Sylvia Plath’s Ten Back to School Commandments (1953)

plath commandments

Before her literary fame, her stormy relationship with Ted Hughes and her crippling battles with depression, Sylvia Plath was an enthusiastic student at Smith College. “The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon,” she wrote to her mother. “If only I can work, work, work to justify all of my opportunities.”

During her junior year, she broke her leg on a skiing trip in upstate New York. The accident landed her briefly in the hospital and she wound up with a cast on her leg. Her mood darkened.

Psyching herself out for her return to college, she wrote in her diary a pair of lists.

The first list is a short series of rules about how to behave around her new beau, Myron Lotz. All three points are good advice for anyone who is utterly smitten, particularly number two – “I will not throw myself at him physically.” In the end, Plath’s relationship with Lotz didn’t amount to much. She reportedly commemorated him within her poem “Mad Girl’s Love Song” with the refrain “I think I made you up inside my head.”

The second list is a collection of “Back to School Commandments.” These commandments included asking her English prof Robert Gorham Davis for an extension; consulting with her German teacher Marie Schnieders (“Be calm,” she writes mysteriously, “even it is a matter of life & death.”); and completing her application to be a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. (She nailed that last task.)

The list’s final commandment comes off bleaker than the mildly panicky motivational tone of the rest of the list. “Attitude is everything: so KEEP CHEERFUL, even if you fail your science, your unit, get a hateful silence from Myron, no dates, no praise, no love, nothing. There is a certain clinical satisfaction in seeing just how bad things can get.”

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

via The Excellent Lists of Note book

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Jimmy Buffett (RIP) Performs His New Song “Margaritaville,” Live in 1978: The Birth of a Song That Later Became a Business Empire

Jimmy Buffett wrote “Margaritaville” in 1977.  It ended up being his only song to reach the pop Top 10. But the song carried him for the next 45 years. When you think Margaritaville, you think of an easy-breezy way of life. And that simple idea infused the brand of Buffett’s Margaritaville business empire. Between the song’s birth and the singer’s death this weekend, Buffett created a Margaritaville business empire that included bars, restaurants, casinos, beach resorts, retirement communities, cruises, packaged foods, apparel, footwear, and beyond. This spring, Buffett improbably made Forbes‘ list of billionaires. Above, you can watch a young Jimmy Buffet perform “Margaritaville” in 1978, right at the beginning of the song’s long journey from hit, to brand, to commercial empire.

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The Band’s Classic Song, “The Weight,” Sung by Robbie Robertson (RIP) and Musicians Around the World

Yesterday Robbie Robertson, the Canadian songwriter and guitarist for The Band, passed away at age 80 after a long illness. As a tribute, we’re bringing back a video that pays homage to “The Weight,” a song Robertson wrote for The Band’s influential 1968 album, “Music from Big Pink.” The video features cameos of Robertson himself, and also Ringo Starr and other special guests. Enjoy…

Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight,” the Band’s most beloved song, has the quality of Dylan’s impressionistic narratives. Elliptical vignettes that seem to make very little sense at first listen, with a chorus that cuts right to the heart of the human predicament. “Robertson admits in his autobiography,” notes Patrick Doyle at Rolling Stone, “that he struggled to articulate to producer John Simon what the song was even about.” An artist needn’t understand a creation for it to resonate with listeners.

A read of “The Weight”’s lyrics make its poignant themes evident—each stanza introduces characters who illustrate some sorrow or small kindness. The chorus offers what so many people seem to crave these days: a promise of rest from ceaseless toil, freedom from constant transactions, a community that shoulders everyone’s burdens…. “It’s almost like it’s good medicine,” Robertson told Doyle, “and it’s so suitable right now.” He refers specifically to the song’s revival in a dominant musical form of our isolation days—the online sing-along.

Though its lyrics aren’t nearly as easy to remember as, say, “Lean on Me,” Robertson’s classic, especially the big harmonies of its chorus (which everyone knows by heart), is ideal for big ensembles like the globe-spanning collection assembled by Playing for Change, “a group dedicated to ‘opening up how people see the world through the lens of music and art.” The group’s producers, Doyle writes, “recently spent two years filming artists around the world, from Japan to Bahrain to Los Angeles, performing the song,” with Ringo Starr on drums and Robertson on rhythm guitar. They began on the 50th anniversary of the song’s release.

The performances they captured are flawless, and mixed together seamlessly. If you want to know how this was achieved, watch the short behind-the-scenes video above with producer Sebastian Robertson, who happens to be Robbie’s son. He starts by praising the stellar contributions of Larkin Poe, two sisters whose rootsy country rock updates the Allman Brothers for the 21st century. But there are no slouches in the bunch (don’t be intimated out of your own group sing-alongs by the talent on display here). The song resonates in a way that connects, as “The Weight”’s chorus connects its non-sequitur stanzas, many disparate stories and voices.

Robertson was thrilled with the final product. “There’s a guy on a sitar!” he enthuses. “There’s a guy playing an oud, one of my favorite instruments.” The song suggests there’s “something spiritual, magical, unsuspecting” that can come from times of darkness, and that we’d all feel a whole lot better if we learned to take care of each other. The Playing for Change version “screams of unity,” he says, “and I hope it spreads.”

Related Content:

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Watch The Band Play “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek” and More in Rare 1970 Concert Footage

Martin Scorsese Captures Levon Helm and The Band Performing “The Weight” in The Last Waltz

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The First Masterpieces to Depict Regular People: An Introduction to the Reformation Painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The skating scene that opens A Charlie Brown Christmas is such an evocative, archetypical winter vision, it’s likely to stir nostalgia even in those whose childhoods didn’t involve gliding across frozen ponds.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder created a similar scene in the 16th-century. His changed the course of Western art.

Prior to his 1558 Ice Skating before the Gate of Saint George, Antwerp, Western artists mostly stuck to VIP portraits, and religious and mythological subjects.

As the Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak, explains above, the rare exceptions to these themes were intended to reinforce some moral instruction, often via buffoonish depictions of regular people behaving badly.

The couple in Quentin Matsys’ The Money Changer and His Wife are far less grotesque than the central figure of his satirical portrait, The Ugly Duchess, but the symbolism and the wife’s keen focus on the coins her husband is counting point to a sort of spiritual ugliness, namely a preoccupation with material wealth.

Jan Sanders van Hemessen‘s Loose Company and Pieter Aertsen’s The Egg Dance are both set in brothels, where debauchery is in ample evidence.

Bruegel painted some works in this vein too. The Fight Between Carnival and Lent pits pious churchgoers against a plump butcher riding a barrel, a guy with a pot on his head, and many more revelers acting the fool.

His skating scene, by contrast, passes no judgements. It’s just an observation of ordinary citizens amusing themselves outdoors during the ‘Little Ice Age’ that gripped Western Europe in the mid 16th century.

Adults bind runner-like blades to their feet with laces…

A small child uses poles to propel himself on a sled made from the mandible of a cow or horse…

A background figure plays with a hockey stick…

Less gifted skaters cut ungainly figures as they attempt to remain upright. (Pity the poor woman sprawled in the middle, whose skirts have flipped up to expose her bare heinie…)

Bruegel’s humanist portrayal of a crowd engaged in a recognizable, populist activity proved wildly popular with the growing merchant class. They might not have been able to afford an original painting, but prints of the engraving, published by the wonderfully named Hieronymus Cock, were well within their reach.

The everyday subject matter that so captivated them was made possible in part by the Protestant Reformation, which came to a head with the Iconoclastic Fury, eight years after “Peasant” Bruegel’s densely populated image appeared.

The image wins the approval of modern skating buffs too.

American field hockey pioneer Constance M.K. Applebee included it in her 20s era magazine, The Sportswoman. So did sportswriter Arthur R. Goodfellow in 1972’s Wonderful world of skates: Seventeen centuries of skating which prompted figure skating historian Ryan Stevens to quote a translated Old Flemish inscription on his blog:

Skating on ice outside the walls of Antwerp,

Some slide hither, others hence, all have onlookers everywhere;

One trips, another falls, some stand upright and chat.

This picture also tells one how we skate through our lives,

And glide along our paths; one like a fool, another like a wise;

On this perishable earth, brittler than ice.

Explore another of Pieter Bruegel’s teeming depictions of ordinary life with the Khan Academy/Smart History’s  breakdown of 1567’s Peasant Wedding, below.

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A Brief Animated History of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses & the Reformation–Which Changed Europe and Later the World

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Mississippi Tried to Ban Sesame Street for Showing a “Highly Integrated Cast” (1970)

On November 10, 1969, Sesame Street made its broadcast debut.

The very first lines were spoken by Gordon (Matt Robinson), a Black schoolteacher who’s showing a new kid around the neighborhood, introducing her to a couple of other kids, along with Sesame Street adult mainstays Bob, Susan, and Mr. Hooper, and Big Bird, whose appearance had yet to find its final form:

Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You’re gonna love it.

The milieu would have felt familiar to children growing up on New York City’s Upper West Side, or Harlem or the Bronx. While not every block was as well integrated as Sesame Street’s cheerful, deliberately multicultural, brownstone setting, any subway ride was an opportunity to rub shoulders with New Yorkers of all races, classes and creeds.

Not six months later, the all-White Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television voted 3 to 2 to remove Sesame Street from their state’s airwaves.

A disgruntled pro-Sesame commission member leaked the reason to The New York Times:

Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children.

The whistleblower also intimated that those same members objected to the fact that Robinson and Loretta Long, the actor portraying Susan, were Black.

They claimed Mississippi was “not yet ready” for such a show, even though Sesame Street was an immediate hit. Professionals in the fields of psychology, education, and medicine had consulted on its content, helping it secure a significant amount of federal and private grants prior to filming. The show had been lauded for its main mission – preparing American children from low-income backgrounds for kindergarten through lively educational programming with ample representation.

Kids growing up in sheltered, all-white enclaves stood to gain, too, by being welcomed into a television neighborhood where Black and white families were shown happily coexisting, treating each other with kindness, patience and respect. (Sonia Manzano and Emilio Delgado, who played Maria and Luis, joined the cast soon after.)

Even though Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee also moved to pre-empt the innovative hit show, the government appointees on the Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television who’d ousted Sesame Street found themselves outnumbered when Jackson residents of all ages staged a protest in front of Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s HQ.]

The Delta Democrat-Times published an editorial piece arguing that “there is no state which more desperately needs every educational tool it can find than Mississippi:”

There is no educational show on the market today better prepared than Sesame Street to teach preschool children what many cannot or do not learn in their homes….The needs are immense.

After 22 days, the ban was rolled back and Sesame Street was reinstated.

That fall, the cast made a pitstop in Jackson during a 14-city national tour. Susan, Gordon, Bob, Mr. Hooper and Big Bird sang and joked with audience members as part of an event co-sponsored by the very same commission that had tried to blackball them, and left without having received a formal apology.

Sesame Street has stayed true to its progressive agenda throughout its fifty+ year history, a commitment that seems more essential than ever in 2023.

Below, Elmo, a Muppet who rose through the ranks to become a Sesame Street star engages in an entry-level conversation about race with some newer characters in an episode from two years ago.

The Sesame Workshop recommends it for viewers aged 1 to 4, though it seems our country doesn’t lack for adult citizens who could do with a refresher on the subject…

Related Content 

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Watch Jazzy Spies: 1969 Psychedelic Sesame Street Animation, Featuring Grace Slick, Teaches Kids to Count

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Tina Turner (RIP) Delivers a Blistering Live Performance of “Proud Mary” on Italian TV (1971)

Note: The great Tina Turner passed away today at her home in Switzerland. She was 83. From our archive, we’re bringing back an electric 1971 performance, a reminder of what made her … simply the best. The post below first appeared on our site in April 2021.

John Fogerty once said that he conceived the opening bars of “Proud Mary” in imitation of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony. It’s an unusual association for a song about a steamboat, but it works as a classic blues rock hook. Most people would say, however, that the song didn’t truly come into its own until Tina Turner began covering it in 1969.

“Proud Mary” helped Turner come back after a suicide attempt the previous year. Her version, released as a single in January 1971, “planted the seeds of her liberation as both an artist and a woman,” Jason Heller writes at The Atlantic, bringing Ike and Tina major crossover success. Their version of the CCR song “rose to No.4 on Billboard’s pop chart, sold more than 1 million copies, and earned Turner the first of her 12 Grammy Awards.” See her, Ike, and the Ikettes perform it live on Italian TV, above.

It’s a sadly ironic part of her story that the success of “Proud Mary” also helped keep Turner in an abusive relationship with her musical partner and husband Ike for another five years until she finally left him in 1976. She spent the next several decades telling her story as she rose to international fame as a solo artist, in memoirs, interviews, and in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It.

The new HBO documentary, Tina, tells the story again but also includes Turner’s weary response to it. Asked in 1993 why she did not go see What’s Love Got to Do With It, Turner replied, “the story was actually written so that I would no longer have to discuss the issue. I don’t love that it’s always talked about… this constant reminder, it’s not so good. I’m not so happy about it.”

Like all musicians, Turner liked to talk about the music. “Proud Mary,” the second single from Ike and Tina’s Workin’ Together, came about when they heard an audition tape of the song, which they’d been covering on stage. “Ike said, ‘You know, I forgot all about that tune.’ And I said let’s do it, but let’s change it. So in the car Ike plays the guitar, we just sort of jam. And we just sort of broke into the black version of it.”

She may have given Ike credit for the idea, but the execution was all Tina (and the extraordinary Ikettes), and the song became a staple of her solo act for decades. Now, with Tina, it seems she may be leaving public life for good. “When do you stop being proud? How do you bow out slowly — just go away?” she says.

It’s a question she’s been asking with “Proud Mary” for half a century — onstage working day and night — a song, she said last year, that could be summed up in a single word, “Freedom.”

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If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Happens When a Chess Player Mistakes a Grandmaster for a Beginner: It’s Pretty Delightful

Vacationing in New York City last summer, Anna Cramling, an International Chess Federation master swung by Washington Square Park, to see about scoring a pickup game with one of the regulars.

Her opponent, Jonny O’Leary, a native New Yorker who learned the rules of the game from other Washington Square habitués while working maintenance jobs in the surrounding buildings in the mid-80s, is a garrulous sort, sharing his philosophy of life as the game proceeds.

Luckily he believes that the human interaction and the opportunity to learn make even losing games a winning proposition because Cramling whoops him pretty handily.

Flash forward a couple of seasons.

Cramling, bundled up in a parka and warm stocking cap, heads back to Washington Square with her mom in tow.

O’Leary is more than willing to introduce the elder Ms. Cramling, now 60, to the Game of Kings. He loves teaching beginners, even if they have no money to put down. He is so eager to show her the ropes that he dictates four of her first five moves.

His extroversion may be his downfall here.

In our experience, folks who call middle-aged women they’ve just met “Mom” tend to underestimate and talk over them.

Surprise! Pia Cramling is a Grandmaster of Chess, who once held the title of best female player in the world.

“Mom” humbly follows directions, moving her knights and bishop as instructed and presumably clamping down on her tongue as O’Leary schools her beginning strategy and the names of the pieces.

To his credit, he seems absolutely thrilled when the Cramlings’ ruse is revealed, eagerly calling for another game even as he volunteers that he’s nowhere near as good of a player.

(“Get the old man,” his buddy Doc gleefully interjects.)

Their shared love of chess burns bright.

The Cramlings compliment O’Leary on his generosity as a teacher, no doubt mindful that his immersion in the game looks different from theirs. (Anna’s father is Grandmaster Juan Manuel Bellón Lopez and she has been accompanying her mother to tournaments since she was a baby.)

O’Leary may appear to draw a bit of a blank when Pia Cramling mentions World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov, but he’s rubbed shoulders with grandmasters Maxim Dlugy and John Fedorowicz at the Washington Square Park chess simul, and he was very interested in her Elo rating, the U.S. Chess Federation’s system for assessing players’ skills.

“She has a brain that’s not from here!” he cries admiringly to anyone within earshot.

After witnessing some other players’ overly cocky, unsporting, and rude behavior in Anna’s other filmed street matches, we definitely agree that Jonny O’Leary is the “Grandmaster at the social aspect.”

Watch more of Anna Cramling’s chess related videos, including her mom’s encounters with other Washington Square Park regulars here.

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– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


Cats Migrated to Europe 7,000 Years Earlier Than Once Thought

The animals were imperfect,


unfortunate in their heads.

Little by little they

put themselves together,

making themselves a landscape,

acquiring spots, grace, flight.

The cat,

only the cat

appeared complete and proud:

he was born completely finished,

walking alone and knowing what he wanted.

– Pablo Neruda, excerpt from Ode to the Cat

We find ourselves in agreement with Nobel Prize-winning poet, and cat lover, Pablo Neruda:

Those of us who provide for felines choose to believe we are “the owner, proprietor, uncle of a cat, companion, colleague, disciple or friend of (our) cat”, when in fact they are mysterious beasts, far more self-contained than the companionable, inquisitive canine Neruda immortalized in Ode to the Dog.

We can bestow names and social media accounts on cats of our acquaintance, channel them on the steps of the Met Gala, attach GPS trackers to their collars, give them pride of placement in books for children and adults, and try our best to get inside their heads, but what do we know about them, really?

We even got their history wrong.

Common knowledge once held that cats made their way to northern Europe from the Mediterranean aboard Roman – and eventually Viking – ships sometime between the 3rd to 7th century CE, but it turns out we were off by millennia.

In 2016, a team of researchers collaborating on the Five Thousand Years of History of Domestic Cats in Central Europe project confirmed the presence of domestic cats during the Roman period in the area that is now northern Poland, using a combination of zooarchaeology, genetics and absolute dating.

More recently, the team turned their attention to Felis bones found in southern Poland and Serbia, determining the ones found in the Jasna Strzegowska Cave to be Pre-Neolithic (5990-5760 BC), while the Serbian kitties hail from the Mesolithic-Neolitic era (6220-5730 BC).

In addition to clarifying our understanding of how our pet cats’ ancestors arrived in Central Europe from Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, the project seeks to “identify phenotypic features related to domestication, such as physical appearance, including body size and coat color; behavior, for example, reduced aggression; and possible physiological adaptations to digest anthropogenic food.”

Regarding non-anthropogenic food, a spike in the Late Neolithic Eastern European house mouse population exhibits some nifty overlap with these ancient cat bones’ newly attached dates, though Dr. Danijela Popović, who supervised the project’s paleogeneticians, reports that the cats’ arrival in Europe preceded that of the first farmers:

These cats probably were still wild animals that naturally colonized Central Europe.

We’re willing to believe they established a bulkhead, then hung around, waiting until the humans showed up before implementing the next phase of their plan – self-domestication.

Read the research team’s “history of the domestic cat in Central Europe” here.

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via Big Think

– Ayun Halliday, human servant of two feline Mailroom Böyz, is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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