Nov. 1, 2011

Reusing Words

by Hal Sirowitz

Don't think you know everything,
Father said, just because you're good
with words. They aren't everything.
I try to say the smallest amount possible.
Instead of using them indiscriminately
I try to conserve them. I'm the only one
in this household who recycles them. I
say the same thing over & over again,
like "Who forgot to turn out the lights?
Who forgot to clean up after themselves
in the bathroom?" Since you don't listen
I never have to think of other things to say.

"Reusing Words" by Hal Sirowitz, from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004. (buy now)

Today is All Saints' Day. In the Western Catholic tradition, it's a time to honor Christian saints and martyrs. Pope Boniface IV originated the holy day in around 609, in the process of consecrating the Pantheon of Rome to the Virgin Mary. At that time, All Saints' Day was celebrated on May 13. Pope Gregory III changed it to November 1 in the mid-700s, probably to coincide with, and incorporate, the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, a time when the border between the dead and the living was especially porous and ghosts were believed to walk among the living.

All Saints' Day is a national holiday in Catholic countries, and it's followed by the Feast of All Souls on November 2, which honors the non-saintly Christian dead. In Mexico, it marks the first day of the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, festival. Day of the Dead traditions include building altars at the graves of deceased family members and leaving offerings of gifts, favorite foods, marigolds, and elaborately decorated sugar skulls.

The Arecibo Observatory opened on this date in 1963. At a diameter of a thousand feet, it's the largest single-aperture telescope ever built. It's also got the largest focusing dish in the world, which gathers electromagnetic waves from space. Located near the city of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, it's close to the equator, which enables it to "see" (via radio waves) all the planets in the solar system; within six months of its opening, it enabled scientists to study the rotation rate of Mercury and determine that it rotated every 59 days, rather than 88 as was previously thought. It's also been used for military purposes like locating Soviet radar installations by tracking their signals as they were reflected off the moon. It's provided the first full imaging of an asteroid and also led to the first discovery of planets outside our solar system.

In 1999, it began collecting data for the SETI Institute; SETI stands for "search for extraterrestrial intelligence," and the organization looks for deliberate radio or optical signals from other planets. The Arecibo Observatory also sends data over broadband to the home and office computers of 250,000 volunteers, who, through the Einstein@Home program, donate their computers to be used for data analysis during periods when they would otherwise be idle. A year ago, three such volunteers in Iowa and Germany discovered a previously unknown pulsar, 17,000 light years from Earth.

The United States Weather Bureau made its first forecast on this date in 1870.

President Ulysses S. Grant had signed a joint resolution of Congress back in February of that year, allowing the Secretary of War to form a weather service within the Army. It was generally agreed that the military was the best bet for conveying accurate and timely information; first called "The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce," the service was part of the Signal Corps. At 7:35 a.m. on November 1, 24 government observers across the country made weather observations and transmitted them to Washington, D.C., and other cities via telegraph. A week later, the infant Weather Bureau issued its first "cautionary storm signal," warning of potential storms on the Great Lakes. The weather bureau eventually became a civilian enterprise, moving to the Department of Agriculture in 1890, and to the Department of Commerce in 1940.

The first medical school for women opened in Boston, Massachusetts, on this date in 1848. It was started by Samuel Gregory, who named it the Boston Female Medical College. The first class — 12 women in all — graduated just two years later, in 1850. Gregory's own formal medical training consisted of a summer lecture course that he had taken in anatomy and physiology. He wasn't remotely a supporter of women's rights, but he believed it was unseemly for male doctors to assist women in childbirth, so the college was mostly intended to serve as a school for midwives at first. In 1856, the school's name was changed to the New England Female Medical College; it named among its graduates Rebecca Lee Crumper, the first African-American to earn a medical degree, which she did in 1864.

The "match race of the century" between Seabiscuit and War Admiral was run on this date in 1938. Seabiscuit had become something of a kindred spirit to dispirited Americans in the grip of the Great Depression: He was little, he was ugly, his legs were crooked, and he was plagued by frequent injuries. He was named for his sire, Hard Tack; a "sea biscuit" is another name for the hard bread eaten by sailors. Early in his racing career, he had been unreliable — sometimes blazing fast, sometimes lazy and tough to motivate — and he liked to overeat and oversleep. In spite of being trained by one of the top trainers in the business, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, he lost his first 10 races and no one really thought he'd amount to much. Fitzsimmons began to neglect him, and turned his attention to more promising colts.

But Seabiscuit eventually found a new owner. He also found a new trainer, who had recently served a suspension as a scapegoat in a doping case; and a new jockey, who had a drinking problem and happened to be blind in one eye. Trainer Tom Smith and jockey Red Pollard saw potential in the colt, and worked to awaken his competitive spirit. The horse's stubbornness began to work in his favor, and soon he was winning. He would draw even with his competitors and stare them down out of the corner of his eye until they gave in, almost defeating them through sheer force of will. He became so competitive and so fierce that some of his stablemates refused to run against him in workouts. Track handicappers, in an attempt to make races more equitable, loaded him down with lead weights, but still he won. In 1937, as a four-year-old, he won 11 of 15 races and was the top money earner of the year. But he lost the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year to another stallion, who just happened to be his uncle.

That other horse was War Admiral, son of the great Man o' War, who was Seabiscuit's grandfather. War Admiral was everything Seabiscuit was not. Tall, gleaming black, and handsome, he had won the Triple Crown. A match race was set between the five-year-old Seabiscuit and the four-year-old War Admiral at Pimlico Race Course in Maryland. Forty thousand people packed the stands, and 40 million listened in on the radio. At one-to-four odds, War Admiral was the overwhelming favorite. Seabiscuit broke fast from the gate, pulling away quickly, but War Admiral gained on him and the two traded the lead for a while. Seabiscuit's usual jockey, Red Pollard, was sidelined with a bad racing injury, but he'd told his replacement what to do: Ease up on the horse and let him get a good look at his opponent. Seabiscuit looked War Admiral in the eye and pulled away with a burst of speed, winning by four lengths. The little brown horse's tale inspired two movies and several books, the latest of which was Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller, Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001). In 1940, The Saturday Evening Post called him "the Horatio Alger hero of the turf, the horse that came up from nothing on his own courage and will to win."

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