Dec. 17, 2001

Instrument of Choice

by Robert Phillips

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Poem: "Instrument of Choice," by Robert Phillips from Spinach Days (The Johns Hopkins University Press).

Instrument of Choice

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams or clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tuba. Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover's embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.

It's the birthday of writer William Safire, born in New York City (1929). In 1959, as a public relations agent for a home builder, he brought vice-president Richard Nixon and Soviet president Nikita Khruschev together in the kitchen of a model home constructed for a trade show in Moscow, where the two leaders discussed American kitchens. Later, as a Nixon Administration speechwriter, he wrote the famous phrase "nattering nabobs of negativism" for vice-president Spiro T. Agnew. He resigned when the Watergate scandal broke in 1973, and became a political columnist for the New York Times, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1978.

It's the birthday of novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, born in Lincoln, England (1916). Her father was the editor of Punch magazine, and one of her uncles helped break the German Enigma code during WWII. She studied with J. R. R. Tolkien at Oxford. She once told an interviewer that her husband didn't have much luck in life, and they struggled for years, holding various jobs while raising their three children. At one point, they lived on a dilapidated Thames houseboat, which sank twice. She was 58 years old when she published her first book, a biography of the painter Edward Burne-Jones, and 60 when she wrote her first novel, a mystery called The Golden Child, to entertain her husband as he was dying. She won the Booker Prize two years later for Offshore (1979), based on her houseboat experience. She said: "I have remained true to my deepest convictions ... to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?" and "I feel drawn to people whom the twentieth century considers expendable, but who don't give up. As far as I'm concerned, they are not failures, for no one who shows courage can be considered a failure."

It's the birthday of chemist Willard Frank Libby, born in Grand Valley, Colorado (1908). As a member of the Manhattan Project, he developed a method for separating uranium isotopes, a crucial step in the development of the atomic bomb. In 1949, after careful experimentation, he was able to show that the element carbon 14, absorbed by all living things, diminishes at a constant rate after death.

It's the birthday of conductor Arthur Fiedler, born in Boston (1894). He studied music in Berlin before joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra violins in 1915. Deciding that his true love was conducting, he formed his own chamber orchestra in 1925. In 1927, he started advocating free, open-air concerts. Two years later, starting a tradition that continues today, he led 46 colleagues from the symphony in a concert on the Boston Esplanade, along the Charles River, playing to 5,000 people. In 1930 he became the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, a position he held for nearly 50 years.

It's the birthday of writer Ford Madox Ford, born in Surrey, England (1873). Of his more than 70 books, the best-known are The Good Soldier (1915), about betrayal and the loss of illusions among a group of friends, and Parade's End (1928), a tetralogy of novels about the devastating effect of the First World War on one man's life.

It's the birthday of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, born near Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). Under the tutelage of William Lloyd Garrison, he took up abolitionism, becoming the movement's most influential writer, and serving a term in the Massachusetts legislature. He wrote poetry, including such popular favorites as "Barbara Fretchie," "The Barefoot Boy," and "Maud Muller." After a life of genteel poverty, he finally had financial success with the poem "Snow-Bound."

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