Aug. 20, 2011

In the Basement of the Goodwill Store

by Ted Kooser

In the musty light, in the thin brown air
of damp carpet, doll heads and rust,
beneath long rows of sharp footfalls
like nails in a lid, an old man stands
trying on glasses, lifting each pair
from the box like a glittering fish
and holding it up to the light
of a dirty bulb. Near him, a heap
of enameled pans as white as skulls
looms in the catacomb shadows,
and old toilets with dry red throats
cough up bouquets of curtain rods.

You've seen him somewhere before.
He's wearing the green leisure suit
you threw out with the garbage,
and the Christmas tie you hated,
and the ventilated wingtip shoes
you found in your father's closet
and wore as a joke. And the glasses
which finally fit him, through which
he looks to see you looking back—
two mirrors which flash and glance—
are those through which one day
you too will look down over the years,
when you have grown old and thin
and no longer particular,
and the things you once thought
you were rid of forever
have taken you back in their arms.

"In the Basement of the Goodwill Store" by Ted Kooser, from One World at a Time. © The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1858, Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection was first published in The Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London. Darwin and A.R. Wallace had presented their findings, which have come to be called the Darwin-Wallace Papers, to the society at the beginning of July, and the reaction of those present was underwhelming. Darwin wrote in his autobiography, "Our joint productions excited very little attention, and the only published notice of them which I can remember was by Professor Haughton of Dublin, whose verdict was that all that was new in them was false, and what was true was old."

It's the birthday of macabre novelist H.P. Lovecraft (1890) (books by this author), born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island. He was reading by the age of three, and developed an early fascination with mythology. He wrote his first short story when he was six and discovered chemistry and astronomy when he was eight. Precocity aside, he didn't go to school much; he suffered from many illnesses — some of them apparently psychosomatic — and his health was too poor to permit him to attend college. He worked as a ghostwriter and spent much of his life in poverty. Though he published some short stories in the magazine Weird Tales from 1923 onward, he didn't become famous until after his death of intestinal cancer at 47. He was a prolific letter-writer, and through the friendships he made and maintained through the post, his work was published and promoted. His most famous tales are the ones involving his created alternate universe the “Cthulhu Mythos," named after Cthulhu, a slimy alien deity. Lovecraft encouraged other dark fiction writers to continue to develop the Mythos, and so it appeared in and influenced works by younger authors like Henry Kuttner, Robert Block, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith.

In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1933), he wrote: "The one test of the really weird is simply this — whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe's utmost rim."

It's the birthday of novelist Jacqueline Susann (1918) (books by this author), born in Philadelphia. Her father was a philanderer, and he used to take Susann to the movies as a cover while he met his latest mistress. He'd drop his daughter at the theater, have his rendezvous, pick his daughter up, and get the plot summary from her on the way home so he could discuss it over the family dinner table. She was an unenthusiastic student and a party girl, but she was bright, and her mother thought she'd make a good writer. She wanted to be an actress, though, and moved to New York right out of high school to give it a try. She never quite made it, although she did some commercials and had bit parts in some movies and plays. At one point, she earned $25 a week playing the role of a lingerie model.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 44, and she made a bargain with God: If she could have 10 more years, she would produce something really big. She published her most famous novel, Valley of the Dolls (1966), four years later. She drew on her experiences as an aspiring actress to tell a tale of backstabbing, sex, and glamour, and it was a huge hit. Critics sneered, but at one point she had three books on The New York Times best-seller list: Valley of the Dolls, The Love Machine (1969), and Once is Not Enough (1973). She died in 1974, 12 years after her cancer diagnosis.

Today is the birthday of poet Cathy Song (1955) (books by this author). She was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and her father was a pilot, so her family traveled extensively. She credits the travel with inspiring her writing career: When she was nine, she declared herself "the family chronicler." Her first volume of poetry, Picture Bride, was published in 1982 and won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award; it was also nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award. She produced four more collections, including Frameless Windows, Squares of Light (1988), and Cloud Moving Hands (2007).

It's the birthday of novelist and journalist Kevin Baker (1958) (books by this author). He was born in Englewood, New Jersey, and grew up in Rockport, Massachusetts. He's the author of the City of Fire trilogy of historical fiction: Dreamland (1999), Paradise Alley (2002), and Strivers Row (2006). He also wrote a baseball novel, Sometimes You See it Coming (1993), and wrote the final chapter of the companion book for Ken Burns' Baseball documentary series.

In Dreamland, he wrote: "Every great change in individual and social conditions begins small, among simple, earnest people, face to face with the facts of life. Ask yourselves seriously, 'Why should not the coming change begin with us?'"

Today is the birthday of poet David Daniel (1960) (books by this author), born and raised in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He's the founder of WAMFEST, the Words and Music Festival, and he was the poetry editor for the literary journal Ploughshares from 1992 to 2007. He said, "I was a young and angry poet when I started editing there; I was a middle-aged angry one when I left — but I learned a lot in those years." First and foremost: "Be polite in cover letters and realize that editors actually want to find poems they love and are generally writers themselves, probably just as frustrated by rejection as you are but not nearly as vindictive, power-drunk, and bitter as you think."

His first poetry collection, Seven-Star Bird, was published in 2004. His second, Crash and Other Assorted Love Songs, is forthcoming.

Today is the birthday of English novelist Toby Litt, born in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, in 1968. In 2003, he was named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. He's the author of 10 books, including Adventures in Capitalism (1996), I Play the Drums in a Band Called Okay (2008), and King Death (2010).

On this date in 1975, NASA launched the Viking 1 mission to Mars. Its sister, Viking 2, was launched about three weeks later. Each Viking mission consisted of a matching lander and orbiter, which separated upon reaching Mars' orbit. The Viking project made history as the first United States mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of the red planet. Viking gathered samples, took pictures, and conducted experiments designed to look for signs of life; while the experiments yielded some interesting results, there was no definitive proof of life as we know it. Scientists believe that Mars may be "self-cleaning": Solar radiation and the extremely dry and chemically inhospitable soil would make it very difficult for organisms to survive.

Viking 1 was designed to carry out its mission for 90 days, but it actually continued sending data far beyond that period. Orbiter 1 operated for four years; Lander 1, for more than seven years.

On this date in 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 2 spacecraft. They timed the launch to coincide with a rare planetary alignment that allowed the craft to make use of each planet's gravity to boost it on its way. The original purpose of the mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn; it's since passed Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, and is now considered an "interstellar mission" because it still has enough velocity to leave the solar system. It's currently flying through the heliopause: the area where the solar wind is opposed by hydrogen and helium gases from interstellar space, forming a kind of bubble around the solar system. Scientists believe it will be able to continue sending back signals until at least 2025.

Voyager 1 and 2 also carry golden records, with pictographic instructions on how to play them. The records contain sounds, images, and welcome messages from Earth, as well as a map to our location. Carl Sagan chaired the committee that decided what should go on the record. He said: "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet." President Jimmy Carter included his own message on the record: "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."

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