MONDAY, 11 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Bypass" by Susan Kelly-DeWitt, from Greatest Hits 1983-2002. © Pudding House Publications. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Bypass

When they cracked open your chest, parting
the flesh at the sternum and sawing

right through your ribs, we'd been married
only five weeks. I had not yet kissed

into memory those places they raided
to save your life. I could only wait

outside, in the public lobby
of private nightmares

while they pried you apart, stopped
your heart's beating, and iced you

down. For seven hours a machine
breathed for you, in and out. God,

seeing you naked in ICU minutes
after the surgery ... your torso swabbed

a hideous antiseptic yellow
around a raw black ladder of stitches

and dried blood. Still unconscious,
you did the death rattle on the gurney.

"His body is trying to warm itself up,"
they explained, to comfort me.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Jim Harrison, (books by this author) born in Grayling, Michigan (1937). His big breakthrough was the book Legends of the Fall (1979). It was so successful that Harrison was able to buy a farm near his old home in Michigan, as well as a cabin in the woods of the Northern Peninsula. He said, "Ever since I was seven ... I'd turn for solace to rivers, rain, trees, birds, lakes, animals. If things are terrible beyond conception and I walk for 25 miles in the forest, they tend to go away for a while."

Jim Harrison said, "I like grit, I like love and death, I'm tired of irony. ... A lot of good fiction is sentimental. ... The novelist who refuses sentiment refuses the full spectrum of human behavior, and then he just dries up. ... I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass."


It's the birthday of Thomas McGuane, (books by this author) born in Wyandotte, Michigan (1939). He's the author of many novels, including Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), Nothing but Blue Skies (1992), and The Cadence of Grass (2002).


It's the birthday of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, (books by this author) born in Kislovodsk, Russia (1918). He grew up a committed communist, and never questioned the party line. He even brought a copy of Das Kapital along on his honeymoon for pleasure reading.

He became a decorated war hero during World War II, promoted to first lieutenant and then captain. But after the end of the war, he was suddenly arrested by Russian authorities for supposedly criticizing Stalin in one of his personal letters. He was sentenced without a trial to eight years in a labor camp. He spent time at a few different camps, but eventually wound up at a hard-labor camp in Kazakhstan, where he worked as miner, bricklayer, and a foundry man.

His time in the Gulag changed his life, because he found that most of the men there had already rejected the Soviet government. In a strange way, it was only in the Gulag that Russians spoke freely about their political beliefs without fear of retribution. Solzhenitsyn later wrote, "You can have power over people as long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power."

It was in the Gulag that Solzhenitsyn began to write seriously for the first time. To keep his work from being seized, he would compose on tiny paper scraps, commit his words to memory, and then destroy the paper. He was finally released from his labor camp on the day of Stalin's death in 1953, and when Nikita Khrushchev relaxed censorship laws, Solzhenitsyn was able to publish his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).

He went on to write a seven-volume history of the Stalinist labor camps called The Gulag Archipelago. The first volume was published in Paris in 1973, and that book got him deported from the Soviet Union. He settled in Vermont, where he tried to live as quietly as possible, rarely speaking in public. He lived there for 13 years, and then, in 1993, he was finally allowed to return to his homeland. He's been living in Moscow ever since.

Solzhenitsyn wrote, "For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."


It's the birthday of American short-story writer Grace Paley, (books by this author) born in New York City (1922).




TUESDAY, 12 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Poem: "Night Below Zero" by Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Night Below Zero

3 AM, the night is absolutely still;
Snow squeals beneath my skis, plumes on the turns.
I stop at the canyon's edge, stand looking out
Over the Great Valley, over the millions —
In bed, drunk, loving, tending mills, furnaces,
Alone, wakeful, as the world rolls in chaos.
The quarter moon rises in the black heavens —
Over the sharp constellations of the cities
The cold lies, crystalline and silent,
Locked between the mountains.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Frank Sinatra, born in Hoboken, New Jersey (1915). His mother was a midwife and a saloon owner, and she encouraged him to have big dreams as a kid. He spent a lot of his childhood sitting on the Hoboken wharves, staring at New York City, imagining how he could make a name for himself. It was his uncle who introduced him to music, and bought him a ukulele. He liked to sit on the curb at night, under a lamppost, and strum. He also liked to sing along with the player piano in his parents' saloon, and occasionally one of the men in the bar would pick him up and sit him on the piano. One day, a customer gave him a nickel for a song he sang, and he decided that he wanted to spend the rest of his life getting paid to sing.

He got sidetracked for a little while when he got into the newspaper business, first working on a delivery truck and then as a copy boy. But one night he saw Bing Crosby sing in Jersey City, and that persuaded him to quit his day job and focus on music.

The first singing group he joined only let him in because he had his own car and could drive the group to gigs. The group won an amateur singing contest on a radio show with the largest call-in vote in the show's history, and they got a regular job touring with another band. Sinatra eventually began working on his own, singing in bars and roadhouses. The trumpeter for Benny Goodman saw one of Sinatra's performances, and offered to hire him as a vocalist for $75 a week. But he told Sinatra that he had to change his awful name. Sinatra said, "You want the voice, you take the name." And so he got to keep it.

But Sinatra's big breakthrough came when he joined Tommy Dorsey and his band in 1940. Their recordings of "I'll Never Smile Again," "This Love of Mine, and "Night and Day" became the best-selling records ever sold at that point in history.

Sinatra later said he learned his distinctive vocal style from the way Tommy Dorsey played trombone, sliding from note to note and then holding long pauses. But after two years with Dorsey's band, he decided to become a true solo singer. His first booking as a soloist was an eight-week run at New York's Paramount Theatre, longer than any other solo engagement at the Paramount up to that time. His press agent was so nervous about his debut that he hired a dozen girls to stand at the front of the theater to swoon and scream, but it wasn't necessary. Hundreds of other women showed up and did the same thing.


It's the birthday of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, (books by this author) born in Rouen, France (1821). A diagnosis of epilepsy got him out of the law school his parents had planned for him, and so he spent much of his youth around the world with his bohemian friends, going on an extended journey through southern Europe and the Middle East, going to brothels, smoking hashish, and collecting artifacts from ancient civilizations.

While traveling, Flaubert worked on his first novel, an elaborate historical romance set in the fourth century called The Temptation of Saint Anthony. When he showed it to friends, they told him to throw it into the fire and never mention it again. Instead, they recommended that he try to write a novel about ordinary middleclass French society. So Flaubert took his friends' advice and moved home with his mother to do research. He had heard a story about a young married woman who committed a series of affairs and then died, leaving her husband with numerous debts, and that gave Flaubert the idea for Madame Bovary (1857).

It's the story of Emma Bovary, a provincial housewife who spends all her time reading romance novels. After marrying an ordinary country doctor, Emma Bovary realizes that her life will never compare to the books she loves, and so she begins a series of love affairs to stave off her boredom.

It took Flaubert five years to write the novel. Part of what made the writing so difficult was that he wanted to describe even the most ordinary things in a new way. He said, "It is so easy to chatter about the Beautiful. But it takes more genius to say, in proper style, 'close the door,' or 'he wanted to sleep,' than to give all the literature courses in the world."

Madame Bovary became a big success when the government attempted to censor it, and Flaubert won the court case. We still remember Madame Bovary as Flaubert's great masterpiece, but in his lifetime he was best known for his second book, Salammbo (1862), a novel about pagan rituals and human sacrifice that became a huge best-seller when it was published, though it is rarely read today. Flaubert said, "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."




WEDNESDAY, 13 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "The Ice House" by James Wright, from Above the River: The Complete Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Ice House

     The house was really a cellar deep beneath the tower of the old
Belmont Brewery. My father's big shoulders heaved open the door
from the outside, and from within the big shoulders of the ice-man
leaned and helped. The slow door gave. My brother and I walked
in delighted by our fear, and laid our open palms on the wet yellow
sawdust. Outside the sun blistered the paint on the corrugated roofs
of the shacks by the railroad; but we stood and breathed the rising
steam of that amazing winter, and carried away in our wagon the
immense fifty-pound diamond, while the old man chipped us each
a jagged little chunk and then walked behind us, his hands so calm
they were trembling for us, trembling with exquisite care.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1577 that Sir Francis Drake set out on a three-year-long journey around the world. At that time the Pacific was controlled by the Spanish and it was forbidden to all but Spanish ships. But Queen Elizabeth I commissioned Drake to undertake a top-secret mission to sail around the southern tip of South America and explore the Pacific Coast of the Americas. Drake left for the voyage on this day in 1577. He set sail from Plymouth, England, as captain of the Pelican, with four other ships and more than 150 men. Two of the ships were abandoned along the way, and the third returned to England after a storm in the Straits of Magellan. Drake was left with only one ship, which he renamed the Golden Hind.

Drake sailed all the way up the coasts of South and North America, surprising the Spanish along the way. They'd never seen a hostile ship in their waters before. He captured ports and ships, plundered gold and silver, Spanish coins, precious stones and pearls. He sailed as far north as Vancouver hoping to find the Northwest Passage, and then turned west and crossed the Pacific. He eventually returned to England in 1580 via the Cape of Good Hope, making him the first Englishman to sail around the world.


It's the birthday of German poet Heinrich Heine, (books by this author) born in Dusseldorf, Germany (1797). He's one of the most popular German poets of the 19th century. His father wanted him to become a businessman, and got him a job at a bank, but he lost the job when his father tried to involve him in an embezzlement scheme. He set out to study law instead, but he was the victim of rampant anti-Semitism. He eventually had to convert to Protestantism in order to complete his law degree.

Around the same time, he started writing a series of love poems, each one of which ended with an ironic, witty twist. These poems were collected in The Book of Songs (1827), and they became extremely popular. Many of them were set to music by composers like Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

He's considered one of the wittiest German writers of all time. He once said, "The Romans would never have found time to conquer the world if they had been obliged first to learn Latin."


It's the birthday of American poet James Wright, (books by this author) born in Martins Ferry, Ohio (1927). Wright's hometown was located in a heavily industrialized area of the state that Wright called "my back-broken beloved Ohio." There was a coal mine and a steel mill near his house, and he grew up surrounded by blast furnaces and smoke stacks. During the winter, all the snowdrifts in his town turned black from soot.

His father worked at the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, and Wright took a job at the same factory when he got out of high school. After working there for a few months, he decided that he had to get out of his hometown or it would kill him.

He served in World War II and used the GI Bill to study at Kenyon College. He got a job teaching English at the University of Minnesota, and published two books of poetry, but he suffered from depression and alcoholism, and he lost his teaching job for missing classes.

Wright's poetry hadn't attracted any attention, his marriage had broken up, and he wasn't sure what to do next when, one day, he read an issue of Robert Bly's literary magazine, The Fifties. It impressed him so much that he wrote Bly a 16-page single-spaced letter. Bly wrote back and invited him to a farm in western Minnesota, and the two became great friends.

Wright had been writing all of his poetry with formal meter and rhyme, but Bly encouraged him to write free verse, and the result was his first important book of poetry, The Branch Will Not Break (1962). It got great reviews and contained many of his most famous poems, including "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," "A Blessing," and "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota."


It's the birthday of the mystery novelist who wrote under the name Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar in Los Gatos, California (1915). He wrote a series of mystery novels featuring a detective named Lew Archer.




THURSDAY, 14 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Crusoe" by George Bilgere, from The Good Kiss. © The University of Akron Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Crusoe

When you've been away from it long enough,
You begin to forget the country
Of couples, with all its strange customs
And mysterious ways. Those two
Over there, for instance: late thirties,
Attractive and well-dressed, reading
At the table, drinking some complicated
Coffee drink. They haven't spoken
Or even looked at each other in thirty minutes,

But the big toe of her right foot, naked
In its sandal, sometimes grazes
The naked ankle bone of his left foot,

The faintest signal, a line thrown

Between two vessels as they cruise
Through this hour, this vacation, this life,
Through the thick novels they're reading,
Her toe saying to his ankle,

Here's to the whole improbable story
Of our meeting, of our life together
And the oceanic richness
Of our mingled narrative
With its complex past, with its hurts
And secret jokes, its dark closets
And delightful sexual quirks,
Its occasional doldrums, its vast
Future we have already peopled
With children. How safe we are

Compared to that man sitting across the room,
Marooned with his drink
And yellow notebook, trying to write
A way off his little island.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1911 that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team became the first people ever to reach the South Pole on the continent of Antarctica.

As far as we know, Antarctica was the last continent on earth to be explored by people. No one knows for sure who saw it first, but a Polynesian legend from New Zealand tells of a man in a war canoe sailing south and discovering a frozen ocean. In 1774, the English explorer James Cook saw vast mountains of ice to the south when he sailed around the southern tip of South America, and he believed there was probably a land mass behind the ice.

The first people to really explore the edges of Antarctica were the seal hunters who began to slaughter the fur seals that gathered by the thousands on Antarctica's shores. The Englishmen Robert F. Scott and Earnest Shackleton were the first men to lead teams into the interior of Antarctica, and Scott went on to try to find the South Pole. He was followed by another explorer named Roald Amundsen, who had decided to join the quest at the last minute.

Amundsen's expedition was a full eight weeks behind Scott's, and when word got out that he was racing to beat the famous English explorer, most people thought Amundsen was crazy. But he had a secret weapon: a team of well-trained Greenland sled dogs. Scott had decided not to use dogs for transportation because, he said, "No journey ever made with dogs can approach the height of that fine conception which is realized when men go forth to face hardships, dangers, and difficulties with their own unaided efforts."

As a result of Scott's aversion to dogs, Amundsen's team arrived at the South Pole more than a month before Scott's team did. And Scott's team perished in a snowstorm on their way home.


It was on this day in 1900 that the physicist Max Planck (books by this author) 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."




FRIDAY, 15 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Just One God" by Deborah Cummins, from Counting the Waves. © Word Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Just One God
                              after Wesley McNair


And so many of us.
How can we expect Him
to keep track of which voice
goes with what request.
Words work their way skyward.
Oh Lord, followed by petition —
for a cure, the safe landing.
For what is lost, missing —
a spouse, a job, the final game.
Complaint cloaked as need —
the faster car, porcelain teeth.
That so many entreaties
go unanswered
may say less about our lamentable
inability to be heard
than our inherent flawed condition.

Why else, at birth, the first sound
we make, that full-throttled cry?
Of want, want, want.
Of never enough. Desire
as embedded in us as the ancestral tug
in my unconscienced dog who takes
to the woods, nose to the ground, pulled far
from domesticated hearth, bowl of kibble.
Left behind, I go about my superior business,
my daily ritual I could call prayer.

But look, this morning, in my kitchen,
I'm not asking for more of anything.
My husband slices bread,
hums a tune from our past.
Eggs spatter in a skillet.
Wands of lilac I stuck in a glass
by the open window wobble
in a radiant and — dare I say it? —
merciful light.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Irish writer Edna O'Brien, (books by this author) born in County Clare in the west of Ireland (1932).


It's the birthday of poet Muriel Rukeyser, (books by this author) born in New York City (1913).


It was on this day in 1791 that the Bill of Rights was adopted by the United States, becoming the most sacred and debated laws in the history of our country. One of the people most responsible for the content of the Bill of Rights was a man named George Mason, who might not have even been a part of the process if he hadn't been a lifelong friend of George Washington's. He was a wealthy landowner in Virginia, and he liked to debate political ideas, but he wasn't interested in politics because he shied away from public life.

Then, when the Revolutionary War broke out and George Washington was named Commander of the Continental Army, George Mason reluctantly took over his friend's seat on the Virginia legislature. When the Virginia legislators held a convention to reorganize their state government, George Mason arrived late and found himself assigned to the committee to write the new state constitution.

So it was only by chance that Mason wound up writing Virginia's "Declaration of Rights." Mason had read the philosopher John Locke as a young man, and he shared Locke's idea that all people are born with certain rights, and that government's purpose should be to protect those rights. And George Mason believed that the best way to protect those rights would be to list them in the constitution itself. Virginia's "Declaration of Rights," was the first time in modern history that a government specified the absolute rights of individuals.

While George Mason was working on Virginia's "Declaration of Rights," he took under his wing a 25-year-old legislator named James Madison. Madison was deeply influenced by Mason's ideas about freedom, and he passed them along to his friend Thomas Jefferson.

Mason mostly sat on the sidelines during the rest of the Revolutionary War, but after the war he was asked to participate in the Constitutional Convention. The trip from his home in Virginia to Philadelphia was the greatest distance he ever traveled, and it was a trip he quickly began to regret. He found that he disagreed with the other delegates on numerous issues, especially slavery, which he thought should be outlawed in the new constitution.

But more than anything, George Mason fought for the inclusion of a list of rights in the national constitution, just as he had written it into the Virginia Constitution. But when he brought his idea for a bill of rights to a vote, it failed by a wide margin. And so, when it came time to sign to new U.S. Constitution, George Mason was one of the only men there who refused. His decision created quite a stir, and it even ruined his lifelong friendship with George Washington. The two men never visited each other again.

But Mason hoped that his protest would encourage an eventual passage of a bill of rights, and it was ultimately his former protégé, James Madison, who made the Bill of Rights a reality. Madison introduced the Bill of Rights into the first session of Congress in 1789, and he used Virginia's Declaration of Rights as the model. Madison originally supported the adoption of 17 amendments, which was eventually trimmed to 12, of which 10 were adopted, including the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, the right to privacy, and the right to a fair trial. George Mason died in 1792, a year after those freedoms and rights became law.




SATURDAY, 16 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "The Lift Man" by John Betjeman, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Lift Man

In uniform behold me stand,
The lovely lift at my command.
I press the button: Pop,
And down I go below the town;
The walls rise up as I go down
    And in the basement stop.

For weeks I've worked a morning shift
On this old Waygood-Otis lift.
    And goodness, don't I love
To press the knob that shuts the gate
When customers are shouting 'Wait!'
    And soar to floors above.

I see them from my iron cage,
Their faces looking up in rage,
    And then I call 'First floor!'
'Perfume and ladies' underwear!
'No sir, Up only. Use the stair.'
    And up again we soar.

The second floor for kiddie goods,
And kiddie-pantz and pixie-hoods,
    The third floor, restaurant:
And here the people always try
To find one going down, so I
    Am not the lift they want.

On the roof-garden floor alone
I wait for ages on my own
    High, high above the crowds.
O let them rage and let them ring,
For I am out of everything,
    Alone among the clouds.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Jane Austen, (books by this author) born in Steventon, Hampshire, England (1775). Austen is the only novelist published before Charles Dickens whose books still sell thousands of copies every year. Although she never got married herself, but she is best known for books about women who do get married, including Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). She did fall in love as a young woman, but the man she loved had no money for marriage. Later, she got a proposal from an older wealthy gentleman. She said yes, but then found herself unable to sleep that night. In the morning she did something that was almost unheard of at the time: she told her fiancé that she had changed her mind, because she did not love him.

Austen's first two books, Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), were great successes in her lifetime, but after that her readers grew less enthusiastic. Neither Mansfield Park (1814) nor Emma (1816) was as popular. It was only after her death that she became one of the most popular novelists from the 19th century. After the First World War, Jane Austen novels were prescribed to shell-shocked British soldiers for therapy, because the psychologists found that Austen helped them recover their sense of the world they'd known before the war. Rudyard Kipling said, "There's no one to touch Jane [Austen] when you're in a tight place."


It was on this day in 1653 that Oliver Cromwell became the lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was the only time in British history that a man ruled as absolute dictator over the United Kingdom without wearing the crown of a king. To make money for the government, he sold off all the works of art that had been owned by the king. He shut down all the theaters. And he outlawed the celebration of Christmas, calling ivy, mistletoe, and holly "ungodly branches of superstition."

But Cromwell wasn't all bad. He helped revitalize the educational system, and though he was a passionate Puritan, he instituted greater religious freedom that any British ruler before him, allowing Christians to practice however they desired, as long as they did not create unrest. And the stronger form of Parliament that he put in place has endured in more or less the same form ever since.


It's the birthday of Sir Noël Coward, (books by this author) born in Teddington, England (1899). He wrote Private Lives (1930) and Blithe Spirit (1941). He had many successes during the '30s, but when the war started and London was under air attack, the British weren't in the mood for frothy entertainment. Coward wrote Blithe Sprit, a darker comedy about a man whose second wife is done in by the ghost of his first; it ran for nearly 2,000 performances. The program said, "If an air-raid warning be received during the performance, the audience will be informed from the stage. ... [T]hose desiring to leave the theatre may do so, but the performance will continue."




SUNDAY, 17 DECEMBER, 2006
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Poem: "Chocolates" by Louis Simpson from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001. © BOA Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Chocolates

Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, "Do you like chocolates?"

They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, "Yes."

"Tell me," he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
"what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?"

The conversation became general
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,

but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.

                                In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
unusual conversation.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Nobody is sure exactly when Ludwig van Beethoven was born, but he was baptized on this day in the city of Bonn, which would eventually become part of Germany (1770). His father was inspired by the example of Mozart to try to turn Beethoven into a musical prodigy at a young age. Beethoven managed to publish his first piece of music when he was just 12.

He became known as one of the greatest pianists of the age, and it was his fame at the piano that led him to the aristocratic circles in Vienna. At the time, the Viennese aristocracy were obsessed with music, and Beethoven began performing in their drawing rooms and ballrooms, demonstrating his genius for improvisation.

But then, in 1798, just three years after his first public appearance as a pianist in Vienna, Beethoven began to hear a persistent ringing in his ears. No one knows exactly what caused it. It could have been typhus or possibly syphilis. But whatever the reason, as his hearing got worse, he realized that he would soon lose the ability to play the piano. At the time, he considered taking his life, but he later said, "Only Art held [me] back; for it seemed unthinkable for me to leave the world forever before I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce."

So Beethoven threw himself into composing. He continued to perform occasionally on the piano for more than a decade, but he gradually became more famous for his compositions than for his performances. He did most of his composing between the months of May and October, when he retired to one of the rural villages outside of Vienna, and most of his ideas came to him on long walks through the countryside.

Just before he turned 40, a small group of princes and archdukes agreed to give him an annual salary with no conditions attached. The arrangement made Beethoven more independent than almost any composer before him. At that point he'd already completed his famous Eroica Symphony and his Fifth Symphony.

Some critics believe his masterpiece was the Ninth Symphony. When it premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824, Beethoven was completely deaf.


On this day in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took off on the world's first airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This day in 1903 began with gray skies and sharp wind. Orville said years later that he should have realized it was much too dangerous to fly in that weather. But they had already waited several days for the right flying conditions, and they wanted to get home before Christmas.

Orville went first and he got about 10 feet off the ground, and landed almost immediately. The brothers made two more attempts, and still they barely got anywhere. Then Wilbur tried again, and suddenly, he took off into the air. He flew straight into the wind for nearly a full minute, covering 852 feet. When he landed, the rudder frame was cracked, which would take months to repair, but they had made their first successful flight.

No journalists attended the event. The Wright Brothers hired an amateur photographer to take a single photograph that day, which he did while the plane was only 10 feet off the ground. When it leaked to the press, most major newspapers refused to run the story, assuming that it was a hoax. It wasn't until Wilbur flew a plane over Manhattan six years later that most people finally accepted the fact that the Wright Brothers really had invented the first airplane.




«

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  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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