Monday Sep. 18, 2017

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          for Jonathan Aaron

It was late, and I was trying to remember
what someone once said about our woes—
how they rise out of our unwillingness
to stay in our rooms. After which
I opened the window, and both of us heard
the rustling sounds outside, as if small
furtive things were hurrying away, or hiding.
You were reminded of the movie Frogs
in which one character after another unwisely
leaves the house only to be hunted down
by animals not generally known
for deliberate acts of revenge.
Thus proving that what we do to the world
returns to haunt us. Radioactivity,
I said, is the usual explanation.
Also carelessness, greed, and desire.
Maybe, you replied. But Ava Gardner
was the most beautiful woman who ever lived.
There can be no doubt about that.
Although Grace Kelly in Rear Window
comes very close, for different reasons.
That left us silent and transfixed.
Outside, something was moving around,
something which now seemed
to have found its way into the walls.

“Desire” by Lawrence Raab from The History of Forgetting. © Penguin Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1870, the "Old Faithful" geyser in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming was discovered by the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. The geyser was the first in the park to receive a name; when the men discovered it, they were astonished by its frequent eruptions, hence the cheeky name, courtesy of Henry Washburn. A geyser is a natural spring that intermittently spews hot water and steam. Geysers are extremely rare; only a thousand have been identified worldwide and half of those are in Yellowstone National Park.

The Washburn Expedition of 1870 explored a region of northwestern Wyoming that would become "Yellowstone National Park" just two years later. The party was made up of Surveyor General Henry Washburn, politician and businessman Nathaniel P. Langford, and several other men, including a newspaper writer and Lt. Gustavus C. Doane, whose journals of the trip would become an important historical record. When they set off on their adventure, they were described as "under the weather," having enjoyed the previous evening drinking until "night drew her sable curtain down."

They set off with a large pavilion tent, a saddle horse for each man, five pack mules with supplies that included 40 days of rations and plenty of ammunition. Sioux lived in the region and other expeditions had encountered skirmishes. The party had an aneroid barometer, a thermometer, and plenty of pocket compasses.

The party discovered the geyser on just the second day of their travels, as they plodded along an area known as "The Firehole." They were greeted by the sight of clear, sparkling water rising about 100 feet in the air, and someone in the party, no one remembered who, shouted, "Geyser, Geyser!" They observed the geyser throughout the day, noting that it spouted nine times at regular intervals, about every 74 minutes, which is how Henry Washburn came up with the name "Old Faithful."

For a time, expedition parties to the park used the geyser as a laundry service: clothes were placed over the crater during quiescence and were summarily ejected "thoroughly washed" after the eruption. It was discovered that linens and cottons did fine, but that woolens were torn to shreds.

In his journal, Lt. Doane expounded upon the beauty of Yellowstone and Old Faithful, "Those who have seen stage representations of Aladdin's Cave and the Home of the Dragon Fly, as produced in a first-class theatre, can form an idea of the wonderful coloring but not of the intricate frost work of this fairy like yet solid mound of rock growing up amid clouds of steam and showers of boiling water. One instinctively touches the hot ledges with his hands and sounds with a stick the depths of the cavities in the slope, in utter doubt in the evidence of his own eyes. The beauty of the scene takes away one's breath. It is overpowering, transcending the visions of Masoleum's Paradise, the earth affords not its equal, it is the most lovely inanimate object in existence."

Since the year 2000, Old Faithful has erupted every 44 to 125 minutes.

On this day in 1793, George Washington laid the cornerstone to the United States Capitol building. The Capitol is the home of the U.S. Congress, which includes the House of Representatives and the Senate. The building sits on Capitol Hill, located at the eastern end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. George Washington envisioned something grand. He told Thomas Jefferson, "The Capitol ought to be upon a scale far superior to anything in this Country."

Before construction began on the mall, Congress met in eight different cities, including Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia. In 1790, Congress passed the "Residence Act," which gave President Washington the power to choose a permanent home for the federal government. In 1791, he chose what would become the District of Columbia from land provided by Maryland.

It took nearly a century to complete the building, as architects were hired and fired and portions of the building were destroyed when the British set fire to it in 1814 during the War of 1812. Only a rainstorm saved the building from complete destruction. Construction was halted when the building was needed during the Civil War, too.

On the day of the cornerstone ceremony, revelers marched with music playing, drums beating, and colors flying. Following the laying of the cornerstone, there was a barbeque. Festivities lasted until well after dark.

By 1850, the nation had grown rapidly, with the number of states in the union doubling since 1793, and the need to enlarge the building became evident, so more construction became necessary.

The jewel of the Capitol is the Rotunda, a 96-foot-in-diameter circular hall surmounted by the immense dome. Visible through the eye of the dome, 180 feet above the floor, is a massive fresco called The Apotheosis of George Washington, painted by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. It features the nation's first president rising to the heavens, flanked by the figures of Liberty/Authority and Victory/Fame. Maidens representing the first 13 colonies are also included. There are also figures depicting War, Science, Marine, Commerce, Mechanics, and Agriculture.

There have been many passionate arguments, and even fistfights, in the Capitol. One of the most famous brawls in the history of the U.S. House of Representatives began as Members debated the Kansas Territory's pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution late into the night of February 5, 1858. More than 30 members began pushing, punching, and shoving each other. Northern Republicans and Free-Soilers joined ranks against Southern Democrats. Wisconsin Republican John "Bowie Knife" Potter and Cadwallader Washburn even ripped the hairpiece from Mississippi Democrat William Barksdale's head.

If you visit the Capitol, you will see many quotes inside, like, "Here, sir, the people govern," words of Alexander Hamilton, and "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country," by Horace Greeley.

George Washington's quote is, "This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, has a just claim to your confidence and support."

Almost 5 million people visit the Capitol ever year.

It's the birthday of movie star Greta Garbo (1905). She was born Greta Lovisa Gustafson in Stockholm, Sweden, and was best known for her sultry voice, sharp cheekbones, and sullen demeanor. The Guinness Book of World Records named her "the most beautiful woman who ever lived" in 1954. Film critic Kenneth Tynan found her beauty so intoxicating he sighed, "What when drunk one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober."

Garbo made a few silent films in Europe before she received an offer from MGM in Hollywood. Studio executives wanted her to lose weight, fix her teeth, and learn English, all of which she did, and she started making potboiler silent films like The Torrent (1926),in which she played mysterious femme fatales. Her films were very popular, but it wasn't until 1930, when the film Anna Christie was released, that people first heard her husky voice. Sixteen minutes into the film, Garbo says, "Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby." The movie was breathlessly marketed as "Garbo Talks!" She became an international movie star.

Greta Garbo made 28 movies, like Grand Hotel (1932) and Ninotchka (1939), before retiring at the age of 35. When she kissed John Gilbert with an open mouth in Flesh and the Devil, the movie was banned in some places for "moral turpitude," but ticket sales were through the roof.

She never liked giving interviews, which led to her aura of mystery. She once said, "'I feel able to express myself only through my roles, not in words, and that is why I try to avoid talking to the press." She usually played tarnished women who fell hopelessly in love before suffering a tragic death. As she grew more famous, her anxiety about acting increased. Visitors were banned from her film set and when close-ups were shot, black screens were placed around Garbo and the camera so no one, not even some of the film crew or fellow actors, could see her. About the screens, she said, "If I am by myself, my face will do things I cannot do with it otherwise."

Most of her films were hits, but some weren't, and before she retired she was labeled "box-office poison." For the rest of her life, she lived in New York City, where she became something of a fixture in the city, as she walked her neighborhood in white clothes and large sunglasses. Her appearances in public became kind of a sport for fans and the media. They called it "Garbo-Watching." A good day included playing tennis, snacking on brown beans and Triscuits, and running the elevators in her Manhattan apartment building when the staff went out on strike.

She walked 11 miles a day through the streets of the city.

Greta Garbo died in 1990. She once said, "I've had a fabulous life."

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