Mar. 10, 2011

What Have I Got to Complain About

by David Budbill

We've got enough money now not to worry every minute
about where the next dollar is coming from.
We even go to the movies once in a while.
We've got a nice collection of friends.
Our house is sturdy and well built.
It keeps us warm and stands well against the storms.
The larder is full of rice.
There are plenty of potatoes down cellar.
The freezer is full of vegetables I grew myself.

In the face of all that, slights to my vanity
seem frivolous and nonsensical.

What have I got to complain about?

"What Have I Got to Complain About" by David Budbill, from While We've Still Got Feet. © Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Heywood Hale Broun, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1918. His mother, Ruth Hale, fought for women's suffrage, and was the first female film critic in the United States; his father, Heywood Broun, was a sports writer and a columnist, and the founder of the Newspaper Guild. Both parents were members of the famed Algonquin Round Table.

Young Heywood followed in his parents' journalistic footsteps, becoming a sports correspondent himself. He joined the staff of the New York tabloid PM in 1940 as a sportswriter. The war interrupted his career, and he left the paper to join the Army, returning as a columnist at the war's end. He began his television career in 1966 when he joined CBS as a color commentator. Known for his loud sport coats and lush, drooping mustache, his prose was as witty and eloquent as his jackets were garish. Baseball, golf, and horse racing were subjects he returned to frequently, and he often drew parallels between sports and Greek mythology. In The New York Times in 1994, Mr. Broun wrote of thoroughbreds: ''To be great, a horse must have metaphorical wings. In mythology we punished wax-winged Icarus for flying too close to the sun, but in recognition of the nobility of their single-mindedness, mythology has let the chariot horses of Apollo traverse the sky. Race horses do not chaffer over money, get into bar fights or endorse horse blankets and aluminum shoes. They combine strength, grace, beauty and speed as perhaps no other link in the Darwinian chain can manage (cheetahs have funny-looking shoulders).''

Heywood pursued acting as a sideline, and he appeared in several Broadway plays and movies, among them The Odd Couple, For Pete's Sake, Housesitter, and It Should Happen to You. He died on September 5th, 2001, in Kingston, New York.

Today is the birthday of James Herriot, (books by this author) born James Alfred Wight, in 1916. Born in Sunderland, England, his family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, when he was still an infant. He became a veterinarian and moved to the Yorkshire Dales, and in 1966 at the age of 50 he began a series of much-beloved books loosely based on the people and animals he had known there. He took the title of the first book, All Creatures Great and Small, from a 19th-century Anglican hymn, and used the rest of the lines of the refrain for the next three books: All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, and The Lord God Made Them All.

Herriot died of cancer in 1995, at the age of 78. His books have been made into a film, a television series, and a stage play.

Zelda Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born Zelda Sayre, died on this day in 1948. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1900, her tumultuous marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald came to symbolize the Jazz Age of the 1920s. A writer, painter, and dancer herself, her creative endeavors were overshadowed by those of her husband; Scott relied on her heavily to provide inspiration and a "voice" for his female characters, so much so that she once said, "Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home."

A breakdown in 1930 led to a series of hospitalizations, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She moved in and out of a number of institutions, eventually ending up at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. On the day she died, a fire broke out in the hospital's kitchen. Locked in a room awaiting electric shock therapy, Zelda had no chance as the fire spread through the dumbwaiter shaft and wooden fire escapes. She and eight other women died, and she was buried next to Scott, who had died eight years earlier, in the family plot in Rockville, Maryland. On their shared tombstone is inscribed the last line from The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Zelda once wrote, "Nobody has ever measured, not even poets, how much the heart can hold."

It was on this day in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call. Bell's first successful telephone used a liquid transmitter: a diaphragm that caused a needle to vibrate in water, similar to the way sound waves vibrate in air. He spoke to his assistant, electrical designer Thomas Watson, who was in the next room. He said, "Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you." Later that day, he wrote an excited letter to his father. He wrote, "The day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water and gas — and friends converse with each other without leaving home."

"Hello" is, of course, the standard greeting when most English-speaking people answer the phone, but this was not Bell's preferred greeting, and it was some time before the protocol was sorted out. In The First Telephone Book, author Ammon Shea tells us that Bell favored "Ahoy!" and stubbornly used it for the rest of his life. His competitor Thomas Edison, on the other hand, preferred "Hello." Shea posits that "hello" caught on in part due to the "How To" section in early phone books, which recommended "a hearty 'hulloa'" as a proper greeting. The phone book's recommended sign-off — "That is all!" — never took root.

The man W.C. Fields called "the greatest comedy mind in Hollywood," director Gregory La Cava, was born on this day in 1892, in Towanda, Pennsylvania. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and started his film career as an animator for William Randolph Hearst, who, in 1915, decided he wanted to make movies out of comic strips. This enterprise was less than successful, and La Cava moved on to direct some two-reel silent comedies. He is best remembered for his films of the 1930s, particularly My Man Godfrey (1936) starring William Powell and Carole Lombard, and Stage Door (1937), an ensemble picture starring Ginger Rogers and an actress who had previously been considered "box office poison," Katharine Hepburn. He received Best Director nominations for both films.

La Cava had a reputation for being a "woman's director" because he tended to place his female characters at the emotional — and often moral — heart of his films. He was also notorious for refusing to follow a script, and was constantly rewriting them or encouraging his actors to improvise, much to their delight. He had good instincts, though, and his directorial sins were usually forgiven once his critics saw the finished product.

His films often dealt directly or indirectly with the gap between rich and poor during the height of the Depression, most effectively in My Man Godfrey. His career began to wane in the 1940s, possibly because he was never able to completely transcend the screwball comedy genre that made him famous. He died of a heart attack nine days shy of his 60th birthday, in 1952.

A woman known as "Moses" died on this day in 1913. Harriet (Ross) Tubman was born to slave parents Benjamin Ross and Harriet Green, in Dorchester County, Maryland. The exact year of her birth is uncertain, but it was probably around 1820. She was christened Araminta by her parents, and soon became known as "Minty," though she eventually renamed herself Harriet after her mother. When she was about five or six, the slave-owner hired her out as a child-minder. She was whipped if the baby cried and woke its mother, and one day she received five whippings before breakfast.

When the 15-year-old Harriet refused one day to help an overseer restrain a runaway slave, she was hit in the head with a two-pound weight and was left unconscious without medical care for two days. Although she recovered, she began suffering from seizures, and narcolepsy, and also began to have visions and prophetic dreams. Deeply religious, she viewed these as messages from God.

She married a free man, John Tubman, around 1844, though she was still a slave. When the plantation owner died in 1849, Harriet escaped, with two of her brothers. John Tubman stayed behind and eventually remarried. Using the Underground Railroad and the aid of Quakers, traveling by night to avoid the slave-catchers, navigating by the North Star, she made it to Philadelphia and enjoyed a brief period as a free woman, until passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made her a runaway slave once again. The thought of her family left behind in Maryland haunted her, and she worked odd jobs and saved her money, so that a year later, she might return to help her niece's family escape.

Over 10 years and at least 13 trips, Harriet Tubman is believed to have led some 300 souls out of slavery into freedom in Canada. On one of her last trips, she brought out her parents, who were by that time around 70 years old. She used ingenious diversions to avoid being caught, like carrying two live chickens with her so that she appeared to be going on an errand. She worked coded messages into spirituals and hymns, and the singing of them spread her instructions from slave to slave. Once she evaded capture by simply pretending to read a newspaper — since it was well known that Harriet Tubman was illiterate. She traveled in winter, when folks who had homes were usually inclined to stay in them, and she scheduled departures for Friday nights because "escaped slave" notices couldn't be published until the following Monday. At one point, the price on her head was as high as $40,000, but she was never betrayed. She was never captured and neither were the slaves she led. Years later, she told an audience, "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say — I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger."

She also served as a cook, a nurse, a scout, and a Union spy during the Civil War, and though she received commendation for her service, she was never paid. She described one battle she witnessed: "And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."

After the Civil War, she began taking in orphans, the elderly, and the infirm. In 1903, she bought land adjacent to her home in Auburn, New York, and opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and Indigent, and then transferred the mortgage to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Though this was her final major humanitarian project, she continued to travel and speak at suffrage conventions into the early 1900s.

She and Frederick Douglass had great respect for each other. He wrote to her in 1868: "Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism."

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