Feb. 4, 2014

Mind-Body Problem

by Katha Pollitt

When I think of my youth I feel sorry not for myself
but for my body. It was so direct
and simple, so rational in its desires,
wanting to be touched the way an otter
loves water, the way a giraffe
wants to amble the edge of the forest, nuzzling
the tender leaves at the tops of the trees. It seems
unfair, somehow, that my body had to suffer
because I, by which I mean my mind, was saddled
with certain unfortunate high-minded romantic notions
that made me tyrannize and patronize it
like a cruel medieval baron, or an ambitious
English-professor husband ashamed of his wife—
Her love of sad movies, her budget casseroles
and regional vowels. Perhaps
my body would have liked to make some of our dates,
to come home at four in the morning and answer my scowl
with "None of your business!" Perhaps
it would have liked more presents: silks, mascaras.
If we had had a more democratic arrangement
we might even have come, despite our different backgrounds,
to a grudging respect for each other, like Tony Curtis
and Sidney Poitier fleeing handcuffed together,
instead of the current curious shift of power
in which I find I am being reluctantly
dragged along by my body as though by some
swift and powerful dog. How eagerly
it plunges ahead, not stopping for anything,
as though it knows exactly where we are going.

"Mind-Body Problem" by Katha Pollitt from The Mind-Body Problem. © Random House, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in Breslau, Prussia (1906). He came from a family of Lutheran theologians and pastors and decided when he was 16 that he wanted to study for the ministry. He chose to study at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He had a maverick professor there who taught theology by way of the Harlem Renaissance, assigning books by Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and James Weldon Johnson. Bonhoeffer was inspired to start attending a black church in Harlem, where he began to teach Sunday school, and he also witnessed his church's struggle against racism.

In 1931, when Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin, he suddenly saw the anti-Semitism that had been brewing in his county with a new clarity. When Hitler took power in 1933, other pastors and theologians in Germany chose to ignore it, but Bonhoeffer joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. The assassination plot was a failure, and Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943.

He spent his last months in prison writing letters to his fiancée, a young woman named Maria von Wedemeyer. The correspondence between the two was collected in the book Love Letters From Cell 92 (1994).

It's the birthday of novelist MacKinlay Kantor (books by this author), born in Webster City, Iowa (1904). He was a prolific writer who produced more than 40 books, including historical novels, Westerns, crime novels, nonfiction, and collections of poetry. Kantor wrote about the Civil War in novels such as The Jaybird (1932), Long Remember (1934), and Arouse and Beware (1936). He spent more than 25 years researching his novel Andersonville (1955), about the Confederate prison camp where 50,000 Union soldiers were held. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956.

Kantor's novel Glory for Me (1945), about the lives of three World War II veterans in a small Midwestern town, was the basis for the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, which won nine Academy Awards in 1946.

It was on this day in 2004 that the social networking site Facebook was launched from a Harvard University dorm room. Its founder, sophomore Mark Zuckerberg, lived in Suite H33 in Kirkland House with three other 19-year-olds. Zuckerberg was a smart, middle-class kid from Dobbs Ferry, New York. He started writing computer software when he was 12 years old. In high school, he created a program called Synapse Media Player; he was offered millions of dollars for the product and job offers by both Microsoft and AOL, but Zuckerberg turned them down to attend Harvard instead. In the fall of his sophomore year at Harvard, he created a program called Facemash that displayed two student photos side by side and asked people to rank who was hotter. In the site's first four hours online, the photos were viewed 22,000 times. The site was shut down by Harvard a few days later — not only was it so popular that it overwhelmed the server, but also there was plenty of outcry over privacy violations, since Zuckerberg had acquired the photos for Facemash by hacking into Harvard's photo directory.

A couple of months later, Zuckerberg began writing code for a site that would allow students to view each other's photos and some basic personal information. This site, TheFacebook, was launched on this day in 2004 at www.thefacebook.com. More than a thousand students signed up within 24 hours, and after a month, half of Harvard's undergraduates had signed up. Zuckerberg was in trouble again, this time with three seniors who claimed that they had hired Zuckerberg to create a similar site, but that the sophomore had stolen their idea. Several years later, they reached a multimillion-dollar settlement.

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




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