MONDAY, 2 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "The Changed Man" by Robert Phillips, from Spinach Days. © The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Changed Man

If you were to hear me imitating Pavarotti
in the shower every morning, you'd know
how much you have changed my life.

If you were to see me stride across the park,
waving to strangers, then you would know
I am a changed man—like Scrooge

awakened from his bad dreams feeling feather-
light, angel-happy, laughing the father
of a long line of bright laughs—

"It is still not too late to change my life!"
It is changed. Me, who felt short-changed.
Because of you I no longer hate my body.

Because of you I buy new clothes.
Because of you I'm a warrior of joy.
Because of you and me. Drop by

this Saturday morning and discover me
fiercely pulling weeds gladly, dedicated
as a born-again gardener.

Drop by on Sunday—I'll Turtlewax
your sky-blue sports car, no sweat. I'll greet
enemies with a handshake, forgive debtors

with a papal largesse. It's all because
of you. Because of you and me,
I've become one changed man.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the Italian writer Giacomo Casanova, (books by this author) born in Venice (1725). He spent his early life traveling all over Europe. In Paris, his great personal charm helped him to win important friends, and he became director of the lottery, which helped make him wealthy. After some freelance spy work, he was arrested in Venice in 1755 and he was sentenced to five years in prison. But he managed to escape, and the news of his escape made him into a celebrity in Paris.

In 1785, Casanova retired to a castle in Bohemia and became a librarian. While there, he set out to write his memoirs. He said it was "the sole remedy" he possessed "to avoid going mad or dying of sorrow." At his death, he left 4,000 pages of manuscript behind, some of which was later published under the title The History of My Life. Stories taken from his autobiography have made him famous and have made him into a legendary hero famous for seducing women.


It's the birthday of the author of many of our best-known fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, (books by this author) born in Odense, Denmark (1805). He's best known to us today as the author of numerous stories, including "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Snow Queen," "The Princess and the Pea," and "The Nightingale." But he spent most of his life trying to write serious literary novels for adults.

He'd just finished his first novel, and was waiting for it to be published, when he needed some cash to pay his rent. So he quickly dashed off a pamphlet containing four fairy tales. And to his surprise, the pamphlet became a huge success. It was such a big success that he published a new collection of fairy tales every Christmas for the next few years.

Andersen's fairy tales transformed the way Danish was written. Instead of using the formal "King's Danish," he wrote the way ordinary people spoke, and his fairy tales are full of humorous details that seem unnecessary to the story. "The Ugly Duckling" begins, "It was so lovely out in the country — it was summer! And the wheat was yellow, the oats were green, hay was stacked up in the green meadows, and the stork walked about on his long, red legs and spoke Egyptian, for he had learned the language from his mother."


It's the birthday of novelist Èmile Zola, (books by this author) born in Paris (1840). He grew up in Aix-en-Provence in southern France. He got a scholarship to attend a university, but he failed the exam that would have allowed him to study law. He took a job as a copy clerk in an excise office, but found the work totally dehumanizing, so he quit. For 19 months, Zola was totally unemployed. He survived by pawning almost everything he owned. He also begged for money from family and friends. For food, he occasionally caught sparrows on the roof of his building and roasted them on the end of a curtain rod.

He eventually got a job working for a friend of his father's in the publicity department of a publishing house, where he learned that scandal is often the best way to sell a book. So he wrote his first novel about a relationship he'd had with a prostitute. And just as he'd hoped, numerous book critics attacked him for writing filth. The book didn't become a big success, but it gave Zola a public profile, and he told friends that he was proud to be a writer whom the public reads with horror.

He developed a new school of literature called "naturalism," in which he tried to write about the world by observing it directly. He became one of the first writers to do extensive field research for his fiction. He used this style to write a series of novels about the life of an extended family, with all its legitimate and illegitimate branches. He named the series after the family, Les Rougon-Macquart. His best-known novel in this country is Germinal (1885), about the life of coal miners in the north of France and the birth of the labor movement. It was the first major work of fiction ever written about a labor strike.




TUESDAY, 3 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Unwise Purchases" by George Bilgere from Haywire. © Utah State University Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Unwise Purchases

They sit around the house
not doing much of anything: the boxed set
of the complete works of Verdi, unopened.
The complete Proust, unread:

The French-cut silk shirts
which hang like expensive ghosts in the closet
and make me look exactly
like the kind of middle-aged man
who would wear a French-cut silk shirt:

The reflector telescope I thought would unlock
the mysteries of the heavens
but which I only used once or twice
to try to find something heavenly
in the windows of the high-rise down the road,
and which now stares disconsolately at the ceiling
when it could be examining the Crab Nebula:

The 30-day course in Spanish
whose text I never opened,
whose dozen cassette tapes remain unplayed,

save for Tape One, where I never learned
whether the suave American
conversing with a sultry-sounding desk clerk
at a Madrid hotel about the possibility
of obtaining a room
actually managed to check in.

I like to think
that one thing led to another between them
and that by Tape Six or so
they're happily married
and raising a bilingual child in Seville or Terra Haute.

But I'll never know.
Suddenly I realize
I have constructed the perfect home
for a sexy, Spanish-speaking astronomer
who reads Proust while listening to Italian arias,

and I wonder if somewhere in this teeming city
there lives a woman with, say,
a fencing foil gathering dust in the corner
near her unused easel, a rainbow of oil paints
drying in their tubes

on the table where the violin
she bought on a whim
lies entombed in the permanent darkness
of its locked case
next to the abandoned chess set,

a woman who has always dreamed of becoming
the kind of woman the man I've always dreamed of becoming
has always dreamed of meeting.

And while the two of them discuss star clusters
and Cézanne, while they fence delicately
in Castilian Spanish to the strains of Rigoletto,

she and I will stand in the steamy kitchen,
fixing up a little risotto,
enjoying a modest cabernet,
while talking over a day so ordinary
as to seem miraculous.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the longest-running newspaper columnist in American history, Herb Caen, (books by this author) born in Sacramento, California (1916). He wrote primarily for the San Francisco Chronicle, publishing 1,000 words a day, six days a week, for almost 60 years. He only took a break to serve in World War II.

Herb Caen wrote, "Living in San Francisco [is] a gift from the gods."


It's the birthday of the American novelist Leon Uris, (books by this author) born in Baltimore, Maryland (1924). He began writing in the early 1950s, inspired by his four-year tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. His first novel, Battle Cry (1953), was his attempt to show the realistic lives of soldiers fighting on the front lines. He also wrote Exodus (1958), which deals with the struggle to establish and defend the state of Israel.


It's the birthday of one of the publishing giants of the 20th century, Henry R. Luce, born in the Shantung province of China (1898). His father was a Presbyterian missionary, and Luce was born while his parents were doing missionary work in China. He went to boarding school in the United States and then to Yale University. And then, during World War I, he and his friend Briton Hadden came up with the idea for a new magazine about big ideas, but written in ordinary language that anybody could understand. They decided to call the magazine Time, because they thought it would give ordinary Americans the time to learn about the important events and ideas around the world. They designed each issue so that it could be read in under an hour.

They raised $86,000 from investors, and the first issue of Time came out on March 3, 1923, with a first run of 12,000 copies. The staff consisted of Luce, Hadden, and three other full-time writers. Instead of hiring correspondents to cover major events around the country and the world, they just read what other people wrote about those events and wrote their own articles as if they'd been there. Nobody noticed.


It's the birthday of Washington Irving, (books by this author) born in New York City (1783). He made his name as a writer in 1809, when he published his first book, A History of New York, a satirical history of the city from the point of view of an eccentric old Dutch professor named Diedrich Knickerbocker. The book became so popular among New Yorkers that they began to call themselves Knickerbockers, and the term became the source of the name for the basketball team.

The stories we remember him for were included in his book called The Sketch Book (1819). The first of these was "Rip Van Winkle," about a man who falls asleep during British rule of the American Colonies, and wakes up years later to find that he lives in the independent United States. The other was "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," about Ichabod Crane's fateful encounter with the Headless Horseman. At the time "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was published, there were no internationally known American writers of fiction. One English critic wrote in 1818, "The Americans have no national literature and no learned men." And another said, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" Irving's Sketch Book was the first international best-seller by an American author, and it was greatly admired by British writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.




WEDNESDAY, 4 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Notes from the Other Side" by Jane Kenyon, from Constance. © Graywolf Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Notes from the Other Side

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course
no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of one of the founders of the "Dada" movement, Tristan Tzara, (books by this author) born Samuel Rosenfeld in a small village in Romania (1896). During World War I, he moved to Zürich, which had become a kind of refuge for intellectuals and artists from all over Europe. James Joyce was there, and so was Vladimir Lenin. Many of these intellectuals felt that the world was falling apart. Tristan Tzara and his friends decided to respond to the situation by creating a new style of art based on nonsense they called "Dada," which in French means "hobby-horse." But it also means "Yes, Yes" in Romanian. The point of Dada was that the world had become meaningless, and so art should respond with meaninglessness. Tzara wrote the first Dada Manifesto, which was read aloud at a performance at the Cabaret Voltaire on July 14, 1916, calling for the abolition of history, religion, and traditional art forms. Tzara wrote," [Dada is the] absolute faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity."

He once gave a reading that was deliberately drowned out by the ringing of a bell, while another artist drew pictures behind him, only to erase them. He also liked to have two of his poems to be recited simultaneously on stage, so that the audience couldn't follow either one.


It's the birthday of reformer Dorothea Dix, (books by this author) born in Hampden, Maine (1802). After her grandmother died and left her a great deal of money, Dix no longer needed to work for a living, but she continued to volunteer as a teacher in various schools. In 1841, she volunteered to teach at the Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts. It was on a tour of the prison that she first saw mentally ill inmates chained to the walls in darkness, with no heat and little food, sleeping naked on the stone floor. She was horrified and began visiting nearly every prison in the state, documenting everything she saw.

In 1843, Dix went to the Massachusetts legislature to present her findings about the treatment of the mentally ill. She was the first American to argue that mentally ill people were not criminals, and she established the first hospitals dedicated to humane treatment of the insane. Despite serious health problems, including malaria, she spent the rest of her life traveling around the United States and Europe, speaking on behalf of the poor and disabled. She never married.


It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Marguerite Duras, (books by this author) born in a small village near Saigon in what was then French Indochina (1914). She became know for her short, experimental novels such as The Sea Wall (1953) and The Sailor from Gibraltar (1966), and screenplays for films such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1966). Then at the age of 70, after struggling with alcoholism for much of her life, Duras decided to write a novel based on an adolescent affair she'd had with the Chinese man. That novel was The Lover (1984), and it was her first major literary success, becoming an international best-seller and winning France's top literary prize.


It's the birthday of blues singer Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi (1915). In 1941, the musicologist Alan Lomax came through Mississippi, recording folk singers for the Library of Congress, and he made several recordings of Muddy Waters. Waters was blown away by the experience of hearing his own voice coming out of a machine. So in May of 1943, Waters took a train from Mississippi to Chicago. His only luggage was a suit of clothes and an acoustic guitar.

At the time, the most popular music in the nightclubs in Chicago was big band music. Waters tried to break through with his Mississippi blues, but he had a hard time playing loudly enough for anyone to hear him on his acoustic guitar at the noisy parties and bars where he played. So in 1944, he bought a cheap electric guitar from his uncle, which helped increase his sound level.

It was the first time anyone had played Mississippi blues on an electric guitar, which revolutionized the sound of the blues. His first big hit was "I Can't Be Satisfied," recorded in 1948.


On this day in 1968, the civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author) was assassinated by a rifleman while standing on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had come to Tennessee to support a strike by the city's sanitation workers. The night before he died, he gave a speech at the Memphis Temple Church in which he said, "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land."




THURSDAY, 5 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Family Reunion" by Jeredith Merrin from Bat Ode. © The University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Family Reunion

The divorced mother and her divorcing
daughter. The about-to-be ex-son-in-law
and the ex-husband's adopted son.
The divorcing daughter's child, who is

the step-nephew of the ex-husband's
adopted son. Everyone cordial:
the ex-husband's second wife
friendly to the first wife, warm

to the divorcing daughter's child's
great-grandmother, who was herself
long ago divorced. Everyone
grown used to the idea of divorce

Almost everyone has separated
from the landscape of childhood.
Collections of people in cities
are divorced from clean air and stars.

Toddlers in day care are parted
from working parents, schoolchildren
from the assumption of unbloodied
daylong safety. Old people die apart

from all they've gathered over time,
and in strange beds. Adults
grow estranged from a God
evidently divorced from history;

most are cut off from their own
histories, each of which waits
like a child left at day care.
What if you turned back for a moment

and put your arms around yours?
Yes, you might be late for work;
no, your history doesn't smell sweet
like a toddler's head. But look

at those small round wrists,
that short-legged, comical walk.
Caress your history—who else will?
Promise to come back later.

Pay attention when it asks you
simple questions: Where are we going?
Is it scary? What happened? Can
I have more now? Who is that?

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of philosopher Thomas Hobbes, (books by this author) born in Westport, Wiltshire, England (1588). His most famous work is Leviathan (1651), in which he argued that the natural state of human beings is to be at war with one another, and that without a strong central government, human society would collapse into chaos. That book also established his theory of the social contract, which is the idea that people are willing to give up some of their rights to a governmental power in order to gain security for themselves. But the book was controversial, even among Hobbes' allies, because it included the idea that the people have the right to reject any government that does not adequately protect their security.


It was on this day in 1614 that John Rolfe and Pocahontas got married in the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia. The story of Pocahontas has become an American legend; it's been retold countless times, in history books, novels, poems, TV shows, and movies. Many versions distort the facts by focusing on Pocahontas' relationship with John Smith and ignoring her marriage to John Rolfe. The story goes that Smith was captured by the Powhatans and was about to be clubbed to death when a young Pocahontas ran out and took him in her arms, saving his life — but most historians think that Smith made up most of the story. John Davis, in his 1806 historical novel, The First Settlers of Virginia, added a dramatic romance between Smith and Pocahontas, and that romance has been included in most of the Pocahontas stories since then, including Disney's animated movie that came out in 1995.

But it was John Rolfe who married Pocahontas, after she had been abducted by the colonists. They had hoped they could use her as a bargaining chip with her father, the chief of the Powhatan tribe, to negotiate a peace treaty. The kidnapping didn't work out, but after John Rolfe fell in love with the girl, he got the chief's blessing, and the marriage led to a long period of peace between Jamestown and the Powhatan Indians.


It's the birthday of poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, (books by this author) born in London (1837). He was a poet who loved to read his own work aloud. Before going to a friend's house, he would place his manuscript in his breast pocket and then button up his coat to make the bulge of the book more obvious. He would wait for someone to notice the book, and if they didn't he would mention it himself. And then he would wait in silence until someone said, "Oh, please do read it." He would reply, "I had no intention in the world of boring you with it, but since you ask me. ..." And he would read.




FRIDAY, 6 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Failing and Flying" by Jack Gilbert, from Refusing Heaven. © Alfred A Knopf. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Failing and Flying

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of triumph.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1917, the United States formally declared war against Germany and entered World War I. American participation in the World War permanently transformed the nation. In order to meet increased demands for goods, the federal government expanded dramatically, taking an unprecedented role in guiding the economy. Women got involved in the war effort and impressed enough of the men they worked with that they won support for voting rights shortly after the war. The war also shortened women's skirts, since it created a scarcity of wool. And it probably started the widespread American addiction to cigarettes, since American soldiers got to buy cigarettes at much cheaper prices while serving abroad.

At the time, the war had been going on in Europe for three years, but there was no real immediate threat to the United States. Up until then, Woodrow Wilson had been opposed to the war. His campaign for president in 1916 included the slogan, "He kept us out of the war," though Wilson never used that phrase himself.

But two things changed Wilson's mind. The first was that Germany had declared unrestricted warfare on American merchant vessels, and began torpedoing any ship they thought was carrying munitions to the British and the French. At that point, the United States was the biggest supplier of munitions to the British and the French. And the second was that the United States intercepted a telegram from Germany to Mexico, asking for an alliance against the United States. If Mexico was willing to attack the U.S., the Germans said they would help Mexico regain Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

So President Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war on April 2. The declaration passed almost unanimously, and war was officially declared on this day in 1917. One of the few people who spoke out against it was the pacifist Senator from Wisconsin, Robert La Follette.

About 3 million American men were inducted into the military. And though they fought for only a short time, it was enough to make a difference. Between the financial support, supplies, and reinforcements, the American entry into the war was the turning point that helped bring it to an end.

The war was extraordinarily expensive for the United States, costing about $1 million per hour in the last 25 months of the war. The amount of money the U.S. government spent on World War I was more than the combined total of what it had spent in the previous 100 years. Woodrow Wilson hoped it would be the war to end all wars, but instead it was just the beginning of the United States' policy of military intervention in world affairs.


It was on this day in 1909 that Robert Peary, Matthew Henson, and four Eskimos became the first men to reach the North Pole. Although, further studies concluded that Peary probably came up about 30 miles short.


It's the birthday of country songwriter and singer Merle Haggard, born in Bakersfield, California (1937). His parents were Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, and Haggard grew up in a house that had been converted from a railroad boxcar by his father. He grew up poor and restless, in and out of reform schools. He stole cars, wrote bad checks, and became a petty thief.

He eventually got caught trying to burglarize a roadhouse, and he spent 27 months in San Quentin prison, where he joined the prison's country music band. The first song he wrote, while he was still on parole, was "Branded Man," about the life of an ex-con.




SATURDAY, 7 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Dublinesque" by Philip Larkin, from Collected Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Dublinesque

Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.

The hearse is ahead,
But after there follows
A troop of streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
Leg-of-mutton sleeves,
And ankle-length dresses.

There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honoring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skillfully
(Someone claps time),

And of great sadness also.
As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, (books by this author) born in Cockermouth, England (1770). He studied at Cambridge, and during a vacation, he and a friend sailed to France for a 12-week walking tour of the Alps, during which they covered about 3,000 miles. He wrote letters home to his sister, Dorothy, trying to describe the beautiful sights he'd seen, and he later said, "Perhaps scarce a day of my life will pass by in which I shall not derive some happiness from those images."

Wordsworth was an early supporter of the French Revolution, which was an unpopular political view in England at the time. But he eventually came to see the French Revolution as a huge mistake. He alienated all his political friends by turning away from politics, and it was in the next 10 years — between 1797 and 1807 — that he wrote most of his greatest poetry, including "The Prelude," "Tintern Abbey," "She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways," "A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal," "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," and "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud."

At the time, most poets were writing poetry about broad topics of history and religion and philosophy. Wordsworth wrote about ordinary things and private thoughts, the view from a bridge, daffodils. Critics thought he was wasting his time on uninteresting subjects. But by the time he had reached middle age, he became a cult sensation and his collections of poetry became best-sellers. Tourists from London would take day trips up to the Lake District where Wordsworth lived and gawk at him through the window of his house. His wife once wrote in a letter, "At this moment, a group of young Tourists are standing before the window. ... William is reading a newspaper — and on lifting up his head a profound bow greeted him from each."


It was on this day in 1927 that an audience in New York saw an image of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover speaking from Washington, D.C. in the first successful long-distance demonstration of television. The broadcast began with a close-up of Hoover's forehead, because he was sitting too close to the camera. But Hoover backed up to deliver the speech, and he was followed by a comedian performing jokes in blackface.

At the time, there were several competing versions of television, and this version was a mechanical process that used a metal disc, punched with holes in a spiral pattern, which transformed light into electrical impulses. It was called "Radio Vision," but it never really caught on. Instead, the TV as we know today was an entirely different technology, invented by a high school student from Utah named Philo Farnsworth.


It's the birthday of Donald Barthelme, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1931). He's the author of four novels, including Snow White (1967) and The Dead Father (1975), but he's best known for his strange, fragmented short stories, compiled in the books Sixty Stories (1981) and Forty Stories (1987).

His father was an architect who designed the house in Houston that Barthelme grew up in. His parents had a large collection of contemporary art and kept a library full of books by writers like James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, which Barthelme began reading at an early age. In 1962, he went to New York to become a writer.

He edited journals for a couple of years until, in 1964, his first short story was published in The New Yorker. His first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published later that year. It was full of absurd, surrealistic stories that jump from one topic to another without transitions. In one story, Batman is ashamed of himself because he doesn't think he's doing a good enough job fighting crime. A story called "Me and Miss Mandible" is narrated by a middle-aged man who finds himself trapped in the body of a sixth-grader.

"Me and Miss Mandible" begins: "Miss Mandible wants to make love to me but she hesitates because I am officially a child; I am, according to the records, according to the gradebook on her desk, according to the card index in the principal's office, eleven years old. There is a misconception here, one that I haven't quite managed to get cleared up yet. I am in fact thirty-five, I've been in the Army, I am six feet one, I have hair in the appropriate places, my voice is a baritone, I know very well what to do with Miss Mandible if she ever makes up her mind. In the meantime we are studying common fractions."




SUNDAY, 8 APRIL, 2007
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Poem: "Easter Wings" by George Herbert. Public Domain.

Easter Wings

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
           Decaying more and more,
                Till he became
                      Most poore:
                      With thee
                O let me rise
           As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
           Thou didst so punish sinne,
                That I became
                      Most thinne.
                      With thee
                Let me combine,
           And feel thy victorie:
      For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Easter Sunday in the Christian Church, the holiday that celebrates Jesus' resurrection from the dead. Easter is one of the few floating holidays in the calendar year, because it's based on the cycles of the moon. Jesus was said to have risen from the dead on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. For that reason, Easter can fall as early as March 22nd and as late as April 25th.

The word "Easter" comes from an ancient pagan goddess worshipped by Anglo Saxons named Eostre. According to legend, Eostre once saved a bird whose wings had frozen during the winter by turning it into a rabbit. Because the rabbit had once been a bird, it could still lay eggs, and that rabbit became our Easter Bunny. Eggs were a symbol of fertility in part because they used to be so scarce during the winter. There are records of people giving each other decorated eggs at Easter as far back as the 11th century.


It was on this day in 1935, that Congress approved the Works Progress Administration, a program designed to relieve the economic hardship of the Great Depression by funding the employment of more than 8.5 million people to work on numerous public projects around the country. Most of these projects involved planting trees and building dams and other manual labor. But among those put out of work by the Great Depression were writers, and so the Roosevelt Administration came up with the idea of employing writers to travel around the country and produce the first really comprehensive self-portrait of America. This effort was called the Federal Writers' Project, and it was one of the most ambitious government-funded arts programs in American history.

Many writers got their start working on the Federal Writers' Project, including John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Rexroth, Studs Terkel, Margaret Walker, Richard Wright, and Eudora Welty. The project also helped support established writers, like Conrad Aiken and Nelson Algren, who had fallen on hard times. Algren said, "Had it not been for [the Writers' Project], the suicide rate would have been much higher. It gave new life to people who had thought their lives were over."

The administrators of the project decided that one of the best ways to employ writers would be to have them write guidebooks, describing every state in the nation, as well as all the major cities. And so offices were opened in each state, and writers who met the poverty requirement were paid about $25 a week to explore the surrounding areas and uncover whatever interesting facts they could find about the people, the history, and the traditions of even the tiniest towns and villages, down to the color of the courthouses.

The novelist John Steinbeck was such a big fan of the W.P.A. guidebooks that he bought a complete set. He once described the guidebooks as, "The most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together ... compiled during the Depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating."


It's the birthday of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, (books by this author) born in Annapolis, Maryland (1955). She majored in biology at DePauw University in Indiana, and then got a master's degree in evolutionary biology. She was working on a Ph.D. thesis on the social lives of termites when she decided to abandon a career in science and try to become a writer. Kingsolver began writing short stories in her spare time, and then she wrote her novel The Bean Trees (1986) about a woman from rural Kentucky who leaves home so she won't get stuck in a boring, dead-end life. The Bean Trees was a huge success, and Kingsolver has gone on to write many more novels, including The Poisonwood Bible (1998), about the wife and four daughters of an evangelical Baptist minister who go as missionaries to the Belgian Congo in 1959.


It's the birthday of investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, (books by this author) born in Chicago, Illinois (1937). He majored in history at the University of Chicago, and then went to law school for a year, but he was expelled for poor grades. He worked at a drugstore for a while before a friend told him the Chicago City News Bureau was hiring college graduates with no experience for $35 a week. He took the job, and he's been working in journalism ever since.

In the late 1960s, he got a tip from a lawyer who worked with military deserters that American soldiers had massacred an entire village in Vietnam, killing all the men, women, and children. He followed up on it and broke the story of what is now known as the My Lai massacre in 36 newspapers, and went on to write a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the subject, My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath (1970). Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hersh has been writing articles about American foreign policy for The New Yorker.

When asked what the secret is to being an investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh said, "I don't make deals, I don't party and drink with sources, and I don't play a game of leaks. I read, I listen, I squirrel information. It's fun."




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