Sunday July 16, 2017

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Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the
      lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer
      her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and
      the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey
      dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call
      of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be
And all I ask is a windy day with the white
      clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and
      the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the
      vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where
      the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the
      long trick’s over.

“Sea Fever” by John Masefield. Public domain.  (buy now)

George Washington signed the Residence Actestablishing the site of the U.S. capital on the east bank of the Potomac River on this date in 1790. The issue had been a matter of much Congressional debate for the past few years. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton worked out a compromise: the capital would be placed in the South, and in return, Madison would agree to let the federal government assume the states' war debt. The Residence Act mandated that the capital site not exceed 100 square miles, and that it should lie on the Potomac River somewhere between the Anacostia River and the Conococheague, a creek that flows into the Potomac. At first glance, the marshy, mosquito-ridden site seemed an unlikely place for a capital, but George Washington saw potential in the area's many rivers.

The act also established Philadelphia as a temporary capital while the exact location was figured out and a plan drawn up for the layout of the city — a process that took 10 years. Washington hired a French architect and city planner named Pierre L'Enfant to design this new city. L'Enfant studied the maps of several European cities and chose what he thought were the best elements of each. He figured out where all the important government buildings would go, connected them with diagonal-running avenues, and then overlaid a grid of streets. The layout resulted in lots of little triangular spaces, which were perfect for statues and monuments. But L'Enfant grew too ambitious, and Washington fired him in 1792. The federal government began moving into Washington, D.C., in 1800, but George Washington, who died in 1799, never lived in the city that bore his name. John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House.

J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye was published on this date in 1951 (books by this author). It is Salinger's only novel. It's one of the most banned books in American history. It's also one of the most frequently taught in high schools, even though Salinger didn't intend the book for teenage readers. Holden Caulfield, the book's protagonist, is a prep school boy from New York City, and he addresses the reader directly. The novel begins, "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Salinger had thought about Holden Caulfield for years. He carried six Caulfield stories with him when he went off to fight in World War II. The stories were with Salinger on the beach at Normandy and in Nazi concentration camps. They were with him in the hours he spent with Ernest Hemingway in Paris. By the time Salinger began to assemble the novel The Catcher in the Rye, he had nine stories about Holden and his family.

When he finished the manuscript, Salinger sent it to publisher Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace. Giroux was impressed with the book, and was pleased to be its editor, but he never thought it would be a best-seller. Giroux sent the book to his boss, Eugene Reynal. Reynal didn't really get it, and sent it to a textbook editor for his opinion, since it was about a prep-school boy. The textbook editor didn't like it, so Harcourt, Brace would not publish it. Rival house Little, Brown picked it up right away, and Robert Giroux quit his job and went to work for Farrar, Strauss instead. Reviewers called the book "brilliant," "funny," and "meaningful." Salinger couldn't cope with the amount of publicity and celebrity the book gave him. He moved to a hilltop home in New Hampshire and lived the rest of his life in seclusion. Many directors approached Salinger over the years, hoping to obtain the movie rights, and Salinger turned them all down.

On this day in 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the first atom bomb was successfully detonated at White Sands Proving Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The assembled scientists wore welder's goggles and shared suntan lotion. Enrico Fermi took bets on whether the atmosphere would ignite and destroy just the state of New Mexico, or the entire planet. The explosion lit up the sky. The desert sand, largely made of silica, melted and turned to a light green, radioactive glass. Ken Bainbridge, the Harvard physicist in charge of the whole enterprise, known as the Manhattan Project, turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer and said, "We are all sons of bitches now." On August 6th and August 9th, the United States bombed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the only time nuclear weapons have been used in the history of warfare. Bainbridge dedicated his life to the eradication of nuclear weaponry.

Today is the birthday of St. Clare of Assisi, born 1194. As the eldest daughter of a wealthy family, she was expected by her parents to marry well, and they began trying to fix her up with eligible bachelors when she was only 12. She managed to convince them to wait until she was 18, but by that time she preferred to go and listen to the young and radical Francis of Assisi preaching the gospel. One Palm Sunday, she ran away in the middle of the night to give her vows to Francis. He cut her hair, dressed her in black, and brought her to a group of Benedictine nuns. Later, he moved her to the Church of San Damiano, where she embraced a life of extreme poverty, after the example set by Jesus. Clare's sister Agnes eventually ran away to join her, and so did other women, and the order became known as the "Poor Ladies." They spent their time in prayer and manual labor, and refused to own any property.

Clare defended her lifestyle of poverty and sacrifice by saying: "There are some who do not pray nor make sacrifices; there are many who live solely for the idolatry of their senses. There should be compensation. There should be someone who prays and makes sacrifices for those who do not do so. If this spiritual balance is not established, earth would be destroyed by the evil one."

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