Sunday Jul. 3, 2016

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Last Day of Kindergarten

In the photograph
the boy is ecstatic,
set free, a young king,
everything ahead of him.
There is nothing he can’t have
if he wants it and he wants it,
as does his friend beside him.
They are ready now to ride off
together and slay dragons,
rescue the world. It’s all here
in the park after the last bell;
it’s here in the green summer
they have been released to.
It’s here in their manhood.
They’ve only finished kindergarten
but they understand freedom
and friendship. They’re on top
of the picnic table, they’re on top
of the world in their tennis shoes,
they have raised their arms,
they are such men as could
raise continents; they have
survived. Look how their
fingers reach the sky
and their legs are sure as
horses. Their bodies
will forever do anything they ask.

“Last Day of Kindergarten” by Marjorie Saiser from I Have Nothing to Say About Fire. © The Backwaters Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry (books by this author), born in Armonk, New York (1947), the son of a Presbyterian minister. He was elected Class Clown by his high school class of 1965, then went on to major in English at Haverford College, where he claimed to have written “lengthy scholarly papers filled with sentences that even he did not understand.”

He got a job with a daily newspaper and was assigned to cover town hall meetings. Then he joined a consulting firm that specialized in teaching business executives to write effectively. He said that he “spent nearly eight years trying to get various businesspersons to for God’s sake stop writing things like ‘Enclosed please find the enclosed enclosure,’ but he eventually realized that it was hopeless.” He left and joined The Miami Herald, and in 1988 he won a Pulitzer for commentary.

Titles of his many books include Babies and Other Hazards of Sex: How to Make a Tiny Person in Only 9 Months with Tools You Probably Have around the Home (1984), Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States (1989), Dave Barry in Cyberspace (1996), Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs (1997), and “My Teenage Son’s Goal in Life is to Make Me Feel 3,500 Years Old” and Other Thoughts on Parenting from Dave Barry (2001). His latest book is called Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster): Life Lessons and Other Ravings from Dave Barry (2015).

He once said: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’"

It’s the birthday of poet William Henry Davies (books by this author), born in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, in 1871, who wrote the lines, “What is this life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare?” For many years, he wandered around the United States and Europe, begging and working odd jobs to support himself. He wrote about his experiences in The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp (1908).

On this date in 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg ended. The battle, which began as a small skirmish but ended up involving 160,000 Americans, was a Northern victory, and though the war would continue for almost two more years, Gettysburg marked a turning point as the last major strategic offensive led by the South.

The last Confederate charge of the battle was led by Major General George Pickett, who led 12,500 troops up Cemetery Hill to their obliteration. Half of his forces didn’t survive the charge. Over the three-day battle, casualties — including dead, wounded, and captured — were between 46,000 and 51,000. Nearly 8,000 men and 3,000 horses were killed outright, and they had to be buried or burned quickly. There was only one civilian casualty: Jennie Wade, who was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen wall and killed her while she was baking bread.

Today is the beginning of the Dog Days of summer, 40 days of especially hot and humid weather with little rainfall, according to the Farmers’ Almanac. The name came from the ancient Greeks. They believed that Sirius, the “dog star,” which rose with the sun at that time, was adding to the sun’s heat. They also believed that the weather made dogs go mad. The Romans tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the Dog Days. For the Egyptians, the arrival of Dog Days marked the beginning of the Nile’s flooding season, as well as their New Year celebrations.

“Dog Days” has been adopted by the stock market, because the markets tend to be slow and sluggish; it’s also come to mean any period of stagnation or inactivity.

Today is the birthday of Franz Kafka (books by this author), born in Prague (1883). He was a smart child and did well in school, although he resented the way his teachers tried to change who he was. He later wrote in his diary: “I demand from their hands the person I now am, and since they cannot give him to me, I make of my reproach and laughter a drumbeat sounding in the world beyond.” He was unhappy at home, too. His mother didn’t really understand why he wanted to be a writer, and his father was loud and authoritarian — he intimidated his son, who had a tendency to stammer and stutter in his presence. In Kafka’s autobiography Letter to a Father (1919), he attributes his own failure to form healthy relationships, as well as his need to escape into writing, to his father’s domineering personality.

Kafka studied law in college, because it gave him time to take classes in literature. He worked as an unpaid law clerk for a year, and then got a job with an insurance company that specialized in workplace accidents. Kafka was a model employee, and did well there, but he suffered from chronic illness — much of it psychosomatic. He adopted a variety of practices and regimens — including calisthenics, fresh air, and vegetarianism — to try to regain his health. In 1917, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis; in 1922, he was forced by ill health to retire.

Kafka wrote throughout his adult life, but was insecure about his work and only published a small number of short stories — including The Metamorphosis (1915) — during his lifetime. He asked his friend and literary executor Max Brod to burn all of his work when he died. Luckily for future readers, Brod didn’t carry out this request after Kafka’s death of tuberculosis in 1924. By World War II, Kafka’s literary legacy was well established, largely due to his novels The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926), and Amerika (1927).

Even though he was often depressed and neurotic, he could also be cheerful, fun-loving, and optimistic. He wrote in his diary a few years before his death: “Life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come.”

It’s the birthday of M.F.K. Fisher (1908) (books by this author), born Mary Frances Kennedy in Albion, Michigan. She’s the mother of the “food essay” and always viewed cuisine as a metaphor for culture. She grew up in Whittier, California, and met her future husband, Alfred Young Fisher, at the University of Southern California in 1929. They spent the first three years of their marriage in Dijon, France, and she referred to that period as the “shaking and making years in [her] life.”

She found an Elizabethan cookbook at her public library, and was inspired to try her hand at food writing. Her first book, Serve It Forth (1937), was full of sensual, evocative prose and some critics assumed a man had written it. Her 1941 book, How to Cook a Wolf, was addressed to Americans and Europeans dealing with rationing and food shortages during World War II. In it, she wrote, “When the wolf is at the door one should invite him in and have him for dinner.” It has a few recipes, but it mostly contains meditations on the role of meals in relationships, and on sharing limited resources with spiritual abundance. Her chapter titles include “How to Distribute Your Virtue,” “How to Greet the Spring,” “How to Be Cheerful Through Starving,” and “How to Have a Sleek Pelt.”

Author Anne Lamott wrote the introduction to an edition of Fisher’s letters. “Hers was a face anyone would naturally want in the kitchen, a combination of fresh peach and aged potato,” Lamott wrote. “You could see the weight and warmth and softness of her cheeks — the tender part a mother would cup in her hands — now grown so old.”

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