Wednesday Aug. 9, 2017

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The Calculus

My hygienist likes to include me
in the decision-making.
“Shall we use the hand scaler
or the ultrasonic today?” she asks me.
I like the way she says “we,”
like we’re doing something intimate
and collaborative,
like building a snowman,
or more like dismantling one
after an ice storm, flake
by frozen flake. “The calculus
is caused by precipitation
of minerals from your saliva,” she explains.
“You can’t remove it with your toothbrush.
Only a professional can do that.” She’s very
professional. She doesn’t dumb it down.
“Pay more attention to the lingual side
of your mandibular anteriors,” she says.
I love it when she talks like that.
I love the names of teeth: incisor, third molar, bicuspid,
eyetooth. Her own teeth are
virtuosic. “Calculus comes from the Greek
for stone,” she says. “In mathematics
it’s counting with stones. In medicine,
it’s the mineral buildup in the body: kidney stones,
tartar on teeth.” She teaches me all this
as I sit there with my mouth open,
looking astonished.

“The Calculus” by Paul Hostovsky from Is That What That Is. © Future Cycle Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1974, Richard Nixon officially resigned from the presidency. At 11:35 a.m., his resignation letter was delivered to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Gerald Ford took the oath of office. Then, at 12:05 p.m., Gerald Ford gave his first speech as president of the United States. He was the only president in U.S. history who was never elected president or vice president.

In his inaugural address, Gerald Ford said: "My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not of men."

It's the birthday of the creator of Mary Poppins, P.L. (Pamela Lyndon) Travers, born Helen Lyndon Goff, in Mayborough, Queensland, Australia (1899). Before the publication of Mary Poppins, she adopted P.L. Travers (books by this author) as her literary pseudonym.

In 1933, while recovering from an illness at her home in Sussex, Travers wrote the first stories in the Mary Poppins series and made them into a book about a prim British nanny who appears at a household in a high wind and floats away when the wind changes. Mary Poppins was published the following year. The book was an immediate success in Britain and the United States. Between 1935 and 1988, she published seven sequels, including Mary Poppins Comes Back and Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane. The 1964 Walt Disney movie starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke was based on Travers' stories.

She said in an interview: "Mary Poppins is both a joy and a curse to me as a writer. As a writer you can feel awfully imprisoned, because people, having had so much of one thing, want you always to go on doing more of the same."

Today is the birthday of biographer Izaak Walton (books by this author), born in Stafford, England (1593). As a boy, he was apprenticed to an ironmonger, and he spent his career as a shopkeeper. In his spare time, he wrote biographies of John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Wotton, and several others. Many of Walton's subjects shared his main passion in life: fishing. In 1653, Walton published The Compleat Angler; or, The Contemplative Man's Recreation, an extended ode to fishing, complete with tips, funny anecdotes, technical instructions, dialogues, poems, and commentary about what makes fishing so special. Walton continued to update The Compleat Angler until his death in 1683 at the age of 90. It has been in print for more than 350 years.

It's the birthday of English poet Philip Larkin (1922) (books by this author), born in Coventry, England, and best known for his clipped, spare poems that explored post-war England. Larkin's father was a city treasurer and a Nazi enthusiast; his mother was pathologically anxious, and she homeschooled Larkin until he was eight years old. Larkin had poor eyesight and a stammer that persisted into adulthood. He sought refuge in books and wrote stories every night. His father introduced him to the works of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. Larkin was convinced at first that he would be a novelist, and by the time he enrolled at Oxford (1940), he'd already written five full-length novels, but destroyed them.

At Oxford, he studied literature and found his footing with friends like Kingsley Amis and John Wain, with whom he drank and stayed up late at night, talking about books and listening to jazz records. He became such good friends with Amis that when Amis was writing his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), Larkin advised him on the manuscript. Amis was so grateful that he dedicated Lucky Jim to Larkin and they became lifelong friends. After graduating from Oxford, he was turned away from military service because of his eyesight, so he joined the staff at a small public library in Shropshire and completed two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). He also published his first collection of poetry, The North Ship (1945), which received good reviews. Larkin tried to write another novel, but he simply couldn't finish it. He said, "I didn't choose poetry; poetry chose me."

Philip Larkin spent more than 30 years as a librarian at the University of Hull. He was intensely private, rode a bicycle to work five days a week, 45 weeks a year, and published only four short volumes of poetry in his lifetime, fewer than 100 pages total. His collections include The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964), and The High Windows (1974). He wrote first with a pencil in a notebook and then typed his poems and revised them. In a rare interview with The Paris Review, he declared his writing routine to be, "Work all day, cook, eat, wash up, telephone, hack writing, drink, television in the evenings."

Larkin never married and lived alone, cultivating a curmudgeonly, glum persona. He once said: "I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any — after all, most people are unhappy, don't you think? Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."

Larkin never traveled to America and never gave readings of his poems, though he did consent to recording them once, an experience he regretted. He said a poem "represents the mastering, even if just for a moment, of the pessimism and the melancholy, and enables you, you the poet, and you, the reader, to go on."

He liked detective stories by Dick Francis and Gladys Mitchell, and when Kingsley Amis said he was likely to be nominated for poet laureate, Larkin responded: "I dream about that sometimes — and wake up screaming. With any luck, they'll pass me over." He declined the position when it was offered, but remained England's best-loved poet.
When asked how a young poet could know if his or her work was any good, Larkin answered: "I think a young poet, or an old poet, for that matter, should try to produce something that pleases himself personally, not only when he's written it but a couple of weeks later. Then he should see if it pleases anyone else, by sending it to the kind of magazine he likes reading. But if it doesn't, he shouldn't be discouraged. I mean, in the 17th century every educated man could turn a verse and play the lute. Supposing no one played tennis because they wouldn't make Wimbledon? First and foremost, writing poems should be a pleasure. So should reading them, by God."

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