Monday Mar. 14, 2016

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Winter, Spring

Winter is black and beige down here
from drought. Suddenly in March
there’s a good rain and in a couple
of weeks we are enveloped in green.
Green everywhere in the mesquites, oaks,
cottonwoods, the bowers of thick
willow bushes the warblers love
for reasons of food or the branches,
the tiny aphids they eat with relish.

Each year it is a surprise
that the world can turn green again.
It is the grandest surprise in life,
the birds coming back from the south to my open
arms, which they fly past, aiming at the feeders.

“Winter, Spring” by Jim Harrison from Dead Man’s Float. © Copper Canyon Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the physicist who said: “Why is it that nobody understands me, and everybody likes me?” That’s Albert Einstein (books by this author), born in Ulm, Germany (1879). As a boy, he was slow to begin speaking, which worried his parents, and later, as a student, he was unremarkable. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich with a teaching degree, but despite his obvious intelligence, his grades weren’t very good — he skipped classes he disliked, and refused to work on projects that didn’t interest him. After graduation, he was the only member of his class not offered a teaching job at the institute, and he spent two years trying unsuccessfully to find a permanent teaching position. Finally, he gave up and applied to work as a technical assistant at the Swiss patent office in Bern. He was hired, and he went to work six days a week, eight hours a day. The work was easy for him, and he earned 3,500 Swiss francs a year.

At the patent office, he worked all day at a lectern, reviewing applications of inventions to see if they were worthy of receiving patents. He said: “Working on the final formulation of technological patents was a veritable blessing for me. It enforced many-sided thinking and also provided important stimuli to physical thought.” His boss encouraged him to be skeptical of every application, not to be taken in by the assumptions of the would-be inventors, and Einstein took the work seriously and was a strict reviewer. Because he was so efficient, he was able to get a day’s work done in just a few hours, which left him the rest of the day to pursue his own scientific ideas. He kept all his notes and theories in the second drawer of his desk, which he called his “theoretical physics department.”

Einstein tried to manage his time evenly: eight hours a day at work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for everything else — although in reality, that “everything else” often cut into his sleep. One of the things he did in his free time was meet with a group of friends to discuss physics and philosophy. Before he secured the job at the patent office in June of 1902, Einstein had advertised himself as a physics tutor. A Romanian philosophy student named Maurice Solovine saw his ad in the paper and went to Einstein’s house to sign up. The two men talked for hours, and after a few more sessions, Einstein decided they should abandon the idea of a tutor-student relationship and just get together to talk as peers. Soon they expanded the group to include others, and named themselves the Olympia Academy. They gathered at Einstein’s apartment, where they ate sausages, cheese, and fruit, and debated the ideas of great thinkers.

All of these ideas about philosophy and theoretical physics were in Einstein’s head as he sat in the patent office conducting what he called his gedankenexperimenten, or thought experiments. He also considered the patents he was reviewing, many of them about electric light, power, the mechanisms of clocks, and electromagnetism. Einstein called the patent office “that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas.”

In the year 1905, while he worked as a patent clerk, Einstein published four papers that changed the field of physics. These papers were about his particle theory of light; determining the size of molecules suspended in liquid, and how to determine their motion; and special relativity, including his famous equation relating energy and matter: E=mc².

He said, “All of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.”

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was published on this date in 1939 (books by this author). The story of the Joad family — migrants who left the Dust Bowl to find work on the farms of California — was a critical and commercial success, selling nearly half a million copies during its first year of publication.

It’s the birthday of the bookseller and publisher Sylvia Beach, born in Baltimore, Maryland (1887). She opened a bookstore and lending library on the Left Bank of Paris called Shakespeare and Company, which stocked English-language books. She handpicked her books, she had copies of all the new innovative literary magazines, and she sold contemporary literature that was banned in America and England. Shakespeare and Company became known as “the unofficial living room” of the expatriate artists living in Paris, writers like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. Sylvia Beach met Joyce in 1920, just as he was finishing Ulysses. He couldn’t get it published because all the big presses thought it was too obscene, so she offered to publish it for him, even though she’d never published a book before. To fund the project, she got people to buy advanced copies. She had no editors, so she edited the huge manuscript herself, and she published it on Joyce’s birthday, February 2, 1922.

During the Nazi occupation of France, people urged Beach to return to America, but she didn’t want to leave her bookstore or her community. In 1941, a German officer wanted to buy the copy of Finnegans Wake that was on display in the shop window, and Sylvia refused to sell it to him. He threatened to confiscate everything in her shop. Within a few hours, Sylvia and a few friends moved all the books into hiding in an upstairs apartment and painted over the name on the door, and Shakespeare and Company vanished.

But the real trouble came to Sylvia Beach because she had kept an 18-year-old Jewish girl on the payroll as her assistant. The Nazis had warned Sylvia to get rid of the girl if she knew what was good for her, but she refused. The girl was put on a train to Poland and never heard from again, and Sylvia was sent to an internment camp for six months. After her release, she didn’t have the heart to reopen her bookstore. But for more than 50 years, there has been a second Shakespeare and Company bookstore on the Left Bank, run by George Whitman and his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman. It is a haven for young writers, who can sleep on beds in the store in exchange for working a couple of hours a day shelving books.

Ernest Hemingway wrote about Sylvia Beach: “Sylvia had a lively, sharply sculptured face, brown eyes that were as alive as a small animal’s and as gay as a young girl’s, and wavy brown hair that was brushed back from her fine forehead and cut thick below her ears and at the line of the collar of the brown velvet jacket she wore. She had pretty legs and she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.”

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