May 6, 2009

Larson's Holstein Bull

by Jim Harrison

Death waits inside us for a door to open.
Death is patient as a dead cat.
Death is a doorknob made of flesh.
Death is that angelic farm girl
gored by the bull on her way home
from school, crossing the pasture
for a shortcut. In the seventh grade
she couldn't read or write. She wasn't a virgin.
She was "simpleminded," we all said.
It was May, a time of lilacs and shooting stars.
She's lived in my memory for sixty years.
Death steals everything except our stories.

"Larson's Holstein Bull" by Jim Harrison from In Search of Small Gods. © Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of director, actor, and screenwriter Orson Welles, born in Kenosha, Wisconsin (1915). His mother died when he was nine, and his father was an alcoholic and died when the boy was 15. Orson inherited money after his father's death, so instead of going to Harvard — where he had already been accepted — he traveled to Europe. He got a job acting at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and from there he went to New York. Welles got a job with the Federal Theater Project, part of FDR's New Deal program, and his first assignment was to direct a project at the American Negro Theater in Harlem. He did Macbeth,but he set the play at the court of King Henri Christophe of Haiti and made the three Weird Sisters into voodoo practitioners. The play got great reviews and went on a national tour. Orson Welles was just 21 years old.

He directed several more popular shows, and then he became truly famous at age 23 when he produced a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' story of Martian invasion, War of the Worlds. He changed the setting to New Jersey and put it in the format of fake newscasts, and it was so realistic that it caused mass hysteria. He was forced to publicly apologize, but he was thrilled that he had become so famous. From there, he went on to Hollywood, and at age 25 he made his most famous film, Citizen Kane (1941).

It's the birthday of Gaston Leroux, (books by this author) born in Paris (1868). The French remember him as a journalist and the author of detective fiction, but we remember him mostly as the man who wrote The Phantom of the Opera (1910).

It's the birthday of poet and critic Randall Jarrell, (books by this author) born in Nashville, Tennessee (1914). Jarrell considered himself a poet, but he is best known as the most important literary critic of his time. In his critical essays, collected and published as Poetry and the Age (1953), he revitalized the reputations of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, and he helped make the careers of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. He said, "It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life."

It was on this day in 1937 that the Hindenburg caught fire as it was landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 35 people. The cause of the fire is still unknown, but the disaster ended the growing business of transatlantic passenger flight in zeppelins.

It's the birthday of Sigmund Freud, (books by this author) born in the town of Freiberg in what was then the Austrian Empire (1856). He started out as a medical doctor and scientist, but one of his superiors told him that he would never go far in his career because he was Jewish. So Freud went into the less crowded field of psychology, and he was interested in a mental illness called hysteria. Most people diagnosed as hysterics were women, and they sometimes received horrific treatments — isolation, electrocution, or surgical removal of the uterus. So Freud started using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and that led him to a groundbreaking method, "the talking cure," which he believed could be used to treat all kinds of mental illness. He knew it would be difficult for a woman to talk to her doctor about her fears, desires, and traumas. So he took a couch that had belonged to his wife, covered it with a Persian rug, and asked his patients to lie down on it. They could stare at an empty wall instead of looking at him, and he sat behind them as they talked, occasionally asking a question. He called the process free association.

He realized that his patients were not even conscious of all their desires, fears, or even past traumas; so he studied the unconscious, and wrote about it in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899). He wrote many books, including The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1904) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Many of his books were read by the general public, in part because they talked so frankly about sex.

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