Mar. 29, 2011


by John Updike

Show me a piece of land that God forgot—
a strip between an unused sidewalk, say,
and a bulldozed lot, rich in broken glass—
and there, July on, will be chicory,

its leggy hollow stems staggering skyward,
its leaves rough-hairy and lanceolate,
like pointed shoes too cheap for elves to wear,
its button-blooms the tenderest mauve-blue.

How good of it to risk the roadside fumes,
the oil-soaked heat reflected from asphalt,
and wretched earth dun-colored like cement,
too packed for any other seed to probe.

It sends a deep taproot (delicious, boiled),
is relished by all livestock, lends its leaves
to salads and cooked greens, but will not thrive
in cultivated soil: it must be free.

"Chicory" by John Updike, from Americana and Other Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Oscar Wilde wrote, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and leaves one unsatisfied. What more could one want?" On this day in 2004, the Republic of Ireland became the first country to completely ban cigarette smoking from the workplace. Great Britain soon followed, instituting a ban to be phased in gradually over the next four years, which prompted author and columnist A.N. Wilson to remark in the Telegraph: "Sitting with my drink in such now-empty bars, my mind has turned to the great smokers of the past — to C.S. Lewis, who smoked 60 cigarettes a day between pipes with his friends Charles Williams (cigarette smoker) and Tolkien (pipe-smoker); to Thomas Carlyle, whose wife made him smoke in the kitchen of their house in Cheyne Row, but who is unimaginable without tobacco, to Robert Browning, who quickly adapted to the new cigarette craze, to the great John Cowper Powys, who continued to smoke cigarettes, and to produce fascinating novels, into his nineties ... This attack on basic liberty, which was allowed through without any significant protest, might mark the end not merely of smoking, but of literature."

From nicotine to caffeine: on this day in 1886, John Pemberton brewed the first batch of Coca-Cola in his backyard in Georgia. It was first sold at Jacob's Pharmacy in Atlanta on May 8th of that year, as a patent medicine for the treatment of, among other things, morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence. The name reflected its two key ingredients, which were cocaine, from the coca leaf, and caffeine, from the kola nut.

The brand has become inextricably tied to the American identity; ads were painted by Norman Rockwell, the Andrews Sisters sang about it, Ozzie and Harriet endorsed it, Andy Warhol painted its trademark "hobble-skirt" bottles, which were so designed to make them easy to find when a thirsty customer groped for them in a bucket of ice water. The American depiction of Santa Claus is often credited to a Coke ad from 1931. Forty years later, in 1971, a group of fresh-faced, multicultural young people joined hands on a hilltop and sang, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company" in a TV commercial, and the song went on to become a hit single.

Today is the birthday of author, actor, and comedian Amy Sedaris (books by this author). Born in Endicott, New York, in 1961, she grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her five siblings. Humorist and author David Sedaris is her big brother, and, billed as The Talent Family, the two have collaborated on several plays, including Stump the Host (1993), Stitches (1994), Incident at Cobblers Knob (1997), and The Little Frieda Mysteries (1997).

Drawn to quirky characters, she's had small roles in many TV shows and movies, and is a frequent guest on The Late Show with David Letterman. She's collaborated with Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello since their early days together in Chicago's Second City, and she played Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old former prostitute who returns to high school in the series and movie Strangers with Candy. She'll use any old excuse to put on a fat suit, whether professionally, for a role, or personally, to mess with her weight-conscious father.

She's written a couple of books too: a mixture of real recipes and offbeat hints on hosting parties, called I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (2008), which is full of helpful advice, like, "A red onion and pumpernickel croutons will jazz up any salad" and "crunchy will always punch up soggy," but "never have bumpy and lumpy on the same plate."
Or ...
"Don't leave a piece of jewelry at his house so you can go back and get it later; he may be with his real girlfriend."
Or ...
"I think it's good for a person to spend time alone. It gives them an opportunity to discover who they are and to figure out why they are always alone."

Her most recent book is Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People (2010), which was described by The Wall Street Journal as "a Girl Scout Jamboree overtaken by circus freaks." She believes that googly eyes enhance the "irresistibility factor" of any project.

Amy is also an avid house-rabbit keeper. Her first rabbit, named Tattletail, was vice president of Tattletail Industries, Amy's part-time cupcake, cheeseball, and catering business, which she runs out of her Greenwich Village apartment. Tattletail passed away and was succeeded by Dusty, who has luxurious fur and sleeps in a "bunny condo" built by designer Todd Oldham, and Amy renamed the company Dusty Food Cupcakes.

It's the birthday of Eric Idle (books by this author), comedian, author, actor, singer, comedy writer, and composer, best known as an alumnus of the Monty Python troupe. Born in 1943 in South Shields in the northeast of England to Ernest, a rear gunner in the RAF, and Nora, a community health nurse. Ernest survived the war only to die in a car crash on Christmas Eve, 1945, when Eric was only two years old.

When he was seven, Eric's mother, Nora, enrolled him in the Royal Wolverhampton School as a boarder. Unfortunately, Wolverhampton embodied most of the negative stereotypes one associates with English boarding schools, but it nevertheless left him well suited for a career in comedy. As Idle put it, "It was a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid to grow up in. I got used to dealing with groups of boys and getting on with life in unpleasant circumstances and being smart and funny and subversive at the expense of authority. Perfect training for Python."

Because he found school boring and wasn't interested in sports, he studied a lot as a way to pass the time, and subsequently went to Cambridge. He studied English and was invited to join the elite Footlights Dramatic Club, where he met fellow future Python members Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

Eric has also written two novels, a play, a children's book, two musicals, and many of the musical numbers used in connection with Python, including "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." In 2004, he reworked Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot, a Broadway musical, and in 2007 he presented a "comic oratorio" called Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy), which was based on Monty Python's Life of Brian and a spoof of Handel's Messiah.

It's the birthday of novelist and screenwriter Judith Guest (books by this author), born in Detroit in 1936. She was a public school teacher for several years, but had been writing since the age of 10, mostly starting projects and sticking them in drawers, unfinished. After reading a book called One Way to Write Your Novel by Richard Perry, she resolved to start — and finish — a novel, and three years later, Ordinary People was completed. Though it had begun as a short story, she kept exploring the characters' pasts and following them into their futures, and then it was 200 pages long. She didn't find a publishing home for Ordinary People right away, but she persisted, and eventually Viking Press bought it, the first time in 26 years they had accepted an unsolicited manuscript, and published it in 1976. The book won a Janet Heidegger Kafka award for "best first novel."

The novel explores the lives of a Midwestern family trying to rebuild their lives after the drowning death of their oldest son, Buck, and the subsequent suicide attempt of younger son Conrad. Robert Redford, looking for a project with which to make his directorial debut, literally turned up on the doorstep of Guest's Twin Cities home. He chose wisely, and Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1980. Redford also took home Best Director, beating Martin Scorsese, who was nominated for Raging Bull.

Though Ordinary People remains her most famous work, she's written four other books (her latest, The Tarnished Eye, based on a real-life unsolved murder in Michigan, came out in 2004), an essay, "The Mythic Family" (1988), and numerous screenplays. She hates doing book tours that take her away from the meditative practice of writing: "The fame part doesn't nourish in that way," she said in Twin Cities daily culture digest Secrets of the City. "The problem is that it feels kind of good for a few minutes a day, so you keep wanting more of it. But it's like eating carbs. The more you eat them, the more you want to eat them."

Today is the birthday of the poet Ronald Stuart Thomas (books by this author), published as R.S. Thomas, born in 1913 in Cardiff, Wales. He was an only child, and his father Huw (pronounced HUGH) was in the merchant navy, so the small family moved from seaside town to seaside town, until Huw eventually got a steady job with a ferry company that ran between Wales and Ireland and they were able to settle in one place. The Thomas household was an English-speaking one, and Ronald didn't learn to speak Welsh until he was 30, which troubled him, because he regretted not being fluent enough to compose poetry in what should have been his native tongue.

His mother suggested he enter the Anglican priesthood after he finished school. "Shy as I was," he wrote, "I offered no resistance." His first posting was as a curate in Chirk, in northeast Wales, and this is where he met the woman who would be his wife for 51 years, Mildred Eldridge, known as Elsi. She was an artist, and this inspired him to write poetry. They had one son, Gwydion, born in 1945, and lived a simple life in a small cottage with few modern conveniences — largely by Thomas's choice.

He retired from the clergy in 1978 and became a passionate and outspoken advocate of Welsh nationalism and a harsh critic of the English, whom he viewed as conquerors. He was often just as contemptuous of his countrymen, however — bitter and angry with them for letting their culture slip away. He called them "an impotent people ... sick with inbreeding / worrying the carcass of an old song." He wrote his autobiography — titled Neb, meaning "nobody" — in Welsh.

Nearly all of his work focused on the landscape and people of Wales, usually with a political or religious subtext; his poems are stark and spare, as unforgiving as the Welsh landscape. "Austere" is a word that comes up frequently in reviews. He wrote: "A recurring ideal, I find, is that of simplicity. At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes." In poems like "A Marriage," written on the death of his wife, he succeeds: "We met / under a shower / of bird-notes." Thomas died in 2000 at the age of 87.

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