Thursday Sep. 14, 2017

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Elegy for a Broken Machine

My father was trying
to fix something

and I sat there just watching,
like I used to,
whenever something

went wrong.
I kept asking where he’d been,
until he put down a wrench
and said Listen:
dying’s just something

that happens sometimes.
Who knows
where that kind of dream comes from?
Why some things

vanish, and some
just keep going forever?

Like that look on his face
when he’d stare off at something

I could never make out
in the murky garage,
his ear pressed
to whatever it was
that had died—
his eyes listening for something

so deep inside it, I thought
even the silence,
if you listened,
meant something.

“Elegy for a Broken Machine” by Patrick Phillips from Elegy for a Broken Machine. © Knopf, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah oratorio on this date in 1741. Librettist Charles Jennens had finished the text in July, and he handed it off to Handel with great expectations. He wrote to a friend, "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject." Handel worked at a furious pace, doing nothing else but composing from morning to night, and completed the oratorio in only 24 days.

Messiah tells the story of Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection. It was originally written for the Easter season, and it debuted in Dublin at a charity concert the following April. The event attracted 700 people; to accommodate such a crowd, gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home, and ladies were requested to remove the hoops from their skirts. The Dublin News-Letter reported that Messiah "far surpass[ed] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom."

It remained one of Handel's favorite works for the rest of his life, and grew to become a beloved holiday favorite — but at Christmastime, rather than Easter. Even Mozart was reluctant to change anything about the oratorio when he supervised a new arrangement in 1789. "Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect," Mozart said. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

It's the birthday of Margaret Sanger, born in Corning, New York (1879). She coined the term "birth control," she was its most famous advocate in the United States, and she was the founder of Planned Parenthood. H.G. Wells said of her, "The movement she started will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time."

Margaret Sanger was born into a working-class Irish family. Her mother died at 50, after 18 pregnancies. Margaret went to New York City, became a nurse, got married, and had three children. As a nurse, she worked in the maternity ward on the Lower East Side. Many of her patients were poor, and many ended up in the hospital from self-induced abortions, which often killed them. At the time, contraceptives were illegal in the United States — it was illegal even to send information about contraception through the U.S. Postal Service. Products were out there, but only the wealthy had the means to access them.

Margaret Sanger quit nursing and wrote a series of articles called "What Every Girl Should Know." She also published a radical newspaper, Woman Rebel, with information about contraception. In 1914, she was indicted for sending information about birth control through the mail. She fled to Europe, where she observed birth control clinics, and eventually came back to face charges. The charges were dropped, and in 1916, she and her sister, who was also a nurse, opened a birth control clinic in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, to serve the mostly immigrant population. Nine days later, the police closed it down and arrested Sanger, her sister, and the clinic's interpreter. Sanger spent a month in jail, and her sister went on a hunger strike.

In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which in 1946 became Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She also funded research to create a contraceptive pill. She said, "No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother." She died in 1966, at age 87, a year after the landmark Supreme Court decision Griswold vs. Connecticut finally made birth control legal for married couples.

It's the birthday of Ivan Klíma (books by this author), born in Prague (1931). He wrote Waiting for Dark, Waiting for Light, Love and Garbage, and many other novels. His parents were Jewish, and as a result, he spent three years in a Nazi camp during the Second World War. He studied literature at university and went on to edit an intellectual, weekly newspaper in Prague, and eventually became a successful playwright and novelist. In 1970, his play The Castle, about a society that survives by murdering its own people, was considered too radical and was banned until 1990. He couldn't publish anything in Prague, so he was forced to take many odd jobs, including an ambulance driver, a messenger, and a land surveyor. He also published underground, or "samizdat," editions of his writing; they were made with small, bound pages of airmail paper and lie yellowed and silver-thin on his bookshelf still.

In his book The Spirit of Prague (1998), he talks about the censorship of literature and culture in Prague during communism. He says, "It was not just the intellectuals, however, or the creators who were disappointed, it was also the receivers, the audience."

It's the birthday of essayist Barbara Harrison (books by this author), born Barbara Grizzuti in Brooklyn, New York (1934). She grew up with an abusive father, but when she was nine years old, she and her mother became Jehovah's Witnesses, and she spent the rest of her childhood evangelizing. When she was 19, she went to live in the giant Watchtower Bible and Tract Society headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. She gave up the faith three years later and got a job as a secretary. She started writing journalism on the side, and in 1978, more than 20 years later, she came out with Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the book, she described how she struggled with her memories of the Witnesses, because they had been controlling and oppressive but also tremendously kind and courageous. She went on to write several more books of essays before her death in 2002, including Off Center (1980) and The Astonishing World (1992).

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