Dec. 17, 2007

Only What I Can Do

by Julene Tripp Weaver

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Poem: "Only What I Can Do" by Julene Tripp Weaver, from Case Walking: An AIDS Case Manager Wails Her Blues. © Finishing Line Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Only What I Can Do

           Dedicated to Juan Bernal, died September 9, 2001, at age 41

I write a letter for my client today.
I sit with him on the deck
of the skilled nursing facility.
He eats breakfast, smokes cigarettes.
He wants me to write to his baby brother
                                  in jail doing time.
He dictates: "I love you
I need a thousand dollars
I will drive the get-away car."
He has these plans
he needs to convey—tells me
his little brother will tote the gun.

He dictates: "The doctor told me today
I am dying, but he doesn't know
how long it will take.

It is doubtful he will be able to drive
the get-away car when his legs are paralyzed
and two people have to transfer him
from his bed to his wheelchair and back.
He has a direct line morphine drip
he presses every ten minutes.

It is doubtful he will make it
home again, but he wants to go home.
He drifts in and out of sleep, nodding-out
his thoughts stop in mid-sentence,
he loses track of his message to his brother.

He asks if they'll read the letter.
The jail will, I say. He edits out the question
about whether his brother killed someone.
He thinks he did. I suggest he
take out the part about robbing a bank
but he doesn't. He thinks it's a good plan.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day that Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in the city of Bonn, Germany. Three years after his first performance as a pianist in Vienna, Beethoven began hearing a persistent ringing in his ears. His deafness became worse, and he had to give up the piano, but Beethoven was able continue his work as a composer. In his latest book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks tells us that so much of what we hear happens in the brain, not in the ear. He theorizes that your musical imagery, your mind's ability to fill in the gaps when you hear that familiar tune playing ever so softly, also allowed Beethoven to keep composing symphonies. Sacks writes, "It is possible, indeed, that his musical imagery was even intensified by deafness." Ludwig van Beethoven produced some of his most complex work — including his Hammerklavier sonata, his last five string quartets, and his famous Ninth Symphony — after he was completely deaf.

It's the birthday of New York Times columnist William Safire, (books by this author) born in New York City (1929). He was the senior speech writer for President Richard Nixon. Before Apollo 11 took off for the moon, Safire had to prepare a statement for Nixon, in case the astronauts never made it back. He began the speech with, "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace." He won the Pulitzer Prize for his commentary on corruption in the Carter administration, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.

On this day in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers picked Kitty Hawk because it was full of sand dunes that would cushion crash landings and it had high winds to help get the plane off the ground. But living there was almost unbearable. They endured sand storms, coastal rains, and swarms of insects during the day. And at night, the wind was so bad that the brothers had get out and hold on to their tent to keep it from blowing away. In 1900, Orville and Wilbur started out with a kite controlled from the ground and later took turns manning it in the air. Their father forbade them from flying together, to ensure that one brother could continue the experiments in the event of a fatal crash. When Wilbur stepped into the controls in October, he was unprepared for the sensation of flying. The plane was unpredictable, he couldn't plan out his moves, and he relied purely on instinct to adjust the plane up and down. Within a few moments he overcompensated, nearly flipped the glider over, and shouted to his brother, "Let me down!" Suffering months of spin-outs, broken struts, blackened eyes, and crash landings, the brothers left Kitty Hawk early. On the train back, Orville told his brother, "Not within a thousand years will man ever fly."

It was on this day in 1880, that the Edison Electric Illuminating Company was incorporated in New York City. It used one engine to power 800 light bulbs.

It is the birthday of American scientist Joseph Henry, born in Albany, New York (1797). He was the first person to observe electromagnetic induction, the process of converting magnetism into electricity. He once made an electromagnet for Yale College that supported more than a ton of weight, which was a world record at the time. After Joseph Henry died, his name was given to the standard electrical unit of inductive resistance known today as the "henry."

It is the birthday of chemist Willard Frank Libby, born in Grand Valley, Colorado (1908), who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing the carbon-14 dating process. With carbon dating, scientists were able to discover that the Shroud of Turin, supposedly from the Crucifixion, was actually made in the Middle Ages, more than a thousand years after Jesus died.

It's the birthday of the author Ford Madox Ford, (books by this author) born Ford Madox Huefer in Surrey, England (1873). He edited the Transatlantic Review, published Joyce and Hemingway, and co-wrote three potboilers with his friend Joseph Conrad. Ford imitated Conrad's style in his novel The Good Soldier, which was published just before he served as a lieutenant in World War I. Ford Madox Ford once said, "Only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst."

It's the birthday of Penelope Fitzgerald, (books by this author) who didn't write her first book until she was 60 years old. Fitzgerald still wrote three biographies and 10 novels in her lifetime. Her best-known work, The Blue Flower, won the National Book Award in 1998.

Poet John Greenleaf Whittier (books by this author) was born on this day near Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). Whittier was raised on a debt-ridden farm, attended school only 12 weeks a year, and had to walk several miles to borrow books on biography or travel since his house contained only a single almanac. All of his life, Whittier suffered from the effects of the hard physical labor of working on a farm. He was a newspaper editor, abolitionist, state senator, and poet. He authored the poem "Snowbound" in 1865, which made him enough money to retire on.

It is the birthday of novelist Erskine Caldwell, (books by this author) born in White Oak, Georgia (1903), who was the son of a Presbyterian minister, and he traveled to the rural homes of his father's parishioners and learned about the life and the language of poor sharecroppers. He is best known for his controversial book Tobacco Road (1932), about Southern poverty and degradation. Though the book was banned for obscenity, the phrase "Tobacco Road" quickly entered the American lexicon as slang for rural squalor.

It was on this day in 1955 that Carl Perkins wrote his big hit "Blue Suede Shoes" and recorded it less than 48 hours later at Sun Studios in Memphis.

It's the day that The Nutcracker ballet was performed for the first time in St. Petersburg, Russia (1892). Czar Alexander III in the audience loved the ballet, but the critics hated it. Tchaikovsky wrote that the opera that came before The Nutcracker "was evidently very well liked, the ballet not.... The papers, as always, reviled me cruelly." Tchaikovsky died of cholera less than a year later, before The Nutcracker became an international success.

Today would mark the beginning of the seven-day celebration of Saturnalia in ancient Rome. For the winter festival, the Romans made and exchanged gifts, decorated their homes with holly and ropes of garland and carried wreaths of evergreen branches to honor the god Saturn.

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




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