May 11, 2012

Rilke's Fear of Dogs

by Jeffrey Harrison

had less to do
with any harm
they might inflict
than with the sad
look in their eyes
expressing a need
for love he felt
he couldn't meet.
And so he looked
away from them.

He was too busy
for such obligations,
waiting instead
for angels to speak,
looking up at heaven
with an expression
they couldn't help
responding to,
try as they might
to avoid his gaze.

"Rilke's Fear of Dogs" by Jeffrey Harrison, from Feeding the Fire. © Sarabande Books, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who once said, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts": physicist Richard Feynman (books by this author), born in New York City (1918). He worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb, and he was the youngest group leader in the project's theoretical division. When the first test bomb was detonated in 1945, he was ecstatic about the project's success, but soon the real-world implications of this new weapon began to trouble him.

He made enormous contributions to the field of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics, and he had fun doing it. It frustrated him that so few laypeople shared his awareness of the wonder in science. Feyman refused to believe that scientific inquiry came at the expense of beauty.

He said: "Stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part... What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it."

Minnesota became a state on this date in 1858. The state is known for its lakes, mosquitoes, harsh winters, and walleye. It's also known for some great writers, including Robert Bly, August Wilson, John Berryman, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not all of them were born in Minnesota, but they became associated with the state over the course of their careers. Bob Dylan, another native son, was born in Duluth and grew up in nearby Hibbing. He said of his home: "Well, in the winter, everything was still, nothing moved. Eight months of that. You can put it together. You can have some amazing hallucinogenic experiences doing nothing but looking out your window."

The chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue beat chess champ Gary Kasparov on this date in 1997. The two adversaries had faced each other the year before, and although Deep Blue did manage to win one game, Kasparov won the five-game match. IBM returned in 1997 with a heavily upgraded Deep Blue, and this time, the computer won two, Kasparov won one, and they played to a draw three times. Kasparov demanded a rematch because he believed the computer had cheated, but IBM refused and took the computer apart. Since that time, computers have become more and more successful at beating humans on the chessboard.

It's the birthday of the composer who said, "My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American. Not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country": Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline in Tyumen, Russia (1888). He got his new name as the result of a printer's error on the first song he ever sold; the printer typeset "Berlin" instead of "Baline," so Irving kept the new name. His family immigrated to New York City when the boy was five years old, and his father, a Jewish cantor, died three years later. He left school and went to work selling newspapers and singing on the streets for handouts and later got a job as a singing waiter in Chinatown.

He published his first song in 1907 and was paid 37 cents for it. His first big success came in 1911, with Alexander's Ragtime Band. "Ragged time" music was the rage, and Berlin's song became one of the most popular and enduring examples of it. Less than a decade later, he was writing complete musical scores, revues, and Broadway shows. He never learned to read or write music, and he only composed in the key of F-sharp. He once said, "I feel like an awful dope that I know so little about the mechanics of my trade." He wrote many beloved American songs, including "White Christmas," "God Bless America," "Easter Parade," "Puttin' on the Ritz," and "There's No Business Like Show Business."

In 1925, he fell in love with a debutante, Ellin Mackay. Her father, who was head of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company and very wealthy, disapproved of this rags-to-riches Lower East Side immigrant upstart. He took his daughter away to Europe, but his "out of sight, out of mind" strategy failed, because Berlin reached her ears through the radio. He wrote romantic ballads like "Always" and "All Alone" to court her. They were married in a civil ceremony when she returned to New York, and they remained married for 62 years, until her death in 1988.

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




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