Jul. 7, 2014
Poem on the Fridge
The refrigerator is the highest honor
a poem can aspire to. The ultimate
publication. As close to food as words
can come. And this refrigerator poem
is honored to be here beneath its own
refrigerator magnet, which feels like a medal
pinned to its lapel. Stop here a moment
and listen to the poem humming to itself,
like a refrigerator itself, the song in its head
full of crisp, perishable notes that wither in air,
the words to the song lined up here like
a dispensary full of indispensable details:
a jar of corrugated green pickles, an array
of headless shrimp, fiery maraschino cherries,
a fruit salad, veggie platter, assortments of
cheeses and chilled French wines, a pink
bottle of amoxicillin: the poem is infectious.
It's having a party. The music, the revelry,
is seeping through this white door.
Sliced bread was sold for the first time on this date in 1928. Up until that time, consumers baked their own bread, or bought it in solid loaves. Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, had been working for years perfecting an eponymous invention, the Rohwedder Bread Slicer. He tried to sell it to bakeries. They scoffed, and told him that presliced bread would get stale and dry long before it could be eaten. He tried sticking the slices together with hatpins, but it didn't work. Finally he hit on the idea of wrapping the bread in waxed paper after it was sliced. Still no sale, until he took a trip to Chillicothe, Missouri, and met a baker who was willing to take a chance. Frank Bench agreed to try the five-foot-long, three-foot-high slicing and wrapping machine in his bakery. The proclamation went out to kitchens all over Chillicothe, via ads in the daily newspaper: "Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped — Sliced Kleen Maid Bread." Sales went through the roof. Rohwedder not only gave Americans the gift of convenience and perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but he also provided the English language with the saying that expresses the ultimate in innovation: "the greatest thing since sliced bread."
It's the birthday of historian David McCullough (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh (1933). As a kid, he loved to wander around the city by himself, hopping on and off of the streetcars, visiting museums, and exploring. He studied literature at Yale, where he was mentored by the playwright Thornton Wilder. After graduation, McCullough headed to New York City, a place he had always dreamed about. He said: "It was easier to find a job in New York than it was to find an apartment. [...] If you had gone to Yale, as I did, majored in English and worked on the Yale News or the yearbook, it was almost as if you had gone to a trade school. All you had to do was get on the train, go to Manhattan, and get a job." He worked for Time-Life, at Sports Illustrated and several other magazines. McCullough dreamed of writing a novel. One night, he was at a party with Harry Sinclair Drago, who had written more than 100 Westerns. McCullough got up the courage to approach him and ask him how he did it, and Drago said he wrote four pages a day, no matter what. McCullough said, "It was the best advice an aspiring writer could be given."
After President Kennedy's speech about serving the country, McCullough was inspired to quit his job at Time-Life and go to work for the United States Information Agency, producing a magazine for the Arab world. He worked seven days a week, and one weekend he was in the Library of Congress looking for photos when he came across some photographs of the Johnstown Flood of 1889. He had heard of the flood, but didn't know anything about it, and he was shocked by the photos of the devastation. He got a book about it from the library, but the book wasn't very good — it even botched up the geography of western Pennsylvania. He checked out another book, but that one was even worse. He remembered Thornton Wilder saying that when he had an idea for a book he would like to read or a play he would like to see, he checked to see if it had been written, and if not, he wrote it himself. McCullough had always imagined that he would write novels, or maybe plays, certainly not history. But he was captivated by the story of the Johnstown Flood, so every night after his kids went to bed he went upstairs and wrote — four pages every night. He said, "I knew almost immediately that this type of writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."
When it was published, The Johnstown Flood (1968) sold surprisingly well, and soon two other publishers contacted him — one asking if he would write about the San Francisco Earthquake and another about the Great Chicago Fire. They offered him good advances, but he worried he would be typecast as "Bad News McCullough," so he turned them both down. He said, "For my follow-up, I wanted to write a book offering an example of human beings doing something really difficult and doing it right, and it took me quite a while to come up with an idea." Eventually, he chose the Brooklyn Bridge for his subject, and he wrote The Great Bridge (1972). He went on to write about the Panama Canal, Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, John Adams, the founding of the United States, and Americans in Paris. He started writing a biography of Picasso, but he quit because he disliked Picasso. He said: "I don't think you have to love your subject — initially you shouldn't — but it's like picking a roommate. After all you're going to be with that person every day, maybe for years, and why subject yourself to someone you have no respect for or outright don't like?"
His books include Truman (1992), John Adams (2001), 1776 (2005), and The Greater Journey (2011).
It's the birthday of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (books by this author), born in Butler, Missouri, in 1907. He studied physics and mathematics at UCLA and then began writing science fiction, or, as he preferred to call it, "speculative fiction." His novel Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961, became a cult classic.
He said, "I think that science fiction, even the corniest of it, even the most outlandish of it, no matter how badly it's written, has a distinct therapeutic value because all of it has as its primary postulate that the world does change."
On this day 200 years ago, the novel Waverley (1814), by Sir Walter Scott (books by this author), was published — but anonymously, Scott said later, because he feared hurting his literary reputation by being classed as a novel writer. The first printing of 1,000 copies sold out in five weeks.
It's the birthday of composer Gustav Mahler, born in Kalischt, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic (1860). He became famous throughout Europe as a conductor, but he was fanatical in his work habits, and expected his artists to be, as well. He once said, "All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish," and that philosophy made him a difficult person to work for. There was always someone calling for his resignation.
It's the birthday of artist Marc Chagall, born in Vitebsk, Russia (1887). He was one of nine kids in a family of modest means; his father worked for a salt herring factory, and his mother ran a shop. He wanted to be an artist, and he moved to St. Petersburg, where he failed his first entrance exams but eventually was accepted to art school. It was in Paris, surrounded by other artists, that he really began to develop his style. Though he was homesick and could not speak French, he later said, "My art needed Paris like a tree needs water." Chagall is known for bright and complex colors, and his fantastical images from Russian-Jewish folklore and his childhood: ghosts, livestock, weddings, fiddlers, scenes of his village Vitebsk, a couple floating in the sky, and fish.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®