Sunday

Nov. 6, 2011

Great Plains

by Baron Wormser

As children we lay on the ground and let the wind
Flow over us. On our backs we gazed up at
The deep-seated sky and felt dust darken our eyes.
On our stomachs we gripped the earth and heard

The ground groan. When we returned to our homes
That huddled beside a few spindly trees,
We felt abandoned: any edifice seemed false.
The Technicolor sunsets ridiculed us.

How to stand up? How to take the wind in your chest
And not huff and choke? When Henry Spotted Horse
Collapsed on Main Street one autumn afternoon,
I looked down cautiously. His eyes were staring
In different directions. "Son, you have to live for
Hundreds of years before you know anything."

"Great Plains" by Baron Wormser, from Scattered Chapters. © Sarabande Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Scottish poet and journalist Kate Clanchy (books by this author), born in Glasgow (1965). She's the author of three poetry collections: Slattern (1995), Samarkand (1999), and Newborn (2004). She's also written several radio plays for the BBC. Her most recent book is a memoir, What Is She Doing Here?: A Refugee's Story (2008). When she was asked in an interview what she thought the role of the poet was in today's society, she said: "What are we for? Nobody cares about us, I think. I think probably we're for what we've always been for: recording intimate experience and speaking for people. It's not about public utterance, I don't think. When was poetry about that? People say Dryden and Pope. Maybe."

Today is the birthday of novelist Michael Cunningham (1952) (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and raised near Pasadena, California. It was his novel The Hours (1999) that really launched him to fame. It's the story of three women in different times and places, and one of them is Virginia Woolf. The women are all tied together by the novel Mrs. Dalloway, one of Cunningham's favorite books and the first one he fell in love with. He said: "When I was 15, I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway because a girl on whom I had a crush threw it at me and said something like, 'Why don't you read this and try to be less stupid?' I did read it and, although I remained pretty much as stupid as I'd been before, it was a revelation to me. I hadn't known, until then, that you — that anyone — could do such things with language; I'd never seen sentences of such complexity, musicality, density, and beauty. I remember thinking, 'Hey, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.' Mrs. Dalloway made me into a reader, and it was only a matter of time until I became a writer."

His most recent novel is By Nightfall (2010). It's about a Manhattan gallery owner named Peter Harris who becomes obsessed with his wife's younger brother. In it, he writes: "History favors the tragic lovers, the Gatsbys and the Anna K.s, it forgives them, even as it grinds them down. But Peter, a small figure on an undistinguished corner of Manhattan, will have to forgive himself, he'll have to grind himself down because it seems no one is going to do it for him."

Cunningham was involved in a controversy — the so-called "Kushner Crisis" — last spring when he returned his honorary doctorate to the City University of New York (CUNY). He did it in protest of a decision by the CUNY board of trustees to remove playwright Tony Kushner's name from its list of people to be granted honorary degrees, due to Kushner's criticism of Israel. Cunningham wrote in a letter to the board, "An academic institution as generous and venerable as CUNY should not countenance the public humiliation of any artist, let alone one of Kushner's caliber and courage. ... I received an honorary doctorate in 2009, of which I have been enormously proud. I feel, however, that in the light of the incident on May 2, I have no choice but to return it. I do so with real regrets." The board reversed its decision and gave Kushner the degree.

Today is the birthday of the "March King," John Philip Sousa, born in Washington, D.C., in 1854. He began studying music when he was six, and over the course of his life he studied voice, violin, flute, piano, trombone, cornet, baritone, and alto horn, as well as composition. When he was 13, he tried to run away from home and join a circus band, prompting his father to enlist him in the United States Marine Band as an apprentice musician. He published his first composition in 1872, at the age of 18, and was conducting a Broadway orchestra — for Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore — by the time he was 21. He went back to the Marine Band in 1880, this time as its leader, a position he held for 12 years. During his tenure, he composed "Semper Fidelis," which became the official march of the United States Marine Corps.

After he retired from the Marines, he formed his own concert band; they were the first American band to go on a world tour, and they even had their own baseball team. He was a strict perfectionist: Everything they played was note perfect and was accorded the same respect, whether it was a classical piece or a pop tune. During World War I, he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and led their band; by this time he was a wealthy man, so he donated his naval salary to the Sailors' and Marines' Relief Fund.

He composed many kinds of music, including suites, fantasies, humoresques, and dances; he even composed several university fight songs, operettas, and other vocal pieces. It's his marches that he's remembered for, though. On Christmas Day, 1896, he composed one of his best beloved marches, "The Stars and Stripes Forever." It was named the official march of the United States by an act of Congress. In addition to his skills as a composer and conductor, he was also a fine marksman, and is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. His Hall of Fame biography includes the following quote: "Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, 'pull,' the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, 'dead'." He wrote several articles about trapshooting; he also wrote a full-length autobiography and three novels.

He was not a fan of the new recording industry and all its technology, and spoke adamantly against it at a Congressional hearing in 1906: "When I was a boy ... in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

He was a hard worker, devoutly religious, and known far and wide for his personal integrity. He often said, "When you hear of Sousa retiring, you will hear of Sousa dead!" and his words were prophetic: He died suddenly of a heart attack following a rehearsal in 1932.

It's the birthday of sci-fi and fantasy novelist Catherine Asaro (books by this author). She was born in Oakland, California, in 1955. She's the daughter of Frank Asaro, a nuclear chemist who discovered what's known as the "iridium anomaly," an unusually high level of iridium in one particular stratum of rock dating to the end of the Cretaceous Period. Iridium is otherwise quite rare on Earth, but it's common in meteorites, and this discovery led his team of scientists to hypothesize that an asteroid may have struck the Earth 65 million years ago and caused the mass extinction of — among other organisms — the dinosaurs.

Catherine Asaro is best known in science fiction circles for her series of novels and novellas, Saga of the Skolian Empire. She also holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in the field of chemical physics, and is a member of a think tank called SIGMA, which is made up of authors of speculative fiction who advise the government on future trends that may affect national security. She often introduces complex mathematical concepts in her fiction, based on her numerous research publications in that field. Sometimes she includes an essay in the back of the book that explains the concepts more fully, and in lay terms. Here's an example of how her mind works: "When I was making up the story for The Quantum Rose, I was also writing my doctorate, which used quantum scattering theory to give a coupled channel formalism for describing polyatomic photodissociation (such a catchy subject, soon to be a major movie ... or maybe not). I used to lie in bed at night, thinking about my work. The way I relaxed was to let stories evolve in my mind, so the story for The Quantum Rose evolved right along with my thesis work. Pretty soon I was associating characters in the book with quantum scattering processes. It was fun, like putting together a puzzle."

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

 









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