Sep. 29, 2012


by Carl Dennis

At least one couple tonight at the Topaz Room
May have quarreled on the long drive over in the rain
About whether moving to a drier climate
And making new friends would brighten their outlook.
Still they agree, for this evening at least,
That dancing is something they're willing to try.
Maybe tonight, for once, they'll be able to feel
What they'd like to feel: that moving to music
Is an instance, not merely a metaphor,
Of life lived as it should be lived.
Other dancers may be more graceful,
But among the clumsy these two may have learned
To look at their feet without embarrassment.
And if they can't set aside all their differences,
Maybe they can agree tonight that consensus
Is the wrong model for them, too close
For comfort in their private commonwealth
To one-party rule, to tyranny. A dance they enjoy
Won't prove that division is far behind them,
Just that they're making their peace with it
As one defers when the other decides
The tune has come from afar to find them
Here where they ought to be, in the Topaz Room,
Taking one step forward, one step back.

"Dancers" by Carl Dennis, from Callings. © Penguin, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Gene Autry, born Orvon Grover Autry, near Tioga, Texas (1907). He starred in more than 40 movies, making his silver screen debut as part of a quartet in the movie In Old Santa Fe (1934) and became nationally known as the original "singing cowboy," often riding his own horse, Champion. He left Hollywood during World War II and served as a transport pilot, flying risky missions over the Himilayas near Burma. After the war, he started his own production company when the film studio wouldn't dissolve his contract for military service.

He never had any children of his own, but was admired by kids across the country who knew him from his long-running radio shows for CBS. In response, Autry wrote the Ten Cowboy Commandments, in which headvised young listeners that a cowboy must "be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals," "help people in distress," and "never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage." In Johnny Cash's tribute song to the singer, he recalls that "in the eyes of a poor little country boy he made the world look better to me."

Today is the celebrated birthday of the Spanish poet, novelist, and playwright Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (books by this author), born in Alcalá de Henares (1547). Little else is known about his early days, but at the age of 22, he joined the military, taking part in the Christian campaign against the Ottoman Empire. In 1571, he was wounded in battle, gaining praise for his bravery, but losing the use of his left hand for life. He recovered from the worst of it and soon returned to the front.

In 1575, Cervantes was sailing for Barcelona where he hoped to secure a captain's appointment, when his ship was hijacked by pirates. For the next five years, Cervantes was held as a slave in Algeria. He attempted escape four times, and after scraping up a hefty ransom, his family finally secured his release. In his written account of his captivity for the courts, referred to as his Infomación de Argel, Cervantes found the basis of the modern novel that he would later be known for. He unfolded the story of his own struggle and personal heroism through multiple witnesses, and with multiple readers in mind, all the while maintaining a persuasive central voice.

After his release, he tried repeatedly to secure a post outside of Spain, dreaming of the rich cultural heritage of Naples. Nothing materialized, and he began work on his first novel, Galatea (1585), a romance that went largely unnoticed. He struggled financially and began writing for the theater in hopes of gaining a steady income, once taking a loan against seven scripts on the condition from the lender that they each be "one of the greatest ever written in Spain." They didn't get him booed off the stage, but they weren't successes. He spent two decades working as a tax collector and roaming the Spanish countryside as a purchaser for the Spanish navy, and he was jailed numerous times for bankruptcy and shady business deals.

He continued writing, and in 1605, part one of Don Quixote, was published in Madrid, to instant critical acclaim. Satirizing the popular romantic stories of the day, the novel tells the tale of a nobleman filled with chivalry and longing for adventure, who was also a fool. The work gave him an international reputation as an author, but it wasn't a financial windfall and Cervantes continued looking for a way out of Spain with no success.

At 65, he finally hit his creative stride, releasing his Novelas Ejemplares, a collection of 12 short tales, credited as the invention of the Spanish short story. Next came his poem Viaje del Parnasso (1614), and Ocho Comedias y Ocho Entremeses (1615), and after promising it for almost a decade, the second part of Don Quixote (1615). The complete book is now regarded as the first modern Western novel and one of the greatest works of fiction. William Faulkner told an interviewer that he read it every year, "as many do the Bible."

Today is the birthday of the Italian-born American physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome (1901). He grew up close to his older brother, Giulio, the two spending their time dismantling small machines and engines together. Fermi was a professor of theoretical physics by 26, and began a series of experiments bombarding various elements with neutrons. Though unaware that a strange phenomenon he created in the lab was the splitting of the atom, Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in 1938. The night before he was notified by the committee, Nazis in Germany began to openly attack Jewish citizens. Anti-Semitic laws had recently been passed in Mussolini's Italy and Fermi feared for his Jewish wife and family. He used the occasion of the prize to escape Italy and took a job at Columbia University. Later that year, it was leaked that German scientists had succeeded in performing nuclear fission, and the scientific community quickly went abuzz with the possible consequences of this breakthrough. Fermi's colleague Leó Szilárd drafted a letter warning President Roosevelt of the possibility it could be weaponized and urged research at home. Federal funding was granted and Fermi was asked to join the new Manhattan Project in Chicago. It was here that he and Szilárd successfully constructed the first nuclear furnace on American soil in a squash court under the football stadium of the University of Chicago.

Fermi is considered to have begun the "atomic age" when on December 2, 1942, he created the first controlled self-sustaining nuclear reaction. He would later conduct research at Los Alamos and personally witness the Trinity test of the first nuclear bomb. He supported the use of nuclear weapons during World War II, but later expressed concern over the more powerful hydrogen bombs, saying: "Such a weapon goes far beyond any military objective and enters the range of great natural catastrophes. [...] It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light."

He was known by colleagues for his modesty and ability to think both theoretically and practically. He disliked complicated theories and his method of approximation when there is no obvious data is now called the "Fermi method." He died at the age of 53 from stomach cancer, along with two assistants that worked with him on the first nuclear reactor.

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