Friday Sep. 25, 2015

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After a friend has gone I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone asleep.
The way it draws in like atmosphere or evening.

One-o-clock. A floral teapot and a raisin scone.
A tray waits to be taken down.
The landing light is off. The clock strikes. The cat

comes into his own, mysterious on the stairs,
a black ambivalence around the legs of button-back
chairs, an insinuation to be set beside

the red spoon and the salt-glazed cup,
the saucer with the thick spill of tea
which scalds off easily under the tap. Time

is a tick, a purr, a drop. The spider
on the dining-room window has fallen asleep
among complexities as I will once

the doors are bolted and the keys tested
and the switch turned up of the kitchen light
which made outside in the back garden

an electric room—a domestication
of closed daisies, an architecture
instant and improbable.

“Nocturne” by Eavan Boland from An Origin Like Water. © Norton, 1987. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the man who said, "Most men are a little better than their circumstances give them a chance to be." That's the novelist William Faulkner (books by this author), born in New Albany, Mississippi (1897). He liked to get up early, eat a breakfast of eggs and broiled steak and lots of coffee, and then take his tobacco and pipe and go to his study. He took off the doorknob and carried it inside with him, where he wrote his novels by hand on large sheets of paper, and then typed them out with two fingers on an old Underwood portable. He was prolific this way — in a four-year span, he published some of his best novels: Sartoris (1929), The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), and Light in August (1932). In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Today is the birthday of the poet, cartoonist, playwright, and songwriter Shel Silverstein (books by this author), born Sheldon Allan Silverstein, to a Jewish family in Chicago (1930). As a kid, he wanted to play baseball or be popular with girls, but he couldn't play ball and he couldn't dance. "Luckily, the girls didn't want me," he said. "Not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write." The creative habit stuck, and after high school, he bounced around to several colleges studying art until bad grades forced him to move on.

At 23, he was drafted into the Army during the Korean War, and he published a series of cartoons for the Pacific Stars and Stripes. After the war, those strips got him work as a freelance cartoonist. He took a job writing an illustrated travelogue for Playboy, where he reported from exotic locales like Paris, the Haight-Ashbury district, and a New Jersey nudist colony. He contributed to the magazine for the next 20 years, and in 1961, he published his first book of new adult material, Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book. It was his new editor that first suggested that he try to write for children. Silverstein took some convincing, but he would go on to write some of the most enduring children's books of our time — books such as Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back (1963), about a lion who eats hunters, and The Giving Tree (1964), which challenged people's expectations of children's literature, with serious and sometimes sad subject matter. They were enormously successful with young and old alike. His illustrated book of children's poetry Where the Sidewalk Ends is one of the best-selling volumes of poetry of all time.

While in his 50s, Silverstein took up writing for the stage, and also wrote many successful songs, including the No. 1 Johnny Cash hit "A Boy Named Sue." He never cared much for the limelight, and rarely gave interviews, preferring to let his work speak for itself. He said: "If you want to find out what a writer or a cartoonist really feels, look at his work [...] If your work is weak and lacking so that it needs explanation, it isn't enough, it isn't clear enough. Make it so good and so clear that it doesn't need any further explanation."

On this day in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor was sworn in as a justice in the Supreme Court of the United States, becoming the first woman to hold that office. O'Connor was born to a ranching family in El Paso, Texas (1930), and as a young girl remembers shooting coyotes that threatened the family herd. Determined not to have the same fate as her father, who dreamed of attending college but never made it, O'Connor moved in with her grandmother in the city to attend school. She went on to Stanford University, graduated in 1952 at the top of her class, but she couldn't find a law firm that would give her a job. "It was very frustrating," she said, "because my male classmates weren't having any problems. No one would even speak to me." Not one to give up, she tracked down an attorney in Northern California whom she'd heard once had a female staffer, and she convinced him to let her work four months for free until a paying job opened up. She married and later moved to Arizona where she opened up her own law practice with a male partner, taking low-paying cases, until she got involved with the Republican Party. She rose through the ranks quickly and within a few years found herself Majority Leader of the Arizona State Senate, the first American woman to ever hold such a position.

In 1979, O'Connor was appointed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, and two years later, when President Reagan needed to fulfill his campaign promise to appoint a woman to the Supreme Court, O'Connor was tapped. She had deep reservations about accepting the position. She later said, "If I stumbled badly in doing the job, I think it would have made life more difficult for women, and that was a great concern of mine [...]" Pro-life and religious conservatives vehemently opposed her appointment, fearing that she wouldn't vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, but she was confirmed by unanimous vote. O'Connor often voted with the conservative wing of the court, but built a reputation for being pragmatic, and through the latter part of her career often cast the swing vote in undecided cases, including the controversial Bush v. Gore decision in 2000. Upon retiring in 2006, she set up a popular online curriculum called to foster understanding of civics among young people. She is a frequent public speaker and passionate advocate for judicial independence.

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