Jan. 2, 2013

The Conductor

by Jacqueline Berger

There's no mention, of course, in the program
that the conductor has Parkinson's.
He enters the stage, stands for a moment
facing the audience,
his hands by his sides, tapping air.
Then he holds them together, an act of gratitude
—we are gathered, we can do this—
and of firmness, each hand forcing
the other to be still.
His expression, darkly bemused,
the good news/bad news:
I've lived long enough to lose so much.
Or maybe he's staving off our sympathy,
don't clap because of this.
Then he turns his back to us, begins his work.
Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony.
No baton, and from behind
his body is jerky as a boy's,
jumpy with excitement.
His hands shake when they scoop
the sections of the orchestra,
as though pulling a weighted net
from the sea. Still, I wonder if this work
is easier than taking on the ordinary
objects of a day—
buttons, keys, and pens.
I am an old man
he must think when he looks
in the mirror,
briefly naked before trading
the bathrobe for the tie and tails.
And when he turns to us again
after the last movement, he looks both
old and young, his face washed
of the expression in the program photograph,
clearly taken years before,
one eyebrow slightly raised,
his smile more satisfied than happy.
Now he shows us his innocence,
if innocence is what the face
unconstructed can be called.
What else can he do,
while his fingers tap their useless code,
while the audience, in rows, rises from their seats,
still clapping, what can he do
but show us who he is,
a man standing too close to the edge,
edge no one can call him back from.

"The Conductor" by Jacqueline Berger, from The Gift That Arrives Broken. © Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of singer-songwriter Roger Miller, born in Fort Worth, Texas (1936). He was raised by his aunt and uncle in Erick, Oklahoma, after his father died and his mom couldn't support her three boys during the Depression. The family never had much money, and Miller grew up picking cotton and doing other chores around the farm. Singer and actor Sheb Wooley lived in the same small Oklahoma town, and married Miller's cousin. Wooley bought Miller his first fiddle, taught him guitar chords, and encouraged Miller's own show biz dreams. Impatient for success, Miller stole a guitar when he was 17. He repented and turned himself in the next day, and enlisted in the Army to avoid serving time. He served in the Korean War and later told people, "My education was Korea, Clash of '52."

He began his songwriting career in the late 1950s. He started recording his own material a few years later. He's best known for "King of the Road" (1965), but he also had No. 1 hits with "Dang Me" (1964) and "England Swings" (1966). He said that his favorite of all his songs was "You Can't Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd." He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995, three years after his death.

It's the birthday of playwright Christopher Durang (books by this author), born in Montclair, New Jersey (1949). He was raised Roman Catholic, went to a high school where he was taught by monks, and thought he might become a monk himself. Instead, he became a playwright, and when he was 28 years old, he had his first big success with the play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You (1979), which The New York Times described as "a satire about a demonic Catholic school nun." He went on to write Beyond Therapy (1981), Baby with the Bathwater (1983), and Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them (2009).

Last summer, Durang was awarded the Master American Dramatist award by the PEN American Center.

Today is the birthday of cartoonist and author Lynda Barry (books by this author), born in Richland Center, Wisconsin (1956). Her parents divorced when she was 12, and she started dropping acid. Four years later, she was working as a janitor seven nights a week. She beat her drug habit and finished high school. Her parents didn't come to her graduation. One standout memory from her childhood was reading Bil Keane's Family Circus comic, drawn in a distinctive circular panel. She was fascinated with Family Circus because the family it portrayed was so different from the one she knew. "It seemed like things were pretty good on the other side of the circle. No one's getting hit. No one's yelling," she remembered. After she started drawing her own comics, she met Bil Keane's son Jeff — who appeared in the strip as Jeffy — and promptly burst into tears. "I realized I had stepped through the circle. I was on the other side of the circle, the place where I wanted to be. And how I got there was I drew a picture."

She's the creator of Ernie Pook's Comeek, a weekly strip that ran in alternative newspapers for nearly 30 years. Her friend Matt Groening was also penning a strip called Life in Hell. He would later go on to create The Simpsons. The market for Barry's comic dried up in 2008, so she moved on to other projects. Now, she sells original artwork on the Internet and travels around the country giving workshops called "Writing the Unthinkable." She markets the seminars to nonwriters: "bartenders, janitors, office workers, hairdressers, musicians and ANYONE who has given up on 'being a writer' but still wonders what it might be like to write."

Barry is also the author of several books and graphic novels, including Cruddy (2000) and The Good Times are Killing Me (2002), which was also made into a play.

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




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