I never thought we’d end up
Living this far north, love.
Cold blue heaven over our heads,
Quarter moon like chalk on a slate.
This week it’s the art of subtraction
And further erasure that we study.
O the many blanks to ponder
Before the night overtakes us once more
On this lonely stretch of road
Unplowed since this morning;
Mittens raised against the sudden
Blinding gust of wind and snow,
But the mailbox empty. I had to stick
My bare hand all the way in
To make sure this is where we live.
The wonder of it! We retraced our steps
Homeward lit by the same fuel
As the snow glinting in the gloom
Of the early nightfall.
“Rural Delivery” by Charles Simic from Selected Poems: 1963-1983. © George Braziller, 1990. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble, born in Marshfield, Missouri (1889). He was a gifted athlete, and for a while, it looked as if he might make a name for himself that way. He ran track and played baseball, football, and basketball. And — with the exception of spelling — he was a bright student as well. At his high school graduation in 1906, the principal said, “Edwin Hubble, I have watched you for four years and I have never seen you study for 10 minutes.” He paused, and then said, “Here is a scholarship for the University of Chicago.” In 1907, he led his college basketball team to their first conference title. Three years later, he earned his degree in mathematics and astronomy.
He was one of Oxford University’s first Rhodes Scholars, but he didn’t study astronomy there — he studied law, to please his father. He came home in 1913 and passed the bar, but his heart wasn’t in the law practice and he quit after a year. He taught high school Spanish, math, and physics, and coached the basketball team, and the students loved him. But when the term ended, Hubble went back to school himself: this time to earn his Ph.D. in astronomy at Chicago University.
After World War I, Hubble joined the staff of the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he studied nebulae. During his work, he discovered that the Andromeda Nebula was actually another galaxy, far away from our own Milky Way, which scientists had long believed was the only galaxy in the universe. He discovered 22 more galaxies, and he also proved that the universe was actually expanding, which supported the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe. Stephen Hawking called Hubble’s discovery “one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th century.”
It’s the birthday of American novelist Don DeLillo (books by this author), born in New York City (1936), best known for his intense explorations of politics, assassination, culture, and anxiety in books like White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), and Underworld (1997). DeLillo is notoriously private, doesn’t use email, and still writes his novels on a typewriter. The final draft of an early version of the book Underworld topped out at well over 1,000 pages, typewritten. When DeLillo was asked to describe his relationship with his readers, he answered, “Silence, exile, cunning, and so on” and famously used to carry a business card that read simply: “I do not want to talk about it.”
DeLillo grew up in the Bronx on a steady diet of billiards, sports, cards, and music. His father worked at Metropolitan Life Insurance and wore a suit and a tie to work every day. It wasn’t until DeLillo spent a summer parking cars that he began to love reading, and decided to become a writer. He says: “When I was 18, I got a summer job as a playground attendant — a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck — which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wore blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my pocket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulkner, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history.”
He worked for a long time as a copywriter at an ad agency called Ogilvy & Mather, and then one day he quit. He said: “I didn’t quit my job to write fiction. I just didn’t want to work anymore.” He holed up in small apartment in Manhattan and spent four years writing his first novel, Americana (1971), followed by several other books. They didn’t sell well, but he earned a devoted following. It wasn’t until White Noise (1985), about a professor named Jack Gladney, who teaches “Hitler Studies,” that he became a best-seller.
About writing, DeLillo says: “Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them.”
When asked why he seemed reticent about his success, Don DeLillo answered: “Because I’m not Hemingway. I’m just a guy whose name can’t be spelled properly.”
Today is the birthday of R.W. Apple Jr. (books by this author), born Raymond Walter in Akron, Ohio, in 1934. Apple served as a correspondent and editor for the New York Times for over four decades. His beat included politics, war, food, and travel. He visited more than 100 countries, wrote about 10 presidential elections, and was a leader in the Times’s coverage of the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the revolution in Iran. He could talk fine wine, switch to soccer, and wrap up a conversation with foreign policy.
He offered readers cultural criticism, political commentary, and travel and dining advice. He predicted the changes electronic media would bring to the nation. Then he turned his observation from dynasty to pastry: whereas American Danish “is usually wrapped in cellophane,” he said, the superior Danish from Denmark “is seldom wrapped in anything but loving care.”
Apple said: “Newspaper people love impossible dreams. I suppose we’re reckless sentimentalists. If we didn’t love impossible dreams, we would not still be working in an industry whose basic technology was developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.”