Feb. 2, 2011

Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom

by Dorothy Parker

Daily dawns another day;
I must up, to make my way.
Though I dress and drink and eat,
Move my fingers and my feet,
Learn a little, here and there,
Weep and laugh and sweat and swear,
Hear a song, or watch a stage,
Leave some words upon a page,
Claim a foe, or hail a friend—
Bed awaits me at the end.

Though I go in pride and strength,
I'll come back to bed at length.
Though I walk in blinded woe,
Back to bed I'm bound to go.
High my heart, or bowed my head,
All my days but lead to bed.
Up, and out, and on; and then
Ever back to bed again,
Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall—
I'm a fool to rise at all!

"Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom" by Dorothy Parker, from The Poetry & Short Stories of Dorothy Parker. © The Modern Library, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1709 that the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk was rescued from an island where he had been marooned for four years. Ten years later, Selkirk was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's (books by this author) popular novel Robinson Crusoe.

Selkirk was born Alexander Selcraig in a tiny fishing village in Scotland. His father had a tannery and made shoes for a living; he wanted his son to stay home and do the same. But his mother thought Alex, the seventh son, was special, and should be allowed to do whatever he wanted. What he wanted to do was go to sea. His whole family got into a fight about it but when he was 19 years old, he left. He was a headstrong, quick-tempered young man — on one trip home he managed to beat up his father, two brothers, and his sister-in-law, all because one brother had laughed at him.

When he was in his late 20s, Selkirk got a job as a "privateer," which was basically a pirate sanctioned by the British monarchy. Privateers were sent to terrorize and loot Spanish and Portuguese ships, trying to bring home as much wealth as possible. Selkirk's boss was Captain William Dampier. Dampier was a raging alcoholic who was sometimes completely incompetent; but his observations in natural history inspired Darwin, he introduced more than a thousand words into written English, he made advances in navigation technology, and he circumnavigated the world three times.

In 1703, Dampier set out for South America as the captain of a ship named St. George. The St. George was accompanied by a second, smaller ship, Cinque Ports, captained by Charles Pickering. Selkirk's job was to serve as sailing master of Cinque Ports, meaning that he was in charge of navigation. The voyage started out on a bad foot — Dampier got in a fight with a sailor the first night, and so from the beginning, the crew mistrusted their superiors. Disease spread quickly through the crew — men died of cholera, dysentery, typhus, and scurvy. Then Captain Pickering got sick and died, and Cinque Ports was handed over to an arrogant, wealthy 21-year-old named Thomas Stradling, whom everyone on the crew intensely disliked. Stradling and Dampier hated each other, too. Conditions were miserable, with moldy bedding and rodent-infested food the norm. And the ships were battered by the rough seas around Cape Horn. It took four attempts to make it around Cape Horn, and after the third time Selkirk advised they turn back — they were damaging the ship and the crew was mutinous. But Stradling insisted they push ahead, and the fourth time they made it. Off the west coast of South America, the two ships parted ways.

In October of 1704, about a year after they had left Britain, the Cinque Ports sighted three islands. Those islands are the Juan Fernández Archipelago, about 400 miles off the coast of Chile, and are now officially named Robinson Crusoe, Alejandro Selkirk, and Santa Clara. More than a century earlier, a Spanish sailor named Juan Fernández had come across the islands, and thought they were so beautiful that he wanted to make his home there. He came back a second time with some goats, but never again. When the Cinque Ports got there, the island was overrun with goats. There was fruit, there were turnips, there was fresh water. The men stocked up on food, but Stradling didn't think they should waste time repairing the ship. Selkirk strongly disagreed. Between the storms off Cape Horn and holes from Spanish guns, the ship was weak and leaky. He thought it would sink if they didn't take the time to fix it. Selkirk and Stradling got in a big argument that ended with Selkirk announcing he would stay on the island, urging the crew to do the same — they were angry with Stradling, and Selkirk thought they would take his side. But in the end, all of the crew went back on board the Cinque Ports, and Selkirk was left alone with some weapons, a cooking pot, tobacco, rum, cheese, and the Bible. Just before the ship sailed off, Selkirk panicked and begged to be let back on. The worst punishment for a pirate was to be marooned — many went crazy and died slow and painful deaths. But Stradling refused and sailed off. As Selkirk learned many years later, he had been right about the Cinque Ports — soon after he left it, the ship sank off the coast of Peru, and only a handful of men (including Stradling) survived, but they were captured by the Spanish and tortured in prison.

Selkirk thought a ship would appear any day to rescue him, but until it did, he began to learn how to survive on the island. He ended up spending four years and four months there. Because of the goats and fish, meat was plentiful. He drank goat's milk, and he ate wild turnips and cabbage, which he cooked into a stew with goat meat and seasoned with black pepper. After he used up his bullets, he started catching goats by chasing them down, which caused his feet to become so calloused that after he left the island he couldn't get shoes on his feet. The island was infested with rats, which had been brought over on earlier ships, and they nibbled at Selkirk during the night. So he befriended some feral cats, which kept him company and controlled the rat population. He sewed clothes and a shelter from goatskin. He camped out high on a hill so that he could see all the way to the horizon, looking for ships. A couple of times he got his hopes up, only to realize that the ships were Spanish ones — scared of being captured and tortured, he hid from the Spanish who came ashore for food and water.

But finally, on this day in 1709, a British ship called the Duke sailed into view. The Duke's captain was Woodes Rogers, and the journey was another of Dampier's schemes to strike it rich in South America. Rogers was amazed to find a wild-looking man with a long beard who could barely speak coherently, and claimed to have been stranded for four years. But his claims were backed up by Dampier, who recognized Selkirk from the last time around. Rogers nicknamed Selkirk "Governor," and took a liking to him. He helped Selkirk readjust to life with other people, and in turn Selkirk helped nurse Rogers' diseased men back to health with good, fresh food. Rogers made Selkirk a navigator for the trip home, which took two more years. In 1711, Selkirk returned home to his family, who had long since given him up for dead. The next year, Rogers published a book telling the story of Selkirk's years on the island, a book with a very long title: "A cruising voyage round the world: first to the South-Sea thence to the East-Indies and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. Begun in 1708, and finished in 1711. Containing a journal of all the remarkable transactions; particularly of the taking of Puna and Guiaquil, of the Acapulca ship, and other prizes; an account of Alexander Selkirk's living alone four years and four months in an island; and a brief description of several countries in our course noted for trade, especially in the South-Sea (1712). It was a popular book, and a year later, a journalist named Richard Steele wrote an article about Selkirk called "The Englishman," which made him even more famous.

No one knows when the British writer Daniel Defoe first heard of Selkirk's adventures. Although there is a legend that Defoe met Selkirk at a pub called the Llandoger Trow in Bristol, it is more likely that Defoe read about Selkirk than that he actually met him. In any case, the story fascinated Defoe, and he was inspired to write Robinson Crusoe (1719). The novel is much more than a retelling of Selkirk's story — to start with, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked, not marooned, and he has a companion, Man Friday. Scholars have found plenty of other potential sources for Defoe's work — a short account by a shipwrecked surgeon named Henry Pitman, a story in one of William Dampier's books that tells the story of a shipwrecked native man who shares some characteristics with Friday, and several more. But most agree that the public enthusiasm for Selkirk's situation caused Defoe — who until then was known mostly for controversial political writing — to attempt an adventure novel.

Alexander Selkirk got restless back home in Scotland, and one year after the publication of Robinson Crusoe, he signed on again as a sailor, this time to Africa. In 1721 he died at sea, of yellow fever.

In Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe wrote:
"In this Season I was much surpriz'd with the Increase of my Family; I had been concern'd for the Loss of one of my Cats, who run away from me, or as I thought had been dead, and I heard no more Tale or Tidings of her, till to my Astonishment she came Home about the End of August, with three Kittens [...] From the fourteenth of August to the twenty sixth, incessant Rain, so that I could not stir, and was now very careful not to be much wet. In this Confinement I began to be straitned for Food, but venturing out twice, I one Day kill'd a Goat, and the last Day, which was the twenty sixth, found a very large Tortoise, which was a Treat to me, and my Food was regulated thus; I eat a Bunch of Raisins for my Breakfast, a Piece of the Goat's Flesh, or of the Turtle for my Dinner broil'd; for to my great Misfortune, I had no Vessel to boil or stew any Thing; and two or three of the Turtle's Eggs for my Supper.

"During this Confinement in my Cover, by the Rain, I work'd daily two or three Hours at enlarging my Cave, and by Degrees work'd it on towards one Side, till I came to the Out-Side of the Hill, and made a Door or Way out, which came beyond my Fence or Wall, and so I came in and out this Way; but I was not perfectly easy at lying so open; for as I had manag'd my self before, I was in a perfect Enclosure, whereas now I thought I lay expos'd, and open for any Thing to come in upon me; and yet I could not perceive that there was any living Thing to fear, the biggest Creature that I had yet seen upon the Island being a Goat."

It was on this day in 1925 that diphtheria serum arrived in Nome, Alaska, carried there by a dogsled team. Nome was, and is, a very remote town just below the Artic Circle in northwestern Alaska.

In 1925, there were about 1,500 people living in Nome. In January, the town's only doctor saw a handful of children with symptoms that he thought were tonsillitis, but soon realized were diphtheria. He knew the town was in trouble. Nome had a large native population, who were more susceptible to introduced diseases like diphtheria. And he only had enough serum to treat about five people. Diphtheria was highly transferable and, without the serum, fatal. The doctor sent a radio message to the governor of Alaska and the U.S. government, warning that the epidemic could sweep through the whole region if it was untreated.

There were terrible blizzards all across the region, with fierce snow and temperatures of 50 degrees below zero, making it impossible to fly a tiny, open-cockpit bush plane into Nome. The port was iced over, so no boat could get there. The nearest that serum could get by motorized transportation was to the town of Neana, the last stop on the railroad from Anchorage. Neana was about 630 miles away from Nome, and the only way to travel between Neana and Nome was with sled dogs, on the last leg of a trail called the Iditarod, a route used to transport people, goods, and mail. The conditions were so treacherous that there was no way one team could make it alone. The best mushers in the area volunteered to be part of a relay between the towns.

Twenty mushers and 150 sled dogs took part in the relay, called "The Great Race of Mercy." They got frostbite, dogs died, and one musher's hands were stuck to his sled's handlebar. The wind chill got down to 85 degrees below zero. They covered the 630 miles in a record five and a half days. The last leg of the race was run by Gunnar Kaasen, a Norwegian-born musher who had moved to Alaska for the gold rush. The blizzard was so bad during Kaasen's run that he couldn't see the dogs in front of him, and his whole sled flipped over and the serum was momentarily lost in the snow. He finally made it to Port Safety, where he was scheduled to hand over the serum to the next musher, Ed Rohn, who would take it the final 25 miles to Nome. But Rohn was asleep, and Kaasen didn't want to waste the time it would take for Rohn to wake up and harness up his team. He pressed on and made it to Nome at 2 a.m. on February 2nd, 1925. Nome was able to control the diphtheria and prevent a serious outbreak.

Gunnar Kaasen became famous, as did many of the mushers who had run the relay. But most famous of all was Kaasen's lead dog, a black husky named Balto. A statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City in December of 1925, and the dog himself — who died at the age of 14 — is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Every year since 1973, the best mushers in the world have gotten together to run a race called the Iditarod, which follows the old Iditarod trail and ends in Nome, Alaska.

The writer Gary Paulsen has competed in the Iditarod several times. In Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod (1994), he wrote: "The bond that occurs between driver and dogs is truly wonderful. It is more than love, becomes something close to what a mother must feel for her child with the added fact that the bond with sled dogs in particular is almost intensely symbiotic. The person gives care — warm meat broth, shoulder rubs, foot ointment and booties, vaccinations, nursing, and of fundamental and vital importance, protection. The dogs give everything they are or can be. In the case of lead dogs and the decisions they must make, their choices can literally mean life or death for the team and driver, often when the driver can't see what is happening. Dogs rarely violate this relationship — virtually never. Devil might bite me, might kill other dogs, but by god, he pulled and would die pulling and that was a kind of love. I have watched them work, always in awe — and not a little love — and sometimes what they are, out ahead of me, the curve from me up through the sled and gangline into the dogs, all of us moving for some new horizon, sometimes it becomes more, becomes spiritual, religious."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of James Joyce, (books by this author) born in Rathgar, Ireland, just outside Dublin (1882). He made up his mind to leave Ireland in the summer of 1904, after he fell in love with a beautiful redheaded chambermaid named Nora Barnacle. He'd only known her for a few months when he asked her to leave the country with him, and she agreed. In a letter to her the next day he wrote: "Last night ... it seemed to me that I was fighting a battle with every religious and social force in Ireland for you and that I had nothing to rely on but myself. ... The fact that you can choose to stand beside me in this way in my hazardous life fills me with great pride and joy."

He wrote to an English school in Zurich, secured a job, and they set off. Joyce expected that his job teaching English would be boring but easy, and that it would leave him a lot of time for writing, but when he showed up at the school to announce his arrival, they'd never heard of him. The job he thought he had secured by mail did not exist.

They'd used up all their money traveling, so Joyce had to scramble to find some work. He had a genius for talking people into giving him money, and he got a few students to hire him as a private language tutor, but he could still barely pay the rent. He was constantly writing home to family to ask for financial help, and even entered a puzzle contest in a London magazine with hopes of winning the cash prize. He sent in the correct answers to the puzzle, but his letter arrived too late to be a winner.

Within Joyce's first year abroad, Nora was visibly pregnant, and they got kicked out of one of their apartments because no children were allowed. That summer was stiflingly hot, and Nora was miserable with her pregnancy and spent most of her time crying. Joyce's English students made fun of his shabby clothes and his old-fashioned Italian, which he had learned by reading Dante.

Joyce's financial situation grew worse. One night he got mugged, and the robbers stole most of his monthly pay. He wrote to his brother, "My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions." He found himself thinking about his homeland more and more every day, and he asked his Aunt Josephine to send him copies of anything to do with Ireland: newspapers, magazines, history books, guidebooks, maps, and photographs. He eventually got an idea for an epic novel about a single day in the city of Dublin. He chose for that day the date of June 16, 1904, the date on which he had fallen in love with Nora. He called that date "Bloomsday" after the main character of the book: Leopold Bloom.

Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, and it took him more than seven years to finish. The book had almost no plot. Joyce's goal was to re-create a single day in the city of Dublin, with all its sights, sounds, smells, as well as the many different kinds of people, the way they talked, and what private thoughts floated through their heads as they went about their daily lives. Joyce said, "I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book."

The first printing of Ulysses, of 1,000 copies, came out on this day, Joyce's birthday, in 1922. It was hailed as a masterpiece by writers in Europe and America, and Joyce was finally able to support his family comfortably for the rest of his life.

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