Aug. 29, 2011

Riding the Red Line

by Eric Nixon

On the subway
On a hot summer night
Riding the Red Line
Outbound to Alewife
So is everyone else
Standing in the packed car
Staring blankly at the
Reflections in the window
Stealing looks every so often
At the pretty mid-20-something
Sitting on the seat near me
Noticing that she is
Glancing sideways
At the paper the person
Next to her is reading
Well not so much reading
Since he's got his eyes
Looking to the side at
Someone else behind me
Everyone is pretending
To look somewhere neutral
Everyone is experiencing
Ulterior motives checking out
Everyone else around them
Trying to be all sneaky about it
With each stop
The people change
The dynamics change
Keeps the subway car
Fresh and interesting
Just as long as she doesn't leave
I'll be happy standing here
Packed among strangers
With wandering eyes
And stealing glances
Alongside them
On this hot, hot night

"Riding the Red Line" by Eric Nixon, from Anything But Dreams. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the anniversary of the death, in 1769, of Edmond Hoyle (books by this author), considered to be the first technical writer on card games and author of A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist, which covers the game from "Some RULES, whereby a Beginner may, with due Attention to them, attain to the Playing it well," to calculations for players wanting to gamble on the game, to a selection of "CASES Hated," instances of difficult games or critical moments that a player of whist might encounter.

Very little is known of Hoyle beyond his writing — that he was born in 1671 or '72, possibly in Yorkshire, and that he might have been a lawyer is essentially the sum of information about the first 70 years of his life. But by 1741, Hoyle was living in London and was engaged in the business of tutoring high society on the rules and finer points of the card game whist.

Whist is a four-person, two-team, trick-taking game that was the premier intellectual card game of the Western World for three or four centuries. The game began in the 1500s as trump. Trump became ruff, ruff evolved to ruff and honours, which then jumped to the name whisk and swabbers [as in "to swab a deck"; swobber] and then, like so many modern pop stars, the game dumped all but a single word to become whisk, finally settling into whist in the 18th century. By Hoyle's time, whist was a game of the upper classes, but that it began as an amusement for servants and rough country squires is perhaps reflected in one of its early names, whisk and swabbers, which may have pointed to the original meaning of whisk — to clean — and to the definition of a "swabber" — which was the same then as now: one who mops and, more generally, the lowest-ranking individual who ends up stuck with the job.

For the benefit of his pupils, Hoyle began to circulate among them a written handbook of notes on the principles and laws of the game and his students found this so helpful that they encouraged him to publish it. Hoyle expanded his manuscript and produced the first edition of his Short Treatise in 1742, followed by 14 more editions during his lifetime and countless reprintings since his death. The work was so well regarded that the name Hoyle became synonymous with authority on the rules of game play, and so wildly popular that even the rampant plagiarism of the Short Treatise that occurred during Hoyle's life seemed to do little to harm sales of the original.

Hoyle went on to write a Short Treatise on the Game of Backgammon, and the curiously titled An Artificial Memory for Whist [whose original full title read, An Artificial Memory or An Easy Method of Assisting the Memory of those that play the Game of Whist to which are added Several Cases not hitherto Publish'd — price one shilling and sixpence]. Hoyle wrote short works on chess and the card games piquet and quadrille; a volume on brag, an ancestor of poker; and a book on probability theory; his calculations on the laws of chance are still basic to a number of modern card games. In 1979, 210 years after his death, Hoyle was made a charter inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game, and the phrase "according to Hoyle" has come to signify the highest authority in disputed play.

Hoyle was a constant if careless editor who wrote in a vigorous and original style, and who continued to revise and update his original Treatise until his death at 97. There have been numerous literary references to Hoyle, from Lord Byron's line in "Don Juan" that "Troy owes to Homer what whist owes to Hoyle," to a passage in Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, in which a gentleman returns home unexpectedly and catches his liveried servants "at whist by my fire — and my Hoyle, sir — my best Hoyle, which cost me a guinea, lying open on the table, with a quantity of porter spilt on one of the most material leaves of the whole book. This, you will allow, was provoking."

Today is the birthday of Newbery and Scott O'Dell Award-winning young-adult writer Karen Hesse (books by this author), born in 1952 in Baltimore, Maryland. In an interview for Scholastic, Hesse says that when she was a girl she dreamed of all the things she could and wanted to become: an archaeologist, an ambassador, an actor, an author. She remembers thinking of herself as someone who was good with words. Her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Datnoff, believed that the perhaps-10-year-old girl in front of her had what it would take to become a professional writer, and because the teacher believed, the girl did too. Hesse says it took almost 30 years for that dream to come true, and still isn't sure if that marks her as "extremely patient or just plain stubborn."

When she began college it was at Towson State as a theater major, but she left two semesters later for the University of Maryland, where she earned a degree in English and double minors in psychology and anthropology. Sometime after college, Hesse married and had two children and, in the tradition of so many artists before her, worked her way through a vast array of jobs: waitress, nanny, agricultural laborer, typesetter, proofreader, substitute teacher, and book reviewer, among others. But she kept writing, in all the spaces around her day jobs, producing stories and poems and book after book. Her first attempt at getting published was a failure, a rejected novel about meeting Bigfoot, but her second idea hit and in 1991 Hesse published her first book for young-adult readers, Wish on a Unicorn.

Hesse very often writes literature that grows out of a historical setting. In the course of writing a children's book about rain, Hesse began researching times and places where people desperately needed and wanted precipitation; from this grew the novel for which Hesse won the 1998 Newbury Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Out of the Dust, the story of a girl living through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Hesse might suggest that interest and the catalyst for a story can come from anywhere — she frequently listens to National Public Radio, and it was from an interview on the program Fresh Air that the idea for her 1996 novel, The Music of the Dolphins, grew.

Sometimes Hesse tackles disturbing subjects for her younger readers. In The Cats of Krasinski Square, Hesse portrays life in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II, and in Witness, she takes on the concentrated racism of the Ku Klux Klan, which was reinvigorated in the 1920s and, in Hesse's story, is trying to take over a small Vermont town. Of Witness, Kirkus Reviews writes: "What Copeland created with music, and Hopper created with paint, Hesse deftly and unerringly creates with words: the iconography of Americana ... beautifully written, and profoundly honest."

Today is the first day of the Egyptian month of Thoth and the start of the year in the Egyptian calendar.

The ancient Egyptian calendar was 360 regular days long — 12 months of 30 days each — with five extra days tacked on to the end of the year. Now, the solar year — the time it takes the sun to traverse a yearly cycle and return to the same position in the sky — was almost a quarter of a day longer than their calendar. Many ancient people, the Egyptians included, were aware of the solar calendar — the great pyramids at Giza and monuments like Stonehenge were built to follow and mark the yearly passage of the sun — and so they understood why stellar events such as the regular rising and disappearing of the constellations seemed to "wander" through their calendar. The sun or stars will reliably return to the same marker point year after year in a reliable and stable period of time, but a calendar that is out of sync will not line up with the sun more than once in a blue moon: If the solar year and the first day of the Egyptian calendar should happen to coincide, it would be another 1,400 years before the same conjunction would come around once more.

After a few millennia, the ruling dynasty of 238 B.C. decreed that the ancient wandering year would be reformed by the addition of a single extra day added every fourth year, thus gluing solar and astronomical events to single days or within single seasons, making the calendar as reliable against the backdrop of the sky as the sky itself. The formerly wandering New Year's Day fell on the first day of the month of Thoth in the year of reform — August 29th in our calendar — and it has essentially stayed put ever since.

The ibis-headed Thoth, for which that first month was named, was a very old god, he who laid the egg from which Ra the sun was born. The voice of Thoth created eight deities, even creating himself. He was the heart and tongue of the Sun God, the means by which Ra's will was brought to speech. He maintained the universe, inventing writing and music to celebrate it, magic and religion to worship it, and medicine to heal its ills. Thoth is said to have been the author of the Book of the Dead and the Book of Breathing, and was known by the formal title, "Author of Every Work on Every Branch of Knowledge, Both Human and Divine." Were his Book of Thoth to be found, it would reveal all the secrets of the universe; its reader would understand the speech of the animals and control all the magic in creation, only to be then cursed.

It was Thoth who created the 365-day calendar. Long ago, the year was just 360 days long, and the Sky Goddess Nut was sterile, unable to bear any child on any day of the year. Because Thoth was the God of Wisdom, Nut took her predicament to him, pleading for help. Now, Thoth knew that the Moon loved to play games, and would even happily gamble away his illumination, so long as he never had to give up too much at once. Thoth and the Moon gambled for month. Thoth won, and he asked the Moon for five days of illumination. Thoth returned to Nut and gave her five new days to shine. In her joy, Nut bore five children: Osiris, ruler of the afterlife and the dead; Horus the Falcon, the god of Hunting, Protection, and War; Set the Jackal, whose realms were the desert, darkness, and chaos; Isis, friend to the downtrodden and Goddess of Motherhood and Rebirth; and Nephthys, before whom demons trembled, and who carried us to safely to our deaths, borne on the wings of a kite.

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




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