Aug. 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: New and Selected Poems. © Hobblebush Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1349, 6,000 Jews died in the town of Mainz, Germany, after being accused of causing the plague known as the Black Death. The 14th century witnessed an infectious disease epidemic of apocalyptic proportions: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic plagues wiped out an estimated 20 million people — 30 to 35 percent of Europe's population — between 1347 and 1350. Over a three-month period in 1349, 800 people died every day in Paris, 500 a day in Pisa, and 600 a day in Vienna. The plague would rage in a region for three to six months, and then seemingly depart on a whim; it struck like a tornado, without rhyme or reason, wiping out whole families save for the youngest member or the oldest, for example; or killing everyone on one side of the street but leaving the other side untouched. People began looking for reasons, and looked upon each other with fear and suspicion. The epidemic was blamed on a planetary alignment; an earthquake in Italy that had split the earth open, releasing noxious vapors; or the wrath of God. They also blamed the Jews, accusing them of poisoning the water and trying to destroy Christendom; beginning in 1348, fueled by confessions that were obtained through torture, villagers began dragging Jews from their homes and throwing them on bonfires. The Jewish community in Mainz mounted a resistance in 1349, killing about 200 Christians and setting fire to their own homes rather than be subject to torture.

We now know, of course, that the plague was caused by a bacillus, Yersinia pestis, which was spread through flea bites. The fleas came to Europe and North Africa by ship across the Black Sea, carried on the bodies of plague-infected rats from the central Asian steppes.

On this date in 1891, Thomas Edison filed patents for the first motion picture camera and viewer. He called the camera the Kinetograph, and dubbed the viewer the Kinetoscope. The camera contained a spool that held a 50-foot-long continuous roll of 35-millimeter film. The image was recorded by means of a revolving cylinder with a narrow slit that allowed light in to expose the film at regular intervals. Viewing these early movies followed a similar process: the viewer would look through a peephole and the cylinder would revolve, illuminating individual photographs in rapid succession. A perceptual phenomenon called "persistence of vision" tricks the brain into thinking you're seeing a seamless depiction of movement, when you're really looking at a series of still photographs.

It's the birthday of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho (books by this author), born in Rio de Janeiro in 1947. When he told his parents that he wanted to be a writer, they had him committed (briefly) to a mental institution. In 1970, he dropped out of law school and traveled all over South America, Mexico, Europe, and North Africa; when he returned to Brazil two years later, he worked as a lyricist for several Brazilian pop stars, and in 1974, he did a brief stint in jail for alleged subversive activities against the government.

In 1980, he returned to Europe, and walked the entire 500-mile Santiago de Compostela route first trod by pilgrims in the Middle Ages. He described the journey as a turning point: "It was then that I, who had dedicated most of my life to penetrate the 'secrets' of the universe, realized that there are no secrets. Life is and will always be a mystery." He also became interested in Catholicism again after rejecting it as a young man; these experiences inspired his 1987 book, The Diary of a Magus, which was reissued as The Pilgrimage in 1995. Many of his books, both fiction and nonfiction, deal with themes of mysticism and religion.

He wrote, "If I must fall, may it be from a high place."

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross passed away on this date in 2004. Ross, who was born in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1926, was a psychiatrist who began working with terminally ill patients in the 1960s. While teaching at the University of Colorado medical school, she introduced a 16-year-old girl to her class. The girl was dying of leukemia, and the students all asked medical questions about the disease; only Ross asked her about her feelings, and the girl's explosive emotional response left the class in tears.

She observed that most people seemed to go through a similar emotional journey when they received a terminal diagnosis, and she divided this process into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She wrote about the stages of death in her 1969 book On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families. She was an advocate for the rights of the dying, and promoted what she called a "good death." She didn't found the hospice movement, but it owes much to her work.

Over the years, she became more and more eccentric, spending much of her time investigating reported near-death experiences. She announced in her book On Life After Death (1991) that her "real job" was "to tell people that death does not exist." She died at age 78; she had been debilitated for years after a series of strokes, and reported she was ready to die several years before she actually did. She said in a 2002 interview, "I told God last night that he's a damned procrastinator."

It's the baptismal day of poet Robert Herrick (1591) (books by this author). He's the author of the lines, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying, / And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying." They appear in his poem "To the Virgins, to make much of Time." He worked as a goldsmith, went to college, and left London for the English countryside, where he stayed for many years and wrote most of his poetry. He wrote short lyric poems and songs. He wrote about seducing women and taking advantage of your youth, but he never married and most of the women in his poems were probably imaginary. He also wrote religious poems. His poetry was distributed among friends and eventually reached people in higher places, making Herrick known throughout England. In 1648, he published Hesperides, which contained more than 1,000 poems.

Today is the birthday of Jean Rhys (1890) (books by this author), the English novelist born in Dominica, in the West Indies. She published several novels, including one entitled Good Morning, Midnight. It came out in 1939. She stopped writing during World War II and vanished from public life. Many of her readers assumed that she had died. And then in 1958, the BBC decided to make a movie of that novel. They put out an ad, asking for information about Jean Rhys, and she responded and was inspired to start writing again. And in 1966, 27 years after her previous novel, she published Wide Sargasso Sea, which was a prequel to Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre.

It's the birthday of poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges (books by this author), born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1899). He studied in Europe, moved back to Argentina, and got a job in a library. He worked his way up to be director of the National Library of Buenos Aires. He was able to do his work in just one hour every morning so he could spend the rest of his day wandering through the stacks. In a cruel twist, he also began losing his vision, and by 1955 he was completely blind. "I speak of God's splendid irony in granting me at once 800,000 books and darkness," he said.

He also wrote: "I cannot think it unlikely that there is such a total book on some shelf in the universe. I pray to the unknown gods that some man — even a single man, tens of centuries ago — has perused and read this book. If the honor and wisdom and joy of such a reading are not to be my own, then let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my own place may be in hell. Let me be tortured and battered and annihilated, but let there be one instant, one creature, wherein thy enormous Library may find its justification." ("The Library of Babel," 1941).

Today is the birthday of English author A.S. Byatt (1936) (books by this author). She was born Antonia Susan Drabble in Sheffield. She's best known for her novel Possession (1990), about a pair of literary critics falling in love as they uncover the story of two Victorian poets who fell in love more than a hundred years in the past. She also wrote Angels and Insects (1992).

"There is a peculiar aesthetic pleasure in constructing the form of a syllabus, or a book of essays, or a course of lectures," she wrote. "Visions and shadows of people and ideas can be arranged and rearranged like stained-glass pieces in a window, or chessmen on a board."

It's the birthday of Cuban-American author Oscar Hijuelos (books by this author), born in New York City in 1951. He published the novel Our House in the Last World (1983), and then five more novels, including The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989), and all of them are stories of Cuban-American life. Mambo Kings won the Pulitzer Prize, which made Hijuelos the first Latino novelist to receive that honor. It also resulted in a lawsuit when orchestra leader Gloria Parker claimed the novel had ruined her reputation. It was the first libel suit to be brought against a work of fiction; the case was thrown out.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love opens: "It was a Saturday afternoon on La Salle Street, years and years ago when I was a little kid, and around three o'clock Mrs. Shannon, the heavy Irish woman in her perpetually soup-stained dress, opened her back window and shouted out into the courtyard, 'Hey, Cesar, yoo-hoo, I think you're on television, I swear it's you!'"

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