Jan. 9, 2007

After Dinner

by Philip Levine

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Poem: "After Dinner" by Philip Levine, from A Walk With Thomas Jefferson. © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.

After Dinner

She's eaten dinner talking
back to the television, she's
had coffee and brandy, done
the dishes and drifted into
and out of sleep over a book
she found beside the couch. It's
time for bed, but she goes
instead to the front door, unlocks
it, and steps onto the porch.
Behind her she can hear only
the silence of the house. The lights
throw her shadow down the stairs
and onto the lawn, and she walks
carefully to meet it. Now she's
standing in the huge, whispering
arena of night, hearing her
own breath tearing out of her
like the cries of an animal.
She could keep going into
whatever the darkness brings,
she could find a presence there
her shaking hands could hold
instead of each other.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the 37th president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon, (books by this author) born in Yorba Linda, California (1913). He had a childhood full of tragedy and disappointment. When Nixon was 12, his older brother got a headache that turned out to be meningitis. He died a month later. Nixon said that he cried for weeks afterwards. A few years later, Nixon's other brother caught tuberculosis and spent five years in a sanitarium before he died. The cost of his treatment drained the family's resources, and Nixon had to turn down a partial scholarship to Harvard. He did get a full scholarship to Duke Law School, but he had to live in a one-room house with no plumbing or electricity. He was forced to shave in the men's room of the Duke University library.

Nixon's luck only began to change when he decided to join the military during World War II. He'd been raised a Quaker, but he was interested in politics, and he knew that military service would look good on his résumé. One of the things he learned in the military was that he was a fantastic poker player. By the end of the war, he had earned almost $10,000. When he got back to civilian life, he used that money to fund his first political campaign.

He managed to win his first election for Congress, and he served as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower, but he was defeated for the presidency by John F. Kennedy in 1960. Then, in 1962, he lost a campaign for governor of California, and suddenly it seemed like his career was over. But just six years later, he was elected president of the United States.

His policies as president were surprisingly liberal by today's standards. He began arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and eased relations with China. He established the Environmental Protection Agency, expanded Social Security and state welfare programs, and he tried to create a national health insurance system.

The Watergate investigations eventually forced Nixon to resign in 1974. At his last meeting with his Cabinet in 1974, Nixon burst into tears. He told them, "Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty. Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself."

It's the birthday of the novelist and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, (books by this author) born in Paris, France (1908). She entered the Sorbonne, and it was there that she met another philosophy student named Jean-Paul Sartre. He was five feet tall, had lost his sight in one eye, wore baggy clothes and seemed to have no interest in hygiene. But he loved to talk, and he was both funny and brilliant. Beauvoir later said, "It was the first time in my life that I felt intellectually inferior to anyone else."

Sartre was equally impressed by Beauvoir's intellect, especially when she finished her philosophy degree in one year, after it had taken Sartre three years to finish his own. She was the youngest person to receive the degree in French history. They fell in love, but instead of getting married, they decided to form a pact. They would both have affairs with other people, but they would tell each other everything. That basic arrangement of their relationship would last for the rest of their lives.

One of her most famous books was inspired by an offhand comment Sartre made one day. They were talking about the differences in the ways men and women were treated, and Beauvoir claimed that she'd never been adversely affected by this treatment. Sartre said, "All the same, you weren't brought up the same way a boy would have been; you should look into it further."

So Beauvoir did look into it. She spent weeks at the National Library in Paris researching the way women had been treated throughout history. The result was her book The Second Sex (1949), in which she wrote, "One is not born a woman, one becomes one." It was one of the first comprehensive arguments that the difference between the sexes was the result of culture, not nature, and it helped found the modern feminist movement.

It's the birthday of the Irish playwright Bernard Patrick Friel (Brian Friel) (books by this author) born in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland (1929). In 1959, his short stories began to appear in The New Yorker, which gave him the courage to give up his teaching and start writing full time. He also wrote popular plays, including Philadelphia, Here I Come!, produced on Broadway in 1966, and Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), about the five unmarried Mundy sisters who live together on a rugged farm outside Ballybeg, a small town in Donegal.

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