Apr. 7, 2011

What She Said

by Billy Collins

When he told me he expected me to pay for dinner,
I was like give me a break.

I was not the exact equivalent of give me a break.
I was just similar to give me a break.

As I said, I was like give me a break.

I would love to tell you
how I was able to resemble give me a break
without actually being identical to give me a break,

but all I can say is that I sensed
a similarity between me and give me a break.

And that was close enough
at that point in the evening

even if it meant I would fall short
of standing up from the table and screaming
give me a break,

for God's sake will you please give me a break?!

No, for that moment
with the rain streaking the restaurant windows
and the waiter approaching,

I felt the most I could be was like

to a certain degree

give me a break.

"What She Said" by Billy Collins, from Horoscopes for the Dead. © Random House, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1969, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down laws prohibiting private possession of obscene material. Exactly 21 years later, a display of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs opened at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, causing the Center and its director to be indicted on obscenity charges.

It was the first time a gallery faced prosecution for the content of the work it displayed, and it meant that the Center could be fined $10,000, and its director jailed for a year.
A jury acquitted both a few months later. By that time, the exhibition had drawn bigger crowds than for any other in the city's history. More than 81,000 people came to see Mr. Mapplethorpe's photos in Cincinnati before the exhibition went on to Boston.

It is the birthday of the Internet, or at least it's the date that some consider to be the Internet's birthday. On this day in 1969, a Request for Comments — RFCs as they are known — went out to scientists. In it there was some research, some proposals, and some methodology that would eventually lead to the Internet.

It's World Health Day, first celebrated in 1948 when the World Health Organization was created. Each year, World Health Day focuses on issues important to global health. This year, it is countering the emergence of microorganisms that are resistant to drugs.

It's the birthday of poet William Wordsworth, (books by this author) born in Cockermouth, England (1770). The philosopher Bertrand Russell summed up Wordsworth's career this way: "In his youth, Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry, and had a natural daughter. At this period he was called a 'bad' man. Then he became 'good,' abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles, and wrote bad poetry."

His mother died when he was eight, and he went off to school in the Lake District, where he liked to wander around the countryside.

At age 20, he went on a tour through France and Switzerland. France was celebrating the Revolution, and Wordsworth was completely absorbed in the politics. In the Alps, he was overwhelmed by the sublime presence of nature. He later said, "Perhaps scarce a day of my life will pass by in which I shall not derive some happiness from those images." He returned to France the following year and fathered a daughter there, whom he left. The Anglo-French War kept him from returning.

It was during the next 10 years that he wrote his best poetry, including "Tintern Abbey," "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways," "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," and "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." Wordsworth challenged what he called "the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers." He wrote about ordinary things and private thoughts, the view from a bridge, daffodils. His friend Samuel Coleridge published him.
Eventually, he separated from Coleridge, who was a drug addict. Wordsworth got married and raised five children. He came to see the French Revolution as a mistake. He accepted a government job to pay the bills. His title was "Official Distributor of Stamps for Westmoreland."

But by the time he reached middle age, his collections of poetry were best-sellers. And when he was 73, he became poet laureate of England.

It is the birthday of Marjory Stoneman Douglas (books by this author), the American conservationist and writer who told the world about the Florida Everglades. She was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1890). Her parents divorced and she grew up in Massachusetts with her mother's family.

She graduated from Wellesley College as Class Orator, and soon afterward, her mother died. She drifted around the country working department store jobs, failed at marriage, and eventually reunited with her father who was editor of The Miami Herald. There she became what she wanted to be: a writer. She produced novels, books of short stories, plays, poems, hundreds of articles, and she won an O. Henry Award.

She is most remembered for her book The Everglades: River of Grass (1947), published the same year that Everglades National Park was dedicated. In the book, she dispels the myth that the Everglades is a swamp, describing it as a broad shallow waterway that sustains several species, many endangered. She also described the people, politics, and money surrounding Florida's population explosion, which helped pass legislation to protect the Glades. It also helped her start the organization Friends of the Everglades.

When she was 103, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When she died five years later, her ashes were spread over the Everglades.

It's the birthday of writer, editor, and creative writing teacher Donald Barthelme (books by this author), born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1931). He is considered to be one of the great American surrealists.

He's the author of four novels, including Snow White (1967) and The Dead Father (1975), but he's best known for his strange, fragmented short stories.

He was the son of an architect and was schooled early in art theory and design. When he was eight, his family moved to the outskirts of Houston, Texas, to a modernist home designed by his father. Donald said: "We used to get up from Sunday dinner, if enough cars had parked, and run out in front of the house in a sort of chorus line, doing high kicks."

As an editor of the magazine Forum, he was the first to publish Marshall McLuhan's speech "The Medium is the Message." As a writer, he was attuned to what was happening in the visual arts, in movies, and in music, particularly jazz. He called himself an "alleged post-modernist." His first story collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari (1964), is full of absurd, surrealistic stories. In one story, Batman is ashamed of himself because he doesn't think he's doing a good enough job fighting crime.

He said, "Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how."

He said, "Write about what you're afraid of."

It's the birthday of the singer Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore (1915) to teenage parents. She was never professionally trained, but by the time she was 18, she had spent more time performing in clubs than performers twice her age. When she recorded with Benny Goodman, her career took off, and she went on to work with Artie Shaw and Lester Young, who gave her the nickname "Lady Day." She struggled with relationships, and addiction, but her apartment in the Bronx was always open to unemployed musicians, and she left a plate on the table that held money for food and subway fares. In her autobiography she wrote, "Singing songs like the 'The Man I Love' or 'Porgy' is no more work than sitting down and eating Chinese roast duck, and I love roast duck."

Studs Terkel saw a performance of Holiday's in 1956, and he wrote: "When she went into 'Willow, Weep for Me,' you wept. You looked about and saw that the few other customers were also crying in their beer and shot glasses. Nor were they that drunk. Something was still there, that something that distinguishes an artist from a performer: the revealing of the self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own."

She died at age 44.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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