Dec. 14, 2008


by Virgil Suarez

When we first arrived in the United States
from Franco's Spain, everything we encountered

or bought had "free" written on it.
The boxes of cereal spoke of a free mystery

surprise, the junk mail came bundled,
and somehow that word sang to us.

My father and I got wise—the word
became cheap, untrustworthy, hollow.

Having been fooled before, we knew what "free"
really meant. We learned lessons the hard way;

nothing free ever came so easily, but my mother—
who had heard stories of people throwing

out television sets, sofas, washing machines,
perfectly good chairs—believed in this land

of plenty where people discarded simply
because things were old or someone

had grown tired of them. She believed
in all that was cast to the curb. A cousin

who cruised the neighborhood streets
for these free goods told her of his finds

over the telephone. On the weekends,
she sent my father and me out to hunt,

to find these throwaways, but we always
came back empty-handed. We never

really looked. We stopped for donuts
or to watch a baseball game at the park.

Now, years later, my father dead, my mother
gets the mail, the catalogs, and she sends

it all up to me in Tallahassee, and she's circled
the word "free" and asks me what the deal is.

Most Sundays I try to convince her once
and for all that there are no deals, that nothing

is free, then there's silence over the line,
and I can hear her thinking otherwise.

She is a woman who wants to cling to something
as simple as a two-for-one deal, the extra, the much

more, lo gratis: these simple things she knows
have kept us going all these exiled years.

"Free" by Virgil Suárez, from 90 Miles: Selected and New Poems. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Shirley Jackson, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1919). Her short story "The Lottery" made her famous when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948. It's a story about a small New England town where one resident is chosen by lottery each year to be stoned to death. She wrote the story in two hours.

It's the birthday of short-story writer Amy Hempel, born in Chicago, Illinois (1951). As a young woman, she had a series of traumatic experiences: Her mother committed suicide, and she got into a motorcycle accident and a car accident, all within a short space of time. She became so afraid of death that she decided the only way to conquer her fear was to enroll in an anatomy class and dissect cadavers, and it worked. She got a job counseling terminally ill patients. But she wanted to write fiction, so she moved to New York City and wrote a series of extremely short stories about the strange people she'd known, and that became her first collection, Reasons to Live (1985). The Collected Stories came out in 2006.

It was on this day in 1900 that the physicist Max Planck published his theory of quantum mechanics. The basic idea behind quantum mechanics is that particles of light, as well as other subatomic particles, are unpredictable by nature. If you shoot them across the room, you can never predict exactly where they will end up. The physicist Richard Feynman once said that while only a few people truly understand the theory of relativity, no one understands quantum mechanics. Max Planck himself died in 1947, and he never came to fully accept his own theory, which he published on this day in 1900. But his discovery led to the development of modern electronics, including the transistor, the laser, and the computer.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show