Jan. 2, 2006
Poem: "Urban Law" by Alison Hawthorne Deming from Genius Loci. © Penguin Poets. Reprinted with permission.
Rush hour and the urban outflow pours
across the Million Dollar Bridge. I wait
for the walk-light, cross-traffic slight but
caution's the rule when the city roars
toward all its separate homes. I get
the sign, little electric man, and step
into the street. A woman turns into
my lane, bearing down, eye-contact,
and still she guns it until I stare and
shake my head in disbelief at her
ferocity. She slows begrudged to let
me pass, runs down the window of her Saab
and shouts, "Why don't you wait for the light?"
and flips me the bird. I feel weepy like
a punished child, mind sinking to lament,
What's wrong with the human race? Too many
of us, too crowded, too greedy for space
we're doomed, of course, so I head for coffee
and a muffin, walking sad and slow on
the return. I'm waiting again to cross,
picking fingersful of muffin from the
paper sack and watching the phalanx of
cars race by, not even a cell of a
thought in my mind that I might jump the change,
when a man who's got the green stops,
an executive wearing a crisp white
shirt and shiny red tie, and he raises
his palm to gesture me safely across,
making all the cars behind him wait while
I walk, and together at rush hour that
man and I redeem the whole human race.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It was on this day in 1897 that Stephen Crane (1871) survived the sinking of a boat to Cuba and went on to write his short story "The Open Boat" about his experience.
It begins, "None of them knew the color to the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea."
"The Open Boat" was one of the first works of fiction based on actual reportage and led to a new genre.
It's the birthday of one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, Isaac Asimov, born in Petrovichi, Russia (1920). He came with his family to the United States when he was three years old and his parents opened a candy shop in Brooklyn. From an early age Asimov was drawn to the magazine rack in his father's store. The one magazine his father let him read was the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, which his father hoped might interest him in the study of science.
His father was partly right. Asimov did become interested in science, and he went on to study biochemistry, but he also began writing science fiction short stories and publishing them in various pulp fiction magazines. He went on to become a professor of biochemistry at the Boston University School of medicine and in 1950 he published his first novel Pebble in the Sky.
Around the same time Asimov took part in writing a textbook for medical students and he found that he loved explaining complicated things in ordinary language. It occurred to him that even though the modern world was built on countless scientific breakthroughs, most ordinary people didn't understand those breakthroughs any better than cave men would have. And so he set out to write about science for the general public. He said, "Little by little my science writing swallowed up the rest of me."
Asimov developed a regimen of working ten hours a day, seven days a week, producing between two and five thousand words a day. It helped that he suffered from a terrible fear of heights and a fear of flying, so he rarely traveled. Even by car, he rarely went beyond a four hundred mile radius around New York City. His wife kept a garden for years on the trellis of their apartment but Asimov never once set foot on that trellis.
Asimov's method was to write a book about any subject that interested him but which he didn't fully understand. He used writing as a way of teaching himself about everything. By 1970 Asimov had written more than a hundred books and he began branching out into areas other than science. He wrote about nuclear physics and organic chemistry, history, Greek mythology, astronomy, religion, in addition to his collections of limericks, mystery novels, autobiography and science fiction. He liked to point out that the world publishing record by one man was held by a British mystery writer, but that Asimov had probably published more books on more topics than anyone in history. By the time of his death in 1992 he had published more than 400 books.
His friend Kurt Vonnegut once asked him how it felt to know everything and Asimov replied, "I only know how it feels to have the reputation of knowing everything. Uneasy."
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