Friday Dec. 2, 2016

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Home Town

Peace on my little town, a speck in the safe,
            comforting, impersonal immensity of Kansas.
Benevolence like a gentle haze on its courthouse
            (the model of Greek pillars to me)
            on its quiet little bombshell of a library,
            on its continuous, hidden, efficient sewer system.

Sharp, amazed, steadfast regard on its more upright citizenry,
            my nosy, incredible, delicious neighbors.

Haunting invasion of a train whistle to my friends,
            moon-gilding, regular breaths of the old memories to them—
            the old whispers, old attempts, old beauties, ever new.

Peace on my little town, haze-blessed, sun-friended,
            dreaming sleepy days under the world-champion sky.

“Home Town” by William Stafford from Another World Instead. © Graywolf Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Elizabeth Berg (1948) born in St. Paul, Minnesota (books by this author). She submitted her first poem to a magazine when she was nine years old. The magazine was American Girl, and the poem was rejected. It took her 25 years to work up the courage to write again. She worked as a registered nurse for 10 years, and one day, she entered an essay contest for Parents magazine and won. She wrote pieces for magazines for the next 10 years, and moved on to novels. Her first, Durable Goods, was published in 1993 and she currently writes about one book a year. Her most recent novel is Tapestry of Fortunes (2013).

Today is the birthday of author George Saunders (1958) (books by this author). He was born in Amarillo, Texas, and grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He always wanted to be a writer, but he viewed college as a place to learn a trade, so he majored in geophysical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. His engineering background gave him a taste for functionality and efficiency in prose as well. “I really like lean prose,” he said, “stuff that just does what it’s supposed to and gets out of there.” He’s written several short stories and novellas, and his most recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is due out in 2017.

It’s the birthday of the artist Georges Seurat, born in Paris in 1859. He painted huge canvases with tiny dots of many colors, and this technique became known as Pointillism. His most famous painting is Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which took him about two years to paint.

Today is the birthday of the Hungarian-born American engineer Peter Carl Goldmark, born in Budapest (1906). He became a naturalized American citizen in 1937, not long after he was hired by the Columbia Broadcasting System Laboratory. At CBS, he began working on a prototype for color television. By 1940, he had a working model of his “field sequential system,” which used a rotating, three-color disk. Development was interrupted during World War II, but after the war, the Federal Communications Commission approved his system for commercial use.

The only trouble with Goldmark’s system for color TV was that it didn’t work with the black-and-white televisions that were already in people’s homes. If you wanted to impress your neighbors with color TV, you had to buy a special adapter. His invention was left behind when a competitor came up with a method that worked with existing televisions, but Goldmark’s system was still used for many years in closed-circuit cameras, medical institutions, and in scientific settings — including the Apollo mission to the moon — because his color cameras were smaller and lighter than the alternative.

In the early 1960s, Goldmark developed an electronic video recording system, or EVR, which paved the way the development of the VCR. The “powers that be” at CBS were alarmed at the idea of people recording things in their homes, because they worried it would hurt their business. They would only allow Goldmark to demonstrate and market his EVR as an industrial and educational device, and he eventually abandoned the project in 1970 due to lack of support.

One of his inventions stood the test of time, however, and that was the long-playing record. Goldmark found a new, more flexible material for records, and then he made the grooves narrower, so that he could fit the equivalent of six 78 rpm records onto one 33-1/3 rpm LP. Long-playing records became the industry standard, and they maintained that status until compact discs became popular in the 1980s. Their longer playing time made it easier for people to listen to classical music at home. The development of the LP also gave rise to multitrack record albums, which revolutionized the music business.

Today is the birthday of American novelist and essayist Ann Patchett (1963) (books by this author), best known for her novel Bel Canto (2002), which begins with 57 men, 18 terrorists, and an opera singer holed up in a Peruvian mansion. It was inspired by the four-month-long, 1996 Peruvian hostage crisis. About the novel’s grand scope, Patchett says, “I’d always heard that melodrama is a bad thing in a novel, so I thought, what if I go all in?”

Patchett was born in Los Angeles, California. Her father was a respected member of the Los Angeles Police Department who was instrumental in catching Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson. Her parents divorced and Patchett’s mother remarried, moving Patchett to Nashville at the age of six. She always wanted to be a writer and says, “A deep, early love of poetry should be mandatory for all writers.” She married at 24 and was divorced by 25, an experience she writes about in her essay collection, The Story of a Happy Marriage (2013).

Growing up, Patchett and her sister fancied visiting a small bookstore in Nashville called Mills. Patchett says, “The people there remembered who you were and what you read, even if you were 10.” She never forgot about Mills, especially when, on whim, she decided to open her own independent bookstore in Nashville after two large chain stores closed. She and her business partner opened the store in a former tanning salon and called it Parnassus, after Mount Parnassus, which in Greek mythology is the home of literature, learning, and music.

Her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), about a home for unwed mothers, was originally written as her graduate thesis for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She’s since written several other novels, including The Magician’s Assistant (1997), Run (2007), State of Wonder (2011), and her latest book, Commonwealth (2016), which she based on her life growing up with four step-siblings. She dedicated Commonwealth to her stepfather, who always told her, “Someday I’m going to open up one of your books and the dedication is going to say, ‘To Mike Glasscock.’”

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