May 20, 2003

Certain People

by Richard Jones

TUESDAY, 20 MAY 2003
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Poem: "Certain People," by Richard Jones from Country of Air (Copper Canyon Press).

Certain People

My father lives by the ocean
and drinks his morning coffee
in the full sun on his deck,
talking to anyone
who walks by on the beach.
And in the afternoons he works
part-time at the golf course--
sailing the fairways like sea captain
in a white golf cart.
My father must talk
to a hundred people a day,
yet we haven't spoken in weeks.
As I get older, we hardly speak at all.
It's as if he were a stranger
and we had never met.
I wonder, if I
were a tourist on the beach
or a golfer lost in woods
and met him now for the very first time,
what we'd say to each other,
how his hand would feel in mine
as we introduced ourselves,
and if, as is the case
with certain people, I'd feel,
when I looked him in the eye,
I'd known him all my life.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of author Honoré de Balzac, born in Tours, France (1799). Despite being called the Charles Dickens of France, his early life was haunted by failure. He worked feverishly, often writing 14 hours a day, taking a short nap, and then writing the rest of the night with the help of strong Parisian coffee. By the time he was 29 years old, he had no success as a writer and was living under an enormous burden of debt, which had built up from a number of failed business ventures. Between 1830 and 1832 he published Scenes from Private Life, a series of novelettes which finally brought him literary attention. In 1833, Balzac decided to draw his old and new novels together through recurring characters and themes, to present a unified picture of French life. He called this project The Human Comedy and undertook it with great energy. At the end of his life, The Human Comedy encompassed over 90 novels and novellas and included over 2,000 named characters. They were so vivid in Balzac's imagination that his characters often entered into his daily life.

It's the birthday of philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill in Pentonville, London (1806). He had a strict and rigorous education at the hand of his father. By the time he was 8 years old, John had read Aesop's Fables in the original Greek and was beginning to study Latin. His schooling began to take its toll, however, and when he was 20, he had an emotional breakdown. When he had recovered, he realized that poetry and the arts were a necessary part of human life as well, and he began reading the work of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Goethe with zeal. He wrote On Liberty in 1859, expressing his fear that bold and freethinking people were becoming all too rare. He is also well known for his book Utilitarianism (1863), where he argued that the aim of all actions should be the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He said, "Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness." Mill idolized his wife Harriet Taylor, whom he married in 1851, and held the then radical position that women should be given the same social and political freedoms as men. He said, "If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

It's the birthday of Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, born in Kallundborg, Denmark in 1882. Her first novel, Mrs. Marta Oulie, was published in 1907 while she was still working as an office secretary. The first line was, "I have been unfaithful to my husband," and the critics were scandalized. She was deeply interested in medieval life of Scandinavia and wrote historical novels set in the 13th and 14th centuries. In 1928, she became one of only nine women to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. At the onset of World War II, she joined the Norwegian resistance and was an outspoken opponent of the Nazi party. Her political views forced her to flee the country in 1940 and before she left, she donated her Nobel Prize gold medal for aid to the Finns. She lived in exile in the United States until 1945. After returning to her home in Lillehammer, she never wrote another word.

On this day, the Homestead Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln (1862). The Homestead Act granted 160 acres of land to anyone who was the head of a household and at least 21 years old. In return, the homesteader agreed to live on the land for 5 years. It was a milestone in the settling of the American West. Most homesteaders were seasoned farmers from the crowded East or Europe. By 1900, over 600,000 claims had been made for 80 million acres of land.

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