Aug. 30, 2007

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Poem: "Psalm" by Stuart Kestenbaum, from Prayers & Run-on Sentences. © Deerbrook Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)


The only psalm I had memorized was the 23rd
and now I find myself searching for the order
of the phrases knowing it ends with surely
goodness and mercy will follow me
all the days of my life and I will dwell
in the house of the Lord forever only I remember
seeing a new translation from the original Hebrew
and forever wasn't forever but a long time
which is different from forever although
even a long time today would be
good enough for me even a minute entering
the House would be good enough for me,
even a hand on the door or dropping today's
newspaper on the stoop or looking in the windows
that are reflecting this morning's clouds in first light.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of physicist Ernest Rutherford, (books by this author) born in Spring Grove, New Zealand (1871). He was one of the first scientists to study nuclear energy, before scientists actually knew what it was. He discovered that radioactivity is caused by particles breaking apart and releasing pieces of themselves. He also discovered that atoms are made of a nucleus that is surrounded by electrons.

He believed that physics was the most important science. He once said, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." But in 1908, he won the Nobel Prize, not for Physics but for Chemistry.

It's the birthday of the late political humorist Molly Ivins, (books by this author) born in Monterey, California (1944), but she grew up in Houston, Texas. She got started as a journalist at the Houston Chronicle in the 1960s, at a time when, she said, "[newspaper offices were] full of spittoons and pictures of naked ladies, and the good old boys sitting around drinking Cutty Sark out of coffee cups with their hats on the backs of their heads. [Journalism] really wasn't a respectable thing to do. Of course, that made it very attractive to me."

She went on to become a political columnist at The Dallas Times-Herald. She said, "Politics ought to be covered the way sports is, as a celebration of heroes and villains. It is ... the world's most fascinatin' poker game." She went on to publish many collections of her columns, including You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You: Politics in the Clinton Years (1998) and Who Let the Dogs In?: Incredible Political Animals I Have Known (2004). She died this past January 31, 2007.

Molly Ivins said, "I dearly love the state of Texas, but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part, and discuss it only with consenting adults."

It was on this day in 1904 that Henry James visited the United States after living for most of his adult life in Europe. He had gone to live in Europe as a young man and hadn't seen the United States in more than 25 years. He sailed into New York Harbor on this day in 1904, and he was amazed at how modern the city had become. When he'd last seen New York, the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge had been the highest points of the city. Since then, the invention of the elevator had made it feasible to construct extraordinarily tall buildings. James wrote, "The multitudinous sky-scrapers [were] like extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted.

But he found that the city was so different from the one he remembered that he almost didn't recognize it. When he went to find the house where he'd grown up, it was gone, having been demolished by the expanding New York University. He remembered a church being built near his house when he was a kid, but that church was gone too. New buildings were being constructed all over the city, and it seemed to James that all the new buildings were uglier than the old buildings. He began to think of America as a place where all the glorious traditions of the past were being destroyed in favor of the new. A few years later, he wrote to his sister-in-law, "Dearest Alice, I could come back to America (could be carried on a stretcher) to die — but never, never to live."

It's the birthday of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, born Mary Godwin in London, England (1797). Her father was a philosopher, and he frequently had other intellectuals and writers over to the house. Mary often overheard the conversations her father had with friends like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One night in 1806, she hid under the parlor sofa to hear Coleridge recite his famous poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Mary was 15 years old when the poet Percy B. Shelley first visited her father. He was married at the time, but after dining at the house for several months, he and Mary fell in love. They went for walks every day and often stopped at her mother's grave. When her father found out about the relationship, he forbade Shelley to ever come to his house again. Percy Shelley attempted suicide, and when he recovered, Mary ran away with him to France.

Mary and Percy Shelly's first child was born prematurely and died. A few nights after the baby's death, Mary had a dream that her baby had come back to life. She wrote in her journal, "It had only been cold and ... we rubbed it before the fire and it lived." Scholars believe that dream was the first inspiration for Mary's novel Frankenstein, which came out in 1818, about a scientist named Victor Frankenstein who manages to construct a living human being from body parts of the dead. But when he rejects the creature as an abomination, it destroys his life by murdering all the people he loves.

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