Tuesday

Apr. 1, 2014

why i feed the birds

by Richard Vargas

once
i saw my grandmother hold out
her hand cupping a small offering
of seed to one of the wild sparrows
that frequented the bird bath she
filled with fresh water every day

she stood still
maybe stopped breathing
while the sparrow looked
at her, then the seed
then back as if he was
judging her character

he jumped into her hand
began to eat
she smiled

a woman holding
a small god

"why i feed the birds" by Richard Vargas from Guernica, Revisited. © Press 53, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is, of course, April Fools' Day, a day for good-natured pranks, hoaxes, and general silliness. The earliest recorded association between April 1st and foolishness is in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in 1392, although this may be a result of misinterpretation rather than Chaucer's intention: in "The Nuns' Priest's Tale," there is a line "Since March began thirty days and two ..." which is probably a reference to the May 2nd betrothal of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, and not "March 32nd" as readers interpreted it. In any case, the story features Chanticleer, a vain rooster, being tricked by a fox, and some believe that's how the date became associated with harmless trickery.

Many cultures have lighthearted celebrations around this time of year, and, in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be related to the spring equinox. One explanation for the April Fools' holiday seemed plausible, until it was revealed as a hoax itself — Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University, said the practice dated back to the reign of Emperor Constantine, who was challenged by his jesters that a fool could run the empire as well as he did. Constantine appointed Kugel the jester "king for a day," and one of Kugel's acts was to decree an annual day of merriment. The Associated Press ran with the story, and didn't realize Boskin had made the whole thing up until a couple of weeks later.

One April Fools' Day announcement that was not a hoax was in 2004, when Google announced its new Gmail service. People couldn't be blamed for thinking it was a prank, given Google's propensity for April Fools' leg-pulling, and the announced 1-gigabyte online storage for e-mail was far larger than anything any other company had offered.

It was on this day in 1826 that Samuel Morey received a patent for his compressionless "Gas or Vapor Engine," known now as the internal combustion engine. Morey started out working with steam engines in the late 18th century, inventing a steam-powered paddle-wheel boat, for which he tried to find backers. The backing fell through due to "a series of misfortunes," and though he continued to work with steam engines, he didn't work with boats much after this.

In the early 1800s, he developed an interest in flammable vapors; in an 1834 letter, he writes: "It is now more than twenty years since I have been in the constant, I may say daily practice of making experiments on the decomposition of water, by mixing with its vapor that of spirits of turpentine, and a great portion of atmospheric air." He discovered that turpentine, when mixed with air, was explosive, and he designed an engine to make use of this phenomenon. Much like our modern engines, Morey's had a carburetor, two cylinders, valves, and cams, but rather than using the explosion itself to provide the power, his system forced air into a cooled cylinder, which formed a vacuum.

He wrote, "Is there not some reason to expect that the discovery will greatly change the commercial and personal intercourse of the country."

Today is the birthday of science fiction and fantasy author Anne McCaffrey (books by this author), born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1926. She's best known for her Dragonriders of Pern series, about Earth colonists on the planet of Pern living in a medieval-ish society with genetically engineered dragons, but it's far from her only accomplishment. She's written dozens of novels and stories, many of them grouped into 10 other series and two cookbooks. Her son Todd is also a writer and has taken up the Pern banner.

McCaffrey was born to a long line of rebels. Her great-grandfather was a hedgerow teacher of Catholic kids in Ireland when it was against the law to teach them to read and write. Her great-uncles were "Molly MacGuires" — union organizers in the Pennsylvania coal mines — and her grandfather, who was a beat cop in Boston, arrested John F. Kennedy's grandfather, Honey Fitzgerald, for campaigning too close to the polls. Anne was a handful, growing up, and her teachers referred to her as "that McCaffrey brat." She majored in Slavonic language and literature at Radcliffe, and also studied voice for nine years. In 1950, she married H. Wright Johnson, and they had three children. When they divorced in 1970, she emigrated to Ireland with the two youngest kids, and she's lived there ever since, in County Wicklow in a house she designed herself, called Dragonhold-Underhill. She has a lifelong passion for horses, and has owned a riding stable for the last 30 years with her daughter Gigi.

McCaffrey began writing sci-fi in the late 1950s, when the genre's readership was primarily male. When Star Trek became popular in the late 1960s, it drew women in, and they responded to McCaffrey's heroines. Female authors, especially sci-fi authors, struggled to be taken seriously; when reporters asked her more than once how she found time to write and still get her housework done, McCaffrey would answer, "You've got that wrong — how do I find time for housework with all my writing?" She was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Hugo Award for Science Fiction, in 1968.

It's the birthday of Czech author Milan Kundera (books by this author), born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1929. Best known for his novels, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978), and The Joke (1967), he has also written three poetry collections, four plays, and numerous essays and short stories.

Kundera was born into a middle-class family with deep roots in music. His father, Ludvik, was a pianist and musicologist, and Milan also studied musicology and composition as well as literature and aesthetics at Charles University in Prague. He then transferred to the Academy of Performing Arts in the same city, studying scriptwriting and film direction. After he graduated in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world history. During the early 1950s, he was expelled from the Communist Party for anti-party activities, and then readmitted in 1956. His early writings, especially his poems, were pro-Marxist, and he was active in the "Prague Spring," a brief period of Communist reform in 1968. The Soviets banned his books after their invasion later that year. He was expelled again from the Communist Party in 1970, left Prague for France with his wife, Vera, a banned newscaster, in 1975, and was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979. Immortality, published in 1990, was his last novel written in Czech; now he writes in French, and is adamant that he be considered a novelist, not a political writer.

Kundera is just as likely to be inspired by philosophers and composers as he is other writers, and often thinks about his novels in musical terms. In an interview with the Paris Review, he said, "I first thought of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in a musical way. I knew that the last part had to be pianissimo and lento: it focuses on a rather short, uneventful period, in a single location, and the tone is quiet. I also knew that this part had to be preceded by a prestissimo: that is the part entitled 'The Grand March.'"

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

 









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