Jun. 16, 2011

Middle-Class Blues

by Dennis O'Driscoll

He has everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job.
A velvet three-piece suite.
A metallic-silver car.
A mahogany cocktail cabinet.
A rugby trophy.
A remote-controlled music centre.
A set of gold clubs under the hallstand.
A fair-haired daughter learning to walk.

What he is afraid of most
and what keeps him tossing some nights
on the electric underblanket,
listening to the antique clock
clicking with disapproval from the landing,
are the stories that begin:
He had everything.
A beautiful young wife.
A comfortable home.
A secure job.
Then one day.

"Middle-Class Blues" by Dennis O'Driscoll, from New and Selected Poems. © Anvil Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is Bloomsday. On this day in 1904, James Joyce (books by this author) and Nora Barnacle went on their first date. Nora, who was from Galway, worked as a chambermaid at Finn's Hotel in Dublin; she met Joyce on the 10th of June, but with one thing and another, their first date didn't happen until almost a week later. They took a walk together in Ringsend, and may or may not have indulged in some hanky-panky, but either way it was the start of a romance that would last the rest of Joyce's life — as Joyce's father remarked when learning of Nora's last name, "She'll stick with him."

Joyce commemorated the date in his novel Ulysses (1922), a retelling of Homer's Odyssey set in contemporary Dublin, which took him seven years to write. The book recounts the events of a single day — June 16, 1904 — in the inner and outer lives of its characters; the book's protagonist doesn't show up until the fourth chapter, which begins, "Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod's roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." Joyce described Dublin in obsessive detail "to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the Earth, it could be reconstructed out of my book," he told his friend Frank Budgen. He used a phone directory to provide the real names and addresses of Dublin residents; Leopold and Molly Bloom's house, at No. 7 Eccles Street, has since been demolished, but its front door is displayed in the James Joyce Centre in Dublin.

The first celebration of the book, which has been called the greatest book of the 20th century, didn't take place in Dublin, or even Ireland at all; it was a "Ulysses lunch" held in France in 1929, hosted by the book's publisher, Sylvia Beach. The first "Bloomsday" was observed in 1954, on the 50th anniversary of the novel, when artist and publisher John Ryan led a group of writers — as well as Thomas Joyce, a dentist and James Joyce's cousin — on a sort of drinking tour of Dublin in a couple of horse-drawn cabs. Like countless drinking tours before and since, this one didn't complete its appointed course, its celebrants succumbing to the alcohol's effects about halfway through.

Today, Bloomsday is celebrated around the world, often with a breakfast of fried kidneys kicking off the festivities, although there's still something for the vegetarians: a Gorgonzola sandwich and "a nice salad" à la Bloom. Landmarks around Dublin are marked by brass plaques, and one Bloomsday tradition involves tracing Leopold's steps as nearly as possible. In Szombathely, Hungary, which is the fictional birthplace of Bloom's father, the day is celebrated at the Blum-mansion, once owned by a Jewish family called Blum. It's also observed in Trieste, where Joyce wrote the first part of the novel; in Genoa, they've commemorated the book by reading the whole thing aloud, each section set in a different part of the city. Most places it's celebrated by pub crawls, street festivals, Irish music and food, public readings and dramatizations of Ulysses, and of course a host of scholarly panel discussions; the last part, at least, would come as no surprise to the author. He once said, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of ensuring immortality."

It's the birthday of Geronimo (1829), the leader of the Chiricahua band of the Apache people. He was born near present-day Clifton, in southeastern Arizona. He was the fourth of eight children, four boys and four girls, and was named Goyathlay — "one who yawns." He was received into the Council of Warriors when he was 17, which meant he was now allowed to marry, which he did, and the young couple had three children, by and by. His life seemed headed down a peaceful, uneventful path.

In 1858, Goyathlay and his family traveled with the rest of their tribe down to Old Mexico, where they set up a temporary camp. The women and children stayed behind in the camp while the men — with the exception of a few guards — left to hunt and trade. On the men's return, they discovered that Mexican troops had attacked the camp, stealing their horses, weapons, and supplies and killing not only the guards but also many of the women and children as well. Goyathlay lost his mother, his wife, and all of his children in the attack. He also left behind his peaceful life and became a fierce warrior, conducting numerous raids in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. He was so fearless in his attacks that the Mexican soldiers cried out to their patron, St. Jerome, for aid: "Cuidado! Geronimo!" It became a battle cry for Apaches, and Goyathlay's new name.

The Apaches' relationship with the U.S. government was not without conflict, but things were relatively calm under the leadership of Lieutenant General George F. Crook, who managed to keep the peace fairly well in the early 1870s. Not so, however, with Crook's successors. In 1874, the government forcibly moved 4,000 Apaches to the San Carlos Reservation in eastern Arizona. Like most reservations, San Carlos was established on barren land that was unattractive to white settlers. Geronimo and his warriors left the reservation to fight for their land. He surrendered or was captured several times, only to escape. Eventually, the Army put 5,000 troops on his trail, and they caught up with him in 1886 after a five-month, 1,600-mile chase. He was persuaded to surrender after he was promised that he and his band would spend, at most, two years in Florida before being returned to their families.

The promise was never kept. The Apaches were put in a labor camp and later relocated to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1894. Geronimo attempted to fit in by farming and joining the white man's church, but he was kicked out for gambling. He spent the rest of his life selling photographs of himself at fairs, and rode in Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural parade in 1905. He never saw Arizona again.

It's the birthday of Joyce Carol Oates (books by this author), born in Lockport, New York, in 1938. She grew up on her parents' farm in nearby Millersport. Her parents weren't educated, but they encouraged her in her passion for books and writing. "I can't remember when I first began to tell stories — by drawing, it was then — but I must have been very young," she said in an interview with The Paris Review. "It was an instinct I followed quite naturally." Her grandmother gave Joyce her first typewriter when she was 14, and she never looked back, writing novel after novel in high school and then throwing them away immediately. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and she went on to Syracuse University, from which she graduated valedictorian of her class.

She published her first short story collection, By the North Gate, in 1963, and her first novel, With Shuddering Fall, in 1964. Thus began a career that has produced more than 50 novels to date, as well as numerous memoirs and collections of stories, essays, and poetry. She wrote her latest, A Widow's Story: A Memoir (2011), after Raymond Smith, her husband of 47 years, died unexpectedly of pneumonia in 2008.

She once said, "A writer who has published as many books as I have has developed, of necessity, a hide like a rhino's, while inside there dwells a frail, hopeful butterfly of a spirit."

One hundred years ago today, in Endicott, New York, IBM was incorporated as the Tabulating Computing Recording Corporation. The company manufactured several business products, including scales, employee timekeeping systems, meat slicers, and punch-card equipment. In 1924, the corporation's name was changed to reflect its growing operations in Canada and Europe, and it became the International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM for short. Timekeeping was the big moneymaker at first, but it was the punched cards — which were originally developed to simplify the tabulation of census data — that would play a role in the development of the computer, and by the 1930s the tabulating arm of the company had become its primary focus. The Social Security Act of 1935, dubbed "the biggest accounting operation of all time," proved a boon for IBM, since they were the only company that was prepared to provide the tabulating equipment.

IBM's leader, Thomas J. Watson Sr., believed that international commerce would provide the best deterrent to war, and he ordered "World Peace Through World Trade" carved on the front of the company's New York headquarters. Unfortunately, IBM failed to prevent World War II and Watson, pragmatic, placed all of the corporation's capabilities at the disposal of the U.S. military, manufacturing major ordnance. Under the leadership of Thomas J. Watson Jr., who took over when his father died, IBM became the largest computer company of the 1960s.

IBM holds more patents than any other American technology company, and it has employees and development teams in 170 countries. Recently, a supercomputer designed by IBM researchers — named Watson after the company's first president — made headlines by competing in, and winning, a Jeopardy tournament against the game's two most successful human players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

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