The Writer’s Almanac for August 11, 2018

“You don’t believe” by William Blake. Public domain. (buy now)

You don’t believe — I won’t attempt to make ye.
You are asleep — I won’t attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on, sleep on, while in your pleasant dreams
Of reason you may drink of life’s clear streams
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things,
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.
Reason says ‘Miracle’, Newton says ‘Doubt’.
Aye, that’s the way to make all Nature out:
Doubt, doubt, and don’t believe without experiment.
That is the very thing that Jesus meant
When he said: ‘Only believe.” Believe and try,
Try, try, and never mind the reason why.


It’s the birthday of poet Louise Bogan (books by this author), born in Livermore Falls, Maine (1897). She worked as poetry critic for The New Yorker for 38 years, and when she retired in 1969, she wrote to her friend and editor Ruth Limmer: “After 38 years; and seven years beyond normal retirement age. — I know that you are against such a move; but really, Ruth, I’ve had it. No more pronouncements on lousy verse. No more hidden competition. No more struggling not to be a square.” She died four months later.

Louise Bogan said: “I have no fancy idea about poetry. It’s not like embroidery or painting or silk. It doesn’t come to you on the wings of a dove. It’s something you have to work hard at.”


It’s the birthday of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, born in Sunnyvale, California in 1950. He always loved electronics. As a kid, he and his neighborhood friends would build all kinds of gadgets, including intercom systems running between their houses. He was working on computer-like projects by the age of 11, and his sixth-grade science project was a machine that played tic-tac-toe. He said: “I didn’t ever take a course, didn’t ever buy a book on how to do it. I just pieced it together in my own head.” He met Steve Jobs in 1970, when a mutual friend introduced them. They formed their own company in 1976 and called it Apple. “You didn’t have to have a real specific reason for choosing a name when you were a tiny little company of two people; you choose any name you want,” Wozniak said.

The Apple 1 computer came about when Wozniak got the idea to pair a typewriter keyboard with a television. Jobs and Wozniak built it in Jobs’ bedroom and, later, when they ran out of room, in his garage. They hoped to sell 50 of them and if it didn’t work, Jobs told Wozniak, at least they could tell their grandkids that they’d had their own company for a while. Seven years later, Apple had a stock value of $985 million.

In 2006, Wozniak published his autobiography, titled iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It.


Today is the birthday of Alex Haley (books by this author), born in Ithaca, New York (1921). He’s best known as the author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which came out in 1976. It was a fictionalized history of seven generations of his family from Africa through slavery in the United States. He spent more than seven years doing research for it. And in order to imagine the slaves’ passage across the Atlantic Ocean, he booked a trip on a boat from West Africa and spent every day on the second level of the boat in a cramped bunk bed wearing only his underwear.

He also co-wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and conducted the first-ever interview for Playboy magazine. He interviewed Miles Davis for the September 1962 issue.

Haley said: “In my writing, as much as I could, I tried to find the good, and praise it.”


The first civilian prisoners began arriving at Alcatraz on this date in 1934. The island, which lies in the San Francisco Bay, had been under the military’s control since 1850, when President Millard Fillmore signed an executive order to that effect. A fortress was built on the island, and a lighthouse — the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast. Before the decade was out, the fortress was serving as a military prison. The cold, rough water of the Bay made it virtually impossible for prisoners to escape. During its stint as a military prison, Alcatraz housed Confederate sympathizers, Native Americans, and enemy combatants during the Spanish-American War.

In 1933, the Justice Department took control of Alcatraz to turn it into a federal penitentiary. They wanted a place to lock up dangerous criminals, especially those who might be likely to escape. The prisoners were housed in individual cells, and there was one guard for every three convicts. It was a maximum-security, minimum-privilege prison; cons had very few basic rights, and anything extra had to be earned through good behavior. Conditions weren’t bad, though, and many convicts actually requested transfers to Alcatraz just so they could have their own cell.

Alcatraz closed its doors in 1963, mainly for financial reasons. The buildings, subjected to the salt spray and high winds, were in constant need of repair. And because all the food and supplies had to be brought in by boat, day-to-day operations were much more expensive than they were at other prisons. In its 30 years as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz housed more than 1,500 prisoners, and not one ever managed to escape, although some made it as far as the water, and five of them are “missing and presumed drowned.”


Edith Wharton (books by this author) died on this day in 1937 at the age of 75, at her 18th-century house in Île-de-France, on the outskirts of Paris.

At the time of her death, she was working on a novel called The Buccaneers. It’s about five wealthy American girls who set out to marry landed (but poor) Englishmen, so that they might assume English feudal titles to their names, such as “baroness” or “duchess” or “lady of the manor.”

Although Wharton didn’t complete the manuscript for The Buccaneers, she continued writing right up until she died. She lay in bed and worked on the novel, and each page that she completed she dropped onto the floor so that it could be collected later, when she was done. An unfinished version was published the year after her death, in 1938. In the 1990s, scholar Marion Mainwaring compiled and studied Edith Wharton’s plot summary and notes about The Buccaneers and completed the story. Her version was published in 1993.


It’s the birthday of Marilyn vos Savant (books by this author) born in St. Louis, Missouri (1946). She writes the Parade Magazine column “Ask Marilyn.”

In 1986, the Guinness Book of World Records listed her under “Highest IQ.” Parade magazine then ran a profile of Ms. Vos Savant, including some questions from Parade readers along with her answers. It was going to be a one-time thing, but the reader questions kept coming in. And so “Ask Marilyn” became a weekly Sunday column, where readers could write the high-IQ woman with their logic conundrums or mathematical or vocabulary dilemmas.

She held the “Highest IQ” record through 1989, and then the Guinness Book quit listing the category — IQ tests are not an exact science, and they’re also controversial. But Marilyn vos Savant has continued to write the “Ask Marilyn” Sunday Parade magazine column.

She’s the author of several books, including The Power of Logical Thinking: Easy Lessons in the Art of Reasoning … and Hard Facts about Its Absence in Our Lives (1996) and Growing Up: A Classic American Childhood (2002).

She once said, “If your head tells you one thing and your heart tells you another, before you do anything, you should first decide whether you have a better head or a better heart.”

 


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The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for October 16, 2018

It’s the birthday of Oscar Wilde (Dublin, 1854), who said, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

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It’s the birthday of French novelist François Mauriac (1885), who regularly engaged in celebrity feuds with the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and others.

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The Writer’s Almanac for October 9, 2018

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It was on this day in 1635 that Roger Williams was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for spreading “newe and dangerous opinions.” He left and founded Providence, Rhode Island.

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A Prairie Home Companion: October 13, 2007

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From the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore, Maryland, with legendary songwriter-singer Carole King, barrelhouse blues-woman Deanna Bogart, gospel singer Jearlyn Steele, and more.

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Writing

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

A sweet warm fall night, Sunday in New York, and my love and I stood outdoors with friends who, like us, had caught Paul Simon’s farewell show and were still in awe of it, a 76-year-old singer in peak form for two and one-half hours nonstop with his eminent folk orchestra. John Keats died at 25, Shelley at 29. Stephen Crane was 28. Franz Schubert was 31, and each of them had his triumphs, but Simon sustained a career as an adventurous artist and creator who touched millions of people and whose lyrics held up very well in a crowded marketplace.

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Old man in his pew among the Piskies

A whole string of perfect summery September days and we sit outdoors eating our broiled fish and cucumber salad and the last of the sweet corn crop while looking at news of people stranded in flooded towns in North Carolina, unable to evacuate because they are caring for an elderly bedridden relative. They stand on their porch, surrounded by filthy floodwater, waiting for rescue, and meanwhile we pass a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and look forward to ice cream.

This is why a man goes to church, to give thanks for blessings and to pray for the afflicted, while contemplating the imbalance, us on the terrace, them on the porch. And to write out a check for flood relief.

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Old man spends Sunday among Lutherans

Back when I did a radio show in Minnesota, I liked to make fun of Lutherans for their lumbering earnestness, their obsessive moderation, their dread of giving offense. I felt obliged to make fun of them because they were the heart of my audience, but now that I’m old and out of the way, I feel obliged to do penance, and so last weekend I traveled to Bayfield, Wisconsin, to speak at an old Norwegian church, Bethesda Lutheran, celebrating its 125th anniversary there on the shore of Lake Superior. I was not paid to do this but I was offered coffee and doughnuts.

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Old man alone on Labor Day weekend

Our long steamy dreamy summer is coming to an end and it’s time to stop fruiting around and make something of ourselves. You know it and I know it. All those days in the 90s when we skipped our brisk walk and turned up the AC and sat around Googling penguins, Szechuan, engine, honorable mention, H.L. Mencken.

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A man watching his own heartbeat

I lay on a couch at a clinic last week, watching my echocardiogram on a screen, and made a firm resolution, the tenth or twelfth in the past couple years, to buckle down and tend to business, fight off distraction and focus on the immediate task, walk briskly half an hour a day, eat green leafy vegetables, drink more liquids, and finish the projects I’ve been working on for years. Seeing your heartbeat is a profound moment.

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Old man in the grandstand, talking

I drove through a Minnesota monsoon last week — in the midst of cornfields, sheets of rain so heavy that cars pulled off the road — in other words, a beautiful summer storm, of which we’ve had several this year, as a result of which we are not burning, as other states are. Life is unjust, we do not deserve our good fortune, and so it behooves us to be quiet about it.

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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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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