Wednesday

Feb. 22, 2012

The Thousand-foot Ore Boat

by Barton Sutter

To live until we die—
The job seems just impossible.
The great weight of the past
Pushing us forward, the long future
Thrust out before us, and so little room to either side!
The least we can do is stay sober,
Look sharp. The thousand-foot ore boat
Slides through the ship canal
And eases beneath the bridge,
All engines thrumming,
Including the pilot's heart.

"The Thousand-foot Ore Boat" by Barton Sutter, from Farewell to the Starlight in Whiskey. © BOA Editions, Ltd, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of George Washington, born in Westmoreland County, Virginia (1732). His favorite foods were mashed sweet potatoes with coconut, string beans with mushrooms, cream of peanut soup, salt cod, and pineapples. He lost all of his teeth except for one by — according to second president John Adams — cracking Brazilian nuts between his jaws. He got dentures made out of a hippopotamus tusk, designed especially to fit over his one remaining real tooth. But the hippo dentures were constantly rubbing against that real tooth so that he was constantly in pain. He used opium to alleviate the pain.

Today is the birthday of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (books by this author), born in Danzig — now Gdansk, Poland — in 1788. His family was of Dutch ancestry, and his father was a successful international merchant and ship owner. His mother, Johanna, was a writer who hosted literary salons and was friends with Goethe. The family moved to Hamburg when the boy was five years old, and as soon as he was old enough, he began an apprenticeship in the family business. When he was 17 his father died, and he left the family business when he was 19 to pursue his studies in medicine and philosophy at the University of Göttingen and, later, the University of Berlin. His doctoral dissertation was titled The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1813); eventually, he developed the core principles of his dissertation into the book The World as Will and Representation (1819).

Schopenhauer believed that we live in a dual universe: the one that we perceive with our limited human senses and reasoning; and the universe as it truly is, which is unknowable and may or may not conform to our construct of "reason." He was also pessimistic, believing that happiness is an illusion, our desires can never truly be satisfied, and the only way to attain peace of mind is by maintaining very low expectations. He was interested in Eastern religions and agreed with the Buddhist viewpoint that the nature of life is suffering, so happiness was simply freedom from it. His views on women influenced early feminists, who rejected his claim that women were childish and meant to obey. Schopenhauer never married.

It's the birthday of the charismatic poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (books by this author), born in Rockland, Maine (1892). Her middle name came from a hospital — St. Vincent in New York — where one of her uncles was saved from death immediately before her birth.

Edna was in high school when she submitted a poem, "Renascence," to a poetry contest. She didn't win the contest, but one of the judges fell in love with her, and almost divorced his wife. She performed "Renascence" at a poetry reading, and a woman in the audience was so impressed that she paid Edna's way to go to Vassar College.

The last stanza of "Renascence" begins:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky, —
No higher than the soul is high.

Frank Woolworth opened the first of his "five cent" stores on this date in 1878. Armed with $300 and experience working in a dry-goods store, he opened "Woolworth's Great Five Cent Store" in Utica, New York; by May, the store had gone under. He tried again in 1879, this time in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and included merchandise priced at a dime. His "dime stores" undercut the prices of local merchants, and they differed from traditional stores in that merchandise was readily available for shoppers to pick up and handle without the assistance of a shop clerk. The Lancaster location proved successful, and Woolworth opened a second location in Harrisburg, at a cost of $127. By the time he died in 1919, the "five and dime" F.W. Woolworth Corporation was worth about $65 million and owned more than a thousand stores worldwide.

On this date in 1632, Galileo published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (books by this author), in which he argued against the belief of the church, that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, and that in fact the Sun is the center of the solar system, and the Earth is circling around it. The Dialogue was placed on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books the following year, and Galileo was tried and convicted for heresy. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and none of his later books were permitted to be published in his lifetime. The Dialogue remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1835.

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