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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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

And now I return to business, which is to move from a big house to a small apartment. I have a habit of taking off my glasses and setting them down and wandering away and forgetting where I set them, which means spending time roaming around searching for them, so we’re moving to a modest apartment to reduce the search area.

The house is in St. Paul, built in 1919  by a prosperous lumbering family (by which I mean a family that was in the lumber business, not a family of heavyset persons who clomp around awkwardly). We bought it because it was sunny and looked out at the Mississippi and now, ten years later, too busy to throw the big raucous parties that the house deserves, a band playing on the terrace, people doing the Lindy Hop and jumping into the fountain, the gin flowing, we’re looking for a buyer. Our friends don’t jump into fountains; they sit around and discuss the crisis in public education.

Meanwhile, I look back at hundreds of hours wasted looking for glasses: a crisis for a man of 76, though, being a writer, I am no stranger to wasted time: wastage comes with the territory. You sit down with a brilliant idea and a few weeks later you have fifty-five pages of mishmash and goulash. It happens to every writer. If physicians worked as effectively as we, their waiting rooms would be littered with dead bodies.

My one success last week was a sonnet, written at 5 a.m. on the day I realized was our wedding anniversary, an original sonnet written out in a clear cursive hand and set on the breakfast table for my wife to find. I heard her sigh with pleasure and she came into my workroom and threw her arms around me. One poem, one reader, one tight protracted embrace: success. The New York Review of Each Other’s Books will not give it a grudging review (“Marriage Sonnet somehow lacks the dark edge of Mr. Keillor’s work at its best”). It represents an hour of work well spent.

This is why a man takes up writing as a profession rather than plumbing or serving in Congress. What can a Congressperson offer his or her lover? A souvenir calendar? Your name on a rest stop on an interstate?

A writer’s situation is so ordinary — it’s like going to a big family dinner and you are seated next to an in-law you’ve never met and you must somehow make conversation. Where to start? She is nicely dressed, fiftyish, glasses, and you want to ask, “What do you do?” but it’s too blunt. So you say, “This morning I spent half an hour looking for my glasses. I need to get a chain to hold them but I hate how they look.”

Either we’ll have a conversation or she will find an excuse to go in the kitchen and pretend to be helpful. Either one is preferable to silence.

It was easy, talking to my daughter on the train. I talked about her childhood to see how far her memory stretches back. She was a joyful child. She was slow to talk, still monosyllabic when other children were speaking in sentences and using the subjunctive mood, but she got vast pleasure from the company of others. She was a hugger and snuggler. She still is.

Writers don’t hug. We try to get close to people by writing to them. Or we get on a train at night and we talk as the lights of cities flash past. Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Toledo. “I love you, Dad,” she says, apropos of nothing and everything. I love you, too, sweetheart.

A Prairie Home Companion An Evening of Story and Song Love & Comedy Tour Solo The Gratitude Tour
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December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

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“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

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Today is St. Nicholas Day; tomorrow, good children around the world will wake up with gifts of sweets, oranges, and nuts in their shoes.

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It’s the birthday of the essayist and novelist Joan Didion, who opined, “writers are always selling someone out.”

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Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875), who financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

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Enjoy a special Christmas script, an SFX script about New York living, and the musical stylings of Geoff Muldaur, Ann Hampton Callaway, Howard Levy, and Odetta.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

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On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. She’d complied in the past, but this day, she was tired.

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Writing

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

Read More

What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

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The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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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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