Sunday

Feb. 16, 2014

The Fall

by Dennis O'Driscoll

The backyard wall
stands guard between me
and the cemetery
on the other side.

My garden haven
is a riot of colour,
red-hot pokers stoked
like flaming swords.

The far side is devoid
of life, headstones drab
as concrete slabs
of high-rise flats;

a living death: freedom
of expression is withheld,
travel rights suppressed;
scarcities abound.

Tenacious as a border
guard's alsatian,
ivy sinks its vicious
teeth into the wall:

its fall will force
a regime change,
unite me with
that darker side.

"The Fall" by Dennis O'Driscoll from Dear Life. © Copper Canyon Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1959, the guerrilla leader Fidel Castro took over as the Prime Minister of Cuba. The son of a wealthy sugar cane farmer, Castro had practiced law in Havana, but then, disgusted with the status quo, entered politics as a member of the Cuban People's Party. After ousting dictator Fulgencio Batista, Castro invited the wrath of the United States by nationalizing all the sugar plantations — many had absentee landlords in the U.S.A.

It's the birthday of historian and philosopher Henry Adams (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1838). He was the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams, and wrote several books on American history, including the nine-volume History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-91).

He's best known for his dark and pessimistic autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1918). He said he felt more at home in 17th- and 18th-century America than he did in 20th-century America. He wrote that most Americans he had encountered "had no time for thought; they saw, and could see, nothing beyond their day's work; their attitude to the universe outside them was that of the deep-sea fish."

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford (books by this author) born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). Ford has spent most of his adult life moving from city to city with his wife. He's lived in 14 states, as well as France and Mexico. At one point, he divided his time between a townhouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a house in Montana, and a plantation house in Mississippi. He said: "The really central thing is that, no matter where I move, I always write and I'm married to the same girl. All that other stuff is just filigree."

His first novels featured tormented characters, and his wife told him to try writing a book about somebody happy for a change. So he wrote about a normal, likeable guy named Frank Bascombe, who gives up a career as a fiction writer to write for a sports magazine. He wrote about 150 pages and showed them to his editor, who told him to throw the book away. But he decided to ignore his editor and finish the book, which he called The Sportswriter (1986), and it was his first big success. He wrote two more novels about Frank Bascombe, both of them successful: Independence Day (1995), which won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Lay of the Land (2006).

On this date in 1937, Wallace Carothers and DuPont Chemical Company were granted a patent for the synthetic polymer called nylon. Carothers was a gifted chemist and was made a chemistry instructor while he was still a student at Tarkio College in Missouri. When World War I broke out and many college faculty were sent overseas, he even served as head of the department. He seemed destined for a life of academic research, and was working at Harvard in 1928 when the DuPont Chemical Company took a bold step: they opened a division solely for the purpose of fundamental research into artificial materials. They offered Carothers a position, promising that the research was just for the advancement of science, and not to develop products for the commercial marketplace. Carothers had been working on polymers at Harvard, and he was intrigued at the idea of pursuing his own research without having to take time away to teach students, but turned them down. Eventually, when they offered to pay him nearly twice what he was making at Harvard, he agreed. He led a team that developed a synthetic rubber they called "neoprene" in 1931.

Carothers and some of his co-workers moved into a house they called "Whiskey Acres." Carothers was congenial and well liked by all, but he suffered from crippling bouts of depression. He once showed one of his housemates a cyanide capsule that he carried around with him, and he could readily list all the scientists in history who had committed suicide. In a letter to a friend, he wrote: "There doesn't seem to be much to report concerning my experiences outside of chemistry. I'm living out in the country now with three other bachelors, and they being socially inclined have all gone out in tall hats and white ties, while I after my ancient custom sit sullenly at home."

Carothers began to work on developing artificial fibers. Trade with Japan was becoming increasingly unreliable and expensive in the 1930s, and DuPont was eager to develop a manmade substitute for silk. After years of developing a variety of polyesters, Carothers and his team successfully spun their first nylon fibers in 1934.

In 1936, Carothers married a DuPont co-worker named Helen Sweetman, but his battle with depression got harder and harder to win. In early 1937, his favorite sister died suddenly, and even though he and Helen were expecting their first child, he never recovered from his sister's death. In April, he went to a hotel in Philadelphia and mixed a cocktail of lemon juice and cyanide, taking his own life at the age of 41. Their only child, a daughter, was born seven months later.

Nylon was unveiled by one of DuPont's vice presidents at the New York World's Fair in 1938. He chose an audience of 3,000 women for this first announcement, saying, "Though wholly fabricated from such common raw materials as coal, water, and air, nylon can be fashioned into filaments as strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web, yet more elastic than any of the common natural fibers." The women immediately assumed that this meant indestructible stockings, and cheered heartily. Nylon products were quick to hit the public; besides the stockings — which, unfortunately, were not indestructible — it was used to make toothbrush bristles, parachutes, flak jackets, and tires. These days, it's also used for a wide array of products, such as combs, carpets, gears, and bridal veils.

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

 









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