Sunday May 14, 2017

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My mother went to work each day
in a starched white dress, shoes
damped to her feet like pale
mushrooms, two blue hearts pressed
into the sponge rubber soles.
When she came back home, her nylons
streaked with runs, a spatter
of blood across her bodice,
she sat at one end of the dinner table
and let us kids serve the spaghetti, sprinkle
the parmesan, cut the buttered loaf.
We poured black wine into the bell
of her glass as she unfastened
her burgundy hair, shook her head, and began.
And over the years we mastered it, how to listen
to stories of blocked intestines
while we twirled the pasta, of saws
teething cranium, drills boring holes in bone
as we crunched the crust of our sourdough,
carved the stems off our cauliflower.
We learned the importance of balance,
how an operation depends on
cooperation and a blend of skills,
the art of passing the salt
before it is asked for.
She taught us well, so that when Mary Ellen
ran the iron over her arm, no one wasted
a moment: My brother headed straight for the ice
Our little sister uncapped the salve.
And I dialed the number under Ambulance,
my stomach turning to the smell
of singed skin, already planning the evening
meal, the raw fish thawing in its wrapper,
a perfect wedge of flesh.

“Nurse” by Dorianne Laux from Awake. © BOA Editions, Ltd. 1990. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Mother’s Day, first celebrated in 1908, when Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her own mother at a church in Grafton, West Virginia. Jarvis’s mother had been a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, and Jarvis campaigned her entire life for a national day to honor all mothers. She wrote letters to anyone who had influence, like President Teddy Roosevelt, former Postmaster General John Wanamaker, and even Mark Twain. Finally, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed an official proclamation declaring Mother’s Day a national holiday. It’s held on the second Sunday of every May.

Almost as soon as Wilson signed his proclamation, companies began selling greeting cards, flowers, and gifts. Jarvis felt handwritten letters could express love more honestly than greeting cards, and she filed numerous lawsuits against card companies like Hallmark.

Anna Jarvis lived the last years of her life in a nursing home, nearly blind, and almost penniless. On her wall was a letter with a $1.00 bill sewn to it. The letter read: “I am 6 years old and I love my mother very much. I am sending this to you because you started Mother’s Day.”

Today is the birthday of filmmaker George Lucas, born in Modesto, California (1944). He had a pretty average suburban upbringing. His parents had an office supply store, and they also had a walnut orchard. Lucas was obsessed with cars when he was in high school, and wanted to be a race car driver — until he was in a near-fatal auto accident not long before his graduation. While he was taking classes at a community college, he became interested in cinematography. So he transferred to the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and studied filmmaking.

He was awarded a scholarship by Warner Brothers to observe and work on a film that was currently in production. He chose Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and that’s where he caught the eye of the movie’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola mentored him and convinced Warner Brothers to co-produce a feature film version of Lucas’s college project. It was a sci-fi movie called THX 1138 (1971), and, although critics liked it, it was a huge flop. Lucas scaled back his futuristic ambitions in favor of making a movie on a subject he knew well: coming of age in an American suburb in the early 1960s. That was American Graffiti (1973). Lucas made the film for less than $800,000, and it was a huge box-office hit. It was also nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

For his next film, he wanted to try something new. “Right after Graffiti,” he said, ”I was getting this fan mail from kids that said the film changed their life, and something inside me said, do a children’s film. And everybody said, ‘Do a children’s film? What are you talking about? You’re crazy.’ ... I saw that kids today don’t have any fantasy life the way we had — they don’t have Westerns, they don’t have pirate movies, they don’t have that stupid serial fantasy life that we used to believe in.” He realized that what was missing from American movies was the serials of the 1930s. Studios would release short installments of movies every Saturday, in 10- to 20-minute chapters. The serials were action-heavy and usually featured a cliffhanger — sometimes a literal one — at the end of each installment so that kids would be sure to line up the next week.

So he spent $11 million to make a kind of outer space Western. He wanted to recapture those old Buck Rogers comic strips and Flash Gordon movies he’d loved as a kid. He also wanted to incorporate a universal hero’s journey story, which he had been thinking about since reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with the Thousand Faces. Even though Lucas had been successful with American Graffiti, he had a hard time putting together a production and distribution deal for his new project. Finally, 20th Century Fox took a chance on it. Star Wars was a sensation — a huge financial success and what one critic later called “the closest thing to shared religious belief among contemporary Americans.” The eighth movie in the Star Wars franchise is due out next December. Lucas sold the franchise to The Walt Disney Company in 2012, but he still serves as creative consultant.

Lucas returned again to the Saturday morning serial idea with the Indiana Jones movies. The first film in the franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was set in 1936, and features the intrepid anthropologist Indiana Jones battling Nazis who want to get their hands on the Ark of the Covenant.

Lucas is also a philanthropist, and has donated millions to various causes, including the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C.; the Chicago-based After School Matters; and the Obama Foundation. He founded The George Lucas Educational Foundation in 1991, and also donated $180 million to the University of Southern California’s film school.

It was on this day in 1804 that Captain Meriwether Lewis (books by this author) and Lieutenant William Clark set out from St. Louis, Missouri, on their overland expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. They were very different men. Clark was levelheaded and easy going. Lewis was romantic and ambitious and prone to depression. On the day they set out, William Clark wrote in his journal, "Rained the fore part of the day. ... I Set out at 4 o Clock P.M., in the presence of many of the neighboring in habitants, and proceeded on under a jentle brease up the Missourie ... a heavy rain this after-noon." Meriwether Lewis wrote on the same day, "We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden. I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life."

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