Tuesday

Mar. 4, 2014

Searching

by Billy Collins

I recall someone once admitting
that all he remembered of Anna Karenina
was something about a picnic basket,

and now, after consuming a book
devoted to the subject of Barcelona—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

all I remember is the mention
of an albino gorilla, the inhabitant of a park
where the Citadel of the Bourbons once stood.

The sheer paleness of her looms over
all the notable names and dates
as the evening strollers stop before her

and point to show their children.
These locals called her Snowflake,
and here she has been mentioned again in print

in the hope of keeping her pallid flame alive
and helping her, despite her name, to endure
in this poem where she has found another cage.

Oh, Snowflake,
I had no interest in the capital of Catalonia—
its people, its history, its complex architecture—

no, you were the reason
I kept my light on late into the night
turning all those pages, searching for you everywhere.

"Searching" by Billy Collins from Aimless Love. © Random House, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1791 that Vermont became a state. It was the 14th state to join the Union — the first aside from the original 13 colonies.

It's the second-least populated state in the nation, and only five states are smaller in land area. Of all the 50 states, it has the very lowest Gross State Product. But it also has one of the best unemployment rates in the nation. In the past decade, it's been ranked first as the most healthful place to live — more times than any other state.

It has an eccentric political history. It was an independent nation, the Vermont Republic, for 14 years (1777-1791). It had its own money, sovereign government, and a constitution that explicitly forbade slavery — almost a century before the United States did. It also required government taxes to support public schools.

Since 1856, Vermont voted Republican in every single presidential election except one (in 1964, it voted for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater). But beginning in 1992, Vermont has voted Democrat in every presidential election. It was the only state in America that George W. Bush did not visit during his two terms as president. It became the first state to allow and recognize civil unions between same-sex partners in 2000, and was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage legislatively (Massachusetts was the very first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004, but it was through a court ruling).

It vies with New Hampshire for being the least religious state in the union. Only half of Vermonters say they believe in God, compared with about 70 percent of the rest of the nation. People there attend weekly services at a much lower rate than other Americans, and a much smaller percentage say that religion is important to them. There are, however, a disproportionately high number of American converts to Buddhism living in Vermont, and there are several Buddhist retreat centers through out the state.

It produces more maple syrup than any other state in America. About 2.5 percent of Vermont's population speaks French at home.

It's the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Thomas Stribling (books by this author), born in Clifton, Tennessee (1881), the son of a man who fought in the Union army and a woman whose family fought for the Confederacy.

He knew he wanted to be a writer, and left school to do so. But his respectable parents thought he should have some other profession, and he appeased them by getting a teaching credential and then a law degree. He even started working as a lawyer— or at least it appeared that way. Actually, he was showing up at the law office and using the company's typewriters, paper, and time to sit and work on his fiction. His fellow attorneys counseled him to quit the job, and he did — turning to writing full time at the age of 26.

He supported himself by writing pulp fiction for magazines, detective stories, and science fiction. He traveled around Europe and Latin America, and he began to write novels. He loved Venezuela and wrote three novels set there: Fombombo (1923), Red Sand (1924), and Strange Moon (1929). It was his 12th novel, The Store (1932), a serious satire of the Jim Crow South, for which he won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize. He was a contemporary of Faulkner and Hemingway, and his books sold better than theirs. Between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, Stribling was America's best-selling author.

In the 1940s, he quit writing novels but continued writing mysteries for magazines, and he lived until 1965 — age 84. Some of his stories were collected and published posthumously as The Best of Dr. Poggioli (1975) and Dr. Poggioli: Criminologist (2004). His autobiography, Laughing Stock, was published in 1984.

John Adams was inaugurated on this date in 1797. He became the second president of the United States, succeeding George Washington in the first peaceful transfer of power between elected officials in modern times. His rival for the office had been Thomas Jefferson, and because Jefferson had received the second highest number of electoral votes, the Electoral College named him vice president.

The ceremony took place on a sunny day at Philadelphia's Congress Hall. George Washington entered the packed Chamber of the House of Representatives to applause, followed by the vice president, Thomas Jefferson. Adams was last, dressed in a suit of gray broadcloth. He must have looked frumpy next to the tall and elegant Jefferson, who was clad in a long blue frock coat, and the stately Washington, dressed in black velvet.

"A solemn scene it was indeed," Adams later wrote. "Methought I heard [Washington] think, 'Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!'"

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also inaugurated on this date, in 1933. By the time of his inauguration, the country had been mired in the Great Depression for more than three years. Roosevelt won in a landslide over Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.

Most Americans didn't know the extent to which Roosevelt's paralytic illness had affected him, and he took great pains to keep it that way. In order for him to ascend the steps to the podium to take the oath of office, an elaborate series of wheelchair-accessible ramps was constructed and hidden behind barriers. He walked the last few yards leaning heavily on the arm of his son James, and he made it look easy even though it took great strength.

His inaugural address included the famous phrase "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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