Tuesday Dec. 6, 2016

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Three of my cousins are deaf.
But I have lots of cousins,
so the deaf ones
were always in the minority
at family gatherings
where they’d commandeer a couch
or the kitchen table and juggle
their hands. It was a language
the rest of us didn’t understand
because we never bothered to learn it.
Their conversations and our conversations
sailed along contiguously
like ships passing in the night
or like an English frigate passing
over a Deaf submarine during
detente. One by one they got married
to three deaf spouses. So then there were six.
And one of them ended up having
two deaf children. So then there were eight.
Eventually they all divorced
and remarried other deaf people
with deaf stepchildren and deaf exes
and deaf in-laws and deaf
cousins. And before we knew it
we were totally outnumbered
at the family gatherings
and consigned to a corner
of the sectional, whispering
and ducking the flying hands,
feeling rather small
and blind, like moles or voles
trembling in the shadows
of the raptors.

“Hegemony” by Paul Hostovsky from Hurt Into Beauty. © Future Cycle Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of lyricist and composer Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershowitz in New York City (1896). His father was a businessman, dabbling in everything from restaurants to pool parlors to cigar stores, and Ira said, “When my father sold a business and started another we would inevitably move to a new neighborhood. … My father loved to start businesses, but then he lost interest. He’d go and play pinochle and wouldn’t supervise the latest venture.”

Ira went to college for two years, but then he dropped out and worked in a Russian-Turkish bathhouse in Harlem that was owned by his father. His younger brother George was starting to make it as a composer in Tin Pan Alley. Ira was a big fan of Gilbert and Sullivan and he had always been good at writing little poems, and after a while he started collaborating with George, writing lyrics for his music. He didn’t want people to know he was George’s brother so he used a pseudonym, Arthur Francis, but eventually he went by his own name. Ira wrote the lyrics for “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “’S Wonderful,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” George died from a brain tumor in 1937, and for a while Ira stopped writing, but he went on to write many more songs, and he lived until 1983, when he died at age 86.

Florida’s Everglades National Park was dedicated on this date in 1947. President Harry Truman addressed a crowd of 10,000 people on this date, saying: “Here is land, tranquil in its quiet beauty, serving not as the source of water, but as the last receiver of it. To its natural abundance we owe the spectacular plant and animal life that distinguishes this place from all others in our country.” It’s the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and also this country’s third-largest national park. It’s home to 400 species of birds. It’s also home to endangered species like the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the West Indian manatee. It is home to the strangler fig, pond apple, and gumbo-limbo tree. It was the first national park to be dedicated chiefly for the biological diversity it contained — unlike other national parks, which were established to preserve their scenic beauty.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote the definitive book on the park; The Everglades: River of Grass was published in 1947, the same year the park was established. In it, she wrote: “There are no other Everglades in the world. … They are unique … in the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida.”

It’s the birthday of German photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, born in Dirschau, in what is now Poland (1898). Eisenstaedt was one of four original photographers, along with Margaret Bourke White, for Life magazine; he stayed at Life for his entire American career. Eisenstaedt is most famous for capturing a gleeful kiss between a sailor and a nurse on August 14, 1945, in Times Square. That was the day the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II.

Eisenstaedt immigrated to America just as Hitler began his rise. He quickly became known for his supple, seemingly intimate photographs. He preferred natural light and used a Leica. Most photojournalists used 4” x 5” press cameras with flash attachments. Those were heavy, and inhibited movement. Eisenstaedt had flexibility and speed with the Leica. One of his most famous photos is of an ice-skating hotel waiter in Switzerland. The waiter skates on the ice holding a tray of drinks.

About his most famous photograph, that of the sailor kissing the nurse, Eisenstaedt claimed: “I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture.”

The first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica was published on this date in 1768. It is the oldest general-knowledge encyclopedia written in the English language, and it grew out of the Scottish Enlightenment. It was co-founded by Colin Macfarquhar, a printer and bookseller, and an engraver called Andrew Bell. Its first editor was a printer named James Smellie. Smellie wrote new content, but he also compiled many previously printed articles on his subjects, and used to joke that he “had made a dictionary of arts and sciences with a pair of scissors.”

A new section was published each week, and the whole thing was finished in 1771. It was several thousand pages long, and it differed from its predecessors in that it was useful both to people who were already familiar with a topic and wanted to read an in-depth treatise on the subject, and to people who were just looking for a brief overview. It was a “how-to” book as much as a reference; the seven-page entry on “Smoke” included instructions for building a chimney so that smoke would not back up into the room.

In 2012, Britannica’s president announced that they would no longer produce a print edition. The 2010 15th edition marks the last printing, although the resource itself lives on, on the Internet.

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