Jan. 25, 2014

A Story Can Change Your Life

by Peter Everwine

On the morning she became a young widow,
my grandmother, startled by a sudden shadow,
looked up from her work to see a hawk turn
her prized rooster into a cloud of feathers.
That same moment, halfway around the world
in a Minnesota mine, her husband died,
buried under a ton of rock-fall.
She told me this story sixty years ago.
I don't know if it's true but it ought to be.
She was a hard old woman, and though she knelt
on Sundays when the acolyte's silver bell
announced the moment of Christ's miracle,
it was the darker mysteries she lived by:
shiver-cry of an owl, black dog by the roadside,
a tapping at the door and nobody there.
The moral of the story was plain enough:
miracles become a burden and require a priest
to explain them. With signs, you only need
to keep your wits about you and place your trust
in a shadow world that lets you know hard luck
and grief are coming your way. And for that
—so the story goes—any day will do.

"A Story Can Change Your Life" by Peter Everwine from Listening Long and Late. © University of Pittsburg Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1959 that the first transcontinental commercial jet flight took place, from Los Angeles to New York. Although the Wright brothers had successfully flown a plane back in 1903, air travel took a long time to catch on with the American public. Most people considered airplanes unsafe and possibly just a fad, so there wasn't much work put into improving aircraft design, which just reinforced the public's skepticism. Although World War I improved the design of planes for military use, the public associated them with warfare and bombing. For decades, airplanes were used mainly for military or for transporting mail. Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight kindled public interest, but regular fatal accidents kept them away. It wasn't until after World War II and the development of jet aircrafts (which were larger and safer) that commercial flights became a widely accepted form of transportation.

American Airlines Flight 2, which touched down in New York at 4 p.m. on this day in 1959, had the atmosphere of a party. There was a celebratory cocktail party before boarding, and attractive flight attendants in heels served cocktails throughout the flight, so almost all of the passengers were tipsy. Passengers were offered food like fresh Maine lobsters, filet mignon, and macaroon ice cream balls with brandied apricot sauce. The flight was a mix of regular people and celebrities, including the 81-year-old poet Carl Sandburg, who was apparently quite drunk. In an essay he wrote later about the flight, he said: "You look out of the window at the waves of dark and light clouds looking like ocean shorelines, and you feel as if you are floating away in this pleasantly moving room, like the basket hanging from the balloon you saw with a visiting circus when you were a boy. [...] You have let your mind wander again, and you wake up now in this room where you move through rain and come out of it into a clear blue sky with a cloudland below you, and you say to yourself, 'My, that's purty to look at.'"

It's the birthday of inventor Ernst F.W. Alexanderson, born in Uppsala, Sweden (1878). His father was a language professor, so in addition to Swedish, young Ernst grew up learning French, German, English, and Latin. This came in handy one day when he found a book called Alternating Current Phenomena, written in English. By this time, Alexanderson was in a graduate program for electrical engineering, and he was so inspired by the book that he decided to move to America and try to find the book's author, Charles P. Steinmetz. He sought out Steinmetz at his home in Schenectady, New York, which was also the headquarters of General Electric. Steinmetz helped the young Swede find work at General Electric, where his starting wage in the test department was 17.5 cents per hour.

A Canadian professor and inventor named Reginald Fessenden had been researching radio waves, which were still used to transmit dots and dashes, more like a telegraph. Fessenden believed radio waves would be capable of transmitting the human voice, and for that he envisioned a high-frequency alternator that could transmit on one continuous wave. He commissioned General Electric to take on the project, and they assigned it to Steinmetz, the same scientist who had inspired Alexanderson to move to America. But Steinmetz produced only a 10-kilohertz version, which was not powerful enough. So GE turned the project over to Alexanderson. The biggest challenge was to design a machine with enough power to generate high frequencies, because the higher the frequency, the bigger the rotor and the more poles needed, which made for a huge and unwieldy machine. It took Alexanderson two years, but in the summer of 1906, he finally produced a working 50-kHz model. His fellow engineers were convinced that the alternator would fly apart and injure or kill Alexanderson, so to be on the safe side, he tested it out for the first time in a sandbagged pit.

By that fall, Alexanderson had refined the design and increased the power to 75 kHz. Reginald Fessenden had a big ego and told this story in hindsight, so he may have stretched the truth, but he claimed to have used Alexanderson's alternator to transmit the first radio broadcast as we know it on Christmas Eve of 1906. Wireless operators on ships for the United Fruit Company were told to listen in for a special message. All they had ever heard on their headphones were Morse code dots and dashes being transmitted, and suddenly they heard something they didn't know was possible: a human voice. Fessenden spoke, then played "O Holy Night" on his violin (singing along for the final verse), and then read the story of Christ's birth from the Book of Luke. The machine that Fessenden had commissioned became known as the Alexanderson alternator, and for the next several decades, it was used to transmit radio signals to ships, until it was eventually replaced by the new technology of vacuum tubes.

Alexanderson didn't slow down after his first major accomplishment. He continued his work in radio, inventing several breakthroughs, including a selective tuning device. He contributed to railway electrification, power transmissions, and telephone relays. In 1924, he transmitted a handwritten note to his father in Sweden, the first rudimentary fax. He helped develop early television, and the first transmission of television to a home took place at Alexanderson's three-bedroom Colonial Revival house in January of 1928. By the end of his long career, Alexanderson had registered 332 patents, which averaged out to one every seven weeks.

On this date in 1993, Sears, Roebuck and Company announced that they would no longer publish their "Big Book" catalog. The catalog was produced for nearly a century, and it made available a dazzling array of East Coast products to remote, rural areas across the country. It was the backbone of the Sears-Roebuck retail empire — R.W. Sears didn't even get around to opening a brick-and-mortar store until 30 years later — and was so popular that catalogs were sent to American soldiers overseas during both World Wars. You could order almost anything for your home from the Big Book. You could even order your home itself: Standard Oil built an entire neighborhood in the town of Carlinville, Illinois, using Sears house-building kits, which included all the tools and nails ... and the kitchen sink. With the rise of the Internet and the need to move quickly on competitive pricing changes, the catalog had outgrown its real usefulness by the 1990s and was costing the company millions of dollars a year. When Sears, Roebuck and Co. announced that they would end production of the Big Book, there was a spike in orders from the catalog's lifelong patrons who would mourn its passing.

It's the birthday of poet Robert Burns (books by this author), born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He farmed, worked as a tax collector, and wrote poems. And he spent more than a decade gathering traditional Scottish folk songs, humming the airs and making sheet music out of the tunes, and writing lyrics to a lot of the tunes, as well.

He went about songwriting in a very ritualistic manner, making sure that his mood was right and his Muse was present. Before he started making up words to go with a folk tune, he said he tried hard to discern the "poetic sentiment" that would correspond to the "idea of the musical expression" of the tune. He would ponder this for a while, and then he would write the first stanza, which was always the hardest part. After that, he would get up from his desk, go outside, walk around, sit on the ground sometimes, and look for things in nature that he said would be "in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom." And he would hum whatever tune he was working on.

Then, when he could feel his Muse starting "to jade," he'd go back to his desk and start writing furiously while rocking back and forth on the back legs of his chair — swinging at intervals that matched for him the rhythm of the song he was trying to write out.

He composed hundreds of songs and poems. Among his most famous are "Auld Lang Syne," "A Red, Red Rose," "Ae Fond Kiss," "Tam O'Shanter," "To a Mouse," "A Man's a Man for A' That," and "The Battle of Sherramuir."

It's the birthday of author William Somerset Maugham (books by this author), born in Paris, France (1874). He wrote the novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and Of Human Bondage (1915), about Philip Carey — a sensitive, orphaned boy born with a clubfoot, who is raised by a religious aunt and uncle, and eventually falls into a doomed love affair with a lady named Mildred. Maugham wrote, "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."

It's the birthday of Virginia Woolf (books by this author), born Virginia Stephen in London, England (1882). Her father was the editor of a popular series of reference books, The Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf later said that she had been cramped in the womb by the weight of those heavy volumes. From an early age, her father gave her access to his extensive library, and he taught her "to read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not." After the death of both her parents, she moved with her siblings into the unfashionable — and cheap — neighborhood of Bloomsbury, which soon became the literary and intellectual center of England. Woolf's brother hosted evening meetings that came to include D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and others. Woolf suffered most of her life from bouts of depression, and one doctor prescribed long walks as a remedy. It was on these walks that she conceived of many of her novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). These novels employed a new brand of stream of consciousness, distinct from James Joyce and others. She said, "On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points."

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