Apr. 26, 2007

Doing Nothing

by Dan Gerber

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Poem: "Doing Nothing" by Dan Gerber from A Primer on Parallel Lives. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Doing Nothing

When I passed him near the bus stop
on Union Square while the cops
cuffed his hands behind his back, while he
said, "I didn't do anything,"
I didn't, either,
do anything but look away,
a little afraid they might cuff me
if I paid too much attention,
and walked on still wondering
what he might've done
and still more what I
might've done.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Artemus Ward, (books by this author) born Charles Farrar Browne near Waterford, Maine (1834). He became famous for giving humorous lectures across the country. He had a big influence on Mark Twain.

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Anita Loos, (books by this author) born in Mount Shasta, California (1893). In 1925, Loos published the fictionalized diary of a naive, flighty young woman named Lorelei Lee in the magazine Harper's Bazaar. The next year, the diary was published in book form with the title Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926), and Loos became an instant celebrity.

Anita Loos said, "Show business is the best possible therapy for remorse."

It's the birthday of blues singer Gertrude Pridgett, better known as Ma Rainey, born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1886. She helped popularize the blues among a wide, racially mixed audience in the U.S. She was known for her ostentatious outfits covered with sequins and diamonds, and she always wore her trademark necklace made of gold coins.

The popularity of women blues singers declined dramatically in the 1930s, and Ma Rainey returned to her hometown of Columbus, Georgia, where she managed two theaters and became active in the local Baptist church. When she died from heart disease in 1939, the obituary in the local paper listed her profession as "housekeeper."

It's the birthday of architect and writer Frederick Law Olmsted, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822. He originally wanted to be a writer, but instead he became the superintendent of New York City's budding Central Park. He teamed up with architect Calvert Vaux and the two won the design competition for the park. They called it the Greensward Plan and wanted it to give New Yorkers the chance to experience a day in the country without leaving the city. The project was complete in 1864.

It's the birthday of novelist Bernard Malamud, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn, New York (1914). His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, and they struggled to survive on the income from a tiny grocery store. He wanted to write, but he graduated from college in the middle of the Depression, and he was struggling just to earn enough money to eat and pay the rent. In 1940, he got a job as a clerk in the U.S. Census Bureau. He spent mornings checking drainage ditch statistics, but as soon as that work was done he would crouch over his desk and write short stories on company time.

And then, near the end of World War II, he began to hear news of the death camps in Germany, and he was horrified. At that point, he had largely given up his Jewish identity. He wasn't religious, and he'd married a woman who wasn't Jewish. But hearing that so many people in Europe had been murdered for being Jewish made him re-evaluate what it meant to be Jewish. He began reading books about Jewish history and traditions. He later said, "I was concerned with what Jews stood for, with their getting down to the bare bones of things. I was concerned with their ethnicality—how Jews felt they had to live in order to go on living."

Having discovered what he wanted to write about, Malamud decided to find a job that would give him more time for writing. So he applied for a position teaching freshman composition at Oregon State College. And it was there, thousands of miles away from his hometown in Brooklyn, that Malamud began to write stories mixing Jewish mysticism with his memories of people from his old neighborhood. They would eventually become the stories in his first collection, The Magic Barrel (1958).

But before he published that book, he made his name with a totally different kind of story, which had come from his great love for baseball, a kind of fairy tale, based partly on the myth of the Holy Grail, about the rise and fall of a baseball player named Roy Hobbs. That novel was called The Natural (1952), and it made Malamud famous.

It's the birthday of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, born in Rome (A.D. 121). He rose through the ranks of the Roman Senate and became emperor when Antoninus died in A.D. 161. He wrote a philosophical work called Meditations, and he's one of the few Roman emperors who is known as much for his writing as he is for his reign. He studied the Stoic philosophers, who believed in detaching yourself from everything in the universe that's outside of your power to control.

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




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