Apr. 19, 2011


by May Swenson

Yellow telephones
in a row in the garden
are ringing,
shrill with light.

Old-fashioned spring
brings earliest models out
each April the same,
naïve and classical.

Look into the yolk-
colored mouthpieces
alert with echoes.
Say hello to time.

"Daffodils" by May Swenson, from Nature: Poems Old and New. © Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The longest-running primetime TV sitcom in history debuted on this day in 1987. The Simpsons began as a video short on The Tracy Ullman Show. Two years later it was spun off on its own and has now aired more than 475 episodes. It has received numerous awards, including 27 Emmys, 27 Annie Awards (awards given out for animation), and a Peabody. The Simpson family has their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Matt Groening has said that his goal in creating The Simpsons was to offer audiences an alternative to the "mainstream trash" they were watching. And while the show often tackles heavy-hitting topics like religion, climate change, poverty, gun control, and nuclear power, its silly jokes and occasionally coarse humor have put some people off. In the early '90s, President George H.W. Bush encouraged Americans to be more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons. First Lady Barbara Bush called The Simpsons "the dumbest thing she had ever seen."

But to be like Simpsons may not be so bad after all. The characters embrace and reflect some of the best qualities of the American middle class. Homer is prone to making bad choices, of course, but he is well-meaning, earnest, and a faithful husband. Like many Americans, he works a steady if unfulfilling job to support his family. Marge is a devoted homemaker who would go to any lengths for her children and who loves her husband; Bart is a free spirit who distrusts authority; and Lisa, a vegetarian and environmentalist who reads a lot, is the voice of concern and informed outrage.

Many famous writers, artists, and thinkers have made guest appearances on the show, including authors Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Stephen King, Amy Tan, J.K. Rowling, Jonathan Franzen, Gore Vidal, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, artist Jasper Johns, and architect Frank Gehry.

Some critics consider the seasons between 1992 and 1997 the show's best for biting satire and exceptional writing, and they worry that today the show has lost its edge. But a recent episode featuring an opening sequence illustrated by the British anti-establishment graffiti artist Banksy was as subversive and relevant as anything the show has done. The sequence opens on a filthy sweatshop full of low-wage illustrators working on future Simpsons episodes (a gag that hits close to home since a large portion of The Simpsons has been illustrated in South Korea since the early '90s). Then, as a dark version of the theme music plays, the screen shows children working in unsafe conditions, kittens being ground up into Bart Simpson dolls, and an unhappy unicorn punching the center hole in Simpsons DVDs. The final frame showed the Fox logo (Fox produces and airs the show) surrounded by barbed wire.

Love them or hate them, the Simpson family has had a major impact on American culture. In Chris Turner's book Planet Simpson, Syracuse professor Robert Thompson is quoted as saying, "Three centuries from now, English professors are going to be regarding Homer Simpson as one of the greatest creations in human storytelling."

Of his aspirations, Homer said, "All my life I've had one dream: to achieve my many goals."

Of surviving in life, he said, "Three sentences will get you through life. Number one, 'Cover for me.' Number two, 'Oh, good idea, Boss.' Number three, 'It was like that when I got here.'"
Of his marriage, he talks with Marge:
Marge: Homer, is this the way you pictured married life?
Homer: Pretty much. Except we drove around in a van solving mysteries.

Of responsibility, he said, "You can't keep blaming yourself. Just blame yourself once, and move on."

On this spring day in 1944, three months before the family was found and arrested, Anne Frank (books by this author) wrote in her diary: "Is there anything more beautiful in the world than to sit before an open window and enjoy nature, to listen to the birds singing, feel the sun on your cheeks and have a darling boy in your arms?"

It is the birthday of literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1938). He earned a Ph.D. from Yale, and taught English at UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and Duke. He currently teaches at Florida International University and is a regular contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Fish developed an influential and controversial theory about how readers interpret literature. He said that works of literature have no meaning on their own; they only become meaningful when a reader brings his or her unique cultural perspective to the story. Many leading critics vehemently disagree with Fish. Britain's best-known literary critic, Terry Eagleton, has called Fish's ideas "sinister."

He is the author of 13 books, including his most recent, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, which is a paean to beautiful sentences in the history of literature and a guide to the art of sentence writing. Of good sentences, he writes, "We marvel at them; we read them aloud to our friends and spouses, even, occasionally, to passersby; we analyze them; we lament our inability to match them."

From the archives:

It is the birthday of Sarah Kemble Knight (books by this author), born in Boston (1666). When she was in her 30s, Knight rode on horseback from Boston to New York by herself, and she kept a diary of her journey. The trip was remarkable for a woman in early colonial America, and her arrival so astonishes the daughter of her first hosts that the girl pesters Knight with questions, exclaims that she's never seen a woman "on the Rode so dreadfull late," and forgets to invite her to sit down.

Knight's diary is also noteworthy for its rollicking humor. She records the manners, or lack thereof, of everyone she meets, notes which guesthouse mattresses are too hard, and thinks twice about some of the food she is served. One meal consists of an unidentified, spreadable "twisted thing" mixed with pork and cabbage, which she suspects are the hosts' leftovers from the night before.

At one guesthouse, the two men in the neighboring room get in a fight about the name of the county they live in — one claims it had been named after a nearby briar patch, and the other maintains it was named after a nearby spring. Before long, their voices thunder through the wall and destroy any chance Knight might have of a good night's sleep. Finally, she gives up, lights a candle, "and setting up, fell to my old way of composing my Resentments, in the following manner:

I ask thy Aid, O Potent Rum!
To Charm these wrangling Topers Dum.
Thou hast their Giddy Brains possest —
The man confounded with the Beast —
And I, poor I, can get no rest.
Intoxicate them with thy fumes:
O still their Tongues till morning comes!"

It is the birthday of Canadian playwright Sharon Pollock (books by this author), born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada (1936). As a child, Pollock loved reading and was the president of her grade-school drama club. Once, she and a friend skipped school for three straight weeks to go every day to the movies. When her father found out, he sent her to private school because he assumed if you could skip school for that long and still get decent grades, school wasn't hard enough.

Pollock's mother committed suicide when she was 18, and she found solace in her college Drama Society. She met and married Ross Pollock two years later and together they had five children. But Ross violently abused her, and Pollock tried to kill him by grinding up birth control pills and putting them in his food. She was unsuccessful, and after he violently attacked her in 1964, she took the children and left him.

She has written more than 20 plays, including Blood Relations, which retells the story of ax murderer Lizzie Borden from a feminist perspective. She is currently at work on a project for the Atlantic Ballet Company.

On this day in 1897, the Boston Marathon was run for the first time. It is the world's oldest annual marathon. Women were not allowed to run until 1972, but in 1967 Kathrine Switzer defied the rules and registered. She was assigned a number and started the race, but when an official named Jock Semple spotted her, he chased her and tried to rip off her number. A fellow runner pushed Semple out of the way and Switzer crossed the finish line in four hours and 20 minutes. Last year 42 percent of the 21,000 Marathon runners were women.

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




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