Nov. 12, 2000

Blues (For Heidi Anderson)

by W. H. Auden

Broadcast date: SUNDAY 12 November 2000

Poem: "Blues (For Hedli Anderson)," by W. H. Auden, from New Verse (Faber and Faber)


Ladies and gentlemen, sitting here,
Eating and drinking and warming a chair,
Feeling and thinking and drawing your breath,
Whoís sitting next to you? It may be Death.

As a high-stepping blondie with eyes of blue
In the subway, on beaches, Death looks at you;
And married or single or young or old,
Youíll become a sugar daddy and do as youíre told.

Death is a G-man. You may think yourself smart,
But heíll send you to the hot-seat or plug you through the heart;
He may be a slow worker, but in the end
Heíll get you for the crime of being born, my friend.

Death as a doctor has first-class degrees;
The world is on his panel; he charges no fees;
He listens to your chest, says---"Youíre breathing. Thatís bad.
But donít worry; weíll soon see to that, my lad."

Death knocks at your door selling real estate,
The value of which will not depreciate;
Itís easy, itís convenient, itís old world. Youíll sign,
Whatever your income, on the dotted line.

Death as a teacher is simply grand;
The dumbest pupil can understand.
He has only one subject and that is the Tomb;
But no one ever yawns or asks to leave the room.

So whether youíre standing broke in the rain,
Or playing poker or drinking champagne,
Deathís looking for you, heís already on the way,
So look out for him tomorrow or perhaps today.

Itís the birthday of nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder, born in New York City (1945). A longtime contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly magazine, he received a Pulitzer prize for Soul of a New Machine (1981), about an 18-month struggle of engineers at the Data General Corporation to create a super-mini computer. Kidder spent months in the basement lab of the Massachusetts company, studying teams of engineers at their work, which he managed to make comprehensible and intriguing even to the technically ignorant reader. For his book House (1985), which followed a new house from blueprints to finished product, he spent 6 months studying how the home buyers, architect, and builders managed to get along, wrangling and compromising in a complex triangular relationship that eventually created a house - with digressions to explore such topics as the history of nails and Thoreauís Walden Pond shelter. Kidderís other books include Among Schoolchildren (1989), Old Friends (1993--about life in a nursing home) and Home Town (1999).

Itís the birthday of Readerís Digest founder (William Roy) DeWitt Wallace, born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1889). His father, a minister, was president of the Presbyterian-related Macalester College in St. Paul; his mother was a ministerís daughter. Recovering from a World War I wound, he pruned back some magazine articles as an exercise to keep himself busy. Back in St. Paul, he spent 6 months putting together a dummy issue of the Readerís Digest, using 31 such pared-down articles which had appeared originally in other magazines. Potential backers rejected his concept as ridiculous; he shelved it until he was laid off from his advertising job. (Readerís Digest went on to enjoy the widest circulation of any magazine in the world.)

On this day in 1859, the first flying trapeze circus act was performed at the Cirque Napoléon by Jules Léotard, 21 years old. He had perfected his act practicing on ropes and rings suspended above the swimming pool of his fatherís gymnasium. Later he caused a sensation in London by flying across a hall from trapeze to trapeze above the heads of diners seated at dinner tables. He was immortalized as "That Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," a popular ditty of the time; leotards were named for his tight-fitting costume.

Itís the birthday of feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, born in Johnstown, New York (1815). When her brother died, she was allowed to take his place in the Johnstown Academy; previously she hadnít been admitted. She won honors there, but even so, no college would take her. She studied law in her fatherís office, but wasnít allowed to take the bar exam or practice. In 1848, the first womenís rights convention in America was held in her home in Seneca Falls, New York. With Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, she compiled the first three volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage.

"Men are the Brahmin, women the Pariahs, under our existing civilization."

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




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