Friday Nov. 11, 2016

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What is Supposed to Happen

When you were small,
we watched you sleeping,
waves of breath
filling your chest.
Sometimes we hid behind
the wall of baby, soft cradle
of baby needs.
I loved carrying you between
my own body and the world.

Now you are sharpening pencils,
entering the forest of
lunch boxes, little desks.
People I never saw before
call out your name
and you wave.

This loss I feel,
this shrinking,
as your field of roses
grows and grows….

Now I understand history.
Now I understand my mother’s
ancient eyes.

“What is Supposed to Happen” by Naomi Shihab Nye from Red Suitcase. © BOA Editions, Ltd., 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Veterans Day, honoring Americans who have served their country in the armed forces. November 11 was originally called Armistice Day, because it was on this day in 1918 that the First World War came to an end. The armistice was signed outside Paris at 6 a.m. in the railway carriage of Allied commander Ferdinand Foch, and the cease-fire took effect five hours later: at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

On this date in 1921, President Warren G. Harding dedicated the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. On Memorial Day, four unknown soldiers who had died in the First World War had been exhumed from four American cemeteries in France. The caskets were laid out in a city hall building in Châlons-sur-Marne. U.S. Army Sergeant Edward F. Younger, a highly decorated World War I veteran, placed a spray of white roses on the third casket from the left, thereby selecting that man to represent all of the unknown American soldiers killed in the war. The Unknown Soldier was brought to Washington, D.C., where he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda until he was laid to rest with highest honors on Armistice Day. His casket rests on a two-inch layer of French soil. George Rothwell Brown wrote in the Washington Post: “No man had ever given more. ... Youth, fortune, love and fame, his very identity flung away for country’s sake at the cannon’s mouth, and in exchange an immeasurable immortality, the laurels of the victor, the veneration of the world, the homage of civilization.” And President Harding said, at the dedication: “He might have come from any one of millions of American homes ... hundreds of mothers are wondering today, finding a touch of solace in the possibility that the nation bows in grief over the body of one she bore.”

It’s the birthday of American novelist Kurt Vonnegut (1922) (books by this author), best known for his anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), which became a kind of bible for the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

Vonnegut had always been a pacifist, but when his grades suffered at Cornell University, he dropped out and enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and put to work in a factory making malt syrup for pregnant women. He was interred in a boxcar prison camp south of Dresden, and when the bombs hit during the infamous bombing of the city, he hid in a meat locker in a slaughterhouse, which saved his life, and later profoundly influenced the plot of his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. More than 135,000 people died in the bombing of Dresden.

Vonnegut’s first novels, like Player Piano (1952), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1964), didn’t sell very much, but allowed him to hone his dark, comic style. He invented fictional concepts like “chrono-synclastic infundibula,” which is a place in the universe where all truths fit together neatly, and religions like The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Cat’s Cradle, whose title refers to a game Eskimo children play in which they attempt to snare the sun with string, sold only 500 copies but is now considered a staple of high school English classes.

It wasn’t until his sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, featuring the character of Billy Pilgrim and based on Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden, that he hit the big time. He published over 14 novels before his death, including Breakfast of Champions (1973) and Timequake (1997).

It’s the birthday of American writer Mary Gaitskill (1954) (books by this author), whose novels explore somewhat taboo subjects like sex work and sadomasochism, like Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) and the short story collection Bad Behavior (1998).

She worked as a stripper and call girl while writing the stories that would become her first collection, Bad Behavior, which took her six years to write. She had an agent, but couldn’t place any of the stories in the usual magazines like Harper’s and The New Yorker, so she was stunned when the book was published to rave reviews and excellent sales. She was able to pay off her student loans and quit her day job. The story “Secretary,” about a young woman and her manipulative boss, became a popular film starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader (2002).

Gaitskill’s other books include Veronica (2005), Don’t Cry (2009), and The Mare (2015), about the relationship between a teenage Dominican girl named Velvet and a horse.

Ninety years ago today, in 1926, the United States Numbered Highway System was established. In the early days of automobile travel, the federal government wasn’t involved in interstate roads. Various local trails had their own boosters, who gave them catchy names and collected dues from any businesses that lay on the route. The booster organizations would then put up signposts and promote the route, which brought in customers to those businesses. But it was a confusing system for travelers, who were faced with many choices and weren’t sure which of the competing claims to believe. In some cases — especially out in the sparsely populated West — trails overlapped one another. And the auto associations came to be viewed with suspicion. In 1924, the Reno Gazette commented: “In nine cases out of ten these transcontinental highway associations are common nuisances and nothing else. They are more mischievous than constructive. And in many instances they are organized by clever boomers who are not interested in building roads but in obtaining salaries at the expense of an easily beguiled public.” Wisconsin was the first state to step in to organize and number its trails. The federal government took up the cause and on this date unveiled a standardized numbering and signage system for United States highways.

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