The Writer’s Almanac for August 13, 2018

“Money” by Dana Gioia, from The Gods of Winter. © Graywolf Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Money is a kind of poetry.
—Wallace Stevens

Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.

Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.

To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.

It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.

Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.

Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.


It’s the birthday of novelist Tom Perrotta (books by this author), born in Garwood, New Jersey (1961). He grew up in blue-collar Newark, idolizing Bruce Springsteen. One of his high school teachers saw some promise in Perrotta and encouraged him to go to Yale, something he never would have considered. While he was attending Yale, during vacations he worked on garbage trucks. After he went on to study creative writing and started publishing his own novels, he didn’t want to distance himself from his New Jersey life. He said: “I like to write simply and clearly. I never wanted to write for the guys I met in college; I wanted to write for the guys I grew up with who weren’t literary sophisticates. I have an allergy to fancy writing.”

His books include Election (1998), Little Children (2004), The Abstinence Teacher (2007), and The Leftovers (2011), which was adapted into a 3-season TV series on HBO.


It’s the birthday of director Alfred Hitchcock, born in London (1899). His father was a greengrocer, and a strict man. Once, when the five-year-old Alfred misbehaved, his father sent him to the police station and they locked him in a cell for a few minutes to teach him a lesson. Hitchcock was so terrified that he was afraid of the police for the rest of his life, and he rarely drove a car so that he could not be pulled over.

Hitchcock directed great suspense and horror films, including Rebecca (1940), Notorious (1946), Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), and The Birds (1963). He was a notoriously difficult director — he knew exactly how he wanted the entire film to look as soon as he and the writers had finished going through the script, and he was known to refer to his actors as “cattle.” Critics have interpreted Hitchcock’s behavior as a director in countless ways, writing long treatises on how he channeled his own repression, passions, and other psychological issues into his films and his treatment of his actors. But his life off the set seems to have been relatively quiet and uneventful. In 1926, he married Alma Reville, his assistant. They had a close working relationship — Alma went through every detail of each of her husband’s films, pointing out whenever the dialogue sounded slightly wrong, or there was a slight flaw in the filming. Hitchcock was rumored to fall for many of his blond leading ladies, despite a lack of affection in return; and he often remarked to interviewers and friends that he was celibate, or impotent, or both. Whatever his married life was like, he and Alma were devoted enough to each other that they remained married until Hitchcock’s death more than 50 years later. They enjoyed going to art galleries and dining out.

Hitchcock had a legendary appetite. He liked to say, “I’m not a heavy eater. I’m just heavy, and I eat.” Apparently, shortly after Hitchcock came to America from England, he went out to New York City’s 21 Club. Hitchcock ordered a steak dinner, followed by an ice cream parfait; then he ordered another steak dinner, and another ice cream; and then the entire thing one more time. At the end of his three meals and three desserts, he drank a cup of strong tea and a glass of brandy, and told his companions: “There is as much anticipation in confronting good food as there is in going on a holiday or seeing a good show. There are two kinds of eating — eating to sustain and eating for pleasure. I eat for pleasure.” He had a full wine cellar in his home in Bel Air, and he had a soft spot for Burgundy wines, which is why he featured one so prominently in Notorious. Alma was a great cook, and her husband liked to help in the kitchen himself, and the couple often hosted large dinner parties. When Hitchcock received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award in 1979, he said: “I beg permission to mention by name only four people who have given me the most affection, appreciation, and encouragement, and constant collaboration. The first of the four is a film editor, the second is a scriptwriter, the third is the mother of my daughter Pat, and the fourth is as fine a cook as ever performed miracles in a domestic kitchen. And their names are Alma Reville.”

He said, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.”


Construction began on the Berlin Wall on this date in 1961. After World War II, Germany had been divided up by British, French, Soviet, and American occupying forces. The city of Berlin lay completely within Soviet territory, but it was also divided. Soviet forces controlled the eastern part of the city and the country, and they were increasingly concerned about locking it down against the democratic West. The border was porous after the war, and millions of East Germans emigrated west in search of greater opportunities. By 1961, they were leaving at a rate of a thousand per day.

So in the early hours of the morning, East German soldiers quietly began laying down barbed wire: a hundred miles of it just inside the border of East Berlin. It wasn’t long before the wire was replaced by a six-foot block wall, which the East German authorities called an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart.” Nine years later, the wall was raised to 10 feet, but people still tried to escape. Finally, in 1989, with the end of the Cold War, East and West Berlin residents gathered on either side of the wall and began chipping away at it, knocking off blocks with sledgehammers and climbing back and forth over it. The wall was formally dismantled, and Germany reunified, in 1990.


Opha Mae Johnson became the first female Marine on this date in 1918. Just the day before, the Secretary of the Navy had announced that women would be allowed to enlist as reservists, for stateside clerical duty during World War I. This was to free up male soldiers for combat duty overseas. The next day, 18-year-old Opha Mae Johnson was the first one in line. More than 300 women enlisted during World War I to serve as secretaries and cooks, until the U.S. Marine Reserves were disbanded in July 1919, nearly a year later.


It’s the birthday of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, born Phoebe Ann Mosey in Woodland, Ohio (1860). She was born in a log cabin and grew up in poverty; after her father froze to death in a blizzard, her mother was unable to provide for her and sent her to the county poor farm. From there, Annie was sent to the home of a cruel family who abused her and made her work in terrible conditions — she called them “the wolves.” She ended up back with her mother, and supported the family by hunting.

She was such a good shot that in 1875, at the age of 15, she entered a shooting contest and won, beating a well-known marksman named Frank Butler. Butler ended up marrying Annie and making her part of his touring act. When Buffalo Bill Cody’s famous Wild West Show needed a new performer, Oakley volunteered to audition, and she became the star of the show.

Annie Oakley could shoot the wick off a burning candle or the ashes off the tip of her husband’s cigarette. At 90 feet away, she could hit the thin side of a playing card that someone tossed in the air and then hit it six more times before it fell to the floor. One of her fans was Sitting Bull, the chief who had defeated General Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. After seeing one of her performances, he was so impressed that he offered to pay for a photograph of the two of them together.

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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.

Meanwhile the great sorrow, the troubled state of our democracy, hangs in the air, the beloved country riven by dishonesty and invincible ignorance.

So I’m taking a vacation from the news. There’s a red tide of it daily and a person needs to think his own thoughts and partake in the joys of every day, so I don’t click on the news icons on my toolbar. It’s very satisfying, like looking at the gin bottle on the shelf and not putting it to your lips and draining it, but living your life instead.

At the moment, my house is in chaos because we’re moving from a big roomy house to a smallish apartment, which has brought us face to face with decades of materialism. We now see that we own a great deal of stuff that (1) we don’t use, (2) we have no attachment to, and (3) we need to rid ourselves of. Truckloads of stuff have gone out the door and there is yet more.

My particular problem is the compulsive purchase of books. Shelves of heavy tomes, classics of Western civilization, dozens of dictionaries, atlases, the complete works of great authors, two bookcases of biographies, enough books to occupy all my waking hours until I am four hundred and one years old. I bought them myself, bag by bag, out of the lust for breadth of knowledge and now I am loading them into boxes and hauling them to the car.

I thought it’d be painful, the defenestration of my library, but it is exhilarating — to feel the burden of my pretensions lighten as I drop my long-running impersonation of an educated man and return to being just another elderly barefoot peasant, one who loves his fireplace on a chilly November night and a warm supper with his good wife across the table and some light gossip and then the great pleasure of undressing in the dark and slipping in under the covers and lying next to her and taking her hand. I do not take the complete essays of Michel de Montaigne to bed with me; I would rather have her.

I think it was Montaigne who said that the best sign of wisdom is cheerfulness. I read that when I was in college, at a time when we ambitious literati felt that the true sign of brilliance was agony and desperation, and so we attempted to impersonate it though we were children of privilege — even I, the postal worker’s son, had the great luxury of an inexpensive college education, financed by me washing dishes in the cafeteria, a liberal arts education that encouraged me to imagine myself as an artist, a novelist. And so I surrounded myself with books.

I think it was also Montaigne who said that you cannot be wise on another man’s wisdom. I could reach for my phone and Google it and get the exact words but I don’t want to let go of her hand. She has spent a busy month clearing out the house and playing viola in the pit at the opera. I was away from home most of last week and she was plagued by insomnia, and now she is falling asleep. A month ago I was an intellectual striving to make intelligent comment on the new world of 2018 and now I am an elderly peasant whose physical presence helps his beloved to sleep. Some would see this as a loss of status; I do not. I lie in the marital bed, her hand relaxes, which makes me happy, and I turn out the light. I imagine myself back to 1948 and Uncle Jim’s farm. He lifts me up onto Prince’s back who is hitched to the hayrack along with Scout. My face is against his mane, my arms around his neck. Off we trot to the meadow to rake up hay, the harness jingling, Uncle Jim clucking to the horses, the sweetness of new-mown grass in my nostrils, and that is all there is, there is no 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.

I was brought up evangelical and got baptized when I was 15, the morning after a hellfire sermon in which the evangelist suggested strongly that our car was likely to be hit by a fast train on our way home and we’d all be killed and ushered into eternity to face an angry God. I was the third child in a family of six and the thought that my five siblings and two parents would lose their lives on my account weighed heavily and so in the morning, as a life-saving measure, I asked to be baptized, and Brother John Rogers led me into Lake Minnetonka, I in white trousers and white shirt, he in a blue serge suit, shirt and tie, and immersed me in the name of the Holy Spirit. I have been careful crossing railroad tracks ever since.

Our church sent around a questionnaire a month ago, asking, “Why do you come to church?” and I still haven’t filled it out. For one thing, I go because I read stories in the newspapers about declining church attendance and I hate to be part of a trend. For another, church is a sanctuary from thinking about myself, my work, my plans for the week, my problems with work, my view of DJT and my PSA and most recent MRI, my lack of exercise, other people’s view of me, myself, and I, and frankly I’m sick of myself and so would you be if you were me. My mind drifts during the homily — the acoustics amid Romanesque splendor are truly lousy — and my thoughts turn to my beautiful wife and our daughter and various friends and relatives, Lytton and Libby, Bill Hicks the fiddler, Peter Ostroushko, Fiona the Chinese exchange student, and I pray for them. I pray for solace and sustenance in their times of trial and I ask God to surprise them with the gift of unreasonable joy. I pray for people caring for parents suffering from dementia and people caring for children who are neurologically complicated. I pray for the whales, the migrating birds, the endangered elephants.

And then the homily’s over and we confess our sins and are forgiven and everyone shakes hands and goes forward for Communion, a small wafer and a swallow of wine. Then a blessing and a closing triumphant hymn as the clergy and deacons process down the aisle and then I go home.

It’s an hour and a half with no iPhone, no news. Last week is erased, bring on Monday. The babies will grow up to be impatient with orthodoxy and eager to be other than whatever their parents are, but it was holy water they were splashed with, not Perrier, and who knows but what they might wander back into church one day and appreciate the self-effacement it provides.

Man does not live by frozen pizza alone. Sunday does not need to be like Saturday or Monday. Turn down the volume, dim the bright flashing lights of ambition, look into your heart, think about the others, one by one. As part of the service, you get to reach around, right, left, forward, back, and say a blessing on them all (“The Peace of God be with you”) and when else do you get to do that? Not in the produce section of the supermarket. People need to be blessed. Shouting and sarcasm and insult have not worked, so move on. God loves you, reader. Bless you for coming this far. Go in peace.

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

December 2, 2018

Sunday

7:30 p.m.

New York, NY

New York, NY

December 2, 2018

A mini Prairie Home reunion featuring Garrison Keillor, Rob Fisher, Fred Newman, and Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo.

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.

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Writing

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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