MONDAY, 17 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Only What I Can Do" by Julene Tripp Weaver, from Case Walking: An AIDS Case Manager Wails Her Blues. © Finishing Line Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Only What I Can Do

           Dedicated to Juan Bernal, died September 9, 2001, at age 41

I write a letter for my client today.
I sit with him on the deck
of the skilled nursing facility.
He eats breakfast, smokes cigarettes.
He wants me to write to his baby brother
                                  in jail doing time.
He dictates: "I love you
I need a thousand dollars
I will drive the get-away car."
He has these plans
he needs to convey—tells me
his little brother will tote the gun.

He dictates: "The doctor told me today
I am dying, but he doesn't know
how long it will take.
"

It is doubtful he will be able to drive
the get-away car when his legs are paralyzed
and two people have to transfer him
from his bed to his wheelchair and back.
He has a direct line morphine drip
he presses every ten minutes.

It is doubtful he will make it
home again, but he wants to go home.
He drifts in and out of sleep, nodding-out
his thoughts stop in mid-sentence,
he loses track of his message to his brother.

He asks if they'll read the letter.
The jail will, I say. He edits out the question
about whether his brother killed someone.
He thinks he did. I suggest he
take out the part about robbing a bank
but he doesn't. He thinks it's a good plan.



Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day that Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in the city of Bonn, Germany. Three years after his first performance as a pianist in Vienna, Beethoven began hearing a persistent ringing in his ears. His deafness became worse, and he had to give up the piano, but Beethoven was able continue his work as a composer. In his latest book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks tells us that so much of what we hear happens in the brain, not in the ear. He theorizes that your musical imagery, your mind's ability to fill in the gaps when you hear that familiar tune playing ever so softly, also allowed Beethoven to keep composing symphonies. Sacks writes, "It is possible, indeed, that his musical imagery was even intensified by deafness." Ludwig van Beethoven produced some of his most complex work — including his Hammerklavier sonata, his last five string quartets, and his famous Ninth Symphony — after he was completely deaf.


It's the birthday of New York Times columnist William Safire, (books by this author) born in New York City (1929). He was the senior speech writer for President Richard Nixon. Before Apollo 11 took off for the moon, Safire had to prepare a statement for Nixon, in case the astronauts never made it back. He began the speech with, "Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace." He won the Pulitzer Prize for his commentary on corruption in the Carter administration, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.


On this day in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers picked Kitty Hawk because it was full of sand dunes that would cushion crash landings and it had high winds to help get the plane off the ground. But living there was almost unbearable. They endured sand storms, coastal rains, and swarms of insects during the day. And at night, the wind was so bad that the brothers had get out and hold on to their tent to keep it from blowing away. In 1900, Orville and Wilbur started out with a kite controlled from the ground and later took turns manning it in the air. Their father forbade them from flying together, to ensure that one brother could continue the experiments in the event of a fatal crash. When Wilbur stepped into the controls in October, he was unprepared for the sensation of flying. The plane was unpredictable, he couldn't plan out his moves, and he relied purely on instinct to adjust the plane up and down. Within a few moments he overcompensated, nearly flipped the glider over, and shouted to his brother, "Let me down!" Suffering months of spin-outs, broken struts, blackened eyes, and crash landings, the brothers left Kitty Hawk early. On the train back, Orville told his brother, "Not within a thousand years will man ever fly."


It was on this day in 1880, that the Edison Electric Illuminating Company was incorporated in New York City. It used one engine to power 800 light bulbs.


It is the birthday of American scientist Joseph Henry, born in Albany, New York (1797). He was the first person to observe electromagnetic induction, the process of converting magnetism into electricity. He once made an electromagnet for Yale College that supported more than a ton of weight, which was a world record at the time. After Joseph Henry died, his name was given to the standard electrical unit of inductive resistance known today as the "henry."


It is the birthday of chemist Willard Frank Libby, born in Grand Valley, Colorado (1908), who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for developing the carbon-14 dating process. With carbon dating, scientists were able to discover that the Shroud of Turin, supposedly from the Crucifixion, was actually made in the Middle Ages, more than a thousand years after Jesus died.


It's the birthday of the author Ford Madox Ford, (books by this author) born Ford Madox Huefer in Surrey, England (1873). He edited the Transatlantic Review, published Joyce and Hemingway, and co-wrote three potboilers with his friend Joseph Conrad. Ford imitated Conrad's style in his novel The Good Soldier, which was published just before he served as a lieutenant in World War I. Ford Madox Ford once said, "Only two classes of books are of universal appeal: the very best and the very worst."


It's the birthday of Penelope Fitzgerald, (books by this author) who didn't write her first book until she was 60 years old. Fitzgerald still wrote three biographies and 10 novels in her lifetime. Her best-known work, The Blue Flower, won the National Book Award in 1998.


Poet John Greenleaf Whittier (books by this author) was born on this day near Haverhill, Massachusetts (1807). Whittier was raised on a debt-ridden farm, attended school only 12 weeks a year, and had to walk several miles to borrow books on biography or travel since his house contained only a single almanac. All of his life, Whittier suffered from the effects of the hard physical labor of working on a farm. He was a newspaper editor, abolitionist, state senator, and poet. He authored the poem "Snowbound" in 1865, which made him enough money to retire on.


It is the birthday of novelist Erskine Caldwell, (books by this author) born in White Oak, Georgia (1903), who was the son of a Presbyterian minister, and he traveled to the rural homes of his father's parishioners and learned about the life and the language of poor sharecroppers. He is best known for his controversial book Tobacco Road (1932), about Southern poverty and degradation. Though the book was banned for obscenity, the phrase "Tobacco Road" quickly entered the American lexicon as slang for rural squalor.


It was on this day in 1955 that Carl Perkins wrote his big hit "Blue Suede Shoes" and recorded it less than 48 hours later at Sun Studios in Memphis.


It's the day that The Nutcracker ballet was performed for the first time in St. Petersburg, Russia (1892). Czar Alexander III in the audience loved the ballet, but the critics hated it. Tchaikovsky wrote that the opera that came before The Nutcracker "was evidently very well liked, the ballet not.... The papers, as always, reviled me cruelly." Tchaikovsky died of cholera less than a year later, before The Nutcracker became an international success.


Today would mark the beginning of the seven-day celebration of Saturnalia in ancient Rome. For the winter festival, the Romans made and exchanged gifts, decorated their homes with holly and ropes of garland and carried wreaths of evergreen branches to honor the god Saturn.



TUESDAY, 18 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Dust" by Gary Short, from Flying Over Sonny Liston. © University of Nevada Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Dust

     There is dust on everything in Nevada
           - William Stafford


Dust settles on clocks, accumulates
& clings like boredom. There is gray dust
blurring bedroom mirrors, gilded dust swirling
in pieces of sunlight
falling through the broken ceiling,
& the waltz of dust on the floor
of the condemned dance hall.
Dust silvers fingertips holding an old book.
Dust on piano keys, on white tablecloths,
windowsills, bare lightbulbs
that now throw a dusty yellow light.
Dust that sleeps under a blanket of dust.
Dust dulling the rust-freckled barbed wire,
fallen down, keeping out no one, keeping no one in.
Wind dervishes the desert, & there is dust
thick as thirst in a cowboy's throat.
After a flurry, dust is the calm
        on everything:
in the ocher of a dry riverbed, a lizard
scribbles his tail in dust; dust fills the tracks
& denies that coyote passed this way;
a sun-bleached dust furs cow skulls.
There is the dust of the dead—
& in winter, snow,
the cold shadow of dust.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the British writer known as Saki, (books by this author) born Hector Munro in Akyab, Burma (1870). Munro's mother was killed by a runaway cow and he was raised by his two straight-laced aunts in Scotland. His stories often drew from the experiences he had as a child. In one, "Sredni Vashtar," a young boy's pet weasel kills the woman who looks after him.


It is the birthday of hymn writer Charles Wesley, (books by this author) born in Epworth, England (1708), who wrote more than 6,000 hymns, including "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," and "Rejoice, the Lord is King." Wesley's verses make up a sixth of the official hymns of the Methodist Episcopal Church today.


Baseball legend Ty Cobb was born today Tyrus Raymond Cobb, in Narrows, Georgia (1886). By the time he had retired from baseball, Ty Cobb had set more than 90 records, including highest lifetime batting average (.367), most batting titles (12), and most runs scored (2,245). He also stole 892 bases during his career. It was rumored that Ty Cobb kept his spikes filed to razor-sharp points to cut infielders when he slid into base.


On this day in 1860, John Crittenden, a U.S. senator from Kentucky, introduced a measure that he hoped would forestall the Civil War. The Crittenden Compromise re-established that slavery would be protected south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The measure didn't pass. And it is thought that Abraham Lincoln's immediate rejection of the compromise paved the way for secession. Crittenden died during the war, and his sons were major generals on opposing sides, one for the Union, the other for the Confederacy.


It's the birthday of Robert Moses, one of the most powerful unelected city officials in American history. As the head of the Long Island State Park Commission, Moses developed a series of parks, including Jones Beach, which transformed an unused sandbar into one of the most popular seaside parks on the Eastern seaboard. With his new popularity, he decided to run for office, and though he was a great city planner, Robert Moses was a terrible campaigner. When he ran for governor in 1934, he lost by a wider margin than any other candidate in the history of New York. So, he decided to work behind the scenes and held numerous appointive offices, once occupying 12 positions at the same time. He had enough connections to draft and pass his own legislation, draw from his own personal treasuries and even command his own police force. And he used all that power to build modern New York City. His projects included the Lincoln Tunnel, the New York Coliseum, The United Nations headquarters, and Shea Stadium. He oversaw the creation of 15 bridges, 2 million acres of state parks, three hydroelectric dams, and 658 playgrounds.


It is the birthday of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1946). His parents had a difficult marriage, and young Spielberg escaped the house during the day and made amateur movies with his father's Super-8 camera. He made two films about World War II and a movie about a UFO invasion, starring his sisters as victims. Steven Spielberg became famous with Jaws (1975), which was the very first summer blockbuster, and he topped his success seven years later with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), about a young boy recovering from the breakup of his parents' marriage when he befriends an alien left behind by his spaceship. The movie E.T. became the fourth-highest-grossing film of all time.


It was on this day in 1737 that violin maker Antonio Stradivari died in Cremona, Italy. Most often referred to by his Latin name, Stradivarius, he developed a violin design that has served as a model ever since.


It's the birthday of actor, playwright, and activist Ossie Davis, (books by this author) born Raiford Chatman Davis in Cogdell, Georgia (1917). The nickname Ossie came from a mispronunciation of his initials, "R.C." He wrote the play Paul Robeson: All American, which is still performed for young audiences. And as an actor, Davis is best known for his roles in A Raisin in the Sun, Do the Right Thing, and Jungle Fever.


It is the birthday of playwright Christopher Fry, (books by this author) born in Bristol, England (1907). He is best known for the play The Lady's Not for Burning (1948), starring Lawrence Olivier, about an ex-soldier in the Middle Ages who wants to die and about a young woman accused of being a witch. His plays were written in verse about people who admired ideas and felt honest love for each other, and they fell out of favor in the '60s.



WEDNESDAY, 19 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Us Together" by George Johnston, from The Essential George Johnston, selected by Robyn Sarah. © The Porcupine's Quill, 2007. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

Us Together

I do not like anything the way I
like you in your underwear I like you
and in your party clothes o my in your
party clothes and with nothing on at all
you do not need to wear a thing at all
for me to like you and you may talk or
not talk I like you either way nothing
makes me feel so nearly at home on Earth
as just to be with you and say nothing.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of singer Edith Piaf, (work by this artist) born Edith Giovanna Gassion, in Paris (1915). Piaf's mother was a cafe singer who abandoned her at birth, and her father was an acrobat who took her with him on tours and encouraged her to sing on the streets and in cafés. In a few years, she was singing in the top music halls of Paris and she had recorded two records. The passion and depression Edith Piaf's velvety voice conveyed earned her many famous admirers. Jean Cocteau wrote a play for her. To aid the French Resistance in World War II, Piaf traveled to German prisoner-of-war camps and sang for the French inmates. During these tours, she would be photographed with the POWs and those pictures would be enlarged and put on false ID cards, which she would distribute on the next visit. Today, there's a plaque in Paris where she was born that says, "On the steps of this house... was born into the greatest poverty Edith Piaf, whose voice later stunned the world."


It's he birthday of Henry Clay Frick, born in West Overton, Pennsylvania (1849). He became a partner of Andrew Carnegie, and after they feuded and parted ways, Frick made it one of his missions in life to one-up his former colleague. In Pittsburgh, he deliberately built the Frick Building 20 stories high to top the nearby 15-story Carnegie Building. In Manhattan, where Carnegie had a million-dollar mansion, Frick spent five times that much, just "to make Carnegie's look like a miner's shack," and he filled it with the masterpieces of Rembrandt, Goya, Bellini, and Degas. His house and the works have been turned into an art museum in New York called The Frick Collection.


It's the birthday of Constance Garnett, (books by this author) born in Brighton, England (1861). She gave us many of the first English translations of famous 19th-century Russian novels. Garnett could translate 5,000 words a day, scattering piles of pages at her feet as she wrote. She finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in six months, and translated a total of 80 volumes, including Dostoyevsky's complete works, which alone add up to about two and a half million words. But Garnett had a habit of skipping phrases that she didn't understand, she often missed the humor of the original Russian, and she altered sexuality in the novels to reflect her Victorian ideals. Critic Kornei Chukovsky compared her writings to "a safe blandscript: not a volcano... a smooth lawn mowed in the English manner — which is to say a complete distortion of the original." Constance Garnett's translations held up as the standard for decades, but now most of them are replaced by more nuanced versions of the Russian works.


It's the birthday of writer Italo Svevo, (books by this author) born in Trieste, Italy (1861). He was a closet writer who worked as a bank clerk and then got a job in his father-in-law's paint-making plant. When Svevo decided to take some English classes for business reasons, the tutor that he found turned out to be aspiring writer James Joyce, who was living in Trieste at the time. Svevo confessed to Joyce that he had written two failed novels, and after reading them, Joyce told Svevo that he was a neglected genius. Svevo was inspired to write a fictional memoir about a patient undergoing psychoanalysis, which took him 10 years to finish. His self-published book The Confessions of Zeno (1923) is considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century.


It's the birthday of Jean Genet, (books by this author) born in Paris, France (1910). He was a burglar and a vagabond, who spent his time in prison reading contraband copies of Dostoyevsky and Stendhal, and he wrote fiction and poetry on brown paper bags. In prison, he penned a novel about a murderer who had been executed in jail, and a friend smuggled it out and gave it to the writer Jean Cocteau. Cocteau helped Genet get out of prison, and he published Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers (1944). Genet wrote many more novels, including Miracle of the Rose (1946) and The Thief's Journal (1949). He said, "If my song was beautiful... who will dare to say that its inspiration was vile."


It's the birthday of novelist Eleanor Hodgman Porter, (books by this author) born in Littleton, New Hampshire (1868). She was the author of Pollyanna (1913), about a young girl who always tries to see the positive side of things despite her hardships. The book was wildly successful and was ultimately the basis for a play, a movie, a calendar, and a daily almanac of reasons to be glad. The word "Pollyanna" eventually entered our vocabulary, defined by Webster's Dictionary as, "One having a disposition or nature characterized by irrepressible optimism and a tendency to find good in everything; an overly and often blindly optimistic person."


It's the birthday of Richard Leakey, (books by this author) born in Nairobi, Kenya (1944). Both of Leakey's parents were anthropologists who had made groundbreaking discoveries, and Leakey made his own significant finds, including the bones of Homo Erectus, a nearly complete skeleton of a million-year-old youth discovered near Lake Turkana, Kenya. In 1989, he was named head of the corrupt Department of Parks and Wildlife and launched a "shoot to kill" campaign against illegal hunters. One summer, he oversaw a bonfire of more than 60 tons of ivory tusks seized from Kenyan poachers. His international ivory ban made him very unpopular and, in 1993, Leakey's small plane crashed in the wilderness north of Nairobi. And he lost both legs at the knee. His airplane was checked for tampering with inconclusive results. He is the author of The Origins of Humankind (1994) and The Sixth Extinction (1995).


On this day in 1732, Benjamin Franklin books by this author began publishing Poor Richard's Almanac in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Franklin's Almanac included weather reports, eclipses, tides, and tables of English Kings. But what made it famous were the witty proverbs about life that Franklin included as filler, such as, "Well done is better than well said" and "Haste makes waste" and "Neither a Fortress nor a Maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley." Ben Franklin's inspiration may have come when he was 15 years old and he worked in his brother's print shop. He would sneak into work at night and leave letters to the editor signed "Silence Dogood." The letters became very popular, but when young Franklin told his brother James that he was writing them, the two came to blows and Ben ran away to Philadelphia. When Benjamin Franklin started Poor Richard's, his brother was publishing an almanac of his own called "Poor Robin's Almanac."


It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) came out with A Christmas Carol. He got the idea in mid-October and struggled to finish the story in time for the holidays. He published the book himself with gilt-edged pages and a red bound cover within a week of Christmas and sold 6,000 copies in the first few days. The instant best-seller revived Christmas when it was on the decline in England, during the Industrial Revolution, and it launched Dickens into a fame much like The Beatles — on his reading tours, Charles Dickens was mobbed by adoring fans, who would rip his clothes, wait in long lines to shake his hand, and pull down the windows on his train car to grab at him.



THURSDAY, 20 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Medicine" by Carolyn Kizer, from Cool, Calm & Collected © Copper Canyon Press Press, 2000. Originally appeared in Yin. © BOA Editions, Ltd. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Medicine

                  For W.S., MD

The practice of medicine
Is not what it was
In my grandfather's time.

I remember him telling me
Of weeks that went by
When he would be paid
Only in chickens
Or only in potatoes;

Of treating the families
Of striking miners
In Montrose or Telluride
Who could not pay at all;
Of delivering babies
(A total of twenty)
For a tribe of dirt farmers
Who paid one new-laid egg
Or a cup of springwater:

After sweating a breech birth
And twins at that,
At five in the morning
It was mighty good water.


When, fifty years later,
He came back to the mountains
Middle-aged babies
Ran up in the street
Crying, Doc! Doc! eyes streaming,
Tried to kiss his old hands.

No, the practice of medicine
Is not what it was,
But it has its moments:

That morning in surgery
I regained consciousness
A little too early
And found the doctor
Kissing my hand,
Whispering, whispering
It's all right darling,
You're going to live.



Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase was completed for $15 million, which was roughly three cents an acre. The land, which spanned from Montana to the port of New Orleans, doubled the size of the United States.


It's the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Benedict, (books by this author) born in Hartford, Connecticut (1954). She's the author of The Beginner's Book of Dreams (1988) and Almost (2001).


It's the birthday of poet, novelist, and essayist Andrei Codrescu, (books by this author) born in an old medieval fortress city in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania (1946). Codrescu witnessed the Communist takeover of Romania, and he always remembered how the smell of apple strudel in his hometown was overpowered by the smell of boots. He didn't know any English when he landed in the United States. He said, "It's still a mystery to me exactly how I learned the language. [But] I was 19 years old and I had very urgent things to tell girls." When he traveled back to Romania in 1989 to witness the democratic revolution, Codrescu watched 45 years of Communist rule undone in eight days. He is the author of Wakefield (2004) and A Bar in Brooklyn (1999).


It's the birthday of the poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros, (books by this author) born in Chicago in 1954. When she was growing up, her Mexican-born father would often have bouts of nostalgia for the home country, and he would force the whole family to go back there for a few months.

She went on to college, and she later said she was lucky to be a girl, because her father didn't care what she studied. He just expected her to meet her husband. So she was free to study an impractical subject like English. She kept writing, and one of her professors encouraged her to apply to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.

But once Cisneros got there, she felt totally out of place. She said, "My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks." One day, her class was given an exercise to think about the houses they'd grown up in. Cisneros's family had only owned one house, an ugly red bungalow. Listening to her classmates describe their childhood homes, she realized that she had grown up in a completely different world. She said, " It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice. ... That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about."

Cisneros immediately began writing short pieces in the voice of a girl named Esperanza Cordero growing up in the barrio, who wants more than anything to live in a real house. And that became Cisneros's first novel, The House on Mango Street, which didn't receive much attention when it came out in 1983. But when it was republished in 1991, it made Sandra Cisneros one of the most popular Latina authors in America. Her most recent novel, Carmelo, came out in 2003.


It was on this day in 1985 that President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing an official Poet Laureate of the United States. The first laureate was Robert Penn Warren, author of All the King's Men.


It is the birthday of fiction writer Hortense Calisher, (books by this author) born in New York City (1911). She is the author of In the Absence of Angels (1951) and False Entry (1961). Calisher likes to add shocking twists to her seemingly mundane story lines — in one, all the women at a posh dinner table remove their blouses; in another, a bald woman discards her wig while embracing her lover only to be shunned for her honesty. She once said that the action of a short story is "an apocalypse served in a very small cup."


It is the birthday of Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, the woman who broke the heart of William Butler Yeats. Gonne was legendarily beautiful — six feet tall with cascading red hair, and the poet Yeats proposed shortly after meeting her and he stayed a virgin until he was 31 in the hope that she would marry him. Gonne refused his repeated proposals and focused all of her passion on the cause of Irish independence. She campaigned for land reform, advocated for political prisoners, and founded the Daughters of Erin to oppose British cultural influence in Ireland. She was also the model for many of Yeats' heroines. In his 1902 parable of Ireland's troubles, Cathleen ni Houlihan, Gonne played the title role, an old woman, Mother Ireland, who sheds her cloak to reveal a young, vibrant, free nation.




FRIDAY, 21 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Orange Alert" by Kirsten Dierking, from Northern Oracle. © Spout Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Orange Alert

Today the sparrows are wheeling about,
starving after too many days
of sub-zero weather.

I go outside to fill the feeder.
I feel uneasy. The fate of all this
delicate life in the air above us.

Great oaks push their limbs
through gray sky. I raise my arms
high like branches, press against
the threat of storms.

A bird flies toward the window glass,
but turns aside at the last moment.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It is the birthday of novelist and journalist Dame Rebecca West, (books by this author) born Cicily Isabel Fairfield in London (1892). The author of The Return of the Soldier and Train of Powder, West had a 10-year love affair with the science fiction writer H.G. Wells and also had a romance with Hollywood movie star Charlie Chaplin. Her best-known book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a history of Yugoslavia, started out as a short piece that ended up exceeding 1,000 pages. World War II was at its worst when the book came out, and paper was being strictly rationed, but the publisher decided to print it anyway—they said they felt obliged to issue a book that so convincingly argued that the source World War II lay in the defeat of the Balkan Christians by the Ottoman Turks 550 years before.


On this day in 1968, Apollo 8 was launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida—the first manned mission of lunar orbit put the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the race for the moon.


It is the birthday of the man who wrote the longest novel in the English language, Anthony Powell, (books by this author) born in London (1905). Despite being a successful author, he wrote his million-word book, A Dance to the Music of Time, on an ancient typewriter at a card table squeezed into his bedroom.


It's the birthday of rocker Frank Zappa. (music by this artist) The singer, songwriter, and composer was born in Baltimore, Maryland (1940). Zappa's father was a meteorologist in the Army who studied the effects of weather on explosions and poisonous gases. The gas masks and chemical paraphernalia his dad brought home were some of young Zappa's first toys. When Frank Zappa started playing atonal classical music on his electric guitar, he said that his goal was to make sounds that would cause people to run from the room the moment they heard it. He was also a political activist, and he once proposed that the United States form a fourth branch of government devoted entirely to creativity.


On this day in 1937, the movie that competitors called "Disney's Folly" premiered in Los Angeles, California. Walt Disney had put 750 animators on the payroll to make a feature-length cartoon that critics said would be too long for audiences to sit through. And he had mortgaged his house to invest in a new process called Technicolor, even though many believed the bright colors would only hurt people's eyes. Disney's own wife, Lillian, told him, "No one's ever gonna pay a dime to see a dwarf picture." Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs received a standing ovation on opening night, became the highest-grossing film of the year, and inspired studio MGM to make its own fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz.


It was on this day in 1913 that the very first crossword puzzle appeared in The New York World. It was the invention of journalist Arthur Wynne, who called it a "Word-Cross," but the typesetter made a mistake and printed the game as "Cross-Word" and the name stuck. London's puzzle in The Daily Telegraph for May 1944 is possibly the most famous crossword in history. Just before D-Day, the puzzle ran with the highly classified operation code names Utah, Omaha, Overlord, Mulberry, and Neptune as the answers to some of the clues. The incident was later investigated by England's department of Military Intelligence and ruled as a coincidence.

It is the birthday of screenwriter Francis Goodrich, born in Belleville, New Jersey (1890). She and her husband wrote screenplays for It's a Wonderful Life, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the Thin Man movies, detective stories about husband-and-wife team, Nick and Nora Charles. Goodrich and Hackett said they shared many similarities to the screen couple, except that they yelled at each other more. When they worked, each of them wrote a draft, and then they exchanged constructive criticism. That was where the yelling came in.


It's the birthday of Benjamin Disraeli, (books by this author) born in London (1804). He wrote critical works about educated society and about the plight of working poor, which were not well thought of at the time—Wordsworth called them "trashy"—but by the time his last novel, Endymion (1880), came out, he had made 10,000 pounds from them, a fortune at the time. He was a statesman, and a great orator, and when he was chosen Prime Minister after 50 years in politics, he worked to extend the power of the British Empire. He was both chivalrous and loyal, and Queen Victoria loved him. When a younger colleague asked him how he handled her, he said, "First of all, remember she is a woman." It was reputed he could make jokes on any subject. When somebody challenged him to tell a joke about the Queen, he replied, "Sir, Her Majesty is not a subject." Someone asked why he wrote novels, and he said that every so often he was overcome by the urge to read one, and, in order to have one at hand, he would write it himself.


It is the birthday of Joseph Stalin, born in the Russian colony of Georgia (1879). Stalin loved to sing, and he sang so well that he could have become a professional performer. He was also an avid reader, a fan of Zola, Hemingway, and James Fenimore Cooper. He loved Last of the Mohicans so much that sometimes he dressed up as an Indian to entertain guests at parties. But he banned these books from his country. He said, "Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don't allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?" It is estimated that Stalin killed more than 20 million people during his rule; he's responsible for more human deaths than anyone else in history.


It is the birthday of essayist Edward Hoagland, (books by this author) born in New York City (1932). For most of his life, he coped with a terrible stutter and became an obsessive walker in order to avoid awkward social confrontations. He also became a lover of animals, since they didn't require him to talk back, and he worked in the 1950s as a lion keeper for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Since the success of his novel Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia (1969), Hoagland has written personal essays about his thoughts on go-go dancers, jury duty, mountain lions, suicide, and the loss of his eyesight.



SATURDAY, 22 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Driving Home At Night" by David Budbill, from Judevine. © Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999. Reprinted with permission of the author. (buy now)

Driving Home At Night

Midnight. Outside the car it is
15 below. A foot of new snow.
The village is deserted, dark,
except for eight street lamps
and the light in the window
at Jerry's Garage that says:
BEER.

The smell of woodsmoke seeps
into the car.

Judevine, ugliest town
in northern Vermont, except
maybe East Judevine.
Disheveled, wretched, Judevine- -
my town- -is beautiful in the night.

It is beautiful because
its couple hundred souls
have given up their fears,
their poverty and worry.
For a few hours now they know
only the oblivion of sleep
and the town lies quiet
in their ease.


Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the birthday of Thomas Higginson, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts (1823), whom we know today as the publisher of Emily Dickinson's poetry. He received a letter from Dickinson in the spring of 1862 with four of her poems asking "Mr. Higginson... Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" He read the poems, but he did not know what to make of them. After her death, he helped edit and publish her poetry, re-writing many of her verses, and making them more acceptable for society. Later, scholars would spend years undoing his changes.


It was on this day in 1964 that comedian Lenny Bruce (books by this author) was sentenced to four months in jail for obscenity. At the time, Bruce was using profanity in his stand-up routine, and he talked openly about sex and made offensive jokes about race, politics, and religion. During the trial, a police witness described Bruce's performance to the court, and Bruce claimed that the man was trying to steal his act. Dozens of artists came to Bruce's defense, including Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, and Allen Ginsberg. After the sentence, Lenny Bruce became obsessed with the trial and he gave up performing as a comedian and began reading the court transcripts to his audiences. He died two years later of a heroin overdose, still waiting to hear an appeal of his case. It wasn't until 2003 that Governor George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon.


It's the birthday of poet Kenneth Rexroth, (books by this author) born on this day in South Bend, Indiana (1905). After unsuccessfully writing poems in Chicago's West Side, Rexroth became involved in left-wing politics and traveled around the country, speaking from soapboxes horse-wrangling, sheepherding, and selling pamphlets that promised a cure for constipation. When Rexroth finally settled in San Francisco, the city was the new destination for young artists and Rexroth invited poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti over to his house. Kenneth Rexroth published more than 50 books of poetry, including The Phoenix and the Tortoise (1944) and In Defense of the Earth (1956). Rexroth once said, "Man thrives where angels would die of ecstasy and where pigs would die of disgust."


It was on this day that the French playwright Jean Racine, (books by this author) was baptized near Soissons, France. As a boy, Racine was cloistered from society in a heretical Catholic sect called the Jansenists, and he was forbidden from enjoying the smallest earthly pleasures, especially reading. When one of Racine's instructors found him reading Aethiopica, a Greek romance, he threw the book into the fire. The young boy smuggled in another copy and after he had finished it, Racine handed the book to his teacher saying, "Here, now you can burn this one, too." Jean Racine is best known for his play Phaedra (1677), based on the Greek myth about Queen Phaedra who falls in love with her stepson and commits suicide after her husband, Theseus, returns from the underworld and discovers her betrayal.

It's the birthday of Charles Stuart Calverley, (books by this author) born in Martley, Worcestershire (1831). He was said to have the kind of spark that comes along once a generation, and he was a gifted musician, athlete, and orator. He took the Oxford prize in Latin verse, which he wrote in a single afternoon. After a prank, Calverley migrated to Cambridge and he took the prize in Latin there, too. No one else has ever won both. Calverley's future was bright and he studied for a career in law, but he suffered a tremendous head injury in a skating accident and spent the rest of his life as an invalid, writing his own verse and parodies of work by others.


It's the birthday of Edwin Arlington Robinson, (books by this author) born in Head Tide, Maine (1869). His family was wealthy, and he expected a life of ease, but his father died, the family's investments in the West went bad, and his mother contracted an illness so contagious that no undertaker would touch her body. Edward and his brothers had to dress her, make the coffin, and bury her themselves. Robinson continued to write poetry unsuccessfully and he lived on the brink of starvation, until one day Kermit Roosevelt read Robinson's poems and he gave them to his father, Theodore Roosevelt, who gave him a cushy job in a Customs House. President Roosevelt told him, "I expect you to think poetry first and customs second." All Robinson had to do was show up, read the morning newspaper, and leave it on his chair to prove he had been in. This sustained him until he started to write poetry that won some praise. Edwin Arlington Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1922, the first year it was awarded. And he won it again in 1925 and 1928. By the time he died, Edwin Robinson was one of the best-known poets in the country.


It's the birthday of composer Giacomo Puccini, born in Lucca, Tuscany (1858). Puccini's four greatest operas are thought to be the last in the great Italian tradition. All begin with a love story, focus on the female lead, and all of them end tragically. They are La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904), and Turandot, which was left incomplete at Puccini's death in 1924.



SUNDAY, 23 DECEMBER, 2007
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Poem: "Call It Quits" by Freya Manfred, from Swimming With A Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle. © Red Dragonfly Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Call It Quits

If you're not a movie mogul, rock star, or President
if you're not a CEO sitting on a billion in the bank,
no on will answer your e-mails, phone calls or letters.
You'll be helpless, hopeless, too old, too young,
in too much pain, the wrong color, some unacceptable
sex, a non-believer in some religion people kill for.
You could keep struggling to see through everyone's
skin to their slick, writhing guts, including your own.
Or, you could call it quits, and slip into the unknown,
inexhaustible, frothing teeth of the sea that turns us
all to brine, sweet salt of the universe.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It is the birthday of the Father of Egyptology, Jean Francois Champollion, (books by this author) born in Figeac, France (1790). He had a gift for languages, and it is said that young Champollion could read Homer and Virgil in Greek and Latin by the time he was nine. The Frenchman was able to break the code of the famous Rosetta Stone when he discovered that each of the Egyptian hieroglyphs could represent both a sound and a concept. His translations resurrected a language that had been dead for thousands of years.


It is the birthday of one of the great champions of poetry, Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry Magazine, born in Chicago (1860). She said, "The people must grant a hearing to the best poets they have, else they will never have better." In 2002, Ruth Lilly, the pharmaceutical heiress, gave Poetry Magazine a gift of stock worth more than $100 million. Lilly had sent poems in to the magazine for years without getting published. But she kept no hard feelings, and she gave the gift because she wanted to make sure that magazine could continue well into the future.


It was on this day in 1975 that Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act and started the "go metric" campaign with school activities, bumper stickers, public service announcements, and wall charts. But in 1982, Ronald Reagan disbanded the Metric Board and canceled its funding. The metric system was developed 200 years ago, during of the Age of Reason, and is based on numeric intervals of 10, while the U.S.'s measurement system is based on seeds and body parts. Today, the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only nonmetric countries in the world.


It's the birthday of novelist Donna Tartt, (books by this author) born in Greenwood, Mississippi (1963). One of Tartt's grandfathers had the habit of giving her a mixture of whiskey and codeine whenever she had a cough, and she later said that she spent much of her childhood in a hallucinatory state. In college, she took a class from the writer Willie Morris, who she discovered cared about writing as much as she did. And she started work on her first book, The Secret History, about a group of college students who form a secret cult and wind up murdering one of their own members. It sold more than 5 million copies when it came out in 1992. Tartt was just 28 years old. She took 10 years to write her second novel, The Little Friend (2002), about a girl named Harriet who is trying to solve the mystery of her older brother's death.


It is the birthday of Samuel Smiles, (books by this author) born in Haddington, Scotland (1812). He is best known for his book Self Help (1859), which preached the ideals of hard work and was often the only book besides the Bible in Victorian homes. Self Help followed the stories of people who beat the odds, like Bernard Palissy (c.1510-1589), a 16th-century potter who threw his own furniture into the furnace to make his art, and eventually became the potter to the French throne. Samuel Smiles once said, "Probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery."


It is the birthday of poet Robert Bly, (books by this author) born in Madison, Minnesota (1926), who served in the Navy during World War II, went to Harvard University, studied Yeats, and decided he wanted to write poetry for the rest of his life. He has written over 30 books of poetry, including The Light Around the Body (1967) and Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (1987).


It is the birthday of Calder Willingham, (books by this author) born in Atlanta, Georgia (1922). Before college, Willingham was sent to the Citadel, the infamous military school in South Carolina, and he wrote about the sodomy and sadism experienced there by the cadets in his first book, End As a Man (1947). The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice sued the publisher for obscenity, which helped skyrocket sales, and Willingham went on to write even more shocking novels about sexuality: Geraldine Bradshaw (1950) and Reach to the Stars(1951).


It's the birthday of Norman Maclean, (books by this author) born in Clarinda, Iowa (1902). His family moved to Missoula, Montana, and Maclean's childhood there became the basis for his novel A River Runs Through It. The book begins, "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing... [Our Father] told us about Christ's disciples being fisherman, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fisherman on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."


On this day in 1823, an anonymous poem entitled "A Visit From St. Nicholas" was printed in the Troy (New York) Sentinel. It is known better by its first line: "'Twas the night before Christmas..." Though attributed to Clement C. Moore, it is likely that the original poem was written by Major Henry Livingston. Many of the modern qualities associated with Santa Claus grew out of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which described Santa as "chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf."



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