May 5, 2011

The tao of touch

by Marge Piercy

What magic does touch create
that we crave it so. That babies
do not thrive without it. That
the nurse who cuts tough nails
and sands calluses on the elderly
tells me sometimes men weep
as she rubs lotion on their feet.

Yet the touch of a stranger
the bumping or predatory thrust
in the subway is like a slap.
We long for the familiar, the open
palm of love, its tender fingers.
It is our hands that tamed cats
into pets, not our food.

The widow looks in the mirror
thinking, no one will ever touch
me again, never. Not hold me.
Not caress the softness of my
breasts, my inner thighs, the swell
of my belly. Do I still live
if no one knows my body?

We touch each other so many
ways, in curiosity, in anger,
to command attention, to soothe,
to quiet, to rouse, to cure.
Touch is our first language
and often, our last as the breath
ebbs and a hand closes our eyes.

"The tao of touch" by Marge Piercy, from The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980-2010. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates the Mexican victory over the French in the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but is, in a more general way, a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture in the United States.

After a series of wars in the mid-19th-century, Mexico was reeling. President Benito Juárez announced that payment of foreign debts would be temporarily suspended in 1861, and the French navy showed up to demand repayment. As long as they were there anyway, Napoleon III thought it would be a good idea to replace the current government with one more favorable to French interests — and France could also establish a base of operations to aid the Confederacy in the American Civil War. In a David-and-Goliath battle, the 8,000-strong, well-armed French army was routed by 4,000 ill-equipped Mexican soldiers, and though it wasn’t a decisive battle in the course of the war, it became a symbol of Mexican pride. It also kept Napoleon from aiding the cause of the Confederacy.

Cinco de Mayo isn’t widely celebrated in Mexico outside the state of Puebla, but it has been adopted by many Americans regardless of their heritage, much like St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest. It’s been celebrated in California since 1863, and grew in prominence in the rest of the country along with the Chicano movement of the 1940s. It wasn’t until beer advertisers decided to promote the holiday heavily in the 1980s that American celebration of Cinco de Mayo became widespread.

It’s the birthday of “Darwin’s Bulldog,” biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (books by this author), born in Ealing, Middlesex, England, in 1825. Mostly self-educated, he was one of the great thinkers of the 19th century, and he wrote on a wide array of topics including science, religion, ethics, and politics. A lifelong critic of organized religion, he coined the term “agnostic” to describe his own religious views.

At 15, Huxley began a medical apprenticeship. At 21, he joined the H.M.S. Rattlesnake, a navy frigate, as their assistant surgeon, and while they charted the sea around Australia, he collected samples of marine invertebrates. His extensive research earned him a place in the scientific establishment, where he met Darwin and managed to make a modest living writing science articles. Huxley followed Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) with his own Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863), and in it he specifically addressed the possibility of evolution in humans, something Darwin had gone out of his way to avoid. He grew to become a very vocal supporter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, even participating in debates on Darwin’s behalf, and when one opponent asked if he descended from apes on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s, he reportedly retorted, “I would rather be the offspring of two apes than be a man and afraid to face the truth.”

Huxley had eight children — five daughters and three sons — and based on letters that remain, he was a fond and demonstrative dad. His grandchildren include notable scientists Julian and Andrew Huxley, as well as author Aldous Huxley.

It’s the birthday of journalist Nellie Bly (books by this author), born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania, in 1864. When she was 16, her family moved to Pittsburgh, where she read an editorial in The Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls are Good For.” (The answer was “not much,” at least, not outside the home.) She wrote a furious reply and signed it “Little Orphan Girl.” The editor was so impressed that he invited her in and offered her a job. She took it, and borrowed the name “Nellie Bly” from a Stephen Foster song to use as her pen name.

Unlike most female journalists of the time, she didn’t write about fashion or gardening, though. She wrote about the poor, and the way women were exploited in factories, sometimes posing as a sweatshop worker to report from the inside, which made companies nervous. They threatened to pull their advertising, and she was busted down to a more lady-like beat. She turned in her letter of resignation along with her story.

She went to New York in 1887, and after several months with no job prospects, she talked her way into an opportunity with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Her assignment was to cover the notorious Blackwell’s Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum, and she went undercover, convincing doctors and judges that she was mentally ill. She was committed to the asylum and lived there in appalling conditions for 10 days. She wrote: “I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further from hell.”

In 1889, she proposed a new story: She would beat the fictional Phileas Fogg’s record for a trip around the globe, from Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Traveling east, she made the journey in 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. She was, by now, an international sensation, but The World refused to pay her any kind of bonus in gratitude for their increased circulation, and she resigned.

In 1895, she left her career to marry 70-year-old industrialist Robert Seaman. When her husband died in 1904, she took over the business, the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, and became one of the leading female industrialists in the country. Employee fraud, her lack of experience, and a series of legal troubles forced the company into bankruptcy and Nellie Bly went back to journalism.

In 1914, she went to work for the New York Evening Journal as America’s first female war correspondent. She wrote from the front lines of World War I for almost five years. She returned Stateside in 1919 and died of pneumonia in 1922.

It’s the birthday of Monty Python alum Michael Palin, commonly but not officially known as Britain’s Nicest Man. He was born in Sheffield, England, in 1943, and went to Oxford, where he met future fellow Python Terry Jones. The two became writing partners and worked on a number of comedy programs for the BBC, and when they were hired for The Frost Report in 1966, they met Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle, which marked the first time the five British Pythons worked together. Together, Palin and Jones wrote some of the best-known sketches for the troupe, including “Spam,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and “The Spanish Inquisition.”

He’s enjoyed a second career hosting travel shows for television, and has proved so popular that destinations enjoy a noticeable uptick in tourism after they’ve been featured on his show: “the Palin effect.” He began in 1980 with a series of train trips around Britain and Ireland, and in 1989, he attempted to recreate Phileas Fogg’s Around the World in Eighty Days journey using only transportation that would have been available in Fogg’s time, including hot air balloons, dogsleds, and garbage barges. He’s traveled pole to pole, around the Pacific Rim, and traced Hemingway’s footsteps through Europe, Africa, and the Americas. He told an interviewer that, of everything he’s done, he’s most proud of his travel series; he was appointed head of the Royal Geographical Society in June 2009. In recent years, he’s turned his attention to art and history, including a documentary on Armistice Day called The Last Day of World War One.

His only sister committed suicide in 1987 after a lifelong battle with depression. “Growing up she had seemed all right,” he told the Radio Times, “but in those days — after two wars when the whole world had gone mad — a bit of odd behavior in the home seemed unimportant and was treated by ‘Snap out of it! Pull yourself together.’ But those who feel inadequate within themselves can get into such depression they’re incapable of saying ‘Let’s have a good meal,’ ‘see a film,’ or ‘go on holiday.’”

Palin is married to Helen Gibbins. They met in 1959, as teenagers on holiday, and married in 1966. They have three children, one of whom — William — appeared briefly as “Sir Not-appearing in this film” in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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




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