Jan. 5, 2006

What She Taught Me

by Marjorie Saiser

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Poem: "What She Taught Me" by Marjorie Saiser from Lost in Seward County. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission.

What She Taught Me

She taught me linking verbs, predicate nouns,
long division, have a Kleenex ready, an apple
a day. She taught me three-quarter time, Greenwich

Mean Time. She taught me do re mi, Mexicali Rose,
Rose, Rose, my Rose of San Antone. She taught me
Peas Peas Peas Peas, Eating Goober Peas.
She taught me that a peanut is a goober pea

in certain parts of the world, that it is fine
for things to be different in different parts
of the world, no two goobers alike in their

dry red skins, their pock-marked pods,
that there are latitudes and longitudes we have
never seen, that she had seen some part,
and so would I, that I need not

forego either the swings or baseball, that spelling
is on Friday and it is OK to learn more
than one list, including the hard list; it is not

showing off—it is using what you have.
That using what you have will not please
everybody, that marrying a man of a different stripe

is not a popular thing in a small town in the fifties,
and divorcing and coming home with a child
is even worse, and that you
get up every morning anyway,
and do your work.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the poet W. D. (William DeWitt) Snodgrass, born in Wilkinsberg, Pennsylvania (1926), the author of the collections Heart's Needle (1959), and The Fuhrer Bunker (1977).

It's the birthday of King Camp Gillette, born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin (1855). His original idea as an inventor was to build a great utopian metropolis entirely powered by Niagara Falls which would house all sixty million Americans in great complexes of twenty-five story buildings on the south shore of Lake Ontario.

When he couldn't find support for that project he decided it would be better to invent something that almost everybody would find essential. He saw that if it were possible to throw away old razor blades and buy news ones instead of sharpening the old ones over and over again, at least half the people in the country would become prospective customers. Metal experts at MIT told him that sharpening little slivers of metal with a machine would be impossible; soon, another researcher designed an automatic honing device that did the job.

By 1895 he had made a crude disposable razor and within ten years had perfected the concept of giving the handles away to get people to buy the blades. Even as the head of a large capitalist concern he continued to cherish utopian dreams and he wrote books about a world in which "Selfishness would be unknown and war would be a barbarism of the past."

It's the birthday of Umberto Eco, born in the Piedmont region of Italy (1932). One of his household chores as a boy was to go down in the basement to retrieve the coal for the fire and it was down in that basement that he found his grandfather's collection of old books by Jules Verne, Marco Polo and Charles Darwin. Eco said, "I spent hours opening the old books and forgetting the coal."

He'd grown up under the Fascist dictatorship of Mussolini and when he heard on the radio in 1943 that Mussolini had been imprisoned he couldn't believe it. He said, "It was inconceivable that this man, who since my birth had been a god, had been kicked out; I was astonished, amazed, amused... like a butterfly from a chrysalis, step by step I understood everything." He spent the last two years of World War II avoiding German soldiers and dodging bullets in the street. He began reading American literature and listening to jazz as a way of defying the Fascists.

He studied philosophy and chose to focus on the field of semiotics, in which all products of culture, from television commercials to lawn ornaments, are analyzed for their complex meanings. He wrote serious essays about James Bond movies and Superman comics and other products of pop culture that had previously been ignored by literary critics. Eco said, "I'm not saying there's no difference between Homer and Walt Disney. But Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is."

Eco became one of the most renowned scholars in his field in part because he was so productive. He taught himself to walk faster, eat faster, and shave faster, all in an effort to get more work done. He once said, "I could work in the shower if I had plastic paper."

Then, one day, an Italian fiction publisher called him up and asked him if he'd like to contribute to a collection of detective fiction written by academics. Eco had never written any fiction, but the idea intrigued him so he told the publisher that he would work on something. He had spent his academic career studying the meaning of popular culture and how he had a chance to produce it himself. He got an idea for a murder mystery set in a monastery in the middle ages, and though he filled it with history, philosophy, and theology, he also used every trick he'd ever learned from studying detective novels and spy movies.

When Eco finished the novel called The Name of the Rose, he though his publishers were being way too optimistic when they ordered 30,000 copies to be printed. But when it came out in 1980, The Name of the Rose sold 2 million copies. It was one of the most successful novels ever written by an Italian author. Within a few years Umberto Eco had become one of the most famous intellectuals on the planet.

He's continued writing novels since then, including Foucault's Pendulum (1988) and The Island of The Day Before (1995).

Umberto Eco wrote, "I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."

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




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