Dec. 6, 2010

Sins of the Father

by W.D. Ehrhart

Today my child came home from school in tears.
A classmate taunted her about her clothes,
and the other kids joined in, enough of them
to make her feel as if the fault was hers,
as if she can't fit in no matter what.
A decent child, lovely, bright, considerate.
It breaks my heart. It makes me want someone
to pay. It makes me think—O Christ, it makes
me think of things I haven't thought about
in years. How we nicknamed Barbara Hoffman
"Barn," walked behind her through the halls and mooed
like cows. We kept this up for years, and not
for any reason I could tell you now
or even then except that it was fun.
Or seemed like fun. The nights that Barbara
must have cried herself to sleep, the days
she must have dreaded getting up for school.
Or Suzanne Heider. We called her "Spider."
And we were certain Gareth Schultz was queer
and let him know it. Now there's nothing I
can do but stand outside my daughter's door
listening to her cry herself to sleep.

"Sins of the Father" by W.D. Ehrhart, from The Bodies Beneath the Table. © Adastra Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1947 that President Harry S. Truman dedicated Everglades National Park in Florida. He said: "Here are no lofty peaks seeking the sky, no mighty glaciers or rushing streams wearing away the uplifted land. Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country."

Everglades National Park was largely the brainchild of a man named Ernest Coe. He had gone to Yale and had a successful 40-year career as a landscape architect in New England before moving to Miami at the age of 60. When Coe moved to Florida, in the 1920s, it was growing fast. Huge areas of wetlands were being drained for development, and local birds were being killed and made into ladies' hats. Coe organized to try and protect the Everglades, arguing that it was an important ecosystem full of plants and animals that didn't exist anywhere else. But he ran up against resistance from people who thought that only majestic places like mountains or canyons should be preserved as national parks — not a large wetland, especially one with both alligators and crocodiles in it. Although the park now covers more than 1.5 million acres, at the time it was dedicated Florida only agreed to preserve 454,000 acres. By 1947, Coe was so frustrated by the end result that he gave up all involvement with Everglades preservation, and he thought his campaign had been a failure.

Naturalist Archie Carr wrote: "Visitors still arrive expecting to see a dim, mysterious swamp-forest full of reptiles, exotic birds, and eerie noises, a sort of Hollywood jungle set in which boa constrictors or bands of apes would not come as a total surprise. This probably accounts for the let-down look park rangers see in the faces of some newcomers as they gaze out over the saw grass plain for the first time."

In Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Florida writer Zora Neale Hurston (books by this author) wrote: "To Janie's strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild. Volunteer cane just taking the place. Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too."

In Shadow Country (2008), Peter Matthiessen wrote: "The sun was high and the road empty, a ghost path of white limestone dust boring ever deeper into swamp and scrub. On the canal bank, a lone alligator lay inert as a log of mud. Long necks of cormorants and snake birds, like water reptiles, parted the black surface, sank away again. A moccasin coiled in a low stump; a bog turtle paused at the road edge, awaiting its next instinct. The white rock writhed and shimmered in mirage toward its shining point of disappearance miles ahead."

It's the birthday of Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershowitz in New York City (1896). His father was a businessman who changed businesses every few years — his establishments included a bakery, a pool hall, a restaurant, and a cigar store. And since he wanted to be able to walk to work, he moved his family each time he changed businesses. The Gershowitz family, who by this point had renamed themselves the Gershvins, moved nearly 30 times before Ira turned 18.

The lyricist Yip Harburg said: "Ira was the shyest, most diffident boy we had ever known. In a class of Lower East Side rapscallions, his soft-spoken gentleness and low-keyed personality made him a lovable incongruity. He spoke in murmurs, hiding behind a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. Ira had a kid brother who wore stiff high collars, shirts with cuffs and went out with girls." By the time that Ira was in his early 20s, his teenage brother George was already composing and hanging out with the Tin Pan Alley crew. But Ira was still working in his father's Turkish baths, a serious and responsible young man. He kept a detailed diary. In one entry, he wrote: "The movies and their audience are a good means of studying. Yes. Psychology, ethics, fashions, manner. Manners. Would be's. Have beens. Never weres. Can't be's. Impossibles. And here and there an occasional Is and Are." In another entry, he wrote: "Sniffed in a day: Onions, whiskey, garbage, fur and camphor balls, fountain pen ink, fresh newspapers. Heard in a day: An elevator's purr, telephone's ring, telephone's buzz, a baby's moans, a shout of delight, a screech from a 'flat wheel,' hoarse honks, a hoarse voice, a tinkle, a match scratch on sandpaper, a deep resounding boom of dynamiting in the impending subway, iron hooks on the gutter."

In 1924, Ira and George first teamed up to write songs — George wrote the music and Ira the lyrics. George said, "I hit on a new tune, play it for Ira and he hums it all over the place for a while till he gets an idea for a lyric. Then we work the thing out together." George sometimes wrote songs in just a few minutes, whereas Ira could spend an entire night trying to get one perfect word. But the combination worked, and the brothers produced some of the most beloved songs of the 20s and 30s, songs like "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Summertime," "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," and many more. George died from a brain tumor in 1937, when he was just 38. Ira didn't write anything for nearly three years. He died in 1983 at the age of 86.

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1768 that the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published. It's the oldest English-language encyclopedia still in print. It was co-founded by two Scottish men: the printer and bookseller Colin Macfarquhar, and the engraver Andrew Bell. The first edition was titled "Encyclopædia Britannica, or, A dictionary of arts and sciences, compiled upon a new plan." They were inspired to produce an encyclopedia in the spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment, to celebrate scientific and intellectual ideas. Scotland was one of the most literate nations in Europe, with a literacy rate of about 75 percent.

When Macfarquhar died, Andrew Bell took over the entire operation. Bell was quite the character in Edinburgh. He was less than five feet tall, but he proudly rode the tallest horse in the city, which he had to mount and dismount with a ladder, while people cheered for him. And he had an enormous nose, and sometimes when people stared at it, he would pull out his even-larger papier-mâché nose, and put it on.

Bell illustrated 160 plates for the first edition of the Britannica, including illustrations of female pelvises and fetuses for the "Midwifery" entry, which shocked King George III so much that he demanded they be ripped out of every copy of the encyclopedia.

Today, the Encyclopedia Britannica employs 100 full-time editors and more than 4,000 contributors.

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