Sep. 4, 2011

A Barred Owl

by Richard Wilbur

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl's voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
"Who cooks for you?" and then "Who cooks for you?"

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

"A Barred Owl" by Richard Wilbur, from Collected Poems: 1943-2004. © Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The city of Los Angeles was founded on this date in 1781. The first permanent colonial settlement was given the rather prolix name of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Porciúncula. Translated, it means "the Town of Our Lady of the Angels of Porciúncula." The name refers to a shrine to the Virgin Mary in Assisi, Italy; it was also the name of what would eventually be called the Los Angeles River.

King Carlos III of Spain ordered Governor Felipe de Neve to build a presidio — a fortified military base — and a town on the Porciúncula River. The governor asked for volunteers to come up from Mexico; he hoped for 24 families, and he got 11; there were 52 settlers in all. De Neve gets credit for being one of the first modern city planners, because he drew up a plan for the pueblo before actually building it. Los Angeles was laid out in the Spanish tradition: a rectangular settlement consisting of a city plaza, a town house, a guardhouse, and a granary, all built in the Spanish architectural style. The volunteers who built the pueblo received small plots of land for the growing of crops and the raising of cattle. De Neve followed the New Spain colonialist agenda: subdue the locals, recruit a workforce, defend against other colonizing forces, and establish Catholic missions to convert the indigenous peoples. Los Angeles became part of Mexico in 1821, but was bought by the United States in 1848 as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

That little ranch town housing just over 50 souls is now the second most populous city in the country, with 3.8 million residents, called "Angelenos." It covers an area of almost 480 square miles, houses the "Entertainment Capital of the World" in Hollywood, and has the third largest gross metropolitan product (GMP) in the world.

It's the birthday of Richard Wright (1908) (books by this author). He was born on Rucker's Plantation between Roxie and Natchez, Mississippi. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father was an illiterate sharecropper who left the family when the boy was five. His mother had to take any domestic jobs she could to support the children. But when she had a paralytic stroke in 1920, it became too much for her, and she moved the family in with her parents in Jackson. Wright graduated from junior high school at the end of ninth grade as class valedictorian in 1925; by then, he had already published his first story, a three-parter called "The Voodoo of Hell's Half-Acre," in the Southern Register. He kept the news from his strict Seventh Day Adventist grandmother, who believed fiction was the devil's work. He dropped out of high school after a few weeks to go to work, but he pursued his education at the local library all the same. He became fascinated with the commentary of H.L. Mencken; he borrowed the library card of a white co-worker and forged a note giving him permission to check out books from the "Whites Only" section of the library.

In 1927, he moved north, eventually ending up in Chicago. He worked odd jobs, joined the Communist Party, and in 1935, got a job with the Federal Writers' Project. His first short story collection, Uncle Tom's Children, was published in 1938 to wide acclaim. His novel, Native Son, followed in 1940. It was the first best-seller by a black American author, and was made a Book- of-the-Month Club Selection (another first) after he edited out some passages they felt were too sexually explicit. The book calls the nation to task for its entrenched racism and demands that it share responsibility for Bigger Thomas's crimes. Reaction to the book was mixed in the African-American community; they were proud of Wright's literary success, but many felt that the book reinforced the stereotype of the "brute Negro" in the minds of white readers. Fifteen years later, James Baldwin tackled Richard Wright's legacy and the "angry black man" label in his essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" and his collection Notes of a Native Son (1955).

Wright published his autobiography, Black Boy, in 1945. The original published version only covers his childhood in the South; the book's second part, American Hunger, about his life in Chicago and his affiliation with the Communist Party, was posthumously published as a sequel to Black Boy in 1977. Finally, in 1991, the books were released together as one volume, the way Wright had intended it. In his unflinching way, Wright grapples with his conflicting feelings about black culture, going back and forth between honoring its sense of community and condemning what he saw as its shortcomings: "I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes, how unstable was our tenderness, how lacking in genuine passion we were, how void of great hope, how timid our joy, how bare our traditions, how hollow our memories, how lacking we were in those intangible sentiments that bind man to man, and how shallow was even our despair."

Wright moved to Paris with his wife and daughter in 1947, fed up with the racism he encountered even in the North. He would never see the United States again.

On this date in 1998, Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google. They met in graduate school at Stanford and worked together on a couple of group projects. They got the idea for a search engine that ranks its results by their popularity, figuring that the most useful websites would also have the most "hits." It was a revolutionary idea, and it worked: Only three months later, PC Magazine reported that Google "has an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results," and named it the search engine of choice.

The behemoth nevertheless manages to maintain its sense of whimsy. Language choices include "Swedish Chef" and "Klingon." And since 2000, they have perpetrated a number of April Fools' Day hoax announcements: the search engine is powered by pigeons; they are planning to build a facility on the Moon; they are launching MentalPlex, mind-reading software to make searches more effective. Their 2006 hoax was the announcement of a new service, "Google Romance," because "dating is a search problem." One April Fools' Day announcement was no joke: the launch of Gmail in 2004.

The company is based in Mountain View, California, on a large campus they call the Googleplex, and it's often held up as an employees' paradise. Workers eat for free at any number of gourmet organic restaurants on-site. The company provides Wi-Fi-enabled shuttle buses from five Bay Area locations; for car commuters, they have an on-site oil changes and a car wash. They also have on-site barbers, massage therapists, language instructors, Laundromats, notaries, bookmobiles, and even doctors that provide free check-ups. They provide a $500 "take-out food" allowance to families with new babies. Employees may set their own hours and come to work during times of the day that they feel most productive; it's not uncommon to see a few night owls wandering the halls at three in the morning. Their Innovation Time Off policy encourages employees to spend up to 20 percent of their work time on projects that interest them. It benefits the company as well as the employee: In 2005, Vice President Melissa Mayer estimated that half of Google's new products have arisen as a result of Innovation Time Off.

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