I am sitting in sunlight reading
when Debbie calls to talk from some store
to ask me what size coat she should buy me.
We decide I don’t need a new coat.
It is mid-morning on a Saturday.
I go upstairs to wake my daughter
who is twenty-one years old
and who has a psychology test to study for.
I lean down to kiss her and it is then
I see for the first time in her life
how much she looks like my mother
when she was this age, the rest of life
as they say, ahead of her.
“Waking up My Daughter” by Greg Kosmicki from Some Hero of the Past. © Word Poetry Books, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
New York City hosted the country’s first official observation of Labor Day on this date in 1882. Organizers were worried that people might not turn up if it meant missing a day’s pay. At first, it didn’t look good: at the start of the parade route in lower Manhattan, only a handful of workers turned up. Their ranks swelled as they walked uptown and were gradually joined by members of various unions. By the time the parade reached Central Park, 10,000 workers were marching together. Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894.
James Glaisher and Henry Tracey Coxwell broke the world record for altitude on this date in 1862. Glaisher was a British meteorologist, and he wanted to investigate what happened to water vapor at different altitudes. The country had just been through a period of extended drought, and there was much interest in studying rain in particular, and weather in general. In order to get high enough into the atmosphere, Glaisher needed to go up in a balloon. That’s where Coxwell came in. The son of a naval officer, he was an avid and accomplished balloonist as well as a scientist. He built a balloon especially for Glaisher’s project: it was 55 feet wide and 90 feet high. The men and their instruments rose steadily, but they were unprepared for what they would experience above the clouds. At an altitude of five miles, Coxwell started to feel short of breath, and Glaisher had trouble reading his instruments. At 29,000 feet, Glaisher lost consciousness from lack of oxygen, and the balloon continued to drift higher — they later estimated that it rose to 37,000 feet before Coxwell was able to release gas from the balloon and bring the balloon back to earth. Barely conscious himself, with his hands turning black from the extremely cold temperatures, he pulled the release line with his teeth.
Today is the birthday of American writer Ward Just (1935) (books by this author), born in Michigan City, Indiana. He is best known for his novels Echo House (1997), An Unfinished Season (2004), and American Romantic (2014), which explore the influence of politics on personal lives. Just was born into journalism: his grandfather, and then his father, published the Waukegan News-Sun in Illinois, and Just began his own career as a journalist for that newspaper. He later became a correspondent for Newsweek and served as The Washington Post’s point man in Vietnam.
Just said, “I had always had a novel in my bottom drawer, the way all newspaper reporters of my generation did.” He attempted to write a novel in the early 1960s, but quit because he felt he didn’t know enough about life. He said: “I think there are great natural geniuses who don’t have to know anything — it’s all in their head. I’m not that way. I have to see things. After I got back from Vietnam, I believed that I really knew quite a lot.”
In 1966, Just was seriously wounded by a grenade while covering a patrol in the Central Highlands. He refused to be airlifted out until all the enlisted men who were similarly wounded were airlifted to safety. He was 31 years old, embedded and entrenched in a war that he found increasingly morally wrong. Vietnam turned him from fact to fiction. He said, “It was an absolute wilderness of mirrors out there.” After he left Vietnam, he published a well-regarded memoir, To What End: Report from Vietnam, about his 18 months as a Vietnam war correspondent for The Washington Post.
On war writing, he said: “You could write stories without going to the front. The trouble is, they wouldn’t be very good stories. You had to see how the thing was done. You couldn’t get that out of a five o’clock briefing.”
His first four novels “came hard” and made little money, until his collection The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert: And Other Washington Stories (1973) changed everything. Just had found his subject and his style, capturing the syntax of Washington, D.C., and the delicate mechanics of politics, beginning a long series of works that became known as the “Washington Novels.” Just’s deft portrayal of Washington is exemplified by Sylvia Behl’s monologue on how scandals begin, in Echo House:
“... with a leak of the purest spring water ... as it meandered downhill it gathered force, joined here and there by other springs less pristine ... leak to freshet, freshet to torrent, carving an ever-deeper channel and at last slipping its banks, muddying now and eddying, thick with debris, a furious Amazon of rumor and speculation and innuendo — and at about that point it overflowed into the newspapers.”
At 80 years old, Ward Just still uses the same old typewriter to compose his novels. When asked if his roots in journalism helped him as fiction writer, he answered: “You start out in that, and all it gives you is the soil. Or some fertilizer to maybe nourish the soil that is already there.”
On this day in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road was published by Viking Press (books by this author). The Beat Generation classic was based on road trips Kerouac made with his friend Neal Cassady in the late 1940s. Kerouac started writing the novel on April 12, 1951, and finished on April 22. He taped together sheets of tracing paper to create a 120-foot-long scroll.
It’s the birthday of the avant-garde composer John Cage, born in Los Angeles, California (1912). He wrote pieces of music to be played on a variety of objects, including flowerpots, scrapped hoods of old cars, and other pieces of junk. Then he began tinkering with a piano, shoving objects under the strings, including screws, bolts, spoons, clothespins, and even a doll’s arm. He said, “Just as you go along the beach and pick up pretty shells that please you, I go into the piano and find sounds I like.”
He kept adding new sounds into his compositions. His piece “Water Music” (1952) required a piano, a radio, whistles, water containers, and a deck of cards. He finally decided he wanted to explore silence, so as an experiment, he entered a completely soundproof chamber at Harvard University. Instead of hearing nothing, he heard the sound of his own circulation and his nervous system. Afterward, he said, “No silence exists that is not pregnant with sound.” The experience inspired him to write his most famous piece, 4' 33" (1952), in which the performer was instructed to sit silently at a piano for 4 minutes, 33 seconds, to draw attention to all the sounds being made by the audience members and the world around them.