Aug. 12, 2012

Nobody Loves You

by Ramon Montaigne

Once I lived a life of some renown,
People looked up to me in this town
They listened to what I had to say.
I was well-regarded at Bud's cafe.
Then one dark day they passed a law: no smoking, zero, nada.
And I became persona non grata.
Now I go out on the sidewalk to take a drag
Me and the homeless lady with the garbage bag.

Ginger Rogers smoked and so did Fred Astaire,
Clark Gable and Cary Grant.
And nowadays you simply can't.
People don't want elegance. They want Clean Air.
Me and Bogey and Ernie Hemingway,
Huck Finn, Woody Guthrie, Prince Andre,
Members of a noble, fatalist elite,
Forced to stand out on the street.
One cold day I was talking to Chopin,
Who was shivering, smoking a cigarette. Turkish.
Is this a decent way to treat a man
Who wrote those magnificent mazurkas?

"Nobody Loves You" by Ramon Montaigne. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Isaac Merritt Singer patented his first commercial sewing machine on this date in 1851. Singer didn't invent the sewing machine — many people had already come up with the idea, and some of them had even produced working prototypes. Elias Howe had gotten the first American patent for his machine in 1846. Singer had improved on the design and made it much more practical and efficient. His was the first to use an up-and-down needle movement that was powered by a foot treadle, but his machine used a lockstitch pattern that Howe had patented, and Howe sued him for infringement. Singer lost, and had to pay royalties to Howe. Because Singer had figured out how to mass-produce the sewing machine, he made Howe a rich man off of the royalty payments alone. A few years later, Singer began marketing a machine for home use. Realizing that it would probably be too costly for the average housewife, he also pioneered something that would dramatically change American consumer practices: buying on credit and making installment payments.

It's the birthday of filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, born in Ashfield, Massachusetts (1881). He made 70 films from 1914 to 1956, and all but six of them made money. He loved to produce lavish spectacles with a cast of thousands, and his first splashy historical drama was Joan the Woman (1916), about Joan of Arc. Joan the Woman was one of the movies that lost money, so the studio didn't green-light another spectacle for several years. But even when the plot line was fairly domestic, as in Don't Change Your Husband (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920), he often included elaborate flashback sequences of historical scenes.

He got a second chance at spectacle in 1923, when he made The Ten Commandments. It was one of the biggest moneymakers of the silent film era, but it went way over budget, and DeMille lost his job with Famous Players-Lasky, the studio with which he had had a contract. He remade The Ten Commandments in 1956, and while he was filming on location in Egypt, DeMille had a massive heart attack. He went back to work after a week, against his doctor's orders. He managed to finish the film, but it was his last, and he died in 1959.

Today is the birthday of English poet Robert Southey (books by this author), born in Bristol (1774). He was a member of the Romantic movement, one of the Lake Poets, and was poet laureate from 1813 until his death in 1843.

Like many of his contemporaries, Southey started out a radical and became more conservative as the years went on. Some poets accused him of selling out his principles for money and position, and Southey and Lord Byron in particular exchanged harsh words. Byron mocked Southey's poems and wrote parodies of them. Southey, in turn, criticized Byron and his friends for their lascivious lifestyle, and called them "the Satanic school" of poetry.

Southey was a prolific and respected biographer, and coined the term "autobiography." He was the first to write down the fairy tale "The Three Bears" when he included it in a collection of his writings in 1837. In his version, the intruder was a nosy, ill-tempered old woman, rather than a little girl, and the name "Goldilocks" didn't even figure in the story until the early 20th century. He also wrote the nursery rhyme "What Are Little Boys Made Of?"

Today is the birthday of Zerna Sharp (books by this author), born in Hillsburg, Indiana (1889). She was a writer and elementary school teacher who created the "Dick and Jane" series of books for beginning readers. She was concerned about the low literacy rates she encountered as she traveled, and felt that children would be more receptive to reading if the stories featured kids they could relate to, and had colorful illustrations. In 1927, Sharp approached reading expert William Gray, and he agreed it would be a good way to get his reading method into the classroom. So she came up with a young brother and sister named Dick and Jane, and gradually added in more family members: Mother, Father, little sister Sally, Spot the dog, Puff the cat, and even Tim the teddy bear. She kept the storylines simple, and the sentences short and repetitive: "Run, Spot, run. Oh, oh, oh. Funny, funny Spot." The Dick and Jane books first entered classrooms in 1930 and were routinely used until the late 1960s, when educators began calling for materials to reflect the diversity in their classrooms. They went out of print during the 1970s, but were reissued in 2003, much to the delight of nostalgic baby boomers, who bought 2.5 million books in the first year and a half.

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