Jul. 8, 2009

Blue Suburban

by Howard Nemerov

Out in the elegy country, summer evenings,
It used to be always six o'clock, or seven,
Where the fountain of the willow always wept
Over the lawn, where the shadows crept longer
But came no closer, where the talk was brilliant,
The laughter friendly, where they all were young
And taken by the darkness in surprise
That night should come and the small lights go on
In the lonely house down in the elegy country,
Where the bitter things were said and the drunken friends
Steadied themselves away in their courses
For industrious ruin or casual disaster
Under a handful of pale, permanent stars.

"Blue Suburban" by Howard Nemerov, from The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © Swallow Press, 2003. Published with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer J.F. Powers, (books by this author) born James Farl Powers in Jacksonville, Illinois (1917). His family was Catholic, but the town was heavily Protestant, and Powers wrote about a similar town in his first novel: "Protestants were very sure of themselves there. If you were a Catholic boy you felt that it was their country, handed down to them by the Pilgrims, George Washington, and others, and that they were taking a risk in letting you live in it." He went to Catholic school, he was a great basketball player, and then he started working odd jobs to support himself and his family during the Great Depression. By the time WWII started, he was unemployed and living in Chicago, but he loved it because he met all sorts of interesting people — jazz singers, political exiles, pacifists.

Powers refused to join the war, and so he was sent to a federal prison in Sandstone, Minnesota. He was paroled to work as an orderly in a hospital in St. Paul, and he wrote fiction at night. In 1947, he published Prince of Darkness, a book of short stories. He continued to write novels and short stories, mostly satire, many of them about priests in small towns in Minnesota. His books never sold very well, even though they got great reviews and his novel Morte d'Urban (1962) won the National Book Award.

It's the birthday of psychiatrist and writer Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, (books by this author) born in Zurich, Switzerland (1926). She went to medical school, where she got married to an American physician, and they moved to the United States. She did her internship and residency in psychiatry. She went to the University of Chicago and worked with terminally ill patients. Instead of pretending they were going to get better, she asked them to talk to her about death. She decided that other people needed to hear what they had to say, so she set up a forum where doctors, nurses, and medical students could come listen to terminally ill patients and ask them questions. Many outside people in the medical profession disapproved of her work — they thought it was indecent — but most patients were eager to talk. She used these conversations to write On Death and Dying (1969), which became a huge best seller. In it, she outlined the five stages of grief, specifically when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It also paved the way for hospice care.

It was on this day in 1497 that Vasco de Gama set sail from Lisbon to India, around the Cape of Good Hope. He was looking for an ocean trade route between Europe and Asia, and he successfully reached India in May of 1498. Many people thought that he would not be able to do it, because no one knew whether the Indian Ocean connected to any other oceans.

It was on this day in 1889 that The Wall Street Journal was founded. In 1882, three journalists who were interested in finances — Charles Dow, Edward Jones, and Charles Bergstresser — founded a little company called Dow, Jones & Company. They started hand-writing daily news bulletins, which they called "flimsies," and delivered to customers each afternoon, and the next year they titled it "Customers' Afternoon Letter." On this day in 1889, their four-page afternoon letter officially became The Wall Street Journal, which cost two cents per issue.

It's the birthday of the children's singer and songwriter Raffi Cavoukian, better known as Raffi, (books by this author) born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1948. His parents were Armenian, and his mother named him after Raffi, a famous Armenian poet and novelist. He had a very strict upbringing in Cairo, and when he was 10 years old, his family moved to Canada and settled in Toronto. He got a guitar and made friends with some of Canada's brightest stars on the folk music scene, and he started playing in coffeehouses. He did all right as a folk singer, but he wasn't particularly successful.

Then his mother-in-law, a preschool teacher, asked Raffi if he could record some songs for her to use in her school. He didn't know any children's songs, but his wife taught him some and he made a tape for the preschool. Other schools started requesting it, so he borrowed $4,000 and recorded Singable Songs for the Very Young in a basement recording studio, and went on to become an internationally famous children's singer with songs like "Baby Beluga" and "Shake My Sillies Out." He has written several books, including his autobiography, The Life of a Children's Troubadour (1998), and Child Honoring: How to Turn This World Around (2006), with a foreword by the Dalai Lama.

It's the birthday of columnist and best-selling novelist Anna Quindlen, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1953). She grew up in the suburbs, in a middle-class, Irish-American family. Her dad was a management consultant and her mom took care of the kids. She said, "I sometimes joke that my greatest shortcoming as a writer is that I had an extremely happy childhood."

She went on to Barnard College, and for her thesis she wrote a collection of stories, and published one of them in Seventeen magazine. She wanted to be a fiction writer. But straight out of college she got hired for the New York Post, and a few years later, by The New York Times.

She was so successful that a lot of people thought she was in line to be deputy editor of the paper. But then, in 1995, she quit. She really wanted to write fiction, and she had been trying all along — during her tenure at the Times, she managed to publish two novels, Object Lessons (1991) and One True Thing (1994). But she was also raising kids, and she didn't have enough time for her family or enough time to write. So she quit to become a full-time writer, and since then she's published Black and Blue (1998), Blessings (2002), and Rise and Shine (2006).

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