Wednesday Aug. 26, 2015

0:00/ 0:00

Starting a Poem

You’re alone. Then there’s a knock
On the door. It’s a word. You
Bring it in. Things go
OK for a while. But this word

Has relatives. Soon
They turn up. None of them work.
They sleep on the floor, and they steal
Your tennis shoes.

You started it; you weren’t
Content to leave things alone.
Now the den is a mess, and the
Remote is gone.

That’s what being married
Is like! You never receive your
Wife only, but the
Madness of her family.

Now see what’s happened?
Where is your car? You won’t
Be able to find
The keys for a week.

"Starting a Poem” by Robert Bly from Talking into the Ear of a Donkey. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Albert Sabin (1906), the developer of the oral polio vaccine. He was born in Bialystok, Poland, to Jewish parents; his last name was Saperstein. He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1921; he changed his name to Sabin when he became a naturalized citizen in 1930. He began his research on poliomyelitis while he was still a medical student at New York University. Later, at the University of Cincinnati, he proved that the poliovirus entered the body not through the respiratory tract, as was commonly believed, but through the digestive tract. This breakthrough started him on a new line of thought: if a weakened form of the poliomyelitis virus was given orally, it might be more effective than its dead counterpart, which was given via injection. The Sabin oral polio vaccine was approved for use in the United States in 1960, and soon became the vaccine of choice around the world.

It’s the anniversary of the first televised major league baseball game, broadcast on New York NBC station W2XBS on this date in 1939. Red Barber announced the games — a double-header between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds — played at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Television hadn’t really caught on yet; only about 400 people in the New York area had TV sets. But the World’s Fair was in New York in 1939, and organizers wanted to showcase this new medium. They broadcast the game from the top of the new Empire State Building, and homes as far as 50 miles away were able to tune in, but most people had to watch it at the World’s Fair, on monitors that were only nine by 12 inches.

The game was filmed with only two cameras: one was in the visitors’ dugout, and the other was in the stands behind home plate. The quality wasn’t very good; it was difficult to even see the ball most of the time, but it was an improvement over earlier broadcasts of college baseball games. W2XBS was also the first station to broadcast other live sporting events like football, basketball, and hockey.

Radio announcer Red Barber had just signed on to be the voice of the Dodgers that year. He followed team president Larry McPhail from Cincinnati to Brooklyn, even though the Reds offered him double his salary to stay. He had to ad-lib all the ads during those first televised games, holding up a bar of Ivory Soap, or pouring himself a bowl of Wheaties. He didn’t have a monitor, so he had to guess which camera was broadcasting at any given moment.

At first, baseball owners weren’t thrilled with the idea of live sports broadcasts. They were afraid that people would stop coming to the games. But soon they realized that TV could bring in money in other ways: namely the sale of broadcasting rights and advertising. And since then, major changes to the sport — including the increase in the number of night games and the advent of instant replay — have been made with TV viewership in mind.

Today is the birthday of British novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood (books by this author), born in rural Cheshire (1904). He became an American citizen in 1946, settling in Santa Monica, California, where he lived until his death in 1986.

He had a privileged childhood, and attended Cambridge, where he befriended other writers like Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden. He was asked to leave the university in 1925, after he answered his exam questions with limericks and blank verse. He took a series of part-time jobs then, working as a tutor and as a secretary for a musical group. He even enrolled — briefly — in medical school. And he worked on his first two novels: All the Conspirators (1928) and The Memorial (1932).

In 1929, he followed Auden to Berlin, where homosexuality was not illegal as it was in Britain, and where notions of morality were not held in such high regard. He stayed in Berlin until 1933, when Hitler came into power. Isherwood and Auden immigrated to the United States in 1939; Auden stayed on the East Coast, and Isherwood went west. He wrote Hollywood screenplays and became a disciple of a Ramakrishna monk, with whom he completed an English translation of the Sanskrit holy text, the Bhagavad-Gita, in 1944. He considered becoming a monk, but then decided that writing, not the monastic life, was his vocation.

Isherwood is best known for the novels he wrote about life in Weimar Berlin, just before the rise of the Nazi party, including Mr. Norris Changes Trains (1935), Sally Bowles (1937), and Goodbye to Berlin (1939). These books inspired the play I Am a Camera (1951) and the musical Cabaret (1966), both of which were also made into films. Goodbye to Berlin begins with the narrator informing the reader, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

It’s the birthday of American writer Barbara Ehrenreich (1941) (books by this author), best known for her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001). Ehrenreich was a successful journalist and social activist when she decided to investigate the realities of living on a low income. She posed as a recently divorced homemaker and spent three months working as a waitress, hotel maid, Wal-Mart clerk, and nursing home aide. What she found was a sizeable portion of the population making $7 an hour or even less, with no health insurance, sandwiched into efficiency apartments with several other people, skipping meals, and sometimes living in cars with their families. The book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for four years.

Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana. Her father was a copper miner and her mother was a fiercely liberal Democrat. They were strong union people with two rules: “Never cross a picket line and never vote Republican.”

She studied chemistry at Reed College and later earned a Ph.D., but she didn’t get very far in her chosen field. In 1970, she was pregnant, and in labor, in a public health clinic in New York when an experience changed the direction of her life. She says: “I was the only white patient at the clinic. They induced my labor because it was late in the evening and the doctor wanted to go home. I was enraged. The experience made me a feminist.” She named her daughter Rosa, after civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, and began working tirelessly for social justice and women’s health advocacy. Her essays often appeared in Harper’s, The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and The Wall Street Journal.

Shortly after the publication of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her research into treatments led her into what she called a “breast-cancer cult” that “normalized cancer, prettying it up, even presenting it, perversely, as a positive and enviable experience.” She wrote about her findings in “Welcome to Cancerland,” a long essay for Harper’s in 2001.

Her latest book, Living With a Wild God: An Unbeliever’s Search for the Truth (2014), is based on an experience she had during her adolescence, in which a dissociative hallucination forced her to confront the question, “Why are we here?” She calls the book a “metaphysical thriller.”

When asked if things have changed for the poor almost 14 years after the publication of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich cites the increasing criminalization of the poor since the economic downturn of 2008. The minimum wage hike is ineffectual, she says: “Raising the minimum wage to $10 is still nowhere near enough to live on in most places; it’s laughable in most cities now. In cities like L.A., you need to make $25 an hour to live in any degree of safety, not to mention if you have a child.”

About writing, she says: “Sometimes writing is pure hell. I’ll write something down and look at it for few hours and say, ‘This is pure crap. What will I do with my life? I’ll never write again.’ It’s a bipolar business and you bounce back.”

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