Jul. 5, 2008

Like Riding a Bicycle

by George Bilgere

I would like to write a poem
About how my father taught me
To ride a bicycle one soft twilight,
A poem in which he was tired
And I was scared, unable to disbelieve
In gravity and believe in him,
As the fireflies were coming out
And only enough light remained
For one more run, his big hand at the small
Of my back, pulling away like the gantry
At a missile launch, and this time, this time
I wobbled into flight, caught a balance
I would never lose, and pulled away
From him as he eased, laughing, to a stop,
A poem in which I said that even today
As I make some perilous adult launch,
Like pulling away from my wife
Into the fragile new balance of our life
Apart, I can still feel that steadying hand,
Still hear that strong voice telling me
To embrace the sweet fall forward
Into the future's blue
Equilibrium. But,

Of course, he was drunk that night,
Still wearing his white shirt
And tie from the office, the air around us
Sick with scotch, and the challenge
Was keeping his own balance
As he coaxed his bulk into a trot
Beside me in the hot night, sweat
Soaking his armpits, the eternal flame
Of his cigarette flaring as he gasped
And I fell, again and again, entangled
In my gleaming Schwinn, until
He swore and stomped off
Into the house to continue
Working with my mother
On their own divorce, their balance
Long gone and the hard ground already
Rising up to smite them
While I stayed outside in the dark,
Still falling, until at last I wobbled
Into the frail, upright delight
Of feeling sorry for myself, riding
Alone down the neighborhood's
Black street like the lonely western hero
I still catch myself in the act
Of performing.

And yet, having said all this,
I must also say that this summer evening
Is very beautiful, and I am older
Than my father ever was
As I coast the Pacific shoreline
On my old bike, the gears clicking
Like years, the wind
Touching me for the first time, it seems,
In a very long time,
With soft urgency all over.

"Like Riding a Bicycle" by George Bilgere, from The Good Kiss. © University of Akron Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of one of the first great travel writers, George Borrow, (books by this author) born in Norfolk, England (1803). He had an amazing talent for languages. By the time he was 22, he could understand 12 languages, including Welsh, Hebrew, and Danish. In 1833, he was hired by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and his first assignment was to translate the New Testament into Manchu, the court language of China—even though Borrow didn't know a word of Manchu at the time.

Borrow traveled all over the world distributing Bible translations, and he wrote about all the thieves, revolutionaries, gypsies, soldiers, politicians, and priests that he met along the way. His most famous book was a best seller called The Bible in Spain (1843), about his adventures in Spain while attempting to distribute Spanish translations of the Bible.

He said, "I am invariably of the politics of the people at whose table I sit, or beneath whose roof I sleep."

It's the birthday of Jean Cocteau, (books by this author) born in Maison-Lafitte, just outside of Paris (1889). He was one of the most versatile artists of the 20th century: He wrote essays, poetry, and novels; and he worked on ballets, operas, and movies. He was involved in some of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century, including surrealism and cubism, and he was friends with some of the most important writers and artists of his day, including Pablo Picasso and Marcel Proust.

Cocteau said, "Life is a horizontal fall."

It's the birthday of the great American showman P(hineas) T(aylor) Barnum, born in Bethel, Connecticut (1810). In 1835, Barnum moved to New York and went into show business. His first public display was a woman he claimed was 161 years old and the former nursemaid of George Washington. Barnum wrote anonymous newspaper articles claiming she was a fraud, and then wrote signed articles claiming she was genuine. The controversy was what made her a popular attraction. One newspaper claimed that she was actually a mechanical automaton, and people came in droves to see if it was true. After the woman's death, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy, where it was proven she had only been about 75 years old.

In 1841, Barnum bought the American Museum on the corner of Ann Street and Broadway in New York City. Among the exhibits at Barnum's museum were a human head attached to a fish's body called "the Feejee Mermaid," the original bearded woman, and the Siamese twins Chang and Eng. His most profitable exhibit was the 25-inch tall man nicknamed Tom Thumb, who drew about 20 million ticket buyers to the museum. Tom Thumb was so popular that Barnum took him to meet President Abraham Lincoln, as well as Queen Victoria.

He once said, "More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing nothing, than by believing too much."

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




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