Mar. 11, 2009

Suburban Bison

by James Tate

Joshua and I had decided to go bowling.
Neither of us had bowled in years, and we didn't
really like to bowl, so it made no sense. We
were driving down Route 9 when we spotted the
buffalo herd. They were grazing in the snow,
and something about their improbable heads made
me catch my breath. I pulled over to the side
of the road. "Why are they here?" Joshua asked.
"I guess it's some kind of cruel joke," I said.
"Well, it's not funny," he said. "They're way
too majestic. Buffalo are supposed to roam,
that's what the song says, not be penned up
along some strip for tourists to see," he
said. "It beats bowling," I said. And so we
sat there for the next hour contemplating the
life of the postmodern buffalo, deconstructing
their owners, and never putting them back
together again.

"Suburban Bison" by James Tate from Return to the City of White Donkeys. © Ecco Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the children's author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, (books by this author) born in Brooklyn in 1916. After high school, he worked as a muralist for the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR's New Deal federal programming. He did illustrations for comic strips, for book jackets, and finally he started writing and illustrating his own books. He won a Caldecott Medal for The Snowy Day (1962), which was considered a breakthrough book because the main character was an inner-city black boy named Peter, but his race was incidental to the plot of the book. Peter was just a kid like other kids, who played in the snowdrifts outside his apartment building, took a bath at the end of the day, and was sad when he discovered that the snowball he put in his pocket had melted.

It's the birthday of media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch, born in Melbourne, Australia (1931). He inherited two small Australian papers and increased the circulation by showcasing scandalous stories about sex and crime. He now controls an international media empire, which includes The Wall Street Journal, the London Times, Fox News, Dow Jones, DirecTV, and MySpace. He said, "Big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow."

It was on this day in 1818 that Mary Shelley published her gothic horror novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. In 1816, 19-year-old Mary and her lover Percy Shelley were staying with Lord Byron in Switzerland. It rained a lot, and they were stuck in the house. They read ghost stories, and Lord Byron got the idea that they should each write a ghost story themselves. Byron and Percy Shelley gave up quickly, but Mary spent many days trying to think of a story. One night the two men had a conversation about the spontaneous generation of life and the possibility of re-animating a corpse. Mary went to bed, but she couldn't sleep, and she had a vision: "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion." And she went to work writing. Two years later, on this day in 1818, Frankenstein was published in London, and it became an instant best-seller. Mary Shelley was 21 years old.

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with." That was science fiction writer Douglas Adams, (books by this author) born in Cambridge, England (1952), the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The series begins with the main character, Arthur Dent, lying on the ground in front of bulldozers that are about to demolish his house to make room for a highway. His friend Ford Prefect shows up and explains to Arthur that he, Ford, is actually from another planet; and that Arthur doesn't need to worry about his house getting demolished because Earth itself is about to be demolished to make room for an interstellar highway. Ford and Arthur hitchhike on a spaceship and begin their adventures through the galaxy.

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