Jul. 19, 2008

Up against the Sea

by David Wagoner

At the foot of the cliff, the sea is taking back
what it left there long ago, and the landowners
have made a barricade of three old cars
between low and high tide and loaded them
with so many river stones, they've been weighed down
below their springs, below their shock absorbers.

The waves are breaking over the side panels,
on blurred teenage graffiti, and barnacles
and tougher limpets have made themselves at home
on mats and cushions, on the salt versions
of vinyl and rust. The sea is welcoming
all of them, as ever, as passengers
at the end of a lover's leap, at the beginning
of a joy ride down an old lover's lane again.

"Up against the Sea" by David Wagoner from A Map of the Night. © University of Illinois Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1799, French soldiers found the famous Rosetta Stone. They were tearing down a wall in the town of Rosetta, thirty miles north of Alexandria in Egypt, and found the famous tablet inscribed with a proclamation honoring Ptolemy V, carved in three alphabetic systems: hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. It served as the key to decoding Egyptian hieroglyphics, which had puzzled archeologists up to that time. It's now on display at the British Museum in London.

On this day in 1848, a convention on women's rights was held at Seneca Falls, New York, which was organized by Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the convention, they discussed property rights, divorce and women's suffrage. It was the start of the organized women's rights movement in America. But it wasn't until 72 years after the convention, in 1920, that women finally achieved the right to vote.

It's the birthday of the man who brought Starbucks to street corners everywhere — Howard Schultz, born in Brooklyn, New York (1953), and raised there in federally subsidized housing projects. His dad earned a living driving taxis and trucks, and his mom worked as a receptionist.

Schultz remembers that his father worked hard and yet was unable still to provide a comfortable life or even essentials like health care for his family, and the memory of his father's frustration and low self-esteem, and the unfairness of the situation, was a driving motivation for Schultz's progressive business practices when he founded Starbucks.

He graduated from college, the first in his family to do so, then went to work for the Xerox Corporation in the sales and marketing department. He was then recruited by a Swedish housewares company that sold coffee-making equipment to Starbucks, a client in Seattle that roasted and sold beans in bulk at 11 retail stores and through mail order.

On a vacation to Italy in 1983 he had an epiphany. Sitting at an espresso bar in Milan, he realized that their strong fresh brewed coffee was an integral part of people's daily lives, that the coffeehouse was a third place for people after home and work. He decided that this could happen in Seattle.

He tried to encourage his business partners back home to start an operation like this, but they were not convinced of its profitability. So he left the company and started his own chain of espresso bars based in Seattle and called them Il Giornale. When his old company Starbucks was up for sale in 1987, he eagerly bought the chain and merged the stores with his own.

He decided that with his new company he would place an emphasis on customer service. "Service is a lost art in America. ... It's not viewed as a professional job to work behind a counter," he once said. "We don't believe that. We want to provide our people with dignity and self-esteem, so we offer tangible benefits." The company trains new "partners," as the baristas are called, for eight to 12 weeks and provides health insurance, dental, and eye care even for part-time employees. Schultz proudly cites his company's low attrition rate, in comparison to similar businesses, as an indication of his employees' sense of satisfaction. The average "partner" age is between 24 and 25.

Starbucks ventured into the entertainment industry over the past several years. Schultz said, "In a way [customers are] relying on us to provide them with an opportunity to discover things that they, perhaps, would not have discovered on their own, either because they weren't looking for it or they're no longer in the habit of going to those stores." The store in 2004 released Ray Charles's "Genius Loves Company," which was a best-selling album. Starbucks' Hear Music record label had Paul McCartney as its first signed artist. The store has also had three books that became New York Times No. 1 best sellers.

Starbucks now has some 16,000 stores in 45 countries.

It's the birthday of politician George McGovern, born in Avon, South Dakota (1922), who was the son of a Methodist minister who played pro baseball before his ordination. As a student at Dakota Wesleyan University, he was president of the sophomore and junior classes and won an oratory contest with a speech entitled "My Brother's Keeper." A bomber pilot in World War II, he flew 29 combat missions before his plane was badly damaged over Vienna and his navigator killed. He survived a crash landing on an island in the Adriatic Sea and won a Distinguished Flying Cross before returning for five more missions. Although both of his parents were Republicans, McGovern ran for Congress in 1956 as a Democrat and won, the first South Dakota Democrat to go to the House of Representatives in 22 years. After a losing campaign in 1960, he was elected to the Senate in 1962, and, upon re-election in '68, emerged as a leading opponent to the war in Vietnam. He said, "I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."

And, "The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher plain."

"You know, sometimes, when they say you're ahead of your time, it's just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing."

It's the birthday of French Impressionist Edgar Degas, born in Paris (1834), best known for his paintings and pastels of ballet dancers and his bronze sculptures of ballerinas and racehorses. After he became completely blind in one eye, and nearly so in the other, he began to work in sculpture, which he called "a blind man's art." Degas stayed bachelor his entire life, saying, "There is love and there is work, and we only have one heart."

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