Friday Dec. 19, 2014

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Driving into Our New Lives

Years ago, driving across the mountains
in West Virginia, both of us are so young
we don’t know anything. We are twenty-eight
years old, our children sleeping in the back seat.
With your fresh Ph.D. in your suitcase, we head out
toward Kansas City. We’ve never been anywhere.
We decide to go the long way around
instead of driving due west.

Years ago, driving across mountains; your
hand resting on my knee, the radio playing the folk
music we love, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, or you
singing songs to keep the children entertained.
How could we know what is to come?

We are young. We think we’ll be healthy
and strong forever. We are certain we are invincible
because we love each other, because our children
are smart and beautiful, because we are heading

to a new place, because the stars
in the coal-black West Virginia sky are so thick,
they could be chunks of ice.
How could we know what is to come?

“Driving into Our New Lives” by Maria Mazziotti Gillan, from All That Lies Between Us. © Guernica Editions, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1972 that the Apollo 17 spacecraft made a safe landing back on Earth. The Apollo 17 mission was the sixth and last lunar mission in which people got out and walked around on the moon.

The first lunar landing was in July of 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon’s surface during the Apollo 11 mission. In less than three years, six more manned Apollo missions headed for the moon, and all of them except for Apollo 13 successfully carried astronauts all the way to the surface (an oxygen tank blew up on Apollo 13, but everyone survived). Altogether, 12 people have walked on the moon’s surface, 2 of them members of the Apollo 17 crew.

Apollo 17 had a crew of three: Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ronald Evans. The astronauts were planning to conduct geology research; and to prepare for the diversity of the lunar surfaces, they had extensive training at Big Bend National Park in Texas, the Sudbury Basin impact crater in Ontario, the volcanoes of Hawaii’s Big Island, and other sites in Montana, California, and Nevada. Although all the NASA astronauts were trained in basic geology research, Schmitt was already a geologist, and became known as the only scientist to walk on the moon.

Apollo 17 launched just after midnight on December 7. On December 10, the crew arrived in the lunar orbit. Evans remained in orbit for several days conducting research, while Cernan and Schmitt got into a smaller lunar module and landed on the moon’s surface. They took lots of rock and soil samples, including rocks that were older and younger than those collected in other Apollo missions. Schmitt found what looked like orange soil, and turned out to be particles of volcanic glass. Just before getting back into the lunar module, Cernan scratched his daughter’s initials into the lunar dust.

It was on this day in 1843 that Charles Dickens (books by this author) published A Christmas Carol, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, whom Dickens described as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner. Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire.” In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge learns the Christmas spirit of generosity from three ghosts who show him his past, his present, and his future.

Dickens’ previous novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1842), was a flop, and he was strapped for cash. Martin Chuzzlewit was satirical and pessimistic, and Dickens thought he might be more successful if he wrote a heartwarming tale with a holiday theme. He started writing in late October and worked hard to get it done by Christmas.

At the time of the book’s publication, the celebration of Christmas was somewhat controversial. Puritans in England and America argued that Christmas was a holiday left over from the days when pagans celebrated the winter solstice. Many Christians felt that the extravagance of Christmas was an insult to Christ. But A Christmas Carol was a huge best-seller in both England and the United States, and it set the tone for Christmas as we know it today: a season of generosity, feasting, and merriment.

The Italian writer Italo Svevo (books by this author) was born on this day in Trieste, Italy (1861). He was devoted to literature but went into business, working as a bank clerk and writing a theater column and stories under one of his pseudonyms on the side. When he published his first two books, A Life (1893) and As a Man Grows Older (1898), they were ignored by readers and critics alike.

Svevo needed to improve his English for business reasons and hired a tutor who turned out to be aspiring writer James Joyce, who had come to Italy to teach. Svevo shared his books with Joyce, who felt the Italian was a neglected genius. With Joyce’s encouragement, Svevo wrote the book for which he is known, Confessions of Zeno (1923), a fictional memoir of a man undergoing psychoanalysis, which today is considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the 20th century.

It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Eleanor Hodgman Porter (books by this author), born in Littleton, New Hampshire (1868). Beginning with her first novel, Cross Currents (1907), Porter was popular with readers, who loved her sentimental tales of orphaned heiresses and lost little girls. But her novel Pollyanna (1913), about a young girl who looks for the good in even the most dire hardships, eclipsed them all, spending two years on the best-sellers list and ultimately leading to a play, a movie, a calendar, and a daily almanac of reasons to be glad. Within a decade, the word “Pollyanna” entered the American lexicon, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “an excessively or blindly optimistic person” and one who is cheerful to a fault.

After the publication of a best-selling sequel, Pollyanna Grows Up (1915), Porter became somewhat defensive about the character she’d created. She said: “You know I have been made to suffer from the Pollyanna books. ... People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was ‘glad’ at everything. ... I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil; I have merely thought that it is far better to ‘greet the unknown with a cheer.’”

It was on this day in 1732 that Benjamin Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack.

Poor Richard’s Almanac was a hodgepodge of things: It had information about the movements of the moon and stars, weather reports, historical tidbits, poems, and those adages that Franklin became famous for, like “Fish and visitors stink in three days” and “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead” and “A penny saved is twopence dear” (often misquoted as “A penny saved is a penny earned”). Some of the stuff was original and some was borrowed, drawing upon diverse sources like Native American folklore, common farmers’ superstitions, politicians’ speeches, and published authors’ writings.

Franklin published his wildly successful almanac for a quarter century, and its popularity increased by the year. At its height, the book sold 10,000 copies a year, making it a best-seller in colonial America. Books were expensive and hard to come by in the colonies, and Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac was the only book that many households owned besides the Bible. It made Franklin rich and famous.

Ben Franklin said, “God helps them that help themselves.”

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