Apr. 9, 2010


by Kate DiCamillo

Lux desiderium

light is the desire
of the universe; tonight
the moon
is on its side, partially lit,
and patiently waiting
for more light, while
Lucinda sings
that if wishes
were horses
she'd have a ranch; and
in an old storefront on 38th
the windows are bright
with the people inside
to dance; the
street lamps shine on
November's last
stubborn leaves.

The dancers
are moving their mouths,
counting and wishing,
with each breath for
I don't know
horses, maybe,
or more light,
or something
that will stay.

"Horses" by Kate DiCamillo. Reprinted with permission from the author. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1833 that America's first tax-supported public library opened, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Today, there are more than 9,000 public libraries in the United States, including the Peterborough Town Library, which is still going strong.

Jorge Luis Borges said, "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."

Dr. Samuel Johnson said, "No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library."

It was on this day in 1859, after two years of apprenticeship, that 23-year-old Samuel Clemens was granted his steamboat pilot license. He was a pilot for two years, until the Civil War stopped traffic on the Mississippi River. And a couple of years after that, working as a reporter in Nevada, he signed a travel account by the pen name "Mark Twain." (books by this author) It was a name he picked up from life on the river, where "mark twain" was used to signify the depth at which it was safe to pilot a steamboat. He wrote later, "If I have seemed to love my subject, it is no surprising thing, for I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since, and I took a measureless pride in it."

It's the birthday of poet Charles Baudelaire, (books by this author) born in Paris (1821). His father died and his mother remarried a man he couldn't stand, who sent him off to military school, but he got kicked out right before graduation. He inherited a small fortune, but he spent so much on clothes, entertainment, and drugs that soon he had squandered half of it. His family took away what was left and doled it out in small, regular increments. So he started writing to make money — essays, criticism, and translations. Although he is remembered as a poet, he only published one book of poems, Les fleurs du mal (1857, The Flowers of Evil). He died at the age of 46, probably from syphilis.

It was on this day in 1865 that General Robert E. Lee and General Ulysses S. Grant met in Appomattox Court House, and Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, effectively ending the American Civil War. The generals met at the home of Wilmer McLean.

A few years earlier, McLean had lived with his family in Manassas, Virginia, and the first major battle of Bull Run had been fought on his farm there. He moved farther south, near Appomattox Court House, to better serve the Confederate Army as a wholesale grocer. By total coincidence, Generals Lee and Grant chose Appomattox Court House to discuss the terms of surrender, and when they sent an aide ahead to ask the first citizen on the street for a house where they could talk, it happened to be Wilmer McLean, who eventually had to offer his own home. After Lee surrendered, Union officers swept through the house, determined to have a piece of history — they offered to buy everything, and what he refused to sell they just stole (many people, McLean's family included, say they stole everything). Pieces were taken from his sofa, the cane on his chairs was cut up and parceled out, and his property was destroyed for a second time.

It's the birthday of scientist Gregory Pincus, born in Woodbine, New Jersey (1903). He was a successful teacher at Harvard, doing research on sexual physiology in mammals, but his career floundered after he completed in-vitro fertilization of rabbits in 1934. In-vitro fertilization was a new technique, and the general public was horrified by the idea of test-tube babies. Pincus lost his position at Harvard. A friend got him a position at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, but he still had to work as a janitor to supplement his income.

In 1951, he met Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, and she realized that he could be a good choice to explore the possibilities of human contraceptives. She secured a grant for Pincus and his co-worker, Min-Chueh Chang, and they did research to confirm that excessive amounts of the hormone progesterone worked to stop ovulation. From there, they created the first birth control pills, which were approved by the USDA in 1960.

It's the birthday of Hugh Hefner, born in Chicago (1926). He wanted to start his own magazine, so he raised $8,000 — $600 of which he borrowed from a bank using the furniture from his apartment as collateral. He put together an issue of Playboy in his kitchen, and he wasn't sure if he would ever have enough money to print a second, but when the first issue came out in 1953 featuring Marilyn Monroe on the cover, it sold more than 50,000 copies.

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