Friday Feb. 19, 2016

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George, Who Played with a Dangerous Toy

And suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions

When George’s Grandmamma was told
That George had been as good as gold,
She promised in the afternoon
To buy him an Immense BALLOON.
And so she did; but when it came,
It got into the candle flame,
And being of a dangerous sort
Exploded with a loud report!

The lights went out! The windows broke!
The room was filled with reeking smoke.
And in the darkness shrieks and yells
Were mingled with electric bells,
And falling masonry and groans,
And crunching, as of broken bones,
And dreadful shrieks, when, worst of all,
The house itself began to fall!
It tottered, shuddering to and fro,
Then crashed into the street below—
Which happened to be Savile Row.

When Help arrived, among the Dead
Were Cousin Mary, Little Fred,
The Footmen (both of them), the Groom,
The man that cleaned the Billiard-Room,
The Chaplain, and the Still-Room Maid.
And I am dreadfully afraid
That Monsieur Champignon, the Chef,
Will now be permanently deaf—
And both his aides are much the same;
While George, who was in part to blame,
Received, you will regret to hear,
A nasty lump behind the ear.


The moral is that little boys
Should not be given dangerous toys.

“George, Who Played with a Dangerous Toy” by Hilaire Belloc. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the scientist who first proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun, Nicolaus Copernicus, born in the ancient city of Toruń, Poland (1473).

The Donner Party was rescued on this date in 1847. Eighty-nine people had set out by wagon train from Springfield, Illinois, the previous summer. When they got to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the group decided not to travel the established route to California. They opted instead for a shortcut: the “Hastings Cutoff,” a trail reportedly blazed by a California promoter named Lansford Hastings. The shortcut actually delayed the settlers by about three weeks, and brought them to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in October, which was dangerously late in the season. They were short on supplies and now at risk for bad weather, but they decided to press on.

Just as they feared it would, an early blizzard struck and blocked the mountain passes so that they were unable to get through. The group made camp by Truckee Lake, slaughtered and ate their oxen, and hoped for a thaw that never came. Eventually, 15 of the hardiest settlers donned snowshoes and set out to find help. They dubbed themselves “The Forlorn Hope.” One of the Donner children, Eliza, later wrote about the experience. “In some instances husband had parted from wife, and father from children. Three young mothers had left their babes in the arms of grandmothers. It was a dire resort, a last desperate attempt, in face of death, to save those dependent upon them.” Eight of the Forlorn Hope died — of exposure or starvation — and the seven survivors resorted to cannibalizing their remains to stay alive. Eventually they found a Native American village, and word spread to Sutter’s Fort, near San Francisco.

A rescue party left the fort on January 31st; it took them 20 days to reach Truckee Lake, where the settlers were snowbound and starving. One of the rescuers reported in his diary: “We raised a loud halloo and then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her several others made their appearance in like manner coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice very much agitated & said ‘are you men from California or do you come from heaven?’”

Of the 89 original settlers, only 45 survived the journey and made it to California.

It’s the birthday of the author of The Surrealist Manifesto (1924), André Breton (books by this author), born in Tinchebray, France (1896).

As a young man, Breton was interested in mental illness and Freud’s theory of the unconscious. Breton studied to become a doctor but never qualified, and in World War I served in a neurological ward for the wounded. After the war ended, Breton joined the Dada movement, an anti-war art movement that rejected convention and emphasized the illogic and absurd, but he was disturbed by Dada’s negativity and wanted instead to figure out if man could be reconciled with the world.

In 1924, Breton wrote The First Surrealist Manifesto, recommending mankind put aside inhibition and prejudice and adopt a new state of being where dream and fantasy are joined to the everyday world. The manifesto was meant to be a revolutionary document and was signed by a number of French artists and writers.

It’s the birthday of Amy Tan (books by this author), born to Chinese immigrant parents in Oakland, California (1952). Her mother hoped she would become a concert pianist or a doctor, but instead she became a writer. She began her career by writing business manuals and speeches for executives, and she felt pressured to write under an American-sounding pseudonym, so she chose May Brown — she rearranged Amy to get May, and Brown is a synonym of Tan.

But she had turned into a workaholic, and she realized that she needed a creative balance in her life, so she started jazz piano and also writing fiction. Quickly she got an advance to pen a book of short stories, which Tan wrote in about four months. Those stories worked together like a novel, and the book was published as The Joy Luck Club (1989). She’s gone on to write more best-sellers such as The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001) and Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). Her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, came out in 2013.

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