The Writer’s Almanac for August 5, 2018

“Birds of Passage” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain. (buy now)

Black shadows fall
From the lindens tall,
That lift aloft their massive wall
Against the southern sky;

And from the realms
Of the shadowy elms
A tide-like darkness overwhelms
The fields that round us lie.

But the night is fair,
And everywhere
A warm, soft vapor fills the air,
And distant sounds seem near,

And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight
Through the dewy atmosphere.

I hear the beat
Of their pinions fleet,
As from the land of snow and sleet
They seek a southern lea.

I hear the cry
Of their voices high
Falling dreamily through the sky,
But their forms I cannot see.

Oh, say not so!
Those sounds that flow
In murmurs of delight and woe
Come not from wings of birds.

They are the throngs
Of the poet’s songs,
Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,
The sound of winged words.

This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly,
Seeking a warmer clime,

From their distant flight
Through realms of light
It falls into our world of night,
With the murmuring sound of rhyme.


It’s the birthday of Guy de Maupassant, (books by this author) born in Normandy (1850), one of the great French short-story writers. He became an apprentice of Gustave Flaubert, who used to invite him to lunch on Sundays, lecture him on prose style, and correct his early work. In just 10 years, between 1880 and 1890, he wrote most of the work for which he is remembered, including 300 stories and five novels.


The New York Daily News debuted the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” on this day in 1924. Cancelled in 2010 after a run of nearly 86 years, the street-smart redhead inspired a radio show, a Broadway musical, three film adaptations, mass-marketed books, and merchandise that included everything from lunchboxes to curly wigs. Although only a fraction of this happened before the strip’s creator, Harold Gray, died in 1968, it was enough to make him a millionaire.

Gray’s wealth drew criticism during the Great Depression, when he used the strip to voice his populist political beliefs: namely, that the poor ought to pull themselves up by the bootstraps without government intervention or assistance. This is how his character Daddy Warbucks, the tuxedoed war profiteer, had succeeded, transforming his modest machine shop into a World War I munitions factory. Gray expressed his distaste for FDR and his New Deal in the strip’s storylines, prompting one left-leaning writer to label it “Hooverism in the funnies.” The public didn’t seem to care — in 1937, “Little Orphan Annie” was the most popular comic in the country.

Forty years later, when the playwright Thomas Meehan adapted the strip for the 1977 Broadway musical, Annie, he subverted Gray’s original politics. The updated Annie stumbles upon a “Hooverville” of homeless people who sing the ironic “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” and she is later saved from greedy imposter parents and the evil orphanage supervisor by FDR himself. The play — and the 1982 film — ends with a rousing chorus of the song “A New Deal for Christmas,” celebrating the economic plan that the strip’s creator had so despised.

Politics aside, both Gray and Meehan had hard-knock lives, at least as teenagers. Meehan’s father died when he was 15, and Gray was orphaned just before finishing high school.

Although Gray credited a girl he’d met on the streets of Chicago as his inspiration for the character of Annie, he took the strip’s title from that of a popular poem by James Whitcomb Riley, originally published in 1885. That Annie was based on a real orphan girl who lived in the poet’s home during his childhood, earning her room and board by helping Riley’s mother with the housework. The child was called Allie, short for Alice, and the poem based on her was supposed to be called “Little Orphant Allie.” A simple typo changed her name to Annie, and by the time Riley requested that it be corrected, the poem was gaining popularity and he let the misprint stand.
From the first stanza that started it all:
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep. 


Today is the birthday of the man who said, “Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.” That’s writer Wendell Berry (books by this author), born in Henry County, Kentucky (1934), the son of a lawyer and tobacco farmer. His ancestors on both sides farmed the county for five generations. After going off to college and teaching creative writing in the Bronx for a couple of years, Berry joined that lineage, purchasing a 125-acre homestead near the birthplace of his parents, where he still farms and writes poetry, novels, and essays. From his outpost, Berry tackles the intersection of civic life and the natural world, writing that “essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the land.”

His eight novels, including Jayber Crow (2000) and Hannah Coulter (2004), together with his many short stories, form a saga of a small fictional Kentucky town called Port William. Through the lives of the townspeople, Berry explores the costs of war, the effects of farm policy, and the challenges and pleasures of community.

Berry wrote: “The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

And: “Every day do something that won’t compute […] Give your approval to all you cannot understand […] Ask the questions which have no answers. Put your faith in two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years […] Laugh. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts […] Practice resurrection.”


It’s the birthday of Conrad Aiken (books by this author), born in Savannah, Georgia (1889). His parents were wealthy New Englanders who had moved south for his father’s medical practice. When he was 12, with no warning or explanation, his father became increasingly emotionally unstable and violent. He woke one morning to the sound of gunshots and discovered the bodies of his parents — his father had shot his mother before turning the gun on himself. Aiken went to live with an aunt in Massachusetts where he attended private New England schools before entering Harvard. He started writing a poem a day, always changing the form, paying little attention to the content. He met T.S. Eliot through the literary magazine and the two developed a lifelong friendship, bonding over literature, drinking, and Krazy Kat comics.

In 1952, Aiken published his autobiography Ushant, all about the trauma of his childhood, and his own attempt at suicide, his affairs, and many literary friendships. Towards the end of his life, he returned to his hometown Savannah to live until his death in 1973 at the age of 84.

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

Feb 20 – Faribault, MN

Feb 21 – St. Cloud, MN

Feb 22 – Detroit Lakes, MN

Feb 23 – Fergus Falls, MN

Feb 24 – Minneapolis, MN: 2 showtimes


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

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


 

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What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now joins the other triple-initial people, like MLK and JFK and FDR and FAO Schwarz, and AOC is a good code name for her. It’s got electricity (AC), a hint of command (C.O.), and a sense of exhilaration (O!). Her story is irresistible: a 29-year-old bartender going to Congress. Of course she’s new and she’ll need to learn a few things. 1. The press is not your friend. 2. Public attention is fleeting. 3. There is manure on the sidewalk: don’t step in it. But (4) you have a fabulous smile, never lose it, it’s your best weapon. We have all the cautious mumblers and harrumphers in dark suits that we need. Time to bring in the sopranos. I saw a picture of her in the Capitol walking down a marble hallway among grim-faced men, an enormous smile on her face. Bernie, your replacement has arrived.

I’ve been a feminist since I was a child. I had 18 aunts. They were more interesting than the uncles. Women told stories; men issued wide-ranging proclamations. Mrs. Shaver and Mrs. Moehlenbrock loved teaching; they ran a tight ship but I looked forward to school and when I stood and pledged allegiance, I was pledging myself to them. Mr. Lewis was scary and exercised power in cruel and willful ways. I was prepared to welcome a woman president by 1952, long before the rest of the country.

I’ve been a guy long enough to know something about the gender and what we want is to be loved. The APA left that out of their study. We’re capable of being jerks, God knows (He really does!), but we are emotionally needy. We are far from being the solo Pathfinder or Deerslayer of Fenimore Cooper’s novels. Chuck Schumer peering over his granny glasses wants to be loved. Barack basks in adoration; it’s one of his problems. And Number 45 Himself, the ultimate ugly American, a guy who whenever he opens his mouth you see big balloons of ignorance and arrogance and self-pity — he told the New York Times he thought the paper should be nicer to him because he is, after all, from New York. No president ever talked like that for the record: “I think you ought to be nice to me.” It’s what girls used to say.

If AOC wants to reduce billionaires to 500-millionaires to pay for universal health care, she needs to make them feel good about themselves. If she attacks them for having destroyer-sized yachts and six homes and being unaware of how to use a vacuum or a dishwasher, they will feel bad and try to crush her. Billionaires are susceptible to beautiful women. Look at Jeff Bezos. If AOC can keep that big smile of hers shining, she can confiscate five of the homes and the confiscatee will shrug and accept it. The townhouse in London was hardly used, ditto the chalet in Provence, and the Jamaican estate had such a small airstrip it was scary to land the Gulfstream. Pacific Palisades will be missed but 10,000 sq. ft. on the 65th floor overlooking Central Park — one can make do.

Men are captivated by women and yearn for their approval. There is no sound so sweet to me as the sound of my wife in the next room laughing at something I wrote. The other day I saw a line in a poem by Marie Howe that twanged my heart. A deliveryman comes with a package and speaks to her in a Jamaican patois and smiles—

A smile so radiant that
Re-entering the apartment I’m
A young woman again, and
The sweetness of the men I’ve loved walks in
Through the closed door.

A woman who looks back at the men in her life and thinks sweetly of them: this, to me, is beautiful beyond words. A man could almost live off that. My wife laughed six times at this column. If you didn’t, be glad we’re not married.

A few words from a top executive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2019

Friday

7:30 p.m.

Detroit Lakes, MN

Detroit Lakes, MN

February 22, 2019

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

February 23, 2019

Saturday

7:30 p.m.

Fergus Falls, MN

Fergus Falls, MN

February 23, 2019

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

February 24, 2019

Sunday

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

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

February 24, 2019

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

Radio

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 22, 2019

It’s the birthday of George Washington (1732), whose inaugural address was the shortest in history: 133 words long, and it took him just 90 seconds to deliver.

Read More
The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 21, 2019

The Communist Manifesto, which proclaimed that “the proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” was first published on this day in 1848.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 20, 2019

It was on this day in 1877 that Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” premiered in Moscow. It was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, and it got bad reviews.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 19, 2019

It’s the birthday of writer Amy Tan (1952), who wrote a book of short stories in the span of about four months that became the bestseller “The Joy Luck Club.”

Read More
A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

A Prairie Home Companion: February 23, 2008

Originally broadcast from Winona State University in Minnesota. With special guests, legendary blues pianist and singer Marcia Ball (pictured), plus the eclectic and electric Cajuns, BeauSoleil.

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 18, 2019

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 17, 2019

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 16, 2019

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 15, 2019

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

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The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

The Writer’s Almanac for February 14, 2019

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

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Writing

What do men want? Let me tell you.

Ever since the American Psychological Association came out last fall and said what everyone knows — that men are the problem: our stoicism, the crazy aggressive behaviors, the compulsive competitiveness, the rescuer complex — I’ve been watching the women in white in Congress, the Sisters of Mercy out to save the Republic, and enjoying their leaders, Speaker Pelosi and AOC. They’re fearless, free-spirited and often very funny. When AOC addresses her opponents as “Dude,” you know that change is afoot. The old Congress of time-servers and bootlickers is starting to look more like the freewheeling country we love.

Read More

A few words from a top executive

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

Read More

Winter is winter, it’s not the tribulation

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

Read More

The old indoorsman looks out at winter

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

Read More

Waiting for snow, hoping, praying

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

Read More

News bulletin: offensive joke ahead

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

Read More

Life is good, unless you get on the wrong train

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

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

Read More

Onward, my friends! Courage! Comedy!

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

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

Read More

A Christmas letter from New York

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

Read More

Why I left home and crossed over the river

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

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

Read More

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