May 3, 2013
It was everywhere in my childhood: in restaurants,
on buses or planes. The teacher's lounge looked like
London under fog. My grandmother never stopped
smoking, and walking in her house was like diving
in a dark pond. Adults were dimly lit: they carried
matches in their pockets as if they might need fire
to see. Cigarette machines inhaled quarters and
exhaled rectangles. Women had their own brands,
long and thin; one was named Eve and it was meant
to be smoked in a garden thick with summer flowers.
I'm speaking of moods: an old country store where
my grandfather met friends and everyone spoke
behind a veil of smoke. (My Uncle Bill preferred
fragrant cigars; I can still smell his postal jacket ...)
He had time to tell stories because he took breaks
and there was something to do with his hands.
My mother's bridge club gathered around tables
with ashtrays and secrets which are best revealed
beside fire. Even the fireplaces are gone: inefficient
and messy. We are healthier now and safer! We have
exercise and tests for breast or colon cancer. We have
helmets and car seats and smokeless coffee shops
where coffee has grown frothy and complex. The old
movies are so full of smoke that actors are hard to see
and they are often wrapped in smoking jackets, bent
over a piano or kiss. I miss the places smoke created.
I like the way people sat down for rest or pleasure
and spoke to other people, not phones, and the tiny fire
which is crimson and primitive and warm. How long
ago when humans found this spark of warmth and made
their first circle? What about smoke as words? Or the
pipes of peace? In grade school we learned how it rises
and how it can kill. We were taught to shove towels
under our closed doors: to stop, drop, and roll. We had
a plan to meet our family in the yard, the house behind
us alive with all we cannot put out...
It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise": Niccolò Machiavelli (books by this author), born in Florence (1469). He had an early career in politics when Italy wasn't a unified country, but rather a collection of allied city-states. It was an unstable time, and he lost his post when the government was overthrown by the Medici family. He wrote The Prince in 1513 as an instruction manual on obtaining and holding onto power, in hopes that he could impress the powerful Medicis and earn a political position. In his treatise, he wrote that morality was irrelevant when it came to running a state. He didn't advocate evil for its own sake, and believed rulers should stick to the good whenever possible. But he also said they should be willing to perform evil acts when it became necessary to hold onto their power and maintain the security of the state.
Machiavelli's attempt to impress the Medicis backfired, and they may never have even read The Prince until after his death. His name became associated with cutthroat tactics and violence, and he never held another government job.
Today is the birthday of the photojournalist Jacob Riis (books by this author), born in Ribe, Denmark (1849). He moved to New York in 1870. He got a job as a police reporter, working the night shift among the crowded tenements of poor immigrants, and he set out to improve their conditions. When flash photography was invented in 1887, he took photographs of the slums of New York and wrote companion essays to form a book, How the Other Half Lives (1890), and it helped bring about housing reforms.
It's the birthday of Israeli poet and novelist Yehuda Amichai (books by this author), born Ludwig Pfeuffer in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924. He moved to Palestine in 1936 and later became an Israeli citizen. He was one of the first poets to write in colloquial Hebrew. He wrote: "A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, / to laugh and cry with the same eyes, / with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them, / to make love in war and war in love."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®