Monday May 1, 2017

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Old Roses

White roses, tiny and old, flare among thorns
by the barn door.
                                For a hundred years
under the June elm, under the gaze
of seven generations,
                                       they lived briefly
like this, in the month of roses,
                                                        by the fields
stout with corn, or with clover and timothy
making thick hay,
                                grown over, now,
with milkweed, sumac, paintbrush.
roses survive
winter drifts, the melt in April, August
           and men and women
who sniffed roses in spring and called them pretty
as we call them now,
                                      walking beside the barn
on a day that perishes.

“Old Roses” by Donald Hall from The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is May Day, the first of May, a date that may have more holidays than any other. It's the date when many countries celebrate Labor Day, a tradition with its roots in the 19th-century labor movement in the United States. In 1886, unions around the country went on strike in support of an eight-hour workday. Since many of the organizers of the strikes were communists, socialists, and anarchists, May Day has also come to be associated with communism, and was a big national holiday in the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower tried to take back May Day during the Cold War by declaring it Law Day and Loyalty Day. It remains a day of rallies and protests in many parts of the world, and in 2006, protest returned to the United States on May 1st to call attention to immigrants' rights.

Its roots as a holiday run much deeper than the labor movement, however. It's been a celebration of spring and fertility in places like Egypt and India, and in pre-Christian Rome it was the time of the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers. In medieval England, people gathered flowers to "bring in the May" and erected a maypole bedecked with garlands. It's also the date of Beltane, a Celtic calendar festival celebrating the start of summer. Beltane was known for its bonfires, and has been revived by neo-pagans all over the world as a major religious holiday. In Germany, May 1st was the date of a pagan festival that was assimilated by the Christians and turned into the feast day of St. Walpurgis. The night before — Walpurgisnacht — is still celebrated in parts of rural Germany as a kind of Valentine's Day, with the delivery of a tree, wrapped in streamers, to one's beloved. It's also a day to celebrate Hawaiian history and culture, and it's known as Lei Day in Hawaii. One of the largest contemporary May Day celebrations in the United States takes place in Minneapolis, with a parade and pageant staged by the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre. It's been going on since 1975 and attracts about 35,000 people every year.

It was on this day in 1786 that Mozart's first great opera, The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Vienna. It was based on a French play, and it tells the story of a single day in the palace of Count Almaviva. The count spends the day attempting to seduce Susanna, the young fiancée of the court valet, Figaro. Susanna and the Countess conspire to embarrass the count and expose his infidelity.

It was a light-hearted, comic opera, but the musicians and singers could hardly believe the quality of the music. One singer, an Irish tenor named Michael Kelly, later wrote: "I can still see Mozart, dressed in his red fur hat trimmed with gold, standing on the stage with the orchestra at the first rehearsal, beating time for the music. ... The players on the stage and in the orchestra were electrified. ... Had Mozart written nothing but this piece of music it alone would ... have stamped him as the greatest master of his art."

On this date in 1840, the first official adhesive postage stamp was issued in Great Britain. Up until the late 1830s, the recipient of the letter was supposed to pay upon delivery. Rates were inconsistent: postage was calculated based on number of sheets of paper, and the distance from sender to recipient. The rules were complicated and postage was expensive, and people often refused to pay, costing the government a lot of money. A schoolmaster named Rowland Hill developed a new system that established uniform postal rates based on weight. The sender would pay with stamps that cost a penny each. The design of the first stamp was an engraved profile of Queen Victoria on a black background, called the Penny Black. Since Britain was the first country to use prepaid postage stamps, they have never printed the name of their country on their stamps, just a portrait of the reigning monarch.

It's the birthday of the man who asked, "What does a sane man do in an insane society?": American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright Joseph Heller (books by this author), born in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. He didn't begin any story until he had the first and last lines in his head, and the idea for Catch-22 came about after he thought of an opening: "It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, 'Someone' fell madly in love with him." He didn't have the character's name — Yossarian — yet, but the story began to unspool from that first line. "It got me so excited," Heller wrote in the Paris Review, "that I did what the cliché says you're supposed to do: I jumped out of bed and paced the floor. That morning I went to my job at the advertising agency and wrote out the first chapter in longhand. ... One year later, after much planning, I began chapter two."

His agent started sending Catch-22 — called Catch-18 at the time — to publishers in 1953, when Heller was about a third of the way through with it. Simon and Schuster paid him $750 up front, with another $750 to be paid upon completion. Heller missed their deadline by four or five years, but eventually delivered it in 1961. They changed Catch-18 to Catch-22 to avoid confusion with Leon Uris's new book Mila 18, and the title has entered the lexicon as a description of an unsolvable logical dilemma, a vicious circle.

Heller published six other novels, three plays, a collection of short stories, and three screen adaptations. He died in 1999, shortly after finishing his last novel, Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man.

All 102 stories of The Empire State Building opened to the public on this date in 1931, 45 days ahead of schedule and $5 million under budget, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York City.

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