Feb. 3, 2006

Explaining Relativity to the Cat

by Jennifer Gresham

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Poem: "Explaining Relativity to the Cat" by Jennifer Gresham from Diary of a Cell. © Steel Toe Books. Reprinted with permission.n.

Explaining Relativity to the Cat

Imagine, if you will, three mice.
Contrary to what you have
heard, they are not blind
but are in a spaceship
traveling near the speed of light.    
This makes them unavailable
for your supper, yes.

So these mice, traveling near
the speed of light, appear
quite fat, though there is
no cheese aboard. This is
simply a distortion of mass,
because the mass of a mouse
is nothing more than a bundle
of light, and vice versa. I see
how this might imply mice
are in the light fixtures,
undoubtedly a problem, so
let me try again.
If two people attempted
to feed you simultaneously,
no doubt a good situation,
but you were on a train
traveling near the speed
of light, the food would
appear unappetizing, falling
to the plate in slow motion,
an extended glob of protein
that never smelled good,
if you ask me, train or no.
The affinity of the food
for the plate, what we call
gravity, is really just
a stretch in the fabric
of a space-time continuum,
what happens when you
have sat in a seat too long,
perhaps on this very train.

Oh kitty, I know how you hate
to travel and the journey must
have made you tired. Come now,
lick your coat one more time
 and let us make haste
 from this strange city
 of light and fantastic dream.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell, born in New York City (1894). He loved drawing from an early age and studied at the National Academy of Design. He had a hard time getting into the advertising business because he had a hard time drawing beautiful women. He said, "No matter how much I tried to make them look sexy, they always ended up looking ... like somebody's mother." So he focused on the Boy Scout magazine, Boy's Life, as well as the children's magazine St. Nicholas.

He stuck with childhood themes for a while, barely scraping by, until one of his friends suggested that he send one of his paintings to The Saturday Evening Post. He did, and they bought it. The first Norman Rockwell cover of the magazine appeared in May, 1916. He eventually became the most popular artist in America.

Unlike most modern artists, he never painted from real life straight to canvas. Instead, like the old masters, he hired models to pose for his scenes and spent weeks making sketches of his compositions before he finally started to paint.

Norman Rockwell said, "The commonplaces of America are to me the richest subjects in art. Boys battling flies on vacant lots; little girls playing jacks on the front steps; old men plodding home at twilight."

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Richard Yates, born in Yonkers, New York (1926). He spent his life struggling to pay the bills with teaching jobs, trying to find time to write. When he died in 1992 few of his books were still in print. But a group of writers, including Richard Ford, Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut, began to champion his work and they brought many of his novels back into print including Revolutionary Road (1961) and The Easter Parade (1976).

It's the birthday of the novelist James A. Michener, born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1907). Michener's plan was to get a Ph.D. in history and become a professor. But before he could finish that Ph.D. World War II broke out and he joined the Navy. It was in a Quonset hut that he began writing fiction for the first time, about his experiences as a military man. His first book, Tales of the South Pacific, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. It wouldn't have made him much money, but it was turned into the Broadway musical South Pacific and the proceeds from the musical let him devote his life to writing.

He went on to write a series of big historical novels, most of them about places, including Hawaii (1959), Chesapeake (1978), Alaska, and Texas (1985). He filled his books with historical and geographical details. Most of Michener's novels were best-sellers. They sold more than 75 million copies, but even though he made a great deal of money he lived an extremely frugal life. He was able to give most of his money away. Over his lifetime he donated $117 million to various institutions including the University of Texas.

It's the birthday of the avant-garde novelist and poet Gertrude Stein, born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (1874). She went to Paris to live with her brother Leo and he introduced Stein to a promising new artist named Pablo Picasso. At the time, Picasso was in the process of inventing a style of art called cubism, depicting objects from multiple angles at the same time. Stein decided she wanted to do the same thing with fiction.

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




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