Oct. 17, 2014

Six Cheerful Couplets on Death

by Michael Blumenthal

Most things won't happen, Larkin said,
But this one will: We will be dead.

The saddest thing, in each context,
Is knowing that we could be next.

Some take the bus, some take the train,
Some die in sleep, the rest in pain

But of one thing we can be sure:
All die imperfect, each impure

Some wishing that they had been better,
Others worse, but no one deader.

Shoes left, like Buddhists, at the door:
Those won't be needed anymore.

"Six Cheerful Couplets on Death" by Michael Blumenthal, from No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012. © Etruscan Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1604, Johannes Kepler witnessed the last supernova observed in the Milky Way. Kepler had figured out the laws of planetary motion, and he knew the night sky very well, so he was surprised to see a very bright object in the western sky one night. Kepler thought he was witnessing the birth of a star, but a supernova is actually an explosion that signals the star's death. The exploding star had first been noted in northern Italy about a week before, but Kepler, who lived in Prague, was unable to see it until October 17, due to cloudy weather. He began studying it in earnest, recording observations of it for more than a year. The supernova was so bright that it was visible during the day for three weeks. The telescope wouldn't be invented for a few more years, so all of Kepler's observations were made by the naked eye. He eventually wrote a book about it, which he called De Stella Nova (1606). In the book, he compared the supernova to the Star of Bethlehem, and wondered if it might convert the American Indians to Christianity.

Though astronomers have since observed several supernovae in other galaxies, this one — known as SN 1604, Kepler's Supernova, or Kepler's Star — is the last supernova observed by the naked eye in our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Kepler's Supernova was closer to the center of the spiral galaxy, less than 20,000 light years away from our location out on one of the arms. Scientists estimate that supernovae occur in the Milky Way roughly every 50 years, but there is no observational record of them. Cosmic dust obscures our view.

Astronomers are still studying the supernova's remnants with the help of NASA's three Great Observatories: the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. The shockwave of gas and dust is still spreading through space at a speed of 400 million miles per hour. In 2013, astronomers completed their post-mortem of the star, and determined its cause of death. Two stars — a binary system — were orbiting around each other. The smaller of the two — a white dwarf — began to accumulate matter from the larger star, a red giant. The white dwarf became heavier and heavier until it could no longer support its own mass, and burned up in a spectacular explosion.

It's the birthday of playwright Arthur Miller (books by this author), born in New York City (1915). He was the child of Jewish immigrants who owned a garment manufacturing business, and he lived in comfort — the Millers had a spacious apartment, a summer home, and a chauffeur. But they lost their money in the Depression and moved into a decrepit house in Brooklyn, on the same street as several aunts and uncles. Arthur's uncle Manny Newman was a loud, arrogant salesman who compared Arthur unfavorably to his own sons, who were more handsome and athletic. Miller wrote: "When I stopped by I always had to expect some kind of insinuation of my entire life's probable failure [...] But this did not diminish the lure and mystery with which my mind unaccountably surrounded the Newmans. I could never approach their little house without the expectation that something extraordinary was about to happen in there, some sexual lewdness, perhaps, or an amazing revelation of some other kind."

During his sophomore year at the University of Michigan, Miller entered a playwriting contest because there was a cash prize. He didn't know anything about playwriting but he submitted a play called No Villain, and he won the prize, almost $250. The next year he changed his major to English and began working seriously on his writing. After graduation, he was hired by the Federal Theater Project, and eventually he began to see his own plays performed.

At the age of 33, Miller spent six weeks writing a play with a main character named Willy Loman, based on his Uncle Manny. Death of a Salesman (1948) was a huge success, winning major awards and running for more than 700 performances. His other plays include All My Sons (1946), The Crucible (1953), A View From the Bridge (1955), and Finishing the Picture (2005).

He said, "The American Dream is the largely unacknowledged screen in front of which all American writing plays itself out."

It's the birthday of Nathanael West (books by this author), born Nathan Weinstein in New York City (1903). He was managing a hotel in New York City when he met a woman who wrote an advice column for the paper. She showed him a few of the letters she had gotten from readers. She thought he'd find them funny; instead, he was heartbroken at how desperate these people were. He wrote his first novel, Miss Loneyhearts, which came out in 1933, about an advice columnist overwhelmed by the sadness of the people who write to him. The book got great reviews, but within weeks, the publishing house went bankrupt.

He said: "Feeling is of the heart and nerves and the crudeness of its expression has nothing to do with its intensity."

It's the birthday of Jimmy Breslin (books by this author), born in Jamaica, New York (1930). He wrote The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1969) and The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez. He has written for New York newspapers all his life. He said: "All the news business starts with your feet. In New York City, no story happens under the fourth floor." He said that journalists used to go to the bar and listen to the old-timers tell stories, but now "they all go to health clubs and then go home. They're in fantastic health, but they wish they were in the bar, and their wives wish they were in the bar, too."

Today is the 25th anniversary of 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake. It struck the San Francisco Bay at 5:04 p.m., during the televised warm-up to Game Three of the World Series between the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants; as a result, it was the first earthquake in the United States whose opening shocks were broadcast on live television. The earthquake reached a magnitude of 6.9 on the Richter scale, occurred as two plates slipped along the San Andreas Fault, and lasted about 10 to 15 seconds. There were 63 fatalities; that number likely would have been closer to 300, had it not been for the World Series. Many people had left work early, or were otherwise parked in front of televisions at a time when they usually would have been crowding the freeways and bridges.

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




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