Friday Jan. 13, 2017

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At the Diamond School of Dance

It’s me and the mothers, out in the foyer.
Linoleum floors, knotty-pine, late ’50s rumpus room—
long row of trophies, blue ribbons on a shelf.

I’m here with my daughter, who’s four.
Who, because no one gives princess lessons,
has opted for dancing. She likes the tutus, the tap shoes,

the tights. The teachers are kind.
They’re graceful as egrets, strong in the thighs.
We chitchat, the mothers and I. We futz with our phones.

We’re large, rooted like silos.
Chopin leaks from the studio: a nocturne, full of rain.
The little girls dance—plié, sashay, arabesque—

earnest as death, as if nothing
was ever so hard, or mattered so much. Mothers!
Let us rush in and embrace them! Let us snatch them

up to our great bosoms, and never tell them the truth.

“At the Diamond School of Dance” by Jon Loomis from The Mansion of Happiness. © Oberlin College Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Lorrie Moore (1957) (books by this author), born Marie Lorena Moore in Glens Falls, New York. She said of her childhood: "There was acting, and dressing up. We'd play music, and write crappy songs. We'd draw and paint, and fancy ourselves as artistic. It was part of being a girl in the '60s that you were creative." She won a short-story prize from Seventeen magazine when she was 19 years old, which prompted her to send them everything she'd ever written. She said, "They couldn't get rid of me. I was like a stalker. I sent them everything, and of course they didn't want anything more from me." It was only after she told her parents about her publication that she found out they had both wanted to be writers themselves. Her father went up into the attic and brought down stories that he'd once submitted to The New Yorker, and her mother admitted that she'd given up journalism for nursing.

She published her first book, a collection of stories that she'd written in graduate school at Cornell, when she was 28. That book was Self-Help (1985), a book Moore later said has "too many birds and moons, and space aliens, and struggling artists of every stripe, as well as much illness and divorce and other sad facts of family and romantic life." But the book was received well, and she was compared to everyone from Grace Paley to Woody Allen. She published two novels after Self-HelpAnagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994); as well as some short story collections, including Birds of America (1998).

Today is the birthday of Horatio Alger Jr. (books by this author) born in Chelsea, Massachusetts (1832). He was the oldest of five kids, and he was nearsighted and asthmatic. He was accepted to Harvard when he was 16, and he said, "No period of my life has been one of such unmixed happiness as the four years which have been spent within college walls." He studied under Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was named Class Poet, and wrote essays, poetry, and short sketches. After graduation, he didn't enjoy much publishing success, so he made his living by taking a series of temporary teaching jobs.

He moved to New York City, and began working with homeless and delinquent boys, establishing boarding houses and securing homes and public assistance for them. It was during this time that he started writing dime novels for boys. It was his book Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks (1868) that finally made him a literary success. Inspired by the street boys he worked with, he had found a formula that he would return to again and again: a young boy, living in poverty, manages to find success and happiness by working hard and never giving up. His books had a powerful influence on America's self-concept as a land of rags-to-riches success stories. If you worked hard, and lived virtuously, and had a combination of "pluck and luck," as Alger said, you could go from the gutter to the mansion.

His popularity waned near the end of the century, as boys' tastes changed. He tried to keep up by making his books more violent, but his income dried up, and he died in near-poverty in 1899. At his request, his sister Augusta burned all of his personal correspondence. Historians have only gradually been able to reconstruct the story of his life.

On this day in 1968, country musician Johnny Cash recorded a live concert at Folsom Prison in California. Back in the early 1950s, while serving in the Air Force and stationed in Germany, Cash had seen a documentary on life inside the prison. This inspired him to write the song "Folsom Prison Blues," with its haunting lines, "I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." He included it on his debut album, With His Hot and Blue Guitar, in 1957, and began dreaming of some day playing the song live for the inmates there. In 1968, after a personnel shake up at his recording label, Cash pitched the idea to a new producer. He was enthusiastic, so the record label contacted both San Quentin and Folsom prisons. Folsom responded first and the plans for a live concert went into motion. The band set up a two-day rehearsal nearby, along with Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and June Carter.

The day before the concert was to take place, a prison chaplain approached Cash, asking him if he would take the time to listen to a song recorded by a Folsom inmate. The chaplain thought that if he could mention hearing the song while on stage, it would touch the inmate, named Glen Sherley, who was serving a 5-to-life sentence for burglary. Upon hearing "Greystone Chapel," Cash was so enamored with the song that he resolved to perform it live as part of the show.

The set list mixed songs of prison life with humor and despair. While remixed in the studio to sound rowdy and responsive to any lines about prison, the inmates were actually well behaved during the concert, wary of losing the privilege. Two concerts were recorded that day, but the second lacked the same energy, and only two songs from that session made it onto the final record. Released just four months after the concert, Live at Folsom Prison reached No. 1 on the country charts and was a huge pop crossover. It reignited Cash's career after it had stalled due to his own increased drug use. He married Carter later that year, and ABC offered Cash his own television show after the success of the live album. In 2003, the Library of Congress included it in its 50 recordings to be added to the National Registry of Music.

Cash said: "You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space."

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