Aug. 7, 2012

Cleaning the Bathroom

by Phyllis Hoge

Cleaning the bathroom is humbling and good.
Enamel and glass feel smoother than wood

as the mind, barely thinking, goes passive. Meanwhile
the hand, gliding easily over the tile

or toilet or mirror, finds tangible peace,
in the rhythm of rubbing, a kindly release

and the patience of porcelain fixtures can drain
what's flashy or fancy in favor of plain.

In style unpretentious, demeanor serene,
the bathroom is basic. Its function: to clean.

"Cleaning the Bathroom" by Phyllis Hoge, from Hello, House. © Fithian Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the Dutch dancer and spy Mata Hari, born Margaretha Zelle in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands (1876). She attended a teachers college and then married an army officer, Captain Rudolph MacLeod, in 1895. They lived in Java and Sumatra for a few years, and that's where she picked up her eventual byname. "Mata Hari" is a Malay term for the sunrise, and means "the eye of the day." The MacLeod marriage was marked by infidelity on both sides. He gave her syphilis, which was in turn inherited by their two children. After their son died, the parents began to hate each other. They returned to Holland and divorced, and MacLeod took out an ad in the local paper telling shopkeepers not to give his ex-wife any credit, because he would not be supporting her any longer. In order to make some money, she began dancing professionally in Paris in 1905, and occasionally worked in a high-class brothel.

The exact nature of her spy activities is not clear, but she probably didn't engage in much actual espionage. She was well known by sight all over Europe. She had apparently sold some outdated information about France to the Germans in 1916, and then later made a deal with the head of French intelligence to spy on the Germans in exchange for a pass to visit her Russian lover in the eastern war zone. The French became suspicious that she was a double agent, and she never was able to provide much useful information, so she was tried, convicted, and executed by firing squad in 1917. One of her prosecutors later admitted, "There wasn't enough evidence [against her] to flog a cat."

On this date in 1947, Thor Heyerdahl's raft Kon-Tiki crashed into a reef in French Polynesia (books by this author). The Norwegian ethnologist had set out from Peru the previous April, determined to prove that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands. Heyerdahl and his five-man crew did carry some modern technology, like a radio, navigational equipment, and watches, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The body was made of balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes, and had gaps between the logs for the water to drain out. The cabin was built of bamboo and had a thatched roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it after a legendary Incan sun god who was believed to have walked off across the Pacific.

In three and a half months, the raft traveled 4,300 nautical miles, weathered two major storms, and proved that Peruvian Incans could have made the voyage themselves. Heyerdahl wrote a book about the adventure, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (1948), and made a documentary film of the same name.

Today is the birthday of author and editor Anne Fadiman (books by this author), born in New York City (1953). Her father was the critic and essayist Clifton Fadiman, and she grew up in a literary household, making castles out of the books in her father's library. She was working as a reporter when she got an assignment to write for The New Yorker about a young Hmong girl with epilepsy and her parents' difficulty dealing with the American medical system. The New Yorker decided not to print the article, so Fadiman turned it into her first book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (1997). It took her eight years to finish the book.

She's also written two collections of essays. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (1998) is about her deep love of books. She believes that if you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs. And in her other collection, At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays (2007), she writes about her many obsessions, from her childhood butterfly collection, to the lost art of letter writing, to English essayist Charles Lamb.

On this date in 1934, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that James Joyce's Ulysses was not obscene (books by this author). It had been banned in the United States in 1920, and though it was a hot seller on the black market, Joyce and his publisher couldn't make any money that way. The only way to fight the ban was to provoke the government into a new obscenity trial. So in 1933, Random House decided to import a single version of the French edition of Ulysses, and the company had people wait at the New York docks for the book's arrival. It was a hot day and the U.S. Customs inspector didn't want to be bothered with another inspection, but the Random House people made sure that one book was seized. Random House and Joyce appealed, and the judge, John Woolsey, ruled that it was not pornographic. In his judicial opinion, Judge Woolsey wrote, "In respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of his characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring."

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