May 12, 2010


by Louis Jenkins

All those things that have gone from your life,
moon boots, TV trays and the Soviet Union, that
seem to have vanished, are really only changed.
Dinosaurs did not disappear from the earth but
evolved into birds and crock pots became bread
makers and then the bread makers all went to
rummage sales along with the exercise bikes.
Everything changes. It seems at times (only for
a moment) that your wife, the woman you love,
might actually be your first wife in another form.
It's a thought not to be pursued….Nothing is the
same as it used to be. Except you, of course,
you haven't changed…well, slowed down a bit,
perhaps. It's more difficult nowadays to deal with
the speed of change, disturbing to suddenly find
yourself brushing your teeth with what appears
to be a flashlight. But essentially you are the
same as ever, constant in your instability.

"Change" by Louis Jenkins, from Before You Know It: Prose Poems 1970-2005. © Will o' Wisp Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of one of the most popular and influential stand-up comedians of the 20th century, George Carlin, born in the Bronx (1938). He grew up in an Irish working-class neighborhood called Morningside Heights. His father died when Carlin was two years old, and his mother supported the family as a secretary. He spent a lot of time alone, and after his mother bought him a tape recorder, he began recording his own comedy radio show in his bedroom.

He dropped out of high school when he was a sophomore and eventually joined the Air Force as a radar-computer mechanic on B-47s. It was while he was working in the Air Force in Louisiana that he met the owner of a local radio station, and he got a job moonlighting as a newscaster and a disc jockey. He continued working in radio until he moved to Hollywood, where he and his partner Jack Burns began to perform comedy at a coffeehouse called Cosmo Alley, and one of the people who noticed their work was the comedian Lenny Bruce, who got Carlin his first real agent.

By the 1970s, Carlin was growing more and more interested in politics, and more dissatisfied with the nightclub scene. He later said: "I was tired of the comedians who made jokes about their mothers-in-law and crabgrass and avoided the serious issues. I was just sick to my stomach of wearing the dumb tuxedo and entertaining middle-class morons." So he dropped all the fake news reports and began to make jokes attacking Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, the Vietnam War, press censorship, and American materialism. His audiences were shocked.

Carlin lost his middle-aged audience, which had been watching him on TV for years, but he became a hero to American college students. In 1972, he was arrested for public profanity when he delivered a bit he called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," which was his description of the seven dirtiest words in the English language and his thoughts about how they had become so dirty. The profanity charge was eventually dismissed, and the bit became one of the most popular parts of his routine.

A year later, a radio station played a recording of "Seven Words," and someone filed a complaint with the FCC. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-to-4 decision that though Carlin's comedy routine did not meet the definition of obscenity, it still could be censored because the radio airwaves are public airwaves and someone might hear a broadcast by accident and be offended. That court case established the power of the FCC to regulate profanity on the airwaves, and it still stands today.

On this day eight years ago, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Fidel Castro in Cuba, making him the first U.S. president — sitting or former — to set foot on the Caribbean island nation since Castro took power in the Revolution of 1959.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy imposed travel restrictions and a trade embargo on Cuba. The restrictions were renewed by every president from JFK until Jimmy Carter, who let the restrictions lapse in 1977, and lifted the ban on spending U.S. dollars in Cuba. Reagan later renewed the restrictions, but Carter and Castro remained amiable over the years. Then in the fall of 2000, the two men were each chosen as honorary pallbearers for the funeral of a Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It was there that Castro invited Carter to visit. But because of the travel restrictions, Carter needed to ask permission from the Bush administration to go on the trip. They agreed, and on this day in 2002 Jimmy Carter began his visit to the isolated island nation 90 miles from Florida.

He went with his wife Rosalynn and a small delegation. Castro allowed Carter to give a speech, which was broadcast live and uncensored on television and radio. Carter gave the speech in Spanish (there was no translator) to an audience at the University of Havana — an audience that Castro's staff had handpicked. In it, he urged the U.S. Congress to end the trade embargo and travel restrictions — which is what Castro really hoped he would say. But he also called on Castro to hold free elections and to allow the U.N. human rights commissioner to come inspect in Cuba. Carter pointedly remarked, "Your constitution recognizes freedom of speech and association, but other laws deny these freedoms to those who disagree with the government."

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