Sep. 13, 2011

The Merger

by Charles W. Pratt

              for my son

Trying to think of something useful
To say about marriage, I remember
A morning when I was twenty-plus,
Self-absorbed in my tinny pink
Renault Dauphine, my Little Toot,
And I tried to get by a tank-truck on
A bendy road too briefly straight.
Shuddering, pedal floored, my frivolous
Vessel leveled with the cab
Like a pilot fish by a shark's grim grille.
Then there was a car ahead of us
And, as I tried to floor a pedal
Already on the floor, the blue
Of ice I hadn't seen. Spinning
Toward the implacable hugeness of the cab, looking up
Into the eyes of the truckdriver, I felt
Only the sweet certainty of
Submission, call it love, as if
Already I had left myself and could look
Down with the driver's godlike and loving
Eyes at a comical pink Dauphine
Sliding backwards down the road, then spinning
Again and into a snowbank, tilted
Against a tree. One flat tire
And a dent in the roof I pushed out myself.
I made it to work on time. Because
The truckdriver had seen the oncoming car
Before I had, had seen the patch of blue
And had slowed to let me by, I met
And married your mother, and you were born
And have grown up to meet and marry, and I
Have begun to understand the blind
h Release of self to the will of another
And the answering wise, dispassionate
Restraint of the merger we call marriage.

"The Merger" by Charles W. Pratt, from From the Box Marked "Some Are Missing". © Hobblebush Books, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1848, railway worker Phineas Gage survived having an iron rod driven through his brain. He was 25 years old, a handsome young man and a hard worker, and was a foreman on a crew cutting a railroad bed near Cavendish, Vermont. He was using a tamping iron to pack explosives into a hole in a boulder when the explosive powder detonated. It drove his tamping iron — which was 43 inches long, and an inch and a quarter wide — through his left cheek, up behind his left eye, and out the top of his head, where it landed some 30 yards away. He lost the vision in his left eye, but it's possible that he didn't even lose consciousness; in any case, he was able to walk to an oxcart within a few minutes of the accident. Workers took him to his boarding house, where he had enough of his wits about him to quip to the local doctor, "Here is business enough for you." One witness reported that Gage got up and vomited; "the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor."

The doctor, John Martin Harlow, cleaned the wounds, removed the smaller bone fragments and replaced some larger ones. He closed the top head wound with adhesive, but left it open to drain into the dressing. Gage hit a few stumbling blocks in the next weeks, developing what the doctor called a "fungus" on an exposed section of his brain, which put him in a semi-comatose state and prompted his family to order a coffin for him. He also developed an abscess under the scalp, which the doctor drained before it could leak into his brain cavity. But by the following January, Gage had completely recovered, although the large exit wound never fully healed.

Though he was living a seemingly normal life, Gage's friends noticed dramatic changes in his personality in the months after the incident. Dr. Harlow faithfully recorded them and published them 20 years later in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society: "He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent [sic], yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.'" He lost his job with the railway company and took work in stables, driving coaches, until he died 12 years later after a series of seizures.

Had he merely survived the accident with most of his faculties intact, he would have gone down in history as an oddity. As it turned out, he also inspired new areas of brain research and became one of the most famous patients in neuroscience. Even though there wasn't much hard data recorded about Gage, scientists began researching a connection between brain injury and personality change. They also became interested in "mapping" the brain, noticing a link in Gage's case between the frontal cortex and social inhibitions, and positing that different areas of the brain may control different functions. Two-thirds of psychology textbooks mention him. His skull and the tamping iron are on display at the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard's School of Medicine.

Today is the birthday of author Sherwood Anderson (1876) (books by this author), born in Camden, Ohio. He became a writer in 1912, after suffering a nervous breakdown and wandering around Cleveland for four days. His prose style was direct and unpretentious, and he was one of the first authors to incorporate the modern psychological theories of Freud into his work. He was a major influence on the generation of American writers that followed him, including Hemingway and Faulkner, although they both eventually turned against him. Anderson encouraged Faulkner in his writing aspirations, and he who wrote young Hemingway a letter of introduction to take with him to Paris, helping put him in touch with Stein and other American ex-pats. For her part, Stein called Anderson "a much more original writer than Hemingway." Anderson is best known for his short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a portrait of life in a small Midwestern town. He also wrote a best-selling novel, Dark Laughter (1925).

It's the birthday of British novelist, playwright, and essayist John Boynton — known as J.B. — Priestley (1894) (books by this author), born in Bradford, Yorkshire. He served in the infantry during World War I, and most of his friends were killed in combat. He didn't write about the war, and remained nostalgic for the pre-war years, saying, "I belong at heart to the pre-1914 North Country." After studying English literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, he became a journalist, and then a novelist, and then a dramatist. He was also a popular and talented radio speaker, and produced a series of patriotic broadcasts during World War II. He wrote more than 120 books, most notably the novels The Good Companions (1929), Bright Day (1946), and Lost Empires (1965).

In a 1978 interview with the International Herald Tribune, he said, "Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness — when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven't had time to know how much better it ought to be," and, "Much of writing might be described as mental pregnancy with successive difficult deliveries."

Today is the birthday of novelist and poet Gail Tsukiyama (1957) (books by this author). She was born in San Francisco to a Chinese mother from Hong Kong and a Japanese-American father from Hawaii. She was a film major in college, but discovered that she was less interested in making films than she was in simply telling stories. She switched her major to creative writing and wrote a collection of poetry for her master's thesis. After she graduated, she found herself writing more and more short stories, which evolved into longer forms. Her first novel, Women of the Silk, was published in 1991. "[The novel] grew out of library research and my desire to write about Chinese society," she said. "I became intrigued by a brief reference to these women silk workers in the autobiography of writer Han Suyin. The few lines described a community of unmarried women who earned their own livings. ... I knew instantly I wanted to write about these early Chinese feminists." She continues to explore the lives of women, as well as differences between Chinese and Japanese cultures. Her latest novel is The Street of a Thousand Blossoms (2007).

It's the 50th birthday of British novelist Tom Holt (books by this author), born in London in 1961. He writes comic fantasy novels that parody mythology; his latest is May Contain Traces of Magic (2009). He's also written straight historical fiction, and he published a collection of poems, called Poems (1974), when he was just 13.

He has had a rocky history with technology. "The first computer-shaped object I used was the basic model Amstrad. I wrote about 18 books on it until somebody pointed out that it was Bronze Age technology, and even owning such a thing made me a major Luddite and an abomination. So I bought an old 386, which worked fine, until somebody pointed out that in many respect, old 386s are even more of a stench in the nostrils of God than Amstrads, and unless I stopped mucking about with industrial archaeology and got with the program, I was in grave danger of waking up one night to find a bunch of techies in white sheets burning a Commodore on my lawn. So I bought a proper computer, which immediately crashed, taking three month's work with it." He was asked in an interview if he knew any good email jokes, to which he replied: "Strangely, no. All the good jokes are about conventional communications and the Post Office. [...] I guess this is because the email of the specious is more deadly than the mail."

It's the birthday of essayist, journalist, and children's author Emily Jenkins (1967) (books by this author). She was born in New York City and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Seattle. Her father is playwright Len Jenkin. Together, they wrote a children's novel called The Secret Life of Billie's Uncle Myron (1996). She has a doctorate in 19th-century English literature from Columbia University, and she says the leap from this to writing picture books for children is not as surprising as it seems on first glance: Her dissertation was about illustrated novels, and she's "given more than usual amounts of time to thinking about the relationship of text to image." Her mother was a preschool teacher, and Jenkins was an assistant teacher at a Montessori school for six- to nine-year-olds, so she was always surrounded by picture books.

She's also published several articles, a book of essays called Tongue First (1998), and a novel, Mister Posterior and the Genius Child (2002).

Today is the birthday of young-adult author and triathlete Mette Ivie Harrison (1970) (books by this author). She was born in Summit, New Jersey, the ninth of 11 kids, and studied German Literature at Brigham Young University, where her father was a computer professor. She went from there to Princeton to get her doctorate. She wasn't especially athletic as a kid, but she did enjoy swimming. She kept with it and even made the swim team in high school. She competed in — and won — her first triathlon in 2004. She still competes, and often still ends up on the podium.

She started writing at a young age, and shares her earliest work — especially the bad stuff — on her website to encourage young authors. She's written several novels for young adults, including The Monster in Me (2003), Mira, Mirror (2004), and The Princess and the Hound (2007). She lives in Utah with her husband and five kids. She's trying, with varied success, to become a vegan. Her latest book, a modernization of Tristan and Isolde called Tris and Izzie, will be published this fall.

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




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