Jul. 29, 2011

Prayer for the Small Engine Repairman

by Charles W. Pratt

Our Sundays are given voice
By the small engine repairman,
Whose fingers, stubby and black,
Know our mowers and tractors,
Chainsaws, rototillers,
Each plug, gasket and valve
And all the vital fluids.
Thanks to him our lawns
Are even, our gardens vibrant,
Our maples pruned for swings,
The underbrush whacked away.
"What's broke can always be fixed
If I can find the parts,"
He says as he loosens a nut,
Exposes the carburetor,
Tinkers and tunes until
To the slightest pull on the cord
The engine at once concurs.
Let him come into our homes,
Let him discipline our children,
Console and counsel our mates,
Adjust the gap of our passions,
The mix of our humors: lay hands
On the small engine of our days.

"Prayer for the Small Engine Repairman" by Charles W. Pratt, from From the Box Marked Some are Missing: New and Selected Books. © Hobblebush Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and dramatist Newton Booth Tarkington (1869) (books by this author). He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and he usually took as his subject the American Midwest and its people. He was sometimes satirical, sometimes melodramatic, and he was one of the most popular novelists of the early 20th century. Literary Digest named him "America's Greatest Living Writer" in 1922. He's best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons (1918), which Orson Welles turned into a film in 1942; Tarkington also won the Pulitzer for Alice Adams (1921), and he is one of only three novelists to win the prize more than once.

He wrote, "There are two things that will be believed of any man whatsoever, and one of them is that he has taken to drink."

And, "Gossip's a nasty thing, but it's sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred."

And, "There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without."

Vincent van Gogh died on this date in 1890. He had shot himself in the chest in a wheat field two days before, and managed to make it home to his own bed. When he was found, he allegedly said, "I shot myself ... I only hope I haven't botched it," and all he would tell police was, "What I have done is nobody else's business. I am free to do what I like with my own body." The doctor decided not to remove the bullet, and his brother Theo was sent for. He rushed from Paris to his brother's bedside and reported van Gogh's last words were "The sadness will go on forever." Van Gogh's friend and fellow painter Emile Bernard wrote about the funeral:

"The sun was terribly hot outside. We climbed the hill outside Auvers talking about him, about the daring impulse he had given to art, of the great projects he was always thinking about, and about the good he had done to all of us. We reached the cemetery, a small new cemetery strewn with new tombstones. It is on the little hill above the fields that were ripe for harvest under the wide blue sky that he would still have loved ... perhaps.
Then he was lowered into the grave. ... Anyone would have started crying at that moment ... the day was too much made for him for one not to imagine that he was still alive and enjoying it ..."

Experts have argued over the exact nature of his mental illness for nearly a century, variously blaming schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, paint poisoning, and syphilis. His condition, whatever it was, was probably made worse by insomnia, overwork, malnutrition, and drink. He was virtually unknown at the time of his death, and is now one of the most recognized artists of any period. His art is so bound up with the public perception of him as a struggling, tormented, even tragic artist that it's nearly impossible to separate his work from his myth.

It's the birthday of poet Stanley Kunitz (1905) (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He published his first book of poetry, Intellectual Things, in 1930. His 1971 volume, The Testing-Tree, marked a shift in his work, from his early, formal style to one that was looser, more personal, and written in everyday language. He explained the shift in Publishers Weekly: "I think that as a young poet I looked for what Keats called 'a fine excess,' but as an old poet I look for spareness and rigor and a world of compassion."

He was named U.S. poet laureate in 2000, at the age of 95. He was still publishing and promoting poetry. The Wild Braid: a Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (2005) is a collection of essays and conversations about his two loves, poetry and gardening, and was released on his 100th birthday. He died the following spring.

"Poetry is ultimately mythology, the telling of stories of the soul," he wrote. "The old myths, the old gods, the old heroes have never died. They are only sleeping at the bottom of our minds, waiting for our call. We have need of them, for in their sum they epitomize the wisdom and experience of the race."

On this day in 1907, Sir Robert Baden-Powell set up the first "scout camp" in England and launched the scouting movement. Baden-Powell was a British cavalry officer who had been stationed in India and fought in the Boer War in South Africa; while there, he became friends with the American-born Chief of Scouts, Frederick Russell Burnham. Burnham taught Baden-Powell woodcraft and frontiersman skills, which were relatively unknown in Britain but well-known techniques of the American West. The skill-set formed the basis of scoutcraft.

Baden-Powell and Burnham had been dismayed to learn how few soldiers knew basic first aid and survival skills, so Baden-Powell wrote a small handbook called Aids to Scouting. On his return to England, he discovered that the handbook had become very popular among English schoolboys. He thought he might be able to kill two birds with one stone: provide stimulating activities for young people, and teach them the basic skills that they were lacking, all at one go. He decided to test his theory, and gathered a group of about 20 boys, taking them to Brownsea Island off England's southern coast. For 12 days, the boys learned tracking, orienteering, and outdoor cooking without utensils. They played games and went on exploratory hikes and patrols. In short, they had a marvelous time.

Baden-Powell published Scouting for Boys (1908) the next year, and 10,000 boys showed up at a rally at London's Crystal Palace. Though Baden-Powell had intended it only for British boys, it spread to other countries, and to girls, and now the scouting movement boasts 41 million members in 216 countries.

Today is the birthday of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (1953). He was born in Brooklyn, New York, but he grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his father was a professor at the University of Michigan. He studied film and design at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and his first major documentary film was Brooklyn Bridge in 1981. He was nominated for an Academy Award and set on his path as a documentarian of American history and culture.

It's his 11-hour television miniseries The Civil War (1990) that made his name. Because he used so many still photographs from the period, he came up with the idea to give a sense of movement by panning over the photos, or zooming slowly in on a particular detail. The technique has come to be known as "the Burns effect." He's since produced lengthy documentaries on jazz (2001), World War II (2007), the National Parks (2009), and two series about baseball (1994 and 2010). Most of his work appears first on public television, and he's signed an agreement with PBS to supply them with material well into the next decade. His next project, which airs this fall, is about Prohibition, and future projects are said to include documentaries about the Roosevelts, the Dust Bowl, and the Vietnam War.

He told the Los Angeles Times: "All truth is manipulated, because the universe is chaotic. What we divine from it is the superimposition of some kind of order, whether it's religion, superstition, story and art, literature, science — all of them are an attempt to keep the wolf from the door. And that wolf is the panic of chaos."

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




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