Apr. 6, 2010


by Jack Ridl

My grandfather grew up holding rags,
pounding his fist into the pocket
of a ball glove, gripping a plumb line
for his father who built what anyone
needed. At sixteen, wanting to work on
his own, he lied about his age
and for forty-nine years carried his lunch
to the assembly line where he stood
tightening bolts on air brake after
air brake along the monotonous belt.
I once asked him how he did that all
those years. He looked at me, said,
"I don't understand. It was only
eight hours a day," then closed
his fists. Every night after dinner
and a pilsner, he worked some more.
In the summer, he'd turn the clay,
grow tomatoes, turnips, peas,
and potatoes behind borders
of bluebells and English daisies,
and marigolds to keep away the rabbits.
When the weather turned to frost,
he went to the basement where,
until the seeds came in March,
he made perfect picture frames, each
glistening with layers of sweet shellac.
His hands were never bored. Even
in his last years, arthritis locking every
knuckle, he sat in the kitchen carving
wooden houses you could set on a shelf,
one after another, each one different.

"Hands" by Jack Ridl, from Broken Symmetry. © Wayne State University Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1917 that the United States declared war against Germany and entered WWI. A few days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had informed Congress that "the world must be made safe for democracy."

One of the Americans who went over to fight was 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway, (books by this author) who worked as an ambulance driver. He sent his parents a letter from Milan in 1918, a few months after being struck by a mortar shell and wounded while handing out chocolate to Italian soldiers in a dugout. In his letter, he said: "It does give you an awfully satisfactory feeling to be wounded. It's getting beaten up in a good cause. ... And how much better to die in all the happy period of undisillusioned youth, to go out in a blaze of light, than to have your body worn out and old and illusions shattered. So, dear old family, don't ever worry about me! It isn't bad to be wounded: I know, because I've experienced it. And if I die, I'm lucky. Does all that sound like the crazy, wild kid you sent out to learn about the world a year ago? It is a great old world, though, and I've always had a good time and the odds are all in favor of coming back to the old place. But I thought I'd tell you how I felt about it. Now I'll write you a nice, cheery, bunky letter in about a week, so don't get low over this one. I love you all. Ernie."

It's the birthday of critic, novelist, and short-story writer Robert Coates, (books by this author) born in New Haven, Connecticut (1897). He worked as a journalist and wrote pamphlets for the American Rubber Company, but he didn't like it very much. So in 1921, he left the United States and went to Paris and became part of the circle of American expatriates there. Gertrude Stein helped him publish his experimental first novel, The Eater of Darkness (1926), and Coates introduced her to Hemingway. After a while he moved back to the United States and got a job with the recently launched New Yorker, writing short stories and book reviews and serving as the magazine's art critic for 30 years. It was in the pages of The New Yorker that Coates coined the term "abstract expressionism."

It's the birthday of Renaissance painter Raphael, born in Urbino, Italy (1483). He only lived to be 37, but he was extremely prolific, and he is remembered for his Madonnas and the serene, technically perfect qualities of his work.

It was on this day in 1327 that the Italian sonneteer Petrarch (books by this author) first saw his beloved Laura, during a Holy Week service at the Church of Sainte-Claire d'Avignon. No one has ever been able to prove whether or not Laura really existed, but she was probably Laure de Noves, a noblewoman living in Avignon with her husband Hugues de Sade.

Petrarch was 22 years old, and she was a teenager, maybe 17. He fell instantly in love. He wrote: "It was the day when the sun's heavy rays / Grew pale in pity of his suffering Lord / When I fell captive, lady, to the gaze / Of your fair eyes, fast bound in love's strong cord." Given the content of his poetry, it seems likely that the two never had an affair, but for the rest of his life he idealized her and wrote sonnets about her beauty and purity.

It's the birthday of molecular biologist James Dewey Watson, born in Chicago (1928). He went to England as a research fellow at Cambridge University, and there he met a graduate student, Francis Crick, who became a close friend and collaborator. They started work on the structure of DNA. They weren't the only scientists working on it — Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in London had done important research on the structure, and Franklin in particular had realized that the phosphate backbones were on the outside of the molecule, and that at least in one form, DNA took the shape of a helix. But female scientists weren't taken as seriously as their male counterparts — they weren't even allowed to eat lunch in the same room — and Wilkins was frustrated with Franklin, so he showed her data to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. The two took her research and made the next big leap, imagining DNA as a double helix of nucleotides, and in 1953 Watson and Crick published their findings in the journal Nature. Watson was only 25 years old.

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