Dec. 16, 2002

Close Call

by X. J. Kennedy

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Poem: "Close Call," by X.J. Kennedy from The Lords of Misrule (The Johns Hopkins University Press).

Close Call

How suddenly she roused my ardor,
That woman with wide-open car door
Who, with a certain languid Sapphic
Grace into brisk rush-hour traffic
Stepped casually. I tromped the brake,
Her lips shaped softly, "My mistake."
Then for a moment as I glided
By, our glances coincided
And I drove off, whole rib cage filled
With joy at having not quite killed.

It is the birthday of two science fiction writers: Philip K. Dick, born in Chicago, Illinois (1928), and Sir Arthur C(harles) Clarke, born in Minehead, Somerset, (1917), who wrote the short story from which the movie 2001 was made.

It's the birthday of Piet Hein, born in Copenhagen (1905). He was a physicist who defined a shape no one had ever explored before, the "super-ellipse," an oval which approached a rectangle, and which lent itself to a variety of uses. Hein also wrote thousands of short, aphoristic poems he called "grooks": "Problems/worthy of attack/prove their worth/by hitting back."

It's the birthday of anthropologist Margaret Mead, born in Philadelphia (1901). She wrote Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), the best-selling anthropology book for a popular audience ever written. She said that Samoan girls did not go through the same tortured teenaged years as girls in the United States did, and suggested that relaxed sexual attitudes might be responsible.

It's the birthday of V[ictor] S[awdon] Pritchett, born in Suffolk (1900), a critic and essayist and short story writer who published right up until his death at the age of ninety-seven.

It's the birthday of Sir Noël Coward, born in Teddington, England (1899). He wrote Private Lives (1930), and Blithe Spirit (1941).

It's the birthday of George Santayana, born in Madrid (1863), the author of dozens of books of philosophy and poetry. He said, "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there." He taught at Harvard, where he was a magnificent success, but he despised being a professor -- he hated the meetings and administrative duties -- and he resigned: "I would rather beg than be one," he said. One day while he was teaching he looked out the window and saw a forsythia beginning to blossom. He stopped his lecture, picked up his gloves, hat, and walking stick, and said, "Gentlemen, I shall not be able to finish that sentence. I have just discovered that I have an appointment with April." Every university in the English-speaking world offered him his choice of posts, but he refused them all. He spent the last years of his life in Italy.

It's the birthday of Jane Austen, born in Steventon, England (1775). She wrote Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813), which began with the line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Her writing was a general source of shame and embarrassment to her family. She had no private place to work, and did the writing and revision of her novels in a large sitting room, where people came and went all day. She concealed her activities from everyone but her immediate family, including the servants, by using very small pieces of writing paper that could be covered up quickly when someone entered the room.

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