Friday Aug. 19, 2016

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Favorite Uncle

Our favorite uncle, Stanley,
the youngest of five brothers
and the most handsome,

used to play a game with my sister
and me, hiding a nickel
and making us choose

which hand, clenched behind his back,
held the prize. The two of us
danced from one foot

to the other, giddy with wanting—
the nickel, of course, and also
the wide smile, the bear hug

the winner got from Uncle Stanley.
But I remember, even in the heat
of his attention, how winning

hurt a little, my sister
completely still, blinking hard.
Uncle Stanley had no children.

For twenty years he loved a woman
who was married to someone else.
And when he finally married her

we didn’t love him quite as much.
He was our same gallant uncle
but distant now, distracted by having

what he could no longer long for.

“Favorite Uncle” by Wendy Mnookin from Dinner with Emerson. © Tiger Bark Books, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 1829, French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre presented his photographic process to the French Academy of Sciences. The first actual photograph had been made a couple of years earlier by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, but the quality wasn't very good and the plate had to be exposed for eight hours to capture the image. Daguerre worked with Niépce to develop a more practical method. He found that if he coated a copper plate with silver iodide, exposed it to light in the camera for 20 to 30 minutes, fumed it with mercury vapor, and then fixed it with a salt solution, he was able to capture a permanent image. He called the finished product a "daguerreotype." Many early photographers became ill, or even died, from mercury poisoning using this method. The daguerreotype was best suited for still objects, but people nonetheless lined up to have their portraits taken. This was not for the faint of heart: subjects had to sit in blazing sunlight for up to half an hour, trying not to blink, with their heads clamped in place to keep them still. It's not surprising that most of the early daguerreotype portraits feature grim, slightly desperate faces.

An early professional daguerreotype photographer remarked on people's reaction to their portraits: "People were afraid at first to look for any length of time at the pictures he produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes appear to everyone."

It's the birthday of poet Ogden Nash, (books by this author) born in Rye, New York, in 1902. He sold his first verse to The New Yorker in 1930 and published his first collection, Hard Lines, in 1931. All told, he produced 20 volumes of humorous poetry, wrote several children's books, and wrote the lyrics to two musicals: One Touch of Venus (1943) and Two's Company (1952).

He wrote, "O Duty, / Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie? / Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously? / Why art thou clad so abominously?"

And, "A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of."

And, "Every New Year is the direct descendant, isn't it, of a long line of proven criminals?"

And, "Middle age is when you're sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn't for you."

Today is the birthday of memoirist Frank McCourt (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1930). He was the oldest of seven children born to an Irish immigrant couple, and they moved back to Limerick when McCourt was four years old, after the death of his baby sister. His childhood was marked by poverty, the deaths of half of his siblings, and his father's alcoholism.

He went back to America when he was 19, and eventually served in the Korean War. After the war, he went to college at New York University on the GI Bill, even though he never graduated from high school, and he became a high school English teacher in New York City. He wanted to write a memoir for years, but he was too angry and bitter. Finally, while listening to his young granddaughter playing, he realized he had to write it from the viewpoint of his child self. And that became his best-selling book, Angela's Ashes (1996).

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