The Writer’s Almanac for August 1, 2018

“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman. Public Domain. (buy now)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’ d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


According to his contemporaries, today is the birthday of English alchemist and spirit medium Edward Kelley, born in Worcester, England in 1555. Kelley’s early life is shrouded in mystery — he probably worked as an apothecary’s assistant, he may have studied at Oxford under the name Edward Talbot, and he may have been sentenced to the pillory and locked in the stocks on public display as punishment for forgery or counterfeiting.

What is known is that, in his late 20s, Edward Kelley approached John Dee, one of the most learned men of the age, to offer his services as a scryer and seer. Dee was in his 50s, a close consultant to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and a mathematician and scientist at a time when science and magic were just beginning to separate, when astronomers were also astrologers and natural scientists were also alchemists. Dee had already been trying for some time to find a way of contacting angels when Kelley came to call. Dee hired him, and Kelley soon began receiving visions of angels in his crystal ball, angels who delivered messages made of strange characters written in tables like a literary Sudoku with all the cells filled in, messages that scrolled from the angels’ mouths like ribbons of paper.

Dee and Kelley transcribed volumes of the angelic language, Kelley developed a red powder that he claimed could transform base metal into gold, and the pair left England for a nomadic life throughout Europe, seeking the patronage of various rulers and noblemen. For the better part of a decade, Kelley and Dee traveled to the courts of Europe — to the king of Poland, to Prague and the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who made Kelley a baron — and the men were at times given fortunes and estates in exchange for the gold that Kelley repeatedly promised, but unfortunately failed, to make.

Kelley and Dee were both married, and it was during their European rambles that Kelley’s angels began ordering the men to share everything they had, including their wives. Dee complied but then, heartbroken, took his family and returned to England, leaving Kelley behind.

Kelley’s continual failure to produce any gold finally prompted the Emperor Rudolf to imprison him in a tower in a mountain town northwest of Prague in the hopes it would force the alchemist to comply. Kelley’s end is known only through tradition: He either fell from his tower prison while trying to escape with too short a rope, or he sampled the alchemical “elixir of immortality” he’d created while in prison, and perished.


Today is the birthday of Maria Mitchell (books by this author), the first acknowledged female astronomer, born in 1818 on the island of Nantucket in Massachusetts. Although the American essayist Hannah Crocker explained that same year in her Observations on the Real Rights of Women that it was then a woman’s “province to soothe the turbulent passions of men … to shine in the domestic circle” and that “it would be improper, and physically very incorrect, for the female character to claim the statesman’s birth or ascend the rostrum to gain the loud applause of men,” Maria Mitchell’s Quaker parents believed that girls should have the same access to education and the same chance to aspire to high goals as boys, and they raised all 10 of their children as equals.

Maria’s early interest in science and the stars came from her father, a dedicated amateur astronomer who shared with all his children what he saw as physical evidence of God in the natural world, although Maria was the only child interested enough to learn the mathematics of astronomy. She would later say, in a quote recorded in NASA’s profile of her, that we should “not look at the stars as bright spots only [but] try to take in the vastness of the universe,” because “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God.”

By age 12, Maria was assisting her father with his astronomical observations and data, and just five years later opened and ran her own school for girls, training them in the sciences and math. In 1838, she became the librarian of the Nantucket Atheneum and began spending her evenings in an observatory her father had built atop the town’s bank.

On October 1, 1848, a crisp, clear autumn evening, Maria focused her father’s telescope on a distant star. The light was faint and blurry, and Maria suddenly realized she was looking not at a star, but a comet; she recorded its coordinates, and when she saw the next night that the fuzzy light had moved, she was sure. Maria shared her discovery with her father, who wrote to the Harvard Observatory, who in turn passed her name on to the king of Denmark, who had pledged a gold medal to the first person to discover a comet so distant that it could only be seen through a telescope. Maria was awarded the medal the following year, and the comet became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”

Mitchell’s list of firsts is impressive: She’d made the first American comet sighting; in 1848, she was the first woman appointed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science; in 1853, she became the first woman to earn an advanced degree; and in 1865, she became the first woman appointed to the faculty of the newly founded Vassar Female College as their astronomy professor and the head of their observatory, making her the first female astronomy professor in American history.

Mitchell also became a devoted anti-slavery activist and suffragette, with friends such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and helped found the American Association for the Advancement of Women. In her Life, Letters, and Journals, Maria declares that, “no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman — born with the average brain of humanity — born with more than the average heart — if you are mortal, what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power.” 


Herman Melville was born (books by this author) on this day in 1819 in New York City. The Melvilles were a family of Revolutionary War heroes and once-prominent merchants but, by young Herman’s time, the family was in decline and the boy was raised in an atmosphere of financial instability and refined pretense.

In 1834, Melville left school to became a bank clerk, then tried farming and teaching, and in 1837 took to the sea for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool with a hold full of cotton. Upon returning to New York, Melville held a series of unsatisfying jobs and decided to try his fortune in the West where for several months he saw the prairies, the western wilderness, the Mississippi headwaters and the Falls of St. Anthony but did not find a career. Melville returned to the east and in 1841 again signed up for the seafaring life, this time on the whaling shape the Acushnet, to cruise for whales in the Pacific for several years. Melville got more than he’d likely expected: The cruelties he experience on the Acushnet, jumping ship in the Marquesas, being held in friendly if determined captivity by a band of Polynesians, escaping aboard an Australian whaler, which he also eventually jumped, and finally making his way to Hawaii and then back to the mainland.

When he returned in 1844, the 25-year-old Melville found an eager audience for his sailor’s yarns, and he began writing a series of personal narratives on his adventures in Polynesia, on whaling, and on life as a merchant mariner. From these stories, Melville completed his first novel, Typee, which was partly based on his experiences as a captive. Although Melville’s first attempt to publish his book was met with rejection on the grounds that the story couldn’t possibly be true and was therefore of no value, once in print it was an instant best-seller and Melville quickly followed it with the equally popular Omoo.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and the couple set up housekeeping in New York with Melville’s younger brother and sister-in-law, their mother, and four of their sisters. Melville began work on his next novel, Mardi, although his living situation was not necessarily conducive to the easy production of a book, and his taste in reading shifted to include romantic novels — which he probably shared with his wife — a change of interest that can be seen in the fantastical, romantic conclusion of Mardi.

The Melvilles then settled into a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It was here, in 1850, that Melville would meet Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville would come to think of as a dear friend and confidant. The following year, after an intoxicating period of exploring the ideas of transcendentalism and allegorical writing, Melville penned his enduring masterpiece, Moby Dick, the lyrical, epic story of Ahab and the infamous white whale, dedicating it to Hawthorne in “admiration for his genius.” Moby Dick was met with mixed reviews. The London News declared Melville’s power of language “unparalleled,” while the novel was criticized elsewhere for its unconventional storytelling, and Melville’s fans were disappointed not to find the same kind of adventure story they had loved in Typee and Omoo. It was the beginning of the end of Melville’s career as a novelist and, following a series of literary failures, he turned to farming and writing articles to support his family.

When the family returned to New York City in 1863, Melville became a customs inspector and began a second literary life as a poet, drawing on the emotional impact of the Civil War. His first book of poetry was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was praised in numerous American newspapers and magazines, but Melville was never again to rise to the prominence he’d experienced at the beginning of his career, and his ensuing stories and poems were largely ignored, including the posthumously published novel, Billy Budd.

It took readers until the 1920s to catch up to the prose, style, and power of Moby Dick. But once they did, appreciation never again lagged, and Melville’s masterpiece is now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written.


On this day in 1876, Colorado became the 38th state admitted to the Union. It’s one of only three states in the U.S. without any natural borders — something like a river or mountain range or desert, which separates it from its neighbors. The other two states with no natural borders: Colorado’s neighbors Wyoming and Utah.


Today is the birthday of the man who composed the American national anthem, Francis Scott Key, born on the family plantation in what is now Carroll County, Maryland (1779). During the War of 1812, he was aboard a British ship off the coast of Baltimore negotiating a prisoner exchange and became aware of an impending British attack on the nearby Fort McHenry. He was held captive and for two days forced to watch the bombardment of the unsuspecting American troops. And after being released, he wrote a poem called “Defense of Fort McHenry,” in which he recounted the sight of the flag still waving through the debris of battle. The poem was fitted to a popular English tune of the day and soon became widely known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” President Woodrow Wilson declared it the national anthem in 1916, and Congress followed with a resolution in 1931, signed by President Hoover. Key later authored a book on religion and literature and had a career as a lawyer.

He said: “Then, in that hour of deliverance, my heart spoke. Does not such a country, and such defenders of their country, deserve a song?”


It’s the birthday of the poet who said, “Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us.” James Dennis “Jim” Carroll (books by this author), born in Manhattan, New York (1949.) He grew up on the Lower East Side, a talented student and basketball player. At 13, he won a scholarship to the prestigious private school Trinity on the Upper West Side. There he led a double life, leading the team to a victorious season while developing a serious heroin addiction. He also began to write and attend workshops at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, where he was inspired by the readings of Ted Berrigan and Allen Ginsberg.

At 16, he published his first collection of poems, Organic Trains (1967), and excerpts from the journal he’d been keeping were picked up by The Paris Review. He had several offers to publish his diaries in their entirety, but he was more interested in becoming a poet. He accepted a job offer from Andy Warhol, writing film dialogue and managing his theater, and in 1973, he published a second book of poems, Living at the Movies, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination at the age of 22.

He finally published the full journals as The Basketball Diaries (1978). Editors had asked him to rewrite sections from an adult perspective, but he refused, saying that the book was written by a teenager and was intended for other young people. The book began: “Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I’m enthused about life due to this exciting event. The Biddy League is a league for anyone 12 yrs. old or under. I’m actually 13 but my coach Lefty gave me a fake birth certificate.”

At the prodding of his friend Patti Smith, he launched The Jim Carroll Band in the ’80s. His albums include Catholic Boy (1980), Dry Dreams (1982), and I Write Your Name (1983).

The "Old Friends" tour featuring Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky, and Garrison Keillor commences Wednesday, February 20th with a run of Minnesota dates! Click the links below for info on each.

Feb 20 – Faribault, MN

Feb 21 – St. Cloud, MN

Feb 22 – Detroit Lakes, MN

Feb 23 – Fergus Falls, MN

Feb 24 – Minneapolis, MN: 2 showtimes


Good news: The Writer's Almanac is back as a podcast and an email newsletter! Follow TWA on Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check your favorite podcast app for "The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor."

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


 

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A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Did you know that when Douglas MacArthur became a general, he hired his own public relations firm to promote his image back home? Did you know Paul McCartney heard “Yesterday” in a dream? And McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, is known as the City of Palms but also has a good deal of mesquite and deciduous trees. And the McCarran Act prohibited the picketing of federal courthouses. You learn these things roaming around freely rather than at a table with a bunch of smarty-pants sitting behind their name cards and each with his own glass of water. But the information is out there. All you need to do is connect the dots.

My Executive Time has been crucial to me ever since I was 16 and I hit the wall in mathematics and it looked like I was headed for a career in dishwashing, but sixty years later, look what happened. The math whizzes got good jobs that turned out to be treadmills to obsolescence. New Math came in, smarter people took over, many of them from foreign countries, and now I see those old whizzes taking tickets at parking ramps, whereas I’ve become a huge success. People stop me on the street all the time and say, “You have changed my life. You say things I’ve been thinking for years. How do you speak for the common man the way you do?”

The secret is Executive Time. For six hours a day, I remove myself from so-called experts and wise guys who think they got all the answers and I trust in my own instincts. I am smarter about most things than people are who’ve been studying them all their lives. I can run circles around those people.

The only math I did today was to tote up the tip on my steak sandwich, 10 percent. Just move the decimal point. The waiter wept. “A thousand thanks, sir. I have student loans to pay off, from fifteen years working for my Ph.D. in brain surgery.” The guy is an international authority on the multifocal cerebral infarcts along the left palpebral fissure of the lapsarian cortex and he’s warming up my coffee.

People ask if I’m going to run for president. I tell them, “I’m looking into it.” It looks like a good job to me. The helicopter service is incredible, there are beautiful motorcades, and wherever you go, all the microphones are pointed at you. Highly educated journalists, trying to catch every word you say.

The only thing keeping me from running is the fact that I’m Canadian. I walked across the border in northern Minnesota, no wall, nothing but an ordinary barbed wire fence, you just duck between the top and middle wires and you’re in. I learned to pronounce “about” as “about” and not “aboot,” and I was all set. There are millions of us here, escapees from harsh winter and socialized medicine. I bought my passport in Buffalo for $50. Nobody can tell except that I’m a little bowlegged from playing hockey and I get teary-eyed when I hear “O Canada.”

I settled in Minneapolis and joined the Mondale gang that controlled the supply of coffee coming into the state. He sold decaffeinated coffee to Lutherans, which made them passive and inattentive and that was the secret of his power. We took a cut of the collection and owned the green Jell-O concession. Him and me were all set.

So the phone rings and this lady says, “You can’t say ‘him and me.’” And I say, “I just said it and I meant it.” There are people like her in Minnesota who make a person feel small and that’s why Executive Time is so important: you get away from those people. For six hours a day, it’s just me and my hair. It’s beautiful hair and it’s intelligent. It speaks very quietly. It says, “Stick with me and you’ll be amazed where we wind up.”

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth.

This bitter cold weather of the past two weeks has drawn many couples closer together, my wife and me included, and has bonded communities in wonderful ways and also raised the social status of plumbers. In New York, a water main broke at 99th and Broadway, turning a main thoroughfare into a river, and city workers shut off water, fixed the main, and repaved the street in twenty-four hours. It’s a neighborhood populated by expert complainers and lifelong grumblers, and in the cafés and coffee shops, you heard, for the first time since the Dutch ran the place, people talking with wonderment about municipal efficiency.

In winter, we learn once again that what it really comes down to is plumbing. Schools may close, shops, offices, but if your pipes freeze and the plumber is too busy with other people’s frozen pipes to tend to yours, you are up the creek. Executive vice presidents can take the week off and nobody notices, but the plumber is crucial.

As for the closeness of couples in cold weather, it is a social phenomenon for which we lack accurate statistics — the increased ratios of hugging to wind chill and of desire for skin-on-skin contact to the coldness of the night, and the subsequent rise of the birth rate in the fall months — but a few minutes ago she walked in to where I am writing this column and said, “My back itches. Scratch the upper left quadrant.” So I did. She said, “Scratch it hard. Use your fingernails.” I heard murmurs of pleasure. Cold weather makes the skin dry and it feels good to be scratched. This is basic animal behavior; it’s called “social grooming.” Baboons do it, lions, horses, vampire bats. Why not us?

My wife and I are a mismatch — she’s restless and I’m a homebody, she’s a near-vegan and I’m a carnivore, she goes to art museums, I go to hockey games, she works out daily and I occasionally get up and walk to the refrigerator. We could go into counseling and confront our issues, but for now, tactile spousal contact in that area between the shoulder blades seems to be the answer.

Silence is another winter benefit. The windows are closed, sound is muffled by snow, mouths are covered by scarves. I can hear the ticking of the big clock in our dining room, the soft ding of the hours. It is an 1830 clock, a grandfather clock that was thirty years old when my grandfather James was born. My father loved that song: “Many years without slumbering, his life seconds numbering. And it stopped short, never to go again, when the old man died.” This clock does not stop because I wind it every few days. To hear it ticking is to feel grateful for the basic fact of existence.

The main hazard of winter is not the lashing of snow but the danger of icy sidewalks, you creeping along penguin-like, and suddenly your arms fly up and your back twists and you enter a world of pain and the road to orthopedic surgery, all because your center of gravity is too high, you should’ve put rocks in your pockets, but the remedy is simple: stay home until the ice melts.

The beauty of winter, aside from aesthetics, is the fact that we go through it all together. In Minnesota, where I live, it’s universal. I am a left-wing Democrat and support the idea of equality though I don’t practice it, and so this appeals to the egalitarian in me. On a minus-forty day in Minneapolis, when I walk into the grocery store, I feel comradeship. The women pushing their carts down the aisles do not understand what a prostate biopsy feels like — how can they? — and the young people behind the deli counter cannot know what it was like trying to read a roadmap before GPS, and few in the store can appreciate the rigors of growing up fundamentalist, but by God, we have all felt the wind in our face and ice underfoot and we look around with a sense of kinship. We are citizens of winter. For all its faults, it has blessings to bestow. Praise God.

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.

A beautiful snowfall moved in Sunday around twilight and my love and I took the long way home from the store where we’d stocked up on provisions and drove around the lakes to admire the whiteness descending through the streetlights’ glow than which there is nothing in nature more beautiful. It belonged in a movie, a love story about a man and a woman caught in scandal, besieged by the opposition of their families, who come to a friend’s house for shelter from the storm and realize that the storm is beautiful. The trouble they’re in is utterly lovely because they have each other and the snow gives them an excuse to hide out.

In Minnesota, we dream of someday being snowbound, unlikely as it is with our enormous investment in snow-moving equipment. Even in the counties along the Canadian border, it’d be hard to get snowbound for more than a few hours. Nonetheless, something in us wants to be stranded, separated from civilization, roads impassable, power lines down, no computer, the cellphone battery slowly running down, until we find ourselves back in the 19th century or even a Middle Ages crisis with just a wood fire, some beer and cheese, and us ignorant peasants hunkered around it, telling dirty stories like in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

Severe cold weather gets a person’s attention and encourages intelligent adaptation to real-life conditions by threatening genuine misery if, for example, you venture outdoors in your bloomers to tinkle in the shrubbery. This is part of the problem with our government today: it would work better if the national capital were Buffalo. Washington was chosen for its proximity to Mount Vernon: the Father of Our Country was looking for an easy commute. The temperate climate of D.C. encourages dreaminess and dramatic posturing and blather. If elected officials had to walk out of their warm homes, get into a freezing-cold car, start it, and drive on icy roads to the Capitol, it would give them a better sense of the real world.

I know about this because I was young and headstrong once and we boys considered it definitely not cool to dress warmly. Cool guys ignored winter and traipsed around hatless, gloveless, scarfless, jacket unbuttoned, hopping around snowdrifts in their sneakers, making no concessions to winter whatsoever. You smoked cigarettes, you drove fast, you didn't dress warm, you were cool.

Being cool is ultimately a bore. I used to be cool and I know. It is much more interesting to dress warmly and be able to wander around and look at the world and not think about your discomfort. I have a pair of insulated boots made in Canada so the instruction booklet is bilingual and I see that the boots (made of rubber, or “caoutchouc”) are of “première qualité” and “très robuste” in “temps très froid” even in “L’Arctique.” It puts a whole new shine on winter to think of it in French: it makes bitter cold, or “froid mordant,” less mordant, according to Sigmund Froid.

Wearing big boots, I feel clubfooted at first as Frankenstein's monster must have felt when he broke out of the laboratory, but at least I’m warm. I am trudging along in my peasant boots, enjoying the 19th century. I walk into the park and look at the snow descending quietly and the trees laced with white and think of Robert Frost’s famous poem about stopping by woods on a snowy evening. He wrote: “I know the guy who owns these woods. He lives in the village. I just like looking at it. My horse thinks I'm nuts, stopping on a dark night with nobody around. It’s rather quiet. The woods are lovely, dark, and pretty thick. But I said I wouldn’t be gone long and so I better get a move on.” Something like that. Winter is inspiring. Hundreds of poems have been written about standing on the beach and looking at the waves and I can’t remember a single one of them.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Old Friends Solo The Gratitude Tour
Schedule

February 20, 2019

Wednesday

7:30 p.m.

Faribault, MN

Faribault, MN

February 20, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Paradise Center for the Arts. 7:30 p.m.

February 21, 2019

Thursday

7:30 p.m.

St. Cloud, MN

St. Cloud, MN

February 21, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Pioneer Place on Fifth. 7:30 p.m.

February 22, 2019

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Detroit Lakes, MN

Detroit Lakes, MN

February 22, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Historic Holmes Theatre. 7:30 p.m.

February 23, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Fergus Falls, MN

Fergus Falls, MN

February 23, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at A Center for the Arts. 7:30 p.m.

February 24, 2019

Sunday

5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 24, 2019

“Old Friends” Garrison Keillor, Christine DiGiallonardo, Richard Dworsky reunite at Crooners. Shows at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

It’s the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison (1931), whose mother always sang while she did chores, everything from opera arias to the blues.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

It was on this day in 1913 that the Armory Show opened in New York City, the first comprehensive exhibition of modern art in this country. The exhibit featured works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, and more.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

On this date in 1937, Wallace Carothers and DuPont Chemical Company were granted a patent for the synthetic polymer called nylon.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

On this date in 2001, a working draft of the human genome was published. Scientists had expected to find that humans had more than 100,000 genes, but we have only about 20,000.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

For Valentine’s Day, a few excerpts of love letters from famous authors, and a poem by Connie Wanek, “First Love.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 13, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 13, 2019

Today is the birthday of American religious historian Elaine Pagels (1943), whose work “The Gnostic Gospels” was named one of the best 100 books of the 20th century.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 12, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 12, 2019

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born this day in 1809. Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” (1859) came out the year before Lincoln was elected president.

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A Prairie Home Companion: February 16, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: February 16, 2008

Originally broadcast from Bloomington with the Indiana University Violin Virtuosi, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov, violinist Esther Kim, pianist Ignasi Cambra, and a student pit orchestra.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 11, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 11, 2019

It was on this day in 1990 that Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison, outside Cape Town, South Africa after 27 years behind bars.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 10, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 10, 2019

It’s the birthday of playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898), who said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”

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Writing

A few words from a top executive

Now that Executive Time has taken root at the top level of government, I am working more of it into my own busy schedule, leaving the Rectangular Office and holing up in the family quarters for what some might call daydreaming, but who cares what they think? They’re losers. Six hours a day of letting the mind wander freely, forgetting about my obligations, and simply roaming the Internet and picking up bits of information that my staff would probably never clue me in on.

Read More

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

It irks me, the notion that winter is a dreadful tribulation. Weather forecasts delivered in funereal tones as if two or three inches of snow were an outbreak of typhus, a front-page story about a snowstorm “lashing” New England. A whip lashes; snow falls gently to earth. 

Read More

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

Bitter cold in Minneapolis last week with a high of nine below one day, which is colder than a witch’s body part, but we do have central heating in our building and I am no longer employed as a parking lot attendant as I was when I was 19, responsible for herding drivers into double straight lines as a bitter wind blew across the frozen tundra, and so, as we in Minnesota often say, “It could be worse.” Especially if you were married to a witch.  

Read More

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

It has snowed a smidge in Minneapolis and I went to church Sunday to give thanks for it and ask for more. The TV weatherman talks about who might be “hit by” a snowstorm and who might “escape,” as if the flakes carry an infectious disease, but snow is light, it does not hit anybody so that you’d feel it, and true Minnesotans love a snowstorm, the hush of it, the sense of blessedness, as Degas loved the female form and Cezanne cared about apples. I thank God for all three, apples, women, and snow, and also for my good health.

Read More

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

I have a small mind and I don’t mind admitting it. Friends of mine are concerned about the future of democracy in America and thank goodness for them, meanwhile I get a thrill out of sticking a fork into the toaster to retrieve the toasted bread, which I was warned against as a child. Mother saw me do it and imagined sparks flying and the sizzle of her middle child, like a murderer in the electric chair. And now I do it (very carefully) and I’m still here. This is me writing these words, not a ghostwriter.

Read More

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

In response to the government shutdown, I have stayed in bed, gone without bathing, turned off the phone. I am going to continue until Walmart sends me six fresh walleye and a set of white sidewalls autographed by Barbara Walters. I know what is needed and I can hold out for years if I have to.

Meanwhile life is good. Of course tragedy is at the heart of great literature but life is not a novel and we’re here because our parents got excited and happy and if we put our minds to it, we can be happy too. Politics is a mess because liberals want a just world and it just isn’t going to happen, meanwhile conservatives want it to be 1958, but goodness never depended on politicians. Goodness is all around us.

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Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

My first resolution for 2019 is “Lighten up. When someone asks you how you are, say ‘Never better’ and say it with conviction, make it be true.” And my second resolution is: “Don’t bother fighting with ignorance. It doesn’t bother him, and you wind up with stupidity all over you.”

So I ignore the government shutdown and write about the one-ring circus I saw in New York last week, under a tent by the opera house. It was astounding. The beauty of backflips and the balancing act in which a spangly woman does a handstand one-handed on a man’s forehead. The perfect timing of clowns and the dancing of horses, a bare-chested man suspended on ropes high above the arena as a woman falls from his shoulders to catch his bare feet with her bare feet and hang suspended with no net below. A slight woman on the flying trapeze hurling herself into a triple forward flying somersault and into the hands of the catcher. I have loved circuses all my life. This was one of the best. A person can pass through the turnstile in a sour mood and the impossible perfection of feats of style brightens your whole week.

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A Christmas letter from New York

It was, in my opinion, the best Christmas ever. Men are running the country whom you wouldn’t trust to heat up frozen dinners, a government shutdown meant that TSA people worked as volunteers (and also the DOJ employees investigating Individual-1’s dealings with the Russians), and on Wall Street the blue chips were selling like buffalo chips, and yet, in my aged memory, granted that the MRI map of my brain shows numerous multipolar contextually based synopses and a narrowing of the left strabismal isthmus, my little family had a beautiful and blessed week.

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Why I left home and crossed over the river

It was an enormous heroic undertaking that if I told you the whole story, you’d be breathless with admiration, so I will just say this: my wife and I — mostly my wife but I was there, too — have moved from a three-story house in St. Paul to a two-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis. We did it, shed ourselves of truckloads of material goods, and now enjoy the gift to be simple and the gift to be free. Period. End of story.

We did it because it dawned on us that we were two people living in a few corners of a house for ten and that if we didn’t move, the county would send social workers who specialize in dementia issues.

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Time passes except when it suddenly leaps backward

Snow on the ground in Minnesota and a frosty grayness in the air and a delicious chill that makes a person feel alive and vibrant. Cold is a stimulant, but of course some people don’t tolerate it well and they decamp for the Sun Belt and — don’t tell anyone I said this — everything works better when those old people leave town. Traffic flows, the line at checkout moves faster without querulous oldsters demanding a discount on bruised bananas, you don’t have fifteen cars waiting at the drive-up ATM while some old coot tries to remember his PIN number. I can say this because I’m 76. If you said it, you’d be accused of ageism, which it is, but past the age of 70, one is entitled.

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