Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson

This week (July 4) marks the anniversary not only of the birth of a new nation, but also of the death of two of that nation's founders, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

I knew I had to write about John Adams when I researched the Boston Massacre for my Paul Revere biography. Adams was well-known as one of Boston's leading patriots. He wrote fiery articles and spoke out eloquently against the British crown and especially against the presence of the hated "lobsterbacks" in Boston. Yet, after the massacre when the British soldiers and captain were tried for murder, it was Adams who defended them because he felt everyone--even the redcoats--deserved a fair trial. You have to admire a man with such a high regard for the law.

Adams' clear ideas and spirited writing brought him to the attention of the Continental Congress when it was time to write the Declaration of Independence. It must have been tempting to him, to write the words that would announce to the world the colonies' independence. Yet he argued that Thomas Jefferson should write it instead. His argument to his friend was simple: "You can write ten times better than I can." You have to admire a man who recognizes his limits as a writer.

I'd like to say that Adams and Jefferson remained lifelong friends. They didn't. They became bitter political rivals. Only as old men did they grudgingly set aside their feud.

On July 4th, 1826, John Adams died. His last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives." But he was wrong. Jefferson had died a few hours earlier. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the country for which they both had fought so hard and of the document they both signed, the Declaration of Independence.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Babe Didrikson

This week marks the 99th birthday of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (June 26, 1911- September 27, 1956).

Babe was not only a superb athlete, she was also intensely competitive, with a fierce drive to win. Coming in second was never good enough for Babe. She had to be the best. And most of the time, she was. She is considered by many to be the greatest female athlete of the twentieth century.

She was also what my Dad used to call "a character." She had a wry humor and a plain, direct way of speaking and writing. That made her popular with the press in her day, although not everything she said was fit to print. (Once, when she played on the House of David baseball team alongside her bearded male teammates, she was asked where her whiskers were. I'll let you figure out the answer.)

I had a great time researching Babe's life for my 2000 biography. Babe was fun and funny, and I liked her even though I am certainly no athlete. Babe had passion, and that was enough for me. How can you not respect someone who practiced golf swings until her hands were bleeding and she "had tape all over her hands and blood all over the tape?" For anyone with a dream, Babe set the bar high.

Once Babe was asked how she managed to hit a ball so far. Her answer: "You've got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it."

Good advice for us all.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Jospeh Warren

This week marks the 235th anniversary of the death of American patriot Joseph Warren (June 11, 1741- June 17, 1775).

As a native New Englander, I grew up learning the names of the great Boston patriots: Sam Adams, Paul Revere, John Hancock. But I admit I didn't know much about Dr. Warren until I began researching my book on Revere. Warren was a well-educated and respected physician. He was also an ardent patriot and a fiery writer. His newspaper articles championing the patriots' cause helped stir up unrest and infuriated the British. He became a leader of the Sons of Liberty, and in fact, it was Warren who dispatched Revere on his famous "Midnight Ride" to warn surrounding towns that "The Regulars are out."

In the first important battle of the Revolution, Bunker (or Breed's) Hill, he was asked to serve as a commander. Instead, Warren volunteered to fight as a private. He held off advancing troops to give the militia time to escape, and was killed by a British musket ball. His death was a hard blow to the patriots.

I've been tempted to apply the word hero to many of the subjects of my biographies, from politicians to singers to sports figures. And the word seems to come pretty cheap these days. I hope I shall always remember Dr. Warren when I am so tempted. Take a moment today to think about a true hero, who risked all in the defense of liberty.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Maurice Sendak

Quick, when I say "Maurice Sendak," what's the first thing you think of? I'm betting it's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Mr. Sendak wrote and/or illustrated a great many children's books, among them IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, CHICKEN SOUP WITH RICE, and the LITTLE BEAR books by Else Holmelund Minarik. But he will forever be remembered as the creator of Max and those great furry wild things.

Now, I could stop this blog right here. As a writer and presenter at schools, I am often asked what it's like to be famous. My standard answer is that I'm not, nor do I ever want to be. I do, however, want my books to be famous, well-loved, and read often. To have one of my books achieve the kind of immortality that WILD THINGS has done, and to have my name forever associated with it--well, that's a dream as wild as anything Max dreamed up, and I don't expect there's a hot meal waiting for me at the end of it either.

But I always wondered just where those wild things came from. Why do they connect with us so well? Mr. Sendak admitted he based them somewhat on his much-dreaded Brooklyn relatives. As a child, he was frightened by these large aunts and uncles who pinched his cheeks and said stupid-adult things like, "Oh, you're so cute I could eat you up," though he knew they never would. He tapped into that frightening/loving persona for his wild things. And thereby tapped into a classic childhood fear. Because don't all children have some kind of wild thing in their lives?

This week (June 10) marks the 82nd birthday of Maurice Sendak. Happy birthday, Mr. Sendak. And may the wild rumpus start.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Helen Keller

This week (June 1st) marks the 42nd anniversary of the death of Helen Keller (June 27, 1880--June 1, 1968).

The name Helen Keller has again and again proven to be one of the most recognized of our time. (It's no coincidence that I've written not one but two biographies of her.) So most of us know the story of Helen and how she was robbed of her sight and hearing as a toddler. We know that, as a child, she was wild and uncontrollable, attacking her family and gobbling her food like an animal. She was clearly a child in anguish.

But her anguish did not stem from her inability to see or hear. It was her inability to communicate which drove her nearly mad. Helen needed words like she needed oxygen, and she had none. No words to express her most basic needs, no names for the people and things in her life. Helen was hungry for words, and she was starving.

And then came Annie Sullivan. Annie gave her words and opened a path to communication for her. Helen later said, "That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free." No writer has ever said it better.

On her death in 1968, Helen was interred at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, next to the remains of Annie Sullivan, the woman who had unlocked her life with words.