May 3, 2010

The Speaker

by Louis Jenkins

The speaker points out that we don't really have
much of a grasp of things, not only the big things,
the important questions, but the small everyday
things. "How many steps up to your back yard? What
is the name of your district representative? What
did you have for breakfast? What is your wife's
shoe size? Can you tell me the color of your
sweetheart's eyes? Do you remember where you
parked the car?" The evidence is overwhelming.
Most of us never truly experience life. "We drift
through life in daydream, missing the true
richness and joy that life has to offer." When the
speaker has finished we gather around to sing
a few inspirational songs. You and I stand at the
back of the group and hum along since we have
forgotten most of the words.

"The Speaker" by Louis Jenkins, from Before You Know It: Prose Poems 1970-2005. © Will O' The Wisp Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the 91st birthday of folk singer Pete Seeger, born in New York City (1919). The first time he heard the sound of a banjo at the Folk Song and Dance Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, he fell in love with folk music. He dropped out of Harvard and rode the rails across America in the middle of the Great Depression.

When he heard about the collection of folk music recordings at the Library of Congress, Seeger got a job as an assistant there, classifying records. He also spent much of his free time listening to those recordings. He eventually began to tag along with Alan Lomax on expeditions around the country to record folk songs. And then, in 1940, Lomax introduced Seeger to an up-and-coming folk singer named Woody Guthrie. Guthrie invited Seeger to go on the road with him, and they began traveling around, putting on impromptu performances in migrant labor camps and entertaining striking workers in the oil fields of Oklahoma. They became increasingly controversial because they wrote anti-war songs at a time when the country was gearing up to get involved in World War II.

It's the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli, (books by this author) born in Florence, Italy (1469). He got into politics after Florence formed a semi-democratic government. By the time he was 30, he became the secretary to Florence's governing council, which meant he was the most influential bureaucrat in the city.

Then, at the height of Machiavelli's career, the influential Medici family took power in Florence, overthrowing the elected city council and purging the government of enemies. Machiavelli's name was put on a list of anti-Medici conspirators. He lost his government position, and then the authorities arrested him and threw him in a dungeon, where he was tortured for 22 days.

He decided that the only way to get his life back was to offer some kind of gift to the Medici family, and the thing he had to give was his knowledge of politics. So he holed up in his tiny villa just outside of Florence and set out to write a handbook, incorporating everything he knew about being an effective ruler in a dangerous and volatile world. It took him just a few months to complete his book in 1513, and that was The Prince, the book for which he is remembered today. Despite Machiavelli's hopes, The Prince didn't win over the Medicis. A few years later, a new republic was established in Italy, but Machiavelli's name had already become so associated with evil and violence that he wasn't able to get another government job for the rest of his life.

It's the birthday of the poet, essayist and novelist May Sarton, (books by this author) born in Wondelgem, Belgium (1912). She spent eight years during the Great Depression struggling to become an actress, and then her theater company went out of business.

She went on to write many books of poetry, as well as many novels, but none of her books were best-sellers, and none got much attention. Then in 1965, she published her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), the story of an elderly lesbian poet looking back on her life. She developed a huge cult following.

It's been exactly 200 years since Lord Byron swam across the Hellespont, on May 3rd, 1810. The Hellespont, now called the Dardanelles, is a strait connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, an inland sea in Turkey — another strait, the Bosporus, continues out of the Sea of Marmara and into the Black Sea. Together the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus form a waterway that separates Europe from Asia.

So by swimming across the Hellespont, Lord Byron became the first known person to swim from Europe to Asia. According to Greek mythology, the lovers Hero and Leander lived on opposite sides of the strait — Leander on the Asian side, and Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, on the European side. Every night, Leander would swim across the strait to see his lover, who hung up a lantern to guide him. Byron was inspired by this story. He loved to swim. And he was 22 years old, on the Grand Tour that many young men undertook.

In its narrowest spot, the Hellespont is only about a kilometer across, or .62 miles. But because of the strong current, it isn't possible to swim straight across, and the swim is about four and a half kilometers, or 2.8 miles. Byron did the breast stroke the whole way, and it took him an hour and 10 minutes. But even though it wasn't very far, it was the first famous open-water swim, and the first swim from Europe to Asia, and Byron's feat was glorified. He certainly contributed to his own glorification — for one thing, he told his servant than when people asked, he should say the distance was three and a half miles.

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




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