Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017

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The Lower Chesapeake Bay

Whatever happened to the cross-chest carry,
the head carry, the hair carry,

the tired-swimmer-put-your-hands-on-my-shoulders-
and-look-in-my-eyes retrieval, and what

became of the stride jump when you leap
from impossible heights and land with your head

above water so that you never lose sight
of your drowning person, or if he is close enough, where

is the lifesaver ring attached to a rope
you can hurl at your quarry, then haul

him to safety, or as a last resort
where is the dock onto which you tug

the unconscious soul, place him facedown,
clear his mouth, straddle his legs and press

with your hands on both sides of his rib cage
to the rhythm of out goes the bad air in

comes the good and pray he will breathe,
hallowed methods we practiced over and over

the summer I turned eighteen to win
my Water Safety Instructor’s badge

and where is the boy from Ephrata, PA
I made out with night after night in the lee

of the rotting boathouse at a small dank camp
on the lower Chesapeake Bay?

“The Lower Chesapeake Bay” by Maxine Kumin from Where I Live. © W. W. Norton and Company, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the artist Pablo Picasso, born in Malaga, Spain (1881), who was living in a bohemian community in Barcelona painting portraits of his friends and acquaintances when one of his paintings was selected for inclusion in the upcoming world's fair in Paris. He was just 18 — went off to Paris for the exhibition, saw paintings by Manet, Cézanne, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, and came home determined to be an artist.

By the middle of the 20th century, he was generally considered the greatest living artist in the world. Pablo Picasso, who said, "Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

It's the birthday of comedienne Minnie Pearl (books by this author), born Sarah Ophelia Colley (1912) in Centerville, Tennessee, the youngest daughter of a well-to-do lumberjack. She majored in theater, taught dance lessons, and joined a theatrical troupe which went all over the south. While on tour she met a woman from the Alabama mountains whose manner of talking amused her. The young comedienne Sarah Colley imitated the mannerisms and mode of speech of the Alabama mountain woman in an act where she called herself "Cousin Minnie Pearl", which first appeared in 1939. Nashville radio executives saw the act and were impressed and in 1940 offered her the chance to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. It was a huge hit, and she'd continue with the Opry for more than 50 years.

She said, "The doctor must have put my pacemaker in wrong. Every time my husband kisses me, the garage door goes up."

It's the birthday of novelist Anne Tyler (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1941). After she was born, her parents moved the family to various intentional communities; she spent most of her childhood in a community in the mountains of North Carolina. Her family raised milk goats and grew their own food, and she learned folk crafts and traditional music. Eventually, her parents moved the family to Raleigh, where she was sent to public school. She felt like a total outsider — she had never used a telephone, and her feet were so calloused from going without shoes that she could light a match on her bare feet. She said of her childhood: "I learned to be alone and to entertain myself by imagining, and when I left the commune I looked at the regular world from an unusually distant vantage point."

One summer, she was working on a tobacco farm and she found a book by Eudora Welty at the library. She read the short story "The Wide Net," and it changed her life; specifically one line of it, which was: "Edna Earle could sit and ponder all day on how the little tail of the C got through the L in a Coca-Cola sign." Thinking about that sentence, she said: "It was a kind of revelation: I knew dozens of people like Edna Earle — small-town, ordinary. I just didn't know you could write about them."

She went to Duke University when she was just 16 years old, fell in love and got married to an Iranian-born medical student, and when his student visa expired, she moved with him to Montreal. It took her awhile to find a job in Montreal, so she started working on a novel. Her first novel, If Morning Ever Comes (1964), came out when she was 22 years old. A year later, she published another novel, The Tin Can Tree (1965).

Tyler moved to Baltimore in 1965, where she has lived ever since, and she has set most of her novels there. She said: "It's a city with grit and sort of a feisty spirit to it. I think it's a very funny city, and I love it. But I always feel that I'm an impostor when people talk about 'Baltimore writers' and feel I can pronounce upon Baltimore. Any Baltimorean can tell you I'm not a real Baltimorean."

Tyler was never very interested in being in the spotlight. She doesn't do book tours or author appearances. She stopped reading reviews of her books 30 years ago, and she says that she has one novelist friend but when they call each other up, the most they ever ask is: "Are you writing?" Tyler gave her first in-person interviews in more than 30 years. When she was asked why she changed her mind about giving an interview, she said, "Why not? It's like when my husband proposed and I thought, 'Oh, why not?'

Tyler has written 19 novels, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985), Breathing Lessons (1988), Back When We Were Grownups (2001), The Beginner's Goodbye (2012) and most recently, Vinegar Girl (2016).

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