Saturday

Oct. 6, 2012

Psalm

by Marilyn Nelson

So many cars have driven past me
without a head-on collision.
I started counting them today:
there were a hundred and nine
on the way to the grocery,
a hundred and two on the way back home.
I got my license
when I was seventeen.
I've driven across country
at least twelve times;
I even drive
late Saturday nights.
I shall not want.

"Psalm" by Marilyn Nelson, from The Fields of Praise. © Louisiana State University Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this date in 2007 that Jason Lewis and the Expedition 360 team completed the first entirely human-powered trip around the world. Steve Smith first had the idea while sitting in his office in Paris, so he invited Lewis, a college friend, to accompany him. They had a pedal boat built, which they called the Moksha, a Sanskrit word that means "liberation." They set off from the Meridian Line in Greenwich, England, on July 12, 1994. They headed southeast, pedaled their boat across the English Channel, and cycled through France, Spain, and Portugal before embarking on their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. The ocean crossing took 111 days, and they landed in Miami, Florida. They biked and skated across the continental United States. Steve Smith left the project in Hawaii to write a book about the first leg of the journey.

The team had to stop from time to time to raise money to fund the trip; Lewis took odd jobs at cattle ranches and funeral homes. About a year into the expedition, his journey very nearly ended altogether. He was rollerblading along the side of a Colorado road when he was run over by an 82-year-old drunk driver. Both of Lewis's legs were broken, and he narrowly missed having one of them amputated. He spent six weeks in the hospital and a further nine months recovering before he could resume his journey. There were other low points, like being arrested in Egypt as a suspected spy, contracting malaria, having two hernia operations, and being robbed at machete-point. He only returned home once during his journey, to visit his ailing father, before resuming the trip from where he left off. He crossed the Meridian Line on this date in 2007, more than 13 years after he left it.

Lewis followed the definition of circumnavigation set forth by Explorer's Web: he started and finished at the same point; he crossed two diametrically opposite points on the globe; he crossed the equator at least twice; he passed through all longitudes; and he traveled at least 40,000 miles. He was assisted by a team of volunteers after Smith left, but the entire journey was made on human power alone, with no help from motors, animals, or even sails to capture the wind.

Euridice, the earliest surviving opera, received its premiere at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence on this date in 1600. Euridice was performed for the wedding celebrations of Henry IV of France and Maria de' Medici. It was written by Jacopo Peri, a beloved composer and singer. He had already written Dafne a few years earlier, which is considered to be the first opera, but that music has been lost.

Euridice is a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which the gifted musician Orpheus falls in love with the beautiful Eurydice, but just after their wedding, she is bitten by a snake and dies. Orpheus is heartbroken, and he journeys to the underworld to try to bring her back. He charms Hades, the king of the underworld, and his wife, Persephone, and they agree to return Eurydice to Orpheus on one condition: he must get all the way back to the upper world without looking back to see if Eurydice is following. He almost makes it, but right as he is walking out into the sunlight, he turns back, and Eurydice is still in the underworld, so he loses her forever. Peri not only wrote the opera, he also sang the role of Orpheus.

Peri wrote a long preface to Euridice, in which he explained the new musical form he was working in, which we now call opera. He said that he was trying to write the way he imagined the Greeks would have, combing music and speech into the ultimate form of drama. One of the people who came to Florence to see Euridice was Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. And he probably brought his servant, Claudio Monteverdi. A few years later, in 1607, Monteverdi premiered his first opera, L'Orfeo, which was also a retelling of the legend of Orpheus. Monteverdi elevated the opera form to new heights, and L'Orfeo is considered the first truly great opera.

William Dickson demonstrated the first talking movie to his boss, Thomas Edison, on this date in 1889. Edison had come up with the basic idea a year earlier, and had filed a preliminary patent for a machine that "would do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." But Edison didn't do much of the actual work; he just took the credit. It was Dickson, his assistant, who turned the idea into reality. The Kinetoscope, as they called the invention, was made of two parts: the Kinetograph, an early motion picture camera that doubled as a projector; and the Kinetophone, a phonograph that was hooked up to the Kinetograph to play a synchronized soundtrack record.

Dickson worked closely with film manufacturer George Eastman to develop a strip of celluloid film with punched holes on the sides that would enable it to be loaded onto sprockets. It took some time to develop a film that was pliable and durable enough to be pulled through the machine, yet which wasn't overly grainy, but Eastman was enthusiastic. Once the film was sorted out, Dickson worked on hooking the phonograph and the projector up to the same motor so that they would play in synch.

Edison returned home from a two-month trip to Europe for the Paris Exposition, eager to see what Dickson had been up to in his absence. Dickson presented him with a short talking picture, which he described some years later: "I had placed him in a chair in the upper projecting room to witness his first 'talkie,' or exhibit, of the Kinetophone [...] and said, 'Good morning, Mr. Edison, glad to see you back. Hope you like the Kinetophone. To show the synchronization I will lift my hand and count up to ten.' I then raised and lowered my hands as I counted to ten."

It was a huge hit with the boss, and the next day Edison brought back a group of people to see the "Wonderbox." Edison and Dickson made further refinements over the next several years, but they disagreed about the future of motion pictures. Dickson wanted to continue to improve projection techniques, but Edison insisted that peep shows were the way to go, and when he patented the Kinetoscope, it was housed inside a wooden cabinet with a viewing portal.

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