Jun. 14, 2012

Glenn Gould

by Stanley Plumly

I heard him that one night in Cincinnati.
The concert hall, 1960, the same day
Kennedy flew into town in perfect sunlight
and rode the route that took him
through the crowds of voters and nonvoters
who alike seemed to want to climb
into the armored convertible.
Gould did not so much play as address
the piano from a height of inches,
as if he were trying to slow the music
by holding each note separately.
Later he would say he was tired
of making public appearances,
the repetition of performing the Variations
was killing him. But that night
Bach felt like a discovery, whose repetitions
Gould had practiced in such privacy
as to bring them into being for the first time.
This was the fall, October, when Ohio,
like almost every other part of the country,
is beginning to be mortally beautiful,
the great old hardwoods letting go
their various scarlet, yellow,
and leopard-spotted leaves one by one.

"Glenn Gould" by Stanley Plumly, from Orphan Hours. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Flag Day here in the United States. On this day in 1777, the government officially adopted the Stars and Stripes as our national flag. No one knows for sure, but it was most likely designed by Congressman Francis Hopkinson and sewn by a seamstress in Philadelphia named Betsy Ross.

It's the birthday of the writer Diablo Cody (books by this author), born Brook Busey in Lemont, Illinois (1978). She started a popular blog about life as a stripper, and a talent agent came across it and helped her publish her memoir: Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper (2005). Then he suggested that she write a screenplay, and in just a couple of months sitting with her laptop in the Starbucks section of a Target store in Minneapolis, she wrote the screenplay for Juno (2007), which became a surprise hit. Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and it is the highest-grossing movie in the history of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

It's the birthday of a man whose image has become one of the most popular cultural icons — and counterculture icons — of the past half century: Che Guevara (books by this author), born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina (1928), to parents of Irish and Spanish descent. His family was affluent and believed strongly in socialist ideals. He swam competitively, played rugby, and learned to speak French fluently before heading off to medical school. At 23, he took a year off from medical school and set out on a motorcycle ride with a friend of his. For nine months, he traveled around, traversing 8,000 miles by motorcycle, steamship, horseback, hitchhiking, river raft, and cargo plane. The journey became the basis for his New York Times best-selling book The Motorcycle Diaries.

He finished medical school, traveled to Guatemala to promote his ideas of land reform and peasant revolt, and went on to Mexico, where he became friends with Raúl Castro. Raúl decided that Che had a lot of ideas in common with his older brother Fidel Castro, who was living in exile in Mexico after leading a failed uprising in Cuba. In 1955, Che and Fidel had a series of meetings in a house in Mexico City in which they planned to invade Cuba and overthrow the corrupt Batista regime. They gathered other Cuban exiles into their ranks, and Fidel put Che in charge of training the soldiers for combat.

Guerilla fighters set out from Mexico on a wobbly old yacht, called the Granma, and landed on Cuba's east coast, where they began inciting revolt. In late December 1958, Che led a crucial victory in the town of Santa Clara, boarding and overtaking a railroad train full of Batista's soldiers and weapons. And a few days later, on January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro marched victoriously into Havana, where he began setting up the new revolutionary government — the one that still rules Cuba today. Che held various internal ministry posts in the new government, including director of the national bank. He also oversaw the execution of war criminals, and he served as ambassador to a number of nations around the world. It was Che Guevara who orchestrated the close ties between revolutionary Cuba and the Soviet Union. He set up massive trade agreements — in one deal, the USSR would buy 3 million tons of sugar from Cuba — and arranged for the Soviets to provide military support if Cuba should be threatened by hostile neighbors.

Che was captured in Bolivia in October 1967, while training guerilla fighters for an uprising. He was executed at a schoolhouse the next day. His famous last words: "Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man." He was 39.

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