May 14, 2004
Poem: "Morning," by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems. © Beacon Press. Reprinted with permission.
The text of this poem is no longer available.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of musician David Byrne, born in Dumbarton, Scotland (1952). He moved with his family from Scotland to the United States when he was a boy. In junior high school, he learned to play the guitar and also began making sound collages on a tape recorder in his garage. In college, he went around to coffee houses and performed old-time rock and roll songs, accompanying himself on the ukulele.
He wanted to reach a larger audience, so in 1973 he formed a band called Talking Heads. His band was lumped in with the punk rock scene, because they played at the same clubs, but Byrne and the other band members were known for having short neat hair and wearing tucked in button-down shirts and nice pants. Byrne sang strange lyrics about television programs and office buildings, and the band became a hit. Talking Heads recorded eight studio albums between 1977 and 1988, including More Songs about Buildings and Food (1978), Fear of Music (1979), and Speaking in Tongues (1983). Byrne now runs a music label devoted to world music.
It's the birthday of filmmaker George Lucas, born in Modesto, California (1944). He's best known as the creator the Star Wars movies. His father ran an office supply store, and his mother was sick for most of his childhood. While he was growing up, Lucas went through a series of obsessions. He compulsively watched cliffhanger movie serials from the 1930s and 40s on TV. He loved comic books; he filled his father's tool shed with his comic book library, and started drawing his own comics. He also loved building things, and once built a carnival in his backyard that included a funhouse, a petting zoo, and a fully functional roller coaster.
In high school, his obsessions were photography, rock and roll, and cars. His father bought him his first car when he was fifteen, and Lucas spent hours working on it and cruising around at night. He once described cruising as, "An endless parade of kids bombing around in dagoed, moondisked, flamed, chopped, tuck-and-rolled machines rumbling through a seemingly adult-less, heat-drugged little town."
He began to enter amateur auto races at fairgrounds and in local parking lots, and he decided that he wanted to pursue a career in racecar driving. His father wanted him to take over the family business, but Lucas said that if he knew anything it was that he would end up doing something with cars, and that he would never be president of a company. Then one night, while driving home, he got into a car accident. His seat belt broke, and he was thrown from the car. The police later determined that if his seat belt hadn't broken, he would have been crushed to death. In the hospital, Lucas reevaluated his life, and decided to go to college.
Lucas eventually transferred to the USC film school, and began making movies. As a filmmaker, he was always more interested in images than characters. One of his first student films was about an auto race. As a graduate student he made an artsy science-fiction movie called THX 1138. The movie flopped, but Francis Ford Coppola thought it was interesting, so he took Lucas under his wing and persuaded him to make a movie about real people.
Lucas decided to make a movie based loosely on his high school memories of cruising around Modesto, California. He set the movie on a summer night of 1962, following the adventures of a group of high school friends on their last night together. Lucas shot the movie in twenty-eight days, filming mostly at night from the insides of moving cars. He scored the soundtrack with his favorite rock and roll songs from his youth. All but five minutes of the film had music playing in the background. When the movie studio saw the finished product, they complained that it was just a montage of sights and sounds with no story. They wanted to call it "Another Slow Night in Modesto," but Lucas stuck with his original title: American Graffiti. It came out in 1973, and its advertising slogan was "Where were you in '62?" It became one of the most popular movies of the year, and it spawned a series of nostalgic teen movies about the 1950s and '60s.
It was on this day in 1804 that Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark set out from St. Louis, Missouri on their overland expedition to the Pacific coast and back. President Thomas Jefferson had ordered the expedition to survey the land that had been included in the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis was Jefferson's personal secretary, and it was his task to get together a party for the expedition. He chose Clark as his partner, a man he'd known from the Army. He wrote to Clark in June of 1803, "If there is anything . . . which would induce you to participate with me in [this expedition's] fatiegues, it's dangers and it's honors, believe me there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself." They eventually gathered together about forty men for the expedition, and they called themselves the Corps of Discovery.
Clark was thirty-three years old at the time and Lewis was twenty-nine. They were both Virginians and outdoorsmen, and their interest in the journey had as much to do with paleontology, zoology and botany as it did with adventure. People who met them along their journey said that Lewis was more intelligent and less friendly than Clark. When they picked up their interpreter, Sacagawea, Lewis kept his distance from her and always called her “that Indian woman,” while Clark befriended her and later offered to educate her son.
But despite their differences, Lewis and Clark worked well together and remained good friends for the entire expedition. When Lewis was accidentally shot in the backside during a hunting expedition, he had to spend the next three weeks lying on his stomach in a canoe, and it was Clark who cleaned his wounds every day, saving his life.
Lewis and Clark didn't know what they would find on their journey. They had no idea how far it was to the Pacific Ocean or what kind of terrain they would be crossing. Some people believed the West was full of erupting volcanoes and mountains of salt, and there were stories of unicorns and wooly mammoths and giant beavers roaming the wilderness. Jefferson hoped they would find the Northwest Passage, a waterway that would flow all the way across the continent.
They crossed the Rocky Mountains, nearly starving to death in the process, surviving on horsemeat. They found many new plants and animals. When they reached the Great Plains, Lewis wrote in his diary, "This scenery already rich, pleasing and beautiful, was still farther hightened by immence herds of buffaloe. I do not think I exagerate when I estimate the number of buffaloe which could be compre[hend]ed at one view to amount to 3,000."
They ultimately covered about eight thousand miles, and they lost only one man on the journey, who died of appendicitis. When they returned to St. Louis in 1806, they carried with them the first tentative maps of the American West and the most detailed journals ever kept of an exploratory expedition, with notes on the events of every single day of their journey.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®