Tuesday Jun. 28, 2016

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Looking at a Lizard

My only purpose this moment
is looking at a lizard.
Does he know he’s not alone?

He breathes with tiny push-ups,
his skin all hairline caverns
soaking up the sun.

I doubt, alive, I’m liable to get
closer to timelessness than this,
looking at a little lizard breathing.

“Looking at a Lizard” by Barry Spacks from Shaping Water. © Gunpowder Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man who wrote, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (books by this author), born in Geneva in 1712. He left home at 16 and wandered around Europe for the next 14 years. He moved to Paris when he was 30, and took up with a group of philosophers. He also took up with Thérèse Le Vasseur, a semi-literate laundry maid at his hostel; the two began a lifelong relationship that produced five children, according to Rousseau. He placed all of them into orphanages.

Rousseau was well versed in music, and wrote ballets and operas; he could easily have been successful as a composer, but the stage made his Swiss Calvinist sensibilities uneasy. One day he was walking to visit his friend and fellow philosopher Denis Diderot, who was in jail, and he had an epiphany: modern progress had corrupted rather than improved mankind. He became famous overnight upon publication of his essay A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750). The essay informed nearly everything else he wrote, and eventually he would turn away completely from music and the theater to focus on literature.

In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) he continued to explore the theme that civilization had led to most of what was wrong with people: living in a society led to envy and covetousness; owning property led to social inequality; possessions led to poverty. Society exists to provide peace and protect those who owned property, and therefore government is unfairly weighted in favor of the rich. In it, he wrote: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” His next two books, a criticism of the educational system (Émile) and a treatise of political philosophy (The Social Contract), both published in 1762, caused such an uproar that he fled France altogether. His work would prove inspirational to the leaders of the French Revolution, and they adopted the slogan from The Social Contract: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

He grew increasingly paranoid in his later years, convinced that his friends were plotting against him. He spent some time in England with David Hume, but his persecution complex eventually alienated him from most of his associates, and he found comfort only with Thérèse, whom he finally married in 1768.

In the early hours of this day in 1969, the Stonewall riots broke out in New York City, marking the beginning of the gay rights movement. The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village was a popular hangout for gays, lesbians, and transvestites in the late 1960s. On June 28, police raided the bar on the premise that they were selling alcohol without a liquor license. It was the third raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar in a short period of time, and this time when the cops cleared the bar, the patrons didn’t disperse, but milled around outside, hurtling insults and bottles at the police. The officers called for reinforcements and barricaded themselves inside the bar. The riots lasted five days; they galvanized and unified smaller gay rights movements and led to the radical activism of the 1970s. On the first anniversary of the riots, the first gay pride parades were held in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

In David Carter’s book Stonewall (2004), he quotes witness Michael Fader: “We weren’t going to be walking meekly in the night and letting them shove us around — it’s like standing your ground for the first time and in a really strong way, and that’s what caught the police by surprise. There was something in the air, freedom a long time overdue, and we’re going to fight for it. It took different forms, but the bottom line was, we weren’t going to go away. And we didn’t.”

Today is the birthday of actress and comedian Gilda Radner, born in Detroit (1946). Her father deserves the credit for introducing the young Gilda to show biz: he used to take her to Broadway musicals and nightclub shows, and she would love to perform in the living room at home. Her older brother, Michael, called her “a little ham.” Gilda’s mother hated the cold Michigan winters, so she would take Gilda out of school and go to Florida for several months of the year. Between missing a good chunk of the school year every year and being teased for being overweight, Radner had a hard time making friends. She developed an eating disorder when she was nine years old, and her weight ranged from 93 to 160 pounds. She left her theater degree program at the University of Michigan to move to Toronto, where she eventually joined the improv comedy troupe Second City. She met and befriended fellow comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd there.

It’s the birthday of American composer and lyricist Richard Rodgers (1902), whose collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart revolutionized American musical theater and resulted in the classic musicals Pal Joey (1940), Oklahoma! (1943), South Pacific (1949), and The Sound of Music (1959).

Rodgers was born in Queens but raised in Upper Manhattan. His family loved the theater and his father often sang Broadway operettas at home. He learned to play piano as a toddler and was a quick study. He composed his first song, “Auto Show Girl,” at 14. He met Oscar Hammerstein at the prestigious Varsity Show while they were students at Columbia University and they hit it off. Hammerstein introduced Rodgers to Lorenz Hart, a heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking fellow writer. Rodgers and Hart began composing together.

It’s the birthday of spy novelist Eric Ambler (books by this author), born in London (1909). His parents were entertainers: music-hall artists and puppeteers. He wanted to be a playwright, but when he was offered a scholarship to study electrical engineering, he enrolled in Northampton Polytechnic, then wound up working as an advertising copywriter just a few years later.

He thought that British spy novels were terrible. He published The Dark Frontier (1936), a parody, but he didn’t like it. He was spending his free time reading Dostoevsky, Joyce, Gogol, and Nietzsche. A writer friend told him: “Never read very good writers when you are trying yourself to write good trash. You’ll only get depressed.” After The Dark Frontier, he stopped trying to write parodies and started writing thrillers. His novels include Journey into Fear (1940), Passage of Arms (1959), and The Care of Time (1981).

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

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