Thursday

Nov. 25, 2004

Relatives

by John Updike

Thin Air

by John Updike

THURSDAY, 25 NOVEMBER, 2004
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: "Relatives" by John Updike, from Collected Poems © Alfred A. Knopf. Reprinted with permission.

Relatives

Just the thought of them makes your jawbone ache:
those turkey dinners, those holidays with
the air around the woodstove baked to a stupor,
and Aunt Lil's tablecloth stained by her girlhood's gravy.
A doggy wordless wisdom whimpers from
your uncles' collected eyes; their very jokes
creak with genetic sorrow, a strain
of common heritage that hurts the gut.

Sheer boredom and fascination! A spidering
of chromosomes webs even the infants in
and holds us fast around the spread
of rotting food, of too-sweet pie.
The cousins buzz, the nephews crawl;
to love one's self is to love them all.


Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas, born in Flushing, New York (1913). He's the author of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983), Late Night Thoughts on Mahler's Ninth Symphony (1984).

When Thomas entered Princeton in 1929 his interest was biological research with the hope of increasing the effectiveness of treatment. His other great interest was the poetry of Pound and Eliot. Thomas said, "Doctors are trained to observe and express their ideas precisely. Medical training is good training for a writing career."

During World War II Thomas did field research on typhus and encephalitis for the U.S. Navy. He landed with the Marines during the invasion of Okinawa carrying a special case full of laboratory white mice. After the war he built up his academic credentials at various medical schools and eventually, in 1973, became president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City, one of the world's largest facilities devoted to cancer research.

Now at the top of his profession, Thomas attained popular recognition for work of an entirely different sort. He had written or co-written over two hundred scientific articles, but it was his series of short essays that was receiving attention. His essays were loosely modeled on the essays of Montaigne. The series had been appearing in the back pages of the New England Journal of Medicine since 1971 as informal essays.

Thomas wrote late at night, quickly and without an outline, usually shortly after the deadline. He addressed his readers as friends in a conversation, not as scientific colleagues, and he included no reference notes at the end. His essays mix facts about the human body with personal meditation and thoughts about the connectedness of man and the universe.

In 1974, Viking Press collected twenty-nine of the essays, exactly as they had appeared, in The Lives of a Cell. John Updike praised Thomas' work. The Lives of a Cell was well received, and had multiple printings. The book was awarded the National Book Award in 1975, nominated in both the arts and the sciences categories but finally selected for arts and letters. Within five years it had been translated into eleven languages and sold over 250,000 copies.

Lewis Thomas died in December, 1993, of Waldenstrom's disease, a rare lymphoma-like cancer. Rockefeller University in New York City awards The Lewis Thomas Prize each year to honor the Scientist as Poet.

Lewis Thomas said, "The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand."

And he said, "Some words [like cells] contain genetic markers."

And, "We pass the word around; we ponder how the case is put by different people, we read the poetry; we meditate over the literature; we play the music; we change our minds; we reach an understanding."

It's the birthday of baseball player Joe DiMaggio (1914) born in Martinez, California. Joe DiMaggio is remembered as one of baseball's most graceful athletes. Many consider his 56-consecutive-game hitting streak in 1941 as the top baseball feat of all time. He was nicknamed "The Yankee Clipper." In 13 seasons he hit 361 homers, averaged 118 RBI annually and compiled a .325 lifetime batting mark. At Baseball's 1969 Centennial Celebration, he was named the game's greatest living player.

DiMaggio said, "You start chasing a ball and your brain immediately commands your body to 'Run forward, bend, scoop up the ball, peg it to the infield,' then your body says, 'Who me?'"

It's the birthday of American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland (1835), the son of a weaver and political radical. His father instilled in young Andrew the values of political and economic equality, but his family's poverty taught Carnegie a different lesson. At the age of twelve, the boy worked as a milkhand for $1.20 per week. When the Carnegies immigrated to America in 1848, Carnegie was determined to find prosperity. One of the pioneers of industry of 19th century America, Andrew Carnegie helped build the American steel industry, which turned him into one of the richest entrepreneurs of his age.

In 1868, at age 33, Carnegie wrote himself a memo in which he questioned his chosen career, a life of business. He kept the letter for his entire life, carefully preserving it in his files. In the memo he vowed to retire from business within two years, believing that the further pursuit of wealth would degrade him. Carnegie eventually sold his steel business and gave his fortune away to cultural, educational and scientific institutions for the improvement of mankind.

Over the course of his life, Andrew Carnegie endowed 2,811 libraries and many charitable foundations as well as the internationally famous Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also bought 7,689 organs for churches. The purpose of the latter gift was, in Carnegie's words, "To lessen the pain of the sermons."

Andrew Carnegie said, "Don't be afraid to give your best to what seemingly are small jobs. Every time you conquer one it makes you that much stronger. If you do the little jobs well, the big ones will tend to take care of themselves."

And he said, "As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say; I just watch what they do."


On this day, the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Day, Americans express gratitude for their good fortune. The American Thanksgiving tradition originated with the Pilgrims. As early as 1621, the Puritan colonists of Plymouth, Massachusetts set aside a day of thanks for a bountiful harvest. On October 3, 1789, President George Washington proclaimed the 26th of that November the first national Thanksgiving Day under the Constitution.

On October 3, 1863, in the wake of victory at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln decided to issue a Thanksgiving Proclamation declaring the last Thursday in November national Thanksgiving Day. In 1941 Congress made it official.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1876, The American Intercollegiate Football Association held its first championship game. The sport resembled something of a cross between rugby and modern-day football, but the tradition of playing football on Thanksgiving Day developed with the evolution of the sport itself.

The first Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was in 1924. In the 1920's many of Macy's department store employees were first-generation immigrants. Proud of their new American heritage, they wanted to celebrate the holiday with the type of festival they loved in Europe. The employees marched from 145 Street down to 34th Street dressed as clowns, sheiks, knights and cowboys. There were floats, professional bands and 25 live animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. With an audience of over a quarter of a million people, the parade was a success.

Large helium balloons first appeared in 1927 with Felix the Cat. It became tradition to release the balloons after the parade. The balloons would float for days and the lucky finder could claim a reward at Macy's. In 1933, a student pilot stalled her engine over Jamaica Bay trying to snag a cat balloon, and two tugboats in the East River tore apart a dachshund balloon. After a few more close calls, the practice of releasing the balloons came to an end.


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

 









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