Monday Jan. 5, 2015

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November Again

November again and the snow comes sudden and heavy.
This is what we like best. This is what we paid our money
for. Snow on snow, all day and all night, everything muffled,
distant. Tomorrow, no school, no work, no worship service,
no visitation of the sick, the poor, the widows or the
orphans. Whatever it was, nothing can be done about it
now. Your old position has been filled. Your footsteps have
been filled. The roads are filled, drifted shut. All directions
are obliterated in the heavy snowfall.

“November Again” by Louis Jenkins from Before You Know It. © Will o' the Wisp Books, 2009. Used by permission.   (buy now)

Today is the Twelfth Night, otherwise known as the eve of Epiphany. It’s the official end of the holiday season, which begins with All Hallows’ Eve, and it’s the day on which many people take down their Christmas decorations or risk bad luck for the coming year. Poet Robert Herrick wrote, “Down with the rosemary, and so / Down with the bays and mistletoe; / Down with the holly, ivy, all, / Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall.” It’s a last Yuletide hurrah before everyone returns to the mundane workaday world of the rest of the year.

Though the origin of the celebration dates back to the Roman Saturnalia, most of the traditional observances of the holiday that have survived date back to medieval England.

English settlers in the Colonies brought the Twelfth Night tradition with them. In colonial Virginia, it was customary to hold a large and elegant ball. Revelers chose a king and queen using a traditional English method: a bean and a pea were baked inside a plum cake. The man who found the bean was crowned the Twelfth Night King, and likewise the woman who found the pea. It was the king’s duty to host the next year’s Twelfth Night ball, and the queen was given the honor of baking the next year’s cake. George and Martha Washington didn’t usually do much for Christmas except attend church, but they often hosted elaborate Twelfth Night celebrations. It was also their anniversary; they’d been married on January 5, 1759. Martha Washington left behind her recipe for an enormous Twelfth Night cake among her papers at Mount Vernon. The recipe called for 40 eggs, four pounds of sugar, and five pounds of dried fruit.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Christmas became the primary holiday of the season in America, and at that point, Twelfth Night celebrations all but disappeared in this country. Many still celebrate it in the United Kingdom, with wassailing, Twelfth Night cakes, and the arrival of the Holly Man.

It’s the birthday of American mathematician Stephen Cole Kleene, born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1909. The offspring of a professor of economics (his father) and a poet/playwright (his mother), Kleene was educated at Amherst College and Princeton before joining the faculty of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He spent most of his career there. He worked with algorithms and was one of the founders of recursion theory, a branch of mathematical logic. Recursion theory is a way to know whether certain kinds of mathematical problems are solvable or unsolvable, and it led to the theory of computable functions, one of the building blocks of theoretical computer science. As H. Jerome Keisler, one of Kleene’s colleagues, explained: “Modern computer science, in large part, grew out of recursion theory, and his work has been tremendously influential for years. One of the reasons for the importance of recursion theory is that it gives us a way of showing that some mathematical problems can never be solved, no matter how much computing power is available.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush presented Kleene with the National Medal of Science for his work.

Kleene was also an avid hiker and enjoyed the outdoors. He discovered a new variety of butterfly, which was named after him. He led his colleagues on hikes until he was well into his 70s and, as Keisler said, “Steve Kleene’s knowledge of mushrooms was legendary.”

It’s the birthday of poet W.D. Snodgrass (books by this author), born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania (1926). He’s the author of the collections Heart’s Needle (1959) and The Fuhrer Bunker (1977).

It’s the birthday of Stella Gibbons (books by this author). She was born in London (1902) and wrote, as a parody of romance novels, her first and most famous novel: Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

It’s the birthday of Umberto Eco (books by this author), born in the Piedmont region of Italy (1932). He’s the author of the novels The Name of the Rose (1981), Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), and most recently, The Cemetery of Prague (2010). He once said that he knows there are sections of his books that people skip, but that it is important that they are there: “Think of the penultimate chapter of Ulysses, in which Joyce just describes Bloom’s entire kitchen, every drawer. Sometimes I happen to go back and read a drawer. The first time I read it, what was impressive and important was this ideal of describing everything — everything!”

Today is the birthday of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, born Elizabeth Nevills in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (1895). She taught herself the banjo and guitar at an early age; she would sneak her brother’s instruments to practice on when no one was home. She saved her money and eventually bought a guitar from a local dry goods store. She was left-handed, so she played her instruments “upside down” without restringing them. She fretted with her right hand and picked with her left. She developed her own unique style, which would later come to be known as “Cotten picking.”

Cotten recorded her first album in 1957, at the age of 62. It’s Elizabeth Cotten: Negro Folk Songs and Tunes. She’s best known for her song “Freight Train,” which she wrote when she was about 11 or 12 years old.

And it’s the birthday of Jack Norworth, born in Philadelphia in 1879. He was an actor in vaudeville and Broadway shows, and sometimes he wrote song lyrics. Jack Norworth had never been to a baseball game, but one day in 1908, he was riding the subway and he saw a sign that said “Baseball Today — Polo Grounds,” and he started thinking of baseball lyrics. He wrote them down on a piece of scratch paper, and then took them to the composer Albert Von Tilzer, another man who had never seen a baseball game, who went ahead and wrote the music. And the song became very famous, and you probably know all the lyrics Jack Norworth wrote to the song “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

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