Feb. 7, 2011

The Center of Gravity

by Ron Padgett

The military Jeep was said
to have had a high center
of gravity, therefore
subject to tipping:
if you took a curve too fast
you might turn over.
A person with very short legs
has a low center of gravity
and will not tip over easily.
The ottoman likewise.
When a person is lying flat
he or she has the lowest center
of gravity possible, as does
a sheet of paper on a table.
People floating around
in outer space have little
or no center of gravity
because there's not enough gravity
to have a center.
Gravidanza is the Italian word
for pregnancy, which sounds
more serious than the English word
and may remind us of sentences such as
"The situation is very grave."
Every situation has gravity,
it's a question of how much.
People too have gravity—
of manner, of morals, and of body.
It is good to have gravity
but not too much of it:
like a bag of cement,
you might not be able to move
around or make ethical distinctions.
But with too little of it
you are flighty, your feet
hardly touch the ground.
Though cement and flightiness
have their charms,
it's better to find
your center of gravity
and have it be the place
you radiate out from.

Once I lay in bed ill, unable to move,
but in my head
I was flying and bouncing around.
But illness has no charm
and when it becomes very grave
your gravity edges toward
the most perfect center of gravity ever.

"The Center of Gravity" by Ron Padgett, from How Long. © Coffee House Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of journalist Gay Talese, (books by this author) born in Ocean City, New Jersey (1932). He's credited with developing "New Journalism," a style where techniques of fiction like dialogue, character development, scene-setting, and interior monologue are applied to reporting.

He's the son of Italian immigrants to New Jersey. His dad was a tailor, a "dour but debonair" one, and his mom ran a shop that sold dresses to, he said, "decorous women of amble figures and means." His mother was quite successful as a dress-seller because she was a good listener, and he said that her best customers were women "less in need of new dresses than the need to communicate." Young Gay spent a lot of time at the store, doing chores and eavesdropping as women discussed their private lives and gossiped about their neighbors.

For him, it was only a short leap from eavesdropping at the dress shop to journalistic research. He said that his approach to storytelling and research evolved out of his family's shop, and he drew inspiration from the people who came into the store, whom he thought of as characters in a Victorian play.

He majored in journalism in college and got hired as a copyboy for The New York Times. It was his job to fetch sandwiches and coffee. Once, when he was walking across Times Square, he noticed a man on a ladder, typing into what looked like an accordion or small church organ. It was the guy who made the headlines appear in bright flashing lights above Times Square. He stopped to interview the man, found out that his first headline was "Herbert Hoover defeats Al Smith," and decided to write a story about the man, who'd been putting up headlines for decades.

The editors at The Times loved the idea, let him write the story, and promoted him to reporter. He wrote for the Times for 10 years, then moved to Esquire because he wanted to be able to write long-format pieces. One of the first pieces he did at the magazine was about the staff in the city room at The New York Times. His Esquire article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" was later named the "best story Esquire ever published."

He likes writing about private lives that represent bigger trends in history and society. He wrote about the history of The New York Times in his book The Kingdom and the Power (1969). He wrote about the Mafia in his book Honor Thy Father (1971). For his book Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980), which is about the sexual revolution of the 1970s, he conducted research by hanging out at nudist colonies, massage parlors, and a swingers' retreat in California.

Each morning, he wakes up and dresses in a suit and tie, goes downstairs to his window-less "bunker," a converted wine cellar, has orange juice and coffee and muffins, changes into an ascot, sweaters, and a scarf, and begins to write. He writes in longhand, and then he uses a typewriter, because, he says, he wants "to be forced to work slowly." He writes a single page a day. When he's close to being done with his story, he types it on the computer.

When he's reporting, he takes notes on cardboard shirt-boards, which he has cut into four parts and rounded the edges so that they fit into his pockets. He writes his story outlines on full shirt boards; he's been doing this since the 1950s. He's been married for more than 50 years to Nan Talese, an editor and publishing executive, and she reads aloud to him every page that he writes.

He's the author of A Writer's Life (2006), as well as a collection of his sports writing, The Silent Season of a Hero (2010), which came out just last fall.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Laura Ingalls Wilder, (books by this author) born in Pepin, Wisconsin, in 1867. She is the author of the Little House books.

It's the birthday of Charles Dickens, (books by this author) born in Portsmouth, England (1812), who had a relatively happy childhood until his father's debts sent the Dickens family into poverty. At the age of 12, Charles was pulled out of school and had to work in a factory pasting the labels onto shoe polish, while his younger siblings lived with his parents in debtors' prison. In some of his most famous novels, Oliver Twist (1837–38), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), and A Christmas Carol (1843), he revealed the plight of England's poor. After he became one of the most famous men in England, Dickens used his wealth and influence to convince the upper classes to give to the poor. He was also opposed to capital punishment and worked internationally for prison reform, helped set up a halfway house for former prostitutes, and promoted public education and better sanitation systems throughout England.

It’s the birthday of novelist (Harry) Sinclair Lewis, (books by this author) born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota (1885). He felt stifled by Sauk Centre and once tried to run away to fight in the Spanish-American War when he was 13. He escaped to the East Coast for college at Yale University, and during school vacations he would smuggle himself onto cattle ships heading for England. As a young man, he tried to get a job working on the Panama Canal, and he traveled across 40 states in the U.S. working as a journalist. Though he spent time in 14 countries in Europe and traveled through Venezuela, Colombia, and Russia, the majority of his books are set in small-town Midwestern America. His first success was his novel Main Street (1920), about a rebellious woman named Carol Kennicott, who is ostracized by the citizens of the fictional small town of Gopher Prairie.

He went on to write many other books, including Babbitt (1922) and Arrowsmith (1925). In 1930, he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature.

It's the birthday of lexicographer Sir James Murray (books by this author) born in Denholm, Scotland (1837). He was the president of the Philological Society in London, and in 1879 he became the editor of a 10-year project called the New English Dictionary (later known as the Oxford Dictionary). When he died in 1915, more than 30 years after he started work on it, Murray had compiled roughly half of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary.

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