Friday Jan. 1, 2016

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The Gift

The text of today’s poem is not available online.

"The Gift” by Mary Oliver from Felicity. © Penguin Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is New Year's Day. If you are suffering from a hangover today, you aren't alone. The chief culprit is dehydration caused by the diuretic effect of ethanol, which can lead to shrinkage of brain tissue, and that causes headache. Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, causing queasiness. Other symptoms are caused by the toxic by-products of the liver's detoxification process. For something so common, hangover is poorly understood by the medical community, and quack remedies abound.

Hangover remedies probably evolved hand in hand with alcohol consumption. Pliny the Elder counseled Romans to eat fried canaries or raw owl's eggs. Ancient Assyrians tried to assuage their anguish by consuming a concoction of ground bird beaks and myrrh. Medieval Europeans consumed raw eels with bitter almonds. The Chinese drank green tea, which seems benign enough, but their neighbors the Mongolians ate pickled sheep's eyes. The Japanese ate pickled plums. Then there's the Prairie Oyster, introduced at the 1878 Paris World Expo: it's a raw egg (with the yolk intact), mixed with Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper. Puerto Ricans took a preventative tack: they rubbed sliced lemons in their armpits before drinking; In India, they drank coconut water, and there's some merit to that, because coconut water is rich in electrolytes and it helps with the dehydration.

Then there's the "hair of the dog" approach. In the 19th century, an Italian named Bernardino Branca developed a potion called Fernet: rhubarb, aloe, peppermint oil, and opiates. As a bonus, Fernet also cured cholera, or so Branca claimed. It's still available today, minus the opiates. Some people swear by the Bloody Mary: tomato juice mixed with vodka and a variety of spices; Hemingway's variant was tomato juice and beer.

A literature review in the British Medical Journal concludes that there is no reliable way to treat or prevent hangover after over-imbibing. The Algonquin Round Table writer Robert Benchley came to a similar conclusion: "A real hangover is nothing to try out family remedies on. The only cure for a real hangover is death."

The hymn "Amazing Grace" was first presented at a prayer meeting in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England, on this date in 1773. Vicar John Newton had jotted down the verses in the attic room where he wrote his sermons. The hymn's theme of redemption was something Newton was keenly familiar with. He had been a sailor as a young man, but an unruly and insubordinate one. One captain called him the most profane man he had ever met, and that was not an easy title to earn among sailors. He was pressed into the Royal Navy, eventually deserted, and then got into the slave trade. In 1748, aboard the slave ship Greyhound, Newton called out to God to save him during a violent storm. It wasn't the first time he had found religion in times of crisis, but this was the first time it stuck. Even so, his conversion was gradual, and he stayed with the slave trade for several more years.

After Newton became ordained in 1764 and was offered the curacy of Olney, he often shared his own struggles with temptation and sin in his sermons, something his largely illiterate parishioners appreciated. He was devoted to his congregation, and took an active interest in their daily lives. He struck up a friendship with poet William Cowper, and together they published Olney Hymns, which included "Amazing Grace."

The hymn was written in a standard meter, and was sung to a variety of tunes. Sometimes it wasn't even sung at all; it was just chanted. It wasn't until 1835 that it was linked to the melody that we know today.

Today is the birthday of E.M. Forster (books by this author), born Edward Morgan Forster in London (1879). In 1901, he began a novel that he called Lucy. It was about a young woman, Lucy Honeychurch, who travels to Italy with her nervous and spinsterish older cousin. It eventually became his third published novel, A Room With a View (1908). He had his first big success with Howards End (1910), a novel about the class system in England as revealed through three families: the Wilcoxes, who are upper-middle-class capitalists; the Schlegels, who are left-wing intellectuals; and the Basts, who are struggling to rise above working class. After publishing four books in five years, Forster didn't produce another novel until A Passage to India (1924), 14 years later. It was the last book he published in his lifetime.

From Howards End: "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."

It's the birthday of J.D. Salinger (books by this author), born Jerome David Salinger in New York City (1919). The notably reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye (1951) died in 2010, at the age of 91, after 50 years spent avoiding the public eye as much as possible. But the public never lost interest in him, and in fact the press seemed to enjoy the challenge of trying to ferret out information about the author. Ian Hamilton approached him in 1984, asking permission to write his biography; Salinger turned him down, telling his would-be biographer that he had "borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime." But Hamilton went ahead and published an unauthorized version. Salinger sued him, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and Salinger eventually won.

In 1998, a woman named Joyce Maynard published her memoir, At Home in the World. In it, she recounted her 10-month affair with Salinger. He had written her a fan letter when she was a college freshman, after he read an essay she'd published in The New York Times Magazine. After a summer of letters back and forth, Maynard dropped out of Yale and moved in with him; they lived together for almost a year, and in her account, he was eccentric and controlling. Three years later, Salinger's daughter, Margaret, also published her own memoir, Dreamcatcher (2001). She also talked about her father's quirks, adding that he was abusive, self-centered, and expected his children to live up to fictional ideals. Her brother, Matthew, responded to the book by saying his sister had "a troubled mind."

J.D. Salinger, who said: "There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It's peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®