Monday May 4, 2015

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My Grandparents’ Generation

They are taking so many things with them:
their sewing machines and fine china,

their ability to fold a newspaper
with one hand and swat a fly.

They are taking their rotary telephones,
and fat televisions, and knitting needles,

their cast iron frying pans, and Tupperware.
They are packing away the picnics

and perambulators, the wagons
and church socials. They are wrapped in

lipstick and big band music, dressed
in recipes. Buried with them: bathtubs

with feet, front porches, dogs without leashes.
These are the people who raised me

and now I am left behind in
a world without paper letters,

a place where the phone
has grown as eager as a weed.

I am going to miss their attics,
their ordinary coffee, their chicken

fried in lard. I would give anything
to be ten again, up late with them

in that cottage by the river, buying
Marvin Gardens and passing go,

collecting two hundred dollars.

“My Grandparents’ Generation” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Agnes Fay Morgan, born in Peoria, Illinois (1884). She studied chemistry in college, and received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. But job prospects for female chemists were bleak, so she took a position in the Home Economics department at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1915. She was an associate professor of “household science,” specifically nutrition. She made it her mission to bring the element of science into the program, which was typically dismissed as “women’s work.” When she was made chair of the department, she increased the rigor of the program and worked to have it taken seriously. While other home economics programs were little more than instruction on the art of gracious living, Morgan required all of her students to have a solid foundation in physical and biological science. In 1960 — six years after Morgan retired — the Home Economics Department was renamed the Nutritional Sciences Department, and a year after that, their building was renamed Agnes Fay Morgan Hall. Even after she officially retired, she never gave up her research, and continued to show up to her Berkeley office on a regular basis until her death in 1968.

Morgan, with her background in chemistry applied to the field of nutrition, wrote more than 250 scientific papers. She was responsible for much of what we know about the vitamins in food. She also proved the link between vitamin deficiencies and poor health conditions; showed certain vitamins’ effect on hormones; and analyzed the effects of heat and processing on the stability of vitamins and proteins.

Peter Minuit landed on the island of Manhattan on this date in 1626. Dutch fur traders had been living on nearby Governors Island for a couple of years, and had built a trading post there. In 1625, construction began on Manhattan Island in the form of a citadel, Fort Amsterdam. The Dutch West India Company appointed Minuit Director of the Colony of New Netherland. He arrived on Mannahatta, the “island of many hills,” to find a small village already in place, with more land being cleared. On the west side of the island there was a cemetery, a small farm, an orchard, and two wealthy estates. Most of the houses were built along the East River, since its shore was more protected from winds than the shore of the Hudson. The main street was built over an old Indian path running from the southern tip of the island north to what is now City Hall Park. First it was called Heere Straat, which meant Gentlemen’s Street, but it eventually came to be known as Breede Wegh — which became the name we know it by today, Broadway.

But outside the infant settlement near the island’s southern edge grew towering stands of hickory, oak, and chestnut trees. Minuit also would have found grasslands and salt marshes. What would eventually become Times Square was at that time a red maple swamp. A creek ran through Midtown. Where the best eateries now stand, wild game roamed freely: turkey, deer, and elk. The beaches and waterways were teeming with eels, brook trout, and shellfish. And Madison Square Garden was a marsh on the edge of a forest. The island’s population was every bit as diverse as it is today: lying at the convergence of two geographic zones, Mannahatta was home to northern spruce and southern magnolia, migratory birds and tropical fish, more than 1,800 different species in all.

It’s the birthday of Horace Mann, born in Franklin, Massachusetts (1796). He was the first great American advocate of public education. He believed that, in a democratic society, education should be free and universal. He was fiercely opposed to slavery, and toward the end of his life, he was the president of Antioch College, a new institution committed to coeducation and equal opportunity for all students, black and white. Two months before he died, he said in a speech to the graduating class: “I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words: Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

It’s the birthday of Israeli writer Amos Oz (books by this author), born in Amos Klausner in Jerusalem (1939). His uncle was killed by the Nazis, but his father managed to escape to Jerusalem in the late 1930s. His family spoke Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German, and English, but Amos was taught only Hebrew. As he grew up, he witnessed the founding of the Israeli nation. In 1948, he helped other schoolchildren fill sandbags to prepare for the siege of Jewish Jerusalem in the War of Independence. When they won the war, he saw hundreds of thousands Jewish refugees stream into Israel. He later said, “The Jerusalem of my childhood was a lunatic town flooded with conflicting dreams, a vague federation of communities, people, faiths, ideologies, and hopes.”

He left home when he was 14 to work and study at a kibbutz, and he changed his last name to Oz, which means “strength” in Hebrew. He began writing poems, and in 1966 he came out with his first novel, Elsewhere Perhaps. Since then, he’s published many more novels, including My Michael (1968) and The Same Sea (2002). His latest novel is called Judas (2014).

Many of his novels and essays have challenged traditional Zionism, and he’s become a controversial figure in Israel. He wrote: “Daytime Israel makes a tremendous effort to create the impression of the determined, tough, simple, uncomplicated society ready to fight back, ready to hit back twice as hard, courageous, and so on. Nocturnal Israel is a refugee camp with more nightmares per square mile […] than any other place in the world. Almost everyone has seen the devil.”

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

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