May 17, 2011

The River

by David Kherdian

The way we fished for bullheads
was simple: hook, line, bobber,
cane pole and worm.

The murky, brown water of Root River
is where they hid
and waited our return.

The bobber was red & white.
At the first bite it danced then ran,
before going under—and I knew

that if it stayed under the fish
was on. Hooking them (they almost
always swallowed the bait)

was one thing, getting the hook
out without getting hooked oneself
on their lateral and frontal barbs

was quite another. That was
the solitary fishing
that few enjoyed as much as me.

I didn't understand then what
I needed in equal parts was
excitement, activity and adventure—

and more important than any
of these, solitude, in which my
being could be nourished

in silence. That silence
in which the imagination,
unbidden, comes to life.

Fishing alone brought
all of this together,
because it included living

beings, the mystery of life
from another realm that I could
pursue with my body my

imagination and my mind,
marveling at what I found,
not knowing what any of it could mean

or did mean, or would mean,
as I slowly moved
through the opening days of my life

"The River" by David Kherdian, from Nearer the Heart. © Taderon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Beethoven’s famous Kreutzer Sonata was first performed on this day in 1803 at Augarten-Halle in Vienna, Austria. Beethoven had been asked to write a sonata by George Bridgetower, a handsome and ambitious half-West Indian violin virtuoso who wished to perform the piece with the great composer. But Beethoven hated writing custom pieces, and so he put off writing it until the last minute, leaving the pianoforte copy almost entirely blank. For the finale, a resentful Beethoven simply tacked on a finale from an earlier work.

But when Beethoven and Bridgetower began to play at the 8:00 a.m. concert, both performed beautifully, and Beethoven was so impressed with Bridgetower’s performance — Bridgetower improvising much of it — that he jumped up and hugged the violinist midway through the performance.

Later, however, Bridgetower and Beethoven quarreled (scholarly opinion differs on the nature of the argument — some say it was about man they both knew, some say it was about Beethoven doing such a last-minute job on the original composition) and Beethoven angrily undedicated the sonata to Bridgetower and rededicated it to Rudolph Kreutzer, a prominent Parisian violinist who had recently traveled to Vienna. It is rumored that when Kreutzer first saw the composition, he proclaimed the part written for violin too difficult to play. He is believed to have never played the sonata that now carries his name.

What became of Bridgetower after the Augarten concert is lost to history.

On this day in 1902, archaeologist Valerios Stais discovered the Antikythera mechanism, an ancient analog computer from the first or second century B.C., that was used to calculate the position of the sun, moon, and stars in relationship to the observer’s position on the surface of the earth. For many decades, archaeologists did not recognize the mechanism’s degree of mechanical sophistication, which is comparable to a 19th-century Swiss clock. To date, the only other artifacts with that degree of mechanical sophistication have come from the 14th century or later.

Stais uncovered the mechanism while exploring the Anitkythera shipwreck off the northwest coast of Crete. Divers discovered the sunken ship in 1900 and had already unearthed statues, musical instruments, and other artifacts. Stais guessed that the mechanism was a clock and other archaeologists conjectured it was some type of astronomical device. But the mechanism, which has between 30 and 70 very small gears, underwent years of cleaning and it wasn’t until British science historian Derek J. de Solla Price began to investigate it in earnest that archaeologists realized the significance of the artifact, which had a front dial that showed the progress of the sun and moon through the zodiac; an upper rear dial showing various monthlong and yearlong cycles; and a lower rear dial that tracked the progress of a single month with an adjoining dial that tracked the 12 months of the lunar year.

Today the mechanism is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and is studied by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project. In 2008, the Project found the inscription “Olympia” on the mechanism, and they now think the device may have been used, in part, to track the occurrence of the ancient Olympic games.

On this day in 1978, Charlie Chaplin’s corpse, which had been stolen and held for ransom, was recovered. The silent-film star had died the previous Christmas at the age of 88 and was buried in Vevey, Switzerland. But on March 2, 1978, robbers dug up his coffin.

The family was flooded with ransom demands. The police found most of them were implausible. Then one demand came in accompanied by authentic photos of Chaplin’s coffin. His wife, Oona, refused to pay money, saying that “Charlie would have thought it ridiculous.” But eventually she played along to help the investigation.

The police monitored 200 phone lines in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Chaplins lived. Their wire taps turned up the two culprits, Roman Wardas, a Polish mechanic, and Gantscho Ganev, a Bulgarian mechanic, who admitted to the crime as a way to make money. They were convicted of extortion and disturbing the peace of the dead. Wardas, the mastermind, was sentenced to four and a half years of hard labor. Ganev, who served as the brawn, was given an 18-month suspended sentence.

The farmer who owned the land where the two robbers had temporarily buried Chaplin put up a cross in the burial spot. Chaplin’s body was returned to the gravesite and reburied under six feet of concrete to prevent any further burglaries. When Oona died years later, she also had her body put under six feet of concrete, just in case.

On this day in 2004, the state of Massachusetts began to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was the first state in the nation to allow same-sex couples to marry.

In a 4-3 ruling, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the state may not “deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry.” Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Margaret Marshall wrote that the Massachusetts constitution “affirms the dignity and equality of all individuals. It forbids the creation of second-class citizens. ... The right to marry is not a privilege conferred by the State, but a fundamental right that is protected against unwanted interference.”

The court gave the legislature 180 days to respond to the ruling. But when neither legislature nor Republican Governor Mitt Romney took action, it began to issue marriage certificates on May 17th. By 2008, more than 10,000 same-sex couples were married in Massachusetts.

It is the birthday of American film actor Dennis Hopper, born in Dodge City, Kansas (1936). He starred in many films, including in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) with James Dean; Easy Rider (1969); and Apocalypse Now (1979). He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the town drunk Shooter in Hoosiers in 1986. He was also a noted painter, sculptor, and photographer, and in March of last year his artwork was featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

(An odd literary aside: forensic anthropologists recently created a 3-D image of Shakespeare’s head from a death mask that has been linked to the Bard; the 3-D image looks shockingly similar to Dennis Hopper in the later years of his life.)

From the archives:

It’s the birthday of physician Edward Jenner, who discovered the vaccine for smallpox. He was born in Gloucestershire, England (1749). Smallpox devastated humankind for many centuries, and Jenner’s work is monumental in the history of immunology.

On this day in 1792, 24 businessmen signed the Buttonwood Agreement, which officially established the New York Stock Exchange. The businessmen had been trading commodities informally at an outdoor auction for some time. The Buttonwood Agreement created formal rules: they could only trade with each other, must not participate in other auctions, and charge a fixed-rate commission. The Agreement didn’t require the traders to move inside, however. They continued to trade in the open air for another year before moving operations to a nearby coffee house.

Today is Norwegian Constitution Day, the day when Norwegians celebrate their independence.

It is the birthday of young adult novelist Gary Paulsen (books by this author). He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1939), but moved a lot because both his parents were active in the military. He was a halfhearted student who got poor grades, but when a friendly librarian gave him a book to read and his own library card, he became a devoted reader.

He ran away from home at 14 and joined a carnival. Later, he worked as a farmhand, construction worker, truck driver, sailor and magazine proofreader. When he moved back to Minnesota and settled in the rural northern part of the state, he became interested in dog racing and twice ran the Iditarod. But a medical issue forced him give up dog racing, and he devoted himself fully to writing.

He’s written hundreds of young adult novels, articles, and short stories. Three of his books — Hatchet (1988), Dogsong (1985), and The Winter Room (1989) — won the Newbery medal. He received as many as 200 letters a day about the main character in Hatchet, Brian Robeson, who is stranded in the woods but rescued before winter comes. Most of the letters wonder what would have happened if Brian wasn’t rescued and had to survive the winter on his own. Paulson, who had survived many Minnesota winters and two Iditarods, began to wonder about the question himself and eventually wrote Brian’s Winter (1996) to explore what would have happened in Brian hadn’t been rescued.

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




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