May 27, 2014
When the young professor folded
his hands at dinner and spoke to God
about my safe arrival
through the snow, thanking Him also
for the food we were about to eat,
it was in the tone of voice I use
to speak to friends when I call
and get their answering machines,
chatting about this and that
in a casual voice,
picturing them listening
but too busy to pick up the phone,
or out taking care of important
business somewhere else.
The next day, flying home
through a windy
and overwhelming sky, I knew
I envied his rapport with God
and hoped his prayers
would keep my plane aloft.
It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (books by this author), born in Quincy, Massachusetts (1912). He wrote for more than 50 years and published more than 200 short stories. He's known for writing about the world of American suburbia. Even though he was one of the most popular short-story writers of the 20th century, he once said that he only earned "enough money to feed the family and buy a new suit every other year."
In 1935 he was published in The New Yorker for the first time, and he would continue to write for the magazine for the rest of his life. His stories were collected in books including The Way Some People Live (1943) and The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). The Stories of John Cheever, published in 1978, won the Pulitzer Prize and became one of the few collections of short stories ever to make the New York Times best-seller list.
Cheever once described the writer's task as to evoke "the perfumes of life: sea water, the smoke of burning hemlock and the breasts of women."
He said: "For me, a page of good prose is where one hears the rain and the noise of battle. It has the power to give grief or universality that lends it a youthful beauty."
It was on this day in 1937 that the Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public. The idea of the bridge was first broached in 1869 by Joshua Norton, an emigrant from London who had lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice. Driven mad by misfortune, he declared himself "Emperor of the United States" and issued a decree calling for a bridge to cross the mile-wide channel between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The immaculate blue bay was christened Chrysopylae in 1846, which means "Golden Gate" in Greek.
Many said the laws of nature would not allow for a bridge of that length. Then in 1921, Joseph Strauss, a poet and engineer from Cincinnati submitted the first sketches of what would someday be an 8,981-foot-long cantilevered suspension bridge that linked San Francisco to Marin County. He had long dreamed, he said, of building "the biggest thing of its kind that a man could build." Strauss had little experience with suspension bridges and required the help of engineer Charles Alton Ellis and a team of experts to carry out the design.
Residential architect Irving Morrow contributed the aesthetics: the design of the towers, the lighting scheme, and various Art Deco touches. The bridge's distinctive reddish-orange hue is known as "International Orange," and though the original paint job was meant to be temporary — the color of the red lead sealant laid down as a first coat — it proved so popular that it has stayed that color ever since.
On the day the bridge opened, schools and businesses were closed, and by 6 a.m., 18,000 people were waiting to cross the bridge. At the top of the hour, foghorns bleated, the tollgates opened, and the revelers began to cross the bridge. Some sprinted and others roller-skated, while a woman named Florence Calegari used stilts. Several people chose to walk backward, and many chose to tap-dance the entire way. There were harmonica players, marching bands, beauty queens, mayoral speeches, and by the end of the day, almost 200,000 people had walked the bridge. Joseph Strauss did not read a speech on opening day. Instead, he read a poem. It began, "At last, the mighty task is done."
It's the birthday of Frans Cornelis Donders, the Dutch physician who pioneered ophthalmology, the branch of medical science concerned with the structure, functions, and diseases of the eye. Donders was born in 1818 in Tilburg, a tiny, landlocked village that was the wool capital of the Netherlands. He was the last of nine children and the only boy among eight girls.
Donders' research into the physiology of the eye led to major advances in the studies of astigmatism, nearsightedness, and farsightedness. He was among the first physicians to experiment with corrective lenses to improve the defects of vision. In 1851, Donders established The Netherlandish Hospital for Diseases of the Eye, the first eye hospital in the Netherlands. Donders is also responsible for the invention of the ophthalmotonometer, an early device used to test the tension of the eyeball for signs of glaucoma. In 1864, he published The Anomalies of Refraction and Accommodation, a magnificent contribution to physiological optics that is still used today.
It's the birthday of Julia Ward Howe (books by this author), born Julia Ward in New York City (1819). She was a poet, essayist, and leader of the women's movement, but she's best known to us today as the author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," in which she wrote:
"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible, swift sword;
His truth is marching on."
It's the birthday of ecologist and nature writer Rachel Carson (books by this author), born in Pennsylvania (1907). Her best-selling book about the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), became one of the most influential books in the modern environmental movement.
It's the birthday of detective novelist Tony Hillerman (books by this author), born in Sacred Heart, Oklahoma (1925). His parents were farmers and owned a general store. He grew up around Pottawatomie Indians, and he and some of the other farm boys went to St. Mary's Academy, a boarding school for Indian girls.
He wrote his first novel, The Blessing Way (1970), featuring Navajo detective Joe Leaphorn. Hillerman went on to write 17 more books featuring Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, and they were all best-sellers.
It's the birthday of poet Linda Pastan (books by this author), born in New York City (1932). She's the author of more than a dozen poetry collections, including A Fraction of Darkness (1985), The Imperfect Paradise (1988), Carnival Evening (1998), and most recently, Traveling Light (2011).
She once said: "I often write poems in my head to distract myself during hard times. ... Years ago, after a car crash, while I lay waiting for the ambulance, I actually finished a poem I had been working on, determined not to die before I had it right."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®