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Poem: "Jet Lag" by Eve Robillard, from When Gertrude Married Alice. © Parallel Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Jet Lag

He flies over the ocean to see his girl, his Sorbonne
girl, his ginger-skinned girl waiting for him in the City

of Light. Everywhere river and almost-spring gardens,
everywhere bridges and rainy statues. Streets going

nowhere, streets going on all night. I love you my mona
my lisa, my cabbage, my gargoyle, Degas' little dancer

in dawn's ragged gown. But on the third day she
picks up her books, tells him she needs to study:

she adores this town, she's not coming home in May, she's
going to stay all summer. Lowers her morning-calm eyes.

He's all right in the cab, all right on the plane droning
him home in only three hours American — key in his lock now

his tick-tock apartment, shiver his shadow, his need
to sleep. Then with a tiredness washing over and

over him and through his raveling bones
he begins to know.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of two men who were born on exactly the same day in 1809: Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln (books by this author) was born on this day near Hodgenville, Kentucky (1809). Though he's generally considered possibly the greatest president in our country's history, fairly little is known about his early life. Unlike most presidents, he never wrote any memoirs. We know that he was born in a log cabin and had barely a year of traditional schooling. His mother died when he was nine, and he spent much of his adolescence working with an ax. But when he was in his early 20s, Lincoln apparently decided to make himself into a respectable man. Residents of the town of New Salem, Illinois, said that they remembered Lincoln just appearing in their town one day. People remembered him because he was one of the tallest people anyone had ever seen, about 6 foot 4, and the pants that he wore were so short that they didn't even cover his ankles.

As people got to know him, they found he had a wonderful sense of humor. And he was a hard worker, taking jobs as a miller, storekeeper, surveyor, and postman. Meanwhile, he joined a debate society, read books on grammar and rhetoric, and studied to become a lawyer. But he suffered from wild mood swings. He once became so depressed that he considered suicide.

Lincoln had grown up at a time when politics seemed like a truly noble profession, and he thought that maybe he could achieve the greatness he'd dreamed of as a politician. He served a few terms in the Illinois State Legislature, and then he was elected to the U.S. Congress. But while he was in Washington, he couldn't get a single bill passed. After two years, he left office, assuming his political career was finished.

So he went back to his law practice and became an enormously successful lawyer. He handled more than 5,000 cases over the course of his law career, making him one of the busiest lawyers in the state. And then, in 1854, he heard about the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, sponsored by the senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, which would have allowed for the expansion of slavery into territories in the North. Lincoln hadn't ever been an abolitionist, but he saw the Kansas-Nebraska Bill as a great wedge issue that could help him make a real mark in the world.

His campaign for senator of Illinois in 1858 turned him into a national figure, and though he lost the race, two years later he managed to maneuver himself into the nomination for president in 1860 — and he won. Lincoln spent little more than four years serving as president, and for most of those four years, there weren't many people who thought he was doing a good job. The Civil War went on for longer than most people thought it would, and it was far more brutal than anyone expected. Lincoln had a hard time getting his generals to aggressively pursue the enemy, and the Confederates came close to capturing Washington, D.C.

It was only in the last few months of his life that it seemed the North would win the war and the Union would be preserved. In the second week of April 1865, he received word that that Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army. On the afternoon of April 14, 1865, Lincoln took a ride in an open carriage with his wife, and he was the happiest she'd ever seen him. He told her, "I consider this day, the war has come to a close." That same night, he and his wife went to the theater, and Lincoln was murdered by John Wilkes Booth.

Charles Darwin (books by this author) was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England (1809). When he was only 22, a man named Robert FitzRoy began looking for a naturalist who might accompany him on a voyage to the southern tip of South America. One of Darwin's professors recommended him for the job, and Darwin jumped at the chance.

Darwin brought with him a book called Principles of Geology by Sir Charles Lyell, which suggested that the earth was millions of years old. And along the journey, Darwin got a chance to explore the Galapagos Islands. These islands were spaced far enough apart that the animals on them had evolved over time into different species. Darwin realized that if the Earth were millions of years old, it was possible that all the animals on Earth had self-selected certain traits through breeding that would help them take best advantage of their environments.

It took him a long time to publish his ideas, mainly because he was afraid of being attacked as an atheist. But about 20 years after he first came up with the idea, he published his book On the Origin of Species (1859). Part of the reason it was such a great success was that Darwin chose to write it in the simplest language possible. It is one of the few scientific works written by a great scientist that is still read and understood by amateurs.

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Poem: "The Elm City" by Reed Whittemore, from The Feel of Rock. © Dryad Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Elm City

The hard, yellow, reversible, wicker seats
Sit in my mind's warm eye, varnished row on row,
In the old yellow childhood trolley
At the end of the line at Cliff Street, where the conductor
Swings the big wooden knob on the tall control box,
Clangs the dishpan bell, and we wander off

To tiptoe on stones and look up at bones in cases
In the cold old stone and bone of the Peabody Museum,
Where the dinosaur and the mastodon stare us down,
And the Esquimaux and the Indians stare us down

In New Haven,
The Elm City.

I left that town long ago for war and folly.
Phylogeny rolled to a stop at the old Peabody.
I still hear the dishpan bell of the yellow trolley.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It was on this day in 1945 that Allied planes began the bombing of the German city of Dresden in World War II. At the beginning of the war, both Hitler and Churchill vowed that they would not attack civilian targets. But the German's broke their promise and used incendiary bombs on London, and Great Britain quickly followed suit. By 1943, the British had begun firebombing cities like Hamburg, creating firestorms that reached 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, with hurricane-force winds, which boiled all the water in the city and sucked all the oxygen out of the atmosphere, killing tens of thousands of people. The Allied military commanders argued that saturation bombing of German cities was the only way to force the Nazis to surrender.

One of the cities on the list for possible firebombing was Dresden, long considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and often called Florence on the Elbe. It had also become a sanctuary for refugees from all over Germany. Allied military commanders considered it an appropriate target because it was a source of optical equipment used in German submarines and fighter planes.

But still, Dresden might not have been bombed on this day if it hadn't been for the good weather. When cloud breaks were reported over the city, the British RAF went ahead with the attack and dropped 2,700 tons of bombs on Dresden, half of them incendiary. An area of almost 13 square miles was totally destroyed. No one knows exactly how many people died. Estimates have ranged from 35,000 to more than 135,000.

One of the survivors was an American GI named Kurt Vonnegut, who'd been a prisoner of war since the Battle of the Bulge. The night of the bombing, he and his fellow prisoners were locked in a slaughterhouse underground, and when they climbed up to the surface after the bombing was over they found the city had been reduced to ashes. The Germans forced Vonnegut and his fellow soldiers to collect the bodies, and they found that most of the people had died of asphyxiation.

Vonnegut spent 20 years trying to write about the experience. He finally had to give up on writing a true account of the event, and instead wrote the novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969), because he said, "You can't remember pure nonsense. It was pure nonsense ... the destruction of that city." The war in Europe ended just three months after the bombing of Dresden.

It's the birthday of novelist Margaret Halsey, born in Yonkers, New York (1910). She's best known for her best-selling book With Malice Towards Some (1938), where she makes fun of British manners.

It's the birthday of novelist Georges Simenon, (books by this author) born in Liége, Belgium (1903). He's one of the most prolific writers of all time, best known for his detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret. He wrote some 400 books, which sold more than 1.4 billion copies from 1935 to 1997. Each book took him on average eight days to write.

Georges Simenon said, "What you have not absorbed by the time you reach the age of 18 you will never absorb. It is finished."

It's the birthday of writer Ricardo Guiraldes, (books by this author) born in Buenos Aires, Argentina (1886). He wrote poems, essays, and short stories, but he's best known for his novels about Argentinian cowboys, or gauchos, such as Rosaura (1922) and Shadows in the Pampas (1926).

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Poem: "Secret Agent Man" by Joyce Sutphen. Used with permission of the author. (buy now)

Secret Agent Man

You looked so good at the top of the stairs
that I wonder if you might consider

standing at the bus stop near Franklin
and 22nd at about 6:30 AM,

wearing a dark overcoat and a red
scarf, nodding (just slightly) when

I pass, and I wouldn't mind looking
Out my office window at about

10 AM and seeing you (so small I
couldn't be sure) waving from

the far corner of the parking lot,
and then, at lunch, you could be

the mysterious man sitting in the bar,
the one who never turns around until

I am almost out the door with friends
who would have no idea who you are,

and it would be wonderful to see you
disguised as a UPS man, coming in

at 3 PM with a large package
full of various useless things

and a note, telling me exactly
where I could find you later on tonight.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Valentine's Day, the day on which we celebrate romantic love. Every February, florists in the United States import several million pounds of roses from South America. About 36 million boxes of chocolate will be given as gifts today.

Many writers have been inspired by love. William Butler Yeats met the Irish Nationalist Maud Gonne in 1889. She was one of the most beautiful women of her time, and Yeats fell in love with her the first time he saw her. He said, "[When I met her] the troubles of my life began." He described her as "Tall and noble but with face and bosom / Delicate in colour as apple blossom." He proposed marriage soon after their first meeting, and she refused. But they both believed in magic and the occult, and in their letters they referred to their mystical marriage, and their telepathic communication. Gonne later told Yeats that she couldn't marry him because she believed they had been brother and sister in a previous life. But she inspired some of his greatest poetry.

Robert Louis Stevenson was passing by the window of a house one night in France when he looked inside and fell instantly in love with a woman he saw eating dinner with a group of her friends. Stevenson stared at her for what seemed like hours, and then opened the window and leapt inside. The guests were shocked, but Stevenson just bowed and introduced himself. The woman was an American named Fanny Osborne. They fell in love and got married a few years later. Marriage seemed to make Stevenson more industrious. Even though he was often bed-ridden with his respiratory illness, he published on average 400 pages of writing a year for the rest of his life.

E.B. White was a staff writer at The New Yorker when, in 1929, he took a vacation to Ontario, working at a summer camp that he had gone to as a kid, and he seriously considered quitting his job at The New Yorker to become a camp director. He had just turned 30, and he was disappointed that he'd failed to produce anything other than humorous magazine pieces. He wrote a letter to the fiction editor of The New Yorker, Katherine Angell, saying that he considered himself a failure as a writer, and he wasn't sure what the point was in continuing. She wrote back to say that there was no question in her mind that he was a great writer, even if he hadn't produced a masterpiece yet. She said, "For you to give up writing now would be like a violinist giving up music, the thing he most loved in the world, because he can't be [the best]." When White returned to New York, he married her.

In 1956 Sylvia Plath was studying in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship when she went to a publication party for a literary magazine. It was there that she met the poet Ted Hughes, whose poetry she admired. When he introduced himself, Plath quoted one of his poems to him, and he guided her to a side room of the bar. She later wrote in her journal, "He kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off ... and my favorite silver earrings ... I bit him long and hard on the cheek and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face." They got married four months later.

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Poem: "Chicken Killing" by Mary Mackey, from Breaking the Fever: Poems. Marsh Hawk Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Chicken Killing

I was 5 and the chickens were my friends

I would pull an ear of corn from the crib
hack it against a brick and cry    here biddy biddy biddy

and they'd come running to peck between my bare
toes with beaks hard and smooth as sanded oak

when the crabapples rotted and fell off the tree into the yard
they would gobble them up and get drunk

then dance the crabapple dance  cluck
and strut, bump into each other, fly into the side

of the henhouse and stagger around laughing at chicken jokes

I laughed at their jokes    I partied
hard with those hens

one afternoon when we got back from
Hebron Baptist Church where you got to fan yourself
with funeral parlor fans

Uncle Wid went to the chicken yard with an ear
of corn    here biddy biddy biddy    he cried

and when the chickens ran up to peck
he grabbed two by the neck and swung them
over his head like sacks    wap    wap    and their heads
were off in his hands and their bodies were still

flying around the yard because no one had
told them they were dead

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of cartoonist Matt Groening, (books by this author) born in Portland, Oregon (1954). He decided to move to Los Angeles after college to try to make it as a writer. He lived in a neighborhood full of drug dealers and thieves, and got a job ghostwriting the memoirs of an 88-year-old filmmaker. After that, he worked at a convalescent home, a waste treatment plant, and a graveyard.

He started writing a comic strip based on his daily troubles called "Life in Hell." When a television producer asked Groening to created a TV show, Groening decided to invent a cartoon family that would be the exact opposite of all the fictional families that had ever been on American television. He named the parents after his own parents, Homer and Marge, and he named the two sisters after his own sisters, Lisa and Maggie. He chose the name Bart for the only son because it was an anagram of the word "brat."

Critics immediately praised The Simpsons, because it was in some ways more realistic than any other American sitcom. Homer was fat, bald, and stupid; he drank a lot, worked at a nuclear power plant, and occasionally strangled his son. His wife, Marge, was an obsessive-compulsive housewife with a blue beehive hairdo. The characters were frequently selfish, rude, and mean to one another, and the show often took on dark subjects like suicide, adultery, and environmental disaster. The Simpsons went on to become the most popular and longest-running sitcom in America.

Matt Groening said, "Teachers, principals, clergymen, politicians — for The Simpsons, they're all goofballs, and I think that's a great message for kids."

It's the birthday of comic book artist and writer Art Spiegelman, (books by this author) born in Stockholm, Sweden (1948). His parents were both survivors of the Holocaust, and when he was growing up, he often heard them screaming in the middle of the night from their nightmares. Spiegelman fell in love with Mad magazine when he was 10 years old, and started drawing comics. By the time he was 14, he had a job with the Topps chewing gum company, designing comics that came with different brands of gum.

He eventually got into drawing alternative comics, and one day he was asked to contribute to an anthology of animal cartoons. The request gave him an idea for a comic strip about the Holocaust in which all the Jews would be drawn as mice and all the Nazis drawn as cats. He said, "Almost as soon as it hit me, I began to recognize the obvious historical antecedents — how Nazis had spoken of Jews as 'vermin,' and plotted their 'extermination.'"

In order to write the comic book he had to interview his father about his experiences during the Holocaust. He and his father had never gotten along, but during the many hours of interviews, they developed a relationship for the first time. The comic strips were collected and published in two volumes: Maus: A Survivors Tale, My Father Bleeds History (1986) and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (1991). Both books were extremely successful, and in 1992 Spiegelman became one of the first comic book artists to receive a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

It's the birthday of astronomer Galileo Galilei, (books by this author) born in Pisa, Italy (1564). He was in his 40s in the summer of 1609 when he heard a rumor that someone in Holland had invented a device called a spyglass, which allowed people to see things up close from a distance. As soon as Galileo heard about it, he cursed himself, because he'd had a similar idea years before, but he'd never followed up on it. He knew that the Italian government would be interested in such a device for military purposes. So he decided to try to make one himself before anyone from Holland could travel down to Italy. If he could present it to the government first, he would get the credit.

According to Galileo, it took him only 24 hours to design his own telescope, even though he'd never seen one. And the telescope he designed was actually better than the one from Holland, more than 20 times more powerful. He presented it to the government, and they rewarded him with a lifetime appointment to his university post, with double the pay.

He went on to become one of the first people to use the telescope to examine astronomical objects in our solar system. On the night of January 7, 1610, Galileo saw three stars, arranged in a straight line next to Jupiter. He observed them over the next several days and found that they changed position in relation to Jupiter every night. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that these must be moons revolving around Jupiter. And if moons could revolve around Jupiter, then Aristotle's theory that everything revolved around the Earth was incorrect. This observation provided evidence for Copernicus' theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. Galileo spent the rest of his life writing about these ideas, even though they got him into big trouble with the Catholic Church.

Galileo said, "In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual."

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Poem: "My Methodist Grandmother Said" by Mary Mackey, from Breaking the Fever: Poems. © Marsh Hawk Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

My Methodist Grandmother Said

My Methodist
grandmother said
was adultery
set to music

how right she was

in that sweet sway
breast to breast and
leg to leg
sin comes into its own

if you have never
you cannot imagine
the sheer voluptuousness
of it
the light touch
palm to palm
wool and silk
mixed below the waist
your partner's warm breath
on your neck
coming quicker
and quicker
the strength of the man
the yielding of the woman
so incorrect
so atavistic
so unspeakably sweet
he moves toward you
you back away
he pursues you
and with the faintest
you encourage him
and watch the blood
rush to his face

not a word is spoken
no one sees this
although it's done in public
in full sight of everyone

you touch
and retreat
and touch again
in time to the music
saying   yes
no        yes
no        yes

you dance
without thinking of your body
in that gentle
almost copulation
one     two     three
two       three

the longest
in the western

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of historian and philosopher Henry Adams, (books by this author) born in Boston, Massachusetts (1838). He was the great-grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States, and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. But growing up, he felt that his family's illustrious history was a burden on him. He had no interest in politics.

Adams worked as a secretary for his diplomat father, which got him out of serving in the military during the Civil War, but after that he quickly moved into freelance journalism. He once wrote a 2,700-page book called History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, and the way he saw it, things had only gone downhill from there. In 1877, he moved to Washington, D.C., to write about the corruption scandals of the day, and he was one of the first journalists to point out that most politicians had become pawns of big business.

Adams wrote a number of historical works, and he even anonymously published a satirical novel about Washington, D.C., called Democracy (1880). But we remember him today for writing one of the first modern American memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams. It was privately printed in 1907, and few people read it. But when it was republished in 1918, after Adams's death, it won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.

At the time, memoirs were generally written by great men, to recount their great, public lives. But The Education of Henry Adams is the story of Henry Adams's growing sense of his own personality, his own individual ideas about America and about history. It was one of the first times in American literature that an American had written such a subjective book about his own experiences and his own ideas. Memoirists have been following in its path ever since.

Henry Adams said, "The proper study of mankind is woman."

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford, (books by this author) born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). His father was a traveling salesman and his grandfather managed a hotel. Ford originally thought he would go into hotel management, like his grandfather, and he studied hotel science at Michigan State University. But he switched to studying English literature, even though he suffered from dyslexia. He said, "Being a slow reader admitted me to books at a very basic level — word by word. That doesn't seem like bad preparation to me, if writers are people who essentially live in sentences."

After graduation, he spent several years trying to figure out what to do. He spent a semester in law school. He applied for a job as a police officer and was rejected, and then applied for a job with the CIA and was accepted, but he didn't take the job. He supported himself primarily as a substitute teacher and a baseball coach. He began thinking about writing because he said, "What could be better than to have a job in which you told everybody what to do?"

Ford's first two novels, A Piece of My Heart (1976) and The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), got good reviews. But they sold a combined total of only 12,000 copies. So he quit writing fiction and got a job as a sportswriter for a magazine called Inside Sports. And he found that it was the perfect job. He'd never been happier at a job in his life. He might have stopped writing fiction forever, but the magazine went out of business. He applied for a job at Sports Illustrated, but they turned him down.

So with nothing else to do, Ford began writing the novel that would make his name, a novel about a sportswriter named Frank Bascombe. The book was called The Sportswriter (1985), and it became Ford's first best-seller. Ford has gone on to write two more books about Frank Bascombe: Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land. (2006).

When asked what his advice is for aspiring writers, Ford said, "Try to talk yourself out of it. As a life, it's much too solitary, it makes you obsessive, the rewards seem to be much too inward for most people, and too much rides on luck. Other than that, it's great."

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Poem: "In Praise of Imperfect Love" by Jessica Goodfellow, from A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland. © Concrete Wolf Chapbook Series. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

In Praise of Imperfect Love

Courtesans of tenth century Japan knew
the keening of the caged copper pheasant,
solo double-note aria for a missing mate,
could be silenced with a mirror

The ideal of a love that completes
masks a yearning for homeostasis,
a second umbilical, island fever,
harmony tighter than unison —

dull as a solved equation;
like the ex-lover who said,
"Being with you is like being alone."
He meant it as a compliment.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist Chaim Potok, (books by this author) born in the Bronx, New York (1929). He's the author of several novels about Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx, including The Chosen (1967), The Promise (1969), and The Book of Lights (1981).

It was on this day in 1972 that President Richard Nixon (books by this author) departed on his historic trip to China, with the goal of normalizing relations between the two countries. At the time, relations were so nonexistent with China that the White House didn't even have any Chinese contacts to with whom to communicate. Nixon had to contact the Chinese government through European diplomats.

It's the birthday of crime novelist Ruth Rendell, (books by this author) born in London (1930). One of the most celebrated mystery novelists of all time, she's best known for her mystery novels featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford. But she also writes novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, and some critics consider these books to be her best work. Her parents had a difficult marriage, and Rendell spent a lot of time alone when she was a kid. She started writing in her teens, and she was remarkably ambitious. She managed to write an entire novel in verse about a first-century British queen when she was just 15 years old. As a young woman, she began writing dark, literary short stories, but she couldn't get anything published.

Then, just for fun, she decided to write a detective novel. She had no intention of publishing it, but when a publisher turned down another novel and asked her if she had anything else, she decided to see what he thought of the detective story. He loved it. And that was From Doon with Death (1964), the novel that introduced Inspector Wexford. But while most of her Wexford novels are relatively straightforward mysteries, Rendell has also written books that examine how ordinary people could become murderers.

Rendell has averaged about two novels every year for most of her career. Her routine is to write every morning for five hours, and then she always eats the exact same lunch: bread, cheese, salad, and fruit. She also likes to move a lot. Since her writing career began, she's lived in 18 different houses, entirely by choice. She said, "It's a kind of hobby, I suppose. ... I like the whole business of [moving]. And I love the first night in the new place." Her most recent book is End in Tears (2006).

It was on this day in 1801 that the presidential election was decided for Thomas Jefferson (books by this author) by the House of Representatives. The election laws were quite different at the time. Each elector in the Electoral College was allowed to cast two votes. On top of that, each political party nominated two candidates. So the election was between four men, two from each party, and the result was a tie between Jefferson and his fellow Republican Party member Aaron Burr. The tie meant that the election had to be decided in the House of Representatives.

The first vote in the House was held during a blizzard on February 11, 1801. By 3:00 a.m. the following morning, 19 roll calls had been taken, but they'd all been deadlocked. Three days later, the deadlock was still unbroken. Commentators began to worry that Congress would have to adjourn before selecting a new president, meaning that the country would be without an executive branch for several months. John Adams feared that this situation might result in civil war. Some people in Virginia said that they would secede from the Union if Jefferson didn't take the presidency. Others in the Republican Party announced that they would drive the Federalists from Congress by force if necessary.

The election was finally decided when the lone representative from Delaware chose to abstain from voting. And so, on this day in 1801, Jefferson was elected the third president of the United States.

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Poem: "Greed" by Tony Hoagland, from Hard Rain: a Chapbook. © Hollyridge Press. Reprinted with permission (buy now)


painted on a wall on 20th and Grant—just the word,
Greed. Just that word facing the street
for the drivers in their cars to read
while waiting for the light to change.

No who, no why, or is, just Greed
with no appendage—no promised consequence;
not greed as deadly sin, or greed named
as a traditional form of suffering.

What is surprising is that, after all the words
that have been chiseled into us,
—stenciled, scrawled, printed and embossed,
we still seem able to read one more.

Just the word Greed, at eye level,
printed on the wall at Grant and 20th.
Greed, said calmly, without inflection.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of novelist and teacher Wallace Stegner, (books by this author) born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). His father was a schemer who was constantly moving the family from place to place, hoping to strike it rich in one of the Western boomtowns. He watched as his father tried and failed to plant a farm in North Dakota, tried and failed to run a lunchroom in the backwoods of Washington state, sold bootleg liquor in Great Falls, Montana, poured the family's savings into an invention that was supposed to detect gold in the ground, and finally bought a piece of redwood forest in California, only to cut it all down and sell it for firewood. By the time Stegner was 20, he had lived in more than 20 different houses, including, at one point, a derailed dining car. But though he had a tough childhood, Stegner grew to love the great open wilderness of the American West.

Stegner managed to get into the University of Utah by the time he was 16, and he went on to get a Ph.D. in English literature. But while he was working on his dissertation, his brother died of a sudden attack of pneumonia. Then, his mother was killed by cancer. And finally, his father committed suicide. By the end of the 1930s, Stegner had lost his entire immediate family.

He'd already begun writing fiction, but he wanted to write a new kind of novel about the American West. At that time, the only novels being published about the West were full of cowboys and heroic pioneers. Stegner said, "I wanted to write about what happens to the pioneer virtues and the pioneer type of family when the frontiers are gone and the opportunities all used up. "The result was his first big success, his novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), loosely based on the experiences of his own family. It tells the story of a man named Bo Mason and his wife, Elsa, who travel over the American West, trying to make it rich.

Stegner went on to write dozens of novels about the West, including Angle of Repose (1971) and The Spectator Bird (1976). But he also started one of the most influential creative writing programs in the country, at Stanford University, where his students included Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, and Scott Turow.

It's the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison, (books by this author) born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio (1931). She didn't start writing fiction until she was in her 30s, working as an editor for Random House and raising two children. Her breakthrough book was the 1977 novel Song of Solomon. But Morrison is probably best known for her novel Beloved (1987), about a former slave named Sethe, living just after the Civil War, who is haunted by the ghost of the baby daughter she killed in order to save the girl from a life of slavery. It was after Beloved came out that Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature.

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, (books by this author) born in Heraklion on the island of Crete, Greece (1886). He's best known for his novels Zorba the Greek (1946) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1955).

He didn't make it big as a writer until he was 60 years old, with the publication of Zorba the Greek (1946). It's about an intellectual who travels to Crete with his uneducated friend Zorba to manage a group of mine workers. Kazantzakis wrote in Zorba the Greek: "How simple ... a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. ... All that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple ... heart."



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