Nov. 18, 2011

In the Secular Night

by Margaret Atwood

In the secular night you wander around
alone in your house. It's two-thirty.
Everyone has deserted you,
or this is your story;
you remember it from being sixteen,
when the others were out somewhere, having a good time,
or so you suspected,
and you had to baby-sit.
You took a large scoop of vanilla ice-cream
and filled up the glass with grapejuice
and ginger ale, and put on Glenn Miller
with his big-band sound,
and lit a cigarette and blew the smoke up the chimney,
and cried for a while because you were not dancing,
and then danced, by yourself, your mouth circled with purple.

Now, forty years later, things have changed,
and it's baby lima beans.
It's necessary to reserve a secret vice.
This is what comes from forgetting to eat
at the stated mealtimes. You simmer them carefully,
drain, add cream and pepper,
and amble up and down the stairs,
scooping them up with your fingers right out of the bowl,
talking to yourself out loud.
You'd be surprised if you got an answer,
but that part will come later.

There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.
You say, I have too much white clothing.
You start to hum.
Several hundred years ago
this could have been mysticism
or heresy. It isn't now.
Outside there are sirens.
Someone's been run over.
The century grinds on.

"In the Secular Night" by Margaret Atwood, from Morning in the Burned House. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood (1939) (books by this author), born in Ottawa, Ontario. Her father was an entomologist, and she spent a good deal of her childhood out in the woods with him as he did field work. The family moved frequently, from Ottawa to northern Quebec to Toronto, and Atwood was 11 before she attended a full year of school. She read a lot as a child, but didn't dream of becoming a writer at first; her earliest career aspirations were to the visual arts. "All writers, I suspect — and probably all people — have parallel lives, what they would have been if they hadn't turned into what they are," she told The Paris Review in 1990. "I have several of these, and one is certainly a life as a painter. When I was 10, I thought I would be one; by the time I was 12, I had changed that to dress designer, and then reality took over and I confined myself to doodles in the margins of my textbooks." She began writing poetry in high school, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe; by the time she was 16, she knew she wanted to be a writer.

Her novels, like The Handmaid's Tale (1983) and Cat's Eye (1988), frequently question or criticize social institutions. "I grew up in the woods outside of any social structures apart from those of my family. So I didn't absorb social structures through my skin the way many children do. If you grow up in a small town you instinctively know who is who and what is what and whom you can safely be contemptuous of."

On this date in 1883, standard time zones were established in the United States and Canada. The railroad was the driving force behind the establishment of consistent time zones, and it was called Standard Railway Time (SRT). Prior to the use of SRT, all towns set their own time, and east- and west-bound trains in particular found it impossible to publish and maintain a consistent schedule.

The SRT established four continental time zones; boundaries were based on geography, economics, the location of major cities, and the habits of the local populations. The zones progressed in one-hour increments, and the times were determined in relation to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. Each 15 degrees of longitude corresponds to one hour of solar time. Going around the globe, there are 24 meridians of 15 degrees each, and the meridian at Greenwich was set as the "prime meridian," or starting point. Each North American zone's time was determined by the solar time of the closest meridian that was evenly divisible by 15. The decision to establish standardized time was great news to astronomers and geophysicists, who had long advocated the need for a consistent system.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote:

"I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse."

That's Sir W.S. [William Schwenk] Gilbert (books by this author), of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, born in London on this day in 1836. The pair wrote 14 comic operas; Gilbert was the librettist, and Sir Arthur Sullivan composed the music. The operas, which lampooned hot topics of the Victorian era, are still widely popular even though the barbs are dated and modern audiences miss most of the references; Gilbert's wordplay is so skillful that no greater knowledge of context is necessary.

Gilbert had been interested in the theater from his schoolboy days, and he began writing stories, parodies, and illustrated poems for comic magazines — mainly as a way to supplement his limited civil servant's income — beginning in 1861. His poems proved popular, and were collected in several books as Bab Ballads. He met Sullivan in 1870, and they began collaborating the following year. Their working relationship was often strained because they had very different personalities and different ambitions. Gilbert, who was often contentious and prickly, poked fun at the upper classes. Sullivan, who avoided conflict whenever possible, longed to be accepted by them. They also argued because they each felt the other's work was given more prominence. Gilbert favored absurd stories where Sullivan preferred more genuine emotion and realism. They nevertheless managed to produce such enduring favorites as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885).

Underneath his quick-tempered and thin-skinned exterior, Gilbert was a kind and generous man. He often paid the cab fare of his cast when rehearsals ran late so they wouldn't have to walk home on wet nights, and one actress said of him: "He was just as large-hearted when he was poor as when he was rich and successful. For money as money he cared less than nothing. Gilbert was no plaster saint, but he was an ideal friend."

He died in 1911, while giving a swimming lesson to some girls at his country estate. One girl was struggling in the water and cried for help; he dived into the lake to rescue her and suffered a heart attack.

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




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