Sep. 2, 2013

Follow My Fingers With Your Eyes

by Adam Possner

Follow my fingers with your eyes
Index and middle, side by side
To and fro, watch them fly
Follow my fingers with your eyes
Follow my fingers with your eyes
Not your head, just your eyes
Up and down, side to side
Follow my fingers with your eyes
Follow my fingers with your eyes
A test for nerves 3 thru 6 minus 5
I need to stare, please don't be shy
Follow my fingers with your eyes
Follow my fingers with your eyes
There it is, the telltale sign
On the left, yours not mine
Follow my fingers with your eyes
Follow my fingers with your eyes
Like a cross, a holy rite
You had a stroke, I cannot lie
Follow my fingers with your eyes.

"Follow My Fingers With Your Eyes" by Adam Possner, MD. © Adam Possner. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Today is Labor Day. The first Labor Day was celebrated 131 years ago, on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. The holiday was the idea of the Central Labor Union in New York City, which organized a parade and a picnic featuring speeches by union leaders. It was intended to celebrate labor unions and to recognize the achievements of the American worker.

On that first Labor Day, 20,000 workers crowded the streets in a parade up Broadway. They carried banners that said, "Labor creates all wealth" and "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for recreation!" After the parade, people held picnics all over the city. They ate Irish stew, homemade bread, and apple pie. When it got dark, fireworks went off over the skyline. The celebrations became more popular across the country in the next 10 years. In 1894, Congress made Labor Day a national holiday.

Today, for most Americans, Labor Day marks the end of summer and the last day before the start of the school year.

The Great Fire of London started on this date in 1666. It began around 1 a.m. in the King's bakery, on Pudding Lane. The buildings in medieval London were nearly all wooden and the fire quickly spread to the wharves on the Thames River, where oil and hemp, hay, and timber were stored. There the fire exploded, and over the next three days destroyed an area nearly two miles square in central London that encompassed more than 13,000 homes, and nearly 90 churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, whose lead roof melted and flowed away down Ludgate Hill. Although it was the worst fire in the city's history, there were only four reported casualties. The fire may also have halted the progress of the plague, which had been ravaging the city for the past few years. The rats and their disease-carrying fleas perished in large numbers.

Architect Christopher Wren was given the task of rebuilding 50 churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral, which remains one of his masterpieces.

It's the birthday of Austrian novelist and journalist Joseph Roth (books by this author), born in Brody, Ukraine (1894). He started out as a journalist just after the end of the First World War, and he began moving back and forth between Berlin and Paris, as well as Russia, Poland, Albania, Italy, and southern France. He covered the riots and assassinations and political uprisings that went on all over Europe during the 1920s and '30s. He rarely had a home in his adult life, and lived in hotels for years on end. He wrote his novels in between newspaper deadlines, while sitting at café counters. He somehow managed to produce 16 novels in 16 years.

He had one big hit novel, Job (1930), a modern retelling of the biblical story. Roth was inspired by his small success to try writing a big ambitious book, and the result was his masterpiece, The Radetzky March (1932), a historical novel about the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The book had just come out when Hitler came to power in Germany, and Roth had to flee the country. As a result, he lost his publishers, his newspaper employers, and his readers.

Roth spent his last years in Paris, living in poverty and suffering from alcoholism. When he died in 1939, he was largely unknown as a writer. His last novel had been published in the Netherlands, and the Nazis destroyed the entire first printing of the book just after it had come off the presses.

It's only been in the last decade that all of his work has been translated into English. Joseph Roth said, "We all overestimated the world."

It's the birthday of Eugene Field (books by this author), born in St. Louis, Missouri (1850). He wrote dozens of children's poems, including "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night / Sailed off in a wooden shoe / Sailed off on a river of crystal light into a sea of dew."

He said: "All good and true book-lovers practice the pleasing and improving avocation of reading in bed ... No book can be appreciated until it has been slept with and dreamed over."

It was on this day in 1935 that George Gershwin officially completed the score for the opera Porgy and Bess. Nine years earlier, during tryouts for his musical Oh, Kay! (1926), Gershwin picked up the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward. Set in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina, the book told the story of a crippled beggar named Porgy, a beautiful drug addict named Bess, and her abusive lover, Crown. Gershwin immediately envisioned it as an opera, and he wrote to Heyward asking if he wanted to collaborate. The novelist agreed, but not before he and his wife finished adapting the novel into a play, which had a new ending and became a hit on Broadway. The play became the basis for the opera. Gershwin intended to call the opera Porgy, just like the novel and play.

For several years, the opera was put on hold as George and his brother Ira worked on other projects. Then Heyward wrote to Gershwin with a dilemma: he had received a request for the musical rights to Porgy from a famous white actor, who wanted to play Porgy in blackface and collaborate with a different composer and lyricist. Heyward preferred to work with Gershwin, but he had lost money in the stock market crash and was feeling desperate. He asked whether they could consider bringing the white actor into the project, but Gershwin was adamant that he wanted a black cast, and convinced he could make his own version of Porgy a success even if someone else beat him to it. The other version fell through and was never made.

Gershwin kept hoping to find time to devote himself to the opera, which he called "a labor of love" — but he needed money, so he continued accepting smaller jobs that promised a decent cash flow. Finally, he found the break he needed: a lucrative gig hosting a radio show in New York, Music by Gershwin, which was sponsored by a laxative chewing gum called Feen-A-Mint. Gershwin became the target of plenty of jokes, but he said afterward that without Feen-A-Mint gum, there would be no Porgy and Bess. It took him almost two years to finish the opera — 11 months to write it and another nine months to do the full orchestration. About orchestrating, he wrote to his brother Ira: "It goes slowly, there being a million notes."

While he was writing Porgy, Gershwin received a letter from a young soprano named Anne Brown. She was a star graduate student at Juilliard; she had heard that Gershwin was writing an opera and wanted an interview. At his request, she came to his apartment to sing for him. She brought music by Brahms and Schubert, and Gershwin played along as she sang. Then he asked her to sing a spiritual. Brown was offended and told him so — she didn't think black people should be expected to sing spirituals. He backed off, but she changed her mind and sang "A City Called Heaven" a cappella. Gershwin was so moved that he was speechless. Not long after that, he called Brown back, told her that he had written the first 33 pages of his opera, and asked if she would come over again and sing the role of Bess. From that point on, he wrote with her in mind, and she often came over to sing new parts for him. Before the show opened, he asked her to meet him a cafĂ© for an orange juice, and told her that he had decided that her role was so important he was changing the name of his opera from Porgy to Porgy and Bess.

Rehearsals for the opera began in August of 1935, before the finishing touches were put on the score. After the first day of rehearsals, the opera's director felt overwhelmed and depressed, but that night while he was in bed, he got a call from Gershwin, who said: "I always knew that Porgy and Bess was wonderful, but I never thought I'd feel the way I feel now. I tell you, after listening to that rehearsal today, I think the music is so marvelous — I really don't believe I wrote it!"

Despite many positive reviews, Porgy and Bess was a commercial flop, running for only a few months and losing its initial $70,000 investment. The composer used his royalties from the opera to pay back the copyists who had prepared the score. Gershwin died unexpectedly of a brain tumor two years later.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »