Jan. 1, 2010

Adding It Up

by Philip Booth

My mind's eye opens before
the light gets up. I
lie awake in the small dark,
figuring payments, or how
to scrape paint; I count
rich women I didn't marry.
I measure bicycle miles
I pedaled last Thursday
to take off weight; I give some
passing thought to the point
that if I hadn't turned poet
I might well be some other
sort of accountant. Before
the sun reports its own weather
my mind is openly at it:
I chart my annual rainfall,
or how I'll plant seed if
I live to be fifty. I look up
words like "bilateral symmetry"
in my mind's dictionary; I consider
the bivalve mollusk, re-pick
last summer's mussels on Condon Point,
preview the next red tide, and
hold my breath: I listen hard
to how my heart valves are doing.
I try not to get going
too early: bladder permitting,
I mean to stay in bed until six;
I think in spirals, building
horizon pyramids, yielding to
no man's flag but my own.
I think a lot of Saul Steinberg:
I play touch football on one leg,
I seesaw on the old cliff, trying
to balance things out: job,
wife, children, myself.
My mind's eye opens before
my body is ready for its
first duty: cleaning up after
an old-maid Basset in heat.
That, too, I inventory:
the Puritan strain will out,
even at six a.m.; sun or no sun,
I'm Puritan to the bone, down to
the marrow and then some:
if I'm not sorry I worry,
if I can't worry I count.

"Adding It Up" by Philip Booth, from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999. © Viking Penguin, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is New Year's Day. Various New Year traditions have been celebrated for a long time — the earliest recorded celebration was in about 2000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, where the new year was celebrated in mid-March, around the time of the vernal equinox. Iranians and Balinese still celebrate the new year with the spring equinox. The Chinese New Year is based around the lunar cycles, and it can fall between late January and late February. In Europe, the Celtic New Year began on November 1st, after the harvest.

The first time that New Year's Day was celebrated on January 1st was in 45 B.C., when Caesar redid the Roman calendar. He based it on the sun instead of the moon (like the Egyptians), added some days to the year, and declared every January 1st the start of the new year. But Caesar had subtly miscalculated the length of the solar year, and declared an extra day in February every four years, which turned out to be slightly too often, so that by the Middle Ages the calendar was about 10 days off. It wasn't until the 1570s that the calendar was finally refined with leap years in the correct places, and since then, January 1st has been celebrated as New Year's Day.

"Auld Lang Syne" has become a classic song for ringing in the New Year. The Scottish poet Robert Burns (books by this author) heard an old man sing "Auld Lang Syne" in rural Scotland, and he revised it, added verses, and published it as a poem in 1796. He said, "There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul." But "Auld Lang Syne" didn't gain prominence as a New Year's song until 1929, when the bandleader Guy Lombardo played it at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City, and it became an American tradition.

It's the birthday of the British novelist E.M. Forster, (books by this author) born in London in 1879.

Forster only published five novels during his lifetime, and four of those were published within five years — Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room With a View (1908), and Howards End (1910). After Howards End,E.M. Forster stopped writing fiction for a while, did some more traveling, and 14 years later, he published what many people consider his masterpiece: A Passage to India (1924).

It's the birthday of novelist J.D. Salinger, (books by this author) born Jerome David Salinger in New York (1919). Young Jerome was called Sonny as a boy. His father made a good living importing kosher cheese, and the family did so well that they managed to afford an apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Salinger was sent off to Valley Forge Military Academy, and then went to three colleges and dropped out of all of them. But at Columbia University, he took a class with Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine, and he encouraged Salinger to write stories.

It was on this day in 1863 that Daniel Freeman filed the first claim for a homestead under the Homestead Act. Abraham Lincoln had approved the act in May of 1862, making it possible for anyone who was at least 21 years old or the head of a household to file a claim for a homestead of 160 acres outside the 13 colonies. It only cost $18 worth of fees, as long as you lived on it for five years, built a house, and farmed at least 10 acres.

Daniel Freeman is generally accepted as the first person to file a claim. The law went into effect on January 1, 1863, and Freeman convinced someone in the local land office to let him file a claim at 12:10 a.m. He claimed his land near Beatrice in south-central Nebraska.

In 1864, he began exchanging letters with a woman named Agnes from LeClaire, Iowa. Agnes had been engaged to Daniel's brother James, but James had died when both brothers were fighting for the Union in the Civil War. So Agnes and Daniel started exchanging letters — initially, they addressed each other as "Miss Agnes" and "Brother Dan," but soon they started calling each other "Friend Agnes" and "Friend Daniel." After months of letter-writing, they were married, and Agnes came to live with Daniel on his homestead near Beatrice. They had eight children, some of whom built their own homes on the original 160 acres.

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




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