Friday, March 31, 2006

Anandibai Joshi


Anandibai Joshi, the first Hindu woman to obtain a medical degree in the Western hemisphere, was born Yamuna Joshi on this day in 1865 in Poona, India.

Although she only lived to be nearly 22, the example of Anandibai Joshi's life provided inspiration to generations of Indian women seeking education and, in particular, those who aspired to become physicians. Born to a wealthy Brahmin family, Anandi's parents indulged her love of learning and permitted a local Sanskrit scholar, Gopal, to teach her. At age 9, Anandi married Gopal (a widower 20 years her senior) and at 14, she gave birth to their first and only child. The infant survived only 10 days, but in her grief Anandi turned her thoughts to what could have been done to save her child: she became convinced that if there had been a female doctor available, the child might have lived. At 14, she became determined to become a doctor.

Despite the fact that Hindu culture discouraged the education of women and could not even contemplate a woman as a professional, let alone a doctor, Gopal was broad-minded and supportive of his wife's dream. In 1880, he sent a letter to Royal Wilder, a well-known American missionary in India and publisher of Princeton's Missionary Review, expressing his wife's interest in attending medical school in the U.S. and inquiring about a suitable post there for himself. Wilder superciliously responded with a plea for their conversion to Christianity, and added insult to injury by publishing the correspondence in the Review.

Shortly thereafter, however, a Mrs. Carpenter of Roselle, New Jersey picked up that edition of the Review while waiting to see her dentist, read Gopal's letter, and was moved by the man's earnest hopes for his wife. She immediately wrote to Gopal offering to host Anandi if she would come to the U.S. to study. Anandi and Mrs. Carpenter began an enthusiastic correspondence about Hindu culture and religion, through which Mrs. Carpenter noted that Anandi possessed a rich command of English and an active mind. Although Mrs. Carpenter's attentions were encouraging, Gopal knew he would not be able to leave his responsibilities in India. It was considered unsuitable for a married Hindu woman to travel alone, but Anandi was determined to go, and Gopal relented.

When Anandi's decision became known within her Bengali community, however, the two of them found themselves at odds with their neighbors -- some even resorted to spitting at Anandi and throwing stones at her when she walked through the streets carrying her books. The Christians in the community, on the other hand, did not oppose her plans -- they only wanted her to submit to Christian baptism before she left. To set everyone straight, Anandi decided to explain her decision to go to the U.S. alone to obtain a medical degree in an address at Serampore College Hall in Calcutta; according to some, it would be the first time an Indian woman would deliver a public address. She cited the need for Hindu female physicians in India, explained her goal to open a medical college for women in India, described the persecution that had been dealt to her and her husband, and made a startling pledge: "I will go as a Hindu and come back to live as a Hindu."

Following the publication of her speech, contributions came in from throughout India -- including 200 rupees from the Viceroy. She sold her gold wedding bangles and booked passage on the City of Calcutta for New York in the company of some European women, where she was met in June 1883 by Mrs. Carpenter. Soon afterward, she wrote to the Women's College of Pennsylvania asking to be admitted to the medical program (the first women's medical program in the world) and, moved by her passion, the dean of the medical school asked her to enroll.

Thus, Anandi began her American medical education at the the age of 19, and she was a model student, submitting a thesis on "Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos" and graduating with her M.D. on March 11, 1886. Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory message, and with the news of her achievement, Anandi was offered a job as physician-in-charge of the female ward at Albert Edward Hospital in Kolhapur, India.

In the meantime, however, Anandi had contracted tuberculosis -- perhaps worsened by a combination of cold weather and an unfamiliar diet -- and her health was steadily declining. Her friends sent her to Colorado Springs for her health, but she returned without improvement. Nevertheless, she returned to India, receiving a hero's welcome, while the newspapers closely monitored her physical condition. She died on February 26, 1887, in her mother's arms at her birthplace, and was mourned throughout India, celebrated for her courage and perseverance. Her ashes were sent to Mrs. Carpenter, who placed them in her family cemetery in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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I Think, Therefore I Am


"The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt comfortable in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of belonging . . . Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness: there is no ecstatic merger with nature, but rather total separation from it . . . I do not wish to suggest that Descartes is the lone architect of our current outlook, but only that modern definitions of reality can be identified with specific planks in his scientific platform." -- Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World.

Rene Descartes was born on this day in 1596 in La Haye, Touraine, France.

Educated at a Jesuit school founded by Henry IV, during a commemoration of the assassination of Henry's death, young Descartes became intrigued by references in one of the eulogies to Galileo's discovery of certain moons of Jupiter. Galileo soon became Descartes' intellectual hero -- a pioneer thinker and mathematician who sought objective answers, leaving dogma and the morass of moral uncertainty behind in the service of knowing what was knowable, but hidden.

At 21, Descartes' impatience with scholastic texts led him to military service, where he had a mystical awakening of sorts. On November 10, 1619, after a day filled with reflection as he waited for active duty, Descartes had a dream that he was destined to found a unified scientific movement based on a method for the proper management of human reason. From that point on he was single-minded in his pursuit of reason. Preferring to learn from travel and encounter rather than dusty, hopelessly muddled books, Descartes arrived in Paris and stunned a gathering of scholars there with a first, furtive attempt to free philosophical inquiry from scholastic rigidity through logical analysis, offering "12 evident reasons" for the falsity of a statement which was widely considered to be true. He then apologized to the thoroughly convinced crowd that his methodology was not yet mature.

Despite the danger of such independent thinking, he was encouraged by a Roman Catholic cardinal who was present at the gathering to complete his methodology, that it was "God's will" that he do so. In 1633, as Galileo and his solar-centered view of our planetary system were being condemned by the Inquisition, Descartes had completed an astronomical treatise called Le Monde. He considered burning his manuscript, because it too reflected the Copernican cosmology which the Church had condemned, but instead he set it aside with the idea of having it published posthumously.

In 1637, Descartes published The Discourse on Method, which articulated his method of systematic doubt for the first time, distilled as follows: (1) admit as true only what is free from all doubt; (2) divide all difficult problems into analyzable elements; (3) pass synthetically from the easy to the difficult; and (4) record the steps of your reasoning without omission, so they can be retraced like a trail of bread crumbs back into the darkness if necessary.

Descartes' aim was to blow away the old science, which started with axioms and assumptions, and make humans the possessors of their own universe by pushing reason to calculated, practical effects. "I think, therefore I am," seemed to be the only proposition which was free from doubt (because one must exist in order to doubt at all) in his metaphysical inquiry, Meditations on First Philosophy (1641); it became his first principle. Further meditations led him to conclude that thinking is what defines the essence of the individual, the body being a separate, distinct and perhaps illusory substance, accessible only through one's intellect. Perhaps it is not surprising that a man who could find his future framed so vividly in a dream should have exalted 'the mind' over the 'the body' so definitively.

Descartes' Meditations were celebrated throughout Europe; although theologians found Descartes' questioning of what were once considered to be basic principles to be discomforting, despite the fact that the Meditations contained Descartes' proof of the existence of God, and scientific empiricists, led by Pierre Gassendi, did not appreciate Descartes' distrust of the senses and experimental method. The opposition of organized religion posed the more serious threat at the time. One theologian, Reformed pastor Gysbertus Voetius, had Descartes tried in absentia for "libel," after which he was sentenced to be burned at the stake.

Meanwhile, encouraged by his friendship with Elizabeth of Bohemia while in exile in the Hague, Descartes wrote Principles of Philosophy (1644), proposing, as he had once dreamed, a science with metaphysical reasoning as its foundation, physics as its set of logically derived regulations, and all of the other branches of science, from medicine to astronomy, as its beneficiaries.

His final work, The Passions of the Soul (1649) takes his "Cartesian duality" to its logical extreme, proposing that all psychological manifestations can be traced to mechanical causes -- that human bodies are, in essence, automatons with souls located in the pineal gland. (Meanwhile, Descartes viewed animals as soulless, giving a justification for using animals in scientific research which to this day brands him as an enemy to animal rights activists.) These views had a profound effect on medicine, which for hundreds of years afterward officially ignored the potential impact of psychological stresses back onto physiology; it also foreshadowed the notion of artificial intelligence, thinking conducted by robots.

Legend holds that Descartes had himself built a "life-like" hydraulic robot-servant which he called "Francine" (named after his only child, an illegitimate daughter by one of his servants, who had died at age 5) whose realistic movements so scared a ship's captain on Descartes' journey to Holland that the captain, believing that the Brigitte Helm-like puppet was the creation of the devil, had it thrown overboard.

In 1649, Descartes was invited to the court of Christina of Sweden, who became his enthusiastic pupil in the new science and philosophy. Within a year, however, Descartes grew deathly ill from pneumonia, and died on February 11, 1650 in Stockholm holding the Queen's hand.

In addition to the profound effect he had on the shape of philosophy and science, Descartes employed his own advice to divide difficult problems into analyzable elements by founding analytic geometry, by which he plotted algebraic equations as points on a grid.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Pittsburgh's First Woman Lawyer


"Miss Agnes Fraser Watson's marriage Thursday evening to Herbert Lee Stitt of Pittsburgh, which took place at her mother's residence on Locust Street, Allegheny, was a pretty little ceremony, witnessed by about 50 guests and solemnized by Rev. Henry D. Lindsay, pastor of the North Presbyterian Church. There were but a two flower children in attendance, little Helen Barnes, a niece of the groom, and Harold Watson, a small nephew of the bride. The floral decorations were exceedingly handsome throughout the house. White azaleas, palms and maidenhair fern were used in the drawing room, white carnations in the dining room and all the other apartments were done in pink tulips and spring flowers. The bride wore a wedding gown of white pearl-tinted satin trimmed with duchess lace, in her hair she wore a white aigrette and plume, and she carried a bouquet of white carnations, her favorite flowers."

Sounds like it happened yesterday - but actually it was March 30, 1899, a very important event in the history of Pittsburgh lawyers. The groom was an inspector for the Schoen Pressed Steel Company in Blairsville and the bride . . . was the first woman to enter the bar in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.

Agnes Fraser Watson, born in Pittsburgh in September 1866 to a Scottish immigrant and his second wife. Agnes lost her father when she was 10, whereupon she and her brother became wards of John Hood. When Agnes was still a toddler, the newspapers headlines were full of the trials and tribulations of pioneers like Myra Bradwell and Arabella Mansfield, the first woman lawyers in the U.S. In 1886, Carrie Kilgore of Philadelphia became the first woman lawyer in Pennsylvania, but only after the same kind of protracted litigation to secure the right of women to practice, that Myra Bradwell and Arabella Mansfield had gone through. Pittsburgh remained closed to all but white men, and there were still only handfuls of women lawyers throughout the U.S. around 1893 when Agnes entered the University of Michigan Law School, one of the earliest law schools in the nation to support the education of women as lawyers.

The buzz around Pittsburgh started slowly, but the press saw Agnes coming. She quietly applied to take the bar exam in the fall of 1895, and was accepted for the exam by N.W. Shafer of the examination board. He was a free thinker and a curmudgeon, and he knew the law was on women's side after the Kilgore case, even if the gentlemen of the Pittsburgh Bar weren't ready for Miss Watson.

The Pittsburgh Post headline on September 14, 1895 was simply "Miss Watson Passes." Out of 26 applicants, only 10 passed the Bar exam -- nine young men and 29-year old Agnes Fraser Watson. "The Plucky Western Girl," as the papers called her, showed them and passed the test.

Now what would happen at the swearing-in ceremony?

The Post reported: "Miss Agnes F. Watson, the first woman who has ever passed the final examination for admission to the Allegheny County bar, was admitted to practice in the various courts of the county yesterday … in Common Pleas No. 1, the nine young men were sworn in first, and then Miss Watson was called up. Mr. Shafer moved for her admission."

Judge Edwin Stowe leaned forward over the bench to study Miss Watson. "Mr. Shafer," he inquired, "has the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided the right of women to be admitted to practice?"

"Why, yes Your Honor," said Mr. Shafer, "it had been decided in the case of Miss Kilgore of Philadelphia."

Judge Stowe sat back in his chair, his expression unchanged.

"I want to say if the Supreme Court had not decided the question, I would not consent to any women practicing law in this court. But if women want to practice law and ride bicycles, I suppose it is none of my business. Let her be sworn."

Women practicing law and riding bicycles. On the same day the Post announced Miss Watson's admission, in separate stories it reported that a woman postmistress was appointed at Kennon, Ohio, that it was decided that women would be allowed to attend the national conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, that women would now be admitted to the Catholic University of Washington, and among a few column inches of filler, the following statement: "A woman lawyer is a woman still, and when the right petitioner comes to court with a good case he will get a favorable decision." Something rather obvious that someone felt needed to be said.

Agnes Watson set up her office at 413 Fourth Avenue downtown, and as far as we know, she practiced by herself for a little over 3 years. Sadly, we know nothing of the details of her practice. All we know for sure is that a few weeks before her pretty wedding to Herbert Stitt on Locust Street in Allegheny, she closed the doors of her practice; and as the papers reported it, following the wedding, she spent weekdays in Blairsville and took carriage rides back to Allegheny on Saturdays to be with her mother, and "all her interests were devoted to homemaking." After 1899, Miss Watson, then Mrs. Stitt, disappears from the stage of history. Did she have children? Did she ever return to professional life? We just don't know, not yet. It appears that by 1930, though, she and her husband were living in the Edgewood, a suburb of Pittsburgh.

In a little over 3 years, her career as a Pittsburgh lawyer was over. By the time the next woman was admitted to the Bar in Allegheny County in 1900, Agnes Watson had already retired.

See The Steel Bar: Pittsburgh Lawyers and the Making of Modern America.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

And Tyler, Too


John Tyler, 10th U.S. President, was born on this day in 1790 at Greenway, Charles City County, Virginia.

The son of a governor of Virginia, charming, dignified Tyler grew up in the rarefied, elite world of the Southern gentry: he studied at William and Mary, adopting Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations as his socioeconomic bible, and then clerked for Edmund Randolph before entering the bar in 1809.

During the War of 1812, Tyler helped to organize a small militia company, the Charles City Rifles, and served as its captain. Although most sources politely say that Tyler's war service was "uneventful," there does seem to be a persistent legend that Tyler and his men camped in the main hall at William and Mary one evening after the British raid on Hampton, like the Little Rascals playing firemen; and that in response to some suspicious noises, Tyler rousted his men. Perhaps a little too eager to meet their foes, the men plowed down the main stairway a little too fast, collapsing in a messy heap at the bottom of the stairs. The British were nowhere to be seen, and the soldiers sheepishly went back to bed. For this little episode and the remainder of his brief tenure, Tyler received about 160 acres of land near what is now Sioux City, Iowa, in payment from the federal government.

By lineage Tyler was destined for a career in public service, and he entered the Virginia House of Delegates in 1811; spent a stint in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected governor of Virginia (1825), then served as U.S. senator (1827). Politically, he was a staunch supporter of states rights, opposing the Bank of the United States and federal improvement programs; condemning the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional in that it granted Congress the power to restrict slavery; and as senator cast the lone vote against President Andrew Jackson's plan to use armed force to enforce a federal tariff in South Carolina.

The latter episode sent him drifting into the camp of Henry Clay and the Whig Party, viewing Jackson as pretending to dictatorship (although he agreed with Jackson on the fate of the Bank of the U.S.). In the chaotic election of 1836, Tyler was nominated for vice president by the Whigs of certain states, appearing on the ballot with presidential nominee Hugh White in some states, and with presidential nominee William Harrison in others. Tyler returned to the Virginia House of Delegates after the Whigs were defeated, but was nominated for vice president again by the consolidated Whigs in 1840 on the ticket with his former neighbor William Harrison, thus giving rise to the famous campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too." This time, the Whig ticket prevailed, and Tyler became vice president.

Barely a month after Harrison's inauguration, Tyler was awakened at his home in Williamsburg on the morning of April 6, 1841 to learn that Harrison had died. He was sworn in as president later that day, the first vice president to succeed to the office after the death of a president. The succession was by no means a fait accompli, however: leaders in Washington differed over whether the office of the presidency or merely the powers of the president were to devolve on Tyler.

Tyler flatly refused to be dealt with as "acting president" (he returned unopened all letters addressed to the "acting president") and thereby set the tone for all presidential successions thereafter -- despite the fact that he was referred to by his political adversaries as "His Accidency." His states-rights pedigree quickly got him into hot water with members of his own party: when Henry Clay attempted to resurrect the National Bank, Tyler vetoed it twice, causing his entire cabinet (except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster) to resign in September 1841. Two members of his new cabinet, Abel Upshur and Thomas Gilmer, died at a presidential party on board the USS Princeton when a new weapon exploded during a demonstration. Before leaving office, Tyler signed a joint congressional resolution approving the annexation of Texas (a measure he initially proposed as a treaty, but could not get the Senate to ratify).

A man without a party, Tyler retired to his 1,200-acre plantation "Sherwood Forest" with his second wife Julia, whom he had married while president, almost 2 years after the death of his first wife; between his two wives, Tyler fathered 14 children, more than any other president.

In 1861, he was elected to the Confederate Congress, true to his states' rights philosophy to the end, but he died (on January 18, 1862 at the Exchange Hotel in Richmond, Virginia) before taking his seat.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Miss America, 1935


Henrietta Leaver, better known as Miss America 1935, was born Henrietta Applegate on this day in 1916 in Monongahela, Pennsylvania.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, way back in 1854, that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Over the course of the last century, that famous remark should probably have been amended to state that "The mass of men and women lead lives of quiet desperation." It's probably as true today as it was in 1854; however, with another new reality TV show hitting the airwaves every day it seems, one could also add to Thoreau's sentiment, "The mass of men and women lead lives of quiet desperation -- punctuated, in some cases, by 15-minute fits of fame."

Henrietta Leaver grew up in a quietly desperate setting. Her mother, Celia, was just 15 years old when she and young George Applegate, an itinerant steel mill hand, eloped to Wellsburg, West Virginia. Where Henrietta was born not a year later, said reporter Evelyn Burke, "there wasn't a silver spoon anywhere near her clothesbasket bassinet." Applegate skipped out on the little family shortly after Henrietta was born, and within the year Celia had remarried, to George Leaver, a steel mill die caster. Little Hen was provided with his name, and dancing lessons when the family could afford them.

Over the next several years, as George Leaver followed the work, the family moved from Monongahela to Cleveland to Washington, Pennsylvania to Charleroi and back again to Monongahela. In between, following the birth of her sisters Betty (who died at age 2) and Norma Jean, Henrietta occasionally stayed with her grandmother and step-grandfather in Sarasota. By the time Henrietta was 15, the Leavers divorced, and Celia Leaver and her two girls moved in with Celia's mother, who had returned to Monongahela.

With the family in rough financial straits, Henrietta Leaver dropped out of McKeesport High School after her sophomore year to take a job in a 5-and-dime store. The Depression was on, however, and Henrietta soon found herself a victim of "downsizing," only able to count on a weekend's work here and there at the store.

Her family now on the welfare rolls, she took the advice of a family friend in August 1935 and entered a "Miss McKeesport" bathing beauty competition at a local movie theatre, wearing a borrowed polka dot one-piece. To her authentic astonishment, she won, prompting her to enter, the following week, the "Miss Pittsburgh" competition at Pittsburgh's Sky Club. Beating out 33 other girls who vied for the title, Henrietta's prizes included a new bathing suit and all expenses paid to attend and compete in that grand-old forerunner to today's reality show, Atlantic City's annual Miss America contest.

In Atlantic City, the 19-year old high school dropout and 5-and-dime-store salesgirl beat a field of 53 hopefuls, singing "Living in a Great Big Way" and doing a tap dance in the pageant's first-ever talent competition. At her post-competition press conference, the blue-eyed, brown-curled girl breathlessly told the reporters, "Please don't say anything about finding a million-dollar baby in a five-and-ten-cent store. All I want is a job!"

The newspapers were captivated by this living Cinderella, whispering that a Hollywood film contract could be on her horizon. Henrietta got herself a manager, George Tyson, and began to cash in modestly with endorsements and public appearances.

It turns out, however, that Vanessa Williams was not the first Miss America to engender controversy through a display of public nudity. The pride of McKeesport returned to Pittsburgh to pose, wearing a bathing suit, for a sculpture by noted area sculptor Frank Vittor (the same fellow who rendered the larger-than-life statue of Honus Wagner now located outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh), and was shocked to find at its unveiling that Vittor had rendered her in the nude. As Williams would later do, Leaver immediately protested her unexpected exposure while sponsors and guardians of morality expressed their disapproval; but since Vittor was known for sculpting presidents and not for publishing a smut 'zine (here the comparisons with the Williams affair break down a bit), he had the artistic community on his side. An international panel of artists and critics scrutinized Vittor's sculpture of Miss Leaver, entitled "American Venus," and pronounced it a "true and beautiful work of art."

Miss Leaver ultimately withdrew her objections, and was shortly thereafter also named "Miss American Model of 1936" by a group of 200 retail store buyers convening in Los Angeles.

From her moment in the sun, she returned to circumstances that may also be described as quietly desperate -- quietly desperate on a day-to-day basis, by all accounts, though probably happy enough on the whole.

It is possible that her notoriety made her slightly uncomfortable, as she forfeited her Miss America title before the end of her one-year reign when she eloped with her teen sweetheart, John Mustacchio. She divorced Mustacchio in 1944, testifying that he treated her like a "beautiful piece of furniture," subsequently remarrying twice (to Messrs. Nesser and Thomason) and settling into obscurity. She did, however, maintain her 36-25-36 figure well into her 50s, a point of pride that no doubt enabled the one-time beauty queen to reflect upon her fifteen minutes of fame with some confidence as the years wore on. She passed away, a beloved mother and grandmother, in September 1993.


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Monday, March 27, 2006

South Pole Widow


Lady Kennet, sculptor and widow of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott was born Kathleen Bruce on this day in 1878 in Carlton-in-Lindrick, Nottinghamshire, England.

Perhaps no English woman of her time found herself as much in the way of fascinating circumstances in which to live as Kathleen Bruce, and few lived with as much gusto. Convent-educated after the death of her parents by the time she was 8, Kathleen went to Paris to study art when she was 23. She first immersed herself in painting, inspired by the work of Augustus John, but later took up sculpture, ultimately earning the right to be addressed by the great Rodin as "colleague."

She took a detour in 1903, joining a Macedonian relief expedition until illness forced her back to England, where she met and fell in love with the dashing explorer Con Scott. The attraction was instantly mutual, as Scott fell prey to the fiery young woman's "rare smile" and vivid blue eyes. In the months before and after their marriage in September 1908, she was an enthusiastic supporter of Con's decision to conquer the South Pole, and after the birth of their son Peter (named after Peter Pan, the creation of Peter's godfather James Barrie), Kathleen and Con Scott sailed to Australia, where she met (but did not get along well with) the timid wives of Con's expedition mates. "If Con ever has another expedition," Kathleen wrote, "the wives must be chosen more carefully than the men -- better still, have none."

She was waiting for Con's return in New Zealand in April 1913 when word came that Con and his men had perished. Although deeply anguished, she refused to be conquered by her grief, but bore her loss, as she wrote, with gratitude for the time she had with Con Scott. Soon thereafter, she returned to sculpting by forging her masterpiece, a memorial to her husband at Waterloo Place in London.

During World War I she helped to establish an ambulance service and worked as a factory hand in an armament factory. In 1922, she married Lt. Commander Edward Young (later Baron Kennet), and spent much of the rest of her life sculpting famous men (including Asquith, Lloyd George and Yeats), working charity and relief efforts, and completing her memoirs. She died on July 25, 1947 in London.

"No happier woman ever lived." -- Lady Kennet.

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

Luke Doucet's 'Broken (and Other Rogue States)'


My red-headed wife has a new CD that we've been listening to in her SUV -- Back to Bedlam, by the suddenly ubiquitous, Oprah-visiting James Blunt. He is Britain's latest version of David Gray, with a metallic voice over spare arrangements, singing about grief and loss. With his back against the wall, he is a strong poet, freakin' John Donne with a guee-tar; and so, as far as it goes, it is passably good stuff.

There's another new CD handsomely blaring through the tinny speakers of my little car -- Luke Doucet's Broken (and Other Rogue States). Like Blunt's effort, Broken is at least in part a break-up album, but there the resemblance ends. Whereas Blunt's album is a cold shower and bitter tears, Broken is cigarette smoke, drunken giggles, a wounded snarl, and a soak in a warm tub of gin-wash (the latter reflected, no doubt, in the album's cover art).

I've been amused at the aromatic notes that reviewers have found in Luke Doucet's album. One reviewer says that it is like "Echo and the Bunnymen playing Cracker both at home and away," while another says it has "a steady Beatles-flavored pop sensibility" while reeking like "metro-Atlanta." Well, OK, sure, yeah -- but what about the unmistakable influences of The Shins, Ron Sexsmith, Firefall and The Turtles, with earnest hints of near-twee?

While ambling down a lonely stretch of Route 30 in north-central Ohio, the album I'm listening to appears to be chock-full of heritage: structurally speaking, Doucet's first track, "Brother," shuffles down Walnut Street like an English madrigal with a hangover (apparently on its way to Tyburn Hill to see a hangin'); in "Emily, Please," Doucet seems to be channeling Joe Henry, then taking that and hand-cranking it through some kind of Sonoran ranchero contraption (laughing trompetas and all); and in "Keep Her Away From Me," Doucet has assumed the guise of the anonymous electric blues singer/guitarist I once encountered in a grimy back alley off Maxwell Street in Chicago one Sunday morning in the winter of 1987, shouting through a fuzzy amp and speaker. Doucet must'a been there, but I no see him.

It may sound like a mish-mash, but Doucet has a steady hand and a sure purpose, and these are the mechanisms through which Doucet's distinctive voice emerges. There's no question that Doucet's main character's break-up was a painful one, and that he was in love -- but Doucet's approach to dealing with it is profoundly multi-dimensional. We have, in "One Too Many," his realization of the inexorable poisonous-ness of a relationship-in-progress, revealed in the lines

It takes a uniquely f*cked up man
To break his own heart
& the right girl at the wrong time
To make him do it
So if I'm the guy & you're the girl
& the time is now
Then I'm as broke as any man could be


We have a reenactment of the drunken moment he's been thrown out by his girl in "Emily Please," complete with a vérité prologue tracklet, "Stumbling Gingerly Back to Emily's Apartment," which hides none of the central character's foibles and weaknesses. So, too, we have his inability to get into gear to turn his life around, swapping half-hearted apologies and self-loathing for false bravado and bitter recriminations in the gleeful "It's Not the Liquor I Miss," the bright "Broken One," "Wallow," and the stately "No Love to Be Made Here Now." In "It's Not the Liquor I Miss," in fact, I think we find (in addition to a gutsy use of sax peppered over a faux disco string section) the crux of the whole album, located specifically within the chorus girls' chanting of the words "Little red wagon's got a new jet engine/ Little red wagon's got a broken wheel" -- a metaphor for a psyche that is all at once seething with heat and passion, but is nonetheless stuck in a state of suspended animation. That's what breaking up (not to mention sobering up) can do to you, by gosh.

It's a tuneful and intelligent dish -- but, please, don't let those epithets turn you off. It's also a lot of fun.

DISCLAIMER: This little note was probably written while under the pernicious influence of Extra-Strength Excedrin and a cup of Joe.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Last Man


"Ishi," the last Yahi indian, died on this day in 1916 in San Francisco, California at the age of about 54.

Classic images of the last man on Earth: Charlton Heston, snarling at his civilized simian captors in Planet of the Apes? Kevin McCarthy, screaming in terror at the insidious pod replicants in Invasion of the Body Snatchers? The man known as Ishi, however, was the real thing.

His terror was real when he was 6 years old and a group of white settlers ambushed his village in the Sierra Nevada mountains and brutally slaughtered about 38 Yahi indians. Only a dozen Yahis survived the attack, hiding from the whites in caves and crevasses for over 40 years. By 1908, only four Yahi remained: Ishi, his mother, an old man, and a female cousin. Fleeing in fear after being discovered near Mill Creek, California, the old man and the female cousin drowned in the confusion, and a few weeks later Ishi's mother also died.

For 4 years thereafter, Ishi lived as the last man on Earth. He singed his own hair off out of grief and loneliness, but he continued to hunt and fish for his own survival in the wilds of Butte County, California -- until August 29, 1911, when he showed up in the town of Oroville, half-naked, starving and expecting to be executed like the rest of his race.

Only 21 years had passed since the massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee by the U.S. government. Perhaps it was the strangely humanistic, value-shifting tension encapsulated within the fact that Theodore Roosevelt had set aside 125 million acres in national forests by 1909 at the same time that the registration of over a half million private automobiles by 1911 signaled the coming of a consumer-based culture to replace the "land rush" ethic of the white pioneers -- or maybe it was just because there was only one of Ishi and dozens of whites in Oroville -- but the puzzled Oroville sheriff did not execute Ishi, instead deciding to place him in protective custody and attempting to provide him food like a good civil servant.

The news of the capture of this mournful, silent savage spread to the nearby University of California at Berkeley, where anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and linguist Thomas Waterman made arrangements to meet and interview him. Waterman tried to talk with the captive using words from a dictionary of the closely-related Yana language without much apparent success, until Waterman pointed to the wooden framework of the cot on which they sat and said "Siwini," which means "yellow pine." "Siwini," the captive repeated, "siwini!" He asked Waterman, "I ne ma Yahi?" or "are you an indian, too?," to which Waterman replied that he was.

Although the captive knew better than to believe it, at that moment he knew he had at least one friend in the world. Waterman and Kroeber named the captive "Ishi," which means "man" in Yana, since it would have been impolite to ask the man for his private Yahi name, and invited him to return with them to Berkeley.

There was nothing anyone could do to restore his race to him, but in his last years he did manage to shed light on his culture, traditions, ancient skills (such as flint-sharpening and bow-hunting) and language (famed linguist Edward Sapir studied with him extensively during 1915) for the benefit of modern science at the Berkeley Anthropological Museum.

When he died of tuberculosis a few years later, the last man on Earth took his private name with him into eternity, signifying the end of the saga of his tribe, but closing only one more chapter in the sad history of European ethnocide against the indigenous peoples of North America.

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Friday, March 24, 2006

Kapurats


John Wesley Powell -- geologist, ethnologist and explorer -- was born on this day in 1834 in Mount Morris, New York.

With little formal education and a lot of spare-time exploring, young John Wesley Powell developed an interest in natural history and archaeology, collecting Indian artifacts, rocks and fossils around his home in Illinois. Prior to the Civil War, he farmed and occasionally taught school; but with the War's onset, at age 27 he joined the 20th Illinois Volunteer Infantry for the North as a private, and within a year he was captain of an artillery unit. At Shiloh, under U.S. Grant, he lost his right arm below his elbow to a musket ball, but returned to fight at the siege of Vicksburg and the battle of Nashville, receiving his discharge in 1865 with the rank of major.

On the basis of his reputation as an amateur naturalist, after the War Powell became a lecturer in natural history at Illinois Wesleyan College and Illinois Normal University -- but he still had an eye for adventure. With some of his students, he began staging reconnaissance expeditions in the Colorado Rockies, and in the winter of 1868, he explored the upper tributaries of the Colorado River, studying the culture of the Utes and seeking grants from his universities, the Smithsonian and the U.S. Army for a full-fledged journey down the Colorado.

On May 24, 1869, the intrepid one-armed Powell and his crew of 9 other men embarked on what would become one of the last epic explorations of the continental U.S., a treacherous boat trip down the Colorado, through the monolithic gorges of the Southwest that had scared off prior expeditions. By the time he emerged from the Grand Canyon (so named by Powell himself) on August 29, 1869, Powell had succeeded in laying the groundwork for a good map of the Colorado, at the cost of 3 men who were killed along the way; developed an influential theory of how the Colorado preserved its level; established relations with the Utes and Shivwits of northern Arizona and southern Utah (who recalled Powell as "Kapurats," or "right-arm-off"); and was hailed as a hero in the East.

Congress responded by funding Powell to map and study large areas of the West. In 1872, Powell was appointed special commissioner of Indian Affairs, but in addition to providing advice to the government as one of the nation's foremost experts on Native American culture in the West, he began to concern himself with the natural limits of the American settlement of the West.

In his prophetic Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States (1878), he observed that the region to the west of the 100th meridian (roughly running through present-day Erick, Oklahoma, among other places) lacked the abundant water that had supported the growing populations in the East and Midwest. Therefore, he argued, for the West to grow within the bounds of its resources, the U.S. government would be required to carefully control homesteading, limiting it to self-reliant (not federally subsidized) communal authorities gathered around water and natural watershed areas where irrigation ditches might easily transport water to crops. Powell argued that this kind of control was required to encourage conservation, minimize conflicts over water rights, and reduce inefficiencies inherent in transporting water over long distances.

Powell's Report fell on deaf ears, however: while newspapers and speculators, aided by crackpot scientists, promised that water would somehow appear wherever civilization chose to install itself, politicians in Washington bristled at the notion of imposing so much control over the settlement of the West, arguing that it would interfere with free enterprise.

Between 1880 and 1930, the population of the Western states would increase by almost 10 times without a federal water conservation policy; within the same period, a city like Los Angeles would swell from a sleepy pueblo to a metropolis of 2 million people on the back of William Mulholland's nefarious Owens Valley aqueduct scheme, supplemented every decade or so by greedy grabs of additional water sources further and further Eastward and by billions of dollars of federal dams and reservoir projects; and by 2000, a city like Las Vegas, which would not have even existed under Powell's plans, would become the fastest growing city in the country -- with the highest per capita (and most conspicuous) water use in the West, an overdrawn aquifer, and fewer and fewer options other than to drill for water on federally-protected lands. So much for conservation and self-reliance.

With Powell's visionary plans doused, however, he was consigned to the federal bureaucracy; but as head of both the Bureau of Ethnology (from 1879) and the U.S. Geological Survey (from 1881), he turned his agencies into model government science organizations, fostering the publication of numerous classics of Native American anthropology, as well as topographical maps and land studies. His continual attempts to get in the way of unfettered development in the West ultimately got him fired in 1894, and he retired, somewhat bitterly, to write epistemological works that have been described by one writer as "abstruse." He died on September 23, 1902 in Haven, Maine.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Breaking the Four Minute Mile


"I tried to establish this now or never attitude because I knew that unless I was successful in attaining this attitude or mental stance, I would perhaps hurt my chance by letting myself fall prey to the mental reaction so common to athletes -- that is, thinking that there would always be a next time or deciding, perhaps, that this is not the day, when things become difficult and muscles begin to ache from the strain . . . I ran with complete abandon and thought it must be NOW!" -- Roger Bannister, born on this day in 1929 in Harrow, Middlesex, England.

As a student at Exeter and Merton College, Oxford University in 1947, Bannister became involved with the Oxford University Athletic Club and won the mile in the Varsity Match against Cambridge in 4:30.8. Later that year he was invited as an alternate to participate with the British track team in the 1948 Olympics, but he declined, citing his inexperience. To him, it seemed to be a natural response, but at the time his earnest decision received considerable attention in the press.

He continued to coach himself while attending medical school, and landed a spot on the 1952 team to compete in the 1500-meter race. Always well-conditioned, Bannister concentrated much of his training on mental preparedness. At the Helsinki Olympics, Bannister was a 50-50 favorite to win, but Olympic officials changed the schedule at the last minute to add a semi-final round to the two-round sequence, upsetting Bannister's carefully planned regimen. The gold medal went to Josy Barthel, and Bannister came in 4th.

It was a lesson he wouldn't forget. In the two years after the Olympics, other runners such as Gunder Hagg and Arne Andersson were approaching what Bannister called the "Everest" of racing -- breaking the 4-minute mile. He was determined to beat them there. After concentrated mental and physical training, Bannister decided, quite literally, that it was now or never.

On May 6, 1954 at a meet in Oxford's Iffley Road track, Bannister enlisted racemates Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway to pace him through the mile race, scheduled for 6:00 in the evening. At 5:15, it rained briefly, and gusty winds followed. Bannister knew these were horrible conditions for breaking the 4-minute barrier, but that he would never be more mentally-prepared for the moment. The wind died down slightly as the runners lined up at the start, and after a false start, Bannister effortlessly slipped in behind Brasher who had taken the early lead. Despite Bannister's pleas for Brasher to pick up the pace, Brasher kept his head and brought them around the first lap in 57.5 seconds. Just before the 2-1/2 lap mark, Bannister shouted "Chris!," instructing Chris Chataway to take the lead and the brutal pace from Brasher.

With 230 yards left on the final lap, Bannister went into high gear, taking the lead from Chataway and breaking the tape 45 yards ahead of him. He collapsed, almost unconscious.

Track announcer Norris McWhirter (of Guinness Book of Records fame) made the announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event number nine, the one mile. First, number forty-one, R.G. Bannister of the Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, with a time which is a new meeting and track record and which, subject to ratification, will be a new English native, British National, British All-Comers', European, British Empire and World's Record. The time is THREE . . ." -- and with that, the crowd drowned out the fact that Bannister had broken the 4-minute mile by 6/10 of a second.

On June 21, 1954, Australian John Landy shattered Bannister's record with a time of 3:57.9, and the world sporting press looked for a match between Landy and Bannister. On August 7, both Bannister and Landy broke the 4-minute mile in a race billed as the "Mile of the Century" at Vancouver, British Columbia, with Bannister edging out Landy, 3:58.8 to 3:59.6. Bannister retired from racing soon afterwards, became a physician, received the knighthood, and led the British "Sport for All" fitness movement.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Armageddon

Q. Thank you for coming to Cleveland, Mr. President, and to the City Club. My question is that author and former Nixon administration official Kevin Phillips, in his latest book, American Theocracy, discusses what has been called radical Christianity and its growing involvement into government and politics. He makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?

THE PRESIDENT: The answer is -- I haven't really thought of it that way. (Laughter.)


-- from a transcript of President Bush's visit to the City Club of Cleveland, March 20, 2006.

Doomsday prophet Mihran Ask was born on this day in 1886 in Shabin Karahisar, Sivar Province, Western Armenia, Ottoman Empire.

A pastor of the Remnant Church in Gilroy, California, Ask declared in January 1957: "Sometime between April 16 and 23, 1957, Armageddon will sweep the world! Millions of persons will perish in its flames and the land will be scorched!"

In case you missed it, he was wrong. The only item of note during that period appears to have been President Eisenhower's appropriation of $41 million for the U.S. Postal Service. Ask's prediction was even embarrassing to the perennial heralds of doom, the Jehovah's Witnesses, who wrote that "(s)uch false prophets tend to put the subject of Armageddon in disrepute."

Ask went on to run for U.S. president in 1964 (perhaps he was upset with Eisenhower over that postal appropriation) as the self-proclaimed candidate of the Peace Party. He is said to have received a grand total of 10 votes in all.

He died February 6, 1979 in Morgan Hill, California.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

J.S. Bach


Johann Sebastian Bach was born on this day in 1695 in Eisenach, Germany.

He left an enormous catalog of compositions when he died at age 65 -- some 1,100 -- written while serving in various jobs and siring 20 children, some of whom became great musicians in their own right. His home was always "humming like a beehive," his son Carl Philipp Emanuel would later recall. Despite Bach's apparent industriousness, he was not personally well-liked (perhaps someone with so many responsibilities could be forgiven for being a bit cranky), and when he died he was buried without fanfare in an unmarked grave, while the town council only noted coolly that "Herr Bach was a great musician . . . but we wanted a schoolmaster, not a musical director" and reduced the size of his widow's pension on a technicality.

Throughout his life, Bach rarely traveled outside his native Thuringia, where his ancestors had for generations held positions as court musician or Lutheran cantor, so his fame, such as it was during his lifetime, was local in nature; coupled with the fact that he labored wholly within a contrapuntal musical idiom of the late Baroque era which was dying even as he was perfecting it, Bach was considered to be just another obscure German musician of a bygone era (known mainly to hardcore musicians) until almost 80 years after his death, when Felix Mendelssohn led a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, inaugurating a slow reconsideration of Bach's music. After yet another 80-100 years, Bach's works had been adopted by churches, orchestras and chamber groups as the core of the canon -- the definitive Baroque music, popular, easily co-opted for endless pop culture reinterpretations.

Although he came from a musical family (his father was a violinist), Bach was mostly self-taught. At 15, he became a chorister at Luneberg; at 18, he was appointed violinist in Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar's court orchestra, then organist at St. Boniface's Church in Arnstadt. Even in his first major position, he was already running afoul of his superiors, suffering attack for "confusing" the parishioners with his "curious variations and irrelevant ornaments"; he also got into a street fight with a bassoonist whose playing he had compared to a goat's bleating. His problems with St. Boniface culminated in an episode in which he left Arnstadt on foot to travel to Lubeck (200 miles away) to hear the great Buxtehude play, and stayed there for 5 months.

After marrying his cousin Maria Barbara and leaving Arnstadt for an organist position at Mulhausen for less than a year, he returned to Weimar to become court organist for 9 years, where he wrote most of his pieces for organ, considered by many to be the greatest collection of compositions for the instrument, and studied the works of Italian composers such as Vivaldi. At 32, in 1717, he became kappellmeister to the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, but only after spending 3 weeks in jail because he had accepted the appointment without receiving Duke Wilhem's permission.

Three years later, Maria Barbara died, and a year later he married Anne Magdalena Wilcken (a daughter of a trumpeter and the mother of the last 13 of his 20 children; 10 in all survived to adulthood). While at Cothen, Bach wrote a great deal of music, including the first part of The Well-Tempered Clavier (an almost scientifically designed study of fugues which is nonetheless expressive and highly accessible to the listener), the Inventions, and the famous Brandenburg concerti, but he became better known as a musician than as a composer.

During this period, Bach was often invited to supervise the construction of new organs or to test them, and over the years he gained a reputation as the finest organist in the region. In 1716, while visiting Dresden, Bach was invited to play in a contest of organ virtuosity against the organist to the court of Louis XV, Louis Marchand. Marchand loudly bragged that he would dust the floor with the German, but upon hearing Bach practice, Marchand creeped out of town with his tail between his legs.

After Johann Kuhnau died in 1722, the position of cantor of St. Thomas in Leipzig became available; Bach, whose fortunes were in decline after Prince Leopold married a woman who did not care for music, sought the position, and was awarded it only after Georg Philip Telemann turned it down and Christoph Graupner could not get released from his current job. Bach ultimately spent 27 years in Leipzig, writing 265 of his 295 cantatas there, 5 Masses, 6 motets, 4 Passions, 3 oratorios, and numerous keyboard works and chorale harmonizations while rehearsing the musicians and teaching his family and a number of private students.

Productivity alone would not have commended Bach to the core of the canon, however; it was his constant desire to learn and improve, to stretch the limits of the polyphonic idiom which were familiar to his audiences and (not purely incidentally to Bach, who signed all of his works "in the name of Jesus") to achieve greater heights of ecstasy in the celebration of God, which sets Bach's music during this period apart. Reveling within the strict rules of counterpoint which mandated agile melodic lines which worked together in perfect harmony, Bach's fugues give the effect of being totally un-self-conscious, simple tunes (i.e., "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), yet are often entwined in some of the most daring contrapuntal designs ever attempted. His breadth, however, was much greater than that of a composer of simple tunes -- wholly within the laws of polyphony, Bach was capable of conveying a range of emotions and moods, from charming dances to the anguish of the Passion.

In 1747, Bach visited his son Carl at the court of Frederick the Great, where he wowed the young conqueror with a six-voice fugue improvisation on the king's piano which later formed the basis of the Musical Offering -- yet another demonstration of the ease with which Bach's mind conversed within the inviolable rules of counterpoint. At the end of his life, after years of close copying in darkened rooms by candlelight, Bach was blind. He sought help from the same surgeon who had operated on Handel, but to no avail. The surgeon ordered Bach to live for 6 months in total darkness in hopes that the rest would help restore his eyesight, but after he was exposed to light at the end of the six months, Bach suffered a stroke, went into a coma, and died on July 28, 1750 in Leipzig.

His last two important pieces were typically spiritual in nature: the monumental Mass in B minor, written for a Catholic mass as opposed to a Lutheran mass, and an organ prelude called Before Thy Throne I Stand, with a main theme which referred numerologically to his own name, a kind of premonition and last offering, as Jan Swafford writes, to St. Peter before standing at his gates.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

Manny, Moe and Somebody


Auto parts magnate Maurice "Moe" Strauss was born on this day in 1897.

On the rolls of people who have become corporate logos, Moe Strauss and his friends "Manny" and "Jack" are among the most durable. Performance artist Penny Arcade refers to them as "the Three Stooges with jobs."

Moe Strauss was one of the founders of "Pep Boys" chain of auto parts stores, for years marked with the caricatures of the Pep Boys themselves, "Manny," "Moe" and "Jack" -- or so American consumers were led to believe. In 1921, when the original Pep Boys got together to form the business with $200 each, there were four Pep Boys: Emanuel "Manny" Rosenfeld, Moe Strauss, Graham "Jack" Jackson and a second "Moe," Moe Radavitz. Moe Radavitz left the business shortly thereafter. In 1923, Strauss asked his friend Harry Moscovitz to create the famous caricatures of Manny, Moe and Jack, but a few years later Graham Jackson left the business, and Jack's caricature was replaced by a caricature of Moe Strauss' brother Izzy -- although Jack's name remained a part of the Pep Boys' trademark. After Izzy Strauss left the business, Manny's brother Murray became a partner in the business, but Izzy's face remained in the caricatures. So, ultimately, "Manny, Moe and Jack" were actually partners "Manny, Moe and Murray," with the faces of "Manny, Moe and Izzy."

Manny passed away in April 1977; Moe, the last surviving original Pep Boy, passed away in July 1982. By the end of the 1990s, perhaps in a nod to political correctness, Manny had lost his trademark cigar in an updating of the corporate logo, and by 1995, the Pep Boys had over 500 stores in 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

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Sunday, March 19, 2006

William Jennings Bryan


William Jennings Bryan -- who was born on this date in 1860 in Salem, Illinois -- left his mark on the presidential election process by making a national campaign seem like a local one. Decades before TV would further cultivate the illusion of intimacy between voters and politicians, speechifyin' Bryan traversed the country with brash advertisements of his own personality, helped along by the increasing willingness of "non-partisan" newspapers to report on "personality" as though it were "news" (such as Pulitzer's New York World, shedding the party imprimatur in hopes of broadening circulation). Bryan's success in getting the electorate stirred up (even if it did not translate into winning the presidency) begat Teddy Roosevelt's open-countenanced public persona, as much as it begat the populist appeals of national figures from Debs to Huey Long -- all of which set the stage for the media-savvy approach to national politics which had blossomed by the end of the 20th century.

The son of a judge, Bryan entered the Bar in central Illinois in 1883 and married his college sweetheart, Mary Baird, who later also became a lawyer. The couple moved West to Nebraska for greater opportunities, and within a short time Bryan earned a reputation among the hapless Democratic minority there for his fiery orations. He won election to Congress in the 1890 as the rise of the Populist Party chipped away at Republican dominance, echoing Populist themes: big-city moneyed interests (and their gold currency standard, which kept credit artificially tight) were in danger of choking the farmer, his business prospects, and, perhaps most importantly, his moral values.

In Congress, as a member of the House Ways and Means committee, he became a leading national spokesman for agrarian interests, proposing a national graduated income tax and opposing President Cleveland's call to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. In 1894, Bryan won a non-binding poll to become Nebraska's new U.S. senator, but the Republican legislature ignored the poll and selected someone else, freeing Bryan to take to the countryside (in the guise of journalist for the Omaha World-Herald), denouncing the gold standard in tent-shows like a crusading evangelist.

He went to the 1896 Democratic National Convention as a delegate and a member of the platform committee, which selected him to present the closing argument on behalf of free-silver forces. His oration, now known as the "Cross of Gold" speech, electrified the silver-leaning crowd -- declaring that if you burned down the cities, you could build them over again, but "destroy your farms and the grass will grow in every city in the Union," and reaching a fever-pitch with his closing remarks, delivered with arms outstretched in the attitude of Christ's martyrdom, "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!" John Altgeld (who admitted to not understanding parts of Bryan's florid speech) led the Illinois delegation in breaking from supporting Richard Bland in favor of 36-year old ex-Congressman Bryan, and the avalanche followed, giving Bryan the nomination.

Facing William McKinley, the Republican candidate of the bosses and financiers who conducted his well-financed campaign (having raised a record $16 million) from his front porch in Canton, Ohio, Bryan took to the road again with a war chest of just $300,000, traveling 18,000 miles and delivering 600 speeches, and connecting on a personal, visceral level with an unprecedented number of individuals in the course of a presidential campaign. The Northeastern papers depicted Bryan as a wild-eyed anarchist, and even though he lost the election, both McKinley and Bryan garnered a record number of popular votes (7.1 million to 6.5 million), suggesting that Bryan's campaigning had awakened a previously disinterested class of the electorate.

Now the leading voice in the Democratic Party, Bryan easily won the 1900 presidential nomination, facing McKinley again, this time attacking him on his imperialist policies in the wake of the Spanish-American War; he lost again by nearly the same margin (7.2 million to 6.4 million votes).

Bryan started a newspaper, the Commoner, and continued his never-ending speaking tour; when the Democrats met in 1904, they opted for a conservative nonentity, Alton Parker, as nominee, and their defeat in the presidential election was catastrophic. Bryan returned in 1908 even stronger, but found himself walking into an election which seemed to be about who would carry forward the policies of Theodore Roosevelt. Although William Taft was Roosevelt's handpicked successor, Bryan argued that the Republicans had co-opted the Democratic agenda and that he would be better suited to lead that agenda. Bryan lost again by a similar margin (7.6 million to 6.4 million).

In 1912 he threw his support to Woodrow Wilson, who emerged as the victor in the general election as Roosevelt and Taft squared off over Republican votes, and Wilson returned Bryan's favor by naming him secretary of state. As a diplomat, Bryan's populist philosophy translated poorly: he threw mild support to emerging democratic governments, but wasted a lot of time naively signing up non-aggression pacts even as the seeds of World War I were being sown in Europe. As a pacifist, he resigned his post in 1915 over Wilson's confrontational note to Germany following the sinking of Lusitania, but he did support Wilson's conduct of the War, and was an advocate of the League of Nations.

After his tenure as secretary of state, Bryan returned to his interest in what he perceived to be agrarian values and virtues, but often found himself at odds with the progressives who once supported him on social issues: he supported women's suffrage, but would not condemn the Ku Klux Klan at the 1924 Democratic Convention; he was probably the most influential voice in the passage of the 18th Amendment banning the sale of alcoholic beverages; and, in his final hurrah, he took on the teaching of evolution in public schools.

After the Tennessee legislature banned the teaching of "Darwinism," schoolteacher John Scopes accepted the invitation of the ACLU to test the constitutionality of the ban, and was prosecuted for teaching evolution. Clarence Darrow took on his defense, and Bryan agreed to lend his national name to assist the prosecution. During the trial, Darrow called Bryan to the stand to speak for the Fundamentalism position, and succeeded in making Bryan look silly for his fanaticism and his apparent ignorance of science.

Scopes was convicted, but the trial did little to advance the Fundamentalist cause. Bryan collapsed shortly after the trial and died of heart failure at age 65 -- and, of course, the Scopes incident became the basis of a play Inherit the Wind, later filmed with Frederic March in the role based on Bryan.

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Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Postman Comes in 4th


Felix Carvajal de Soto, Olympic marathoner, was apparently born on this day in 1875 in Cuba.

Felix Carvajal's tale, quirky though it may be, is one that perfectly captures the amateur ideal of the modern Olympics, of the joy of competition for competition's sake. A 5'-tall postman from Havana, Carvajal was a local phenom as a footracer, and when he got it in his head to enter the marathon in the 1904 Olympics, he raised his money for the trip to St. Louis by staging races and socking away the winnings. He got as far as New Orleans, however, when he lost his purse in a crap game, so he had to hitchhike the rest of the way, getting to St. Louis just in time to show up on the starting line in street shoes, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a beret. Discus thrower Martin Sheridan took pity on the Cuban and held up the starting gun long enough to cut Carvajal's pants off at the knees.

In 90 degree heat, Carvajal bipped along the 26-mile, 385-yard course without apparent stress or strain, stopping occasionally to practice his English with bystanders, as some of the pre-race favorites collapsed and took sick. To quench his thirst, he raided an orchard for some green apples -- which turned out to be his only mistake. The apples apparently gave him stomach cramps, which caused him to lose a little ground as American Thomas Hicks suffered his way to a first place finish -- but only after being administered strychnine and brandy by his handlers, a little bit of doping not yet considered illegal.

Carvajal -- in street shoes, with stomach cramps, and in 90-degree heat -- finished fourth and disappeared into obscurity, a lone longshot competitor from a distant land who enjoyed a heroic moment in the Olympic sun.

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Friday, March 17, 2006

St. Patrick


Don't say it too loudly -- especially not around my red-headed wife's family, all those Rays and Murphys and O'Connells and McFaddens and Donahues.

Shhh. The patron saint, nay, the symbol of Ireland . . . was a Romanized Brit.

This hardly matters to the revelers who consume thousands of gallons of beer (green-dyed and otherwise) in St. Patrick's Day celebrations -- any more than the fact that George Washington was a Brit has ever bothered any of the people who celebrate the 4th of July, or the fact that Cleopatra was a Greek has ever bothered a Hollywood casting director. Still, in the politically-charged days since the Elizabethan colonization of Ireland in 1556, it's better to whisper Patrick's ethnic origins if one is to mention them at all.

Patrick's father was a middle-class deacon and bureaucrat, which meant that Patrick could have expected to enjoy a decent education and livelihood; but at 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates who attacked his father's farm in England, and he became enslaved for 6 years. During the near-starvation and other privations of his captivity, Patrick sustained himself with his faith in God, away from clerics or formal instruction.

At the end of 6 years, a mysterious voice told him that he was going home, whereupon he was either freed or he escaped from his captivity, walked 200 miles to the Irish coast, and hitched a boat back to England. There, after reuniting with his family, Patrick was visited by another divine messenger who revealed what was to become Patrick's calling: to bring Christianity back to the land of his captors, to become a civilizing voice among the Irish or vox hiberionacum.

He received rudimentary training for the priesthood (lacking a complete classical education, something which he would always regret) and returned to Ireland around 435, working principally from Armagh in the North. Although legends credit him with single-handedly converting the whole of Ireland (using the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Trinity), in actuality his mission concerned itself with organizing his small flock into a church administration, and turning them upon the rural Irish to stamp out idolatry and sun-worship.

His two rough Latin works (a Confession, and an Epistle, in which he denounced the treatment of Irish captives by a Briton chieftain) are the earliest surviving Irish texts, revealing a humble man who was conscious of his status as an intellectual exile as well as a physical one. By a few hundred years after his death, he was credited with a number of tall miracles, including driving all of the snakes off of the island, and certainly the metaphoric significance of that tale has fueled much of the Irish nationalistic spirit with which he later became identified.

It doesn't explain the green beer, however.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

James Madison


James Madison could not have hoped to get himself elected to national office in the 21st century. He was a terminally shy, dour 5'-4" dweeb with a weak voice and a frostbite scar on the tip of his nose. Bob Newhart would stand a better chance of getting elected president today -- or Dennis Kucinich, for that matter. Even in the late 18th-early 19th century, some people had their doubts about little Jemmy. The colossal irony is that the engine of the process by which we choose our leaders today was the result of Madison's best life's work, as father of the U.S. Constitution.

Born on this day in 1751 in Montpelier, Virginia, young James Madison was a quiet but tireless and politically aware student at Princeton, graduating in just two years. He stayed on to study philosophy and Hebrew privately with Princeton president John Witherspoon, and returned to his father's home in Montpelier in 1772, half-heartedly pursuing law studies. When the Revolution began, he joined the militia, but was too frail for service. Instead, Madison rode the wave of nation-building, first as a delegate to the Virginia Convention to establish a plan for state government (1776), then as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1776-7) -- although he lost his seat in the next election because he failed to honor the custom of passing out whiskey to voters. He became the youngest member of the Continental Congress in 1780, and in his front-line support of the principles of strong central government with guaranteed fundamental freedoms, he found his capacity for leadership and began to form his political philosophy.

Back in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1784, he fought tooth-and-nail against Patrick Henry's attempt to establish the Episcopal church as the state religion. By 1787, with a career's worth of experiences with the squabbling loose affiliation of states under the Articles of Confederation and a commitment to personal liberties, Madison became a leading light of the U.S. Constitutional Convention -- as one of the principal draftsman of the document, a recorder of the Convention's proceedings, and a pragmatic advocate. Indeed, from the outside looking in, European commentators tend to credit Madison with being the most influential partisan in the creation of American political institutions and America's most important political philosopher.

He extended his influence after the Convention while the states debated the Constitution's ratification: he led the fight in Virginia against anti-Constitution forces led by his old nemesis Patrick Henry and, for the benefit of the national cause and for posterity, was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, still the most often quoted commentary on the Constitution, with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. Under the pseudonym of "Publius" (collectively and individually used by all three of them), Madison brilliantly articulated the case for the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, a structure he summed up with the notion that "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." Henry kept Madison out of the newly created U.S. Senate, but Madison did win election to Congress, where he authored and pushed through the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the "Bill of Rights" -- including the freedoms of speech, assembly and religion.

With the broad outlines of the new government drawn, the operating policies of Washington's administration began to cause rifts between the Federalist Hamilton and the states' rights views of Thomas Jefferson, leading Jefferson and Madison to form the Democratic-Republican Party, the forerunner of the Democrats, in 1792. Jefferson named Madison as his secretary of state in 1801, and as such Madison mainly concerned himself with piracy and British and French harassment of American ships, approaching the latter with an embargo against the two nations.

In a bit of poetic irony, during this period Madison's name graced the caption of the Supreme Court's first dramatic demonstration of its authority as the supreme arbiter of "constitutionality," Marbury v. Madison (1803), written by the Court's first great chief justice, John Marshall; in it, William Marbury, who had been appointed justice of the peace by President Adams prior to the end of his term but who had failed to receive his commission, sued Madison as secretary of state to Adams' successor, President Jefferson, to force him to deliver the commission. Marshall's opinion declared that Madison should have delivered the commission, but also that the Judiciary Act of 1789, the act by which Marbury had received his writ of mandamus against Madison, was void because it was unconstitutional -- thereby happily serving Marshall's dual objectives of establishing the authority of the Supreme Court and making Jefferson look foolish.

When Jefferson retired in 1808, Madison was his heir apparent for the presidency, and he won rather easily. As president, he revised his embargo policy by challenging either Britain or France to be the first to recognize the independence of American ships in exchange for an embargo of U.S. trade against the non-consenting nation; Napoleon jumped at the bargain, and Madison proceeded with an embargo against Britain. The embargo escalated into a declaration of war against the British in 1812. Although American military operations were mostly disastrous (notably in Madison's failed bid to conquer Canada, and in the British burning of the White House and the Capitol in August 1814), the war ended in a draw. Madison was faulted for the poor effort, but the shutdown of foreign trade during the war did manage to spark the native economy and ultimately had the effect of reducing American dependence on the economy of Britain.

Madison left office after his second term in 1817 and returned to Montpelier. He spent his final years farming, covering the gambling debts of his spendthrift stepson, serving as rector of the University of Virginia, and promoting the gradual abolition of slavery. He died at Montpelier on June 28, 1836.

Incidentally, James Madison was a second cousin of the 12th U.S. president, Zachary Taylor.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Old Hickory


Andrew Jackson, the 7th U.S. President, was born on this day in 1767 in the Waxhaws, along the border of North and South Carolina. The question of just which state is apparently left to be decided in an annual high school football game between teams on either side of the border.

Andrew Jackson was a larger-than-life character: scarred, battle-tested and in no way affiliated with the powdered-wig wearing Viriginia elite who held sway over American politics until his arrival upon the scene, he was a man whose emotions were almost never reigned in, and whose strength of personality was to dominate the political landscape during the 1820s and 30s.

Jackson's father died before he was born. At 13, he joined his brothers in the Continental Army to fight the British, but was quickly taken prisoner. When he defied an order to clean a British officer's boots, the officer whacked Jackson with his sword, leaving gashes on his head and hand as permanent reminders of the cruelty of the British. Jackson's mother died shortly thereafter; and at 14, having lost his brothers in the Revolution, Jackson was completely alone in the world. The following year he surprised to find that he had inherited £350 from his grandfather in Ireland, but Jackson squandered it gambling and carousing in Charleston.

After that chastening experience, Jackson was determined to make something of himself. He studied law, entered the bar, and soon thereafter entered politics, serving a prosecutor, Congressman and judge during the 1790s. Throughout his professional life, Jackson had trouble taming his violent temper, and was prone to dueling. Thomas Hart Benton wounded him in the arm in one famous encounter; in another, a bullet from the gun of Charles Dickinson was lodged in Jackson's chest, too close to his heart to remove. When hit by Dickinson during a duel over the reputation of Jackson's wife, Rachel Robards (Dickinson had repeated the long standing rumor that Jackson and Robards had lived together as man and wife before Robards' divorce from her first husband was final), Jackson stood up straight and rather unchivalrously killed Dickinson with one shot to the abdomen.

Jackson's military career ran parallel to his political career. He served as major general of the Tennessee militia, and unwittingly became involved in Aaron Burr's ill-fated conspiracy to start a new republic in the West when he provided Burr with troops on Burr's assurance that the U.S. was merely preparing to defend against a potential Spanish invasion. In the War of 1812, Jackson was a bona fide military hero, winning the most decisive victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 -- although he was criticized for imposing martial law on the city, executing deserters and ignoring a federal writ of habeas corpus.

He returned to Washington as senator from Tennessee, and ran unsuccessfully for president against John Quincy Adams in 1824: although Jackson had carried the popular vote, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives because none of the four candidates (Adams, Jackson, Henry Clay and William Crawford) had received an electoral majority, and Adams was declared the winner.

In 1828, Jackson's humble frontier origins and war record were again pitted against the cold, intellectual persona of Adams, and this time Jackson won the day (with assistance from Martin Van Buren in New York and John C. Calhoun in the South) in the first presidential election to be decided largely by popular taste.

As president his effectiveness was derailed for a time by a scandalous romantic affair involving his Secretary of War John Eaton, until Eaton resigned in 1831. Jackson, however, viewed as his greatest accomplishment the destruction of the Bank of the United States in 1832, which Jackson saw as an elitist institution, inappropriately sponsored by the federal government, which favored Eastern manufacturing interests at the expense of working men and women. The Senate censured Jackson for his conduct in hastening the demise of the Bank. The dissolution of the Bank put an end to conservative monetary policies, originally designed by Alexander Hamilton based on the Bank of England, brought about an increase in available credit, and probably contributed to the Panic of 1837. Jackson killed the Bank so definitively that the concept was not successfully revived until Woodrow Wilson was president 80 years later. Jackson also presided over the tariff crisis, in which politicians in the South questioned the right of the federal government to impose tariff duties within the states; surprisingly, Jackson was a staunch federalist over this issue, going so far as to obtain from Congress the power to use armed force to collect the duties. The crisis was a foreshadowing of the states rights' crisis which grew into the Civil War some 30 years later.

After a second term as president, Jackson handpicked Martin Van Buren as his successor and retired to his plantation outside of Nashville, the Hermitage, emerging to promote the career of James K. Polk and to lobby for the annexation of Texas. He died June 8, 1845 at the Hermitage.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Einstein


"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." -- A. Einstein.

Among 20th century scientists, Albert Einstein has probably spawned the most virulent worldwide cult following, and he has left a rich folklore of life legends -- but unlike the heroes of some cults, this result somehow seems appropriate, given the way in which Einstein has forever altered our notions of space and time.

Born on this day in 1879 in Ulm, Germany, as a child, Einstein was fascinated by his father’s demonstration of a compass, with its needle which seemed to have a mind of its own, and with a little book on Euclidean plane geometry -- both of which gave him a sense of the deeply hidden forces which defined physical reality. Einstein’s father had a none-too-successful electrical business, first in Munich and later in Milan. While in Milan at the age of 16, free from the restrictive environment of formal schooling, Einstein taught himself calculus and higher mathematics, and later entered the Polytechnic Academy in Zurich.

He settled in Switzerland after school, taught mathematics and physics, and then became a patent examiner at the Swiss Patent Office, during which time he wrote several theoretical physics articles and obtained his Ph.D from the University of Zurich. By 1909, as a young University of Zurich professor, he was regarded as a leading scientific thinker.

As early as 1905, however, while still isolated from the physics community in his job as a patent examiner, he had written three papers which made astounding creative advances in the area of physics. The first, called The Special Theory of Relativity, was an overhaul of the classical principle of relativity, which held that the laws of physics had to have the same form in any frame of reference. Einstein postulated that the parameters of motion, time and space could not be absolute because they are measured relative to the observer (alluding to the work on transformation equations done by H.A. Lorentz), yet he reasserted the assumption that the speed of light itself remained constant in all frames of reference, as James Clerk Maxwell had argued. Through the imaginative combination of disparate ideas proposed by other physicists, Einstein began his critique of generally accepted concepts of space and time, and created for the first time a unified theory which could explain the apparent contradiction between Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory and classical relativity theory.

In addition, these exercises led Einstein to posit that mass is a direct measurement for the energy contained in bodies (crystallized in his famous equation E=mc²), in that mass decreases proportionately if a body emits a certain energy. The Special Theory of Relativity turned out to be essential to our understanding of the interactions of atomic and subatomic particles.

His second paper, The Quantum Law of the Emission and Absorption of Light, contained Einstein’s proof of Max Planck’s quantum theory, which provided that total energy was not a continuous variable, but rather a flow of distinguishable energy elements, or "quanta" of energy. After initially expressing some skepticism over Planck’s theory (summing up his objections to certain interpretations of it by declaring, "God does not play dice"), Einstein applied quantum theory to the electromagnetic radiation of light and used it to explain anomalies in fluorescence and photo-ionization, taking the bold step of representing light as a stream of particles with a quantifiable energy value. The work is considered to be one of Einstein’s most important, and in 1921 he won the Nobel Prize for it, donating the prize money to charity.

In the third paper, Theory of Brownian Movement, Einstein provided a mathematical formula to predict the path and speed of minute particles suspended in liquid, confirming atomic motion as the cause for the movement of such particles by providing a "proof" of the existence of molecules.

He served in professorships in Prague, Zurich and Leyden before being appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (established by Walther Nernst in 1894) in 1914. In 1915 he published his General Theory of Relativity. An extension of the Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein postulated that gravity and the inertial force of a system in acceleration (the heavy feeling of your own weight that pushes you against your seat when you accelerate quickly in a car, for instance) are indistinguishable. Leading from this premise, Einstein concluded that gravity was not simply a force in nature as Isaac Newton had argued, but a warping of space and time by physical mass. Because mass exists, space must be curved -- thus, Einstein predicted, light from a far-off star passing close by the Sun should be bent by the Sun’s great mass.

Before the scientific community could react to the theory, World War I broke out, causing Einstein to quip, "If my theory is proved correct Germany will hail me as a great German, and the French will call me a citizen of the world. If it is proved false, the French will call me a German and the Germans will call me a Jew." In 1919, astronomers verified Einstein’s predictions regarding the gravitational effect on light, and thereupon Einstein became an instant celebrity; the headlines in the London Times shouted in large print "Revolution in Science -- New Theory of the Universe -- Newtonian Ideas Overthrown," and Einstein received the Copley Medal of the Royal Society and the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The far-reaching implications of Einstein’s theory launched modern cosmology, providing an explanation for the expansion of the universe and foreshadowing the notion of black holes among other things. Following a heart attack prompted by overwork, in 1929 Einstein published two papers explaining his Unified Field Theory which attempted to unite the theories of gravitation and electromagnetism, but the experimental work which it spawned was inconclusive. He continued to hold out hope that a true model of reality, not merely of a probability of reality as provided by quantum theory (as advanced by Niels Bohr), could be formed; but as Bohr and quantum physics dominated the field, Einstein’s scientific influence declined somewhat.

With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Einstein came under increasing fire. Lending an overripe vitality to Einstein’s predictions about German attitudes regarding his work, Adolf Hitler denounced Einstein as a Jew and insinuated that Einstein must have stolen his theories from a German Army officer who died in World War I. Finding his property confiscated and his books burned by the Nazis, Einstein emigrated to the U.S., settling at Princeton University. In 1939, at the urging of Leo Szilard and others, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt advising him that the U.S. had the potential to build an atomic bomb, a project about which he had moral reservations but which he felt was necessary to defeat Hitler -- before the Germans could produce their own atomic warfare. The letter resulted in the launching of the successful Manhattan Project under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

In later years, Einstein wrote about pacifism, political and moral topics, and in 1952, he was offered the presidency of Israel, but declined. Following the rupture of an aortic aneurysm, Einstein refused surgery, declaring "I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially." He died on April 18, 1955 in Princeton, New Jersey.

With his wild shocks of gray hair, droopy mustache and benign countenance, in some ways Einstein’s persona has come to define the 20th century identity of the creative genius, the personification of all "Einsteins" who meditate on the Universe and articulate their visions. Einstein the 20th century folk hero can be felt in such diverse creations as Nicolas Roeg's 1985 film Insignificance (in which Theresa Russell, as a Marilyn Monroe-like character, demonstrates the theory of relativity to an Einstein-like character); Philip Glass' 1979 opera Einstein on the Beach; Yahoo Serious' 1988 slapstick farce Young Einstein (in which a stick-figure Einstein is made to fall in love with a fictionalized Marie Curie); an appearance in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991); Steve Martin's 1997 play about a fictional meeting between Picasso, Einstein and Elvis, Picasso at the Lapin Agile; and Walter Matthau's impersonation of Einstein-as-cupid in the lukewarm 1994 romantic comedy I.Q.

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