Jul. 3, 2006

MONDAY, 3 JULY, 2006
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Poem: "Crows" by Judith Barrington from Horses and the Human Soul. © Story Line Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Crows startle the clouds
with grievances never resolved
and warnings blurted into thin air.

Once in a while, the cries of all those who tried to survive
pour from the funnels of their throats.
No wonder we never really listen.

Like most animals, crows tell the truth:
working hard to penetrate our tiny tubular ears,
they cackle on telephone lines while we watch TV.

Once I did listen to a crow, but even when I had heard
his whole story, there was nothing I could do.
Next, I thought, I'd have to listen to squirrels and coyotes.

I like to think I deal with my share of rotten truths
but I couldn't bear to kneel down in damp grass
and listen to the hedgehog or the mole.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of humorist Dave Barry, (books by this author), born in Armonk, New York (1947). He's a columnist for the Miami Herald, and his column has been syndicated in more than 150 newspapers nationwide since 1986. He's the author of many books, including Dave Barry Is Not Taking This Sitting Down! (2000) and Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway (2003).

It's the birthday of poet William Henry Davies, born in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, in 1871, who wrote the lines, "What is this life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?" For many years, he wandered around the United States and Europe, begging and working odd jobs to support himself. He wrote about his experiences in The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908).

It's the birthday of food writer M.F.K. Fisher, (), born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan (1908). She's the author of many books about food and eating, and best known for The Gastronomical Me (1943).

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Franz Kafka, (books by this author), born in Prague (1883). His father was a self-made man who had been forced to become a peddler as a teenager, and then worked his way up to owning a shop that specialized in clothing, walking sticks, and parasols. Kafka later complained that his father drove him crazy going on and on about his own miserable childhood. Kafka wrote, "No one denies that for years, as a result of insufficient winter clothing, [my father] had open sores on his legs, that he often went hungry, that when he was only ten he had to push a cart through the villages ... but to hear all this in a boastful and quarrelsome tone is torment."

From an early age, Kafka was obsessed with his own guilt. He did well in school, but he was constantly terrified that someday the teachers would realize their mistake and give him a failing grade. At night, he came home and listened to his father pronounce judgments on all subjects and people. In a letter he later wrote to his father, but never sent, Kafka said, "From your armchair, you ruled the world. ... [And] I lost the ability to talk." Kafka grew increasingly shy, anxious, and miserable.

After law school, he got a job at an insurance company, where he was responsible for finding ways to prevent industrial accidents. He was actually quite good at it, and it's estimated that he prevented thousands of factory deaths in Prague. But he found the job exhausting. He wrote to a friend, "I have a headache from all these girls in porcelain factories who incessantly throw themselves down the stairs with mounds of dishware."

Even though he had a good job, he continued to live at home with his parents. He tried to write at night, but was constantly annoyed by the sounds his parents made in the room next door. And then, on the night of September 22, 1912, Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote nonstop, from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., finishing in one sitting a short story called "The Judgment." It's the story of a young man who announces to his father that he's going to get married, whereupon his father orders the son to drown himself in the river. The son, as though against his own will, runs out of the house and throws himself off a bridge. Kafka considered the story his first real literary success.

He would rarely write in such long stretches again, but over the next few years he began to produce the stories that made his name, including "The Metamorphosis" (1915), about a man who wakes up to find he's become a giant insect, and "In the Penal Colony," about a machine that kills criminals by inscribing the name of their crime on their skin.

It was only in the last year of his life that Kafka found happiness with a woman named Dora, whom he met at a Jewish holiday camp. People who knew him at the time said that he finally lost all his anxiety, became funny and cheerful. Once, while out for a walk with Dora, he met a little girl who was crying over a lost doll. Kafka spent the next several weeks writing letters to the girl from the lost doll, explaining where the doll had gone and what it was up to, and finally announcing that it, the doll, was getting married. Kafka wanted to get married that year too, but he died of tuberculosis. His last two novels, The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), were left unfinished.

Franz Kafka wrote, "We need the books that affect us like disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

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




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