Monday July 6, 2015

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The First Day

Saturday morning the pool fills
with children. Their parents
want them to learn something
preposterous: not just to tread water,
but to move through it as easily as they run
at home from one room to another. Naturally
the miracle of flotation escapes some of them;

however, the believers, buoyant in their faith,
hold their breath and push away from the side.
Face down, arms outstretched, these blessed ones
glide like angels in a fleeting state of grace,
then pop up grinning when they run out of air.
Splashed with success, they hug themselves
happily in the blue-lipped chill.

Meanwhile, the few still clinging to the wall
watch their own number shrink. Small, miserable,
suspicious of their parents for making them
suffer here, they begin to see the arrangement
of things: how easily everyone can turn
away from them when they don’t give in,
how lonely a personal conviction is.

“The First Day” by Joseph Green from What Water Does at a Time Like This. © Moon Path Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

In 1861, a Mississippi riverboat pilot named Samuel Clemens (books by this author) traveled to Nevada with his brother Orion, who had been appointed the territorial secretary of Nevada. The brothers paid $150 each for tickets on the stagecoach. The trip took 19 days. Clemens spent a year prospecting unsuccessfully for gold and silver in the mines, all the while writing numerous letters to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, the newspaper of Virginia City, Nevada, signing them, “Josh.” The editor found the letters so humorous he offered Clemens a job as a correspondent for $25 a week. It was common practice for the newspapermen of the day to choose pen names. Clemens chose a riverboat term that measured two fathoms, or 12 feet — the safe depth for a steamboat. “Mark Twain” published his first column on this day in 1862. He was 25 years old.

It was on this date in 1957 that Paul McCartney and John Lennon met for the first time, at the Woolton Village Fete in Liverpool, England. John Lennon was almost 17, and Paul McCartney had just turned 15. Lennon had formed a band called the Quarrymen, although he had trouble remembering lyrics and didn't know proper guitar chords, because he'd learned how to play on a banjo. Paul met the band when they played a gig at St. Peter's Church. He told them that he could tune and play a guitar, and since no one in the band could tune their own guitars, they were impressed. Paul then knocked the socks off Lennon when he performed "Twenty Flight Rock," by Eddie Cochran, and didn't forget a single word of the lyrics. Lennon asked McCartney to join the band a week later.

Louis Pasteur successfully tested his rabies vaccine on this day in 1885. Pasteur had begun work on a vaccine in 1882, using a weakened form of the virus taken from the spinal cords of infected animals. The research was time-consuming because it took several weeks for the virus to reach his test animals’ brains after they were infected, but Pasteur soon realized that people didn’t need to have the vaccine on board before they were bitten, as with other diseases. The delay between the rabid animal’s bite and the outbreak of the disease meant the vaccine could be given only when needed, and it would have plenty of time to work.

In 1885, a nine-year-old boy named Joseph Meister was bitten by a rabid dog. He was brought to Pasteur, and though Pasteur didn’t feel his vaccine was sufficiently tested yet, he knew the boy would certainly die otherwise, so he took a chance. It was a tense few weeks waiting to see if Meister would come down with the disease, but the boy recovered, and three months later was pronounced in good health. Pasteur’s fame spread quickly, and the era of preventive medicine had begun.

On this date in 1785, the dollar was chosen as the monetary unit of the United States. The word “dollar” actually predates this event by more than 250 years; it’s an Anglicized form of “thaler,” a silver coin that was first minted in Bohemia in 1519. “Dollar” came to be used as a sort of generic term for any large silver coin, like the Spanish eight-real piece, also known as “pieces of eight.” There was a shortage of British currency in the American colonies, and Spanish dollars were widely circulated in their place — as were Indian wampum and certificates for tobacco held in Virginia warehouses. During the Revolutionary War, colonists printed their own paper bills, called Continentals, in a variety of denominations; some were in British pounds, others were in dollars. When we won our independence, we rejected the British units in favor of the dollar.

It’s the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama born in Taktser, Tibet (1935). When the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, monks from the city of Lhasa set out to find a child who would prove to be the reincarnation of the Buddhist leader. They eventually found him in the village of Taktser, in a three-year-old boy named Lhamo, whom they took back to Lhasa and installed as the 14th Dalai Lama. Since 1960, the Dalai Lama has lived in India and worked to bring a nonviolent resolution to the conflict in Tibet. He received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.

Two men lost their lives for religious reasons on this date. In 1415, the Czech priest Jan Hus was executed for heresy. Hus supported many of the reforms urged by John Wycliffe, who believed that the Bible, not the Catholic Church, was the supreme authority in spiritual matters. Hus preached against what he saw as the moral failings of his fellow Catholic clergy, and even criticized the papacy. This was in the middle of the period known as the Papal Schism, or the Western Schism, in which two and sometimes even three men claimed to be the rightfully chosen pontiff. The Schism spanned almost 40 years and Hus spent his whole career embroiled in it; his chapel was the center of the reform movement in Bohemia. When he defied Pope Alexander V’s prohibition against preaching in private chapels, and publicly denounced the practice of selling indulgences, Hus lost the support and protection of King Wenceslaus. He was excommunicated and eventually imprisoned. The Council of Constance tried him, and ordered him to recant his support of Wycliffe, but he refused. He was burned at the stake, the typical sentence for heresy.

And it was on this day in 1535 that Sir Thomas More was beheaded in the Tower of London for refusing to recognize his longtime friend King Henry VIII as the head of the Church. Thomas More was a barrister, a scholar, and a writer. He was the author of Utopia (1516), a controversial novel about an imaginary island, where society was based on equality for all people.

Sir Thomas More was a champion of King Henry VIII and helped him write rebuttals to Martin Luther's attacks on Henry. More presented sound theological arguments, and he also said things about Luther like: “If he proceeds to play the buffoon in the manner in which he has begun, and to rave madly, if he proceeds to rage with calumny, to mouth trifling nonsense, to act like a raging madman, to make sport with buffoonery, and to carry nothing in his mouth but bilge-water, sewers, privies, filth and dung, then let others do what they will...”

Thomas More was a staunch Catholic, and so for a while, he and King Henry were both aligned against Protestantism, and Henry made More his Lord Chancellor. But then Henry decided to break with the Church and declare himself Supreme Head of the English Church, and More refused to sign an oath recognizing Henry above the rest of the Church. Finally, Henry had More beheaded.

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