Jul. 25, 2011

Phone Therapy

by Ellen Bass

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull
on the indifferent sidewalk, "Do you think,"
I asked, "you could just postpone it
until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?"

The cord that connected us—strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound.

In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
"Okay," he agreed.

"Phone Therapy" by Ellen Bass, from Mules of Love. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the anniversary of the first successful demonstration of a commercial electric telegraph in 1837. The technology had arisen slowly as an offshoot of experiments with electricity. Scientists had proven in 1746 that electrical current traveled quickly; the first suggestion to use it as a means of communication had been made in 1753, in an anonymous letter to Scots Magazine. Early attempts weren't very encouraging; they were too dependent on weather conditions, too easily disrupted, and couldn't go very far. Some worked but just weren't practical, including a German design that used separate wires for each letter of the alphabet and numeral. The wires were submerged in glass tubes filled with acid, and the receiver had to watch the tubes and record the letters as the tubes bubbled. Another design worked over longer distances, but it was slow, transmitting two letters per minute.

British inventors Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed a telegraph to be used as an alarm system. It had six wires and five needle pointers, which pointed at the letters on a plate. They first demonstrated it successfully on this date in 1837, between Euston and Camden Town in London. Two years later, the Great Western Railway put it into use over a 13-mile stretch from Paddington Station to West Drayton. Six years after that, their electrical telegraph helped catch a murderer who had escaped on a train.

Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis debuted at Atlantic City's 500 Club as an improv comedy duo on this date in 1946. They'd met in 1945. Lewis was in New York with a friend, singer Sonny King, when they ran into Martin on the street. King knew Martin, and introduced them. Martin had been working as a crooner, and Lewis had his own comedy routine lip-synching to records. Their paths would cross from time to time, and later, when Lewis was working at the 500 Club and heard they were looking for a singer, he suggested Martin. They started heckling each other's acts, and one day they decided to make it official.

They had first taken the stage before midnight, on the 24th, with a scripted act, but they were terrible. Skinny D'Amato, the owner of the club, told them they'd better do better for the second show that night, or they'd be canned. During an impromptu strategy session in the alley, they decided to go for broke and perform the whole thing off the cuff. Songs, vaudeville, slapstick, breaking dishes: nothing was off limits. They were a huge hit. Comedian Alan King remembered, "They didn't get laughs — it was pandemonium. People knocked over tables." In his memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story (2005), Lewis explained his theory: "You have to remember: Postwar America was a very buttoned-up nation. Radio shows were run by censors, Presidents wore hats, ladies wore girdles. We came straight out of the blue — nobody was expecting anything like Martin and Lewis. A sexy guy and a monkey is how some people saw us, but what we really were, in an age of Freudian self-realization, was the explosion of the show-business id."

They played to each other and ignored the audience, and the energy they generated through their improv was unmatched, even in an era of great comic duos. "Like Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, and Hope and Crosby, we were vaudevillians, stage performers who worked with an audience," wrote Lewis. "But the difference between us and all the others is significant. They worked with a script. We exploded without one, the same way wiseguy kids do on a playground, or jazz musicians do when they're let loose."

On this date in 1956, the SS Andrea Doria sank off of Nantucket Island. The Italian ocean liner was a source of pride for Italy, still trying to rebuild itself after World War II. The ship was bound for New York; at about 11 p.m., she collided with the eastbound Swedish-American ship, the SS Stockholm, while traveling in a fog bank.

The Andrea Doria remained afloat almost exactly 11 hours after the collision, though she listed badly to starboard, which meant the lifeboats on the port side were too high in the air to be usable. Out of the more than 1,700 people aboard, only 46 died, no thanks to the ship's crew, who took the first three lifeboats off the sinking ship. The Stockholm, which remained afloat, and several other ships in the area came to the aid of the stranded passengers. A French liner, the SS Ile de France, heard the distress call and turned around, and they accommodated most of the survivors. By morning, the Andrea Doria had been evacuated. Because the two shipping companies settled out of court, no official determination of fault was made.

It's the birthday of Louise Brown, the first baby conceived via in vitro insemination. "In vitro" means "in glass," so for years she was referred to as the first "test tube baby." She was born in Oldham, Great Britain, in 1978, to Lesley and John Brown, who had tried to conceive a child for nine years. Lesley had blocked fallopian tubes, which meant her eggs were unable to reach the uterus to be fertilized. After trying several doctors, the Browns were referred to Drs. Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards. They'd been working on alternative methods of conception since 1966, and though they'd been successful with a version of in vitro fertilization performed on animals, they hadn't been able to duplicate those results in humans, even after 80 tries. They were able to fertilize the egg, but the resulting embryos had only survived a few weeks after they were returned to the mothers' bodies.

The doctors began the procedure in the usual way: retrieving the egg, mixing it with John's sperm, and allowing the fertilized egg to divide for a few days in a special solution. But with the Browns, they decided to transfer the fertilized egg into Lesley's uterus after only two and a half days, rather than waiting four or five, as they'd done previously. This time, the embryo survived, and Lesley had a fairly uneventful pregnancy until the very end, when her blood pressure became very high and the doctors decided to deliver the baby nine days early by cesarean section. Louise Joy Brown was born at 11:47 p.m., with blonde hair and blue eyes, and she weighed five pounds, 12 ounces.

Louise was followed four years later by her sister Natalie, who was also conceived by IVF. She was the 40th IVF baby, and the first one to have a baby herself, which she did in 1999.

The Concorde crashed outside Paris on this date in 2000, killing all 109 people aboard. Four people on the ground were also killed when the jet crashed into a small hotel and restaurant. Shortly after take-off, one of the tires burst, and the debris struck a fuel tank, which ruptured and burst into flames.

The Concorde was the world's first supersonic commercial passenger plane. Its first flight was on March 2, 1969, and it traveled twice the speed of sound. It cost so much to develop that it never made any money. It made its maiden transatlantic flight in September 1973, and at first it was only flown on two routes: from London to Bahrain, by British Airways; and from Paris to Rio de Janeiro, by Air France. Regular service to Washington, D.C., was added in 1976, and to New York in 1977. It was noisy and expensive to operate, and eventually all routes were cut except to and from New York. Both airlines stopped flying the Concorde altogether in 2003.

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




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