Jan. 9, 2012

A Short Panegyric

by Mark Strand

Now that the vegetarian nightmare is over and we are back to
our diet of meat and deep in the sway of our dark and beauty-
ful habits and able to speak with calm of having survived, let
the breeze of the future touch and retouch our large and hun-
gering bodies. Let us march to market to embrace the butcher
and put the year of the carrot, the month of the onion behind
us, let us worship the roast or the stew that takes its place once
again at the sacred center of the dining room table.

"A Short Panegyric" by Mark Strand, from Almost Invisible. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the New York Times lead fiction critic Michiko Kakutani (books by this author), born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1955. The daughter of a Yale mathematician and herself a Yale graduate, Kakutani worked as a reporter before becoming a book critic at the Times in 1983. Since then she has made a reputation for herself as a fearsome reviewer, one who is unafraid to take on the famous and distinguished, as she did recently in a scathing review of an Ann Beattie novel, which Kakutani described as a "pretentious...narcissistic, self-indulgent, hot-air-filled tome that wastes the reader's time with silly creative-writing-class exercises.

Many writers whose work has been the subject of Kakutani's stricture, have had a few words to say about her, including Salman Rushdie who called her "a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank." Susan Sontag said, "Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point," and Jonathan Franzen called Kakutani "the stupidest person in New York City."

The Pulitzer Prize committee disagrees, having given Kakutani the award for criticism in 1998.

The Fisk School, today known as Fisk University, first opened its doors on this day in 1866, in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the first American colleges founded for black students, the original school was housed in the abandoned Army barracks of Union soldiers, a facility provided by a Missouri general and abolitionist, Clinton Fisk. With a mission to provide an education for anyone who wished to learn, regardless of race, the school's first students ranged in age from seven to 70.

The funds for its construction were raised by the school's Fisk Jubilee Singers, a touring performance group composed primarily of former slaves. Following the old underground railroad route on their first tour, the Singers sang spirituals like "The Gospel Train" and "Oh Rise and Shine!" in private homes and churches; they'd emptied the struggling school's treasury to pay for their expenses, hoping that the investment would pay off. Only two years later, the group's renown was such that they performed for President Grant in the White House and Queen Victoria in England.

Mark Twain wrote about the Fisk Jubilee Singers: "I heard them sing once, & I would walk seven miles to hear them sing again...this is strong language for me to use, when you remember that I never was fond of pedestrianism."

It was on this day in 1493 that Christopher Columbus, navigating the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria near the coast of the Dominican Republic, on his way to what he believed was a route to Asia, wrote in his journal that he'd seen three mermaids. He seemed unimpressed by them, however, noting that they "came up very high out of the sea: but they are not as beautiful as they are painted, as in some ways they are formed like a man in the face." What Columbus and his men actually saw were most likely manatees, the slow moving mammals that can only live in warm water and have particularly expressive and human-like eyes.

Columbus actually wrote that he saw, "sirenas," the Italian word for mermaids — half-woman, half-fish. The word's etymology comes, of course, from the Sirens of Greek mythology, but the connection is a somewhat garbled one. The mythological Sirens, like those Homer wrote of in the Odyssey, were in fact female bird creatures. Although they lived on islands so they could sing to sailors, luring them to shipwreck, the Sirens were "winged maidens" who lived in flowered meadows. It was in later retellings that the Sirens were sometimes miscast as aquatic animals, conflating them with mermaids. The biological order of aquatic mammals that live in the coastal waters and swamps of the Caribbean — the order of which manatees are the primary species — is named Sirenia.

It was five years ago today that Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone to an audience at Apple's annual Macworld expo. Taking the stage in his trademark jeans and black turtleneck, Apple chairman Jobs said that it was a day he'd been looking forward to for two and a half years, because he had three revolutionary products to introduce. A widescreen iPod with touch control and a "breakthrough Internet communications device" and a "revolutionary mobile phone," all in one device.

The iPhone was the first "smartphone" to use multi-touch technology, and was the first to access the Internet with full Web-browsing capabilities. Jobs demonstrated the device's capabilities by calling up Google Maps to find a nearby Starbucks, then prank called it to order 4,000 lattes to go.

The iPhone wasn't for sale until June, when it was available in two versions of differing memory for $499 and $599. But on this day of its unveiling, Apple's shares skyrocketed from $7 to over $92.

It was on this day in 1956 when the "Dear Abby" advice column first appeared in print, in the San Francisco Chronicle. Purportedly written by Abigail Van Buren, the pen name of Pauline (Friedman) Phillips.

Three months before, her identical twin sister, Esther, or "Eppie" Friedman, had taken over the Ann Landers advice column at the Chicago Sun-Times. Phillips had been born Pauline Esther Friedman just 17 minutes after her big sister, Esther Pauline Friedman; Pauline Esther would become Abby, and Esther Pauline would take the name Ann. But first, the twins attended college together, where they'd co-written that gossip column, and even married in a joint ceremony on their 21st birthday.

After Esther, or Ann Landers, won a contract for the following year and appeared on the popular game show What's My Line? Pauline, or Abby, reportedly responded by offering her column to the Sioux City Journal, the sisters' hometown paper in Iowa, for a reduced rate — as long as they wouldn't publish her sister's column, too. Although the women publicly reconciled in 1964, rumors of their competitive infighting persisted for the duration of their careers.

Esther, or Ann Landers, passed away in 2002. Her column, now written by her former editors, became "Annie's Mailbox." The "Dear Abby" column is still read by more than 110 million people every day. It's written by Pauline's (that is, Abby's) daughter, Jeanne.

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




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