In the old joke,
the marriage counselor
tells the couple who never talks anymore
to go to a jazz club because at a jazz club
everyone talks during the bass solo.
But of course, no one starts talking
just because of a bass solo
or any other solo for that matter.
The quieter bass solo just reveals
the people in the club
who have been talking all along,
the same ones you can hear
on some well-known recordings.
Bill Evans, for example,
who is opening a new door into the piano
while some guy chats up his date
at one of the little tables in the back.
I have listened to that album
so many times I can anticipate the moment
of his drunken laugh
as if it were a strange note in the tune.
And so, anonymous man,
you have become part of my listening,
your romance a romance lost in the past
and a reminder somehow
that each member of that trio has died since then
and maybe so have you and, sadly, maybe she.
“1960” by Billy Collins from The Rain in Portugal. © Random House, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of a physicist and chemist who once said, “Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.” That’s Marie Curie, born in Warsaw (1867), which was then known as the Kingdom of Poland, and was a port of the Russian Empire.
Marie Curie is responsible for developing the theory of radioactivity, which is a term she also coined. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (1903) and the first and only woman to win twice in multiple sciences.
Her parents were poor teachers, and after the Russian authorities removed laboratory instruction in the sciences from schools, her father pilfered the leftover lab equipment, brought it home, and let his children use it freely. Curie was an intelligent and curious child, largely self-taught, and because she couldn’t go to University because of her sex, she studied clandestinely at what was called a “Floating University,” a secret set of informal, underground classes held in Warsaw.
Marie Curie died of the effects of radiation exposure. She had been used to carrying test tubes filled with radioactive material in her lab pockets. Because of the high levels of radioactive contamination, her papers from the 1890s are too dangerous to examine. Even her cookbooks are considered contaminated. Marie Curie’s research is kept in lead-lined boxes.
It’s the birthday of the literary critic, Stephen Greenblatt (books by this author), born in Boston (1943), who founded a school of literary criticism called New Historicism, which is the idea that the only way to really understand a work of art is to examine everything that was going on in the world of the artist at the time the work of art was created. Greenblatt had only written works of academic scholarship when he saw the movie Shakespeare in Love in 1998 and that inspired him to write a book about Shakespeare for the general reader, piecing together everything we know about his life and the world he lived in, and making guesses about why he wrote what he wrote. Greenblatt said, “[I wanted] to throw the windows open and see what was outside the room that he was working in, and what he descended to when he descended onto the street.”
The result was Greenblatt’s book Will in the World (2004), which became his first best-seller and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Stephen Greenblatt said, “I am constantly struck by the strangeness of reading works that seem addressed, personally and intimately, to me, and yet were written by people who crumbled to dust long ago.”
It’s the birthday of the Algerian-born French author Albert Camus (books by this author), born in Mondovi (1913). He’s the author of many books, both fiction and nonfiction; these include The Stranger (1942), The Plague (1945), and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).
Today is the birthday of Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort Macleod, Alberta (1943). She contracted polio as a kid, and although she recovered, her fingers suffered some lasting effects. When she began playing the ukulele, and later the guitar, she had to devise her own way of playing and tuning her instrument. For a while, she didn’t know whether she wanted to be a musician or an artist, and she studied art in Calgary for a year, but she changed her mind and moved to Toronto to become a singer and a songwriter.