Sunday

Aug. 29, 2010

Island Cities

by John Updike

You see them from airplanes, nameless green islands
in the oceanic, rectilinear plains,
twenty or thirty blocks, compact, but with
everything needed visibility in place—
the high-school playing fields, the swatch of park
along the crooked river, the feeder highways,
the main drag like a zipper, outlying malls
sliced from dirt-colored cakes of plowed farmland.

Small lives, we think—pat, flat—in such tight grids.
But, much like brains with every crease CAT-scanned,
these cities keep their secrets: vagaries
of the spirit, groundwater that floods
the nearby quarries and turns them skyey blue,
dewdrops of longing, jewels boxed in these blocks.

"Island Cities" by John Updike, from Americana: And Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Love is the master-key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear. How terrible is the one fact of beauty!" That's 19th-century poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., (books by this author) born 201 years ago today in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1809).

He hung out with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other Boston intellectuals. He helped found The Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1857, and it was Holmes himself who came up with the name. He published his poetry and articles in The Atlantic Monthly at the same time he practiced medicine and taught at Harvard Medical School. He's also the father of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

He's perhaps best-known for his essays that make up the "Breakfast Table" series. In The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872) he wrote, "We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible."

He said: "Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Good mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and levers, if anything is thrust among them suddenly which tends to stop them or reverse their motion. A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad."

It's the birthday of the man who said, "The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts": British philosopher John Locke, (books by this author) born in Wrington, Somerset, England (1632).

He believed all of our knowledge is derived from the senses. He also believed that we can know about morality with the same precision we know about math, because we create our ideas. His Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1688) was an instant success and sparked debate all across Europe.

Two years later, Locke wrote Two Treatises of Government (1690), in which he said he believed in Natural Law, and that people have Natural Rights, under which the right of property is most important. He wrote, "... every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself." He believed government exists to protect those rights and he argued in favor of revolt against tyranny. His ideas were a foundation for much of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Locke said, "Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours."

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

 









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