Wednesday Dec. 31, 2014

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This Morning, I Wanted Four Legs

Nothing on two legs weighs much,
or can.
An elephant, a donkey, even a cookstove—
those legs, a person could stand on.
Two legs pitch you forward.
Two legs tire.
They look for another two legs to be with,
to move one set forward to music
while letting the other move back.
They want to carve into a tree trunk:
2gether 4ever.
Nothing on two legs can bark,
can whinny or chuff.
Tonight, though, everything’s different.
Tonight I want wheels.

"This Morning, I Wanted Four Legs" by Jane Hirshfield, from The Beauty. © Knopf, 2015. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

Today is New Year's Eve, a day to take stock of the old year and make changes for a new year.

People across the world tonight will be linking arms at the stroke of midnight and singing "we'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for auld lang syne," from the Scottish folk song popularized by Robert Burns (books by this author). In Scotland, New Year's Eve marks the first day of Hogmanay, a name derived from an Old French word for a gift given at the New Year. There's a tradition at Hogmanay known as "first-footing": If the first person to cross your threshold after midnight is a dark-haired man, you will have good luck in the coming year. Other customs vary by region within Scotland, but most involve singing and whiskey.

English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (books by this author) wrote: "Ring out the old, ring in the new / Ring, happy bells, across the snow / The year is going, let him go / Ring out the false, ring in the true."

Here in the United States, the custom of raising and dropping a giant ball arose out of the time when signals were given to ships at harbor. Starting in 1859, a large ball was dropped at noon every day so sailors could check their ship chronometers.

The Times Square celebration dates back to 1904, when The New York Times opened its headquarters on Longacre Square. The newspaper convinced the city to rename the area "Times Square," and they hosted a big party, complete with fireworks, on New Year's Eve. Some 200,000 people attended, but the paper's owner, Adolph Ochs, wanted the next celebration to be even splashier. In 1907, the paper's head electrician constructed a giant lighted ball that was lowered from the building's flagpole. The first Times Square Ball was made of wood and iron, weighed 700 pounds, and was lit by a hundred 25-watt bulbs. Now, it's made of Waterford crystal, weighs almost six tons, and is lit by more than 32,000 LED lights. The party in Times Square is attended by up to a million people every year.

Other cities have developed their own ball-dropping traditions. Atlanta, Georgia, drops a giant peach. Eastport, Maine, drops a sardine. Ocean City, Maryland, drops a beach ball, and Mobile, Alabama, drops a 600-pound electric Moon Pie. In Tempe, Arizona, a giant tortilla chip descends into a massive bowl of salsa. Brasstown, North Carolina, drops a Plexiglas pyramid containing a live possum; and Key West, Florida, drops an enormous ruby slipper with a drag queen inside it.

Thomas Edison demonstrated his first incandescent light bulb on this date in 1879. Edison didn't invent the light bulb — incandescent lights had been around for almost 40 years — but he was the first to come up with a practical, long-burning design. He realized he was on the right track by the end of October, when he tested a carbonized filament inside a glass vacuum bulb, which produced a light that burned for more than 13 hours. He kept fiddling with it and modifying it, and each version burned a little bit longer than the one before it; by the time he was ready to reveal it to the public, his bulb was burning for 40 hours.

After 14 months of testing, 1,200 experiments, and $40,000, he was finally ready for his first public demonstration. He hung strings of lights inside his lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and switched them on and off repeatedly, to the awe and delight of his 3,000 spectators. He said, "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles."

It was on this day in 1935 that the game Monopoly was patented by Charles Darrow, an unemployed engineer in Germantown, Pennsylvania. There was a game at the time, about 30 years old, called The Landlord's Game, which had a lot of the familiar Monopoly features like a "Go to Jail" square and utilities and properties for purchase. With his free time, Darrow modified it, basing his rental properties on his favorite resort town, Atlantic City.

It's the birthday of the English ethnographer Sir John Thompson, born in 1898 in London, who devoted himself to the study of the Mayan people and culture of southern Mexico. He was the first to decipher early Mayan hieroglyphs and the first to document that present-day Mexican Indians still adhere to ancient ancestral customs.

It's the birthday of painter Henri Matisse (1869), born in Le Cateau, France. As a child and a young man, he had no interest in art. He went to law school in Paris and never visited a single museum. Had it not been for a case of appendicitis, he might never have become an artist. Bedridden for several weeks during his recovery, he took up painting as a way to pass the time. It was a revelation. He said, "For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone ... carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man." At 22, he quit the law to begin work as a full-time artist. He was a revolutionary who dressed like a bourgeois, and he once said, "It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else."

It's the birthday of the woman Martin Luther King Jr. called "The Queen of American Folk Music": Odetta, born Odetta Holmes Felious, in Birmingham, Alabama (1930). She thought at first that she'd be an opera singer, but she heard folk music in San Francisco and decided that was the kind of music that said what she wanted to say. In a 1966 Playboy magazine interview, Bob Dylan said: "The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta. I heard a record of hers in a record store, back when you could listen to records right there in the store. That was in '58 or something like that. Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar, a flat-top Gibson." Odetta's albums include My Eyes Have Seen (1959), Sometimes I Feel Like Crying (1962), and Movin' It On (1987). A reviewer once said: "Odetta can't sing 'folk' at all, because she doesn't really sound like a person singing, let alone like the person next door singing. She sounds more like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir."

Today is the birthday of Junot Díaz (books by this author), born in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic (1968). He moved to New Jersey when he was six years old. His most recent book is This is How You Lose Her (2012). It's a collection of linked short stories featuring Yunior, a Dominican-American trying to balance his two cultures; Yunior has been a principal character in all of Díaz's books. "He's certainly a rib pulled from me. [...] He's somebody who's very, very different, and yet, I feel very strongly connected to him. He's like a terrible half-brother in a way," Díaz says.

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