Thursday Jan. 7, 2016

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There was the one who walked into a river
with her pockets full of stones and the one
who started her car with the garage door closed,
determined to drive herself elsewhere.
The youngest went into the kitchen
and placed her head where she had
so often placed chickens or hams.
These were the women whose voices
I carried in my backpacks, whose books
moved with me from one city to another
and, one day, I realized I had outlived
all of them. I was sad that they could
not describe the other world,
that they offered no map to old age.
Was it dangerous to write? I began
to walk more carefully beside rivers,
to eat cold food, to let someone else
back the car out of the driveway.

“Suicides” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the celebration of Christmas in the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar and was widespread in the Western Christian world until the Gregorian calendar was introduced in the 16th century. Most of the world adopted the Gregorian calendar, and the Julian calendar fell out of favor, but the Orthodox Church still follows it. These days, the Julian calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar — in 2100 that will change, and it will be 14 days behind — so for now, Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.

It was on this day in 1789 that the United States held its first presidential election. The Articles of Confederation had been ratified back in 1781, and established a President of Congress. But there was no defined executive branch of government, and the president did not have much power. The first president, John Hanson, found the job so boring that he barely made it through his one-year term.

In 1788, the Constitution was ratified, which established an expanded role for the president. For the first election, there were no political parties and no campaigns. Almost everybody wanted George Washington for the job — with the exception of Washington himself, who wanted nothing more than to retire in peace and quiet. He wrote to Alexander Hamilton: “I should unfeignedly rejoice, in case the Electors, by giving their votes to another person would save me from the dreaded dilemma of being forced to accept or refuse [...] I call Heaven to witness, that this very act would be the greatest sacrifice of my personal feelings and wishes that ever I have been called upon to make.” He wrote to Hamilton that he felt surrounded by darkness and clouds, and to another friend that he felt like a convict going to his execution.

The election on this day wasn’t exactly a decision as to who would become president, but voters decided on electors to officially cast their votes. The turnout was very small. Only white men with property could vote, and of the 3 million people in America, 600,000 were slaves, and many more were women or men who did not own property; in the end, fewer than 39,000 people voted, or 1.3 percent of the population. The winter made travel difficult, so it wasn’t until April that the roads cleared up enough that a quorum of legislators could get to the capitol. When they finally did, Washington was declared the unanimous winner, and he was inaugurated at the end of April.

It’s the birthday of the man most responsible for reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (books by this author), born in Luzhki, part of the Russian Empire (1858). He wanted to make sure that Jewish people from around the world could communicate with each other. Though children from Jewish families often learned some Hebrew at Hebrew school, at the time no one on earth spoke modern Hebrew at home as a first language. Many European Jews spoke Russian or Yiddish, a Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet.

Ben-Yehuda felt that reviving the Hebrew language was firmly intertwined with the creation of a Jewish homeland, which did not yet exist. He raised his child to be the first native speaker of modern Hebrew, and he’s the author of first modern Hebrew dictionary. Today, modern Hebrew is spoken by more than 7 million people in Israel. It’s one of Israel’s two official languages. The other is Arabic.

On this date in 1610, Galileo wrote a letter describing his discovery of three of Jupiter’s moons. He had recently made some improvements to his telescope, and he discovered them in December. He wasn’t entirely sure they were moons, at first; he thought they were fixed stars. As he continued to observe them over the next few months, a fourth celestial body appeared, and he realized that they were actually orbiting the giant planet. Since most people at that time still believed in the Ptolemaic theory that the Earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around us, it was an important discovery. It went a long way toward confirming Copernicus’s controversial theory that the Earth went around the sun and not the other way around, something that Galileo believed as well.

Galileo had been the math tutor for the wealthy and powerful Cosimo de’ Medici a few years earlier, and in 1609, his former student became Grand Duke Cosimo II. Galileo took the opportunity to curry favor with his former employers by calling the moons Medicea Sidera, or Medicean Stars. A rival astronomer, Simon Marius, discovered the moons at about the same time, and he named them after four of Zeus’s mythological lovers. Marius’s names stuck, and today we know the moons as Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

It’s possible that neither Galileo nor Marius was the first astronomer to discover that Jupiter had moons. In 362 B.C., a Chinese astronomer named Gan De observed a small, reddish “star” near Jupiter, and that may have been Ganymede.

It’s the birthday of the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker (books by this author), born in New York City (1957). He started out wanting to be a musician, and was good enough at the bassoon that he got into the Eastman School of Music. He planned to become a composer, and then one day he saw his mother laughing uncontrollably at a New York Times Book Review essay on golf by the writer John Updike. Baker later wrote, “[My mother’s laughter] was miraculous, sourced in the nowhere of print. [...] Nothing is more impressive than the sight of a complex person suddenly ripping out a laugh over some words in a serious book or periodical.”

At that moment, Baker decided that instead of becoming a composer, he wanted to be a writer. He supported himself as an office temp and a technical writer, and spent years trying to produce a novel, but he had a terrible time with plot. So he wrote a novel with almost no plot at all, just details about ordinary life that he’d been thinking about for years. And the result was The Mezzanine (1988), an entire novel that takes place during an office worker’s lunch hour, while he travels to a store to buy a new shoelace.

Baker has gone on to write a book about his obsession with John Updike, U and I: A True Story (1991), and a novel about a single erotic phone conversation between two strangers, called Vox (1992). His most recent novel, Traveling Sprinkler, came out in 2013.

It’s the birthday of novelist Zora Neale Hurston (books by this author), born on this day in Notasulga, Alabama (1891). In January of 1925, Hurston arrived in New York City. A month earlier, she had published her first short story in the New York-based Opportunity magazine, and the editor, Charles Johnson, had sent her such a supportive letter that Hurston decided to leave Washington, D.C., and move to Harlem. She arrived, she said, “with $1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope.” She was 34 years old, but claimed to be 24.

Once she got to New York, Hurston’s one connection was Johnson. He and his wife helped Hurston with transportation and made her home-cooked meals, and he encouraged her to enter the magazine’s annual literary contest. Hurston won a second-place award for fiction, second place for drama, and two honorable mentions. The award ceremony was in May of 1925, just four months after Hurston’s arrival in New York City. At the crowded party following the ceremony, Hurston walked into the room, tossed a scarf over her shoulder, and yelled out the name of her second-place-winning play, Color Struck. By the time she left the party, she had befriended a number of important patrons and literary figures, including Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, who would become her friends and peers. Also at the party, she met a woman who was a founding trustee of Barnard College; the trustee was so charmed by Hurston that she offered her admission and a scholarship to Barnard, where Hurston enrolled that fall.

Hurston went on to write novels, short stories, drama, and anthropology. Her books include Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), and Dust Tracks on a Road (1942).

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