Jan. 4, 2013

The Fish

by Billy Collins

As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.

I feel sorry for you., it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.

And I feel sorry for you, too—
yanked from the sea and now lying dead
next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh—
I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.

And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow

even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.

"The Fish" by Billy Collins, from Ballistics. © Random House, 2010. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the 70th birthday of Doris Kearns Goodwin (books by this author), who was born in Brooklyn, New York (1943). She's the author of the highly acclaimed biographies Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976) and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987). She's currently at work on a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, due out in 2013.

Her book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln was published in 2005, and it was widely talked about around Washington, D.C. President Obama has often said that it's essential reading for the Oval Office, because of the way Lincoln built an alliance made up of his former enemies. "[Lincoln's] political genius was rooted in his remarkable array of emotional strengths," Goodwin said, "which enabled him to form friendships with rivals who had previously disdained him, to put past grudges aside, to assume responsibility for the failure of subordinates, to share credit with ease and to learn from mistakes."

Team of Rivals was also the inspiration for Steven Spielberg's latest film, Lincoln (2012). Goodwin was in the very early stages of writing the book when Spielberg got wind of it, and he told her he would like to turn it into a movie. After the film's Los Angeles premiere last month, Goodwin joked, "I was thinking ... what if they screened it at a joint session of Congress?"

Today is the birthday of Sir Isaac Newton, born in Woolsthorpe, England (1643). He was born very prematurely, and so small that it was said that he could fit into a quart pot. His father had died three months before Newton was born, and the plan was for the boy to take over the running of the family farm when he grew up. He wasn't a good farmer, and his uncle suggested that he be sent to the university instead. He went to Cambridge, and when it was shut down during a plague outbreak, Newton went home and studied mathematics and physics on his own. It was during this time that he first developed his theories of gravity and optics. His first published scientific achievement was the invention of a reflecting telescope.

At the age of 43, Newton published his Principia, which overturned nearly everything humankind had believed about the universe up to that point. He proved that the celestial bodies were governed by the same laws of physics as objects on Earth. He incorporated Kepler's laws of planetary motion into his own theories about gravity, and established his own Three Laws of Motion.

Sir Isaac Newton, who wrote, "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

It's the birthday of Jacob Grimm, the elder of the Brothers Grimm, born in Hanau, Germany (1785). He and his brother volunteered to help some friends gather oral folktales for a research project. The Grimms did such a great job that one of their friends suggested that they publish the stories in book form. They did, and the stories filled several volumes, called Children's and Household Tales (1812-22). The collection was later renamed Grimms' Fairy Tales, and it included many stories whose names are familiar to us today: "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," "Rumpelstiltskin," and "Rapunzel," to name a few. The stories have been significantly toned down over the years, and most modern readers would be shocked at how violent and scary the original Grimm versions were.

Jacob Grimm went on to study language. He published a book of German grammar and also developed a theory — called "Grimm's Law" — of how different languages are related to each other. He became a librarian, and was working on a dictionary when he died in 1863.

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