|Learning the Bicycle|
by Wyatt Prunty
The older children pedal past
Stable as little gyros, spinning hard
To supper, bath, and bed, until at last
We also quit, silent and tired
Beside the darkening yard where trees
Now shadow up instead of down.
Their predictable lengths can only tease
Her as, head lowered, she walks her bike alone
Somewhere between her wanting to ride
And her certainty she will always fall.
, though I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she’ll tilt then balance wide
Of my reach, till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned I had to let her go.
"Learning the Bicycle" by Wyatt Prunty from Balance as Belief. © John Hopkins University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
|It's the birthday of the man who said, "Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open":Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as "the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating." He was the youngest of nine children; three of his brothers committed suicide.|
Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austro-Hungary, but he later gave away his inheritance to his siblings, and also to an assortment of Austrian writers and artists, including Rainer Maria Rilke. He once said that the study of philosophy rescued him from nine years of loneliness and wanting to die, yet he tried to leave philosophy several times and pursue another line of work, including serving in the army during World War I, working as a porter at a London hospital and teaching elementary school. He also considered careers in psychiatry and architecture - going so far as to design and build a house for his sister, which she never liked very much.
Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote: "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for."
|Today is the birthday of the man who once wrote, "I feel I am strange to all but the birds of America": ornithologist and artist John James Audubon(books by this author), born in Les Cayes in what is now Haiti (1785). Audubon grew up in France, and when he was 18 years old, his father managed to get him a false passport to escape the Napoleonic Wars, and he headed to America. Fascinated by all the new American birds he saw, he began to study them more closely. He found some Eastern Phoebes nesting in a cave. He had read that they returned to the same spot to nest every year, and he wanted to test that idea. For days, he sat in the cave with them and read a book, until they were used to him and let him approach. He tied string to their legs to identify them, and sure enough, the next year the same birds were back in the cave. It is the first known incident of banding birds.|
Audubon fell in love with a woman named Lucy Bakewell. Her father objected to Audubon's lack of career goals and insisted that he find a solid trade before marriage. So, he opened a general store in Kentucky on the Ohio River, and soon after, John and Lucy were married. Audubon was a terrible business owner, and eventually he realized that his best chance for success lay in his birds after all. Lucy took on the main breadwinner duties by teaching children in their home, while her husband traveled all over the continent collecting specimens for his masterpiece, Birds of America (1838). The book was two feet wide and three feet tall, with 435 life-sized hand-colored plates of birds. It was extraordinarily expensive to print, and was financed by advance orders as well as commissioned paintings, exhibitions, and any furs that Audubon was able to trap and sell on his excursions. But it was a success. One reviewer wrote: "All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in its beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but overprudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, had been disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men."
|It's the birthday of architect and writer Frederick Law Olmsted, born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822. He is known as the founder of American landscape architecture and designed New York's Central Park. Though Olmsted is most famous for landscape architecture, that's only one of his accomplishments. He worked as a journalist and wrote several books on various subjects, including two on slavery and Southern society. He was a managing editor of Putnam's Magazine and was also a partner in the publishing firm of Dix and Edwards. He drained the saltwater and sewage from Boston's Back Bay and created the Fenway. He managed a gold-mining estate in California. He was the administrative head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was the forerunner to the American Red Cross and helped meet the needs of Union soldiers during the Civil War. He was a leader in the conservation movement, helping to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Niagara Falls.|
His friend and colleague Daniel Burnham once said of Olmsted: "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views."
|It's the birthday of screenwriter and novelist Anita Loos (books by this author), born in Mount Shasta, California (1889). Her father was an alcoholic, and she often tagged along with him on visits to San Francisco. He always claimed that these were fishing trips, and although they did spend some time on the pier, he was more interested in going on a bender. His daughter was exposed to some less-than-savory characters, and they fascinated her. With her father's encouragement, she began acting on the stage, to bring in some extra money. When he began managing a theater company in San Diego, she acted for them and later began to write one-act plays for the stock company to perform. One of these, The Ink Well, was a moderate success and occasionally brought her a royalty check.|
She sold her first screenplay in 1911; she received $25, but it was never produced. Her third screenplay, The New York Hat (1912), was directed by D.W. Griffith, and starred Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. Between 1912 and 1915, she wrote dozens of screenplays. Griffith eventually hired her as a staff writer and paid her $75 a week. After she'd written several successful features for Douglas Fairbanks, Fairbanks lured her away from Griffith's studio for the remarkable sum of $500 a week, which she shared with director and future husband John Emerson. She became a famous Hollywood writer and received as much publicity as film stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. In 1917, the movie magazine Photoplay reported, "The most important service that Anita Loos has so far rendered the screen is the elevation of the subcaption, first to sanity then to dignity and brilliance combined."
She eventually married Emerson, but he turned out to be a philanderer and not nearly as smart as she had once thought he was. She consoled herself by forming friendships with other show-biz wives, and hanging around with H.L. Mencken, whom she admired passionately for his intellect and wit. Unfortunately, Mencken preferred young, pretty blondes who didn't have a lot going on upstairs. In 1925, Loos published a series of sketches about just such a young woman: naive, flighty gold-digger Lorelei Lee. When the stories appeared in Harper's Bazaar, the magazine's circulation soared, and the next year, the sketches became the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926). The first printing sold out overnight.
Glen Magnuson, Jr.
- A good day begins with the NYTimes, NPR, Arts & Letters Daily, Sacred Space & good coffee; it ends with a Grand Marnier. A brilliant day would be spent in London, New York or San Francisco -- although Sydney would be right up there. Unwinding in Carmel or Antibbes. Daytime spent in library (the Morgan, LOC or Widener) or museum (the Frick, the Louvre, British) with a healthy walk (around Lake Annecey); evening -- theatre (West End), or music (Carnegie Hall). A nice last meal: Perhaps the French Laundry or Fredy Giardet or Quennelles de Brochet from Taillevent, Cassoulet from Cafe des Artistes, Peking Duck from le Tsé-Fung, Lobster Savannah from Locke-Ober, Sacher Torte from Demel and Café Brulot from Antoine. Sazerac as an apéritif, Le Môntrachet in the beginning, Stag's Leap Cabernet in the middle, Veuve Cliqûot to conclude. Desert Island: Imac, Ipod, (I know, generator and dish necessary) Johnnie Walker Blue Label, wife & Adler's Great Books.
|From the Garden|
by Anne Sexton
Come, my beloved,
consider the lilies.
We are of little faith.
We talk too much.
Put your mouthful of words away
and come with me to watch
the lilies open in such a field,
growing there like yachts,
slowly steering their petals
without nurses or clocks.
Let us consider the view:
a house where white clouds
decorate the muddy halls.
Oh, put away your good words
and your bad words. Spit out
your words like stones!
Come here! Come here!
Come eat my pleasant fruits.
"From the Garden" by Anne Sexton from The Complete Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
|It was on this day in 1800 that Congress established its own legislative library: the Library of Congress. As part of a legislative measure to move the government from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams approved spending $5,000 "for the purchase of such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress [...] and for fitting up a suitable apartment for containing them."|
Congress ordered 740 books and three maps from London, and in just over a decade, the library had more than 3,000 items. During the War of 1812, the British attacked the Capitol and burned everything to the ground, including all the contents of the library. Former President Thomas Jefferson wrote from his home in Virginia: "I learn from the newspapers that the vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington over science as well as the arts, by the destruction of the public library with the noble edifice in which it was deposited." As a replacement, he offered to sell his personal library, which was considered the best in the country. Not everyone in Congress thought it was a good idea - Jefferson's tastes were eclectic, and some legislators thought it was unnecessary to have books on art and science, or in foreign languages. Jefferson replied: "I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." In the end, they paid him $23,950 for 6,487 books.
Beginning in 1870, copyright law required that the Library of Congress receive copies of all new materials. After that, the library quickly outgrew its space at the Capitol, and in 1873 the government announced a contest to design plans for a new space. The resulting library, built in Italian Renaissance style, is now called the Thomas Jefferson building. The Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford, declared it "the book palace of the American people," and it was called "the largest, the costliest, and the safest" library in the world. Today, the Library of Congress has 650 miles of shelves, and 150 million items, including more than 35 million books.
|It's the 200th birthday of Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (books by this author), born in London in 1815. His father, Thomas, was a hot-tempered barrister who had trouble keeping a job, and the family frequently had money troubles as a result. Anthony went to a prestigious public school, but it was readily apparent that, unlike most of his classmates, he wasn't rich, and he was bullied by students and teachers alike.|
As a young man, he got a job as a postal clerk, but earned a reputation for insubordination and tardiness. He resolved to turn his life around when he was offered a transfer to Ireland in 1841, and his fortunes did indeed change: the cost of living was lower there, so he was able to enjoy a sense of prosperity, traveling more and taking up fox hunting, which he loved. His job took him all over the country, and he enjoyed the working-class Irish people, finding them more clever and hospitable than their English counterparts. And he began writing novels on his long train rides, occasionally raiding the "lost letter" box for ideas. In 1859, he transferred back to England, wanting to be within easy reach of London now that he was an established author. He remained with the Post Office for 33 years, rising to a fairly senior position, and he is credited with developing the pillar-style post box, which has since become a British classic.
He was most disciplined as a writer, getting up at every day to write for three hours before he went to the office, and wrote in his autobiography: "Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But he should so have trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours - so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas." Trollope wrote 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and a few travel books. He created the fictional county of Bartsetshire, and set several novels there. His most famous book, The Way We Live Now (1875), is a scathing 100-chapter satire of English greed. He was, and remains, one of England's most popular authors.
He said: "The habit of reading is the only one I know in which there is no alloy. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will be there to support you when all other resources are gone. It will be present to you when the energies of your body have fallen away from you. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live."
|It's the birthday of poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren (books by this author), born in Guthrie, Kentucky (1905). Growing up, he had no interest in writing or literature. He wanted to become a naval officer, but his plans came to an abrupt end as a teenager when his brother accidentally hit him in the eye with a rock and he lost his sight in one eye. He felt ashamed, ugly, and angry - not with his brother, but at life in general. He had been admitted to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, but now he couldn't go. He enrolled at Vanderbilt, intending to study chemical engineering. Instead, he fell in love with writing. He said, "I found the English courses so much more interesting [...] chemistry was taught without imagination."|
Warren was particularly charmed by one professor, John Crowe Ransom, whom he described as "a real, live poet, in pants and vest, who had published a book and also fought in the war." Ransom encouraged Warren to join the Fugitives, an informal group of professors and students who got together to discuss philosophy and literature. Warren said that it was this group, more than anything, that provided his education.
Warren went on to write fiction, poetry, and criticism. He is the only person to have received Pulitzer Prizes in both fiction and poetry (for which he won it twice), and he served in the position that is now called the poet laureate. His books include Understanding Poetry (1938), At Heaven's Gate (1943), All the King's Men (1947), Promises (1957), and Now and Then (1978).
|It's the birthday of mystery novelist Sue Grafton (books by this author), born in Louisville, Kentucky (1940). Grafton went to college at the University of Louisville. She thought about becoming a lawyer, but her father was an attorney, and he told her not to go to law school - that it was too boring. She was married at age 18, divorced, and married again a few years later. She started her career by writing screenplays, until her agent told her that she was good at writing character but not at plot. So she decided to focus all her energy on writing plots, and mystery novels seemed like a good outlet for that.|
One day, she was reading through Edward Gorey's illustrated book The Gashlycrumb Tinies, about children dying in bizarre ways. It begins: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. C is for Clara who wasted away. D is for Desmond thrown out of a sleigh." Grafton decided that this was her hook, and in 1982 she published "A" is for Alibi. She followed it up with "B" is for Burglar (1985), "C" is for Corpse (1986), "D" is for Deadbeat (1987), and on down the line. The star of her novels is a tough-talking private investigator named Kinsey Millhone, who loves fast food, always carries a gun, and distrusts intimate relationships. Grafton said: "I am Kinsey Millhone. But she is my unlived life. I got married for the first time when I was 18 [...] so, she is the adventures I've never had." Her most recent Kinsey Millhone mystery is "W" is for Wasted (2013).