Sunday Jun. 19, 2016

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Secret History

Of the light in my room:
Its mood swings,
Dark-morning glooms,
Summer ecstasies.

Spider on the wall,
Lamp burning late,
Shoes left by the bed,
I’m your humble scribe.

Dust balls, simple souls
Conferring in the corner.
The pearl earring she lost,
Still to be found.

Silence of falling snow,
Night vanishing without trace,
Only to return.
I’m your humble scribe.

“Secret History” by Charles Simic from That Little Something. © Harcourt, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the third Sunday in June, which makes it Father’s Day in the United States. The first Father’s Day was celebrated in Spokane, Washington, in 1910. Sonora Dodd’s father had raised Sonora and her five siblings after their mother died in childbirth. The Mother’s Day holiday was just picking up steam, and Sonora thought that fathers deserved their share of the credit. She took her idea to the local YMCA, who endorsed the idea and helped to get the word out. Gradually her grassroots movement gained traction, and in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge praised the holiday and made it a national event, saying that it would help to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children, and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations.” In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson officially set the date at the third Sunday in June, and Richard Nixon made it a federal holiday in 1972. Sonora Dodd was still alive to see it; she died six years later, at the age of 96.

It’s the birthday of religious philosopher, physicist, and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623) (books by this author), born in Clermont-Ferrand, France. He was a child prodigy, and by the time he was 19 he had already perfected the first mechanical calculator for sale to the public. In the field of physics, he discovered that air has weight, and proved that vacuums are possible in nature. In mathematics, he founded the theory of probabilities and developed an early form of integral calculus. He invented the syringe and the hydraulic press, and gave the world the principle that would come to be known as “Pascal’s Law”: pressure applied to a confined liquid is transmitted undiminished through the liquid in all directions regardless of the area to which the pressure is applied.

He was often conflicted, torn between a spiritual life and a scientific one. When he was 23, he began to feel the need to withdraw from the world and devote his life to God, and he did for a while, but soon threw himself back into his scientific pursuits, working so hard he made himself ill. He returned to religion for good after a mystical conversion experience, which he called the “night of fire,” in 1654, and entered the Abbey of Port-Royal in January 1655. Although he never formally joined the Solitaires — the hermits at the abbey — he never again published under his own name, writing only materials that they requested. He produced two great works of religious philosophy, Les Provinciales (Provincial Letters, 1657), and Pensées (Thoughts, 1658). He wrote: “Man is to himself the most wonderful object in nature; for he cannot conceive what the body is, still less what the mind is, and least of all how a body should be united to a mind. This is the consummation of his difficulties, and yet it is his very being.”

It’s the birthday of short-story writer and memoirist Tobias Wolff (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1945). He’s the author of several collections of short stories, including In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981), but he’s best known for his memoir about his childhood, This Boy’s Life (1989). His first novel, Old School, came out in 2004. In 2015, Wolff was awarded a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Tobias Wolff said: “There are very few professions in which people just sit down and think hard for five or six hours a day all by themselves. [If you become a writer] you have the liberty to do that, but once you have the liberty you also have the obligation to do it.”

It’s the birthday of film critic Pauline Kael (books by this author), born in Petaluma, California (1919). She was the film critic for The New Yorker magazine for almost 25 years. In college at the University of California at Berkeley, she majored in philosophy, and then bummed around, getting involved in experimental filmmaking and unsuccessful playwriting. She published her first movie review in 1953 in the San Francisco magazine City Lights. Her first review was of Charles Chaplin’s Limelight, which she called “Slimelight.” After that her work began to appear in Partisan Review and Film Quarterly. From 1955 until the early 1960s, she also managed the Berkeley Cinema Guild Theatres, the first twin art film houses in the country.

She supported herself working as a seamstress, cook, and textbook ghostwriter, among other jobs. In 1965, she published a collection of movie reviews and essays on film criticism called I Lost It at the Movies, and it became a best-seller.

During the first half of 1966, Kael was the regular film reviewer for McCall’s magazine, but she was fired for attacking The Sound of Music. She wrote: “Wasn’t there perhaps one little Von Trapp who didn’t want to sing his head off, or who screamed that he wouldn’t act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa’s party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get out on a stage?”

In 1967, Kael got a job as the critic for The New Yorker, and she tried to persuade the readers of the magazine that the most important thing a movie should provide is pleasure. She always made a lot of noise while she was watching movies: laughing, sighing, and gasping if she liked the movie, or loudly making jokes if she didn’t. She wrote in a review of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way [Frank] Capra can, but if anyone else should learn to, kill him.”

She said, “You have to be open to the idea of getting drunk on movies.”

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