Saturday Apr. 1, 2017

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The Public Garden

The sun is shining and I’m content
to be myself, walking across the Common
as families queue up by the Swan Boats,

real swans parting the water
in elegant wakes. This is
la vie en rose

on a lawn vivid with spring
people walk their dogs, peeling off
in clusters of introduction and gossip;

below a sign that shouts Don’t
Feed the Ducks, families throw
wadded-up bread into the pond;

kids on the carousel want
More! More! Frisbee players,
tourists in Red Sox caps, babies

with their dimpled elbows,
the guy on stilts, the pretzel vendor,
the woman holding out a cup for change

as she recites our forecast,
I’m taking it in, all of it, sun
and melting cones, skinned knees

and soothing words
and single shining tears,
whatever love has rained on us all.

“The Public Garden” by Wendy Mnookin from Dinner with Emerson. © Tiger Bark Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is April Fools' Day, a day for good-natured pranks, hoaxes, and general silliness. The earliest recorded association between April 1st and foolishness is in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in 1392, although this may be a result of misinterpretation rather than Chaucer's intention: in "The Nuns' Priest's Tale," there is a line "Since March began thirty days and two ..." which is probably a reference to the May 2nd betrothal of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, and not "March 32nd" as readers interpreted it. In any case, the story features Chanticleer, a vain rooster, being tricked by a fox, and some believe that's how the date became associated with harmless trickery.

Many cultures have lighthearted celebrations around this time of year, and, in the Northern Hemisphere, it may be related to the spring equinox. One explanation for the April Fools' holiday seemed plausible, until it was revealed as a hoax itself — Joseph Boskin, a professor of history at Boston University, said the practice dated back to the reign of Emperor Constantine, who was challenged by his jesters that a fool could run the empire as well as he did. Constantine appointed Kugel the jester "king for a day," and one of Kugel's acts was to decree an annual day of merriment. The Associated Press ran with the story, and didn't realize Boskin had made the whole thing up until a couple of weeks later.

One April Fools' Day announcement that was not a hoax was in 2004, when Google announced its new Gmail service. People couldn't be blamed for thinking it was a prank, given Google's propensity for April Fools' leg-pulling, and the announced 1-gigabyte online storage for e-mail was far larger than anything any other company had offered.

Today is the birthday of science fiction and fantasy author Anne McCaffrey (books by this author), born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1926. She's best known for her Dragonriders of Pern series, about Earth colonists on the planet of Pern living in a medieval-ish society with genetically engineered dragons, but it's far from her only accomplishment. She's written dozens of novels and stories, many of them grouped into 10 other series and two cookbooks. Her son Todd is also a writer and has taken up the Pern banner.

McCaffrey was born to a long line of rebels. Her great-grandfather was a hedgerow teacher of Catholic kids in Ireland when it was against the law to teach them to read and write. Her great-uncles were "Molly Maguires" — union organizers in the Pennsylvania coal mines — and her grandfather, who was a beat cop in Boston, arrested John F. Kennedy's grandfather, Honey Fitzgerald, for campaigning too close to the polls. Anne was a handful, growing up, and her teachers referred to her as "that McCaffrey brat." She majored in Slavonic language and literature at Radcliffe, and also studied voice for nine years. In 1950, she married H. Wright Johnson, and they had three children. When they divorced in 1970, she emigrated to Ireland with the two youngest kids, and she's lived there ever since, in County Wicklow in a house she designed herself, called Dragonhold-Underhill. She has a lifelong passion for horses, and has owned a riding stable for the last 30 years with her daughter Gigi.

McCaffrey began writing sci-fi in the late 1950s, when the genre's readership was primarily male. When Star Trek became popular in the late 1960s, it drew women in, and they responded to McCaffrey's heroines. Female authors, especially sci-fi authors, struggled to be taken seriously; when reporters asked her more than once how she found time to write and still get her housework done, McCaffrey would answer, "You've got that wrong — how do I find time for housework with all my writing?" She was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Hugo Award for Science Fiction, in 1968.

It's the birthday of the pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, born in Novgorod, Russia (1873). He was a halfhearted student in his early days at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and his teachers felt he probably did not have much of a career ahead of him. He grew to be a tall, imposing man (Igor Stravinsky called him "a six and a half foot scowl"), and his hands were so big they could span an interval of 13 keys on the piano.
He escaped from Russia just before the Revolution and spent most of the rest of his life in the United States. When Vladimir Horowitz arrived in New York City, the two pianists sealed their friendship by going down into the basement of Steinway and Sons and playing Rachmaninoff's own Third Piano Concerto (1909). Horowitz played the solo part on one piano, and Rachmaninoff the orchestra reduction on another.

Rachmaninoff was in the middle of writing his famous Second Piano Concerto (1901) when his first symphony received a lukewarm response. He stopped writing music for three years, during which he felt as though he was like a man who had suffered a stroke, losing the use of his head and hands. He was able to overcome his nervous breakdown by visiting a psychiatrist, who cured Rachmaninoff by repeating the following words to him each time they met, "You will write your Concerto. You will work with great facility. The Concerto will be of excellent quality."

Rachmaninoff's music was very popular, particularly his piano compositions, which were filled with dark and massive chords and strong melodic lines. Prokofiev once remarked, "With Rachmaninoff, all its notes stood firmly and clearly on the ground." His most famous works include various piano concerti, Symphony No. 2 (1907), and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934).

Today is the birthday of American novelist Francine Prose (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1947). Prose is best known for her novels Household Saints (1981), about an Italian butcher and his schizophrenic daughter, and Blue Angel (2000), a witty and dark satire on academia and writing workshops.

Prose graduated from Radcliffe College (1968), but dropped out of graduate school after reading Gabriel García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which inspired her to write in earnest. Her first novel, Judah the Pious, was published in 1973, and she's gone on to write over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including two young adult books, Touch (2009) and The Turning (2012). Prose is a frequent reviewer of books for New York Review of Books and teaches at Bard College. She wrote a best-selling book on the craft of writing, Reading Like a Writer (2006), in which she advises would-be writers to read widely. She said, "The advantage of reading widely, as opposed to trying to formulate a series of general rules, is that we learn there are no general rules, only individual examples to help point you in a direction in which you might want to go."

Her best-selling novel Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (2014) was inspired by a series of photographs by Hungarian-French photographer Brassai. The novel features a cross-dressing heroine, auto-racing, and the backdrop of Jazz Age Paris. Pablo Picasso makes an appearance, as do several other real-life artists. Prose doesn't consider it a historical novel, though, saying: "To be perfectly honest, by the time I got through writing the novel — five years — I was no longer precisely sure how much was 'real' and how much I'd made up. I see the book as a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the past."

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