Thursday Jan. 8, 2015

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Well, Old Flame, the fire’s out.
I miss you most at the laundromat.
Folding sheets is awkward work
Without your help. My nip and tuck
Can’t quite replace your hands,
And I miss that odd square dance
We did. Still, I’m glad to do without
Those gaudy arguments that wore us out.
I’ve gone over them often
They’ve turned grey. You fade and soften
Like the hackles of my favorite winter shirt.
You’ve been a hard habit to break, Old Heart.
When I feel for you beside me in the dark,
The blankets crackle with bright blue sparks.

“Static” by Barton Sutter from The Book of Names. © BOA Editions, 1993. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, born in Tupelo, Mississippi (1935). His first stage performance came in 1945, when he was 10 years old. He sang “Old Shep” at a talent contest, and came in fifth, winning five dollars’ worth of ride tickets for the Mississippi-Alabama fair. The following year, he wanted a bicycle, but his parents were too poor to buy one. His mother, Gladys, talked him into accepting a substitute gift: a guitar, which cost $12.95 at the Tupelo Hardware Company.

The family moved to Memphis when Presley was 13, and he grew up in public housing listening to Memphis R&B — his musical roots, along with Tennessee country music that he heard on the radio. When he was 18, working as a truck driver, he wanted to give his mom a gift, so he stopped by the Memphis Recording Service, where you could record your own songs for a small fee. He had $4, and with that money he was able to record two songs: “My Happiness” and “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” The Memphis Recording Service was also the home of Sun Records, and Elvis caught the attention of owner Sam Phillips, who called the young truck driver back in to see what other songs he knew.

It’s the birthday of physicist Stephen Hawking (1942) (books by this author), born in Oxford, England. He was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo, which was always a point of pride for him. He came into a family of thinkers, and his childhood was somewhat unconventional. Family dinners were eaten in silence, with everyone’s noses buried in their books. They kept bees in the basement, built fireworks in the garage, and drove around in a retired London taxi. Hawking’s father had hoped his firstborn son would go into medicine, but the boy was more interested in the sky. He was always active: climbing, dancing, and rowing.

Hawking studied physics and cosmology at Oxford, but found himself bored with his classes, which were too easy for him. It wasn’t until he began the coursework for his Ph.D. at Cambridge that he began to feel engaged. Even so, he only spent about an hour a day on schoolwork. He graduated with honors in 1962; in 1963, when he was 21, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a degenerative neurological condition that results in gradual full-body paralysis and death. He had been stumbling, and occasionally slurring his words, for a while but didn’t think much of it. He finally consulted a doctor after he fell while ice-skating and couldn’t get up by himself.

At the time of his diagnosis, he was given two to three years to live. The family was understandably devastated by the news, but when Hawking was hospitalized in the same room as a boy who was dying of leukemia, he resolved to not view his condition as a death sentence and give up. Instead, the disease gave him a sense of purpose that he had lacked before. “I was bored with life before my illness,” he once said. “There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.” He threw himself into his work with new vigor. Five decades later and almost completely paralyzed, he is still producing new work. His latest book is a memoir — My Brief History (2013) — and he’s currently at work on Starmus, a collection of lectures by famous scientists.

Hawking met Jane Wilde, a young undergrad, at a New Year’s Eve party not long before his diagnosis. She had seen him the summer before, “a young man with an awkward gait, his head down, his face shielded from the world under an unruly mass of straight brown hair.” He didn’t notice her, but he made an impression on her nonetheless. After the party, they exchanged phone numbers, but didn’t begin dating right away; she heard about his ALS diagnosis through the grapevine. Once they fell in love, Hawking’s parents discouraged her from marrying him, given his prognosis, but the pair didn’t listen. They married in 1965 and went on to have three children, but Hawking’s parents never did warm up to Jane. Their courtship and relationship is the subject of the film The Theory of Everything (2014), based on Wilde’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2008).

He said: “For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen.”

On this date in 1877, Lakota Sioux warrior Crazy Horse fought his last battle against the United States Army, half a year after the Battle of Little Big Horn in June 1876. The battle took place at Wolf Mountain in Montana against General Miles’ army; Crazy Horse and his band had engaged the army throughout the fall and winter. By January, they were weakened and hungry. In May, Crazy Horse led his remaining people to Fort Robinson and formally surrendered.

It’s the birthday of poet and novelist John Neihardt (books by this author), born near Sharpsburg, Illinois (1881). When he was 20, he moved to Nebraska and developed a fascination with Native American culture and history. In 1930, Neihardt met Black Elk on the Oglala Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge. Black Elk, a contemporary of Crazy Horse, was a shaman and a survivor of Little Big Horn and the Wounded Knee massacre. Neihardt spoke with Black Elk over the course of nearly a year, and then put a poetic spin on the stories and published them as Black Elk Speaks (1932).

And today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, which took place on this day in 1815. It was the last major battle of the War of 1812, won with the help of a pirate named Jean Lafitte.

The war of 1812 had started for a variety of complicated reasons, but mainly because the United States refused to put up with British control of the Atlantic Ocean while the British were fighting a war with France. When the war started, the United States had only existed for a few decades. By 1814, after just two years of fighting with the British, almost all the buildings in Washington, D.C., had been destroyed, the U.S. treasury was virtually empty, and the British Navy had blockaded every major seaport on the East Coast.

At the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson managed to fend off the British attempt to take over the mouth of the Mississippi with a ragtag band of volunteers, Indians, and pirates. It was America’s greatest triumph in the War of 1812, but it turned out that it took place after the war was over. The United States and Great Britain had signed a treaty, ending the war, on Christmas Eve, a few weeks before the battle. The news of the treaty just hadn’t reached New Orleans in time.

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