Tuesday Dec. 20, 2016

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At the Terminal

Remember how we took those separate flights
imagining the worst: our plane gone down,
our children young, alone? I’d leave an hour
before you, wait to meet you at your gate,
or you’d go first, arrive and rent a car,
then meet me at the exit. In between,
blue emptiness, our lives suspended where
clouds stacked themselves between us: you on earth
and I already gone. Or else I’d stand
on solid ground and watch you disappear—
my heart, my shining bird!—a streak of light,
a flash of wing, then nothing. Only one
of us, one at a time. And whether I turned
back to the concourse or pulled down the shade
over the brilliant window, belted in
above the tilting tarmac, I rehearsed
this hour, ever nearer, when the planet
would hold one or the other, and you’d watch—
or I—the earth receding, or look up
into the arc of absence, blinding space.

“At the Terminal” by Patricia Hooper from Separate Flights. © University of Tampa Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American physicist Robert Van de Graaff (1901), born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and known for the literally hair-raising generator that carries his name. A Van de Graaff generator primarily consists of a hollow metal globe standing on a thick, hollow pole; inside the pole, a pair of pulleys drive a belt of silk over a pointed metal comb that is hooked to an external power supply. The comb and one pulley sit at the base of the pole, the second pulley sits inside the metal globe, and as the belt runs it builds up impressively large static electric charges — Van de Graaff’s original hand-built generator, which is now housed at the Boston Museum of Science, can generate more than 2 million volts on a dry day.

Van de Graaff generators are popular in science classrooms and science fiction; when students touch one while it’s running, the static charge will lift their hair into ball-shaped halos around their heads. Recently, Van de Graaff generators have become popular with home hobbyists, who have used them to turn out extreme Christmas light displays, or who run music through the electrical discharges so that the sound is transmitted to the audience on bolts of manmade lightning.

On this day in 1985, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill establishing an official poet laureate for the United States. As the Library of Congress explains, the poet laureate is to serve as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans” and is charged with the task of seeking to raise a greater national appreciation for the reading and writing of poetry.

Each poet laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress and the position has been held by such notable writers as Billy Collins, Louise Glück, and Charles Simic. Juan Felipe Herrera is the most recent poet to hold this distinguished post.

It was in this day in 1946 that It’s a Wonderful Life was previewed in a charity showing at New York City’s Globe Theatre, one day before the film’s official premiere. The movie starred James Stewart as beleaguered George Bailey, a frustrated businessman with unfulfilled dreams. He decides to commit suicide, but a heavenly messenger intercedes.

Reviews of the film were mixed, with the New York Times calling it “weak,” and it was considered a financial failure. Years later, during the 1970s, the film began showing up on television during Christmastime. It quickly became a family favorite and is now considered a Hollywood classic.

It’s the birthday of science fiction and fantasy writer Nalo Hopkinson (1960) (books by this author), who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada. Hopkinson is best known for genre-blending novels like Sister Mine (2013), an elaborate fantasy about conjoined twins whose parents are a demigod and a human. Her novel Midnight Robber (2000) is about an A.I. (artificial intelligence) named Granny Nanny, who watches over all of the people in the planetary system. Hopkinson wrote Midnight Robber entirely in the Creole dialect because, she says, “I could say ‘carnival revelry,’ but it wouldn’t convey movement, sound, joy, the same way that ‘ring-bang ruction’ does.’”

Today is the birthday of the poet and novelist Sandra Cisneros (books by this author), born in Chicago (1954) and best known for the highly acclaimed coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street (1984). Although the book was largely ignored when it was first published, its popularity grew, and soon Cisneros became the first Mexican-American woman to sign a contract with a big American publishing house. The House on Mango Street has since been translated into a dozen languages and has become required reading for middle schools and high schools throughout the United States.

Cisneros was the third child — and the only girl — in a family of seven children, and she spent most of her childhood rootless, moving back and forth between Chicago and Mexico City. Because her father felt that daughters were meant for husbands and not necessarily careers, she was free to study anything she wanted in college, including something as “silly” as English. But like many young Mexican-American women, she had to live at home — either until she was married or kicked out because of what she calls “some sexual transgression — you know, you’ve had a baby or you come out and say you’re gay.” Cisneros found her way out in poetry. “I said that I needed a place of my own to write, which was true. But I also wanted to have freedom to lead my life and to fall in love and to do things I couldn’t do under my father’s roof.”

Cisneros studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but she felt disconnected from her fellow students there. “I didn’t want to sound like my classmates; I didn’t want to keep imitating the writers I’d been reading. Their voices were right for them, but not for me,” she wrote later. When she realized that, she felt free to draw from her own background to tell the story of Esperanza, a Latina girl who is growing up in a rundown Chicago neighborhood and dreams of living in a real house. That book became The House on Mango Street.

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