Tuesday Mar. 10, 2015

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A Drink of Water

When my nineteen-year-old son turns on the kitchen tap
and leans down over the sink and tilts his head sideways
to drink directly from the stream of cool water,
I think of my older brother, now almost ten years gone,
who used to do the same thing at that age;

and when he lifts his head back up and, satisfied,
wipes the water dripping from his cheek
with his shirtsleeve, it’s the same casual gesture
my brother used to make; and I don’t tell him
to use a glass, the way our father told my brother,

because I like remembering my brother
when he was young, decades before anything
went wrong, and I like the way my son
becomes a little more my brother for a moment
through this small habit born of a simple need,

which, natural and unprompted, ties them together
across the bounds of death, and across time …
as if the clear stream flowed between two worlds
and entered this one through the kitchen faucet,
my son and brother drinking the same water.

“A Drink of Water” by Jeffrey Harrison, from Into Daylight. © Tupelo Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, born in Davenport, Iowa (1903). He played with the Wolverines in the 1920s and then joined Frankie Trumbauer’s band, recording classics such as “I’m Coming, Virginia” and “Singin’ the Blues.”

It’s the birthday of playwright and novelist David Rabe (books by this author), born in Dubuque, Iowa (1940). He was drafted and sent to Vietnam. He didn’t actually fight — he worked in a hospital unit and did paperwork. He said: “Barriers were down; restrictions were down; behavior outside the norms. There was this giddy thing. You could go around one corner and see something horrible, around another and see something thrilling. It was a little like the Wild West.”

He wrote a trilogy of plays about Vietnam: The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1971), Sticks and Bones (1969), and Streamers (1976). Sticks and Bones is the story of a blind Vietnam veteran who comes home to a family who does not understand him anymore — his parents are named Ozzie and Harriet, a nod to a popular sitcom. Sticks and Bones won the Tony Award for best play.

His most recent work is the play An Early History of Fire (2012).

David Rabe said: “I get a sentence, an idea, an image, and I start. I don’t know anything beyond it. I follow it.”

It was on this day in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful telephone call. Bell’s first working telephone used a liquid transmitter: a diaphragm that caused a needle to vibrate in water, similar to the way sound waves vibrate in air. He spoke to his assistant, electrical designer Thomas Watson, who was in the next room. He said, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.”

The first Book-of-the-Month Club book was published on this day in 1926. The club was the brainchild of Harry Scherman, a former copywriter for J. Walter Thompson in New York City. He built the idea off of the enormous popularity of the “Little Leather Library,” which he also co-founded. The Little Leather Library was a mail-order venture that published classic books in a small format and bound in cheap leather. Scherman and his partner, Robert K. Haas, wanted to perform a similar service for new fiction. They devised a plan to send a new book to their subscribers every month. The books were chosen by a Selection Committee, whose names and qualifications were made known to subscribers. The club’s first selection committee included such luminaries as Christopher Morley, Dorothy Canfield, and Heywood Broun. The club targeted a middle-brow demographic; or, as committee chair Henry Seidel Canby described a typical subscriber: “the average intelligent reader, who has passed through the usual formal education in literature, who reads books as well as newspapers and magazines, who, without calling himself a litterateur, would be willing to assert that he was fairly well read and reasonably fond of good reading.”

The first “book of the month” was Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, by English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was about a widow who moves to a town that is involved in witchcraft. The novel wasn’t a huge hit among the club’s original 4,000 subscribers, but that didn’t stand in the way of the venture’s ultimate success. Twenty years later, the subscriber base had grown to 550,000. Membership numbers peaked in 1988, with 1.5 million subscribers; the advent of Internet and huge chain bookstores spelled its eventual decline.

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