Tuesday Jun. 14, 2016

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Ode to the Pull-Out Couch

Which once belonged to your great-
grandparents, but belongs to us now,
and still works, even if the cushions
are pretty well flattened and the stuffing
is coming out from one armrest,
and the color, which was probably
once cream with red stitching, has
become mostly a muddy rust —

and which is always called a couch
and never, ever a sofa, just as
a pocketbook is not a purse, a bureau
is not a dresser, and pants are not
slacks. Only snooty people on TV
would call a couch a sofa, or rich
people, or maybe people from away.
Which we are not.

Because if we were any of those,
instead of just a pull-out couch,
we would have a guest room, with
a comforter and duvet, which no
guests would ever sleep under
because they would be staying at
a five-star hotel, where we would
join them for a five-star dinner

instead of the supper we cook
for our cousins up from Alfred,
which makes them still from here
and not from away, so they can’t
afford to go out to dinner, much
less afford a fancy hotel room
even if there was a hotel in town.
Which there is not.

And after our supper and before
we wake up early to take them
ice fishing, we pull out the couch
and give them pillows and blankets
and maybe even the granny-square
afghan, and they get to sleep by
the woodstove with the extra cats
and know that they are welcome.

“Ode to the Pull-Out Couch” by Sonja Johanson. Reprinted with permission of author. 

Today is Flag Day. It was on June 14, 1777, that the Second Continental Congress approved the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the United States, with a star for each state and 13 red and white stripes to commemorate the original 13 colonies. Of course, in 1777, there were only 13 states, and therefore only 13 stars, and their arrangement wasn’t consistent; sometimes the stars were in a circle, sometimes in rows, and there were a few occasions in the 19th century in which the stars appeared in the shape of a star. Our current incarnation of the flag has been around since 1960, with Hawaii’s admission to the Union. In the event that Puerto Rico is officially made a state, there are already some 51-star designs in the works.

Woodrow Wilson formally declared June 14 to be Flag Day in 1916, and Congress established National Flag Day in 1949. It isn’t a federal holiday, although Pennsylvania celebrates it as a state holiday, and has done so since 1937.

On this date in 1966, the Vatican abolished the Index of Prohibited Books. Officially known as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Index was made up of books that Roman Catholics were forbidden to read for fear of endangering their faith or their morals. The first formal index, called the Pauline Index, was published in 1559 by Pope Paul IV, but the church’s practice of censoring or forbidding books had been going on for over a thousand years by that time. In 496, Pope Gelasius I had put out a list recommending certain books and banning others, but since books were produced in limited numbers and kept in private libraries, it wasn’t a pressing concern. Most people would never have access to any of the books on the list. But Gutenberg’s printing press and the invention of moveable type in the mid-1400s meant that books — and the ideas they contained — could quickly spread all over Europe, and could fall into nearly anyone’s hands. This was fine when it came to printed Bibles or pro-government propaganda, but alarming in the case of dangerous new scientific theories or political dissent. So the church and the government began to try to regulate who could print and publish books.

With the publication of the Pauline Index in 1559, the works of 550 different authors were banned. If an author only wrote one heretical book, or if he was a Protestant, all his works might be forbidden, because his moral corruption was considered to infect everything he wrote. Many of the books by Protestant scholars had nothing to do with religious dogma, but even their works of botany, law, medicine, geography, and other sciences had to obtain special dispensation to be printed, or were banned outright. Roman Catholic authors were sometimes given the opportunity to edit their works to make them acceptable for publication.

Some of the authors who found their names on the Index at one time or another include astronomers and physicists Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno, and Johannes Kepler; philosophers John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Jean Paul Sartre; and authors Jonathan Swift, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Graham Greene. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was considered for inclusion, because some thought it was a veiled call for revolution, but it was ultimately left off. None of Karl Marx’s work made the list, nor did anything written by Adolph Hitler, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, or Charles Darwin.

It’s the birthday of photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, born in the Bronx, New York (1904). She began her career shooting industrial and architectural photos, and her style was fresh and original. Bourke-White was fearless, climbing out onto the gargoyles atop the Chrysler Building for just the right shot. Even when she was just starting out, taking pictures at the Otis Steel Company, she got so close to the molten metal that she blistered the finish on her camera and turned her face red like it was sunburned. She caught the eye of publisher Henry Luce in 1929, when he read a headline in the New York Sun: “Dizzy heights have no terror for this girl photographer, who braves numerous perils to film the beauty of iron and steel.” So he hired her for his new magazine, Fortune.

It was her photograph of Fort Peck Dam that appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine in 1936, and she is also credited with developing the “photo essay” features that made the magazine famous. She produced features on Germany, the Dust Bowl, and World War II — even surviving the sinking of her transport ship in the Atlantic after it was torpedoed. She was the first woman allowed to fly along on a U.S. combat mission. She photographed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Mahatma Gandhi at his spinning wheel, and the violent partition of India and Pakistan. The Life staff referred to her as “Maggie the Indestructible.” Over the years, she became more interested in people and social causes, and less interested in industry. In 1935, she met the Southern novelist Erskine Caldwell, and they eventually married. They collaborated on a number of books, including You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), about the American South during the Depression.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Mona Simpson (books by this author), born Mona Jandali in Green Bay, Wisconsin (1957). Simpson’s father was Syrian and her mother grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. Before her parents married, they had a son they gave up for adoption. Simpson was born after their marriage and didn’t find out that she had a brother until she was 25. Her brother turned out to be Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple. When he died, she gave his eulogy and said: “Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man and he was my brother.”

Simpson’s parents divorced and she moved to Los Angeles with her mother when she was teenager, losing touch with her father for years. She used the move as the basis for her first novel, Anywhere But Here (1986), which was her thesis at Columbia University. The book is about a selfish, headstrong mother and her practical daughter. Anywhere But Here was later made into a film (1999) starring Susan Sarandon as the mother. The studio gave Simpson a bathrobe with a crest bearing the film’s title in the shape of a highway sign, but she didn’t care for Sarandon’s portrayal of the mother.

Simpson’s other novels include The Lost Father (1992), in which she used elements of her attempts to reconnect with her father; A Regular Guy (1996), about a Silicon Valley tycoon loosely based on her brother; and My Hollywood (2011), which took her 10 years to write and about which she says, “Like relationships, every book has its own daily life.”

Simpson has always used elements of her real life in her fiction, saying: “I’m a believer in using whatever works for fiction, but mostly, that’s not life. To paraphrase E.M. Forster, a life is too baggy, and there are too many aunts. At the very least, you have to reduce enormously. And, much more than that, one wants to imagine and shape. I use life when it’s better than what I could make up.”

Simpson’s most recent novel is Casebook (2014), about a teenage boy who is suspicious of his mother’s new lover.

About writing, she says, “The tincture of life most rarely found in art is happiness.”

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