Monday June 19, 2017

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Yellow Lab Outside the Coffee Shop

The yellow lab outside the coffee shop
today cannot sit still; but instead

radiates the ever-expectant energy
of a thousand hummingbirds,

tail sweeping back and forth
across the gray, littered sidewalk.

Sits without touching the ground,
knowing that any moment

the one who matters most will emerge,
slip his worn leash from the bench

and the day will suddenly fall into
place: every sound, sight, and aroma

discovered anew, the sun thrown
everywhere at once, with a cool lake

of shadow following, following,
as if it had somewhere to go.

“Yellow Lab Outside the Coffee Shop” by Greg Watson from When the Music Remains. © Nodin Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of film critic Pauline Kael (books by this author), born in Petaluma, California (1919). After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, she tried her hand — unsuccessfully —at filmmaking and playwriting. She published her first movie review in 1953 for a small San Francisco magazine called City Lights. The review was of Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight, which she dubbed “Slimelight.” For the next 13 years, she wrote reviews for a variety of publications while managing an art-film theater in Berkeley. In 1965, she published a collection of her reviews called I Lost It at the Movies. In 1966, she was writing reviews for McCall’s magazine, but was fired when she panned The Sound of Music. Two years later, she began writing for The New Yorker, where she stayed until her retirement in 1991. She caused another stir with her 1972 review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s film Last Tango in Paris, which she deemed the most important movie she had ever reviewed. Her witty and opinionated reviews were featured in several more collections, including Going Steady (1970), When the Lights Go Down (1980), 5001 Nights at the Movies (1982), and Movie Love (1991).

Today is the birthday of American novelist and memoirist who once said, “Memory is the story. Memories are what make us.” That’s Tobias Wolff (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1945). Wolff is best known for his memoir This Boy’s Life (1989), in which he writes of traveling the country with his mother, Rosemary, who was fleeing an abusive husband. Along the way, somewhere in Utah, Tobias Wolff changed his name to Jack, in honor of his favorite writer, Jack London. He and his mother settled in Concrete, Washington, where she entered another abusive marriage. Wolff’s stepfather, who housed the family in a former barracks used for German prisoners of war, often stole Wolff’s newspaper delivery earnings and belittled him at every opportunity. Eventually, Wolff decided the best way out was to escape to an elite boarding school, so he fabricated his applications, claimed straight A’s, and even forged his references and transcripts.

About composing his reference letters, Wolff said proudly: “I could afford to be terse and modest in my self-descriptions, knowing how detailed my recommenders were going to be. I wrote without heat or hyperbole, in the words my teachers would have used if they had known me as I knew myself.”

He was accepted to the prestigious Hill School in Pennsylvania, but was later expelled. He wrote a novel based on his experience at Hill called Old School (2003). In 1990, after he was a famous writer, the school granted him a degree, though the headmaster took great delight in reading excerpts from Wolff’s fictitious application to the commencement audience.

Wolff had a brother, Geoffrey, but when his parents divorced Geoffrey went to live with Wolff’s father, and they didn’t reconnect until Geoffrey was in college. Their father was a con man, forger, passer of bad checks, a car thief, and once even bluffed his way into a job as an aeronautical engineer. Geoffrey turned out to be a writer, too, and wrote his own memoir of their father, called The Duke of Deception (1979). After reading memoirs by both of her sons, their mother, Rosemary, said dryly, “If I’d known both my boys were to going to be writers, I might have lived life a little differently.”

About writing, he says: “I have also learned that you can be patient and diligent and sometimes it just doesn’t strike sparks. After a while you begin to understand that writing well is not a promised reward for being virtuous. No, every time you do it you’re stepping off into darkness and hoping for some light. You can be faithful, work hard, not waste your talents in drink, and still not have it happen.”

And: “We love hearing stories of other people’s misfortunes — not terrible misfortunes, we don’t like that, but if somebody has taken a really expensive holiday, we don’t mind hearing that their flight was canceled and they had to sleep on the airport floor, and that there was no snow on the slopes when they finally arrived, and that the heating crashed in their hotel and that they had to wear several layers of clothing to bed every night. We live by stories. It’s the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are. We’re in an unceasing flow of time and events and people, and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things, and in that way we break the unbroken flow into stories, because that’s the only way we can give it significance.”

It was on this day in 1964 that the United States Congress passed the Civil Rights Act after a long battle in the Senate. Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law 13 days later. It was this piece of legislation that outlawed all segregation on the basis of race in the United States. The text of the law was extremely specific, listing all the places of public accommodation where segregation was forbidden, including any inn, hotel, motel, restaurant, cafeteria, lunchroom, lunch counter, soda fountain, gasoline station, motion picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena, stadium or other place of exhibition or entertainment.

The bill was quickly passed in the House of Representatives, but Southern Democrats filibustered it in the Senate for almost three months. Johnson made personal telephone calls to many of the Southern Democrats, and told them that they would be sorry if they didn’t drop their opposition. He reminded the Southerners that he was the first Southerner serving as president since before the Civil War, and if they ruined his agenda, they might not see another Southern president for another hundred years.

The bill finally came up for a vote in the Senate on this day in 1964. Every senator was present, including Senator Clair Engle of California, who was dying of a brain tumor and couldn’t speak. In order to vote yes, he pointed to his eye. Johnson needed 67 votes to break a filibuster. He got 71.

When he signed the bill into law, Johnson said: “We believe all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings … because of the color of their skin. The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand — without rancor or hatred — how this happened, but it cannot continue. … Our constitution … forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And [now] the law … forbids it.”

It’s the birthday of mathematician and mystic Blaise Pascal (books by this author), born in Clermont, France (1623). He was homeschooled by his father, a mathematician who believed that children should absorb knowledge naturally rather than by studying. So he didn’t go to school in his youth, but he worked on geometric problems in the yard, while playing with sticks. When he was 12, he showed his father that the sum of the angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles. His father was shocked that he had figured this out on his own, and invited him to join in scientific discussions with other mathematicians. At 16, he published an article on the geometric properties of cones, and a few years later, he invented the first mechanical calculator.

Pascal’s family was not religious, but in 1646, he met two Christian mystics who cared for his father during an illness. They converted Pascal, and he converted his family, but he continued working on scientific experiments, showing that a vacuum could exist in nature, and invented the mathematics of probability.

Then, one night in November of 1654, he experienced a divine vision, which he called a “night of fire.” He wrote an account of the experience and sewed it into his coat lining to carry until his death. After that night, he decided to forget the world and everything except for God. He left Paris in 1655 and went to live in a convent. While living there, his niece was miraculously cured of an eye disease by touching a thorn from the crown of Jesus. He decided to write a book to convert skeptics to Christianity.

Pascal wrote a series of notes and fragments about his thoughts on religion, but he never completed the book. The notes were found after his death and published as Pensées (Thoughts, 1669). In that book, he describes his famous wager, arguing that if God does not exist, the skeptic loses nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, the skeptic gains eternal life by believing in him. He also argued that it is the heart that experiences God, and not reason.

He wrote: “Man. What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error: the pride and refuse of the universe.”

Pascal also said, “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

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