May 2, 2004

When I Was Conceived

by Michael Ryan

SUNDAY, 2 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "When I Was Conceived," by Michael Ryan, from New and Selected Poems. © Houghton-Mifflin. Reprinted with permission.

When I Was Conceived

It was 1945, and it was May.
White crocus bloomed in St. Louis.
The Germans gave in but the war shoved on,
and my father came home from work that evening
tired and washed his hands
not picturing the black-goggled men
with code names fashioning an atomic bomb.
Maybe he loved his wife that evening.
Maybe after eating she smoothed his jawline
with her palm as he stretched out
on the couch with his head in her lap
while Bob Hope spoofed Hirohito on the radio
and they both laughed. My father sold used cars
at the time, and didn't like it,
so if he complained maybe she held him
an extra moment in her arms,
the heat in the air pressing between them,
so they turned upstairs early that evening,
arm in arm, without saying anything.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Dr. Benjamin Spock, born in New Haven, Connecticut (1903). His Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) was a bestseller during the period after World War II, when parents across America were raising the Baby Boom generation. Spock opened his first pediatric practice in 1933. He said, "One of my faults as a pediatrician has always been that I whoop it up too much with children." He made it a habit to wear ordinary business suits, rather than white doctor's coats, to make his visitors feel more relaxed. His practice was enormously successful. One of his assistants said that all the mothers had crushes on him.

After ten years of observing children and their health, Spock decided to write a book about taking care of them. Instead of writing it out himself, he dictated the book to his wife, to give it a conversational tone. Previous parenting guidebooks had encouraged parents to be stern with their children, and they were written as a list of commands. Dr. John B. Watson had written in his guidebook, "Never, never kiss your child. Never hold it in your lap. Never rock its carriage." Dr. Spock encouraged parents to be affectionate, and he also encouraged them to follow their own instincts. The first sentence of his book was, "You know more than you think you do."

Spock was later partially blamed for the cultural revolution of the 1960s, because he had supposedly encouraged the pampering of babies who grew up to be hippies. But he said, "[I think] my book helped a generation not to be intimidated by adulthood. When I was young, I was always made to assume that I was wrong. Now young people think they might be right and stand up to authority."

It's the birthday of playwright and humorist Jerome K. Jerome, born in Walsall, England (1859). He's best known for his humorous play Three Men in a Boat (1889). He said, "Nothing is more beautiful than the love that has weathered the storms of life. The love of the young for the young, that is the beginning of life. But the love of the old for the old, that is the beginning of things longer." And, "It is always the best policy to speak the truth, unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar."

It's the birthday of lyricist Lorenz Hart, born in New York City (1895). He's famous for writing the lyrics to songs like "Blue Moon" (1934), "My Funny Valentine" (1937), and "The Lady Is a Tramp" (1937). As a young man in his twenties, he was drifting around, writing verse in his spare time, when someone introduced him to Richard Rodgers, a teenage composer who wanted to be a lyricist. They worked on a series of amateur musical comedies together, but their future didn't seem promising. Rodgers was just about to give up on music and go into the underwear business when their show The Garrick Gaieties (1925) became a huge success. They went on to write several successful musicals together, including Connecticut Yankee (1927), The Boys From Syracuse (1938), and Pal Joey (1940).

It's the birthday of the Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, born in Budapest, Hungary (1860). He was the son of a wealthy businessman, and though his parents were Jewish, they were not especially religious. He went to law school, but after he graduated he began writing plays and journalism. In 1892, a Vienna newspaper hired him as their Paris correspondent. When he arrived in Paris, he was shocked to find anti-Semitism there; he had experienced anti-Semitism in Austria, but he assumed that Paris was more enlightened. Then, two years after his arrival in the city, a Jewish officer in the French army named Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, and later used as a symbol of disloyal French citizens in anti-Semitic propaganda. Herzl covered the trial and its aftermath for his newspaper, and he was so horrified by the open display of anti-Semitism that he decided Jews had to leave Europe and start their own country.

In 1896, he published The Jewish State, an Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, in which he wrote, "I consider the Jewish question to be neither social nor religious. . . . It is a national question, and in order to solve it we must, before everything else, transform it into a political world question, to be answered in the council of the civilized peoples. We are a people, a people."

There had been other Zionists before him, but Herzl became Zionism's most prominent spokesman. Many Jewish intellectuals across Europe denounced him as a fanatic. They resented his suggestion that they could not assimilate into European society. Some called him "The Jewish Jules Verne," because they considered him a political fantasy writer.

But Herzl didn't give up. He rallied support for his ideas and helped organize the World Zionist Organization. The first Zionist Congress convened in Basel, Switzerland, with about two hundred delegates from countries around the world. In a speech to the congress, Herzl said, "We want to lay the foundation stone, for the house which will become the refuge of the Jewish nation." He later wrote in his diary, "At Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years, perhaps, and certainly in fifty, everyone will see it."

He spent the rest of his life trying to acquire land for Jewish settlement, gaining support from politicians, kings, and even the Pope. He tried to persuade the Ottoman Empire to give up land in Palestine, but they refused. Great Britain offered an area of land from their colony in Uganda, but the Zionist Congress decided to hold out for Palestine. Herzl died in 1904, before the project was completed.

It was the persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis that revitalized the Zionist cause among European Jews, and many moved to Palestine before there was an official Jewish state. Israel was officially established as a Jewish nation in 1948, and in accordance with his wishes, Theodor Herzl's body was taken there and buried on a hill near Jerusalem that is now known as Mount Herzl.

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