Jul. 3, 2011

I saw a peacock with a fiery tail..

by Anonymous

I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud wrapped with ivy round
I saw an oak creep upon the ground
I saw a pismire swallow up a whale
I saw the sea brimful of ale
I saw a Venice glass full fifteen feet deep
I saw a well full of men's tears that weep
I saw red eyes all of a flaming fire
I saw a house bigger than the moon and higher
I saw the sun at twelve o'clock at night
I saw the man that saw this wondrous sight.

"I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail" by Anonymous. Public Domain.

Today is the beginning of the dog days of summer, 40 days of especially hot and humid weather with little rainfall, according to the Farmers' Almanac. The name came from the ancient Greeks. They believed that Sirius, the "dog star," which rose with the sun at that time, was adding to the sun's heat. They also believed that the weather made dogs go mad. The Romans tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the dog days. For the Egyptians, the arrival of dog days marked the beginning of the Nile's flooding season, as well as their New Year celebrations.

"Dog days" has been adopted by the stock market because the markets tend to be slow and sluggish; it's also come to mean any period of stagnation or inactivity.

On this date in 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg ended. The battle, which began as a small skirmish but ended up involving 160,000 Americans, was a Northern victory, and though the war would continue for almost two more years, Gettysburg marked a turning point as the last major strategic offensive led by the South.

The last Confederate charge of the battle was led by Major General George Pickett, who led 12,500 troops up Cemetery Hill to their obliteration. Half of his forces didn't survive the charge. Over the three-day battle, casualties — including dead, wounded, and captured — were between 46,000 and 51,000. Nearly 8,000 men and 3,000 horses were killed outright, and they had to be buried or burned quickly. There was only one civilian casualty: Jennie Wade, who was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen wall and killed her while she was baking bread.

In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the battle, survivors reunited at Gettysburg. Fifty thousand veterans traveled to the reunion; the youngest was reported to be 61, and the oldest was 112. The reunion culminated with Confederate survivors walking the path of Pickett's charge, to be met by the handshakes and embraces of their former Union adversaries over the dividing stone wall. President Woodrow Wilson, whose father had been a Confederate chaplain, spoke to the reunion on July 4, saying: "These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that the people might live. But their task is done. Their day is turned into evening. They look to us to perfect what they have established. Their work is handed to us, to be done in another way but not in another spirit. Our day is not over; it is upon us in full tide."

And on this day in 1938, on the 75th anniversary of the battle, almost 2,000 veterans — with an average age of 94 — attended another reunion. President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, which commemorates the 1913 reunion and reconciliation, and he said: "Lincoln spoke in solace for all who fought upon this field; and the years have laid their balm upon its wounds. Men who wore the Blue and men who wore the Gray are here together, a fragment spared by time. They are brought here by the memories of old divided loyalties, but they meet here in united loyalty to a united cause which the unfolding years have made it easier to see." On the front of the memorial, these words are carved: "Peace Eternal in a Nation United." The flame can be seen from a distance of 20 miles.

It's the birthday of Franz Kafka (1883) (books by this author), born in Prague. He got a law degree, and worked as an insurance bureaucrat for most of his life. He was often sickly and easily fatigued, suffered from insomnia, migraines, constipation, boils, and intolerance to noise. He was neurotic about bodily functions, and though he longed to marry and was engaged several times, he was repulsed by the idea of marital sex. He referred to it in his diary as "punishment for the happiness of being together." But he loved fresh air and enjoyed all kinds of exercise. In 1910 he wrote in his diary, "I row, ride, swim, lie in the sun. Therefore my calves are good, my thighs not bad, my belly will pass muster, but my chest is very shabby ..." He was also a devotee of J.P. Müller's calisthenics program, called "My System," and performed his exercises fanatically.

Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, and because he was suspicious of traditional medicine, he tried a wide variety of treatments for his ailments: some sensible, others less so. He didn't drink, took "rest cures" and "nature cures" on his holidays, and never closed his bedroom window or wore heavy clothes, even in the winter. He drank large quantities of unpasteurized milk and also became a vegetarian for long stretches at a time; his friend and biographer Max Brod reported that he looked at fish in an aquarium and told them, "Now at last I can look at you in peace, I don't eat you anymore." Brod also wrote, "He compared vegetarians with the early Christians, persecuted everywhere, everywhere laughed at, and frequenting dirty haunts."

Toward the end of his life, Kafka was in excruciating pain from tubercular lesions in his throat. He was unable to eat, drink, or speak, and died of starvation in 1924, a month before his 41st birthday.

It's the birthday of M.F.K. Fisher(1908) (books by this author), born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan. She's the mother of the "food essay" and always viewed cuisine as a metaphor for culture. She grew up in Whittier, California, and met her future husband, Alfred Young Fisher, at the University of Southern California in 1929. They spent the first three years of their marriage in Dijon, France, and she referred to that period as the "shaking and making years in [her] life."

She found an Elizabethan cookbook at her public library, and was inspired to try her hand at food writing. Her first book, Serve It Forth (1937), was full of sensual, evocative prose and some critics assumed a man had written it. Her 1941 book, How to Cook a Wolf, was addressed to Americans and Europeans dealing with rationing and food shortages during World War II. In it, she wrote, "When the wolf is at the door one should invite him in and have him for dinner." It has a few recipes, but it mostly contains meditations on the role of meals in relationships, and on sharing limited resources with spiritual abundance. Her chapter titles include, "How to Distribute Your Virtue," "How to Greet the Spring," "How to Be Cheerful Through Starving," and "How to Have a Sleek Pelt."

Author Anne Lamott wrote the introduction to an edition of Fisher's letters. "Hers was a face anyone would naturally want in the kitchen, a combination of fresh peach and aged potato," Lamott wrote. "You could see the weight and warmth and softness of her cheeks — the tender part a mother would cup in her hands — now grown so old."

Today is the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard (1937) (books by this author), born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. His family fled to Singapore in 1939 to escape the Nazis; two years later, when the Japanese invaded Singapore, his mother and the children fled to India. His father remained behind and was killed in the invasion. His mother married British soldier Kenneth Stoppard in 1946, and they moved to England.

Stoppard began his professional life when he was just 17, as a journalist in Bristol in 1954, and he began to write plays in 1960, when he moved to London. He gained fame with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), in which he took two very minor characters from Hamlet and set them at the center of the action. He's also written several screenplays, including Brazil (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Billy Bathgate (1991), and Shakespeare in Love (1998), for which he won an Academy Award.

He told the Guardian in 1973, "It seems pointless to be quoted if one isn't going to be quotable ... it's better to be quotable than honest."

It's the birthday of syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry (1947) (books by this author), born in Armonk, New York. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and young Dave attended Pleasantville High School, where he was voted "class clown" in 1965. He entered the field of journalism in 1971 as a general assignment reporter in West Chester, Pennsylvania; he became a humor columnist in 1983 after a humorous guest column he'd written for The Philadelphia Inquirer caught the eye of editor Gene Weingarten of The Miami Herald. He has played lead guitar in the literary rock band Rock Bottom Remainders; its members, he said, "are not musically skilled, but they are extremely loud."

From "Dave Barry on Baseball" (1996): "The difference between men and women is that, if given the choice between saving the life of an infant or catching a fly ball, a woman will automatically choose to save the infant, without even considering if there's a man on base."

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




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