Dec. 17, 2006


by Louis Simpson

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Poem: "Chocolates" by Louis Simpson from The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001. © BOA Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


Once some people were visiting Chekhov.
While they made remarks about his genius
the Master fidgeted. Finally
he said, "Do you like chocolates?"

They were astonished, and silent.
He repeated the question,
whereupon one lady plucked up her courage
and murmured shyly, "Yes."

"Tell me," he said, leaning forward,
light glinting from his spectacles,
"what kind? The light, sweet chocolate
or the dark, bitter kind?"

The conversation became general
They spoke of cherry centers,
of almonds and Brazil nuts.
Losing their inhibitions
they interrupted one another.
For people may not know what they think
about politics in the Balkans,
or the vexed question of men and women,

but everyone has a definite opinion
about the flavor of shredded coconut.
Finally someone spoke of chocolates filled with liqueur,
and everyone, even the author of Uncle Vanya,
was at a loss for words.

As they were leaving he stood by the door
and took their hands.

                                In the coach returning to Petersburg
they agreed that it had been a most
unusual conversation.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Nobody is sure exactly when Ludwig van Beethoven was born, but he was baptized on this day in the city of Bonn, which would eventually become part of Germany (1770). His father was inspired by the example of Mozart to try to turn Beethoven into a musical prodigy at a young age. Beethoven managed to publish his first piece of music when he was just 12.

He became known as one of the greatest pianists of the age, and it was his fame at the piano that led him to the aristocratic circles in Vienna. At the time, the Viennese aristocracy were obsessed with music, and Beethoven began performing in their drawing rooms and ballrooms, demonstrating his genius for improvisation.

But then, in 1798, just three years after his first public appearance as a pianist in Vienna, Beethoven began to hear a persistent ringing in his ears. No one knows exactly what caused it. It could have been typhus or possibly syphilis. But whatever the reason, as his hearing got worse, he realized that he would soon lose the ability to play the piano. At the time, he considered taking his life, but he later said, "Only Art held [me] back; for it seemed unthinkable for me to leave the world forever before I had produced all that I felt called upon to produce."

So Beethoven threw himself into composing. He continued to perform occasionally on the piano for more than a decade, but he gradually became more famous for his compositions than for his performances. He did most of his composing between the months of May and October, when he retired to one of the rural villages outside of Vienna, and most of his ideas came to him on long walks through the countryside.

Just before he turned 40, a small group of princes and archdukes agreed to give him an annual salary with no conditions attached. The arrangement made Beethoven more independent than almost any composer before him. At that point he'd already completed his famous Eroica Symphony and his Fifth Symphony.

Some critics believe his masterpiece was the Ninth Symphony. When it premiered in Vienna on May 7, 1824, Beethoven was completely deaf.

On this day in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright took off on the world's first airplane flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. This day in 1903 began with gray skies and sharp wind. Orville said years later that he should have realized it was much too dangerous to fly in that weather. But they had already waited several days for the right flying conditions, and they wanted to get home before Christmas.

Orville went first and he got about 10 feet off the ground, and landed almost immediately. The brothers made two more attempts, and still they barely got anywhere. Then Wilbur tried again, and suddenly, he took off into the air. He flew straight into the wind for nearly a full minute, covering 852 feet. When he landed, the rudder frame was cracked, which would take months to repair, but they had made their first successful flight.

No journalists attended the event. The Wright Brothers hired an amateur photographer to take a single photograph that day, which he did while the plane was only 10 feet off the ground. When it leaked to the press, most major newspapers refused to run the story, assuming that it was a hoax. It wasn't until Wilbur flew a plane over Manhattan six years later that most people finally accepted the fact that the Wright Brothers really had invented the first airplane.

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