Nov. 27, 2010

Cruising with the Beach Boys

by Dana Gioia

So strange to hear that song again tonight
Travelling on business in a rented car
Miles from anywhere I've been before.
And now a tune I haven't heard for years
Probably not since it last left the charts
Back in L.A. in 1969.
I can't believe I know the words by heart
And can't think of a girl to blame them on.

Every lovesick summer has its song,
And this one I pretended to despise,
But if I was alone when it came on,
I turned it up full-blast to sing along
A primal scream in croaky baritone,
The notes all flat, the lyrics mostly slurred.
No wonder I spent so much time alone
Making the rounds in Dad's old Thunderbird.

Some nights I drove down to the beach to park
And walk along the railings of the pier.
The water down below was cold and dark,
The waves monotonous against the shore.
The darkness and the mist, the midnight sea,
The flickering lights reflected from the city
A perfect setting for a boy like me,
The Cecil B. DeMille of my self-pity.

I thought by now I'd left those nights behind,
Lost like the girls that I could never get,
Gone with the years, junked with the old T-Bird.
But one old song, a stretch of empty road,
Can open up a door and let them fall
Tumbling like boxes from a dusty shelf,
Tightening my throat for no reason at all
Bringing on tears shed only for myself.

"Cruising with the Beach Boys" by Dana Gioia, from Daily Horoscope. © Graywolf Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said, "I know I am making the choice most dangerous to an artist in valuing life above art." That's writer James Agee, (books by this author) born in Knoxville, Tennessee (1909). During his lifetime, he was best known as one of the greatest film critics of his era. And he was not afraid to disagree with what was popular. He wrote a passionate, three-part defense of Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which was panned by critics when it was released. Agee wrote: "Chaplin's performance as Verdoux is the best piece of playing I have ever seen: here, I cannot even specify the dozen or so close-ups each so great and so finely related and timed that withdrawn and linked in series they are like the notes of a slow, magnificent, and terrifying song, which the rest of the film serves as an accompaniment. […] Chaplin's theme, the greatest and most appropriate to its time that he has yet undertaken, is the bare problem of surviving at all in such a world as this." Agee was also a successful screenwriter and book critic.

But today he is best known for two books: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) and A Death in the Family (1958). After he graduated from Harvard in 1932, Agee was hired by Fortune magazine, which had just started up two years earlier. He wrote some articles on hydroelectric power and flood control in Tennessee, and Henry Luce — the man who created Fortune, TIME, Life, and Sports Illustrated — was impressed with the young writer. A few years later, Agee was assigned to do a story about sharecroppers in Hale County, Alabama, with a photographer; he insisted on Walker Evans, from the Farm Security Administration. They lived with three farm families for about two months — Agee took notes and Evans took photos. But after Agee got back to New York, he couldn't figure out a way to put everything he had seen into a neat little article that would fit in Fortune's "Life and Circumstances" series. So it was never published in Fortune. Instead, he spent several years writing the book that became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It was a long and difficult book, more like poetry than journalism in parts, and by the time it was published, the country was more interested in World War II than in the Great Depression. So the book was a total flop, selling only about 600 copies and quickly going out of print.

Agee moved on to his career as a critic and screenwriter. He published a novel, was married three times, and had four children. He was an alcoholic and a heavy smoker, and he died in 1955 at the age of 45, from a heart attack. His second novel, A Death in the Family (1957), was published two years after he died and won the Pulitzer Prize. A few years later, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was reissued and came to be considered a classic, one of the great books of the century.

In it, he wrote:
"A man and a woman are drawn together upon a bed and there is a child and there are children:
First they are mouths, then they become auxiliary instruments of labor: later they are drawn away, and become the fathers and mothers of children, who shall become the fathers and mothers of children:
Their father and their mother before them were, in their time, the children each of different parents, who in their time were each children of parents:
This has been happening for a long while: its beginning was before stars:
It will continue for a long while: no one knows where it will end:
While they are still drawn together within one shelter around the center of their parents, these children and their parents together compose a family:
This family must take care of itself; it has no mother or father: there is no other shelter, nor resource, nor any love, interest, sustaining strength or comfort, so near, nor can anything happy or sorrowful that comes to anyone in this family possibly mean to those outside it what it means to those within it: but it is, as I have told, inconceivably lonely, drawn upon itself as tramps are drawn round a fire in the cruelest weather; and thus and in such loneliness it exists among other families, each of which is no less lonely, nor any less without help or comfort, and is likewise drawn in upon itself:
So that how it can be that a stone, a plant, a star, can take on the burden of being; and how it is that a child can take on the burden of breathing; and how through so long a continuation and cumulation of the burden of each moment one on another, does any creature bear to exist, and not break utterly to fragments of nothing: these are matters too dreadful and fortitudes too gigantic to meditate long and not forever to worship."

It's the birthday of astronomer Anders Celsius, (books by this author) born in Uppsala, Sweden (1701). His father and grandfather were both astronomy professors, and his other grandfather a mathematics professor. He too became a professor of astronomy, when he was 29, taking over for his father after he died.

Celsius was in Paris, at the French Royal Academy of Sciences, and there was a huge debate about the shape of the Earth. Newton had proposed that the Earth is an ellipsoid, flattened at the poles, but that had never been proven. Celsius suggested they all stop arguing about it and go figure it out. So the French Academy organized expeditions of scientists, one to northern Sweden to measure the length of a degree along the pole, and one to Peru (now Ecuador) to measure the length of a degree along the equator. Celsius participated in the Swedish trip. The results were compared, and Newton's theory was confirmed. For his services, he received a large annual pension from France.

He published some of the first work on the aurora borealis, and he discovered that the aurora was influenced by the Earth's magnetic fields.

But he is best remembered today as the inventor of the Celsius temperature scale, a fixed international temperature scale for thermometers, which accurately accounted for how air pressure influenced the boiling point of water. But Celsius might not have recognized the version we use now — he designed it with 0 degrees as the measurement of boiling water and 100 degrees freezing water. After his death, someone reversed the temperature scale, so that water boiled at 100 degrees and froze at 0.

It's the birthday of historian Charles Beard, (books by this author) born in Knightstown, Indiana (1874). He started out as a professor, but he resigned from Columbia University as a protest in 1917 after the institution fired some of his colleagues who opposed American involvement in World War I. After that, he never taught in academia again, but he wrote a lot of books and ran a profitable dairy farm in Connecticut. He wrote the popular book The Rise of American Civilization (1927) with his wife Mary, in which they explained American history in terms of economic principles — for example, that the Civil War wasn't an ideological conflict about slavery as much as it was an economic one that pitted the industrial North against the agrarian South.

He wrote: "All the lessons of history in four sentences: Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power. The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small. The bee fertilizes the flower it robs. When it is dark enough, you can see the stars."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the children's author and illustrator Kevin Henkes, (books by this author) born in Racine, Wisconsin (1960). By the time he was in high school, he had decided he wanted to write and illustrate picture books. He lived at home, drawing on a card table in his room. When he was 19, he got on a plane and flew to New York City with his portfolio. He went to look for a publisher, and he found one, Greenwillow Press, and came back to Wisconsin with a contract.

He published his first book, All Alone, in 1981. He's best known for his mouse books, featuring a cast of spunky, colorful mice, like Lilly, the main mouse in Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (1996). His picture books are about things all kids deal with, like anxiety and pride and getting teased. His newest book is My Garden (2010).

Kevin Henkes said: "I want my characters to be believable. I want the story to be convincing. And I want to write good sentences. It's as simple and difficult as that."

It's the birthday of the poet Marilyn Hacker, (books by this author) born on this day in New York City (1942). Both of her parents were chemists, and she was a precocious kid — she started at NYU when she was just 15 years old. But with one year left, she dropped out of college and married a science fiction writer. She had a daughter, got divorced, and went back to school. Her first book of poems was called Presentation Piece (1974), and it won a National Book Award. Her most recent poetry books are Names (2008) and King of a Hundred Horsemen (2009), a translation of poems by the French poet Marie Étienne.

Marilyn Hacker said, "Poetry seems to have been eliminated as a literary genre, and installed instead, as a kind of spiritual aerobic exercise — nobody need read it, but anybody can do it."

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




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