Jan. 11, 2005
Poem: "The Change" by Tony Hoagland, from What Narcissism Means to Me © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission.
The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.
Sometimes I think that nothing really changes -
The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he's a dummy.
but remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite -
We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,
putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,
and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
I couldn't help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat,
like she wasn't asking anyone's permission.
There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank,
and I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there
in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes
as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure
and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.
And the little pink judge
had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,
still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing
and in fact, everything had already changed -
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of one of the founding fathers of our country, Alexander Hamilton, born in the British West Indies (1755, some sources say 1757). He's the man on the $10 bill.
He grew up on the tiny island of Nevis, where his father abandoned the family and his mother died when he was just a boy. He was taken in by a local merchant who gave him a job at a general store. He turned out to be quite good at accounting, so when he was thirteen, his boss took a trip to Europe and left young Alexander in charge of the store. He started writing on the side, and an article about a recent hurricane so impressed the adults around him that they all pitched in to pay for his passage to New York, where he could attend school.
He arrived in America just as rebellion against Great Britain was brewing, and he immediately began to write for New York newspapers in support of the colonies' rights. He impressed George Washington so much that he became Washington's right hand man when he was barely twenty-years old. After the revolution, when many American politicians believed that the colonies should remain mostly independent of each other, Hamilton was one of the earliest supporters of a strong central government.
In just three years, between 1787 and 1790, he served on the constitutional convention, wrote the majority of the Federalist Papers, (which helped garner support for the new constitution) became the first secretary of the treasury, and set up the U.S. National Bank.
While serving on Washington's cabinet, Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson became bitter enemies, and set out to undermine each other with gossip about each other's scandalous private lives. Hamilton was having an affair at the time, and there were rumors that Jefferson had had children with one of his slaves. But despite their bitter rivalry, Hamilton later spoke in favor of Jefferson as president over Aaron Burr, whom he considered a scoundrel.
Four years later, Burr challenged him to a duel. They met at sunrise in a wooded area of Weehawken, New Jersey, above the Hudson River. Hamilton showed up for the duel to prove his courage, but he purposely fired his gun straight up into the air. Burr aimed at him anyway, and Hamilton was mortally wounded and died the next day.
He hasn't been as well remembered as Washington or Jefferson, but by setting up the national treasury, the national bank, the first budgetary and tax systems, and most of all by helping gather support for the U.S. constitution, he did more to design the system of government we now live under than almost any other man.
The columnist George F. Will said, "We honor Jefferson, but live in Hamilton's country."
Alexander Hamilton wrote, "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power."
It's the birthday of the psychologist and philosopher William James, born in New York City (1842). He was the older brother of the novelist Henry James, and one of the most prominent thinkers of his era. He was a man who started out studying medicine and went on to become one of the founders of modern psychology, and finished his life as a prominent philosopher.
He was a professor of physiology at Harvard when he was hired to write a textbook about the new field of psychology, which was challenging the idea that the body and the mind were separate. He could have just written a summary of all the current ideas in the field but instead decided to explore the issues of psychology he found most interesting and perplexing. He took twelve years to finish the book called, The Principles of Psychology (1890). It was used as a textbook in college classrooms, but was also translated into a dozen different languages, and people read it all over the world.
One of the ideas he developed in the book was a theory of the human mind which he called "a stream of consciousness." Before him the common view was that a person's thoughts have a clear beginning and end, and that the thinker is in control of his or her thoughts. But William James wrote, "Consciousness... does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows."
James's ideas about consciousness were especially influential on writers, and novelists from James Joyce to William Faulkner began to portray streams of consciousness through language, letting characters think at length and at random on the page. Consciousness itself became one of the most important subjects of modern literature.
He also helped invent the technique of automatic writing, in which a person writes as quickly as possible whatever comes into one's head. He encouraged audiences to take up the practice as a form of self-analysis, and one person who took his advice was a student named Gertrude Stein, who went on to use it as the basis for her writing style.
William James wrote, "The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures."
He also wrote, "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."
It's the birthday of novelist Alan Paton, born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He's best known for his novel, Cry, Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for twenty-five years as a public servant and educator.
He was the son of English settlers in South Africa. After graduating from college, he took a job as a teacher in a Zulu school. He had long wanted to be a writer, and wrote two failed novels about his experiences in the Zulu community before deciding he needed to put writing on hold and get involved in the fight against apartheid.
He went to Johannesburg and got a job transforming a reformatory from a prison into an educational institution. He became known among the residents of the reformatory as the man who pulled out the barbed wire and planted geraniums. He became one of the foremost authorities on penal systems in South Africa, and he began giving talks on the subject. After World War II, he decided to go on a world tour of penal institutions, to learn as much as he could about improving those in his own country.
It was only after he'd left South Africa that he realized he could no longer put off writing fiction. One evening in Norway, sitting in front of a cathedral at twilight, he found himself longing for home, and when he got back to his hotel room he started writing his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When it was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller. It's the best-selling novel in South African history. It still sells about 100,000 copies a year.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®