May 4, 2011

How Bad News Comes

by Debra Marquart

A telephone rings
like an emergency
six times each minute
in a room down
the hall. I think
of the one to whom
bad news is coming.
At the market,
she touches fruit.
Driving home,
she strums her fingers
on the steering wheel.
She hums with the radio
and thinks of her lover,
the one she's left
behind, or the one
she will see again,
remembers the soft heat
of his breath, the urgency
of his belly against hers.
This is the way life
insists on itself, his scent
still on her as she reaches
for the phone. Happy
to catch it in mid-ring,
she comes through
the door, leaves her keys
dangling in the lock.
She leans in, unclips
an earring, to hear
the voice on the other end
saying, I've got some
bad news
, feeling
in that long moment
before the words come,
the difference between
the way it was
and the way
it will be, that moment
before the groceries
fall to the floor.

"How Bad News Comes" by Debra Marquart, from From Sweetness. © Pearl Editions, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1675, England’s King Charles II commissioned the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the center of time and space on Earth. He also created the position of the Astronomer Royal at the same time, to “apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying of the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find out the so much desired longitude of places for the perfecting of the art of navigation.” The building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and it was the first structure in Britain that was built specifically for a scientific purpose.

The prime meridian marks the boundary between the Eastern and Western hemispheres just as the equator marks the boundary between north and south, and it was established at the Observatory in 1851. The prime meridian was originally marked by a brass strip, then stainless steel, and now it’s marked by a green laser. The laser actually marks the historical location of the prime meridian; old methods of calculating geographical coordinates involved using measurement of local sea level, and since sea level can vary worldwide, the coordinates weren’t consistent. Once an Earth-centered — rather than local — system was used, the prime meridian shifted about 103 meters to the east.

Greenwich Mean Time was also calculated at the Observatory, when it was still active; before the establishment of GMT, each town kept its own time, and they varied widely. Since 1833, people have been able to set their clocks by the time ball, which still drops every day at precisely one o’clock p.m.

The Royal Observatory was gradually decommissioned over the first half of the 20th century, and it’s now a museum, planetarium, and tourist attraction. Light pollution from London and electrical interference from the nearby railway system made it impossible to carry on as a working observatory, but it’s still the official starting point for each new day, year, and millennium.

It’s the birthday of the man who said, “Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark, all is deluge.” The father of American public education, Horace Mann, was born on this day in Franklin, Massachusetts, in 1796. He grew up without much money or schooling, and what he did learn, he learned on his own at his local library, which had been founded by Benjamin Franklin. He was accepted into Brown University and graduated in three years, valedictorian of his class.

He was elected to the state legislature in 1827, and 10 years later, when Massachusetts created the first board of education in the country, he was appointed secretary. Up to this point, he hadn’t had any particular interest in education, but when he took the post he dedicated himself to it wholeheartedly. He personally inspected every school in the state, gave numerous lectures, and published annual reports advocating the benefits of a common school education for both the student and the state. He spearheaded the Common School Movement, which ensured all children could receive a basic education funded by taxes.

He was elected to the United States Congress in 1848 after the death of John Quincy Adams, and in his first speech, he spoke out against slavery. He wrote in a letter later that year: “I think the country is to experience serious times. Interference with slavery will excite civil commotion in the South. But it is best to interfere. Now is the time to see whether the Union is a rope of sand or a band of steel.”

When he left politics, he moved to Ohio to accept a position as president of Antioch College. “I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words,” he told one graduating class: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

It’s the birthday of British author Graham Swift (books by this author), born in London in 1949. He was named one of Britain’s best young novelists by the prestigious literary journal Granta in 1983. There was nothing in his background to suggest this was in his future; he came from a lower-middle-class family that was in no way creative. But fear, he told the Guardian, may have been what set him on his path. “I had a fear of becoming anything, a fear of becoming a specialist. I might have become a doctor, but if you become a doctor, that’s your specialty in life and you are defined by it. One of the attractions of being a writer is that you’re never a specialist. Your field is entirely open; your field is the entire human condition.”

He’s published a book of nonfiction, two collections of short stories, and eight novels, including Waterland (1983), which was made into a film starring Jeremy Irons, and Last Orders (1996), for which he won the Booker Prize.

Finally, today is Star Wars Day. According to the online resource Wookieepedia, it is typically celebrated by sci-fi fans the world over with parties, movie marathons, Star Wars-themed toys, the occasional light-saber duel, and movie-quote exchanges on Twitter. You could also celebrate by reading one of the many Star Wars-related novels, playing a video game, or gazing at your collection of action figures in their original packaging. “It’s nice that this particular date seems to observe and celebrate the power of the Force, and we’re thrilled that Star Wars fans continue to find new ways to connect with a galaxy far, far away,” said a Lucas Films spokesperson.

Despite the fervor of some of its fans, Star Wars Day is not a religious holiday yet, although the Church of Jediism is lobbying hard. The City of Los Angeles prefers to celebrate Star Wars Day on May 25, the anniversary of the film’s release, but as for the rest of us ... May the Fourth be with you.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook

The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »