Apr. 15, 2005

Ragged Sonnet: When in a Deep Depression

by Leonard Nathan

FRIDAY, 15 APRIL, 2005
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Poem: "Ragged Sonnet: When in a Deep Depression" by Leonard Nathan. Used with permission of the poet.

Ragged Sonnet: When in a Deep Depression

When in a deep depression of the self,
I see on every side, on every hill,
like the lit mansions of the rich, success
of others, hear the echoes loudly praise
my rivals, feel my plodding soles sink deeper
in the cold ashes of hope, and feel
the tepid drizzle of self-pity stain
my cheeks, I think of you, dear friend, who scorned
the Valium prescribed because you thought
sadness was our wise companion, shadow
of later years and not good to deny;
and then, my heart, all but reconciled
to gravity, like a wing evolved for such
short flights, beats up again. But not too high.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's is Tax Day, the day on which all of our federal tax returns are due in to the Internal Revenue Service.

Taxes have been a part of human civilization for almost as long as records have been kept. Egyptian pharaohs employed hundreds of clerks to keep track of all the property and income in every village, and more papyrus was used for tax records than for any other purpose. One Egyptian tax ledger, found by archeologists, covered a single village for about three years, and it was longer than The Iliad.

Taxes have had a significant impact on historical events over the years. Romans invented the census in order to more efficiently collect taxes from the entire empire, and according to the Gospel of Luke 2:1, "It came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." The resulting census forced Mary and Joseph to return to their hometown of Bethlehem, where according to tradition, Jesus was born in a manger.

King Charles I of England lost his head in part because he was over-fond of taxing his subjects. Many of the people guillotined during the French Revolution were privately employed tax collectors. And of course, the American Revolution itself was inspired by taxation without representation.

Almost a hundred years passed before Americans first imposed an income tax on themselves, in 1861, to help pay for the Civil War. That income tax was supposedly abolished as soon as the war ended. But mysteriously, the Bureau of Internal Revenue never shut down. In 1893, congress passed the first income tax act during peacetime, but it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. So congress amended the constitution. The 16th Amendment, authorizing the income tax, went into effect in 1913.

At first, only the very rich were taxed, about 1 percent of the population. As the government needed more money to pay for World War I and World War II, tax rates went up and the number of people paying income tax increased dramatically. Today, about 80 percent of Americans pay income tax, and the typical American pays about 27 percent of their income in taxes.

The first income tax code ever passed in Washington was 14 pages long. Today it fills 4 volumes, with 20 volumes of additional regulations and instructions. Americans spend more than 5.4 billion hours each year filling out their income tax forms, more hours than it takes to build all the cars that are produced each year in the United States.

Will Rogers said, "The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf." Ogden Nash wrote, "Indoors or out, no one relaxes / In March, that month of wind and taxes, / The wind will presently disappear, / The taxes last us all the year."

It's the birthday of the novelist Henry James, born in New York City (1843). His first memory was an image of a monument to Napoleon as his family traveled by carriage through Paris, and though he was an American, he always loved Europe and spent most of his life living there.

At some point in his childhood, he was injured, possibly in a fire. He never said much about it to his friends, except that the injury was "horrid," but some scholars have suggested that perhaps he was scarred in some way, which would explain why he never had a single love affair with anyone. As far as we know, he died without ever having even received a romantic kiss.

Since he had no family of his own, and no lovers to pursue, he had all the more time to devote to his writing. In his lifetime, he wrote almost 10 million words of fiction and non-fiction, including Daisy Miller (1878), Washington Square (1880) and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which many consider his masterpiece. It's the story of Isabel Archer, an American heiress who travels to Europe, trying to make a life for herself without a husband, only to find herself falling in love with a man named Gilbert Osmond. It begins, "Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

The one literary art form James never mastered was the play. In his lifetime, plays were a much more popular form of entertainment than novels, and James spent years trying to write a successful play himself.

James finally produced a historical play called Guy Domville (1895), but on opening night, instead of going to his own play, he attended a play by his rival Oscar Wilde. He made it back to his own play just as it had finished, and went out on stage at the curtain call, and the audience booed him off the stage. After that embarrassment, he wrote in his notebook, "I take up my own old pen again—the pen of all my old unforgettable efforts and sacred struggles." He gave up on theater after that and devoted his pen to novels.

Henry James wrote, "I'm that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility."

And, "Without [literature], for me, the world would be, indeed, a howling desert."

It's the birthday of Leonardo da Vinci, born in the Republic of Florence (1452). He only finished a few paintings in his life, including The Last Supper (1495-98) and Mona Lisa (c. 1503-06). He worked very slowly. A monk who watched him paint The Last Supper said he often showed up, stared at his half finished painting for a while, and then went home for the day, without painting anything. He kept the Mona Lisa with him for most of his life, working on it now and again, and then taking breaks for years.

But his notebooks overflowed with ideas about architecture and technology of all kinds. Even the doodle pictures of parachutes he drew in the margin of his notes turned out to be technically perfect designs. He made architectural sketches of churches that looked like seashells or blossoming flowers, none of which got built, because they were too impractical. Most of his ideas were too ambitious for the tools that existed at the time.

Leonardo's notebooks are full of one sentence, repeated again and again, and scholars believe he wrote it whenever he was testing out a newly cut pen. That sentence was, "Tell me, tell me if anything got finished."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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