Oct. 24, 2009

The Campus in Wartime

by Marvin Bell

Sweet corn sweetens the air by the gas station
as the Torah students hurry by to Hillel House,
the coatless short-skirted social butterflies
totter toward happy-hour double-drink specials,
the rabbi adjusts his tallis and the bartender
lines up the pints, half-pints and pitchers.
Three thousand of ours and thousands of theirs
are too many body bags to bury in the mind,
so while the gas of rotting bodies seeps up
from the ramshackle coffins and folded flags,
the young seek books or booze to soften the ache.
This year's few stalks of corn are one small
businessman's salute to the land. He may need
to fuel the air with toxic waste to earn a living,
but he has in mind the purity of original desire,
which some call sin but the half-Hasids know
as the life force, and the barflies toast. Let us study
the future, for it shall be the cradle of the past,
siring a blue abyss aflare in the lamp we call a sun.

"The Campus in Wartime" by Marvin Bell, from Mars Being Red. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft, the Netherlands (1632), who was working as a draper when he happened to use a magnifying lens to count the number of threads in a piece of cloth, and the experience got him interested in lenses. He began to spend all his spare time learning how to grind out lenses and use them in combination with each other to look at smaller and smaller things. Over his lifetime, he ground more than 400 lenses and built many microscopes, using techniques that he kept secret. He developed the first microscope that could show things too small for the human eye to see, and he became the first person ever to observe bacteria. He was also the first person to see red blood cells, and the first person to explain how insects breed, because he could see their tiny eggs.

It's the birthday of the comic-book author Bob Kane, (books by this author) born in the Bronx (1916), who was working at DC Comics in 1939 when his editors began asking for more superhero characters to follow up on the success of Superman. Kane thought about it over the weekend, and on Monday morning he turned in some sketches of a character he called Batman. The character made his debut in DC Comics number 27, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," in May of 1939. He is alter ego of multimillionaire Bruce Wayne and one of the few superheroes in the history of comic books who doesn't have any special powers. He's just rich enough to build himself special crime-fighting gadgets. Kane said he based the character partly on Zorro, because he liked the idea of a fashionable rich guy dressing up as a vigilante at night to fight crime. He got the idea for Batman's costume from a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci of a bat-winged flying machine.

It's the birthday of playwright Moss Hart, (books by this author) born in New York City (1904), who learned how to keep an audience's attention when he got a job as the entertainment director for a series of summer resorts along the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. He said that keeping city folks sufficiently entertained when they are on vacation was the toughest job he ever had. He had his first hit play with Once in a Lifetime in 1930, when he was just 25 years old, and went on to co-write or direct a string of hits, including The Man Who Came to Dinner, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. His best-known play, You Can't Take It With You (1936), is about the eccentric Sycamore family, whose home is full of snakes, ballet dancers, Russian Royalty, candy, and fireworks, and what happens when Alice, the most ordinary daughter of the family, brings her fiancé home to meet everybody. More than 70 years after its release, it is still one of the most popular plays for amateur productions. In 2004 alone, it was produced by more than 500 amateur theaters.

It's the birthday of the novelist Norman Rush, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1933), who spent 15 years working as a book dealer and trying to write on the side when he switched careers and took a job with the Peace Corps in Botswana and finally found something to write about. Rush said, "I was astonished by Africa … apartheid was falling apart, and nobody knew how the pieces would be put back together." He didn't have time to write anything while he was in Africa, so he just took notes. And after five years, he came home and wrote his first book, the short-story collection Whites (1986), which became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His next book, the novel Mating (1991), won the National Book Award. It's about an American woman who goes to Botswana to finish her Ph.D. in nutritional anthropology and falls into a relationship with a man trying to create a utopian community in the Kalahari Desert. Norman Rush said, "The main effort of arranging your life should be to progressively reduce the amount of time required to decently maintain yourself so that you can have all the time you want for reading."

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