All morning in the February light
he has been mending cable,
splicing the pairs of wires together
according to their colors,
white-blue to white-blue
violet-slate to violet-slate,
in the warehouse attic by the river.
When he is finished
the messages will flow along the line:
thank you for the gift,
please come to the baptism,
the bill is now past due:
voices that flicker and gleam back and forth
across the tracer-colored wires.
We live so much of our lives
without telling anyone,
going out before dawn,
working all day by ourselves,
shaking our heads in silence
at the news on the radio.
He thinks of the many signals
flying in the air around him,
the syllables fluttering,
saying please love me,
from continent to continent
over the curve of the earth.
"Telephone Repairman" by Joseph Millar, from Overtime. © Eastern Washington University Press, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the celebration of Christmas in the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar and was widespread in the Western Christian world until the Gregorian calendar was introduced in the 16th century. Most of the world adopted the Gregorian calendar, and the Julian calendar fell out of favor, but the Orthodox Church still follows it. These days, the Julian calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar — in 2100 that will change, and it will be 14 days behind — so for now, Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.
Today is the birthday of publisher Jann Wenner (1946), born in New York City. He was sent to boarding school in California when he was 11, and his parents divorced when he was 12. Neither of them seemed particularly interested in gaining custody of their son. After graduation, he attended the University of California at Berkeley. He dropped out in 1966, and got a job at the left-wing political and literary magazine Ramparts. The following year, in a drafty printer’s loft in San Francisco, Wenner cofounded a magazine with San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason. It was a biweekly magazine that focused on rock music, and they called it Rolling Stone.
It’s the birthday of the novelist and essayist Nicholson Baker (books by this author), born in New York City (1957). He started out wanting to be a musician and was good enough at the bassoon that he got into the Eastman School of Music. He planned to become a composer and then one day he saw his mother laughing uncontrollably at a New York Times Book Review essay on golf by the writer John Updike. Baker later wrote: “[My mother’s laughter] was miraculous, sourced in the nowhere of print, unaided by ham mannerisms ... Nothing is more impressive than the sight of a complex person suddenly ripping out a laugh over some words in a serious book or periodical.”
At that moment Baker decided that instead of becoming a composer, he wanted to be a writer. He went on to write a book about his obsession with John Updike, U and I: A True Story (1991), and a novel about a single erotic phone conversation between two strangers, called Vox (1992). His most recent book is Traveling Sprinkler (2013), about a poet who begins to reinvent his life as a musician.
Today is the birthday of Zora Neale Hurston (books by this author), born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated African-American community in the United States, with a population of about 125. Hurston loved it there, and would set many of her stories in Eatonville, depicting it as a sort of Utopia; she also described it in her 1928 essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” When she was 13, her mother died, and her father remarried immediately, so she was sent to a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. She was expelled when her father stopped paying her tuition, and she went to live with a series of family members.
She went to Howard University, and cofounded the school’s newspaper, The Hilltop. She was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, where she studied anthropology, and she was the college’s only black student. She published many short stories in the 1920s and early ’30s, and her first book, Mules and Men (1935), was an anthropological study of African-American folklore. She’s best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
A founding member of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston died in poverty in 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1973, novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found an unmarked grave in the cemetery where Hurston was buried, and marked it as hers. Alice Walker wrote about the event in her article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” (1975), and the article sparked a renewed interest in Hurston’s writing.
On this date in 1610, Galileo wrote a letter describing his discovery of three of Jupiter’s moons. He had recently made some improvements to his telescope, and he discovered them in December. As he continued to observe them over the next few months, a fourth celestial body appeared, and he realized that they were actually orbiting the giant planet. Since most people at that time still believed in the Ptolemaic theory — that the Earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around us — it was an important discovery. It went a long way toward confirming Copernicus’s controversial theory that the Earth went around the Sun.