Monday Dec. 14, 2015

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On Turning 37

Today you remind yourself that although Buddy Holly was 17
            When he first sang “Peggy Sue”,
And that Fitzgerald was 24 when he published This Side of Paradise,
And that Dylan was only 21 when he composed
            “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”
            In the studio while the other musicians shot pool and played cards,

Whitman was 37 when he wrote “Song of Myself”,
Rousseau was 40 when he first picked up a paintbrush in his Paris apartment
            And began creating those indelible images of the African jungles
            That were largely responsible for the birth of Modern Art,
And even J.F.K,
            He of that perpetual youth and beauty that signaled a departure from
            The grandfather-politics of men like Eisenhower and Truman,
Was 43 when he took the oath of office for the Presidency.

In other words,
Go back to sleep, buddy.
There is still plenty of time to climb the mountain,
And there is no reason to think that your best days are already behind you.

“On Turning 37” by Kareem Tayyar from Magic Carpet Poems. © Tebot Bach Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1542, Mary Stuart ascended the throne of Scotland. She was only six days old when her father, James V, died. King Henry VIII of England, who was her great-uncle, tried to use the familial connection to unite England and Scotland, and drew up a treaty arranging the infant Mary's eventual marriage to his son Edward. The Scots resisted, and Henry began the six-year "War of Rough Wooing" in an effort to force the Scots to comply. The child's mother, Mary of Guise, negotiated a marriage pact with Henry II of France instead.

From the age of five, Mary Stuart grew up in France, in the court of Henry II, away from the political machinations taking place in England and Scotland. She received a good education, not only in courtly pursuits like music, dancing, and horsemanship, but also in Latin, Spanish, Italian, and Greek. Though she became an enduring symbol of Scotland, her upbringing and identity were thoroughly French. When she was 16, she was wed to King Henry's eldest son, Francis, who was 14 at the time, and sickly. It was a purely political marriage, but she was fond of her young husband, who became king upon his father's death in 1559. Six months after her marriage, Mary's Protestant cousin once removed, Elizabeth, acceded to the throne of England, and Mary — a Catholic — was second in line for the crown.

Mary Stuart was widowed at 18, and returned to Scotland to rule in 1561. She found the country of her birth had converted to Protestantism in her absence, and her cousin Elizabeth viewed her with suspicion and hostility, afraid she had designs on the English crown. Her countrymen, too, saw her as a foreigner; her policy of religious tolerance won them over, and it didn't hurt that she was tall, graceful, and beautiful. Unfortunately, she was also easily besotted, and in 1565 she fell passionately in love with, and hastily married, her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. They had a son, James, but Henry proved to be an ambitious, drunken embarrassment. He was murdered two years later; it's not clear whether Mary had any foreknowledge of the crime, but she married the chief suspect, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, after he abducted her. Bothwell was soon exiled by the Scottish nobles, and Mary was deposed in favor of her one-year-old son.

In 1568, Mary fled to England and sought the help of her much more politically savvy cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Rather than helping her regain the throne of Scotland, as Mary had hoped, Elizabeth had her imprisoned, using Darnley's death as a pretense. In 1587, word reached Elizabeth of a Catholic plot on her life, a plot that implicated Mary; she reached the conclusion that Mary was too great a threat as long as she remained alive. Although Mary argued that she was a sovereign ruler of Scotland and not an English subject, Elizabeth ordered her trial, and later, her execution for treason. Mary's son James made no protest; eventually he succeeded the childless Elizabeth to the throne, becoming King James I of England.

Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587, and it took two — possibly three — strokes of the executioner's axe to behead her. A little dog, which she had kept as a pet during her imprisonment, had snuck along to the gallows with her under her skirts, and refused to be parted from her after her death, until Mary's ladies in waiting carried it away to wash the blood from its fur. When the executioner held up the severed head with a cry of "God save the queen!" the luxuriant auburn hair came off in his hand. It was a wig, and Mary's close-cropped head, gone gray during her time in prison, tumbled to the ground.

It was on this day in 1900 that the physicist Max Planck published his theory of quantum mechanics, which is often considered one of the most radical scientific discoveries of the 20th century. At that time, physicists accepted the work of Isaac Newton without any criticism. They believed that the interactions between all physical objects, from atoms to planets, would be predicable and logical. But one thing that physicists couldn't quite understand was the way light worked.

Max Planck was working in a laboratory in 1900, heating up various substances and examining the color of light they emitted when they reached certain temperatures. He wanted to describe his results in mathematical terms, but no matter how hard he tried, his mathematical calculations didn't make sense. The only way he could fix the problem was to assume that light travels in little packets, like bullets, even though this seemed impossible. He published his calculations on this day in 1900, calling his theory about light "an act of desperation." He assumed that some future physicist would figure out what he had done wrong.

But five years later, Albert Einstein took Planck's theory of light seriously and wrote his first major paper exploring the idea of light traveling in packets, which he called photons. Even though he became better known for his theory of relativity, it was Einstein's work expanding on Planck's original ideas about light that won him a Nobel Prize. Einstein later said, "I use up more brain grease on quantum theory than on relativity."

This is the anniversary of the St. Lucia flood of 1287, which resulted in the deaths of at least 50,000 people in the Netherlands. It's one of the largest floods in recorded history, and it was the result of a storm tide: an extreme low-pressure system that coincides with the high tide. Much of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was the result of a similar storm tide. The Zuiderzee sea wall built to hold back the water couldn't stand against such forces, and it collapsed. The North Sea rushed in, killing thousands and reclaiming huge amounts of land in the northern part of the Netherlands. The Zuiderzee — which means "southern sea" — actually owes its origin to this storm. It had originally been a series of shallow inland lakes and marshes, but storms and tides gradually ate away at the edges of the separate lakes, and when the North Sea encroached on the land as a result of the storm, the lake became a bay.

Flooding has always been a matter of great concern to people in the Netherlands. Two-thirds of its area is considered to be at risk, and much of it is an alluvial plain: land formed by the buildup of silt deposited by floods. The rich soil attracted early farmers, who built artificial hills called terpen to live on. They also built low embankments to keep out the water, and by 1250, dike construction was a major industry. The church was the biggest and richest landowner, and the monasteries provided the most readily available workforce, so they took the lead in dike construction, and eventually all the dikes were connected into a continuous seawall.

The massive St. Lucia storm of 1287 also affected the coast of England. The effects weren't as immediately dramatic, but the storm dumped silt into the harbors of several key port cities and made it impossible for ships to enter. The English coastline was redrawn, and the cities never regained their status as vital trading ports.

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