Aug. 19, 2011


by Robert Morgan

It's something of a mystery,
this minute rain downloading from
the sky so slowly and invisibly
you don't know when it came except
at dusk the grass is suddenly wet,
a visitation from the air,
precipitant from spirit world
of whitest incarnation or
reverse transfiguration, herald
of river, swamp and ocean breath
sent heavenward, released to earth
again to water weed and stone,
and shatter rainbows in the sun,
the purest liquid that exists,
too fine to slake our human thirst.

"Dew" by Robert Morgan, from Terroir. © Penguin Poets, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1829, French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre presented his photographic process to the French Academy of Sciences. The first actual photograph had been made a couple of years earlier by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, but the quality wasn't very good and the plate had to be exposed for eight hours to capture the image. Daguerre worked with Niépce to develop a more practical method. He found that if he coated a copper plate with silver iodide, exposed it to light in the camera for 20 to 30 minutes, fumed it with mercury vapor, and then fixed it with a salt solution, he was able to capture a permanent image. He called the finished product a "daguerreotype." Many early photographers became ill, or even died, from mercury poisoning using this method. The daguerreotype was best suited for still objects, but people nonetheless lined up to have their portraits taken. This was not for the faint of heart: subjects had to sit in blazing sunlight for up to half an hour, trying not to blink, with their heads clamped in place to keep them still. It's not surprising that most of the early daguerreotype portraits feature grim, slightly desperate faces.

An early professional daguerreotype photographer remarked on people's reaction to their portraits: "People were afraid at first to look for any length of time at the pictures he produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes appear to everyone."

It's the birthday of poet Ogden Nash, (books by this author) born in Rye, New York, in 1902. He sold his first verse to The New Yorker in 1930 and published his first collection, Hard Lines, in 1931. All told, he produced 20 volumes of humorous poetry, wrote several children's books, and wrote the lyrics to two musicals: One Touch of Venus (1943) and Two's Company (1952).

He wrote, "O Duty, / Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie? / Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously? / Why art thou clad so abominously?"

And, "A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of."

And, "Every New Year is the direct descendant, isn't it, of a long line of proven criminals?"

And, "Middle age is when you're sitting at home on a Saturday night and the telephone rings and you hope it isn't for you."

It's the birthday of Philo Taylor Farnsworth, the inventor of the television, born in a log cabin in Beaver, Utah, in 1906. He conceived of the basic elements necessary to transmit a visual image while he was still in high school; later, at Brigham Young University, he began his research in earnest. He co-founded Crocker Research Laboratories in San Francisco when he was just 20 years old, and the following year, in 1927, he transmitted his first image: a straight line. Investors wanted to know when they would see financial returns, so at his first demonstration for the press in 1928, he transmitted the image of a dollar sign. This earned him the first of about 165 patents.

Farnsworth appeared only once on his invention: He was the mystery guest "Dr. X" on the game show I've Got a Secret in July 1957.

Today is the birthday of the father of Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry, born in El Paso, Texas, in 1921. He flew B-17 bombers during World War II, flew commercially for Pan-Am after the war, and served as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He really wanted to be a writer, though, and got some freelance jobs consulting and writing scripts for several TV shows, including Dragnet, Have Gun — Will Travel, and Dr. Kildare. In 1956, he resigned from the LAPD and began writing full time.

The first show he created and produced was NBC's The Lieutenant, which aired from 1963 to 1964. Set at Camp Pendleton, it examined social issues through the lens of a military environment. He'd always loved science fiction, though, so in 1964 he developed the idea of a new series about space exploration — "a Wagon Train to the stars," as he described it — and shopped it around to several studios, most of which were uninterested. Desilu Productions, the company run by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, finally expressed an interest, and NBC agreed to run it. The pilot aired on September 8, 1966. His wife, Majel Barrett, provided the voice for the Enterprise's computer. Ratings were never great, and it only aired for three seasons, but it was a huge success in syndication, and has since spawned an animated series, four spin-off live-action TV series, and 11 feature films.

Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry's fundamental optimism about the human race. "It speaks to some basic human needs," he said in 1991, "that there is a tomorrow — it's not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them because they're clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things."

Roddenberry died in 1991 and, with his widow's permission, his ashes were carried on a 1992 mission of the space shuttle Columbia. The following year, NASA awarded him their Distinguished Public Service Medal for "distinguished service to the Nation and the human race in presenting the exploration of space as an exciting frontier and a hope for the future."

It's the birthday of poet Li-Young Lee (books by this author), born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to Chinese parents in 1957. His father had been the personal physician to Mao Zedong, and his mother was the granddaughter of the first president of the Republic of China. His parents were political exiles, and his father spent 19 months in an Indonesian prison camp. When he was released in 1959, the family made its way from Indonesia, through Hong Kong and Japan, to America, arriving in 1964. Li-Young Lee's father attended seminary and became a Presbyterian minister in Pennsylvania; the son's poetry often reflects themes of exile and spirituality, and creates a sense of silence. Lee didn't speak until he was three years old, and was further silenced by the language barrier when he first moved to the United States at the age of seven.

Lee says his writing process isn't very disciplined, even though he feels he's on duty 24 hours a day: "When I wake up, there's something in me even beyond my wakeful mind that's been paying attention all night long to the divine and the uncanny. So the minute I get up, I feel I am already involved in the writing process, and I just grope my way to my study and see what happens."

It's the birthday of English novelist Jonathan Coe (books by this author), born in Lickey, a suburb of Birmingham, in 1961. His father was a physicist for a motor company, and his mother taught music and gym. Coe began writing at the age of eight, a detective story called The Castle of Mystery. He sent his first novel to a publisher when he was 15; it was rejected, and a few years later he was so embarrassed by it that he burned the manuscript in a bonfire in his parents' back garden. He worked on what would eventually become his first published novel, The Accidental Woman (1987), at Cambridge University while completing his doctoral thesis on Henry Fielding. Eight more novels followed, usually satirical examinations of the current political or social climate.

It's the birthday of novelist Molly Jong-Fast (books by this author), born in New York City in 1978. Her mother is Erica Jong, noted for her frank treatment of women's sexuality in her novel Fear of Flying (1973); her father is novelist Jonathan Fast, the author of The Golden Fire (1986), and her grandfather is Howard Fast, author of Spartacus (1951). She considers herself "a prude in a family of libertines." "I am my mother's worst bourgeois nightmare," she wrote in an essay for the anthology Sugar in My Bowl (2011). "I live on the Upper East Side. I have three children — all by the same man! I never slept with a man who wore cowboy boots. I have never been to a sex club. I have never had a Dominican divorce."

She's the author of three books: two novels, Normal Girl (2000) and The Social Climber's Handbook (2011); and a memoir, Girl [Maladjusted] (2005). When asked about her writing process, she said, "I write a book and throw it out, and then I write a book based on the book I just threw out."

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