Poem: "Tin Ear," by Peter Schmitt, from Country Airport (Copper Beech Press).
We stood at attention as she moved
with a kind of Groucho shuffle
down our line, her trained music
teacher's ear passing by
our ten- and eleven-year-old mouths
open to some song now forgotten.
And as she held her momentary
pause in front of me, I peered
from the corner of my eye
to hers, and knew the truth
I had suspected.
In the following days,
as certain of our peers
disappeared at appointed hours
for the Chorus, something in me
was already closing shop.
Indeed, to this day
I still clam up
for the national anthem
in crowded stadiums, draw
disapproving alumni stares
as I smile the length of school songs,
and even hum and clap
through "Happy Birthday," creating
a diversion-all lest I send
the collective pitch
careening headlong into dissonance.
It's only in the choice acoustics
of shower and sealed car
that I can finally give voice
to that heart deep within me
that is pure, tonally perfect, music.
But when the water stops running
and the radio's off, I can remember
that day in class,
when I knew for the first time
that mine would be a world of words
without melody, where refrain
means do not join,
where I'm ready to sing
in a key no one has ever heard.
It's the birthday of writer (Francis) Bret Harte, born in Albany, New York (1839). He moved with his mother to California when he was 18. He worked as a miner, a schoolteacher, an express messenger, a printer, a clerk, and a journalist and editor. In 1868, he wrote the famous story "The Luck of Roaring Camp," about the only baby in a wild mining town during California's 1849 Gold Rush. In the story, they call the baby The Luck, but the baby and the two men who looked after him end up dying in a flash flood. The story was an instant success, all across the country.
On this day in 1875, Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim across the English Channel. In 21 hours and 45 minutes, he swam from Dover, England, to Calais, France. Nine years later, he drowned in Niagara Falls, trying to swim across and under the churning water.
It's the birthday of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1918). He was a prodigy. When he was 10, his Aunt Clara was going through a divorce, and she sent her upright piano to the Bernstein home to be stored. Leonard demanded lessons. When he was 16, he heard his first live symphony orchestra concert. The same year, he starred in his own rendition of "Carmen" at summer camp. He wore a wig and a black gown, and stole the show. He eventually moved to New York, met a bunch of musicians and composers who convinced him to pursue conducting, and befriended Serge Koussevitzky, the director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky offered him a guest conducting job at age 22, but Bernstein had to refuse because of union rules. Bernstein eventually got an assistantship with the New York Philharmonic. And he was at the right place at the right time on a Sunday afternoon, November 14, 1943. Conductor Bruno Walter got sick, and Bernstein filled in. The concert was broadcast over the radio, and a review was on page one of The New York Times. He instantly became important in the classical music world, at the age of 25. He was the music director for the Philharmonic from 1959 to 1969. He wrote scores for many musicals, including "On the Town," "Wonderful Town," "Candide," and "West Side Story." He also wrote symphonies; and he wrote music for ballets like "Fancy Free" and "Facsimile," and operas like "Trouble in Tahiti" and "Candide." He wrote a book called The Joy of Music (1959), a collection of essays and conversations about music. In it, he wrote, "Music, of all the arts, stands in a special region, unlit by any star but its own, and utterly without meaning ... except its own." The Christmas before Bernstein died, at age 72, he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the crumbling of the wall. He died just five days after retiring. He conducted his final performance at Tanglewood, in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, on August 19, 1990. It was the Boston Symphony playing Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
Poem: "Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet," by Tony Hoagland, from Donkey Gospel (Graywolf Press).
Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn
no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor's travel magazine.
At this stage of the journey
I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage
from Seattle to New York,
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval
between Muzak and lunch,
a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,
tilting up my head to watch
those planes engrave the sky
in lines so steady and so straight
they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
but now my eyes flicker
from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess's pantyline,
then back into my book,
where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,
wanting to kill it, wanting
to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.
Imagine being born and growing up,
rushing through the world for sixty years
at unimaginable speeds.
Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime
and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.
Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.
Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,
to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be
to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now?
It was on this day in 1920 that Bainbridge Colby, the Secretary of State, issued a proclamation announcing the incorporation of the 19th Amendment into the U.S. Constitution. It ended more than 70 years of struggle by woman suffragists. It proclaimed, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." It had passed through the House and Senate, and now fell to the states. 35 had ratified it, but 36 were required to complete the 2/3 majority. Finally, on August 18, Tennessee pulled through. Twenty-four-year-old legislator Harry Burn decided to vote for the amendment at the last minute because his mother wanted him to, tying the vote. Tennessee became the 36th state to approve suffrage for women. The certified record of the Tennessee vote was sent by train to Washington, D.C., and arrived early on August 26. Colby signed the proclamation that morning at 8:00 at his residence, with no ceremony of any kind, and no photographers to film the event. Colby had one and a half cups of coffee and then signed the document with a regular steel pen. Then he said, "I turn to the women of America and say: 'You may now fire when you are ready. You have been enfranchised.' " None of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement was present.
It's the birthday of Scottish writer John Buchan, born in Perth, Scotland (1875). He's most famous for his thriller Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), which later became an Alfred Hitchcock film. It's about a man who is bored with life in London until he becomes the primary suspect in a murder case.
It's the birthday of novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood, born in Cheshire, England (1904). He's the author of many books, including The Berlin Stories (1939), stories about life in pre-Hitler Berlin that were eventually adapted for the musical Cabaret.
Unable to get into the Monet show,
Too many people there, too many cars,
We spent the Sunday morning at Bowl Pond
A mile from the Museum, where no one was,
And walked an hour or so around the rim
Beside five acres of flowering waterlilies
Lifting three feet above their floating pads
Huge yellow flowers heavy on bending stems
In various phases of array and disarray
Of Petals packed, unfolded, opening to show
The meaty orange centers that become,
When the ruined flags fall away, green shower heads
Spilling their wealth of seed at summer's end
Into the filthy water among small fish
Mud-colored and duck moving explorative
Through jungle pathways opened among the fronds
Upon whose surface water drops behave
Like mercury, collecting in heavy silver coins
Instead of bubbles; some few redwinged blackbirds
Whistling above all this once in a while,
The silence else unbroken all about.
The Chinese philosopher Confucius was born on today's date in 551 BC. Confucius taught his followers to love others, to honor one's parents, to lead by example, and to treat others as you would like to be treated. He said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."
It's the birthday of Theodore Dreiser, born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1871. Dreiser was a novelist known for writing realistic books like Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925). He grew up working on the family farm. He needed to support himself financially at a young age, and so he was forced to leave college early. He went to Chicago to make a living as a journalist. He considered journalism an art form, as well as a first step into the world of literature. He began intensely studying literature, and took a special interest in the French writer Balzac, who he said opened a new door for him in his life. After years of writing on his own, publishers finally began to accept his manuscripts.
Today is the birthday of jazz saxophonist Lester Young, born in Woodsville, Mississippi (1909). He was the oldest child in a very musical family. His father taught music to all of the children and the family toured around the country giving concerts. Lester eventually went to New Orleans, where he found jazz great Count Basie. He rose to fame playing with the Basie band and maintained a personal and professional relationship with Count Basie throughout his life. Young was also friends with Billie Holiday, whom he met when he was staying at the apartment of Holiday's mother. Lester Young and Billie Holiday had a very close personal relationship, although it was never romantic. The most famous musical collaboration between Young and Holiday happened during a television performance of Holiday's song "Fine and Mellow." Young and Holiday had been arguing and were not speaking to each other. Holiday's heroin habit had begun to catch up with her. She was so weak that she could not even stand up to sing during the performance. When it came time for Young's solo in the middle of the song, he stood up from his chair to play. He played a moving solo that one audience member called "the sweetest blues I have ever heard come out of a horn." After the performance the two jazz legends reconciled their differences.
It's the birthday of former U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, born in Stonewall, Texas (1908), into a family that included several politicians. He started his political career early when he entered the National Youth Administration in Texas. He got elected to Congress, where he was a workaholic. He eventually became John F. Kennedy's vice president, and became president when JFK was assassinated in 1963. Two years ago, a book of transcriptions of LBJ's White House conversations was published, Reaching for Glory, edited by Michael Beschloss. The tapes were made in 1964 and 1965, and they reveal Johnson's enormous misgivings about the war in Vietnam.
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don't look back,
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits—
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You'll never know
who's down there, frying those eggs,
if you don't get up and see.
On this day in 1922, WEAF in New York aired the first commercial in the history of radio. It was for an apartment complex in the suburbs of New York. H.M. Blackwell, a representative of the Queensboro Corporation, talked for 10 minutes about the advantages of living in the suburbs. Direct advertising was prohibited by law, so Blackwell talked about the apartments without mentioning anything about the rates. He only mentioned the Queensboro Corporation once by name.
Today marks the 35th anniversary of the "Battle of Michigan Avenue" outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Protestors were trying to march to the convention site when they were stopped by the Chicago police, who were supported by Mayor Richard Daley. The police severely beat several bystanders, reporters, and doctors, as well as protestors. They threw tear gas and stink bombs, which drifted into the surrounding buildings. It was all recorded by the television and radio media. The "Battle of Michigan Avenue" was not the first outbreak of violence at the Democratic Convention, but it was the worst one caught on tape.
It's the birthday of writer Janet Frame, born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1924. She's the author of many novels, including Owls do Cry (1957) and Intensive Care (1971), as well as a three-volume autobiography finished in 1985. She grew up in a poor family. Her brother was epileptic, and her favorite sister died when Janet was 12 years old. She began seeing a psychiatrist and eventually was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. She was in and out of mental hospitals for years and received electrical shock therapy from which it took years to fully recover. She lived for a while in an isolated hut in the garden of a friend, and published many novels throughout the 1960s and '70s. In 1982, the first volume of her highly acclaimed autobiography was published. She said, "Writing is a boon. ... I think it's all that matters to me. I dread emerging from it each day."
It's the birthday of American poet and novelist Rita Dove, born in Akron, Ohio (1952), whose collections include On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999) and Thomas and Beulah, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986.
It's the birthday of one of the greatest German writers ever, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born in Frankfurt in 1749. His greatest work is Faust (1832), a poetic drama in two volumes. He was a poet, novelist, and playwright, but he also made important contributions in geology, botany, anatomy, physics, and history. For the last 30 years of his life, he was one of the most famous people in Germany, and he represented his country around the world. He worked on Faust for about 50 years. The first part was published in 1808 and the second part in 1832. He based it on a Christopher Marlowe play about a scholar who sells his soul to Satan. In Marlowe's version, Faust is damned to hell, but Goethe has Faust defeat Mephistopheles and ascend to heaven. When Goethe was 74, he fell in love with a 19-year-old woman, whom he chased but never succeeded in winning. He wrote a long, sad poem about his failed attempt, and died soon after, in 1832. He was buried with the German poet Schiller. Goethe said, "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being."
Nearing Menopause, I Run into Elvis at Shoprite,
near the peanut butter. He calls me ma'am, like the sweet
southern mother's boy he was. This is the young Elvis,
slim-hipped, dressed in leather, black hair swirled
like a duck's backside. I'm in the middle of my life,
the start of the body's cruel betrayals, the skin beginning
to break in lines and creases, the thickening midline.
I feel my temperature rising, as a hot flash washes over,
the thermostat broken down. The first time I heard Elvis
on the radio, I was poised between girlhood and what comes next.
My parents were appalled, in the Eisenhower fifties, by rock
and roll and all it stood for, let me only buy one record,
"Love Me Tender," and I did.
I have on a tight orlon sweater, circle skirt,
eight layers of rolled-up net petticoats, all bound
together by a woven straw cinch belt. Now I've come
full circle, hate the music my daughter loves, Nine
Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Crash Test Dummies.
Elvis looks embarrassed for me. His soft full lips
are like moon pies, his eyelids half-mast, pulled
down bedroom shades. He mumbles, "Treat me nice."
Now, poised between menopause and what comes next, the last
dance, I find myself in tears by the toilet paper rolls,
hearing "Unchained Melody" on the sound system. "That's all
right now, Mama," Elvis says, "Anyway you do is fine." The bass
line thumps and grinds, the honky tonk piano moves like an ivory
river, full of swampy delta blues. And Elvis's voice wails above
it all, the purr and growl, the snarl and twang, above the chains
of flesh and time.
It's the birthday of novelist David Haynes, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1955). He writes about middle-class black Americans living in the Midwest in novels such as Somebody Else's Mama (1995) and All American Dream Dolls (1997).
It's the birthday of French writer and translator Valery Larbaud, born in Vichy, France (1881). He taught himself six languages when he was still young, and traveled throughout eastern and western Europe. He read all kinds of literature in many languages and wanted to expose foreign writers to a French audience. He was the first Frenchman to translate Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Butler, and Walt Whitman. And he undertook one of the most daunting tasks in 20th century translation when he helped to translate James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) into French.
It's the birthday of American filmmaker Preston Sturges, born in Chicago, Illinois (1898). He was the first writer to direct his own script, for the movie The Great McGinty (1940), a cynical comedy about corrupt politicians, which won an Academy Award for best screenplay.
It's the birthday of physician, poet, and humorist Oliver Wendell Holmes, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1809). He wrote novels, such as Elsie Venner (1861); poetry, such as "Old Ironsides" (1830); and humorous essays, collected in books such as The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858).
It's the birthday of Nobel Prize winning poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, born in Ghent, Belgium, in 1862. His most famous play is The Blue Bird, first produced in Moscow in 1909. It's a children's fantasy that became popular among adults. In 1940, it was made into a movie starring Shirley Temple.
It's the birthday of British philosopher John Locke, born in Wrington, Somerset, England (1632). He wrote Two Treatises of Government (c. 1690), which focused on life, liberty, and property—and the government's duty to protect them. His ideas formed the basis for much of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Poem: "Pied Beauty," by Gerard Manley Hopkins, from Poems and Prose (Knopf).
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
It's the birthday of novelist David Haynes, born in St. Louis, Missouri (1955). He writes about middle-class black Americans living in the Midwest in novels such as Somebody Else's Mama (1995) and All American Dream Dolls (1997).
It's the birthday of political humorist Molly Ivins, born in Monterey, California (1944). She has been a political columnist in Texas for many years, and has published several collections of her columns, including Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? (1991). She calls herself a pathological optimist and believes that politics is not depressing but entertaining. She said, "Politics in Texas [is the] finest form of free entertainment ever invented."
It's the birthday of journalist John Gunther, born in Chicago, Illinois (1901). He is known for his series of Inside books about places, including Inside Europe (1942), Inside Asia (1939), and Inside Latin America (1941). He wrote the books by traveling across the countryside, interviewing people and collecting odd facts. While working on Inside USA (1947), he traveled through the United States for 13 months, interviewing more than 20 people a day and taking more than a million words of notes. He said, "All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast."
It's the birthday of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1943). As a young man, he got a job with the American Greetings Corporation drawing funny pictures for cards. His boss was always telling him that his pictures were too grotesque, and he had to make them cuter. At the same time, he developed a style of cartoon in which cute animal characters like Fritz the Cat get involved in violent, grotesque situations. He got involved with the counterculture in the late 1960s. He illustrated rock concert posters and album covers and popularized the phrase "Keep on truckin'." He began publishing comics in Zap magazine about a character named Mr. Natural, an old man with a long beard who is a sex guru and con man. After developing a cult following, he published a series of collections of his comics that included R. Crumb's Carloads o'Comics (1976) and Complete Crumb: Mr. Sixties (1989). For most of his life, Crumb has worn a fedora hat and business suits from the 1930s. He only listens to old blues and jazz records, only watches black and white television. A friend of his said, "He is like a kid whose parents had locked him in an attic full of old records and magazines. His taste in everything comes from a time when he did not exist."
It's the birthday of physicist Ernest Rutherford, born in Spring Grove, New Zealand (1871). He was one of the first scientists to study nuclear energy, before scientists actually knew what it was. He discovered that radioactivity is caused by particles breaking apart and releasing pieces of themselves. At the time, scientists believed that atoms were indestructible, and they thought that Rutherford's research was wrongheaded. But his ideas eventually caught on, and he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908.
It's the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, born Mary Godwin in London, England (1797). She is famous as the author of Frankenstein (1818), which is considered the first science fiction novel ever written. Her parents had only been married for five months when she was born. They were political radicals and didn't believe in the institution of marriage, but they wanted Mary to be legitimate. A few days after Mary was born, her mother, the writer Mary Wollstonecraft, died from complications with the pregnancy. Her father was devastated. Mary grew up thinking of herself as her mother's murderer, and she spent a lot of time at her mother's grave, trying to communicate with her spirit. Her father encouraged her to be an intellectual like her mother had been. He let her read anything she wanted from his library, and she often overheard the conversations he had with friends like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One night in 1806, she hid under the parlor sofa to hear Coleridge recite his famous poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Mary was about 15 years old when the poet Percy B. Shelley first visited her father. He was married at the time, but after dining at the house for several months, he and Mary fell in love. They went for walks every day and often stopped at her mother's grave. When her father found out about the relationship, he forbade Shelley to ever come to his house again. Percy Shelley attempted suicide, and when he recovered, Mary ran away with him to France. The Shelleys' first child was born prematurely and died. In the summer of 1816, she and her husband went to stay in a lakeside cottage in Switzerland with the poet Lord Byron. One rainy night, after reading a German book of ghost stories, Byron suggested that they all write their own horror stories. Everyone else wrote a story within the next day, but Mary took almost a week. Finally, she wrote an early version of a story about a scientist who brings a dead body to life. She turned the story into a novel, and Frankenstein was published in 1818. She was 21 years old. The rest of her life was filled with tragedy. Only one of her five children survived, and Percy Shelley was drowned in 1822. She spent the later part of her life editing her husband's papers, and struggling to support her son.
Poem: from "Auguries of Innocence," by William Blake.
from Auguries of Innocence
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage.
A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro' all its regions.
A dog starved at his master's gate
Predicts the ruin of the State.
A horse misused upon the road
Calls to Heaven for human blood.
Each outcry of the hunted hare
A fibre from the brain does tear.
A skylark wounded in the wing,
A cherubim does cease to sing.
It's the birthday of educator Maria Montessori, born in a small village near Ancona, Italy (1870). She developed the theory that children should not be forced to sit still while they are learning. She believed that if children are allowed to move around and interact with things, they will discover new ideas on their own.
It's the birthday of William Saroyan, born in Fresno, California (1908). He wrote many novels and collections of short stories, including Love, Here Is My Hat (1938) and My Name Is Aram (1940). His parents were Armenian immigrants, and after his father died, he and his siblings had to live for a while in an orphanage. He started working to help support the family when he was eight years old. When he was 14, he used some of his income as a telegram messenger boy to buy a second-hand typewriter. He dropped out of high school a year later and educated himself at the local public library. He hung out at gambling parlors, lunchrooms, bars, and barbershops and wrote about the people he met there. He tried and tried to publish, and said that he had a stack of rejection letters as high as his desk. In 1934, he published his first story, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze," about a struggling writer who dies of starvation. He was so happy that he'd finally published something that he sent out dozens of stories to other magazines, and they were all published. His collection, also titled The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934), was published that same year. The book made him famous. It was about people who are happy even though they are living through the Great Depression. People loved his seemingly spontaneous, artless style of writing. After the 1940s, he became a chronic gambler, and his books got worse and worse as he tried to write to pay off his debts. Near the end of his life, he estimated that he had lost 2 million dollars gambling. William Saroyan said, "The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited."
It's the birthday of William Shawn, born in Chicago, Illinois (1907). He is known for succeeding Harold Ross as the editor of The New Yorker magazine. He hated to be photographed, he didn't give interviews, and even after he became editor of The New Yorker, he never once gave a speech in public. He was known for his attention to detail, and went over every single word before it was published in the magazine. He once argued with a writer until 2:30 in the morning over a single hyphen. He was shy and polite, and even people who had known him for years still called him Mr. Shawn. J.D. Salinger called him the "Genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors."
It's the birthday of song lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, born in New York City (1918). He's best known for writing the lyrics for the musical My Fair Lady (1956), based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (1913).
It was on this day in 1837 that Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a speech titled "The American Scholar" to the Phi Beta Kappa society of Harvard University. Emerson wasn't especially well known at the time. He was actually filling in for the orator Reverend Dr. Wainwright, who had backed out of the speaking engagement at the last minute. The speech was the first time he explained his transcendentalist philosophy in front of a large public audience. He said that scholars had become too obsessed with ideas of the past, that they were bookworms rather than thinkers. He told the audience to break from the past, to pay attention to the present, and to create their own new, unique ideas. He said, "I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low." The speech was published that same year. It made Emerson famous, and it brought the ideas of transcendentalism to young men like Henry David Thoreau. Oliver Wendell Holmes called "The American Scholar" "[The] intellectual Declaration of Independence."