Sunday Feb. 14, 2016

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She goes out to hang the windchime
in her nightie and her work boots.
It’s six-thirty in the morning
and she’s standing on the plastic ice chest
tiptoe to reach the cross beam of the porch,

windchime in her left hand,
hammer in her right, the nail
gripped tight between her teeth
but nothing happens next because
she’s trying to figure out
how to switch #1 with #3.

She must have been standing in the kitchen,
coffee in her hand, asleep,
when she heard it—the wind blowing
through the sound the windchime
wasn’t making
because it wasn’t there.

No one, including me, especially anymore believes
till death do us part,
but I can see what I would miss in leaving—
the way her ankles go into the work boots
as she stands on the ice chest;
the problem scrunched into her forehead;
the little kissable mouth
with the nail in it.

“Windchime” by Tony Hoagland from What Narcissism Means to Me. © Graywolf Press, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Valentine's Day, a big day for greeting card and candy sales, which goes back more than 1,500 years to the Feast of St. Valentine established in the fifth century, though nobody is sure exactly which of the many martyred Valentines it is the feast day of.

The ancient Romans had a fertility festival celebrated at mid-February of every year. The festival was called Lupercalia in honor of Lupa, the wolf who was said to have suckled Romulus and Remus, who went on to found the city of Rome. Lupercalia was a pagan fertility festival celebrated with sacrifices of goats and dogs, with milk and wool and blood. Young men would cut strips from the skins of the goats then strip naked and run through the city in groups, where young women would line up to be spanked with the switches, believing it would improve their fertility. Lupercalia was still wildly popular long after the Roman Empire was officially Christian, and it's not difficult to see why the Church would have wished to have a different sort of holiday take its place.

Chaucer gets credit for establishing St. Valentine's Day as a romantic occasion, when in the 14th-century he wrote in The Parlement of Foules of a spring landscape "on seynt Valentynes day" where the goddess Nature watched as every kind of bird came before her to choose and seduce their mates.

In the early 15th century, the Duke of Orleans wrote a Valentine's poem to his faraway wife while held captive in the Tower of London. Shakespeare mentioned the sending of Valentines in Ophelia's lament in Hamlet. And hundreds of years later, with the advent of cheaper postal services and mass-produced cards, the tradition of sending lacy love notes on the holiday was enormously popular with the Victorians. In 2010, more than 1 billion cards were sent worldwide.

On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest (books by this author) opened in London. He wrote the first draft in just 21 days, the fastest he'd ever written anything. The play tells the story of a man named Jack Worthing who pretends to have a younger brother named Ernest. Jack uses the imaginary Ernest as an excuse for getting out of all kinds of situations, and even pretends to be Ernest when that suits his purposes. At the same time, Jack's friend Algernon Moncrieff also begins impersonating the imaginary Ernest. When two women fall in love with Jack and Algernon, they both think they are in love with a man named Ernest. It comes out in the end that Jack and Algernon are themselves actually long lost brothers.

Wilde said that The Importance of Being Earnest expressed his philosophy that "we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."

On this day in 1842, the most desirable place to be in New York was at the Valentine's Day "Boz Ball," held in honor of the novelist Charles Dickens, (books by this author) who published his early stories under the pseudonym "Boz." He had not yet published most of his most great books: A Christmas Carol (1843), David Copperfield (1849), A Tale of Two Cities (1849), and Great Expectations (1860) were all still to come. But already he was a huge celebrity. Dickens and his wife, Catherine, had arrived in Boston on January 22nd, and the city welcomed them with all sorts of events, until "Boston" was being called "Boz-town." New Yorkers were determined to outdo Boston, so they organized a planning committee. Boston's major Dickens event had been a dinner for men only, so New York decided to give a ball and include women. The ball was at the Park Theater, New York's largest venue, which could hold 3,000 people. Three thousand tickets sold out immediately at $5 apiece, which was quite a bit in those days. Only the most elite society members were welcome — each guest was thoroughly vetted before being allowed to attend. New Yorkers who didn't make it in were trying to spend up to $40 to get a ticket.

The Boz Ball was unprecedented. Thousands of dollars were spent on decorations. There was a bust of Dickens with a bald eagle hanging above it, holding a laurel wreath. There were huge banners, decorated with scenes from his books. There were elaborate displays to represent each state. The New Yorkers were dressed in their finest. People had trouble dancing because there was simply not enough room, but they did it anyway, and the dances alternated with performances from Dickens' books. In a letter to a friend, Dickens called it "the most splendid, gorgeous, brilliant affair you ... can possibly conceive."

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