May 16, 2013
for Stanley Dentinger (1922-2004)
Walking distance used to be much farther,
miles and miles.
Your grandfather, as a young man
with a wife and new baby son,
walked to and from
his job, which was in the next town.
That was Iowa, 1946,
and it was not a hardship
but "an opportunity," which is youth speaking,
and also a particular man
of German descent, walking on good legs
on white gravel roads,
smoking cigarettes which were cheap
though not free as they'd been
during the war. Tobacco
burned toward his fingers, but never
reached them. The fire was small and personal,
almost intimate, glowing bright
when he put the cigarette to his lips
and breathed through it.
So many cigarettes before bombing runs
and none had been his last,
a great surprise. Sometimes he passed
a farmer burning field grass in the spring,
the smoldering line advancing toward the fence.
He had to know what he was doing,
so near the barn. You had to be close
to see the way
blades of dry grass passed the flame along
at a truly individual level,
very close to see how delicious a meal
the field was to the fire
on a damp, calm, almost English morning
ideal for walking.
It is the birthday of one of the first well-known female mathematicians of the Western world. Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan (1718). Her father, Pietro, was a wealthy businessman and her mother, Anna Fortunata Brivio, was an aristocrat whom her father married to raise his status in Milan society.
Maria was a brilliant child. By age five, she spoke French as well as her native Italian. A few years later, she was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and her family called her the "Walking Polyglot." At age nine, she addressed a group of academics in Latin on the subject of women's rights and access to education, and soon she was leading complex philosophical discussions between her father and his scholarly friends. She also began to pursue mathematics.
Maria was shy and devout, and she longed to give up her public speaking and enter a convent. Her religious aspirations were dashed, however, when her mother died and she was left in charge of the household and the care of her many siblings.
She maintained her interest in math and philosophy. In 1738, she published Propositiones Philosophicae, a collection of essays based on the talks she gave to her father's circle of friends. That same year, she began working on a math textbook that she could use to teach math to her siblings. But the book grew into more than just a teaching tool. In it she wrote an equation for a specific bell-shaped curve that is still used today and is known — because of mistranslation of the Italian by a British mathematician — as the "Witch of Agnesi." Analytical Institutions, which was published in 1748, was highly regarded in academic circles for synthesizing complex mathematical ideas with clarity and precision.
Analytical Institutions and the articulation of the Witch of Agnesi earned her a spot in the Bologna Academy of Sciences. But by that time, she had abandoned mathematics and devoted herself to charity work. When asked a decade later what she thought of recent developments in calculus, she said she was "no longer concerned with such interests." She was eventually appointed director of a home for ill and infirm women, and she spent the rest of her life caring for the dying until her own death in 1799.
It is the birthday of writer and broadcaster Louis "Studs" Terkel (books by this author), born in the Bronx, New York (1912). His family moved to Chicago when Terkel was 10 years old and his parents ran rooming houses. Terkel remembers all different kinds of people moving through the rooming houses — dissidents, labor organizers, religions fanatics — and that that exposure helped build his knowledge of the outside world.
In 1934, he attended the University of Chicago and graduated with a law degree. But he soon fell into radio broadcasting, working first on radio soap operas, then hosting news and sports shows, and ultimately landing his own show, where he played music and interviewed people.
He is best known for his powerful interviews of ordinary people, which became a series of successful books, including Division Street: America (1967), Hard Times (1970), Working (1974), and Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It (1995). His last book, PS: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening, was released just after Terkel's death in 2008. He was 96.
Terkel said: "Why are we born? We're born eventually to die, of course. But what happens between the time we're born and we die? We're born to live. One is a realist if one hopes."
And, "With optimism, you look upon the sunny side of things. People say, 'Studs, you're an optimist.' I never said I was an optimist. I have hope because what's the alternative to hope? Despair? If you have despair, you might as well put your head in the oven."
And, "I've always felt, in all my books, that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence — providing they have the facts, providing they have the information."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®