Oct. 5, 2007
Poem: "Execution" by Edward Hirsch, from The Night Parade © Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The last time I saw my high school football coach
He had cancer stenciled into his face
Like pencil marks from the sun, like intricate
Drawings on the chalkboard, small x's and o's
That he copied down in a neat numerical hand
Before practice in the morning. By day's end
The board was a spiderweb of options and counters,
Blasts and sweeps, a constellation of players
Shining under his favorite word, Execution,
Underlined in the upper right-hand corner of things.
He believed in football like a new religion
And had perfect unquestioning faith in the fundamentals
Of blocking and tackling, the idea of warfare
Without suffering or death, the concept of teammates
Moving in harmony like the planets and yet
Our awkward adolescent bodies were always canceling
The flawless beauty of Saturday afternoons in September,
Falling away from the particular grace of autumn,
The clear weather, the ideal game he imagined.
And so he drove us through punishing drills
On weekday afternoons, and doubled our practice time,
And challenged us to hammer him with forearms,
And devised elaborate, last-second plays a flea-
Flicker, a triple reverse to save us from defeat.
Almost always they worked. He despised losing
And loved winning more than his own body, maybe even
More than himself. But the last time I saw him
He looked wobbly and stunned by illness,
And I remembered the game in my senior year
When we met a downstate team who loved hitting
More than we did, who battered us all afternoon
With a vengeance, who destroyed us with timing
And power, with deadly, impersonal authority,
Machine-like fury, perfect execution.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of Denis Diderot, born in Langres, France (1713), who served as the chief editor of his great Encyclopedia from 1745 to 1772. His was the first encyclopedia to subject all the entries to rational analysis, debunking a lot of ancient wisdom along the way, including an entry on Noah's Ark that tried to estimate how many man-hours Noah and his sons must have spent shoveling manure off their boat. Previous encyclopedias restricted themselves to serious topics like theology and philosophy and science, but Diderot tried to cover everything he could think of: emotions, coal mines, fleas, duels, bladder surgery, stockings, the metaphysics of the human soul, and how to make soup.
It's the birthday of the Czech playwright and former president Václav Havel, born in Prague (1936), who wrote a series of absurdist plays that attacked his country's Communist government, including The Garden Party (1964) and The Memorandum (1965). His plays were banned; he was arrested twice, thrown in jail, and then forced to earn a living stacking barrels in a brewery. But he kept protesting the government, refusing to go into exile the way so many other writers and artists in the country did. He spent the 1980s in and out of prison, writing plays that he couldn't see performed in his own country. But by the '80s, he had become a national hero. After the collapse of the Communist regime, he helped negotiate the transition to democracy, and in December of 1989, he was elected president, the first non-communist leader of his country since 1948. He stepped down from power in 2003. Václav Havel said, "If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become President."
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