Dec. 14, 2013


by Stephen Dunn

Driving the Garden State Parkway to New York, I pointed out two crows
to a woman who believed crows always travel in threes. And later just
one crow eating the carcass of a squirrel. "The others are nearby," she
said, "hidden in trees." She was sure. Now and then she'd say "See!" and
a clear dark trinity of crows would be standing on the grass. I told her
she was wrong to under- or overestimate crows, and wondered out loud
if three crows together made any evolutionary sense. I was almost get-
ting serious now. Near Forked River, we saw five. "There's three," she
said, "and two others with a friend in a tree." I looked to see if she was
smiling. She wasn't. Or she was. "Men like you," she said, "need it writ-
ten down, notarized, and signed."

"Seriousness" by Stephen Dunn from What Goes On: Selected and New Poems 1995-2009. © W.W. Norton, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Amy Hempel (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1951). She always knew she wanted to be a writer, but she didn't have anything to write about, so she moved to California and worked in a series of odd jobs. She took an anatomy class where she performed autopsies on corpses, and then she worked in a counseling group for terminally ill people. But after her best friend died of cancer, she moved to New York City. It was only after she'd left California that she could write about the life she had been living there.

She took a creative writing class from the famous editor Gordon Lish, and one day he told her to write down her most terrible, despicable secret, the thing she would never live down. The result was her first short story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," about the death of her best friend. It begins, "'Tell me things I won't mind forgetting,' she said. 'Make it useless stuff or skip it.'"

That story became the centerpiece of her first collection, Reasons to Live (1985). She's also the author of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997) and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). The Collected Stories came out in 2006. She starts each story with the last line, and writes until she gets there.

Amy Hempel said: "It comes back to the question, whom are you writing for? Who are the readers you want? Who are the people you want to engage with the things that matter most to you? And for me, it's people who don't need it all spelled out because they know it, they understand it. That's why there's so much I can't read because I get so exasperated. Someone starts describing the character boarding the plane and pulling the seat back. And I just want to say, Babe, I have been downtown. I have been up in a plane. Give me some credit."

It was on this day in 1900 that the physicist Max Planck published his theory of quantum mechanics, which is often considered one of the most radical scientific discoveries of the 20th century. At that time, physicists accepted the work of Isaac Newton without any criticism. They believed that the interactions between all physical objects, from atoms to planets, would be predicable and logical. But one thing that physicists couldn't quite understand was the way light worked.

Max Planck was working in a laboratory in 1900, heating up various substances and examining the color of light they emitted when they reached certain temperatures. He wanted to describe his results in mathematical terms, but no matter how hard he tried, his mathematical calculations didn't make sense. The only way he could fix the problem was to assume that light travels in little packets, like bullets, even though this seemed impossible. He published his calculations on this day in 1900, calling his theory about light "an act of desperation." He assumed that some future physicist would figure out what he had done wrong.

But five years later, Albert Einstein took Planck's theory of light seriously and wrote his first major paper exploring the idea of light traveling in packets, which he called photons. Even though he became better known for his theory of relativity, it was Einstein's work expanding on Planck's original ideas about light that won him a Nobel Prize. Einstein later said, "I use up more brain grease on quantum theory than on relativity."

It was on this day in 1825 that elite army officers rose up against the Russian monarchy in the Decembrist Revolt. (This is according to the Old Style calendar, used in Russia at the time — in the New Style, the Decembrist Revolt took place on December 26th.) The military officers who organized the uprising were inspired by their service in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars, and the social and political progress they saw in Western Europe. Russia commanded the largest army in the world, but the czar, Alexander I, was conservative and repressive; the country was still very rural, with almost no modern industry; and there wasn't a strong middle class — society was divided between the landowning aristocrats and the serfs, who were poor and powerless. The officers wanted to abolish serfdom in Russia and create a more modern and progressive society.

A few weeks before the revolt, Alexander died unexpectedly, with no legitimate children to succeed him. It was assumed that he would be succeeded by his next-youngest brother, Constantine, but Constantine had agreed to pass on the throne to his younger brother Nicholas. The royal family had worked this out in private years before, so there was total confusion after Alexander's death, with people unsure whether to believe that Nicholas was the new czar. The officers hadn't planned an uprising, but they saw their chance in the confusion and decided to stage a coup. On this day in 1825, 3,000 soldiers gathered in Senate Square in St. Petersburg and refused to take the oath of loyalty to Nicholas scheduled for that day. They shouted "Constantine and Constitution!" The story goes that many soldiers thought Constitution referred to Constantine's wife, not a political document.

The government called in 9,000 troops. Nicholas didn't want to begin his reign with violence, so he tried to negotiate, but to no avail. He gave up and ordered his troops to fire; 60 rebels were killed, many more injured and arrested, and leaders were hanged or exiled to Siberia. The revolt was a total failure, but it became an inspiration for later uprisings that eventually overthrew the czarist regime.

This is the anniversary of the St. Lucia flood of 1287, which resulted in the deaths of at least 50,000 people in the Netherlands. It's one of the largest floods in recorded history, and it was the result of a storm tide: an extreme low-pressure system that coincides with the high tide. Much of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was the result of a similar storm tide. The Zuiderzee sea wall built to hold back the water couldn't stand against such forces, and it collapsed. The North Sea rushed in, killing thousands and reclaiming huge amounts of land in the northern part of the Netherlands. The Zuiderzee — which means "southern sea" — actually owes its origin to this storm. It had originally been a series of shallow inland lakes and marshes, but storms and tides gradually ate away at the edges of the separate lakes, and when the North Sea encroached on the land as a result of the storm, the lake became a bay.

Flooding has always been a matter of great concern to people in the Netherlands. Two-thirds of its area is considered to be at risk, and much of it is an alluvial plain: land formed by the buildup of silt deposited by floods. The rich soil attracted early farmers, who built artificial hills called terpen to live on. They also built low embankments to keep out the water, and by 1250, dike construction was a major industry. The church was the biggest and richest landowner, and the monasteries provided the most readily available workforce, so they took the lead in dike construction, and eventually all the dikes were connected into a continuous seawall.

The massive St. Lucia storm of 1287 also affected the coast of England. The effects weren't as immediately dramatic, but the storm dumped silt into the harbors of several key port cities and made it impossible for ships to enter. The English coastline was redrawn, and the cities never regained their status as vital trading ports.

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