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.

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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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The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

It’s the birthday of humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (1894), who said, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

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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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The Writer’s Almanac for December 6, 2018

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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

A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

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 3, 2018

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It was on this day in 1839 that 30-year-old Illinois state assemblyman Abraham Lincoln was admitted to practice law in the United States Circuit Court. 

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

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It’s the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett (Los Angeles, 1963), author of Bel Canto and other books, who co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

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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.

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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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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