine DNA. They were devastated when the world-renowned scientist Linus Pauling published a paper proposing a structure for DNA. But they immediately realized that his structure was wrong, and they vowed to figure it out before he did. Meanwhile, Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist working at Kings College in London, had taken some X-ray pictures of a DNA molecule. She gave a lecture on her findings in 1951; Watson attended the lecture and thought he had a vague idea of what she was talking about, but when he and Crick tried to build a model based on what he remembered, it was a failure. The head of their department told them to stop their research.

But Rosalind Franklin kept working, and she was pretty sure she had figured out DNA’s helical structure. She didn’t want to announce it until she was sure, and wanted to gather more evidence. Maurice Wilkins, one of Franklin’s colleagues at Kings College, was frustrated with her cautious attitude. He showed Crick and Watson one of Franklin’s X-ray photographs without her knowledge, and Watson copied the structure on a bit of newspaper. Crick later admitted that they didn’t show much respect to Franklin, criticizing her appearance and her lecture style: “I’m afraid we always used to adopt — let’s say — a patronizing attitude toward her.”

Watson and Crick worked for several days, building models based on the X-rays. They finally hit on the correct structure on this day in 1953. Crick and Watson — along with Franklin’s colleague, Maurice Wilkins — would go on to win the Nobel Prize for their discovery; Franklin would also have gotten credit, but she had died of cancer by the time the prize was awarded.

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