Jun. 19, 2011


by W. S. Merwin

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father's hand the last time

he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
have to
just because I'm here

I say nothing
he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don't want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do

"Yesterday" by W.S. Merwin, from Migration. © Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Father's Day. The holiday that we celebrate on the third Sunday in June traces its roots to 1910, but the first recorded celebration of a holiday honoring fathers took place in Fairmont, West Virginia, on July 5, 1908. Grace Golden Clayton wanted to celebrate the lives of 210 fathers who had died in a mining cave-in in Monongah, West Virginia. That particular observance was never promoted outside of Fairmont, and no mention was made of it until years later. The Father's Day that took root owes its origins to Sonora Smart Dodd, of Spokane, Washington. She heard a Mother's Day sermon in 1909 and thought it might be nice to honor fathers as well. So the following year, she promoted the idea with the support of area churches. The holiday was generally met with ridicule, and it didn't gain traction for a few years. The first bill to make it a national holiday was introduced in Congress in 1913, but in spite of encouragement by President Woodrow Wilson, it didn't pass. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation designating the third Sunday in June to honor fathers, and it finally became an official, permanent national holiday during the Nixon administration.

Several memoirs have been written about fathers and their relationships — often troubled — with their author offspring. Poet and playwright Nick Flynn's father, Jonathan, was an ex-con who fancied himself a writer, but he was a drunk and lost his dreams and his family at the bottom of a bottle; one night, homeless and looking for a place to sleep, he turned up at the shelter where Nick was working. One entire chapter of Nick Flynn's memoir Another Bulls**t Night in Suck City (2004) consists solely of euphemisms for drinking: "The usual I say. Blood of Christ I say. Essence. Spirit. Medicine. A hint. A taste. A bump. A snort. A sip. A nip. I say another round. I say brace yourself. Lift a few. Hoist a few. Work the elbow. Bottoms up. Belly up. Leg up. What'll it be. Name your poison. Mud in your eye. A jar. A jug. A pony. I say a glass. I say same again. I say all around. I say my good man. I say my drinking buddy. I say git that in ya." And so on.

Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff's father, Duke, was a con artist and compulsive liar, and the family was often on the run from creditors and the law; as Geoffrey wrote in his memoir, The Duke of Deception (1990): "We packed, walked away from every thing. I wish I had the stuff now, letters, photographs, a Boy Scout merit badge sash, Shep's ribbon: Gentlest in Show at the Old Lyme grade school fair. My father had had his two favorite suits rewoven; he left the rest behind with most of his shoes, umbrellas, hats, accessories … I brought my typewriter and my novel. While my father had watched television I had written a novel. I worked on it every night, with my bedroom door shut; my father treated it like a rival, which it was, a still, invented place safe from him. He made cracks about The Great Book, and resented me for locking it away every night when I finished with it, while he shut down the Late Show, and then the Late Late. I made much of not showing it to him."

Poet Honor Moore wrote about her father — a bisexual Episcopal priest — in The Bishop's Daughter (2008): "Once, after supper, my father swept me up into his black seminarian's cape and across the street for Evensong. I remember the starry sky, the cold darkness as we climbed the stairs to the seminary and stepped along the grassy path to the chapel. I could already hear it, something like the rushing of wind, the coming of a storm. We were late, and as we slipped into the pew in the candlelit church full of men I understood that the rushing sound was singing. The rumbling voices of priests and seminarians, resounding against the stone walls of the small chapel, were otherworldly, even Godlike. I was scared, and so I leaned against my father, nuzzling the black cape still fresh from the night air, but he didn't look down at me or put his hand on my head. Now he belonged to something else, this big and strange sound, so deep and loud it made me shake."

It's the birthday of religious philosopher, physicist, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623) (books by this author), born in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was a child prodigy, and by the time he was 19 he had already perfected the first mechanical calculator for sale to the public. In the field of physics, he discovered that air has weight, and proved that vacuums are possible in nature. In mathematics, he founded the theory of probabilities and developed an early form of integral calculus. He invented the syringe and the hydraulic press, and gave the world the principle that would come to be known as "Pascal's Law": pressure applied to a confined liquid is transmitted undiminished through the liquid in all directions regardless of the area to which the pressure is applied.

He was often conflicted, torn between a spiritual life and a scientific one. When he was 23, he began to feel the need to withdraw from the world and devote his life to God, and he did for a while, but soon threw himself back into his scientific pursuits, working so hard he made himself ill. He returned to religion for good after a mystical conversion experience, which he called the "night of fire," in 1654, and entered the Abbey of Port-Royal in January 1655. Although he never formally joined the Solitaires — the hermits at the abbey — he never again published under his own name, writing only materials that they requested. He produced two great works of religious philosophy, Les Provinciales (Provincial Letters, 1657), and Pensées (Thoughts, 1658). He wrote: "Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being."

The Communications Act of 1934 formed the Federal Communications Commission on this date. The Act did away with the Federal Radio Commission and transferred jurisdiction over to the new FCC, adding telecommunications regulation — which had previously been under the control of the Interstate Commerce Commission — to its list of responsibilities. The FCC now regulates interstate and foreign communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. It's concerned mainly with the technical aspects of communication, and not content, although it does lay out some basic rules against obscenity and slander. They became a little more attentive to indecency regulations in 2004 after Janet Jackson's infamous Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," which inadvertently exposed her breast.

During the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, certain aspects of the FCC were deemed outdated and counter to a market-based system. Among the regulations that were dropped was the hotly contested Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present controversial issues in an honest, equitable, and balanced manner, and to present contrasting viewpoints.

It's the birthday of Sir Salman Rushdie (books by this author), born to a middle-class Muslim family in Bombay, India, in 1947. He was sent to England when he was 14, to study first at the Rugby School and then at Cambridge; while he was away, his parents moved to Pakistan as part of the Muslim exodus brought about by the war between India and Pakistan.

He's written 11 novels; he's best known for his second book, Midnight's Children (1981), which won the Booker Prize; and his fourth, The Satanic Verses (1988), which was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad and was deemed blasphemous by many Muslim clerics, including Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, who put a bounty on Rushdie's head in 1989. Several of his translators have since been attacked, one of them fatally, but so far Rushdie has escaped harm. The government of Iran issued a statement in 1998 saying that it would no longer attempt to enforce the fatwa, but Rushdie still tends to avoid the public eye.

A film adaptation of Midnight's Children recently finished shooting in Sri Lanka. At first, the island nation was reluctant to allow the movie to be filmed there, but finally allowed it on condition that the cast and crew sign confidentiality agreements and keep the production a secret to avoid religious protests. In addition to some Muslims' anger at Rushdie, the movie's director, Deepa Mehta, has also angered Hindus with some of her previous projects. Word about the production leaked out in spite of the secrecy, and the Iranian government complained, which forced production to be halted. Mehta appealed to Sri Lanka's president, who overturned the ban, and filming concluded in the spring of 2011.

Rushdie told Salon: "I think there is nothing wrong with the idea that fiction is a matter of life and death. Look at the history of literature. Look at what happened in the Soviet Union. Look at what's happening in China, in Africa, and across the Muslim World. It's not just me. Fiction has always been treated this way. It does matter and it's often very bad for writers that it does. But that just comes with the territory."

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed by the United States Senate on this date. It's often viewed as the most important United States civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction, and it prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in employment, voting, and the use of public facilities. It was first proposed in 1963 by President Kennedy, but failed to pass. Lyndon Johnson put forward a more robust version the following year, but it had faced a long battle in Congress, including a 57-day filibuster organized by Richard B. Russell. Eventually, the Senate voted to end the filibuster and passed the act, with a 71-29 vote.

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