Saturday Apr. 15, 2017

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Some nights you're blessed

among trees
people you’ve never seen
mingle warmth from hand to hand
and melt
until they are beams of light woven into a rope
that tugs you in

where a man whose eyes sparkle into yours
lifts his young girl
this is my daughter
she puts her face close to yours
you say hello beauty
she smiles hello love

the light of day
the splash of water on your face
daffodils burning in their blue and white vase
the calendar open to two jays on a branch
it’s Spring
the first day

“Some nights you're blessed” by Rosie King from Time and Peonies. © Hummingbird Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

Today is traditionally known as “Tax Day,” the deadline for Americans to file their annual income tax returns. The federal income tax has been in effect since Congress ratified the 16th Amendment in 1913, which states: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” That first year, the form was only two pages long. If the deadline has snuck up on you, don’t despair: you still have a couple more days. Tax returns aren’t due until April 18th this year, because the 15th falls on a Saturday, and Monday the 17th is a holiday — Emancipation Day — in Washington, D.C. If you live in Maine and Massachusetts, you get an additional day due to the observation of Patriots Day. Your taxes aren’t due until Wednesday, April 19.

It's the birthday of ‘the Empress of the Blues’ Bessie Smith, born in Chattanooga, Tennessee (1898). As a child, Smith sang and danced on street corners for coins. Her career began when blues singer Ma Rainey & her Rabbit Foot Minstrels came through Chattanooga, saw Bessie Smith, and took her on the road with them. A decade later, in 1923, Smith's first recording, Down Hearted Blues, sold more than two-million copies in the first year alone. She lived hard, and that became part of her appeal. Tall and strong and sexy, she got in fist-fights, made no secret of her love affairs, and preferred gin, downing an entire tumbler at a time. The 150 blues numbers she recorded – backed by such great jazzmen as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Goodman – dealt with poverty, unrequited love, and cruelty. She died in Mississippi in 1937 after the car she in which she was riding rear-ended a slow-moving truck. Her best known tunes are "Downhearted Blues" (1923), "St. Louis Blues," with Louis Armstrong on trumpet (1925), and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" (1929).

Today is the birthday of original Renaissance Man, the Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci (books by this author), born in Tuscany in 1452, the son of a young, unmarried peasant woman and a notary. He received no formal schooling as a child beyond the most basic training in reading, writing, and math, but his burgeoning artistic talent led to his father apprenticing Leonardo out in his teen years to a local painter and sculptor.

One of Leonardo’s earliest commissions came from a Milanese family of nobles who requested a 16-foot tall bronze equestrian statue. Leonardo slowly carved a model from clay over the course of 12 years in preparation for the bronze casting. But a soon-to-be war with the French meant that any bronze that had been set aside for the statue was needed instead for the building of more cannons. Leonardo’s clay model was later destroyed in the fighting.

While he worked in many forms and fields, we know Leonardo today primarily as a painter. His pieces are some of the most well-known artworks in the medium’s history — the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man drawing among them. His renown as one of the world’s greatest painters is even more astonishing considering that only around 15 of his painted works survive today. He worked very slowly, and often abandoned his projects before they were finished.

Elsewhere, Leonardo’s notebooks depict the brilliant mind of an inventor and the curiosity of a scientist. They contain assorted sketch plans for flying machines, solar power setups, and armored vehicles. Leonardo took extensive notes on matters of anatomy, geology, engineering, and physics. He wrote almost always in a mirror image script on the page. Some claim he did this for reasons of secrecy. But because he was left-handed, it may just have been easier for him to write from right to left.

Leonardo finally left Italy when the French King Francis I offered him the title of “Premier Painter and Engineer and Architect to the King.” Leonardo eagerly accepted, apparently holding no ill will toward the French after they had destroyed his clay equestrian model years before. Francis supported Leonardo through his old age. According to legend, Leonardo died in the arms of the king.

Curiously, Leonardo once wrote, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have.”

Today is the birthday of journalist and food writer Waverley Root (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1903). He worked as a foreign correspondent for 30 years before he turned to food writing. He spent large stretches of his adult life — years at a time — in Paris, but never felt like an expatriate; on the contrary, he felt “fundamentally and unshakably an American.” That didn’t stop him from criticizing American eating habits, however. He wrote, in one of his essays: “One telltale sign that betrays the defective nature of our diet is the fact that the United States is the country of chewing gum. Working the jaws incessantly, uselessly and unbeautifully is an effort to deceive the body into the belief that it is being sufficiently well fed when it isn't.”

His first books had nothing to do with food. He published The Truth About Wagner (1928), three volumes of The Secret History of the War (1945–46), and Winter Sports in Europe (1956). The Food of France (1958), his best-known book, has never gone out of print. It’s a tourist guidebook, but instead of listing the sights one should see on a trip to France, it suggests foods that one should eat. He also wrote books on the food of Italy, and his last book was titled simply Food (1981). It’s an essay collection and encyclopedia of food and food history. In it, he writes, “Before I left America for France in 1927, you were looked down upon if you ate garlic, and when I returned in 1940, you were looked down upon if you didn’t.”

It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Henry James (books by this author) born in New York City (1843) and known for novels like The Portrait of a Lady (1881), about Isabel Archer, a young and spirited American woman who confronts her destiny in Europe. James’s novels often plumbed the depths of the female psyche and helped popularize realistic fiction. About writing, he once said, “The house of fiction has not one window, but a million.”

James was raised well-off, spending considerable amounts of his childhood abroad, being taught by tutors and governesses in London, Paris, Geneva, and Boulogne-Sur-Mer. His father believed the best education was a philosophical and scientific one, and, indeed, James’s brother, William, became a revered psychologist and philosopher. Henry James was not a particularly rapt student, and was quite shy, but he was big reader, and decided early on that writing would be his vocation. His parents sent him to law school, which he dutifully attended, but when he moved abroad, and began meeting his idols, like Robert Browning, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Alfred Tennyson, he came into his own as a writer.

Henry James wrote steadily for more than 50 years, producing 20 novels, numerous short stories, 12 plays, and several volumes of travel writing and literary criticism, which he called “a supremely beneficent art.” He spent three decades of his life in Europe, writing novels like The American (1877), The Europeans (1878), and the novella Daisy Miller (1878), whose main character he based on his beloved cousin Minnie Temple, who died when she was young. The character of Daisy Miller appalled some critics, one of whom referred to her as “an outrage of American girlhood.”

Henry James was a prolific letter writer, penning more than 10,000 letters during his lifetime. He had a particularly long correspondence with the writer Edith Wharton, whose work was often compared to James’s. Wharton called him “Cher Maître” and he called her “Princesse Rapprochée” and “Dear and Unsurpassedly Distinguished Old Friend.” In a fit of depression in 1909, James burned many of his letters. After his death, when his friend, sculptor Hendrick Christian Anderson, asked the James family for permission to publish the letters he exchanged with James, it was discovered that James was gay, which his family tried to hide for many years.

James is credited with popularizing the “international novel,” because his characters, mostly wealthy, move comfortably from America to Europe and back again. He had his critics, though, like Virginia Woolf, who wrote to a friend: “Please tell me what you find in Henry James. We have his works here, and I read, and I can't find anything but faintly tinged rose water, urbane and sleek, but vulgar and pale as Walter Lamb. Is there really any sense in it?” Oscar Wilde was so bored by James’s writing, he quipped that James “wrote fiction as if it were a painful duty.” Poet T.S. Eliot famously deadpanned, “James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”

During his final days, Henry James slipped in and out of delirium. He asked for a typewriter and began dictating sentences, imagining himself as Napoleon Bonaparte. His hands moved in the air, imitating the act of writing. His last words were rumored to be, “It’s the beast in the jungle, and it’s sprung.”

About the life of a novelist, Henry James once said: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

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