Thursday Oct. 6, 2016

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An Inventory of Moons

If you live to be very old, you may see twelve hundred full moons.
Some come in winter and you trudge out into the deep snow to
stand beneath their glow. Others come to you in the city and you
take an elevator up to the roof of the highest building and set out
a couple of folding chairs to watch it glide across the sky. Or the
moon finds you along a foreign shore and you paddle out in some
dingy and scoop its reflection from the waters and drink it down.
The moons of your old age are the most potent but seem few and
far between. They make their way into your marrow and teach it
how to hum. When your final moon arrives, it’s as if youth has
come back to you. Though instead of flaunting its yellow hat, now
it’s dressed in black.

“An Inventory of Moons” by David Shumate, from Kimonos in the Closet. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is German-American Day. On this date in 1683, English Quaker William Penn brought the first group of German settlers to America. He was granted the territory — a parcel of land nearly as large as England itself — as payment for a debt that the crown owed to his father. The king dubbed the land "Pennsylvania," meaning "Penn's Woods," in honor of the senior Penn. Penn the son called Pennsylvania his "Holy Experiment," and he set about to find a group of righteous men to form a new society founded on Quaker ideals of nonviolence, freedom of religious worship, and equality for all. "Freedom of religion" and "equality" were conditional terms, however. While other religious traditions were tolerated in Pennsylvania, participation in government was restricted to Protestants; Catholics, Jews, and Muslims could not vote or hold office. And Penn's promises of equality didn't really extend to everyone: women couldn't vote, and Penn himself was a slave-owner.

He advertised his new colony in the Free Society of Traders, writing, "The air is sweet and clear, the heavens serene, like the south parts of France, rarely overcast." He found one group of suitably righteous men, 13 in all, in the lower Rhine Valley. They lived in the town of Krefeld, and most of them were Quakers or Mennonites. He brought them, with their families, to America aboard the Concord. They were the first German immigrants to the Colonies, and they founded the settlement of Germantown.

Germantown became the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in America five years later, when several town leaders sent a two-page condemnation of slavery to the governing body of the Quaker church.

German-American Day was first celebrated in the 19th century, but fell out of favor due to anti-German sentiment during World War I. President Reagan reinstated it in 1983 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of the settlers in Philadelphia.

It was on this date in 2007 that Jason Lewis and the Expedition 360 team completed the first entirely human-powered trip around the world. Steve Smith first had the idea while sitting in his office in Paris, so he invited Lewis, a college friend, to accompany him. They had a pedal boat built, which they called the Moksha, a Sanskrit word that means "liberation." They set off from the Meridian Line in Greenwich, England, on July 12, 1994. They headed southeast, pedaled their boat across the English Channel, and cycled through France, Spain, and Portugal before embarking on their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean crossing took 111 days, and they landed in Miami, Florida. They biked and skated across the continental United States. Steve Smith left the project in Hawaii to write a book about the first leg of the journey.

The team had to stop from time to time to raise money to fund the trip; Lewis took odd jobs at cattle ranches and funeral homes. About a year into the expedition, his journey very nearly ended altogether. He was rollerblading along the side of a Colorado road when he was run over by an 82-year-old drunk driver. Both of Lewis's legs were broken, and he narrowly missed having one of them amputated. He spent six weeks in the hospital and a further nine months recovering before he could resume his journey. There were other low points, like being arrested in Egypt as a suspected spy, contracting malaria, having two hernia operations, and being robbed at machete-point. He only returned home once during his journey, to visit his ailing father, before resuming the trip from where he left off. He crossed the Meridian Line on this date in 2007, more than 13 years after he left it.

Lewis followed the definition of circumnavigation set forth by Explorer's Web: he started and finished at the same point; he crossed two diametrically opposite points on the globe; he crossed the equator at least twice; he passed through all longitudes; and he traveled at least 40,000 miles. He was assisted by a team of volunteers after Smith left, but the entire journey was made on human power alone, with no help from motors, animals, or even sails to capture the wind.

Euridice, the earliest surviving opera, received its premiere at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence on this date in 1600Euridice was performed for the wedding celebrations of Henry IV of France and Maria de' Medici. It was written by Jacopo Peri, a beloved composer and singer. He had already written Dafne a few years earlier, which is considered to be the first opera, but that music has been lost.

Euridice is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the gifted musician Orpheus falls in love with the beautiful Eurydice, but just after their wedding, she is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus is heartbroken, and he journeys to the underworld to try to bring her back. He charms Hades, the king of the underworld, and his wife, Persephone, and they agree to return Eurydice to Orpheus on one condition: he must get all the way back to the upper world without looking back to see if Eurydice is following. He almost makes it, but right as he is walking out into the sunlight, he turns back, and Eurydice is still in the underworld, so he loses her forever. Peri not only wrote the opera, he also sang the role of Orpheus.

Peri wrote a long preface to Euridice, in which he explained the new musical form he was working in, which we now call opera. He said that he was trying to write the way he imagined the Greeks would have, combing music and speech into the ultimate form of drama. One of the people who came to Florence to see Euridice was Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. And he probably brought his servant, Claudio Monteverdi. A few years later, in 1607, Monteverdi premiered his first opera, L'Orfeo, which was also a retelling of the legend of Orpheus. Monteverdi elevated the opera form to new heights, and L'Orfeo is considered the first truly great opera.

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