Jun. 19, 2002

Mom in Milwaukee

by Matt Cook

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Poem: "Mom in Milwaukee," by Matt Cook from In The Small of My Backyard (Manic D Press).

Mom in Milwaukee

My mother doesn't understand why we live in Milwaukee.
Every time she visits, it's always the grayest, ugliest day outside.

People who look like deformed potatoes are urinating in public;
Disturbed war veterans are combing the lawns of the county park system
With those metal detector things.

Motorists at stoplights next to you
Are altogether unapologetic
About littering Chicken McNugget dipping sauce containers
Out passenger-side windows.

You'll see a car for sale in a vacant lot-
A tree growing through its engine.
You'll see the ruins of a dead snowman, or something.

Then Mother leaves town-
At once the sunbeams break through the clouds,
Passerby look beautiful and sophisticated.
Garbage men have top hats and cigarette cases-
The ranch houses have simian gargoyles.
Independent rock and roll bands are tolerably harmonious
And the Mexican food is suddenly better than New Mexico.

It's the birthday of author Salman Rushdie, born in Bombay, India (1947). The son of a prosperous Muslim businessman, Rushdie was sent to England to study. After graduating from Cambridge University, he found employment as an advertising copywriter. His first novel, Grimus, was published in 1975. His second book, Midnight's Children (1981), won critical acclaim, as well as England's prestigious Booker Prize, and established his writing style of including fantasy, surreal characters, and dark humor.

It's the birthday of novelist, short story writer and memoirist Tobias Wolff, born in Birmingham, Alabama (1945). His first collection was In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (1981). Following several more short story collections, Wolff published This Boy's Life (1989), a memoir of his boyhood outside Seattle with his mother and his domineering step-father, portrayed by Robert De Niro in the 1993 film of the book. His next book, also a memoir, was In Pharaoh's Army (1994), an account of Wolff's wartime experiences.

It's the birthday of film critic Pauline Kael, born in Petaluma, California (1919). In 1966, she was writing reviews for McCall's magazine, but was fired when she panned The Sound of Music. Two years later, she began writing for The New Yorker, where she stayed until her retirement in 1991.

It's the birthday of biochemist Ernest Chain, born in Berlin, Germany (1906). When Hitler came to power, Chain emigrated to England. Chain, along with Doctor Howard Florey, began to work on antibiotics and enzymes. During this study, Chain came across a study on penicillin, a germ-killing substance discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Fleming had not, however, discovered how to use the substance in humans; it was Chain and Florey who were able to complete successful clinical trials with the drug in early 1941. Because of the wartime need for penicillin, the British government was not able to produce enough of the substance, and enlisted the aid of American pharmaceutical houses. Many thousands of Allied soldiers' lives were saved because of the development of this drug, and in 1945, Fleming, Florey, and Chain received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

It's the birthday of mathematician, physicist, and theologian Blaise Pascal, born in Clermont-Ferrand, France (1623), who made major contributions to several different fields of science, as well as theological thought, in his short lifetime. At the age of seventeen, he presented a paper on the mathematical attributes of sections of cones, which led to the development of projective geometry. At nineteen, looking for a way to help his father in his administrative duties, Pascal invented a computing machine, the pascaline, capable of adding and subtracting numbers, which was a precursor of the modern-day calculator and computer. In 1647, Pascal became interested in a scientific debate about whether a vacuum could exist in nature. Pascal conducted experiments to prove that vacuums could exist, which led him to formulate the hydraulic principle that "pressure exerted on a fluid in a closed vessel is transmitted unchanged throughout the fluid." This principle is used today in such devices as syringes, hydraulic presses, automobile brakes, and aircraft controls. Pascal later helped develop the science of probabilities. He spent much of his life in conflict between science and religion, and was one of the first philosophers to seriously question the existence of God. But in 1654, he experienced a revelation, the account of which he carried sewn into his coat lining until his death. He came to the conclusion that there was no science to prove the existence of God, but that humans must rely on their faith. He said, "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of." Pascal's last scientific effort was the design of a public transit system for the city of Paris, which was instituted in 1662, the same year that he died, at the age of thirty-nine.

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