May 22, 2011

Brush Strokes

by Joyce Kennedy

At bedtime, my Norwegian grandmother
sits on the small bench before a dressing table,
unbraids her hair to brush it. I sit on the edge
of the bed to watch, fascinated by the two of her,
her back in front of me with silver hair
cascading down it like waterfall, while
her face, soft to touch as a pansy, peers
to smile at me from the mirror. "It's good,"
she instructs me with confidence, "to brush
your hair one hundred strokes each day."

Side by side in our shared bed, she teaches me
the Twenty-third Psalm. Together we lie down
in the green pastures of Norway, oh, beautiful;
we stop by the still waters of fjords. Together
we walk through the valley of the shadow of death—
so thrilling, that encounter with dark, soft
as a brush stroke, and we come through unscathed.

"Brush Strokes" by Joyce Kennedy, from Ghost Lamp. © Laurel Poetry Collective, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the birthday of the first openly gay man elected to public office. Harvey Milk was born in Woodmere, New York (1930). He was the younger of two boys and was teased as a child for his big ears and big nose. He played football in high school, studied math in college, and wrote for the college newspaper. He later joined the Navy and served on a submarine rescue ship during the Korean War.

He moved from job to job after leaving the Navy. He taught high school, became an actuary, worked on Wall Street. He moved to San Francisco in 1969 and fell in love with the city, which had become a hub for gay men. He met his lover Scott Smith in San Francisco, and after a roll of film Harvey dropped off at a camera shop was ruined, the two decided to open a camera store with the $1,000 they had between them.

One day when a state worker visited Castro Camera and informed Milk that he owed $100 in state sales taxes, he was outraged. After weeks of complaining at various state offices, he got the fee reduced to $30. But he became upset again when a schoolteacher came into the shop to rent a projector because the equipment in the schools did not function. And he got so angry watching then-Attorney General John N. Mitchell say, "I don't recall" during the Watergate hearings that friends had to restrain him from kicking the TV.

Milk's increasing outrage led him to run for city supervisor in the 1973 election. He was a hippie with no money and no political experience, and while his savvy media skills earned him attention, he lost the election. Undeterred, Milk built coalitions with organized labor over the following two years and ran again for city supervisor in 1975. This time he decided to cut his long hair, wear suits, and give up his support to legalize marijuana. Milk lost again, but this time the election was much closer. His spirits buoyed by the narrow loss, he ran for the California State Assembly. He lost.

But Milk had found his passion in politics and he ran for city supervisor again in 1977. He campaigned on civil rights issues, but he also advocated for less expensive child care facilities, free public transportation, and the creation of a civilian board to oversee the police. He won by 30 percent and his election as the first openly gay man elected to public office made national headlines.

One of the other supervisors sworn in that day with Milk was Daniel White, a former police officer and firefighter. But after 10 months of service, White resigned saying that the $9,600 per year wasn't enough to support his family. But then a few days later, he changed his mind and asked to be reinstated. The mayor originally agreed but then changed his mind, choosing to appoint someone who better represented the area's growing diversity.

So on November 27, 1978, just before the press conference announcing his replacement, White snuck into City Hall through a basement window, walked to the mayor's office and shot and killed him. He then ran into Milk in the hallway, asked to see him privately for a moment, and then shot him five times including twice in the head at close range. Senator Diane Feinstein heard the shots and was the one who identified the bodies.

California has designated today Harvey Milk Day.

He said, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door."

On this day in 1842, 1,000 pioneers headed west on the Oregon Trail in what is now known as the "Great Migration."

The Oregon Trail is a historic commercial and emigrant trail that stretches 2,000 miles from the Missouri River to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. When fur traders first discovered the trail in the early part of the 19th century, it was impassable by wagon and could only be traveled on foot or horse. But by the late 1830s, improvements made the trail assessable to wagons, and many people were intent on heading westward. They had heard glorious stories of Oregon's beauty and the many possibilities that awaited them in the West.

A lawyer in Missouri named Peter Burnett (who was later elected the first governor of California) felt the call of the West. As he later wrote, "I saw that a great American community would grow up, in the space of a few years, upon the distant Pacific and I felt an ardent desire to aid in this most important enterprise." So he helped organize a wagon train with 300 men, women, and children and 50 wagons that left Independence on this day in 1843. By the time the train reached Topeka, Kansas, the number of pioneers had more than doubled.

The travelers got in frequent fights over who would guard the cattle at night. They encountered herds of bison and villages of prairie dogs. They reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, in 40 days, a distance of 670 miles. From there they passed through the Rocky Mountains, crossed the Colorado River, then headed west-southwest to Fort Bridger and then Fort Boise. They finally arrived in the Willamette Valley five months after setting off from Independence.

Four more wagon trains made the journey the following year, and by 1845, the number of travelers surpassed 3,000. The trail fell out of use as railroad lines began to crisscross the country, and it was abandoned entirely in the 1870s.

From the archives:

It is the birthday of the man who wrote the world's longest opera, The Ring Cycle: Richard Wagner, born in Leipzig, Germany (1813). Wagner participated in a leftist uprising against the King of Saxony in 1849, and when the rebellion was quickly crushed, Wagner fled to Paris in exile.

Fifteen years later, King Ludwig II ascended the throne in Bavaria. The 18-year-old king loved Wagner and invited the composer back to Munich, where Ludwig paid off his debts and staged his operas. But Wagner began a scandalous affair with Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter Cosima and the two had an illegitimate child. Ludwig was forced to ask Wagner to leave Munich because of the scandal, but he was so devastated at the thought of Wagner leaving his side, that he considered giving up the throne to follow the composer. But Wagner quickly talked him out of abdicating.

In 1868, Ludwig's grandfather died and Ludwig inherited a considerable amount of money. He almost immediately ordered work to begin on his dream castle, Neuschwanstein, which he wanted to be an architectural homage to Wagner. Almost every room in the castle is filled with visual motifs (most of them swans) from Wagner's operas; they are carved in the woodwork or painted on the walls. Ludwig even had a grotto based on one from a Wagner opera built for the castle. Ludwig racked up millions of marks of debt to create his lavish tribute to Wagner and nearly bankrupted the state. When a group was sent to Neuschwanstein to depose the king by force, he had them arrested. But Ludwig died a few days later under mysterious circumstances.

Today Neuschwanstein is the most visited tourist site in Germany, and its romantic, over-the-top beauty was the model for Cinderella's castle at Disneyland.

On this date, the Great Train Robbery took place in Marshfield, Indiana (1868). The newspaper report the following day noted: "The car of the Adams Express Company was robbed last night on the Jeffersonville Railroad, at Marshfield, Indiana, twenty miles below Seymour. A party of robbers supposed to be the notorious Reno brothers, held up the train and made a clean sweep of the express company's safes, said to contain in the neighborhood of a hundred thousand dollars."

On this day in 1906, the Orville and Wilbur Wright were granted a patent for the "flying machine." The brothers first flew a heavier-than-air flight craft in 1903 and spent the next several years improving their design. The opening of the 1906 patent reads, "Be it known that we, ORVILLE WRIGHT and WILBUR WRIGHT, citizens of the United States, residing in the city of Dayton, county of Montgomery, and State of Ohio, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Flying-Machines."

It is the birthday of novelist and environmental activist Peter Matthiessen (books by this author), born in New York City (1927). In 1953, Matthiessen was an expatriate living in Paris where he co-founded The Paris Review with George Plimpton and Doc Humes. At the time, he was also a young CIA recruit and he used the Review as a cover. He is the author of At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965), The Snow Leopard (1978), and Shadows of Africa (1992).

It is the birthday of painter Mary Cassatt, born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (1844). She studied abroad as a child and was exposed to the work of French painters Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, and Courbet. Her parents didn't want her to become an artist but she persisted, enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts when she was just 15. But she found the male students patronizing and the teaching poor and she left school to study on her own. She moved back to France, studied with the masters, and began to exhibit her work with the Impressionists. She often painted women and children in private. One of her most recognized works is The Child's Bath (1893), which is now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

It is the birthday of the man who created Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (books by this author) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1859). He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, served as a ship's doctor, and later started his own medical practice. He wrote in his spare time and based the character of Sherlock on a doctor he met in medical school, who took copious notes on his patients' backgrounds. The first Holmes story appeared in 1887. He went on to write 56 more Sherlock Holmes stories and four novels.

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