Thursday

Jan. 28, 2010

Small Town

by Philip Booth

You know.
The light on upstairs
before four every morning. The man
asleep every night before eight.
What programs they watch. Who
traded cars, what keeps the town
moving.
The town knows. You
know. You've known for years over
drugstore coffee. Who hurts, who
loves.
Why, today, in the house
two down from the church, people
you know cannot stop weeping.

"Small Town" by Philip Booth, from Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999. © Penguin Group, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1754 that the word "serendipity" was first coined. It's defined by Merriam-Webster as "the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." It was recently listed by a U.K. translation company as one of the English language's 10 most difficult words to translate. Other words to make their list include plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, poppycock, whimsy, spam, and kitsch.

"Serendipity" was first used by parliament member and writer Horace Walpole in a letter that he wrote to an English friend who was spending time in Italy. In the letter to his friend written on this day in 1754, Walpole wrote that he came up with the word after a fairy tale he once read, called "The Three Princes of Serendip," explaining, "as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of." The three princes of Serendip hail from modern-day Sri Lanka. "Serendip" is the Persian word for the island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka.

The invention of many wonderful things have been attributed to "serendipity," including Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Charles Goodyear's vulcanization of rubber, inkjet printers, Silly Putty, the Slinky, and chocolate chip cookies.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after he left for vacation without disinfecting some of his petri dishes filled with bacteria cultures; when he got back to his lab, he found that the penicillium mold had killed the bacteria.

Viagra had been developed to treat hypertension and angina pectoris; it didn't do such a good job at these things, researchers found during the first phase of clinical trials, but it was good for something else.

The principles of radioactivity, X-rays, and infrared radiation were all found when researchers were looking for something else.

Julius Comroe said, "Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter."

Wiktionary lists serendipity's antonyms as "Murphy's law" and "perfect storm."

It's the birthday of the novelist Colette, (books by this author) born in Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in the Burgundy region of France (1873). She is best known as the author of Chéri (1920) and Gigi (1945).

She said, "The lovesick, the betrayed, and the jealous all smell alike." And, "What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner."

It's the birthday of the English novelist and critic David Lodge, (books by this author) born in London, England (1935). He is the author of comic novels, including The Picturegoers (1960), Ginger, You're Barmy (1962), and recently, Deaf Sentence (2008), about a retired academic who is losing his hearing. He said, "A novel is a long answer to the question 'What is it about?' I think it should be possible to give a short answer — in other words, I believe a novel should have a thematic and narrative unity that can be described."

It's the birthday of Jackson Pollock, born in Cody, Wyoming (1912).

It's the birthday of José Martí, (books by this author) born in Havana, Cuba (1853). He was a poet and journalist, and he helped lead Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain. Pete Seeger's folk song "Guantanamera" is a translation of an autobiographical poem by José Martí.

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

 









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