Friday Mar. 13, 2015

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The children are sleeping
and the cows and chickens are sleeping,
and the grass itself
is sleeping.
The machines are off
and the neighbor’s lights,
a half mile away, are out,
and the moon is hanging
like a powdered face
in a darkened room,
and the snow
is shining under stars
the way we are shining here
in our cold skins
under warm quilts.
We pull our shirts over our heads
and toss them to the floor
and the only thing grotesque
is the space through which
we stumble each night.
I roll to you and put my hand
on your skin. You shiver and smile,
“Cold. But not too cold.
Some cold I like.”
And draw my hand closer.
I pull it away
and jam it in my armpit,
and while I wait for the blood
I look at you, admire your face,
your neck and breasts,
your belly and thighs,
the shadowy double of you
thrown by candlelight to the wall—
There is no season, no grass
gone brown, no cold,
and no one to say we are anything
but beautiful, swimming together
across the wide channel of night.

“Still” by David Romtvedt from Some Church (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2004). Copyright © 2004 by David Romtvedt. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of Uncle Sam. He made his debut on this day in 1852 as a cartoon in the New York Lantern, drawn by Frank Henry Bellew. The name “Uncle Sam” had been used to refer to the United States since about 1810, but this was the first time that someone thought to make him into a character and draw him in human form.

It’s the birthday of American astronomer Percival Lowell, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1855). Percival Lowell studied mathematics and history at Harvard, and he went to work in the family’s textile conglomerate. He wasn’t happy in Boston, though; he spent a good deal of time traveling, especially in the Orient, and writing about his travels. In the 1890s, he became fascinated with Mars; astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered what appeared to be canals on the red planet. Lowell decided to devote his fortunes to studying Mars, believing that the canals offered proof of intelligent life, and so he built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Even though scientists remained skeptical, Lowell’s vision of intelligent life on Mars captivated the public and had a huge impact on the infant literary genre that became known as science fiction.

On this date in 1781, English astronomer Sir William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. He wasn’t the first keen-eyed observer to spot the planet — John Flamsteed noted it in 1690 — but he was the first one to figure out that it was a planet and not a star. He could tell by how slowly it was moving that it must be very far from the Sun, farther even than Saturn, which was the farthest known planet. He offered to name the planet “Georgium Sidus,” after his patron King George III, but it was decided instead to stick with the Greco-Roman deity theme. The planet was named after Ouranos, the Greek god of the sky. Over the years, astronomers have discovered 27 moons orbiting the blue-green ice giant, and they’ve named the moons after characters from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. Uranus’s axis is tilted so far that it appears to be lying on its side, and its rings circle the planet vertically.

It’s the birthday of writer Janet Flanner (books by this author), born in Indianapolis (1892). Flanner was desperate to get out of Indianapolis, so she married a college friend, an artist from New York City. They divorced a few years later, and in 1922, at the age of 30, Flanner left for Paris with her female lover. She wrote: “We were the Americans who for one reason or another chose to dwell in Paris, for writing, for work, for career, for the amenities of French living, which was cheaper and more agreeable.”

Flanner planned to become a fiction writer, and she worked on a novel called The Cubical City and wrote a few poems. She also wrote letters back home to her family and friends, including Jane Grant, a friend from New York City. In 1925, Jane’s husband, Harold Ross, started a new magazine: The New Yorker. Ross liked Flanner’s letters to his wife, and after The New Yorker had been around for a few months, Grant wrote to Flanner to ask if her friend would be the magazine’s Paris correspondent. She said that her husband wanted topics familiar to Americans, anecdotes, bits on fashion or the arts and especially on people, and that Flanner should let her personality come through — basically, that she should write this column just the way she wrote her letters. Flanner said, “All I really know about what Ross wished me to write, and what I wished for me to write, was that it must be precisely accurate, highly personal, colorful, and ocularly descriptive.”

For the next 50 years, Flanner wrote nearly 700 installments of her Letter from Paris for The New Yorker under the name Genêt. To prepare for the column, she read at least eight French newspapers each day, clipping out interesting items and then meeting with people to follow up on them. She also wrote profiles and essays for the magazine, including a three-part piece on Hitler several years before the start of WWII.

She said, “History looks queer when you’re standing close to it.”

It’s the birthday of science fiction writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (books by this author), born Lafayette Ronald Hubbard in Tilden, Nebraska (1911). He started out writing for pulp magazines, and he was a prolific writer. In 1950, he published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950), which promised that a therapeutic process called auditing could erase a person’s cellular traces of traumatic experiences, and that this would cure any physical or mental ailment and increase intelligence. Psychiatrists and medical professionals spoke out against Dianetics, but the book became a best-seller. Hubbard used his ideas about Dianetics to found the Church of Scientology in 1954. In 1983, 11 church leaders were convicted for conspiracy. Hubbard wasn’t convicted, but he went into hiding and died of a stroke in 1986 on his ranch in California.

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