Aug. 4, 2011
Be Glad Your Nose is on Your Face
Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.
Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you'd be forced to smell your feet.
Your nose would be a source of dread
were it attached atop your head,
it soon would drive you to despair,
forever tickled by your hair.
Within your ear, your nose would be
an absolute catastrophe,
for when you were obliged to sneeze,
your brain would rattle from the breeze.
Your nose, instead, through thick and thin,
remains between your eyes and chin,
not pasted on some other place—
be glad your nose is on your face!
On this day in the year 1181, Chinese and Japanese astronomers recorded the appearance of a supernova, what they called a "guest star" — one that appears where none was before, is visible for a time, and then disappears again — in a group of stars shared across several constellations, including the Black Tortoise of the North and the White Tiger of the West. The appearance of the guest was recorded in eight separate sources, including a pessimistic courtier to the Emperor of Japan who wrote that it was "a sign of abnormality" and expected it foretold of tumult and lawlessness. The new star was one of the three most brilliant objects in the sky and remained visible for six months before disappearing again.
In the West, where astrological tradition is largely taken from the ancient Greeks, who populated the sky with their gods, heroes, and famous if ill-fated mortals, the stars that hosted the Chinese guest are see as a single pattern — the constellation Cassiopeia — a giant capital W revolving around the dome of the night sky, visible year-round in the Northern Hemisphere and associated with an ancient, mortal queen.
Cassiopeia was the wife of the king of Aethiopia [Ethiopia]. She was a vain woman, arrogant and boastful, fond of bragging that she and her daughter, Andromeda, were more beautiful than even the sea nymphs who were the companions of the sea god Poseidon. This so enraged Poseidon that he sent an enormous sea monster to punish the queen by destroying her kingdom. Unfortunately for Andromeda, Cassiopeia sought the advice of an oracle and was told that she could only save Aethiopia by chaining her daughter to a rock at the sea's edge and leaving her as a sacrifice for the monster. At the last moment, a passing hero, on his way home from such exploits as slaying Gorgons, flew in on a pair of winged sandals, saved the girl, and then made her his bride.
Cassiopeia, on the other hand, was chained to her throne by the gods and flung into the heavens to hang there for all eternity, circling the Pole with her head hung toward the ground as a lesson in humility.
More recently, in 1999, NASA launched its Chandra X-Ray Observatory into orbit, giving astronomers their first good picture of the remnants of the supernova of 1181. The remnant, which goes by the colorful name 3C58, is an oval of matter glowing with X-rays and radio waves 10,000 light years distant. At its heart lies a rapidly spinning neutron star that is blowing out jets of particles moving at near the speed of light. As the star spins, each jet sweeps across the sky like the beam of a lighthouse, appearing to flash on and off 15 times each second against the backdrop of the sky.
Today is the birthday of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author), born in West Sussex in 1792 to a hardheaded country squire and his beautiful but narrow-minded wife. Shelley, the oldest of seven children, was adored by his little sisters and baby brother. He was imaginative and "odd" right from the start, given to strange flights and inventing imaginary occupants of the family home, like an old, bearded alchemist that Shelley had decided was living in a garret under the roof until the Shelley children could design and dig a cave in their orchard as his permanent home.
Shelley was interested in science and chemistry from an early age. In James Bieri's biography of the poet, Shelley's younger sister Hellen recounts her brother's penchant for playing with fire and chemicals, saying that "we dressed ourselves in strange costumes to personate spirits, or fiends, and Bysshe would take a fire-stove and fill it with some [flammable] liquid and carry it flaming into the kitchen and to the back-door ... on one occasion, on the morning our Poet and experimentalist left home (for Eton, probably) the washing-room was discovered to have been filled with smoke, by a fire in the grate with the valve closed ... and there might have been circumstances connected with it related to chemical preparations ..."
It's possible that Shelley was also expressing a quiet rage about returning to school. He was perhaps the least suitable candidate for a traditional upper-class English education and his school career, beginning at the Syon House Academy and followed by Eton, was a little hell of persecution by boys and masters who were, compared to Shelley, savage conformists. At Eton, he became known as "Mad Shelley," living in his imagination, avoiding participation in sports, and escaping into cheap, Gothic romances and scientific experiments.
However miserable his school experiences made him, it was then that Shelley began writing poetry and also when, at 18, he published his first work — an imitation of the dime books he loved, the Gothic novel Zastrozzi, the first line of which is, "Torn from the society of all he held dear on earth, the victim of secret enemies, and exiled from happiness, was the wretched Verezzi!" How apt a description for what Shelley must have felt about his years at school.
Shelley went on to college at Oxford in 1810. There, he formed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson Hogg, and the young men began writing together, producing a burlesque collection of poetry and the treatise The Necessity of Atheism, a radical book for its time. Shelley and Hogg refused to recant the views expressed in their treatise, and both were expelled.
And so Shelley and Hogg went to London, took lodgings together, argued with their families, and Shelley's sisters and their friend Harriet Westbrook supported the boy in his romantic defiance by sending him their pocket money for his expenses. Having been brought to each other's attention, Harriet and Shelley fell immediately in love and, when Harriet was just 16 and Shelley 19, eloped to Scotland and were married. It was troubled relationship that ended three years later — Harriet was already pregnant with their second child when the 22-year-old Shelley met 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, abandoned his pregnant wife, and ran off to Europe with the girl.
Shelley and Mary seemed to travel continually. They were back in England when Harriet bore Shelley a son and while Mary lost a baby to a premature birth; they summered in Geneva — where Shelley first met his great friend Lord Byron; and they were back in England once more, during which time Harriet drowned herself in the Serpentine River, and Mary and Percy finally married.
From early 1817 until March of 1818, Shelley and an entourage that by now comprised his wife and their two children, and Mary's stepsister and child, settled into the English countryside where Shelley became friends with John Keats and began his most prolific period, producing his best-known works, beginning with the poem Ozymandias. Shelley lived on bread and water and vegetables, as well as a steady diet of laudanum and, in complete contradiction to the popular view of him as a monster of immorality, was a tender and devoted father who wore himself out with kindnesses to acquaintances and the impoverished.
Mary's health was poor, and her physician recommended a warmer climate. So in 1818, Shelly moved his family to Italy, where the Shelley's young children unfortunately died, and where their only surviving son, Percy, was born. It was also in Italy that Shelley and his wife collaborated on her novel Frankenstein, and where Shelley produced his lyrical retelling of an ancient Greek drama — his play in four acts, Prometheus Unbound.
The couple settled on the western coast of Italy in 1822. On July 8th, Shelley, a friend, and a boat-boy set sail in Shelley's boat, the Ariel. There was a sudden squall, and the boat was lost. Ten days later, three bodies washed up on shore, Shelley's recognizable by its slender form and the volumes of Aeschylus and Keats in its pockets. The bodies were burned where they were found, with Byron and two others in attendance; Shelley's heart was snatched from the flames and his ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.
When Mary Shelley died some 30 years later, her son, Percy, opened her box-desk and found a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe, a silk parcel containing some of his ashes and the remains of his heart, and a copy of his elegiac poem Adonaïs, which begins:
I weep for Adonais — he is dead!
O, weep for Adonais! though our tears
Thaw not the frost which binds so dear a head!
And thou, sad Hour, selected from all years
To mourn our loss, rouse thy obscure compeers,
And teach them thine own sorrow, say: "With me
Died Adonais; till the Future dares
Forget the Past, his fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light unto eternity!"
Today marks the printing of the first edition of the Saturday Evening Post in 1821. The magazine originated in Philadelphia in 1728 as The Pennsylvania Gazette, one of the American Colonies' most prominent newspapers, and was owned and run by Benjamin Franklin, who established a form of journalism and freedom of speech that would become the foundation for modern American news coverage. In 1752, the Gazette published Franklin's third-person account of his pioneering kite and electricity experiment, and on the front page of the July 10th, 1776 edition, printed the entire Declaration of Independence alongside ads offering a £7 reward for two runaway servants, a £3 reward for the thief of a white horse and a black mare, and a 10-shilling reward for the return of a runaway milch cow.
In 1821, the Gazette changed hands and was renamed The Saturday Evening Post, but kept its format of an illustration-free newspaper that tackled political controversy. Sometime later, the magazine was rededicated to morality and commercial affairs, and it already boasted an impressive circulation when it was purchased in 1898 for $1,000 by Cyrus K. Curtis, the publisher of The Ladies Home Journal. Curtis redesigned the newspaper to its present-day journal form, focusing on business, public affairs, and romance. The new journal took great care with its illustrations, which now appeared on every page and would become a hallmark of the magazine.
The Post began commissioning articles from top journalists like Willa Cather and Jack London, as well as their creative work, and serialized the first publication of London's most famous novel, The Call of the Wild. In 1916, the Post'seditor agreed to meet a 22-year-old painter from New York City and, upon seeing his work, immediately bought two paintings to use as covers for the magazine. One of these, an image of a nattily dressed boy with a baby bottle shoved in his pocket, pushing a baby carriage and being mocked by the other lads who are clearly off to play baseball, became young Norman Rockwell's first Saturday Evening Post cover and the start of a 50-year collaboration that spanned more than 300 paintings and made Rockwell into one of America's best-loved artists.
A list of authors and poets that have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post runs like a who's who of the literary world: the Gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe; the short stories of William Faulkner and adventure stories of Louis L'Amour; F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found his best story market in the magazine; humorist and curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut; Robert Heinlein, whose science fiction first broke into a wider audience in the Post; the British crime writer Agatha Christie; P.G. Wodehouse, the English humorist who was given his first break when the Post purchased and serialized one of his novels; the reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg; Ogden Nash's lighthearted poems; the wit and poetry of Dorothy Parker; and countless more.
Readership began to decline in the 1950s and '60s, and The Post's editors blamed the popularity of television, which was now competing with the Post for its readers' attention as well as its advertisers. The public's taste in fiction was changing too, and the Post's conservative politics and old-fashioned values made it difficult for the magazine to obtain the work of popular writers. The Post began relying more heavily on articles on current events and followed cost-cutting measures such as replacing its famous illustrated covers and advertisements with far less expensive photographs, but was still forced to cease publication in 1969. Two years later, in a strange kind of hearkening-back to its origins, The Saturday Evening Post was back in circulation under the ownership of the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical society, with a new mission to use its credibility as a way of connecting readers and medical professionals to important topics in health and medicine.
Today, The Saturday Evening Post is a nonprofit that publishes its magazine six times a year and uses its Children's Better Health Institute to teach children and educators the fundamentals of good health. Following the wisdom of one of Benjamin Franklin's most famous aphorisms, that one should "eat to live, not live to eat," The Post's U.S. Kids foundation runs day camps that promote physical activity and nutrition for children struggling with obesity.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®