Tuesday

Jun. 28, 2011

Bach and My Father

by Paul Zimmer

Six days a week my father sold shoes
To support our family through depression and war,
Nursed his wife through years of Parkinson's,
Loved nominal cigars, manhattans, long jokes,
Never kissed me, but always shook my hand.

Once he came to visit me when a Brandenburg
Was on the stereo. He listened with care—
Brisk melodies, symmetry, civility, and passion.
When it finished, he asked to hear it again,
Moving his right hand in time. He would have
Risen to dance if he had known how.

"Beautiful," he said when it was done,
My father, who'd never heard a Brandenburg.
Eighty years old, bent, and scuffed all over,
Just in time he said, "That's beautiful."

"Bach and My Father" by Paul Zimmer, from Crossing to Sunlight Revisited. © The University of Georgia Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of England's Henry VIII, born in Greenwich in 1491. Of course, when he was born, he was only Henry, and as his father's second son, he was expected to become a cleric, not succeed him to the throne. But Henry's older brother, Arthur, died in 1502, when Henry was 11, and plans changed. He had seven years to prepare himself for the monarchy, and when he was crowned in 1509, just before his 18th birthday, he was a true product of the Renaissance: well-educated, athletic, tall, charismatic, an excellent jouster and hunter, and a graceful dancer. In short, he bore little resemblance to the portrait of a portly, well-upholstered monarch that most people think of when they hear his name.

He gave up participating in jousting and tournaments in 1536, after he was knocked unconscious for two hours. He also received a leg wound, which never fully healed, and that's when he began to take on weight. His courtiers began to wear padded garments themselves, to flatter him. By the end of his life, he was obese, probably suffering from gout and Type II diabetes. He suffered from mood swings and poor diet — chiefly fatty red meats — and by the end of his life could no longer get around under his own power. He died at 55.

Today is the birthday of the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley (1703) (books by this author). He was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, and his father was a Nonconformist — a dissenter from the Church of England. Wesley studied at Oxford, where he decided to become a priest. He and his brother joined a religious study group that was given the nickname "the Methodists" for their rigorous and methodical study habits; the name wasn't meant as a compliment, but Wesley hung onto it anyway and managed to attract several new members to the group, which fasted two days a week and spent time in social service.

By 1739, he felt he wasn't really reaching people from the pulpit, so he took to the fields, traveling on horseback, preaching two or three times a day. He began recruiting local laypeople to preach as well, and ran afoul of the Church of England for doing so. He believed that Christians could be made "perfect in love" when their actions arose out of a desire to please God and to promote the welfare of the less fortunate. He wrote: "Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment. It is not only 'the first and great' command, but all the commandments in one. 'Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise,' they are all comprised in this one word, love."

He was also an ardent abolitionist. In Thoughts on Slavery (1774), he wrote: "Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as Compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no Sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the Great GOD deal with You, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands."

He's said to have traveled 250,000 miles, preached 40,000 sermons, and written, translated, or edited more than 200 volumes. He made £20,000 for his publications but gave most of it away and died in poverty. Though there's no evidence that he actually wrote it himself, "John Wesley's Rule" does a fair job of summing up his life:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains": philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (books by this author), born in Geneva in 1712. He left home at 16 and wandered around Europe for the next 14 years. He moved to Paris when he was 30 and took up with a group of philosophers. He also took up with Thérèse Levasseur, a semi-literate laundry maid at his hostel; the two began a lifelong relationship that produced five children, according to Rousseau. He placed all of them into orphanages.

Rousseau was well versed in music, and he wrote ballets and operas; he could easily have been successful as a composer, but the stage made his Swiss Calvinist sensibilities uneasy. One day, he was walking to visit his friend and fellow philosopher Denis Diderot, who was in jail, and he had an epiphany: Modern progress had corrupted rather than improved mankind. He became famous overnight upon publication of his essay A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750). The essay informed nearly everything else he wrote, and eventually he would turn away completely from music and the theater to focus on literature.

In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), he continued to explore the theme that civilization had led to most of what was wrong with people: Living in a society led to envy and covetousness; owning property led to social inequality; possessions led to poverty. Society exists to provide peace and protect those who owned property, and therefore government is unfairly weighted in favor of the rich. In it, he wrote: "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." His next two books, a criticism of the educational system (Émile) and a treatise of political philosophy (The Social Contract), both published in 1762, caused such an uproar that he fled France altogether. His work would prove inspirational to the leaders of the French Revolution, and they adopted the slogan from The Social Contract: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

He grew increasingly paranoid in his later years, convinced that his friends were plotting against him. He spent some time in England with David Hume, but his persecution complex eventually alienated him from most of his associates, and he found comfort only with Thérèse, whom he finally married in 1768.

Today is the birthday of comedienne Gilda Radner (1946) (books by this author), born in Detroit. She struggled with eating disorders from the time she was nine years old, and said, "I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93." She gained national recognition as a member of the original 1975 cast of Saturday Night Live. She was the first cast member that producer Lorne Michaels chose, and in her five years on the show she created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, and Baba Wawa (modeled after Barbara Walters).

In 1981, she met Gene Wilder on the set of the film Hanky Panky. They made two more movies together and married in 1984, and when she tried and failed to get pregnant, she found out she had ovarian cancer. After painful radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she went into a brief remission in 1988, and she wrote her memoir It's Always Something — the trademark phrase of her character Roseanne Roseannadanna — that same year. By the end of 1988, the cancer had returned, and she died the following May.

She wrote in her autobiography: "It is so hard for us little human beings to accept this deal that we get. It's really crazy, isn't it? We get to live, then we have to die. What we put into every moment is all we have. ... What spirit human beings have! It is a pretty cheesy deal — all the pleasures of life, and then death."

In the early hours of this day in 1969, the Stonewall riots broke out in New York City, marking the beginning of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a popular hangout for gays, lesbians, and transvestites in the late 1960s. On June 28, police raided the bar on the premise that they were selling alcohol without a liquor license. It was the third raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar in a short period of time, and this time when the cops cleared the bar, the patrons didn't disperse, but milled around outside, hurtling insults and bottles at the police. The officers called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar. The riots lasted five days; they galvanized and unified smaller gay rights movements and led to the radical activism of the 1970s. On the first anniversary of the riots, the first gay pride parades were held in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

In David Carter's book Stonewall (2004), he quotes witness Michael Fader: "We weren't going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around — it's like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that's what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we're going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren't going to go away. And we didn't."

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

 









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