Jul. 9, 2004


by Doreen Fitzgerald

FRIDAY, 9 JULY, 2004
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Poem: "Sisters," by Doreen Fitzgerald, from Cake. © The Ester Republic Press. Reprinted with permission.


Two girls went riding in their father's car.
Red lights were flashing at the railroad crossing,
so the car stopped.

The girls were counting the cars of the train,
when a long girder from a loaded car,
the sixteenth car, pitched from the load
like a javelin thrown on the field,
piercing the car front to back, windshield to windshield,
taking the children's arms:
the right arm of Mary, the left arm of Margaret Ann.

As the stumps healed, they discovered
they could read a book, sitting side by side:
the left hand of Mary holding the book,
the right hand of Margaret, turning the page.

They were often seen together. I saw them once.
They were standing at the table,
opening up some presents with both hands.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Ann Radcliffe, born in London (1764). She's best known for helping to invent the gothic horror genre with her novels The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian, or The Confessional of the Black Penitents (1797).

It's the birthday of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, born in Chicago, Illinois (1932). He studied political science at Princeton University, where he was the captain of the wrestling team and rarely lost a match. He went on to run for Congress as a representative for Illinois, and won his first election when he was only thirty.

He served in the Nixon administration and then in the Ford Administration, and at 43 he became the youngest Secretary of Defense in the nation's history. But when Ford lost the election in 1976, Rumsfeld left politics became the CEO of the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the artificial sweetener NutraSweet. In 1980 Fortune magazine named Rumsfeld one of the "10 Toughest Bosses in America."

He was in and out of politics throughout the 1980s and '90s, until President Bush appointed him Secretary of Defense in 2001. Since then, in his many press conferences, he's become known for his creative use of language. Last year, the humorist Hart Seely went through transcripts of Rumsfeld's many public statements and turned them into poems, collected in Pieces of Intelligence, The Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld (2003).

It's the birthday of science writer Oliver Sacks, born in London (1933). He's known for writing about the experiences of people suffering from neurological disorders in books of essays such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985). Both his parents were doctors, and he grew up wanting to follow in their footsteps. After graduating from Oxford, he went to California as a doctor of neurology, and he studied people with strange disorders of the mind, such as the inability to form new memories, or the inability to recognize faces.

In the 1960s, he began to treat a group of people suffering from a rare sleeping sickness, and he tried treating them with a drug called L-dopa. He said, "Suddenly ... in the lugubrious and vaulted silence ... there burst forth the wonder, the laughter, the resurrection of awakenings. Patients motionless and frozen, in some cases for almost five decades, were suddenly able, once again, to walk and talk, to feel and think, with perfect freedom." Sacks had to help them come to terms with the fact that decades had passed since they'd last been conscious. Then he watched as most of them relapsed back into their catatonic states.

He found the experience profoundly moving, and when he wrote an article about it for a scientific journal, he included his emotional responses as well as his scientific ideas. His colleagues criticized him for getting too personally involved with his subject, so he decided that they were the wrong audience for his work. He began writing a book about his observations that told the story of his experience, and included his personal and philosophical speculations. The result was Awakenings (1973), which was a great success and was eventually made into a movie with Robin Williams.

Oliver Sacks has since gone on to write many books and essays about his patients, and he says that he is trying to revive the practice of storytelling in medicine, because he believes that few things illuminate the human condition better than disease. His most recent book is Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001).

It's the birthday of best-selling author Dean Koontz, born in Everett, Pennsylvania (1945). He's the author of more than seventy supernatural and science fiction thrillers, including The Bad Place (1990) and Mr. Murder (1993).

He had an alcoholic, schizophrenic, abusive father. His father held forty-four jobs in thirty-four years, often getting fired when he punched out his bosses—so the family was poor, and Koontz often spent time living with relatives and friends of the family. He became obsessed with comic books and science fiction novels and began writing books himself, which he sold for a nickel a piece to people in his neighborhood. As a young man, he married his high school sweetheart, and got a job as an English teacher and wrote whenever he got the chance. He published his first book, a science fiction novel called Star Quest, in 1968.

Over the next eighteen years, Koontz wrote fifty-four novels, none of which was a bestseller, books with titles like Demon Child (1971) and The Flesh in the Furnace (1972). He used ten different pseudonyms because he was publishing several different books each year. He finally made the hardcover bestseller list with his novel Strangers (1986), about a group of people across the country who slowly realize that they've been brainwashed by the government.

He's continued to publish books since then, but he's never gone on a talk show or done a nationwide book tour, because he refuses to fly. Despite that fact, almost every book he has published has been a bestseller, and copies of his books have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide. His most recent book is The Taking, which came out in May of this year.

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