Sunday Apr. 26, 2015

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Learning the Bicycle

The older children pedal past
Stable as little gyros, spinning hard
To supper, bath, and bed, until at last
We also quit, silent and tired
Beside the darkening yard where trees
Now shadow up instead of down.
Their predictable lengths can only tease
Her as, head lowered, she walks her bike alone
Somewhere between her wanting to ride
And her certainty she will always fall.
Tomorrow, though I will run behind,
Arms out to catch her, she’ll tilt then balance wide
Of my reach, till distance makes her small,
Smaller, beyond the place I stop and know
That to teach her I had to follow
And when she learned I had to let her go.

“Learning the Bicycle” by Wyatt Prunty from Balance as Belief. © John Hopkins University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open”: Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as “the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” He was the youngest of nine children; three of his brothers committed suicide.

Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austro-Hungary, but he later gave away his inheritance to his siblings, and also to an assortment of Austrian writers and artists, including Rainer Maria Rilke. He once said that the study of philosophy rescued him from nine years of loneliness and wanting to die, yet he tried to leave philosophy several times and pursue another line of work, including serving in the army during World War I, working as a porter at a London hospital and teaching elementary school. He also considered careers in psychiatry and architecture — going so far as to design and build a house for his sister, which she never liked very much.

Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”

Today is the birthday of the man who once wrote, “I feel I am strange to all but the birds of America”: ornithologist and artist John James Audubon (books by this author), born in Les Cayes in what is now Haiti (1785). Audubon grew up in France, and when he was 18 years old, his father managed to get him a false passport to escape the Napoleonic Wars, and he headed to America. Fascinated by all the new American birds he saw, he began to study them more closely. He found some Eastern Phoebes nesting in a cave. He had read that they returned to the same spot to nest every year, and he wanted to test that idea. For days, he sat in the cave with them and read a book, until they were used to him and let him approach. He tied string to their legs to identify them, and sure enough, the next year the same birds were back in the cave. It is the first known incident of banding birds.

Audubon fell in love with a woman named Lucy Bakewell. Her father objected to Audubon’s lack of career goals and insisted that he find a solid trade before marriage. So, he opened a general store in Kentucky on the Ohio River, and soon after, John and Lucy were married. Audubon was a terrible business owner, and eventually he realized that his best chance for success lay in his birds after all. Lucy took on the main breadwinner duties by teaching children in their home, while her husband traveled all over the continent collecting specimens for his masterpiece, Birds of America (1838). The book was two feet wide and three feet tall, with 435 life-sized hand-colored plates of birds. It was extraordinarily expensive to print, and was financed by advance orders as well as commissioned paintings, exhibitions, and any furs that Audubon was able to trap and sell on his excursions. But it was a success. One reviewer wrote: “All anxieties and fears which overshadowed his work in its beginning had passed away. The prophecies of kind but overprudent friends, who did not understand his self-sustaining energy, had proved untrue; the malicious hope of his enemies, for even the gentle lover of nature has enemies, had been disappointed; he had secured a commanding place in the respect and gratitude of men.”

It’s the birthday of architect and writer Frederick Law Olmsted, born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822. He is known as the founder of American landscape architecture and designed New York’s Central Park. Though Olmsted is most famous for landscape architecture, that’s only one of his accomplishments. He worked as a journalist and wrote several books on various subjects, including two on slavery and Southern society. He was a managing editor of Putnam’s Magazine and was also a partner in the publishing firm of Dix and Edwards. He drained the saltwater and sewage from Boston’s Back Bay and created the Fenway. He managed a gold-mining estate in California. He was the administrative head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was the forerunner to the American Red Cross and helped meet the needs of Union soldiers during the Civil War. He was a leader in the conservation movement, helping to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Niagara Falls.

His friend and colleague Daniel Burnham once said of Olmsted: “An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views.”

It’s the birthday of screenwriter and novelist Anita Loos (books by this author), born in Mount Shasta, California (1889). Her father was an alcoholic, and she often tagged along with him on visits to San Francisco. He always claimed that these were fishing trips, and although they did spend some time on the pier, he was more interested in going on a bender. His daughter was exposed to some less-than-savory characters, and they fascinated her. With her father’s encouragement, she began acting on the stage, to bring in some extra money. When he began managing a theater company in San Diego, she acted for them and later began to write one-act plays for the stock company to perform. One of these, The Ink Well, was a moderate success and occasionally brought her a royalty check.

She sold her first screenplay in 1911; she received $25, but it was never produced. Her third screenplay, The New York Hat (1912), was directed by D.W. Griffith, and starred Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. Between 1912 and 1915, she wrote dozens of screenplays. Griffith eventually hired her as a staff writer and paid her $75 a week. After she’d written several successful features for Douglas Fairbanks, Fairbanks lured her away from Griffith’s studio for the remarkable sum of $500 a week, which she shared with director and future husband John Emerson. She became a famous Hollywood writer and received as much publicity as film stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. In 1917, the movie magazine Photoplay reported, “The most important service that Anita Loos has so far rendered the screen is the elevation of the subcaption, first to sanity then to dignity and brilliance combined.”

She eventually married Emerson, but he turned out to be a philanderer and not nearly as smart as she had once thought he was. She consoled herself by forming friendships with other show-biz wives, and hanging around with H.L. Mencken, whom she admired passionately for his intellect and wit. Unfortunately, Mencken preferred young, pretty blondes who didn’t have a lot going on upstairs. In 1925, Loos published a series of sketches about just such a young woman: naive, flighty gold-digger Lorelei Lee. When the stories appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine’s circulation soared, and the next year, the sketches became the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1926). The first printing sold out overnight.

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