Nov. 9, 2011
Just in case.
It's over there.
Because you have to have at least one.
The part I read the most
is the inscription
to my wife's grandmother.
I imagine God at a book signing,
signing her copy,
"Dear Eva, thanks for worshipping."
But mainly I consider when
she may have held it in her hands:
a few times at church,
a couple of confused moments in the bedroom,
and one strange time after mass
when she walked to the grocery store
and set it for a few seconds
on a stack of apples
while she inspected the bananas for bruises.
It's the birthday of Carl Sagan (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1934), who created the TV show "Cosmos", which is still the most popular science program ever produced for television. He was a young astronomer advising NASA on a mission to send remote-controlled spacecrafts to Venus, when he learned that the spacecrafts would carry no cameras, because the other scientists considered cameras to be excess weight. Sagan couldn't believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He lost the argument that time, but it's largely thanks to him that cameras were used on the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo missions, giving us the first real photographs of planets like Jupiter and Saturn and their moons.
Sagan also persuaded NASA engineers to turn the Voyager I spacecraft around on Valentine's Day in 1990, so that it could take a picture of Earth from the very edge of our solar system, about 4 billion miles away. In the photograph, Earth appears as a tiny bluish speck. Sagan later wrote of the photograph, "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives... [on] a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."
He actually never used the phrase "billions and billions of stars," which is often attributed to him, but Billions and Billions is the title of his last collection of essays, which came out in 1997, the year after he died.
Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when German Nazis coordinated a nationwide attack on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. The attack was inspired by the murder of a German diplomat by a Jew in Paris. When Hitler heard the news, he got the idea to stage a mass uprising in response. He and Joseph Goebbels contacted storm troopers around the country, and told them to attack Jewish buildings but to make the attacks look like spontaneous demonstrations. The police were told not to interfere with the demonstrators, but instead to arrest the Jewish victims. Fire fighters were told only to put out fires in any adjacent Aryan properties. Everyone cooperated.
In all, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned or destroyed. Rioters looted about 7,500 Jewish businesses and vandalized Jewish hospitals, homes, schools, and cemeteries. Many of the attackers were neighbors of the victims. The Nazis confiscated any compensation claims that insurance companies paid to Jews. They also imposed a huge collective fine on the Jewish community for having supposedly incited the violence. The event was used to justify barring Jews from schools and most public places, and forcing them to adhere to new curfews. In the days following, thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps.
The event was called Kristallnacht, which means, "Night of Broken Glass." It's generally considered the official beginning of the Holocaust. Before that night, the Nazis had killed people secretly and individually. After Kristallnacht, the Nazis felt free to persecute the Jews openly, because they knew no one would stop them.
On this day in 1989, the leader of the East German Communist party made a quiet announcement that the Berlin Wall would be opened for "private trips abroad." Within days, millions of East Germans flooded into West Berlin, and citizens began to pull the wall to pieces. Fireworks went off, people from all over Europe jammed the checkpoints and drank champagne, and the East German police and the West German police traded caps.
It's the birthday of poet Anne Sexton (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1928). Her books include The Starry Night (1961), Live or Die (1966), The Book of Folly (1972), and The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975). She said, "I wonder if the artist ever lives his life — he is so busy recreating it. Only as I write do I realize myself. I don't know what that does to life."
It's the birthday of Irish playwright Hugh Leonard (books by this author), born John Joseph Byrne in Dublin (1926). His mother gave him up for adoption; he was raised by the Keyes family and went by John Keyes Byrne. Hugh Leonard was a pen name — he first made it up as the name for a character, Hughie Leonard, in one of his first plays. After the Abbey Theatre rejected the play, he started using it as his pen name.
His plays include Stephen D (1962), based on novels by James Joyce; The Poker Session (1964), The Au Pair Man (1974), and A Life (1981). He is most famous for his autobiographical play Da (1973), about a playwright who goes back to Ireland to make funeral arrangements for his adopted father, a gardener. When Da came to Broadway, it won numerous awards, including the Tony Award for Best Play. It was made into a film in 1988 starring Bernard Hughes and Martin Sheen.
Leonard also wrote a regular newspaper column. He mostly did book or theater reviews, with some restaurant reviews, and plenty of gossip. He called one prominent theater critic "a diarrheal horse's backside" and another "an incubus." He wrote of George Bernard Shaw's play Arms and the Man: "Shaw's methods were those of a lunatic chef. In act one, he poured half of his ingredients into the cooking pot; in act two, he added the other half and gave the mixture a stir; and in act three, instead of serving the dish, he turned off the gas and sat around telling the diners how delicious it was."
He said, "In Ireland comedy seems to be suspect; if it is accessible it is deemed shallow. If your work is liked, something must be wrong; he's not boring, so he must be slight."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®