Mar. 14, 2011

Journeyman's Wages

by Clemens Starck

To the waters of the Willamette I come
in nearly perfect weather,
Monday morning
traffic backed up at the bridge
a bad sign.
                Be on the job at eight,
boots crunching in gravel;
cinch up the tool belt, string out the cords
to where we left off on Friday—
that stack of old
form lumber, that bucket of rusty bolts
and those two beat-up sawhorses
wait patiently for us.

Gil is still drunk, red-eyed, pretending he's not
and threatening to quit;
Gordon is studying the prints.
Slab on grade, tilt-up panels, Glu-lams
and trusses...

Boys, I've got an idea—
Instead of a supermarket
Why couldn't this be a cathedral?

"Journeyman's Wages" by Clemens Starck, from Journeyman's Wages. © Story Line Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said: "I'm not much with people, and I'm not a family man. I want my peace. I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details." That's the physicist Albert Einstein, (books by this author) born on this day in Ulm, Germany (1879). It is often said that he was a terrible student who couldn't get a job after graduation. In truth, he was a good student, and always a star at math and physics. The issue wasn't with his performance so much as his attitude toward his teachers, many of whom knew less than he did — he was cocky about the fact that he was self-taught in science, and he was generally disrespectful. After he graduated from Zurich Polytechnic, none of his professors wanted to write him a recommendation, which he needed to get a good job in academia. Instead, when he finally got a job, it was as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern.

It turned out that the job suited him fine. During the day, he worked in the office as a "technical expert third class," and in the evenings, in his rental flat in Bern, he was able to work on his scientific ideas. For several years, he had been seeing a Serbian woman named Mileva Maric, a fellow physicist and mathematician. In 1902, the same year that he got the job as a patent clerk, the couple had a daughter named Lieserl. Maric went home to give birth in her Serbian village, and the Einsteins never mentioned Lieserl, even to their close friends. No one knew she existed until the late 1980s, when Einstein's papers were published, including letters between Albert and Mileva about their daughter. She apparently got scarlet fever in 1903 and then the record disappears — she may well have died from it, or been given up for adoption. The couple was married in 1903 and had two more children together, both sons.

The year 1905 is often referred to as Einstein's own personal annus mirabilis, or "year of miracles," because it was during that year that he published four important scientific papers in just a few months. Among the groundbreaking observations in those papers, he proposed that the scientific community was wrong in its assumption that light was a continuous wave, and that in fact, it was made up of distinct particles; and he first proposed his theory of special relativity with its famous equation e=mc2. He was only 26 years old. Scientists were not immediately convinced that Einstein was right, particularly about light particles, and although e=mc2 is famous now, at the time it didn't make much of a splash. He couldn't even get a low-level teaching job at a university — all he got was a promotion to "second-class" at the patent office.

He worked his way up slowly. By 1909, he was able to quit his job at the patent office and he became an adjunct professor of theoretical physics in Zurich. In 1914, he moved to a teaching post in Berlin. He worked on a "General Theory of Relativity," which he published in 1916.

The year 1919 was the next big one for Einstein. He divorced Mileva, married his cousin Elsa, and in May of 1919, two astronomers in different parts of the world observed a total solar eclipse and verified one of Einstein's theories in his General Theory of Relativity: that the gravitational field of the sun deflected light from stars, so they were actually in a different position than they appeared to be. The findings were announced in November in London, during a joint meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society. The president of the Royal Society declared: "This is the most important result related to the theory of gravitation since the days of Newton. ... This result is among the greatest achievements of human thinking." The New York Times wrote about Einstein's success in an article with the headlines: "Lights All Askew in the Heavens"; "Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations"; "Einstein Theory Triumphs"; "Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to be, but Nobody Need Worry." Suddenly, Einstein was famous. He said in 1919, "With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon."

In 1921, Einstein came to America for the first time for a lecture tour. He was accompanied by Chaim Weizmann, who went on to become the first president of Israel. Weizmann said later: "During the crossing, Einstein explained his theory to me every day, and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it." When a journalist asked Elsa if she understood it, she said, "Oh, no, although he has explained it to me many times. But it is not necessary to my happiness."

He got off the boat in Battery Park in Manhattan on April 2nd, 1921. The New York Times wrote: "A man in a faded gray raincoat and a flopping black felt hat that nearly concealed the gray hair that straggled over his ears stood on the boat deck of the steamship Rotterdam yesterday, timidly facing a battery of cameramen. In one hand he clutched a shiny briar pipe and with the other clung to a precious violin. He looked like an artist — a musician. He was. But underneath his shaggy locks was a scientific mind whose deductions have staggered the ablest intellects of Europe. One of his traveling companions described him as an 'intuitive physicist' whose speculative imagination is so vast that it senses great natural laws long before the reasoning faculty grasps and defines them."

Thousands of people had waited for hours to welcome Einstein. Some enthusiastic Jewish spectators sang both "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Hatikvah," a Zionist anthem. He was paraded through the streets of New York in a motorcade that lasted all afternoon and all evening, and he didn't make it to his hotel until 11:30 that night.

Einstein had already been considering a lecture tour in America to make some money — he called America "Dollaria" — but the universities he contacted were unwilling to pay the price he wanted, and the trip fizzled out. Then Weizmann asked if Einstein would accompany him on a mission to the United States to raise funds for a Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and an eventual settlement in Palestine. To everyone's surprise, Einstein — who was not a particularly devout Jew — accepted the invitation. He wrote to his publisher: "I must serve as famed bigwig and decoy-bird ... I am doing whatever I can for my tribal brethren, who are being treated so vilely everywhere."

For the most part, Weizmann's strategy worked. Some prominent American Zionists had quarreled with Weizmann over policy issues and resisted the fundraising efforts, but ordinary Americans turned out in masses to see the famous scientist. Huge crowds filled all his lectures and public appearances. In some cases deputies were hired to do crowd control; in other cases Einstein didn't even speak, just stood next to Weizmann, but got standing ovations anyway.

Einstein was gracious about giving interviews and turning up for sponsored events. In return, reporters covered Einstein's every move, and outdid each other in their attempts to describe him. One wrote: "It takes inconceivable intellectual courage to leave all conventional concepts behind and embark upon the un-known, the unconceived, as Professor Einstein has done, and that courage glowed from his calm dark eyes as he glanced out of the window at the April sunshine which poured down on a nearby building. And although they were thoughtful, there were kindly wrinkles about the corners, fugitive crow's-feet but spontaneous, ready at a second's notice to lend to that dreamy artist's face a humorous cast. Long hair fluffed up into a curly aureole, black turning to gray, crowned the head."

Einstein wrote some complimentary things about the United States: "What first strikes the visitor with amazement is the superiority of this country in matters of technology and organization. Objects of everyday use are more solid than in Europe, houses much more practically designed. [...] The second thing that strikes the visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life. The smile on the faces of the people in photographs is symbolical of one of the greatest assets of the American. He is friendly, self confident, optimistic — and without envy." But that was Einstein's public face. After the conclusion of his tour, in an interview with a Dutch newspaper, he said: "The vast enthusiasm for me in America appears to be typically American, though, and as far as I can judge I rather understand it: the people are so uncommonly bored, yes honestly much more so than is the case with us. And there is so little for them there anyhow. [...] So folks are happy when they are given something to play with and which they can revere, and that they then do with exceptional intensity. Most of all it is the women, by the way, who dominate all of American life. The men are interested in nothing at all; they work, work as I haven't seen anyone anywhere else. For the rest, they are toy dogs for their wives, who spend the money in the most excessive fashion and who shroud themselves in a veil of extravagance. They will do anything that's in vogue and in fashion, and, as it happens, have thrown themselves among the throngs of the 'Einstein-craze,' Does it make an outlandish impression upon me, the crowd's excitement here and there about my beliefs and theories, about which it doesn't understand anything? I find it amusing and also interesting to watch them. I certainly believe that it is the magic of non-comprehension that attracts them."

Despite his ambivalent feelings about his fame, Einstein was a good self-promoter, a natural speaker, and throughout his career, he was happy to be photographed. He didn't need to be prompted to stick out his tongue or ride on a bicycle. People loved his goofy hair and vagabond image. He described himself to his cousin's eight-year-old daughter: "I hear from Elsa that you are dissatisfied because you did not see your uncle Einstein. Let me therefore tell you what I look like: pale face, long hair, and a tiny beginning of a paunch. In addition an awkward gait, and a cigar in the mouth — if he happens to have a cigar — and a pen in his pocket or his hand. But crooked legs and warts he does not have, and so he is quite handsome — also no hair on his hands such as is often found on ugly men. So it is indeed a pity that you did not see me."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of the bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beach, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). She opened a bookstore and lending library on the Left Bank of Paris called Shakespeare and Company, which stocked English-language books. She handpicked her books, she had copies of all the new innovative literary magazines, and she sold contemporary literature that was banned in America and England. Shakespeare and Company became known as "the unofficial living room" of the expatriate artists living in Paris, writers like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Sylvia Beach met Joyce in 1920, just as he was finishing Ulysses. He couldn't get it published because all the big presses thought it was too obscene, so she offered to publish it for him, even though she'd never published a book before. To fund the project, she got people to buy advance copies. She had no editors, so she edited the huge manuscript herself, and she published it on Joyce's birthday, February 2, 1922.

During the Nazi occupation of France, people urged Beach to return to America, but she didn't want to leave her bookstore or her community. In 1941, a German officer wanted to buy the copy of Finnegans Wake that was on display in the shop window, and Sylvia refused to sell it to him. He threatened to confiscate everything in her shop. Within a few hours, Sylvia and a few friends moved all the books into hiding in an upstairs apartment and painted over the name on the door, and Shakespeare & Company vanished.

But the real trouble came to Sylvia Beach because she had kept an 18-year-old Jewish girl on the payroll as her assistant. The Nazis had warned Sylvia to get rid of the girl if she knew what was good for her, but she refused. The girl was put on a train to Poland and never heard from again, and Sylvia was sent to an internment camp for six months. After her release, she didn't have the heart to reopen her bookstore. But for more than 50 years, there has been a second Shakespeare and Company bookstore on the Left Bank, run by George Whitman and his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman. It is a haven for young writers, who can sleep on beds in the store in exchange for working a couple of hours a day shelving books.

Ernest Hemmingway wrote about Sylvia Beach: "Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal's and as gay as a young girl's, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me."

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




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