Dec. 21, 2007

Orange Alert

by Kirsten Dierking

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Poem: "Orange Alert" by Kirsten Dierking, from Northern Oracle. © Spout Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Orange Alert

Today the sparrows are wheeling about,
starving after too many days
of sub-zero weather.

I go outside to fill the feeder.
I feel uneasy. The fate of all this
delicate life in the air above us.

Great oaks push their limbs
through gray sky. I raise my arms
high like branches, press against
the threat of storms.

A bird flies toward the window glass,
but turns aside at the last moment.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It is the birthday of novelist and journalist Dame Rebecca West, (books by this author) born Cicily Isabel Fairfield in London (1892). The author of The Return of the Soldier and Train of Powder, West had a 10-year love affair with the science fiction writer H.G. Wells and also had a romance with Hollywood movie star Charlie Chaplin. Her best-known book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a history of Yugoslavia, started out as a short piece that ended up exceeding 1,000 pages. World War II was at its worst when the book came out, and paper was being strictly rationed, but the publisher decided to print it anyway—they said they felt obliged to issue a book that so convincingly argued that the source World War II lay in the defeat of the Balkan Christians by the Ottoman Turks 550 years before.

On this day in 1968, Apollo 8 was launched from Cape Kennedy, Florida—the first manned mission of lunar orbit put the U.S. ahead of the Soviets in the race for the moon.

It is the birthday of the man who wrote the longest novel in the English language, Anthony Powell, (books by this author) born in London (1905). Despite being a successful author, he wrote his million-word book, A Dance to the Music of Time, on an ancient typewriter at a card table squeezed into his bedroom.

It's the birthday of rocker Frank Zappa. (music by this artist) The singer, songwriter, and composer was born in Baltimore, Maryland (1940). Zappa's father was a meteorologist in the Army who studied the effects of weather on explosions and poisonous gases. The gas masks and chemical paraphernalia his dad brought home were some of young Zappa's first toys. When Frank Zappa started playing atonal classical music on his electric guitar, he said that his goal was to make sounds that would cause people to run from the room the moment they heard it. He was also a political activist, and he once proposed that the United States form a fourth branch of government devoted entirely to creativity.

On this day in 1937, the movie that competitors called "Disney's Folly" premiered in Los Angeles, California. Walt Disney had put 750 animators on the payroll to make a feature-length cartoon that critics said would be too long for audiences to sit through. And he had mortgaged his house to invest in a new process called Technicolor, even though many believed the bright colors would only hurt people's eyes. Disney's own wife, Lillian, told him, "No one's ever gonna pay a dime to see a dwarf picture." Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs received a standing ovation on opening night, became the highest-grossing film of the year, and inspired studio MGM to make its own fantasy film, The Wizard of Oz.

It was on this day in 1913 that the very first crossword puzzle appeared in The New York World. It was the invention of journalist Arthur Wynne, who called it a "Word-Cross," but the typesetter made a mistake and printed the game as "Cross-Word" and the name stuck. London's puzzle in The Daily Telegraph for May 1944 is possibly the most famous crossword in history. Just before D-Day, the puzzle ran with the highly classified operation code names Utah, Omaha, Overlord, Mulberry, and Neptune as the answers to some of the clues. The incident was later investigated by England's department of Military Intelligence and ruled as a coincidence.

It is the birthday of screenwriter Francis Goodrich, born in Belleville, New Jersey (1890). She and her husband wrote screenplays for It's a Wonderful Life, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the Thin Man movies, detective stories about husband-and-wife team, Nick and Nora Charles. Goodrich and Hackett said they shared many similarities to the screen couple, except that they yelled at each other more. When they worked, each of them wrote a draft, and then they exchanged constructive criticism. That was where the yelling came in.

It's the birthday of Benjamin Disraeli, (books by this author) born in London (1804). He wrote critical works about educated society and about the plight of working poor, which were not well thought of at the time—Wordsworth called them "trashy"—but by the time his last novel, Endymion (1880), came out, he had made 10,000 pounds from them, a fortune at the time. He was a statesman, and a great orator, and when he was chosen Prime Minister after 50 years in politics, he worked to extend the power of the British Empire. He was both chivalrous and loyal, and Queen Victoria loved him. When a younger colleague asked him how he handled her, he said, "First of all, remember she is a woman." It was reputed he could make jokes on any subject. When somebody challenged him to tell a joke about the Queen, he replied, "Sir, Her Majesty is not a subject." Someone asked why he wrote novels, and he said that every so often he was overcome by the urge to read one, and, in order to have one at hand, he would write it himself.

It is the birthday of Joseph Stalin, born in the Russian colony of Georgia (1879). Stalin loved to sing, and he sang so well that he could have become a professional performer. He was also an avid reader, a fan of Zola, Hemingway, and James Fenimore Cooper. He loved Last of the Mohicans so much that sometimes he dressed up as an Indian to entertain guests at parties. But he banned these books from his country. He said, "Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don't allow our enemies to have guns, why should we allow them to have ideas?" It is estimated that Stalin killed more than 20 million people during his rule; he's responsible for more human deaths than anyone else in history.

It is the birthday of essayist Edward Hoagland, (books by this author) born in New York City (1932). For most of his life, he coped with a terrible stutter and became an obsessive walker in order to avoid awkward social confrontations. He also became a lover of animals, since they didn't require him to talk back, and he worked in the 1950s as a lion keeper for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Since the success of his novel Century Before: A Journal from British Columbia (1969), Hoagland has written personal essays about his thoughts on go-go dancers, jury duty, mountain lions, suicide, and the loss of his eyesight.

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