Jan. 8, 2006


by Fleur Adcock

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Poem: "Things" by Fleur Adcock from Poems: 1960-2000. © Bloodaxe Books. Reprinted with permission.


There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
there are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet and novelist John Neihardt, born near Sharpsburg, Illinois (1881). He moved to Nebraska in 1901 where he became fascinated with the Native Americans he met. His book of five epic poems, A Cycle of the West, begun in 1912 and published in 1942, was an account of the death of Crazy Horse and the Battle of Little Big Horn. His most famous work, based on on-person interviews, is Black Elk Speaks (1931).

It's the birthday of Elvis Presley, born in Tupelo, Mississippi (1935). He learned to play the guitar when he was twelve but never really learned to read music. He just knew how to mimic what he heard. He loved all kinds of music and his friends said that he could reproduce perfectly almost anything he heard on the radio.

But he'd grown up in a strictly religious family and his favorite music was gospel. He sang in his local church choir and later took his girlfriend to see local gospel performances. She later said that she was embarrassed by how he would sing along with the performers.

He had no clear ambition to become a professional musician. After high school he got a job as a truck driver for the Crown Electric Company and he began studying to become an electrician. His career as a recording artist only came about because of his love for his mother.

At the time, the Sun Record Company had a special recording studio where anyone could come in and pay a small fee to record personal records for themselves. In the summer of 1953 Elvis scraped together four dollars to record two songs, "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin" as a present for his mother. When the woman at the front desk asked him what kind of a singer he was he said, "I sing all kinds." She asked him who he sounded like and he said, "I don't sound like nobody."

The recording engineer that day liked Elvis's voice and somehow those recordings made their way into the hands of producer Sam Philips who specialized in recording "hillbilly music." Philips called Elvis back into the studio to see if he might have some real talent. Elvis sang a few slow ballads, which were his favorite songs to sing, and Sam Philips wasn't too impressed. And then, in between takes, Elvis and the other musicians started fooling around and singing a blues tune called "That's All Right, Mama." Sam Phillips asked them to start over from the beginning and recorded the song. He then rushed the record to the biggest DJ in Memphis.

When Elvis found out that the song, which he considered a joke, would be on the radio, he was so embarrassed that he hid in a local movie theater until his parents made him come home. That night the DJ in Memphis played Elvis's new song on the radio for the first time, and he received forty-seven phone calls and seventeen telegrams asking to play the song again. In the following week Memphis stores sold some 6,000 copies of the record. A few weeks later Elvis sang the song at a local music show at an outdoor park. He was extremely nervous while singing the song and started shaking his leg in rhythm to the music. The girls in the audience went crazy.

Elvis went on to record 149 songs that made the top 100 in the Billboard's pop charts including "Heartbreak Hotel," "Hound Dog," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Are you Lonesome Tonight?"

Elvis Presley said, "Some people tap their feet, some people snap their fingers, and some people sway back and forth. I just sorta do 'em all together, I guess."

It's the birthday of physicist Stephen Hawking, born in Oxford, England (1942). He went to Oxford University but never attended lectures. He was bored with most of his classes because they seemed too easy and it was only after an oral exam that his professors realized how smart he was. He had went on to get a Ph.D. and he was just starting to find his courses interesting when he was diagnosed with ALS, a disease that slowly destroys a persons ability to move any part of their body, while leaving the brain itself unharmed. His doctors gave him a life expectancy of two to three years.

At first Hawking was utterly depressed and considered giving up on everything. But then his condition seemed to stabilize and he got engaged to one of his classmates. He said, "[I realized that] if we were to get married, I had to get a job. And to get a job, I had to finish my Ph.D. I started working hard for the first time in my life. To my surprise, I found I liked it."

Hawking decided to focus his studies on the mysterious astronomical objects known as black holes and he developed new theories about how they function and what role they may have played in the origin of the universe.

In 1988, Hawking decided to sum up all the research on physics and astronomy in a book for nonscientists called A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988). His publishers told him that in order for the book to be successful he had to avoid math altogether. They estimated that he would reduce his readership by fifty percent for every mathematical equation he included. So he included only one: E=MC2. A Brief History of Time went on to sell almost 10 million copies.

Stephen Hawking said, "[Human beings] are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special."

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




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