Wednesday Sep. 6, 2017

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Nature Walk

The fern fronds glow with a clean, green light,
and I lift one and point out the spores, curled
like sleep on the back, the rows so straight,
so even, that I might be convinced of Providence
at this moment. My daughter is seven.
She looks at the spores, at the leaf, at the plant,
at this wise, wide forest we are in, and sighs
at my pointing out yet another Nature Fact.
But look, I say, each one is a baby ready
to grow. Each one can become its own fern
But she is already moving down the path
toward the bridge and whatever’s beyond.

“Nature Walk” by Gillian Wegener from This Sweet Haphazard. © Sixteen Rivers Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1916, the first self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis, Tennessee. Piggly Wiggly was the first grocery store to let customers choose their own products. Before Piggly Wiggly, you handed your grocery list to a clerk, who walked around the store and selected your items for you on a shelf, and then rang you up. A former grocery store clerk named Clarence Saunders thought this practice was inefficient: it relied on heavy man-hours and made products more expensive. He thought customers should be able to choose their items themselves, and they should have a wide variety of products and prices to choose from.

The first Piggly Wiggly opened in Memphis at 79 Jefferson Avenue. Cans of Campbell soup were 8 cents each; you could buy a packet of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes for 2 cents. The flagship store had a turnstile and individual items were marked by price. It was called a “self-service” store, and customers were free to walk around, select their groceries, and then pay cash for them at the counter. Piggy Wiggly employees were the first to wear uniforms. Piggly Wiggly’s were the first to use refrigerated cases, so items stayed fresh longer.

The store was such a hit that by 1932, there were more than 2,500 Piggly Wiggly franchises. Shopping carts were introduced in a store in Oklahoma in 1937.

The success of the store inspired other retail models with unusual names, like Handy Andy, Helpy-Selfy, Mick-or-Mack, and Jitney Jungle.

Saunders built a pink marble mansion in Memphis called the Pink Palace. It was originally designed to include a pipe organ, a ballroom, indoor swimming pool, and a bowling alley. Because of a stock mishap, Saunders eventually lost control of Piggly Wiggly, and never finished his mansion. The city of Memphis bought it, and it’s now a natural history museum with a full walk-through model of the original Piggly Wiggly store.

Clarence Saunders refused to say how he came up with the name “Piggly Wiggly.” One story is that he was inspired by viewing little pigs from a train window. When people asked him about the name, he said, “So people will ask that very question.”

Today is the birthday of social reformer and peace activist Jane Addams (books by this author), born in Cedarville, Illinois (1860). When she was in her 20s, she and her friend Ellen Gates Starr took the Grand Tour of Europe, an excursion that was popular for young people at the time, in which they traveled widely before choosing marriage or school. Addams had already graduated from the Rockford Female Seminary in 1881, but she also suffered depression, and physical pain related to a childhood disability, and she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do.

Addams and Gates toured the social settlements in London, which were housing units dedicated to assisting the large influx of immigrants to the city. The social settlements were created as a response to issues created by poverty, education, and urbanization. While in London, Addams visited a vegetable market and was appalled at the sight of vendors throwing bread and food in the air as a sport for paupers. The paupers clawed and scraped for tiny morsels of food. Addams was struck by how inhumanely the poor were treated. She and Gates vowed to do something when they returned to Chicago. She said, “We have all accepted bread from someone, at least until we were fourteen.” For the rest of her life, she never forgot the sight of the paupers in London, their hands raised desperately in the air for food. Even watching dance performances and doing calisthenics reminded her of their desperation.

Addams lived in Chicago’s 19th Ward, which was populated mostly by immigrants from Poland, Mexico, Greece, Russia, and Bohemia. She was alarmed by the number of women who were forced to leave their children at home to go to work. Some of them even tied their children to chairs to keep them safe. She and Gates raised money from other wealthy women, and found a large mansion in need of repair. They named it Hull-House, and within two years, they were serving 2,000 residents a week.

Hull-House held classes in cooking, English language, and citizenship, and even operated a day care, library, art gallery, and a kindergarten. Addams was a firm believer that education could lift children from dire circumstances. She said: “America’s future will be determined by the home and the school. The child becomes largely what he is taught; hence we must watch what we teach, and how we live.”

Addams was a prolific and ardent supporter of peace, cofounding The Women’s Peace Party and serving as the first president. She was so committed to change within the city of Chicago that she took a post as the garbage inspector for the 19th Ward at a salary of $1,000 a year. She was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Yale University, and she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Jane Addams lived at Hull-House until her death in 1935. She once said: “I am not one of those who believe — broadly speaking — that women are better than men. We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislatures, nor done many unholy things that men have done; but then we must remember that we have not had the chance.”

Her books include Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922) and 20 Years at Hull-House (1910).

Today is the birthday of American novelist Alice Sebold (books by this author), born in Madison, Wisconsin (1963). She’s best known for her novel The Lovely Bones (2002), about a girl named Susie Salmon who is abducted and murdered in the early 1970s. Susie narrates the book from heaven, where she observes her parents, her friends, and her murderer. In Susie Salmon’s heaven, there are schools, but no teachers; the textbooks are fashion magazines; and there are peppermint-stick ice cream machines everywhere. When the book was published, it sold more than a million copies in the first month and was called the most successful debut since Gone With the Wind.

Alice Sebold was raised in Philadelphia’s upper-class Main Line, though she often felt like an outcast. She says she was “too arty, too fat, and too loud,” and wanted to be an artist, though she was torn between being a poet, Bette Midler, or Ethel Merman.

As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Sebold was sexually assaulted in a tunnel on her way home one night. She eventually identified her attacker and testified against him in court. She wrote a memoir about the experience, called Lucky (1999), which began as 10-page exercise in a writing class. She hoped writing the book would help her, but it didn’t. She drifted around for years, and even became addicted to heroin, until she finally got a job as a caretaker at an arts colony in the woods in California. She lived in a small cabin without electricity and, by propane light, began writing a book she called Monsters, about a 14-year-old girl who is kidnapped. It took her 10 years to write the book that became The Lovely Bones, which was made into a film (2009).

When asked why she writes about violent experiences, Sebold answered: “I was motivated to write about violence because I believe it’s not unusual. I see it as just a part of life, and I think we get in trouble when we separate people who’ve experienced it from those who haven’t. Though it’s a horrible experience, it’s not as if violence hasn’t affected many of us.”

Sebold often reads poetry for inspiration before she starts her daily writing. She says: “There’s something about reading the right poets that makes your own drive a little bit more diffuse. When I finally get to the page, I’m not hammering at it like a nail, I’m more available to the subconscious than I would be if it was just all me and my narrative lines. But every novel is so different in its process and in its characters and the writer’s attachment, when it’s written, what stage of life, all that stuff […] It feels like I’ve finally reached a point where I’m working in a way that I really enjoy.”

Alice Sebold gets up every day at 4 a.m. to write because, she says, “If you start in the dark, the judges are all asleep.” On finding her character’s voices, she says: “It takes me so long to find the character, by the time I find her, it feels like she’s been waiting around tapping her foot for years. She’s impatient and ready to tell her story.”

An act of Parliament closed all English theaters on this date in 1642. The English Civil War was a conflict between King Charles I and his Parliamentarian opponents; trouble had been brewing for a while but civil war broke out in earnest in the summer of 1642, when Charles raised an army to quell an uprising in Ireland against the wishes of Parliament. Parliament closed all theaters, theoretically because “whereas Public Sports do not well agree with Public Calamities, nor Public Stage-plays with the Seasons of Humiliation […] it is therefore thought fit […] that, while these sad causes and set Times of Humiliation do continue, Public Stage Plays shall cease, and be forborn, instead of which are recommended to the People of this Land the profitable and seasonable considerations of Repentance, Reconciliation, and Peace with God …” The real reason for the closure was that Royalists were using theaters as a cover to meet and conspire against the Parliamentarians. As a result of the closure, many great playhouses in use during Shakespeare’s day were allowed to fall to pieces. The theaters were allowed to reopen in 1660, when the monarchy was restored in the person of Charles II. He was a great patron of the stage, and the Restoration was a vibrant period in the history of the English theater.

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