Aug. 9, 2012


by Jim Harrison

After days of darkness I didn't understand
a second of yellow sunlight
here and gone through a hole in clouds
as quickly as a flashbulb, an immense
memory of a moment of grace withdrawn.
It is said that we are here but seconds in cosmic
time, twelve and a half billion years,
but who is saying this and why?
In the Salt Lake City airport eight out of ten
were fiddling relentlessly with cell phones.
The world is too grand to reshape with babble.
Outside the hot sun beat down on clumsy metal
birds and an actual ten-million-year-old
crow flew by squawking in bemusement.
We're doubtless as old as our mothers, thousands
of generations waiting for the sunlight.

"Sunlight" by Jim Harrison, from Songs of Unreason. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the engineer and architect Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, born in Anet, France, in 1754. He studied art at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture for five years, and in 1776, he left school to volunteer for the colonial army in the American Revolution. He served under General Washington at Valley Forge, and would often sketch Washington and other soldiers. He eventually settled permanently in New York City and began working as an architect and civil engineer.

In 1791, he lobbied George Washington for a job designing the new nation's capital, which was to be built on the banks of the Potomac River. Thomas Jefferson provided him with the maps of several European cities, and L'Enfant selected the best features of each. He first laid out a plan for the important capital buildings and connected them by broad avenues at diagonals. Over this, he laid a grid of rectangular blocks. This design created lots of triangles, circles, and squares where the streets intersected, and these were perfect places to put statues or small monuments. He also envisioned a long public walk, open to everyone, which he called the "Grand Avenue." It eventually became the National Mall.

Jefferson wasn't in favor of L'Enfant's ambitious plan; he'd envisioned something a little less flashy. But the architect was stubbornly committed to his own design. He refused to listen to the city commissioners who were supposed to be overseeing him, and when one leading citizen built his house where an avenue was supposed to run, L'Enfant had the house torn down. Washington had no choice but to fire him in 1792, writing, "Having the beauty and harmony of your plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person and thing was obliged to yield to it."

L'Enfant spent the next several years trying to collect payment for his services. He felt he was owed about $95,000 for the work he'd put in, but in the end, Congress paid him less than $4,000. Many of his plans for the capital were disregarded — a railway station sat in the middle of L'Enfant's "Grand Avenue," and cows grazed freely on its lawn. For most of the 1800s, the city was seen as a provincial backwater. There was even talk of moving the capital back to Philadelphia. But in 1901, the Senate formed the McMillan Commission, a team of engineers and architects who revisited L'Enfant's original plans, and finally, nearly a century after his death, most of his vision was realized.

Cartoon sex symbol Betty Boop made her debut on this date in 1930. She appeared in a Max Fleischer short called "Dizzy Dishes," and she was a real dog. She'd been created as a counterpart to Bimbo, a little hound who was Fleischer Studios' answer to Disney's Mickey Mouse. Bimbo needed a girlfriend, so Fleischer drew a sexy French poodle. Eventually, her floppy ears evolved into hoop earrings, and Betty became a human, rather than a canine, flapper.

For her first four years, Betty Boop cartoons were pretty racy. But in 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect. Betty's skirts got longer, her neckline got higher, and she lost her trademark garter. Her storylines were also toned down and aimed toward a more juvenile audience. The studio received many complaints, and Betty's popularity began to wane. Her series ended in 1939.

Today is the birthday of science fiction author Daniel Keyes (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927. He wrote and edited some pulp sci-fi and horror magazines and comics throughout the 1950s. In 1958, he wrote a short story called "Flowers for Algernon," about a laboratory mouse named Algernon whose intelligence is surgically enhanced. The story is narrated by Charlie Gordon, a janitor with an IQ of 68 who is the first human test subject. It was a story that had been stewing in Keyes' mind for several years; his parents had pressured him to go into medicine, even though he wanted to be a writer. As he struggled with the difficult coursework, he wondered if it was possible to become smarter. And he became aware of the problems faced by the mentally disabled when he taught English to a class of special-needs students.

"Flowers for Algernon" won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. Keyes later expanded the story into a novel by the same name, and though publishers wanted him to change the ending so that Charlie lived happily ever after, he resisted. The novel kept its original ending: Algernon the mouse dies, and Charlie, who becomes a tormented genius for a while, eventually loses his artificially enhanced intelligence and ends up in a home for disabled adults. The book is written as a series of Charlie's journal entries and ends with a poorly spelled request for the reader to leave flowers on Algernon's grave. The novel was published in 1966 and has never been out of print. It's been adapted for stage, screen, and TV several times, including the feature film Charly (1968), for which Cliff Robertson won a Best Actor Oscar.

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




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