Oct. 13, 2014
For My Son, Reading Harry Potter
How lovely, to be lost
as you are now
in someone else's thoughts
an imagined world
of witchcraft, wizardry and clans
that takes you in so utterly
all the ceaseless background noise
of life's insistent pull and drag soon fades
and you are left, a young boy
captured in attention's undivided daze,
as I was once
when books defined a world
no trouble could yet penetrate
or others spoil, or regret stain,
when, between covers, under covers,
all is safe and sure
and each Odysseus makes it home again
and every transformation is to bird or bush
or to a star atwinkle in some firmament of light,
or to a club that lets you, and all others, in.
Oh, how I wish for you
that life may let you turn and turn
these pages, in whose spell
time is frozen, as is pain and fright and loss
before you're destined to be lost again
in that disordered and distressing book
your life will write for you and cannot change.
It was on this day in 1792 that builders laid the cornerstone for the President's House, now known as the White House. When George Washington was elected as the first president of the United States three years earlier, Philadelphia served as the nation's temporary capital. The choice of where to put the permanent capital caused a bitter argument in the new Congress. The Northern and Southern states each wanted the capital on their side, and debated whether agrarian or commercial economic strength was more important to the new country. Sixteen potential sites for the capital were suggested, most of them in the North. At the same time, Congress was gridlocked over what to do about America's huge war debt. Alexander Hamilton wanted the federal government to simplify things by assuming all the states' debts; but some states had already paid off their debt, so if they were taxed in order to help other states, they would in effect be paying twice. Many of these states were in the South, and also distrusted putting power in the hands of the federal government. One of the states that was fighting Hamilton hardest on his debt program was Virginia, home to influential politicians Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Madison spoke out against Hamilton's plan, and it was voted down. The new nation seemed in danger of falling apart.
So in July of 1790, Jefferson invited Hamilton and Madison to dinner at his Manhattan residence, and the three Founding Fathers struck a political deal. Madison agreed to support Hamilton's plan in return for two things: lowering Virginia's tax obligations and moving the capital to the South, along the Potomac River, on the border between the Southern states of Maryland and Virginia. This agreement became known as the "Dinner Table Bargain." President Washington chose the precise location of the capital, where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers came together. To design the capital, Washington chose city planner Pierre L'Enfant, a French man who had fought in the Revolutionary War. L'Enfant selected a site for the President's House in a scrubby area known as "the Barrens," which had beautiful southern views of the Potomac.
Washington announced a competition to design the future presidential mansion, with a prize of $500. The winner was James Hoban, an Irish immigrant from South Carolina. He modeled it on a Dublin mansion. One of the losing entries in the contest had come from Thomas Jefferson, who submitted his plans anonymously.
Eight years after the cornerstone was laid, the house was finished enough to be inhabited. In 1800, President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the White House. John Adams arrived a month before his wife, and in the days before he moved in, the movers brought in the Adams' furniture and hung up a portrait of George Washington. John wrote in a letter to Abigail: "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof. I shall not attempt a description of it. You will form the best idea of it from inspection."
Once they settled in, they found that the unfinished house was cold, wet, and drafty. The main stairs weren't finished, there was no guest room, no yard or fence, and carpenters worked on the interior while the couple was living there. Abigail hung the family's laundry in the unfinished East Room to dry. A few days after arriving, she wrote to her daughter: "Woods are all you can see from Baltimore until you reach the city, which is only so in name. Here and there is a small cot, without a glass window, interspersed amongst the forests, through which you travel miles without seeing any human being." After explaining all the downfalls of her new house, she added: "You must keep all this to yourself, and, when asked how I like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful, which is true. The house is made habitable."
It's the birthday of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, born in Grantham, England, in 1925. She said: "Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't."
It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Conrad Richter (books by this author), born in Pine Grove, Pennsylvania (1890). His father, both his grandfathers, and all his uncles were preachers. As a young boy, he loved to hear them tell stories about his ancestors who had been tradesmen, soldiers, country squires, blacksmiths, and farmers. He was especially fascinated that one of his ancestors had fought in the Revolutionary War under George Washington, and another had been a Hessian mercenary in the opposing British Army.
He got a job as a newspaper reporter, and he wrote fiction on the side, but most of his stories were conventional and derivative of other writers. Then in the late 1920s, his wife got sick and doctors suggested a change of climate, so they moved to New Mexico. Richter became obsessed with the history of the Southwest, and he began traveling around interviewing older men and women and gathering old record books, newspapers, letters, and diaries of the early pioneers. After five years of research, he wrote a book about the Southwestern settlers, called Early Americana, and Other Stories (1936), and it was considered one of the best works of historical fiction ever written about Western pioneers. He went on to write many more books, including a trilogy about frontier life in Ohio: The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), which won the Pulitzer Prize.
It's the birthday of comedian Lenny Bruce (books by this author), born Leonard Schneider in the town of Mineola on New York's Long Island (1925). He got his start in comedy working as an emcee for a strip club, where he told jokes as he introduced the performers, and eventually he got his own show. At the time, comedians told jokes methodically, with a setup and a punch line, over and over. Bruce developed a new form of comedy where he just stood on stage and talked about things like politics, society, religion, and race; and he free-associated on those topics to make people laugh.
Bruce said, "The role of a comedian is to make the audience laugh, at a minimum of once every fifteen seconds."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®