Sep. 12, 2013

A Podiatry Fairytale

by Adam Possner

This little piggy
went to market, this

little piggy stayed
home, and this little

piggy, well, he's sick,
poor guy, got a case

of the fungus-Big
Bad Trichophyton

blew hyphae under
his nail, turned it to

porridge, ragged like
a witch's tooth or

hunchbacked troll, horrid
as an unkissed toad.

Probably caught it
from someone's slipper.

The crystal ball of
randomized, controlled,

double-blind trials
shows half of such nails

will magically change
from ugly duckling

to sleeping beauty
by the stroke of twelve

weeks of Lamisil
taken orally.

It's no genie in
a bottle, no knight

in shining armor,
just your best chance for

a happy ending.

"A Podiatry Fairytale" by Adam Possner MD. © Adam Possner. Reprinted by permission of the author.

It's the birthday of the journalist and editor H.L. (Henry Louis) Mencken (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1880). He graduated as the valedictorian from his high school at the age of 15, but even though he was burning to write, he did exactly what his father expected: He took a job at the cigar factory. He started out rolling the cigars alongside the other blue-collar men, and he actually enjoyed that manual labor. But when he was promoted to the front office, he was hopelessly bored. He finally mustered up his courage and told his father that he wanted to pursue a career in journalism. His father told him to bring up the subject again in a year.

Mencken had been working at his father's factory for three years when, on New Year's Eve in 1898, his father had a convulsion and collapsed. His mother told Mencken to get a doctor, 11 blocks down the street, and Mencken later said, "I remember well how, as I was trotting to [the doctor's] house on that first night, I kept saying to myself that if my father died I'd be free at last."

His father died two weeks later. The day after his father's funeral, Mencken shaved his face, combed his hair, put on his best suit, and went down to the Baltimore Morning Herald, asking for a job. Mencken came back every single day for the next four weeks. He finally wore the editor down, and he got to write two articles, each fewer than 50 words long.

He went on to become one of the most influential and prolific journalists in America, writing about all the shams and con artists in the world. He attacked chiropractors and the Ku Klux Klan, politicians and other journalists. Most of all, he attacked Puritan morality. He called Puritanism, "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

At the height of his career, he edited and wrote for The American Mercury magazine and the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column for the Chicago Tribune, and published two or three books every year. His masterpiece was one of the few books he wrote about something he loved, a book called The American Language (1919), a history and collection of American vernacular speech. It included a translation of the Declaration of Independence into American English that began, "When things get so balled up that the people of a country got to cut loose from some other country, and go it on their own hook, without asking no permission from nobody, excepting maybe God Almighty, then they ought to let everybody know why they done it, so that everybody can see they are not trying to put nothing over on nobody."

When asked what he would like for an epitaph, Mencken wrote, "If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl."

It's the birthday of publisher Alfred A. Knopf (1892), born in New York City. He started his own publishing house when he was 23, and it soon gained a reputation for publishing works of literary merit. He was a hands-on boss, overseeing every aspect of production, down to the typeface. He wanted to publish quality books and didn't really care how well they sold. In 1923, he published Khalil Gibran's The Prophet and was nonplussed when it became a huge best-seller. He co-founded the literary magazine The American Mercury with H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1924, and remained its publisher for 10 years. He also published the work of several notable authors of the 20th century, including Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, D.H. Lawrence, James Baldwin, Theodore Dreiser, and Langston Hughes; his favorite of all his authors was Willa Cather.

It's the birthday of the author of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje (books by this author), born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) (1943). He grew up in an English colonialist family, with self-indulgent, frivolous parents. But by the time he was six, his mother had left him and his alcoholic father for England. Eventually, he followed her there, and moved on to Canada to study literature. The English Patient is set in Tuscany at the end of World War II. It's about the relationship between a mysterious, badly burned patient and his nurse. In an interview, Ondaatje explained his desire to write, saying, "One of the things that happens in novels ... it's almost like a continual debate with yourself. That's why you're writing the book. It's why you create characters: so you can argue with yourself."

The Battle of Marathon, one of history's earliest recorded battles, took place on this date in the year 490 B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus tells us that King Darius I of Persia was determined to crush Athens and Eretria, because the Greek city-states had supported the Ionian Revolt and burned the Persian city of Sardis to the ground. Darius wanted revenge, and he spent four years planning his strategy. He sent an armada to pummel the cities in August. Eretria was captured first, and then Persian forces moved on toward Athens. The two armies spent several days in a stalemate, facing each other across the Plain of Marathon, neither one really willing to start the battle. This was fine with the Athenians, who were greatly outnumbered by the Persians, and they were hoping for reinforcements from Sparta to arrive. Eventually, a large share of the Persian cavalry departed, possibly on board a ship bound for Athens. The Athenian generals took advantage of the cavalry's absence and surrounded the Persian camp. Herodotus wrote: "The Persians ... when they saw the Greeks coming on at speed, made ready to receive them, although it seemed to them that the Athenians were bereft of their senses, and bent upon their own destruction; for they saw a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers. Such was the opinion of the barbarians; but the Athenians in close array fell upon them, and fought in a manner worthy of being recorded."

The battle was a rout, and the Persians retreated to Asia, losing 6,400 soldiers to Athens' 192. Darius' son Xerxes I eventually took up the cause, attempting to invade Greece again 10 years later. But now the Greeks knew that the Persians could be beaten, and their confidence grew. They successfully held off the Persians' subsequent invasion attempts, and the Battle of Marathon is regarded as the kicking-off point for the rise of Classical Greece and the birth of Western civilization.

Of course, the battle also gave its name to the long distance race of the same name. The legend holds that a Greek messenger named Pheidippides ran the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the rout, collapsing and dying after he delivered the news. What most likely happened was that he ran from Athens to Sparta before the battle — a distance of 140 miles — to ask for the Spartans' help. But when Plutarch wrote the story in the 1st century A.D., he confused the story of Pheidippides with that of the Athenian army quick-marching back to Athens after the battle to protect the city from the remaining Persian forces. Organizers of the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, came up with the idea of a commemorative race to honor their ancient Greek forbears. So the competitors retraced the legendary steps of Pheidippides, running the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens.

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