Sunday Nov. 5, 2017

0:00/ 0:00

Bread and Butter

       for Michael

I often wonder how people figured
things out—simple things like bread
and butter. How did the first person know
to grind and knead and bake,
to milk and skim and churn?
How did someone realize they could soak
olives in lye or let grape juice ferment
inside casks of oak? How, when
we first leaned toward each other,
did our tongues know to touch
before our brains knew
we were going to kiss at all?

“Bread and Butter” by Gayle Brandeis from The Selfless Bliss of the Body. © Finishing Line Press, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of American playwright and actor Sam Shepard (books by this author), born in Fort Sheridan, Illinois (1943), and best known for plays that probe the lives of people on the outskirts of American society, like Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1978), and True West (1980). He also appeared in more than 40 films as an actor, most famously in The Right Stuff (1983), in which he portrayed Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the speed of sound. Shepard had an intense fear of flying, but agreed to let Yeager take him up in a jet for research. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role.

Shepard’s father was an Air Force pilot and a Spanish teacher and the family moved a lot. He grew up in various towns in New Mexico and in California, where he graduated high school. He briefly thought of becoming a veterinarian, but after working on thoroughbred ranches throughout California, he moved to New York City to try his hand at being a drummer in a band called The Holy Modal Rounders.

His first job in New York City was working for a detective agency guarding coal barges on the East River. He didn’t have much to do, but he got to sit by himself in a little outbuilding, with an electric heater and a desk, so he read a lot of Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett and began writing. He also worked as a busboy at The Village Gate, a famous jazz club on Bleecker Street, and the club’s headwaiter introduced him to the off-off Broadway theater scene, made up of tiny theaters of fewer than a 100 seats. It didn’t take long to get his first plays produced. Shepard said: “Things just took off. New York was like that in the ’60s. You could write a one-act play and start doing it the next day. Nothing like that exists now.”

About his early plays, which tended to be short and brutal, he said: “I didn’t really know how to structure a play. I could write dialogue, but I just sort of failed beyond that, and kind of went where I wanted to go.”

Shepard wrote over 40 plays and won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child (1979). His characters are often rootless and questioning. In the play True West, one characters says to another: “You can’t believe people when they look you in the eyes. You gotta look behind them. See what they’re standing in front of. What they’re hiding. Everyone’s hiding, Wes. Everybody. Nobody look like what they are.”

When Shepard lived in Minnesota with his fiancé, actress Jessica Lange, he wrote in a barn on a typewriter. The barn had a piano, old drawings on the wall, and lots of books. He began writing his play Simpatico (1994) in a truck on the way to Los Angeles, scribbling on paper against the steering wheel. He wrote 25 pages that way over 500 miles.

On writing, he said: “I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

And: “I’ve heard writers talk about ‘discovering a voice,’ but to me, it wasn’t a problem. There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. It was splendid, really, like I was a weird stenographer.”

Today is Guy Fawkes Day, celebrating the day in 1605 when police foiled the so-called Gunpowder Plot by seizing Guy Fawkes before he could blow up the English Parliament. Fawkes was a British soldier who had converted to Roman Catholicism at a time when the British government was making it a crime to be a Catholic. Catholic Masses were held in secret chapels, clergy had to go into hiding and sleep in closets, and families that refused to attend Protestant services suffered crippling fines.

Fawkes became so disgusted by British Protestantism that he left England and enlisted in the Spanish army in the Netherlands. He became known as a soldier of great courage. At that time, a small group of Catholics were secretly planning to assassinate the Protestant King James I, and they enlisted Fawkes to help them execute the plot, and he agreed.

They rented a cellar under the Parliament building, and Fawkes planted more than 20 barrels of gunpowder there, in the hopes of blowing up the king. The rest of their plan included an uprising in the Midlands, and the crowning of a puppet queen: the king’s young daughter, Elizabeth. But an anonymous tip gave up the plot to the authorities and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed, ready to light the fuse. He managed to withstand torture on the rack for two days before giving up the names of his co-conspirators.

For Catholics, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot only worsened their oppression. They could no longer practice law, serve as officers in the army or navy, nor vote in local or parliamentary elections. Some British authorities even suggested that Catholics should have to wear red hats in public.

November 5th came to be celebrated as a holiday in England and in the early American Colonies. People would build bonfires, light off fireworks, and burn Guy Fawkes in effigy. But even in England, the holiday has been overshadowed by the American import of Halloween, and British adults often lament how no one really celebrates Guy Fawkes Day anymore.

It’s the birthday of American journalist Ida Tarbell (1857) (books by this author), best known for The History of the Standard Oil Company, a 19-part series of articles in McClure’s in 1902 that exposed the questionable business practices of the Standard Oil Company. The series eventually led the Supreme Court to break Standard Oil’s monopoly. Tarbell’s tenacious exposure of political and economic greed became known as “muckraking” and she was frequently referred to as “the terror of the trusts.” Tarbell is considered an early pioneer in investigative reporting.

Tarbell was born on a farm in Erie County, Pennsylvania, the daughter of an oil producer whose livelihood was severely diminished by an 1872 price-fixing scheme devised by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Standard Oil Company. Smaller producers were forced to sell Standard and if they didn’t, their businesses suffered. Watching these events unfold left a strong impression on young Tarbell, who became the only woman in her graduating class at Allegheny College.

About witnessing the effect of Standard Oil’s shady practices on local families and the regional economy, she once said: “There was born in me a hatred of privilege, privilege of any sort. It was all pretty hazy, to be sure, but it still was well, at 15, to have one definite plan based on things seen and heard, ready for a future platform of social and economic justice if I should ever awake to my need of one.”

Ida Tarbell lectured on journalism and unfair business practices, and often spoke about sexual equality and the need for social reform. She even encouraged sewing girls to go on strike to improve their working conditions. She became so famous and influential that in 1914, Henry Ford tried to convince her to join his “celebrity-laden” “Peace Ship” to help end World War I. Tarbell found the idea preposterous and refused. She also had her critics, like Jane Addams, the progressive reformer, who admonished Tarbell for referring to the Women’s Suffrage movement as “unnecessary,” saying, “There is some limitation to Ida Tarbell’s mind.” Tarbell never supported women’s right to vote.

Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company stands as one of the most important works of journalism in the 20th century. Her autobiography, All in the Day’s Work, was published in 1939. She refused to start writing it until she was 80 years old.

She once said: “I have never had illusions about the value of my individual contribution! I realized early that what a man or a woman does is built on what those who have gone before have done, that its real value depends on making the matter in hand a little clearer, a little sounder for those who come after. Nobody begins or ends anything. Each person is a link, weak or strong, in an endless chain. One of our gravest mistakes is persuading ourselves that nobody has passed this way before.”

Before she died, a reporter asked what she would change if she had the chance to rewrite History of Standard Oil. Ida Tarbell responded, “Not one word, young man. Not one word.”

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