Sep. 15, 2012

Porch Swing in September

by Ted Kooser

The porch swing hangs fixed in a morning sun
that bleaches its gray slats, its flowered cushion
whose flowers have faded, like those of summer,
and a small brown spider has hung out her web
on a line between porch post and chain
so that no one may swing without breaking it.
She is saying it's time that the swinging were done with,
time that the creaking and pinging and popping
that sang through the ceiling were past,
time now for the soft vibrations of moths,
the wasp tapping each board for an entrance,
the cool dewdrops to brush from her work
every morning, one world at a time.

"Porch Swing in September" by Ted Kooser, from Flying at Night. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of humorist, actor, and drama critic Robert Benchley (books by this author), born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1889). He went to Harvard and honed his comic style at the Lampoon. After college, he worked a series of jobs and struggled along as a freelance writer for many years, but he eventually became managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1919. That was where he met Dorothy Parker and Robert Sherwood. The three of them would go to lunch together at the Algonquin Hotel and complain about their jobs, and those sessions formed the core of what would become the Algonquin Round Table. When Parker was fired in January 1920, Benchley and Sherwood resigned in protest. He was hired by Life magazine a few months later and worked as a drama critic for about nine years. He was also a regular contributor to The New Yorker during that time, and in 1921, he published his first essay collection, Of All Things! In all, he published more than 600 essays.

In the 1930s, Benchley went to Hollywood. He worked on screenplays, took minor acting parts in movies, and made some comic short films like How to Sleep (1935). He also began drinking heavily, even though he'd been a teetotaler as a young man. He once said, "I know I'm drinking myself to a slow death, but then I'm in no hurry." He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1945, and his memorial service was held at New York's famous "21" Club.

Today is the birthday of mystery writer Agatha Christie (books by this author), born Agatha Miller in Torquay, England, in 1890. During the first and second World Wars, she worked at a hospital dispensary; this gave her a knowledge of pharmaceuticals and poisons that would later serve her well as the author of more than 70 murder mysteries, including Murder on the Orient Express (1933), Death on the Nile (1937), and the play The Mousetrap (1952), which has been running continuously on London's West End since 1952, the longest initial run of any play in history.

Agatha Christie once said, "The best time to plan a book is while you're doing the dishes."

It's the birthday of physicist Murray Gell-Mann (books by this author), born in New York City (1929). A child prodigy, he entered Yale at age 15 and earned his Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1951. He was researching subatomic particles during the 1950s and '60s, a time when so many new particles were discovered that people began referring to them as a "particle zoo." He developed a way to categorize the composite particles known as hadrons into eight separate types, and he called this the Eightfold Way, after the Buddhist Eightfold Path. He also theorized that hadrons were made up of three parts, and each part held a fraction of the hadron's total electric charge. He christened these smaller particles "quarks." He got the name from a line in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake: "Three quarks for Muster Mark!" He won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969.

Gell-Mann has been called "the man with five brains" because his interests are so varied. In addition to his work in physics, he has helped organize an environmental studies program sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. He is also an expert on historical linguistics, and co-founded the Evolution of Human Languages Project at the Santa Fe Institute. In his spare time, he's a rancher, a birdwatcher, and a collector of antiquities. He's the author of numerous scientific articles and books, including The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex (1995).

Today is the birthday of James Fenimore Cooper (books by this author), born in Burlington, New Jersey (1789). He was the first true American novelist. He was the 11th of 12 children, and when he was a year old, the family moved to Cooperstown, New York, a town his father founded. James grew up running wild in the woods, and he picked up the habit of reading from his mother, who turned to books as an escape from boredom and loneliness. He went to Yale, but was expelled for a series of pranks, including teaching a donkey to sit in his professor's chair.

He took up writing because he was disgusted with the quality of books available in America. His first book, Precaution (1820), was an attempt to write like Jane Austen, and it was a failure. But his second book — The Spy (1821) — proved to be quite popular. He's best remembered for The Leatherstocking Tales, a series of novels featuring frontiersman Natty Bumppo. The series includes The Last of the Mohicans (1826), which has been adapted for film several times.

Cooper's eldest daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, became an author too. She wrote Rural Hours (1850), a nature diary of the area around Cooperstown; she also wrote a novel, some short stories, children's stories, and articles on a wide variety of topics.

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