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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Writer's Almanac for December 28, 2011

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Dec. 28, 2011

The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

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Old Friends

by Louis Jenkins

There's a game we play, not a game exactly, a sort of call and
response. It's one of the pleasures of living for a long time in a
fairly small place. "You know, they lived over by Plett's Grocery."
"Where that bank is now?" "That's right." "Plett's, I'd almost
forgotten. Do you remember where Ward's was?" "Didn't they
tear it down to build the Holiday Mall?" "Yes." "I remember.
The Holiday Mall." It works for people, too. "Remember the
guy who came to all the art exhibit openings, the guy with the
hat?" "Yeah, he came for the free food and drinks?" "Right."
"And there was the guy with the pipe and the tweed jacket
who always said hello to everyone because he wasn't sure who
he actually knew." "Oh, yes!" It's like the words to an old song,
la, la, la, some of which you remember. And after I have gone
someone will say, "Oh him. I thought he was still around. I
used to see him everywhere, only, all this time, I thought he
was someone else.

"Old Friends" by Louis Jenkins, from Before You Know It: Prose Poems 1970-2005. © Will o' the Wisp Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

London's Westminster Abbey was consecrated on this date in 1065. There has been a church on the site since the late 8th century, when a small community of monks formed a monastery there; it's possible the site dates back as far as the early seventh century, to the time of the first Christian king of the Saxons, Saberht. King Edward I (later known as Edward the Confessor) decided to expand the Benedictine monastery around 1040, and ordered construction of a new stone church in honor of Saint Peter. The church became known as "west minster" to distinguish it from Saint Paul's Cathedral, which was the "east minster." By the time the church was consecrated 25 years later, Edward was too ill to attend, and he died a few weeks later. He was buried in front of the high altar.

Most of the original abbey was lost when Henry III decided to remodel it in the new Gothic style during the 13th century.

Beginning with William the Conqueror in 1066, Westminster Abbey has witnessed all but two coronations. It has hosted 16 royal weddings, and houses the remains of 17 monarchs. It is also the final resting place of many notable writers, poets, scientists, and politicians.

It's the birthday of the man who popularized the saying, "With great power there must also come — great responsibility!" That's Stan Lee (books by this author), born Stanley Lieber in New York City (1922). The line comes from the Spider-Man comic, about a teenager who's bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes a crime-fighting superhero. Stan Lee also helped create the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. In addition to their capes and tights, Lee's heroes often possess very human fears and insecurities.

Lieber got a job as an editorial assistant at Timely Comics when he was 17. His duties weren't all editorial: he had to make sure the artists' inkwells were always full, erase pencil marks from finished pages, and pick up lunch. He also did some proofreading, and in 1941, when he was 18, he got to write some text filler for a Captain America comic. He used the pen name "Stan Lee" because he wanted to save his given name for more literary endeavors. "I felt someday I'd write the Great American Novel," he said, "and I didn't want to use my real name on these silly little comics." Two issues later, he was promoted to a proper writing position, and he became editor of Timely Comics just before his 19th birthday.

In the late 1950s, DC Comics revived the superhero genre with their series The Flash. Lee was starting to become bored with the work he'd been doing for Atlas, Timely Comics' new name. His wife encouraged him to take a gamble on superheroes instead, since he really had nothing to lose. Along with artist Jack Kirby, Lee created his first superhero team in 1961: the Fantastic Four, a group of astronauts who have been exposed to cosmic radiation and develop superpowers. The series proved very popular, and Lee changed the name of his company to Marvel Comics, after the series' alternate universe. Other heroes followed: Thor (1962), Spider-Man (1962), the Avengers (1963), and the X-Men (1963). He wrote characters who were flawed, and who worried about the same things their readers worried about, things like paying the bills and impressing girls. He also liked to give them alliterative names like Peter Parker and Susan Storm, because he had a poor memory; he figured that if he could remember one of the names, he could remember the other. Lee scripted and supervised the art direction of all of his creations through the 1960s, and perfected what came to be known as the "Marvel Method": He gave the artists a story synopsis and a total page count, they drew the panels, and he went in later to pencil in the speech bubbles.

Lee retired from Marvel in 1999, after nearly 60 years, although he remains a figurehead at the company, and he continues to develop new projects. He has cameo roles in many of the film adaptations of his comics. "I'm a frustrated actor," he said in 2006. "My ... goal is to beat Alfred Hitchcock in the number of cameos. I'm going to try to break his record."

He also said: "I'm no prophet, but I'm guessing that comic books will always be strong. I don't think anything can really beat the pure fun and pleasure of holding a magazine in your hand, reading the story on paper, being able to roll it up and put it in your pocket, reread again later, show it to a friend, carry it with you, toss it on a shelf, collect them, have a lot of magazines lined up and read them again as a series. I think young people have always loved that. I think they always will."

Galileo first observed the planet Neptune on this date in 1612. The eighth planet from the Sun wasn't officially discovered until the mid-1800s, but Galileo knew about it just the same. He kept a notebook, and in the course of studying the moons of Jupiter, he noted another bright object that he first took to be a star. Later, he noticed that it moved relative to other celestial bodies, and kept track of its progress in his journal. Although he didn't come out and name it a planet, he had already determined that stars didn't move in that manner.

Today would mark the 100th birthday of humorist Sam Levenson (1911) (books by this author), born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He taught Spanish in the New York public schools, and then went to work on the Borscht Belt comedy circuit in the Catskills. By the 1950s, he had found a home as a television host, appearing on such programs as This is Show Business, Two for the Money, and The Sam Levenson Show.

He said, "You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can't possibly live long enough to make all of them yourself."

It was on this day in 1895 that Auguste and Louis Lumiere had the first commercial movie screening at the Grand Café in Paris. An audience paid to watch their film "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory." It was short, 46 seconds long, a single shot with a static camera. It showed a concierge opening the factory gates at the end of the day's work, from which dozens of workers poured into the street, some walking, some on bicycle. It ended with the concierge closing the gates again.

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