Saturday Feb. 6, 2016

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What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, ‘No,
we’re not hiring today,’ for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

“What Work Is” by Philip Levine from What Work Is. © Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of one of the earliest self-help writers, Walter B. Pitkin, (books by this author) born in Ypsilanti, Michigan (1878). Despite dropping out of college, he was offered a position as a professor at Columbia University, and he taught psychology, philosophy, and journalism there for about 40 years.

His books include The Psychology of Happiness (1929), Life Begins at Forty (1932), A Short Introduction to the History of Human Stupidity (1932), Take it Easy: The Art of Relaxation (1935), and Road to a Richer Life (1949).

He wrote: "Life begins at forty. This is the revolutionary outcome of our New Era. Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom."

It's the birthday of lexicographer Eric Partridge, (books by this author) born on a farm near Gisborne, New Zealand (1894). He was a good student, and he started teaching school at the age of 16. He fought in World War I, finished college, and went to graduate school at Oxford. He became a professor, and taught in England for a few years. Then he founded a publishing house. After all that, he said, "Finally I did what I should have done long before: became a professional writer, mostly on the subject of English — usage, composition, grammar; slang and cant; clichés, jargon, punctuation, etc."

As a professional writer, he went to the same desk in the British Library every single day for about 50 years, and there he wrote books like A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1937), A Dictionary of the Underworld (1949), and You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and its Allies (1978). Some scholars disliked Partridge because he himself wasn't all that scholarly — he preferred to make his books readable, even when he was writing about the language of Shakespeare or Jonathan Swift.

He said, "Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them."

It's the birthday of the man nicknamed "the Sultan of Swat," "the Bambino," and, most famously, "Babe" Ruth, born George Herman Ruth Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland (1895). His mother gave birth to eight children, but only George — called "Little George" to distinguish him from his father, "Big George" — and one sister survived. He said later: "My earliest recollections center about the dirty, traffic-crowded streets of Baltimore's riverfront. Crowded streets they were, too, noisy with the roar of heavy trucks whose drivers cursed and swore and aimed blows with their driving whips, at the legs of kids who made the streets their playground. And the youngsters, running wild, struck back and echoed the curses. Truck-drivers were our enemies: so were the coppers patrolling their beats, and so too were the shopkeepers who took bruising payment from our skins for the apples and the fruit we 'snitched' from their stands and counters. A rough, tough neighborhood, but I liked it."

Young George ran wild while his parents devoted all their time to operating a seedy tavern; he almost never saw them. When he was seven, his father decided he couldn't take care of his son, so he took him to an orphanage and reformatory called St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys. He signed over custody of George to the priests who ran the school. He was a terrible student; he drank and smoked and got into all sorts of trouble. But one of the priests, Brother Matthias, took George under his wing. He was in charge of disciplinary action for the school, so he saw quite a lot of George. Brother Matthias was 6 feet 6 inches, and 250 pounds. He taught George how to play baseball, and the boy was naturally talented at it. It was his one solace in a life of prayer, classes, and disgusting food.

He spent 12 years of his life at St. Mary's. Somehow, when he was 19 years old, the recruiter for the minor league Baltimore Orioles saw Ruth play and signed him on for a $600 contract, an amount that seemed incredible to him at the time. And so he went straight from Catholic school to the world of baseball. When he got to training camp, the other players were amused at how young Ruth was, and called him one of the recruiter's "babes," and the nickname stuck.

Ruth only stayed with the Orioles for five months, and then got sold to the major league Boston Red Sox in 1914. He spent most of the first year with the Red Sox optioned off to a minor league team, but by the next year he was playing regularly. By 1918, he was a star pitcher, and he helped the Red Sox win another World Series by pitching a record 29 scoreless innings. The Red Sox had been in five World Series and won them all, and they were having an especially good few years — they won the World Series in 1912, 1915, 1916, and now again in 1918. The next year, 1919, Babe Ruth decided to focus more on hitting than on pitching, and hit a record 29 home runs.

But in January of 1920, the owner of the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. One reporter wrote: "Boston's greatest baseball player has been cast adrift. George H. Ruth, the middle initial apparently standing for 'Hercules', maker of home runs and the most colorful star in the game today, became the property of the New York Yankees." Another journalist complained that the team had "lost the greatest drawing card the game has ever known, and the esteem of many of thousands of supporters." After the sale of Babe Ruth, the Red Sox failed over and over to win the World Series, and people started referring to their failure as the "curse of the Bambino," their punishment for having sold Babe Ruth. It took them 86 years, until 2004, to win another World Series.

The New York Yankees, on the other hand, were thrilled to acquire Ruth, and he started the team on its path to success. In 1920, Ruth hit 54 home runs, more than the next three most successful hitters combined. In 1921, the Yankees won their first American League pennant, and in 1923 they won their first World Series. As of now, they have won the World Series 27 times, more than any other baseball team — in fact, more than any other team has even appeared in the World Series, much less won it.

Babe Ruth's legend continued to grow. In 1921, he hit 59 home runs. From 1923 until 1931, he led the league in home runs every year but one. He seemed larger-than-life at everything he did. The sportswriter H.G. Salsinger wrote: "He could eat more, drink more, smoke more, swear more, and enjoy himself more than any contemporary." Another sportswriter, Heywood Broun, called Ruth "a liberator who endeavored by personal example to show that no fun could ever hurt you." He was famous for not sleeping and still hitting home runs. His colleague Paul Derringer, a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, said he once saw Ruth eat breakfast: he started out with a quart of bourbon and ginger ale, then moved on to a porterhouse steak, four fried eggs, a mound of potatoes, toast, and a pot of coffee.

In 1929, Ruth signed a contract for $80,000 a year, an unheard-of amount. A journalist asked Ruth if he thought it seemed right that he was making more than the president — Herbert Hoover earned just $75,000 a year. It was the year of the stock market crash, and Ruth replied: "Why not? I had a better year than he did."

The sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote a poem called "Son of Swat — Babe Ruth." In it, he wrote: "I've seen a few I thought could hit, / Who fed the crowd on four-base rations; / But you, Babe, are the only it — / The rest are merely imitations. / I've seen them swing with all they've got / And tear into it for a mop-up; / But what they deem a lusty swat / To you is but a futile pop-up."

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

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