Illegal Immigration

This cartoon is bizarrely appropriate for today, because it is the birthday of the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904), whose most famous work, Liberty Enlightening the World, is known to us as the Statue of Liberty. I plan a lengthier post about him in 2011. Thank you and Happy Birthday, Frédéric. May your sculpture continue her courageous task of enlightenment.

Below: Illegal immigration is an issue that apparently remains unresolved in Virginia. And elsewhere.



Sea-washed gates

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

—Emma Lazarus

In celebration of the birthday of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) today, I post what is probably her most famous poem, written to help raise funds for the installation of the Statue of Liberty, and which now graces that monument. I had hoped to write a bio as part of the post, but today’s schedule does not allow it, so the bio will have to wait. Please check back in 2011. In the meantime I pair the poem with this watercolor of a tempest-tost morning.


Peas of Mind Part I


When I was in 8th grade, I had a crush on Gregor Mendel. No, he was not a Czechoslovakian exchange student. He was a 19th-century scientist whose birthday it is today. And what red-blooded schoolgirl would not fall for a man who was fascinated with plant and animal heredity and grew thousands of peas to test a hypothesis, thereby becoming the father of modern genetics? (Well, probably there are a few. But it’s a pattern: in third grade my admiring glances fell upon the boy who won all the class math competitions; and my hubby, a man of diverse talents like sculpture, electrical wiring, and the infant football-carry, is also no slouch in the brains department.)

Gregor Johann Mendel (1822-1884) was born into a farming family in the tiny village of Heinzendorf in what was then the Austrian empire and is now the Czech Republic. A bright boy, curious about the many growing things he observed in his rural world, he quickly outgrew the village grammar school. His parents, though not well-off, paid what they could for him to attend school in the next town—which was tuition plus only half his meals, so Gregor often went hungry.

Funding ended abruptly when Mendel was 16 and a back injury prevented his father from farming. Although he always helped with the farm work, Mendel, the only son, was more interested in studying plants and sheep than in raising them. So eventually the farm was sold to provide for living expenses and daughters’ dowries. Mendel took on tutoring work to continue paying for classes and books. And Mendel’s younger sister used her dowry to help her big brother finish high school. Now THAT is a loving sister.

But university education couldn’t be paid for with tutoring. One teacher suggested a solution: if Mendel didn’t mind giving up the possibility of marriage and family, he could enter an abbey. Friars followed a range of paths. They didn’t spend all their time praying and preaching—they were farmers, beekeepers, bakers, teachers, mathematicians, philosophers, scientists. For centuries this had been the road to education for many bright but poor boys (undoubtedly many of them without a genuine vocation).

So Mendel entered the Augustinian Abbey of St. Thomas in Brno, known for its intellectual pursuits and its enormous library, to continue his education. The abbot, recognizing Mendel’s gifts, sent him on to the University of Vienna to study with leading scientists (one of them Christian Doppler, of Doppler effect fame). When he returned, he taught science at the monastery-run high school, for which he apparently had a natural gift, teaching with refreshing clarity and humor. At the same time he continued his own studies in astronomy, meteorology, zoology, and botany.

Interested in the mysteries of heredity since his farming childhood, he wished to investigate its laws. He began breeding mice of different colors to study the pattern of color inheritance, but the bishop thought the study of mouse-breeding was messy and unsuitable for a monk. So Mendel switched to garden peas, which are better-smelling and less shocking in their reproductive habits (although the subject of plant reproduction had certainly shocked the colleagues of Carolus Linnaeus in the previous century).

Mendel received a garden plot in the monastery’s botanical garden and began to experiment with thirty-four varieties of peas: tall, short, yellow, green, wrinkled, smooth, white blossoms, purple blossoms, grey seed, white seed. His goal was to determine what principles governed heredity. Clearly offspring shared some traits with their parents—but which ones, and why? How were characteristics passed from one generation to the next?

TO BE CONTINUED! See July 21st.

Grandma on Wheels


One of my mother’s appealing qualities was her willingness to risk making a fool of herself. Of course this annoyed me no end when I was thirteen, but I grew to appreciate it. Here she is ten years ago, on the Christmas morning my son found a scooter under the tree. After his first ride, he offered it to Grandma, and off she went, wobbling and laughing. She would have been 90 today. Happy birthday, Mom.




Here are cows I sketched on an early morning walk. The lovely and generous cow works hard all the time, transforming grass into milk, butter, and ice cream. Yet she always looks like she’s on vacation.

Whenever I encounter this poem, I receive it as a gentle reminder of the value of cow-ness. I post it here in honor of its author, William Henry Davies (1871-1940), whose birthday it is today.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

—William Henry Davies


A trip to the Mall with my daughter, who invariably offers thoughtful commentary on her surroundings, whatever they may be.


I post this sketch in honor of her half-birthday today. Long ago, when the children were tiny and each week seemed to mark another milestone, we developed the habit of celebrating their half-birthdays every year, as if they weren’t already sufficiently doted upon… But it’s a modest celebration, with a candle in a pancake, a little package beside the plate, and a rousing round of “Happy Half-Birthday.”


Birthday Guy


Here is Al, sketched “without my permission!” as he put it, after a dinner party. Today is his birthday, and he has a life of unusually useful work to celebrate: years as a Civil Rights Movement lawyer in the South (the stories he can tell!), and many more years leading the ACLU’s National Prison Project. He’s usually on the road somewhere, fighting for prisoners’ rights, the abolishing of torture, and the improvement of dreadful prison conditions in the U.S. and all over the world. (He believes prisoners are human beings, which is not a universally shared opinion.)

Although Al may look like (and can be when necessary) Mr. Tough Guy, which has certainly come in handy in his work, under that rough-hewn exterior beats the heart of a cupcake. Maybe that’s a clue to his choice of profession. Also he’s an awesome chef. Happy Birthday, Al! I know you won’t have to bake your own cake.


Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

—John Masefield


My mother shared with my husband a deep love of sailing ships and the sea, as well as sea-related poetry and books. They discovered together and passed back and forth the entire Patrick O’Brien series, set aboard ship during the Napoleonic Wars. (My mother was convinced she had been a cabin boy in some past life and had drowned off the White Horse Reef.)

At her memorial service, my dear husband, never one to stand up and speak before a crowd, decided to read aloud in my mother’s honor this poignant and evocative poem they both love, written by John Masefield (1878-1967), whose birthday it is today. For me now my mother and my husband are forever within its lines.


Magic House of Music


For two years my daughter has been taking piano lessons from the artistic and ever-cheerful Emily, whose birthday it is today. And so I post a sketch of Emily’s house, one of the secret magic places in the Federal City—a green and flowery bower even in the whiteness of winter, colorful with painting, sculpture, and pottery from her hand and her travels, cozy with paisley and pillows, and suitably furnished: baby grand in the corner, dog napping on his pillow, cat queening it on the windowsill. To repose here through the Wednesday lesson is to enjoy a brief weekly vacation from stress.

Now it’s time for some music: Happy birthday, dear Emileeee, happy birthday to you!