Oct. 17, 2013

Flying Lessons

by Bernadette McBride

We'd hide in those years, Kate and I, behind the last station
in the Bio lab—sneaking down from our dorm room, certain

Sister Andrea didn't know. Smoking Salems, we giggled
above the slant of a copped flashlight shrunk to Lady Chatterly

and John Thomas spirited from the nuns' private library
where we smiled our way by dust cloths and Pledge.

We lived as sheltered vagabonds then, roaming the convent halls
in curlers and bunny slippers, dipping out of sight at the swish

of habit skirts, the click of rosary beads: the bed-check patrol
we sidetracked with puffed-up pillows buried beneath blankets

in the low glow of a Virgin Mary night light. Our days opened
and shut like the hard-backed books we lugged around

in drawstring sacks from class to class, skimming their surfaces
like fledglings dipping at the skin of a lake. Only half mindful

of the lessons electric in the passion of our teachers, half alert
to the gaining weight of our widening minds.

"Flying Lessons" by Bernadette McBride, from Waiting for the Light to Change. © Word Press, 2013. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1933 that Albert Einstein officially moved to the United States to teach at Princeton University. He had been in California working as a visiting professor when Hitler took over as chancellor. His apartment in Berlin and his summer cottage in the country were raided, his papers confiscated, and his bank accounts closed. He returned to Europe and handed in his German passport, renouncing his citizenship. He considered offers from all over the world, including Paris, Turkey, and Oxford. Einstein eventually decided on Princeton, which offered him an attractive package teaching at its Institute for Advanced Study — but he had his hesitations about the university. For one thing, it had a clandestine quota system in place that only allowed a small percentage of the incoming class to be Jewish. The Institute's director, Abraham Flexner, was worried that Einstein would be too directly involved in Jewish refugee causes, so he micromanaged Einstein's public appearances, keeping him out of the public eye when possible. He even declined an invitation for Einstein to see President Roosevelt at the White House without telling the scientist. When Einstein found out, he personally called Eleanor Roosevelt and arranged for a visit anyway, and then complained about the incident in a letter to a rabbi friend of his, giving the return address as "Concentration Camp, Princeton." In 1938, incoming freshmen at Princeton ranked Einstein as the second-greatest living person; first place went to Adolf Hitler.

It's the birthday of playwright Arthur Miller (books by this author), born in New York City (1915). His father was the wealthy owner of a coat factory, and the family had a large Manhattan apartment, a chauffeur, and a summer home at the beach. Then, in 1928, his father's business collapsed. He watched his parents sell their most valuable possessions, one by one, to pay the bills, until finally the family had to move in with relatives in Brooklyn. Miller had to share a bedroom with his grandfather. He was 13 years old. It was terrifying for him to watch his father go from being so powerful to being so helpless. He said, "It made you want to search for ultimate values, for things that would not fall apart under pressure." He paid his way through college with a job in a research laboratory, feeding hundreds of mice every night. He had never been interested in theater before, but he thought he would enter a playwriting contest to make some extra money, and he won with the first play he'd ever written. He won the same contest the following year, and decided that he was born to write plays. Unfortunately, the first play he wrote out of college, The Man Who Had All the Luck (1944), closed after four performances.

He considered giving up but decided to try writing one more play. His next play, All My Sons (1947), was about a man who has been selling faulty machinery to the Army, and finds out that he has caused the death of 21 soldiers. The play ran on Broadway for 328 performances, and was made into a movie the following year. Miller used the money he made from All My Sons to buy 400 acres of farmland in Connecticut. In 1948, he moved to Connecticut by himself, and spent several months building a 10-by-12-foot cabin by hand. As he sawed the wood and pounded the nails, he thought about the main characters of his next play: a salesman, his wife, and his two sons. He knew how the play would begin, but he wouldn't let himself start writing until he had finished the cabin. When it was finally completed, he woke up one morning and started writing. He wrote all day, had dinner, and then wrote until he had finished the first act in the middle of the night. When he finally got in bed to go to sleep, he found that his cheeks were wet with tears, and his throat was sore from speaking and shouting the lines of dialogue as he wrote. The play was Death of a Salesman (1949), about a man named Willy Loman who loses his job and realizes that he doesn't have much to show for his life's work. Miller wrote: "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."

Death of a Salesman has gone on to be the most widely produced play in the world, playing in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Argentina, China and Japan.

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