Jul. 24, 2008

The Good Nights

by Joseph Mills

On the good nights
when the bottle's empty
we always want
just a little more,
half a glass,
a few sips,
a taste.
We know
this desire
can be dangerous
to pursue,
that it can make
mornings difficult,
so usually we
brush our teeth
let the dog in,
lock the doors,
but sometimes,
even as we say
We really should
get ready for bed,
instead of loading
the dishwasher
we will search
for the corkscrew,
all the while
shaking our heads
in wonder
at this willingness
to ignore the clocks
and the fact we have
to work tomorrow,
this irresponsibility,
this evidence
even after all these years
of the unquenchable desire
for each other's company.

"The Good Nights" by Joseph Mills from Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers: Wine Poems. © Press 53, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the famous aviator Amelia Earhart, born in Atchison, Kansas (1898). She had been studying medicine when she went to her first air show in California, and it was there that she decided to become a pilot.

It's the birthday of Robert Graves, (books by this author) born in Wimbledon, England (1895). He fought in World War I. Graves spent much of the war in the trenches, amid mud, mustard gas, and corpses. In one battle he was wounded badly and the London Newspapers reported that he was dead. Someone showed him a copy of his own obituary, and Graves decided that he had been spared from death in order to write poetry. In just five years, between 1920 and 1925, he wrote three books of criticism, a ballad opera, a novel, a satire on contemporary poets, and half-dozen volumes of poetry, and also his memoir Goodbye to All That (1929), about his childhood and his experiences in the war. It turned out to be a huge best seller, and he was able to live off his writing for the rest of his life.

It's the birthday of Zelda Fitzgerald, (books by this author) born Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama (1900). She was the wife and muse of the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda wrote some fiction too, including the novel Save Me the Waltz (1932), but some of her best writing was in her letters, which were quoted by her husband. He also quoted things that she had said in his writing. And most of his major female characters were based on her, including Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (1925). Zelda wrote a letter to his family in White Bear, Minnesota after F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940. She wrote: "So many years have passed since summers lost themselves in the green valley of White Bear and time floated immutable and eternal above the blue sleek surface of the lake. ... Always we hoped to some day be able to offer testimonial to the courtesies that were extended us; from so many kind hearts, in so many lonesome places. ... Now that [Scott] won't be coming east again with his pockets full of promises and his notebooks full of schemes and new refurbished hope, life doesn't offer as happy a vista. ... Life has a way of closing its books as soon as one's category is fulfilled; and I suppose the time has come. ... If when things have resolved themselves more tangibly, I want to know how to find my way about the bread-line, I will write you — Don't forget me."

It's the birthday of historian Richard Morris, (books by this author) born in New York City (1904). He wrote prolifically about the history of revolutionary America, the labor movement, the constitution, and New York.

He had a special interest in the lives of the Founding Fathers and wrote biographies of several. Once, when asked which Founding Father would be "most at home" in contemporary America, he said it would be Benjamin Franklin, "because he was a scientist, urban, cosmopolitan, and resilient." He thought George Washington, "as an engineer, technocrat, and man of affairs, would enjoy himself," but he thought that Jefferson, Madison, and Adams would find a lot of things wrong with modern American society and would not fit in so well.

In 1961, he wrote a New York Times Magazine article analyzing past presidents' senses of humor. Lincoln, Kennedy, and Teddy Roosevelt received the highest rankings from him.

During the Nixon administration he wrote, "We no longer have men in public life of the stature of our Founding Fathers. The impact of immediacy created by TV has placed a premium not on reflection and reason, but on the glib answer and the bland statement. The politician is concerned with public relations, not with public principles. In the founding of the nation we needed charismatic figures, but today we could do with honest ones. In Harding's time, they stole national assets; at Watergate, they tried to steal the country."

A few years later, on the nation's 200th birth year in 1976, someone asked him if American democracy could withstand another century "without traumatic change." He responded that he was "cautiously optimistic" and said, "We are now in an interdependent world, where we are not completely masters of our own destiny. ... I think that democracy can survive in a world at peace, but our system would be drastically altered, if not imperiled, if we were to face years of war."

One of his best-known books is The Peacemakers: The Great Powers and American Independence (1965), in which he tells the story of the Founding Fathers' negotiation of the peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and gave birth to the U.S. He argues that John Jay, who later became the nation's first chief justice, played the chief role in negotiating the treaty, and he says that Benjamin Franklin's role in the negotiations was not as great as had generally been believed. He called the peacemakers "an extraordinary band of vibrant, subtle, prideful, and complex human beings, who tried to bend, or shape, or stretch, but, most of all, to dominate their world according to the set of national interests to which they were devoted."

In The Emerging Nations and the American Revolution (1970), he wrote that Americans ignore "the liberation currents" that their revolution "set off throughout the world," and that this "parochial" and misconceived view held by Americans has been encouraged "by historians of revolutions who have rather consistently downgraded the American and hailed the French or the Russian or the Chinese as the transforming event of the modern world. The facts, as they are adduced in this book, do not support this assessment ... it was the American War for Independence that inaugurated the Age of Revolutions which has still not come to an end."

He beseeches Americans to keep "their revolutionary tradition and its egalitarian ideals" and apply them to fixing problems within the nation and abroad.

He edited numerous volumes of Chief Justice John Jay's papers, as well as the New American Nation series, which consisted of 40 volumes, and the Encyclopedia of American History, first published in 1953 and revised continually over the next 30 years. He wrote two college textbooks on American history. He also wrote Government and Labor in Early America (1946), John Jay, the Nation and the Court (1967), Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny (1973), and The Forging of the Union 1781-1789 (1987).

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