Jan. 26, 2014

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too
my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blue black cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the
cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently
to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

"Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden from Angle of Ascent. © W. W. Norton, 1975. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye, born in Vienna, Austria-Hungary (1907). When his discovery came about, Selye was just another bright 28-year-old assistant in the Biochemistry Department at McGill University, conducting tests on rats. Specifically, he was injecting rats with extracts of various organs. When he used ovarian extract, the rats developed certain symptoms, including bleeding ulcers and enlarged adrenal cortexes. Selye was thrilled, convinced that he had discovered a new ovarian hormone. But the same thing happened when he introduced extract from the placenta, and then various other organs, and finally the extract of a toxic liquid — so he knew it couldn't be a hormone, which would be produced by a specific part of the body. He was totally confused. He said, "I became so depressed that for a few days I just sat in my laboratory, brooding about how this misadventure might have been avoided and wondering what was to be done now."

Selye reflected back on his days as a 19-year-old medical student at the University of Prague. He had been surprised that so many patients exhibited similar, general symptoms — loss of appetite, aches, rashes, or fevers — before they were eventually diagnosed with specific diseases. He was intrigued by what he called "the syndrome of just being sick." He explained this to his advisor, who laughed it off. Selye said: "Since these were my first patients, I was still capable of looking at them without being biased by current medical thought. Had I known more, I would never have asked myself questions."

Ten years later, in the lab at McGill, he did know more; but as he thought about those patients and their symptoms from "just being sick," he wondered whether this was similar to what he observed in the rats. He also thought about how there were certain general things that doctors prescribed, like rest and eating well, that helped with a wide variety of diseases. He guessed that the body had some general response to "noxious agents" placed on it, and that all illnesses caused the body to issue this general response. He called this theory the "General Adaptation Syndrome," and published his findings in 1936 in the journal Nature.

Selye chose the word "stress" to describe the general bodily responses to noxious agents. He was eventually fluent in eight languages and proficient in several more. But at the time he chose the word "stress," he wasn't quite fluent in English. He didn't understand the use of the word "stress" in physics, where "stress" is the force on an object per unit area, whereas "strain" is the measurement of how an object responds to stress. For years afterward, Selye said that if only he had understood the complexities of English better, he would have chosen the word "strain" instead of "stress." But by that time it was too late, and the word "stress" was adopted not just in English but in many other languages as well; because there was no appropriate translation, other languages just used the English word "stress." Selye devoted the rest of his life to studying stress and its effects on the human body. He usually worked 10 to 14 hours a day, every day, including weekends and holidays. He wrote several books, including The Stress of Life (1956) and Stress without Distress (1974).

Selye said: "The element of chance in basic research is overrated. Chance is a lady who smiles only upon those few who know how to make her smile."

And: "Find your own stress level — the speed at which you can run toward your own goal. Make sure that both the stress level and the goal are really your own, and not imposed upon you by society, for only you yourself can know what you want and how fast you can accomplish it. There is no point in forcing a turtle to run like a racehorse or in preventing a racehorse from running faster than a turtle because of some 'moral obligation.' The same is true of people."

Today is Australia Day. It was on this day in 1788 that a fleet of 11 British ships landed on the coast of New South Wales and claimed the land for Britain, to establish a penal colony for its convicts. The British felt that criminals were inherently bad people and could never rejoin proper society, but prisons were too expensive to maintain, so shipping them off was a good alternative. Now that America had rebelled and broken off from Britain, they couldn't ship their convicts over there, so they looked for new territory, and settled on Australia. The British fleet was led by Captain Arthur Phillip, who became the first governor of the colony. In addition to Phillip and government employees, the British fleet contained 759 convicts — 568 were men and 191 were women. Most had been arrested for minor crimes, including a 70-year-old woman who had stolen a piece of cheese.

Eventually, some of the convicts were pardoned, and it was these ex-convicts or the children of convicts who began celebrating every January 26th with an annual feast, full of drinking and revelry. In 1817, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser described a typical gathering: "The party assembled were select, and about 40 in number. At 5 in the afternoon dinner was on the table, and a more agreeable entertainment could not have been anticipated. After dinner a number of loyal toasts were drank, and a number of festive songs given; and about 10 the company parted, well gratified with the pleasures that the meeting had afforded."

It's the birthday of cartoonist, novelist, and playwright Jules Feiffer (books by this author), born in the Bronx (1929). He said of his childhood: "The only thing I wanted to be was grown up. Because I was a terrible flop as a child. You cannot be a successful boy in America if you cannot throw or catch a ball." He decided early on that he wanted to be a comic-strip artist, and when he was a teenager, he showed his work to the cartoonist Will Eisner, and Eisner gave him a job. Feiffer said, "[It was] ten dollars a week part-time — erasing pages, filling in blanks, and dreaming great dreams."

But he was drafted in 1951, and he did not take well to the Army. He said, "I was treated with open contempt by one form of authority or the other in the Army on a 24-hour basis." The experience inspired him to write a bitterly cynical cartoon strip about a four-year-old boy who is drafted by mistake. He tried to sell the strip to a variety of major newspapers, but nobody would buy it. So he finally turned to a new weekly newspaper in his neighborhood called the Village Voice. Over the next decade, the Village Voice became nationally prominent, and Feiffer's cartoons became nationally syndicated.

His strip in the Village Voice was one of the first cartoon strips to deal with adult themes such as sex, politics, and psychiatry. For most of his career, he has drawn and written all of his work in Central Park, which he considers his office. His cartoons are collected in books such as Feiffer's Marriage Manual (1967) and Feiffer on Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency (1974).

It's the birthday of children's book author and editor Mary Mapes Dodge (books by this author), born Mary Mapes in New York City (1831). She was born into a prestigious New York family. Her father was an inventor and an entrepreneur who planned to revolutionize the farming industry with new chemical fertilizers. One of the investors in his fertilizer idea was a man named William Dodge, who later married young Mary Mapes.

Mary Mapes Dodge lived with her husband in New York City for five years, and had two sons. Then one night in 1858, her husband left the house and never came back. It turned out that he had drowned — possibly a suicide. She was devastated and took her sons to live on her father's farm. She moved into a room in the attic, which she decorated with moss, leaves, flowers, and a painting of the Rhine River on the ceiling. She spent many hours in the attic playing with her sons and telling them stories, and eventually she began to write down the stories and submit them to magazines.

She had long been interested in writing something about Holland, although she'd never been there. She had some Dutch friends who had emigrated from Amsterdam, and she asked them to tell her everything they knew about their home country, what things looked like and smelled like, and the things people did and the food they ate and the stories they told their children at night. She used all of these details to write a children's book called Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865), which became a best-seller. In the 15 years after it was published, it received more reviews than any other children's book in America.

The historical background of Holland that Mary Mapes Dodge wrote about in Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates (1865) included a story about a boy who saved Holland by sticking his finger in a dike. That story was her own invention, but it became so famous that many people believed it was an old Dutch folktale.

In 1872, Charles Scribner and two of his partners were thinking of developing a magazine for children, and they wrote to Dodge to ask for her advice. She replied: "The child's magazine, needs to be stronger, truer, bolder, more uncompromising than the [adult's]. ... Let there be no sermonizing either, no wearisome spinning out of facts, no rattling of the dry bones of history. A child's magazine is its pleasure ground."

They were impressed enough by her response that they asked her to edit the children's magazine, which became known as St. Nicholas. Dodge chose the name, because she said: "Is he not the boys' and girls' own Saint, the especial friend of young Americans? That he is. ... And, what is more, isn't he the kindest, best, and jolliest old dear that ever was known? Certainly again."

St. Nicholas became one of the most successful children's publications of all time. It included work by writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Alfred Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, and Mark Twain. The magazine also encouraged young people to submit stories and poems for publication. Among the writers who first published their work in St. Nicholas were Ring Lardner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eudora Welty, Edmund Wilson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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