Jun. 18, 2011

This was our pretty gray kitten,
hence her name; who was born
in our garage and stayed nearby
her whole life. There were allergies;
so she was, as they say,
an outside cat.
But she loved us. For years,
she was at our window.
Sometimes, a paw on the screen
as if to want in, as if
to be with us
the best she could.
She would be on the deck,
at the sliding door.
She would be on the small
sill of the window in the bathroom.
She would be at the kitchen
window above the sink.
We'd go to the living room;
anticipating that she'd be there, too,
hop up, look in.
She'd be on the roof,
she'd be in a nearby tree.
She'd be listening
through the wall to our family life.
She knew where we were,
and she knew where we were going
and would meet us there.
Little spark of consciousness,
calm kitty eyes staring
through the window.

After the family broke,
and when the house was about to sell,
I walked around it for a last look.
Under the eaves, on the ground,
there was a path worn in the dirt,
tight against the foundation —
small padded feet, year after year,
window to window.

When we moved, we left her
to be fed by the people next door.
Months after we were gone,
they found her in the bushes
and buried her by the fence.
So many years after,
I can't get her out of my mind.

"Gray" by Philip F. Deaver, from How Men Pray. © Anhinga Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain. The War of 1812, as it came to be known, was triggered in part by the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. Neither of the two squabbling nations wanted the United States to trade with its rival; Britain went a step further by seizing U.S. citizens off of American ships and impressing them into service with the Royal Navy. This didn't sit well with Americans, who were irritated with the British for not withdrawing from territory around the Great Lakes, and for supporting the Indians in conflicts with settlers in the northeastern United States. President Jefferson first tried to put pressure on Great Britain through its pocketbook, with trade embargoes; these ended up devastating the American shipping economy without doing much to hurt either Britain or France. Finally, in 1812, President Madison signed a Declaration of War, which was narrowly approved by Congress. Unknown to the United States, Britain had agreed to repeal the offending trade orders two days before, but the news didn't reach our shores for nearly a month.

Most of the land battles took place along the border with Canada, and Britain also set up a naval blockade off the U.S. coast. British forces more or less had the upper hand in 1814, and even occupied and burned Washington, D.C.; after Napoleon's first surrender and exile to Elba, they could devote more resources to fighting the Americans, but after having been at war in Europe for more than 20 years, the British were tired of fighting. Peace was eventually negotiated through the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. Again, the news was slow to arrive to American shores, and one of the most decisive battles of the war — in which Andrew Jackson and his army defended New Orleans against British forces — actually occurred after peace had been declared.

On this day in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte met his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium. Napoleon and Michel Ney led the French army of around 69,000 troops against the Duke of Wellington and about 67,000 multinational — British, Dutch, Belgian, and German — troops, with the added forces of Gebhard von Blücher's 48,000-strong Prussian army, which arrived near the end of the day. Napoleon had surrendered the previous year, and was exiled to the Island of Elba off the coast of Italy; he escaped in March 1815 and regained control of his empire, and the allied forces reassembled to depose him once again.

It had rained heavily on the night of June 17, so Napoleon delayed the start of the battle from early morning until midday, to give the ground time to dry out. That delay gave the Prussian army time to meet up with Wellington's forces, and cost the French the battle.

On this day in 1923, Checker Taxi put its first cab on the street. The boxy yellow cars became American cultural icons, and featured in movies like Taxi Driver (1976), as well as the TV series Taxi, The Simpsons, and Friends. Checker was the first cab company to hire African-American drivers, and it was also the first to require its drivers to pick up all fares, not just Caucasian ones. You could grab a ride in a Checker cab in many American cities, but they became closely identified with New York City.

The last of the roomy gas-guzzlers rolled off the company's Michigan assembly line in 1982, and The New York Times published the headline, "Checker Taxi, 60, Dies of Bulk in Kalamazoo." The cars became an increasingly rare sight on the streets of New York, and the last Checker cab was retired in 1999, with almost a million miles on its odometer.

In 1928, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, from Newfoundland to Wales. The plane was called the Friendship, and Earhart was a passenger on this particular flight — the pilot was Wilmer Stulz — but she nevertheless received a lot of media attention. She was working as a social worker in Boston when publisher George Palmer Putnam tapped her to take the trip; he thought it would make a great book, and Earhart wrote about the experience later that year, in her book 20 Hours, 40 Minutes. Earhart and Putnam went on to marry in 1931.

She didn't feel she'd really earned all that national acclaim just by riding along, so she piloted her own flight across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland, in 1932. She made the trip in the record time of just under 15 hours, and she wrote about it in The Fun of It (1932).

From her flight book:
"The clouds are tinted pink with the setting sun. Bill just got the time. "OK" sez he. 10:20 London time my watch. Pemmican (dried jerky) is being passed or just has been. What stuff! The pink vastness reminds me of the Mojave desert ... Bill gets position, we are out 1096 miles at 10:30 London time ... the view is too vast and lovely for words. I think I am happy — sad admission of scant intellectual equipment. I am getting housemaid's knee kneeling here at the table gulping beauty."

Today is the birthday of English poet and literary critic Geoffrey Hill (1932) (books by this author), born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. He went to Oxford to study English in 1950, and he published his first poems two years later. His collections include For the Unfallen (1958), King Log (1968), Mercian Hymns (1971), Canaan (1997), The Triumph of Love (1998), and The Orchards of Syon (2002).

His work has been called "difficult," but he defended difficulty as the province of artists in an interview with The Paris Review in 2000: "We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We're difficult to ourselves, we're difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most 'intellectual' piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right — not an obligation — to be difficult if it wishes."

It's the birthday of "the cute Beatle," Sir Paul McCartney, born James Paul McCartney in Liverpool, England, in 1942. His dad, Jim, was a cotton salesman who occasionally led "Jim Mac's Jazz Band" on the trumpet and piano; his mum, Mary, was a midwife, often riding off on her bicycle to deliver babies at odd hours. Mary developed breast cancer and died from an embolism after a mastectomy in 1956, when Paul was 14. And when he heard the news, he said, "What will we do without her money?" which he always regretted. In 1957, at a church festival, he saw an older boy, something of a troublemaker, who was singing on stage with his skiffle band. The boy kept getting the words wrong and making up new lyrics as he went along. This was John Lennon, and Paul got a chance to impress him after the show with his mastery of "Twenty Flight Rock." He later recalled: "I also knocked around on the backstage piano and that would have been 'A Whole Lot of Shakin'' by Jerry Lee. That's when I remember John leaning over, contributing a deft right hand in the upper octaves and surprising me with his beery breath. It's not that I was shocked, it's just that I remember this particular detail." Lennon later invited McCartney to join his band, the Quarrymen, and one of music's great partnerships was born.

In addition to being the subject of hundreds of books, McCartney has produced a couple of his own: a volume of poetry (Blackbird Singing: Poems and Lyrics, 1965-2001 [2002]), and a children's book, High in the Clouds (2005), about a young squirrel thrust into the adult world by the death of his mother. He's been an art collector since the 1960s, and he took up painting in 1983 after getting to know Willem de Kooning. He's written movie scores and classical music, too, including Liverpool Oratorio (1991), which was first performed at the Liverpool Cathedral, where McCartney had once failed an audition as a choirboy.

He's been a vegetarian and supporter of animal rights since early in the 1970s, and wrote a letter to the carnivorous Dalai Lama in 2008 to convince him to go veggie, since eating animals is incompatible with the Buddhist tenet of nonviolence. "I found out he was not a vegetarian, so I wrote to him saying, 'Forgive me for pointing this out, but if you eat animals then there is some suffering somewhere along the line,'" he said in an interview with Prospect magazine. "He replied saying that his doctors had told him he needed it, so I wrote back saying they were wrong."

He was also the subject of the "Paul is dead" conspiracy theory. In September 1967, a man named Tom called in to a Detroit radio station to report a rumor, which had been circulating on college campuses for some time, that McCartney had been killed in a car accident. He'd died on November 9, 1966 — or so the rumor went — and the record company forced the Beatles to replace him with William Campbell, the winner of a look-alike contest. Fred LaBour, a student at the University of Michigan, turned the rumor into an article and embellished the tale even further. He claimed that Lennon, particularly upset at the cover-up of his friend's death, had planted a host of clues in the band's songs and album covers. Suddenly, everyone was an expert in obscure symbolism, and the rumor persisted, even after LaBour admitted his article was tongue-in-cheek. Any references to death or images of red or black were scrutinized, songs were played backward, and album covers held up to mirrors to reveal their secrets. Finally, Life magazine sent a photographer to track down McCartney in Scotland, and the rumors subsided after the magazine's cover story featuring an annoyed, but very much alive, pop star. McCartney released an album in 1993, called "Paul is Live," the cover of which poked fun at all the supposed clues.

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




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