Tuesday Oct. 17, 2017

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Once

the father
of my son’s friend
watched his father die.

Then for some reason
came, still grieving,
to a soccer field where I,

a guy he knew,
or kind of knew,
stood with the others

trying not to stare
at the there-
but-for-the-grace-of God

go-I of him:
his eyes raw-rimmed
behind dark glasses

as herds of little bodies
shrieked and galloped
all around us—

whoever he was before
a trace, a remnant now,
shaking in the gray October wind:

the truth about love, about all of us,
so plain in him
there was nothing left

but to pretend
I was not watching
out the corner of my eye

when the muddy dog,
and the bouncing ball,
and the children

chasing after it
all seemed to veer
and disappear inside him.

“Once” by Patrick Phillips from Elegy for a Broken Machine. © Knopf, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Shinichi Suzuki (books by this author), born in Nagoya, Japan (1898). He's the man who developed the Suzuki Violin Method, a way of teaching very young children to play classical music by listening and imitating, the way they learn to speak. His father had a violin factory, and he and his brothers and sisters thought that violins were like boxes, that they were just toys; they never heard anybody play them. When Suzuki was 17, he heard a recording of Mischa Elman and was flabbergasted. He took a violin home and started to teach himself to play it by listening to other recordings and trying to imitate them. He began to feel that it ought to be possible to teach anyone to play that way, and the little children he taught became proficient enough to make some listeners suspect he had gathered a bunch of prodigies together like a circus act. He felt strongly that he was not just tutoring musicians, but nurturing souls, and he encouraged his students to listen to other people as carefully as they listened to the notes on their violins.

It's the birthday of Arthur Miller (books by this author), born in New York City (1915). His father was the wealthy owner of a coat factory, and the family had a large Manhattan apartment, a chauffeur, and a summer home at the beach. But the family lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929.

The family had to move to a poor section of Brooklyn called Gravesend, where few of the streets had been paved, and much of the neighborhood was full of vacant lots. They had been living on the sixth floor of a building on Central Park North, but they now moved into a six-room clapboard house, where Miller had to share a bedroom with his grandfather.

The neighborhood was also home to Arthur Miller's uncle on his mother's side, Manny Newman, who would captivate Miller's imagination for years. Uncle Manny was a salesman, and he was a big talker, full of schemes and hope for the future, even though he struggled to make ends meet.

Miller got involved in drama as a college student when he decided to enter a playwriting contest and managed to win the first prize with the first play he'd ever written. His first big success was his play All My Sons (1947), and just before the Broadway premiere, Miller went to an advance performance of the play in Boston. He was standing outside the theater when he looked up and saw that one of the people leaving the auditorium was his uncle Manny, whom he hadn't seen in years. He realized right away that Manny must have been on a business trip to Boston and had come to the play on a whim. Miller said, "I could see his grim hotel room behind him, the long trip up from New York in his little car, the hopeless hope of the day's business." They only spoke briefly, and all Manny had to say was that his son Buddy was doing well. A year later, Miller learned that his uncle Manny had committed suicide.

He decided that he had to write a play, based loosely on his uncle's life. He tracked down Manny's two sons, Buddy and Abby, and interviewed them about their father. Soon after those interviews, Miller set out to write his play in a tiny cabin in Connecticut.

The result was Death of a Salesman (1949). It's the story of a salesman named Willy Loman and the last 24 hours of his life with his wife, Linda, and his sons, Biff and Happy. He comes home from a business trip, carrying a case of samples, and tells his wife that he decided to cut the trip short because he's not feeling well. He spends the next day trying to figure out how to pay off his debts. In the end, he decides to kill himself in a car accident, in the hopes getting his family the insurance money.

The final scene of the play takes place at Willy Loman's funeral, and one of the characters says, "For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back — that's an earthquake. ... A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."

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

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