"A Toast" is a series of short writings, honoring important cultural icons on their birthdays. Please enjoy the selections below.
January 6th: Joan of Arc
Today, we celebrate the (supposed) birth of the spritely French heroine, Saint Joan of Arc. Joan came into our cruel world in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War®, which exemplified England’s annoying tendency to drag things out far too long (the war actually went on 16 years past its marketing team’s goal). Basically, neither country could remember who was supposed to be heir to the French throne, so the Creator of the Universe sent three angels to visit an illiterate farm girl in order to fix everything. Joan proved to be a brilliant military tactician, and unsieged the previously sieged city of Orleans. After some more bad-assery, Ms. of Arc was captured by the enemy and eventually tried for heresy. At the trial, when asked whether she knew if she was in God’s Grace, the illiterate teenager answered in a suspiciously un-illiterate manner: "If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me." Rhetorically, it was enough to confuse the crap out of everyone, and the people in charge of executing other people hated being confused, so…
A couple decades later, a posthumous retrial was held in which Joan was pronounced innocent, but still dead, and in 1920, Joan of Arc was finally honored with the title of “Saint” by the Catholic Church, Inc. Tonight, let’s lift a chalice to Saint Joan, who continues to inspire little hellions from up high.
January 23rd: John Hancock
The ancient Egyptians had a saying: "A man's hand may be cut off, but his signature will last forever." Today, we celebrate the birth of a man whose mark will rightly bear the standard for all that follow. The document which made John Hancock famous is now lost, of course. No one remembers what it declared, or if it even declared anything at all. What we do remember is that handsome script, that elegant penmanship, that grand proof of conscious participation which will continue to trump any vulgar display of modern chicken-scratchery. Having access to computers, and laptops, and wide-ruled notebooks for the entirety of our adults lives, we have forgotten how to write with our hands properly. But for the remainder of the day, try to incorporate the spirit of Mr. Hancock in your exits. Flash those gang-signs prominently, yell "deuces" with distinguished poise, and kiss good-night in the flamboyant manner of the French!
January 29th: Oprah Winfrey
John Lennon once remarked that “there is a great woman behind every idiot.” Today, we celebrate the birthday of THE great woman, the woman who is not only behind every idiot, but next to him, in front of him, on his television, and featured in the latest issue of his favorite magazine: Oprah Gail Winfrey. Her rise to omnipresence from her hometown in rural Mississippi is a testament to the power of perseverance, personal charisma, and divine predestination. Most powerful woman in the world, sure—but#Oprah is much more than that. She’s a heavenly presence, a celestial being, curating the wisdom of the ages to the working classes in a fashionable and regularly scheduled manner. The mere mention of the name “Oprah” makes us feel safe and informed, hopeful for self-actualization, for a new car, for a better life. Despite not having any biological children of her own, Oprah has managed to rear an entire planet to mature consumerhood. Without “Momma Winfrey’s” approval, we dare not read a book, or listen to an album, or vote for a politician. How much is her care of us worth--$1 Million? $10 Million? $2.6 Billion? Oprah’s positive influence on global civilization is priceless, beyond any sum of money (valued at $2.8 Billion). Tonight, raise of glass of Oprah-endorsed red wine to her highness, her philanthropist extraordinairess, Madam Oprah Winfrey!
February 12th: Abraham Lincoln
Two and a half fourscores and seven years ago, a little baby boy named President Abraham Lincoln was born in log cabin made of children’s toys. Little President Abraham Lincoln quickly grew to be a big, strong lawyer, who instilled fear into his opponents by his vulgar habit of being honest from time to time. He had a knack for talking at folks, so the young President Abraham Lincoln decided to get himself involved in politics, the career path most likely to get his face carved into the side of a mountain. At the time, an ancient Egyptian practice known as “slavery” was rampant in America, and President Abraham Lincoln didn’t quite care for it. In fact, he was sort of against it, for the most part. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of people in the stupid parts of the country REALLY liked slavery. They consulted with the people in the slightly less stupid parts of the country, and everyone agreed to have themselves a Civil War. In the middle of the war, while no one was paying attention, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended all problems for blacks in American forever.
Eventually the war ended, President Abraham Lincoln got re-elected, and there was even a play to be performed at Ford’s Theatre! Things were really looking up for Honest Abe, and the whole country was finally ready to fall in line behind their un-assassinated leader. Who knows how President Abraham Lincoln’s story will end. In fact, it’s still being told. You might say it's up to us to finish it.
So tonight, as we go out into the bars and saloons of the United States, let’s raise a tall glass to our 16th president. May his courage and strength of conviction inspire us to do what’s right, to unite rather than divide, and to support the arts.
March 31st: Rene Descartes
"To be, or not to be...", thought today's birthday boy, Rene Descartes.
Immediately following that thought, Descartes was! And what an am it is! Often insulted as "the father of modern Western philosophy", Rene inspired countless liberal arts students to waste their lives poring over inconsequential thought experiments, while contributing absolutely nothing of value to society. His x and y axes, once thought of as a foundation for mathematics, have since been removed from classrooms because of budget deficits. An existence tarnished by our collective obsession with being practical. Such a shame! The world has little use for thinking men these days. It's all "work! work! work!" and productivity reports...
May 29th: JFK
Happy would-be 99th birthday to America's most-liked, most adulterous, and most Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy! His good looks created the Peace Corps, his charm cured communism, and his funny little accent sent men to the moon. He asked not what our country could do for us, but how we could do our country. He was a Purple Heart recipient, a Pulitzer Prize Winner, and even had a brief stint as a Berliner. His death was tragic, and sent the American people into conspiracy-theory madness. May we always adore and remember our most rich and powerful heroes! If you're scheduling a flight into or out of New York tonight, forget LaGuardia. Choose JFK.
June 16th: Tupac Shakur
Listen up, homies! Today is the birthday of beloved West-Coast rapper, Tupac Shakur. Although he continuously puts himself in perilous situations (including being shot and killed in 1996), he has influenced many socially conscious hip-hopsters through his poignant lyrics and shirtless demeanor. If you're affiliated with the Biggie Smalls Revivalist Society, I urge you to forgive, let go of the past, and join the search party. Because Monsieur Shakur isn't just inside all of us--he was also last spotted somewhere outside of Albany, New York.
July 6th: The Dalai Lama
We're all familiar with that old Buddhist aphorism "Life's a bitch, and then you die, then you get reincarnated, that's why we renounce worldly attachments". Folks, today is a bittersweet celebration--it's the birthday of Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, AKA His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama! Why bittersweet? Well, everyone's favorite political refugee could easily have been enjoying the formless bliss of Nirvana, but our human stupidity and self-imposed suffering keeps bringing Him back to our dense realm in order to awaken us through Holy Photo Ops. It was rumored that during His visit a few years ago, His Holiness blessed Birmingham Mayor "Lord" William Bell with a secret mantra that would to bring peace to the area. In response, Lord Mayor blessed the Dalai Lama with a lucrative seat on the Birmingham Water Works Board. His Holiness accepted, much to the delight of us mortal beings, so ignorant of Wisdom, who need Him down here. L'Chaim, Samsara!
Also July 6th: George W. Bush
There's an old saying in Texas:
"Be born once, shame on me. Be born twice, secure the Evangelical vote."
Today, we celebrate the first birth of the former United States president, George W. Bush! Unlike his uninspired father, who only managed to go to war with a tangible enemy, Dubya was an innovator--the first world leader in the modern era to battle an abstract concept. Far ahead of his time, President Bush's "War on Terra" went over the heads of the common thinking folk, who could do nothing more than stage mass world-wide protests against the very notion. Throughout history, great men have often been misunderstood and under-appreciated. Mediocre men, on the other hand, have been praised and glorified. May the party in your honor never end, George W. L'Chaim!
October 26th: Hillary Clinton
Happy Birthday to America's most respected, most polarizing, and least indictable woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton! A born leader and negotiator, Mrs. Clinton has broken bread with communists, anti-communists, dictators, and adulterers. A born politician and philanthropist, Mrs. Clinton has saved breadcrumbs to feed helpless bankers from South Wall Street to North Wall Street. Her experience and surname, combined with detailed input from frightened focus group participants has propelled her to the top of the polls in her second bid to become our nation's president. Thanks to Hillary Rodham Clinton, we're just one Jewish nuisance away from having a First Gentleman, and for that we raise a glass a say, "L'Chaim!"
December 16th: Ludwig Van Beethoven
Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. In Ludwig Van Beethoven’s case, the ratio was closer to 2/98. Although Beethoven was born on this day in 1770, his talent went unrecognized for several months, and after some crappy gigs in the courts of Bonn, Germany, LVB went to Vienna to seek a meeting with Wolfgang A. Mozart. Apparently the meeting never happened, and Beethoven had to settle for camaraderie with B-List composer, Joseph Haydn. At the time, the nobility of Austria got their jollies by commissioning young upstarts to compose jingles for their amusement (think Uncle Jesse on Full House). Hell, all us creative types need day jobs, and Ludwig was no different. He diligently studied the work of his predecessors while producing a prolific output, and his popularity grew to James Taylor, or even Kid Rock-like heights. But fate is an ironic bitch, and Beethoven began to lose his hearing at age 26. Ever the proponent of counterpoint, our hero retaliated by composing one of the world’s most beloved musical treasures, his 9th Symphony, while almost entirely deaf. We’re all familiar with his melodies: ba ba ba BA, de di de de di la da da du (or was that Brahms?); they are programmed into our cell phones and fine-dining restaurants, and my electric toothbrush for some reason. Beethoven’s music is the music is the human spirit: powerful, complex, divine. Listen to one of the great man’s compositions today. Treat yourself to a bit of the ol’ Ludwig Van. Happy birthday, maestro!
December 19th: Edith Piaf
Joyeux anniversaire to France’s diminutive icon, the sultry chanteuse, Édith Piaf! After being abandoned by her good-for-nothing mother, Edith’s paternal father took over child-rearing duties. Fortunately, his maternal instincts were never tested, as he was soon beckoned to protect French values in World War I. To instill those values in little Edith, he took her to live with his own mother, who ran a brothel in Normandy. At age 14, in an act of teenage rebellion, Edith left the decent, working-class environment of the whore-house, and proceeded to tarnish the family’s reputation by becoming a street singer. Edith quickly rose through the ranks, and began performing on avenues, boulevards, and eventually the Champs-Élysées. Her blitzkrieg career even led her to perform for German officers during their occupation of France, cementing her as an international star. Fame, alcohol abuse, and a series of car accidents eventually took their toll on Edith, and she died at age 47. Tonight, let us honor the sparrow of Paris by going to the nearest dive bar, drunkenly singing songs of lost love, and going home with a complete stranger.