Wednesday Dec. 2, 2015

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Heaven's Gate

In her nineties and afraid
of weather and of falling if
she wandered far outside her door,
my mother took to strolling in
the house. Around and round she’d go,
stalking into corners, backtrack,
then tum and speed down hallway, stop
almost at doorways, skirt a table,
march up to the kitchen sink and
wheel to left, then swing into
the bathroom, almost stumble on
a carpet there. She must have walked
a hundred miles or more among
her furniture and family pics,
mementos of her late husband.
Exercising heart and limb,
outwalking stroke, attack, she strode,
not restless like a lion in zoo,
but with a purpose and a gait,
and kept her eyes on heaven’s gate.

"Heaven's Gate” by Robert Morgan from Dark Energy. © Penguin, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett (books by this author), born in Los Angeles (1963). She grew up Catholic and went to an all-girls Catholic school in Nashville, where she still lives. She said: "Catholicism really trained me for fiction writing. I think it has to be the greatest religion for a fiction writer because it is so much a tradition of story and parable. I spent my whole childhood on my knees in front of pieces of carved marble, and in my heart I was filling that stone with enormous life. That gets at the essence of storytelling."

She went to Sarah Lawrence College, where one of her teachers was the short-story writer Grace Paley. She said that Paley would cancel classes and take the students to protests, and that she discouraged any kind of pretension in their writing. Patchett said: "She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don't step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can't teach you how to have something to say."

Patchett's books include Bel Canto (2001), Truth and Beauty (2004), Run (2007), and most recently, State of Wonder (2011).

It's the birthday of short-story writer George Saunders (books by this author), born in Amarillo, Texas (1958). He grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and he loved books about World War II and baseball. In high school, he discovered Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and books by Ayn Rand and Khalil Gibran, and they changed his life. He said: "It definitely went directly from the page into my heart. I think I was a really good reader in the sense that I was a desperate reader, desperate to find out what was good, what was true, how a person should live."

He was particularly influenced by Ayn Rand; he started thinking of himself as a character from an Ayn Rand novel. He said: "I want to be one of the earth movers, the scientific people who power the world. And I don't want to be one of these lisping liberal artsy leeches." So he went to the Colorado School of Mines to study engineering, then worked various odd jobs, and finally decided to apply to the Syracuse Creative Writing Program. There were two professors who wanted to let him in, even though everyone else objected — most of the other students were stars from Ivy League schools — so he was let in as a "grand experiment." He said: "I felt more like a 'clerical error.' [...] While the other students knew all about Shelley and Keats, I knew about Alfred Wegener, the father of plate tectonics, whom we affectionately used to call 'Big Al.' But fiction is open to whoever comes in the door, as long as you come in energetically, and so I had a feeling there was room for me."

His books include CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000), In Persuasion Nation (2006), and Tenth of December: Stories.

Saunders said: "Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to."

New York's La Guardia Airport opened on this date in 1939.

As the story goes, the idea for the airport came from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. He was returning home from vacation and, as a publicity stunt, loudly refused to get off the plane in Newark, New Jersey. He said that his ticket said "New York" and New York is where he would get off the plane. TWA flew him to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, so all was well for the moment, but La Guardia had accomplished what he set out to do. He used the ensuing press conference to proclaim that the residents of New York City needed a public airport that was of an adequate size and in a convenient location to Manhattan. He found what he was looking for in Flushing, Queens. There was a small private airfield on the site already; prior to that, the land had housed the Gala Amusement Park. La Guardia bought the airfield in 1937. He enlisted the aid of the federal government to build and pay for the new airport; the government was happy to provide both, since it wanted to expand the country's transportation system and it was also looking for projects to employ workers under the Works Progress Administration.

The plot of land wasn't big enough for the airport that planners had in mind. They bought up what adjacent land they could, but they were still short their goal of 558 acres. The only way to expand was out into Flushing Bay. Workers built a metal framework out into the water, and filled it in with land from Rikers Island and a nearby garbage dump. The metal framework is so extensive that it still causes problems with the compasses on flights taking off from runway 13.

The airport is one of 12 WPA projects that still exist today. In the Marine Air Terminal — otherwise known as Terminal A — there's a 235-foot circular mural painted by James Brooks. Titled Flight, it's the last and largest mural produced under the WPA, and it depicts the history of flight, from Icarus to Leonardo to the Wright brothers. Brooks completed the painting in 1942; a decade later, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ordered it to be painted over. No official reason was given, but it's rumored to be because someone at the Port Authority thought the painting was soft on Communism. In the late 1970s, an aircraft magazine publisher named Geoffrey Arend spearheaded a campaign to restore the original mural, and it was fully restored and rededicated in 1980.

The design of the New York Municipal Airport was revolutionary for its time. It was built on two levels, one for arriving passengers and one for departing passengers. There were restaurants, Art Deco embellishments, and a rooftop viewing "skywalk." It was the first airport to boast a florist, a beauty salon, a bank, a jeweler, and a brokerage firm on site. It cost a dime to get onto the skywalk, and people turned up in droves to watch the planes land and take off. The rooftop promenade made a fortune for the airport. The airport was dedicated on October 15, and officially opened to commercial air traffic at midnight on December 2. The first plane to land at the world's newest, largest, and most sophisticated airport was a TWA DC-3 from Chicago. Just two weeks after the New York Municipal Airport opened, it was rechristened La Guardia Field after its champion, the mayor.

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