Sunday

Feb. 3, 2013

Learning Italian Slowly

by David Shumate

I learn three words each day. It's been seven months now and
perhaps I could carry on a conversation with a Sicilian child. If she
spoke slowly. In present tense. And only about pencils and dogs
and cheese. Sometimes I feel my new Italian self growing inside
me. He's a little man who gesticulates as he speaks. He rides his
bicycle to the market to buy eggplant, anise, and porcini. Then
delivers them to his elderly mother. In the afternoon he plays
bocce with the older men. The children mimic the way he
whispers to himself. The grimaces he makes with his face. When
the moon comes out he slicks back his hair and sings beneath the
window of the woman he loves. What a sight he is. Down on one
knee. His arms outstretched. So willing to make a fool of himself.
Over and over again.

"Learning Italian Slowly" by David Shumate, from The Floating Bridge. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the first woman to graduate from medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, born on this day in Bristol, England, in 1821. She wanted to become a doctor because she knew that many women would rather discuss their health problems with another woman. She read medical texts and studied with doctors, but she was rejected by all the big medical schools. Finally the Geneva Medical College (which became Hobart College) in upstate New York accepted her. The faculty wasn't sure what to do with such a qualified candidate, and so they turned the decision over to the students. The male students voted unanimously to accept her. Her classmates and even professors considered many medical subjects too delicate for a woman, and didn't think she should be allowed to attend lectures on the reproductive system. But she graduated, became a doctor, and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

It's the birthday of the novelist who said: "I have only one bit of advice to beginning writers: be sure your novel is read by Rodgers and Hammerstein." That's James Michener (books by this author), born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907).

He never knew who his parents were — he was taken to an orphanage as an infant, and adopted by a Quaker woman in Pennsylvania. When he was 14, he took off and hitchhiked all over the country. He said: "I think the bottom line is that if you get through a childhood like mine, it's not at all bad. Obviously, you come out a pretty tough turkey, and you have had all the inoculations you need to keep you on a level keel for the rest of your life. The sad part is, most of us don't come out."

His mother read aloud all of Dickens' novels, and after a salesman convinced his aunt to buy the complete works of Balzac, she passed them on to her nephew. By the time he got to high school, he had decided he wanted to go to college, and he did — he was a good student and a good athlete, and he got a full scholarship to Swarthmore.

He was drafted into the military during World War II, and he joined the Navy even though he was a Quaker and 36 years old. He was stationed in the Solomon Islands, where he kept records of aircraft maintenance. While he was there, he wrote some stories and sketches based on life in the Navy, and he sent his manuscript anonymously to Macmillan. They accepted it, and Tales of the South Pacific was published in 1947. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted it into the hit musical South Pacific (1949).

After that, Michener never had to worry about money. But he was uncomfortable being wealthy. Instead, he said, "The decent thing to do is to get rid of some of this money." And he did — at least $100 million. He donated the royalties from many of his books, which was no small gesture — he wrote nearly 40 books and they sold an estimated 75 million copies worldwide. Since he himself got to go to prestigious schools for free, through scholarship money, he decided that he would donate to universities so that other people could have the same opportunity. He died of kidney failure in 1997, and left his $10 million estate to Swarthmore, his alma mater. The year before, he had given away $24 million.

His books include Hawaii (1959), Chesapeake (1978), Poland (1983), Alaska (1988), and Texas (1985).

It's the birthday of writer Gertrude Stein (books by this author), born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). She spent part of her childhood in Vienna and Paris, but grew up in Oakland, California.

Stein left Oakland for Radcliffe College, where she took classes from the philosopher William James. Then she moved to Paris, where she met and fell in love with Alice B. Toklas. Alice moved in with Gertrude, and she typed up Gertrude's manuscripts, got up early to clean and arrange the dishes, cooked and shopped, and ran the household. Together they presided over a salon in their home at 27 Rue de Fleurus — Gertrude had first lived there with her brother, Leo, but he did not share her passion for cubism and avant-garde writing, and moved to Florence. Young writers and artists flocked to 27 Rue de Fleurus — Picasso, Matisse, Ezra Pound, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire; and in later years, Hemingway, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In 1933, Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was not by Toklas at all, and it was a bestseller.

Gertrude Stein said, "I always wanted to be historical, from almost a baby on, I felt that way about it."

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

 









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