May 10, 2012

Love in the Country

by William Stafford

We live like this: no one but
some of the owls awake, and of them
only near ones really awake.

In the rain yesterday, puddles
on the walk to the barn sounded their
quick little drinks.

The edge of the haymow, all
soaked in moonlight,
dreams out there like silver music.

Are there farms like this where
no one likes to live?
And the sky going everywhere?

While the earth breaks the soft horizon
eastward, we study how to deserve
what has already been given us.

"Love in the Country" by William Stafford, from Stories that Could Be True. © Harper & Row, 1977. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Irish rock star Bono, born Paul Hewson in Dublin (1960). He's the lead singer of U2, and he writes almost all of the lyrics to the band's songs. U2 was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the first year the band was eligible. Albums include The Joshua Tree (1987), Achtung Baby (1991), and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004). Bono is well known for his philanthropic work related to AIDS, Africa, and for Third World debt relief.

Today is the birthday of Bel Kaufman (1911) (books by this author). She was born in Berlin and grew up in Odessa and Kiev. She's the granddaughter of the writer Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof.

Kaufman taught in the New York public school system for 20 years. She had a terrible time passing the oral exam to get her teaching certificate because of her Russian accent, but she finally did and eventually turned the frustrations of her teaching career into a novel. It was called Up the Down Staircase (1965), and the story was told through a collection of letters, notes, and school memos. In 2010, when she was 99, Hunter College hired her to teach a course on Jewish humor.

It's the birthday of Suzan-Lori Parks (books by this author), born in Fort Knox, Kentucky (1963). She went to college at Mount Holyoke, and while there, had a chance to take a course with visiting writer James Baldwin. He asked everybody to read in front of the class, and was impressed when Parks really tried to embody her characters by speaking in different voices. He suggested that she try playwriting. She hadn't been interested in drama at that point, but she later said, "When James Baldwin makes a suggestion, you listen." In 2002, she became the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, for her play Topdog/Underdog.

Last year, she staged a show that was part performance art, part window into the creative process called Watch Me Work. The audience is welcome to observe her working at a typewriter, or to work on their own projects alongside her for about an hour, followed by a question-and-answer session. She co-wrote a new adaptation of George and Ira Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, which opened on Broadway this past January, and is working on a musical about Ray Charles, called Unchain My Heart.

Today is the birthday of Jon Ronson (books by this author), born in Cardiff, Wales (1967). He's best known for his nonfiction book The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004) about a secret, idealistic New Age movement within the U.S. military that began in the late 1970s. The Army was interested in the military applications of the paranormal, and conducted research on walking through walls, and remote spying through thought. Ronson's book title comes from his investigation of a former head of intelligence, Major General Stubblebine, who believed that with preparation and mindful channeling, that thought could be weaponized.

Ronson's most recent book is The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2011). He hosts the BBC Radio 4 show Jon Ronson On... and is a frequent contributor to This American Life.

The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed on this date in 1869. The project had been discussed since the 1830's when Europeans were settling in California in increasing numbers, but people couldn't decide on the best route. Some argued for a central route through Wyoming and Nebraska, and others felt a southern route through Texas was better because it would avoid the Rocky Mountains. Over time the Pony Express proved that the central route was passable even in winter, and Texas allied itself with the Confederacy in the Civil War, so the central route won out.

The building of a transcontinental railroad was one of Abraham Lincoln's big goals during his presidency. He signed legislation to construct the line in July 1862, and two companies were hired: Central Pacific would build from west to east, and Union Pacific would build from east to west. The law arranged to pay the companies per mile, and they exploited that provision whenever possible. The main stockholder of Union Pacific, who had been Lincoln's employer before entering politics, arranged to add extra miles to the track and usually ran it conveniently through land that he owned, so he got paid for that too. When this came to light in 1872, it became one of the major scandals of the 19th century.

It wasn't just corruption that marred the project. Chinese immigrants did much of the hard and dangerous labor, paid far less than their white counterparts. The railroad route went through Indian lands in violation of government treaties and disrupted their hunting grounds. Once connected to new markets in the east by rail, professional hunters decimated the bison population.

On May 10, 1869 the two companies met up at Promontory Point, Utah amidst great fanfare. When it was finally completed, the journey from New York to Sacramento took about a week — a considerable improvement over the previous travel time of nearly six months.

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




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