Jun. 5, 2014


by Linda Pastan

Today I drove past a house
we almost bought and heard
through the open window music

made by some other family.
We don't make music ourselves, in fact
we define our differences

by what we listen to.
And what we mean by family
has changed since then

as we grew larger then smaller again
in ways we knew would happen
and yet didn't expect.

Each choice is a winnowing,
and sometimes at night I hear
all the possibilities creak open

and shut like screendoors
in the wind,
making an almost musical

to what I know
of love and history.

"Possibilities" by Linda Pastan from Heroes in Disguise. © Norton, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Just after midnight on this day in 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles by Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, a 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant. Kennedy had just won California's Democratic presidential primary, and he was exiting through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. Juan Romero, a 17-year-old busboy, was shaking his hand when Sirhan began firing. Several of the men with him tackled Sirhan, including writer George Plimpton, Olympic athlete Rafer Johnson, and football star Rosey Grier. Romero knelt by Kennedy, and put a rosary in his hand.

His brother Edward "Ted" Kennedy delivered the eulogy:

"My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'"

On this day in 1977, the Apple II computer went on sale, and the era of personal computing began. Developed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, it was the first successful mass-produced microcomputer designed for home use. It came standard with 4 kilobytes of memory, game paddles, and a demo cassette with some programs on it. Most people used their televisions as monitors.

The Apple II sold for about $1,300; today that same money will buy you an iMac, with 4 gigabytes — one million times the original amount — of memory, a sleek backlit 21-inch monitor, and a 2.7 gigahertz processor.

Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith (books by this author) was baptized on this day in 1723 in Kircaldy, Fife, Scotland. We don't know much about his childhood, but it's rumored that he was carried off — briefly — by gypsies at the age of four. He was absentminded and eccentric, talking to himself often, suffering from imaginary illnesses, and given to such engrossing daydreams that he occasionally walked out of the house in his nightgown.

Smith entered the University of Glasgow in 1737, at the age of 14. After he graduated, he won a scholarship to Oxford, which he found academically lackluster after the dynamic Scottish Enlightenment atmosphere in Glasgow; he largely taught himself while he was there. He became a professor of logic and, later, moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow, and he considered his time there "by far the happiest and most honourable period of [his] life." His social circle included a chemist, an engineer, a publisher, several successful merchants, and fellow philosopher David Hume.

Smith published his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in 1759, to general acclaim, but it's his second, The Wealth of Nations (1776), for which he is chiefly known today. It took him 10 years to write, and in it he posits that the pursuit of individual self-interest will lead, as if by an "invisible hand," to the greatest good for all. He tended to oppose anything — government or monopolies — that interfered with pure competition; he called his laissez-faire approach "perfect liberty." He's been painted by some in recent years as a staunch defender of free market capitalism, supply-side economics, and limited government; other economists argue that this image is somewhat misleading, and that his devotion to the laissez-faire philosophy has been overstated. For example, he had a favorable view of taxes in general and progressive taxes in particular, as he wrote in Wealth of Nations: "The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. ... The rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion." He did argue, however, that the tax law should be as simple and transparent as possible.

Shortly before his death, he ordered his unfinished manuscripts and personal papers destroyed, as was the custom in his time. Lost to posterity are volumes on law, science, and the arts. His Essays on Philosophical Subjects was published posthumously.

It's the birthday of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca (1898) (books by this author), born in Fuente Vaqueros, in the province of Granada. His father was a successful farmer, and his mother was a gifted pianist. García Lorca published his first book, Impressions and Landscapes, in 1918, and then moved to Madrid the following year, enrolling in the Residencia de Estudiantes (Student Residence), a cultural center that provided a stimulating, dynamic, and progressive environment for university students. It was at the Residencia that García Lorca met and befriended a group of artists, including composer Manuel de Falla, filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and painter Salvador Dali; he also became interested in Surrealism and the avant-garde. During the 1920s, he wrote and staged a couple of plays; the first (The Butterfly's Evil Spell [1920]) was laughed off the stage, and the second (Mariana Pineda [1927]) received mixed reviews. He also collected folk songs and wrote a great deal of poetry; much of it — like Poem of the Deep Song, published in 1931, and Gypsy Ballads, 1928 — inspired by Andalusian or gypsy culture and music.

He also had an intense relationship with Salvador Dali from 1925 to 1928, which forced him to acknowledge his homosexuality. He became a national celebrity upon the publication of Gypsy Ballads, and was distressed at the loss of privacy this caused; he chafed at the conflict between his public persona and his private self. He grew depressed, and a falling out with Dali and the end of another love affair with a sculptor only made things worse. In 1929, his family arranged for him to take an extended trip to the United States. It was in New York that he began to break out of his pigeonhole as a "gypsy poet." He wrote A Poet in New York (published posthumously in 1942), a collection that was critical of capitalism and obsessed with urban decay and social injustice.

He turned back to drama when he returned to Spain in 1930. He wrote and premiered the first two plays in his Rural Trilogy: Blood Wedding (1933) and Yerma (1934), and completed the first draft of the third, The House of Bernarda Alba, tackling controversial themes like homoeroticism and the Spanish class system. He also continued to write poetry, including "Lament for a Bullfighter" (1934), about the death of one of his friends:

At five in the afternoon.
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime ready preserved
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death, and death alone
at five in the afternoon.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and the Nationalists didn't look favorably on his work or his liberal views. They dragged him from his home on August 16 and imprisoned him without a trial; two or three days later, they drove him to a hill outside of town and shot him. His body was never found.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (books by this author) began its serial run in abolitionist newspaper the National Era on this date in 1851. It ran in weekly installments for 10 months. It generated some interest among opponents to slavery, but it didn't reach a larger audience until it was republished as a book in 1852.

Many critics dismissed the novel as sentimental, and several characters gave rise to persistent stereotypes of African-Americans. Even so, it attracted thousands of Northerners to the abolitionist cause. The book sold 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year in print.

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