Nov. 17, 2013

Summer Ending

by David Middleton

Green blades grow pale and still
Below this windowsill
Whose clearest panes
A sheer light stains,
Then passes where it will.

The grass's crickets cry,
Compelled to mate and die,
And thus to share,
Though unaware,
In my more chilling sigh.

or here I rock and stare,
Grown old in this old chair,
Alert to what
Crickets are not,
Hope woven with despair.

The first leaves reach my door,
Pecan and sycamore,
As summer ends
And fall portends
What winter knows before.

"Summer Ending" by David Middleton, from The Fiddler of Driskill Hill. © Louisiana State University Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1800, the United States Congress met in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for the first time. Construction had begun on the domed building in 1793, but it soon fell behind schedule and went over budget. So in 1796, the planners made the decision to build only the Senate wing. On move-in day, some of the rooms were still incomplete, but the building was sufficiently finished to accommodate the Senate, as well as the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and some district courts. President John Adams had pushed for the move, even though the building wasn't complete, because he hoped to gain Southern votes for his re-election campaign.

The weather didn't cooperate, christening the first day of the new session and the new building with heavy snow. The welcoming parade had to be canceled, and congressmen were delayed trying to get to their offices, with only 15 making it into the chamber on opening day; it would be a further four days before enough senators were there to answer the quorum call and open the session. At that point, the House and Senate sent word to President Adams that they awaited his address. He arrived the following day; his was to be the last personal address to Congress by a president for the next 113 years.

Members of Congress were less than pleased with their new accommodations. Although richly appointed, the building leaked and had no heat. Washington was a primitive backwater, especially when compared to the civilized and well-established Philadelphia, where they had met for the preceding 10 years. One New York senator observed that Washington needed only "houses, cellars, kitchens, well-informed men, amiable women, and other little trifles of this kind" to make it perfect.

In its early days, the Capitol moonlighted as a church on the weekends; beginning with the Jefferson administration in 1801, church services were held every Sunday in the House of Representatives. Jefferson did not feel that this violated the separation of church and state, because attendance was voluntary and the services were nondiscriminatory — at least as long as you were Protestant, since all (and only) Protestant denominations were represented. Jefferson and his successor, James Madison, attended the services themselves. Worship services were expanded to include Catholic mass in 1826, and church meetings in the House continued until after the Civil War.

Both wings of the Capitol were completed just in time for the building to be burned by the British in 1814, during the War of 1812. Reconstruction began in 1815 and was completed in 1819; the first dome, however, wasn't complete until 1826. By 1850, with the ongoing influx of new states and their new congressmen, it was clear that an expansion was in order. Built largely by slave labor, the new Capitol was nearly twice as long, which threw it out of proportion to the original dome. In 1855, they tore down the old timber dome and replaced it with the cast-iron version we're familiar with today: three times the height of the original, and topped with a 20-foot statue of a woman holding a sword and a laurel wreath, known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace, or sometimes, Armed Freedom.

On this date in 1970, Douglas Engelbart received a patent for the first computer mouse. He was working at the Stanford Research Institute when he first conceived the idea in the 1960s. Ever on the lookout for ways to benefit humanity, his research focus was on augmenting human intelligence through computers, and he wanted to develop easy, intuitive ways for people to interact with technology. "We had a big heavy tracking ball, it was like a cannonball," he told the BBC in 2001. "We had several gadgets that ended up with pivots you could move around. We had a light panel you had to hold up right next to the screen so the computer could see it. And a joystick that you wiggle around to try to steer things." He first demonstrated his "X-Y Position Indicator for a Display System" in 1968. It was a wooden shell over two metal wheels, and his team had been informally calling the small, boxy device a "mouse" in the lab, because the cord resembled a mouse's tail.

Englebart never received any royalties, and SRI ended up licensing the mouse to Apple for a mere $40,000. He was disappointed, but not because he lost out on the money. "It's strange because I've had my eye set on something way beyond that. It's sort of a disappointment that the world and I haven't yet got further," he said in 2001.

It was on this day in 1558 that the Elizabethan era began with the ascension of Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne. She was 25 years old. She took power at a time when England was a debt-ridden, divided country, and she set out to stabilize and restore England's status. She was a Protestant, but she gave Catholics the freedom to worship, which eased the tensions between Protestants and Catholics. But she also knew that her subjects wanted a monarch they could worship, and so she often went on walking tours in public so the ordinary people could see her dressed in the most elaborate of gowns and jewels. She commissioned portraits of herself, which would be widely distributed, and she hired balladeers to write songs about her.

She was wary of getting into wars, but in the 1580s it was clear that Spain planned to invade. When she got word that the Spanish Armada was sailing toward England, she rode out to rally the troops in a white gown and silver breastplate. Her advisors were terrified that she would expose herself to armed subjects, some of whom might not be loyal, but she refused to doubt her subjects' loyalty, and those troops went on to defeat the Spanish Armada in one of the most famous naval battles in history.

She began building up England's empire by chartering seven companies, including the East India Company, to begin colonizing areas around the world. She also presided over an English renaissance in art and especially literature. Itinerant actors had been banned under previous monarchs, but Elizabeth allowed the legal operation of theaters, and the result was a new career for writers such as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare.

She reigned for 45 years, one of the great eras in English history. Near the end of her reign, she said to her subjects: "Though God hath raised me high, yet this I count the glory of my crown: that I have reigned with your loves. And though you have had, and may have, many mightier and wiser princes sitting in this seat; yet you never had, nor shall have any that will love you better."

It's the birthday of American novelist and historian Shelby Foote (books by this author), born in Greenville, Mississippi (1916). He was a successful novelist when, in 1952, he accepted the suggestion of his publisher to write a short history of the Civil War to complement his novel Shiloh (1952). Foote is best known for his trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative.

He grew up on the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, once a great swamp filled with alligators and water moccasin snakes. As a teenager, Foote sold poems to magazines for 50 cents apiece. He was editor of the high school paper and liked to give the principal a hard time. When Foote applied to attend college at Chapel Hill, the principal wrote a letter saying not to let Foote into their school under any circumstances. Foote got in his car and drove to North Carolina to register anyway and they let him in. He was a literary prodigy there along with his classmate Walker Percy, who was his best friend for 60 years.

When Foote was 19 years old, he and Walker Percy were planning to drive from Foote's hometown, Greenville, Mississippi, through William Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Foote suggested they stop in Oxford and try to meet him. Percy waited in the car while Foote went up the cedar tree-lined walkway to Faulkner's house. He was greeted in the yard by three hounds, two fox terriers, and a Dalmatian. Soon, a small man, barefoot and wearing just a pair of shorts, appeared and asked Foote what he wanted. "Could you tell me where to find a copy of Marble Faun, Mr. Faulkner?" Foote asked. Faulkner was gruff and told him to contact his agent. Faulkner later befriended Foote, who walked Faulkner around the Civil War battlefields of Shiloh.

Foote once told Faulkner on one of their outings: "You know, I have every right to be a better writer than you. Your literary idols were Joseph Conrad and Sherwood Anderson. Mine are Marcel Proust and you. My writers are better than yours."

Foote spent the last 25 years of his life working on an epic novel about Mississippi called Two Gates to the City. It remained unfinished when he died in 2006.

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