Dec. 17, 2010

Song and Dance

by Jonathan Greene

At the mall

the granddaughter whines
'I need' with an insistence,
an urgent test of familial bonds.

The old man mimicking,
'You need, like a hole in the head'
—but this is all a ritual,

the back & forth ploys,
well-rehearsed melodrama
and pantomime.

She sways, one foot to another.
They both know he will give in,
despite at first the necessary protests.

The twelve-year-old has calculated
how 'love' comes in handy at such times.

This silly plastic handbag that today
means the world.

"Song and Dance" by Jonathan Greene, from Distillations and Siphonings. © Broadstone Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of writer William Safire, (books by this author) born William Safir in New York City (1929) — he added the "e" later on to make the pronunciation easier. His father was a successful thread manufacturer, and he was the youngest of three sons. But when he was four and his older brothers were teenagers, his father died of lung cancer, and life got harder. His mother told her sons: "All you have in this world is blood and friendship."

Young William was smart, a good writer, and he practiced his writing with long, funny letters to his brother in the Army. He graduated from the Bronx School of Science and got a scholarship to Syracuse University. But after two years, he decided that school was not as interesting as his summer job working for Tex McCrary, a columnist and radio and TV host. So he dropped out. He said he realized that he "could get a better education interviewing John Steinbeck than talking to an English professor about novels."

He interviewed movie stars and gangsters. He organized the rally that helped convince Eisenhower to run for the presidency. He said, "This is what it's all about. From what I could see, you could get a bunch of people together, whip up the press and have some impact." He set up the famous "kitchen debate" in Moscow, between Nixon (then vice president) and Khrushchev. The debate took place in a model home built by All-State Properties — Safire was their public relations agent. The home was designed for the American Exhibition in Moscow, and it was supposed to be affordable to anyone, and represent the success of American capitalism. Safire organized the debate in order to get publicity for his company, and he took a famous photo of the event. Nixon was so impressed with Safire that he hired him for his 1960 presidential campaign. Nixon lost, but Safire stuck with him, and was the main speechwriter for Sprio Agnew in the 1968 presidential campaign, and for the Nixon White House after that. He and fellow speechwriter Pat Buchanan loved to write speeches full of clever linguistic twists. In a speech that Safire wrote for Agnew, delivered in San Diego in 1970, he said: "In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism." Agnew had plenty of other alliterative insults for critics of Nixon's foreign policy, many of them written by Safire, including "vicars of vacillation," "pusillanimous pussyfooters," "supercilious sophisticates," and "the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history."

After the Watergate scandal, Safire resigned and got a job as a White House correspondent for The New York Times. There, he was able to use his political savvy as well as his love of words — he started a column called "On Language," which was published weekly in the New York Times Magazine from 1979 until his death, last year, at the age of 79.

He said, "If America cannot win a war in a week, it begins negotiating with itself."

And, "Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think. If you want to 'get in touch with your feelings,' fine — talk to yourself; we all do. But, if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts. Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce. The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts."

It's the birthday of novelist Ford Madox Ford, (books by this author) born Ford Hermann Hueffer in Merton, England (1873).

The writer and painter Wyndham Lewis described Ford as "a flabby lemon and pink giant, who hung his mouth open as though he were an animal at a zoo inviting buns — especially when ladies were present." In his memoir A Moveable Feast, about his days in the Paris expatriate community, Ernest Hemingway wrote: "It was Ford Madox Ford, as he called himself then, and he was breathing heavily through a heavy, stained mustache and holding himself as upright as an ambulatory, well clothed, upended hogshead. 'May I sit with you?' he asked, sitting down, and his eyes which were a washed-out blue under colorless lids and eyebrows looked out at the boulevard. [...] I had always avoided looking at Ford when I could and I always held my breath when I was near him in a closed room, but this was the open air and the fallen leaves blew along the sidewalks from my side of the table past his, so I took a good look at him, repented, and looked across the boulevard. The light was changed again and I had missed the change. I took a drink to see if his coming had fouled it, but it still tasted good. [...] I was trying to remember what Ezra Pound had told me about Ford, that I must never be rude to him, that I must remember that he only lied when he was very tired, that he was really a good writer and that he had been through very bad domestic troubles. I tried hard to think of these things but the heavy, wheezing, ignoble presence of Ford himself, only touching-distance away, made it difficult. But I tried."

The domestic troubles that Hemingway mentioned plagued Ford all his life. He fell in love with a woman, Elsie, whose family bitterly opposed the match — they thought that a writer would not make enough money to be a good husband. So the couple eloped, but her family threatened to pursue legal action to end their marriage. Their marriage was unhappy, and it certainly got worse when Ford had an affair with Elsie's sister Mary. Then he met another woman, the writer Violet Hunt, and after he separated from Elsie and threatened suicide, the two of them became lovers. Elsie refused to divorce Ford, and took him to court several times, and she also sued publications that referred to Violet as Ford's wife. He also had affairs with Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea; the Australian artist Stella Bowen; and the painter Janice Biala.

In 1913, he was depressed, and so in debt that he ended up in bankruptcy court. But on December 17th, 1913, his 40th birthday, he "sat down to show what I could do." The manuscript he started writing that day became his masterpiece, a novel called The Good Soldier (1915). It's the story of two perfect-seeming couples who are quickly revealed to be less than perfect. It opens with the line: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Ford originally called the novel The Saddest Story, but after World War I broke and Ford was sent to France, his publishers retitled it The Good Soldier.

Ford wrote more than 60 books — novels, essays, criticism, and poetry.

He said: "Two and only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst. The very worst, securing immediate attention by way of some trick, gradually fade from the public memories; the very best, being solid and ship-shape productions of solid and ship-shape men with no nonsense about them, remain."

It was on this day in 1790 that the Aztec Sun Stone was discovered in Mexico City. It was found by workers who were doing repairs and unearthed a huge stone covered in symbols. The stone is 12 feet in diameter and three feet thick, carved during the 15th century. The center of the stone depicts the sun god and the story of creation, and around the edges it is carved with a solar calendar and the cardinal points of the universe. But most archeologists think that it was used mostly as a stone for human sacrifice. In the Aztec culture, human sacrifices were a way of keeping the sun in motion, and by doing that, keeping the rest of the world alive as well.

From the archives:

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier (books by this author) was born on this day near Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). Whittier was raised on a debt-ridden farm, attended school only 12 weeks a year, and had to walk several miles to borrow books on biography or travel since his house contained only a single almanac. All of his life, Whittier suffered from the effects of the hard physical labor of working on a farm. He was a newspaper editor, abolitionist, state senator, and poet. He authored the poem "Snowbound" in 1865, which made him enough money to retire on.

On this day in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright had their first successful flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers picked Kitty Hawk because it was full of sand dunes that would cushion crash landings and it had high winds to help get the plane off the ground. But living there was almost unbearable. They endured sandstorms, coastal rains, and swarms of insects during the day. And at night, the wind was so bad that the brothers had to get out and hold on to their tent to keep it from blowing away.

In 1900, Orville and Wilbur started out with a kite controlled from the ground, and later took turns manning it in the air. Their father forbid them from flying together, to ensure that one brother could continue the experiments in the event of a fatal crash. When Wilbur stepped into the controls in October, he was unprepared for the sensation of flying. The plane was unpredictable, he couldn't plan out his moves, and he relied purely on instinct to adjust the plane up and down. Within a few moments he overcompensated, nearly flipped the glider over and shouted to his brother, "Let me down!" Suffering months of spin-outs, broken struts, blackened eyes, and crash landings, the brothers left Kitty Hawk early. On the train back, Wilbur told his brother, "Not within a thousand years will man ever fly."

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




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