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).

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"Alexandria, 1953" by Gregory Djanikian, from Falling Deeply into America. © Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1989. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

You could think of sunlight
Glancing off the minarets,
You could think of guavas and figs
And the whole marketplace filled
With the sumptuous din of haggling,
But you could not think of Alexandria
Without the sea, or the sea,
Turquoise and shimmering, without
The white city rising before it.

Even on the back streets
You could feel it on your skin,
You could smell it in the aroma
Of dark coffee, spiced meat.

You looked at the sea and you heard
The wail of an Arab woman singing or praying.

If, as I can now, you could point
To the North Atlantic, swollen
And dark as it often is, you might say,
"Here lies Wrath," or "Truly God is great."
You could season a Puritan soul by it.

But you could fall into the Mediterranean
As though you were falling into a blue dream,
Gauzy, half unreal for its loveliness.
It was deceptively calm and luxurious.
At Stanley Bay, you could float
On your back and watch the evening sun
Color the city a faint rose.
You could drown, it was said,
Almost without knowing it.


It was on this day in 1940 that the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky (books by this author) was mortally wounded when his assassin lodged an ice pick into his skull in Mexico City.

Stalin had exiled Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1929, and he went to Turkey, then France, then Norway, all the while writing books, including a three-volume History of the Russian Revolution (1932). Mexico offered him asylum, in part thanks to the support of painter Diego Rivera. While he was in Mexico City, Trotsky had an affair with Rivera's wife, Frida Kahlo, and he continued to write.

The assassin made it into Trotsky's heavily guarded home and asked Trotsky to read something he had written. Then he pulled the ice pick out of his coat and attacked Trotsky, who died the next day.

Trotsky's murder is a central event in Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Lacuna (2009), and in David Ives' one-act play Variations on the Death of Trotsky (1993).


On this date in 1975, NASA launched the Viking 1 mission to Mars. Its sister, Viking 2, was launched about three weeks later. Each Viking mission consisted of a matching lander and orbiter, which separated upon reaching Mars' orbit. The Viking project made history as the first United States mission to land a spacecraft safely on the surface of the red planet. Viking gathered samples, took pictures, and conducted experiments designed to look for signs of life; while the experiments yielded some interesting results, there was no definitive proof of life as we know it. Scientists believe that Mars may be "self-cleaning": Solar radiation and the extremely dry and chemically inhospitable soil would make it very difficult for organisms to survive.

Viking 1 was designed to carry out its mission for 90 days, but it actually continued sending data far beyond that period. Orbiter 1 operated for four years; Lander 1, for more than seven years.


On this date in 1977NASA launched the Voyager 2 spacecraft. They timed the launch to coincide with a rare planetary alignment that allowed the craft to make use of each planet's gravity to boost it on its way. The original purpose of the mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn; it's since passed Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, and is now considered an "interstellar mission" because it still has enough velocity to leave the solar system. It's currently flying through the heliopause: the area where the solar wind is opposed by hydrogen and helium gases from interstellar space, forming a kind of bubble around the solar system. Scientists believe it will be able to continue sending back signals until at least 2025.

Voyager 1 and 2 also carry golden records, with pictographic instructions on how to play them. The records contain sounds, images, and welcome messages from Earth, as well as a map to our location. Carl Sagan chaired the committee that decided what should go on the record. He said: "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this 'bottle' into the cosmic 'ocean' says something very hopeful about life on this planet." President Jimmy Carter included his own message on the record: "This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours."


It was on this day in 1940 that Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the House of Commons with the famous line: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The Battle of Britain was raging, and he was referring to the small group of the Royal Air Force who had successfully held off the much larger Luftwaffe, the German air force.

Churchill wrote all of his own speeches, and he was a gifted orator, but people thought that his vocabulary and style of speaking were old-fashioned. But after the beginning of World War II, Churchill's dramatic rhetoric fit the mood of the country.

His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, served in the Parliament and was a talented debater, famous for making spontaneous speeches. Winston, on the other hand, labored over every speech. He brainstormed, researched, planned out the speech in his head, then dictated it aloud to his secretary. From there, he revised it several times and typed it up in what he called "psalm form." His speeches looked like blank verse poetry on the page, so that the rhythm and pauses were laid out just how he wanted them. Before Churchill delivered a speech, he would practice over and over, sometimes in the bathtub.


It's the birthday of poet Heather McHugh (books by this author), born in San Diego, California (1948). She said: "I have always lived on waterfronts. If you live on the edge of an enormous mountain or an enormous body of water, it's harder to think of yourself as being so important. That seems useful to me, spiritually." She went to Harvard when she was 16 and sold her first poem to The New Yorker a year later. Her books of poetry include Dangers (1977), A World of Difference (1981), Hinge & Sign (1994), and Upgraded to Serious (2009).


It's the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft (books by this author), born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island (1890). He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called "weird fiction." He was an only child, and when he was three years old, his father had a nervous breakdown and spent five years in a hospital before he died; he probably had a psychotic disease caused by syphilis. So Lovecraft was raised by his mother, two aunts, and his grandfather, who all lived together.

Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft's work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available — books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, "There Are More Things," in memory of Lovecraft.

Lovecraft said: "I never ask a man what his business is, for it never interests me. What I ask him about are his thoughts and dreams."

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

Manhattan is a long thin island, so we don’t need a car here, and among pedestrians, one is surrounded by good manners. Biking is dangerous. A young woman from Australia was killed Friday when she swerved on her bike to avoid an Uber driver pulling out into the bike lane and she was struck down by a truck. Her name was Maddie Lyden, she was 23, she had just graduated from college and given herself a trip to America, her dream trip. She died a mile from my apartment and I didn’t know about it until Monday.

When I moved into this apartment back in 1990, I was struck by three deaths that happened in my vicinity. A former Rockette was killed by a demented man as she walked her dog early one morning on 69th Street and Central Park. A young woman working in a Gap store on 57th was killed by a robber as she opened the door for business. A young man from Provo, Utah, was killed on the 7th Avenue B-train station platform, defending his mother against a gang of muggers. I think of the three of them whenever I pass the places where they died.

We’re interconnected here.  I sit in a café and the woman across the room tapping on her laptop may be writing a novel that will be a best-seller and here I am, trying to remember Frayne Anderson, the English teacher in Anoka, Minnesota, who gave me a copy of The New Yorker when I was 14.  A certain decorum is observed. I don’t ask her what she’s writing, she doesn’t ask me, but we’re connected. I once boarded a downtown B train and sat down and noticed that the black lady across the aisle was reading a book of mine. She looked like a lawyer. She didn’t laugh but she kept reading. It was hard watching her for fear she’d make a face and slam the book shut and I got off the train. It was 7th Avenue.

Writing a best-selling novel was once my fairy tale, but I’m over it now. I’m engrossed in the memoir. It’s my obligation, seeing as I grew up in America after World War II, when children roamed the countryside freely, no cellphones on them for their parents to ascertain their whereabouts, and we worked hoeing corn for truck farmers and learned about drudgery and if we wanted to go to town, we hitchhiked and sometimes got a ride from a drunk who was speeding and cursing his wife. I’m not nostalgic about this. I’m grateful to have survived more or less intact.

I think of the novelists I know and if I were to turn my back on the factual and think fiction I could make myself into a tragic hero, misunderstood by old friends and family, but the truth is, my life is one piece of good luck after another, the most recent being my wife of 23 years who is walking alongside me down Columbus toward Lincoln Center, setting a brisk pace. A good marriage is worth more than a best-selling novel, take my word for it, I’ve been there.

“My Fair Lady” is playing at the Center. We saw it and she said she’d like to see it again. “Fine,” I say, as I’m thinking about Maddie Lyden who was struck down on her bike one block east of here, at 66th and Central Park West. The Uber driver was careless, the truck driver was ticketed for DUI, Maddie was riding a rental bike and didn’t get a helmet.

It’s hard to put all this in one rational column, the tragedy of Maddie, the summer nights, the reader on the train, my good wife, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” but now I’ve reached 750 words, my limit, and must get back to work on the memoir. That’s life in New York. Take care. Look both ways always.

My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

I felt good on Sunday because I’d been to church and a middle-aged lesbian couple walked in and sat in the pew in front of me, and I felt warmly toward them, being the high-class liberal that I am, and then they turned for the Exchange of Peace and one of them was a man. A man with a deep voice. He said, “The peace of the Lord.” So I had been extending my tolerance toward Dick and Jane, not Vicky and Jane. Interesting.

I also felt good because on Saturday I stopped to look at a yard sale and there, among all the trashy stuff, the unwanted gifts, the novelty socks, the shirt that said, “Help Me, I’ve Fallen And I Cannot Reach My Beer,” the unused exercise bike, the unread books, was a book I wrote, mint condition, unread, list price of 20 bucks, now on sale for 35 cents. I bought it, of course. An arthur doesn’t want to see a book of his go so cheaply.

It was my collection of sonnets, very intense and dense and sensitive, which had sold about 46 copies when it came out and which I wrote to shine up my reputation. I’d done a radio show for decades on which we did comedy routines that involved the expulsion of stomach gas. Juvenile humor, and yet it convulsed audiences left and right, sketches in which an actor bent over and the sound effects man squeezed the whoopee cushion and the audience fell apart, many of them expelling gases in the process.

As a man ventures into his 70s, he thinks about his legacy, and so I wrote sonnets, just as Shakespeare did, about mortality and the power of love to overcome shame and doubt, and here was my work sitting in a yard with some beer mugs and figurines, on sale for 35 cents. It was a shock.

Of course I’ve been disillusioned before — I’ve voted for Democrats, I know what disappointment is — but I took my sonnets and resolved to put aside regret, of which I have enough already. In church, we ask forgiveness for what we have done and what we have left undone and the Left Undone list is very long, but you leave it with the Lord and are forgiven and shake hands with the lesbian couple except now they aren’t. What you thought was diversity turns out to be just folks.

I am now looking for someone to give the sonnets to. It’s my birthday August 7 and my love and I are taking two young couples to dinner. This is to preclude a conversation about how lovely life was before all these passwords and people texting on their phones and posting on Facebook instead of conversing with actual people. I will let the couples draw straws for the sonnets. Instead of stewing about regrets, we can talk about the power of love. It is an old man’s privilege to natter and I intend to. I will tell them that a good marriage is worth the trouble. Nothing sweeter. Remember that not all feelings need to be aired. When in doubt, smile and say, “I love you.” And look for opportunities to amaze the other. If necessary, fry up your own words with melted cheese and eat them. It can’t hurt. This goes for gay couples, straight, curly, LSMFT, ILGWU, NFL, the whole spectrum.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 20, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 20, 2018

It was on this day in 1940 that an assassin mortally wounded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky using an ice pick while Trotsky was staying in Mexico City.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 19, 2018

Today is the birthday of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Star Trek series. Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about the human race.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 18, 2018

On this day in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita was published in the United States by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The book was a sensation, selling more than 100,000 copies in one week–the first novel to do so since Gone with the Wind.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 17, 2018

On this date in 1982, the first compact discs for commercial release were manufactured in Germany. The first album sold in disc form on this date? ABBA’s 1981 album The Visitors.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 16, 2018

“The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn’t interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative.”
–Charles Bukowski, born on this day in 1920

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 15, 2018

It’s the birthday of Stieg Larsson, a muckracking journalist and anti-fascist who originally took up fiction writing in 2001 as a way to make some extra money. His psychological thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published posthumously in 2005 (along with the other two novels he’d finished in the Millenium series) and went on to become a global phenomenon.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 14, 2018

It was on this day in 1935 that the original Social Security Act was passed. It was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it was first intended to help keep senior citizens out of poverty, which it still does.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 13, 2018

It’s the birthday of director Alfred Hitchcock, who proposed that “the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 12, 2018

Today is the birthday of the person who wrote the lines: “O beautiful for spacious skies, / For amber waves of grain, / For purple mountain majesties / Above the fruited plain!” That’s Katharine Lee Bates, born in Falmouth, Massachusetts on Cape Cod in 1859.

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The Writer’s Almanac for August 11, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for August 11, 2018

It’s the birthday of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, born Sunnyvale, CA in 1950. The Apple 1 computer came about when Wozniak got the idea to pair a typewriter keyboard with a television. Wozniak & Steve Jobs hoped to sell at least 50 of them. Seven years later, their company had a stock value of $985 million.

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Writing

My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

A string of blazing summer days in New York City and after the sun went down, perfect summer nights, diners in sidewalk cafes along Columbus Avenue, dogs walking their owners, and my wife walking me. “You need to get out and move around,” she says. “It’s not healthy to sit at a desk all day.” And she is right. I am stuck on a memoir I’m writing, pondering the wrong turns of my early years. How much do you want to know? Are you sure?

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My annual birthday column, no extra charge

It is a beautiful summer, says I, and I cannot offhand recall any that were beautifuler, not that I am unaware of human suffering, I am aware. I have elderly friends my age who are facing dismal prognoses and friends who are sunk in the miseries of divorce and I feel for all of them but does this mean I can’t feel fresh and eager and be crazy about my wife? No, it does not.

I like to impress her, which I did on Sunday. I went cheerfully to a vegan restaurant with her — me, a cheeseburger guy, a slider guy if the truth be told — and ordered a cucumber soda, toasted tofu slices, and a kale salad big enough to feed a goat. I ate it all. She was impressed.

The world is falling apart around us, but that’s no reason to be unhappy. The world has been falling apart for thousands of years. Nevertheless, one can accentuate the positive and eat out of the goat’s feed trough. Get over yourself. Pretend to be thrilled by tofu.

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An ordinary weekend in July, nothing more

I went for a walk in the rain Saturday under a big black umbrella, which I chose over the kittycat one as being more age-appropriate, seeing as I turn s-s-s-s-s-s-s-seventy-six in a week. Cat kitsch is for teen girls, not grandpas. A black umbrella, black shoes, jeans, white shirt, tan jacket with black ink stains on the lining. I’m a writer, I carry pens, they leak. So what?

A walk under an umbrella is a form of meditation, and rain always makes me happy. I grew up out in the country and rain meant that I could stay in and read a book and not have to go to Mr. Peterson’s farm and hoe corn. Hoeing corn was the most miserable work I’ve ever done. Nothing I’ve done since even comes close. That, to me, is the definition of the good life, to have something so miserable in your distant past that you can recall in moments of distress and think, “Well, at least this is not as bad as that.”

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Up at cabin, leave paper on porch

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

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Feeling odd about feeling this good

I am having a beautiful summer and I don’t know why — after all, I am a liberal Democrat obliged to be concerned about the oppressed, the underpaid, the critical shortage of honeybees, greenhouse gases, plastic waste on the ocean floor, meanwhile right-wingers in giant pickups with Confederate decals on the bumper and rifles in a gun rack in the cab go merrily along without a twinge of guilt, and now apparently so do I.

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Why I do not own an air mattress

What a glorious summer. Sunny skies and idyllic summer nights and then we had that ferocious heat wave to prevent us from going camping. When it’s 100 degrees in the North Woods, only demented people would be camping, and if you weren’t demented when you pitched your tent, you soon would be. If you love campfires, you can download a video of one. You know that, right?

Don’t get me started on this subject. America is a land of great cities, dozens of them, and each one has nice hotels and fine restaurants, and by “fine restaurants” I mean ones with napkins and restrooms and hand sanitizer. Campers eat with unwashed fingers in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes, some of whom carry dreadful diseases and it’s impossible to tell which ones. And let us not even mention Lyme disease. Perish the thought.

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What I saw in Vienna that the others didn’t

I was in Vienna with my wife and daughter last week and walked around the grand boulevards and plazas surrounded by imperial Habsburg grandeur feeling senselessly happy for reasons not quite clear to me but they didn’t involve alcohol. Nor paintings and statuary purchased with the sweat of working men and women. Nor the fact that to read about the daily insanity of Mr. Bluster I would need to learn German.

The sun was shining though the forecast had been for showers. I was holding hands with two women I love. There was excellent coffee in the vicinity, one had only to take deep breaths. Every other doorway seemed to be a Konditorei with a window full of cakes, tarts, pastries of all sizes and descriptions, a carnival of whipped cream and frosting, nuts and fruit. A person could easily gain fifty pounds in a single day and need to be hauled away in a wheelbarrow.

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A good vacation, now time to head home

I missed out on the week our failing president, Borderline Boy, got depantsed by the news coverage of crying children he’d thrown into federal custody and a day later he ran up the white flag with another of his executive exclamations, meanwhile the Chinese are quietly tying his shoelaces together. Sad! I was in London and Prague, where nobody asks us about him: they can see that he is insane and hope he doesn’t set fire to himself with small children present.

London was an experience. I landed there feeling ill and was hauled off to Chelsea hospital where a doctor sat me down and asked, “Can you wee?” I didn’t hear the extra e so it was like he’d said, “Can she us?” or “Will they him?”

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Man takes wife to Europe by ship

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

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A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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