Sep. 13, 2012


by Philip Larkin

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

"Days" by Philip Larkin, from Complete Poems. © Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of author and triathlete Mette Ivie Harrison (books by this author), born in Summit, New Jersey (1970). She competed in her first triathlon in 2004 and won it. In 2006, she completed an Ironman competition. She still competes, and often still ends up on the podium.

She started writing at a young age, and shares her earliest work — especially the bad stuff — on her website to encourage young authors. She's written several novels for young adults, including The Monster in Me (2003), Mira, Mirror (2004), and The Princess and the Hound (2007). She lives in Utah with her husband and five kids. She's trying, with varied success, to become a vegan. Her latest book, a modernization of Tristan and Isolde called Tris and Izzie, was published last year (2011).

Today is the birthday of composer and concert pianist Clara Schumann, born Clara Wieck in Leipzig, Germany, in 1819. Both of her parents were musicians, and after her parents divorced when she was four, Clara was raised by her father, who began teaching her the piano. When she was eight years old, she performed at the home of some family friends, and 17-year-old Robert Schumann was so impressed by her playing that he dropped out of law school to study piano with Clara's father.

Clara made her formal debut at age 11, and she was considered a great pianist for the rest of her life. Her concerts sold out, she won all kinds of awards, and the critics loved her, comparing her to Beethoven. By the time she was a teenager, she was a much better piano player than Schumann. He fell in love with Clara and proposed to her, and her father did everything he could to stop the marriage. Clara and Robert finally had to take him to court, and they were married on the eve of Clara's 21st birthday.

Clara raised seven children and continued to tour and perform, although it was hard to find the time. As Robert Schumann wrote in their joint diary, "[T]o have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out."

Clara also took control of running the family finances when Robert became incapacitated by mental illness. She was the first pianist to give a public performance of the work of Johannes Brahms, whose career she had encouraged. When Robert died in 1856, Clara continued touring, and she played her last concert in 1891, 61 years after her performance career had begun. She said, "My health may be better preserved if I exert myself less, but in the end doesn't each person give his life for his calling?" She died five years later, at the age of 77.

It's the birthday of Samuel Wilson, the original "Uncle Sam," born in Arlington, Massachusetts (1766). During the War of 1812, Wilson was a successful meatpacker in Troy, New York. He had obtained a contract to supply beef to the Army, and he shipped it in barrels stamped with the initials "U.S." to show it was the property of the United States government. However, his workers — and, later, the soldiers — joked that it stood for "Uncle Sam," Wilson's nickname. Over time, the association grew and soon the nickname became widely linked to the United States. The association was made official by an act of Congress in 1961.

The first personification of "Uncle Sam" was developed by political cartoonist Thomas Nast, beginning in the late 1860s. Nast is also responsible for our modern image of Santa Claus, as well as the donkey and elephant of our political parties. He gradually developed the character of Uncle Sam over the next decade, eventually putting him in a suit decorated with the stars and stripes and giving him a white beard. But for most people, it's the World War I recruitment poster — designed by James Montgomery Flagg — that first comes to mind when they hear "Uncle Sam." It's the image of Sam, pointing directly at the viewer, above the words "I Want You For The U.S. Army." It first appeared in 1916.

On this date in 1848, railroad worker Phineas Gage survived having an iron rod driven through his skull. He was a 25-year-old foreman on a crew cutting a railroad bed near Cavendish, Vermont. He was using a tamping iron to pack explosives into a hole in a boulder when the explosive powder detonated. It drove the 43-inch iron through his left cheek, up behind his left eye, and out the top of his head, where it landed some 30 yards away. He lost the vision in his left eye, but he may not even have lost consciousness; in any case, he was able to walk to an oxcart within a few minutes of the accident. Workers took him to his boarding house, where he quipped to the doctor, John Harlow, "Here is business enough for you."

By the following January, Gage had apparently completely recovered, although the large exit wound never fully healed. And while he was living a seemingly normal life, his friends noticed dramatic changes in his personality in the months after the incident. Dr. Harlow faithfully recorded them and published them 20 years later in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society: "He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity ... In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.'" He lost his job with the railway company and took work in stables, driving coaches, until he died 12 years later after a series of seizures.

Gage inspired new areas of brain research and became one of the most famous patients in neuroscience. Even though there wasn't much hard data recorded about his case, scientists began researching a connection between brain injury and personality change. They also became interested in "mapping" the brain, noticing a link in Gage's case between the frontal cortex and social inhibitions, and began to discuss whether different areas of the brain may control different functions. Two-thirds of psychology textbooks mention him. His skull and the tamping iron are on display at the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard's School of Medicine.

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