Apr. 15, 2007

Choice of Diseases

by Hal Sirowitz

SUNDAY, 15 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Choice of Diseases" by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Choice of Diseases

Now that I'm sick & have
all this time to contemplate
the meaning of the universe,
Father said, I understand why
I never did it before. Nothing
looks good from a prone position.
You have to walk around to appreciate
things. Once I get better I don't
intend to get sick for a while. But
if I do I hope I get one of those diseases
you can walk around with.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the greatest blues singers of all time, Bessie Smith, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee (1894). She began singing in the street for spare change to help support her family when she was just a kid. She eventually got a job with a traveling show where she met a woman named Gertrude Rainey, later known as "Ma" Rainey, who became known as the mother of the blues. Rainey became a kind of mother figure to Bessie Smith, and the two remained close for the rest of their lives.

It wasn't until the early 1920s that any recording companies were willing to record black singers. But a woman named Mamie Smith sold 100,000 copies of the first vocal blues recording, "Crazy Blues," in 1920, and after that other record companies scrambled to find other blues singers to record. Bessie Smith finally made her first recordings in 1923, and her song "Down Hearted Blues" became a huge success, selling 700,000 copies in six months. It helped save Columbia Records from bankruptcy.

When she went on the road in the South, she had a hard time finding decent hotels that would allow a black guest. So she bought her own private railroad car, 78 feet long, with two stories and seven rooms, including a kitchen and a lower level that could hold 35 people. She traveled with her band, and often cooked for them herself. They would stop in small towns and set up a tent for a performance.

In 1929, she was hired by W.C. Handy to star in a 17-minute film about a singer, and the film included her performance of a single song. That movie is now the only existing film footage of a Bessie Smith performance.

It's the birthday of the novelist Henry James, (books by this author) born in New York City (1843). James is known for writing big, challenging novels made up of long, complex sentences. In his lifetime, he wrote almost 10 million words of fiction and nonfiction, including Daisy Miller (1878), Washington Square (1880), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881). He once said, "I hate American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort."

For a long time, he wasn't very widely read in America, mostly because he seemed so European and old-fashioned. But his popularity has gone up recently, thanks in large part to all of the movies based on his novels that have come out. The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, and The Wings of the Dove were all made into Hollywood movies in the late '90s.

It was on this day in 1775 that Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was first published (books by this author). He wrote it single-handedly and finished it in just nine years.

It's the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci, (books by this author) born in the Republic of Florence (1452). Though he lived for 67 years, only 17 of his paintings are known to exist, and only a few of those were finished to his satisfaction, including The Last Supper (1495–98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503–06), which he kept with him for most of his life, working on it now and again, and then taking breaks for years.

But his notebooks overflowed with ideas about architecture and technology of all kinds. Even the doodle pictures of parachutes he drew in the margin of his notes turned out to be technically perfect designs. He drew up plans for an assault battleship, a construction crane, a trench-digging machine, a revolving bridge, and a deep-sea diving suit.

It's the birthday of "Heloise" from the "Hint's from Heloise" column, born Kiah Michelle Cruse in Waco, Texas (1951). Her daily column of household advice is printed in more than 500 newspapers in 20 countries. She's the woman who tells us that hair conditioner can be used for shaving cream, dirty dishes should be stored in the freezer so as not to attract fruit flies, boric acid powder and sugar makes a good roach repellent, and an iron can be used to remove candle wax from a carpet.

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




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