Saturday July 4, 2015

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Tin Ear

We stood at attention as she moved
with a kind of Groucho shuffle
down our line, her trained music
teacher’s ear passing by
our ten- and eleven-year-old mouths
open to some song now forgotten.
And as she held her momentary
pause in front of me, I peered
from the comer of my eye
to hers, and knew the truth
I had suspected.
In the following days,
as certain of our peers
disappeared at appointed hours
for the Chorus, something in me
was already closing shop.
Indeed, to this day
I still clam up
for the national anthem
in crowded stadiums, draw
disapproving alumni stares
as I smile the length of school songs,
and even hum and clap
through “Happy Birthday,” creating
a diversion-all lest I send
the collective pitch
careening headlong into dissonance.
It’s only in the choice acoustics
of shower and sealed car
that I can finally give voice
to that heart deep within me
that is pure, tonally perfect, music.
But when the water stops running
and the radio’s off, I can remember
that day in class,
when I knew for the first time
that mine would be a world of words
without melody, where refrain
means do not join,
where I’m ready to sing
in a key no one has ever heard.

“Tin Ear” by Peter Schmitt from Country Airport. © Copper Beech Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Independence Day. On this day in 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, and the United States officially broke from the rule of England. The document was approved and signed on July 2, and was formally adopted on July 4. John Adams always felt that the Second of July was America's true birthday, and he refused to appear at Fourth of July celebrations for the rest of his life in protest.

Today is the birthday of Nathaniel Hawthorne (books by this author), born Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem, Massachusetts (1804). He married Sophia Peabody in 1842, and soon after their wedding, Hawthorne wrote to his sister, "We are as happy as people can be, without making themselves ridiculous, and might be even happier; but, as a matter of taste, we choose to stop short at this point."

When he lost his job at the Salem Custom House, Sophia surprised him with money she'd put away out of her household allowance just so he could write a book. And he did: The Scarlet Letter (1850), about Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman who bears a child out of wedlock and must wear a red letter "A" for adultery as her punishment.

It was on this date in 1931, at the Kensington Registry Office in London, that James Joyce and Nora Barnacle were wed, after living together for 26 years (books by this author). They had had their first date in 1904, and had only been dating a few months when Joyce decided that he wanted to leave Ireland to live in Europe. He couldn't face going without her, so even though he had only tenuous prospects, he plucked up the courage to ask her to come along. To his amazement, she agreed. The next night, he wrote to her, "The fact that you can choose to stand beside me in this way in my hazardous life fills me with great pride and joy." They lived all over Europe, had two children, and were usually broke — until Joyce published Ulysses in 1922. It was a financial success, and Joyce wanted to make sure that Nora and their children could inherit the royalties, so they finally tied the knot.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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