Really great birthdays today.
First, Benjamin Franklin was born today in 1706. Is it too much to say that Franklin invented the idea of the American? Pragmatic, scientific, a man who melded the civic-minded with the business-minded, Franklin was perhaps the most famous man in the world in the era of the American and French Revolutions. His Autobiography is still read because it still teaches us what it means to be a self-made man, to work hard, to save, to defer gratification, to innovate for the good of others by creating things that other free men might want to buy, to think and act morally for your own good, for the good of your family, your community, your nation.
Al Capone was also born today in 1899. At the other end from Franklin, Capone is the archetype of the American criminal, invariably a young man on the make who can't do what Franklin did, can't defer gratification and work for others, but instead chooses crime out of a kind of cowardice, a fear of doing the necessary work. It's telling that he was in his twenties in the 1920s when he "made his bones" in Chicago. A thug like the young thugs of today, peddling illegal alchohol just like today's young thugs peddle crack.
A better model... Muhammad Ali was born today in 1942, which makes him 68. That seems young, perhaps because Ali has seemed so old for so long, afflicted as he is by the brain injuries that unfortunately come with boxing. His wars with Joe Frazier are among the best in the history of boxing, but to look at tapes of them now is bittersweet. You can almost see the intelligence of the man -- patent in the young Cassius Clay -- being beaten out of him. Here he is, in his prime, floating like a butterfly against Sonny Liston:
Today is also the birthday of Sebastian Junger, the author of A Perfect Storm and last year's War, about a year in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan with an American platoon. War was a great read, and a great portrait of the heroism and comradeship of the small unit in combat.
Finally, it is also the 31st birthday of one of my favorite young actresses, Zooey Deschanel, who starred most notably (and cutely) in 500 Days of Summer.