Saturday

Dec. 31, 2011

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
for even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

"53" by E.E. Cummings, from 100 Selected Poems. © Grove Press, 1954. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is New Year's Eve, in which the old year is ushered out, and the new one welcomed in, with parties, socializing, and alcohol — often champagne. In the United States, we have a tradition of dropping, or raising, a large object exactly at midnight. The custom of dropping a ball arose out of the time signals given to ships at harbor starting in 1859. A large ball was dropped exactly at one p.m. every day (noon in the United States), so sailors could check their ship chronometers.

The Times Square celebration dates back to 1904, when The New York Times opened its headquarters on Longacre Square. The newspaper convinced the city to rename the area "Times Square," and they hosted a big party, complete with fireworks, on New Year's Eve. Two hundred thousand people attended, but the paper's owner, Adolph Ochs, wanted the next celebration to be even splashier. In 1907, the paper's head electrician constructed a giant lighted ball that was lowered from the building's flagpole. The first Times Square Ball was made of wood and iron, weighed 700 pounds, and was lit by a hundred 25-watt bulbs. Now, it's made of Waterford crystal, weighs almost six tons, and is lit by more than 32,000 LED lights. The party in Times Square is attended by up to a million people every year.

Other cities have developed their own ball-dropping traditions. Atlanta, Georgia, drops a giant peach. Eastport, Maine, drops a sardine. Ocean City, Maryland, drops a beach ball, and Mobile, Alabama, drops a 600-pound electric Moon Pie. In Tempe, Arizona, a giant tortilla chip descends into a massive bowl of salsa. Brasstown, North Carolina, drops a Plexiglas pyramid containing a live possum; and Key West, Florida, drops an enormous ruby slipper with a drag queen inside it.

In Scotland, New Year's Eve marks the first day of Hogmanay, a name derived from an Old French word for a gift given at the New Year. There's a tradition at Hogmanay known as "first-footing": If the first person to cross your threshold after midnight is a dark-haired man, you will have good luck in the coming year. Other customs vary by region within Scotland, but most involve singing and whiskey. Craig Ferguson said Hogmanay "is a time when people who can inspire awe in the Irish for the amount of alcohol that they drink decide to ramp it up a notch."

It's the birthday of painter Henri Matisse (1869), born in Le Cateau, France. As a child and a young man, he had no interest in art. He went to law school in Paris and never visited a single museum. Had it not been for a case of appendicitis, he might never have become an artist. Bedridden for several weeks during his recovery, he took up painting as a way to pass the time. It was a revelation. He said, "For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone ... carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man." At 22, he quit the law to begin work as a full-time artist. He was a revolutionary who dressed like a bourgeois, and he once said, "It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else."

Thomas Edison demonstrated his first incandescent light bulb on this date in 1879. Edison didn't invent the light bulb — incandescent lights had been around for almost 40 years — but he was the first come up with a practical, long-burning design. He realized he was on the right track by the end of October, when he tested a carbonized filament inside a glass vacuum bulb, which produced a light that burned for more than 13 hours. He kept fiddling with it and modifying it, and each version burned a little bit longer than the one before it; by the time he was ready to reveal it to the public, his bulb was burning for 40 hours.

After 14 months of testing, 1,200 experiments, and $40,000, he was finally ready for his first public demonstration. He hung strings of lights inside his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and switched them on and off repeatedly, to the awe and delight of his 3,000 spectators. He said, "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles."

It's the birthday of Odetta, born Odetta Holmes Filious, in Birmingham, Alabama (1930).

Today is the birthday of Junot Díaz (books by this author), born in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic (1968); he moved to New Jersey when he was six years old. In 1996, he published Drown, a collection of short stories that are linked by their young narrator, Yunior. He wanted to write a novel next, but he got stuck. "It wasn't that I couldn't write. I wrote every day," he wrote. "I actually worked really hard at writing. At my desk by 7 A.M., would work a full eight and more. Scribbled at the dinner table, in bed, on the toilet, on the No. 6 train, at Shea Stadium. I did everything I could. But none of it worked. My novel, which I had started with such hope shortly after publishing my first book of stories, wouldn't budge past the 75-page mark. Nothing I wrote past page 75 made any kind of sense."

His first novel — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) — won the Pulitzer Prize.

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

 









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