Jan. 8, 2009

Unfortunate Location

by Louis Jenkins

In the front yard there are three big white pines, older
than anything in the neighborhood except the stones.
Magnificent trees that toss their heads in the wind
like the spirited black horses of a troika. It's hard to
know what to do, tall dark trees on the south side of
the house, an unfortunate location, blocking the
winter sun. Dark and damp. Moss grows on the roof,
the porch timbers rot and surely the roots have
reached the old bluestone foundation. At night, in
the wind, a tree could stumble and fall killing us in
our beds. The needles fall year after year making an
acid soil where no grass grows. We rake the fallen
debris, nothing to be done, we stand around with
sticks in our hands. Wonderful trees.

"Unfortunate Location" by Louis Jenkins, from All Tangled Up with the Living. © Nineties Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Elvis Presley, born in Tupelo, Mississippi (1935). When he was 18, working as a truck driver, he wanted to give his mom a gift, so he stopped by the Memphis Recording Service, where you could record your own songs for a small fee. He had four dollars, and with that money he was able to record two songs: "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin." The Memphis Recording Service was also the home of Sun Records, and Elvis caught the attention of owner Sam Phillips, who called the young truck driver back in to see if he had any real talent.

It's the birthday of physicist Stephen Hawking, (books by this author) born in Oxford, England, in 1942. He was at Cambridge, working on his Ph.D., when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. He spent a few months brooding over it, and then realized that he might as well be productive, since he was still alive and doing all right. So he focused his research on the mysterious astronomical objects known as black holes, and he developed new theories about how they function and what role they might have played in the origin of the universe. Stephen Hawking has spent his life pursuing a Theory of Everything. He said: "My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all." He wrote a book for non-science readers, called A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988). It has sold more than 10 million copies.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist John Neihardt, (books by this author) born near Sharpsburg, Illinois (1881). He grew up in Kansas and Nebraska. He went to college, became a schoolteacher, and moved to a town in Nebraska on the edge of the Omaha reservation. In 1912, he began a huge project, a series of epic poems called A Cycle of the West. It was a history of the West, from the arrival of the first European trappers through the death of Crazy Horse and the Battle of Little Big Horn.

While he was doing research for this project, he met the Oglala holy man Black Elk, a survivor of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Black Elk agreed to be interviewed, and that turned into a series of conversations between the two men, and John Neihardt published Black Elk's story as Black Elk Speaks (1932).

It's the birthday of the poet Francisco González Bocanegra, (books by this author) born in 1824 in San Luis Potosí, Mexico. In November of 1853, the president of Mexico announced a nationwide contest to write the lyrics for the national anthem. But even though he was a poet, Bocanegra wasn't interested in the contest. So his fiancée, Guadalupe, locked him in a bedroom at the back of her parents' house and told him that she wouldn't open the door until he had written the lyrics. Four hours later, he had written 10 verses to "Mexicanos, al Grito de Guerra" ("Mexicans, at the Cry of Battle"). He pushed the paper under the door, his fiancée let him out, he submitted the poem, and it won the contest by unanimous vote. A shortened version of it is still used today as the national anthem.

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