Sunday Feb. 8, 2015

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My Father Laughing in the Chicago Theater

His heavy body would double itself forward
At the waist, swell, and come heaving around
To slam at his seatback, making the screws groan
And squawk down half the row as it went tilting
Under my mother and me, under whoever
Was out of luck on the other side of him.
Like a boxer slipping punches, he’d lift his elbows
To flail and jerk, and his wide-open mouth
Would boom out four deep haaa’s to the end of his breath.

He was laughing at Burns and Allen or Jack Benny
In person or at his limitless engagement
With Groucho, Chico, and Harpo. While my mother
Sat there between us, gazing at the stage
And chuckling placidly, I watched with amazement
The spectacle of a helpless father, unmanned,
Disarmed by laughter. The tears would dribble
From under his bifocals, as real as sweat.
He would gape and gag, go limp, and spring back to life.

I would laugh too, but partly at him, afraid
Of becoming him. He could scowl anywhere,
Be solemn or blank in church or going to work,
Turn grim with a cold chisel, or he could smile
At babies or football games, but he only laughed
There in that theater. And up the aisle
And through the lobby to the parking lot
And all the way home, I’d see the glow on his cheeks
Fade to the usual hectic steelmill sunburn.

“My Father Laughing in the Chicago Theater” by David Wagoner from Traveling Light. © University of Illinois Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the best-selling novelist John Grisham (books by this author), born in Jonesboro, Arkansas (1955). He became a successful lawyer and then decided to write a novel based on one of his court cases. He spent three years writing A Time to Kill (1989), but only a few thousand copies were printed, and it didn’t sell out on the first run. So he read Writer’s Digest magazine and found an article about the rules of suspense, and he used that formula to write a thriller about a law student who realizes that the firm he works for is connected to the mafia. That was The Firm (1991). It was a huge best-seller, and John Grisham went on to write The Pelican Brief (1992), The Rainmaker (1995), and many more best-sellers. His most recent novel, Gray Mountain (2014), came out last fall.

It’s the birthday of poet Elizabeth Bishop (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1911). Her father died when she was a little girl. Her mother had an emotional breakdown from grief and spent the rest of her life in various mental institutions. Elizabeth spent most of her childhood moving back and forth between her grandparents in Nova Scotia and her father’s family in Massachusetts.

She was painfully shy and quiet in college, but during her senior year, she mustered all her courage and introduced herself to her idol, the elder poet Marianne Moore. The meeting was awkward at first, but then Bishop offered to take Moore to the circus. It turned out they both loved going to the circus and they both also loved snakes, tattoos, exotic flowers, birds, dressmaking, and recipes. Moore became Bishop’s mentor and friend.

She was an extremely slow writer and published only 101 poems in her lifetime. She worked on her poem “The Moose” for more than 25 years, keeping it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines again and again until she got it right. But she was an obsessive letter writer. She once wrote 40 letters in a single day. She said, “I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here.” A collection of her letters, One Art: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, was published in 1994.

It was on this day in 1910 that the Boy Scouts of America was incorporated as a youth organization in the United States. The idea for the Boy Scouts came from a British Army Officer named Robert Baden-Powell who returned from a war in South Africa to find that the young people in his country had grown soft and undisciplined in his absence. He said, “[Young people today are] without individuality or strength of character, utterly without resourcefulness, initiative or guts for adventure.” He created the Boy Scouts as an organization and wrote a book called Scouting for Boys that became the Boy Scout manual.

An American man named William Boyce was visiting London, England, when he got lost in a heavy fog. A young Boy Scout offered to help him, and the experience inspired Boyce to bring Boy Scouting to America. The Boy Scout program had been popular in England, but it became a sensation in the United States after it was incorporated here. Within four years, there were more than 100,000 American Boy Scouts, and by the outbreak of World War II, there were more than a million.

Among the many Americans who joined the Boy Scouts were Gerald Ford, Neil Armstrong, Alfred Kinsey, John F. Kennedy, Walter Cronkite, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and Michael Moore.

The Boy Scout Handbook says, “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”

It’s the birthday of poet and translator Lisel Mueller (books by this author), born in Hamburg, Germany (1924). Her father was a German intellectual who was targeted by Hitler’s regime, so when she was 15 years old her family moved from Hamburg to the town of Evansville, Indiana. She struggled to fit in with her peers — the American girls were less serious than she was about culture and history, and they wore makeup. She was learning English and she found it difficult to understand poetry by Keats and Byron, but one of her new friends introduced her to the work of Carl Sandburg. His poems made sense and inspired her to write some of her own. Over the next few years, she wrote some bad, overly flowery poems, but she assumed that poetry was just an adolescent phase, and after college she didn’t write again for 10 years. Then her mother died, and suddenly she found herself writing poems. She said: “I guess strong emotion sometimes releases needs inside a person that we didn’t know we had or had forgotten we had. [...] Once that was unlocked, that need, I knew that that was what I had to do the rest of my life.”

She began publishing poems in small journals, and a few years later she published her first poetry book, Dependencies (1965). She went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her books include The Private Life (1975), The Need to Hold Still (1980), Learning to Play by Ear (1990), and Alive Together: New and Selected Poems (1996).

She said: “I find it boring to be constantly writing about myself. There are so many other more interesting people in the world [...] There is a double satisfaction in being someone else and still being myself.”

It’s the birthday of the man known as the father of science fiction, Jules Verne (books by this author), born in Nantes, France (1828). In his adventure novels, Paris in the 20th Century (written 1863, not published until 1994), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), Verne described inventions that were similar to modern airplanes and automobiles, and tall skyscrapers where people use electricity to listen to the radio and send faxes, and yet he wrote his stories by candlelight.

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