Oct. 22, 2011

What she craved

by Marge Piercy

My mother sugared grapefruit;
my father salted it.
My mother sugared cantaloupe;
my father salted it.

My mother put sugar and lemon
on leaf lettuce from her garden;
two heaping teaspoonfuls into
her milky coffee, with cake.

Her teeth rotted out and were
yanked from her bleeding jaws
by a cheap sadist downtown.
Still she craved sweetness.

In a life with too much that
was bitter, tear soaked salty,
sour as unspoken grief,
sugar was her comfort

a little sweetness in the mouth
lingering like an infrequent kiss.;
sugar was the friend kept her clock
ticking through running down days.

"What she craved" by Marge Piercy, from The Art of Blessing the Day. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734). His birth date is sometimes given as November 2, because the "new style" Gregorian calendar was adopted during his lifetime. Boone himself considered October 22 to be his birthday. He was born near Reading, Pennsylvania; his father, Squire, was a weaver and a blacksmith, and the family were Quakers. Daniel was the sixth of 11 children. He enjoyed hunting from a young age, employing both European and Native American techniques, and though he did learn to read and write, hunting and outdoor pursuits made up the bulk of his education. He usually took a book or two on his longer expeditions — often the Bible or Gulliver's Travels — and would entertain the other men by reading them stories around the campfire of an evening.

When Daniel was 16, the Boones moved to North Carolina, possibly because the family was shunned after two of the children married non-Quakers; it made an impression on Daniel, because never went back to church, although he still considered himself a Christian, and he had all of his 10 children baptized. It's rather remarkable that he managed to have such a large family, because his hunting and exploring expeditions frequently kept him away from home and his wife, Rebecca, sometimes for up to two years at a stretch. He supported his family by hunting and trapping in the fall and winter, and selling the furs and hides to traders in the spring. Though Boone wasn't the first European to discover Kentucky, he did blaze a trail through the Cumberland Gap and make the first European settlements in the region possible. The Wilderness Road, which ran from eastern Virginia well into the Kentucky territory, became the main route into the west.

Boone became a legend in his own lifetime. He was a taciturn man, but that didn't stop biographers from interviewing him and then embellishing his exploits until they became tall tales. They credited him with implausible pronouncements, like "Let peace, descending from her native heaven, bid her olives spring amidst the joyful nations; and plenty, in league with commerce, scatter blessings from her copious hand!" Lord Byron included him in his epic Don Juan (1822) and perpetuated the popular image of Boone as a man who shunned society. Boone, however, complained late in life about "the circulation of absurd stories that I retire as civilization advances."

It's the 200th birthday of Romantic composer and piano virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811). He was born in Raiding, Hungary, and was composing by the age of eight. By the time he was 16, he was exhausted from studying and touring all over Europe, and he expressed a desire to become a priest. He earned his living as a piano teacher after his father died, and when he was 17, he fell in love with one of his pupils. Her father insisted she end the romance, at which point Liszt became so ill that his obituary appeared in a Paris newspaper. He gave up on the idea of the priesthood, but later in life spent many years composing religious music inspired by his interest in Gregorian plainsong; the religious establishment didn't approve of it, and so it wasn't published until many years after his death. In the 1860s, following the death of two of his children, he eventually joined a monastery outside Rome. Though he received the four minor orders of porter, acolyte, exorcist, and lector, he never became a priest.

In many ways, Liszt was ahead of his time, and not just musically. He gained a reputation as a humanitarian, and at the height of his popularity he would give concerts specifically to earn money for disaster relief. By the late 1850s, he was so wealthy that he gave all of his concert fees to charity. Liszt was also charismatic, and his onstage presence inspired what may have been the first example of widespread fan frenzy. It began in Berlin in 1842 and came to be known as "Lisztomania." His admirers would follow him around, snatching up his discarded cigar butts, coffee dregs, and broken piano strings. They fought over his handkerchiefs and gloves, and would scream and faint at his performances. Rather than being considered a harmless and amusing fad, Lisztomania was viewed as a serious, and contagious, medical condition.

Today is the birthday of Hungarian photojournalist Robert Capa (1913). He was born Endre Ernö Friedmann in Budapest. He originally wanted to become a writer, but he happened to get a photography job in Berlin as a young man, and he fell in love with the lens. He took the name "Robert Capa" from his boyhood nickname, Cápa, which means "shark."

He covered five wars in his brief life: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. He famously said, "If your picture isn't good enough, you're not close enough," and he lived up to this maxim on his assignments. On D-Day, he swam ashore with the second assault wave on Omaha Beach, and took more than a hundred photographs; a lab error resulted in the loss of all but eight of them. In 1947, he traveled into the Soviet Union with his friend John Steinbeck, and the two of them produced a book called A Russian Journal (1948).

In 1954, he accepted an assignment from Life to cover the First Indochina War. He began the last day of his life optimistically: "This is going to be a beautiful story," he said. "I will be on my good behavior today. I will not insult my colleagues, and I will not once mention the excellence of my work." Later that day, he left the French regiment with which he was traveling to walk ahead so he could photograph the advance. He went over a hill and out of sight, where he stepped on a landmine and was killed.

It's the 60th birthday of Canadian author Elizabeth Hay (1951) (books by this author), born in Owen Sound, Ontario. Her parents were strict in most things, but they let her read whatever she wanted to. "The public library was almost a second home," she recalled, "a place in which I didn't have to set the table or do the dishes or cope with being teased." When she was 14, the family moved to London — England, not Ontario — for a year, and this was where she learned that she enjoyed writing poems. She eventually gave up poetry in favor of fiction: "I wasn't a very good poet and didn't know how to become a better one. Also, stories drew me. My short stories usually arise from something that's worrying me." Her first collection, Crossing the Snow Line, was published in 1989; since then she's written another story collection, Small Change (1997), and four novels, including Late Nights On Air (2007) and Alone in the Classroom (2011). She's also written several essays and two books of creative nonfiction, The Only Snow in Havana (1992) and Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (1993).

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