Dec. 17, 2011

Robert Wilson

by Michael Collier

Though he is dead now and his miracle
will do us no good, I must remind myself
of what he gave, plainly,
and without guile, to all of us on the crumbling
flood-gutted bank of the Verde River
as we watched him, the fat boy,
the last one to cross, ford the violent shallows.
And how we provided him the occasion for his grace
tying his black tennis shoes to a bamboo fishing pole
and dangling them, like a simple bait,
out of reach, jerking them higher each time he rose
from his terrified crouch in the middle
of the shin-high rapids churning beneath him,
like an anger he never expressed.
And yet what moved us was not his earnestness
in trying to retrieve his shoes, nor his willingness
to be the butt of our jokes. What moved us
was how the sun struck the gold attendance star
pinned on the pocket flap of his uniform
as he fell head first
into the water and split his face,
a gash he quickly hid with his hands,
though blood leaked through his fingers as he stood
straight in the river and walked deftly toward us
out of the water to his shoes
that lay abandoned at our feet.

"Robert Wilson" by Michael Collier, from The Neighbor. © The University of Chicago Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1790, the Aztec calendar stone was discovered in Mexico City. The city's central square was being renovated, and workers excavated the stone, which is about 12 feet across and weighs 24 tons. The center of the stone depicts a god — the sun god or the earth god — holding a human heart in each hand. Carved in the 15th century, it may have been a monument, or it may have been a sacrificial altar, since the sun god required a periodic tribute of human blood to keep rising and setting. The Spaniards buried it in the square as a gesture of contempt after they defeated the Aztecs in 1521. After it was unearthed, the stone was embedded in the wall of the Catholic cathedral that now dominated the city square. It remained there for nearly a hundred years, until it was moved to the Museum of Archaeology and History in 1885.

The United States government officially closed "Project Blue Book" on this date in 1969. It was the latest in a series of Air Force projects established to study unidentified flying objects. The first of these, Project Sign, began in 1947 after a succession of high-profile UFO sightings began to worry the military. The investigators' official report, published in the summer of 1948, concluded that UFOs were real craft, and were quite possibly extraterrestrial in origin. Project Sign was followed by Project Grudge at the end of 1948. Because of the lack of physical evidence, Grudge's mandate was to debunk any UFO reports. The investigators were unable to explain almost a quarter of the sightings; the rest were almost all ruled "natural phenomena." Project Grudge was closed at the end of 1951, to be replaced by Project Blue Book in 1952.

Project Blue Book's original mission was two-fold: first, to determine whether unidentified flying objects were a threat to national security; and second, to analyze the reports scientifically in an attempt to explain them. Edward Ruppelt was the first leader of the project, and he required his staff to take all reports seriously. He developed an objective questionnaire to give to all witnesses, fired people if they became too entrenched in a particular theory or viewpoint, and established a Blue Book officer at every U. S. Air Force base. His investigators were not required to follow the standard chain of command, and could interview anyone at any rank. The project received so many reports that investigators became bogged down; alarmed at the volume, the Central Intelligence Agency formed an oversight committee of scientists to evaluate the project. The Robertson Committee's report advised the Air Force to back off and not only work to debunk the reports that came in, but also actively use the media and scientific experts to ridicule the mere idea of UFOs. They also recommended treating civilian UFO groups with extreme suspicion. Ruppelt soon found his staff cut by 80 percent, and all unsolved cases became classified. By 1955, Project Blue Book was no longer an investigative body, but a debunking and public relations one. By the mid-1960s, the project was trying so hard to debunk any sightings that they became an object of public ridicule. In one case, several police officers in Ohio reported chasing a low-flying, lighted object for 30 minutes and over 85 miles, only to be told that they had probably been confused by the Moon, or possibly Venus. The project was finally formally closed in 1969, and its case files — more than 12,000 in all — were sent to storage at an Air Force base in Alabama.

The first episode of The Simpsons aired on this date in 1989. Created by Matt Groening, it's the longest-running animated series in television history. The first Simpsons cartoons began airing as short segments on The Tracy Ullman Show in 1987, and proved so popular that Groening was asked to develop his idea into a 30-minute show. The premiere episode was a Christmas special, and then the show began its regular run in January 1990. Though it took awhile to build an audience, the show eventually helped its fledgling network, Fox, to gain a toehold against the "big three": ABC, NBC, and CBS.

It has become a point of pride to appear as a guest voice on The Simpsons. The usual pop culture suspects are well represented, but Groening often draws from a deep pool of literary glitterati as well. Alumni include David Mamet, James Patterson, Michael Chabon, and Jonathan Franzen. Even the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon has "appeared" twice, but his animated counterpart always wears a paper bag over his head.

Groening has described the characters as "creatures of consumption and envy, laziness and opportunity, stubbornness and redemption. Just like the rest of us. Only exaggerated."

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