Jun. 24, 2011


by Charles W. Pratt

Now the bumbling bees that hover
Over loveliness in flower
Important with their store of pollen
Have had their hour;

Time has come for you to shed your
Silken petals and declare
Whether you are apple, cherry,
Plum or pear,

And all summer take your pleasure
Nourishing the ripening fruit
With the sun and rain you welcome
Through leaf, through root.

"Valediction" by Charles W. Pratt, from From the Box Marked "Some are Missing". © Hobble Bush Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Anita Desai (books by this author), born in Mussoorie, India (1937). Her mother was German and her father was Bengali. She said, "I am sure this is what makes my writing whatever it is; I see India through the eyes of my mother, as an outsider, but my feeling are my father's, of someone born here." She grew up speaking German at home, Hindi with her friends, learned Bengali from her father, and listened to Urdu poetry recited in the street. But she first learned to read and write in school, and in English. She said: "I think it had a tremendous effect that the first thing you saw written and the first thing you ever read was English. It seemed to me the language of books. I just went on writing it because I always wanted to belong to this world of books." She started writing stories at the age of seven.

When she began to write novels, she wrote in English. She was raising four children, and she said, "I realized over the years that it's quite frightening for children to see their mother having a different life and I took great care to hide my writing away in a desk." She would write only when her kids were at school. And for a long time, she hid her writing from her whole family, including her husband.

After she finished the manuscript for her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), she wasn't sure what to do with it. She said: "One could only withdraw to write without any hope of there being publishers who might want to publish what one wrote, still less of readers who might wish to read it. Readers of the English language almost without exception preferred to read English written in its native land, the only English considered pure and acceptable; P.G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen clubs flourished. I, too, grew up reading Henry James and D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. No Indian author had entered the school or college syllabuses at that time. It dawned on me what a hopeless business it would be to make a living as a writer. No literary agents existed then and I made a list of publishers from the books on my shelves and started sending out the manuscript of my first novel to one after the other." Finally, she sold it to a tiny London publishing house that focused on international writing. She was not discouraged, and she has published 12 novels, including Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), Fasting, Feasting (1999), and most recently, The Zigzag Way (2004). One of her daughters, Kiran Desai, is also a writer and won the Booker prize for her novel The Inheritance of Loss (2006).

Fasting, Feasting begins: "On the veranda overlooking the garden, the drive and the gate, they sit together on the creaking sofa-swing, suspended from its iron frame, dangling their legs so that the slippers on their feet hang loose. Before them, a low round table is covered with a faded cloth, embroidered in the center with flowers. Behind them, a pedestal fan blows warm air at the backs of their heads and necks."

An outbreak of dancing plague, also known as St. Vitus' Dance or epidemic chorea, began on this day in 1374 in Aachen, Germany. From Aachen it spread across central Europe and as far away as England and Madagascar. Dancing mania affected groups of people — as many as thousands at a time — and caused them to dance uncontrollably for days, weeks, and even months until they collapsed from exhaustion. Some danced themselves to death, suffering heart attacks or broken hips and ribs. Most outbreaks happened between the 14th and 17th centuries, though there are reports of dancing mania as far back as the 7th century. The 1374 outbreak was well-documented by several credible witnesses who reported that dancers sang, screamed, saw visions, behaved like animals, and experienced aversions to the color red and to pointy-toed shoes.

At the time, people believed the plague was the result of a curse from St. Vitus or St. John the Baptist, and so they prayed to the saints and made pilgrimages to their shrines. Exorcism was another treatment option, as was isolation, and many communities hired musicians to accompany the dancers in the hope that it would help them overcome their compulsion; it usually just resulted in more people joining the dancing. Scientists today are still at a loss to explain it, putting it down to economic hardship, ergot poisoning, cults, or mass hysteria.

In 1440, England's King Henry VI founded Eton College. The first class was made up of 70 highly qualified boys whose tuition was paid for through an endowment from the king. Henry founded King's College, Cambridge, the following year, and graduates of Eton would proceed to King's College, though that direct line no longer exists. The earliest records of school life at Eton are from the mid-16th century, and they describe a rigorous program: boys slept three to a bed, rising at 5 a.m. and chanting their prayers while they dressed. Studies began promptly at 6 o'clock and concluded at 8 p.m. Two meals a day were provided, except on Friday, which was a day of fasting, so no one ate. Friday was also set aside as "flogging day," the day when the week's corporal punishments were meted out.

Eton lays claim to around 450 famous alumni, among them Aldous Huxley, Ian Fleming, Cyril Connolly, Henry Fielding, Percy Shelley, George Orwell (known then as Eric Blair), and Thomas Gray. David Cameron is the 19th British Prime Minister to have graduated from Eton, and Princes William and Harry also attended. Fictional OEs ("Old Etonians") include Lord Peter Wimsey, Bertie Wooster, Lord Greystoke (AKA Tarzan), James Bond, John Steed (from The Avengers), Sebastian Flyte (Brideshead Revisited), and Captain Hook.

The Duke of Wellington is often quoted as saying, "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton." In response, George Orwell wrote, "Probably the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, but the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there."

An excerpt from Thomas Gray's poem, "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1747):
Ye distant spires, ye antique tow'rs,
         That crown the wat'ry glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
         Her Henry's holy Shade;
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights th' expanse below
         Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey,
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowr's among
Wanders the hoary Thames along
         His silver-winding way.

Ah, happy hills, ah, pleasing shade,
         Ah, fields belov'd in vain,
Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
         A stranger yet to pain!
I feel the gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary bliss bestow,
         As waving fresh their gladsome wing,
My weary soul they seem to soothe,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
         To breathe a second spring.

On this day in 1509, Henry Tudor and Catherine of Aragon were crowned king and queen of England. Henry VIII was a strapping, athletic young man, and an accomplished musician, artist, and poet. He was the third child, and second son, of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York; his older brother Arthur was expected to inherit the throne, so Henry was groomed as a cleric and given an extensive education. Arthur died in 1502, when Henry was 10 years old, placing Henry first in line for his father's throne. Henry also inherited his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon: his father, wanting to maintain the marital alliance with Spain, obtained a special dispensation from the pope for the marriage, since the Church forbade a man from marrying his brother's widow. According to the Book of Leviticus, "If a brother is to marry the wife of a brother they will remain childless." The king died in 1509, and Henry ascended to the throne just days before his 18th birthday. The couple did not remain childless, although as far as Henry was concerned, they may as well have: Their only surviving child was a girl, not the son he so desperately wanted.

It's the birthday of clergyman, abolitionist, and orator Henry Ward Beecher (1813), a bashful kid who grew up to be one of America's most popular public speakers. He was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the eighth of nine surviving children. He was especially close to his older sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe. He wasn't much of a scholar, but he went to Amherst College anyway, and then on to Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. In 1837, he became a minister to a Presbyterian congregation in Indiana. And 10 years later, he went to Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, where his sermons drew crowds of up to 2,500 people a week. He became internationally famous; he opposed slavery and supported such causes as temperance, women's suffrage, evolutionary theory, and scientific criticism of the Bible. Mark Twain went to hear him preach, and in a letter he described Beecher's performance: "... sawing his arms in the air, howling sarcasms this way and that, discharging rockets of poetry and exploding mines of eloquence, halting now and then to stamp his foot three times in succession to emphasize a point."

In 1874, his former friend Theodore Tilton sued him, alleging that Beecher had had an affair with Tilton's wife, Elizabeth, and the subsequent trial was one of the big scandals of the 19th century. The jury was unable to reach a verdict after deliberating for six days. The Plymouth Church held a board of inquiry and excommunicated the Tiltons but exonerated Beecher. He remained popular despite the scandal.

He wrote, "Where is human nature so weak as in a book store?"; "Flowers are the sweetest things God ever made and forgot to put a soul into"; "Doctrine is but the skin of truth set up and stuffed"; and "Humor is the atmosphere in which grace most flourishes."

It's the anniversary of the first exhibition of Picasso's work in Paris (1901). Art dealer Ambroise Vollard staged the exhibition in his gallery on the Rue Lafitte. Picasso, then 19, had already produced hundreds of paintings, but he was unknown outside of Barcelona. He exhibited 75 paintings at the exhibition, and the response of the few critics who visited was generally favorable; Picasso decided to stay in Paris, and by 1904 he had set up a permanent studio there.

The summer of 1901 also marked the beginning of his Blue Period, which lasted three years. Picasso used blue tones to evoke a feeling of melancholy and introspection. The Old Guitarist (1903) and Life (1903) are outstanding examples of the Blue Period.

He wrote: "Everyone wants to understand painting. Why don't they try to understand the song of the birds? Why do they love a night, a flower, everything which surrounds man, without attempting to understand them? Whereas where painting is concerned, they want to understand."

And ...

"The artist is a receptacle for emotions derived from anywhere: from the sky, from the earth, from a piece of paper, from a passing figure, from a spider's web."

On this day in 1947, the first widely reported UFO sighting occurred. Experienced pilot Kenneth Arnold sighted "a formation of very bright objects" out the window of his plane while flying over the Cascade Mountains of southern Washington state. The Chicago Tribune printed his account on the front page two days later: "The first thing I noticed was a series of flashes in my eyes as if a mirror was reflecting sunlight at me. ... I saw the flashes were coming from a series of objects that were traveling incredibly fast. They were silvery and shiny and seemed to be shaped like a pie plate. ... What startled me most at this point was .. that I could not find any tails on them." Arnold said they moved like saucers skipping across the surface of water, which led to the common term "flying saucer." The Army Air Corps questioned him and later downplayed the sighting; their official position was that Arnold had been hallucinating.

Arnold's sighting was only the first of about 850 sightings that were reported that summer, including the famous Roswell, New Mexico, incident, in which an alleged alien spacecraft crashed into the desert and was — allegedly — recovered and hidden by the military.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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