Apr. 8, 2011

Her Kid Brother Ran Beside the Car

by Marjorie Saiser

After phoning her father
she caught a ride from the depot.
Her kid brother waited at the bridge
and then ran, grinning, beside the car
all the way to the house.
He was taller and bonier than the day she left,
bib overalls hanging on his shirtless shoulders,
thick dark hair shaking with his running.

He clammed up and backed off when she
got out. She held her squirming baby
and stood at the driver's window to thank
the neighbor who had given her a ride,
a long thanks protocol called for.
Neither father nor mother came to the door,
one reading the county paper
and one peeling an extra potato, and it was
her kid brother who reached for the suitcase
and ran ahead over the cedar needles
to open the heavy door.

"Her Kid Brother Ran Beside the Car" by Marjorie Saiser, from Beside You at the Stoplight. © The Backwaters Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1820, one of the world's most celebrated pieces of art was discovered by a farmer on the Greek island of Melos — the marble statue of "Venus de Milo." France paid 1,000 francs for her — about the price of a herd of goats.

Her arms were missing, but her head and beautiful face were present, and her nude torso too, with drapery sliding down the rest. It's a pose that has led art historians to believe the anonymous woman is a depiction of Venus, goddess of love, beauty, and fertility.

Like all stunning women, men have fought over her. A Bavarian prince purchased the land she had been found on in Greece and then claimed the rights to her. France ignored him. For more than 100 years it was debated as to whether or not she is Hellenistic. It is now generally agreed that she is.

Thousands of artists and writers have ben inspired by her. Thousands more come to visit her at the Louvre every day, jamming into her alcove to catch a glimpse of her beauty.

On this date (1893) the first recorded college basketball game was played in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, between Geneva College and the New Brighton YMCA.

The score was 3-0, with Geneva victorious. A low-scoring game, sure, but they were using peach baskets as goals so they had to retrieve the ball themselves.

It's the day Longacre Square in Midtown Manhattan was renamed Times Square (1904) after a new building that went up to house The New York Times.

It was a neighborhood of seedy hotel rooms and dubious entertainment. But then a subway stop showed up, and then the theaters, and then the publisher of The New York Times decided to drop an electric ball there every New Year's Eve. It became a hot spot for society and a barometer for how the country was feeling.

By the 1960s, it had gone back to being the home of prostitutes and drug dealers, like in the movies Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver. During the 1990s, Mayor Giuliani wanted it cleaned up for tourists, so now it's home to stores from Disney, ESPN, and Toys "R" Us, and a Red Lobster restaurant.

The first sign that went up with the words "Times Square" in it said: "Times Square Branch of the Mechanics and Traders' Bank." Today, Times Square tenants must display bright signs — it is required by a zoning ordinance.

Suzan-Lori Parks (books by this author) became the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama on this day (2002), awarded to her for her play Topdog/Underdog.

It's about two African-American brothers — scam artists that specialize in "three-card monte." One of the brothers is named Booth. The other: Lincoln. Lincoln is giving up three-card monte to play the part of President Abraham Lincoln at a neighborhood arcade. He plays the part in white face.

One reviewer likened it to a retelling of Cain and Abel, and wrote of the play: "Brotherly love and hatred is translated into the terms of men who have known betrayal since their youth, when their parents walked out on them, and who will never be able entirely to trust anyone, including (and especially) each other. Implicit in their relationship is the idea that to live is to con."

It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Kingsolver (books by this author), born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955). She is the writer of many novels, stories, and essays, and is known for her use of extensive research.

She grew up in rural Kentucky, where her dad was the county doctor, but the family moved to the Congo for a year so he could work as a medical missionary. She was tall and thin and bookish, and she wrote in a journal, and she was good at piano. She got a scholarship to DePauw University for piano, but switched her major to biology because it seemed more lucrative. She moved to Tucson and wrote a master's thesis on termite behavior, and then ended up in technical writing.

Always she wrote stories on her own. When she developed insomnia, she took her typewriter into the closet so she wouldn't wake her husband. She wrote a novel about a woman who ends up with custody of a young Cherokee girl named Turtle. That novel was The Bean Trees (1988). She wrote two more novels, Animal Dreams (1990) and Pigs in Heaven (1993), as well as books of essays and short stories.

For years, she had a folder on her desk that she called the "damn Africa file." Eventually, she used it to write The Poisonwood Bible (1998). It was a huge best-seller, selling more than 2 million copies, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Barbara Kingsolver said: "The best research gets your fingers dusty and your shoes dirty, especially because a novel is made of details. I had to know what a place smelled like, what it sounded like. ... There's no substitute for that. I've been steeped in evidence-based truth."

And she said, "What a writer can do, what a fiction writer or a poet or an essay writer can do, is re-engage people with their own humanity. Fiction and essays can create empathy for the theoretical stranger."

It's the birthday of the investigative journalist who broke the story of the My Lai Massacre to the American public: Seymour Hersh (books by this author), born in Chicago (1937).

He worked as a reporter for various wire services, including the Associated Press, and eventually as a Pentagon correspondent. When he wrote an extensive piece on chemical and biological warfare that the AP cut to just a fraction of its original size, he quit to go freelance.

He got a tip that a lieutenant, William Calley, was being court-martialed for killing innocent civilians in Vietnam. Hersh drove from base to base, waking people up to ask them where Calley was, pulling all his Pentagon strings, until he found Calley and Calley told him what happened.

Life and Look magazines refused the story, but he did finally sell it. When the story hit, it made a huge impact on the public perception of the Vietnam War, and Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize.

Since 1993, he has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker, where in 2004 he exposed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

A friend of his said, "There's only a handful of reporters like Hersh who are still doing investigative reporting. There's a new crop of journalists who are what I call 'scandal reporters,' or 'scandal beat reporters.' They only pretend to do investigative reporting."

When asked what the secret is to being an investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh said: "I don't make deals, I don't party and drink with sources, and I don't play a game of leaks. I read, I listen, I squirrel information. It's fun."

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




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