Dec. 14, 2012

Meaning Well

by Jack Gilbert

Marrying is like somebody
throwing the baby up.
It happy and them throwing it
higher. To the ceiling.
Which jars the loose bulb
and it goes out
as the baby starts down.

"Meaning Well" by Jack Gilbert, from Collected Poems. © Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Amy Hempel (books by this author), born in Chicago (1951). When she was 15 and finished with high school, she moved to San Francisco. She went through a horrible two-year span, during which her mother and her aunt both killed themselves, Hempel herself was in two serious accidents, and her best friend died of leukemia. She was always an avid reader and thought she might like to write, but skirted around it for a while. She worked as a journalist first, because it felt secure; it had rules she could learn and a formula she could follow. As it happened, the rule about grabbing a reader's attention served her well when she began writing short stories. "Journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one," she told The Paris Review. She said she always starts a story knowing the first and the last lines.

She wrote, "If it's true your life flashes past your eyes before you die, then it is also the truth that your life rushes forth when you are ready to start to truly be alive."

It was on this date in 1911 that Roald Amundsen and his team became the first humans to reach the South Pole. Amundsen was practical and meticulous, and once said, "Adventure is just poor planning."

Amundsen and his team beat the British explorer Robert F. Scott to the South Pole, because Admundsen was willing to use sled dogs as his primary mode of transportation, whereas Scott believed that traveling by dog sled was undignified.

To reach the pole, Amundsen's team had to travel about 800 miles into Antarctica's interior in weather that occasionally reached 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, cold enough to freeze the liquid in their compasses. They even had to eat some of their dogs as food. But they carried on until all their calculations and measurements showed they'd arrived at the geographical pole, and they planted a Norwegian flag there. Scott's party reached the South Pole a little more than a month later, traveling by foot, and they froze to death on their way back.

Today is the birthday of Shirley Jackson (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1916). Her best-known story is "The Lottery," about an idyllic town and its yearly ritual in which townspeople select one of their number and stone him or her to death to ensure a bountiful harvest. The story appeared in The New Yorker in June 1948, and many readers were horrified. They canceled their subscriptions and sent in angry letters, which the magazine forwarded to Jackson. She was most horrified by letters from people who wanted to know where they could go to witness a lottery like the one she'd described. Even her mother scolded her and told her to write something to cheer people up.

She wrote novels too. Her best known is The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a quintessential haunted house tale, but she also wrote light, humorous tales of her family life in books like Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). She raised four children and only wrote after her household work was done. She said: "I can't persuade myself that writing is honest work. It's great fun and I love it. For one thing, it's the only way I can get to sit down."

It's the birthday of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, born at Knutstrup, his family's ancestral castle, in Scania. (1546). When he was 12, he began studying law at the University of Copenhagen, but eventually he became interested in astronomy after a solar eclipse in 1560. In 1572, he witnessed a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. He thought he was seeing the birth of a new star, although it was actually the death of one. With the publication of his book De nova stella (1573), he went from being a dabbler to a respected astronomer. He conducted rigorous observations of the heavens, night after night, and he was the last major astronomer to do so without the use of a telescope. Eventually, he took on an assistant by the name of Johannes Kepler, who eventually became the guardian of all of Brahe's closely guarded measurements.

In 1601, Brahe attended a formal banquet where the drink flowed freely. Even though his bladder was full, he refused to leave the table to relieve himself, because it would have been a breach of etiquette. He developed a painful urinary infection and died 11 days later. It was long thought that the infection caused acute kidney failure, but recent analysis of his hair samples showed an extremely high concentration of mercury in Brahe's body. Scientists believe he probably consumed a large quantity of the metal a day before he died — possibly as part of some kind of remedy for his infection.

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




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