Aug. 2, 2012

On the Beach

by Ramon Montaigne

Children playing on the beach,
Mad dogs running off the leash.
Babies eating small mudpies,
Poison puddles in disguise.

Surfers paddling out to sea.
Are there sharks? There well might be.
Children walking to and fro.
Are they wearing sunscreen? No.

Men who go without long pants or
Shirts are asking for skin cancer.
Naked women soon will be
Sent to chemotherapy.

Food left sitting in the sun,
Salmonella has begun.
Young girls talking to strange men
Who yesterday were in the pen.

The days get hotter,
Near the water
Here in Sodom.
Thank God for autumn.

"On the Beach" by Ramon Montaigne. Reprinted with permission of the author.

On this day in 1790, the first U.S. Census was conducted. The United States was the first country in the world to make a census mandatory in its constitution. It is to be held every 10 years and to serve as the basis for Congressional seats, electoral votes, and to aid planning of government services. In 1790, only the names of the heads of households were recorded and the number of "free white males" were counted for draft purposes. Women were not allowed to work as census takers and were rarely named in the census except when widowed. Genders and ethnicities of all other residents were noted, but slaves were only counted as three-fifths of a person, and American Indians were not counted at all.

It wasn't accurate, but the first census recorded just under 4 million people residing in the United States. In 2010, almost 310 million residents were recorded. It is now the largest peacetime operation in the country and employs more than a million Americans.

It's the birthday of the journalist James Fallows (books by this author), born in Philadelphia on this day in 1949. He's written for The Atlantic Monthly magazine for more than 25 years now, reporting on things like technology, the economy, immigration, war and national security.

He majored in history and literature at Harvard, edited Harvard's student newspaper, The Crimson, and went off to Oxford and studied economics on a Rhodes scholarship. He became the youngest presidential speechwriter in history, drafting speeches for Jimmy Carter when he was 26. Then he went to work as a foreign correspondent, reporting from places like Japan and China.

Fallows has written a lot about Iraq; the articles are collected in his book Blind into Baghdad (2006). His most recent book is Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China (2009).

Fallows said, "Make the important interesting."

Today is the birthday of James Baldwin (books by this author), born in Harlem (1924). He grew up poor, the oldest of nine children. He worked at sweatshops as a teen, and gravitated toward books at a young age, spending any free time reading and writing at the public library. He said: "You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who had ever been alive." He was also attracted to the language and redemptive imagery of the Bible, and at 16, he preached sermons from the Pentecostal pulpit, attracting larger crowds than his minister father.

When he was 18, he got a job on the New Jersey railroad and later took up in Greenwich Village, where he was befriended by the African-American painter Beauford Delaney. Baldwin said, "He was the first walking living proof for me that a black man could be an artist." He supported himself doing freelance work, and was beginning to come to terms with his sexuality — but he found the attitude in the U.S. toward blacks and homosexuals to be unbearable. When the writer Richard Wright helped him secure a grant to write abroad, Baldwin moved to Paris and later to Switzerland where he finished his first autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953). He continued to move between the States and Europe for the next decade, calling himself a commuter rather than an expatriate, breaking new ground in literature with his novels Notes of a Native Son (1956) and Giovanni's Room (1957), which openly discussed homosexuality.

Although he lived in France, Baldwin's work was rooted in the American experience. He said, "I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." The Civil Rights movement inspired him to return to the States, where he spoke to audiences and wrote essays on race relations, and in 1956, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine with the publication of The Fire Next Time. He was devastated by the assassinations of his close friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., and though he was criticized for being out of touch with the times, he returned to France in the '70s, where he continued to write, publishing two more novels and a final collection of poetry, Jimmy's Blues (1983).

Baldwin said, "You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can't, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it."

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




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