Oct. 11, 2013
The Poetry Teacher
The university gave me a new, elegant
classroom to teach in. Only one thing,
they said. You can't bring your dog.
It's in my contract, I said. (I had
made sure of that.)
We bargained and I moved to an old
classroom in an old building. Propped
the door open. Kept a bowl of water
in the room. I could hear Ben among
other voices barking, howling in the
distance. Then they would all arrive—
Ben, his pals, maybe an unknown dog
or two, all of them thirsty and happy.
They drank, they flung themselves down
among the students. The students loved
it. They all wrote thirsty, happy poems.
It's the birthday of the man who founded the YMCA, Sir George Williams, born in 1821 in Dulverton, England. Williams left his family farm for London, where he got a job in a draper's shop. He was horrified by the conditions of the city. There were so many young men who came from the country to try and find jobs there, and they worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and slept in crowded rooms together. When they did have time off, their only entertainment was whatever they could find on the streets of London — streets filled with gamblers, drunks, and prostitutes. Williams wanted to create a place for young men to hang out and make friends, a place free of temptation. So he and some of his fellow drapers started a group for recreation and Bible study, and that was the first Young Men's Christian Association, the YMCA.
It's the birthday of the longest-serving First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, born in New York City (1884) who said, "A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water." She began a secret courtship with her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During World War I, she went off to Europe and visited wounded and shell-shocked soldiers in hospitals there. Later, during her husband's presidency, she campaigned hard on civil rights issues — not a universally popular thing in the 1930s and 1940s.
After FDR died in 1945, she moved from the White House to Hyde Park, New York, and taught International Relations at Brandeis University. As anti-communist witch-hunting began to sweep the U.S., she stuck up for freedom of association in a way that few Americans were brave or bold enough to do. She chided Hollywood producers for being so "chicken-hearted about speaking up for the freedom of their industry." She said that the "American public is capable of doing its own censoring" and that "the judge who decides whether what [the film industry] does is good or bad is the man or woman who attends the movies."
She said that the Un-American Activities Committee was creating the atmosphere of a police state in America, "where people close doors before they state what they think or look over their shoulders apprehensively before they express an opinion."
In 1947, a couple years before the McCarthy Era had reached full swing, she announced, "The Un-American Activities Committee seems to me to be better for a police state than for the USA."
She once said, "We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk."
And, "You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do."
It's the birthday of physicist and psychologist Lewis Fry Richardson (books by this author), born in Northumberland, England (1881), who was the first to apply mathematical techniques to predict the weather accurately. During WWI, Richardson served as a driver for the Friends' Ambulance Unit in France. During the intervals between transporting wounded soldiers from the front, he manually computed the changes in pressure and wind at two points. From this information, he wrote his 1922 book, Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. The problem with his theories was that it took him about three months to predict the weather for the next 24 hours. His system did not become practical until the advent of electronic computers after World War II.
It was on this day in 1962 that Pope John XXIII convened the first session of the Second Vatican Council, also known as Vatican II, with the goal of bringing the church up to date with the modern world. More than 3,000 delegates attended, including many of the Catholic bishops from around the world, theologians, and other church officials.
As a result of Vatican II, Catholics were allowed to pray with Protestants and attend weddings and funerals in Protestant churches; priests were encouraged to perform mass facing the congregation, rather than facing the altar; and priests were allowed to perform mass in languages other than Latin, so that parishioners could finally understand what was being said throughout the service.
It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard (books by this author), born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1925). In 1949, he went to work as an advertising copywriter, a job he hated. He would write fiction in the mornings before work, or, as he said: "Sometimes I would write a little fiction at work, too. I would write in my desk drawer and close the drawer if somebody came in."
In 1951, he published his first short story — a Western, and in 1953, his first novel, The Bounty Hunters. Over the next 10 years, he published more than 30 short stories and five novels, including Escape from Five Shadows (1956) and Hombre (1961). Shortly thereafter, Western novels lost popularity, and Leonard decided to switch genres. His first crime novel, The Big Bounce, came out in 1969 after being rejected by 84 publishers. Since then, almost all of his books — including Fifty-Two Pickup (1974), Get Shorty (1990), Out of Sight (1996), and recently, Djibouti (2010) — have been critically acclaimed best-sellers.
It's the birthday of the French writer François (Charles) Mauriac (books by this author), born in Bordeaux (1885). He made it his mission to write about Bordeaux—a vine-growing, pastoral region of France—and he used it as the setting for most of his novels. He became famous for his book A Kiss for the Leper (1922), about a wealthy but hideous man whose life is destroyed by an arranged marriage to a beautiful peasant woman. He also wrote The Desert of Love (1925), Thérèse (1927), and The Knot of Vipers (1932).
On the eve of World War II, he spoke out against the Germans in a French newspaper he started, and he had to hide out during part of the war for his anti-German views. In the 1950s, he sided with Charles de Gaulle in his opposition to colonial policies in Morocco, and he condemned torture in Algeria by the French army. In 1952, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
He said, "I believe that only poetry counts. A great novelist is first of all a great poet."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®