Tuesday Nov. 25, 2014

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The place your parents brought you straight
from the hospital, where you spent
those endless years of grade-
school. Or maybe it’s the place
where you raised your own
children, where you were never alone.
The place you retreat to after the divorce,
or when circumstances force
you to go there. According to Frost,
they have to—but you know the rest.

Who can say for how many weeks
after moving you will lie awake,
staring at the clock-radio, before
you stop listening for the pre-dawn roar
of traffic down your former street—
before the word begins to rise from deep
inside somewhere as you approach
the yellow blinker at Main and Oak,
which, like the porch light your mother
flicked off and on when you and your first lover
were parked at the darkest edge of the lawn,
reminds you where you belong.

"Home" by Sue Ellen Thompson, from They. © Turning Point Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of American steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, born in Dunfermline, Scotland (1835), the son of a weaver and political radical. His father instilled in young Andrew the values of political and economic equality, but his family's poverty taught Carnegie a different lesson. At the age of 12, the boy worked as a milkhand for $1.20 per week. When the Carnegies immigrated to America in 1848, Carnegie was determined to find prosperity. One of the pioneers of industry of 19th-century America, Andrew Carnegie helped build the American steel industry, which turned him into one of the richest entrepreneurs of his age.

In 1868, at age 33, Carnegie wrote himself a memo in which he questioned his chosen career, a life of business. He kept the letter for his entire life, carefully preserving it in his files. In the memo, he vowed to retire from business within two years, believing that the further pursuit of wealth would degrade him. Carnegie eventually sold his steel business and gave his fortune away to cultural, educational, and scientific institutions for the improvement of mankind.

Over the course of his life, Andrew Carnegie endowed 2,811 libraries and many charitable foundations as well as the internationally famous Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He also bought 7,689 organs for churches. The purpose of the latter gift was, in Carnegie's words, "To lessen the pain of the sermons."

It's the birthday of baseball player Joe DiMaggio (1914) born in Martinez, California. Joe DiMaggio is remembered as one of baseball's most graceful athletes. Many consider his 56-consecutive-game hitting streak in 1941 as the top baseball feat of all time. He was nicknamed "The Yankee Clipper." In 13 seasons, he hit 361 homers, averaged 118 RBI annually and compiled a .325 lifetime batting mark. At Baseball's 1969 Centennial Celebration, he was named the game's greatest living player.

It's the birthday of the novelist Helen Hooven Santmyer (books by this author), born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1895). When she was five years old, she moved with her family to the small town of Xenia, Ohio, where she grew up. As a young girl, she was inspired by the Xenia Women's Club — an early feminist intellectual organization — to go off to New York and get a job as a secretary for Scribner's Magazine, where she met many writers, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But after a few years of living in New York City, and then studying at Oxford, she moved back to Xenia where she was elected to the membership of the Xenia Women's Club that she had so much admired as a little girl.

She was writing all the time and even published a few novels, but they had little success. It was only after her retirement that Santmyer began to delve into the history of her hometown, eventually writing a collection of essays called Ohio Town: A Portrait of Xenia (1962). Then she began an epic novel about a small-town women's group based on her own Women's Club of Xenia. The finished product ...And Ladies of the Club (1982) was more than 1,300 pages long. It was published by the Ohio State Press and sold about 300 copies.

The book sat on a few library shelves around Ohio, unread for the most part, until the mother of a Hollywood executive happened to read it and she passed it on to her son. He thought the book would make a good mini-series, so he bought the television and movie rights to the novel. It was reissued in a paperback and became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in 1985. Helen Hooven Santmyer had become a best-selling novelist and literary celebrity at the age of 88.

It's the birthday of physician and essayist Lewis Thomas (books by this author), born in Flushing, New York (1913). He's the author of The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher (1983), and Late Night Thoughts on Mahler's Ninth Symphony (1984).

When Thomas entered Princeton in 1929, his interest was biological research with the hope of increasing the effectiveness of treatment. His other great interest was the poetry of Pound and Eliot.

During World War II, Thomas did field research on typhus and encephalitis for the U.S. Navy. He landed with the Marines during the invasion of Okinawa carrying a special case full of laboratory white mice. After the war, he built up his academic credentials at various medical schools and eventually, in 1973, became president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York City, one of the world's largest facilities devoted to cancer research.

Now at the top of his profession, Thomas attained popular recognition for work of an entirely different sort. He had written or co-written more than 200 scientific articles, but it was his series of short essays that was receiving attention. His essays were loosely modeled on the essays of Montaigne. The series had been appearing on the back pages of The New England Journal of Medicine since 1971 as informal essays.

Thomas wrote late at night, quickly and without an outline, usually shortly after the deadline. He addressed his readers as friends in a conversation, not as scientific colleagues, and he included no reference notes at the end. His essays mix facts about the human body with personal meditation and thoughts about the connectedness of man and the universe.

In 1974, Viking Press collected 29 of the essays, exactly as they had appeared, in The Lives of a Cell, which was awarded the National Book Award in 1975, nominated in both the arts and the sciences categories but finally selected for arts and letters. Within five years, it had been translated into 11 languages and sold more than 250,000 copies.

Lewis Thomas said: "The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning."

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