Jun. 20, 2014

Spelling Bee

by Faith Shearin

In the spelling bee my daughter wore a good
brown dress and kept her hands folded.
There were twelve children speaking

into a microphone that was taller than
they were. Each time it was her turn
I could barely look. It wasn't that I wanted

her to win but I hoped she would be
happy with herself. The words were too hard
for me; I would have missed chemical,

thermos, and dessert. Each time she spelled
one correctly my heart became a bird.
She once fluttered so restlessly beneath

my skin and, on the morning of her arrival,
her little red hands held nothing.
Her life since has been a surprise: she can

sew; she can draw; she can read. She hates
raisins but loves science. All the parents
must feel this, watching from the cheap

folding chairs. Somewhere inside them
love took shape and now
it stands at the microphone, spelling.

"Spelling Bee" by Faith Shearin from Moving the Piano. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1977 that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline began to pump oil for the first time. It was the largest private construction project ever completed in United States history.

Oil companies had been drilling for oil in Alaska for years, without much luck. Then the company that would become Exxon decided to drill one more hole before giving up, and they struck what turned out to be the largest oil discovery in North America. The only problem was that the oil field was 800 miles away from the nearest harbor where oil tankers could pick up the oil and transport it to the rest of the world.

So the oil companies decided to build a pipeline to transport that oil across the state of Alaska, 48-inches in diameter, stretching 800 miles, zigzagging over three mountain ranges and crossing 34 major rivers, including the Yukon. Once it began pumping, about 1.9 million barrels of crude oil began flowing through the pipe every day, traveling at about 7 miles an hour to the port of Valdez.

It's the birthday of English biochemist Frederick Gowland Hopkins, born in Eastbourne, Sussex, in 1861. His father's cousin was the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and young Frederick was more interested in reading books and writing poetry than he was in science. But when he was eight, his mother gave him his father's old microscope, and he spent many happy hours studying things he found at the seashore. He later said that, left to his own devices, he might have become a naturalist.

Hopkins was a capable and bright student in many subjects, especially English and chemistry. At 17, he took a job in an insurance office at his uncle's urging, but was soon bored. He went to college to pursue a degree in chemistry, and later studied medicine at Guy's Hospital in London. He conducted research in toxicology, physiology, and chemistry, and in 1901 he discovered the amino acid tryptophan. For the next several years, he continued to study diet and its effect on the body's metabolism. After further research, he concluded that essential amino acids, which the body needs to produce its own proteins, are not made by the body but must be consumed as part of the diet. He further noticed that rats fed an artificial diet — even though it contained the proper balance of protein, fat, carbohydrates, minerals, and water — became sickly and failed to grow. But when he added a little cows' milk to the rats' diet, they grew and thrived. This led to his discovery that there are elements in food that animals need to survive and thrive. He called these "accessory nutrient factors," but we know them today as vitamins. He published papers on the subject in 1906 and 1912, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1929 for his discovery, a prize he shared with fellow researcher Christiaan Eijkman.

Today is the birthday of poet Paul Muldoon (books by this author), born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland (1951). His father was a laborer and farmer who, Muldoon recounts, "could just about write his own name," and there weren't many books in the house. He told The Guardian: "I'm astonished to think that, apart from some Catholic Truth Society pamphlets, some books on saints, there were, essentially, no books in the house, except one set, the Junior World Encyclopedia, which I certainly read again and again. People would say, I suppose, that it might account for my interest in a wide range of arcane bits of information. At some level, I was self-educated." He received a more formal education at Queen's University Belfast and published his first poetry collection while he was still a student. After he graduated, he took a job with the BBC as a radio producer; he's convinced that he got the job because he poured tea for everyone at the interview. He later said, "[W]hen you get right down to it [that] is really what a radio producer is: a tea pourer."

Muldoon published his first book, New Weather (1973), when he was 21 years old, and he has published more than 30 collections since then. Muldoon won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for Moy Sand and Gravel (2002). He has written children's books and libretti. He also has an impressive collection of electric guitars, and writes rock lyrics, which were just collected into his most recent book, The Word on the Street (2013). "I do like to think of the song as a genre that might be considered as part of the general poetry world," he said. "Leonard Cohen's collected poems, for example, are indistinguishable from his collected songs. Those lyrics stand up on the page." His book comes with a CD that includes some of the songs, performed by Muldoon's band Wayside Shrines.

It's the birthday of Vikram Seth (books by this author), born in Calcutta, India (1952). He's the author of A Suitable Boy (1993), the longest single-volume work of fiction in English since 1747. The first draft was 5,000 pages long. His editor helped him trim it down to about 1,500 pages. Seth wrote on the dedication page, "Buy me before good sense insists / You'll strain your purse and sprain your wrists."

It's the birthday of guitarist Chet Atkins (Chester Burton Atkins), born outside Luttrell, Tennessee (1924), to a family of fiddlers and singers. He built his own crystal radio set and listened to Merle Travis, with his fingerpicking style, and learned how to play it for himself.

He said: "I didn't have any idea we were poor. Back then, nobody had any money. We were so poor, and everybody around us was so poor, that it was the '40s before any of us knew there had been a Depression."

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




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